Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - December 18, 2006
* A Defeat for Freedom and Reason
* A Failure of Hope
* EFSA Wants to Your Input on Safety and Nutrition of GM
* EU Report on Biotech: Prospects and Challenges for Ag in Europe
* Transparency to Biosafety research
* Scientific Risk Assessment of GM Crops Within the Wider Risk Analysis?
* GM Food Allerginicity Risk Assessment
* India: Gujarat Farmers Beat Monsanto In Bt Cotton (by Pirating the Seeds)
* What 'Genetically Altered' Means
* Environmental Hysteria
A Defeat for Freedom and Reason
- Thomas Papworth (UK), Liberal Polemic (A site for political analysis and opinion of an avowedly liberal perspective. It's all about freedom); Dec. 17, 2006
I am increasingly convinced that an epic struggle is underway between the forces of reason and those of ignorance, between progress and fear. That’s a pretty bold claim, and includes language usually reserved for Channel 4 adverts for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the fact remains that science and progress are under threat from a vocal and sometimes criminal minority.
Yesterday a Derbyshire farmer withdrew from a trial of genetically modified potatoes due to take place next year on the grounds that he fears for his personal safety. He claims to have received threatening phone calls. This reminds me of the incident in 2001 when protesters (including environmentalist and journalist George Monbiot) destroyed GM crop-trial in Flintshire, only two of whom were tried and given what were cursory fines. It is also linked to other anti-scientific movements.
In fact, nobody has ever proved any risk to health as a result of consuming GM crops. America’s 280 million people have been chomping their way through GM products for a decade without one recorded ill effect – despite this being the country where a man can sue Michael Jordan because he looks like him! The leading scientific academies of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, the UK and the USA have all declared that GM foods are safe.
Furthermore, GM crops have clear beneficial effects. They are great for the six million poor Third World farmers who grow them: Chinese farmers have seen profits rise by $500 a hectare; South Africa’s small scale cotton farmers have seen profits rise by three quarters; the reduced reliance on pesticides and herbicides has also reduced the damage to these farmers’ health. It also has a positive knock-on effect on the environment for the same reason. The "Golden rice" that is being produced is an odd colour because it contains a higher than normal amount of beta-carotene. If cultivated and consumed widely around the world it could alleviate the half million cases annually of child blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency. Plants are being modified to make vaccines to protect people against hepatitis and diarrhoeal diseases that cause millions of deaths.
The fear of GM crops is an irrational result of a number of factors. The fear of science is as old as science itself, championed by the Church and the subject of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In the case of food-fear, it began to gain real ground in Britain after the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis. Though this was a tragic episode, the ramifications of which thousands are still having to live with, it had nothing to do with GM food. Rather, it triggered a wave of food paranoia that still clouds debate in the UK today.
Debate is, in fact, what we need. Food safety is an important issue, but so is poverty alleviation, environmental protection and (dare I say) the economics of food production. Rational debate about the balance between these is necessary, as is a serious examination of the risks and rewards of using GM crops. What cannot be tolerated is that a small minority of ignorant zealots can be allowed to disrupt scientific research and threaten people’s safety.
As with the criminal activity of antivivisection extremists (plenty of examples of which are already well known), it is essential that the Government and the police take a firm stand. The use of "direct action" in the name of the public interest or the supposed rights of animals is not only illegal but a threat to democracy. If we are all free to damage property and intimidate people associated with things with which we disagree, we are living not in liberty but in anarchy. These actions undermine freedom in the name of irrational beliefs.
Today’s story is a defeat for reason and for freedom. I hope it proves to be a rare one.
Thomas Papworth is a political commentator, liberal activist and politician, writer, amateur economist and professional policy analyst and researcher.
A Failure of Hope
- St. Louis Today, Dec. 13, 2006 http://www.stltoday.com/
Josef Stalin, who would have known, is said to have told Winston Churchill at Potsdam in 1945, "A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic."
In Africa, the World Health Organization reported two years ago, a child dies of hunger every five seconds: That's 5 million a year. In Africa, where 915 million people live, 216 million of them are officially "malnourished," which can mean anything from badly fed to starving to death.
