* A Fruitless Campaign
* Food Crunch Opens Doors to Bioengineered Crops
* Genetically Modified Peanuts Could Save Lives
* New Zealand: How Fears Turned To Trust
* Organic and GM - Why Not?
* Horizon Documentary on GM from BBC
* Would You Bet The Farm That GM Is Bad?
* Non-target Insects Probably Affected More by Insecticides than by Bt Crops
* We Can't Hide In Our Labs and Leave the Talking to Dawkins
A Fruitless Campaign
- Editorial, Nature 456, 421-422 (27 November 2008) http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v456/n7221/full/456421b.html
'Another protracted fight over genetically modified crops in Africa will be costly and wasteful' 'Africa's nations cannot afford to do without new technologies in agriculture'
The global food crisis that came to the fore last spring may have been overshadowed by the global financial crisis that erupted this autumn, but it has certainly not been solved. That is one reason why many governments and philanthropic foundations are now looking to agricultural biotechnology to improve future food production. Despite the virulent opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops in some quarters, many believe that progress in areas such as drought-tolerant or nutritionally fortified plants could make a big difference in many of the poorest countries.
Indeed, environmentalists, policy-makers, scientists and industry representatives have been meeting both formally and informally over the past few years - first to establish a degree of common ground, and then to approach the trickier business of bridging some of their differences on the role of GM technology in agriculture.
A prime example is the work of the African Union's High-Level Panel on Modern Biotechnology, which was charged with charting a way forward in what have become known as Africa's GM wars. For well over a decade, companies such as Monsanto have sought to create African markets for GM crops such as insect-resistant Bt cotton, while against them have stood European environmental groups and not a few African political leaders, for whom multinational businesses evoke the spectre of colonialism. The two sides have waged a war in parliaments, in the media and even on the streets.
Fed up, the African Union eventually brought together a group of key individuals and institutions who might otherwise be talking to each other through a megaphone. The group included Tewolde Egziabher, head of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority, who is a leading environmental campaigner and a vocal critic of multinationals in developing countries. Sat next to him was Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard University and a passionate proponent of technology's role in economic development. And next to him was Cheick Modibo Diarra, chairman of Microsoft in Africa.
The group eventually came to a consensus that Africa's nations cannot afford to do without new technologies in agriculture - but that all new technologies would need appropriate safeguards to protect human health and the environment. This seemingly obvious statement was, in fact, a rare example of successful collaboration between multinationals and environmentalists.
The fragility of that consensus is illustrated by the fate of a much larger initiative, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. That effort attempted to forge a similar consensus among the major players in world agriculture, but fell apart in January when industry representatives chose to walk away from the table (see Nature 451, 223-224; 2008). They felt unable to sign a document that did not list biotechnology as a high enough priority.
From the other side, meanwhile, GM opponents are trying to rekindle the controversy. A new opposition campaign - http://www.bangmfood.org - was endorsed in the November issue of The Ecologist magazine, an influential voice in the global environmental movement.
In that context, the magnitude of the African Union panel's achievement is clear - as are the challenges it still faces. Its report, Freedom to Innovate: Biotechnology in Africa's Development, has not yet officially seen the light of day, even though it was published more than a year ago. Ordinarily, a document from the African Union would be expected to be harsh in its criticism of multinational industry. As this report is more measured, senior officials in the African Union's Commission based in Addis Ababa are nervous about releasing it.
Happily, the report is in wide circulation and freely available on the Internet (http://www.nepadst.org/doclibrary/pdfs/biotech_africarep_2007.pdf). But the African Union should have the courage of its convictions and give the report its formal endorsement. Indeed, it should use it as a model for ongoing attempts to address the food crisis. Both the successful negotiations of the African Union panel and the failure of the international assessment show that there is no alternative to a grown-up discussion with all parties in the same room.
Food Crunch Opens Doors to Bioengineered Crops
- Elaine Kurtenbach, Associated Press, December 1St, 2008
Zeng Yawen's outdoor laboratory in the terraced hills of southern China is a trove of genetic potential - rice that thrives in unusually cool temperatures, high altitudes or in dry soil; rice rich in calcium, vitamins or iron.
"See these plants? They can tolerate the cold," Zeng says as he walks through a checkerboard of test fields sown with different rice varieties on the outskirts of Kunming, capital of southwestern China's Yunnan province.
