Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : October 26, 2004
* Two Choices for Agchem/Agbiotech: The Only Way to Go is Down
* Biotech Divide is a Sign of the Times
* Superweed Dreams; Ellstrand Digs Deep Into Transgene Fears
* Putting Cartagena Into Practice
* Farmers Don't Need a New Superstar Toxin to Fight Bugs
* Golden Staple Could Help Solve Problem of Malnutrition
* Farmers, Ranchers....Make Their Way Through San Luis Obispo
* Vaccines: Flower Power
* Multi-Million Dollar Fund Banks on Crop Diversity
* Revisiting the Consequences of Fear
Two Choices for Agchem/Agbiotech Industries: The Only Way to Go is Down
- Jonathan Gressel, Outlooks on Pest Management, October 2004
In a recent article entitled: "Profit and the Poor - consumer-goods
makers are realizing they have only one direction to go for growth:
down market" (M. Margolis, Newsweek Atlantic Edition, July 19, 2004,
p.42), the author describes the paradigm shift many marketers have
made in the developing world from luxury items for the ultra-rich to
designing products such as cheap and durable bikes, washing machines,
refrigerators, and cell phone systems specifically for the poor with
credit systems amenable to buyer and seller. "Reaching them isn't
charity - it's business" a multi-national marketer is quoted as
Despite the vast majority of the poor described in the article as
being rural, the authors provide no examples from ag related
industries. The sales in ag-chem worldwide are going down - but the
thought of going down market seems to elude many companies. If they
had offices in Africa or south East Asia, or poorer Latin American
countries, they have been closed or constricted. This write-off of
the developing world is not new.
This opinionated author is old enough to remember the 1970s with
ag-chem industry leaders all deriding the green revolution as
non-workable, as "the Indians will never have the resources to buy
the needed pesticides and fertilizers". India uses precisely what is
needed for their green revolution crops, to the profit of the
farmers, who are now far less poor, and the chemical manufacturers,
who have not lost money on their huge sales. The development of the
products also came primarily from India, with sample pesticides
initially purchased or just reluctantly provided.
The movers of the ag-chem industry have mainly forgotten this story
and still write off much of the developing world. Only when an
existing product fits a need, will it be "sold" (often without
reformulation) - the word "developed" would be perhaps an
exaggeration. Thus, if there is not a "hand me down" product that
meets a need, the need will not be met by industry. This includes the
ag-biotech industry - Bt cotton was "developed" for Africa and India
by back-crossing the developed world transgenic event into local
Bt is more needed in edible crops, where it would increase yields and
reduce mycotoxins, but such work is left to the public CGIAR to be
done, years after it could have been done to the profit of industry
and farmers alike. Some companies argue against developing Bt maize,
because non-Bt maize has been an insect refuge, purportedly delaying
the evolution of resistance in cotton insects. They claim it would
hurt their cotton market if this refuge were removed by growing Bt
cotton. The proper thing would be to develop cotton for the
developing world with genes encoding proteins such as the highly
insect specific scorpion genes, and leave Bt for edible crops, where
it most needed, and the market is much larger.
In a recent UNIDO sponsored workshop in Africa discussing unmet needs
on a large scale, needs were delineated by local agricultural
scientists (see their report in "Major heretofore intractable biotic
constraints to African food security that may be amenable to novel
biotechnological solutions," Crop Protection 23:661-689, 2004).
Solutions were desired for Bemisia, herbicide-resistant grass weeds
of wheat, and parasitic weeds in northern Africa. The intractable
problems in sub-Sahara Africa included grain weevils in storage, and
stem borers and parasitic weeds (the latter two being addressed in
maize by CIMMYT, but not in other crops), as well as the insidious
mycotoxins that probably decrease life expectancy as much as HIV.
The problems in wheat could have been solved with the discontinued
glyphosate-resistant wheat. All major Bt engineering companies were
asked if they had screened their vast libraries of natural and
synthetic Bts against grain weevils, or would they be willing to
provide these libraries to labs in Africa for screening. The answer
was negative in both cases. A senior representative of one of these
companies said that as soon as the patents expire, they will
autoclave their Bt collection rather than even screen for grain
weevils. Where is the innovative desire to profit for their
stockholders that the consumer goods companies have discovered? It
is clear why sales are down.
