Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: May 2, 2005 * A Sweet Rice Pudding: GM Rice Seems to Deliver the Goods
* China Embraces GM Rice
* Rice with a Human Touch
* ..... Readers' Thoughts on Putting Human Genes In Crops - Yucky or Familiar Acts?
* Green Light for Transgenic Maize in Portugal
* One Billion Acres and Counting?
* What's Wrong With Environmentalism: Talk
* Ignoring Science At Our Peril
* The Brouhaha about Bt-Cotton in India
A Sweet Rice Pudding: Genetically Modified Rice Seems to Deliver the Goods
- The Economist, April 28, 2005 http://www.economist.com/
While rich countries squirm, poor ones are acting. The fastidiousness with which people in many wealthy nations (though not, as yet, America) have reacted to genetically modified (GM) crops is in sharp contrast to the way they have been embraced in poorer parts of the world. And a paper in this week's Science shows why. Huang Jikun, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing, and his colleagues, have been studying trials of two strains of GM rice that the Chinese government is hoping to commercialise. Their results show that in the hands of the small farmers who dominate the countryside these strains produce higher yields, consume less pesticide, and are better for the health of those farmers than non-GM strains.
Both strains are designed to enhance protection against insects. One uses the conventional and widely deployed technique of introducing a gene from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into the crop. The gene in question encodes a protein that paralyses the digestive systems of insects but is harmless in vertebrates and is already employed routinely in GM cotton and maize. The other strain uses a gene from a cowpea plant. In this case the protein produced inhibits the activity of trypsin, one of the principal digestive enzymes-but again, acts only in insects.
Dr Huang and his colleagues looked at farms in eight villages in Hubei and Fujian provinces, where the new crops are being tried out. The farmers fell into three categories. Full adopters had converted all of their output to a modified strain. Partial adopters had converted some. Non-adopters acted as controls, planting traditional, unmodified strains.
The farmers' normal practice is to examine their crop frequently and apply insecticide when they think it necessary, rather than sticking to a pre-arranged schedule, so the amount of insecticide used is a reliable reflection of the crop's natural insect resistance. Here, the results were unequivocal. Unmodified rice required eight to ten times as much insecticide as modified rice-costing farmers an extra 200 yuan ($25) a hectare. Yields were also up to 9% better, at least with the Bt-based strain. And as a bonus, no full adopters reported being adversely affected by pesticide during the course of the trial, whereas up to 11% of non-adopters did.
The government has yet to decide whether to approve any form of GM rice for general use. But results like these will certainly encourage it.
China Embraces GM Rice
- Dr Madsen Pirie, Adam Smith Institute, April 29, 2005
Discussion of genetically modified crops should give pause to those who think it sufficient to be reasonable and to be right. While the NGO-led debate in the West has frightened the ignorant with talk of Frankenstein foods, scientific research has moved on elsewhere. A paper in the new issue of Science by Huang et al is reported by Mark Henderson in the Times. It examines the record of two GM modified rice strains in field trials.
A team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the US National Science Foundation examined two varieties of rice, Xianyou 63 and Youming 86, each of which has been genetically engineered to resist insects. Xianyou 63 carries a gene for producing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a natural pesticide commonly used by organic farmers, while Youming 86 has an insect-resistance gene from the cowpea plant.
Instead of following rigid guidelines, farmers were left to spray their crops, as they do, according to perceived need. The GM rice required far lower use of pesticides (once per year compared with 3.7 times per year for unmodified crops).
None of the GM farmers reported any pesticide-induced illnesses, such as headaches, skin irritation or nausea, while 7.7 per cent of the conventional farmers suffered these in 2002 and 11 per cent suffered them in 2003. Yields of the Xianyou 63 variety were 9 per cent higher than conventional rice, while those of Youming 86 were comparable to the non-GM equivalent.
You might suppose that lower use of pesticides, fewer illnesses in farmers, plus increased yields, might convince opponents of their errors. Wrong. They will attempt to undermine the findings on ideological rather than scientific grounds. None of this will impress the Chinese, who are likely to roll out use of the GM modified strains on a national scale, benefiting the prosperity and the health of their farmers, together with those of their consumers.
The holding bay area, already occupied by the coming ice age, catastrophic over-population, and depletion of scarce resources, might still have enough room to accommodate the mortal danger of genetically modified crops. Meanwhile Europe has been deprived of a lead and a role in one of the important technologies of the future.
Rice with a Human Touch: Engineered Grain Uses Gene From People to Protect Against Herbicides
- Ben Harder, Science News, April 16, 2005
A human gene that Japanese researchers have inserted into rice enables the plant to break down a portfolio of chemicals now used on farms to kill weeds. The unusual breadth of that herbicide resistance could circumvent a major shortcoming of existing genetically engineered crops and also open new avenues for cleaning up contaminated soils.
Some scientists, however, are concerned that weeds growing with the rice could eventually acquire the human gene and become herbicide-resistant superweeds.
The herbicide resistance of many crops, including much of U.S. soy and cotton, results from genetic elements that scientists have transferred from other species. These engineered plants can tolerate powerful weed-control chemicals. To date, most plants tweaked this way are resistant to only one type of chemical, so farmers must use both the herbicide-resistant crop and the matching herbicide to keep weeds at bay without killing the plants they want to harvest.
