Today in AgBioVoiew from www.agbioworld.org : June 10, 2005
* Coffee Trial Survives Insects, But Not Vandals
* East African Farming Genetically Transformed
* Food for the World: The Debate Over Biotechnology
* Another Good Website for Learning Genetics
* Ag Group Forms to Defeat Sonoma Biotech Ban
* "Industrial" Pollutants Reveal a Surprising Origin
* "Special to AgBioView" - Prometheus Was Not a Blacksmith *
Coffee Trial Survives Insects, But Not Vandals
- Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, May 28, 2005
Vanadals have ruined the world's first and only outdoor trial of
genetically engineered coffee. But it emerged last week that enough
results were salvaged from the trial in French Guiana to show that an
inserted toxin gene protected the GM coffee plants against moth
In May 2000, researchers based in Montpellier from the French
Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD)
planted plots of both GM and unmodified coffee plants. The GM plants
had been engineered to contain a toxin gene from the soil bacterium
Bacillus thuringiensis, which codes for a protein lethal to insects
but harmless to humans. They chose French Guiana for the trial
because no coffee grows there, avoiding any possibility that the GM
variety could contaminate existing plants.
Last August, with two years remaining in the trial, the plants were
hacked down by vandals. Smallholders, who make up the majority of
coffee-growers, fear that GM strains will enable richer farmers who
can afford the technology to put them out of business. Emotions are
running high, so the attack on the trial was not altogether
Not everything was lost, however. The team collected enough results
before the trial was ruined to show that the modification produced
the desired effect. "Seventy per cent of our GM trees were totally
resistant to the coffee leaf miner," Christophe Montagnon of CIRAD
revealed last week at a seminar on GM coffee hosted by the
International Coffee Organization in London. In contrast, all the
controls were attacked by the insect, which stunts the growth and
reduces the yield of the plants by burrowing into leaves and
hampering photosynthesis. In other respects, the GM and non-GM plants
If the trial had been left to run for a further two years, it would
have shown whether continued resistance against the larvae gave the
GM crop an edge in yield. Any adverse environmental effects would
also have been easier to spot.
East African Farming Genetically Transformed
- Ochieng' Ogodo and Deodatus Balile, Nairobi, Kenya (SPX) Jun 10, 2005
Kenya has become the first African country other than South Africa to
plant genetically modified maize in open fields. he seeds, altered to
resist insect pests called stem borers, were planted in the first of
a series of confined field trials at the Kenya Agricultural Research
Institute station in the Kiboko district at the end of May.
Romano Kiome, director of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute,
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 institute's Biotechnology Center in a new top-of-the-range
biosafety greenhouse that opened last year. Stephen Mugo, one of the
project leaders, said the field trials would determine how effective
the insect-resistant maize is at reducing the damage made by stem
borers. If successful, the genetically modified 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 control genetically modified organisms. MakOloo
claims that introducing genetically modified crops without a
regulatory framework could be dangerous both to human beings and the
But Musyoki Joseph, a farmer from Machakos district, says 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 with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement
Center, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Syngenta
Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.
Meanwhile, confusion reigns over whether neighbouring Tanzania has
also begun field trials of genetically modified crops. Tanzania's
agriculture minister says that genetically modified nicotine-free
tobacco is already being grown in the East African country for
research purposes, although the planned regulatory framework has yet
to be debated by parliament and there are no laws in place governing
genetically modified crops.
Field trials of nicotine-free tobacco have been underway for several
months on a small farm in Moshi District in the Kilimanjaro region
"on a very small scale," agriculture minister Charles Keenja told
SciDev.Net. "We are seeing the possibilities of eradicating tobacco
containing nicotine," said Keenja. "We have decided to produce
genetically modified tobacco that is free of nicotine... we target
the future market."
In 2003, field trials of genetically modified tobacco seed produced
by US-based Vector Tobacco were conducted in Tanzania, although there
is widespread belief that such experiments were stopped at the end of
the year. However the company declined to respond to repeated
requests to comment on the minister's statement that genetically
modified tobacco is once again under trial in Tanzania.
