Today in AgBioView: September 25, 2003:
* Brazil Approves Planting of GM Soybeans
* Frankenfood: Danger or Salvation?
* Defending AgBiotech Against Greenpeace
* Biotech Sweet Corn Outsells Conventional Varieties
* Britain: Brain Drain Threatens GM Crop Research
* Feeding a Growing World: Is There Room for GMOs?
* Biotechnology’s Greatest Challenge
* Documentary: History's Harvest - Where Food Comes From
* Biotech - History, Science, Safety and the Promise
* When Food Kills - BSE, E.coli and Disaster Science
* Why ecoNOT?
* Talking Biotechnology in the Community
Brazil Approves Planting of GM Soybeans
- Forwarded by Miriam Mazza K. Quadros of Rio de
Janeiro, Brazil; through
Brazil's Vice President Jose Alencar has approved last night the planting
of genetically modified soybeans in Brazil. According to government
officials, the presidential decree shall be submitted to the Congress
today and is as a temporary measure until the government submits its draft
bill on transgenics to Congress. The decree is also important now as soy
producers have already begun planting after favorable rains, and the rest
of the soy belt begins planting in October. The decree apparently opens
the way for transgenic seed producer Monsanto Co. (US) to collect
royalties from farmers for the planting of transgenic soy.
The country has been one of the world's last major agricultural exporters
to ban the planting of GM crops or foods, although soy farmers have
ignored the ban and smuggled in illegal transgenic soy from Argentina for
years. The details of the provisional decree that is expected to be
published soon are still unclear. But members of Congress who have been
consulted on the drafting of the decree said that it would include details
on the regulation of GM labeling and the collection of royalties by St.
Louis, Missouri-based GM seed producer Monsanto Co..
U.S. producers have been complaining that Brazil has had an unfair
advantage because farmers do not pay royalties for black market GM soy.
Ron Heck, the president of the American Soy Association said today that
"Perhaps under this (decree) they will have to pay for the benefits they
receive, but Brazil wasn't enforcing the previous law (when GM was
banned). Until we see enforcement of the new law (decree) it would be too
soon to celebrate. We want to applaud the progress, but I want to see the
Frankenfood: Talk to America
- 'Voice of America' Panel Discussion; Thursday, Sept. 25, 2003; 1:00 PM
Eastern Time (US);
Webcast and Radio frequency details at
'Is genetically modified food a danger, or the possible salvation of the
world's millions who go hungry?'
Guests: * Greg Jaffe: Center for Science in the Public Interest * Larry
Mitchell: American Corn Growers Association * Charlotte Hebebarand:
European Commission * C.S. Prakash: Center for Biotechnology & Research,
Listeners can Participate in this discussion:
Telephone: +1-202-619-3111; Fax: +1-202-260-8572; E-Mail: email@example.com
'Talk To America' invites you to be a part of our show by giving us a
call, or by sending an e-mail or fax. Remember to reverse the charges when
Defending AgBiotech Against Greenpeace
- Prof. Piero Morandini, University of Milan, Italy
Dear Steve, Greenpeace's attitude is (like any other ideology)
destructive, not constructive. They are not interested in betterment, just
destroyment. In doing so they are however caught in contradictions. They
are demonizing application of biotech to agriculture, but fail to apply
the same criticism to applications of the same technology to human beings
(drugs produced by biotech, gene therapy) which are in some case riskier
to humans and with less or no benefits (gene therapy) or are questionable
on moral grounds (use of stem cells from human embryos), at least in a
Christian world view.
My main experience is that they don't care about human beings (except
themselves or those who can "feed" them) and are distressed by any damage,
real or feared, to the environment.
>> 1. Genetic engineering is a crude and old fashioned technology
If this technology, that allows one to identify a gene, amplify it among
10-20 thousands other gene, isolate it, mutate a single letter of it to
change a specific amino acid, reinsert it back into the genome replacing
the original gene is defined as crude and old fashioned, then I really
wonder how do they define classical breeding or cell culture techniques,
where most of the times one ignores what is happening because the only
important thing is the result.
The precision I described above does not hold true for all the organism at
all steps but it is remarkably high also for plants: for instance, even if
we cannot usually direct the integration of a mutated gene at the same
place of the original, we can still identify the insertion site and check
the expression level. If one technology is "old fashioned", then there
must be a "new fashioned" technology. Then, what technology are they
>> 2. GE relies on the outdated central dogma of molecular biology:
The basic principle is that DNA makes protein through RNA. DNA codes for
genetic information; no genetic information can be transferred back to
DNA. In science a theory (or inappropriately in this context, but
historically defined as "dogma") becomes outdated when other, more
advanced theories (that is theories that explain better the available
data) are proposed. Since they don't propose a better (=detailed and
testable by experiment) theory, I keep believing that the central dogma
still holds true, despite the fact that it will eventually be
ameliorated. One example is the discovery of reverse transcriptase that
clearly goes against the central dogma, but it does not alter the
fundamental validity of its principle.
