Today in AgBioView: October 21, 2003:
* Prince Charles: On GM Crops, Nature and God
* Let Prince Charles Travel by Bullock Cart When He Comes to India
* GM Balance
* Farmers, Consumers, GM Crops, FSEs and Weedkillers.....
* No Easy Answers on GM Crops
* Report on GM Crop Vandalism in UK
* Take Up GM Food or Lose $2.5bn, Warns Report
* Scientists Quit UK Amid GM Attacks
* Profile of Patrick Moore, Co-founder, Greenpeace
* How Europe Is Killing Africans
* Facts, Beliefs, and Genetically Modified Food
Prince Charles: Reactions to His Views on GM Crops, Nature and God
His Royal Highness Prince of Wales is set to visit India next week. To
commemorate this visit, I have put together a collection of articles and
view points by others on his view of GM crops, nature and God. You can
see these articles from the past AgBioView postings at:
It is likely that the Prince will be advising Indian farmers on the merits
of austere farming without fertilizers or biotech. See below an earlier
suggestion to the Prince by one Indian farm leader. -- Prakash
'Let Prince Charles Travel by Bullock Cart When He Comes to India'
- Kirk Leech, LM Online, Oct. 1999
Chengal Reddy is president of the Andhra Pradesh Farmers' Association.
'The Green Revolution has helped India move from a state of dependence to
a stage of independence in terms of food production', he says. 'Nobody
starves in India because of lack of food.'
He dismisses the critics of fertilisers and GM crops. 'It is like someone
telling me when some disease like malaria or bronchial asthma affects me
that I'm not supposed to use modern medicines. In Indian agriculture
production has to go up; this cannot be done with traditional farmyard
manure, this has to be done with chemical fertilisers and more
high-yielding and genetically modified seeds to increase production. What
else should we do? Environmentalists say don't use chemical fertilisers.
Okay, we will produce one ton, not three or four tons. Once we reduce our
productivity levels, how will we meet our food requirements? Will these
environmentalists ask us to import food from Canada?
'You should tell Prince Charles who advocates organic farming. Let him
travel by bullock cart or horse or small boat driven by wind when he comes
to India. Why should he travel by Boeing aircraft?'
'Farmers in India are in favour of the best technology and best seeds.
Hybrid seeds and genetically modified seeds are demanded by most Indian
farmers. Most activists have little to do with agriculture. If a seed
produced by "X" company gives me more returns, more income, less
expenditure, I will use it. If it doesn't I will reject it. If I use my
own seed the productivity is hardly 50 percent of what is expected. If I
go in for a high-yielding hybrid variety my production will be 100
percent. So which do I prefer?'
Chengal Reddy is just as scathing about opponents of the Narmada dam
project. 'Someone telling us that we should not build dams so that we
can't irrigate, it is bloody absurd. Some of us are telling the
environmentalists that they should stay in Delhi.
'Everyone tells us that the tribals and the villagers in rural India
should remain as they are. But they are not showpieces, animals to be kept
in a zoo, so somebody can come and see them. They want to be reformed;
they want to be like you and me. You use showers, but you want a tribal to
bathe in the river. We want the tribals in India to get out of the
wretched situation they are in and live like civilised people.'
- The Guardian (UK), Oct. 21, 2003
You seem to believe that the results of the government-sponsored
farm-scale evaluations of herbicide-tolerant genetically modified crops
will effectively prevent GM technology being commercialised in the UK (Two
GM crops face ban for damaging wildlife, October 17). This is clearly not
The fact that the crops studied had their herbicide tolerance introduced
using GM technology is irrelevant. The same result would have been found
if they had been "conventionally" bred. The experiments were not to see if
GM crops were safe: many previous trials had already been carried out to
enable experts to conclude that they were.
All farming, whether GM, conventional or organic, has a major impact on
the environment. As a society, we have to decide what is an acceptable
balance between crop production and farmland wildlife. Genetic
modification is a valuable tool which can be used to produce more
desirable environmental outcomes. The result is the important thing, not
how you achieve it.
- Martin Livermore, Scientific Alliance
Farmers, Consumers, GM Crops, FSEs and Weedkillers......
- Michael Wilson, Letter sent to the Editor, The Times (unpublished); Oct.
