Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - March 19, 2004:
* The Difficulties of Defining the Term "GM" - Nina Federoff Fires On!
* Facts and Reason in the UK -- A Biotech Turning Point
* Re: Problems with Bt Sprays
* Media-Friendly Scientists Equals Science-Friendly People
* Australia: GM Canola Trial Gets Go-Ahead
* Brave the New Biotech World
* IPR for the Public Good: Obligations of U.S. to Developing Countries
* Prof. Traavik Responds to Criticism of his 'Bt-Corn Pollen Allergy Claims'
* Drugs in Whose Cereal?
* Much Ado About Almost Nothing
* Genetically Altered Tobacco Fights Cervical Cancer
* Regulation of Food & Traceability in the EU and US: Convergence or Divergence?
The Difficulties of Defining the Term "GM"
- Science. Vol. 303 No. 5665, pp. 1765-176; 19 March 2004 http://www.sciencemag.org (Thanks to Tom DeGregori for the alert)
Nina Federoff's Response:
My words were chosen with care. It is indeed true, as Ramsay points out, that the contemporary definition of genetically modified, or GM, applies only to plants modified by molecular techniques and that I have used this definition both in writing and in public lectures. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the distinction is not just artificial and unhelpful, but profoundly counterproductive on a global scale.
Both Grun and Ramsay maintain that meaningful discourse requires making a distinction between "traditional selective breeding" and "biotechnology based on recombinant DNA." I disagree. It is precisely this distinction that has created the widely accepted, albeit mythical, view that "traditional" plant breeding is somehow gradual, and, yes, natural, whereas contemporary techniques are rapid and unnatural.
According to the Mutant Variety Database, established by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (1), more than 2000 crop varieties grown today were created using chemical or radiation mutagenesis. Is using neutron radiation to create the popular Rio Red grapefruit variety gradual and natural? Is using the somaclonal variation arising as a result of passage through tissue culture to create mutant herbicide-tolerant Clearfield Corn less rapid and unnatural than introducing bacterial or mutant genes cloned by molecular techniques to create Round-up Ready corn and soybeans?
Pinstrup-Andersen and Schioler ask, "Why, in the debate on natural versus unnatural, should we draw the line right here, right now, at the point where genetic engineering has entered the scene?" [(2), p. 80-81]. And it is indeed a puzzle that people blithely accept churning up genomes with radiation, mutagenic chemicals, and a variety of other techniques, including intergeneric crosses, while looking askance at the newer, very much less disruptive molecular methods. But maybe they don't know what traditional breeders do.
Moreover, the ability to move genes between species is not a recent, or even a human invention. Agrobacterium and its plant-transforming plasmids are natural: Quite without human intervention, these bacteria developed a set of plant genes useful to the bacterium, as well as the ability to transfer them to plant cells without killing the plant. Why is using this natural genetic engineering system to introduce genes coding for bacterial Bt proteins to protect plants from insect attack less natural than spraying fields with concentrated preparations of the Bt bacteria grown in huge fermenters and sold in stores? If butterfly flap, you will know that the consensus of a very large U.S.-Canadian project to assess the impact of GM corn on the monarch came to the conclusion that only about 3 in 10,000 larvae will be in danger of getting sick or dying from eating corn pollen expressing Bt genes (3).
This seems as benign and sensible an approach to crop protection as replacing a drug with a vaccine is in human health care. It is time to eliminate the altogether artificial boundary between what humans did before molecular techniques were developed and what they do now to improve their crop plants--a point I sought to make in my Perspective. A mutation is a mutation, whether spontaneous, induced by tissue culture, or induced by radiation mutagenesis. The kinds of genetic changes that underlie the origin of corn from teosinte are not fundamentally different from those that gave us dwarf Green Revolution rice, seedless oranges, Rio Red grapefruit. And if they spread more slowly than they might today, it was probably only because people hadn't yet invented trucks, trains, and planes.
What's new is that our growing understanding and knowledge of genes and how they function means that we don't have to wait for just the right spontaneous mutation to show up, nor do we have to hurry the process by bashing genomes randomly with radiation. We can instead identify and isolate just one target gene and alter it by molecular methods in a very precise way. We can then introduce it into a plant with minimal genomic disturbance.
I agree with Grun's assertion that the use of the term "GM" has economic implications and may influence whether GM crops are or are not accepted. In 2002, Zambia's president Mwanawasa puzzled people around the world by rejecting a much-needed shipment of U.S. corn for his starving nation, despite assurances by the United States, the United Nations, and NGOs that the GM corn was safe to eat and was, indeed, the same as that eaten daily in the United States, Canada, and other countries. But he was neither ignorant nor nuts. Along with the rest of Africa, Mwanawasa confronted with a truly Hobbesian choice: starve now or lose access to European GM-free markets in the future.