>> 3. There are networks regulating genes.
There is more to genes than a code for proteins. Genes perform many
functions and are controlled and regulated. Organisms or parts of
organisms with identical genes can produce very different forms. The
regulation of genes is not performed by DNA but by many other controls
arranged in a complex network.
While this might be true (still I hardly understand it to a sensible level
because they don't propose any example to clarify this statement) I don't
see the conflict with its applications to agriculture and
pharmaceuticals. If they like it we can admit that it is a young
technology and we still we do not understand everything, but we DO KNOW A
LOT in respect to earlier technologies (i.e. breeding) and we can forecast
the outcome of most experiments: if we take a gene from another organism,
put it under the control of a promoter and place it back into a plant cell
(or a yeast or a mammalian cell) we expect that a protein will be produced
and we can tell the sequence of the protein and sometimes even the
structure. This will work 99 times out of every 100. When the event
happens that it doesn't work (such as in the case of organism that insert
extra nucleotides after a transcript is produced), this is a challenge to
science but it does not make the other 99 times less real. We have a rate
of successful prediction enormously higher in respect to other sciences
(but lower than others) and in respect to previous technologies applied to
>> 4. Elements regulating genes:
>> Transcription factors: proteins which interact with regions of the DNA
>to switch genes on.
>> Interference RNA. A type of RNA that instead of making proteins stops
>gene expression at the RNA level.
>> Gene silencing: genes can be switched off and this can be an
>inheritable trait. Although there are no changes to the DNA, it is not
>known exactly how this happens.
It is not true. There are changes to DNA (not in the sequence but in
methylation state or coating with proteins inhibiting transcription) that
cause the gene to be silenced. In any case what's the problem? Non-nuclear
factors have been already identified (cytoplasmic inheritances) and new
sources are being identified (see for instance Lindquist work on HSP,
[Hsp90 as a capacitor of phenotypic variation. Nature. 2002 417:618-24]
and more will presumably be identified. The history of science tell us
that it is an unending quest, but this doesn't mean that it makes no sense
or that there is no progress.
>> 5. How does this affect Genetic Engineering?
>> a) GE does not consider any gene regulatory network
>> b) GE relies on the central dogma, now viewed as 'over simplistic'.
>> c) GE assumes one gene equals one function.
a) Is wrong. People are now doing and considering metabolic engineering of
cells via engineering single transcription factors (as a shameles self
promotion see: [Plant biotechnology and breeding: allied for years to
come. Trends Plant Sci. (2003) 8:70-5]). People have long being
considering regulatory networks (i.e. copy number control via complex
feedback mechanisms in plasmids). People know that one gene can mean
several different proteins (via alternative splicing, post translational
modification, association with other proteins...etc.). It is of course
absolutely true that we don't understand why 80% of the gene seem to be
dispensable in an organisms and that we do not understand (at least me)
how this could have been selected, but this doesn't mean we are unable to
change on organism in a sensible way.
Engineers have been building many things even if they did not know the
molecular structure or the reasons why they worked (or sometimes failed)
but this has not prevented them from changing in many ways our material
life. Similarly genetic engineers do not always or fully know why
something is working (or failing) but the success of the technology does
not depend on the full theoretical perception of it. See again the
paradigm of breeding.
>> 6. The 'discovery' of gene regulation mechanisms has caused a 'paradigm
>shift' in gene expression...
I would like to see some "holistic science" before considering its
merits. Of course many approaches in biology are reductionist in method
(disassemble cell components and then assemble then back one by one to
reconstitute a phenomenon, (such as transcription, translation, DNA
replication, signal transduction etc.) but this has been so succesful that
it is difficult to me to come up with alternative suggestions. If they
have any, please, come forward.
Biotech Sweet Corn Outsells Conventional Varieties on 'Model Farm'
Ontario farmer's "model farm" helps inform the public about the risks and
benefits of different farming methods. Stop by Jeff Wilson's farmer's
market an hour from Toronto, and you might leave with more than tomorrow's
dinner. The surrounding fields also offer a ground-level look into
biotechnology and comparative farming practices to those willing to get
their feet dirty.
That's because Wilson's Birkbank Farms is a living blend not only of sweet
corn and potatoes and ripe berries, but also of different growing methods
- conventional, biotech, organic. For the last several years, he's worked
with researchers from the University of Guelph to grow trial plots using
all three methods, and observe, test (and, of course, taste) the results.
He's passionate about the research, and wants to get non-farmers involved.
So a few years back, drawing on his landscape architecture degree, Wilson
sliced a 2.5 mile self-guided walking trail through his fields. Today a
steady stream of interested people, including tour groups from as far away
as China, come for a closer look at the challenges and trade-offs involved
in growing food.
