Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org : Dec. 23, 2005
* Germany Starts Sowing GM Seeds
* More on Healthier Soy Oil
* Inspirational Story for the Holidays: Wheat and Civilization
* Hong Kong WTO Riots Meant Nothing to Millions
* The Facts Behind the Science
* Interview with John Krebs
* Social Values and the Governance of Science
* Book on Biotech released in India
* New Book - Let Them Eat Precaution
* Here Come the Bio-Vikings!
* Beer Brewing Paralleled the Rise of Civilization
Germany Starts Sowing GM Seeds
- Deutsche Welle, Dec. 22, 2005 http://www.dw-world.de/
In a sharp departure from existing policy, Germany's new agriculture minister is promoting genetically modified technology instead of organic farming. Now, the first three types of GM corn have received approval.
Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred, which produce the three types of newly approved MON 810 seed for general use and sale by German farmers, hailed the decision as a break from the ideological agriculture policy propagated by former agriculture minister and Green party member Renate Künast.
"The seeds have been stuck in the system for a while," said Heinz Degenhardt of Pioneer Hi-Bred. "The regular approval process could have actually been finished a long time ago, if it was not slowed down for political reasons."
Künast's department blocked approval for the seeds -- which produce bacteria to kill corn pests found in parts of Germany while remaining safe for humans -- on
several occasions and encouraged organic farming methods instead. While new Agriculture and Consumer Minister Horst Seehofer told the Berliner Zeitung, "we want to promote modified foods," a ministry spokeswoman would only confirm that the policies were being examined.
However, many in the GM industry expect a number of changes to be made under Germany's new grand coalition government, with the conservative Christian Social Union's Seehofer at the head of the Agriculture Ministry. "We are naturally expecting other political changes," Monsanto's Andreas Thierfelder said. "We are hoping the new government does what it said it would do and change the genetic engineering law."
GM crop producers said they hope changes to the law will give GM products the same status as non-modified products. Current practice "discriminates against those who use genetic technology" and keeps them from using new techniques to increase their harvests by calling for an increase in organic farming, according to Thierfelder.
A question of coexistence "The conventional and genetically modified crop import market already shows that coexistence is possible in Germany," he added. "The cultivation of genetically modified crops puts greater demands on coexistence since it deals with relatively smaller particles, but coexistence is possible on farms."
But GM opponents don't agree. Peter Röhrig of the Ecological Food Industry Federation, on the other hand, said there are a number of factors that prevent coexistence from being a practical solution, and that it is consumers opposed to GM products who pay the price. "Right now the people who do not want to eat genetically modified food end up paying for the existence of genetically modified food by covering all the separation costs," he said.
Some crops, like rapeseed, produce pollen that are able to fly far enough to make a non-GM harvest impossible, while even other GM crops, such as sugar beets, which don't produce seeds in fields, require special transportation and handling, making it difficult and costly to meet stringent requirements placed on organic food, Röhrig said.
More GM crops to come. While both sides quote from studies about the danger or safety of GM crops, Pioneer Hi-Bred's Degenhardt said he expects more of them to be officially approved for use in Germany.
"The German Federal Office of Plant Varieties approves between 15 and 20 types of corn each year for cultivation in Germany," Pioneer's Degenhardt said. "In the future there will also be approvals for genetically modified types, and that will become normal."
More on Healthier Soy Oil
- Wayne Parrott, wparrott.at.uga.edu>
Several clarifications are warranted here.
1) The bean in question is a low linolenic acid soybean. The NZ article variously refers to it as linoleic, linoelic, and linolenic.
2) The low level of linolenic acid in soybean was not achieved via transgenics, but rather, is the result of conventional breeding. Had GE Free NZ known that up front, they could have saved themselves their apoplectic fit.
3) Linolenic acid is indeed a type of omega 3 fatty acid. I have heard it say that soybean oil is the chief source of omega-3 fatty acids in the US diet-- above fish oil.
4) Historically, hydrogenation has been used to increase the oxidative stability and melting temperature of fats. Hydrogenating soybean oil meant it was no longer an omega 3 oil. Furthermore, hydrogenation produces transfats.
5) Once soybean oil has been hydrogenated, it does not contribute to omega-3's in the diet, so substituting hydrogenated oil for low lin oil should have no effect on dietary intake.
6) The NZ article states that "Under food regulations most GE-derived oils do not have to be labelled by manufacturers." The key word in the sentence is "most". As long as the oil itself is not altered (eg, oil taken from a RR bean or a BT cotton), it need not be labeled in the US. This does not hold if the oil composition is altered-- eg, high oleic oil is sold as such, regardless of whether it was derived from traditional or nontraditional means.
