Today in AgBioView: February 17, 2003
* Science Beats Peanut Allergy
* British Environment Minister Meacher Attacks GM Crops
* Michael Meacher - The Interview with The Ecologist
* GM Sugar 'Could Save Jobs'
* Biotech is Revolutionising Agriculture
* Genetic Debate
* Norwalk Virus Vaccine Grown in Tomatoes
* UK's FSA Opens GM Food Debate with Citizens' Jury
* GM Food - Opening up the Debate
* British Public "Less Worried About Food Safety"
* Bringing Science Communication Into Policy
* Some Facts About Food Biotechnology
* Oh No! What Have We Done?
* Truth, Beauty and Double Helix
Science Beats Peanut Allergy
- Checkbiotech.org, February 18, 2003
The threat of peanut allergies could soon be wiped out by genetic
engineering. Scientists from the University of Arkansas in the US have
succeeded, in laboratory tests, in altering the makeup of the peanut so it
no longer triggers a life-threatening reaction. The safe peanuts are part
of a new generation of allergy-free food being produced by several
international scientific teams.
Others being developed include shellfish, prawns and soya beans. Almost
one in every 30 children is now thought to suffer from peanut allergy,
which can cause swelling of the tongue, wheezing and difficulty in
breathing. In the worst cases, the allergy can be fatal. Experts blame the
rise on more women eating peanuts when they are pregnant and breast
feeding, which could sensitise their children.
Meacher Attacks GM Crops
- BBC, Feb 17, 2003; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2771129.stm
Environment Minister Michael Meacher has denied that he is about to quit
the government after he launched an outspoken attack on genetically
modified (GM) crops. Mr Meacher argued that biotechnology was not
"necessary" to feed the world and highlighted his concerns at possible
health risks to consumers.
His comments were effectively disowned by his government department -
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - who said Mr Meacher's comments were
"his views". Prime Minister Tony Blair is a known enthusiast of GM but
DEFRA admitted there were "creative tensions" in the government over the
issue. Ministers are to announce later in the year whether they will
allow GM crops to be grown commercially.
Resignation denial. Following newspaper speculation that he might be about
to quit, Mr Meacher, in a statement issued via his spokesman, denied that
he could resign over the issue. He said: "This is an absurd invention.
There is not a scintilla of evidence suggesting that I should resign. The
claim is not just wrong, worse, it is silly."
"We have been feeding ourselves perfectly adequately since overcoming
problems of hunger in our early existence - GM is not necessary" - Michael
Mr Meacher's attack on GM crops came during an interview with the
Ecologist magazine (See below...CSP). He said: "The real problem is
whether 10, 20, 30 years down the track, serious and worrying things
happen that none of us ever predicted. "It's these sorts of totally
unpredicted problems that make me very, very cautious. "The human race
has existed on this planet for about a quarter of a million years."
Subject for debate. He added: "We have been feeding ourselves perfectly
adequately since overcoming problems of hunger in our early existence. GM
is not necessary."
Mr Meacher, who is MP for Oldham West and Royton, also questioned the
motives of companies behind GM but said the government could not afford to
conduct its own trials. Earlier this month Mr Meacher admitted that a
public debate on the issues surrounding genetically modified crops had got
off to a slow start.
He said the government wanted to "give people an opportunity to have
genuine discussions" about GM, because the debate had been "extremely
Michael Meacher - The Interview
- The Ecologist, Feb 2003 (Alerted by Vivian Moses)
Opinionated and outspoken, the UK's environment minister Michael Meacher
is, by his own reckoning, a lone voice in the wilderness. He talked to The
Ecologist about GM, nuclear power and why no one dares question the path
we are on.
Michael Meacher is in something of a ministerial hurry. As we bustle down
the steps of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs a
car pulls up to whisk us away. Five hundred metres down the road it stops
in front of the House of Commons and we all pile out again. Before we can
suggest that the minister is 'doing a Prescott' he turns to us with a
smile. 'Not a very good start, eh? I should have walked.'
Playing Politics. It is this willingness to admit that problems exist that
made us want to talk to Meacher in the first place. Last year he was asked
his opinion of the US policy of dumping GM food on starving African
countries and calling it aid. Candidly, he replied: 'It's wicked when
there is such an excess of non-GM food available. We have the means to
assist, but we are playing politics over GM.'
So, with the US accusing NGOs of leaving Africa to starve, Tony Blair
calling those environmentalists who are concerned about safety
'anti-science' and the public seemingly keen to keep its food GM-free, we
start by asking Meacher what he feels about the risks GM might pose.
'The real problem is not whether people are going to develop terrible
diseases in six months' time - which is not going to happen,' he replies.
'The real problem is whether 10, 20, 30 years down the track serious and
worrying things happen that none of us ever predicted. It's these sorts of
totally unpredicted problems that make me very, very cautious. The human
race has existed on this planet for about a quarter of a million years. We
have been feeding ourselves perfectly adequately, since overcoming
problems of hunger in our early existence. GM is not necessary.'
So, leaving aside the small fact that the UK minister for the environment
feels that we neither need GM nor can be sure if it will be safe, what
does Meacher feel about the current trials' system? As the current trials
are only testing what effects GM crops might have on the environment, he
says, and as the government has neither the money nor the manpower to do
anything else, we have to rely upon the bio-tech companies themselves to
tells us if they discover any other problems, such as, for example, health
risks. 'So the question is,' he continues, 'can we trust the companies and
be sure that they are telling us all they know? When asked if the system
is adequate, it is difficult to give the answer 'yes', for the reasons I
have just given. The system is very trusting, and that is worrying.'
