Today in AgBioView: August 19, 2003:
* The First Genetically Modified Pope?
* Vatican: Ethical Criteria Outlined for Use of GMOs
* GM Foods Can Help Feed World
* Taking the Scare Out of New Science
* Taking GM Food Gift to Brits - Response
* How India's Mother of Invention Built an Industry
* Poor Countries Need Trade, Not Caravans of Protesters
* I Say It's . . . Broccoli?
* Frankenfoods Fight Back
* Seeds of Deception
The First Genetically Modified Pope?
- Simon Smith, Better Humans, August 18, 2003,
'The Vatican's endorsement of gene altered foods could lead to it becoming
a champion of human genetic reengineering'
Calling the Vatican scientifically progressive is like calling Greenpeace
a human rights organization. Sure, you could make some contorted
arguments. But at day's end, Greenpeace activists spike trees and the
Vatican only apologized to Galileo in 1992.
So I was shocked when the Vatican announced its support for genetically
modified foods. After all, this is the organization that's warring against
same-sex marriages, with members warning politicians that their souls are
at risk. But it's true, straight from the mouth of a Vatican official in
early August. And besides being a 180-degree spin that would impress
Formula 1 drivers, the development grabbed my attention because it could
lead to the Vatican becoming a champion of human genetic reengineering.
Tampering with God's work?
In 2000, Pope John Paul II told 50,000 farmers at an agricultural mass
that they should "resist the temptation of high productivity and profit
that work to the detriment of the respect of nature." Bishops have also
referred to genetically modifying food as tampering with God's work. But
word came in early August that the Vatican will soon officially endorse
genetically modified foods.
Archbishop Renato Martino, head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for
Justice and Peace, said that this endorsement would come in a report to be
officially released during an upcoming meeting of EU farm ministers.
Martino said that Vatican scientific advisors and 24,000 daily starvation
deaths have influenced the Pope, who "ardently desires to do something for
the billions of people who go to bed hungry every night." "The Book of
Genesis clearly establishes the domination of man over nature," says
Martino. "God has entrusted mankind to preserve nature but also to use
While subsequent reports have made Vatican endorsement seem less certain,
observers don't see it as unlikely. "I don't think the church has ever
said that genetic modifications in themselves are wrong," Gerald McKenny,
associate professor of theological ethics at the University of Notre Dame,
said in a recent Chicago Tribune interview. "It's permissible for human
beings to intervene in natural processes so long as certain moral norms
are not violated."
Thin edge of the wedge. Some say that the church has been forced to
support genetically modified foods because it is against contraception and
abortion. How will we feed all those babies? Regardless of the Vatican's
motives, however, its support for genetically modified foods is arguably
implicit support for genetic modification, period. A gene is a gene,
whether it's in a human, a cornstalk or a cow. A number of genes are
conserved across species, and there's no conceivable way for the Vatican
to argue that identical genes in different species are somehow inherently
different, being sacred only in humans.
And just as a gene is a gene, genetic modification is genetic
modification. So tweaking genes to increase milk production or increase
virus resistance should earn support whether we're modifying cows or
humans. If we could, for example, end starvation by genetically
engineering humans to convert sunlight to energy, how could the Vatican
now oppose? After all, photosynthesizing humans wouldn't need to worry
much about food production and distribution. (They might, however, need to
worry more about the weather.) Biblical commandment
As religious scholars point out, it comes down to this: Do the pursuits
reflect the "domination of man over nature" and do they not violate
"certain moral norms." Undeniably, they are domination. But are they a
violation? For many human modifications, the answer will be no. I don't
quote scripture, but I know that one of the 10 commandments is "Thou shalt
not kill." So if a genetic modification will prevent death -- whether it's
through increasing agricultural yields or making humans self-feeding --
then blocking it will cause death.
A gene is a gene, genetic modification is genetic modification and causing
death is killing. I'm not saying that the bible or the Vatican should
guide our use of science and technology, but for those who feel
differently, here's an invitation to join the genetic assault on nature's
And for those who don't, take heart that an organization known for its
scientific stagnation has taken a giant leap into the 21st century, and
could be an important ally in the fight against irrational opposition to
genetic modification from bioconservatives, neo-Luddites and deep
-- Simon Smith is the founder and editor-in-chief of Betterhumans. You can
reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Poll Results: Why do you think the Vatican is endorsing genetically
It's bowing to pressure from the US government = 20%
To feed those born as a result of its opposition to contraception= 16%
They're a solution to world hunger = 39%
It's becoming more progressive in its stand on science = 5%
There's nothing un-Christian about genetically modifying food= 14%
God works in mysterious ways = 7%
You can still vote at
Vatican: Ethical Criteria Outlined for Use of Genetically Modified
Zenit - The World Seen From Rome; August 18, 2003
'Vatican Official Urges Respect for Biodiversity'
Vatican City (Zenit.org).- Recourse to genetically modified organisms
calls for proof of their usefulness as well as a verification of the risks
involved, says a Vatican official and expert on the matter.
