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Date:

February 19, 2010

Subject:

Saudi CEO: We Need GM; Limitations of Public Dialogue; Beating the Cold; Environmentalism's Own Martin Luther; Battle about a Vegetable

 

* Saudi Arabia: Kingdom Must Have Agriculture Base, Says Al-Rasheed;
* Battling the Cold for Good
* The Battle about a Vegetable
* PM's Council for Clear Policy on GM Crops
* Scientists’ Panel Discusses Minister’s U-Turn Over Bt Brinjal
* Time: What an Eggplant Uproar Says About India's Economy
* Cotton Lessons for Bt Brinjal
* Audio: How is a Bt Brinjal Created?
* The Teacher’s Resource Guide for Genome
* Environmentalism Gets Its Own Martin Luther
* Limitations of Public Dialogue in Science and the Rise of New ‘Experts’

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Saudi Arabia: Kingdom Must Have Agriculture Base, Says Al-Rasheed

- Shaheen Nazar, Arab News, Feb 18, 2010 http://arabnews.com/saudiarabia/article19281.ece

Jeddah: Many people do not believe that three million Saudis are below the poverty line and 91 percent Saudis earn less than SR6,000 a month, said Turki Faisal Al-Rasheed, chairman of Golden Gras Inc., a major agricultural company based in Riyadh.

He said Saudi Arabia should do everything possible to help rural masses that depend on agriculture. Water scarcity is one of the limiting factors to local food production. To overcome this the government should build dams to tap the renewable water so that small stake farmers in rural areas get water for irrigation.

According to Al-Rasheed, the Kingdom gets six to eight million cubic meters of rainwater yearly. “Our strategy should be to make optimum use of whatever little rainwater we get,” he said here on the sidelines of the just-concluded Jeddah Economic Forum in which he was one of the panelists. Al-Rasheed said the secret behind China’s success was its farm policy of the 1990s. It invested with small farmers and gave them a free hand. “That became the engine of growth for the country,” he said.

He said agriculture is one of the most effective tools to promote growth and alleviate poverty. Therefore, Saudi Arabia must have a base of agriculture. “We must use the highly genetically modified seeds. We must heavily depend on the new technologies of the most optimum water management,” he said.

Commenting on the reservations many people have about the genetically modified seeds, he said: “We don’t have choices. People were against this when there was abundance of food. Now when there is a shortage you have to live with it.”

According to him, agriculture was facing worldwide neglect. He cited the World Bank whose lending to agricultural projects in 1980 was 25 percent of its budget. In 2000 the number went down to 10 percent. Moreover, the bank has lost almost half of its technical staff in the area of agriculture development. His list of neglect was long. Punjab region, the most fertile land shared by India and Pakistan, he said, has not seen development or investment in new farm technology for the last 30 years. Worse, the dams in the region have not been upgraded during the period.

The Philippines has lost its rice production because of continued apathy. Thailand and Vietnam claimed to have enough food but they were exposed when the food riots erupted.

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Battling the Cold for Good

- Terry Wanzek, 19 Feb.19 http://www.truthabouttrade.org/

Almost nothing grows when snow covers the ground--except maybe the hopes of Olympic skiers and the frustrations of people who have to shovel driveways.

When the white stuff melts, farmers think about planting. The sooner seeds take root, the longer they’ll have to grow before we harvest them in the fall.

That’s why I’m so encouraged by the possible advent of cold-tolerant crops. The ability to start work just a few days earlier than we do now would make a big difference. The sooner we can plant, the more food we’ll produce.
This would help not only with my bottom line, but it would also improve food security for Americans and people everywhere.

Before it can happen, however, we need to unleash the full power of biotechnology. The Gene Revolution already has transformed agriculture in the United States and elsewhere, but it can do more.

An important article in the latest issue of Science, the research journal, makes a compelling case. The lead author is Nina V. Federoff, who is the science and technology advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Despite the excellent safety and efficacy record of GM crops, regulatory policies remain almost as restrictive as they were when GM crops were first introduced,” she writes. “As a result,” she continues, “the benefits of biotechnology have not been realized for the vast majority of food crops.”

That’s for sure. Last week, the government of India refused to approve pest-resistant brinjal (i.e., eggplant), even though brinjal is a staple crop in a country that struggles to feed a population of more than a billion people. Writing in the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal, Indian farmer Rajesh Kumar, a member of Truth About Trade & Technology’s Global Farmer Network, described his disappointment: “If we are going to produce enough food for our people, farmers must have access to the same tools as growers in the developed world.”

Federoff’s point is that even here in the developed world, farmers still don’t have as much access to biotechnology as they should. We need to embrace new varieties of GM crop in order to help ourselves--and also to serve as an example for governments such as India’s and farmers such as Kumar.

Of all the traits I’d like to see commercialized in the United States, cold-tolerance tops my list. Scientists at several universities are already trying to identify the genes that will make this possible. I suspect that in the right regulatory environment, we could be planting cold-tolerant corn within a few years.