Worldwide, to farm means to engage in a more-or-less exhausting struggle
against other plants (aka weeds), animals (aka pests) and agents of
disease (aka pathogens) which seek constantly to deprive farmers of their
crops and livelihood, and to deny the quality, quantity, variety and
safety of food products demanded by consumers.
For £5.9m, the Farm-Scale Evaluations have confirmed that three approved
GM crops designed to resist more effective modern weedkillers allow
farmers to control weeds more efficiently and flexibly. As well as being
less environmentally damaging than their predecessors,
glufosinate-ammonium and glyphosate can be, and were, used in lower
overall amounts and at more convenient times on the GM crops (e.g. calm
days to avoid spray drift).
Neither farmers nor consumers desire poisonous weeds, pathogens, toxins or
(pieces of) dead pests or their excrement in their crops or foods. Modern
weedkillers used on modern GM crops can help deliver this result, as well
as reducing tillage, soil damage and erosion, labour and energy costs, and
greenhouse gas emissons. Over 6 million farmers around the world have
figured this out already.
Of the 75% of the UK that is farmed (17m ha) about 23% is arable and only
6% of that is occupied by maize, oilseed rape and sugarbeet (non-GM or GM)
sprayed with weedkillers. Can we not agree that weeds, insects (pest or
otherwise) and pathogens be allowed to thrive outside the small area we
require for economically sustainable farming?
- Professor T Michael A Wilson FIHort CBiol FIBiol FRSA FRSE CEO,
Horticulture Research International
No Easy Answers on GM Crops
- David Dickson, Oct. 20 2003, Scidev.Net. Full article at
The world‚s largest study of the potential impact of genetically modified
crops on the environment has produced an ambiguous set of results result.
Ironically, this conclusion should make future decisions easier.
Implications for developing countries: Both conclusions have immediate and
important messages for those keen to see GM crops grown in developing
countries. The first is essentially positive; the ambiguous results of the
British trials indicate that it would be wrong to cite environmental
impacts on wildlife as a reason for imposing a ban on all such crops.
However, the study did not address other issues which generate different
concerns, in particular the spread of „engineeredš genetic traits into
native varieties of staple crops. In contrast, the trials show that there
are circumstances in which the use of GM crops can actually benefit
This is no reason for abandoning caution; if anything, the trials
underlined the importance of close analysis of the potential impact of
individual crops and the farming methods used to produce them. And this,
of course, is likely to place an additional responsibility on governments
keen to see their farmers grow such crops, but in a manner that does not
harm the environment.
In particular, it is likely to mean firstly that each proposed crop must
be assessed individually, itself a not insignificant task (the UK farm
scale trials, which only covered three crops, involved taking more than
hundreds of thousands of soil and insect samples over the three-year
period). Secondly, the trials underline the need to consider the concept
of "environmental impact" in the broadest possible context, namely not
only the immediate physical impact, but also the disruption to ecological
cycles caused by changes in farming practices.
Both of these have significant resource implications. They will also
require ensuring that adequate training is provided if researchers are
able to carry out such tests in a reliable fashion. Indeed, one of the
strongest arguments against the widespread adoption of GM in developing
countries is that the lack of adequate monitoring and enforcement could
put populations and the environment at much higher risk than in countries
with tough enforcement. Look at the air pollution crisis facing many
cities in the developing world; or, the apparent ease with which Brazilian
farmers have been able to smuggle illegal GM seeds into the country from
Ironically, while both sides in the GM debate have sought to interpret the
UK trials to suit their agendas -- environmentalists argue that they
demonstrate once again that GM crops are dangerous, industry that they are
"flexible" -- the real lesson for the protagonists seems to be different.
For environmentalists, the lesson must be that even though such crops can
be dangerous for the environment, they can also enhance it; for industry
there is an equally important lesson, namely than blanket assertions that
GM crops and the new farming practices they encourage will not damage
natural processes -- at least no more than conventional crops -- are no
Some might argue that, by introducing yet further uncertainties into the
decision-making process, science has only muddied waters that it should be
clarifying. But it is equally possible to argue that scientists have just
been doing what is most needed in the whole debate: putting hypotheses to
the test in the real world, and producing robust conclusions that need to
be taken into account by both sides. This, in itself, will not point the
way forward, either to regulators or politicians. But it helps to provide
a firm basis on which both can plan their future strategies.