Given the debates within the Catholic world on the subject, Bishop Elio
Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and director
of the Bioethics Center of Rome's Catholic University of the Sacred Heart,
spoke on a recent program on Vatican Radio. "First of all," the bishop
said Aug. 5, "there must not be blind opposition to man's intervention on
plants and animals in the genetic field, when the latter does not cause
harm and is useful to man himself."
Second, there must be scientific verification of "the risks … both on the
natural and pharmaceutical products as well as on the genetically modified
organisms themselves," he said. "It is the verification of the risk, the
so-called principle of precaution. Until now no very serious risks have
been reported. I think that progress is being made with due caution, with
a kind of experimentation before introducing these products in the
market," Bishop Sgreccia said.
In this connection, he added that it is necessary to respect the
"ecological balance, namely, respect for biodiversity." "The new species
must not supplant the pre-existing ones," he said. "Biodiversity must be
safeguarded in the world, as it is wealth for all."
"In the third place, the citizen must be informed," namely, when these
products are commercialized they must have a "label," the Vatican official
said. He added that the introduction of genetically modified organisms
must respect "the economic ethic at the international level."
In other words, "genetically modified products must not serve for the
exclusive use of enterprises, of great industries," the bishop said.
"Industries must benefit from a just profit, but must not be turned into a
monopoly which becomes a serious burden for those needing to take recourse
to these products." "The question on biotechnologies, moreover, must not
be used with protectionist objectives," he said. The bishop explained that
there "must be a balance, respect for the ethical concerns of the market,
not only for the ethical concerns of health."
In a word, according to Bishop Sgreccia, the key lies in harmonizing
"science -- with its undoubted capacity to develop, to verify objectives
truths of an experimental character -- and ethics, which must relate the
resources of the sciences to human values and persons, which must be at
When addressing the Ministerial Conference on Biotechnology, held in
Sacramento, California, in June, Archbishop Renato Martino, president of
the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, explained that the Holy See
is gathering information on the problem in order to develop "a clear view
on the use of GMOs.
GM Foods Can Help Feed World
- Denny Rehberg, U.S. Representative, Montana Forum (Guest Editorial),
August 17, 2003
Who would have guessed Montana farmers hold the key to helping officials
in southern Africa avert a famine, saving hundreds of thousands of lives?
Sound too good to be true? Think again. We are living in an age where
advances in science and biotechnology for agriculture production make that
a plausible scenario.
Biotech and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have shown the potential
to increase yields, and withstand drought, pesticides and insects. Since
the introduction of hybrid and GM corn, yields have nearly tripled from
about 45 bushels an acre to over 125 bushels. New advances are also
providing strains that are resistant to insects, thus eliminating the need
for pesticides. Additional varieties are becoming increasingly available
and these benefits could have huge, positive impacts for Montana
Product testing. However, along with the benefits, we need to look at any
potential negative effects. The Food and Drug Administration, United
States Department of Agriculture, and Environmental Protection Agency all
have jurisdiction over genetically altered crops and heavily scrutinize
and test all potential biotech products. The United States has a very
science-based and objective testing system. Only the safest products are
In fact, since the introduction of GMO ingredients into America’s food
supply in the 1980s, not a single illness or death has been directly
linked to the consumption of these foods. Both U.S. and foreign scientists
have declared U.S. GM crops are safe to use for their approved purposes.
European moratorium. In May, the United States, Canada and Argentina filed
a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the European Union’s
de facto moratorium on approvals for new GM crops that has been in place
since October 1998. On June 10, the House passed a resolution supporting
the U.S. complaint against the EU. In the complaint, the United States
declares the EU maintains a number of marketing and import bans on biotech
products that have already been approved by the EU for import and sale
within the region. GM corn, soybeans, rapeseed, sugar beets, cotton,
potatoes and tomatoes are all covered in the complaint.
These import bans have restricted imports of U.S. ag products and have
cost American corn producers an estimated $300 million a year since the
moratorium began in 1998. The EU has veiled its actions by citing safety
concerns and unknown effects. However, many of its own scientists have
declared many of these products safe.
On July 2, the EU made slight advances in its GM policy, but the fact of
the matter remains: the EU is violating WTO rules, and the moratorium is
simply a pretext to protect its domestic markets.
Many Montana producers I have spoken with understand the potential for
crops such as herbicide-resistant wheat and sugar beets and would welcome
this new technology. However, producers cannot and will not grow a crop
that has no market.
In May, a group of Korean millers, who recently bought a large shipment of
Montana wheat, visited Washington, D.C. These millers related they
personally had no qualms against GM wheat, but presumed Korea would likely
follow the EU’s lead.
The wheels are turning. If we can turn the EU around, many other countries
will follow suit and change their import rules bans on GMOs. My hope is
our complaint before the WTO will bring European community leaders to
their senses, end this foolish ban against safe, U.S. commodities, and
change the way countries like those in southern Africa struggle to avoid
---- Denny Rehberg is Montana’s sole U.S. Representative and a member of
the House Agriculture Committee.