In North Dakota, cold tolerance is critical because our growing season is so short. It takes a while for the snow to clear and the ground to warm up. Then there are a limited number of days before the fall’s first frost, at which time our corn must be fully mature. If it isn’t, our harvest can fail.

Success often depends on how soon we get started. Weather is an important factor. So is soil temperature: Seeds stay dormant until the ground heats to about 50 degrees or warmer. Ideally, we try to plant between April 20 and May 5. What if biotechnology made it possible for seeds to germinate in slightly chillier soil temperatures? Starting just a week or two sooner would help enormously.

Think of it as a baseball season. Teams fight to win the pennant in September. Yet the games in April are just as important. In the standings, a victory on Opening Day matters as much as a win on the final weekend, when teams are scrambling to make the playoffs. Cold-tolerant crops would have the effect of delivering a few extra wins at the start of the season.

It would deliver an environmental benefit as well. One way to deal with the cold is to till the soil. By turning it over, we can warm it up. But this contributes to soil erosion, soil moisture loss and increased fuel costs. Cold tolerance derived from biotechnology would allow more farmers to adopt no-till strategies while still achieving the benefits of early planting.

We must allow biotechnology to flourish--and put an end to the snow jobs.

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Terry Wanzek grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his family farm in North Dakota. Mr. Wanzek serves as a North Dakota Senator and board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)

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The Battle about a Vegetable

- Vikram Doctor, Economic Times (India), February 15, 2010

When the news broke that the government was imposing an indefinite moratorium on approval of Bt brinjal , my sister was most disappointed. Not because she’s a great believer in biotechnology, but because she felt the ban didn’t go far enough. “Brinjals are such horrible vegetables, they should have used this chance to ban them completely,” she told me feelingly . In the small, but super passionate group of brinjal haters, my sister is a charter member.

For a vegetable with such an innocuous taste, brinjals have always evoked oddly extreme reactions. It’s true that older varieties were offputtingly bitter (though hardly on par with something like karela), but once it was learned that salting before cooking reduced this, it should no longer have been an issue.

In any case modern varieties have had most of the bitterness bred out, leaving only a mild astringency in the raw vegetable, which is apparently how the mathematician Ramanujan liked to eat them, in a tamarind marinade prepared by his mother. Much more commonly it’s cooked to a subtle, deep savouriness, of the kind which famously made a Turkish imam faint from its deliciousness (or more likely overeating), after which the dish has was called imam bayildi, or the ‘fainting imam’ .

It’s more likely the texture that the brinjal haters dislike, and I agree that the bharta style of roasting and mashing it can leave it looking like an unappetizing mush of seeds and pulpy vegetable strands (Middle-Eastern mashing techniques usually add lots of olive oil, which makes it more creamy than pulpy). I much prefer leaving it in whole slices, skin just holding the cooked brinjal together, allowing it to melt in creamy perfection in the mouth. Brinjal cooked like this provides the texture base to the spices it is cooked with, whose flavours it absorbs so readily through the oil they are cooked in.

Perhaps it is subliminal knowledge of this absorbent trait that helped convince people that bt brinjal is dangerous. The repeated use of ‘poison’ for the organism those gene is being spliced into the vegetable to make it pest resistant, may be triggering the thought of brinjals absorbing and concentrating it – though this is probably far more applicable to the pesticides with which most brinjals are already grown, and which is precisely what gene technology aims to spare us from. Such pesticides are bad for consumers , and terrible for the farmers who must administer them, and of all the arguments for biotechnology, this seemed to me the one least well countered by opponents.

I think a lot of people like me who are interested in food issues have tried understanding the scientific arguments , and ended up quite befuddled. The arguments on both sides can sound convincing, but also confusing given how much they seem to depend on issues of testing procedures and review protocols. This is annoying for those of us who expect clear answers from white-coated scientists , but in fact it’s a useful reminder that this is how much of science does work.

The anti-bt lobby has used this uncertainty very effectively to argue that we should not take any risks, but the argument actually cuts both ways: science has always involved uncertainty and risks, and while this sometimes gives us qualms (chemical weapons, cloning), we also accept its benefits (nearly every part of the lives we now live). Strict scientific Luddism, which is the implication of the most vehement anti-bt arguments, is just not something which will find many takers .

Given the confusion, it’s natural enough to fall back on secondary factors like the credentials of those involved , and here at first things seemed simple. On one side were multinational agrotech companies of very dubious history, like Monsanto , and allied Indian scientists, and on the other hand ‘ordinary’ farmers and activists, who seem to have got involved just from an interest in food issues that many of us share.

I have real respect for people like Vandana Shiva whose organization Navdanya has done exemplary work in preserving traditional crops, promoting organic and sustainable farming (Navdanya is one of the few here which has recognized the pioneering work done by Sir Albert Howard in India in establishing the principles of organic farming) and even creating retail markets for their produce. But the more I followed the debates , the less sure I got about such neat distinctions.

