Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on

Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives





July 19, 2011


First Ever Human Trials of GM Plant Drug; More like Greenwar; Giving Lawyers a Bad Name; Beware of Amateur Scientists


Anti-HIV drug made by GM plants begins trials in humans

Greenpeace? More like Green war against the poor

Vandals Attack Transgenic Wheat Test Plot

Destroyed crops posed no risk

Radical Environmentalism: Harming People

The sad, sad demise of Greenpeace

Anti-GM Attacks Destroy German Test Plots

Malawi Should Okay GMO Confined Trials

Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture

"Unnatural" Corn/Canola oil -- Dispatches from Behind the Looking Glass

To abolish hunger and malnutrition, Africa must embrace GM technology

Beware of amateur scientists


Anti-HIV drug made by GM plants begins trials in humans

- Sarah Boseley, the Guardian, July 19, 2011

‘The antiviral was manufactured in GM tobacco with a view to using the same technique to slash the cost of other life-saving drugs in the developing world’

The anti-HIV drug was produced in GM tobacco plants. Photograph: Glenn Allison/Getty
An antiviral drug synthesised by genetically modified plants is being tested on a small number of women in the UK to establish its safety, bringing closer the possibility of cheap modern medicines for the developing world.

The drug's developers hope it can be used to prevent HIV infection, but the real breakthrough is that the research demonstrates it is possible for similar molecules – known as monoclonal antibodies – to be produced relatively cheaply in plants to the high standards needed for their use in humans.

The human trial has been approved by the UK licensing body, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), and is taking place in Guildford at the clinical research centre of the University of Surrey.

Pharma-Planta is a project launched seven years ago with the objective of using GM plants to slash the cost of drugs that are hard to produce. The scientists' aim is to increase the availability of these modern medicines – which are often highly effective – in the poorest countries of the world.

Access to medicines in the developing world is extremely limited. The World Health Organization estimates that 23 million infants worldwide do not get adequate basic immunisation and 1.7 million children under five die from vaccine-preventable diseases.

"The driver was to produce these medicines economically and at a level that would satisfy global demand," said Professor Julian Ma from St George's University, London, who is the joint co-ordinator of the European Union-funded project.

Many medicines are synthesised at great expense in fermentation vats containing bacteria or mammalian cells. By contrast Pharma-Planta produced the anti-HIV monoclonal antibody in GM tobacco plants grown in soil in greenhouses in Germany. After 45 days, they were harvested, their leaves were shredded and "highly purified antibodies" were extracted.

The researchers say there is little risk of such GM plants spreading or contaminating other crops because they are contained and would not be grown on anything like an agricultural scale.

Ma said it was "a red letter day" when they received the go-ahead from the drugs regulator. "The approval from the MHRA for us to proceed with human trials is an acknowledgement that monoclonal antibodies can be made in plants to the same quality as those made using existing conventional production systems. That is something many people did not believe could be achieved," he said.

Eleven healthy women have volunteered to take part in the trial and two of them have been given the antibody so far, with a third woman having been given a placebo. The trial is designed only to demonstrate the safety of the antibody, called P2G12, at different dosages. Much bigger trials in women at risk of contracting HIV would be necessary to test whether it could prevent infection.

If it does prove effective, the drug would probably have to be used in combination with other monoclonal antibodies to minimise the chance that the virus developed resistance, as it easily does to antivirals.

The process is between 10 and 100 times cheaper than conventional production systems, said Professor Rainer Fischer of the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology in Aachen, Germany, where the plants were grown.

The most useful monoclonal antibodies, such as the anti-cancer drug Herceptin, are still covered by patents owned by major pharmaceutical companies, but once these expire the new technique could offer a way to make cheap versions available in poor countries.



Greenpeace? More like Green war against the poor

- Letters, The Canberra Times, July 18, 2011

Does Greenpeace have no boundaries in its crusade against ''genetically modified'' crops?
One can only be sickened by the destruction of the CSIRO's experimental wheat crop last week (''Greenpeace destroys year's work in CSIRO GM crop raid'', July 13, p3). Those self-important fanatics had no sense of reality.

If humans had not genetically modified grasses thousands of years ago, we would have no wheat, oats, barley or corn, and no urban civilisation to support Greenpeace members. I doubt most Greenpeace activists would be accomplished hunter-gatherers.

Genetic modification of crops in the 1960s led to the ''green revolution'', greatly reducing the spectre of famine in the developing world. The CSIRO's crop was designed to increase wheat yield and improve nutritional value.

The scientist in charge of the experiment, Jeremy Burdon, noted the method did not bring any new genes to the wheat, so the technique should have been completely uncontroversial.

