* Coming Soon, the Wheat Revolution
* Scientists: We've Cracked Wheat's Genetic Code
* What Consumers Want: Exclusive Survey Revealed
* Experts Urge Ghanaians to Use and Apply Modern Biotechnology
* Freeman Dyson, A Brilliant Scientist Who is an Unabashed Optimist About Biotech
* Czech White Book
* Black Rice Rivals Pricey Blueberries As Source of Healthful Antioxidants
* Beachy: Next Wave of Biotech - Will the Crest Support the Weight of Success?
Coming Soon, the Wheat Revolution: Scientists DNA Breakthrough Paves the Way for Cheaper Bread
- Paul Bentley, Daily Mail (UK), Aug 27 2010 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/
British scientists have cracked the genetic code for wheat – paving the way for a new breed of crops resistant to disease. The experts will today share the map of the wheat genome online for free, allowing growers around the world to develop super strains of the crop.
The development could also lead to massively increased production – and in turn lower bread prices. But last night there were fears the breakthrough could open the doors to genetically modified 'Frankenstein foods' as scientists will now be able to manipulate the wheat DNA.
The mapped genome will also allow growers to identify weaknesses, filtering out poor quality seeds. It is hoped new breeds of crops will be producing higher wheat yields in as little as five years' time. This could mean a significant reduction in the price of bread and greater food security in the developing world.
It is estimated that world food production will have to increase by 50 per cent over the next 40 years to feed the rising population. Wheat yield is also of particular concern this summer because of the failure of the harvest in Russia.
Professor Neil Hall, a genome scientist at Liverpool University – one of three research centres to carry out the study – said the breakthrough would increase wheat production dramatically. 'A process that now takes five or six years will take one or two years,' he said. 'It is quite possible that in five years' time a loaf of bread will be cheaper because of this.'
Professor Keith Edwards, from Bristol University, said the findings were highly significant. 'In a short space of time we have delivered most of the sequences necessary for plant breeders to identify genetic differences in wheat,' he said.
Over the past decade wheat yields have hit a plateau, failing to keep up with increased demand, largely because of constantly evolving diseases. Professor Hall said: 'It is estimated that in Europe, productivity needs to double to keep pace with demand and to maintain stable prices. 'We need to start breeding new varieties of wheat that will be important in five or ten years' time.'
But Professor Hall warned that 'nature may not be enough' and that 'genetic modification will also be necessary to boost yields'. The decoding of the wheat genome was completed in less than a year by the British scientists.
The research project cost £1.8million and was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
'Sequencing the human genome took 15 years ---but with huge advances in DNA technology, the wheat genome took only a year,' Professor Hall said.
Scientists: We've Cracked Wheat's Genetic Code
- Raphael G. Satter, The Associated Press, August 27, 2010
LONDON — British scientists have decoded the genetic sequence of wheat — one of the world's oldest and most important crops — a development they hope could help the global staple meet the challenges of climate change, disease and population growth.
Wheat is grown across more of the world's farmland than any other cereal, and researchers said Friday they're posting its genetic code to the Internet in the hope that farmers can use it as a tool to improve their harvests. One academic in the field called the discovery "a landmark." "The wheat genome is the holy grail of plant genomes," said Nick Talbot, a professor of biosciences at the University of Exeter who wasn't involved in the research. "It's going to really revolutionize how we breed it."
University of Liverpool scientist Neil Hall, whose team cracked the code, said the information could eventually help farmers better identify genetic variations responsible for disease resistance, drought tolerance and yield. Although the genetic sequence remains a rough draft, and additional strains of wheat need to be analyzed for the work to be truly useful, Hall predicted it wouldn't take long for his work to make an impact in the field. "Hopefully the benefit of this work will come through in the next five years," he said.
Among the potential benefits of tougher strains of wheat: Lower prices for bread and greater food security for the world's poor. Wheat is a relative latecomer to the world of DNA mapping. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the date the human genome was laid bare. Other crops have had their genetic codes unscrambled within the past few years — rice in 2005, corn in 2009, and soybeans earlier this year.
The reason for the delay in analyzing wheat's genetic code, Hall said, was that the code is massive — far larger than corn or rice and five times the length of the one carried by humans. One reason for the outsize genome is that strains such as the Chinese spring wheat analyzed by Hall's team carry six copies of the same gene (most creatures carry two.) Another is that wheat has a tangled ancestry, tracing its descent from three different species of wild grass.
