Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on

Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives





November 25, 2004


Moral Leadership; NGO Hypocrisy; Harnessing a Demon; Co-Existence; Malthusian Trap


Today in AgBioView Thanksgiving Edition from www.agbioworld.org : November 25, 2004

* Thankful for Moral Leadership
* The Hypocrisy of Northern NGOs
* Harnessing a Demon for Humanity
* FDA Guidance for New Plant Varieties
* Co-existence of GM and Non-GM Crops
* The Malthusian Trap
* Re: Darwin, Lamarck and Marx and the Response

Thankful for Moral Leadership

- Dean Kleckner, Truth About Trade & Technology http://www.truthabouttrade.org/article.asp?id=2988

"The Pope? How many divisions has he got?" sneered Josef Stalin in 1935, upon hearing the suggestion that the Soviet Union go easy on its Catholic population.

Although Pope John Paul II leads a large flock -- there are more than a billion baptized Catholics on the planet today -- it remains true that he commands no divisions full of soldiers. His leadership is moral rather than military. And today, the Catholic Church's moral leadership is putting smiles on the faces of many scientists. Legions of them, you might say.

Bet you didn't expect to hear that. When people think about science and Catholicism, they're likely to conjure up images of Galileo's persecution in the 17th century. The famous Italian astronomer was forced to denounce his claim that the earth moved through space. This was said to contradict scripture.

Although the Church has made peace with Galileo's discovery and many other scientific ideas, it still carries a lot of historical baggage. Lots of people assume that science and faith simply can't be reconciled. I certainly don't subscribe to this view, but there's no denying it's out there. And that's why so many folks are surprised to learn that the Vatican is one of biotechnology's best friends.

Consider this passage from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which represents the official catechism approved by the Holy See: "The Christian vision of creation makes a positive judgment on the acceptability of human intervention in nature. ... Nature is not a sacred of divine reality that man must leave alone. ... The human person does not commit an illicit act when ... he intervenes by modifying some of their characteristics or properties."

That's a powerful and persuasive statement of principle, and it applies to burning logs for fire as much as it does to modifying genes to protect crops from pests. At least that's my view. And it's shared by many prominent Catholics who have spoken at prestigious conferences in Rome, organized by the Vatican to explore the opportunities and controversies surrounding biotechnology.

"Questions concerning the acceptance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the problems that they might pose have been taken seriously ever since the development of recombinant DNA technologies 31 years ago," said Peter H. Raven, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in a speech at the Pontifical Gregorian University in September. "It has become clear that there is nothing intrinsic to the process of genetic modification by the production of transgenic organisms that makes them unsafe in any respect."

Raven went on to point out that farmers have been genetic engineers for more than 10,000 years, crossbreeding their crops to build better plants. "There is simply no justification for regarding imprecise traditional methods of transferring genetic traits as safe, but modern precise ones as unsafe," he said.

These words are tremendously encouraging to hear because the Catholic Church is the spiritual home of so many people. It is also deeply concerned with the wellbeing of the world's poorest nations and their citizens and understands how biotechnology can help alleviate human suffering.

And the fact that the Vatican is headquartered in Europe--where biotech foods have encountered much skepticism--makes its openness to biotechnology even more encouraging.

"One might well ask why a general ban on GM foods and the cultivation of GM crops exists in Europe," said Raven. "In view of the lack of evidence that such cultivation would be harmful, one can only conclude that the reasons for the ban are emotional, personal, and political."

He concluded with this vital observation: "It is important to keep in mind that all of this controversy is taking place without a single case of human or animal sickness or environmental problem anywhere in the world reliably attributed to GM crops!"

It's important to remember that these statements about biotechnology don't carry the same weight as a papal encyclical on the topic. But they're incredibly important and extremely encouraging--and they prove that when it comes to biotechnology, the Catholic Church is a moral leader in the scientific forefront.


The Hypocrisy of Northern NGOs

- Dave Wood, UK;

AgBioView (November 20th) copied the report of an EMBO meeting last year. One contributor to the meeting, in the space of one paragraph, commits colossal and familiar misrepresentations of productive agriculture and the role of GM crops.