As Mexico has discovered, seeds from food aid shipments find their way into farmers' fields. It seems almost beyond comprehending, yet the apparently personal preferences of European consumers for foods made from plants that have been genetically modified in many ways, but not by molecular methods, may set Africa's agricultural and economic agenda.
In a recent Op-Ed piece, Normal Borlaug (who won a Nobel prize in 1970 for developing the Green Revolution wheat strains) wrote, "Biotechnology absolutely should be part of Africa's agricultural reform; African leaders would be making a grievous error if they turn their back on it" (4). He strongly urges Africa not to follow the lead of Europe, where biotechnology has been "demonized."
But how can Africa afford to adopt GM technology if doing so precludes future access to European markets? Yet how can Africa afford not to adopt GM technology, which is scale-independent and biologically based, in its struggle to attain food security? Are we not part of the problem with our insistence on hanging a special label on crops genetically modified by molecular techniques, quite without evidence of any kind that these crops pose new environmental problems or that foods made from them create new he in the developed world are certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods, but can we please eat first?" (5).
- Nina Fedoroff, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Pennsylvania State
P. Pinstrup-Andersen, E. Schioler, Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global Controversy over GM Crops (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press for the International Food Policy Research Institute, Baltimore, MD, 2000). M. K. Sears et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 98, 11937 (2001). N. Borlaug, "The next green revolution," N.Y. Times, 11 July 2003, section A, p. 17. J. Wambugu, from a 2003 interview with Joe Schwarz of McGill University. Pdf file is available at http://www.oss.mcgill.ca/biotech/africa.pdf
Original Rebuttal Letters:
I am writing to urge the maintenance of the commonly understood meaning of the acronym "GM" and in opposition to a changed use that appeared prominently in a recent Perspective by N. V. Federoff ("Prehistoric GM corn," 14 Nov., p. 1158). Through much of the history of genetics, genetic modification was attained only by the classical methods involving crossing, backcrossing, selfing, and so forth, and there was a definite limitation imposed by the relationships among organisms involved or the source of genes that could be combined and recombined.
After DNA transfer via Agrobacterium and gene guns was developed, that limitation disappeared, the processes of genetic manipulation became much more wide-ranging, and very different problems associated with the new methodologies surfaced. The expression "genetically modified organism," "GMO," or, more commonly, "GM," was coined for these methods. An extensive literature has been built up with a common understanding that associates the term "GM" with genetic engineering. The result has been the evolution of an acronym having a meaning different from the words it symbolizes, for GM is only a small part of the total literature on genetic modification. Major economic implications are tied up with the term, whose recognition may well influence whether GM crops become common in commerce. My point is that the distinctions between classical genetic modification and its acronym are clearly understood.
Fedoroff's Perspective breaks with that usage, even in its title, and so removes the distinction. I do not wish to concentrate on this paper, for there may well be others that use the terms as synonyms, but I do object to the practice. It is not a question of whether genetic engineering is good, bad, or irrelevant, but clarity of understanding requires that a distinction be recognized. If breaking with the identification of GM with genetic engineering becomes common, the distinction will disappear and any confuse readers and complicate the already complex discussions on this topic. Let's keep communication clear in this controversial field and restrict the term "GM" to its engineering roots.
- Paul Grun, Department of Horticulture, Pennsylvania State University: firstname.lastname@example.org
N. V. Fedoroff's Perspective "Prehistoric GM corn" (14 Nov., p.1158) seems calculated to obscure important issues in the debate over the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In any meaningful discourse concerning GMOs, distinctions must be made between the different techniques, ranging from traditional selective breeding to biotechnology based on recombinant DNA, used to incorporate new genetic material into existing organisms.
In her Perspective, Fedoroff resorts to two deceptive rhetorical devices to obscure the distinction between bioengineering and selective breeding: She defines the term "genetic modification" in such a way as to include prehistoric crop domestication, and she uses the words "fast" and "rapid" in two different time scales. Fedoroff reports that maize probably originated in southern Mexico about 9000 years ago, describes how selective breeding had yielded corn with a modern genetic profile by about 4400 years ago, and cites findings of maize cultivation in the southwestern United States more than 3000 years ago as evidence that "[t]he GM corn spread far--and fast."
