Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: April 29, 2005
* Farmers Are Sick Less From GM Crop
* .. China Poised for GM Future as Rice Yields Leap 10pc
* .. GM Rice in China Benefits Farmers' Health, Study Finds
* Sharing the Gold
* Why Put Human Genes In Rice?
* Safety of GM Foods
* Better Beer with Biotech
* GM Opponents Spread Errors
* Italian Bishops Say More Research Needed on GMOs (But Support It!)
* Biotech Firm Puts Off Rice Crop in Missouri
* LifeEdu - Changing the Way We Think About Life
* Biotech Risk Assessment: Bioethics and Gene Confinement
* Prize Winning Biotech Website by a 17-Year Old from Nigeria!
* Seeds of Discord
* If You Could Teach the World Just One Thing....
Farmers Are Sick Less From GM Crop
- Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press, April 28, 2005
Chinese farmers growing genetically modified rice produced larger crops, saved money on pesticides and were less likely to get sick from exposure to poison intended for insects.
An analysis of dozens of farmers growing two strains of rice modified to resist insects showed they used much less pesticide than those using conventional rice. None of the farmers using only the genetically modified (GM) crop was sickened by exposure to pesticides.
In contrast, 8.3 percent of farmers in the study growing only conventional rice reported pesticide-related illness in 2002, while 3.0 percent of them did so in 2003, researchers report in Friday's issue of the journal Science. "Small and poor farm households benefit from adopting GM rice by both higher crop yields and reduced use of pesticides, which also contributes to the improved health of farmers," said Carl Pray, an agriculture, food and resource economics professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Pray and researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of California at Davis studied farmers using two rice strains that had been modified in different ways to make the plants resistant to rice stem borer and leaf roller. In 2002, researchers studied 40 farmers using modified rice on all or part of their farms and 37 farmers using only conventional varieties of rice. In 2003, they looked at 69 farmers who were using modified rice on all or part of their farms and 32 who were growing conventional varieties.
The farmers were not paid for their effort and were not assisted by technicians. They made their own decisions about using pesticides by studying their fields. On average, farmers working with genetically modified rice used pesticides once a year while those with conventional varieties applied pesticides 3.7 times annually.
The researchers found that the total amount of pesticides used was eight times to 10 times more for the conventional farmers than those with the genetically modified crop, saving the farmers with the new strains a lot of money.
China Poised for GM Future as Rice Yields Leap 10pc
- Roger Highfield, Daily Telegraph (UK) April 29, 2005 http://portal.telegraph.co.uk/
Farmers growing genetically modified rice in field trials have reported crop yields up by 10 per cent, pesticide use down 80 per cent and fewer pesticide-related health problems. The results, published today, place China on the threshold of commercialising GM rice, the world's most important crop.
China's decision could influence the future of GM crops in the rest of the world but it is taking longer to reach than many scientists expected. "It's as though China is watching Europe while the world watches China.," said Prof Mike Gale of the John Innes Centre, Norwich.
Prof Michael Lipton of Sussex University added that China has delayed making a decision because it is worried that, if it exports GM rice, it could face a boycott because of the anti GM sentiment in Europe and campaigning of green groups.
The first study of the impact of GM rice at farm level, in this case two of the four GM varieties in farm-level preproduction trials, is reported today in Science by researchers in China and at Rutgers University and the University of California, Davis. "The performance of insect-resistant GM rice in trials has been impressive." said Prof Jikun Huang, the director of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
"Agricultural biotechnology may boost China's agriculture, improve the nation's food security, and increase the income and improve the health of rice farmers. "Small and poor farm households benefit from adopting GM rice by both higher crop yields and reduced use of pesticides, which also contributes to the improved health of farmers," said co-author Prof Carl Pray of Rutgers.
China began GM crop research in the 1980s but, said Prof Huang: "One of major reasons that commercialisation has not proceeded is that there has been little independent evidence on whether GM food crops would really improve farmer income and rice productivity."
To address this, the team conducted a farm survey in eight insect-resistant GM rice pre-production field trial villages in China. The team examined two genetically modified rice strains: the Xianyou 63, created to be resistant to rice stem borer - which affects 70 per cent of rice growing areas- and leaf roller through insertion of a Bacillus thuringiensis gene, and the Youming 86 variety, which is insect-resistant due to introduction of a resistance gene from the cowpea plant.
Overall, use of the GM rice enabled the farmers to reduce pesticide use by 15 pounds per acre, an 80-per cent reduction when compared with pesticide use by farmers using conventional varieties. Prof Huang added: "Sixty-two per cent of the farmers who planted insect-resistant GM rice applied no pesticides to their GM rice fields, and nearly 90 per cent of them sprayed no pesticides for the borers."