If his visitors are expecting a pleasant pastoral stroll, Wilson's happy
to set them straight. He hopes that the trail, which he's nicknamed "The
Good, the Bad and the Ugly" for its warts-and-all approach, helps
demystify both the science behind tools like biotechnology and, in the
process, farming itself.
"This isn't the agricultural equivalent of a petting zoo," he says. "It's
a working farm, and I want people to see what it takes to produce food in
a real context."
The trail takes his visitors through fields of sweet corn, for example,
one of the farm's biggest crops. Wilson grows conventional corn and a
biotech version called "Bt." Bt corn helps farmers control pests. As it
grows, it releases a pesticide used by organic farmers that kills hungry
bugs like corn earworm and the European corn borer by releasing a natural
protein that shuts down their digestive systems without the need for
Wilson says it's an especially valuable tool in his neck of the woods,
where corn earworm's never in short supply. "We'd have a 90 percent
infestation rate if the corn wasn't protected, either by the Bt protein or
by chemical spraying."
Signage around Wilson's conventional corn acreage describes how he applies
as many as five to seven chemical treatments per growing season to keep
the corn bug-free. People hate being preached to, Wilson says, and he
doesn't push too hard on advocating one farming method over another. But
he hopes that from examples like his sweet corn, people open up to the
idea that farming decisions involve trade-offs. That not planting biotech
corn in places where it can help, for example, often means more chemical
usage. Or, alternatively, a better chance there's something small,
voracious and unpleasant crawling in your ear of corn.
It's a message that's apparently getting through. Back in his market,
where the sweet corn is separated out and labeled by type, Wilson's Bt
corn outsells the conventional variety by about 5 to 1.
People are sold by the environmental benefits the corn can offer, Wilson
says, the reduced chemical use and the fact that more "non-target" insects
(such as the Monarch butterfly) survive in Bt fields. But they only come
back to buy it a second and third time because it also tastes great.
"When they're voting with their dollars, people are pragmatic," Wilson
says. "They don't want to be told to buy biotech foods or not to buy them.
They want information, then they'll make their decision based on taste,
price, safety and nutrition."
Having grown up on another Ontario farm that's now a sewage treatment
plant, Wilson knows that fewer and fewer people, however, have much of a
connection to farming and how the food they eat was grown. He's concerned
how that affects the debate around biotechnology and other farming issues.
But that just gets him more fired up about his own field research, and the
crowds that watch the corn grow along his walking trail. "I'm a curious
person, and other people find this stuff interesting too once they're
exposed to it," Wilson says. "Let's get out in the field and see what
Britain: Brain Drain Threatens GM Crop Research
- Ian Sample and James Meikle, The Guardian, Sept. 25, 2003
Public antipathy towards genetically modified crops is driving Britain's
leading plant scientists to seek greener pastures abroad
The world-class reputation of Britain's research on genetically modified
crops is being damaged as a stream of top scientists take their work
overseas, a leading scientist has warned.
At least seven of the country's top GM crop scientists have moved abroad
to work and two more are due to leave in the next few months, the Guardian
The brain drain is being fuelled by Britain's pervasive anti-GM sentiment
which is demoralising scientists and forcing industry to leave the
country. Chris Leaver, the head of plant science at Oxford University,
said: "The way things are going, plant biotechnology is going to be
Mark Tester, a senior lecturer in plant genomics at Cambridge University,
has decided to quit Britain for Australia later this year. "Most of the
industry has left already because of the bad atmosphere here," he told the
Dr Tester decided to leave after the industrial funding he had won to
expand his research group in the UK vanished. "I just want to get on with
the job. I'm in a hurry and I don't see things picking up here in my
career time," he said. Wayne Powell, the deputy director of the Scottish
crop research institute and one of Britain's most acclaimed crop
scientists, has also decided to emigrate to Australia in the next few
They will join a long list of researchers who have already quit Britain.
Many have left the internationally renowned plant research laboratory, the
John Innes Centre in Norwich. They include: Derek Lydiate, a senior
scientist who now runs a lab in Canada; the centre's ex-director, Richard
Flavell, who has joined Ceres, a crop research company, in California, and
George Coupland, who has left to join the Max Planck Research Institute
for plant breeding research in Germany.
Dr Flavell said that an important factor in his decision was the quality
of the job he was offered in California. But he said: "The situation is
more disturbing in the UK than anywhere else in the world. The untruths,
lies and lack of orchestrated information make it almost impossible for
the average person to make an informed decision."
Others to leave include Alastair Robertson, the former director for the
institute for food research in Norwich; Simon Santa Cruz, at the
Defra-funded plant research laboratory Horticulture Research
International, who has set up a crop biotechnology company in Spain; Peter
Day, the former director of Plant Breeding International, who has joined
Rutgers University in New Jersey, and Wolfgang Schuh who has left Zeneca
for a university job in Canada.