But sequencing techniques have improved dramatically over the past decade, and scientists were able to draw up their draft of the code in about a year.
Although the code may yet see use by genetic engineers hoping to craft artificial strains of wheat, Hall was at pains to stress the conventional applications of his work. Until now, breeders seeking to combine the best traits of two strains of wheat would cross pollinate the pair, grow the hybrid crop and hope for the best.
Although the process has been used by farmers since wheat was first cultivated 10,000 years ago, Talbot described it as laborious and inefficient. "Very often we were talking about 10-15 years of intensive breeding programs," he said. "We're talking now about doing things in less than five."
Talbot noted that rice cultivation had already benefited from the publication of its genetic code — and led to the development of vitamin-enriched and drought-resistant strains. He said that his own field of specialty, the study of the destructive rice blast fungus, had been revolutionized as a result of having the genome sequence.
The cracking of wheat's code comes at a time when prices have shot up in the wake of crop failures in Russia, highlighting how the vagaries of world food production can hit import-dependent countries such as Egypt.
Concerns over climate change, water shortages and population growth have loomed in the background for years. New risks include a mutant form of stem rust. The reddish, wind-borne fungus — known to scientists as Ug99 — has devastated wheat crops in places such as Kenya, where up to 80 percent of the wheat in afflicted farmers' fields have been ruined.
Alexander Evans, an expert in resource scarcity issues at New York University, welcomed the announcement as something that would "very helpful" in getting farmers to grow "food that will meet those challenges."
But, as one British paper hailed the announcement as the most significant breakthrough in wheat farming for 10,000 years, Evans warned against putting too much faith in genetics, saying that reforming the politics and economics of food distribution was easily as important. "We have to be very careful about saying that science will feed the world," he said.
What Consumers Want: Exclusive Survey Revealed
- FBJ Fresh Info (UK), august 27, 2010 Full text at http://www.freshinfo.com/index.php?s=n&ss=fd&sid=52059
In the world of 2010, it is more important than ever to know exactly what shoppers want from the fresh produce aisles. Michael Barker reveals the results of an exclusive consumer survey carried out for FPJ by England Marketing
Consumers can be a tough bunch to please. We hear they want their fruit and veg to be the best quality, available year-round, British but in season, cheap but with growers paid fairly, and ideally produced without any use of pesticides or artificial production methods. In short, they want the impossible.
Today’s supermarket shelves have a range of produce to cater for every whim and wallet size, with a diversity of produce on offer that was unthinkable two decades ago. But the global economic meltdown has made everyone re-evaluate their shopping habits. So what are the real drivers behind consumer buying motivation in 2010? FPJ commissioned England Marketing to carry out an exclusive shopper survey to find out.
The great GM debate
Elsewhere, the issue of the role genetically modified produce could play in the future of food supply is one of the hottest and most emotive topics in the industry. According to the British Retail Consortium, supermarkets are not yet ready to embrace GM as consumers remain far from convinced about the value and safety of food produced in that way. But there are signs that shoppers are not entirely rejecting the subject out of hand.
According to the England Marketing survey, a third of consumers would be somewhat or greatly encouraged to consider GM produce if it was cheaper than conventionally produced alternatives, 42 per cent would be encouraged if it tastes better than conventional, and 44 per cent would back GM if it was better quality than conventional.
Almost half of respondents (45 per cent) said their doubts would be assuaged if it could be proven that GM was safe to eat. Scrase believes it is further evidence that an open debate is needed on the subject. “My personal view is there’s no demand for GM, but there is a mood change,” he says. “People understand a bit more about GM food and the more extreme views are starting to subside. At some point, there needs to be a more mature debate on the advantages and risks. That would be helpful.”
Experts Urge Ghanaians to Use and Apply Modern Biotechnology
- Ghana Web, Aug. 26, http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/artikel.php?ID=189187
Accra,, GNA - Ghanaians have been urged to embrace the use and application of modern biotechnology to effectively solve food insecurity and the likely impact of climate change on farming. Professor Walter Sandow Alhassan, Project Coordinator for Safe Biotechnology Management in Sub-Saharan Africa (SABIMA) under the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), made the call in Accra on Thursday.
He said: "Population pressure and the expansion of arable lands, the need for intensification of agriculture, pollution of ground waters from agro-chemical run-offs, intractable pests and diseases of plants and animals, fossil fuel price increases and climate change induced stresses are some of the imperatives for modern biotechnology engagement."
