Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on

Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives





September 13, 2007


Letter to Wright and Melchett; '3-in-1' GM rice; Transgenic PR


* Open Letter to Wright and Melchett
* Project on rice epigenetics
* GM glowing fish could be sold
* Scientists Inducted into ARS Hall of Fame
* Ermakova's rat trials get a grilling
* 'Budget for anti-GMO ordinance not enough'
* '3-in-1' GM rice
* Transgenic public relations


Open Letter to James Wright and Peter Melchett

Sept. 13, 2007

Mr. James Wright
High Commissioner for Canada
MacDonald House
1 Grosvenor Square
London W1K 4AB


Mr. Peter Melchett
The Soil Association
South Plaza, Marlborough Street
Bristol BS1 3NX, UK

Dear Mr. Wright:

It has come to our attention that Peter Melchett, the Policy Director of The Soil Association, has written to you a letter dated Sept. 4, 2007 asking that the Government of Canada 'take action against' Shane Morris.

Mr. Morris is an Irish national, and a scientist employed by Agriculture and AgriFood Canada. We, the undersigned, wish to condemn in the most unequivocal terms possible this inappropriate and unwarranted intrusion into his employment relationship.

Scientists have a personal right, and an obligation, to communicate with the general public on scientific matters. This allows the public and its representatives to make informed policy decisions. It is precisely because of egregious, fundamentally ad hominem attacks such as that made by The Soil Association that many fear to speak out.

As scientists and scholars, we utterly denounce this effort by The Soil Association, which is only the latest in a series of attacks on Mr. Morris' employment status and professional standing. Some of the personal attacks have been so extreme that legal experts deem them to be libelous, prompting retractions by those circulating them.

It would be odious in the extreme for the Government of Canada to lend aid or credence to such scurrilous, contemptible tactics by taking action against Mr. Morris under these circumstances. Furthermore, Government action against Mr. Morris would have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech of Canadian scientists, and of scientists around the world.

By use of this tactic, The Soil Association reveals itself to be partisan in the extreme, and no champion of free speech whatsoever. It wishes to present its complaint in the context of a scientific debate over an award-winning research paper published four years ago, but that debate does not have, and should not have, any legitimate bearing on Mr. Morris' employment. Furthermore, the nature of his employment should not be held to circumscribe his personal rights.


Alan McHughen, D.Phil.
Biotechnology Specialist and Geneticist, College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, University of California - Riverside*

Alex Avery
Director of Research, Center for Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute*

Andrew Apel, J.D.
Guest editor, AgBioView*

Bruce Chassy, Ph.D.
Professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign*

Channapatna S. Prakash, Ph.D.,
Professor, Plant Molecular Genetics, Tuskegee University*

Prof. C Kameswara Rao
Executive Secretary, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India*

Dr. Christopher Preston
University of Adelaide*

Prof. David McConnell
Smurfit Institute of Genetics, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland*

David Tribe, Ph.D. B.Sc.
Senior lecturer, Institute of Land and Food/Microbiology and Immunology, University of Melbourne, and blog author, GMO Pundit*

Drew L. Kershen
Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law, University of Oklahoma College of Law*

Gregory Conko
Senior Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC*

Henry I. Miller, M.D.
The Hoover Institution, Stanford University*

Dr.Dr.Dr. Ingo Potrykus
Emeritus Professor in Plant Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH)*

em. Prof. Dr. Klaus Ammann
Delft University of Technology, Botanic Garden and Biotechnology Department, The Netherlands*

L. Val Giddings, Ph.D.
President & CEO, PrometheusAB, Inc., former Vice President for Food & Agriculture, Biotechnology Industry Organization*

Mark Cantley
Former advisor to the Life Science Directorate, DG Research, European Commission, former head of Biotechnology unit, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)*

Prof. Dr. Moisés Burachik
Professor of Biotechnology, Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina; Executive Secretary, National Advisory Commission on Agricultural Biotechnology (CONABIA), Buenos Aires; General Coordinator, Biotechnology Office, Secretary of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Food (SAGPyA), Ministry for Economics and Production, Argentina*

Robert Macgregor, PhD
Policy Analyst, PEI Department of Agriculture*

Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics, University of Houston*

Prof. Vivian Moses
Chairman, CropGen, London, UK*

*for identification purposes only.


UD leads $5.3-million research project on rice epigenetics

- Tracey Bryant, UDaily (University of Delaware), Sept. 10, 2007


Using a novel "deep sequencing" technology that can in one fell swoop decode 50 million sequences representing well over a billion bases of DNA, a research team led by University of Delaware scientists is working to unmask where, why and how certain genes are switched on or off in rice--a crop vital to the world's food supply.

The goal of the four-year project, which is supported by a $5.3-million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), is to advance scientific understanding of the rice epigenome--the series of biochemical modifications of the rice DNA that can toggle a gene on or, conversely, silence it. Ultimately, the research may lead to the development of hardier strains of rice, as well as shed light on similar mechanisms at work in corn and other important cereal grains that are closely related to rice.

Blake Meyers, associate professor of plant and soil sciences at UD, is the principal investigator on the project, which also involves Guo-Liang Wang, a rice biologist from Ohio State University; Steven Jacobsen, an expert in epigenetics, and computer scientist Matteo Pellegrini, both from the University of California at Los Angeles; and Yulin Jia, a plant pathologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart, Ark.

The effort builds on Meyers' previous awards from the NSF Plant Genome Research Program, as well as ongoing investigations of small RNAs--short lengths of ribonucleic acids that act as gene regulators--performed in collaboration with Pamela Green, the Crawford H. Greenewalt Endowed Chair in Plant Molecular Biology at UD, whose lab is next door to Meyers' in the Delaware Biotechnology Institute. These projects have now propelled the research in a new direction, to new frontiers in the field of epigenetics.

"Epigenetics refers to a heritable change that is not a result of a change in DNA sequence, but rather a chemical modification of nucleotides in the DNA or its associated proteins," Meyers said. "That means that these changes can be reversible, and it's easier to switch them on or off. Small RNAs are one of the key 'control switches,' directing these modifications," Meyers noted.

State-of-the-art sequencing by synthesis (SBS) technology developed by Solexa Inc., in Hayward, Calif., will provide the data essential to the project. This novel "deep sequencing" tool, which can decode tens of millions of sequences during a single run, has become available over the last year. The application of SBS to epigenetics research was demonstrated in the human genome only within the past few months. The UD-led effort will be one of the first large-scale projects to use this approach in crop plants.

"If you think of a gene as part of a set of chromosomes, a gene is just a small fraction of a percent of a complete genome," Meyers said. "If we learn about that gene by random sampling, by using 50 million total sequences, which is what SBS provides, we can characterize that gene at depth," he noted. "Using this method, we can obtain statistically robust data for nearly all genomic regions in a single experiment."

The scientists will use the technology to look for chemical modifications in chromatin, the building-block material of chromosomes, consisting of DNA and the proteins that interact with it. The scientists want to know how the chromatin is configured and what role changes in the material play in plant development.

"Formerly, we had a very narrow picture of a plant's genome; with these new sequencing technologies, we now have the opportunity to acquire a comprehensive picture at fine detail," Meyers said. "It's like looking through a high-powered telescope--but now we have a wide-angle lens on that telescope to take in a view with both breadth and depth."

Besides studying the state of the genome using a variety of different strains of rice plants, the research team will develop new bioinformatics methods to process the vast amounts of data and mine new discoveries.

"The project is part biology and part technology," Meyers said. "Developing the bioinformatics to handle the data is critical. You have to know what to do with it. As our bioinformatics capabilities have grown, so have the resources available to the public through our web sites," he noted. "And these online resources have led to important new collaborations."

The data from the current project will be accessible through web sites at UD and UCLA--[http://mpss.udel.edu/rice] and [http://epigenomics.mcdb.ucla.edu].

The research project also includes an innovative education and outreach component targeting graduate students in plant science. Students will write, submit and exchange research proposals with students from different universities. They will then serve on a panel to critique and rank the proposals, modeled after the National Science Foundation's own proposal review process.

"Since planning experiments and justifying these through writing proposals is such an integral part of what a scientist does, I thought this would be a good experience for our students," Meyers said. "This way, they can also see what their advisers go through," he added, grinning.

Meyers developed the educational project several years ago in the advanced plant genetics course (PL636) he teaches in the UD College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Since then, several colleagues and their classes at Iowa State and Penn State have participated in the program, exchanging proposals with UD, and UCLA and Ohio State are planning to join the program during the current four-year grant.

"My hope is that this program and its proposal exchange system can be used broadly by plant genetics and genomics courses at universities to build writing, communication and critical thinking skills among graduate students," Meyers said.


GM glowing fish could be sold

- Brisbane Times, Sept. 12, 2007


Genetically-modified glowing fish are one step closer to being offered for sale in Australia to would-be pet owners looking for something a little different for their fish tank.

A United States-based biotechnology company applied earlier this year to the Gene Technology Regulator for permission to import and sell the so-called GloFish.

The zebra fish have been modified to include a fluorescent protein gene that comes from reef coral.

The gene makes the fish absorb light and then release it, so they appear to glow either red, green or yellow.

According to the latest report from the Gene Technology Regulator, consultation with experts and key stakeholders was held between April and June to identify any risks to human health and safety and the environment.

The regulator said its technical advisory committee found the fluorescent proteins were not likely to be toxic to humans or other organisms, or cause an allergic reaction.

The regulator noted the fish were already being sold in the US and Singapore.

On its website, Yorktown Technologies said the fish were originally bred to help detect environmental pollutants.

Scientists hope to modify the fish further so they only glow when they are in contaminated waterways.

The company's website cautions against releasing the fish into the wild, saying the tropical fish would not survive in non-tropical environments.

But some environmental activist groups including Greenpeace oppose the sale of the fish.

"We have no way of predicting what havoc they will cause when they are released into the wild," Greenpeace says on its website.

"Aquarium fish get introduced into native ecosystems all the time, and can survive in the warmer waters of some springs and around industrial wastewater pipes, so this really is no laughing matter. Any escape would be irreversible."

The company also warns pet owners should not eat the glowing fish.

"GloFish fluorescent zebra fish, like all ornamental fish, are not intended for human consumption; they should never be eaten," it says.


Three Scientists Inducted into ARS Hall of Fame

- USDA ARS News Service (press release), Sept. 12, 2007


WASHINGTON--Three internationally acclaimed scientists have been selected for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Science Hall of Fame for their decades of discoveries leading to papaya plants that fend off an enemy virus, cotton plants resistant to insect and nematode pests, and human nutrition recommendations to enhance our well-being.

Dennis Gonsalves, Johnie N. Jenkins and Janet C. King will be honored at a dinner and ceremony tonight at ARS' U.S. National Arboretum here.

Jenkins, a research plant geneticist and director of the ARS Crop Science Research Laboratory at Mississippi State, Miss., is an authority on the genetics controlling cotton plants' natural ability to resist attack by boll weevils, cotton bollworms, tobacco budworms, tarnished plant bugs and microscopic worms known as nematodes.

"Dr. Jenkins' theories and techniques," said ARS Administrator Edward B. Knipling, "have resulted in pest-resistant cotton plants that are being used throughout the world. Dr. Jenkins was among the first scientists to field-test new transgenic cottons resistant to attack by tobacco budworms and cotton bollworms, and has made important discoveries about previously unknown chemical interactions between cotton plants and pest attackers."

Knipling commended Jenkins' mentoring of young scientists, including more than 70 graduate students from a dozen countries who now train others and either serve as ARS scientists or work for some of the world's leading cotton seed companies. Jenkins joined ARS in 1961.

Gonsalves, a plant pathologist and director of the agency's U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo, Hawaii, "is respected by colleagues worldwide for his pioneering research on viruses that attack fruits and vegetables," said Knipling. "Among other accomplishments, Dr. Gonsalves led a team that used techniques of modern biotechnology to equip papaya plants with resistance to papaya ringspot virus. His knowledge and leadership not only helped save the papaya industry in Hawaii--and the livelihood of many small growers--but also opened the door to helping countries where papaya provides the vitamin A needed to prevent childhood blindness and early death."

Formerly a professor of plant pathology at Cornell University's agricultural experiment station at Geneva, N.Y., Gonsalves came to ARS in 2002 after 25 years with the university, during which he received national and international recognition for his cutting-edge research.

King, a nutrition scientist, is being honored for her national and international leadership and achievements in human nutrition, including studies that have led to new guidelines for healthful weight gain during pregnancy, and new recommendations for daily intake of zinc.

"Dr. King has expertly led many national and international nutrition policy committees, such as the advisory board that developed the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans," said Knipling. "Dr. King has also had leadership roles with other prominent national or international committees, institutes and boards, including the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization of the United Nations."

King came to ARS from the University of California-Berkeley in 1995, where she had mentored more than 50 graduate and post-graduate students. During her tenure with ARS, King served as director of the agency's Western Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, Calif., strengthening the research program there. She left ARS in 2003 to join the Children's Hospital Oakland (Calif.) Research Institute. She holds professorial appointments at the University of California's Berkeley and Davis campuses.

The ARS Science Hall of Fame program, established in 1986, recognizes agency researchers for outstanding career achievements in agricultural sciences. Recipients must be retired or eligible to retire to receive the award.

Plaques honoring the inductees are on permanent display at the ARS National Visitor Center, Beltsville, Md. ARS is USDA's chief scientific research agency.


Ermakova's GM soy trials in rats get a grilling at Nature Biotechnology

- GMO Pundit a.k.a. David Tribe, Sept. 12, 2007


GM soybeans and health safety - a controversy reexamined Andrew Marshall Nature Biotechnology 25, 981 - 987 (2007) doi:10.1038/nbt0907-981


An unprecedented study claiming that transgenic soybeans compromise the fertility of rats and the survival and growth of their offspring has garnered widespread media and political attention but remains unpublished in the peer-reviewed literature. Here, an account of the work from the principal investigator, Irina Ermakova, is appended with comments from researchers in the field.

From the Introduction to the article:

Neuroscientist Irina Ermakova of the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity and Neurophysiology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow made news headlines two years ago when she reported that rats fed diets containing glyphosate-tolerant genetically modified (GM) soybeans gave birth to pups with low survival rates or stunted growth [Ref 1].

Though these findings have yet to appear in a peer-reviewed journal and contradict publications in the literature, they have been widely disseminated and discussed over the media and internet and already cited by more than 500 organizations as evidence of the potential toxicity of GM products.

They've also prompted the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (Wichita, KS, USA) to call for additional independent studies of food safety for GM crops [Ref 2], been referred to in a state Australian parliamentary debate as a reason to ban GM crop cultivation [Ref 3] and motivated regulatory agencies in several countries to review their approvals of GM organisms or to comment on the work [Refs 4, 5] .

Nature Biotechnology approached Ermakova to ask for a detailed account of her work in her own words. Her answers are presented below together with comments solicited from a group of researchers working in the field.

Some snippets from the dialog between Dr Emakova and her critics published in Nature Biotechnology:

Q. What was the level of mortality of the pups you found in the control and test groups?

Dr Ermakova. In first three repeats of experiments, up to five times higher mortality was observed in newly born pups whose mothers had received the GM soy flour supplementation compared with pups from rats receiving GM soy protein isolate, traditional soy or laboratory chow (controls) (see Tables 1 and 2). Pups from rats that had been fed a GM soy diet died mostly during the 3 weeks following birth; pups from rats fed laboratory chow (positive control) died during the 2 weeks postpartum; and pups from those fed traditional soy died during the first week after birth.

Critics B.M.C., L.V.G., A.M. and V.M. Pup mortality is usually reported at day = 0 or day = 1 and day = 21. The timing and causes of death are not reported. The data in Tables 1 and 2 show that 8.1% of pups died in the control group. The typical mean pup survival observed for Wistar rats is greater than 99% plus minus 2 at day = 1 and 99.5% plus minus 1 at day = 21 (ref. 14). The abnormally high incidence of pup mortality in the controls indicates poor animal stewardship possibly arising from poor animal husbandry and/or dietary deficiency. No valid scientific conclusions can be based on a study with such a poor performance in the control group. Table 1 also reports 10% mortality on conventional soy; no conclusions should be drawn from a study in which the conventional soy control mortality is tenfold higher than that normally observed for Wistar rats...

Q. What was the weight of the control and test group animals?

Dr Ermakova. We did not find any significant differences in the weights of adult rats fed the different diets in two weeks after beginning of feeding. Even so, for 2 weeks following birth, the weights of pups from mothers fed GM soy supplement were lower than those of pups from rats in the positive control (laboratory chow) group or from the conventional soy flour-supplemented group. We also found that 33% of pups from rats fed GM soy had smaller sizes and lower weights than pups from rats fed laboratory chow, traditional soybeans or soybean protein isolate (Table 3). A crude anatomical analysis revealed that the organs of pups from rats fed GM soy were much smaller and weighed less (except the brain mass) than those from pups born to rats fed other diets (Table 4). Thus, age-matched pups in the test and control groups show differences in the development of internal organs.

Critics B.M.C., L.V.G., A.M. and V.M. Animal weights are normally recorded for individual animals in a litter and then averaged as mean for females and mean for males to account for gender differences. Table 3 does not segregate animals by gender, despite the likelihood of males being approx2-3% larger than females at this age. More importantly, under carefully controlled conditions, 14-day pup weight (approx38g plusminus 3g) will vary by no more than plusminus10% (ref. 14). The data in Table 3 are presented in an unconventional manner that makes it difficult to determine the exact mean and standard deviation among groups. Table 3 states that 53% of control pups are below 30 g, which is abnormally small for two-week-old Wistar rat pups. More than 90% of rat pups fed conventional soy are more than 20% below normal weight; GM soy (79% below typical weight) and GM soy protein isolate-fed pups (78% below typical weight) fared somewhat better. The wide variance of data in Table 3 and the high percentage of low-weight animals are clear indicators of malnutrition and/or poor environmental conditions. No conclusion can be made about abnormal development unless the controls conform to internationally observed norms.

Q. Why have you so far forgone publishing your work in a peer-reviewed journal?

Dr Ermakova I first presented the data at the 11th Russian Gastroenterological Week (in a section on Nutrition and GMOs organized by the Moscow-based National Association for Genetic Safety) at the Russian Academy of State Service in Moscow, October 10-12, 2005... In December 2005, I spoke at a conference, "Epigenetics, Transgenic Plants and Risk Assessment", in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The paper detailing my preliminary results was published in the Proceedings of this conference...I have submitted a paper to a Russian peer-reviewed journal and am currently preparing other papers for consideration by peer-reviewed scientific journals in English.

Critics B.M.C., L.V.G., A.M. and V.M. Ermakova does not answer the question. She has widely publicized her work at various congresses, meetings, press conferences and on the internet - this is not necessarily uncommon for major new findings. She strays, however, by announcing striking definitive conclusions from her experiments while at the same time claiming to entertain doubts in her own mind about her results. Her results depart so dramatically from previously reported findings as to be remarkable, and remarkable results demand remarkable support that Ermakova fails to provide.

We would add that even publication in a peer-reviewed journal does not per se validate scientific claims. It is up to the scientific community to weigh all reports against the best currently available evidence, including prior literature. Science needs to be repeated and to stand the test of time. When scientists circumvent peer review, they not only undermine science, they also undercut the credibility of science in the eyes of the general public. If she had questions about her own results, as she says she did, she should not have devoted so much time to publicizing what are demonstrably flawed studies.


'Budget for anti-GMO ordinance not enough'

- Gil Alfredo B. Severino, Sun-Star (Philippines), Sept. 13, 2007


SENIOR Provincial Agriculturist Elizabeth Suyod of the Provincial Veterinarian Office (PVO) found herself in a difficult situation in implementing the provincial ordinance banning the entries of genetically modified organisms (GMO).

Suyod cited among other things like the P200,000 allotted budget in implementing the ordinance which, according to her, the amount cannot even cover for the expenses of posters and billboards."

"Worst, we have not even made headways in terms of capability in identifying food items that contain GMO ingredients or plants that were grown through genetic engineering," she added.

Suyod admitted to personally GMOs in the name of Science, but now that the province had passed an ordinance banning the entries of GMOs to the province, she said, "I am tasked to implement the law to the best of my ability."

Suyod though lamented in terms of resources allotted for the effective implementation of the program.

Meanwhile, US trained biologist Nathan Luther explained that to identify GMO ingredients or plants, it will take a laboratory complete with 'genetic sequencing' mechanism costing millions of dollars or billions in peso.

Luther stressed, "Logistically, it is impossible to detect entrance of GMO products. However, if we can connect with US-based GMO corporations and the Food and Drugs Administration of America (FDA), things can be worked out,"

Luther further explained the GMOs are US-based inventions and the European Unions (EU) expectedly are competitors, adding, "It is possible that EU has a stronger grasp of the third world market fomenting fear among consumers."

Luther said, GMOs are already in many of the so-called junk foods and that there is no need to fear its entry, saying, "They are here."


"3-in-1" rice country's first GM rice

- Minerva BC Newman, PIA Daily News (press release), Sept. 13, 2007


Cebu, Philippines -- The country's first genetically modified (GM) rice is gaining acceptance experts believe by 2011, it will become a hit to fight global malnutrition.

Scientists at the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and Strive Foundation called this golden grain wonder as "3-in-1" rice because it is a genetically improved variety fortified with Vitamin A, iron and Zinc; identified by researchers as the vitamin and minerals mostly lacking in children and pregnant women around the world.

Gerard Barry, coordinator of the Golden Rice Network said that about one billion pregnant women in Asia are iron deficient; another 2-billion people lack zinc and an estimated of about 250-million children are Vitamin A deficient.

A study from the DA's Biotechnology Program Office revealed that more farmers are eager to try the new rice variety hoping to reduce their costs and losses that are brought about by pests.

DA-BPO director Alicia Ilaga said that the impact study of the GM rice covered close to 1000 farmers and consumers, randomly picked in the provinces of Isabela, Nueva Ecija, Iloilo, Davao del Sur and Davao del Norte, and majority of them answered they are willing to plant, buy and sell GM rice,

Between 49 and 55 percent of the respondents, the study said are willing to pay more for the GM Vitamin A rice while 85% expressed their desire to know more about rice biotechnology through the media.

Scientists, agricultural experts and researchers are excited over the new "3-in-1" GM rice because to them, this is the answer to reduce poverty and malnutrition in the country.


Transgenic public relations: Why is it so hard?

- Andrew Leonard, Salon, Sept. 11, 2007


If only scientists had better media training. Then maybe the "public" wouldn't be so distrustful of agricultural biotechnology. This lament doesn't appear just once in the special September issue of Biotechnology Journal, "Talking Biotech with the Public." It pops up again and again, a tragic leitmotif. If scientists could more effectively communicate the rational reasons why there is nothing to fear from biotech, then there would be no resistance to the further spread of genetically modified organisms. But alas, science is hard, the public is limited in its ability to comprehend, and agenda-driven activists are always muddying the waters.