Monsanto’s history is not clean, and its involvement in this issue is a real complicating factor. But circumstances change, and it is not a given that with the regulatory mechanisms that exist today (partly in response to the past problems caused by agrotech companies ), with food such a passionately followed subject with strong independent scrutiny, with the global exchange of information through the Internet, the same abuses could occur again today.

Painting agrotech companies as evil multinational monsters is useful for the purpose of rallies, but it assumes they would be stupid enough to act in the ways being ascribed to them, and companies like Monsanto, whatever their ultimate aims, are not stupid. Another rallying call I found hard to swallow was that scientists were deliberately trying to ‘poison’ us. This assumes scientists are faceless malevolent entities, but they are not.

I’ve met many agricultural scientists and they are mostly dedicated professionals, who are also individuals with as little desire to do deliberate harm as you or I. It is true that science can breed arrogance that overrides other concerns, but most of our agricultural scientists are too beleaguered to be like that. The lack of support for them has been so total, both in general, with the Indian government doing its best to ruin by neglect the excellent system of agricultural research left to us by the British, and in particular in this bt debate , with their voices being literally outshouted during the public consultations, that I’ve ended up with real sympathy for them.

The government needs to shore up the damage their morale must have taken in this debate, but since the ministers involved are Mr.Pawar, too busy politicking to care about agriculture, or Mr.Ramesh, already off in search of some new high profile cause to espouse, one rather doubts this will happen. On the other side, I found myself steadily more suspicious about the anti bt brigade. It started in a very trivial way with one of the campaigners putting me, without asking me on her mailing list. This is always something done by people of fairly dubious intent, but since I was on it, I started reading the mails, and others like this, and saw how the arguments became increasingly more passionate, and increasingly less rational , and the whole issue took on an a quasi-religious tone.

Watching the coverage of the public debate, with people dressed as brinjals , a tamasha like atmosphere, and the vituperation of alternate viewpoints (which I realize will be extended to me, now that I’m expressing even mild skepticism), it all seemed less a debate than one of those religious gatherings where demons are cast out and true belief exalted. Ms.Shiva described it as ‘democracy in the most vital aspect of life – the food we eat.” It certainly seemed to be a peculiarly Indian kind of democracy, where bussing in truckloads of true believers and intimidation of opponents counts more than any real discussion of the issues.

Ms.Shiva’s interventions have made me even more skeptical. As I said, I admire the work she’s done in the food field, but if you read her (exhaustingly voluminous) writings, it’s also evident she’s doing it to drive a very particular left-wing agenda – which is entirely her right, but it does make people like me, who support her food work, but not her politics, dubious about her arguments that the two are necessarily tied. Many of her food aims could be achieved through alternative means that involve more corporate and government involvement, but I doubt Ms.Shiva would agree.

The organic aspect of biotechnology is an example. Ms.Shiva has been arguing for less pesticide use, less cultivation of water hungry crops and so on. Biotechnology has the ability to reduce pesticide use, breed more drought resistant crops and so on – but because of the corporate argument, it’s potential for organic farming is rejected . Ms.Shiva argues that using only traditional varieties, grown in traditional labour intensive ways, can supply all our needs and increase agricultural employment, but I simply cannot buy this.

Organic food has a future in India, but its higher costs are a real problem. If nothing else, it’s labour intensivity ensures this – farmers are already complaining how hard it is to find rural labour, and how schemes like NREGA, which excellent in themselves , by providing alternative employment , have increased labour costs. Across the country, the trend to urbanization is very clear – in a rather more democratic display, than the rather contrived public hearings, people are moving from rural areas to cities, and it is very hard to see how organic farming could supply the increased demand, with less labour, at affordable prices – without some help from biotechnology.

But I doubt there’s much chance of getting Ms.Shiva even to concede there’s an argument here, because she seems to have an ideologue’s inflexibility to alternate viewpoints, rather than a genuine concern with the issues in hand. And this finally is what made me dubious about the anti bt brigade. In its usual muddled way I think the Indian government has reached the right answer – if it is serious about setting up a serious study about the issue. There really seem to have been issues about the approval process and the independence of the data, and a study should be able to resolve this.

Such a study should look seriously at the credentials of all the relevant studies – if some scientists are compromised by their closeness to agrotech companies, surely the closeness of others to organisations like Greenpeace also counts as bias that should be taken into account, if not used as grounds for rejection? It should look at the argument for organic biotechnology sketched above, as well as the issues of access to this technology if it becomes available. It should look at whether a mechanism for separate labeling of bt and non-bt crops is viable, and also means to conserve the biodiversity of brinjals – a cess on biotech products is something most companies would probably happily pay.

And if at the end of all this, the study concludes that biotech products are safe and should be licensed – do you then see its current opponents agreeing? There are reasonable individual among them who might, but for the majority that seems as likely as getting my sister to eat brinjal curry. This, finally, is what has turned me from a mild skeptic of bt brinjal, to someone ultimately willing to accept it, if the certification comes. I don’t want to claim any special objectivity, but I think my focus is food, rather than pushing a political agenda through it, and from that perspective, I’m willing to accept that a bt brinjal bharta can possibly taste as good as any other kind.

