Today in AgBioView: April 7, 2003
* UK: FSA Citizens' Jury Says GM Food Should be Available to Buy
* Brave New World? Trevawas and Leaver Take on Tudge
* Don't Dis the Dishwasher Detergents
* Every Ag Biotech Product on the Market Now Listed!
* U.S. Senators Meet on World Hunger
* Zambia: Food Crisis to Stretch Into Third Year
* We Hate You Alex! -- 'Penn & Teller's Bullsh!t on ShowTime'
* Anti-GM Campaign Motivates Voters
* GM Crops: Understanding Public Concern
* Santa Fe Institute - Intl Fellowship Opportunities
* Genetics and Progress at London's Genes and Society Festival
* You Are What You Eat: Connecticut Bill on GM Foods
* Why Biotech Foods Are Kosher
FSA Citizens' Jury Says GM Food Should be Available to Buy in the UK
http://www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/verdict April 7, 2003
The FSA Citizens' Jury decided this afternoon that GM foods should be
available to buy in the UK, although a sizeable minority (6 out of 15)
disagreed, believing that the UK is not yet ready for GM foods.
Over three days, the jurors - comprised of 15 people from Slough - had
access to the entire spectrum of views on GM food, and were able to
develop an in-depth understanding of the issues via sessions with
witnesses from organisations such as Friends of the Earth, Bayer Crop
Science, Sainsbury's and the Consumers' Association. The jury were also
briefed by Professor Kathy Sykes of Bristol University about the nature of
risk, food safety and DNA.
After two hours of heated deliberation, the jury presented its verdict to
FSA Chief Executive Dr Jon Bell. The majority of jurors thought GM food
should be available to buy in the UK because:
* They are confident in safety measures;
* While some anti-GM concerns are valid, there has to be choice;
* If the UK doesn't embrace new developments in science, it will be left
behind, because there are demonstrable benefits from GM.
All 15 members of the jury agreed that the following measures are vital if
GM food is introduced to the UK: Education to keep the public informed of
developments and possible problems with GM; Effective labelling and
monitoring of GM foods; for example, a GM food logo to ensure that people
can make a genuine choice to eat or avoid eating GM foods;
A number of jurors expressed concerns about the long-term safety of
genetically modified organisms, ethical concerns, and the environmental
impact of growing GM crops in the UK. Although environmental issues are
outside the remit of the Food Standards Agency, the concerns of jurors
about environmental issues will be included in the final published report
of the jury's considerations.
The jury, socially representative of the population of Slough, included an
accountant, two students, a housewife, taxi driver, driving instructor,
and a minister of religion. Thousands of people watched the live internet
broadcast of the jury on the FSA's website over the three days, with over
1000 viewers watching the jurors deliver their verdict to the FSA. The
jury's delivery of the verdict will be available to watch as
Video-on-Demand from midday Tuesday 9 April by on the FSA website
Brave New World?
- April 5, 200, New Scientist
'Can genetically modified crops really help developing countries tackle
hunger and malnutrition? Has the technology been hijacked by corporations
more concerned with profit than the public good? Here in an exchange of
letters Colin Tudge, a GM sceptic, and two advocates, Chris Leaver and
Anthony Trewavas, argue their case'
Colin Tudge is visiting research fellow at the Centre for Philosophy of
Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics. His book So
Shall We Reap, about world agriculture and the role of science within it,
will be published by Penguin in September.
Christopher Leaver is at the Department of Plant Sciences at the
University of Oxford ; Anthony Trewavas is at the Institute of Cell and
Molecular Biology at the University of Edinburgh
Dear Christopher and Anthony,
Some of the nicest people I know in science (and most scientists are nice)
are manipulators of DNA - "genetic engineers". Truly, they want to make
the world a better place. I have no doubt that if we had anything
resembling a sensible strategy for producing food, then genetically
modified organisms would find many worthwhile roles. But present-day food
strategies are disastrous, and so long as that remains the case then I'm
on the side of the saboteurs - plastic spacesuits and all.
The hype behind GM crops is driven by commercial companies. But,
alarmingly and disgracefully, it also emanates from politicians such as
Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and from scientists who are not
immediately involved yet seem to feel that in advocating GMOs they are
defending science against the forces of irrationality. As they stand, GMOs
are not a good thing; in fact they are becoming key players in what will
surely soon be seen as a global disaster. I am inclined to quote Oliver
Cromwell: "I beseech you Gentlemen...think it possible you may be
The immediate issue is risk. While even the perpetrators of GMOs
acknowledge theoretical dangers - that GM crops could be toxic to
consumers and wildlife - the risks, we are told, are small. But the risks
are not known to be small: they are not known at all, and in principle
they are unknowable. The consequences of dropping exotic genes into
genomes, and exotic transformed plants into ecosystems, can hardly begin
to be anticipated.
