Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: April 15, 2005
* Greenpeace Report on China's GM Rice Questioned
* Allergic Reactions
* Friends of the Corporate Earth
* Convicted Farmer Makes Unlikely Hero for Rural Lifestyle
* Austrlia: Brain Drain Alarm
* GM Crops and Biodiversity: What's the Fuss All About
* India: End to Monsanto's Bt Cotton Monopoly?
* Biotechnology for the Caribbean: Opportunities
* Have We Reverted to Worship of Nature Over Science in Agriculture?
* Response to Chris Preston - GM Crop Unscientific?
* Peer Review: March of Unreason Reviewed Again
Greenpeace Report on China's GM Rice Questioned
- China View, Apr.15,2005
BEIJING -- Agricultural experts and Chinese authorities denied Greenpeace accusations of "out of control" genetically modified (GM) rice and cast doubt on its testing procedures. At a news conference in Hong Kong yesterday, Greenpeace, an international environmental group, released its findings on GM crops in China.
During February and April, the group carried out tests on rice bought in Central China's Hubei Province. Of the 25 samples taken, 19 contained GM rice, modified to contain a bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), that produces a toxin that kills pests, said Liu Haiying, programme director for Greenpeace in Beijing. Samples collected in Hubei Province were sent to a gene testing laboratory in Germany, she said. Greenpeace GE (genetic engineering) campaigner Sze Pang Cheung also said yesterday: "The GE industry is out of control."
Zhu Xinquan, chairman of the Chinese Society of Agro-Biotechnology, said: "I cannot agree with the findings of the report by Greenpeace and I am wondering if the tests conducted by the organization are scientific or not."
An official with the Office of Genetically Modified Organism Safety under the ministry of Agriculture said: "We have not seen the concrete testing reports. Moreover, the testing of GM rice seeds should be based on China's technical standards." "We've asked the agricultural department in Hubei Province to conduct on-the-spot examination on this issue," said the official who declined to be identified.
Greenpeace estimated that 950 to 1,200 tons of GM rice were grown in China last year from a planted area of 1,900 to 2,400 mu (127 to 160 hectares). This year the planted area will grow to 20,000 to 25,000 mu (1,333 to 1,667 hectares) with an output of 10,000 to 12,000 tons, the Greenpeace said.
The Chinese official admitted that field trials of GE rice are being conducted in Hubei as well in some other places. But the official said the plantation acreage is limited to 30 mu (2 hectares).
Rice strains modified to contain Bt have been planted in China on a trial basis for several years as part of research conducted by Huazhong Agricultural University. Zhu said "regulations on GM food have been in force for several years in China and the nation is doing more research before approving the commercialization of GM rice. "A cautious attitude must be taken on the safety of GM rice since it is a highly important food for Chinese people."
The ministry official also added: "Sales of GM rice seeds are strictly prohibited and there are GM safety offices at province level to conduct regular checks on it."
- V. Moses, Guardian (UK), April 15, 2005
Your report on the discovery by Greenpeace of illegal rice strains in China (Unlicensed GM rice may be in UK food chain, April 14) makes no mention of reasons for doubting the claims.
Moreover, it trotted out several old saws. The poison genetically engineered into the plant, it claimed, could kill non-target species such as butterflies and moths, without noting that the same poison is already liberally sprayed by farmers, including those in the organic sector - nor that insect resistance is more likely with chemical insecticides.
The claim that increased resistance of insects to the introduced toxin would necessitate more intensive chemical control ignores the failure of nearly 10 years of widespread use to produce such results, thanks to widespread good management.
And as for allergic reactions, the US Starlink episode yielded not one substantiated allergic response, nor has there been a single instance anywhere of a specific GM allergy in the 10 years of GM food consumption. By contrast, the first allergies to kiwi fruit, much favoured for baby food, turned up four years ago.
Prof V Moses, Chairman, CropGen
Friends of the Corporate Earth
- Mark Henderson, The Times (UK), April 12, 2005
'The outgoing food watchdog chief takes ecology groups with a pinch of salt'
GREEN and consumer organisations are businesses no more representative of the public interest than multinationals, the former head of Britain's food watchdog said yesterday.
Sir John Krebs, who retired at the weekend after five years as chairman of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), said that groups such as Greenpeace and the Soil Association are unaccountable, partisan bodies with agendas as slanted as those of industry lobbyists.
Just as food companies press policies to benefit shareholders, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth design campaigns to appeal to the views of paying members. Both types of business quote selectively from scientific evidence and neither should be taken at face value by consumers or regulators, Sir John said. Even non-profit organisations can have commercial motivations. Many members of the Soil Association, for example, are organic farmers with a financial interest in promoting its value.
Other groups, such as Which?, formerly the Consumers' Association, derive much of their income from book and magazine sales, which their campaigns promote. In an interview with The Times, Sir John said that the agency found their views useful for "tensioning the debate" as a counterweight to those of big companies but considers their campaigns neither representative nor reliable.