The average yield of the GM Xianyou 63 and GM II-Youming 86 were six per cent higher, and average yield of the GM Xianyou 63 variety alone was nine per cent higher than that of conventional rice varieties. "Annually, more than 50,000 farmers are poisoned in farm fields, of which some 400-500 die," Prof Huang said. But the survey indicated that none of the farmers in the trial reported experiencing adverse health effects from pesticide use in either 2002 or 2003.
Genetically Modified Rice in China Benefits Farmers' Health, Study Finds
New Brunswick, NJ--Farmers growing genetically modified rice in field trials in China report higher crop yields, reduced pesticide use and fewer pesticide-related health problems, according to a study by researchers in China and at Rutgers University and the University of California, Davis.
Results of the study will appear in the April 29 issue of the journal Science.
"This paper studies two of the four GM varieties that are now in farm-level preproduction trials, the last step before commercialization" says study co-author Carl Pray, an agriculture, food and resource economics professor at Rutgers' Cook College who specializes in the economics of technology change in the agriculture of developing countries. "Farm surveys of randomly selected farm households that are cultivating the insect-resistant GM rice varieties demonstrate that when compared with households cultivating non-GM rice, small and poor farm households benefit from adopting GM rice by both higher crop yields and reduced use of pesticides, which also contributes to the improved health of farmers."
China began doing research on genetically modified agricultural crops in the 1980s. Although it has aggressively commercialized "Bt cotton," genetically modified to produce a natural pesticide against the bollworm, China has not developed any genetically modified food crops for the commercial market. "This study provides China and other nations with objective, research-based information about whether GM food crops can actually improve farmer welfare," Pray said.
He and colleagues set out to conduct an economic analysis of data from eight rice pre-commercialization field trials in China. Their goal was to determine whether genetically modified rice was helping farmers reduce pesticide use in the fields, increasing yield and having any identifiable health effects on the farmers growing the genetically modified rice strains.
They examined data from field trials involving two genetically modified rice strains: the Xianyou 63, created to be resistant to rice stem borer and leaf roller through insertion of a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene, and the Youming 86 variety, which is insect-resistant due to introduction of a resistance gene from the cowpea plant. Both varieties have been in pre-production field trials since 2001.
These field trials in China were designed to identify the effects of the genetically modified crops on farm households before the new crops are commercialized. The field trials of Xianyou 63 are being conducted by farmers in seven villages in five counties and of Youming 86 in one village in Fujian province.
The farmers received no compensation for participating in the two-year study. They grew the rice without help or advice from technicians, making all of their own decisions on whether or not to apply pesticides on both genetically modified insect-resistant rice and non-genetically modified rice. They based their decisions on whether to apply pesticides on observations of the severity of pest infestations, rather than on any prescribed dosages of pesticide.
The 2002 survey included 40 farmers who devoted all or part of their acreage to a genetically modified rice strain and 37 farmers who planted all non-genetically modified rice. In 2003, because more insect-resistant rice seed had been distributed, the survey included 69 farmers who planted all OR part of their fields to genetically modified rice and 32 farmers who grew only conventional rice varieties.
Data from the surveys revealed that the characteristics of the farm households were nearly identical, regardless of what type of rice they were growing. For example, there was no statistical difference between the farms in terms of size, share of rice in the farm's cropping pattern, or in the farmers' age or education.
Pesticide Use The main difference between the farm households was in the level of pesticides they used. The study showed that the farmers applied the same types of pesticides, regardless of what type of rice they were growing. However, the farmers growing the genetically modified rice strains applied pesticides less than once per season, while farmers growing conventional rice varieties applied pesticides 3.7 times per season.
Measured on a per hectare (2.471 acres) basis, the quantity and cost of pesticides applied to the conventional rice was 8 to 10 times as high as that applied to the insect-resistant genetically modified rice.
In short, use of the genetically modified rice enabled the farmers to reduce pesticide use by 15 pounds per acre, an 80-percent reduction when compared with pesticide use by farmers using conventional rice varieties.
Rice yields The survey data also showed that there was a difference in yields between the genetically modified and non-genetically modified rice varieties. Yields of the genetically modified Xianyou 63 variety were 9 percent higher than those of conventional rice varieties. Yields of the genetically modified Youming 86 were not significantly different from those of conventional varieties, however researchers note that there were relatively few observations of this variety because it was grown in only one village by coomparatively few farm households.
