Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : November 18, 2004
* Let's be Sensible About Public Participation
* New Zealand Green Party Leader and MP Responds to AgBioView
* .... Lance Kennedy Replies
* Making the Desert Bloom
* Rice Expt Station Thanks Citizens of Butte County
* Anti-biotech Crowd Takes Behind Woodshed Whipping
* Precision Breeding - New Genetic Technique
* Eat This Now
* .... Prakash Responds
* "Spurious" Science Dominates Anti-GM Debate!
Let's be Sensible About Public Participation
- Dick Taverne, Nature 432, 271, November 18, 2004. http://www.nature.com
Sir - Your Editorial "Going public" (Nature 431, 883; 2004), like the
think-tank Demos, supports the fashionable demand by a group of
sociologists for more democratic science, including more 'upstream'
engagement of the public and its involvement in setting research
priorities. Demos goes further and supports a 'needs test' for
licensing new products or services by companies. It also argues that
we, the public, should know who owns and controls new technologies,
and who benefits, before they are developed.
If the Demos policy had been followed in the past, we would have
neither electricity nor the laser, to name only two examples, because
no practical uses were foreseen for either. As your Editorial admits,
public-engagement exercises in the United States have led patient
lobby groups to press the National Institutes of Health for less
basic research and more drug development. Because of public demand,
large sums are spent on developing drugs with Viagra-like properties
rather than on medicines for people in developing countries, and a
widespread public consultation exercise in Oregon has found strong
opposition to spending limited public funds on AIDS or mental health.
In practice, greater involvement of 'the public' in the 'upstream'
development stage of science means involvement of special-interest
groups. When the UK Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology
Commission was set up, the 'public' representatives were the chair of
Greenpeace, the chair of the Soil Association, the executive director
of GeneWatch and the programme adviser to the Green Alliance. No
wonder the 'GM Nation' exercise in public consultation was a fiasco.
Of course democratically elected governments must decide how public
funds for science are allocated. Of course sensible consultation
helps development of policy: the debate on stem-cell research in the
United Kingdom was a good example. Of course more openness and
transparency are to be encouraged where possible. But let us not
display unthinking subservience to the principle of participation.
In Britain, involvement by victims of rail accidents in deciding
policy on railway safety has led to the investment of billions of
pounds to save some five lives a year. Meanwhile, twice that number
die on British roads every day.
The fact is that science, like art, is not a democratic activity. You
do not decide by referendum whether the Earth goes round the Sun.
Dick Taverne, Chair of Sense About Science, House of Lords, London SW1A 0PW, UK
New Zealand Green Party Leader and MP Responds to AgBioView
- Jeanette Fitzsimons, Green Party Co-leader, Member of Parliament,
Readers of AgBioView which I understand you moderate have sent me
articles from contributors attacking me - one in the form of an
apparent "query" as to which studies I was citing, the other making
assumptions about my behaviour which are not true. I would ask you to
post this brief reply.
Lance Kennedy enquires about the sources for my statements about the
safety of GE food. As he has not asked me, I am happy to reply
through your pages. I will refrain from returning the personal abuse
and deliberate name mis-spelling and will rely instead on the
The review of published animal feeding studies is by Ian Pryme and
Rolf Lembke last year in Nutrition and Health 17, 1-8. They were
able to find only ten published studies of the health effects of
feeding GE foods to animals. The authors discounted one as not
peer-reviewed, half of them as not independent as they had been
carried out in collaboration with the industry, and found that all
the rest reported health changes in the animals. It is not my role to
judge the review or the studies it reports - I leave that to the
qualified scientists who decided it was of publishable standar
He also expresses puzzlement about my statement that health effects
on animals have been reported for the GE corn MON 863. My source for
that is the 28 October 2003 report of a French Committee of
scientists - the Commission du Genie Biomoleculaire - which took
seriously a Monsanto study which has, of course, not been published.
The CGB examined this study and expressed its concern that the rats
fed MON 863 showed statistically significant increases in white blood
cells and immature red blood cells, higher
and increased rates of inflammation of the kidneys, compared with the
control group fed non-GE corn of the same parent variety. The Food
Safety Authority of Australia and New Zealand did not have this study
when it approved MON 863 for us to eat, but obtained the Monsanto raw
data when we asked them to. They then refused to give it to us for
independent scientific scrutiny citing commercial confidentiality
with Monsanto. We are therefore unable to assess the data for
ourselves and m
has not been published either, but I have a copy of it and it was
publicised when it was leaked to the French newspaper Le Monde.