The rice growing areas of the world are crying for answers to
herbicide-resistant weeds, especially Echinochloa. As countries
develop and go to direct seeding, weedy (red) rice becomes a major
intractable issue. Biotechnological solutions are possible, but most
of the market is poor farmers, and the ag industries have not learnt
the lessons that they are a market.
It is interesting how long it took the ag industry to small package
hand me down pesticides and seed, and how quickly their markets grew
after that. How many lives would have been saved if they had done
this earlier with organophosphate insecticides - where farmers would
together buy large containers, which they then divided into soda
Interestingly, the genes and the chemicals are there or could be
found that the developing world needs. What seems to be lacking is
the realization of the ag chem/bio industry that there is a vast
market if their raw materials (genes and chemicals) would be truly
developed into the needed down-market products, just as the consumer
manufacturing industries have realized. Novel products that increase
food production are needed more than cell-phones and shampoos. The
rural poor would be more likely to pay for products leading to a full
stomach than a full ear or clean head.
There are two choices to go: down or down. It is hoped industry
quickly takes the choice to go down-market, down south, instead of
down and out.
Professor Gressel is at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot,
76100, Israel; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Biotech Divide is a Sign of the Times
- Stewart Truelsen, American Farm Bureau Federation, October 25, 2004
While India and China are stepping up their investment in
biotechnology to solve problems of crop shortfalls and hunger, a
radical French farmer is urging his country's citizens to take to the
streets to prevent the spread of biotech foods. The world remains
divided over biotechnology, but this may be more indicative of the
times than any problems with the science.
In her book "Navigating the Badlands, Thriving in the Decade of
Radical Transformation," Mary O'Hara-Devereaux said, "Times of
innovation are inherently messynew technologies, the economy and
society churn together to create an evolutionary leap in human
Devereaux, a business futurist, believes the world is traveling
across the Badlands, not the South Dakota Badlands, but a
transitional phase in history that will take us to the Foothills of
the Future by 2020. "Biological innovations will define much of the
technological landscape throughout the Badlands over the next several
decades. But look for these innovations to be developed more slowly
than those in information technology," she said.
That's exactly what's going on now. In particular, plant
biotechnology is experiencing far more resistance than advances in
computers and telecommunications. In Europe, some polls show that
more than 70 percent of consumers oppose genetically modified crops.
Yet, the European Commission is expected to open the door to more
biotech foods over the next year.
"Biology is very complicated and not well understood by many people,
whether inside or outside science, including most consumers and most
business leaders," said O'Hara-Devereaux in her book. She predicts
that many new technologies may be slowed or even stopped because of
ethical considerations, particularly those involving food and health
What her book seems to imply is that the difficulty in gaining
worldwide acceptance of biotechnology is predictable, understandable
and probably will be overcome in time. We either overcome it or
remain in an extended period of crossing the Badlands, a turbulent
environment that most of us aren't comfortable in.
At the International Biotechnology Conference in Des Moines, Iowa,
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug encouraged all
stakeholders in biotechnology to do a better job of explaining the
science's benefits. "After all, Mother Nature is biotechnologist,"
said Borlaug in describing the evolution of wheat from its earliest
varieties to the wheat used to make bread today.
The World Food Prize created by Borlaug was given this year to two
rice breeders from Africa and Asia. Dr. Monty Jones of Sierra Leone
and Prof. Yuan Longping of China were quoted in the Des Moines
Register as crediting biotechnology for speeding up their work to
develop higher-yielding rice plants
O'Hara-Devereaux believes China will emerge as a major player on the
global stage during the world's trek across the Badlands. In fact,
she advises everyone to learn more about China and how to understand
it and engage its people. One thing they would find out is that China
is second only to the United States in money spent on agricultural
biotechnology research. This is a good sign for the future of
Stewart Truelsen is director of broadcast services for the American
Farm Bureau Federation.
