Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: April 21, 2005
* Why the World Needs GM Crops
* Advantages of Growing GM Cotton Are Obvious
* Balance GM Theories
* Biotech Cotton May Push India Ahead of U.S. - USDA
* Sci-Tech - Veggie tales
* Underground Crops Could Be Future of 'Pharming'
* Too Many Farms
* Boll Worm Not Boll Weevil
* Roundup Roundabout
* Nobel Prize Winner Talks Agriculture At N.C. State
* Some Activist Groups Exhibit a "Pathological Scientific" Stance
* Conference: Safeguarding Sustainable European Agriculture
* The European Dream: Building Sustainable Development
Why the World Needs GM Crops
- David Ellis, Adelaidean (Australia), April 2005
Adelaide has a major role to play in the development of salt-tolerant crops that could potentially feed millions of starving people worldwide. According to statistics, world food grain production must be doubled by the year 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population.
"Even under ideal conditions, it would be difficult to increase crop production much beyond current levels," said Professor Mark Tester, Australian Research Council (ARC) Federation Fellow at the University of Adelaide.
Based at the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics at the Waite Campus, Professor Tester is a key researcher in international efforts to turn the tide of crop production. "With the greatest population increases being in the cities of developing countries, it is an economic necessity that the majority of any increased food production should occur in the countries in which these growing cities are located," he said.
"Most crop-growing conditions are far from ideal. Particularly challenging is that increased production must be achieved in the face of decreased land area for cropping, diminishing water resources and worsening environmental constraints, such as drought and poor soil. There are both practical and theoretical constraints which limit just how much a plant can do!"
Globally, cereal production is reduced by approximately one-third due simply to the effects of drought, salinity and low temperatures, Professor Tester said." The difference between the potential yield and that actually achieved is termed the 'yield gap'. Most practical increases in global food production will occur through the closing of this yield gap. In other words, we need to develop crops, particularly the cereals, that will be more tolerant to the so-called 'abiotic stresses', notably drought, salinity and low temperatures."
Abiotic stresses are a problem not only in developing countries." The devastating effects of drought and salinity both on the environment and on the farmers of Australia are all too apparent. Only two years ago, national wheat production plummeted from 24 million down to nine million tonnes as a result of drought. A recent market analysis of cropping identified drought and poor soil conditions (mainly salinity) as the two most significant factors limiting the yield of cereal crops in Australia. Salinity alone is estimated to be costing the Australian wheat industry $1.3 billion annually. There is a clear imperative to improve the tolerance of our crops to the harsh environmental conditions that are prevalent in Australia," he said.
The research underway in Professor Tester's laboratory is focused on increasing the tolerance of crops to saline soils." Central to this work is the stark observation that some plants manage to keep growing well on saline soils (tough plants), whereas others grow poorly (the wimps). We're identifying genes that make the tough plants tough, and then moving these genes into the wimps, in order to toughen up the wimps. The toughness genes may be derived from plants that are closely related to the crops we want to make more tolerant, or else they may be found in more evolutionarily distant plants, that display tolerance to greater extremes than do the crop relatives."
It is not only the presence of a particular gene that is important, but also where in the plant the gene is activated, and when the gene is activated. It is these cell-specific genetic issues that are a major focus of the research program in Professor Tester's laboratory.
"With the new developments in biology that exploit the power of robotics and computing, extraordinary and exciting new advances are now possible," Professor Tester said. "In large centres such as the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics and the Waite campus of the University of Adelaide, there is now a critical mass of researchers who have the chance to make significant breakthroughs in plant science and crop improvement. We live in exciting times."
Advantages of Growing GM Cotton Are Obvious
- Canberra Times, April 19, 2005
We would welcome the opportunity to see the independent, peer reviewed research about the negative impacts of GM crops referred to by Bridget Farrer (CT Letters, April 6). There is no evidence that we know of about a debacle involving GM cotton.
Farmers in Australia who are growing the latest generation Bollga rd II GM cotton are reporting that the cotton needs as few as three pesticide sprayings a season to kill pests, compared to up to 18 sprays a season with conventional cotton.
Consequently, occupational health and safety among cotton growers has improved because of a reduction in pesticide use. In addition, pesticide run-off into rivers and the water table from cotton production has declined.
Ms Farrer's argument about golden rice was also flawed. The need for a crop such as golden rice stems from the fact that there is no pro-vitamin A in conventional rice which can be converted into vitamin A in the human body.
