Today in AgBioView: June 9, 2003
* Frankenstein Reloaded
* Don't Slam the Door on Bio-engineered Food
* Do We Need Crop Diversity?
* Comments on the Conko vs. Kristensen Debate
* As Accusations Fly, Poor Nations Suffer
* UK: Who Really Has Final Say on GM Food?
* What's Up With "The Farmer Formerly Known as Prince?"
* British Bishop supports GM Crops
* Adapt or Perish
* Study Finds Jack S#@*t
* Uncle Sam's Very Own GM Information Minister
- Manila Standard, June 8, 2003
Remember Mary Shelley's Frankenstein?
'It's about science gone awry. The hubris of science produced a
The theme of Frankenstein is as old as modern science, or as old as when
the Industrial Revolution first emerged in England. The theme taps into a
deep human mistrust of science, despite what science has to offer. It's a
Soon, the blockbuster movie The Hulk, directed by Ang Lee (Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon) will hit movie theaters. Its underlying theme too is
about the dark side of science. While trying to save his young friend,
nuclear scientist Dr. Bruce Banner gets exposed to gamma rays of a Gamma
Bomb. The gamma ray exposure transforms Dr. Banner into a green skinned,
rampaging monster whenever he is angry or provoked. While the film (and
the comic book, of which I was a fan) contains other themes (the dual
character of human nature, i.e. our being Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the
same person, anger repression, etc.), the underlying theme of science
creating monsters is unmistakably there.
Why all these literary and cinematic allusions about Frankenstein?
Because it's this powerful fear -- the image of Boris Karloff as the scary
monster embedded in our mind's eye -- which the opponents of GMOs
(genetically modified foods) are trying to tap.
To them, the culprit this time isn't nuclear science as in The Hulk, but
biotechnology. These anti-GMO opponents would like people to believe that
Frankenstein's monster is already here, at our dinner table, courtesy of
If we see it their way, Boris Karloff is in the corn you might eat --
specifically Bt corn. Bt corn is a product of biotechnology. It's called a
transgenic product -- the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is
introduced into the corn plant to give it insect resistance and
dramatically improve farm yields.
Recently, neo-Luddites and extremist environmental activists held a hunger
strike in front of the Department of Agriculture to stop the introduction
of Bt corn and other bioengineered foods into the country. They want the
Philippines to ban transgenic foods and reject biotechnology.
Problem is their cause is without scientific basis, just this powerful
fear of science. Scientific study after scientific study have shown the
safety of Bt corn and other bioengineered foods. The potato and corn chips
you have been eating for several years now are more likely to be
bioengineered. The cotton pair of pants you wear is likely to contain the
Bt gene that had been introduced into cotton plants.
Another beneficial effect of the use of biotechnology in agriculture is
lower pesticide use. Bioengineered foods hold the promise of a powerful
tool for public health. Introduction of Vitamin A into the rice gene could
help wipe out blindness caused by the lack of nutrients in the country's
The Philippines, with a huge population and a net food importer, must
embrace biotechnology. With a growing population density and declining
farm hectareage due to urbanization and denudation, the country can only
dramatically improve food yields by using biotechnology. China is already
doing so, seeing the potential in biotech to feed its more than 1 billion
However, neo-Luddites and misguided environmental activists, who my
friend, Inquirer columnist and physicist Dean Jorge Bocobo, calls
"superspreaders of pseudo-science" would ban all bioengineered food and
the application of biotechnology to agriculture.
They are taking their cue from the European farm lobby, who are using the
biotech scare to keep away cheap American bioengineered food from European
Indeed, we are more likely to see anti-GMO and antibiotech protests in the
future. If there's a protest industry, as former Manila Standard columnist
Alex Magno writes about, then the environmental antibiotech protest
sub-industry should boom. Not only is this sub-industry nurtured by
Frankenstein fears in popular culture, but also the protest money is
likely to be steered in that direction. With the US and European countries
clamping down on funding for terrorist activities, the protest money is
going to be diverted from traditional leftist causes (woe to Joma Sison)
toward pro-environment extremism. It's going to be Frankenstein reloaded.
If the public is to fear anything about biotechnology, it would be
terrorists using it to create new weapons of mass destruction, rather than
farm scientists using it to create insect resistant crops. Biotech crops
have not caused so much as a common cold, compared to nature (and China's
exotic eating habits) producing the deadly SARS virus.
The Frankenstein myth may feed popular culture, but it has no place in
Don't Slam the Door on Bio-engineered Food
- The Straits Times (Singapore), June 9, 2003 (Commentary from the US
Ambassador to Singapore)
'I have absolutely no anxiety. I am worried about a lot of things, but not
about modified food.' - Dr James Watson, Nobel laureate and co-discoverer
of the double helix DNA structure
Some countries - and most farmers - have grasped that we are on the
threshold of an agricultural revolution that holds great promise, thanks
to the science of biotechnology. The same research techniques that helped
identify the Sars virus are being used to make new varieties of
agricultural crops, so that today, more than 40 million ha globally are
planted with transgenic crops.
Farmers in the United States, Canada, China, South Africa, Argentina and
Chile, to name a few, have eagerly embraced this new green revolution.
Singapore may have few farmers, but it is as concerned about food safety
and health issues as any other country. Witness the rapid response to the
suspected outbreak of Sars at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre.
Not surprisingly, officials have taken a forthright approach to biotech
food, one that is grounded firmly in sound science and rigorous food
safety standards. This policy has boosted Singapore's food security as
well as the country's stature as a centre for research in the life
sciences and biotechnology, an approach that will continue to serve
Singapore well as it seeks to further encourage innovative research-based
You would think a technology that has demonstrated the potential to raise
productivity, reduce losses from disease, deliver improved nutrition,
minimise pesticide use and boost the incomes of poor farmers around the
world would be widely and enthusiastically embraced. But that is not the
Unfortunately, Europe has seen a noisy movement that is attempting to slam
the door on biotechnology. Some observers attribute this to a lack of
confidence in national food safety authorities (augmented by the 'mad cow
disease' fiasco), or a Luddite fear of a complicated food aid because of
ill-informed health and environmental concerns, as well as fears that the
countries' exports to Europe would be jeopardised by 'contamination' of
local crops. So, bowls are left empty.