Some moderates urge the precautionary principle: let's make sure we really
do have a handle on the dangers before proceeding. But we should invoke a
stricter criterion, like the US Food and Drug Administration's principle
that new drugs should not be introduced unless they can be shown to have
distinct advantages. Do GMOs pass such a test? Blair thinks so. In his
speech in London to the Royal Society last May, he implied that the
world's growing population cannot be fed without GMOs. Yet this belief, so
common in high places, has nothing to do with the facts.
One statistic makes the point. Today, people ultimately derive half their
calories from just three cereals: wheat, rice and maize. All other crops,
and livestock too, are marginal by comparison. Blair spoke as if GM were
already a world-saver. In fact GMOs have contributed nothing of
unequivocal value to the three big crops, and neither are they likely to.
That's because the necessary genes - to increase resistance to drought or
flood, for example - can be obtained more easily from related grasses, by
standard cross-breeding. GM operates almost entirely on the nutritional
margins, on peripheral qualities of cereals, and on crops grown for
commerce: soya, rapeseed, tomatoes.
Admittedly, we do have "yellow rice", engineered to be rich in carotene,
the precursor of vitamin A. Worldwide, 40 million people suffer vitamin A
deficiency, which is a major cause of blindness. Yet carotene is the
pigment in yellow fruits such as papaya and in dark green leaves such as
spinach. Horticulture can give us all the carotene we need. The trouble
starts only when societies are persuaded to give up traditional, mixed
farming in favour of modern monoculture.
In short, GM is not about feeding people. It is about commerce. Its
advocates do not occupy the moral high ground. They believe they do, but
only because they have not looked carefully at the evidence.
Agriculture is the most important of all human activities. If we get it
right, everything else can follow: well-fed people in peaceful
communities, abundant and secure wildlife. If we get it wrong, all the
world is in trouble. Clearly, we are getting it wrong. While some people
still starve, more and more are overfed, and rural societies and wildlife
worldwide are wrecked. The root cause is that agriculture is not designed
to feed people. It is perceived, in the chill modern phrase, as "a
business like any other". This is a perversion.
Humanity needs agriculture that is designed to feed people. In achieving
this, science has many essential roles. But we have to get the strategy -
social, ecological, nutritional - right first. Only then can we ask what
science, including GM, can really contribute. At present, all human
endeavour, including farming, is squeezed through the channels of global
commerce, and science has become its handmaiden. This is a tragedy for
agriculture, for science and so for humanity. I hope the scientists wake
"We've never done this before, so let's not risk it; and if it does work,
a lot of people we don't like are going to make money out of it." This is
how the columnist A. A. Gill summarised objections to GM in the London
Such sentiments are clearly irrational, and it is equally clear that we
cannot give in to them. You and other critics of GM crops cannot escape
the fact that nearly six million farmers, more than 75 per cent of whom
are in developing countries, have chosen to grow them, and that they now
cover 58.7 million hectares in 16 countries. Why have these farmers made
this choice? Quite simply, GM crops deliver real, sustainable benefits for
agriculture, human health and the environment by reducing pesticide use
and increasing yields. A recent study estimates that if half the farmers
in the European Union started to grow GM varieties of four crops - maize,
oilseed rape, sugar beet and cotton - annual pesticide use on those crops
could be reduced by 40 per cent, with additional savings of 20 million
litres of tractor fuel and a corresponding decrease in carbon dioxide
emissions of 73,000 tonnes (Journal of Animal and Feed Sciences, vol 11, p
Your first objection centres on the risks that GM crops pose, and the
difficulty of measuring such risk. Yet all of us have eaten genetically
modified food all our lives. Conventional plant breeding uses many natural
mutants - this is natural genetic engineering. If we replicate by genetic
engineering what nature has already done, are we really doing anything
As the US Society of Toxicology points out: "It is the food product itself
rather than the process by which it is made that should be the focus of
attention in addressing safety." GM crop plants are rigorously tested
according to internationally harmonised standards, making them even safer
than conventional plants and foods. To date no one has reported being
harmed by eating GM food, despite the fact that hundreds of millions of
people have been eating it for nearly a decade.
Consider the GM farm trials currently taking place in Britain. They
involve maize, fodder beet for use in cattle feed, and oilseed rape that
produces oil chemically identical to its non-GM counterpart. The main
traits these GM varieties display are resistance to herbicides or pests.
The advantages are clear: pest-resistant crops require less pesticide. And
conventional breeding has produced only three herbicide-tolerant crops.
The oft-repeated concern of the sceptics is that herbicide-tolerant GM
rape or beet might generate superweeds through introgression (natural gene
transfer) with a few related weeds. But since conventional crops with an
identical genetic trait manage to avoid this fate, we have no need to fear
it happening with GM varieties. Rather than superweeds, introgression
produces wimps that fall easily to the plough and are unable to survive
outside the farm environment.
