Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : June 21, 2005
* News Flash: Police Officer Dies after Scuffle with BIO Protestors
* Greenwood: Biotechnology Will Transform History
* India: Draft Biotech Policy Aimed At Reducing Research Time, Wastage
* Study: Doubly Engineered Crops Better
* West Africa: ECOWAS Ministers meet on Biotechnology
* Biotechnology, Agriculture, and Food Security in Southern Africa
* Multinational's Culpability
* The Panic Generator
* Magic vs. Modernity
* Two Nobel Peace Laureates' Different Views on Biotech
Officer dies after scuffle with BIO protesters
A Philadelphia police officer died of an apparent heart attack Tuesday after a scuffle with protesters outside BIO 2005, the Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual trade show and convention being held this year in the city.
Officer Paris Williams, 52, a 19-year veteran of the city's police department, died at 1:15 p.m. at Hahnemann Hospital, according to KYW News Radio. The department's homicide unit is investigating the death.
Protesters and activists were rallying against everything from genetically modified foods to pharmaceutical drug prices took to the streets of Center City Philadelphia on the third day of the event.
Shortly before noon, about 250 biotechnology protestors of all ages marched around City Hall before holding a short rally at the nearby JFK Plaza, where they were joined by more than 100 skateboarders staging their own unrelated "Wild in the Streets" skateboarding rally. The skateboarders were more interested in Love Park, the city park that was once a mecca for skateboarders before the city made it illegal to skateboard there, than biotechnology issues.
"There can be no excuse for violent actions during what are billed as peaceful demonstrations and the expression of First Amendment rights," said Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of BIO, in a written statement about the death.
The anti-biotechnology activists -- some dressed as modified tomatoes and sunflower plants, others wearing masks -- were participating in BioDemocracy 2005, a series of educational seminars and events designed to raise awareness of ethical issues related to biotechnology.
The group walked to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where BIO 2005 is being held. Police closed down Arch Street between 12th and 13th streets, where the protesters were largely contained.
BIO 2005 has already set an attendance record with more than 18,100 attending the event.
Greenwood: Biotechnology Will Transform History
- Jeff Miller, The Morning Call, June 20, 2005
'Ex-congressman heads trade group holding its annual convention in
Even though he's no longer a congressman, Jim Greenwood had to smile
when the U.S. House voted in May to expand federally funded embryonic
stem cell research. Greenwood championed the research while
representing the 8th Congressional District. Now he heads a
Washington trade association whose companies stand to profit from
robust federal backing of the controversial but cutting-edge science.
Like other advocates, Greenwood, of Bucks County, says the knowledge
gained from the research will lead to cures for a host of illnesses
and new therapies for debilitating injuries. Opponents -- including
groups that are against abortion -- believe it's unethical to destroy
human embryos to obtain stem cells.
"The thing that's most encouraging is we were able to obtain the
votes of a number of members of Congress who are otherwise 100
percent pro-life in their voting records," Greenwood said in a recent
interview. "I think the scales are going to tip pretty quickly on
this." The Senate is expected to consider the stem cell bill this
Being able to promote stem cell research and other scientific
advancements was one reason Greenwood, a Republican moderate, left
Congress after a dozen years to become president of the Biotechnology
Industry Organization, with headquarters in downtown Washington a
short drive from Capitol Hill.
The salary didn't hurt either. Greenwood receives $650,000 a year
with the possibility of $200,000 in incentives. He earned $158,000 in
his final year in Congress. As Biotechnology Industry Organization's
president, Greenwood oversees more than 100 employees and a $45
million annual budget. The organization, which has experienced
explosive growth in a decade, represents more than 1,100 companies,
academic institutions and related entities across the United States
and in 33 other nations.
Many of them converged Sunday on Philadelphia for the organization's
annual convention, which runs through Wednesday. The city was chosen
before Greenwood took the helm, but he hopes the convention will be a
showcase for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. He calls
Philadelphia "America's next biotech center" because of the region's
concentration of large drug companies and small biotech companies.
"Probably the only ingredient missing is the venture capital
community," Greenwood said.
"If I were still in Congress, I'd still be moving it in and figuring
out how to do the parades and speeches," Greenwood said.
Biotechnology may be a complex field, but it doesn't require the
responsibilities of a congressman who, after all, gets to vote on
going to war. "That was the agonizing part," Greenwood said of his
decision to leave Congress. "How do I walk away from one of the most
powerful places you can be on the planet?"
