Today in AgBioView: August 28, 2003:
* GM Plants to Fight Allergies
* Re: Europe 'Reaches' for Disaster
* Europe's GM Rules Just Trade Barriers in Drag
* Rich Pickings: A New Research Centre in Uganda will Study the Banana
* World hunger: Recipe for Reform
* Genetically Engineered Trees Quietly Sprouting
* Superbug to the Rescue!
* Farm Level Impact of Using Roundup Ready Soybeans in Romania
* Biotechnology Not a "Top of Mind" Concern for Most Grocery Shoppers
* Building a Better Bean
* I'm an Organic Farmer - Get Me Out of Here!
* Consumers Don't Want GM, So Why Use It?
* Time to Celebrate Man's Mind
* Need to Democratise Global Priorities for Science
* Warning: Lack of Common Sense Could Kill You
GM Plants to Fight Allergies
- Sydney Morning Herald, August 28, 2003
Genetically modified plants could be eaten in future as a way of
preventing allergic diseases. Australian researchers have demonstrated the
approach works in animals, with mice fed a GM plant protected against
Simon Hogan, of the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the
Australian National University, said the plant had been engineered to
contain an asthma allergen and its consumption appeared to work in a
similar way to immunotherapy, where people were injected with low doses of
allergens to build up a tolerance.
A lot more research on the safety of GM plants was needed before the
approach would be considered for use by people. But he predicted it could
be popular. "If a person can take something orally as opposed to an
injection there would be patients who would go that way," he said.
In collaboration with the CSIRO, the team engineered lupin plants so they
produced an allergen from sunflower seeds. The GM plants were fed to
specially bred mice. The mice were then exposed to large amounts of the
sunflower seed allergen in the air. Those that had eaten normal lupins
developed asthma, while those on the GM diet remained healthy. Dr Hogan
said even though the allergen was eaten, the immune response it evoked in
the gut was able to also act in the lungs to stop an inflammatory response
to airborne allergen.
GM plants have previously been developed as vaccines to immunise against
bacteria and viruses. "But this is the first demonstration of a GM plant
being able to protect against allergic diseases," Dr Hogan said. The
finding, published in the Journal of Immunology, also had the potential to
apply to food allergies, he said.
Re: Europe 'Reaches' for Disaster
- Andrew Apel
I would like to add a bit of evidence supporting what Henry Miller says in
"Europe 'Reaches' for Disaster" (AgBioView, Aug. 26, 2003), but the
evidence needs some interpretation.
At various conferences I have encountered European regulatory officials
who say they "always apply" the "precautionary principle" in their
regulatory decisions, but sternly deny that this principle is a knee-jerk
refusal of progress.
Without fail, these Europeans fail to render a definition of the
"precautionary principle" that is willing to accomodate technological
progress. While these experiences are anecdotal, they strongly suggest,
along with other evidence, that Europeans have a retrograde notion of
technological progress. They believe that scientists and legislators
should devise ways to reduce the use of technology wherever possible. In
this way, they allow themselves to imagine that use of the "precautionary
principle" represents progress. So they actually can't see that it
Resistance to progress has recently killed thousands all across Europe,
with the recent heat wave. Interestingly, the mean temperature in Paris
closely matches temperatures in Detroit and Chicago, yet the US is not
experiencing a heat-related death toll. Why? Because anti-technology
Europe has made electricity so expensive that few have air-conditioning
In Africa, as in France, the precautionary principle kills. And Europe has
threatened to shut down imports from Pakistan if it doesn't label products
with GM ingredients. Never mind that the country doesn't have the ability
to test its exports to Europe. Well, according to the precautionary
principle, it's OK for Europe to shut down Pakistan's ag export market.
That would kill, too, literally.
Should those who kill so casually be welcomed among other nations? Or
those who threaten Pakistan's economy, on which so many farmers and others
depend? Europe needs to be re-evaluated, and not just on the basis of its
regulations. Does Europe have a conscience?
Europe's GM Rules Just Trade Barriers in Drag
- Francis Wevers, Life Sciences Network - NZ,
Once again we've been immersed in the sort of scandal which can only flare
in the rarefied atmosphere generated by ignorance of GM. The presence of
miniscule quantities of a tested and safe insecticidal protein in
sweetcorn pizza toppings in Japan has sent our MAF and the anti-GM
community into a frenzy.
It’s of little importance that the quantities discovered are many times
less than the trigger level for labelling of GM content here in New
Zealand, or even in Europe. The detected levels are so minute at 0.05%
they would enable the sweetcorn to be legitimately labelled as GE-Free in
It’s also of little consequence that organic farmers use the same
insecticidal protein in one of their few permitted insecticides because
it’s a "natural product" – and that the spraying dosages they use could
result in much higher levels of detection. If only organic food products
were tested for the Bt11 gene.
And it’s of little relevance, apparently, that what has happened is not
actually "contamination", not in the sense that the end product is somehow
unsafe, but that it is much better described as "unintended presence" -
however, that description doesn’t make good headline copy.
