Today in AgBioView: April 11, 2003
* Africa Interested in Biotech Food, Natsios Tells Congress
* GM Crops Needed to Break Famine Cycles, says USAID
* WFP Says "GM Food Issue has Faded"
* Chinese Scientists Discover New Yield-Boosting Rice Gene
* EU 'Dirty Dozen' Face Court Action over GM Crops
* Nobel Support for GE Crops
* Moment of Truth for GM Crops
* East African Ministers Say Their Nations Need Biotech
* Nuffield Council to Review GM Report
* Negative Results: Null and Void
* Classical Plant Breeding is the Route to Food Security
* Deploying the Full Arsenal: Fighting Hunger with Biotechnology
Most of Africa Interested in Biotech Food, USAID's Natsios Tells Congress
- Charles W. Corey, Washington File, April 10, 2003
Washington -- It is an "incorrect illusion" to assume that African
countries are not interested in or receptive to genetically modified
foods, Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID), told the U.S. Congress April 1.
In testimony before the Committee on International Relations in the U.S.
House of Representatives Natsios said, "The great bulk of African
agricultural ministers, presidents and prime ministers I have spoken with
are all interested in bringing this technology into their agricultural
systems. So there is not widespread opposition in Africa, that is an
The opposition to genetically modified food in Africa has been
"exaggerated" he said, because of what happened in Malawi and Zambia.
After certain legislative interests and concerns were put to rest, Natsios
said Malawi made a decision to allow the import of all types of biotech
food from the United States. "I met with the president who said 'Bring it
in. If they won't take it in Zimbabwe, we'll take it,'" Natsios told the
Concerns in Malawi centered not on the safety of the genetically modified
food but the impact imports would have on local market conditions for
local producers. Farmers in Malawi are currently already raising
genetically modified cassava obtained from the United States.
In the case of Zambia, President Levy Mwanawasa's government refused to
accept and distribute U.S.-donated maize because some of it was derived
from biotechnology -- even after USAID Administrator Natsios offered to
fly U.S. food scientists to Zambia to consult with the government to allay
their concerns. With regard to Zimbabwe, a U.S. donation of 10,000 tons of
corn, or maize, intended for Zimbabwe was sent elsewhere after objections
from the government of President Robert Mugabe.
Referring to Zimbabwe, Natsios said, "Mugabe did not say the food posed a
health problem. He just said just the did not want it planted as seed."
Natsios called that argument "specious," noting that starving people are
not focused on planting food aid but eating it to survive. Mugabe
"politicized" the food issue and it spread into a couple of countries,
Natsios told the lawmakers.
Continuing with his testimony, Natsios said that nine percent of South
Africa's corn crop is of biotech origin, but consists of specific South
African biotech varieties.
The South Africans, he said, have just successfully experimented with a
new strain of white corn -- which is more popular in southern Africa than
yellow corn. "This is for poor farmers, not just for the big commercial
farmers. Kenya and Nigeria," he added, "are moving very rapidly toward
developing an indigenous capacity to use biotech varieties for their
Natsios noted that for 35 years the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID) has been supporting the work of the Consultative Group
of International Agricultural Research, which is developing improved seed
varieties for countries worldwide.
The United States, he said, is the largest donor to this group. The major
hurdle, he said, has been to get the new technology they develop out to
the small farmers. "So we have been engaged during the last decade at
USAID in getting this technology to the non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) that work with the smaller farmers in the rural areas to get this
improved seed variety out to them too."
Following his testimony, Natsios responded to questions from the
committee. Republican Congressman Gerald Weller -- himself a farmer --
asked about genetically modified organisms (GMO) misinformation campaigns
that have been conducted in Africa.
Natsios responded with specific examples. In one country, Natsioshe said
"Europeans" were spreading disinformation in a Muslim area that the United
States had taken pig genes and crossbred them with corn. Natsios
reiterated that there is no kind of animal genes of any kind in any U.S.
corn -- thus calling that assumption "ridiculous."
"I have never seen such outrageous and irresponsible behavior by
institutions that say they are in favor of poor people," he added. "They
are doing enormous damage to poor people in Africa by these rumors."