Most rational people would believe that such changes are a good thing in a world of food shortages. The activists' negativity is in stark contrast to the positivity of the scientists trying to improve the food supply to the world.

- Dr Neville Exon, Chapman

The ''peace'' part of the word Greenpeace has become an oxymoron. A more appropriate term would be Greenjihad, or maybe Greenwar.

The wanton destruction of a genetically modified wheat crop in the early hours of July 14 after so-called ''protesters'' scaled the fence at the CSIRO's experimental station at Ginninderra is beyond contempt. Terrorists would be proud of such action!

The CSIRO apparently received permission last month to conduct Australia's first trial in which humans could eat GM wheat. According to a recent report, the wheat's genes had been modified to lower the glycaemic index and increase fibre to create a product that would improve bowel health and increase nutritional value.

Destroying years of scientific research is no way of lodging objections or protests. In a world where the production and supply of food in sufficient quantities to meet the needs of a growing population is critical, such protests are reprehensible.

The Greenpeace protesters acted like a bunch of 1930s Nazis burning books during their notorious rallies.

- R.Z. Zenon, Isaacs

Next time any Green politician utters anything about the need to look at science, he or she should be treated with great suspicion in light of Green MLA Shane Rattenbury's approval of the destruction of the CSIRO's genetically modified crops.

The outrage of scientists is entirely justified. The action also exposed the hypocrisy of Greenpeace wanting action on climate change but opposing the potential of biotechnology to mitigate climate change's effects.

For Rattenbury to endorse the raid as a peaceful protest is astonishing. This is the modern era's equivalent of book-burning by the Nazis.

Where does it end? Will they denounce heretics and hold a few show trials? This is dangerous anti-science fanaticism.

- M. Gordon, Flynn

The actions of the Greenpeace activists who trashed an experimental crop can only be described as cowardly vandalism.

I hope they are made to pay for the damage they caused.

Maybe they can do some volunteer work as well: cleaning up the filth in some of the alleyways of the city.

I surely hope that Greenpeace denounces the actions these criminals took, otherwise they will never see a cent of mine again.

- Adam Hamilton, Ngunnawal

I note the photos of the Greenpeace activists destroying the genetically modified wheat crop.

What a pack of hypocrites: how come their whipper snippers are not solar powered?

- Linus Cole, Palmerston


Vandals Attack Transgenic Wheat Test Plot

- Elizabeth Finkel, Science Insider, 15 July 2011


MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—Just after midnight on 14 July, three female activists clad in white HAZMAT suits and wielding motorized grass trimmers broke into an agricultural test plot near the capital, Canberra, operated by CSIRO, Australia's preeminent research organization. They damaged hundreds of genetically modified (GM) wheat plants, brazenly photographing themselves in the act.

Greenpeace later claimed responsibility. In a news release titled "A mum takes action against GM wheat," the organization states that the vandalism "follows the revelation" that CSIRO "is conducting the world's first human feeding trials of GM wheat, without adequate safety testing."

The vandalism caught CSIRO off-guard. "We never expected this type of activity," says CSIRO plant industry chief Jeremy Burdon. "This may have cost us a year of research and several hundred thousand dollars." The activists damaged GM wheat plants that CSIRO has been developing over the past 13 years with the Australian Grains Research and Development Corp. and the French company Limagrain. One variety boosts yields; another more efficiently metabolizes nitrogen; a third triples levels of amylose, a starch that doesn't spike blood sugar levels. "These are all to do with food security, sustainability, and health—all the high-level issues that consumers are concerned about," says Bruce Lee, director of CSIRO Food Futures.

The high amylose wheat has been tested in rats; results from a pig trial in 2010 are being prepared for publication. Two years ago, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator granted CSIRO permission to test the variety in a short-term trial in a small number of volunteers. An ethics committee approved the trial in 2010. If the experiment goes ahead, it would indeed be the world's first human trial of GM wheat, Lee says. However, he notes, "We still have various regulatory hurdles to cross before this wheat would reach the human market."

The vandalism follows an open letter on 27 June to CSIRO Chief Executive Megan Clark, in which eight scientists and doctors criticize the proposed human trial. One signatory, neurobiologist David Schubert of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, is distancing himself from the Greenpeace attack. "The attack is totally unjustified; this is not the way you deal these issues," he told ScienceInsider.


Destroyed crops posed no risk

- Science Network, 19 July 2011

THE Australian Academy of Science has condemned Greenpeace, after activists destroyed a genetically-modified crop trial at the CSIRO in Canberra.

President Professor Suzanne Cory said scientists must be free to carry out their work without personal or professional threats. “The Australian Academy of Science is extremely concerned that this vandalism has destroyed legitimate Australian scientific research,” she said

“Greenpeace, which purports to champion the protection of the environment, has carried out a deliberate act of destruction in a ploy for publicity. “The trial was being carried out in accordance with strict regulations governing work with genetically-modified organisms, as set down by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.

