Today in AgBioView: February 25, 2003
* Confusion by Fear Mongers in Zambia
* GM Crops Could Help Alleviate Food Shortage in Pakistan
* Monsanto Biotech Corn Wins Regulatory Approval
* GMO Opponents Argue Against Lifting of EU Moratorium
* North vs. South
* Expert Calls For Compromise On GE Farming
* Biotech and Better Health
* Campaign Against GM A Stranger to the Facts
* DNA, The Keeper of Life's Secrets, Starts To Talk
* Life Science Is A Continuous Intimate Ethical Enquiry: Serageldin
Confusion by Fear Mongers in Zambia
- David Simpson
>> Re: Benbrook Lectures Zambian Delegates
We in Zambia continue to be confused by the diverse opinions of experts on
GMO foods. While in the cities we are comparatively well provided for,
poverty spreads, crime grows, and then nobody is safe.
In AgBioView - February 24, Benbrook, a leading anti-GM expert, reportedly
says there are plenty of non-GM foods that could be donated to Zambia.
Would these foods be acceptable to Zambians, for whom maize is the staple
Is Avery, a leading GM proponent, correct in countering Benbrook by
denying there is plenty of non-GM corn available, when Benbrook was in
fact referring to non-GM foods in general? If non-GM maize cannot be
easily identified, does this also apply to other non-GM foods?
What does Benbrook mean by saying this "crisis" has been manufactured by
those looking for a new source of traction; there would have been no
crisis if Zambia had accepted the GM offer instead of being influenced by
It seems to be the fear-mongering of the latter which created the
"crisis". But if there are genuine reasons to fear, then the crisis is
unavoidable, and even welcome, as it encourages caution.
Who is right? And how do we know?
GM Crops Could Help Alleviate Food Shortage in Pakistan
- Farooq Khan, Daily Times (Pakistan), Feb 26, 2003
Lahore: The inaccessibility of cheap foodstuff means 70 percent of the
countryís population faces a daily struggle to feed itself. And the
increasing use of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides in agriculture
is causing environmental pollution while increasing labour cost and
A viable way to make agriculture less costly and more labour effective
could be the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops. However,
there are reservations about GM crops, and concerns that they could have
harmful affects on vegetation and the people that consume them.
Crops can be genetically modified to grow resistance to fungal, bacterial
and viral ailments. They can also be modified to grow in restrictive
environmental conditions, like during a drought or in high salt or metal
content soil. The nutritional value of agro-products can also be improved,
adding specific nutrients.
Conventional breeding methods in agriculture have similar goals, such as
better yield, low cultivation costs and disease and pest resistance.
Conventional methods include crop hybridisation, which can take years to
do what biotechnology can do much quicker.
According to a research paper compiled at the Institute of Plant Biology,
University of Zurich, Switzerland, and faxed to Daily Times by Dr Noorul
Islam from the Agricultural Research Centre in Faisalabad, evidence from
industrial and developing countries shows that GM crops, in conjunction
with conventional agricultural practices, can contribute to a
cost-effective, sustainable, productive and sufficiently safe form of
The same conclusion was reached by a group of renowned scientists, Anthony
Conner, Travis Glare and Jan Peter-Nap, after they examined 250
publications on the subject. These papers included the impact of GM crops
on biodiversity, the environment and how this differed from common
agricultural practices. The impact of GM crops is very similar to the
impact of traditional breeding that has been an integral part of
agriculture for many years, according to researchers from the New Zealand
Institute for Crop and Food Research, Limited.
Dr Naseem Akhtar, chairman of the National Commission on Biotechnology,
said that the risk factors regarding GM crops should be thoroughly
investigated. Farmers in Pakistan should be allowed a free hand in
choosing what kind of crops are to be cultivated, since they are the best
judges, he added. The constant unimpeded introduction of dangerous
chemicals as pesticides is also adding to the pollution of the underground
water table in our country, he said.
Daily Times has learnt that Monsanto, a multinational company that is a
proponent and developer of GM crops, has approached the Pakistan
government and offered Bacillus Thuringienis (BT) cotton, wheat, corn,
maize and rice. These crop varieties are resistant to various ailments,
and would forego the need for expensive pesticides. A 10-year study shows
that growing BT cotton in Arizona, USA, under varied soil conditions
caused a long-term population declines in the pink bollworm. The weather
and climate of Arizona is very similar to the plains of Pakistan. This
disease, known here as American Sundi, has devastated Pakistanís cotton
The Federal Ministry for the Environment has asked the four provinces for
feedback, and the Punjab has already agreed. The recommendations are lying
with the ministry and the crops will be introduced pending final approval,
said Dr Ghulam Ahmed, director general agriculture (research), Faisalabad.
The Asian Development Bank has approved a loan of $905,000 this year for
the research and cultivation of iron-rich rice. There are 1 billion
people, mostly women and children, at risk of anaemia and iron deficiency
problems in Asia, according to the ADB. This could be averted by the
introduction of this GM rice. Indiaís National Academy of Agricultural
Sciences (NAAS) fully supports the introduction of GM varieties of rice.
