Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : November 21, 2005
* Of Mice and GE Peas
* GM Pea Study Backs Case-by-Case Risk Assessment
* Effective Risk Assessment of GM Field Peas
* Discrediting Bt Technology
* Pakistan to Start Importing Indian Cotton
* Scientists Split Over Biotechnology
* What on Earth has GM Crops to do with this?
* From Green to Gene Revolution, How the Poor Fare
* Making Sense of Science
* Biotech and Brazil: Implications and Opportunities for Global Ag
* Thanksgiving Holiday Dinner Menu
* Profile: Eduardo Kac
Of Mice and GE Peas
- Dr. Christopher Preston, University of Adelaide, Australia
A recent publication by Prescott et al. (1) reports some rather
elegant studies on the structure and immunogenicity of a transgenic
bean protein when expressed by peas. The transgenic peas were
originally developed to provide protection form pea weevils, a major
insect pest of peas that can reduce yields, damage produce and
increase costs to growers. The transfer of the bean alpha-amylase
inhibitor to peas proved effective, reducing pea weevil damage and
providing 99.5% protection against pea weevils (2).
The experiments reported by Prescott et al. (1) examined the
structure of the bean alpha-amylase inhibitor as expressed by pea
plants. What they discovered was the bean protein as expressed by
pea plants had changes in glycosylation. This modified protein then
proved to have altered immunogenicity. When the altered form, but
not the native form, was fed to mice it predisposed the mice to an
allergic reaction when exposed to the protein. Plant cells contain a
number of different O- and N-glycosyltransferase enzymes that attach
sugars to various compounds, including proteins. Glycosylation of
proteins occurs at specific sites within the protein, usually
arginine residues for N-glycosylation (3,4). It is important to
note, that the sites of glycosylation were not changed in the
transgenic protein, just the sugars that were added (1).
Cereal alpha-amylase inhibitors are known allergens and are
responsible for a condition called baker's asthma (5). In addition,
N-glycosylation of glycoproteins is important in their allergenicity
(6). Cereal alpha-amylase inhibitors belong to a group of proteins
known as the prolamine superfamily. This superfamily of proteins
also includes the trypsin inhibitors and as a group are well
represented in lists of known allergens (7). Many of these are small,
sulphur rich seed proteins (7) and also include the 2S albumin from
brazil nuts that has been shown to be allergenic (8). Bean
alpha-amylase inhibitor, while not previously known to be an allergen
and structurally un-related to the cereal alpha-amylase inhibitors,
is also a sulphur-rich seed protein (9). At least from the
biochemical perspective, differential glycosylation of a sulphur-rich
seed protein should be a flag to indicate a possible change in
Make no mistake. The careful study of GM crops ensures problems such
as these are picked up prior to commercialization. Such
considerations do not necessarily apply to other foodstuffs. If for
example, I were to make a cross between beans and peas (difficult
although that would be) and then backcross to select peas that
contained the bean alpha-amylase inhibitor, the protein would most
likely have different glycosylation patterns to its bean equivalent.
Would that have been picked up prior to the crop going to market? I
don't know, but we have yet to have one documented human fatality
caused by the consumption of GM food. I think this is a telling
point. As a result of the intense testing, GM foods are probably
safer for consumption than some other food people consume.
Some of the responses to this news in Australia have been
interesting. Australian Greens senator Rachel Siewert said:
"Scientists are moving down quite dangerous lines in what they are
creating and we know it can escape into the bush as weeds and
things."(10). This is simply scare mongering. We don't know
anything of the sort. By and large annual crop species are far too
domesticated to become serious weeds of the bush. Almost all the
serious environmental weeds in Australia were originally introduced
as ornamentals or as pasture species. As evidence, there is not a
single annual crop plant among the 20 worst weeds of natural
ecosystems in Australia (11).
As for Greenpeace GM campaigner Jeremy Tager, he responded:
"Withdrawing a failure doesn't show the success of the regulatory
system."(12). If withdrawing a potentially flawed product is not
considered a success of the regulatory system, what is? Releasing a
failure? Withdrawing a success?
Greenpeace later published a "news" item called "GE Peas off the
menu" on its website (13). The item is written like a press release
and quotes Jeremy Tager, GE Campaigner with Greenpeace extensively.
In the article it states: "The termination of the CSIRO project is
another reminder that GE technology is neither precise, predictable
nor safe." (13). As I have indicated above, one could have made a
reasonable stab that glycosylated, sulphur-rich seed proteins are a
potential allergy risk and require testing. I should also point out
that the mice tested didn't die. The product caused allergenic
reactions, but was not fatal.
Further, Greenpeace alleges that: "Independent and peer reviewed
studies of the impacts of GE foods have consistently shown negative
impacts on the health of test animals. Only last month the results
of another study were released, in which all offspring of rats fed GE
corn died". (13). Umm. Wrong. I compiled a list last year of
peer-reviewed feeding studies published in scientific journals and
abstracted on PubMed last year (14). In all I found 42 studies that
fit the criteria I was using, although at the time I noted the list
was probably incomplete. Of those studies only 2 reported any
statistically significant adverse effect. That is 5% of studies -
hardly qualifying as a consistent effect. In fact, it would be
possible to get such results by chance in any large group of studies.
