Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : July 19, 2005
* The Biotech Waiting Game
* Swedes Serve Up GM Beer
* Australia: Grains Council Slams GM Canola Hysteria
* India, US to Collaborate in Agriculture: PM
* Super Staples: Africa Seeks Bioengineered Food Solutions
* The Path to Prosperity In Africa Starts in St. Louis
* Australia: Biotech Online - New Website for Teaching
* Crawford Confirmed As Head of FDA
* The Reality of 'Absolute' Truth
* Will Malthus Continue to Be Wrong?
The Biotech Waiting Game
- Rednova via Omaha World - Herald, July 18, 2005
The European Food Safety Authority has declared three of Monsanto's
genetically modified corn varieties safe for human consumption,
saying they were "not different from their conventional counterparts
with regard to their safety and nutritional properties."
Well. That's pretty much what the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency has been saying for years.
These special hybrids resist some insect pests and herbicides. They
can cut a farmer's use of pesticides and herbicides, potentially
saving money and the energy that would have been expended in
spreading the chemicals.
Now, however, comes the tricky part. European Union governments also
must approve the corn varieties before they are allowed on the
market. And the governments, in general, have been irrationally
resistant to food crops created using gene technology, apparently
catering to the unscientific fears of their constituents.
There's no predicting whether the governments will accept the safety
authority's findings any more readily than they embraced rulings
issued by the EPA. In any case, it could take years for the
governments to make any decisions at all.
So the safety authority's findings are gratifying and scientifically
sound, but not the good word they might seem at first. American
farmers who want to export to Europe and the seed companies that want
to sell there will have to continue to play the waiting game.
Swedes Serve Up GM Beer
- CNN, July 15, 2005 http://edition.cnn.com/ via Agnet
YSTAD, Sweden -- The Kenth brewery in Ystad, Sweden, a small
family-run brewery, is, according to this story, the unlikely setting
for one of the latest attempts by the GM food lobby to persuade
Europeans to change their attitudes about scientifically altered food.
The story explains that Kenth brews its beer using corn that has been
genetically modified to protect it against pests. Master brewer
Kenth Persson was cited as saying he is aware that the use of GM
ingredients is not to everyone's taste and admits the brewery is
taking a risk, adding, "But I think it's very interesting to be doing
a new thing and that is what brewers like me want to do. We cannot do
things in the same way as the big breweries like Carlsberg. We try to
do things differently."
The story adds that ironically the corn used by Kenth is grown in
Germany -- one of the European countries most strongly opposed to GM
foods. Matthias Berninger, Germany's undersecretary for consumer
affairs, was cited as telling CNN that ultimately the fate of GM
produce would be decided by the consumer, adding, "The thing is since
we have clear-cut labeling regulations in Europe GM food is banned
because our consumers don't want to eat it. In a market driven
economy the consumer should have the right to choose whether he likes
the technology or not and that is something some multinational
companies should bear in mind."
Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant, whose company's name has become synonymous
with GM food, was cited as saying there are signs that Europeans are
slowly coming round to the idea of modified food, adding, "For five
years or six years, almost nothing happened in Europe, there was a de
facto moratorium where products weren't approved. But Europe has
redefined and redesigned the regulatory architecture and the last
year we saw the beginnings of products being approved. I passionately
hope we will see that pace picking up."
Rose Gray of London's renowned River Cafe was cited as saying she
believes the case for using GM ingredients hasn't yet been made,
adding, "I think if there is any application for GM food, it's for
Third World countries where they've got problems with growing. I
don't feel it applies to European countries. I mean we just need to
be better farmers and using traditional methods where you get proper
Australia: GCA Slams GM Canola Hysteria
- AgReport, July 18, 2005 http://www.agreport.com/open/153323.phtml
SYDNEY - Negative reaction to the discovery of 0.01% genetically
modified (GM) canola in an export consignment is unjustified hysteria
in the view of Grains Council of Australia (GCA) President Murray
"There is no potential at all for this detection to impact on our
export sales. At 0.01%, the presence of GM canola is at the very edge
of what can be measured. This is really a trace amount and we have
full confidence in the processes being put in place to investigate
the source of the canola that has been detected."
"Calls for more regulation are political grand standing, as there is
no proof anywhere in the world that this technology is harmful or
risky to health or the environment. Demands by activists for
admission of liability and a recall of the product by Bayer
Cropscience are ludicrous. The superseded Topas 19/2 product was last
grown in a trial in Australia in 1998 and has not been grown in
trials in Australia since", he said.