Other regulatory committees have scrutinised this data or at least
Monsanto's summary of it, and have concluded there is nothing to
worry about. It is disappointing that it has never been made
available for the independent scrutiny on which good science depends.
Christopher Preston also refers to me, and says I "will be quite
happy to cite a large number of "studies" published on the internet
such as the Terje Traavik study on allergies to Bt corn in the
Phillipines". I have in fact never cited this study, because
although I am not a scientist I try to take care to rely on properly
peer reviewed and published sources. I did however take the
opportunity recently to ask Dr Traavik about it. He is making no
claims himself that this study proves anything, but is very
frustrated that there is a severe shortage of funding to do the
follow up work that is needed to find out whether this apparent
connection between the Bt corn and the health problems of people
living near by
cross between a patented GE corn variety and a local corn variety so
its precise genetic makeup may never have been studied. It is also of
interest that people who moved away lost their symptoms and when they
moved back they recurred. This would seem sufficient, at least in a
lay person's logic, to justify further investigation but no funding
has been forthcoming to do it.
Response from Lance Kennedy" , Tantec
This is not strictly a rebuttal to Jeanette Fitzsimons statement. She
is quite correct in saying that I should not have indulged in name
calling, and I apologise to her for that. My lack of respect for her
beliefs is not based on her opposition to GM, since many intelligent
people share her views. However, she has demonstrated support in the
past for some very silly ideas, such as biodynamics.
When I was a child, my mother read me fairy tales. As an adult, I
read Lord of the Rings. Both are stories in which magic is a major
theme. As a rational adult, I do not believe in magic. Yet it is a
common principle in a wide range of 'alternative' beliefs, under
deceptively different names. In biodynamics, it is called 'cosmic
In acupuncture - chi
In chiropracty - subluxations
In homeopathy - water memory.
Also called psionics, psi, ESP, spiritual vibes, vital energy, and
many other names.
Anyone who tries to promulgate a modern version of voodoo or magic
under another name earns my serious disrespect.
Jeanette is a member of parliament in the New Zealand Green party. As
such, and like all politicians, her opinions are automatically
suspect, where they might impact on her chances of re-election.
Recent history has shown that whenever the Greens raise GM issues,
their ratings in the polls go up. This makes their opposition and
their sincerity suspect. Indeed, I predict that they will raise the
GM issue again, with as much oompah as possible, just before next
If Jeanette wishes to communicate with me, I am happy for her to do
so directly at email@example.com. Unlike with MPs, my email is not
screened by a staff member.
Back to ideas on GM. The Greens have consistently stated that any
research done with funding from GM companies like Monsanto cannot be
believed. This is the origin, it seems, of their statement that only
9 peer reviewed studies of the safety of GM foods have been
published. They appear to have removed from the list any studies that
might have been tarnished with input from such companies. Since it is
very difficult to carry out such studies without funding or
assistance, that means an awful lot are eliminated.
On the other hand, if such a 'tarnished' study returns a result that
can be interpreted as anti-GM, they seize upon it, reporting it as if
it were true gospel. eg. the Monsanto study on MON 863. They cannot
have it both ways. If we cannot trust other Monsanto studies that
favour GM, we also cannot trust those that do the opposite.
Any person who is able to use proper, educated scientific reason will
appreciate another point. With thousands of studies having been done
on assorted matters of GM safety, some will, through chance alone,
falsely show some hazard. At the 95% confidence level, we can expect
up to 5% of such studies to give a false result. If a critical person
sieves through hundreds of studies, they will find plenty of
ammunition, by ignoring the 95%+ showing safety and using the
minority result. The minority reports are frequently, and
individually statistically significant to a degree that superficially
Perhps the most frustrating thing for me is the selective nature of
the evidence of safety used by the anti-GM movement. If we used the
same standard for demonstrating the safety of other foods, we would
all starve. Everything would be banned! Most of our 'natural' foods
contain assorted natural toxins, and can be hazardous on occasion.
New Zealand launched upon an unsuspecting world a new fruit -
Kiwifruit. It proved to be strongly allergenic to thousands. Yet
Kiwifruit is incredibly healthy, with high levels of vitamins C and
E, dietary fibre, and various minerals. If we had tested it properly
for safety before release, it would still be languishing in a
Making the Desert Bloom
- Henry I. Miller And Gregory Conko, Wall Street Journal Europe, Nov. 18, 2004
There is big news from the Middle East that is unusual in several
ways: It's positive, involves a scientific advance, and comes from a
developing country. Researchers at Cairo's Agricultural Genetic
Engineering Research Institute have shown that by transferring a
single gene from barley to wheat, the plants can tolerate less
watering for a longer period of time before their leaves wilt. This
new, drought-resistant variety requires only one-eighth as much
irrigation as conventional wheat, and actually can b e cultivated
with rainfall alone in some desert areas. It could literally make the
Agricultural shortfalls around the world, especially in developing
countries, are being aggravated by the potential catastrophe of water
shortages, not only for agriculture but also for basic human needs.