Sir John said: "I see pressure groups as businesses - they have a constituency of people who pay their subscriptions or buy their magazines. That is not the same as reflecting the views of the wider public. They are reflecting the views of their constituency."
Under Sir John's chairmanship, the FSA repeatedly clashed with environmental groups over its stance on genetically modified and organic foods. The agency refused to endorse health benefits claimed for organic produce or to issue warnings about GM crops, as there is no reliable scientific evidence to support either claim.
Sir John said that both positions were founded on the best possible scientific advice. His critics, he said, want the FSA to step beyond the scientific evidence to support their views.
"This is about the fact that we are completely impartial and take the scientific evidence as we read it or as it's assessed by our independent experts," he said. "Some of these groups that have single issues to pursue tend to be selective in using the scientific evidence.
"They have a vested interest in us supporting the notion that it is better to eat organic food, and we don't have a position on whether people should or should not be eating organic food. There is no scientific basis for saying there is a health claim relating to organic food. There may well be environmental benefits but that's a different aspect to it."
Green activists, Sir John said, often blurred the lines between food safety and environmental risk, as the public were generally more alarmed about health hazards.
Sir John, who will become Master of Jesus College, Oxford, in July, said that expanding the FSA's role in improving the nation's diet would be a big challenge for Dame Deirdre Hutton, his successor.
Preventing food-borne illnesses and toxic contamination of food would continue to be the agency's core business, but Sir John said that it was aware that poor diet was a much greater threat to the nation's health. About 5,000 deaths in Britain each year from cancer and heart disease are attributable to diet, compared with about 500 from food-borne diseases.
Sir John said: "One is trying to tread a delicate line, avoiding accusations of being part of the nanny state, but at the same time recognising that the risks associated with dietary health are actually greater by several orders of magnitude probably than most of the other food risks."
WHO'S WHO ON THE FRONT LINE?
FRIENDS OF THE EARTH -- A million members around the world. £8.5m turnover in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2004 Opposes GM food.
GREENPEACE -- 221,000 supporters in Britain, 2.8 million worldwide. Raised £8.4m in Britain in 2003 Opposes GM food.
SOIL ASSOCIATION -- 25,500 members. Certifies 70 per cent of organic food sold in Britain. Income £4.1m for 2004 financial year Lobbies for organic farming, against GM food.
WHICH? -- Formerly the Consumers' Association. 700,000 subscribers to Which? magazine and websites. Turnover £56.6m in 2004 Against GM crops, which it says subscribers reject.
Convicted Farmer Makes Unlikely Hero for Rural Lifestyle
- The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon), April 15, 2005 via Agnet
Robert Wager, a biotechnology instructor at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo, B.C., writes that a tremendous amount of misinformation spread by groups with an agenda makes it tough for the public to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to genetically engineer ed crops and food. The Percy Schmeiser case used by Michael Mehta in his viewpoint Biotechnology could destroy rural social fabric (SP, April 14) to illustrate the danger to privacy posed by the technology, is a prime example.
Biotechnology has engineered herbicide tolerant crops. HT crops are unaffected when sprayed with particular broad-spectrum herbicides, such as the Roundup Ready (RR) crops produced by Monsanto. RR canola allows a farmer to spray a canola crop with Roundup and only the weeds will die. If a farmer plants these HT varieties, he can expect higher yields, plus cheaper and easier weed control. The Canadian Canola Growers Association says biotech canola seeds have reduced chemical use by 29 per cent, and increased profits by $5.80 per acre.
Today, 70 per cent of Canadian canola farmers grow herbicide tolerant varieties -- a rapid change, given that GE canola varieties only have been available for eight years. Biotech seeds are more expensive, and farmers who wants to grow them must sign a technology use agreement promising not to save and replant the biotech seeds. More than 30,000 Canadian farmers, who know first-hand the benefits to the environment and their bottom-line from growing GE crops, have signed such agreements.
A reality of modern agriculture is that farmers rarely save seeds anymore. Most buy hybrid seed varieties, which must be repurchased annually.
In 1997, Schmeiser sprayed "a good three acres" of his canola crop with Roundup. One might ask why a farmer would pu rposely spray a herbicide that should destroy three acres of his crop? Once it was clear that the canola in this field was herbicide tolerant, Schmeiser decided to harvest the seed from there and save it to plant the next year. Clearly, most farmers would have realized the canola in the field was Roundup tolerant, since it survived.
The next year, he planted 1,030 acres with the saved seed, knowing that the use of such GE seed required a technology use payment. The result was 1,030 acres of 95-98 per cent Rou ndup-tolerant canola. When this high level (equivalent to commercial grade seed) was discovered, Monsanto asked Schmeiser to pay the fee of $15 per acre. He refused, and the court cases began.
