Today in AgBioView: May 6, 2003:
* What ever happened to informed argument?
* Geoffry Lean vs. truth
* Devinder Sharma
* Re: Gene Flow
* Papers about organic food and human health
* Trailblazers of plant science
* GM Cotton Gives More for Less for S. Africa Farmers
* 50 Years of DNA the inside track on book of life
* Is Organic Food Better Than Conventional?
* Experts Urge US To Propagate GM Technology
* The GM Debate
* A debate in Brussels
From: "Anthony Crotty"
Subject: What ever happened to informed argument?
Date: Tue, 6 May 2003 14:02:15 +0100
Dear CS Prakash and AgBioView,
What ever happened to informed argument?
Over the past week I have followed the paper circus that has come to
AgBioView town. With each daily helping of unfortunate debate after the
next, my opinion that the proponents of GM technology whom contribute to
AgBioView are an embarrassment to the greater scientific community – and
to greater society as a whole, is solidified.
Normally I would quietly smirk to myself as another personality attempts
to put forward argument for GM technology based solely on personalised
attacks while claiming science as their doctrine – but a letter from Mr JW
Cross to Mr Devinder Sharma published on AgBioView Friday 2nd May 2003, I
feel, needs addressing.
Of all the letters concerning Mr Sharma’s arguments – this was the most
bizarre and effectively damaging argument for GM technology. Let me make
it clear that I am in no way undermining Mr Cross’s personal opinions nor
his right to express those opinions, but I do question the logic of
AgBioView in publishing such a patently uninformed and emotional drivel.
Never before have I witnessed such a complete lack of congruent debate on
the interaction of science and society in any argument. While Mr Sharma
tries to draw debate on the international political, economic,
environmental and social concerns he has about the commercial
implementation of GM technology to agriculture – your choice to publish Mr
Cross’s letter effectively denies you the opportunity to start a
meaningful debate on the issues Mr Sharma raises.
Is Mr Cross a scientist or a preacher? Talk of “Judge not, lest you be
Judged” conjures a picture of an evangelical dogma – not a scientific, or
moreover, an internationally minded and concerned debate.
I sincerely hope that AgBioView can help further the debate on the
application of GM technology to agriculture by listening and offering
informed and objective debate to those opposed to its use. Failing this it
will endanger itself with becoming just another notice board for the
confined minds of some “test-tube” philosophers.
Date: Mon, 05 May 2003 11:35:21 -0400
From: "Alex Avery"
Subject: Geoffry Lean vs. truth
I was particularly annoyed at the BS (biased snivel) article by Geoffry
Lean, the environment editor at the UK's Independent, in which he claims
that "Insects thrive on GM 'pest-killing' crops". The lead of the article
was "Genetically modified crops specially engineered to kill pests in fact
nourish them, startling new research has revealed."
The problem with this BS article -- as was pointed out here on Agbioview
-- is that the research in question didn't examine ANY GM crops! They fed
Bt-sprayed cabbage leaves to Bt-resistant diamondback moth caterpillars.
Lo and behold, the Bt-resistant caterpillars digested the Bt proteins as
food and were relatively unharmed, showing higher "56% higher growth
I decided to check some of Lean's other articles, and they seem to be
chock full of BS, for example:
"US prepares to use toxic gases in Iraq"
By Geoffrey Lean and Severin Carrell
02 March 2003
Which chemical weapons, you might ask? How about tear gas (which I myself
have experienced first hand during routine training while in the US Army)
and pepper spray! Lean claims the use of these are "in contravention of
the Chemical Weapons Convention'.
How about this doozy about "GM genetic contamination":
EU REPORT CONCLUDES ORGANIC FARMING WILL BE FORCED OUT OF BUSINESS IF GE
CROPS ARE GROWN COMMERCIALLY
BY GEOFFREY LEAN: "Organic farming will be forced out of production in
Britain and across Europe if GM crops are grown commercially, a startling
new EU report concludes. The report --- which is so controversial that top
EC officials tried to stop it being made public --- shows that organic
farms will become so contaminated by genes from the new crops that they
can no longer be licensed or will have to spend so much money trying to
protect themselves that they will become uneconomic."
Of course, as long as the organic side continues to cling to the BS notion
that the organic standard should be zero for "genetic" contamination
(which can be detected at the parts per quadrillion level or less) but
will tolerate parts per million contamination with prohibited synthetic
chemicals (nominally detectable at parts per billion or greater).
This guy is a total hack. Does the Independent have ANY journalistic
standards? Can they be held accountable for the direct and blatant lie of
the article claiming that GM crops produced super pests? Is there an
authority -- aka The Advertising Standards Authority -- for newspapers?
I can't stand that this jerk has gotten away with such articles -- his
articles are posted on organic websites worldwide!
Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues
Date: Mon, 05 May 2003 15:29:35 -0400
From: "Alex Avery"
Subject: Geoffrey Lean's BS
Geoffrey Lean's BS on NON-biotech cabbage sprayed with organic Bt sprays
is spreading to other commentators. Check out the following excerpt from a
New Zealand op-ed by Barbara Sumner Burstyn:
"There are many other areas of concern, from contamination of non-GM crops
and lack of compensation for the contaminated - in New Zealand as in the
US - to the compromising involvement of agribusiness in pushing for and
controlling the development of GM products and markets, to fundamental
concerns about GM safety.
"For example, new research just in by scientists at Imperial College
London and the Universidad Simon Rodrigues in Caracas, Venezuela, has
found that Bt, the same naturally occurring poison that New Zealand
scientists are preparing to insert into potatoes - seems to be acting as a
"supplementary food protein", nourishing the pests they have been
specially engineered to kill.
"According to the research, one of the key benefits of GM - crops that
come equipped with their own pesticide - is being radically undermined,
striking at the heart of genetic engineering in agriculture. The report
also suggests an even greater threat to organic farming than has been
"Pete Riley, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth, said: "If we'd come up
with the suggestion that crops engineered to kill pests could make them
bigger and healthier instead, we'd have been laughed out of court."
"Given all the loose ends of this debate and the safety and moral
implications of the development and use of GM, you have to ask why New
Zealand, a small, perfectly formed country, isolated in the middle of the
South Pacific, is rushing to embrace a technology that has the potential
to destroy its most compelling international advantage - being GM-free."
Lean's BS that this research -- on NON-biotech cabbage sprayed with
organic Bt sprays -- is relevant to the GM debate is spreading. This just
has to be stopped!!!
Subject: Devinder Sharma
Date: Sat, 3 May 2003 12:12:18 +0200
I was quite surprised to follow the discussion between both gentlemen,
which apparently had its origin in some comments on Bt-cotton in India.
Especially Mr. Sharma’s letter of 30 April 2003 cannot stand
uncontradicted. Why? With all due respect for critics of modern
agriculture: It would not be out of place if they would differentiate a
bit better. But Mr. Sharma acts exactly in the same manner as critics here
in Germany are doing since many, many years: He is lumping everything
together. Chemical pesticides and GM crops, especially Golden rice (a good
answer given by Mr. C. Kameswara Rao), and DDT, and Agent Orange, and
chemicals again. And always, scientists acting as merely pimps for the
chemical or biotechnology industry are the ones who are responsible for
all evils of modern agriculture. Some words on Agent Orange. AGENT ORANGE
HAS NEVER HAD A RECOMMENDATION OR AN APPROVAL FOR THE USE IN AGRICULTURE.
The combination of two well known herbicides, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, was a
pure military development for the use in Vietnam. The consequences
mentioned by Mr. Sharma (500,000 people dead, 600,000 suffering) were not
caused by the herbicidal ingredients, but by the dioxin TCDD
(2,3,6,7-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin). This dioxin was an unavoidable
and unwanted by-product of the manufacturing process of 2,4,5-T. Since the
1950’s it was known as an extremely toxic substance. If 2,4,5-T was
manufactured for the use in agriculture, TCDD had to be removed very
carefully. But this cleaning process was apparently not believed necessary
for the product to be used in Vietnam. The use of both herbicides for
deforestation was a clear misuse. Isn’t it absurd to accuse those
scientists who recommend the use of herbicides in agriculture of having
said that Agent Orange is “perfectly safe” and to ask ”Why shouldn’t those
scientists be hanged?”
Equally absurd is the general condemnation of scientists who developed or
recommended DDT. I vividly recall the time when extremely toxic arsenic
products were used as insecticides for the control of the Colorado beetle
in potatoes or of other serious pests in orchards or vineyards. DDT was
here a real better choice. I even recall the post-war times when thousands
and thousands of refugees or returning POW’s (prisoners of war) were
treated with DDT to ward off medically important arthropods (lice, fleas
and others). None of the treated people had to suffer. And it should be
born in mind that DDT was very successfully used for the control of
Malaria transmitting mosquitoes, which saved millions of people especially
in tropical countries. Ever heard of it, Mr. Sharma? Apparently Mr. Sharma
did not deal too intensively with the history of DDT. Otherwise he had not
been able to say "It took some two or three decades for scientists to
realise that DDT was harmful". If he only had read Rachel Carsons
bibliography! May I cite Professor Allan S. Felsot’s posting (July 10,
2002): “By the late 1940’s we already knew from scientific publications
that DDT bioaccumulated in animal tissues and could be transferred into
milk.” And “In fact, it took decades to make a decision about what to do
with DDT. Failure to make a decision to more stringently regulate a
technology is not synonymous with lack of information about that
Apparently Mr. Sharma divides scientists into two classes. - Those who are
directly or indirectly working for the pesticide or biotechnology
industry. These people are corrupt and narrow-minded villains, pimps for
the industry, and similar. - And those who recommend poor farmers to work
completely without chemicals – even if as a consequence their harvests
will be lower. These scientists are the real scientists, and they are
certainly the good ones.
Wouldn’t a rational differentiation be better for the discussion?