As groundwater dwindles, millions of wells throughout Asia and Africa
are drying up.
Bureaucrats and aid workers long have searched for solutions.
Gene-spliced, drought-resistant crops might provide one -- so long as
unfounded fears and flawed public policy don't block progress.
Modern biotechnology, also known as gene-splicing or genetic
modification (GM), offers plant breeders the tools to make old crop
plants do spectacular new things. In the United States, Egypt and at
least 16 other countries, farmers are using GM crop varieties to
produce higher yields, with fewer resources and reduced impact on the
environment. In spite of activists who have resisted research and
governments that have overregulated it, some GM crop varieties
specifically tailored to aid the plight of poor c ountries' farmers
are in the development pipeline, and a few are nearing
Most of these new varieties are designed to resist the particular
pests and diseases that ravage crops in the poor tropical regions of
Africa, Asia and Latin America. Others improve nutritional quality.
But the greatest long-term boon to food security in the developing
world may be the enhancement of the ability of new crop varieties to
tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses.
In most of central Africa, for example, farmers have no access to
water for irrigation, so the development of crop varieties able to
grow despite low moisture or temporary drought could both boost
yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive.
Even where irrigation is feasible, plants that use water more
efficiently are needed. Irrigation for agriculture accounts for
roughly 70% of the world's fresh water consumption, so the
introduction of plants that grow with less water would free up much
of that essential resource for other uses. Especially during drought
conditions, even a small reduction in the use of water for irrigation
could result in huge benefits, both economic and humanitarian.
Plant biologists already have identified genes that regulate water
utilization in wild and cultivated plants and that can be transferred
into important crop plants. These varieties can grow with less or
lower quality water, such as water that has been recycled or that
contains large amounts of natural mineral salts. In as little as a
decade, farmers in drought-stricken Ethiopia and Zambia might have
access to drought-resistant GM crops that will produce food even in
Aside from new varieties that use less water, the pest- and
disease-resistant GM crops that are widely cultivated by North
American farmers indirectly make water use more efficient. Much of
the loss to insects and diseases occurs after the plants are fully
grown -- that is, after most of the water required to grow a crop has
already been applied. Therefore, using GM varieties that experience
lower post-harvest losses means that the farming (and irrigation) of
fewer plants can produce the same total amount of food. Merely by
planting some of the insect-resistant GM varieties now grown in
America, African subsistence farmers could control the stem-boring
insects that destroy as much as half their corn and cotton crops. In
other words, more consumable crop for the drop.
GM crops are important to subsistence farmers in another way. Salty
soil is anathema to agriculture. Fully one-third of the irrigated
land worldwide is unsuitable for growing crops because of the
presence of salt, and every year nearly half a million acres of
irrigated land worldwide is lost to cultivation. Scientists at the
University of California, Davis, have enhanced salt tolerance in
crops as diverse as tomatoes and canola. The transformed plants are
so tolerant to salt that they not only grow in salt y soil, but also
can be irrigated with brackish water. Eventually, it will be possible
to transfer these traits to many other important crop varieties.
There is an impediment to this rosy scenario, however. Unscientific,
overly burdensome regulation in the U.S., and by agencies of the
United Nations and the European Union, has raised significantly the
cost of producing new plant varieties and kept most crops from ever
reaching the market.
This flawed public policy -- which flies in the face of scientific
consensus that GM is essentially a refinement of earlier techniques
for crop improvement -- adds tens of millions of dollars to the
development costs of each new GM crop variety. Those extra costs, as
well as the endless (and gratuitous) controversy over growing these
precisely crafted and highly predictable varieties, discourage
research on new varieties of subsistence crops such as millet,
sorghum, cassava and sweet potatoes. Not surprisi ngly, it is
primarily the most commercially profitable species -- commodity crops
grown at vast scale -- that have emerged from the research and
Biotechnology applied to agriculture can help the poor by sowing a
second Green Revolution, but only if politicians create public policy
that enables it to flower.
Dr. Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former FDA
official. Mr. Conko is the director of food safety policy at the
Competitive Enterprise Institute. Their book, "The Frankenfood Myth:
How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution," is
available from Praeger Publishers.