Pesticide related illnesses Because there is a high incidence of pesticide-related illness in households of developing countries, including China, the researchers were interested in tracking the health effects of insect-resistant genetically modified rice. They asked farm family members if they experienced any headaches, nausea, skin irritation, digestive discomfort or other health problems during or after spraying pesticides on their farms. If so, the researchers asked them if they had visited a doctor, gone home to recover or takeno other actions to deal with the symptoms. If they had, it was recorded as a case of pesticide-induced illness.
The survey indicated that none of the farmers who had completely planted their farms to genetically modified insect-resistant rice varieties reported experiencing adverse health effects from pesticide use in either 2002 or 2003.
Of those farm households that grew plots of the genetically modified rice and plots of conventional rice varieties, 7.7 percent reported pesticide-induced illness incidents in 2002, and 10.9 percent reported such cases in 2003. None of those households reported being affected after working on plots planted to the genetically engineered varieties. Among the farm households that used conventional rice varieties, 8.3 percent in 2002 and 3.0 percent in 2003 reported adverse health affects related to pesticide use.
Sharing the Gold
- Dean Kleckner,Truth About Trade & Technology, http://www.truthabouttrade.org
Sometimes the enemies of biotechnology utterly puzzle me. I'm so mystified by their motives that I'm forced to a simple conclusion: These people aren't the sharpest tools in the shed, or the brightest crayons in the box. No, these are the kind of people who need an hour to make minute rice.
As it happens, rice has been on my mind lately. And not just any rice, but a specific kind called Golden Rice. Introduced for the first time five years ago, it currently represents one of the most promising varieties of biotech food found anywhere because it's fortified with vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is responsible for half a million cases of infant blindness and more than a million deaths each year.
We call it Golden Rice because of its color--but Golden Rice also offers a golden opportunity to feed the world. Most of the suffering associated with vitamin A deficiency takes place in developing countries. It is also largely preventable, because the root cause is malnutrition. If the victims merely were to eat a properly balanced diet that included sufficient amounts of vitamin A, far fewer of them would lose their sight or die.
Golden Rice is an affordable biotech solution to this frustrating problem. So what does Greenpeace think of it? Well, last month this radical organization of anti-biotech extremists condemned Golden Rice as "a technical failure." Moreover, said Greenpeace, this innovative food will "exacerbate malnutrition and undermine food security because it encourages a diet based on a single industrial staple food."
Do you follow that logic? Golden Rice improves the nutritional value of a staple crop--and so Greenpeace says that it will make malnutrition worse. Think about that for a minute, while I go cook up a batch of rice.
Okay, I'm back. And guess what: Greenpeace's logic still doesn't make any sense. And if we keep on calling it "logic," we're going to give logic a bad name. What we have here is an example of Orwellian thinking. The three most notorious slogans from George Orwell's book 1984, after all, are: "war is peace," "freedom is slavery," and "ignorance is strength."
Now Greenpeace wants to add a new one: "Golden Rice is malnutrition." It makes about as much sense, and as a slogan it probably would bring a smile to the scowling face of Big Brother.
In fairness, Greenpeace has based its illogic on yesterday's news. The early versions of Golden Rice were no panacea because they merely would have raised levels of vitamin A to about 20 percent of their recommended daily allowance. That's certainly no cure for the global problem of vitamin A deficiency, but it's a very good start. If you were a major-league baseball player, would you rather hit one out of every five pitches thrown to you or none at all?
But now there's Golden Rice 2, an upgraded form of the crop that makes it possible for people to get half of the recommended levels of vitamin A from a single source. This isn't going to wipe out malnutrition, but it's going to make a big dent--lives will be saved and children will see.
That's not the only good news. Syngenta, the company that has developed Golden Rice 2, is working with the Humanitarian Golden Rice Network to make its product available in local varieties all over the world--and it's letting poor farmers resow their seeds without having to pay fees.
The highly respected magazine Nature recently editorialized strongly in favor of this decision: "Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and their political allies in European governments and nongovernmental organizations will not welcome Golden Rice 2. They will continue to reject and stall biotech products at the mere hint of a transgene, no matter what the humanitarian value of the crop and no matter how spurious the environmental concerns. But there comes a time when arguments against a GM product that could help prevent blindness in hundreds of thousands and death in millions each year should be seen for what they are: ideological bigotry."
That's well put, though I'm more inclined to label it ideological stupidity. I hope someone comes up with a biotech cure for that.
Why Put Human Genes In Rice?