You fail to mention the benefits that GM crops have brought the world
over. A million of the poorest Chinese farmers, whose farms average 1
hectare, have seen their incomes increase 25 per cent annually through the
use of government-produced GM pest-resistant cotton that requires them to
spend less on pesticides. It has also led to a reduction in cases of
pesticide poisoning from potent organophosphates and carbamates. In India,
farmers broke down doors to get GM pest-resistant cotton seed after five
years of severe bollworm infestation.
There is much more that GM crops could do for poor people. In Mozambique,
a serious epidemic of brown streak virus is destroying cassava crops. When
harvests fail here, people die. It should take only a few years to develop
a GM virus-resistant cassava. Using conventional techniques it would take
a lot longer. Starving children cannot wait.
Over the next 50 years, the global population is set to increase by 3
billion, and possibly by as much as 4.5 billion. To feed the world, cereal
production will need to increase by between 35 and 100 per cent, and meat
production by over 55 per cent over the next 20 years. For inspiration
about how to deal with this, we turn to a surprising source: yourself. In
1988 you wrote in your book Food Crops for the Future (Blackwell): "The
prize if we care to exert our new-found power is very great indeed: a
stable and attractive world capable of indefinite survival...We could
provide enough food even for 10 billion people who will probably be on
Earth by the middle of the 21st century. Good science well applied does
have a great deal to offer. The world could be fed."
Dear Christopher and Anthony,
I have spoken to many farmers in five continents over the past 20 years
and "choice" for them increasingly means doing what the processors or
retailers tell them to, or going bust. "Hobson's choice", I think this is
called. Of course there are papers that show GMOs in a good light, but the
case is not made by listing them. Other studies reveal disadvantages.
More to the point, the literature as a whole urgently needs review - not
only its content, but also its provenance. Many scientists are alarmed
that so much food and farming research is now financed by industry. It is
clearly easier to publish results that support the industry line.
Anecdotally, I know farmers in the US (names on request) who have found
GMOs to be highly equivocal. Among other things, they find they need
exotic herbicides to remove the remnants of last year's
The point that genetic engineering merely extends conventional breeding is
often mooted but it will not do. GM and other biotechnologies, notably
cloning, take us into the age of the "designer" organism. Both were
solemnly declared to be "biologically impossible" until about 10 years
before they became reality. Nowadays, nothing that does not break the laws
of physics can be considered biologically impossible. Only the laws we
make ourselves, and our own morality, can hold us back. If people in high
places cannot see that this is a qualitative shift, requiring a new
mandate, then they should not be in charge of political strategy.
As you kindly acknowledge in quoting my 1988 book, I and other serious
critics are not against GMOs per se. If the world had a serious strategy
for feeding people, which we might reasonably suppose is what agriculture
is for, then GMOs could play many important roles within it. But the
present policy is to industrialise, corporatise, globalise and effectively
hope for the best. It's a strategy that is already proving disastrous, and
could prove terminally so.
We are making progress. You have come off the fence and begun to
distinguish science from politics.
Scientists have recognised for some time that the GM debate is really
about values, feelings and beliefs. Objections supposedly based on science
are used to bolster political ideology. Some sceptics have described GM
technology and its enthusiasts as "dangerous". But is it more dangerous
for independent university scientists to defend a technology of proven
value to developing countries, or for GM opponents to risk the lives of
starving people by suggesting that GM food causes cancer or generates
Conventional crop breeding has in its own way designed crops for human
benefit by modifying plant architecture, pest resistance, composition,
seed structure, size and nutritional value. It is not known how radical
the genetic changes that enabled such progress were, because in molecular
terms conventional plant breeding is still a black box. But assumptions
that such genetic changes were minor and that GM will be more radical are
The speed of uptake of GM crops by farmers from developed and developing
countries says it all. Indeed, as you acknowledge, GMOs could play many
important roles. It seems that behind the rhetoric, your main concern is
what you perceive as the lack of a serious global strategy for feeding
In this context, and to paraphrase what you say at the end of your first
letter, it is not the scientists who need to wake up; it is those who use
science to frighten people and governments. That is not the fault of
commerce. The biggest threat today to people in developing countries is
not GM, it is starvation. We accept that GM technology alone will neither
feed the world nor eliminate poverty, but action is needed now to address
these challenges. We must combine the best of conventional plant breeding
and agricultural practice with the new biotechnologies to develop a
sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture.
Don't Dis the Dishwasher Detergents
- Thomas R. DeGregori, AgBioView, April 7, 2003.
The just out issue of Consumer Reports (Vol. 68, No. 5, May 2003) has an
article rating dishwasher detergents (p. 69). In it, they state
categorically and correctly that: "The most effective detergents in our
test have enzymes." This is interesting.