The issues of trust and corporate science have risen on the agenda in
recent years. No more so than when Lord Sainsbury was appointed as the
government's science minister. For the record, Sainsbury is a member of
the cabinet bio-technology committee responsible for national policy on GM
crops and foods, and as such a key adviser to Blair on GM technology. He
is also a multi-million-pound donor to the Labour Party, having given
Labour its biggest single donation in September 1997 and over £9m in all.
He was made a life peer by Blair on October 3 1997.
Sainsbury is also a major personal investor in GM agricultural
bio-technology, and has long-established links to two bio-tech companies -
Innotech and Diatech. Gatsby, a charity established by Sainsbury, has
invested over £2m a year into the new Sainsbury Laboratory, which carries
out research into GM crops. In case this isn't enough, the laboratory also
receives over £800,000 a year from the Biotechnology and Biological
Science Research Council, for which Sainsbury is responsible in his
Blair once said: 'There is no conflict of interest in David Sainsbury's
position. He has nothing to do with the licensing of GM foods.'
We ask Meacher whether he agrees with Blair's assessment. The government
line, he explains, is that whenever the relevant cabinet sub-committee -
known as Sci-Bio - meets to discuss policy or make decisions then Lord
Sainsbury withdraws. But this, we say, does not prevent Sainsbury from
influencing proceedings before the meeting. 'Sci-Bio meets pretty rarely,'
Meacher replies. 'But as far as I know the only way [Sainsbury] seeks to
avoid this conflict of interest is by absenting himself when decisions are
taken by these inter-departmental committees. And as far as I know that is
all he does.'
Satisfied? We ask the minister how he thinks this arrangement must seem to
people in the outside world. Meacher smiles but declines to answer.
Turning away from GM, we enquire how he feels about Jonathon Porritt's
comment that this government is in adulation of big business.
Again he smiles and says: 'No comment.' Then, after a second's thought, he
adds: 'When I first came into politics Labour was a party which was at
best sceptical and at worst openly hostile to business. It has now gone
right the other way.' He feels that what matters most is being seen to be
independent, that the government should not get too close to any vested
interest - whether it is industry or the trade unions. 'As Tony Blair
keeps on saying,' he adds, 'we govern for all the people. And that is
right, and we shouldn't be in the pocket of anyone. Now, I'm sure [Blair]
would say that he isn't.'
Heck, we're on a bit of a roll. GM, big business, nuclear power. So what
about globalisation, growth and sustainable development?
Famously, the government tried to avoid sending Meacher to the Earth
Summit in Johannesburg last year. In the end, with a group of NGOs
offering to pay his ticket, it recanted and off he went. So what did he
make of the world's biggest conference?
'The buzz word at Jo'burg - and, my God, there's enough of them at these
things - was "to make globalisation work for the poorest". It's a
fundamental issue of judgement as to whether that is possible or whether
it simply cannot be made to work. It is unquestionably true that we are
trying to solve a lot of the problems by following the same courses that
caused them in the first place. If you talk about what the model should
be, of course, it is absolutely true (there is a realpolitik about this),
no one in the industrialised countries challenges that model. It's just
about making it work a bit better, being a bit fairer.'
This is the mantra of sustainable development, and those who chant it
relentlessly as they patrol the corridors of power are wont to offer up
the same golden lambs as proof of their rectitude. Asked to show that
globalisation works, and they point to countries such as Ghana. And when
they point, they point very precisely, very specifically, at its GDP. They
tell you how under the IMF's imposed structural adjustment plans Ghana's
GDP rose 2 per cent a year between 1987 and 1992. What they do not tell
you is that Ghana has also seen its forests give way to deserts and that
it now boasts an unrepayable £7.2 billion debt.
But does the UK's environment minister share these beliefs, beliefs
espoused by his own prime minister and, since her conversion, Clare Short
- the overseas development minister? Far from it. 'This model,' he
declares. 'puts developing countries in a position where they are a
valuable but basically ancillary part of the capitalist trading network.
The effect on many countries has been more poverty, not less.'
So does Meacher oppose the policies of sustainable development? 'Ever
since Reagan and Thatcher the market philosophy has gone totally
unchallenged,' he explains. 'The real problem is that every government in
the EU - the UK included - says, "of course we want growth". And growth
does solve some problems, but we need growth of a very different kind -
one that respects the environment and is generally sustainable. But it is
dishonest to say that it is a long-term answer that can go on for ever.'
No wonder they didn't want him at the Earth Summit.
We ask him how bad he believes the environmental situation to be. 'The
story I like most of all is from James Lovelock,' he replies. We are
somewhat startled. To hear a minister question sustainable development is
one thing, but to quote James Lovelock and his Gaia theory?
Meacher continues: 'If the human body becomes ill it goes into a fever.
The purpose of going into a fever is to concentrate all activities in
destroying the alien virus that is [threatening] the integrity of the
whole human frame. Either, as happens in the majority of cases, it
succeeds and the virus is expelled, or it doesn't and the person dies. If
we carry on with activities that destroy the environment, then we are the
GM Sugar 'Could Save Jobs'
- BBC, February 17, 2003 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/2770141.stm
Thousands of UK jobs will be at risk unless the government approves the
commercial planting of genetically-modified (GM) sugar beet, according to
The first detailed study of a single GM crop, suggests its commercial
planting could cut the cost of producing sugar beet by 15%. And the
scientist who wrote the report has told BBC News that without it the
industry may not remain viable - resulting in the loss of up to 20,000
But environmental campaigners dispute the claims. GM crops need less
weed-killer, so should be cheaper to produce. But the biggest user of
beet, British Sugar, says growers could remain competitive without GM.