“One of the key conditions is that access to the trial site is restricted to appropriately-trained staff. “The individuals who committed this crime have deliberately breached this fundamental requirement.”

The aim of the trial was to produce grain from genetically-modified wheat and barley plants to establish their potential of improving human health and lowering disease risk. They were modified to raise their content of resistant starch and were to be used in animal, and possibly human, trials.

No new genes were added to the wheat or barley – they had a gene “switched off” to alter the composition of the starch. Three Greenpeace activists, wearing hazard suits, used whipper-snippers to cut down the trial crop before daybreak on July 14 and built a decontamination area to destroy them.


Radical Environmentalism: Harming People

- Wesley J. Smith, July 18, 2011

I think that the once noble environmental movement is going mad. Human hunger is a terrible scourge, and genetically altered wheat and other agricultural products could help substantially alleviate much human misery. But radical environmentalists loathe such experiments and try to stifle them in any way they can–whatever the cost in human suffering.

I don’t mind when they throw legal impediments in the way of such potential progress. Well, I do, but as they say, we still live in free countries (for now). But I do mind when radical environmentalists presume the right to act lawlessly and destroy work by scientists designed to feed a hungry world–such as the crime by Green Peace criminals who destroyed a genetically altered wheat experiment and bragged about it. From the Telegraph story:

ARMED with whipper-snippers and wearing Hazmat protective suits, Greenpeace activists destroyed an experimental crop of genetically modified wheat yesterday. The environmental group claims plans to test feed the GM wheat to humans have been kept secret. It also claims the CSIRO was inappropriately working with multinational companies to promote GM crops. In the pre-dawn raid the protesters scaled the fence at the CSIRO experimental station at Ginninderra, in Canberra’s north, and have claimed they destroyed the entire half-a-hectare crop.

Last month the CSIRO was given government permission to conduct Australia’s first human feeding trials on the wheat. “The wheat has already been fed to mice and pigs and among other things the results of those tests will determine if human trials begin,” he said. The wheat’s genes have been modified to lower the glycemic index and increase fibre to create a product that will improve bowel health and increase nutritional value, he said.

Law enforcement and media treat these crimes as relatively minor. But the cost of such lawlessness could be paid by hungry people in nutritionally deficient areas of the world.

We face a moral crisis in the West of anti humanity and blatant disregard for the rule of law. Radical environmentalists are at the front of the pack.


The sad, sad demise of Greenpeace

- Wilson da Silva, Cosmos, 14 July 2011


GREENPEACE WAS ONCE a friend of science, helping bring attention to important but ignored environmental research. These days, it’s a ratbag rabble of intellectual cowards intent on peddling an agenda, whatever the scientific evidence.

It was once the most active, independent and inspiring civilian group for the environment. Whether riding zodiacs alongside boats carrying barrels of toxic waste to be dumped in the open sea, or campaigning against CFCs and HFCs that were depleting the ozone layer, Greenpeace did admirable work.

But in the last decade or so, Greenpeace abandoned the rigour of science. When the science has been inconvenient, Greenpeace chooses dogma. Which is why it has a zero-tolerance policy on nuclear energy, no matter how imperative the need to remove coal and gas from electricity production. Or why it is adamant organic farming is the only way forward for agriculture, when organic could not feed the world’s population today.

And why, in the early hours of July 14, a group of Greenpeace protesters broke into a CSIRO Plant Industry experimental station at Ginninderra, north of Canberra, and destroyed an entire crop - half a hectare – of genetically modified wheat.

Greenpeace has always been media savvy, but over the past decade this has become an addiction, leading it to launch campaigns that generate lots of publicity, but have doubtful merit: witness its attacks in 2007 on Apple’s iPhone as being toxic and hazardous. It later admitted these had been exaggerated, and that it had targeted the iPhone in order to grab headlines.

The CSIRO break-in was also a stunt, complete with hazmat protection suits and the ever-present video camera to record the action.

No GM wheat has been approved for human consumption in Australia, but the CSIRO did have permission to conduct trials. And what was so ‘toxic’ about this wheat strain it had to be destroyed? Its genes had been modified to lower its glycemic index and boost fibre content, creating bread and other wheat products that would improve bowel health and nutritional value.

Greenpeace has lost its way. Its former glory rested on the righteousness of its actions in support of real evidence of how humanity was failing to care for the environment. Now it is a sad, dogmatic, reactionary phalanx of anti-science zealots who care not for evidence, but for publicity.


