Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : Sept 7, 2005
* India: Is Bt Cotton Unsuitable? - Kranthi Takes on Sahai
* The Science of Bt Cotton Failure in India
* India Sees Record Cotton Output For Second Year
* A World Without Hunger
* Rebels Without a Cause
* GM Scientist Chosen to Lead Delhi University
* Benbrook's Science and Credibility
* Kenya: Rethink the Ban on GM Maize
* Web-Based Forum on Biotechnology
* Synthetic Chemicals: Killing Us Softly?
Is Bt Cotton Unsuitable?
- K.R. Kranthi, The Hindu (India), Sept. 5, 2005 http://www.hindu.com/2005/09/05/stories/2005090505731100.htm
'Bt cotton is the most potent and best available option for bollworm management in the country.'
Suman Sahai wrote in The Hindu of August 29, 2005, that our research article (Kranthi et al., Current Science, July 25, 2005) gives scientific reasons for the failure of Monsanto Bt cotton varieties in India. She points out that our paper shows that the technology is faulty and does not protect against the bollworm; hence the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) must be made accountable for the losses for poor farmers. Dr. Sahai argues further that because this information was available by the end of 2003, the Director-General, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), who is an ex-officio member of the GEAC, should have raised his voice to stop any further releases of Bt cotton. Does our research paper support her argument? It does not.
Our report does not provide evidence to say that the technology is ineffective or flawed, as Dr. Sahai wants the world to believe. It shows that the technology works for most part of the season, but also has a few inherent inadequacies. That does not take away the merit of the technology. It only asks for improvements to be made. We never mentioned in the Current Science paper or elsewhere that the technology was ineffective or unsustainable as it is made out to be. Despite the shortcomings mentioned in our paper, Bt cotton is still the most potent and best available option for bollworm management in India. Even the best of the currently available pesticides do not kill more than 70-80 per cent bollworm larvae under field conditions, which Bt cotton does. Hence, the Bt technology is considered to be more effective than the best of currently recommended pesticides against H. armigera.
With an unmatched bio-safety profile, incomparable to that of conventional pesticides, Bt cotton is most sought after by farmers not just because of its efficacy in effective bollworm control, but also because it makes cotton cultivation easier and healthier with fewer pesticides to spray. If anything, the GEAC had been over-cautious in releasing Bt cotton in India. The approvals were also based on our own results of three-year scientific field trial evaluation data, which consistently showed yield and ecological benefits from Bt cotton despite the minor inadequacies in toxin expression. I have had a chance to attend a few GEAC meetings as an invited expert. If our data were detrimental to the Indian farmer's interest, wouldn't I have pointed out this to the members when I attended these meetings? So would have the Director-General of ICAR, who is known to be forthright with his views on all issues concerning good science and technologies for farmer welfare. Bt cotton has now been endorsed by thousands of farmers ever since its introduction in 2002, as can be seen from immense popularity and enormous technology adoption rate. It is unfortunate that the NGOs are trying to wage a meaningless war against the GM technology by misinterpreting some selective portions of our scientific paper.
Indeed, our paper describes the seasonal decline of Cry1Ac toxin levels and its variability in various plant parts of a few Bt cotton hybrids. We also said that, "the toxin expression in the boll-rind, square bud and ovary of flowers was clearly inadequate to confer full protection to the fruiting parts." Interestingly two papers were published from China and Australia around the same time in 2005, in an American journal, Journal of Economic Entomology, describing almost similar data to point out a seasonal decline of the Cry1Ac toxin in their Bt cotton varieties and low toxin levels in ovules and bolls. Does this make Bt cotton ineffective against bollworm? The answer is 'no'.
