Today in AgBioView: April 3, 2003
* We've Never Had It So Good - It's All Thanks to Science
* Jump on GM Bandwagon or Lose Says Scientist
* Ag Researcher: Give Us a Break
* Scientists Find Biological Clock In Plants
* Do Insects Really Thrive on GM Cabbage?
* Open Letter to Kinko's on It's GE Trees Policy
* Risk of Biopharmaceuticals to the Food Industry: Bair and Apel
* Caesium-Resistant Plants Could Help in Post-War Cleanup
* Two Reports from Australia: GM Plants
* New Crop of Luddites are Doing Us Harm
* Courses on Biotech Policy?
* Donors Urged to Remember Africa
* Europeans Seek Tighter Controls on Food Names
* Proud to be a Mutant
* All The Junk That's Fit To Debunk
We've Never Had It So Good - and It's All Thanks to Science
- Matt Ridley, The Guardian April 3, 2003
'Acclaimed author Matt Ridley on why it's high time we cheered up about
the new technologies'
If you debate the new genetics in Europe and America these days you get
asked the same question in two different ways. The average European says,
with dread: "How do we stop people doing x?" The average American says
with excitement: "When will I be able to do x?" For x, read "test myself
for future dementia risk," "change my unborn children's genes," or even
"fill my blood vessels with nano-robots to enable me to live to 150".
To the jaded European palate, the American attitude seems silly and
irresponsible. Caution should be the watchword for all new technology. I
beg to differ. I think the American optimism is necessary and responsible.
It is the European pessimists who are in danger of causing real harm.
Caution has risks, too.
My techno-optimism is deeply unfashionable in Europe, where Jeremiah is
treated as a serious, cautious and - let's face it - cool guy, but
Pollyanna is a silly twit.
We discuss the potential drawbacks of genetic testing or genetic
modification of crops. We do not discuss the suffering and environmental
damage that will be caused by holding back innovation.
I am not arguing that all new technologies are risk free. Reproductive
cloning, for example, carries a 30% risk of producing a bodily deformity,
15 times the normal rate. To use this technology on human beings is wrong
precisely because it is unsafe.
I am arguing that the debate is unbalanced here because it is complacent
about the imperfect present. As James Watson, an unabashed proponent of
more genetic testing, has said: "If there is a paramount ethical issue
attending the vast new genetic knowledge created by the Human Genome
Project, in my view it is the slow pace at which what we know now is being
deployed to diminish human suffering." He points out that almost no
pregnant women are offered screening for fragile X syndrome, an easily
identified genetic cause of terrible mental retardation. Ethics cuts both
This applies even to esoteric discovery. In Europe most people think the
discovery of genes that influence human behaviour must inevitably lead to
a sort of behavioural apartheid in which the genetically disfavoured are
abandoned to their fate.
But examine what actually happens when society concludes that a particular
behaviour is innate. Dyslexia and autism are good examples. In the 1960s,
most people believed they were caused by nurture - by parenting or
schooling. Now most people believe they are primarily genetic. Has this
change led to dyslexics and autistics being thrown on the educational
scrap heap? Quite the reverse: a belief in genetic determinism has been
accompanied by a renewed determination to find remedial education that
Far from imprisoning us in fate, self knowledge about the causes of our
behaviour will liberate people to make choices: as the philosopher Daniel
Dennett argues, more knowledge brings more free will. The horrors of
eugenics were helped not by biological discoveries - the eugenic movement
pre-dated the rediscovery of the gene in 1900 by 26 years - but by
biological ignorance. Demagogues could whip people into a frenzy about
genetic deterioration only because so little was known about real genes.
Since then, the history of biology is a history of worrying too much and
hoping too little. In 1975 at Asilomar in California scientists in effect
called a five-year moratorium on the new technology of microbial genetic
engineering until regulation caught up. Responsible? Perhaps, but the
effect was to delay by five years the production of vital drugs for
haemophiliacs, diabetics and people deficient in the human growth hormone.
The first and last groups were, as a result, more exposed to Aids and new
variant CJD respectively.
Soon after, many people feared that test-tube babies would lead to
eugenics: to people choosing to use the eggs of beauty queens or the sperm
of Nobel prize winners. In fact, businessmen tried to sell both and
failed. People use in-vitro fertilisation mostly to have their own babies,
not somebody else's.
Then along came genetic fingerprinting, invented by Alec Jeffreys in
Leicester in 1985, and everybody worried so much about its potential for
incarcerating the wrong criminals that almost nobody noticed until
recently that it was the ideal tool for exculpating the wrongly convicted.
To date, the Innocence Project in New York has used DNA to exonerate more
than 100 wrongly convicted people, some of whom were on death row. That
project is run by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the two lawyers who
helped get OJ Simpson off by challenging DNA evidence: they are now its
Then we were told that genetic modification of food would lead to the use
of more chemical sprays. The opposite proved true: GM cotton growers in
India, Australia and China are spraying less than half as much pesticide
on their crops; GM corn growers in the United States are spending less
than before on insecticide. British growers of GM sugar beet are spraying
herbicide once instead of five times. The birds, butterflies and flowers
are coming back into the fields where GM crops are grown.
