Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : November 29, 2004
* Study Finds Benefits in GM Crops
* More Heat than Light Shed on GM Corn in Mexico
* Why So Few 'Peer-reviewed' Papers on GM Food Safety?
* Borlaug: Explain Biotech Benefits
* Genetically Engineered Food Is Hope for Millions
* Can the Planet Feed Us?
* Biotechnology Has Clear Advantages
* GM Plants for Your Health
* When Science is 'Pathological'
Study Finds Benefits in GM Crops
- Richard Black, BBC News, November, 29 2004 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4046427.stm
A major study of genetically modified crops in the UK has found no evidence that they harm the environment. The Bright project looked at varieties of sugar beet and winter oil-seed rape which had been engineered to make them tolerant of specific herbicides. The novel crops were compared with non-GM cereals grown in rotation.
The project concluded that the GM varieties, used in this way, did not deplete the soil of weed seeds needed by many birds and other wildlife.
The BBC has been given exclusive and early access to the findings of the Botanical and Rotational Implications of Genetically Modified Herbicide Tolerance (Bright) Link project. Their formal release will take place on Monday.
Bright was designed to mimic normal agricultural practice, and measure how these GM crops would perform when used in a typical crop rotation pattern over four years. Not only did the project find no evidence of seed depletion, it also pointed to potential benefits for farmers of growing the GM crops.
"What we have shown is that in the case of these two crops, there are ways of managing them which are quite practical, and farmers can deal with them quite readily," the study's scientific co-ordinator Dr Jeremy Sweet told BBC News. "There appear to be some management advantages in the flexibility of the herbicide usage; there could well be cost-benefit advantages, depending on the price of the herbicides and seeds when the crops are commercialised.
"So there do appear to be a number of reasons why farmers might be quite interested in growing these crops." However, there is little prospect of GM crops being introduced into the UK in the short-term.
Earlier this year another major trial, the Farm-Scale Evaluations or FSEs, found that two GM varieties, a sugar beet and a spring rape, were more damaging to biodiversity than conventional crops. There were fewer insect groups, such as bees and butterflies, recorded among the novel plants.
A GM maize, on the other hand, appeared to do better than its conventional cousin. Following the FSE results, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett announced that companies wishing to bring GM crops into the UK would have to go through a long approval process. Subsequently, Bayer CropScience, the only company with outstanding applications for government permission, withdrew those applications.
Nevertheless, Bright will help biotech companies and proponents of GM agriculture argue that the crops should not be banned on environmental grounds. The European Union has indicated that member countries will in the future have to base decisions on whether or not to permit GM agriculture on science rather than public opinion.
However, Emily Diamand, senior farming researcher with the anti-GM Friends of the Earth, was sceptical that Bright really had mimicked normal farming practice. Speaking before the findings were available, she told BBC News: "It was done at agricultural research centres, and real farmers never do things in the same way as they are done on research stations. "Its findings are only as useful as the questions it asks - there are so many other things to be considered with GM crops, such as the effect on the soil, gene transfer to other plants, and the social and health impact."
A UK government spokesman said of the Bright findings: "It's valuable research, and complements the Farm-Scale Evaluations. "It provides some valuable results and we'll ask Acre (the government's advisory panel on GM crops, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment) to evaluate it, and we'll take it from there."
More than half of Britons who took part in the "GM Nation" survey last year said GM crops should never be introduced in the UK under any circumstances.
More Heat than Light Shed on GM Corn in Mexico
- Kenneth Emmond, November 29, 2004 http://www.mexidata.info/id330.html
"Genetically modified (GM) corn in Mexico poses a potential threat that should be limited or stopped."
"Genetically modified corn is not likely to contaminate the Mexican countryside."
Each of these contradictory statements is part of the lead sentence of separate stories on the same NAFTA research report about potential effects of imported GM corn on Mexican production. One is from The Associated Press, the other from The Washington Post.
Both go on to say the report urges caution and more research, but the difference in approach from two respected news agencies illustrates the complexity of the issue. It's hard for us non-scientists to filter out the facts from the white noise.
Should Mexico import GM corn? Should Mexican farmers get on the worldwide bandwagon and start using GM corn, or GM cotton, or GM soybeans, or GM rice?
Ranged on one side are the producers and sellers, led by Monsanto. Our reasons for being skeptical of their conclusions are obvious: they want to sell GM seeds.
Still, they are right when they say genetic engineering is solving some thorny problems. By tweaking plant genes scientists are creating a quantum leap in world food production capacity, reducing the need for pesticides and herbicides, adding nutritional value to crops, and extending crop-growing areas with strains tolerant to cold, drought, and salinity. They are accelerating the solving of problems plant breeders have been working on for thousands of years through gene selection.