It is also a fact that in many areas of the world where rice is the staple crop, there is a high rate of vitamin A deficiency. This deficiency causes blindness and death, primarily among children and pregnant women. Thus the development of golden rice, which aims to be a sustainable source of vitamin A and is intended to be given away free of charge to peasant farmers in developing nations, is both timely and necessary.
- Greg Bodulovic, Griffith
Balance GM Theories
- Western Mail (UK), April 20, 2005
SIR - In your columns this week you quote the new EU Farm Commissioner as saying that farmers should be left with the choice of whether to grow GM crops or not.
I fully support the view. Few if any of the current GM crops would be of interest to Welsh farmers but in future we can expect continued development of crops (GM and otherwise) that will significantly increase productivity and profitability for the farmer, improve quality for the consumer and provide greater protection for the environment.
Welsh farmers should not be denied the opportunities of improving their farming practices and Welsh consumers should not be denied the opportunity of enjoying improved local produce.
There is intrinsically no difference between produce that is conventional, organic and GM. Indeed it is only the remarkable skills of modern biological science that can identify a GM product from its non-GM counterpart.
We already enjoy the benefits of genetically modified micro-organisms in pharmaceuticals and food production (without GM technology we would not have so-called vegetarian cheese).
Some of those lobbying against GM crops do so because they are misinformed: I fear others know better but choose to ignore the facts for their own ideological or commercial reasons. I am deeply concerned that these people have the ear of our policymakers. It is time Mr Jones ensured he had a balanced range of opinions.
- Dr HUW MARTIN THOMAS, (retired plant geneticist) Penrhyncoch, Aberystwyth
Biotech Cotton May Push India Ahead of U.S. - USDA
- Reuters, April 18, 2005
India is poised to overtake the United States in annual cotton production if India's cotton yield improvements remain on an upward track, the U.S. Agriculture Department said on Monday. China is the world's largest cotton producer, now followed by the United States and India.
In a special report on India's cotton production, the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service examined how cotton crop yields have steadily increased in India since 2002 due largely to the adoption of genetically modified cotton.
Both the United States and India are forecast to produce record cotton crops in the 2004/05 marketing year with 23.1 million and 18 million bales respectively, the USDA said. India's forecast production of 18 million bales will surpass the United States' 10-year average production of 17.9 million bales, it said.
"If India yields continue to improve at the same rate as it has in the last two years, using average area, India cotton production could surpass the United States as the second-largest cotton producer in the world behind China," the USDA said.
Cotton crop yield in India jumped 26 percent in 2003/04 from the previous year. "Likewise, forecast yields in 2004/05 continued an upward trend increasing 13 percent over the previous year's record and 39 percent above the 10-year average," the USDA said.
Better yields have been driven by Indian farmers' growing use of Bt cotton, which reduces losses to bollworm infestations. In the United States, about three-fourths of all cotton planted is with gene-altered varieties.
In 2005, cotton plantings are "likely to decline" in India because of crop-switching to more profitable crops such as oilseeds, the USDA said. It did not elaborate. The USDA will not issue projections for world cotton production in marketing year 2005/06 for several more weeks.
The USDA published its report on the Internet at http://www.fas.usda.gov/pecad/highlights/2005/04/india_web_update.pdf.
Sci-Tech - Veggie tales
- Nick Anthis, The Battallion, April, 20 2005
Imagine an idyllic scene where a butterfly flutters across a field only to be violently consumed by a growing stalk of wheat. According to Christopher Leaver, department head of plant sciences at the University of Oxford, this nightmare is indicative of challenges facing proponents of genetically modified crops.
On April 5, Leaver presented a lecture entitled "Plant Biotechnology - GM Crops in Context" as the final lecture of the 2004-05 season of the Texas A&M University Distinguished Lecture Series. In exploring the scientific, social and political issues surrounding GM crops, Leaver described what will have to be a multifaceted approach for addressing the impending agricultural challenges.
"Today, we could feed everyone on this planet thanks to plant breeding, modern agriculture, the agrichemical industry and so on," Leaver said. "At the present time, making sure everyone has enough to eat is more about politics than science."
This will not always be the case. Leaver said demand will grow as the human population increases from six billion to an expected nine billion by 2050. Without major changes, supply could decrease because current agricultural practices are unsustainable due to their destructive environmental impact. "We have to develop sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture, which combines the best of conventional plant breeding, which has been very successful, with the newer biotechnologies," Leaver said.