The study referred to in the second sentence came from a presentation
by Dr. Irina Ermakova to a meeting organised by an anti-GM group in
Russia (15). I have recently written about this study (16).
Firstly, it was not peer reviewed. Secondly, given the way the
information was released to an anti-GM organisation rather than to
health authorities, I have my doubts about its independence.
Thirdly, the study fed GM soy to rats, not GM corn. Lastly, only
55.6% of the offspring were reported to die, not all of them.
Somehow, the only thing Greenpeace has managed to get right on this
was the month of the report. Sadly, Greenpeace cannot even get the
1. Prescott, V.E., Campbell, P.M., Moore, A., Mattes, J.,
Rothenberg, M.E., Foster, P.S., Higgins, T.J.V. and Hogan, S.P. 2005.
Transgenic expression of bean alpha-amylase inhibitor in peas results
in altered structure and immunogenicity. Journal of Agricultural and
Food Chemistry 53: 9023-9030.
2. Morton, R. L.; Schroeder, H. E.; Bateman, K. S.; Chrispeels, M.
J.; Armstrong, E.; Higgins, T. J. V. 2000. Bean alpha-amylase
inhibitor 1 in transgenic peas (Pisum sativum) provides complete
protection from pea weevil (Bruchus pisorum) under field conditions.
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 97: 3820-3825.
3. Ceriotti, A., Duranti, M. and Bollini, R. (1998). Effects of
N-glycosylation on the folding and structure of plant proteins.
Journal of Experimental Botany 49: 1091-1103.
4. Breiteneder, H. and Mills, E.N.C. (2005). Molecular properties
of food allergens. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 115:
5. James, J.M. Sixbey, J.P., Helm, R.M., Bannon, G.A. and Burks,
A.W. 1997. Wheat alpha-amylase inhibitor: a second route of
allergic sensitization. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology
6. Garcia-Casado, G., Sonchez-Monge, R., Chrispeels, M.J., Armentia,
A., Salcedo, G. and Gomez, L. (1996). Role of complex
asparagines-linked glycans in the allergenicity of plant
glycoproteins. Glycobiology 6: 471-477.
7. Shewry et al. 2002. Plant protein families and their
relationships to food allergy. Biochemical Society Transactions 30:
8. Nordlee et al. 1996. Identification of a brazil nut allergen in
transgenic soybeans. New England Journal of Medicine 334: 688-692.
9. Franco, O.L., Rigden, D.J., Melo, F.R. and Grossi-de-Sa, M.F.
2002. Plant alpha-amylase inhibitors and their interaction with
insect alpha-amylases. Structure, function and potential for crop
protection. European Journal of Biochemistry 269: 397-412.
10. Sommerfeld, J. 2005 Genetic Food Plan Axed. The Courier Mail
(Australia), Nov. 18, 2005.
11. Weeds of National Significance. http://www.weeds.org.au/natsig.htm.
12. Mitchell, S and Dayton, L. 2005. GM crop scrapped as mice made
ill. The Australian, November 18, 2005
13. GE Peas off the menu.
14. Peer reviewed publications on the safety of GM foods.
15. Genetically-modified Soy Affects Posterity?
GM Pea Study Backs Case-by-Case Risk Assessment
- CSIRO (Australia), November 17, 2005
Research by CSIRO to genetically modify peas to resist insect attack
and reduce the use of chemical sprays has been discontinued because
the GM peas did not satisfy all categories of a stringent risk
The Deputy Chief of CSIRO Plant Industry, Dr TJ Higgins, says the
findings - published this week in the Journal of Agricultural and
Food Chemistry - demonstrate the effectiveness of case-by-case
evaluation of GM plants and the important role science can play in
decision-making around the introduction of GM crops.
The GM field peas were developed by CSIRO Plant Industry to protect
Australia's $100 million field pea industry from the pea weevil
Bruchus pisorum, which can cause yield losses of up to 30 per cent
each year if left uncontrolled.
Although this GM breed of field pea proved almost 100 per cent
effective against pea weevil attacks, research led by immunologists
Dr Simon Hogan and Professor Paul Foster at the John Curtin School of
Medical Research (JCSMR), with CSIRO, showed that the GM peas caused
an immune response in mice.
Following discussions with the scientists conducting the study, CSIRO
decided not to progress development of these GM field peas. "This
work strongly supports the need for case-by-case examination of
plants developed using genetic modification and the importance of
decision-making based on good science," Dr Higgins says. "Even though
this GM field pea research will not be progressed further, the
technology is very valuable and we're considering applying it to
other research," he says.
The CSIRO research team used a gene from beans to block the activity
of alpha-amylase, an enzyme important for digestion of starch. Weevil
larvae feeding on starch in the developing pea seed are unable to
digest the starch and starve. "We asked why there was a reaction to
the GM peas and not beans, which also have th e alpha-amylase
inhibitor, and which humans have been eating for many years without
evidence of an immune response," JCSMR's Professor Foster says.
The answer lay in subtle changes that occurred in the chemical
structure of the bean alpha-amylase inhibitor when it was made in the
field pea. "The change in structure is likely to be caused by a
natural and commonly occurring process called glycosylation, which
occurs when proteins are made via a particular pathway in cells,"
Professor Foster says.
