Today in AgBioView: May 11, 2003
* More Sound Science, Not Silence: Please Sign Up!
* Does the European Biotech Moratorium Harm the Developing World?
* The GM Jeremiahs
* Recipe for Disaster
* Artificial Barriers to US Ag Trade and Foreign Food Assistance
* Sultani Tragi-comedy in Indian Agriculture
* Protest Planned Against Greenpeace's 'Eco-Manslaughter'
* Socio-Political Error of Monsanto?
* Safety of RR Soybeans
* Six Plant and AgBiotech Scientists Among US NAS New Members
* Now A Double Helix Coin
* GMO Opposition Not Based On a Mistake
* Costs of Commercialising GM Crops and Why We Must Cut Down Regulation
* Science Goes Madison Avenue
* A Final Call for Peace
More Sound Science, Not Silence
I appreciate those of you who have signed on to our statement 'An Open
Letter to World Leaders, Scientists, Media and other Stakeholders' at
and please consider this as my personal thanks.
May I please urge those of you who have not signed on to please send an
email to with your name and affiliation?
This is critical considering the global orchestration of opposition to
this technology. Consider a recent article in Philippine Star 'A case vs
GM crops' by Antonio M. Claparols on May 4, 2003 which says "More than 578
scientists from all over the world have signed an open letter urging
President Arroyo to declare a moratorium on the release of genetically
modified (GM) crops for reasons of safety and other concerns. The call is
being supported by the Ecological Society of the Philippines and the
International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources
Australian states are already contemplating shooting themselves on the
foot with moratoriums. See also Mae-Wan Ho's Report on GM crops from an
"Independent" Science Panel at http://www.i-sis.org.uk/ISP.pdf
Does the European Biotech Moratorium Harm the Developing World?
'The Problem of Import Restrictions on Genetically Engineered Food'
Seminar: Tuesday, May 13, 2003; 12:00am to 1:30pm
Venue: Decatur House, 1610 H Street NW, Washington, DC (One block North of
the White House)
Seminar Hosted by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington DC
www.cei.org. A panel of distinguished international scientists will
discuss developing world experience with biotech crops and their
extraordinary potential to help alleviate hunger and poverty. They will
also discuss the impact of the EU biotech crop moratorium on developing
countries and call on the EU to end the moratorium immediately.
Dr. Norman Borlaug (invited), Nobel Peace Prize Winner
Professor C. S. Prakash, Tuskegee University Center for Plant
Professor Diran Makinde, Vinda University School of Agriculture, South
Dr. Ariel Alvarez-Morales, Center for Research and Advanced Studies,
T.J. Buthelezi, Biotech cotton farmer, KwaZulu-Natal province, South
Gregory Conko, Food Policy Expert, CEI
Lunch will be served. For more information, please call Megan McLaughlin
The GM Jeremiahs
- Nick Cohen, The Observer, May 11, 2003 (Sent by Vivian Moses)
'The West's mistrust of genetically modified crops means it is the Third
World which is suffering'
The Millennium meant to bring with it a wave of violence from maniacal
cultists. Just before Christmas 1999, the Italian intelligence services
warned the Pope that St Peter's could be attacked by Satanists, who had
grouped together under the banner of the Followers of Beelzebub. They also
worried about members of New Acropolis, a mysterious and mystifying sect
dedicated to avenging the death of Giordano Bruno, an obscure philosopher
who was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600.
The Jerusalem police were told to keep an eye open for Monte Kim Miller,
who fancied himself a messenger of God. The former marketing manager with
Procter & Gamble had predicted that his home town of Denver, Colorado,
would be destroyed by an earthquake on 10 October 1997. His followers sold
their homes and furniture. They were too hasty. Denver was still standing
on 11 October. Eighty-five members of Miller's Concerned Christian cult
vanished. The FBI worried that they would regroup in Jerusalem and attack
holy sites on the eve of the millennium.
As it was, not much happened in Rome or Jerusalem. The religious maniacs
who were to do real damage waited until 11 September 2001, and they
weren't interested in anniversaries of Christ's birth.
In 2000, wild-eyed believers in Satan or the Second Coming were less
hysterical than outwardly intelligent people. Investors, who believed that
markets were rational, poured money into dotcom and telecom shares. They
inflated the bubble to a point where a cataclysmic fall was inevitable.
Meanwhile, managers and governments, who believed that computer
programmers were objective assessors of technological risk, spent
somewhere between £150 billion and £500bn warding off the millennium bug.
The precautions weren't enough, science correspondents assured the public.
Full-throated doomsters predicted planes falling out of the sky, the
infrastructure collapsing, nuclear missiles launching of their own accord
and riots spreading as starving looters snatched what food was left on the
shelves. Less excitable Mystic Megs said there would be a huge disruption
to business and the emergency services, but not an actual apocalypse.
As it was, not much happened. Either the global effort to exterminate the
bug was more successful than anyone dared hope or empire-building computer
technicians created a pandemic of panic.
