Today in AgBioView: May 12, 2003
* Lorenzo Stands Up To Greenpeace
* CORE Blasts Lethal Greenpeace Policies
* Public Domain versus Monopoly Control of the World's Food Supply?
* Between You and Me, It's Just a Matter of When
* Consumer Fear Cancels European GM Research
* GM Terminology
* Making Genes, Making Waves: A Social Activist in Science
* Bt Resistance
Lorenzo Stands Up To Greenpeace
- Alvin Capino ABS-CBN News (Philippines), May 11, 2003 (Sent by Andrew
A few months ago a respected Nobel Prize-winning genetic scientist (sic),
in a visit to the Philippines, made the startling disclosure that the
pressure group Greenpeace has a slush fund of about $175 million for
public relations and lobby work for its international campaign to stop the
approval of the propagation of plant varieties that have gone through the
US-based Dr. Channapatra Prakash (sic) warned that the Philippines is
among the targets of the Greenpeace scare campaign in the wake of the
then-expected approval by the Philippine government of the domestic
propagation of a high-yielding biotech corn variety that produces high
yield despite the use of little or no toxic chemical pesticides.
Local Greenpeace campaigners were quick to deny the existence of such a
slush fund, but many people were skeptical about the Greenpeace
disclaimer. It is easy to believe the existence of such a fund, especially
since it appears that the environmental pressure group has no problem with
money in their campaign against the courageous Filipino scientists who
were brave enough to go against Greenpeace and endorse crops developed
through biotechnology in answer to low farm productivity and high chemical
Greenpeace advocates are understandably annoyed at these probiotechnology
Filipino scientists and those who put their side in the media because they
exposed the position of Greenpeace against biotechnology as nothing more
than speculations -- with no basis whatsoever on any proven scientific
With the government firm in its position to push through with the
propagation of biotechnology-developed crops, specifically Bt corn, that
have proven to be a boon for farmers in the US and other countries,
activists identified with Greenpeace have staged a hunger strike in front
of the office of the Department of Agriculture.
The demand of the "hunger strikers" is for Agriculture Secretary Luis
'Cito' Lorenzo Jr. to immediately revoke the government permit for the
domestic propagation of the high-yielding biotech corn variety because of
their unproven and unsupported fears on the possible impact on the
environment of this biotech commercial crop.
For a while there it looked like Lorenzo was going to blink. The timing of
the hunger strike was nothing less than Machiavellian -- Lorenzo's
appointment was set to go through the Commission on Appointments (CA). The
hunger strikers and their supporters knew that Lorenzo is most vulnerable
at this time and he could give in, just to have a smooth sailing at the
It seems, however, that Lorenzo, who has proven his mettle in the business
world, is made of sterner stuff and has continued to resist the intense
pressure on him by the hunger strike and its accompanying media campaign.
The most recent report says he has refused to give in to the demand for a
moratorium by the environmental activists on the approval of the permit
for the propagation of Bt corn, which incidentally was made when former
secretary Leonardo Montemayor was still at the helm of the department.
Lorenzo's refusal to buckle under the hysterical demand of Greenpeace
speaks well of the strength of his character and his political will. This
is the same courage shown by officials of several Filipino food companies
who were threatened with a boycott campaign, among others, if they did not
stop using raw materials from biotech crops in their manufactured
products. Greenpeace demanded that these companies buy their materials
from a list of suppliers endorsed by Greenpeace.
The problem of sourcing raw materials from the Greenpeace list is that the
raw materials from these materials sourced from outside the country are
expensive and the supply is erratic.
San Miguel Corp., General Milling and several Filipino companies refused
to give in to the Greenpeace threat but they could soon be targets again,
especially if Lorenzo cannot unilaterally rescind a decision that went
through a strict and laborious approval process undertaken not by
bureaucrats and politicians but by scientists.
The go-ahead for biotech corn propagation emanated not from the Office of
Agriculture Secretary but from the respected and apolitical Scientific and
Technical Review Panel (STRP) composed of independent-minded scientists
It's a puzzle why Greenpeace and their NGO allies did not fight the battle
when the review process for biotech corn was still at the STRP level. Is
it because they cannot argue their case based on proven and established
scientific data? At the STRP it would be impossible, I guess, to prove the
assertion that ingesting biotech corn will make one a homosexual as some
parish priests in Northern Luzon used to tell their flock. They would also
be hard-pressed to produce scientific data to prove their famous line that
the planting of biotech corn "would result in millions of dead bodies,
sick children, cancer clusters and deformities."
At the end of the day, it is obvious that Greenpeace and its local NGO
allies are not interested in a scientific discussion. The hunger strike
and the timing show that all they're interested in is political theatrics.
The environmental activists holding the hunger strike in front of the DA
should realize that people are dying of hunger not only in the Philippines
but all over the world not by choice but by force of circumstance. For a
world threatened by hunger the answer to the problem lies in
biotechnology. As our scientists put it, every day there are more and more
mouths to feed and less and less arable land. Agriculture can no longer
remain an input-based sector; it must now become technology-based. The
hope of our scientists is that biotechnology can help develop
superior-yielding crops to compensate for diminishing land.
Note From Prakash:
I thank Alvin Capino for giving me the "Nobel Prize"!
But seriously, this "$175 million budget" of Greenpeace's anti-GM activism
has been wrongly attributed to me repeatedly. While talking to the press
in Philippines last year, I did mention that Greenpeace has a massive
budget, some where along $135 million and of which about $10 million of
that is spent on their anti-GM activities.
But these numbers are irrelevant to the above discussion. What Capino says
here is right on the mark!