>Kellogg and the New Healthy Soybean Oil
>- Owen McShane, omcshanea.twk.planet.gen.nz, Centre for Resource Management Studies, NZ http://www.RMAStudies.org.nz
>See the press release from GE Free New Zealand re the new Soya Oil from Monsanto at http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/BU0512/S00247.htm
>Greens seem to think that linoleic acid is the same as Omega 3. But they have never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Inspirational Story for the Holidays: Wheat and Civilization
- Ronald Bailey, Reason Magazine's Hit and Run, December 21, 2005
The Economist has published a superb article that neatly encompasses the history of wheat, the development of fertilizer, the Green Revolution, genetic modification, and the end of human population growth. Fun facts:
(1) Wheat is an ancient cross between 3 different grasses producing a triploid genetic "monster," the genome of which contains a massive 16 billion base pairs of DNA, 40 times as much as rice, six times as much as maize and five times as much as people.
(2) Half of all of the nitrogen molecules in all people alive today are derived from artificial ammonia fertilizer.
(3) Virtually every variety of wheat and barley you see growing in the field was produced by "mutation breeding" in which plant scientists bombard food plants with radiation and chemicals to produce mutations that are then crossbred back into commercial varieties.
(4) Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, has saved more human lives than any other person in all of human history.
(5) Human beings, unlike any other animals, do not automatically turn more food into more offspring. In fact, fertility rates are lowest where food security is highest.
Links and Reader responses at
Hong Kong WTO Riots Meant Nothing to Millions
- Thingfish, NETnewsASIA Thursday, 22 December 2005. Full story at http://www.netnewsasia.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=73&Itemid=67
While millions watched anti-WTO rioters close down Hong Kong last week, a survey was released that puts the disturbances into perspective. But amidst the chaotic scenes of violent assaults, pepper spray and fat farmers diving into the harbour, the survey was universally overlooked.
Researchers from the World Association for Public Opinion Research (WAPOR) and the University of Hong Kong, spoke to people in ten countries, and found that, contrary to the protesters claims, the masses rather approve of the WTO.
While many were not actually aware that their countries were members of the WTO, the overwhelming majority felt the organisation sounded like a pretty good idea. The Philippines was a slight exception, because 61 per cent of Filipinos admitted they'd never even heard of the WTO.
With such a high approval rating and so disinterested a public, it begs the question; what were all the protests for? What are they against?
News reports put the number of pressure groups in Hong Kong at around 400. That's a lot of noise for one conference. But so it should be: There were probably 400 different campaigns being waged.
Greenpeace were there, demanding cuts in electronic waste. Good argument, wrong forum. Filipino agitators insisted on turning the WTO demonstrations into yet another anti Gloria march. They didn't just choose the wrong forum, they chose the wrong country. Gloria was in Malaysia last week.
The Southeast Asian Fish for Justice Network (another Filipino protest group) lead a "Fisherfolks Rally & Women Peasants March". "In Southeast Asia, artisnal [sic] fisheries contribute to domestic food security" said the marchers. Yeah, right. This from an industry that has devastated 95 percent of its country's coral with cyanide and dynamite fishing.
The Uni Global Union campaigned for "global solidarity action, global policy development and research and global representation" among other things. They must have been popular among their anti-globalist neighbours.
Some groups were protesting against genetically modified food, others were demanding control over 'genetic resources'. While the two sides don't talk about it and some seem completely muddled by it, the difference between them is as wide as the gap between creationists and Darwinians: One group wants to ban anything that's genetically modified, the other wants free access to it.
The Koreans. It was the South Korean Farmers who really stole the show. And while the crux of their argument was that Korean consumers should pay more for their rice, the farmers had a whole bunch of problems to shout about. Take the Korean People's Action Against FTA and WTO. Their abbreviated name ought to be KPAAFW, but that's not easy to pronounce, so they went for KOPA. The Korean People's Action Against.
The crux of Kopa's campaign last week was "Food is Not for Sale!" Well, actually, it is. And it always has been. Farmers don't take their food to market just to give it away. Especially not in Korea.
The farmers are angry because the WTO wants them to let farmers from neighbouring towns sell their food in the market as well. And that would give the people trying to buy the food (Korean consumers) a choice. While they were at it, Kopa also demanded governments take over the supply of water and electricity. Something that's been tried by pretty much everyone at some point, and that nobody has ever succeeded at. The group hogging the media spotlight with their harbour swimming and violent assaults on the police lines was the Korean Peasants League.
