Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on

Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives





May 25, 2005


Developing world media 'lacks critical analysis of GM'; Farming and your Freedom; "Balancing" Science and Pseudo-Science


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: May 25, 2005

* Re: Percy Schmeiser - Savant Molecular Plant Breeder
* Developing world media 'lacks critical analysis of GM'
* Farming and your Freedom - One billion acres can't be wrong, can they?
* Abdullah: Learn from the Dutch
* "Balancing" Science and Pseudo-Science at the New York Times

Date: Tue, 24 May 2005 10:12:06 +1000
From: srkalla@bigpond.net.au
Subject: Re: Percy Schmeiser - Savant Molecular Plant Breeder

Percy Schmeiser - Savant Molecular Plant Breeder

Like Robert Wager I have read the transcripts from the Scmeiser vs Monsanto case.

I agree with Robert that the core of this case is if Mr Scmeiser 'used' the technology embedded in the seed for his own benefit.

Schmeiser's defence was that the orgininal Round up Ready canola seed had blown in on his farm from an adjacent property.

According to Percy he was just adhering to the age old principle that the farmer / land owner has the right to benefit from any plant or animal that happens to stray onto his land. This could be seen as an extension of the right to save seed from crop plants and harks back to the origins of animal husbandry and planting of crops.

However I would argue that Percy Schmeiser is a self taught molecular plant breeder.

Percy Schmeiser claimed that he developed his own strains of canola from the seed he saved and didn't rely to any great extent on buying in new technology encapsulated in new higher yielding strains of canola.

On the other hand he wasn't against utilising new technology if it would improve the yields and was always on the lookout for new traits.

Round up ready (RR) canola contains one gene which makes it herbicide tolerant . However, RR canola also has got numerous other attractive traits such as outstanding oil quality, low anti-nutritional factors such as eriucic acid, appropriate flowering timing genes, a complement of water use efficiency genes etc.

Percy Schmeiser the savant plant breeder would have realised this and 'used' the herbicide tolerance trait to acquire the other traits bred into RR canola.

The judges in this case came to the above conclusion essentially following the line of reasoning below.

1) Even though Mr Schmeiser wasn't interested in 'using' the Round up ready canola in the way it was intended by Monsanto, he still 'used' the herbicide resitance trait to enrich for RR canola in the 3 acre seed multiplication trial site on his property.

2) This seed multiplication trials was designed by Mr Schmeiser, the molecular plant breeder, to get hold of all the other attractive genes that was present in the elite canola germplasm carrying the introgressed herbicide resistance gene .

3) In performing this seed multiplication trial Percy Schmeiser proved that he knew what he was up to and the analysis of the seed from his multiplication trial revealed that the seed was over 90 % pure RRcanola which he proceeded to plant on 1000 acres the next season.

It seems like a pity that a good autodidact molecular plant breeder like Percy Schmeiser apparently has left farming altogether. He proved in the court case to have a good understanding of how RR canola works and didn't have any qualms about using gene technology for his own benefit.

Roger Kalla Director
Korn Technologies
srkalla 'at' bigpond.net.au


Developing world media 'lacks critical analysis of GM'
Zambia's media rarely sources comments on GM crops from farmers

- SciDev.Net, By Talent Ngandwe, 25 May 2005

[LUSAKA] A survey of the media coverage relating to genetically modified (GM) crops in five developing countries has shown that news stories often lack critical analysis of the issues at stake, and rarely represent the views of farmers.

In four of the countries studied — Brazil, India, Kenya and Zambia — the media tended to follow the government line on GM crops while in Thailand the media generally opposes government plans to introduce the crops.

The study, by the UK-based Panos Institute, describes Zambia's print media as the least engaged in reporting on GM research and policy of those studied.

The media survey was part of a larger study on GM decision-making, entitled GM debate – Who decides?, published last week (20 May).

In general, "much of the coverage analysed revealed a lack of analytical (or investigative) reporting", says the report. "Most of the news articles, for example, were based on announcements from government sources — a reflection of the relative weakness of investigative journalism in science-related issues in most developing countries."

The Zambian media was analysed between January and June 2004. During that period, says the report, the government-owned Daily Mail carried one news article on GM. Of 23 editorial and opinion articles on GM, 16 were against it.

The leading private newspaper, The Post, published one opinion/editorial article arguing for each side. The Green Times, an environmental magazine, carried three articles in favour of GM technology and four against.

Most articles published in the Zambian press opposed GM technology in agriculture without giving a voice to farmers in favour of the technology.

This last point was true in all five countries. "Farmers are among those most immediately affected by GM," write the authors. "However, their views, particularly those of small-scale farmers, are rarely reflected in the media."

