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February 18, 2004


EU Won't Lift Ban; UK Will Go Ahead; Germany Lambasted; Debate to Continue


Today in AgBioView: February 19, 2004

* Divided EU fails to lift biotech crop ban
* Support grows for GM crops
* GM crops - the pros and cons
* Anger over GM crop 'go-ahead'
* British opposition to GM over-estimated, claims report
* GM opposition 'was overestimated'
* Why GM-free UK is popular but unfeasible
* Germany lambasted on GM rules
* No end in sight for 'heated' GM debate
* New site sheds light on biotechnology
* Scientists, the Cause of Public Distrust of Science?
* Travelling GM sideshow

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- Associated PRess, Feb 19, 2004

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The European Union deadlocked again Wednesday on lifting its 6-year-old moratorium on new biotech foods, failing to agree on a proposal to approve U.S.-based Monsanto Co.'s Roundup Ready corn for import and processing.

The EU's executive commission said the proposal failed to win enough support from a committee of experts from the 15 EU countries, although it came closer than on the first such application in December.

Nine countries voted in favor of lifting the moratorium on Wednesday with five against and Germany abstaining. Each country's vote is weighted based on size, however, so the application failed even though a majority of countries was in favor. There were 53 weighted votes in favor when 62 such votes were needed.

Belgium, Spain, France, Ireland, Netherlands, Portugal, Finland, Sweden and Britain were in favor; Denmark, Greece, Austria, Italy and Luxembourg opposed and Germany was the lone holdout.

It now goes directly to government ministers. If they don't make a decision in three months, the file returns to the commission, which can adopt it on its own.

St. Louis-based Monsanto said in a statement it was disappointed the EU members "did not reach a decision" on the proposal to approve the importation of its corn.

It said the European Food Safety Authority concluded last December that the variety in question was "as safe as conventional maize" and that permitting its import "for food or feed or processing is unlikely to have an adverse effect on human or animal health."

Brett Begemann, executive vice president-international for Monsanto, said the company was hopeful the government ministers will approve it.

The vote on the first such application - canned sweet corn from a strain developed by the Swiss-based company Syngenta - had six countries in favor and six against with three abstentions. That application is already pending before government ministers.

In the December vote, Spain, Britain, Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Ireland voted in favor; Denmark, Greece, Luxembourg, Austria, Portugal, France against and Germany, Italy and Belgium abstained.

The proposals are the first to start working their way through the system since EU governments enacted strict labeling and traceability rules for products with genetically modified ingredients last summer.

The Commission has sought to reassure Washington the new rules, which take effect in April, would bring an end to the de facto moratorium imposed in 1998 amid public fears about environmental and health effects of biotechnology.

The United States started legal action in August at the World Trade Organization to get the ban lifted.

In trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Monsanto shares were down 13 cents to close at $31.61.


Support grows for GM crops

- TradeArabia, February 19, 2004

The British government is set to allow genetically modified (GM) crops to be grown commercially despite strong public opposition, the Guardian says.

The newspaper, quoting cabinet committee papers, said an announcement was expected to be made next week on the final decision to approve the first crop of GM maize in the country.

The cabinet papers, from a meeting attended by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Environment Minister Margaret Beckett, said a ban on GM crops would be "an easy way out" in regard to public opposition and "an irrational way for the government to proceed".

In her statement to colleagues, Beckett said there was no scientific case for an outright ban.

Ministers had been under increasing pressure to make a decision after years of thorny debate now that the European Union is edging towards lifting its five-year-old de facto ban on all new biotech products.

A government-funded report said the public mood "ranged from caution and doubt, through suspicion and scepticism, to hostility and rejection".

But a Mori opinion poll released on Wednesday gave a slightly different view, saying 36 per cent of those questioned were opposed to GM food, 13 per cent supported it and 39 per cent had no strong feelings either way.

A report released in January by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) said trials on GM herbicide-tolerant rapeseed and sugar beet revealed they could have negative affects on nearby wildlife but tests on GM maize did not.

GM crops - the pros and cons

- The Times, February 19, 2004

Farmers will be allowed to grow genetically modified maize in a Government decision to be announced next week, according to a leaked document. Nigel Hawkes reports.