The latter seems more likely, and the dotcom bubble and the millennium bug
paranoia suggest that historians will look back in wonder at many beliefs
otherwise reasonable people held to be self-evident. After gazing at the
stock-market and millennium-bug delusions, will they turn to the repulsion
of the fin-de-siècle European middle-class for genetically modified food?
It's too early to be certain, but GM food has been around for about a
decade in America and there's an embarrassing shortage of diners dropping
dead and genetically modified superweeds rampaging across the prairies.
Last week, the Royal Society, Britain's national academy of science, told
the Government's review of GM crops that there was no evidence that they
created allergic reactions or damaged health or reduced the nutritional
quality of food. I would guess that the scientists failed to convince a
single discerning eater. Just as the wised-up were certain that computers
were going to crash at one minute past midnight on New Year's Day 2001, so
they are now certain that GM food is unsafe and inferior.
The conditions which created the bug panic perfectly match the causes of
the GM food phobia. Anthony Finkelstein, professor of software systems
engineering at University College, London, had fruitlessly warned that
billions of pounds were being wasted in the fight against the bug. In
January 2000, when the catastrophe had failed to happen, he identified
three causes of the mania.
The first was the developed world's state of ignorant dependence. People
depended on computers but knew little about them. They were ready to be
scared. Everyone depends on food, but most cannot understand how
scientists can transplant bacterial DNA into a plant. All we know is that
it sounds unnatural. It isn't a great comfort to learn that the human race
has been genetically engineering crops by cross-breeding since the
invention of agriculture because we don't understand plant breeding,
Second, Said Finkelstein, someone must have an interest in promoting fear.
The millennium bug made a lot of technicians a lot of money. With GM food,
the commercial interest appeared to be with the other side. Monsanto, the
biggest supplier of GM crops, began lobbying to get GM food accepted in
Europe in 1998. Its timing was terrible. Capitalist triumphalism was at
its height and people were wary of US corporations which seemed able to
persuade weak governments to let them do whatever they wanted.
But GM also upset the interests of the setters of style and taste. Marie
Antoinette and her courtiers dressed up as peasants and shepherds. They
invented a phoney authenticity and pretended to live the simple life while
the real French peasantry was close to starvation. Their heirs have a fad
for 'natural' child birth, although genuinely natural child birth for most
women in the Third World is about the most dangerous experience of their
lives. Discriminating modern Europeans also want the organic food the
peasantry once produced, although, again, natural farming for the majority
of peasant farmers is back-breaking drudgery, most of which is undertaken
by the women who have survived the pains of natural child birth.
Last, but by no means least, come the media. The millennium bug was a
fantastic story until 1 January 2000. The clock was ticking. Robots were
about to run amok. There was a race against time to save the planet. What
hack could ask for more? GM food was the issue which took Greenpeace and
Friends of the Earth from the broadsheet press's ghetto to the popular
mainstream. There was a time when you couldn't pick up the Daily Mail
without seeing a warning about what 'Frankenstein foods' might do to you
or your children.
Which isn't to say that the environmentalists have been proved wrong.
Whatever the Royal Society says, absence of evidence isn't evidence of
absence. Just because no one has proved that GM food can damage your
health doesn't mean that it can't. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace
have a check list of dozens of tests they want carried out. Their
spokesmen point out, reasonably, that it is very hard to find out if GM
food has damaged Americans because there has been no proper monitoring of
who eats what.
The power of the biotech business to push regulators about is as feared
now as it was in the 1990s, and with justice. But still, Greenpeace, in
particular, will be against GM crops whatever tests are passed and so will
millions of European consumers.
If the GM scare boiled down to what Europeans eat, it wouldn't matter
greatly. The Government is angry that biotech industries are being driven
offshore and jobs and new industries are being lost forever. But the
consumer is king and consumers in Britain and the rest of the EU have made
their minds up that they don't want GM. They may be being silly, but
governments can't legislate against folly.
When it comes to the Third World, however, resistance to GM may be malign.
The opponents of biotech emphasise that the industry isn't interested in
feeding the hungry any more than the pharmaceutical companies are
interested in treating malaria. The developed world is where the profits
But there are inventions such as the 'golden rice', created by Dr Ingo
Potrykus of Swiss Federal Institute in Zurich, which aim to relieve
suffering. Dr Potrykus modified rice to help the 200 million or so
children who risk death or blindness from vitamin A deficiency. If it
works, and if it is taken up in Asia - two big ifs - children will live
who would otherwise die.
Dr Potrykus isn't a pawn of Monsanto, yet he is vilified. He has been told
that he has been used by the biotech companies and that people will have
to eat impossibly large amounts of his rice to get a minimal benefit. He
denies both allegations. When he learned that Greenpeace had reserved the
right to take direct action against golden rice tests plots, he said it
would be guilty of a 'crime against humanity' if it did.