Report on Crop Vandalism in UK
- Contact Ellen Raphael for a copy of
A report on the preliminary findings of a survey on the vandalism of crop
research across the UK between January 1999 and April 2003, carried out by
'Sense About Science' has been released. It is based on incidents of
vandalism reported by institutes and contractors across the UK.
The findings suggest that:
1. Incidents of vandalism are lower than some people think, but dealing
with the risk of vandalism is putting a very big strain on research
institutes and contractors. These include problems with finding research
partners and farmer volunteers, raised insurance premiums as protest is
defined as a form of terrorism by insurance companies, and security
measures that often cost more than the research work itself.
2. While there have been many attempts at vandalism of Field Scale
Evaluations, these have had negligible impact due to the large scale of
the FSEs and because the emphasis of the attacks has been on intimidation
(damage to equipment and compromising farm worker safety) or gaining press
coverage (superficial, field perimeter damage).
3. By contrast, the research institutes have borne the brunt of vandalism.
The sabotage tactics adopted to challenge the FSEs seem to have made all
kinds of field research a direct target of attack, and such attacks are
profoundly more damaging to small plots for other kinds of research,
accounting for over 90% of trial write offs since 1999.
Comment on the findings by Tracey Brown: "We conducted this survey to try
to get the measure of how much vandalism is taking place. The actual
numbers are smaller than some imagined, but the burden of trying to
organise the research community to preempt and protect from vandalism is
potentially disastrous. Isolated attacks breed a much wider fear of
Because of these fears, institutes are faced with rising insurance
premiums, expenditure on security, and losing research partners like
farmers and funders, as well as the arbitrary loss of years of research
when work is attacked.
Research sites cannot, and should not have to be, policed night and day
and this is not just a question of law and order policy. As a society we
need to support research more firmly and to be aware of how profoundly our
(often publicly funded) research activity is affected by saboteurs
conducting media and political stunts."
Scientists Quit UK Amid GM Attacks
- Steve Farrar and Anna Fazackerley, The Times Higher Education Supp.
The cost of attacks against genetically modified-crop trials emerged this
week as more British plant scientists left the country to pursue their
work abroad unmolested. Institutes say attacks damage staff morale. Many
researchers feel there is no future for them in the UK. The plant science
department at the University of Cambridge is losing three scientists, two
of them to Australia.
Mark Tester, head of plant science at the university, is moving to the
Waite Institute, Adelaide, in search of a safer environment and better
funding. He said: "Industry has left in droves and that reduces the
options for researchers and students."
Twenty-eight incidents of vandalism targeted at basic plant research
trials were reported between January 1999 and April 2003, according to
preliminary findings conducted by the independent trust Sense About
Science. These are in addition to 52 incidents reported against the
government's field- scale evaluations programme, which tests the safety of
Protesters trampled, cut and pulled up crops, according to reports
gathered from the six basic research institutes and four contracting
institutes that account for the bulk of UK field research. Basic research
trials have proved particularly vulnerable. Tracey Brown, director of
Sense About Science, said: "You can destroy a small-scale trial with a
pair of garden shears." In 90 per cent of such cases, research was written
off, including an investigation into crop drought resistance suited to
Although the report found the number of attacks was declining - two
instances so far this year - almost half said they had received threats.
Chris Leaver, head of plant sciences at the University of Oxford, has been
the victim of personal threats as a result of taking part in the GM
debate. He has recently gone ex-directory to stop abusive telephone calls
Michael Wilson, chief executive of Horticulture Research International,
said the vilification of research in this area was grinding scientists
down. He has received considerable abuse over the past five years, and had
to call the bomb squad to his home on one occasion. "It is uncomfortable
and probably a little cavalier to be as outspoken as I am. And what's the
point? You do wonder if you are raising your blood pressure for no good at
all," he said.