We need to see these events in their global context. Looking at the way
the gene technology issue is playing out it is hard not to come to the
conclusion the conservative forces are gradually winning in their fight to
exclude the GM option in some international markets. This will have
consequences for the pace at which safe gene technologies are adopted and
will delay distribution of benefits to the communities which need them
That’s not to say the conservatives have won the final battle for the
hearts and minds of the public but, looking at it from here, they have had
some significant victories. Take the decision of the EU on labelling and
traceability. On its face it looks as though at last the door will open to
GM crops and food products in Europe. But look a little deeper and the
picture changes. This latest EU sleight of hand is also a licence to allow
some EU countries to impose barriers to GM imports which may be far more
restrictive than the current moratorium, under which all sorts of imports
of GM-derived products have been allowed to meet pragmatic needs (safe
animal feed for instance).
Actually, the labelling's not the problem. The traceability requirement is
the Trojan horse. Auditable verification of the field and seed the product
came from carries such a sting in the tail that Nestlé and Unilever have
both said they will now have to exclude imports of soybean oil from the US
and Argentina because they can’t comply with the rigid requirements. The
EU will start, through its corporate giants, to control world markets in
the soy commodity. Its virtual trade barriers on products derived from GM
soy will drive prices up to consumers in Europe and will put further
pressure on soybean growers around the world. Maybe European consumers can
afford the extra costs of useless regulation but consumers around the rest
of the world sure can’t.
The other benefit from the EU point of view is the political one. Who
needs a moratorium when you’ve imposed standards (allegedly on a
scientific basis) which are impossible for your major trade rival to
comply with? The fact that the regulations seek to protect citizens from
the potential "dangers" of GM, and that the so-called "dangers" have never
been established at a level stronger than assertion, disappears in the
passion of Atlantic trade rivalry.
The European green movement has been a willing, and probably witting,
partner in this market distortion to favour European interests -- after
all, the majority of funding for the green movement comes from European
governments and institutions. The real agenda has never been perceived
problems with gene technology, at least on the part of the bureaucrats and
the legislators. For them the single driving issue has been the desire to
reduce the power of the US as the major economic force on the planet. Gene
technology applications, led by already suspect and arrogant US corporates
and inextricably tied up as they are with issues of capitalism and
globalisation, fell on the plates of the Euro-politicos like a gift from
Call me cynical, but the opportunity to recruit a whole range of activist
environmental groups as the voice of a community "which must be responded
to" was the icing on the cake. The tragedy of it all is that we are likely
to see millions suffer because of the games being played in which the
developing world has little or no real influence.
Rich Pickings: A New Research Centre in Uganda will Study the Banana
- The Economist, August 21, 2003
To Ugandans, "matooke" means both food and banana. This is hardly
surprising, as the average person in Uganda consumes over 350kg (772lb) of
bananas a year, more than anywhere else in the world. So it is fitting
that a new banana research centre--managed by Uganda's National
Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) and largely funded by the
government--opened this week in Kawanda, outside Kampala.
Bananas (including plantains) are staple food crops for millions of people
in poor countries, and the fourth-largest crop in the world by value. So a
better understanding of the humble banana is vitally important. But as 90%
of production takes place on small farms, poor-world growers are not best
positioned to commission the basic research that is urgently needed.
Uganda is, as it is the second-largest producer in the world, growing 11m
tonnes of bananas each year.
The trouble with bananas is that they are clones. In the wild, the banana
is an inedible fruit stuffed with stony seeds. Edible varieties of the
banana probably first arose as random, sterile, mutants containing no
seeds. These varieties would have then been propagated by growing cuttings
from suckers that sprout out from the parent plant.
The problem with growing clones, though, is that they are susceptible to
disease. If a parent plant is infested with a pest of some kind, the
offspring is likely to be too. And because there are so few varieties of
edible banana, there is little genetic diversity from which pest-resistant
versions can be developed. Chemical spraying is not an option either, as
it is prohibitively expensive and not always effective. The result is that
diseases can spread very rapidly in Uganda's bananas, infecting the entire
crop. Outbreaks of pests such as nematodes or weevils can cut crop yields
by 50% or more.
The NARO lab plans to fight such pests in several ways. One is by
equipping a laboratory to produce tissue cultures from samples of the over
100 varieties of edible banana cultivated in Uganda. Since bananas have no
seeds, the only way to obtain a plant free from disease is to grow a
culture of banana tissue in the laboratory. It is tricky to do
successfully. But NARO says that, by providing new, clean varieties of
bananas to farmers, the weight of a bunch could potentially be doubled.
A longer-term aim will be to use the tools of molecular biology to improve
the banana. This research will be aided by the International Network for
the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (yes, really), a group based in
Montpellier, France, that co-ordinates international banana research. If
all goes as planned, this will give Uganda access to rich-country
expertise in genetics. Ultimately, it should allow the country to become
self-sufficient in the science of manipulating bananas using selective
breeding and genetic engineering to create varieties that are
disease-resistant and have higher yields. Selective breeding is possible
only on the rare occasions that two bananas pollinate.
Moving research closer to its point of application will not only speed the
turnaround of useful discoveries but should also increase farmers'
acceptance of innovations. Ugandans will be hoping that the researchers do
not slip up.
World hunger: Recipe for Reform
- The Economist, August 21, 2003
'We grow enough food. So why do so many still go hungry?'