Anti-GM Attacks Destroy German Test Plots

- Gretchen Vogel , Science Insider, 15 July 2011

BERLIN—Vandals in Germany have destroyed two experimental sites growing genetically modified (GM) wheat and potatoes. On the night of 9 July, half a dozen masked attackers overpowered the security guard watching over test fields in Gross Lüsewitz, near Rostock. They then destroyed a field of wheat resistant to fungal diseases and a field of potatoes engineered to produce cyanophycin, an amino acid polymer that could potentially be used to make plastics. The fields were part of a trial funded by the German government to develop a more-efficient testing system for gm crops. Two nights later, a dozen attackers threatened guards with pepper spray and bats at a demonstration garden in Üplingen, in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. They destroyed a field of potatoes and trampled wheat and maize. Police estimate the damages from the attacks at more than €250,000. No suspects have been arrested.

Kerstin Schmidt, head of Biovativ, the company that owns the test plots in Gross Lüsewitz, told German media that the company would continue its work. Politicians across the political spectrum have condemned the attacks, but the local Green party in Rostock went ahead with a long-planned anti-GM demonstration at the Gross Lüsewitz test site on Monday. A speaker for the local party said she could "understand but not support" the attacks.

Activists also destroyed a GM wheat plot in Australia yesterday. Meanwhile, researchers at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, U.K., said today that they want to "engage" with protestors who plan to hold a rally at their lab on 23 July. Activists want to dump a trailer load of non-GM potatoes at the lab to protest the development of a blight-resistant potato; the scientists say they want a meaningful debate. "We welcome the opportunity to discuss our work with people who are interested, for whatever reason, in what we are doing," the leader of the potato project, Jonathan Jones, said in a statement today.


Malawi Should Okay GMO Confined Trials

- The Nation, Malawi; DATE: 14.07.2011

Are you a fan of cornflakes such that your breakfast is incomplete without it? Do you enjoy imported biscuits, crackers or pasta? Check the label, your food might be made from genetically modified (GMO) maize in South Africa or America.

While Malawians detest genetically engineered foods, porous borders and poor monitoring mechanisms means they are consuming GMO foods imported into the country without their knowledge. After all, how many of us read the package label of the products we purchase?

So, it seems Malawians are already a GMO food-consuming population. Malawians are crazy about imports, even smuggled tomatoes and eggs from South Africa find a ready market in Blantyre and Lilongwe cities.

That is why, over 30 local crop scientists and plant breeders from Bunda College and some from Chancellor College of the University of Malawi have asked government to allow confined trials for GMOs to start in the country since it has a legal framework that provides necessary safety checks and environment for such trials to take place.

Scientists say biotechnology and GMOs will unlock the country’s potential to produce export quality raw material that will enable the country to create jobs and halve poverty.

As a number of countries continue to produce GMO food, Malawi has ever been supplied with GM maize to address the food shortage in 2001/2002, a situation which created problems since the country had no guidelines on how to handle GMO foods.

Bokosi remembers how a bio-safety bill was quickly put through to Parliament for approval.

“Scientists were summoned to give a recommendation to government, a bio-safety bill was to be drafted and other solutions ranged from total denial to milling maize before distribution and prohibiting use of GM maize for seed,” he recalls.

To avoid a similar scenario in the future, Malawi must act now, Bunda scientists warn.


Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture

- Christie Wilcox |, Scientific America, July 18, 2011


People believe a lot of things that we have little to no evidence for, like that vikings wore horned helmets or that you can see the Great Wall of China from space. One of the things I like to do on my blogs is bust commonly held myths that I think matter. For example, I get really annoyed when I hear someone say sharks don’t get cancer (I’ll save that rant for another day). From now onward, posts that attack conventionally believed untruths will fall under a series I’m going to call “Mythbusting 101.”

Myth #1: Organic Farms Don’t Use Pesticides

What makes organic farming different, then? It’s not the use of pesticides, it’s the origin of the pesticides used. Organic pesticides are those that are derived from natural sources and processed lightly if at all before use. This is different than the current pesticides used by conventional agriculture, which are generally synthetic. It has been assumed for years that pesticides that occur naturally (in certain plants, for example) are somehow better for us and the environment than those that have been created by man. As more research is done into their toxicity, however, this simply isn’t true, either. Many natural pesticides have been found to be potential – or serious – health risks.2
The point I’m driving home here is that just because something is natural doesn’t make it non-toxic or safe. Many bacteria, fungi and plants produce poisons, toxins and chemicals that you definitely wouldn’t want sprayed on your food.