Some of us remember when detergents were the environmental bad guys
because they contained phosphorus. As I recall the scenario, the
phosphorus promoted the growth of surface algae on rivers and streams
which took oxygen from them that would have otherwise supported fish and
other dwellers in the water. I do remember seeing the very visible growth
of the surface manifestations of this phenomenon on steams in Texas. I
also remember the "phosphorous free" products that may have appealed to
the environmentally correct but got neither the dishes nor the laundry
clean. Then like a thief in the night, scum on the streams went away and
out-of-sight, out-of-mind, so did the issue.
What happened was those wicked, nature hating, logophallocentric,
reductionist biotechnologist used transgenic technology to create enzymes
that not only replaced phosphorus but in the process greatly improved the
cleaning power of detergents, even those that previously had phosphorus.
Wait a minute! Isn't this the same Consumer Reports that has been touting
"organic" food products and warning of the potential dangers of genetic
modification. Where is our Luddite imagination? Greenpeace, where are you
now that we really need you? Those detergents go right into the ground
(septic tanks) or into storm sewers (some of us are lucky to live in areas
that have separate systems) that can back-up and overflow into the
environment. To think that we have all those genetically modified enzymes
lurking about in our environment waiting to strike. I can see the movie
version now - The Invasion of The Transgenic Enzymes.
Do you want your children eating off plates using utensils to eat food
cooked in pots that were washed with genetically modified enzymes? Do you
want that sweet innocent baby to wear clothes that have been washed using
genetically modified enzymes?
Think about it! Franken plates, Franken spoons, Franken shirts - it is too
horrible to contemplate! Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have long
warned us about Franken panties made with genetically modified (Bt)
cotton. Wash them with transgenic enzymes - why it is enough to make any
self-respecting lothario take monastic vows of celibacy.
-- Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D., Professor of Economics, University of
Every Ag Biotech Product on the Market Now Listed!
- Whybiotech.com, April 4, 2003
A comprehensive article that lists every biotech agricultural product that
has been approved in Canada, Mexico and the United States is now available
on whybiotech.com. A total of 73 biotech products have received commercial
approval so farmers can grow them in these three countries: 56 in the
United States, 54 in Canada and three in Mexico. The vast majority are
different varieties of four major crops: soybeans, cotton, corn and
canola. Read on at.. http://www.whybiotech.com/index.asp?id=2837
U.S. Senators Meet on World Hunger
Amidst all the talk about war, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee
devoted time recently to discuss how to end world hunger. Committee Chair
Richard Lugar noted that the two issues were linked: "Global hunger issues
? ultimately bear on security interests of other countries and our own."
He added that "for many Americans, [these] issues are 'out of sight' and
consequently often 'out of mind.' "
Making the most of this opportunity to bring IFPRI's key messages directly
to U.S. legislators, IFPRI Director General Joachim von Braun testified at
the February 25, 2003 hearing that the fundamental cause of hunger is
poverty and that, in view of the complex causes of hunger, a diverse set
of actions is needed for success.
Von Braun listed seven essential actions needed to make progess: invest in
human resources by making health, education, clean water, and sanitation
available for all; invest in broad-based agricultural and rural
development; ensure access to well-functioning markets; expand research
and technology to solve the problems of poor farmers; improve management
of the natural resource base upon which agriculture depends; use global
agricultural trade negotiations to produce fair rules for poor countries;
and promote good governance.
Also testifying were the World Food Programme's James Morris, the U.S.
Agency for International Development's Andrew Natsios, the Coalition for
Food Aid's Ellen Levinson, and Catholic Charities' Ken Hackett. Read their
statements and that of Sen. Lugar at:
Food Crisis to Stretch Into Third Year - USAID
- Bivan Saluseki, The Post (Lusaka, Zambia), April 7, 2003
Lusaka - Zambia's food crisis will stretch into a third year in the
southern part of the country, the USAID Famine Early Warning System
Network (FEWSNET) has warned.
In a report released yesterday, FEWSNET stated that Zambia and its
partners required specific actions to extract the country from the present
food crisis, mitigate its impact and accelerate recovery. The report
stated that despite marginal recovery, southern Zambia would require more
food aid because poor harvests had sapped the resilience of food insecure
"The impact of Zambia's food crisis, now in its third year, is worsened by
chronic malnutrition, widespread rural poverty, high rates of HIV/AIDS,
rising food prices and continued macro-economic decline," the FEWSNET
stated. "Moreover, based on rainfall and crop performance during the
present 2002/03 growing season on which more than half the labour force
depends for their livelihoods, it is inevitable that Zambia's food crisis
will stretch well into the 2003/04 marketing year. "
The report stated that the 2001/02 harvest left a national cereal deficit
of 657,800 metric tonnes, more than twice the five-year average.