"Ending Hunger in Our Lifetime: Food Security and Globalization By C. Ford
Runge, Benjamin Senauer, Philip G. Pardey and Mark W. Rosegrant; Johns
Hopkins University Press; 304 pages; $55 and £40.50 (hardback), $19.95 and
For all the complaints about modern farming, agriculture is one of the
great success stories of the post-war period: the world produces twice as
much grain as it did in 1960, on only a third more land--enough to provide
2,700 calories a day for every person on the planet.
Yet, more than 800m people are still chronically malnourished, most of
them in the developing world. As "Ending Hunger in Our Lifetime" argues,
to say that hunger is strictly a distribution problem is like saying that
if the rain fell evenly over the earth there would be no droughts; the
origins of, and solutions to, this mismatch between food and hungry mouths
are rather more complex.
Many of the hungry in poor places are farmers themselves. Their failure to
grow--and earn--enough stems from a variety of reasons, from a lack of
access to modern farming tools to environmental constraints to poor roads
which prevent them from reaching markets. The book offers a clear
explanation of the agricultural problems confronting the world's hungry.
But its value lies in putting these physical challenges in a wider social
context, looking at other factors, such as women's education, which affect
household food security.
It also challenges popular misconceptions--for example, that patents on
genes held by multinational companies are hampering farmers in developing
countries; as the book argues, there are few patents on the current
generation of high-tech crops in most desperately poor places. Lack of
market incentives and funding, rather than intellectual property rights,
are the real brakes on research into crops of greatest interest to the
poor. "Ending Hunger in Our Lifetime" also provides a lucid discussion of
the problems, and tremendous promise, of trade liberalisation and offers a
robust critique of why those governments, in rich and poor countries
alike, which aspire to self-sufficiency in food production, or turn to
protectionism, end up hurting everyone, including their own.
The authors offer a number of sensible remedies to such ills, including
different ways of boosting investment in public agricultural research and
possible reforms at multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and
the Food and Agriculture Organisation. One of the book's bolder proposals
(one also advocated by The Economist) is the creation of a Global
Environmental Organisation, to deal with a range of "green" issues, some
of which relate closely to farming, and which are proving particularly
tricky for the World Trade Organisation.
As the authors acknowledge, there is little chance of business-as-usual
halving the number of hungry by 2015, a goal enthusiastically endorsed by
world leaders in 1996. But with the right "pro-poor" policies, the book
predicts that the number of malnourished children in the world could fall
almost threefold, to 57m by 2025; if such steps are neglected, however,
that number could rise to 178m, with Africa bearing the brunt.
Genetically Engineered Trees Quietly Sprouting
- Paul Elias, Associated Press, August 26, 2003
Biotechnology is coming to the forest and orchard. Scientists are
planting genetically engineered trees in dozens of research projects
across the country. They are working to create trees that grow faster,
yield better wood, produce hardier crops, fight pollution, even serve as
sentinels for detecting germ and chemical attacks.
Environmentalists fear dangerous unintended consequences. "It won't be as
widespread as agricultural biotechnology, but it could be much more
destructive," said Jim Diamond of the Sierra Club. "Trees are what's left
of our natural environment and home to endangered species."
The Sierra Club wants a moratorium on the planting of genetic engineered
trees outdoors until the science is better understood. But the plea has
been like a tree falling deep in the forest.
Tree researchers say their critics are missing all the ways that science
can give nature a fighting chance against ravages natural and manmade.
Biotechnology, they say, may provide just what is needed to help reverse
global deforestation and industrial pollution while satisfying increased
demand for wood and paper products. Already, biotechnology has been
credited with saving Hawaii's $14-million-a-year papaya industry. A virus
had wiped out 40 percent of the crop and threatened to destroy the rest
before seeds engineered to resist the virus were introduced in 1998. Now
the industry is thriving again.
About 230 notices of genetically engineered tree experiments have been
filed with the Department of Agriculture since 1989, with about half since
2000. So far, papayas are the only approved engineered tree for market.
The rest are still experimental. Some researchers are infusing trees with
genetic material taken from viruses and bacteria that helps them grow
faster and fatter and yield better wood. Others are splicing
mercury-gobbling bacteria genes into trees, enlisting nature to help clean
Still others are inserting foreign genes that might reduce the amount of
toxic chemicals needed to process trees into paper. Fruit-tree farmers
are looking for hardier trees with less reliance on chemical bug and weed
killers. And the Pentagon even awarded Colorado State researchers
$500,000 this year to develop a pine tree or other plants that can change
colors when exposed to a germ or chemical attack.
Many field trials are backed by paper and timber companies hoping to
design trees that yield more wood and paper. ArborGen LLC, a North
Charleston, South Carolina-based biotechnology company whose backers
include International Paper and MeadWestvaco Corp., said it has 50 field
trials under way. Chief technology officer Maud Hinchee said the company's
work could reduce reliance on national forests by creating faster-growing
trees cultivated on industry plantations.
Poplar, eucalyptus, apple and coffee trees are among those being
engineered. Researchers even hope to revive the cherished American
chestnut, devastated a century ago by a tree-stunting blight that prevents
them from growing higher than shrubs become before succumbing.