A Letter to the Citizens of Butte County and Our Agricultural Community
- Announcement in California's Chico and Oroville newspapers; Kent S.
McKenzie, Rice Experiment Station
California Cooperative Rice Research Foundation. firstname.lastname@example.org
The Board of Directors and the staff of the Rice Experiment Station
would like to take this opportunity to express our gratitude for your
support in defeating Measure D.
This initiative would have prohibited indefinitely any private rice
improvement research involving "genetic engineering technology" and
also prohibit all greenhouse and field research in this area by our
cooperators from the University of California and USDA. The
ambiguities of its wording also put at risk the production our
current varieties developed using induced mutation, an established,
safe and proven technology that has been used worldwide. It would
have denied a technology to our agricultural community that has been
accepted and is expanding in other regions and commodities worldwide.
And finally, our industry has already established laws and guidelines
that protect the identity and integrity of California rice.
In the 92 year history of this organization, "new rice breeding
technology" including artificial hybridization, introduced rice
germplasm, and induced mutation have provided tremendous
contributions to our industry. Applications of new technologies have
been instrumental in the industry's survival and prosperity and our
The campaign presented a huge educational challenge and we were very
fortunate to be able to look to third party sources, the University
of California, Chico State University and others, who provided
scientists to explain the technology, address the questions and
concern about this sophisticated technology and provide forums for
the public discourse. We are also very grateful to the individuals
and organizations like Farm Bureau, BUCRA, and Red Top who devoted so
much to this campaign.
The public learned that:
1. Man has been modifying crops for hundreds of years
2. Scientific evidence and opinion is that biotechnology-derived
foods and feeds present no new or unusual dangers to the environment
or human health
3. The technology can provide benefits to farmers, consumers, and the
4. Substantial safety testing and government regulation exist
regarding this technology and we need to remain vigilant in this area.
5. Butte county produces many crops in many systems and co-existence
is an important part of California agriculture.
The adoption and commercial production of all our new rice varieties
are subject to extensive review and oversight to protect the
California Rice Industry and the public interest. Grower and market
acceptance are essential components of that process. We take our
mission and responsibility very seriously and thank you for your
votes of confidence and support.
Anti-biotech Crowd Takes Behind Woodshed Whipping
- Harry Cline, Western Farm Press, Nov 16, 2004
The huge victories in defeating county anti-biotech initiatives in 3
of 4 California counties in the general election was a
There is no other way to describe the wide margins of victory in
defeating anti-biotech initiatives in Butte and San Luis Obispo
counties. Humboldt County's rejection was also a victory, even though
the anti-GE crowd there admitted at the last minute that approving a
law that would call for arresting dairymen who grow
herbicide-resistant corn was not a good idea. They asked voters to
reject the initiative. Nevertheless, 28 percent of the voters
supported the ban. Humboldt's anti-biotechers have said they w
come back with a non-flawed initiative. After Nov. 2, that likely
would be a flawed effort.
The anti-biotech radicals had the momentum early on, swaggering from
their "big" victory last spring in Mendocino. Farmers and ranchers in
Butte and San Luis Obispo were playing catch-up from the start of the
However, agricultural grassroots efforts came together quickly to
counter many of the distortions spewed from the anti-GE groups.
Biotech ban opponents also pointed out that many of the so-called
locals supporting biotech bans were non-Californians supported by the
Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association and liberals from the
San Francisco Bay area. Outsiders.
Experts like former Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore were brought
in to scientifically and rationally refute many the anti-biotech
crowd's phony facts. Scientists from the California State University
system as well as individuals from UC also refuted the so-called
anti-biotech experts brought into California to bolster the
The general public listened to the farmers and ranchers and their
experts. The margins of victory say farmers and ranchers are more
believable than outside radicals preaching fear to line their pockets
As big as the victory was, you can bet the radical anti-biotech crowd
will not disappear. However, the Nov. 2 election says they can be
handled. Not all of the 40 percent who voted to ban genetically
modified crops in Butte and San Luis Obispo are radicals. There are
still concerns about ag biotech, and ag leaders at least in Butte,
San Luis Obispo and Humboldt realize they cannot rest with this one
It must be heartening to those who worked so hard on the campaigns
that they earned the trust of a majority of their urban neighbors.
Farmers and ranchers realize they must continue to connect with
California's urban population on issues important to the production
of food and fiber. They did it this time, and they can do it again.
For anti-biotech outsiders who have taken pleasure in California's
weather and hospitality for the past few months, enjoy the winters in
Minnesota, Canada and San Francisco. And watch what you eat, it may
contain dreaded biotech genes.