Taking the Scare Out of New Science
- Robert S. Boyd, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 18, 2003
'Citizen panels, it's hoped, would head off such furors as that over
genetically modified foods.'
Scientists perform many wonders, but sometimes they scare the dickens out
of people. Genetic tinkering, radioactive nuclear waste, cloning,
embryonic stem cells, robots that reproduce themselves and other high-tech
developments have stirred widespread distrust and alarm.
To address such fears, the National Science Foundation (NSF), an arm of
the federal government, is experimenting with a system of citizens
advisory panels that it hopes can help head off future eruptions. The
panels consider the ethical, social and practical implications of new
technologies and recommend policies that might reduce misunderstanding and
For example, the worldwide uproar over genetically modified foods - crops
whose genes have been artificially altered - has wrecked foreign markets
for some American products. Resistance to so-called Frankenfoods also is
spreading in the United States. Billions of dollars are at stake.
"We don't want another backlash like the one over genetically modified
foods," said Jane Macoubrie, the leader of the NSF project at North
Carolina State University in Raleigh. "Current practices are producing a
hostile public and decreasing trust in government and science. Citizens
perceive technology as out of control."
Each panel consists of 15 nonexpert volunteers who spend three months
studying a particular controversy. They read background materials,
question authorities representing various points of view, debate among
themselves and try to reach a consensus. Finally they write a report
offering their advice on the issue to policy-makers such as state
governors and members of Congress.
The first of these advisory panels recommended, among other things, that
the government tighten regulations for growing genetically modified foods
and require the products to be labeled clearly, so shoppers could choose
to avoid them. Some European countries require such foods to be labeled.
Canada is considering a voluntary system. The U.S. Food and Drug
Administration so far has declined to require labeling.
At a hearing before the House of Representatives Science Committee in
April, Langdon Winner, a political scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute in Troy, N.Y., said citizens' panels would "establish a voice
for ordinary folks." He urged Congress "to create ways in which small
panels of ordinary, disinterested citizens, selected in much the way that
we now choose juries, [can] be assembled to examine important societal
The House passed a bill in May directing the government to seek the
public's advice on nanotechnology, the fast-developing science of the
extremely small. The bill, which hasn't passed the Senate, is a response
to fears roused by such books as Prey, a science-fiction thriller by
Michael Crichton in which murderous "nanorobots" run amok. "Why not
include the public in deliberations about nanotechnology early on in the
process, rather than after the products reach the market?" Winner asked.
Macoubrie's group conducted two preliminary "Citizens Technology Forums,"
as they were formally called, last year. Six more are under way at North
Carolina State and a nationwide trial is planned for next year. For the
first conference, panelists met face-to-face. The others are being
conducted mostly over the Internet, a novel use of high technology to
counter fears about high technology.
"Citizens, scientists and policy-makers are all dissatisfied with the
status quo," Macoubrie, a specialist in communications theory, said in a
telephone interview. "Citizens are afraid. Scientists think uninformed
citizens are incompetent to comment on technology. Policy-makers are
besieged on all sides. Everybody sees a problem. No one is happy."
So the NSF asked North Carolina State to devise a process that would
minimize these problems by giving citizens unbiased, factual information
with which to make sound decisions. It's modeled after a similar process
that's been used in Denmark for 15 years. "Once people have knowledge
they get over their fears," Macoubrie said.
Like a jury, the panels are supposed to agree on their recommendations.
"We can't always get unanimity, but we try very hard to point toward full
consensus," Macoubrie said. During the three months of meetings, she said,
"we've seen some pretty phenomenal changes in resolving conflicts."
In a statement announcing the $325,000 project, the NSF declared: "Public
participation in technology policy decision-making is both controversial
and desirable. It is controversial because of questions about the
capabilities of citizens to understand and evaluate these complex issues.
It is desirable because democratic participation may improve decisions and
Patrick Hamlett, the director of the Program on Science, Technology &
Society at North Carolina State, said consensus conferences were far
different from hired pollsters telephoning people at dinnertime, or from
political focus groups, which spend a couple of hours in an evening on a
The NSF-sponsored panels spend three weekends over the course of two
months, for a total of 20 hours, considering their assigned issues, plus
time studying on their own. Panelists are selected from volunteers who
respond to newspaper ads. They are paid $500 for their participation.
"We are trying to measure what the average citizen who bothered to study
an issue would think about it," Hamlett explained. What impact the
conferences will have on public policy remains to be seen. "When I wake up
at night, that's what bothers me," Hamlett said.
One skeptic on the Science committee, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.),
scoffed that they will "just give the nuts a podium."
Macoubrie, the project leader, is undeterred. "I believe that high-quality
citizen decisions can come out of these conferences," she said.
Taking GM Food Gift to Brits - Response to John Cross
- From Dr. Andre de Kathen
Dear John Cross, As mentioned before, some GMOs are approved in Europe and
considering that there are perhaps more than 20.000 products on the market
with 'soy-components', 'Europeans' are not GM-free.