All this is being done today because of better understanding of tree
genomes. The Dendrome Project at the University of California at Davis
offers detailed genetic information on 100 trees on its Web site. Except
for the Hawaiian papaya, no genetically modified tree is expected to be
commercialized for the next five to ten years. Trees grow much slower than
crops, and genetic researchers need years to compare generations.
Could biotech trees crossbreed with their natural brethren and ruin
forests' genetic diversity? The Sierra Club fears that, among other
ecological consequences. Researchers hope to placate critics by
engineering sterility into their designer trees, so their effect on the
environment can be contained. But that technology remains elusive.
Forestry researchers are proud of their work but have become cautious
about disclosing where their genetically engineered trees are growing. In
June, three protesters were arrested after chaining themselves inside a
UC-Davis science building to protest tree research. And two years ago, the
Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for arson attacks in Seattle
and Clatskanie, Ore., that caused more than $3.5 million in damage.
Oregon State University researcher Steven Strauss, who tends to a few
thousand engineered trees, said some of the protesters' are virtually
identical to those of scientists. After all, he is working to engineer
poplars that are sterile.
"The violent guys just don't understand the science," he said. "Genetic
engineering is not one thing, it's a thousand things. But the extremes
want to stop it all."
Sierra Club: http://www.sierraclub.org/biotech/trees.asp
Strauss lab: http://www.cgrb.orst.edu/mcb/faculty/strauss/index.html
Superbug to the Rescue!
- Katharine Mieszkowski, Salon.com, August 28, 2003
'Genetically modified plants and microbes that gobble up pollution sound
like a great idea. But who will clean up after the cleaners?'
It's a kind of Superfund superplant, a leafy organism designed
specifically to devour the hazardous waste that industrial machinations
and human carelessness have left in the ground.
The genetically modified mutant plants suck heavy metals, such as lead and
arsenic, out of the soil into their roots, stems and leaves, cleansing the
contaminated soil. It's an intoxicating vision: Imagine fields of these
valiant plants fighting part of the $700 billion battle that the United
States faces in mopping up polluted Superfund sites.
This green-dream promise may have moved a bit closer to reality, according
to research announced by a group of biologists at the University of
California at San Diego. The researchers found that in modifying a mutant
variety of Arabidopsis, a relative of the mustard plant, the plants would
detoxify and suck up several common heavy metals into their stems and
leaves. Four of the top six heavy metals found at Superfund sites -- lead,
arsenic, mercury and cadmium -- are among those the plants can ingest,
reported the researchers in the Aug. 19 issue of the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences.
The lure of bioremediation -- the practice of using organisms to restore
damaged or contaminated areas -- is that toxic cleanup can be done more
safely and for less money than by traditional means.
The UC-San Diego research is still very much taking place in the lab, and
not out on actual toxic-waste sites, but it suggests the kind of hope that
genetically modified organisms might hold for cleaning up the damage that
humans have inflicted on their environment. At the same time it poses a
dilemma for environmentalists, who have been wary of any form of
genetically modified organism that might escape its boundaries and end up
harming surrounding ecosystems.
As scientists get closer to making bioremediation a working reality, a
question that few are asking is becoming more important: Who will clean up
after the cleaners?
The Farm Level Impact of Using Roundup Ready Soybeans in Romania
- Graham Brookes, Brookes West, Canterbury, Kent, UK
This paper examines the farm level impact of use of Roundup Ready soybeans
in Romania. Context of soybeans in Romania. Romania has the third highest
soybean area in Europe (75,000 ha in 2003) behind Italy and
Serbia/Montenegro, and roughly equal to the area in France. Within the
country the main soybean growing regions can be found in the southern
third of the country. Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans have been grown
commercially since 1999. The share of total soybeans planted to RR seed
has increased to 55%-60% (inclusive of farm-saved seed) by 2003.
Full paper at: http://www.bioportfolio.com/pgeconomics
Biotechnology Not a "Top of Mind" Concern for Most Grocery Shoppers
Food experts and opinion surveys say food biotechnology not an issue for
U.S. shoppers. U.S. consumers continue to express little concern about
food developed using biotechnology, according to a panel of food and
agricultural experts at a June 2003 Biotechnology Industry Organization
(BIO) meeting in Washington, D.C.
"Questions about foods produced by biotechnology very rarely, if ever,
reach our department," said Joanie Taylor, consumer affairs director for
Schnucks Markets, a family-owned chain of 100 supermarkets in six
Several recent public opinion surveys confirm that biotechnology is not a
top-of-mind issue for most U.S. consumers. For example, when asked, "What,
if anything, are you concerned about when it comes to food safety?" just 1
percent of consumers mentioned genetically engineered food -- down from 2
percent in August 2002, according to an April 2003 survey by the
International Food Information Council. Taylor was speaking at an
information session sponsored by the Council for Biotechnology Information
(CBI) titled, "From Grower to Grocer: Managing the Global Food Chain to
meet Consumer Demands."
In the few cases when Schnucks has received a question about biotech
foods, Taylor said the contact has typically been a student working on a
school project. "Our customers are far more concerned about food allergens
and how to select foods with specific allergies in mind," Taylor said.
Andy Matykiewicz, who has spent 15 years purchasing and marketing food
products for companies such as McDonald's, Olive Garden and Red Lobster,
said that consumers want foods that taste good, are fresh and offer a good
value. "The challenge is to deliver improvements in taste, quality and
cost that are clearly discernible to consumers."
