Today in AgBioView: July 22, 2003:
* Africa Dare Not Cave In To Agricultural Luddites
* GM Crops Can Give Africa Food and Dignity
* Parrott Responds: Christian and Ignatian Creation Spirituality
* Re: GURTS - Impact of Terminator on Developing Countries
* Drought resistance and Plant Nutrition
* Why Not Label GM Foods?
* No Trans Fats in Soybean Oil
* Experts Puzzled by Euro Opposition to Genetics
* CropGen response to the Government GM Science Review
* Get Tough
* Biotech and Environment? Need Suggestions
* 'Grow Your Own' - Radio Listeners Grow Crops
* The Benefits of Biotech by Greg Conko - Correct URL
* A Green Gene Revolution
* Improving the Biotech Regulatory System in India
* Integrity in Science Award Is Neither
* Science, Technology and Communication: In Search of a Common Language
* GM Freedom Fighters?
* Discussion Good, Dumbocracy Bad
* Control the Media? No, Educate Them
Africa Dare Not Cave In To Agricultural Luddites
- Tamar Kahn, Business Day (South Africa), July 21 2003
Irrational fears must not be allowed to stop case by case research on
modified crops which offer hope
IT IS too late for people in SA to be asking themselves whether or not to
embrace genetically engineered crops. They are already here.
Genetically engineered maize and soybeans have already found their way
into the products on our supermarket shelves, and field trials are on the
go for genetically engineered potatoes, canola and new varieties of maize,
soybeans and cotton.
Proponents of genetic engineering say it will increase crop yields, reduce
labour costs, and cut down on the use of dangerous chemicals. The
naysayers warn that the new technology may result in unforeseen harm to
humans and the environment.
As a furious barrage of half-truths spews forth from spin doctors on both
sides of the Atlantic over the future of genetically engineered crops, the
US and Europe are taking a keen interest in what happens on African soil.
The political furore over genetically engineered food aid offered to
southern Africa by the World Food Programme last year highlighted the
schism between the Bush administration and the European Union (EU).
Washington says genetically engineered crops are the solution to Africa's
hunger woes, while the EU says Bush is using starving Africans as an
emotive ploy to put pressure on it to lift its de facto ban on approving
new genetically engineered organisms.
The EU moratorium on approving new genetically engineered foods came into
effect in 1998, and stops the US exporting any genetically engineered
crops to Europe, except for those approved by regulatory authorities
before the ban came into effect.
This is why the US soybean association can export genetically engineered
soybeans approved in 1996 to Europe, and is now vehemently opposed to the
introduction of a second generation genetically engineered soybean variety
into the US.
Without segregation facilities, even a small volume of second generation
product would render the entire US soybean crop unfit for European export.
Although the European parliament has now moved to end the moratorium by
approving laws that impose stringent labelling and traceability
requirements on food and animal feed containing genetically engineered
ingredients the US view is this still amounts to a trade barrier.
The transatlantic trade war leaves South Africans and their neighbours in
an invidious position. If they adopt the new technology, they face the
daunting task of safeguarding human and environmental wellbeing with only
the sketchiest collection of local scientific expertise to advise and
assist in implementing biosafety laws, which in many countries have yet to
Even if this hurdle is overcome, African states still face the alarming
pro spect of losing hard-won export markets for crops and processed goods.
As Namibia's resistance to SA's genetically engineered maize shows, there
is little point producing a product for regional markets if neighbouring
countries are afraid to feed it to their cows because European consumers
don't want beef raised on genetically engineered grain.
Consumer fears wield tremendous power in the battle for plates McDonald's
recently crushed Monsanto's US plans to introduce genetically engineered
potatoes with built in resistance to viruses, saying it feared consumer
aversion to French fries made from the new varieties.
Monsanto is now running field trials for the potatoes in SA. Seeking an
alternative market is a fairly obvious business strategy for Monsanto, but
in a country like SA, where there are no sophisticated crop segregation
facilities, introducing a genetically engineered crop with an uncertain
market destination may turn out to be extraordinarily short-sighted.
The risks and pitfalls of introducing genetically engineered foodstuffs
are immense, as US experience has shown their soybean growers may have
wholeheartedly embraced the technology, but today their wheat growers are
far less enthusiastic about the prospect of a genetically engineered
variety of their crop.
The French Academy of Sciences, and the UK-based Royal Society, found no
scientific evidence that genetically engineered foods harm people partly
because, as proponents of the technology often point out, genetically
engineered foods have been more thoroughly tested than any other food
product in history.
However, consumers are all too aware that since the first genetically
engineered food was only commercialised in the mid-1990s, no long- term
human feeding studies have ever been done. The uncomfortable truth is that
no one can predict with absolute certainty what the long-term consequences
will be to human health.
The environmental effect of rapidly introducing new crop varieties is also
uncertain. Recent history is littered with the bitter realisation that
what scientists initially herald as the next best thing, all too often has
unforeseen and catastrophic consequences.
Organophosphate pesticides, for example, may indeed kill the bugs that
destroy valuable crops, but once in the water supply, they wreak untold
damage on fragile ecosystems and sceptics are right to preach caution.
However, if Africa does not explore the potential of the technology, it
may be turning its back on a science that offers hope of addressing at
least some of the myriad problems that beset African agriculture.
Genetic engineering is not going to solve the food distribution problems
such as inadequate roads and storage facilities that underpin Africa's
inability to feed its population, but it might one day play a role in
breeding plants more resistant to drought or storage pests, and cut down
the use of harmful pesticides.
It may also be foolhardy to ignore technology that even the Europeans,
with their well-honed scepticism, are nevertheless investing in. SA would
surely regret waking up one morning to discover the world's sugar
producers had all adopted a fantastic new breed of genetically engineered
sugar cane which it could have explored but chose not to.
The biggest mistake that SA could make would be to generalise about the
risks associated with genetically engineered crops. Scientific rigour
dictates that a case by case analysis is required, where the risks of each
and every new entity are carefully scrutinised from a domestic
The point is to tread carefully, and not cave in to the Luddites who want
to stop the technological clock.
Kahn is science and health correspondent.
GM Crops Can Give Africa Food and Dignity
- Graeme O'Neill, Sunday Herald Sun (Australia), July 20, 2003
Florence Wambugu is a formidable woman, and a very good scientist, with a
blunt message for Western activists who want to keep genetically modified
crops out of Africa.