However, weeds exposed to the same herbicide, season after season, are more apt to develop chemical resistance than are weeds treated with alternating herbicides, says molecular biologist Sharon L. Doty of the University of Washington in Seattle.
Plants and animals make numerous enzymes, called cytochrome P450s, that break down various harmful chemicals. One such human enzyme, CYP2B6, disables more than a dozen herbicides, pesticides, and industrial chemicals. For some of these compounds, CYP2B6 works better than natural rice enzymes do.
So, plant biologist Sakiko Hirose of the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Tsukuba, Japan, and her colleagues added to rice seeds the human gene that makes CYP2B6. They found that the engineered and traditional plants grew similarly in the presence of any of 4 herbicides and that the engineered plants were healthier in tests of 13 other herbicides, including one called metolachlor.
In additional experiments, the scientists determined that the transgenic plants disarm metolachlor more rapidly than the other plants do. After 3 days growing in a solution containing metolachlor, transgenic seedlings contained only 0.2 percent of the herbicide initially present, whereas standard rice contained 4 percent.
Moreover, almost none of the original metolachlor remained in the transgenic plant's growth medium, while one-quarter of the herbicide persisted in media hosting standard plants, the researchers report in an upcoming Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
The Japanese team's approach to genetic engineering could produce crops tolerant of a rotating regimen of herbicides, a practice that should delay the emergence of herbicide resistance in agricultural weeds, Doty says.
On the other hand, she adds, "strict measures" must be taken to confine the gene for CYP2B6 to the desired crops. "If the transgene is transferred to weeds, then the weeds will be resistant to a very broad spectrum of herbicides," Doty notes.
Beyond potentially giving crops an edge over weeds, the new technique could make plants more useful in laundering environmental contaminants, including herbicides used on cropland. Says Richard Meilan of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., "It might allow us to grow more rice efficiently and go light on the environment at the same time."
AgBioView Readers Respond with Their Thoughts on Putting Human Genes In Crop Plants:
An Anonymous Scientist wrote to AgBioView:
The obvious rejoinder to those who think that putting a human gene into food is a yuk factor is the wet nurse sharing her DNA, lipid and protein with a foreign baby and fellatio. But I guess the second familiar from the Californian porn industry which reuslts in transfer of very large numbers of genes
Further to my comments on human gene cannibalism, the most well known examples of wet nurses were for royalty through the centuries. Only when they went onto bottles did they produce Prince Charles. Queens never fed from the breast as I understand it, it was always some well endowed peasant woman....
From Andrew Apel
Friends and Colleagues,
A discussion of human genes in food necessitates a discussion of matters both delicate and indelicate, but they will not go away for being avoided. Therefore, they are best confronted as tastefully as possible, and if they become an occasion for humor, at least that is better than rancor.
I first confronted the notion of human genes in food when I became the editor of an ag biotech newsletter and covered the development of a soybean containing a human gene for hemoglobin. Soybeans are quite susceptible to flooding; some crops survive immersion in water quite well, but it's fatal for soybeans. The hemoglobin gene gave them the ability to survive under water for up to three days.
I grew up on a farm and the richest part of it was creek bottom land. Since I went to school during the day, I'd do much of the cultivation at night, and the creek bottom land at night was often shrouded in fog. With headlights on full, I could often see no more than a dozen feet and the sound of the tractor exhaust echoed weirdly in the damp air. The notion of cultivating partly-human soybeans in such a setting was unsettling.
I know better now, and the Argument from Homology is appealing. That is, about 40 percent of my DNA is the same as what is found in a carrot, but that makes me no more a vegetable than it makes the carrot a mammal. Actually, it tends more to demonstrate the ingenuity of nature and the kinship of living things--some may even be tempted on these grounds to praise the Divine Architect.
There are many paths from the mundane to the numinous, and just as many lead elsewhere. These paths most often connect between myths, memes, Jungian archetypes or just plain superstitions. As much as science is divorced from these, it must yet live among them. Science can objectify and debunk them, but they're no more eradicable than culture itself.
This is the case with human DNA in food. As I said, I first confronted the issue as a tiller of the land, though, not as a consumer. The notion of consuming human DNA involves far more cultural baggage. The first image conjured by the notion of consuming human DNA is, of course, cannibalism. It is a horrifying practice, but happens seldom and we trust that the vast majority of its practitioners are in jail. It is quite possible that humans are wired to avoid anthropophagy, since an organism is more likely to contract disease, food-borne and otherwise, from members of its own species than from others. And thus notions of contagion become involved.
A somewhat similar example is fellatio. Those familiar with this practice will be aware that some persons are reluctant to swallow at the conclusion of the act, and will acknowledge at the same time a symbolic significance to swallowing. However, the substance involved involves only incomplete DNA, i.e., DNA unable to replicate itself in the absence of an ovum, and even then, it can only constitute half of the result.
The cultural example of consuming human DNA most closely resembling cannibalism is, interestingly, a counterexample. It is found in the Christian Eucharist, which is a ritual re-enactment of a meeting between Christ and his disciples. It is said that during that meeting they ate bread and drank wine, and that Christ declared the bread and wine to be his flesh and blood. Roman Catholics say that in each re-enactment of this meeting, the bread and wine are actually changed into flesh and blood prior to being consumed by those in attendance.
