* Unprincipled 'Precaution'
* Is it Proper for China to Grow GM Rice Now? - Evidence Versus Raw Emotion
* Gene Splice Helps Fight Crop Disease, Say Researchers
* Stalling Bt Brinjal Will Hamper Technology Transfer, says Dr P Balasubramanian
* Mutual Respect in the GM Crop Debate
* Scientist Should Not be Blamed for GM Crops
* BT Democratised? Nopes -- it Has Been ‘Mobocratised’
* Half-baked Statistics Don’t Tell the True Story
* Why is Shiva so Virulently Anti-science?
* Govt of India invites suggestions on GM Crops - Prospects and Effects
* One-year Master Fellowships in GM Crop Risk Assessment
* Gene Flow Between Crops and their Wild Relatives
* Food Security Expo 2010 - Kuwait
* ABIC 2010: Bridging Biology and Business
* Audio of NPR Science Friday Debate: GM Crops
- Julian Morris, Wall Street Journal (Asia), March 15, 2010 http://online.wsj.com/
'India is only the latest country to retard technological progress in the name of safety.'
When India's environment minister banned a new strain of eggplant recently, he justified it by referring to the "precautionary principle," a policy makers' tool intended to protect against catastrophe. The European Union has long based regulatory decisions on this principle, and it has led to all manner of arbitrary and economically damaging decisions. India, with its high rates of poverty and malnutrition, cannot afford to make the same mistake.
Greenpeace defines the precautionary principle thus: "Do not admit a substance unless you have proof that it will do no harm to the environment." This is like demanding that a child prove there are no fairies in the garden before being allowed to play in it. While sometimes precaution is necessary in introducing a new product to the market, the precautionary principle can effectively ban all new products, because it is impossible to prove a negative.
So for practical purposes, weaker versions of the precautionary principle have been developed, such as this one from the United Nations' Ministerial Declaration of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit: "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." Translation: If the opponents of a technology are louder and more politically savvy than the proponents, then ban it and cite the precautionary principle as justification, regardless of the plausibility of the threats posed by the technology—or its benefits.
It is this weaker precautionary principle to which Indian Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh alluded when announcing a temporary moratorium on the commercialization of Bt brinjal, a genetically modified eggplant, last month. "Public sentiment is negative. It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary, principle-based approach," he stated.
But this approach to policy making, long adopted by the EU, is fundamentally flawed. In the 1980s, for instance, the EU banned the use of animal growth-promoting hormones—a decision that went directly against the advice of an expert committee the EU itself had established. The EU then extended the ban to imports of beef, incurring the ire of various trading partners. In a World Trade Organization case subsequently filed by the United States and Canada, the EU sought to use the "precautionary principle" as justification for the ban, but this argument was rejected by the WTO. Nevertheless, the ban remains in force.
The EU and NGOs have sought to widen the sphere of influence of the precautionary principle, pushing for its inclusion in many international agreements, from the Rio Declaration to the Biosafety Protocol, an international agreement that regulates trade in genetically modified crops and other organisms. As a result, governments that have ratified all or some of these agreements—including Australia, China, India, Indonesia, New Zealand and Pakistan—have begun to introduce the precautionary principle domestically. The consequences are only now beginning to materialize, as with the Bt brinjal decision.
Meanwhile, EU application of the precautionary principle continues to have adverse impacts, both domestically and internationally. Last January, Brussels announced new, "precautionary" pesticide regulations. Previously, the regulations were based on the amount that would be used, recognizing that chemicals toxic at high doses may be harmless or beneficial at low doses. The new regulations ban pesticides that are toxic at high doses, even if they are only used in extremely low doses. By that logic even water and oxygen would be banned if they were classified as pesticides. The regulation is likely to impede the development and use of beneficial new pesticides. And it will likely limit the use of some existing pesticides for disease control in poor countries—resulting in many unnecessary deaths from malaria and other insect-borne diseases.
What drove these decisions? Part of it is simple bureaucratic self-interest: Bureaucrats are rarely credited for allowing beneficial technologies but often blamed for permitting harmful ones. When activists loudly oppose a technology, the blame-avoiding bureaucrat opts for a ban, even if it means a highly beneficial and essentially harmless new technology remains unavailable. The precautionary principle frees regulators from making decisions based on science and enables them to make the decisions that are in their own best interests.
