Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : June 2, 2005
* Heard it on the Grapevine - Biosafety Meet in Montreal
* Greens Wrong About NZ's Liability Rules
* Threat from Crops is a Fantasy
* Activists Should Accept Mainstream View of GM
* Greenpeace Perpetuates Poverty and Malnutrition
* Gene Technology In Australia: What's Happening In Horticulture?
* Kenya Begins First Open Field Trials of GM Maize
* Feeding Africa: www.africancrops.net
* Biotech: Salvation or Monster? Farmers Know The Answer
* Seeds in Threatened Soil
* High- and Low-Cost Realities for Science and Society
* Conference on Public Perception of Biotechnology
Heard it on the Grapevine - Biosafety Meeting in Montreal
- Roger Kalla, www.korntechnologies.com; srkalla'at' bigpond.net.au
As readers of AgBioView are aware the meeting of the Parties and
non-Parties to the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol is on the way in
Greenpeace has in usual manner come up with a carefully orchestrated
media campaign to coincide with the meeting creating a 'register ' of
GM 'contamination' events worldwide over the last 9 years.
Interestingly the majority of these events (at least in the UK and
other Western countries) are related to the mislabelling of produce
as either 'Organic' or 'non-GM'. This might be relevant to the
wealthy and health conscious consumer in UK which have paid a premium
for the 'clean green' image portrayed in numerous marketing campaigns
(and might want to sue the producer of the food that made the false
statements on the package) for these products but what has it to do
with the Cartagena Bisafety Protocol?
I have tried to analyse how the long and drawn out negotiation
process surrounding the implementation of the Biosafet Protocol has
come to this terminal stage of political paralysis. I find it
rather mind-boggling that the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol now seems
to be meant to provide consumers of luxury foods in urbanised western
countries protection against any infinitesimally small content of the
dreaded GM technology in their 'organic' cappuccino which
contains the equivalent of their yearly consumption of all natural
molecules related to residues of synthetic pesticides .
The Cartagena Protocol is part of the Convention on Biological
Diversity and as such it is there to protect the environment against
all kind of malevolent human practises that could threaten the
long-term sustainability of fragile ecosystems. The Convention
establishes three main goals: the conservation of biological
diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and
equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources.
The Biosafety Protocol , a supplementary agreement to the Convention
adopted in 2000, seeks to protect biological diversity from the
potential risks posed by [
http://www.biodiv.org/biosafety/background2.aspx# ] living modified
organisms (LMO) resulting from modern biotechnology. The Protocol
contains reference to a [
http://www.biodiv.org/biosafety/background2.aspx# ] precautionary
approach and has adopted this as the golden rule in any risk
assessment of LMOs=GMOs and derived processed products.
The main problem facing the delegates at the ongoing meeting in
Montreal is that the agenda for the meeting seems to have been bogged
down in increasingly polarised debates between producers/exporters of
agricultural commodities and consumers/importers of the same
Lately a third category, namely transit countries, that act as
go-betweens in world trade in commodities have formed a third block
with separate but to a degree overlapping interests to the importers.
Transit countries are developing countries that haven't yet built up
capacity for adopting the numerous recommendations from importers (
typically rich Western countries) which will be very costly to
implement on a global scale.Transit countries are naturally
seeking assurances that they will receive assistance in building up
the capacity further will them to participate in world trade in the
new brave world after the Biosafety protocol is implemented. Whenever.
At the preceding Biosafety meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 2004 the
importers in coalition with lobby groups attempted to hijack the
agenda in order to introduce even more restrictions on the
transborder shipments of agricultural commodities. At that meeting it
was suggested that operational definitions for levels of GM admixture
in shipments 'that may contain LMOs' that would trigger GM labelling
and even more red tape and associated costs was going to be resolved
at the Montreal meeting.
This 'coalition of the unwilling' is overstepping the boundaries of
the Cartagene Biosafety protocol in its quest to pull in food safety
and public health aspects (already regulated by Codex Alimentarus) as
well as using the Biosafety Protocol to devise new and innovative
ways of raising non-tariff trade barriers which until know
have rested firmly under the charter of World Trade Organisation.
