Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - February 3, 2004:
* New Challenges Require New Tools, Says EU Research Chief
* Keeping Pace
* Grain of Hope
* Steven Pinker Book Excerpts: Examines Biotech Fears
* Noted Indian Anti-GM Activist Dead
* India and Pakistan Cement Scientific Ties Including GM Research
* On NRC Report Again: Activists Circumvent Rules
* Food Forecasts for 2004
* Letters to The Guardian and The New Scientist
* Monsanto: Ready to Blossom?
* International Conference on Appropriate Technology
* The Risky Business of Understanding Risk
* Risk and Reason: Safety, Law, and the Environment
New Challenges Require New Tools, Says EU Research Chief
- Cordis News, Feb. 2, 2004 http://dbs.cordis.lu
The need for innovative approaches to address the existing and emerging
challenges in agricultural policy and research was emphasised by EU
Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin on 2 February, at a seminar
organised by the European Commission.
Hosted by Wageningen University and Research Centre, the seminar was
attended by Commission officials and leading experts, who discussed the
key challenges facing agricultural policy and research, such as EU
enlargement, global competition, consumer distrust, societal acceptance,
and contagious disease control.
Commissioner Busquin also announced that in addition to the new
instruments of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), the European
Commission was examining the possibility of establishing new technology
platforms aimed at creating a European Research Area for agro-food
Currently, there are some 7 million farmers within the EU, and enlargement
will raise this figure to nearer 17 million. As Professor Patrick
Cunningham of Trinity College Dublin explained: 'On average [the accession
countries'] productivity has been estimated at 11 percent of that of
Western Europe, so enormous changes will need to take place in
agricultural structures in the Eastern countries in the coming decades'.
Professor Cunningham insisted that this was a key macro economic
challenge, which had been greatly underestimated by the EU. He went on to
argue that globalisation will add to the problem, as recent studies show
that for the main food commodities, such as meat, cereals and milk, lowest
cost producers in other developed countries can deliver products at less
that half the European cost.
The combination of those macro economic factors requires that
'agricultural research aim at a better understanding of the inextricable
connections between land management, food productions, food technology and
human health,' according to Dr Manfred Lückemeyer, of the European
agricultural research initiative (EURAGRI).
This goes hand in hand with the shift from 'a production to a consumer
orientation, and the importance attached now to food quality and safety'
added Dr Lückemeyer. This is especially true in the wake of persistent
revelations of deficiencies in the food system, which have damaged
Such challenges suggest that the EU needs to be extremely cautious with
new food technology. Although the EU has not been at the centre of the
recent revolution in genetically modified (GM) food, all major
stakeholders are aware that Europe now needs to catch up if it does not
want to loose out on the remarkable opportunities for increasing
efficiency in food production.
'Balancing justified caution with acceptance of the benefits that science
can bring is one of the challenges, not just for scientists and food
producers, but for society' said Professor Cunningham
For more information on the seminar, please visit:
- Reg Clause, Truth About Trade, Jan. 29,2004
Sam Goldwyn's secretary once suggested that she throw away her boss's old
files. "A good idea," replied the legendary moviemaker, "only be sure to
make of copy of everything before getting rid of it." I'm not sure
whether Goldwyn was being serious or merely offering his best
impersonation of Yogi Berra. Whatever the truth, his comment is an
excellent illustration of the point that some people don't know how to
The same cannot be said of the U.S. Department of Agriculture--or at least
the USDA folks in charge of regulating biotech enhanced crops. They've
just announced their intention to update rules that were first put in
place 17 years ago. "As science and technology advance, we want to have a
regulatory framework that keeps pace," said Secretary of Agriculture Ann
This is a welcome decision that comes at a good time.
In 1987, when the original rules went into effect, biotech crops seemed
like science fiction. Today they're a fundamental part of reality. Last
year, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of
Agribiotech Applications(ISAAA), genetically enhanced crops were
cultivated on nearly 68 million hectares worldwide--15 percent more than
the year before and the seventh consecutive season for a double-digit rate
Biotech crops are here to stay because they contribute to larger and
healthier harvests, cleaner fields, and protect the environment.
Modernized regulations will help our government maintain high levels of
public confidence in food safety.
When it comes to biotech crops, the key difference between the United
States and Europe isn't simply that Americans favor them and Europeans
don't--it's that we Americans have a much stronger faith in the ability of
our food inspectors to guarantee that what we eat is healthy and safe. As
a result, Americans have reaped substantial benefits from developing and
applying the latest agricultural biotechnology advancements.
We'll continue to do so by updating federal rules and sticking to a few
common-sense principles that have allowed us to achieve so much already.