Dr. Peter Langelüddeke
Tel./Fax +49 6192 37238
Date: Mon, 05 May 2003 08:44:43 +0930
From: "Chris Preston"
Subject: Re: Gene Flow
Prof Nagib Nassar,
In part answer to your question about gene flow, I would like to offer the
following perspective. To consider the question "What is the problem of
gene flow from a GMO to another species?" we need first to isolate the
issues involved. As you state, this topic is often described as a negative
impact of genetic engineering.
If we look at the reasons put forward they can be grouped as follows:
1) Gene flow will pollute the recipient species.
2) Gene flow will make the recipient species more weedy.
3) Gene flow will reduce the fitness of the recipient species and may even
make it go extinct.
It is important to realize that gene flow between related plant species
occurs all the time, we now just have the tools available to track it much
more easily. However, in general gene flow occurs at low frequencies.
Plants often rely on wind or insects to move pollen from the donor plant
to the recipient plant. This means that a lot of unwanted pollen will land
on the stigma of a plant. Therefore, plants have means to distinguish
between useful and useless pollen and usually have pollen/stigma mediated
barriers to stop pollen from other species fertilizing seed.
If we investigate the issue of gene flow as pollution, we need to start by
realizing that a "species" is an entirely artificial concept in the plant
world. Highly useful, but artificial. It is relatively common for plant
"species" to be able to interbreed with other plant "species". There are
also situations where a plant is entirely self pollinated and does not
interbreed with members of its own species. There are also many examples
of polyploidy in plants - new "species" created by breeding between two
other species. To sum up, the concept of "species" in plants is pretty
fuzzy around the edges, gene flow happens all the time at low frequencies,
a GMO is not more or less likely to participate in gene flow than a
non-GMO of the same species, and the recipient "species" will still be the
same regardless of whether individuals do or do not participate in some
gene flow with crop plants that are or are not GMOs. Gene flow will
pollute the recipient species? - the argument does not hold water.
Now consider the prospect of gene flow making plants more weedy. There are
two strands to this argument. One is that gene flow of itself - regardless
of the GMO involved will make the recipients more weedy. The second is
that the specific trait carried will offer fitness advantages. Most cross
species hybrids tend to have low fertility. The further apart the
participating species, the lower the fertility. Taking canola as an
example, Brassica napus x Brassica rapa crosses are generally relatively
fertile, B. napus x Raphanus raphanistrum crosses usually have very low
fertility. Therefore, the mere making of a cross between plant species
will tend to make the progeny of that cross less weedy than the parents
not more so.
If one parent happens to carry a gene that provides a fitness advantage,
there might be some selection for the hybrids. One example that is often
quoted is that RoundupReady canola will cross with related species
transferring the resistance gene to them and making them uncontrollable.
In this case, weeds carrying the resistance gene will only have an
advantage when the herbicide is used. At all other times the hybrids will
be less fit. A second example is the transfer of Bt genes from a crop
species to a wild relative. In this case, the recipients may have a
significant advantage much of the time, particularly if lepidopteran
herbivory is the major limiter of population growth. To sum up, most
hybrids will be less fit and less weedy than their parents, but transfer
of specific traits may provide the hybrids with a fitness advantage in
specific situations. Gene flow may increase weediness. This is most likely
in situations where the crop is closely related to wild species in the
area where it is grown (e.g. sunflowers) and insect resistance is the
Next consider gene flow reducing fitness of a species. As described above,
hybrids will generally be less fit. However, as I have also pointed out
there are significant barriers to hybridization. Therefore, not all
individuals of a species will be cross pollinated by the crop plants.
Non-hybrid individuals of the species will have a significant advantage
and dominate the population. Gene flow will make species go extinct? - the
argument holds no water.
Lastly, to the point you raised: Could gene flow be beneficial? Except in
the area of crop or ornamental plants, it is difficult to see where humans
would reap benefits from gene flow. It is certainly possible that gene
flow may result in new characters in a hybrid compared to the parents that
results in discovery of a new ornamental. On the other hand, for
individual hybrids, provided they picked up the right trait such as insect
resistance, there might be a distinct advantage.
Senior Lecturer in Weed Management
University of Adelaide
Subject: papers about organic food and human health
Date: Sun, 4 May 2003 18:14:20 -0300
Please, I need papers about organic food and human health. If they are
cientific is better.
When it comes to telling the story of progress, it is the trailblazers of
plant science who best tell the story of plant biotechnology. Attached are
brief biographies and photos of researchers who explored the potential of
conventional plant breeding and biotechnology to feed a growing
population, improve yields and protect the environment, as well as
research leaders who will take plant biotechnology to the next step,
providing consumers with higher quality, better tasting and more
Full document at:
GM Cotton Gives More for Less for S. Africa Farmers
Tue May 6, 2003
By Toby Reynolds
HLOKOHLOKO, South Africa (Reuters) - Genetically modified crops have
advocates and detractors, but for South African cotton farmer T.J.
Buthelezi, the technology is a godsend.