- Tim Radford The Guardian April 28, 2005 http://www.guardian.co.uk
Why not? A gene is a gene is a gene, says Christopher Leaver, Sibthorpian professor of plant sciences at Oxford.
Plants, animals and humans often have very similar versions of the same genes, to carry out the same function. Among these are genes that make enzymes called cytochrome P450s, which break down and detoxify poisonous chemicals. Japanese scientists have tested a human enzyme (known as CYP2B6) in rice and potatoes. This enzyme is known to break down more than a dozen herbicides, pesticides and industrial chemicals. Farmers use herbicides to suppress weeds, but the crops need to survive the spraying.
CYP286 rice did well in tests involving the use of about 17 different herbicides, according to Sakiko Hirose, of the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Tsukuba. "The liver detoxifies everything in human beings" Leaver says. "Plants have a lot of genes which also detoxify."
Rice is a staple, but the addition of a "human" gene hardly qualifies as an invitation to cannibalism. "You could synthesise this thing, if you knew the sequence, in the lab. It doesn't actually have to come from a human," he says. "It's DNA. It's a chemical."
Safety of GM Foods
- Irish Times April 28, 2005, http://www.ireland.com
Madam, - The GM-Free Ireland Network's declaration of 1,000 GM-zones in Ireland (The Irish Times, April 23rd) is a naïve and futile gesture. The GM genie has long escaped out of the bottle.
Diabetics now take GM-derived insulin, a safer version of the former animal-derived product. GM micro-organisms have been used for decades in foods requiring fermentation (alcoholic drinks, cheeses, yoghurts, etc). Cotton is rapidly becoming a worldwide GM crop, with the bonus (in China at least) of thousands fewer cases of pesticide poisoning among growers.
Kathy Sinnott, MEP, supports the GM-Free Ireland Network, believing that Ireland could become a "safe" (i.e. non-GM) food source for Europe. In this, she is probably more influenced by populist hysteria than scientifically verifiable facts; she must know that the interminable European Parliament debates on GM foods presented no credible evidence that GM foods were any less safe than conventional produce.
In policing the borders of their 1,000 GM-Free zones, the GM-Free Ireland Network will have to exclude diabetics, alcoholic drinks, cheeses and yoghurts. Of course they will also have to insist that everybody discards their cotton shirts and underwear before being allowed in. - Yours, etc,
- Con O'Rourke, Park Lane, Sandymount, Dublin 4.
Better Beer with Biotech
Here in Iowa, Miller Lite beer advertises that it buys more Iowa corn than any other brewer. Sixty percent at least of our corn is GM. This means Miller is confident in its product and customers enough to not be stampeded by cranks. I prefer low fumonisin beer with reduced pesticides, thank you!
- Andrew Apel
> Anheuser-Busch Trapped In Social-Issue Snare > - Steven Milloy, The New York Sun, April 25, 2005 >http://www.nysun.com/article/12743 > Corporate managers might want to think twice about publicly >engaging in environmental and social.
GM Opponents Spread Errors
- Border Mail (Australia), April 29, 2005 http://www.bordermail.com.au
Comments by Ms Gill Rosier in "Study should cause alarm" (The Border Mail, April 11) regarding the environmental impact and regulatory status of Bayer CropSciences genetically modified canola in Europe are simply incorrect.
While the revised European regulatory process for GM crops can appear complicated and confusing, especially from afar, the application for Bayers GM canola, now being assessed by the European Food Safety Authority, has not yet reached the voting stage by the European members.
Ms Rosier is incorrect in the number of European countries opposing approval of GM canola. In 1998, under the old European regulatory system, the European Scientific Committee on Plants concluded there was no evidence that Bayer GM canola would cause any adverse effects on humans or the environment.
The independent scientists responsible for the recently reported British Farm Scale Evaluations of GM crops, especially GM canola (winter oilseed rape) made it very clear that any changes seen in the environment were due to herbicide rather than the crop being genetically modified.
The evaluations, as with all previous research, showed that glufosinate was an effective herbicide and that its use had an impact on the weeds in the field, giving farmers more flexibility to control weeds later in the season.
Its disappointing that so few of the media reports on these trials made reference to the fact that the over-riding effect of growing GM canola versus non-GM canola was that "nothing happened" and while butterfly levels went down slightly, the generally non-pest butterflies actually went up more than 20 per cent in the GM fields.
Bee activity at various times in the year was normal and a reduction of bee sightings in July corresponded to when the crop was not suitable for nectar foraging. Australia's world class science-based gene technology regulatory system agreed on the safety of GM canola in 2003.