Natsios then went on to debunk a second incorrect rumor that is being
spread -- that GMO corn will crossbreed with other vegetables, an
assumption he called "genetically impossible." Natsios said a GMO seed
could only crossbreed with itself. "So that was another lie that was being
spread in one of the villages," he lamented.
Natsios recalled that President Mwanawasa of Zambia was told by one of
these disinformation groups that a GMO food aid shipment from the U.S. of
maize-corn bound to feed starving Zambians consisted of poisoned food that
had been rejected by the United States.
Natsios said he told the president, "President Bush, the United States
Senate, the United States Congress all eat corn flakes and all of our corn
flakes have biotech corn in them because it is co-mingled in our
agricultural system. We all eat it, we have been eating it for seven years
and none of us are sick. There has not been one lawsuit and we are an
extremely litigious society in the United States."
To further stress his point, Natsios said the African Academy of
Scientists has also found -- and publicly declared -- that there is no
health risk to eating biotech foods. Unfortunately, Natsios said,
disinformation is being used as a "scare tactics" and it has had a
negative impact among those people who need the humanitarian aid.
(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International
Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:
GM Crops Needed to Break Famine Cycles, says USAID
- AgBiotechNet, April 9, 2003, www.agbiotechnet.com
Using new varieties of drought-resistant wheat and maize now being
developed through biotechnology in South Africa that are specifically
targeted at the African markets is critical if African nations are to
break the cycles of famine, says Andrew Natsios, administrator of the US
Agency for International Development (USAID).
In testimony before the Committee on International Relations in the U.S.
House of Representatives April 1, Natsios said that the use of GM crops
was one of three things that need to be institutionalized to help Africa
and especially Ethiopia survive its current crisis. He also said there was
a need for greater use of irrigation on a small-scale, and for the
education of the next generation of African scientists to conduct
appropriate research focused on what is needed in Africa.
Although he cited recent increases in U.S. funding for agricultural
development, Natsios characterized them as woefully short of what is truly
needed. In 2001, USAID spent $113 million (on agricultural development);
there has been a $50 million increase this year to $163 million, he said,
but that is still not enough. And there are other competing interests for
funding such as HIV/AIDS or environmental issues that rely on their
stronger constituencies to siphon money from agricultural development.
"If you ask African heads of state, prime ministers, finance ministers
(not the agricultural ministers who have a vested interest) and other
ministers where we should be putting money in Africa, they will all tell
you agriculture because 80% of poor people in Africa live on the farms,"
"If you want to reduce poverty, you have to invest in agriculture," he
WFP Says "GM Food Issue has Faded"
- AgBiotechNet, April 9, 2003, www.agbiotechnet.com
The GM food issue has faded and is no longer delaying and disrupting
deliveries, says James T. Morris, Executive Director, World Food
Programme, talking on efforts to provide food aid to Southern Africa.
Addressing the United Nations Security Council, he said "Five of the six
countries needing aid in southern Africa are accepting processed and
milled GM foods. We simply could not have reached the level of food
deliveries we have now attained without the constructive problem solving
undertaken." However, the overall picture for Southern Africa remained
Morris noted the focus on the war in Iraq, and estimates that a month's
food per family was available. " But as we meet today, there are nearly 40
million Africans in greater peril. They are struggling against starvation
-- and, I can assure you, these 40 million Africans, most of them women
and children, would find it an immeasurable blessing to have a month's
worth of food. As much as I don't like it, I cannot escape the thought
that we have a double standard. How is it we routinely accept a level of
suffering and hopelessness in Africa we would never accept in any other
part of the world? We simply cannot let this stand."
Commitments to humanitarian aid are political choices and this Council is
the most important political forum in the world, he said. "We must never
again witness a famine of the proportions seen in Ethiopia in 1984/85. Up
to 1 million people died in that famine -- losses far greater than most
Chinese Scientists Discover New Yield-Boosting Rice Gene
- David McAlary, Voice of America, April 10, 2003 http://www.voanews.com/
Chinese scientists have discovered a gene in rice that they hope could
increase each plant's yield, if manipulated in the right way. Boosting
yield means many more grains per plant at the same cost for a rice-hungry
Rice-breeders are constantly seeking ways to increase the output of a
cereal grain that feeds more than half the world's population. The gene
discovery by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing
holds the promise of doing that. Genes are molecules in cells that
determine the structure of living things. They produce proteins that carry
out basic biological functions.