Recently, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has sought to make decision-making on contentious issues more science-based. Among other things, he switched responsibility for approving genetically modified crops from the Directorate General for the Environment, which funds antitechnology nongovernmental organizations and has long opposed such crops, to the Directorate General for Health, which has a more neutral record. Perhaps this is also blame avoidance: In the context of stagnating European economies, he does not want to be blamed for preventing new productivity-enhancing technologies from being adopted. Whatever the reason, it appears to be having a beneficial effect. Last month, DG Health approved commercial production of a genetically modified variety of potato that will be used to produce industrial-grade starch.
But India is going in the opposite direction, as exemplified by the Bt brinjal decision. In India, as in Europe, a small but politically savvy band of opponents has generated widespread attention for a range of more or less specious concerns regarding the impact that genetically modified crops might have on health, farmers, the environment and India's cultural heritage. In the face of such an effective campaign, it is not surprising that Mr. Ramesh imposed a moratorium. But it is nevertheless bad news for the vast majority of Indians, especially the poor.
Decisions about the use of a technology should be based on clear, simple and abstract rules. The precautionary principle is the opposite: It encourages the imposition of arbitrary and capricious restrictions on beneficial technologies. It's time to end this unprincipled "precaution."
Mr. Morris is executive director of International Policy Network, a London-based think-tank, and a visiting professor at the University of Buckingham.
Is it Proper for China to Grow GM Rice Now? - Evidence Versus Raw Emotion
- Robert Paarlberg, China Daily, March 15, 2010 http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/
China's Biosafety Committee in the Ministry of Agriculture has granted safety certificates for the domestic production of two kinds of rice genetically engineered to resist pests. China already allows the production of pest-resistant genetically engineered cotton, but the latest move toward approving a major genetically engineered food crop is stirring controversy.
Political misgivings about genetically engineered foods first emerged in Europe when the first shipments of genetically engineered soybeans reached there from the United States in 1996. At that exact moment, Europe was in the grips of a major food safety scare over an unrelated problem known as "mad cow disease", undercutting consumer confidence in the European regulators who had said the soybeans were safe to eat.
Fifteen years have now passed and there is still no documented evidence of any new harm from genetically engineered food, but European activist groups (led by Greenpeace International, from Amsterdam) continue to campaign against the technology, including now in China.
What these activists do not admit is that Europe's top scientists have long since found today's genetically engineered foods to be just as safe as conventional foods. This is also the official position of the International Council for Science (ICSU), Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, World Health Organization and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.
It is revealing that while Europeans generally do not like the use of genetic engineering in agriculture, they have no objection to its use in medicine. They don't like genetic engineering in food because they are already well fed (indeed, overfed) without the technology. It is Europe's lack of a need for this technology, not the presence of any new risk, which has been behind the protests.
China should make a decision on this technology based on the needs of its farmers and consumers. Critics wrongly assert that genetically engineered crops are more likely than conventional crops to result in pesticide-resistant insects or invasive super-weeds, an assertion rejected authoritatively by the ICSU.
A second favorite charge is that pollen from genetically engineered crops will kill butterfly larvae, even though studies conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency found this risk to be "negligible" under actual field conditions. Another bogus yet widely circulated charge is that genetically modified organism (GMO) crops contain "terminator genes", which render the seeds sterile, a ridiculous assertion given that the technology was originally spread to Brazil and India by individual farmers who freely replicated and replanted the seeds.
It has been asserted that GMO crops are so prone to failure that they have driven small cotton farmers deep into debt. This is a laughable charge in China, where small farmers have been planting these new varieties with nothing but commercial success since 1997 .
Activists have also raised a number of bogus food safety concerns about genetically engineered crops. Without any supporting experimental evidence activists try to argue that eating GMO foods will transfer antibiotic resistance genes into the human body. They now point to a study done in Austria in 2008 purporting to find lower reproduction rates among mice that had been fed with genetically engineered corn, even though the Scientific Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms of the European Union reviewed the study and found multiple errors which nullified the conclusions.
Gene Splice Helps Fight Crop Disease, Say Researchers
- Agence France Presse March 14, 2010 http://www.france24.com
Paris - Biologists on Sunday said they had found a potential superweapon in a long-running arms race with bacteria that threaten essential crops.
Tested in a lab, their technique entails inserting a gene kit into a plant so that its immune system recognises and fights germ invaders, they reported in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
Bacteria cause huge losses to crops each year. Farmers usually tackle the foe by dousing their fields with chemicals, but these are expensive and can damage soil biodiversity.
Another way is to shore up the plant's defences by a gene introduced through cross-breeding with a hardier strain. Yet this technique is rarely able to give a plant resistance against a wide range of germs -- and in any case a bacterium may swiftly evolve to sneak around the new defence.