>Aina Edelman, representing the Norwegian Farmers and Smallholders Union at the EMBO members meeting in Oslo, Norway, last October, argued that GM crops prolong the use of monocultures, and maintained that changing people's diets is the only solution to malnutrition. "We need to have more diversity, not less, if we are going to meet food requirements. We need to encourage people to grow and eat a diversity of crops." Moreover, privately developed GM crops increase the dependency of farmers on industry, and snare the farmers into buying expensive seeds and chemicals from one harvest to the next.

Firstly, there is nothing whatever wrong with monocultures. Our staple cereals evolved directly, with minimum genetic change, from stable and productive wild 'monocultures' growing in distinctly marginal conditions. Unless Norway gets a wet tropical climate very soon, it would be wise to stick with monocultures. Where I am now, in northern Scotland, the world's best beef and the world's best liquor (single malt whisky) are both dependent on local barley monocultures. Scotland can trade these superb products internationally for whatever dietary diversity it wants.

In contrast to the stability of monocultures, the natural biodiversity of tropical forest is extremely fragile. Small climate changes could wipe out tropical rain forest. Its biodiversity provides no model whatever for crop or livestock production in temperate climates. If GMOs prolong the use of monocultures they will enhance the ten-thousand year pattern of successful staple crop production.

Secondly, malnutrition will not be addressed by attacking the monocultured fields of staple crops such as rice, wheat and sorghum, which are essential for the food security of most people. There is an easier way: most dietary diversity can be met by combining fields of staple crops with orchards, gardens, wild foods, and traded foods. How much orange juice consumed in Norway is locally produced?

Rather than continued wingeing about field farming, Northern Luddite NGOs should promote the massive richness of garden diversity. Here seed-saving programmes give us a valuable model. A seed-saver garden in Wigan, a one-time industrial slum in Northern England, has been producing seed of over a thousand varieties of vegetables. Imagine the dietary diversity of that family. And gardens can address the needs of the poor. Last month I was admiring the roadside gardens of the poor in Nairobi. The 5m wide strips along public highways are used for staples such as maize, potatoes and cassava, but also, spectacularly, for cash-cropping of planting material of garden ornamentals for sale to householders.

Thirdly, the hoary and paternalistic nonsense about private industry `snaring farmers into buying expensive seed' must stop. Even in Norway this is patronizing to farmers, but when applied to developing countries it is a recipe for poverty and starvation. Farmers will only buy seed, and go on buying seed, if it offers them higher yields or other economic advantages (this also applies to fertilizer, pesticides and machinery).

One man alone, Simon Groot of East-West Seed, has done more for dietary diversity in South East Asia than a dozen northern NGOs (1). Twenty years ago Simon put together a team of vegetable breeders to improve local vegetables. This was a great success. In Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand Simon's team worked with bitter gourd, cabbage, kangkong, cucumber, sweet corn, pumpkin, ridge gourd, wax gourd, tomato, watermelon, eggplant, onion, and yardlong bean (how many northern NGOs even know what some of these look like?). The technology was simple: hybrids to replace open-pollinated varieties. Farmers got higher yields and more valuable produce. This encouraged more intensive production: more food from less land. The money willingly paid by farmers for better seed promotes continued varietal development by plant breeders, targeted at increasing farmers' revenues through higher yields, better quality products, more disease tolerance, and extended growing season.

The results of this private breeding have been extraordinary. In Vietnam alone, East-West's bitter gourd has added value to farmers by over $15 million. East-West uses the idea of 'quality seed multiplier'. If a farmer pays one unit of currency for vegetable seed, crop revenue would increase by the multiplier effect. This ranges from 11 for bitter gourd to 62 for eggplant. Thus one dollar extra paid for improved seed of eggplant would bring the farmer an extra $62. This economic benefit encourages crop diversification. Rice farmers in the Philippines are increasing their incomes three times by off-season vegetable production.