Just last year, nearly half of the pesticides that are currently approved for use by organic farmers in Europe failed to pass the European Union’s safety evaluation that is required by law 5. Among the chemicals failing the test was rotenone, as it had yet to be banned in Europe. Furthermore, just over 1% of organic foodstuffs produced in 2007 and tested by the European Food Safety Authority were found to contain pesticide levels above the legal maximum levels – and these are of pesticides that are not organic 6. Similarly, when Consumer Reports purchased a thousand pounds of tomatoes, peaches, green bell peppers, and apples in five cities and tested them for more than 300 synthetic pesticides, they found traces of them in 25% of the organically-labeled foods, but between all of the organic and non-organic foods tested, only one sample of each exceeded the federal limits8.

Not only are organic pesticides not safe, they might actually be worse than the ones used by the conventional agriculture industry. Canadian scientists pitted ‘reduced-risk’ organic and synthetic pesticides against each other in controlling a problematic pest, the soybean aphid. They found that not only were the synthetic pesticides more effective means of control, the organic pesticides were more ecologically damaging, including causing higher mortality in other, non-target species like the aphid’s predators9. Of course, some organic pesticides may fare better than these ones did in similar head-to-head tests, but studies like this one reveal that the assumption that natural is better for the environment could be very dangerous.

Even if the organic food you’re eating is from a farm which uses little to no pesticides at all, there is another problem: getting rid of pesticides doesn’t mean you’re food that is free from harmful things. Between 1990 and 2001, over 10,000 people fell ill due to foods contaminated with pathogens like E. coli, and many have organic foods to blame. That’s because organic foods tend to have higher levels of potential pathogens. One study, for example, found E. coli in produce from almost 10% of organic farms samples, but only 2% of conventional ones10. The same study also found Salmonella only in samples from organic farms, though at a low prevalence rate. The reason for the higher pathogen prevalence is likely due to the use of manure instead of artificial fertilizers, as many pathogens are spread through fecal contamination. Conventional farms often use manure, too, but they use irradiation and a full array of non-organic anti-microbial agents as well, and without those, organic foods run a higher risk of containing something that will make a person sick.

In the end, it really depends on exactly what methods are used by crop producers. Both organic and conventional farms vary widely in this respect. Some conventional farms use no pesticides. Some organic farms spray their crops twice a month. Of course, some conventional farms spray just as frequently, if not more so, and some organic farms use no pesticides whatsoever. To really know what you’re in for, it’s best if you know your source, and a great way to do that is to buy locally. Talk to the person behind the crop stand, and actually ask them what their methods are if you want to be sure of what you’re eating.

Myth #2: Organic Foods are Healthier

Some people believe that by not using manufactured chemicals or genetically modified organisms, organic farming produces more nutritious food. However, science simply cannot find any evidence that organic foods are in any way healthier than non-organic ones – and scientists have been comparing the two for over 50 years.
Myth #3: Organic Farming Is Better For The Environment

As an ecologist by training, this myth bothers me the most of all three. People seem to believe they’re doing the world a favor by eating organic. The simple fact is that they’re not – at least the issue is not that cut and dry.

Yes, organic farming practices use less synthetic pesticides which have been found to be ecologically damaging. But factory organic farms use their own barrage of chemicals that are still ecologically damaging, and refuse to endorse technologies that might reduce or eliminate the use of these all together. Take, for example, organic farming’s adamant stance against genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

GMOs have the potential to up crop yields, increase nutritious value, and generally improve farming practices while reducing synthetic chemical use – which is exactly what organic farming seeks to do. As we speak, there are sweet potatoes are being engineered to be resistant to a virus that currently decimates the African harvest every year, which could feed millions in some of the poorest nations in the world15. Scientists have created carrots high in calcium to fight osteoperosis, and tomatoes high in antioxidants. Almost as important as what we can put into a plant is what we can take out; potatoes are being modified so that they do not produce high concentrations of toxic glycoalkaloids, and nuts are being engineered to lack the proteins which cause allergic reactions in most people. Perhaps even more amazingly, bananas are being engineered to produce vaccines against hepatitis B, allowing vaccination to occur where its otherwise too expensive or difficult to be administered. The benefits these plants could provide to human beings all over the planet are astronomical.

Yet organic proponents refuse to even give GMOs a chance, even to the point of hypocrisy. For example, organic farmers apply Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin (a small insecticidal protein from soil bacteria) unabashedly across their crops every year, as they have for decades. It’s one of the most widely used organic pesticides by organic farmers. Yet when genetic engineering is used to place the gene encoding the Bt toxin into a plant’s genome, the resulting GM plants are vilified by the very people willing to liberally spray the exact same toxin that the gene encodes for over the exact same species of plant. Ecologically, the GMO is a far better solution, as it reduces the amount of toxin being used and thus leeching into the surrounding landscape and waterways. Other GMOs have similar goals, like making food plants flood-tolerant so occasional flooding can replace herbicide use as a means of killing weeds. If the goal is protect the environment, why not incorporate the newest technologies which help us do so?