Commercial imports were expected to meet more than two-thirds of this
deficit, with food aid providing the balance, the report read in part.
According to the report, planned formal-sector imports of 450,000 metric
tonnes of maize have fallen far short due to unclear policy signals,
difficulties finding non-genetically modified maize and a depreciating
"Only 124,100 metric tonnes had arrived as of March 24 with another 30,000
metric tonnes on the way, although substantial volumes of informal imports
from Tanzania and Mozambique have reduced the cereal gap, keeping supplies
stable in the major cities and moderating price increases," the report
The report stated that even the minor recovery in crop production and food
availability would not benefit all parts of the country equally. "So far,
the 2002-03 rains in southern Zambia have been disappointing, erratic and
generally unfavourable for good crop performance.
By early February, light to moderate rains had fallen over most parts of
the country, but southern Zambia has reported a persistent rainfall
deficit, receiving less than 40 percent of normal seasonal rainfall, a
pattern similar to the drought of 1991/92, the worst in many decades,"
We Hate You Alex!
- Thomas R. DeGregori on the recent episode of 'Penn & Teller's Bullsh!t
Several weeks ago, Alex Avery alerted us to a Penn & Teller weekly series
(Fridays, 11 PM ET) on Showtime titled Bullsh*t for which Alex was
interviewed on "organic agriculture." We have watching every episode
faithfully and last Friday, April 4th, they did the program on "organic
agriculture" and it was terrific. Alex was interviewed - Damn you Alex, we
hate you. We are jealous as hell, I mean really jealous - and performed
and informed as we would expect him to do. There were extensive interviews
with Norman Borlaug and a very clear statement of the true greatness of
the man and his contribution to humankind.
The activist that they interviewed could have come straight out of Central
Casting for a caricature of the anti-GM movement. Only these were real and
beyond caricature. They interviewed Charles Margulis of Greenpeace and
caught him in a flat out lie - what else is new - and had the courage to
call it just that.
They ended by talking about the famine in Southern Africa and the
activists' endeavor to sabotage the relief effort and the lives that it
cost. They closed with a sentiment that many of us share when they stated
that if all you can do is interfere with someone else's efforts to help
feed those in need then "Shut the f*** up!" Right-on!
Triple X-rated and highly recommended!!! If you missed it, write Showtime
and ask them to re-run it as soon as possible and indicate that the good
words that you heard about it, makes you appreciative of their efforts. We
know that the activists will write to complain, so let us counter them.
Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D., Professor of Economics, University of Houston
From Prakash: You can watch Penn & Teller Bullsh!t video blurb -- Eat
This! -- at
You can also see pictures of Alex, Borlaug, Terri Lomax and others with
links at http://sho.com/ptbs/
"Penn & Teller will try to prove that many diet products and diet claims
are complete nonsense. Also, a look at the obsession with products that
claim to be healthier for you such as organic foods, fat free foods, etc.
Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity:
Anti-GM Campaign Motivates Voters
Activists in Vermont are claiming victory in a campaign to persuade voters
to oppose GMOs. The Town to Town Campaign on Genetic Engineering said it
was recently successful in at least 35 towns in gaining the passage of
non-binding referenda opposing GM in food production. This brings to 70
the total number of towns rejecting genetic engineering, accounting for 29
percent of those in the state. Activists pressing the referenda are now
pressuring state lawmakers to completely ban GM crops there.
"One of the most exciting things about this campaign that we've all been
involved with bringing resolutions to town meeting is that we are
reclaiming democracy at the local level," said Ben Crosscup of the
Institute for Social Ecology Biotechnology Project. "And we?re here to say
that we want an agriculture that is free of genetic engineering and we
want that to be all over the state and all over the world."
Rep. David Zuckerman of Burlington claims they have an effect on
lawmakers. "If you pass resolutions, even though they?re non-binding, it
brings energy to an issue," he said. Zuckerman has introduced several
bills for a GM-free Vermont.
Zuckerman has introduced four bills, House bills 350-353, that echo the
language of the town meeting referenda. Rep. Richard Marek, D-Newfane,
co-sponsored three of the bills. Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, a member
of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said she plans to introduce similar
The activists are telling voters that the health effects of GM foods have
not been tested by the federal government, that GM caused stomach lesions
and immune system deficiencies in laboratory rats, that crops engineered
to resist "pesticides and herbicides" increases chemical use and produces
superweeds, that "terminator" seeds, genetically engineered to produce
crops with sterile seeds, will spread and require farmers to buy seed,
rather than collect their own, and cause the potential for famines in poor
countries, and that organic farmers, who are prohibited from using GM
seed, can lose their certification when altered seed from a conventional
farmer's field is blown onto their farm. Compiled from reports by ABC News
(TV), the Associated Press and The Brattleboro Reformer.