"There is no justification for additional regulation of
agri-biotechnology. What we should be doing is reducing the
regulation and boosting the research. The Australian grains industry
spends $6 million per year on biotechnology research and taxpayers
spend about $8 million a year on regulation.
India, US to Collaborate in Agriculture: PM
- Sify, July 19, 2005, http://sify.com/
Washington: Declaring that economic reforms are "durable and
irreversible," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India will
collaborate with the United States to bring about second green
revolution to change the face of rural India.
"The Green Revolution lifted countless millions above poverty.... I
am very happy to say that U.S. President George Bush and I have
decided to launch second generation of India-US collaboration in
agriculture," Singh said in his address to a joint session of the US
Asserting the UPA Governments determination to raise country's annual
growth rate to 8 per cent over the next two years, Singh said, "We
will ensure that this growth is inclusive so that its benefits are
Elaborating on Indo-US collaboration, Singh, who had held
wide-ranging talks with Bush yesterday, said the new initiative in
agriculture will focus on basic and strategic research for
sustainable development in agriculture to meet the challenge of
raising productivity in conditions of water stress.
It seeks to take information and know how directly to farming
community and promote technologies that minimise post-harvest wastage
and improve storage, besides gearing Indian farmers to fully
participate in global farm trade.
Super Staples: Africa Seeks Bioengineered Food Solutions
- Tina Butler, mongabay.com, July 18, 2005
African scientists, in conjunction with research facilities in the
United States, are working toward developing super strains of
traditional nutritional staples in Africa. This project was
stimulated in part by the Grand Challenges program, which seeks to
tackle major problems associated with global health. The program has
an operating budget of $500 million primarily from the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation, which has contributed $450 million. The
United Kingdom's The Wellcome Trust and the Canadian government have
also contributed, $27 million and $4.5 million, respectively to the
program. This sum will be divided among 43 individual projects
designed to address and ideally, conquer these problems.
Challenge #9 of the program is where the plan for genetically
modified (GMO) staple food crops originated. The challenge calls for
the development of a complete set of optimal, bioavailable nutrients
in various primary plant species with the essential goal of improving
nutrition to promote health by lessening hunger and malnourishment on
a global level.
Yams, plantains, green bananas, sorghum and cassava are the essential
staples in Africa. Cassava alone feeds 500 million people on a
worldwide basis. Despite their standing, these crops are notoriously
lacking in complete nutrition. As malnourished individuals have a
higher incidence of illness due to weakened immune systems, this
challenge promotes the creation of GMO strains of banana, cassava and
rice among other major crops that possess a full set of vitamins and
minerals. These new super crops will have nutrients bred into them.
One crop of particular importance and subsequent focus is sorghum.
Currently, African scientists are engaged in the process of
developing a GMO super strain of the staple grain that will be packed
with vitamins in an attempt to temper the malnutrition that is
rampant in large areas of the continent. South Africa's Council for
Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) released an official
statement about the undertaking: "The primary objective of the
project is to produce seeds of nutritionally improved cultivars of
sorghum, appropriate for planting, which African small-scale farmers
can source on a license-free basis." Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a
subsidiary of Dupont, the University of Missouri-Columbia and CSIR
will collaborate to develop the new strain.
Sorghum has long provided for native inhabitants as an indispensable
food source. The grain is exceptionally hardy, thriving in the
semi-arid conditions which dominate much of Africa. Non-indigenous
crops like maize, which has replaced sorghum as the staple in some
regions, are a constant struggle to cultivate due to their resistance
to the climate and demand/require significantly more irrigation and
While perfectly suited to the climate, natural sorghum lacks
sufficient nutrients to properly nourish consumers who use the plant
as their primary food source. Those dependent on the grain for
subsistence are at risk for developing a condition known as
micronutrient malnutrition. The new sorghum will be enriched with
higher levels of pro-vitamin A and E as well as iron, zinc and
essential amino acids. This enhanced grain has the potential to
alleviate one of Africa's greatest problems, but getting countries to
accept the super sorghum will not be without obstacles.
Biotech crops continue to incite controversy on a global level, with
concerns about possible environmental detriment, such as the possible
creation of equally super weeds and pests and also unknown side
effects or health risks stemming from human consumption. Africa is
not excluded in this sense of distrust/skepticism.
Some countries in the continent have refused GMO food aid or insisted
that such grains be milled prior to distribution to avoid
contamination of local seed stores, even though local populations
often have trouble growing sufficient food. Producers of GMO crops
argue that enhanced strains will be more resistant to climatic
stress, produce higher yields and help ensure that fewer people will
go hungry. If scientists are successful in this endeavor, serious
improvements could be made in the challenge to eliminate hunger.