The most important will be making sure our decisions are based on sound
science rather than anxious speculation.
Speculation, of course, can be a useful tool if it helps scientists figure
out their next set of research questions. But it becomes counterproductive
when mixed with pessimism and trepidation--which is exactly what has
happened in Europe, with its so-called precautionary principle poisoning
all kinds of innovation. European regulators have mastered the art of
forgetting what they know and embracing what they fear.
In the United States, by contrast, we've done an outstanding job of
keeping a close watch on the development of biotech crops. Since 1987, the
USDA has overseen more than 10,000 individual field trials on a broad
number of different kinds of plants--and it has approved more than 60 of
them for commercial use. (The vast majority of the rest have not moved on
because the promise they've shown in the lab or in someone's imagination
doesn't bear fruit when they're actually planted and studied.)
USDA is proposing a "multi-tiered, risk-based" approach to regulating
biotech enhanced crops and plans to utilize plenty of public input. I see
this as a positive step, even though the hysterical enemies of
biotechnology may be expected to seize upon it with gusto. Whenever a
genetically enhanced crop comes up for regulatory approval, they'll
declare that an ecological apocalypse is at hand.
But they'll be wrong--and the hard data coming out of an updated
regulatory system will prove it. I'm confident that the more we think
about the environment in the context of biotech crops, the better biotech
crops are going to look. After all, that's been the history of these crops
since the beginning.
I could go on and on about how biotech plants are reducing pressure to
convert wilderness into farmland as our global population of 6 billion
people continues to grow. Instead, let me simply cite a letter recently
sent to British Prime Minister Tony Blair by 150 of the world's top
scientists, including DNA co-discoverer James Watson and World Food Prize
winner Gurdev Khush: "GM crops are providing farmers with cost-effective
means of controlling pests while using less pesticides and reducing the
impact of agriculture in the face of increasing environmental pressures."
The public has been invited to comment on the updated regulations until
March 23. I'm sure it wasn't intended, but there's a kind of poetry in
that deadline. Coming three days after the spring equinox, it's a time
when many people in America start to see their own environment begin to
turn green again.
About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) is a national
grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed by farmers in
support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.
Grain of Hope
'Work continues to make nutrient-enhanced golden rice to help prevent
Biotech researchers in the Philippines and elsewhere are working to make
"golden rice," one of plant biotechnology’s most heralded laboratory
advances, a reality.
Golden rice is rice fortified with betacarotene, which stimulates the
production of vitamin A in the human body. Betacarotene gives carrots
their orange, daffodils their yellow and golden rice the distinctive tint
from which it gets its name.
Yearly, vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in 500,000 children and 1
million to 2 million deaths. It also weakens the body’s ability to ward
off infection and minor illness.2 By introducing the building blocks of
vitamin A into rice, a staple food around the world, researchers hope to
attack the problem affordably and on a global scale. "I'm very excited
about golden rice," said Alfred Sommer, dean of the Bloomberg School of
Public Health atJohns Hopkins University, told the New Jersey Star-Ledger
earlier this year. "It’s a really powerful new tool."
From the Lab to the Field. Building on the work of scientists Ingo
Potrykus and Peter Beyer, who created the first betacarotene-enhanced
seeds, researchers at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in
Los Baños, Philippines, hope to transform golden rice from a laboratory
promise into an effective dinnerplate solution.
Once laboratory and greenhouse evaluations are complete, golden rice will
be tested to see how it performs under real growing conditions. If the
results are good, IRRI researchers hope to make the rice available to
farmers by approximately 2006, says Swapan Datta, the institute’s chief
plant biotechnologist.4 The IRRI researchers also will be monitoring any
effects golden rice has on the environment.
One challenge for Datta and his team is to develop, through crossbreeding,
varieties of the rice that farmers around the world can use -- varieties
adapted to local tastes and growing conditions. That will enable golden
rice to flourish in tropical areas such as Southeast Asia, for example,
where 70 percent of children under the age of five are affected by vitamin
While a bowl of golden rice alone won’t give undernourished children the
nutrient levels they need, IRRI researchers are also working to pack more
punch into each grain. Traditional brown rice has a little betacarotene in
its plant tissue. Golden rice in its current form has a lot more, located
in the edible parts of the plant. But new varieties in development will
have even higher levels of the eyesight-saving, disease-preventing
Nor is rice the only crop being fortified with betacarotene. Researchers
are also working to develop an enriched mustard seed, whose oil is the
second most commonly consumed oil in India. In addition, researchers are
experimenting with iron, zinc and vitamin E-enhanced rice, with the goal
of improving health in regions where rice accounts for up to 80 percent of
An Eye Toward Better Health. Research at the nonprofit IRRI is overseen by
a Humanitarian Board whose members come from universities, corporations,
the World Bank and the philanthropic Rockefeller Foundation, among other
organizations. This is the first collaboration of its kind between the
public sector and private companies involved in biotech research, the goal
being to make golden rice available to poor people in developing countries
as quickly and cheaply as possible.