It endorsed the development of rice varieties tolerant to drought,
submergence and salinity, and rich in micronutrients. However, the academy
is not encouraging work on GM rice varieties that produce drugs and
Biotech developments have not focused on crops that could tackle hunger,
said Louise Fresco of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and a
panellist at a conference on sustainable agriculture for developing
countries in Brussels. She said there was a growing gap between the
promise and the reality of the use of biotechnology and life sciences in
sustainable agriculture. The assistant director general in the agriculture
department at FAO spoke of how 85% of transonic crops, such as corn,
cannola and cotton, are designed to reduce labour and input costs.
However, crops such as chickpea, wheat, corn and cassava that would help
tackle poverty and hunger are not being cultivated as extensively.
Likewise banana, considered a favourite fruit in this region, is also a
staple food in many other regions of world. The banana plantations in
rural Sindh and Punjab are yielding fewer crops every year and the size
and quality of fruit is also declining. This is mainly due to the ever
increasing use of pesticides and insecticides, which in turn produces
resistance varieties of pests. These resistant varieties of pest then
require even higher concentrations of pesticide, thus increasing costs and
pollution, and so on.
The FAO says that new breeding methods and tools, including biotechnology,
will be helpful to develop resistant bananas for cultivation. Since more
than 50 percent of the banana germplasm (land varieties) are sterile,
biotechnology and mutation breeding are important tools that can improve
banana varieties without the threat of genetic drift, i.e., that the
modifications will be passed on to wild varieties of banana or other
plants, said the FAO.
The British Medical Association (BMA) has disputed the ethics of GM crops.
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, Head of Science and Ethics, says that a meeting of
scientists is needed to review developments in the field.
The greatest anticipated risk of GM crops that mutated genes could be
passed on to insects and animals, which could have untold effects.
Resistance genes for a pest in a crop could be passed on to a wild variety
of the plant or a weed through pollen transfer, thus creating a resistant
weed, which in itself would then become a pest. However, studies on the
risk of gene transfer are inconclusive.
But the dangers of GM crops are not just biological, but economic as well.
There are worries that the introduction of GM crops in certain countries
could lead to a dependence on the company that supplies the seed,
effectively giving that company a monopoly on the food supply of that
country. Many think it is unethical that companies can copyright varieties
of GM seeds. This has already led to problems for Monsanto, which saw the
price of its share price plummet after protests by people in Canada, USA
and Europe. The company has now been bought by Up John pharmaceuticals.
Until 1999, 82% of GM crops were grown in industrial countries. Argentina
grows the most GM crops, about 17% in the developing countries, which
include China, Mexico, South Africa and others where field trials are in
Monsanto Biotech Corn Wins Regulatory Approval
- Carey Gillam, Reuters News Service, Feb 26, 2003
Kansas City, Mo. - Monsanto Co. (MON.N) said yesterday it had received
final regulatory approval for a new biotech corn designed to fight
rootworm, and seed would be marketed in time for spring planting in the
Both Monsanto and members of the U.S. corn growing industry have been
eagerly awaiting the regulatory approval, with Monsanto seeing the new
product as a significant addition to its growing stable of biotech crops.
"This is a very important product for Monsanto," said Bryan Hurley, a
spokesman for Monsanto, which has been working to offset lagging revenues
in its herbicide business with increased sales of biotech seeds and
The genetically modified corn, called YieldGard Rootworm corn, contains a
protein from a common soil microbe that targets the larvae of corn
rootworm, a devastating pest that eats into yields and farmer profits. The
corn is able to naturally protect its roots against the corn rootworm. The
U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that rootworm costs U.S. corn
growers about $1 billion annually.
"This is very good news, this would really help our farmers," said Sue
Schulte, spokeswoman for Kansas Corn Growers Association. Monsanto is the
first company to commercialize a biotech corn aimed at combating corn
rootworm, though Dow AgroSciences has one in the pipeline.
The new corn will be available in corn hybrids sold through Monsanto's
branded seed businesses as well as through licensed, independent seed
companies. There will be only enough seed for slightly under a million
acres this year, out of a potential estimated market of more than 12-15
million acres where rootworm is treated with insecticides, said Hurley.
"It is logical we could probably capture that market longterm," he said.
Monsanto will price the seed to be competitive with the estimated
$150-$200 million a year farmers spend on insecticides to fight corn
rootworm, Hurley said. The initial release will focus on areas of eastern
Colorado, and western Kansas and western Nebraska, where the problems are
most severe. Monsanto hopes to ramp up seed production to have supplies
for 5-6 million acres by 2005.
Gregory Jaffe, biotech project director for the Center for Science in the
Public Interest, said the new biotech corn should reduce use of
insecticides while still helping farmers protect their crops. But, he said
the benefits may be short-lived because regulators are only requiring a 20
percent refuge area - acres not planted to biotech corn - to protect
"The EPA decided to put short-term profits ahead of the long-term public
good by agreeing to Monsanto's refuge plan of 20 percent," said Jaffe. A
50 percent refuge was preferred by scientists to reduce the chance that
strains will become less resistant to insects over time. "We wanted to see
this product succeed because we think it will have the potential for
tremendous environmental benefits, but as a society it will only realize
those benefits if it is used in a safe manner. And our view is that 20
percent refuge is not a safe manner at this point," said Jaffe.