It is this: mind your own business and leave African nations to make their
own decisions on their agricultural future.
The Kenyan scientist, who came to last week's International Congress of
Genetics to deliver that message, is an emerging hero to impoverished
African farmers. She was a speaker at a special delegates forum on
genetically modified organisms at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre in
Dr Wambugu was supposed to speak for 15 minutes. She spoke for 30 minutes,
until the chairman of the session finally found the courage to signal her
that her time was up - upon which she went on, passionately and
relentlessly, for another 10 minutes. She had come all the way from Kenya
to deliver her message about the food crisis in Africa and about how
Africans hope to solve it. She wasn't about to be deflected.
To understand her zeal, one should know that Dr Wambugu was the first
African researcher to win a scholarship from one of the world's leading
philanthropic trusts, the Rockefeller Foundation, to study molecular
genetics in the United States. She accepted an invitation from Monsanto
Corporation to do her PhD at its research headquarters in St Louis,
Missouri. Western anti-GM activists who view Monsanto as the Evil Empire,
assert that that disqualifies Dr Wambugu as a spokesperson for Africa on
GM crops, and Africa's right to use gene technology for the benefit of its
Dr Wambugu says she has been a target of "mudslinging" by anti-GM groups
such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which oppose GM agriculture
in Africa. But she is perfectly qualified, both as a scientist and an
African, to speak on behalf of African farmers. She grew up in poverty on
a small, impoverished farm in Kenya, unlike the compulsive exhibitionists
of the West's green activists who jet-set around the world and dress up as
carrots, tomatoes and butterflies to protest in the streets about GM
Dr Wambugu's mother risked the family's economic future by selling the
family's only cow to ensure her brilliant daughter could go to high
school. KENYA is currently field trialling Africa's first transgenic crop
- a variety of sweet potato, which is one of Africa's staple foods.
Developed by Dr Wambugu, it contains a resistance gene that protects
against a viral disease that periodically devastates sweet potato crops in
Dr Wambugu has played a leading role in establishing the research
facilities and expertise that will take African nations into the age of GM
agriculture, with crops such as sweet potato, cassava, yam, sorghum and
Africa missed out on the Green Revolution, she says, because its farmers
could not afford the expensive fertilisers and agricultural chemicals
required to sustain the new high-yielding crops that took developing
nations such as India, Pakistan and China to food self-sufficiency in the
1970s. Few African farmers have sufficient education to read the labels
that provide instructions on pesticide dosage or fertiliser application
rates. Nor do they have telephones, faxes or the Internet - most Western
farmers take for granted these electronic media when they need information
Dr Wambugu believes Africa cannot afford to miss the Gene Revolution. It
desperately needs to achieve food security to free itself from the
dispiriting cycle of drought, famine and massive food aid from wealthy
The standard argument of anti-GM organisations is that the world already
produces more food than it needs to feed its six billion-and-rising people
- that if only wealthier nations were more generous and food was
distributed more equitably nobody would go hungry.
Dr Wambugu dismisses the argument, saying Africans do not want to eat
Australian wheat or American maize. They want to eat their traditional
cassava, sweet potato, sorghum, yams and bananas.
Even if it were true that the world produces enough food, there are
insuperable costs and logistical problems in getting it to Africa and
distributing it to the people who most need it. And, says Dr Wambugu,
having to depend on food aid is demeaning; there is the issue of simple
She believes that the Gene Revolution will work for Africa, where the
Green Revolution did not, because the technology is delivered in the seed.
If you want to protect your cassava or sweet potato crop against a virus,
or against unrelenting swarms of insect pests that breed year-round, in
tropical and sub-tropical regions of Africa, you do what your ancestors
have done for thousands of years. You plant a seed - but now, the seed has
a transgene invisibly packaged inside it. It requires no complex operating
instructions, no special crop-management techniques, because it's still
the same crop your ancestors grew, with one or two extra genes in it.
Dr Wambugu says most African produce is grown and sold locally - unlike
most Western consumers, who never visit a farm or an abattoirs and who
don't know any farmers. Most Africans see the food they will eat as it
grows in nearby fields and they know the farmers' names. She believes
transgenic crops will transform village economies - farmers will be able
to make a profit selling their surplus produce, from new crop varieties
that will yield as much as four times the blighted varieties they have
struggled to grow for decades.
She has no time for Western anti-GM activists. She says they are prepared
to tell lies in pursuit of their goals. European anti-GM acti vists, she
says, have asserted GM crops will destroy biodiversity. But it is poverty
that poses the greatest risk to Africa's rich biodiversity - the low
productivity of African farms means more and more land must be cleared to
feed populations that are already outstripping their food supply.
Says Dr Wambugu: "Any technology that can increase food production can
surely help. Other countries can donate the technology, but we have to do
it for ourselves." At the international genetics congress last week, Dr
Wambugu said: "There are two areas where the opponents of GM are causing
us problems - we are suffering a loss of research funding because European
research agencies will not fund research in Africa that they would not
fund in Europe. About 30 per cent of all trade in Africa is with Europe,
and activists were saying, `If you grow GM crops and eat GM foods, you're
going to lose your trade in Europe'."
Dr Wambugu is particularly critical of European nations for their refusal
to fund any project in Africa that has anything to do with GM crops. "It's
very unfortunate because Europe's rejection of GM crops is based on
different issues - we have serious food deficits, and many other reasons
to adopt GM crops. African lives are at risk if we don't. "Europe doesn't
have a food deficit - it suppresses food production, through subsidies for
She predicts that the European moratorium on GM crops will eventually
collapse. "It can't be maintained because there is no reason for it,
scientifically," she said.
>> Re: Genetic Engineering Evaluated from the Perspective of Christian and
>Ignatian Creation Spirituality
- Wayne Parrott
The Effect of Plant Breeding at the DNA Level -- How Different is it from
Roland Lesseps, S.J, Kasisi Catholic Church, Lusaka, Zambia writes
(Promotio Iustitiae, Social Justice
Secretariat, Society of Jesus (Rome). 2003 http://www.sjweb.info/sjs)
that, "Insertion of DNA can cause deletions and rearrangements of the
original DNA at the insertion site. This information helps us understand
that GE is significantly different from conventional breeding techniques."