Two paragraphs later, she concludes that "the apparent loss of genetic diversity following the introduction of high-yielding Green Revolution wheat and rice varieties in the 1960s and 1970s, and attending the rapid adoption of GM crops today, is far from a new phenomenon."
In a talk given for the Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science, Fedoroff defined a genetically modified organism as one that "was modified using contemporary molecular techniques" (1). By this definition, the maize grown by pre-Columbian indigenous peoples does not qualify as a GMO. Contemporary bioengineering techniques create new crops markedly faster than traditional breeding can, and the genetic modifications induced tend to be qualitatively different. Furthermore, the speed with which modern marketing and distribution channels disseminate GMOs is very different from the gradual spread of domesticated crops (2). Fedoroff's implication that this unprecedented speed of creation and dissemination is "far from a new phenomenon" is, at best, misleading.
- Tim Ramsay, McLaughlin Centre for Population Health Risk Assessment, University of Ottawa References
PowerPoint presentation, available at
P. Gepts, Crop Sci. 42, 1780 (2002).
Facts and Reason in the UK -- A Biotech Turning Point
- Dean Kleckner, Chairman, Truth About Trade & Technology http://www.truthabouttrade.org/article.asp?id=1499
The best-selling American author Bill Bryson is a devoted Anglophile who has written lovingly about life in Britain: "The fact is that this is still the best place in the world for most things--to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in the view."
Iím not sure about all that--I donít like getting rained on when I go for a walk or getting lost anywhereóbut, having been there a number of times, I do think Britain is a nice place and the British a good people.
And I like it even better now that Tony Blair's government has decided to let farmers in the United Kingdom grow genetically enhanced crops. Last week, it approved a variety of biologically enhanced corn in a move suggesting that Britain may follow Spain and become the second European country to engage in the large-scale growth of genetically enhanced crops.
The decision came after a government report determined that the newly approved strain of biologically improved corn is better for the environment (the birds and bees) than non-biotech alternatives. The British Medical Association also reversed an earlier statement and now says biotech enhanced foods arenít a health risk.
This is a welcome development. Many Europeans have responded to the biotech revolution in agriculture with fear rather than reason. Some of this was understandable after an outbreak of both mad-cow and foot and mouth disease in the 1990s undermined public confidence in the safety of food. The enemies of biotechnology, from Greenpeace to the inaptly named Friends of the Earth, tried to exploit the situation by playing on emotions.
Iíve always said that emotions grab an early lead in any argument but ultimately the facts will win out. This is exactly what has now happened in Britain. The approval of a single biotech crop is especially encouraging because no European country was more affected by the mad-cow problem than Britain. It is enormously satisfying to watch the UK allow reason to triumph over fear.
We may be reaching a turning point in Europeís reluctance to accept biotech foods. The EU soon will publish biotech labeling rules, which may boost consumer confidence. Thatís the hope, anyway. The devil is always in the details and weíll have to assess those rules when theyíre published in the next few weeks.
Whatís more, the EU appears to be on the brink of abandoning its six-year moratorium on new biotech crop approvals. "I think the anti-GM phobia is starting to subside," said David Bowe, a British member of the European Parliament in the Wall Street Journal.
This is all good news. At the same time, we must realize that the British decision is far from perfect. Britain doesnít actually grow much corn and it will be a year before the new approval influences the planting choices of farmers. Moreover, in approving one kind of biotech corn, it rejected two other crops. Finally, as the government was announcing its approval, environmental secretary Margaret Beckett declared that the industry may have to compensate UK farmers who suffer financial losses if biotech enhanced plants cross pollinate with other crops. This sort of policy may very well keep Britain from embracing biotechnology as vigorously as it should.
Thankfully, Prime Minister Blair has seen the big picture clearly. Two years ago, he visited India, met with scientists, and was surprised by their criticisms. "Europe has gone soft on science; we are going to leapfrog you and you will miss out," they told him. Blair summarized their
view: "They regarded the debate on [biotechnology] here and elsewhere in Europe as utterly astonishing. They saw us as completely overrun by protestors and pressure groups who used emotion to drive out reason. And they donít think we had the political will to stand up for proper science."
Blair himself seemed to agree with them--and announced that it was time for Britain and the rest of Europe to move forward. "In GM crops,Ē he said, " can find no serious evidence of health risks."
Much of the rest of the world reached this conclusion long ago. Itís too bad the Europeans have taken so long to get to the same place, if that is indeed what theyíre now doing. All the same, we should be glad theyíre at least taking a few steps in our direction.