As 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug comments: 'The affluent
nations can afford to adopt elitist positions and pay more for the food
produced by so-called natural methods; the one billion chronically poor
and hungry people of this world cannot.'
Among the ironies in this debate is the fact that some of the fiercest
opponents of biotechnology are self-proclaimed 'environmentalists'. Yet,
biotechnology offers substantial environmental benefits over the existing
crops these 'environmentalists' seem to prefer. For example, farmers
utilising biotech crops can reduce soil erosion and pesticide use. Biotech
crops also create more hospitable environments for wildlife, including
streams and rivers spared from chemical pesticides. Farmers who are able
to increase crop yields on existing land will be less tempted to encroach
upon tropical rainforests and other fragile natural habitats.
Finally, those who claim that the US is trying to force biotech foods on
consumers have actually got the argument backwards. It is the EU's
unilateral, illegal and unjustified actions, taken without any scientific,
health or environmental basis, which constrain choice and opportunity
The US and others seek regulations that maximise consumer choice while at
the same time protecting consumer health and safety. Dr Ariel
Alvarez-Morales, of Mexico's Centre for Research and Advanced Studies,
says 'excessive and unnecessary regulations' that are 'based on fear' are
just disguised trade barriers, adding: 'If we really want to use
technology to reduce hunger, we don't need more regulations.' Precisely.
--- The writer is the US Ambassador to Singapore.
Do We Need Crop Diversity?
- Dave Wood and Jill Lenné, UK <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Mac Margolis (Newsweek, June 9) suggests that there is a crisis in
agriculture because crop monocultures are failing to pests and disease. We
disagree. If there is a coming crisis for food production it has nothing
to do with monocultures, but rather with the reduction of funding for
plant breeding and current animosity to GM technology. Rather than assess
the enormous achievements of plant breeding, Margolis reports the views of
professional purveyors of diversity. Given a platform, these people
naturally promote their own views and paint a doomsday scenario for
The evidence that monocultures are widely threatened is thin. The hoary
example of corn blight in the US in 1970 was nothing to do with
monocultures, but with the narrow genetic base of corn, resulting from the
technology of hybrid seed production. The loss would have been the same in
complex polycultures. The following season the US had record corn
production as breeders immediately deployed a viable solution to leaf
blight: a decided success, rather than a failure.
Potatoes -- all potatoes everywhere - were susceptible to the Irish potato
blight. Crop diversity would not have prevented this disaster, which was
made worse by overpopulation (Ireland is the only country on earth with a
smaller population today than when the blight struck in 1845). No form of
agriculture, monoculture or diverse, can feed such great overpopulation.
During 1850-1950, wheat rust epidemics in India resulted in 27 major
famines in diverse cropping systems. But there has not been one major
rust-induced famine in India in the past 50 years although wheat is now
extensively grown in monocultures of uniform varieties. During the
1960s-1980s, a major effort was made to improve disease resistance in
wheat. Resistances to rusts, blotch, scab, bacterial leaf streak, barley
yellow dwarf virus, and many other diseases were added to Green Revolution
semi-dwarf wheats. In India, yields of wheat increased by 120%; grain
output increased twice as fast as population growth; and year-to-year
fluctuations in yield were reduced. The Green Revolution would not have
been as revolutionary without the development and diffusion of
multiple-disease resistant, high-yielding varieties. Breeders of major
food crops continue to build on established gains through effective
Modern crop breeding and management practices have resulted in more
stable, less risk-prone crop production. The coefficient of variation for
global rice production and global rice yields has declined from 1960
onwards. In six of eight countries in South and Southeast Asia (India,
Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam and the Philippines) yields have
become more stable, partly due to improved pest management practices. For
wheat, much of this stability is related to the widespread use of
varieties with durable resistances to stem and leaf rusts. For rice,
multiple resistance to major pests and diseases as well as efficient IPM
practices have made a similar contribution to yield stability.
Evidence is accumulating that cereal monocultures (wheat, rice, sorghum,
millet) are closely based on natural monodominant vegetation. If so, we
can expect them to be ecologically stable. Also, the main regions of
production are well dispersed – wheat for example is important in the US,
India, China, Australia, Europe, and Argentine.
The suggested mechanism for agricultural sustainability through crop
diversity is a leap of faith. As Tilman said four years ago: 'a myopic
focus on diversity would be a poor management strategy as diversity is
only one of many factors that influence ecosystem process'. When given the
chance, most farmers worldwide sensibly choose the best varieties, not the
most, for sound socio-economic reasons. If farmers want diversity, they
grow it in multi-crop gardens, not fields. In fact, in both fields and
gardens there is considerable evolutionary diversity over time through
on-farm varietal turnover and introduction, and this is uncoordinated over
different areas. So, at least in traditional farming, each region has its
own unique and dynamic portfolio of varieties. New crop varieties carry
forward genes of earlier varieties, farmer varieties, domesticates, and
wild species through an evolutionary continuum.
There is diversity between seasons, notably in the rice-wheat regions of
Southern Asia. Rather than the Green Revolution putting all the eggs into
the rice basket, the opposite occurred. Wheat was introduced as a winter
crop in rotation with summer rice, and proved an outstanding success for
regional food security. India now has wheat surpluses, and Thailand and
Vietnam export rice.