"We can extract the cold-tolerant gene from this plant and use it in a genetically manipulated variety to improve its cold tolerance," Zeng says.
In a mountainous place like Yunnan, and in many other parts of the developing world, such advantages can tip the balance between hunger and a decent living. And China is now ready to tip that scale in favor of genetically modified crops.
Surging costs, population growth, and drought and other setbacks linked to global climate change are pressuring world food supplies, while soaring prices on the street have triggered riots and raised the number of people going hungry to more than 923 million, according to U.N. estimates.
With food demand forecast to increase by half by 2030, the incentive to use genetic engineering to boost harvests and protect precious crops from insects and other damage has never been greater.
In Europe, Africa and Asia, governments that have resisted imports of genetically modified foods and banned growing such crops are loosening those restrictions. Meanwhile, they are pushing ahead faster with their own research, despite lingering questions over the safety of such technology.
"Influential voices around the world are calling for a re-examination of the GM debate," says C.S. Prakash, a professor of plant molecular genetics at Alabama's Tuskegee University. "Biotechnology provides such tools to help address food sustainability issues."
Genetic manipulation to insert desirable genes or accelerate changes traditionally achieved through crossbreeding can help make crops resistant to insects and disease or enable them to tolerate herbicides. Livestock similarly can be altered by inserting a gene from one animal into the DNA of another.
Many researchers believe such methods are essential for a second "green revolution," now that the gains from the first, in the mid-20th century, are tapering off.
Bioengineered crops are widely grown in Canada, Argentina and the U.S., where nearly all soybeans, most cotton and a growing proportion of corn are designed for tolerance to herbicides or resistance to insects. A virus-resistant GM variety of papaya is commercially grown in Hawaii and China.
Biotechnology is bound to play an important role in the agriculture of the future, Robert Zeigler, director of the International Rice Research Institute, said in an interview with The Associated Press at IRRI's headquarters south of Manila in the Philippines.
Such crops "bring tremendous power and advantages to producers and consumers," Zeigler said, noting the potential savings from reduced use of farm chemicals and of fuel for the tractors to spread them.
After delaying the long-expected commercialization of GM grains for years, China's leaders in July endorsed a 13-year, $2.9 billion program to promote use of genetically altered crops and livestock. Beijing is on the verge of releasing an insect-resistant rice variety, Zeigler said.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is a champion of the new agriculture.
"I strongly advocate making great efforts to pursue transgenic engineering. The recent food shortages around the world have further strengthened that belief," Wen recently told Science magazine.
He praised the benefits - higher farm incomes and reduced use of pesticides - from widespread use of so-called Bt cotton engineered to prevent bollworm infestations.
The trend extends beyond China: Worldwide cultivation of bioengineered crops has expanded by over 10 percent a year for a decade, although by 2007 it still had reached only 282 million acres, an area about the size of Cuba, in 22 countries.
Vietnam is pushing ahead with an ambitious program to develop commercial GM crops to reduce reliance on imports. In May, South Korea, which already imports GM soybeans, began importing bioengineered corn to help bridge shortfalls of conventional corn after China began limiting its exports.
Last month, Brazil's National Biosafety Commission approved two new varieties of genetically modified corn seeds, after giving the green light two years ago for GM varieties of soybeans. India has followed China's example, tripling acreage of GM cotton, the only bioengineered crop it allows.
In Africa, where governments have sometimes rejected food aid shipments containing GM grains, South African scientists have completed field tests of a potato developed to fend off tuber moths. They also recently approved trials of sorghum genetically enhanced to improve the digestibility and nutritional content of the coarse grain, which thrives in arid soils.
European countries face growing pressure, under World Trade Organization rules, to open their markets to GM products. Many among the EU's 27 member nations remain wary and, backed by consumers opposed to what some call "Franken-foods," are fighting to keep genetically altered crops out of their fields and supermarkets.
"Why should we change what nature has given us, when it is everything we need?" asked Filippo De Angelis, selling newspapers at a kiosk in Rome. "I don't think we can solve the problem of world hunger through genetics."
Even in China, despite its hefty investments in the research, few are familiar with genetic modification. Some who have heard of it remain cautious.