In essence the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol seems to me to be a way
for groups and nations not overly enamoured with trade liberalisation
nor International patent law to engineer new road blocks to stymie
technology development and transfer between countries.
The latest titbits of information I have gleaned from observers in
Montreal is that lines are being drawn between the different
blocks partly due to the constant overstepping of the mark by
countries and lobby organisations united in their stand against
technology dispersion. Thus the continuos calls for more and more
aspects of GM crop regulation to be included in the international
treaty has backfired badly with non-aligned States such as Australia
and New Zealand, that have implemented their own comprehensive
Biosfatey and Food safety regulations, demanding that the ballooning
process be pulled back to the core of the issue namely the protection
of Biodiversity of fragile environments from potential (i.e
non-proven) threats to the environment posed by GM crops. The New
Zealand Minster for Environment, Marian Hobbs recently put things
into their proper context when she contrasted the perceived evils of
GM crops with the clear and present dangers posed by repeats of oil
spills such as the infamous Exxon Valdez catastrophe or nuclear
catastrophes such as Chernobyl.
I hope that sense and science will prevail in Montreal. If not there
is the real possibility that the whole process will be shelved yet
again and countries will be left to implement their own national
legislation on gene technologies or alternatively strike bi or
trilateral agreements such as the agreement between NAFTA countries
on transborder movements of GM crops. Maybe not such a bad thing. The
recent Australian US Free Trade Agreement could, from an Australian
point of view, be used as a basis for further bi or multilateral
negotiations to harmonise regulations of shipments of bulk
commodities including GM soy, GM canola and GM maize with our
trading partners across the Pacific.
Greens Wrong About NZ's Liability Rules
- Press Release: New Zealand Government, June 1, 2005,
Environment Minister Marian Hobbs says Green Party Co-Leader Jeanette
Fitzsimons is wrong in her claims about New Zealand's liability rules
and GMOs, and also mistaken about New Zealand's stance at the
Montreal meeting of parties to the Cartagena Protocol.
"First of all, there was no proposal at Montreal to impose a strict
liability on manufacturers of genetically modified organisms. The
focus of a working group on liability and redress was primarily on
process and New Zealand wants all options considered," Marian Hobbs
said. "Jeanette Fitzsimons has used as the basis for her own comments
the incorrect statements of a Malaysian delegate about New Zealand's
stance at the conference. This is very foolish.
"Our officials in Montreal are taking a position consistent with New
Zealand's interests. We have not said 'no' to liability rules but we
want a proper analysis before signing up to liability rules that
could turn into de facto trade barriers. "Secondly Jeanette is
incorrect to claim in her press release that 'in New Zealand there is
no general liability for causing human health or economic harm
through the release or indiscriminate application of Genetically
Modified Organisms, unless there is a specific law that has been
"That liability statement is incorrect. New Zealand's normal
liability rules could be relied upon if someone wanted to take legal
action for harm caused by GMOs even though no law had been broken.
The strict civil liability regime kicks in once the HSNO Act has been
"In the lead-up to the election it would be Jeanette's dream to
revive the GM issue. Relying on false information and making
incorrect statements about our law won't do that. "The government's
position on GM remains consistent - preserving opportunities for the
future while proceeding cautiously."
Threat from Crops is a Fantasy
- Vivian Moses, Guelph Mercury (Ontario, Canada) May 30, 2005
Dear Editor - Re: 'Appalling facts of modified foods' (Guelph Mercury, May 24).
What a strange idea the letter writer has of what is 'appalling.'
Fantasies including the impossibility of containment of genetically
modified crops, an irrevocable threat to organic agriculture, and the
corporate legal criminality with which the technology has been
enforced upon many farmers.
The threat to organic farmers, if there is one, is entirely of their
own making: the insistence of some of them that they must live in a
world apart from others.
The cultivation of genetically modified crops has no effect
whatsoever on the ability of an organic farmer to go about his
business; the only consequence is the possible refusal of an
accreditation agency to sanction an organic label.