That goal originated with Beyer and Potrykus, who were determined that
their technology be used for humanitarian purposes. The son of a German
army surgeon killed during World War II, Potrykus spent the final months
of the war foraging for food for his mother and three siblings in northern
Bavaria. "When you are hungry, you cannot think of anything else," he told
Biotech corporations are donating expertise and royalty-free licensing
technology to make golden rice freely available in developing regions
(while preserving commercial rights in the United States and other
developed markets). Golden rice -- like all biotech products in the
pipeline -- must undergo government and peer review to ensure it’s safe to
grow and safe to eat before it’s released to farmers. But it holds
enormous potential to address a problem that’s clearly not going away, say
experts such as Bruce Chassy, a professor of food microbiology at the
University of Illinois.
"We must learn to develop better ways to grow more food for the 4 billion
people who will join us in the next 50 years," said Chassy, assistant dean
for biotechnology outreach at the University of Illinois,
Urbana-Champaign. "Golden rice shows that biotechnology will help us get
References at http://www.whybiotech.com/index.asp?id=2094&trackid=4261
'Blank Slate' Author Examines Biotech Fears and the Roots of Our Risk
- From the book: 'The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature' by
Steven Pinker, 2003 Penguin.
> (From Prakash: 'The Blank Slate' by Prof. Pinker of Harvard University is one of the most interesting books that I have read lately that deals with a variety of issues. I highly recommend reading this book as it was at once enlightening and joyful to read. Here, I reproduce a section dealing with GM foods. I thank Prof. Pinker for permitting this reproduction and for sending the text)
When a 1999 cyclone in India left millions of people in danger of
starvation, some activists denounced relief societies for distributing a
nutritious grain meal because it contained genetically modified varieties
of corn and soybeans (varieties that had been eaten without apparent harm
in the United States). These activists are also opposed to "golden rice,"
a genetically modified variety that could prevent blindness in millions of
children in the developing world and alleviate vitamin A deficiency in a
quarter of a billion more. Other activists have vandalized research
facilities at which the safety of genetically modified foods is tested and
new varieties are developed. For these people, even the possibility that
such foods could be safe is unacceptable.
A 2001 report by the European Union reviewed eighty-one research projects
conducted over fifteen years and failed to find any new risks to human
health or to the environment posed by genetically modified crops. This is
no surprise to a biologist. Genetically modified foods are no more
dangerous than "natural" foods because they are not fundamentally
different from natural foods. Virtually every animal and vegetable sold in
a health-food store has been "genetically modified" for millennia by
selective breeding and hybridization. The wild ancestor of carrots was a
thin, bitter white root; the ancestor of corn had an inch-long, easily
shattered cob with a few small, rock-hard kernels.
Plants are Darwinian creatures with no particular desire to be eaten, so
they did not go out of their way to be tasty, healthy, or easy for us to
grow and harvest. On the contrary: they did go out of their way to deter
us from eating them, by evolving irritants, toxins, and bitter-tasting
compounds. So there is nothing especially safe about natural foods. The
"natural" method of selective breeding for pest resistance simply
increases the concentration of the plant's own poisons; one variety of
natural potato had to be withdrawn from the market because it proved to be
toxic to people.
Similarly, natural flavors--defined by one food scientist as "a flavor
that's been derived with an out-of-date technology"--are often chemically
indistinguishable from their artificial counterparts, and when they are
distinguishable, sometimes the natural flavor is the more dangerous one.
When "natural" almond flavor, benzaldehyde, is derived from peach pits, it
is accompanied by traces of cyanide; when it is synthesized as an
"artificial flavor," it is not.
A blanket fear of all artificial and genetically modified foods is
patently irrational on health grounds, and it could make food more
expensive and hence less available to the poor. Where do these specious
fears come from? Partly they arise from the carcinogen-du-jour school of
journalism that uncritically reports any study showing elevated cancer
rates in rats fed megadoses of chemicals. But partly they come from an
intuition about living things that was first identified by the
anthropologist James George Frazer in 1890 and has recently been studied
in the lab by the psychologist Paul Rozin and other cognitive scientists.
People's intuitive biology begins with the concept of an invisible essence
residing in living things, an essence that gives them their form and
powers. These essentialist beliefs emerge early in childhood, and in
traditional cultures they dominate reasoning about plants and animals.