Precision Breeding - New Genetic Technique Developed
- New Zealand Press Association, November 16, 2004
Wellington, Nov 16 - A technique using genetic engineering (GE) tools
but which does not infect plants with foreign DNA has been developed
by Crop and Food Research. The technique, called precision breeding,
would provide international opportunities for crop improvement, Crop
and Food research team leader Tony Conner, based at Lincoln near
Christchurch, said today.
The idea for precision breeding first came to him in 1999, when he
took nine months out from research to look after his young son. One
of the public's main concerns had been the use of GE to transfer
genes between unrelated organisms, Dr Conner said in a statement.
Precision breeding only transferred genetic material which would
naturally cross with a particular plant. "We're only using genes
which are already available to traditional plant breeders. But we can
transfer those genes responsible for a particular characteristic into
a new plant very precisely, in one step,'' Dr Conner said. No one
thought you could find the necessary gene sequences in plants to do
this -- they usually come from bacteria.''
The intellectual property was held by Crop and Food, a
government-funded Crown research institute.
Dr Conner had presented his technique at three recent international
science conferences in Germany, the Netherlands and Australia. It
would be presented at a New Zealand conference later this month. "It
was received enthusiastically... particularly by those working to
improve food production in the Third World,'' he said. "Plants
produced using this technique are, by definition, not transgenic and
this means the compliance costs involved in gaining approval for
commercial use are minimised.''
While the technique was valuable in crops propagated vegetatively,
such as potatoes, fruit trees, cassava and sugarcane, it would also
have a role in breeding major crops such as maize, soybean, rice and
wheat, Dr Conner said. "It provides us with a tool to go into
germplasm banks and find all the alternative variants of a gene,
select the best one for what we want, and then insert it into the
target crops in a single step without any foreign DNA.''
Eat This Now
- Wesley J. Smith New York Post, November 14, 2004
"The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest And Politics Threaten The Biotech
Revolution By Henry I. Miller And Gregory Conko; Praeger Publishers,
296 Pages, $39.95"
Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko are true believers in the power of
biotechnology in agriculture to improve life as it generates
bounteous profits for innovative companies with the vision to invent
and develop "superior" genetically modified (GM) plants. The fly in
their ointment is overly zealous government regulation stimulated by
vocal and paranoid bioskeptic activists whose alarmism impedes
biotech companies from feeding a hungry world.
They make many valid points. It is indeed a crime against humanity
that some African leaders, egged on by radical European Greens,
decided to let their people starve rather than distribute corn they
deemed "toxic" because it had minor genetic modifications. But if the
authors hoped to convince the masses that so_called "Frankenfoods"
are as safe as crops that have been modified through natural
cross_breeding techniques, their book doesn't quite make the grade.
Miller and Conko write as if it is irrational to worry that there may
be a qualitative difference between developing seedless watermelons
through selective breeding on one hand, and introducing genes from
unrelated organisms, such as splicing bacterium DNA into a tomato
plant to make it more pest_resistant, on the other. And rather than
methodically demonstrating why gene_spliced foods really are safe,
the authors often write as if their forceful assertions alone are
sufficient to convince readers that it is so.
It isn't. I'm an agnostic on the GM food issue who wants to be
convinced. But after reading "The Frankenfood Myth," I remain on the
This is not to say that the authors' consternation isn't just. For
example, their critique of the "precautionary principle," under which
biotech companies have been forced to demonstrate almost to a
metaphysical certainty that their GM foods are safe before being
permitted into the marketplace, is both passionate and compelling.
But, they also ignore the truth of the old maxim: "Just because you
are paranoid doesn't mean that they are not really after you."
The excessive reticence on the part of regulators that they bemoan
did not arise in a vacuum. Corporations have too often covered up
known safety problems with their products in order to pass regulatory
muster. Their failure to adequately grapple with this history
undermines the authors' argument.
Moreover, Miller and Conko's ideological resentment of even the most
rational concerns about GM crops limits their effectiveness. For
example, plants can be genetically modified to produce substances
that could be harvested for medicinal purposes, an approach known as
"biopharming" that is rightly lauded by the authors.
But, given the potentials for company_crushing lawsuits and/or a
catastrophic loss of consumer confidence should biopharmed substances
enter the food chain and cause harm, it is not irrational or
antibiotech for the food industry to insist that non_food plants be
used when making such products. Nor is it "cowardly capitulation," as
the authors angrily assert, for Gerber to forgo using GM foods in its
products based on customer preferences - even if baby food made from
biotechnologically altered crops would indeed be superior.