The answer, he said, "is that what we're doing here in human health,
what we're doing here on the environment, what we're doing here on
feeding people is so profound. I'm absolutely convinced that
biotechnology is going to be the most transformational human endeavor
The rationale is classic Greenwood: an earnest declaration of the
lofty ambition that he says drove his career moves from social worker
to state legislator to congressman to president of Biotechnology
But not everyone shares his enthusiasm for biotechnology. "The great
majority of BIO members don't have a stake in cloning or any of these
brave new technologies," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director
of the National Right to Life Committee. "Greenwood's extreme
commitment to this could give BIO a black eye among a majority of
Greenwood and his organization shared the same position on cloning
before they joined forces. They oppose reproductive cloning but
support cloning for research and therapies. Opponents of genetically
modified food and other biotech products also are planning protests
and teach-ins during Biotechnology Industry Organization's
Philadelphia convention. They blame the group for contaminating
native ecosystems with genetically modified plants and animals,
putting unlabeled genetically engineered ingredients in processed
foods and making it possible for corporations to own genetic
resources through intellectual property rights.
"The experimental science BIO calls "innovation' really spells
"bio-devastation' for human health, food security, local autonomy and
biodiversity," according to the Web site of Reclaim the Commons, one
of the protest organizers.
Greenwood, however, sees genetically modified food as merely a new
wrinkle on the age-old process of creating hybrid agricultural
products. "I've yet to see anyone identify with a scientific theory
as to why we should be worried about this," he said. "The best
argument they make is that there hasn't been enough time to see what
the impact would be. Actually, a lot of time has gone by. Virtually
every American every day consumes bioengineered products."
India: Draft Biotech Policy Aimed At Reducing Research Time, Wastage
- M.R. Subramani, Hindu Business Line, June 21, 2005
hiladelphia, June 20 - INDIA'S draft biotechnology policy is aimed
at cutting time for research to reach the people and avoiding waste
of resources, according to Dr M.K. Bhan, Secretary, Department of
Science and Technology.
"For example, the use of gene in a plant. If the gene has been used
in a plant in north India, we don't want the companies to carry out a
time-consuming trial again for introducing it in the South. So, we
have suggested a shorter period for testing it," Dr Bhan, who is here
as part of a delegation to the BIO 2005 biotechnology convention,
Dr Bhan's clarification comes close on the heels of fears expressed
in certain quarters over the draft biotechnology policy with regard
to agriculture. A few environmental groups had objected to what they
termed as carte blanche to genetically modified organism producers -
a clause that said "there is no need to test a gene if it has already
been used in some plant."
"That clause is valid for the same plant. For example, a Bt (Bacillus
thuringiensis) gene introduced in a cotton variety in south India can
be tested on another cotton variety in the North. However, the gene
cannot be tested on some other plant, say tomato," Dr Bhan said.
Since the results of the Bt gene in cotton is in the public domain,
it would not be prudent to ask companies to test it again in another
part of the country for a longer period. "It will result in waste of
resources. Why should there be a delay in reaching technology to
farmers?"Asked about some farmers in Andhra Pradesh not reaping
success with Bt cotton, Dr Bhan said, "We are told that cotton was
sown in areas that were not conducive to the crop. Two, we understand
that the crop was sown even after the time for sowing got over."
On the Andhra Pradesh Government's recommendation that agricultural
universities should be involved in field trials of Bt cotton, he
said, "We are looking into it but we also wonder if it is worth
taking the trouble." Dr Bhan said clinical trials of other
genetically modified crops are on as per the M.S. Swaminathan
Committee's recommendations. He said the trials are on, keeping in
mind the needs of the country's food safety and security.
Study: Doubly Engineered Crops Better
- UPI, June 20, 2005
Ithaca, N.Y -- A U.S. study finds that insects quickly develop
resistance to genetically engineered crops when single-gene plants
are grown near double-gened ones. Researchers at Cornell University
looked at the history of diamondback moths kept in a greenhouse with
genetically engineered broccoli.
The broccoli had been modified using strains of a common soil
bacterium that produces toxins. The team found that when moths were
kept with plants engineered to produce two types of toxin, all the
insects died within 26 generations or about two years. But when they
were kept with a mix of plants producing one toxin and plants
producing two the insects eventually developed resistance to both
"Single-gene plants really function as a steppingstone in resistance
of two-gene plants if the single gene plants contain one of the same
Bt proteins as in the two-gene plant," said Anthony Shelton, a
Cornell entomology professor.
Maize and cotton are the only commercial crops now engineered to
contain the Bt proteins. Both single- and double-gened strains are
sold in the United States, but Australia stopped importing
single-gened seed after finding problems with resistance.
West Africa: ECOWAS Ministers meet on Biotechnology
- Ghana News Agency, June 20, 2005
Accra, June 20, GNA - An Economic Community of West Africa States
(ECOWAS) Ministerial Meeting opens in Bamako, Mali, on Tuesday to
enable member countries to discuss the preparedness of the West
Africa to adopt biotechnology to enhance agriculture.
The Meeting is a follow-up to a similar meeting held in Ouagadougou,
Burkina Faso, last year where participants resolved to raise public
awareness about biotechnology, create a Regional Biotechnology Centre
of Excellence and adopt a Regional Biotechnology Action Plan and
regional harmonisation of bio-safety systems.