On the other side, focusing on the dangers, are the environmental activists, led in this case by Greenpeace. They describe real concerns: the potential contamination of gene pools, the possibility of life-threatening allergies to some consumers, and fears that this new branch of agriculture lacks adequate testing and regulation.
In some quarters it's heresy to question the motives of groups like Greenpeace, but like the world's Monsantos, they have extracurricular agendas too. They perform a useful service alerting non-specialists to environmental dangers, but they are not white knights out to save the environment as they like to be depicted.
Patrick Moore, a disaffected co-founder of Greenpeace, left when he concluded that "the environmental movement has been hijacked by political activists who are using green rhetoric to cloak agendas that have more to do with anti-corporatism and class warfare than with ecology or the environment." He says its tactics are "not just politics but propaganda, misinformation, and sensationalism."
Extreme? Perhaps, but when was the last time you heard Greenpeace reporting good news? We know what it's against, but what useful alternatives does it offer?
Among its dire predictions about the consequences of introducing GM plants there's nary a word of praise about the reduced use of insecticides and pesticides. It's been decrying these ever since farmers increased usage after adopting zero tillage techniques to control another environmental danger - soil erosion. No photos exist of activists congratulating farmers for finding a way to control topsoil losses.
Nor do activists pause for breath when they're wrong. One of their most eminent practitioners, Paul Elrich, predicted in the 1960s that within 20 years, 60 million Americans would starve to death. Today, 60 million Americans are fighting obesity but Elrich is still doing the rounds of talk shows.
Had these activists been around in 1900, we might still be carrying out environmental impact studies on the Panama Canal! The activists worry about agribusiness profits, but so what if Monsanto makes billions of dollars if it solves billion-dollar problems?
Getting back to genetically modified corn in Mexico, a leading concern is that imported GM corn could contaminate non-GM strains. This is important because Mexico is the world's leading gene repository of corn. That said, the thousands of poor Mexicans struggling to produce enough to eat on tiny farms or rooting for leftovers in a McDonald's garbage dump can be forgiven for not wanting to wait.
Meanwhile, wisely or unwisely, Mexico's competitors are adopting GM agriculture with a vengeance: China, India, and now Brazil. Sooner or later Mexico will be tempted to get on board. Last week Mexico's Congress was about to finalize a bill to regulate GM research and production, but with the NAFTA report it decided to give itself a few more weeks to think it over.
That is wise: with all the heat surrounding the issue and so little light, it's little wonder that Mexico's decision-makers have a hard time getting it right.
Kenneth Emmond is a freelance journalist, economist, and market consultant who has lived in Mexico since 1995.
Why So Few 'Peer-reviewed' Papers on GM Food Safety?
- Chris Preston
I think Bob MacGregor stated the case most succinctly recently. If a particular practice is safe you are going to find few peer-reviewed papers on the subject because of the difficulty of publishing negative results. I have only re-opened this old canker because Dr. Arpad Pusztai has decided to enter the discussion. According to Pusztai in an article published by GM Watch, in my comments on peer review I have failed in my scientific objectivity. Apparently, I am engaging in PR on behalf of the biotech industry and a host of other sins. So to save myself from future lambastings over my objectivity, I decided to do my own research and not rely so heavily on the work of others.
Triazine-tolerant canola (TT canola) is the technology of choice for Australian canola growers. Triazine tolerant canola was developed in Canada from a cross between standard canola and a triazine-resistant weedy relative in the 1980s. It was grown commercially over a small area of Canada, never really exceeding 100,000 ha, but disappeared in the 1990s with the advent of the Pursuit Smart and then Roundup Ready technologies. In Australia it continues to be grown over more than half a million hectares every year and we sell more than a quarter of a million tons of the stuff to Japan (and also sold to Europe, Bangladesh and Pakistan). Despite its history of being developed from a cross with a weed, there is little public concern regarding the food safety of TT canola. This is in stark comparison with the concern among certain sections of the community with food safety of genetically-engineered (GE) canolas.
Many NGO groups opposed to GE crops claim the lack of papers on their safety in the peer-reviewed scientific literature is cause for concern. This is used in some circles to claim that GE crops are unsafe. So how many studies are there in the peer-reviewed scientific literature on the safety of TT canola?
I searched 4 electronic databases, three of which I have access to records from 1980 or earlier. These were PubMed (Medline), Current Contents, CAB Abstracts and the Citation Index in the Web of Science. My search strategy was to look for records of papers involving feeding studies of TT canola. My search words were (canola or rapeseed) and triazine and (rat or mouse) on the principle that the rat or mouse would be the major test animals. I ran a second series of searches where I substituted the animals with food and a few searches on PubMed where I left terms out to get a larger number of hits.