Superweed Dreams; Norman Ellstrand Digs Deep Into Transgene Fears
New Scientist, October 23, 2004, volume 184; issue 2470
'Introgression from Genetically Modified Plants into Wild Relatives
by H. C. M. den Nijs, D. Bartsch and J. Sweet; CABI; £75/$140;
More than 20 years ago, ecologists and even genetic engineers began
to express concerns that genes from engineered crops could "escape"
into populations of wild relatives, possibly with damaging
consequences for the environment. Since then, dozens of research
projects have attempted to discover whether there are natural
barriers to prevent genes in conventionally bred crops from spreading
to wild plants through cross-pollination.
There is now abundant evidence that natural hybridisation occurs
readily when certain crops grow close to their wild relatives: rice
and wild rice, sugar beet and sea beet, for example. Hybridisation is
much more limited across other species pairs, such as potato and
black nightshade. But somewhere in their range of cultivation, most
crops naturally cross to some extent with a wild relative.
Once this became known, researchers shifted their attention to
discovering whether crop genes could persist and spread in wild
populations. If crop-wild hybrids had turned out to be as sterile as
mules, then transgenes could have been easily contained, but crop
genes often persist in the wild beyond the initial hybrid generation.
Most of the data comes from non-transgenic plants, but there is no
reason to believe that transgenic crops should behave any differently.
In fact, the first known case of unintended, natural hybridisation
between a transgenic crop (oilseed rape) and a wild species (wild
mustard) was one of dozens of presentations on the topic of
crop-to-wild gene flow at a meeting in Amsterdam last year. That
meeting, entitled "Introgression from genetically modified plants
into wild relatives", spawned this book of the same title.
The bottom line is that we should expect some transgenes to enter and
persist in the populations of wild relatives of engineered crops.
This book presents the details for specific crops. Questions about
the relevance of such findings, however, remain largely unanswered.
When the initial concerns about transgene escape were voiced in the
mid-1980s, the focus was on the possibility that a "superweed" could
evolve. Again, we can examine the precedent set by conventional crops
and their wild counterparts. Most hybridisations seem to have been of
taxonomic significance and little else. Exceptions are notable. A
spectacular example is the appearance of a new weed beet, a natural
hybrid of sugar beet and wild sea beet, causing over a billion
dollars' worth of damage to Europe's sugar industry by stopping
harvestable roots forming on sugar beet.
Are wandering transgenes going to create problems of their own? The
concluding chapters of this book predict the impacts of transgenes in
the wild and suggest how to monitor those impacts. In many ways,
however, the crystal ball is as dark as it was 20 years ago. For the
moment, only two transgenic traits - insect resistance and herbicide
tolerance - and four transgenic crops - maize, soybean, canola and
cotton - make up over 90 per cent of the transgenic acreage. And
these crops are largely grown far away from their wild relatives.
Over the next 10 years, as more transgenic species with new traits
are approved, the opportunities for transgenes to escape into the
wild may increase.
Norman Ellstrand is a professor of genetics at the University of
Putting Cartagena Into Practice
- Kazuo N Watanabe, Mohammad Taeb & Haruko Okusu, Nature
Biotechnology, v. 22, 1207-1208 (November, 2004) , Reproduced in
AgBioView with the permission of the editor. www.nature.com/nbt3
We read with interest the piece by Willy de Greef in the July issue
(Nat. Biotechnol. 22, 811-812, 2004) describing the impact of the
Cartagena protocol on genetically modified (GM) crops. This protocol
initially was drafted with an emphasis on protecting biological
diversity against the potential risk of deliberate release of living
modified organisms (LMOs) into the environment (with human health and
socioeconomic aspects of GM supposedly a secondary issue).
Yet most of the concerns of developing countries at the First Meeting
of the Parties (MOP1) in Kuala Lumpur on February 23-27, 2004--and at
recent regional meetings organized by such agencies as the Asia
Pacific Economic Cooperation, Association of South East Asian Nations
and the Organization of Islamic Conference Standing Committee on
Scientific and Technological Cooperation (OIC-COMSTECH)--focused on
trade and agricultural issues surrounding GM crops.