GM crops will play a central role in this strategy. All living things have a unique DNA sequence, divided into individual genes. Each gene codes for a particular protein, and the form of that protein contributes to a particular trait in the individual. This code-reading machinery follows the same rules in virtually all life forms, so a specific gene will produce the same protein in plants, as in bacteria.
In the early 1980s, scientists began directly altering the genetic code of plants installing advantageous traits. In his lecture, Leaver offered a wide range of possibilities for genetic modification, including increasing crop yield, improving nutritional value, providing resistance to disease and even addressing the impending decline in fossil fuel production.
Keerti Rathore, associate professor of soil and crop sciences at A&M, said that despite the possibilities, only two types of GM crops are widely grown: those resistant to herbicides and those that produce insecticides. Leaver discussed examples of each of these in his lecture. Roundup Ready crops are resistant to the herbicide Roundup, due to a bacterial protein that is highly resistant to glyphosate, its active ingredient. Bt-protected crops are resistant to insects because of a bacterial protein that acts as a natural insecticide.
Leaver also discussed Golden Rice, which is rice modified to produce the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene. He said that vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to blindness, affects about 7 percent of the world's population. Because rice is the primary food source for most of the affected people, scientists five years ago introduced a daffodil gene into rice, leading to production of beta-carotene.
Although it originally showed great promise, Golden Rice has still not been cultivated in part due to low yields of beta-carotene. In March, a group of scientists from the biotechnology company Syngenta reported in "Nature Biotechnology" that they could produce 10 to 20 times the amount of beta-carotene in Golden Rice by using a gene from corn instead of daffodil. Now the only hurdle Golden Rice faces is political resistance to GM crops.
Much of the controversy over GM crops has been focused on the idea that the direct genetic manipulation of a life form is unnatural and dangerous. To refute this idea, Rathore said that direct genetic change is much more precise than traditional crop breeding, which also results in genetic changes.
Leaver stressed this point in his lecture as well. "(Modern crops) are all the creation of man. They've been bred by selection," Leaver said. "They would not exist without man."
In addition, genetic change is exceedingly common in nature. Scientists even use this constant genetic change to construct evolutionary trees that map the relatedness of various species.
Rathore said that scientists use three different methods to genetically modify a crop. One takes advantage of the natural ability of a type of bacteria called Agrobacterium to transfer part of its DNA into plant cells. When that does not work, scientists use a "gene gun," which shoots microscopic pieces of gold covered in the DNA of interest into plant cells. A third method involves stripping individual plant cells of their protective cell walls and shocking them to force them to take up new DNA. This last method is older and is not used as much anymore.
Rathore focuses his research on improving these general methods, adapting them to specific crops and investigating the functions of various genes. Although much of the controversy over GM crops has focused on the manipulation of DNA as well as health and environmental issues, Sheri Allen-Wright, coordinator of the Brazos Valley Green Party, said that she is more concerned with the social and economic impact of GM crops.
"(GM crops) lead to dependence if you have to buy seeds from a big corporation," Allen-Wright said. "I don't really have faith in our corporations or in our regulatory agencies to really check it." Although the Texas Green Party has called for a moratorium on GM crops, its stated reasons are to encourage sustainable agriculture and to move away form large agricultural corporations.
Rathore said that although all GM crops in use are marketed by corporations due to the overwhelming expense required to put them in the market, he notes that their patents will begin running out in the coming decades. At that time, university scientists can use their technology to create crops that can be directly transferred to farmers.
In regards to questions over the safety of GM crops, "I think scientists like myself in the university as well as scientists in the industry are fully aware of the concerns that people express," Rahore said. "To some degree I understand their concerns; however, before the GM crops are approved for planting in the field, they undergo extensive scrutiny by three separate federal agencies for their safety to health and the environment. I think scientists are just concerned about their children's future as anyone else is."
Underground Crops Could Be Future of 'Pharming'
- Ascribe News, April 20, 2005
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Corn grows just as well - if not better - underground as in a typical greenhouse setting or in the field, according to a team of Purdue University researchers that is working with a company to develop techniques for tightly controlled production of crops containing pharmaceuticals such as edible vaccines or antibodies.