The next tier of consumer demands are for foods that are wholesome and
nutritious, said Matykiewicz, president of Global Direct Source, Inc. "New
biotech products in the pipeline may help satisfy those demands in the
near future," said Charles Santerre, associate professor in the foods and
nutrition department at Purdue University.
He said biotechnology is being used to reduce the levels of unhealthy
trans-fatty acids in some oils by switching off the genes that produce
those fats that contribute to their production. In addition, crops are
being developed with increased levels of beneficial long-chain omega-3
fatty acids, which typically are found mainly in fish. Also, food
allergens are being reduced or eliminated from foods.
CBI Executive Director Linda Thrane said that although concerns are low,
"consumer knowledge about biotechnology is shallow and vulnerable to
misinformation." As products like the healthier oils reach the market,
consumers will experience firsthand how biotechnology can benefit their
lives, Thrane said.
Overall, consumer attitudes toward biotechnology have grown more positive
over the past three years as they learn more about its safety and
benefits, Thrane said.
Building a Better Bean
Biotechnology helps create long-lasting soybean oil that's better for your
heart. Cakes, cookies, crackers and other processed foods could become a
whole lot healthier once a new biotech soybean now in development reaches
A University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) researcher has successfully
developed a soybean with healthier oil that he believes could help improve
consumer health. "This is something consumers could sink their teeth
into," said Tom Clemente, an associate professor at the UNL Plant Science
The enhanced soybeans have been improved so they contain more of the
"good" monounsaturated fats and less polyunsaturated fats and "bad"
saturated fats. While polyunsaturated fats aren't by themselves bad for
your health, food processors often hydrogenate these oils to make them
more stable so food stays fresh and crisper longer. And that produces
harmful trans fats, which is why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has
required that trans fats in foods be labeled by Jan. 1, 2006. Canada also
is requiring trans fats to be labeled.
Reducing the levels of harmful trans fats in hydrogenated soybean oil with
biotechnology could have a significant effect on human health because
soybean oil represents more than 80 percent of all the edible oil consumed
in the United States, according to the American Soybean Association.
Several studies have shown that eating trans fat and saturated fat raises
levels of "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the body,
which increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Nearly 13 million
Americans suffer from coronary heart disease, causing more than 500,000
deaths each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human
"If this soybean product could get on the market, it would be the first
biotech product the consumer could see as a benefit," Clemente told the
Omaha World-Herald. By silencing two soybean genes, Clemente and his team
have increased the levels of oleic acids, which produce monounsaturated
fats -- one of the "good fats" -- and they've decreased the palmitic
acids, which produce saturated fats -- one of the "bad fats."
Clemente said his job was simplified by decades of work that came before
his. "For probably 25 years conventional breeders have attempted to get a
high oleic soybean," Clemente says. But since the genes responsible for
producing oleic acid in a soybean are all recessive, or hidden, they
couldn't do it consistently, he says. "We went in and actually silenced
specific genes," he said. "I knew beforehand which genes needed to be
American Dietetic Association spokesperson Wahida Karmally says the
improved soybean could help improve human health.
"If you prepare a food with the regular soybean oil, like a cracker or
cookie, and you keep it on the shelf, it's not going to last that long
--it will get that fishy odor, which means it's rancid," says Karmally,
who is also director of nutrition at the Center for Clinical Research at
Columbia University's Irving Center. She explained that regular soybean
oil contains high levels of linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fat, which is
To use regular soybean oil in processed foods, Karmelly says, commercial
processors will make those unstable molecules more stable by adding
partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. This step not only improves the
foods' shelf life, it improves the consistency of many products.
"Partially hydrogenated oil is what makes the cracker crispier," Karmally
says. Hydrogenation is also used to transform liquid vegetable oil into
Unfortunately, it's the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil that
introduces trans fat into foods. So a new soybean whose oil doesn't
require hydrogenation is a healthier bean. Clemente says his improved
bean contains between 75 percent and 80 percent of healthful
monounsaturated oleic acids, making the oil stable enough so it does not
require hydrogenation. In contrast, regular soybeans contain between 15
and 20 percent oleic acid.
Clemente's work, which was funded by the Nebraska Soybean Board's "Better
Bean Initiative," is just one example among many research projects that
are designed to improve human health with plant biotechnology. There are
many biotech products in the pipeline-- including a cancer-fighting tomato
and corn and canola oils with up to 10 times the levels of healthful
Vitamin E -- that show promise.
While plant biotechnology may be the best way to reduce trans fats
produced from soybean oil, conventional breeding has been used to increase
the levels of healthful oleic acid in canola. And some food companies have
recently begun using these oils in their food processing to avoid trans
fats, which contribute just 2 to 3 percent of the typical American diet's
total calories. (By contrast, saturated fats make up about 12 percent of
Clemente says it's also interesting to note that a high oleic soybean has
some non-nutritive benefits. Its stability and "lubricity" make it a very
good raw material for making biodiesel fuel, says Clemente. Now that the
bean's been grown, he says, the patenting, licensing and testing processes
shouldn't take more than a few years. Clemente expects his better bean
will be available commercially by the end of the decade.