What Prakash rightly noted for North America is at least partly true for
Europe. In the end, Europeans will know that they eat GMOs, a privilige US
consumers may not share - I met US consumers who had no clue that GM corn
or GM soy accounts for almost half of the production - and were indeed
When I look at websites like The Campaign, I would guess that there are a
lot of consumers in your country who also think genes are only in GM
tomatoes. I do not challenge your intention per se, but I do challenge
your rhetorics. Let me point out - in commemoration of Douglas Adams - we
do use digital watches and left the trees. -- Kind regards Andre
>> Delicious Foods for My London Friends - John W. Cross
>> Dear Mr. de Kathen, The idea of carrying some gifts of processed GM
>foods to Europe is no
How India's Mother of Invention Built an Industry
- Amy Waldman, NY Times, August 16, 2003
Bangalore, India -- Like father, like daughter, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw
thought in the 1970's, when she set out to become a brew master just as
her father had been. She left India to train in Australia, then returned
home to find that daughters were not welcome in India's breweries.
That door closing for her opened another one for India. Unemployed, she
followed a love of biology and a chance referral to an Irish biotechnology
company. At 25, she started their Indian operation from her garage,
successfully extracting from papaya an enzyme used to tenderize meat,
among other things, and from the swim bladders of tropical fish a collagen
that helps clear beer.
It was the beginning of India's biotechnology industry. Twenty-five years
later, Ms. Mazumdar-Shaw, 50, has become a symbol of sorts for that
industry. Her now independent company, Biocon India Ltd., of which she is
chairwoman and managing director, employs almost 900 people, making it
among India's largest biotechnology companies.
From this capital of the southern state of Karnataka, which is now home to
85 biotechnology companies, Ms. Mazumdar-Shaw is among those trying to
shape a nation's approach to uncharted scientific and commercial terrain.
It is both promising and risky.
Across India, states are racing to set up biotech parks, hoping to mimic
the success of the information technology industry that defined India as a
global knowledge powerhouse. But biotechnology touches human lives in a
way that information technology does not, and that is at the heart of the
debate over its benefits and risks for developing countries.
That debate heated up with President Bush's charge that Europe's
resistance to genetically modified foods has made African countries
reluctant to accept bio-engineered foods despite widespread hunger there.
Similar concerns have arisen in India, which rejected a donation of a
soy-corn blend this year because the United States could not certify that
it had not been genetically modified.
The worry in the developing world, said Ms. Mazumdar-Shaw, who does not
share the concern, is this: "Why has Europe banned it? It must be for a
reason. Why are we being fools and embracing it?"
She passionately believes that India must embrace biotechnology, with the
proper precautions. She believes it can change the way this country of
more than one billion people, at least one-fourth of them deep in poverty,
eats and farms, researches and cures disease. "Today anything can be done
-- we have the techniques," she said.
Biotechnologists are working to develop high-protein potatoes and
high-nutrient rice that could help address the country's malnutrition
problem. They have developed a vaccine for leprosy, which was not being
researched in the West, and are working on biofuels from local crops like
But such ventures, if done badly, could also cause damage, sending new
genetic strains into the country's basmati rice crop, for example,
threatening a staple food. It is a new frontier characterized by
excitement, but also uncertainty.
Ms. Mazumdar-Shaw seems well-suited to both. She is possessed of what she
calls a "spirit of adventure," along with a deep determination to succeed.
Her family was unconventional, not least in her father's choice of
profession as a master brewer. They were Brahmins originally from the
state of Gujarat, which even today prohibits alcohol. "My parents were
today's people," she said.
Unable to get into medical college, she focused on zoology and other
biosciences at Bangalore University, and she became fascinated by
fermentation science. She earned a scholarship to Australia, only to meet
disappointment at home in her quest to become India's first female master
But the setback was only temporary. Today she has capitalized well on the
abundance and affordability of Indian biologists and chemists, building a
loyal team. She is simultaneously warm and controlled, a gracefully
aggressive entrepreneur who favors scarves and pearls.
Her company resembles a large family -- her husband, John Shaw, an
exuberant Scotsman, is on the management team. She eats lunch in the
cafeteria with everyone else, and has decorated the company's walls with
her personal art collection.
Ms. Mazumdar-Shaw has taken a lead in trying to shape policy and
perception toward biotechnology. Over a recent breakfast, she explained to
the former American ambassador, Robert D. Blackwill, why Western
companies' fear that their intellectual property would not be protected in
India was misplaced, and asked him to spread the word.
She has few illusions that the industry is anything but nascent -- it will
take another 10 to 15 years before there is a thriving biotech industry in
India, she predicts. "I've taken 25 years to get to where I am," she said.
From extracting enzymes, she moved into fermenting them, developing and
patenting a novel technology to do so. Biocon extracted and manufactured
enzymes used in everything from Lipton Ice Tea to tomato purée.