According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture
Movements: contamination that results from circumstances beyond the
control of the operator will not necessarily alter the organic status
of the operation. Any defined threshold will be chosen arbitrarily
and does not reflect adherence to organic principles. Therefore,
IFOAM does not support the introduction of de minimis thresholds for
Farmers everywhere can, of course, continue to save their seed so
long as it has not been purchased with an undertaking not to do so,
the choice is entirely theirs. Eight million farmers worldwide buy
genetically modified seeds, because they see economic and
environmental advantages. They can always buy others if they choose.
- Professor Vivian Moses, Chairman, CropGen, London, England
Activists Should Accept Mainstream View of GM
- David T. Dennis, Nature (Correspondence) 435, 561, June 2, 2005
Sir: It is gratifying to read, on your Correspondence page, that
environmental campaigners are urging the public to accept the view of
a consensus of climatologists, glaciologists and atmospheric
physicists that "anthropogenic climate change is a reality" ("Time to
speak up for climate-change science" Nature 434, 559; 2005).
Having accepted the expertise of scientists on this issue, perhaps
Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth should reconsider their
opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops, as an overwhelming
majority of plant geneticists, biochemists and molecular biologists
have endorsed the use and safety of these crops. This would allow the
economic, environmental and humanitarian benefits of this technology
to be fully realized.
As president of a biotechnology company and emeritus professor of
biology at Queen's University, Ontario, I agree with the
environmentalists that scientists should make their science fully
accessible to the general public. If this had been done, all the
problems of misinformation and concern about GM use and safety would
have been avoided.
President and chief executive, Performance Plants, BioScience
Complex, 116 Barrie Street, Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6, Canada
Greenpeace Perpetuates Poverty and Malnutrition
- Paul Driessen, AgBioView, www.agbioworld.org ; June 2, 2005
'Anti-biotech radicals are the on wrong side of history, science,
morality and humanity'
Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore says the environmental movement's
"campaign against biotechnology clearly exposes its intellectual and
moral bankruptcy," and its low regard for the harm its ideologies
inflict on poor people.
As if to underscore how right Dr. Moore is, Greenpeace activist
Farida Akthen recently blasted the Bangladesh agricultural ministry
for approving research on one of the most promising of all biotech
miracles. Golden rice is enriched with beta-carotene, which people
can convert to vitamin A. Simply by eating a few ounces a day,
malnourished children can ward off a vitamin deficiency that causes
half a million kids to go blind every year and leaves hundreds of
millions (including many thousands in Bangladesh) susceptible to
disease, intellectual impairment and death.
But Ms. Akthen, who also heads up another radical Bangladeshi group
known as UBINIG, claims this technological marvel somehow impairs
Genetically engineered (GE) food can infect people "with diseases
unknown even to physicians," she recently misinformed journalists in
Dhaka. "Tomatoes, potatoes, rice, wheat and barley were engineered in
a way that their panthogenesis-related proteins prepare anti-fungal
compounds that create allergies in a consumer's body," she continued.
These bizarre claims might have a place in a Stephen King fright
novel or Comedy Central skit. But they help prolong the suffering and
death of millions who could be helped by agricultural advances that
hold great promise for improving environmental conditions,
agricultural production and nutrition in Bangladesh and other poor
Biotech crops reduce the need for pesticides, and the time farmers
must spend working in their fields. By eliminating the need to
cultivate for weed control, herbicide resistant varieties reduce soil
erosion. Because they grow better and resist insects and viruses, GE
seeds dramatically increase yields per hectare. Researchers are
working on varieties that tolerate drought better or absorb nutrients
more efficiently and thus need less fertilizer.
Like many Americans, I eat food with biotech ingredients almost every
day, and buy biotech corn (maize) whenever I can. It's better for the
environment and unlikely to be contaminated by dangerous fungal
toxins that cause fatal diseases in animals, and cancer, reduced
immunity and birth defects in humans. In fact, tests in England found
that GE cornmeal had almost zero contaminants, whereas organic
cornmeal had fungal contaminants (fumonisin) up to 30 times higher
than limits set by the EU.
That's because GE corn has built-in proteins that attack pests like
corn borers, which chew pathways for these dangerous contaminants. By
eliminating these pests, which often destroy almost entire crops in
African countries, biotech varieties greatly increase yields per acre.