Sheltering from the sun in the shade of a tree which his Hlokohloko cotton
farmers association uses as a meeting place, Buthelezi describes how the
use of insect-resistant Bt cotton has made his life easier and far more
"This thing has changed my life. I used to have problems with money, but
since I started using the Bt cotton, I have got money," he said. "You get
more yield, and you have done less work."
South Africa is a relatively small producer of cotton, but its farmers
represent a broader group of developing-country growers whose large and
small-scale activities account for about 70 percent of world production.
Africa currently manages about eight percent of world production, while
India, China and Pakistan together account for almost half.
Champions of the technology say it is these countries, and specifically
their smaller-scale, poorer growers, who will benefit most from GM cotton.
Buthelezi's cotton plants, like those used by nearly all the Hlokohloko
cotton farmers, have been artificially modified to contain a strand of
genetic material from a naturally-occurring soil micro organism, Bacillus
That Bt gene encodes a pesticide poisonous to the cotton Bollworm, a pest
that Buthelezi says farmers would normally need to contain by spraying
their crops every week.
"In Hlokohloko maybe 90 percent of the farmers use Bt cotton," he said.
Most farmers in the area, a remote, dusty plain some 450 miles east of
Johannesburg, plant maize and pumpkins to help feed their families, but
grow cotton to earn cash.
BETTER IN DROUGHT
This year the days have been hot and the rains thin, and the cotton crop
has not fared well, but Buthelezi says the transgenic plants he is using
will still produce better yields than traditional varieties.
"With this cotton, no matter what the conditions, once it germinates you
get cotton," he said.
"This is my fifth year farming Bt cotton...I used to get six to eight
bales of cotton per hectare. I get 15 to 17 bales per hectare with Bt in a
"Currently the yield is around three to five bales because of the drought,
but if it was not Bt it would be nothing."
Yield is only part of the story, according to a study by agricultural
economics researchers at Pretoria University, which looked at production
on homestead operations and larger farms.
Small farmers, mostly from the Makhathini flats area where Buthelezi says
there are some 5,000 small-scale growers, produced only around five
percent of the country's 2000/2001 cotton crop of 157,515 200 kg bales.
The rest of the crop came from about 300 large-scale commercial farmers.
Authors Johann Kirsten and Marnus Gouse said in their paper that about 80
percent of all South Africa's cotton farmers were using GM seed, which
resulted in higher yields. More importantly, their study found, it reduced
worry, workload, and spending on pesticides.
Not everyone thinks Bt cotton is such a great idea.
Many anti-GM campaigners say farmers who become dependent on the
technology could be trapped if the companies which own the patent on the
seed increase their prices.
They also say cultivation of transgenic plant species could contaminate
natural varieties and perhaps even harm human health.
In particular, GM opponents say farmers in drought-prone areas like
Makhathini risk a lot more if they plant expensive GM seed. If the crop
fails they are left with a much greater debt.
"They market it in Africa as a solution to poverty, but I don't think that
it can do that," said researcher Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss of campaign
group BioWatch South Africa.
"The farmers are very happy because they don't have to spray so much...The
problem is that that won't last, because the insects will eventually
The majority of scientific evidence identifies genetic modification as a
tool, which is not harmful in itself, but which could be dangerous in
Sharply differing national stances on the acceptability of GM crops raises
a more pragmatic concern over their use.
A developing trade row between pro-GM U.S. politicians and their more
skeptical European counterparts has worried some farmers that genetically
modified products may be excluded from export markets. Many of South
Africa's neighbors have banned Genetically Modified Organisms altogether.
Buthelezi says he has no worries about the technology, and is happy that
the companies who have pioneered the use of GM crops make a profit from
it, as long as he benefits too.
50 Years of DNA the inside track on book of life
May 6, 2003
Nobel Prize winners Dr Francis Crick and Sir John Sulston have joined
other world-leading scientists and Prime Minister Tony Blair to help
Business Weekly commemorate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the
structure of DNA.
They have contributed to ‘50 Years of DNA’, a Business Weekly book which
charts the story of DNA right up to the completion of the human genome
In the publication, produced in association with The Wellcome Trust, Dr
Crick talks about the happy mix of blunders and brilliance which led to
his and James Watson’s discovery of the double helix in 1953.
Dr Michael Morgan, former chief executive of the Wellcome Trust, and John
Cooper, MD of the Genome Campus at Hinxton, discuss funding for the Human
Genome Project and phenomenal spending plans to extend the facilities and
the reach of research at the Sanger Institute.
Institute director Allan Bradley talks about the exciting opportunities
for the development of personalised medicines in the post-genomics era,
while former director Sir John Sulston elucidates why it was important for
the public sector to have accelerated the HGP in the face of enormous
pressure from private enterprise.
Leading scientists from the Sanger Centre in Cambridge also give an
unprecedented insight into the research on the Human Genome Project. They
include Dr Ian Dunham, whose team was the first to crack an entire
chromosome (chromosome 22), and pathogens specialist Dr Julian Parkhill.
World-leading scientists from key international research centres, such as
Monsanto, and top universities contribute commissioned, in-depth articles
for the publication.