Historians are likely to write more in anger than amused bewilderment if
the GM phobia turns out to have been a European mania which was fatal for
Recipe for Disaster
- Editorial, Nature Biotechnology, May 2003 v.21 no.5 p465;
www.nature.com, reproduced with permission
The European Commission's (EC) Joint Research Centre recently published a
report detailing the decline of genetically modified organism (GMO)
research in Europe entitled Review of GMOs under Research and Development
and in the Pipeline in Europe (p. 468).
Amongst its findings was the fact that two-thirds of large European
companies that had been involved in genetically modified (GM) crop
development have cancelled substantial projects since 1998. An associated
observation -- whether this is a cause or an effect is uncertain -- is
that while the number of US field trials on GM crops has been running
between 900 and 1,100 per year since 1998, in Europe the number peaked at
234 in 1998 and fell to just 33 last year.
For European researchers and businesses alike, these numbers are hard to
swallow. So it is with some hesitation that Nature Biotechnology has
agreed to publish the recipe for this particular disaster. The dish is, in
essence, a pie in which an expensive and nutritious filling is covered by
a largely impenetrable crust.
This is a slow cooker. It probably takes about ten years to get the
desired half-baked results.
For the filling, you will need: Several centers of excellence, such as the
John Innes Centre in Norwich, the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding
Research in Cologne, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology of
Plant Sciences in Zurich, as well as a strong tradition of plant science
Pioneering researchers, such as Jeff Schell and Marc van Montagu (Ti
plasmid inventors), Ingo Potrykus (golden rice), Lothar Willmitzer
(carbohydrate metabolism), Dick Flavell (cloning of plant DNA in
bacteria), and many others;
A rich selection of startup companies of various vintages--Agricultural
Genetics, Plant Genetic Systems, Florigene, Axis Genetics, Keygene, Mendel
Biotechnology, Rhobio, Metanomics, and SunGene;
A liberal sprinkling of large agrochemical companies, including ICI Seeds,
Ciba-Geigy Seeds (now Syngenta), Rhône-Poulenc, Bayer CropScience, AgrEvo,
and BASF Plant Science.
Mix all the ingredients together, so that you create a healthy and dynamic
biotechnology sector with tremendous potential to produce competitive
companies and products. Bring out the entrepreneurial flavor by
encouraging small agbiotechnology startups and research through EC funding
programs (BAP, BEP, BRIDGE, BIOTECH, Framework IV, Framework V). Stir
constantly with words that indicate you are trying to promote innovation.
The crust should be made precisely in parallel with the filling but in an
entirely separate part of the kitchen.
For the crust, you will need: The 90/220/EEC Directive for deliberate
release of GM organisms;
A soup of horizontal European legislation and national process that has
been left to stew in its own administrative juices;
A de facto moratorium on the commercial release of all genetically
modified plants based on national self interest;
A sprinkling of largely data-free high-visibility scientific papers;
A spare Directive 2001/18/EC, just in case the first one fails
Sift the Directive through the fine mesh of European Parliamentary review
committees to remove any residual trace of scientific validity. Add the
Directive to the legislative soup. Leave to set for several years until GM
products come to the market. Just as the products emerge, introduce the
moratorium. Replace the original Directive with the new Directive. Do not
lift the moratorium at any point until five years have passed, but do
allow national governments to drag their heels in adopting the
legislation, thereby ensuring a further year of unproductive baking.
Serve the pie triumphantly to foreign visitors in order to celebrate "a
very biotechnology-friendly" resolution based on the EC communication
"Life Sciences and Biotechnology: A Strategy for Europe" to prevent both a
"brain drain" and "future dependency on the import of biotechnology
Your guests will be amazed as to the magnitude of the piecrust. They may
be a little disappointed, however, when you penetrate the crust to reveal
the paltry size of the filling that remains. You must explain that
European agbiotech is not intended to feed anyone in Europe (or anywhere
else for that matter). Furthermore, as in nouvelle cuisine, it is not the
size of the helping that is important but the manner in which it is
In Europe, biotechnology usually comes with hot potatoes: wash down
liberally with bitter wine of disillusion, followed by a few sour grapes,
and some hard cheese.
Review of Artificial Barriers to US Agricultural Trade and Foreign Food
US Congressional Committee on Agriculture held a hearing on this topic on
March 26, 2003. The Official Transcript of this meeting including
testimony by various scientists and experts is now online at
Especially check out page 66 in this 178 page document.
Sultani (Royal) Tragi-comedy in Indian Agriculture
- Sharad Joshi, AgBioView, May 11, 2003. http://www.agbioworld.org/
This has been a tragi-comic week for the Indian agriculture. The scorching
summer is at its worst. This has come out to be a bad year of drought.
Surprisingly, it is the producers of sugarcane, a crop that demands
maximum water, are in trouble because of low prices for their produce.
Cane producers in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have been agitating and
the most tragic tailpiece was added by the Central minister for
Agriculture who advised farmers to file suits against sugar factories that
do not pay even the Statutory Minimum Price.
