Today in AgBioView: August 26, 2003:
* Galileo Legacy Helps Ease Science Fear
* An Economic Wrinkle
* What Turn Around by Pope?
* Land Grant Universities and Biotechnology
* Europe 'Reaches' for Disaster
* Pew Fact Sheet - "GM CROPS IN THE U.S."
* Biotechnology: The Case for Sustainability
* Genetically Modified Food Is Not Harmful
* Mothers Against All
* It's Just Politics in a Lab Coat
* Nothing to Fear But . . . Things You're Not Fearing Now
Galileo Legacy Helps Ease Science Fear
- Bryan Patterson, Sunday Herald Sun, August 24, 2003
'Personally I stay away from natural foods. At my age I need all the
preservatives I can get -- George Burns at 100'
GALILEO'S finger is preserved, much like a holy relic, in a science museum
in Florence. One of his vertebra lies in the University of Padua and the
rest of his body reposes lavishly in the basilica of Santa Croce in Rome.
It is here that scientists daily come to worship the man accused of heresy
by the Catholic Church for daring to suggest the Earth was not the centre
of the universe.
Poor Galileo. He has become a secular saint; a martyr for intellectual
reason against religious stupidity. He is a symbol venerated for all the
wrong reasons. A new book, Galileo's Mistake, states that the image of
the enlightened scientist fighting for truth against an intolerant church
is far too simplistic.
Author Wade Rowland says the real dispute between Galileo and the church
was about the roles religion and science should play in defining the
world. Galileo believed in the reality of numbers. The universe, he
thought, was essentially a mathematical entity. He said there could be
only one explanation for natural phenomena. The church held there could be
more than one explanation and that God's role in the world could not be
Rowland rates Galileo's trial as a watershed moment, marking the
transition from the Age of Faith to the Age of Reason. Ultimately, the
cult of scientism won through -- but at what cost? The book argues that
we've paid dearly for the freedom that science offered -- the loss of a
spiritual context for existence and "enslavement by day-to-day
technology". "We are commodities, shaped and moulded to meet the needs of
an economy based increasingly on scientific, materialistic principles,"
The Catholic Church took centuries to acknowledge Galileo was right about
the movements of the sun. Some important issues never die. The church is
again embroiled in controversy over the roles of religion and science in
defining the planet.
In a highly controversial move, the Vatican indicated that the Pope might
soon give his blessing to the cultivation of genetically modified crops in
an attempt to solve world famine. A Vatican spokesman, announcing a broad
Christian study into GM, said the problem of global hunger "involves the
conscience of every man. For this reason, the Catholic Church follows with
special interest and solicitude every development in science to help the
solution of a plight that afflicts humanity."
The spokesman noted that 24,000 people died every day around the world
from starvation. The remarks have angered Catholic clerics who are
worried that property rights to GM seeds could accentuate the dependence
of poor nations on rich ones.
Alfonso Scanio Pecoraro, head of the Italian Greens and a former
agriculture minister, said the Church was using its authority "to support
a scam by the US multinationals". GM seeds were sterile and
non-reproducible, so that the world's farmers had repeatedly to pay the
holders of the seed patents -- US multinationals, he said. "They will be
able to turn the world's food taps on or off," he said. Bishops from
Botswana, South Africa, Swaziland and Brazil also warned against GM's
OPPONENTS of GM have talked of "an automatic cultural bias in the
scientific community towards invasive, hi-tech solutions to complex
social, environmental and economic problems". The theory of some GM
opponents is that people go hungry because they're either poor or
powerless, or have no land on which to grow food. GM crops won't change
The problem is not production of food -- the world already produces enough
food to feed the hungry. The problem is the politics of distribution.
Now the Vatican seems to be saying that while it is wrong to modify the
human genetic code, modifying the genes of plants and animals is perhaps
theologically acceptable. While that may confuse many Catholics, it is
encouraging that the church has proclaimed that scientific progress is
nothing to fear.
At the same time, it proclaims a balance -- that science cannot ignore
Galileo, loyal Catholic and dedicated scientist, might have approved.
An Economic Wrinkle
- From Andrew Apel,
Colleagues, At times, I attempt to predict what the future will bring, and
this is one of them. I'd like to know what you think. First, some
1. The European GM food scare did not begin in earnest until supermarkets
used GM content to distinguish own-label products from other products on
the shelves. Consumer advertising did the rest. I've been saying this for
years, and only recently been vindicated by a study by Nick
Kalaitzandonakes of the University of Missouri and Jos Bijman at
Wageningen University in the Netherlands. They say that European rejection
of GM foods began not with consumers, but with food retailers and
manufacturers. Reporting their work in the journal Nature Biotechnology,
they say that voluntary bans on GM ingredients, and then on products from
animals reared on animal feed, were initiated by a few key food retailers
attempting to strategically position their private label brands in the
2. The failure of the GM tomato sauce in the UK (Sainsbury's own-label,
interestingly) had nothing to do with consumer antipathy, since it
predated the GM scare, and has entirely to do with the fact that
authorities repeatedly denied applications for cultivating the GM
tomatoes, making the product impossible to produce. From this we can
conclude that bureaucratic antipathy also predated consumer antipathy.