Of course, the organic farming lobby argues that it, too, can bring back
wildlife. But only at a price. Because organic crops require nitrogen
grown elsewhere rather than manufactured from the air in a factory,
organic farming is land-hungry. The economist Indur Goklany has calculated
that if the world tried to feed its current six billion people using the
(mainly organic) technologies and yields of 1961, it would require 82% of
land area to be cultivated instead of 38%. That means ploughing up the
Amazon, irrigating the Sahara and draining the Okavango.
Speaking of food, in Europe it is common to hear the argument that the
world now produces enough food without GM. Yes, but how did it achieve
this? By rapidly adopting fertiliser, pesticides and high-yielding
varieties. This "Green Revolution" depended on genetically new varieties
created by artificial mutation using nuclear radiation and chemical
Ah, say the pessimists, but the green revolution did not solve all poverty
and malnutrition. True - which is precisely why it is so important to
press ahead with new technologies to solve the remaining problems. There
was no golden age: old-fangled farming caused environmental and
humanitarian problems, too.
"Organic farming is sustainable," says Indian biotechnologist CS Prakash.
"It sustains poverty and malnutrition." DDT was brought in to replace
arsenic compounds that left birds dead in the fields. Or, as a
biotechnologist said to me the other day: "If you think GM disrupts the
environment, try watching what a plough does to soil structure".
For the past century the world has got steadily better for most people.
You do not believe that? I am not surprised. You are fed such a strong
diet of news about how bad things are that it must be hard to believe they
were once worse. But choose any statistic you like and it will show that
the lot of even the poorest is better today than it was in 1903. Longevity
is increasing faster in the poor south than in the rich north. Infant
mortality is lower in Asia than ever before. Decade by decade per-capita
food production is rising.
Here at home, we are healthier, wealthier and wiser than ever before.
Pollution has declined; prosperity increased; options opened.
All this has been achieved primarily by that most hated of tricks, the
technical fix. By invention, not legislation.
My point? Simply this: if you asked intellectuals at almost any time since
Malthus to talk about the future, they would have been pessimistic and
they would have been wrong. The future (actual) has consistently proved
better than the future (forecast).
Malthus said we could never grow enough food; the Club of Rome said the
oil would soon run out; Paul Ehrlich said the population would expand
until it crashed.
(Population is the one issue where my optimism relies on a miracle. Given
unlimited food, other species expand their numbers until they crash. Human
beings, instead, go through something called the demographic transition,
when they voluntarily adjust their birth rate once infant mortality
decreases. It happened in Sweden first, Britain next, Thailand recently
and it's happening in Bangladesh now. The forecast peak size of the world
population has fallen from 15bn to 9bn in just 25 years. As I said, a
What accounts for Europe's techno-pessimism? I suspect environmentalists
merely milk it, rather than create it. Novelists and screen writers have a
lot to answer for. How many movies have you seen set in the future in
which you thought - what a nice place to live? Thought not.
The future is always depicted as a place where a technical fix has gone
wrong, where androids stalk a devastated urban landscape. I have recently
noticed a lot of people suddenly worrying about nanotechnology. Could
Michael Crichton's "Prey" have anything to do with this?
Many people in the environmental movement will object that they have
nothing against new technology per se, but they distrust its ownership by
big corporations. Yet their actions often belie the distinction. When
presented with a biotechnology that was developed in the public sector and
is freely available to all in the developing world, they still object to
it. A good example is 'golden rice'.
In the 1990s Ingo Potrykus genetically engineered some strains of rice to
contain a natural vitamin A precursor precisely because he was affronted
by the fact that half a million children go blind every year in the third
world for lack of vitamin A. He gave up his intellectual property rights,
and persuaded Syngenta and other companies to waive their patents so that
he could give the rice away for free in poor countries.
Yet the crop remains tied up for years to come awaiting regulatory
approval as a "drug" because of precautionary regulations urged on third
world countries by environmental groups. Greens argue that Potrykus's rice
should never be used because a person would need to eat up to nine
kilograms a day to get enough vitamin A and because there are better ways
to get vitamins to the poor. The first assertion is false - the true
figure is up to 200 grams. As for the second, if greens know a better way
to get vitamins to the poor, let them do it. At least Potrykus acts,
rather than just postures.
I met Potrykus recently in Monterey in California. He was filming
harlequin ducks in the harbour: he is as passionate about nature as he is
about humanitarianism. We talked about birds and how to restore the
British skylark. We agreed that the invention of winter wheat in the
1970s, not pesticides, was the chief problem because it robbed the species
of its winter stubble habitat. Spring wheat is now uneconomic to produce.
It should be possible now, he said, to genetically-modify wheat so it can
be just as productive if planted in the spring.
I put that idea to the John Innes Centre, Britain's leading plant
biotechnology research centre. Nobody will fund environmental genetic
modification on wheat these days, I was told: the greens have frightened
off the public funds, and the private funders have gone back to inventing
new chemical sprays because they get less flak that way. How sad for
The burden of proof should be on those who think the present cannot be
Matt Ridley's new book, Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What
Makes Us Human, published by 4th Estate, priced £18.99, is out now.