"CSIRO had informed us that unlike other GM insect resistant plants,
to make the peas insect resistant the introduced bean protein had to
go through a pathway in cells where it would undergo several
processing steps including glycosylation. Because glycosylation is
well documented and because it can differ from organism to organism
and even in different cell types within an organism, we determined
the structure of the pea protein, and assessed whether it was likely
to cause an immune response."
"This case-by-case approach allows appropriate decisions to be made
during the development of the GMO, and CSIRO has done this with its
GM field peas." CSIRO is finalising arrangements with the Office of
the Gene Technology Regulator for the disposal of GM field peas
produced during the project.
1. Fact sheet at http://www.csiro.au/GMpeas
2. Transgenic Expression of Bean á-Amylase Inhibitor in Peas Results
in Altered Structure and Immunogenicity
Vanessa E. Prescott, Peter M. Campbell, Andrew Moore, Joerg Mattes,
Marc E. Rothenberg, Paul S. Foster, T. J. V. Higgins, and Simon P.
Hogan JOURNAL OF AGRICULTURAL AND FOOD CHEMISTRY Volume 53, Issue 23
(November 16, 2005) pages 9023 - 9030
Effective Risk Assessment of GM Field Peas
- CSIRO, Australia. http://www.pi.csiro.au/GMpeas/GMpeas.htm
The findings of a risk assessment study emphasise the effectiveness
of case-by-case evaluation of GM plants and the important role
science can play in decision-making around the introduction of GM
Field peas are an important rotation crop for Australian farmers.
Worth 100 million dollars a year, they add nitrogen to the soil and
reduce root disease among following crops. But field peas are
susceptible to the pea weevil Bruchus pisorum, which lays its eggs on
the pea pod. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat their way through
the pod and into the seed, where they develop into adults, leaving a
large hole when they emerge from the pea.
Weevils can reduce yields by up to 30 per cent and any sign of weevil
damage will cause the peas to be downgraded in quality and reduced in
value. Weevil damage also reduces the viability of seeds for the
following season. Crops must be hand-checked for infestation every
three to four days from the start of flowering if pesticides are to
be applied in time to prevent infestation.
Alpha-amylase inhibitor GM peas
CSIRO developed genetically modified field peas using a gene from
beans. Unlike peas, beans are not attacked by pea weevils. Beans
contain a protein that inhibits the activity of alpha-amylase, an
enzyme that helps in digestion of starch. This protein inhibitor,
called alpha-amylase inhibitor, causes the weevils feeding on beans
to starve before they cause any damage.
CSIRO scientists and their collaborators identified the gene that
produces the protective protein. Using gene technology they then
introduced the gene into the pea. Field trials showed the genetically
modified peas were 99.5 per cent resistant to pea weevils. The
CSIRO-developed GM field peas (right) provided 99.5 per cent
protection against the pea weevil Bruchus pisorum.
CSIRO's GM field peas underwent a number of tests during development:
1. Laboratory and glasshouse tests
2. Performance studies in the field
3. Gene flow studies
4. Feeding trials
5. Immune response tests
Results of trials 1 - 4 are already published or submitted for publication.
Immune response study. The bean alpha-amylase inhibitor protein has
been studied extensively over many years and has shown no health risk
to humans or animals. However as part of its risk assessment, CSIRO
asked the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra (JCSMR)
to help examine whether the pea form of the alpha-amylase inhibitor
protein caused an immune reaction in mice.
Mice were fed either beans, non-GM peas or alpha-amylase inhibitor GM
peas twice a week for four weeks. In a separate experiment, the
reaction to the pea alpha-amylase inhibitor protein was compared to
bean alpha-amylase inhibitor protein when administered to the mice
lungs. Mice fed beans did not show evidence of an immune reaction.
Similarly, mice fed non-GM peas did not demonstrate any immune
Mice exposed to alpha-amylase inhibitor GM-peas showed evidence of an
immune response after two weeks, with the response increasing at four
weeks. The reaction in mice was evident by inflammation in the lungs
and increased serum antibody levels. The research also showed that
after eating the GM peas, there was evidence that the pea
alpha-amylase inhibitor protein primed the mice to react to other
Why a response to alpha-amylase inhibitor GM peas? To understand why
the mice reacted to the GM pea alpha-amylase inhibitor, the CSIRO
team analysed and compared the molecular structure of the bean and
pea alpha-amylase inhibitor proteins.
This revealed small mass differences in the two proteins, most likely
to be caused by different protein processing steps in two types of
cell, including one step called glycosylation. These processing steps
play an important role in making certain proteins, and can lead to
variation in a protein's structure. This research shows however, that
these variations can have other effects supporting the need for
case-by-case assessment of GM crops.
Six performance trials were conducted under field conditions between
1996 and 2001. Results showed the alpha-amylase inhibitor GM peas
provided 99.5 per cent protection against the pea weevil with yields
comparable to non-GM field peas. Peas are self pollinating and it is
unlikely gene flow would occur between GM and non-GM peas. However
CSIRO conducted gene flow studies to test this assumption. The
results of the work showed that gene flow did not occur between GM
and non-GM field peas.