A couple of messages from their banners: "U.S., which is the front-runner of WTO, brought war to monopolize the oil. We must protect the Earth from being devastated by neoliberalism through the regulation to the company which emit the endocrine disruptor." If you can find a logical argument in that stream of consciousness rant, I'll buy you a bag of Korean rice. "NO open rice market! Agriculture is not goods".
True, but agriculture produces goods. And an open rice market means cheaper food: Good news for hungry people. The Koreans' message was clear as day: Screw the urban poor, protect rich farmers.
"We want food sovereignty! Food is our right!"
Along with Down Down WTO! One of the big phrases of the week was 'food sovereignty'. There's more than a dollop of hypocrisy in this fanciful but meaningless expression.
The term was coined by Via Campesina, a pressure group fronted by Asterix impersonator Jose Bove. The aim was to defend the right of French farmers to receive massive subsidies from the British taxpayer and to protect their market from cheap foreign food.
In Europe, it's also known as the Common Agricultural Policy -- something that many WTO protesters were complaining about last week.
Food sovereignty locks developing nations out of wealthy markets. It sustains redundant industries with money that would be better spent on education and research, while stifling the growth of third world agriculture. It forces the poor to go to bed hungry at night.
Neoimperial global actors
Most of last week's protestors spoke with the vocabulary of 1970's revolutionaries. They might convince Maoist rebels in Peru or Nepal, but lengthy tracts defending "the working class, the peasantry and the urban petty bourgeoisie" against "neoimperial global actors" just don't appeal to the modern voter. Even if you use lots! And lots! Of exclamation marks!
Some of these guerrilla types were bona fide 1970's revolutionaries. The National Democratic Front counts among its members the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People's Army - a group branded as Maoist terrorists by pretty much everyone except for the National Democratic Front.
Incentivise global facilitization or something
Many more protesters spoke in the muddled doublespeak of the politically right-on: "people-centred, pro-women development", "deconstruct globalization and facilitate social transformation" or "we mobilize to exacerbate its internal contradictions".
And everyone (except maybe the Koreans), jostled to speak up for the fisherfolk.
I love the term 'fisherfolk'. For decades, great figures like Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S Thompson and "erm" George Clooney have hyped up fishing into one of those ultimate man-against-the-elements challenges. But in one word, 'fisherfolk' relegates them all into hobbits.
But that's how many western anti-capitalists like to regard the developing world: Quaint little shire folk with their authentic traditions that must be preserved for the next generation of quaint little poor people. It's hardly surprising that nobody knows or cares about the WTO when its opposition is so completely deranged.
Learn from Lord Geldorf of Boomtown. If anyone conducted a survey in July, they'd have found few people who actually knew what the G8 was. But they'd have found plenty who knew what Bob Geldof was complaining about.
At least the G8 protestors had a single, simple message: Drop the Debt. And it's working. As a result of massive grassroots campaigning, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund agreed to write off US$55bn in third world debt. As many of the anti-WTO protestors were also G8 veterans, you might think they'd have learned a lesson from July. But they didn't.
The closest thing these protests had to a unifying call to action was "Derail, Dismantle, Destroy" . But that's no message. Denouncing globalisation and branding the World Trade Organization as its evil mastermind is counts for nothing in an age of global aspiration. It won't cause anyone to change their vote, to buy local instead of foreign, expensive over cheap, to write to their lawmakers or to stop buying Sony.
And it won't cause a single government to change its trade policies.
Demanding an end to globalisation is like demanding an end to evolution. It's been going on for thousands of years, and it's not going to end on account of a few self-interested farmers, idealistic students, ageing communists or professional militants.
The Facts Behind the Science
- Karlin Lillington The Irish Times December 20, 2005
'Antagonism towards science is very damaging to science itself, but it is also very damaging to the public's health.'
Why do so many people opt for herbal pills rather than see their doctor? Avoid immunising their children? Run from genetically modified foods?
"Science anxiety," explains Dr David McConnell, professor of genetics at Trinity College. McConnell, who recently delivered the prestigious Littleton Lecture at RTÉ - to be broadcast on St Stephen's Day by RTÉ Radio 1 - argues passionately on behalf of science and its wonders in the lecture, while considering the prickly relationship between science and the public, which he feels directly affects our health and well-being.