The concept of farmer 'ensnarement', used by a Norwegian NGO in a deliberate attempt to influence national development policy, is a malign interference with farmer choice.

I charge many Northern Seed NGOs with hypocrisy. Countries sheltering these NGOs expect in future to access genetic resources from developing countries without cost. This is a direct result of their NGOs lobbying hard over the past for favourable national treatment by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources.

Norway (Edelman's Norwegian Farmers and Smallholders Union); Canada (ETC, formerly RAFI, and also a regional office of via Campesina); Spain (GRAIN); and Belgium (regional office of via Campesina) all have NGOs who parrot the malignities of seed activism at the expense of Third World farmers.

These countries are all free-loaders on international genetic resources at the expense of developing countries. This is shameful.

(1) Kunz, K., (ed.) 2002 Vegetable breeding for market development. East West Seed International, Nonthaburi, Thailand.


Harnessing a Demon for Humanity

- Peter Pettus, The New York Sun, November 24, 2004

"We say it's Frankenfood and we won't eat it!" These are the shrieks of opposition to genetically modified foods now echoing throughout Europe and North America. An intense campaign against these foods is active worldwide, enlisting a large coalition of supporters that includes Greenpeace, Prince Charles, Dennis Kucinich, Jeremy Rifkin, and vast legions of the passionately ill-informed.

Europeans - having had a long history of bitter opposition to all sorts of food including potatoes, tomatoes, and coffee (which the church once tried to ban using a smear campaign much like the one now directed against GM foods) - seem especially obtuse about these matters. "All across Britain and most of the rest of Europe," the New York Times reported in February 2003, "shoppers would be hard pressed to find any genetically modified products on grocery store shelves, and that is precisely how most people want it."

Do we care about this in America? Surrounded as we are by mountains of beautiful groceries (including lots of "organic" produce) this issue would not seem so pressing to us now, if only the ominous shadow of Malthus would leave us in peace. So Nina Fedoroff and her colleague, Nancy Marie Brown, believe the time has come to put an end to this indulgent ignorance of the realities of food.

Ignore the coy title of "Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods" (Joseph Henry Press, 370 pages, $24.95); the authors are deeply serious about the choices facing us. Think of it this way: Every human being on the planet (and that includes us) either gets enough to eat, or dies. It is that simple. The issue is survival. Period.

With deliberate calm, the authors explain not only the biological science of growing plants for food but also what has been done in the past and what can be done in the future to produce more and better food on less land. They are trying to give us enough information for us to judge for ourselves the truth of the belief that genetically modified crops are somehow "against nature" and should be abandoned.

Plants have been genetically modified for millennia; to change a wild plant into food requires changing its genes by selective breeding. In Walden, Thoreau says "making the yellow soil express its summer thought in bean leaves and blossoms rather than in wormwood ... making the earth say beans instead of grass - this was my daily work." This was in 1854, before Mendel explained the genetic mechanism in plants. But farmers have been deliberately modifying food plants like this since the end of the Stone Age.

At that time, the world population was relatively stable at 8 to 10 million people. As farming took hold, the population began to explode. The number of people on earth reached 3 billion by 1950, then jumped to 6 billion in almost a single human generation. Farming kept pace with this explosion by advances in plant breeding by genetic manipulation and by the expanded use of nitrogen fertilizer; the Green Revolution transformed world agriculture. Unfortunately, these great gains have begun to level off.

Ms. Fedoroff and Brown are blunt and to the point. The problem is that the yield limits of most food plants is fast approaching, which means that science will have to find other methods to double or even triple food production to provide for 8 or 9 billion people (the point at which the world population is expected to stabilize). How is this going to be possible?

We have two choices, according to the authors. "We can cultivate more land, knowing that land put under the plow is land taken away from black bears and monarch butterflies, Bengal tigers and tropical birds. Or we can produce more food from the land that is already being farmed." Under the circumstances, this continuing European neo-Luddite resistance to genetic science borders on the obscene.