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PM's Council for Clear Policy on Genetically Modified Crops

- The Hindu (India), Feb. 19, 2010 http://thehindu.com/

India must take note of the success of Bt cotton in the country and formulate clear-cut policy on genetically modified crops, Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council said in a report presented on Friday.

The remarks come against the backdrop of the environment ministry’s recent moratorium on the commercial production of Bt Brinjal following vehement voices both for and against the genetically modified crop.

“After the success of Bt cotton and the benefits it has brought to farmers in Gujarat and Maharashtra, it is imperative that the government must have a clear policy on genetically modified crops,” the council said. “The regulatory framework should clearly assess performance in the field and the impact on environmental and food safety issues and bring the results into the public domain at the shortest possible time,” said the report presented to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

According to the council, chaired by C. Rangarajan, research in agriculture is stymied by factors such as lack of co-ordination between the extensive network of institutions, even as their contribution to raise yields on small farms remained disappointing.

“Since the Green Revolution, no major breakthrough has been witnessed in agricultural research mainly due to inadequate resource allocation, lacunae in content, organisation of research, inefficiencies in extension activities and inadequate risk mitigation strategies for the farmer.”

It has, accordingly, recommended a step up in agricultural research from 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product to 1 percent, as suggested by the Steering Committee on the subject for the 11th Five Year Plan that runs till 2012.

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India: Scientists’ Panel Discusses Minister’s U-Turn Over Bt Brinjal

- The Hindu, Feb 18, 2010

NEW DELHI - In its first meeting after the Bt brinjal moratorium, the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee reviewed the Environment Ministry’s decision, which overturned its own recommendation in favour of the transgenic vegetable.

According to some members, the entire meeting on Wednesday was spent discussing the fall-out of Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh’s statement last week. One scientist said several members were asking “whether the GEAC has any meaning or not” in the wake of the Minister’s statement reducing it to an “appraisal” committee, and throwing doubts on its procedures.

No decisions were taken on any future reforms of the GEAC. The Minister had suggested that further testing processes be included, after a chorus of protest from some scientists, farmers groups, consumer organisations and civil society activists had led to the GEAC’s recommendation for Bt brinjal being overturned.

“Nothing of any consequence [about changes] was discussed today,” said the scientist. “As a GEAC member, I know nothing is stuck in cement. If we have to change, we can change. But the gaps between what scientists say and non-scientists

===============

What an Eggplant Uproar Says About India's Economy

- Madhur Singh, Time, Feb. 15, 2010 http://www.time.com

The humble eggplant, known in some parts as aubergine and in South Asia as brinjal, has enjoyed a rare celebrity in India over the past few weeks. It has been the topic of spirited debate in town hall meetings and on television talk shows. The brinjal in question is no ordinary vegetable: it's full name is Bt brinjal, whose DNA scientists have fortified with a gene that kills a range of common pests. Its creators say the genetically modified vegetable will increase farm yields and bring a less pesticide-laden vegetable to Indian dining tables, where the fiery brinjal-laden baingan bharta enjoys cult status.

On Feb. 9, though, India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh nixed the introduction of the Bt brinjal. Ramesh, who has come under huge public pressure to ban the genetically modified vegetable, said the scientific community was not agreed on the brinjal's safety, that public opinion was against cultivation of the vegetable, and that there was "no overriding urgency or food security argument" for its introduction. He said further tests were required on the new variety, and said India needed to ramp up its genetic engineering regulatory mechanism.

Ramesh's announcement raised the decibel level in an already shrill debate. Many of India's farmers say they oppose Bt brinjal because the seeds are expensive and would have to be purchased every year, rather than something they could harvest themselves from the previous year's crop.

But critics of the decision say it was taken because the minister is scared of annoying the powerful farmers' lobby. BT brinjal backers also question why Ramesh disregarded scientific evidence from field trials that indicated the brinjals are safe. That evidence had been approved by the government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. "This decision is certainly a big setback for biotechnology and I am afraid it will thwart further investment in agri-biotech research," says Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, head of Indian biotech firm Biocon.

Advocates of GM crops have also been quick to point out that China last year announced it would allow genetically modified rice. Comparing India and China is a favorite pastime of Indian economists and commentators. The country's attempts to outdo its northern neighbor are a national obsession. But in its hurry to reach double-digit growth, India is confronting a dilemma that has entangled China for years: what's more important, economic growth or human rights and the environment?

India's answer to that question seems to be slightly different to China's. Just last week, India's Supreme Court ordered French cement firm Lafarge to halt limestone mining in the country's northeast. India's environment watchdog had granted Lafarge permission to mine in forestland there, but critics of the company's operations have alleged that the company misrepresented facts in their application. (Lafarge is due to respond to those allegations in a court hearing next month). Those opposed to the mining project also say that deforestation has led to a severe change in rainfall patterns in the region.