Re: Problems with Bt Sprays
- Bob MacGregor ††
I dug up an old article from New Scientist (9 October 1999, pp 22-23) about the similarities between B. thuringiensis and B. anthracis and B. cereus. The following two observations appeared in the article:
> "Vern Seligy and colleagues at the Canadian federal health ministry
> told the American Society for Microbiology in Chicago in June that, at concentrations similar to those in aerial sprays, two commercial strains of Bt killed human cells in culture, by producing toxins that behaved like those from B. cereus."
> "Katy Yound of the Environmental Health Alliance, a campaigning group
> in British Columbia, says that in 1994, after Bt was sprayed to kill
> gypsy moths in forests near Victoria, 62 people had problems
> consistent with B. cereus toxins. Their symptoms included diarrhoea,
> vomiting and respiratory problems." ....."While agreeing that Bt
> produces small amounts of cereus toxins, the US Environmental
> Protection Agency (EPA) says there is no valid evidence to link use of
> Bt insecticides with episodes of diarrhoea, and it has therefore
> declared the products safe."
I haven't seen peer-reviewed reports corroborating these observations (and, like Traavik's report and Starlink allergy claims, the Katy Young quote sounds very circumstantial to me), but the concerns may be a major reason for organic industry switching to killed rather than live Bt sprays.
(From Prakash: Better yet, embrace Bt crops which have all the advantages of insecticidal Bt control and none of the disadvantages of the Bt spray
-- short life, rapid degradation, allergy, extra labor and huge costs. Many of the commercial Bt spray formulations are from genetically modified bacteria any way. We had much discussion on this subject in AgBioView during the Anthrax scare a couple of years ago)
Media-Friendly Scientists Equals Science-Friendly People
- Judith Hann, The Daily Telegraph, Mar 17, 2004
Since I left Durham University in the 1960s to become a science writer and broadcaster, I've constantly heard the same questions. "Why can't we persuade our best pupils to take science?" "Why do science graduates leave the profession?" And, "Why does science have a poor profile?"
This is an encouraging time for science, with Gordon Brown's new investment plans, Tony Blair's emphasis on the importance of science for the country's prosperity, the Government's decision on GM crops, and National Science Week with more than 1,000 activities. Yet the same questions remain. And the answer has stayed pretty much the same over the
decades: the main obstacle to improving the image of science is scientists' attitude to the media. We don't hear enough positive messages from scientists themselves. Scientists and engineers could attract pupils to their subjects by getting involved in science festivals and talking about their work in the local and national media.
Primary school children love science, but something dampens this enthusiasm at secondary level. My sons were good at science but opted for the arts because those teachers were more inspirational. Two decades on, and the situation has deteriorated. Now, vacancies for science teachers are four times higher than they were seven years ago. We need more and better teachers.
In the past, I have been involved in schemes to encourage girls into science and engineering. They worked. We now need to reverse the overall fall in numbers with revolutionary campaigns that show science is fascinating and significant. I first found myself defending science at university. Perhaps because I edited the student newspaper, directed a couple of plays and wore fashionable clothes rather than a lab coat, arts students used to say I didn't "seem like a scientist". This attitude infuriated me: I was always enthusiastic about science, and during my newspaper training I persuaded my editor, Harold Evans, to introduce a science column. The regional paper had never had one before, but our readers loved it. And during 10 years on newspapers and 20 years with Tomorrow's World, I met no resistance from scientists.
On BBC1 for nearly 40 years, Tomorrow's World did a great job for science, attracting audiences of 12 million, half of them female, and persuading many young viewers to become scientists. I don't know how the BBC can justify having no weekly popular science programme since scrapping TW last year. We need more programmes like Your Life in Their Hands, about brain surgery, and If... The Lights Go Out, about the energy crisis. Science books sell well, so why not write dramas, children's programmes and soaps around scientists? Let's give eloquent, memorable scientists such as Steve Jones, David Bellamy and Susan Greenfield more time in the media. There are also young scientists who could become stars with training.
But too many scientists now fear and criticise the media. I first realised this when I stopped working for the BBC and joined the Biotechnology Commission, which advises the Government. Four years ago, when the Ditchley Foundation invited me to discuss concerns about plant, human and animal genomics, I was shocked to hear scientists dismissing science coverage in the media as inaccurate and not worth their time. I told them it was arrogant to ignore a vital part of their job.