Whether or not governments and individuals will accept these enhanced
staples remains unclear.
The Path to Prosperity In Africa Starts in St. Louis
- Robert Joiner, St, Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis, July 18, 2005
Earlier this month, leaders of the world's eight richest nations met
at the fabled Gleneagles Hotel and golf resort in Perthshire,
Scotland, and pledged $50 billion a year to fight poverty and
disease, mainly in Africa. I particularly liked Bono's take on this
pledge to double what these nations now spend on aid. The Irish rock
star, a prime promoter of the global "Make Poverty History" campaign,
said the pledge means "a mountain has been climbed only to reveal
high peaks north of us." Bono's point was that much work still would
be needed to prod the wealthy nations to translate their pledges into
money in the bank.
The Make Poverty History movement is as diverse as it is persistent.
It has brought together Hollywood and the heartland, punk rockers and
NASCAR moms, Pat Robertson and Nelson Mandela in a principled fight
for relief for 1 billion people who subsist on less than $1 a day.
Even so, let's not forget the human suffering that will persist at
least until 2010, when the first $50 billion promissory note comes
due. Between now and then, disease-carrying mosquitoes will claim the
lives of more than a million Africans each year, mostly children, and
another 15,000 children under age 5 will continue to die each year
These issues raise questions about the priorities and profligacy of
the Group of Eight leaders. They have been quick to point out waste,
fraud and mismanagement among African leaders, but they don't feel
the need to explain why they wasted scores of millions of dollars on
a conference at Gleneagles - including $18 million on travel,
catering and accommodations alone - when part of the rest of the
world is begging for relief.
This issue isn't about charity; it's about justice.
Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Jared Diamond suggests as much in his
book, "Guns, Germs and Steel," which points to the colonial legacy in
explaining some of Africa's present-day problems. He talks about
brutal regimes that ripped tropical African civilizations to shreds;
that tore men, women and children from their villages and forced them
to live and work in unsanitary conditions that caused them to fall
ill as never before. He says the scourge of malaria, which still
cripples economic productivity in Africa and traps some populations
in a cycle of poverty, is one part of that legacy.
Quietly, St. Louis is playing an important role in helping to make a
sustainable food supply a reality in Africa. In fact, research being
done at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur may
turn out, in time, to have more impact on the continent's well-being
than many of the promises made at Gleneagles.
Earlier this month, the center received a $3.3 million grant from the
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for research to improve the cassava
plant, the most important food crop in Africa. The center was one of
only 43 institutions chosen for this round of awards by the
foundation; it received 1,500 applications involving 10,000
scientists from 75 nations.
Winning this grant against stiff competition says a lot about the
growing role the center is likely to play in bringing a sustainable
food supply to impoverished nations while, at the same time,
contributing to St. Louis' economic growth.
The center's spokesman, Rob Rose, says about a third of Africa's
cassava crop is now lost to disease. The center hopes to help develop
a plant that has better resistance to disease and increased
nutritional content. He predicts that will happen in another seven
years. One challenge is to overcome African concerns about
genetically modified crops. Rose says European nations, including
France, are slowly becoming more accepting of these crops, and he
expects Africa to follow.
It's in Africa's best interest to embrace this promising technology.
I welcome the day when news of a revolution in Africa refers to
strides in agriculture, rather than a political coup.
Australia: Biotech Online - New Website for Teaching
'Secondary-school students are the decision-makers of tomorrow and
need to understand the scientific and ethical issues of biotechnology
applications such as stem cells and genetically modified foods.'
The Biotechnology Online Secondary School Resource provides balanced
and factual information about biotechnology. It has been designed to
fit with Australian State and Territory Science curriculums, with
cross-over into Studies of Society and the Environment to allow for
broader discussion of issues.
The Biotechnology Online School Resource is produced and maintained
by the Australian Government agency Biotechnology Australia.
This resource aims to address the need for Australian secondary
schools to have access to up-to-date information on biotechnology. It
enables schools to supplement their current educational resources
with an online resource that contains informational text, case
studies, worksheets, online and off-line activities for students, and
advice to teachers to enable them to become familiar with
applications of modern biotechnology. The resource should enable
teachers and students to understand the differing points of view on
current practices, and the ethical and moral questions that form a
part of present debate on biotechnology.