All that out of the way, UK retailers have a two-tier marketing system:
they have own-branded products and other-branded products. Own-label
products represented almost 20 per cent - worth £10.2bn - of total UK food
sales in 2000. See
The distinctive feature of the industrialisation of the food chain in the
UK is that it is retailer-driven. There is probably no other country in
the world in which retailers exert more influence on the food supply
chain. This phenomenon manifests itself in the predominance of retail
brands, retailer initiatives in new product development, and
retailer-initiated vertical and horizontal alliances. See
While own brands account for less than 30 per cent of total packaged
grocery sales, their share of the supermarket sector is much higher. In
the UK, retail brands are quality brands, rather than the no-name' generic
brands found in Australia and the USA. Brands offer security to the buyer.
In the UK, this security is increasingly provided by retailers rather than
manufacturers. See Ibid.
From what I can tell from this, it means that strict labeling and
traceability will not directly affect own-branded products, which have
long been touting their non-GM status as a selling point and a means of
comparison to other-branded products.
Indirectly, though, this will probably have the effect of getting shoppers
to dodge the other-branded GM-labeled products and opt for the own-branded
non-GM products, and to pay a premium for that.
For now, other-branded products could compete on price against own-branded
products, since the former did not have self-imposed labeling and
traceability costs as high as the latter. With the new European labeling
and traceability requirements, the costs of labeling and traceability will
fall on everyone, own-brand and other-brand alike. There seem to be
several possible scenarios:
1. Other-branded products go non-GMO, thereby eroding the notion that
own-branded products are superior, thereby eroding the profitability of
2. Other-branded products go pro-GMO, and save on labeling and
traceability costs by claiming every GMO it's legal to grow is in there
somewhere and having the paper to prove it. (That's how Brazilian
exporters do it--they label everything GMO to save hassles later.)
2a. Other-branded products going pro-GMO become known as "poor-people
food" and their market image suffers.
2b. Other-branded products going pro-GMO become known as cheap and
wholesome, eroding the value of own-branded products.
3. US food processors/packagers take advantage of 2b, since they're
further down the supply chain and use cheap ingredients. They find that
the European labeling/traceability law makes other-branded UK
producers/marketers the ideal middlemen for various US products, leading
to a wave of alliances and buyouts which fatally challenge premiums
charged in UK supermarkets for own-branded products.
4. The accelerations of alliances and buyouts, coupled with a consumer
backlash against expensive domestic food and delight over imports of
wholesome US food, destroys European agriculture and the CAP is reduced to
paying farmers to maintain their farms as public parks.
5. Faced with the growing loss of food security, and seeing it as a
strategic threat, the EU mandates GM crops wherever feasible, with the
intention of competing against US imports. Miles of former parklands are
put to the plow. The United States, with the backing of its food and
agriculture industry, complains about the rape of Europe's environment and
blocks imports of GM foods not approved in the US.
OK, 4 and 5 might be a bit fanciful... but, do you have any thoughts?
What Turn Around by Pope?
- Roger Morton
A lot of writers in the popular press seem to think that the recent
announcements from the Catholic church signal a turnaround on attitude to
GM crops. They quote from a speech given 12 November 2000 by Pope John
Paul II a celebrations the for Jubilee Of The Agricultural World urging
farmers to "resist the temptation of high productivity and profit that
work to the detriment of the respect of nature." .
What no one apparently remembers that the *day before* the Pope said
"Follow in the footsteps of your best tradition, opening yourselves to
**all the developments of the technological era**, but jealously
safeguarding the perennial values that characterize you. This is also the
way to give a hope-filled future to the world of agriculture."
Is it possible that the Pope was encouraging the use of GM crops one day
and criticizing them the next? Or was the Popes second speech
I believe the first quote refers to farmers who "rape" the land - it is
not a specific condemnation of GM crops. The text of both speeches can be
The fact is that the Catholic church has had a position on GM crops for a
long time. The following is quoted in a St. Louis Review article by John
Thavis October 22, 1999:
Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of
pontifical academy said: "We are increasingly encouraged that the
advantages of genetic engineering of plants and animals are greater than
the risks. The risks should be carefully followed through openness,
analysis and controls, but without a sense of alarm" "We give it a
prudent 'yes,'" he said. "We cannot agree with the position of some groups
that say it is against the will of God to meddle with the genetic make-up
of plants and animals."
Given this I don't think the noises coming from the Vatican at the moment
signal any change in attitude at all.