Professor Walter Alhassan, Program for Bio-safety Systems
Co-ordinator for West and Central Africa, in an interview with the
Ghana News Agency, said the meeting would consider bio-safety policy
development and regulatory framework for the region. It would also
discuss a regional strategy for communication in bio-safety, regional
biotechnology programme of development and biotechnology related
intellectual property issues.
Prof. Alhassan defined biotechnology as any use of technological
application that uses biological systems or derivatives thereof, to
make or modify products for specific use. He said biotechnology
could be used for plants, animals and microorganisms. He said some
products of agricultural biotechnology were highly resistant to crop
insects, highly nutritional and potent for vaccines for animal
Prof. Alhassan stressed that the introduction of biotechnology was a
tool to complement traditional agriculture for food security and
poverty reduction as well as facilitate the accelerated production of
new varieties of plants and breeds of animals and not to replace the
conventional way of farming.
He explained that the current status of biotechnology in the
Sub-Region was not encouraging adding that it was only Nigeria that
had shown commitment by coming out with a national policy and
creating a Centre of Excellence for Biotechnology at Shrestco, near
Abuja. "They have also established a National Biotechnology
Development Agency and Advanced Laboratory which is yet to be
completed and these show how committed they are."
Prof. Alhassan noted that La Cote d'Ivoire had the biggest
biotechnology laboratory at its national agricultural research
institute while smaller, albeit functional agricultural biotechnology
laboratories, are in Senegal, Mali, Cameroon and Ghana.
Cassava, yam, cocoyam, sweet potato, banana, Irish potato, maize,
sorghum, rice, oil palm, coconut, cotton, fibre crops, cowpea,
coconut, cattle, goat, sheep and poultry are some of the crops and
animals receiving biotechnology attention. He said in Ghana, a
Bio-safety Bill was currently at the Ministry of Environment and
Science for study adding that there was the need to have a law to
back existing bio-safety guidelines.
Prof. Alhassan expressed regret that the Sub-Region was lagging
behind other regions in the advancement of biotechnology. "Current
initiatives indicate the resolve of West Africa to address the low
capacity in biotechnology. Numerous international agencies are
providing the needed support but there is the need to harmonise these
activities." He urged African governments to invest in biotechnology
and reduce the growing dependency on the donor community.
"The future is bright for West Africa in the resolve to use
biotechnology as one of the means to ensure food security and poverty
reduction if current resolve is backed by action," he said.
Biotechnology, Agriculture, and Food Security in Southern Africa
- Steven Were Omamo and Klaus von Grebmer, 297 pages / 2005 / ISBN
Download this book at http://www.ifpri.org/pubs/books/oc46.htm
In 2002-2003, when a number of southern African countries suffering
from food shortages rejected food aid in the form of genetically
modified grain, a highly polarized debate over biotechnology came to
the surface. Pro-biotech and anti-biotech camps forcefully argued
about the role of modern biotechnology in Africa's economic
development, often excluding African policymakers from the dialogue
and leaving the public uncertain about where the truth lay.
In response, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
and the Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Policy Analysis
Network (FANRPAN) embarked on a multistakeholder initiative aimed at
raising awareness, promoting dialogue, and catalyzing
consensus-building mechanisms to improve the institutions and
policies governing agricultural biotechnology and to assess its
implications for food security in southern Africa. The result of this
initiative, this book brings together experts from within and outside
Africa to discuss the current status of biotechnology in southern
Africa, the conceptual framework for multistakeholder dialogues, the
political and ethical issues surrounding biotechnology, food safety
and consumer issues, biosafety, intellectual property rights, and
trade involving genetically modified foods.
- Alan and Patsy Carpenter, Balnarring Beach Vic. 3926, Australia
'Warning to readers of possible health risk of certain phrases'
It has recently become apparent that disease and even death could be
associated with reading, hearing and saying the word "G****P****"
(clearly I cannot write the whole word in case the possible
association is triggered, but the word lulls possible victims by its
verdant and placid associations). It is beyond dispute that some
people who have come into contact with this word have subsequently
fallen ill and in some cases died.
What is not yet clear is the exact route or mechanism by which these
dire effects could be transmitted or triggered. There is no doubt
that some other factor could be responsible for the pathology
associated with contact with the G****P**** word. What is also
certain is that no proper investigation has yet been carried out or
even proposed to follow up and track down the true risks and the
exact mechanism that may be involved in these disturbing associations.
Supporters of G****P**** will certainly rubbish this association,
using unproven assertions that contact with the word is harmless or
at least no more risky than contact with other words or phrases.
There is a certain arrogance attached to assertions of this nature by
an organisation which trumpets the virtues of G****P**** while
neglecting to initiate proper trials to determine the true extent of
the lethal correlation and its mode of transmission and action.
Meanwhile victims of the phenomenon are left crippled or worse with
their loved ones unable to claim compensation for their cruel losses
because the users of G****P**** refuse to even admit the possibility
that their word may be responsible for all this suffering.