The survey found institute directors were becoming ambivalent about
debating the issues in the media as they felt past attempts had made them
Take Up GM Food or Lose $2.5bn, Warns Report
- Sydney Morning Herald, Oct. 21, 2003
The Australian and New Zealand economies would be $2.5 billion worse off
if farmers failed to adopt genetically modified crops, a new report has
The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE)
report found Australia and New Zealand would still be at least $1.7
billion worse off, even if the only bans were imposed by the EU and some
ABARE found Australia and New Zealand could supply traditional crops to
the EU, but that would not be enough to offset the benefits accruing to
other countries which used GM technology. Neither Australia nor New
Zealand grow commercial GM food crops, although a genetically altered
canola has been approved for use in Australia.
GM crops, although widely grown in the United States, Canada, China and
Argentina, have been resisted strongly by the EU.
A study by British scientists released last week found in two of three
cases, ecological biodiversity dropped in the area around GM crops. ABARE
said pressure would increase, especially from developing countries, for GM
crops which offered better yields and reduced use of expensive pesticides
It found world gross domestic product would increase $US210 billion
($A304.6 billion) by 2015 through GM crop use. Modelling three scenarios,
including a ban on GM crops by Europe, it found Australian and New Zealand
farmers would face a small loss of $363 million if there was worldwide
adoption of the new technology.
But Australia and New Zealand would be economically devastated if both
countries rejected GM crops outright. "With biotechnology in crop
production adopted widely around the world but not in Australia,
Australian welfare could substantially decline owing to the large erosion
of Australia's competitiveness in agricultural markets," ABARE said. "If
the EU insulates its domestic prices from import competition while
adopting GM technologies, economic losses to the Australia-New Zealand
region are estimated to increase up to $US1.7 billion ($A2.5 billion)."
ABARE said developing countries would face major population pressures over
the next five decades, with the global population expected to reach 9.1
billion by 2050.
It said although some of the developing world's food problems were due to
poor infrastructure and political instability, they also had to
dramatically improve yields from crops. "In a world of rising population,
biotechnology shows considerable potential to contribute to both food
security and environmental sustainability in developing countries," it
Behind the Headlines: Profile of Patrick Moore, Co-founder, Greenpeace
- Jon Entine, Ethical Corporation Oct. 2003, www.ethicalcorp.com;
via Agnet http://184.108.40.206/agnet-archives.htm
'Jon Entine discusses the views of a co-founder of the pioneering
campaigning group on its current problematic attitudes and strategies.'
Has the activist leadership of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other
high-profile groups that presume to lobby on behalf of the environment
taken a sharp turn into the reactionary ditch?
That‚s the conclusion of Patrick Moore, a Canadian environmentalist, who
is fighting to bring sanity to the debate over some of the most pressing
issues of our times. Who is Moore? Baby boomers may not know his name, but
they certainly remember his picture. Back in 1978, he was arrested off
Newfoundland trying to save a baby seal from being turned into a suburban
housewife‚s winter coat. Moore‚s embrace of the embattled and
soon-to-be-slaughtered seal appeared in more than 3,000 newspapers. The
picture catalysed and came to symbolise the emerging environmental
consciousness that has literally changed the world over the past
Born and raised in a fishing village on the tip of Vancouver Island, Moore
helped put Greenpeace and activist environmentalism on the map. The once
idealistic group began in a church basement in Vancouver in 1971, when a
group of like-minded radical ecologists gathered to plan a campaign to
challenge US hydrogen bomb testing in Alaska. The rag-tag protests they
devised forced President Nixon to cancel four scheduled tests, marking the
end of hydrogen bomb testing on earth. That victory was followed by
successful campaigns against atmospheric nuclear testing by France in the
Pacific and the factory slaughtering of sperm whales off California by
Russians and Japanese.
By the mid-1980s, the organisation that he had co-founded had grown into a
twenty-one country, US$100 million force. Although he treasured the early
accomplishments at Greenpeace, Moore began to recognise that it was time
for a change. I had been against at least three or four things every day
of my life for 15 years,∑ he says. I decided I‚d like to be in favour of
something for a change. I made the transition from the politics of
confrontation to the politics of building consensus.∑
As Moore sees it, he was just responding to the trends in the world around
him. He had witnessed ecology turn from a fringe movement into a
mainstream consensus, embraced, however grudgingly, by government and
corporations alike. Major health and environmental indices confirm his
worldview: crop yields are rising, pollution is abating, deaths from
disease and malnutrition are falling and life spans are increasing.