The gene the Chinese scientists have found controls the number of a rice
plant's branches, called tillers, where the grain buds grow. Their
research shows that it also regulates the formation of the buds
themselves. Plant geneticist Li Jiayang says the gene is therefore
important to the number of grains per plant. Mr. Li says the number of
branches a rice plant has controls its yield. He points out that
understanding the biological mechanism regulating such branching will help
breeders develop new high-yield rice varieties.
Mr. Li and his colleagues report in the journal Nature that an abnormal
version of the gene results in a rice plant stem without branches or buds.
When the scientists grew several varieties with the normal gene, the ones
that had the most protein from the gene produced two to three times more
grain-bearing branches than their wild cousins. They were also shorter,
meaning that the plants put more energy into growing more branches and
less into growing stem.
An American rice geneticist, Susan McCouch of Cornell University, calls
the discovery critical to boosting rice yields. "Sometimes, rice plants
produce more leaf and stem tissue than is needed to carry the grain that
we ultimately call yield," she said. "So what we would really like to do
is figure out genetically how to adjust the way a rice plant allocates its
resources, and to produce more grains, not necessarily on a per plant
basis, but certainly on a per hectare basis."
But boosting rice yield is not merely a matter of increasing the number of
branches a plant has. Mr. Li says that a plant with the most branches does
not necessarily produce the most grains. The Chinese researcher says the
important thing is to produce just the right number of branches per plant.
Only some optimum number can give the highest rice yield.
It is too early to tell whether this gene discovery will be as important
to rice yield as the development of a dwarf variety in the 1960s, which,
in addition to a new dwarf wheat, helped launch the so-called Green
Revolution in grain production. Researchers have a lot of work ahead of
them to determine what other genes this one controls, what proteins they
produce, and how to make them produce the optimum number of branches. But
Mr. Li says the finding opens a window onto the process.
EU Twelve Face Court Action over GM Crops
- Foodnavigator.com, April 11, 2003
Twelve out of the 15 European Union Member States could soon face court
action should they continue to ignore EU legislation on genetically
The Commission yesterday formally warned France, Luxembourg, Belgium,
Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Austria and
Finland that national laws on testing and licensing genetically modified
organisms should have been enacted by 17 October 2002. Failure to
implement the new rules within the next two months could prompt the EU
executive to file a lawsuit against all rebelling parties at the European
Court of Justice.
"I urge Member States to quickly bring their national legislation into
line with the new agreed EU framework for regulating the release of GMOs
into the environment," said Margot Wallström, Environment Commissioner.
The new legislation, passed in a bid to appease the cynical European
consumer who is extremely wary of GM foods, sets the rules which companies
need to follow if they want to get authorisation to introduce GM organisms
(GMOs) such as crops or food ingredients onto the EU market, with strict
rules on testing for environmental and health risks.
The new directive revised the original framework, passed in 1990, that
regulated the release of GMOs, itself established in response to concerns
that the release of GMOs might lead to irreversible damage to the
The issue of genetically modified crops, and further down the production
line, genetically modified foods, is not only emotive, but also monetary.
European consumers have so far resisted the appearance of GM crops into
the human food chain. But farming bodies in the United States, where GM
crops grow, have been lobbying for greater access to the EU market.
In a bid to assuage US concerns and to stop Europe from falling behind in
this new technology, last December the Commission proposed new legislation
on tighter labelling and traceability of GM crops. The move was set to
pave the way to the end of the five-year moratorium in Europe that has
stopped all new GM crops from being allowed to take seed. But the
governments said they would not act until the European Parliament also
agreed. A vote is expected in early July.
The two month deadline will quickly pass - will the 12 states acquiesce?
Or will consumer feeling continue to influence their decisions?