Comment Sought: Land Grant Universities and Biotechnology
- Sent by Tom Hoban
A committee of university scientists has been evaluating the roles and
responsibilities of the Land Grant University (LGU) system in the area of
biotechnology research and communication. The main activity has been an
Internet-based survey of administrators and faculty from every state. A
total of 1802 completed surveys were received.
We want to know what stakeholders think about the most appropriate roles
and responsibilities for the universities. Anyone with an interest in
biotechnology is invited to provide comments on the implications of these
survey results. Please share your ideas and insights with our committee by
clicking the link below.
Results provide insights into the challenges and opportunities
universities face in this complex and controversial area. Key findings
- LGU faculty believe that the main role of the LGU system should be to
assess the risks of agricultural biotechnology and provide information to
public policy makers.
- A majority see shrinking government funding as an obstacle to LGUs
addressing the challenges and opportunities of biotechnology. There is a
general consensus that funding shortfalls could be overcome by increased
corporate sponsorship of LGU research programs, but that this could result
in research being tailored too much to the needs of industry.
- Environmental protection, including reduced reliance on agricultural
chemicals and promoting sustainability, were viewed as the most important
benefits of agricultural biotechnology. Biotechnology companies are seen
as benefiting the most from biotechnology, while LGU‚s are viewed as least
likely to benefit.
- Increased corporate control over agriculture is the greatest concern
among the respondents related to agricultural biotechnology. The top
concern about the LGU system is that it is not perceived as neutral on
Europe 'Reaches' for Disaster
- Henry Miller, Wall Street Journal Europe, August 26, 2003
European regulatory officials have raised hostility to technological
innovation to an art form. Their current medium of choice is the
precautionary principle, which holds that as long as the evidence about
the safety of a product, technology or activity is in any way incomplete,
it should be prohibited or, at the least, heavily regulated.
Supposedly a variation on the motherly admonition of "better safe than
sorry," the "principle" is not really one at all, but is only a fig leaf
for questionable decision-making whose basis may be ideological or
protectionist (or both).
For example, responding to pressure from radical environmental groups that
campaign relentlessly against the use of chemicals, the European Union has
proposed a program called Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of
Chemicals (Reach). Reach is far-reaching.
Its registration requirement compels manufacturers and importers to submit
information to a central database on hazard, exposure, and risk on 30,000
new and existing substances that are produced or imported in yearly
quantities exceeding one metric ton. Evaluation requires regulators to
assess risks for 5,000 substances that are produced or imported in yearly
quantities exceeding 100 tons, and also for substances in lower quantities
if they are "of concern." The newly established European Chemicals Agency
will then determine whether further testing is needed. Authorization,
meanwhile, applies to substances of "very high concern," for which
specific permission would be required for certain uses. An estimated
1,400, or 5%, of registered substances will be subject to authorization.
Reach would also require extensive and hugely expensive toxicity testing,
not only of potentially nasty chemicals, but also of many that are
innocuous. Many of the tens of thousands of targeted chemicals have been
used routinely by both industry and consumers for decades, without any
obvious harm. Reach is also applicable not only to the 30,000 specifically
referenced chemicals, but also to the "downstream" products that contain
these chemicals. It requires downstream users to carry out additional
testing if the exposure or use of the product exceeds that foreseen by the
Because chemical products are ubiquitous in automobiles, aircraft, home
construction and furnishings, and workplaces, Reach reaches deeply and
intrusively into the life of every European. Testing chemicals for which
there is evidence or suspicion of toxicity is sensible, but testing all
chemicals -- including those for which there is no evidence of any harm
even at high exposures -- only diverts attention and resources from more
dangerous compounds. Instead of focusing on the development of new,
innovative products, corporate scientists will be preoccupied with
gratuitous testing of chemicals known to be safe in normal use.
As is inevitably the case with such one-size-fits-all regulation, the
expense will be monumental: The European Commission itself has estimated
that the direct and indirect costs of the new system will be €18 to €32
billion, and one independent assessment predicts that the regulation could
reduce the EU's GDP by as much as three percentage points over the next
The language of the Reach proposal suggests that any adverse impact from a
chemical substance, including alleged harm from a substance contained in a
finished good or article, is sufficient to subject the manufacturer,
importer and/or downstream user to liability. Placing the burden of proof
on those who manufacture or use chemicals, instead of on those who claim
to be injured, will have ominous implications for liability suits.
The imposition of such unreasonable requirements has ominous consequences
for outside companies that wish to export to the European market. Worse
still, the EU is attempting to secure acceptance of the precautionary
principle in international agreements and treaties.
In the interest of economic growth, we need global regulatory policies
that make scientific sense and that encourage innovative research and
development. But by promoting the precautionary principle, and by
exporting their own version of unscientific and inconsistent regulation,
EU politicians are performing a disservice. The only winners will be the
European apparatchiks who will enjoy additional power, and the
anti-science activists who will have succeeded in erecting yet more
barriers to the use of superior technologies and useful products.