One hit occurred involving a feeding study of TT Canola to rats. Mathew R, Kacew S, Khan SU 1998 Bioavailability in rats of bound pesticide residues from tolerant or susceptible varieties of soybean and canola treated with metribuzin or atrazine. Chemosphere 36:589-596. Unfortunately, this study only looked at the bioavailability of the herbicide residues and their persistence in the test animals. However, the study did report greater bioavailability of herbicide residues in TT canola compared to conventional canola, although both had very little atrazine.
It seems that despite almost 20 years of commercial production, albeit over a limited area, there are no studies on the food safety of TT canola in the peer-reviewed literature. The one study found did not examine the impact of TT canola in the diet on growth, physiology or biochemsitry of the test animals. It was solely focussed on herbicide residues, their intake and fate within rats.
Does the accumulation of a large number of articles in the peer-reviewed scientific literature provide any guarantee of food safety. Probably not. In fact, the opposite would seem to be true. A large number of publications on a topic generally suggests continuing concern about the topic rather than the opposite. In hindsight, TT canola may not have been thebest choice of a topic to examine peer-reviewed feeding studies. An incomplete interrogation of the PubMed data base this morning netted 28 peer-reviewed studies (not including studies in Chinese and Russian) where GE food was fed to mammals and measurements of weight gain and other parameters noted, plus two studies on the allergenicity of GM crops. More on that in my next paper.
Cheers to All
Dr. Christopher Preston
The Arpad Pusztai honorary 'PR Flunkey for the Biotech Industry'
Borlaug: Explain Biotech Benefits
- Forrest Laws, Editorial, Delta Farm Press, November 26, 2004
One of the world's leading scientists says biotechnology could be the key to feeding a rapidly growing world population. But only if stakeholders do a better job of explaining the benefits of transgenic crops.
Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and World Food Prize founder, says biotechnology can contribute to the 21st century challenge of feeding a world population of 10 billion - if proponents can help the rest of the world understand the need for the breakthrough technology.
Borlaug was the keynote speaker at the International Biotech Conference, a gathering of 75 top policymakers from 35 nations in Des Moines, Iowa. Attendees had an opportunity to do what most Americans never do - witness harvest in full swing in Iowa and see first-hand biotech and non-biotech corn production and handling.
"With available information and research, we can feed 10 billion people. But if we are going to be able to use the technology, we must first end the debate," Borlaug said, reminding the audience, "You can't win by being nice guys."
Borlaug is known as a man who has "saved more lives than any person who has ever lived" because of his "Green Revolution" in wheat development that helped Pakistan, India and a number of other countries improve their food production in the 1960s.
Since then, he has continued working tirelessly in saving millions from starvation and suffering, mainly through the World Food Prize, which he established in 1976. If not for biotechnology, the roadblocks to feeding the world are downright scary, according to Borlaug. For instance, he noted, the world food supply must be doubled over the next 30 years. "However, 80 percent of future growth in food production must come from lands already in production," he said, adding there is limited potential for land expansions except in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Africa itself, with 200 million hungry people, according to Borlaug, presents the greatest concern. "Africa faces declining soil fertility and little application of improved technology, rural isolation because of a lack of roads and transportation and poor education and health services," he said.
Before the technology to increase yields, battle pests, disease and weeds, resist drought and adverse weather conditions and improve nutritional quality is put to use on a worldwide basis, Borlaug said, the debate over "GMOs" needs to end. He explained that the term GMO, or genetically modified organism, is a misnomer that leftwing environmental groups use to create unwarranted fear and skepticism.
"After all, Mother Nature is a biotechnologist," he said, describing the slow, natural evolution of wheat from its early varieties to the bread wheat that is used today. Before issuing his call to action to technology providers and producers to better communicate the benefits of biotechnology, Borlaug said he has his own personal "biotechnology dreams."
"I have a dream that someday we will be able to transfer rice's immunity to rusts to other cereals such as wheat, maize, sorghum and barley," he said. "I also envision the transfer of bread wheat's proteins for making superior dough for leavened bread to other cereals, especially rice and maize."
Genetically Engineered Food Is Hope for Millions
- Jim Nicholson, Rocky Mountain News, November 28, 2004. Excerpt below..
The number of people who die of starvation dwarfs the numbers who die from terrorism. Last year, 625 people died from terrorism, 10 million from starvation. Every five seconds someone dies for lack of food; 25,000 people will die of hunger today. So just as we must explore every means to defeat terrorism, we must also explore every means to meet the most basic need of every human being - food.