An EPA spokesman defended the agency's review of the new biotech corn.
Dave Deegan said the EPA found a 20 percent refuge zone was still
effective, and was consistent with similar requirements for other biotech
crops. "We do think we are actually being very protective," said Deegan.
"But (insect resistance) is something we are continuing to look at and
require additional study." The EPA said it expected resistance of the corn
to develop no sooner than seven years, similar to what occurs with
GMO Opponents Argue Against Lifting of EU Moratorium
- Cordis RTD News; Feb 24, 2003 (Sent by M. Kueper )
Agriculture ministers from EU countries opposed to the authorisation of
new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have restated their objection to
the lifting of a five year de facto moratorium.
Their comments came in response to calls by EU Health and Consumer
Protection Commissioner David Byrne for a lifting of the ban at an
Agriculture Council meeting in Brussels on 20 February. Mr Byrne argued
that new authorisation procedures could begin since the Council has agreed
on measures governing the labelling and traceability of GMOs, even though
the new rules have yet to become law.
But such an approach was opposed by Germany, France, Greece, Belgium,
Luxembourg and Austria; outspoken opponents of GM products who argued that
new authorisations should not be granted until new laws are in place.
'Germany starts from the principle that the moratorium will only be lifted
once the rules on the origin and labelling have come into force,' said
Germany's Agriculture Minister Renate K¸nast.
The new rules were adopted by EU agriculture ministers at the end of 2002,
but have yet to be approved by the European Parliament, where opponents of
GMOs could vote to block the measures. In the same meeting, ministers
also looked at issues surrounding the question of co-existence, the
practice of growing GM crops near GM free crops and the related issues of
cross contamination. According to Franz Fischler, EU Agriculture
Commissioner: 'This will be particularly important once the authorisations
of new GMOs resume and genetically modified crops are grown on a larger
scale in the EU.'
The debate centred on the economic consequences for organic farmers whose
crops had been contaminated by GMOs or, in cases where GM crops have
advantageous properties, contamination by non-GM products. Commissioner
Fischler announced that he is preparing a paper which will form the basis
for a debate on the issue. 'I hope that we will come out of this debate
with some clear policy orientations and a concrete timetable for the
future work,' he said.
North vs. South
- Roger Bate, TechCentral Staion, Feb 24, 2003
While continued European political opposition to genetically modified food
may soon cause a trade war with the United States, European policy is
already contributing to starvation in Africa. Rejection of American GM
food aid is exacerbating the current food crisis in Southern Africa, where
over 14 million people are still at risk of starvation.
But the impending starvation is far more than just a battle over GM food;
it's a catalogue of African mismanagement. It is worth comparing today's
situation with the terrible drought and famine that occurred in Southern
Africa in 1991-1992. Although today's drought is not as bad the problems
that remain are political and unlikely to be resolved quickly.
In 1991-1992 18 million people were at risk. According to African
agricultural specialist, Robert Paarlberg, Professor of Political Science,
Wellesley College, from central Zambia through Malawi and Mozambique
southward, there were seasonal rainfall deficits as high as 80 per cent,
with cereal production in the region down by 54%, and in some Southern
African countries production fell by nearly 70%.
The current drought is far less severe, with yields dropping on average
only 7%. Furthermore, the UN World Food Programme started feeding 2.6
million people by February 2002, after drought warnings as early as
December 2001. So compared with 1991-1992 the situation is far better;
there is far less severe crop damage, improved famine early warning that
led to food aid, more peace in the region, and the drought area is far
smaller and hence fewer people are at risk.
However, the news is far from good. Although the drought has reduced
yields by only 7% on average, in key countries it has dropped far further.
Zambia's yield is down by 35% and Zimbabwe's 71%. Furthermore, per capita
yields are lower as population has increased by 15% over the past decade
(even with AIDS and malaria a significant problem) in these countries.
Donor response has been slower and less generous than in the previous
drought, partly because of historic mismanagement in the aid distribution.
But donors have been even more concerned by corruption and overtly harmful
In 2001 Malawi had a Government surplus of nearly 200,000 tons of grain. A
European Commission study concluded that a 60,000-ton reserve would be a
sufficient buffer against drought. The EC and the IMF advised Malawi to
sell some of its reserves to help offset the budget deficit. However, the
Malawi National Food Reserve Agency 'sold off all but 4,000 tons of its
reserves to private grain traders' says Paarlberg. Much of the local
media, many of whom are hostile to business and markets, claimed that the
traders hoarded the grain and tried to ramp up prices.