Professor Alhassan was speaking at a media roundtable discussion on biotechnology and other related issues during the visit of US Biotechnology Expert and Speaker, Gary Blumenthal, to Ghana. Mr. Blumenthal is on a week's visit to Ghana, and would deliver lectures on the merits of agricultural biotechnology and the US, Ghana and international perspectives on biotechnology with Ghanaian experts in tertiary institutions in Kumasi, Cape Coast and Legon, Accra. Prof. Alhassan explained that biotechnology was like any technological application that used biological systems, living organisms to make or modify products.
"Traditional biotechnology has been in use for centuries and involves fermentation used in bread making, kenkey, and alcohol production. Modern biotechnology is based on the developments in cellular and monocular biology that occurred in the second half of the 20th Century ", he added. Prof. Alhassan said Genetically Modified (GM) technology did not only improve crop yield but also ensured insect resistance which made farmers to save substantial amount of money which should have been spent on pesticides, enhanced nutritional values and increase the life shelve of produce.
Globally, 25 countries are using biotechnology with 14 million farmers cultivating 125 million hectares in 2008. In Africa, Burkina Faso is using the GM technology to increase her cotton production from 8,500 hectares in 2008 to 15,000 hectares in 2009, Egypt's maize production has increased by 15 per cent and South Africa is also recording an increase of 17 per cent maize production within the same period. Only South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso can commercialise their GM crops but only South Africa is currently commercialising Bt Maize, Bt cotton and Bt soyabean.
Prof. Alhassan explained that Ghana currently had a Legislative Instrument (LI) approved by Parliament in May 2008, to begin a Confined Field Trials using Bt. Cowpea, Bt. Sweet Potato and Nitrogen Use Efficient Rice. These field trials would be conducted in Savanna Research Institute, Crop Research Institute and Biotechnology and Nuclear Agricultural Research Institute at the University of Ghana. Ghana's Biosafety Bill, which is currently before Parliament, when passed, would specify the framework and level of genetically modification to be conducted on specific crops yet to be identified. It would also help prevent abuse of the GM technology, which ensures rapid growth, high-yielding of crops and enhances nutritional values.
He said Ghana's immediate neighbours; Togo, Burkina Faso and Nigeria had promulgated their Biosafety Law allowing for field trials of the GM technology adding, "it is just appropriate for Ghana to pass the bill because such produce from neighbouring countries would find their way into the country". Prof. Alhassan said after 14 years of commercial use of GM crops, "no scientifically proved health risk has been confirmed, nevertheless, there is the need to exercise caution in the use of the technology, Biosafety legislation at varying degrees of stringency in place to guide the use of GMOs".
He said though Parliament was yet to pass the bill, Ghanaian farmer-based organisations had been clamouring for the GM technology to enable them improve their production in order not to be outdone by their Togolese, Nigerians and Burkinabe counterparts who would flood the local markets with such products. Prof. Alhassan said some GM products had arrived in the country adding that it was not true that such products were unsafe for human health and questioned: if they were unsafe, would people not develop some side-effects?
He called on government to speed up with the passage of the bill to allow Ghanaian farmers to use the GM technology and enhance production which would ensure food security and contribute immensely towards attainment of the Millennium Development Goals. Mr. Blumenthal said Ghana had capable scientists who could work on the application of the GM technology if the bill was passed and allayed fears of sceptics who held the view that GM products were unsafe to reconsider their position. He said the country should embrace the modern biotechnology and incorporate it into her newly launched National Science and Technology Policy to ensure overall development.
Freeman Dyson, A Brilliant Scientist Who is an Unabashed Optimist About Biotechnology Research - Part II
- GLloyd Rowsey, Op Ed News, August 27, 2010 http://www.opednews.com/articles/1/Freeman-Dyson-A-Brilliant-by-GLloyd-Rowsey-100827-171.html
Freeman Dyson is the British mathematical physicist who famously drove cross-country from New York to California with Richard Feynman in the late 1950's and helped him work out the mathematics enabling him to formalize the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, for which Feynman shared the Nobel Prize with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger in 1965.
This article is in two parts. To read the first part, click here. Both parts are based on Dyson's most recent popular book, A Many-Colored Glass. And both parts quote extensively from the book, published by the University of Virginia Press, copyright 2007. The title of the book is taken from two lines in the poem "Adonais" by Percy Bysshe Shelly: Life, like a dome of many-colored glass, Stains the white radiance of eternity.