CSIRO also examined scientific literature to determine what wildlife
and in particular birds relied on field peas in their diet. It found
little evidence of wildlife eating field peas and provided
information for consideration by the former Genetic Manipulation
Advisory Committee now the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator
The technology developed by CSIRO to genetically modify field peas
with novel genes is a gene transfer system for peas. The system is
now available for use in other research including exploring the
potential to develop protection against agronomically important
diseases of pea.
Given the findings of this research, CSIRO has made the decision to
discontinue work on the alpha-amylase inhibitor GM peas and is
finalising arrangements with the OGTR for the disposal of GM field
peas produced during the project.
Discrediting Bt Technology
- Gurumurti Natarajan, Ph D, greenthumb.at.vsnl.com
The posting by Christopher Preston on 'Australia: Network of
Concerned Farmers Ask Why GM Crops Perform Worse in Drought' reflects
the many similar questions raised on the efficacy of the Bt
technology that has been so successfully adapted in several main
stream crops and put to the test of commercial profitability by
thousands upon thousands farmers across all major agrarian societies.
Even if one were to set aside the wanton mischief perpetrated by the
vested interests that target to discredit this technology, there is a
significant set of concerns expressed by and in the media, which I
like to believe stems more from a lack of adequate understanding. We
have revisited the role and need for those in the know, for example
the scientists, to take on the onerous and unenviable task of sharing
their knowledge with the various stakeholders time and again in this
forum and elsewhere and it is obvious that enough will never have
been done even when we redouble our efforts in this direction; more
on this later.
A case in point is a recent article in the popular media by Gargi
Parsai titled "Bt cotton seeds fail to germinate" (The Hindu,
November 11, 2005) that highlighted 'Up to 75 per cent of the Bt
cotton seeds in 35 per cent of the area sown in parts of Salem and
Namakkal districts of Tamil Nadu is said to have failed to germinate
this season, according to the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee
comprising 20 civil society groups led by the Centre for Sustainable
Agriculture and Greenpeace India.'.
This flawed news report by this journalist underpins the incomplete
understanding and lack of efforts on her part to get to the bottom of
the facts and science behind the technology before rushing off to
file her story, the usual excuses of pressures of deadlines,
competent people unwilling to spare their time to elucidate the
nuances, etc, despite.
I think a fundamental question that begs to be asked and answered is
'What is the Bt Technology designed to achieve?' There seems to be a
myriad of expectations among various cross-sections of the society
that ranges from resisting polyphagous, devouring caterpillars of any
and every kind, to increased yield, less use of toxic insecticidal
sprays, fewer runs of farm machinery to effect these sprays, lesser
exposure of harmful chemicals to farm workers, and therefore reduced
medical costs to these farm workers, long term medical benefits form
the lesser seepage of toxic chemicals in to aquifers beneath
cultivated lands, and so onŠ.
The list stretches to include such long-winding wish lists as the Bt
technology must incorporate unhampered high production even under
drought conditions, besides ensuring high germinability. Those in the
know of things might crease their faces with a smirk and wonder what
has germinability to do with this Bt-technology or for that matter
what has drought resistance? But this kind of a news report is
precisely the much relished cannon fodder for the mischief mongers
and many journos inadvertently are feeding more ammo to such
detractors. Good as it might sound to create a heady cocktail of
"all" desirable features in the same plant, science hasn't gotten
there yet (!) but is surely progressing in the right direction.
I wonder why they have forgotten to include such other desirable
attributes that a corn field planted with Bt-derived seeds must, when
just appropriate, of its own shell off the cob, get cleaned, sorted,
graded, packed and neatly stacked in 50 kg packs at 8 % moisture!
And in the meantime, we will continue to get inundated with such
inane reporting with screaming headlines titled "Bt cotton seeds fail
to germinate" not knowing that the biological pathways for seed
germination are very different from the ones that confer resistance
to the bollworm or drought resistance or a multitude of other
While it is heartening to note that a billionth acre of land was
planted with seeds that incorporates this new technology within a
decade of it becoming available to the free world, there are yet a
billion perhaps more minds that have not come to grips with the
basics of this technology much less the multitude of benefits it
confers. The surest way to scuttle these dangerous symptoms of infant
mortality that is raising its ugly head from different corners of the
globe is to conscientiously set aside time and other resources in
sharing and updating knowledge.
In this we all have a role to play, the industry, the government, the
NGOs, academia and individuals who have experienced personal
successes with the technology, for, the anti-technology lobby is
working overtime on a feverish pitch to spread misinformation and
confusion amidst the ignorant.
Pakistan to Start Importing Indian Cotton
- Economic Times (India), Nov. 21, 2005 http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/
An expected shortfall in cotton production in Pakistan is likely to
see a jump in imports from India by its textile mills this year. "We
expect to start importing cotton from India by next month," Mian
Habib Ullah, director of D.M. Textile Mills Ltd in Rawalpindi, told
In India as part of a 100-member delegation to the first South Asian
Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Business Leaders'
Conclave that ended Nov 18, Ullah said raw Indian cotton was already
being imported by Pakistan. "While Pakistan's demand for raw cotton
has gone up to 16 million bales (of 175 kg each), the production this
year due to erratic rains is expected to be 13 million bales against
15 million bales last year. We are expecting a shortfall of three
million bales," said Habib Ullah.