As of August 17, 2004, 106 countries and the European Commission had
ratified the protocol. Implementation of the protocol means that any
LMO transported across national borders will require precise
documentation complying with Article 18, 'Handling, Transport,
Packaging and Identification of the LMOs.' Those who contravene these
rules could be subject to penalties, such as import rejection,
suspension of research or business, fines and/or imprisonment,
depending on the particular national regulation.
Only 12 Asian countries have become a party to the protocol, as of
August 17, 2004: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, the Democratic
People's Republic of Korea, India, Japan, Lao People's Republic,
Maldives, Malaysia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. And even among
these, several, including Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos and Mongolia, still
do not have a national legal framework for implementing the protocol.
Indeed, many developing countries, particularly the least-developed
countries and small-island developing states have inadequate national
legal provisions to put the protocol into practice.
We have carried out a survey of the public sector (e.g., Ministries
of Agriculture, Science & Technology, Industry and Environment), the
private sector, the United Nations (UN)/international organizations
and nongovernmental organizations operating in sixty-seven nations
regarded as developing countries1. On the basis of this survey, and
information compiled from regional meetings under the Convention on
Biological Diversity and UN Environment Program, we have identified
several factors responsible for slow ratification and implementation
of the protocol in developing countries.
1. Lack of a definition and understanding of the sense of 'risk' in
general or of established standard risk management procedures in
other sectors, such as industrial safety matters. For example, many
countries still do not have regulations on workers' safety, chemical
safety, pesticide use, hazard safety, waste disposal, among other
areas. Such regulations need to be addressed before considering
specific rules for biosafety risk management.
2. Inufficient knowledge and shortage of indigenous expertise. For
example, in countries like North Korea and Myanmar, UN sanctions and
the isolationist stance of the present governments limit the flow of
information from abroad. In Bangladesh, certain communities are
deprived of information because of ethnic discrimination and for the
rest, official expertise in the science and technology is
insufficient to comprehend the issues. Lack of expertise is also a
significant problem in Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos and Mongolia.
3. Need for national government to form a strategic policy for LMOs.
In Pakistan, for example, national pride to compete with India's
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton program provides strong incentive
for the national government to draw up new policy and regulations 2.
4. Lack of harmonization between different stakeholders during the
setup of the legal framework. This has meant that differences in
regulations among, for example, Indonesia, the Philippines, China and
Thailand confound coordination and import/export of LMOs.
5 Political turmoil (e.g., in Afghanistan and Nepal) and its impact
on drafting relevant legislation.
6. Suspicion and distrust of foreign assistance in developing
national regulations. Some countries prefer to halt the process until
they have developed their own national capacity to deal with LMO
issues (which may prove difficult because of factors 1, 2 and 3
7. Inconsistent and often conflicting international 'expert'
guidance. For example, African Biotechnology Model Law 3 and
OIC-COMSTECH discussions 4 conflict with the common understanding
made at the protocol.
One means of addressing these problems would be for help and guidance
to be provided by international agricultural research organizations,
such as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research
(CGIAR)5. CGIAR expertise in the Asian region and elsewhere in the
developing countries, for example, could help local countries decide
whether they wish to import and/or use GM crops for food, feed and
processing to alleviate food security issues.
Other international organizations, such as the World Trade
Organization (WTO, Geneva), Joint Food and Agriculture
Organization/WHO Food Standards Program Codex Alimentarius Commission
(Rome), Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (Paris)
and International Organization for Standardization (Geneva), have
extensive experience in various aspects of LMO regulations associated
with trade. From the perspective of developing countries, such
organizations could provide pilot-case implementation projects on
biosafety risk assessment that would provide guidance to national
governments about the science & technology associated with LMOs and
familiarize them with the evaluation and approval process of GM
Thus far, when support has been provided by international bodies and
nongovernmental organizations, it has mainly been related to
developing and redeveloping policy and enhancing the legal and
administrative framework, rather than on implementation of such
framework. Support, such as gene-ecology programs6, which help
developing countries put in place the infrastructure to implement
risk assessment practices, may correct the imbalance, but a shift of
focus away from purely theoretical and preparatory legal
framework-building to practical pilot-case implementation studies is
a timely and urgent requirement.