DNA: The Secret of Life by James D Watson, with Andrew Berry. Heinemann
(2003). ISBN: 0434011169
Freedom Evolves by Daniel C Dennett. Allen Lane. (2003). ISBN: 0713993391
Redesigning Humans by Gregory Stock. Houghton Mifflin (2003). ISBN:
The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. Cambridge University
Press (2001). ISBN: 0521010683
The Council for Biotechnology Information (www.whybiotech.com)
Jump on GM Bandwagon or Lose Says Scientist
- ABC News (Australia), April 2, 2003
A leading agricultural scientist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
predicts Australia will lose markets, if it doesn't embrace genetically
The keynote speaker at Grains Week in Adelaide, Dr Norman Borlaug told an
audience of farmers and industry leaders, that Australia risks being left
behind by other producing nations already using GMs, like Canada and the
He says Australia has a market opportunity in fast developing nations like
China and India, who will need grain to feed their people. He claims the
only way to grow enough grain is to use GM technology. "These things are
moving fast and I think China is going to move dramatically. This is one
of the big markets for the future in grain (five years, 10 years, 15 years
in the future).
Dr Borlaug said if China goes into biotechnology in a big way, their doors
would eventually be open to Australian grain and other products. "This
will change the whole market situation."
Ag Researcher: Give Us a Break
- Kristen Philipkoski, Wired, April 03, 2003 (Sent by Greg Conko)
In recent years, environmental activists have uprooted or burned many
acres of transgenic crops in the United States, causing almost $30 million
in damages between 1997 and 2001. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture
made the vandals' job that much easier by pointing to the crops' exact
Now one scientist is calling on regulators to give more-benign research
into genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, a break.
Some organic farmers and those who believe genetically modified crops are
dangerous to human health and the environment say it's only right they
should know where such plants are grown. But from the agricultural
researchers' point of view, revealing their location leaves them
vulnerable to anti-GMO vandals. "We have to go to the public and give
people the opportunity to damage our research," said Steven Strauss, a
forest science professor at the University of Oregon in Corvallis, who
works with poplar trees.
In a commentary published in Thursday's issue of the journal Science,
Strauss argues that regulations for more-benign experiments, such as his
poplar tree research, should face less-stringent USDA regulation.
Anti-GMO vandals have eased off in recent months, but in the summer of
2001 arsonists gutted a University of Washington horticulture lab in
Seattle and set fire to a poplar tree nursery in Clatskanie, Oregon,
causing damage to the tune of $3 million.
Incidents like those worry Strauss, whose research involves inserting a
dwarfism gene from a mustard plant into poplar trees to make them grow
smaller. Poplar and other trees can grow so tall that they threaten nearby
homes, down power lines and become difficult for nurseries to manage. The
damage caused by tall trees costs government agencies up to $1.5 billion a
year, he said.
"We can predict with very high confidence that we're not going to make a
plant that invades an ecosystem," Strauss said. "You've got to come up
with some really wild scenario of how it's going to take over Cincinnati
when it's shorter than the guy next door."
Researchers have already sequenced the entire genome of the arabidopsis
mustard plant, as well as various other plant genomes, including barley,
rice and corn. Strauss stressed the importance of putting that information
to work. "Hundreds of millions of dollars of public investment have been
spent, and we may only get a fraction of the potential out of it," Strauss
Exempting non-threatening research from the USDA requirement that site
location information be made public would further that goal, he said.
"He's right, but on other hand if they don't (publicize GMO crop
locations), then people say you're behaving very secretively," said Peggy
Lemaux, a faculty member in the plant microbiology department at the
University of California at Berkeley. "I don't think it's a
The USDA does judge genetically modified field tests on a case-by-case
basis. Experiments like Strauss' would likely fall under a
less-restrictive category. But he would still need to provide his
"The reason we do this is to ensure these plants don't pose a threat to
other plants," said Jim Rogers, USDA spokesman. "We want to make sure
they're not going to be weeds."
Scientists Find Biological Clock In Plants
- CNN.com, April 3, 2003
Washington (AP) -- Plants appear still and silent, but inside a clock is
ticking. Scientists in Israel and the U.S. Agriculture Department have
discovered that plants, like animals, have a 24-hour biological clock.
Like the body clock that tells humans to wake up, plants have one that
tells them to prepare for the sun. The plant clock is set so it goes off
around the same time every morning, usually just a few hours before noon.
The late morning alarm tells plants to prepare for intense sunlight,
triggering processes that help the plants make food, says Autar K. Mattoo,
a plant physiologist in the department's Agricultural Research Services
The clock controls an enzyme that modifies a protein called D1, Mattoo
said in an interview Wednesday. This protein is critical for
photosynthesis, the process whereby plants extract light and convert it to
food. When D1 binds with phosphorus, it creates a modified protein found
in chloroplast -- a special structure in the cell that's made of
carbohydrates, fat and proteins.
Mattoo says scientists believe the modified protein tells the plant to
adjust its metabolism so it will protect itself from high light. "It
cannot run away. Their roots are stuck in the soil, so they have devised
and perfected processes that allow them to survive in the harshest extreme
environments," he says.
If the plants are exposed to excessive ultraviolet radiation, "plants
produce molecules called flavonoids, which act as the sunscreen," Mattoo
says. The clock shuts off in the evening as the sun goes down. If it's
dark, "and you put the plants into artificial light, they remember this
clock," Mattoo says.
Plants never really sleep, though, he says. Humans have rhythmic body
clocks of their own, which operate in much the same way. Those clocks also
are controlled by proteins which keep time for the body's activities --
from sleeping to breathing.
