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February 8, 2010


European Panel Dismisses Seralini; Scientist Facing Charge for Speaking Up; Minister Loses Cool; Madhouse Hostage


* European Food Safety Authority Analyzes and Dismisses the new Seralini Paper
* Peruvian GM Advocate Faces Criminal Charges
* Report Blames GM Crops for Herbicide Spike, Downplays Pesticide Reductions
* China: Science to Revolutionize Food Supply
* GM Debate Hijacked by Bias
* Sustainability Through Agricultural Biotechnology: Food, Biomaterials, Energy and Environment
* NGOs and GMOs - A Case Study In Alternative Science Communication
* Forum on Business of Plant Biotechnology
* We Might Err, But Science Is Self-Correcting
* Indian environment minister loses his cool and asks an activist to seek mental help
* Chicken on Eggplant
* Bt Brinjal's Acceptance Hinges on Price
* Bt Entreaty
* Is the BT Brinjal debate really so cut and dried?
* Brinjal a Madhouse Hostage


European Food Safety Authority Analyzes and Dismisses the new Seralini Paper

GMO Panel deliberations on the paper by de Vendômois et al. (2009, A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health, International Journal of Biological Sciences, 5: 706-726) - EFSA/GMO/578 – part of the Minutes 55th Plenary Meeting of the GMO Panel Adopted part of the minutes1 of the 55th plenary meeting of the Scientific Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms held on 27-28 January 2010 to be published at http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/events/event/gmo100127.htm

The EFSA GMO Panel has considered the paper by de Vendômois et al. (2009, A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health, International Journal of Biological Sciences, 5: 706-726), a statistical reanalysis of data from three 90-day rat feeding studies already assessed by the GMO Panel (EFSA, 2003a,b; EFSA 2004a,b; EFSA 2009b,c). The GMO Panel concludes that the authors’ claims, regarding new side effects indicating kidney and liver toxicity, are not supported by the data provided in their paper. There is no new information that would lead it to reconsider its previous opinions on the three maize events MON810, MON863 and NK603, which concluded that there were no indications of adverse effects for human, animal health and the environment.

The GMO Panel notes that several of its fundamental statistical criticisms (EFSA, 2007a,b) of the authors' earlier study (Seralini et al., 2007) of maize MON863 are also applicable to the new paper by de Vendômois et al. In the GMO Panel's extensive evaluation of Seralini et al. (2007), reasons for the apparent excess of significant differences found for MON863 (8%) were given and it was shown that this raised no safety concerns. The percentage of variables tested reported by de Vendômois et al. that were significant for NK603 (9%) and MON810 (6%) were of similar magnitude to that for MON863.

The GMO Panel considers that de Vendômois et al.: (1) make erroneous statements concerning the use of reference varieties to provide estimates of variability that allow equivalence testing to place statistically significant results into biological context as advocated by EFSA (2008, 2009a); (2) do not use the available information concerning normal background variability between animals fed with different diets, to place observed differences into biological context; (3) do not present results using their False Discovery Rate methodology in a meaningful way; (4) give no evidence to relate well known gender differences in response to diet to claims of effects due to the respective GMOs; (5) estimate statistical power based on inappropriate analyses and magnitudes of difference.

The significant differences highlighted by de Vendômois et al. have all been considered previously by the GMO Panel in its previous opinions on the three maize events MON810, MON863 and NK603. The study by de Vendômois et al. provides no new evidence of toxic effects. The approach used by de Vendômois et al. does not allow a proper assessment of the differences claimed between the GMOs and their respective counterparts for their toxicological relevance because: (1) results are presented exclusively in the form of percentage differences for each variable, rather than in their actual measured units; (2) the calculated values of the toxicological parameters tested are not related to the normal range for the species concerned; (3) the calculated values of the toxicological parameters tested are not compared with ranges of variation found in test animals fed with diets containing different reference varieties; (4) the statistically significant differences did not show consistency patterns over endpoint variables and doses; (5) the inconsistencies between the purely statistical arguments of de Vendômois et al., and the results for these three animal feeding studies which relate to organ pathology, histopathology and histochemistry, are not addressed.

Regarding claims made by de Vendômois et al. concerning the inadequacy of the experimental design of these three animal feeding studies, the GMO Panel notes that they were all carried out to agreed internationally-defined standards consistent with OECD protocols.


Peruvian GM Advocate Faces Criminal Charges

- Lucas Laursen Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 12(2), Page 110 February 2010

A molecular biologist could face a prison sentence for criticizing a report on transgenic gene spread. Ernesto Bustamante Donayre, vice president of the Peruvian College of Biologists, a professional organization, stands accused of defamation, a criminal offense, which in Peru can carry a prison term or fine.

What triggered the suit was his public criticism of a report prepared by Antonietta Ornella Gutiérrez Rosati, a biologist at the La Molina National Agricultural University in Lima, identifying a P34S promoter and NK603 and BT11 transgenes in 14 of 42 maize samples from the Barranca region. Gutiérrez sent summaries of her findings to both the National Agricultural Research Institute and El Comercio newspaper in 2007 calling for a moratorium on transgenic crops until biosafety regulations are in place to prevent the spread to human food. Bustamante, a frequent contributor to radio and print, with no financial links to crop companies, described the alleged detection of three simultaneous transgenic events from two firms as "absurdly improbable" in his newspaper column and called for her claims to be peer reviewed.