1. Watanabe, K.N. in Agriculture for Peace (eds. Taeb, M. & Zakri,
A.H.) in press (United Nations University Press, New York, 2004).
2. Jayaraman, K.S. Nat. Biotechnol. 22, 255-256 (2004). | Article | PubMed
6. Cyranoski, D. Nature 428, 6 (2004).
Farmers Don't Need a New Superstar Toxin to Fight Bugs
- Innovations Report, October 26, 2004
A new Michael Jordan of toxins isn't required to increase crop
protection against bugs as long as the right genes are strategically
placed to take their shots at destructive insects, researchers report.
Plants modified with protectant genes designed to kill resistant
insects can extend the usefulness of currently used pest-control
methods and delay the development of pesticide-resistant bugs,
according to Purdue University scientists and their collaborators
from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Monsanto Co., the
University of Illinois and the University of California, Davis. The
researchers' findings appear in this month's issue of the Journal of
Theoretical Biology. "We always thought that it would take a Michael
Jordan of toxins - a superstar of toxins to effectively halt insect
resistance to the current generation of insecticides," said Barry
Pittendrigh, a Purdue associate professor of entomology and lead
author of the study. "We found that moderately effective genetically
engineered protectants used in plants in the buffer zone around the
main crops can play a major role in insect control, and they should
be easier to identify than highly effective protectants. "You don't
find a superstar very often, but it may not be difficult to find good
players, or worthwhile insect-control agents."
Farmers who use bioengineered crop protectants also use a buffer, or
refuge, around the outside of fields that contains plants lacking the
high-toxicity genetic modification in the main field that kills most
insects. The refuge, usually about 20 percent of the acreage planted,
delays development of insects resistant to the main-field,
high-toxicity protectants, but some individuals in the destructive
insect group have genes that allow them to survive.
Using a computer model, the scientists determined that within a
refuge, one could add a moderate plant protectant, or journeyman
player, that kills 30 percent to 50 percent of insects that carry a
rare resistance gene. If developed to a practical level, equipping
the refuge with a moderately toxic protectant gene could dramatically
delay development of new resistant insects that could attack the main
crop, Pittendrigh said. "When we first started this project, we
didn't believe that you could use a genetic toxin that was effective
in killing a moderate number of resistant insects, so this finding
was very surprising," he said.
Over time, insects exposed to specific plant protectants undergo
genetic changes so the highly effective genetic toxins no longer
affect them. This latest research suggests it may be easier than
previously thought to find commercially viable protectants to control
these resistant insects because moderate-toxicity protectant genes
are much easier to discover than high-toxicity superstars. The
specific problem the researchers attacked is that insects susceptible
to the high-toxicity genetic protectant used in the main field crops
can survive, breed and reproduce in the refuge. Farmers, who now use
crops with high-toxicity protectant genes to fight bugs, don't use
those plants in the refuge. So the crops in the border area are
susceptible to insect attack.
When susceptible insects from the refuge breed with each other or
with resistant insects, the high-toxicity genetically protected
plants in the main fields still kill most of the bugs' offspring.
A moderately effective genetic modification inserted into crops
specifically to kill resistant insects that survive in the refuge can
lengthen the usefulness of the primary genetic protectant used in the
main field, Pittendrigh said. These specially designed refuge-area
protectants create a phenomenon called negative cross-resistance
because the moderate-toxicity protectant kills the insects that are
resistant to the primary protectant. "If we could discover and use
moderately effective negative cross-resistance compounds in a refuge,
it would work just like an oil filter in a car," Pittendrigh said.
"Like the oil filter removing impurities, the refuge with negative
cross-resistance protectants could eliminate many of the genetically
resistant insects that otherwise might invade the main crop. "We used
mathematical models to test this concept, and we were very surprised
by the findings. Although these results are exciting, we are well
aware that a number of issues must be addressed before this approach
can become practically applicable."