Question: What is the Government reportedly going to approve?

According to leaked Cabinet committee minutes, it plans to approve the first crops of GM maize. This is produced by Bayer, the German chemical and pharmaceutical company, and showed up well in the trial plantings. Environmentally, planting the GM maize proved better than conventional maize doused with herbicide.

Question: What are the main arguments for this decision?

GM crops offer many advantages, in terms of reduced weedkiller use, resistance to drought or salinity, greater yield, and better, more nutritious food. True, none of the first products to be tried provides all these advantages, but to hold back now would be to deny future generations the possibility of major gains. So argue the proponents of the technology.

Question: And against?

Opponents say that GM crops have not been tested adequately for their safety as food, and that they will "contaminate" neighbouring crops, particularly those of organic farmers. They claim there will be risks of damage to wildlife, and the emergence of tough weeds resistant to weedkillers. Public opinion surveys show that these arguments have registered with the public, even though the scientific basis for them is not particularly strong.

Question: So why is the Government so keen?

It claims to be in favour of science, even though its actions have not always been so helpful. The evidence produced by the trial plantings was insufficient to justify stopping this particular GM crop, and it would be "irrational" to do so, the minutes say. It would also be a signal to the scientific community that the Government is more easily swayed by emotional arguments or the fear of losing votes than by logic. The Government would probably rather defer or avoid the argument, but it can do so no longer. So it has been forced into this stand reluctantly.

Question: Will there be a market for GM maize?

There should be. If there isn't, farmers won't plant them. GM crops are not compulsory, and the chances are that many farmers will avoid them so as not to attract controversy. Maize is used to feed animals, so it isn't as if it will be appearing on supermarket shelves.

Question: What is the current situation abroad?

The EU is delaying the planting of GM crops until they are proved to be safe. The US, Canada and Argentina are bringing a case in the World Trade Organisation alleging that this delay is simply a trade barrier by another name. Given the absence of evidence of any harm from GM foods, the plaintiffs have every chance of winning the argument.


Anger over GM crop 'go-ahead'

- BBC News, 19 February, 2004

Campaigners are furious the government appears ready to give the go-ahead for the use of genetically modified crops.

Qualified approval for GM maize is imminent, Cabinet meeting minutes seen by BBC News show - although ministers say no final decision has been made.

Patrick Holden of the Soil Association said it would be "a great tragedy".

But Dr Julian Little, of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council that represents GM firms, said GM maize was "at least as safe" as non-GM crops.

Decision 'rushed'

The sowing of GM maize could jeopardise the ability to produce GM-free crops, Mr Holden - who campaigns for organic farming - told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

It would also lead to widespread commercialisation with environmental consequences, he warned.

He claimed the government's own research had concluded there was no economic case and the public were against it.

Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper said the government was desperate to show Britain was not "anti-science".

Former environment minister Michael Meacher told the BBC: "It is not necessary. It is not wanted by people. They are not going to buy it".

He asked: "Why are we rushing to do something which has a huge downside risk and has no consumer benefits?"

Andrew George, Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesman, said: "If the public realised what was being decided in their name, there would be uproar".

Campaign of MPs

A spokesman for the agricultural ministry Defra told BBC News Online: "Ministers are still considering the issues around the GM policy statement. They haven't reached final decisions."

He said there would be an announcement "shortly" - adding it would not be this month.

According to the Cabinet minutes, seen by BBC Two's Newsnight programme, ministers predicted public opposition - although Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett was said to have argued there was no scientific case for a ban.

The document said a pro-GM campaign targeting key MPs would precede any policy statement to Parliament.

"Opposition might eventually be worn down by solid, authoritative scientific argument," it said.

The leaked minutes came as researchers said a national debate about people's views of GM crops probably exaggerated the strength of anti-GM feeling.

The government-funded GM Nation? report said the public mood "ranged from caution and doubt, through suspicion and scepticism, to hostility and rejection".


But a team of academics from Cardiff University, the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Institute of Food Research said the project had overall been over-hasty and under-resourced.