The scientists, in partnership with Controlled Pharming Ventures LLC of McCordsville, Ind., have designed and built a crop-growth facility inside a 60-acre former limestone mine in Marengo, a small town in southern Indiana. The first test crop, planted in the underground facility late last fall, produced more corn in a shorter time period than plants grown in a greenhouse on the Purdue campus, said Cary Mitchell, a Purdue professor of horticulture.
"This first planting performed very well," Mitchell said. "We've shown that you can successfully grow crops underground in a lighted but completely contained facility. What we have here is a perfect model for controlled-environment agriculture. This could jump-start a whole industry."
Controlled-environment agriculture is a system in which all the inputs required for plant growth - light, temperature, carbon dioxide and humidity - are regulated to maximize growth.
The team recently presented its results at the NCR-101 annual conference. NCR-101 is a U.S. Department of Agriculture committee dedicated to controlled environment agriculture. In the initial trial, genetically modified corn grown in the facility had an average yield that equaled 337 bushels per acre. By comparison, corn the researchers grew in a greenhouse yielded the equivalent of 267 bushels per acre.
The average yield for field corn grown in the United States is 142 bushels per acre. The higher yield in the growth facility is a product of the amount of control the researchers have over the environment compared to both greenhouse and field settings. The corn the researchers planted, known as Bt corn, contains a gene that produces a protein that kills larvae of European corn borer, an agricultural pest.
These results lay to rest the team's initial concerns about growing crops in an underground mine. "Because corn and other pharma crop candidates, such as tobacco and tomato, are naturally hot-weather crops, there was some concern whether the year-round, cool temperatures of the mine would be sub-optimal for crop growth underground," Mitchell said.
It turns out that the growth facility's location in the mine actually puts it at a temperature advantage. "The design we use leverages the cool air temperatures in the mine to reject waste heat from the intensely hot plant-growth lamps in the facility," Mitchell said.
The underground growth chamber is the brainchild of Doug Ausenbaugh, president of Controlled Pharming Ventures, a startup company funded to develop the facility through the Indiana 21st Century Research and Technology Fund. Ausenbaugh said the facility's design incorporates safeguards to prevent any release into the wild of plants genetically modified to produce pharmaceutical agents.
"This is a safe, reliable, consistent and contained production environment that can operate year-round and around the clock," he said. "What's unique here is the level of control we have over the environment inside the facility."
Ausenbaugh hopes to see the facility become a prime research, development and production site for companies interested in developing pharmaceutical crops or plants engineered to produce proteins like vaccines and antibodies.
Producing these compounds in plants can be cheaper and easier than conventional methods for pharmaceutical production. Some pharmaceutical companies today are interested in using crops as plant-based "factories" to produce proteins that may be extracted and processed in pill or injectable form.
"We have been talking with a number of plant-based pharmaceutical companies about using our facility design, and we hope to launch pilot growth trials over the next 12 months," Ausenbaugh said.
The underground facility is a tall room built within a cavern in a former limestone mine now used largely as a warehouse facility for the transportation industry. The mine creates an environment in which temperature, humidity, light, airflow and other plant-growth factors are tightly regulated.
Environmental control and containment are crucial to any pharmaceutical crops initiative, Ausenbaugh said. Several organizations, including the American Society of Plant Biologists, recommend that any development of pharmaceutical or other transgenic crops be done in an entirely enclosed environment removed from the food system to prevent any accidental contamination.
Currently, the USDA's Biotechnology Regulatory Services, the agency that regulates genetically engineered organisms, has not established specific protocols for transgenic plant production in contained facilities.
However, the facility does meet strict biosafety criteria established by the National Institutes of Health for the handling of transgenic plants in greenhouses, said Yang Yang, a Purdue research scientist helping to develop the growth facility.
"As it exists today, we have biosafety level two status at the growth facility," he said. "We can easily achieve biosafety level three, and because of the natural containment and control offered by our setting in the mine, it would be significantly less costly than in an above-ground facility."
Too Many Farms
- New Scientist April 23, 2005 via Agnet
John Pahl, London, UK, writes that the recent study of the environmental impact of certain genetically modified crops did not give the full picture (26 March, p 6). It only considered the impact on wildlife within the area under consideration and did not take account of differing crop yields.
As conventional farms are likely to produce less per hectare than GM farms, and organic farms around 20 per cent less again, in order to produce the same amount of food, land elsewhere must be cultivated. A full environmental impact study would take into account the greater amount of natural habitat lost when low-yield p roduction methods are used. The total global demand for food is rising because of population increase and higher living standards.
