Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - May 18, 2006
* Vermont: The GMO Veto
* Why the Cavemen Did Not Live Beyond Thirty? - New Yorker Cartoon
* Lingering DNA Harmless
* Another GM Crop Company in UK Closes - Irrational Opposition Triumphs
* Public Not Interested in GM Labeling - Greenpeace Scratches its Head
* Global Initiative for Plant Breeding Capacity Building
* Making Sense of Biotech Crops
* Princeton ex-President Urges Scientists to Engage in Dialogue, Humility
* Peoples Archive
* Nuffield Council Reports on GM Crops
* Its better to be sure now than sorry later
* .... Prakash Responds
Vermont: The GMO Veto
- Editorial, Caledonian Record (St. Johnsbury, Vermont), May 16, 2006 http://www.caledonianrecord.com
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are the cutting edge of modern agriculture. A GMO is a seed that has been altered genetically by the introduction of a desirable trait or traits from unrelated organisms. For example, a GMO seed of corn might contain a bug resistant gene from some other field plant. The plant that grows from that seed will resist bugs far more effectively than the usual corn seed.
GMOs would seem to be a marvelous advance in farm technology. With proper planning, a whole lot of undesirable traits in crops could be eliminated by restructuring the genetics of their seeds.
The trouble is that the environmental purists have risen in a holy crusade to suppress GMOs. With almost religious zeal approaching fanaticism, they have charged that GMOs are unsafe science, that their wind carried pollen will corrupt organic farmers' fields and ruin the salability of their crops, that nobody knows what the outcome will be in 2nd, 3rd, and future generations of GMOs, and a dozen other evils.
In response to their hysteria, the Democratic-controlled legislature passed a bill absolving farmers from liability for planting errors of their own when planting GMOs and placing liability for their mistakes on the manufacturers. Governor Douglas will veto the GMO bill. He has repeatedly pointed out that manufacturers will simply stop doing business with Vermont farmers to avoid an unfair and potentially expensive liability, and the governor doesn't want Vermont farmers excluded from what is becoming a very profitable technology.
The Douglas veto is the right thing to do. What we have here is not a rational opposition to an irrational technology, but the reverse, an irrational opposition to a rational technology. Put in simpler terms, we have here a modern version of the Frankenstein myth - an evil scientist monkeys with knowledge, accidentally producing a Frankenstein, who escapes, only to be put down by the ordinary, but good people who know better than to monkey with knowledge.
In the current instance, the manufacturers (evil scientists) monkey with knowledge and produce GMO's that escape and ruin agriculture as we know it (the Frankenstein), which must be captured and destroyed by the environmental purists (the good people) aided by the Democratic legislature.
Eve couldn't re-hang the apple on the Tree of Knowledge; Pandora couldn't close the box; you can't put the genie back into the bottle. The governor knows that. The environmental fanatics won't acknowledge it. And the Democrats never resist the chance to make mischief that serves their purposes.
Have you sent your support yet for the letter to West Australian Minister?
New Yorker Cartoon
One caveman talking to another: "Something’s just not right--our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range, and yet nobody lives past thirty."
- The New Yorker May 22, 2006 ID: 122479,
Lingering DNA Harmless
- Daily Mail, May (UK) 15, 2006
It's true that a study by the University of Newcastle discovered that bacteria in the human gut can take up DNA from GM food (Mail), but this information is dangerously incomplete.
The plant-derived DNA found in bacteria was GM only because that was all the experimenters were looking for. Plants contain 20,000 to 30,000 genes and the chances are overwhelming that all sorts of DNA derived from food would be found in gut bacteria - if one were to look.
The Food Standards Agency has said the fact that fragments of GM DNA survived in the gut is consistent with scientific knowledge. But such fragments of DNA cannot change the genetic makeup of the body.
- Prof Vivian Moses, CropGen, London
UK's Loss - Another Company on GM Crops Shut Down; Cites Opposition to GMOs
'Scientists out to pasture as French firm wields axe Biogemma blames opposition to GM crops for its decision to quit Cambridge'
- Ben Fountain, May 17 2006, http://www.businessweekly.co.uk
Around 25 scientists will lose their jobs following the closure of one of Cambridge’s longest established biotechs – Biogemma on the city's Science Park. Entrenched opposition to genetically-modified crops is understood to be at least partly to blame for the decision, which will also see the smallest of the company's three French labs, Evry, closed down.
Dr Jeroen Wilmer, acting site director told Business Weekly: "The downturn in seed sales Europe-wide has led our parent companies to scale down their bio activities. Unfortunately Cambridge is one of two operations to be closed." The rationalisation will see Biogemma’s total workforce reduced from 123 to 86.
Research carried out at the Cambridge lab centred around transgenics, investigating, for example, the genetic modification of food crops to make them resistant to drought and disease. Dr Wilmer said that only a handful of staff would be redeployed elsewhere within the French company.
Biogemma was established in 1997 and is jointly owned by Limagrain and Euralis, RAGT and the financial arms of two French grower cooperatives. The Cambridge operation has been in the area since 1987 and was formerly run by the Nickerson Seed company.
Biogemma said in a statement that it believed new legislation currently passing through the French parliament would provide the optimum framework for the company’s research operations – another reason for its retrenchment to France.
Canada: GMO Labeling Fails to Catch On
- The Western Producer, May 4, 2006 via http://www.cattlenetwork.com/content.asp?contentid=37591
Canada’s voluntary standard for labeling genetically modified food is gathering dust, two years after it was officially adopted.
Greenpeace Canada has challenged food manufacturers to show it a product with a label informing customers that it contains GM ingredients, but nobody has taken the group up on the challenge and, according to Greenpeace, a visual inspection of store shelves has failed to turn up proof that the standard is being used.
Jeanne Cruikshank, spokesperson for the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, which sponsored the national standard, confirmed few manufacturers are voluntarily labeling their product. She attributed this to waning consumer interest, the ability of consumers to differentiate between GM and non-GM products without companies overtly telling them so, and increasing understanding on the part of the consumer of organic as an alternative.
Greenpeace is pushing for mandatory GM labeling rules and is focusing most of its energy on convincing the Quebec government to follow the recommendations of a 2004 food safety report drafted by the province’s bipartisan agriculture committee, which called on the government to adopt mandatory labeling rules similar to what is employed in Europe.
However, even Greenpeace acknowledged a lack of political will to put this in place and Cruikshank admitted such a standard was unlikely if a review of the standard was not reviewed within the first five years.
Global Initiative for Plant Breeding Capacity Building
- June 12-13, 2006; Madrid, Spain
Putting Plant Genetic Resources to Work through Capacity Building in Plant Breeding
Over the last 10 years, significant progress has been made in addressing the needs and modalities to improve the conservation of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture among governments and global partners. While conservation is vital, it is not enough. Strengthening the capacity of our partners to identify and use new and more useful sources of variation for traits important to them NOW while enhancing their capacity to easily identify useful germplasm for the FUTURE is equally needed.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, having its first Governing Body meeting in June 2006, supports both conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their use. There is, therefore, an important and timely opportunity to improve the balance between conservation of plant genetic resources and their effective use to meet farmer and consumer needs, address food security concerns and contribute to the Millennium Development Goals.
Sustainable utilization of PGRFA requires plant breeding strategies through continuous and effective use of germplasm through careful characterization, evaluation and documentation. Advances in biotechnology when combined with conventional techniques offer an enormous potential for developing and pursuing such a strategy. However, the lack long term support for national breeding programs, lack of access to germplasm accessions and/or promising new technologies, especially biotechnologies, and limitations of trained personnel and institutional capabilities, prevent national plant breeding programs from meeting the needs of developing countries.
The Global Initiative for Plant Breeding Capacity Building (GIPB) is being launched to address these challenges in a concerted and systematic manner. The goal of the Initiative is to strengthen capacities of the developing countries and those with economies in transition to improve their productivity through sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture using better breeding and seed delivery systems.
The Current Situation: Why do We Need a Concerted Effort
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has been assessing national plant breeding and biotechnology capacity worldwide to provide a technical basis for defining capacity building options, and shaping strategy and development policy to strengthen plant breeding in developing countries. Massive reductions in public investment in agriculture and rural development over the last two decades has in many low-income food-deficit countries led to demise in what were often already relatively weak national plant breeding programmes. In a few cases, specialized private sector breeding programmes have filled the niche for the economically important crops. But for many crops, the capacity to effectively use PGRFA through development of improved varieties is clearly inadequate. Very often even the base benefits of the innovations and new technologies are not secure.
The trend in national capacities is providing the baseline to underpin GIPB and focus global attention on the problems that minimize the return from conservation of PGRFA and, more importantly, constrain sustainable development and biodiversity. The results of the assessment are providing a foundation for advice on what national governments need to do, and what the research and development community can do. While the global survey is ongoing, it has strongly signaled that capacity building is the key to strengthening the possibility of developing countries to develop and benefit from plant breeding for sustainable development
A Way Forward through Partnership and Action
The GIPB is proposed as a multiparty initiative of knowledge institutions around the world and agencies that have a track record in supporting agricultural research for development, working with country programmes committed to developing stronger plant breeding programmes. It will support partnership of public and private sector parties from both North and South, working in concert to enhance the capacity of developing countries to improve their agricultural productivity through sustainable use of PGRFA. By no means will it be a ‘'closed shop’' and partners will encourage broad multi-stakeholder engagement.
Together with governments and stakeholders, such as the international agriculture research centers and national and regional centers of excellence, the GIPB will foster linkages with the donor’'s community, public and private sector to identify and address the needs in the area of plant breeding and related biotechnologies. It will coordinate resources available from GIPB partner institutions with developing program needs for training, germplasm and technologies for building capacity for better germplasm evaluation, improvement, and utilization in developing countries.
Governance and Guidance of the GIPB
The Initiative will operate under the policy guidance of the Governing Body of the International Treaty and seek to be an element within its Funding Strategy. Within this framework, the Initiative will align broadly with the Article 6 “"Sustainable Use of Plant Genetic Resources”". The emphasis will be on measures for capacity building and international cooperation that strengthen national plant breeding plans and programs, in particular in the developing countries and those with economies in transition.
GIPB will be launched during the first meeting of the Governing Body Meeting of the International Treaty in Madrid, Spain. To develop a plan of action and the structure of GIPB a two-day Stakeholder Forum will be held from 12-13th of June 2006, at Madrid, at the margins of the meeting of International Treaty. Results of stakeholder discussion would then be presented to the national and international delegates at the ‘'Side-Event on Tthe Global Initiative for Plant Breeding Capacity Building’' scheduled on 14th of June 2006. Please join us for the discussion and joint planning in Madrid.
For further details contact:
Eric Kueneman, Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome, Italy; Email:eric.kueneman(at)fao.org
Elcio P. Guimarães, Email:elcio.guimaraes(at)fao.org
Making Sense of Biotech Crops
- Why Files, Univ of Wilconsin, May 4, 2006 http://whyfiles.org/240GM_1/index.php?g=4.txt
In our search for dead bodies in the biotech fields, we recalled the monarch butterfly. A report in 1999 warned that a dusting of Bt-corn pollen could kill these well-loved, long distance migrants.
While it's true that Bt crops are supposed to kill lepidopterons, including butterflies and moths, it turned out that the pollen itself was not toxic enough to banish the butterflies.
We also scrounged around for evidence that weeds have become resistant to Roundup (active ingredient, glyphosate). That issue arises from the danger that resistance genes could be carried by pollen to wild plants or weeds. In Canada, the gene may have moved from engineered canola plants into weeds of European origin, Roush notes. He says the overall advantage of Roundup Ready seeds persists, at least to the farmer: The glyphosate-resistant weeds can be killed by other herbicides when the field is planted to wheat.
But in a some other instances, genes for glyphosate have raised exactly the specter of rampant weeds and genetic pollution that critics have long warned of. In a test of lawn grass that was genetically modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate, the modified genes were found up to 13 miles away, even though the test was supposed to be done under isolation. Most of the genetic pollution occurred downwind, where 75 of 138 "sentinel plants" and 29 of 69 naturally occurring plants became resistant to glyphosate. The recipient plants, Snow notes, are already considered weedy (see "Evidence for Landscape ..." in the bibliography). The turf-grass has not gotten commercial approval, and the application has attracted opposition among scientists and biotech opponents.
Several other weeds are suddenly developing resistance to glyphosate, including a nasty agricultural pest called horseweed. It's not yet clear whether this is due to widespread use of glyphosate, or to the use of GM crops that are genetically resistant to the herbicide.
Could genes for herbicide resistance escape? Here's what the US Department of Agriculture says: "In 2000, horseweed (Conyza canadensis) became the first weed species to develop resistance to glyphosate in cropland where glyphosate-resistant soybeans were grown. Glyphosate-resistant biotypes of horseweed have now been confirmed in 13 states east of the Mississippi River."
What is the body count?
In our search for bodies from the wave of biotech seeds, this was about it: Some evidence that genes are straying from transgenic crops. That could be the first indicator of massive environmental harm, but it still seems a bit light, given the tenor and scale of the early warnings, and the scale of the spread of biotech crops to new countries, new crops, new acreage.
Strangely, despite all the hype about improved productivity from GM seeds, we have seen only incremental improvements, if any at all. And yet the documented harm must be weighed against a bunch of benefits to farmers, and of course to biotech giants like Monsanto, but also to the environment. Using glyphosate instead of more toxic herbicides is one benefit. To mention another, think about no-till agriculture, which reduces the amount of tractor work on a field. No-till reduces soil erosion and compaction, and cuts pollution of surface and ground water.
But the reduction in tillage makes fields more susceptible to weeds. But if you plant glyphosate-resistant crops, you can spray them with glyphosate and kill virtually all weeds, so the GM crop may persuade more farmers to adopt no-till agriculture. Less tilling translates into less fuel used, less carbon dioxide in the air, and less global warming. A recent report claimed that herbicide-resistant crops are reducing carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to pulling 5 million "average family cars" from the road.
But is the lack of disasters evidence of safety? We asked Kenneth Worthy, who covers affairs biotechnological at the department of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California at Berkeley. "Lack of disasters is by no means certain nor an indication of safety," he wrote back. "Partly because of the complexities of monitoring public and ecosystem health, disasters might take years or decades to develop and become perceptible. ... Disasters are by no means the only possible form of detriment to society and nature of GMOs. Examples of non-disaster problems include gradual loss of biodiversity and crop diversity, low-grade and other difficult-to-detect forms of illness, such as food allergies (which may have already ensued), increased loss of local control over crops (and benefits), and legal quagmires."
Waiting for a disaster "is also logically problematic from the standpoint of the precautionary principle," Worthy wrote. "Waiting for disasters and other problems to appear as a result of the proliferation of GMOs, and then claiming that they are safe when problems are relatively few and/or not readily observed and/or non-catastrophic, begs the question of whether such GMOs were adequately tested before their release (and whether they could be) and, in a sense, colludes in making the environment and peoples' health a test bed for these new technologies."
And while many supporters of biotech think regulation is working, Worthy does not. "Given the plethora of U.S. and other governmental agencies that are mutually responsible for monitoring and regulating GMO introductions, the complexities of monitoring ecosystem health, the lack of basic scientific understanding of the ecological behavior of transgenic organisms, and the dearth of specific regulation regarding GMOs in the environment, it is difficult to even imagine that oversight in the U.S. is adequate."
been touted as good for the environment and the grower, but as we go to press, we read this: "No large-scale studies had been performed to simultaneously test whether they have favorable agricultural effects and minimal impacts on non-target arthropods [insects]" (see "Farm-scale Evaluation..." in the bibliography). Those with a keen memory will recall that the highly targeted nature of Bt crops, combined with the ability to increase yields, were both early promises of biotech crops.
Biotech crops have not lived up to the promise, says Delborne. "The depressing reality is that so many of the promises of the early pioneers of agricultural biotech have not come through." The present crops, he says, "have no real benefit to consumers, and don't address the kind of problem they said they would solve. We still hear, when they discuss the promise of biotechnology, about drought resistance, less reliance on pesticides, increased productivity, more environmental friendly production, and very few of those have come to pass."
The fears that accompanied the introduction of genetic engineering may still taint the present discussion over moving genes across species, but it's instructive to see how far we have come in the 30-odd years since genetic engineering became a reality. "There is a lot less to be scared of," says Roush. "To put it in context, the meeting at Asilomar in 1975 put out all kinds of scenarios. All those fears proved to be exaggerated or misplaced. The kind of things that were banned are now done as experiments by high school students, basic manipulation of bacteria. There was a worry: What if these things get loose, is there a way for the bacteria to go bad in the field or in humans? ... Now we routinely grow lots of things in labs that raised questions back then."
We asked Allison Snow of Ohio State to make some sense of the regulatory tangle that has arisen over biotech crops. "One mistake that people make is to group all GM crops together, all the ones now and in the future, and try to generalize," she said. "You can't just group all GM crops and say they all safe, or all are dangerous. It's much more logical to look at their characteristics, look at what is different. Is there any reason to think they might have health and environmental risks?"
In this regard, we note that some biotech proponents think the technology would be wasted on making turf grass resistant to herbicides. Technology that carries some risks may be justified if it can help feed the world, they say, but not when used to benefit lawns and golf courses.
Research and regulation of biotech crops, Snow adds, must "make sure this powerful technology is used in appropriate way." Even if the existing technologies seem safe, the second wave of agricultural biotech -- aimed at producing proteins or vaccines -- raises a different set of concerns. "But if you look at the crops that are out there now, it's just a handful -- mainly corn, soy, cotton, and canola. The type of trait is limited mostly to herbicide resistance and Bt, and we know a lot about those traits. I don't think it's a surprise that there has not been any major problems, even with the large acreage, but this is only a few crops."
Princeton President-Emeritus Urges Scientists to Engage in Dialogue, Humility
- Edward W. Lempinen, AAAS, April 27, 2006
In the 2006 William D. Carey Lecture at AAAS, Princeton President Emeritus Harold T. Shapiro reminded scientists that their advances sometimes cause deep cultural uneasiness, and urged them to engage in constructive dialogue with other sectors of American society.
Science has brought extraordinary benefits and enrichment to society, said Shapiro, an economist, author and expert in bioethics. Still, he added, scientists must remember that humility and a willingness to listen can be crucial to the long-term health of their relationship with the broader society that supports them.
"We need to constantly remind ourselves that although science can be an independent agent of change, for the most part it is tied to the values, laws, incentives and aspirations of the social, cultural, political and economic environment," he said. "Friends of science need to understand that ultimately scientists and non-scientists alike are part of a common moral community, bound one to another by a shared vision of the kind of society we would like to become…and by the nature of the obligations we have to the interests of others. As a result, the scientific community has an enormous stake not simply in the amount of resources made available to them, but in the nature and health of the society we are trying to build together."
In his address, Shapiro stressed that science is more than the process of discovery and the application of new knowledge. It also is "part of a great humanitarian adventure aimed at the enhancement of the human condition and a better understanding of ourselves and the natural world," he said. Its discoveries have improved life and fundamentally changed civilizations, he said, but science must not forget that other individuals and other sectors of the culture are engaged in work that is similarly important.
"Humility remains an important human characteristic even for scientists," Shapiro said. "Scientists need to recognize, for example, that other areas of human activity also have been critical participants in this vast humanitarian effort, providing quite different but equally imaginative, equally creative and equally valuable contributions to the evolution of human societies. The evolving literary, artistic, political institutions and imaginations have also been central to this humanitarian enterprise, to say nothing of the world’s great religions, whose narratives have done so much to sustain human efforts over such a long period of time."
One root of the conflict is that the dramatic changes precipitated by scientific discovery--economic, ethical and cultural changes--make many people and groups uneasy. "The point is," he said, "that important scientific discoveries often disrupt those critical human narratives that, whatever their shortcomings, make life meaningful and sustain human efforts in the face of the many uncontrollable contingencies that impact the lives of individuals."
During his address, Shapiro also suggested that scientists be more understanding of the dilemmas confronting policy-makers. Different groups competing in the political and policy spheres have different visions and values; no group or interest holds the moral high ground alone. Compromise is essential, but on some acute disagreements, it proves almost impossible. It falls to public officials to work out the conflict, he said. Ultimately, he said, they have an unenviable job: They must take one side or another while trying to "hold out the possibility of sustaining enough social solidarity to enable initiatives to go forward."
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Nuffield Council of Bioethics - Reports on GM Crops
Its better to be sure about the Agribio technology rather than being sorry later!
- Nihal DeSilva -email@example.com-
Dr. Prakash, thank you for your response. However my main point to you still remains and that is there are so many unanswered questions in this new field of agribiotech to be reckoned by good scientific data. We in the field of medical biotech take a more conservative view about any new technology till it is proved beyond any experimental doubt that gene or other biological manipulations have any adverse effects on human health and the ecosystems in general.
This may be a tall order to you and others who wants to make that first step in a rather hasty manner before all the data is in. Lets make that first step a strong & firm one than a weak one and later to be regretted as shown by history for many hasty technologies adopted by man (e.g, thalidomide, DDT, etc).
Also my point about the beta carotene gene transfer was with reference to Prof. Potrykus first demonstration of the transfer of genes was from daffodils and not from rice or maize, thereby the first batch of golden rice will carry the gene constructs from daffodils rather then rice or maize, is this correct??
My point about Vitamin A as a determinant of night blindness, etc. in children in India refers to the fact that ingestion of vitamin A does also interact with other nutrients during the digestion process and pumping in vitamin A at higher concentrations may also interfere with absorption of other essential nutrients!
In other words what is important is to understand is that human nutrition is a very complex process and we need to have controlled studies on this aspect before we all get excited that just by having golden rice with enriched vitamin A contents will solve all problems of malnutrition in India or any other developing country.
We should always remember that people eat a varied diet and how the new rice will fit in with the traditional menus remains to be seen.
I certainly agree with you that this is a first step in a long journey, but let me assure you that medical biotech is far more complex than agribiotech is trying to do because ultimately you are dealing with human lives and not animal or plant life. We will have to very careful in the introduction of these new varieties of rice to developing countries due to the poor understanding of human nutritional processes and their interrelationships in various populations of different genotypes.
Any problems which arise will be quickly attributed to the Golden rice and that will bring an adverse reaction from the very people whom we are tending to help!
Response from Prakash:
Dr. DeSilva: There will always be a few unanswered questions on any technology all the time. That should not prevent us from progressively and cautiously moving forward. Aspirin was introduced hundred years ago and we are still learning about it but did not prevent us from using it or amending its use based on new knowledge. Commercialized GM crops undergo vast regulatory scrutiny and have proved very safe.
You are right: Too little little knowledge can be dangerous. Your own example of DDT proves this because hastily banning its use based on flawed-science has led to a million deaths every year in the third world. Thalidomide is a good example how science-based regulation prevented a major disaster in the US but a more scientific and rational approach (and not a knee-jerk reaction) has brought this drug back on the market.
Even if DDT or Thalidomide are the only egregious examples of hasty-technologies, then we have done very well overall because hundreds of technological interventions in the recent past have radically transformed the world where most people today live longer and better. The New Yorker cartoon that I have posted above exemplifies this so well.
Regarding the source of provitamin A genes, it does not matter where the golden rice genes come from! As I said earlier, the safety of the gene depends on what it's product does. As a medical professional you would recognize that Golden Rice contains beta-carotene which our body converts into vitamin A. There is no toxicity or dosage or interaction issues with the natural beta carotene in the golden rice anymore than that with carrots. Vitamin A has problems with dose and toxicity, but not beta carotene. Please, let us stop worrying about the non-existing risks here. Controlled and bioavailability studies will be performed on golden rice prior to its release.
I agree with you that much remains to be seen how this rice would fit in the menu, but I am confident all this be sorted out once the golden rice is made available to the consumer.
Being overtly apprehensive about golden rice is far more riskier. We have hundreds of thousands of kids going blind and dying every year due to the vitamin-A deficiency but invoking mundane academic arguments to delay this technology seems to me as penny-wise and pound-foolish ("poor understanding of human nutritional processes and their interrelationships in various populations of different genotypes").