We said in our paper very clearly that "despite the variability in toxin expression, the pest control properties are unlikely to be affected significantly at least until the crop becomes 100-115 days old. Though some larvae survived on various plant parts in invitro bioassays, the surviving larvae on all the parts were stunted with a weight reduction of 48.8 to 98 per cent, compared to the larvae on non-Bt cotton plants." The cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) generally infests cotton 60-120 days after sowing. While Bt cotton is highly effective 60-115 days after sowing, there are chances of bollworm causing damage during the remaining one to two weeks. We therefore recommended pest scouting and need-based supplemental sprays for this period. We did not mention in our paper a commonly known fact that majority (70-80 per cent) of bollworm eggs are laid on leaves of the upper canopy and neonate larvae scrape and feed on the surface of the leaf soon after hatching and get killed. Eggs laid directly on flowers or a few other fruiting parts may survive, depending on the levels of toxin expression. Thus in an overall analysis, Bt cotton controls at least about 70-80 per cent of bollworm infestation. This is very significant in economic and environmental terms.
We never said that Cry1Ac expression was more in varieties compared to hybrids. We speculated that the relatively higher efficacy of Bt cotton varieties on H. armigera in China and Australia may have been because of the use of straight varieties in these countries compared to the use of hybrids in India. However, the recent data published on the Bt cotton varieties of China and Australia -- showing expression levels in their varieties similar, if not less than, to those of the hybrids in India -- do not support this speculation either. However, I would like to re-emphasise that Bt straight varieties would have the advantage of Cry1Ac expression in all of the seeds in green bolls as against the segregating 75 per cent Bt seeds in the bolls of F1 hybrid plants as mentioned in our paper. Hence Indian researchers including our own group at the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur, must intensify the efforts to develop Bt straight varieties for the use of Indian farmers.
Why did we publish this data? We wanted farmers to appreciate what exactly was to be expected from the technology. Importantly, our main intention was to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the technology so that it can be improved further. We pointed out some inherent inadequacies that need to be addressed by all concerned so that the technology can become more potent. We suggested that, "1. Biotechnology efforts in India should focus on developing transgenic cotton varieties with tissue specific promoters to enhance the expression of the toxin genes in fruiting parts, and 2. The choice of parental background is crucial for sustainable expression of the Cry1Ac transgene and therefore seed companies should evaluate their hybrids critically for highest levels of expression in fruiting parts and also for relatively effective level of toxin expression late in the season."
We concluded our paper by making our objective clear that, "Since the Bt-transgenic technology has thus far proven itself to be one of the most environment-friendly methods of bollworm management, it is in the interest of the technology itself that researchers, technology providers and administrators ensure that it must be provided to the farmers in a form which gives the best possible returns for the investment."
I earnestly hope that the meaningless hullabaloo raised over Bt cotton by the NGOs comes to an end soon and that a brilliant technology such as Bt cotton, which is state-of-the-art in eco-friendly cotton pest management, will be improved further and stabilised in good varieties and hybrids so as to ensure a pesticide-free profitable and sustainable cotton pest management in India.
The writer is Senior Scientist, Central Institute for Cotton Research -CICR, Nagpur.
>The Science of Bt Cotton Failure in India
>- Suman Sahai, The Hindu (India), August 29, 2005
>'Bt cotton must be permitted only in the form of true breeding varieties, not hybrids. '
>A new report by scientists of the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur, published in the July 25 issue of Current Science gives scientific reasons for the failure of the Monsanto Bt cotton varieties. It shows that India's Bt cotton technology is faulty and will fail to protect against the bollworm.
The CICR study validates the principal findings made by Gene Campaign and other groups such as Greenpeace and the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, that pesticide savings are not significant in India; that protection offered by Bt cotton lasts only for a part of the plant's life cycle; and, most critically, that bollworm readily attack the bolls because Bt toxin expression is below effective levels in the economically most important part of the plant.
Alarmingly, the study shows that Bt cotton cannot be effective in India because the major cotton pest in the country, the bollworm, is not susceptible to the Cry1Ac toxin of Bt cotton. Cry1Ac works against the tobacco budworm (Heliothis virescens), which is the major pest affecting cotton in the United States. Bt cotton varieties in the U.S. kill 99-100 per cent of the budworm pest, hence they are successful.
The CICR study further suggests that the poor performance of Bt cotton in India is also due to the fact that it is being produced as hybrids containing only one copy of the Bt gene, as against the true breeding varieties containing two copies of the Bt gene, which are produced in countries such as China, Australia, and South Africa. Global analysis of Bt cotton shows that true breeding Bt cotton varieties perform better than hybrids.