Often the intuitions serve people well. They allow preschoolers to deduce
that a raccoon that looks like a skunk will have raccoon babies, that a
seed taken from an apple and planted with flowers in a pot will produce an
apple tree, and that an animal's behavior depends on its innards, not on
its appearance. They allow traditional peoples to deduce that
different-looking creatures (such as a caterpillar and a butterfly) can
belong to the same kind, and they impel them to extract juices and powders
from living things and try them as medicines, poisons, and food
supplements. They can prevent people from sickening themselves by eating
things that have been in contact with infectious substances such as feces,
sick people, and rotting meat.
But intuitive essentialism can also lead people into error. Children
falsely believe that a child of English-speaking parents will speak
English even if brought up in a French-speaking family, and that boys will
have short hair and girls will wear dresses even if they are brought up
with no other member of their sex from which they can learn those habits.
Traditional peoples believe in sympathetic magic, otherwise known as
voodoo. They think similar-looking objects have similar powers, so that a
ground-up rhinoceros horn is a cure for erectile dysfunction. And they
think that animal parts can transmit their powers to anything they mingle
with, so that eating or wearing a part of a fierce animal will make one
Educated Westerners should not feel too smug. Rozin has shown that we have
voodoolike intuitions ourselves. Most Americans won't touch a sterilized
cockroach, or even a plastic one, and won't drink juice that the roach has
touched for even a fraction of a second. And even Ivy League students
believe that you are what you eat. They judge that a tribe that hunts
turtles for their meat and wild boar for their bristles will be good
swimmers, and that a tribe that hunts turtles for their shells and wild
boar for their meat will be tough fighters.
In his history of biology, Ernst Mayr showed that many biologists
originally rejected the theory of natural selection because of their
belief that a species was a pure type defined by an essence. They could
not wrap their minds around the concept that species are populations of
variable individuals and that one can blend into another over evolutionary
In this context, the fear of genetically modified foods no longer seems so
strange: it is simply the standard human intuition that every living thing
has an essence. Natural foods are thought to have the pure essence of the
plant or animal and to carry with them the rejuvenating powers of the
pastoral environment in which they grew. Genetically modified foods, or
foods containing artificial additives, are thought of as being
deliberately laced with a contaminant tainted by its origins in an acrid
laboratory or factory. Arguments that invoke genetics, biochemistry,
evolution, and risk analysis are likely to fall on deaf ears when pitted
against this deep-rooted way of thinking.
Essentialist intuitions are not the only reason that perceptions of danger
can be off the mark. Risk analysts have discovered to their bemusement
that people's fears are often way out of line with objective hazards. Many
people avoid flying, though car travel is eleven times more dangerous.
They fear getting eaten by a shark, though they are four hundred times
more likely to drown in their bathtub. They clamor for expensive measures
to get chloroform and trichloroethylene out of drinking water, though they
are hundreds of times more likely to get cancer from a daily peanut butter
sandwich (since peanuts can carry a highly carcinogenic mold). Some of
these risks may be misestimated because they tap into our innate fears of
heights, confinement, predation, and poisoning. But even when people are
presented with objective information about danger, they may not appreciate
it because of the way the mind assesses probabilities.
A statement like "The chance of dying of botulism poisoning in a given
year is .000001" is virtually incomprehensible. For one thing, magnitudes
with lots of zeroes at the beginning or end are beyond the ken of our
number sense. The psychologist Paul Slovic and his colleagues found that
people are unmoved by a lecture on the hazards of not wearing a seat belt
which mentions that a fatal collision occurs once in every 3.5 million
person-trips. But they say they will buckle up when the odds are
recalculated to show that their lifetime chance of dying in a collision is
The other reason for the incomprehensibility of many statistics is that
the probability of a single event, such as my dying in a plane crash (as
opposed to the frequency of some events relative to others, such as the
proportion of all airline passengers who die in crashes), is a genuinely
puzzling concept, even to mathematicians. What sense can we make of the
odds offered by expert bookmakers for particular events, such as that the
Archbishop of Canterbury will confirm the second coming within a year
(1000 to 1), that a Mr. Braham of Luton, England, will invent a perpetual
motion machine (250 to 1), or that Elvis Presley is alive and well (1000
to 1)? Either Elvis is alive or he isn't, so what does it mean to say
that the probability that he is alive is .001?
Similarly, what should we think when aviation safety analysts tell us that
on average a single landing in a commercial airliner reduces one's life
expectancy by fifteen minutes? When the plane comes down, either my life
expectancy will be reduced by a lot more than fifteen minutes or it won't
be reduced at all. Some mathematicians say that the probability of a
single event is more like a gut feeling of confidence, expressed on a
scale of 0 to 1, than a meaningful mathematical quantity.