Certainly there are serious environmental and health challenges before us
and concerns remain about any number of issues, from global warming to
AIDS. But only a hard-edged cynic would challenge the benefits that have
resulted from the new world order where business, government and NGOs
exist in a fitful relationship, sometimes even working together as
In contrast, look at the nether world conjured up by cynics at today?s
Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. While reformers like Moore recognise
the enormous social and environmental benefits that could - and have -
come from dialoguing with the enemy∑, what Moore calls the environmental
extremists∑ at his old haunt have devolved into scientific illiterates∑
who worship the primitive over progress, and confrontation over reform,
even if that means freezing the developing world out of the benefits that
industrialised countries take for granted.
These are incendiary indictments, but Moore issues them with the
confidence of an insider who has witnessed progressive ideals being eroded
by what he calls smug obstructionists∑. Moore is particularly exorcised
over the reactionary opposition to agricultural biotechnology by
Greenpeace and its ideological allies on this issue, including the social
investment∑ community. I cannot comprehend that anyone, let alone someone
who fancies himself as progressive, would argue against pursuing research
on putting a daffodil gene in rice that could boost its Vitamin A content
and prevent a half million Asian and African children from developing
blindness each year,∑ he says. Yet, that‚s just what they're doing. They
even oppose basic research.∑
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Action Aid and ethical investment
campaigners among others have labelled life-giving Golden Rice a
Frankenfood, dismissing it as a capitalist ploy that will threaten life as
we know it if the project proceeds. This pious moralising rankles Moore.
He notes the reaction of Swiss plant biologist Ingo Potrykus, one of the
inventors of Golden Rice - it was developed independent of any corporation
and is being offered free to the developing world - who is horrified at
the reactionary stance of privileged environmentalists, accusing
Greenpeace of crimes against humanity∑. I agree with his disgust at the
protests,∑ says Moore. The critics are unconscionable on this issue.
Genetic modification is a form of biological rather than chemical
intervention,∑ he notes, adding that it also results in a reduction in the
use of chemical fertilisers. In other words, genetic engineering is an
organic science. Why so-called őorganic‚ farming doesn't embrace GM rather
than reject it outright more or less proves that organic is a political
rather than a biological concept.∑
As he points out, even the sceptical European Commission, which has
instituted tight regulation of GM crops, rejects Greenpeace‚s reactionary
hysteria. In 2001 it released the results of 81 scientific studies on
agricultural biotechnology conducted by 400 research teams. The conclusion
mirrored that of every major world health organisation that has studied
the issue: GM foods and crops have *not shown any new risks to human
health or the environment, beyond the usual uncertainties of conventional
plant breeding. Indeed, the use of more precise technology and the greater
regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants
Not only safer, Moore adds, but less costly for the developing world,
which does not have the luxury to impose highly inefficient organic
standards that are so popular in suburbia. Moore is particularly
disheartened that the movement he helped found has lost touch with its
original mission of helping the environmentally and socially distressed.
It‚s become an organisation of privilege. It lives for its campaigns, its
tactics, not for solutions,∑ he tells me.
Greenpeace's devolution into a caricature of its founding ideals reflects
a corrupt turn in the NGO community. NGOs and non-profits emerged as
public policy players in the 1970s in part in reaction to the growing
power of corporations that exploited unsettled times to pursue parochial
interests. The most successful NGOs, Greenpeace included, brought the
promise of tangible benefits to people at the grassroots level. That‚s
still the role that most NGOs still play: Human rights advocates, church
groups, foundations and professional aid workers pour people and resources
into ravaged places where shrinking foreign-aid budgets, geopolitical
concerns and corrupt or failed local policies have left huge need gaps.
But a prominent slice of the NGO world - activist NGOs such as Greenpeace
that focus less on infrastructure and more on ideology - have captured the
lion‚s share of media attention by defining themselves by what they are
against rather than what lives they can transform. Today‚s activist NGOs
focus less on changing infrastructure. The less salutary of them seem
obsessed with campaigning and are often at odds with the needs of local
Moore is not the only reformist who has become disillusioned with the gap
between rhetoric and reality at NGOs that focus more on ideology than
nitty-gritty grassroots change. For example, John Elkington, founder of
the London-based for-profit environmental research group Sustainability
has expressed amazement at claims by Greenpeace UK executive director
Stephen Tindale that Greenpeace is an open, transparent organisation in
touch with its membership. In terms of accountability, Greenpeace is one
of the least transparent NGOs,∑ Elkington recently told me.
