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Date:

August 2, 2005

Subject:

Media Mischief; Building Public Confidence; Tasmania Report; Governing Science

 

Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : August 2, 2005

* Media Mischief
* Building Public Confidence in Agricultural Biotechnology
* Let FDA, Ag Secretary and others at USDA Know the Benefits of PMPs
* Australia: Report Recommends Tasmania Pursues GM Foods
* Int. Meeting on Cassava Plant Breeding and Biotechnology
* Biotechnology: A Comparative Look at Governing Science
---

Media Mischief

- Letter sent to the Editor of The Hindu (India)

Apropos the article 'GM crop produces super weed' in your columns
(Science and Technology section of 28 July 2005) reproduced from Paul
Brown's article in the Guardian, the title is as confounding as most
of the rest of the contents is contentious and merits a balanced
review based on known facts of science and technology.

The dubious epithet of 'super weed' ascribed to a single putative
cross-fertilisation event between a GM rapeseed crop and one of its
distant relatives, the charlock - Sinapis arvensis, is mischievous
and calculated to spread panic among farmers and other stakeholders.
The facts stacked against such dubious mischief mongering include (a)
the seeds from the charlock plant could not produce new plants,
implying that even if such hybrids were to happen occasionally, they
are unviable and thus pose no threat to farming or biodiversity, (b)
researchers found no herbicide-tolerant charlock the following year
in the same fields which summarily rejects the rumour of a 'huge
selective advantage', and (c) in the absence of viable seeds and lack
of any selective advantage in nature, such plants do not persist as
weeds, much less deserve to be demonised as 'super weeds'.

Dr. Brian Johnson, the ecological geneticist and member of the UK
government's taskforce, which assessed the impact of this study, who
has been quoted profusely in the Brown article has rebuffed every
major quote attributed to him in the next day's issue ('Weeding out
GM myths' in http://www.guardian.co.uk/ July 27, 2005) which carried
the original article. Dr Johnson's rebuttal copied here makes for a
poignant and balanced review of GM technology. "As the scientist
quoted in your article (GM crops created superweed, (sic) say
scientists, July 25), can I clarify that I specifically said the
plants found during the research were not, in my view, "superweeds"
because one of them appeared to have non-viable seed? I neither said
nor implied that the plants found by the researchers would multiply
rapidly or have a "huge selective advantage" - quite the opposite. I
did not say "there is every reason to suppose that the GM trait could
be in the plant's pollen", but that it was just possible that the GM
trait could be carried in the pollen, and the research did not
analyse the pollen so we could not know if the trait was there, and,
in any case, pollen from hybrids might not be viable."

Thus, Paul Brown's article reproduced in your columns ought to be
revisited on the basis of known scientific norms and the media needs
to be guarded against being exploited by dubious propaganda
masquerading as Holy Grail. In conclusion, GM technology offers yet
another tool in the perennial quest to create crops that produce more
efficiently, reduce the use of farm inputs, help conserve the soil
and promote biodiversity. Therefore, all research and their
reporting must rigidly conform to scientific norms and deal within
the realm of the known. The media has a crucial role in facilitating
such a sensible and informed debate and not rush to carry flashy
stories nurtured by sensationalism, cloaked in statements drawn out
of context.

Sincerely, Gurumurti Natarajan, Ph D

**********************************************

Building Public Confidence in Agricultural Biotechnology

- C Kameswara Rao, FBAE, July 28, 2005 http://fbae.blogs.com/

A new technology is developed either to improve an existing one or to
fulfill the need for an inventive measure. Every technology comes
with defined and realizable objectives, providing a practical
solution to a problem. The public should be made aware of the
realizable benefits of a new technology, evaluated realistically,
against the background of science and its promise. Since most of the
questions raised about genetically engineered (GE) products are
related to science behind the technology, the answers should come
from the same platform.

The consumers should be informed clearly both about the benefits and
limitations of a technology and be assured that there is no more than
an acceptable risk in adopting that technology and that the benefits
outweigh the risks.

Some pro-technology sections often generate hype, brushing aside the
limitations of technology and the concerns raised. Predictably, the
anti-tech groups immediately launch an onslaught of the technology,
with Nelson's eye on the objectives and potential benefits of the new
technology. A number of imagined benefits are thrust on the
technology out of over enthusiasm, ignorance or mischief, and the
technology gets flogged for not fulfilling what it was not intended
to address. If one supports Bt technology he becomes a 'Toady of the
industry' and if one opposes it, he is a 'Luddite'. Diametrically
opposite, extreme and emotionally charged postures miss the truth and
confuse the public. This hampers public acceptance and damages the
prospects of a gainful deployment of the technology for the benefit
of the stakeholders, whose interests both pro- and anti-tech groups
claim to have at heart.

