Today in AgBioView: July 14-II, 2003:
* Scientists Find Gene that Protects Against Potato Blight
* Giving Green Light to Frankenfood
* The Anti-Monoculture Mania
* Revving up the Green Express
* Democratization Is More Than Lower Prices; ...Response
* GM Forum Cancelled (B'cos no one is interested!)
* EU Consumer Lobbies Eclipse Indian Food Exporters
* Europeans Will Pay Price for GM Labelling
* Science Won't Deliver While Market Forces Rule
* Harnessing Crop Technologies to Alleviate Hunger and Poverty in Africa
* Agricultural Stardust in the White House?
* The GM Debate
* Does the World Bank Really Care About Science?
* Adolf Hitler: My Parts Per Million in his Downfall
Scientists Find Gene that Protects Against Potato Blight
- Terry Devitt, University of Wisconsin, July 14, 2003
Scouring the genome of a wild Mexican potato, scientists have discovered a
gene that protects potatoes against late blight, the devastating disease
that caused the Irish potato famine.
The discovery of the gene and its cloning by scientists at the University
of Wisconsin-Madison was reported July 14 in online editions of the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The identification of the gene, found in a species of wild potato known as
Solanum bulbocastanum, holds significant potential. All of the varieties
now cultivated commercially on more than 1.5 million acres in the United
States are highly susceptible to potato late blight, a family of fungal
pathogens that wreaks havoc in the field, turning tubers to mush and
invariably killing any plant it infects.
"We think this could be very useful," says John Helgeson, a UW-Madison
professor of plant pathology, a research scientist with the U.S.
Department of Agriculture and a senior author of the PNAS paper. "No
potato grown in the United States on any scale at all has resistance to
With the blight-resistant gene in hand, the Wisconsin team, which also
includes Jiming Jiang, a UW-Madison professor of horticulture, was able to
engineer plants that survived exposure to the many races of Phytophthora
infestans. The insertion of a single gene, according to Jiang and
Helgeson, effectively protects plants from the range of late blight
pathogens. "So far, the plants have been resistant to everything we have
thrown at them," says Helgeson.
The world's most serious potato disease, late blight is best known as the
cause of the Irish potato famine. Seeming to appear from nowhere in 1845,
the fungus wiped out the staple crop of the densely populated island
nation, causing mass starvation over five years, killing more than a
million people and sparking a wave of immigration that had worldwide
More than 150 years later, Ireland's population has yet to return to
pre-famine levels. Prior to the 1990s, chemical fungicides were available
in the United States and effectively held the disease at bay. But new
strains of the pathogen have emerged, testing the limits of the technology
and requiring American farmers to treat potato fields as many as a dozen
times a season at a cost of up to $250 per acre. In warmer climates such
as Mexico, fields may be treated as many as 25 times a year with the
costly and toxic chemicals. "We used to be able to get by, but the new
(late-blight) strain just levels things in no time at all," says Helgeson.
The gene that protects potatoes from the fungus comes from a plant that
scientists believe co-evolved in Mexico alongside the late-blight
pathogen. It was discovered, ironically, as a result of the emergence of a
new strain of P. infestans that swept through the United States in 1994.
At UW-Madison's Hancock Agricultural Research Station, the only plants to
survive were the wild Mexican species and its progeny in Helgeson's test
Subsequent to the 1994 outbreak, which required the development of new
fungicides for agriculture, Helgeson and his colleagues began the hunt for
the genes that conferred resistance on the wild Mexican cousin of the
domesticated tubers familiar to consumers.
In 2000, Helgeson's lab reported narrowing the search to one of the 12
chromosomes of the wild plant. Now, with the gene identified, cloned and
successfully tested in engineered varieties in the laboratory, at hand is
a new technology that could save farmers hundreds of millions of dollars
and benefit the environment by eliminating the application of thousands of
tons of toxic chemicals.
But despite the huge economic and environmental gains that could be
realized, it is unclear if the technology will be widely utilized. Because
of European fears of genetically modified crops, and the control exercised
over growers by a few large buyers, there is currently no engineered
potato in commercial production anywhere.
The use of conventional breeding techniques to move the newfound
blight-resistance gene into the few dominant commercial varieties popular
in the United States is all but impossible, according to Jiang.
"We can do it by conventional breeding, but we can't move it into the
standard cultivated varieties without losing them," he says. "It is almost
impossible to create another Burbank variety, for example, through
conventional breeding. Your odds of getting the one gene in would be like
winning the lottery."
Still, the Wisconsin group, plans to develop engineered varieties for the
garden. The hope, they say, is to develop the technology that will
gradually win consumer acceptance and, perhaps someday, go where no GMO
has gone before.
Giving Green Light to Frankenfood
- Ruth Kava, Washington Times, July 14, 2003
'Food, Inc.: Mendel To Monsanto ˜ The Promises And Perils Of The Biotech
Harvest By Peter Pringle; Simon & Schuster, $25, 356 pages'
Over the last 10 years or so there has been a maelstrom of claims and
counter-claims about the use of bioengineered, or gene-spliced crops.
Producers and promoters of crops such as Bt corn, herbicide-resistant
soybeans, and "golden rice" have promised an array of benefits for
farmers, third-world children and the environment. Detractors have railed
that "Frankenfood" will cause lethal allergies, decimate beneficial fauna,
pollute the genomes of traditional crops, create "superweeds," and not
profit anyone but the industry giants that produce them.
Consumers unfamiliar with the science and legalities involved may be
justifiably confused and anxious about whom to believe and what is and
isn't safe to eat. In "Food, Inc.," journalist Peter Pringle attempts to
sort through the maze of information and disinformation surrounding the
most widely known examples of gene-spliced crops.