Keenja said government was likely to delay draft legislation on
genetically modified crops because 2005 is an election year in
Tanzania, and the legislative calendar is overcrowded. "We are not
likely to have a law in place before 2006," he said. However he added
that Tanzania could not afford to be left behind. "To date, not a
single study has proven genetically modified foods to be harmful to
human beings," said Keenja. "It is only unfounded fear."
At the same time, Keenja also said the government may suspend plans
to test cotton genetically modified in the laboratory to resist
attack by insect pests, including a caterpillar known as red bollworm
that feeds on cotton and causes bollworm disease. "Tanzania cannot
afford to be left behind by technologies that increase crop yields,
reduce farm costs and increase profits," protested Wilfred Ngirwa,
permanent secretary for the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security.
The government-run trials were expected to begin before October under
the supervision of researchers from Sokoine University of Agriculture
in Morogoro, whose laboratory studies have shown that the genetically
engineered cotton kills caterpillars feeding on it. The research will
be conducted in Tanzania's southern highlands, where cotton
production was suspended in 1968 in an effort to stop the bollworm
spreading to the rest of the country.
Since then, farmers in the region have largely grown sunflowers to
sell to processors who extract oil from the plants. But the growers
have complained that the industry offers little financial security
due to the small local market for their crops.
Genetically modified cotton would be good news for farmers in
southern Tanzania, said Paul Ntwina, the member of parliament for
Songwe constituency. "Technology is likely to be our liberator,"
Job Lukonge of the Tanzania Farmers Association told SciDev.Net it
was good that the government had decided to start its genetically
modified trials with cotton instead of a food crop, as it would avoid
the contentious issue of having genetically altered products in the
human food chain.
Farmers were glad that genetic technology was within reach, but was
concerned that Tanzania does not have the necessary skills to handle
it if it proves to be harmful, Lukonge said. However, the
non-governmental organisation known as Participatory Ecological Land
Use Management (PELUM-Tanzania), alleges that genetically modified
crops - whether cotton or tobacco - would harm the environment and
human health, and make poor farmers dependent on costly seeds.
The organisation's advocacy officer, Donat Senzia, fears that GM
crops could create 'super weeds', which later may be uncontrollable
and disturb the natural vegetation. Senzia claims that Tanzania needs
more than ten years to prepare for any GM product.
By starting its genetic modification trials, Tanzania will become the
seventh African country to do so, following Burkina Faso, Egypt,
Kenya, South Africa, Tunisia and Zimbabwe. Of these, South Africa is
the only country producing genetically modified crops commercially.
Food for the World: The Debate Over Biotechnology
- June 14, 2005 at 6pm, New Theater, Yale University, New Haven
Can genetically modified, 3,000-pound tomatoes save the world? Was
Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach the Nostradamus of noshing?
Come find out.
Ganesh Kishore from DuPont and geneticist Suman Sahai will supersize
Another Good Website for Learning Genetics
"From stem cells to gene chips, from prions to cloning, genetics and
biotechnology can look forbiddingly complex to high school and
lower-division college students. Beginners can ease into these
subjects at the Genetic Science Learning Center, a graphics-rich
tutorial from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Primers step
through topics from DNA structure to the different types of stem
cells; compared to embryonic stem cells, those from adults so far
can't seem to form the same range of tissues. Animations illustrate
techniques such as microarray analysis and investigate questions such
as how cystic fibrosis upsets the ion balance in lung cells.
"(comments via Science, v.308,p 1387)
Ag Group Forms to Defeat Sonoma Biotech Ban
- Vickie Horner, Capital Press, June 10, 2005
A coalition of agricultural groups has organized to defeat a Sonoma
County, Calif., ballot initiative banning genetically modified
organisms. Under the guidance of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the
Family Farmers Alliance was formed to educate the public about the
initiative's potential negative effects.