Nobel Support for GE Crops
- Tasmanian Country, April 11, 2003
The world's people and the environment needed scientists to embrace
genetically modified crops, says a former Nobel prize winner.
Norman Borlaug, whose research into wheat helped lead to the green
revolution of the 1960s, said scientists should not be afraid to use
biotechnology to create new crops. And he attacked the environmental
movement, arguing its criticism of new agricultural technologies was
actually hurting its goals of ecosystem and forest protection.
Last week after gene technology regulator Sue Meek found there were no
health or environmental problems with a proposed GE variety of canola. If
the canola is approved, which is likely to happen in about eight weeks, it
would become the first GE food crop grown in Australia.
Dr Borlaug said he had been roundly criticised about the advent of new
varieties of wheat and rice when they appeared in the 60s.
Moment of Truth for GM Crops
- Robert May, The Guardian, April 10, 2003,
'Bob May explains how the results of the first field trials will be
weighed up by scientists'
GM crops will be back in the news with a vengeance later this year when we
learn whether the first results of Britain's three-year farm scale
evaluations are sound enough to appear in a scientific journal - and after
that, whether the government is going to allow these crops to be grown
One problem for the government is that few people outside the scientific
community seem to be fully aware of the process through which these trials
will be assessed, before those decisions are made. Today, for that reason,
the Royal Society - one of whose journals is responsible for the initial
process of scientific evaluation - will publish full details of how it's
all going to work.
GM technology offers us the opportunity to ramp up the intensification of
agriculture, with the benefit to humans of not sharing our crops with
weeds and pests. This also has the cost - already evident from
conventional intensification of agriculture in the UK - of diminishing
biological diversity and increasing the potential for ever more "silent
However, GM technology, if appropriately used, could offer the chance of a
doubly green revolution, in which we grow our food efficiently, but in
ways that work with the grain of nature rather than wrenching the
environment to our crops with fossil-fuel subsidised fertilisers,
herbicides and pesticides.
A moratorium on the commercial planting of GM crops is currently in effect
in the UK. In 2000, the UK Government announced, in conjunction with
commercial developers of GM crops, a three-year research programme - the
farm scale evaluations (FSEs) - to study the effects on some species of
wildlife of the way weed-killers are used on herbicide-resistant GM maize,
oilseed rape and beet. The government stated that the moratorium would not
be lifted until the results of the FSEs were known.
An area much greater than the total land area of Great Britain has been
under cultivation with GM crops in the United States, Canada, China and
elsewhere, for several years, with no adverse effects having yet been
identified, whereas benefits from reduced pesticide use have been
demonstrated. Even so, the special nature of the British countryside with
its intimate patchwork of woodland and hill farms, cropland and pasture,
meant most people agreed that the FSEs were necessary here.
The Government appointed an independent group, the scientific steering
committee, to oversee the conduct of the FSEs. The committee undertook to
have the results of the FSEs published in reputable peer-reviewed
scientific journals and decided to submit them in two tranches, the first
to include the maize, beet and spring-sown oilseed rape trials, the second
to include the autumn-sown oilseed rape trials. The first tranche has
already been submitted to Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.
This is the world's longest established scientific journal and publishes
sets of papers on single themes. The second tranche will be submitted to a
journal later this year.
It is normal practice that, when a scientist completes a piece of
research, he or she prepares a scientific paper describing how the work
was carried out, what results were obtained and what conclusions and
interpretations have been drawn. This paper is then submitted to a journal
in the hope that it will be accepted for publication. For all Royal
Society journals, an editor, acting independently from the society's
governing council and supported by an expert editorial board and referees,
is responsible for managing the process of deciding whether a scientific
paper should be published. The editor selects at least two referees to
carry out a review of the paper. These unpaid referees are contemporaries,
or peers, working in an area of science relevant to the work described in
the paper. In some cases, the referees could be be potential competitors
or collaborators to the scientists being assessed. In this case, it is up
to the editor to judge whether there could be any potential conflict of
This process of peer review is the primary quality control mechanism
applied to the results of new scientific research. Each referee prepares a
report about the paper under review to answer questions such as whether
the appropriate methods were used (and are written up in a way that they
could be replicated) and whether the results are accurate. The referees
submit a report to the editor who then takes the decision about whether to
accept the paper for publication, with or without changes and, if
necessary, another round of refereeing. Once a paper is published, the
wider scientific community and other interested parties can consider
whether alternative conclusions and interpretations are possible from the
results described. To paraphrase Damon Runyon, rejection does not
necessarily mean that a paper is wrong, and acceptance does not
necessarily mean that it is right, but that is the way to bet.