Phytobiologists led by Cyril Zipfel at the Sainsbury Laboratory at Norwich, eastern England, took a novel tack. They delved into plants' innate defence system, hunting for watchdog genes able to spot a pattern of telltale proteins exuded by a microbial invader. Like bones and skin in humans, these proteins are essential for the bacteria's core functions and so are less likely to mutate, for to do so could harm the pathogen's survival.
The watchdog genes govern so-called pattern recognition receptors, or PRRs. PRRs were first discovered 15 years ago, although only a few have been discovered to date, and much is unclear. It was known that a PRR can spot essential proteins from quite a wide a range of bacteria. But it was uncertain whether the defence is unique to a given family of plants or can be transferred to another.
Exploring this avenue, Zipfel's team took a PRR that was specific to the Brassica family -- the plant group that includes mustard, Brussels sprouts and cabbage -- and slotted it into two plants from the Solanaceae family, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines (US: eggplants), tobacco and other valuable crops.
By having the PRR added to their arsenal, the Solanaceae plants showed "drastically enhanced" resistance to many different bacteria, including Ralstonia solanacearum, a major cause of crop wilt. "The strength of this resistance is because it has come from a different plant family, which the pathogen has not had any chance to adapt to," Zipfel said in a press release.
Stalling Bt Brinjal Will Hamper Technology Transfer, says Dr P Balasubramanian
- Rahul Koul, Biospectrum (India), March 12, 2010
Bangalore - Dr P Balasubramanian, the former director of Center for Plant Molecular Biology and the person behind the developemnt of Bt brinjal development at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Coimbatore, India, was highly critical of the anti-GM lobby and the withhelding of Bt brinjal atleast for two years. In an interview with Biospectrum, he shares his views on issues surrounding Bt brinjal.
1. What is the need for developing Bt brinjal?
When a housewife goes to the market to fetch a few brinjal fruits, she gets those brinjal that have aptly been described by Prof. G Padmanaban, the former director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India, as 'pesticide bullets'. In fact, the rotund fruits from Tamil Nadu region and those oblong ones from Bangladesh need to be called 'pesticide cannon balls', as the brinjal crop receives not less than 50-60 sprays in the crop period of 150-180 days; almost once in three days; the day the crop does not get a spray is when the produce goes to the market; the waiting period between the spray and the spoon is only a few hours.
Under these circumstances, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) joined hands with the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad and Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Varanasi, sought for financial support from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII) to address this important problem which affects the wellness of the society as a whole. We came out with 16 open-pollinated Bt brinjal varieties (OPVs) most of which underwent biosafety trials as per extant laws of the country along with those Bt brinjal hybrids developed by Mahyco. The major difference between Mahyco's hybrids and that of the public institutions is that the farmers retain their rights to save their Bt brinjal OPV seeds for the next sowing season.
The Indian brinjal farmer is largely unlettered and he decides to take up a number of sprays not only on the basis of economic thresholds as recommended by the university but as decided by the pesticide dealer. So, this is more a social problem and practical solution lies in a strategical change to protect the brinjal crop from the pest. Genetically modified technology makes it possible to protect brinjal crop from the pest effectively and saves a lot of money on pesticide sprays yet assures the consumer a healthy brinjal produce.
2. What are your views on the consultations held by Environment & Forest Ministry on Bt brinjal?
Consultations invariably were stormed by the anti-GM lobby comprising the hate group organizations and there are very few people who were neutral, leave alone the fact almost no scientists including me were coming forward to speak for Bt brinjal (in fact, I was invited by the Environment Minister, Mr Jairam Ramesh to speak on the technology. It was really surprising that an octogenarian scientist who has co-authored a book on biotechnology of horticultural crops came forward to speak against Bt brinjal in the consultation at Kolkata.
Most State Agricultural Universities where the consultations were conducted remained silent onlookers to the onslaught of this innocent technology by the anti-GM lobby. As Dr Norman Borlaug the Father of Global Green Revolution puts it, 'The scientists have done a poor job of explaining the complexities of their science to the general public''.
During all the consultations queries on environmental and health safety issues were raised and discussed apparently to assuage the pesticide industry. There had not been any genuine environmental or health hazards (certainly inclusive of the alleged death of sheep as was reported in Warangal district by an NGO) under field conditions.
3. What are your views on Bt brinjal clearnace earlier by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) and the latest moratorium issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry?
The moratorium imposed on Bt brinjal development and release would largely affect the smooth process of technology transfer to the needy farmers and consumers as well. As one who attended most consultations of the minister, I feel the real brinjal farmers were not consulted at all as they did not care to be at the venue. The so-called farmers who made their presence felt at the consultations were alter egos of the anti-GM activists and the minister also appeared to be aware of this fact.