Those are statistics. Stalin's definition notwithstanding, they also are tragedies. Human tragedies, to be sure, but scientific, bureaucratic, cultural and political tragedies as well.
In "Feeding Africa," a three-part series of articles published in the Post-Dispatch this week, reporter Eric Hand and photographer Dawn Majors outlined the dimensions of the hunger problem in Africa, as well as what some people and institutions in St. Louis are trying to do about it. The articles were informative, inspirational and, ultimately, infuriating.
A big part of the solution to Africa's hunger problem could be growing right now at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur and in greenhouses in Earth City. Plant scientists are cultivating disease-resistant varieties of the cassava plant, an easily-grown, highly nutritious tuber about which the Nigerian poet Flora Nwapa once wrote:
We thank the almighty God
For Giving us cassava
We hail thee cassava
The great cassava
Cassava is an opportunist: It grows in rich soils, it grows in poor soils and it doesn't need much rainfall or fertilizer. The only downside to cassava is that it's prone to something called mosaic virus, which wrecks its leaves and thus stunts its growth. In affected regions of Africa, nearly half of the cassava crop has been destroyed by the virus.
Enter scientists Roger Beachy, head of the Danforth Center, who developed the technique to genetically modify plants such as cassava to resist such viruses, and Claude Fauquet, also of the Danforth Center, who has been applying the technique. Enter, too, the Monsanto Co. and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which have funded the work. And enter the Danforth Center's Lawrence Kent, whose job it is to persuade African nations to accept this miracle, free of charge. The cassava project is the first not-for-profit biotech product to be offered to the world.
One would think Mr. Kent's job would be easy. Tragically, as Mr. Hand's series makes clear, it is anything but. Most African nations are leery of genetically modified plants, even those that could save millions of their people from famine. Their reasons are cultural (they claim GM cassava is not as good); economic (they want to protect potential organic crop exporting business to GM-phobic European markets) and political (they're wary of losing market share to American companies). Besides, some say, they're working on a naturally resistant strain of cassava that will be better than the biotech version. Some day.
From an American point of view, this is maddening. As Mr. Hand notes, Americans believe in taking great risks to achieve great rewards. Europeans, and in this case Africans, culturally are more cautious; they prefer to wait on a sure thing. They also prefer to protect their own products from foreign competitors.
Still there is hope in the cassava project, and inspiration. That American genius and generosity, nurtured in St. Louis, one day might help save millions of lives is no small thing. But there is frustration, too, in that politicians and bureaucrats in Europe and Africa would act out of fear rather than hope, would rather see hunger as a statistic, not a tragedy.
EFSA public consultation on a Draft Report on the Safety and Nutritional assessment of GM Plant derived Foods/Feeds - The role of animal feeding trials
- European Food Safety Authority, Deadline for comments: January 31, 2007
EFSA is seeking views of scientific nature from interested parties, Member States and stakeholders before finalization of this draft report. The report discusses the various elements of the safety and nutritional assessment procedure for genetically modified (GM) plant derived foods/feed, in particular the use of animal feeding trials for safety and nutritional testing.
Comments should be submitted at the latest by 31 January 2007 by using the EFSA consultation form, as can be at http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/science/gmo/gmo_consultations/gmo_AnimalFeedingTrials.html
More information on GMO and EFSAat http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/science/gmo.html
EU Draft Report on Biotechnology: Prospects and Challenges for Agriculture in Europe (2006/2059(INI))
- Rapporteur: Kyösti Virrankoski, European Parliament - Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development
According to Prof. Vivian Moses, the motion appears to:
* Encourage efforts to develop biotech in the EU as a way of improving the economic viability and environmental sustainability of agriculture
* Use biotech and GM to facilitate more sustainable farming practices, better food, increased yield and higher quality and more diverse products
* Acknowledge the importance of biotech in various fields
* The contribution it can make to reduced plant protection product use
The Motion also calls on the Commission to establish a high level group comprising the Council, the European Parliament and the Commission itself to plan a strategy on biotech for agriculture in the EU.
Transparency to Biosafety research
Does genetically modified maize have an impact on beneficial insects? How does genetically modified oilseed rape affect pollen-collecting bees? How can transgenic pollen and seeds be prevented from spreading in the environment? These are just some of the questions being investigated in biological safety research worldwide. Answers and research findings, which are otherwise usually made public only at scientific conferences and congresses, are now available in English at GMO-Safety.eu
The information portal was commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and over the recent years has become the central information hub for everything to do with biological safety research in Germany.