The biggest threat to biodiversity, and the main cause of the increase in extinctions, is loss of habitat. The greatest reason for loss of habitat is land being converted to farming. Therefore low-yield farming methods could have a serious impact on global biodiversity, and there are genuine environmental benefits in using high-yield farming methods such as GM.
Boll Worm Not Boll Weevil
- Gordon Couger"
In the press I repeatedly see that boll weevil resistant cotton is available. There is no such thing. There is boll worm resistant cotton.
Bollgard cotton has a protein from Bacillus thuringiensis, that is toxic to several lepidopteron larva the boll worm/corn ear worm, tobacco bud worm and pink boll worm. The boll worm/corn ear is said to be the most economically costly insect to crops on earth. Here is a good site on Bollgard cotton http://www.punjabilok.com/agriculture/cotton/bollgard_cotton_prod.htm and here is on Bollgard II http://www.monsanto.com/monsanto/us_ag/content/stewardship/tug/bollgard.pdf
Boll Weevil are still controlled with insecticide and integrated management. I am 62 years old and all my life in the USA cotton growers have been trying to get local and nation wide boll weevil eradication programs going. We finally did a few years ago. Originally it consisted of an early spraying to kill any over wintering weevils and fall spaying to kill all the weevils it could before winter. Pheromone traps were put in all fields and if more weevils than a threshold number per acre were found the farmer had a choice of spraying the weevil or plowing the cotton under.
The boll Weevil could always be controlled with insecticide but doing so killed the beneficial insects and committed the farmer to spraying ever 5 to 7 days for boll worm. The combination of Bollgard BT cotton that is boll worm resistant and the whole cotton belt in the USA getting on board the boll worm eradication program have seen the boll worm wiped out in the USA as long as we continue our vigilance and hopefully help our southern neighbors Mexico and Central American countries put it at least to the Panama Canal as we have with new world screw worm fly.
GM crops are not the total answer but only one very sharp tool in the bag for the challenge of furnishing food, feed and fiber to rapidly growing world that need to take advantage of every advance in technology we have. We cannot afford to spend 50 years implementing programs such as the boll weevil eradication program that we knew would have worked 50 years ago if we had just bit the bullet and done it cotton farming would be very different today. Twice in my life time we got rid of the boll weevil when they got so bad we quit growing cotton except on the irrigated farms that could afford to control the weevil and then spay every week for worms than the weevil population would fall to point we could farm cotton for 8 or 10 years before they built up the numbers to make it unprofitable to farm cotton again.
Last year I cut a stalk of Bollgard cotton and counted the places it could have bolls, blooms or squares and there were 102 places and 98 bolls, squares and blooms on the first day of September. In all my life I had never seen a stalk with so few missing forms. It had not been sprayed and the whole field looked that way. To be fair it was the best weather I had ever seen for cotton in my life as well.
Until I looked at fields of Boll worm resistant cotton I never realized how much they were costing me. With dry land yields of 300 pounds to the acre spraying for an extra 30 to 50 pounds would cost as much or more in insecticide to keep the boll worms out. It was far better not to upset the predictor insects and let them do the job. But a cotton that kills worms adds 10% or so to the yield.
Unfortunately in the next fifty years we have to add 100% to the yield of food, feed and fiber and at the rate we are going we won't make it.
- New Scientist, April 23, 2005 via Agnet
Rick Relyea Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US, University of Pittsburgh, writes that in response to his finding that the herbicide Roundup may be lethal to amphibians (9 April, p 5), Monsanto has created a web page criticising my study at http://www.monsanto.co.uk/news/ukshowlib.phtml?uid=8800. Readers may like to know that there is also now a web page that addresses Monsanto's concerns at http://www.pitt.edu/~relyea/Roundup.html.
Nobel Prize Winner Talks Agriculture At N.C. State
-Patrick Gleason, Technician, 19-Apr-2005 University Wire
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug paid a visit to North Carolina State University Monday night, presenting a lecture entitled "Bridging the Divide Between Environment, Agriculture and Forestry." Although Norman Borlaug is not a celebrity or a household name, he is credited with "saving more lives than any person who has ever lived," according to Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences. A scientist, teacher, policy activist and world citizen, Borlaug's work over the past 61 years has lead to higher crop yields and in turn "saved perhaps a billion people from starving," according to Borlaug.
