Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org, April 18, 2007
* The 'Golden Potato': a new source of beta-carotene
* 'Bt cotton not caused any negative impact on safety'
* State envisions Biotech policy
* 'Only intensive farming' will feed Britain
* 47pc would grow GM forage crops
* Approval sought to field test brassicas
* GM trial sows hope for farmers
* USAID Director Sees Nothing Wrong With Biotech
* GM Crops Could Save World Of Food Woes
* Equine Cloning to be Discussed
* Argentine cow clones to produce insulin
* Cattle gene expression altered by chromium
* Lithuanian government disapproves second field trial application
* An Exercise in "Teaching" Biotech Controversy
* GMO Safety turns five
* An unhealthy obsession
The 'Golden Potato': a new source of beta-carotene
- News release from ENEA (National Institute for New Technologies, Energy and Environment, Italy), unofficial translation by AgBioView's Italian correspondent, April 13, 2007
A new potato variety 'GOLDEN POTATO', enriched in beta-carotene, has been developed in the Laboratories of Biotecnologies of ENEA and Freiburg University by genetic engineering. The provitamin A content was increased 3.600 fold, so that 250 grams of 'GOLDEN POTATOES' are equivalent to 50% of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), as compared to 900 Kg of the parental potato variety (Desirée).
Vitamin A deficiency is one of the main malnutrition problems in the world, causing diverse illnesses among which blindness: a WHO assessment in 2002 suggested that 350,000 children go blind every year because of lack of vitamin A.
Africa, South-America and Eastern Europe, where potato is already being cultivated and where vitamin A deficiency is common due to rich sources of beta carotene, will be able to enjoy the benefits of this new potato variety without economic barriers because the 'Golden Potatoes' have not been patented and will be made available to everybody who wants to use them in breeding programs, within the framework of existing regulations.
Plos One www.plosone.org, an open access journal of the Public Library of Science, has published the research resulting from a collaboration of prof. Giovanni Giuliano's group at ENEA (Rome, Italy) and prof. Peter Beyer's group at the University of Freiburg, Germany.
The collaboration between the two research groups has already yielded several plant varieties enriched in beta-carotene.
Potato is the fourth staple crop as source of calories for human consumption after wheat, rice and maize; it belongs to the plant family of Solanacee (likewise pepper, tomato and eggplant) and human beings started its cultivation around 2.000 years ago on the slopes of South American mountains.
Contact for information: ENEA - Ufficio Stampa e Rapporti con i Media Lungotevere Thaon di Revel, 76 00196 Roma Tel.: +39.06.36272806 - 36272945 Fax: +39.06.36272778 - 36272286 E-mail: uffstampa AT sede DOT enea DOT it Web: www.enea.it
'Bt cotton not caused any negative impact on safety'
- The Hindu, April 15, 2007, http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/holnus/015200704151321.htm
Coimbatore - BT cotton has neither caused any negative impact related to safety of human or animal or environment nor has there been any crop contamination or pest resistance any where in the world for the last 11 years, an expert in the field and a key member of Mahyco-Monsanto team has claimed.
In fact, safety had been accorded the highest priority in biotechnology and in the last five years of its commercial cultivation in the country and for 11 years in on thousands of hectares in several other countries, it has an impeccable global safety record as are the other BT-crops, T M Manjunath in his just released book +Q and A on BT-Cotton India: Answers to more than 70 questions on all aspects, maintained.
The detractors of biotechnology did not seem to take cognizance of the facts that a number of experts drawn from various reputed institutions of India, used their collective wisdom in scrutinising the scientific data from various perspectives before approving any product as safe, Manjunath, a former Director of Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, and a key member of the Mahyco-Monsanto team which was responsible for the introduction of bt cotton in India, said.
Despite the continued opposition by "a small section", Indian farmers, who have been haunted by bollworms for more than three decades, had accepted this technology, he claimed.
This was reflected by the fact that area under bt-cotton, which was about 29,000 hectares in 2002, the first year of approval, has steadily increased from year to year to reach about 3.8 milion hectare grown by more than 2.3 million farmers in nine states by 2006, Manjunath said.
Presently, with the approval of more than 60 bt cotton hybrids developed by various Indian seed companies and also newer and improved versions of Bt-cotton, there would be an increasing demand for these transgenic seeds, Manjunath claimed.
Making an attempt to clear a lot of doubts and enable people to develop more confidence in crop biotechnology, Manjunath in his book said that coincidental with its steep increased adoption, the average yield of cotton in India increased from 308 kg per hectare in 2001-02 to 450 kg per hectare in 2005-06 with most of the increase in yield of up to 50 per cent or more, attributed to BT cotton.
The book, which desribed as very cruel the allegation that BT cotton was responsible for farmers' suicides, said it had no empirical basis. On the contrary, Bt cotton has come as a big relief to farmers and has saved their crops and enabled them to reap a better harvest and profit, Manjunath said.
In fact, an International Market Research Bureau survery in 2004 indicated that for every rupee spent by the farmers, they received Rs.5.80 in value for reduced insecticide cost and increased yield over conventional cotton, he said.
Further, BT cotton cultivation has started in India only since 2002, whereas the farmers' suicide had been an issue since decades, Manjunath claimed.
"Healthy criticism is welcome, but blind opposition and creating suspicion and fear through unsubstantiated allegation have no place in science." With vast resources, India has the potential to emerge as a supreme power in agriculture if modern technologies were appropriately reviewed and adopted and the farmers would be the greatest beneficiaries of agricultural biotechnology, Manjunath said.
State envisions BT policy, to make it strategic priority sector
- The Indian Express, April 17, 2007, http://cities.expressindia.com/fullstory.php?newsid=232183
GUJARAT is all set to get a biotechnology (BT) policy aimed at giving fillip to the cutting-edge sector by focusing on incentives, human resource development, and infrastructure development. Likely to be announced by in-charge Minister for Science and Technology Anandiben Patel on Wednesday, the policy would put in place a framework aimed at leveraging Gujarat's existing entrepreneurial strengths in pharma sector.
The policy document envisages BT as a delivery system for creating a disease-free and nutritionally-secure society with food security as part of the preamble. To begin with, it declares BT as a strategic priority sector for next 10 years.
Stressing financial incentives the document provides for 0.5 per cent of plan outlays dedicated specifically for BT every year. An elaborate financial mechanism talks of a seed fund for entrepreneurship development, and a concept fund for promoting Research and Development in the sector.
As of now, Gujarat has 40 BT companies and 66 support organisations in the State. Of this, 48 per cent are in manufacturing, 34 per cent in R&D, and the rest 18 per cent in services. The policy document that might get cleared with some minor changes, inform officials, plans for a number of institutes to promote human resource development in the sector. Institutes that are planned include Indian Institute of Biotechnology; Institute of Plant Genomics and Agri-Biotechnology; Institute of Animal Biotechnology, Food and Dairy Biotechnology; Institute of Marine Biotechnology; and a Biotech Business Management Institute. The document talks of university and institute-wise action plans, and customisation of new BT specific course at graduation and post-graduation levels.