The Sonoma County Ordinance to Prevent Agricultural and Environmental
Contamination from Genetically Engineered Organisms will be on the
Nov. 8 ballot. It would set a 10-year moratorium on the cultivation
of GMOs in the county. It includes a sunset provision and language
that allows the county board of supervisors to modify the ordinance.
"Ours is a very grassroots effort," Sonoma County Farm Bureau
Executive Director Lex McCorvey said of the alliance. "We have the
support of every major agriculture group in the county."
GMOs are plants altered using biotechnology to withstand diseases,
pests or herbicides or to increase nutritional value. Sonoma's
initiative is similar to GMO bans in three California counties and in
the city of Arcata. Since November, California's Fresno, Kings,
Merced, Solano, Tulare, Sutter and Kern counties passed resolutions
in support of biotechnology.
The potential benefits of GMOs outweigh their perceived risks, said
McCorvey, a fourth-generation cattle rancher. "We've talked to
everybody from every side and it became clear to us very quickly that
this initiative cannot pass in Sonoma County" he said.
If the ordinance passes, agricultural operations in the county would
be affected differently than those in other counties because it is
poorly written, he said. The ordinance would prohibit the use of
genetically engineered vaccines used on livestock and pets, and all
GE bacteria, yeast and an important enzyme, chymosin, used in cheese
production, said McCorvey. "People need to understand their pets are
at risk, their horses are at risk," he said.
Continued use of genetically engineered crops allows producers to
reduce pesticide and herbicide use, which means less tractor work and
less fuel consumption, he said. The Family Farmers Alliance has
posted signs and aired radio ads against the initiative with funds
raised from area farmers and ranchers.
A large pro-GMO organization asked the group if it wanted help, "And
we have said, 'Thank you, but no thank you.' " because larger,
outside involvement failed to stop Mendocino County's GMO ban, said
Some of the agricultural groups that joined Sonoma's pro-GMO
coalition include the United Wine Growers of Sonoma County, Sonoma
County Grape Growers Association, Western United Dairymen,
Sonoma-Marin Cattlemen Association, Sonoma-Marin Cattlewomen
Association, Sonoma County Wool Growers, California Women for
Agriculture, Sonoma County Wineries Association, North Bay Dairy
Women and California Farm Bureau Federation.
Sonoma County Grape Growers Association Executive Director Nick Frey
said the 700-member organization opposes the ordinance in part
because there isn't the proper expertise in the county needed to
regulate the ban. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and
Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency
adequately regulate GMOs, he said.
"We think it also exposes the county and landowners to significant
liability," said Frey in a phone interview from his Rohnert Park,
Calif., office. "In our opinion this is bad public policy."
"Industrial" Pollutants Reveal a Surprising Origin
'Radiocarbon dating distinguishes environmental toxins as works of
man or nature'
- Stuart Blackman, The Scientist, v.19, Issue 11, Jun. 6, 2005
Full article at http://www.the-scientist.com/2005/6/6/24/1
After a True's beaked whale washed ashore in Virginia, Woods Hole
chemist Emma Teuten toiled for seven months trying to whittle 10
kilograms of blubber down to a milligram of methoxylated
polybrominated diphenyl ethers - chemicals synthesized for use as
industrial flame retardants and regarded as persistent environmental
pollutants. But improved carbon dating methods revealed that these
PBDEs were natural compounds, possibly originating in marine sponges.
The surprising find has focused a debate about the risks of exposure
to synthetic compounds.
Halogenated organic compounds like PBDEs include some of the most
notorious industrial pollutants: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs),
dioxins, and the infamous pesticide DDT. Concerns over toxicity to
humans and the environment have led to bans on many of these
so-called persistent organic pollutants. "For a long time, whenever
we found a source of chloroform or dioxin or something, it was
assumed to be from pollution from pesticides or other man-made
sources," says Gordon Gribble, an organic chemist at Dartmouth
College, New Hampshire.