Canadian farmers have been successfully growing Bayers GM hybrid canola since 1997 and it now enjoys about 30 per cent market share with more hectares of InVigor varieties planted than Australias entire canola crop.
Australian farmers are missing out and they should take a stronger stance against the anti-innovation and anti-productivity ideology of the regular anti-GM activists bombarding this newspaper with misinformation.
- SUSIE ONEILL, general manager, bioscience, Bayer CropScience
Italian Bishops Say More Research Needed on GMOs
- Ansa - English Media Service, April 28 2005
Rome - In a report on Italian agriculture, Italian Bishops stressed today that further data are required to understand the effects of genetically modified (GM) food products. The report by the Bishops Conference (CEI) - entitled The Fruit of Man's Labour and The Earth - noted that "particular attention must be devoted to evaluating the possible effects of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) on man and his habitat, from biological, productive, economic and social viewpoints." At the moment, "it is difficult" to make an accurate judgement on the issue, the report said.
Although GMO advocates claim that new food technologies can benefit the world's starving populations, there are also risks involved, CEI said. "We mustn't make the mistake of believing that new biotechnologies may be the answer for all the pressing problems of poverty and underdevelopment afflicting so many countries. "The possible irreversible nature of these processes and the uncertainty linked to our partial knowledge of GMOs call for a particularly cautious stance and further scientific research."
An international conference on GMOs held by the Vatican in 2003 ended without a definitive pronouncement on the issue. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State, told the conference that a number of Catholic universities were studying the latest developments in GMOs with a view to helping the Church establish its ethics in the area.
Vatican backing would be a powerful boost for supporters of GM crops and foods, who say they could help resolve hunger in the world. But many environmentalists believe that not enough research has been done to pronounce GMOs safe. They also say that GM crops, once planted, would spread uncontrollably.
"I respect the ideas of ecologists, who do a great service to nature, but I also respect those who see GMOs as a resource in the fight against hunger," said Sodano.
One of the speakers at the conference, Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, also gave an indication of where the Vatican stands on GMOs. Msgr Sgreccia said that in principle the Church's bioethics allow living organisms to be modified if it is done in the interests of humanity.
"Naturally, there are some conditions to this," he stressed. "Before GM products are put on the market they have to be tested for possible health risks." It was also essential that the public could see clearly which products in shops contained GM ingredients, Sgreccia added.
Another danger to be faced was the possibility that, in one way or another, GM crops would end up eliminating traditional plant species. "The world's biodiversity must be maintained," he said.
Biotech Firm Puts Off Rice Crop in Missouri
- Bill Lambrecht, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 28, 2005 http://www.stltoday.com
The California company that riled Bootheel farmers and Anheuser-Busch Cos. with a plan to grow pharmaceutical rice in Missouri has given up on planting in the state this year and instead is aiming at North Carolina.
Scott Deeter, president and chief operating officer of Ventria Bioscience, said Thursday that he saw no hope of winning approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in time to plant its special rice in Missouri this spring. But Deeter said that his company intended to plant next year in Missouri and to follow through with a plan to make Missouri and the campus of Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville Ventria's permanent home. "There's no doubt in our minds that there's a very strong and visionary commitment in Missouri to biotechnology," he said.
The decision not to plant here this year is a setback for Gov. Matt Blunt and Missouri political leaders who fought for the California company and the goal of elevating Missouri's status as a biotech leader. Allied in opposition were rice growers, major food companies and environmental groups that tried to prevent companies like Ventria from getting permission to convert croplands into factories for drugs.
Ventria had obtained preliminary approval from the Agriculture Department to plant some 200 acres in southeast Missouri with rice that is genetically engineered to produce human proteins for use in drugs. But the company encountered an 11th hour uprising by rice farmers who feared accidental contamination of their crops and damage to a $100 million industry that depends heavily on exports.
Anheuser-Busch's recent declaration that it would not buy Missouri-grown rice if Ventria planted in the Bootheel sent Ventria scurrying to find sites elsewhere for its rice. With the Agriculture Department promising additional scrutiny of a last-minute site in southwestern Missouri, Deeter said he concluded that the company could not meet a May 20 deadline for spring planting.
Ventria hopes to plant its pharmaceutical rice in Missouri next year, Deeter said, and already has begun sowing varieties of conventional rice in the state to determine which variety can grow well when genetically engineered.
On Wednesday, Ventria submitted requests in Washington for new permits that would allow the company to plant on 70 acres at two undisclosed locations in North Carolina. An Agriculture Department spokeswoman said the company was seeking approval, as in Missouri, to plant rice that produces lactoferrin and lysozyme, proteins that occur naturally in human breast milk, tears and other bodily fluids.