"The main point of my criticism," Bustamante says, "was her going to the press instead of to her peers." After Bustamante refused to retract his statements, Gutiérrez filed a suit for defamation. She later presented her findings to the Peruvian Genetic Society of which she is president, but would not comment on the case, except to say that "you must use respect" in scientific discussion and that her critics have "polarized" the debate. Although Peruvian farmers already import transgenic products for animal feed, several interest groups oppose their widespread introduction, which they label a foreign intrusion and threat to Peruvian biodiversity.

An ongoing investigation is seeking to replicate Gutiérrez's findings, but the government lacks the regulations to enforce its biosafety laws even if it does find transgenic crop outcrossing. The criminal case, however, threatens to stifle all scientific discussion.

"Regardless of whether he gets sentenced or not I don't think anyone is going to criticize anything," says plant scientist Wayne Parrott, from the University of Georgia, a regular visitor to Peru. Bustamante's colleague and supporter Luis Destefano Beltrán of the Cayetano Heredia Peruvian University agrees that "many people have tried to avoid taking sides."

Peru retains criminal defamation laws, which the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded in 1995 are incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights. Bustamante, who expects a ruling early this year, says, "The point is not whether I'm right or wrong. It's the fact that for criticizing somebody on scientific grounds I'm being tried in criminal court."


Report Blames GM Crops for Herbicide Spike, Downplays Pesticide Reductions

- Cormac Sheridan, Nature Biotechnology, vol. 12(2), pages 112-3 February 2010

A recent report published by the Organic Center, an organic farming advocacy organization headquartered in Foster, Rhode Island, claims that the use of herbicides in weed control has risen sharply since transgenic crops' commercial introduction in 1996. Increasing cultivation of glyphosate (N-phosphonomethyl glycine)-tolerant transgenic crops, particularly soybean, has led to an aggregate increase in herbicide use of 383 million pounds over the past 13 years, on top of what the Organic Center's chief scientist Charles Benbrook models suggest would have been applied had the technology never been deployed (http://www.organic-center.org/science.pest.php?action=view&report_id=159). The report also downplayed that transgenic corn and cotton have delivered reductions in insecticide use totaling 64.2 million pounds over the same time period.

The report's findings on herbicides are in stark contrast to the standard agrochemical industry line that transgenic crops have reduced the chemical load on the environment. Several critics have questioned the assumptions underlying the analysis and any significance that can be drawn from it, particularly as the report comes from an advocacy group seeking to "communicate the verifiable benefits of organic farming and products to society."

Rising glyphosate resistance is a plausible explanation for the increasing use of herbicides, however. Among plant scientists, there is little disagreement on the problem of glyphosate-resistant weeds. "It certainly is fair to point out the failure in glyphosate stewardship, that the threat of resistance wasn't appreciated, that more diverse management wasn't used to try to prevent or delay resistance emerging," says Chris Boerboom, extension weed scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

The issue of herbicide resistance has already become acute in some US states. Report author Benbrook claims that the cotton and soy industries in the Southeast are on "the brink of collapse" because of the cost of dealing with glyphosate-resistant weeds. Benbrook goes on to argue that increasing reliance on herbicides paired with more expensive, engineered tolerance traits will erode farmers' profitability, while compounding environmental and public health risks (through increased chemical exposure).

The report's other main finding-that insect-resistant transgenic crops have helped cut pesticide use-was downplayed by Benbrook, who claims the increase in the volume of herbicides applied "swamps" the benefits of decreased insecticide use attributable to corn and cotton expressing genes that encode one or more Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) insect toxins. Bt crops could have a brighter future than herbicide-resistant transgenic varieties, the report states, "but if, and only if, [insect] resistance is prevented."

The report is based on extrapolations of pesticide use survey data compiled by the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Benbrook relies on annual trait acreage data compiled by St. Louis-based Monsanto to disaggregate transgenic crops from the total crop acreage. However, no NASS data on corn or soy are available for 2007 or 2008, years for which Benbrook posits unusually large pesticide increases of 20% and 27%, respectively. The main uncertainties stem from gaps in NASS data, which, since 2001, have only been gathered intermittently, and from that data's failure to distinguish between pesticide use on transgenic crop varieties and on their conventional counterparts.

Benbrook postulates the emergence of glyphosate resistance has fueled a sharp upswing in the use of other herbicides on glyphosate-tolerant crops, whereas levels of herbicide used on conventional crops have fallen because of ongoing improvements in potency. But Janet Carpenter, formerly of the Washington, DC-based US National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy and now an independent agricultural biotech consultant, disagrees. "That's all extrapolation," she says. "The bottom line is we don't know what has happened to pesticide use in the last couple of years."

Benbrook says that additional data from future surveys can be factored into his model when it becomes available. "The valid criticism-or valid question-is these are all average numbers," he says. "I would place a fair amount of confidence in these averages as a reflection of what's going on out there."

