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June 28, 2000


letter to sisters of st joseph


AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

Dear All

I sent this letter to teh sisters of St Joseph through thier coordinator
although whether it will be distributed or not I do not know.

But anyway here it is

Dear Sisters of St Joseph

Your message has come round to me and I suppose I will be one of a number to reply to you. I hope you
are prepared to read this message with an open mind since it is sent to you with concern and openness
back. I have often seen nuclear power and GM technology associated in activist literature; the assumption
is to damage GM technology through guilt by association. The argument is a political device and common
in political campaigns but in looking at it critically I do not think the connection in any way valid. I know
that many scientists supported nuclear technology but try to remember that we elect politicians to take
decisions and as with President Truman the buck should stop there.

Nuclear energy and nuclear power came explosively to the world literally. Nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki were the first contact of most people with the area of scientific activity. They frightened people
at the time and have continued to do so ever since 1945. But what started off as a bomb should have left
no illusions concerning its putative danger when used for more peaceful purposes. Thus when things go
wrong they are unlikely to be small. There are many nuclear power stations around the world and they do
produce energy without carbon dioxide, a global warming gas. And it maybe that global warming will
ensure that we continue to use these sources of power. What the big accidents i.e. Chernobyl and Three
Mile Island have demonstrated so far is that there is nothing wrong with the technology of nuclear power
but only with the unreliability of people who handle it. However I understand that 80% of plane crashes
are due to pilot error; patients die sometimes on operating tables because of medical errors and many
thousands die needlessly on roads because of driver errors. Unreliability of people is a fact of life that all of
us have to live with. Until we produce perfect human beings we will have damaging consequences but few
will want to give up the benefits of technology and we take the risk that goes with it. I know that storage of
spent nuclear fuel is a problem that could be solved if governments really willed it and I have heard of an
imaginative approach that sees discharge of radioactive material into plasma with its consequent
disappearance. That would probably solve the difficulty. Our ultimate human resource is the brain; what
seem difficulties today rapidly change when minds are concentrated on the problem. It is hardly fair to
raise doubts with a new technology simply because there are difficulties with a remotely different one.
Every technology has its good and bad points; its strengths and weaknesses. It is less obvious to me that
human unreliability is a problem with GM technology if only because so many people are involved in
production, testing and examination. There is safety in numbers so that unreliability is dissipated.

