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September 4, 2009


Backyard Hens Won’t Save the Earth -Try Frankenfood; The Final Frontier; Edible Cotton Works in Field; Activism, Mendacity, and Pathological Science


* Backyard Hens, Tomatoes Won’t Save the Earth; Try Frankenfood
* Biotech Crops in Africa -The Final Frontier
* Edible Cotton
* Safe seed: Researchers Yielding Good Results On Food Cotton In Field
* Activism, Mendacity, and Pathological Science
* Piero Morandini response to "Nature" commentary 'GM crops: Battlefield'


Backyard Hens, Tomatoes Won’t Save the Earth; Try Frankenfood

- Elizabeth Lopatto, Bloomberg, Sept 4, 2009

Before Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, the ethical question about food was how to keep people from starving.

James E. McWilliams revisits this problem to great effect in “Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.” The subtitle is a bit misleading: McWilliams is out to examine the new orthodoxy in environmentally responsible food choices, so in addition to local eating he addresses organic farming, genetic modification and personal dietary habits.

McWilliams asks what would happen if organic farming were widely adopted, noting that it could feed at most 4 billion people. The current world population is about 6.8 billion. So much for the organic solution.

The locavores don’t fare much better. McWilliams says that rather than worrying about food miles -- that is, how far food has traveled to get to our plate -- we’d be better off checking an energy measurement known as a life-cycle assessment.

A winter tomato grown in Spain that travels to England covers more miles than a local tomato but may still be more energy efficient, since most English tomatoes require hothouses.

Production and processing account for almost half the fossil fuels used to get food on the table -- far more than transportation, says McWilliams. To be more energy efficient, he says, we should develop renewable energy sources to make fertilizer, store food and cook more effectively. We should also reduce the amount of land dedicated to food production.

‘Dull Stuff’
“I know, I know: dull stuff,” McWilliams writes. “It’s so much sexier to reiterate the mantra of eating local, growing rooftop gardens, foraging for wild dandelion balls, and keeping backyard hens.”

McWilliams says the committed environmentalist should ditch the fear-mongering “Frankenfood” moniker and embrace genetically modified food. He argues that modified crops allow more food to be grown on less land, which means less rainforest will be cut down and a significant reduction in pesticide use.

We should also change our habits to eat ethically and sustainably, starting with not throwing out the food we buy. McWilliams is apologetic about finding that meat is bad for the environment, but he says that after a great deal of research, he’s concluded that there’s no reason any environmentalist should eat it.

As a long-time vegetarian, I was baffled by McWilliams’ apologetic tone. Still, I was shocked to discover just how bad meat is for the environment.

Meat Is Bad
From a strictly energy-based analysis, meat is a bad bargain. Grains produce 1.5 to 2.5 food calories for each calorie of fossil fuel used; beef requires three calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of meat.

Fossil fuels aren’t the only resources meat consumes. Animals overwhelm our land, air and water, McWilliams writes.

It takes 2,400 liters of water to make a hamburger. Meat producers “tap aquifers, rechannel rivers, and drain wetlands” to get enough, McWilliams writes. This is to say nothing of the run-off emitted by animals into water supplies.

On the other hand, certain farm-raised fish have a relatively modest environmental impact. If aquaculture can be combined with hydroponics, as in a North Carolina experiment using tilapia, tomatoes and cucumbers, it may provide 45 to 70 pounds of vegetable for every pound of fish.

Forceful, Analytic
“Just Food” is forceful, analytic and occasionally repetitious. Before critiquing food subsidies -- a subject familiar to readers of Michael Pollan -- McWilliams outlines all his previous chapters in paragraph form. But a weak finish is no reason to reject this book.

Many Americans feel there is something wrong with the way food arrives on our table; if we didn’t, eating locally and organically wouldn’t have taken hold in the public imagination. McWilliams offers a sustained analysis of the unsexy things we can do to make agriculture better and never loses sight of the fact that farming is, at the end of the day, very hard work.