Relaxing on a sunny winter morning in his book-filled Blackrock home, he laments: "You have the public very wary and even antagonistic towards science. This is very damaging to science but in the longer run, it is very damaging to the public." He notes that more and more credence is given, often through extensive media coverage, to fears that stem from unproven claims or questionable "studies" published in nondescript journals.
Overwhelming medical evidence and study after controlled study have disproven any connection between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism, he says, yet parents remain more fearful of the vaccine than the serious, even fatal, childhood illnesses it prevents.
Likewise, genetically modified (GM) foods have been rigorously tested for over 30 years and have been proven to be safe, yet the public remains wary of them. "Even though all our foods are genetically modified," he says. "All domesticated grains for example result from centuries of genetic control and modification."
And don't even get him started on the current US administration's acceptance and even promotion of "intelligent design" rather than Darwin's theory of evolution. "That has the same status as disputing the 'theory' that the earth is round."
Where does such scepticism towards science, and openness to the untested, unproven and unverified come from? "We in science have to take part of the blame."
Scientists are not the best communicators, and also so involved with their own work and worlds that they forget the public doesn't necessarily accept what they see as undisputed fact, he says. "And there are people who take advantage of public concerns, scientists who touch a raw nerve and suddenly, they are celebrities. The press is in a difficult position because, like the public, they often can't tell if these ideas are right or not right."
But the real core of the problem is a public that doesn't really understand science and the scientific method, the slow process of verifying observations in controlled circumstances and then testing and retesting to reproduce the same results.
In his Littleton lecture, McConnell takes his theme from the writer Isaiah Berlin, who described the advance of science and technology as "the greatest success story of our time". The reason for their success, says McConnell, is the scientific method. "If people knew more about the scientific method and how science is done, they'd have more confidence in science and know better how to distinguish between good science and bad science," he argues.
So many of our health and environmental concerns - SARS, incinerators, vaccines, GM food, nuclear power, global warming - are actually scientific concerns and need to be viewed in the context of scientific study and validation, he says.
This means looking at studies that have been done and understanding the rigour to which they are subject, which should bring reassurance to the public. Scientists need to publish their findings for them to gain credence, and once published, they are subject to even further scrutiny. "Through publishing, ultimately, you are exposing your ideas, just like a poet or a composer. But everyone judges the accuracy of your ideas, whereas you don't judge the accuracy of a sonata," he says.
Yet too often, the public doubt the scientific studies and opt for what may sound like proper studies or informed critics, but actually aren't. But why? He muses and answers: "Over the last 50 years, people have been taught to think for themselves. But in science, not all opinions are equal. Again, the press has a huge role in this. It comes back to the responsibility of the press to mediate between scientists and the public."
Genetic engineering, which consistently gets a bad press, is an example of what can go wrong. "Genetic engineering has revolutionised medicine, agriculture, forensic science. For example, we were running out of insulin, then suddenly, we could produce insulin from yeast." He also mentions rennet, a necessary ingredient to form cheese, and which originally came from the fourth stomach of a freshly slaughtered calf. "Most cheese in the world is now made with genetically modified rennet, produced from bacteria, not calves. Most people do not even realise they eat GM foods daily in this way. There's no other area of science with a cleaner record. Yet vast numbers of people are deeply suspicious."
Perhaps the public finds some aspects of genetic modification scary - the so-called "frankenfoods" aspect of placing, say, a fish gene into a tomato. "I don't find them scary! I have no problem because a fish gene in my tomato enables them to survive frosts, because fish are able to continue to function in low water temperatures without their blood freezing. "I am not afraid, because I know that everything is related on the planet by descent already. That is what the theory of evolution makes clear."
The problem is the public is now totally disconnected from the general ideas of science, he says. "We need the help of the general public [ through education and the media] - there needs to be a meeting of minds. And we, as scientists, need to be more clever about bringing science to the public."
As an example of media disinterest in science, he wonders why you hear a slogan like "RTÉ supporting the arts" and not "RTÉ supporting the sciences". "Why is it that science is not an integral part of our culture?" he asks. "What I'd like to see is day in, day out coverage of science." For an example of what broad TV coverage can do, he points towards environmental science, which he thinks draws great public interest and has heightened awareness because of years of popular nature programmes on television.
And in education, he'd like a stronger core curriculum, solid in the sciences as well as the arts, that gives both depth and breadth to students through Leaving Certificate level, allowing students to focus on their career interest at third level.
The end result might one day be what this prolific scientist and writer wished for in a past essay: "That is my touchstone - that science will be as much part of our culture as are the humanities."
Dr David McConnell is professor of genetics at TCD; Fellow of TCD and Harvard University, and chairman of the Irish Times Trust.