Any individuals or organisations that have comments about the conclusions
or interpretations of a published paper normally contact the authors, or
their sponsors. Alternatively they can submit a new paper for publication
in the same or another journal in that field.
In this way, the work presented in a published paper can be tested and
challenged. This period when the scientific content of a paper can be
considered also allows an opportunity for an open discussion about its
further implications not only in science but also, for example, in
Over the next few months, the main challenge to the stakeholders in the GM
debate is whether they are willing to consider and exchange views about
the results of the farm scale evaluations, if published in a journal.
Will the companies that have sponsored the research objectively take note
of any negative results? Will groups like Greenpeace, the members of which
actively set about destroying the plants involved in the farm scale
evaluations, impartially assess any positive results? And will the
Government allow a full and proper debate about the results among all
stakeholders, before making decisions about the future commercial planting
of GM crops?
For the answers to these questions, we can only wait and hope.
Lord May of Oxford is president of the Royal Society, the UK national
academy of science. Full details about the process for assessing the
results of the FSEs are published on the web today at
Further reading: DEFRA web page on GM crop farm scale evaluations:
http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/fse/steering/ Royal Society pages on
GM plants: http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/gmplants/ Friends of the Earth report
on farm scale evaluations:
standards agency public forum on GM food: http://www.food.gov.uk/gmdebate
East African Ministers Say Their Nations Need Biotech
- Crop Biotech Update, www.isaaa.org, April 11, 2003
Kenya and Uganda urgently need appropriate modern biotechnology packages
to help improve the declining production of major food and cash crop
according to their ministers of agriculture.
Though biotechnology in Kenya is still at its infancy, the government has
seen its potential in terms of increasing food productivity through yield
improvement and reduction of post harvest losses," the Minister for
Agriculture Kipruto Arap Kirwa told the recent African Regional
Consultative Meeting of the Global Biotechnology Forum held in Nairobi,
If Africa and other developing nations are not to be further marginalized,
but rather benefit from biotechnology they must have initiatives that
include improving their science and technology capacity with a core of
highly skilled scientists or experts, Kirwa added.
Uganda's Minister of State for Agriculture I. Kibirige-Sebunya said that
"crops, from genetic engineering process, that would benefit Uganda
earliest include bananas, insect resistant maize and cotton." He stressed
that to engage in genetic engineering and products of genetically modified
organisms, one needs appropriate policy and legal framework including
biosafety mechanism. Hence, the Minister noted that the two are in
advanced stages for cabinet and parliamentary approval. The country is
also developing an indigenous modern biotechnology capacity and
The meeting was organized by the United Nations Industrial Development
Organization (UNIDO) in collaboration with African Biotechnology
Stakeholders Forum (ABSF)./ABSF
Nuffield Council to Review GM Report
- CropBiotech Update, www.isaaa.org, April 11, 2003
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has announced that it will re-assess the
conclusions and recommendations of its 1999 report, entitled Genetically
Modified Crops: Ethical and Social Issues". This is being done in the
light of recent developments particularly in developing countries.
Based on the evidence available in 1999, the Nuffield Council concluded
crops could provide significant benefits to developing countries, provided
that potential risks to health and the environment could be managed.
Possible benefits included increased yields, enhanced pest resistance and
tolerance to stress, improved nutrition, and new products, such as
vaccines produced in crops.
However, there were several unanswered questions when the Council's report
was published. A range of new scientific evidence is now available to help
assess the potential of the technology. GM crops have been grown on a
considerable number of smallholding farms in developing countries over the
last three years. Recent trends in poverty and hunger in developing
countries also need to be considered. Rural poverty has become an
increasing concern, while at the same time improvements in crop yields
The potential application of GM technology will be considered in the
context of developments in regulation, trade, intellectual property rights
and consumer attitudes.