I am afraid that anyone who makes such a statement about plant breeding vs
genetic engineering is showing a profound misunderstanding of the effects
that selection has had on plant genomes. Ftr Lesseps is absolutely
correct about the rearrangements that take place when transgenes are
inserted. He is not correct in claiming such rearrangements are a
significant difference from what is accomplished by conventional breeding.
In fact, I will argue that the changes brought about by genetic
engineering are minor compared to what has happened over centuries of
The effect of selection has been nothing short of amazing when it comes to
the changes it has effected. Charles Darwin first recognized that our
current plants and animals were the result of "... a kind of Selection,
.... which results from every one trying to possess and breed from the
best individuals..." and that the changes have been so great that "... in
a vast number of cases, we cannot recognize ... the wild parent-stocks of
the plants which have been longest cultivated in our flower and
Not unexpectedly, such changes have also altered the DNA. In first place,
plants are continuously altered by the effects of transposable elements
jumping in and out of genes, where they "can alter gene-expression or
serve as sites of chromosome breakage or rearrangement” (Wessler, 2001,
Plant Physiol, 125:1490151) just like transgenes, and without ill effects
to the plants or those of us who consume them. In addition,
retrotransposons continuously insert themselves between genes (San Miguel
et al., 1996. Science 274:765-768). Because retrotranspon sequences are
found in current EST databases, we know that their movement was not just a
thing of the past, but something that continues to the present.
All this means that different varieties of the same crop differ greatly in
the amounts of DNA they have, and I do mean greatly. For example,
different varieties of maize can differ by as much as 42% in their DNA
content; different varieties of chili pepper differ by 25%, and different
soybean varities differ by 12% (Graham et al., 1994. Theor. Appl. Genet.
88:429-432; Mukherjee & Sharma, 1990. Proc. Indian Acad Sci. 100:1-6;
Rayburn et al., 1989. J. Exp. Bot. 40:1179-1183). By my calculations, the
difference between the most different soybean varieties is over 100
million base pairs– compared to the thousand or so base pairs a transgene
would add to a genome. The take home lesson here is that plants can
maintain their integrity even when their DNA appears to be surprisingly
Furthermore, different individuals of the same species differ by the
number of transposon and retrotransposons they contain, a phenomenon
vividly illustrated by Fu & Dooner (2002. PNAS 99:9673-9578). While this
finding was not altogether unexpected, the most relevant finding by Fu &
Dooner is that different individuals within the same species do not even
have to have the same number of genes.
Again, this result is not altogether surprising, cytoplasmic male
sterility in a variety of plants is known to result from the creation of
novel genes in the mitochondria along with novel fertility restorer genes
in the nucleus (Schnable and Wise, 1998, Trends Plant Sci 3:175-180). The
bottom line is that individuals within a species can tolerate different
gene numbers without endangering the animals that consume them.
A final argument made is that plant breeding does not involve transfer of
DNA between non-related organisms. While such a statement is true, it
must also be acknowledged that DNA of unrelated species does get
transferred and incorporated into plant genomes anyway, to the extent that
adding foreign gene sequences via genetic engineering cannot be considered
unnatural or anomalous. For example, plantain bananas contain the genome
of the banana streak virus, rice contains sequences of the rice tungro
bacilliform virus, and tomato has sequences from tobacco vein clearing
virus. Some tobaccos even have genes from Agrobacterium rhizogenes
(reviewed in Harper et al., 2002. Annu. Rev. Phytopathol. 40:119-136).
The true extent of such horizontal gene transfer will become more apparent
as additional genomes are sequenced.
It is high time to stop conjuring imaginary and unsubstantiated dangers
associated with genetic engineering. In the end, if DNA rearrangements in
plant gnomes routinely endangered the health and safety of those that
consume plants, there would be no animal life on this planet.
Aside message to Fthr. Lesseps: As a fellow Catholic I will pray to our
lord Jesus Christ, that he will soften your heart, so that you can do
everything in your power to help your fellow Zambians who are facing
starvation, rather than exercise "self-restraint" like Ignatius, even if
it means letting the world continue with "all the suffering, struggle,
waste, and loss that have occurred." Quite frankly, I really do not
believe you understand the true teachings of Jesus, for whom love and
respect and help to fellow humans in need was an integral part of his
teaching. May the Holy Spirit come to be with you.
Re: GURTS - Impact of Terminator Gene Technologies on Developing Countries
- Jonathan Gressel
>> Prof. Drew Kershen : In an earlier post today (July
>15, 2003), Bob McGregor makes an
excellent point about V-GURTs (Gene Use Restriction Technologies) and the
concern that use of V-GURTs may imperil the...
The interesting exchange between McGregor and Kershen requires some
comment, as to some extent it is condescending to the African farmers and
their ability to farm. This attitude is pervasive in some of the NGOs who
in doing so are trying to exert their cultural superiority, or to keep
them barefoot and hungry and beholden. I do not think that this is the
case with either McGregor or Kershen, but it is easy to get caught up in
the rhetoric promulgated by others.
African farmers take on new technologies that increase profitability. Some
NGOs such as CARE have an excellent record of getting them out. Whereas
the US farmer may make a choice based on a few percent increase, the value
added must be much higher in subsistence cultures where market prices
widely fluctuate and they have trouble competing with the highly
subsidized grains from the west. The west hypocritically wants free trade
and no "dumping" of products below production costs - when done by others.
Despite this competition from "dumped" subsidized imports, hybrid corn is
being cultivated more and more in Africa by subsistence farmers (once the
companies started smaller bagging). Farmers, who have a choice between
saved, marketed open-pollinated material and hybrids buy hybrids because
the yield and quality are so much higher, which justifies somehow
scrounging the price of seed. They will buy even much more when the seed
treated for Striga control becomes available and when Bt maize becomes
The African farmers know not to save offspring from hybrids for planting.
They learn quickly both the value of a good product, and the lack of value
of a bad one. If the Striga control or the insect control do not work -
they will not buy again... I have seen western scientists "dumb" the
Africans because they did not adopt procedures that those scientists
developed - (but did not work, were not economical or did not fit in).