Such flagrant rejection of its historical mission cuts more personally for
Moore, however. After all, his sapling had grown into a sturdy tree only
to become corrupted at its roots. Agricultural biotechnology, a
transformative science with enormous public benefits, weighs in the
balance. How is it that these charlatans continue to stymie progress on so
many fronts when their arguments are nothing more than scary speculation,∑
he muses. They behave like mischievous school children, but their mischief
causes human misery and prevents environmental improvements.∑
In a world in which an activist, obstructionist fringe has decided it must
shout louder and act increasingly more irrational to keep the dollars (and
pounds) flowing into campaign coffers, Moore is a breath of fresh air. We
can only hope that Greenpeace and company breathe in a little bit of his
wisdom and turn away from the politics of privilege that threaten to drive
the environmental movement into the reactionary ditch.
Jon Entine is scholar-in-residence at Miami University (Ohio) and adjunct
fellow with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Jon is
also an award-winning freelance journalist and writer who contributes to
Ethical Corporation magazine.
How Europe Is Killing Africans
- James Shikwati (Kenya), Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services,
It may - as its advocates constantly exclaim - be based on a noble quest
to safeguard our Earth's future, but the "good science" of ecology leaves
many urgent questions unanswered. Among the most pressing:
* Why do Europe's developed countries impose their environmental ethics
on poor countries that are simply trying to pass through a stage they
themselves went through?
* After taking numerous risks to reach their current economic and
technological status, why do they tell poor countries to use no energy,
agricultural or pest-control technologies that might pose some conceivable
risk of environmental harm?
* Why do they tell poor countries to follow sustainable development
doctrines that really mean little or no energy or economic development?
In the 1940s, malaria afflicted 300 million people worldwide and killed 3
million annually. With the help of DDT, developed nations eradicated this
killer disease. Poor countries in Asia and Africa reduced malaria death
rates by 70 percent in the early 1950s. But then pressure from developed
countries drastically restricted the use of DDT, on the basis of
Last year, malaria again infected more than 300 million people, killing
more than 2 million. Most of them were in Africa, and half of them
children. Those who don't die often are unable to work for weeks or months
on end, sapping economies and health-care resources.
Biotechnology restrictions imposed by developed countries result in
millions facing malnutrition and starvation - eating anything that flies
or crawls, and plowing under vast areas of wildlife habitat, in hope of
surviving another day. Bans on fossil fuel and hydroelectric power plants
mean people chop down forests or risk disease from burning dung.
As a Kenyan, I see these tragedies unfold before my eyes every day. If
only people in developed countries could see them, too. Western activists
are "passionate about environmental causes," but they ignore the millions
who are poverty stricken, sick, starving and even dying because of
misguided environmental policies. They send us aid, but it would be far
better if they let us trade with them, develop our resources, set our own
policies and determine our own destinies.
People in developed countries can afford to worry about climate change,
endangered bugs and a few hundred more dying of cancer before they are 70.
We have to worry about millions of people dying of malaria, typhoid,
dysentery and starvation. Millions of parents in sub-Saharan Africa must
worry about where they will get their next meal, whether the water they
drink will kill them and whether their babies will live beyond age 5.
As if that is not enough, they worry that HIV/AIDS will kill many who
somehow survive these other diseases.
In the name of "corporate social responsibility," some companies engage in
activities that make the predicament of people in poor countries even
worse. BP (British Petroleum) and Royal Dutch Shell support organizations
and governments that oppose energy and economic development, international
trade and the use of DDT.
These groups say Africa and India should rely on expensive make-believe
energy options, like wind and solar, that further delay our economic,
health and environmental progress. BP's public relations efforts, in
particular, smack of hypocrisy .In 2001 alone, BP spent $8.5 billion on
oil and gas operations, $100 million on its "Beyond Petroleum" advertising
campaign, and a mere $33 million on renewable energy.