It is certain that G****P**** will protest that their word is not
significantly different from other similar words and therefore cannot
be risky. This is a perfect example of the cop-out mentality of these
large organisations that expect ordinary people with no proper
resources to carry out the research, which is the clear
responsibility of the organisations themselves. They will claim that
research methodology to prove the word is harmless does not exist. Oh
really? Well use some of your massive funds to develop a research
protocol which will prove beyond all possible doubt that G****P****
is harmless. We all know how likely that is!
We will hear the usual parrot cries, "One cannot prove a negative" or
"Vanishingly small probability". Yes, tell that to the victims of
vCJD. When will these global organisations be brought to task by
governments and the UN and forced to stop riding roughshod over the
faces of the proletariat.
The Panic Generator
- Christian Schwägerl, Die Weltwoche, Der Panikkonzern; 24.5.05
Original German version at
Machine Translation sent by Vivian Moses.
Gefährlicher als gentechnisch veränderte Lebensmittel sind die
Ängste, die Greenpeace manipuliert. Ein Vorschlag zur Entwarnung.
(Automatically translated and then improved - VM)
More dangerous than genetically changed food are the fears
manipulated by Greenpeace. A suggestion on the 'all-clear' signal.
Disparaging genetic engineering is the greatest marketing success of
our time. As soon as the word "gene" appears in connection with food,
alarm bells sound for consumers, whether in Switzerland, in Germany
or in Great Britain. The fear is largely about consuming something
unhealthy or environmentally harmful. The idea of serving up
genetically modified food to one's children seems to most people
completely wrong. With many farmers and almost all food
manufacturers, the fear of the fear of consumers is so deeply
embedded that they prefer totally to do without the technology and
This disparaging goes so far that "genetic engineering-free" food is
automatically judged to be healthy. Thus, the German agrarian
politician Ulrike Hoefken recently became very excited because traces
of GM soya protein were found in Döner meat (used for kebabs). "What
is soya doing in Döner meat?" was the question formulated by the
politician in a press release. Actually, soybeans and tofu are icons
of the greener alternative culture for vegetarian sources of protein.
Moreover, Döner is not well-known for its health-promoting effects.
As a professional, Hoefken had surely not forgotten that. But her
genetic engineering phobia was too strong.
Shotgun vs. precision
Greenpeace may be regarded as the main promoter of the widespread
fear of genetic engineering in food. Greenpeace is on the one hand an
environmental organization with a history rich in legend; on the
other hand, it is a multinational enterprise with agencies in forty
countries and well-promoted market products. What Greenpeace
introduces into the public discussion of world-wide environmental
problems via messages to the public is based not on advice from
ecologists but decided by a group with an excellentD understanding of
Just as Nike created in people's minds an association with their name
of faster, beautiful bodies; as BMW surrounds itself with an aura by
strength and soundness; and as Starbucks has become a symbol of
modernized coffee house culture - so the environmental organization
also has a dominant factor message, an image. The protection of the
jungles and whales has receded into the background. Today the loyalty
of the customers, the donors and sympathizers, is cultivated by an
image of Greenpeace saving them froDm the dangers of genetic
engineering. The organization sells the fear of the technology and
release from it in a single combined package.
Everything might have been different. Anyone who visits plant
geneticists in their laboratories would have thought that they
operated on behalf of environmentalists or the Greens. Nobody denies
the fact that new plant varieties have continually to be developed to
counter parasites, cultivation conditions and economic objectives.
ETH researcher Ingo Potrykus' concept of vitamin A rich-"golden rice"
for developing countries readily shows how classical and
molecular-biological plant breeding differ. Even if many consumers
are probably reluctant to admit it, conventional plant breeding,
whose products also end up in "organic" shops, uses very much the
same methods. In order to produce new characteristics, for example,
resistance to harmful insects, plants are radioactively irradiated or
exposed to aggressive chemicals. The progeny of the treated plants
are cultivated and tested for resistance or perhaDps greater
productivity. The genetic material of the plants is substantially
altered by the radiation and the chemicals. One could thus talk of
genetic intervention - but with a shotgun. What exactly happens with
which genes and to the metabolism which they control, remains open
On the other hand the genetic material is altered much less with
genetic engineering. It allows for increasingly precise interventions
which are planned in advance and whose effects on metabolism are
easier to determine - although not yet completely. What gene
technologists accomplish, and what Greenpeace demonises, is plant
breeding done with precision. There are hardly any new plant
varieties whose characteristics are better characterised than those
which have been genetically modified. The regulators prDescribe
checks to which conventionally bred sorts are not submitted. Thus,
negative consequences for the health have so far been completely
This rigour is important not only for the creation of confidence but
also because genetic engineering is naturally not inevitably good.
The consequence is that, even though the technology has ecological
benefits, Greenpeace condemns all genetic engineering because of its
need to convey a simple radical message. A more differentiated
message would be more much more difficult to sell.