Indian regulators must answer why they are promoting Bt cotton hybrids that are expensive and will force farmers to buy seeds for every new planting. Why does India's top decision making body, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), not decide that only true breeding varieties of Bt cotton will be permitted in India not just because they perform better but also because they will be a cheaper option for farmers who could save seeds for the next harvest?
The information about the defects in India's Bt technology was available to the ICAR at the end of 2003 when widespread failures were reported by a number of agencies, including the Andhra Pradesh Government. The ICAR Director-General is an ex officio member of the GEAC and yet did not raise his voice about the clear-cut scientific evidence that an ICAR institution had provided that the Cry1Ac-based Bt technology would not succeed in India and that the Bt cotton should be held back till a better technology could be developed. Instead, the GEAC has continued to release Bt cotton varieties for many other parts of India, without conducting any review of failures of the technology.
What the GEAC is doing with respect to Bt cotton amounts to indefensible negligence. Its biased decisions are resulting in debilitating losses for poor farmers, specially in rain-fed areas. The members of the GEAC must be held accountable for the losses faced by farmers, sometimes forcing them to taking extreme steps. The Government has remained unmoved by reports of crop failures and impervious to demands that a thorough review be undertaken of the Bt cotton performance in India before proceeding any fulrther with it. It continues to harm farmers by allowing a substandard product to be sold to them.
Gene Campaign has now issued a notice to the Ministry of Environment and Forests to file a complaint for the commission of offences under the Environment Protection Act and the Rules framed under it, to regulate genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The GEAC had full knowledge of the CICR study and the ineffectiveness of the Bt technology being used. Yet, far from revoking the approval granted to the Mahyco-Monsanto varieties, it continued to grant approval to several other Bt cotton varieties for cultilvation.
The National Commission on Farmers must recommend that Bt cotton hybrids be withdrawn from the fields and a moratorium placed on any further cultivation of Bt cotton until the technology is made relevant to Indian pests and agricultural conditions. Mahyco-Monsanto must be made to compensate the losses incurred by farmers. Also, Bt cotton must be permitted in India only in the form of true breeding varieties as is the case in China, Australia and South Africa, not as hybrids the way industry is pushing helre.
India Sees Record Cotton Output For Second Year
- Naveen Thukral, Reuters, Sep 5, 2005 http://in.today.reuters.com/
India, the world's third largest cotton producer, is expected to produce a record crop for the second straight year but lack of rains in some growing areas could spoil the party, a top trade official said on Monday. The country's cotton production in the year to September 2006 is likely to reach 23.5 million bales, up from 21.5 million bales a year ago because of more area under cultivation, good weather and extensive use of transgenic seeds.
"The crop looks excellent in most growing areas," Rakesh Rathi, president of the Northern India Cotton Association, told Reuters in an interview."The central and western parts of the country need one last spell of rains before harvesting next month."
Production could take a hit in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh which have not received much rainfall for the past almost a month, said Rathi. "But if we get one good spell by mid-September, then there will be no problem."
The land under cotton has increased to around 8.3 million hectares from 8.2 million hectares lat year, according to the farm ministry.India's cotton crop, prone to pest attacks like bollworm, has remained largely free of pests this year because of more use of pest-resistant genetically modified cotton.
In 2002, India allowed transgenic cotton that contains a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium species. When infested by bollworm, it causes lethal paralysis in the digestive tract. Traders said the area under transgenic cotton has jumped three-fold to 1.5 million hectares this year. "The use of pesticides has been less because of genetically modified cotton and excellent weather conditions," Rathi said.
But forecasts of a higher cotton output and a big opening stock have already depressed cotton prices in India. The long staple shankar variety is selling at around 16,550 rupees a candy of 356 kg each compared with 20,500 rupees at this time last year. In Punjab the medium staple J-34 is quoted around 15,700 rupees a candy, lower than 16,700 rupees last year.
India this year has an opening stock of 5.7 million bales compared with an average of 3.5 to 4 million bales. "Cotton prices are near the government's support price level, now it will depend on buying by the government's procurement agencies," said Rathi, who is based in the northwestern cotton-growing region of Abohar.