CORE Blasts Lethal Greenpeace Policies
- CORE Press Release, Niger Innis, (212) 598-4000; Sent by Apel
CORE ceensures radical group's "Run for Death" in NY-NJ parks
New York City (May 8, 2003) -- Greenpeace radicals are used to writing the
script and having the stage to themselves, when they protest Shell Oil or
the World Bank. Today, however, soon they will be the target of a vocal,
colorful protest organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
Saturday, May 10th, the green radicals will come to New Jersey's Liberty
State Park to recruit members, raise money and frighten people half to
death about chemical facilities in New Jersey and New York. The CORE
protesters intend to counter them by dramatizing how Greenpeace policies
bring misery, disease and death to millions of people in developing
countries, particularly in Africa.
Greenpeace intends a 1K walk and 5K "Run for Your Life" road race to
promote its agenda. Calling the event a "Run for Death" CORE will send
over one hundred protesters in African folk garb, "grim reaper" costumes
carrying little coffins, beating drums and waving placards. Their goal
will be to underscore the millions of Africans who perish every year
because Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other radical groups oppose
pesticide spraying to control malaria, biotechnology to ease malnutrition,
and electrical generating plants to power hospitals and water treatment
Placards carried by CORE demonstrators will read: Africans want better
lives, Stop the eco-manslaughter, DDT saves African lives, and Well-fed
Greens --Starving Africans.
"Greenpeace is part of an international network of socialist,
anti-development organizations located in all the capitals of the
developed world and most developing nations, "said Niger Innis, National
Spokesperson for CORE. "To serve its own ideological agenda, it wants to
keep the Third World permanently mired in Third World poverty, disease and
death. So far it has succeeded. We are here to tell these radicals that we
aren't going to stand for this anymore. And neither are the poor people of
Africa, Asia and Latin America."
"Greenpeace claims it is 'for the people,' Innis noted. "In reality, it is
a powerful elite of First World activist whose hardcore agenda puts people
last. It`s time to hold these zealots accountable for the misery and death
Worldwide, 2 billion people still have no electrical power, no lights, no
refrigeration, no clean drinking water. Instead, women and children squat
in mud and wet cow dung, to collect manure for fuel. Millions die every
year from lung diseases caused by indoor air pollution from these cooking
fires, or diarrhea due to contaminated food and drinking water.
Nuclear, hydroelectric and fossil fuel plants could help solve these
problems -- and provide electricity and hope for schools, hospitals,
businesses, industries and communities. But 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.
Across Africa, malaria kills 2 million people every year, half of them
children. Over 250 million more get this horrible disease and are unable
to work for weeks or months on end, costing their countries $12 billion
annually. Malaria also threatens Asia and Latin America.
DDT and other pesticides, used in tiny amounts, can slash malaria rates
and deaths by 80% or more. But Greenpeace absolutely opposes this and
pressures the European Union to ban fish and agricultural exports
(including tobacco!) from any African nation that uses DDT. Even the
liberal New York Times says "wealthy nations should be helping poor
countries with all available means ˆ including DDT." But the callous
eco-radicals refuse to budge.
In southern Africa, 14 million people are starving. Desperate to survive
another day, they hunt down and cook anything that swims, runs, crawls or
flies. Biotechnology could save lives and preserve wildlife and habitats,
by enabling farmers to grow more food on less land.
But well-fed eco-fanatics shriek "Frankenfoods" and "genetic pollution."
They threaten sanctions on nations that dare to grow genetically modified
crops, to feed their people or replace crops that have been wiped out by
insects and blights. They plan to spend $175 million battling biotech
foods over the next five years. Not one dime of this will go to the
starving poor, and even Greenpeace co-founder Dr. Patrick Moore is
disgusted that the organization he once led "puts unfounded fear-mongering
ahead of the world`s poor."But the zealots are unmoved.
Other chemicals are just as important as pesticides for saving lives.
Without chlorine, for example, water purification becomes almost
impossible. But radical greens are also trying to eliminate chlorine and
pressure developing countries not to use it. "In 1991, they managed to
persuade Peruvian authorities to stop chlorinating the nation`s drinking
water," Innis pointed out, "and a cholera epidemic infected half a million
people and killed 4,700. The radicals' priorities are completely upside
down. And now they want to impose the same lethal policies here in the
"The carnage has got to end," Innis said. "People should be ashamed to
support these fanatics and the eco-manslaughter they are perpetrating on
the world's most destitute people. Today's protest is just the first step
in bringing justice to the Third World."
Public Domain versus Monopoly Control of the World's Food Supply?
- Response From Dave Wood (UK), AgBioView, May 12, 2003,
Jerry Cayford (Nature Biotechnology reported in AgBioView, May 5th) tries
to reduce public opposition to GMOs to a white/black dichotomy: public
domain versus monopoly control of the world's food supply through patents
on plants and animals. Given this choice, of course, we all go for public
But what exactly is 'public domain'? The only sure example is technology
and varieties over which legal rights such as Plant Varietal Rights or
patents have lapsed (as they always do). Public domain now only seems to
exist for once protected varieties, genes, or technologies.
For most other crop germplasm the new 'International Treaty on Plant
Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture' removes the concept of 'public
domain'. If you want use something commercially, you will have to pay for
it. Crops not included in the Treaty are also removed from the public
domain and are covered by national sovereignty (reinforced by the
Convention of Biological Diversity). If a country has a monopoly on a
useful gene, for pest resistance or whatever, users will have to pay under
'access and benefit sharing' agreements. No public domain here, and the
public have not uttered a peep in opposition,
In contrast, despite international movement away from 'public domain',
wishful-thinkers and seed-activist NGOs have always designated farmers'
varieties as in the public domain. This NGO attempt to move the private
property of farmers into the public domain is on par ethically with the
seed companies moving the public domain to their own private property
(which at least is time limited and adds value to the seed, otherwise it
would not sell).