The overflow crowd in the McKimmon Center consisted of both experts in the fields of science and agriculture and students currently enrolled in the colleges of natural resources and agriculture and life sciences who will be carrying the torch that Norman Borlaug is passing on to a new generation.
Borlaug referred to his life's work as "a struggle" to provide the most basic form of sustenance to people from all corners of the globe. According to Borlaug, this is a struggle that will continue into the future and one that will be paramount to the welfare of all of humanity.
Borlaug informed the audience that over the course of the next 50 years "we must produce nearly three times as much food" for a planet that will be even "more populous and more prosperous." Making this problem all the more complex is that fact that there is "limited potential for land expansion" and, because of this reality, "85 percent of future growth in food supply must come from lands already in production."
Borlaug pointed out that this challenge is not being met. As recently as the year 2000, Borlaug stated that "international support to agriculture reached its lowest level in history," and has since only seen modest improvement. Also, wheat production per capita has been declining since 1997 and new disease threats such as stem rust are emerging.
Despite these negative statistics, Borlaug said he believes that the responsibility of feeding the world is one that can be met. According to Borlaug this looming crisis can be overcome with "proper use of biotechnology" and the restoration of publicly funded research.
According to Borlaug, the issue of world hunger transcends any one field and should be of interest to all who are concerned with matters of world peace. Borlaug presented the audience with statistics indicating that nations that have trouble providing necessary food for their people are more likely to experience violent conflict and civil unrest. Borlaug also quoted Nobel Peace Prize Laureate John Boyd Orr, saying "you cannot build peace on empty stomachs."
Norman Borlaug has been the recipient of 54 honorary doctorates. He has also served on President Jimmy Carter's Commission for World Hunger and President Bill Clinton's Commission on Science and Technology. The night ended with the presentation of a new College of Natural Resources biennial award and forum in honor of Borlaug's service and vision.
Some Activist Groups Exhibit a "Pathological Scientific" Stance
- Henry I. Miller, Genetic Engineering News April 20, 2005
'Pursued Agenda Is Often Not the Protection of Human Health or the Environment'
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 scores of those he believed were guessing in order to humiliate him. The evidence? Rhine felt that some of 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 arent so. This sort of chicanery is increasingly common among certain self-styled public interest groups, who are, however, 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 the 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, it turns out, the activists targets 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 doesnt, the scientific method and market forces collaborate to ensure that, ultimately, dishonesty is exposed and punished. By contrast, activist-funded research is commonly held to a far lower standard. Their 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 have 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.
MMR and Autism In 1998, British researchers published a study that suggested an association, but not causation, between the administration of MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and an increased risk of autism. In spite of the fact that that initial study was based on only 12 children, its results were widely publicized, causing some parents and hospitals to stop or delay vaccinations for newborns and children.
Subsequent studies of much larger groups of children have not confirmed such an association, however, and the overwhelming consensus among scientists and physicians is that no such link exists. Nevertheless, this incident inflicted incalculable damage on the publics confidence in vaccination, and on individual children deprived of protection from life-threatening diseases.
Video Display Terminals In 1980, a Canadian newspaper reported that four women in the classified ad department of another newspaper had given birth to children with birth defects, including a cleft palate, underdeveloped eye, club foot, and heart defects.
The fact that all the women had worked with video display terminals during the early stages of their pregnancies gave rise to speculation that radiation from such terminals, most of which are based on common television technology, was responsible.
Other such clusters of birth defects came to light, leading to aggressive anti-VDT activism that in both North America and Europe caused management to be pitted against workers. In Canada and Sweden, merely the belief that harm could be caused by VDTs was considered to be grounds for refusal to use them.
Over the next two decades, several large studies and repeated analyses concluded that the use of VDTs is not associated with birth defects or spontaneous abortions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that the clusters were random occurrences that is, the function of probability.
(If you flip a coin a million times, youll likely come close to half a million heads and half a million tails, but along the way, there will be occasional long runs, or clusters, of heads or tails.)
Electromagnetic Radiation Supposed hazards of electromagnetic radiation, which is emitted from a variety of sources including overhead power lines, electric blankets, computer terminals, and electric razors, has excited the imagination of many.