Issues covered include bioinformatics, gene therapy, DNA and the Law,
aquaculture, cross-breeding and hybridisation, DNA chip technology,
management of wildlife operations,
Prime Minister Tony Blair pays tribute in his foreword to the book to the
role played by Sanger and other Cambridge scientists and the legacy they
are leaving to future generations of mankind.
He picks out Rosalind Franklin, whose research was instrumental to Crick &
Watson’s breakthrough, and whom many regard as a forgotten heroine of the
human genome story. Professor Lynne Elkin from Hayward University also
sets the record straight.
‘50 Years of DNA’ is available at £6.99.
To order a copy, call: 01223 264864.
The publication will also be available at ERBI’s 5th annual biopartnering
exchange at the Wellcome Genome Campus on May 7 and 8.
Is Organic Food Better Than Conventional?
NUTRITION NEWS FOCUS
May 5, 2003
A study analyzed blackberries, strawberries, and corn for a class of
chemicals called total phenolics and found them higher in plants grown
with organic farming methods compared with conventional techniques. Total
phenolics include the flavonoids or pigments found in plants and are
thought to act as antioxidants and cancer-fighters.
It is well known that plants produce phenolics in response to attack by
insects. Since organic produce has more insects chomping on it, the
result was fairly predictable. The study appeared in the February 26,
2003 edition of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
HERE'S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
The authors point out there have been 150 previous studies comparing
nutritional content of organic versus conventionally grown plants and most
have shown no differences. The chemicals measured here are not considered
nutrients because they are not required by the body. As the authors also
point out, phenolics are made by plants in response to insect attack.
However, those little holes made by the insects also allow fungus to grow
there, leading to more spoilage and occasionally to highly toxic molds.
So this study does not help us make a choice of what type of produce to
buy in the store.
Experts Urge US To Propagate GM Technology
By Ashok B Sharma
May 5, 2003
In the face of growing unacceptability of genetically modified (GM) food
the world over, several policy analysts are urging the US to develop a
pragmatic strategy for promoting GM crops, particularly in the Third World
These policy analysts have noted that even in most trying situations,
countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi had the guts to
refuse the US food aid of GM corn. "US officials were shocked in August
2002 when the government of Zambia, on verge of a major food crisis, began
to refuse the import of free corn from the US as food aid, because some of
that corn might be genetically modified. This was the same corn Americans
had been consuming since 1996, and the same corn that the United Nations
World Food Programme (WFP) had been distributing in Africa - including
Zambia, but now the Zambians were rejecting it,’’ says Robert L Paarlberg,
professor of political science at Wellesley College and associate at the
Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.
He adds, "India has gone ahead with GM cotton, but it has not approved any
GM food or feed crops, and in 2002 the government of India began to refuse
imports of GM corn and soya from the US as food aid. NGOs had complained
that this food was contaminating India’s food supply."
Mr Paarlberg notices that the GM food and crops are gradually losing its
acceptability and blames the European Union for this. Movements against GM
crops has started gaining ground even in countries like Phillipines where
people in general are not so averse to American life style. Since April
28, farmers and NGOs in Phillipines are on relay hunger strike demanding a
moratorium on Bt corn in the country. Mr Pearlberg remarks, "The
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Phillipines is
supposed to be developing ‘Golden Rice’. But this will be difficult since
they have decided not to conduct any field trials in the Phillipines, lest
they stir the anger of anti-GM NGOs. Only two out of IRRI’s 800 scientists
are working on ‘Golden Rice’."
Writing in the Spring 2003 issue of the US National Academy of Science’s
‘Issue In Science & Technology’, he says, "GM crop have been commercially
available since 1995, yet ninety-nine per cent of all the world’s
plantings of GM-food and feed crops are still restricted to just four
countries in the Western Hemisphere - the United States, Canada, Argentina
and (illegally) Brazil. This restricted planting of GM-food and GM-feed
crops reflects, more than anything else, a globalisation of Europe’s
highly precautionary regulatory approach towards this technology."
Analysing the situation, Mr Paarlberg says that European tastes and
regulatory preferences are dominating intergovernmental organisations
(IGOs), development assistance, non-governmental organisations and
international food and commodity markets. This is mainly due to US
government’s ignoring or disrespecting IGOs by failing to ratify
conventions or paying dues on time and withering away of US development
assistance to Third World countries. He says that as European Union is the
biggest importer of agro produces it has been able to dominate global
commodity trade through its preferences, even though US is the biggest
Mr Paarlberg, in this context, suggests that US should be proactive in all
these four sectors currently dominated by European influence and promote
the cause of GM technology. He says, "one longer-term strategy would be to
begin investing more public money in the development of GM technologies
specifically tailored to the needs of poor farmers in tropical
countries.....Private companies have few incentives to produce such
varieties...The US government made a mistake in the 1980s when it skimped
on public investment and entrusted the development of GM crops so
completely to the profit-making private sector."
He further says, "at this point the best hope for starting a GM crop
revolution in the developing world may be to accept a monetary blockage
for GM food feed crops and work for continued spread of a key industrial
crop, GM cotton."