It is not so much 'monopoly control' as `ownership of life' that seems to
be the sticking point. Most people eating food from crops produced in
developed countries already subjected to 'monopoly control of the world's
food supply': most of what we eat is already 'owned' and protected by
Plant Variety Rights. We accept it and are glad that these Rights generate
funding for more research. So why make a big fuss now, when there has been
monopoly control (that is, private ownership) of what we eat in developed
countries for many years?
As a result of this ownership, farmers in developed countries cannot buy
grain, intended for milling, and use it and sell it as seed, to grow
crops. However, in developing countries, where there is no `monopoly'
protection, anyone can buy grain in the market and subsequently use it as
seed, with no protection for the farmer. Many genebank samples originated
in grain markets. And we can, of course, take patented or protected
varieties to another country where they have no legal protection and use
So despite Cayford's plea for black and white (based on an aversion to
patents?), public domain and monopoly control are both highly grey and
fuzzy. As such, they can not be used to define the public's opposition to
GMOs (although simplistic attempts to do so will certainly continue to be
Between You and Me, It's Just a Matter of When
- Ian Sample, The Guardian, May 1, 2003
'The government says it will not make its mind up about GM crops until
after the public debate, which starts next month. But is that just spin?'
There's a tall thin rod stuffed in the ground at the edge of one of Bob
Fiddaman's fields in Piccotts End, a village on the outskirts of Hemel
Hempstead. The rod, which sways in the wind like an over-sized CB aerial,
marks a line that divides the field in two. To the left, running slightly
downhill, lies an example of British farming as it is done today across
the length and breadth of the country. To the right is what many see as
farming's inevitable, controversial future: genetically modified crops.
The 22 hectare (54 acre) field is one of the last in the country to be
used to test the impact of genetically modified crops on the environment.
Late last August, half of the field was sown with conventional winter
oilseed rape, the other was sown with a genetically modified version of
the crop. Come the end of July, both crops will be harvested. A portion of
the conventional crop can be sold, but the genetically engineered harvest
will be carted off, mashed and buried in a landfill.
Periodically, scientists come to the field to count the bees and
butterflies on each side of the divide. They suck bugs off the crops with
miniature vacuum cleaners and check traps they have laid for beetles,
spiders, slugs and snails. Right now, Fiddaman is struggling to find a
trap so that we can see what they have caught.
The test here is part of a three-year study set up in response to concerns
originally raised in 1997 by English Nature, the government's advisory
body on wildlife, that the genetically modified crops Monsanto and others
were about to bring to market could wreak havoc among the wildlife
dependent on farmland. The tests are nationwide, involving four
genetically modified crops: spring oilseed rape, winter oilseed rape,
maize and beet. Between 60 and 75 fields of each crop were planted.
The biggest worry, according to Brian Johnson, English Nature's
biotechnology adviser, was not the crops themselves but the weedkillers
used with them. Instead of targeting specific types of weed,
broad-spectrum weedkillers such as glyphosate, which kills all plants,
would be sprayed. These could be sprayed on fields of genetically modified
crops because the crops had an extra gene stolen from soil bacteria that
renders the weedkiller useless. Johnson's concern was that if all plants
bar the crop were wiped out, there would be no food for insects and other
creatures to feed on. The skylark, whose numbers have already fallen
dramatically in the past few decades, feeds on seeds and small insects and
was thought to be at particular risk.
To find out if the threat was real, the government set up the field scale
trials. Hence the scientists who count the creatures. If the variety and
number of species among the GM crops is the same as those among normal
crops, the weedkiller is not damaging biodiversity.
When the trials were announced, the biotech industry agreed with the
government not to commercialise GM crops until the results were in. In
reality the trials gave industry and government breathing space. For the
fledgling Labour government, that meant not having to go up against a
vocal opposition, who - after the BSE saga - feared genetic modification
was the next thing the government was going to get badly wrong. It gave
industry time to work on the public relations disaster that GM had become.
If no one was going to buy GM food, there was little point in trying to
sell it to farmers.
"We got to a stage where having got so close to commercialisation, because
of the NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and headlines, it wasn't
going to happen before we did serious public outreach," says Julian Little
of Bayer Cropscience, which makes the oilseed rape growing in Fiddaman's
Until 2001, the government insisted it would not make any decisions on GM
crops before the trials were completed. But a report that year by the
governmental advisory body, the biotechnology commission, declared that
the trials would not be enough, and called for a public debate to explore
all the scientific, health and economic implications.
On June 3 the debate will begin. The government now says that it will make
no decision until the debate is over and it has all been written up at the
end of September.
The government's plans for the public debate have already been criticised.
The biotech commission wanted a debate that brought out the public's
concerns; these could then be analysed to see what scientific basis there
might be for them or what economic implications they might have. Instead,
the government has separated the debate into three strands. The most
visible will be something akin to a GM roadshow. Up and down the country,
county councils will be sent interactive CD-roms, GM starter packs, and a
video. They will convene public meetings across the land in hotels and
town halls so that we can watch, query and ponder.
The other two strands of the debate are science and economics reviews.
Headed up by David King, the government's chief science adviser, the
science review solicits views on the safety of GM food, its environmental
impact and the regulatory process that will govern their use.
The economics review, run by the government's strategy unit, is looking at
the costs and benefits of giving either the green or red light to GM
crops. They are also looking at "shocks and surprises", such as what
happens, and who pays, if by chance a rogue GM protein in food starts
making people keel over.
Critics, among them some of the government's own advisers, feel the
public's concerns will be brushed aside before they have even been voiced.
The science and economics reviews report at the beginning of the six-week
public debate, so can take little, if any, account of public concerns.