Science is hard. Most people aren't going to understand the ins and outs of recombinant DNA technology. And there is certainly no shortage of disingenuous activists, of all stripes and colors, doing their best to spin every data point in their own chosen direction.

But if those scientists who are furrowing their brow at public intransigence on GMOs want to better understand such irrational belligerence, a close reading of the very first editorial in this special issue offers a big honking clue.

In "Talking with the public: challenging the public scare," Dr. Kristina Sinemus, the CEO of Genius, a German public relations consultancy with "many years of experience in communicating controversial aspects of technology," writes:

Especially in the light of economic prosperity, which is highly dependent on science, hostility to innovation is counterproductive. The question is not whether societies want new technologies -- there is simply an economic requirement for them. This in turn means that public understanding and a thorough exchange with scientists need to be methodically enforced.

Now, there may well be an irresistible mandate for new technological innovation if nine billion people are going to survive on this planet. But if you're wondering why, as one commentator after another notes in "Talking Biotech with the Public," popular faith in the pronouncements of scientists appears to be on the decline, then look no further than this declaration of "economic" requirements.

Time and again, the authors in Biotechnology Journal divide the world into a drama with just two actors: Science and The Public. (One even makes an even more derisory distinction, suggesting that the debate is between "modernists" who believe in progress, and postmodernists who don't even believe in truth.) But there's a third player: Capital.

For your average muckraking journalist, it's a no-brainer. One's starting point is to always be skeptical of assurances coming from anyone who has a financial stake in the proposition at hand. In a world in which the corporate capture of regulatory agencies is routine, top academic scientists enjoy a steady stream of income from corporate entities, and huge multinational corporations require the constant introduction and distribution of new products to generate the profits demanded by their shareholders, you don't have to be a Marxist to be suspicious. You need merely be prudent.

The essays in Biotechnology Journal do not completely ignore these factors, although most do their best to belittle them. One writer notes that opponents of GMOs cleverly take advantage of the "market-skeptical resentments of the middle class." (To which I might respond, if only! The most formidable offering, -- indeed, the only contribution that need be taken seriously -- University of California at Riverside's Alan McHughen's "Public perceptions of technology," notes in passing that 34 percent of the online respondents to a U.K. television story on a genetically modified safflower strain designed to produce pharmaceutical grade insulin argued that "agricultural biotech is primarily driven by corporate greed." But McHughen's essay also betrays the fundamental tone-deafness that so many scientists display when the public expresses doubt that they're receiving the straight dope.

Biotechnology is not new in this regard, everything from automobiles to barbecues warrants appropriate experts working in the public interest to assure safety, and typically these experts are employed by government agencies.

But where do we find such experts? Industry certainly employs scientists with appropriate expertise. But industry scientists are usually prohibited from public outreach -- that's the job of the sales force. And when they do engage in public education, their presentation must conform to the company line. In addition, activists are sure to point out that industry people cannot be trusted, as their loyalty is to the shareholders, not the public. Similarly, government employs many capable scientists and their loyalty should be to the taxpayers. But, again, activists quickly criticize and challenge the loyalty of government scientists, as public service experts exchange jobs with industry on a regular basis, the "revolving door policy with big industry," thus undermining their allegiance and credibility. The other major source of scientists with appropriate expertise is academia, as both public and private universities engage in broad research into the issues. But here again, the credibility and loyalty of even public academics is challenged by some activists who point out that many academic research programs are funded by industry, and question whether the academic scientist can be truly objective if their research program is tied to the industry in question.

What's so astonishing about this quote is that, in context, McHughen is clearly bemoaning how unfair these "activists" are being, bandying about their accusations of monetarily influenced bias. Whereas I look at that paragraph, and say, yes, exactly, you've hit the problem on his head! How can you possibly expect me to trust the words of men and women who stand to profit from the commercial deployment of the products that they are telling me are safe?

And you call me irrational?


Guest ed. note: One wonders if Mr. Leonard would rather trust people who receive money simply for protesting. If he does, the question he poses is easily answered.

*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net