"It's impossible to know if it's harmful to the body," said Zheng Wencai, a retired architect in Kunming shopping for soybeans in a downtown market. "There is still a global debate on this. So basically, I don't use it."
Besides papayas, China allows farmers to grow GM varieties of green peppers and tomatoes, along with several nonfood crops. But genetically modified rice and wheat are still in field tests.
Those test facilities are kept under high security, both to prevent contamination of non-GM crops and to protect the country's own GM technology. Beijing seems determined not to cede its potentially huge local markets to big agribusinesses like the U.S. company Monsanto and Switzerland's Sygenta AG.
"In general, the government has a very positive view toward GM technology and its products," says Lu Baorong, a member of the National Biosafety Committee, whose desk at Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University was piled with GM rice seed samples to be tested on Hainan, a tropical southern island.
"Since China is a big country and we have so many people to feed, to have our own technology and guarantee food security is very important," Lu said.
He wouldn't speculate on a timeline for commercial approvals of GM rice.
Ultimately, widespread cultivation of such crops will depend on work done at IRRI and by researchers like Zeng, who have spent years painstakingly searching for traits that might unlock the secrets to future abundance.
Zeng views genetic engineering as just one of many strategies, including irrigation and soil improvements and better farm management, needed to increase productivity to ensure future generations will have enough to eat.
"Without all these, it will be very hard to boost output further. There will be breakthroughs, but it will be very hard," he said.
Genetically Modified Peanuts Could Save Lives
- Aaron Rowe, Wired, November 30, 2008 http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/11/peanuts-with-le.html
Genetically engineered peanuts may help fight the most common cause of fatal allergic reactions to food in the United States. While the research is unlikely to result in the creation of completely allergen-free peanuts, it could result in fewer outbreaks and even fewer deaths.
For years now, government scientists have been testing ordinary peanuts in the hope of finding one that cannot cause the deadly allergic reactions which kill more than 50 Americans every year. But nature may not be able to provide an answer.
Horticulture expert Peggy Ozias-Akins at the University of Georgia in Tifton is taking a different tack by using genetic engineering to grow hypoallergenic peanuts.
Most allergic reactions to peanuts are triggered by the same eleven molecules. In theory, peanuts without the genes responsible for those molecules would be far less likely to trigger allergic reactions. "Some proteins cause more severe allergic reactions than others," said Ozias-Akins.
Tackling the worst offenders first, her team has made and tested peanuts that do not produce two proteins that are among the most intense allergens. The research appears in The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
The biologists shot a customized DNA sequence into the plants with a gene gun, causing the legumes to produce hairpin-shaped RNA molecules, which halt the production of the two proteins. Messing with the genetic code of a plant could potentially cause the seeds to develop improperly, change the taste of the crop, or render it more susceptible to fungal infections. But Ozias-Akins' team found that they grow normally and can resist a common mold without any problems.
Still, getting rid of every allergy-causing substance in peanuts would not be easy, Ozias-Akins said. "Given the number of allergenic proteins in peanuts, I doubt that developing an allergen-free peanut is realistic." Although it may be impossible to make a perfectly safe peanut, clipping the right genes out could make food accidents far less common.
New Zealand: How Fears Turned To Trust
- Chris Barton, New Zealand Herald, Nov, 29, 2008 http://www.nzherald.co.nz/ via Agnet
Christian Walter has heard it all before. "I've been accused of being in the pocket of Monsanto and other companies that have an interest in GE. I consider myself an environmentalist. I want to understand what the risks are and how they can be mitigated. I've no commercial interests. I put the data from my research in front of the people at this conference, in front of GE Free NZ and anyone who is interested. I want to be judged and trusted on my research which is publicly funded."
The senior scientist at Scion is responding to a press release from GE Free NZ saying many of the speakers at the GM Biosafety Symposium in Wellington a week ago were scientists "with vested interests in promoting the hasty commercialisation of GMOs for private gain".
For Walter it's an insulting statement that fails to understand how science works. He says he got into genetic modification research doing a PhD in Germany when he was still a member of Greenpeace and at the time very critical of the field.
"The more I learned, the more I found the risks weren't as big as some people wanted us to believe." He says it was the realisation that what occurs in conven tional breeding is much more dangerous to the genome compared to genetic engineering, that changed his view.