But, says Gribble, many similar compounds are produced naturally in
biological and geochemical systems. "About 15 years ago, I was
reading articles by Greenpeace saying that nature would never make
these organohalogen compounds because they're toxic, they
bioaccumulate, they don't biodegrade. I knew that wasn't true to some
extent." So, he conducted a literature search that revealed
"literally thousands" of such naturally occurring chemicals. In
marine environments, chlorinated and brominated compounds are widely
manufactured by sponges, tunicates, and nudibranchs, while dioxins
are produced by volcanoes and forest fires. There is even evidence,
as yet not replicated, says Gribble, for the emission of PCBs during
the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption.
Several researchers observe that the findings have implications for
how society perceives the risks posed by natural versus synthetic
chemicals. "In the public perception, a chemical starts to be
dangerous as soon as it's called synthetic," says Boon.
Anthony Trewavas, a plant physiologist at the University of
Edinburgh, points to a recent WWF campaign in which volunteers -
including European politicians - were screened for synthetic residues
in their blood.3 "My objection to that is that after every meal
thousands of chemicals appear in your bloodstream, but they're all
natural," says Trewavas. "No one bothers a whit about that. But if
you test them on rodents, they're carcinogens, teratogens, estrogen
mimics, nerve toxins, sterility-inducing chemicals," he says.
It's no surprise that plants produce toxins. "Plant evolution is all
chemical warfare - they can't run away," says Bruce Ames of the
University of California, Berkeley, who developed the Ames test for
carcinogenicity and worked on the toxicology of tris
(2,3,-dibromopropyl) phosphate, a flame retardant banned in the
1970s. Ames points out that "99.99% of the pesticides you eat are
natural pesticides in plants."
"If people took this in properly," says Trewavas, "they would stop
worrying about these microgram amounts of synthetic pesticides."
A Whale Of A Project: Emma Teuten and some of the 22 pounds of whale
blubber, wrapped in a black plastic bag, from which she extracted a
milligram of methoxylated polybrominated diphenyl ethers.
Ames traces fears over synthetic chemicals to Rachel Carson's
influential book Silent Spring, which railed against DDT - a chemical
that Ames says "saved hundreds of millions of lives" in the battle
against malaria. According to Trewavas, about 2,000 cases of human
poisoning by the natural toxins in potatoes have appeared in the
scientific literature, compared to zero for DDT. Nevertheless,
Salter-Green says that most of the natural pesticides we ingest -
PBDEs aside - neither bioaccumulate nor are persistent.
Trewavas says the presence of natural analogs of synthetic
organohalogens might help explain the existence of enzymes such as
the cytochrome P450 complex enzyme that metabolize many industrial
products. "We've been exposed to these things forever and that means
we'll have defense mechanisms to deal with them."
Other industrial compounds, like DDT, have no natural analog. But nor
do humans have an evolutionary history of exposure to many of the
natural compounds included in the modern diet, argues Ames. "Just
look at the plants that came from the New World," he says. "Europeans
weren't eating corn, string beans, avocados, potatoes, or tomatoes."
Ames maintains that defenses against toxins are generalized rather
Mark Hahn, a molecular toxicologist at Woods Hole, says there's no
reason to think that cytochrome P450 is any better at breaking down
natural compounds than synthetic. "It's evolved to be promiscuous,"
Read full article and see references at
Prometheus Was Not a Blacksmith
- Andrew Apel, AgBioView, www.agbioworld.org , June 10, 2005
Cultural attitudes are generally thought to be broadly determined, or
at least expressed, by myths. The notion that the themes encountered
in the myths of various cultures have a great deal in common has been
well-received. (1) Indeed, it is possible to survey the myths of
various cultures and compare attitudes toward technology, agriculture
and magic with an eye toward evaluating the debate over agricultural
biotechnology and to demonstrate that the topic deserves an in-depth
investigation. Such an investigation would be enabled, and its result
justified, by a famous observation of British physicist and science
fiction author Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced
technology is indistinguishable from magic." (2)
A broad review of myths from around the world (3) suggests that it is
possible to answer a number of questions regarding the debate over
agricultural biotechnology by adverting to mythology. These questions
include why farmers accept it while consumers (in some cultures) fear
it; why Prince Charles of Wales believes use of the technology should
be reserved to God alone; why the term "Frankenfood," referring to
the products of agricultural biotechnology, has gained such wide
currency; and why the precautionary principle figures so largely in
Across cultures, myths reveal that farmers belong to the lowest class
of society, equal with common laborers. The farmer's lot is strife
and misery, punctuated by fruitful harvests attributed to favorable
dispositions of gods who influence either life in general or
agriculture in particular. The only societies in which farmers are
not the lowest class are those which have instituted slavery, in
which case, the slaves are the lowest.