The African farmer does not need free seed as was proposed - she/he needs
good seed, at a fair price on fair credit, and a promise that the crop -
beyond their home needs will be bought at a fair price to justify the
Good seed, has always been the basis of good agriculture. Seed companies
and certified seed growers have good markets when they can provide good
seed. Few farmers in the west are equipped to be certified seed growers -
why do people assume that all Africans or other subsistence farmers can be
certified seed growers to have good seed? Africa needs good seed - in the
grains such as maize, sorghum and millet - Striga, stem borers, seed
weevils and the mycotoxins the insects vector are all problems that can
theoretically be solved by biotechnology.
The farmers will pay for good solutions, whether they are protected by
hybrids, GURTs or schmerts. If such protections will convince people
wanting a fair profit to put the genes needed in their grains, so be it.
They do not need handouts, they need good seed.
Professor Jonathan Gressel, Plant Sciences, Weizmann Institute of Science,
Rehovot, Israel IL-76100
Re: GURTs and Developing Countries
- Bob MacGregor
In a better world, the approach that Prof. Kershen outlines might work
just fine. I was pleased to see a later posting in the same AgBioView
submittal (Brad Mitchell's, "Developing Infrastructure for Biotechnology")
express some of the main concerns I have about the practicality of this
approach. Too frequently, the institutions in developing countries lack
the resources to do the job; the extension service (to the degree that it
exists at all) doesn't have the reach or competence to assure distribution
of GURT-protected seed reliably each year, nor to educate the farmers
about its characteristics (eg, inability to save the seed).
If and when this extension capacity is developed, then an organized
distribution system for royalty-free seed, such as Prof. Kershen
describes, might work. By then, of course, these countries might no longer
be "developing". Heck, if we are going to dream about capacity-building,
we might as well go all the way and visualize the creation of domestic (or
at least regional) centers of competence in genetic engineering. Rather
than receive charity handouts of varieties from North American labs, it
would be much more desirable to have products developed in African or
Asian labs to address their local crop problems.
I doubt that the Chinese are building GURTs into their varieties, after
all! Also, this approach is much more likely to promote worldwide
acceptance of the technology than is America-centric, big-business control
of it. Right now, it looks as if US business is holding most of the cards
in this game, but widespread rejection of the technology in world trade
could leave us holding ashes instead of riches; right now, acceptance is
more important than total domination of the technology.
Anyway, for now, I'll still stick to my preference for T-GURTs; then, at
least, an African or Asian subsistance farmer who saved seed might still
benefit from the improved genetics of the parent variety, even of the GM
trait was inactive.
Re: Magna Cartagene Protocol
Since most of the international movement of GM products is for food, feed
or processing and relatively little is for seed (ie, intended for
uncontained planting/growing), the simplest method of becoming exempt from
the Biosafety Protocol would be to develop a cost-effective sterilization
technique for bulk grains and oilseeds (and, yes, V-GURTs might qualify).
This would remove the commodities from the definition of LMO entirely, so
they would no longer fall under the jurisdiction of the Biosafety
Protocol. Of course, this would not avoid the restrictions for long, it
would just force the labelling fanatics to weave and cast a broader net of
GM-trade restrictions. - BOB
Drought resistance and Plant Nutrition
- Chris Dawson
I refer to the article by Dr. Francis Nang'ayo, New York Post, July 19,
2003 in which he points out the significant potential benefits of the
introduction of drought resistance into crops for Africa (and elsewhere).
However I was disappointed to read his comment "Chemical fertilizers and
pesticides are prohibitively expensive and, where used, are not without
public and environmental health concerns". He seemed to suggest that the
food problems of Africa could be largely resolved by the use of drought
resistant crops as a cheaper alternative to the use of fertilisers.
Crops require nutrients and water and it will not help the cause if GM is
promoted as a cure-all. Fertilisers are not really prohibitively expensive
and are essential if food crops are to be grown, whether or not these have
additional drought resistance. Harvested crops remove nutrients from the
soil and these have to be replaced if cropping is to be continued.
Why Not Label GM Foods?
- Bob Kisken
I have 2 question : (1) why are Monsanto and food producers so opposed to
labeling GM and non-GM foods
and (2) why shouldn't I have that choice? -- cheers, Bob Kisken
(An earlier 2000 response to a similar question)
This statement gets to heart of what labels are for. The philosophy in the
USA is that the public has a right to know what they are eating, and the
labeling regulations are geared precisely to address that point. Keep in
mind that genetic engineering is a process, not a product. As such this
process can result in products at are the same as what is already on the
market, or it can result in products that differ in some way. The former
type do not have to be labeled, the latter do. - Wayne Parrott
Bob - you do have a choice. You can buy organic food that sans biotech
ingredients. - Prakash
Request For You To Issue A Correction: No Trans Fats in Soybean Oil
- Kim Nill
Dear AgBioView: The below news article contains an egregious error. Its
second paragraph states that "TOM CLEMENTE... IS GROWING SOYBEANS... THAT
DON'T HAVE THE GENES THAT PRODUCE TRANS FATS".
No genes within soybeans, or any other plants, have EVER "PRODUCED TRANS
FATS". While a few trans fats have been produced within selected tissues
of some ANIMALS, no plants have EVER produced trans fats.
Sincerely, Kimball Nil, Technical Issues Director, American Soybean
Association, St. Louis, Missouri
>> Nebraska University Genetically Alters Soybeans to Create Healthier
>> -Chris Clayton & Mark Kawar, Omaha World-Herald, July 16, 2003 (via
>> A healthier soybean oil developed by Nebraska scientists may, according
>to this story
I checked with some experts on this. Trans fatty acids are produced
chemically during the hydogenation process. By producing desired fatty
acids without the need for hydogenation (e.g. stearic or oleic acid or
omega 3 Fatty acides) in transgenic plants, there is no need for chemical
hydrogenation and hence no production of trans fatty acids. Thus, while
it technically correct that soybean oil has no trans-fatty acids, the
improved soybean oil from Nebraska has improved fat composition that
eliminates the need for hydrogenation and thus better for health.
From Wayne Parrott:
Transfats are what you get when you hydrogenate (in a factory) soybean oil
in order to make it more solid at room temperature (ie, to make vegetable
shortening, margarine, etc.). For all practical purposes, hydrogenation
turns unsaturated fats (oils) into saturated fats, which are well known to
cause cholesterol buildups and other wonderful things to our heart and
Experts Puzzled by Euro Opposition to Genetics
- Graeme O'Neill, Sunday Herald Sun (Australia), July 20, 2003
Swiss botanist Klaus Amman cannot understand why Europeans are so worried
about GM canola and other gene crops.