In a published critique of the report, Dorchester, UK-based consultancy PG Economics argues that Benbrook overestimates herbicide application rates for biotech crops and underestimates them for conventional crops (http://www.pgeconomics.co.uk/pdf/OCreportcritiqueNov2009.pdf). It cites a new study from the US Geological Survey, which found that concentrations of several major pesticides either declined or remained constant in US corn belt rivers and streams during 1996-2006 (http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2009/5132/).

However, the study period does not include the two most recent years, during which Benbrook claims the greatest increase in herbicide use has occurred. PG Economics, which also published a lengthy study on the global socioeconomic and environmental impacts of transgenic crops in May last year, has drawn on two sources: pesticide use data from a commercial source, DMR Kynetec, of St. Louis, which Benbrook says is in general agreement with his own findings; and what he describes as 'faulty' simulation data generated by the Washington DC-based National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, based on exercises run with university extension weed scientists. "It's impossible to reconcile their estimates with the NASS data," Benbrook says.

In the meantime, several scientists have voiced support for the general thrust of the study. "There's nothing surprising there," says Matt Liebman, who holds the H.A. Wallace chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames. Dealing with glyphosate-resistant weeds will require alterations in cropping systems that rely solely on the marriage of the herbicide-tolerance trait and the associated herbicide to control weeds. Widespread convergence on a narrow range of options, such as the rotation of glyphosate-resistant corn and glyphosate-resistant soybean, has been a significant factor, says Liebman. "You have good conditions for rapid selection of herbicide resistance."

Monsanto and its competitors are responding to the problem by offering farmers subsidies to include third-party herbicides in their weed control systems. They are also stacking additional tolerance traits that can be paired with other herbicides, such as dicamba (3,6-dichloro-2-methoxybenzoic acid), glufosinate (phosphinothricin) and 2,4-D (dichlorophenoxyacetic acid). External factors have hampered progress, however. "The biggest contributor to weed resistance has been the European Union's slow approval process for new biotech-enhanced seeds. After many years of delays, the EU finally granted approval of Liberty Link [phosphinothricin-acetyltransferase] soybeans, which are resistant to a different active ingredient [L-phosphinothricin]," says Bob Callanan, communications director of the American Soybean Association, located in St. Louis.


China: Science to Revolutionize Food Supply

- China Daily, February 4, 2010 http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/

The foreseeable large-scale production of genetically modified (GM) rice in the country will alter hybrid rice plantation, a traditional way of breeding the main staple food for millions of Chinese, a senior hybrid rice expert said. "The approval of the safety of the pesticide-resistant rice is a breakthrough," said Cao Mengliang, a researcher on molecular rice at China's National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center.

The center, led by Yuan Longping, who has been dubbed the Father of Hybrid Rice, has promoted hybrid technology successfully to improve yield and taste in China, as well as in many countries in southeastern Asia and Africa.

Last November the Ministry of Agriculture issued safety certificates to two breeds of genetically modified rice to Zhang Qifa, professor and director of the National Center of Plant Gene Research at Huazhong Agricultural University. The certificate is the last step before the breed goes to the market. The process of the breed going into production might take three years, Cao said. Similarly to transgenic cotton, the traditional rice planting would gradually change from hybrid rice to genetically modified rice, Cao said.

The genetically modified rice is expected to be pesticide-resistant and the herbicide-resistant, and the quality and yield of the rice are expected to improve, he said. The trend will have a significant impact on the country - the world's largest consumer and exporter of rice. China's rice output is No 1 in the world, accounting for 33 percent. China currently produces approximately 500 million tons of rice annually. With its population expected to grow to 1.6 billion by 2020, 630 million tons of rice will be needed.

The country is leading the genetically modified technology with an investment of more than 20 billion yuan. Officials said that by 2020, the country could be a leader in genetically modified foods, cloning, large-scale transgenic technology and new breed promotion. Rice and corn are the foods nearest commercialization.

Rice is a crucial staple in Asia and increased production would make a massive difference. Science is seen as the best way to meet that demand. The use of genetically modified rice is an important solution to securing the needed food supply, Cao said.

However, Fang Lifeng, Greenpeace's food and agriculture campaigner, told China Daily that the long-term risk of genetically modified rice should be taken into consideration. "Once the engineered rice gets into the food chain on large scale, it will have a very big impact on food safety, environmental safety and biological diversity," Fang warned.

He cited some examples on the long-term risk of genetically modified food since it first appeared on the market in 1994. In 2008, the immune systems of laboratory mice that consumed genetically modified corn were found to be abnormal.

The official nod to pesticide-resistant rice has triggered questions on whether the resistance technology will also work on humans. "If the substance is killing pests, will it be hurting us if we eat it every day?" Jiang Gaoming, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Botany told the International Herald Leader.

Professor Zhang Qifa was not available to comment on February 3. Cao refuted the doubts, saying no scientific proof exists that the pesticide-resistant rice is harmful to humans abecause "the structure of human and pests are different".

The government has prioritized the development of functional genetic and biological new breeds with application value and self-owned intellectual property rights, according to the "No 1 Central Document", issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council at the end of last month. The document urges improvement on the industrialization of new genetically modified breeds. "This again makes the industrialization of new genetically modified products a national strategy," Deng Xiuxin, president of Huazhong Agricultural University, told the reporter.