But the notion that the grain had stayed in Malawi and was being kept from
locals by corrupt traders is mistaken. When the Malawi Government
subsequently asked for help, donors refused on the grounds that the money
raised from the sale of nearly 200,000 tons of grain could not be found,
and the food had left the country for uncertain destinations. Eventually
the Government had to take out a $35m loan to import 135,000 tons of
maize, which took several months to arrive. Save the Children UK and other
NGOs complained that the urban elite in Malawi ignored the rural poor:
'Every day that passes without a response to this crisis is a death
sentence to hundreds', they said in an open letter to the Malawi
In August 2002, Zambia decided to ban the import and distribution of all
genetically modified food, including the corn being offered as aid from
the United States. It had accepted GM food aid for the previous 6 years,
however environmentalists from Europe had finally managed to influence
local scientific opinion. In an assessment provided by Dr Mwananyanda
Mbikusita-Lewanika, a biochemist from the National Institute for
Scientific and Industrial Research, he claimed that not enough was known
about GM food safety. As a result he invoked the precautionary principle
and said Zambians should not consume GM products until he was sure they
were safe. Furthermore, it became a common belief that if local farmers
planted GM corn it could present a threat to the environment, damaging
local varieties of maize, millet or sorghum. Zambia's Organic Farming
Association also pressured the government not to allow GM food aid because
it did not want the country to become known in Europe as one in which GM
crops might be grown.
But facing famine it appeared that Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa would
lift the ban in late October. According to insiders he had hoped that the
report he was due to receive from Zambian scientists touring GM
experimental sites in Europe and America would give him the go ahead. But
since Lewanika was head of this scientific team, and he was taking advice
from Friends of the Earth Netherlands and British Action AID (groups
opposed to biotechnology) he maintained his anti-GM stance in the report.
Mwanawasa's ability to overturn his own scientists report was made
impossible when the opposition Patriotic Front leader Michael Sata came
out in favour of GM food aid. Any politician who follows Sata's lead, and
claims GM food must be allowed in because people are starving, is now
threatened with arrest.
Zimbabwe provides the worst examples of mismanagement in Africa. In
addition to President Mugabe's generally despotic rule, the Agriculture
Minister denied that there was any food crisis until after the elections
were completed in March 2002. And the Mugabe Government has intimidated
anyone who has tried to get food aid to locations, which are opposition
politician strongholds. Even the UN World Food Programme has had its
officers harassed, and the grain it was trying to distribute was seized in
No new food will be harvested in Southern Africa until mid-March, by which
time hundreds of thousands could have died from famine. It is a famine
that could have been averted had the African leaders accepted GM food aid.
But invoking the precautionary principle, the Cartagena Protocol on
Biosafety and all manner of EU driven regulation against GM food is
killing Africans in droves. While African leaders deserve the most blame
for a catalogue of errors, the EU cannot escape its share for its
unscientific opposition to GM food.
Dr Roger Bate is a fellow at the International Policy Network in London
and a TCS columnist.
Expert Calls For Compromise On GE Farming
- The Dominion Post (Wellington, NZ), Feb 25, 2003
Genetically engineered and organic crops can co-exist provided some
accidental contamination is accepted, a visiting United States crop expert
The question for New Zealand was whether organic farmers could co-exist
with GE farmers, Colorado State University crop and soil assistant
professor Patrick Byrne said yesterday "If each side refuses to
compromise, co-existence is going to be difficult to achieve."
Professor Byrne was speaking at the US embassy yesterday and will spend
this week working with Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry officials on
achieving co-existence in New Zealand. He said Colorado farmers were
encouraged to stagger planting and harvesting times to avoid pollen from
one crop contaminating another. Failing that, a 50-metre buffer zone
between crops reduced accidental contamination to one kernel in 200, or
0.5 per cent.
If farmers wanted greater guarantees, they should increase buffer
distances to 200 metres to reduce accidental contamination to 0.1 per
cent. In the event of GE contamination, the GE farmer would be liable for
damage to conventional and organic crops, Professor Byrne said. However,
it was not realistic to insist on zero tolerance.
"Organic and biotech should be encouraged as parallel approaches to
agriculture. We should not put all our eggs in one basket." GE-Free New
Zealand spokesman Jon Carapiet said he was concerned at Professor Byrne's
willingness to accept GE contamination of conventional crops. If GE crops
that produced drugs were planted in New Zealand, people could
inadvertently eat medicines they did not want.
"That's removal of choice -- it's a gaping hole." Life Sciences Network
spokesman Francis Wevers said Professor Byrne's "balanced approach" would
help the GE debate in New Zealand. A moratorium on the commercial release
of GE crops expires in October.
Biotech and Better Health
'An updated explanation of how plant biotechnology will help people lead
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug says "the first essential
component of social justice is adequate food." Increasingly, he and many
others say plant biotechnology is one of several tools that can be used to
produce not only adequate food, but food that is better for you.
Plant biotechnology researchers are working to improve health in two
important ways: * By making more food available to meet basic dietary
needs. * By making better foods that are high in vitamins and have other
How plant biotechnology can improve human health has a lot to do with
where you live.
In the developing world, where 840 million are chronically malnourished,
the challenge often is just getting people enough calories.1 Experts in
those countries say that biotech crop advances -- hardier crops that can
ward off insect pests and viruses -- could go far in helping small
subsistence farmers in southern Africa and Asia. "Biotechnology is an
essential tool for Africa to achieve food security," says Michael Mbwille,
a Tanzanian pediatrician whoís seen malnutrition -- which affects one in
three Africans -- up close.