In any case, a lack of diversity is less important to farmers than the
constraints of abiotic factors. And genetic manipulation provides
extensive and novel opportunities for accessing and deploying the genes
required for tolerating drought, water-logging, heat, cold, salinity and
other abiotic stresses
The most important crop in the world, irrigated rice, is uniformly a
monoculture – no other crop has the ecological toughness to share the
field with rice in just those conditions. Margolis quotes Zhu: the work of
Zhu is inevitably promoted as somehow proving that monocultures fail under
disease. But Zhu’s work shows the opposite. Zhu’s experiments on disease
reduction were with different rice varieties within the single crop
species, Asian rice. As such, they are by definition, monocultures (a
single crop grown in a field), and show the potential of monocultures in
Real polycultures, that is, several different crops mixed in a field, are
very difficult to design under the constraints of modern mechanized
farming. Evidence that modern polycultures consistently reduce disease is
rare, and increased management costs significant. For example, in peanut,
sorghum and millet in Nigeria, and sorghum and millet in Kenya, disasters
have occurred despite the fact that the crops were growing in polycultural
or rotational systems, demonstrating that devastating pest and disease
outbreaks can occur even under traditional systems.
Arguments that crop diversity is in steady decline have little factual
base. A massive intercontinental exchange of very different crops after
1492 allowed a vast enrichment of farmers’ fields. The argument that
‘prudent policymakers’ scoured the world in the 1970’s for varieties left
behind by the Green Revolution is fanciful. Collecting and plant
introduction were a major feature of agriculture since the early 1900’s.
The United States Department of Agricultures was collecting massively and
distributing many million samples each year directly to farmers. The
Russian expeditions of Vavilov did scour the world for diversity, but this
was 40 years before the Green Revolution. All these samples, and
subsequent crop diversification through effective breeding have both fed
the world and diversified and stabilized our food supply.
Finally, the great potential of biotechnology (GM and non-GM) to help with
crop diversification is still mainly untapped. Molecular tools and
techniques allow even more rapid and complete access to crop genomes
providing greater potential for successful deployment of disease
resistance and other valuable genes. Wide crossing, where useful genes are
identified in wild species and moved into the crop, has the greatest
potential. Key events in crop evolution were rare or unique: in one of the
most important, cultivated wheat crossed naturally with a weedy wild wheat
and the added genetic diversity transformed 'a rather ordinary cereal into
the most widely grown food crop on earth'. Genetic mapping of grasses
through synteny offers the probability of identifying useful genes and
then moving them widely between different groups of cereals. We no longer
need to wait for another eight thousand years for one-in-a-billion event
that gave us bread wheat.
Comments on the Conko vs. Kristensen Debate
- Andrew Apel, email@example.com
I could never quite understand the disagreement between these gentlemen,
as they seemed to agree on so much. My sense is that there is perhaps a
confusion over the notion of "de facto" in the context of a moratorium.
It has long been popular to say the EU's moratorium is "de facto," and now
I'm thinking, I'd like to know who first cooked up the idea of calling it
that. After the US v. EU complaint I went back and looked at the EU
organic laws, and it didn't look like the "de facto" notion held any
Reading the arguments of both Kristensen and Conko have convinced me--it's
not a "de facto" moratorium, it's a "de jure" moratorium. That is to say,
it's not a moratorium imposed by force of arms or something like that (de
facto), it's a moratorium imposed under law (de jure). The moratorium has
come about because a "qualified majority" of the Council of Ministers
refuses to allow new registrations of GM crops.
The majority is "qualified" because some ministers have more votes than
others, depending on how many people reside in their countries. Because of
this, a minority of populous countries in the EU can act like a majority
and block anything they want. As a matter of law. That means the EU--the
whole EU--is accountable, de jure, as a matter of law, for the decisions
of a minority of states. The EC and the press (I'm guilty) has been
calling it a de facto moratorium for years, and I suspect that calling it
a "de facto" moratorium was cooked up in hopes that individual states will
be stuck with liability for the US v. EU case.
But it's a de jure moratorium. The WTO doesn't have the power to condemn
the EU for having a stupid decision-making structure. But that structure
makes the moratorium de jure, and makes the whole EU culpable, by the
action of a minority of states.
If I understand the arguments correctly, Kristensen says, "but we did it
according to our laws" and Conko says, "that's what your legal process
did," and between the two, it comes down to the same thing: a de jure, not
a de facto, moratorium.
The EU could maybe escape this argument by saying the EU is a treaty, not
a "state" in the sense of international law. That's their only way out, as
I see it. Unless they bust up the EU into individual states and say the EU
is just a treaty, the whole EU is culpable for a DE JURE moratorium.
I think the disagreement between Kristensen and me stems from his
nit-picking over word usage. If I had it to do over again, I would change
the wording of the two sentences Kristensen objects to, because I can see
how someone might get the wrong impression. That said, I've made it clear
over and over again what it is that I believe, and Kristensen just won't
give in. He wants to find something to complain about, so he continues to
believe that I meant something different.
Any way, as for Andrew Apel's point about "de facto" versus "de jure", it
seems functionally valid the way he's looking at it. Under the EU/EC
regulatory apparatus, there is a legal basis for the actions of the six
countries who have been blocking approval of new transgenic plant
varieties (or at least successfully threatening to block applications,
since in the face of that threat, none has actually been put forward for a
vote). There is nothing extra-legal about what the EU Six are doing, so no
way to challenge it under the original 90/220 policy. (I understand that
this is not the case, though, with the revised policy 2001/18 -- that
there is a way for the EC to get around an imposed moratorium of this
The reason for calling it a "de facto" moratorium, I think, has mainly
been because, unlike in the UK, there has been no formally
institutionalized policy to not approve new varieties. Back in 1999, the
UK did impose a formal three-year moratorium pending the outcome of the
farm-scale trials. So, I lean toward calling what the UK does a de jure
moratorium and what the EU
As Accusations Fly, Poor Nations Suffer
- Clyde Prestowitz , The Washington Post June 8, 2003
'Why do you see the speck in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log
in your own eye? -- Matthew 7:3'
In the wake of Sept. 11 and the bitter international debate over the war
in Iraq, Americans wondering why much of the world sees the United States
as a kind of rogue nation have cited foreign envy of U.S. success and
foreign hatred of American freedom. While these might be factors, what
irks foreigners most is not our values or our achievements. Rather it is
the fact that what we do is often at odds with what we preach.