GM food and plant biotechnology are biological subjects and as such the only reasonable
comparison is with medicine. Medicine concerns ourselves as human being and the maintenance of human
health just as ingestion of food protects us against all sorts of human disorder. In fact there are many
things in food, which act directly like medicines in certain circumstances. Vitamins for those deficient in
them, protein for children suffering kwashiokor(imbalance of carbohydrate over protein), antioxidants
which may protect against cancer; trace minerals such as iron to treat anaemia and so on. Just as we have
alternative medicine we have alternative i.e. organic food. Farmers treat diseased plants with fungicides
just as we use antibiotics to treat human disease. Just as human medicine will reveal imperfections in what
it sets out to achieve so there will be imperfections in GM technology; it will work well in some
circumstances and not in others. Antibiotics are variable in efficacy in certain circumstances and with
certain patients.
Just as there are specific examinations with antibiotics to determine their putative safety for the
human population so there are specific tests for GM food to determine safety. It is very common for those
that do not know what tests are performed on GM food to assume that none are. Do not fall into that trap.
The best brains in the business have been at work in the last decade to devise tests for GM food because
until 1990 testing of any food was virtually absent. Basically if it poisoned large numbers of people before
1990 you simply withdrew the food from circulation. There is no known testing procedure that can
guarantee the absolute safety of any food for the whole human population. All you can do is demonstrate
that any new food is as safe as its traditional counterpart.
It is quite common for activist groupings to demand clinical testing for food of all sorts. The
reasons why clinical testing fails for food is as follows. Animal studies are commonly used for tests of
pharmaceuticals (antibiotics), food additives and industrial chemicals. In most cases the product under test
is well known, usually pure and of little nutritional value. It is therefore relatively easy to establish a
possible toxic dose from which safety limits for human exposure can easily be derived. Foods however are
complex mixtures of chemicals; a normal meal consists of about a half a million different chemicals, which
vary in nutritional value and in quantitative and qualitative amounts in different foods. Due to the bulk of
food that we eat and their rapid effects on satiating hunger, we can generally only expose animals to very
slightly higher doses of what is normally consumed by ourselves. A further problem is trying to dissociate
one factor in food from all the others that are present. Particularly as these days we eat a very varied diet.
An important factor is the balance of the diet offered to the test animal so that other dietary effects can be
dissociated from the factor we wish to examine. We know that some foods are toxic; nutmeg for example. A
pinch improves flavour of many foods but much more than a pinch and we would be poisoned. Salt is a
pleasant additive for some foods but three tablespoons can kill a young child.
So other methods are used for testing food safety, which rely on demonstrating that any new food
is similar in chemical composition to its traditional version; e.g. that GM soya is similar to ordinary soya.
Ordinary soya is assumed safe by reason of historical consumption. To any human stomach, food is just a
mass of chemicals to be digested. This procedure is called substantial equivalence. And this procedure
can only say that there is reasonable certainty that no harm will come from consumption under the
anticipated conditions of its use. Micro-organisms not chemicals cause disease from food. Establishing
substantial equivalence and other examinations of GM food safety takes in total about four years. Field
trials, disease and pest trials have to be carried out too.
When testing antibiotics there comes a stage when it is appreciated that nothing more can be
done other than to try it on the population at large. The assumption is that benefit ultimately will outweigh
difficulties. Vaccines against whooping cough cause bad reactions in a very small number of children
usually resulting in brain damage. However the benefit to the whole population is considered here. It may
be best to view GM food in the same way although I appreciate that present GM food may provide little
advantage to the consumer.
There is one medical benefit to GM insecticidal corn that should concern Kellogs. Aflotoxin the
most potent human carcinogen known and present in many foods is substantively (30 fold) lower in GM
corn. Contaminating fungi, which enter after insect damage to the cob, produces aflotoxin. Thomas Jukes
estimated some year's back that safe (normal consumption) levels of aflotoxin would cause about one case
of liver cancer/ 100,000 of the population. In the USA that is about 3000 cases/ year and liver cancer
generally kills. Reductions in aflotoxin exposure will reduce premature deaths but the number may not be
large. However aflotoxins are thought to work synergistically with chemicals produced by other
contaminating fungi so the reduction in death may be larger.
However my main reason for writing to you is that attempts to demonise GM technology, made by
people who fear interference with Mother Nature, are having bad effects elsewhere in the world. The
primary beneficiaries of GM advance through public funding of research will not be those in the USA or the
West but those less fortunate than ourselves who live on a dollar a day or less (there are 1.2 billion of
these) and another three billion who live on less than two dollars a day. Food availability and abundance
will in part determine any improvement in their impoverished state. The more there is, the lower the price
and the better fed such people become. I say this to you because there are those who are frenetically
against any new technology, believing it can only cause harm. They agitate without thinking of the effects,
which their agitation brings to those, parts of the world where real future benefit from GM crops lies. I
think that a number of these activists simply do not care.
I have very strong concerns for the future of mankind and the burgeoning population is one that
concerns me greatly because additional people have to be fed. By 2025 we will have an extra 2.3 billion
people on this planet. That is about eight times the population of the USA. Only publicly funded GM
research is likely to produce the necessary crops for the third world and there is precious little in the way of
publicly funded work going on. Activists thoughtlessly attack even that. Will you join with them and deny
others less fortunate than yourselves the means to provide their future daily bread? By raising questions
about GM food in the west we make such people elsewhere uncertain in their reaction to it. You may be
opposed to GM but do you have to broadcast your opposition and thus damage the hope that many others
have for their future. Why not qualify your opposition, if it remains, but be positive in response. It is easy
to say no, I don't want this or that and to wave banners in streets as some do. But being positive is so
much harder. If your particular objection is with Kellogg's why not ask them to donate research funding to
produce a safe cassava free for African farmers. Or an improved yam or methods of dealing with a virus that
is currently trashing the banana crop in Uganda and the East Coast of Africa. Banana is to these people
what wheat is to us. Although it may be the wrong place to introduce it, the book of Genesis does give man
dominion over all the earth to act the good steward and that means acting the good steward for all our
fellow men and women as well. These impoverished people look to us for help and all that is happening at
the moment is that we are telling them that a technology which can undoubtedly help them is under attack
by groups who demonise the technology with rather different agendas, I suspect, to your own.
This letter has got longer than I intended. But my son is named Joseph and I noted the
connection straight away.

Anthony Trewavas
Professor in Plant Biochemistry
On rereading my letter to you I forgot to mention some very
important points. All those that have investigated GM food safety
have concluded that it is as safe as its traditional counterpart.
These supporters of safety include the Head of our Food Standards
Agency in the UK, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World
Health Organisation and the OECD. I have read through the
material supplied by companies to the FDA and I am impressed by
the thoroughness with which the safety has been tackled. I do not
think there could be serious flaws although I regret that a valuable
GM technology which will help solve world food problems has been
commercialised but this is the world in which I live. It is perhaps
easy to say that some scientists supported nuclear energy therefore
to imply that scientific advice might be flawed. But many scientists
have supported medicine, anaesethics, aeroplanes, electricity, plant
breeding, and so many aspects which have enabled us to live a
fuller life enabling the full flowering of the potential in all of us. As I
said in my long letter without perfect human beings there will be no
perfect technology so we must assess benefits and problems and
make a decision accordingly.

Anthony Trewavas FRS
Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology
Mayfield Road
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh EH9 3JH
Phone 44 (0)1316505328
Fax 44 (0)1316505392
email Trewavas@ed.ac.uk
web site http://www.ed.ac.uk/~gidi/main.html
To view the web site simply click on the address