Ok, and while I’m adding in notes: stop citing Bedgley et al. 2007 as evidence that organic farming produces equal yields: this study has been shown to be REALLY BADLY flawed, and was generally torn apart (e.g. this response article).


"Unnatural" Corn/Canola oil -- Dispatches from Behind the Looking Glass

- Val Giddings, Innovation Policy Blog,

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." (Rev. Charles Dodgson, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)
Recent news brings one of those items that causes palms to smack foreheads:

"ConAgra Foods is facing two class action lawsuits that claim the marketing of its Wesson cooking oils as “100% natural” and "pure" is misleading because the oil is extracted from plants that have been genetically modified (GM).

"The two lawsuits, one filed in Los Angeles and the other in Brooklyn, seek millions of dollars' worth of refunds for consumers who bought products in ConAgra's Wesson range of cooking oils, as well as a court order preventing the company from labelling the oils as natural. The oils concerned include Wesson-brand corn oil, canola oil, Best Blend and vegetable oil.

"According to the complaint, labelling the oils "100% natural" is misleading because GM plants are "unnatural", as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO says: "Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally."

This is exactly the kind of ridiculous lawsuit that gives lawyers a bad name. Let's jump to the punchlines, with explanations to follow:

1. Newsflash: nothing about agriculture, in any of its forms, is "natural." To apply the term to one form of agriculture and deny it to another is just silly. This dog won't hunt.

2. The "unnatural" genetic modification the suit complains about is directly analogous to processes we find everywhere in nature. Indeed, it was only by studying these natural phenomena that biotechnologists learned how to genetically engineer crops in the first place. To complain that this particular type of genetic modification is "unnatural" and therefore somehow beyond the pale is flatly contradicted by the facts; it is ignorant;

2. Corn and canola are each purely and unambiguously the result of genetic modification by humans (as is every other crop we grow and eat, though most to somewhat lesser degrees). These crops are not found, and never have been, anywhere in the '"natural" world. So for the lawsuit to have any validity at all it would have to complain against any and all oil derived from corn or canola.

Let us consider some facts.

Any way you slice this, you have to shake your head. Let's start with the WHO definition that "Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally." How have the "GM" corn and canola been modified? Each has been improved by the addition of a gene imparting either tolerance to an herbicide or resistance to an insect pest. The most common method of adding these genes is to insert the DNA encoding these traits into the corn or canola genome using one or another of a variety of techniques -- Ti plasmid or ballistic transformation, or something analogous. Are these techniques found in nature? Abundantly.

Ti plasmid mediated transformation is a method that exploits the plant pathogen Agrobacterium tumefasciens. This microbe has the capacity to infect plants and insert its own DNA, co-opting the host plant's cellular machineries to reproduce itself. Biotechnologists have learned how to insert DNA from other species into a plant by studying what they see in nature. Ballistics transformation uses a slightly different mechanism that is very similar to what plant viruses do, injecting their own DNA into a host plant's cells, where it is taken up by the host DNA. Only someone who is profoundly ignorant of what we find everywhere in the natural world could be so arrogant as to call this "unnatural."

But wait -- these corn and canola plants contain DNA from other species -- surely that's unnatural? Look again.

The avalanche of DNA sequence data that has been produced in recent years has been staggering, unprecedented. It is difficult to convey with language just how massively revolutionary the impact of this has been on our understanding of living things, and we've barely scratched the surface. Much understanding remains to be extracted from this mountain, these Himalayas of information. But one thing has quickly become apparent: Genes, DNA sequences, are no respecter of "species boundaries" (exactly what those might be will have to wait for another posting…). There is nothing in any gene or DNA sequence that says "I belong to species X; if found elsewhere please return to rightful owner." Indeed, the vast majority of genes are widely shared throughout related species, genera, and families, and those encoding some of the most basic properties of life are shared between very distantly related species indeed, such as fungi and humans. You can look it up.

In other words, for one species to contain DNA from another is purely natural, if that word has any relationship to what we find in nature. So the lawsuit fails on this count as well.

But there is an even more ironic fact that completely vitiates the legal complaint and should result in summary dismissal, though it would be sweet indeed to put the plaintiff on the witness stand and unleash Darrow for the defence. It would be good to hear them describe exactly what kind of corn or canola they think is "natural".