Biotech Crops in Africa -The Final Frontier

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter based in Nairobi, Kenya has just released Biotech Crops in Africa -The Final Frontier. The booklet captures some key developments in agricultural biotechnology in Africa. Contrary to the strongly held belief that the continent is not ready to embrace new technologies, much has been accomplished in agricultural biotechnology. The document narrates notable scientific breakthroughs, political support, policy formulation, capacity building and awareness creation on agricultural biotechnology in the continent. It highlights activities in three African countries (South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt) that have commercialized biotech crops and are now experiencing socio economic benefits as well as improved environmental conservation.

Download a copy of the booklet at http://www.isaaa.org/Resources/publications/downloads/Biotech_Crops_in_Africa-The_Final_Frontier.pdf


Edible Cotton

- Bryan Walsh Time, Sept 4, 2009 http://www.time.com

It's as true in today's world as it was in the antebellum South: cotton is king. The plant has been cultivated for its fiber for over 7,000 years, and today it's grown by more than 20 million farmers in some 80 countries. But while cotton accounts for nearly 40% of the fiber used worldwide to make clothing, there's one thing the plant has never been able to do well: feed people. Cottonseeds are a rich source of protein--the current cotton crop produces enough seeds to meet the daily requirements of half a billion people a year. But the seeds can be consumed only after an extensive refining process removes the gossypol, a toxic chemical that helps protect the plant from insect and microbe infestation. "People, pigs, chickens--none of us can stomach gossypol," says Kater Hake, vice president of agricultural research for the industry group Cotton Inc. Only cows and other ruminants can handle it.

Remove the gossypol, however, and you'd have a cheap and abundant form of protein for everyone. But get rid of all the gossypol, as plant breeders did in the 1950s, and insects will devour the defenseless cotton. Enter Keerti Rathore, a professor at Texas A&M University, who found a way around the problem through genetic engineering. In new field-trial data, Rathore's team demonstrated that it can turn off the genes that stimulate the production of gossypol in the cottonseeds while the rest of the plant keeps its natural defenses


Safe seed: Researchers Yielding Good Results On Food Cotton In Field

- Kathleen Phillips, Texas A&m AgriLife Communications, http://www.eurekalert.org

Field trials of a new cotton are verifying previous lab and greenhouse studies indicating the crop could become a source of protein for millions of malnourished people in the world. The cotton was engineered so that the toxic gossypol is reduced to tolerable levels in the high-protein seed but remain at higher levels in the rest of the plant to ward off pests and disease.

"The results look very promising." said Dr. Keerti Rathore, the Texas AgriLife Research plant biotechnologist in whose lab the cotton was developed. Gossypol has long been a block for cotton farmers trying to make cotton seed available for human or animal consumption. Cotton fibers have been spun into fabric for more than 7,000 years, but generally only cattle have been able to eat the fuzzy seeds that are separated from the fiber. Cattle can tolerate the gossypol because it is gradually digested through their unique four-part stomach.

But less than three years ago, Rathore's paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences announced that cotton plants had been successfully altered in the lab to "silence" gossypol in the seed. Five generations of cotton plants produced in greenhouses and the small test plot in the field this year are showing similar findings, Rathore said, though the results have not yet been published in scholarly journals.

"We have analyzed the plant leaves, flower organs and seeds," Rathore said of the first plant grown under normal farm conditions. "The levels of gossypol and related defense chemicals are similar to that of regular cotton plants in the buds, leaves and flowers. But the seed is still showing the ultra-low levels of gossypol."

Rathore and his team used a scientific method called RNAi, a process also being used to explore cancer and HIV cures. This technology, discovered by Nobel laureates Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello, can silence specific genes. That enabled the team to target the gossypol gene in the cottonseed but let the gene express itself in the rest of the plant. The "beauty of this project," Rathore said, is that the high-protein seed could be a new food source - especially in developing countries.