Walter came to New Zealand 16 years ago and set up Scion's GM system for pine trees. The first application by the crown research institute to Erma for a field trial was in 1999. It involved pine trees with the insertion of genes that report the reproductive development of the tree. Walter estimates, taking into account staff and lawyers' time and the Erma fee, that application cost about $450,000.
He says a more streamlined Erma process means costs have since improved, but applications are still very expensive and time-consuming. The first stage of Scion's 20-year trial ended recently when 9-year-old trees were felled. The research to date indicates no impact of the GM trees on insects and micro-organisms in the soil.
The next stage of the project involves putting key traits - such as easier pulpability, higher stability of timber and higher density - into the trees.
Walter says though the science of GM has evolved, the HSNO Act that regulates its use here hasn't. He would like to see a more evidence-based approach taken so that decisions are made on evidence of risk and benefit. "There is no such thing as zero risk so when we look at new activity such as genetic engineering we need to compare it to already accepted activity to achieve the same goal."
Walter says if we weigh up, for example, the risks of spraying pesticides against growing GM pest-resistant plants, the GM option presents less risk. Walter says he makes every effort to be open about his research, but it's a two-way process.
In January this year anti-GM activists dug under the electrified 3m-high fence surrounding Scion's field test site and destroyed an experiment by cutting down 19 trees. "We have a very open policy and we try to talk to everybody who is concerned about our research," says Walter. "We have to find other ways to deal with that particular problem, and unfortunately it prevents us from being open. The trust was broken - it was broken again when they destroyed my trees."
Organic and GM - Why Not?
- Mark Tester, Science, Vol. 322, page 1190; Nov. 21, 2008
'Tomorrow's Table - Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food' by Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak; Oxford University Press, New York, 2008. 226 pp. $29.95, £17.99. ISBN 9780195301755.
To increase harvests and efficiency. The authors propose that combining genetic engineering with organic farming offers the best path to sustainable food production.
The organic movement's opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops is causing it to miss an opportunity. Like agriculture across the planet, organic farming needs all the technological help it can get to be both sustainable and high-yielding. As with many recent innovations, GM technologies provide myriad possibilities for reducing the impacts of agriculture on the environment and the need for chemical inputs to maintain yield. But from the start, the organic movement rejected the use of GM crops. Genetic engineering is a technology, and like so many technologies, its benefits, costs, and risks depend on how it is used. A comparison with nuclear technology is not unfair: most of us benefit from medical applications of nuclear technologies, while many of us have major concerns with the large stockpiles of nuclear weapons that still threaten the planet. So, the risks of GM depend on the genes being put into the plants, not on the technology per se. Yet the numerous potential applications of GM to reduce chemical inputs to agriculture are flatly rejected by most organic farmers.
In Tomorrow's Table, we now have the positive aspects of both organic and GM approaches discussed logically and clearly. The delightfully constructive book was written by a talented wife-and-husband team: Pamela Ronald, a very successful plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis, and Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer who teaches at the same university. The authors are eminently qualified to present authoritative descriptions of their respective disciplines, which they do in a readable and accurate manner. But the noteworthy aspect of the book is the way they then marry their separate fields to argue logically for the use of GM technologies to improve organic agriculture. As Gordon Conway (a former president of the Rockefeller Foundation) comments in his foreword, "The marriage is long overdue."
The authors describe the possibilities for GM to assist organic agriculture with examples drawn from their own and others' research. Pest control is a particular focus. Ronald was centrally involved in the genetic engineering of flooding tolerance in rice (1). She describes lucidly how this would enable farmers to flood a paddy field in which the rice has been established, thus killing the weeds that inevitably afflict the crop but not the rice itself. When the water is subsequently lowered, the rice has a head start on any weeds that eventually emerge, which provides a simple, cheap, and clearly organic method for weed control. How can the organic movement turn its back on such opportunities?
The false dichotomy that has been constructed between GM crops and organic farming can be illustrated with numerous similar examples. Another discussed by the authors is Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin, which has been successfully commercialized by Monsanto. These small insecticidal proteins, synthesized by widespread soil bacteria, can be applied in an almost unregulated way by organic farmers. This has been done for many decades. Yet when genetic engineering is used to place the gene encoding the Bt toxin in a plant's genome, the resulting GM plants are vilified by the very people willing to spray the product encoded by this same gene over otherwise similar plants. The organic movement's sustained rejection of this current application of GM appears increasingly illogical as evidence continues to accumulate that it does reduce pesticide use. In fact, this reduction is the principal reason farmers pay more for the biotech seeds-their lowered expenditures on pesticides are saving them money.
The authors marshal many additional examples to support their thesis that GM technologies and organic agriculture are quite compatible. Their discussion of these two topics exposes the complexity of the biological systems in which the issues surrounding them have to be addressed. This highlights the superficial nature of much of the GM debate, in which both sides make oversimplifications that support unnecessarily polarized standpoints. The biology is more complex. Unlike most protagonists, Ronald and Adamchak do not crudely lump together every GM crop as though they are all the same. That oversimplification blurs the issues (2, 3) to the detriment of fruitful consideration of topics that are increasingly important in a world in which we need to produce more food, fiber, and fuels in the face of global environmental change. In contrast, the authors calmly argue something that makes perfect sense to me, but their book will be controversial.
All proponents of organic agriculture, especially the noisier ones such as Prince Charles, should read Tomorrow's Table. Ronald and Adamchak's clear, rational approach is refreshing, and the balance they present is sorely needed in our increasingly polarized world. In addition, plant scientists-who have the privilege of greater knowledge than most in this area and who therefore have a responsibility to share their understanding with a wider audience-will find the book provides useful information and arguments to help them when doing their next "science in the pub" talk.
References: 1. K. Xu et al., Nature 442, 705 (2006).; 2. M. Tester, Nature 402, 575 (1999).; 3. M. Tester, New Phytol. 149, 9 (2001).
- Andrew Billen,The Times, Nov. 26, 2008 http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk
As you may recall, I have over the past two years been fretting over Horizon. Since 1964 it has been the staple crop of the BBC science department but in recent years it has been injected with a huge dose of populism to make it resistant to ratings decline. The intellectually modified Horizon has met with many protests, especially from me and, I am afraid, a two-part opener to this season that turned "madness" into a reality game show was more misjudged television. How pleasing, then, to report that last night it came up with a model documentary discussing the merits and demerits of genetically modified food (there: now you know where that extended agricultural metaphor was going).
The director Michael Lachmann had the inspired idea of getting Jimmy Doherty to present. Doherty was once a scientist. He is now an organic farmer, rearing the sorts of pigs you last read about in Thomas Hardy. He is also, as viewers who saw his excellent series Farming Heroes, an enthusiast for extensive farming if it is done responsibly. What is more, he slightly resembles Jamie Oliver, but without the messiah complex or the f word.
His trip from the pampas of Argentina, where from a standing start 20 years ago, half the arable land is now planted with GM soya beans, to the plantations of Uganda where the bananas are not resistant to black sigatoka but the politicians are to the technology that could save them, produced many pointed contrasts. In Uganda, subsistence farmers break in to the lab to steal the new-fangled plants and grow them. In Bavaria farmers invade the scientists' fields to destroy them. And it is not always a battle between Luddites and progressives. The Amish of Pennsylvania still tend the land in horse and cart but happily use GM seeds.
Doherty made the point that so far GM has not been used to feed the world but to make farmers rich. In Europe, where, thanks to the hysteria of the late 1990s it is close to impossible to eat GM produce, the luxury of not buying GM for a generation may be worth indulging. But the sight of sack after sack of GM maize, as ate in the US, rotting in the docks during the southern African famine of 2002 was, surely, obscene. In conclusion, Doherty, said that we should proceed carefully but proceed, and that meant letting experimental crops grow, not digging them up. It was the right conclusion for a serious science programme to reach and allows me room skittishly to observe that the only GM that concerns me is GMTV: look at what all those years on it did to Eamonn Holmes.
Would You Bet The Farm That GM Is Bad?
- Jay Rayner,The Guardian (UK), Nov. 26, 2008 http://www.guardian.co.uk/
'Getting a famous free range farmer to present a Horizon documentary on GM food was a masterstroke'
When I first heard that Jimmy Doherty was to tackle the knotty issues around genetically modified food for last night's edition of BBC2's Horizon, I was hit by two responses in quick succession. The first was a surge of sympathy. I knew exactly what he was getting into. When I put out a call for pointers and opinions on the subject from you, our darling readers, I was swamped by waves of highly informed, highly impassioned comments and emails. It was one of the most complex subjects I have ever had to tackle as a journalist, as I think the final piece proved.
The second response was suspicion. Doherty has made a name for himself pandering to the purely aesthetic end of Britain's food interest, "the traditional, free range, farm-- that wholesome thing," as he himself put it. Too often, I fear, people obsessed with the lovely, touchy feely aesthetic elements of food mistake their interests with the wider debate on how we feed ourselves, and I had Doherty firmly in that camp.
I assumed his response to GM would be hideously predictable - anti unto the barricades - and that this would be an hour of BBC television which would do little to move the debate forward.
I underestimated both Horizon and Doherty. This was a smart, cleverly crafted piece of documentary television. I can't deny that it lacked the true scientific heft which, rightly, made Horizon a byword for solid public service broadcasting in the 70s and 80s - it used to do wonders with beardy men who understood unfathomable things about the universe - but it did a superb job of laying out the arguments.
Sure, it avoided one issue, which was the role played in the spread of GMs by the multinational biotech companies, fingered by many as the baddies of the piece. Then again, tangling with them is such a huge legal nightmare I don't blame them. The producers would have spent days in hand-to-hand combat with the lawyers, without necessarily advancing the argument any.
Instead they went to work on every other corner of the debate, and Doherty proved himself a sharp, open-minded and reliable guide. For every negative argument that was put forward - the threat to human health, for example, or the risk of cross-contamination - the rebuttal was there.
Finding an Amish farmer who grows GM corn, despite his sect's rejection of the modern world, was a master stroke. A man with a funny beard and a floppy hat saying anti-GM campaigners "don't know what they're talking about" was far more striking than hearing it from a bloke in a white lab coat. And the programme refused to pander to an anti-science mentality. Doherty may like to farm the "old-fashioned way" as he puts it, but he recognises that what he does will not solve the problems of global food supply.
But what really made it was the travel budget. This Horizon saw food as a global issue and hence travelled the globe, from England to Argentina, from Germany to the US and Africa. And it was Doherty's experience in Uganda, looking at blight to the nation's vital banana crop, which was the most instructive.
As he pointed out, in Africa not thinking about GM is a luxury they cannot afford (even if many African governments are trying to do so). Doherty's conclusion that, while GM might not have all the answers now, "it's madness that we turn away from this technology", given what it's potential might be, came backed up by an impassioned plea for the science to be pursued, for testing to continue. To me his argument was spot on, though I suspect a lot of you will disagree.
Non-target Insects Probably Affected More by Insecticides than by Bt Crops
- Laura McGinnis, USDA-ARS, Nov. 24, 2008 http://www.ars.usda.gov
Non-target insects are probably affected more by conventional insecticides than by crops that contain genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), according to the findings of a study by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists and cooperators. The findings were published recently in Public Library of Science ONE.
Bt crops such as maize and cotton are genetically engineered to produce insect-specific toxins. They target specific insect pests, but the researchers wanted to determine how these crops influence non-target insects in the environment.
To find out, scientists from ARS collaborated with researchers at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Iowa State University and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Steven Naranjo, a research leader at the ARS Arid Land Agricultural Research Center in Maricopa, Ariz., and Jonathan Lundgren, an entomologist at the ARS North Central Agricultural Research Laboratory in Brookings, S.D., contributed to the work.
The scientists compared the abundance of groups of non-target insects. They first compared the abundance of these insects in Bt crops and non-Bt crops without any insecticides. They also compared the insect populations in both types of crops treated with insecticides. And they compared the non-target insect populations in Bt crops without insecticides versus the populations in non-Bt crops treated with insecticides.
They formed these groups of non-target insects with data drawn from a modified version of a public database created by Santa Clara University biologist Michelle Marvier and colleagues. The toxins examined included Cry1Ab and Cry3Bb in maize, Cry3A in potato and Cry1Ac and Cry1Ab in cotton.
The researchers observed considerable variability in the effects of Bt cotton and maize crops on non-target insects. However, the data within the groups were fairly consistent. The most influential factor was the insecticide applied. Collectively, insecticides such as pyrethroids, organophosphates, carbamates and neonicotinoids had larger negative impacts on non-target insects than did the Bt crops.
The researchers concluded that when it comes to killing non-target insects, no treatment at all has the least impact. Bt crops have considerably less impact on non-target insects than do conventional insecticides. Also, insecticides affect insect populations uniformly, regardless of whether they're in Bt or non-Bt crop fields.
ARS is a scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
We Can't Hide In Our Labs and Leave the Talking to Dawkins
- Jim Al-Khalili, The Guardian (UK), Nov. 25 2008 http://www.guardian.co.uk/
'While people still cling to beliefs from the dark ages, more scientists must publicly defend rational, secular society'
I have come to the conclusion I don't like the phrase "science communicator". You would think that it goes without saying that all scientists must communicate their work, for what is the point of learning new things about how the world works if you don't tell anyone about them?
But, alas, the term seems to be reserved only for that small minority of scientists - increasing though its numbers have been in recent years - who recognise the importance of sharing their theories and observations with more than just the dozen researchers around the world who bother to read their highly specialised journal papers. An even smaller minority, though - and I brazenly include myself - don't so much stick their heads shyly over the parapets of their ivory towers to peer out at the big wide world as jump out on to the ledge with a loudspeaker. But a question I wish to address here is one that does not receive a universal answer. Should these science explainers restrict themselves in their public utterances to their own subject, or are they right to join in with other social commentators in the public arena to opine on wider societal issues such as ethics or faith?
Which brings me to my reason for writing this piece. Richard Dawkins, that less than shy champion of militant atheism, stepped down recently from his famous Charles Simonyi chair in science communication at Oxford. His successor is the youthful professor of mathematics Marcus du Sautoy. This is a great appointment, as Du Sautoy is already doing the sort of things this chair was created for. But Dawkins's stature and reputation have raised the profile of the Simonyi chair, making it a platform for utterances that are hugely magnified in their reach and influence. In a way it is similar to what Stephen Hawking has brought to the Lucasian chair of mathematics at Cambridge - from which he retires next year - despite previous holders including the likes of Isaac Newton.
Of course, Du Sautoy will not, and probably should not, need to change what he does in his new role. He is already a successful broadcaster and author as well as a serious academic. And I certainly do not intend to offer him advice on the path he should take. But whether or not one agrees with Dawkins's confrontational, firebrand style, there is no denying that he has made moderate atheism - that which tries hard not to insult those of faith by trivialising what they hold dear - respectable.
By positioning himself on one extreme, Dawkins has allowed this cuddlier atheist to occupy the centre ground. It is rather like the political spectrum of the latter half of the last century, when communism provided the buffer and excuse for the respectability of socialism. Today's world is very different, and with communism discredited, those of us who proudly labelled ourselves socialists in Thatcherite Britain now feel safer being re-branded as liberals with socialism the new extreme of the left.
I do feel strongly however that those scientists who have a voice must be doing more than simply popularising their field to attract the next generation into science. Yes, this is vital; but it is also vital that we help defend our rational, secular society against the rising tide of irrationalism and ignorance. Science communicators, for want of a better term for now, have a role to play in explaining not just the scientific facts but how science itself works: that it is not just "another way of viewing the world"; and that without it we would still be living in the dark ages.
I do not mean that everyone should become an expert in quantum mechanics (although wouldn't that be great). But when there are so many people (such as the thankfully defeated Republican vice-presidential candidate in the US) who truly believe that dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time as humans, or that the universe itself was created six thousand years ago - or who spend millions of pounds on homeopathic remedies or magic crystals instead of real medicine - then we scientists simply cannot hide away in our labs.
I have recently been involved in making a BBC series on medieval science in the early Islamic empire. While we marvel at the contributions to mathematics, astronomy and medicine that these scholars made a millennium ago, we tend to scoff at the more naive notions they entertained in folklore, astrology or alchemy - until we remember that they wouldn't look so out of place in 21st-century Europe or America.
Science communicators are therefore more than just cheap popularisers providing soundbites for a public hungry to know what subatomic exotica will be conjured into existence at the Large Hadron Collider. They have a huge role to play in keeping the light of rationalism shining brightly. Love him or loathe him, Dawkins has played his part in this.
Jim Al-Khalili is professor of physics and professor of the public engagement in science at the University of Surrey