A high on the designer poplars
Some genetic engineering projects, which could have been conceived by
Greenpeace itself, might at an earlier date have been looked at by
the strategists in a quite different way: at the University of
Freiburg im Breisgau researchers are developing designer poplars to
help clean up chemically contaminated industrial areas in East
Germany and Russia. The trees absorb the pollutants from the soil and
so dispose of them. Several groups of researchers have modified their
metabolism in such a way that the plantsD produce hydrogen or
energy-optimized biomass and thus serve as alternatives to oil.
At other institutes researchers move small pieces of the cereal
genomes so that the plants are better able to resist fungal
infection. This prevents the production of carcinogenic fungal spores
and their entry into the food chain. Biologically active substances
are explored to control specifically the predators of cultivated
plants with ever greater precision. With the help of the genetic
engineering, such properties can be integrated into the hereditary
property of the plants.
In the spirit of global environmental protection, one project is
directed to the future production of valuable health-promoting fatty
acids from plants instead of from fish. Researchers are also seeking
to develop domestic rape as alternative to soya as a source of
protein. Thus the over fishing of the world's oceans and clearing the
rain forests for the soya cultivation might be slowed down - once a
prime objective of Greenpeace.
Several institutes are using genetic plant breeding to prepare
agriculture for climate change. There are looking at inherited
characteristics from traditional plants or other species, which help
to project against drought, soaking or salt enrichment. The time
available to adapt cultivated plants under greenhouse conditions is
likely to be limited.
"Green genetic engineering" is not a universal remedy, nor is it per
se a contradiction to organic agriculture. There are doubtful
products, for instance the development of pest-resistant crop plants,
which make it possible completely to spray away the remaining field
plants. That is a danger for biodiversity. But genetically changed
plants are not actually a ecological hazard even if, like other
plants, they spread their genes by pollen transfer. Thus, the
nationally required labelling regulations in their current form are
of doubtful value. The label actually provides no inDformation, but
only promotes fears. As far as quality and environmental friendliness
of food are concerned, the term "genetic engineering" confers about
as much understanding as "propelled with gasoline" tells one about
the comfort and ecological efficiency of a car. If a label were to be
meaningful, it would have to describe in much more detail exactly
what had been done by genetic engineering. The consumer would have
then have to be sufficiently well informed to understand the
But surely, if genetic engineering is implemented, will we not all
become dependent on bad, multinational companies? The most likely
danger of a monopoly will follow if Greenpeace and the European
Greens continue as hitherto. Paradoxically, they promote that
concentration of knowledge and power in the hands of the largest
agrarian companies in order to denounce it. For enterprises operating
globally, it is comparatively easy to test their new plants outside
Europe, in Latin America or North America. PublicDly employed genetic
technologists, as well as the medium-size plant breeders, of which
there are many in European countries, can however not do that at all
or only with difficulty.
Only nationally promoted research can ensure that the most efficient
and the most pollution-free future varieties remain broadly
accessible and are not monopolized by patents and armies of
commercial lawyers. If more funding flows into genetic engineering in
the universities, the knowledge gained by the researchers can be
shared as part of a modern development policy with scientists at
Asiatic and African universities anxious to learn, and with small
farmers. In order to allow a serious discussion, GreenpeDace
activists would have not only to pack away their ridiculous GM maize
costumes and horror figures with which they frighten not only
children with their antics, but also develop publicity which would
cost millions of euros. That is obviously difficult.
Whoever speaks about emancipated consumers should think the concept
through to its conclusion: The "organic" quality of food should be
determined in future on the basis of taste, quality and ecological
efficiency and not on the technology used in its production. Still,
the logic of fear economics and its phenomenal success argue against
that coming about. But who knows, perhaps one day organic food will
carry a label stating "improved with molecular biology".
Christian Schwaegerl, who wrote this contribution for Die Weltwoche,
is a biologist and feuilleton and science correspondent of the
Frankfurert Allgemeine Zeitung.
Magic vs. Modernity
- Thomas R. DeGregori
Full article at http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=135
In the European Enlightenment, the belief was that science and reason
would soon sweep myth and magic into oblivion. For some, myth
included religion while others operated in terms of some variant of
Deism or even Theism, believing that there was an unknown power
beyond what was known and knowable to humans. In fact, many
scientists, then and now, could fully exercise their religious
convictions and interpret them in such a way as not to allow them to
interfere with scientific understanding. For those for whom there was
no conflict between science and religion, it was because particular
statements or religious beliefs about the way the things work always
gave way to emerging facts and theories of scientific inquiry.
Science and reason became the basis for advancing human understanding
By the time that I was an undergraduate, the enlightenment ideal was
well established in my University. The opposition to evolution was
thought to have been laid to rest in the 1920s; the religious groups
that continued to oppose Darwin were small and marginal; their
beliefs were expected to fade away as their children studied biology
and other sciences in school. The various romantic reactions in
literature and in such areas as the various arts and crafts
movements, organic agriculture or homeopathy were likewise considered
to be minor and relatively harmless. The literature professors who
railed against science and materialism had ways of life not all that
different from their colleagues in the sciences.