Though overtly cannibalistic, this ritual is held to be redemptive, rather than horrifying. At the very least, this holds among practicing Christians, who make up a large enough proportion of humans to suggest we are not perfectly hard-wired to reject cannibalism. It can be argued, of course, that the ritual represents the consumption of a god, not a human. However, that Christ was in human flesh during his time on Earth is a basic tenet of the religion.
This makes it more likely that knowing the identity of the person whose flesh/DNA is being consumed is the most determinative variable. True, the Argument from Homology teaches that DNA is DNA, and codes for what it codes for, in me or in a carrot; but we are talking memes, myths, archetypes and superstitions. Christians, when they celebrate the Last Supper of Christ, say they consume the body of Christ. In cultures where cannibalism is known to be practiced today, what is consumed is the flesh of a dearly departed relative. Fellatio consummated with swallowing, though a lesser example, nonetheless partakes of a known personal source of DNA.
If knowing the source is thus determinative, then it's time to examine how this knowledge might affect our intuitions in various cases. Suppose, for instance, the donor is a convicted criminal? An aborted fetus? A wife-beating drunkard? A selfless philanthropist? Perhaps DNA donors should be restricted to those most worthy of the honor, which would mean philanthropic crop scientists.
I find the latter the most appealing, and being a Catholic I can authoritatively state that it involves no blasphemy to suggest it is validated by its Eucharistic overtones. So I nominate Norman Borlaug for his (nonetheless homologous) DNA. "Take this, and eat, in memory of me." Indeed.
(Note from Prakash: Apel did not originate the notion relating fellatio to human DNA in food, but see above the 'anonymous' author)
An excerpt from Henry Miller and Greg Conko's book "The Frankenfood Myth..." (p. 23) that addresses the origin, or "proprietary nature," of genes. ---
Evolutionary studies are an additional source of data relevant to the issue of the novelty of molecular chimeras created by gene-splicing whether, for example, the transfer of a jellyfish gene into a zebrafish (which has given rise to an eye-catching fish that glows flourescently) somehow affects its fishnessor transfers jellyfishnessto the zebrafish. The sequencing of various genomes during the past quarter-century reveals that nature has been remarkably conservative about using and maintaining efficient mrolecules as they evolved. Nearly identical DNA sequences and biochemical pathways are found in different species, across genera, and even across phylogenetic kingdoms (the division between plants, animals, and microorganisms). Scanning the DNA sequence of the E. coli genome to search for similar structures, for example, reveals gene sequences that are virtually identical to those in a variety of organisms, including other bacteria, plants, insects, amphibians, birds, and humans.7
Humans share more than 50 percent of their genes with those n a simple plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, known as thale cress or mustard weed.8 In a background of tens of thousands of genes in common, surely the addition of one or two genes from a human into that plant would not make it less of a plant or more of a person. With such broad conservation and sharing of genes in nature, debates about the proprietary nature of human,plant,and bacterial genes and about the essential novelty of a squash plant that contains a viral gene become moot. Taken together, the evidence on genetic recombination and evolutionary conservation of genes makes distinctions drawn between natural and unnatural,or familiar(a favorite concept among certain regulators) and novel, seem neither clear nor relevant.
Green Light for Transgenic Maize in Portugal
- Robert Derham, Checkbiotech, April 28, 2005 http://www.checkbiotech.org/
The Portuguese Council of Ministers decided on April 21, 2005 that farmers will be allowed to grow several varieties of genetically modified maize during the next growing season. In total, Portuguese farmers with have access to 17 new varieties of genetically engineered maize from different seed providers.
The Portuguese Agriculture Ministry also made reference to new legislation that will help regulate the new transgenic varieties. A Ministry spokesperson noted that the legislation guarantees that genetically modified varieties will be able to coexist with conventional crops.
In addition, Pioneer Hi-Bred Sementes de Protugal will be undergoing field trials for four GM maize varieties. Pioneer Hi-Bred received permission from the European Commission to test the maize, that are resistant to certain types of insects or pesticides. Testing will run from April 2005 until the end of 2008.
This year, the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission for Biotechnology and GMOs has given notice of over 50 new field trials in the first quarter of 2005. In comparison, the Centre reported just over 60 new field trials for all of 2004.
One Billion Acres and Counting?
- Henk A. van Rheenen Professor, CSST, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.
I am afraid the figures below don't count up properly. Not only for the area that is covered by GM crops, but also for the number of people that can live on the quoted 1 billion acres (queried), which would be 1 billion / 1.25 and not 1 billion x 1.25.
On the area covered by g.m.crops: The total area for 2003 to be just below 70 million ha. The 400 million ha of the article ... maybe we would wish it to be that much! On "How big is a billion acres?" : The author of the article lets a billion "square acres" circle around the earth. Whatever circles the earth it will travel 40,000 km = 40 million m and if it does so 1587 times, it will cover 63480 million m: > 63 billion m. To make this a billion, the unit used to measure should be about 63. The reader may not become more clear in his idea how big one billion acres is; the question how big a billion acres is, needs a somewhat different answer. One billion acres would not feed 1.25 billion people a year long, if one individual needs 1.25 acre per year, but they could feed 0.8 billion people. ----- From Prakash: The author below is referring to billion acres over a period of ten years. So it refers to a cumulative planting acreage of GM crops since their advent and not for one year.