Interview with John Krebs
- Alun Anderso, PROSPECT (UK), Dec. 22, 2005. Excerpts below...Full interview at
The scientist who steered the Food Standards Agency through a turbulent five years on the role of experts in a hyperdemocratic age, openness in public life, and what the state can do to prevent obesity......
Alun Anderson: The FSA was launched amid deep public distrust in the government and its experts. What had gone so badly wrong?
John Krebs: Several things. One was a perceived conflict between the role of the ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food (Maff) in supporting the food and farming industry and its role in protecting the interests of consumers. There was also too much secrecy and too many decisions made to save political skins rather than to protect the public. The prime minister wanted a fresh start with a clear emphasis on consumer protection, transparency and openness. As for me, I wanted honesty about scientific evidence and what it can or cannot tell us. Scientific experts had not come out of BSE too well. They had allowed the statement that "the risk is remote" to be interpreted as "British beef is absolutely safe."
AA: Openness and transparency is one thing. But there are still scientific experts on one side of the table and the public on the other. And we are living in a time when the public and pressure groups demand ever more that their voices be heard. You provoked much anger from the organic movement when you told them in 2000 that people are "not getting value for money... if they think they are buying food with extra nutritional quality or extra safety" by buying organic. There was a feeling that you were going against the consumer despite your commitment to make the FSA the "champion of the consumer."
JK: The organic issue is complex and has lessons for the relationship between experts and the public. We did learn that we needed to hold some very public meetings right at the beginning of a policy discussion, even before we had really developed our own thoughts. We needed to say: here is something we are thinking about over the next year or so, we want your views now, and as the story develops let's repeatedly engage with the public and the media.
The organic debate took place early in the life of the agency and I think there was a flaw in our process. We just made an ex cathedra statement based on an expert review of the literature. We could have managed it better, but I don't think the outcome would have been different because the scientific evidence does not show that organic food is healthier. It may be better for the environment, but there is no evidence it is better for health.
The deeper question is about what it means to represent the interests of the consumer. What does it mean to talk about "the public" when there are so many different publics? Figures show, for instance, that only about 5 per cent of shoppers mostly or regularly buy organic food. Price is the main criterion for the vast majority of consumers, which is why supermarkets compete so heavily in this area. Should we just stick up for this majority? Other groups insist we should consume only local food-English carrots, turnips and parsnips in the winter rather than Kenyan green beans or Spanish tomatoes.
There are many different constituencies out there. When you ask the public, the people who are most likely to come forward are, of course, the interest groups. But we can't do what a certain group wants us to do. We have to be objective about the evidence and take an independent view, but in a transparent way that allows public involvement.
AA: I get a little confused here, because although I accept that organic food is not proven to be better for my health, there is evidence, as you say, that it may help the environment. But the FSA is only supposed to comment on health issues, not the environment.
JK: It is the same issue with GM foods. If you ask if GM soya is riskier to human health than non-GM, the answer, as far as we can tell from the evidence, is no, but it doesn't say anything about any environmental impacts that GM might have. Many people probably don't naturally distinguish between "is it safe for my kids?" and "is it safe for butterflies?" But I always tried to be clear that the FSA talks only about human health. This distinction is a feature of the way government is divided up. I guess it comes down to the old mantra of joined-up government. (In my experience, a lot of effort on the part of civil servants goes into actually preventing, or certainly not working for, joined-up government.) The worries we encountered in 2004 about eating farmed salmon were similar, because many people linked worries about the environmental impacts of fish farming with concerns over the human health implications.
AA: Concerns over whether farmed salmon contained dangerous levels of dioxins were compounded because experts themselves could not agree on the risks. So there was yet another level of uncertainty for the public to digest.
JK: It seems a complicated message to get across when the scientific experts disagree, but actually it is not much different from a typical pub conversation on football. Someone might ask, "Are Chelsea going to win next Saturday?" and there will be a weight of evidence that says they will, but someone else might reply that Wigan could just beat them. People can cope with this. They do it all the time. It is about understanding that life is not risk-free, that there are probabilities, and that you have to make judgements based on the weight of evidence.
AA: In a hyperdemocratic age, will experts sink in a sea of conflicting voices where each opinion is equal?