The mind is more comfortable in reckoning probabilities in terms of the
relative frequency of remembered or imagined events. That can make recent
and memorable events--a plane crash, a shark attack, an anthrax
infection--loom larger in one's worry list than more frequent and boring
events, such as the car crashes and ladder falls that get printed beneath
the fold on page B14. And it can lead risk experts to speak one language
and ordinary people to hear another. In hearings for a proposed nuclear
waste site, an expert might present a fault tree that lays out the
conceivable sequences of events by which radioactivity might escape.
For example, erosion, cracks in the bedrock, accidental drilling, or
improper sealing might cause the release of radioactivity into
groundwater. In turn, groundwater movement, volcanic activity, or an
impact of a large meteorite might cause the release of radioactive wastes
into the biosphere. Each train of events can be assigned a probability,
and the aggregate probability of an accident from all the causes can be
estimated. When people hear these analyses, however, they are not
reassured but become more fearful than ever--they hadn't realized there
are so many ways for something to go wrong! They mentally tabulate the
number of disaster scenarios, rather than mentally aggregating the
probabilities of the disaster scenarios.
None of this implies that people are dunces or that "experts" should ram
unwanted technologies down their throats. Even with a complete
understanding of the risks, reasonable people might choose to forgo
certain technological advances. If something is viscerally revolting, a
democracy should allow people to reject it whether or not it is "rational"
by some criterion that ignores our psychology.
Many people would reject vegetables grown in sanitized human waste and
would avoid an elevator with a glass floor, not because they believe these
things are dangerous but because the thought gives them the creeps. If
they have the same reaction to eating genetically modified foods or living
next to a nuclear power plant, they should have the option of rejecting
them too, as long as they do not try to force their preferences on others
or saddle them with the costs.
Also, even if technocrats provide reasonable estimates of a risk (which is
itself an iffy enterprise), they cannot dictate what level of risk people
ought to accept. People might object to a nuclear power plant that has a
minuscule risk of a meltdown not because they overestimate the risk but
because they feel that the costs of the catastrophe, no matter how remote,
are too dreadful. And of course any of these tradeoffs may be unacceptable
if people perceive that the benefits would go to the wealthy and powerful
while they themselves absorb the risks.
Nonetheless, understanding the difference between our best science and our
ancient ways of thinking can only make our individual and collective
decisions better informed. It can help scientists and journalists explain
a new technology in the face of the most common misunderstandings. And it
can help all of us understand the technology so that we can accept or
reject it on grounds that we can justify to ourselves and to others.
Nanjundaswamy Passes Away
Bangalore, Feb 3 (UNI): Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha President Prof M D
Nanjundaswamy died here this morning after prolonged illness.
Elected to the Karnataka Assembly from the Dharwad Rural constituency
during the byelection in March 1990, Prof Nanjundaswamy had been
campaigning against introduction of genetically modified crops in the
country and also worked for the cause of saving some of the native crops.
India and Pakistan Cement Scientific Ties
- T V Padma, Jan. 30 2004; Full story at
The science ministers of India and Pakistan have agreed on a number of key
areas of scientific collaboration through which they hope to strengthen
ties between the two countries. Meeting in New Delhi this week, Pakistan's
minister for research and higher education Atta-ur-Rahman and Indian
science minister Murli Manohar Joshi selected information technology;
engineering sciences; pharmaceuticals; bioinformatics; and biotechnology
for industrial, agricultural and health applications as areas in which
researchers from the two countries will work together.
As a first step, the two countries will set up expert groups in these
disciplines to initiate talks, according to an official spokesperson in
New Delhi. The meeting between the two ministers follows a landmark
agreement reached earlier this month between the leaders of their
respective nations to encourage greater cooperation in science and
On NRC Report Again: Activists Circumvent Rules
- Val Giddings, BIO
In re postings responding to DeGregori's comments on availability of the
NAS reports, I think it is much more than academic if, in fact, activist
groups have early access to the reports not extended to industry or
academics or other interested parties. Judging from media coverage of the
past few Academy reports, it seems highly likely that this has been the
case even before the mention by one reporter that Greg Jaffe had had the
report for some time before its general availability.
Academy rules prohibit sharing the reports in advance with anybody not
involved with the academy in the preparation or review of a report, and
all people so involved are bound not to distribute the reports further and
to honor the embargo on comments. BIO has consistently and repeatedly been
denied access even to the embargoed media copies, even though we routinely
get media calls and requests to comment starting a day or days in advance
of the reports being made public.