On the next level up are found the craftsmen, such as blacksmiths,
carpenters and others. Among these, blacksmiths appear as characters
in myth most frequently, as the forgers of swords. Swords can be
wielded equally by those with good or evil intent, with good or evil
outcomes. The forging of a sword involves a degree of technology, and
the use of a sword involves wielding that technology--a technology
beyond the knowledge or skill of the one who wields it. This
technology can be magnified. Some mythical blacksmiths are credited
with powers of magic, which allow them to endow swords with an
effectiveness that surpasses mere human skills at swordsmanship. This
accords well with modern intuitions that superior technology confers
'technological leverage' on humans by magnifying their ability to do
While blacksmiths may make swords, and those with magical powers may
make magical swords, the generalists in magical arts are most often
cast as sorcerers or witches. In contrast to the blacksmiths, these
generalist practitioners of magic tend to work in isolation, to make
use of rare or improbable items or substances, and to possess
knowledge which they keep secret. Male generalists tend to be
concerned with warfare and government, and are usually referred to as
sorcerers. The female practitioners are most often concerned with
herbal pharmacology and female fertility, and referred to as
'witches.' Regardless of gender, they are humans with godlike powers
which have been conferred through the possession of unique knowledge
not understood by average humans. Almost always, the powers wielded
by these more generalist magic-using humans are used to serve evil
purposes and the connotations of the words 'sorcerer' and 'witch' are
In contrast, the wielders of arcane knowledge who have good
intentions are credited less often with craft/technological or
magical skills, and more often with innate wisdom and even the
ability to forecast the future. They are variously cast as bards,
shamans or teachers who tend to be footloose and often unallied with
any person or political cause. While they may be hired, i.e., bought
for a price, their integrity is not suborned and their dedication is
to the truth.
Those with a similar dedication but a more secular bent are heroes.
The hero can be of any non-slave social class and is not wise in the
manner of a shaman, but wise in the sense that he or she adheres to
high moral principles. Depending on the culture, these principles,
and the actions of the hero, may inure to the general welfare or
fulfill the demands of a god or just king. The hero often makes use
of magic, which by definition almost nobody understands, in order to
complete heroic deeds. Thus, the hero is pure of heart but generally
ignorant of technology or magic.
The highest cultural level of mundane humans is inhabited by
politicians, i.e., the king, those who want to be king, and those who
want to control the king. A king, or another member of the political
hierarchy, might occasionally be a hero. Most often, those in the
highest caste are at the mercy of disputes between gods, sorcerers,
witches and heroes and their power is mainly the ability to either
reward or punish. Those politicians of good intent rely most heavily
in their governmental functions on heroes and the wise. Those with
evil intent rely on sorcerers and witches. Both types rely on
blacksmiths, who in spite of their technological or magical prowess,
are portrayed as essentially neutral. They just supply the killing
tools, be they mundane or magical.
Serving as background to persons of these social classes are citizens
of any generic type. Their fates are almost completely determined by
the whims of gods, kings, heroes, sorcerers and witches. The wise
only figure in their fates to the extent that kings and heroes listen
to wisdom or foreknowledge.
What does this say about agricultural biotechnology?
In mythological terms, agricultural biotechnology makes farmers, the
lowest social class, wielders of technology that neither they, nor
most humans, can understand. That is, it makes them practitioners of
magic. The technology makes harvests more bountiful. In myth, the
bounty of harvests is supposed to be determined by gods or interfered
with by sorcerers or witches, so the farmer is usurping these roles.