He said prices could fall further if the government was not able to handle the increased production. Record cotton production has brightened the prospects of cotton exports from India. Rathi said the country could sell around 2 million bales during the crop year, up from around 1.2 million bales a year ago. "Indian cotton prices are competitive and acceptability of our cotton is increasing rapidly in the world markets," he said. India mainly sells cotton to China, Bangladesh and the Middle East.
A World Without Hunger
- Rakesh Mehar, Vijay Times (India), August 19, 2005 http://www.vijaytimes.com/
Despite the major technological growth in the last few decades, food security still remains one of the major problems faced by the developing world. According to experts, a total of 800 million people, or one in every six people in the developing world do not have access to food. India, with the world’s second highest population, lists nearly 200 million under the poverty line, with poor access to food. Moreover, the agricultural sector in the nation supports two thirds of the nation’s population, but generates only one fourth of the national income.
Agricultural scientists say one of the primary concerns for Indian agriculture is that while population grows at a meteoric rate, there is a lack of availability of arable land. Although India has over 16 per cent of the world’s population, it possesses only two per cent of arable land. Moreover, problems such as desertification continually contribute to a further decline in available land. The steadily decreasing size of agricultural holdings of small farmers has also hit productivity hard. With the rapid rise in population and lack of means to increase net area of arable lands, increasing yield and productivity is the only means of ensuring proper food supply. However, traditional methods of breeding high yielding crops are inefficient in the present context, says Dr M N Sheelavantar, Vice Chancellor, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore.
The chief difficulty arises from the non-availability of suitable species of plants for traditional breeding. He adds "In the last 50 years, we have exploited all the available plant species and natural breeding methods, and raised productivity levels by ten times. However, we can’t go any further because the hybrid vigour is on the decline, and no more desirable variations are available for plants to be crossed with." GM crops on the other hand, allow scientists to extract the DNA of any organism, animal or plant and insert it into target crops. Thus GM crops allow for the use of a much larger gene base than traditional crops. The second problem, he says, arises from the significantly longer time period required to create viable hybrid products using traditional methods. Traditional breeding requires a cycle of seven to 10 years to produce a usable product, time we do not have. On the other hand, a normal GM cycle would only take around three years.
Various agricultural belts across the country have also been affected by severe drought in the past few years. According to one biotechnologist based in Chennai, only 40 per cent of India’s agricultural lands have accessible irrigation, while the majority are still dependent on seasonal rainfall. Particularly, rice crops that require intensive irrigation, are placing immense stress on available sources. To combat this difficulty, GM scientists are currently working on drought resistant crops. If developed, these crops could be greatly beneficial to farmers in the various drought prone areas of India.
At present, the most identifiable advantage of GM crops is resistance to pests. The example of Bt cotton in India, says Bhagirath Choudhary, National Coordinator for the International Society for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, serves to show the advantages of GM crops. "According to official figures, there has been a 58 per cent increase in yield and 163 per cent higher profits for farmers due to the use of Bt cotton. At an overall level, there has been an average higher profit of Rs 6,000 per acre for farmers planting Bt cotton in India," he says.
Even when high yield crops are obtained, nutrition security remains an issue. One of the most well documented cases that tackles this issue is that of golden rice. This GM variety of rice has been developed to provide a greater level of carotenoids, which help the body create vitamin A and prevent blindness. Latest versions of golden rice can provide up to 50 micrograms of carotenoids, say experts. In addition, according to Ranjana Smetacek of Monsanto India, a number of other projects are on the anvil, such as healthier food oils designed to fight heart disease, tomatoes with high levels of cancer-fighting lycopene, food crops enriched with heart healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and other essential nutrients that could reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. "Other technologies on the anvil include the discovery of a gene that may keep fruits and vegetables fresh longer, a tomato that ripens on the vine and tastes better, caffeine-free coffee that tastes better than beans de-caffeinated by chemicals, neutralisation of harmful allergens so that people on restricted diets can consume basic foods such as soybeans, wheat and groundnuts."