I could figure out that the activists aimed only at stalling the whole process by raising slogans like 'whose genotypes are these?' and 'conduct long-term biosafety tests'; conveniently forgetting the fact that whatever the process in question was as per extant laws of the land.
Mutual Respect in the GM Crop Debate
- T. V. Padma, March 12, 2010 http://www.scidev.net
'Indian biotechnologists need to engage GM critics with respect and honesty to win public support.'
Indian biotechnologists are embroiled in a fierce controversy over their government's decision to postpone planting of genetically modified (GM) brinjal (aubergine) — and about a proposed law that could see people who criticise GM products without sufficient scientific proof being fined, or even jailed.
These seemingly conflicting actions both highlight how scientists are failing to communicate with critics, and how confrontation can rapidly escalate into an unproductive 'war of words'. The biotechnologists could learn much from colleagues in the climate change community, particularly when it comes to tackling critics and diffusing conflict.
Climatologists have recently learnt the hard way that they must address criticism head on, accepting and rectifying any major mistakes and deficiencies. Above all, they must now treat opponents with respect.
Rather than turn a deaf ear to criticism, scientists should engage in dialogue, seeking to convince opponents of the robustness of their case with transparency, sound data and a willingness to consider proposals for improvement. After all, scientists in India belong to a democracy, which means that they must find ways of reaching a workable compromise for controversial issues, while accepting that achieving consensus may be impossible.
Over the past month (February), India has seen a moratorium on cultivating its first GM food crop (Bt brinjal) — but also a draft biotech regulatory bill that includes a silencing clause for critics and a generous rise in public funds for biotechnology research (see India says no — for now — to first GM vegetable and Furore over silencing clause in Indian biotech bill).
Why did Bt brinjal — developed by Maharashtra Hybrids Seeds Company (Mahyco), in which the US giant Monsanto has a 26 per cent stake — get put on hold? After all, it was approved for cultivation by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests in October 2009.
But, given the broader implications for India's general policy on GM food crops, the environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, opened the issue up in a series of public consultations. These uncovered criticism from some top scientists and opposition from civil society organisations and several brinjal-growing state governments — including those already growing Bt cotton. So Ramesh froze action on Bt brinjal.
Only at this stage did biotech supporters enter the fray, denouncing the decision as a triumph of politics over science. Several prominent politicians came forward to defend Bt brinjal, including science minister Prithviraj Chavan and former science minister Kapil Sibal. India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was left to reconcile the warring factions, but gave government backing to a two year moratorium.
Would better communication by scientists have led to a different result? Three key issues seem to have been lost in the heated public debate following Singh's decision.
First is the image problem facing GM crops in India. Many Indian farmers and civil society organisations identify GM crops with large corporations such as Monsanto — responsible for bringing Bt cotton to the country — and hybrid seeds that need to be bought each year.
This is a far cry from traditional farmer extension systems, run by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which distributes seeds for free. And while ICAR may be accused of ineptness, it is not suspected of favouring commercial interests.
Second, are regulation and labelling issues. Months before Bt cotton was approved for cultivation, there were reports of some Indian seed companies illegally selling Bt cotton seeds, as well as contaminating natural cotton seeds with Bt cotton.
How can poor and often illiterate small-scale farmers know about, or understand, the complexities of such contamination? And where vegetables and fruit are often sold from carts, how can the government ensure proper labelling? Sensitive and sensible communication about the merits of GM crops and the benefits of regulation and labelling are critical to gaining public support.
An open society
And finally, there is openness. When Ramesh declared the moratorium, he overturned the ruling of GEAC, a key advisory committee of his own ministry, arguing that it had ignored requirements for public consultation before the release of GM crops (as embedded, for example, in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety).
Ramesh's action may not win supporters among biotechnologists, but the moratorium reflects a long-standing problem about the transparency of the approval process that scientists must address to inspire public confidence (see also Indian GM research 'lacks focus and transparency').
GM supporters argue that public consultations mean little when the public is misinformed by 'shrill' civil society organisations. But the answer is not to turn a deaf and uncomprehending ear to critics.
Meanwhile the draft bill that invokes fines or imprisonment for criticising biotechnology products without 'evidence' will do little to allay concern about the high-handedness of scientists — quite the opposite in fact. But it does highlight the responsibility of scientists to provide accurate information in a way that the public understands. They must become more effective and imaginative to get public opinion on their side.
Dissent and criticism can be bitter pills to swallow. But if dissenters are shown respect and understanding, scientists can keep public support behind them.