It appears as if the Academy's rules on access to reports are being
systematically circumvented by activist groups that just happen to be
hostile to ag biotech (protestations to the contrary notwithstanding;
unrelenting and ill informed hostility to the regulatory regime included).
One wonders why the Academy has not noticed this and taken steps to end
the abuse. To continue allowing it to happen subverts the mission and
objectivity of the academy, eroding its prestige and effectiveness,
something that is good for none but the enemies of reason, who are legion.
Food Forecasts for 2004
- Alex & Dennis Avery, Amercian Outlook Today, Jan. 28 2004, via
BioScience News and Advocate (NZ)
Food will continue to be an emotional hot-button for people in 2004, as it
has been for thousands--if not millions--of years.
Our first, and safest, prediction is that the world's farmers will again
produce record amounts of food, and that hunger will be a severe problem
only in the (fortunately) few places impacted by civil war (Sudan,
Liberia) and/or harshly despotic governance (North Korea, Zimbabwe).
We predict that the huge and historic human problem of soil erosion will
get worse in Third World countries with rising populations and shortages
of fertilizer. Soil erosion losses will keep declining in First World
countries where high yields produce more food from less, and chemical weed
killers help conservation tillage cut erosion per acre by 65-95 percent.
Biotech crops will be planted on millions of additional acres in 2004,
with most of the expansion on small farms in the Third World. Millions of
Chinese farmers have already doubled their incomes with pest-resistant
biotech plants, and last year the biotech seeds surged in popularity in
both India and the Philippines increasing corn and cotton yields by up to
80 percent. Brazil will start openly producing biotech soybeans in 2004,
instead of bootlegging the genetically modified seeds from Argentina.
Researchers are seeking field trial permission in tropical Africa, where
pest-resistant crops could be enormously beneficial.
We predict that organic food will continue to supply only a tiny
proportion of America's food in 2004, at ultra-high prices. One reason:
California is trying to outlaw hand weeding as a needless and cruel risk
of back injuries to farm workers. Without hand hoes, organic farmers have
virtually no way to keep weeds from taking over many of their crop fields.
We predict farm subsidies will continue to hold the world in bondage for
the foreseeable future. The World Trade Organization talks on phasing the
subsidies out collapsed last year and there is no restart in sight.
Taxpayers in the United States and Europe will continue to waste hundreds
of billions of dollars on farm payments and price supports. U.S. farmers,
who should be exporting food to densely populated Asian countries with
rising incomes, will instead turn their corn into ethanol (without benefit
to the environment). Poor consumers in the Third World will pay 50 percent
more for their food because of import barriers set up by their governments
to bar "dumping" of First World food surpluses. Everybody will lose.
One reason for the high global food production will be high levels of CO2
in the atmosphere, stimulating the world's crop yields. Researchers think
as much as 10 percent of the world's recent crop yield gains have been due
to more CO2 in the atmosphere. (It's like giving a human athlete more
oxygen.) No nation in the world is significantly constraining CO2
emissions, and 13 of the 15 EU nations will apparently miss their Kyoto
Have human CO2 emissions raised the world's temperatures? Probably not by
much, if at all. 1) Humans emit only about 3 percent of the world's CO2
production. 2) The world in the 12th century was warmer than today, even
though CO2 levels were much lower then. 3) The biggest recent jump in
world temperatures occurred between 1920 and 1940-when human CO2 emissions
were about one-sixth of today's and industry was stifled by the global
We predict that, for most of our readers, the big food challenge of 2004
will be to avoid overeating. Real food prices will continue to decline
slowly but steadily, as they have for 200 years. We'll spend less than ten
percent of our family incomes this year on food-including restaurant
Unfortunately for our waistlines, technology will enable us to get by in
2004 with even less physical work than last year. Machines and computers
will replace even more hours of human labor. Gizmos like swiffer-mops,
snow blowers, riding lawn mowers and Internet shopping sites will enable
us to live with less and less physical exertion.
That sets up our final fearless prediction: America's national waistline
will continue to expand in 2004-because we aren't serious enough yet about
eating less and exercising more. I remain thankful that I live in a
society where that's the most serious food problem.
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson
Institute's Center for Global Food Issues. Dennis T. Avery is based in
Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for
Global Food Issues.
Letters Sent to The Guardian and The New Scientist
- From Mr. Meredith Lloyd-Evans, BioBridge Ltd, Cambridge, UK
Guardian: Dear Sir:
A friend has sent the following extract from The Guardian of 26th January:
> "The Guardian reports news from Denmark, where 'a biotech company has put genetic engineering to work for something useful, other than filling the coffers of the likes of Monsanto. The Danish company, Aresa Biodetection, has designed a flower to detect landmines, using GM Thale cress weed that changes colour when the plant's roots come into contact with the nitrogen-dioxide given out by buried explosives....."