Consider the case of the rejected American wheat in Africa. In 2002 Zambia's president rejected a shipment of donated corn from America, ostensibly because genetically modified food had not been proven safe to eat. According to the Los Angeles Times, "Many Zambians in rural areas have resorted to eating leaves, twigs, and even poisonous berries and nuts to cope with the worst food crisis in a decade." But the Zambian president rejected the shipment of American corn, saying, "We would rather starve than get something toxic."

Why did he do this? The corn was safe; his logic was economic. If the Zambian government were to lose its "GM-free" status for its food exports, it would jeopardize its European market, which insists that food be GM free. Ideas, even lunatic ideas, have consequences. Thus, the private and personal choices of European shoppers, who are totally ignorant of the relevant science, set the public policy of African nations. As the authors point out, "African and other less developed nations are caught in a terrible bind. With almost 3 million people at risk of starvation, they are faced with a choice between immediate suffering and closing the door on future economic prosperity."

What the world needs now is not to "demonize" biotechnology but to continue to harness it for the benefit of all humanity. Just as we have done for the last 10,000 years.


FDA Proposes Draft Guidance for Industry for New Plant Varieties Intended for Food Use

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, November 19, 2004 http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/ANSWERS/2004/ANS01327.html

To address the possibility that material from a new plant variety intended for food use might inadvertently enter the food supply before its sponsor has fully consulted with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), FDA is announcing the availability of a draft guidance document entitled "Guidance for Industry: Recommendations for the Early Food Safety Evaluation of New Non-Pesticidal Proteins Produced by New Plant Varieties Intended for Food Use."

This draft guidance discusses the early food safety evaluation of new proteins in new plant varieties, particularly in new bioengineered varieties that are under development for possible use as food for humans or animals. The draft guidance also describes procedures for communicating with FDA about this evaluation.

The issuance of draft guidance was proposed in August 2002 in a Federal Register Notice (67 FR 50578) published by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) as part of proposed Federal actions to update field test requirements and to establish early voluntary food safety evaluations for new proteins produced by bioengineered plants.

Rapid developments in genomics are resulting in dramatic changes in the way new plant varieties are developed and commercialized. Scientific advances are expected to accelerate over the next decade, leading to the development and commercialization of a greater number and diversity of bioengineered crops. As the number and diversity of field tests for bioengineered plants increase, the likelihood that cross-pollination due to pollen drift from field tests to commercial fields and commingling of seeds produc˙ed during field tests with commercial seeds or grain may also increase. This could result in low-level presence in the food supply of material from new plant varieties that have not been evaluated through FDA's voluntary consultation process for foods derived from new plant varieties (referred to as a "biotechnology consultation" in the case of bioengineered plants).

FDA believes that any potential risk from the low level presence of such material in the food supply would be limited to the possibility that it would contain or consist of a new protein that might be an allergen or toxin.

Under the proposal, developers would provide FDA with information about the food safety of the new protein at a relatively early stage of development of the crop. Once a developer decides to commercialize a particular crop, the developer would still be expected to participate in FDA's voluntary premarket consultation process. To date, all new plant varieties developed through biotechnology that are intended for food and feed marketed in the United States have completed the consultation process before they ˙entered the market.

While FDA has not found and does not believe that new plant varieties under development for food and feed use generally pose any safety or regulatory concerns, this guidance is consistent with FDA's policy of encouraging communication early in the development process for a new plant variety. Such communication helps to ensure that any potential food safety issues regarding a new protein in such a new plant variety are resolved prior to any possible inadvertent introduction into the food supply of material ˙from that plant variety.

The proposed draft guidance represents FDA's current thinking about the approach for assessing the food safety of new proteins produced by new plant varieties. An alternate approach may be used as long as it satisfies the requirements of applicable statutes and regulations.

Written comments on the draft guidance may be submitted up to 60 days from the date it is published in the Federal Register to Dockets Management Branch (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20852.