In an interview with SciDev.Net, Evans Milimo, the editor of Zambia's Daily Mail defended his paper's coverage.

Citing a shortage of staff and the technical nature of genetic modification, Milimo said his paper does not have the capacity to cover GM technology in a balanced manner. He added that non-English papers faced the difficult task of translating jargon into local languages, another barrier to rigorous reporting.

"The reason we are quoting more government sources and scientists is that they have the capacity and resources to hold meetings and bring journalists together," Milimo said.

He added that both journalists and farmers in the country needed to be better trained in understanding GM technology.

The Panos Institute's report says Zambia's print media is unusual in that it carries no quotations from non-governmental organisations that favour GM technology.

Such organisations have, in some of the countries studied, been set up by biotechnology companies whose public relations activities influenced the direction of press coverage of GM issues.

As in Zambia, the media in Thailand has taken a biased approach to GM technology, with a distinct predominance of anti-GM editorials, opinion articles and quotations, says the report.

Even sceptics of GM technology in the country feel the public and the media debate on GM technology is one-sided and unsatisfactory, it adds.

The situation is different in India, which has the largest GM research project in the developing world. There, the media is supportive of GM crop technology but "journalists do not report on the claims of industry uncritically and mostly seek to balance their articles with different views".

In Kenya, one of the African countries whose government supports GM technology, journalists quote pro-GM sources more than those opposing the technology.

In Brazil, the world's fourth largest grower of GM crops, the views on GM in the media changed radically around 2002. That was when the biotechnology industry set up the Council on Information on Biotechnology to promote its views, and when GM technology companies such as Monsanto began engaging with the media more directly, such as by offering journalists interviews.

The study also found that in India, Kenya and Zambia the non–English media carries very little coverage of GM issues.

"This was perhaps one of our more worrying findings," says Ehsan Masood, the report's lead author and a consultant to SciDev.Net. "The vast majority of people in each of these three countries obtain their news from media sources in their own languages and not in English. They are in effect being tuned out of the GM debate."


Farming and your Freedom - One billion acres can't be wrong, can they?

- ZWire.com, By Pete Graham, 05/25/2005

Is the green tech revolution completing its cycle? Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. announced last week that the one-billionth acre of biotech seed had been planted - somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere!

Not too long ago, as America's techie/producers began using GMOs, protests rose up, and, in Europe especially, there were blocks put on U.S. exports of genetically-modified commodities, pitting our tech against their angst. It wasn't a matter of logic or scientific doubt, just plain old fear of the unknown.

The announcement by Pioneer seems to indicate that has all changed. You don't plant a billion acres of the stuff if the world rejects buying it. Tom West, vice president of biotechnology affairs at Pioneer noted that "farmers around the world have recognized the significant value of biotechnology and have adopted its use at an amazing pace."

According to West, "few technologies, not even in the introduction of hybrid corn in 1926 by Henry Wallace, have had the rapid acceptance and growth rate that biotech crops have enjoyed." While he skirts the issues surrounding the use of biotech, West does have a point.

Growth in the U.S. of biotech planting is obvious in these numbers: Last year they were planted on 85 percent of planted acres, and biotech cotton was grown on 76 percent of planted acres. Biotech corn was grown on 45 percent of planted acres. The firm introduced Bt corn and Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996, and Roundup Ready corn followed in 1998.

Meanwhile, "over there," the biotech revolution has really caught fire. Several rapidly-developing nations have a leading biotech programs, including Argentina, Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Mexico and South Africa. That's according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture organization (UNFAO).

The organization said that in addition several developing nations have been conducting research on a group of crops that include bananas, cassavas, cowpeas, plantain, rice, and sorghum. They're concentrating on traits that are important for food security, as in tolerance for drought or salinity.

To give critics their due, the UNFAO admits that many non-genetically modified biotechnologies are used on a commercial scale but only a few studies have actually been carried out to assess the socio-economic impact of GMOs in crops. The UNFAO report believes that area needs "urgent attention," according to an article posted on @griculture Online. Wider research, it said, would lead to tech policies and investments toward a wider and more efficient use of all technologies.

It will be interesting in the years ahead to see how well U.S. producers handle the stiff competition that is sure to come from these developing economies. It reminds me of a football analogy. When the vaunted Nebraska Cornhuskers developed cutting-edge weight training back in the early days of the Tom Osborne era, no other school could touch them for the excellence of their conditioning and off-season growth. Coupled with good recruiting, the Huskers went on to chalk up more than one national championship. But, when the other schools caught up in the conditioning programs, Husker power began to wane. The old level playing field humbles the biggest and the best. For American farmers, hoping for an improved export market around the world, competition using our own technologies could be instructive
I'll see ya!