The Federal Court on March 29, 2001, found Schmeiser guilty of patent infringement. Said Judge Andrew MacKay: "He planted his crop for 1998 with seed that he knew, or ought to have known, was Roundup-tolerant." Schmeiser appealed.
By now, his legal warchest was growing, in part, with significant support from gro ups opposed to GE crops. On Sept. 4, 2002, the Federal Court of Appeals upheld the verdict, rejecting all 17 points raised by Schmeiser's counsel. That decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, this time with a twist.
Instead of arguing that Schmeiser did not violate Monsanto's patent, his lawyer argued that the company's patent on Roundup Ready canola was invalid on grounds that no one should be able to patent a life-form. What started as an obscure case between a farmer and a multinational corporation blossomed into a show watched closely by the entire biotechnology industry.
Ramifications would be huge should the court rule against Monsanto's patent. It would mean no patent protection for biotech products in Canada, leading to their mass exodus from this country. Clearly, this was the agenda of Schmeiser's financial backers.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court found Schmeiser guilty, too. Canada is one of the world leaders in agricultural biotechnology, and the courts have determined that will continue.
People should understand this was not a David vs. Goliath case but a Goliath vs. Goliath case, with David as the frontman. The real players were the biotechnology industry and the multinational,billion-dollar anti-biotechnology industry.
Austrlia: Brain Drain Alarm
- Herlad Sun (Australia), April 13, 2005
AUSTRALIA risks becoming an agricultural and scientific backwater by maintaining bans on genetically modified foods, a report has warned. The Weekly Times, out today, reports that a Rural Industries and Research and Development Corporation report found the ban on GM food crops risked stifling research and forcing scientists overseas.
"Australia's biotech industry . . . will be held back the more Australia limits production of GM crops, and . . . many scientists may choose to migrate to more stimulating research environments abroad," the report found. CSIRO plant industry deputy chief Dr T.J. Higgins said the threat of a "brain drain" was very real. "This will affect the best scientists and it's also going to impact on Australia's competitiveness," he said.
GM Crops and Biodiversity: What's the Fuss All About
- Shanthu Shantharam, BioSpectrum (India), April, 2005
Anti-GM crop activists are of the strong belief that GM crops pose a threat to biodiversity but this is far from truth and is yet to be proven scientifically.
There is an urban myth bandied around by many critics of biotechnology that GM crops are a threat to natural biodiversity. If you utter GMOs and biodiversity in the same breath, many opponents of GM crops get all worked up about a doomsday scenario where in the biodiversity (as however we understand it) will be "contaminated" or "polluted" or "destroyed" beyond redemption by the flow of GM genes. For that reason alone, they argue that the introduction of GM crops in the centers of origin and diversity must not be allowed. It is nobody's case that that biodiversity is not under threat around the world, and all steps must be taken to prevent further erosion of biodiversity. There are ever so many national and international efforts under the aegis of Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to just do that. In fact, millions of dollars are being spent on a global scale to tackle the problem.
The DIVERSITAS program is one of the outstanding global research programs on protecting tropical biodiversity with the help of some of the best qualified scientific professionals. Still, whatever efforts that is under is not enough to cope with the speed of biodiversity erosion. There is no question more must be done to conserve biodiversity, and what it takes are strong political will and resources.
The allegation that modern day GM crops will negatively impact biodiversity has no scientific basis. It is charged that GM crops will reduce on-farm diversity. Some even suggest that those valuable and delicate land races will be lost forever due to GM crops. When the first report of a technology to control gene expression later dubbed the "terminator" technology to a devastating effect came along, some leading lights of Indian agriculture at the time scared the public by suggesting that these "terminator" genes would escape from GM crops and render the country's biodiversity sterile. Most never understood the basic mechanism of the "terminator" technology then and most don't understand it even now. But, all and sundry who had to have a say in the matter did not hesitate to invoke the "dangers" of terminator technology and do so even now just to keep the pot stirred.
To date there is not a single GM crop that is endowed with the so-called "terminator" growing genes anywhere in the world. The issue has been politicized so much that the industry was compelled to pledge not to deploy the technology. Many still pander the fear that the commercialized Bt cotton contains the "terminator" genes and some implicitly believe that GM seeds mean they necessarily contain the deadly "terminator" genes. Activism against GMOs is so dishonest and disingenuous that truth and facts do not seem to matter. What matters is to just keep scaring the gullible, the innocent and the ignorant to keep the activism alive. The media promptly reports these propaganda and scientists who should and do know better do precious little to challenge this mischievous propaganda. Lies repeated thousand times become the truth.