Scientist Should Not be Blamed for GM Crops
- Prof. Sullia, Deccan Herlad (letters), March 15, 2010 http://www.deccanherald.com/
Vandana Shiva in her article ‘Democratic choice’ (DH, March 11, 2010) spews venom and biotechnology and ‘the so called biotechnologists’. She lauds Dr. Pushpa Bhargava, but calls other biotechnologists as ‘technicians’ without any vision. According to her it is unsafe to entrust ‘risk assessment’ with such obtuse people. A refrigerator maker cannot be aware of its risks, a car maker cannot be aware of the risks of driving a car, and likewise a biotechnologist cannot have any idea of the risks of his product. She says biotechnology is as ‘primitive biology’ though many consider it as modern biology. ‘Epigenetic’ according to her is the new approach required. Also, she mentions that a GM (genetically modified) crop, contains virus genes, i.e., genes of a parasite.
A car maker is the best person to know the risks of a car, as he has studied all aspects of his product, before launching it. Likewise, a responsible biotechnologist can understand the potential risks, if any, of his product. Biotechnology is an interdisciplinary subject that includes biology, biochemistry, molecular biology, botany, zoology, genetics and all aspects of modern biology including epigenetic. Biotechnologists are not naive to think that gene expression is not influenced by extraneous factors. However, when things work in the predicted way under different environmental conditions, it is clear that things are under control.
Biotechnologists are also not foolish to think that an organism is a combination of different parts, like a machine, and parts can be changed at will. To make a gene express in a different organism, in a regulated manner, was not easy. Scores of Nobel laureates (including our own Hargobind Khorana) have worked in understanding the nature of genetic code and gene expression. To say that a gene can behave in 30,000 different ways due to extraneous factors, is just statistics of permutation and combination, and is meant to create fear psychosis.
Some of the virus gene sequences put in GM crops are not the sequences coding for the actual virus, but are pieces of DNA which act as promoters, having no ability to produce the actual virus or part of it. There is no record of a virus infection due to the insertion of a promoter.
Under the above circumstances, ‘public hearings’ are not the solution to risk assessment. In addition, scientists should be not blamed for commercial aspects such as marketing of GM products.
Prof. S.B. SULLIA, Bangalore University, Bangalore
BT Democratised? Nopes -- it Has Been ‘Mobocratised’
- Shanthu Shantharam, Asian Age, March 15, 2010 http://www.asianage.com/
The fate of the first genetically engineered food crop in the country, Bt brinjal, has come down a cropper. Minister Jairam Ramesh played into the hands of the shouting brigades of the anti-GM lobby who created ruckus wherever he went to consult.
Although the minister says that this decision pertains only to Bt brinjal, little does he realise the firmament of the anti-GM lobby. No matter how many more tests or how long it is tested, the anti-GM lobby will never accept any of them. The only thing they will accept is total ban on GM crops.
“Democratising Biotechnology” is the term that the University of Sussex’s Institute of Developmental Studies introduced into the vocabulary of anti-GM activists. In reality, what is happening is “mobocratisation of biotechnology”.
Admittedly, the minister assumes full responsibility for the final decision. He seems to have not consulted anybody within his staff nor did he consult anybody within government or other branches of the government that has jurisdiction over the subject.
The deal decisive factor must have been the words of Drs. MS Swaminathan and Pushpa Bhargava, in whom the minister found all wisdom. As to why Drs. G. Padmanabhan and Deepak Pental, and the opinions of the majority of scientists and scientific bodies of the world did not prevail denies logic and reasoning in this sordid drama.
The proper thing to do was to go back to his statutory committee, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), to seek their responses on what he had gathered from all his consultations. By not consulting the GEAC, he has undermined its credibility in one stroke. For this reason alone, members of GEAC should resign forthwith in protest fort this high handedness.
The often-repeated concern is that no long-term study has been done to determine effect of Bt brinjal on human health. It begs the question, how long is long enough? If you ask the antis’, they will say test for next 50 or longer. There are no rules or code of conduct for conducting human feeding trials in India, and any long-term tests with volunteers will be confounded by unmitigated extraneous factors rendering the entire test meaningless.
The international standards set by CODEX alimentarius has clearly recommended the principles of “substantial equivalence” and “Generally Regarded As Safe (GGRAS)” to decide on the human safety of any foods, and those have been satisfied with Bt brinjal.
There can be post-market monitoring for recall in case of any unforeseen problems. The antis’ do not buy this, as their trick is very simple. Tie up the technology product in testing into the oblivion, and force the developer to quit in frustration.