And, unless consumers' attitudes change, there would be no market for it
Biotech is Revolutionising Agriculture
- Mike Nahan, Herald Sun (Australia), Feb 8 , 2003
Few technologies have offered so much and at the same time been demonised
by so many as genetically modified crops.
Well we now have thousands of detailed evaluations based on over eight
years of large scale commercial use. And the evidence comes down
overwhelmingly in favour of the technology. Indeed the evidence is so
powerful it brings into question the credibility and standing of the many
The only GM crop currently grown commercially in Australia is BT cotton
and it has proven to be highly popular with farmers (Commercial planting
of GM canola is expected to start this year). Cotton farmers have
consistently planted as much of GM variety as the regulars allow. The
reason is that it has allowed them to cut their pesticide use over 50%.
Moreover the largest cuts have been in the most costly and dangerous types
of pesticide. This has translated into lower costs and higher profits as
well as a huge reduction environmental impact and a new variety of BT
cotton is in test stage which offers even larger reduction in pesticide
use and costs.
The Australian results for GM cotton have been duplicated around the world
with rapid up-take in all major cotton growing nations. The results from
China and Indonesia are particularly heartening. In these countries most
cotton is grown by small farmers who apply pesticide via handheld
sprayers. This has lead to very high rates of poisoning of
farmers---around 30 per cent in China---using non-GM cotton. Recent
studies have shown that GM cotton has cut pesticide use by 60 per cent and
cut the rate of human poisoning by 75 per cent.
While not currently grown in Australia, GM soybean is the most widely
grown GM crop accounting for 74 per cent of North American soy crop. GM
soy has not only led to lower pesticide use (by 40 per cent) but higher
returns (up by 30 per cent). Importantly it has facilitated no-till
farming which helps preserve soil and wildlife habitat.
Importantly none of the many scares promoted by the anti-GM activist has
proven accurate. There has been no spread of 'the super-weed'. GM crops
have proven to be help to Monarch butterfly and to honey bee populations
not harmful. GM crops have increased farm income not reduced it. And small
farmers in developing countries have been amongst the largest
While the European Union has done its best to stop the spread of the
technology---including providing $350 million to anti-GM activist
organisation---all indicators including allowable countries, acreage and
crop types continues to expand.
Importantly we are starting to see new types of 'medicinal GM crops'.
Golden rice which has been developed with added Vitamin A to help combat
blindness in children will enter commercial use this year. Trials will
begin this year on drought resistant wheat and 'waterless rice'.
Unfortunate the success of the technology has had no impact on its
opponents. They have continued their campaign to stop the technology and
its benefits. That they call themselves environmentalist or humanitarian
is a Monty Pythonish joke.
Lets hope science and sense rule over propaganda and greed.
- Drew Kershen, All Africa News Agency Bulletin, No. 06/03, Feb17, 2003,
From World Faith News.
Our bulletin dated January 27 (AANA Bulletin No.03/03) carried a story on
genetically modified foods titled "Are Africans Guinea Pigs In Genetic
Research?", which has generated some responses. We have accordingly opened
a debate on the subject, and we wish to encourage views of various
interest groups. Following are excerpts of concerns raised by Drew L.
Kershen, a professor in Agricultural Law at the University of Oklahoma,
USA. - Editor
As a Catholic and Professor of Agricultural Law with a special emphasis on
agricultural biotechnology law and policy, I write to say that the
statements in the article by Dr. Kunijwok Kwawang and Senior Pastor Josiah
Syanda do not reflect the articulated position of the Catholic Church.
While the social teachings of the Catholic Church do not bind the
consciences of its members, the following statements by Catholic leaders
sets forth the social teaching of the Catholic Church on agricultural
The New Zealand Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a response to a request
from the New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification for an
ethical analysis of biotechnology, ended their response by stating: "In
itself, the technology of genetic modification is not in conflict with
"It has great potential for good, but also the potential for harm. Ethical
and moral principles need to be at the heart of our decision-making about
uses of genetic modification. How we use genetic modification will be a
statement of what we value as a society, and who we are as a people."
At a conference in Rome in Oct. 2002, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president
of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said: "There are no impediments to
animal and vegetable biotechnologies. [These latter]can be justified with
the motive that they are for the good of man. God has conceived animals
and vegetables as good creatures for man's needs. However, God has also
given man the task and responsibility to govern creation, which implies a
"Therefore the use of plants and animals is legitimate, but it does not
represent an absolute right. The Church has an open but conditioned
position. For this reason, we ask for sales to be accompanied by a label
[mentioning GMOs] and their total availability for developing countries,
in keeping with criteria of solidarity and justice."
At the same conference in Rome in October 2002, Bishop Jesus Y. Varela, of
the Diocese of Sorsogon, Phillipines emphasized the importance of the role
of biotechnologies in developing countries. He stated: "There is no human
activity that does not present risks, and the GMOs are certainly not more
risky than the foods we already consume. From the ethical-moral point of
view, everything that can be done to surmount hunger, to avoid children
becoming blind for lack of vitamin A, and to protect the environment, is
Norwalk Virus Vaccine Grown in Tomatoes
- Michael Smith, UPI Science News, Feb 16, 2003
Denver -- A vaccine for the Norwalk virus that is grown in tomatoes and
delivered in pills containing freeze-dried tomato juice is now awaiting
approval for clinical studies in humans, researchers reported late
If the vaccine passes those tests, the hope is its distribution could
begin throughout the developing world, said geneticist Charles Arntzen of
Arizona State University in Tempe, who has been working for more than a
decade on pharmaceuticals that could be delivered cheaply via food plants.