A Mori poll of 1,363 people for UEA found 36% opposed GM foods, 13% were in favour and 45% thought they could have future benefits.

The Agriculture Biotechnology Council's Dr Little told Newsnight the safety of GM maize had been demonstrated "time and time again".

"And it is now time to actually go forward," he said.

Professor Vivian Moses, of pro-biotech campaign group CropGen, said most people were "uninterested" in GM and "do not bother to read labels".


British opposition to GM over-estimated, claims report

- FoodNavigator.com, 19/02/2004

Legislators in Brussels are currently preparing to decide whether to allow genetically modified products to be sold in the European Union, but most of the 15 Member States have also carried out their own research into the pros and cons of novel foods.

One of the most high profile cases is the UK, where the government conducted a nationwide survey of attitudes to transgenic products last year. The results of the GM Nation? debate showed that the British public were overwhelmingly against the government’s apparent intention to grant approval for the commercialisation of GM products in the UK, but a new report out today suggests that this assessment may not be wholly accurate.

The report was prepared by a team of independent researchers from Cardiff University, the University of East Anglia and the Institute of Food Research who were given behind-the-scenes access to the planning and implementation of the debate. They suggest that while GM Nation? was both innovative and an important experiment in public engagement, it also failed to fully meet its potential and, crucially, conveyed an overestimate of the strength of anti-GM feeling in the UK.

Tom Horlick-Jones of Cardiff University, team leader of the evaluation project, said: “We spent 12 months gathering data on virtually every aspect of the debate. Our report tells a story of successes and failures. We recognise that the debate was an enormously important experiment, from the point of view of extending and enriching the democratic process, but this is just the start. Now is the time to start to learn the lessons on how to do this sort of thing more effectively.”

He added: “The devil really is in the detail here. It’s no good announcing a public debate, setting up a board to oversee it, and then to throw money at it. These things need careful design, they need not to be rushed, and they probably need a little more money – but that money has to be well spent.”

But assessing the way in which the debate could have been handled more effectively was only one part of the study’s remit. The researchers also wanted to see whether the conclusions taken from the GM Nation? debate were a truly accurate reflection of British consumer sentiment.

In order to do this, the evaluation team commissioned its own public opinion survey, conducted by research company MORI directly after the end of the formal GM Nation? public debate (i.e. between 19 July and 12 September 2003).

The findings were extremely revealing. Overall opposition to GM food was found to be 36 per cent against, while 13 per cent said they supported genetic modification. More importantly, about two in five neither supported nor opposed GM food, showing that the GM Nation? debate had clearly failed to make much of an impact on the vast majority of ‘flaoting voters’.

The survey also showed that 85 per cent of Britons believe that not enough is yet known about the potential long-term effects of GM food on our health for any decision to be made at the current time, but there was a surprisingly open attitude to the potential benefits that genetic modification could bring, with 44 per cent seeing advantages for the environment, 45 per cent seeing benefits to consumers and 56 per cent believing that GM crops could help those in developing countries.

There were also very high levels of agreement (79 per cent) that organisations separate from government are needed to regulate GM food.

Professor Nick Pidgeon of the University of East Anglia, director of the research consortium that carried out the evaluation work, said: “Despite many of the problems that GM Nation? faced, the results of our survey broadly mirror a number of the key conclusions of the debate Steering Board, particularly regarding the widespread levels of concern across Britain about the risks of this technology and the need for independent regulation of the technology.

“However, our results also show that the extent of outright opposition to GM food and crops amongst the British population is probably lower than indicated in many of the GM Nation? findings.”


GM opposition 'was overestimated'

- BBC News, By Alex Kirby, Feb 19, 2004

A national debate across the UK about people's views of genetically-modified crops probably exaggerated the strength of anti-GM feeling, researchers say.

The debate, GM Nation?, did break new ground, they say in a report on the venture, called A Deliberative Future?

The report says the debate needed more resources, and it did little to involve people who were not already committed.

An opinion survey the researchers took part in appears to show broadly similar findings, with many people undecided.

Deeply sceptical

More than half of Britons who took part in the debate itself said GM crops should never be introduced under any circumstances.