In fact, it is the job of the government to ensure that purchasers respect
Minimum Support Prices including the Statutory Minimum Prices. Agriculture
minister Ajit Singh is abdicating his responsibilities in a matter, which
has been the lifeline for the farm community. Ajit Singh has no business
to be in his seat if he cannot ensure respect for the Statutory Minimum
Cotton farmers in the North who were hoping to gain from the Bt bounty
were in for disappointment too. The regulatory agency Genetic Engineering
Approval Committee (GEAC) of India has rejected the proposal by Mahyco for
commercial release of Bt MECH 915, which was supposed to cater to the
northern region. The GEAC refuses to go wiser even after the first fiasco
in Bt cotton seed approval. It took long long years to approve the three
bollgard varieties - Bt MECH12, Bt MECH162 and Bt MECH184. After one
year’s experience, the raging debate is not whether Bt is good; the debate
is between the sarakari ('Government Approved') seed and the 'effective'
but illegal black market (asar-kari) seed.
A bootlegging Bt variety has given eminently satisfactory results in
Gujarat and the South while the officially approved varieties have shown
certain undesirable traits known to come not from the 'Cry1ac' gene but
from the host hybrid varieties. The disaster could have been avoided if
the GEAC had remained confined to its legitimate mandate and just approved
the gene - 'Cry-Ac' - leaving it to the Indian seed producers to find
appropriate host seeds. Last year, the cotton producers in the North were
frustrated because the GEAC had not approved any variety for their reason.
This jeopardy would not have arisen if the GEAC had stuck to its mandate.
Any number of seed producers in the North could have easily encased the
officially approved gene into an appropriate seed.
The GEAC decision created a virtual monopoly and the Mahyco had to
discharge its responsibility by proposing a Bt variety suited for the
northern regions as well. The GEAC has now rejected the application for
the commercial release of that variety Bt MECH915. Stranger still is the
reason given for the rejection. The proposed variety, the GEAC considers,
is highly sensitive towards Curl Leaf virus, rampant in the North. That
could hardly be a sensible ground for the GEAC to reject Mahyco’s
application. GEAC should have bothered about whether the variety is
sensitive to bollworm, resistance to which was claimed by the applicant.
If the proposed variety is sensitive to one or the other pest apart form
bollworm it is a matter for the ministry for Agriculture, not for the GEAC
in the ministry for Environment and Forests.
The GEAC has conducted itself in the matter of Bt cotton in a highly
incompetent manner that makes its motivations suspect. The worst
consequence is that the public at large as also the leaders of public
opinion are shockingly ill-informed about the facts in the Bt debate. The
anti-Bt mercenaries are calling the Bt performance as a flop show when
they know very well that if anything has flopped it is not the Bt seed but
the GEAC-seed; the non-GEAC Bt seed is thriving and gaining popularity
day-by-day and region-by-region.
It would appear that the members of the parliament are estopped from
taking cognizance of the very fact that an asarkari Bt cotton seed exists
and is doing well. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture,
clearly limiting itself to report from the GEAC on cotton seed, has asked
the government to set up immediately an independent team of experts to
reevaluate the economic viability of GEAC-approved varieties. Quoting from
a note prepared by the department of Agriculture and Cooperation in the
Union Agriculture Ministry it has come to the conclusion that, "The Bt
seed is only marginally better than the normally used varieties in terms
of productivity and also resistance to bollworm infestation. The little
advantage is wiped out by the higher costs of seeds and higher costs of
If the Bt seed is found to be marginally or infinitesimally better than
the existing varieties, the matter ends as far as the government is
concerned. It is for the farmers to experiment, in diverse circumstances,
the cost-benefit aspects.
The Krishi Bhavan (ICAR) would do well to give priority attention to
ensuring, at least, the Statutory Minimum Price for the produce from seeds
it has approved and endorsed. If Ajit Singh (Agriculture Minister) wants
farmers to go to the Court to get Statutory Minimum Price he has no
business to talk about the cost-benefit situation of cotton.
A yet another element in the tragi-comic scenario. The GEAC has refused to
clear the GM variety of mustard seed yet another time, in spite of the
fact that the edible oil situation demands urgent remedial action. The
serious consequence is that the applicant, in this case Pro-Agro Ltd., is
more pungent and less prepared to put up with the government’s nonsense.
It has announced its intention of simply withdrawing the application. I
wish Mahyco had done it five years back. That would have made the
government babus (bureacrats), long back, to rush and stand in queue in
front of Mahyco doors with applications for introduction of Bt cotton seed
varieties in India.
All this has confirmed the age-old adage: "Farmers can put up with asmani
(the sky) but not with sultani (authoritarian government)."
Mr. Sharad Joshi is the founder of Shetkari Sanghatana (Indian Farmers'
Organization) located at Angarmala, Vill. & Po: Ambethan, Tal. Khed, Dist.
Pune (M.S.) India 410501; Phone: 02135-252295 FAX: 02135-252354; WebSite:
http://www.shetkari.org (Still under construction; pl. bear with us.)