As the largest provider of food aid in the world, the United States is just as committed to the struggle to feed the hungry as it is to the struggle against terrorism. But we want to do more than provide handouts. We want countries to be able to feed themselves.
Full commentary at
Can the Planet Feed Us?
- Alex Kirby, BBC News, November24, 2004 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4038205.stm
As part of Planet Under Pressure, a BBC News series looking at some of the biggest environmental problems facing humanity, Alex Kirby explores the challenge of feeding the world without destroying the planet.
More of us are eating more and better than ever before. World cereal consumption has more than doubled since 1970, and meat consumption has tripled since 1961. The global fish catch grew more than six times from 1950 to 1997.
None of this happened by magic, though, but only by giving Nature a massive helping hand. The World Resources Institute said in 1999 that half of all the commercial fertiliser ever produced had been applied since 1984.
So one question is whether the world can go on increasing its harvests at this rate - or even faster, to cater as well for the extra 75 million people born annually.
Our recent achievements are impressive - while global population doubled to 6 billion people in the 40 years from 1960, global food production more than kept up. The proportion of malnourished people fell in the three decades to the mid-1990s from 37% to 18%. But we may not be able to go on at this rate.
For a start, much of the world's best cropland is already in use, and farmers are having to turn to increasingly marginal land. And the good land is often taking a battering - soil degradation has already reduced global agricultural productivity by 13% in the last half-century. Many of the pesticides on which the crop increases have depended are losing their effectiveness, as the pests acquire more resistance.
A key constraint is water. The 17% of cropland that is irrigated produces an estimated 30-40% of all crops, but in many countries there will be progressively less water available for agriculture. Many of these are poor countries, where irrigation can boost crop yields by up to 400%. There are ways to improve irrigation and to use water more effectively, but it's not clear these can bridge the gap.
Biotechnology, in principle, may offer the world a second Green Revolution, for example by producing drought-resistant plants or varieties that withstand pest attacks. But it arouses deep unease, not least because of fears it may erode the genetic resources in thousands of traditional varieties grown in small communities across the world.
Nobody knows what the probable impacts of climate change will be on food supplies. Modest temperature increases may actually benefit rich temperate countries, but make harvests even more precarious across much of the tropics.
Too little space
Another question concerns the huge cost to other forms of life of all the progress we've made in securing our own food supply. The amount of nitrogen available for uptake by plants is much higher than the natural level, and has more than doubled since the 1940s.
The excess comes from fertilisers running off farmland, from livestock manure, and from other human activities. It is changing the composition of species in ecosystems, reducing soil fertility, depleting the ozone layer, intensifying climate change, and creating dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and other near-coastal seas.
The sheer amount of the Earth we need to produce our food is having an enormous impact. Globally, we have taken over about 26% of the planet's land area (roughly 3.3 billion hectares) for cropland and pasture, replacing a third of temperate and tropical forests and a quarter of natural grasslands.
Another 0.5 billion ha has gone for urban and built-up areas. Habitat loss from the conversion of natural ecosystems is the main reason why other species are being pushed closer to the brink of extinction. Food security comes at a high price. In any case, it is a security many can only envy.
At the moment we are not on course to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving world hunger by 2015. Although the proportion of hungry people is coming down, population increase means the actual number continues to rise.
In the 1990s global poverty fell by 20%, but the number of hungry people rose by 18 million. In 2003, 842 million people did not have enough to eat, a third of them in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Hunger and malnutrition killed 10 million people a year, 25,000 a day - one life extinguished every five seconds. The world does produce enough to feed everyone. But the food is often in the wrong place, or unaffordable, or can't be stored long enough. So making sure everyone has enough to eat is more about politics than science.
But whether we can go on eating the sort of diet we've grown used to in developed countries is far from clear. Much of it travels a long way to reach us, with the transport costs adding hugely to the "embodied energy" it contains. There's a lot to be said for eating local, seasonal food where we can.
And meat usually demands far more than grain - water, land, grain itself (34% of world grain supplies are fed to livestock reared for meat). Yet, worldwide, the richer we grow the more we turn to meat.
Something's got to give - and not only our waistbands.
Biotechnology Has Clear Advantages
- Western Daily Press, November 23, 2004
On my regular visits to Devon, I am almost always pleased to read your newspaper, which in many ways is more informative and better written than many national publications. However, I invariably detect a considerable degree of antipathy towards the subject of agricultural crop biotechnology, and more specifically towards GM crops, both from your readers and your reporters. This is something that those of us who work in this field find disturbing, particularly as it seems to be based on misinformation spread by various pressure groups, which for political and philosophical reasons have decided they do not want to take advantage of the technology.