How Does Scientific Risk Assessment of GM Crops Fit Within the Wider Risk Analysis?
- Katy L. Johnson, Alan J. Raybould, Malcolm D. Hudson and Guy M. Poppy (email@example.com) , Trends in Plant Science, Jan. 2007. Elsevier Ltd , doi:10.1016/j.tplants.2006.11.004
The debate concerning genetically modified crops illustrates confusion between the role of scientists and that of wider society in regulatory decision making. We identify two fundamental misunderstandings, which, if rectified, would allow progress with confidence.
First, scientific risk assessment needs to test well-defined hypotheses, not simply collect data. Second, risk assessments need to be placed in the wider context of risk analysis to enable the wider ‘non-scientific’ questions to be considered in regulatory decision making. Such integration and understanding is urgently required because the challenges to regulation will escalate as scientific progress advances.
GM Food Allerginicity Risk Assessment
- Biotech Business Week, December 18, 2006 (via Vivian Moses)
Excerpt: Study 2: Researchers review experimental models for risk assessment of food hypersensitivity diseases related to genetically modified plants in a recent issue of Pharmacology and Therapeutics.
According to their review, "The recent advances in biotechnology in the plant industry have led to increasing crop production and yield that in turn has increased the usage of genetically modified (GM) food in the human food chain. The usage of GM foods for human consumption has raised a number of fundamental questions including the ability of GM foods to elicit potentially harmful immunological responses, including allergic hypersensitivity."
"To assess the safety of foods derived from GM plants including allergenic potential, the U.S. FDA, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)/World Health Organization (WHO), and the EU have developed approaches for evaluation assessment," said Vanessa E. Prescott at Australian National University and Simon P. Hogan at the University of Cincinnati in the U.S. "One assessment approach that has been a very active area of research and debate is the development and usage of animal models to assess the potential allergenicity of GM foods."
"A number of specific animal models employing rodents, pigs, and dogs have been developed for allergenicity assessment," stated Prescott and Hogan. "However, validation of these models is needed and consideration of the criteria for an appropriate animal model for the assessment of allergenicity in GM plants is required. We have recently employed a BALB/c mouse model to assess the potential allergenicity of GM plants. We have been able to demonstrate that this model is able to detect differences in antigenicity and identify aspects of protein post-translational modifications that can alter antigenicity."
"Furthermore, this model has also enabled us to examine the usage of GM plants as a therapeutic approach for the treatment of allergic diseases," the scientists added.
"This review discusses the current approaches to assess the allergenic potential of GM food and particularly focusing on the usage of animal models to determine the potential allergenicity of GM foods and gives an overview of our recent findings and implications of these studies," noted the authors.
Prescott and Hogan published their review in Pharmacology and Therapeutics (Genetically modified plants and food hypersensitivity diseases: Usage and implications of experimental models for risk assessment. Pharmacol Ther, 2006;111(2):374-383).
For additional information, contact Simon P. Hogan, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Molecular Bioscience, University of Cincinnati Medical Center, Cincinnati Children's Hospital, 3333 Burnet Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45220, USA. Simon.Hogan.at.cchmc.org.
India: Gujarat Farmers Beat Monsanto In Bt Cotton
- Soumitra Trivedi, Business Standard (India), Dec.15, 2006 http://www.business-standard.com
The agricultural and cotton experts of Gujarat state claim that Gujarat's cotton farmers have made 30-40 lakh (1 lakh = 100,000) packets of hybrid cotton seeds by cross breeding male traits of Bt cotton with desi cotton female traits.
Meanwhile, as per an estimate the Bt cotton monopoly holder company Monsanto-Mahyco has sold only 10-12 lakh hybrid cotton seeds packets in the state.
The state farmers have cultivated cotton on 24 lakh hactare area and out of that around 60 per cent area is cultivated with hybrid cotton seeds. The agricultural experts are expecting a crop of whooping 110 lakh bales of cotton this year while according to the government estimate the state will produce around 90 to 95 lakh bales of cotton this year.