Fact: neither corn nor canola is ever, nor has ever been, found anywhere but in human dominated environments. This is because both are purely the artefact of human genetic manipulation beginning long before the advent of in vitro recombinant DNA techniques. Corn did not exist until humans in Central America, perhaps 10 millennia ago, began to domesticate a plant that today very few would recognize as being related to corn -- teosinte. Although corn and teosinte look quite different, on the DNA level they are unmistakably similar, the major visual differences resulting from human selection on perhaps as few as five genes. Over thousands of years, saving seed from varieties they favored, our foremothers transformed teosinte into corn without having the faintest idea of what they were doing in genetic terms. But their persistence and diligence produced the wealth of landraces modern corn breeders have built upon to produce the corn on which we rely so heavily today.

Canola is, in one conspicuous way, an even more remarkable story. Although produced over a span of years rather than millennia, and derived from a plant that today is still visually indistinguishable, if one were to cook with oil from the parental plant, Brassica napus, or rape, the difference would quickly become apparent. Rape seed oil is high in a particular lipid compound, erucic acid. It has a bitter and unpalatable taste. Canola was derived from a mutant rape variety in which erucic acid production is dramatically, "unnaturally" reduced, rendering it edible. Developed by Canadian plant breeders, it was named "canola" for "Canadian" and "oil."

What all this means is that if we're going to talk about "natural" with an eye to evoking what we find in nature, then no variety of either corn or canola can properly be called "natural." Each is wholly and purely the product of genetic manipulation by humans regardless of whether they have been touched by in vitro recombinant DNA techniques. In fact, agriculture itself is anything but natural, and everything, without exception, that appears on a dinner plate anywhere in the world has been either willfully or inadvertently genetically modified by humans, some more so than others. Even wild caught fish come from populations that have been selected by human harvest for earlier maturation and smaller size.

What this means is that the term "natural" can't really be applied legitimately to much of any food, whether it's derived through biotechnology or the more primitive, inefficient and obsolete methods certain cults regard as superior.

So what is this lawsuit about? Who is behind it? It doesn't appear to be the usual mischief from professional opposition groups -- this one appears to originate with a classic, parasitical bottom-feeder -- oops, I mean an upstanding firm that specializes in consumer protection lawsuits. Well, it's fate should be determined on the merits, and on the merits, It is without merit; it's just another back alley mugging attempt by predatory thugs; today its ConAgra -- who will they go after next? But this one is so far out there we can only hope it will quickly find the oblivion it so richly deserves.



To abolish hunger and malnutrition, Africa must embrace GM technology

- Mark Lynas, Daily Nation (Kenya), July 14 2011

Once again, drought is menacing the Horn of Africa. Britain’s pledge this week to increase food aid for 1.3 million Ethiopians facing starvation to help them to reach the next harvest can be the only right response.

But how do we ensure that farmers produce enough food to feed themselves?

The solution must be a radical change to agriculture on the continent. It is promising, therefore, that on July 1, the Government of Kenya, a country also affected by drought, announced plans to open its borders to genetically modified crops for the first time.

For more than a decade, Africa, following the lead set by European environmental campaigners, has shuttered its windows against GM, fearing terrible damage to its people’s health and its ecosystems. Instead, as more of the world’s agricultural land — now totalling more than a billion hectares — is successfully given over to GM crops, African rulers are realising that banning biotech was a costly mistake.

As a former anti-GM campaigner, I used to join “decontamination” actions in the middle of the night, trampling and slashing down crop trials in the UK in the late 1990s.

Looking back, I realise I was caught up in something more resembling anti-scientific mass hysteria rather than any rational response to a new technology.

We were concerned, perhaps legitimately, that GM could be dangerous. But in the ensuing 10 years, the science is pretty conclusive: I am not aware of a single substantiated case of GM foods having had any negative effects on health or the environment anywhere in the world. Instead, the impact has been almost entirely positive.

Importantly for Africa, GM crops have substantially increased yields, meaning more food for the hungry and a greater harvest per acre or gallon of water.

Herbicide-tolerant crops have been designed to work with more benign weed-killers than the toxic brew sprayed on conventional crops. Some biotech crops such as insect-resistant “Bt cotton” and corn have anti-pest traits engineered into the plant itself, so they require less insecticide.

The great tragedy of the biotech revolution has been that Africa has missed out, just as it missed out on the original Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s that allowed India and China vastly to increase agricultural productivity and abolish famine while their populations soared.

One of the most pervasive myths about biotech crops is that they are part of a nefarious plot by multinational seed companies such as Monsanto to dominate the world food chain. Actually Indian and Brazilian farmers were initially so desperate to adopt Monsanto’s GM technologies against the wishes of their governments, that they smuggled the new seeds.

Now 90 per cent of the growers of GM crops are small farmers in China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines. African farmers desperately need to raise their productivity, to increase their incomes and to better feed their families.