"They will give the impression that they exist more to collate evidence
that can be used to rebut public concerns," says Sir Tom Blundell,
chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.
But there are bigger problems. "I do not see how you can have a debate on
GM crops," says Johnson, of English Nature. "They are so varied. We need
to raise the standard of the debate to get through to the public that this
is not a generic issue, it's concerned with specific products that will be
used in specific ways, in the same way as mechanical engineering is not a
generic issue. Who would seriously stand up and say ban it because [cars
kill] people every hour of every day? We don't say that, we say we should
make cars safer."
Why grow GM crops? The industry's answers have shifted over the years.
Depending who you asked, they would be cheaper, more environmentally
friendly, healthier - they might even eradicate world hunger. In the US
where GM crops, mostly resistant to pests, have been grown commercially
since 1996, there's been time to find out.
"The companies have backed off from the solving the world hunger problem,
nothing that grandiose is going to happen," says John Losey, an
entomologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. There's also no
sign of GM crops being cheaper, he says. Now, the biggest selling point
seems to be saving the environment. "The one thing that [GM technology]
does do is that it means you can often use less pesticide," says Losey.
Even this is contested by many NGOs.
The benefits of GM crops depend on what farming techniques they replace.
The biggest benefits are likely to be in the developing world. In India,
trials of cotton, genetically modified to produce a pest-killing toxin,
found yields rocketed 80%. In developed countries, any increase in yield
is typically below 10%.
No one believes the British field scale trials, the results of which are
due to be published in September at the earliest, will show that GM crops
and the weedkillers used with them harm farmland wildlife. Off the record,
those involved hint at positive effects for the environment. But there are
a host of other concerns beyond the welfare of skylarks and, of course,
none of them are being addressed by the field scale trials. According to
anti-GM groups, the safety of GM foods is a risk.
Last year, a study commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) found
that genes from genetically modified food got into the gut bacteria of
humans fed GM food. It was only seen in a small number of people and the
FSA says there is no evidence it causes any harm. But if the research has
not been done, how do they know, asks Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth.
"What is the impact of bacteria taking up these genes? When you consider
the number of people who'll eat GM products, it seems wise to get that one
buttoned down," he says. One fear is that since some genetically modified
plants contain genes that produce antibiotics, they could lead to
antibiotic-resistant gut bacteria.
The FSA study illustrates the way those on either side in the GM debate
typically argue. Both agree GM crops will have myriad knock-on effects.
Then the anti-GM people say any effect should cause us concern - and we
should call a halt to things until we know more. The pro-GM groups say
that unless you can prove that the effects will be a problem, why worry?
According to Losey it might be 30 to 40 years before any problems become
evident. But does that mean we should hold off?
"There are definitely threats from GMOs, but we need to put them in
perspective," says Losey. "In some cases there have been good uses of the
technology. I think the problem is a deeper one. If we were putting this
much money and effort into other techniques, then we might be finding
effective ways of farming with less potential risk."
Arguably the biggest concern with GM crops is that the foreign genes
inserted into them can get out, finding their way into other plants. It's
already causing problems. In Canada, oilseed rape plants, modified so that
each is resistant to a different type of herbicide, are grown in
neighbouring fields. Last year, scientists at English Nature found that
pollen blown across field boundaries in one year led to the emergence the
following year of new oilseed rape plants resistant to three or more
herbicides. Because oilseed rape is normally grown in alternate years with
wheat, the new highly resistant oilseed rape sprang up as weeds among the
wheat. Ironically, farmers had to resort to older, more environmentally
damaging herbicides to wipe them out.
Crops resistant to multiple herbicides may annoy farmers, but they are
unlikely to lead to hardy "super weeds" in the wild. First, the GM crops
can only swap genes with wild plants that are close relatives. Secondly,
they will not transfer resistance to all weedkillers. Thirdly, we don't
tend to use weedkillers in the wild. Not all genes are equal however.
Those put into crops to make them pest resistant could in theory give a
real advantage to other plants growing in the wild.
The introduction of GM crops could create irreversible problems for some
farmers, says Gundula Azeez of the organic farming advocate group, the
Soil Association. "Once you introduce GM crops, you'll get
cross-pollination and that will make the production of non-GM food
impossible," she says. "As soon as the genes are out there, how do you get
them back again?" The hopelessness of trying to grow uncontaminated crops
in the US is forcing some farmers to throw in the towel, she says.
To prevent the contamination of other crops by genetically modified
varieties, regulations require a minimum distance between crop types. In
Britain, 50 metres is typically used to separate different qualities of
oilseed rape. But that may not be enough. Last year, researchers at the
University of Adelaide found pollen from oilseed rape could travel up to
3km on the wind.
All these things will no doubt be raised in the public debate. We will
have to wait to see how hard the government listens. Before the end of the
year, the government is due to vote on whether the 18 types of genetically
modified crop that have been submitted to the EU for consideration can be
grown or imported into the UK. The word is that they're going to say yes
to at least some of them: GM crops are here to stay.
But why bother going to all the hassle of introducing them when the
British public are generally opposed and there are still so many doubts?
It seems partly to be about European Union legislation. Members of the EU
can only reject GM crops if they can provide new scientific evidence that
they damage people's health or the environment. Right now, the EU believes
the evidence is lacking.
"A few member states have tried and sent some evidence, but none of it has
been judged to be new and valid," says an EU spokeswoman. Given that the
field scale trials are not expected to reveal any damaging effects, the
government will have no evidence to legally argue for a GM ban. Pressure
is also coming from the US, which has threatened to file a case with the
World Trade Organisation against the EU's ban on the import of GM crops
But of course it's also about money. One risk, according to Bernard
Marantelli at the GM industry-backed agricultural biotechnology
commission, is that saying no to GM crops could send a message that the UK
is not pro-science. Biotechnology companies and their staff could relocate
to more permissive countries.