Unlike Pakistan, India is expecting a bumper cotton crop led in part
by an increase in cultivation of genetically modified cotton and a
rise in the acreage. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has
forecast that India is set to produce another record crop of 19
million bales due to a substantial increase in yield together with a
rise in the cotton area.
Among the leading producers of cotton, India is seen as an emerging
force in the global market as production continues to outpace
domestic demand. "A lot of cotton is already being imported from
India as it is of good quality. At current price levels, importing
Indian cotton is a workable proposition, instead of going to New
Zealand and Australia," said Ullah, who was at one time chairman of
the Pakistan Export Promotion Bureau and has held other government
Scientists Split Over Biotechnology
- Andrea Tognina, Swiss Info, Nov. 21, 2005 http://www.swissinfo.org
Scientists in Switzerland disagree over the benefits and risks of
genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for agriculture. On November
27, it will be up to voters to decide in a referendum whether to
introduce a five-year moratorium on the use of GMOs.
The proposal raises many questions of an ethical, social and economic
nature. But the crux of the matter is still scientific. The problem
arises when the scientists are unable to agree among themselves. And
studies on the topic often arrive at different conclusions.
This was the case with two recent studies on the possibility of a
co-existence in Switzerland between transgenic and traditional crops.
One study, commissioned by environmental group WWF, states that
co-existence is virtually impossible. The other, conducted on behalf
of the federal government, claims the opposite.
Ancient technology. Some of those researchers opposed to the
moratorium are almost surprised at the fears that have arisen over
biotechnology. "Basically, this is just a new stage in a long
process of species selection used in agriculture," said Pierre
Spierer, dean of Geneva University Faculty of Science. "Transgenesis
uses natural genes that are already ending up on our plates, just
recombined in a different way."
Of course, he admits, scientists don't know everything. Doubts about
the effects of biotechnology remain. "But I think we will have to
copy an attitude that is widespread in the US. There, when problems
are identified they are studied. In Europe, we tend to err too much
on the side of caution," Spierer told swissinfo.
Of course, caution is required when major problems arise. "But I
don't know of any epidemic that was caused by GMOs. And in some
countries, transgenic foods have been consumed for over ten years,"
Organic GMOs? "Biotechnology could offer many benefits for Swiss
agriculture," confirmed Wilhelm Gruissem, professor at the Institute
of Plant Sciences at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
"For example, it could help to reduce the quantity of pesticides used
or provide a solution to the problem of excessive use of fertilisers."
"It is mistaken to believe that organic agriculture and GMOs are
mutually exclusive," he observed. In Gruissem's opinion,
biotechnology, if used in agriculture that respects the environment
and that aims to limit the use of chemical products, could even help
to develop the organic sector. "I'm convinced that consumers would
understand. However, we have to be able to explain the benefits of
GMOs. That's why I'm in favour of a dialogue between scientists and
the public rather than imposing bans."
Long-term consequences. "The risks of biotechnology are neither easy
to predict nor to deal with," admitted Daniel Ammann, of the Swiss
working group on gene technology. "There are, however, several
problems that are very familiar and that cannot be ignored."
For example, Ammann mentions the consequences of excessive use of
pesticides in cultivating transgenic plants that are resistant to
herbicides. "In the meantime, many weeds have developed resistance to
These are, of course, only indirect consequences of transgenic crops.
Still more concrete hypotheses on the direct effects of GMOs exist.
"Studies demonstrate the harmful effect of BT corn [which contains a
gene of the bacillus thuringensis] on insects that are useful to
agriculture," Ammann told swissinfo.
Amman points out that very few studies have been conducted on the
health-related consequences of GMOs. "And yet some of these studies,
conducted on rodents, point to serious problems that should be
analysed in greater depth." "The fact is that the effects of GMOs
will only be seen in the long term. This is why, given the current
level of knowledge, we are very critical of the use of GMOs in food,"
Comments of Prof. Tom DeGregori:
Interesting! Here, two scientists are cited in favor of the
technology and one activist with no stated credentials is noted in
opposition. This neatly defines one of our major problems, namely
that large segments of the public in developed countries believe that
the issue is controversial among scientists who are evenly divided on
the issue with those receiving funding from the biotech industry
being in favor.
Is it any wonder that the public is confused and why so many simply
say "why take the chance?" Even worse, some will operate in terms of
the adage, "where there is smoke, there is fire" so there must be
some problem with the technology so why take a needless risk?
We have our work to do to educate journalists and the public.
What on Earth has GM Crops to do with this?
- Western Mail (UK), Nov. 20, 2005 http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/
SIR - Escherichia coli is a normal inhabitant of intestines, ours and
cows'. Their presence in or around food suggests fecal contamination
- and that might mean Salmonella, Shigella and other agents of
serious food poisoning.
The problem is usually poor hygiene after using the toilet but some
might arrive in soil particles on inadequately washed plants
fertilised in the field with animal manure, a practice more common in
so-called "organic" agriculture than others.