The company already had received one permit from the Agriculture Department for planting its engineered rice on five acres in North Carolina. It was uncertain whether Ventria could meet a deadline for planting this spring in North Carolina, because the government may take public comments for at least 20 days before making a decision.
The Agriculture Department is under pressure to turn down Ventria's request and others like it. The Grocery Manufacturers of America, whose members represent $500 billion in annual sales, insists that the government lacks a way to prevent contamination of food with synthetic proteins destined for drugs.
On Thursday, advocacy groups presented Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns with 30,000 signatures asking for a ban on the use of food crops to produce drugs. Ventria has insisted that its specialty rice can be contained.
Northwest Missouri State University President Dean Hubbard said Thursday that his institution planned to proceed with a $30 million agricultural pharmaceutical center that would house Ventria and other companies. Hubbard helped raise $5 million to persuade Ventria to relocate from Sacramento, Calif., to Missouri. "We're moving ahead. I have no doubt about that at all. The architects are busy," said Hubbard, who recently became a Ventria board member.
Life.Edu - Changing the Way We Think About Life
lifeedu (pronounced, life e-d-u) is a 501 c(3) nonprofit organization established for the creation, production, and distribution of educational materials on DNA, genetics, and modern biotechnology for middle school, high school, general undergraduate and the general public.
The organization was founded, with Pfizer Inc. as the charter Sponsor, to meet a growing educational need that is fundamental now to the life sciences and the general education of our society. The Founding Board consists of members from the biotech industry, including Pfizer, as well as leading academic institutions in both Connecticut and Rhode Island. This project would be in collaboration with a number of academic institutions including URI, Yale and Cornell and their affiliates as subcontractors to lifeedu.
Over the last four years we have piloted a new course that was offered at both Connecticut College and the University of Rhode Island called The Way We Work With Life: Issues in Biotechnology. The success of that course has stimulated the concept that these materials and this format represent a platform for generating educational materials that can be used by K-16 teachers and for teaching current concepts in biotechnology. In addition this material has proven useful for a broad target audience including the general public and industry staff. We have received significant positive feedback that these materials would be very useful to science and non-science staff in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries generally.
The lectures for the course had been all developed as power point presentations, which with the help of undergraduate students who were so enthusiastic about the course, were organized into CDs.
In addition, we have conducted workshops and focus groups specifically for High School Teachers and have presented to numerous High School general assemblies. These experiences have made clear the need for a general course for High School Teachers that will provide them with sufficient information and materials they can use to integrate these topics into the existing curricular requirements. We have also learned that the topics addressed in the various fields touch on many cross curricular issues and therefore lend themselves to exposure in somewhat unexpected combinations; such as Social Studies and Biology for discussions on GM crops.
This course is intended for K-16 Teachers, General Undergraduate, and the General Public, including; Science and Non-Science Industry Staff, Government officials and their staff, Investors and Business Representatives and the generally interested public.
(From Prakash: This is an excellent new website aimed at biotech education. Be sure to watch the slide show and the short movie! -- http://www.lifeedu.org)
Biotechnology Risk Assessment: Bioethics and Gene Confinement
- May 12- 14, 2005, Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale, New Haven, CT
We are proud to announce a one-of-a-kind conference on the scientific advances, issues and bioethics of pharmaceutical production and gene confinement in genetically modified plants set for May 12-14 at Yale University in New Haven, CT. The event is co-hosted by Yale University Interdisciplinary Bioethics Project and lifeedu (see www.lifeedu.org). It is hoped this conference will bring together information from a science-based perspective to discussions on advances in crop modification and gene confinement.
The first day of this symposium, Thursday, May 12, 2005 will examine Genetically Modified Plants for Producing Pharmaceutical Products: Scientific Advances, Bioethical and Policy Issues, and is sponsored by Yale University's Interdisciplinary Bioethics Projects.
The second day of the symposium, Friday, May 13, 2005 focuses on "Gene Confinement for Genetically Modified Grasses: Gene Flow and Grasses" is sponsored by lifeedu.org. The invited speakers will address issues concerning gene flow and mechanisms for the mitigation of gene flow that can be applied to genetically engineered grasses and other perennial crops.
Registration is available online. Event Price: free For more information: call: 401-874-9911; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prize Winning Biotech Website by a 17-Year Old from Nigeria!
Samuel Oloyede Odofin, a 17 year old Nigerian, has been the wave all over the cities of Nigeria recently as he goes on step further in a skillful and scientific explanations of the concept of Biotechnology and how it can help boast food production across poor countries in the world, packaged in his dynamic website entitled "Biotechnology - the food solution".