Readers who care a lot about regulatory processes will unquestionably
enjoy "The Frankenfood Myth." And indeed, much of what the authors
advocate is worth considering. Unfortunately, their fixation on the
arcane and their overheated ideological resentments make it unlikely
that a general audience will adopt a sense of righteous indignation
that the authors hope to ignite.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a
special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His
current book is "Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World."
Response to the book review above -
To the editor of the New York Post:
As a plant geneticist, I was disappointed to read Wesley J. Smith's
review of The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the
Biotech Revolution ("Eat This Now," November 14). It appears Smith
was reviewing an entirely different book.
For example, Smith claims the authors don't address the "qualitative
difference" between "selective breeding on one hand, and introducing
genes from unrelated organisms, such as splicing bacterium DNA into a
tomato plant ..." But much of the first chapter is devoted to
explaining just that point.
For years, unregulated "conventional" breeding has included
techniques such as zapping plants with radiation to produce new
mutant varieties and the artificial mating of unrelated plant species
to produce new species that never existed before. Scientists first
learned how to splice genes into plants by studying how a common
bacterium splices its own genes into plant cells. As the Frankenfood
Myth correctly reports, the biggest "qualitative difference" between
conventional methods and biotechnology is that the newer methods are
more precise. Smith may not be convinced, but he should at least have
represented the book honestly.
The rest of the review is similarly misleading. Far from arguing that
we can rely on biotech companies to feed a hungry world, the authors
document how the biggest biotech companies have lobbied for more
regulation. They call for rational policies not to help big
companies, but to help small firms and public sector researchers who
can not afford the artificially high regulatory barriers that do
nothing to protect consumers or the environment.
C.S. Prakash, Professor of Plant Molecular Genetics, Tuskegee
University, Tuskegee, Alabama
"Spurious" Science Dominates Anti-GM Debate!
- S. Shantharam, BioSpectrum (India), November 04, 2004
As the international year of rice draws to a close, China as usual is
getting ready to introduce GM rice commercially, whereas there is a
beginning of a movement to not only ban its introduction to other
parts of Asia, but also a call for a moratorium on commercialization
of GM crops for a variety of reasons.
At the same time, one cannot but help notice how far the polarized GM
debate has traversed since it all began more than a decade and a half
ago. Even though commercialization of GM crops is in full swing
around the world without a single instance of anything having gone
wrong, the anachronistic pitch continues to queer new heights. If it
is not social impact, it is imaginary ethical impact and if it is not
economic impact, it is about democratization of biotechnology, if
not, it is about socializing biotechnology, or else it is the
"ephemeral" public participation in the decision making process. What
has happened in all of this is that GM crops have been "criminalized"
without any scientific basis.
There is no question that in this day and age, all human endeavors
must be scrutinized and they all must jump through the hoops to pass
muster called "public opinion". But, they must be done by
knowledgeable people who have expertise and broad perspective of the
role technology in development. But, when it comes to the question of
assessing modern biotechnology, the knowledge and expertise of some
of the stakeholders leaves much to be desired. Not withstanding the
safe use of GM crops for almost a decade wherever they have been
commercialized, there is a pervasive attempt to hoist false
scientific charges against GM crops that are wantonly mischievous. GM
crops have been tagged with a "guilty" label based on a faulty
science, and now it seems that they have to be proven innocent by the
scientists. That is to say prove that they are not dangerous! How
does one design an experiment to prove that GM crops are not
dangerous? When and who decides enough safety tests have been done?
Scientists have done as much as their knowledge base permits to prove
that GM crops are as safe as any other food available in the market
place and the efforts will continue in keeping with the pace of
technology development, but that does not seem to satisfy the
critics. There is a plethora of scientific literature available and a
bi-annual scientific biosafety meeting discusses some of the best
research on the safety of GMOs. They keep assuring that GM crops are
safe to the environment and to human and animal health, but the
critics don't buy them. Instead offer their own spurious scientific
evidences and flawed scientific arguments to prove that GM crops are
If one takes a serious look at the some of the criticisms of GM crops
regarding their safety almost all their arguments are flawed in
science, and it is hard to fathom why these critics continue to
purvey such scientifically flawed or misguided arguments and to what
end? There is a sort of "revisionist science" in the making just to
jettison GM crops technology around the world. The worldwide web is
full of them if one cares to read them. Most of the public have
better things to do than to keep reading everything on the web these
days, but some us who have innate interest in the subject keep track
of them. By reading some of "their" literature and arguments, it
becomes obvious that they have a modicum of scientific training and
make believe that they know what they are talking about. They use
many of the scientific jargons used by the scientists and have
created some of their own to mislead the public. But, a closer
scrutiny of what they are saying, it becomes clear that they turn and
twist scientific facts, and grossly misinterpret them to scare the
public. If one is honestly ignorant, or innocent, it should be
possible to deal with them much more directly and inform them.