More violent reactions to science and reason such as the Nazis were
explained as reactions by those who had been harmed by the transition
to modernity and signaled a dying gasp and not an indicator of
anything to follow. In any case, this reaction had been permanently
laid to rest in May 1945. In the emerging post-colonial world,
students were flocking to Europe and North America for education, and
newly minted countries were establishing Universities with science,
technology and engineering programs modeled on those of their former
colonial masters. Contrary to post-modernist and other critics, few
of us believed that Western Culture was a universal model for all to
follow without question, but many of us believed that science and
techno-engineering understandings transcended cultural boundaries and
created a global discourse and mechanisms for advancing the human
Six decades after World War II, now into the 21st century, the area
of basic human understanding of the world around us has greatly
expanded and yet the enlightenment vision seems farther away than
ever in my lifetime. The extent and horizons of modern knowledge are
beyond the comprehension of earlier generations. And this knowledge
and understanding is far more than merely being "theories" in the
pejorative misuse of the term theory. Modern knowledge has
pragmatically proved itself in helping us to live much longer,
healthier lives and enjoy amenities undreamed of by our progenitors.
It has to be one of the great paradoxes of our time that as our
knowledge has expanded in recent decades, the opposition to it has
become more assertive and politically potent. One of the crowning
ironies of the anti-science brigades is that groups that are largely
contemptuous of each other often frame their anti-science rhetoric in
essentially the same terms. My colleagues in the Humanities cluck
piously about those ignorant rednecks who oppose Darwin and promote
''intelligent design,'' yet they in their own way hold anti-science
ideas no less absurd. One strains to find any difference, significant
or minor, between the argument of intelligent design that there is in
life an "irreducible complexity" and the post-modernist critique of
modern science as being "reductionist" and not "holistic." To both in
their particular crusades, the species barrier is immutable, or at
least should be.
Clearly there must be considerable frustration among scientists as
organized groups oppose various forms of science education or
scientific research. One recent article included in its title "why
scientists are angry" and spoke about the anger that grips scientists
when demonstrably false statements are paraded as facts and influence
public policy. As an economist with a layman's knowledge of the
natural sciences, I understand these frustrations. I am a member of
various newsgroups involved in agricultural biotechnology, most of
whose contributors are in the sciences. This piece was inspired by a
recent extended discussion on the difficulty of combating absurd
phobias about transgenic food crops that anti-biotechnology activists
have so carefully disseminated. (Unfortunately, other writing
commitments prevented me from being other than a passive participant
at the time.) Each time one scare is seemingly laid to rest, another
rises, as one scientist described it, like a hare from nowhere. Even
those fears that are massively refuted never die, but seem to be in
some Sargasso Sea of cyber space awaiting a new current to set them
afloat again as part of the litany of horrors of genetic modification
There were discussions about being proactive, but the question
becomes how can one be proactive against opponents who may be
ignorant of science but who lack nothing in imagination and talent
for fear-mongering? On a typical day, a scientist awakens and is
concerned with ongoing research . An activist wakes up thinking about
what the next campaign should be or whom they should they contact in
the local media and whose friendship they should cultivate. Some even
have focus groups to help them select the scare terms that would be
most effective. Like the multi-national corporations that they
attack, some of the activist groups begin promoting one cause, then
morph into all-purpose NGOs with a diverse agenda of causes with
which to garner publicity and raise money. An anti-science agenda
links the dangers of biotechnology to the evils of multi-national
corporations along with destruction of the environment and cultural
and biological diversity; all turn into lucrative sources for fund
raising and membership recruitment.
It is difficult to be proactive when you are dealing with carefully
calculated rational irrationality. When one is confronting claims of
transgenic bacteria that could destroy all life on earth or similar
unscientific nonsense, one is responding to a kind of irrationality
that is impossible to predict and therefore to be prepared to respond
to in advance, let alone educate the public on the subject. However
irrational various anti-science proclamations may be, their advocates
are supremely rational in the sense of being very skilled at crafting
their propaganda so as to win public support and influence policy.
Some groups are so good at driving public opinion to support their
anti-science agenda, some of us wonder whether their leaders may be
dealing from the bottom of the deck to their own members as well as
to the public.
The media may often put an obvious pejorative like "Franken food" in
quotation marks, but too often the media routinely accept the
terminology of the activists, even though the habit introduces biases
which violate professional journalistic standards. Pollen drift from
transgenic plants is almost always referred to, tendentiously, as
"contamination" even though there is no evidence of harm. Similarly,
"organic" agriculture is described as "sustainable" and
"earth-friendly" while their food crops are said to be better
tasting, fresher and healthier, without a shred of evidence for any
such claims. In Houston, the food writers for the main paper have
become unwitting propagandists for "organic" agriculture, as has
happened in many other large and small circulation newspapers.