JK: Experts will continue to play a central role. Scientific knowledge is distinct from other kinds of expert knowledge in being both cumulative and open to test. It should and will continue to be central in underpinning policy. The challenge in an age of hyperdemocracy is to blend expert advice (with all the limitations of uncertainty) into participatory decision-making. This includes equipping lay people with the ability to handle expert advice: if citizens are to fully exercise their democratic rights, basic science is as much a life skill as opening a bank account. That does not mean everybody should become a scientist, but rather that people should understand that science is not a set of ineluctable facts but a way of finding things out. People need to know how to deal with information, what to do when different kinds of evidence are quoted, examine where and how evidence comes from, and not to react with shock and horror when there are disagreements.
Life may have been simpler in the past when the authority of the expert was automatically respected. The zeitgeist is now much more questioning. So it is harder for people to know what to do in a time of many conflicting voices. If you knew whom you could trust, or whether you could trust anyone, that would help. Creating trust between experts and the public is not that different, in my view, from creating trust in any other kind of relationship. A lot of it is about building a track record, not claiming you have a complete answer when you don't, and making sure that you are telling it straight. In the past, experts often made the mistake of overclaiming for their knowledge. The future must be different.
Social Values and the Governance of Science
- George Gaskell et al., Science v.310. p1908; Dec. 23, 2005. Excerpts below..
In recognition of the tensions between science and society, and as research increasingly enters value-laden areas, proposals have been made for scientists to engage with other communities on the ethical, legal, and social implications of science and technology and for the "public voice" to be brought into the formative stages of decision-making. Such measures, it is argued, should result in socially viable paths for scientific innovation.
As a contribution to this debate, we present findings from representative and comparable social surveys (4) in the United States (n = 1200), Canada (n = 2000), and the European Union (n = 25,000) on who the public thinks should make decisions on science policy and what criteria should guide such decisions. We then investigate how positions on science policy relate to people's opinions about the utility and regulation of technological innovation.
Survey respondents were asked two forced-choice questions. First, should decisions about technology be left to the experts or based on the views of the public? Second, should decisions be made on the basis of scientific evidence or on moral and ethical considerations? Clearly, forcing a choice between the pairs of options precluded a middle way. But we wanted to find out in whom and in what type of evidence the public had most confidence. The responses to these questions allowed us to divide the public into four "groups" reflecting different principles of governance: scientific elitists opted for decisions taken on expert advice based on scientific evidence; moral elitists opted for decisions taken on expert advice based on moral and ethical criteria; scientific populists opted for decisions based on average citizen's views of the scientific evidence; and, moral populists opted for decisions based on the average citizen's views of the moral and ethical issues.
The distribution of people in the United States, Canada, and Europe who opted for each principle of governance is shown in the table. The scientific elitists were the largest group in the United States, Canada, and Europe (54, 49, and 52% respectively). Overall, two-thirds opted for a scientific basis to decision-making and just under three-quarters wanted experts to be in the driving seat. This can be read as a vote of confidence in "sound science." But is it a ringing endorsement? Just over a third of respondents valued moral and ethical considerations over scientific evidence; one-quarter of respondents preferred the public over experts in decision-making.
A transatlantic divide was also apparent. The mean difference in optimism between scientific elitists and moral populists for the three technologies was greater for the United States (26%) and Canada (20%) than for Europe (9%). By implication, disagreements about the value implications of these technologies were stronger in North America than in Europe.
But is this plausible given the continued political conflict in Europe over the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops and food? [HN4] We think so, and have argued as such elsewhere (5). The survey question asked about "biotechnology" not GM. Since the de facto moratorium on GM crops was introduced in Europe in 1999, media coverage across Europe on the issue has declined (6) and the continued discussions in Brussels (including an unofficial lifting of the moratorium in 2004) have gone largely unnoticed by the public. Europeans have become more positive about biotechnology (4), seemingly associating it with the human genome project and medical applications, rather than agriculture and food biotechnologies.
What are the implications of the principles of governance for people's views on regulation? Both GM food and stem cell research have stoked controversies about risks and benefits, moral and ethical issues, public consultation, and regulation. To determine how the different groups viewed the regulation of these technologies, respondents were given a brief description of stem cell research and GM food, and asked to choose one of the following alternatives: approve, approve with tight control and regulation, approve only in special cases, and not approve in any circumstances. For this analysis, we combined the first two of these response alternatives, because few chose unqualified approval, and the first two approximated current regulations.
Among the United States, Canada, and Europe, we found a relatively consistent pattern of response for stem cell research and GM food when comparing the scientific elitists and the moral populists. The former were more likely to approve the applications than the latter. But even given tight regulation and control, Europe's scientific elitists were less likely to support the two applications than the same groups in the United States or Canada.