Readers might be interested in a report published by the National Center for Food & Agricultural Policy on The Impacts on US Agriculture of Biotechnology-Derived Crops Planted in 2003, in the USA.
The key findings of the report are that during 2003 US farmers continued to plant increasing acreages of six biotechnology derived crops; canola [oilseed rape], maize, cotton, papaya, soybean and squash. Three new traits were introduced for maize and cotton and this brought the number of biotechnology-derived varieties to eleven compared with eight in 2001.
Case studies showed that crop yields increased by 5.3 billion lbs and saved growers 1.5 billion by lowering production costs and reduced pesticide use by 46.4 million lbs. Compared with 2001, this is a 41 per cent increase in yield gain, 25 per cent reduction in production costs and a 27 per cent higher economic return. Details can be found at http://www.ncfap.org .
At the Exeter Science Festival Professor David Cove, of Leeds University explained at great length why the many sincerely held objections to this technology were based on false information and incorrect assumptions; those who were not there can visit http://www.cropgen.org , the CropGen website, where a small group of us (including Prof. Cove) who believe this technology has much to offer, particularly in poorer areas of the world, make our case.
The overwhelming weight of evidence supports the introduction of varieties with individual crop traits (after they have been thoroughly checked), so we may all benefit from this advantageous and yet benign technology. In my field of crop science, should I wish to pursue a career in this area of plant science, people like me will almost certainly be obliged to do so outside the UK because no sponsor will provide funding for research. The consequence is lthat British agriculture will fall further behind our competitors, and research that could benefit us all will not be carried out.
- J A Harrington, Optima Excel Ltd, Brecon
GM Plants for Your Health
- Holger Breithaupt, EMBO Reports, November 25, 2004; Via checkbiotech.org
The acceptance of GM crops in Europe might grow as soon as the first products to offer direct benefits for consumer health become available
When will agricultural biotechnologies, such as genetically modified (GM) crops, reach Europe? This was the main question at the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC)--the largest of its kind--that took place in September this year in Cologne, Germany. Given that the ABIC was accompanied by a parallel conference organized by critics of GM crops and foods, this is an appropriate question. Most of the European Union (EU) member states have not yet approved the GM crops that are used widely and safely elsewhere in the world. Moreover, although the EU has finally lifted its moratorium on GM crops, and has passed new regulations for growing and marketing GM foods, national politics, legislation and ideological views about consumer and environmental protection have further hampered their use.
European consumers remain wary of agricultural biotechnology and its products, as they do not see any direct benefits from GM crops and are, therefore, understandably reluctant to accept them. But it is only a matter of time before GM foods arrive on supermarket shelves across Europe, predicts Ashley O'Sullivan, President and CEO of Ag-West Bio Inc. (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada). "The reality for legislation to regulate agricultural biotechnology is that the train has left the station and there is no way of going back," he added.
But to convince the cautious European public, agricultural biotechnology still has to show that it can do more than increase the returns to farmers, and offer products that directly benefit consumers. The next wave of GM plants, which are currently being developed and tested in academic and industry laboratories around the world, including Europe, may soon do this. A range of new GM crops in the research pipeline will offer direct benefits to consumers and environmental health, and could therefore change the public perception of this technology and, accordingly, the political and legal situation in Europe.
A look at the global picture shows that the EU is still standing at the sidelines when it comes to the commercial use of GM crops, although its academic and industrial plant scientists remain at the forefront of this research. Worldwide, farmers in 18 countries grow GM crops on a total of 67.7 million hectares. In Europe, only farmers in Spain and Germany grow pest-resistant GM maize. The UK recently approved a herbicide-tolerant maize after extensive risk assessment showed that it benefits the environment and wildlife, but its manufacturer, Bayer CropScience (Monheim, Germany), later withdrew the crop, claiming that the conditions imposed by the British Government on its growth had left it economically unviable.
This reluctance to grow GM crops is surely due to ideological views, political and public reactions to various food scandals in Europe--such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), foot and mouth disease, and acrylamide in fried foods--and pressure from non-governmental organizations. But it is also a result of limited options. "Six countries, four crops, two traits. That's what it is at the moment," said Bernward Garthoff of Bayer CropScience. So far, only GM maize, canola, soy and cotton have been approved worldwide, and only two traits are subject to genetic modification: herbicide tolerance and pest resistance through the introduction of the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin gene.
Moreover, just six countries--the USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, China and South Africa--account for more than 99% of the global market in GM crops, which was estimated to be worth between US$4.5 and 4.75 billion in 2003. "We have here a case of 'invented in Europe' and 'exploited in the rest of the world'," said Manuel Hallen from the European Commission (EC) Directorate General of Research (Brussels, Belgium).