"Norwalk virus in the first world is primarily an inconvenience," Arntzen
told United Press International, but in the developing world it is often
deadly, in particular to young children, who die of dehydration caused by
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science, Arntzen said he used tomatoes because the
processing technology is "off-the-shelf." To make the Norwalk vaccine,
Arntzen and colleagues took the gene responsible for developing the
protein coat of the virus and transferred it into tomato plants, which are
grown in high-tech, sealed greenhouses at the University of Arizona in
Although the protein coat cannot cause the disease, it can elicit an
immune response, Arntzen explained. Most people already have antibodies to
the virus, although usually not enough to prevent it, he said.
Arntzen's approach to vaccine production has been criticized, he said,
because of the danger of genetically modified plants invading the food
supply. On the other hand, he added, using non-food plants such as tobacco
would require developing new ways of extracting the pharmaceuticals.
More important, he said, there currently is no vaccine available for
Norwalk virus and the World Health Organization reports 2.5 million
children younger than age 5 die of diarrhea every year in the developing
world. Even in North America, however, Norwalk can have serious
consequences, Arntzen said. For example, between 60 percent and 80 percent
admissions to U.S. hospitals are people reporting Norwalk-like symptoms --
diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.
Norwalk is known as the "cruise ship virus," because of well-publicized
outbreaks aboard vessels embarking from U.S. ports and elsewhere. But the
virus also has caused closings at hospital emergency wards, schools and
nursing homes. "What we're looking at is product safety," said John
Howard, a biotechnology consultant and adjunct professor at Texas A&M
University in College Station. "The issue is keeping it out of the food
chain," Howard told UPI. If it can be guaranteed that the genetically
modified tomatoes do not wind up in pasta sauce or ketchup, he said, "I
don't have any prejudice about putting (the vaccine) into food plants."
Freeze-drying the juice and putting it in pills is also one way of
ensuring the vaccine stays out of the general food supply, a danger that
Arntzen has said is worrisome.
Most so-called "transgenic" drugs use a similar technology, but use
microbes or cultured animal cells to produce the protein, Howard
explained. Howard, who works with transgenic plants, said it is possible
to use plants to do the same thing -- the protein trypsin, usually made in
cow cells, is now being grown in genetically-modified maize and sold for
use in pharmaceutical production. The animal-based trypsin carries the
danger of transmitting disease, Howard said, and supplies are limited.
UK's FSA Opens GM Food Debate with Citizens' Jury and Initiatives to
Involve Young People and Low Income Consumers
FSA, Feb15, 2003 Ref: 2003/0329
A distinctive and innovative range of initiatives to independently assess
people's views on the acceptability of genetically modified food and how
this relates to consumer choice was announced today by the Food Standards
Agency. These initiatives will form the Agency's contribution to the wider
Government debate about genetic modification.
The Agency's activities include a Citizens' Jury, which will address the
question: 'Should GM foods be available to buy in the UK?' Following an
introduction by Professor Kathy Sykes, the new Bristol University Collier
Professor in the Public Engagement of Science and Engineering, the jury
will hear evidence from a wide cross-section of experts, deliberate the
issues, and make their verdict public.
The Citizens' Jury, comprised of members of the public in Slough, will
take part in sessions on GM food and safety, GM food and the consumer, GM
food and society, and GM food and choice. Witnesses will be invited from a
variety of both national and international social science, scientific,
consumer, campaigning and industry organisations in order to ensure that
the jurors have access to the entire spectrum of views on GM food. The
jury's questioning of witnesses and their verdict will be broadcast on the
The announcement coincides with the launch of a new FSA website about
genetically modified food: http://www.food.gov.uk/gmdebate and publication
of a new booklet providing factual information to consumers about GM food.
As well as the Citizens' Jury, the Agency is carrying out a variety of
initiatives to reach young people and consumers in low income groups, and
ensure that their views on GM food are reflected in the wider Government
debate about genetic modification. These are: sponsorship of a schools
debating competition at Durham University, a video about genetically
modified foods made by school students, and discussion groups with young
people and consumers on low incomes in Scotland. (1)
The Agency's activities are in line with its remit to protect consumer
interests in relation to food, and demonstrates its commitment to consumer
choice, openness and transparency. These actvities will take place
alongside the Agency's ongoing research programme into the safety of GM
foods and research into new and emerging technologies. (2)
Sir John Krebs, Chair of the Food Standards Agency, said: 'The Agency is
carrying out a wide range of initiatives to deepen our understanding of
consumer views on GM food ? particularly those of young people and people
on low incomes who don't often have a voice in public debates.
'Our aim ? by using a number of innovative methods ? is to engage with a
variety of consumers, enabling us to make a distinctive and independent
contribution to the wider Government GM debate. 'Outcomes of all the FSA
initiatives will be made public. They will also be discussed at an open
meeting of the Food Standards Agency Board in the summer of 2003.
Following discussion, the Agency will submit its views to Government.'
GM Food - Opening Up the Debate
To download the 25 page brochure "GM Food - Opening Up the Debate" from
UK's Food Standard Agency, click on
British Public "Less Worried About Food Safety"
- HMG Worldwide, February 17, 2003 http://www.health-news.co.uk/
London - People are becoming less concerned with food safety in general
and have fewer concerns about specific food issues, according to new
research. In particular, the public is less worried about BSE. About 45
per cent of people said they were anxious about the brain disease in 2002
compared with 61 per cent in 2000.
The Food Standards Agency's (FSA) third annual Consumer Attitudes to Food
survey questioned more than 3,000 people about their views on food. The
poll also found that fewer people were worried about genetically modified
(GM) foods ? 36 per cent said they were worried about GM produce in 2002
compared to 43 per cent in 2000.