Proponents of biotechnology for the developing world point out that
several studies have documented the yield and income improvements that
come with planting biotech seeds: In 2001 United States farmers grew an
additional 4 billion pounds of food and fiber and generated an additional
$1.5 billion in income by planting six biotech crops, according to a June
2002 study conducted by the National Center for Food and Agricultural
* Between 1998 and 2001, global cotton farmers reaped an additional $1.7
billion in income by using Bt cotton, according to a December 2002 report
from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech
Applications.4 Yield increases for Bt cotton ranged from 5 to 10 percent
in China, 10 percent or more in the United States and Mexico, and 25
percent in South Africa. The report noted that the increased income allows
families to spend more on food, which reduces hunger.
* In 2001-02, planting of Bt corn in Spain produced yield increases of
between 10 and 15 percent -- and an average income gain of 12.9 percent --
in areas with high levels of insect infestations, according to a study
funded by Agricultural Biotechnology in Europe.
Noting the potential benefits -- and the explosive population growth
expected in many already underfed countries -- the United Nations Human
Development Report 2001 concluded plant biotechnology could be a
"breakthrough technology for developing countries."
As important as plant biotechnology is in producing more food for a
growing population, researchers are also developing healthier foods than
can improve human health. You need to look no further than Americaís
recent history to discover how important food was to eliminating disease.
In the 1930s, immigrants to the United States living in big cities were
unusually prone to rickets, a bone disease caused by a deficiency of
vitamin D. Poor diet was one reason. Another was that the tall, tightly
packed-in tenement buildings where many immigrants lived blocked most
direct sunlight, another key source of vitamin D. When food manufacturers
began adding vitamin D to bread and milk shortly thereafter, rickets
became very rare in the United States.
In a similar but much more precise and powerful way, scientists today can
use biotechnology to improve a food by introducing health-enhancing traits
it otherwise wouldnít have. In Canada, for example, there are two
varieties of biotech canola being grown that can produce cooking oils with
a healthier balance of "good" and "bad" fats. By precisely modifying just
a slice of canolaís genetic structure, researchers created a
low-cholesterol oil without affecting other qualities (like stability
under high heat) that make canola oil good for cooking.
Other biotech foods in testing will put new health benefits on the table:
Field tests are underway on a cancer-fighting tomato with three times more
lycopene, an antioxidant, than conventional varieties. Lycopene protects
human tissue and could help prevent breast and prostate cancers as well as
heart disease. This was recently chosen by American consumers as 2002ís
top food biotechnology development.
In India, mustard seeds have been enhanced so they contain more beta
carotene, which could help alleviate vitamin A deficiencies. Mustard seed
oil is the second most commonly used oil in India. Several research teams
are working to improve rice, a staple food for half the worldís
population, by putting more nutrition into each grain. Enhanced "golden
rice" may help reduce childhood blindness, while a new iron-rich rice
could have a truly global impact -- one in three people worldwide donít
get enough of the nutrient.
Researchers working with cassava, a staple food in many poorer parts of
the world, have boosted protein levels by 35 to 45 percent and increased
the levels of essential amino acids, according to "Harvest on the
Horizon," a report prepared by the Pew Initiative on Food and
Reducing toxins and allergens
Through biotechnology, foods will give us not only more of what we need
but also less of what we donít. A paper from the American
Phytopathological Society, for example, describes how one popular biotech
corn variety, called Bt corn, has unusually low levels of mycotoxins, a
cancer causing agent. Mycotoxins enter corn through holes chewed by insect
pests like the European corn borer -- pests that Bt corn, which releases a
natural insecticide as it grows, is highly effective at repelling.
For the 50 million people with food allergies, meanwhile, biotechnology
could mean fewer red eyes and runny noses and more choice at the dinner
table. One team of researchers recently succeeded in disarming the P34
gene in soybeans, an allergen that affects an estimated 6 to 8 percent of
children and 1 to 2 percent of adults.14 Steve Taylor, co-director of the
University of Nebraskaís Food Allergy Research Resources Program, predicts
more of the same as scientists learn to switch off or dim the intensity of
"I think in the long term we will have foods that are less hazardous
because biotechnology will have eliminated or diminished their
allergenicity," Taylor says. In Japan, researchers have successfully
reduced the allergenicity of rice. Other teams are working on peanuts and
wheat. Health professionals like the members of the non-profit American
College of Nutrition are on record as supporting the use of biotechnology
to "contribute to global food security," as well as to "enhance the safety
and nutritional value of the food supply" by removing anti-nutrients and
Itís no secret that eating right is the way to stay healthy. But soon the
blurry line between foods and medicines may be erased altogether.
Research is underway to use staple foods to deliver inexpensive, effective
vaccines for specific illnesses -- literally, "edible vaccines," which
could save some of the 15 million children who die each year from
preventable diseases. For example, researchers are experimenting with
building a vaccine for hepatitis B, which attacks the liver, into bananas.
When eaten, the vaccine is absorbed through the intestine into the
bloodstream, producing antibodies in the same way as an injected vaccine.
But the banana vaccine is expected to cost about 2 cents a dose, rather
than $125 for an injection. Plus, it could be easily administered without
the need for refrigeration or medical staff.