The other researchers are Larry Murdock, Purdue entomology professor;
Patrick Gaffney, formerly of the University of Wisconsin-Madison;
Joseph Huesing, Monsanto Co. research entomologist; David Onstad,
University of Illinois Department of Natural Resources and
Environmental Sciences; and Richard Roush, University of California,
Golden Staple Could Help Solve Problem of Malnutrition
- Bruce Shultz, The Lafayette Daily Advertiser (Lafayette, Louisiana)
October 21, 2004
Crowley - "Golden Rice" being grown at the rice research center here
may be part of a solution to malnutrition in developing countries.
The LSU AgCenter is working with a humanitarian organization on the
genetically engineered product. The rice was grown in tests at the
LSU rice research center this summer. It has been genetically
modified to produce beta-carotene, which our bodies convert to
vitamin A. The distinctive amber hue from beta carotene led to the
name Golden Rice.
Vitamin A deficiency causes significant health problems, including a
form of blindness and a weakened immune system. In 1999, scientists
in Europe successfully inserted genes from daffodils and bacteria
into rice DNA. Those cause rice to express beta carotene. In 2001,
scientists in Japan inserted the genes into the Cocodrie rice
variety. Since Cocodrie was developed at the Crowley research center
in 1998, it has become the most widely used variety of rice grown in
the United States.
Golden Rice was brought to the Rice Research Station this year to be
grown in small test plots. "This is the first field evaluation where
Golden Rice actually has been grown on any level in the field
anywhere in the world," said Steve Linscombe, the LSU AgCenter's
regional director for southwestern Louisiana and its chief rice
The test, conducted in cooperation with the Golden Rice Humanitarian
Board, also included Golden Rice varieties from the Philippines and
Taiwan, he said. Linscombe said preliminary results indicate the
yield of the genetically modified Cocodrie is comparable to
conventional Cocodrie grown in the plots for comparison.
The next step is to have the harvested rice tested by trained
tasters. But Linscombe said it's not likely that Golden Rice will be
planted by farmers for a while. "I would say the earliest is two to
three years," Linscombe said, adding that it probably will be grown
in areas of the world where rice is the staple food crop.
"This may not be anything U.S. producers actually grow, but it may
be. We don't know what its potential is," Linscombe said. In
addition to rice, the genes for beta carotene could be inserted into
other crops, according to experts. "This is a first step of many
different things that can be accomplished," Linscombe said.
The LSU AgCenter has donated its rights to Cocodrie for use with
Golden Grain for humanitarian reasons, according to Linscombe.
"We're looking at it more from the standpoint of humanitarian,
long-term, indirect research with field evaluation with genetically
enhanced lines," he said. "We also think this is a very important
mechanism to inform the public of the value of genetic engineering.
This is a very important step down the road that would not be
possible without genetic engineering."
Much of the opposition to so-called GMOs -- genetically modified
organisms -- has resulted from misinformation, Linscombe said, but
Golden Rice has the potential to demonstrate how genetic engineering
can be used to help people. "We look at this as a good mechanism
for informing the public that genetic engineering does have a lot of
positive benefits," he said. "This is just one example of many things
to come down the road. This is the first step of many different
things that can be accomplished with genetic engineering - and not
just in rice."
Farmers, Ranchers and Tractors Make Their Way Through San Luis Obispo
- Andrew Masuda, KSBY 6 TV
Farmers and ranchers from across San Luis Obispo County took to the
streets on Thursday to set the record straight on how they feel about
the proposed ban on genetically modified crops.
Nearly 100 farmers and ranchers from the area drove their tractors,
trucks, and farm equipment through downtown San Luis Obispo. The
group protests the claim by Measure Q proponents that local farmers
support the initiative. Protesters believe 99% of county farmers
oppose Measure Q, and say they're trying to defeat a bad piece of
"They got in a big hurry," says Vince Ferrante, who opposes Measure
Q. "There should have been more planning. There should have been
more collaboration and then collectively society decides what it's
going to do. When one minority group tries to force it on the
majority of farmers, it doesn't go over well, and that's what we're
stuck with right now."
Q supporters say GMO's pose contamination and health risks, which
could hurt export markets. The farmers say GMO's may allow them to
use less water and fewer pesticides, which would benefit the
environment and their bottom lines. In addition, the farmers say
GMO's are here to stay, and banning them would put producers and
researchers in the county at an unfair disadvantage.