> Counting Up! > - Truth About Trade and Technololgy > See the biotech acres being planted around the world on the 'live' > counter at http://www.truthabouttrade.org/article.asp?id=3744
What's Wrong With Environmentalism: Talk by Robert Bidinotto
- May 6, The University of Montana
The environmentalist movement faces a crisis. Polls show that concern for the environment had little impact in the last election, despite heavy campaigning by green groups. Movement veterans now publicly criticize their organizations as bloated and wasteful, more interested in fundraising than environmental reforms. Books, magazines, even popular novels mock environmental scares as grossly overblown, unscientific and manipulative.
What has brought this once-influential, well-heeled movement from almost universal popularity to widespread public suspicion and scorn? Is it just the inevitable decline of an aging crusade?
Or is it something much more basic?
Robert Bidinotto thinks so. In this provocative talk, he traces the history and root ideas of environmentalism, examining its underlying goals and assumptions. And he comes to the controversial conclusion that there is something profoundly wrong with the very idea of "environmentalism."
It is a challenge that no supporter of the movement can afford to ignore, and no critic will want to miss.
Robert Bidinotto is an award-winning writer, editor and public speaker. A former Staff Writer for Reader's Digest, he authored high-profile investigative pieces on global warming, ozone depletion and cancer-causing chemicals. In addition to many writings, lectures and talk show appearances on environmentalism and other topics, he publishes the popular website, www.ecoNOT.com, which critically examines the environmentalist philosophy and movement. Bidinotto was awarded the Free Press Association's prestigious Mencken Award for "Best Feature Story," and was a national finalist for "Best Magazine Article of the Year in the Public Interest Category" by the American Society of Magazine Editors.
For further information, contact Andrew Bissell at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ignoring Science At Our Peril
- Henry I. Miller, The Washington Times, May 1, 2005 http://washingtontimes.com/
"The March Of Unreason: Science, Democracy, And The New Fundamentalism - By Dick Taverne; Oxford, $29.95, 318 pages"
"Drunk as a lord" hardly applies to Dick Taverne -- or Lord Taverne, since 1996 when he was made a baron -- the sober, polymathic and persuasive author of "The March of Unreason." Although not himself a scientist, Mr. Taverne, a Queen's Counsel (an especially learned barrister appointed to advise Her Britannic Majesty), former member of the British Parliament and currently member of the House of Lords, offers a spirited defense of science and its evidence-based approach to public policy.
He argues that "in the practice of medicine, popular approaches to farming and food, policies to reduce hunger and disease and many other practical issues, there is an undercurrent of irrationality that threatens the progress that depends on science and even [threatens] the civilized basis of our democracy" and that we ignore this trend at our peril. In making his case, Mr. Taverne demolishes many modern foibles and myths, as well as the radical "eco-fundamentalists" who promulgate them.
He notes the paradox that as people live longer and safer lives, they seem to be increasingly obsessed with societal risks of all sorts, and that as society devises better prevention and treatment of disease and produces more nutritious and varied food more efficiently, more people turn to alternative medicine such as homeopathy and quack remedies, and denounce the most precise and predictable methods for the genetic improvement of crop plants. Remorselessly and effectively, he skewers the mania for organic food, the popularity of astrology and other forms of mysticism, and the widespread but baseless bias that "nature knows best."
Mr. Taverne is not averse to alternative medical treatments when there is evidence to support their use, but as Oxford University evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has pointed out, most often they "refuse to be tested, cannot be tested, or consistently fail tests." This is certainly true, for example, of the vast majority of herbal dietary supplements, which enjoy huge popularity in the United States and Europe.
Many of these products, which are not very different from the infamous 19th century snake-oil preparations, are known to be toxic, carcinogenic or otherwise dangerous. Few have been shown to be effective for anything, and serious known side effects include blood-clotting abnormalities, high blood pressure, life-threatening allergic reactions, abnormal heart rhythms, exacerbation of autoimmune diseases, and interference with life-saving prescription drugs. The American Society of Anesthesiologists has warned patients to stop taking herbal supplements at least two weeks before any scheduled surgery in order to avoid dangerous interactions with the drugs used for anesthesia. And yet many people forego proven prescription drugs in favor of these preparations.
Mr. Taverne uses the saga of measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine to illustrate the social damage that can be wrought by the rejection of evidence-based medicine. In 1988, Dr. A.J. Wakefield and his colleagues described a case series of 12 patients at a referral clinic in England, all of whom presented with inflammatory bowel disease and autism. They hypothesized that in some children the MMR vaccine provokes inflammation of the intestine, which permits toxins to leak into the bloodstream, and thence into the brain, where they cause the damage that shows up as autism. Panic ensued, with the anti-vaccination lunatic fringe -- helped by the sensation-seeking media -- orchestrating a campaign against MMR. Assurances by governments that the triple vaccine was safe were ignored; and where vaccination rates have declined, there have been outbreaks.