Most people who rave and rant about biodiversity have very little understanding of what it is. For most, it is just a romantic notion (feel good factor!), and for many it is a tool for political activism, and for a few it serves to rake in grants. It is only those who work in the field of bio-prospecting and enumerating living organisms (taxonomists and ecologists) have some clues to what biodiversity means and how complicated it is and what its real worth is. The general public is completely clueless about biodiversity. The gullible public is taken for ride on biodiversity by activists and sloganeers. Biodiversity is a complex entity. Only a fraction of natural biodiversity is really known. It is really uncertain if we will ever fully understand and characterize biodiversity. That is a dream of scientists.
There are as many definitions of biodiversity as there are experts, and suffice it to say that biodiversity is what is in the eyes of the beholder. Biodiversity is a dynamic mix of all living species with their genes and genomes interacting with the environment and each other and in a state of constant flux. At the lowest level, it is made up of nucleic acids, proteins, lipids, and carbohydrate sequences that give them a form, structure and function. Distinction must be made between on-farm diversity and natural (wild) biodiversity as on-farm biodiversity is still an artificial construct. Biodiversity is also highly resilient and quite a few endangered and threatened species have been restored both by human intervention using modern scientific approaches and natural process. Biotechnologically is eminently suited to play a significant role in conserving and restoring biodiversity and can also aid in sustainable (non-destructive) utilization of biodiversity.
But how true is that GM crops really present a threat to biodiversity? After all, every one of us should value biodiversity as it is the basis of life as we know it and it would be foolhardy to design ways and means to destroy whatever is left of it. There is no question that ever since humans started to dominate the earth and improve their living, they started using (exploiting) natural resources and most important of them being plants and animals around them. But, the scale and range of exploitation has increased with time (due population growth) and this is now known as destruction of the habitat. By an expert reckoning, destruction of habitats is the number one cause of loss of biodiversity. The second important reason is due to introduction of alien and invasive species (again a part of human activity) through travel, trade and commerce through the ages. Agricultural tillage, intensive use of chemicals and fertilizers are linked to decline of on-farm biodiversity and agri-ecosystems. It was just reconfirmed by a Royal Society publication on a three-year field scale evaluation of HR GM crops in UK over three years. This deliberate destruction has done some enormous good and done some very bad things to our environment. Overall, it has benefited the humanity in terms improving the living standards, food supply and health care. Some may not agree with this view, and perhaps for some good reasons. It is a question of value judgment! But, there is no way we would come to enjoy today's living standards without such utilization (exploitation) of natural resources.
Most agree that our planet's environment is degrading due to human activities. There is no doubt that global warming is not helping the situation. Agriculture happens to be one of the oldest of human activities that has caused considerable habitat destruction to convert natural landscape into arable land. To improve agricultural productivity, people started selecting crops and animals which they deemed most desirable and started improving them through breeding and now through biotechnology. As the productivity increased, the population increased and that fed into the cycle of producing more and more. That cycle broke down intermittently due to natural calamities like drought and famine. The net result was increasing the arable land, selecting a few dozen staple crops and animals and breeding them to be more and more productive (reduction of on-farm biodiversity). One thing is for certain that new and improved crops have always replaced old and inefficient varieties in succession. For example, Bt cotton in India is poised to replace non Bt cotton within the next few years just for the simple reason that it is economically beneficial.
With hind sight, we can see how some aspects of green revolution technologies have caused environmental degradation, and that should be instructive for all of us to learn from those experiences and see how we don't repeat those mistakes with new technologies like biotechnology. To the extent we ask such pertinent questions as we do during biosafety and environmental impact assessments of GM crops the potential impact of GM crops on biodiversity is addressed with the best possible knowledge and information and data then, we should be able to take proper precaution to deploy new technologies safely.
In modern agriculture, we certainly produced more food and at the same time caused some unavoidable environmental degradation. In fact, agriculture is known to be one of the most environmentally destructive of human activities. But, the question is did we have a choice? We need to produce sufficient food for all and modern intensive cultivation methods became that choice. According to many, there were other choices, and still there are many (alternatives like organic farming, SRI and diversified agriculture) only if the stranglehold on the agricultural by the industry is pried off, and return to natural way of growing food. Many experts engaged in food production disagree. Just last week the venerable Norman Borlaug said as much in India. There is not sufficient organic matter to produce enough food for all on this planet and chemicals will and must be the mainstay of modern agriculture. Debates are raging all over the world, and suffice it to say any agreement on these issues is still long ways in coming.
(To be continued; Shanthu Shantharam, Biologistics International, Ellicott City, MD, USA; firstname.lastname@example.org)
India: End to Monsanto's Bt Cotton Monopoly?
- Harish Damodaran, Sify (India), April 13, 2005
New Delhi - There is seemingly good news for domestic cotton growers, who are now wholly dependent on Monsanto for transgenic Bt technology to combat the dreaded American bollworm insect pest.