The Council will publish a draft discussion paper on the topic for
consultation in June 2003. The potential application of GM in developing
countries is often neglected in the UK debate. It is hoped that the
Council's paper will contribute to the national dialogue on GM taking
place this year.
Visit http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/home for more information.
Negative Results: Null and Void
- Jonathan Knight, Nature, v.422, p 554-555; April 10, 2003
'Many scientific studies produce negative results that never see the light
of day. Is progress in some disciplines being hampered by researchers'
tendencies to consign these data to the bin? Jonathan Knight
Helen Colhoun and Scott Kern believe researchers would benefit from
greater access to negative results. Although scientists clamour to publish
the results of successful experiments, they are less excited about
trumpeting those that simply confirm the null hypothesis — that a
particular genetic marker isn't associated with an inherited disease, for
instance, or that there is no difference between mice given a candidate
drug and those in the control group.
Whether a result of an eagerness to move on — or perhaps, in some
instances, a desire not to reveal to competitors the avenues they have
been fruitlessly exploring — most researchers don't bother to write up
negative results. Even when they do, journals might be unreceptive. Unless
a paper convincingly overthrows a widely held belief, negative findings
tend to be of less interest than positive ones.
But what is the cost to science of all these data languishing in the bin?
How many postdoc years and scarce grant funds are wasted on projects that
have failed previously in other labs? And is our scientific understanding
in some cases biased by a literature that might be inherently more likely
to publish a single erroneous positive finding than dozens of failed
attempts to achieve the same result?
Answering these questions is extremely difficult. In some fields,
awareness of negative results tends to spread rapidly by word of mouth,
even if the data are never published. If a cell line fails to behave as
described in a high-profile paper, for instance, the news tends to spread
among the biologists who need to know, whether or not anyone actually
publishes a paper refuting the original discovery.
Nevertheless, many researchers interviewed for this article suspect that
their disciplines would benefit if negative results were to get a public
airing. At present, the obstacles to disseminating negative findings make
it difficult even to assess the extent of the problem. "It is hard to see
what the bottom of the iceberg is like when you are sitting on top of the
water," observes Helen Colhoun, a genetic epidemiologist at University
Awareness of the problem is growing. Over the past few years, a handful of
journals and online repositories dedicated to negative results have been
launched — with varying degrees of success. In certain fields, some
scientists are even arguing that a requirement to reveal negative results
should be made a condition of publishing a positive finding.
Gold standard In Colhoun's discipline, the problem is particularly acute.
The postgenomic era has seen an explosion of 'gene association' studies,
in which researchers screen large numbers of people for thousands of
genetic markers. Their aim is to see whether some of the markers seem to
be inherited alongside a disease, which is taken as evidence that a gene
conferring susceptibility to the condition lies nearby. But just as gold
prospectors keep the nuggets and throw the pebbles back into the stream,
those engaged in the new genetic gold-rush tend to report only positive
associations, leaving the rest to be panned through by others again.
Worse, it turns out that many of the positive results that have been
published may be errors. Last year, a team led by geneticist Joel
Hirschhorn of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, reviewed the literature on 166 common genetic
variants that had been linked to diseases such as heart disease or acne at
least once, and which had been subject to association analysis at least
three times. He found that there were consistent results for only six of
the variants1. This suggests that false positives and false negatives are
all too easy to come by — and because there tends to be a bias towards
publishing positive associations, it stands to reason that many genetic
links to disease described in the literature are wrong.
The practice of shelving negative results also leads to problems in other
fields. Two years ago, Britain's Animal Procedures Committee, which
advises the UK government on its policies on research involving animals,
raised the concern that scientists may be duplicating experiments that had
already failed in other labs. The committee recommended that the Home
Office, the government department responsible for issuing licences for
animal research, require its licensees to share their negative results,
possibly through a government website. But officials argued that
publishing research findings is not the government's job, and the issue
Non-publication of negative results may also be skewing the debate over
the safety of transgenic crops. Trials of genetically modified plants
overwhelmingly reveal no adverse environmental consequences or health
effects, argues Alan McHughen, a plant biotechnologist at the University
of California, Riverside, and the results generally go unpublished.