Regarding the question of Bt brinjal obliterating native species and land races of brinjal, no one has explained how this might happen because it is a scientific nonsense. The only reason why native species and land races go out of cultivation is because farmers, when they discover something better, improved and more beneficial, stop growing inferior varieties.
The history of modern agriculture is replete with hundreds and thousands of such examples. That is progress. Nobody will abandon a useful and beneficial variety. That does not mean such varieties vanish from the planet. There is a concerted, multi-million dollar germplasm collection effort to gather and preserve all old varieties and land races for posterity and research. It is criminal to force poor farmers to cling on to useless varieties to satisfy the whims and fancies of some urban NGOs.
It is strange for Jairam Ramesh to suggest that there is no hurry for Bt brinjal. Little does he realise that Indian agriculture needs a boost in hurry. Repeatedly, everyone including the Prime Minister, bemoans the low contribution of agriculture to India’s GDP, and wants everything done to boost its productivity. It is a bogey of the anti-GM lobby to keep harping that Indian farmers will become slaves to MNCs for seeds and inputs, if they adopt biotech crops.
This is a paternalistic attitude of die-hard leftists and socialists of the country. Our farmers are now slaves to a corrupt and inefficient seed system. Our farmers have been going back willingly to buy hybrid seeds year after year from the seed companies for the past 40 years because of its good quality and better yields.
Without a doubt, Jairam Ramesh has set the country’s science and agriculture backwards by decades. He lone must be held accountable for the consequences.
Dr. Shanthu Shantaram is a former GM crops regulator at USDA; he taught agbiotech policy at Princeton University.
Half-baked Statistics Don’t Tell the True Story
- Elton Robinson, South East Farm Press, March 15, 2010 http://southeastfarmpress.com/
When surveys don’t give you the overwhelming result you’re looking for, there’s only one thing left to do — cook the numbers. This was the tactic employed by the Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, after it conducted a poll recently on genetically engineered crops.
The CU was miffed by a USDA draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on GE alfalfa which in the CU’s words, “indicated that consumers and organic farmers don’t care if their organic food is GE contaminated.” The CU created a poll to refute USDA’s EIS findings, but unfortunately for them, the results fell short of expectations. So apparently they turned the numbers over to the shrewdest and most ruthless manipulator of data they could find — their marketing department.
Consequently, on March 2, the poll results were released with a headline that blared, “Two-thirds of organic food consumers concerned with genetically-engineered contamination.” Michael Hansen, senior scientist with the CU, declared that the CU poll contradicted USDA’s position, and showed that “consumers care greatly,” about potential GE contamination.
The CU news release went on to say, “Given the popularity of alfalfa sprouts among health-oriented eaters, Consumers Union urges USDA to consider the overwhelming consumer concern before deciding to allow GE alfalfa on the market.”
Closer examination reveals trickery afoot. To its credit, the CU provided this link to the survey results, http://greenerchoices.org/pdf/OrganicFood Poll_Public Release_Feb 2010.pdf, perhaps hoping that few people would actually take a peek inside. I did, and discovered I could use the exact same numbers to arrive at a completely different conclusion.
I began with an assertion in the CU news release that “58 percent of all respondents were extremely concerned, very concerned or somewhat concerned with GE contamination.”
I found that in actuality, only 24 percent of all respondents were in the very concerned and extremely concerned categories, while 34 percent said they were only somewhat concerned. A whopping 41 percent claimed they were not concerned at all. To me, being somewhat concerned is a whole lot closer to being not concerned than it is to being very concerned or extremely concerned. In fact, if I tell a pollster I’m somewhat concerned, I might be saying I don’t much care at all. So my personal take would be that 75 percent were not very concerned or not concerned at all about GE contamination.
As to the CU’s claim that two-thirds of organic consumers were concerned about GE contamination, again it’s a matter of how you crunch the numbers. A surprising 33 percent of those who buy organic products were not concerned about GE contamination and 35 percent were only somewhat concerned. My conclusion therefore would be that 68 percent of organic consumers had very little or no concern about GE contamination.
So there you have it, two steaming plates of statistics, each half-baked to suit the taste du jour — with alfalfa sprouts on the side.
Why is Shiva so Virulently Anti-science?
- Siddhartha Shome
Dear Prof. Prakash, Thank you so much for the compliments and for forwarding my pieces on the AgBioView newsletter. I just got back from a week-long vacation today to find a number of emails from AgBioView readers complimenting me on my articles. I must also take this opportunity to thank you for the AgBioView newsletter. I have learned a lot from it.