And Clemente, for one, hopes that his bean will help dispel doubts about
the usefulness of agricultural biotechnology. "This is something
consumers can easily see the benefits of," he says.
I'm an Organic Farmer - Get Me Out of Here!
- Western Daily Press (UK), August 26, 2003
The organic dream is turning sour for dairy farmers. Dozens are now ready
to revert to conventional methods after failing to reap the benefits they
were promised. In a report to be published next month, the Federation of
Milk Groups shows how organic conversion, once hailed as the path to
higher profits, has become a poisoned chalice for many producers.
They accepted Government grants to convert to organic production with the
promise of higher profits. Defra's figures show the number of registered
organic farmers has grown by 104 in two years. But the dream of selling
milk at 29 pence per litre has faded, leaving many collecting an organic
premium of only two pence on milk that costs five pence per litre more to
Now farmers, like NFU South West chairman Simon Wetherall, can't wait for
the handcuffs to come off at the end of the five-year schemes they were
locked into. He attempted to produce organic milk and vegetables on his
farm in Crewkerne, Somerset. But he discovered an organic tag was no
protection against the scourge of all British farmers - cheap imports.
Despite a surge in organic production in Britain, three-quarters of
organic produce is now imported from countries where costs are lower.
These prices undercut British farmers. "We have to compete with imports,"
said Mr Wetherall, "and we simply can't compete with the farms in Eastern
Europe." The one bright spot in the organic dairy market is Somerset-based
Yeo Valley, which makes organic yoghurts and other dairy products, and has
seen tremendous growth, even in head-on sales against non-organic
products. But it remains a big player in a small market.
Meanwhile, the organic revolution among British shoppers still hasn't
happened - and some analysts suggest it never will. Although more shoppers
are consciously spending more on higher-quality foods, it appears that
traceability and a general 'healthy' image - such as that attached to food
from farmers' markets - are more important that the concept of organic
Signs of a slowdown in the organic sector and an admission of the
difficulties caused by imports emerged at the conference of the
Bristol-based Soil Association, which oversees most of Britain's organic
But director Patrick Holden said: "My advice to farmers is hang in there
and hold your nerve, the organic market will pick up again."
Consumers Don't Want GM, So Why Use It?
- Peter Melchett, Nature v.424, p.995; August 28, 2003
Sir -- The organic movement will be grateful for Nature's interest in our
well-being ("Diversity in food technology", Nature 424, 473; 2003), but
when you urge us to abandon "self-damaging dogmas", I hope you'll forgive
us for looking at your advice a little sceptically.
You are advising one of the few sectors of UK agriculture that has a real
and growing market, strongly supported by consumers, to introduce a
radical change in our product. We see no evidence, however, that using
genetically modified (GM) crops would further the interests of organic
farmers, organic food manufacturers, organic retailers or the millions of
people who eat organic food in the United Kingdom.
In your Editorial you say that the Soil Association "will resist seemingly
to their dying breath" the idea that GM could be as ethical as
conventional plant breeding. Ultimately the decision is up to consumers.
Given that people who buy non-organic food have said they don't want GM in
it, it's hardly surprising that organic consumers are even more determined
that GM should be kept out of organic food.
The significant areas of uncertainty described in the UK government's
scientific assessment of GM crops suggest that these consumers know what
they're talking about. You say that our determination to keep GM out of
organic is "arbitrary and self-defeating". Was it "arbitrary and
self-defeating" when the organic sector banned the feeding of ground-up
animal remains to ruminants ten years before the discovery of BSE? This
was done in the absence of any scientific evidence and solely on the basis
of what you call dogma.
Thankfully the UK government has learned some lessons from past food
disasters. In particular, it seems willing to listen to the market and
consumers in a way that the overwhelmingly pro-GM scientific establishment
in the United Kingdom finds completely impossible.
The UK government has promised to protect organic farming from GM
contamination, in line with consumers' wishes (and incidentally with the
European Union regulation defining organic production). As you say, there
is increasing recognition of what organic farmers and environmentalists
have been saying for nearly a decade: namely that coexistence of GM and
organic farming may not be possible in the United Kingdom. We shall have
to make a choice.
- Peter Melchett, The Soil Association, Bristol House, 40–56 Victoria
Street, Bristol BS1 6BY, UK
Time to Celebrate Man's Mind
- Fredric Hamber, Accuracy in Media, August 27, 2003 http://www.aim.org
(Sent by Andrew Apel)
It is fitting that the most productive nation on earth should have a
holiday to honor its work. The high standard of living that Americans
enjoy is hard-earned and well-deserved. But the term "Labor Day" is a
misnomer. What we should celebrate is not sweat and toil, but the power of
man's mind to reason, invent and create.
Several centuries ago, providing the basic necessities for one's survival
was a matter of daily drudgery for most people. But Americans today enjoy
conveniences undreamed of by medieval kings. Every day brings some new
useful household gadget, or a new software system to increase our
productivity, or a breakthrough in biotechnology.
So, it is worth asking: Why do Americans have no unique holiday to
celebrate the creators, inventors, and entrepreneurs who have made all of
this wealth possible--the men of the mind?
The answer lies in the dominant intellectual view of the nature of work.