- The Philippine STAR, By Rocel C. Felix, 15-May-2005

A group of Filipino scientists is urging the Senate to pass a measure that will encourage the private sector to invest in the wider commercialization of biotechnology products in the country.

"We want legislators to put in place a regulatory framework that will serve as a control system for products with biotech and human genome because the technology is very promising and could be beneficial to the public," said Dr. Perla S. Ocampo, president of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) in a recent presentation to the Senate.

Dr. Emil Javier, former president of the University of the Philippines and minister of science during the Marcos administration, said legislation on biotechnology will ensure a fail-safe system.

NAST said an established regulatory framework will help to clarify issues and provide a basis for making critical decisions on the use and application of biotechnology.

Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr. said biotechnology could provide solutions to the country's growing food security problems.

"Biotechnology is a big factor in trying to make agriculture more productive and if given strict regulations, will ensure safety to health and environment while making marginalized farmers more productive with lesser use of chemicals and pesticides," said Magsaysay.

The government, particularly the Department of Agriculture is supportive of expanding the use of biotechnology in the agriculture sector.

This year, the Philippines joined the ranks of "biotech mega-countries" in only its second year of commercial production of biotech crops and is seen to further expand its hectarage devoted to planting genetically-modified (GM) crops in the next few years.

The Philippines earned the status of biotech mega-country last year and became the first country in Asia to achieve this status with a major biotech food/feed crop.

The Philippines planted close to 55,000 hectares of Bt-corn last year, mostly in major corn-producing regions such as Isabela and Cagayan Valley in Northern Luzon and in South Cotabato in Mindanao. This was a big leap from 20,000 hectares in 2003.

This year, the area planted to pest resistant Bt-corn is projected to reach 100,000 hectares.

The Philippines' biotech mega-country status was confirmed by Clive James, chairman and founder of the biotech advocacy organization, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

A country is elevated to a biotech mega country status if it grows at least 50,000 hectares or more biotech crops.

"The continued rapid adoption, especially among small, resource-poor farmers, is a testament to the economic, environmental, health and social benefits realized by farmers and society in both industrial and developing countries," said James.

In the Philippines, two companies have pioneered in selling Bt corn, Monsanto Philippines and Pioneer Hi-bred Philippines. Recently, multinational company, Syngenta Philippines has gotten approval for the sale and planting of its Bt-corn.

There are now 14 biotech mega countries with the additional of Paraguay, Mexico, Spain and the Philippines. The other countries are the US, accounting for 59 percent of global total of biotech crop area, Argentina-20 percent, Canada-6 percent, Brazil-6 percent, China-5 percent, Paraguay-2 percent, India-1 percent and South Africa-1 percent.


Abdullah: Learn from the Dutch

- Star Publications, BY CHOI TUCK WO, May 21, 2005

AMSTERDAM: Malaysia can learn from the Dutch experience in agriculture and biotechnology to produce top quality and high value food products.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said that although the Netherlands, with a population of 16 million, was only the size of Pahang, it was the world's second largest food exporter after the United States.

He said the Netherlands had successfully capitalised on its biotechnology research programmes to produce better quality yields and higher production.

“This has proven that biotechnology has further enhanced the quality and value of their food production and its by-products,” he told Malaysian journalists after holding talks with his Dutch counterpart Dr Jan Peter Balkenande on Thursday.

Abdullah said both countries agreed that agriculture and biotechnology collaboration must be further expanded for mutual benefit.

Later, the prime minister was granted an audience with Queen Beatrix at the Huis Ten Bosch Palace in The Hague.

In the afternoon, the prime minister visited one of Europe's foremost agrifood research centres, the Wageningen University & Research Centre, about 90km from here.

Abdullah was briefed by the institute's board president Dr Aalt A. Dijkhuizen, its BioSeeds director Prof Hans Dons and Plant Sciences Group director Prof Martin Kropff.

The university, which has 2,400 employees, and 5,000 science and 1,200 PhD students, is situated in the Food Valley with its high concentration of science-based companies in the agrifood industry.

Abdullah said he wanted Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) to have greater collaboration with the university, although Mardi already had some form of cooperation with it.

“If Malaysia aims to become a halal food hub, we must learn from them,” he said.

He added that the university had ample equipment and R&D facilities.

He also said Malaysians would have no problem pursuing courses in Dutch universities as their medium of instruction was English.

“We want to see more cooperation in education and R&D programmes.Our students and academic staff can come here to purse courses relevant to our needs,” he added.