In general, I find that professional scientists tend to stay aloof from public debates, expecting that the science will prevail. While this is understandable, unfortunately this leaves today's popular media open for manipulation by scare tactics and rumor mongering. It is highly commendable that you have chosen to go beyond scientific journals and other scientific communication, and participate directly in the public debate.
Among my own circle of friends, colleagues, etc., who are mostly from non-biotech backgrounds, I find that many have heard only one side of the GMO debate - the rumors, the scare stories, etc., because that is what is prevalent in the popular media. But when I explain the facts and give proper reasoning, I am able to change quite a few minds. I hope that more scientists like yourself will participate in the public debate in the popular media.
I also hope that more scientists and technologists will be willing to go beyond their own areas of specialization and speak up on this issue because the debate is not simply about agricultural biotech but has wider ramifications for all scientists and technologists. According to prominent anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva, "science is a source of violence against nature and women because it subjugates and dispossesses them of their full productivity, power, and potential".
Why is Shiva so virulently anti-science? Apparently because science relies solely on reason and evidence and rejects alternative theories about natural phenomena such as astrology-based theories, black-magic-based theories, etc. Not all anti-biotech activists are as virulently anti-science as Shiva, but there is an increasing tendency among certain people nowadays to reject the scientific method, i.e., the reason and evidence based approach towards human knowledge and understanding. The hysteria about vaccines causing autism and the denial by certain people in South Africa that AIDS is caused by a viral infection are examples of this phenomenon.
It is important that all scientists and others who respect the reason-and-evidence based approach to knowledge make their voices heard. Today the target of activists like Vandana Shive is agricultural biotech. Tomorrow other technologies or scientific theories may be under attack simply because certain people find them to be aesthetically unattractive.
Govt of India, Committee on Agriculture invite suggestions on the subject "Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops - Prospects and Effects"
Comments should be sent to within three weeks.
The Departmentally Related Standing Committee on Agriculture under the Chairmanship of Shri Basudeb Acharia, MP has selected the subject "Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops - Prospects and Effects" for examination during the year 2009-10.
The Committee invites written memoranda containing suggestions/views/comments of individuals/institutions/organizations interested in the subject matter selected by the Committee for examination.
All those who are interested in submitting written memoranda may send two copies thereof, either in English or Hindi, to DIRECTOR (A&O), LOK SABHA SECRETARIAT, ROOM NO. 163, PARLIAMENT HOUSE ANNEXE, NEW DELHI-110001, TELE NO. 23034247/23035509, FAX NO. 23794113, e.MAIL within three weeks from the date of publication of this advertisement. Those who wish to appear before the Committee, besides submitting memoranda, are requested to specifically indicate so. However, the Committee's decision in this regard shall be final.
The memoranda submitted to the Committee would form part of the records of the Committee and would be treated as strictly 'Confidential' and not circulated to anyone, as such an act would constitute a breach of privilege of the Committee.
Parliament of India, Lok Sabha Secretariat New Delhi- Phalguna 18, 1931/March 09, 2010
Five Fully-Funded One-year Master Fellowships in GM Crop Risk Assessment
As part of its capacity building project for sub-saharan Africa, the ICGEB is providing five fully funded fellowships for a 1 year course on the risk assessment of GM crops at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, Aberystwyth University, UK. The course is designed to provide students with an understanding of the principles of risk assessment.
The International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) is an international, intergovernmental organisation conceived as a centre of excellence for research and training in genetic engineering and biotechnology with special regard to the needs of the developing world, and implements a comprehensive programme on biosafety centred on capacity building and dissemination of scientific information. The ICGEB is currently offering five biosafety fellowships in the framework of a capacity building initiative focused on sub-Saharan Africa.
The prime objective of this initiative is to strengthen the ability of developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa to fully integrate into the worldwide effort to assure full and balanced consideration of biosafety issues in pursuing the appropriate uses of modern biotechnology in agriculture. A key activity is the provision of support to local and regional regulatory systems overseeing the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and as such, the ICGEB is offering five fully-funded fellowships for a one-year MSc course “Managing the Environment” (specifically the Risk Assessment of GM Crops pathway) at the world renowned Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, Aberystwyth University, UK (http://www.aber.ac.uk/en/ibers/) commencing on 27 Sept 2010.
Gene Flow Between Crops and their Wild Relatives
- New Book by Meike S. Andersson and M. Carmen de Vicente, Johns Hopkins University Press; Funded by GTZ and collaboration with CIAT and Universidad del Valle (Cali, Colombia) http://www.bioversityinternational.org/scientific_information/themes/conservation_and_use/gene_flow_project.html
The centres of origin and diversity of many crop species are located in developing countries. Many of these areas are not only under the pressure of environmental threats, but they are also affected by agriculture, and in particular by the way it is practiced.