Concerns over the safety of GM crops still exist, admit experts. However, they say, these can be tackled in the near future. According to Dr R A Mashelkar, Director General, Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, with proper research, testing, policy making and regulation, GM crops can be properly exploited by developing countries. He says, "It is very clear that if the biotechnology potential has to be completely realised, it has to be done in an extremely responsible manner. At each step proper testing and scientific data have to be provided. Not only this, proper regulatory and policy mechanisms have to be put into place. It is therefore absolutely essential that conscious efforts be made especially by the developing countries to initiate well-defined programmes for the development and regulation of genetically modified plants."
It is to be remembered that GM crops aren't a panacea to all nutrition problems of developing countries, say experts. However, GM crops can play an integral role in the generation of sufficient levels of agricultural produce to eradicate hunger in a properly framed and well-regulated system.
India: Rebels Without a Cause
- Rakesh Mehar, Vijay Times (India), August 19, 2005 http://www.vijaytimes.com/
In recent years, anti-GM debates have taken on a new meaning for Indians, as the Government has begun to progressively allow the cultivation of different insect, pest and herbicide resistant transgenic crops. Prominent activists have put forth various objections to GM crops being grown in the country. However, according to the some scientists, these objections are unscientific, and lack credible evidence to support them.
Visibility of anti-GM activism: According to biotechnologists in the country, the anti-GM section of the population is very small, but very visible. The former feel that a cooperative media has given undue publicity only to the latter's side of the story, ignoring the arguments raised by scientists themselves. According to Professor C Kameswara Rao of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, "There are not many activists who are against GM crops, but the proportion of noise made by the few who exist is much more."
Concerns of bio-diversity: One of the primary objections against GM crops is that their large scale cultivation will result in a loss of bio-diversity due to the possible transfer of genes. However, according to a group of experts of the Royal Society of London the risk of transfer of genes is slight, provided that regulatory measures are followed. According to biotechnologists, crossing between GM and non-GM crops occurs only on rare occasions, but these incidents are picked up by activist groups and widely publicised. "Besides", says one scientist in Bangalore, "natural crossing has been occurring between crops for years, but has not destroyed bio-diversity. Why must it become an issue now?"
Others point out that GM crops will contribute to the maintenance of bio-diversity by eliminating the use of non-specific pesticides. Says Dr C S Prakash, Professor, Plant Molecular Genetics Tuskegee University, Alabama, "Farms growing GM crops are shown to increase bio-diversity because they are target specific, and allow the increased prevalence of beneficial insect and bird populations".
Reduced yield and nutrition: Anti-GM activists must understand that one or two GM crops alone cannot ensure that the nutritional needs of the nation are taken care of, say pro-GM researchers. Professor Rao explains that there is still a need for balanced multi-nutrient meal, and to expect a single GM product to provide all the required nutrients is irrational. "There have been articles in the media about how it is necessary to eat nine kgs of golden rice to obtain the necessary levels of beta-carotene. What one must remember is that we are not aiming at golden rice alone solving the nutritional requirement".
As far as reduced yield is concerned, scientists say that GM crops have been giving increased yield wherever planted. According to Ranjana Smetacek, Director of Corporate Affairs, Monsanto-India, "In India, IMRB International had released in April 2005, its survey findings of Bollgard harvest data for 2004 plantings. They have covered more than 3,000 farmers across the six states where Bollgard is planted. The survey estimates that there has been an approximately 58 per cent or 2.95 quintals per acre increase in Bollgard yields, when compared to conventional cotton. The net profit increase for Bollgard farmers is Rs 5,950 per acre or over 60 per cent".
Intake of genes: According to Dr R A Mashelkar, Director General, Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi, the expert group of the Royal Society of London also found that that the uptake of genes via the food chain is not a new issue because genes (i.e. DNA) are normal constituents of the human diet. "Many products from GM plants, such as sugar prepared from GM tomato paste are so similar that they are regarded as 'substantially equivalent'. Others, for example are flour from GM soya, may contain a new gene or its product, although many of the purification processes involved in food production will destroy any DNA present in the raw material".