Mr. Pringle doesn't obviously align himself with either side of the
scientific biotech debate. He notes that although industrial sources extol
the potential for improving health and nutrition through gene-spliced
products, most of the bioengineered traits produced by them thus far deal
more with crops profitable in first world countries than those that could
benefit humanity. On the other hand, he observes that anti-biotech
activists haven't been agitating for "Miracle Seeds for the Poor," but
rather have been busy vowing that biotech crops are of no use, and could
possibly be unsafe. The political disagreement has often been cloaked in
unscientific hyperbole by both sides.
A prime example of this clash is the production of golden rice, which has
been altered using genes from daffodils and a bacterium so that it
produced beta-carotene. This scientific first was really a tour de force,
as no one had previously bioengineered such a complex system. When
absorbed by humans, beta-carotene can be converted to vitamin A, essential
for healthy eyes and immune systems. Indeed, lack of dietary vitamin A
causes blindness in over a quarter of a million children in third world
countries every year. Biotech researchers and industry made golden rice
their poster child, implying, if not actually stating, that it, alone,
could prevent millions of cases of childhood blindness each year.
Antibiotech activists proclaimed it a hoax, stating that one would have to
eat an unrealistically large amount to get enough beta-carotene to stave
off blindness. Both claims were exaggerated.
The truth is that rice containing beta carotene could make a real
contribution to third world nutritional status, if the usual obstacles
(which also face other health promoting modalities like vaccines) such as
neophobia were overcome. But Mr. Pringle doesn't seem interested in
determining the scientific veracity of the claims of either side; he is
more concerned with the social and political issues.
For example, although the Rockefeller Foundation initially funded the
scientists who developed golden rice, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, they
still had to get permission of several companies to use patented
gene-splicing materials and techniques. In the end, according to Mr.
Pringle, they had to agree to let one company, Astra-Zeneca, market golden
rice in developed countries in order to be allowed to give the seed to
poor farmers in the third world.
Another high-profile biotech case was that of "lethal corn" -- lethal to
corn borers and Monarch butterflies, that is. The corn had been
bioengineered with a gene from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, to
make a protein (Bt) that was lethal to corn borers and like pests. The
problem was a study by Cornell University professor John Losey. Mr. Losey
had found that Monarch butterfly caterpillars, which eat milkweed leaves,
were injured or killed when they ate pollen from Bt corn thickly spread on
milkweed leaves in his lab.
When Mr. Losey published these results (against the advice of some of his
peers), anti-biotech activists pounced. Bt corn would decimate the world
Monarch butterfly population, they cried, and the media picked it up. All
right-thinking Monarch lovers were aghast. But the truth was that
laboratory conditions don't really model real-life field situations very
well. Further research carried out under more realistic conditions
indicated that the Bt corn would not drive the Monarch to extinction.
Mr. Pringle castigates both sides in this scenario. He indicates that the
biotech industry should have performed the appropriate experiments before
the Bt corn was widely used (but given the wide variety of insect life in
and around corn fields, it would be impossible to show that Bt corn
wouldn't harm anything besides corn borers). To be sure, he also indicts
the activists for exaggerating preliminary data to suit their own ends,
but seems more concerned about the deficits of the industry's performance.
Another case involving Bt corn that got much media coverage was the
Starlink fiasco. In this case, corn engineered to contain a different Bt
protein was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use in
animal feed, but not for human food. But the U.S. system for handling corn
was not set up to keep these streams of grain separate. The inevitable
happened and minute traces of the protein turned up in corn used for taco
shells and other human foods.
Again, activists had a field day-- predicting dire consequences if
allergic humans consumed the tiniest iota of this protein. Here, though,
Mr. Pringle blames the EPA for an unrealistic appraisal of the possibility
of keeping corn meant for animals completely separate from that destined
Another issue Mr. Pringle addresses is one that he calls "biopiracy" --
the patenting of plant varieties used by indigenous peoples for many
generations by first world merchants and scientists. Examples include the
patenting of medicines based on the Indian spice turmeric and those based
on the bark of the neem tree, the basis of many Indian native medicinals
(both these patents were later revoked after being challenged). Such
incidents concern those who are perturbed about the possibility of one or
a few companies having control, by means of patents, over much of the
world's food supply.
Mr. Pringle uses these and other similar scenarios to illustrate the
shortcomings of industry, regulatory, and antibiotech sides of the debate.
Issues such as patenting of native plants and of genes and bioengineering
techniques are not often brought to the public's attention ˜ it's easier
to get readers excited about unknown allergens lurking in food or
extinction of a beautiful butterfly. Mr. Pringle clearly places the
scientific questions in the social and political milieus that affect our
perception of them.
As a scientist, I found that occasionally the narrow focus on particular
scenarios gave the scientific aspects too light a treatment. For example,
when making the point that use of Bt-containing corn would not likely
decrease farmers' use of pesticides, Mr. Pringle might have also pointed
out that similarly bioengineered cotton (OK, not a food crop, but still
bioengineered) already has substantially reduced pesticide use in that
crop, a likely environmental plus.
In sum, Mr. Pringle gives the green light to bioengineered foods, stating
that "These GM groceries are not Frankenfoods any more than a person with
a transplanted heart is today's Frankenstein. They are scientific
creations full of both promise and potential hazard." He warns that more
attention must be paid to the ways in which our legal and political
systems deal with both promises and potential hazards, so that the
benefits are not buried under misguided fears and misapprehensions. "Food,
Inc." provides some interesting food for thought.
Ruth Kava is Director of Nutrition at the American Council on Science and
The Anti-Monoculture Mania
- Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D.
Revving up the Green Express
- Deborah A. Fitzgerald, The Scientist, Vol. 17 no. 14 , p45; July 14,
Agricultural researchers have designed a wide variety of genetically
modified plants with traits deemed beneficial to those who grow, market,
and consume them. But plants have another role in biotech: Members of the
green kingdom also can be used--quite literally-- as manufacturing plants
for large-scale, recombinant protein production.