Amman, director of the Bern Botanic Gardens, and a leading
environmentalist and ecologist, told the International Congress of
Genetics delegates' forum, it was paradoxical that anti-GM activists in
Europe, and European consumers, were concerned that pollen from
herbicide-tolerant GM canolas might "contaminate" conventional canola
Amman said conventional canola was already grown in close proximity to
crops of canola's progenitor, Brassica napus, which is still grown for oil
for industrial lubricants. The industrial crop contains high levels of
erucic acid, which is toxic to humans and animals. Canola is a
conventionally bred variety of B.napus that was selected for very low
levels of erucic acid.
The herbicide-tolerant transgenes in GM canola produce proteins that break
down herbicides such as glyphosate (Roundup) and glufosinate (Basta). The
proteins are not toxic to humans and livestock - and humans would not be
at risk in any case, because refined canola oil contains no protein.
Amman contrasted the fearful attitude of Europeans towards GM crops to the
way Mexico's ancient Maya civilisation had reacted to the appearance of
the first maize plants in their teosinte fields about 5000 years ago.
Two decades ago, a US geneticist confirmed that weedy teosinte, which
grows wild in Mexico, is the mysterious wild ancestor of all modern maize
varieties. Molecular geneticists have shown that mutations in as few as
five genes had transformed multi-stemmed teosinte, with its small heads of
flint-hard seeds, into the soft-seeded, single-stemmed plant with giant
cobs that is now the world's third most important cereal crop.
The mutation that was most critical in transforming teosinte into maize
involved a gene called Tb1. It encodes a transcription factor - a "master
gene" that regulates a complex network of scores of genes that influence
the position and shape of its flowers and seed heads.
Amman said the archeological record of ancient Mexico indicated that the
transition from teosinte to maize had taken place in as little as a single
decade. Far from being fearful of the monstrous mutant that had magically
appeared in their fields, the Maya invented several new goddesses in
"I wonder how Europeans would have reacted?" Amman said. "What kind of
spirit do we have, speaking of new GM crops only as an invasive threat and
ignoring the nice hybrid flowers in every European city? I simply deplore
this negative attitude."
CropGen response to the Government GM Science Review
London, 21st July 2003 - Professor Vivian Moses, Chairman of the CropGen
panel of scientists, welcomed the Government's GM Science Review today,
describing it is as a pragmatic and sensible analysis.
“The GM Science Review panel recognises that our domestic economy and
society, and our trading relationships with the rest of the world, cannot
survive the strictest interpretation of the so-called precautionary
"To say that something is fine so far but that we dare not go further
because we do not know everything that might happen can be argued for any
and every innovation; it is a recipe for paralysis," he said.
“Commenting on the Report's recommendation that each GM application be
reviewed on a case-by-case basis, Professor Moses said. "It is a perfectly
reasonable thing to do. GM is not a single product but a process which can
be applied in an infinite variety of ways.
"Until something is actually tried, the outcome must inevitably retain an
element of uncertainty; this is as true of cultivating GM crops in Britain
as it is about anything else.
"Those first generation crops so far approved have been trialled in
enclosed laboratory conditions for a decade or more and, in the UK, in
small-scale field tests for the past 3-4 years. This report is quite clear
that the environmental risk of their commercial cultivation is minimal.
"The scale of those field trials enables some local characteristics within
the test plots to be measured but not others further afield. In order to
find out more, the next stage has to be larger-scale cultivation with
procedures in place to keep account of what happens. If we dither and give
up now, we will never know the answers, be unable to make progress and, of
course, eventually rue our excessive caution as, a few years down the
track, we have to catch up all those countries less fearful and more
enterprising than ourselves.
Safety and human testing
“Some people are worried not so much about short-term health effects but
what might happen in the distant future, perhaps thirty years ahead. They
note the absence of extensive feeding trials on human subjects.
“Let us be clear what is and is not possible in feeding trials. Trials
involving rats or mice use animals from an inbred strain, meaning that
they are genetically virtually identical (like identical twins), so
eliminating the possibility that any variations are due to individual
genetic idiosyncrasies. Moreover, the diet and environment of the animals
will have been controlled from birth. During the trial itself, two such
groups of animals would be fed diets identical in every respect except
that in one case a single food component would be of GM origin and in the
other not GM.
“The trials would include a series of tests. In theory, a proportion of
the animals should be killed at various times in order to look for
possible internal changes. It might take thousands of animals to satisfy
all these requirements if the trials were to last for months or years.
Some people do in fact talk about feeding trials lasting 30 years which,
using rats or mice, would mean several generations. The trials would cost
“It does not take long to see how impossible this would be for humans.
Quite apart from killing batches of them along the way to see what might
have happened internally, there are no inbred populations available.
Instead, one would have to emulate the pollsters: assemble two groups of
people, each large enough to represent the whole of the population.
“UK agencies polling public opinion use a sample of about 1,100
individuals to obtain a fair and proper cross-section of the national
population. Presumably they exclude children under 18 as non-voters so,
for food testing purposes, we might need about 1,500 people in each
sample; we would not have the detailed nutritional histories as we would
“Of the two groups of people, one would eat the novel food whilst the
other subsisted on a diet identical in every respect except that the novel
food would be replaced by the same food from a conventional source: say
GM-maize on the one hand and conventionally-grown maize on the other. For
how long must this test go on? A day, a week, even a year? That hardly
seems very long when some people are worried about what might happen in
ten years, or twenty or fifty; "after all", they say, "it takes decades
for lung cancer to develop in smokers - and perhaps also for new variant
CJD - and it might also take that long for something nasty to turn up with
a transgenic food”.
“There is no way such a test could be run:
1. it would be quite impossible to assemble the participants for the
period and with the rigour required;
2. it would cost an unbelievable amount of money;
3. nobody would be remotely interested in developing products that
required anything like such a degree of testing.
“This would be far, far more rigorous and extensive than testing clinical
drugs. Nor is this all. Even with 1,500 people in each group, there will
be genetic diversity between groups, and individuals may react differently
according to their own genetic make-up: for example, they may show food
intolerances or allergies.