"The research on genetically modified products has entered a new phase." Despite the rapid progress in agriculture in China, a supply shortage has emerged among some products, as indicated by the peak of imports in soy beans and vegetable oil, said Chen Xiwen, deputy director of the Central Rural Work Leading Group on the importance and urgency of modernization of agriculture's productivity.

Tang Renjian, deputy director of the Central Rural Work Leading Group, said technology innovation will assist the supply shortage. He said cautious management and assessment will be carried out on what breeds to promote and industrialize.


GM Debate Hijacked by Bias

- Bill Crabtree (Agricultural Scientist and Morawa Farmer), Countryman (Western Australia), February 3, 2010

I would like to challenge several assertions that former agriculture minister Kim Chance made on genetically modified crops in the media recently. Those who know nothing of the science of genes could be alarmed by Mr Chance's comments. Mr Chance says consumers do not want, and will not consume GM foods. GM canola oil is not protein. So, GM canola oil has no modified genes in it. For the past 15 years most of us have been eating fish and chips cooked in Australian cottonseed oil produced from GM cotton. Most pork and poultry and some beef and sheep meats grown in WA, and eaten by our families are from animals fed GM soy meal imported from America.

Mr Chance says there is no evidence of the benefits to consumers of GM foods. GM crops are cheaper to grow, and the resulting lower prices do benefit consumers. In addition, the average city person does not fully appreciate that GM is the most environmentally friendly way of producing food. GM crops and no-tillage have taken modern agriculture a long way toward a sustainable future. GM crops can be grown with less herbicide, more stubble, or mulch retention, less insecticide, less fuel, less carbon emissions, less soil erosion and can convert scarce water supplies into food. If consumers are concerned about the environment and the cost of food they have no logical choice but to applaud the benefits of GM technology. The use of GM cotton has seen a dramatic reduction in pesticide use and GM canola will remove our over reliance on the globally banned herbicide atrazine.

Mr Chance says 90 per cent of the 400 submissions to the GM Crops Free Act review were against GM. What he failed to point out is many of these letters were pro forma and most did not address the issues raised in the State Government review and were therefore correctly ignored. WAFarmers and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association, representing the State's farming community, submitted one application each asking the ban to be lifted. Mr Chance argues WA is one of the last dependable sources of non-GM canola, so we should stay that way. Two years of GM canola cultivation in the eastern states show segregation is possible. WA's trials also confirmed this. Mr Chance says there is strong demand from the market for GM-free. The Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics shows consistently that there is no market premium for non-GM canola.

The primary reason for last year's trials was to test segregation, which proved successful. But the trials showed a 15 per cent, or 200 kg/ha yield increase with GM canola over non-GM triazine-tolerant canola. With canola currently achieving $400 per tonne this is $80 per hectare more, and for some farmers this may be all the profit there is in some years.

Mr Chance says the European Union will not allow GM foods. The EU has been importing Canadian canola oil derived from GM canola through the United Arab Emirates and China for about five years and has been consuming it safely. GM corn is grown in some EU countries, and the EU imports GM corn and GM soybeans.

Mr Chance warns GM companies are pushing their own agenda and are not allowing testing of their products. GM companies do allow testing of their products. There are hundreds of papers in the scientific community carried out by highly regarded authors worldwide looking at everything from agronomic performance to fitness for consumption.

I am not against GM technology, Mr Chance says. But the former politician's track record of press releases, door stop interviews, news conferences show he is ideologically opposed to GM. Indeed the laws he introduced in 2003 imposed a fine of $200,000 on any WA farmer using the technology.

Indee, Mr Chance repeatedly refused to travel to Canada to see the technology for himself. Except on the radical fringe, Canadian growers and consumers have no negative issues with GM canola and recognise it as an outstanding success story. In the early 1990s Australia grew about 1.7 million tonnes of canola while Canada grew about 2.5 million tonnes. Since the advent of Canadian GM canola in 1996, when I lived there, canola production has quadrupled to over 10 million tonnes and Australia has not even maintained its status quo.

Canadian farmers are not foolish and they have made the choice to grow 90 per cent of their canola as GM while still growing 10 per cent as non-GM. In conjunction with no-till, GM technology, once it becomes legal, will enable us to produce food in dryland agriculture in the most sustainable way currently known to man.

Given the impossible corner Chance has painted himself into, it is understandable that he'd be reluctant to admit his monumental misjudgment for fear of exposing himself as an emperor with no clothes. But by maintaining the pretence that there is something to fear from GM crops, he will make himself look even sillier and more intellectually disreputable than he already is.


Sustainability Through Agricultural Biotechnology: Food, Biomaterials, Energy and Environment

- June 6-11, 2010; St. Louis, MO; IAPB 12th World Congress

The full schedule of approximately 60 plenary and keynote lectures to be presented at the 12th World Congress of the International Association for Plant Biotechnology (IAPB),, at the America's Center in downtown, St. Louis, Missouri, is now available online at www.iapb2010.org. In addition, information about reduced rates for early registration that ends February 1, 2010, as well as general information is available on the website (see also Biotechnology).