GM crops have already shown benefits for farmers and the environment, as O'Sullivan illustrated by citing data from Canada on the growth of herbicide-resistant canola. The switch from conventionally bred to GM herbicide-tolerant canola increased the yield by 10%, reduced herbicide use by 40% (approximately 6,000 tonnes) and reduced fuel use because the farmers needed to spray less often. Canadian agriculture saved a total of C$464 million by growing GM canola, according to O'Sullivan.
Elsewhere, Argentina reaped massive benefits from GM soybeans, as well as insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant maize, cotton and canola, as Esteban Hopp from the National Institute of Agricultural Technology in Buenos Aires, Argentina, pointed out. The use of GM crops allows farmers to significantly reduce their costs, which has made the country one of the leading exporters of soy and soy products. During the financial crisis in Argentina in 2002, the agricultural sector continued to expand and to employ more people. Furthermore, food donations from Argentinian farmers helped to ease food shortages in major cities.
Similarly, Florence Wambugu, founder and CEO of Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International (based in Nairobi, Kenya), and Jocelyn Webster, Executive Director of AfricaBio (a biotechnology stakeholder association in Cape Town, South Africa), have described how modern seed technologies, including GM crops, have helped small-scale African farmers to make a living. "The seed became the delivery of technology for farmers that cannot be reached by Western aid," Wambugu said about programmes to supply African villages with pest-resistant high-yield plants. For these farmers, it does not matter whether the seed comes from conventional breeding or GM. "We can talk about GM technology, hybrid or tissue culture and all that, [but] we must do more to actually reach out to the poor," she said. "The technology has potential but there is a need to move beyond the current four crops."
These arguments will do little, however, to convince farmers, food marketers and consumers in Europe. Without tangible benefits, consumers will not buy GM foods and food marketers will not put them on supermarket shelves. Moreover, European farmers, who are pampered by heavy subsidies, do not have to grow GM crops to stay competitive. To achieve acceptance, products that offer direct health and nutritional benefits for European consumers are needed. This has not escaped the attention of agricultural businesses.
Companies such as Monsanto (St. Louis, MO, USA), DuPont Agriculture & Nutrition (Wilmington, DE, USA) and Bayer CropScience are investing heavily in what Hans Kast, President and CEO of BASF Plant Science GmbH (Limbergerhof, Germany), has called the second revolution in agricultural biotechnology: GM foods with health benefits. These products would gracefully merge agricultural biotechnology with the rapidly growing market for functional foods (with additives such as vitamins or micronutrients) and nutraceuticals (compounds isolated from foods or plants with claimed health benefits). Given that many consumers who are wary of GM foods nevertheless eat nutraceuticals or functional foods, despite the often unfounded or unproven health claims, functional GM foods might overcome the widespread rejection of agricultural biotechnology by offering proven health benefits—unlike functional foods and nutraceuticals that are sold over the counter, GM plants are subject to rigorous safety and efficacy tests.
Obvious candidates for incorporation into GM foods are omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are particularly important for prenatal and early childhood neuronal development. These compounds are primarily found in cold-water fish, such as salmon, tuna, halibut and herring. Given the declining state of marine fisheries and concerns over mercury contamination, GM plants that supply omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids would not only be beneficial for consumers, but could also ease the pressure on fish stocks.
Bayer CropScience is collaborating with the research group of Ernst Heinz at the University of Hamburg, Germany, to develop flax plants that produce omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. At the ABIC, Petra Cirpus from Bayer CropScience presented preliminary results from transgenic flax equipped with algal genes, which can produce omega-3, omega-4 and other polyunsaturated fatty acids. Once this GM flax is tested and approved, oils from this plant will probably do more to convince consumers of the benefits of biotechnology than any public-education campaign.
Similarly, Steve Padgette, Vice President of Biotechnology at Monsanto, and Ganesh Kishore, Vice President of Technology at DuPont Agriculture & Nutrition, presented information on the efforts of their respective companies to develop foods with health benefits for consumers. Both companies are focusing on GM soy and canola to produce omega-3 fatty acids, although other fatty acids and proteins are also equally pursued. One goal is to create soy and canola with longer-chain unsaturated fatty acids, which would lower the levels of low-density lipids and cholesterol in the blood, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease.
Other efforts aim to create vegetables that contain larger amounts of compounds that protect against cancer, such as lycopene in tomatoes, or to engineer basic staple crops, such as rice, wheat and maize, that can produce larger amounts of vitamins and micronutrients. For example, academic researchers at the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Tjele, Denmark, have already developed such plant varieties for developing countries, where many people rely on only one food staple and can rarely afford vegetables, meat or fish. This research is not just focused on GM plants, but, as Padgette pointed out, "We can deliver new traits for the customer through conventional breeding and we certainly do that, but there are certain traits where you can't do that."