The US life sciences giant's monopoly is set to be broken, with at least three companies - JK Agri Genetics, Syngenta Seeds India and Nath Seeds - in the process of introducing genetically modified (GM) cotton hybrids incorporating alternative gene constructs or `operating systems,' in common man's parlance.
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) is scheduled to meet here on Wednesday to consider giving permission to the three companies to undertake large-scale trials and seed production of their hybrids for the Central and North zones. If things go as per plan, these hybrids would be ready for commercial cultivation by 2007.
The Bt cotton hybrids - currently being marketed by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), Rasi Seeds and Ankur Seeds - incorporate a `foreign' gene called cry1Ac, derived from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. The technology for incorporation of the gene, in turn, is based on Bollgard, the specific gene construct patented by Monsanto.
Monsanto has so far inked sub-licensing agreements for Bollgard with 21 domestic companies, which, critics argue, gives it a power similar to what Microsoft enjoys on its Windows operating system. While a 450-gram packet of Bt cotton is now sold at Rs 1,600 to the farmer, against Rs 450-500 for non-Bt hybrids, it is estimated that up to 70 per cent of the price difference is constituted by the technology fee that the seed companies pay to Monsanto.
But the emergence of alternative sources of Bt technology could well change the picture, doing to Monsanto "what Linux has done to Microsoft." JK Agri, for one, claims that its Bt cotton hybrids are developed from a `modified cry1Ac gene' technology developed by Prof S.K. Sen's team at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.
Nath Seeds has sourced its technology from China, having secured rights for a `fusion' cry1Ac/cry1Ab Bt gene, developed by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
Syngenta's Bt cotton, on the other hand is based on a completely different set of genes called Vip or vegetative insecticidal protein. The genes are isolated from the same Bt and they too synthesise proteins that `bind' themselves to the mid-gut of the insect inhibiting their metabolic activity.
Industry sources say that once the new hybrids hit the market, Bt cotton prices may drop to about Rs 1,000 per packet. As a response to the impending competition perhaps, Monsanto is now planning to launch Bollgard II, an improved version of Bollgard.
Biotechnology for the Developing Countries of the Anglophone Caribbean: Opportunities and Challenges
- Dr. Sephra Rampersad, AgBioView, April 15, 2005; www.agbioworld.org
Prospects for biotechnology use Article 25 (1) of the Declaration of Human Rights states "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being for himself and of his family, adequate food, clothing, housing and medical care....". The advent of biotechnology has demonstrated that this ideal may not be overly optimistic once there is technical knowledge transfer and its regulated applications are distributed across borders. In the Anglophone Caribbean, it is essential that each country develop a national biotechnology strategy that provides a coordinated and fluid system of guidelines that encourages responsible governance and implementation of biotechnology.
Countries with the research potential to develop a thriving biotechnology sector should seek to implement actions to regulate both in-house research, sustainable provision of and importation of biotechnology-related products and services. For those countries without research capacity or critical mass for building human and resource capacity, it may be more relevant to develop policies to regulate importation of biotechnology-related products and services and to monitor the occurrence and effects of export substitution. As a region, it may then be of interest to reconcile and harmonize certain common issues among the countries of the Anglophone Caribbean especially with respect to trade concerns among CARICOM member states and internationally.
Prospects for agricultural biotechnology -- crop production One of the main challenges facing any developing country is to enhance food security. Agricultural biotechnology will be instrumental in addressing some of the areas of concern associated with agricultural production, which include but are not limited to (1) enhancing crop productivity (2) crop diversification (3) improving the nutritional profile of food (4) reducing the impact of agricultural production on the environment and (5) promoting market competitiveness and commercialization.
Increased prevalence of disease despite the implementation of chemical control measures, soil nutrient decline, seasonal constraints with concomitant low crop yields, continue to undermine food security. These difficulties are compounded by the high cost of imported agricultural inputs. Improving this condition will require greater investment in research and development and reliance on emerging green biotechnologies in three main areas 1) plant tissue culture, 2) plant genetic engineering and 3) plant molecular marker-assisted breeding.
Prospects for agricultural biotechnology - livestock production
Agricultural biotechnology will play an important role in livestock production and health. Due to an increasing demand for food of animal origin, developing countries are forced to intensify livestock production in which monogastric animals (pigs and poultry) are important sources of livestock sector growth. Intensification of livestock production may reduce genetic diversity by indirectly displacing their inherent diversity as farmers utilize genetically homogenous varieties of livestock. Innovations in reproductive biotechnology such as cryopreservation of embryos, artificial insemination and embryo transfer technology may be critical tools for the preservation of animal biodiversity or for development of varieties with novel desirable traits. One of the applications of biotechnology with greater impact to developing countries lies in the use of bio-engineered products especially improved nutrient content and digestibility of livestock feeds. More effective control of animal diseases through engineered vaccines and earlier diagnosis of diseases through innovative diagnostic tools would significantly enhance livestock productivity.