Protest Planned Against Greenpeace's 'Eco-Manslaughter'
- Marc Morano, May 09, 2003 http://www.cnsnews.com/
An African American civil rights group is planning a Saturday protest
against Greenpeace, alleging that the environmental group has committed
'eco-manslaughter'through its support of international policies limiting
development and the expansion of technology to the developing world's
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) will conduct a counter
demonstration at Greenpeace USA's "Run for Your Life" 5K road race at
Liberty State Park in New Jersey. The Greenpeace event itself will be a
protest, meant to "raise awareness of the serious threats posed by
chemical plants to New York and New Jersey residents and workers".
CORE is using the event as an opportunity to confront Greenpeace activists
about their opposition to infrastructure development projects in the
developing world, opposition to genetically modified foods and the group's
opposition to the use of the chemical DDT to kill malaria-ridden
mosquitoes, particularly in Africa.
"To serve its own ideological agenda, [Greenpeace] wants to keep the Third
World permanently mired in Third World poverty, disease and death. So far,
it has succeeded," said Niger Innis, national spokesperson for CORE.
Innis believes that policies advocated by Greenpeace are keeping the
developing world‚s poor from attaining running water, electricity and
modern agricultural techniques that would allow more food to be grown on
less land. "It's time to hold these zealots accountable for the misery and
death they cause," Innis stated.
According to CORE, 2 billion people worldwide have no electrical power or
clean water and are forced to use manure for fuel. CORE alleges that
groups like Greenpeace are partly responsible for this as a result of
their opposition to infrastructure development projects in the poorest
regions of the world. "Green radicals oppose all these projects and tell
these destitute people they should be happy with little solar panels on
their huts, now and for generations to come," a CORE press release stated.
"People should be ashamed to support these fanatics and the
eco-manslaughter they are perpetrating on the world's most destitute
people. [Saturday's] protest is just the first step in bringing justice to
the Third World,"he added.
Several calls to Greenpeace USA were not returned by press time.
C.O.R.E. is the acronym for the Congress of Racial Equality. Founded in
1942, CORE is the third oldest and one of the 'Big Four' civil rights
groups in the United States.
Biotechnology Debate: Socio-political Error of Monsanto?
- Pierluca Meregalli
I should add to what Mr.Chassy said that unfortunately all the war against
biotechnologies began, using the words of Mr.Chassy, 'for a
socio-political error of Monsanto.'
A potentially very useful technology was felt as a trick to sell an
herbicide from the same corporation. If the thing had begun as Bt
engineered corn,instead of Roundup ready soybeans, possibly the whole
affair could have followed another path. So being the question we have
certainly lost almost ten years here in Europe but also in U.S.A you don't
Safety of RR Soybeans
- Sivramiah Shantharam
Dear AgBioView Readers and contributors: Will anyone of you send me an
authenticated or peer reviewed report or scientific publication that
provides a scientific proof that RR soybean is
safe for human consumption. I think FDA might have given such an opinion
before Monsanto started marketing it long time ago. Thank you all in
Six Plant and AgBiotech Scientists Among 72 New Members Chosen by US
- Washington, April 29, 2003. http://national-academies.org/nas
It eluded the famed science communicator and astronomer Carl Sagan. But
the coveted election to US National Academy of Sciences has been bestowed
on six plant scientists, most of them working in biotechnology.
I recognized six names but there may be more in this list of 72. The list
includes Herrera Estrella of Mexico who was among the first to develop a
GM plant; Thomashow of Michigan State Univ - who pioneered the development
of cold-tolerant GM plants; Cashmore made fundamental contributions to
plant molecular biology while Nasarallah is well recognized for her
self-incompatibility studies.Tiedje is a microbial ecologist while van
Etten is a plant pathologist.
AgBioWorld congratulates and salutes these pioneers for receiving one of
the highest science honors in the world - Prakash
Luis Herrera-Estrella, National Polytechnic Institue, Mexico
Tony Cashmore, Univ of Penn.
June Nararallah - Cornell University
Mike Thomashow - Michigan State Univer
James Tiedje - Michigan State Univer
James van Etten - Univer of Nebraska
"The National Academy of Sciences today announced the election of 72 new
members and 18 foreign associates from 11 countries in recognition of
their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. The
election was held this morning during the business session of the 140th
annual meeting of the Academy. Election to membership in the Academy is
considered one of the highest honors that can be accorded a U.S. scientist
or engineer. Those elected today bring the total number of active members
Double Helix Coin
- Constance Holden, Science, v.300, No. 5619, p.577, Apr 25, 2003.
Britain's Royal Mint has launched a £2 coin to celebrate the 50th
anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and
his British colleague Francis Crick. The coin may also help expand the
vocabulary of the common person with the inscription "deoxyribonucleic
acid" on the edge.