*Editor's note: There is no sign that the biotech companies have opposed
this campaign. In all likelihood, they?re relying as usual on their
ability to lobby state legislators. This strategy has worked well for the
industry in other states, but this anti-GM campaign is different. Even if
the proposed ban on biotech doesn't become law, the activists will insist
that the real victory is in persuading voters to reject GM. They may be
GM Crops: Understanding Public Concern
- J. Lassen, K. Borch & R. Bagger Jørgensen ASPB News, March/April 2003;
Vol. 30, No. 2.www.aspb.org
We have seen Robert B. Goldberg's ASPB-sponsored film History?s Harvest:
Where Foods Come From. By placing GM crops in their historical social and
economic context, this film aims to counter public skepticism. History's
Harvest may, however, turn out to be counterproductive. Drawing on lessons
from the European controversy over GM foods, we will discuss some of these
arguments. It is our hope that this commentary will help foster the
development of publicly accountable use of gene technology.
According to the film's introduction, the aim is "to educate the public
about the history of agriculture and where food comes from." It is clear,
then, that the film involves tacit acceptance of what sociologists refer
to as the "deficit model," i.e., the notion that public unwillingness to
accept gene technology is the result of insufficient levels of knowledge.
It has been demonstrated, however, that there is no such simple
correlation between knowledge and acceptance (e.g., Midden et al., 2002)
and that public skepticism therefore cannot be dispelled simply by
A central contention of the film is that the risks of GM crops are
marginal where they exist. However, the accuracy of this contention
depends on what concerns we are prepared to count as "risk." According to
a common understanding, risks relate to the environment and human health.
Recent research has, however, repeatedly demonstrated that public concerns
also include a number of other moral concerns (e.g., Lassen et al., 2002;
Wagner et al., 2001; Grove-White et al., 1997).
Our point is that the film dangerously neglects widespread public concern
about matters beyond health and environment. This is apparent, for
example, in the ridicule of the perception that gene technology is
unnatural, where the argument is that because human and bamboo genomes are
practically identical, there is no such thing as unnatural gene
Obviously there is a large-scale, relevant difference here:
Phenotypically, a bamboo plant is nothing like a human being! Failure to
acknowledge and indeed respect the fact that the controversy rests on
different values that are expressed through different understandings of
what concerns are relevant may lead to an aggravation of the situation
rather than to a solution.
Another argument in the film is that because GM crops are subject to
intense regulation, there is no reason why they should not be accepted by
the public. This argument contains two problems: On the one hand, there is
a mismatch between public regulation focusing on health and environment
and the concerns of the public. On the other hand, it can be questioned
whether regulation really addresses the health-related and environmental
concerns in a way that matches the public concern. Research carried out in
Denmark indicates that, while many people are confident that the public
authorities are able to manage the risks here and now, people are less
confident about their ability to handle long-term effects because of the
Attempts to conceal these or other limits to scientific knowledge do not
prevent controversies from arising; rather the opposite happens, because
they may undermine lay trust in business and public authorities (witness
the handling of the BSE controversy in the United Kingdom). In the long
run a policy of openness about the different dimensions of uncertainty
would be more likely to increase trust in scientific risk assessment.
There is, of course, no guarantee that glasnost of this kind will lead to
public acceptance of GM crops, but the lesson from Europe is that openness
and dialogue are prerequisites of public acceptance.
Another argument the film presents is that there is no evidence that GM
crops constitute a risk to the environment that differs from those
involved in traditional agriculture. The GM crops publicly discussed so
far are, however, typically pesticide-resistant strains, claimed to be
environmentally friendly because they will reduce pesticide use. Research
indicated, however, that the public views such crops as part of an
agricultural technology based on the use of pesticides--and as such are
generally not wanted.
Furthermore, the public has heard similar assurances several times in the
second half of the 20th century: To the extent these proved incorrect,
trust in the sector diminished. One-eyed claims for the safety and
environmental harmlessness of gene technology are therefore likely to
increase distrust in the science, industry, and indeed technology. The
strategy of the GM crop sector should be to discuss potential risks
openly, to abstain from research into risky applications, and to
demonstrate a willingness to manage any risks that arise.
Finally, History's Harvest represents gene technology as a solution to
some of the problems of food provision in the third world. This argument
is regarded sympathetically by the majority of the public, and indeed here
most people abandon the simple dichotomy between the unacceptable GM foods
and the much more acceptable medical uses: GM food is here seen as a means
to help people in distress. Such beneficial uses, however, are countered
by the observation that, in general, GM crops are developed not to benefit
people in the third world but to make money. Needless to say, according to
those who point this out, making money is not in itself an acceptable
objective. Hence, the fear is that the benefits will never accrue to those
who are at present suffering. In this context the point is twofold.
Threatened with declining public support, it is tempting for scientists to
use rhetorical strategies to communicate their excitement and the
potential benefits of their work. That is, of course, fair enough, but the
point we want to make here is that failure to recognize the complex nature
of public concerns may have disastrous consequences.