Take President Bush's recent Coast Guard Academy commencement address. In
it, he charged that the refusal of the European Union to certify imports
of new U.S. strains of genetically modified crops had perpetuated famine
in Africa. He alleged that the EU had a moratorium on such crops, thus
discouraging African nations from adopting, and benefiting, from them. The
speech followed the filing of a formal U.S. complaint on the matter with
the World Trade Organization (WTO).
While there is no doubt that EU agriculture policies badly need reform,
one of the main causes of hunger and poverty in Africa lies much closer to
home -- U.S. subsidies for our own farmers.
Cotton is a prime example. In the West African countries of the Niger
River's northern delta, cotton is the main cash crop, and cotton farming
provides employment to more than 2 million people and sustenance to
several times that number. But with world cotton prices down 10 percent
from last year's 30-year low, people can barely survive. Extended families
of 20 to 30 are trying to live on annual earnings of less than $2,000.
Schooling and even minimal health care have become unaffordable luxuries.
As a result, many families are leaving for the crowded Muslim quarters of
Europe's large cities while fundamentalist Islamic clerics from the Middle
East are coming to West Africa and finding more and more listeners.
Fearing this trend, the United States has begun to promote aid and open
trade. In Mali, for example, it now spends about $40 million a year on
educational, health and development programs. But this doesn't come close
to offsetting the two-thirds drop in cotton prices since 1995.
Meanwhile, half a world away in the Mississippi Delta, American growers
are thriving. At first glance, the reason seems obvious. In Mali, farmers
hitch their one-bladed plows to oxen and take two weeks to till 10- to
20-acre plots from which the cotton is eventually picked by hand. In
contrast, the Mississippi Delta growers tend giant spreads of 10,000 acres
or more in air-conditioned tractors using global positioning satellite
systems to determine the proper amount of fertilizer to apply to sprouting
seedlings. No wonder U.S. cotton growers have an average net household
worth of nearly $1 million. Sad though it may be, it would seem that oxen
and plows on tiny plots are just no match for tractors and satellite
systems on huge spreads.
In fact, however, the U.S. growers are the higher-cost producers. All that
high-tech equipment is expensive. Delta land is irrigated, and the seed is
priced at a premium because it is genetically modified to resist pests.
Then there are expensive fertilizers and defoliants. In all, it costs 82
cents to produce a pound of cotton in Mississippi versus only 23 cents a
pound in Mali. So why are the Americans expanding their acreage while the
Malians fight to survive? In a word: subsidies. A few days before the oxen
were roped to plows in Mali last year, Bush signed into law a piece of
legislation that greatly increased last year's $3.4 billion in subsidies
to America's 25,000 cotton farmers. This year, some of these farm families
can expect to receive nearly $1 million just in subsidies. Thus, the U.S.
government is subsidizing American farmers to produce more and more cotton
that will further depress world prices and further impoverish families in
West Africa -- precisely what the president accused the Europeans of
African cotton farmers aren't the only victims of U.S. agricultural
policies. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in an
effort to stimulate Mexican economic growth and thereby stem illegal
immigration. But exports for one of Mexico's main crops, sugar, are
severely restricted by U.S. quotas that limit imports from Mexico to only
7,258 metric tons of raw sugar. Thus, while American consumers pay four
times the world price for their sugar, Mexican sugar farmers, like West
African cotton growers, face penury and hunger. At the same time, heavily
subsidized U.S. corn exports threaten to drive Mexican campesinos off
their land and into the dangerously hot trucks of the smugglers who ship
illegal immigrants across the U.S. border.
The case of Brazil provides further examples. The largest country in Latin
America, Brazil has been struggling to achieve economic growth and to
overcome the legacy of mismanagement left by authoritarian governments. It
has democratized, liberalized, deregulated, and adopted prudent economic
and monetary policies in accord with Washington's demands. The United
States has a big stake in Brazil's eventual success and has been proposing
to help by including Brazil in negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the
Americas. At the same time, however, U.S. agricultural subsidies and
quotas on imports of citrus fruits restrict trade in about two-thirds of
the products Brazil might be able to sell in the U.S. market.
Then there is the issue of implementing international trade rules. In the
formal complaint it just filed, the United States is asking the WTO to
impose penalties on the EU for maintaining the alleged moratorium on
import permits for genetically modified crops in violation of WTO rules.
While the U.S. charges are legally correct and justified, Europeans marvel
at the chutzpah that allows the United States to file WTO complaints while
failing to implement WTO rulings against objectionable American practices.
For example, the United States has long had a program allowing special tax
treatment on profits from certain kinds of exports. In response to EU
complaints, the WTO has twice found this treatment in violation of WTO
rules and directed the United States to alter the practice. Yet, to date,
the practice has not been changed. Europeans find this particularly
maddening because they are making efforts to fix their moratorium problem.
Indeed, EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy told me in a recent meeting that
new import permits will probably be issued by year's end. Yet Europeans
see little reciprocation on the U.S. side.
Mexicans also scratch their heads in response to U.S. complaints about the
Europeans. Under NAFTA, Mexican truckers were supposed to be able to drive
freely anywhere in the United States. But after 10 years, they still are
prevented from doing so. The NAFTA dispute settlement panel has found the
United States in breach of its obligations under the treaty and has urged
it to come into compliance. Instead, fears (whether rational or not) in
border states of unsafe or inadequately inspected Mexican vehicles have
caused U.S. authorities to drag their feet in a European-like shuffle.
It is these sorts of American inconsistencies and double standards, far
more than envy of our success or hatred of our freedoms, that cause
alienation from America and that make the United States appear to many
abroad as a rogue nation.
Clyde Prestowitz was counselor to the secretary of
Commerce in the Reagan
administration. His book "Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the
Failure of Good Intentions" has just been published by Basic Books.
UK: Who Really Has Final Say on GM Food?