When I was involved in setting up the public debate on genetic modification this summer, I found it hard to persuade scientists to accept the need for a TV programme on the subject because many mistrusted the media. As scientific developments speed up, particularly in areas such as GM crops, human cloning and nanotechnology, people want to know more. Research has shown that, when people are given clear information, they can understand the complexity and often uncertainty of science, plus the ethical and social implications.
Scientists will win trust if they are open and accountable. But if they abandon the media to lobby groups and hysterical campaigning, science will suffer. Scientists must learn, like politicians have, to become experts in rebutting inaccurate stories and imparting their own message. The best way to improve the image of science is to hear more about it from scientists themselves in newspapers, on radio and TV. I feel so passionately about it, I am now training scientists to do this at the Royal Society. Britain needs charismatic champions of science.
Australia: GM Canola Trial Gets Go-Ahead
- Caitlin Fitzsimmons, Sydney Morning Herald, March 19, 2004
Australia's first commercial crop of genetically modified canola could be planted within weeks after a NSW government advisory committee voted to recommend a 3500ha trial go ahead. The trial, if approved, will take place at several sites in southern NSW and provide a litmus test for farmers and regulators in other states.
Final approval rests with NSW Agriculture Minister Ian Macdonald who said yesterday he would ensure that farmers would be compensated for any contamination. "No trials will get the green light until we have guarantees that our farmers are protected," said Mr Macdonald, who has been under sustained pressure from both the National Party and the Greens.
The federal gene technology regulator approved Monsanto's Roundup Ready canola and Bayer's InVigor canola last year but all canola-growing states have some sort of moratorium on the commercial release of GM food crops.
NSW has a three-year moratorium but Monsanto and Bayer have applied jointly for an exemption to allow a large-scale trial to examine the market response to GM canola and the issue of coexistence with non-GM and organic farmers.
The chemical giants are also keen to conduct a similar trial in Victoria and are waiting for Victorian Agriculture Minister Bob Cameron to decide whether to extend or lift the state's one-year moratorium, which expires in May. The NSW Agricultural Advisory Council on Gene Technology, which is considering the Monsanto/Bayer application, held its final meetings this week and intends to deliver a formal recommendation by Tuesday.
Individual council members are bound by confidentiality but The Australian understands the committee voted in favour of the proposal on Wednesday night. Committee chairman Tim Reeves would not confirm this but said the advice to the minister would be detailed and complex. The original proposal for a 4000-5000ha trial had been significantly revised through negotiation with the biotechnology companies to reduce the risk of contamination.
Professor Reeves said the committee, which includes representatives from the NSW Farmers Association, the Network of Concerned Farmers, Avcare, CSIRO, the Grains Research and Development Corporation, GrainCorp and the NSW Agriculture Department, represented a diverse range of opinions.
He would not comment on the fact Jo Immig, the delegate from the Nature Conservation Council, walked out, branding the process a sham. Ms Immig said the moratorium would be "worthless" if the trial went ahead.
Brave the New Biotech World
- MikeNahan, Herald-Sun (Australia), 20 March 2004
The Bracks Government needs to show leadership on biotechnology and permit the next stage of trials for biotech canola.
The Government is spending millions building on the State's strength in biotechnology. It is doing this because it recognises that biotechnology is a key transforming technology, changing old industries, creating new ones and providing means to solve some of society's most intractable problems. It has, along with other states and the Commonwealth Government, also put in place a rigorous process of testing of all genetically modified crops and products and has established an extensive consultative process.
However, spending money on laboratory research and committees, and promoting Victoria as the Smart State, will be a waste unless biotech products, once developed and having passed all tests, are allowed to be commercialised. Last year, the Government failed its first real test. It decided to place a one-year moratorium on commercial trials of GM canola.
It did this despite the fact that the varieties received a clean bill of health from the Australian regulator, the approval of the Victorian farming community and the approval of the science community.
The Government did this despite receiving strong evidence that growing GM canola posed no threat to Australia's "clean and green image", to markets, to organic farmers or to the sale of non-GM varieties. Moreover, the Government was aware that GM canola offered huge economic benefits to farmers, including a 34 per cent increase in gross margins, 40 per cent reduction in herbicide costs, and a 50 per cent reduction in cultivation effort.
They knew this not only from extensive local research but from large worldwide research, particularly in North America where GM canola varieties have been grown for more than six years and now account for the vast bulk of the global canola crop.
Why then the moratorium? Because a few Labor backbenchers have been scared by the neo-Luddites.
Like all new technologies, GM crops frighten some people. This is particularly the case for organic farmers, who make up most of the anti-GM campaigners. Fear of the technology is also being fanned by professional fear mongers, such as Greenpeace.