Jesper Lassen is associate professor in sociology specializing in
attitudes to biotechnology at The Royal Veterinary and Agricultural
University, Denmark; Kristian Borch is senior researcher in plant biology
specializing in technology foresight at Risø National Laboratory, Denmark;
and Rikke Bagger Jørgensen is senior researcher in plant biology
specializing in genetics at Risø National Laboratory, Denmark. (Email:
References: Grove-White, R., Macnaghten, P., Mayer, S., and Wynne, B.
(1997) Uncertain World: Genetically Modified Organisms, Food and Public
Attitudes in Britain. Lancaster, U.K.: IEPPP, Lancaster University (in
association with Unilever). For details see
Lassen, J. et al. (2002) Ethics and genetic engineering?Lessons to be
learned from GM foods. Bioprocess and Biosystems Engineering, 24(5):
263-271.; Midden, C. et al. (2002) The structure of public perception. In
Bauer & Gaskell (eds.), Biotechnology. The Making of a Global Controversy.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 203-223.
Wagner, W. et al. (2001) Nature in disorder: The troubled public of
biotechnology. In Gaskell & Bauer (eds.), Biotechnology 1996?2000. The
Years of Controversy. London: Science Museum, pp. 80?95.
International Research Fellowship Opportunities
- Santa Fe Institute http://www.santafe.edu/
The Santa Fe Institute (SFI) will award several two-year fellowships to
outstanding scholars from academic institutions in Africa, China, Eastern
Europe, the Former Soviet Union, India, and Latin America. Participants
will be selected based on interest in interdisciplinary research in the
physical, biological, computational, or social sciences as they relate to
complex adaptive systems. Shortterm visits to SFI are included in the
Application information: Cover letter including statement of purpose,
current CV, two letters of recommendation from scientists who know your
work, and completion of our on-line English-language self-evaluation form.
Include your email address and fax number. International Fellowship
Program, Santa Fe Institute, 1399 Hyde Park Road, MS#2, Santa Fe, New
Mexico 87501, USA, Telephone: (505) 984-8800 ext. 235 (voice), Fax: (505)
Closing date 15 Jul 2003; Further details; firstname.lastname@example.org; More Details
Genetics and Progress at Genes and Society Festival
- London, UK; Saturday 26 and Sunday 27, April 2003; Tickets and
information: 0207 269 9230/9229/9227/9220 http://www.instituteofideas.com
Genetics & Progress, Saturday 26 April
With a government decision about the commercial use of GM crop technology
in the UK possible this year, and ongoing debates about the implications
of the technology for developing countries, come and debate whether it is
time to experiment with the commercial application of genetically modified
crops more fully? What can we learn from the conduct of the GM debate for
the implementation of future technological innovations? Discussions
include: Intellectual Property and Developing Countries - which way
forward? - GM Crops and the Developing World - who decides? - GM Crops -
time to say yes?
Also enjoy a wide variety of other discussions at the Institute of Ideas'
Genes and Society Festival in association with Pfizer. From "Should we
worry about eugenics?" to "Lessons from Dolly" and "Sci-Fi Futures" the
festival is an opportunity to discuss and reflect on the implications of
genetic discoveries and advances with a host of scientists, writers,
social commentators, philosophers, artists and campaigners.
For the full festival programme visit:
You Are What You Eat: Lawmakers Seek Bill on Genetically Modified Foods
- Dan Levine, Hartford Advocate, April 3, 2003
Say you are an orthodox Jew who keeps strict kosher. How would you feel if
you just took a bite of a tomato that had a pig's gene spliced in? Or what
if you're allergic to peanuts? Would corn be toxic if it were modified
with a peanut's DNA?The debate over genetically modified foods provides
lots of these medical and ethical dilemmas. Taking desirable DNA from one
species and transplanting it into others has sparked fears -- especially
in Europe -- of catastrophic ramifications for the world's ecosystem.
While supporters praise increased crop yields which are insect resistant,
critics say we have no idea what these new specimens will mean in the long
term. Gene-splicing amounts to human beings playing God with nature, they
Now the debate is coming to Connecticut. A bill is quietly moving through
the General Assembly that would require manufacturers to label foods that
are genetically modified. "We need some basic disclosure," says state Sen.
Don Williams (D-Killingly), the bill's main sponsor and co-chairman of the
legislature's Environment Committee.
Williams says there is not enough information to suggest banning such
foods. But the issue is important enough that it warrants education and
study by consumers, something a disclosure bill would accomplish, he says.