"Journal editors say: 'So what?'," McHughen says. Not that he blames them
— he wouldn't want to pick up Nature and read a procession of negative,
unsurprising findings. But as the trials tend to be catalogued in obscure
government documents, the public and scientists outside the field are
often unaware of them.
Can anything be done? Clearly, journals that seek to maximize their
visibility will continue to publish only high-impact papers. Occasionally
a negative result falls into that category. On 27 February, Nature
published a physics paper that ruled out certain types of string theory by
searching for deviations from Newton's inverse-square law and finding
none2. And The Lancet recently published a large study that failed to
confirm a previous hypothesis that certain versions of the gene for
apolipoprotein E make smokers more susceptible to heart disease3.
Positive steps But these are exceptions. To handle the steady stream of
lower-profile negative findings, some scientists are setting up their own
publishing efforts — with mixed results. Bjorn Olsen, a cell biologist at
Harvard Medical School, for instance, established the Journal of Negative
Results in Biomedicine (JNRBM) last year. The main requirement is that the
results be reproducible. Beyond that, anything biomedical goes, from
failed clinical trials to reagents that don't work as advertised.
Submissions to the JNRBM, which is published online by London-based BioMed
Central, go out for peer review only if they are deemed interesting by the
journal's editorial board. This should prevent the JNRBM from becoming a
laundry list of experiments with predictably negative outcomes, says
Olsen. Since the journal went live in November, it has received 11
submissions, 7 of which have gone out for review. Three of these have been
accepted and two are now online, Olsen says.
A modest beginning, perhaps, but better than a similar effort in computer
science, set up in 1997. In an article4 in the Journal of Universal
Computer Science, editorial board member Lutz Prechelt of the University
of Karlsruhe in Germany announced a new section of the journal to be
called the Forum for Negative Results (FNR). He argued that valuable
insights in computer engineering are lost when people discard their failed
solutions to problems, rather than reporting them. But since then, there
has not been a single submission, leaving Prechelt to suspect that
computer scientists just don't like facing their failures. "Maybe I should
write up a submission to FNR describing the concept as a negative result,"
Another publication that encourages the submission of negative findings is
a new biotechnology journal. The Paris-based International Society for
Biosafety Research, of which McHughen is a board member, recently launched
Environmental Biosafety Research as a forum for publishing field trials of
transgenic crops, including the majority that show nothing alarming or
surprising. The first issue, which appeared in October, included four
research articles, one of which reported the negative result that an
insecticide-producing maize did not harm non-target species.
Although journals may be part of the answer, they won't work well for
fields such as gene association, in which negative results outweigh
positives by orders of magnitude. "No one can read 150 papers and remember
what they read," says Colhoun.
In such cases, presentation of negative findings in a more abbreviated
form on the Internet seems the obvious answer. To this end, Colhoun has
assembled a group of colleagues to discuss possible approaches, with a
view to publishing the results of their deliberations in The Lancet, which
has taken an interest in the issue. One important issue is ensuring that
sufficient experimental details are provided to allow negative results to
be interpreted. Colhoun's group is, for instance, considering recommending
something akin to the MIAME (minimum information about a microarray
experiment) standards established last year to aid the comparison of
gene-expression studies using DNA chips.
Still, the availability of an online database into which scientists can
deposit their negative results does not guarantee that it will be used, as
Scott Kern has found. A cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins University
School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, Kern set up NOGO, which stands
for the Journal of Negative Observations in Genetic Oncology, on his
website six years ago. Although styled as a journal, NOGO is a repository
for brief reports of negative results, including those that have been
published elsewhere. When he set up the site, Kern provided a simple form
for submitting negative results about genes suspected to be involved in
cancer, approached colleagues at meetings and distributed flyers.