One leading British expatriate scientist said antipathy to GM science in
Britain was so bad he would not consider coming home. Having left Royal
Holloway University in London in 1988, Richard Dixon is now the director
of plant biology at the Noble Foundation in Oklahoma.
"There is far more suspicion of scientists in the UK. I can give a talk at
a town hall meeting here and talk about how we want to genetically modify
crops and get a really warm response. But when I went to a GM town hall
meeting in York a couple of months ago, I nearly got lynched," he said.
That scientists are choosing to turn their backs on crop science in
Britain is not surprising given the climate they have to work in, said Ray
Mathias at the John Innes Centre. "Is it worth being a scientist if nobody
takes notice of what you say and has no regard for the quality of science
you produce? Where does that leave you as a scientist looking to benefit
society?" he asked.
Michael Wilson, the chief executive of Horticulture Research
International, warned that the looming crisis would have serious
consequences for Britain's reputation for scientific research. "The way it
is going, Britain is lining itself up to become an intellectual and
technological backwater," he said.
But Pete Riley, GM campaign manager for Friends of the Earth, dismissed
the scientists' complaints. "The industry admits to having gaps in its
knowledge, but they are just not willing to do the research," he said.
"Scientists should be looking at more sustainable ways of doing
agriculture anyway. We should be encouraging them to focus on more than
just plant genetics."
Gundula Azeez, of the Soil Association, said: "It was the exaggerated
claims of biotech companies that lured a lot of scientists into this
research. It is a good thing that the scientists are now starting to catch
up with reality."
In other areas of GM science a less bleak picture emerges. The public
seems to have few qualms about GM science when it relates to medicine.
Insulin and growth hormone treatments, for instance, have all used the
technology to replace older treatments.
Hopes of deriving vaccines from GM plants were set back a few years ago,
amid the first rumblings of the anti-GM sentiment when it came to
agriculture, and scientists were lured abroad. But the tide may be
turning. The EU has invited bids for research into this area and large
grants are expected to be announced soon.
Julian Marr, a specialist in the field, last year took up a position at St
George's Medical School, London, rather than accept a post at Arizona
State University in the US because of a renewed interest this side of the
Atlantic. But Britain'sopposition to GM crops has already contributed to a
near collapse of industrial crop research in this country. The past 20
years have seen the number of crop scientists employed by major companies
decline by more than 60%, with the majority of the fall being since 1999.
At least four big companies have closed their crop research facilities in
Britain in the past three years.
The only major multinational crop research centre left in the UK is
Jealott's Hill, owned by the Swiss-based company Syngenta. Trials of GM
plants there have been all but given up on because of anti-GM activists.
Dave Lawrence, Syngenta's head of research and technology, said: "In the
last two years, we haven't been able to do a field trial in the UK because
activists come and dig them up. The feeling in the scientific community is
'Where did we go wrong?'"
The Department for Trade and Industry said the government hoped to
encourage industry to invest more in research through tax breaks. A
national non-food crop centre was also being set up to encourage links
between industry and scientists.
Feeding a Growing World: Is There Room for Genetically Altered Organisms?
- Smith College, Northampton, MA; 7 PM, Thursday, October 2, 2003
Environmental Science and Policy Forum - Panelists
* Brian Halweil senior researcher at The Worldwatch Institute
* Dr. Channapatna Prakash professor of plant molecular genetics and
Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee
* Jeffrey Smith, member of Sierra Club's genetic engineering committee and
author of "Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About
the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods you're Eating"
* Laurie Sanders, Writer and host of WFCR (88.4 FM public radio) and
Connecticut Public Radio's "Field Notes" show
Biotechnology’s Greatest Challenge
- Claude M. Fauquet and Nigel Taylor, Biosafety News (Kenya), July 2003;
Full article at http://www.biosafetynews.com/bi.htm
THE human race recently passed two milestones that captured brief
international press coverage. Late in 1999, the world’s population passed
the 6 billion mark, having doubled in only 40 years, and just a few months
late, India’s billionth citizen was born. These milestones drew public
attention to an issue of international importance: continued population
growth and the threat this growth poses for global food security and
Scientists, agronomists and policymakers have been looking for the next
revolution in agriculture. This has optimistically been termed the doubly
green revolution, which, it is hoped, will boost crop yields with minimum
impact on the environment and benefit the small farmer as well as the
larger commercial producer. For many, it is biotechnology -- the
application of DNA or gene technologies for the agronomic improvement of
crop plants -- that holds this promise.
Genetic engineering is the best known and possibly the most powerful of
these techniques, holding great promise for improving crop yields and the
quality and value of agriculture products. Biotechnology allows the DNA,
the genetic code imparting a specific trait –for example, resistance to a
disease infection or drought – to be identified and isolated from a given
organism. Once reduced to a few microliters of sticky fluid, this genetic
material can be adjusted as required and introduced into the cells of a
given plant to become an integral component of the crop’s genetic make-up.