As a tiny island, the UK seems a strange place for the biotech industry to
focus so much of its efforts, in public relations terms. In the US alone,
there are 80m acres of farmland growing maize. In the UK, the crop is
grown on just 250,000 acres. But the reason the biotech industry
desperately wants the UK on the GM wagon is to facilitate its introduction
elsewhere. "It's fair to say the UK happens to have a disproportionate
influence on Europe and the rest of the world," says Paul Rylott, who
chairs the industry body, the agricultural biotechnology council. If the
UK says yes to GM crops, other countries still making up their minds are
more likely to follow suit.
A Mori poll this week found 56% of the nation were against GM products,
and there is of course the possibility that strong public opposition may
lead to a situation where GM crops are allowed in the UK but are not grown
for domestic human consumption but for animal feed or export. "If there
isn't a market, there's not much in it for the companies doing it," says
William Mack at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Defra). But no one the Guardian spoke to seems to doubt that there will
be commercial planting in some form or other before very long. Rylott says
the public dabate has limited scope for rejection of GM crops. "This
public debate is not a referendum," he says.
"Here!" Bob Fiddaman's waving. He's found some traps. At his feet lie four
wide plastic saucers of the kind you stick potted plants into. They are
upside down. The idea, he says, is that beetles and other bugs crawl under
them for shelter. We decide to lift one, ever so carefully, so we can
catch anything that makes a break for it. There's nothing under the first
saucer, so we move to the next. It's not sheltering anything either. Nor
are any of the others. "The grounds too dry, it's been dry for a long time
now," says Fiddaman by way of explanation. To be fair, there's little
visible life on show today in the countryside except a fat bee and, as if
Monsanto et al knew I was coming, an incredibly noisy skylark. Not to
worry: there are some other traps on Fiddaman's farm. Perhaps we will have
more luck with those.
Fiddaman's waving again. It looks like he's found one of the other traps
we were hoping to check. They are simple. Just cups of alcohol sunk into
the soil. Hapless creatures crawling through the field fall into the cups
where their pickled bodies pile up until a scientist arrives to do a body
count. It's not our day though. The cup is there, it's full of alcohol,
but bug free. Perhaps the lid shouldn't be on it.
Fiddaman wants to grow genetically modified crops. "If there was a real
horror in there, it would have come out by now." He, like many others,
feels the commercial growing of GM crops in the UK is a done deal.
"Between you and me," he says, "it's just a matter of when."
The choices facing Britain
Come November, it is decision time on GM crops for the government. By then
Malcolm Grant, the University of Cambridge professor who heads the
steering group of the £500,000 GM public debate, will have compiled his
report summarising the conclusions of the debate and handed it to
Soon after, the government will begin the process of voting yes or no to
the 18 GM crops that have been submitted to the European by biotechnology
companies and are awaiting approval for import or cultivation in member
states. The government says it will take the results of the public debate
-including the scientific evidence, the costs and benefits, and public
concerns, into account when ministers make any decisions.
So what genetically modified crops are in the pipeline in Europe? Well,
the majority are maize crops -there are seven in all, modified to be
resistant to either insects, herbicides or both. The insect resistance
comes from a gene found in a bacteria commonly found in soil called
Bacillus thuringiensis. Different strains of the bacteria produce
different crystal proteins that kill specific species of insect when
eaten. Only one of the maize crops awaiting approval is intended for
cultivation, the rest being for import and subsequent use in animal feed
and industrial processing.
Also on the list are five types of herbicide resistant oilseed rape, three
of which companies want to grow commercially. The remaining crops are two
types of cotton, one modified to repel pests, the other to tolerate
herbicide; two types of herbicide tolerant sugarbeet; herbicide tolerant
soybeans and a type of potato that will only be grown to produce starch.
More than half the crops awaiting the British vote are from Monsanto, or
Monsanto collaborations with other biotechnology companies. The other
leading player is Bayer Cropscience which makes five of the crops.
Consumer Fear Cancels European GM Research
- Alexander Hellemans, The Scientist, Vol17 p2 , ay 5, 2003
'Policymakers worry that plant research in Europe will be further outpaced
by the United States'
A new Eurobarometer, surveying attitudes about science among citizens of
the ten countries that recently entered the European Union, suggests that
genetically modified (GM) organisms are only slightly more tolerable to
these "new Europeans" than to their peers on the rest of the continent.
Seventy-nine percent of the 12,247 people surveyed in 13 countries by the
Gallup Organization in Hungary say GM foods should be introduced only if
proven safe, compared with 86% of the 16,029 surveyed in 15 member states
in December 2001.1, 2
Opposition to GM crops reached a peak during the mid-1990s in response to
public pressure, and in 1998, the European Union introduced a de facto
moratorium on the import and production of GM foods. In March, the
European Commission decided to uphold the de facto moratorium, and it is
also standing firm that any food containing more than 0.9% of a GM product
would carry a label.
Though the US trade representative views such measures as trade barriers,
in Europe the regulation is viewed as opening the way for legalization of
GM foods. Nevertheless, the moratorium pits scientists, government
officials, and industrial lobbies against environmentalists and consumer
activists. "All of the Europeans are more keen on talking about precaution
than the Americans are," says Erik Millstone of the Science and Technology
Policy Research Department at Sussex University.
MISSED CHANCES The introduction of GM food to the US market took place
relatively quickly, before any significant consumer resistance could
build. In Europe, however, consumer response not only led to the adoption
of the moratorium, but it also persuaded food distributors and
supermarkets to impose bans on GM Foods. Lobbying by anti-GM groups, such
as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, has been more successful in Europe
because the groups receive more media attention than in the United States,
says Michael Antoniou, a Kings College London geneticist. "Grass roots
opposition has forced Europe into this position," Antoniou explains.