Abdullah also welcomed a Dutch company's application to set up a nursing college in Malaysia to help meet the shortage of nurses.

“As Malaysia has already planned to set up such a college, there can be joint collaboration between the two parties,” he added.

On the Netherlands' concern over safety in the Straits of Malacca, the prime minister said he had given an assurance that the three countries – Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore – viewed it as their joint responsibility to ensure the straits' safety.


"Balancing" Science and Pseudo-Science at the New York Times

- American Council for Science and Health, By Thomas R. DeGregori, May 23, 2005

Ever wonder why the American public is so ill-informed about issues involving science such as evolution, genetic modification of food crops, stem cell research, and homeopathy or "alternative medicine"? Some scientific issues seem settled in the public's mind. There is no serious question as to whether the earth revolves around the sun, even though not too many centuries ago one could be burned at the stake for promoting proscribed ideas on this issue.

Tragically, the scientific issues about which the public is most severely misinformed are generally those with public policy implications. Indeed, there are activists groups whose ideological agenda is furthered by public misinformation. But there are other, less deliberate reasons for public confusion. Scientific ignorance is often perpetuated if the findings of science conflict with a deeply held worldview. The result is often that science and the scientific method are questioned or simply thought to be unnecessary.

One would think that the prestigious Book Review section of the New York Times, a newspaper that prides itself on being the paper of record, would have no trouble getting leading scientists to review books involving scientific and medical issues in which they have a demonstrated expertise. When the New York Times Book Review fails to do so, it is clearly a matter of choice, particularly when the reviewer that they obtain is an arts editor at the New Yorker. As a long-time subscriber to the New Yorker, I am in complete awe and admiration of its mastery of the English language, but when a book is to be reviewed, one expects a reviewer to have expert knowledge of the subject in addition to the ability to express it.

To review a book on homeopathy titled Copeland's Cure by Natalie Robins, the Times chose Liesl Schillinger, a New Yorker arts editor and a regular contributor to the Book Review. The book is described as being a "social history of the 150-year battle between conventional and alternative medicine in this country." The editors of the review must have rightly assumed that an expert on medical science might have a "bias" against homeopathy and consider it to be some form of quackery, so they got a reviewer who was not going to be inhibited by having any knowledge of the subject.

A Naif Among the Homeopaths

Schillinger understands that the "guiding principles of homeopathy are that 'like cures like' and that small doses are better than big ones." In fact, homeopathy logically entails the claim, implicit in its practice of "extreme dilution," that non-existent doses are best of all because we are told that "molecules have memory," which carries healing power after the original substances have been diluted away.

How does our intrepid arts editor respond to the belief that small doses are better? "These ideas are not bogus: after all, the vaccine for smallpox is made from a smidgen of the milder menace, cowpox." Let us not be picky, but vaccines don't cure -- they prevent. Vaccines stimulate the immune system so that it can later quickly recognize the onset of the infectious agent and begin to counter it. There is normally an interval between when the vaccine is administered and when it becomes effective, and in most cases it does nothing for you if the infectious agent has already invaded. To my knowledge, there are no vaccines based on "extreme dilution."

Homeopathy has been around for 200 years, so by now there ought to be some explanatory theory about why like cures like and small doses are better than large. Schillinger seems to consider the quote "We remain a long way from understanding how these extreme dilutions can directly create clinical effects" a profundity rather than a non-explanation. Schillinger adds that "all that matters...is that the patient get better." True, but where is the evidence that homeopathy works?

Schillinger is presumably "balancing" the review by having a paragraph of invectives that have been leveled against homeopathy rather than the underlying analysis that gave rise to them. For example, we are told that "Nobel laureate Murray Gell Mann derided the notion that an undetectable molecule could have a therapeutic result as 'garbage physics'," a assessment with which few physicists would differ. The fact that "Robins's curious book does not attempt to debunk or to defend either medical school of thought," seems to be a praiseworthy aspect of the book. One wonders whether such supposed agnosticism would have been found worthy by the reviewer in a book that looked at the nearly 150-year struggle between Darwinism and various forms of creationism and intelligent design?

Tiny Doses of Error

Let us look at some other errors in the review as reminders of what a knowledgeable scientist might have handled differently:

Schillinger: "In the 19th century and well into the 20th, homeopathy and allopathy had a great deal in common. There were no microscopes, bacteria had yet to be discovered...Luck and home remedies were what got most people through serious illnesses."