- James Reynolds, The Scotsman (UK), Jun 9, 2003
IT HAS been dismissed as a waste of time and money. The Conservative Party
says it looks rigged while environmental campaigners and consumer groups
have criticised it as a public relations exercise.
It is the touring debate on GM technology, which this week visits
Scotland. It is the first, and perhaps only, chance Scots have to tell the
government what they think of genetically modified crops and food products
made from them.
Under the title GM Nation?, Wednesday’s meeting in Glasgow is the fifth in
a series of six regional conferences, the outcome of which will supposedly
inform what is arguably the government’s most important environmental
decision so far.
At the end of this summer, Labour must finally settle the question of
whether GM crops can be grown commercially in Britain. The decision could
herald a sea change in agricultural production, the like of which has not
been seen since the industrial revolution. It will almost certainly not,
however, quell a debate which has raged in the media since "Frankenstein
foods" were first mentioned.
For the last four years, the decision has been postponed while farm-scale
trials have been conducted all over the UK. Their purpose has been to see
whether pesticides developed in conjunction with each of the four GM crops
proposed for farming in Britain cause any harm to wildlife and established
ecosystems. The last of the trials finishes next month, and the results
will be published in September.
Advocates of GM technology, such as Professor Anthony Trewavas, of
Edinburgh University, claim it will enable farmers to gain higher crop
yields through better weed control and reduce the use of toxic pesticides.
Poor countries will be less reliant on hand-outs, the nutritional content
of basic foods can be improved and vaccines to fight disease can all be
added to GM crops, say supporters. In short, they claim it is the answer
to the growing problem of feeding the world.
Critics, such as Friends of the Earth Scotland, claim the large-scale
release of GM organisms into the environment would irreversibly damage the
countryside, eliminating diversity and turning it into a green
They claim it may cause damage to human health, contribute to the
evolution of pesticide-resistant "superweeds", and make organic farming
impossible because of cross-pollination. It would also, they argue,
strengthen already dominant agribusinesses through seed and gene patents.
Tony Blair and members of his Cabinet are known to support GM technology,
along with many leading figures from the UK scientific community. But the
greatest pressure on the government comes from across the Atlantic, where
the Bush administration strives on behalf of the agricompanies at the
forefront of developing the science. Last month, the United States
protested against the European Union over delays in licensing new GM
In Britain, opposition to GM technology remains strong. A survey conducted
by MORI in April revealed 56 per cent of people are opposed to GM foods,
while 14 per cent were in favour. Scottish Natural Heritage fears the
introduction of certain types of GM crops could allow farmers to use even
more intensive methods, thus further reducing the variety of farmland
wildlife. A huge variety of birds, plants and insects have already been
greatly affected by changes in agriculture, leading to their significant
decline over 50 years.
But while Wales managed to block trials of GM crops due to a quirk of
devolution which means seed listing and marketing cannot go ahead in
England, Scotland and Northern Ireland unless all parts of the UK agree
separately, the Scottish Executive’s position remains close to
Westminster. A spokesman said policy on GM crops will be based on all
relevant information, including the outcome of the public debate, the
Science Review, and the Study on Costs and Benefits, as well as farm-scale
Ultimately, however, the decision on whether GM crops are approved will be
made in Brussels, through a vote of EU member states following a long
approval process. The decision will be binding across Europe.
The GM Nation? debate takes place on Wednesday at the Quality Hotel,
Gordon Street, Glasgow, from 6pm-8pm. Entry is by ticket only, call
FOR: PROOF IS IN THE EATING -- Prof Anthony Trewavas
USING GM insect-resistant crops, one million of China’s poorest farmers
have seen incomes rise by 25 per cent and pesticide use drop by 80 per
cent, writes Anthony Trewavas.
Indian and South African farmers have also seen yields nearly double,
Spanish farmers’ incomes have risen by £100 a hectare and US farmers’ by
£150 an acre from GM insect-resistant crops. These crops kill roundworms
in cattle, but have no effect on bees, birds, fish and earthworms.
African scientists have made GM virus-resistant sweet potatoes that will
increase yields three-fold. Scientists have made GM vaccines in food
against deadly respiratory viruses, cholera, infant diarrhoea, and
Norwalk-like viruses that cause food poisoning; you eat and become immune.
HIV-suppressing spinach and rape that treats blood clots, GM vaccines
against cervical cancer and anthrax, safer insulin and products to help
cystic fibrosis sufferers digest food, have all been produced in food
To improve nutrition, scientists have produced GM potatoes with higher
protein content and rice containing human milk proteins. GM vitamin A and
iron-enriched rice will help reduce the deaths of many millions of Third
World children and women from disease and post-natal disorders. 200
million people have eaten GM food for ten years. The Royal Society asked
those who claimed that GM food might damage health to produce evidence.
They got nothing!
The UK can put its head in the sand but the world is changing around us.
We can try, like Canute, to order the GM tide back or decide that
knowledge, not unfounded prejudice, is the way forward.
Prof Anthony Trewavas, of Edinburgh University, is a Fellow of the Royal
Society and a former government adviser on GM issues.
AGAINST: CRUDE SCIENCE - Anthony Jackson
GM CROPS and food have not been proved safe. There have been no long-term
health tests on either, writes Anthony Jackson.
"No evidence of harm" is not equivalent to "there is evidence of no harm".
The health committee of the Scottish Parliament, after taking evidence
from government advisers and the Royal Society, declared that releasing GM
crops into the environment violated the precautionary principle, and
called for full toxicological testing of GM crops and food.
There is an ongoing debate, and when the scientific community is so split,
and there is no evidence of safety, GM crops should not be released into
the open environment, where the effects will be irreversible; GM food
should not be allowed into the food chain, where the effects are unknown.
Where GM crops have been grown, there is evidence of environmental damage.