Presented by IAPB, the largest membership organization dedicated to caring for and supporting plant tissue culture and biotechnology around the world, the Congress is being held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Society for In Vitro Biology (SIVB).

With an emphasis on the fundamental and applied aspects of sustainability through agriculture, topics will focus on food, biomaterials, energy and the environment. Approximately 1,500 research scientists in plant and agricultural biotechnology from around the world will attend.

As President of IAPB, Dr. Roger Beachy, newly appointed Chief Scientist of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in Washington, hopes the program will help influence a regulatory structure that is more science-driven. Presentations will be made by those involved with regulations, as well as those whose inventions have gone through the regulatory process.

Harvard's Kennedy School of Government's Dr. Calestous Juma agrees and adds that the regulatory process is an international issue. Dr. Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; and Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa. "Africa needs to establish region-wide regulatory measures covering groups of countries that are effective, transparent, and efficient, and based on the co-evolutionary approach of promoting innovation, while protecting the public," said Dr. Juma.

Speaker presentations will focus on sustainability with reduced impact on the environment; political and social acceptance, especially in developing countries; translating fundamental knowledge into application; climate change; a mix of animal and plant biotechnology; and policy regulation.


NGOs and GMOs - A Case Study In Alternative Science Communication

- Maeseele et al, Javnost - the Public, 16(4):55-72).

This article seeks to understand how and why we find local NGOs performing a role as alternative science communicators in the social conflict concerning agricultural biotechnology. First, a literature review points out that in the face of modernisation risks tech no-scientific development has become contradictory, an evolution exemplified as well as driven by interdisciplinary antagonisms."

This creates opportunities for a scientifically supported public critique of science and technology by new social movements. In addition, the commercialisation of science has brought forward a ''science-industrial complex'' united by economic interests in the promotion of biotechnology on the one hand, and has contributed to a practice of science communication using the logic of public relations and corporate communication on the other.

Once institutional science communication becomes hard to distinguish from corporate communication, NGOs are found to contest and reframe scientific knowledge by aiming at instigating epistemic shifts in institutionalised scientific conceptions and discursive changes in the social values underlying science. Second, I report on the findings of six in-depth interviews with spokespersons for these NGOs, the aim being to achieve an understanding of how these NGOs make sense of their encounters with science in the GM debate and how they situate themselves in their role as alternative science communicators," wrote P. Maeseele and colleagues, Erasmus University (see also Biotechnology).

Finally, I conclude by making some recommendations for journalism in general and science journalism in particular.
P. Maeseele, Erasmus University, College Brussels, NL-3000 DR Rotterdam, Netherlands. 'Javnost - the Public' is from European Institute Communication Culture, PO Box 2511, Ljubljana 1001, Slovenia.


Forum on Business of Plant Biotechnology

- June 10-11, 2010; Rosario, Santa Fe, Argentina http://www.biotechforum.com.ar

To identify the current developments and the pipe line of the investments in plant biotechnology; To present the countries that hold major interest to invest in plant biotechnology; To show the North American, European and Argentine vision with regards to the innovations in plant biotechnology ; To develop the most outstanding aspects of the regulatory problematic in relation to the progress of agribiotechnology (!); To update the matters related Intellectual Property and value capture.


We Might Err, But Science Is Self-Correcting

- John Krebs, The Times (UK), February 8, 2010

If claims about climate change need to be debunked, you can rely on scientists to do it. Scepticism is what we are all about

My non-scientist friends are beginning to ask me “What’s gone wrong with science?” Revelations about melting glaciers and potentially dodgy emails about global warming, the resurfacing of Andrew Wakefield and the MMR scare, and the sacking of the Government’s drugs adviser, have created the impression for some people that science is in a mess.

Of course science isn’t in a mess, nor has anything changed. But the stories underline two important features of scientists and science. First, scientists, just like every other trade — bus drivers, lawyers and bricklayers — are a mix. Most are pretty average, a few are geniuses, some are a bit thick, and some dishonest.

Second, science itself is often misunderstood. Scientists tend to be portrayed as voices of authority who are able to reveal truths about arcane problems, be it the nature of quarks or the molecular basis of ageing. In fact, science is almost the opposite of this. In The Trouble With Physics, physicist Lee Smolin considers how to describe science and concludes that Nobel Prize winner Richard Feyman’s phrase says it best: “Science is the organised scepticism in the reliability of expert opinion.”

An Oxford colleague, one of the world’s top climate scientists, made the same point last week when he said to me: “It’s odd that people talk about ‘climate sceptics’ as though they are a special category. All of us in the climate science community are climate sceptics. It’s our job to question and challenge everything.” Any scientist will tell you that when you turn up at a conference the audience will do its best to tear your findings to pieces: no one takes anything for granted.

This philosophy of science was formally instituted 350 years ago in London by the small band of men, including Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle, who founded the Royal Society, the world’s oldest national academy of science. Their motto, Nullius in verba (“Take nobody’s word for it”) embodies the Royal Society’s founding principle of basing conclusions on observation and experiment rather than the voice of authority. Scientists don’t have all the answers, but they do have a way of finding out, and the fact that our lights come on, our computers compute and our mobile phones phone are among the myriad daily reminders that the scientific way works.

You might retort that science and scientists often don’t live up to this ideal. And you would be right. Scientists, like everyone else, have human frailties and are susceptible to fashion and orthodoxy. Nevertheless, over time, science is self-correcting because someone will have the courage to challenge the prevailing view and win the argument, provided he or she has sufficient evidence.

There is, of course, no excuse for scientists who over-egg or massage their results, or who underplay the uncertainties in their conclusions. The prevailing view in many areas of science will include significant uncertainties (as with climate change), so challenge is central to the progress of understanding. The claim that Himalayan glaciers would melt in the next 30 years is an example of this self-correction. It was debunked from within the scientific community and not by outside commentators, it does not undermine the core conclusions about man-made global warming, and the mistake that the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made was to dismiss this challenge without studying the evidence.

Scepticism is fine but science is not a free-for-all. Whether or not you accept the sceptics’ view should depend on careful weighing of the evidence. Dr Wakefield had no good evidence to support his claim of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Equally, the Department of Health’s claim that the “MMR vaccine is perfectly safe” is wrong. No vaccine is perfectly safe, but not vaccinating your children exposes them to a far bigger risk than the tiny risk associated with the vaccine.

Given what I have said, it is not surprising that the interaction between science and government can be edgy. Ministers look to their expert advisers for clear-cut answers, a unanimous view, and preferably one that is politically convenient. Scientific advisers are prone to disappoint on all fronts. “I am sorry minister, but science is not clear-cut, what is more, different experts take a different view, and our best advice is to do X” (where X is not a vote winner). When I was asked to advise, in 1996, on whether or not to kill badgers as a way of controlling bovine tuberculosis, I said that without a proper experiment it is not possible to tell whether or not the policy would work. To its credit, the Ministry of Agriculture set up what was perhaps the largest ecological experiment ever carried out in this country. The result showed that killing is not a cost-effective policy, and disappointed farmers.

Last year David Nutt, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs, was sacked by the Home Secretary for being too outspoken about the Government’s rejection of his committee’s advice on the classification of cannabis and Ecstasy. If ministers are going to reject expert advice, they should explain why. What they should definitely not do, as both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary did in this case, is to announce, before they have received the expert advice, that they have made up their mind.

Equally, independent experts should not be gagged by ministers, even if their views are inconvenient. Science, warts and all, is still the best way of finding out, and is absolutely vital in informing government policy. That is why the Government must strongly reaffirm its commitment to freedom of expression for independent scientific advisers. At the same time, if scientists have a right to be heard, they have a responsibility to be scrupulously honest and not to claim more than is justified by the evidence.

Lord Krebs is Principal of Jesus College, Oxford


Indian environment minister loses his cool and asks an activist to seek mental help


Another take on the same event


Chicken on Eggplant

- Govindarajan Padmanaban, Indian Exppress, Feb 8, 2010 http://www.indianexpress.com/news/chicken-on-eggplant/576787/0

The irony of the “consultation” process, which the government is holding in different cities on Bt brinjal, is that a meaningful dialogue has not been possible. With around 15 to 40 pesticide sprays required during a season, each brinjal available is a “pesticide bullet”. The GM variety (as per Expert Committee II Report, 2009), substantially decreases the number of pesticide sprays required! The same old hackneyed questions on environmental and health safety issues are being raised to favour the pesticide lobby. These questions have been repeatedly answered in the last 20 years in trials and commercial production with Bt cotton and Bt maize in more than 20 countries. There has not been any reported environmental or health hazards under field conditions.

This argument about environmental consequences is overstated, although mandatory experiments to assess the gene flow have to be carried out. Ever since man started practicing agriculture, there has been horizontal and vertical flow of genes across species and the time-scale for such transfers cannot be predicted. How did hundreds of varieties and land races of brinjal evolve over a period of time? There would be differences in the genome sequences, although the basic brinjal character is retained. We are talking about introducing a couple of B.thuringensis genes, which organism is as such used as a biopesticide spray, in a background where larger changes keep happening in an evolutionary scale. Again, it is difficult to predict how long insect-sensitivity to the Bt gene would last. It has held so far and it would be wise to make use of the window period now available, though scientists have already developed gene combinations to handle resistance as and when it develops. Strategies to handle secondary infections that could become primary, once the major pest is tackled, are also being evolved.

Why is Bt brinjal safe? First, more than 100 times the amount present in the vegetable has been given to rats and shown to be non-toxic. Plus, the small amount of Bt protein present in the vegetable is degraded during cooking. Even if some amount stays, it is then degraded in the acidic stomach. The human gut does not have a receptor for Bt protein and even if it survives cooking and the acid in the stomach, it cannot enter.

In the pest larvae, the gut is alkaline and that is required to activate the Bt protein. The lepidopteran larva has a specific receptor for the toxin, through which it binds and kills the cells. Bt corn contains the same Cry 1AC protein as Bt brinjal and is being consumed for over a decade by millions of people in the US and elsewhere.

The developers of Bt brinjal in India, which include a private company and two publicly-funded agricultural universities (with the involvement of ICAR set-ups) have carried out all mandatory trials for seven years. An expert committee has evaluated and accepted the data. More than 2 dozen parameters and trials in 50 locations have been carried out. Some opinion-makers play it safe by stating that they are not against the technology, but “more safety studies should be done”. It is easy to suggest fashionable modern experiments (such as proteomics and transcriptomics). But I fail to understand as to how these will help. I only know that these can change even if you scratch the plant — and would be different in the varieties that already exist!

As the attached graph shows the net economic gain is considerable. And, in the end, Bt brinjal is only one of the options for the farmer — and can be rejected if unsatisfactory. I believe that activists are afraid that Bt brinjal will succeed and the farmer will take to it — as has been the case with Bt cotton!

Blocking Bt brinjal would only kill GM strategies to increase productivity and nutritive values of cereals such as rice — a dire need for an exploding population facing under-nutrition. Under the pretext of opposition to MNCs, the ground reality is that indigenous efforts by our scientists are being crippled by court orders. While, GM technology is not a panacea for all our agricultural problems, it can at least address the productivity issue.

Minimally the government can approve a limited release of the hybrid seeds, so that they can be tested in the concerned states. During this period, the government should put in place an institution to monitor GM crops after commercialisation. This should be an independent statutory body, not just with authority, but with technical competence. The crops should be registered for, say, 5-year block periods and the authority should be able to advise on the extension of registration period, health and environmental issues, price of GM-seeds etc.

It will be a tragedy if half-truths and money power are able to suppress the sane voice of hard-core science. The country will be the loser.

The writer, a former director of the Indian Institute of Science, presently serves as honorary professor of biochemistry


Bt Brinjal's Acceptance Hinges on Price

- Economic Times (India), Feb 8, 2010 http://economictimes.indiatimes.com

High price and not bio-safety concerns is likely to be the key deterrent to the commercial acceptance of Bt brinjal, a January 2010 IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) study has suggested, even as the environment ministry gears up to take a final decision on whether to accept an expert panel's October 2009 report on biosafety clearance for it.

The decision is a precursor to commercial cultivation approval. Once the health ministry's 2006 bill on mandatory labelling of all GM foods and derived products is implemented, Indian consumers would find, for instance, that all edible cottonseed oil would be GM (70% of India's cotton is currently Bt cotton), much chicken/cattlefeed is labelled GM, (oilcake, soyameal), besides most of the soyaoil imported from GM-affirmative Argentina.

But the IFPRI discussion paper by Sangeeta Bansal and Guillaume Gruère has maintained that affordability and GM health risk awareness would be crucial variables in the Indian consumer's choice for GM foods. Non-GM variants of cottonseed oil, soyaoil and rice would have to fetch a price premium but could cater to niche markets. The study analysed the expected effects of labeling four products currently high up in the GM regulatory pipeline for commercial cultivation approval-cottonseed oil, soybean oil, brinjal, and rice.

Since consumers buy brinjal in small quantities for daily use and are extremely price-sensitive, consumers with poor GM food risk awareness would prefer cheaper Bt brinjal compared to the conventional variety. Should labelling, packaging and research costs inflate the price, though, it could be rejected by consumers.

A key observation is that highly price-sensitive consumers, who had low awareness about GM health risks did not care too much about the latter, while urban consumers with a marked preference for low pesticide residue vegetables were wary of the possible health risks of transgenic food.

"Assuming enforced labelling, some non-GM brinjal would be sold at a premium in high-income retail outlets, while virtually all others would be labeled GM. A similar outcome would occur for rice, with high-quality rice used for both domestic consumption and exports markets certified non-GM and most of the remaining rice labeled as GM. In each of the cases, labeling would generate significant adjustment costs for the industry and large enforcement costs, and consumer benefit would not always be visible and would highly depend on the degree of enforcement," the study states.

The edible oil market, the study observed, showed a lack of incentive to market non-GM oil either because of low consumer awareness on GM health risk or ignorance on the status of the product. An overriding reason was because consumers could not afford to pay a price premium for non-GM variants even if these are preferred. The non-GM oil is likely to be more expensive because cotton yields from non-GM seeds are lower and imported soybean oil may be cheaper at least during the nonharvest season.

In each of the cases, voluntary labeling could achieve less-distorted results with lower costs and therefore, be a superior regulatory solution -- especially if it is accompanied by a large awareness campaign regarding GM food and consumer safety in India, the study maintains.


Bt Entreaty

- Editorial, The Indian Express , Feb 08, 2010 http://www.indianexpress.com/news/bt-entreaty/576805/0

The radical fringe in America calls it "Frankenfood". Start growing genetically modified vegetables, they mean to imply, and you unleash on unsuspecting ecosystems and digestive tracts the veggie equivalent of Frankenstein's monster: something dreamed in the lab by wild-eyed, mad scientists with a tenuous grasp on reality which will run amok when released. The argument over genetically modified food is one that, however, is actually being won by the scientists - and, in the process, it is the protestors who are coming across as more than a little wild-eyed.

In India, too, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh's "consultation" process over the introduction of Bt brinjal has served to demonstrate that the objections to the introduction of this, the first GM crop destined for Indian tables, are less rational and more emotional. (Most vividly on Saturday, when one activist had to be ejected from a public hearing with the minister.)