Mr. Taverne characterizes as "a monument to irrationality" the trend toward consumers' buying overpriced organic food, promoted by advocates whose "principles are founded on a scientific howler; it is governed by rules that have no rhyme or reason, and its propaganda could have an adverse effect on the health of poor people."
In the United States, for example, the rules that define organic products are nonsensical, in that organic standards are process-based and have little to do with the actual characteristics of the product. Certifiers attest to the ability of organic operations to follow a set of production standards and practices that meet the requirements of the regulations.
Paradoxically, the presence of a detectable residue of a banned chemical alone does not constitute a violation of this regulation, as long as an organic operation has not used excluded methods. Thus, regulators seem to reward effort and intent, whether or not the "integrity" (for lack of a better word) of the product is compromised. That's rather like saying that as long as your barber uses certain prescribed tools and lotions, your haircut is automatically of high quality. Moreover, because organic farming is far less efficient than conventional farming, organic food costs more (to say nothing of requiring more land put into farming), and the hype from markets like Whole Foods puts pressure on the less affluent to buy more expensive fruit and vegetables that may actually be of lower quality. Higher prices mean lower consumption, and consequently fewer of the benefits conferred by a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Finally, organic producers' insistence on avoiding gene-spliced varieties will prevent consumers of these products from benefitting from nutritional and safety improvements down the row -- er, road.
Mr. Taverne argues compellingly that the conflict over gene-spliced crops is the most important battle of all between the forces of reason and unreason, both because of the consequences should the forces of darkness prevail, and also because their arguments are so perverse and so consistently and completely wrong.
*In fact, agricultural practices have been "unnatural" for 10,000 years, and with the exception of wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the grains, fruits and vegetables in our diets are genetically modified. Many of our foods (including potatoes, tomatoes, oats, rice and corn) come from plants created by "wide cross" hybridizations that transcend "natural breeding boundaries." Gene-splicing is no more than an extension, or refinement, of less precise, less predictable, older techniques, and gene-spliced plants, now grown in at least 18 countries, have for a decade been cultivated worldwide on more than 100 million acres annually.
They are ubiquitous in North American diets: More than 80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves -- soft drinks, preserves, mayonnaise, salad dressings -- contain ingredients from gene-spliced plants, and Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of these foods. From the dirt to the dinner plate, not a single ecosystem has been disrupted, or a person injured, by any gene-spliced product -- a record that is superior to that of conventional foods.
As Mr. Taverne observes, the objection to gene-spliced foods is purely ideological, bordering on the religious. During a House of Lords Select Committee hearing in 1999, Lord Melchett, then director of Greenpeace, was asked "Your opposition to the release of [gene-spliced plants], that is an absolute and definite opposition? It is not one that is dependent on further scientific research?" He replied: "It is a permanent and definite and complete opposition."
Mr. Taverne deplores the "new kind of fundamentalism" that has infiltrated many environmentalist campaigns -- an undiscriminating "Back-To-Nature" movement that views science and technology as the enemy and as a manifestation of a mechanistic, rapacious and reductionist attitude toward nature. He notes that eco-fundamentalists are also strongly represented in anti-globalization and anti-capitalism demonstrations around the world.
In this, Mr. Taverne echoes Michael Crichton, who argues in his latest novel, the much-acclaimed "State of Fear," that eco-fundamentalists have reinterpreted traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths and made a religion of environmentalism, a religion with its own Eden and paradise where mankind lived in a state of grace and unity with nature until mankind's fall, which came not from eating an apple, but after eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge (that is, science). This religion also has a judgment day to come for us all in this polluted world, except for true environmentalists, who will be saved by achieving sustainability.
These are ominous trends. Not only do they retard technologies which, applied responsibly, could dramatically improve and extend many lives and protect the environment, but they could eventually strangle scientific creativity and technological innovation. Even worse, irrational practices born of eco-fundamentalism undermine the health of civilized society and of democracy, by limiting citizens' ability to engage in voluntary transactions. Defend science and reason, argues Mr. Taverne, and you defend democracy itself. -- Henry I. Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution," chosen by Barron's as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.
The Brouhaha about Bt-Cotton in India
- Shanthu Shantharam, AgBioView, May 2, 2005; www.agbioworld.org (Author is at Biologistics International, Ellicott City, MD 21042)
Bt-cotton is the first Genetically Modified (GM) crop that was commercialized in India three years ago. Come every March/April for the past three years, it has been an open season for all sorts of NGOs (read vigilantes) of Bt-cotton to report on its failure mostly in Andhra Pradesh (AP), and also in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Most of them do so based on either their own ideological opposition to modern biotechnology or pathological dislike for GM crops especially if they are owned by multi-national companies.
Noble Laureate Sydney Brenner speaking at Bangalore BIO 2005 noted among other things that opponents of biotechnology don't seem to understand anything about what happens inside biotechnology laboratories, and going by these reports on Bt-cotton, they don't seem to fathom what happens to crops under field conditions and how to evaluate them objectively.