But, how do you deal with people who are hell bent on misinterpreting
scientific facts and mislead the public just to keep their activism
alive? What gives them legitimacy is that the establishments in
Europe and North America and now in Asia and Africa give them
credence by acquiescing to their demands by instituting multi-million
dollar programs to research safety questions related to GMOs and try
to prove the negative, an impossible task indeed. Both North America
and the European Union have spent literally hundreds of millions of
dollars on biotech risk assessment research to prove the safety of
GMOs, but to no avail. Now they say, you should repeat such kind of
researches in Asia and Africa for decades to prove it to them that
they may be safe. Clearly no amount of money spent on such
red-herring research can all go a waste.
Very many fundamental questions about safety, gene flow,
out-crossing, and genetic stability and food and feed safety have
been answered that hitherto had not been addressed. Also, many
long-standing ecological questions have also been addressed as well.
In sum, something good has come out of it. But, if you apply the
cost-benefit analysis to that exercise, then it will come a cropper
as precious dollars that should have been spent on much needed
technology development and research capacity building around the
world to tackle real problems have been squandered. But, be that as
it may. I think risk assessment research must continue, but the
critics must read the results of those projects and stop misleading
the public about the GMO safety based on the high quality science
used in them.
What are the most common scientific malapropisms flaunted in the
media and the public? It is commonly alleged that the introduced
genes are leaky and therefore unstable alluding that genes will leak
out of the GM plants and wreak untold havoc. The jargon "leaky" is
used in a totally different context by molecular biologists to
characterize the nature of gene expression. Second, they say
introduced genes cause pleiotropic effects and scientists don't know
what the hell is going to happen to the GM crops but conveniently
ignore that it was the scientists who discovered pleiotropic effects
of genes long ago, and know how to ensure that it does not affect the
phenotypic expression of a selected trait by ensuring stable
There is something known as signal to noise ratio through which
scientist screen and select the stably expressing lines. They seem to
conveniently not mention that all the introduced varieties of crop
plants have been rigorously tested by selection for stable
inheritance of desired traits to bring it to the market place.
Otherwise, can one imagine modern day seed companies selling seeds
that do not perform what they are intended to be?
Third, they say antibiotic marker genes render antibiotic
chemotherapy useless by spreading into human and animal gut and other
microorganisms. But, they will never tell the gullible public that if
there is no selection pressure neither will there be a gene transfer
nor do they express and that antibiotic resistance genes are already
widespread in the environment. They will also not tell you that the
same organisms that produce antibiotics also have developed
resistance genes to protect themselves. What is important in gene
transfer experiments in the gut is the frequency with which gene
transfer occurs under what kind of selection pressure? They will
never put this issue of antibiotic resistance marker genes in the
overall context of a century old phenomenon called "antibiosis" that
has been studied to death. But, they also do not distinguish between
antibiotic producing genes and antibiotic resistance genes.
Fourthly, there is this scientifically bogus phenomenon known as
"genetic pollution" or "genetic contamination", a pure concoction of
the GM opponents as if the genes are getting transferred for the
first time now that GM crops are here. Using the words "pollution"
and "contamination", you can scare away any innocent and ignorant
public and rally support for their cause. They will never say the
gene flow is an ancient trait of all living organisms throughout
evolution and is the basis of speciation and biological diversity in
Fifth, scientific malapropism that is flaunted is that modification
of oil profiles in GM plants like canola will change the lipid
profiles of cells (lipids, fats, and oils are one the same to them)
and lipids are an important component of cell membranes. If you
change the lipid profiles of cell membranes, they will develop big
holes and drain out cell contents and the whole plant will be
destroyed. On the face of it, it all looks plausible, but does it
make any scientific sense that a modern day biotech seed company will
try to market GM seeds that die off and can you imagine how one would
bring such products to the market place? How can one sell such a seed
whose progeny would have its entire cell contents drained out? It
will be like visiting a boneless chicken ranch.