Dirk Inzé, scientific director of the plant systems biology department at
the University of Ghent, regrets the influence that groups opposing GM
products have exerted on the public. "We have terms such as 'Frankenfood'
and pictures of an ear of corn equipped with the pin of a hand grenade,"
he says. "This has negatively impacted on research."
Adeline Farrelly, communications manager at the European Association for
Bioindustries (EuropaBio), a Brussels-based organization that promotes
biotechnology, reports that 61% of the 61 private-sector institutions
surveyed by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre have canceled
GM research projects since 1998.3 The Centre attributes the cancellations
to the blocking of GM food approvals in Europe.
The moratorium also had the same effect on field trials, which have
dropped by 76% since 1998, causing a further setback to European
biotechnology. Researchers reported a total of 1687 field trials in 2002;
only 61 were GM trials. "There is a direct correlation between the surface
[area] of the test plantations, and investment and numbers of
biotechnology researchers in Europe," says Philippe Busquin, EU research
Busquin says the GM ban also affects the general level of biotech
expertise that Europe could develop to help the Third World, and warns
that the fixation of the public on agricultural products damages research
in other areas, such as pharmacological products and vaccines. Inzé says
GM research could help produce plant sources for energy production:
"Genetic modification is definitely an option for the future."
TRUST AND TECHNOLOGY The first results of European farm trials that are
examining the ecological effects of GM crops are only just becoming
available. Despite this, the general public heeds a vocal group of
scientists that warns against the potential negative consequences of GM
foods. "The public trusts more the critical scientists," says Jürgen
Hampel, a researcher at the Center of Technology Assessment in Baden-
Württemberg, Germany. These outspoken scientists claim that Europe is not
ready for the introduction of these foods, because the long-term
ecological and health effects are not known. They also advise against
looking to the United States, because there are no US research programs
that have studied the effects of GM foods on people.
US WARNS ABOUT GM BAN
The Bush administration contends there is no legal basis for the EU ban on
genetically modified food and has threatened to file suit with the World
Trade Organization. European officials admit that they would probably lose
in court. But, they contend, suspicions over food safety are so strong
that European consumers and environmentalists will never accept
genetically modified (GM) products.
"The European infection of illegality is spreading, including to some of
the most vulnerable populations in the world, in Africa, and to other
nations," says Robert B. Zoellick, US trade representative. Zambia, for
instance, has refused to distribute US food aid to its starving people
because of fears over GM foods. Uganda and Zimbabwe are refusing to adopt
GM crops, because the governments fear that their other food exports to
Europe will be jeopardized, US officials allege.
The de facto European moratorium on GM foods "is about a global campaign
against a technology that can play a vital role in ending starvation, in
addressing malnutrition, and in food security worldwide," said Josette
Shiner, associate US trade representative.
The moratorium has exacerbated a brain drain of biotech scientists from
Europe to the United States, according to Clyde Prestowitz, a former
Reagan administration official who is now president of the Economic
Strategy Institute. "Scientists and technical people who are interested in
doing GM research are finding it's harder to do in Europe and are coming
to the US," he says. "The US is the immediate beneficiary of the European
In the United States, concerns over GM food have had no effect on research
into creating pharmaceuticals and therapeutics in plants, says Lisa Dry,
communications director for the Biotechnology Industry Organization in
Washington. In fact, this research is increasing. "There are sufficient
regulations in place and we are awaiting additional guidance from USDA,"
Dry says, referring to an expected tightening of rules governing such
things as how far GM crops must be planted from other fields.
Some scientists also criticize the methodology used for checking the
safety of GM foods. Until recently, a GM food was considered safe for
human consumption if its chemical composition was found to be equivalent
to its natural antecedent. This concept, called substantial equivalence,
is based on relatively easy and cheap tests and is still used in the
Millstone argues that because such tests do not include all biological,
toxicological, and immunological aspects of GM food, they cannot be used
for declaring it safe. He reports that in recent years a subtle shift has
taken place in Europe. "Some member states have made it clear that they
cannot use the concept of substantial equivalence at all," he observes.
"Others propose to continue to use it, but even those who propose to
continue to use it, such as the British, have quietly decided to change
their interpretation of the concept and not to use it in the way they
previously did. A subtle change concealed behind linguistic continuity."
According to Millstone, indications suggest the United States is now also
moving towards more stringent testing. However, the food products that
have been approved by substantial equivalence methods will probably remain
on the market, because the more extensive tests are lengthy and expensive
and fall out of the range of consumer groups, Millstone asserts. "Only the
industry can afford to do that. The government can afford to do that, but
they choose to not do it."
In Europe, scientists have experienced difficulties in securing funding
for research in the possible health effects of transgenic food crops. "The
main problem is that there hasn't been extensive, serious enough research
either before marketing or after release of the products into the market
to assess their safety," Antoniou says. He counters the argument that in
the United States consumption of GM crops has not revealed any adverse
health effects. "Nobody has looked to see if there have been any
problems," Antoniou says. The two main GM food crops are maize and soy,
and they are used as animal feed. "A very small fraction of it ends up
directly eaten by the public."
Some scientists argue that there are reasons for concern. Research at the
University of Newcastle upon Tyne has shown that genes inserted in GM soy
survived digestion and were incorporated into human intestinal bacteria.
Genes with undesirable effects, such as resistance to anti-biotics, could
in such cases be transferred to these bacteria. Antoniou finds this result
worrisome: "Even though these people were only fed one meal, within a few
hours they found the GM material intact in the intestines."