In the last column of the table, we show a "controversy index," which is the ratio of approval offered by the scientific elitists and the moral populists. As this index increases, it is more probable that the technology is controversial or likely to be so. On this criterion, stem cell research was more controversial than GM food, and for both technologies, the United States had the highest score.
For stem cell research, in both the United States and Canada, it seems that being critical of the reliance on scientific evidence (moral elitists) reduced the extent of support far less than being critical of the reliance on experts (scientific populists). For GM food, being critical of either scientific evidence or of experts appeared to have a similar impact in terms of declining support. By contrast, in Europe, moral elitism was associated with a greater decline in approval than scientific populism for both stem cell research and GM food. The perceived absence of moral and ethical considerations in decision-making seems to be a greater concern in Europe than the absence of public participation. In summary, among the critics of sound science, it appears that in the United States and Canada, it is who decides rather than on what basis that is most important, while in Europe, it is the reverse--the grounds are more important than who makes the decision.
In summary, we found a majority in favor of current science policy, with this group seeing more utility in technology and more likely to approve technologies within current regulations. We also found a minority in favor of ethically informed decision-making and public engagement in science, with less positive views about technology, in particular emerging and controversial technologies.
What are the implications for science policy? Some might argue that because current policy achieved majority support, the status quo should prevail. But such an approach might be shortsighted for the following reasons.
First, there is the risk of alienating the more moderate sections of the minority, whose position finds support in influential journals, including Science. A positive response to their desire for greater involvement and more consideration of the moral and ethical issues may make a significant contribution to building trust in science policy.
Second, people ask: "What sort of society do we want, and how can new technology help in achieving it?" These are questions about ethics and social values; science alone cannot answer them. The public expect and want science and technology to solve problems, but they also want a say in deciding which problems are worth solving. This is not a matter of attracting public support for an agenda already established by science and scientists, but rather of seeing the public as participants in science policy with whom a shared vision of socially viable science and technological innovation can be achieved.
Book on Biotechnology in India released
A book empirically based on examination of Agricultural Biotechnology in India was released here today by the Centre for Public Policy of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIMB).
The book entitled 'Science, Agriculture and the Politics of Policy' examined the intersections of globalisation, technology and politics with a focus on Bangalore and Karnataka, a part of India which has seen a massive growth in biotech enterprises. It also dealt with experimentation with GM cotton and a contested policy debate about the role Biotechnology should play in economic development.
The book written by Prof Ian Scoones of the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Sussex, asks what does this new suite of technologies mean - for society, for politics and for the way agriculture, food and rural livelihoods were thought about? Could Biotech deliver a second Green Revolution, and so transform agriculture and rescue the countryside and its people from crisis and poverty? Or was it more complex than this? Through a detailed case study, the book aimed to discuss, question and refine these broader debates, locating an understanding of Biotechnology firmly within an understanding of society and politics.
Prof Scoones was an agricultural ecologist by training whose research has focused on the intersections between science, policy and local knowledge in the context of development.
Commenting on the book noted Agricultural scientist and Chairman of National Commission on Farmers Prof M S Swaminathan said the release of book was timely as the country was currently engaged in preparing a national Biotech policy. It showed the way how advances in Biotechnology, particularly in genetic engineering, could be mobilised for public good without associated ecological, economic and social harm.
Let Them Eat Precaution
- AEI Online (Washington); Publication Date: January 25, 2006
"Let Them Eat Precaution: How Politics Is Undermining the Genetic Revolution in Agriculture
- Edited by Jon Entine, AEI Press, 2006, $25"
More than one million of the world’s poorest children die each year from a lack of Vitamin A. Another 100 million children suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, which increases the risk of blindness, infections, and diseases such as measles and malaria. Yet a revolutionary solution to this malignant crisis--a vitamin-enhanced rice--remains unutilized, the victim of anti-science advocacy groups.
The sad fate of Golden Rice, the genetically modified version of the world’s most popular staple, is one of many revelations in Let Them Eat Precaution: How Politics Is Undermining the Genetic Revolution in Agriculture (AEI Press, January 2006). Bioengineering has created new kinds of soybeans, wheat, and cotton that generate natural insecticides (making them more resistant to pests and drought and increasing yields); nutrition-added fruits, vegetables, and grains; and futuristic "farmaceuticals"--life-saving medicines made by melding agricultural methods with advanced biotechnology. Countless scientific studies have found that biotech farming can dramatically reduce reliance on costly and environmentally harmful chemicals, and the products that result are safe and healthy.