Food and agriculture
Humans need food to live. We spend much less time today obtaining and
preparing food than our grandparents and we eat a much greater
variety. Over time we have learnt more about the human body and this
has changed the kinds of foods we eat. For example, in 1959
Australians consumed about 117kg of vegetables per person. In 1989,
that figure had risen to 162 kg per person. (The Australian Bureau of
Statistics updates these figures through a survey called Apparent
Consumption of Selected Foodstuffs, the next one will be issued in
Each year, Australians eat an estimated 35.4 kg of beef per person.
Worldwide, it has been estimated that the demand for cereals will
increase to 2,466 million tonnes by 2020, for meat 313 million tonnes
and for roots and tubers 864 million tonnes.
As well as changing the foods we eat, more land and resources have
been used to produce it. There is a desire to make each work harder
and more efficiently, and mostly this is achieved through new
Crawford Confirmed As Head of FDA; Senate Approval Took Five Months
- Marc Kaufman, Washington Post,July 19, 2005
The Senate confirmed acting Commissioner Lester M. Crawford as the
permanent head of the Food and Drug Administration yesterday, five
contentious months after he was nominated by President Bush.
Crawford won a comfortable 78 to 16 majority, but before the vote, he
was subjected to sharp criticism from a bipartisan bloc of senators
that included four Republicans. Although some praised his long
experience at the FDA, others said he was part of a system that needs
to be shaken up.
The FDA, which regulates one quarter of the nation's economy, has
been without a permanent commissioner for more than half of Bush's
presidency, and most recently since spring 2004. The agency's need
for stable leadership was cited by some senators as a reason to
"While I respected the right of my colleagues to disagree with a
president's choice, in the end, I believe we have made the right
decision to promote Dr. Crawford," Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), who
shepherded the nomination through the Senate health committee, said
in a statement. "He has a long and distinguished history of
leadership and public service, and I look forward to his continued
work in promoting and protecting the public health."
The Reality of 'Absolute' Truth
- Robyn Williams, Sydney Morning Herald, July 20, 2005
'Modern science is being battered by people with differing agendas
about what matters most, writes Robyn Williams.'
'OF COURSE science is value-free," announced the professor. "Do you
imagine a black female scientist would discover something different
in an experiment that a white male one could not? Science reveals
truth, pure and simple!" Well, not exactly, but that's not the point.
Ideology enters scientific research in at least three ways: money,
identity and innovation.
First, money. A couple of years ago I asked Sir Richard Sykes whether
he had read The Constant Gardner by John le Carré. The tale is set in
Africa and describes the murders of those who try to bring drugs to
the poor. Behind the intrigue is a Big Pharmaceutical company in
Europe where otherwise genteel technocrats think nothing of
manipulating corrupt foreign governments. They ruthlessly eliminate
idealistic alternatives, maybe by force, if this serves the interests
of their markets.
Sykes is the former head of Glaxo Wellcome and now runs Imperial
College London, one of the great research centres of the world. Yes,
he had read the book. His normally relaxed and smiling visage went
several shades darker. "Do you imagine that if our scientists came up
with a way to eliminate malaria we'd stop them? Just because the
potential market is worth fewer dollars? Do you? Of course we
wouldn't." He is right. They wouldn't.
But the funds for research would be minimal. The biggest drug market
is not for tropical diseases; it's for weight loss in the US - $US33
billion ($44 billion) a year and, says Professor Ellen Ruppel Shell
of Boston University, soon to be $US1 trillion worldwide. Le Carré's
novel carries a postscript that he understated the ideological
intrigue in his story and that his investigations uncovered a far
In the calmer waters (perhaps) of Australian research and development
funding, where only one in five worthy projects gets the go-ahead,
limited funds require value judgements. That is also where ideology
must sneak in.
The second field is identity. Even Charles Darwin, that most benign
and open-minded of observers, wrote that women and "Negroes" had
inferior brains and thinking capacity. None of this was based on the
kind of analytical inquiry he had devoted to his finches or
tortoises. It was merely the assumption of his Victorian era, rather
like that of his cousin, Francis Galton, who had come up with a
systematic ranking of human worth and a culling system called
eugenics which could sort the chaff. Hitler was suitably inspired.
This was lousy science plus ideology on stilts and it took good
science to remove the nonsense about race and gender.
The third place where ideology intrudes is innovation. Stem cells and
genetically modified crops offer great benefits if properly handled.
Yet their use is condemned by conservatives (stems) and greens (GM)
respectively. The opposition of George Bush to stem cell research was
called a new "Lysenkoism" by the Scientific American in an editorial
that compared his approach to that of Stalin's egregious pet
"scientist" Trofim Lysenko who managed to put Soviet research back
into the twilight zone.