To think long term does not give rich countries a license to restrict poor
nations from making use of their resources. People need access to health
care, they need to trade and they cannot do this when science is turned
into a political tool to harass the poor.
African countries face other tough battles, too. Europe in particular has
confined their exports largely to primary products and imposed high
tariffs on processed commodities. Many agricultural products from poor
countries face quarantine rules that act as trade barriers, if Africans do
not follow strict environmental standards.
Even if they use DDT to stop terrible malaria epidemics or plant
genetically modified bananas or sweet potatoes to prevent famines, these
standards block our produce out of the richer markets. Along with
price-distorting domestic subsidies, these policies have severely impacted
economic growth in poor countries.
Corporate social responsibility ought not be used to impose policies that
kill people. It should not be used to render poor populations sick,
unproductive and perpetually destitute.
For rich countries to tell poor nations to invest only in alternative
energy and ban chemicals that help control disease-carrying insects - and
then claim to be responsible, humanitarian and compassionate - is to
engage in hypocrisy of the most lethal kind.
James Shikwati is director the Inter Region Economic Network
(www.irenkenya.org) in Nairobi, Kenya. Readers may write him at IREN
Kenya, P.O. Box 135, GPO Code 00100, Nairobi, Kenya, or via e-mail at
AgBioView Blast from the Past..............
'Facts, Beliefs, and Genetically Modified Food'
- Walter A. Brown, The Scientist April 17, 2000
For more than two millennia philosophers and psychologists have discovered
and rediscovered a prevailing psychological truth: Intuition and fiercely
held beliefs often guide us more than the facts. Nonetheless, the
scientific community seems to operate under the assumption that people
think and behave rationally; provide the facts, most of us believe, and
people will behave in accordance with them. When they don't we wring our
Although the scientific enterprise is firmly established and widely
acknowledged as the engine of progress, the public does not hold back when
it comes to rejecting scientific facts. People avidly seek unproven
treatments and continue to use them long after they have been disproven,
creationism lives and thrives, a substantial and vocal minority believe
that routine vaccinations are dangerous (and are attempting to outlaw
them); and, despite its promise for easing world hunger and its low
probability of risk, the public is clamoring, successfully in some
quarters, to stop the development and use of genetically modified food
When the public rejects scientific facts--as in the case of GMF--the
explanation often put forward is that the public mistrusts the scientific
enterprise. (They've lied to us before; they don't know as much as they
say they do.) But the opposition to GMF is too reflexive, fervent, and
widespread to be accounted for by mistrust of science alone.
Who's to Blame. Can we blame New Age balderdash, with its rejection of
science, worship of nature, and veneration of intuition and the mystical,
for the opposition to GMF? I think not. Although consistent with the new
romanticism, revulsion to GMF doesn't arise out of a philosophy, New Age
or otherwise. It's a gut feeling. And that gut feeling is legitimate. A
look at it and where it comes from can usefully inform the debate about
GMF and provide a framework for addressing the public's concerns.
Humans revere nature and the natural order. Edward Wilson makes a
compelling case that this affinity for nature, biophilia he calls it, is
an innate epigenetic program handed down to us by way of natural
selection.1 However it got here, the idea that natural things are good for
you, certainly better than synthetic ones, and its corollary--don't muck
about with nature--is widespread and fiercely held. It accounts for much
of the avidity for "organically" grown as opposed to insecticide-laden
foods and the preference for herbal supplements and other "natural"
remedies over those concocted by the pharmaceutical industry, and it
contributes to the intuitive revulsion to GMF.
With just a bit of a stretch one can imagine how an innate affinity for
natural substances and avoidance of unfamiliar doctored-up ones protected
us through much of our history. And any "gut reaction" that has been with
us for so long and served us so well deserves respect. Nonetheless, it can
lead to errors in judgement. Natural substances, including plants and the
stuff sold in health food stores, can be toxic; and the scientist
tinkering with crops--notwithstanding Prince Charles' assertion that such
activities should be left to God and "God alone"--is not necessarily
Over the past 50 years cognitive psychologists and evolutionary
psychologists have identified a number of instinctive
information-processing tendencies that we use to assess situations and
estimate probabilities.2 These heuristics, or rules of thumb, simplify
complex problems and allow quick, roughly accurate, appraisals. Although
these rules of thumb often lead to valid conclusions, they can create
errors in judgement.