Last year, India's environment ministry had to take back a proposed bill on coastal management after villagers protested that a change to the legislation would disrupt coastal ecology and the livelihoods of local fishing communities. India's health ministry is currently reworking legislation on human clinical trials to introduce more stringent punishment for offences. That follows concerns that Indian research firms were cutting corners and risking subjects' health and lives in their hurry to attract international drug firms. And lobby groups and non-governmental organizations have been pressing the government to introduce new rules on electronic waste, ever larger quantities of which is making its way to India for recycling, or worse, dumping in landfills.

The Bt brinjal issue is yet another reminder of how difficult the government's balancing act is - and of the extra pressures that a democracy like India face compared to more authoritarian countries.

But could India be going too far?
Yes, say those impatient for double digit growth. Take agriculture. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and many farmers struggling against debt, rising expenses and stagnant yields, have called for a second Green Revolution. But for this, India will probably need the help of biotechnology, a discipline in which India has the potential to be a world leader. Because India allows protests and debate, though, pro-industry rulings are often overturned.

One of the problems, as Minister Ramesh conceded this week, is that the country's regulatory system lacks the expertise and autonomy required to put decisions beyond reproach. In the brinjal case, for instance, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee had a clear conflict of interest: it relied on data supplied by the seed developer and verified by panelists involved in genetic engineering research themselves. If a more autonomous panel had found in favor of the Bt brinjal, the government may have allowed its use. Ramesh says the moratorium period on the brinjal's introduction should be used to set up an independent regulator with the scientific capacity to take authoritative decisions on key issues.

Progress may be slow, but in India's case, the best rate of growth may not turn out to be the absolute fastest, but the one that takes into account long-term environmental and human costs. A slow-cooked brinjal decision may taste best.

===========

Cotton Lessons for Bt Brinjal

- G.S. Mudur, Telegraph (India), Feb 15, 2010 http://www.telegraphindia.com/

Crop scientist Keshav Kranthi would hate being labelled campaigner against genetic engineering. He says he supports plant biotechnology and wants India to pursue the myriad promises it offers. But in the polarised debate on the genetically modified (GM) brinjal, Kranthi has aligned himself with groups calling for caution before its release, citing little-known but serious trouble with cotton rarely articulated before. Kranthi, acting director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) in Nagpur, has warned that poor management of the technology has spawned an abundance of predictable and unexpected problems. The rapid adoption of GM cotton by farmers across the country has coincided with the rise of hitherto unknown insect pests, increased pesticide applications by farmers, and declining cotton productivity over the past three years, he has told the government.

Indian regulators approved GM cotton engineered with a bacterial gene to resist an insect - based on technology similar to that in GM brinjal - in 2002. Kranthi asserts there are no scientifically-authenticated safety issues over GM cotton from anywhere.

Farmers have adopted the GM cotton, which now makes up 90 per cent of the crop in some areas, and virtually eliminated its target pest - bollworms. India's annual cotton output has jumped from 3 billion kg to 5.3 billion kg over the past decade.

But new insects, including one called a mealybug, not known as cotton pests, have spread, causing significant economic losses, Kranthi said in a report sent to the ministry of environment and forests with his comments on GM brinjal.

"Cotton is a tricky crop - we should have been more careful," Kranthi said. "There are lessons to be learnt from this experience for future genetically modified crops, brinjal or anything else," he told The Telegraph. The environment ministry last week imposed a moratorium on the release of GM brinjal that will remain in place until independent studies are able to establish its safety and there is scientific consensus that it can be released. Many crop and biotechnology industry scientists have pitched yield and economic gains from GM cotton to farmers as striking examples of the fruits of biotechnology, arguing that GM brinjal would deliver similar benefits.

But a mealybug named Phenacoccus solenopsis, not observed earlier in India, has spread across northern, central and western states after it was first recognised as a cotton pest about five years ago, Kranthi said. In desperation, farmers have begun to spray "extremely hazardous" pesticides on the cotton to fight the insect, which has a waxy coating over its surface that makes it hard to kill with less toxic pesticides, he said. The reduced use of pesticides on GM cotton and the proliferation of GM cotton hybrids that are susceptible to these insects may have contributed to the emergence of these pests, according to Kranthi's report. "The inappropriate choice of hybrids and the arbitrary and prolific spread of GM cotton hybrids have created conditions congenial for the rapid multiplication of these new insects."

Kranthi sees himself as an insider, a biotechnology believer, urging caution. "Someone has to point this out," said Kranthi, a 47-year-old entomologist who had articulated similar concerns five years ago in the journal Current Science from the Indian Academy of Sciences.

But other scientists disagree with him. "He's wrong on this. New insect pests always overtake old ones. This could be part of a natural cycle that has nothing to do with GM cotton," said Thirkannad Manjunath, a senior entomologist who has worked with both government and private crop science institutions.

Another scientist who heads a private biotechnology company said the emergence of new pests was not surprising. "The significantly reduced use of pesticide sprays would have allowed these (non-bollworm) insects to multiply," said K.K. Narayanan, who is also a member of the Association of Biotechnology-Led Enterprises. "We've always maintained that genetic modification (of plants) is only part of a package of crop management practices." But Kranthi says 90 per cent of the current GM cotton hybrids appear susceptible to mealybugs and whiteflies. Insecticide use in cotton appears to have increased from Rs 640 crore in 2006 to Rs 800 crore in 2008, his report said.

The report also points out that seed companies have produced over 600 GM cotton hybrids, and farmers in cotton-growing districts find themselves having to choose from 150 to 200 hybrids. Yet India's cotton productivity has declined over the past three years - from 560kg lint per hectare in 2007 to 520kg lint in 2008 to 512 kg lint in 2009. A wrong choice of hybrids, Kranthi said, may be contributing to this drop. "A wise choice of GM cotton hybrids which are tailored for geographical regions after taking into account their susceptibility to other pests may have led to much better outcomes."

Some scientists point out that mandatory state and district-level technical committees for crop genetic engineering that could have guided the appropriate choice of hybrids are missing in many states. "The hybrids used depend on farmers, seed suppliers and university extension centres," said C. Kameswara Rao, director of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education in Bangalore. "This has nothing to do with GM cotton or approvals," he said.

==============

Audio: How is a Bt Brinjal Created?

- Samanth Subramanian. Live Mint/Wall Street Journal, Fe. 19, 2010 http://www.livemint.com/

To better understand the debate on Bt brinjal, we look more closely at the Bt brinjal itself, and at why and how it was created.

Last week, the union minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, extended the moratorium on the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal. The merits of Bt brinjal have divided the community of scientists and activists in India. But to understand the debate better, on Just to Clarify we wanted to look more closely at the Bt brinjal itself, and at why and how it was created.

Our guest today is Dr. Himanshu Sinha, a reader in the department of biological sciences at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

Listen to the podcast http://a45.video2.blip.tv/6500003382039/Sidin-HowIsABtBrinjalCreated736.mp3?bri=0.4&brs=62

=================

The Teacher’s Resource Guide for Genome

http://www.biotechinstitute.org/resources/genome.html

A vital reference tool on genomics for biotechnology teachers of all levels of experience and expertise! The guide is full of hands-on activities have been welcomed for their simplicity and for using low-cost, easily found equipment and materials.

The activities are written at the upper elementary level through high school, but are easily modified for all ages. All the activities in the Teacher’s Resource Guide have been field-tested nationally in elementary, middle, and high schools and science and museum centers

Sample activities from genome:
* Cherry DNA Activity - Learn how to extract DNA from cherries * Fruit Loops Activity - Learn how to extract DNA from various types of fruits to determine which fruit has the most DNA

================

Environmentalism Gets Its Own Martin Luther

- David Tribe, Feb.19, 2010 http://www.biofortified.org/2010/02/environmentalism-gets-its-own-martin-luther/

It has been obvious to any independant clear-thinking observer that the environmental movement is in need of a reformation.

As with Christianity over the centuries, over the last 50 years environmentalism’ s done an enormous amount of good. Christianity needed some 1500 years before it’s wake-up call on 31 October 1517 when Martin Luther nailed 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg .

These are fast moving times, and environmentalism’s changed much faster than Christianity did. Forty-seven years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring , the corresponding key date in the reformation of environmentalism is the day in 2009 when Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: an Ecopragmatist Manifesto reached the bookstores.

It’s not what Stewart Brand says that important (and there is quite a bit I disagree with in the book). It is the open-minded and pragmatic way he goes about questioning the down-side of the romanticism that has dominated the environmentalist movement of the last 48 years. He points out where scientific environmental pragmatism and scepticism had been submerged by quasi-religious faith in big ideas that are often wrong. It is these wrong big ideas are now both harming people, and harming the reputation of environmentalism. Environmentalism needs a Martin Luther to rescue it’s reputation.

As he rightly says “it’s fortunate that there are so many romantics in the movement, because they are the ones who inspired the majority in most developed societies to see themselves as environmentalists. But that also means that scientists and their perceptions are always in the minority; they are easily ignored, suppressed, or demonised when their views don’t fit the consensus storyline.” That’s the problem.

This reflexive almost paranoid suppression of critical views comes through of the environmental hierarchy’s common portrayal of those who stray from the party line as being evil or in the pay of vile multinational corporations (or both). This dogmatism is preventing environmentalists from working out themselves where they are wrong.

Brand refreshingly and frankly states that he is willing to change his mind when he realises that the evidence shows his own opinion is wrong. He even gives examples of his own big mistakes. Such intellectual honesty is the way scientists work, as that’s the way science is successful. Science gains by throwing out false opinion. The opinions of science are always subject to change, and scepticism should be, and usually is, welcome. Not only welcome, it is absolutely necessary.

Sadly, we are a very rarely see this in environmentalist “advocacy” groups, at least in their public statements. They seem to think that being an advocate means they can forget about scientific due process (although they are happy to claim the credibility of being supported by science). As the recent Glaciergate and e-mailgate scandals about the IPCC demonstrate, we sorely need evidence-based environmentalism to restore full credibility to environmental policies.

I hope that Brand’s wake-up call for greater respect for sceptical hardheaded science is heeded by the various environmentalist lobby groups, because as Brand demonstrates , the issues on which it needs to be brought to bear are important. Brand’s discussion of genetic engineering of crops and food production is perhaps the best single exposition for the intelligent general reader why genetic engineering is needed for pragmatic solutions of important environmental challenges, such as reducing the amount of nitrogen fertiliser used in agriculture, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions caused by the use of this fertiliser.

As Brand has credentials in organic farming, he may finally get through to the great bulk of organic farming community who seem to be the dominant sources of resistance to genetic modification in agriculture. If they took Brand’s advice, they would finally realise that the organic way and genetic engineering are very compatible -

More at http://www.biofortified.org/2010/02/environmentalism-gets-its-own-martin-luther/

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Limitations of Public Dialogue in Science and the Rise of New ‘Experts’

- Bill Durodié, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 4, Winter 2003, pp. 82–92; ISSN 1369-8230 print/1743-8772. Excerpt below -

On 18 June 2003, just before the first strand of the UK government’s three-strand (scientific, economic and social) inquiry into genetically modified (GM) foods was to publish its conclusions,

The Times ran a little-commented-on one-column inch statement behind its front page, entitled ‘GM exclusion’, that read as follows: Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the Science and Innovation Minister, is to have no say on the policy over GM foods, the Government said. His place at any Whitehall meeting to discuss the issue is to be taken by Nigel Griffiths, Minister for Small Business and

No doubt many of the detractors of GM will have welcomed this decision. But is it a good thing that the one minister who knows something about these matters should participate no further in the decision-making process?

Those who would argue that this was the right move to make, because Lord Sainsbury, who owns the supermarket chain bearing his name, ‘has an interest’ in this debate, seem to assume that we cannot separate or distinguish subjective interests from objective judgements. Indeed, they believe that there is no such thing as objective knowledge in the first place. But if that were truly the case, why would ‘independence’ matter at all? This approach to these issues, which appears to be becoming increasingly widespread nowadays, is nothing more than a recipe for institutionalised ignorance.

Confusions
There has, over the recent period, been a growing clamour to include what are held to be ‘lay values’ in the scientific decision-making process. 2 This often takes the form of a demand for public dialogue. But this confuses two distinct issues or trends that have emerged over the recent period – the demise of political participation or engagement in society, and a growing disillusionment with science and its consequences.

Public participation in science seeks in part to restore some limited measure of legitimacy to the former, by forcing dialogue in the latter. One of the leading authorities of this tendency, Professor Brian Wynne, of the University of Lancaster, has made his assumptions and intentions clear in one of his major essays on the subject, ‘May the sheep safely graze?’. For him, the aim is to explore ‘the democratic possibilities of science and thus of the reconstruction of politics’ (1997: 47, emphasis added). In this essay, I argue that this is an inversion and confusion of that which is truly necessary. We need to restore the centrality of and reinvigorate political debate first, if we are to generate a healthy interest in science. In fact, the ‘democratic possibilities of science’ are pretty close to zero. The sun does not revolve around the earth irrespective of how many people would vote that it appears so to them, and no matter where they were located on the planet, their gender, their ethnicity or how wealthy they were.

Science is an unashamedly elitist activity. But it is an elite that is open to all those with the time, interest, talent and initiative to pursue and develop it. Science is not value-free, but it should strive to become so, rather than seeking to include ‘unheard voices’ into its deliberative processes. Limitations

Public participation in science, as currently pursued and promoted by a variety of organisations and institutions, is problematic for four main reasons;

Demoralising Scientists
First, by demanding the inclusion of so-called ‘lay opinions’, it effectively marginalises actual scientific evidence and thereby leads to the demoralization of scientists themselves. But science is not ‘just another point of view’. It may be culturally situated, but this does not mean that it is only contextually valid.

Notably, Brian Wynne argues, in relation to the perceived need to include ‘local knowledge’ in science, that ‘It is important not to misunderstand this as a claim for intellectual superiority or even equivalence for lay knowledges’ (1997: 74, emphasis added).

So what are we meant to conclude? That we include the public just to confuse matters, or simply to be different? This relativisation and marginalisation of science now occurs at the highest level. For example, the UK government’s own inquiry into the purported adverse health effects of mobile phones, convened under the chairmanship of Sir William Stewart, concluded that in future ‘non-peer reviewed papers and anecdotal evidence should be taken into account’ (Independent Expert Group On Mobile Phones 2000: 102) as part of the process for reaching decisions on these matters.

This effectively fetishises information and opinion over evidence and explanation. It reflects and prioritises a narrow, empirical obsession with the quantity of views expressed over their actual quality. However, emphasising the local over the universal leaves us with no basis upon which to evaluate opinions or to pass judgement as to what really matters.