GM is no silver bullet — affordable fertilisers, land rights and decent irrigation matter greatly — but genetically improved African crops could be vital. All over Africa and Asia, there are publicly-funded efforts to create transgenic varieties of subsistence crops that will be available to poorer farmers and licensed without patent protection.

Current initiatives include salt-tolerant rice for use in degraded land where salinisation has reduced yields, a disease-resistant rice being developed in Uganda, so-called “iron beans” in Rwanda to tackle anaemia, and an African banana resistant to a devastating wilt disease.

We must move beyond anti-GM prejudice based on pastoral myths and increase assistance for biotechnology for African farmers.

To its credit, Oxfam is beginning to recognise the opportunities for what it calls “pro-poor GM organisms” in tackling hunger in Africa. Unfortunately, many environmental groups remain steadfastly opposed to any use of biotechnology.

This kind of neo-Luddism is damaging. With 800 million people still constantly malnourished, we must use every tool available to feed the world while also protecting the planet.

Mr Lynas is the author of The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans (Fourth Estate), to be published this month.


Beware of amateur scientists

- William Reville, Irish Times, July 7, 2011

‘By all means listen, but paying undue attention to amateur opinion hinders progress’

THE MODERN world pays much attention to amateur opinion, and the media give just about equal weight to amateur and expert analysis in an increasing number of areas of significant public interest.

Poorly informed amateur opinion is often sharply at odds with expert analysis on a range of environmental and other scientific issues, sometimes winning the public argument and often causing great delay before the expert analysis is adopted. This occurs on issues such as waste incineration, genetically modified food, nuclear power, immunisation of infants, and many more. I believe that the weight accorded to an argument should be proportional to the expertise behind it.

An example of the conflict between amateur and expert analysis is outlined by Anthony Trewavas, a plant scientist at the University of Edinburgh, in Trends in Biotechnology (2008). Current conventional agriculture can support 1,000 people per square kilometre, compared with one person per square kilometre supported by hunter-gathering. The application of science and technology in agriculture has more than doubled crop yields in the past 50 years in western countries, thereby providing food security. And, in many developing countries, the “green revolution” has saved more than a billion from starvation.

As Trewavas outlines, however, since the 1950s agricultural policy has been increasingly interfered with by unqualified groups, backed by a few scientists marginal to agriculture. These have attempted to change agricultural policy, exaggerating minor problems and encouraging public anxieties about supposed dangers associated with food and, with some success, have opposed the implementation of agricultural research results sought by experts.

Frustration of mainline agricultural science is dangerous. World population will increase by 2.5 billion by 2050, which will require two- or threefold increase in agricultural yields. This can be achieved only by the intense application of science and technology.

Amateur environmentalist analysis of agriculture is deeply flawed. The GM crops condemned by environmentalists facilitate no-till farming, which conserves topsoil and reduces greenhouse- gas emissions by two-thirds. Also, genetic modification of crops facilitating their expression of insecticidal proteins allows a huge reduction in the use of chemical pesticides and leads to the recovery of natural pest predators. Many new GM crops are under development, including drought- and virus- resistant varieties, improved nutritional varieties, crops that produce vaccines, and more. Also, genetic modification disturbs the biochemistry of plants less than conventional plant-breeding methods.

Organic farming is promoted by many environmentalists on the basis that dangerous traces of synthetic pesticides remain on food after conventional farming. But, as Trewavas points out, this is to ignore the fact that higher plants synthesise more than 100,000 natural pesticides in order to kill insect herbivores. Many of these natural pesticides, when tested like synthetic pesticides, are equally toxic. Only 0.1 per cent of the total herbicide we ingest from eating plants is synthetic herbicide.

Widespread amateur campaigning against immunisation with the MMR vaccine on the basis of one flawed 1998 study, subsequently retracted, linking the vaccine to autism and bowel disease, caused a significant reduction in uptake of the vaccine despite strong reassurances from mainline medicine that the vaccine is safe. Reduced uptake of the vaccine caused several outbreaks of measles. The reduced uptake has yet to be fully reversed.

The media has an important responsibility here. When publishing conflicting analyses from amateur and professional sources, the relevant qualifications and experience of both sides should be highlighted. Also, their evidence should be carefully compared. In many cases the amateur “evidence” will contain more than a little intuition, fear, anecdote and ideology, and scientific support is usually limited to one or two scientists peripherally associated with the issue. Often the amateur position will have little support in the mainline peer-reviewed literature.

Amateur bodies must be free to critically interrogate the experts. If genuine questions and doubts surface, they must be dealt with by mainline science. But apart from this, paying undue attention to amateur opinion hinders progress. If I suffer from a heart problem I am quite prepared to listen politely to the opinion of my butcher, but I will make my mind up on the basis of the advice of my cardiologist.