The subject of the book, broadly, is conveyed by its subtitle: "Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe." The second Chapter of the book is titled, "A Debate with Bill Joy," and except for some very small ("nano") changes, it follows in its entirety.
"Invitation to the Magic Mountain
Biotechnology is likely to be the main driving force of change in human affairs for the next hundred years. I am an unashamed optimist, and I see the promise of good arising from biotechnology greatly outweighing the dangers of evil. But I am well aware that everyone does not agree with me about this. I try to keep the discussion balanced, with the pessimists having their say. The subject of this chapter is a debate between Bill Joy and me. Bill Joy is a thoughtful entrepreneur who made a fortune in the computer industry and is now arguing that people like himself are too dangerous to be allowed. He makes a strong case for restraint of new technologies, and I try to refute him. Whether you agree with him or with me, I hope you will find our debate illuminating.
In 2001, I was invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Most of the people there are captains of industry, presidents of foundations, or government officials. But in 2001 they decided to invite a few scientists and writers and artists to give the meeting a bit of an intellectual tone, and I was one of the lucky ones. I was particularly lucky to be invited in 2001 and not 2002, because the 2002 meeting was held in New York, and Davos is much more fun than New York. Davos is the Magic Mountain that Thomas Mann wrote about in his famous novel. In the novel, the characters are patients in a tuberculosis sanatorium, who sit up there on the mountain and talk about the state of their souls. That happened almost a hundred years ago, before the First World War. The joke is that almost nothing has changed. The sanatorium is still there, and my wife's nephew works there happily as a physician. He can go skiing every day after he is done with the patients. The patients are still there. They still talk about the state of their souls. The only thing that has changed is the disease. The fashionable disease for patients who can afford to stay at the sanatorium is not tuberculosis but asthma. Asthma has the advantage of being incurable, so the patients keep coming back.
For the week of the meeting, Davos is full of celebrities. It is a name-dropper's paradise. At lunch we talked with Ian Wilmut, the man who cloned Dolly. At dinner we talked with Reinhold Messner, the man who climbed Everest solo without oxygen and is now a member of the European Parliament. We did not talk with Bill Gates or Yasir Arafat or President Mbeki of South Africa, but we saw them and heard them speak".The entertainment that I was asked to provide was a public debate with Bill Joy, founder and chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, a large and successful computer company, on the question, Is our technology out of control? Bill was taking an extreme position on the yes side, and I was invited to take an extreme position on the no side, to make the debate interesting. Luckily I have reliable documentation of the debate to supplement my unreliable memory".
In addition to our debate, there was another debate at Davos, on the subject of genetically modified (GM) food that raised many of the same issues. I was a listener and not a speaker at the GM food debate, and I found it very illuminating. It was a debate between Europe and Africa. The Europeans oppose GM food with religious zeal. They say it is destroying the balance of nature, with unacceptable risks to human health and natural ecology. They talked a great deal about the rule called the Precautionary Principle. The Precautionary Principle says that if some course of action carries even a remote chance of irreparable damage to the ecology, then you shouldn't do it, no matter how great the possible advantages of the action may be. You are not allowed to balance costs against benefits when deciding what to do. The Precautionary Principle gives the Europeans a firm philosophical basis for saying no to GM food.
In response, the Africans said that the Precautionary Principle can just as easily be used as a philosophical basis for saying yes. The growing population and general impoverishment of Africa are already causing irreparable damage to the ecology, and saying no to GM food will only make the irreparable damage worse. The European pretense of allowing no risk of irreparable damage makes no sense in the real world. In the real world there are risks of irreparable damage no matter what you do. There is no escape from balancing one risk against another. The Africans need GM crops to survive. In most of Africa, soils are poor, droughts are devastating, and many crops are lost to disease and pests. GM crops can make the difference between starvation and surviving for subsistence farmers, between prosperity and ruin for cash farmers. Africans need to sell products to Europe. The European ban on GM food protects European farmers and hurts the Africans. As the Africans see it, the European ban on GM food is motivated more by economic advantage than by philosophical purity".
Read on at http://www.opednews.com/articles/1/Freeman-Dyson-A-Brilliant-by-GLloyd-Rowsey-100827-171.html
Czech White Book
Dear Dr Prakash: we are very pleased that you included the White Book in the Updated
AgBiotech Bookshelf, however we are not able to open the address
Nevertheless, White Book can be downloaded at
as well as the video prepared 10 years ago, but still up-to-date as it represents a discussion with Greenpeace and their slogans remained unchanged.