Monopoly of multinationals: "The Indian agricultural sector has already been dependent on MNCs in the form of seed and fertiliser manufacturers for many years. Why should providers of GM crops be a cause for worry all of a sudden", asks one biotechnologist. He adds that multinationals will focus on commercial crops such as cotton or vegetables but the increased role of public sector such as agricultural universities in biotechnology will be critical to help the small farmer and with food crops such as rice, millets etc. According to a representative of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, there are a number of laws already in place to ensure that farmer rights are protected. He says, "Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, Biodiversity Act, Seed Bill, Competition Commission of India, Geographical Indication Act, Patent Act and various other legislations have been enacted to ensure the protection of our farming sector".
Pro-GM supporters claim that problems with GM crops arise from inefficient administration and not the technology itself. Despite vehement objections from the other side, they say GM crops are the only hope for the future.
India: GM Scientist Chosen to Lead Delhi University
- Pioneer News Service / New Delhi
Prof. Deepak Pental was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University on Thursday. Prof Pental, who is from the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants and was director of South Campus, is popularly known as an academic reformer.
Benbrook's Science and Credibility
- Sivramiah Shantharam
Charles Benbrook is a professional misinterpreter and a misleader of biotech issues at the behest of the organic and other anti-GM lobby who hire him for his unusual savvy. His professional and career credentials like being a former staffer at the National Research Council, an arm of the US National Science Academy are flaunted by the anti-GM lobby to bring credibility to his "scientific" analysis. His supporters swear by his analysis, and that is their right. Everyone needs something to hold on to.
Benbrook has always been cherry picking data for his slanted analysis for ever. That is his privilege. Apparently, when the likes of Benbrook get paid by the organic and other lobbies, they are supposed to be honest and truthful in their analysis, but when other scientists who support the art and science of biotechnology say a word in support of biotechnology, they are all corrupt scientists supported by the industry. Internet is full of all sorts of such self-serving reports like this one, and one must not waste too much of time reading and worrying about them. People like Benbrook do these kind of things to earn their livelihoods, and busy professional scientists must keep busy doing their honest to good research work that will stand scrutiny of their professional peers. Dogs keep barking and the caravan keeps moving on.
Kenya: Rethink the Ban on GM Maize
- Zachary Opondo Otieno,The Nation (Kenya), Sept 5, 2005, http://www.nationmedia.com/dailynation/nmgcontententry.asp?category_id=23=56519
The ban and the ensuing destruction of Kenya's first genetic engineering maize by the Government at KARI is quite absurd and a big blow to agricultural research and agriculture.
For thousands of years humans have manipulated the genetic characteristics of plants by selective breeding. This approach has been extremely successful and will continue to play a major role in agriculture. However classplant breeding programmes rely on being able to carry out genetic crosses between individual plants. Such plants must be sexually compatible, that is, they must be closely related. It has, therefore, not been possible to combine genetic traits from widely differing species.
The advent of genetic engineering has removed this constraint and has given the agricultural biotechnologists a very powerful way of incorporating defined genetic changes into plants. Such changes are often aimed at improving the productivity and efficiency of crop plants both of which are important to help feed the increasing human population.
Introducing specific cloned DNA into plant cells is now routine practice worldwide except in Africa that is rather slow in initiating this technology. Therefore our Biotechnologists at KARI were not just aping blindly the American through their firm Sygenta as being purported by the newly appointed Agriculture Secretary, Dr. Wilson Songa. Our Scientists were also trying to improve the livelihood of mankind through this promising branch of science.
Biotechnology holds the key to development in sectors such as agriculture, medicine and animal husbandry. It is, therefore, wrong to shoot down such an important scientific breakthrough without seeking to understand the merits and demerits of such a project.
The method used in this technology presumably assures a great deal of safety to human and the environment at large. The method targets just a pure set of genes whose effects are known e.g. resistance, to a certain disease. There is generally no overlap in gene expressions and the target gene will definitely express itself in a known predetermined and predictable way. This avoids any likelihood of wrong unexpected gene expressions that could result in unwanted effects of the inserted gene.
