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June 7, 2005


Biotech brouhaha -- Rural myths and conspiracy theories abound; 'Disturbing' GM findings were not based on sound science


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: June 7, 2005

* Biotech brouhaha -- Rural myths and conspiracy theories abound
* Green Revolution of the '60s and the current population growth
* 'Disturbing' GM findings were not based on sound science


Biotech brouhaha Rural myths and conspiracy theories abound

- Times Argus, By Douglas Johnson, June 7, 2005

Recently, Brian Tokar, who directs the Biotechnology Project at the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield, visited my state to preach about the evils of biotechnology. I thought I might "visit" his state via your editorial pages to respond to some of the charges Tokar levied against agricultural biotechnology in his effort to cause mischief in Maine.

I give Tokar credit. He is an excellent speaker. He knows his subject and he tells his story well. The problem, though, is his story is full of rural myths and rests on a foundation of conspiracy theories. Rural myths, like their urban cousins, are one percent fact and 99 percent fiction. Conspiracy theories are … well, conspiracy theories.

Here's one of the rural myths: biotech corn (enhanced through biotechnology to resist insect damage) is killing Monarch butterflies. It is true that a laboratory study found high concentrations of biotech corn pollen could kill Monarch larvae. (The one percent fact.) In the real world, though, no such thing is happening. Wind, rain and other factors keep pollen well below levels lethal to the butterflies. Actually, insects and the birds that eat them are more prevalent in biotech corn fields because the fields are no longer sprayed with broad spectrum insecticides. All this has been documented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture but somehow that was never mentioned in Tokar's talk.

StarLink corn illustrates conspiracy theories. StarLink, a biotech corn approved for animals but not people, somehow found its way into the food supply. A massive recall of tacos and other corn products followed. Activists seized on the mix-up to warn Americans of the potential for allergies from biotech foods. Though a number of people reported allergic reactions, the Centers for Disease Control was unable to trace one single allergic reaction to StarLink (which is no longer marketed).

Why was the CDC unable to find any allergic reactions? Tokar said the CDC did a "horrendous job" of investigating. The opponents of biotech claim the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration and dozens of other federal and international agencies are part of a revolving door-industry payola conspiracy to cover up problems with biotech crops.

Percy Schmeiser, the hapless Canadian farmer who was hauled into court for planting biotech canola seeds without paying for them, illustrates how rural myths and conspiracy theories can work together. At trial, Schmeiser was found to be growing 1,030 acres of 95 to 98 percent pure biotech canola (the one percent truth). He claimed, however, that the crop resulted from drifting biotech canola pollen (the 99 percent fiction). The Canadian court that convicted him didn't buy his story. Neither did the appeals court or the Canadian Supreme Court.

Schmeiser's contention, which Tokar repeated in Maine, is that the corporations developing biotech seeds are conspiring to control the food supply and put small farmers out of business. By diverting your attention with a conspiracy, they are counting on you not noticing that Schmeiser stands before you convicted of planting someone else's seeds without paying for them.

At Tokar's talk there were a number of questions I would have liked to ask, but I didn't want to appear disruptive. For example, I would have asked, if biotech crops are so bad why have more than 3,400 renowned scientists, including 25 Nobel Prize winners, signed a petition supporting the technology? Or what about the recent paper in Science that reported no Chinese farmers planting insect-resistant biotech rice experienced pesticide-related illnesses, while their counterparts planting and spraying conventional rice did? And if biotech crops are so bad, why is the acceptance by farmers around the world growing at double-digit rates? Just recently, the one billionth acre of biotech crops was planted.

So as the debate over crop biotechnology continues, remember, there are facts and then there are rural myths and conspiracy theories. It's important to know the difference.

Douglas R. Johnson, Ph.D., is executive director of the Maine Biotechnology Information Bureau in Stonington, Maine. His e-mail address is info@mainebioinfo.org.

Green Revolution of the '60s and the current population growth

- CBS NEWS, June 3, 2005

CHARLES OSGOOD reporting: With reason, some scientists are wary of genetically modified foods, but others are saying we have no choice.

OSGOOD: They called it the Green Revolution. As the world's population doubled in the 1960s, scientists doubled the world's food supply with modern farming methods and by breeding new crop varieties. Well, world population is now expected to soar again. Gary Toenniessen of the Rockefeller Foundation says even if we farmed every inch of the earth's arable land we couldn't feed everyone.

Mr. GARY TOENNIESSEN: The demand for food is likely to double within the next 30 to 50 years. The Green Revolution is slowing down and needs to have new technologies that can give it a boost.