The discovery, published in the December 2002 issue of the journal Plant
Physiology, could lead scientists to figure out ways to help plants
produce more food, more efficiently. Mattoo says such advancements are
Do Insects Thrive on GM 'pest-killing' Cabbage? : Yet Unpublished Letter
to the Editor
The Editor, The Independent (UK)
Sir, The article "Insects thrive on GM 'pest-killing' cabbage" (March 30)
is yet another example of wild and inaccurate extrapolation of lab data in
an attempt to prop up your anti-GM campaign. Ironically, the way the Bt
insecticide protein was applied and the very high levels used mean that
the cabbage experiment is actually a better reconstruction of the use of
Bt sprays in organic farming than the deployment of GM Bt crops!
Furthermore, the research provides no evidence in support of the unlikely
idea that the resistant insects relish the Bt protein, however delivered.
Your article also ignores the fact that Bt cotton has provided substantial
economic and environmental benefits from the reduced need for pesticides.
Small-holders in China have seen increased income and reduced health
problems and in India Bt cotton showed significant yield increases.
The development of resistant insects is a potential problem whether crops
are protected by spraying Bt or other chemicals or by growing new
varieties from GM or conventional breeding. However, the Australian
experience with Bt cotton, which saved their cotton industry from
extinction, demonstrates that GM crop protection strategies can be robust
as well as effective.
- Chris Lamb
Professor Chris Lamb, Director, John Innes Centre, Norwich Research Park,
Norwich NR4 7UH
Open Letter to Kinko's On It's GE Trees Policy
To Gary Kusin, President and CEO, Kinko's.
In New Zealand in recent days we have had a spokesman for GE-Free New
Zealand trumpeting the fact that Kinko's had made a decision to source
paper products only from the companies which excluded the use of
genetically modified organisms from their forests.
We found it curious that a company which is at the forefront of technology
use should exclude the use of a modern technology in a supplier industry
which offers huge benefits to the environment ? particularly in view of
Kinko's published core values.
So we searched your website for a reference to the policy of exclusion of
GMOs and hopefully, a well-researched justification for the policy. The
only references we could find on your website were two stories dated 11
March 2003 posted to your newsroom.
The first, entitled 'Kinko's Forest-based products policy highlights' sets
out what appears to be the critical details of the new policy, adopted in
2003. The policy which supports sustainable forest management practices is
laudable and would be shared by most of the players in the plantation
forest industry around the world.
Your statement goes into quite a lot of detail and you have stated you
will 'not, knowingly, purchase any paper or wood products that are derived
from the harvesting of old-growth, endangered or high conservation value
forests?Suppliers must be able to document compliance.'
So far so good, though I know there are many who have been involved in
conservation activity who would argue that selective harvesting of old
forests actually improves those forests (rather like pruning and thinning
out in modern plantation forests).
But nowhere in the policy does it mention that you won't purchase products
harvested from genetically modified trees. A contradiction occurs in the
media release which quotes Chris Hatch, Executive Director of Rainforest
Action Network. He is the person who introduces the idea that 'Today,
Kinko's has taken the added steps of?setting strict guidelines to ensure
its suppliers can guarantee they are not engaged in?using genetically
Further on in the release, not attributed to any company spokesman, the
assertion that GM trees are excluded is repeated. You can see there is a
clear contradiction here.
The Network believes the policy statement reflects a prudent and mature
judgement. After all, there is ample evidence that the use of gene
technology in plantation forests will reduce the environmental footprint
and therefore increase sustainability. GM technology will permit
substantial reductions in the use of current pesticides and herbicides
used in silviculture (the experiences of other uses of GM in agriculture
are on point).
GM technology will also improve pulp performance in the paper industry by
reduction of lignin ? which is currently stripped out during the pulping
process by use of large quantities of highly toxic chemicals. See article
on lignin reduction
Reduced lignin equals reduced chemical equals reduced risks to paper plant
workers and reduced risks of environmental cleanup issues. GM technology
will, in New Zealand, also reduce the risk factors arising from the weedy
nature of the Pinus radiata which is the principal plantation tree stock
being grown here. This will be achieved, in time, by production of male
sterile seedlings. A large number of other benefits from gene technology
in forestry are being investigated around the world.
It is a nonsense that genetic technology poses a risk to the
sustainability of forests ? quite the opposite is true. From this side of
the Pacific it looks as though you have been manipulated into a position
which is in conflict with your core values, by a group of activists who
have a very limited view of what is meant by sustainability in forestry.
Our clear view is that sustainability of forestry, and the economy, and
communities which depend on forests for their livelihoods, is dependent on
gaining increased yields from existing forests. That will not be achieved
unless all the technologies at our disposal are able to be developed and
used by responsible forest owners and managers.
I look forward to your reply. -- Francis Wever, Executive Director, Life
Sciences Network (Inc)
Risk of Biopharmaceuticals to the Food Industry
- Response From: Jim Bair
>> Subject: Zero Tolerance Creates an Intolerable Risk
With respect to my comments about the risk of biopharmaceuticals to the
food industry, Henry Miller responded the "unscientific, inappropriate
overreaction by both the food industry and government regulators (with
whose one-size-fits-all rules I am most unhappily acquainted) makes no
sense, and that it represents a triumph of parochial self-interest over
The food industry did not write those "unscientific, inappropriate" rules,
the government did. And so long as those rules allow no trace, however
small, of biopharm in food, this industry will continue to defend its
If societal interests (cheaper drugs) are greater, than the government
should establish reasonable, science-based tolerances for biopharm traces
in food. Today, however, that is not the case. The tolerance is zero, and
as it has been said, zero is a very small number.