The only major challenges for the scientific community is to inform and educate the public by frank and open discussion on the relevant issues.
Zachary Opondo Otieno, Kenya Polytechnic, Nairobi
Scientists Need to Reconnect with the People
- James Wilsdon, The Financial Times. September 5, 2005
Each September, a couple of weeks before the political class decamps to the seaside for the annual round of party conferences, Britain's scientists host a gathering of their own. The British Association Festival of Science has a distinguished history. It was here, in 1842, that the word "dinosaur" was coined. And in 1860 that Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley held their famous debate on evolution, when the former asked the latter whether he would prefer to be descended from an ape on his grandfather's or grandmother's side.
The 2005 BA Festival, which takes place this week in Dublin, will be attended by around 400 scientists and remains an important showcase for new ideas. But its primary role is now as a forum for communication and dialogue between scientists and the wider public, especially in areas of social or ethical concern, such as stem cell research or nanotechnology. This makes it a useful barometer of the scientific state we are in, and the degree of public confidence in science.
During the arguments over genetically modified crops, many scientists felt they were on the losing side of a battle for hearts and minds. But the GM saga made scientists think about the importance of dialogue on difficult issues. And there is a growing confidence that lessons have been learned. Two pieces of evidence are cited in support of this view. First, the debate over nanotechnologies, which had threatened to snowball into a GM-style controversy, is held up as a model of scientific self-regulation and early public engagement. Last year's inquiry by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, and the government's response, are seen as successful templates for managing the dilemmas posed by emerging technologies. Second, public opinion seems to be swinging back in science's favour. The latest MORI poll commissioned by the Office of Science and Technology shows that 86 per cent of people think science "makes a good contribution to society" - up 5 per cent on two years ago.
The GM debate is spoken of as an aberration rather than an episode that highlights systemic problems in the governance of science and technology. There is a sense of complacency within sections of the science community: a belief that we can return to business as usual, with a few new committees and a little extra public consultation, but without fundamental reform of scientific culture and practice. A contrasting view is that the real work has just begun. The tone of conversations between scientists and the public has started to change. But if relations are to continue improving, dialogue on social and ethical issues must become a normal part of good scientific practice.
Until now, most attention has focused on the "hardware" of public engagement - the focus groups and citizens' juries that can give the public a voice in science policy and decision-making. In the next phase, this needs to be accompanied by a greater focus on the "software" - the codes, values and norms that shape science, but which are harder to access and change. Otherwise, we will end up with little more than the scientific equivalent of corporate social responsibility: a well-meaning and busy field, propelled along by its own conferences and reports, but never quite impinging on fundamental cultures and practices.
For example, most PhD scientists in Britain's top universities receive compulsory courses on attracting venture capital but are taught nothing about the history and philosophy of science, or the social impacts of technology. Similarly, the Research Assessment Exercise, which ranks and determines funding to all university departments, creates no incentive for academic scientists to devote their time to public engagement or ethical reflection.
The implications are far-reaching. This year's A-level results show a slight increase in the number of entries for science subjects but the overall trend is heading in the wrong direction: since 1991, the numbers taking physics A-level have fallen by 35 per cent, maths by 21 per cent and chemistry by 12 per cent. If we are to attract more young people to scientific careers, and maintain Britain's position as a world-class centre for research and development, we must do more to connect science and technology to people's values and aspirations. Scientists need more opportunities to talk about the choices they make and the purposes of their research. Starting an authentic debate on these questions is in the interests of science and of an enlightened democracy. ----
The writer is head of science and innovation at Demos think-tank and co-author of The Public Value of Science, available free from www.demos.co.uk.
ESCWA Web-Based Forum on Biotechnology
- FAO Biotech Newsletter, http://www.fao.org/biotech/index.asp
The UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) is running a web-based discussion forum on "Biotechnology; technical and policy implications in the Near East and North Africa Region" from 1-30 September 2005. The four main themes for discussion are biotechnology and food security; policy focus and priority issues; biosafety - recent trends and future prospects and, finally, capacity building in biotechnology. The main language is English but contributions in Arabic may be sent for translation to English and subsequent posting. See http://www.escwa.org.lb/information/meetings/events/bio/main.html or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Synthetic Chemicals: Killing Us Softly?