Three corrections:

-- Microscopes go back to at least Robert Hooke (1635-1703) (Micrographia in 1665) and Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1623-1723). Leeuwenhoek actually produced a drawing of bacteria -- those wee little beasties -- in 1683. By the 1830s, scientists were getting better images by using the refractory microscope. William Henry Perkin's discovery of the aniline dye color, mauve, in 1856 (building on the work on benzene by Michael Faraday in the 1840s) initiated the process by which slides could be stained -- Gram stains -- for better identification of the cell's components, including any bacterial invaders.

-- In 1862, Louis Pasteur advanced a germ theory of disease and recognized that the bacteria and other microbes in our bodies were the source of disease. In the 1870s, using slides stained with aniline dye, Robert Koch was able to identify tuberculosis, cholera bacilli and bovine anthrax bacillus and show how germs spread between animals and cause disease. In less than thirty years, scientists such as Pasteur and Robert Koch (1843-1910) isolated the microbes for "leprosy (1873), anthrax (1876), typhoid fever (1880), bacterial pneumonia (1881), tuberculosis (1882), diphtheria (1883), cholera (1884), and tetanus (1889)." Though we may not have had antibiotics until the 1930s with sulfa and the 1940s with penicillin, the 19th century advances in medical knowledge facilitated a variety of life saving medical and public health measures. This scientifically exciting period coincides with the rise in influence of the homeopathic promoter who is the central figure of the book under review.

-- There is certainly more than a modicum of truth in the statement that "luck and home remedies" were important in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but important advances in science and public health were taking place. Paul Ehrlich's (1854-1915) idea of a "magic bullet" -- and the use of coal tar derivatives to create pharmaceuticals -- led to synthesis of Salvarsan, the main treatment for syphilis (which is caused by a spirochete) before the discovery of penicillin. This was followed in the 1930s with the red dye sulfanilamide, or simply sulfa, which was effective in treating puerperal fever. Yes, we have come a long way in the last hundred years, but that progress was built on the nineteenth-century advances in biology, quantitative chemistry, and other areas of science and technology. Schillinger fails to note that homeopathy is in fundamental contradiction to science as understood throughout the last two centuries. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the physician John Snow identified the water from one well as the source for an outbreak of cholera, followed by Louis Pasteur's recognition of the microbial origin of many diseases, some of which were waterborne. Previously, water could be visually clean or ritually clean, but with this new knowledge and chemical intervention we could have hygienically clean water, thanks to the science and technology that Schillinger implies did not exist. Chlorination of water in the United States began in the early part of the twentieth century and very quickly "produced dramatic reductions in morbidity and mortality associated with waterborne disease, such as typhoid, cholera, amoebic dysentery, bacterial gastroenteritis, and giardiasis." A potential typhoid epidemic in Chicago in 1908 was stopped by chlorinating contaminated drinking water. "The introduction of drinking water disinfection in the United States...is credited with reducing the incidence of cholera by 90%, typhoid and leptospirosis by 80%, and amoebic dysentery by 50%" (Farland and Gibb 1993, 3). Prior to chlorination of water, diarrhea and enteritis were the third-leading cause of death in the United States.

Mingling Faith and Fact

Schillinger concludes that "the role of doctors, whether conventional or alternative, will never be entirely separate from the role of faith healer, at least not until somebody finds a cure for the flu that actually works." Apparently Schillinger thinks many cures of conventional medicine are of no importance and that various preventive measures for the flu, which reduce the incidence of it and/or reduces its severity, are also not worthy of mention.

I would hope that scientists who read the review will write to the New York Times Book Review and request that it run corrections for the numerous errors they might find. They might also raise the question of editorial bias in the selection of reviewers or in news columns that gives a free pass to pseudo-sciences such as alternative medicine/homeopathy, organic agriculture, and anti-transgenics.


Farland, William H. and Herman J. Gibb. 1993. U.S. Perspective on Balancing Chemical and Microbial Risks of Disinfection. In Safety of Water Disinfection: Balancing Chemical and Microbial Risks, edited by Gunther F. Cruan, pp.3-10. Washington: ILSI (International Life Sciences Institute) Press.

Schillinger, Liesl. 2005. "Copeland's Cure": Medicine Show, a review of Copeland's Cure: Homeopathy and the War Between Conventional and Alternative Medicine by Natalie Robins (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) in The New York Times Book Review, Sunday, May 22, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/22/books/review/22SCHILLI.html?

Dr. Thomas R. DeGregori is Professor of Economics at the University of Houston and is on the Board of Directors of the American Council on Science and Health. The bibliography in his most recent book, Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate, contains references to numerous scholarly books and articles that give considerable detail and documentation to some of the issues raised here. His homepage is http://www.uh.edu/~trdegreg and e-mail address is trdegreg[at]uh.edu.