Aversion to loss is among the most pervasive of these tendencies. A loss
is more worrisome than a foregone gain. Loss aversion guides investment
behavior and health care decisions. And it contributes to the objections
to GMF. In its most extreme--but not unusual--form the only acceptable
risk is no risk. Even the remote possibility that GMF carries a risk to
health or the environment is enough to forgo the potential gains in food
quality, resilience, and quantity.
Aversion to Change. Related to loss aversion is preference for the status
quo. People place a higher value, for example, on something they already
have than they would pay to get it in the first place. We don't like
change, and GMF seems like a big change.
We tend to assess things quickly and categorically as safe or dangerous,
good or bad. Again, it doesn't take much of a stretch to see this mode of
thought as adaptive. Better to simply steer clear of anything wriggling on
the ground than to closely examine its features. Better not to eat the
tuna fish that tastes just a little off. But in the current millennium
this categorical approach can lead to costly errors, as when we conclude
that insecticides, chlorine, or radiation are harmful irrespective of
dose, or when we assume that any modification of corn is dangerous.
The availability heuristic comes into play when we estimate probabilities.
We tend to think of events as more frequent, and more likely to occur,
when examples of those events come easily to mind. As with other intuitive
modes of thought, the availability heuristic often provides a roughly
accurate assessment of probability. But it can lead to errors. We tend,
for example, to overestimate the relative likelihood of dying in a plane
crash as opposed to a car accident because plane crashes are so highly
publicized; we tend to overestimate the likelihood of a terrorist
hijacking right after one occurs.
Examples of the disasters that transpire when we manipulate--or simply
modify--nature are more than readily available. They are part of our
mythology, deeply embedded in our psyche. From Frankenstein to Jurassic
Park to man- eating plants, monstrous consequences result when scientists
alter living things. No wonder that GMF provokes thinly rationalized
Choices that run contrary to the facts sometimes come with little or no
cost. And many of our most consequential activities, from religious
practice to falling in love to bearing children, are governed--and
arguably should be governed--by considerations other than rational ones.
The opposition to GMF, however, does come with a cost. For the public to
be best served, scientific considerations, not irrational fears, must
guide the development and application of this technology.
Almost certainly, time alone will bring some reduction in the hostility to
GMF. The concept will become more familiar, strident voices will run out
of steam, the wacko fringe will turn elsewhere. But the potential for GMF
to enhance food production and reduce starvation calls for a more active
approach to the public's concerns.
We should acknowledge the specific--arguably hardwired--thinking
tendencies behind the reflexive opposition to GMF. Both the usefulness of
these modes of thought and the ways in which they can lead to faulty
conclusions deserve recognition.
No amount of research will identify all the possible risks of GMF. That
GMF comes with unknown and at this point unknowable risks should be
acknowledged. But the risks to current and future generations of not
moving forward with GMF should also be put on the table.
The public seems unaware of GMF's potential value. In a recent survey only
8 percent of respondents cited as an advantage of GMF that it would help
feed the poor and hungry.3 In another survey, 73 percent of respondents
supported biotechnology if it reduced pesticide use.4 The benefits of GMF
need to be clearly and forcefully articulated.
The features of GMF that are consistent with our intuitive preferences
need emphasis. The fact that, as a result of genetic modification, Bt corn
has its own natural pesticide makes a compelling story. Potential harm to
Monarch butterflies needs to be seen in relation to the potential benefits
to other living things, our own species for one.
The opposition to GMF, which is largely based on irrational fears,
requires a vigorous response from the scientific community. That response,
to be effective, needs to be informed not just by the facts about GMF but
by a respectful appreciation of the way we think.
Walter A Brown, M.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown
University School of Medicine and at Tufts University School of Medicine.
1. E.O. Wilson, Biophilia, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press,
2. D. Kahneman et al. (eds.), Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and
Biases, Cambridge, United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, 1982.
3. "Blech," The Economist, Jan. 15, 2000, page 69.
4. D. Steinberg, "Debate heats up on GM foods," The Scientist, 14:11, Jan.