Now Biocon has moved onto even more complex challenges. By year's end, it
will begin using an innovative technology to manufacture recombinant human
insulin. The product will pit Biocon against multinationals like Eli
Lilly, which have already started lowering their prices, apparently in
anticipation. It is only one piece of Biocon's focus on diabetes, which
also includes efforts to produce oral insulin and clinical trials on
Such clinical trials, she believes, are another potential gold mine for
India. The country has one of the world's largest populations of "naïve"
patients on whom no medicine has ever been tried, making them ideal for
study. In addition, it has a large population of intermarried relatives,
allowing for the study of genetic defects, as well as innumerable ethnic
and tribal communities whose genomics can be studied.
"The kind of patient populations, the diversity of patient populations --
we could have so much data exclusivity to lease out to the rest of the
world," Ms. Mazumdar-Shaw said.
Not surprisingly, such notions have many opponents, who argue they amount
to exploitation of India's people and resources, and could threaten the
very biodiversity they seek to capitalize on.
Ms. Mazumdar-Shaw recognizes the concerns, and believes companies must
demonstrate their intentions. But, she asks: "What's wrong with Indian
guinea pigs? There have been American and European guinea pigs. It's a
very important cause: alleviating diseases."
She is eager to win over the critics. "You can't do every experiment to
show genetically modified products are safe," she said, "but are you going
to abandon it because of the fear it could be bad?"
Poor Countries Need Trade, Not Caravans of Protesters
- Luis de la Calle Pardo, Chicago Tribune, August 17, 2003
The World Trade Organization's Ministerial Conference in Cancun, Mexico on
Sept. 10-14, will be judged by the progress it makes in the areas of
agricultural subsidies and access to medicines by the poorest nations.
Last week, a French judge granted an early release to Jose Bove, the
anti-globalization activist inprisoned for mounting violent protests
against the growing of genetically modified corn in France. Bove has
stated he will use his newly obtained freedom--despite his obligation to
perform some community service--to go to Cancun and make sure this meeting
becomes "another Seattle."
Bove will not be alone in his protests against the WTO. He will be joined
by an eclectic group of people opposing international trade. Their
specific agendas against the WTO vary.
In Bove's case, his main motive is to protect the privileged situation
that fellow farmers hold in his country, where they are highly subsidized,
protected from international trade, and immune to the threat of
technological innovation because of the creative manner in which Europeans
manage non-tariff barriers.
Yet if Bove and other protesters truly want to pronounce themselves in
favor of development--instead of just grandstanding and impeding the work
of the WTO conference--they ought to support the work of those
delegations, such as the one from Mexico, looking to eliminate
Joining Bove at Cancun will be labor interests from developed nations
motivated by fears of cheap imports from less developed countries offering
lower incomes and wages. Of course, these protesters won't mention the
enormous production advantages of developed countries such as access to
inexpensive and long-term loans, the transportation and communications
infrastructure, and the availability of cutting-edge technologies, among
Another important contingent of protesters will be environmentalists who
view trade and development in countries with lower incomes as harmful to
the environment. Finally, Mexico itself will also make its own
significant contribution to the ranks of the protesters: disgruntled
university activists, Zapatistas and, of course, groups opposed to free
trade in agriculture, among them the recently created "El campo no aguanta
mas" ("Farmers Can't Take Any More").
Though the great majority of protesters believe freer trade is harmful to
developing countries, the WTO offers an extraordinary opportunity to
support development among the world's poorest nations. The objective of
the Cancun meeting is to review the progress of the Doha Development
Agenda scheduled to be completed by January 2005. Since the Cancun meeting
is a mid-term review, results will not be conclusive and its success will
depend on how much momentum it provides to negotiations.
The Doha Agenda includes a series of crucial issues for developing
countries: the lifting of agricultural subsidies by developed countries
and greater access for our agricultural products, access for manufactured
goods, protection of intellectual property rights and health issues in
poor countries, tighter rules for investigating product-dumping cases and
special and differentiated treatment for developing nations.
Other issues of greater interest to developed countries include protection
of regional denominations for agricultural production, services, trade and
investment, competition policy, transparency in government procurement,
and trade and the environment.
Indeed, protesters should pressure the American delegation to solve the
pending issues of intellectual property rights and health, and to ensure
that less developed countries have access to medicines at affordable
prices. They need to urge the European Union, the U.S. and Japan to allow
full and permanent free trade of manufactured goods by the elimination of
duties--with no exceptions. They need to promote the elimination of
subsidies for fisheries that have led to exploitation and pose unfair
competition to our fishermen.
Ultimately, the Cancun Ministerial meeting will be judged by the progress
it achieves in redefining the terms of agricultural negotiations,
particularly in terms of subsidies, and fulfilling the commitment reached
in Doha to provide greater access to medicines to poor nations. In
agriculture, the greatest responsibility is in the hands of the European
Union and the U.S.; last week they put out a joint paper that could serve
as a starting point for Cancun. Regarding intellectual property and
health, the greatest burden will fall on the White House.
In Seattle, the success of protesters depended on their ability to block
the meeting. In Cancun it should be measured in terms of the meeting
taking place and on achieving progress favoring the interests of
developing nations. I doubt very much protesters will understand.
--- Luis de la Calle is managing director of Public Strategies de Mexico,
a public affairs firm, and former undersecretary for internations trade
negotiations for Mexico's Ministry of the Economy. A version of this
commentary appeared in the Aug. 5 edition of "El Universal" in Mexico
I Say It's . . . Broccoli?
- Book Review by Greg Critser, NY Times, August 17, 2003
''Food, Inc.': Mendel to Monsanto - the Promises and Perils of the Biotech
By Peter Pringle. 239 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $24.'
It's hard to believe that in the comparatively simple days before 9/11 the
nation's leading thinkers were preoccupied in a mighty battle over . . . a
grain of rice.
By that I refer to golden rice, the genetically altered, Vitamin
A-enhanced plant that its boosters claimed would save the eyesight of
hundreds of thousands of poor kids every year and that its detractors
counterclaimed was nothing less than genetic imperialism run rampant.
Remember golden rice? While you're at it, conjure up some of today's other
high-tech lip-smackers, like Bt corn, Flavr-Savr tomatoes and, well, let's
make the salad complete, herbicide-resistant soybeans.
''Food, Inc.'' is the veteran journalist Peter Pringle's rendering of the
wars over these scientific wonders. This he does with the eye of a curious
traveler; he's a man who sees this colorful cast of academic climbers,
corporate suits, English seed-huggers and Indian firebrands as a giant
circus of savants -- folks so intent on their own little world of
passionate specifics that time and time again they fail to see the larger
and more important picture.
Consider, for example, Ingo Potrykus, one of the inventors of golden rice.
It was Potrykus's brilliant and dogged pursuit of a way to coax beta
carotene out of the common rice plant that led to biotech's one discovery
(so far) that might actually benefit the third-world poor. Yet this same
genius professed to be ''upset'' when, after having entered an agreement
with the British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to continue his work, he
discovered that his new partner would actually assert ownership rights.
Fortunately, Potrykus eventually got the company to allow him to give the
seeds away to farmers making less than $10,000 a year, leaving all those
$10,001 fat cats ripe for AstraZeneca's plucking.
Pringle also ministers a well-earned cuffing to the many activist
academics whose narcissistic politics helped cloud public understanding of
genetic modification. Take the British geneticist and biophysicist Mae-Wan
Ho. It was Ho's much publicized, and, as it turned out, utterly unfounded
contention that so-called promoter genes inside a cauliflower virus could
cause otherwise benign veggies to become carcinogenic. As a result of such
claims, Pringle writes, ''consumers lurched from complete ignorance about
such matters . . . to a full-blown panic that the tools of biotechnology
might be poisoning them today, and tomorrow destroying the means of
producing enough food to keep the world's population alive.''
Pringle rightfully saves his biggest blasts for the Monsanto Company
crowd. Time and time again, he shows how the behemoth and its minions
tried to counter legitimate concerns. Once, when the Environmental
Protection Agency asked the company for samples of the Bt toxin in its new
potato to determine if the substance would harm friendly insects and
birds, the company submitted samples drawn not from potatoes but from Bt
inserted into E. coli bacteria. The reason? It was cheaper. The agency
approved the test. (Note to Monsanto and Washington: Potato and E. coli --
not the same thing! You cannot deep fry E. coli.)
Pringle shows that the corporate heavyhandedness didn't end there. When
scientists raised a number of concerns (ultimately disproved) that Bt corn
might be damaging the monarch butterfly population, Pringle notes that the
industry sent out bulletins asserting that more monarchs are killed by car
windshields than corn pollen. It had no more backup than it had for many
of its counterclaims to other environmental worries.
While focusing on the players and their antics, Pringle weighs in with
important conclusions of his own. Many -- if not all -- of the biggest
environmental fears, he says, have failed to stand the test of science.
Like the monarch butterfly, the prized native corns of Mexico will
probably be with us for eons to come: the newfangled seeds farmers there
are using to improve their yields are not ''gene swamping'' the native
corns out of existence. And eating insect-resistant veggies will not make
us insect-resistant (though come to think of it that might be a welcome
But Pringle is no coddler either; genetically modified foods, he says,
come with many unknown costs. The United States Department of Agriculture
still lacks a decent system of assessing risks from genetic modification;
so far, we've just been lucky. More important, the companies churning out
this new bio-software still have no clue about what it means, in terms of
social responsibility, to hold a patent on life. Their attorneys are as
eager as ever for ''increments of capital,'' hounding Mexican bean
importers and small Canadian canola growers for royalties.
Indeed, ''the core issue,'' Pringle tells us, ''is the increasing
dominance of industrial capital over farming, especially in undeveloped
countries. If the keys to the creation of the new miracle plants . . . are
locked up in the safe of agribusiness, it's hard to see how poor nations
will reap the benefits.'' And if indeed there is no such trade-off, then
why go along with the great biotech experiment in the first place? The
last time I looked, we had more than enough corn to go around; we have so
much, in fact, that the cheap sweeteners made from it have become a threat
to our own health.