Americans so far have eaten over 1 trillion servings of foods
containing at least one GE ingredient. Over the past 10 years,
hundreds of millions of consumers around the world have eaten foods
from these improved crops. Not one has gotten so much as a hiccup
from them. All these crops are rigorously screened for allergies and
other risks, and prestigious scientific bodies like the World Health
Organization, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of
Sciences and UK Royal Academy have all concluded that biotech crops
and foods are at least as safe as (and often safer than) those from
conventional and organic farms.
Ms. Akther "feels" the capitalist world has a "hidden plan to control
the world's food chain." This nonsense will do nothing but scare
people away from a technology that could transform their lives for
the better. Golden Rice will be distributed free to farmers, who will
retain the right to save and replant seed as long as they sell less
than US$10,000 annually. While farmers do have to pay for other GE
seeds, most are happy to do so, because the benefits are so great.
South African farmers who use GE corn have boosted crop production,
cut pesticide use up to 75%, tripled profits and saved 35-49 days per
season working in fields. "With the old maize, I got 100 bags from my
15 hectares" (37 acres), says Richard Sithole. "With Bt maize I get
1,000 bags." Elizabeth Ajele shares his excitement: "My old plants
would be destroyed by insects, even when I sprayed 12 times a season,
but not the new biotech plants. If someone said we should stop using
the new maize, I would cry."
Ms. Akthen wants Bangladeshi farmers to continue practicing
"traditional agriculture." Also known as subsistence farming, it
means families barely scratch an existence from poor soils, and
rarely have enough to sell at local markets, much less export.
'If the world had to rely on organic farming or 1960s agricultural
technologies to produce as much food as it actually did in 2000,
notes Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize laureate for the first
Green Revolution, "we would have had to double the amount of land
under cultivation." Millions of acres of forest and grassland
habitats would have been slashed, burned and plowed for subsistence
farming - or millions more people would have starved. As human
populations grow, the problem would only worsen.
Instead, thanks to biotechnology, farmers can grow far more from the
same acreage, thereby preserving habitats and fostering biodiversity
and nutrition. They don't need modern machinery, or specialized
training, to double or triple their yields. They merely have to plant
these better seeds, to produce better lives for their families.
Keeping GE seeds out of the hands of farmers - and GE food out of the
mouths of hungry children and parents - violates basic human rights,
and perpetuates poverty and malnutrition.
No wonder Dr. Moore says the greens' position is "insanity."
Anti-biotech activists are on the wrong side of science, history,
morality and humanity. They need to be held to civilized standards of
honesty, transparency and accountability.
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial
Equality, one of the United States' oldest and most respected civil
and human rights organizations, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green
power _ Black death (www.Eco-Imperialism.com).
Gene Technology In Australia: What's Happening In Horticulture?
- New Booklet from Agrifood Awareness Australia: www.afaa.com.au. Via Agnet
Agrifood Awareness Australia Limited's (AFAA) latest resource, the
newly released booklet titled, Gene technology in Australia: What's
happening in horticulture? For further information, please contact
the AFAA office on 02 6273 9535, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit our
website at www.afaa.com.au.
In 2002-03 approximately $4.5 million worth of horticultural projects
funded through Horticulture Australia Limited (HAL), included a
biotechnology component. The biotechnology program aims to keep
Australian horticulture internationally competitive by: Fostering
partnerships between biotechnology and conventional breeding
programs; Providing knowledge of plant processes and development;
Discovering new genes and gene technologies; Generating new
intellectual property to negotiate international research alliances;
and, Encouraging investment in the area.
The 24-page booklet presents a brief overview of some of the gene
technology research funded in horticultural commodities in Australia
and overseas. It also provides an overview of the science involved in
gene technology and the regulation of such research in Australia.
There are no genetically modified (GM) fruit or vegetables
commercially available in Australia. Overseas, virus resistant
papaya, potato, squash and melon varieties and tomatoes with a longer
shelf-life have been approved for commercial release, however because
of consumer concerns about such products, only GM papaya varieties in
Hawaii are grown on a wide-scale.