Most of the negative reports, it seems are specially designed to carry out political activism against GM crops technology. The plain and simple goal of these reports is to discredit GM crops at any cost and stop them in their tracks. If one were to go by these reports Bt-cotton must be an unmitigated disaster. Then there are several indifferent government and academic reports from Governmental Organizations (GOs). The developers of Bt-cotton have also put out their own reports of positive performance of Bt-cotton through a leading market research firm, IMRB. Because these positive reports are from the developers of the GM crop in question, NGOs and many others cast aspersions on the veracity of the reports and dismiss them out of hand. Any other positive musings on the performance of Bt-cotton or GM crops must either come from an apologist of biotechnology or by someone who has been corrupted by the industry. The media is full of all these negative reports giving an impression that Bt-cotton has failed all over the country. It seems if a dog bites a man is not news, but if man bites a dog, it is newsworthy.
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has now deferred decision of the original varieties twice in a row, partly due to the NGO pressure. GEAC has asked for reports from all states of India wherever Bt-cotton was grown for the last three years in light of the Government of AP writing a negative report on it. It begs the question why GEAC did not have these reports all this time while they met twice to deliberate on these applications. It is high time GEAC makes its deliberations completely transparent and put an end to this unnecessary brouhaha. The simple way to do it is to revamp its sorry looking web site (hidden in the messy web site its parent Ministry), and post everything on its policies, rules, regulations and the data based on which they are granting their approvals to biotech products. GEAC Chairman's recent snub to NGOs that the government is not answerable to them is not going to help burnish its image very much.
Transparency and stakeholder participation is the order of the day's governance all over the world, and all sorts of national international governments have recognized it as the only way forward to the next millennium. There is no reason to hide anything and don't see any reason to be hiding Bt-cotton data based on which they are making decisions. Recently, pharmaceutical industries of the world have come together to voluntarily post all their clinical trial data in a common data base, and here is a thing for the agbiotech industries to follow the cue and share everything that they can be shared to convince the general public that GM crops are safe and productive.
Anti- biotech NGOs all over the world have not seen anything good coming from GM crops at all. Many Indian NGOs opposing GMOs draw plenty of inspiration ands sustenance from their European comrades to support their cause, but yet call themselves independent. The reality is that GM crops acreage keeps on increasing all over the world and it is no different with Bt-cotton in India. Another twenty plus Indian seed companies have paid a hefty licensing and royalty fee to acquire Bt technology for their own proprietary lines of cotton hybrids, and soon Indian cotton farmers will have a wide choice of Bt-cotton lines. Thanks, partly to Bt-cotton India is poised to become a world leader in cotton production for the first time in decades. People who are really in the business of investing on GM crops and seeds say GM crops are unstoppable in India and one should brace up for more and more GM crops in future.
A critical review of all the reports from NGOs on Bt-cotton in India serves as fine examples of how not to conduct a field survey. These reports claim to be "independent" and "scientific" whatever they mean!!! The things that they seem to be "independent" of are scientific rigor and objectivity. Most of them have conducted either post-ante polls or post-harvest surveys or memory recall opinion surveys, and none of them have been designed with any standard scientific methodology, sampling is spotty and size so small that they cannot be used to draw any meaningful conclusions for the entire country. Bias against Bt-cotton becomes glaring when one notices that they descended in those villages in AP only after they heard that Bt-cotton had failed. It seems they have only set themselves up to seek out farmers whose Bt-cotton had failed and don't seem to have come across any farmer who had success with it. The field surveys have not been properly planned right from the beginning by setting out with a proper methodology, parameters or indicators to measure. Looking at some of the questionnaires used to collect information, it is clear that they too were not designed to double check or cross-check responses.
Clearly, most of them do not understand the difference between random sampling and arbitrary sampling. They also do not make distinction between an opinion poll, a survey and a field study. They use it so interchangeably that one cannot figure out which one they mean when. They also do not understand anything about standard deviation and statistical analysis that factors in weighted averages. For them, words "failure" and "poor" performance are one and the same. It becomes obvious that they have no knowledge or understanding of plant variety introduction, field testing and how and what factors make a variety successful and how long they stay in the lead. Experienced agricultural scientists clearly know that not all introduced varieties perform equally well under all sorts of farmer's field conditions and those that fail under such conditions loose out in the market place. Failure of introduced varieties makes a rich folklore in agriculture. It should not surprise anyone who is knowledgeable in agriculture that failed varieties are either withdrawn or rejected by farmers all the time. For an interested party who has some critical sense and is serious about the performance of Bt-cotton, these reports cannot be considered scientifically credible or reliable. They cannot be used to draw general conclusions much less used for any decision making. They offer no meaningful and critical analysis for the observed failures or poor performances.
Regarding the claim that their reports are "independent"; the question is independent of what? It does not matter whether the study is independent or dependent, what is important is that it has to be scientifically rigorous. As they stand, they do not pass scientific muster. Recall scathing criticisms of Qaim and Zilberman's paper on the performance of Bt-cotton in SCIENCE in 2002 and Chapela's paper in NATURE in 2003 that was eventually cancelled by the publisher! Those papers were criticized precisely for the lack of scientific rigor and over reaching conclusions that could not be supported by experimental data, although they both contained elements of basic facts! In the case of Qaim and Zilberman's paper, they used selective data sets from just one season when they had access to five year's worth of data sets, and suggested that lone Bt-gene could increase yield of cotton by more than 80%. This kind of astonishing yield increase due to a single gene trait was never going to be true and these three years of Bt-cotton tests in India has proved it.