From Prakash: Perhaps this new DNA coin also helps the biotechphobe Brits
to put their mouth where their money is and now start accepting GM food
to see its picture, get details of this very beautiful coin and how you
can order it from any where in the world (Price: £6.95). It comes with a
colorful brochure on DNA and would make a nice gift for your activist
friend (!) and makes an excellent collectors item. US readers can go to
http://www.royalmint.com/shop/ . I found both sites clumsy and user
unfriendly to order; But you can call 1-800-510-6468 in US to buy this
"The discovery of the secret of life itself is celebrated in this
specially designed, informative presentation folder, which shows how it
impacts our lives today - from DNA fingerprinting to the fight against
many diseases. As its heart is the Brilliant Uncirculated £2 coin
commemorating the 50th anniversary of James Watson and Francis Crick's
achievement in identifying the structure of DNA which is beautifully
captured in John Mills' design. "
GMO Opposition Not Based On A Mistake
- Jerry Cayford, Nature Biotechnology, May 2003 v.21, no. p.493,
www.nature.com; reproduced with permission.
To the editor: In his commentary in the March issue, "Transgenic
organisms—time for conceptual diversification?" (Nat. Biotechnol. 21,
227–228, 2003), Nielsen hypothesizes that a system of measuring different
degrees of genetic distance "may ultimately lead to increased public
acceptance" of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He thinks this
because he is guessing that "misleading conceptual assumptions" are behind
the negative perceptions of GMOs. His hypothesis is a shot in the dark,
and it shows that Nielsen, like many advocates, has no idea what upsets
the critics of GMOs.
The misleading assumption here is his own assumption that "[t]he extent to
which transgenic organisms differ from traditionally bred organisms
underlies much of the controversy surrounding the use of GMOs." This is
not what underlies the controversy, and people are not compulsive purists,
anxiously struggling to keep separate species in separate boxes.
What underlies the controversy is whether crop germplasm is public domain
or is privately owned through patents on plants and animals. If scientists
really want to address the root of opposition to transgenic food, they
first need to acknowledge what that underlying root is: monopoly control
of the world's food supply. Finely graded scales and nuanced distinctions
like Nielsen describes are sometimes just what we need. But not in this
case. In the GMO controversy, the solutions may be difficult, but the key
distinction is not. It really is up or down, black or white, as definite
as whether a patent office says 'yes' or 'no.'
Resources for the Future, 1616 P Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036 e-mail:
Costs of Commercialising Transgenic Crops and the Need to Reduce Trial
- Professor C Kameswara Rao, India; Posted to: Biotech-Mod1@fao.org
Financial and time costs of commercialising transgenic crops and the need
to reduce trial phase duration for repeated transgenic events.
It takes about 11-13 years for a specific transgenic variety to get into
commercial cultivation. Five years to develop the transgenic event, such
as pest resistance or herbicide resistance, 2 or 3 years of controlled
greenhouse trials on approval by a regulatory agency, and 3 or more years
of controlled field trials. This would cost US$ 5-7 million in the United
States and 8-12 million in Europe. It takes some 5 years of commercial
cultivation before it is de-regulated.
The regulatory authorities should have a rational and science based
approach to giving or denying approval for a transgenic crop. For a number
of crops there is only one annual growing season. If for any reason the
trial phase is extended, as has just been done in India for 2 years each
for GE mustard and Mech 915 Bt cotton meant for the north Indian States,
the time lost would increase costs in terms of expense on the extended
trials or maintenance, and interest on investment to date. This burden
would fall on the cultivator/consumer.
Mahyco's Mech 915 variety has gone into a second deferment, after three
other varieties containing the same gene for Cry 1Ac were approved last
year, and this on the basis of a factor unrelated to Bt technology. Bt
technology in cotton is meant to protect the cotton crop from the American
bollworm and has nothing to do with the leaf curl virus. If susceptibility
to the leaf curl virus makes Mech 915 unsuitable for cultivation now, one
more year of field trial is not going to remedy that. GE or non-GE, no
cotton variety in India is resistant to leaf curl virus and so none should
be grown at all.
Transgenic technology for pest resistance and herbicide resistance have
proved their merits and are being under increased acreage year by year, in
increasing number of countries. Both their stability in the recipient
genomes and their biosecurity have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
The incidents related to Starlink or Prodigene were issues of human
management errors and not technology lacunae.
If a particular transgenic event, like Cry 1Ac in cotton in India, is
approved for commercial cultivation, the same event put into another
cotton variety in India should not be required to pass through the entire
5-7 year trial phases. For example, Mahyco used Monsanto's Bt technology
with Cry 1 Ac and the same is being used by Rasi Seeds. Under this
scenario, the trial phase before commercialisation can be reduced for the
gene construct with Cry 1 Ac, inserted into whatever variety of cotton in
India. When a product developer introduces the same genetic event, as was
used earlier, into a better variety, one year of controlled greenhouse
trials and one year of controlled field trials should be adequate. It
would be a different matter if the gene construct involves Cry 1 Ab or
stacking of Cry 1 Ab and Cry 1 Ac.
Extended trial periods create another problem. The variety into which an
event is introduced may be overtaken by other non-transgenic varieties,
which results in an endless race and disadvantage to the transgenic
varieties, benefiting no one. Mahyco's cotton varieties were among the
best in the country when chosen for developing Bt varieties five or six
years ago, but by the time they were allowed for commercial cultivation,
they were overtaken in field performance by other non-Bt varieties.