Three other counties in California will have similar proposed bans
appear on the November ballot.
Vaccines: Flower Power
- Eve Conant, Newsweek, http://msnbc.msn.com/id/6315684/site/newsweek/
Your mother (we hope) told you to eat your vegetables, but someday
soon moms may be nagging their little ones to eat their petunias.
That's the hope, at least, of Philadelphia-based INB Biotechnologies,
which has been experimenting with petunias to develop a nontoxic
anthrax vaccine. In conjunction with the U.S. Navy and pending FDA
approval, the company will test the vaccine on 30 Navy volunteers
The rush to study plant-based vaccines, which are cheaper and could
also be used in Third World countries to prevent plague and cholera,
comes just as U.S. vaccine readiness is tested with the flu debacle,
complaints that Homeland Security's Bioshield program is ineffective
and reports of a dubious anthrax vaccine tested on the military
during the gulf war. "We could potentially immunize large groups
without injections," says INB's Orn Adalsteinsson. "Plants are very
compatible with humans."
Scientists inject a genetically modified virus into a plant, which
causes the plant to make new proteins. When that plant is eaten, the
body reacts to the new proteins as if infected, and makes new
antibodies. Because oral vaccines can be self-administered, large
groups can be treated quickly in the event of a bioterror attack. And
what kid wouldn't favor a petunia over a needle?
Multi-Million Dollar Fund Banks on Crop Diversity
- Catherine Brahic, SciDev.Net, October 22, 2004
An international fund to help preserve agricultural biodiversity was
launched yesterday (21 October). The Global Crop Diversity Trust,
currently worth more that US$50 million, with an additional $60
million of raised funds in negotiation, will provide funding for
national and international crop collections around the world.
"The majority of the world's crop collections are operating on
extremely tight budgets," says Geoff Hawtin, executive secretary for
the trust, which was set up following a campaign by the UN Food and
Agriculture Organisation and the 15 Future Harvest Centres of the
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
"Many developing countries find it difficult to keep the electricity
running, let alone support the activities needed to ensure the safe
long-term conservation of the crop diversity they hold. Yet this
diversity is critical in the fight against hunger."
Crop collections hold samples of a variety of crops, mostly as frozen
seeds. By the 1980s, there were 1,500 such collections housing some
six million samples of different crops. During the 1980s and 1990s,
however, countries found themselves increasingly unable to maintain
their seed banks. Closing them down would represent a great loss of
biodiversity, as much of the material they hold only exists in the
"The seeds in the collections contain genes of value to all of
mankind and not just to the countries that store them," says Jeffrey
Waage, of the Department of Agricultural Sciences at Imperial
College, UK. Waage led a study that found that a large number of the
world's crop collections were at risk of being lost due insufficient
funding. The report, published in 2002, helped create the Global Crop
Though the crop collections are not necessarily very expensive to
run, they need to be run without interruption. Shutting down the
power for a year due to lack of funding can mean losing the
collection. According to Waage, important collections in Africa have
been lost because their governments could not pay the costs of
Hawtin estimates that more than 90 per cent of the use of crop
collections is by researchers studying new varieties, such as crops
that are resistant to drought, or high levels of salt in the soil.
The banks can also be of value to farmers interested in plants grown
in areas with similar agricultural conditions to their own. Equally,
they are useful for restoring agriculture to areas devastated by
natural disasters, or years of war.
Hawtin believes that in part, gene banks have not received the
support they need because they have failed to develop sufficient
links with farmers and with plant breeders. "They tended to become
collections in their own right rather than a resource that is being
actively promoted for use," he told SciDev.Net.
"One of the conditions of our funding will be that the gene bank
needs to demonstrate that it has got the links to plant breeders and
farmers. If it has not, we will help them develop them." The trust
has chosen five national and international collections that it has
approved in principle to receive funding and the first recipients
will be announced later this year. Thirty countries will benefit from
the funding that the first five collections will receive.