Modern agriculture has made great strides to improve productivity, but is dependent on massive use of agricultural inputs, creating environmental problems. Biotech tools and genetically engineered crops are seen as possible solutions to overcome production constraints faced by many poor farmers, while at the same time overcoming environmental problems reducing the use of inputs. However, there are concerns about the likelihood for geneflow from GM varieties to wild populations, especially in centres of origin and diversity of crop plants.
The objective of this project was to provide support tools to assist in making well-informed decisions about the ecological implications of releasing GM crops in or around areas with concentrated crop diversity.
It focused on one particular concern that is of utmost importance in this respect: The likelihood of gene flow and introgression to crop wild relatives (CWR) and other domesticated species.
The goal was to provide objective information to guide basic and scientifically sound decision-making by taking into account the facts that gene flow and introgression exist, and that the preservation of crop genetic resources in their habitat is a requisite for the sustainable development of modern crops.
Specifically, the project produced the following three outputs:
* A book “Gene Flow Between Crops and Their Wild Relatives”, published by Johns Hopkins;
* World Maps of Crop Wild Relatives (CWR) and Gene Introgression;
* A Database of Gene Flow Bibliography.
The work summarizes both state-of-the-art knowledge and research gaps related to gene flow and introgression between crops and their wild relatives.
The information is based on a comprehensive review of the relevant scientific and technical literature. It emphasizes gene transfer from GM crops to wild species, rather than between different cultivars (i.e., from GM to conventional varieties) of the same crop.
The 20 crop chapters are divided into the following sections:
* General biological information (crop's scientific name, its center(s) of origin and diversity, flowering, pollen dispersal and longevity, sexual and vegetative reproduction, seed dispersal and dormancy, the existence and persistence of volunteers and feral plants, and the existence of weeds and their invasiveness potential);
* Presentation of the most important CWR (information about their ploidy levels, diverse genomes, centers of origin, and geographic distribution);
* Assessment of the crop's potential for hybridization with its wild relatives (relevant studies and literature);
* Pollen flow studies related to pollen dispersal distances and hybridization rates (and recommended separation distances);
* Overview summarizing the state of development of GM technology (global GM crop area, GM traits currently researched for the crop, and countries where GM varieties are grown commercially or in field trials).
Food Security Expo 2010
- Kuwait, April 11-12, 2010 http://www.warahglobal.com/food/about_conf.html
The Idea of Food Security Conference & Exhibition is generated to be a meeting for the public and private sectors and those who search for agricultural investment opportunities to identify the current conditions and anticipate the future capabilities in view of the set plans, the bodies executing them, the time period and the allocated budgets.
The Food Security Expo 2010 will be held under the Auspices of H.E. The Public Work and Municipality Minister Dr. Fadhel Safar, with Master Food Solution as the Main Sponsor.
It will also highlight modern technologies that can be implemented in the State of Kuwait to boost the Food and Agricultural Sector.
ABIC 2010: Bridging Biology and Business
- September 12 - 15, 2010, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada http://www.abic.ca/abic2010/
The Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC) inspires and encourages the research, development and commercialization of new biotechnologies to improve human health, create a sustainable food supply and foster new energy sources for all nations, including the developing world. Delegates come to network, learn and discuss issues of relevance, particularly for agricultural biotech policy and research enterprises for the good of the whole planet. The theme of ABIC 2010 is Bridging Biology and Business, with three streams: Energy, Health and Sustainability.
The two key drivers of present day agricultural innovations are IT and Biotechnology. Since their parallel rapid evolution in the last century, they have transformed the science underpinning the agricultural biotechnology sector which has resulted in unprecedented social impact. As with all tools, full potential is realized through human initiative. Concerted development of this agricultural economy can create a platform for increased global health and provide a legacy for future generations.
ABIC is an essential annual event for industry leaders, policy makers, scientists, researchers and other professionals working in the area of agricultural biotechnology. ABIC provides a unique forum where the latest scientific advances in agricultural biotechnology are presented, and where future directions of the technology are highlighted and discussed.
Audio of NPR Science Friday Debate: GM Crops
- Listen http://podcastdownload.npr.org/anon.npr-podcasts/podcast/510221/124638721/npr_124638721.mp3?_kip_ipx=2133041830-1268681069
Glenn Stone, Washington University; David Fischhoff , Monsanto; Richard Sayre, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center ; Doug Gurian-Sherman, Union of Concerned Scientists