After the successful acceptance of GM cotton in developing countries
attempts should be made to propagate GM food and feed crops, he says.
The GM Debate (April 2003)
Picture a world without the wheel and imagine that a large international
company has just announced its invention and that it is intending to test
it on UK highways with a view to revolutionising transport and a myriad of
other things! Given this scenario in today's climate of public mistrust of
science and technology, Chemo-Philia wonders whether the wheel would ever
see the light of day. Its opponents would note that it was potentially
very dangerous and there would be a fine opportunity for them to apply the
Precautionary Principle which in this 21st century might be defined as,
"Produce nothing which will harm or might harm anybody or anything". One
could imagine that the prototype wheel (even though it could obviously be
improved ) would attract particular attention and catalyse media hype with
no reference to the wheel's potential; this in turn would induce a fearful
public to demand a ban on testing and production. Any wheels seen on the
streets would be destroyed by activists although it would probably be
agreed that they could be tested in a secure laboratory and released if
the precautionary principle, as defined, was satisfied.
What has this to do with the C-P website? The answer is that we have a
real situation, not unlike the fairy story above, which needs serious
public attention. It has national and international implications for
chemistry and chemical engineering and the general welfare of the global
The situation, of course, relates to genetic modification (GM), a new
version of an old technology which produces GMOs (genetically modified
organisms (or transformed hybrids)), a subject which was first introduced
in these pages some 4 years ago ((1) Frankenstein Food (22/2/99)). It is
probable that many members of the public are unaware that there is an
important, ongoing, Government-sponsored debate on GM which is timed to
coincide with the Government's decision regarding the commercial future of
GM-crops in the UK. Media hype would suggest that the majority of the
British public fear GM-crops and -foods even to the point of demanding
GM-free zones. However, recent independent reports suggest that this is
not entirely true and that public attitudes to GM are becoming less
negative, as people become more aware of the value of the new technology.
Critics of GM, of course, only focus on the modern techniques for
introducing genes into organisms and ignore the very similar processes -
both natural and those used by classsical plant breeders - which have
provided us with all of the foods we eat today. The only difference
between the old and the new is that GM is a more rapid and more powerful
procedure which allows genes to be moved from one living species to
another. There is no fundamental scientific reason why this should not be
done! GM critics also stress the Precautionary Principle and demand proof
that GM-products are totally harmless, which is something which cannot be
claimed for anything that exists in our environment - least of all our
traditional foods. Cancer-causing compounds (carcinogens) abound in meats
and vegetables and we have just learned that the cooking processes that we
have used for thousands of years produce a chemical, acrylamide, which in
a laboratory would be labelled with a black on orange skull and crossbones
- as a probable carcinogen and teratogen (causing birth defects). We do
need to keep these things in perspective.
Although there is not the space and this is not the place to list all of
the objections to GM-technology, some well-founded and some ridiculous,
the major concerns are as follows:
Will GM-plant products harm human beings?
Extremely unlikely - and the least need for concern! Many millions of
people have been eating them with no ill effects for several years: there
are no good theoretical reasons why they should contain toxic substances
unless the technologist has 'instructed' the plant to make them. Most
importantly, however, before they appear on market shelves, they will have
been analysed for harmful compounds with an enormous amount of care - much
more thoroughly than the great majority of traditional foods we consume.
Furthermore, if you are particularly worried that foreign genes in GM-
food will cause genetic damage then consider the number of foreign genes
from traditional food that you already eat! They are not a problem because
they are destroyed by the body. If this was not the case then we might
well have 'Frankenstein monsters' as neighbours or, more likely, there
would be no life at all!
You may also have been warned of the danger that GM -foods might induce
antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria. Well, we have this problem
on a fairly massive scale already - caused by too many people demanding
too many antibiotics with subsequent over-prescription: it is difficult to
believe that GM-products could significantly exacerbate this existing,
unfortunate situation. The perceived danger is, again, related to DNA (a
gene) which in this case is responsible for the antibiotic resistance. It
was used in the early development of the technology as a marker and
inserted into GM-plants so that they could be recognised in the presence
of plants that had not been transformed. However, this gene can now be
removed from the plant after the transformation and other markers not
related to antibiotics have and are being developed. The problem is in
Will GM-plants harm the environment?
A full answer to this question awaits the many trials are in progress
thoughout the world: These will tell us what we can and cannot do.
Planting a GM-crop next to an 'organic' crop of the same species, for
example, would not please the 'organic' farmer. Pollen would be tranfered
from the GM- to the 'organic'- crop to produce hybrid plants and the
farmer would be likely to lose his/her Soil Association license. (The Soil
Association does not allow the cultivation of GM-crops!). However, from
what has already been said, this particular hybridisation would be very
unlikely to have any nutritional significance unless the GM-crop had been
deliberately engineered to produce harmful substances. In that case
planting it in the vicinity of a non-GM crop of the same species would be
Wind- and insect-born pollen is, of course, a large part of the problem
as, in theory, pollen can carry unwanted genetic material long distances
with the possibility of contamination. However, there are four important
saving graces relating to pollen dispersal and potential environmental
damage by GMOs. They are: (1), that nature has ensured that genes will not
spread naturally to unrelated plants (maize would never cross with soya,
for example - think of the trouble that this would cause!); (2) female
plants which do not make pollen can be genetically engineered; (3), genes
can inserted into specific locations in plants so that they do not enter
the pollen and (4), seed formation in GM-plants can be inhibited. There
are, therefore, many ways of overcoming these potential dangers and if
coupled with careful monitoring, there is no reason why many
environmentally-acceptable GM-plants should not be developed.