Having been applauded by the Federal Government of Nigeria, the project has also been acquainted with many international awards such as the cable and wireless childnet awards (www.childnetacademy.org) and microsoft mtandao - afrika (www.mtandao-afrika.org). Speaking on the National Television in Nigeria, samuel Recalls that " I felt so bad when i saw statistics of people dieing in Africa, is was so pathetic to see mass death due to hunger and starvation".
Featured several times on Nigerian National television and local radio and TV stations in Jamaica, samuel has been travelling lately to present the Biotechnology project to people in Nigeria.
Contact Samuel Oloyede Odofin at
(from Prakash: It is commendable that a teenager from rural Nigeria has put together this impressive website. Be sure to visit the site and let Samuel know! -- http://www.odofin.com)
Seeds of Discord
- Margaret E. Smith, Nature 434, 957-958, April 21, 2005, www.nature.com
Book Reviewed - Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods by Nina Fedoroff & Nancy Marie Brown; Joseph Henry Press: 2004. 370 pp. $24.95, £17.99 (hbk)
'A useful, though partial, survey of how we breed the plants we eat.'
Most people in the industrialized world are blissfully ignorant about plant breeding. Plants provide the food in their supermarkets, flowers to grow in their gardens, and raw materials for industries that produce many items they find useful. Yet people are unaware of plant breeders' efforts over many years to improve the yield and quality of cultivated plants using a growing suite of genetic knowledge and technologies.
The advent of genetically engineered crop plants has, if nothing else, made a certain sector of the public -- those who object to such innovations -- intensely aware of the discipline of plant breeding. In Mendel in the Kitchen, Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown set out to address a number of concerns that have been raised about this most recent addition to the plant breeder's tool-box.
The book provides an informative and engaging description of the history of agricultural science in general, and of plant breeding in particular. The origin of the ambiguous concept of the 'species' is well explained, for instance, highlighting the difficulty of defining the 'traditional species barrier'. Before genetic engineering was possible, cross-breeding was largely limited to plants that are sexually cross-compatible -- a criterion that was used to define the limits of a species. Now genetic engineering allows genes to be moved between organisms, regardless of cross-compatibility, so it has been criticized for breaking the species barrier.
The history of other widely accepted plant-breeding tools helps to put genetic engineering in a realistic context. 'Wide crosses' -- those between a crop and its wild relatives -- are nothing new, nor is the technique of chromosome doubling: the grain triticale, for example, is a product of a wide cross between wheat and rye, followed by doubling the chromosome number to make it fertile. Mutagenesis -- using chemical or radiation treatments to cause genetic changes -- may sound questionable to some but has been used to produce a few crop varieties that are grown and eaten without concern. Our current agricultural and horticultural plants are far from 'natural' and have been genetically modified by humans for thousands of years using a broad range of tools, some of them more drastic in their effects than others.
The facts presented in Fedoroff and Brown's book are, for the most part, accurate. It is the things they choose not to include, and the inclusion of some sweeping generalizations, that give the book its decidedly pro-genetic-engineering slant. The omissions may have been meant to minimize detail and complexity, but their accumulated effect is to give the book a distinct bias that people worried about this technology will readily detect.
For example, in a discussion of 'golden rice', which has been genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene in an effort to alleviate vitamin A deficiency, the authors say that concerns about restriction of the gene pool are unfounded. If golden rice proves popular, there is no reason to expect that only one strain will be grown, they argue, as the trait could be bred into any of the thousands of rice varieties grown by farmers at present. This is technically true. However, golden rice is intended to be given to subsistence farmers free of charge, so there is no economic incentive for the private sector to move the beta-carotene genes into thousands of varieties. Public-sector breeding programmes, meanwhile, have neither the personnel nor the financial resources to do so. Initially only a few golden rice varieties will be developed: varieties that have appropriate adaptation, sufficient yields, and acceptable eating quality for the major rice-growing environments. If golden rice is to have the impact on vitamin A deficiency that its proponents claim, it will need to be very widely grown. That will happen only if these few varieties replace a diversity of existing ones, just as the original 'green revolution' rice varieties did a few decades ago. We now have a sense of the value of that earlier loss of diversity, and should aim to avoid repeating that history.