Prospects for green biotechnology/tissue culture/micropropagation - horticulture
Tissue culture and micropropagation as tools of biotechnology can improve the status and potential of horticulture. The Anglophone Caribbean is especially suited for realizing this potential because the infrastructure, technical expertise and prospects for commercialization already exist within the region. Although still a niche market, tissue culture and micropropagation of plants and trees specifically for horticulture, greater emphasis and support can expand this niche to regional markets and opportunities for diversification of tissue culture and micropropagation products and services.
Prospects for environmental biotechnology - bioremediation; genetic conservation of natural resources The high level of biodiversity of indigenous flora and fauna that exists in the Caribbean is sensitive to environmental disruptions which may include biomagnification of toxins, bioaccumulation of pesticide residues, indiscriminate use and disposal of chemicals, unsustainable land use and exotic species introductions. Environmental biotechnology that enables the development, use and regulation of biological systems for remediation of contaminated environments (land, air, water), and for environment-friendly processes (green manufacturing technologies and sustainable development) must become a strategic priority for maintaining environmental integrity and conserving natural genetic resources. Biotechnology protects biodiversity by assisting conservation of plant and animal genetic resources through 1) new methods for collecting and sorting genetic material, 2) creation of germplasm collections for endangered species or species of interest 3) detection and elimination of disease in gene bank collections.
Prospects for health biotechnology - vaccine development; disease profiling and diagnostics; quality control for water, air, soil standards
Addressing public health issues that concern water supply and quality, disease, nutrition, malnutrition and deficiency disorders are precedence. Vaccines, diagnostic tools and other products of biotechnology can be produced relatively easily and cheaply through health biotechnology innovation systems. These systems have been shared by several countries (Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, South Africa and South Korea) and were founded upon certain key initiatives 1) focusing on local health needs ("necessity becomes opportunity"), 2) the role of the private sector in commercialization, 3) regional and global collaboration, and 4) long-term government support and commitment especially in biotechnology education and funding.
The way forward The main limiting factor to the ability of the developing countries of Anglophone Caribbean to benefit from advances in biotechnology and biotechnology-related products and services is the lack of scientific and technological capacity and the low level of enterprise expansion. This highlights the need for responsible formulation of policies and strategies for the wider implementation and regulation of biotechnology. International partnerships and global networking are also essential to promoting sustainable development and for resource capacity building.
The broadening of technological choices should be concomitant with a commitment to safety and social responsibility. Biotechnology is not a remedy for the complex issues facing developing and developed countries. However, when combined with responsible and regulated practice, sound policies and enforced legislation it can be an important factor in achieving improved standards of health, enhanced food security and environmental integrity within a mandatory context of sustainable development.
* Rampersad, S.N. and E.J. Duncan. 2005. A Draft National Biotechnology Strategy for Trinidad and Tobago. National Institute for Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology-NIHERST (Ministry of Science, Technology and Tertiary Education), Government of Trinidad and Tobago. March 2005.
-- Sephra Rampersad, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, is a Postdoctoral fellow at the Biosafety Unit of the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), Treviso, Italy.
Have We Reverted to Worship of Nature Over Science in Agriculture?
- Prof William Reville, Science Today; April 14, 2005. Pg. 15
Under the Microscope: Organic farming was one of the fastest-growing segments of US agriculture during the 1990s. In the UK, organic farming is a billion pound industry and in many people's minds eating organic food is synonymous with healthy eating. But there is no body of scientific evidence to show that organic food is more nutritious or safer than food produced by conventional means.
Organic food must be produced without the assistance of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, genetic engineering, growth hormones, irradiation and antibiotics. "Organic" does not mean "natural" and there is no legal definition as to what constitutes a "natural" food.
Organic farming is the oldest form of agriculture. Farmers before the end of the second World War had no option but to grow food without the assistance of the petroleum-based synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Ironically, technologies developed during the war proved useful for agricultural production, eg ammonium nitrate used in munitions proved to be useful as a fertiliser and organophosphates used in nerve gas were put to use as insecticides.
During the 1960s and 1970s, as concerns rose over the state of the environment, some farmers switched back to organic farming again. Europe is now the biggest market for organic food in the world. There are more than 12,000 organic farmers in the US and the number is growing by 12 percent annually. A range of agricultural products can be produced organically including grains and vegetables, meat, dairy foods, eggs and processed food products.
The organic farming movement is a blend of science and ideology. It takes a principled stand against the dangers of agribusiness and junk food but it is sometimes hard to tease out its science from its ideology. Some of the founding fathers of organic farming were conventional scientists but others were decidedly odd, for example the Austrian philosopher and seer Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), who advocated planting the soil with cow horns to capture the earth's rays.