The 24 hour news cycle has led to a reverse feeding frenzy, with
activist groups all too ready to conjure up a scandal, inflating a
statistically insignificant variation in a clinical study to a threat
to the human endeavor or even to the planet, and to label a defense
as part of a corporate cover-up. Scientists attempt to respond to
these scare stories on a case by case basis, trying to explain the
nature of the scientific inquiry involved and the way it is used to
interpret experimental results. That is how scientists work, and the
only way to wear down the opposition to scientific reasoning.
Countering falsehoods with facts is a necessary condition to promote
better understanding of issues involving science, but unfortunately,
it is not a sufficient condition. Scientists present their evidence
with appropriate qualifications, and with recognition that there are
no absolute truths. The anti-science ideologues have no problem with
absolutes and certainties. The scientists' answer to the often asked
rhetorical question - can you guarantee that no harm will ever come
from transgenic crops - is obviously no. The activist now moves in
for the kill, making it difficult for a scientist to explain that one
cannot give such a guarantee for any phenomenon. There is a blatant
but unstated falsehood in the rhetorical question, in that it implies
that there are alternative actions that carry a zero risk on into the
indefinite future. That transgenic plant breeding may possibly be the
most precise, predictable form of plant breeding yet devised by
humans is simply lost in the rhetoric of fear.
A further problem is that editors and other news professionals are
rarely educated in science and have little understanding of the
scientific method. My experience has been that newspapers hate to
make substantive corrections to a major story. One case involved a
major story of two columns with picture on the front page of the
Sunday edition and over one full page inside. In this case (in which
I was involved), a group of scientists wrote in and pointed out some
of the many errors in the story. Even though the writer had traveled
to Mexico to do a story on transgenic maize in the company of
anti-biotechnology activists, the newspaper's ombudsman defended the
objectivity of her reporting. Not only were there errors in the
story, but the institutions and individuals that were not
interviewed, as well as those that were, made it clear that the
activists were more than just good traveling companions. In an
extended exchange with the ombudsman, it was admitted that the author
did not even know of the existence of the world's leading experts and
the research and development institutions on maize and on the issues
raised in the story that were available in Mexico and Texas to be
interviewed. I have compared it to going to Rome to do story on a
controversy in Roman Catholicism and not knowing about either the
Pope or the Vatican.
Had the writer traveled to Mexico in the company of employees of a
biotechnology firm, we would never have heard the end of it and
anything written would have been dismissed simply on this basis alone
without the necessity of any factual refutation. A widely shared
characteristic of anti-science groups across the political spectrum
is a Manichaean view of the complete corruption of those they oppose,
and the purity of their own cause.
In many respects the problem is more complicated and therefore more
difficult for scientists to address. It is becoming increasingly
obvious that no matter how clear and meticulous in fact and
scientific reason one may be in presenting a scientific theory or
refuting pseudo-scientific falsehoods, a large portion of the public
is simply not receptive. The question is why and what can be done
about it? The why is easier to address than is what can be done about
It has often been noted that the critics of genetically modified food
crops, who frame their opposition both as pseudo-science and as
opposition to corporate dominance of agriculture, have had a perverse
impact on the industry exactly opposite to what they claim to be
their intent. By attacking the science of transgenic modification,
they make it difficult to get the kind of public research funding for
it that would give farmers public and private sources for the kinds
of crop improvement that biotechnology makes possible. Not only do
the protests reduce public research funding for agricultural
biotechnology, but the cumbersome, expensive regulations that
frightened politicians are imposing make it virtually impossible for
small firms to afford them, which then leads to the kind of industry
concentration that the critics claim to be fighting.
The "precautionary principle" and other alleged safety concerns that
have been driving up the cost of getting new crops marketed, have
also had other perverse impacts. As I argued above, our trust in the
scientific inquiry that provides us with the evidence for the most
warranted actions, including considerations of safety, is predicated
upon an open process, including dissenting views. In a kind of
Gresham's law of public attention span, bad criticism drives out
good. Scientists are rightfully hesitant to voice criticism when it
might identify them with anti-science activists. Further, there have
been too many instances where research that raises a legitimate
safety or environmental concern is seized and grossly distorted or
publicized before a final analysis can be made. Scientists who seek
to withold their findings until the research is completed, or who
offer a more benign interpretation of their results than those of
sensationalized media coverage, will have their integrity questioned
and be charged with a cover-up.
Technology Review had a recent set of postings where Stewart Brand
suggested that critics not oppose nuclear power but embrace it and be
involved as critics who want to see it done right rather than simply
opposing it. Needless to say, his wise suggestion was less than
enthusiastically accepted by those ideologically opposed to nuclear
power. The major criticism against activist groups is that they are
obstructing the introduction of new technology and new improved ways
of doing things for human betterment and opposing the science that
can continue this process. In my judgment, equally as deleterious, is
their stifling of the critical component of the dynamics of
scientific inquiry that appropriately restrains technophiles such as
this author and makes the use of it safer, fairer and more
intelligent and beneficial to the human endeavor.