As a result, this new transgenic plant acquires the beneficial trait coded
by the introduced genetic material and passes the novel characteristic to
The great power of this technology lies in its availability to take genes
from any given organism and insert them into crop plants. This capability
is rooted in the biological reality that the genetic codes, or genes, for
all living organisms are organised in a similar manner and can, with
minimal changes, be made to operate in a nonnative genetic background. It
is possible, therefore, to transfer genetic information from algae,
bacteria, viruses, or animals to plants, or to move genes between sexually
incompatible plants species. For example, certain genes isolated from
viruses, when inserted into the plant’s genome and expressed by the plant,
impart resistance to that virus. Crop plants can be engineered to produce
their own pesticides, to have resistance to previously toxic chemicals, to
be resistant to disease, or to have higher nutritional qualities
Despite the recent negative public reaction to biotechnology, we remain
convinced that the genetic engineering of crop plants can play a vital
role in addressing the world’s present and future agricultural
requirements. The risk of not utilising this new technology to help the
developing countries secure their own food supplies and economic
development far outweigh the inconclusive evidence of any environmental
damage attributable to genetically modified organisms.
As for most complex issue there is no single simple remedy. Biotechnology
is not a panacea for world hunger. However, combined with traditional
breeding, good agricultural practice, and sound economic policies,
biotechnology can improve standards of health and economic security for
all the world’s people and close the gap between the rich and poor
We believe that the impetus for successful application of both traditional
methods and biotechnology to address crop production must come from the
industrialised countries, which possess the vast majority of the world’s
financial and technological resources. The mobilisation of these
substantial resources to address the needs of the developing world is
fundamental to the future well being of the world, its natural resources,
and its people. This considerable challenge must be sustained over several
There are no easy answers, no quick fix; instead serious commitments are
required from all who can contribute.
History's Harvest: Where Food Comes From
Documentary film produced by the ASPB Education Foundation. It is
available in VHS and DVD formats. The DVD can be projected or viewed on a
computer. The computer file contains additional articles and information.
If you have any questions about the film, please contact Robin Lempert,
Education Foundation Director at .
History's Harvest presents a sweeping view of 10,000 years of agricultural
history, shown against a backdrop of spectacular footage from locations in
India, Mexico, the United States and Britain. The film is fast-paced,
informative, and visually engaging. It is also presented in a way to which
the general public will relate and understand.
The film traces the developments in agriculture that led to major
breakthroughs including the genetic engineering of crops. It shows how
genetic engineering is an extension of what has gone on before and how new
technologies are important for the developing world. The film talks about
the progression of science and how this has allowed civilization to
ASPB's Education Foundation developed this film is to provide accurate
information to the public on the importance of plant biology in addressing
world hunger and to educate the public on where food comes from. In
addition to the vivid scenes of people, life and agriculture on three
continents, the film includes interviews with the most prominent
scientists in the world.
The film takes viewers from the fields where crops are grown around the
world, into the homes of people in India, into the labs where the latest
research is done, and into the grocery stores of America where every kind
of produce can be found in beautiful abundance. There are discussions with
farmers in Iowa, Mexico and India. There are interviews with restaurant
owners in California and leading scientists from around the world. The
film's inclusion of scenes most of us can relate to - in today's
supermarkets - adds to its appeal to today's audiences.
The Foundation is in the process of identifying distributors to bring the
film to TV broadcast networks. The film is also available for educational
use and for libraries. The Foundation's goal is to get the message out to
as wide an audience as possible.
History's Harvest was developed for the American Society of Plant
Biologists' Education Foundation and was produced by SMASH, a London-based
production company. SMASH is an award-winning independent production
company that makes programs for a number of broadcasters such as the UK's
Channel 4, Channel 5, BBC TV etc, as well as Discovery and TLC in the U.S.
Biotechnology - History, Science, Safety and the Promise
When Food Kills - BSE, E.coli and Disaster Science
- New Book by Hugh Pennington, Department of Medical Microbiology,
University of Aberdeen, UK
£25.00 (Hardback)l 0-19-852517-6; Sept 2003;
Ever since Edwina Currie's salmonella, Britain has seemed cursed by major
food safety scares, with E.coli and BSE particularly prominent. Amidst
tabloid frenzy and recrimination, the public is dependent upon sober
scientific risk assessment and rational evaluation of what went wrong.