Australia did however produce the first commercially-available GM
flower, six carnations with modified colouring ranging from mauve to
deep purple have become available since 1996. Over the past decade
gene technology research in Australian horticulture crops has
included apples, bananas, carrot, celery, flowers, lettuce, mango,
papaya, pineapple, tomato and grapevines. The characteristics
investigated include virus resistance, fungal tolerance, disease
resistance, and fruit ripening. Not all of this research continues,
and certainly none of it is commercially available. The papaya and
pineapple projects are the most advanced in the trial stage.
In general, Australia's peak horticulture bodies are taking a 'watch
and see' approach to gene technology with concerns about consumer
perceptions of gene technology directing their approach. However,
many are investing in gene technology research as a means to enhance
conventional breeding programs or to develop products should market
acceptance become more apparent. The booklet was pr oduced by
Agrifood Awareness Australia Limited with support from Horticulture
Copies of the booklet can be downloaded from www.afaa.com.au or hard
copies can be obtained from Agrifood Awareness Australia Limited by
phoning (02) 6273 9535 or emailing email@example.com
Kenya Begins First Open Field Trials of GM Maize
- Ochieng' Ogodo SciDev.Net, May 31, 2005
'Researchers hope the GM maize will resist attack by insect pests'
Kenya last week became the first African country other than South
Africa to plant genetically modified (GM) maize in open fields. The
seeds, modified to resist insect pests called stem borers, were
planted in the first in a series of confined field trials at the
Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) station in Kiboko on
Friday (27 May).
KARI director Romano Kiome hailed the move as an example of using
science to address the needs of the people. He pointed out that the
amount of maize Kenya loses to stem borers each year -- about 400,000
tonnes -- is nearly the same amount that the country imports annually.
Experiments with the insect-resistant maize have been taking place at
the KARI Biotechnology Center in a 'biosafety' greenhouse that opened
in June 2004 (see US$12 million greenhouse signals Kenyan GM
commitment). Stephen Mugo, one of the project leaders, said the field
trials would be used to determine how effective the insect-resistant
maize is at reducing the damage made by stem borers. ,If successful,
the GM plants will be interbred with Kenyan maize lines to produce
varieties adapted to local growing conditions.
According to Odhiambo MakOloo, a Nairobi-based environmental lawyer,
Kenya should not be starting the open field trials until it has
adopted laws to regulate genetically modified organisms. MakOloo says
that introducing GM crops without a regulatory framework could be
dangerous both to human beings and the environment.
Musyoki Joseph, a farmer from Machakos district, says, however, that
the move could help to address food security in Kenya. "We must
embrace technological advancements taking place in agriculture as
result of cutting edge science."
Joseph said stem borers were a major issue for maize growers and if
the trials succeed, the transgenic maize could stop farmers losing
large sums of money The 'open quarantine' field trials that began
last week are being undertaken by the Insect Resistant Maize for
Africa project, a joint research project of KARI and the
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) that is
supported by the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture and
the Rockefeller Foundation.
Feeding Africa: www.africancrops.net
- Mitch Leslie, Science Magazine, vol. 308, p 1093. May 20, 2005
Africa is the continent with the fastest-growing population, and
researchers working on ways to hike food production there will find
plenty to chew on at African Crop Improvement. The home page of a
Rockefeller Foundation research grants program, the site
www.africancrops.net offers a bumper crop of information on the needs
of African agriculture, biotechnology, and related topics.
Backgrounders on important crops such as bananas, cassava, and
sorghum describe the plant's origins and uses and identify research
priorities. For example, the main limit on cassava production comes
from the virus-caused cassava mosaic disease. Links include the bean
and millet genome projects. A news section posts media reports and
press releases on the latest developments, and you can share ideas
with fellow researchers on the new message board.
Biotech: Salvation or Monster? Farmers Know The Answer
- Hembree Brandon, Delta Farm Press - Primedia Insight, June 1, 2005
In just 10 short years, the adoption of genetically engineered crops
has become so endemic in U.S. agriculture that farmers who grow them
could not imagine reverting to conventional production methods.
The announcement earlier this month that farmers worldwide have
planted 1 billion acres of genetically engineered crops got scant
notice even in the agricultural press. Despite all the hoopla from
the antis, the silliness about 'Frankenfoods' and dire warnings of
genes running amok that have occurred over the past decade,
bioengineered crops continue revolutionizing agriculture.