Reduced time schedules will break monopolies in transgenic trade and
provide the farmers with a wider choice of varieties of the same crop with
a particular genetic event, from different developers.
- Professor C Kameswara Rao, Executive Secretary, Foundation for
Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India; firstname.lastname@example.org
Science Goes Madison Avenue
- Steve Bunk, The Scientist, May 5, 2003 v.17p.8
'What would the ideal scientist look like?'
Given the daily onslaught of advice--sagacious and otherwise--on seemingly
every topic delivered by anyone within earshot of a soapbox, it's pleasant
to consider what societies might be like if lateral thinkers, such as
scientists, led the way. What if even just a few prominent voices, clearly
heard above the ruckus of opinion-giving and decision-making, were more
idealistic than pragmatic, pensive rather than reactive, and beholden to
no special interests but life and peace? Okay, that isn't entirely what
scientists are about, nor is it how the world works, but it's pleasant to
The essential goal is to garb scientists in the raiment of the larger
society's values and preoccupations, so the message deliverer has a
familiar guise. Politicians, entertainers, and advertisers do this all the
time. It's called packaging. The well-packaged scientist would look the
role while delivering a revolutionary message so insidious that most folks
couldn't distinguish it from the usual cant. In other words, the feel-good
guff about caring and sharing that normally tarts up naked self-interest
would be, in the scientist's case, not only the packaging but also the
content. The image would become the product; now that's marketing.
What would the ideal scientist look like? First off, he would be male, a
prerequisite that can be blamed on the societal stereotype. Don't forget,
the way this packaging exercise works is by concentrating on what
interests the public. Accordingly, the most important image issue after
gender is hair. A full head of graying or white hair is acceptable,
although our man must offset the possibility of looking like an aging rake
by displaying some avuncular characteristic, such as bottle-bottomed
bifocals or a casually draped Nobel Prize medal. A bald or shaved head,
which connotes villainy in cinematic science, should be discouraged. The
optimum: he would possess the endearing eccentricity of pattern baldness
within an overgrown, electrified fringe.
Next comes clothing, a.k.a. the envelope. The chalk smudge, a species
marker, should be applied to a tweed suit that is one size too small or
large. Other markers are permissible, if carefully chosen. For example,
atomic-pattern socks or a Charles Darwin watch face are fine, but a green
fluorescent incisor is overkill. Our man always should wear the same suit,
and the night before each TV appearance, he should sleep in it.
Another essential part of the package is the voice. The objective is a
blend of the news announ-cer's dispassionate tones with soap-operatic
passion, to attain a modulated excitability that proclaims both scientific
objectivity and erotically charged enthusiasm. For a benchmark, consider
Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, or a teenaged boy analyzing the talents of
Britney Spears, sans the saliva.
The message itself must be easily consumed or phagocytosed, which requires
a reductive process that terminates in a slogan. The slogan is the
scientist's phenotype, characteristic of the species. It should be deep
but catchy, like, "life and peace." Speaking for all scientists, our man
can blow a raspberry into the microphone, and the sound engineer can
transform it into Esperanto for "life and peace." He can advocate a huge
funding increase in bioweaponry research, and everyone will see it as a
proposal made in the interests of life and peace. (One would prefer an
alternate outcome, but such are the risks of science.) Having become a
commodity endowed with both economic brawn and universality, he now is
identified with an array of material goods that have nothing whatsoever to
do with him. In marketing, this is called "pluripotency." Accordingly, he
should never reject a merchandising offer, be it computer software, energy
drinks, or bobble dolls.
The quest for pluripotency gets a boost if the scientist is an
accomplished researcher who has done something that the public can
appreciate without actual comprehension. The prototype here is relativity,
which ended up standing for relativism, pluralism, eclecticism, and the
other thing that nobody really understands, postmodernism. In any case,
when the researcher's name precedes a newly founded Life and Peace
University of Biomedical Research, preferably located at a ski resort in a
tax haven, the packaging effort can be considered successful.
Upon our icon's demise, if an overawed pathologist removes his brain,
that's gravy. In the end, he will have opened doors for all tonsorially
aware geniuses in rumpled suits with a few notions about how things work,
which pretty much sums up every biologist. If you don't believe it, just
ask the person in the street.
Steve Bunk (email@example.com) is a freelance writer in San
A Final Call for Peace
- David L. Hull, Nature v.422, p 810 - 81; April 24 2003
'The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between
Science and the Humanities by Stephen Jay Gould; Harmony: 2003. 288 pp.
Amazon.com Price $18.17"
Stephen Jay Gould's Rocks of Ages investigated the relationship between
science and religion. In The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox,
published posthumously, Gould turns his attention to the relationship
between science and the humanities. During the Renaissance, what we now
term 'scientists' were at odds with humanists, whose goal was to recover
the wisdom of antiquity, not to generate new ideas by means of empirical
investigation. An appropriate mantra for Renaissance humanist scholars was
'been there, done that'. When the sciences cast off the heavy hand of the
humanities in the Renaissance, a new adversarial attitude took its place.