-- Dr. Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive
Pew Initiative Releases Updated Fact Sheet - "GM CROPS IN THE U.S."
- Pew AgBiotech, August 26, 2003
Genetically modified (GM) crops have generated considerable interest in
the United States and around the world since their commercial introduction
in 1996. To help clarify the extent to which GM crops have been adopted in
the United States, the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology has
updated its fact sheet on domestic use of GM crops to include the most
recent statistics available on 2003 activity.
The fact sheet, titled "GM Crops in the United States" was originally
published in October 2001. The version released today includes facts and
figures on GM crop use in the U.S., shows which GM crops U.S. farmers grow
and the states where the most GM crops are planted.
- GM crops are planted on more than 145 million acres worldwide. - U.S.
Farmers are the largest producers of GM food crops, accounting for over
two-thirds of all biotechnology crops planted globally (96.3 million
acres). - In 2003, 81% of U.S. soybeans were genetically engineered,
covering 59.7 million acres. GM corn accounted for 40% of all corn grown
in the U.S, covering 31.6 million acres. GM cotton accounted 73% of all
cotton planted in the U.S., covering 10.2 million acres.
- According to USDA data, farmers in every state in the continental U.S.
planted some GM corn in 2001. - South Dakota was the top adopter of GM
corn and soybeans in 2003, with 75% of the corn and 91% of the soybeans
planted being GM varieties. - Arkansas is the top adopter of GM cotton in
2003, with 95% of the acres planted being GM varieties.
- Outside the U.S., other major producers of GM crops include: Argentina
(33.3 million acres), Canada (8.6 million acres) and China (5.2 million
acres). Between 5.5 and 6 million farmers worldwide planted GM crops in
2002, an increase by over 2 million from 2000.
The full issue brief is available at
Biotechnology: The Case for Sustainability
- John Elkington, Open Democracy, August 20, 2003
Many environmentalists see biotechnology solely in terms of threat and
danger. This is short-sighted, says John Elkington of SustainAbility. The
challenges of the 21st century-- climate change, poverty, disease,
demography--make biotechnology a potentially valuable tool. The question
is: can it be used in ways that sustain democracy and public trust?
Yes, to show my cards from the outset, I believe there is a
'sustainability case' for many forms of biotechnology. But not all, and
not in all circumstances. Used wisely, genetic modification technology
could play a part in the development of a truly sustainable world, with
environmental and social benefits as well as economic ones. But before I
explain why, perhaps I should declare an interest – and explain where I’m
I first worked on biotechnology for the UK Department of the Environment
in 1980. The department’s strategic planners wanted to know what the
environmental impacts of these new technologies might be. Later, for
fifteen years from 1983, I edited Biotechnology Bulletin, enabling me to
visit over a hundred biotech companies worldwide. I wrote a book (The Gene
Factory: Inside the Biotechnology Business, Century Publishing, 1985) and
several reports, including Double Dividends: US Biotechnology and Third
World Development (World Resources Institute, 1986).
Since we founded the business strategy and sustainable development
consultancy SustainAbility in 1987, we have also worked for a number of
companies that use modern biotechnology and genetic engineering. Our
longest-standing relationship is with Denmark’s Novo Nordisk, but other
companies that we work – or have worked – with in this area include
Aventis, Cargill Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis and Unilever.
Because of the sensitivity of the issues, we developed a policy statement
specifically on biotechnology in 1998 and posted it on our website. Our
values had been severely tested late in 1997 when working with Monsanto, a
relationship we unilaterally and publicly resigned early in 1998 (as
described in our book The Chrysalis Economy).
We don’t like resigning from relationships with our clients, but the issue
was fundamental: we had concluded that the way Monsanto planned to handle
biotechnology in Europe, particularly genetically modified foods, was
doomed to failure. Worse, it threatened to undermine public confidence in
other types of biotechnology. And so it proved. But none of that has
shaken our belief that biotechnology will play a central role in the
achievement of more sustainable forms of development.
Three scenarios, three conditions
We do see three possible scenarios for the future of genetic modification
(GM), however. We label them Nuclear, Antibiotic and Microchip. In the
first scenario, GM technologies are seen as having great promise early on,
but then being progressively restricted as major issues arise. In the
second, the usefulness of the technologies ensures wide use, but
resistance and other negative effects drive growing controls. The third
scenario is the one in most GM scientists' minds, in which modified genes
become as ubiquitous in the modern world as microprocessors and chips.
Our interest in the longer-term potential of such technologies should be
seen in the context of likely demographic trends and of the UN Millennium
Development Goals. The UN’s goals range from reducing extreme poverty to
halting the spread of HIV/Aids. No one should expect technology to solve
all our fundamental socio-economic problems, which often have strong
political roots. But I cannot see how the world will feed, service and
support a population of 9-10 billion people in the latter half of this
century without radically new technologies.