Estimates are that more than 90 percent of the soybeans in the United
States, 75 percent of the cotton, and 50 percent of the corn are
genetically modified varieties. For farmers, the crops have increased
efficiency, which has translated into lower per unit costs, even
after factoring in the technology fees associated with the patented
seeds. Many say the technology has been their salvation, that without
it they'd be out of business.
Even in the European Community, where opposition has been the most
organized and vocal, the issue is rapidly becoming a non-issue.
Top scientists in the USDA recently issued a preliminary report that
eating foods made from cloned animals appears to be safe, although
they noted that there are still questions to be resolved about
possible allergic reactions and that some products from genetically
modified animals hold 'a moderate degree of concern' about risks to
the environment and human health. That report, too, got little
attention by the media.
The Food and Drug Administration has asked the food industry to keep
meat, milk, and other products from genetically modified animals out
of the food supply until it decides whether to allow their sale. A
decision is expected by the end of this year.
The USDA committee says genetically modified animals can have a
number of benefits, including less fatty meat, more nutritious milk,
more resistance to diseases. 'Using the tools of biotechnology to
produce more desirable, healthier farm animals is not a new
practice,' said Lisa Dry, communications director for the
Biotechnology Industry Organization. She termed the report 'very
positive' and said it's 'the same as we've found with genetically
As with any new technology 'particularly one involving elemental life
processes' there will continue to be questioning, as there has been
with all of mankind's advances, and opposition ('Man will never fly,'
'A carriage without horses').
Concerns continue about cross-contamination between conventional and
GMO varieties, a prime example being Anheuser-Busch's position that
if even a small acreage of 'pharma' rice were grown in the Missouri
Bootheel, it would buy no Missouri rice because of the potential for
cross-contamination. The rice wasn't planted, economics won out, and
isn't that how the marketplace works?
But the biotech genie is long out of the bottle; as the technology
leapfrogs, gene modification will transform our lives in ways we
can't even imagine. And as has been the case with the adoption of
genetically modified crops, science that is sound will instill
confidence in the new technologies that are worthwhile and proven
safe, and it will relegate to the dustbin those that aren't.
Seeds in Threatened Soil
- Editorial, Nature 435, 537-538, June 2 2005, www.nature.com
'US hostility towards Syria is undermining the stability of an
important seed bank for dry areas.'
Thirty kilometres from Aleppo in Syria, not far from the birthplace
of agriculture, is the International Center for Agricultural Research
in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). It includes an international gene bank
that holds seeds in trust on behalf of the world's dry countries.
Organized through the World Bank and funded by international donors,
ICARDA's gene bank holds samples of 131,000 individual seeds for
plants that form part of the diets of one billion people who live in
Central and West Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. The seeds
include different varieties of barley, beans, chickpeas and lentils,
catalogued and stored in sealed plastic bottles inside giant
ICARDA often finds itself having to rebuild agriculture at the end of
military and civil conflicts. The centre is in effect a lender of
last resort for farmers and scientists who have nowhere else to go
when their seeds run out.
When Taliban fighters looted Afghanistan's national seed store in
2002, they took the empty plastic bottles, leaving the seeds behind.
Even so, the country's scientists needed ICARDA's help to rebuild the
store. And shortly before the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003,
Iraqi scientists sent a 'black box' across the border to ICARDA
containing copies of the country's seed stocks. The action was
timely, as Iraq's seed bank, in the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, was
looted and destroyed during the insurgency. ICARDA plans to use the
contents of the box to help regenerate Iraqi farming.
But now the centre's host country is itself feeling the heat of US
rhetoric. The US government has always been a generous financial
supporter of the centre's activities. But in the words of the State
Department, Syria is autocratic, is a state sponsor of terrorism, and
is believed to be developing weapons of mass destruction. Continuing
US sanctions and some discussion in the United States about possible
'regime change' are causing nervousness.
One response would be to pack the seeds into storage boxes and
airlift them out of Syria, but the threat of US military action
currently seems too remote to warrant such drastic action.
Much better, for ICARDA and for the 14 other 'Future Harvest
Centres', would be for more support to be given to the Global Crop
Diversity Trust, an international fund to build more gene banks
around the world and to improve the conditions of existing ones. The
trust was set up jointly by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International
Agricultural Research. It says it needs an endowment of $260 million
to safeguard seeds used in world agriculture and to improve the
condition of the gene banks where they are stored.