FDA to Issue Guidelines On Evaluating Biotech Food

- Michael S. Rosenwald, Washington Post November 24, 2004 Staff Writer

The Food and Drug Administration will publish draft guidelines today that would encourage companies to submit voluntary safety evaluations of bioengineered food crops that sometimes drift and cross-pollinate with plants in nearby fields. The biotech industry welcomed the new approach, but environmental and food-safety advocates called it a poor substitute for the rigorous testing they have sought before the planting of scientifically engineered crops that could enter the nation's food supply.

"This doesn't get us on the road to full mandatory testing, which is what we've been saying is needed," said Joseph Mendelson III, the legal director at the Center for Food Safety. "It's trying to put a Band-Aid on problems that need a wholesale fix."

The current system encourages companies developing a bioengineered food crop to consult with the FDA early in its development on possible scientific and regulatory issues. Under the new FDA guidelines, which are to be published today in the Federal Register, companies also would be asked to conduct a voluntary safety evaluation and submit it to the agency.

Critics of bioengineered crops have called instead for full-scale, mandatory safety testing and prohibiting the introduction of new biotech foods without detailed FDA certification that they are safe. FDA officials said the new, voluntary guidelines will give regulators a more detailed and advanced understanding of bioengineered crops should they become cross-pollinated with material entering the food supply.

The agency said in a statement that its policy is to encourage "communication early in the development process for a new plant variety." But the FDA added that it "has not found and does not believe that new plant varieties under development for food and feed use generally pose any safety or regulatory concerns."

Michael J. Phillips, a vice president with the industry's largest trade group, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, welcomed the new guidelines, saying member companies have always communicated extensively with the FDA. For a number of years, biotechnology companies, their critics and the FDA have wrestled behind the scenes over how the government should regulate plant varieties that are being genetically engineered.

The prospect of bioengineered food crops has caused controversy in the United States, and the idea has met strong consumer resistance in Europe. That has made the American food industry concerned about its export markets. In 2000, a genetically modified corn seed called Starlink mixed with other varieties of corn and forced several food companies to recall products. A worldwide drop in corn prices followed. Farmers and consumers sued Starlink creator Aventis SA and other companies involved with its development and distribution. The consumers said Starlink caused allergic reactions.

Mendelson said the new guidelines "are preparing us for the inevitable situation where more Starlinks happen. Essentially, the FDA is acknowledging that it will happen again."


Co-existence of GM and Non-GM Crops

- Klaus Ammann

Much has been written on the co-existence of GM and Non-GM crops. Since the present day GM crops do not pose any dramatic environmental threat, this debate is now more and more a crude mixture of marketing arguments and believe in specific agricultural strategies. It is also a good example on dissent and how it could be minimized or even eliminated. This needs the good will and active listening on both sides.

The latest report from Germany published today is another example on how facts on gene flow have been often overblown. If measured properly and in a realistic context, the case can obviously be solved pragmatically. This is the outcome of the German study published to-day. We still have to adapt co-existence rules to the specifities of the crop traits AND the topography, including here the specific structure and field size of real agriculture.

Anonymous (2004). Insights gained from the 2004 Test Crop Coexistence of Genetically Modified and Conventional Corn, InnoPlanta, pp 6 Nordharz/Brde.
see also more comments in:

Additional helpful links with my short comments:

An important preliminary report from Colorado on a field experiment with maize on co-existence: Again, the same story on the feasability of co-existence Byrne, P. & Fromherz, S. (2003) Can GM and Non-GM Crops Coexist? Setting a Precedent in Boulder County, Colorado, USA. Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment, 1, pp 258-261
http://www.botanischergarten.ch/Coexistence/Byrne-Fromherz-2003.pdf and www.world-food.net

The following three studies by Brooks G. and Barfood P. again demonstrate the feasability of co-existence under realistic conditions Brookes, G. & Barfood, P. (2004). Co-existence of GM and non GM crops: case study of maize grown in Spain, PG Economics Ltd, pp 13 Dorchester, UK1.

Brookes, G. & Barfoot, P. (2003). Co-existence of GM and non GM arable crops: case study of the UK, PG Economics Ltd pp 27 Dorchester, UK.