These plant-based vaccines seem to respond directly to a challenge issued
centuries ago by Hippocrates, the Greek physician considered to be the
father of modern medicine. He said, "Let food be your medicine and
medicine be your food."
Seeds for the future
More research is required before many biotech products, particularly
plant-based vaccines, become widely available. But the potential benefits
and the importance of this work are clear. In October of 2002, Nature
Genetics journal asked a group of internationally renowned scientists to
rank the top biotechnology applications that could improve health in the
developing world. Using biotechnology to diagnosis diseases, to develop
vaccines and to improve diets are at the top of the list.
Links and Refs at http://www.whybiotech.com/index.asp?id=2348
Campaign Against GM A Stranger to the Facts
- Graeme O'Neill, Sunday Herald Sun (Australia), Feb 23, 2003 (Sent by
During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a
revolutionary act. That quote from author George Orwell can be seen on
emails from the Australian GeneEthics Network. GeneEthics' executive
director Bob Phelps has been campaigning since the '80s to keep
genetically modified crops and foods out of Australia.
His skill as a propagandist, and his relentless criticism of the New
Agriculture, have had a major influence on community attitudes in
Australia. Scientists and agro-biotechnology companies recognise him as a
formidable opponent, but have little respect either for his methods or his
As a science writer who has specialised in writing about gene technology
for 28 years, I have devoted numerous columns to debunking GeneEthics'
claims about the alleged hazards of GM agriculture and foods. I'm neither
dismayed or dissuaded by the fact that, almost without exception, the many
readers who have responded to such columns are hostile to my views.
For some people, the superiority of organic foods, and the hazards of
conventional or GM crops, has become an article of faith that cannot be
refuted by logic, scientific evidence, or common sense. Only one other
topic I write about arouses such passion: human evolution. Here,
correspondence is dominated by fundamentalists who reject Darwin's theory
of evolution by natural selection.
I sometimes confront my own prejudices by ringing letter writers and
discussing their concerns. Most quote "evidence" for the health hazards of
GM agriculture, that has been thoroughly refuted by scientific research.
Their belief in these "facts" is sincere and unshakeable. They do not
trust independent scientific studies, nor scientists, that contradict
them, dismissing them as lackeys of multinational agrochemical companies.
So where do these "factoids", and their distrust of science, come from?
Most of the spurious claims have featured prominently over the years in
GeneEthics ' "news alerts", or on the GeneEthics Web site, over the past
decade. They have also featured frequently in the Australian media,
because journalists with scant understanding of gene technology have
irresponsibly reported them without due scepticism. GeneEthics' highly
successful campaign of disinformation and scaremongering has been built
around Phelps' strategy of close contacts with journalists who have no
formal training or experience in science journalism.
These compliant or naive individuals do not ask difficult questions, they
do not seek expert comment on Phelps' claims, nor do they explore
authoritative scientific journals or expert forums on the Web. If they
did, they would discover many of the extravagant claims have been
Some of the "facts" are risible. They reveal a deep ignorance of even the
rudiments of biology and environmental science. They veer between junk
science and science fiction, such as the claim made by Phelps in the early
'90s that the "ice-minus" bacterium developed by a Californian scientist
to protect crops against frost could disrupt the global climate if it
The Pseudomonas bacterium in question is the same used in snow-making
machines; it makes a protein that causes water vapour to condense and
freeze as snow -- or as frost on crops. Natural ice-minus mutants occur
widely in the environment; if they were at a selective advantage over
ice-plus strains, there would be no frosted crops, and the global climate
would have been destroyed billions of years ago.
On January 8, in response to reports a shipment of GM maize was arriving
in Australia to feed poultry and livestock affected by drought, Phelps
claimed some pig farms in the US had experienced infertility problems
after eating the GM maize containing an insecticidal transgene. What
Phelps did not tell consumers was university researchers, with no ties to
biotechnology companies, had investigated and refuted any link to GM maize
-- sows fed non-GM maize suffered the same fertility problems.
If GeneEthics thought the original claim was serious enough to bring to
the attention of consumers, why didn't he subsequently reassure consumers
that it had been debunked ? The anti-GM movement has demonstrated
appalling ignorance of the science that underpins gene technology. A
little scientific knowledge can put one's core beliefs at risk. Anti-GM
activists rely on the fact few journalists have science qualifications
that would allow them to see through their science- fiction
confabulations. In Phelps' defence, he is full-time, professional anti-GM
activist, and he's just doing what activists do everywhere in world --
exploiting the modern media, especially television, to get his message
across. GeneEthics press releases -- Phelps calls them "media alerts" --
are infected with apocalyptic urgency. They're written in ready-to-run
journalese, always quoting Phelps himself. But he is not bound by any
standards of accuracy, balance or rigour that apply to professional
journalists, or to scientists.
Phelps does not ask, he demands. He demands urgent action. He demands full
disclosure and transparency from scientists and GM regulatory authorities.