A task force headed by Principal Secretary (Education) is provided for advising and monitoring of planning, implementation, and performance of HRD programmes. The government would promote R&D by emphasising doctoral and post-doctoral qualifications in centres of excellence to be set up for BT.
The policy would put in place specific zones some of which are: Vapi-Surat-Ankleshwar-Bharuch (for biochemical engineering); Vadodara-Anand-Nadiad for BT food processing; Ahmedabad-Surendranagar for biopharma; Jamnagar-Porbandar for marine BT, with each zone having a respective BT park.
'Only intensive farming' will feed Britain
- David Adam, The Guardian, April 18, 2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/food/Story/0,,2059592,00.html
Organic agriculture 'will never meet demand' - Professor warns of soaring prices and shortages
Britain must continue to intensify its farming practices to meet soaring demand for cheap food and prevent shortages, a leading agricultural expert said yesterday. Demand for biofuels, booming economies of developing countries and climate change will put demand on food supplies that can only be met by intensive techniques, said Professor Bill McKelvey, head of the Scottish Agricultural College. Prices could soar and future generations in the UK may find they can no longer take plentiful food for granted.
At a London briefing, Prof McKelvey defended intensive techniques and said alternatives such as organic farming would not cope with predicted growth in population. "There is a need to continue to intensify farming. Organic farming has a place but it will never feed the growing population of the world," he said.
Media criticism of modern farming techniques after the bird flu outbreak at the Bernard Matthews turkey farm in Suffolk had been unfair, he said, adding that intensive farming protects the environment because it reduces the amount of land used for agriculture. Europe would also have to overcome its "illogical" opposition to genetically modified crops to help boost yields, he said.
"In the UK, we are becoming less self-sufficient in food. I think it's possible in the next 25 to 50 years that there will be food shortages in the UK." The proportion of average British family income spent on food might double from 10% to 20%, he said. The UK currently provides 60% of its own food, and imports were increasing, said Prof McKelvey, who advises industry and the government.
With world population forecast to grow from 6bn to 8.5bn in 50 years, he warned that countries such as New Zealand that export food to Britain were likely to switch attention to China and India. Food demand there is increasing sharply and meat consumption in China has doubled in the last decade. Prof McKelvey said the solution was farmers producing more food on the same amount of land. Wheat production increased four-fold in the last 50 years and in the next 50 years would probably have to rise by the same level again, despite a shortage of suitable land. "There are only two ways to do that. We either take land from rain forests or we intensify existing farms. We will protect the wild environment by making better use of farms."
Plant breeding - conventional and using genetic modification - was the best way to produce more food from the same amount of land. Although very little is grown commercially in Europe, millions of hectares of GM crops have been grown across the world in recent years.
"Europe is going to have to face up to using GM crops," he said. Climate change is also expected to put pressure on food supplies, despite an initial boost in productivity for some crops.
Prof McKelvey said great swathes of agricultural land would be lost to desert, with the effects already felt in areas such as southern Spain. Bio-fuels, a suggested solution to global warming, could bring added problems for food production.
Patrick Holden of the Soil Association, which promotes organic farming, said "business as usual" intensive farming would not be possible in future because of the fossil fuel costs and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with nitrogen fertilisers. Organic farming could equal and sometimes even exceed the yields of chemical intensive farming systems. "The challenge that global agriculture confronts today is to research and develop these systems, because we are on the threshold of a post-fossil fuel era."
47pc would grow GM forage crops - survey
- Farmers Guardian (UK), April 17, 2007, http://www.farmersguardian.com/story.asp?sectioncode=29&storycode=8978
AROUND half of livestock farmers in this country would be prepared to grow genetically modified forage crops, according to a British Grassland Society survey.
The survey of society members found that 47 per cent would grow GM crops, 37 per cent 'were not convinced but could be persuaded' and 16 per cent were vehemently against the idea.
"We were surprised that only one-in-eight grassland farmers responding said they would never grow GM forage crops," said Jessica Buss, society director of the society.
"More than half of these declared they were organic producers, and perhaps this indicates why they would be against such new technology."
Three-quarters of the farmers said they would only use GM varieties if consumers accept the technology.
"So it is obvious that more positive messages about GM crops would need to be forthcoming for most farmers to feel comfortable about sowing crops," she said.
"Farmers' priorities for benefits of GM crops they would favour also proved different to the expected order - increased crop yield was close to the bottom rather than the top of preferences."
Top of the benefits favoured was reduced disease, followed closely by pest resistance and better nutritive value for stock.
The bottom two rated benefits were increased yields and the ability to spray weeds with less selective products.
Approval sought to field test brassicas modified to resist caterpillar pests
- Crop & Food Research (news release), April 2, 2007, http://www.crop.cri.nz/home/news/index.jsp
Keeping brassicas free from caterpillar damage - without the use of synthetic pesticides - is the goal of research being undertaken at Crop & Food Research near Lincoln, Canterbury.
Research leader Dr Mary Christey has produced plants of these species using molecular techniques - genetic modification - so that the natural pesticide produced by the Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria (known as Bt) is produced by the plant.
She is now applying to the Environmental Risk Management Authority for approval to undertake garden scale field tests in Canterbury of the pest resistant forage kale, cabbages, cauliflower and broccoli. A public hearing on this application begins in Christchurch next week.
Contained tests like this one have been possible under existing regulations for many years, and Crop & Food Research has conducted 34 similar field tests on a range of crops since 1988.
Crop & Food Research's General Manager Research Prue Williams says it is important that New Zealand scientists continue to explore the benefits of GM technology. "This application for brassica research falls within the Government's recommendation to 'proceed with caution'. What we learn from this study will be essential to robust assessment of GM technology.
"New Zealand must be involved with GM research in order to preserve options for the future. By staying on the leading edge of this research we can continue to explore science which should have outcomes of benefit to New Zealand."
Dr Christey has been working on the problem of brassica pests for more than five years and says there is great potential for Bt-producing plants to kill caterpillar pests.
"As anyone who grows cabbages knows, caterpillar pests can wreak havoc in a short space of time if they are not controlled.
"Under laboratory conditions, caterpillars feeding on cabbage which has been genetically modified so it produces Bt all die within 48 hours, and the plant is virtually undamaged."
The natural pesticide only kills the caterpillars that are feeding on these brassica plants, being mainly cabbage white butterfly, diamondback moth and soybean looper. These are serious pests of brassicas - the plant family which includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and forage kale - in New Zealand.
So far the work has been carried out in the laboratory and controlled glasshouses. It has proved so successful that Dr Christey now needs to test whether this success can be replicated under field conditions.
Bt has been used as a biological control for insects for more than 30 years. It is used by organic farmers worldwide as a spray. In addition more than 30 million hectares of genetically modified Bt crops were grown globally in 2006.
"The good thing about using Bt is that it has many different strains, and each strain is specific to particular pests. In addition, consumers of organically grown cauliflower and broccoli have been eating the bacterium for decades and It has not been shown to have any effect on the health of humans or animals."
Dr Christey says pest resistant brassicas could be grown with far fewer applications of pesticides. "In the US the average number of insecticide applications for cotton has decreased fivefold largely because of the introduction of Bt cotton. We expect that this pattern will hold true for pest resistant brassicas as well.
"This is a great trend in terms of the environmental sustainability of our food production and if pesticide use could be reduced even further that would be great for the environment."
The following video records caterpillars feeding on brassica plants over a 2 week period in a controlled laboratory situation. The Bt modified brassica plants are on the right and through the 2 week period grow considerably. Through the same period the caterpillars eat through the unmodified plants on the left. Brassica animation <http://www.crop.cri.nz/home/news/releases/brassica1.wmv> (Windows Media Player file -334 Kb) Brassica animation <http://www.crop.cri.nz/home/news/releases/Brassica-msif.mp4> (Quicktime mpg4 file - 385 Kb)
GM trial sows hope for farmers
- Peter Ker, The Age (Australia), April 18, 2007, http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/gm-trial-sows-hope-for-farmers/2007/04/17/1176696837334.html
VICTORIA'S first crop of genetically modified wheat is set to be growing within weeks, after a positive response from the federal regulator to a State Government proposal.
But the Government has been warned it must stick to strict safety measures if it is to proceed with the trial of drought-resistant wheat.
The Age reported in December that the Department of Primary Industries had applied to the federal Gene Technology Regulator for permission to grow GM wheat crops on two sites near Horsham and Mildura.
In its preliminary assessment, the regulator identified 15 potential risks, including the possibility of the modified species being uncontrollably spread by animals or weather.
But the regulator was confident that risks could be completely or significantly negated by precautions, including:
- A 490-metre exclusion zone between the GM wheat and any other wheat species.
- A 10-metre exclusion zone between the GM wheat and any other plant.
- A rabbit-proof fence more than a metre high around all GM wheat trial sites.
- A ban on the GM wheat being used for anything other than research.
The trial crops are part of an attempt to secure the future of wheat farmers, who have endured years of drought in the north-western parts of the state.
The application says the trial could begin in May, but may be delayed until June, with risk assessment and approval still to be to finalised.
Jessica Harris, a spokeswoman for Agriculture Minister Joe Helper, said the Government was trying several approaches to counter the impact of climate change and the increasing incidence of severe drought in Australia.
Ghana: USAID Director Sees Nothing Wrong With Biotechnology
- Patricia Ofori Atta, Public Agenda (Accra) web posted April 16, 2007, http://allafrica.com/stories/200704160951.html
The West Africa Mission Director of USAID, Dr J. Cheema has said that biotechnology is one of the tools that can help African countries to achieve sustainable agricultural growth.
According to Dr Cheema, African agriculture needs to grow faster not only to feed a growing African population, but also to raise incomes and boost trade if the continent is to improve its position in the world economy.
"However, it is not stand-alone solution and must be pursued in conjunction with other improvements in agricultural management such as seed delivery systems and appropriate regulations in order to encourage the private sector investment" she said.
She said this at the third ECOWAS Ministerial conference on biotechnology and biosafety in Accra, which adopted a five-year action plan on biotechnology and biosafety.
Dr Cheema said that effort and regional cooperation are required to maximise productivity and to ensure that biotechnologies are developed and used safely.
She said some experts have estimated that Africa's agriculture needs to grow at around 6 percent to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.
"As a new technology, a lot of questions have been raised about the safety of products of biotechnology but Africa believes it is important for their nations to develop regional regulations" she stated.
According to her, Africa's successes lies in soybeans, cotton and maize, while some of the technologies used in United States may have significant economic potential for the continent.
Dr Cheema said, there are other technologies, which have potential for West Africa such as genetically improved cassava with resistance to cassava mosaic diseases, and technologies to accelerate development of new varieties of crops and diagnostics for livestock diseases.
Speaking at the programme, the Agriculture Officer of Plant Production and Protection Department in Rome, Dr Kakoli Ghosh said biotechnology has increasingly presented many countries with a new policy in the economic development.
According to Dr Kakoli, a strong action oriented biotechnology policy and approach is needed to complement conventional technologies like plant breeding and diseases management systems to allow it to become apart of an integrated and comprehensive agriculture programme.
She stated that, her organisation is not aware of any scientific data on potential negative effects of GMOs on human health or the environment. However, the reluctance of GM companies to label their products sold n supermarkets has given consumers cause to worry that the industry has something to hide.
GM Crops Could Save World Of Food Woes
- Bernama (Malaysia), April 18, 2007, http://www.bernama.com.my/bernama/v3/news.php?id=257553
KUALA LUMPUR -- Genetically modified crops could be the answer to the world's food shortage in future, especially with the rapid growth of human population, Nobel laureate Professor Werner Arber said Wednesday.
He said genetically engineered crops would not only be able to meet increasing food consumption and help reduce hunger in the world, but could also provide the nutrients much needed by both humans and animals.
"The general public should not treat genetic engineering as a threat that could modify the DNA of living organisms, but should see it as an evolution process that takes place naturally in the environment," he told reporters after delivering a talk on "The Impact of Science and Technology on Civilisation" at Universiti Malaya, here Wednesday.
"It's a natural evolution of living organisms in our environment. It happens even without our permission and our consciousness," said the 1978 Nobel Prize winner in Medicine/Physiology for the discovery of restriction enzymes and their application to problems of molecular genetics.
Arber, 78, pointed out that the magnitude of genetic engineering under natural conditions and in the laboratories were of the same level.
The Swiss said that with the planet's growing population and with more land converted for non-agriculture purposes, there could not be enough food for everyone in years to come.
"Genetically engineered crops can improve nutritional value of food which human beings and animals depend on, such as vitamins and the essential amino acid which is not much available naturally.
"So genetic engineering can produce plants which have increased proportions of nutrients essential for the human diet," said Arber who is here on a two-day visit.
Arber who was here for the first time in 2002, said in tackling rising concerns over genetic engineering being abused, the civil society at large needed to play a bigger role in the matter.
"Scientists come up with new findings and assessment of the benefits and risks of these findings. But the people and policy makers should decide how they should control the impact of genetically modified organisms on their lives," he said.
Equine Cloning to be Discussed at Horse Expo
- TheHorse.com, April 17, 2007 (Article # 9407), http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=9407
Representatives from ViaGen will speak about the science of equine cloning and answer questions on the subject at this year's Western States Horse Expo, June 8-10 at the Cal Expo in Sacramento, Calif.
ViaGen, a livestock cloning company in Texas, in partnership with Encore Genetics (also in Texas), created the first commercial horse cloning operation in the United States. In 2006, the legendary cutting horse Royal Blue Boon became the first mare to be commercially cloned; the foal was named Royal Blue Boon Too. Shortly after that birth, a clone of the famous cutting horse mare Tap O Lena was born. Both foals were born on a farm in Purcell, Oklahoma.
With the creation of Royal Blue Boon Too, ViaGen and Encore Genetics have partnered to preserve some of the greatest genetics in cutting horse history. Royal Blue Boon, the donor mare, is the all-time leading producer of cutting horses in the world. At 26, the mare is at the end of her long and prosperous career and her productive days are well behind her. With that in mind, the owner of Royal Blue Boon, made the decision to clone her cutting horse champion.
Scamper, the legendary barrel racing gelding owned by Charmayne James, also has a clone.
The cloning process used with these horses is called nuclear transfer, in which DNA from a donor animal is gathered by taking a small tissue biopsy from the animal to be reproduced. This sample is shipped to ViaGen's laboratory where cells are grown in a culture. Then DNA from the donor's cells is transferred into eggs that have been stripped of their own genetic material. The new embryos are grown in an incubator for several days and then implanted into recipient mares. After a normal gestation period, the cloned foals are born.
"From the time I transferred the embryo into the recipient mare, these pregnancies were normal in every way and the births followed suit," said Jim Bailey, DVM, who oversaw the process with Royal Blue Boon and Tap O Lena. "The resulting foals were born normally and immediately stood to nurse. They bonded well with the recipient mares and continue to grow and play in the sun."
Whether or not you agree with cloning, come to the Horse Expo to learn from the ViaGen experts. Topics will include the cloning process, genetic preservation, and cost.
Argentine cow clones to produce insulin in milk
- Reuters (NZ), April 18, 2007, http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff/4030317a4560.html
BUENOS AIRES: Argentine scientists say they have created four cloned and genetically modified calves capable of producing human insulin in their milk, a step they said could cut the cost of treating diabetes.
The newborn Jersey heifers - who the scientists have named Patagonia 1, 2, 3 and 4 - will start producing the human hormone when they reach adulthood, said the biotechnology company behind the project, Bio Sidus.
"This model of a genetically modified cow is a model that allows us to produce large quantities of products at very low cost," said managing director Marcelo Criscuolo, adding that insulin produced by cows would be at least 30 per cent cheaper.
"The cattle-ranching know-how we have in Argentina has really given us a startling advantage in generating the technology," he said at a news conference.
To produce pharmaceutical products from cow's milk, scientists insert the human gene of interest into an embryo before implanting it into a surrogate mother cow. In this case they used a gene for insulin.
Once milk is obtained from the genetically modified cow, it will be purified and refined to extract the insulin. Similar techniques have already been used to produce human proteins in goats and cows.
Argentina, the world's third-biggest beef exporter, is famous for its sweeping Pampas grazing lands and it is one of a handful of countries to have cloned livestock.
Bio Sidus started with a cattle fetus taken from a slaughterhouse, removing selected cells from it and splicing in the human insulin gene.
Then they used cloning techniques to take the genetically modified nuclei from these cells and fuse them into cattle eggs. The cloning process starts the egg dividing as if it had been fertilised and they were able to implant four embryos in four surrogate mother cows.
The Patagonia calves, which were born by Caesarean section in February and March, take their name from the vast region that stretches to the tip of South America. Scientists hope the insulin produced in their milk could be on the market in the next couple of years.
Insulin is used to treat type-1 diabetes and the most severe cases of the more common type-2 diabetes, which is linked to obesity, poor diet and lack of exercise.
Patients with type-1 diabetes normally inject the hormone to control their blood-sugar levels.
There are about 200 million diabetics worldwide, and the Argentine scientists said just 25 insulin-producing cows would be enough for Argentina's 1.5 million diabetics.
The initial source of insulin in medicine was from cow, horse, pig or fish pancreases, because it is almost the same as human insulin. Most insulin is currently produced by genetically engineered bacteria in tanks.
Dairy cattle gene expression altered by chromium
- Dairy Herd Management, April 18, 2007, http://www.dairyherd.com/news_editorial.asp?pgID=675&ed_id=6399
A recent study at Washington State University shows that a specific nutrient can alter the expression of genes in the body fat of dairy cattle.
John McNamara, animal science professor, and Jennifer Sumner, Washington State University doctoral student and postdoctoral research associate, have demonstrated that chromium in the diet changes the metabolism of body fat in dairy cattle by stimulating the expression of certain genes while simultaneously decreasing the expression of others.
Though it had long been known that the mineral chromium is required in the diet for good health in both animals and humans, the specific role it played in fat metabolism and milk production had not been described until now.
Adipose tissue is key For more than 20 years, McNamara and his team have been working to identify genetic factors related to efficient milk production in dairy cattle. Knowing that adipose (fat) tissue plays an active role in successful reproduction and lactation, they centered their studies on identifying the metabolic functions of body fat. One of their main goals was to identify cows that gained neither too much nor too little weight during pregnancy and lactation.
When cows store too much body fat, energy is diverted away from milk production and instead goes toward storing more fat, McNamara says. "Yet if a cow does not store enough fat - or loses it too quickly - her immunity is impaired, causing inefficient production and leading to diseases like ketosis, milk fever and mastitis. Adipose tissue, in addition to being a major energy storage organ, is also a source of several powerful hormones that control food intake, inflammation and immunity."
Chromium supplementation In 2003, McNamara expanded his focus to include how cows vary in their use of specific nutrients - particularly in the time just before and after giving birth. His research showed that chromium supplementation increased feed intake and milk production in dairy cows.
The unique part of this work was showing that chromium changed the body fat metabolism, he notes. "It actually caused the cows to gain a little fat, which allowed them to make more milk but also prevented them from losing too much fat - it's a very fine balance."
Using adipose samples from their previous studies, McNamara, Sumner and researchers at Kemin Industries extracted the RNA and ran microchip array analyses to determine gene function. The study convincingly showed that chromium supplementation "upregulated" a number of genes, causing them to become more active, while others were "downregulated."
This is the first study to document nutrigenomic activity in the body fat of dairy cattle. McNamara and Kemin Industries have filed a provisional patent application for the discovery.
Basic biology At the same time, Sumner was conducting a companion study to measure gene activity in the adipose "lipolysis pathway" - which follows the breakdown and mobilization of fat tissue - a major contributor to milk production. Her work proved, also for the first time, that the point of highest gene activity coincided with the point of greatest lipolysis.
In essence, she confirmed that five major genes were upregulated during lactation, allowing the cow to utilize stored body fat for milk production.
"This is a novel finding for any mammalian species," says McNamara. These breakthroughs won McNamara and Sumner an invitation to the International Symposium on Energy and Protein to be held in Paris in September. They also garnered McNamara a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Research Initiative to continue his work.
"Now that we've confirmed one application of nutrigenomics in dairy cattle, we plan to study it in more depth," he says. "We can start to define exactly how genes in adipose tissue respond to different diets. It all comes back to the goal of breeding the most efficient animals for milk production."
Lithuanian government disapproves second field trial application
- Kate Snipes, USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, GAIN Report No. LH7003, April 12, 2007, http://www.fas.usda.gov/gainfiles/200704/146280798.pdf
The Lithuanian government recently rejected Monsanto's petition for field trials of a bioengineered corn product just two days after it disapproved field trials of a BASF transgenic rapeseed variety. Lithuanian officials did not follow their own regulatory procedures in making these decisions, relying instead on public opinion.
On April 6, 2007 the Lithuanian government disapproved field trials of a Monsanto biotech corn variety just two days after disapproving field trials of a BASF transgenic rapeseed variety. Regarding the decision on rapeseed, the National Biotechnology Advisory and Steering committees recommended approval of the trials. Initially, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Environment also were in favor of approving the petition, but the Ministry of Agriculture weighed in against the request. In the end, however, the Ministry of Environment, which has the final say on these decisions in Lithuania, rejected the request apparently because of lobbying by environmental political parties and a recent survey of Lithuanians that stated that 60 percent disapprove of biotech planting in Lithuania.
In the case of the Monsanto decision, the Ministry of the Environment issued its negative decision without soliciting input from the National Biotechnology Advisory or Scientific committees. In addition, this same week, a parliamentary committee on the environment also voiced its opposition to biotech plantings in Lithuania.
A report on the Lithuanian regulatory structure for biotechnology and more details about the BASF rapeseed decision can be found in GAIN report LH7002, "Biotechnology in Lithuania" from April 2007. The report can be found on the internet at http://www.fas.usda.gov/gainfiles/200704/146280747.pdf.
Comment: Post is concerned that the government's decision to ban field trials of these transgenic crops lacked a basis in sound science. In fact, for rapeseed, the negative decision ran counter to the opinion of scientific experts. Post will continue to monitor this situation and work with FAS/Brussels to ensure Lithuania remains in compliance with its EU and, ultimately, wider trade obligations concerning transgenic crops.
An Exercise in "Teaching" Biotech Controversy
- C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education Bangalore, April 17, 2007, krao+at+vsnl.com
Dr Suman Sahai of the Gene Campaign has published a 43-page booklet, 'Genetically Engineered Crops and Foods: A Primer' (www.genecampaign.org), as a 'guide to genetic engineering and the various issues related to it' to give readers 'a basic knowledge about this technology and help them to participate in decision making on genetically engineered crops and foods' (p3). Written deliberately to mislead the gullible media to Continue Repeating the Anti-GM Propaganda (CRAP) and misinform the public in an effort to denigrate modern agricultural biotechnology, this booklet would immensely please her ilk.
No one is forcing the farmers to cultivate GE crops or consumers to eat GE foods. They are consciously chosen, in spite of a vehement campaign against them by the likes of Suman Sahai.
Suman Sahai defines Genetic Engineering (GE) (p5) as 'a technology that can produce plants and animals that are not "natural", i.e., not possible in nature'. By this definition, products of plant breeding or for that mater of any human intervention are all unnatural. One should now be prepared for the regulation of IR64, Durum wheat and Triticale, though bred in the conventional way, are entirely man made and never existed in nature before.
She explains that in natural reproduction, rice crosses with rice and pigs cross with pigs (p6), while 'with genetic engineering you can cross rice with pigs, or fish with tomatoes' (p7), a very simplistic explanation, as also the methods of GE she mentions (p8). Perhaps, she does not know there is no "crossing" of organisms in genetic engineering.
She writes that 'during genetic engineering, it is not a single foreign gene that is put into a plant but a complex structure consisting of many genes' (p9), but conveniently ignores to point out that the genes and their controlling (regulatory sequences) elements are there to ensure precise and directed expression.
Suman Sahai explains further that 'this gene construct is attached to a plasmid which is a kind of virus' (p9). Even students of biology know that one could accept the term "viroid" to compare a plasmid but not a virus; but then they do not have a Ph.D., in genetics, unlike the author. The construct is then either 'shot' into the cell or 'infected' into it, the terms she used deliberately to create an impression that GE crops have been somehow mauled and diseased to be fit for consumption.
One should be grateful to her for not referring to the terminating sequence of nucleotides in the gene construct as the 'terminator gene', like many of her cohorts in the anti-GM lobby often do, and tell people that there is a terminator gene in every transgenic plant.
According to her, genetic engineering's most controversial application is in agriculture because people are very sensitive about the food they eat and about how it is produced (p10). What she does not say is that it is the activists who make genetic engineering more controversial than it is. It is hard to understand how the public that is supposed to be ignorant and learning from her book, are sensitive about something they know next to nothing.
Most of this book reads like an examination question paper. She poses her own mischievous questions, and like in the Indian bazaar guides readily gives biased answers, followed by her own contrived explanations. It will be a cinch to get an A grade if you answer 'No' to all her posers. Below are some of the sample questions from her primer:
Is the green revolution the same as the gene revolution? (p11) Are GE crops needed to increase food production? (p13) Will GE crops solve hunger? (p14) Are GE crops the answer to malnutrition? (p15) Is agricultural biotechnology being implemented properly in India? (p16) Is herbicide tolerance a suitable trait for India? (p23) Are genetically engineered 'edible' vaccines safe? (p26) Are GE foods superior to conventional foods? (p28) Will GE crops reduce the use of toxic chemicals? (p30) Are GE foods tested properly? (p37) Is GE food safe? (p38)
In all her responses, she seems to be totally oblivious to any proven benefits of GE, and as always one sided. She mixes up her own political views on green revolution and gene revolution (p11, 12), both of which are proven technologies. She is silent about the publicly funded biotech products the world-over, and baselessly asserts that the gene technology is an MNC ploy to control world's food production. That GE technology and seeds are owned by companies in the gene revolution and are expensive, is not at all true. In green revolution too, farmers did not own seeds, but they happily bought the more expensive quality hybrid seeds realizing their benefits.
Suman Sahai asserts that GE crops are not needed to increase food production (p13). Though no GE crop has been developed yet for enhanced yield, there is an increase in yield on account of prevention of loss to due pests, diseases and weeds. She should know that crop yield is a multi-genic trait and is not yet amenable to the present transgenic technology. But, some potentially useful trait increasing genes are now being discovered through functional genomics and marker assisted breeding, which will see the light of the day in the near future. Her remedies to increase food production such as minimizing post-harvest losses and increasing irrigated crop system (p13) are not new either, have serious impediments and have not yielded any appreciable results in the past.
She believes that GE technology cannot solve hunger (p14), while there is no connection between GE crops or any other crops and hunger per se. People are hungry either because they do not have assets like land to produce food or because they do not have incomes to buy the food they need. The activists' cliché is that in spite of having 65 million tons food grains as buffer stock, millions of people are still hungry in India. This happens because they do not have the money to buy food. Even if the Government turns the poor people into "beggars" through a free distribution of the surplus food stock, it is not going to last for more than a few years, to return to even a worse situation. She refers to the failed grandeur called Employment Guarantee Act (p14) to solve hunger problem. This too did not work because the Act is a trickery of vote bank politics of leftists and socialists of India, and no one in her or his senses, expected the act to transform the country. The focus should be on land reforms, skill generation and educational programmes, as she has mentioned, but GE technology has nothing to do with the success or failure of these measures.
Suman Sahai argues that GE crops are no answer to malnutrition when in fact they are a novel and most efficient innovation so far. She refers to golden millets, golden cassava, golden sweet potato, and high nutritional rice (p15), which probably only she knows. If these conventional varieties are available, and are so good, why are they not widely known and why are they not in cultivation? She asserts that there are several natural high vitamin A, high iron and high mineral crop varieties. No plant food contains vitamin A, but only the carotenoids which are precursors to vitamin A and these should come only from plant foods. Only the mammalian system can synthesize vitamin A from the precursors in plant foods. Golden Rice is an ingenious product that will help millions in developing countries to overcome vitamin A deficiency, but not in Suman Sahai's world. Although conventional foods contain some mineral nutrients, several other anti-nutritional factors in the foods themselves or in our body, impede their bio-availability to the body system. No one undermines the benefits of diverse diets and balanced foods which is not an exclusive wisdom of Suman Sahai, but this approach has not worked in the past and millions of poor and ignorant have been suffering from malnutrition.
Her statement that there is no policy on agricultural biotechnology or GE crops in India (p16) is surprising as she was herself a member of the Department of Biotechnology's policy committee which submitted a draft policy. May be she is peeved that no one cared to listen to her views. What she is trying to say is that there is no biotech policy which makes India GE free. India's biotech policy is in action for everyone to see. GE technology involves agricultural and other scientists and so it is ridiculous to say that scientific community or the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences was not consulted. There were many consultations held which she may not be aware of. For sure, farmers should be consulted on their needs, and they were. But neither the farmers nor the ideological agenda driven civil society organizations can pretend to proffer scientific wisdom other than to rant and rave against modern biotechnology.
Suman Sahai questions incorrectly, the relevance of current GE research in India (p19). She is hardly qualified in modern biotechnology to do so. She wants research to reduce toxin content of kesari dhal. There are several toxins in addition to lathyrine in kesari dhal and so this crop is not so amenable to transgenic technology. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute and the Jawaharlal Nehru University have tried to get rid of the toxins in kesari dhal for over ten years now with limited success, but the problem defies solution still. However, there are several kesari dhal selections with low toxin levels. Her other advice is to improve nutrition of fodder grasses, but it is hard to understand why ruminant feeds need nutritional improvement. When food for human consumption itself is in short supply, improving fodder grasses will be a low priority. Besides, the potential benefits that would accrue out of her suggestions hardly justify the time and financial costs to develop such varieties.
Like all new technologies, GE is certainly an expensive technology (p20), but costs come down in a short order when the technology becomes widely adopted. Her statistics on the costs of the technology and the Bt cotton seed are overly exaggerated. One can already see that in case of Bt cotton.
That just two traits, pest and herbicide tolerance, dominate GE technology (p21) is not true. One would expect a self-proclaimed scientist like her to know that even in India genes for a number of other traits such as tolerance to viral, bacterial and fungal diseases, drought and saline tolerance, pro-vitamin and protein enhancement, etc., are being incorporated into several crops. According to Joel Cohen (Nature Biotechnology, 2005), public funded and developed GE crops are far more than what private sector has offered to the market place.
According to her, herbicide tolerant GE crops are developed for weed control only in the west where there is monoculture, large land holdings and no agricultural labor (p23). This is yet another case of repeating a sordid nonsense ad nauseum. Her other objection that in a labor surplus country like India such varieties displace labor (p24), is a sociological issue, and not of science. In the past, whenever a technology displaced a section of people, they readjusted and often found better employment options than earlier. Using such emotional arguments, the poor farm labor, especially women and children, are perpetually kept as daily wagers with meager earners, benefiting only the rich landlords. In fact there is acute labor shortage during peak agricultural operations and many farmers, even those with small holdings, would benefit by herbicide tolerant varieties. Herbicide resistance crops, like all GE crops are scale neutral and can work on large farms as well as small farms. While it is true that herbicide tolerant varieties will not allow mixed cropping, the practice of mixed cropping is not prevalent in the present times.
Some weeds may be useful as food, fodder or medicine (p25) but they are not exclusive to agricultural fields, and can be gathered from the surrounding areas as well. In agriculture, we need to grow what we sow. Suman Sahai does seem to know even this simple principle of agriculture which is to grow the planted crop to the exclusion of everything else to maximize productivity of the cultivated fields. If these weeds are so valuable, one should just cultivate only weeds and sell them,
According to Suman Sahai edible GE vaccines are not safe (p26). Vaccines are administered to healthy people to prevent the onset of a disease, and hence there is no serious harm even if the vaccine foods are consumed. GE vaccines are as safe as other vaccines. The effective dosage, delivery mechanisms and functionality of edible vaccines has been well studied. Measures such as employing distinct fruit/seed surface colors are being explored to distinguish them and to prevent mix up. She needs to keep up to date with recent developments in the field before proffering to offer non-sensical suggestions.
She proclaims that GE foods are not superior to conventional foods (p28). While most transgenics are meant to provide agronomic benefits, food quality is also an advantage of GE foods. For example, pest resistant corn contains far smaller quantities fumonisins (carcinogenic mycotoxins), carcinogens common in conventional corn.
Suman Sahai warns the reader against laws that allow plants and seeds to be patented (p29), though no such law or a proposal to bring in such a law exists. This is an ideological battle ground, and if India's agriculture should grow and flourish in the 21st century, it will have to encourage innovations through sound incentive mechanisms. Patent protection is one such incentive, and it will come. Even in the west, what is patented are not the transgenes or the crops or their seed, but a specific gene construct in a specific crop variety (collectively called event). Any one is free to use the source organisms of transgenes and the crop varieties adopting their own experimental protocols.
Contrary to her assertion (p30), GE crops have reduced use of toxic pesticides. Herbicide use in the US has gone up because of annually increasing acreage under herbicide tolerant GE varieties. She might be confusing herbicide resistant crops to herbicide dependent crops.
Suman Sahai referred to several food safety concerns and farmers' concerns about the expense and risky technology and uncertainty of markets for GE crops (p31), ignoring both established science and market forces which are in favor of GE crops the world over.
She is also worried about the absence of liability laws to force seed companies to pay compensation if a GE crop escapes and contaminates non-GE or organic food (p32). Farmers have been receiving compensation for years from seed companies for any defect even with conventional hybrids marketed by them. She does not speak about the farmers in the Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere who have received heavy compensation from seed companies for alleged failure of Bt cotton crop.
She considers that labeling GE products cannot be done realistically under the Indian conditions (p32). It depends on what kind of labeling is desired or needed and to what purpose. Labeling rules are being framed in India and there is no reason why labeling cannot be done realistically, if any one cares to be guided by them.
She predicts serious environmental impact from GE crops on account of gene flow (p33), resulting in pernicious weeds and 'genetic contamination' of biodiversity. This statement only reflects her ignorance of expansive research in the area and her poor understanding of gene flow biology.
Suman Sahai proclaims that several countries have banned GE foods (p34) as they are the countries of origin of such crops, and this is far from truth. There is no scientific reason for banning crops in Centers of Origin since such issues are not a proved science. She wants India to ban development of GE rice since according to her, India is the Centre of Origin of rice, for which there is no scientific justification.
She repeats the much disproved anti-tech contention of allergenicity (p35) of Brazil nut protein soybean, which could, if at all, cause allergy only in those who are primarily allergic to Brazil nuts. It was only the scientists themselves, and not activists, who discovered the problem. StarLink corn too was shown to be non-allergenic. Both these products were withdrawn by the product developers; examples of self regulation.
She also repeats the case of GE tryptophan for toxicity (p35). Only one particular batch of GE tryptophan from a particular company caused toxicity problems because of incomplete/imperfect purification during manufacture. It was a manufacturing defect and no more. It can happen even in best production facilities. It is nothing that a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility cannot take care of, and it has been. Properly purified conventional or GE tryptophan is not per se toxic. Similarly, properly purified penicillin is not allergenic, either. Some batches of penicillin are allergenic because of some protein residues left on incomplete purification or additives such as procain, to which some people are allergic. Scientifically analyzing the basic cause of toxicity or allergenicity will help in making GE products safe which activists like Suman Sahai do not want to understand.
According to her risk-benefit analysis of GE foods, the risks are visible (p36) and benefits are not. She is wantonly oblivious to the all the recorded benefits of GE crops. She baselessly avers that GE foods are not cheaper, does not taste better, not more nutritious, and compromises food safety. This is nothing but a farce.
Suman Sahai emphasizes that nobody knows whether GE foods are tested properly or how they are tested (p37), when the fact is that no food or feed was ever tested for safety as rigorously as GE foods at any time in human history. She will be hard pressed to offer one example of the presently available foods that is tested for safety more than GE crops and foods.
According to Suman Sahai there is growing scientific evidence that GE food may not be safe to eat (p38), as they cause several organ deformities and physiological disorders, all of which is based on highly questionable reports and studies. She has a Nelson's eye to all studies that proved these products to be safe as food and feed. She must check out the regulatory opinions of Australian, US and EU authorities. She conveniently forgets that 350 million Americans are a living example of the safety of GE foods, consumed for about a decade.
She advises (p39) people not to buy imported foods that contain corn, soybean, potato or tomato, to avoid eating a GE product. She wants people to tell others about the risks of GE foods, and to ask the Government to make food safety data public and to involve people in decision making on GE crop and GE food imports. All this is just to support her political anti-GM agenda that has no scientific basis.
She is very perturbed on ethical/religious concerns about food (p40). A string of nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA, the genetic material), even of the same sequence of a functional gene is not a gene itself. To be a gene, the string of nucleotides requires a number of supporting and promoting factors. That genes from one organism function in another organism in transgenic technology shows that there is no difference between plant and animal genes, to invoke ethical and religious concerns, except by the mischievous. Breast milk and saliva are products of human genes and contain other gene products such as lactoferrin and lysozyme, which protect us against pathogenic bacteria. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and vegetarians have been using insulin extracted from porcine or bovine pancreas without any reservations. Religious authorities in all religions have basically given clean chit for the products of modern biotechnology. Now insulin produced in bacteria by human genes is being widely used. She is simply invoking all this non-existent ethical/religious concerns about such beneficial products, and to give yet another malicious twist to raise emotional opposition to technology.
Suman Sahai recommends organic agriculture, which was the mainstay of India prior to green revolution (p41). Organic agriculture cannot feed even half of the existing population and it certainly cannot cater to the country's growing food needs. Organic foods are much more expensive than conventional or GE foods, besides not being superior to products of any other agricultural practice.
She proclaims that GE and organic crops cannot coexist in India and India has to choose one (p42). She ignores the fact that organic farmers had no complaints about keeping their produce away from non-organic foods and still get organic certification. They could do just the same in the presence of GE products. Organic farming is a way of cultivation and has nothing to do with GE crops, which can also be grown organically. With appropriate farmer education in taking precautions, conventional, organic and GE crops can certainly coexist. Actually, the farmers who cultivate expensive GE crops should worry that the organic and conventional varieties may foil their efforts to more beneficial agriculture. The other reasons she has given to prefer organic agriculture, such as farmer familiarity, inexpensive and other countries' rejection of GE products are irrelevant to the issue of coexistence.
Thus, Suman Sahai peddles half truths and misleading information on biotechnology, ostensibly to educate the public, but teaches only controversy. Keeping controversy alive is now a common practice of the anti-GM activists which can keep them in the protest industry business. Such cheap propaganda, unfortunately, had some initial successes. One would have expected that a 'scientist' like her to be more balanced and be intellectually honest, but that is not the objective of her anti-GM activism.
GMO Safety turns five
- GMO Safety, German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung), April 16, 2007, http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/news/563.docu.html
"Unease finds a legitimate expression in risk."
It was five years ago, on 16 April 2002, that the German version of GMO Safety (bioSicherheit) went online. In the words of Wolf-Michael Catenhusen, then State Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), at the launch of bioSicherheit, the intention was for everyone to form their own opinion about the opportunities and risks of genetically modified plants. One of the goals was to ensure a better perception within the public debate of the topics and results of safety research into genetically modified plants. GMO Safety spoke to Wolfgang van den Daele about the continuing conflict surrounding crop genetic engineering and the strained relations between science and society.
GMO Safety: Public reservations concerning plant genetic engineering appear to have increased even further over the past five years. The view that genetically modified plants are "not safe" or have scarcely been researched in terms of their potential risks is almost taken for granted. Under these circumstances, what impact can technical information have? Are we talking about gaps in people's knowledge that are to be filled by means of scientific explanation?
Wolfgang van den Daele: It is indeed astonishing that the risk argument still meets with such a broad response, despite the fact that no particular risks have actually been identified. It is true that there are always the odd hypotheses, which later turn out to be nothing significant. And if there are special safety concerns, the construct in question is withdrawn from the market or not authorised. As a neutral observer, one would say that the risk debate has no foundation.
It seems to me that risk functions as a kind of catch-all category. People have something against this technology. They don't want it, find it unnecessary or wrong. The impression that the technology is problematic has taken hold to an incredible extent. It is paradoxical: The more one tries to educate the public or engages in public dialogue, the more this impression is reinforced. If we make such a song and dance about it, people think, there must be something fishy.
This kind of unease finds a legitimate expression in risk. People will always fall back on the risk argument. And if they cannot find a specific threat, they say that the potential risks have not been sufficiently well researched. This pattern has been established by the social movements that want to prevent crop genetic engineering - and there is practically nothing that can be done about it. We must of course use scientific explanations. But this is a minimum requirement. If we don't do it, we are providing another argument. We have to explain, but cannot assume that this will resolve the unease or rejection. Information and transparency are necessary. But this is not the battlefront on which the outcome will be decided.
GMO Safety: Scientific perspectives have only a limited power of explanation in social debate. Public perception - e.g. overstating the risks of transgenic plants - is based more on cultural aspects. What do these perceptions feed on?
Wolfgang van den Daele: My guess is that people have found a symbolic arena in which they can put up a resistance to the dynamic force of technology, which has them at its mercy and which is steamrollering society. In the area of crop genetic engineering people can resist without their own interests being affected. This will remain the case as long as consumers and the general public perceive no personal benefit. They like to see the fight between David and Goliath: social movements, farmers and environmental associations on the one side, and - on the other - big business, which is being shown its limits. A secret sympathy for the obstructive path being pursued by the social movements cannot be ignored.
GMO Safety: Doesn't society's risk perception also have something to do with the prevailing understanding of nature or ethics of nature?
Wolfgang van den Daele: I don't think so. People can accept all kinds of deformation of plants. And the fact that it is genes that are now being modified is not breaking a taboo. Interestingly, there is no objection to "smart breeding" (modern molecular biological breeding techniques), which is used to do the same kinds of thing to plants that genetic engineering is used for. Nor is there any objection to genetic engineering in the field of medicine. If it appears beneficial, people have no problem with the fact that genes are being manipulated.
GMO Safety: An important issue is trust. If you trust someone, you will follow their assessment of a complex issue in an area where you yourself do not have any expertise. In this sense scientists can no longer assume that society trusts them. What can scientists do to win back people's trust? In a media society can you expect people to trust them at all and allow them special expertise?
Wolfgang van den Daele: I don't perceive this general loss of trust. People are always running to the doctor and relying on professional expertise. But in areas which are politicised, like crop genetic engineering, the limits of expert knowledge are clearly visible. When it comes to an argument, when the issue at stake is the legitimacy of a development, people withdraw their trust from the expert because he knocks their cherished arguments out of their hands. This is the point at which one says: I don't trust them. And with that one disposes of the scientists' power to define and their arguments. Now it is easy to accuse them of acting only on their own interests or on behalf of industry.
If you don't say "I don't want it" directly, you say "I don't trust them". If a scientist claims that there are no risks, you say "I don't trust you". The withdrawal of trust is a powerful weapon - not just in the field of science, but also in the political arena.
GMO Safety: Specifically, what can scientists who work in the area of plant genetic engineering do to gain people's trust or to give themselves more weight in social debate?
Wolfgang van den Daele: There is nothing they can do.
GMO Safety: Is there no room for action?
Wolfgang van den Daele: They can gamble away trust - and they do that frequently by suppressing data, dressing up results or publicising claims too soon. It is very easy to lose trust, but very difficult to gain it. What do scientists want trust for anyway? People trust them that a technology works and can do something - but that is after all the only thing that they really know. And on other subjects, scientists are competing with people who sow mistrust, which puts them in a poor position. One of the reasons why the experts often have trouble asserting themselves in political disputes is because the experts argue among themselves.
GMO Safety: Even politicians working in this area are often unaware that there is a support programme for biological safety research. The results are not used sufficiently, if at all, in political decisions. How do you view the relationship between research and political decisions in an area as controversial as this one?
Wolfgang van den Daele: In fact, it is only the government agencies that have to decide on safety, not politicians. But the politicians observe the political scenery - and if there is a relevant conflict, they try to avoid it. We have seen this in Europe: Although it is in fact not legally possible, politicians agreed to boycott crop genetic engineering for some time. It would have been a different story if this style of policy had clear economic disadvantages. The tendency to push something through against moods within the population depends on the perceived political and economic value of a technology. Seen in this way, crop genetic engineering is much less important in economic terms than e.g. nanotechnology. The problem is similar but I am curious to see whether politicians will be a bit authoritative here and authorise the technology, backing up their decision with science and safety research.
I agree that safety research into genetically modified plants is not perceived by politicians. You can see this in the fact that when it comes to legislation, the only issues that actually play a role are coexistence and liability. If you want to prevent crop genetic engineering, the safety argument won't take you any further. You can impose extensive conditions or prescribe monitoring by invoking the precautionary principle, but there are no scientifically based arguments for banning crop genetic engineering on safety grounds. The only area where there is room for manoeuvre in terms of legislation is that of coexistence, and this is being exploited.
GMO Safety: Thank you for talking to us.
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang van den Daele, Director of the research unit Civil Society and Transnational Networks at the Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB), Professor of Sociology at the Free University of Berlin 1985-1987 member of the German Bundestag's fact-finding commission on opportunities and risks of genetic engineering; since 2001 member of the German National Ethics Council
An unhealthy obsession
- Bettina Arndt, Courier Mail (Australia), April 17, 2007, http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,23739,21566768-27197,00.html
Bettina Arndt questions the growing trend to organic food
Where's the logic in turning our back on scientific developments?
It was a natural food shop filled with the displays of fruit and vegetables, baskets of wheat germ and other items pulsing with natural goodness.
They sold only one brand of bubbly water, proudly labelled ''organic mineral water''. Organic water? What on earth does that mean?
Mineral water contains minerals which are inorganic compounds not the compounds of carbon required for an ''organic'' product. Water can't be organic.
It's a nonsense designed to seduce consumers into believing they are buying something special. And the suckers line up for more. The organic food industry is booming with ever more people deluded into thinking that paying two or three times more for organic food products will provide them with healthier, safer food.
With the nonsensical claims made about these food products, it is surprising how few Australian scientists, nutritional experts, or just people with common sense speak out about this subject in Australia.
Overseas it is a different story with prominent people quite happy to point out the emperor has no clothes. In Britain, Lord Taverne QC characterises the trends towards consumers buying overpriced organic food as a ''monument to irrationality'', promoted by advocates whose ''principles are founded on a scientific howler'' -- namely that ''natural'' chemicals are good and synthetic chemicals bad.
Taverne's book, The March of Unreason, points out years of research has failed to show major differences between organic and normal food in terms of safety or nutritional value.
Late last year the US Institute of Food Technologies summed up all the latest research in a scientific status summary on organic foods, stating it was premature to conclude either food system was superior to the other with respect to safety or nutritional composition.
Yes, organic fruits and vegetables do possess fewer pesticide residues and lower nitrate levels than the ordinary produce. But research also shows the absence of pesticides can stimulate the production of naturally occurring toxins and organically produced farm animals can show higher rates of bacterial contamination.
What's most worrying about the whole organic product movement is the underlying notion that scientific progress is inevitably bad and we are all better off reverting to primitive, ''natural'' ways of doing things.
Where's the logic in turning our back on the enormously beneficial scientific developments that have led to massive increases in healthy food production, including the chemical washes which rid crops of dangerous bacteria?
It makes no sense to revert to practices used a couple of centuries ago such as using animal manure as the major fertiliser for food crops and refusing to pasteurise milk and fruit juices.
In the US there have been recent outbreaks of a dangerous strain of E-coli which can cause serious illness, including kidney disease. In Colorado the disease left one girl dead and more than 70 ill from drinking unpasteurised apple juice.
Fresh organic spinach containing deadly E-coli pathogen bacteria affected more than 200 people before it was recalled. According to the US Centres for Disease Control, people who eat organic food are eight times more likely than the rest of the population to contact the dangerous E-coli strain.
It's not as if organic food even tastes consistently better. Consumers find difficulty picking organic food in blind taste tests -- shown by many studies, including one by Choice in Australia.
As Lord Taverne points out, if people were really worried about the effects of pesticides in farming on wildlife or human health, they should promote pest-resistant GM crops, which reduce pesticide use. That's hardly likely. The solid scientific support for the safety and efficiency of GM crops means nothing to blinkered souls who trust instincts over science. The organic fad is an indulgence of the rich. Even if most claims for organic farming could be substantiated, its main disadvantage is its inefficiency. Organic food costs more because average yields are 20-50 per cent lower than those from conventional farms.
While the affluent trendies indulge their foolish food fad, we still need to treble food production in the next 50 years to feed three billion extra people. According to Indian biologist C.J. Prakash, the only contribution organic farming will make to sustainable agriculture will be to ''sustain poverty and malnutrition''.
*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net