“Such a human trial cannot be done. Instead we have to proceed
differently. Animals are good but not perfect models for humans; animal
tests have already shown no effects from GM foods approved for use in the
“We can readily test for acute conditions: is the new food toxic, is it
likely to provoke allergic responses and might it result in nutritional
deficiencies? All these tests can be done in the laboratory using animals
or with a relatively small number of human volunteers. Such tests are,
indeed, routinely done as part of the approvals process. If the science
shows no significant grounds for concern, we have to go for real, all the
while keeping on the look-out for anything untoward that might happen,
just as we will do for the environment.
“In both health and environment, a decision on whether or not to go ahead
is based on a judgement of what the evidence has shown and on our
experience in analogous situations. Everybody has an equal right to make
such a judgement but those who choose to do so on the basis of verifiable
information are more likely to get a hearing than others who rely on
CropGen is an information initiative designed to make the case for crop
biotechnology. It is funded by industry but operates independently of it.
For more information please visit our website at www.cropgen.org
- New Scientist, July 19, 2003
There is a route out of the impasse over genetically modified crops
SO, TODAY's collection of genetically modified crops offers little
economic value to the UK - or to the rest of Europe, for that matter. Even
if governments give GM crops the green light, there is little point in
farmers growing them if the public carries on refusing to buy them.
This reasoning, laid out last week by the UK government's Strategy Unit,
triggered a gloat-fest among anti-GM campaigners. But any "we told you so"
triumphalism is misplaced, not least because it is absurdly circular: the
war waged by campaigners is one of the factors that has led consumers to
reject GM crops. More importantly, the Strategy Unit offers European
governments a clear direction for escaping the bind they find themselves
On one side they face a potential transatlantic trade war if they do not
lift their de-facto ban on GM, and are likely to find inward investment
drying up if they appear to be hostile to science-based companies. On the
other side sits an alliance of anti-GM groups whose views hold sway over a
sceptical electorate. The big question is how to reconcile these opposing
The Strategy Unit explores the economic costs and benefits of GM crops by
setting out future scenarios that assume different levels for two factors.
One is the height of the hurdles that governments put in the way of
biotech companies. The other is the degree of public support for GM
crops*. It is brutally honest in its depiction of possible outcomes: they
range from a country where consumers benefit from cheaper GM food to a
breakdown in trust between government and the public.
Yet the first thing to note about these outcomes is the lack of absolutes:
nothing is all good or all bad. Lax regulations and lots of public
support, for example, allow farmers to grow any new crop that comes along;
but they also leave the country open to health and environmental scares
and make it difficult to track down the culprit. These shades of grey
reinforce a point this magazine has made before: GM crops cannot be lumped
together and treated in the same way.
It is a safe bet that the review of scientific research into GM crops
being prepared by David King, the UK's chief scientific adviser, will also
find shades of grey. Crop yields will depend on a variety of factors, from
soil type and temperature to rainfall and the timing of spraying. Threats
to the environment and to organic farmers and beekeepers from GM pollen
will also vary by crop and by area. Any licensing system that does not
address the foibles of individual crops - and where and how they are grown
- is doomed to fail.
And here is where governments stand to regain the initiative on GM crops.
If the public is to be won round, governments must set up a strict
approval process, a clear plan for how GM farmers will coexist with
organic producers, and even a system for monitoring GM crops and their
pollen. Such a system, coupled with European Union rules on labelling GM
food, would let people choose what to eat and reassure them that their
fears are being dealt with seriously.
There is even a model for a body that could advise not just on GM crops
but on all GM organisms. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence
advises the British public and doctors on new drugs - the risks, benefits,
cost-effectiveness and how they should be used. It has been widely
praised, and other countries are slowly creating similar organisations.
Adapting the NICE model to deal with GMOs would not be too hard.
There are, of course, disadvantages with adopting strict policing. Biotech
companies searching for permissive countries may take their money
elsewhere. They will also complain about the high costs of approval for
their GM crops. But as the Strategy Unit makes plain, the companies have
little to lose and everything to gain. High hurdles will ensure they only
bring to market crops with clear benefits.
Which raises another salient point. Ten years into the GM revolution, we
still have no "killer application": no crop with unequivocal economic,
environmental or health benefits for wealthy western consumers. Until that
crop arrives, the public is being asked to take a risk for little return,
and biotech companies and governments will continue to have a tough time
convincing them to do so.
*FieldWork: Weighing up the costs and benefits of GM crops -
(From Prakash: To put simply, the New Scientist editorial here calls for
regulating biotech to death to appease the critics. It is a sad state of
affairs in Brittain when a noted science magazine joins the BBC and
Guardian and the tabloids bandwagon in saying "public is being asked to
take a risk". What risk?)
Biotech and Environment?
- Stephan le Roux
I am pursuing a master degree in environmental education (EE) with a
dissertation on the ethical implication of gene technolgy in South Africa.
Modern gene technology and biotechnology is receiving major input which
will lead to even more rapid development of the industry. Will the rapid
developing industry would have any effect on the environment?
I need to try an answer - is there sufficient evidence to be concerned
about such developments, or is the concern just raised from ignornace. In
the light of the UN's Decade for Education for Sustainable Development
(2005 - 2014), it would be vital to equip this generation with basic
knowledge in order for them to make informed desicions about modern gene
I would appreciate any feedback and suggestions from AgBioView readers
'Grow Your Own' - Radio Listeners Grow Crops
- Rick Roush
Stu Higgins called me for some info on GMOs when he started this bold
venture of letting radio listeners grow a cotton crop (Grow your Own), and
he is to be congratulated for having managed this so well. The project
involved 5 ha of land that grew cotton under instructions from listeners -
every decision was made by them, with the farmer growing his under his
conditions, which were often different to those of the voters. Below is
the first couple of paragraphs and the internet address to find it.
Stu Higgins: G'day, I'm Stu Higgins. I'm a farmer and I grow irrigated
cotton. For the last year I have been working with the listeners of Radio
National on my farm on the Darling Downs in south-west Queensland. Alicia
Brown: You're listening to Background Briefing on Radio National; I'm
Alicia Brown, and I worked with Stu Higgins on the Grow Your Own Project
on the weekday program, Bush Telegraph.
Grow Your Own ran for 10 months and thousands of listeners took part. Over
time, they came to face the same dilemmas, the same hard decisions,
unpredictable events and financial realities as real life cotton farmers
face all the time. As consumers we have an embarrassment of choice; there
might be 10 different T-shirts in the drawer, and in the fridge you could
take your pick from skim, light, or calcium-enriched milk.