While talking to Business Standard an agriculture department official said that this year the state has cotton cultivation on 24 lakh hactares of land and out of that some 60 per cent area is cultivated with hybrid cotton seeds. A cotton farmer needs one packet (450 grams) of hybrid cotton seeds per acre.
As per an estimate the monopoly holder of Bt cotton seeds Monsanto -Mahyco and its licensee companies have sold 10-12 lakh cotton seed packets in the state this year.
The rest of the Bt cotton cultivation area is cultivated with the hybrid cotton seeds that the farmers have made on their own by cross breeding male traits of hybrid cotton with local cotton.
Claiming that the seeds were developed not from the second or third generation of Monsanto's Bollguard but from Navbharat 151 and its variants, JV Shah, the ex managing director of Gujarat Seeds Corporation, said, "The farmers have carried out cross breeding between the males of Navbharat 151 and its variants and have produced these seeds. They have to go for this cross breeding because they can not afford the high prices of Monsanto's Bt seeds. One packet of the the company made seeds costs them around Rs. 900 per packet. Last year they have sold it for Rs. 1,400 per 450 gram packet. While the self developed cross breed cotton seeds is much cheaper."
As per the Monsanto-Mahyco company's announced sales figures the company and its licensee companies had sold 22, 577 packets of Bollguard cotton seeds in 2002 Kharif in Gujarat, while in 2003 the sales were 1,04,401 packets, 3,32,404 packets in 2004 and 3,65,392 packets in the year 2005. As per an estimate the company expects to have sold around 10 to 12 lakh Bollguard cotton seeds packets in the current year.
Talking about the other advantage of the self developed cotton seeds Shah, who is presently working as the principal advisor of Navbharat Seeds Pvt. Ltd, said, "State's farmers also know that the crop of company made BT cotton seeds is a long term crop and they can not harvest it before February. In that case they can not take Ravi crop even if they want to. While the crop from the cotton seeds they make is a short term crop. So by the onset of Ravi season their farms are open to take another crop."
Navnharat 151 was banned by the government and a case under the Environment Protection Act was lodged against the company with allegations of harming the farming lands.
The company claims to have already stopped the production some five years ago. The company also claims that the Navbharat 151 brand seeds and now its variants are the most sought after cotton seeds in the state.
Agreeing to that Abhinav Shukla, the general secretary of Ahmedabad Textiles Manufacturers Association (ATMA) said, "The local seeds made by cross breeding is more successful as far as my experience is. These hybrid seeds crossed between BT cotton and local types of cotton males and females traits are more sought after seeds in the state as they suit the local climate and the type of land. Personally I believe that the government should promote and encourage the local companies who can and want to develop and produce their own BT cotton seeds."
What 'Genetically Altered' Means
- Letters, Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2006
That nearly half of those surveyed oppose introducing "genetically modified foods" and would be unlikely to eat them -- a decade after these foods became a routine part of most Americans' diets -- suggests the need for caution when using polls to predict consumer behavior. Discomfort and stated opposition do not always translate into outrage, boycotts or even a snub.
From my work in this area I know that on issues such as biotechnology, where knowledge is low, opinions are often influenced by word choices. For example, a majority of Americans support "using biotechnology to develop new varieties of crops, such as corn and soybeans," but a majority oppose "using biotechnology to genetically modify foods." Genetically modified foods sound bad; new varieties of crops sound good.
Similarly, although consumers feel uncomfortable about "animal cloning to make genetically identical copies," nearly two-thirds
expect cloning to become a routine animal breeding technique. The same proportion say that if the Food and Drug Administration determines it is safe, they would buy or consider buying meat and milk from the offspring of cloned livestock.
While opinion research is a helpful tool in understanding consumer awareness and perceptions, it should be interpreted cautiously in predicting behavior.
- Mark David Richards, Washington. The writer works at a public opinion research firm that has biotech companies among its clients.
The main reason people are uncertain about genetically engineered foods is the inadequate regulatory system at the Food and Drug Administration. In contrast to almost every other country growing biotech crops, the U.S. government does not approve those crops' safety before they are eaten. Why should consumers -- here or abroad -- embrace biotech foods if the FDA hasn't determined that they are safe? A law requiring approval of biotech foods would improve consumer confidence in those products and be a boon to farmers whose crops are being shut out of foreign markets.