Such proteins have potential industrial, research, and clinical
applications. Plant expression systems may ultimately help the
pharmaceutical industry meet the rising demand for therapeutic proteins.
"Monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) are one of the fastest expanding categories
of protein drug," says Lee Quarles, spokesperson for Monsanto Protein
Technologies. With analysts predicting that more than 70 therapeutic mAbs
will be on the market by 2008, requiring production of over 10 metric tons
of mAbs annually, plant-based expression could decrease manufacturing
costs between four- and five-fold over traditional cell culture
techniques, he says, depending on the scale of operation and the
particular protein and expression host employed.
Other advantages include easy scalability, high product yields, reduced
risks of contamination with bacterial endotoxins or mammalian pathogens,
proper folding and assembly of protein complexes, and the ability to
perform most posttranslational modifications.
But plants have downsides, too. Companies using plants for protein
production must guard against a number of potential safety issues,
including contamination with residual pesticides, herbicides, and toxic
plant metabolites.5 In a broader context, using transgenic field crops to
produce recombinant proteins invites the ire of those opposed to GM plants
in general, who worry that transgenes and their encoded proteins will
spread in the environment, ultimately affecting nontarget organisms.
To address this latter concern, scientists are pursuing several options,
including asexual reproduction, male sterility, "suicide" genes, plant
host genomes incompatible with nearby related species, chloroplast genetic
engineering, methods for removing or doing without selectable markers, and
postharvest expression systems. As the US Food and Drug Administration and
the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) establish a growing body of safety
guidelines, several companies are begining to carefully move forward in
developing, testing, and utilizing plants for protein expression.
Nevertheless, it rarely hurts to hedge one's bets. "Many pharmaceutical
companies are opting to prepare for projected increases in the demand for
protein therapeutics by means other than, or in addition to, plant-based
expression, including investing in additional infrastructure for producing
proteins via already widely used methods such as cell culture, and/or
exploring alternative approaches, such as protein production in transgenic
animals," says Nate Cosper, industry manager for drug discovery and
clinical diagnostics at Frost & Sullivan, a global market-consulting firm.
FIELDS OF OPTIONS. Plant researchers have developed a wide range of tools
and strategies for protein expression in plant species such as corn, rice,
wheat, tobacco, alfalfa, tomato, potato, banana, oilseed rape, and
soybean. Transgenes can be stably introduced by using the soil pathogen
Agrobacterium tumefaciens, or via direct transfer procedures such as
electroporation, microinjection, or "biolistic" particle bombardment
(biolistic is a coined word derived from biological and ballistic).
Alternatively, plants can host transient gene expression driven by
modified viral vectors. Protein expression can be cytosolic throughout the
entire plant, or targeted to either specific plant organs or intracellular
compartments. And proteins can be expressed directly within the plastids
(for example, chloroplasts), which have their own separate genomes.
...... Read on at
Democratization Is More Than Lower Prices
- Science, Vol. 301, No.5630, July 11, 2003, p.167.
In his Policy Forum, "Genomics, genetic engineering, and domestication of
crops" (4 April, p. 61), Steven H. Strauss makes a plea for less onerous
field trial regulations for less radical genetic modifications, such as
genomics-guided transgenes (GGT), thereby helping smaller companies and
public-sector investigators to be able to afford to try out crop variants.
Unfortunately, his plea ignores the politics of the genetically modified
(GM) food debate.
In a perfect world, no critic of biotechnology would object to so modest
and reasonable a proposal as looser regulations for GGT. But, likewise, in
a perfect world, no biotechnology advocate would object to (for example)
the modest and reasonable proposal to label GM food. In the imperfect real
world, though, biotechnology critics see their main concerns kept off the
table (such as food labeling), blocked by the biotechnology industry and
its advocates. They retaliate by taking a hard line on the only issue left
on the table: biosafety. Consequently, the GM debate has the political
dynamic of a feud, not a negotiation.
Strauss's proposal, reasonable as it may be, asks critics to surrender a
major bargaining chip--strict regulation of field trials--but offers them
nothing in return. Only in the very last sentence does Strauss even
acknowledge the critics' main concerns--"the widespread suspicion of the
power and ethics of many large corporations"--and correctly recognize that
"'democratization' of biotechnology might be as important as biological
advances in promoting public approval of [genetic engineering] in
agriculture." But the step toward democratization he offers--lower- cost
field trials through looser regulations--is insignificant and certainly
will not tempt critics.
It is the patenting of crops that biotechnology critics find so
antidemocratic. To these critics, the patenting of the world's food supply
by corporations is an assault on democracy more enormous than any military
assault. Until the patenting of plants and animals is back on the table
and negotiated in good faith, I doubt that crumbs like the one Strauss is
offering will get critics to ease their hard line on biosafety.
- Jerry Cayford, Resources for the Future, 1616 P Street NW, Washington,
Cayford suggests that for many opponents of agricultural biotechnology,
scientific uncertainties over biosafety are more bargaining tools than
critical issues in global wars over patents and regulation of
biotechnology. He acknowledges that my proposal to regulate
genomics-guided transgenes (GGTs) less onerously is "modest and
reasonable," yet sees this as too few "crumbs" to get anti-genetically
modified organism (GMO) hardliners to support the changes proposed.