Greenpeace's strategy is to seed fear, with the judicious use of junk science and conspiracy theories, and then seek funds from the frightened to fight their fears. Since 2000, it has concentrated its efforts on generating fear of GM crops.
The moratorium is over in May, but a decision is due. The same few backbenchers are campaigning for a continuation of the moratorium, and the indications are that the Government is set to cave in again.
The biotechnology is a generic technology and is being applied to many industries and products. Food may be the main battle-ground now, but the battle will spread to other industries including pharmaceuticals. The future of biotechnology in Victoria will be determined by how the Government acts now.
A failure to act responsibly on GM canola will send a loud message to investors to look to lower-risk places such as Queensland. What is needed is leadership based on good decision-making and science, not by the politics of fear.
Intellectual Property Rights for the Public Good: Obligations of U.S. Universities to Developing Countries
- April 29. 2004; University of Minnesota, St. Paul; Sent by Prof. Ron Phillips http://www.lifesci.consortium.umn.edu/conferences/ip.php
International collaboration and cooperation are essential in developing new technology for future food and agriculture sectors. True collaborative arrangements, in the interests of both developing countries and the U.S., including the academic community, are needed for the future.
The purpose of this conference is to examine issues concerning intellectual property and technology transfer. The conference will provide a public discussion of the impact of intellectual property protection on making public goods developed at universities available to the developing world. The basic roles of land-grant universities will be evaluated against a backdrop of current events, such as the development of golden rice. Prominent scholars in agricultural policy, intellectual property, and research will present an informed view of the situation, and a panel discussion will help guide future decisions. This symposium will address these cutting-edge problems, deepen the interdisciplinary dialogue, and ultimately ask what is the role of an U.S. University.
Response from Prof. Traavik of Norway on Criticism of his 'Bt-Corn Pollen Allergy Claims' in Philippines
- Subject: Have a nice day! From: Terje Traavik †
A response to criticism about our work on GE biosafety: The Cartagena protocol, the Precautionary principle, "sound science" and "early warnings". - Terje Traavik, Dr. philos., Scientific Director, GENōK-Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology, Professor of Gene Ecology, University of Tromso
On February 22, 2004, I presented the results of ongoing research at the Biosafety Symposium in Kuala Lumpur, held just prior to the first Meeting of the Parties on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The Symposium was jointly organised by the Third World Network (a science-interested organisation), the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology (GENōK) and the New Zealand Institute of Gene Ecology. The Symposium was accessible to the public, but it was primarily a meeting for those with professional interests in biosafety.
The presentation of our preliminary research findings was done in the spirit of the greatest of traditions to share the results of research among peers. This tradition has dominated the biological sciences for centuries. Possibly that tradition has become difficult to recognise in an age when most research is filtered for information that must be kept secret for commercial or other reasons. I am proud and grateful to be supported by public agencies who impose no such requirements.
Speaking now for the two Institutes of Gene Ecology, we also reject any inclination among particular parties to define our peer group. The Institutes of Gene Ecology are organised on the principle that bio-applications will have impacts on the planet and the ecology of human beings that transcend dated and arbitrary notions of where biology ends and ethics, social science, law, economics, philosophy and culture begin. Our peer group is composed of those who are specialists in the impacts of genetically engineered organisms. As a community we have a membership that covers all traditional research backgrounds mentioned above. More importantly, each individual among us has a commitment to understand what can be learned from all those disciplines when focused on a single issue--Genetically engineered organisms. That latter quality opens our minds to the bodies of knowledge held in non-traditional sources. By this we mean both NGOs and the industry.
Our peer group and our emerging competence in holistic impact assessment is what we believe make us unique. I have been criticised for speaking about my research at the Kuala Lumpur Biosafety Symposium. This is an insult to the audience who was composed of respected scientific specialists, members of the competent regulatory community, and accomplished researchers of the many disciplines whose interests intersect the impacts of new bioapplications, including genetically engineered organisms.
Full article at http://www.genok.org/lesartikkel.asp?article_id=814&id2=lcYimfVb3hUIHIuCsbftMPkdF
Drugs in Whose Cereal?
- Michael J. Phillips, Christian Science Monitor, Letters, March 19, 2004
Your March 11 article "Are There Drugs in My Corn Flakes?" may have left readers with the false impression that they might find drugs in their cereal. The article failed to discuss the federal regulations protecting consumers from crops not intended for food use. Plants producing pharmaceutical proteins are grown in field trials under strict conditions set forth by federal and state governments. These requirements are science based and consider the type of plant, the protein being expressed, the location of the intended production area, and crop handling practices.