"Superweeds" resistant to multiple herbicides are widespread in North
America, necessitating the use of even stronger herbicides. Research has
shown the soil structure is altered by GM crops, and DNA survives in the
soil for 400,000 years. The effects of GM DNA will be very long-term
The efficacy of GM crops is also questionable. When weeds become resistant
to the same herbicide as the GM crop, it is next to useless. Yields are
also hotly disputed. There is also worldwide consumer rejection; even in
the US, 92 per cent want GM food labelled and only 25 per cent think GM
food is safe.
This is because genetic modification is not just a simple advance in crop
breeding. It is the random insertion of a gene from a separate organism,
generally using a virus, into plant DNA, which we do not fully understand.
This is not precise; it is crude science.
Anthony Jackson supported and campaigned on behalf of the Munlochy Vigil
against GM crops.
What is the Point of "The Farmer Formerly Known as Prince?"
- Letter Sent to the Editor of The Observer (UK)
Sirs - all food is organic. It began with wheat which is the result of
genetic modifications of wild grasses, discovered 10,000 years ago. In
fact, hybrid seeds of every kind are genetically modified. That's the
point of hybridization - changing traits, which is accomplished through
genetic modification. Think about it - how does one get a difference color
of a rose?
The difference today is that the plant improvements are being done with
precision, so that food is safer. And, the next generation of research is
adding vitamins, so food will be healther.
Are you advocating the opposite, relying on manure to risk the transfers
E. coli bacteria and other toxic substances to food grown in conditions
clearly not equal to the farm of the Prince? The whole idea is to reduce
the dangers of food, not resort to methods shown to feed the presence of
invisible microbes, some of which may be like the virus that led to
In that context, is your editorial policy to cry fire in a crowded
theatre? It is not objective; rather displays overt bias, as well as
ignorance. In that light, it appears more like fiction than professional
journalism, and thus is irresponsibile.
Given the resources of The Royal Family, we would expect nothing less than
a pristine and perfect result, no matter what crops the Prince would grow
on his estate or how. Accordingly, with all due respect to Prince Charles,
what is the point of "The farmer formerly known as Prince?"
- Sheila M. Anderson, Miami Florida
cc: His Royal Highness Charles The Prince of Wales
The Farmer Formally Known as Prince
- The Observer, June 8, 2003
They said he was mad... but Prince Charles's Highgrove estate has become a
shining role model for the organic movement, not only for the quality of
its produce but for its sound housekeeping. Caroline Boucher reports
Ruby and Annabel, two gorgeous Tamworth sows, are sunning themselves
outside their hut. In the distance, a rare Welsh Black cow sits on the
grass, her coat so shiny it looks as if it has been washed and
conditioned. Behind her, the top two floors of one of Britain's most
famous privately owned country houses can be seen just above the oak
trees. It is a spectacular view, and one that Prince Charles could only
dream about when he bought Highgrove in 1980 and decided to set up an
organic farm on the estate.
Anyone who doubts his passion and commitment to living, and promoting, a
more natural way of life, should wangle a visit to Highgrove's Duchy Home
Farm. When the Prince says, 'I have put my heart and soul into Highgrove.
All the things I have tried to do in this small corner of Gloucestershire
have been the physical expression of a personal philosophy,' it is an
Duchy Home is truly a model farm, one that you see only in children's
books or on the Disney screen: poker-straight fences, immaculately painted
farm buildings, glossy animals, chickens pecking round the swept yard and
not a discarded piece of rusting machinery in sight.
Once past the police guard and up the drive to the house, a large painted
notice greets the visitor: 'Caution. You are entering a GMO-free zone.'
This acreage will never knowingly grow a GM seed, something the Prince
describes as 'an acute threat to organic farmers and all those consumers
who actually wish to exercise a right of choice about what they eat'.
However, the reality is that a large proportion of organic food on sale in
this country is imported. Only three per cent of cultivated land in the UK
is organic, although Wilson says there would still be enough food to feed
the population if every farm in the country went organic .
This is a view shared by the Prince. His critics, of course, can and do
level accusations that he is one of the very few farmers in this country
who do not need to make a profit, but this is missing the point. The
Prince's farm has become the benchmark of workable organic practice that
has converted many of the farmers that have been his guests.
'The prince is very intuitive,' says Wilson. 'The British countryside is
very dear to him. He's an artist - he sees the landscape, he sees it
change and he cares deeply, just as he cares about the quality of food.'
British Bishop supports GM Crops
- Denis Murphy, Biotechnology Unit, University of Glamorgan, UK
It looks like God (or His earthly spokesmen) has had a rethink on GM crops
- contrast the views of the Bishop of Hereford as reported today (see
below) with those of Prince Charles a few years back. Maybe He's started
reading some research papers....
supports GM crops
The Bishop of Hereford has voiced his support for genetically modified
crops. The trials of GM crops in Britain have been among the most
controversial moves in modern farming, leading to protests and attacks by
some campaign groups.
The Right Reverend John Oliver, who is the Church of England's spokesman
on the environment and rural issues, said there was an enormous amount of
hysteria on both sides of the argument. Bishop Oliver, whose diocese also
covers south Shropshire, said there was no evidence that GM crops were
Whitehall ministers backed hundreds of field trials for GM crops in the
1990s. Now the government wants to gauge public opinion before deciding
whether the crops can be grown commercially. The results of the farm-scale
trials of four crops proposed for Britain, carried out over the last four
years, are not due to be known until September.
Charles speaks out against GM food -- Mixing genetic material from
species that cannot breed naturally, takes us into areas that should be
left to God. We should not be meddling with the building blocks of life in
Adapt or Perish
- Leslie Pray, The Scientist, Jun. 2, 2003; Vol.17, Suppl. 1, p27;
When Michael Thomashow uprooted two decades ago from sunny southern
California for his first faculty position in Pullman, Wash., he had
trouble acclimating to the colder weather. That made him wonder how plants
survive extreme temperature conditions. "Unlike us, they can't just get up
and go inside," he muses. The Washington winters sowed the seeds of his
interest in plant stress tolerance, and thus began Thomashow's pioneering
work using Arabidopsis thaliana as a powerful model system. Since then,
scientists have studied this humble little mustard plant for acidity,
salinity, and other stresses.