This change in the marketing of GM crops might serve to sway public opinion. Marcus Girnau from the German Federation of Food Law and Food Science, an umbrella organization for the German food industry, cited an online survey from Dialego, a market research company based in Aachen, Germany, along with an article from the German financial newspaper Handelsblatt from July this year, which found that Germans might, in time, accept GM foods if they believe them to have health advantages. Although 38.5% of the respondents would not buy foods with GM content at present and more than 80% said they wanted GM food to be labelled as such, more than 30% would choose GM fruits if they tasted better than normal ones and more than 65% would be willing to buy a yoghurt with GM content if it protected them from colon cancer. Girnau concluded that even in Germany, which is one of the strongholds of the anti-GM movement, opposition might eventually fade. Another survey in the UK showed that 37.8% of respondents would have no preference between non-GM and GM breakfast cereals (Moon & Balasubramanian, 2003). As Jocelyn Webster put it, "If we had an apple that contained Viagra® or an apple that [suppressed] appetite, we wouldn't have these problems."
GM plants may not only help to maintain or improve health, but there is also an as yet untapped potential for producing pharmaceuticals of all kinds, as Julian Ma from St. George's Hospital Medical School at the University of London, UK, has shown. So far, the production of pharmaceutical compounds, most notably proteins and peptides, has been largely done in GM bacteria or mammalian cell cultures, which the public seem to support fully. However, plants have several advantages over bacterial systems; in particular, they have a full complement of organelles that can produce even the most complex mammalian proteins. Ma and colleagues used plant cells to produce correctly folded active immunoglobulins that were biologically active in mice, and it would take only a small step to apply this same procedure to human proteins.
Plants also have another important advantage over other production methods: "Production on a globally relevant scale might only be achievable with plants," said Ma, citing a vaccine against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as an example. If it were available, the global need for such a vaccine would be so overwhelming that the only option to meet the demand would be to produce it in fields of GM plants. Public resistance against GM plants would probably fade rapidly in the light of such an enormous benefit for public health.
The EC wants to move past the debate about GM crops to reap the economic and scientific benefits of plant research. That was the rationale behind lifting the moratorium on GM plants and issuing the Directive on GM labelling (EC, 2003), which requires that all foods that contain more than trace amounts of GM content must be labelled as such. This would not only help to overcome the suspicions of consumers, but would also finally give food producers and marketers in Europe clear regulations and a legal framework under which they could market GM foods, as Girnau pointed out. "We have to have a freedom of choice not only on the consumers' side but also on the producers' side," he said.
However, the translation of the EC Directive into national law has been disappointing, with many countries dragging their feet or passing additional legislation with the aim of preventing the growth of GM crops. The German Federal Ministry of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture, for instance, has drafted an addendum to the law on genetic engineering that would allow the deliberate release of GM crops in Germany but would impose such strict regulations that it would be almost impossible to grow them. This would have serious consequences not only for agriculture but also for field trials of experimental crops that were developed by German researchers, as the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the main scientific funding agency in Germany, commented in a harsh rebuke of the draft (DFG, 2004).
Whether GM crops are grown in Europe as part of the normal diet, as functional foods or to produce therapeutics, the lessons to be learned from the accompanying debates are clear to regulators and business alike. "Public concerns and perceptions cannot be ignored in a democratic Europe," Hallen said. Girnau also warned of repeating some of the early errors that were made in the debate over GM crops: "Consumer trust is indispensable in the marketing of GM food, and basically of all food." This message also seems to have been heard by industry. Harvey Glick, Director of Scientific Affairs at Monsanto, explained that his company now considers stakeholder concerns to be as important as shareholder expectations, and supports outreach programmes with stakeholders in the GM crop debate.
Others are also willing to move ahead, while meeting public concerns along the way and adhering to EU regulations. "The EU has passed the most strict legal framework in the world," Kast said about the requirements on labelling, GM content thresholds and traceability, and "we in industry need to accept this." But he also warned the governments of EU member states not to squander the potential opportunities by further postponing the introduction of GM crops. "If we fail to implement these EU rules and regulations, there will be consequences," he said. "No innovation, no new products and EU farmers and EU industry will lose global competitiveness."