Brookes, G. (2004). Co-existence of GM and non GM crops: current experience and key principles, PG Economics Ltd pp 18 Dorchester, UK.

An editorial note from Joachim Schiemann on co-existence, with the same message: Co-existens can be organized Schiemann, J. (2003) Co-existence of genetically modified crops with conventional and organic farming. Environmental Biosafety Research, 2, 4, pp 213-214

Manuscript for the Hearings of the Danish Parliament on Co-existencde in Helsingoer, 2003, my personal opinion piece: Co-existence, a typical 'Wicked Problem' to be solved with discoursive methods of the Systems Approach (details of this approach see: http://www.botanischergarten.ch/Wiley/Factors-Discourse-Wiley.pdf

Ammann, K. (2003). Co-existence between organic, traditional and biotech agriculture Conflict resolution on the basis of discoursive processes and different kinds of knowledge, Klaus Ammann pp 6 Draft Text for the Hearings of the Danish Parliament on Co-existence in Helsingoer, November 2003 Bern.

The EU commissions recommendations on co-existence:

an refreshing farmers perspective on co-existence, an Eisenhower Fellowship Report:
Grant, D. (2003). A Farmers Observations on Genetically Modified Food in Europe and Recommendations to Enhance Acceptance pp 29.

And finally a bibliography from to-day on Co-existence: Bibliography on Coexistence (2004),
Electronic Source: Coexistence in Ecology and Agriculture (ed W.o. Science),

See previous debate contributions under:

And please sign up for The ABIC2004 Manifesto: Science helps to improve Agricultural Systems

- With my best personal regards, Klaus Ammann


The Malthusian Trap

- Benjamin Marks, November 23, 2004. Full commentary at http://www.mises.org/fullstory.aspx?Id=1675
Excerpts below... (Thanks to Sandeep for the alert)

"The principle that there is a perpetual tendency in the race of man to increase beyond the means of subsistence is usually attributed to Malthus. But he was really just the popularizer of a belief that was (and is) fairly widespread."

"Suicidal environmentalists believe that the human race is a burden on the environment. They claim that for the sake of dolphins, koalas and cockroaches, we should cease to exist. They believe that by existing, humans take up space that other life forms could have used. We also eat other organisms, which would not be eaten--by us--if we did not exist.

We can see how ridiculous this view is when we apply it to any other living thing. To some extent, all life takes up space or other resources that other organisms could have used. Why do environmentalists think that humans are not entitled to do things at the level of other organisms? So much for these environmentalists professed avoidance of treating humans differently than other organisms, of considering humans as part of the environment. This is the misanthropic muddle."

"The environmental movement, far from being "friends of the earth," does more to destroy the environment than most nonenvironmentalists. Those environmentalists who are upset at the fact that they are taking up space should go shoot themselves, and thereby practice what they preach and stop annoying the rest of us: a win-win situation.

"In conclusion, the Malthusian problem is one that economics solves. No wonder the Malthusians want to get rid of economics. Their rule only applies in noneconomic "societies." And, even then, only in its abridged Misesian form. The environmental movement of today is aiming toward living in a non-economic "society" by showing why it would be unpleasant to live in. It is staggering how a movement like this could amass such a following."


Re: Darwin, Lamarck and Marx

From: Paul Arnison

I greatly appreciated the comments that you published in AgBioview, most of us in the scientific community have only a very superficial appreciation for the history of science and the evolution of thought. It is important to be reminded that we all make judgements about people and events without knowledge of most of the facts.

I have often been perplexed by the fact that people who appear to have reasonable intelligence in some dimensions adhere to beliefs that are clearly and obviously false. In our North American society most adults would not admit to belief in Santa Claus but never the less go to church to worship a God that seems to have about as much credibility. I am not opposed to the positive and sustaining aspects of religions only just the tendency of religious people to try and make others see things their way. Same thing for fanatics like Ho.