An official report published last year on the results of the 600 meetings held in June and July reflected widespread doubts about the benefits of GM technology.

The GM Nation? report said the public mood on GM "ranged from caution and doubt, through suspicion and scepticism, to hostility and rejection". Only 2% said they would be happy to eat GM foods.

The new report is the work of an evaluation team of independent researchers from Cardiff University, the University of East Anglia, and the Institute of Food Research, working as part of UEA's Understanding Risk programme.

It praised GM Nation? but concludes that it "failed fully to meet its potential, and conveyed an overestimate of the strength of anti-GM feeling in the UK".

The report says:

* GM Nation? was an innovative experiment in public engagement on a difficult and highly contentious topic
* many participants found it a meaningful and valuable exercise but were sceptical about the impact it would have on government policy
* the debate lacked resources of money, time and expertise
* it generally failed to engage uncommitted people (one of its key objectives).

Tom Horlick-Jones of Cardiff University, team leader of the evaluation project, said the report told a story of successes and failures.

Think first

He said: "The devil really is in the detail here. It's no good announcing a public debate, setting up a board to oversee it, and then throwing money at it.

"These things need careful design, they need not to be rushed, and they probably need a little more money - but that money has to be well spent."

The researchers have also published the results of a public opinion survey undertaken by UEA and the research company Mori.

They say 36% of respondents expressed overall opposition to GM food, 13% supported it and 39% did neither.

Most (85%) thought we did not know enough about the potential long-term health effects of GM food, and 79% agreed that organisations separate from government should regulate it.

Damned if they do

Professor Nick Pidgeon of UEA said: "Our results show the extent of outright opposition to GM food and crops amongst the British population is probably lower than indicated in many of the GM Nation? findings."

He told BBC News Online: "The survey findings are supported by information from questionnaires we gave to participants in the GM Nation? meetings.

"What our research showed is that there is widespread concern about GMs, and the government will have to take that into account.

"Opinion is deeply split, and ministers won't please everyone, whatever they do."

Mori interviewed a nationally representative quota sample of 1,363 people aged 15 years and older face-to-face in their own homes in England, Scotland and Wales between 19 July and 12 September. All data were weighted to the known profile of the British population.


Why GM-free UK is popular but unfeasible

- The Guardian, Ian Sample, February 19, 2004

The waiting, it seems, is over. Having waded through reams of advice from scientists, economists and the public, the government has evidently decided to approve the growing of genetically modified crops in Britain.

The details of a cabinet meeting leaked to the Guardian reveal that the government plans to push ahead with the commercial cultivation of GM crops and outlines a strategy. The minutes, which claim that a GM-free Britain is not feasible legally or in practice, acknowledge that public appetite for GM produce is likely to be minimal, but describe plans for financial compensation for organic farmers and voluntary GM-free zones.

The decision on whether Britain should allow or ban growing of the controversial crops has been eagerly awaited by the pro- and anti-GM camps since mid-January, when the government's advisory committee on releases to the environment (Acre) delivered its verdict on the field scale trials, an unprecedented five-year experiment to assess the environmental impact of growing GM crops in Britain.

The Acre chairman, Chris Pollock, suggested GM maize could be planted as early as this spring, but warned that two other GM crops, oil seed rape and sugar beet, caused damage to the environment.

The Acre report was the final opinion the government needed before it was obliged to make a decision.

Last year the government's chief scientist, Sir David King, presided over a comprehensive scientific review of GM crops. His final report, which emphasised the uncertainties and potential dangers associated with growing certain GM crops, was passed to ministers and became the bedrock of their decision-making. It was joined by a damning report from the Cabinet Office on the financial consequences of introducing GM crops to Britain. It warned that there was little economic benefit and that going ahead regardless of public opinion could lead to civil unrest.

The government also attempted to involve the public in its decision-making, but last summer's launch of the national GM debate in Birmingham met with a whimper. The debate, which was supposed to draw out the opinions of ordinary members of the public, was dominated by those already fervently opposed to or supportive of GM.

