This a response to Angela Ryan's paper that was sent out on the network. I
was interested in this because I have some expertise in the area of
prokaryotic genome plasticity. I am confused. The paper is fine as far as
it goes. It is true that genomes are very plastic, especially in microbes
that have such short generation times in comparison to humans, animals and
plants. But what does this have to do with GM manipulation of plants?
She frames the question as: "How may GM effect the molecular systems that
perform natural genetic engineering events?"
It seems to me that this is the wrong way to ask the question. A better
formulation, in my opinion, is how does GM done by molecular biologists
affect the molecular systems that perform genetic engineering events in
ways that differ from the effects of natural crosses, especially wide
crosses? In wide crosses, large sets of genes from different genetic
backgrounds are combined in a single host. Given Ms. Ryan's list of all
that can happen in natural genetic adaptation events, wouldn't you expect
that such an uncontrolled mixture of genes be likely to have a much more
deleterious effect than simply inserting a few known genes. In fact, over
evolution, plant and animal cells have even thrown in some bacterial
genes, in the form of mitochondrial genes that have "migrated" to the
nucleus. And then there are chloroplasts, chock full of bacterial genes
from a group of bacteria (cyanobacteria) that are known to produce
substances toxic to humans. The mind boggles.
Probably the fact that genetic chaos did not break out - or maybe it did
and it was beneficial - is due to the fact that natural selection rapidly
sorts out the undesirable traits. Just as plant breeders discard any cross
that is genetically unstable, so natural selective pressures ensure
certain limits on genetic variation. The human genome is littered with
what appear to be retroviruses, dormant one hopes. Yet we muddle along
Also, what about the plant viruses and bacterial pathogens that assault
plants. Viral genomes enter plant cells all the time. Wouldn't they be
more likely to have an effect on genome variation than an insecticidal
toxin gene? We know of at least one case in which a bacterium injects DNA
into plants (Agrobacterium tumifaciens), and even makes localized plant
tumors because the injected DNA carries genes encoding plant hormones. Yet
the plants seem healthy enough. Growers are concerned mainly with the
cosmetic effect of the crown gall tumors, whose appearance might put off
I thought it was interesting that the one genetic change, a deletion, that
was mentioned as having an effect on human health, a deletion in a gene
that has been associated with breast cancer, had an adverse effect. What
about the deletions that make some lucky humans genetically impervious to
HIV infection? Or the point mutation in a hemoglobin gene, which if in
single copy confers partial resistance to malaria. My point is that many
genetic alterations are beneficial. In fact, scientists are beginning to
suspect that just as the mutant sickle cell trait is beneficial in single
copy, but gives you sickle cell disease if you pick up two copies (a much
rarer event), many of the mutations associated with what we have called
genetic diseases are actually beneficial if the person has only one copy.
Genome plasticity is good. It's the reason we have humans and plants
today. It's the reason we have an effective immune system.
What I find most distressing about the GM-obsessives is the extent to
which they are diverting attention from real, important public health
problems. Such as: Where is the vaccine against malaria or tuberculosis?
How can we improve plant productivity in such a way as to make farmers in
the developing world self-sufficient and healthy? Even the recently raised
debate about whether to bring back samples from Mars - in which there
might be some dangerous pathogen that would ravage the earth - seems more
relevant to me as a potentially real danger.
Sub: Re: Angela Ryan's Response
This all gets worse and worse.
Reading this reply (or attempting to cut through it) brings to mind
nothing more than Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky...... and what connection it
has to the question is completely beyond me.
I am astounded that such rubbish emanates from the Open University....
NFHS Member #5594
============================================================ Edward C.
("Paddy") APLING BSc, CChem, MChemA, FRSC, FIFST, MRSH Professional
Member, American Association of Cereal Chemists Professional Member,
Institute of Food Technologists (USA) Member, Society of Chemical
Industry. Lecturer in Food Science, University of Reading, 1962-1986
From: "Gordon Couger"
Subject: Re:Are Pro-Biotech Scientists Bigots?
Unethical people will say or do any thing to get their point across.
Several years ago Greenpeace sank a ship killing a sailor and defended it
as it was necessary to stop the whaling. These are amoral people that are
using religious methods to use well meaning people to do their dirty work.
Some may even be so deluded that they believe it them selves.