In this book, Gould strives to outline a more peaceful, mutually
supportive view of the relationship between the sciences and the
Gould sees three ways in which the humanities can contribute to science.
First, "science needs the humanities to teach us the quirky and richly
subjective side of our own enterprise". The path of science does not run
smoothly — at times it is indeed quirky. But is science really subjective,
even richly subjective? Gould spends a lot of time debunking the myth of
objectivity as a psychological characteristic of scientists. As anyone who
studies science soon begins to realize, scientists are not very objective
when it comes to their own work, but group objectivity is what matters.
Individual scientists may lack objectivity when it comes to their own pet
hypotheses, but others will happily take up the slack. Science is
organized so that subjectivity can be reduced, resulting in as much
objectivity as scientists need.
Gould warns of the great harm done in science and elsewhere by
caricaturing one's opponents. The contrast between the traditional
'positivistic' views of science and more recent 'postmodernist' views is
ripe for caricature. Supposedly, positivists think that scientists are
infallible and provide absolute truth, whereas postmodernists insist that
scientists are driven to come up with the views that they do primarily by
such social forces as sexism, racism and homophobia. Gould tries to skate
between these two extremes. Science is socially embedded, but the
recognition of this fact can only aid scientists in their goal of
recording and explaining the natural world.
A second contribution that the humanities can make to science is to help
scientists improve their communication skills. Gould thinks that academics
in general do not write well, with scientists especially deficient in this
respect. One of the things that made Gould stand out from his
contemporaries was that in general he wrote as well as any humanist ever
has. Young academics in departments of English are stuck teaching courses
in remedial writing, just as those of us in departments of philosophy are
stuck teaching courses in remedial thinking, but neither group is likely
to take much satisfaction from the goal that Gould has assigned them.
Finally, Gould claims that those of us in the humanities are charged with
setting out the proper boundaries of all magisteria, including science.
One of the weaknesses of this book is that Gould does not say enough about
his central notion — magisteria — and turning to a dictionary does not
help. As far as I can tell, magisteria are something akin to areas of
expertise shared by groups of experts. About the only characteristic that
Gould attributes to magisteria is that they are non-overlapping.
Positivists took it as one of their tasks to define science. Quite a few
philosophers of science today think that attempting to draw a line between
science and everything else is not very helpful. There is no 'essence' to
science, no set of attributes that characterizes all scientists and only
scientists throughout all time. Science has evolved and continues to
evolve. For some reason, Gould thinks that our concepts must be absolutely
sharp to be of any use at all. Despite having a history, Gould argues,
they have and must have an essence as well.
A second weakness of this book is that it is largely a collection of
essays and parts of essays that have been welded into a single narrative.
The seams show. Readers might wonder about the quirky, although arresting,
title. The contrast between the hedgehog and the fox is initially meant to
distinguish between being very good at one thing (the hedgehog curling up
in a ball when attacked) and reasonably good at many things (the fox). He
refers to this metaphor frequently in his book, but for me it doesn't add
much to his exposition, and the Magister's pox hardly merits a mention
except to rhyme with fox. Gould expends much effort arguing that science,
once it is properly understood, is not in conflict with the humanities.
But he says little about the help, if any, that science can give to the
Another reason why Gould introduces the notion of magisteria is to help
usher in the Age of Aquarius, when peace will guide not only the planets
but also academic disciplines. He himself has been badly burned,
especially in connection with the controversy over E. O. Wilson's
'sociobiology'. Wouldn't everyone benefit if we all worked together and
the lamb were to lie down with the lion? I too like peace and quiet,
cooperation and generosity, and all areas of human endeavour can at times
be characterized in these terms, but not often.
Why are people so loath to apply to themselves the basic principles that
they apply to everyone else? Because it all depends on whose ox is being
gored. Throughout this book, Gould preaches peace. In particular, he would
like to end his conflict with Wilson, but in the final third of this book,
Gould cannot resist taking one last swipe at his long-time adversary.
Although Gould is as gentle and gentlemanly as possible, he attacks
Wilson's reductionism under the guise of William Whewell's 'consilience of
inductions'. A consilience of inductions occurs when the data used to
support one hypothesis also turn out to support another hypothesis as
well. Gould argues that Wilson has got Whewell all wrong: Whewell's notion
of consilience is not in the least reductionistic.
In his final collection of essays, I Have Landed, Gould could not help
wondering what comes next. Unfortunately, what came next was a second bout
of cancer and premature death. But had he beaten the odds a second time, I
think Gould would have continued to do battle with Wilson. I picture two
warriors sinking into quicksand as they flail away at each other one more
time -- just one more time. --
David L. Hull is emeritus professor in the Department of Philosophy,
Northwestern University, 1818 Hinman Avenue, Evanston, Illinois