The world's gene banks are in a parlous state, as a new report
("Safeguarding the future of US agriculture") published jointly by
the US Department of Agriculture and the University of California
makes clear. Of the 1,460 gene banks around the world, only 35 meet
international standards for long-term storage. These include the gene
banks of ICARDA and of the other Future Harvest Centres. The FAO,
moreover, says that nearly-one fifth of the 5.4 million seeds stored
in gene banks are degenerating.
The US report also urges the Bush administration to support the
Global Crop Diversity Trust, and not without good reason. Pests and
plant diseases are causing losses to US agriculture of up to $33
billion each year, and there is a strong fear that new threats could
cause even more damage. US agricultural researchers are currently
scouring the world's gene banks for seed varieties that can resist
these diseases. Chief among such diseases are a fungus that is
currently invading US soybean fields, and potato blight of the kind
that caused the Irish potato famine, which is destroying potatoes
worth some $400 million each year.
The US government is currently spending more than $1 billion per week
on military operations in Iraq. By comparison, a $260-million
endowment is a small price to pay to conserve the world's
agricultural heritage and to secure the future food supply of the
United States and the rest of the world.
High- and Low-Cost Realities for Science and Society
- Helga Nowotny, Science, Vol 308, Issue 5725, 1117-1118, May 20,
2005. Excerpts below...
Through the ongoing proliferation of images and symbols, information
overload and hi-tech-driven media, science increasingly communicates
with the public in ways that are deliberately designed and intended
to meet the public (and political) imagination.
At the same time, the public is led to imagine what the sciences and
scientists mean and say. The appeal to the imagination can be pursued
through different avenues. One is that of fiction, a recent example
of which is Michael Crichton's blockbuster The State of Fear. In his
plot, scientists are colluding with the environmental movement,
making up facts when necessary, in order to support a common cause.
In a shrewd move of having environmental lawyers rehearse possible
arguments that the defense might use against them, he lectures
extensively in the guise of the scientific graphs and footnotes and
by presenting whatever else looks like scientific evidence, about all
that is wrong with global warming. It is a mix of science, advocacy,
and a vision of scientists whose idealism leads them astray.
It has been on 37 best-seller lists with another book that looks at
the impact of environmental change in a very different way: Jared
Diamond's Collapse which is based on a scholarly analysis of a series
of case studies of ancient civilizations. If Crichton's book is taken
not as a work of fiction, but becomes equated with one of fact, like
Diamond's, do we not run the risk that trust in science will be
decided by market forces and continuing sales figures? The public has
become accustomed in a media-saturated world to switching between
fact and fiction--but how far does this extend?
The question I want to pose is whether in the desire to communicate
with "society," "science" has contributed to a confusion between
facts and fiction, or as the political analyst Yaron Ezrahi described
it, between high-cost and low-cost realities. Ezrahi distinguishes
between constructs of the world that require heavy investment of
resources, such as time, money, efforts, and skills, and those which
engage fewer resources on the part of those who consume these
realities. Scientific knowledge constructs high-cost reality, usually
based on a densely organized system of concepts, facts, rules,
interpretation, methodological skills, equipment, and evidence. As
such, the knowledge is not directly accessible to laypersons and
remains esoteric. Low-cost realities may be expensive to produce, but
are "cheap" to consume. They depend on the immediate experience of
the flow of images and sounds. They become the shared means by which
the public conceives, imagines, remembers, thinks, and relates or
acts in politics. They allow the public to simulate the witnessing of
real events without the trouble of being actually there. Low-cost
reality is a spectacularly successful commercial product in our
Declining trust in science and scientific experts has been clear in
public controversies like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or
the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis, as well as in the
rejection of scientific evidence regarding vaccination safety in the
UK. The Euro-barometer, conducted as an EU-wide survey, probes the
state of mind of EU citizens and how they view science and
technology. The most recent data are expected to be published in
mid-May and, for the first time, will be commented on by a panel of
experts. The 2001 survey revealed that two-thirds of the public do
not feel well-informed about science and technology, and the number
of people who believe in the capacity of science and technology to
solve societal problems is declining. Trust in science in general
seems to be on the decline in many national surveys, although
scientists still come out way ahead of politicians or other public
There are currently clear examples of research on the frontiers of
science clashing with human beliefs and values. From the United
States, voices can be heard deploring the tendency of politicians to
interfere with scientific agendas in teaching and in research and
faith-based opposition to the teaching of evolution and some forms of
frontier research, like stem cells continue to raise serious concern.