A certain visceral concern over GM food is understandable: after all, we will be expected to eat something that scientists have tinkered with. But that concern must, in the end, have to give way before solid facts. As one of India's most distinguished biochemists points out on these pages today, Bt brinjal has been thoroughly and comprehensively tested; perhaps even more compellingly, the theoretical science that backs up arguments for its safety remain unchallenged.

Nor should anti-capitalist conspiracy theorists, such as the activist who accused Ramesh of being an agent of biotech giant Monsanto, carry much weight with mainstream opinion: the long development and testing of Bt brinjal featured extensive collaboration between various government agencies, the private sector, and scientists.

In the United States, corn modified by the introduction of pest-resistant genetic strains from the bacteria Bacillus thuringensis - Bt - dominates the market, and has for years. Similarly modified soybeans and vegetable oils have also proved safe and cheap. In India, farmers have taken to Bt cotton in a big way - and paranoid fears that giant foreign combines would seek to make rapacious profits by exploiting small Indian farmers have not materialised. After all, nobody is likely to force Indian farmers to adopt the new variety: it merely adds to their options, and to the options facing the Indian consumer.

Some will always remain unconvinced, or call ad infinitum for more and better and longer tests. They should not be able to veto the introduction of GM food forever. This week the environment ministry is to decide on Bt brinjal. A cautionary desire to placate the panicked and paranoid must not be allowed to outweigh the evidence.


Is the BT Brinjal debate really so cut and dried?

- Churumuri. Full blog at http://churumuri.wordpress.com/2010/02/07/is-the-bt-brinjal-debate-really-so-cut-and-dried/

A good deal of people have joined this anti-BT bandwagon and are spreading everything that they can think of in the name of nature and farmers' interests, without considering the scientific facts and environmental costs of conventional agriculture and its burden on farmers.

By considering some key facts, this whole episode can be termed anti-democratic, anti-scientific, and ignorant blabbering. Even though it sounds like it is pro-farmers', it is against the interest of farmers.

Karnataka's ryot leaders are opposing BT cultivation either because of their ideological opposition to globalisation and corporatisation of agriculture.

Or, they falsely think it is against the interests of farming community.

By doing so they are pushing the farmers to the same old labour intensive, pesticide and chemical fertilizer based, highly expensive, and lesser or no-profit occupation.

Also, they may be least aware of the
possibilities of this new knowledge field and its positive implications on farming.

The author is from a farming family and is now working as a software engineer in the United States. He has ME in Computer Science. His mother was able to take care of most of his engineering college expenses by selling the milk of a single hybrid cow. His family has grown commercial food crops in the early 1990s and he has the first-hand knowledge of its expenses, the benefits of good hybrid seeds, back-breaking farming, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, losing a crop to floods, and the fluctuations in prices.


Brinjal a Madhouse Hostage

- Ajay Sukumaran And G.s. Mudur. Telegraph (India), Feb. 7, 2010 http://www.telegraphindia.com

High-decibel exchanges on genetically modified (GM) brinjal, potentially India's first edible biotech crop, have sparked concerns among sections of scientists whether its fate now hinges on emotions rather than science.

The last of a series of public consultations called by the Union environment ministry ended today in a packed auditorium at Central College, Bangalore, after four hours of debate, punctuated at times by shouts and sharp verbal exchanges.

At one point, a nutritionist called environment minister Jairam Ramesh "an agent of Monsanto", the biotech firm, following which both suggested that the other required psychiatric help. "I want to talk to people from the health sector. I'm sorry, I don't want to talk to health patients. Please leave. Bye. Go to Nimhans," Ramesh told the protester.

Ramesh told the gathered scientists, farmers, and non-government organisations that he would announce on February 10 his decision on whether the brinjal should be released for cultivation. India's apex biotechnology safety regulator - the environment ministry's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee - has already approved the brinjal, modified with a bacterial gene that makes it resist attacks by insects.

Some scientists, science policy makers and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar have in recent weeks questioned the need for public consultations, arguing that the GEAC is a technology body and a statutory agency. "As far as we are concerned, the safety issue has been resolved," said a senior official with the department of biotechnology. However, there are voices of dissent within the scientific community.

Ramesh has justified the consultations on the ground that when issues involving human safety are involved, the government has a right and a responsibility to engage in widespread consultations. Several states, including Bengal, have decided to reject the modified brinjal after advisories from state scientists.

"By initiating the consultation process, (Ramesh) appears to be casting aspersions on the integrity of the GEAC," said C. Kameshwar Rao, a botanist and executive secretary of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education.

Rao said science appeared to take a backseat with participants shouting in favour or against the brinjal today. "There were ill-informed or mischievous claims from both sides," he said. Biotech proponents say the brinjal will reduce the use of pesticides and increase worm-free brinjal. However, critics believe the brinjal should be tested more rigorously to establish its safety for human consumption.

Ramesh has repeatedly asserted that th consultations are intended only to gather views from diverse groups and should not be interpreted as a question mark on the GEAC. "Much of the (public) debate has been overtaken by emotions," said K.K. Narayanan, chief executive officer of a biotech company in Bangalore. "We're worried that in such an atmosphere, the easy thing to do would be to delay the release."