Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - May 9, 2006
* Tragedy of Delaying the Golden Rice
* Golden Rice and Beyond – The Power of Biofortification
* Australia: Pressure on State with Salt-beating GM Crop
* Researchers Cultivate Plants to Root Out Landmines
* Modified Cotton Cuts Pesticide Use
* Four Plant Scientists Elected to US Natl Academy of Sciences
* World Food Prize Celebrations This Year to Honor Normal Borlaug
* Modern Biotechnology A Possible Edge For Filipinos
* Paradise Sold: What Are You Buying When You Buy Organic?
* Challenging Nature: Clash of Science and Spirituality
* All Boffins Are Bonkers
* Of Penises and Pesticides
Tragedy of Delaying the Golden Rice
- C. S. Prakash, AgBioView, May 9, 2006. http://www.agbioworld.org
Despite so much promise, the Golden Rice, a marvellous hope for the humanity, is stuck in the regulatory and bureaucratic pipeline. As I listened to a poignant lecture recently by Prof. Ingo Potrykus on the status of his invention, I couldn't help but notice the frustration and anguish in him. Many unnecessary roadblocks are are preventing the golden rice from reaching people.
While thousands of children are going blind or dying because of the vitamin A deficiency, golden rice offers a simple, inexpensive but elegant solution to this problem. Mindless opposition and needless regulation is thwarting efforts by Potrykus to get his vitamin-enriched rice to the very people who can benefit most from this product.
Not a single golden rice plant has yet been grown in the Asian fields yet, although it has been nearly nine years since I first write about this ongoing project (http://www.isb.vt.edu/articles/aug9703.htm) and six years since his research was described in the Science magazine (See the collected articles on this topic at http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech-info/topics/goldenrice/index.html ).
The newer version of the Golden Rice provides more than 100% RDA with 31 micrograms/g of provitamin A, a 20-fold increase from the original version which had only 1.6 micrograms/g. The improved rice will be distributed freely at no additional cost to the farmers.
Yet, silly regulations have delayed the project. For instance, past 2-3 years were spent in developing newer gene constructs to eliminate selectable marker, to streamline the gene integration and develop 'clean' events - all to satisfy the cumbersome and unscientific regulatory requirements.
Many more hurdles still lie ahead, and it may be another 5-6 six years before the golden rice gets into the hands of the Asian consumers. India, Bangladesh and Philippines are the target countries right now.
Potrykus shared yet unpublished research data from German scientists who have estimated the 'real' cost of delaying the golden rice. It was especially gut-wrenching for me to recognize that India alone could save between 5,500-39,700 lives by growing this rice, and all this for less than US$1 million investment.
When I remarked to Ingo that this is so tragic, he replied that it is not just tragic but a crime. I agree. Inept policies, anti-GM activists, GM-phobic Europe, and the compliant media -- all have contributed to this pathetic situation.
Safety is really not much of an issue here as no one can even come up with any hypothetical risk of using this fortified rice. The introduced genes are from rice and maize with thousands of years of history of safe consumption. There is no a priori reason to believe that these new proteins would be either toxic or allergenic. One cannot think of any environmental risks of growing this rice either. Genetically modified crops have been grown on a billion acres in the past ten years without even a hint of any problem so far.
Any potential risk in using this vitamin-enriched rice cannot be worse than the millions of children who are now dying or going blind because of the vitamin A deficiency.
Prof. Potrykus has kindly shared his presentation with me and has permitted me to post it on AgBioworld. Please see below. Download his presentation with a glorious picture of his yellow rice grains and see the data on 'lives saved' at http://www.agbioworld.org/pdf/PotrykusAgBioWorld.pdf
Golden Rice and Beyond – The Power of Biofortification
- Prof. Ingo Potrykus (Chairman Humanitarian Golden Rice Board & Network). Excerpt from his presentation at the BioVision Alexandria 2006 meeting: New Life Sciences: Changing Lives. Alexandria, 26-29 April 2006
Golden Rice is the first GM-product of the "biofortification" concept: improvement of the micro-nutrient content on a genetic basis. The underlying science was developed in the public domain and completed in 1999. Further advancement to a 'product' and through 'deregulation' was beyond the capacity of the public domain and required creation of a 'public-private-partnership'.