The video is at
With best wishes
Jaroslav Drobník; email@example.com
Black Rice Rivals Pricey Blueberries As Source of Healthful Antioxidants
Black rice, a heritage variety of the grain that feeds one-third of Earth's population, is an inexpensive source of healthful antioxidants. Credit: Anna Frodesiak
Health conscious consumers who hesitate at the price of fresh blueberries and blackberries, fruits renowned for high levels of healthful antioxidants, now have an economical alternative, scientists reported today at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). It is black rice, one variety of which got the moniker "Forbidden Rice" in ancient China because nobles commandeered every grain for themselves and forbade the common people from eating it.
"Just a spoonful of black rice bran contains more health promoting anthocyanin antioxidants than are found in a spoonful of blueberries, but with less sugar and more fiber and vitamin E antioxidants," said Zhimin Xu, Associate Professor at the Department of Food Science at Louisiana State University Agricultural Center in Baton Rouge, La., who reported on the research. "If berries are used to boost health, why not black rice and black rice bran? Especially, black rice bran would be a unique and economical material to increase consumption of health promoting antioxidants."
Like fruits, "black rice" is rich in anthocyanin antioxidants, substances that show promise for fighting heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. Food manufacturers could potentially use black rice bran or the bran extracts to boost the health value of breakfast cereals, beverages, cakes, cookies, and other foods, Xu and colleagues suggested.
The Next Wave of Biotechnology: Will the Crest Support the Weight of Success?
- Dr. Roger Beachy, NIFA Director and USDA Chief Scientist; ASPB Annual Meeting 2010; August 4, 2010; Montreal, Canada. Full talk at http://www.csrees.usda.gov/about/speeches/10_beachy_aspb.html
Thank you very much, Dr. Ho, for the gracious introduction. It is an honor for me to be here today – to meet friends, former colleagues, and people that I have admired for many years.
I can’t tell you how very much it means to me, as a scientist, to have spent some time here with ASPB colleagues, sharing some of the excitement and passion that drives us as scientists, and the commitment to making lives better for people around the world through the work that we do. I wish time would have permitted me to be here for a longer period.
I haven’t been in Washington all that long, but I can tell you that it’s sometimes hard to keep this passion, this drive, foremost in my mind when my days are filled with meetings and my email is filled with the many details of running a Federal agency. Science has always offered me the opportunity to step back from considering other challenges that came with the roles in which I’ve found myself: providing a change of focus from policy and financial decisions to the hard core intrigue of how molecules function to effect phenotype and adaptation to environment, and trying to use that knowledge to improve agriculture and ultimately the lives of those that science must serve.
The capability to make the leap from science to policy has never been more important to me or to the job that the President has asked me to do as Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. It is clear to even the most casual observer of science that we are, as a recent editorial in the journal BioScience notes, in the Age of Biology. Biotechnology, genomics, nanotechnology, data and knowledge management, and much more: clearly, we are riding the crest of a profound era of science that is characterized by understanding the basic mechanisms of life, of natural systems, and the profound consequences of human endeavor in those systems. And when you’re on the crest of the wave in your science it can be a real head rush, one that takes you beyond the needs of the world’s peoples to the ethereal desire for knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I urge you to look into the reasons for the research that you do and find the time, make the effort, to either use the knowledge, or pass the knowledge to others, to address the needs of society.
Many of you here have made a point of reminding me of the importance of fundamental discovery to agriculture: You can be assured that I am well aware that this is the case. My own research career has included highly fundamental research as well as biotechnology. Nevertheless, as a small agency, one that currently has little flexibility in its budget, NIFA must make its choices of how much support will be devoted to discovery, or foundational, research and how much on projects that embrace basic and translational research, education and extension outreach to agricultural communities. I will continue to request your input as we prioritize the many possible areas on which to focus, so that in the end we can achieve measurable outcomes for American and global agriculture in the short to mid-term, while we also support research that ensures the success of American agriculture into the future. That too, can take you to the crest of knowledge that satisfies the desire to serve society.
When one is on the crest of a wave in the sea, or riding the powder of the mountains, you often don’t see the rocks and sea churn, or the bumps and cliffs that lie beneath. And believe me, there is turmoil, there are reefs, and there are rocks underneath the crest of this “Next Wave of Biotechnology” that we are experiencing. The churn involves both how science will be done, and how the products of the knowledge that might be delivered through biotechnology will be regulated, distributed, controlled.