The authors' approach to the StarLink incident is also enlightening. StarLink corn carries a particular variant of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initially approved for use in animal feed but not as food, pending further research to clarify results that suggested that the Bt toxin might have allergenic potential. The authors document this well, along with the subsequent recalls and financial settlements that resulted when StarLink was found in food. But their implication that the EPA, in imposing the restrictions, was somehow responsible for the losses incurred by Aventis, the company marketing the StarLink corn, is absurd. Both Aventis and the EPA can be faulted for pretending that corn grown for animal feed could be kept completely separate from corn grown for human consumption. But Aventis chose to market StarLink as animal feed only, rather than waiting to collect the additional data required by the EPA for approval as a food. The issue is not whether data ultimately showed any human food risk from StarLink (in fact, there appears to be no such risk). It is one of public confidence in the regulatory effectiveness of the EPA and in the company's compliance with the restrictions under which it agreed to operate.
Chapter 7 of the book boldly states that we now know that "recombinant DNA technology is among the safest technologies ever developed" -- a broad and sweeping claim for a technology that is only a few decades old. In his recent review of Michael Crichton's novel State of Fear (Nature 433, 198; 2005), Myles Allen noted: "A hallmark of good science must be the way it treats uncertainty." In this, Fedoroff and Brown have not been as forthcoming as they should. As a plant breeder, I fully understand the frustration of scientists who are focused on the good that a tool such as genetic engineering can do. However, the agricultural and plant-breeding history that Fedoroff and Brown describe, with its theories that later proved untrue and its technologies that were harmful in unanticipated ways, suggests that a degree of humility would be appropriate. Just as opponents of genetic engineering are unaware of, or are loath to acknowledge, the aspects of this technology that we do understand, such as the genetic history of our cultivated plants, so proponents are reluctant to admit the ambiguities and unknowns about genetic engineering.
As a well-written, engaging account of a controversial subject from a scientist's viewpoint, Mendel in the Kitchen should be on the reading list for everyone interested in genetic engineering, both proponents and opponents. It assembles a large and informative body of information about many of the issues that have raised concerns about genetically engineered crops. However, although the authors state in their introductory chapter, "Which view will seem right to you depends on what you consider conventional, and on how you define the ways of nature," the rest of the book attempts to convince readers that only one view is right.
-- Margaret E. Smith is in the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA.
If You Could Teach the World Just One Thing....
- Spiked E=MC2 Survey, April 27, 2005
2005 - announced as Einstein Year - marks the centenary of the publication of Albert Einstein's equation E = mc2. To mark this occasion, Sandy Starr at spiked and science communicator Alom Shaha have conducted a survey of over 250 renowned scientists, science communicators, and educators - including 11 Nobel laureates - asking what they would teach the world about science and why, if they could pick just one thing. Alom Shaha, who conceived the survey, has made four accompanying films in which interviewees talk through their responses.
Why We Did It?
A recent public poll showed that only 40 per cent of UK adults consider themselves 'well informed' about science. The recent MMR scandal would suggest that many people could do with more science education. If journalists reporting the story and the public both had had a better understanding of how science works, perhaps the whole sorry affair could have been avoided. Scientists are not being patronising when they say that the public needs educating about science. It is those 'science communicators' who deprecate scientists' contribution to the public understanding of science who are being patronising.
Our society relies heavily on science and technology to maintain its way of life. We are regularly faced with choices that involve science, such as deciding on the best health treatment or the best environmental policy. Yet can we honestly say that science communication is working when the Kabbalah Centre sells overpriced water claiming that 'Quantum Resonance Technology' has imbued it with special powers, or when people like the prime minister's wife Cherie Blair are apparently convinced of the healing powers of crystals?
'Popular' science often seems to be about instilling a sense of wonder about the natural world. From stunning films about the mysteries of space to getting children to make a film canister explode using baking powder and vinegar, this can generate enthusiasm for science. But it mustn't stop there, because, as the great Carl Sagan wrote: 'if we teach only the findings and products of science - no matter how useful and even inspiring they may be - without communicating its critical method, how can the average person distinguish science from pseudoscience?'
In my film accompanying the survey, Dr Mark Lythgoe says: 'I look at the world differently because of science.' For me, that's the true wonder of science; it is a unique way of looking at the world that allows us to draw reliable conclusions about how things work. Science is a human cultural achievement as wonderful as the best music or the most beautiful art.
Einstein was one of the best things to happen to science - not just because he was responsible for a major paradigm shift, but because he is probably the only truly iconic figure to emerge from twentieth century science. When he was alive his company was sought by everyone from movie stars to politicians. The anniversary celebrations are a fantastic opportunity to carry on Einstein's legacy and bring science to a wider audience - not just so they can appreciate its achievements but also to properly equip them to question its findings. I hope that this project will go some way towards achieving this.