Agricultural biotechnology has been a perpetual victim of an unfair
criticism and onslaught, while the benefits and risks of medical and
industrial biotechnology, which should be of equal or even greater
concern, hardly raise an eyebrow.

Only scientists can provide the answers for the questions and doubts
raised, because they are the only ones who know better. This rarely
happens. And then, even if they respond, who would believe them?
Several surveys have indicated that the public believes the anti-tech
groups most and then the media.

Unfortunately, the media, with an eye more on sensational news and
not science and facts, get their information from the anti-tech
groups, and so the public is served poorly. In the credibility
ladder, the scientists are at the bottom rung. Even some rational and
balanced writings, as for example 'Travels in the genetically
modified zone', (Mark Winston, Harvard University Press, 2002) and
'Mendel in the kitchen' (Nina Federoff and Nancy Brown, Joseph Henry
Press, 2004) are hardly noticed.

Defining the 'public' and the 'consumer' is a hard task. A top most
nuclear or space scientist may be as ignorant as a layman, of issues
of agricultural biotechnology. Who the consumer is depends on the
product. For example, the benefits and profitability from Bt products
accrue more directly to the farmer and they may not reach the end
users, which is the general public, while Golden Rice is an end-user
product and the farmer may not profit much from cultivating this
variety of rice.

Many concerns raised about agricultural technology are genuine. The
public should be satisfied about, a) safety as food and feed
(toxicity, allergenicity, chances of human errors), b) safety of the
environment (effect on non-target organisms, as gene flow and
diversity, lateral transfer of genes), c) the effectiveness of the
Regulatory Regime (risk assessment, management, and mitigation), and
d) relevance, reach and affordability, of technology. Even those who
believe in technology have raised such concerns.

The major problem is not that genuine concerns are raised. Vagaries
of weather, non-compliance of instructions and errors in management
are made the burden of technology. Political, economic, societal and
ethical issues, which science cannot answer, weigh agricultural
biotechnology down. Intercontinental antagonism, conflicting
political philosophies, and corporate politics also contribute
handsomely to the problem. Ethical and moral questions are important
in some contexts of biotechnology but are absurd in others. Such
comments as meddling with nature, scientists playing God, eating
genes, etc., are a mischievous exploitation of ignorance and
superstition.

We cannot build up a credible public awareness platform without
accountability and transparency. Corporate and public institution
scientists are afraid of the backlash of commission or omission and
the government departments have a tight upper lip. It is very
difficult to get any information from any of the relevant sources,
much more so in the developing countries. Most of the official
websites are eyewash. We do not even get an acknowledgement of the
requests made. The public must have an easy access to appropriate and
adequate information. This is an ethical responsibility of managers
of science and administrators.

Reaching the public requires enormous financial resources.
Pro-technology organizations do not have even a fraction of the
financial support the anti-tech groups receive from various lobbies.

Notwithstanding the difficulties, consumer and public awareness and
education programs are very basic to the acceptance of technology. In
all fairness the consumer should be the chooser, and this should be
on the basis of informed decision-making, devoid of political and
emotional pressures or prejudice. Every one has a right to an opinion
but not to dictate what others can or cannot have. People who want to
shape public opinion should do that with a sense of responsibility
and accountability. This is hardly evident in the anti-tech
propaganda.

Biotechnologists, product developers and those who believe in
technology should rise to the occasion and lift agricultural
biotechnology from the current morass. This is long overdue.

**********************************************

Let FDA, Agriculture Secretary Johanns and others at USDA Know the
Benefits of PMPs

Plant-made pharmaceuticals (PMPs) have the potential to address
therapeutic discovery and production issues for real people with real
illnesses. Government regulators, academics, health care
professionals and independent scientific standards should be the
determining factors for how best to take advantage of the important,
life-saving opportunities plant-made-pharmaceuticals have to offer -
not special-interest groups or activists.

Well-funded, professional activist groups are running full-page
newspaper advertisements and other campaigns spreading misleading
information and false fears about plant-made pharmaceuticals. These
special-interest groups, with combined annual budgets exceeding $25
million, are lobbying federal regulators and creating public fears
about important health and environmental issues important to the
scientific and health care communities working on pharmaceutical
production and discovery solutions like PMPs. Don't let their
extreme voices be the only ones heard.

To send a letter to USDA Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and FDA
Commissioner Les Crawford please visit:
http://www.plantpharma.org/ials/index.php?id=304

**********************************************

Australia: Report Recommends Tasmania Pursues GM Foods

http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200508/s1427266.htm

A report commissioned by the Tasmanian Government recommends that the
state lead the way nationally in producing and selling genetically
modified [GM] foods. For the past five years the Government has had a
moratorium on the release of GM materials after widespread community
concerns about the safety of the technology.