Hugh Pennington has been at the forefront of this as a scientist, expert
witness and commentator, and this book is his accessible but rigorous
account of these diseases and the events surrounding them. This is a
disaster book for the general reader giving authoritative but
non-technical accounts of BSE/variant CJD and E.coli O157 - what happened,
what went wrong, the human interest, and the science - all in the context
of disasters (like Piper Alpha, Aberfan, and rail crashes), history and
- Robert James Bidinotto, http://www.econot.com/
Most people think of themselves as "environmentalists." But by that term,
they mean something far different--and far more innocent--than do the most
prominent philosophers, founders, and leaders of the modern
Typically, the person who calls himself an "environmentalist" is really
just a nature-loving "conservationist." Appreciating the earth's natural
beauty and bounty, he is understandably concerned about trash, noise,
pollution, and poisons. Still, he sees the earth and its bounty as
resources--resources for intelligent human use, development, and
enjoyment. At root, then, his concern for the earth is human-centered: he
believes that this is our environment, to be used by people to enhance
their lives, well-being, and happiness.
But the leaders of the organized environmentalist movement have a very
different attitude and agenda.
Their basic premise is that human activities to develop natural resources
constitute a desecration of nature--that, in fact, nature exists for its
own sake, not for human use and enjoyment. By their theory of ecology,
they see man not as the crowning glory of nature, nor even as just another
part of "the web of life"--but rather as a blight upon the earth, as the
enemy of the natural world. And they see man's works as a growing menace
to all that exists.
Their basic agenda, therefore, is to stop the "assault" and "onslaught" of
human activity: to place every possible impediment to man's further
development of the earth and its resources. They pursue this anti-human
agenda tirelessly and consistently. Their fanatical activities have led
not just to enormously increased financial burdens on us all,
but--demonstrably--even to the deaths of thousands of men, women, and
And the ugliest aspect of all this is that while causing so much harm,
environmentalists posture--and are generally accepted--as idealists.
I'm not just talking about so-called "extremists" within the movement: I'm
talking about its mainstream organizations, leaders, and spokesmen. Their
public faces of moderation mask private attitudes and goals that are
radically, irreconcilably opposed to the requirements of human life on
Yes, these claims are startling. But I reached my conclusions only after
years of researching environmentalism's ideas and icons, and closely
investigating the movement's history and activities. That's a task few
people have the time or inclination to do.
I don't expect to be taken on faith. Instead, regular visitors here will
discover that ecoNOT.com offers chapter-and-verse proof to demonstrate the
validity of these disturbing contentions.
Just as important, it offers a philosophical alternative to
environmentalism--an alternative rooted in the American legacy of
My argument--unlike that of other opponents of environmentalism--isn't
merely that environmentalism rests on shoddy economic thinking, or "junk
science." My argument is that it rests on junk philosophy.
My opposition to environmentalism, then, is rooted fundamentally in
morality--and specifically, in the supreme moral value of human life and
human well-being on earth.
Read "Environmentalism or Individualism?" by Robert James Bidinotto at
Talking Biotechnology in the Community
- Peggy G. Lemaux, Ph.D.; University of California, Berkeley CA.
Scientists can play a role in shaping and contributing to the dialogue and
debate relating to agricultural practices and technologies, but they must
be prepared. As scientists, it is not always straightforward to move from
the laboratory bench to the park bench to discuss your science with your
neighbors. Such discussions require that you reduce the complexity of what
is done to something that can be understood by those not involved in the
scientific profession. Scientific jargon, the BACs, the YACs and the SNPs,
has to be left behind in the office and laboratory. Even concepts as
commonplace as millimeters and milliliters, backcrossing and genes are
very foreign to most people.
The Biotechnology Debate: A Scientific or Social Issue?
While once optional, communicating with the public about what we do is now
a necessity for scientists. But, it is important to realize that the
debate is not strictly scientific in nature; it has become a discussion
that focuses on social issues as well.
This was confirmed for me by a recent study by Eric Abbott at Iowa State.
Studies in the early 1990s of media coverage showed that in the area of
agricultural biotechnology scientists and industry representatives were
most often used as sources. Since that time, issues surrounding GM crops
have moved from being a scientific or technical issue depending on
scientific journal articles, papers and conferences, to a social issue
with discussion covering a much wider range of issues, like economics,
politics, and social consequences. The study showed that while scientists
may have opinions on these latter issues, they are not the sources sought
out by the media to address these issues today. The media asks
politicians, activists, clergy and citizens.
This evolution in the debate has been seen before. For example, in the
case of pasteurization of milk, the debate came to be focused on social
issues, like its perceived unnaturalness. After an initial period, the
public came to accept the safety and advantages of pasteurization and the
focus moved away from social issues and back to scientific ones. An
example of a technology debate that turned out differently is nuclear
power. In this case, social issues, not scientific ones, guided in large
part regulatory responses and development of the technology. This issue
never returned to a scientific one, as was the case with pasteurization;
it still remains a social one nearly 50 years later.
Role of Scientists in the Debate
Does this mean that, as scientists, we have no role? No, I believe that we
must be involved in the public dialogue. It is imperative that we get out
and talk to people about these issues. It is our obligation to be there to
provide accurate, science-based information and to talk knowledgeably
about benefits and risks, based on scientific data. We must be looked upon
as trusted sources of information, individuals who are willing to
recognize both the up-sides and the down-sides of the technology.