Luckily, creationism/evolution is not an issue in Europe, largely due
to the centralized education systems in most countries. However, an
analogous situation exists for stem cell research, with some
countries, like Germany and Italy, completely opposed. There will be
a referendum in Italy shortly on stem cell research. The Catholic
church urges the public not to vote, in the hope that the necessary
50% quota will not be reached, and the referendum will be defeated.
Although we may welcome greater public interest in science, if only
to avoid another backlash in fields like nanotechnology as occurred
with GMOs, we must also confront the thorny issue of how contemporary
democracies will deal with minorities who, on faith-based or other,
value-related grounds, refuse any compromise. There is no reason to
believe that Europe will be immune to an ascendancy of groups who
oppose otherwise promising lines of research on the basis of their
value system. If the values dimension is here to stay, it is far from
certain that the usual response of setting up ethical guidelines and
committees will suffice, let alone that any of the efforts to "better
communicate science" will have any effect.
If the goal is a more research-friendly society, one in which
research and innovation become embedded in society and an expression
of "the capacity to aspire" , we have to explain what research is and
how the process of research is actually carried out. We need to focus
more on the processes of research; on the inherent uncertainty that
is part and parcel of it; on how bottom-up and top-down approaches
intersect; on the actual, and not only idealized, role that users
play; and on how research funding agencies work, both on national and
supranational levels. We should explain how research priorities are
set, because it is not nature whispering into the ears of
researchers, but an intricate mixture of opportunities and
incentives, of prior investments and of strategic planning mixed with
We would also be better poised to explain to the wider public the
difference between claims or promises made on the part of
researchers, depending on whether these claims have been
peer-reviewed or not. How should the public know about these rules
that play such an important part for the scientific community, see
their significance as well as their limitations, unless we explain
how they actually work? Or how should they know about the differences
in scientific cultures, what counts as evidence, or how consensus is
reached with criticism being an essential precondition for moving
toward it, if nobody tells them?
To observe and explain what scientists are really doing requires that
we make the multiple links of interaction between science and society
transparent, as well as the institutions that mediate and shape
science policies. The dialogue needs to be extended into the world of
politics, economics, and culture, including how scientists are
influenced by globalization. There is a need for additional capacity
building so that civil society can become a partner in this encounter
with science. Apart from patient groups or organizations that have
sponsored research into orphan diseases, there has been little
organized effort in Europe so far.
Successful communication can begin to be measured through short-term
indicators, such as improvements in public opinion polls on trust in
science or increases in enrollment figures for undergraduate physics
or chemistry programs. In the longer term, we will need to measure
evolution in the direction of scientific citizenship, which
presupposes rights and duties on the part of citizens as much as on
the part of political and scientific institutions. Innovation is the
collective bet on a common fragile future, and neither science nor
society knows the secret of how to cope with its inherent
uncertainties. It can only be accomplished through an alliance among
the participants and a shared sense of direction.
Conference on Public Perception of Biotechnology
- June 23-24 Philadelphia,
An important conference featuring some of the world's most
influential researchers on biotechnology and the public from around
the world. As a follow-up to the BIO 2005 Conference, travel to Saint
Joseph's University in historic Philadelphia. Join us for an
opportunity to hear academics, industry representatives, and
government officials discuss and share the latest ground-breaking
research on the biotechnology and the public.
Important topics include: * The Eurobarometer & EU Attitudes Toward
Biotech * Canadian Research on Public Opinions of Biotechnology* The
Public "Engagement" With Biotechnology* Emerging Science and the
American Consumer's Opinion of Biotechnology * Media Coverage of
Biotechnology * Public Perceptions of Biotechnology in Australia*
Consumer Perceptions of Biotechnology* Labeling Issues and