THE WEED THAT CAME IN FROM THE COLD. Before the mid-1980s, Arabidopsis
researchers were growing their plants at a constant 20°C, says Gary
Warren, University of London, UK. No one was stressing their precious
model organisms. But after Thomashow broke from the pack and showed how
easy it was to find cold-responsive genes (known as COR) in Arabidopsis,
suddenly everyone wanted to do it.1 "Stress-inducible genes were the new
gold rush," says Warren. "With its small genome, Arabidopsis looked like a
Since then, Thomashow (now at Michigan State University) has discovered a
family of cold-regulated transcriptional activators, called CBF proteins,
that set in motion more than 30 COR genes. The COR proteins protect the
cell from membrane damage and other cold-induced damage. The CBF factors
are identical to DREB proteins that were independently discovered by Kazuo
Shinozaki's group at the RIKEN Tsukuba Institute, Japan. Overexpression of
one of these key transcription factors, CBF1, increases the freezing
tolerance of even nonacclimated plants. A non-acclimated plant is one that
hasn't had the chance to increase its freezing tolerance in response to
decreasing temperatures. Normally, during cold acclimation, plants sense
that the temperature is dropping and CBF1 naturally kicks in. For example,
freezing kills nonacclimated rye at about -5°C, but acclimated rye can
survive down to -30°C.
This work has tremendous practical implications, says Thomashow: "If we
knew more about the molecular response to these stresses, we might be able
to develop novel ways to improve stress tolerance." To that end, Michigan
State has filed patents for the key genes involved in the CBF/DREB1
pathway, and it has licensed the rights to Mendel Biotechnology, a
Hayward, Calif.-based company that is currently testing the so-called
Weatherguard technology. "We certainly know from lab tests that you can
get an increase in freezing tolerance," says Thomashow, who is waiting to
see if it will work in the field. "Technical success doesn't mean that you
have a commercial product," cautions Mendel Biotechnology's Bill Goure.
The company has sublicensed the technology so that it can be tested, and
ultimately applied, over a broad range of plant types. If Weatherguard
does eventually reach the market, "It will likely be the first technology
coming out of plant functional genomics" says Goure.
Surviving the cold is not just about temperature. "The battery of genes
affected by the CBF cold response also gives enhancement to drought
tolerance, a finding first published by Shinozaki's group," says
Thomashow. This makes sense, he says, since freezing damage is caused
mostly by dehydration resulting from ice crystal formation. Not only do
drought and freezing tolerance share common molecular response pathways,
but they also go hand-in-hand as the top two agricultural problems
worldwide. Goure suggests that Weatherguard's best asset may be its
ability to increase drought tolerance. "In terms of what limits
agriculture," says Thomashow, "drought is number one. Cold is number two."
Number three is high salinity.
SALT SHAKER. "Salt tolerance is a very serious agricultural problem and
has been a major problem throughout human history," says Jian-Kang Zhu of
the University of Arizona. In places with considerable rainfall,
accumulated ions and salts are regularly washed out of the soil. But where
rain is sparse, salts accumulate and eventually kill plant life. Zhu uses
Arabidopsis as a model to study the SOS (salt overly sensitive) family of
sodium-tolerant genes that he discovered, even though the glycophytic
Arabidopsis is hardly salt-tolerant. Arabidopsis can acclimate to
high-salt conditions the same way it can acclimate to plummeting
temperatures, so it still has all the requisite molecular machinery for
salt tolerance. By changing the expression of the SOS regulatory genes,
Zhu explains, one can create a much more salt-tolerant plant, just as
overexpressing CBF/DREB1 results in a more frost- tolerant plant.
Salt tolerance is studied in carnations by horticulturalists, in corn and
wheat by agronomists, and in naturally salt-tolerant plants by biologists.
"But the problem with these other plants is that the genetic
infrastructure is not there, so you can't actually do a lot of functional
studies," says Zhu. That's why Arabidopsis is the pick of the crop.
Transformation of this plant, for example, "is really, really easy," says
Zhu. Warren agrees: "If a company really wants to transform maize, it's
possible. But it's not something you'd do in a routine lab. It's hell to
get DNA into it."
The situation is changing somewhat. The salt-loving Thellungiella
halophila, for example, may be the next best salt-stress model plant. Like
Arabidopsis, it has a small genome, and more than 90% of its cDNAs have
But, says Zhu, "Arabidopsis is still the organism of choice." Friedrich
Schöffl of the Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen in Germany agrees. "The
most important feature of any study system is genetics." He chose to study
heat-shock responses in the mustard plant, even though it is not
especially heat-tolerant compared to heartier botanic species such as
tobacco. Thanks to its genetics, Arabidopsis beats the competition hands
ARABIDOPSIS AND ALUMINUM. The tiny crucifer has also proven a heavy hitter
in aluminum tolerance studies, says root biologist Leon Kochian of Cornell
University. Aluminum toxicity is one of the hazards of acid soil, and it
is a major agricultural problem because half of the world's potentially
arable soil is acidic. Kochian puts it right up there with temperature,
drought, and salt stress. Even though crop plants historically have been
bred for aluminum tolerance, he says, there is ample room for improvement.
Moreover, bioengineering is the only genetic solution for genetically
homogenous plants that cannot be bred for aluminum tolerance.
Using Arabidopsis as a model system, Kochian and postdoc Owen Koekenga
have recently identified two major quantitative trait loci involved in
aluminum tolerance. They plan to overexpress aluminum tolerance genes in
other plants, much the same way that the cold-response CBF/DREB1 genes are
being overexpressed in crop plants to increase frost tolerance. When it
comes to testing it in the field, Kochian stresses that genetics is only
half the answer; reducing soil acidity is equally important.