My hope is that this "hostage-taking" approach does not represent the new
morality of most of the Green movement, which appears to be the main
anti-GMO force around the globe. The costs to people and environment of
effectively losing genetic engineering from most agricultural sectors as a
result of excess regulation are too great for so simple-minded a political
Labeling and the required bureaucracy for food tracking and segregation it
demands, when carried out to the high levels of fidelity required in
places such as the EU, are very costly. It is the poor who will suffer
most from this seemingly "reasonable proposal to label GM food," both in
the form of higher food costs and effective trade barriers to products
from developing countries (who will often not be able to afford the
expensive bureaucracy needed to adequately comply with strict
Although there are many evolutions to the intellectual property rules
surrounding biotechnology that are needed to cope with its complexity and
rapid rate of growth, few would call for a complete cessation of patents.
They stimulate innovation, publication, and development of new products.
Earlier forms of patent and germplasm protection have been widely
incorporated into agriculture with little acrimony. And there are few
practices more "democratizing" than protecting and promoting the ideas and
work of society's innovators when applied to improve food quality,
dependability, and affordability.
If anti-GMO groups continue to seek stringent regulations for all GMO
crops, regardless of benefit, safety, and familiarity, then their
credibility with the public will diminish over time. Of most import,
however, may be that public confidence in important environmental issues
brought forward by Green groups may be tarnished by association with
scientifically reckless anti-GMO campaigns.
Unfortunately, with the high level of regulation and stigma successfully
implanted in places such as Europe, policies and attitudes may take a
generation or more to change course. The opportunity costs in dollars, and
costs to human health and environment, will be incalculable.
- Steven H. Strauss, Department of Forest Science, Oregon State
University, Corvallis, OR 97331-5752,
GM Forum Cancelled
- Coventry Evening Telegraph (UK) July 11, 2003
Debate about genetically modified crops, due to take place today at
Stratford High School, in Alcester Road, has been cancelled.
Stratford District Council had organised the meeting but have now said it
will not go ahead as there has not been enough interest.
EU Consumer Lobbies Eclipse Indian Food Exporters‚ Drive
- Malcolm Subhan, The Financial Express (India), July 14, 2003
Indian exporters struggling to meet the sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS)
regulations in force in the European Union (EU) will blame the EU for its
protectionist policies. But the real driving force behind EU import
policies, especially when it comes to food, is the consumer and consumer
This is obvious from the long-running debate in the 15-nation EU over
genetically modified (GM) food and animal feed, viewed by some as
"Frankenstein foods." The debate came to a head in one of the key EU
institutions, the European Parliament, earlier this month, when the 626
MEPs voted on draft legislation which was first submitted to them some two
"The discussions have been intensive, complex and have often provoked
strong emotional reactions,‰ the man in charge of consumer protection in
the EU, David Byrne, declared at the end of the proceedings. He was quick
to point out that the GM legislation, as approved by the European
Parliament, "will provide consumers with the freedom to choose between GM
and non-GM products."
But commissioner David Byrne also made clear just how irrational the
public debate over GM food really is. "All the scientific evidence
available to us indicates that GM food is as safe as conventional food.
There is no scientific evidence going in a contrary direction," he told
He was strongly supported by a socialist MEP, Robert Goebbels. Europe, he
maintained, had rejected genetically modified varieties "despite the total
absence of health problems for consumers and damage to the environment."
He pointed out that numerous plant species, "such as tobacco, wheat and
rape, had been domesticated by man, over thousands of years, by the
addition of different genomes."
Mr Goebbels contrasted these random efforts with the targeted efforts of
scientists, which was viewed "as the work of the devil." He noted that
the international body, the Codex Alimentarius, had recognised that "GM
foodstuffs are no more dangerous than other foodstuffs."
The tide is running strongly in favour of GM food; what is more, it is
probably irreversible. For the MEP Robert Goebbels, "since the 1980s, GM
technology is progressing everywhere, except in Europe." Last year some 60
million hectares were sown with GM crops across the globe, as compared to
10,000 or so hectares in the EU, for experimental purposes only.
Meanwhile, 95% of Europeans with Ph.D degrees in biotechnology were
working in the US.
The strongest opposition to EU policies on GM food and feedstuffs has come
from the US, backed by countries such as Canada, Brazil and Australia. The
Americans, in fact, have challenged in the WTO the ban on imports of GM
food, in force in the EU since 1999, a ban which their chief trade
negotiator claims has cost the US nearly $1 billion in lost exports.
The latest EU legislation, which will come into force shortly, will only
add to costs for producers, whether in the EU or outside it. This is
because the legislation provides for strict labelling, backed by
traceability. The label will tell consumers of the presence of GM food,
once it exceeds 0.9%. The presence of smaller quantities will be regarded
as "accidental." The new legislation also provides for traceability,
summed up in the slogan "From farm to fork." Detailed records will have to
be kept, thus ensuring that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be
traced at all stages in the production and marketing chain.
"In this way, we address the most critical concerns of the public
regarding the environmental and health effects of GMOs," according to
David Byrne's colleague, the EU's environmental commissioner, Margaret
Wallstrom. Not surprisingly, American farmers and food manufacturers are
up in arms, and the Bush Administration can be expected to press its case
for unfettered access to the EU market in WTO. But American farmers are
not alone in wanting to plant GM crops. Many Asian countries, including
China, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, see benefits in such
crops, given that they do not require much water and are resistant to
But international non-governmental organisations, such as ActionAid,
believe that GM seeds cannot be a priority for farmers in developing
countries. What poor farmers need, according to an ActionAid report, is
"land reform, access to water, better roads, so that they can get their
produce to market, credit, and educational programmes." Clearly, the
debate on GM food is far from over, whether in the EU or India.
Europeans Will Pay Price for GM Labelling
- Will Verboven, Calgary Herald (Alberta, Canada), July 13, 2003
If there is one thing you can count on from the European Union (EU), it is
an adherence to political correctness and regulatory overkill. That
approach has created a stifling and bloated bureaucracy in Brussels that
wants to regulate much of European society. Of course, it's all done in
the name of standardization and consumer protection.