The concern is not simply the old population numbers issue, but the sheer
speed of the innovation processes that will be needed to cope with the
changes that growing human numbers and population densities bring. These
range from Sars-like infections through to the agricultural and health
knock-on effects of climate change.
So does that mean that the protestors were wrong to try to stop Monsanto’s
promotion of GM crops in Europe? Or, as Kisan Mehta and Jyoti Fernandes
have argued in openDemocracy, that farmers in the Indian sub-continent are
wrong to resist attempts to impose solutions on them? No, absolutely not.
Indeed the opposite is true. The implications of these technologies are so
great that they need vigorous, open debate over many years, even decades.
The issue of who controls not only the technology but (in the case of GM
crops) agriculture itself is central to the debate. If these technologies
were being introduced by government-owned agencies, many have argued,
there would be less concern. But control is only one of the issues that
will need to be addressed head on.
Issues of traceability and consumer choice are going to be absolutely
fundamental to the development and introduction of more sustainable
technologies. And, whatever they may have argued, Monsanto and its US
government backers were clearly trying to deny European consumers choice
by resisting GM crop segregation and the labelling of foods based on GM
History suggests that any new technology will have a range of positive and
negative impacts – economic, social and environmental. Modern
biotechnology will follow the same pattern. If we are to introduce such
technologies successfully in our increasingly complex world, we must
ensure at least three basic conditions are met: (1) high levels of
transparency and accountability; (2) small-scale piloting before
large-scale introduction; and (3) a rapid response capacity to pull
potentially problematic technologies or products off the market if and
when significant problems begin to appear, even in the teeth of resistance
from those pushing the technology.
Red, white, green - or black?
Ultimately, public confidence will be a make-or-break factor in innovating
our way towards sustainability. And, as history also shows, public
confidence is both hard to build and easy to erode. One necessary early
step will be to help citizens understand what is involved – and what the
implications of different technologies might be. The use of citizens’
juries and similar processes can be useful in this respect, but only if
citizens are genuinely allowed to make up their own minds on what should
In thinking about how to introduce novel biotechnologies, I find it
helpful to consider the labels used by EuropaBio (the European Association
for Bioindustries). It uses different colours to distinguish different
application areas. So, for example, red biotechnology covers indicate such
human health care applications as diagnostics, vaccines, medicines and,
over the longer term, gene therapy; white biotechnology involves the use
of living cells like bacteria, moulds and yeasts to produce antibiotics,
vitamins and enzymes; and green biotechnology can boost the production of
renewable materials and fuels -- and cut environmental impacts.
All these forms of biotechnology, and others, will need to be developed in
close consultation with a wide range of stakeholders if they are to be
socially sustainable. Green biotechnology, for example sounds attractive,
until you recall that GM crops raise a whole raft of control, intellectual
property rights, resistance and cross-contamination issues. And this can
be just as true for applications developed with social or environmental
goals in mind.
Such issues will need to be handled with particular sensitivity in the
developing world, although past experience and the likely socio-economic
impacts of these technologies suggest that we will see a continuing
succession of major controversies in such countries.
But so great is the pace of change, and so focused will the bioindustry be
on getting products with real benefits to consumers that my hunch is that
by 2020 many different forms of genetic modification will be widely
accepted by the public that would currently seem almost unimaginable.
For this to happen Europe will need to build democratically accountable
political institutions and regulatory agencies that help rebuild public
trust. The scale of the challenge is enormous, particularly given the
growing ‘spoiling’ power of the media. In this context, another necessary
condition for sustainable innovation in Europe will be better education in
science, technology and sustainable development. Europeans will also need
more timely, credible and useful information on the characteristics of
But no one should use the very real innovation gap between Europe and the
US as an alibi for force-feeding Europeans, or anyone else, with the
products of biotechnology without their prior informed consent. Nor,
despite the early failures of the coalition forces to find weapons of mass
destruction (including germ warfare weapons) in Iraq, should we forget the
very real long-term risks of what we might call aggressive biotechnology
(or perhaps black biotechnology).
Anyone who wants to get a sense of where that might take us should read
The White Plague by the late Frank Herbert. When he wrote the book, over
twenty years ago, he did the costings for a lab in which genetic weapons
could be developed to kill off the world’s women. When I talked to him
soon afterwards he had reassessed the costings, because the first major
recession to hit the biotech industry had left mountains of sophisticated
equipment available at virtually bargain basement prices.
Bio-innovation for all?
In the face of this particular aspect of biotechnology’s potential, you
might expect me to side with those who want to stuff the gene genie back
into the bottle. Not so: even if we wanted to renounce GM technology now,
we couldn’t. Indeed, I support further bio-innovation in line with the
principles of sustainability and the three conditions outlined above.