Revisiting the Consequences of Fear
On Friday's posting, the link the article "Consequences of Fear" in
the EMBO journal was wrong. Here's the right link with excerpts below:
The Consequences of Fear
- David Ropeik, EMBO reports 5, Suppl 1, S56-S60 (2004). Excerpts below...
'Our modern world is a risky place and evokes many well-founded
fears. But these fears themselves create a new risk for our health
and well-being that needs to be addressed'
The cartoon character Charlie Brown once said "I've developed a new
philosophy... I only dread one day at a time." If only this were true
for many of us in the real world. From transgenic food to industrial
chemicals, from radiation to mobile phone towers, the new
technologies of our modern world have offered us wonderful new
benefits, which also pose a host of new risks. Some of these risks
are physically real. Many are only phantoms of our perceptions. Both
contribute to an undeniably real sense of worry and apprehension that
extends far beyond the next 24 hours.
Toxicologists, epidemiologists and risk experts study the physical
perils one hazard at a time. But the cumulative load of modern
threats may be creating an even greater risk that is largely
overlooked: the risk that arises from misperceiving risks as higher
or lower than they actually are. As a result of some of the decisions
we make when we are fearful, some of the choices we make when we are
not fearful enough, and because of the ways our bodies react to
chronically elevated levels of stress, the hazards of risk
misperception may be more significant than any of the individual
risks about which we fret.
So those who study risk in the name of promoting public health would
do well to accept that our perceptions, irrational as they may seem,
are real, although we live in a far safer world than just a few
generations ago and many of the risks people worry about are small or
non-existent. A more comprehensive risk analysis approach must
recognize that these fears pose an actual danger that needs to be
understood, accounted for in the analysis, and reduced every bit as
much as the threat from any physical hazard.
Why are so many afraid of so much? Some observers suggest that our
fears are a post-11 September 2001 phenomenon. This is too simple. It
is certainly true that some of our worries have grown since then, and
certainly new ones have arisen in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
But when George Gray and I asked a wide variety of people what should
be included in a book describing many of the risks that Americans
most commonly worry about (Gray & Ropeik, 2002), only one post-9/11
danger--bioweapons--made the list. The rest were hazards that people
in many nations have been concerned about for years, many of which
are byproducts of modern technology: pesticides, nuclear radiation,
genetically modified foods, air pollution, water pollution and
hazardous waste. The 9/11 attacks are too simple an explanation for
More broadly, our modern apprehensions are in part an outgrowth of
the post-World War Two industrial-technological-information age that
has given us both the benefits and the risks of everything from
plastics to pesticides, nuclear power to mobile phones, biotechnology
to global travel, and more. The benefits of these advances have
surely made the world--at least the developed world--safer and
healthier in many ways. Consider data from the USA, which reflect
similar trends in developed nations worldwide. In 1900, average life
expectancy was about 45 years. Today it is nearing 80 (Arias & Smith,
2003). In just the past 40 years, infant mortality has dropped from
26 per 1,000 live births to fewer than seven (Freid et al, 2003).
Vaccination has brought major diseases, such as polio and smallpox,
under control. Water is safer to drink, air safer to breath. By these
measures, this is a far healthier, safer world than it has ever been,
although an unequal distribution of wealth and technology means that
many of these improvements have yet to reach developing nations and
the majority of humans alive today.
There are many sciences that help us to understand risk. Classically,
these include toxicology, biology, epidemiology, mathematics and
economics. We must add to these the sciences of psychology,
sociology, neurology and immunology. We must acknowledge that a
significant component of risk is not the physical hazard itself, or
how much of it we are exposed to, but how we perceive that hazard and
exposure. We must accept what the Roman philosopher Epictetus said
two millennia ago: "Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view
which they take of them."
We must therefore achieve a broader definition of risk and adopt new
meanings of hazard, exposure, costs and benefits. We must include the
toxic effects of our perceptions, in physical and biological terms.
We must include the health costs of risk perception. We must accept
that being worried or not worried enough has real health consequences
that need to be understood, quantified, and incorporated into risk
management. Challenging as it is, this broader definition of risk
will do much more than the existing paradigm to improve public health.
David Ropeik is the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard
Center for Risk Analysis, Boston, MA, USA. e-mail: