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South China Morning Post
April 10, 2000
Scientists back crop campaign
BY: ALEX LO
Leading Hong Kong biotechnologists have signed a global petition of more
than 2,000 international scientists - including two Nobel prize winners -
in support of genetically modified crops.
Professor Samuel Sun Sai-ming, who chairs Chinese University's biology
department, has signed the petition, along with fellow research team
member and biologist Dr Lam Hon-ming.
The university team won a $ 38.8 million government grant last year to
study genetically engineered rice.
"Scientists need to pay more attention to public relations and education,
which is something we are not paid to do," Professor Sun said.
"I know many US researchers who have signed the document and I have signed
Biotechnologist and Hong Kong University's dean of science, Dr Fredrick
Leung Chi-ching, said he also supported the petition, but had not yet
"We need to get people to have a better understanding of the technology,"
The one-page Declaration of Scientists in Support of Agricultural
Biotechnology was launched ahead of planned US congressional hearings into
labelling and safety concerns about genetically modified food.
Dr Channapatna Prakash, a US government science adviser and
biotechnologist at Tuskegee University in Alabama, began the campaign.
Signatories include US Nobel laureates James Watson, who jointly
discovered the structure of DNA in 1953, and Norman Borlaug, the 1970
peace prize winner.
The document said modified crops were as safe as any crops grown by
traditional methods. But it did not mention modified fish and livestock,
which would be the next commercial targets of genetic engineering.
"The responsible genetic modification of plants is neither new nor
dangerous," it said.
The petition came months after an international alliance of biotechnology
companies started a global multimillion-dollar public relations campaign
to counter a public backlash against modified food products.
GM is good for you
May 18, 2000
If Sir Walter Raleigh were alive today it is unlikely that his proposal to
introduce a doubtful-looking vegetable tuber from South America would ever
get approval from the many food committees that today safeguard the
British diet. In its natural form the potato is so rich in equally natural
plant toxins that it would probably be deemed too unsafe for human
consumption. Natural or not, the wild potato is a decidely risky thing to
The idea that natural means healthy, wholesome and ultimately good is at
the heart of Prince Charles's latest broadside against genetically
modified (GM) food, delivered as his contribution to the Reith Lectures,
broadcast on Radio 4 last night. In his talk, Charles argued that
scientific rationalism has smothered the guiding principle of the sacred
trust between mankind and God, "under which we accept a duty of
stewardship for the Earth". If nothing is held sacred, he said, then what
is to prevent us treating the world as a "great laboratory of life" where
science is allowed to run rampant and unchecked?
There is no doubt that the Prince's intervention was powerful and emotive,
but was he right? Certainly, most prominent scientists do not think so.
Martin Bobrow, professor of medical genetics at Cambridge University, is
one who accuses Charles of denigrating science. "I think it is extremely
unhelpful to convey a general attitude of being antagonistic to a
scientific process," he said. Richard Dawkins, the renowned Oxford
zoologist, declared himself "saddened" that Charles should see scientific
rationalism as an enemy of environmental protection.
In their war on GM technology, Prince Charles and his environmental
advisers invoke the organic sustainability of the natural world and pit it
against the artificial, unnatural and chemically synthetic approach of the
scientist and agricultural technologist. In essence, the Prince's message
is simple: scientists should know their place. Nature, the work of the
Creator, can do no harm, and we meddle with it at our peril.
But in reality, the scientists argue, the world is more complicated.
Nature is more than red in tooth and claw, and humanity has been fighting
against it for thousands of years. The smallpox virus is natural, so is
botulism and plague. An African child dying from diarrhoea as a result of
drinking cholera is a quite natural event. So are children born in the
industrially developed world with inherited gene disorders.
If we wanted to follow a "natural" existence, we wouldn't practise
medicine. We would allow the many quite natural diseases to take their
course. We wouldn't bother to sow crops and store grain, but rely instead
on the seasonal bounty that Mother Nature may or may not provide. Above
all, if we wanted to be natural, we would not interfere with evolution and
let natural selection be the ultimate arbiter of whether we live or die.
Quite natural, but quite appalling.
When, about 10,000 years ago, the first proto-agriculturalists selectively
picked the ears of cereals that looked most promising for further
cultivation, they were breaking with natural evolution. It is not natural
for our staple crops to be so heavy with edible produce, as they are now.
No organic food fanatic would look twice at a natural corn on the cob - a
miserable affair a couple of inches long.
Interfering with Nature has enabled the human population to grow to
unprecedented levels. Between 1960 and 1995, rice and wheat yields have
increased more than twofold thanks to unnatural events - by breeding
strains that can resist drought and pests and by adding artificial
pesticides and fertilisers to boost production.
No one, least of all the scientists who helped in the so-called Green
Revolution of the past 40 years, will say this success has come without
any costs. It has. Chemical sprays have left their indelible mark on
wildlife, genetic diversity has been lost in the drive for monocultural
efficiency and pests have fought back by becoming resistant to the
artificial toxins we threw at them.
Yet to do nothing would have meant certain disaster for the human species.
Prince Charles is old enough to remember the doom-merchants of the 1960s
who predicted mass starvation and social collapse as a result of famines
and food shortages. They calculated, quite correctly, that the food
production techniques of 40 years ago would not sustain a world population
growing at such a rate.
The Green Revolution, however, has run its course. More and more chemical
fertilisers have now to be added to a crop to achieve the same yields;
agricultural land and water supplies are becoming more scarce in the
world, yet the global population is set to rise from 6 billion to 9
billion within the next 50 years.
GM technology offers the most promising solution in that it allows better
crops to be developed more quickly than is possible by conventional
breeding. GM can be compared to a sniper's rifle picking off potential
problems one at a time, rather than a farmer's blunderbuss being let off
in the darkness.
What most worries Charles and his supporters about this technology is that
it permits scientists to move a gene from one species and introduce it
into the gene pool of another. This is indeed fairly unnatural, but not
unprecedented in Nature. Although biologists once considered it impossible
for one species to interchange genes with another, this is no longer the
case. It is now apparent that Nature herself permits this - using quite
natural vehicles for gene transmission, such as Agrobacterium tumefaciens,
a bacterium that lives in the soil and which possesses the uncanny ability
to transfer some of its own DNA into that of susceptible plants.
Scientists have adapted this natural ability of A. tumefaciens to insert
beneficial genes into crops. There are now many instances of edible plants
being modified in such a way as to make them more resistant to pests, to
grow in drought conditions or produce higher, more nutritious yields.
In the blast of propaganda from the anti-GM merchants it is easy to forget
that the technology can lower our reliance on chemical sprays. Maarten
Chrispeels, professor of plant biology at the University of California San
Diego says that the planting in 1998 of GM crops in the US resulted in a
"12 per cent decline in pesticide use". Eliminating the recently-
identified gene that causes "pod shattering" in oil-bearing canola seeds
meant farmers could double yields. Another way of looking at this is that
GM technology should allow canola seed farmers to grow crops on half the
land they once used, and use half as much fertiliser and pesticide as a
GM technology can improve human health even more directly. Natural toxins
produced by moulds can be highly lethal. Mycotoxins on organically grown
nuts have killed thousands of people. American scientists have found that
GM corn contains lower levels of mycotoxins because the grain is less
prone to insect damage, which has allowed moulds to grow more easily on
Scientists also plan to produce edible vaccines in plants, a simple,
sterile way of delivering a vital medicine to children in the developing
world. Infant diarrhoea caused by intestinal infections probably kills
more babies than any other single disease. A GM vegetable or fruit bearing
an entertoxin vaccine is far from natural, but a potential life-saver.
Other examples exist of the direct benefits. GM rice enriched with vitamin
A - another man-made monstrosity in the eyes of Prince Charles - may not
actually save lives, but it promises to prevent blindness in hundreds of
thousands of children in the developing world.
Unnatural, artificial and synthetic as GM technology is, we cannot afford
to ignore its benefits. If every farmer was to till the land in the same,
organic fashion as the Duchy of Cornwall there would only be enough food
to feed about 4 billion people in the world - about 2 billion short of the
current total. We have no choice but to continue our age-old struggle
against the limits of Nature. We cannot rely on God to do it for us. Jim
Watson, the father of DNA science, said recently at a meeting in London
that scientists often get accused of wanting to play God. "But then in all
honesty, if scientists don't play God, who will?" he said.
And despite the protestations of the heir to the throne, Watson is right.
The Wall street Journal
Letters to the Editor: Regulatory Gangs Maul Biotech
On your May 2 editorial page you ran an editorial on the vicissitudes of
agricultural biotechnology and an article by Jerome Groopman that
explained the gradual nature of progress at the cutting edge of medical
biotechnology (specifically, in human gene therapy). Neither of these
cautiously optimistic pieces mentioned critical public policy developments
-- including some that are imminent -- that will determine the pace, and
even the viability, of biotechnological innovation:
-- USDA regulations have made experiments with gene-spliced plants ten- to
twenty-fold more expensive than the very same field trials with virtually
identical organisms crafted with older, less precise techniques. As a
result, research and development have been only a fraction of their
potential, and consumers have thereby been deprived of the benefits of
gene-spliced plants such as sunflowers modified to yield a more healthful
cooking oil and more nutritious vegetables and grains.
-- The EPA has attacked biotechnology on several fronts. A regulation
under the Toxic Substances Control Act has halted most research into
gene-spliced micro-organisms that might be used, for example, to clean up
-- The EPA is expected any time to issue a final regulation that requires
review as pesticides of the testing of gene-spliced crop and garden
plants, such as corn, cotton, wheat and marigolds that have been modified
for enhanced pest- or disease-resistance. This policy is so potentially
damaging and outside scientific norms that 11 major scientific societies
representing more than 80,000 biologists and food professionals published
a report warning that the EPA policy would discourage the development of
new pest-resistant crops and prolong and increase the use of synthetic
chemical pesticides; increase the regulatory burden for developers of
pest-resistant crops; limit the use of biotechnology to larger developers
who can pay the inflated regulatory costs; and handicap the U.S. in
competition for international markets.
-- Under pressure from anti-technology extremists and the Clinton
administration, the FDA plans soon to repudiate both its well-tested,
much-praised policy on new plant varieties -- which is applied
irrespective of whether the plant arose from gene-splicing or
"conventional" genetic engineering methods -- and its 20-year-old
commitment not to discriminate against gene-spliced products generally.
Within a few months, according to senior FDA officials, the agency expects
to announce a new requirement that all gene-spliced foods come to the
agency for pre-market evaluation. The "Cartagena biosafety protocol,"
finalized in January under the auspices of the United Nations' Convention
on Biological Diversity, introduces a global scheme for regulation of
biotech products that violates a cardinal principal of regulation: the
degree of scrutiny should be commensurate with risk. The protocol is
certain to hobble the work of academic researchers and small, innovative
companies, ultimately delaying or denying the benefits of the "gene
revolution" to much of the world. Three panels of the Codex Alimentarius
Commission, the United Nations agency concerned with international food
standards, are working toward holding biotech-derived food and food
ingredients to standards that are unscientific, far beyond those that any
other products can or should meet, and that will prevent their competing
successfully. On the basis of a single fatality last year in a gene
therapy clinical trial, vast new Draconian requirements are being piled on
every aspect of gene therapy research, from record-keeping and inspections
to animal studies and the clinical trials themselves. Not only the FDA,
which has primary jurisdiction, but the NIH and the National Bioethics
Commission are getting into the act.
Is cautious optimism warranted? Irrational, excessively burdensome
regulation can undo all manner of advantages enjoyed by a new technology,
including wide applicability, limitless ingenuity and ample resources.
Therefore, as someone who was a midwife at the birth of the new
biotechnology a quarter-century ago and has watched it grow, I'm more
inclined toward reckless pessimism.
Henry I. Miller, M.D.
Senior Research Fellow, Hoover Institution
Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.
Sour grapes yield a barren harvest
May 14, 2000
All good sons and daughters are taking their mothers to a restaurant today
for a swell Mother's Day feast that contains no genetically modified
What's that, you ask? You can't tell what foods are genetically modified
because the government refuses to require that they be labeled? Which
means that you are taking a chance of turning your mother into Godzilla?
That's what we're supposed to believe, now that "top chefs" are joining
other Luddites in the mindless campaign against biotechnology ,
genetically modified organisms or, more properly, Satan's crop. Among them
are "celebrated" Chicago chefs Charlie Trotter and Rick Bayless.
"I have concerns that this untested technology diminishes the purity and
taste of food," Trotter said.
Well, I suppose Trotter and the other winners of the prestigious James
Beard Foundation Chef of the Year award know what they're talking about
because they, after all, prepare food. Which I suppose makes about as much
sense as saying that I know what I'm talking about because I eat food.
Let's take, for example, the ridiculous assertion that this is "untested
technology." Untested it is not. No other food in history has been as
sliced and diced by health, environmental and other regulators as
genetically modified foods. They have been examined by the Food and Drug
Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department
of Agriculture and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the
National Research Council, the World Health Organization and the United
Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
The U.S. testing process for bio-engineered foods is so stringent, it
takes eight to 10 years for a new product to be develop and approved-a
process that costs the average company a half-billion dollars. One strain
of soybean was subjected to 1,800 analyses. The net result of the close
regulatory analysis has been government approvals and endorsements. The
testing by major U.S. biotech companies, such as Monsanto , meets or
exceeds U.S. and global standards.
Thirteen years "of U.S. experience with biotech products have produced no
evidence of food safety risks; not one rash, not one cough, not one sore
throat, not one headache," said FDA commissioner Jane Henney.
But none of this matters. As Norman Borlaug, a Nobel laureate noted, "Too
many opponents of biotechnology too easily dismiss the many safety and
regulatory checks that govern whether a new agriculture product is brought
to the market as worthless. Unfortunately, they willfully choose to
emphasize highly unlikely potential risks rather than recognize the years
of experience, research and regulatory oversight that govern the safe use
of these new technologies."
In effect, opponents argue: Well, if you can't prove that the food won't
turn your mother into Godzilla, then the food is unsafe.
The sad part is that this rash of hysteria and ignorance is having its
impact on the public, which is demanding, for example, labeling of
genetically modified foods. Normally, I'd be for that, so that I could go
directly to the tastier, safer, environmentally friendlier and longer
shelf-lived GMOs. But the government requires that food be labeled only
when its composition or nutritional content is significantly different
from its conventional counterparts, or if they pose any health risk.
Neither requirement is met.
It's a sorry situation when chefs who have made fortunes serving up $100
plates to the well-heeled jump in to block a technology that will provide
cheaper, safer, more edible, more abundant, less land- consuming, less
fertilizer-using and less pesticide-poisoning foods for the world's
hungry. Maybe the chefs ought to visit some of these Third World countries
and try to feed a family by scratching out a crop from a hostile, arid
field, and then tell us how the world would be better off without an
affordable seed that can grow better there without poisoning the earth.
Instead, though, they'll stay here, content to live high on the hog while
pulling off a cheap publicity stunt that poisons the public debate with
their own ignorance.