But there is also something about the thinking of Richard Jefferson which
I find deeply thought-provoking. He argues that biotechnology suffers
because it is often pursued by giant corporations shifting from industrial
chemistry to industrial biology, Monsanto among them. By contrast, he
insists that we should radically democratise bio-innovation, to ensure
both equity and food security. The idea of farmers setting up their own
bio-labs, might raise hairs on many necks (how would we feel about North
Korean GM farm labs?), but don’t dismiss Jefferson out of hand. By
definition, managing radical challenges requires radical thinking.
In many ways, what people like Richard Jefferson have in mind is very much
akin to what happened with computers. To begin with, they were the
preserve of very large producers and very large users. Then with the
invention of the personal computer they escaped from their air-conditioned
habitats out into the real world, mutating that world as they went. The
early internet, in turn, was cross-fertilised with these new technologies
to put amazing tools in the hands of ordinary citizens.
In the US, similarly, there are those who see the same thing happening
with technologies like fuel cells, on the road to the much-vaunted
‘hydrogen economy’, and with space travel, with super-wealthy people like
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos intent on prizing space travel out of the bureaucratic
claws of Nasa.
However much we may feel that the GM-in-everyman’s-hands future is a
profoundly uncomfortable vision of the future, history suggests this is
the way things will go. So do we wait for the future to run us off the
road, or do we try to jump aboard and grab the steering wheel?
Genetically Modified Food Is Not Harmful
- IOL (South Africa), August 22, 2003 http://www.iol.co.za/
Alpbach - Genetically modified crops pose no danger to humans, British
Nobel prize winner Timothy Hunt said at a European technology forum taking
place in Austria.
In an interview with the forum newspaper Alpbach News, on the sidelines of
the current European Forum technology talks in Austria's Tyrol Province,
molecular biologist Hunt said contrary to the perception that gene
technology was putting impurities into nature, each bite of food already
contains manipulated DNA.
It didn't matter whether DNA was transferred from one plant to another by
a human being or whether this was done by an insect. Hunt said the reason
for popular scepticism was a "philosophical problem" as humans tend to
exclude themselves from nature.
He himself could not understand this attitude, and was concerned that
humanity had become too arrogant.
"If gene manipulated organisms can grow better in the developing
countries, we should not deny the population there these advantages merely
because we do not agree with gene research."
Hunt's remarks echoed those of United States President George Bush, who
accused the Europeans of an "unscientific" and "immoral" attitude in their
restrictive stance on gene technology was endangering the fight against
hunger in Africa.
Timothy Hunt was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology
for his research into the cell cycles of sea urchins. Also taking part in
the Alpbach discussions are Nobel laurates Klaus von Klitzing (Physics,
1995), Jean-Marie Lehn (Chemistry, 1987), and Jack Steinberger (Physics,
1988). - Sapa-DPA
Mothers Against All
- Dominion Post (NZ), August 25, 2003, (Via NZ Lifesciences Network and
In the United States, mothers form themselves into groups to pursue worthy
causes, Bob Brockie writes in the Dominion Post on Monday, 25 August.
There are, for example, Mothers Against Guns, Mothers Against Drunk
Driving, Dyslexia, Murder and Assault, Domestic Duress, Myalgic
Encephalomyelitis, Airport Pollution, Pornography, Videogame Addiction,
and Mothers Against Fathers in Arrears.
But many US mothers gather under dubious banners such as Mothers Against
Circumcision, Siblings Fighting in Cars, Against Apricots, Against Dumb
Drunk Dawgs, Star War Games, Truck Driving, Mothers Against Peeing
Standing Up, Against Feminists and, in Texas, Mothers Against Boomerangs.
In Auckland recently, a waitress handed me a newsletter from New Zealand's
own Mothers Against Genetic Engineering (MAdGE), inviting me to join the
resistance network or donate some money. I read the newsletter and found
it full of scientific errors, unsubstantiated claims and blatant
fear-mongering, so was not inclined to give them any money.
All MAdGE's claims are questionable and its fears groundless. MAdGE is
afraid that genetic engineering is in its infancy, that GE foods may have
unknown health effects, that it might affect our immune system and promote
horizontal gene flow between GE plants and microbes. They are also
frightened that using antibiotics in the GE process could provoke
resistance to antibiotics in people and animals. They approvingly quote
several scientists who have spoken out against GE.
They have little to fear. Genetic engineering is not in its infancy. It
has been around since 1973. Thirty years is a long time in science so that
GE methods and understanding have improved dramatically from year to year
ever since. GE has become standard practice in many areas of biological
research. MAdGE seem to have lost the point of a huge trial where more
than 200 million Americans have been fed genetically modified products.
Have any of MAdGE's fears come true? Not a bit of it.