This is indeed an interesting use of the technology but why do you need to
combine it with a gratuitous sideswipe against a company that has done
more than most to make biotechnology in plants work properly?
New Scientist: Dear Sir, Hmmm.... Ben Ayliffe (letters 17th January 2004)
is upset about GM beet and skylarks. Apart from the typical habit of
Greenpeace turning computer models into fact, it underlines how selective
Greenpeace and other organisations are about historical and present
reality. Skylarks in abundance were a product of the agrarian revolution
necessary to feed people congregating in towns, the result of the
Industrial revolution. In the present day, the most-effective and
realistic ways of restoring balance to farming would be to ban winter
crops and drastically reduce the impact of farming on the environment by
growing higher-yield GM crops on a smaller footprint.
If Greenpeace wants to restore outmoded agriculture, they will need to
depopulate Britain by 80% first or force us to eat 60% less food. Try
telling that to all the people who haven't the time to grow their own food
or the money to 'buy organic', and don't want to queue up for 'genocide by
> From Ben Ayliffe, Greenpeace UK
> That genetically mofidified sugar beet is up to "15 to 50 per cent better for the environment" than conventional varieties is a rather strange assertion (6 December 2003, p17). The Richard Phipps study you reported has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. There is, however, clear scientific evidence showing the environmental harm that GM sugar beet will cause: the recent farm-scale evaluations were a case in point.
> Further research by the UK government also found that "the consequences of introducing GM sugar beet were extremely severe, with a rapid decline, and the extinction of the skylark in 20 years." Add to this the pronouncement from the government's GM Science Review about its inherent unpredictability, and all of a sudden GM sugar beet looks distinctly less palatable.>>
Monsanto: Ready to Blossom?
- By Amy Tsao, Business Week, Feb. 3, 2004. Full story at
Shifting the focus from farm chemicals to the more lucrative gene-altered
seeds hasn't been easy, but the effort could pay off big
For years, Monsanto's (MON ) blockbuster herbicide Roundup was the
unassailable market leader. But that started to change in the fall of
2000, when the U.S. patent expired. Since then, sales have been falling
steadily, despite the St. Louis-based chemicals-and-seeds outfit's best
efforts to price Roundup more competitively with copycat herbicides and
convince farmers to buy variations of the original product. In fiscal year
ended August, 2003, Roundup sales fell to $1.8 billion, down from $2.5
billion in fiscal 2001.
MORE LIKE A BIOTECH? Good news is emerging as well from the EU, a major
opponent of genetically modified crops. In January, EU ministers said they
would consider allowing imports of a gene-altered corn, made by Swiss seed
outfit Syngenta. A vote in favor of the corn -- in food form only, not for
planting -- could pave the way for Monsanto's customers to sell their
produce in Europe, too. The EU will consider making a similar allowance
for Monsanto corn beginning as soon as this month.
Monsanto also has many more gene-based products under development. Among
the most promising are seeds that enhance water and nitrogen utilization
and improve a plant's ability to withstand cold weather. These should
reach the market by 2008. Also in development: Seeds that would yield
crops richer in vitamins. "In broader terms, Monsanto is only starting to
scratch the surface," say Banc of America Securities' McCarthy.
With such prospects come heightened risks. Genetically modified seeds have
been embraced in the U.S. with only minor opposition. But resistance
remains strong in Europe -- so a key market is, at best, years away and
may never develop.
These are big risks, but Monsanto's solid cash flow and clean balance
sheet provide investors with no small degree of comfort, Ravitz says. And
if its genetically altered seed business can gain even a little more
traction overseas, doubts about Monsanto could soon begin to wilt.
International Conference on Appropriate Technology
- Bulawayo, Zimbabwe; July 15-17, 2004
A Knowledge Management Approach to the Development of Appropriate
Technology, with a focus on Sustainable land-based projects The theme of
our first international conference on 'Appropriate Technology' is designed
to: * Facilitate research on the management, assessment, archiving and
tracking of appropriate technology concepts and projects through the use
of state of the art knowledge management theories and practices * Focus on
projects related to increasing the productivity of land-based projects in
a sustainable fashion, while being inclusive of all areas related to
Underdeveloped countries throughout the world have a majority of their
population involved in land-based economy, primarily farming, but also
ranching and mining. Despite this economic emphasis, most of these
countries are importers of agricultural products. This is a problem of low
productivity. Due to insufficient technology, little of the natural
resources excavated from mining are processed locally. A multi-discipline
investigation of the most appropriate technology to use to increase
land-based productivity is in order. To be effective this process of
technology implementation must be sustainable, and culturally and
The Risky Business of Understanding Risk
- Henry I. Miller, MD, TechCentral Station, FEb. 3, 2004. Full piece at
Americans are more and more risk-conscious. We buy muscular SUV's, spend
billions on dietary supplements annually, and try to cut down on saturated
fats. Often, we learn about risks by relying on the media to interpret
medical research and other information that purports to disclose what is
bad (or good) for us. Some people even make decisions about risk on the
basis of what they learn from the likes of Jay Leno and David Letterman:
That's risky business, if you ask me.