Over the three years the survey has identified a small but steady decline
in concern over the general safety of meat. This has been matched by a
significant decrease in concern about specific types such as beef, pork,
lamb and raw meat. However, people have become more worried about
fast-food stores. About 23 per cent of people are now concerned about
these outlets compared with 18 per cent in 2001, according to the survey.
If consumers had concerns about hygiene in a particular catering outlet,
the research showed that they would stop using it. However only 7 per cent
were likely to report their concerns to anyone ? a drop from 11 per cent
The number of people claiming to have suffered from food poisoning
remained the same in 2002 at 13 per cent. About 75 per cent of those who
said they had suffered food poisoning attributed their illness to food
prepared outside the home.
Sir John Krebs, chair of the FSA, said, "The small but steady decline in
public concern about food safety and some important food issues is
extremely positive news, both for consumers and the Food Standards
"This annual survey, by continuing to highlight changing opinion about the
issues that matter most to consumers, is a valuable contribution to the
continuing public debate on food safety and standards," he added.
Bringing Science Communication Into Policy
- David Dickson, SciDev.Net, Feb 17, 2003
Science communication has become a major factor in the formulation of
policy on science-related issues, not just a commentary on the way such
issues are addressed.
One of the most significant images in UK debates over the past 20 years
about the relationship between science and society was a photograph taken
in May 1990 of Britain's then agriculture minister, John Gummer, feeding a
hamburger to his somewhat bemused and reluctant daughter, Cordelia.
The country was at the time in the midst of its crisis over so-called Mad
Cow Disease, but the government -- prompted by the farming industry -- was
insisting that there was no way that the disease could pass to humans. The
photograph encapsulated the headlines that went with it, indicating that a
government minister was so confident about this position that, even as a
responsible parent, he was prepared feed British beef to his daughter.
The rest, as they say, is history. It was not long before Gummer, and
indeed the whole of the British government, had to eat its words -- almost
literally -- and admit that they had got it wrong; BSE indeed can pass
into the food chain, with tragic consequences. Furthermore this particular
picture has come to haunt Gummer -- who ironically has a good record as an
effective defender of the environment -- the Conservative party and
government public relations officers ever since.
With the benefit of hindsight, the manipulation is obvious. We are now
well aware of the function of this image as well as the dubious claim to
scientific legitimacy on which it was intended to be based. Indeed the
subsequent realisation by the British public of the extent to which it had
been misled by this particular picture, and indeed the whole government
handling of the BSE debacle in Britain, is widely blamed for a significant
drop in the public's trust of both politicians and the scientists who
But the picture also highlights a critical issue about the way that the
media frames, and thus helps to mould, public perceptions of key issues at
the interface between science and society. The issue for those involved in
science communication, both in developed and developing countries, is how
to balance a desire to inform the public about the scientific perspective
on controversial issues -- such as BSE or genetically-modified crops --
with an awareness of the political interests that may lie on each side of
such a dispute.
The challenge for society more generally is to recognise that the practice
of science communication has become a significant participant in the
formulation of policy on science-related issues, and no longer merely
provides a commentary on the way such issues are addressed.
Beyond the respect for truth. At its crudest level, of course, science
communication must be concerned with the accurate transmission of
information. This includes not only communicating the facts produced by
science, but equally reporting as accurately as possible on the
uncertainties attached to such knowledge, as well as on the impacts of
science on society -- and society's response to such impacts. All this is
relatively conventional wisdom with the science communication community,
even if it acknowledges a truth -- that achieving a proper public
understanding of science is a two-way process that must include the
scientist's better understanding of the public -- that is only just being
recognised within the scientific community itself.
To quote the words of Alan I. Leshner, for example, the chief executive
office of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, writing
in a recent issue of Science: "We need to engage the public in a more open
and honest, bi-directional dialogue about science, technology and their
products, including not only their benefits but also their limits, perils
and pitfalls. We need to respect the public's perspective and concerns,
even when we do not fully share them, and we need to develop a partnership
that can respond to them."
But there is a need to go beyond this, and to inquire how the process of
developing a partnership with the public works in practice, and who will
be engaged in establishing it. Here it is necessary to acknowledge that
the role of the science communicator, as Leshner accepts, is not one of
simply conveying the 'truth' to the public (any more than the role of a
scientist can be defined simply as discovering scientific 'facts'). Rather
it is to communicate significant facts -- and, where space allows, the
nature of this significance.
In other words, the task of any science communicator is essentially one of
extracting significance from a mass of scientific evidence, policy
documents, and headline-grabbing statements from individuals and
institutions that may or may not have a vested interested in the outcome.
In doing this, I suggest, those engaged in the communication of science --
particularly when this is conceived of as a two-way process -- becomes
proxies for the public when it comes to interpreting and articulating the
relationship between science and society, or to put it another way,
between knowledge and power.
Science communication and policy-making. The terms 'interpreting' and
'articulating' are both somewhat abstract concepts. They imply that the
way the media handles science has actually become an important
constitutive component of the policy-making process on science-related
issues. The media does more than just report policy choices to the public
on such issues, or even on the responses of the public to the policy
choices they are being presented with. In a significant way the media also
helps to frame both the policy issues and the public responses to them.
This is illustrated by the intense debates taking place in the developing
world over topics such as GM crops or even 'biopiracy', itself a term
largely coined by those who might be described as communicators of
science. In each case, the way that such issues are presented to the
public becomes the way that the issues are seen by the public. And these
perceptions in turn become a major factor in political decision-making,
particularly in an era when mass communication has made every decision
taken by a politician the subject of close public scrutiny.