Last month, 25 leading British university, government and biotech
scientists, produced the UK Government GM Science Review. After examining
600 laboratory and field studies around the world, including the big
American trial, they concluded that ? introducing GE foods had no known
health effects, that to date worldwide there have been no verifiable
untoward toxic or nutritionally deleterious effects resulting from the
cultivation or consumption of GM crops.? The British experts could find no
evidence of 'horizontal gene flow between GE plants and bacteria and
viruses'. And MAdGE's fear of resistance to antibiotics is misplaced as GE
researchers don't use the antibiotics prescribed by doctors. They use
other non-medical antibiotics.
MAdGE took AgResearch and the Environmental Risk Management Authority to
court recently claiming these organizations should not have allowed
scientists to put human genes into cows. Defence lawyers argued that
MAdGE's claims were unqualified opinion, inadmissible, argumentative,
invidious or irrelevant. Justice France must have agreed for MAdGE lost
If MAdGE hopes to win cases in the future, it must get to know something
about standard chemistry, genetics, population ecology, epidemiology,
molecular biology and statistics, and learn to distinguish between
middle-of-the-road scientists and scientific heretics.
It's Just Politics in a Lab Coat
- Alice Farrands, Times Higher Education Supplement (London), August 22,
'While scientists command public respect, they are not necessarily
impartial, argues Alice Farrands'
From BSE to GM by way of MMR, "crises" around scientific issues have been
a regular fixture on the political landscape over the past few years.
Despite this, there remains a sense of surprise, even wrongdoing, when it
emerges that scientists have their own political interests.
Implicit in this is the notion that scientists are impartial
practitioners, misrepresented by journalists and politicians engaged in a
Machiavellian process of back-stabbing and self-promotion. Yet the neat
dichotomy that separates politics from science is a fallacy.
As the events surrounding the death of government weapons adviser David
Kelly illustrate, expert scientific advisers provide journalists and
politicians with authoritative information that lends instant credibility
to policy proposals or stories.
Polls reveal scientists to be one of the few remaining professional groups
that still commands a vestige of public respect. But their ostensibly
technical advice is inflected by their own world view and vested
interests, no matter how magnanimous or utilitarian these may be.
Much of the government's rationale for declaring war on Iraq depended on
technical expert advice. Did Saddam Hussein have weapons that posed a
threat? What were the technical specifications of those weapons? How real
was this threat? It was this dependence on scientific evidence that made
Dr Kelly's views, expressed in contradiction of the government line, so
significant. It has been noted in the media and the Hutton inquiry that Dr
Kelly was cleared to provide technical advice, not political comment. But
there is no acknowledgement of the substantial overlap.
A response to a question about Iraq's weapons capability cannot be
anything but political, even if couched in technical jargon. Richard
Hatfield, the Ministry of Defence's head of personnel, described Dr Kelly
as "extraordinarily naive" in his dealings with the media. But it is the
MoD, and the government as a whole, that naively assumes there to be a
realistic distinction between the scientific and the political.
Politicians have come under fire for failing to grasp the technical
details of expert advice, but, while they may not be political neophytes,
scientific advisers have also illustrated an alarming failure to grasp the
political import of their own advice.
To suggest that science-related political crises could have been averted
if only political actors had understood the scientific issues in depth is
one approach. But such crises might also have been avoided had scientific
advisers understood the political implications of their advice.
Since we don't expect politicians to be fully alive to the intricacies of
molecular biology, we shouldn't expect scientists to be fully aware of the
ever-shifting nuances of professional politics.
What is needed is not a PhD in physics for all potential politicians, or
diplomas in political theory for expert advisers, but a sea change in a
culture that extols the neutrality of science, then exploits it for
political gain. Scientific advice should be treated with the same
scepticism that greets much policy advice because when it comes to
policy-making, science is politics by other means.
--- Alice Farrands is a PhD research student in the science and technology
studies department at University College London.
Nothing to Fear But . . . Things You're Not Fearing Now
Americans often misperceive reality of risks, study says
- Marilynn Marchione, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Aug. 25, 2003
'After researching how many people get sick or die from various hazards,
researchers conclude that people worry too much about: Pesticides, Water
pollution, Mammograms; . . And not enough about: Alcohol use, Air
pollution, Solar radiation, Medical mistakes'
We're afraid of pollution in our air, chemicals in our water, germs in our
food, new viruses and diseases, and dangers that might be lurking in power
lines, cell phones and other trappings of modern life.
We don't want to get sick or die. We really, really don't want to get
cancer. And all these fears shape the decisions we make about our health.
Whether it's taking vitamins or taking drugs, drinking bottled water or
bottles of soda, our choices all come down to avoiding or taking risks.
But our perceptions of risk don't always match reality. Emotions,
attitudes and beliefs distort our views like mirrors in a fun house,
causing us to fear some things too much and others too little.
Like taking an herbal supplement in the belief that "natural" things can't
hurt, when in reality it may interfere with drugs we take for high blood
pressure or even cancer treatment. Or eating gooey desserts and slacking
off on exercise because we're taking statin pills to keep cholesterol
David Ropeik has studied the risk-taking aspect of human nature. Here are
some things he thinks we should be afraid of: Driving or riding in a car.