Objections to GM may be couched in science, mostly spurious, but
their essence is ideological: a loathing of corporate behemoths and
the industrialisation of farming all over the world.
Twenty-first century science is being battered by ideology on all
sides. And it does matter. If we do not heed the science behind
climate change we shall be in diabolical trouble. Good science is a
search for objective truth. Nature is doing something real out there
in the sky, where climate happens, whether we like it or not.
As for women doing a different kind of science from men: well,
sometimes. Barbara McClintock watched her corn cobs in a reflective
way some saw as entirely feminine and came up with almost
unbelievable conclusions: that genes jump around. It won her the
Nobel Prize. Only 11 women have won a scientific Nobel Prize - is
that a matter of ideology as well?
It is World Year of Physics. It is therefore worth remembering that
quantum theory shows that observers alter the very nature of the
atomic systems they observe. Humans do the same in their pursuit of
truth. Even "absolute" scientific truth.
Robyn Williams presents the ABC Science Show
Will Malthus Continue to Be Wrong?
- Erik Stokstad, Science, Vol 309, Issue 5731, 102 , 1 July 2005
In 1798, a 32-year-old curate at a small parish church in Albury,
England, published a sobering pamphlet entitled An Essay on the
Principle of Population. As a grim rebuttal of the utopian
philosophers of his day, Thomas Malthus argued that human
populations will always tend to grow and, eventually, they will
always be checked--either by foresight, such as birth control, or as
a result of famine, war, or disease. Those speculations have inspired
many a dire warning from environmentalists.
Since Malthus's time, world population has risen sixfold to more than
6 billion. Yet happily, apocalyptic collapses have mostly been
prevented by the advent of cheap energy, the rise of science and
technology, and the green revolution. Most demographers predict that
by 2100, global population will level off at about 10 billion.
The urgent question is whether current standards of living can be
sustained while improving the plight of those in need. Consumption of
resources--not just food but also water, fossil fuels, timber, and
other essentials--has grown enormously in the developed world. In
addition, humans have compounded the direct threats to those
resources in many ways, including by changing climate (see p. 100),
polluting land and water, and spreading invasive species.
How can humans live sustainably on the planet and do so in a way that
manages to preserve some biodiversity? Tackling that question
involves a broad range of research for natural and social scientists.
It's abundantly clear, for example, that humans are degrading many
ecosystems and hindering their ability to provide clean water and
other "goods and services" (Science, 1 April, p. 41). But exactly how
bad is the situation? Researchers need better information on the
status and trends of wetlands, forests, and other areas. To set
priorities, they'd also like a better understanding of what makes
ecosystems more resistant or vulnerable and whether stressed
ecosystems, such as marine fisheries, have a threshold at which they
Agronomists face the task of feeding 4 billion more mouths. Yields
may be maxing out in the developed world, but much can still be done
in the developing world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, which
desperately needs more nitrogen. Although agricultural biotechnology
clearly has potential to boost yields and lessen the environmental
impact of farming, it has its own risks, and winning over skeptics
has proven difficult.
There's no shortage of work for social scientists either. Perverse
subsidies that encourage overuse of resources--tax loopholes for
luxury Hummers and other inefficient vehicles, for example--remain a
chronic problem. A new area of activity is the attempt to place
values on ecosystems' services, so that the price of clear-cut
lumber, for instance, covers the loss of a forest's ability to
provide clean water. Incorporating those "externalities" into pricing
is a daunting challenge that demands much more knowledge of
ecosystems. In addition, economic decisions often consider only net
present value and discount the future value of resources--soil
erosion, slash-and-burn agriculture, and the mining of groundwater
for cities and farming are prime examples. All this complicates the
process of transforming industries so that they provide jobs, goods,
and services while damaging the environment less.
Researchers must also grapple with the changing demographics of
housing and how it will impact human well-being: In the next 35 to 50
years, the number of people living in cities will double. Much of the
growth will likely happen in the developing world in cities that
currently have 30,000 to 3 million residents. Coping with that huge
urban influx will require everything from energy efficient ways to
make concrete to simple ways to purify drinking water.
And in an age of global television and relentless advertising, what
will happen to patterns of consumption? The world clearly can't
support 10 billion people living like Americans do today. Whether
science--both the natural and social sciences--and technology can
crank up efficiency and solve the problems we've created is perhaps
the most critical question the world faces. Mustering the political
will to make hard choices is, however, likely to be an even bigger