What on earth this has to do with GM crops beats me ("Did E. coli
come from GM crops?, November 18th) - they do not have the genes
necessary to produce E. coli inserted into them and it is 150 years
since Pasteur disproved the spontaneous generation of life. But, for
those who want to start scares in support of a variety of political
and commercial agendas, it is as good a story as any with which to
wind up people not too familiar with the realities of agriculture and
food, and the technologies used to produce them.
- V. Moses from London
> Did E.coli come from GM crops?
> Western Mail (UK), Nov. 18, 2005 http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/
> SIR - The decision to close a meat plant, when the E. coli
>infection spread in school children, appears to have been mistaken.
>Have any scientists considered the possibility of E. coli genes
>being present in GM crops used for food? Such crops are pouring into
>this country from Canada, USA, Brazil and Argentina. GM crops have
>genes from numerous viruses and bacteria inserted into them, yet no
>copies of safety research are available when these crops are
>licensed by the EU.
> The European Food Safety Authority grants licences based purely on
>the information presented by the company with a vested interest in
>the product. The genes added rarely come from similar plant species
>but from potentially pathogenic viruses and bacteria. Only a few
>plant genes are involved. Growers of these GM crops have to use
>dangerous chemical sprays. Numerous countries in Europe oppose this
>technology but our Government supports it. Blair's scientific
>adviser has a biotech company.
> The European Court has now made it illegal for any EU country to
>ban GM crops. It appears that that court takes priority over our own
>laws and power. Biotech companies have many lobbyists in the EC. We
>now have an Independent Science Panel which opposes GM crops and
>food. It's time we listened to them. Their research aims at ethics
>and the once recognised precautionary principle, not monetary gain.
> - Jose Macdonald, Penlan Fach, Llangain, Carmarthen
From Green to Gene Revolution, How the Poor Fare
- Prabhu Pingali and Terri Raney, FAO, November 17, 2005. Full
report at ftp://ftp.fao.org/es/ESA/ESAWP05_09.pdf
The past four decades have seen two waves of agricultural technology
development and diffusion to developing countries.
The first wave was initiated by the Green Revolution in which
improved germplasm was made available to developing countries as a
public good through an explicit strategy for technology development
and diffusion. The second wave was generated by the Gene Revolution
in which a global and largely private agricultural research system is
creating improved agricultural technologies that are flowing to
developing countries primarily through market transactions.
Asymmetries between developed and developing countries in research
capacity, market institutions and the commercial viability of
technologies raise doubts regarding the potential of the Gene
Revolution to generate benefits for poor farmers in poor countries.
The Green Revolution was responsible for an extraordinary period of
growth in food crop productivity in the developing world over the
last forty years. Productivity growth has been significant for rice
in Asia, wheat in irrigated and favorable production environments
worldwide and maize in Mesoamerica and selected parts of Africa and
Asia. A combination of high rates of investment in crop research,
infrastructure and market development, and appropriate policy support
fueled this land productivity. These elements of a Green Revolution
strategy improved productivity growth despite increasing land
scarcity and high land values (Pingali and Heisey, 2001).
The transformation of global food production systems defied
conventional wisdom that agricultural technology does not travel well
because it is either agro-climatically specific, as in the case of
biological technology, or sensitive to relative factor prices, as
with mechanical technology (Byerlee and Traxler, 2002).
The Green Revolution strategy for food crop productivity growth was
explicitly based on the premise that, given appropriate institutional
mechanisms, technology spillovers across political and agro-climatic
boundaries can be captured. Hence the Consultative Group on
International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) was established
specifically to generate spillovers particularly for nations that are
unable to capture all the benefits of their research investments.
What happens to the spillover benefits from agri"cultural research
and development in an increasingly global integration of food supply
Over the past decade the locus of agricultural research and
development has shifted dramatically from the public to the private
multinational sector. Three interrelated forces are transforming the
system for supplying improved agricultural technologies to the
* The first is the strengthened and evolving environment for
protecting intellectual property in plant innovations.
* The second is the rapid pace of discovery and growth in importance
of molecular biology and genetic engineering.
* Finally, agricultural input and output trade is becoming more open
in nearly all countries.
These developments have created a powerful new set of incentives for
private research investment, altering the structure of the
public/private agricultural research endeavor, particularly with
respect to crop improvement (Pingali and Traxler, 2002).
Developing countries are facing increasing transactions costs in
access to and use of technologies generated by the multinational
sector. Existing international networks for sharing technologies
across countries and thereby maximizing spillover benefits are
becoming increasingly threatened. The urgent need today is for a
system of technology flows which preserves the incentives for private
sector innovation while at the same time meeting the needs of poor
farmers in the developing world.
For a detailed look into the report, please visit the FAO website
www.fao.org or click on ftp://ftp.fao.org/es/ESA/ESAWP05_09.pdf for a
PDF version of the report.
Making Sense of Science
- Tracey Brown, The Scientist, V.19, Nov. 21, 2005 http://www.the-scientist.com
'Peer review is the missing link for the public'
Lemon juice may help beat AIDS; genetically modified crops will
create superweeds; measles vaccine may be responsible for autism; and
mobile phones can cut male fertility by a third. Such questionable
science claims are part of a familiar litany that outrages scientists
and prompts despairing comments about the sensationalist press and
the outlandish world of science and medicine on the Internet.