Actually, another paper by co-authored by the same authors in April 9, 2005 issue of Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) shows a realistic yield increase by about 37%. Once again these same authors have just used only the year 2002 commercialization data for analysis. It will no doubt come under another round of criticisms for much the same reasons as their SCIENCE paper. The now beleaguered Professor Chapela's paper in NATURE that was eventually withdrawn by the publisher also used not so elegant experimental protocols without realizing the limitations of PCR and came to unsupportable conclusions. The paper proved a point that Bt-gene from GM maize transferred to non-target land races and no self-respecting scientist discounted that anytime. Anyone who understands basic biology of open pollinating crop like maize would know that genes flow freely among maize. Critics of both the papers were demanding highest quality scientific rigor in data collection and interpretation and that is what science demands all the time. It should be no different for NGO reports many of whom claim to have been drafted with help of scientist's help.
Many of these reports show that most farmers are not complying with the conditions of refugia and that must be true. In a country like India where compliance to laws is more an exception than the rule, it is not surprising that uneducated and illiterate farmers do not seem to appreciate the value of refugia. This is not just in case of modern day GM crops, it happens in the use of other farm chemicals and water management and overall crop management. That is no excuse for condoning non-compliance. But, then the illegal Bt-cotton is rampant and no one can enforce compliance on illegal varieties that cannot be proved to be Bt-cotton. But, it is really bad for the technology development as the country is awash with illegal and spurious GMOs.
Compliance takes two to tangle - the users of the technology and the regulators. This is something that GEAC and regulators all over the world have to pay serious attention and devise methods to enforce compliance. NGOs harp on lack of refugia as though it is something new that was invented just for Bt-cotton. Refugia are one of the time tested Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approaches to delay build up of insect resistance. Refugia are needed when one employs intensive pest control strategies be it chemical or biological. Critics and opponents of Bt-crops get unduly worked up about it only when it comes to Bt crops. If they truly understood the value and meaning of refugia strategy and also have studied the field reports of Bt crops in the US which employs monoculture agriculture, they should know that not a single instance of field level resistance to Bt has been reported so far. This is not to say, it would not happen in the future. Refugia is designed for monoculture agriculture where one can set aside 20 to 40 percent of land for refugia, but it cannot be done in small farm holding in a country like India and it is really not necessary as the agricultural landscape offers many alternative hosts as the target pest in a polyphagous insect that feeds o more than 100 plant species. This is why it is important for GEAC to have meaningful science based regulations that can be implemented effectively, and not force conditions that are not implementable, and more importantly, not necessary.
Even in a country like USA, refugia are implemented by about 60 to 70 per cent of the farmers growing Bt crops. Yes, vigilance is a must and everyone involved in stewarding Bt crops must pay close attention this potential problem. In fact, refugia are lot more critical in chemical control strategies, and none of these critics of Bt-cotton seem to be worried about it. IPM (into which Bt crops fit elegantly) must be promoted all the time in pest control in any kind of agriculture including organic agriculture.
Another recent report from a Hyderabad NGO shows that soils in which Bt-cotton was grown no longer support other crops suggesting that somehow the soil has been poisoned. This is an incredible allegation which has not been reported from anywhere in the world. As much as this observation warrants verification, scientifically it sounds non-sensical.
Another NGO report mentions of how the Bt-cotton lint fetched low prices in some local markets in AP. It is important to know that agronomic performance, quality of fiber and market prices are not directly related. Agricultural commodities prices vary according to the vagaries of market forces. Unblemished white color of the lint and length of the staple are the key determinants of cotton prices in the market. In fact, in the first two years, it was widely reported in the media that Bt-cotton fetched premium price than non-Bt-cotton fiber, and every cotton growing farmer rushed to plant Bt-cotton in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Blaming low prices of Bt-cotton on Bt technology makes no sense. Will Bt technology be given credit if the prices go up next year? All over the world, agricultural commodities have been low for decades now and that cannot be blamed entirely on the technology used to produce those commodities. North American agriculture employs more sophisticated and many other precision agricultural technologies and no one suggested that these technologies are the cause of low commodity prices. Markets react to supply and demand, a simple fact of basic economics. What cotton farmers in India are facing this year is a glut of cotton and Bt-cotton is a small part of it for the moment. Anyone following horticultural commodity markets in India (especially onions, tomatoes and green hot peppers) where there are no known GMOs yet will understand what is happening to agricultural market prices India. It is totally a different topic for discussion, and a political hot button issue. This should not be mixed up with biotechnology.
At best, these negative reports contain elements of truth in them and at worst they are highly selective and misleading. Critical reviews of the reports betray the poor quality of scientific competence used. It seems most NGOs either lack resources, skills, competence or the knowledge to carry out a scientifically rigorous field study. NGOs should not grudge GEAC if their poor quality reports are not being taken seriously. Even the scientific community does not take cognizance of these reports. All the negative reportage from NGOs cannot seem to explain the paradox of increased Bt-cotton acreage year after year. If NGOs still think they have done a scientifically competent job of carrying their studies, then they should simply submit their reports to a peer review process and earn some credibility for their reports.