For example, after a Florida woman developed a brain tumor behind her right ear, where she usually placed her cell phone, her husband blamed her illness (and subsequent death) on radiation from the cell phone and filed suit against the phones manufacturer. After his 1993 appearance on CNNs Larry King show, other, similar lawsuits followed. None were successful and within several months the scare was forgotten.
This kind of health scare is an example of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy (believing that because two events are temporally related, they must be causally related). Fallacy it might be, but it lends itself well to the way that Americans these days often learn about safety and risk: Could your cell phone give you cancer? Details at 11!
In fact, at the current rate of occurrence of brain cancers, about 3,600 cases would be expected to occur among 60 million owners of cell phones whether or not they use them.
Environmental Working Group In 2003, a nebulous entity called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) claimed to have evidence that the farm-raised salmon eaten regularly by millions of Americans contains high levels of PCBs. PCBs were identified in the press coverage as a toxin, probable human carcinogen, or a cause of cancer and nervous system damage.
These reports were grossly misleading. At levels of environmental exposure, PCBs have not been shown to cause cancer or any other disease in humans. The study, which was based on a sample of only ten fish, was condemned by genuine experts at a variety of institutions, including the Harvard School of Public Health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the highly respected American Council on Science and Health.
Unfortunately, the criticisms came only after EWGs report had generated national media coverage, and received little attention from the media. On its website, the EWG makes no pretense about its possessing scientific credentials or expertise, and its president once admitted to a journalist that there was not a single physician or scientist on its staff.
Genetic Modification Environmental activists lately have taken to claiming that conventional crops have been contaminated by the finding of minuscule amounts of DNA from genetically modifiedby which they mean gene-splicedvarieties. 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 Canada and 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 havent 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.
Moral Equivalence Pathological science may confuse not only the public but also policy makers, who may themselves be scientifically challenged. Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, 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, an ongoing example of the sentiments expressed by a character in the Peanuts comic strip, I love humanity; its people I cant stand.
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, M.D., is a fellow at the Hoover Institution (Stanford University) and a former FDA official. His most recent book is The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution. Phone: (650) 725-0185. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Conference: Safeguarding Sustainable European Agriculture: Coexistence, GMO-Free Zones and the Promotion of Quality Food Produce in Europe
- Tuesday, 17 May 2005; European Parliament, Altiero Spinelli Building, 1st Floor, Room A1G3, rue Wiertz, B-1047 Brussels http://www.gmofree-conference.org/
Over the last four years an increasing number of regions, provinces and municipalities across Europe have declared themselves as an "area without genetically modified organisms (GMOs)" or as a "GMO free zone". This strong and diverse movement is driven by a combination of concerns over the environment, food safety, food quality, the local and regional economy, and consumer and farmer choice. It received a strong impulse in May 2004 when the European Commission decided to restart the EU authorisation process for GMOs, in spite of huge opposition from the public and many EU member states.
In the meantime, regions and Non Government Organisations (NGOs) have come together to protect biodiversity, traditional and organic agriculture from the risks of GMOs. They are also developing a joint strategy that not only safeguards but also effectively promotes the position of organic and traditional farming in future European agriculture policy.
The conference "Safeguarding sustainable European agriculture" is one of the first results of this cooperation. The conference will focus on a new EU regulatory framework for the growing of GMO crops that that has recently been indicated by the EU agricultural Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boell. Coexistence is the term used to describe rules that tell farmers how they should separate traditional, organic and genetically modified (GM) crops to avoid contamination. Currently such coexistence rules only exist in some of the EU's member states, resulting in less protection for farmers, consumers and the environment in most of the EU.
On 17 May members of the European parliament, representatives from European regions, the European Commission, the EU member states and NGOs will for the first time explore together the possible content of an EU wide legislative coexistence framework. The conference will specifically focus on the legal possibilities to include the concerns and wishes of the regions into this new legislative framework. The conference is free of charge and open to political delegates from the Member States and their regions, to representatives of EU institutions, relevant NGOs, scientists and industry representatives.
The European Dream: Building Sustainable Development
- Jeremy Rifkin. E/The Environmental Magazine, March/April 2005. Excerpts below... Full article at http://www.emagazine.com/view/?2308
A growing number of Americans are beginning to wonder why Europe has leaped ahead of the U.S. to become the most environmentally advanced political space in the world today. To understand why Europe has left America behind in the race to create a sustainable society, we need to look at the very different dreams that characterize the American and European frame of mind.