What has been happening is that scientists have been winning the
battles but still managing to lose the war. The message here is that
scientists have to operate at two levels, continually countering the
pseudo-science of false fears and ideological driven beliefs, but at
the same time working to bring about a fundamental transformation in
the public's understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry, and
allowing scientists to operate within it.
Scientists have to recognize that when they are countering a
demonstrably false idea, they may well be entering a conflict with
the total worldview of those who hold them. To the family in Kansas
that rejects evolution, the biology teacher at the local school is
doing far more than merely teaching science. The science teacher is
in effect entering their home and family and undercutting beliefs
upon which their family and sense of community is based. Is it any
wonder that they feel like victims? To many activists, the plant
bio-technologist is contaminating and polluting the planet as part of
a corporate plot to dominate the global economy. Is it any wonder
that they also feel like victims? To the absolutist mindset,
breeching a principle is the same as abandoning it, and therefore any
concession to differing views amounts to total surrender. This helps
to explain why many disillusioned ex-communists became radical
conservatives, why activists' opposition to transgenic food crops is
total, and why the scientific research use of embryonic stem cells is
defined as taking a human life.
As the new millennium was approaching, there were many candidates for
the greatest achievement of the past 1,000 years; one such candidate
was the development of the scientific method. That candidate has my
vote. If we work at it, one of the greatest achievements of this new
millennium could be the continued refinement of the scientific
method, its integration into the beliefs and practices of everyday
life for the greater part of humankind, and the continuous
improvement in the quality of life of earth's inhabitants that could
be realized as a result.
Dewey, John. 1929. The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation
of Knowledge and Action. 1980 reprint, New York: Capricorn Books,
G.P. Putnam & Sons.
Two Nobel Peace Laureates' Different Views on Biotech
- J.N Wachai, www.gmoafrica.org, June 18, 2005
Prof. Norman Borlaug and Prof. Wangari Maathai have several things in
common. One, both are Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Borlaug, 91 won
the prize in 1970, "for improving crop management practices that
transformed food production in much of the developing world."
Maathai, 65, on the other hand, clinched it last year (2004), for
"her contribution to sustainable development that embraces democracy,
human rights and women's rights."
Two, Borlaug and Maathai are renowned scientists - they are holders
of doctorate degrees in plant pathology and anatomy, respectively.
Each of these laureates, to their credit, have not betrayed the world
that has been so generous to them. In a span of three decades,
Maathai through her Greenbelt Movement of Kenya has mobilized
millions of Kenyans to plant trees. She has withstood insults and
political oppression, mainly from politicians, for her no-nonsense
stand against indiscriminate rape of Kenya's forests.
Borlaug on the other hand, has for many years been at the forefront
in the fight against hunger and malnourishment in developing
countries. In conjunction with the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller
Foundation, Borlaug, in 1966, founded the International Wheat and
Maize Improvement Centre. His Quiet Green Revolution in Wheat
Improvement, project 1960se 1960s helped countries such as India and
Pakistan boost food production. As a result, millions were and have
been saved from starvation. Like Maathai, Borlaug has set up a
foundation - Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation, which among other
things, aims to ensure that poor countries benefit from emerging
agricultural technologies such as biotechnology.
Addressing the staff of St Louis-based Monsanto Company early this
week, Borlaug reminded the world that the world's food supply must
double by 2050, and that 85 per cent of future growth will come from
lands already in production."Ways must be found to increase yields,
raise drought resistant crops and reduce diseases." Borlaug mentioned
biotechnology as the surest and newest tool to add onto what
conventional genetics and plant breeding offers.
Borlaug's prescription for chronic food shortages in poor countries,
especially in Africa, sadly, is likely to meet opposition from
Maathai, who is stiffly opposed to genetically modified food. While
she acknowledges that genetically modified seeds can be good, Maathai
"fears" that their potential danger to the environment has not been
established. Additionally, she is worried that the patenting regime
that accompanies GMOs would further impoverish farmers by creating
overdependence on biotech companies. How credible are these
assertions? To many, they are not? For instance, does it make sense
for a poor farmer to recycle old and almost sterile seeds for
planting? Such farming practice only results in dismal harvest. It
only further impoverishes the already poor farmer. It would be more
rational to invest in more healthier and productive seeds.
On possible environmental contamination, science has vindicated GMOs.
Any argument to the contrary only serves to politicize science and
blocks farmers from accessing a technology which has revolutionized
agriculture in such countries as India, Argentina, South Africa and
Nobel Peace laureates are a respected lot. The world holds them in
high esteem. It looks upon them to give guidance in solving complex
issues such as civil strife, diseases and most importantly hunger.
Africa is proud to have Maathai, as a Nobel Peace Prize winner. It is
the continent's hope that she will use her position to encourage a
sober debate on the place of biotechnology in today's fast changing
Graduate Student, Communication and Media Studies Wichita State
University, Elliott School of Communication 1845 Fairmount, Wichita,
Kansas, 67260-0031 USA