And as consumers we want all this, the clothes we wear, the food we eat,
to come fast and cheap. The farmer, in our case study the cotton farmer,
has to meet that demand.
Yields and inputs summarised at
The Benefits of Biotech
- Gregory Conko, Regulation, Spring 2003; 21 (www.cato.org)
The URL of this paper was wrongly given earlier here and also in the Crop
Biotech Update. The paper can be downloaded at
A Green Gene Revolution
- The Scientist, 17, No.14, p27; July 14, 2003
'For more than 10 centuries, humans have exploited the genetics of plants
for sustenance and science.'
See the graphics of this story told so creatively at at
Improving the Biotech Regulatory System in India
- Sharad Joshi, Leader of Farmers Movement, India
Much of my opinion on the GM regulatory mechanism appears in the Hindu
Business Line (www.blonnet.com). I will only summarize the position that
the Kisan Coordination Committee (KCC) and the Swatantra Bharat Party
(SBP) have taken on this subject.
The KCC, in its meeting at Bharuch (Gujarat) on 12-14 Nov 2002, has
formally resolved that the GEAC as it is constituted should be simply
scrapped. If necessary, a new body may be created which should limit
itself to approval of the gene and leave it to the seed producers to
introduce it in whichever non-GM seed they think appropriate. The matter
of the patent rights will have to be resolved between the patent-holder
and the seed companies. The approval of straight or hybrid seeds
containing the modified gene should follow the procedure for approval of
The intervention of the government in approval of any technology,
invention or literary work should be limited to ensuring protection of
public morals, public health, public security and environment. The
economic consequences of the innovation should be strictly beyond the
purview of any governmental body. The economics of any seed can be of
concern only to the CACP as long as it is still there.
A joint body of ministries concerned with environment, agriculture, health
as also representatives of farmers and seed producers should hold meetings
open to public to make decisions on the matter.
The Swatantra Bharat Party (SBP) - India's only liberal party - considered
during its first National Convention (Mumbai 28-30 May 2003) the problem
posed by plethora of regulatory bodies coming up on the pretext of
regulating the situations in the fields of water, electricity, education
etc. where the governmental control has failed but the politicians and the
bureaucrats are striving to hold on to the veritable power. The SBP
opposed the formation of such bodies and advocated ushering in an era of
openness and competition.
Integrity in Science Award Is Neither
- Steven Milloy, Fox News, July 11, 2003
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (search) (aka the "food
police") is holding a big conference in Washington, D.C., July 11 titled,
"Conflicted $cience: Corporate Influence on Scientific Research and
Though it escapes me how they can assert with a straight face that
scientific research funded by corporations is "conflicted" yet scientific
research funded by activist groups or the government is not, that is not
the topic of this column.
Suffice to say, scientific research should be judged on its merits, not on
who pays for it.
Read on at http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,91600,00.html).
Science, Technology and Communication: In Search of a Common Language
- Buenos Aires, Argentina; August 21-22, 2003 (via scidev.net)
Outside of formal education, most people obtain information about science
and technology through the media. At least three professional groups are
involved in this flow of information: scientists (including
technologists), institution-based science communicators and journalists.
Generally, scientists and institution-based communicators emphasise the
benefits of science and technology. Journalists share this objective
but also wish to show the potential risks of the use of science and
technology. The three groups coincide in believing that information about
science and technology should be presented to the public in a clear,
accurate and objective manner.
The relationship between science and technology and society is vital for
all countries. The communication capacity of scientists and the
professional skills of science communicators and science journalists need
to be urgently improved through meetings, workshops and courses.
This workshop aims to promote better practice in the communication of
science and technology to the public. It will bring together scientists,
institution-based science communicators and science journalists with the
aim of discussing science commuinication and debating new initiatives that
could aid this social and cultural process. It is also intended that each
of the three groups will gain an awareness of the activities
and professional responsibilities of the other professional groups and
better understand the pressures and limitations that affect their work.
To register: firstname.lastname@example.org.
GM Freedom Fighters?
- David Simpson, Zambia
Despite efforts by Agbioview readers to assure me that GM foods are on
balance "good", it seems to me to be just one side's view against the
other's. Nothing conclusive. I have just received the following from
Zambia Consumer Association, to whom I had recently forwarded the
AgBioView complsints against Mae Wan Ho (who featured at the recent ZACA
conference on GM foods in Lusaka). - Regards, David
Subject: GM Freedom Fighters
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
Fearful of scientists and campaigners who expose the dangers of
genetically modified crops, biotechnology corporations feel the need to
destroy the reputations of anyone who dares to speak out to keep the world
When unable to scientifically disprove the assertions of Dr Arpad Pusztai
and Professor Ignacio Chapela, the biotechnology establishment had to
resort to lies and misinformation campaigns to suggest that the two
scientists were unable to carry out rigorous science, and had botched
their research on nutrition and GM contamination. Both have lost their
jobs and reputations as a result, although their findings are still valid.
The biotech machine is also perfectly willing to stoop to personal attacks
on those they fear. Vandana Shiva, author and activist who speaks
eloquently of the challenges facing Indian and developing world farmers
from patented GM seeds, has been called villainousand murderousby
biotechnology proponents. For her work in protecting farmerstraditional
way of life and campaigning on their behalf, she was awarded a Bulls**t
Awardby a pro-biotech campaigning organisation.
And Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer whose lifetimes work of growing
canola was destroyed through contamination from Monsantos Roundup Ready
canola genes, found himself sued by Monsanto for over a million dollars.
Now, funded by sympathisers and supporters, he devotes his life to telling
his story to farmers around the world.
In spite of this systematic targeting of the GM-freedom fighters, these
people carry on with their work, all the more determined to expose the
truth. They carry on in the knowledge that while the biotech machine may
seek to damage them personally, they only do so because their messages are
Best wishes, Teresa, www.consumersinternational.org/roaf
The Sinister Sacking of the Worlds Leading GM Expert and the Trail that
Leads to Tony Blair and the White House. Article in the Daily Mail (UK).
Date: 7 July 2003 Andrew Rowell http://www.gmwatch.org/archive.asp
EARLY one fine summer morning, a taxi pulled up outside a neat suburban..