Positive reports published by IMRB, the largest market survey company in the country shows the overall performance of Bt-cotton in good light. Their results seem to be congruent with the increased sales of Bt-cotton seeds and planting acreage. Not withstanding the fact that the positive reports of the performance of Bt-cotton are put out by its owners, a critical review shows that the methodology used is an universally accepted survey method with a large enough sampling from all Bt-cotton cultivating areas of the country to be truly statistically significant, and done consistently for three years in a row. Consistency, standardized methodology and reliability are evident from the data from these reports. Because the methodology is clearly explained, it is easy to cross-check results with their sampling data to confirm their conclusions. What is important in trusting any report is the sound methodology used and not who did the survey?
Going by international standards of survey methodology, the reports by IMRB seem reliable even if one can lop 25% off the top. But, anti-biotech NGOs will have none of it. Yes, indeed IMRB report is also not peer reviewed, and it would be advisable for the developers of Bt-cotton to submit their data and analysis for publication in a peer reviewed journal. There are other peer reviewed publications on the commercial performance of Bt-cotton. A paper published in Current Science in June 2004 by scientists of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) from a study conducted in Maharashtra clearly demonstrated positive performance of Bt-cotton under farmer's field conditions. Another publication is a survey conducted by University of Reading in Maharashtra published in Agbio Forum in 2004 also demonstrated positive performance of Bt-cotton. The third one was published in the April 9 2005 issue of EPW which is already under attack by the NGO community. In this paper, the sample size is small covering four different states where Bt-cotton was grown, but their statistical treatments of the data is authentic and have come to some reasonable conclusions and offer explanations for some of the paradoxes. Another weakness of the paper is that it draws its conclusions based on just the first year (2002) of commercialization. It is necessary to have used all the three years of commercialization data to make their conclusion more credible and reliable. Peer review does not always guarantee correctness or accuracy, but that is the only known method to affirm any credibility to a scientific study. The rest are just there to serve self-fulfilling ideologies and propaganda.
Regarding the indifferent reports of mixed performance of Bt-cotton published by state agricultural universities and both GEAC monitoring committees and state agricultural departments, the less said the better. The same can be said about the state agricultural universities. Indeed it is unfathomable that none of the competent and qualified scientists of the establishment either at the state level or at the central level have seen it fit to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the agronomic performance and economic impact of Bt-cotton all these years, especially when it is under the microscope.
The only agency that seems to have the sole privilege of having some sort of a "reliable" quality data on Bt-cotton based on which they have been granting approvals is GEAC, but it is not making it public. Even the data from ICAR's coordinated field tests have not made public. Here is a paradox where all the unscientific reports of NGOs are known world wide (thanks to their media relations, and dogged persistence), indifferent government reports that are hardly publicized, and positive reports of the developers that are not trusted. But, the only proof positive thing is more and more Bt-cotton varieties are being authorized and Bt-cotton acreage keeps increasing. No farmer has filed a case against GEAC or the developer of Bt-cotton to claim compensation for their alleged failures or losses. Many NGO reports indicate that they have contacted hundreds of farmers who have suffered losses due to Bt-cotton. If that is the case, then they can consider filing a class action suit in a consumer court and obtain relief for them. One would think that if NGOs can find so many farmers whose Bt-cotton failed, it should not be difficult to find equal number of farmers who had success with Bt-cotton using similar methods by some other "independent" study groups. It is just a question of who is doing it for what purpose?!?!
One thing is clear that Bt-cotton technology works for the purpose it is designed. It does not control non-target pests for which the farmers have to spray chemical pesticides. It is also generally clear that the germplasm of MECH varieties of Bt-cotton are inferior to some other hybrid cottons in the market during the development phases of the MECH varieties. Variability in performance is a natural order of all newly introduced varieties, GM or no GM. If the introduced varieties perform to the basic minimum level across the board as claimed, then they are considered successful. Most new varieties have market span of three to six years and seldom a decade. New and improved varieties usually displace old varieties and those that do not perform well, and business of improving agriculture goes on. Now that new Bt-cotton varieties have been approved, the problem of under or poor performing varieties will be taken care of. Farmers all over the world and especially Indian farmers are extremely astute to quickly decide whether it is good for them to grow the same variety twice, and they will make proper and correct decision on these varieties.
If NGOs are serious about the credibility of their reports, they should pool their resources and hire competent scientists to carry out scientifically rigorous field study on the performance of Bt-cotton in future, and then plan their activism based on high quality peer reviewed data. That would be a just case for activism in the name of the public good. In light of so many instances of illegal GM crops getting mixed in all parts of the world lately, many anti-biotech NGOs are demanding peer review quality test results for GMO certification, and why not? When NGOs demand high scientific standards of others, then they too should live up to the same high standards, and that goes for GOs as well. As far as GEAC is considered, it would serve a just public cause by convening an independent scientific panel to review all these reports and then determine which one of them deserves to be taken cognizance of. The rest can be ignored for the good of the public.
P.S: This commentary is based on a forthcoming comprehensive review of all reports available in the public domain on the performance of Bt-cotton in India since its commercialization in 2002.