Farm equipment used for these types of plants cannot be used for any food or feed crops. Since these protein-producing plants never cross paths with crops used for food and feed production, there is no chance "drugs" will appear in our cornflakes.
The writer is vice president for food and agriculture, science, and regulatory policy at the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Much Ado About Almost Nothing
- The Economist, March 18, 2004
'The public outcry over genetically modified foods offers several lessons for those working and investing in nanotechnology'
"THE time for discussion of the rights and wrongs of GM crops has passed. Intense and consistent economic sabotage and intimidation are what will make the commercialisation of GM crops an unattractive option." Words like these, from an article in the current edition of Earth First!, a radical environmental journal, send shivers down the spines of those involved in commercialising biotechnology.
The strength of public disapproval of genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) was a shock and a surprise to most of those involved. Now, some people are wondering whether nanotechnology--a term that covers the manipulation of matter at scales of a millionth of a millimetre--could be in for similar treatment and, if so, whether there are lessons that its protagonists can learn from the public backlash against biotechnology.
Full story at http://www.economist.com/science/displayStory.cfm?story_id=2521232
Genetically Altered Tobacco Fights Cervical Cancer
- Nozipho Mthembu, Science in Africa
Scientists at University of Cape Town (South Africa) are using genetically altered tobacco plants to create vaccines against cervical cancer. They aim to create vaccines that fight the virus not the wallet. Read how.†
Rows of bright green, leafy tobacco plants grow in a humid greenhouse. They look identical but one row is special. These are genetically altered tobacco plants, carrying the shell of the human papilloma virus which causes cervical cancer in women.
Tobacco leaves, dried, rolled and smoked, cause lung cancer. But these genetically modified tobacco leaves are little factories, producing a potentially inexpensive vaccine against cervical cancer, the biggest cancer killer of women in Southern Africa and one which is particularly difficult to catch early as it is buried deep within the female reproductive system.
The tobacco plant is an ideal crop for genetic modification. For a start, the genetic alteration doesnít confer any survival advantage over plants that have not been tweaked. In addition, tobacco and humans have been around each other for so long that they have developed a reliance on each
other: the plant canít escape and grow wild. Just like maize, tobacco requires human intervention to survive in Africa.
"Tobacco is a really well understood crop," says Professor Ed Rybicki of the University of Cape Town. "All of the kinds of conditions that one needs to use to grow it are very well understood indeed. It is relatively tolerant of all sorts of conditions and you get an enormous volume of leaf out of each plant, one hectare of mature tobacco gives you 20,000 kilograms or 20 metric tons of wet leaf. So that is an enormous volume of plant material that you can actually make something out of."
Full story at http://www.scienceinafrica.co.za/2004/march/vaccine.htm
The Regulation of Food Safety and the Use of Traceability/Tracing in the EU and USA: Convergence or Divergence?
- David Byrne (EU Commissioner), Communiques de Presse, European Commission; March 19, 2004; Food Safety Conference; Washington DC, 19 March 2004
The profile of risk and risk-related issues has risen markedly in the last 15 years. There has been a growing recognition of the importance of proper risk management and increasing interest in how this can be best used in relation to governance.
Of the various components of risk analysis assessment, management and communication where the perception of risk fits in is perhaps the most difficult aspect to understand and evaluate. The way that individuals, groups and societies react when faced with risk situations can often be difficult to predict and indeed may appear irrational.
With a view to furthering our understanding of risk perception, the European Commission hosted a major conference in Brussels in December of last year which attracted a wide range of participants from different backgrounds to try to get to the heart of the matter.
I am delighted to have the opportunity today to widen the discussion in a trans-Atlantic forum. I am sure that there is much than we can learn from each other. One of the particular issues highlighted by our Brussels conference was the differing attitudes to specific risks which may arise in different societies and cultures. The contrast in public attitudes to GM foods and BSE are two good examples of divergent perception between Europe and the United States. I will touch on both of these issues in the course of this address in the context of explaining the European Union's broad approach to issues of risk, in particular in the field of food safety.
But first a few words in general about risk perception. We do not habitually seek out the safest route as we go about our daily lives. Some risks we regard as inevitable, part and parcel of everyday life. Some risks we actively choose for the value they add to life. There is a risk attached to almost everything we do. Even inactivity carries risk. Zero risk does not exist.
Allow me to mention briefly a few specific factors. Risks taken by individuals that are under their personal control appear to be more readily acceptable than those which are outside their control. Linked to this is the question of who decides on the risk. Individuals seem more comfortable with risks they decide to take on their own rather than risks which are decided on their behalf by Governments, for example.
Citizens tend to be more concerned about accidents for which, despite being relatively rare, the chances of survival are slim (such as plane crashes), while more common and random events (such as car accidents) for which the chances of survival are higher are of apparently less concern.
And benefit. What's in it for me? Why should I be asked to take a risk, however small, if I cannot see any tangible benefit from doing so? This strikes an obvious chord with the GM debate in relation to food, a subject which continues to attract significant attention, at least in so far as perceptions in the EU are concerned.
Despite repeated scientific assurance about the safety of consuming genetically modified food products, European public attitudes towards GM foods have, to date, shown few if any signs of a thaw. The science-based message simply fails to get across, or if it does, it is ignored.
European citizens have, by and large, made up their minds. Further attempts at public persuasion might even prove to be counter-productive if citizens feel they are being leant on or otherwise coerced into changing their views.
Against this background the European policy response was essentially twofold. First we ensured that a rigorous risk assessment and approval procedure was put in place. Second, we introduced a requirement for the clear labelling of GM products. This will enable European consumers to exercise choice over whether or not they choose to buy GM products.
I know that many on this side of the Atlantic take issue with this approach, but I maintain that it is entirely appropriate and indeed the only tenable way forward in the circumstances, given the weight of public resistance to GM. I acknowledge that friends in the US find the European public's attitude to GM difficult to understand. However, our consumers demanded clear labelling and traceability as essential prerequisites.
Perhaps attitudes will ameliorate over time and with clear choice available. Indeed the availability of GM foods with real benefits could help. But despite the protestations of the biotech industry there appears to be no immediate evidence of any short to medium term benefits.
Trust and transparency
The public's reaction to GM is only one example of how Europe's consumers seek verifiable and trustworthy information about food. It raises the whole question of public trust in relation to governments and public institutions.
The structures of European democracies have shown a marked shift in recent years with the rise of the stakeholder society. At a time when interest and involvement in politics at citizen level appears to be receding, strenuous efforts have been and continue to be made to engage citizens in the processes and decisions which ultimately affect them. To make them feel they are part of the political process and not just the recipients of the decisions of others.
Clearly there is a need to develop trust. The food safety agencies, which have been established in many European countries, serve as good examples. These agencies create a credible and visible distance between different government structures with the broad aim of increasing transparency which, in turn, bolsters public acceptance and confidence.
European Food Safety Authority
It was also necessary to reinforce trust in the pan European system of food safety. In this regard, I established the European Food Safety Authority. This provides independent scientific risk assessment in respect of food safety questions, and communicates risk information to the public.
Because of the legal structure in the EU, and in line with CODEX guidelines, risk management responsibilities have not been delegated to EFSA. These remain with the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament as appropriate. You will hear more later today about EFSA from its Executive Director Geoffrey Podger.
Role of the media
The communication of risk to the public is of crucial importance. Of course, the media plays a major role in how the public perceives risk.
The problem for public authorities becomes one of how to transmit clear and accurate risk messages against the backdrop of certain sections of the media apparently intent on maximising hysteria.
It is clear to me that both Europe and the US have very safe food chains. I made that clear to Secretary Veneman in my discussions with her yesterday. Sometimes we have our differences about how things should be done.
Therefore it is crucially important to have greater common understandings of how our populations perceive risk. Diverging perceptions may ultimately influence how our respective regulatory regimes respond to given risks. Different responses to the same risk. Perhaps irrational, but understandable.
We are living through what we call "globalisation", significantly driven by multi-national corporations and trade liberalisation. It is vital, therefore, for all of us to reach better appreciations of why we might agree on assessments of particular situations, whereas our risk management approaches might be different. Equally, we should be conscious of divergences in risk assessments and their potential consequences.
It has become increasingly clear that risk perception plays an important role in the mechanics of risk management, and that approaches to risk management require further development for more effective policy making and, ultimately, better governance.
One of the messages that rang out loud and clear from our conference last December in Brussels was the stark contrast in the way scientists look at risk compared with citizens either individually or collectively in society.
The scientific approach is rational and methodical. It deals with probabilities and population averages a logical and theoretical approach, free from emotional distortion. This is of course very useful. However what it misses is the "human factor" and the wide variety of influences which shape human behaviour.
One delegate put it most succinctly people behave according to perceptions, not facts.
Full speech at http://www.agbios.com/main.php?action=ShowNewsItem&id=5366