No better example is the recent decision by the European parliament to
lift its moratorium on genetically modified (GM) food products. But, in
its place, they have imposed regulatory overload that will make it almost
impossible to sell GM food products competitively in the European
EU bureaucrats, politicians and their allies in the extremist
environmental lobby must have been congratulating themselves long into the
night. Not only did they bow to the environmental agenda, but they created
an artificial trade barrier and stuck it to the Americans and that root of
all evil -- the global corporate conspiracy. Not bad for a few days' work.
The decision had no basis in science, health or any rational benefit to
the European consumer, but that didn't matter. No one has ever accused the
Machiavellian EU parliament of exercising any common sense.
European consumers will now be spared the opportunity of buying perfectly
safe GM food products at competitive prices. Instead, they will have to
purchase expensive non-GM food products that have been produced from
plants treated to some of the highest levels of pesticide and chemical use
in the world.
Or, better yet, they can purchase even more expensive organic food
products that require scarce agricultural land to produce. No doubt
low-income Europeans will feel much better with those two costly
Perhaps European consumers are getting what they wish for; surveys show
they have bought into the GM fear-mongering and junk science of the global
The real fear of EU social engineers is that the EU consumer, given a
competitive choice, may make the politically incorrect choice of actually
buying GM food products -- even if they are labelled. That's because
consumers have for years exasperated pollsters and governments with their
predilection for saying one thing, but actually voting with their wallets
and doing the opposite.
True to form, the EU parliament exempted some of its own cherished food
products from the GM label regulations -- European cheese and beer -- even
though most are produced with the assistance of GM food enzyme
Soybean oil, on the other hand, must be labelled as being GM, even though
processing makes it impossible to detect the GM ingredient. But, then,
that product is mainly produced in the U.S. and not Europe.
Incredibly, meat produced by animals fed GM feed narrowly missed the GM
labelling requirement. Apparently, some EU officials have a limit to the
junk science even they will accept.
In the long term, thanks to the EU parliament, EU consumers will be on the
losing side of the GM food issue. They will not have reasonable access to
the second and third generation of GM plants coming on-stream.
Those new GM food products will offer direct health benefits through
vitamin and mineral improvements and the elimination of many food
allergens. Pesticide use will also continue to decrease in those countries
that adopt GM technology.
The EU decision may be a victory for anti-GM zealots, but it does not
change one annoying reality. Every day they wake up will continue to be
another bad hair day. And, much to their dismay, it will be another day
that no one has died or gotten sick from eating GM food products anywhere
in the world.
Science Won't Deliver While Market Forces Rule
- Richard Jefferson, The Age (Australia), July 15, 2003
In the world of innovation, big money is triumphing over the public
interest, writes Richard Jefferson.
There are sometimes issues so important and so oppressively overbearing
that we don't speak of them, perhaps being disconcerted by their magnitude
or embarrassed at our lack of engagement.
Last Tuesday at the International Congress of Genetics in Melbourne, a
long-awaited panel discussion on "Public Science v Private Science, Who
Wins?" was held. The experts - including Nobel laureate John Sulston -
were from public and private-sector research, business and publishing.
The panel grappled with the "elephant in the room", and concurred that we
have reached a new crisis in genetic science. The very democratic freedom
to innovate - and to deliver that innovative capacity to neglected people
and problems - is seriously threatened.
We used to imagine that scientific endeavour would, as if by magic,
transform itself into public goods, at least when the science was funded
with public money. The world of biotechnology as it could apply to
agriculture and human nutrition is a field where outcomes affect billions
of lives. But we may indeed need magic to make it happen, because the law
and our own institutions have let us down.
The sad reality is that unwise use of intellectual property rights and big
money are now calling the shots, and our public agencies are in denial,
unable to deliver innovations to complement or compete with the
While the science is still doubtless getting done, the conversion of that
science into value for society has been left solely and naively to market
forces that are no longer balanced nor representative of the public
interest. And the public are no fools. They can sense this disempowerment.
The genetically modified organisms debate ultimately distils down to
perceptions of power and profits dictating priorities and products.
The battleground used to be the information itself. A few warriors for the
public good, including John Sulston, have been fighting to place DNA
sequence information in the public domain, counteracting moves to keep
that data secret and to unfairly profit from it. But these efforts have
been partly frustrated by other people trying to patent the genes and
their uses. The goal posts have moved, and now the most powerful targets
to control science have become broad patents on the very tools needed to
make and deliver research outcomes.
Technologies such as the ability to transfer a new gene to a plant, or to
"express" that gene in the plant, are called "enabling technologies".
Without access to these tools, locked up by thousands of patents
worldwide, none of the countless promises about GM crop innovations by
public agencies made for the past 20 years can be delivered as a
counterpoint to the corporate offerings. We become beggars waiting for
multinationals to grace us with a glance, and throw the occasional
technology bone our way.
Scientific research, no matter how brilliant, without the ability to use
it to deliver products of public value, is of only academic interest. Our
institutions have not yet made the transition beyond the "academic", in
spite of their business rhetoric, nor have they exercised the leadership
to keep the public good as their core focus, not just their institutional
This seemingly intractable problem is not without precedent, nor is the
solution obscure. The Open Source movement has revolutionised the
information technology industry to make powerful software tools available
to all innovators, public and private.
With software such as GNU/Linux, Perl and Apache, it has stimulated a more
vibrant and profitable industry in which monopolies can be challenged,
competition can flourish and small markets can be served.
If we are to democratise innovation and harness the creativity and
generosity of spirit that is the best of science, we must reject the
laissez-faire market apologists.
Richard Jefferson, the inventor of key techniques in plant biotechnology,
is founding chief executive of CAMBIA, a Canberra-based, non-profit
organisation dedicated to "democratising" innovation.