DFG (2004) Statement by the DFG on the Draft Legislation to Reform the Law on Genetic Engineering. http://www.dfg.de/aktuelles_presse/reden_stellungnahmen/2004
EC (2003) Regulation (EC) No. 1829/2003 of the European Parliament and of the Council on Genetically Modified Food and Feed. Brussels, Belgium: European Commission
James C (2003) Preview: Global Status of Commercialized Transgenic Crops: 2003. ISAAA Briefs No. 30. Ithaca, NY, USA: ISAAA
Moon W, Balasubramanian SK (2003) Is there a market for genetically modified foods in Europe? Contingent valuation of GM and non-GM breakfast cereals in the United Kingdom. AgBioForum 6: 128–133
When Science is 'Pathological'
- Henry I. Miller, TCS, Nov. 29, 2004. Full commentary at
Chemistry Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir related in a landmark 1953 speech his visit to the laboratory of J.B. Rhine at Duke University where Rhine was claiming results of ESP experiments that could not be predicted by chance, and which he ascribed to psychic phenomena. Langmuir discovered that Rhine was only selectively counting the data in his experiments, omitting the results from those he believed were guessing in order to humiliate him. The evidence? Rhine felt that some of the scores were too low to have occurred by chance, and that it would, therefore, actually be misleading to include them.
Langmuir dubbed this deviation from the principles of the scientific method "pathological science," the "science of things that aren't so."
This sort of chicanery is increasingly common among certain self-styled public interest groups, who are less devoted to fudging data to get the right answer than to grossly misrepresenting the results in order to achieve some hidden agenda. Most often, that agenda is not protection of public health or the environment, but intractable opposition to, and obstruction of, whatever research, product or technology the activists happen to dislike. Often, the targets of activists' opprobrium are socially beneficial and highly cost-effective products or processes.
Activists often try to stigmatize whatever they dislike via guilt by association with greedy or irresponsible "corporate interests." But for several reasons, including the importance of corporate branding, avoidance of liability and a desire to succeed in the marketplace, industrial research most often adheres to high professional and legal standards, including peer-review. When it doesn't, the scientific method and market forces collaborate to ensure that, ultimately, chicanery and dishonesty are exposed and punished.
By contrast, activist-funded "research" is commonly held to a far lower standard. Its claims are invariably promoted by alarmist press releases and reported by the media, but seldom are they independently peer-reviewed or published in scientific journals. Sadly, policy makers, the media and the public come to accept this pathological science as credible, especially after it is repeated again and again.
Examples have become more frequent as special interests promote health scares as a way to support litigation. The distortion of science has given rise to flawed policies and regulations, interference with research that offers potential benefits to society, increased public health risks, unwarranted scares, frivolous lawsuits, and higher costs of R&D.
The new biotechnology, or gene-splicing, is a favorite target of anti-technology groups such as the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, Greenpeace and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Lately, they claim that conventional crops have been "contaminated" by the finding of minuscule amounts of DNA from "genetically modified" - by which they mean gene-spliced -- varieties. Their methodology is flawed, but even if the claims were accurate, they should elicit from the public nothing more than a collective yawn. Genetic modification is not new. Virtually all of the 200 major crops in the United States have been genetically improved, or modified, in some way. Plant breeders -- not "nature" - gave us seedless grapes and watermelons, the tangelo (a tangerine-grapefruit hybrid), the "canola" variety of rapeseed, and fungus-resistant strawberries. In North American and European diets, only fish and wild game, berries and mushrooms may be said not to have been genetically engineered in some fashion.
North Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients, with not a single untoward reaction. In fact, when conventional and gene-spliced seed materials are mixed, arguably the former should be thought of as contaminating the latter.
What makes false alarms hard to expose is the virtual impossibility of demonstrating the absolute safety of any activity or product: There is always the possibility that we haven't yet gotten to the nth hypothetical risk or to the nth dose or the nth year of exposure, when the risk will finally be demonstrated. It is logically impossible to prove a negative, and all activities pose some nonzero risk of adverse effects.
Pathological science may confuse not only the public but also policy makers, who may themselves be scientifically challenged. Donald Kennedy, president emeritus of Stanford University and former FDA commissioner, chides bureaucrats: "Frequently decision-makers give up the difficult task of finding out where the weight of scientific opinion lies, and instead attach equal value to each side in an effort to approximate fairness. In this way extraordinary opinions . . . are promoted to a form of respectability that approaches equal status."
This kind of undeserved moral equivalence frequently compromises governmental decision-making and has given rise to unscientific and inconsistent regulation of pesticides, biotechnology applied to agriculture, silicone breast implants, herbal dietary supplements, and innumerable other products and technologies.
No one should mistake activists' misdemeanors for naive exuberance or excessive zeal in a good cause. Their motives are self-serving and their tactics callous. People who understand these issues need to do a better job of educating the large segment of the public that is uninformed -- not only about the science, but also about the sophistry of those who would abuse it.
Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and Competitive Enterprise Institute and a former FDA official, is the author, most recently, of, "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution."