Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - August 10, 2006
* Borlaug Interview by Penn Jillette
* Waterproof Rice Gene Identified
* ... Rice in Deep Water
* Cornell Study on Bt Cotton in China: Many Unanswered Questions
* No Need to Blind Me with Science - Give Me Some Hard Facts
* The Bias in "Future of Food"
* Biotech, Red in Tooth and Claw
* Radical Ambitions
* Indian Bt Brinjal (Eggplant) In Public-Private Partnership
Listen to Borlaug Interview by Penn Jillette
- Penn Radio - August 9, 2006 http://penn.freefm.com/
Special Guests: Dr. Norman Borlaug and Author Leon Hesser
Listen at http://podcast.penn.freefm.com/penn/25352.mp3
(from Prakash - Do not miss this lengthy interview! Much of the discussion is around green revolution, environmentalists, and GM crops)
Waterproof Rice Gene Identified
- BBC, August 9, 2006 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4777561.stm
Rice is the staple food for more than three billion people. Scientists say they have identified a gene that will allow rice plants to survive being completely submerged in water for up to two weeks.
Most rice plants die within a week of being underwater, but the researchers hope the new gene will offer greater protection to the world's rice harvest. Farmers in south-east Asia lose an estimated £524m ($1bn) each year from rice crops being destroyed by flooding. The findings have been published in the science journal Nature.
The team from the University of California, Davis, US, and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in the Philippines says the gene, called Sub1A-1, will give the plants greater protection against damaging flooding. They say it will also offer farmers greater crop protection, especially those who live in vulnerable areas.
Although rice production has doubled over the past 40 years, demand is continuing to grow. The crop is the staple food for more than three billion people around the globe. Attempts to breed that tolerance into commercially viable rice failed to generate successful varieties
Many rice growing regions in southern Asia are located in low-lying areas that are at risk from flooding during the monsoon season. Plants submerged in water for longer than a few days are deprived of oxygen and soon wither and die.
Dr David Mackill, from the International Rice Research Institute and one of the paper's authors, said scientists had been trying for half a century to develop a water resistant crop. "Several traditional rice varieties have exhibited a greater tolerance to submergence, but attempts to breed that tolerance into commercially viable rice failed to generate successful varieties," he explained.
Another member of the team, Dr Pamela Ronald from the University of California, Davis, added: "Our research team anticipates that these newly developed rice varieties will help ensure a more dependable food supply for poor farmers and their families." Takuji Sasaki, from Japan's National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences, said the researchers had succeeded where others had failed. "The particular impact of this study lies in [the] accurate and effective introduction of Sub1A-1 into local rice varieties subject to seasonal flooding."
The team members said that they were confident that "even more important" discoveries were in the pipeline.
Plant breeding: Rice in Deep Water
- Takuji Sasaki, Nature 442, 635-636, August 9, 2006 www.nature.com
Many otherwise productive cultivars of rice suffer badly if immersed in water for long. The identification of a gene variant that confers tolerance to this threat has practical potential.
Like all crops, rice plants of course require water to grow. But you can have too much of a good thing: when excessive water results in prolonged submergence, the effects on rice production can be devastating. Hence the significance of Xu and colleagues' investigation of the genetics of submergence tolerance, described on page 705 of this issue1.
Rice is an indispensable staple food, especially in the large areas of Asia, Latin America and Africa that are characterized by a semitropical climate with alternating rainy and dry seasons. Since the beginning of agriculture, rice plants have been adapted for a wide range of environmental conditions through continuous breeding and selection. Worldwide, more than 120,000 rice varieties have been bred to satisfy demands ranging from high yield potential, disease resistance, tolerance to stresses, good eating quality and increased nutritional value. Two of the best-known success stories are the introduction of semi-dwarfism in the late 1960s by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, which propelled the Green Revolution2, and the development of hybrid rice technology in the mid-1970s in Hunan, China3.
Together, these developments have had astounding results: rice production has doubled over the past 40 years. Nonetheless, demand for rice exceeds production, a situation that will get worse given the world's increasing population and the decline in extent of arable land. Production in regions where rice cultivation is subjected to stresses such as the seasonal flooding that occurs during the monsoon season, particularly the lowlands of south, southeast and east Asia (Fig. 1), is especially unpredictable. The rivers of these regions further contribute to annual flooding of low-lying agricultural lands. Floods during and immediately following the rainy season can submerge young rice plants for several days, resulting in wilting and often death.
This is where Xu and colleagues1 come in, for they have characterized a major rice gene that confers tolerance to prolonged submergence. They used a conventional genetic mapping approach to identify a stretch of DNA -- a 'quantitative trait locus' -- associated with immersion tolerance in a particular rice cultivar that has that trait. This locus, Submergence 1 (Sub1), occurs on chromosome 9. Xu et al. found that three genes of the ethylene-response-factor (ERF) family are sequentially arrayed in this locus. A variant of one of them, Sub1A-1, was found only in submergence-tolerant rice and could induce intolerant varieties to survive prolonged periods of immersion.
Full commentary at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v442/n7103/full/442635a.html
Cornell Study on Bt Cotton in China: Many Unanswered Questions
- Dr. Peter Langelüddeke, Nelkenweg, Hofheim, Germany; p.lalue.at.t-online.de
> Re: Tarnishing Silver Bullets: Is this the end of gm cotton in China?
In Germany, some press reports concerning problems with Bt cotton in China caused quite a stir.
This study was mainly conducted in 2004 by Shenghui Wang, Cornell Ph.D '06, now an economist at the World Bank. In five major cotton growing Chinese provinces (Hebei, Shandong, Henan, Hubei and Anhui), she and her team interviewed 481 cotton farmers as to their experiences with Bt and non Bt cotton.
The summary was: "Seven years after the initial commercialization of Bt cotton in China, we show that total pesticide expenditure for Bt cotton farmers in China is nearly equal to that of their conventional counterparts, about $101 per hectare. Bt farmers in 2004 on the average, have to spray pesticide 18.22 times, which are more than 3 times higher compared with 6 times pesticide spray in 1999. Detailed information on pesticide expenditures reveals that, though Bt farmers saved 46% Bollworm pesticide relative to non-Bt farmers, they spend 40% more on pesticides designed to kill an emerging secondary pest. These secondary pests (one example is Mirid) was rarely found in the field prior to the adoption of Bt cotton, presumably kept in check by bollworm populations and regular pesticide spraying. The extra expenditure needed to control secondary pests nearly offsets the savings on primary pesticide frequently cited in the current literature."
The explanation proposed by the authors was: "When U.S. farmers plant Bt crops, they, unlike farmers in China, are required by contracts with seed producers to plant a refuge, a field of non-Bt crops, to maintain a bollworm population nearby to help prevent the pest from developing resistance to the Bt cotton. The pesticides used in the refuge fields help control secondary pest populations on the nearby Bt cotton fields."
This study leaves a lot of open questions as it is dealing nearly exclusively with the economic situation of the farmers, but not with the biological prerequisites. It is hardly understandable that a more or less uniform development should have occurred in such a wide geographical area which covers a distance from North to South of more than 1.000 kilometers.
The secondary pests mentioned were mirids, but no details were given on single species. No details were given on other secondary pests such as aphids, plant hoppers, white flies or spider mites. No details were mentioned on the insecticides used, on specific recommendations or spraying regimes. Nothing is mentioned on possibly required resistance of mirids or other secondary pests to insecticides. Moreover, mirids are not known to be specialized on one specific plant species.
Could not the infestation have occurred from non-crop areas or from other crops? Thus, it is hardly understandable, why just the absence of refuge areas could be responsible for the occurrence of the apparently very hard infestation by mirids (and others?). By the way, as only sixty to sixty five percent of the total cotton area is planted with Bt cotton, could not the rest of thirty five or forty percent be considered as refuge fields? How is the distribution of Bt cotton fields?
Are Bt fields and non-Bt fields cultivated side by side? Or are the Bt fields concentrated in special areas or at special sites? What happened in the following year 2005? If the problems caused by secondary pests are as serious as described in this study: Why did the majority of Chinese cotton farmers continue to plant Bt-cotton in 2005? In this year, the total cotton area was slightly reduced, and the Bt-cotton area was slightly reduced as well. But the percentage was more or less the same, 60 to 65 %.
Can anybody give better and more detailed informations?
>"Seven-year glitch: Cornell warns that Chinese GM cotton farmers are losing money due to 'secondary' pests". http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/July06/Bt.cotton.China.ssl.html:
>Shenghui Wang, David R. Just, and Per Pinstrup-Andersen: "Tarnishing Silver Bullets: Bt Technology Adoption, Bounded Rationality and the Outbreak of Secondary Pest Infestations in China." http://www.grain.org/research_files/SWang_tarnished.pdf
No Need to Blind Me with Science about GM Crops - But I'd Like Some Hard Facts
- Joe Barry Irish, Independent,August 8, 2006
GM crops are easier to grow because of their resistance to specific sprays that control weeds and they can also be engineered to resist pests that would otherwise destroy them. From what I have heard and read, this seems to be the case and trials are continuing to test their suitability in different conditions.
I do not, of course, have a deep and scientifically based knowledge on their possible long-term effects, beneficial or otherwise, so I must reserve judgement until the matter is proven, one way or the other.
I often privately wish that someone would produce a genetically modified oak or ash with perhaps the genetic traits of Sitka spruce that would enable it to grow straight and true without endless shaping and management. But in saying this I accept that I am not sufficiently informed about the science and real facts to make a balanced decision.
The bit that worries me about the entire debate is how real, provable facts appear to play a very small part in the anti-GM propaganda that is continually being churned out to the media by activist groups and protestors.
Some time ago I attended a meeting in Summerhill, Co Meath, to discuss the whole topic of growing GM foods and the proposed trial plots of GM potatoes that are planned nearby. I have no doubt that the speakers were sincere in their opposition to GM technology and its planned introduction to Irish farmland, but I do wish they and their fellow protestors would not keep repeating the same old litany of hints and insinuations. You do not convince anyone by using words such as "it is believed that" or "we have heard" or "some recent trials suggest". Irish farmers want hard provable facts, not vague inferences and prejudice. There were about 30 people present, which surprised me as I thought the meeting would be better attended, but there were a few concerned farmers there and one man I spoke to said he was disappointed with the lack of real information.
It was a pity that someone in favour of GM technology was not present to speak and provide balance to the discussion. I have not heard anyone from Teagasc or our other research organisations speak out against GM foods and it would be helpful to hear their views. No one, myself included, wants to be faced with a possible 'contamination' of adjoining crops by genetically modified ones but it seems almost impossible to find out the real truth among the storm of warnings and accusations.
Only one speaker at the Summerhill meeting impressed me and that was John Brennan from the Leitrim Organic Farmers Co-op. He had travelled quite a distance to air his views and he spoke with great conviction when he stated that we knew too little about GM technology to risk introducing it to the Irish countryside. His fears and those of other organic growers are real and I would imagine that they have a genuine concern for the future market value of the crops they produce.
Irish Independent, 8 August 1006. By Joe Barry.
Recently I read an article that linked GM foods with chlorine gas and a few other well-known nasties. World War I and even the Vietnam war also got a mention, as did just about everything that we perceive as being potentially harmful to humans.
As far as I can recall, this article even claimed that if pollen from a GM crop reached a conventional crop of corn, that crop became the property of the firm that grew the GM crop originally. This assertion was also made at the Summerhill meeting.
Right now, someone, somewhere is probably blaming the crisis in the Lebanon on GMOs. I find it difficult to believe that any of this is true and I do wish that the more radical opponents of GM technology would stop scaremongering and stick with facts.
The same applies to the campaigns against waste incineration, windmills for electricity generation and just about anything that represents change. Windmills are not "mincing machines for birds," as was written some time ago, nor do properly managed incinerators create deformed infants.
For an another viewpoint check out www.gmoireland.blogspot.com where at least you will be able to enjoy an alternative opinion to that of the anti-everything lobby.
The Bias in "Future of Food"
- Rick Roush, rtroush.at.ucdavis.edu; AgBioView, August 10, 2006 www.agbioworld.org
According to an interview in the Sacramento Bee (1), Deborah Koons Garcia says that she used berate friends who ate meat. She has calmed down a little, the paper reports, but not much. "I'm almost like a food fanatic". She decided to make a movie that took on genetic engineering and the corporatization of agriculture.
We should be concerned about concentrations in the food industry, and buying local is a great way to support farming and diversity. However, the film is very one-sided, frequently misleading on facts, and shows that Garcia has never had to try to make a living as a farmer.
Garcia puts her audience in an emotional mood at the very beginning of the movie by implying that 20th century ag grew out of war. Film of tractors and WWI tanks is interspersed. With background footage of bombing WWI, Garcia claims that the manufacture of nitrogen-based bombs in WWI led to the development of nitrogen-based chemical fertilizers, which are implied to be part of the industrialization of agriculture and therefore part of the problem.
However, nitrogen based fertilizers are necessary to feed 40% of today's 6 billion people. There simply isn't enough land or sources of organic nitrogen to otherwise produce the food (3). The key process for nitrogen-based fertilizers, the synthesis of ammonia, was invented by 1909 by Fritz Haber, who was at the time concerned about fertilizer. The world's first ammonia plant was operating in 1913 through the refinements of Carl Bosch. Although it is true that the Haber-Bosch process was used for bombs, war delayed its application to agriculture, rather than promoted it. Haber himself was a pacifist, and was forced out of Germany by the Nuremburg racial purity laws (along with Einstein and many others) and died in exile (3). Koons Garcia probably doesn't know or care that she has sullied the memory of a gentle man who worked for the benefit of mankind.
Here are a few examples of other claims and statements that should raise questions about Garcia's credibility:
- GM insect resistant corn is not registered as an insecticide, nor are plants bred with natural chemicals to protect against pests and diseases registered as insecticides.
- Individuals and companies have owned the rights and had other intellectual protections for breeding for decades, a key example by hybrid corn, such as the sweet corn you might plant in your garden. If you copyright your work in a CD or a film, why can't breeders gain a return on their work?
- Biotechnology companies haven't and are unlikely to be able to monopolize seed. The commercial seed market only comprises about 33% of the total volume of seeds used globally. Another 33% is farmer saved-seed and the remaining 33% comes from national/public institutions. Over 1000 separate seed companies supply the commercial seed market globally. In 2002 the ten largest global seed companies had combined seed sales of $7.1 billion, which represents less that 24% of world sales. As one of largest commercial seed companies, Monsanto offers for sale about 3% of the world's seeds. Growers have choice about where to buy their seed. By the way, Monsanto is a company worth about $8 billion and is smaller than Qantas airlines by any measure. Bill Gates is still personally worth about $50 billion.
- There have been extensive international studies into the health and safety issues of GM crops. A 2001 report from the European Union on GM crops and food, for example, reviewing work of 400 research groups done at a cost of US$65 million, found that GM:
- has no new risks to human health or the environment, compared to conventional plant breeding.
- is more precise technology and greater regulatory scrutiny, probably safer than conventional plants and foods (http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/quality-of-life/gmo/index.html)
- Garcia intensifies the emotional impact by showing a tearful Mrs. Percy Schmeiser, and presents Percy Schmeiser himself as a nice old guy and innocent victim of Monsanto. Garcia either ignores (or is blissfully ignorant of) the facts the Schmeiser was found by both a trial and appellate court in Canada to have deliberately selected for Roundup resistant canola, including spraying 3 acres of his crop with Roundup and saving seed from the surviving plants (which he estimated to be 60%).
Independent of and prior to his activities on GM, Schmeiser had been banned from his local town office in the 1990s under notice from the Labour Department for allegedly causing "the (Bruno) town administrator of 10 years standing . . . to suffer an emotional breakdown." In 2003, the town had another clerk, but Schmeiser's conduct "is alleged to have been personally offensive" to her as well. The town council banned Schmeiser from being present at council meetings (from the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, May 20, 2004).
- Contrary to the implication from Garcia that Monsanto dropped the case, the Nelsons settled their case out of court. When you settle out of court, both sides drop their legal action. This is covered in a document released by Kimbrell's Center for Food Safety.
- Antibiotic resistance makers. Antibiotic resistance experts are not concerned with the use of antibiotic resistance genes that have been used in GM crops. The most common one, to kanamycin, is a resistance that is already widespread in humans that the antibiotic no longer has medicinal use. In any case, the problem of resistance is not the presence of resistance genes, but intensive selection for resistance by excessive use of antibiotics.
- Few critics of GM suffer problems at their jobs for doing so. John Losey, who is mentioned in the film, has been tenured at Cornell without any apparent problems, despite the fact that his claims on Monarch butterflies have been rejected by further experiments.
- The "revolving door" examples cited in this documentary are misleading, e.g,. Donald Rumsfeld served as Chief Executive Officer, President, and then Chairman of G.D. Searle & Co., a worldwide pharmaceutical company from 1977 to 1985. The "old" Monsanto Company (which merged in 2000 with Pharmacia & Upjohn Inc. to create Pharmacia Corp.) did not acquire Searle until 1985.
- Ann Veneman served on the board for Calgene i Davis. Veneman's tenure on Calgene's Board was prior to "old" Monsanto's acquisition of the company.
- As long as we are on the subject of conflicts of interest, Garcia names agricultural economist Charles Benbrook as a former Director of the Board on Agriculture. In fact, he was fired from that post in 1990, and has more recently worked for the organic industry, such as serving as the science director for the Organic Center for Education and Promotion.
Garcia can afford to buy any food she wants, but not everyone can; the great majority of consumers want their food to be as cheap as possible, and this is a major cause of the demand for efficiencies in agriculture. Buy local if you can, but farmers also have to serve a market that wants cheap food with no environmental impacts during its production.
Organic farmer Judith Redman is right when she says that a lot of us don't know what it takes to grow food. Unfortunately, that makes it easier for people to be taken in by this movie.
Producer and writer Garcia has allegedly claimed that "I'm hoping this film can be a combination of Silent Spring and The Battle of Algiers"(2). In contrast, she's probably come closer to emulating the style of Leni Riefenstahl, German WWII propagandist.
Garcia has been quoted as saying that she often sees people cry during the film, or they "get so freaked out about food that they stay awake at night and end up going through all their cupboards checking ingredients and chucking food." Such emotional appeals to panic can hardly be seen as the basis of an informed debate.
References and Notes:
1. Alison apRoberts; electronic copy on March 31, 2005
2. The Future of Fraud, By Andrew Walden, 9/12/2004 http://www.hawaiireporter.com/story.aspx?a4881406-157b-41a7-a3c6-4f503627b2d9
3. For a review on the importance of nitrogen fertilizers, see a paper by Nobel Peace Prize winner and breeder Norman Borlaug at http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech_info/topics/borlaug/borlaugspeech.html;
For more details on the significance to agriculture, see Vaclav Smil. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001.
The following website specifically disputes the claim that the Haber-Bosch process was a breakthrough which enabled Germany to go to war in 1914, or that the German government had even thought about nitrogen before the war: http://www.ingenious.org.uk/Read/Conflict/Waristhemotherofinvention/Isinventionthemotherofwar/
For a brief biography of Haber, see http://www.soils.wisc.edu/~barak/soilscience326/haber_amsci.htm
Both Bosch and Haber separately won Nobel Prizes.
Biotech, Red in Tooth and Claw
- Nathaniel C. Comfort, American Scientist, Sept-Oct 2006 http://www.americanscientist.org
"Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life. Lee M. Silver. xvi + 444 pp. HarperCollins, 2006. $26.95."
The conflict between religion and science is one of the greatest stories ever told. It is a chivalric war, centuries old--a grand and ceremonious fight between two camps, each of which believes itself self-evidently on the side of right. With John William Draper's magisterial three-volume work of 1875, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, a canonical narrative began to emerge. In it, science, as the expression of reason, eroded the cultural power of religion, as the embodiment of superstition and dogmatism. Copernicus removed the Earth from the center of the cosmos. Darwin lowered man to the level of the animals and eliminated God from creation. And more recently, Watson and Crick opened the door to engineering life, turning us into God Himself.
The story contains a kernel of truth, but the history of science is more than the conquering of spiritual darkness by the light of reason. Both religion and science have mixed legacies; both have done harm as well as good. And both tend to be most dangerous when they become dogmatic and intolerant, and when they confuse faith with knowledge.
Strange to say, but Challenging Nature, a new book by Princeton molecular biologist Lee M. Silver, shows a Victorian perspective on science versus religion to be ideally suited to cheerleading for modern biotechnology and genomics. Silver uses the unreconstructed science-religion conflict as a foil for that old-time scientism: the belief that true knowledge can come only from natural science and that technology can therefore solve all social problems. So convinced is he that technology--especially biotechnology--is good for what ails us that he can see only one reason someone would disagree: Any opponents of biotechnology, he says, must be blinded by spirituality.
Other modern-day scientific fundamentalists, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, tend to confine themselves to particular debates, such as anti-evolutionism. But Silver takes on all comers: clean-cut pro-life vigilantes of the Religious Right, bearded and Birkenstocked tree-huggers and whale-savers, European "Frankenfood" protesters, cloning opponents, homeopaths and a rogue's gallery of mystics, mountebanks and dewy-eyed do-gooders. The book is therefore refreshingly undogmatic politically, and there is much to agree with as Silver attacks biological knee-jerkism on all sides. Ideologically, however, he is as doctrinaire as his opponents. He dismisses opposition as ignorance, skepticism as superstition, doubt as sentimentality.
Silver begins with a quick tour of the religious or spiritual beliefs of various cultures, from Indonesia to Latin America to his local rabbi and a Christian friend. Religious belief is universal, he shows, and so diverse and relative that the concept of God or gods can only be a human invention, created to explain that which we cannot understand. He then introduces science as the antithesis of spirituality: objective, unbiased, based only on facts, free of belief or dogma. It is an old-fashioned positivist account, straight out of Draper's 1875 text. For decades now, historians have been adding texture and perspective to this cartoon version of science, revealing it as a complex, social human activity--grounded in empirical observation, to be sure, but also conditioned by politics, economics and, yes, belief.
The core belief of science, of course, is that the supernatural is superfluous. The fact that science involves belief does not invalidate the enterprise; the risk is not in keeping the faith but in failing to recognize it. That failure marks the scientistic True Believer, the dogmatist. "I simply don't have ‘faith' in anything," Silver writes.
He then turns his materialist eye toward a wide range of beliefs about the natural world. With lawyerly ruthlessness, he examines questions of the soul: Who has got one, and when does he get it? Silver makes a neat argument here. He shows how blurry are the borders of the individual, using Siamese twins, split-brain patients, cultured cell lines, artificially fertilized embryos and teratomas as examples. He challenges believers to identify the moment when the individual becomes ensouled. One cannot reconcile biological reality with belief in a soul, he concludes.
Yet, he continues, insistence on some version of a supernatural vital spirit not only persists, it seems to be growing in magnitude and spreading across the political spectrum. Conservatives tend to favor strict Christian interpretations, and many on the left have adopted what he calles a post-Christian stance that ascribes a vital spirit to some vaguely defined "Mother Nature."
This makes for some mighty strange bedfellows in the fights against pesticides and fertilizers, genetically modified food, environmental degradation and reproductive technologies. In all these cases, Silver argues, an emotional attachment to one or another notion of spirit leads to irrational protests that often run counter to the interests of the protesters themselves.
Give him an "A" for effort: He goes to extraordinary lengths to force reality to fit his conclusion. He portrays his opponents in the weakest light, considering only their flimsiest arguments and knocking down straw men. For example, in his sometimes trenchant critique of organic farming, he implies that the entire modern enterprise is infected with the mysticism of Rudolf Steiner (the 19th-century German philosopher and educator who coined the term), ignoring the many hard-headed and scientific organic farmers today.
Wilderness preservation is a futile exercise, he says, because no place on Earth is untouched by human influence. He paints biodiversity as a useless concept, because politically correct liberals stump for it without understanding ecology. Supplemental vitamins are pointless because most people meet the recommended daily allowances in their normal diet. He ridicules "the assumption made in the 1970s . . . that each time a species went extinct, an ecosystem became less healthy"--a patently absurd view, which Silver presents without attribution. He admits of no genuinely thorny issues; his opponents are all ignorant or misguided and his solutions are all simple, once you see his side.
A vision of nature straight out of Tennyson complements Silver's Victorian picture of science and religion. For Silver, nature is red in tooth and claw, a vast and vicious competition among selfish individuals and among selfish genes. The only alternative he presents to this view is a new-age-y image of trans-species collaboration and a "central biospheric authority." Scientists, however, have cultivated a broad middle ground between these extremes.
Behavioral ecologists have shown that cooperation often plays a significant role in an ecosystem. Coevolution is the norm in parasite-host relationships. The mature Gaia hypothesis, which Silver dismisses as mere spiritualism, in fact generates testable, materialist hypotheses about the emergence of self-regulation in complex systems. Research in such areas has, interestingly enough, tracked the rise in the proportion of women in science in recent decades.
Silver needs such a macho, 19th-century view of nature to support his oddly Biblical vision of man's dominion. If nature is ruthless and cruel, then it is our duty to subdue it, to bend it to our needs. The first step in this process was the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago. In an eye-poppingly ahistorical passage, Silver attributes this invention to "the abstract concept of genes" entering "the tribal consciousness." Gregor Mendel, eat your heart out.
Such passages would be funny if they did not lead to such frightening conclusions. Silver sees the history of technology as a story of uninterrupted progress in quality of life--without recognizing the parallel histories of environmental and sociopolitical impacts. He laughs off the highest extinction rates in the history of the planet, countering with the non sequitur that extinction can also occur without human intervention. He presents the Green Revolution of the 1970s as a remarkable achievement in raising food production and reducing starvation. It was all that, but it also made farmers more dependent on corporate agribusiness, and it increased water and soil pollution due to the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
He waves away the enormous and inherently unforeseeable risks involved in human genetic engineering (not to mention the mixed consequences of globalization), writing "It's nice to hope that a single globalized human society will provide the means for all people . . . to live free and healthful lives, taking advantage of the benefits that biotechnology and other technologies can provide." ("Pollyanna n : one who is unduly optimistic or achieves happiness through self-delusion"--Oxford English Dictionary)
Silver despairs of romantics who wish to improve health and save nature by reducing our dependence on technology. The only solution to our current environmental and health problems, he argues, is to adopt a full-throated engineering approach to nature, both human and organic. He envisions a comprehensive climate-control program in which we would dial up our ideal annual rainfall and temperature cycles, regulate growing seasons and decide which regions are going to be deserts, which lush forests and which fertile grasslands. He imagines the same oversight in the obstetric wards: Parents will design their offspring's qualities, perhaps ticking off desired traits on a checklist, eliminating diseases and enhancing abilities. Silver insists that we not let sentimental attachment to some vaporous ideal of pure nature or spirit stand in the way of creating true happiness and harmony with technology.
The problem is that we don't know what we don't know. Like reading glasses, technology magnifies and sharpens the near field but makes the distance blurry. The history of science and technology is stuffed with examples of shortsightedness and unintended consequences. Just after 1900, when Mendel's laws of heredity came to light, geneticists thought that they now had enough knowledge to take control of human evolution. Their false confidence contributed to a eugenics movement that sterilized thousands of Americans and provided the blueprint for the Nazi race-hygiene program.
Similarly, no one intended to melt the icecaps, decimate wildlife populations, fill fish with mercury or wreathe our cities in toxic chemicals. Those things have happened accidentally, as the long-term effects of short-term solutions. Such disasters might have been lessened had we been more aware of our own ignorance. Humility in the face of nature's complexity is not spiritualism. It is realism.
Nathaniel C. Comfort is an associate professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock's Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control (Harvard University Press, 2001).
- Alan Oxley, TCS, Aug 9, 2006. Full commentary at http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=080906A
Have you noticed that the leaders of the global NGO movement, such as WWF and Oxfam, no longer demonize the World Bank as a tool of the free market? They reckon they have brought it to heel. Given how James Wolfenson indulged them while he ran the Bank, they are entitled to think so. Their current goal is to compromise the WTO in similar fashion. While Greenpeace has been direct about this, Oxfam and WWF have played a slyer game. However their response to the suspension of the negotiations in the Doha shows their true anti-development hand.
Last week Greenpeace, Oxfam, WWF and International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) signed a joint letter to the International Herald Tribune calling for a "complete change in the mind set (towards multilateralism) so that multilateral strategic responses to interconnected challenges can occur", now that the Doha Round is stalled.
Why are they using this UN-style mumbo jumbo? It's what UN bureaucrats use when they want to mask their real intent. So what are the NGOs hiding? It is radical ambition -- they want to make the WTO a regulator not deregulator of global trade, as well as the global police to enforce labor standards and green policies. They want the WTO to mandate trade sanctions to force governments to adopt green policies on forestry and climate change.
And then there is Greenpeace. Consistent with the "Bad Cop" role it seems regularly to play to the "Good Cop" message WWF loves sending to the corporate world, particularly prospective donors and funders ("we are the suits of the environment movement, you can talk to us" ), Greenpeace was one of the most vociferous critics of the WTO. Its message was not coherent -- it rarely is -- and was probably tuned to keep the subscriptions rolling in. Once the WTO had been turned into the icon of the anti-globalization movement, this bandwagon was irresistible to Greenpeace.
With this background, the double Dutch about "strategic responses to interconnected challenges" should be clear. The "interconnection" that unifies the four signatories to the letter to the IHT is the common desire to cripple the WTO.
This is masked behind a call for a new "pro-development agenda". This is cant of the highest order. They wish to gut a system which has been more successful than any other to relieve poverty and reduce starvation. In the last 50 years, more people have been lifted out of poverty and at a faster rate than any time in human history.
And they wish to reintroduce the development economics which the post colonial leaders in Africa and Asia used to set India on the road to slow growth and reduced prosperity in most economies in Africa.
Their agenda is an "anti-development" agenda. They would prefer a world which was green, anti-free market and unionized than a world with growth and prosperity. Expect them not to try to bury the WTO.
Alan Oxley is a former Ambassador to the GATT, the predecessor of the WTO and Chairman of World Growth.
Indian Bt Brinjal (Eggplant) In Public-Private Partnership
- C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India
Hyperlinks at http://www.fbae.org/Channels/Views/indian_bt_brinjal_in_public.htm
The Indian private seed companies profited till now from the basic technology and crop breeding material from the public sector, be it the R & D institutions of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research or State Agricultural Universities and their stations or the Agricultural Research Stations of the State Governments. While a good part of this technology transfer was above board, some seed companies were often accused of appropriating the technology without authorization or recompense. Even some of the scientists involved in R & D in the public sector were accused of having kept their research under wrap till retirement and of selling it to the private sector post-retirement.
Now the first step in changing this practice is taken by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco), the target board of Indian anti-GE activism. Mahyco is transferring the technology and basic breeding material of Bt brinjal to two public sector institutions (PSIs), the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore (TNAU) and the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad (UASD), though the ownership of the GE event EE-1 still rests with Mahyco. This partnership arrangement will be extended to the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Varanasi, University of Philippines, Los Banos, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute and a private seed company, East West Seeds, Bangladesh.
The Bt brinjal contains a gene construct of Cry 1 Ac from Monsanto, the American MNC, which has a 26 per cent stake in Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (MMB). The PSIs will now use the Mahyco material to backcross with their own brinjal varieties to incorporate the genetic event into them, imparting tolerance to the fruit and stem borers of brinjal that cause severe damage to the produce.
In India alone, 25 million farmers cultivate brinjal on over 5.1 lakh hectares with an annual production of about 8.2 million tonnes. Even after continuous insecticide application, the stem and fruit borers affect 50 to 70 per cent of the crop annually.
Mahyco has integrated EE1 into eight of its own brinjal hybrids (MHB 4, 9, 10, 80, 99, 11, 39, 111) and sought permission of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for large scale open field trials (LSOFT). The activists contested the move, but not on any sound scientific grounds. The GEAC has put all the biosecuirty data provided by Mahyco on its website for public comment. The approval of the GEAC for LSOFT has to come yet.
The TNAU will use brinjal hybrids Co-1, PLR-1, MDU-1 and KKM-1 while the UASD will use Manjari Gota, Udupi Gulla, Malapur local, Kudachi local, 112-GO hybrids and Rabkavi local, together covering a large part of the needs of the four southern States.
So long as the PSIs do not involve in commercializing these Bt varieties, no royalties need be paid. The farmers can save the seed to raise the subsequent season's crop, unlike the Bt cotton hybrids. What costs the farmers would have to pay for different varieties of Bt brinjal is yet unknown.
It is not clear if the PSIs made any lump sum payment for the transfer of technology, which seems to have been effected through the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II, funded by the USAID and managed by the Cornell University.
The situation is welcome change as the development of none of the 60 or so Bt hybrids involved the PSIs. There were very steep royalty or trait charges paid by the farmers, which was one of the most serious criticisms against MMB. In addition, there is the inadvisability of recycling the seed.
While this much-awaited private and public partnership is refreshing, celebration should be put on hold for several reasons.
The Bt brinjal EE1 event did not originate with PSIs, not even with Mahyco; it is Monsanto's technology. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) has been developing a Bt brinjal with Cry1Ab for nearly a decade, and its progress is anybody's guess.
Of the 67 or so GE crop traits registered for development in India, the largest number (39) are from about 20 PSIs. In spite of working for 10 to 15 years, not even a single trait is likely to be commercialized in this decade, not withstanding the enthusiastic announcements on marketing them soon. None of the events that are now being commercialized or in the process of commercialization in the near future have originated in this country; it is imported technology, bought or even pirated, directly or indirectly.
It is hard to believe that this new largesse of Mahyco is due to a change of heart; business compulsions and strategies cannot be ruled out. People who forget history will be condemned to repeat it.
India's Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTPC) ruled against MMB on charges of monopoly, which virtually ended this year. Distributing the Bt brinjal event to a few other seed developers may avoid a repetition of such an allegation.
The original four Bt cotton varieties of Mahyco were neither genetically superior nor suited to all cotton growing regions. Even with some 40 to 60 different Bt cotton varieties today, one is not sure that every cotton-growing region in the country is being served well. One would wish that more varieties of Bt brinjal with superior genotypes would be developed for the other regions of the country as well.
The royalty or trait charge component of Bt cotton was high. Hopefully, MMB would take note of the rough weather faced by Bt its cotton and fix reasonable costs.
The move to allow some PSIs to share the Bt brinjal technology is good for the public image of Mahyco, viewed as contributing to the much-aspired private-public partnership. And it would certainly take a lot of wind out of the anti-tech activists' tirade against MMB.