TIME TO FLOWER. Not all environmental cues are stressful. Plants also
regularly respond to daily or seasonal cues, such as diurnal light
patterns and seasonal temperature changes. Wielding the scepter of
Arabidopsis, scientists are making significant headway toward
understanding the molecular machinery of these processes. For example, a
slew of papers recently reported on the photo-period and flowering. George
Coupland's group at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research
in Germany isolated a transcription factor, CO (constans) that activates a
suite of target genes that regulate flowering time. They demonstrated that
CO is expressed only during the interval of the day when plants are
exposed to light on long days but are in darkness on short days. As day
length gets longer, the plants start to flower.
Another piece in the molecular puzzle comes from Rick Amasino's lab at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. Amasino's group recently discovered
another gene, ELF4 (early flowering 4), which is crucial for normal
Flowering time is also triggered by prolonged exposure to cold
temperatures, which is different from the immediate cold-response that
Thomashow studies. The longer wintry weather response, known as
vernalization, can be simulated in the laboratory by refrigerating
Arabidopsis for several weeks. By doing so, Amasino's group discovered FLC
(flowering locus C), a key genetic player whose expression is turned off
by winter and stays off long after the cold signal is gone. Since high
levels of FLC prevent flowering, the plant is able to flower when spring
Caroline Dean and colleagues at the John Innes Center, Norwich, UK, study
FRIGIDA, a flower-repressing gene that keeps FLC levels high before
vernalization sets in. FRIGIDA ensures that "plants do not flower on a
nice autumn day when the day-length is still relatively long." says Dean.
Like the plant-stress responses, seasonal responses potentially can be
exploited for agricultural gain. "Expressing FLC would be important in
crops like beets, spinach, and lettuce," says Amasino. "Flowering sort of
destroys these crops. But it would take tremendously more resources in
larger crop plants to do the kinds of things that people are doing with
Arabidopsis. Now we have a baseline of information that can be applied to
other systems. An important way for science to progress is to really
understand one species and then do comparative work."
Leslie Pray (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer in Northampton, Mass.
1. M.F. Thomashow, "So what's new in the field of plant cold acclimation?
Lots!" Plant Physiol, 125:89-93, 2001.
Study Finds Jack S#@*t
- The Onion, June 4, 2001, vol. 39, Issue 21
BALTIMORE--A team of scientists at Johns Hopkins University announced
Monday that a five-year study examining the link between polyphenols and
lower cholesterol rates has found jack shit.
"I can't explain what happened," head researcher Dr. Jeremy Ingels said.
"We meticulously followed correct scientific procedure. Our methods were
sufficiently rigorous that they should have produced some sort of result.
Instead, we found out nothing." Added Ingels: "Nothing!"
As Ingels stepped aside to compose himself, fellow researcher Dr. Thomas
Chen took the podium to discuss the $7 million jack-shit-yielding study.
"We are all very upset," Chen said. "When we began, this looked so
promising, I would have bankrolled it myself. Now, after five years, I
couldn't tell you if polyphenols even exist."
The study, which Chen characterized as a "huge waste of time and money,"
was financed by a Johns Hopkins alumni grant to determine the effects of
the compound polyphenol on cholesterol. A known antioxidant found in
herbs, teas, olive oil, and wines, polyphenol was originally thought to
lower cholesterol--a theory that remains unproven because the Johns
Hopkins researchers couldn't prove squat.
"We can't say zip about whether it lowers cholesterol," Ingels said. "We
don't know if it raises cholesterol. Hell, we don't know if it joins with
cholesterol to form an unholy alliance to take over your gall bladder. At
this point, I couldn't prove that a male donkey has nuts if they were
swinging in my face."
Above: Dr. Jeremy Ingels, head of the total-waste-of-time-and-money study.
When a study's results are inconclusive, a research team often asks for
more time and money to finish. Such is not the case with the Johns Hopkins
"No. No f@#*ing way," Ingels said. "I don't know about Dr. Chen, but I
know that Dr. [Kerri] Bruce, who has been a real trouper through all of
this, is quitting science to start a catfish farm in Louisiana. Me, I have
a long date with my bed and cable TV. I may still do something in science,
but if I do, it'll probably be something easy, like re-linking cigarette
smoking with lung cancer, just to get my confidence back up. It's too
early to say. I'll have a better idea after a month of watching the Game
Show Network and eating raspberry danishes."
Ingels also spoke of Dr. James Long, a biochemist who worked on the
inconclusive study until lapsing into alcoholism six months ago. "Poor Jim
just couldn't take it," Ingels said. "We were all hitting the bars pretty
hard once we began to see that things weren't adding up. I think he took
it the hardest because he was the one who proposed the study in the first
place. I guess he was accustomed to research leading to something...
In spite of the fruitless results, other researchers at Johns Hopkins
expressed confidence that, in time, some positive results can be gleaned
from the study. Ingels has relinquished all collected data to the
university, but stressed that he will not offer any further assistance.
"You want to look over this big fat goose egg, go nuts," Ingels said. "I
don't want to hear the word 'polyphenol' for the remainder of 2003."
Chen then took the podium to make the team's closing statements. "I just
want to clarify that we had the best intentions going into this study,"
Chen said. "We thought we would make a scientific discovery about
polyphenols and cholesterol that would benefit the health of millions. I
guess we were wrong. We tried to find a link, but instead we found
Uncle Sam's Very Own GM Information Minister
Meet Uncle Sam's very own GM Information Minister - code name: Comical
Black propaganda, covert operations, Words of Mass Deception... Comical
Praki's the man!
(From Prakash: Very funny!
Now that the activists are beginning to show some sense of humor (although
dark), can we expect them to further grow up to be more balanced and
realistic, and put out animated gifs of say their beloved Vandana morphing
into Marie Antoinnette, Mae-Wan Ho into Lysenko and even perhaps their
prince charming peddling snake oil?)
Nevertheless, It was good to see these Brit activists taking some time off
from their usual pastime of spewing of vehement vitriole but indulge in a
creative comic albeit twisted pursuit.)