The prototype Golden Rice contained 1.6microg/g provitamin A, an amount contributing substantially to reduction in VAD from a standard daily diet. Progress in science has reached a state, where lines are available now, with a 20-fold increase or 31 microg/g, providing even more than 100% RDA.
Golden Rice to date has the capacity to reduce vitamin A-malnutrition in rice-depending societies efficiently, most cost-effective, and in a most sustained manner. To this effect it is made available free of charge and limitations within the framework of a humanitarian project. Public rice research institutions in numerous rice-depending countries are introgressing the trait into carefully chosen national rice varieties.
Seed material will reach the farmer through public distribution channels, and all a farmer needs, is one supply of seeds. But Golden Rice will not become effective automatically. It requires strong governmental support. Before Golden Rice can be released, it has to pass through the established regulatory systems – and this is the major barrier for application which delays use by a minimum of six years.
GMO-Regulation delays use of 'Golden Rice' for many years. What is the consequence of the delay of adoption of Golden Rice for just one year and only one country, e.g. India? Golden Rice could save between 5,500-39,700 lives or 204,000-1,382,000 disability adjusted life years per year in India alone, for less than US$ 1 million (A. J. Stein, HPS Sachdev and M. Qaim, pers. communication). Greenpeace invests around $12 million per annum into anti GMO-campaigns, trying hard to prevent, that Golden Rice can save these lives.
In addition, there are hundreds of 'food-security' transformation events, produced in the public domain in developing countries, established in rice, maize, pearl millet, sorghum, wheat, potatoes, cassava, sweet potatoes, melons, cucumber etc., with improved agronomic performance, stress tolerance, and nutritional value (J.I.Cohen, Nature Biotechnology 23 (1) 2005) which all are faced with the same prohibitory regulation. And there is multiple-trait-biofortification coming, with the combination of provitamin A plus high iron, plus high zinc, plus high quality protein, where, if GMO-technology has been used, regulators will have enormous difficulties with deregulation. In a situation, where micro-nutrient malnutrition takes a daily toll of 24‘000, this is extremely unfortunate, and it should encourage our society to reconsider the regulatory procedure.
Biofortification can provide sustainable and cost-effective interventions for micro-nutrient malnutrition, complementing other, traditional interventions. Thanks to the financial support from the Gates Foundation this concept is being tested in a variety of further cases. Effective use of its potential requires, however, sustained public support and reconsideration of the negative position of many NGO‘s and developmental aid organizations.
The case of Golden Rice is demonstrating, that GM technology can be used as effective 'pro-poor' technology. Pro-poor application of the technology is the responsibility of the public sector – not the private one. However, the public sector tolerates to be blocked by regulation, and has no mechanism to support product development and deregulation beyond basic research: the public sector is ignoring its responsibility!
Download the presentation with complete tables at
Pressure on State with Salt-beating GM Crop
- Sarah Roberts, West Australian (Perth), May 8, 2006
The State Government is under pressure to end its controversial moratorium on genetically modified crops with news that scientists have developed a salt-tolerant wheat variety that could be the saviour of many salt-stricken farms.
Analysis of Grain Biotech Australia's first field trial of two GM wheat varieties in Corrigin found that they had a 23 per cent higher seed weight in salty soil compared with standard varieties in the same conditions.
The Pastoralists and Graziers Association said that if the results could be repeated on a big scale, the GM varieties had potential to improve yields in WA, where about two million hectares of farmland had lost productivity because of salinity.
PGA Western Graingrowers chairman Leon Bradley said the results were further evidence that the Government must immediately lift its moratorium and not leave young WA farmers to carry politicians' "anti-scientific legacy and phobia".
Opposition Leader Paul Omodei said he supported commercial GM trials and the moratorium needed to be reviewed. "We've gone through that period of being ultra-cautious and now it's time to move ahead," he said.
WA Farmers president Trevor De Landgrafft said the results vindicated its position of encouraging controlled GM trials in preparation for the ban being lifted.
A spokeswoman for Agriculture Minister Kim Chance said he would be "interested to see the results" but he would not consider lifting the moratorium, which is in place until 2008. Mr Chance said the positive trial outcomes might warrant fast-tracking consideration of commercial trials.
GBA business development manager Alan Tough said the results were a strong indication of the crop's future commercial use in WA to revive salt-affected land.The GM plants could tolerate conditions of about one-third the salinity levels of seawater. During the trial - one of only a handful in the world - wheat even grew in soil with visible salt on the surface."
It behaves in the field as it does in the laboratory," Mr Tough said.
"It simply has the ability to grow and produce a useful grain variety in salty environments. We think it's of enormous interest because it's a huge benefit to the farmer."
The GM varieties were created by inserting a stress-resistant gene from the arabidopsis plant into regular wheat species. The 900sq m trial crop was harvested in December.
Researchers Cultivate Plants to Root Out Landmines
- Ottawa Sun, May 8, 2006
Researchers working for the Canadian and U.S. militaries are making progress in developing genetically modified plants that could help people around the world avoid death and injury from landmines. The researchers at the University of Alberta, Duke University in North Carolina and other schools are trying to develop plants that will alert people to the presence of landmines by changing colour if their roots detect compounds, such as TNT, commonly used in mines.
"I think we're about two or three years from something that might be practical in the field," professor Michael Deyholos at the University of Alberta said. "We're a lot closer than we were."
Deyholos and others, working for the last two years, have faced a three-part problem. They have had to develop a receptor gene that can detect TNT and be spliced into a plant's roots. Once the TNT is detected, the plants must then be able to transmit the information to their leaves or shoots, much in the way hormones are transferred throughout the human body.
Then, more receptors are needed in the shoots or leaves to make them change colour. Using a weed called an arabidopsis, the University of Alberta team has solved part of the equation.
"We have had the arabidopsis roots change colour ... but we have not had the shoots change colour," Deyholos said. Researchers at other facilities have made progress on other aspects of the project, and the goal is to have all the successful components put into one type of plant.
The seeds could be dropped from an airplane over a suspected mine field. After a few weeks of growth, soldiers and civilians could judge by the plants' colours whether the area is safe. The plants could be a huge help to civilians who want to reclaim farmland after a war.
Modified Cotton Cuts Pesticide Use
- New Scientist, May 6, 2006 http://www.newscientist.com/
In the ongoing wrangle over genetically modified crops, the GM side has won a minor victory.
Farmers who grew Bt cotton, which is modified to produce its own pesticide against bollworm larvae, applied as little as half as much conventional pesticide as growers of standard cotton, according to a two-year study of 81 cotton fields in Arizona. They still needed some pesticide because the Bt cotton continued to suffer damage from pests that attack cotton bolls above ground, such as lygus bugs and whiteflies.
Study leader Yves Carrière of the University of Arizona in Tucson says the work is the largest evaluation yet of the combined environmental and agronomic performance of GM cotton. The effects on wildlife, particularly ants and beetles, were the same whether GM or non-GM cotton was grown (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0508312103).
There was no difference in overall yields, but GM cotton yielded 9 per cent more per kilogram of insecticide applied, so GM farmers prospered by spending less on insecticides than conventional growers.
CNN Poll: Do you believe G.M.O crops are safe?
Yes - 64% (400 votes)
No - 36% (226 votes)
Total: 626 votes
Four Plant Scientists Among 72 Elected to US National Academy of Sciences
Plant scientists Richard Amasino and Joe Ecker along with Monty Jones and Longping Yuan (foreign associates) were among the 72 scientists bestowed with the prestigious award of election to the US National Academy of Sciences.
On behalf of AgBioWorld, I congratulate these plant scientists for the tremendous recognition that they deserved so well
Richard M AMASINO, Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry, department of biochemistry, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Joseph R ECKER, professor, Plant Biology Laboratory and Genome Analysis Laboratory, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, San Diego
Monty P JONES, executive secretary, Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Accra (Ghana)
Longping YUAN, director general, China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center, Hunan (People's Republic of China)
Full list at http://www4.nationalacademies.org/news.nsf/isbn/04252006?OpenDocument
World Food Prize Celebrations This Year to Honor Normal Borlaug
The 2006 World Food Prize International Symposium will be held October 18-20, 2006 at Des Moines, Iowa.
The theme of this year's symposium will be "The Green Revolution Redux: Can We Replicate the Single Greatest Period of Hunger Reduction in All Human History?". The 2006 International Symposium marks the 20th Anniversary of The World Food Prize. This year's symposium is in honor of the founder of The World Food Prize and "Father of the Green Revolution," Dr. Norman E. Borlaug.
Modern Biotechnology A Possible Edge For Filipinos
- BusinessWorld, May 4, 2006
A decade ago, only a handful of people possessed mobile phones. The public quickly realized their potential. Nowadays, cellular phones are ubiquitous. And so should modern biotechnology.
"Ideas, technologies and innovations which disrupt and open up new vistas catch people's attention," Dr. Benigno D. Peczon, president of the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines, said as he cited the importance of using modern methods of biotechnology in achieving better lives for Filipinos.
Mr. Peczon said agriculture has been estimated to involve a third of the country's work force but accounts for only 20% of the country's gross national product.
Traditional biotechnology, the simple use of life forms to meet man's needs, is portal at creating and meeting the needs of as many customers in as efficient and effective a manner as possible in the quickest and safest possible way, or simply put, value creation.
Mr. Peczon said products and processes that shift the base from commodities to higher value products should be created and this is where the innovations in modern technology come in. Many Filipino scientists and inventors have come up with proofs of concepts yet the marketed Filipino scientist-derived products are meager.
"Obviously what is needed is mechanism to convert ideas and inventions of Filipino scientists to economically efficient and effective products in as little as possible for as many consumers possible. Time is of the essence. A missed opportunity may be an opportunity lost forever," he said.
Mr. Peczon also said that the population pressure the country is now facing is not only on food production, it also extends to the health arena, the environment and the need for energy. There are resilient diseases, emerging diseases (AIDS, SARS, bird flu), and diseases associated with longer life spans (diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's disease). The specter of vehicle fuel costing over one dollar a liter also looms in the horizon.
Biotechnology, Mr. Peczon said, which involves targeted transfer of traits through transfer of genes from any organism to virtually any other organism, strives to address several key areas: food security, health, environment and industrial biotechnology.
He pointed out that information technology, if better harnessed for the development of biotechnology, will give the boundaries of Filipino's knowledge and horizon a huge expansion. What then could make or break the Filipino in the global market in the future? Mr. Peczon said the Philippines can become a global player if there is a logical, resilient policy made by "thoughtful men with no personal agenda."
Scientists too should find ways to talk the capitalists' language and know the culture of wealthy men to successfully create value. "When will we ever wake up to the idea that we are, or at the very least, can be as good as anybody else?" Mr. Peczon said.
Paradise Sold: What Are You Buying When You Buy Organic?
- Steven Shapin, New Yorker, May 15, 2006. Excerpt below. Full story at
According to Samuel Fromartz, ninety per cent of "frequent" organic buyers think they're buying better "health and nutrition." They may be right. If, for any reason, you don't want the slightest pesticide residue in your salad, or you want to insure that there are no traces of recombinant bovine somatotropin hormone (rbST) in your children's milk, you're better off spending the extra money for organically produced food.
But scientific evidence for the risks of such residues is iffy, as it is, too, for the benefits of the micro-nutrients that are said to be more plentiful in an organic carrot than in its conventional equivalent.
Other people are buying taste, but there's little you can say about other people's taste in carrots and not much more you can intelligibly articulate about your own. The taste of an heirloom carrot bought five years ago from the Chino family farm in Rancho Santa Fe, California, sticks indelibly in my memory, though at the time I hadn't any idea whether artificial fertilizers or pesticides had been applied to it. (I later learned that they had not.)
For many fruits and vegetables, freshness, weed control, and the variety grown may be far more important to taste than whether the soil in which they were grown was dosed with ammonium nitrate. Pollan did his own taste test by shopping at Whole Foods for an all-organic meal: everything was pretty good, except for the six-dollar bunch of organic asparagus, which had been grown in Argentina, air-freighted six thousand miles to the States, and immured for a week in the distribution chain. Pollan shouldn't have been surprised that it tasted like "cardboard."
The twentieth-century origins of the organic movement can be traced to the writings of the English agronomist Sir Albert Howard, particularly his 1940 book "An Agricultural Testament." Howard was a critic of the rise of scientific agriculture. In the mid-nineteenth century, following the work of the German chemist Justus von Liebig, it was thought that all plants really needed from the soil was the correct quantities and proportions of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium: the N-P-K ratios that you see on bags of garden fertilizer.
For many crops, it is the availability of nitrogen that limits growth. Legumes apart, plants cannot extract nitrogen directly from the practically unlimited stores of the gas in the atmosphere, so farmers in the nineteenth century routinely enhanced soil fertility using animal manures, guano, or mined nitrates. But, just before the First World War, the German chemist Fritz Haber and the industrialist Carl Bosch devised a way of synthesizing ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen. From there, the commercial production of enormous quantities of nitrogenous fertilizers was a relatively easy matter. The result was a technological revolution in agriculture.
But Howard had worked in India as "Imperial Economic Botanist" to the government of the Raj at Pusa, and his experiences there convinced him that traditional Indian farming techniques were in many respects superior to those of the modern West. Howard was a pragmatist—the criterion of agricultural success was what worked—but he was also a holist and a taker of the long view. The health of the soil, the health of what grew in it, and the health of those who ate what grew in it were "one great subject."
To reduce this intricacy to a simple set of chemical inputs, as Liebig's followers did, was reductionist science at its worst. Soils treated this way would ultimately collapse, and so would the societies that abused them: "Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women," racked with disease and physically stunted. You could indeed get short-term boosts in yield through the generous application of synthetic fertilizers, but only by robbing future generations of their patrimony. Soil, Howard wrote, is "the capital of the nations which is real, permanent, and independent of everything except a market for the products of farming." We have no choice but to go "back to nature" and to "safeguard the land of the Empire from the operations of finance." The "supremacy of the West" depends upon it.
Howard's ideas reached America largely through J. I. Rodale's magazine Organic Gardening and Farming, and, later, through a widely read essay by Wendell Berry in "The Last Whole Earth Catalogue." The organic movement that sprang up in America during the postwar years, manured by the enthusiasm of both the hippies and their New Age successors, supplemented Howard's ideas of soil health with the imperative that the scale should be small and the length of the food chain from farm to consumer short. You were supposed to know who it was that produced your food, and to participate in a network of trust in familiar people and transparent agricultural practices. A former nutritionist at Columbia, who went on to grow produce upstate, recalls, "When we said organic, we meant local. We meant healthful. We meant being true to the ecologies of regions. We meant mutually respectful growers and eaters. We meant social justice and equality."
Pollan seems aware of the contradictions entailed in trying to eat in this rigorously ethical spirit, but he doesn't give much space to the most urgent moral problem with the organic ideal: how to feed the world's population. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a serious scare about an imminent Malthusian crisis: the world's rapidly expanding population was coming up against the limits of agricultural productivity.
The Haber-Bosch process averted disaster, and was largely responsible for a fourfold increase in the world's food supply during the twentieth century. Earl Butz, Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, was despised by organic farmers, but he might not have been wrong when he said, in 1971, that if America returned to organic methods "someone must decide which fifty million of our people will starve!" According to a more recent estimate, if synthetic fertilizers suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, about two billion people would perish.
Supporters of organic methods maintain that total food-energy productivity per acre can be just as high as with conventional agriculture, and that dousings of N-P-K are made necessary only by the industrial scale of modern agriculture and its long-chain systems of distribution.
Yet the fact remains that, to unwind conventional agriculture, you would have to unwind some highly valued features of the modern world order. Given the way the world now is, sustainably grown and locally produced organic food is expensive.
Genetically modified, industrially produced monocultural corn is what feeds the victims of an African famine, not the gorgeous organic technicolor Swiss chard from your local farmers' market. Food for a "small planet" will, for the foreseeable future, require a much smaller human population on the planet.
Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life
- A New book by Prof. Lee M. Silver, Ecco; June 2006; Amazon.com Price $16.98 http://www.leemsilver.net/
Biotechnology is arguably the oldest, most widespread, and most powerful of human inventions. Indeed, cows, dogs, apples, tomatoes, corn, and nearly every other living thing that we eat or exploit simply didn't exist until early humans invented them. For many millennia, however, the tools used to manipulate and control life's creative processes for human benefit were crude, and their implementation was opaque.
Today, the science of molecular biology brings both precision and transparency to the actual genetic and cellular modifications that modern biotechnologists can accomplish. But ironically, to practitioners, biotechnology is more contentious than ever.
In Challenging Nature, Professor Silver argues that fear and loathing arise from deeply rooted, cultural-religious convictions in the existence of real and proscribed limits to human knowledge and power over the natural world. Molecular biology -- as a field of knowledge -- challenges traditional belief in animating spirits. More significantly, biotechnology -- the practical child of molecular biology -- gives 'man' nearly-unlimited power as a God-like animator who can alter and create new forms of life. In different cultural milieus, however, spiritual beliefs confer acceptance or rejection of different realms of biotechnological application.
Catholic and Protestant fundamentalists -- who believe human beings alone are ensouled by God at conception -- reject embryo stem cell research as murder, but are generally supportive of agricultural biotechnology. Meanwhile, many post-Christian Europeans and Americans have transferred their spiritual allegiance from a God in heaven to a fuzzy Mother Nature goddess within the biosphere below. Tinkering with plant genes is imagined, however unconsciously, as an attack on "Her" sovereignty.
On the surface, fundamentalists and post-Christian organic food devotees seem to have little in common. Yet, both kinds of minds are formed within monotheistic Western cultures where the maxim against "playing God" is deeply embedded. In contradistinction, "playing God" has no meaning in cultures molded by Eastern spirituality, where neither a Master of the Universe nor a "Master Plan" exist, and where every spirit is transcendent, eternal, self-determining and self-evolving. As a result, in the short term, Asian countries are poised to leap ahead of the West in all contentious realms of biotechnology.
In the long term, biotechnology and rational control over the biosphere will be required to protect humanity and to develop a system of life on which our descendants can depend for sustenance and spiritual comfort.
And slowly, inevitably, over centuries or millennia, Human Nature will remake all of Mother Nature -- domesticated and wild -- in the image of the idealized world that exists within our own minds, which is what most people have always wanted.
Advance Praise (click here for complete press release)
Matt Ridley: Silver exposes the often dangerous consequences of a passion for spiritual and religious explanations that is innate in the minds of some people. His book is imbued with courage, suffused with humanity and written with grace.
Peter Singer: a provocative and sorely needed book. Agree or disagree with his conclusions, the rich array of arguments will force you to think afresh about many cherished preconceptions. In this often-muddled area, that has to be a very good thing indeed.
Michael Gazzaniga: A spectacular and riveting book that puts those who reason by assertion of prior traditions on the run. Professor Silver takes no prisoners and yet offers an upbeat and positive view of the human condition. Many people may not agree with his argument. But no one can deny he shakes things up and makes you think and rethink the most basic questions about the nature of human existence. I say Bravo!
Ian Wilmut: Full of fascinating information, Challenging Nature will certainly help you clarify your personal views on biotechnology.
All Boffins Are Bonkers
- Christopher Frayling, Telegraph (UK), May 9, 2006. Full commentary at
Scientists need an Indiana Jones image to make their subjects more popular in the classroom, argues
The stereotypical image of the mad, bad and dangerous scientist is alive and well and living in classrooms.
Image unchanged: today's children see boffins more as mad scientists like Baron Frankenstein...
Ask children what they think is the image of scientists and they will usually list the following attributes: lab coat, glasses, unruly hair, eccentricity and lots of bubbling glassware. Scientists are usually male (only girls - and then a small fraction of them - think scientists can be females). There will be references to Jekyll and Hyde, or Frankenstein, magical portrayals of alchemical laboratories with stuffed crocodiles, frightening visions of clearly deranged scientists testing, for example, "new improved versions of the electric chair".
Fears about science and scientists have changed little since Frankenstein's monster first lumbered across the screen. While Frankenstein was originally about vitalism and the divine spark, it is now about genetically modified crops and DNA. The real creation myth today isn't the Book of Genesis: it is Frankenstein.
The monster has also become a cyborg, part-organism, part-machine, a symbol of how far technology has colonised our minds.
The challenge, which I will discuss at the Cheltenham Science Festival next month, is to engage the public in an interest in and understanding of the processes of science, so that it is informed from the beginning, aware of the issues, and able sensibly to debate the outcomes. Currently, there is insufficient public and media interest in the processes of science, and then there is panic over the outcomes.
Of Penises and Pesticides: Are synthetic chemicals responsible for male shortcomings?
- Ronald Bailey, Reason, May 5, 2006. Full article at http://www.reason.com/rb/rb050506.shtml
"Pesticides May Affect Penis Size, " runs the headline in the London Free Press. The first paragraph alarmingly reports that "A renowned U.S. scientist who has documented fertility and sex changes--including decreasing penis size--due to environmental contamination says he wouldn't apply pesticides on his own lawn."
Whose sexual organs was the renowned scientist talking about?
Alligator penises. Specifically, the penises of some American alligators that grew up in Florida's most polluted lake. In 1980 a massive industrial pesticide spill drained into Lake Apopka, contaminating it with high levels of pesticides with anti-androgenic activity. The toxins clearly had deleterious effects on wildlife. The renowned scientist cited in the article is University of Florida researcher Louis Guillette, who also apparently asserted, "This is important because it is not just an alligator story. It is not just a lake story. We know there has been a dramatic increase in penile and genital abnormalities in baby boys."
One sometimes gets the impression from some scientists and activists that pesticides are just pure evil developed by wicked corporations for the purpose of poisoning people, not substances devised to protect crops or eradicate disease-carrying vermin. In any case, since it turns out that activists were wrong when they claimed that pesticides were causing a cancer epidemic, then surely the chemicals must be doing something else vile. How about hitting men where it really hurts? That'll get their attention!
But is it true there has been a "dramatic increase" in penile abnormalities? The evidence is equivocal. A major scientific review in 2005 found that male congenital anomalies had increased from 7 per 1000 in 1988 to 8.3 per 1000 in 2000. Interestingly, the same study found that the higher a family's socio-economic status, the higher the risk that a boy would be born with penile abnormalities. Another study found higher than expected rates of male genital deformities among newborns in some parts of the Netherlands. Specifically, researchers found a correlation between a father's exposure to pesticides and the probability of cryptorchidism (failure of one or both of the testicles to descend into the scrotum) in his newborn son. There was no correlation between paternal and maternal pesticide exposure and the incidence of hypospadias (a genital defect in which the urethra opens on the underside of the penis rather than at the end).