Dear David: No one is attacking the critics any more than the continued
vicious attack waged by critics on scientists (Labs being burnt, test
fields detroyed, pies thrown at; integrity questioned). Puzstai was past
the retirement age. Regarding Chapela's tenure, nearly half the faculty at
top universities like Berkeley do not make the tenure. So both did not
lose jobs because of "the biotechnology establishment's... lies and
misinformation campaign". Percy Schmeiser is simply having fun telling
his cooked up story going around the world because nothing on earth can
"contaminate" 90% of any farm.
As for Vandana Shiva's 'bullshit award', this was given to her by her
fellow countrymen who are tired of her tirade against anything modern. As
Benjamin Franklin said "what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the
gander". The names she has been called pales in comparison to the profane
language she normally uses to characterize biotech scientists and
Discussion Good, Dumbocracy Bad
- Richard Gallagher, Editor, The Scientist, 17, No.12; June 16, 2003.
Excerpts below. Full text at
The rise of the patient advocate appears to be at the expense of expert
testimony. Legislators and the public are giving more and more credence to
"real people," inevitably causing a spiraling competition to produce the
most moving testimony and the most resonant sound bite.
This is a form of "dumbocracy," defined as the rule of cleverness without
wisdom. The term is not intended as a slight against patient advocates,
who provide a welcome and effective contribution to the debate (though
they should steer clear of judging the science). It is aimed at the
decision-makers and the media, who accept all views as being equal and
play down the importance of experts.
Our most eminent researchers should lead the debates on the scientific
merits of stem cells. They are our best hope for getting the right
outcome, and their opinions should be weighed accordingly.
- The Scientist, 17, No.14, p11; July 14, 2003
Examples of public "demagoguery" that you quote in your editorial1 are
quite conspicuous. Unfortunately, your appeal to "our most eminent
researchers" to "lead the debates on the scientific merits of stem cells"
in existing situations will only make things worse; that is, decisions
less rational and public confidence more abused. The problem is that "our
most eminent researchers" are mostly a thoroughly corrupt crowd, who put
their personal financial interests, including gains in the companies they
own and ever-increasing public funding of their research, above any honest
assessment. As long as our academic institutions remain indifferent to, or
even encourage, the widespread conflicts of interest, "eminent
researchers" should be kept away from public discussions. - Alexander
Kolchinsky, PhD, Health Front Line, Ltd. Champaign, Ill.
I just read your "Discussion Good, Dumbocracy Bad" editorial in the June
16 issue of The Scientist. Contrary to the thrust of your editorial, many
of us in the scientific community believe that the best (indeed, only) way
to avoid a "dumbocracy" is "good (and balanced) discussion," that is,
understanding the distinction between facts and values.
There is no disputing that facts (as articulated by the "experts") are,
indeed, a critical part of the public policy equation. Respecting the
testimony of people (e.g., "patient advocates") whose facts may be suspect
but whose values are the stuff of democratic debate, is, however, the
other half of the whole. Espousing--never mind encouraging--even more
scientific elitism than presently exists is not going to get any of us
very far down the road of responsible decision-making, nor building trust
in the public domain, in the complex world of 21st-century biotechnology.
In that context, I respectfully suggest that you might find it
enlightening to check out the Web site of Geneforum (www.geneforum.org), a
unique, nonprofit organization that I and my colleagues around Oregon
birthed four years ago. Its mission, to enhance public understanding,
promote civic discourse, and inform genetic policy through the measurement
and monitoring of public values, is designed to demonstrate that citizens
can educate the experts about the values that bind a community together.
-- Greg Fowler, PhD, Dept of Public Health & Preventive Medicine, Oregon
Health & Science University
If dumbocracy rules it is because, when it comes communicating to the
general public, scientists remain in their ivory tower. It often seems
that it is below scientific status to address popular questions, leaving
the proliferation of scientific progress to a press which is dictated by
brief and sensational coverage. If researchers should lead the debates
they should be prepared to leave their ivory towers not only when a
particular issue reaches the news but at any time.
A good example is the debate on genetically modified food where so far the
scientific community has responded by countering the arguments of anti-GM
campaigners, instead of offering a clear insight in both the scientific
and ethical thought behind it. The rise of dumbocracy also demonstrates
the need of adequate scientific education. Yet many of our most eminent
researchers, as you so eloquently put it, seem to consider this a
political matter, rather than a scientific one. It raises the question
whether science can be seen separately from politics. The physicists that
contributed to the development of the hydrogen bomb later became the most
ardent supporters of peace as they realized that their invention would not
remain a scientific showcase. Invention is science, applying invention is
politics. One cannot be seen without the other. Note that politics is
meant in the broadest sense and that it does not imply the sacrifice of
our independence. - Filip Meersman, Univ Cambridge, Dept of Chemistry, UK
Control the Media? No, Educate Them
- Philip Hunter, The Scientist, Vol.17, no. 14, p68; July 14, 2003
'Balanced reporting will help mitigate the work of maverick scientists who
hog the limelight'
Ignorance and commercial interest make a combustible mixture, with
enlightenment often a victim of the fumes. Views tend to polarize and
become unduly influenced by those best able to manipulate the media,
irrespective of the argument's merits. The result can be an alarming
disparity between public opinion and the true state of the science.
No doubt, this syndrome has adversely affected debate over big issues such
as genetic modification of plants and global warming. The question is,
what's to be done? Awareness alone does not lead to enlightenment, and to
an extent the public are at the mercy of what they read and hear. Such
consideration has led the UK government to introduce what is, in effect, a
form of censorship. The government, in justifying its new stance, blames
the opinion shapers, the media, calling for more accurate and balanced
The UK government has introduced guidelines for scientific reporting
entitled "Guidance for Editors." The document urges journalists to "make
every effort to establish the credibility of scientists and their work."
They even offer the method to achieve this goal: consulting an approved
expert, listed in a directory published by the Royal Society, which is the
United Kingdom's established, rarely-out-of-line-with-the-government
Government enthusiasm for this initiative was honed by an ongoing
controversy over the MMR (measles mumps rubella) triple vaccine in the
United Kingdom, which has threatened to derail the government's public
health policy. The story began in 1998,1 when Andrew Wakefield described
his hypothesis that MMR can cause inflammatory bowel disease and that this
in turn may lead to autism. Wakefield followed up with several other
papers2 and assiduously courted the media, with considerable success. A
recent survey3 found that 53% of