Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - May 18, 2004:
* Genetically Engineered Wheat: Luddites Triumph
* Narrow Path for New Biotech Food Crops
* Why Can't We All Co-Exist?
* Activists Plan June Biotech Convention Protest
* Now If Only (Poor) Farmers Could Benefit
* GM Food and Crops: What Went Wrong in the UK?
* Biotech Guru Shanthu: 'I Want to Root for the Triumph of GM'
Genetically Engineered Wheat: Luddites Triumph
- Editorial, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 19, 2004 http://www.stltoday.com
Monsanto's decision to not market genetically modified wheat represents another triumph of baseless fear over science. It's one more reason for Monsanto to hurry the day when genetically modified crops improve consumer health as well as crop yields.
St. Louis-based Monsanto dropped its genetically modified wheat after deciding that farmers in America and Canada were afraid to use it. The farmers wouldn't plant it because importers in Japan and Europe wouldn't buy it. In fact, they might shun all U.S. wheat rather than take the chance that some genetically modified grain might be mixed in.
The blame for that rests with a core of overwrought activists who insist against good evidence that genetic modification is evil. Genetically modified wheat was especially susceptible to the fear-mongering of activists because it involved the bread people eat every day, rather than crops used for animal feed and clothing.
Monsanto's decision to shelve its genetically modified wheat follows a similar decision to kill its insect-resistant potato. The decisions stymie a technology that could reduce hunger and improve nutrition worldwide. Rice enhanced with vitamin A can prevent blindness and death in developing countries. It's in field trials now. Poor farmers in Africa are seeing cotton yields jump after turning to seeds modified to resist insects.
But private industry won't advance genetic technology unless it will sell in developed nations, where the money is. The fear is that genetic modifications will produce unknown toxins that poison the populace. Others worry that genetic changes will jump species into wild plants, creating super weeds immune to herbicides, or kill off insects.
But none of those bogeymen has popped up in the decade since genetic technology hit the farm fields. Genetically modified seeds now make up 86 percent of American soy, 46 percent of corn and 76 percent of cotton crops. The bugs are fine, super weeds are science fiction, and no one is breaking out in hives.
Monsanto's engineered spring wheat would have increased yields 5 percent to 15 percent but wouldn't have helped consumers one whit. Genetically modified crops won't gain acceptance until Western consumers have a reason to like them. Monsanto is working on soy that is lower in fats that clog blood vessels. Canola low in fatty acids already is on the market. Scientists are working on plants to deliver vaccines, such as a banana with the vaccine for Hepatitis B and a potato that helps prevent diarrhea.
For genetically modified technology to gain acceptance, consumers will have to see benefits to themselves, not just to farmers.
Narrow Path for New Biotech Food Crops
- Andrew Pollack, New York Times, May 20, 2004 http://www.nytimes.com/
As a research scientist at the world's largest vegetable seed company, David Tricoli used genetic engineering to create a virus-resistant melon, something that conventional plant breeders had been unable to develop. But the company, Seminis, dropped the melon project and most of its other work on biotech vegetables because of the high costs of obtaining regulatory approval and perceived consumer resistance.
"There are things that growers need and want, but it's just too difficult to get them out," said Mr. Tricoli, who left Seminis in 2001 after the cutbacks and now works at the University of California, Davis. "In biotech, we have a solution to the problem, but it's just sitting there." The melon is emblematic of a problem in agricultural biotechnology: the small number of crops that are genetically engineered.
Agricultural biotechnology continues to spread in the United States and worldwide, and proponents see signs that the crops are becoming more accepted. On Wednesday, as expected, the European Commission decided to allow imports of a genetically engineered sweet corn developed by the Swiss company Syngenta, ending a six-year European moratorium on the approval of biotech food.
But to the extent biotechnology is growing, it is in a narrow range. Some 99 percent of the crops are grown in six countries - the United States, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China and South Africa. And virtually all the worldwide acreage is devoted to only four crops: soybeans, corn, cotton and canola. With these four, genetic engineering caught on before consumer resistance gathered force a few years ago. These crops are also largely used for animal feed, clothing or to make oil and other ingredients for processed foods rather than eaten directly - something that has helped them gain acceptance.
But recent attempts to move genetic engineering to other crops has met resistance, or at least fear by food companies and farmers that consumers will balk. And these days, many experts say, the time and money involved in clearing regulatory hurdles make it uneconomical to apply biotechnology to any but the most widely grown crops.
Just last week, Monsanto shelved plans to introduce the world's first genetically modified wheat because some American and Canadian farmers worried that European and Japanese buyers would shun not only the modified wheat but all their wheat. In April, California rebuffed a request by Ventria Bioscience, a small company in Sacramento, to increase its acreage of an experimental rice crop engineered to produce human proteins for use in nutritional supplements. Some rice farmers had also worried about the effect of such a crop on exports to Japan.
And the current edition of California Agriculture magazine laments a sharp falloff in efforts to develop genetically engineered fruit and vegetables
- small crops compared with corn and soybeans.The first genetically engineered crop introduced, in 1994, was a tomato, and some genetically engineered papayas and squash are on the market. But the number of field trials in the United States involving biotech fruit and vegetables has plummeted to about 20 in 2003 from about 120 in 1999, an article in California Agriculture said.