Ask Americans what they most admire about the U.S.A. and they will likely cite the individual opportunity to get ahead--at least until recently. The American Dream is based on a simple but compelling covenant: Anyone, regardless of the station to which they are born, can leverage a good public education, determination and hard work to become a success in life. We can go from "rags to riches."
Ask a European what they most admire about Europe and they will invariably say "the quality of life." Eight out of 10 Europeans say they are happy with their lives and when asked what they believe to be the most important legacy of the 20th century, 58 percent of Europeans picked their quality of life, putting it second only to freedom in a list of 11 legacies.
Saying No to GE Foods
In recent years, the European Union (EU) has turned upside down the standard operating procedure for introducing new technologies and products into the marketplace and society, much to the consternation of the United States. The turnaround started with the controversy over genetically engineered (GE) foods and the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The U.S. government gave the green light to the widespread introduction of GE foods in the mid 1990s, and by the end of the decade more than half of America's agricultural land was given over to GE crops. No new laws were enacted to govern the potential harmful environmental and health impacts. Instead, existing statutes were invoked, and no special handling or labeling of the products was required.
In Europe, massive opposition to GMOs erupted across the continent. Farmers, environmentalists and consumer organizations staged protests and political parties and governments voiced concern. A defacto moratorium on the planting of GE crops and sale of GE food products was put into effect. Meanwhile, the major food processors, distributors and retailers pledged not to sell any products containing GE traits.
The EU embarked on a lengthy review process to assess the environmental and health risks of introducing GE food products. In the end, it established tough new protections designed to mitigate the potential harm. The measures included procedures to segregate and track GE grain and food products from the fields to the retail stores to ensure against contamination; labeling of GMOs at every stage of the food process to ensure transparency; and independent testing as well as more rigorous testing requirements by the companies producing GE seeds and other GMOs.
The EU is forging ahead on a wide regulatory front, changing the very conditions and terms by which new scientific and technological pursuits and products are introduced into the marketplace and the environment. Its bold initiatives put the EU far ahead of the rest of the world. Behind all of its newfound regulatory zeal is the looming question of how best to model global risks and create a sustainable and transparent approach to economic development.
Americans, by and large, view nature as a treasure trove of useful resources waiting to be harnessed for productive ends. While Europeans share America's utilitarian perspective, they also have a love for the intrinsic value of nature. One can see it in Europeans' regard for the countryside and their determination to maintain natural landscapes, even if it means providing government assistance in the way of special subsidies, or foregoing commercial development. Nature figures prominently in Europeans' dream of a quality of life. Europeans spend far more time visiting the countryside on weekends and during their vacations than Americans.
The balancing of urban and rural time is less of a priority for most Americans, many of whom are just as likely to spend their weekends at a shopping mall, while their European peers are hiking along country trails. Anyone who spends significant time among Europeans knows that they have a great affinity for rural getaways. Almost everyone I know in Europe-among the professional and business class-has some small second home in the country somewhere-a dacha usually belonging to the family for generations. While working people may not be as fortunate, on any given weekend they can be seen exiting the cities en masse, motoring their way into the nearest rural enclave or country village for a respite from urban pressures.
The strongly held values about rural life and nature is one reason why Europe has been able to support green parties across the continent, with substantial representation in national parliaments as well as in the European Parliament. By contrast, not a single legislator at the federal level in the U.S. is a member of the Green Party.
There is another dimension to the European psyche that makes Europeans supportive of the precautionary principle--their sense of "connectedness."
Because we Americans place such a high premium on autonomy, we are far less likely to see the deep connectedness of things. We tend to see the world in terms of containers, each isolated from the whole and capable of standing alone. We like everything around us to be neatly bundled, autonomous, and self contained.
The new view of science that is emerging in the wake of globalization is quite different. Nature is viewed as a myriad of symbiotic relationships, all embedded in a larger whole, of which they are an integral part. In this new vision of nature, nothing is autonomous, everything is connected.
By championing a host of global environmental treaties and accords taking the precautionary approach to regulation, the EU has shown a willingness to act on its commitment to sustainable development and global environmental stewardship. The fact that its commitments in most areas remain weak and are often vacillating is duly noted. But, at least Europe has established a new agenda for conducting science and technology that, if followed, could begin to wean the world from the old ways and toward a second Enlightenment.
-- JEREMY RIFKIN is the author of The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream (Tarcher/Penguin, 2004), from which this article was adapted.