As many of us know, the first exciting wave of biotechnology – that which promised us disease and pest resistant crops, abundant foods with fewer chemical inputs and better environmental stewardship – slowed to a crawl as the realities of product development and a regulatory burden made it difficult for those of us in academic science and in the private sector to deliver on the promises of the science of the early ‘80s and through the end of the century.
In the current decade we are coming to grips with the reality that science must focus on solving the ‘grand societal challenges’ – however you define them, that we face as a global society. Simultaneously we recognize that the contexts of contemporary biology are completely changing the way we do science. As the recent NAS report on “A New Biology for the 21st Century” points out, science will be increasingly interdisciplinary and team-driven rather than individual-investigator driven. Moreover, the work we do in biology will be increasingly cross-sector: Federal, state, university, corporate, non-profit, wherever the appropriate synergies exist.
This is sort of churn and turmoil that I referred to earlier. As we at NIFA have been working to re-orient the competitive grants programs around these new ways of doing business, we’ve run straight into the blunt reality that some of the things that wish to accomplish do not fit well with our current way of funding science or the expectations of the research community. Our research in the past has been heavily investigator focused – we changed that in 2010 and asked for more interdisciplinary teams to address larger challenges. Going forward, we will establish a 30/70 split in our funding, with 30 percent being traditional principal investigator grants and 70 percent devoted to team efforts. I’ll say more about what those teams need to include in a moment.
This change in how research will be done may have profound implications for the way universities reward success, establish salaries, and grant tenure. Typically, tenure does not recognize the tremendously valuable contributions of team members, junior or senior. It usually recognizes principal investigators, and independence of thought. In many of our colleges and universities tenure tends to reward research discovery and innovation in the lab more than applied research, education, and extension activities. We have to find a way to ensure that teamwork is rewarded in the tenure process.
And we need to recognize – here in this room, in our grant writing and proposal preparation, and in our tenure processes -- ALL of the teamwork that goes into the larger cross disciplinary grants. Research at USDA and in agriculture in general is a continuum from foundational, basic research at the lab bench; to applied research in the field and greenhouse; to translational research that explains to farmers, foresters, and others what our research means for them; and educational work to ensure that our research findings are available to the next generation of scientists, and that they inform the national conversations about science. These concerns have also played a role in some of the changes that are taking place at the NIH and to a lesser degree at the NSF. Outcomes, in this case the linking of discovery science to people’s lives, do make a difference: the American people, including Congress, expects outcomes.
The successful teams that we are looking to support at NIFA will have strong components ACROSS the spectrum of research and education. They will conduct the best science possible, hand it off to other team members for further development and field work, and will involve extension and research communicators in getting the research findings into the hands of the production communities, and the public: Policymakers and decision leaders will learn of the goals of our projects and the outcomes that they bring.
This last point is a very important one – we need to have our research inform the conversations that take place in our state and federal legislative chambers, in community groups, in advocacy organizations, and in the media. One of the rocks lurking under the crest of our “next wave” is public adoption of the new products being developed through biotechnology.
As a scientist in the U.S. Administration, I am very comfortable in my knowledge that science can and does form the foundation for this Administration’s policies and programs. But we live in a democracy, and the ground rules in a democracy dictate that public policy is decided by the public writ widely. Science in the U.S. is a social enterprise, and the decisions about what technologies are appropriate and acceptable are societal, not purely scientific decisions. These decisions about science are influenced by many factors beyond research, and the relationship between science and the public can be a tense one – especially as viewed through the lens of the media! And media receives its inputs from many disparate sources and fuels the flames of discord, purposefully or naively.
Society will always have other factors to consider when looking at new scientific findings. Religion, politics, education, and a multitude of other things influence the public. We do not live in a vacuum; we cannot remove these outside influences.
But we can help the public understand the role of research in their lives without asking them to cede the decision making about what they find acceptable to scientists alone. I learned this in spades recently from a USDA Facebook article on research that was funded by NIFA.
Researchers at Purdue University recently reported on the use of genes from yeast to elucidate an important pathway involving degradation of tissues in tomato fruit with a goal to extend their shelf life. Researchers have for more than 20 years been working on this problem and we have yet to bring a long-shelf-life tomato improved through genetic engineering to broad cultivation. The study from Purdue University, conducted by Avtar Handa and colleagues, was an interesting and neat little research finding that we were proud to feature on the USDA Facebook page. This is not the first work by Dr. Handa on this topic – but is a notable advance nonetheless.