Most of today's intellectuals, influenced by several generations of
Marxist political philosophy, still believe that wealth is created by
sheer physical toil. But the high standard of living we enjoy today is not
due to our musculature and physical stamina. Many animals have been much
stronger. We owe our relative affluence not to muscle power, but to brain
Brain power is given a left-handed acknowledgement in today's fashionable
aphorism that we are living in an "information age" in which education and
knowledge are the keys to economic success. The implication of this idea,
however, is that prior to the invention of the silicon chip, humans were
able to flourish as brainless automatons.
The importance of knowledge to progress is not some recent trend, but a
metaphysical fact of human nature. Man's mind is his tool of survival and
the source of every advance in material well-being throughout history,
from the harnessing of fire, to the invention of the plough, to the
discovery of electricity, to the invention of the latest anti-cancer drug.
Contrary to the Marxist premise that wealth is created by laborers and
"exploited" by those at the top of the pyramid of ability, it is those at
the top, the best and the brightest, who increase the value of the labor
of those at the bottom. Under capitalism, even a man who has nothing to
trade but physical labor gains a huge advantage by leveraging the fruits
of minds more creative than his. The labor of a construction worker, for
example, is made more productive and valuable by the inventors of the
jackhammer and the steam shovel, and by the farsighted entrepreneurs who
market and sell such tools to his employer. The work of an office clerk,
as another example, is made more efficient by the men who invented copiers
and fax machines. By applying human ingenuity to serve men's needs, the
result is that physical labor is made less laborious and more productive.
An apt symbol of the theory that sweat and muscle are the creators of
economic value can be seen in those Soviet-era propaganda posters
depicting man as a mindless muscular robot with an expressionless,
cookie-cutter face. In practice, that theory led to chronic famines in a
society unable to produce even the most basic necessities.
A culture thrives to the extent that it is governed by reason and science,
and stagnates to the extent that it is governed by brute force. But the
importance of the mind in human progress has been evaded by most of this
century's intellectuals. Observe, for example, George Orwell's novel 1984,
which depicts a totalitarian state that still, somehow, is a fully
advanced technological society. Orwell projects the impossible: technology
without the minds to produce it.
The best and brightest minds are always the first to either flee a
dictatorship in a "brain drain" or to cease their creative efforts. A
totalitarian regime can force some men to perform muscular labor; it
cannot force a genius to create, nor force a businessman to make rational
decisions. A slave owner can force a man to pick peanuts; only under
freedom would a George Washington Carver discover ways to increase crop
What Americans should celebrate is the spark of genius in the scientist
who first identifies a law of physics, in the inventor who uses that
knowledge to create a new engine or telephonic device, and in the
businessmen who daily translate their ideas into tangible wealth.
On Labor Day, let us honor the true root of production and wealth: the
The Need to Democratise Global Priorities for Science
- Cowan Coventry, SciDev.Net, August 27, 2003
'Cowan Coventry takes a look at the public's deep-seated anxiety over the
changes that science could make to the world, and calls for a new social
contract to re-assert society's control over corporate-driven scientific
and technological development.'
This year's cinema blockbuster sees Terminator 3, the good cyborg,
striding across the big screen battling against the threat of deadly
machines built with artificial intelligence, with the latest scientific
buzzword, nanotechnology, thrown in for good measure.
Arnie may be back --but in reality he has never been away. From
Frankenstein to to evil cyborgs, the message is clear-- we dabble with
science and technology at our peril. At the heart of this notion is a
deep-seated public fear of science opening Pandora’s box. As science and
technology become ever more complex, ever smaller and ever closer to
revealing the mysteries of life, the greater is the public’s anxiety.
It would be easy to dismiss this as tinsel-town scare-mongering to a
public that cannot comprehend the complexities of modern science. But even
establishment figures are voicing their concerns.
In June, for example, UK Science Minister David Sainsbury announced he was
commissioning the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to
look at nanotechnology and report on whether this new science demands new
Who's calling the shots?
How things have changed in the 30 years since economist E.F. Schumacher
wrote the book Small is Beautiful. His ideas struck a cord with the 70s
generation through its critique of orthodox economics, giant organisations
and big projects, and its search for a more holistic and human-scale
approach to how we live.
In contrast, today it sometimes seems that small--including
nanotechnology--is not beautiful but potentially dangerous. On reflection,
however, the key issue now, as then, is not so much of scale but of power.
Those with the power to fund scientific and technological research
determine how science advances, and increasingly in a knowledge-intensive
economy it is big corporate players who call the shots. Their motivation
is not necessarily human advancement but to beat their competitors and to
secure their commercial future.
As a result we are more likely to find a cure for baldness than for
malaria, as a recent UN report on new technology said. The same report
lamented that while private funding for scientific research increased by a
quarter between 1990 and 1998 to a total of US$500 billion, public
investment has stagnated.
The most striking case was in agricultural research with private companies
spending US$10 billion a year compared to a mere US$0.4 billion raised by
the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) --
the world’s leading network of agricultural research institutions
specialising in reducing hunger and poverty.