Smoking. Eating too much and exercising too little. These things truly can
kill you, says Ropeik, a longtime environmental reporter who now runs the
Center for Risk Analysis at Harvard University.
He and Harvard toxicologist George Gray have written a book - "Risk: A
Practical Guide for What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the
World Around You" - and say their aim is putting risks in perspective,
from SARS to sex, asbestos to alcohol, ozone to obesity. "How we perceive
and respond to risk is, at its core, about nothing less than survival,"
The pair examine 50 risks that cause the most worry, including biological
weapons, genetically modified food and pesticides. Although the Harvard
center gets some of its funding from industry, they had each chapter
reviewed for accuracy by groups ranging from the American Cancer Society
to the Food and Drug Administration and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
After researching how many people get sick or die from various hazards,
the authors conclude that people worry too much about pesticides, water
pollution and mammograms and not enough about alcohol use, air pollution,
solar radiation and medical mistakes.
People tend to downplay risks that give benefits or enjoyment, such as
minimizing the risk of earthquakes because you like living in California,
minimizing the risk of sun tanning because you like the skin glow, or
minimizing the risk of not wearing a motorcycle helmet because you like
the feeling of freedom and wind in your hair. "We get benefit from eating
the French fries or ice cream, so we downplay those risks in our minds,"
Because we fear nuclear power and chemicals, we're unlikely to feel warm
and fuzzy when we turn on a light, or thankful for insect repellent
because we didn't get a mosquito-borne disease, he said.
Doctors and psychologists deal with risk misperceptions and
rationalizations every day. "We have the tools to not only identify risk
but also to intervene and change risk," such as prescribing statin drugs
that lower cholesterol, said Milwaukee cardiologist David Slosky.
"It's good that we have drugs that will do that, however some people see
that as an excuse not to change their lifestyle," Slosky said. "If they
do, they may change one factor and not another. They'll come in and say
'I've lost weight,' and I'll say 'But you're still smoking cigarettes.'
You certainly reward people for that type of effort, but the fact they
still continue with lifestyle issues that are destructive becomes
difficult to deal with."
An example is a 39-year-old patient who had a heart attack two weeks ago
and still smokes and doesn't exercise. Angioplasty and a stent unblocked
his artery, and "he thinks we've fixed it," Slosky said. But chronic
diseases aren't "fixed" the way a fractured hand is, and the man's
problems will reappear unless he makes permanent lifestyle changes, Slosky
Minimizing risks from smoking or other chosen behaviors is a form of
psychological protection, said Robin Douthitt, dean of the School of Human
Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "If you really accepted
and understood the risk of smoking, you would have so much cognitive
dissonance that you couldn't smoke. It would cause so much cognitive
anxiety," she said.
Douthitt, who has done federally sponsored research on fear of
biotechnology as it relates to food, also said: "People prefer to choose
risk, and they don't like to have risk foisted upon them." She gives
classes this illustration: Suppose I locked you in a room with five chain
smokers and wouldn't let you leave. You'd all scream about the dangers of
secondhand smoke to your health and call your lawyers, she suggests.
"Many of the same people, Friday evening, will go to a bar and spend hours
in a closed space that will have at least that much smoke. The risk
they're being exposed to is the exact same risk, but how they choose to
perceive that risk is different," she said.
Colleen Moore, a UW-Madison psychology professor, thinks that cancer fear
is particularly powerful. "It's dread, uncontrollable, it's not that well
understood, so it tweaks a lot of those things" that cause fear, she said.
"I think cancer is overemphasized in the regulation to the expense of
other effects, such as children's intellectual development," said Moore,
who recently published a book on the psychological effects of pollution on
Tod Poremski, an obstetrician and gynecologist at St. Joseph Regional
Medical Center, agrees that cancer sometimes is feared too much,
especially among young women. "Most patients would perceive that a greater
danger to them would be breast cancer than cardiovascular disease when in
fact the opposite is true," he said.
UW's Douthitt has seen that before, and has devoted much study "into
understanding why, when our best science says something is safe, people
don't believe it."
When state officials were considering legislation in the 1990s on how to
label dairy products involving bovine growth hormone, she surveyed state
residents' attitudes by phone. One question stated the FDA had found BGH
to be safe and then asked whether people were concerned about its
long-term safety. The responses revealed "just phenomenal concern," she
Larry Norton, a prominent cancer expert from Memorial Sloan-Kettering
Cancer Center in New York, thinks a mistrust of science is rooted in lack
of knowledge. "I think we teach science very badly in this country.
Americans know enormous amounts about business, politics, sports. They
know very little about science," he said. "When I talk to a lay group, I
still have to explain what DNA is. And I shouldn't have to at this point."