Unfortunately for scientists, these kinds of claims reach beyond the
calm rectitude of the scientific literature. Every day, medical
helpline operators, pharmacists, and doctors meet with the
consequences of bad science in the public domain: worried parents,
patients frightened about their treatment, and people taking
ineffective remedies. Take a recent call to the Meningitis
Foundation: Does gargling with lemon juice kill meningococcal
Government representatives also report a rising caseload from
misinformation and hype about alleged scientific findings. The
anxiety and energy expended on campaigns such as those against mobile
phone towers and incinerators are putting a new kind of pressure on
representatives to delve into scientific issues and form judgments.
Good science is essential for putting resources to good effect and
for public health to be effective. But how is good science defined
and how are all these people in the frontline supposed to help the
public to distinguish which claims are scientifically grounded and
which are not?
The discovery of this substantial and growing pressure on frontline
informers and services came about during our work this year with
medical charities, parliamentarians, local pharmacists, schools, and
medical practitioners, to find the language for explaining the
importance of scientific peer review. It was pressure from these
groups that pushed us to turn our "Short Guide to Peer Review" into
"I don't know what to believe..." - an eight-page explanation of how
scientists publish their research results and why that matters.
The aim of the guide, launched this month and available at
[http://www.senseaboutscience.org], is to popularize the quality
checking and rigor that begins to separate scientific work first from
conjecture and then from flawed work. It suggests that the first
question to be asked is "Is it published?" The guide covers the kinds
of things that scientific reviewers look for - validity, significance
and originality - and describes the process of scientific publishing.
It also tells people how to dig a little deeper for evidence that
scientific findings are published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The need to popularize peer review is a drum that we have been
beating for some time in scientific circles, but scientists have been
disinclined to explain peer review. Why? Well, there's certainly a
fear of being seen as naive or of whitewashing a system that is not
fault-proof. What's more, there's an enticing vogue abroad in
professional spheres for demonstrating an awareness of your limits,
perhaps in response to criticism for over-confidence or a fear of
being seen as complacent. More commonly, I suspect, aspects of the
system just seem boring and difficult to explain.
But the preoccupation with the horror stories of peer review among
the scientific community has created a blind spot to the very big
need out there. "Boring" is just wrong - you might find getting
published the more tedious part of your research program, but for
everyone else information about the status of research findings is as
important as the findings themselves. That's the bit of information
that is missing as far as many members of the public are concerned.
In all the workshops, interviews and discussions that have gone into
producing the guide, there has been a wholly positive response to
beginning to make sense of science stories through the prism of
quality checking. The interested public is much more animated about
peer review than most scientists are.
The reaction to the guide has already been overwhelming. The most
common response from people at the interface of society with science
has been that they "didn't quite get it before." Perhaps it is not so
surprising that the public is responsive on this issue. Not only are
they sensitive to their own vulnerability and the vulnerability of
public life to scare stories and hype, they are keen for anything
that gives them an ability to sift what they read. One workshop
participant described knowing about peer review as "empowering,"
generally a phrase I'm inclined to avoid, at a time when every bit of
official paper is designed to empower. But it's truly the case that
once a non-scientist gets a flavor of the process, they start to look
at things with a freshly critical eye. Now that is surely something
that scientists should get excited about.
Tracey Brown (TBrown@senseaboutscience.org) is director of the UK
charity Sense About Science, which promotes evidence in public
debates about science.
Biotechnology and Brazil: Implications and Opportunities for Global Agriculture
March 8 - 9, 2006, São Paulo, Brazil; http://www.agra-net.com/biotech06
Biotechnology and Brazil is the first major international conference
to focus on Brazils recently approved seed legislation and the effect
it will have on the prospects in Brazil itself and around the world.
The Conference is a unique opportunity to meet and discuss
biotechnology issues with people who are actively involved in the
subject. Biotechnology and Brazil will examine the implications of
biotech regarding cost of production of soybeans and future GMO
crops; the positions and policies that Europe has taken with regard
to GMO soybeans, cotton and corn, and consumer concerns surrounding
Our expert speakers will answer the important questions of major
concern to agribusiness:
* What identity preservation practices are currently in place and
what are the cost implications for soybeans and future GMO crops?
* What is current Brazilian policy on intellectual property rights
and current status for charging tech fees?
* What are the barriers and opportunities for GMO crops in animal
feed and how would it impact poultry, beef and pork exports?
* What are Brazilian enterprises developing in the biotech area? How
are they proceeding and what major barriers have they encountered?
The conference will attract a wide range of participants, including
producers of agricultural inputs, grain traders, the food industry,
service sectors related to the agricultural sector,
investors/bankers, farm equipment manufacturers, food retailers,
government agencies and international organisations. Join us in Sao
Paulo for this unrivalled opportunity to debate the issues affecting
you and your industry and network with senior executives from around
Thanksgiving Holiday Dinner Menu
See the menu with all its wonderful ingredients at
"No human diet can be free of naturally occurring chemicals that are
rodent carcinogens. Of the chemicals that people eat, 99.99% are
natural." - Bruce Ames, Ph.D. and Lois Swirsky Gold, Ph.D.University
of California, Berkeley
Profile: Eduardo Kac
- Stephan Herrera, Nature Biotechnology 23, 1331; November 2005;
www.nature.com/nbt . reproduced in AgBioView with the permission of
Neither antibiotech activist nor Dr. Frankenstien, Eduardo Kac is a
writer and artist whose theme is that in biotech, as in all science
and technology, nothing is as good or as bad as it seems.