The situation allows both supporters and opponents of gene-altered crops to claim victory. The supporters point to the increased acreage and the recent moves by Brazil, one of the world's largest soybean growers, toward allowing farmers to plant genetically engineered soybeans.
Yet opponents can say that the narrow range of biotech crops is a sign that the technology has stalled. Not only are there just four crops, but they are still limited to two main traits introduced by genetic
engineering: insect resistance and herbicide resistance. "Fifteen years ago, I would have predicted far more diversity in products, based on what companies were saying and what scientists were saying," said Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group skeptical of genetic engineering. "It's quite surprising it's limited to these two traits."
The narrow range of crops means that biotechnology may not realize its full potential. On Monday, for instance, the Food and Agriculture Organization, a United Nations specialized agency, issued a report saying that the technology, despite its promise, was not yet doing much to help feed the world's poor because it was not being applied to the sorts of crops grown in developing countries - like potatoes, cassava, rice, wheat, millet and sorghum. Some American farmers also worry that their crops will not benefit from the latest technology. Even as some expressed relief last week when Monsanto shelved its transgenic wheat, others formed Growers for Wheat Biotechnology to push for genetic engineering.
There is also a question of how much the agricultural biotechnology industry can continue to expand without new crops, or at least new traits for the same four crops. In the United States, more than 80 percent of soybeans and nearly that share of cotton are already genetically engineered. The pace of new product introductions has fallen sharply. In the last three years, only two crops a year have been the subject of consultations with the Food and Drug Administration before marketing. In the late 1990's, it was not unusual for a dozen crops to go through this process each year.
And the new developments are mainly variations on the same themes. "Within the regulatory pipeline, there's not a lot that looks dramatically new that we're aware of," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a research organization in Washington.
Monsanto, the widely acknowledged leader in crop biotechnology, said a few years ago that it would concentrate on soybeans, corn, cotton and wheat. Its plan for growth, at least for the next few years, is to expand acreage of the existing crops and come out with variations and combinations of the same traits. ts plan for corn, detailed in an investor presentation in November, is instructive. Monsanto first came out in 1997 with BT corn, containing a bacterial toxin that makes the crop resistant to the corn borer. Then it introduced corn that was resistant to its Roundup herbicide
- a trait it first used in soybeans, which allows weed killer to be liberally applied without fear of killing the plant. More recently, it introduced a different BT corn, resistant to another pest, the rootworm.
One reason for the difficulty that new gene-altered crops have is that food companies and farmers are reluctant to risk losing even a little bit of market share or attracting protests. Virus-resistant biotech potatoes were taken off the market by Monsanto after big potato processors and fast-food companies told growers that they did not want them. Lettuce growers in California balked at the introduction of Roundup Ready lettuce, said Kent J. Bradford, a professor of vegetable crops and director of the seed biotechnology center at Davis.
For smaller crops, the economic barriers now loom as large as customer resistance. Keith Redenbaugh, associate director for regulatory affairs at Seminis Vegetable Seeds, and Alan McHughen, a plant biotechnologist at the University of California at Riverside, wrote in California Agriculture magazine that some companies budget $50 million above what they spend on a conventional crop to bring a biotech seed to market, given the health and environmental tests required. The entire market for iceberg lettuce seeds is $27 million a year, they said, which is why it might be difficult to develop transgenic lettuce.
Some experts say the biotechnology companies must develop crops that offer more for the consumer or the food companies, not just the farmer. And, even with the cutbacks, there are still many crops in development. Syngenta is developing the StayRipe banana, which would remain edible up to five days longer than a conventional banana. It hopes to introduce the product around 2007.
Monsanto says it is working on soybeans that would produce healthier oils, either reducing harmful transfats or increasing the levels of the omega fatty acids that are good for the heart. But the company says its first such product, not expected for a few years, will be developed by conventional breeding. "The whole area is being held hostage until we get a great consumer trait that can pull these things through the market," Dr. Bradford said.
And even consumer traits do not guarantee success. That first biotechnology crop, the 1994 Flavr Savr tomato, had a consumer-friendly
trait: delayed rotting. But it failed in the United States for various reasons, like the problems growing, breeding and distributing it at low enough cost. Consumer opposition was not that big a factor, although some people thought that the tomato did not taste any better than conventional ones.
Why Can't We All Co-Exist?
PG Economics Ltd today announced the release of its latest research paper on GM and non GM crop co-existence - 'Co-existence of GM and non GM crops: the non GM and organic context in the EU'
The key findings of the report are:
1. GM crops can co-exist with conventional and organic crops in the EU without causing any economic or marketing problems. 2. Claims by anti GM groups that GM and non GM crops cannot co-exist are exaggerated. 3. Attaching onerous co-existence and liability conditions to GM crop plantings would be inequitable and disproportionate.
These conclusions are based on the context of the crops in which GM crops are being developed and the extent to which non GM demand exists, the experiences of European arable farmers in successfully implementing and managing the co-existence of specialist crops with other crops for many years and practical, commercial experience of growing GM crops in North America.