Harnessing Crop Technologies to Alleviate Hunger and Poverty in Africa
Nairobi, Kenya; October 12-17, 2003, The 6th Conference of the African
Crop Science Society
Food insecurity and rural stagnation continue to plague the African
continent and the answer to this situation necessitates greater
productivity and profitability in the agricultural sector. Constraints to
crop production include insufficient pest and disease control, inadequate
access to improved crop varieties, degraded soils, limited access to
markets and market information and unreliable extension services. Where
technical solutions exist to these constraints, development specialists
must find means to deliver them in a form understandable and acceptable to
farmers. When these solutions are lacking, agricultural scientists must
focus their efforts upon assisting farmers to solve their problems through
Women play an important role in African agriculture and means must be
found to better involve them in participatory research and
decision-making. Previously, lack of human and institutional scientific
capacities would have appeared as a pressing constraint to African
agriculture but over the past decades a steady improvement of expertise
and facilities has been realized. The current problem is rather “how can
the trained cadres of agricultural specialists in Africa better focus and
redirect their efforts to work with farmers and policy- makers in
overcoming the persistent deficiencies in African agriculture in order to
catalyze greater food security and rural well-being?” This conference will
seek to underline this issue throughout its deliberations.
Topics to be covered at the conference include: plant biotechnology; crop
improvement and physiology; crop protection from pests and diseases; soil
conservation and fertility management; agro ecology and sustainable
agriculture; post harvest handling and food processing; rural
socio-economics; and agricultural extension and education. Both oral and
poster presentations will be delivered.
Special symposia may include:
1) Plant biotechnology and crop improvement: Is high tech too tech?
2) Empowering Africa’s women farmers: Is gender sensitivity a reality in
3) Global environmental benefits by African farmers: How will the rewards
For further information on this conference, please contact:
Professor Agnes W. Mwang'ombe, Department of Crop Protection, University
of Nairobi, Kenya
Tel: +254 2 630491/631277; Fax: +254 2 226673/632121/631957; email:
Agricultural Stardust in the White House?
Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich (D-Greenpeace) has sent a "dear
colleague" letter to his fellow Congressmen, asking them to support a
series of bills intended to cripple the progress of lifesaving crop
biotechnology. Most of Kucinich's proposed legislation is exactly what you
would expect from opponents of genetically enhanced crops -- cumbersome
labeling requirements, export bans, and demands that the most heavily
regulated and tested agricultural products in history be regulated and
tested even more.
But some of Kucinich's proposals go where few Luddites have gone before:
Biotech companies would not be able to "charge more to American farmers
than they charge farmers in other nations." That would prevent companies
from giv ing away seeds in developing nations if they wanted to sell any
of their products at home.
Kucinich would override contracts between farmers and biotech companies
that state farmers can't save their genetically enhanced seed year after
year. If this common arrangement were prohibited, seed providers would be
forced to collect all their money up-front, driving the price of seeds sky
A piece of legislation modestly entitled "Real Solutions to World Hunger
Act of 2003" would create an "international research fund for sustainable
agriculture research" paid for with a new "tax on biotechnology company
profits." So research into organic food is Kucinich's "real solution" to
No wonder the guy bankrupted the city of Cleveland when he was mayor. We
can only guess that Kucinich decided to sponsor this legislation after
concluding (in his words): "[W]hen you see spiritual principles form the
basis of active citizenship, you are reminded once again of the merging of
stardust and spirit. There is creativity. There is magic. There is
The GM Debate
http://www.outlookindia.com/ July 15, 2002
After the initial gains of the Green Revolution of the ’60s, the long-term
effects of indiscriminate use of of fertilisers and pesticides have made
‘sustainability’ and ‘safety’ key issues in the agricultural debate.
Genetically Modified (GM) crops, which have an artificially developed
trait to resist disease and pests, are being projected as the alternative.
Europe has tread with caution, but the production of GM crops has
increased 30-fold in six years, especially in the US, Argentina, Canada
and China. After threatening to burn the fields of farmers who allowed Bt
(Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton trials last year, India has warmed up to
GM crops. Commercial production of GM (or Bt) cotton has been given the
go-ahead by a ministry of environment panel. This means 557 million
farmers would be able to buy genetically improved seeds off the shelf. The
government is also keen on okaying GM versions of mustard, soyabean and
corn. The seed market has been thrown open. S. Anand asked Gail Omvedt,
senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and Suman Sahai,
geneticist and convenor of the Gene Campaign, to thrash the issue out.
Q. Can GM crops undo Green Revolution’s damage?
Suman Sahai: Unlikely, since all the major crops will continue to use
pesticides. Even Bt alone will not be able to cope with the heavy pest
attacks seen in the tropics. We need integrated pest management. Old
agro-chem companies in the garb of life science corporations are still
selling pesticides by GM-tailoring plants so that only their pesticides
can be used. Great monopoly strategy!
Gail Omvedt: Indian agriculture needs technological development for the
prosperity of those who work in it--farmers and labourers. For all its
faults, the Green Revolution (GR) freed India from dependence on food
imports. GM can help overcome the GR’s dependence on chemicals.
Q. Will they threaten India’s biodiversity?
Sahai: Greater productivity and a longer shelf life for products can be a
boon only if the GM variety is safe for the environment. GM will reduce
bio-diversity if farmers grow only that one variety and push out the
others. This is exactly what happened during the Green Revolution when
agro-diversity was reduced drastically.
Omvedt: There is nothing inherently homogenising in GM. Diversity can
increase if we adapt the plants to diverse environments and tastes. If GM
products are less tasty and costly, then nobody will buy and nobody need
Q. Is all this a natural process?
Sahai: Genetic Modification of crops is not natural evolution. Its use can
be ethical or unethical. GM crops targeted to end hunger are ethical.