- Martin Livermore, Spiked, August 31, 2005 http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000CAD29.htm
'Baseless scare stories are contaminating our enjoyment of food.'
It's the silly season, which is usually the time for stories about how bad eating is for us. Unless, that is, we're sensible and informed enough to eat organic food. Aficionados will tell you that organic food is natural and therefore better for you. The nub of the argument is that organic produce is untouched by chemicals (a word that sends a shiver down the spine of any self-respecting foodie). In particular, no pesticides are used, so the organic vegetable is therefore full of goodness, and you can eat it with a warm glow of self-satisfaction.
To paraphrase Blackadder, there's one tiny flaw in this argument: it's utter rubbish. Everything we eat is made of chemicals: they just don't happen to be manmade. Many of the minor components of plants are in fact natural pesticides: they repel or harm insects or other creatures that want to make a meal of them. What is more, using the standard ways employed by scientists to test toxicity or carcinogenicity (eg, feed increasing amounts of a substance to rodents until a level is reached where half of them die), many of these compounds can be shown to cause harm. But because they're not manmade, we neither test them nor worry about them. When they are tested, they are found to be equally damaging to the health of rats as manmade pesticides (1).
Yet we seem to worry incessantly about the use of synthetic crop protection chemicals that have been extremely thoroughly tested. Yes, these are toxic and harmful if misused, but the risk is to farmers rather than consumers. And farmers are intelligent people who have been trained how to use pesticides correctly. Despite agricultural workers' potentially much greater exposure to carcinogens than the general public, they actually have a lower incidence of cancers: in 11 out of 12 studies on farmers, covering some 300,000 subjects in total, cancer rates were found to be substantially lower than for the population as a whole (2).
There is no evidence that legal levels of pesticide residues cause health problems. During the past 50 years, as agriculture has become more intensive and use of pesticides increased, we have become healthier and longer-lived (3).
Of course, if you sincerely believe that synthetic chemicals pose a health risk, no amount of evidence will convince you otherwise. The standard response to the fact that there is no evidence of harm is: 'more testing is needed.' To figures that show a steady decline in the levels of pesticide residues detected (4), we hear: 'what about the build-up over time; what about the "cocktail" effect?'
Cast your mind back to the Sudan 1 contamination that occurred earlier this year. A batch of chilli powder had been brightened up at source by the addition of this red dye. The dye is not allowed for food use, not because there is hard evidence of any hazard, but because it's never been positively approved. The chilli powder was imported and used as an ingredient to make Worcester sauce, and this sauce in turn was used as a minor component of numerous processed food products. Clearly, the use of this dye was illegal: there was a failure of the system. But was there a real risk?
One article pithily summed up the extent of the 'risk': 'To ingest Sudan 1 in the amounts that were shown to cause harm in rats, a human would have to consume Crosse and Blackwell's Worcester sauce at the rate of three tons every day for two years.' (5) But that doesn't assuage fears: if something has been withdrawn 'as a precautionary measure' then it has been condemned.
Consumers can be made to feel frightened of their food if they are given misleading information by campaign groups and their accomplices in the media. Left to their own devices, most people choose food they like to eat and can afford. They don't read labels. They don't think about additives, or the conditions under which the food was packed. If there were fewer negative stories about food in the media, we would be no less safe, but a lot of people might worry a lot less. ---
(1) Paracelsus to parascience: the environmental cancer distraction, BN Ames and LS Gold, Mutat Res 447, p3-13, 2000 (2) 'A critical assessment of organic farming-and-food assertions with particular respect to the UK and the potential environmental benefits of no-till agriculture', A Trewavas, Crop Protection 23 p757-781, 2004 (3) For a good discussion of this, see The Skeptical Environmentalist, B Lomborg, 2001, p226-236 (4) See for example Pesticide levels 'pose no threat', BBC News, 29 June 2005 (5) 'Food, poisonous food', Sunday Telegraph, 27 February 2005
Martin Livermore is a freelance science communicator, commentator and consultant. He is also an occasional blogger