It seems to me that religious beliefs and dogmas and other ideological positions that can be patently and obviously false, themselves behave as species subject to a sort of Darwinian evolution. Protestantism is a sub-species of Catholicism that can be traced to a single mutation, if you like, Henry the 8th. Religions and ideologies compete for space and resources just like species competing for space and resources and some become extinct and some radiate sub-species. Close physical contact increases competition as we have in the middle east today. I suspect more people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason. Natural selection for the most determined to kill off the others for reasons that make no sense.

With regard to your comments about Lamarck, Darwin and evolution it is important to realize the contributions made by individuals even if they are rightly or wrongly vilified by current general opinion. Your comments about not knowing the exact conditions that led to certain evolutionary changes is a very important point. Although Darwinian style "survival of the fittest based on random mutation " is a widely accepted theory today approaching a religion I find that most scientists really have a very limited understanding of what this means and how it actually works.

I believe that the limitation on understanding how evolution may actually take place results from an adherence to cause and effect. Your example of the giraffe with the long neck is a good example. Clearly today we can see the advantages for a giraffe of having long legs and a long neck in competing for a limited amount of vegetation but how the long neck was selected remains unknown. I doubt that it was just a mutation that was selected for because the individual in question was taller. This is a complex phenomenon, random mutation will not result in these sort of changes. I have another explanation which I will return to later. I believe that many important evolutionary changes have actually been more or less accidental or perhaps serendipitous is the right word and that neither "Darwinian or Lamarckian" evolution are really correct.

I used to teach genetics many years ago and would challenge students with what I termed tangential evolution. Consider for example a small fish. One evolutionary mutation that could be an advantage would be to become bigger, to become a big fish. We have transgenic fish now that are bigger and grow much faster than their non transgenic relatives because of a single gene introduction - more growth hormone. A single natural mutation could cause this and hence it is not hard to understand that animals could become bigger and we have ample evidence from the fossil record to show this is true. But there is a consequence of becoming bigger and this is to do with temperature. A bigger fish will be warmer inside and this additional warmth could be the greatest advantage rather than just being big.

Other examples of tangential evolution include dinosaurs or other ancestors of birds that had feathers for warmth. Feathers only became useful for flying later. Wings actually evolved form organs that were designed for temperature regulation as a survival mechanism and only by chance were useful for flying.

Returning to our friend the giraffe the evolution of the long neck could have resulted from the fact that female giraffes simple preferred tall sexual partners and thus over time giraffes become taller which then had the advantage that they could eat from the tops of trees and better see the lions coming. Factitious I know but there is a basis of this in our North American society where women prefer tall, dark and handsome men. The key component is tall actually, I know this as I am short, not so handsome and fair. I am sure I could have made a greater contribution to the local gene pool if I were tall. A preference for tall partners would be a better selection system over time for the giraffe than stretching its neck. In any event I digress.

The point of my correspondence was to say there are many of us out there who agree and are frustrated and angry because we are blocked from making progress by individuals such as Dr. Ho who negatively influence a gullible and poorly informed public. More importantly those of us in Science may be much less well informed than we think.

Kindest Regards, Paul G. Arnison, FAAR Biotechnology

Response by C Kameswara Rao, India '

1. In a population of giraffes, certainly the neck length is variable. If only those individuals with necks long enough to reach the foliage survived, and since length of the neck is also genetically determined, no matter if it is a quantitative trait, in course of time longer necks flourish to the gradual elimination of shorter ones. Longer necks also helped to keep the head high above the heat that radiated from the sand, thus reducing heat effects on the brain. This explanation is in line with natural selection. This also removes the implication of evolution driven by a conscious effort of the organism, which was thrust on Lamarckism inviting the harshest criticism. I only hope that some one would not pick this comment out of context.

2. Consanguineous marriages are unacceptable for the fear of deleterious double recessive traits resulting deformities in the children from such marriages. I believe that our ancestors too were aware of the risks involved. Consanguineous marriages are common in Andhra Pradesh and to some extent in Tamil Nadu, in India. I have not known of any serious consequences from them. A decade or so ago a study by the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, concluded that as at present such marriages pose no serious risks, for the reason that all the lethal and sublethal double recessive combinations were eliminated through the death of such individuals.