Using the technology to make designer babies is not. GM vaccines to
prevent disease are ethical. Techno-eugenics is not just unethical, it’s
Omvedt: Unlike the moral questions about cloning, GM foods seem relatively
harmless. Farmers are innovative and eager to get new technologies, but
they do need information. GM’s opponents don’t lack resources, but they
have a difficulty in selling their ideas to farmers.
Q. Should we take positions on GM on a case-to-case basis?
Sahai: GM must be evaluated for each crop and each characteristic. Salt
tolerance and nitrogen-fixation are useful traits for us, but
herbicide-resistance is not. We cannot risk contaminating our genetic
wealth with strange, unknown genes. We should not grow Bt rice since we
have a great diversity of rice. Like Mexico, that banned GM corn.
Omvedt: Yes. And the public must ensure that the technology is developed
with safeguards and that it reaches the farmers. The government should
promote the development of GM technology with a focus on basic needs for
food and clothing. The tendency to oppose GM foods usually ties into a
deep neo-Luddite suspicion of technology.
Does the World Bank Really Care About Science?
- David Dickson, July 4, 2003 http://www.scidev.net
In principle, the World Bank says that it is keen to support science in
the developing world. In practice, its efforts to do so have been more
As the main source of investment finance for much of the developing world,
the World Bank has long been one of the most significant members of the
United Nations system. Furthermore, as its officials are quick to point
out, its contribution to science has been, and remains, substantial. At
present, for example, the bank spends more than US$500 million a year on
various science and technology programmes. These range from the support of
science education in primary and secondary schools, to a recent US$50
million loan to Chile to boost its science base (see World Bank boost
science in Chile).
Beneath the surface, however, all is not so rosy. The bank’s support for
science tends to be highly selective. Over half of the total sum is
focused on only one sector of its responsibilities, namely agricultural
and rural development. Furthermore, much of the rest is made up of loans
to a relatively small number of middle-income countries in East Asia and
Latin America. These are not necessarily the nations whose need to build
capacity in science, technology and innovation is greatest, particularly
to meet the challenges of sustainable development.
In other words, the problem has not been a failure of effort, but of
vision. The result, as external critics of the bank have been pointing out
for several years, is that apart from agricultural research, the World
Bank lacks a coherent across-the-board strategy for promoting science and
technology in the service of development.
Internal critics. These critics have now been joined by internal voices.
In a recently-published working paper, a group of bank officials headed by
Robert Watson, the bank's chief scientist -- and best known as the former
chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- argue that
although the promotion of science and technology “requires a sustained,
coordinated multi-sectoral approach”, such an approach “has not yet
emerged from the myriad of different activities that the World Bank has
sponsored” (see Strategic Approaches to Science and Technology in
Their comments are timely. In the recent past, the dominant attitude of
the World Bank towards science and technology has been to portray both as
primarily tools to achieving development objectives. Much less attention
has been paid to promoting capacity in science and technology as a
development objective in its own right. Yet unless the bank gives this the
priority it deserves, it will severely undermine the ability of developing
nations to develop the science they require to meet their social and
Watson and his co-authors, Michael Crawford and Sara Farley, recognise
that the mood within the bank is changing, as sectors other than those
concerned with agriculture and rural development accept the need for a
more strategic approach. “But the progress made towards this objective has
been modest and has come slowly”, they point out, adding that “the
timeline for anticipated results fails to reflect the long time-frame
required for this type of change”.
A structural failure. This has not always been the case. During the 1970s,
for example, the World Bank’s commitment to a strategic vision of the role
of science in development was expressed through an influential science
office. In the 1980s, however, under pressure from various conservative
governments -- in particular, the US republican administration of
President Ronald Reagan – this commitment disappeared with the decision to
eliminate the office, and thus downgrade the strategic overview that it
had been able to offer.
The report by Watson and his colleagues draws a discreet veil over this
episode, just as it does over the bank’s own responsibility for the
current poor state of science in many developing nations. For its support
for “structural adjustment” programmes, which became popular at the same
time, inflicted its own damage in this field. Many countries in Africa,
for example, continue to suffer from the consequences of policies that,
while attempting to streamline economic efficiency, frequently did so at
the expense of much-needed investment in public goods (including
The bank itself is not alone in shouldering responsibility for this state
of affairs. Frequently, governments in developing nations preferred to
absorb required cuts in public spending by going for the less politically
sensitive targets, of which science was high on the list. Nevertheless,
regardless of who took the actual decisions, the bank, through its
reluctance for example to provide high levels of support for tertiary
educational institutions, remains closely implicated with policies that
are largely responsible for a steady decline in investment in research in
many developing countries –particularly in Africa.
Joining the knowledge economy. In recent years, the bank has been making
some amends. In particular, it has increasingly recognised the central
importance to all countries – not just in the developed world – of the
knowledge economy. This recognition was reflected, for example, in the
World Development Report of 1998, which focussed on the theme of Knowledge
for Development. It has also been at the centre of new projects such as
the Millennium Science Initiative, which seeks to promote centres of
scientific excellence in countries (such as Chile and Brazil) whose
university-based research potential has become diluted through the mass
expansion of higher education.
Nevertheless, as Watson’s working paper argues, much remains to be done to
develop new ways of thinking about the relevance of science across the
board, and to introduce the internal structural changes that will promote
and give strategic coherence to these ways of thinking. For, as the paper
argues persuasively, a commitment to scientific understanding underpins
efforts to achieve genuinely sustainable development across all spheres of
the bank’s activity, not only focusing on meeting economic growth targets,
but also social needs, from health to food security.
There is also a clear need for the World Bank to look closely and
critically at its own concept of sustainable development, and the role of
science and technology in putting this into effect. For too many, the bank
remains closely identified with large-scale technology projects -- the
Narmada dam in India being perhaps the best known, and most heavily
criticised, example -- that continue to place too much emphasis on
economic return, rather than on social or environmental well-being.