This approach limits and constrains the dynamism of science, further facilitating the demise in its popularity. Today we see major academic departments having to close as they attract fewer funds and fewer students. It has also led to a form of constant equivocation on the part of those who ought to be making decisions. Many reports into controversial scientific matters today seem to conclude ‘it’s safe, but’. By this means, politicians, regulators and sadly, increasingly some scientists too, try to have it both ways. In effect, on an issue like GM foods for example, they are saying;

We would like to develop GM, for all the possibilities it provides, and in order not to miss out on the potential of this technology. We think, based on all the evidence we have available before us, that there is nothing particularly wrong with it. But as we need to be seen to have consulted widely in order to preserve our fragile democratic mandate, let’s hear what you, the public, have to say. And let’s organise some further trials as if there were a problem, even if no-one will be able to agree upon the results.

This approach led one commentator, responding to the latest report from the Royal Society on GM, to remark that the scientists were no more hesitant than before about GM itself – they had just become more hesitant about saying so (Gilland 2002).

That may be understandable. After all, scientists have been on the receiving end of a lot of adverse publicity over the last decade, ranging over all manner of things from BSE (mad-cow disease), to GM, to mobile phones and more recently, the controversy surrounding the MMR triplevaccine.

However, whilst it may make those who seek to re-invent themselves in such a way, as ‘science in society’ communicators, popular – courted by parliament, research councils, the media and social scientists alike – it is also little more than an act of moral and intellectual cowardice. Rather than saving their image or reputation and somehow restoring public trust, this approach is both symptomatic of and could further entrench the very demoralisation they seek to combat. It may indeed discredit those who engage in such activities and simply bring the individuals concerned, and their once august institutions, into further disrepute.

Patronising the Public
The second major difficulty with calls for public dialogue in science is that they pander to popular prejudice and patronise the public. By having to make science more ‘accessible’ in order to be ‘inclusive’, this ends up by diluting the detail, eroding the evidence and trivialising the theory. This is not access to science but access to science as simplistic morality tales for a nervous society. For instance, much has been made over the recent period of the supposed link between exposure to the sun and skin cancer. We teach our children from an early age, even in the UK where the sun hardly shines, to cover up when they go outside to play, or to put on some increasingly high-factor sun creams. It has been a major public health campaign around the world, so one could assume that it must be true. But in fact the evidence is not clear cut. Most moles are benign, and basal-cell and squamous-cell cancers, that occur on exposed areas and cause concern, can relatively easily be treated. The real killer; malignant melanomas – that people worry about most – commonly occur on unexposed areas of the skin, and have little to do with exposure to sunlight. So we end up exaggerating the risk of treatable conditions and worrying about things we can do little about, all in the name of being more ‘aware’.

A case, amongst many others that could be pointed to, of making ourselves more sorry than safe. Another way by which the public is patronised is the contemporary obsession with having to listen to the ‘voices of victims’ or their relatives. This approach took off in the UK at the time of the inquiry under the auspices of Lord Phillips into the BSE fiasco.

This placed relatives centre stage to discipline the industry and civil servants concerned, a trend that has since continued with the public inquiries into the Alder-Hey Hospital human body-parts ‘scandal’ and the Bristol Hospital child cardiology unit ‘cover-up’.

But why should this be so? Whilst we can all sympathise with, and respect, the loss of the bereaved, whether this be through the incredibly rare variant CJD (the human form of BSE that has killed just under 150 in almost a decade), or some other tragedy, such terrible events provide those involved with no particular or special insight into pathology, healthcare reform or any other area of expertise.

In actual fact, the public are neither particularly insightful in such matters and nor are they particularly stupid. They are quite often ignorant of the facts and usually unmediated in their responses to them, displaying an understandable proclivity to prioritise emotion over reason. We should accordingly neither condemn or dismiss them; nor, however, should we celebrate their views or pander to them. The greatest respect you can pay anyone in any form of debate is to challenge their understanding with a view to transcending it or moving it on.

The Changing Role Of The Public Intellectual
Having said that, mavericks do have a role to play within science. But this is by ruthlessly revealing assumed values and eliminating them, rather than by importing a few more of their own into the debate. Above all else, mavericks need to corroborate their evidence and convince their peers. 11 We should move away from our growing obsession with the impact of science upon society and begin to examine a bit more critically the impact of society upon science. This is especially so in a society that faces no greater difficulties, or complexities, than in the past, but that despite this, has lost its sense of ambition, of the need to develop a broader vision and of the paramount importance of the will to explore and experiment, a society that appears so riddled by self-doubt and cynicism that it has become afraid of taking risks and hence unable to establish trust.

Sadly, unlike in the past, when change largely coincided with periods of social optimism or mass political engagement, what we have today is a fear of change that stems from social pessimism and mass political disengagement. It is this that will need to be addressed if we are to restore the primacy of science. Thus, irrespective of whether we benefit or not from a scientifically more literate public, the more important process of reengaging the public cannot be forced and will need to derive from advocating a broader social vision.

There has never really been what one could call ‘Science Wars’, fought through to a conclusion. There may be no better time to start them than now.