The full implications of this shift remain far from clear. Nevertheless it
is already possible to suggest that informed communication about science
must become a central component of development strategy. Without such
communication, trust in political decisions on science-related issues will
be gradually dissipated. With such communication there is no guarantee
that this trust will necessarily be maintained. But at least the basis
will have been laid on which such trust can be rebuilt.
This comment is based on a talk delivered to the annual meeting of
American Association for the Advancement of Science on 17 February 2003 in
Some Facts About Food Biotechnology
- Robert Wager, Globe and Mail (Canada), Feb 17, 2003
Front Lines is a guest viewpoint section offering perspectives on current
issues and events from people working on the front lines of Canada's
technology industry. The author is a member of the Biology Department at
Malaspina University College in Nanaimo, B.C. He has a science degree in
microbiology and a masters of science in biochemistry and molecular
biology from the University of British Columbia.
The debate (or the lack thereof) about genetically modified food has been
raging in Europe for years, and now the issue has arisen in North America.
And while much has been said on the subject, the public has been generally
Half-truths and misinformation have been the hallmark of many critics of
food biotechnology, while secrecy has been the norm for the industry.
Neither of these positions has helped the public take part in a meaningful
As long as there is a lack of accurate information, suspicions and fear
can influence policies. Over 95 per cent of transgenic crops grown are
either herbicide tolerant or insect resistant, therefore public
understanding of these traits is important. Globally, some 145 million
acres of transgenic crops were planted in 2002 - a rise of 12 per cent
from the previous year. In fact, each of the last six years has seen
greater than a 10-per-cent increase.
But GM food is not new. Organic farmers have used the soil bacterium
Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt), for example, as a natural insecticide for
40 years. The bacteria produce a group of proteins that are toxic to
specific insects but have no effect on other animals.
Scientists were able to transfer the first Bt gene from the bacterium
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into a plant in the late 1980's. Several more
years of research followed, which examined many aspects of the transgenic
Bt crop, and in 1995 the first commercial transgenic Bt crops were
Since 1995 there has been an increase each year in the number of acres
planted with Bt crops. Bt crops include corn, cotton and potato. These Bt
crops produce the Bt protein (at levels equal to organic bacterial sprays)
and therefore protect themselves from insect pests. This self-protection
has several advantages. Most Bt engineered crops require far less
insecticide spraying, while in others there are dramatic reductions of
toxic fungal growth in the crop.
Cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the world. In the U.S.,
cotton crop spraying accounts for approximately two thirds of all
organophosphate insecticides used. According to the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA), the use of Bt cotton varieties has resulted in a
66-per-cent reduction in insecticides most toxic to birds and fish and a
33-per-cent reduction in insecticides most toxic to humans. This amounts
to several million kilograms less organophosphate insecticide being
sprayed on cotton fields each year.
Presently, the control of the corn rootworm requires several applications
of organophosphate insecticides each year. A new variety of Bt corn is set
to come on the market that will dramatically reduce organophosphate
insecticide use. This new variety of Bt corn specifically targets the corn
rootworm, thereby reduces or eliminates the need for insecticide
applications while maintaining yields.
Growing most other varieties of Bt corn does not generally decrease
insecticide use, as the insect pests that attack the corncob are not well
controlled by spraying. The benefit of these varieties comes in the form
higher yields of healthier food. When an insect damages the corncob the
result is growth of a variety of fungi. These fungi can produce
mycotoxins, some of the most toxic compounds on the planet. Bt corn
varieties have shown greater than 90-per-cent reduction in mycotoxins when
compared to non-Bt corn varieties.
Opponents of food biotechnology continue to say Bt corn kills monarch
butterflies. This myth comes from one report done in the laboratory in
which monarch butterfly caterpillars were fed large amounts of Bt corn
pollen (thousands of times that found in a corn field). The result was the
death of some caterpillars. This was not surprising to scientists, as the
Bt protein that was engineered into the corn was designed to kill
caterpillar pests of corn.
However the result of this research should not be directly applied to the
field. The researcher himself stated " it would be inappropriate to draw
any conclusions about the risks to monarchs in the field based solely on
To the contrary, more than 30 field studies have shown monarch butterflies
are not threatened by Bt corn pollen. The EPA has stated that there is
minimal risk to monarch butterflies from Bt corn pollen. According to
Monarch Watch, the population of monarch butterflies has increased
dramatically since planting of Bt corn began. Last year had a record
return of monarch butterflies to their winter range (three- to six-times
the average return). In fact, the biggest risk to monarch butterflies is
habitat destruction in their wintering grounds of Southern California and
The impact on other non-target species is a related concern of critics.
Extensive environmental impact assessments are done prior to commercial
release of all transgenic crops, and scientists have been unable to find a
toxic level for Bt proteins in non-target test animals. Studies have
looked at effects of the Bt proteins on catfish, aquatic invertebrates,
earthworms, springtails, green lacewing, ladybird beetle, honey bees
(adults and larva), parasitic wasps, quail and other species likely to
come in contact with the crop. In every one of these studies the result
was "No adverse effects were observed."
Further studies looked at how diets of Bt corn might affect animals that
feed on the transgenic corn. When nearly 5 grams (about a sugar cube) of
pure Bt protein toxin was fed to test animals there was no effect on
mortality. Amounts of Bt protein in corn kernels are approximately one
million times lower than those fed to test animals. In all non-target
species, the Bt protein is digested along with every other protein
Persistence of the Bt proteins in soils after crop harvests continues to
be investigated. Under most field conditions the protein rapidly degrades.