3. Most of conventional agriculture of some 10,000 years depended upon the conscious human selection of the best plant, best flowering head, best fruits and seeds and those with lesser and lesser toxic elements and more and more of nutritive potential. Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) noted that peas were toxic to human beings. One may laugh at this as now peas are widely consumed without any ill effects. But the point is that peas were probably toxic at that time and over the period we bred harmless varieties. We should not evaluate the past science divorced from its time and context.

4. We hardly realize that the popularity of Darwin's scientific contributions was greatly enhanced and protected by the elite of science and society of London of the time. Why do we say Darwinism, instead of saying Darwin-Wallace (or more appropriately Wallace-Darwin) theory or hypothesis? Wallace did not have the advantage of the friendship and support of the rich and influential Joseph Dalton Hooker, Charles Lyell and Tomas Huxley. Neither Lamarck had similar advantages.

5. The basic difficulty in constructing a comprehensive evolutionary history for plants or animals is that most of the evidence comes from contemporary taxa. Labelling some of them as primitive and some as advanced is something I could not reconcile with. It is not the species or their characters (like flower colour) that undergo evolutionary change, but it is the character states (white, yellow, pink, blue, etc.). I am uncomfortable in considering some of the character states as primitive and some advanced. During the course of evolution, there were repeated reversals in character states contributing to change. Some character states have certainly given adaptive advantages to the populations containing them. If species survived for a considerably long time, it was because they had character states that were suitable at the time. This comfortable situation changed with a change in the genetic or environmental factors. I prefer the terms ancestral and derived for character states (and so for the taxa), with the provision that a derived character state of a particular time would become ancestral state at a later time.

We require reliable fossil evidence to construct a complete and convincing phylogenies. Almost all of the fossil record is fragmentary, except in some rare situations. With a better hindsight, we have questioned many earlier evolutionary reconstructions largely based on fossil history. The history (some one described this as 'the story of the origin and evolution of horses') of horses once thought to be a complete piece of evidence is questioned now and many feel that this is only a collection of heterogenous fossils that have reached a similar combination of character states, from different starting points and through different evolutionary routes. The earlier concepts of the origin of the flowering plants are now questioned, though there is no alternative to replace the old theories. But the lack of an alternative is not the best of arguments to support them.

Palaeontologists (including palaeobotanists) use the concept of a 'Form genus' meaning an assemblage of morphologically and/or anatomically similar fossils, without implying that they are homologous and genetically related. The bulk of palaeontological evidence only suggests possibilities and does not decisively prove anything. Unfortunately, fertile imagination ruled the roost, providing very ingenious evolutionary sequences, rather than hard core evidence to support them.

6. An opinion that was in circulation in the late 1980s was that people who are inclined towards sudden changes as a vehicle of advancement (societal or biological) have Marxist psychology and those that favoured the concept of gradual change over a long period time were conservative and preferred the Darwinian concept. Now we know that evolution progressed by as many different ways as there are different means of realising the Almighty, if you believe in one. The synthetic theory of evolution, that accommodates both gradual and sudden changes and different evolutionary vehicles, is more rational. As a botanist I am aware of several plant species that have come into being through one or more of a variety of means of genetic change, such as mutation, hybridization, polyploidy, introgression, etc., some of these occurring simultaneously and some sequentially.

7. Marxism suffered severely in being misunderstood by over enthusiasts who did not bother about the means, and did not get the results either. Often converts were more fanatic than the proponents. The fall out is some 60 million deaths, by conservative estimates, and of course that much of exponential reduction in population.

8. My response to Dr Kalla's posting was rooted in the point that while comparing and drawing parallels, we should not do injustice to scientists of the past. Mae-Wan Ho does not qualify to be called a scientist, and much less to be equated with Lamarck or Karl Marx.

9. Coming back to the original point, most urgently biotechnology should be saved from the complacence of the biotechnologists and product developing companies and institutions.