The media don't always help put Americans' minds at ease either, as the poll cited in the news story indicated. For instance, it's misleading to say, as the article did, that eating highly processed soy lecithin or corn syrup made from genetically engineered crops means we're eating "gene-altered" foods. No altered genes or proteins end up in those products.
- Greg Jaffe, Director, Biotechnology Project, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington
- Tristan, Dec 5, 2006
I harbour a deep dislike for environmental hysteria. It is unhelpful, it obscures the facts and what is needed and most importantly debate.
I'm also developing a like for the US TV show Bullshit. It takes a rational, sceptical look at beliefs. This episode is on environmental hysteria, and the nonsense which is spouted (see link above)
For me, some of the key moments is Patrick Moore co-founder of Greenpeace explaining why he left the organisation...
"The environmental movement was basically hijacked by political and social activists, who came in and very cleverly learned how to use green rhetoric or green language to cloak agendas which acutally had more to do with anti-corporatism, anti-globlasiation, ant-business and very little to do with science and ecology. That's when I left."
That sums up the problem very nicely. The causes of global warming are not clear, although I agree it looks like there is a strong component of human action. The consequences are even less clear, although we are now starting to get more level headed looks, there is still too much hysteria.
You see the non-environmental issues being pushed clearly when you see people calling for less globalisation and trade as a solution to global warming, but the Stern Review (used to back up these views) clearly says that that is the worst possible situation and it is best to increase trade and globalisation.
The world faces many environmental challenges, some are known, some are as yet unknown. The severity of most are not fully known, the solutions are far from clear. We do the world a great disservice if we allow debate to be replaced by sensationalism and pure sentiment, if we allow the environmental movement to be dominated by political and social interests. We should learn from Gladstone here - he fought against the interests of classes against the masses. We should be doing the same, and we must remember the classes will claim to represent the masses, but we know from experience they do not.
As for solutions: The biggest step we could make towards reducing environmental damage is to increase prosperity across the globe. As people and societies become richer, so the environmental damage they do decreases. This is for many reasons, but clearest is perhaps the fact that if you're not struggling for existence from day to day you can actually take time to value your environment and take steps to protect it, rather than simply exploiting it for survival.
This can only be achieved by free trade and opening up our markets to foreign competition (and of course, we will benefit from this too, its a truly win-win situation)
Other solutions include green taxes (or Pigouvian taxes) which internalise environmental damage into the financial world, helping us make the most efficient use of our resources, and technological advance, which is responsible for all our efforts to repair and prevent damage.
Note that environmentalist hysteria tells us that technology is evil, globalisation and free trade are tools of the imperialist (which couldn't be further from the truth) and that taxes, instead of being set to internalise the damage and with other taxes being decreased to ensure no increase in overall taxation, should be punitive.
It also calls for restrictions on our freedom, banning actions which are deemed 'bad' and forcing us to do things they consider 'good' (like recycling, even if it pollutes more) This is not the language of environmentalism, it is the language of the far left. We have seen it before, but it claimed to be concerned for the poor.
We need sensible debate, not hysteria. We should not dismiss someone because they go against the orthodoxy, we should listen and argue based upon evidence. We risk doing incredible damage to the environment, and causing immeasurable suffering to many people, if we do not approach this sensibly.
There have been innumerable environmental scares in the past. At least one has caused mass suffering with the resulting actions (the banning of DDT in all situations when it is the best means to prevent malaria). We must be sceptical, rational and sensible, not hysterical.
Comments: Joe Otten ...
There are two phenomena here which are in danger of being lumped under hysteria.
First there is the anti-science anti-trade wing of the environmental movement. Although there are hysterics among it, this isn't intrinsically hysterical, just wrong. One could take a quite balanced view of environmental problems and still advocate mystical or marxist solutions based on the same woolly thinking that would have suggested mystical or marxist solutions to other problems in the past.
The other phenomenon is the appallingly low standard of media reporting of scientific questions, be they health-scares, environmental-scares, or anything else vaguely technical that might sell papers. Good science and bad reporting compete within the environmental movement for influence.