Those few conditions where the protein persists are the subject of further
research. As mentioned earlier, organic farmers have been using the Bt
bacterial insecticide for over 40 years. Studies have shown the levels of
Bt proteins found in the soil of organic farms are similar to the levels
found in soil of fields planted with Bt crop varieties. There have been no
adverse effects on soil ecology reported in over 40 years of organic use
of Bt bacteria. There is no scientific reason to expect anything different
for biotechnology-developed Bt crops.
Compare these results to those that look at the environmental impact of
organophosphate insecticides used to control insect pests. Organophosphate
insecticides kill virtually every insect on contact, while Bt crops only
kill the target pests. Bt crops have been proven to dramatically reduce
the use of organophosphate insecticides and should be applauded by
everyone interested in protecting the environment. Less spraying of crops
also means there is significant reduction in fuel consumption by farm
machinery. This helps Canada in its goal of reducing greenhouse gas
There has been much written about food biotechnology. Unfortunately, a
significant amount of it is not true. People must remember that all
agriculture impacts the environment. To date the evidence of environmental
benefits of biotechnology developed Bt crops are well documented. If the
public is to have a real debate on this issue, then accurate information
must be the starting point.
Oh No! What Have We Done?
- Stuart J. Smyth, AgBiotechNet http://www.agbiotechnet.com
(Ph.D. Candidate, Biotech Interdisciplinary Studies, Univ Sask., Canada;
Forwarded by Julie Parchewski; Excerpts below.. Download full text as pdf
file from http://agbio-management.org/ and then click on "Trade and
The knowledge revolution is transforming the basis for Western Canadian
agriculture. Professor Peter Drucker has argued that "the basic economic
resource ? ?the means of production,' to use the economist's term ? is no
longer capital, or natural resources (the economist's ?land'), nor
?labour.' It is and will be knowledge." This series of research and policy
papers is designed to contribute to a greater understanding of the extent,
speed and implications of this transformation in the agri-food sector and
to provide for a broader public policy
1. Introduction. Innovation offers the promise of a better tomorrow.
Looking around our home or office we see innovations of the past decade or
two at work. Occasionally though, innovations are used or applied in
situations that the innovator would never have imagined. One only has to
recall the mass hysteria of Orson Wells' radio play War of the Worlds to
recognize the social harm that could be created by something as simple and
peaceful as a radio.
Innovation however, is not without cause and effect. Computers and
robotics have drastically changed the way in which vehicles are produced,
including the elimination of thousands of jobs. Ultimately, innovations
force an economical reallocation of resources, both physical and human. In
fact, one is hard pressed to think of an innovation that is without any
negative or adverse effect.
4. The Road Ahead. The issue of liability management regarding transgenics
would seem to be related to three key features of present day society.
First, consumer trust in government and industry has declined in all
industrialized countries. For government, the lack of transparency and
accountability in the decision making process has become the focal point
of criticisms against government. While many government departments have
made improvements in these areas, the secrecy around most regulatory
decisions remains. Admittedly there are confidentiality concerns about the
protection of intellectual property involved however, simply making the
final decision public is not satisfying the demand for greater
information. A possible solution to this would be to make public the
results of toxicity and allergenicity tests required as part of the risk
analysis process for transgenics. This would go a long way in addressing
the critics leading concern that science simply does not know what the
long term health affects will be from consuming transgenic products.
Industry needs to recognize that when a regulatory failure occurs due to
the improper actions of one firm or one industry there are negative
impacts not only to their industry but all industrial sectors. There is a
great deal of published research on the economic benefits of knowledge
spillovers resulting from research and development. If there are spillover
effects from positive actions, is it illogical to expect spillover effects
will not occur from negative actions? The control of transgenics is held
by a handful of multi-nationals and this makes many people very uneasy,
due in part to previous experiences of dealing with multi-nationals
following environmental disasters. While it may be unfair to pin these
concerns on companies involved in transgenics, that is the reality of the
marketplace. These companies need to strive to be the pinnacle of socially
responsible business to reassure consumers about the products they are
being asked to consume.
Second, regulators in Canada and the United States have adamantly stuck to
science based risk assessment processes. European regulators have
initiated the process of trying to incorporate socio-economic factors into
the regulatory process, with Denmark leading this process. Presently in
North America there is mounting concern about the effect that
commercializing GM wheat will have on the ability of Canada and the United
States to continue to serve foreign markets that have adamantly stated
they will purchase no wheat from any country that commercializes GM wheat.
Regulatory agencies in both countries have stated that when GM wheat is
submitted for registration, it will be subject to the regular scientific
analysis process. In other words, no consideration for the economic
effects of lost markets will be factored into the decision making process
for GM wheat. This rigid adherence to science based assessment is an
antiquated approach given the level of international competition in the
agricultural marketplace. Continuing regulatory avoidance of
socio-economic impacts of transgenics will eventually result in the
regulatory agency being responsible for the removal of the country from
the global marketplace.
Third, the whole concept of consumer empowerment has been badly dealt with
by government, industry and to a lesser degree the judiciary. The
stakeholders of government and industry have, for the most part, adopted
the strategy of ignoring the consumer and hoping their concerns will go
away. This strategy has not worked and it has been the willingness of the
judiciary to hear large class action lawsuits against multi-nationals that
has forced a reconsideration of this strategy. However, the challenge in
trying to accommodate consumer empowerment is that consumers are fickle.
What may be a hot issue and national concern one month may be stone dead
six months later. In addition to this, the fragmentation of the voice of
consumers makes it difficult to legitimize the concerns of society.