The use of magic by farmers also usurps and confounds the role of the
hero. The hero is supposed to bye the one ignorant of arcane
technology (i.e., magic) but pure of heart. This is not expected of
common laborers mired in misery whose lives and livelihoods are at
the sufferance of the gods. Thus citizens would be skeptical of the
notion that farmers can responsibly wield magical powers. (5)
In Judaic, Christian and Moslem traditions, which have only one God,
the powers of that god are magnified considerably over those
traditions which have several gods. The one God enjoys the powers of
multiple gods, but is not distracted or constrained by squabbles
between multiple gods with divided powers. A god in charge of
agriculture would naturally be insulted at the notion of low-class
farmers casually wielding agricultural magic. A unitary God without
political difficulties with other gods and having complete authority
over the universe would see this insult vastly magnified. Hence
Prince Charles' notion of agricultural biotechnology being reserved
to God alone. Being a politician in line for the throne of Britain,
and properly ignorant of high technology, i.e., magic, he is in a
position where he could be a hero. However, he does not wield this
magic and sees no heroes wielding biotechnology magic on his behalf.
Instead, he sees low-class farmers wielding it for their own benefit.
He is naturally led to denounce magic-using farmers and those who aid
them for usurping God's domain.
Agricultural biotechnology also casts scientists in a conflicted
role. Science is a recent cultural invention, yet partakes of many
mythic elements. However, they take these elements piecemeal. By
refusing gods in the explanation of phenomena, scientists attempt to
place themselves outside mythic traditions. At the same time, they
are dedicated to truth, like shamans, and often wander among kings,
as wise persons, but they are prodigal in the powers they unleash.
Even the lowest farmer can use them. Scientists might be like
blacksmiths, whose magical swords may surpass the understanding of
most and can be used for either good or evil. However, special swords
forged by special blacksmiths are rare, and meant for heroes or mad
tyrants who are at least skilled in using them, not for low-class
farmers. Scientists work in isolation with arcane substances and
employ rare knowledge, so citizens view them with suspicion, rather
than with the admiration reserved for blacksmiths. Wielding the power
of life, as generalists the scientists are like sorcerers. As
specialists in agriculture and the power of plants, they are more
like witches. Yet even then, they confound these roles by allowing
common farmers to practice magic and by sharing their knowledge
In myth, common citizens are like royalty in that those of either
class generally have to suffer the consequences of disputes which
employ high technology/magic. In tales involving the general welfare,
royalty and citizens find a common cause. Here, too, agricultural
biotechnology confounds myth. The farmers wield the magic, and
neither the hero nor the king, nor even the sorcerer/witch commands
Scientists eschew precognition, having replaced it with the notion of
causality. Having abdicated the role of the shaman and the wise to
that extent, the role has fallen to those who wish to assume it, and
those persons proclaim the precautionary principle. Those who adhere
to this principle, however, have also relinquished an important part
of the role of the wise shaman. They cannot have specific knowledge
of the future, for that role has been successfully taken up by those
in the new scientific tradition who rely on causality. Unable overtly
to claim magical abilities, and unwilling to join the scientific
tradition, they can only say that the future is unknown at best.
However, they most often insist that the unknown future holds evil, a
certainty they wish to blame on scientists and others who introduce
new technologies. By definition, new technology is magic, since it is
not widely understood (otherwise, it would not be new). And as the
introduction of new technologies accelerates and becomes less widely
understood, the incidence of what might otherwise be described as
magic increases. As the world becomes increasingly suffused with
magic--even in the hands of lowly farmers--it becomes increasingly
ominous for some. Hence the precautionary principle, which in its
essence would reserve magic for gods, heroes and perhaps the
curiously neutral blacksmiths.