Tad Friend wrote in The New Yorker, "It often seems that there is only one
show on television, 'Dateline NBC: 48 Hours of 20/20, PrimeTime Thursday,'
and that this show endlessly repeats one basic story: The Thing That Went
Terribly Wrong." Stories about the risk of this or that, which are now
often the bread and butter of media reporting, give new meaning to the old
TV news maxim, "If it bleeds, it leads." It has become, "If someone
alleges that it bleeds, it leads."
Think Critically. What can non-experts do, then, in order better to
understand and reconcile the emotional aspects of risk?
First, be skeptical of language that is inflammatory but vague. For
example, when activists raise questions about public health or
environmental effects of a new technology, insist that certain questions
be answered. "How different is this product from what has come before?
What are its advantages and potential benefits? How extensively has it
been tested? How likely, in fact, are the purported risks? What are the
risks of not using the technology?"
Second, in order to distinguish genuine health or environmental concerns
from scare tactics, seek answers from genuine experts who can convey
information in a way that is scrupulously honest but also simple enough to
be understood. Concrete examples, especially relevant historical
analogies, are often useful.
Third, become active when issues of risk are discussed and debated. That's
preferable to leaving the platform to the extremists.
Fourth, demand your right to have and to choose among new, innovative
products in the marketplace, subject to scientific and sensible government
regulation that is free from condescension and misinformation.
In the end, while fears of new technology and the risks associated with
them may be inevitable, they must be tempered with knowledge. Recall
Sherlock Holmes' admonition in A Scandal in Bohemia that "it is a capital
mistake to theorize before one has data."
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at the
Hoover Institution. He was at the NIH and FDA from 1077-1994. His next
book, "The Myth of Frankenfood: How Protest and Politics Threaten the
Biotech Revolution," will be published in the Spring by Praeger
Risk and Reason: Safety, Law, and the Environment
- Cass R. Sunstein, Amazon.com price $21.00; Hardcover: 352 pages;
Cambridge University Press; (September 30, 2002); ISBN: 0521791995
Offering sound proposals for social reform, this book explains how a more
sensible system of risk regulation, embodied in the idea of a cost benefit
state, could save many thousands of lives and many billions of dollars
too, and protect the environment in the process; Cass R. Sunstein is the
Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor at the University of
What should be done about airplane safety and terrorism, global warming,
polluted water, nuclear power, and genetically engineered food?
Decision-makers often respond to temporary fears, and the result is a
situation of hysteria and neglect--and unnecessary illness and death. Risk
and Reason explains the sources of these problems and explores what can be
done about them. It shows how individual thinking and social interactions
lead us in foolish directions. Offering sound proposals for social reform,
it explains how a more sensible system of risk regulation, embodied in the
idea of a "cost-benefit state," could save many thousands of lives and
many billions of dollars too--and protect the environment in the process.
"The bottom line on this book is clear: our governance of risk to the
public tends to be managed by political gut reaction rather than informed
investigation; there is no clear doctrine for studying and articulating
risk (for example, distinguishing between high risks to a few and low but
sustained risks to the many, or between three levels of cost-benefit
analysis so that choices can be made); and the best form of risk
management may be through the effective communication of risk information
to the public rather than imposed costs on private sector enterprises.
As reasoned as the book is, it also constitutes a direct attack on all
those who expouse the "precautionary principle." While I do not agree
completely with the author, who seems to feel that rational study allows
for the discounting of any risk to the point where it can be economically
and politically managed at an affordable cost, he certainly take the
debate to an entirely new level and his book is--quite literally--worth
tens of billions of dollars in potential regulatory risk savings."
"The heart of the book is in its conclusion, where the author proposes a
four-part strategy for dramatically reducing the cost of regulatory risk
management, suggesting that we focus on 1) disclosure of information to
the public; 2) economic incentives; 3) risk reduction contracts; and 4)
free market environmentalism. With respect to the latter, he is strongly
supportive of allowing the "sale" of pollution privileges between nations
and industries and companies."
"This book makes a great deal of sense, is worth a great deal of money,
and should guide the future evolution of regulatory and information-driven
risk management." - Robert D. Steele from Oakton, VA