The sixth malapropism is that "gene silencing" will somehow silence
some important gene and cause untold effect in GM plants. The fact
that "gene silencing" is one of the finely tuned gene regulation
processes known so well in prokaryotes and has been discovered in
tissue culture derived plants in the past 30 years. By discerning the
basic mechanisms of gene silencing a brand new biotech industry is
coming to the fore by using this powerful tool to tackle ever so many
problems in biology. Practicing scientists know very well that the
basic minimum requirement for gene silencing is sequence homology and
whatever gene silencing that may occur happens only with the
introduced gene only in a specific plant and it does not affect the
entire field of GM crops, if at all.
Gene silencing has never been recorded from a field of GM crops so
far. But, who cares about the truth? The emphasis here is on the word
"silencing" conjuring up an image killing a plant. Once again, when a
stably inherited GMO is selected all these matters are taken care of.
But, the critics would never want to study these things properly and
convey proper information to the public as it odes not serve their
purpose. For as long as golden rice has been in the news, anti-GM
critics have been telling the world that people will have to eat 8
kilo grams of rice a day to get all the required daily doze of
Vitamin A based on the miniscule quantity of Vitamin A produced from
the very early construct of golden rice. When golden rice was first
unveiled to the world, it was to provide a proof of concept that such
complex metabolic genes can be successfully transferred to food
crops, and such a technology can be exploited for the
biofortification of staple food crops that do not provide adequate
nutrition now. Is it really possible that scientists are so stupid to
market a rice variety which people will have to eat in kilogram
quantities daily to benefit from it? Is it not really absurd?
Scientists deserve better credit than that.
The fact of the matter is that there has been a fantabulous progress
in the making of golden rice and iron rich rice that are now
undergoing field tests, and soon very many other needed tests will be
carried out before commercialization. This marvelous technological
approach is now used in an international multi-million dollar
biofortification research program funded by the Gates Foundation. The
other scientific falsehood that is constantly propped up is that Bt
Cry9c gene produces an allergenic toxin when in fact it has been
investigated most thoroughly and found not to be so. But, they don't
relent because if they accept scientific facts, they will have one
less weapon in their armor to fight against GM crops. There is still
a belief perpetrated by the anti-GM lobby that terminator genes will
escape into the wild and sterilize biodiversity, a blasphemy to say
Recently, there has been a new allegation that hybrid crops of the
green revolution are responsible for the development of super viruses
that have now metamorphosed into SARS, HIV and mad cow disease. The
fact that that line has been espoused by Nobel Laureate Maathai, it
gives lots of credence to anti-GM lobby to use such scientific
misinformation to their own end.
There is also a sentiment against applying GM technology to medicinal
plants and commercializing pharmaceutical transgenic plants not
realizing that none of these plants are so sacrosanct that they
cannot be researched upon using modern scientific approaches. It is
already happening, and in fact, it makes eminent sense to understand
the mechanisms of medicinal plants better so that we can manipulate
them to produce their principal ingredients at will and don't have to
destroy them for good in the nature. Imagine, taxol can now be
synthesized, and one need not harvest the barks of the precious yew
trees in the Himalayas. This is biodiversity conservation using
modern biotech for you. Examples galore from chemical micro-array
technology and metabolomics to get at ever so many naturally
occurring medicines from plants, animals and microbes that can be
synthesized either biologically or chemically and make them available
at affordable costs to large populations. This is a constant quest of
the scientists, and hat should continue. History of modern medicine
is replete with so many examples of exploiting modern science to
deliver health care.
You will never see these anti-GM scientists present a paper of their
"scientific" concern at a proper scientific forum where knowledgeable
scientists can address them. Because, they know that their scientific
malapropisms will not stand scrutiny. Instead, they hoist them on the
gullible media who promptly purvey them without verification, as it
sounds scientifically credible because they use some scientific
jargons. There is no rhyme or reason to oppose GM crops based on good
science. Underneath many of these specious arguments is deep-rooted
ideological and political opposition to the modern biotechnology.
But, the good news is that GM crops technology is taking root all
over the world on its own merit. The opponents' last hope was
Brazilian President Lula who they thought will stop GM crops
technology. Instead, he just approved GM soybeans much against a
world-wide campaign to stop him. Lula approved GM crops because he
was convinced of the benefits of GM soybean based on facts and
evidence and not rhetoric.
We all have to keep repeating scientific facts, as we know as many
times as the opponents of GM crops keep repeating their scientific
lies. Otherwise, there is a real danger of this beneficial technology
either delayed or not reaching those who need it the most in the
The scientific community in the developing world must wake up to
counter this non-scientific propaganda against biotechnology and
directly communicate with the public and the media to present
scientific facts to promote safe and effective deployment of
Dr. Shanthu Shantharam is the President of a biotechnology affairs
consulting firm, Biologistics International in Maryland, USA.