Finally, I apologize for previously stating Miller is "apparently
unacquainted with the federal rules which regulate the presence of
biopharmaceutical products in food." According to his bio posted on the
Hoover Institution web site "from 1989 to 1994, he was the founding
director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology," where his "primary
contributions" included "as a federal official, crafting and implementing
The North American Millers' Association (NAMA) supports food biotechnology
as a tool that can improve product quality, safety and sanitation;
increase production efficiency; allow more judicious use of agricultural
chemicals and help meet growing domestic and world food demand.
Jim Bair, Vice President, North American Millers' Association;
More From: Andrew Apel
Dear Messrs. Bair and Miller,
I would like to comment on your posts of April 2, 2003 to AgBioView
regarding tolerances for crops designed for non-food uses. It is true that
US regulators have a zero-tolerance policy toward the presence of
ingredients from such crops in food, and I certainly agree that such a
policy toward biotech crops ignores accepted notions of risk assessment.
At the same time, the North American Millers' Association (NAMA), along
with the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) and the National Food
Processors Association (NFPA), also ignore accepted notions of risk.
Indeed, they take the same approach to risk as their European counterparts
in the food industry, and the same approach as regulators in the European
Union. That approach is, ignore the product, address the process.
In this way, the US food industry and its regulators have sided with the
European model--which, for those who watch the news, has been completely
discredited by a lengthy litany of food scares. You ignore the product and
people get sick--and some of them die. Sure, it sounds silly, but that's
how they do it.
The problem is structural. The food industry needs only to take raw
materials, process them, and sell them. If the cost of raw materials
rises, they simply pass that cost on to consumers; as middlemen, they only
need to add a bit to their costs to make a profit. If they want to
increase sales volume, they advertise.
Regulation is a form of advertising, just like putting an ad in the
newspaper touting "GM-Free" food is a form of advertising. US regulators
and food companies are for now both advertising "zero tolerance" for
high-tech crops, even though most high-tech crops in the pipeline do
nothing more than express proteins found elsewhere in nature, or even
already exist in the human body.
In this way, uninformed sentiment creeps into food company concerns--they
just want to sell--and into regulatory concerns. Food companies just have
to make margins, and regulators are permanently at the public hog-trough.
None of them have anything to lose, because both can pass their costs
elsewhere, to taxpayers or consumers or farmers. They all get a free ride.
Sure, compliance with a zero-tolerance policy could prove costly for the
food industry, because food recalls are decidedly not cheap. So are the
food companies arguing in favor of a tolerance, or a risk-based analysis?
No. NAMA, GMA and the NFPA want US regulators and the farming community
and consumers and everyone else to bear the cost of a "potential" backlash
by uninformed consumers (i.e., activists) and don't care a whit for
science. (Don't forget, the StarLink debacle was engineered by regulators,
but created and managed by activists.)
When it comes to risk analysis, in the real world, the focus isn't the
process or the product, it's the profit.
Food-makers are accustomed over the course of millennia to getting a free
ride off of farmers and consumers and regulators by just adding margins.
Take away the zero-tolerance regulatory policy and you'll find the US food
companies taking the same position they are now.
They just want margin. But seriously, who can blame them? Anyone who earns
a wage needs a margin. And so it goes.
Caesium-Resistant Plants Could Help in Post-War Cleanup
- AgBiotechNet, www.agbiotechnet.com, April 3, 2003
The US and allies are under growing pressure to present a clear plan for
the clean up of the effects of war in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Research
presented at the Society for Experimental Biology's annual conference,
reveals how plants could form a key aspect of future plans. By using
plants that avoid the radioactive hangover from such conflicts, crops
could be grown on land contaminated by weapons, yet still be safe for
Martin Broadley and Phil White, from Horticulture Research International,
are looking at the uptake of caesium, an extremely harmful radioactive
substance. "Plants are selective of the nutrients they extract from the
soil," says Broadley. "Caesium is not a plant nutrient but it is very
similar to potassium, a nutrient essential for plant growth, in effect
allowing it to sneak into the plant."
The tricky part has been to block the uptake of the harmful caesium,
without affecting the uptake of beneficial nutrients. "If we can
understand the mechanism of uptake, especially in terms of micronutrients,
then we can control the amount of certain substances being absorbed by the
By looking both at variations in uptake within vegetable species, and
identifying the proteins responsible for uptake in the roots, that control
now seems possible. Through this knowledge, Broadley and the team hope to
develop caesium resistant crops. This is already of pressing importance,
as large numbers of people in the Ukraine still consume dangerous levels
of caesium, present in their food, originating from the Chernobyl
accident. Broadley and White are beginning a two-year scoping study at a
radioactive site in the Ukraine to try to identify potential strains.
The potential for this research covers not only clear-up processes.
"Controlling uptake can work both ways," says Broadley. "Just as crops can
be developed that block uptake of caesium, crops can be developed to
increase the uptake of beneficial substances, such as selenium."
Contact: Martin Broadley, HRI Wellesbourne, Wellesbourne, Warwick, CV35
9EF, UK; Email:firstname.lastname@example.org URL: http://www2.hri.ac.uk/
Two Reports from Australia: GM Plants #1
- Canberra Times, April 3, 2003
GM Plants #1: A new report from the Bureau of Rural Sciences aims to
provide a balanced view on the benefits and risks of using
herbicide-tolerant crops. Funded by another federal agency, Biotechnology
Australia, the report finds that herbicide-tolerant crops enable cheaper
and easier weed management, decreased tillage time and effort, and
subsequent soil conservation benefits.
It says risks should be managed through strategies such as integrated weed
management, herbicide rotation and cropping system management. 'Farmers
need to make an informed decision about their use of herbicide-tolerant
crops, and consumers need to understand the benefits, particularly
environmental, these crops can deliver,' said the bureau's executive
director, Dr Peter O'Brien. http://www.affa.gov.au/htcrops.
GM Plants #2: Australia could produce canola and wheat worth an extra $135
million a year if genetically modified canola is adopted by farmers,
according to a report by Dr Robert Norton of the University of Melbourne.
The predictions are based on expectations that canola plantings could
expand into drier areas and provide greater yields if GM varieties are
more widely adopted. Wheat planted in rotation with canola would yield an
annual increase of 64,000 tonnes. http://www.avcare.org.au
New Crop of Luddites are Doing Us Harm
- Mike Nahan, Australian Financial Review, April 3, 2003; Sent by Andrew
Unfortunately, Australia will miss out on the benefits of genetically
modified crops, writes Mike Nahan .
The Gene Technology Regulator appointed by state and federal governments
this week gave two local varieties of genetically modified canola a clear
bill of health.
Despite this and the huge benefits offered by biotechnology, Australia is
increasingly choosing to follow the Luddites by letting the revolution
pass us by.
Last month all political parties in NSW promised to ban new GM crops.
Indeed, the National Party historically the party of farmers proposed the
most stringent ban. This followed decisions in Tasmania, Western
Australia, and South Australia to put in place similar bans.
Why is Australia, with its large, lightly subsidised, export-oriented and
innovative rural sector, deciding to ban the most promising advance in
agricultural technology in a generation?
Certainly not as a result of scientific evidence, which overwhelmingly
supports the technology and considers it safe.
Cotton, the only GM crop grown commercially in Australia, has brought a 50
per cent reduction in pesticide use. This has translated into lower costs
and higher profits as well as a huge gain for the environment. A new
variety of GM cotton is being tested which offers an even larger reduction
in pesticide use and costs, yet it will be banned in the main cotton
growing state of NSW.
The GM canola, being considered for commercial release in Australia, has
been a roaring success overseas. In Canada, about 85 per cent of farmers
have adopted GM varieties. They have done so because it pays, providing on
average a 30 per cent higher return than non-GM varieties. The varieties
face no price discount. In the six years since the GM varieties were
introduced, Canadian canola production has increased by 30 per cent.
Exports are also higher in Japan by 50 per cent.
The explanation for the collective flight from technology, evidence and
rational decision-making is the influence of a new class of Luddites. Like
their 19th century predecessors, the modern day Luddites seek to save the
world from modernity. Unlike their predecessors, however, the neo-Luddites
are well-funded, well-organised and have special privileges.
Funding has been important to the neo-Luddites' success. According to The
Wall Street Journal, the European Union has pumped about $300 million into
international NGOs over the past five years in an effort to stop the
adoption of GM food around the world. Australian companies are also plying
the Luddites with cash in an effort to inhibit competition or to promote
their niche in the market.
Many anti-biotech advocates make their livelihood from the organic
industry and therefore have commercial incentives to demonise modern
agriculture. On top of this, most anti-biotech organisations are
subsidised by governments. The result is that there is more money to be
made from demonising than promoting ag-biotech.
Fear and uncertainty have also played an important role. The technology is
novel and complex. While the regulators and proponents of biotech have
concentrated on dealing with these complexities, the Luddites have focused
on seeding fear with an endless series of scare campaigns. They have also
been successful in demanding the impossible that is, they are demanding
certainty in an inherently uncertain world.
The key to their success, however, has been their ability to masquerade as
angels. They have captured the do-good institutions representing the
environment, consumers, and the poor and, with this, the community's
They have been able to distort and falsify with impunity. They have been
allowed to demonise a technology that offers so much to the very causes
they purport to support. They are also being allowed to pursue their own
financial interests in the name of the public interest.
Given the success, money, fear and special treatment of the Luddites,
politicians and farmers are starting to offer them support.
What is the future? Well look at Europe. It has led the way with similar
bans and as a result, investment in biotechnology research of all types
has declined by 60 per cent.
One thing is for sure. If the Luddites do save us from modernity, the
environment and farmers will be the biggest losers.
Courses on Biotech Policy?
- "Tim Durham"
Hi everyone. My name is Tim Durham, I'm a colleague of Dennis and Alex
Avery at the Center For Global Food Issues. We received an email from an
individual looking to segway from the lab into biotechnology policy,
(agricultural and/or medical).
Is anyone aware of institutions on the East Coast of the U.S. that offer
master's programs in this discipline (or a comparable field), preferably
with a practical work component?
Any feedback from AgBioView subscribers would be greatly appreciated.
- Tim Durham, Center For Global Food Issues, Churchville, VA
Donors Urged to Remember Africa
- Olga Kryzhanovska, The Washington Times, April 4, 2003
Despite an increase in the Bush administration's budget request for aid
for Africa, experts fear that ongoing conflicts in other parts of the
world may distract attention from the hunger-stricken continent.
This year, at least 10 million people in southern African countries, 14
million in Ethiopia and 2.5 million in Eritrea may experience severe food
shortages, according to Joseph Scalise, Washington office director for the
World Food Program (WFP), the anti-hunger agency of the United Nations.
The food situation is also hazardous in Angola, Democratic Republic of the
Congo and Sudan.
"The scope of the problem in Africa is unprecedented. This year we are
looking at up to 40 million people at risk of starvation," Mr. Scalise
said at the conference on famine in Africa last week. He hailed the fact
that the U.S. Agency for International Development's 2004 budget request
for Africa has been increased for the first time in the past decade, from
$800 million to $1.3 billion. This year, the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID), the WFP and other donors made commitments to deliver
up to 2.75 million metric tons of food to help meet the needs of countries
at risk of famine.
But some experts worry that the U.S. government's readiness to help Africa
might be overshadowed by other disaster zones, such as Iraq or
Afghanistan. Africa's needs are not sufficiently met in agricultural
development, as well as in development of democracy and human rights,
according to Pearl Alice Marsh, a staff member of the House International
"When you really look at the non-health portion of the budget, Africa is
not doing so well," Mrs. Marsh said at Howard University last week. She
also warned against the tendency to use aid to promote political goals.
However, government officials say that food "is not used as a weapon."
The United States was the largest supplier of food aid to Afghanistan when
the Taliban was still in power, and it has provided 40,000 metric tons of
food aid to North Korea this year, according to Alan Larson,
undersecretary of state for business, economic and agricultural affairs.
He said the U.S. government will offer 60,000 metric tons more if the
North Korean government agrees to improvements in U.N. monitoring and
increased access to vulnerable populations.
The United States will also provide an additional 186,500 tons of food aid
to Ethiopia, its embassy reported last week. In the fall, the government
in Addis Ababa appealed for international help as it faced a food deficit
of more than 2.3 million tons. As Ethiopia's crops yielded a very small
harvest in 2002, experts began to predict food shortages throughout
eastern Africa. It was estimated that millions of Ethiopians could be
affected by famine. The drought, which came two years after another
serious drought, also caused much harm to local farmers, making them
dependent upon international food assistance.
Since Ethiopia's appeal, the United States, through USAID's Office of Food
for Peace, has pledged more that 715,000 metric tons of food aid worth
$320 million. This assistance is about 40 percent of the country's 2002-03
food-aid requirement, said USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios during a
hearing Tuesday before the House International Relations Committee.
However, the emphasis on emergency needs rather than development has been
an issue of concern for aid programs in Africa for several years.
According to Mr. Scalise, 80 percent of the WFP's resources are devoted to
emergency needs, while eight years ago that proportion went to
Experts say there can't be a long-term solution of famines without
significant investment in agriculture, which is the foundation of most
African economies, supporting more than 70 percent of the population and
contributing about 30 percent of gross domestic product. "We know what
works in Africa now, " Mr. Natsios said. "We simply have to invest the
money -- and take the lessons that we learned in the last 15 years, and
invest based on that."
Mrs. Marsh, however, expressed some skepticism about the administration's
commitment to agricultural development in Africa. She said that in the
2004 budget, funds requested for agricultural development in Africa
declined from $143 million to $134 million. "There is language and
rhetoric of commitment to Africa, but I'm not convinced that if we look at
the details we can see this commitment reflected," she said.
Biotechnology is another tool against famine that could help solve
Africa's agricultural problems, according to Mr. Natsios. Despite the fact
that many African governments do not accept genetically modified food for
fear that it will hurt their exports to Europe, the U.S. government is
going to continue enhancing the training of African scientists, as well as
connecting them to American universities to work on developing
"We've been eating [genetically modified] products for seven years in this
country, and there hasn't been a single case indicating the damage," the
USAID administrator said. Mr. Natsios also urged African governments to
eliminate trade barriers between their countries and to liberalize local
currencies to encourage agricultural trade.
U.S. assistance is essential for the survival of millions in Africa,
because it provides a great deal of unilateral aid and is the key donor to
the WFP. According to Mr. Scalise, the WFP will need $1.8 billion for its
activities this year. It hopes the United States will contribute about 50
Last year, the United States contributed about $929 million, more than 51
percent of the WFP budget, Mr. Larson, the undersecretary of state, told
the International Relations Committee. Projections by U.S. government
institutions and the United Nations indicate that hunger in Africa will
increase, given current trends of economic performance, agricultural
growth, conflict and limitations of existing policy.
At present, one-third of the population of sub-Saharan Africa falls below
the poverty line, and in 10 years, an estimated 50 percent of the world's
hungry will reside in sub-Saharan Africa, according to USAID data. At the
World Food Summit last year, the United States and other donors committed
themselves to cutting hunger in half by 2015. According to an analysis by
the International Food Policy Research Institute, it is possible to
achieve this goal by increasing agricultural growth.
"If the conditions are created for agricultural growth to accelerate, the
prospects for rural households in Africa are very promising," Mr. Natsios
said. "Specifically, the analysis shows that it is possible to make
significant improvement in the incomes of the rural majority in Africa."
This can also reduce emergency-food-aid costs significantly. By 2015, it
is estimated that emergency-food-aid costs worldwide could fall to $4.6
billion per year.
Europeans Seek Tighter Controls on Food Names
- From: John Cross
There's a global food fight coming. European food producers want the rest
of the world to stop selling cheese labeled Parmesan unless it comes from
Parma, Italy. They insist that only Pilsener beer brewed in the Czech
Republic carry that description. They say bologna must hail from the
Italian city of Bologna to be worthy of the name. The full article will be
available on the Web for a limited time:
Proud to be a Mutant
- Karl J. Mogel, The California Aggie, April 2, 2003 (sent by Andrew
There are quite a few concepts in science that carry an unwarranted
negative connotation. Buzzwords such as nuclear, clone, radiation and
mutant have stigmas attached to them that are hard for scientists to
shake. But really, mutants aren't all that bad. I'm one, and so are you.
A mutation is a change -- in this case a change in an organism's DNA
sequence -- that can be caused by any number of reasons. Ultraviolet light
and X-rays can cause breaks in the DNA that lead to deletions, and
chemical mutagens can change the sequence directly. Recombination can move
genes around and even duplicate them, and mistakes in DNA replication can
cause point mutations and insertions. But this leads many to consider
mutations as mistakes.
I have been involved in an ongoing e-mail debate over the last two weeks
with a biblical young-Earth creationist who read my column on the age of
the Earth. He cuts and pastes common creationist arguments and challenges
me to disprove them. (Avid readers: where does the burden of proof lie??)
Just days ago, he claimed that random mutations in just one billionth of
an organism's genome (3 base pairs for humans) are "relentlessly fatal."
Amazingly, he has a bachelor's degree in biology; I hope it was not from
Most mutations do not change anything. It is only in very specific
locations in a gene that a mutation may change or destroy the
functionality of the protein product. Over evolutionary time, these
locations have not changed appreciably, so they are called conserved. They
remain unchanged because changing them is selected against. However,
mutations can be very beneficial to an organism.
Bacteria are evolving resistance to antibiotics at an alarming rate, and
insects are accumulating mutations that cause resistance to pesticides. In
the last 10 years, Culex pipiens mosquitoes in California have gained
resistance to organophosphate pesticides. They managed this by a couple
random mutations in esterase genes, which were then duplicated many times
over. The more duplicates of the mutant gene forms, or alleles, the
mosquito had, the better its chance for survival. Each mosquito now has as
many as 250 copies of one mutant allele, and 60 of another, that it didn't
have 10 years ago.
Controlled experiments have shown that bacteria will accumulate new
genetic information in response to selection for antibiotic resistance.
The genetic sequences from these experiments have been published, giving
insight into how fast adaptations can occur.
Back in 1988, an interesting property of bacteria was discovered. Under
stressful or starved conditions, E. coli bacteria were shown to mutate at
higher rates than under normal conditions. This is called "hypermutation."
We're not entirely sure how this happens, but this phenomenon suggests
that the bacteria can turn off their mutation-preventing mechanisms, or
even encourage more mutations.
If you take a course in genetics, you'll learn that cells try to reduce
the number of mutations that they get with proofreading enzymes. They do
this because, while conditions are stable, it would be to their advantage
to copy themselves exactly as they are, as whatever they are doing seems
to be working just fine. But when the environment changes it's time to
mutate, to change, to adapt.
Hypermutation has been observed elsewhere. Antibody-producing B cells in
the immune system undergo hypermutation in an attempt to make their
antibodies more specific to the invading pathogens. While these mutations
are not inherited, it seems clear that many cells, including our own, have
the ability to detect the need for new mutations. The ability to cause
more mutations is, in itself, an adaptation.
In bacteria, hypermutation has interesting implications. Single bacteria
cells are considered individuals, yet multicellular organisms like us are
just huge colonies of cells that sacrifice themselves so that the germ
line, the eggs and sperm, might perpetuate indefinitely. Similarly, a
colony of hypermutating bacteria would produce beneficial mutations at the
expense of most cells killing themselves (most mutations are deleterious).
The colony is acting as an individual organism!
We should turn "mutant" into a compliment. You mutant! Thanks. "Wild-type"
could be the corresponding insult. It's like calling someone normal.
Nobody wants to be called that.
All The Junk That's Fit To Debunk
Junk science? "Junk science" is faulty scientific data and analysis used
to used to further a special agenda.
The junk science "mob" includes:
* The MEDIA may use junk science for sensational headlines and
programming. Some members of the media use junk science to advance their
and their employers' social and political agendas.
* PERSONAL INJURY LAWYERS may use junk science to bamboozle juries into
awarding huge verdicts. Large verdicts may then be used to extort even
greater sums from deep-pocket businesses that may be fearful of future
* SOCIAL ACTIVISTS, such as the "food police," environmental extremists,
and gun-control advocates, may use junk science to achieve social and
* GOVERNMENT REGULATORS may use junk science to expand their authority and
to increase their budgets.
* BUSINESSES may use junk science to bad-mouth competitors' products or to
make bogus claims about their own products.
* POLITICIANS may use junk science to curry favor with special interest
groups or to be "politically correct."
* INDIVIDUAL SCIENTISTS may use junk science to achieve fame and fortune.
* INDIVIDUALS who are ill (real or imagined) may use junk science to blame
others for causing their illness.