The apparent decision to give the green light to GM ends a de facto moratorium on the commercial growing of such crops that dates back to 1998. At the time, intense opposition forced the GM industry to hold off on commercial cultivation of a variety of maize called Chardon, the only GM crop to have received European marketing approval. All other applications to grow GM crops stalled while the government awaited the results of its five-year field scale trials. These tested the impact on the environment of the herbicides used with GM and conventional crops.

The leaked document recommends that GM maize, owned by BayerCropSciences in Cambridge, is added to the national seed list. The only remaining barrier for growing the GM crop will then be approval for Liberty, the associated herbicide.

According to Paul Rylott, head of biosciences at BayerCropSciences and chairman of the industry-backed Agricultural Biotechnology Coun cil, the government's pesticides safety directorate is ready to give Liberty the go-ahead.

The leaked document states that part of the government's strategy for introducing GM crops to Britain would involve setting up a compensation fund for organic farmers, who are concerned that GM pollen could contaminate their crops. The document makes it clear that the compensation fund would have to come from the GM industry.

But industry representatives are loath to put up the money for such a fund. "If the government told us to provide a compensation fund for organic farmers, we'd say 'don't be silly'," Mr Rylott said. "There's no need to have a compensation fund."

He asserts that simple measures, such as maintaining set distances between GM and non-GM crops, are enough to keep contamination below the legal limit of 0.9%. Any food stuff containing more than this must be labelled.

Organic farmers say GM and non-GM crops cannot be grown together.

The notes from the Cabinet Office meeting also suggest the government could play a role in advising on voluntary GM-free zones, but does not elaborate. Already, more than 40 districts, county councils and national parks have declared they wish to remain GM-free zones, but without agreement of all farmers in the region, such agreements are illegal under European Union law.

The government's decision comes as the World Trade Organisation is considering a legal case brought by the US, Canada and Argentina, which maintain that the EU's effective ban on GM crops until they are proven safe is illegal and merely a smokescreen for a trade barrier.

Germany lambasted on GM rules

Strict guidelines could hamper innovation and cost biotech jobs, industry warns

- The Scientist, February 18, 2004, By Jane Burgermeister

The biotech industry and environmental groups have both attacked the German government for the manner in which it last week (February 11) gave the green light to genetically modified (GM) farming.

The Green Party Federal Minister for Consumer Protection, Food, and Agriculture, Renate Künast, said strict guidelines had been added to prevent the contamination of non-GM crops.

“Germany now has the strictest rules in the EU governing GM farming,” Künast said in a statement.

The new law obliges farmers who grow GM crops to endeavor to keep contamination to zero and sets out a list of “good farming practices.”

Organic farmers whose crops have been contaminated—and who lose their right to label their produce as organic as a result—can claim compensation from neighboring GM farmers under tough new liability rules.

Furthermore, the government will keep a central record of all GM crop locations, to be made available to other farmers.

Rüdiger Rosenthal from the German branch of Friends of the Earth (BUND), however, criticized the Socialist Democrat and Green Party coalition governments for not doing enough to safeguard organic farming.

“The rules on how to grow GM crops need to be made clearer,” he told The Scientist. “The general public should also have better access to information about the locations of GM crops. And the burden of proving that crops have been contaminated should not fall on the farmers themselves.”

Helmut Heiderich from the opposition conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union, has criticized the rules on compensation, saying they will discourage farmers from growing GM crops. He said that his party would seek to block the law when it is set before Parliament in April.

The biotech industry lobby has also attacked the new law for creating hurdles to the practical commercial cultivation of GM crops.

“The 'offensive on innovation' of the [German] chancellor has again proved to be lip service,” said Oskar Böttcher, the head of the Industry Association Agriculture, referring to the newly launched government campaign to promote biotechnology and other future-orientated industries.

He warned that the new law could cost jobs in the biotechnology sector.

Ricardo Gent, the head of the German Industrial Association for Biotechnology, also attacked the new law as “unacceptable.”

“Brussels opened the door for growing genetically improved plants in Europe; the German government now wants to slam it shut again,” he told The Scientist.

Gent had praise for the government for easing the procedure for obtaining licenses for genetic research in laboratories, but said that the law as a whole would act as a brake to biotechnological research.