Editor Jon Entine, along with ten experts from the United States and Great Britain, explain why cultural politics and trade disputes, not science, pose the biggest hurdles in developing these products. Instead of meeting the desperate needs of the world’s poor with new medicines and vitamin-fortified crops, anti-biotech campaigners offer liberal doses of the "precautionary principle"--the controversial notion that innovation should be shelved unless all risks can be avoided. Well-funded environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth; organic advocates; religious groups such as Christian Aid; and "socially responsible" investors exploit anxiety about science, caricaturing genetic technology as inherently unpredictable and a "genetic Godzilla" that could usher in an age of "Frankenfoods."
Among the other findings in Let Them Eat Precaution:
* Some 40,000 people--half of them children--die every day from hunger or malnutrition-related causes that genetically modified products could alleviate.
* International advocacy groups have intimidated the Zambian and Zimbabwean governments into rejecting donations of bioengineered grain that would have helped feed the 10.1 million undernourished people in those two countries.
* Biopharmaceuticals such as potatoes transformed into edible vaccines against diarrhea--a leading cause of death in the developing world--and tobacco modified to fight dental cavities, the common cold, and diabetes are caught in a regulatory jungle.
* Anti-biotechnology groups funded by tax-exempt foundations, the social investment community, and the organic and natural products industry masterfully exploit the Internet to spread their message.
* The misinformation campaign has turned one of the founders of Greenpeace into a determined spokesperson for the promise of biotech farming and farmaceuticals.
The anti-biotech industry’s admonition of "Don’t tamper with nature" may be superficially seductive, but a blanket rule that nature’s course is always preferable to scientific innovation is a prescription for paralysis. The authors of Let Them Eat Precaution believe that proponents of biotechnology must reorient their strategy to address the political, social, moral, and economic arguments raised by biotech opponents, rather than relying simply on the scientific evidence. While not a universal panacea, genetically modified technology offers a unique opportunity to address international health and nutrition needs, especially in countries with increasing populations, widespread poverty, and limited funds for expensive and environmentally harmful chemical pesticides.
Media Inquiries: Veronique Rodman, American Enterprise Institute, 1150 Seventeenth Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20036, Phone: 202-862-4871, Fax: 202-862-717, E-mail: VRodman.at.aei.org
Here Come the Bio-Vikings!
- Waldemar Ingdahl, TCS, Dec 20, 2005. Full story at http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=121905D
A new Swedish scientific expedition will invite accusations of biopiracy -- using and patenting genetic or biological resources without the consent of the country of origin -- from some environmentalists. But this group of would-be biovikings could prove as beneficial to our modern world, by forcing us to resolve an important issue, as were their Viking forebears with their exploring and trading.
The Swedish expedition calls attention to a very serious threat to further scientific progress: the damaging consequences for biotechnical, agricultural and pharmaceutical research resulting from the current stalemate in the international negotiations on genetic resources.
When this debate began in the 1970s with a worry over the loss of genetic diversity in agriculture, few had anticipated the development of biotechnology. That led to the gradual acceptance in the international community of farmers’ rights, namely that farmers and rural communities -- because of their traditional development, preservation, and knowledge of crops -- should be recognized in their rights to the materials. As this was often linked to demands for government-backed redistribution of agricultural land to small farmers, the fact that many of the areas where our domesticated plants originate are situated in the southern hemisphere, and that countries in the southern hemisphere possess the greatest biodiversity in the world, there was a lot of agreement that the interests’ of farmers in developing nations would be best served by strictly limiting access to genetic materials.
To enable and preserve the access, conservation and utilization of genetic resources there should be a commitment to a multilateral system, including the highly politicized issue of maintaining gene banks for future use. This would benefit the people of developing nations, as the present situation is not favorable to them either; they cannot gain the full benefits of their resources.
Hopefully, when the Götheborg enters the port of Recife at New Year it will spark this much needed debate.
Beer Brewing Paralleled the Rise of Civilization
- Kurt Stoppkotte, National Geographic News, April 24, 2001
Full story at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/04/0424_kurtbeer.html
Malting, mashing, boiling, and fermenting … the basic process of brewing beer has remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years.
Michael Jackson, author of the World Guide to Beer, says the relatively simple process of converting grain into a palatable substance--or "liquid bread"--is at least as old as civilization. "There is a perfectly respectable academic theory that civilization began with beer," he noted.
"There is pretty strong evidence that after the first sampling of fermented beverages, man realized he had to end his nomadic life and settle down to grow grains and to continue to produce the beer," Alexander surmised.