As reported in his original paper, the cottonseed from these plants meet World Health Organization and U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards for food consumption, potentially making a new, high-protein food available to 500 million people a year. Rathore noted that for every pound of cotton fiber, the plant produces about 1.6 pounds of seed. The annual world cottonseed production equals about 44 million metric tons, and studies have shown the seed to be about 22 percent protein. He said kernels from the safe seed could be ground into a flour-like powder and used as a protein additive in food preparations or perhaps roasted and seasoned as a nutritious snack.

Cotton Inc., which helps fund the research, is enthusiastic about the results."The entire cotton industry has a vested interest in expanding the uses of the cotton plant," said J. Berrye Worsham, Cotton Inc. president and CEO. "The success Dr. Rathore and his team have had with the field trial gets us one step closer to cotton being viewed as a fiber and a food source for future generations."

Previous attempts to breed cotton varieties without gossypol were not commercially successful because the toxin was removed from the seed as well as the rest of the plant. That left the plants vulnerable to insects and disease – a risk and a cost that farmers weren't willing to accept.

A way to extract gossypol out of the oil was developed years ago, Rathore noted, but at a cost. Plus, the meal left after the oil was extracted still contained the toxin so could not be consumed by humans, or as feed for pigs, chickens or turkeys.

Rathore plans to continue field trial studies to assure the stability of the gossypol-free cotton variety, and he has additional lines that he expects have even lower levels of the substance. But, he adds, the greatest obstacle for seeing the variety grown in fields and ulti mately feeding the world's hungry may be legalities.

Because the variety is "genetically modified," the scientist and AgriLife Research will have to negotiate with others who hold patent rights to some of the basic technologies used to develop this "ultra-low seed-gossypol" cotton. He will also have to seek approval through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and perhaps other agencies to make it commercially available as seed to farmers. That process could take years, he said.


Activism, Mendacity, and Pathological Science

- Henry I. Miller, M.D., Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, Sep 1 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 15)

'Distortion of Science Has Given Rise to Flawed Policies and Regulations'

Consumers are increasingly being exposed to what chemistry Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir dubbed “pathological science,” the “science of things that aren’t so.” It is the specialty of self-styled public interest groups, whose agenda too often is not protection of public health or the environment, but intractable opposition to whatever research, product, or technology they happen to dislike. This is not a harmless diversion: When their machinations give rise to overregulationor even bansof safe and useful products or processes, all of society is the poorer for it.

Activists who disapprove of certain kinds of R&D or marketed products often try to stigmatize them via guilt by association with corporate interests. For several reasons, however, including the importance of corporate branding, avoidance of liability, and a desire to succeed in the marketplace, industrial research most often adheres to high professional and legal standards, including peer review. When it doesn’t, the scientific method, market forces, and regulatory oversight collaborate to ensure that, ultimately, dishonesty is exposed, condemned, and punished.

By contrast, activist-funded research is commonly held to a lower standard, or none at all. Activists’ claims are typically promoted by alarmist press releases and reported by the media (their dual mottos: “If it bleeds, it leads,” and “Never let facts get in the way of a good story”), but seldom are they independently peer-reviewed and published in scientific journals. Sadly, after its claims are repeated again and again, policy-makers, the media, and the public come to accept this pathological science as credibleor even proven.

Misinformation thrives in part because of the “information cascade” phenomenon, the way in which ideas gain acceptance by being parroted until eventually we assume they must be true even in the absence of persuasive evidence.

Health ScaresExamples have become more frequent as special interests promote health scares as a way to raise funds or to support litigation. The distortion of science has given rise to flawed policies and regulations, interference with research that offers potential benefits to society, unwarranted scares, frivolous lawsuits, and actual threats to public health. Examples include:

• Two decades ago, the [ http://www.nrdc.org/ ]Natural Resources Defense Council spurred a national panic by asserting that the agricultural chemical Alar, which synchronizes the ripening of apples, posed a cancer risk to children. The claim was later determined to be false, but not before it had devastated apple growers.

• Long Island activists had long claimed that the elevated breast cancer rate there is the result of exposure to environmental chemicals like PCBs and DDT, and demanded that federal regulators investigate. However, they were unable to find evidence for that hypothesisbecause their basic assumption was incorrect: There is no elevated breast cancer rate in that area.