Reactions were very positive, but contributions never rose above a
So one of the tasks Colhoun has set for her working group is to come up
with a system of carrots and sticks to prise out negative data from the
genetic-epidemiology community. One idea might be for journals publishing
positive findings to require authors to make any negative data available
as a condition of publishing a positive gene association, says Mark
McCarthy, one of Colhoun's colleagues at University College London, and a
member of her working group.
Whether journal editors will buy into that idea is unclear. But McCarthy
is optimistic that a cultural shift is under way. "People are starting to
realize the benefit of looking at other people's negative data," he says.
Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine http://www.jnrbm.com/start.asp
Journal of Negative Observations in Genetic Oncology
Environmental Biosafety Research http://www.edpsciences.org/ebr
References 1. Hirschhorn, J. N., Lohmueller, K., Byrne, E. & Hirschhorn,
K. Genet. Med. 4, 45-61 (2002). | PubMed | 2. Long, J. C. et al. Nature
421, 922-925 (2003). | Article | PubMed | 3. Keavney, B. et al. Lancet
361, 396-398 (2003). | Article | PubMed | 4. Prechelt, L. J. Univ. Comp.
Sci. 3, 1074-1083 (1997).
Classical Plant Breeding is the Route to Food Security
- Ann Marie Thro and Paul Zankowski Nature v. 422, p 559; April 10, 2003
Ann Marie Thro, Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension
Service, US Department of Agriculture, Washington DC, and Paul Zankowski,
Plant Variety Protection Office, Agricultural Marketing Service, US
Department of Agriculture, Beltsville, Maryland, write that in the unusual
and perceptive News Feature "Crop improvement: a dying breed" (Nature 421,
568-570; 2003), on the importance of classical plant breeding, contains an
error concerning intellectual property rights applied to plants.
The authors say that plant breeders' rights, called 'plant variety
protection' in the United States, allow and defend the right of plant
breeders to use protected varieties as parents in further breeding,
contrary to the impression given in your feature. The patent system, not
plant breeders' rights, prohibits the use of protected varieties as
parents in further breeding. Moreover, utility patents on plants became
important only after public plant breeding had already declined.
The authors go on to say that as pointed out in the News Feature,
classical plant breeding is the only technology that is currently capable
of delivering the secure harvests we require. This is because only plant
breeding can manage many subtle traits at once, as needed to confront
challenges of climate change, newly emerging pests and other
Public plant breeding is also a good investment. The rate of return to
investment in public plant breeding is 35% for potatoes in the northwest
United States, realized in reduced cost of production and improved food
quality as well as in increased yield, according to A. A. Araji and S.
Love (Am. J. Potato Res. 79, 411-420; 2002). These results are typical of
studies in other crops.
'Deploying the Full Arsenal: Fighting Hunger with Biotechnology'
- Peter Lacy ; Subject: Thanks AgBioView!!
I recently authored the attached article published in the SAIS Review, the
journal of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in
I worked on the article all last fall and, although it could be better, to
the extent that it is well-informed, I owe a debt of gratitude to
AgBioView for all the timely and wide-ranging information I received from
Thank you very much for the great service you provide.
Sincerely, Peter Lacy
Lacy, Peter G. 2003. Deploying the Full Arsenal: Fighting Hunger with
Biotechnology; SAIS Review - Volume 23, Number 1, Winter-Spring 2003
Abstract: One of the most important issues in the debate over
biotechnology today is its potential to combat hunger in the developing
world. This question is especially relevant as biotechnology struggles to
find acceptance while countries in Africa and elsewhere in the developing
world face famine. This paper reviews modern efforts to fight hunger and
the projected future of the problem.
What does biotechnology have to offer in response to this situation and
what are the major obstacles to its deployment? The paper then explores
ways to overcome these obstacles, arguing that while traditional efforts
should be continued, biotechnology's potential to make a safe, meaningful
contribution to fighting hunger is too significant to be overlooked.
Note from Prakash: I thank Dr. Lacy for his kind words. I did not
reproduce his article here as it runs 25 pages. Please Contact the author
at Dr. Peter Lacy for a pdf file of this
excellent commentary and
analysis. If the author approves, we will post the article on