How do you start?
So what do you do? Before embarking on your quest for consumer and
end-user education, it is important to learn a bit about your target
audience and its needs. If you get into this arena, you will find that
there is no lack of opportunity to provide information. And each audience
will be different; each will have its own needs. It will not be like
standing up in front of a classroom full of students. Depending on the
needs of the target audience, different communication strategies should be
used. These include the following categories.
* Strictly informational: People just want to know what products might
arise from the technology and how they will differ from what they see now.
Groups like this might include community organizations and even groups
outside of your discipline within the university. Such strictly
informational presentations used to occur with some frequency, but now
such presentation are rarely without some questions on controversial
issues, such as Monarch butterflies or Starlink corn.
* Strategic: Government agencies or state or national organizations need
information to make appropriate public-policy decisions. While one would
like ideally to think that our state and national legislative and
regulatory bodies have all the information necessary to make informed
decisions, they do have areas in which they need to be informed. Also
members of the media, journalists and T.V. and radio reporters need
accurate information to impart to their audiences. Increasingly these
groups want answers based on what is known about issues. GM foods may not
be high on their list of topics to know in-depth and some of the concepts
involved are technically complex. Therefore, they are often in need of
individuals who are knowledgeable about the scientific data and who are
available to address issues of concern to their constituencies.
* Enabling: An industry needs information to determine whether
biotechnology provides appropriate tools to address a problem. They may
want to know how they can utilize these technologies to solve the problem.
They might need information to provide their professionals so they can
interact effectively with their clientele. This type of involvement
requires not only a consideration of the science, in fact that is often
the least difficult of the problems to solve. It is necessary to consider
intellectual property considerations, regulatory issues and international
trade aspects that are related to GM crops and foods.
You need to consider that the public debate relating to genetically
modifying foods and crops has many dimensions, potential benefits and
risks to human health, ecosystems, farmer’s profits, food security and the
control and loss of control over decision-making in the food system. Some
aspects can be approached with scientific data that relates to the
validity of an opinion and we can interpret that for the general public.
As scientists, we can bring this perspective to the debate. To me it is
our duty to dig into the literature to try to find answers to some of the
questions being raised over food safety and environmental effects of the
new GM foods and crops.
But the perception of risk, or acceptable risk, is quite a different thing
from scientifically based risk. Acceptable risk is called safety and this
is determined by the individual, based on his or her own value system. Air
travel, when it first became possible, was considered unsafe by many. Over
the years data has been gathered from which we can specifically estimate
the risk of air travel. Now, most individuals consider the practice safe
and accept the risks (and there are some) because of the benefits. The
benefits of trying to get from San Francisco to New York for a meeting the
next day far outweigh the risk of air travel and the person taking the
flight voluntarily accepts that risk.
So, we might be able to determine the scientific risk of GM crops and
foods, but this is only one aspect of the decision-making process for most
people. We, as scientists, likely have opinions on the social and ethical
aspects of the debate, but they are just that, opinions. I believe that
we, as scientists, should present peer-reviewed, scientific facts, when
available, and offer opinions, clearly stated as personal opinions, when
they are not based on scientific facts. It is an important distinction.
What do you need to tell them?
So our mandate is clear, but what do we need to provide to our audiences
and how? First, information must be communicated in easy-to-understand
terms, remembering that others do not have the expertise to understand
complicated technical explanations and in most cases they don’t need to.
But there has to be at least be a rudimentary understanding of the role of
genes and genetics in the evolution of the foods we eat today.
Additionally audiences must understand the differences and similarities in
the methods we use today versus those used for centuries. Without this, it
is difficult to discuss risks and benefits.
As a public-sector communicator of over 10 years, I have developed
strategies that help me communicate with varied audiences.
* A general introduction to the history of foods and agriculture.
Biotechnology is not the first technology to impact the food supply; other
technologies have been used over the years to change our food supply, e.g.
domestication of plants and animals, mechanization, chemical inputs and
these too have raised issues involving risk and benefit. Most people in
North America don't appreciate how the food in restaurants and groceries
came to look and taste like it does. This general lack of understanding
makes it extremely difficult to communicate about how foods for tomorrow's
table will be generated. Classical breeding and improvement in
agricultural practices have led to dramatic improvements in crop yields.
This is demonstrated when you look at the acreage required to produce food
for the U.S. in 1987. When expressed in 1929 productivity, the area
required to produce the same amount of food is dramatically increased.