Is Chicago artist-writer-philosopher Eduardo Kac ahead of his time or
just nuts? In the foreword of his new book1, Art Institute of Chicago
art historian James Elkins makes the case for the former. Elkins
acknowledges, however, that not everybody agrees on this point and
cites the negative critiques of Kac's 1999 Genesis exhibition--where
the artist created a gene capable of encoding a passage from the
Bible. Critic Peter Schjeldahl, for example, said the genetic
mutations in Genesis, which were triggered at random by internet
participants, were not interesting, much less improvements. Genesis
is child's play compared with the rest of Kac's work.
In a 1997 exhibition called A-positive, Kac -- Kac is pronounced like
'cats' -- hooked himself up intravenously to a robot to raise
questions about the increasingly symbiotic relationship between man
and machine. In another exhibit in 1997, Time Capsule, Kac injected
into his own leg a microchip designed for pet identification to
explore the ethical prospect of artificial and implanted memory. In
his 2000 work entitled GFP Bunny-GFP for green fluorescent
protein--he genetically altered the zygote of a rabbit with "a gene
from the Pacific Northwest jellyfish" to produce a pet bunny that
glows when exposed to "certain light waves." Another project of
creating a glowing dog is in preparation.
Provocative stuff. But is it art? And is there really a point to all
of this? To some, Kac's 'art' feels more like creepy amateur science
masquerading as art for its own sake. And it does not come across as
something that might stimulate, much less illuminate, the elusive
'discussion' or 'dialog' between scientists and the public about the
frontiers of biotech. Philosopher, Eleonore Stump of St. Louis
University in Missouri was particularly outraged by Kac's plan--the
"vulgarity and tastelessness" of it all--to insert a jellyfish gene
into a dog embryo to create a dog that glows. To others, Kac and bio
art are the wrong messenger and stand a greater chance of
trivializing these frontiers than illuminating them for a public
increasingly befuddled by biotech.
Kac helped form the bio-art movement in the 1990s back home in
Chicago-he is a professor and chair at the School of the Art
Institute of Chicago-because he believes there most certainly is a
point to it. Other notable bio artists include Hunter O'Reilly of the
University of Wisconsin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's
Joe Davis, Heather Acroyd and Dan Harvey of Dorking, Surrey, UK, and
Gunther Von Hagens, director of the Plastination Center at the State
Medical Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
"I am not philosophically opposed to biotechnology, per se," he says.
"Nor am I trying to create art that will stimulate negative public
sentiments about it. I am simply exploring--and I hope raising
questions about--what is increasingly becoming possible through
genetic engineering, nanotechnology, computers and robots. I don't
pretend to have the answers, but I do think I'm asking the right
But herein lies the problem for not just Kac, but also--whether they
will admit it or not--for those in the field of biotech: at this
point, nearly 30 years into the biotech revolution, the public wants
answers not just more questions. Specifically, the public wants to
know if biotech is good or evil?
As the precautionary principle theorist Ortwin Renn, professor and
chair of environmental sociology at the State University in
Stuttgart, Germany, puts it, the public has reached the point where
the questions about things like the long-term ramifications of stem
cell research and genetic engineering have outpaced the answers by
such a vast number that "Many have made a decision about how to deal
with the growing uncertainty about science," Renn says. "They've
decided it's better to err on the safe side until their fears have
proven beyond doubt to be unfounded."
Yet, ever since it burst onto the global art scene in the 1990s, the
'bio-art' movement has struggled to stimulate the kind of broad and
meaningful public dialog about biotech that brings points like Renn's
to the fore. For whatever reason, scientists aren't paying attention
to the movement. Nor apparently is the target audience for most bio
art artists, the general public, save for those who follow
progressive art. Precious few outside of art critics and post-modern
art aficionados even know bio art exists.
There are those, however, who say that if scientists aren't paying
attention to bio art, or to the big issues that practitioners like
Kac are attempting to ponder, it is not because they don't get it.
They do, says Jim Cortada of the IBM Institute for Business Value in
Madison, Wisconsin. "The scientists get it. They are just now
starting to realize that the world is about to fundamentally change
around them because of biotech. The public, on the other hand, kind
of knows that something big and important is happening; they're just
not sure how it's going to affect them in the future."
But, the point that Kac is trying to make, at least with his
transgenic art, is that our world is not about to change because of
computers and biotech--it already has changed in profound and
demonstrable ways that society needs to fully grasp. "This is where
art can fit in," Kac says. "Art can open up new ways of looking at
the world and ourselves. I do not seek to comment upon things like
how a machine came to beat Kasparov in chess or how genetic
engineering allows scientists to create life-forms that don't exist
He concludes: "Rather, I work with the same media that shape
contemporary culture, creating in a poetic and philosophical context,
new life-forms that don't exist in nature, myself. It's an
intervention to participate in the process of reshaping culture, not
a detached comment on it. All of this is to make the point that the
future is now."