By contrast, Federal Minister for Education and Research Edelgard Bulmahn has argued that the new law is “an important signal to the biotech industry in Germany” by providing a clear legal framework.

Bulmahn and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder are believed to be sympathetic to GM crops and new technologies. However, public opinion in Germany continues to be antipathetic to GM crops.

Links for this article

[Marker]“Explanations concerning amending the genetic engineering law,” Green Genetic Engineering press release, Federal Ministry for Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture http://www3.verbraucherministerium.de/index-000A3940A188102B9E0

[Marker]M. Habeck, “German biotech disappointed with government,” The Scientist, August 22, 2002. [ http://www.biomedcentral.com/news/20020822/05/

[Marker]“Cabinet passes new genetic technology law,” Federal Ministry for Education and Research press release, February 11, 2004. [ http://www.bmbf.de/press/1072.php ]http://www.bmbf.de/press/1072.php

No end in sight for 'heated' GM debate

- EUPolitix.com, 19 Feb 2004

The US and EU will continue to disagree on genetically modified crops for years and the debate will even intensify, the EU's environment commissioner has said.

Margot Wallstrom's comments come as negotiators prepare to debate an international agreement on protecting traditional farming from gene-altered crops.

And they follow Wednesday’s rejection by EU representatives of a new GM maize known as NK603.

“I think we will have a basic difference in views on GMOs for a very long time”, said Wallström in an interview on Thursday in Kuala Lumpur.

And the debate will get more complicated as it spreads into other
countries: “We will see it in China, we will see it in Brazil, it will not become any easier”.

“It will become a more heated debate.”

International government representatives are currently thrashing out the thorny issue of protecting the world’s environment at COP7 talks in Malaysia.

And on Monday the UN Cartanega protocol on biosafety will come under scrutiny.

This protocol was set up by countries worried that GMOs could harm the environment by putting natural biodiversity at risk.

None of the world’s major GM exporters have joined Cartanega, with the USA and Brazil two of the most notable absentees.

Of the 15 EU member states, only Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have not signed up.

Latvia became the 195th country to sign up last week

But many specifics of Cartanega still need a lot of work.

Europe has not started selling any new gene-altered products for the past five years, leading to a legal challenge from the USA over this de facto moratorium.

EU governments now have three months to debate the approval of NK603.

Monsanto vice-president Brett Begemann said he expected the GMO would be accepted soon.

"We are hopeful that this product should be approved when they take it up for consideration in the next phase of the regulatory process," he said in a statement on Wednesday


New site sheds light on biotechnology

- GCN.com, By Patricia Daukantas

A new State Department-funded Web site brings together agricultural biotechnology regulations from three federal agencies.

The site, usbiotechreg.nbii.gov, is intended as a “one-stop shop for people who are interested in regulation of biotechnology,” said Megan Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

APHIS is one of the participating agencies in the new biotech Web site, along with the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. These three agencies share responsibility for regulating agricultural biotechnology in the United States, as the new Web site’s frequently asked questions state.

At the heart of the new Web site is a database of regulatory-agency reviews of genetically modified crop plants. Users can search by product name, scientific name, applicant name, and engineered traits such as pest resistance, events or keywords.

The database draws some of its information from an APHIS application called the USDA Field Release Database, Thomas said. The Field Release Database displays the status of applications to import, move or test genetically engineered organisms and petitions to deregulate such organisms.

Other sections of the Web site provide explanations of the roles of the three agencies in biotechnology governance and links to texts of relevant legislation.

The Agricultural Biotechnology Support Fund of the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs provided funding for the Web site, which went live last Friday.


Scientists, the Cause of Public Distrust of Science?

- BioScience News (NZ), Peter Wills, Feb. 19, 2004

A recent editorial comment from the Royal Society of New Zealand suggested that the voice of scientists has not yet been properly heard in the discussion about genetic engineering. The "lay" public, mostly people opposed to various applications of GE, are accused time and again of being emotional, irrational, anti-science or anti-technology.

Ministers of the Crown are adamant that priority will be given to scientific approaches that address outstanding issues of risk concerning GE. The voices of strident public opposition are set aside in decision-making.