But a report conducted by the Australian Biotechnology Industry
organisation has found Tasmanian stakeholders such as producers and
scientists are in favour of dropping the bans in order to produce GMO
[genetically modified organisms] foods. The organisation's former
chief executive, Tony Coulepis, says the stakeholders are in favour
of pursuing GMOs, provided the state's clean green image is not
tarnished.
"What you've got is a marketing angle and something which is drawing
traction in Tasmania, and you should try and find a way forward to
keeping this clean green image while also defining a pathway to
market for genetically modified foods," he said. The audit report has
been passed on to the Minister for Economic Development.

**********************************************

First International Meeting on Cassava Plant Breeding and Biotechnology

http://www.geneconserve.pro.br/meeting/

'Cassava improvement to improve livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa and
Northeastern Brazil'

Sponsor: International Society of Food, Agriculture, Environment,
Helsinke, Finland - www.ISFAE.org
Host: University of Brasilia; Location: Brasilia, Brazil; Dates: 1-5
December 2006

Sessions: 1. Wild species and landraces to enhance nutritional
content; 2. Management of reproduction and propagation systems; 3.
Biotechnology tools and methods for breeding the crop; 4.
Conservation of Manihot genetic resources

Organizer: Prof. Dr. Nagib Nassar, Univ, of Brasilia, email:
nagnassa-at-rudah.com.br

**********************************************

Biotechnology: A Comparative Look At Governing Science

- Julian Kinderlerer, Science, Vol 309, Issue 5735, 704-706 , July 29, 2005

"Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United
States by Sheila Jasanoff;
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2005. 380 pp. $35.00,
22.95. ISBN 0-691-11811-6. "

Knowledge of biology has long been applied to enhance human health
and food availability. In recent decades, as our improved
understanding of biological processes has provided new ways to
intensify our use of biology, major advances have become increasingly
common. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development
(the June 1992 "Earth Summit" at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) proclaimed
that "Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. We are
confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within
nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy,
and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend
for our well-being" (1). Then and since, there has been a widespread
belief that modern biotechnology could provide solutions to many of
the fundamental problems facing the world.

However, whether applied to humans, agriculture, or industrial
purposes, the use of modern genetics has courted controversy. Almost
as soon as people realized the possibilities of identifying genes and
their functions within organisms or of moving genes between
organisms, it was appreciated that there were implications that went
beyond science. The manner in which different countries have
addressed the issues arising from the attempts by scientists to use
modern biotechnology has varied considerably. An examination of these
different approaches may help us understand the cultural forces that
underlie the way in which countries exploit the resources available
to them.

In Designs on Nature, Sheila Jasanoff explores the ways in which
genetics has been used in the last decades of the 20th century in
three countries that have taken disparate approaches to the same
problems: the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Her
analysis considers both "green" and "red" biotechnology. Green
biotechnology covers applications in agriculture (such as engineering
desirable traits into farm animals) and the environment (such as
bioremediation). Red biotechnology comprises applications in
biomedicine (such as diagnostic tests and genetically engineered
therapeutic agents). As Jasanoff (a professor of science and public
policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government)
notes, the two strands involve "somewhat different scientific
debates, ethical concerns, and political questions."

The book begins with a startling statement: "In mid-November 2001,
Europe was forming in the oddest of places." Does Jasanoff mean a
forging of a true European position on modern biotechnology, a new
coming together of European thought in general following the
cataclysms that had engulfed Europe in the middle of the 20th
century, a revival of the concepts that had led to the formation of
the European Union, or something more profound? I was not sure,
because the prologue makes it clear that the different positions
taken to the use of modern biotechnology within Europe (whether red
or green) do not indicate a common philosophical position. The
author's opening assertion made me read the book with care and
fascination.

Jasanoff devotes much of the text to first describing the historical
context in which decisions about the use of biotechnology have been
made in each of the three countries and then drawing conclusions
about the basis for the differences that are manifest. This is
particularly interesting in the European context for green
biotechnology because the formal legal framework has, since 1990,
been the same in the United Kingdom and Germany.

All three countries instituted some sort of legal framework to assure
the safe use of the new bioengineering techniques that had been
identified in the 1960s and 1970s. The initial framework in the
United States was devised by the National Institutes of Health. Its
guidelines were to be followed by all who received federal funding.
They addressed both red and green biotechnology and were put in place
in the late 1970s. In 1986, the U.S. Office of Science and Technology
Policy published a "Coordinated Framework for Regulation of
Biotechnology" (2), which explained its decision not to turn to
specific legislation to regulate the products of modern
biotechnology. The United States preferred to address the risks and
benefits associated with a particular product regardless of the
technology used to manufacture that product and therefore chose to
rely on existing legislation and agencies to ensure that products
introduced into the environment were safe.

The coordinated strategy provided for product-specific regulation, an
approach that was seen to offer the "opportunity for similar products
to be treated similarly by particular regulatory agencies" (2). Most
important, the system chosen in the United States stressed the
primacy of "science-based" decision-making, in which policy and
politics are divorced from the decision process.