In the rare instance of open consultations, some groups have chosen not to
participate as they feel the outcome is already decided and then become
critical of the process. Consumer groups will need to be more open minded
and willing to participate in any future joint regulatory decision making
processes as this is their responsibility to those they represent. There
is no stakeholder consensus on how to address the issue of socio-economic
liability management surrounding transgenic crop varieties. Science based
assessments are not designed to reduce risks to zero. However, societies
are expecting this unrealistic level of liability management due to the
lack of comfort zones with this new innovation. The key to the success (or
lack of) for transgenic plants and animals will be regulation. Regulators
are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of the role they have to
play in reassuring society about new innovations.
9 What is needed to ensure the success of transgenics and future
innovations is for industry to step up and become a more responsible
stakeholder. Trust would be created by having industry admit to failures,
work more closely with concerned groups and by allowing academics to have
better access to confidential data. Inviting social actors to the table
will legitimize concerns and provide an avenue for discerning between
groups with actual concerns and groups that are more interested in press
coverage than real liability management. The key to socio-economic
liability management is to ensure that all stakeholders work together.
Even though each stakeholder may have separate agendas, the goal needs to
be consensus on the process objectives.
In conclusion, the lack of social comfort with the technology of
transgenics means the technology hangs by a thread at the moment. All
stakeholders have to commit 100% to the process of preventing
All it will take to cut the thread of social trust is to have a regulator
or a private company employee say "Oh No! What have we done?"
Truth, Beauty and Double Helix
- Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles and Daniel J. Kevles, Newsweek International,
Feb 24, 2003
'Artists celebrate 50 years of the DNA revolution with works as
mesmerizing as the stuff of life'
It's pitch black and framed in gold, but it's undoubtedly a mirror. When
you stand in front of it, you expect to see what you'd see in any mirror:
an image that conforms more or less to what you think you are.
In recent years, though, our ideas about what we are have changed
dramatically, in no small part because of our awareness of DNA. The
average museum goer, for instance, probably knows that humans and
chimpanzees differ by only a handful of genes. It still comes as a
surprise to realize that the creature staring back at you has your face
superimposed on a chimpanzee's body. But the shock is mild. After a
momentary giddiness, you see the joke: the chimp is sitting, chin in hand,
in the pose of Rodin's "The Thinker."
Artist Justen Ladda's chimp mirror is part of "How Human: Life in the
Post-Genome Era," an exhibit at the International Center of Photography in
New York. It is one of several similar exhibits opening in the next few
weeks in New York and London that celebrate the 50th anniversary, on Feb.
28, of the discovery of the DNA double helix. Artists aren't often called
upon to commemorate a scientific event, but this was something
extraordinary. When James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins
discovered that DNA is shaped like a twisted ladder (the double helix),
they took the first big step toward deciphering the blueprint for life's
mechanism. Since then DNA has become the core of a technology that has
profoundly changed how we think about ourselves, our culture and our power
over nature. And the double helix has become a cultural icon.
A 2000 show of DNA-related art was largely polemical--paintings condemning
genetically modified foods--and about as subtle as a baseball bat. The art
in these current exhibits shows how ambivalent, but also nuanced, our
attitudes toward genetics have become. The current work, which involves
dozens of artists from Japan, China, Brazil, Germany, Britain, Switzerland
and Canada, as well as the United States, reflects a greater appreciation
of the advantages of the DNA revolution--DNA testing, for instance, which
has exonerated innocent people on death row. Almost all the work is
understated, yet startling, in its social and moral content. Much of it
will provide a sobering counterpoint to the proclamations of benefits sure
to accompany the anniversary festivals. Some of the work displays simply
the beauty of form and color.
DNA is, in a sense, a modernist molecule. Relying on just two pairs of
chemical letters to encode and convey all of an organism's hereditary
information, it exquisitely matches form to function. The information is
encrypted by the sequence of the base pairs, which form the rungs of the
twisted ladder. When a cell divides, the double helix's strands separate
from each other, each taking one base in each pair; the strands then form
two new double helixes with the same sequence of letter pairs and thus the
same hereditary information.
A number of the current works comment on this beauty through familiar
images. Swiss artist Hans Danuser, for instance, uses a silver-gelatin
print to capture a human embryo, immensely magnified, in deep freeze. It
is tiny yet vital amid swirling clouds reminiscent of a Tiepolo sky. A
photograph by Japanese artist Manaba Yamanaka compels us to consider the
grace in a 99-year-old nude dancer, who is as beautiful in her worn skin
at the end of life as Danuser's embryo is at the beginning.
Would we admire artists as much if their talent could be extracted,
packaged and sold? Photographer Larry Miller riffs on the increasing
commodification of the double helix, in the form of patents on natural
genes, in "Genomic License No. 8." He portrays 11 artists, each with a
vial of his own blood or other cells, and offers to license, for a price
and one-time-only use, the genes that undergird his creativity.
Fear of genetic manipulation of food to satisfy the marketplace is another
common --subject. With dry wit, Julie Moos takes on transgenic crops with
a couple out of Grant Wood's "American Gothic," reinvented as "Monsanto
(Ken and Anita)." This contented pair stand ramrod straight against a
backdrop of genetically altered corn.
Many people question just how far we want to go in buying and selling DNA.
The New York Academy of Sciences focuses squarely on this question with
more than a dozen works in "From Code to Commodity . " Artist Ellen Levy
has arranged four tall Plexiglas panels housing a relentless cascade of
patent fragments, some for roses, others for biomedical innovations, and
another for "Annular Shielding for Master-Slave Manipulation."
The more than 50 artists represented in these exhibitions have found many
voices to confront the genomic future racing toward them. It is too soon
to know which pieces will speak enduringly to our hopes and fears. It is
significant, though, that artists are rediscovering what Watson, Crick and
Wilkins realized 50 years ago: that DNA is powerful, mysterious and
terrifying, but also an object of great beauty.