Actually, scientists are given plenty of opportunity to explain what they are up to and they usually do it well. One side of the often heated argument about GE is dominated by the view of scientists. However, as soon as they start to talk about the purpose of their research all the trust goes out the window. There are two reasons for this.

First, scientists are sometimes dishonestly optimistic about the purported benefits of their work; and second, scientists often fail to communicate any palpable engagement in broader issues of public concern. The case of PPL's transgenic sheep is a good example. The scientists involved in the work persuaded ERMA that the human protein the sheep produced might one day save lives.

A handful of dissenters appeared like spoilers by arguing that clinical and commercial failure was likely. Bayer has concluded that the protein has no prospect as a therapeutic agent, PPL has folded and the sheep are being destroyed. Propaganda may have helped win the battle with ERMA, but ultimately public trust has been lost.

In lamenting a recent report from the Bioethics Council that there is strong public reaction against projects that involve the engineering of human genes into animals, the statutory voice of the scientific community portrays itself as knowing what is best for an unappreciative public.

But this approach comes across as nerdish and arrogant. Cold discussion of animal species as opportunities for experimentation does not appear connected to the depths and richness of human experience that sustain personal well-being and people resent being told they don't understand.

The scientific community has only itself to blame for its bad image. During the last half century thousands of well-supported scientific careers and many billions of research dollars have been expended developing and refining weapons of mass destruction.

Global pollution is a by-product of applied organic chemistry and enthusiasm for technology. And now science seems to have mortgaged its soul to the moguls of global commerce and political power. How can we expect to persuade people of the virtues of science as long as we fail to acknowledge the role it has played in making some aspects of life worse rather than better?

Many wise people expect that manipulating the fundamental processes of life on a grand scale will have a very serious down side. They cannot be persuaded that well-meaning analyses based on today's knowledge of biology will be adequate to mitigate the yet unseen risks that GE poses.


Peter R Wills, Associate Professor Department of Physics, University of Auckland, New Zealand; p.wills@auckland.ac.nz

Travelling GM sideshow

- Weekly Times (Australia), February 18, 2004

THE weather must be crook in Europe, the United Kingdom, and the US, judging by the influx of speakers on international biotechnology.

Two are Greenpeace invitees and can be branded anti-genetic modification advocates, while the third, invited by the Grain Growers Association and supported by Agrifood Awareness, wears a more neutral GM hat.

Michael Meacher, a former environment minister in the UK Government, has visited Melbourne, Sydney, and Canberra for discussions with industry leaders and politicians about the dangers of GM crops.

He argues that there's a lack of scientific evidence to support the release of GM foods and crops, and that the jury is still out on their environmental impact.

Meacher's views are based on UK research that has little relevance to Australia because of our country's different farming practices, weed status, remnant vegetation, wilderness areas, and biodiversity.

But that has not stopped him from condemning GM canola and GM foods in particular, and GM farming systems and research in general.

Jeffrey Smith has expanded his tour to cover Brisbane and Adelaide as well, and trumpets a slightly different, but familiar, tune, attacking the multinational biotechnology industry for suppressing free speech and scientific dialogue on GM issues.

In his book, Seeds of Deception, Smith alleges that GM foods are toxic and dangerous.

His main target audiences in Australia are health professionals and health ministers. Smith argues that GM foods are hazardous to health.

The third member of the visiting trio is Dr Andrew Tommey, from the Biotechnology Unit in the Office of the Directorate General of Environment, in the European Commission.

His agenda is slightly different in that he will discuss, next week in Canberra, the current state of play with biotechnology and regulation in the European Union, and the role and implications for agricultural production, research, trade, and international relations.

Meacher and Smith would prefer farming to be more on organic lines, and have a bent towards vegetarianism, although they appear to also embrace integrated pest management.

The world long ago moved on to industrial agriculture and high tech production and marketing systems, of which biotechnology is but one small component.

It is to be hoped that decision-makers in Australia are not hoodwinked or hijacked by the views of three itinerant travellers, whichever gospel they preach.

AgBioWorld http://www.agbioworld.org
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