Delivering a slim volume on a big subject, Pringle has done a fine job,
honing the basic scientific issues to their essence in workmanlike fashion
and then exploding the controversies at their core. He seems aware that
his book is as much about the modern mode of public debate -- a system of
scoring points rather than resolving important issues -- as it is about
the issues. (And I can just imagine those debaters reading this book and
shouting things like ''No! I said it would take five grains of pollen per
pistil, not four!'') At times I found Pringle's attempt to drive a
narrative through this nerdy world a bit forced, and I would have liked
him to explore the wild cards outside the Monsanto-Greenpeace-po' farmer
realm, where biotech seeds are being pirated, much as AIDS drugs are in
But these are cavils. Anyone who picks up this book -- except for those
hopeless flacks at Monsanto and their tormentors on the picket lines --
will find ''Food, Inc.'' to be a feast of honest reporting and serious
thought. It's about time.
Greg Critser is the author of ''Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest
People in the World.''
Frankenfoods Fight Back
- Betterhumans, May 12, 2003
'Genetically modified crops are expanding rapidly as evidence mounts for
their benefits and safety'
Ask the man on the street his opinion on genetically modified foods and
you're likely to get a very negative response. Ask if he would dare eat
such foods and you're likely to see a severe expression.
Yes, the war against "frankenfoods" rages on, with some environmentalists
and most of Europe opposed. The arguments against genetically modified
crops are unyielding. They're too dangerous to our environment. They're
dangerous to our health. Who are we to play God? Even Margaret Atwood's
new book, Oryx and Crake, envisions a globe decimated by an ecological
disaster spawned by engineered crops.
But despite the fashionableness and political correctness of pooh-poohing
genetically modified foods, the man on the street (if he's living in North
America, anyway) likely consumed his fair share for breakfast. The corn
flakes he had most likely contained modified corn. The margarine he spread
on his toast probably contained oil from engineered soybeans.
Fact of the matter is, genetically modified crops are expanding rapidly,
despite environmentalist opposition and European Union moratoriums.
Expansion is increasing as evidence for the benefits and safety of
modified crops grows. Research shows that rather than harming the
environment, genetically modified crops are helping to improve the
environment by reducing pesticide use. And rather than hurting developing
nations, they are being used by developing nations to address agricultural
and nutritional problems.
Top it all off with the fact that scientists have found no evidence for
harm from consuming genetically modified crops, and it becomes apparent
that the de facto battle against them is all but lost. Increasing adoption
Just how prevalent are genetically modified crops? Current figures may be
as surprising as they are revealing.
Last year, land covered by genetically modified crops grew more than 12%.
It was the sixth consecutive year of double-digit growth, according to the
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications,
which released the findings in a report this January. Sixteen countries
now plant biotech crops, says the ISAAA. India, Columbia and Honduras are
the most recent newcomers, while China, Argentina, Canada and the US are
the leading growers. "In many cases, growers are finding biotechnology
offers the only viable solution to protect crops from economically
devastating pests," says ISAAA Chairman Clive James.
The ISAAA's findings are supported by a report on US farms released this
April. The US Department of Agriculture says that 38% of the 79 million
acres of corn planted in the US this year will likely be genetically
modified, up 4% from last year and 13% from 2000. And developments in
countries that have traditionally rejected modified crops show that more
countries will soon be emulating the US and others on the ISAAA's list.
In October 2002, for example, New Zealand approved the country's first
experiment with genetic modification to occur outside a laboratory.
Biotech company AgResearch received approval to insert goat, pig, sheep,
mice and human genes into cattle to determine whether cows can produce
proteins to treat such diseases as multiple sclerosis. The experiment was
significant because New Zealand relies heavily on agriculture for its
economy and promotes itself as having a pristine environment.
And this April, Australia's genetic modification regulator indicated that
it would likely approve an application from Bayer CropScience to plant
herbicide-resistant canola. Supporters say that the strain will provide
higher crop yields and better weed control, and ultimately allow
Australian farmers to compete with farmers in such countries as Canada.
The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator will likely approve the
application at the end of May.
Benefits mounting. Of significant consequence, the stunning growth of
genetically modified crops comes at a time when evidence is mounting for
This February, for example, a report in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences described a four-fold decrease in pesticide
applications for genetically modified cotton grown in Arizona. The cotton
produces a toxin encoded by a gene from the microbe Bacillus
thuringiensis, and it effectively reduces the population density of the
cotton pest pink bollworm.
A second report, in the journal Science this February, found that the
cotton increased yields an average of 80% to 90% in India while reducing
pesticide use. The report looked at the cotton's use on 150 farms. The
results suggest that the cotton is promising for farmers in developing
countries who can't afford to use pesticides, and the pest-controlling
modifications could be transferable to food crops that are susceptible to
India is one of the most enthusiastic supporters of genetically modified
organisms. It has a 15-year plan to provide children with vaccines, clean
water and better food, and ultimately reduce child mortality. With the
goal of improving nutrition, India is testing a genetically modified
potato that contains a gene called AmA1 from the amaranth plant. The
potato contains one third more protein, including the essential amino
acids lysine and methionine.