* An explanation of the genetics behind classical breeding and genetic
engineering using easy to understand analogies. I explain that the genetic
information in a cell is made of recipes that determine what the cells do
and imparts on the plant or animal its characteristics. That recipe, the
genome, is made up of chemical units. If each unit in a wheat plant is
represented by an alphabetic letter, it takes 1700 books, each of 1000
pages, to hold all that information. Or, if I represent the genes in a
plant with a string of pop-it beads, that string would be approximately a
* What happens when crossing or genetic engineering is performed. When two
plants are bred by crossing or a single plant is genetically engineered,
this is easily explained with either analogy. In classical breeding two
plants are crossed but only half the information is retained and which
beads or pages are retained is random. Also you can enrich the amount of
information from the commercial variety by backcrossing, but the breeder
cannot read the pages and therefore cannot be assured that no negative
effects will occur. With a genetic engineering approach, it is possible to
move just a small amount of text (equivalent to half of a page or a single
pop-it bead) and that text can be read before it is moved.
Using these analogies it is possible to show that there are some
similarities between the two methods and some differences. The biggest
issue for most people, of course, is that classical breeding can occur
only between related species, when with genetic engineering the source of
the half-page or the pop-it bead can be any living organism. This is made
possible because all information in all organisms is written in the same
* A look at how biotechnology is already impacting agriculture, including
those products currently in the marketplace. In considering these products
I try to look at the potential benefits and risks critically.
* A look at the biotechnology pipeline highlighting products being
developed and the incredible diversity and power of the technology. I use
many examples, ranging from strategies to protect against pests to using
plants to make tailor-made vaccines for curing human cancers.
* A look at the regulatory structure. Claims are that GM foods are
untested. This simply is not the case. There is a lot of data relating to
food and environmental safety issues. Admittedly, companies produce some
of it themselves, but public sector scientists publish some of it in
peer-reviewed literature as well.
* Interject a little humor when you can. Hopefully we do not take
ourselves so seriously that we cannot poke fun at the situation. This can
tend to diffuse some of the friction, but whether or not you can interject
humor depends on the audience.
In some talks, I cover some of the issues that are currently of concern
to the public; this can be a scary prospect for someone who has not
followed all of these issues closely. How do you talk knowledgeably about
the impact of B.t. pollen on Monarch butterflies or the safety of Starlink
corn. It takes some effort and I recognize that. Because of this I have
spent the last few years developing tools to help scientists to assume a
role in the public debate.
At our website, ucbiotech.org, are tools to make your jobs easier. First
is a resources section in which the text of nearly all of my talks
resides, along with in many cases, downloadable slides. But perhaps the
two most helpful sections are the Biotechnology Information section and
the Scientific Database. The University of California, in collaboration
with the ETH in Zurich, developed a keyword searchable issues and
responses section of the website in which some 120 issues that have been
raised over the years in public venues are addressed. The responses to
these issues are linked to peer-reviewed scientific literature; you click
on a scientific reference and this takes you to the reference as well as
an abstract or summary. This has been an incredibly difficult undertaking
but, as it is evolving, we believe that it is a useful resource for
scientists to prepare themselves for their role in presenting scientific
facts during the public debate.
Summary: In summary, we, as scientists, need to be able to communicate
with consumers and clientele about the nature of genetic engineering and
how it is similar and different in some ways from classical methods of
genetic manipulation. We also need to give people scientific,
peer-reviewed data on risks and benefits when it is available, but realize
that there are many issues that relate to an individual’s feeling of
safety” besides scientifically measurable risk. We need to have an
informed public and informed policy-makers who make decisions armed with
the information on scientifically measurable risk.
What are some of the Issues?
The issues of public concern I divide into three general categories. They
are food safety, environmental and socioeconomic/ethical. Each category
has its list of issues. For example, here is a nonexhaustive list of food
safety issues. I presented them in this bracketed manner since it is often
a matter of perspective that determines how you see issues. A scientist
might see the allergenicity issue as one of being able to get rid of
allergies, while consumers might be fearful that the genes introduced
could cause allergies, like the fear over Starlink corn, or that by
introducing a gene you might inadvertently create an allergen.
There are many other issues, some of which can be answered with scientific
details and some of which cannot. It is important to recognize that there
many are issues out there. For some we have scientific data; for others
the jury is still out. For some there is a desire on the part of some for
100% safety, but so far as I know very few, if any, things are 100%
risk-free, even conventional foods and organic foods are not. The best we
can do is to talk about comparative risk.
There are also environmental issues. Consideration of these by the general
public was triggered by the publication of the Losey paper in Nature about
the effects of pollen from certain B.t. corn varieties on Monarch
butterflies. Once again, the consideration of these issues is often
dependent on your point of view and the data that is available to
substantiate, or not, your fears or confidence. I think we have to admit
that the information on environmental issues is more difficult to obtain
and less clear-cut than that on the food safety issues.
The final category, socioeconomic/ethical issues, is the one for which
there is the least data and by its nature involves opinion and values.
While these can be addressed, and must be addressed, by the public in
general, it is not one for which scientists can provide solid data.