Harnessing science for the poor
Being cautious about the marketing and promotion of new science and
technology by powerful corporate interests is not some 21st century
Luddism as the term is conventionally understood. Rather, such caution
often reflects a concern about whether technology will be harnessed for
human needs and does not necessarily imply blind opposition to
In order to reconcile the tension between scientific optimism and growing
public scepticism we need a new social contract to harness technology for
sustainable development. In other words, we must direct science through
public funding into areas that will meet the needs of the world’s poor,
and not just the lifestyles of rich consumers.
For example nearly three billion people-- about half of humanity --
continue to rely on wood, dung and crop waste for their main energy need:
cooking, a technology that has changed little since the Stone Age. The key
to their future is more prosaic -- the availability of affordable,
A new international convention
Scientific and technological development is hugely exciting. It could, and
should, have a major role to play in reducing poverty and restoring our
ecosystems - if it can be harnessed to benefit the many rather than profit
the few, and to prolong rather than foreshorten our custodianship of
nature’s scarce resources.
A new social contract, backed up by legitimate and accountable
international agencies, could re-assert some measure of societal control
over corporate-driven scientific and technological development. One way to
achieve this could be through a Swedish government proposal that the
United Nations begin negotiations to create an 'International Convention
for Socio-economic and Environmental Evaluation of New Technologies'.
Such a convention, which would be legally binding and have its own
governing body, would ensure independent assessment of emerging
technologies through processes that guarantee public participation. It is
a proposal that is getting support from think-tanks and many
What we need is a movement to 'democratise' the priorities for scientific
and technological development. If we can do that we can help to deliver
the great win-win scenario of this century – to eradicate poverty without
it costing the Earth.
Cowan Coventry is chief executive of the Intermediate Technology
Development Group (ITDG), a non-profit organisation founded by E.F.
Schumacher that aims to demonstrate and advocate the sustainable use of
technology to reduce poverty in developing countries. ITDG is hosting a
conference looking at science, technology and economics on 3 September
2003 in London
Warning: Lack of Common Sense Could Kill You
- Trent Loos, High Plains Journal, August 21, 2003 http://www.hpj.com/
Last week I was driving through Kansas and stopped near Wichita to fill my
car with gas. I noticed a label on the pump. "Warning: Talking on cell
phone during fueling could be dangerous." So, as always, I asked the
attendant if the warning was serious or some kind of joke. She explained
to me that because a cell phone produces static electricity, it could
possibly ignite when mixed with fumes from the pump. According to this
young lady, one person had died in a huge explosion while fueling up and
simultaneously talking on their cell phone.
As I continued on this driving excursion, I thought about all of the
ridiculous warning labels I have seen or heard about:
McDonald's coffee: "Warning: Contents may be hot."
Electric router made for carpenters: "This product not intended for use as
a dental drill."
Sleeping pills: "Warning: May cause drowsiness."
A cartridge for a laser printer: "Do not eat toner."
A 13-inch wheel on a wheelbarrow: "Not intended for highway use."
American Airlines peanuts: "Instructions: open packet, eat nuts."
Nabisco Easy Cheese: "For best results remove cap."
Rowenta Iron: "Warning: Never iron clothes on body."
And my favorite from a Swedish chainsaw maker: "Warning, do not attempt to
stop chain with your hands or genitals."
It makes me wonder about some of these important labels I've never seen:
"Warning: Looking directly into the sun could cause blindness."
"Warning: Swallowing unlimited water during swimming could be fatal."
"Direct contact with an oncoming train could be dangerous," should clearly
be posted on the front of every train.
Even bears should have a label, "Warning: I would prefer to have you for
lunch than to join you for lunch."
With all of the obesity negligence in this country and the "concerned
citizens" who want to put an end to it, it is just a matter of time until
hamburgers are required to have warning labels. "Warning: Contains fat and
if you don't exercise after eating, you could become fat yourself." If
burgers could be considered dangerous and these ridiculous labeling laws
are pursued, we will probably need a nurse in every food establishment in
the country. If you order meat of any kind, the nurse will draw your blood
to check your health status. According to the standards of some higher
power, if you are healthy enough to eat meat, you may return in seven days
to have dinner. In the mean time, you can forage on some plant-based diet.
Before long, the warning section of the menu will be longer than the list
of items you can eat. If only people could comprehend a few simple things
like: If it comes from the stove/grill/oven/coffee maker/pit of boiling
grease, etc., it is probably HOT! If it is served on or in glass, you
could cut yourself if - it breaks. If you use the fork to poke anything
but your food, it will hurt. Knives are sharp. Don't put food into any
body parts besides your mouth. Don't eat anything bigger than your head.
So what has happened to our sense of responsibility or just plain ole'
With multi-million dollar lawsuits, jury verdicts of ridiculous
proportions and people's burning desire to land on the winning end of a
jury's verdict, the incentive to take responsibility for your own
stupidity has gone out the window. Perhaps our legal system is flawed in
that it encourages people to file these suits for huge claims. In other
countries, if the plaintiff loses, they pay the defendant the amount they
were suing for. This might just bring this frivolity of get-rich quick
schemes to a screeching halt.
A little common sense would go a long way in solving many of these
problems but common sense is just not that common anymore. Perhaps we
should require doctors, immediately after a child is born, to get out a
tattoo set and imprint his forehead the following: "Warning: Lack of
common sense could kill you." With this in place, the person would be
reminded every morning to use their head for something besides a hat rack.