He demands to be included in all consultations on GM issues. A month ago,
two of Australia's leading authorities on GM issues, Rick Roush and David
Tribe, set out to investigate GeneEthics' funding sources. Roush, an
ecologist, is director of the Co-operative Research Centre for Weed
Management, while Tribe is a microbiologist at the University of
On January 21, Phelps issued a media alert over a report from the
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications
(ISAAA ) that the global area of GM crops had increased by six million
hectares, or 12 per cent, in 2002. ISAAA is a non-profit organisation that
arranges free donations of biotechnology for use by poor farmers in
developing countries. , Phelps "refuted" ISAAA's statistics, claiming the
GM crop expansion had stalled. He dismissed ISAAA as an "industry
promoter", and in subsequent media reports, was quoted as saying ISAAA was
funded by a biotechnology company.
ISAAA director Clive James says the report was not sponsored by the
private sector and 75 per cent of his support comes from public-sector
Roush e-mailed Phelps: "Questioning funding sources is a common refrain in
your criticism of anyone with something kind to say about GM. The
implication , of course, is that the funding source affects objectivity.
But many of your targets are publicly transparent in their funding. I
wonder if you have a mechanism for a similar level of transparency?" Roush
noted GeneEthics did not list its funding sources or amounts on its Web
site, nor its directors or senior officers. I have put the same questions
to Phelps. He has not responded.
Here's what Roush and Tribe found. The Australian GeneEthics Network is
closely associated with the Australian Conservation Foundation, but Roush
and Tribe found ACF unwilling to discuss details of its administrative and
financial relationships with GeneEthics.
But ACF's annual reports record at least two organic food businesses,
Australian Natural Foods and Pureharvest, and the heritage seed company,
The Diggers Club at historic Heronswood on the Mornington Peninsula,
sponsor GeneEthics. All three stand to benefit by sponsoring an activist
organisation that advocates organic agriculture, and foments consumer
fears about conventional and GM crops.
GeneEthics has also been sponsored by two obscure organisations, the Ecos
Corporation and UK-based Wayward Fund. According to a 1999 Financial
Review article by Sharon Beder, Ecos Corporation is a Sydney-based
environmental public relations company, founded in 1995 by former
Greenpeace International executive director Paul Gilding.
Ecos acts as intermediary between large corporations and troublesome
activists. Ecos advised BHP on how to manage the publicity environmental
disaster caused by its Ok Tedi gold mine in Papua-New Guinea. Gilding is
reported to be a passionate advocate of the notion business can lead the
world to sustainable solutions; Ecos preaches a "win-win" gospel of
corporate environmentalism. But Beder says behind this veneer of idealism,
Ecos is pragmatic about reputation management. It offers its corporate
clients insights into how activists think and operate. Ecos's funding of
GeneEthics, an organisation dedicated to the demise of large corporations
involved in GM agriculture, is a strange thing.
The Wayward Fund is not listed on the database of UK charities. It's not
even an organisation, but an anonymous British philanthropist seeking to
promote global permaculture. Wayward apparently has as a partner: Powerful
Information , in Milton Keynes, southern England. Powerful Information is
described as a non-profit charity, "working in low-income countries to
support local initiatives concerned with civil society and sustainable
Milton Keynes was also home to Phelps's opposite number in Britain, and
one of the world's leading anti-GM campaigners, former Open University
lecturer Dr Mae Wan Ho. Could Ho be the anonymous benefactor of the
Wayward Fund, and sponsor of GeneEthics? Perhaps not, although Ho may have
helped Phelps extend a hand across the water.
The names of two other wealthy individuals in Britain, with links to the
organic food industry, come to mind as possible sponsors of the Wayward
Fund. One is Lord Peter Melchett, former Greenpeace UK director, hired
last year by a leading British PR company to do essentially what Gilding's
Ecos Corporation does -- advise big companies on how to deal with
environmental activists. Melchett has made a fortune as an organic food
producer, but he's not the biggest in Britain. That distinction goes to
the royal proprietor of the organic food brand, Duchy Products.
His Royal Highness Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, is famous for
whaling into GM agriculture. He has castigated scientists for meddling
with God's perfectly designed fruit and vegetables. Could the Prince be
the anonymous individual funding GeneEthics, via the Wayward Foundation?
Like much of GeneEthics' publicity, this is pure, outrageous speculation,
with no substantial evidence to support it. But there is evidence to
suggest GeneEthics is not quite the white knight, crusading for consumers'
interests, Phelps would have us believe.
A Revolution At 50: DNA, The Keeper Of Life's Secrets, Starts To Talk
- Nicholas Wade, New York Times, Feb 25, 2003
Fifty years ago, on Saturday, Feb. 28, 1953, two young scientists walked
into the Eagle, a dingy pub in Cambridge, England, and announced to the
lunchtime crowd that they had discovered the secret of life.
By divining the chemical structure of DNA, the archive of life, James D.
Watson and Francis Crick had seen how the molecule could encode
information in the copious quantities necessary to program a living cell.
Advertisement Years later Dr. Crick's wife, Odile, told him she had not
believed him, he has written. "You were always coming home and saying
things like that, so naturally I thought nothing of it," she said. But on
that occasion the claim was true, and it set in motion a revolution that
has continued to unfold to this day, much of it guided by the two original
Research is a slow process, often with years between each eureka, and even
today the DNA revolution remains largely behind laboratory doors, in the
form of biologists' ever intensifying understanding of the mechanisms of
life. But a few powerful inventions ó forensic DNA, a new wave of
DNA-based drugs ó have already had considerable effect, and many
researchers believe they are just a foretaste.