An earlier result, the 1999 finding by Árpád Pusztai that GM potatoes
damaged organs and the immune system in rats, also caused a stir in the
United Kingdom. After he mentioned these results on television, efforts by
the Royal Society and others to suppress the publication of these results
contributed to increased public wariness.4 Pusztai's findings were finally
published in The Lancet,5 and although the Society called for follow-up
studies, none have taken place, reports Antoniou.
Sir Robert May, president of the Royal Society, has criticized Pusztai's
work as "garbage," and opposed an "arbitrary moratorium" of GM.
Nevertheless, May has said that the release of GM foods would be
contingent on the completion of scientific study. "We are not going to
give permission for commercial release until we are thoroughly satisfied
and until all the appropriate field tests have been done," he told the BBC
May 20, 1999.
Despite a general lack of investment and encouragement, even (as some
scientists think) an active opposition to developing GM testing, a
positive response emanates from some quarters in the European Commission.
The EU Joint Research Centre Institute for Health and Consumer Protection
in Ispra, Italy, coordinates a network of laboratories for the development
of tests and the certification of GM products. "In order to develop a
European system of standards for the tracing and labeling system, we need
to develop equivalent and solid control methods," says Fabio Fabbi,
European Research spokesperson at the European Commission in Brussels.
Developing standards is a move in the right direction, says Doug Parr,
chief scientist for Greenpeace in the United Kingdom: "But where I would
differ is to assume that all the political, socioethical, economic issues
that are associated with GM crops are to be resolved through scientific
and technical means."
Alexander Hellemans (email@example.com) is a freelance writer in Italy.
1. European Commission, "Candidate Countries Eurobarometer. Public opinion
in the countries applying for European Union membership: On science and
technology," CC-EB 2002.3, Gallup Organization, Hungary, April 2003;
available online at
2. European Commission, "Europeans, science and technology," Eurobarometer
55.2, 2001; available online at
3. K. lheureux et al., "Review of GMOs in research, development and in the
pipeline in Europe," Joint Research Centre, European Commission, March 21,
4. The Royal Society, "Review of data on possible toxicity of GM
potatoes," 1999; available online at
5. S.W. Ewen, A. Pusztai, "Effect of diets containing genetically modified
potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine,"
Lancet, 354:1353-4, 1999.
EUROPE ACCOMODATES FEARS
Experts in Europe argue that more research into the health and ecological
effects of genetically modified (GM) food is necessary, but many are also
convinced that the lifting of the moratorium will not increase American
exports to Europe. "While it would be lawful to introduce these crops, it
wouldn't be economic because of the lack of demand, and the requirement of
labor, and the policies of the supermarkets towards consumers and
processors," says Erik Millstone of the Science and Technology Policy
Research Department at Sussex University. "There isn't a market for the
Erica P. Johnson
As to food labeling, American fears are largely domestic, argues
Millstone. "It seems to me more likely that US citizens will demand
labeling in the USA than European citizens will give up the right to have
the information on the label .... I believe that if Europe had to choose
taking away labeling rights and leaving the World Trade Organization, the
political pressure to leave the WTO would be overwhelming."
Árpád Pusztai, who as a senior scientist at the Rowett Research Institute
in Aberdeen, Scotland, was force to retire, authored a study on the
negative effects of GM foods on animals, published in The Lancet. He says
that Americans and Europeans alike should be able to choose between GM and
non-GM foods. "A basic human right is to know what you eat," says Pusztai.
He questions US companies' objections to labeling. "This only tells me, by
using simple logic, that they are not very confident in their products,"
Pusztai says. Moreover, the requirement that farmers have to buy the GM
crops in combination with herbicides or pesticides manufactured by the
same company is not viewed favorably in Europe. "Crops like the Bt crops
are not designed with the consumer in mind; they are of major benefit to
the companies, they may even be beneficial to the farmers ... [but] it
doesn't benefit the land, and it doesn't benefit us," says Pusztai.
- C Kameswara Rao, Bangalore, India; Posted to FAO News Group
On reading some of the messages posted, I felt a need to point out the
loose use of terms GMO, GEO and LMO and the question of application of
All the organisms deployed in agriculture and animal husbandry today are
the products of Genetic Modification for over 10,000 years. Initially,
suitable varieties were 'selected' for the desirable characteristic from
domesticated wild plants and animals. Some of the traits have surfaced in
the genetic diversity of the concerned species through natural
hybridisation and natural mutation, and were subjected to selection.
Selection is the most important tool of both conventional and modern
agricultural practice, both constituting biotechnology. Subsequently,
artificial hybridisation has resulted in several crop plant varieties.
Natural or artificial, hybridisation is possible only between organisms
that are biologically closely related. Mutations induced by any one of
several physical or chemical means were also a rich source of genetic
diversity. Varieties of corn, wheat, sugarcane, cotton and several others
involved hybridisation, while some like rice were based only on selection.
This conventional means of producing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
involves sexual reproduction. It constitutes vertical transfer of genes
and the genes concerned express only in the next generation.
Genetic Engineering and Transgenic plants:
Under the conventional plant breeding procedures, genes from an organism
can be introduced only into another biologically closely related organism,
such as two varieties of the same crop and possibly, in exceptional
circumstances between two species of the same genus. In nature such events
do occur but are rare.
Exchange of genes between biologically totally unrelated organisms does
not occur in nature. Using techniques of genetic engineering, now genes
selected from a bacterium are inserted into the genome of a crop plant or
human genes into bacteria. These are the Genetically Engineered Organisms
(GEOs), also called transgenic organisms. Genetic engineering constitutes
lateral (or horizontal) transfer of genes and the genes can express in the
Some examples of the transgenic technology are incorporation of a) genes
for the insecticidal proteins of bacteria into the genomes of several crop
plants such as tobacco, corn, potato, rice, cotton, etc., b) genes for the
synthesis of b-carotene from daffodil and a bacterium into rice, c) genes
for human milk proteins into rice, d) genes for human insulin into
bacteria and e) genes for human haemoglobin into tobacco plants.