Claiming the future holds evil and blaming scientists is, in
mythological terms, saying that sorcerers and witches are releasing
powers that are not merely indifferent, as in the case of
blacksmiths, but simply bad. However, this is a cultural misfire;
scientists in their roles as the wandering wise reject gods in their
descriptions of nature's processes, and in the main, the magic they
dispense goes too equally to the mighty and the humble to make them
sorcerors. The power they unleash can be used by anyone for either
good or ill, making them something like blacksmiths, but their
knowledge is too subtle and their methods too obscure to allow them
to assume that role. Blaming merchants for purveying magical evils is
another cultural misfire. In myth, merchants are typically minor
characters, too marginalized to be blamed for the habits of evil
kings, and too beholden to the marketplace to exercise the powers
some would ascribe to them. However, this can be at least partially
explained by the fact that most myths arose in feudal societies,
prior to the rise of the merchant class and the ascendance of science.
At the same time, the notion of 'Frankenfood' persists. The 'Franken'
portion of the term is derived from the tale of Dr. Frankenstein, a
completely novelistic invention but so popular in Western
English-speaking cultures that it deserves to be called a
myth--albeit one composed after the birth of the scientific
tradition. In the tale, Dr. Frankenstein takes parts of once-living
humans and pieces them together into a being that he brings back to
life. In the best tradition of the mythic tragedy, the being yis
well-intentioned, but brings destruction. The 'food' element of
'Frankenfood' combines these mythic elements with agriculture in a
marvelous way. In the concatenation 'Frankenfood,' the created
"being" is portrayed as agricultural life magic run amok in the hands
of farmers and fed to unwitting, hapless citizens.
As myth, "Frankenstein" is a story of confounded powers and roles. It
portrays magic practiced without gods, heroes or kings, and the
consequences of releasing godlike power without control by the
virtuous. It is a story of a sorcerer without evil intent; a proper
sorcerer would at least constrain the magic to achieve evil ends. His
moral failing is to take a value-free approach to technology/magic.
That is to say, cannot be a moral hero, either, and instead of
wielding power, he unleashes it. This makes "Frankenstein" the
perfect parable for adherents of the precautionary principle, who
wish to reserve the use of magic for gods and ignorant (and thus
innocent) heroes, and restrict knowledge of magic to shamans and the
wise, who unerringly share what they know only with those of good
intent. And, perhaps, with blacksmiths.
In mythological terms, "Frankenstein" could easily be viewed as a
version of the tale of Prometheus, the Greek demigod who created
humans, thereby proving his power to bestow life. Prometheus was not
a blacksmith. His crime was to steal fire from the forge of a
blacksmith-god and make it available to all humans, regardless of
social class. For releasing this magic unfettered, the gods decreed
that Prometheus should be permanently nailed to a mountain. One moral
of the stories appears to be that those involved in technology
development and transfer should study blacksmiths.
In conclusion, current events and the mythology of many cultures
suggests that any technology sufficiently advanced, i.e., not widely
understood, can be--and in fact often is--treated as magical. As
such, cultural sentiment will often lean toward reserving its use for
those who properly assume the roles of gods and heroes, and toward
restricting knowledge of it to shamans and the wise. Agricultural
biotechnology and those who develop and transfer it place a type of
god-derived life-magic in the hands of non-heroes of low social
standing, an act of hubris which in both ancient and modern myth
merits punishment. The scientists who develop technologies including
agricultural biotechnology have only partially adopted the role of
wise shaman while rejecting its main elements, leading to efforts to
force scientists to revert to that role. The refusal of scientists to
adopt this role has led to the rise of the precautionary principle,
which seeks to broadly re-establish the allocation of
technological/magical powey established in myth.
(1) "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" (1948); "The Masks of God"
(1959); and" Historical Atlas of World Mythology" (1989). Campbell,
(2) "Profiles of the Future" (1961).
(3) "World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics" (2d.
ed.), Rosenberg, Donna, NTC Publishing Group, Lincolnwood, Ill, USA
(4) See generally, "The Blessings of Technology," Gregg, Samuel at
(5) In some myths, farmers responsibly wield magical powers, and are
heroes during the wielding. After wielding, they often return to
farming--but then become 'former' heroes.