Organic farming practices are quite different from conventional farming. Conventional farmers encourage their crops to grow with chemical fertilisers, protect crops from disease and pests with chemical insecticides and control weeds with synthetic herbicides. Organic farmers use natural fertiliser (manure) to grow crops, protect crops from pests and disease using natural methods such as insect predators, barriers and traps, and control weed growth by crop rotation, hand weeding, mechanical tillage and other methods. Overall yields of organically grown crops will typically be 50-80 percent of yields of conventionally grown crops.
Organically produced meat, dairy products and eggs come from animals fed organic feed. Organic livestock are kept in conditions that facilitate the natural habits of the animals (eg ruminants have access to pasture) and they are not given antibiotics, hormones or medication in the absence of illness. Diseases and parasites are largely controlled by preventive measures such as sanitary conditions and stress reduction.
Organic foods are up to 70 per cent more expensive for the consumer than conventionally produced food. There are several reasons for this - production costs are higher because of greater labour input; organic food supply is limited and demand for it is robust; marketing and distribution costs are high because of the relatively small volumes of organic food.
Are organic foods better than conventional foods? There is no body of scientific evidence to show that organic is safer than conventional food. Some studies have shown that people who eat conventionally grown food have more pesticide by-products in their urine than those who eat organic foods. But there is little or no evidence to show that pesticides in the very low amounts consumed by humans can cause cancer or any other ill effects. Also, if fruits and vegetables are properly washed, most of the chemical residues are removed.
It can also be argued that eating organic food carries its own health risks by increasing exposure to biological contamination. Food borne illness could be transmitted by manure pathogens, toxins from moulds and by toxic strains of the bacterium E Coli. However there is no scientific evidence that people are at significant risk from properly grown and handled organic food.
Many people claim that organic food tastes better than conventional food, but blind tests have shown that organic food cannot be distinguished by taste from conventional food when both foods are of equal freshness. Neither is there any body of research to show that organic food is more nutritious than conventional food.
One major criticism of organic farming is that it cannot produce enough food to feed everybody. World food production must be trebled over the next 50 years to feed an extra three billion people. It is therefore argued that all available technologies that increase efficiency in farming will be needed to increase the production of food.
There is a widespread contemporary fear that we are wrecking nature with science-based technology. In a Europe with plentiful food provided by modern agricultural methods we can afford to see great virtue in things not touched by human hand, to agonise over very small risks, and to lose our confidence in our ability to apply technology to positive ends.
Today we tend to worship nature and fear science. In ages past, the opposite view prevailed. Foods created by man such as wine and bread were symbols of cultured living - only barbarians ate wild plants. Reversion for a few years to pre-scientific agriculture would even out our thinking.
William Reville is associate professor of biochemistry and director of microscopy at UCC
Response to Chris Preston - GM Crop Unscientific?
- James Macgregor
I am glad Christopher Preston agrees that laboratory generated GM modifications are kept under strict containment conditions because they present unknown risk's to the environment. The environmental release of GM crops containing artificial transgenes which can mutate, transfer artificial components to autonomously replicating wild organisms, evolve and proliferate also present unknown risks to human health and the environment.
The lessons of the pharmaceutical industry may prove worthy of note, the withdrawal of pharmaceutical products demonstrates that even with the strictest testing regime oversights occur. With respect to the GM regulatory regime, the assessment ability is limited and is, as previously stated a snapshot exercise lacking in longevity. Importantly pharmacuetical drugs do not possess the capability to mutate, transfer components, evolve and proliferate, conversely escaped transgenes genes may prove impossible to withdraw.
As Chris Preston concedes mutation, a random genetic process that can occur within a generation, is not always predictable. I presume all regulators are aware that mutation is an inevitable natural process that can fundamentally alter transgene properties. To require mutation assessment of artificial transgenes proposed for environmental release could be considered only sensible. Failing to account for both mutation and gene escape, two well known natural phenomenon is unreconcilable with sound and impartial scientific judgement.
GM trait persistence post crop escape depends on the trait providing a selective advantage, as stated. The aim of some GM research is to produce traits that would provide advantages to recipient wild populations, i.e. pest resistant crops. Transgene proliferation in wild plant populations encountering the same pests would be expected due to positive selection. The aim of other GM research is to release artificial transgenes which have not undergone even basic predictive risk assessment and in area's containing potential recipient wild populations.
To my knowledge there is only one fundamental differences between GM and conventional crop breeding methods, the latter involves the transfer of naturally evolved genes from one cultivar to another. Whereas, the former allows the laboratory generation of artificial constructs that undergo a limited testing regime prior to release into the environment. The difference being that naturally evolved genes have already undergone environmental testing, during evolution.
I do not consider myself to be anti-GM, I simply believe that in it's current form considering the long term, it is not good science. If anything positive has come from the GM affair it is to reaffirm the need for centrally funded scientists who can offer independent and impartial scientific consultation. After all, scientists determine the world we live in tomorrow as politicians determine the world we live in today, scientists should therefore demonstrate the same impartiality in the advice they offer.