The term Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) is applicable to both GMOs and
The fact that crop and animal varieties produced through the conventional
means also involve genetic modification has not been appreciated with the
degree of seriousness it deserves and the terms GMOs and LMOs have come to
be applied only to Genetically Engineered Organisms (GEOs). In order to
convey precisely, we should apply the term LMO to both conventionally
induced genetic modification (GMO) and the transgenics induced through
genetic engineering (GEO), and distinguish between the latter two.
Governmental Regulatory Processes:
There is no technology without risks. GMOs also are fraught with risks
similar to those attributed to GEOs. A long time ago, I have seen with
dismay, the kind and degree of variation that appeared on continued
selfing and on exposure to gamma irradiation, in pearl millet. Some of the
characters that surfaced throw overboard the taxonomic concepts of, not
only Pennisetum americanum (= Pennisetum typhoideum), but even that of the
family Poaceae. Some of this variation easily qualifies to be called
No one ever considered that genetic modification by conventional means
risky at all. Considering their potential risks of biosecurity, GMOs also
should be subjected to the same rigorous regulatory processes as GEOs, but
they are not.
Making Genes, Making Waves: A Social Activist in Science
'Jon Beckwith, Harvard University Press, Hardcover: 256 pages; October
2002) ISBN: 0674009282 http://www.hup.harvard.edu/. Amazon.com Price
In 1969, Jon Beckwith and his colleagues succeeded in isolating a gene
from the chromosome of a living organism. Announcing this startling
achievement at a press conference, Beckwith took the opportunity to issue
a public warning about the dangers of genetic engineering. Jon Beckwith's
book, the story of a scientific life on the front line, traces one
remarkable man's dual commitment to scientific research and social
responsibility over the course of a career spanning most of the postwar
history of genetics and molecular biology.
A thoroughly engrossing memoir that recounts Beckwith's halting steps
toward scientific triumphs--among them, the discovery of the genetic
element that turns genes on--as well as his emergence as a world-class
political activist, Making Genes, Making Waves is also a compelling
history of the major controversies in genetics over the last thirty years.
Presenting the science in easily understandable terms, Beckwith describes
the dramatic changes that transformed biology between the late 1950s and
our day, the growth of the radical science movement in the 1970s, and the
personalities involved throughout. He brings to light the differing styles
of scientists as well as the different ways in which science is presented
within the scientific community and to the public at large. Ranging from
the travails of Robert Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb to the Human Genome
Project and recent "Science Wars," Beckwith's book provides a sweeping
view of science and its social context in the latter half of the twentieth
In 1969, a Harvard Medical School group headed by Jon Beckwith
accomplished a first in molecular biology--the isolation of a gene...When
their paper appeared in Nature, they held an extraordinary press
conference in which they described their work and warned of the danger
that it might lead to...The press conference received international media
coverage, and Beckwith found himself embarked on a double career--a
continuing one in research and a new one of social activism in science.
His Making Genes, Making Waves is an absorbing account of how these two
strands in his life were woven into a durable braid. The prose is
straightforward, and Beckwith is refreshingly frank, revealing the
divagations and doubts that marked his course in research.
--Daniel J. Kevles, American Scientist
Jon Beckwith's Making Genes, Making Waves is a thoughtful autobiographical
essay on his experiences as a social activist in science in the face of
resentment--even hostility--from many of his colleagues. But more than a
personal memoir, this book shows that the commitment to social
responsibility is entirely compatible with commitment to science; that
love of science can co-exist with serious qualms about its social
consequences. Above all, Beckwith's experiences as an activist, in a
context where "social responsibility" has often been looked upon as a
threat, suggests that scientists must consider and communicate the social
meaning of their work if they are to maintain the public trust.
--Dorothy Nelkin, Professor of Law and Sociology, New York University
It is rare to find a young and honest man describing how he became a first
rate scientist while his hesitations and mixed feelings about the role and
function of science turned him into an effective social activist. This
book is an excellent account, by a participant, of the debates about
science and society that occurred in the last 30 or 40 years. The special
point is that the same man was producing the best of the science that
raised so much passion.
A Small But Significant Error in AgBioWorld Statement on 'Sound Science,
The second sentence in our recentp signature petition at
was "Facing constant allegations that biotech crops are unsafe,
anti-biotechnology groups are .." but would be changed to "Making constant
allegations that biotech crops are unsafe, anti-biotechnology groups are
I thank the noted author Matt Ridley (Genome, Nature vs Nurture) for
pointing this out. Darn!
A couple of readers' queries about references on Bt resistance in insects.
Insect resistance under commercial growing conditions has only occurred
after repeated and intensive use of Bt sprays. The best example is the
adaptation by diamondback moth in Hawaii.
The following references provide all of the necessary information:
Roush, R.T. 1994. Managing pests and their resistance to Bacillus
thuringiensis: can transgenic crops be better than sprays? Biocontrol
Science and Technology. 4: 501-516.
Shelton, A. M., Robertson, J. L., Tang, J. D., Perez, C., Eigenbrode, S.
D., Preisler, H. K., Wilsey, W. T., Cooley, R. J. 1993. Resistance of
diamondback moth (Lepidoptera: Plutellidae) to Bacillus thuringiensis
subspecies in the field. Journal of Economic Entomology 86(3): 697-705.
Tabashnik, B. E., Cushing, N. L., Finson, N., Johnson, M. W. 1990. Field
development of resistance to Bacillus thuringienis in diamondback moth
(Lepidoptera: Plutellidae). Journal of Economic Entomology 83(5) 1671-1676