Again, putting things into perspective, it is difficult to envisage a
'genetic accident' which would produce a hybrid which is more invasive
than some of our natural plants (bindweed, couch-grass, Japanese knotweed,
etc) which could not be controlled by one of the many methods available!
Incidentally, crop plants, traditional and GM-hybrids, are not as robust
as wild plants and usually die out if not tended.
Lastly, and very briefly, there is concern about the effect of GMOs on
wildlife - for example, insects and their predators the birds,. In this
case the main fear is that plants engineered to deter target insects
(pests specific to the crop) will interfere with a wide range of desirable
insects - bees, for example, and insects that are food for birds and other
animals. For instance, there was controversy regarding the Monarch
butterfly that might feed on milkweed adjacent to a Bt-corn field: it was
said that the GM-corn pollen, containing the bacterial insecticide, could
fall on the milkweed leaves and harm the butterflies. This was reported
widely by the media - it was bad news - but sometime later in the year,
several laboratories showed that this would be an unlikely scenario.
However, this was not given the same editorial prominence! It might also
be asked how much milkweed on the migratory route of the Monarchs from
Mexico to Canada is likely to share a field with Bt-corn!?
In the case of the non-target, desirable insects that use Bt-corn as a
food source, there are various possible strategies for dealing with the
problem. One would be to have a buffer zone around the Bt field planted
with a non-Bt-crop or another crop on which the insects could safely feed.
Other approaches include cultivation of plants near to the hybrid with
odours which will deter the non-target insects. Again - numerous
possibilities to overcome potential problems.
Who needs GM-plants?
C-P thinks that we all shall! At the moment much of the opposition to
GM-plants is focused on the primary products - the prototypes - of
GM-technology, mainly plants that have been modified to contain a natural
insecticide (Bt; which is also used by 'organic' growers ) or are
resistant to a herbicide (glyphosate: the GM-crop is unaffected by the
herbicide but weeds are killed). After several years of cultivation, most
of the evidence shows that there is a reduction in the use of conventional
pesticides and herbicides and increases in yields when these hybrid crops
are grown: they are enjoyed by farmers on five continents! However, as
expected with prototypes, the slate is not completely clean; there are
some negative publications - which are often welcome as they can help in
the development of superior products. 'Negatives', of course, are the ones
that are well aired by the media and perhaps not followed up when refuted
or when the problem that was raised is solved!
The present GM-prototypes are valuable additions to agriculure and,
importantly, point the way to an exciting future for the technology with
the development of all kinds of useful secondary and tertiary products. We
shall be able to make plants (and, indeed, other organisms) work for us at
a time when our fossil fuels are near depletion and we shall need to look
to plants to provide much of our chemical feedstock which previously came
from oil and coal. Furthermore, we shall be able to enrich plants with
nutritional compounds such as oils and proteins and have them make
plasticis, vitamins, vaccines and other pharmaceutical products - the list
is endless. We shall need to boost the total food production to cater for
an expected world population of 8 or 9 billion in 2020 and it would be
environmentally friendly to move some of this extra production to less
valuable land which is, perhaps, arid or salt-ridden and to use less
fertiliser to reduce pollution. Hopefully this can be achieved in the
first case by genetically modifying crop plants to tolerate these
conditions and in the second, to induce more plant species to fix
atmospheric nitrogen. For land which is already polluted there is the
possibility of using GM-plants to clean it up (bioremediation). We need to
muster all of the best agriculural practices taken from, classical
breeding, organic farming, GM and the agrochemical industry to cope with
the problems ahead. Coupled with this must come agreements to ensure that
all nations profit from the advances in new technologies.
In the UK, there is a vast amount of expertise in the area of
GM-technology which employs 40,000 people - people that it would be
advantageous to keep! The future for a GM industry in this country which
is desperate to raise its technological base, could be excellent but
strong negative attitudes are threatening developments and the national
economy. The same can be said of other European nations which along with
the UK could expect to share a GM market of E100 billion by 2005 but they
are falling behind competitors in other parts of the world.
If the Government was convinced that GM-technology had public backing then
we could move cautiously ahead and ensure that our present prime position
in the GM stakes is maintained. There is no doubt that there are problems
but most of these will be solved or in some cases lines of development may
have to be abandonned for safety reasons. Contacting your favourite
politician would be a way of letting your views be known but read about
the pros and cons in the references given below, or elsewhere, before you
dispatch your snail-mail, voice-mail or e-mail.