Gordon Couger firstname.lastname@example.org Stillwater, OK www.couger.com/gcouger
>Subj: Re:Are Pro-Biotech Scientists Bigots?; From: Malcolm Livingstone
>Well now the anti-GM activists are obviously getting desperate. I can't
From: Shane Morris
Why GM food theatrics don't fool the crowd
Douglas Powell, Shane Morris and Katija Blaine National Post 14/11/2000
They were all there Friday night in Vancouver, a Who's Who of the
big-is-bad bunch, offering up warnings about the perils of genetically
engineered foods in a so-called teach-in, a sidelight to a biotech
conference that's on this week.
The same tactics have been tried before, at home and abroad, but as the
public discussion matures to consider risks and benefits, these social
actors are becoming irrelevant, increasingly focused on theatrics rather
than meaningful input.
Genetic engineering has come to represent everything that is perceived to
be bad about food and agricultural production, including corporate
control, scientific intervention with the forces of mysticism and the
apparent dominance of a gene that makes many of us eat a whole bag of
potato chips at one sitting
These latest salvos followed efforts tied in with Halloween, which were
largely unreported but nevertheless entertaining. Greenpeace's mascot,
FrakenTony, appeared at Nathan Philips Square in Toronto during lunchtime
to give children a lesson on genetically modified foods. U.S. counterparts
converged outside Kellogg's Michigan headquarters with a 25-foot ear of
corn and a trick-or-treat bag that said, "Kellogg's: Stop Using Scary
Corn." Dee Dee (who refused to give her last name) of the U.K.
Bioengineering Action Network told Michigan State University, again on
Halloween, that genetic engineering is "a tool of capitalism."
As a recent study showed, children -- and my four goblins were carousing
the neighbourhood on Halloween -- are much more at risk from cars than
from nefarious objects or ingredients hidden in Halloween candy, stainless
steel or otherwise.
Greenpeace and others ask, "Would you want your kids to eat genetically
modified Frosted Flakes?" As with Halloween candy, they miss the point.
Frosted Flakes may not be the most nutritious breakfast cereal, but for
comparative purposes, the answer is yes. Genetically engineered Bt field
corn has up to 30 to 40 times lower levels of naturally occurring fungal
toxins. And the 5% to 15% yield increases across the board mean those
Frosted Flakes are better for the environment.
The latest tack of some of the groups is to bill themselves as friends of
farmers. The Toronto Star recently carried a statement from a European
Greenpeace member whose message to Canadian farmers amounted to, "We think
we're the friends of farmers. There's a market share for them in Europe."
This borders on insulting Canadian farmers' intelligence, because in
Europe, Greenpeace has actively lobbied against the Canadian farm
community in urging companies and retailers to source non-GM products
Greenpeace and its ilk claim many of their concerns relate to lack of
consumer choice. However, in Europe, the consumer now has been left with
absolutely no choice over GM food whatsoever. Under pressure from green
lobby groups, many food retailers (not consumers) have decided not to
stock GM food products. But what if they did?
In an attempt to move beyond street theatre and sound bites, my lab teamed
up with a commercial fruit and vegetable grower, Jeff Wilson, a farmer who
was willing to put his business and his livelihood on the line. Together,
we created a demonstration project growing genetically engineered sweet
corn and potatoes side by side with conventional counterparts. The project
evolved into a model farm that provided unfettered access to consumers,
media and yes, even Greenpeace. More than 1,000 people took the
three-kilometre, self-guided walking tour through the crops to evaluate
the choices for themselves.
We segregated and labelled the crops, tracked sales in the farm market and
interviewed consumers. We have been completely open about our intentions
and results, and welcomed criticisms as a way to improve the project. And
when the data is compiled, we will let reviewers at scientific journals
judge the merits of our results. For those who couldn't visit the farm, we
provided weekly text and video updates, as well as background material at
But some journalists, particularly at The Toronto Star, couldn't help
themselves, resorting to superficial stereotypes, caricatures and the
mindless banter of pro versus anti, missing the point that providing food
consumers are interested in buying involves a series of trade-offs and
considerations that are specific to individual farms and locales. Rather
than citing recent reports from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
(which say genetically engineered crops are safe but require further
oversight), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (which said
genetically engineered Bt field corn is safe for the environment and may
even prove beneficial for non-target insects such as the Monarch
butterfly: <http://www.epa.gov/scipoly/sap/>, and a Sept. 29 U.S. federal
court ruling against Greenpeace and others (confirming the policy for
assessing safety and labelling of genetically engineered crops), The Star
reported that next month will see "the expected release of studies
criticizing GM foods."