On the other hand, there is a plethora of studies that find no recent increase in penile defects. For example, in 2003 a California study lasting 13 years and funded by the March of Dimes found "there was no evidence for an increase in prevalence "of hypospadias. And a 2004 Scottish study in the British Medical Journal reported that "A new linked register of congenital genital anomalies in Scotland suggests that over a decade, the birth prevalence of genital anomalies has changed little. " Ditto for Finland and New York State. And a 2005 study in Washington State study found "the prevalence of hypospadias in Washington State did not increase significantly between 1987 and 2002."
Even a 2005 study specifically trying to correlate exposure to organochlorines with male genital abnormalities found none. In that study, researchers compared the levels of pesticide residues in the blood serum of women whose boys were born with malformations with women whose boys were not did. They reported, "Our study does not provide epidemiologic support for a causal adverse relationship between DDT or DDE and cryptorchidism or hypospadias."
But there is another puzzle—exposures to many of the most suspect pesticides have been declining for decades. A 2002 study of synthetic chemical residues in human breast milk supported by an activist group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded, "Over the past few decades, levels of the organochlorine pesticides, PCBs, and dioxins have declined in breast milk in countries where these chemicals have been banned or otherwise regulated." A report from the American Council on Science and Health in New York which receives some industry support asserts that the residues of many organochlorine pesticides found in human tissues declined by 90 percent. So if exposure to pesticides is declining, why would male genital abnormalities be going up?
The Washington State study points to one possibility. It found one factor that correlated with an increased incidence of hypospadias--maternal age. In 2001, another study by Columbia University urologist Harry Fisch also found that the incidence of hypospadias increased with maternal age. As Fisch notes the number of live births to women over age 35 has increased from 6 percent in 1980 to over 12 percent today. The comprehensive 2005 study that found an increase in hypospadias noted that it also correlated with higher socio-economic status which tends to be linked with higher maternal age.
As far as I know, no one has done a study comparing the penis sizes of newborn boys and pesticide exposure. However, researchers at the University of Rochester in New York reported in 2005 that the distances between the anal openings and the scrotums (anogenital distance or AGD) of boys whose mothers had relatively higher levels of plasticizers known as phthalates in their urine were less than those whose mothers had lower levels of phthalates. This effect had been previously observed in rodent pups that had been exposed to phthalates prenatally in the lab. But keep in mind that none of the 134 boys in the Rochester study had malformed genitals.
Not surprisingly, some in the industry disagreed, arguing, "Because little is known about AGD in human infants and its variation, no conclusion can be drawn whether the reported values are normal or abnormal. The range of AGD values seen among study subjects likely represents typical biologic variation that would be expected to occur among normal study subjects." Curiously, the Rochester researchers responded, "First, because all infants in our study appeared normal, [industry scientists] infer that there is no evidence of an adverse effect. However, the absence of evidence of an effect in infancy does not preclude serious adverse effects in later life. "
One could also say that the absence of evidence for an armada of gigantic purple space squid massing behind the moon for an invasion of the earth doesn't mean that they won't show up later--but never mind. Perhaps the Rochester study will be replicated and eventually show that phthalates are responsible for actual deleterious effects on the health and fertility of people, or perhaps its findings will dissipate in the light of further research just as those that initially supported the notion of a synthetic chemical cancer epidemic did.
Make no mistake about it—massive occupational exposure in the 1970s and 1980s to some pesticides had tragic health effects such as causing infertility in hundreds of agricultural workers.
But so far, the effect of low level exposures to pesticides and other synthetic chemicals on human male genitalia does not appear to have been "dramatic" and may not exist at all. Dueling ambiguous scientific studies bring to the fore a hard policy question: How much time and resources do we (government, industry and consumer) want to spend in chasing what have so often turned out to be phantom risks? In the meantime, spraying a lawn for dandelions and fire ants doesn't seem like taking much of a risk with one's manhood to me.
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.