The ethical imperative of these agricultural innovations is not lost on
the Indians. "The requirements of developing countries are very different
from those of rich countries," Govindarajan Padmanaban, a biochemist at
the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, told New Scientist this
January, addressing potential resistance. "I think it would be morally
indefensible to oppose it."
China also has an active genetically modified food program. Recently,
Chinese scientists announced the discovery of a gene in rice plants that
can be manipulated to increase yield. Researchers at the Chinese Academy
of Sciences in Beijing discovered that the gene controls the number of a
rice plant's branches where grain buds grow -- called tillers -- and
regulates the formation of those buds. More branches means greater yield.
Safety mechanisms being developed
Of course, only the most resistant opponents to genetically modified foods
would argue that there are no benefits to these innovations. Still, they
would argue, it would all be for naught should the frankencrops run amok
and throw ecosystems out of whack. One of the biggest concerns, for
example, is that modified crops will breed with nonmodified relatives and
transfer genes. This could be dangerous, for example, if genes for
pesticide resistance got into weeds.
But recent research suggests that there are viable solutions to such
concerns. Canadian scientists, for example, have developed a possible
solution to the crosspollination problem. Last week, researchers from the
Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Research Centre in Ottawa reported in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they can use a "seed
lethality" gene in one plant along with a "suppressor" gene in another to
ensure that modified plants don't contaminate nonmodified relatives. The
offspring of the two plants has seeds that can propagate through
self-pollination. But when the seed lethality gene and the suppressor gene
are separated -- as they would be if a modified plant mated with a
nonmodified plant -- then the resulting offspring don't produce viable
And while no evidence suggests that eating genetically modified crops is
more dangerous than eating nonmodified crops, there are suggested methods
for removing all doubt by removing modifications before people eat them.
Willem Stemmer, vice-president of research and development at California
pharmaceutical company Maxygen, for example, believes that it's easy to
remove modified genes inserted in plants and animals by snipping them out
as desired. The process would utilize proteins called recombinases that
can remove fragments of DNA that lie between marker sequences. Scientists
could sandwich modifications between recombinase proteins and promoter
genes. The promoter genes could trigger the snipping at arbitrary points,
such as when food is sprayed with a compound such as ethanol.
No evidence of health hazard. But such a system might be overkill as
nothing suggests that genetically modified foods pose any more of a health
hazard to humans than nonmodified foods.
The British Medical Association underscored the point this January when it
announced a review of a 1999 report that questions the long-term health
effects of modified foods. The BMA's initial report was largely based on a
now-discredited piece of research. "I don't think there's really any
reason to think that GM foods as a class are dangerous to human health,"
BMA member Sir Peter Lachman said when the review was announced. "I think
that food, whether it's brought about by conventional plant breeding or by
the insertion of genes is really very much the same."
Now Britain's science academy has backed up this belief. In two
submissions to a government-sponsored review of genetically modified
foods, the Royal Society says that such foods have the same potential to
reduce nutritional quality and cause allergic reactions as nonmodified
The association also says that no evidence suggests that people can be
damaged by eating DNA sequences that are created through genetic
engineering. "If credible evidence does exist that GM foods are more
harmful to people than non-GM foods, we should like to know why it has not
been made public," says Patrick Bateson, vice-president and biological
secretary of the Royal Society.
"The public have a right to decide whether they want to buy GM foods, and
are entitled to have access to sensible and informed advice, based on
sound science," says Bateson. At present, the science suggests that
genetically modified foods are not only safe, but also have the potential
to improve health and reduce environmental damage.
And with scientists working to address potential risks, it's likely that
modified crops will only become more prevalent in years to come.
Seeds of Deception
'Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically
Engineered Foods You're Eating'
- A new book by Jeffrey Smith; www.seedsofdeception.com
A Great New Book on the Dangers of GMOs
From Amazon.com: Editorial Reviews: From Publishers Weekly
Recent news headlines have focused on the disagreement between the U.S.
and Europe over genetically modified foods: the U.S. exports them, but the
European Union doesn't want to import them, believing their safety remains
unproven. Are genetically modified foods safe?
Longtime anti-GM foods campaigner Smith presents the "opposing" case. He
offers cases where GM produced results that were at best unexpected
(increased starch content in potatoes), at worst grotesque (pigs without
genitals). He describes how one corporation reportedly tried to bribe
Canadian government scientists into approving genetically engineered
bovine growth hormones they deemed unsafe; how some scientists have
reported their careers were threatened as a result of their refusal to
approve certain GM products in the U.S.; and how "conflicts of interest,
sloppy science, and industry influence" can distort the approval process.
The cases Smith presents are scary and timely, but he explores only one
side of the story. Readers looking for a balance consideration of
genetically modified foods will want to look elsewhere.
Note from Andrew Apel: Smith was vice president of marketing for a GMO
detection laboratory. That laboratory turns out to be Genetic ID of
Fairfield, Iowa. See