They expect new medical treatments and diagnostic tests, based on a
thorough understanding of DNA, for cancer, heart disease and other long
intractable maladies. Yet like any powerful technology, DNA will doubtless
bring vexing choices: whether to modify the human genome with inheritable
genes that will eliminate disease and enhance desired qualities, for one.
And there are outright dangers, like the possibility that DNA techniques
will be used to make novel biological weapons.
The 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA's double helix may be more
than just a round number. It comes while both its founders are still alive
and active: Dr. Crick published an article on the nature of consciousness
just this month.
Full Story and other related features at
Life Science Is A Continuous Intimate Ethical Enquiry: Serageldin
- World Life Sciences Forum Newsletter, Issue no. 7, BioViosion
Ismail Serageldin is probably best known for his work with the World Bank.
He joined the Bank in 1972 and retired as Vice President in July 2000
having headed both the Environmentally and Socially Sustainable
Development (1992-1998) and Special Programmes sections (1998-2000).
He believes that the world has become a very different place over that
period of time; a place of increased integration and connectivity. 'We
have learned the enormous power of the network. The interactions and
concerted action of like-minded people, for instance, in the
anti-globalisation or environmental networks - these happen without being
formally convened and can mobilise tidal waves of human change. Who is
running the environmental movement? No one is and yet it is undeniable
that it has coherence, direction, and profound character.'
He sees the World Life Sciences Forum as an opportunity for networking;
establishing a 'super-network' 'BioVision is a serious effort at building
a 'network of networks' that directly tackles the most extraordinary of
human endeavours in the Life Sciences Conferences like Biovision create
such a platform. The rules of debate are based on sound science and not on
stultifying ideologies or dogma. The Forum is stoking the fires of serious
discussion, scientifically based but not exclusively.'
Life Science benefits from Atomic debates experience. Serageldin
recognises that the debates occurring now are taking place almost in
advance of the technological wave. 'We are only just beginning to scratch
the enormity of the endeavour: the genome and, the proteome are just the
beginning.' He uses the 20th centuryÌs other great scientific developments
as a clock for biology. 'Between 1905 and 1945 was the golden age of the
atom; from the principles of general relativity and particle physics to
the terrible destructive realisation of the atomic bomb; from Einstein to
Oppenheimer. On this scale, the Life Sciences are now at 1907.'
The nature of the debates in the two areas in atomic and life sciences -
is quite different, perhaps because of the profound way atomic
developments shaped human thinking. 'The notion emerged that humans could
understand the smallest and most enormous dimensions of their universe'
says Serageldin. However, the atomic age also brought the recognition that
humans could profoundly influence their immediate surroundings, and with
that came an enormous ethical responsibility. 'In the Life Sciences, we
are not going to wait for the results of the research endeavour. We are
going to preempt them. We are going to struggle with debates about
hypothetical benefits and hypothetical risks, and make judgments on that
He believes that even the nature of information in Life Science is so
intimate that the acquisition of knowledge let alone the way of using that
knowledge is a sensitive subject; a subject with ethical dimensions. 'Life
Science is a continuous intimate ethical enquiry,' he proclaims. Since
leaving the World Bank, Serageldin has become deeply involved in the
rebuilding of the Library of Alexandria. In March 2001, he was appointed
the Library's first Director in its first director since 391 A.D. when the
remaining vestiges of the original library were destroyed. The Library has
a large selection on the ethics of science and technology.
Public good' must prevail in global research orientations.
Today, Serageldin is concerned that the dominance of commercial concerns
in technical endeavours are skewing the priorities for science. He says
that 60-70% of global R&D is now performed in private companies. According
to him, the balance needs to be corrected by increasing the support for
research that leads to 'public good'. 'Public goods research is not done
by the private sector. I don't fault industry for not investing in
tropical diseases. I fault the public sector.'
He considers that the arguments for the establishment of a new ranking of
priorities are difficult to refute no matter where one lives. 'Today there
are no more boundaries. Enlightened self interest from the industrialised
countries ought to catalyse research into tropical disease if the purer
humanitarian arguments fail. If international travel does not introduce
diseases into different countries, then global warming will do it.'
As an international figure, Ismail Serageldin welcomes the broader
programmes of BioVision 2003 as a step in the right direction. 'What
Biovision has lacked in the past is the representation of 80% of humanity.
It is now finding ways of focusing on their needs, ways of involving them.
It makes no sense to exclude 80% of humanity from the discussion.'
The consequences of non-inclusiveness are severe. He cites the latest
events in Zambia where food aid containing GM maize was rejected by the
government. As a result, people may die of malnutrition or of diseases
that infect the weak. 'The question is one of weighing alternative risks,'
he argues, but he feels that many of the more insular African leaders may
have been informed about GM food through the international media, many of
which report only the negative stories associated with biotechnology.
'If there is to be an overall public opinion, leading to a global
consensus,' he says, 'it is important that the developing countries are
involved in the debate.'