Incidentally, GM-Free Zones remind C-P of the earlier Nuclear-Free Zones -
both rather difficult to envisage in a small world with non-consenting
neigbours and in the former case, an atmosphere devoid of any pollen would
Subject: Report of a policy debate in Brussels, 5 May 2003
Date: Tue, 6 May 2003 15:17:24 +0200
A debate in Brussels, 5 May, on policy for GMOs
Friends of Europe organised a high profile debate at the Solvay Library in
Brussels on Monday evening on the question, "When will Europe have a clear
and reliable policy for GMOs?" The debate was moderated by FoE
Secretary-General Giles Merritt.
European Commissioner Philippe Busquin, responsible for research policy,
gave a fighting defence of Commission policy. A clear strategy for the
life sciences and biotechnology had been defined and published by the
Commission the previous year, and this was now being implemented; copies
of the strategy document were distributed. The Commission had long played
a leading role in research – he mentioned genome projects: yeast,
Arabidopsis, and the human genome project – and they looked forward to
Europe's sharing in the benefits of commercialisation of the new products.
Safety had been effectively assured by long years of biosafety research
(showing in fact few if any problems), practical experience, and stringent
regulation. But the Commission did not decide or dictate: many decisions
had to be made at national level, where governments had been slow to
transpose EC legislation, and some had imposed a moratorium. The
Commission had played fully its part in promoting research and innovation,
and it was up to industry now to present to the consumer the advantages
and quality of the products they had to offer. Products should be on the
market next year. But one had to win and retain the confidence of the
public. This the Commission had sought to do, by pursuing an approach
based on the precautionary principle, and coherent with our international
agreements. This is a dynamic principle, properly applied: it should not
act as a brake on research. In fact research trials had been constrained
in Europe in recent years: with corresponding damage to research
capability, to innovation and to consumer choice. He vigorously condemned
irresponsible opposition, and the vandalism of field trials which we had
seen all too often in Europe. The importance of biotechnology for
developing counrtries he also stressed, recalling the meeting of over 800
participants from all over the world which had been held by the Commission
in January, which had made clear the vital need for the development and
diffusion of modern biotechnology also in these countries, to meet their
essential needs for health, food supply and the protection of the
On coexistence, he recalled the recent meeting (24 April), at which his
colleague Commissioner Fischler had underlined that no system of
agriculture should have a veto over any other. Practical problems could be
resolved by farm practices.
Member of the European Parliament John Purvis recalled the vigorous
resolution adopted by Parliament 2 years previously, on the future of the
bio-industries in Europe; but regretted the schizophrenia which was
manifest when they turned to regulation.
For industry association EuropaBio, Simon Barber noted that they
represented 35 corporate members and over 20 national bio-industry
associations. The Commission had given clear policy signals, from the
Heads of government at the Lisbon Summit two years ago, to the current
strategy and 30-point Action Plan for the life sciences and biotechnology.
An excellent roadmap for how to move forward. We have the vision to
innovate – but have we the vision to regulate rationally? How to provide
real consumer choice – GM products are currently unobtainable! He noted
the role of misinformation, quoting from a recent article by Tom Wakeford
in the UK Times: the man was obviously quite unaware of the concerns
expressed by scientists from the start of modern biotechnology, in 1973,
and the long and widespread debates which had taken place, involving
scientists, regulators, the public and politicians, through the 1970s and
1980s. Mr Barber looked forward to the newly established European Food
Safety Authority playing a central role, in supporting the Commission's
scientific advisory committees. But he summed up the current situation:
the policy is there: it remains to implement it in a reliable way.
Geert Ritsema of Friends of the Earth insisted that the panellists were
naïve, in supposing that once the legislation was in place, GM crops could
go ahead. The biggest battle was yet to come: on co-existence. No solution
was offered to the problem of how to avoid "contamination" of conventional
and organic farming by the pollen or seeds of GM crops.
UK farmer Bob Fiddaman had come to the meeting to speak of his four years'
experience participating in the UK field trials of oilseed rape. As to
co-existence, this was a non-problem – farmers in Europe had years of
experience of growing, for example, high erucic acid rape – toxic to
humans, but valued as a source of industrial oil – and "double zero"
rapeseed – free of erucic acid – for animal feed. A 50-metre separation
sufficed. He looked forward to a future in which he would be free to grow
a range of crops for special oils, and was confident that he could fulfil
any reasonable standard required in his contracts.
Garlich von Essen, Director of the European Seed Association, expressed
his impatience that the Commission had been so tardy in preparing its seed
legislative proposals, and his industry had strong concerns about some
aspects of what was being discussed. Mr Ritsema's talk of "battle"
concerned him – battles are won and lost, 100% to zero - he would prefer
"debate". If Europe didn't get its legislation right, we would one day
have to import the identity-preserved, high value crops which would be
developed by modern biotechnology. Why was the Commission still failing to
address these issues?
Mr Purvis noted that the Greens in the European Parliament were experts in
moving the goalposts – as one demand was satisfied, they invented another;
he doubted the value of attempting to "appease" such opponents.