This story caused an online uproar. Many complained that the best tomatoes are out of their garden and not genetically engineered. Others expressed fears that the yeast genes would provoke their yeast allergies. Most of the comments were more generic about how scientists should stop “messing with” our vegetables. Needless to say, most of the commentators, and the general public, didn’t understand that the tomato cultivars in their backyards already are a product of plant breeding – whether it was done in a lab or by selecting varieties over years or decades to produce desired traits.
Underlying this unfamiliarity with the science, I believe, was the unfounded fear that we were about to take away the public’s right to decide whether or not to eat transgenic tomatoes created using the yeast genes: longer shelf life was, to them, not the issue. It is not an uncommon fear that underpins much of the contentious public discussion of the crops that are developed by modern plant biotechnology.
In fact, this research illustrated a very important fact– and one that I pointed out in my own posting to Facebook – yes, I (or rather, someone on my behalf) actually posted a comment! The basic research reported in the article used a yeast gene to elucidate the pathway of ripening and softening; and the investigators could use the discovery to rapidly develop a new product. The public can and will decide whether or not to support a rapid development program to produce long-lasting tomatoes via a transgenic approach OR be content to take a much longer, more expensive conventional breeding approach to select for longer-lasting tomatoes that express a cognate gene that provides a similar phenotype. Time to product is an advantage of genetic engineering.
The fundamental science that NIFA funded in this example is agnostic concerning the eventual societal decision about the technology used to create a long shelf-life tomato.
In this session you will hear about progress on projects that target development of foods and crops with traits that could not be developed through classical or advanced breeding approaches. Many projects conducted by these and other colleagues are predicted to have significant positive impacts on human health and well being, on the environment, on energy independence, or other benefits. Market analyses may even validate the scientist’s claims. These new traits, too, are the subject of suspicion for a vocal segment of our society and will by their voice, or by the current regulatory frameworks that determine if and when new products will be approved, delay the approval and distribution under current regulatory frameworks.
In the end, the decision is still made by the public – and the marketplace. And that is where it should stay – this is not a decision that can or should be made at the lab bench.
Certainly there have been notable success, and more are en route to your local market: However, except for unique examples, namely virus resistant papaya and virus resistant plum, products have been developed and delivered ONLY by successful private sector companies. The lack of public involvement in using genetic engineering or advanced breeding tools to develop new products is a change from the history of agriculture, and is of concern to many in this room. This concern is being heard in the USDA, at the highest levels, and encouraging discussions are in progress.
For more than 20 years we in the academic science community and in the private sector have struggled with how to deal with the lack of acceptance of agriculture biotechnology, and the challenge of bringing new biotech products to market. I don’t have a magic bullet or key to break the lock that confines the technology. One thing is clear: We need to take the mystique out of science, especially biotechnology, and allow the public to see our research for what it is – solid, unbiased, and safe. How do we bring scientific research back into the societal conversation where it belongs? We as scientists must forge a relationship with the public. Often suggested, poorly implemented, however. As scientists we have the unique opportunity to explain complex research and inform – not co-opt – the conversation.
Some of you are involved in the dialogue: I urge you to remain involved. I suspect, however, that until or unless there are mechanisms to bring the products of your discovery through the approval process and to the public, your voice, your enthusiasm may be muted. I hope that you will look beyond self-interest, beyond the current difficulties and delays in product approval, and continue to be a voice for science – outside of the lab, in the public venues. Our discussions must not be about us, about how great is our science. It is about them, those that we would serve, their environment, their hopes.
If we don’t, the next time the crest of the wave or the new snows, nanotechnology, or third generation biofuels, or other technology bring us down, it will assuredly be on a rock or into a tree.
This administration, including the leadership of the USDA, knows the importance of science in innovation and moving from innovation to entrepreneurship and economic growth. This extends to the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management of Budget. There is a great deal of discussion underway about how to energize and facilitate investments that lead to rural prosperity – much of this will come through agriculture, and green innovation. Many of you in this room can contribute to this goal – I hope you will choose to do so. My pledge is that NIFA and other parts of the USDA will be important players/supporters of the process to achieve the goal.
Thank you for your attention and I look forward to speaking with many of you in the year ahead.