Ps. I am unfamiliar with the nature of Christopher Prestons chemical mutagenesis work, I would define GM as I have done in paragraph 5.
- James Wilsdon, Financial Times (UK), April 15 2005
'THE MARCH OF UNREASON: Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism by Dick Taverne; Oxford University Press £18.99, 310 pages;
Lord Taverne is a man with a mission. In 2002, angered by the public backlash against genetically modified crops, the Liberal Democrat peer founded a pressure group, Sense About Science, "to promote an evidence-based approach to scientific issues".
Like every political movement, Sense About Science requires a manifesto, a core body of arguments around which its followers can rally. The March of Unreason sets out to perform this task.
Taverne's central message is that science is under siege. Environmentalists are leading the charge by promoting a dangerous mix of anti-technological Luddism, precautionary regulation and an irrational faith in organic agriculture. Organisations such as Greenpeace display a form of "eco-fundamentalism", which ignores any scientific evidence that fails to support its pre-ordained views. This tendency was particularly marked in the battle over GM crops, but applies equally to campaigns against chemicals and waste incinerators.
A second line of attack is from postmodernists, whose notions of science as a social construct have assaulted "the very citadel of science itself, its claim to objectivity". The notion that science is not simply the value-free pursuit of truth, but is shaped by social factors and the assumptions of scientists themselves, has eroded trust in science. It is also to blame, argues Taverne, for the misguided view that there should be more public dialogue, accountability and "democratic control" within science.
If science is not defended from the "pessimists and the anti-science brigade", Taverne warns that the engine of innovation that has sustained economic and social progress since the Enlightenment is likely to stall. Even democracy itself is threatened, as "the eco-warriors have encouraged a general cynicism about government and authority, have encouraged the public to support widespread corporate conspiracies against the public good and have added to the widespread suspicion that already exists of almost every kind of expertise."
Fundamentalism is rarely attractive, and Taverne is most effective when documenting the occasional excesses of the green movement. He also makes some thoughtful points about the limits of the precautionary principle as a framework for dealing with the uncertainties inherent in new technologies. Throughout, it is clear that he is motivated by a genuine passion and enthusiasm for science.
It is a shame, then, that this passion leads him to argue in such strident tones. The delicate interplay between science, risk and democracy demands serious analysis and reflection. But any subtleties in these debates are drowned in the torrent of polemic poured onto those he condemns as the "enemies of reason". Near the start of the book he decries those who "use evidence selectively and unscrupulously to bolster prejudice, and who go through the motions of inquiry only to demonstrate some foregone conclusion". A more apt description of Taverne's own method it would be hard to find.
Two flaws in Taverne's argument stand out. First, he offers a one-dimensional account of the relationship between science and the environment. He takes a particular case - that of GM crops - where environmentalists found themselves at loggerheads with the scientific establishment, and uses this to argue that almost all environmentalists are anti-science. In doing so, he sidesteps the fact that the green movement was born out of a greater scientific understanding of the earth, and that environmentalists today rely heavily on scientific evidence to underpin campaigns and policies on climate change, renewable energy and biodiversity. Most green groups now employ scientists, sit on scientific funding panels, and argue consistently for more research into environmental solutions.
Further signs of Taverne's confusion on environmental questions appear in his discussion of climate change. While he accepts that some global warming is happening, he strays close to a sceptical position in considering what we should do about it. Here is an issue where the scientific position is clear-cut: the overwhelming consensus of the world's climatologists, as represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that urgent action is required. Yet Taverne cannot bring himself to line up with the scientists if they and Greenpeace are on the same side.
Second, Taverne is mistaken in his belief that science will be strengthened by being insulated from accountability and democracy. He caricatures the case for public engagement in science, by likening it to inviting a referendum on whether the earth goes round the sun or vice versa.
But of course, it is nothing of the sort. Science takes place within society and much of it is paid for by our taxes, so it is perfectly reasonable to expect scientists to take account of public values, aspirations and concerns. Dialogue about the future direction of science is an important component of a well-oiled democracy. Involving the public at an early stage in controversial areas such as stem cell research can help to avert potential conflicts. Most importantly, as many scientists now acknowledge, tapping into different sources of public knowledge and social intelligence can enrich the culture and practice of science. People may not have "expert" knowledge, as traditionally defined, but this does not mean that they have nothing to contribute to scientific decision-making.
In attacking one form of fundamentalism, Taverne supplants it with his own: a naive and outdated scientism. His is a world in which science can do no wrong; in which research is untainted by vested interests, and companies such as Monsanto exist purely to feed the hungry. Those seeking a more thoughtful encounter with the contemporary dilemmas and opportunities of science are advised to march elsewhere.
-- James Wilsdon is head of science and innovation at the think-tank Demos.