If highly onerous GM crop stewardship conditions are applied to all EU farmers who might wish to grow GM crops, even though the vast majority of such crops would not be located near to organic-equivalent crops or conventional crops for which the non GM status is important, this would be disproportionate and inequitable. In effect, conventional farmers, who account for 99.59% of the current, relevant EU arable crop farming area could be discouraged from adopting a new technology that is likely to deliver farm level benefits (yield gains, cost savings) and provide wider environmental gains (reduced pesticide use, switches to more environmentally benign herbicides, reduced levels of greenhouse gas emissions).
Market for non GM products in the EU: This market (ie, where buyers actively request that supplies are certified as being non GM) currently accounts for about 27% of total soybean/derivative use and 36% of total maize use. For crops like oilseed rape and sugar beet, there is no real GM versus non GM market in the EU because, in the case of oilseed rape, no GM product is currently permitted for planting or importing for use, and in the case of sugar beet, no GM sugar beet crops are currently grown commercially anywhere in the world.
Organic sector context: The share of EU crops planted to organic for which GM traits are currently available, or are likely to become commercially available in the next five years is extremely low (about 0.41%). This very low level of importance reflects a combination of reasons including adverse agronomic factors (eg, the nutrient demanding nature of crops like oilseed rape), limited demand, and market preference for competing
(imported) produce (eg, cane sugar).
Co-existence of GM and non GM crops: GM crops growing commercially in the EU and in North America have co-existed with conventional and organic crops without economic and commercial problems – only isolated instances have been reported of adventitious presence of GMOs occurring in organic crops, even in North America where GM crops dominate production of soybeans, maize and canola . For the future, the likelihood of economic and commercial problems of co-existence arising remains very limited, even if a significant development of commercial GM crops and increased plantings of organic crops were to occur.
Activists Plan June Biotech Convention Protest
'Demonstrators say corporate greed undermines democracy'
- Josh Richman, San Mateo County Times, May 20, 2004 http://www.sanmateocountytimes.com/
San Francisco -- Activists unveiled plans Wednesday to shut down an international biotechnology convention next month in protest of what they believe is global corporate greed undermining democracy. This is "more than a mobilization -- we are beginning a movement which we see as the next phase of the global justice movement," said Bay Area activist and author Starhawk.
The June 6-9 biotech conference is expected to draw people from at least 55 countries to the city's Moscone Center. The activists plan to attempt a shutdown on Tuesday, June 8 -- the same day the annual G8 summit, a meeting of eight major industrial nations for discussion of world issues, begins on an island off Georgia's coast.
Meddle Bolger, who helped Direct Action to Stop the War stage protests last year in San Francisco that led to thousands of arrests, said this protest aims to show how the biotech industry and the G8 are "simply stepping stones in the corporate agenda of domination."
Dan Eramian, vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) hosting the annual conference, said mass protests outside the 2000 conference in Boston dwindled to just a handful of demonstrators at 2003's event in Washington. "We expect San Francisco to have more than that," he said Wednesday. "But the police have taken all the necessary precautions, and the BIO meeting will go on. We're hoping for a record number of about 20,000 people (attending).
"If activists want to define our industry as bad people, that's certainly not the message you would get if you asked a person who's just had a heart attack, a woman who has breast cancer, someone who has arthritis," Eramian added. "There are hundreds of thousands of people who have benefited from our drugs, and they would give you a different answer as to what biotechnology is all about." But the activists claim the industry is letting profits take precedence over human needs when it comes to genetically modified foods, unproven medical treatments and industrial pollution.
For more information about the protests, see http://www.reclaimthecommons.net. For more information about the biotech conference, see http://www.bio.org/events/2004/. For more information about the G8 summit, see http://g8usa.gov/
Now If Only Farmers Could Benefit
- Rocky Mountain News, May 20, 2004 http://www.rockymountainnews.com/
We hope the recent endorsement of genetically modified crops by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization helps dispel the shameful mixture of superstition and protectionism that has blocked their trade. With an estimated 2 billion more mouths to feed during the next 30 years, surely one important solution to feeding them is to enable poor farmers to grow GM crops.
The U.N. agency found no health or ecological drawbacks to GM crops. The benefits to poor farmers are that GM seeds offer higher yields and are disease-, pest- and drought-resistant and have the environmental benefit of needing less chemical fertilizer and pesticide.
The agency rightly urges wealthier agricultural nations to develop and disseminate GM seeds for poor farmers and to develop GM seed for "orphan crops" - millet, sorghum, cowpeas - grown mainly in poor countries as well as such Third World crops as bananas, cassava and rice. And the FAO urges that the results be carefully monitored.
However, making farmers in the poor countries of the world more productive is only part of the solution. The huge agricultural subsidies in the developed world undercut Third World farmers in their own markets and bar them from the huge and affluent markets in the United States and European Union.
Letting poor farmers make a fair profit by giving them access to markets would be as big a boost as giving them access to GM seeds.
GM Food and Crops: What Went Wrong in the UK?
- Derek Burke, EMBO reports 5, 5, 432-436 (2004) http://www.emboreports.org/
'Many of the public's concerns have little to do with science'
Genetically modified (GM) crops are now being grown extensively in North and South America and China, although not in Europe. Food produced from these crops has become a part of the normal diet in North and South America and in China, but not in Europe, where contention continues despite the fact that millions of US citizens eat GM soya without any ill effects in a very litigious society, and many Europeans have eaten GM soya while in the US without any adverse consequences.
(Why has the British public, who normally so pragmatically welcome scientific advances, resisted the introduction of genetically modified crops? )
European consumers' continuous and ardent opposition to GM crops and foods has had serious repercussions for plant research, for the commercial development of new crops and, most importantly, for developing countries that could benefit most from GM crops. Several countries in Africa and elsewhere have resisted growing such crops, mainly for fear of being unable to export them to the European market (The Economist, 2002). It is therefore worthwhile to investigate what actually went wrong in the debate about GM food and crops in Europe and how these foods have earned such a bad name. Such an analysis could not only help to overcome public fears of this technology, but also help scientists and policy makers to address similar concerns in the future, such as the growing debate over nanotechnology.
The concerns of European consumers about the potential health and environmental threats of GM crops have resulted in an unprecedented effort to investigate those anxieties and communicate with the wider public, particularly in the UK, where the use of public consultation has been extensively developed. The first of these initiatives was the extensive Farm Scale Evaluations of three GM crops (herbicide-resistant beet, oil seed rape and maize), whose results were published last year (Firbank, 2003 and articles cited within; Turner, 2004), followed by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment's report to the UK government (ACRE, 2004).
There has also been a major review of the science relevant to GM crops and food, chaired by the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government (GM Science Review, 2004). In addition, the UK Agricultural, Environmental and Biotechnology Commission has produced a series of reports on the scientific, social and ethical implications of sowing GM crops (http://www.aebc.gov.uk). The Nuffield Council on Bioethics' paper on 'The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries' (2004) reaffirmed its earlier conclusion that "there is an ethical obligation to explore these potential benefits responsibly, in order to contribute to the reduction of poverty and to improve food security and profitable agriculture in developing countries" (Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 1999). Finally, the British Medical Association recently stated in its report 'Genetically modified foods and health' (BMA, 2004) that "The BMA shares the view that there is no robust evidence to prove that GM foods are unsafe" and that "genetically modified food has enormous potential to benefit both the developed and developing world in the long term."
The British government has now made a decision on the basis of this mass of evidence. On March 9 this year, Margaret Beckett MP, UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, made a statement in the House of Commons saying inter alia that "There was no scientific case for ruling out all GM crops or products" (Beckett, 2004) and announced agreement in principle to the commercial cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant maize, subject to some conditions. Beckett further said that "There is no scientific case for a blanket approval of all uses of GM, and equally there is no scientific case for a blanket ban on the use of GM," although she took into account public concerns. "Most people believe that the use of genetic modification should be approached with caution. They want strong regulation and monitoring and in addition, some want a framework of rules for coexistence of GM and non-GM crops, and customers want a clear regime for traceability and labelling so that they can make their own choices."
This was all to no avail. On March 31, Bayer CropScience (Monheim,
Germany) announced that it was giving up attempts to commercialize its GM maize in the UK—the only transgenic plant approved for widespread cultivation (Mason, 2004). The company explained that its herbicide-tolerant maize variety Chardon LL had been left "economically non-viable" because of the conditions imposed by the Government on its growth in the UK. After the Farm Scale Evaluation trials showed that it caused less damage to wildlife than conventional varieties, Beckett had given the crop limited approval, but had not yet decided rules for mixing GM and non-GM crops, and for compensation for "contamination" by GM pollen. Bayer pointed out that Chardon LL had been developed for approval in 1999, but in the interim had lost its competitive edge against rival varieties as the controversy over GM crops continually slowed its introduction. It also warned that the UK's tough regulations on GM plants could put at risk the adoption of this new technology.
Bayer's decision to withdraw Chardon LL from the UK and other European markets means that UK farmers will not grow GM crops until GM oil seed is approved for cultivation; this will not be before 2008. The moral is
obvious: States that procrastinate and prevaricate over new technologies lose it. Decisions such as this will only accelerate the flight of both scientists and companies from the EU to countries that are more accepting of new technologies.
So, despite all these scientific activities, there is still considerable antipathy to the introduction of GM crops and food. Why has the British public, who normally so pragmatically welcome scientific advances, resisted the introduction of genetically modified crops? What went wrong in the past few years and what lessons can we learn from this experience that might be helpful elsewhere in Europe and in future debates about new technologies?
In fact, the British public has not been proactive on the GM question. It does not crop up spontaneously either in general polls about voting issues, or in more detailed questionnaires about family and social matters. One recent consumer survey (FSA Public Attitudes to GM, 2002) commented that "In normal circumstances, GM [is] very far down the list of considerations with regard to food; [it] is a tiny feature on the mental map of food issues, [and] does not figure at all for some", while GM safety was not among the top ten sources of information most used when selecting food.
During the 'GM Nation? The Public Debate' (2004), the website received interest from only 0.035% of the population and letters and emails from 0.0002% (Myram, 2004). When people were asked whether they are in favour of GM foods or planting GM crops, 36% answered "No"--with 13% supportive and 39% neither for nor against—so it might be better to describe the public as unpersuaded by the benefits (Poortinga & Pidgeon 2004; Cordon, 2004). However, in another survey (Consumer Watch, 2003), only 13% of consumers said they actively avoid foods with GM ingredients, while 13% said they would welcome these products on the supermarket shelves, and 74% were not sufficiently concerned about GM food to actively avoid it. It was not seen as a priority when compared with other aspects of the purchase decision. It seems as if consumers prefer to go along with what appears to be the easiest course, which in this case is a precautionary approach. This attitude, driven in part by the press, campaign groups and government equivocation, is indeed resistance, but it is important to emphasize that it is not public-led.
(It is as if GM is a lightning rod for a whole series of consumer concerns, already present but unexpressed)
It is also puzzling that there has never been any public concern about the fact that, for the past 50–60 years, plant breeders have used chemical and radiation mutagenesis to create new varieties, involving major and quite unknown genetic modifications followed by selection of useful outcomes. So why is there so much opposition now? It is as if GM is a lightning rod for a whole series of consumer concerns, already present but unexpressed. Let me suggest some of them.
Consumers assess risk in a different way to scientists. The technical definition of risk is 'the likelihood of adverse consequences from any hazard', but that is not the way the public sees risk. It does not explain why some risks trigger so much more alarm, anxiety or outrage than others, seemingly regardless of scientific estimates of their seriousness. Research over many years has identified several 'fright factors', which affect the way the public sees risk (Bennett, 1999). People are generally more worried if they perceive a risk to be involuntary, for example, exposure to pollution, rather than voluntary, such as smoking. Risks are also seen as more serious if they are inequitably distributed, inescapable by taking personal precautions, if they arise from an unfamiliar or novel source or if they cause hidden and irreversible damage. Danger to small children, pregnant women or future generations also arouses particular dread, as does the possibility of certain forms of death, injury or illness. Risks are perceived to be more threatening if they damage identifiable rather than anonymous victims. Finally, public fears also increase if the issue seems to be poorly understood by science and is subject to contradictory statements from responsible sources. GM soya scored positively on many of these factors.
One explanation for conflicting views about GM is that scientists and the public work under different value systems. Scientists and technologists see novel applications from new discoveries as logical and reasonable, and characterize all opposition as unreasonable: "If only they understood what we are doing, the public would agree with us." This is often untrue. Indeed, the public's reaction to risk is often rather different to that of scientists, and can occur as outrage (the way the public regards Monsanto), dread (as many would regard a nuclear power station explosion) and stigma (the way the public regards food irradiation).
Peter Sandman, an expert on risk communication at Clark University (Worcester, MA, USA) points out that the risks the experts think will cause problems are not usually the risks that upset people (http://www.psandman.com). He outlines four traditional responses to public fears: the conservative's answer is that the public is stupid and irredeemably irrational on risk issues, so we must protect public health but ignore public opinion; the liberal's answer is that the public is educatable but ignorant, so we must explain the data better; the company's answer is that the public is manipulated by sensational mass media or radical activist groups, so we must fight the propaganda battle better; the activist's answer is that the public is right—the experts have been misled or bought off—so we must base public policy on public opinion.
Sandman thus suggests a new way to look at risk: experts respond to hazards, but the public responds to outrage. Experts often define risk as probability multiplied by consequences. In contrast, Sandman defines risk as hazard plus outrage. Scientists may wonder why the public responds as it does to some risk issues--and it is usually caused by outrage. It is therefore not possible to predict how the public will react to new risks by consulting only scientists and technologists; perception of risk is as important as any technical assessment of a new technology.
Ethical issues also have an important role. For example, UK regulators were asked about sheep that were genetically modified to carry the human gene for factor IX, about normal animals that contained no gene but had been part of an experiment, and about animals that contained an inactive gene or part of a gene. There were no food safety issues involved; but would consumers object to eating an animal that had been part of a scientific experiment, or an animal containing an inactive human gene? Was this gene just a stretch of DNA or was it special because it came from a human being? Was it even cannibalism? Would Muslims or Jews be concerned about pork genes in lamb, and vegetarians about animal genes in plants?
Public consultation revealed a variety of concerns, many of an uneasy nature, sometimes called the "yuk" factor. Some individuals were very much opposed to the idea, and none were moved by the fact that there was effectively no chance of eating the original human gene; they remained concerned even if the gene was completely synthetic. The Jewish reaction in contrast was refreshingly straightforward: "If it looks like a sheep, then it is a sheep." I suggest some of these concerns stem from a deep antipathy to meddling with 'Nature'. Prince Charles objected to "...taking into the realm of man what rightly belongs in the realm of God." For him and some others, genetic modification is 'unnatural', articulating a romantic view of nature that regards everything 'natural' as good and anything tampered with by humans as bad.
(British newspapers run campaigns in the fierce competition for circulation, readers like scare stories although they may not believe them and scientists do not understand the workings of the media; the stage was set for trouble )
This argument is based on an interpretation of 'natural' as not merely a description of the world around us, but as a value in itself. In our post-modern Western world, which has largely abandoned conventional religions, 'natural' has often become synonymous with 'good'. The question then is why opponents to GM regard it as 'unnatural'. Possibly, GM came to be seen as an offence to nature by those very people who promote naturalism. However, under other circumstances, it could have become part of the organic movement to reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture, and as such would have been seen as 'natural'. Thus, people with pre-existing agendas projected their value judgements onto the GM debate. In contrast, few scientists see genetic modification as unnatural, but agree that some things are unethical and that not everything that is possible should be done.
The conclusive influences on the GM debate in the UK were those of the media and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs). British newspapers run campaigns in the fierce competition for circulation, readers like scare stories although they may not believe them and scientists do not understand the workings of the media; the stage was set for trouble. In fact, the media had a field day when Árpád Pusztai claimed on television on 10 August 1998, and later in a press conference in the UK House of Commons on 12 February 1999, that feeding rats with genetically modified potatoes caused them damage. Despite its eventual publication in a peer-reviewed journal (Ewen & Pusztai, 1999), the Royal Society (1999) stated, after a careful investigation by a peer group, that "we found no convincing evidence of adverse effects from GM potatoes." Although Pusztai's claim was not supported by evidence (Chen et al, 2003), the headlines of many newspapers from that period stagger the imagination (see sidebar).
This was not the only newspaper campaign run against GM foods and crops. Just before the results of the Farm Scale Evaluation were released on 16 October 2003, a large number of anti-GM headlines appeared in several British newspapers, clearly aiming to influence public opinion. Even after the report was published, many newspapers stated the results as "the end of GM in the UK". In fact, the trials did not assess the effects of genetically modifying crops but rather the effect of different types of weed control. They had almost nothing to do with genetic modification.
In addition to the hostile attitude of many newspapers, the NGOs involved in the GM debate in the UK have proved themselves to be very skilled at presenting their position to the media. They are highly organized, have clear points of view and are well funded. They know how to 'spin', or change the way journalists approach a story. Their mission is not to debate facts and findings but to influence public opinion, and any debate with them is unlike a standard scientific debate. NGOs are not looking to find a mutually agreed solution, but rather to promote a single uncom-promising message. As soon as one objection is dealt with, they move on to the next, never admitting that they might be wrong. Scientists, in contrast, know that science at the cutting edge is not always able to provide clear conclusions. But that does not mean "We shall never know", or even "It is impossible to find out." In that sense, scientific findings are always provisional, but faced with the crisp, clear and often outrageous claims of NGOs, they are unimpressive in the public debate.
So, what lessons have we learned from the GM drama in the UK? First, scientists have to organize themselves. In the debate following Pusztai's claim, the scientific community was continually losing out, while the pressure groups released one news story after another, winning new headlines about every three days. Scientists were always on the defensive, and often too busy to respond quickly to news stories.
Thus, a rebuttal group is invaluable. For instance, the media reaction to the Farm Scale Evaluations infuriated the scientific community in a way I have never seen before. As an interested but independent scientist I felt we had to respond, so I decided to write to the Prime Minister telling him of widespread demoralization in the scientific community and the danger of losing new technologies, and asking for an assurance that when making his decision about the future of GM, he would take the scientific evidence fully into account. I sent colleagues a draft letter, asking whether they would sign it, and within a few days there were 120 signatures from men and women working right across the biological sciences, including a Nobel Laureate, nearly 40 Fellows of the Royal Society and several academics who had helped to start new companies.
The letter was delivered to Prime Minister Tony Blair on 30 October 2003, and he replied on 7 November: "I believe that the technology has great potential in the UK [and the Government] will take decisions on the basis of scientific evidence ... and will not react to scare mongering, but will continue to build a firm evidence base." It is important that a rebuttal group must be able to react quickly to any new developments. They need to stay in constant contact and must be prepared to react within 24–48 hours. It is no good waiting until the weekend. Nor is it any good asking a professional society to conduct a "proper review to allay the fears of the public". It will be too slow, too late and will not influence events.
Scientists must accept the media as it is. What can they do about it? One thing is to get some media training; many scientists in the UK have already done this. Another is to get involved, and that means being available at very short notice to respond to requests from radio and TV stations, to have the facts at your fingertips and to be ready to be subjected to hostile, in some cases brutally hostile, questioning. None of us in the UK have enjoyed this, but many have felt that it is absolutely necessary. Scientists also need a series of 'good news stories', not stories about splendid new scientific advances, but realistic, honest stories about how a new technology can benefit the public, and particularly the consumer. I believe that we also have to consider the wider implications of research, recognizing that our work may have ethical implications, and that we should start thinking them through. Most scientists do not have the training, the skills or frankly the right to speak out on these issues. Instead, we need to work with social scientists, philosophers and theologians to adopt a credible stand in the public's view. It will be an education.
Importantly, we must not adopt the strategies of NGOs, which means that we must not hype. But we also have to get the message across that change is necessary if, to take but one example, we want to feed the burgeoning world population without changes in agriculture. Without such initiatives, scientific research is endangered, for it is very easy now to persuade the public that science for its own sake is risky, even dangerous, and that society does not need it.
None of this is good news. Many a scientist will resent the loss of time and the way in which their honest efforts for society will be twisted, and they may even face personal recrimination. But there is no other way.
References at http://www.emboreports.org/
Derek Burke was Chairman of the UK Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes from 1989 to 1997. e-mail: email@example.com
Reactions to Pusztai's press conference
Are we at risk from mutant make-up? Express on Sunday, 21/02/99 Scientists warn of GM crops link to meningitis. Daily Mail, 26/04/99 Scientists raise the fear of GM foods triggering new allergies. The Express, 30/04/99 Lifting the lid on the horror of GM foods. The Express, 12/05/99 The GM pollen that can mean a cloud of death for butterflies. Daily Mail, 20/05/99 Mutant porkies on the menu. News of the World, 23/05/99 GM risk in daily food of millions. Guardian, 24/05/99 GM food 'threatens the planet'. Observer, 20/06/99 Meat may be tainted by Frankenstein food. Daily Mail, 06/07/99 M&S sells genetically modified Frankenpants. Independent on Sunday, 18/07/99
Headlines before the Farm-Scale Evaluation Report
Is GM the new thalidomide? Daily Mail, 08/10/03
How GM crop trials were rigged. Independent on Sunday, 12/10/03 Flaw in crop trials destroys the case for GM. Independent on Sunday, 12/10/03 Stop the rush to GM crops (leader). Independent on Sunday, 12/10/03 Curb on GM crop trials after insect pollution. Daily Telegraph, 14/10/03 Polluted for generations. Daily Mail, 14/10/03
Biotech Guru Shantharam: I Want to Root for the Triumph of the GM Technology
- N Suresh, BioSpectrum (India), May 11, 200. Excepts below...Full article at http://www.biospectrumindia.com/content/shakers/104051101.asp
Many "biotech gurus" of Indian origin have been making waves in recent years all over the world. As the segment is new in India, these remarkable personalities have not got the attention they deserve in "India Shining". BioSpectrum will attempt to cover the information gap that exists in enabling India’s nascent biotechnology industry to learn from these experts. What better way than to start this new series with the redoubtable Dr Shanthu Shantharam, who pioneered the regulatory process of Bt cotton and supervised the first field trials of this crop in the United States in the mid-1980s.
* Despite strident opposition from anti-GM groups, GM products are being introduced in more and more countries like Australia, India, the Philippines and Indonesia. What do you attribute the changed scenario to?
- The simple answer to your question, “it is a good news”. It is true that global acreage of transgenic crops has increased led by the developing countries. But the technology transfer is clearly lopsided. In some instances, local governments in Australia and in some local counties like the Mendicino County in California have banned GMOs. There are many local governments like in Gottafratata in Italy that have declared their communities as anti-GMO or GMO free. There are many aberrations like these. What is distressing is that even a country like Angola that is teetering on starvation has banned GMOs.
I can attribute the increase in acreage of GMO in the world mainly due to the support of majority of the governments around the world and also due to the support of their own scientific community. Wherever GMOs have been grown, they have proved to be safe and environmentally friendly and economically beneficial especially to small and poor farmers. These are the main reasons why I think global acreage of GMOs has increased. But, I assure you that the problem is not yet over. Opposition to GMO in the form of spreading misinformation, turning and twisting scientific facts, and outright scare mongering is in full swing to discredit the technology. It is still a long road to large-scale adoption of GMOs around the world.
* There has been a shift in the attitude to GM products in the UK. The government although permitted commercial planting of maize, it imposed quite a few conditions. What is happening?
- It was good news that the UK approved the commercial planting of GM maize much against the public opinion, but based on sound scientific advice. But, they also imposed stiff conditions that were very hard to comply with and Bayer had to make a business decision not to go ahead with its commercialization. This must be music to the ears of anti-biotech lobby. As they say, it is what the "doctor" ordered!
What happened was that the UK Government came under heavy criticism from within the parliament and from the outside activist groups, and it decided to pander to those pressure tactics by adding tough conditions to pacify the critics. This is as good as banning the GM technology. The UK Government did not earn any brownie points for their vacillating decision. It also sends a wrong message to the world, and similar tactics will be forced upon by the anti-biotech activists in other parts of the world to raise the regulatory burden so high that it becomes economically unviable to commercialize GMOs and the industry will be forced to beat a hasty retreat. This is clearly anti-science and anti-progress, and is going to hurt the needy and the deserving around the world in the long run. There is a huge opportunity cost.
* Is the primacy of US based companies in the GM technology coming in the way of its wider acceptance? Have US-based TNCs in the agri-bio sector unwittingly become global targets for anti-US and anti-globalization groups?
- You said it right. For some years now, I have maintained that EU-led opposition to GMOs and other developing countries, is definitely due to anti-US hegemony. GMOs were the latest to come in handy to anti-US, anti-WTO, anti-globalization and anti-free trade lobbies and groups most of whom are die-hard socialists and leftists. There have been very many scholastic studies to support this view. Most of these people also believe very strongly that the US private sector dictates lots of public polices in the US government and lobby with their government to take on cudgels against much of the world in various international forums to clear paths for them to carry out their unbridled business. These forces are banded together to stop that. This is clearly an ideological battlefront and has nothing do with the safety of the technology or protecting the environment. The whole debate is completely politicized and there seems to be no end in sight. What is really sorry to note is that many of the opponents to biotechnology are very bright and highly educated, and yet have chosen to be intellectually dishonest while opposing GMO technology.
It is really hard to say now if an European MNC had promoted GMOs first, whether there would have been better acceptance. I think you will never be able to extract an answer in the affirmative from the GM-opponents on this point today. They would rather cut their nose to spite their face than to be rationale.
* As one of the world’s first expert regulators in this field, did you visualize the tortuous journey which GM technology has been subjected to?
- Another important thing to do is to learn lessons from a wide array of assessments that have already been done elsewhere and address only those issues that are relevant to Indian agricultural background to cut down on the time and efforts required to do justice to the risk assessment.
I must admit that I did not. I was an active bench scientist before I became a biotech regulator at USDA (United States Department of
Agriculture) by a quirk of an accident. Never had I imagined that I would seek a technology cop’s job in my life. By and large, I think that is the mindset of active scientists even today. I still remember when drafting those environmental assessments how silly it looked for me to write those unexciting pedestrian scientific facts that are in the high school textbooks. I used to be bored with it. I was patiently counseled by our environmental attorneys about how important it was for us scientists to appreciate the laws and rules of the society and explain complex issues in a style that even a person with grade X education could comprehend. It was really testing to come down to that level of writing decision documents. It was only after almost five to six years of working at USDA that I really started to appreciate the importance of public acceptance of technology and how to make them understand basic facts.
Critics of science and technology really fault the scientific community for their callous attitude toward societal concerns. I think the critics of biotechnology have really given a wake up call to the scientists to tell them that it is not going to be business as usual, and that they have to take note of society’s concerns and sincerely address them. I notice that scientists are trying to do their best to do so now, but they are still a long way to communicate and empathize with societal concerns.
At the same time, I feel that those who claim to speak for the "society" should also make genuine efforts to understand basic aspects of science and scientific enterprise so that all of us who are really interested in progress achieve our goals in a spirit of cooperation and fairness.
* Can you give a brief overview of the highlights of the regulatory systems being followed in handling genetically modified products in some of the world’s leading nations?
- Almost all countries to begin with used the case-by-case approach and slowly graduated to speedier methods of regulatory clearance process. These leading countries strictly based their regulatory reviews on best available scientific evidence, but seldom considered social and economic and efficacy issues of GMO. They stayed away from endorsing any product as well. They strictly limited themselves to addressing the safely and environmental impact issues and wanted the market place to decide on the products acceptability.
But, today the activists are demanding that socio-economic and ethical issues of the technology and its products also be addressed by the regulators who may or may not be qualified to carry out that kind of assessment. I think there is a place for the latter demand and is already being addressed by ever so many experts, but not under a regulatory rubric. Certainly, biotechnology regulators must not be asked to sit on the judgment of social and economic impacts of any technology. It should be left to the subject experts
* Is it better for companies to stick to GM products in non-food crops and work towards gaining greater acceptance to the technology as a long-term strategy?
- I think that is a wishful thinking. Diehard opponents don’t distinguish between GM food and non-food GM crops. They are opposed to the GM technology per se, and they will still object. For reasons best known to the companies, they have become gun-shy and have decided not to carry out wide communication with the public to create awareness. Governments too have done precious little to educate and inform the public in the rural areas. Public acceptance of GMOs will be the key to technology transfer and how one goes about creating public awareness will decide the final outcome.
* As you know, there is a great deal of public confusion about the performance of Bt cotton in India. What is your assessment of that situation?
- Yes, I have been a keen observer of all the reports of the failures of Bt cotton from certain parts of Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat in the first year of commercialization. At the outset, I must say I have never visited any Bt cotton field anywhere in the country. All my information is from reading a variety of official and non-official reports, media reports, and anecdotal testimonies from individual farmers and scientists.
Most of the negative reports are not scientifically rigor de jure. They all make far-reaching conclusions that are not scientifically tenable, as they have not made any comprehensive assessment from all regions of the country where Bt cotton was cultivated. All I can say about these negative reports is that they all contain an element of truth but just an element. The reason why Bt cotton failed in certain districts of AP and Maharashtra was because of failure of rains combined with low pest infestation. There are official reports from the GEAC monitoring committee and the state government official reports on the Ministry of Environment and Forests official web site. Even though, they are all positive about the performance of Bt cotton, none of them are scientifically rigorous just like reports from the NGOs.
Incidentally, Monsanto just released an independently carried out survey of Bt cotton performance for 2003 cropping season by AC Nielson. It seems the report is lot more comprehensive and contains statistically significant sampling survey clearly demonstrating significant benefits in terms of yield, fiber quality, decreased pesticide use, and a premium price for Bt cotton in the market. If only the governmental authorities and NGOs had done a similar high-quality survey, their reports would have been lot more credible.
Let me add a caveat to all the reports. That is Monsanto' first three Bt cotton varieties were approved for only three years in the first instance. Going by public perception, there were some failures in some regions during 2002, and it seems to have done very well in 2003. We would have heard an earful if there were any failures by now. I think it is prudent to wait for the third and last year before pronouncing a final judgment on these varieties. Equally heartening to note that a dozen or so Bt lines of other seed companies have been approved for commercialization. My understanding is that these newly approved varieties are going to perform much better than the first set of Monsanto/Mahyco Bt varieties. The more the merrier! I think there is more in the offing, and I want to root for the triumph of this technology, and I am confident it will triumph as it has done elsewhere in the world.
As a risk assessment specialist, I want the regulatory authorities to start thinking about the deployment of the same CryA1c gene in all crop plants that would result in genetic homogeneity of a single dominant gene and has a proclivity to genetic vulnerability. This is a well-known dictum in genetics. An ecological impact analysis is called for and GEAC must commission expert ecologists, environmental scientists and population geneticists to address these issues for the long haul.