In other words, the bank has much to do to make up for its relative
neglect of science and technology in the poorer developing countries over
the past 20 years. It needs to show that it can generate a new vision of
science and technology in development that is sensitive both to the needs
of long-term capacity building, and to novel ways (including enhanced
science communication) of mediating the relationship between science and
With the financial resources that it controls, the bank is better placed
than most to achieve these goals. Equally, however, a continued lack of
vision -- and hence achievement -- in this sphere would represent a major
failure of the whole global development community.
The authors of Strategic Approaches to Science and Technology in
Development are seeking comments on their working paper. These should be
sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com.
Adolf Hitler: My Parts Per Million in his Downfall
'The Führer was a villain; DDT is not'
- Stuart Blackman The Scientist, June 30 , 2003.
In his novel, Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall, Spike Milligan
describes waiting for the train to take him to his first military posting
during WWII. His commanding officer hands him a picture of Hitler labeled:
This is your enemy. "I searched every compartment," writes Milligan, "but
he wasn't on the train."
In a way, we are still searching for the Führer. Hitler is the archetypal
enemy, whose badness virtually all can agree on, which is why his name
often crops up in discussions about contemporary world leaders. Opponents
of Saddam Hussein, Ariel Sharon, and Robert Mugabe have drawn comparisons
between their respective nemeses and the Führer. It is a forceful, albeit
lazy, way to clarify the muddy moral waters of modern international
The same argumentative tactic is used in discussions surrounding other
tricky issues. Since starring as the lead villain in Rachel Carson's
seminal environmentalist text, Silent Spring, the insecticide DDT is to
environmental destruction what Hitler is to murderous dictators. No
surprise, then, when Zak Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist magazine,
uttered those three infamous consonants during a recent BBC radio
discussion on nanotechnology. Stressing his case for a moratorium on
nanotech research, Goldsmith said: "Scientists do make mistakes: Look at
DDT." In other words, nanotech is as dangerous as that nasty synthetic
chemical, which everybody knows kills birds and gives people cancer.
Nothing more needs to be said. Let's have a moratorium.
However, while Hitler undoubtedly oversaw the murder of up to six million
Jews, it is unclear what DDT actually did to earn its fearsome reputation.
Indeed, DDT played a crucial part in the war against Hitler. In the
Pacific arena, malaria was decimating Allied forces until DDT bombs were
dropped to clear mosquitoes ahead of advancing troops.
Postwar, DDT hastened malaria's elimination from Europe and North America
and proved highly effective against agricultural pests. These successes
prompted the World Health Organization to launch the wildly ambitious
Global Malaria Eradication Program in 1955. Despite saving tens of
millions of lives and clearing malaria from large swaths of the world, the
pesticide did not eradicate the disease: Mosquito populations quickly
became resistant to DDT, proving too much for the DDT-dependent program.
WHO abandoned the plan in the 1960s.
But this was a "mistake" only in that the eradication program was less
successful than it might have been. "If one retrospectively supplants the
unrealistic goal of eradication with one of control," wrote malariologist
J. Kevin Baird, "the campaign appears brilliantly successful."1
The benefits reaped from liberal DDT use were not won without cost. DDT
accumulated in food chains and interfered with the reproductive physiology
of birds of prey, leading to the near extinction of such iconic species as
the bald eagle and peregrine falcon. These problems led to its ban in
agricultural use across the developed world--and the birds bounced back.
In this respect, the DDT story becomes a lesson in how well society
responds to problems arising from new technologies.
Although the US Environmental Protection Agency classified DDT as a
probable carcinogen, based on high-dose animal tests, extrapolations to
humans reveal that the carcinogenic risk posed by the average daily intake
of DDT during the agricultural era was a 50th of that posed by the natural
toxins in the coffee we drink, and half that from the celery we eat. In
1999, the US National Research Council reported no association between
environmental DDT levels and human cancers. The only health problem
associated with the comparatively tiny quantities of DDT used in
antimalarial operations is a reduced duration of lactation in nursing
mothers, but to a degree that has no measurable consequences on infant
health. Any such downsides must be weighed against the undoubted benefits
of DDT in controlling malaria, which still kills three million people
annually, mostly children.
Although mosquito resistance to DDT scuppered the eradication program, it
was not universal. In certain situations, DDT remains the best
antimalarial measure available. In South Africa, the resumption of DDT
spraying in 2000 brought malaria under control following a six-fold
increase in infection rates caused by mosquitoes that had developed
resistance to pyrethroid insecticides.
If scientists made a "mistake" with DDT, it is that they let it be
snatched from their grasp by the force of erroneous popular opinion.
Negative perceptions of DDT endured beyond the agricultural ban and soon
impinged on public health applications. Many malaria- ridden countries
scaled down or stopped DDT spraying, following pressure from Western aid
organizations. DDT's continued effectiveness is further undermined by the
lack of even an inventory of the mosquito populations that remain
susceptible to it.2
Contrary to popular opinion, DDT is no Hitler. Goldsmith's comments
reflect and reinforce these erroneous perceptions, which in turn
contribute to the ongoing rise in malaria. They also contribute next to
nothing to the nanotechnology debate. Like Spike Milligan, Goldsmith is
clutching a picture of the enemy. The trouble is that Goldsmith's portrays
the wrong man.
Stuart Blackman is a freelance science journalist in the UK.
References : 1. J. Kevin Baird, "Resurgent malaria at the millennium:
Control strategies in crisis," Drugs, 59:719-43, 2000. 2. R.S. Desowitz,
Federal Bodysnatchers and the New Guinea Virus, New York: W.W. Norton &
Co., 2002, p. 69.