To Williams, the issue is about a consumer's rights to know what they are
eating, as much as it is about the larger ramifications of genetically
Full story at http://hartfordadvocate.com/gbase/News/content?oid=oid:9012
Why Biotech Foods Are Kosher
- C.L. Richard, O Hebrew, A Revista Da Cumnidade Judaica Brasileira April
Not since the 1960's has the question of Kashrut taken on such an interest
in the secular community. Today, small but vocal activist groups
affiliated with the political Natural Law movement claim genetically
modified or biotech foods should not be kosher.
In the 1960's, some of these same activists called for a ban on grapes in
the United States claiming they should not kosher; their justification:
immoral growers were exploiting migrant farm workers toiling under
While conditions for migrant farm workers may well have needed
improvement, this did not make the grapes non-kosher. Just as food
politics in the 1960's did not guide Kosher law, the same is true today
for foods derived from biotechnology crops.
Rabbi Yechezkel Auerbach, Director of Administration for K-of-K Kosher
Supervision, instructs us, "Kashrut is not a political question. It is a
question of law - of Halachic, the laws governing Kashrut." Rabbi Auerbach
emphasizes "Kashrut should not be politicized. It is not a question of
external pressures. Rather, it is the deliberative process of interpreting
Some activists groups suggest that Rabbinical scholars may have been
pressured into designating biotech foods as Kosher because they can
benefit those most in need. As concluded in the recent Nuffield Commission
report in the United Kingdom, "it would be immoral not to continue
development of GM crops" because of their potential benefits to the poor.
Morally, biotech foods can be Kosher.
It's true, biotech foods offer benefits to consumers, farmers, and the
environment in both the poorest and wealthiest of nations. Plants with
reduced reliance on chemical insecticides are already available,
the need for millions of pounds of chemical applications every year. New
generations of crops enhanced with vitamins and vaccines have been
developed. If we support biotechnology, these crops may eventually help
prevent blindness, malnutrition and disease in millions of people around
Yet, while there is a place in Halachah where you evaluate the common
good, it is not because of what biotech foods can do for humanity that
influences this decision on Kashrut; rather it is a different moral
question. What are the implications of biotechnology to those who wish to
show their reverence to Hashem by following the laws of Kashrut. How then,
do the Rabbis interpret Halachah to come to conclusions that preserve
The learned response from the Orthodx Union (OU) "Ask the Rabbi" at
www.ou.org states, "The Halachic implications of bio-engineered foods with
possible genes from non-kosher sources has been studied at length by the
OU's Rabbinical Kashruth Advisory Board, headed by the renowned Rabbi
Israel Belsky of Mesivta Torah V'daath and Rabbi Hershel Schechter of
The conclusion of this Rabbinical Board was that biotech foods do not
present any Kashruth problems because non-kosher genes are not implanted
into the plants. Non-kosher genes serve only as a chemical template. The
template is then reproduced onto materials taken from yeast which are then
introduced into plants via bacteria. The reproduced gene in the plant is
therefore from a kosher source.
The OU Rabbis clarify that not all bio-engineered products are inherently
Kosher, "It is important that we differentiate between a gene-splicing
technique (such as herbicide-tolerant soybeans), which is acceptable, and
bio-engineered ingredients which would still require supervision."
On the question of kosher, the Rabbis are clear. But, as with all foods,
the OU qualifies that kosher does not imply "safe." Thankfully, this is
where sound science enters.
As a scientist working on questions of risk and public health, I have
joined the hundreds of independent experts who have evaluated the rigorous
testing and government oversight that ensures biotech foods are as safe as
their conventional food counterparts. In addition to a deliberative
process similar to that of the learned Rabbis, biotech foods are
thoroughly and objectively evaluated under the watchful eyes of government
Starting with research and development, multiple government agencies and
international bodies provide oversight at each step on the road to market.
Studies are done to evaluate all aspects of biotechnology-improved crops.
Nutritional qualities of the genetically enhanced plant - protein, fat,
fiber, starch, amino acids, sugar and key minerals - are compared with
conventional counterparts. If the new protein or gene does not change the
nutritional factors examined, regulators and scientists can conclude the
food is as safe as food from other plant varieties.
"Foods containing genetically modified grains have been consumed by
of millions of people with absolutely no adverse effect," explains Dr.
Julian Morris of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London and co-editor
of Fearing Food (Butterworth-Heinemann). Dr. Morris points out that
studies of biotech foods can not prove that the food will never be a
problem. But they demonstrate there is no scientifically supportable
reason to believe foods passing these screens will become a problem."
As you go down your market aisles, confirming that each item is Kosher
before placing it in your shopping cart, you need not worry about the
grapes or other fruits and vegetables. They are kosher. They may also be
"biotech." And no matter what some secular activist says, biotech can be
C.L. Richard is a board Certified Industrial Hygienist trained in exposure
assessment and toxicology. An active member of the Jewish community in
Pikesville, Maryland (USA), Richard specializes in public health issues
and is a frequent writer on food related topics.