The United Kingdom took a very different line. After starting with a
voluntary system for researchers, it moved to a regulation-based
system under the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974 (3).
Initially, these regulations only addressed the safety of those
working with genetically modified (4) organisms (GMOs) or those who
had legitimate reasons for entering GMO laboratories. In time, the
remit was slowly widened to take into account the impact of such
organisms on the environment. The trigger for regulation was
specifically the process of genetic modification, rather than merely
the characteristics of the product. Germany took an approach similar
to that of the United Kingdom, with the process acting as the trigger
for strict regulation to ensure safe use of the technology.

In 1990, the European Union enacted two directives for implementation
by member countries: 90/219 addressed the contained use of
genetically modified microorganisms, whereas 90/220 addressed the
noncommercial release of GMOs into the environment as well as the
placement of GMO products on the market. Both directives required
that the use of modern biotechnology trigger a regulatory process.
Member countries interpreted these directives differently, and the
differences may reflect their distinctive cultural or historical
perspectives. Directive 90/220 contains provisions for the
replacement of its requirements in circumstances where European
legislation provides "for a specific environmental risk assessment
similar to that laid down in this Directive." The provisions have
subsequently been used to centralize the regulatory system for food
and feed (in directive 2001/18 and regulation 1829/2003). Although
the approval process requires a science-based risk assessment, the
decision-making system is not divorced from either politics or
policy-making.

The book is worth reading simply for Jasanoff's fascinating
descriptions and explanations of the different interpretations and
understandings of biotechnology regulation. The interpretations also
provide an interesting perspective on the decisions for patenting
higher life forms that have been made in each of the jurisdictions
during the last 25 years.

Surprisingly absent from the book is any discussion of the protracted
negotiations over an international treaty for green biotechnology.
The United States signed but did not ratify the Convention on
Biological Diversity (introduced at Rio de Janeiro in 1992) and hence
has only been an observer during the negotiation of subsequent
protocols. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety came into effect in
2003 and now has 120 members (including the European Union countries
and China, but excluding such main producer countries as Argentina,
Canada, and the United States). The protocol adopts the same trigger
as the European Union chose in 1990. Critically, embedded in the
protocol is the precautionary approach identified in the 1992 Rio
declaration (5) and strongly resisted by the United States. The
political and philosophical divisions that Jasanoff addresses were
clearly identified in the negotiations for the treaty and text.
Consideration of these treaty negotiations would probably have
reinforced her analyses of green biotechnology.

Designs on Nature addresses red biotechnology in depth, considering
the regulation (or absence of regulation) imposed by the three legal
systems. The United Kingdom favors positions quite different from
those taken by Germany and the United States. Its concept of the
pre-embryo as simply a collection of cells (but which should be
accorded some dignity) has provided the basis for permitting research
on embryos and relatively liberal abortion law. Jasanoff discusses
the clash between the use of embryonic stem cells or pre-implantation
genetic diagnosis and a presumption that from the moment of
conception there exists a person for whom the constitution provides
protection. She offers an absorbing account of the course of the
debate in the United States, where liberality in pre-implantation
genetic analysis contrasts with the prohibition of federal funding
for embryonic stem cell work.

One chapter is devoted to exploring how bioethics has contributed to
differences in the regulation of biotechnology (in particular,
cloning and stem cell research) among the three countries. Jasanoff
reviews the governments' use of bioethics as an instrument of public
policy and the efforts of nonstate actors (including industry and
other non-governmental organizations) to marshal bioethical arguments
to support their goals.
Jasanoff offers her comparative analysis as a means to explain
outcomes rather than prescribe policy. She argues that the different
responses to biotechnology in the United Kingdom, Germany, and the
United States are each the result of "complex entanglements among
knowledge, technical capability, politics, and culture."

Designs on Nature should be read by all interested in the science or
management of biotechnology, whether red or green, on both sides of
the Atlantic.

References and Notes
1.Agenda 21: Programme of Action for Sustainable Development (United
Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro,
Brazil, 1992), chap. 16.
2.Office of Science and Technology Policy, Fed. Reg. 51, 23302
(1986). (Available at www.epa.gov/fedrgstr/EPA-TOX/pre1994/ost86.pdf.)
3.The text of the act is available at www.healthandsafety.co.uk/haswa.htm
4.The original wording was "manipulated."
5.Principle 15 of the declaration
(www.un.org/documents/ga/conf151/aconf15126-1annex1.htm) states: "In
order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be
widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there
are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full
scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing
cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."

-----

The reviewer is at the Sheffield Institute of Biotechnological Law
and Ethics, University of Sheffield, 169-171 Northumberland Road,
Sheffield, S10 1DF, UK. E-mail: j.kinderlerer-at-sheffield.ac.uk

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