In the end, many of the efforts by Greenpeace and others have had little
effect in Canada and North America because of their focus on the
hypothetical and their strict adherence to doctrine. Despite the mantra of
mandatory labelling from Greenpeace and others, when a whole food like
sweet corn was segregated and labelled, and consumers voted their
preference (7,800 cobs of Bt sweet corn were sold at the market, compared
with 5,190 cobs of conventional corn), Greenpeace simply cried that the
study was tainted.
We simply ask that consumers be allowed to decide for themselves.
Douglas Powell is an assistant professor, and Shane Morris and Katija
Blaine are researchers, at the Centre for Safe Food at the University of
ISU PROFESSOR TO TESTIFY IN NEW ZEALAND ON ETHICS OF GENETIC MODIFICATION
AMES, Iowa - An Iowa State professor will present testimony on bioethical
issues of agricultural genetic engineering to the New Zealand Royal
Commission on Genetic Modification. Gary Comstock, professor of philosophy
and religious studies and director of Iowa State's Bioethics Program, will
testify on Nov. 22 in Wellington, one of several sites for public hearings
before the independent commission.
The government of New Zealand will determine the future of genetic
modification and the use of genetically modified organisms and products in
New Zealand based on the recommendation of the commission.
The New Zealand Life Sciences Network, an organization of scientists,
invited Comstock to present his ideas on the complex ethical issues raised
by genetic modification.
He will present his method for reaching ethically sound judgments on the
acceptability of genetic modification of crops. Comstock will discuss his
12-year personal journey from vocal critic to cautious supporter of the
ethical acceptability of genetic modification.
Comstock also will speak about the ethical responsibilities of scientists
involved in the discussion, distinguishing the different ethical
challenges faced by scientists in industry, academia and nonprofit
The New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification was appointed to
address the advantages and disadvantages, benefits and risks, cultural and
ethical considerations, legal obligations and economic considerations
surrounding the use of genetic modification in New Zealand.
The hearings, which started in August, will conclude in June with a report
to the government.
"This process is being watched by other countries," Comstock said. "It is
an unprecedented approach in that it is a very deliberate, intensive and
concentrated public discussion of the issues surrounding this technology."
Teddi Barron ISU News Service 515/294-4778 (voice) 515/294-4654 (fax)
USDA Biotech Panel to Discuss Starlink This Month
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Agriculture Department's advisory panel on
biotech issues will hold a two-day meeting this month to discuss the
buy-back of StarLink bio-corn as well as what role the department should
play in monitoring the environmental impact of all transgenic crops, the
agency said on Tuesday.
The session, set for Nov. 29-30, immediately follows a separate public
meeting planned by the Environmental Protection Agency on Nov. 28 to
consider whether StarLink gene-spliced corn is safe for human consumption.
StarLink corn was approved by the EPA for use as livestock feed in 1998,
but agency scientists barred it from human food because of lingering
questions over whether it could cause allergic reactions. Traces of
StarLink were found in taco shells and other foods in September,
triggering a massive U.S. recall of products with corn flour.
While the EPA has been the lead government agency in deciding what to do
about the StarLink corn contamination, the USDA has assisted corn maker
Aventis SA (AVEP.PA) in buying back as much of the current harvest as
possible. The USDA has gathered the corn into strictly segregated storage
facilities and moved it into animal feed production or ethanol plants.
The USDA's Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology was formed
last year to analyze a variety of farm issues raised by genetically
altered soybeans, corn, tomatoes, squash, potatoes and other crops. The
panel includes farmers, biologists, food company executives, and consumer
The USDA said in a Federal Register notice on Tuesday that its advisory
panel would look at what role the department should take in monitoring the
impacts of gene flow from transgenic crops to other plants in the
environment. The panel will also look at the USDA's public seed breeding
program, and its biotech budget priorities for fiscal 2002.
``There will, in addition, be several updates on current biotechnology
developments including the Starlink corn situation, and on ongoing USDA
biotechnology-related activities,'' the notice said.
American farmers have rapidly adopted gene-modified crops because they
tend to reduce pesticide use and improve yields.
U.S. environmental groups, however, have urged the government to slow
approval of new bio-crops because of concerns about drifting pollen and
other potential impacts on wildlife and human health.
Information about the USDA advisory panel is posted on the Internet at
The USDA has authority over field trials of new gene-modified crops, while
the Food and Drug Administration (news - web sites) broadly regulates food
safety and labeling issues. The EPA has jurisdiction over crops that are
engineered to contain genes that act as pesticides to protect young
StarLink was developed by Aventis to fight a destructive pest known as the
European corn borer. The company maintains the corn has undergone years of
rigorous testing and poses no health risks.