OSGOOD: Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists worries about genetically modified crops being touted as the answer.

Ms. MARGARET MELLON: Relying on biotech to solve this important problem is a big mistake.

OSGOOD: She says genetic diversity of the world's crop plants is already declining as more farmers rely on certain engineered crops. Eight million farmers in 17 countries grew such crops on 200 million acres last year, 20 percent more than the year before.

Ms. MELLON: This is a technology based on moving genes from one organism to another, and it may have unpredictable consequences.

OSGOOD: But with conventional farming, says Toenniessen, feeding two and a half billion more people would require a billion acres of new farmland which would mean clear-cutting a billion acres of forest.

Mr. TOENNIESSEN: So the more food that we can produce on land that is already in production, the lower the environmental impact.

OSGOOD: And genetically modified crops may be the only way to do that.

THE OSGOOD FILE. Charles Osgood on the CBS Radio network.


'Disturbing' GM findings were not based on sound science

- CANBERRA TIMES (Australia), June 4, 2005

Dr Arpad Pusztai's "crime" (CT Forum, May 28, pB8, "A scientist crushed in GM push") was not that he "found disturbing evidence that the genetically modified potatoes he'd been studying damaged the immune systems, brains, livers and kidney's of rats", but rather the hurried reporting of his research.

Dr Pusztai fed rats potatoes modified with a snowdrop lectin gene to produce a particular lectin called GNA.

Lectins are plant toxins thought to be part of the plant's defense against herbivores (maybe including humans).

The GM potatoes were produced for the experimental purpose of testing the potential of GNA to strengthen insect resistance in plants.

It is prudent to consider that any plant modified to produce an additional lectin could potentially become harmful when eaten.

Dr Pusztai reported his preliminary results publicly before they were repeated and complete. After much publicity and controversy in the media, his work was submitted for publication and in addition was reviewed by four separate, independent groups -the Royal Society, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and in the Donaldson/May Report.

Each group raised serious doubts about Dr Pusztai's conclusions, including the lack of proper controls in his experiments, and found no reason to question the general safety of GM foods based on his findings.

Dr Pusztai's own research institute also questioned the validity of the results and conclusions. The editor of the scientific journal noted the results were "preliminary and non-generalisable" but felt justified in publishing them because they would enhance the "dialogue of accountability that needs to be forged between scientists and the public".

Australia has a tough regulatory system in place, with Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator assessing the safety of GM foods and the safe conduct of gene technology research, respectively.

Any "dissident scientist" with accurate, quality and reproducible results based on sound science would get a good hearing by these authorities as well as by their peers.

Dr T.J. Higgins,
CSIRO Plant Industry



- By Dave Bohan

Background to the Evaluations

At the end of April, the final set of results from the Farm Scale Evaluations (FSE) of GM herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) crops was published1. This paper on winter-sown canola (oilseed rape) brought to a close the largest field experiment ever conducted on farmland ecology. The aim was to evaluate the impact on weed and invertebrate wildlife of an agricultural technology that had yet to be introduced in the UK.

The FSE was established because of widely held concerns that GMHT crops (and GM in general) might exacerbate negative impacts upon farmland wildlife already apparent over the last four decades due to intensification of farming practices. There was concern that control of weeds in GMHT crops tolerant to broad-spectrum herbicides might be so efficient that it could help to clean up previously weedy fields, thereby enhancing long term declines in weeds and the wildlife depending on them. Others argued that GMHT crops might mitigate intensification by delaying and reducing herbicide use, allowing weeds and associated wildlife to remain in fields longer.

Four GMHT crops were evaluated during the FSE in at least 65 fields per crop (266 in total). The spring-sown beet crop was genetically modified to be tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate, while the spring-sown maize and canola and the winter-sown canola were tolerant to glufosinate-ammonium. Each GMHT crop was compared from sowing to harvest with a conventional variety of the same crop to assess their impacts on components of farmland weed and invertebrate wildlife. The FSE was conducted as a randomized block experiment in which each field was split and the GMHT and conventional crop randomly assigned to each half of the field2. Based on previous evidence, we assumed that it was not the GMHT construct itself that would exert effects on wildlife, but rather differences in the timing and type of herbicide management between the GMHT and conventional treatments. This assumption led directly to the null hypothesis, that there is no difference between herbicide management of GMHT crops and that of conventional cultivars, managed according to current conventional herbicide practice, in their affect on the abundance and diversity of weeds and invertebrates.


The results fell into three categories. 1) For winter canola, the numbers of weeds (including weed seeds) were similar in the GMHT and conventional treatments, but the composition was different: there were fewer broad-leaved weeds and more grasses in the GMHT crops. 2) In spring canola and beet there were fewer broad-leaved and grass weeds in the GMHT crops. 3) In spring maize there were more broad-leaved and grass weeds in the GMHT treatment. These differences in weeds and weed seeds, in turn, affected the abundance of invertebrates. This was particularly apparent for pollinators (bees and butterflies) that forage for broad-leaved weeds. In spring beet, spring canola, and winter canola, bee and butterfly numbers were lower in the GMHT crop because of the lower numbers of broad-leaved weeds. In GMHT maize, bee and butterfly numbers were higher. One consistent effect found in all crops was that detritus-feeding springtail numbers were higher in the GMHT treatments. For all GMHT crops, therefore, the null hypothesis used for testing impacts on wildlife was rejected: GMHT management did have an effect on farmland wildlife.

These effects on weeds and invertebrates were all explainable in terms of the activity, number, and timing of herbicides used on the GMHT and conventional treatments. Indeed no differences between the GMHT and conventional treatments were found for herbivorous pests and their natural enemies that live directly on the crop, showing that there was no effect of the GM construct itself. What the results did demonstrate was that management changes associated with a GM construct had effects, not only on the weeds targeted, but also on invertebrates higher up the wildlife food chain. For these reasons, the Advisory Council on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), who advises and makes recommendations to the UK Government on the safety of release of GMOs, advised that "if GMHT maize were to be grown and managed as in the FSE, this would not result in adverse effects on the environment, but that a condition should be placed on the existing consent for GMHT maize to limit the management of the crop to that tested in the FSE." For spring beet and canola, their advice was "if GMHT spring oilseed rape and beet were to be grown and managed as in the FSE, this would result in adverse effects on arable weed populations, and that these would in turn be likely to result in adverse effects on organisms at higher trophic levels, such as farmland birds, compared with conventionally managed spring oilseed rape and beet." Advice on winter canola has yet to be published. In essence, as Professor Jules Pretty (Deputy Chair of ACRE) emphasized, "We're saying ‘yes, but' to the maize and ‘no, but' to rape and beet. The ‘buts' are very important." It was the herbicide management of the GMHT crop upon which the buts are dependent.

Wider Implications

What the FSE makes clear is that GM crops and their associated management will have to satisfy the public's concerns over environmental impact if introduced to the UK, and more widely, Europe. That the effects of such crops might change with the number and timing of management interventions, and that these effects could ramify up the food chain, were not fully taken into account by the biotech industry as it promoted GMHT crops in the UK. The herbicide management options designed for the GMHT treatments in the FSE tended to have ‘detrimental' effects on wildlife, yet subsequent experience from the FSE and other studies2 shows that modifications to GMHT herbicide management can produce marked benefits for wildlife, as well as those provided by the crop itself.

Despite the FSE results demonstrating clearly that changes with GMHT herbicide management in weed and invertebrate abundance and diversity could be measured, and the environmental risks quantified, the public in the UK is still not convinced of the testing, safety, or benefit of GM crops. This situation will take time to change. It will also require that the UK address the question raised by Lord May of Oxford4 that "The most pressing question arising from the Farm Scale Evaluations is not whether GM crops are better or worse for the environment than conventional crops, but rather, what is it that we want from modern agriculture. We need a wide-ranging debate about how future technologies, including new non-traditional methods of genetically modifying crops, might be used to minimize the adverse impact of agriculture on farmland wildlife." Rather than being the end of GM in Europe, to paraphrase both Prof. Joe Perry and Winston Churchill, "It might then be, once issues of coexistence are resolved, that [the end of the FSE] marked not ‘the end for GM crops', but the end of a troubled beginning."


1. Bohan DA et al. (2005) Effects on weed and invertebrate abundance and diversity of herbicide management in genetically modified herbicide-tolerant winter-sown oilseed rape. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 272, 463-474

2. Dewar AM et al. (2003) A novel approach to the use of genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops for environmental benefit. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 270, 335-340

3. Perry JN et al. (2003) Design, analysis and statistical power of the Farm-Scale Evaluations of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops. Journal of Applied Ecology 40, 17-31

4. See: http://www.rothamsted.bbsrc.ac.uk/pie/sadie/reprints/Lord_May_25_november_2003.pdf

David A. Bohan
Division of Plant and Invertebrate Ecology (PIE)
Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, UK