• In 1998, British researchers published a study that alleged an association, but not causation, between the administration of MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and an increased risk of autism. That prompted speculation that the culprit might be thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative in the vaccine.

• In spite of the fact that the initial study was based on only 12 children, its results were widely publicized, causing some parents and hospitals to stop or delay vaccinations for newborns and children.

• Subsequent studies of much larger groups of children failed to confirm such an association, and the author is under investigation for falsifying data in the study.

• The overwhelming consensus among scientists and physicians is that no such link exists. Nevertheless, this false report inflicted incalculable damage on the public’s confidence in vaccination and on children whose parents denied them protection from life-threatening but preventable diseases.

• A dubious NGO called the [ http://www.ewg.org/ ] Environmental Working Group (EWG) claimed to have evidence that the farm-raised salmon eaten regularly by millions of Americans contained high levels of PCBs. This group of chemicals was identified in the press coverage as a toxin, probable human carcinogen, or a cause of cancer and nervous system damage. These reports were grossly misleading. At levels of environmental exposure, PCBs have not been shown to cause cancer or any other harm to humans.The study, which was based on a sample of only 10 fish, was condemned by genuine experts at a variety of institutions, including the [ http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/ ] Harvard School of Public Health, the FDA, and the [ http://www.acsh.org/ ] American Council on Science and Health.

• Unfortunately, the criticisms came only after EWG’s report had generated national media coverage, and the contrary views of experts received little attention from the media. On its website, the EWG makes no pretense about its possessing scientific credentials or expertise, and its president once admitted to a journalist that there was not a single physician or scientist on its staff.

• Environmental activists remain intractably opposed to the spraying of DDT to prevent mosquito-borne diseases. Since the banning of DDT, diseases such as malaria and dengue have been on the rise.

• In fact, the huge toll of diseases spread by mosquitos caused some public health officials to rethink DDT’s use: In 2006, after 25 years and 50 million preventable deaths, the UN’s [ http://www.who.int/ ]World Health Organization (WHO) reversed course and endorsed the use of DDT to kill and repel malaria-causing mosquitoes. Inexplicably, in May, WHO reverted to the endorsement of less effective, more expensive methods for preventing the disease.

• Those opposed to the use of DDT fail to take into consideration the inadequacy of alternatives. Because it persists after spraying, DDT works far better than many pesticides now in use, some of which are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms. With DDT unavailable, many mosquito-control authorities are depleting their budgets by repeated spraying with short-acting, marginally effective insecticides. Moreover, even if mosquitoes become resistant to the killing effects of DDT, they are still repelled by it. An occasional dusting of window- and door-frames is extremely effective.

• During the past decade or so, activists have alleged that hormonally active compounds in the environment, which are known to be present in minuscule amounts, are causing reproductive and developmental problems in wildlife and humans. There is a difference, however, between plausibility and provability, and formal scientific studies have not shown any link between environmental agents and the suspected adverse effects. Ironically, much of the human exposure to estrogenic substances is from food, especially soy products. Thus, on the basis of current knowledge, the claim of an estrogenic assault on males and females is pure speculation.

• The mysterious disappearance over the past several years of honey bees from hives, known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) or honey bee depopulation syndrome (HBDS), captured the attention of the media. It also stirred the imagination of environmental activists, who, in the absence of a known cause of the phenomenon, vociferously blamed it on everything from pesticides and gene-spliced crop varieties to cell phones and global warming.

• New scientific evidence strongly suggests that the culprit is none of those things, but rather an infestation by a fungus, Nosema ceranae. Researchers who studied a number of professional hives in two regions of Spain that experienced a syndrome akin to CCD found that the fungus was the only pathogen observed in all cases, that pesticides seemed not to be involved, and that application of the antifungal agent fumagillin to affected colonies proved effective in stopping reinfection and improving survival.

• The activists have been strangely silent, and the media have ignored this important finding. Not apocalyptic enough, apparently; merely the insect equivalent of a dog-bites-man story.

Decision Making
Pathological science may confuse not only the public, but also policy-makers. Donald Kennedy, president emeritus of [ http://www.stanford.edu/ ] Stanford University and former FDA commissioner, chides bureaucrats: “Frequently decision makers give up the difficult task of finding out where the weight of scientific opinion lies, and instead attach equal value to each side in an effort to approximate fairness. In this way extraordinary opinions--are promoted to a form of respectability that approaches equal status.”

This kind of undeserved moral equivalence frequently compromises governmental decision making and has given rise to unscientific and inconsistent regulation of many other products and technologies as well, including pesticides and other chemicals, biotechnology applied to agriculture, herbal dietary supplements, and silicone breast implants.

No one should mistake activists’ misdemeanors and mischief for naïve exuberance or excessive zeal in a good cause. In case after case, their motives are self-serving and their tactics callousan ongoing example of the sentiments expressed by Linus Van Pelt in the Peanuts comic strip, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.”


Response by a reader to a "Nature" commentary 'GM crops: Battlefield' posted earlier:


Posted by: Piero Morandini, Dept. of Biology, University of Milan (Italy)

I am one of the people who published a critical commentary of the Rosi-Marshall paper (see ref. 9 obove). Here are my further comments about the piece above.

i. The main reason for the strong criticism of papers like Rosi-Marshall is exactly about bad science with major policy implications. If I publish a paper about sex determination in asparagus that has no interest beyond the scientific circles, then it does not damage anybody beyond these circles if it is wrong and the damage is mild. On the contrary, when a paper claiming problems with transgenic plants is published, it may be used by people opposed ideologically to ag-biotech.

We have seen this in the past with Losey, Chapela and others. These papers have been used or are used to prevent introduction of the technology in several European countries and, as a consequence, in several other countries in the third world. Even if the content of the papers is later dismissed as irrelevant or wrong, the claims are still propagated for years. Papers that could have an influence on policy and regulation for years must be screened by editors and referees with the utmost care first and then by the scientific community at large once they have been published.

The scientific community has the moral obligation of looking more carefully into matters which could impact many more people, both positively or negatively.

ii. A truly constructive criticism in science must have one aim: seek the truth.
The role of peers (referees and later colleagues who read the paper) is to help authors to do this. It is a matter of humility to submit your own research results to the scientific world. If you can't stand this sort of criticism, you are loving your results more than the truth. Sometimes the wording of the criticism may be more or less pleasing (whoever has received referees comments on a manuscript knows it very well). Things lived with passion bring often excesses in feelings. But what matters more is the end result.

iii. These papers do not alert us to possible reasons to look into this more carefully. A research badly designs, for instance with no proper controls or with unreasonable doses completely out of real life range or situation is simply irrelevant and does not advance our understanding and may even be misleading further research. A wonderful example of this is the data accumulated on synthetic substances with test for carcinogens made at high dose in the 70s-80s. They turned out to be deadly wrong and said nothing about the effect at the real doses we are exposed to. Rather than alert about possible reasons to look more into this, they concealed the reality for many years because people did not do the proper control with natural substances (which had the same frequency, 60%, of carcinogens as synthetic substances).

Bad science caused bad regulation and unnecessary spending as well as useless research. Try interview Bruce Ames (professor of Biochemistry at Berkeley) on this or read some of his pieces:
or a video: <http://www.bruceames.org/bnalect.cancer1.php>http://www.bruceames.org/bnalect.cancer1.php

Looking at a transgenic corn causing a reduction on non target organisms without comparing the effect of a conventional corn treated with insecti cides is a non real world situation. In Italy this year we are experiencing a strong outbreak of root corn borer. They are treating with insecticides but nobody measures the effect on biodiversity.

iv. I see much more depressing for scientists spending years on developing a new product to see thir research fields destroyed or their products not brought to the market because of insane regulatory burden.
These regulations, especially in the EU, are fuelled by bad science and ideological opposition.
Golden rice is a prime example of unjustifiable delay. I know of several other products with real benefits which never made it to the market.