So far, in the discussions of the precautionary principle and of safety
concerns in general, there is a critical point that has not, to my
knowledge been brought up. Once people learned that microbes (AKA "germs")
cause many diseases, the campaign for total safety - meaning total
elimination of microbes - went into action. At first, this campaign scored
some impressive successes: clean water, clean food supply, longer and
healthier human life spans. Then, the point was reached when things
started to go wrong. People forgot that humans evolved in a germy, dirty
world, and - not surprisingly - their immune systems reflect this status
quo. The evidence is beginning to accumulate that too clean and too safe
is itself a risk.
The increase in diseases such as asthma, inflammatory
bowel disease and some autoimmune diseases are now thought to be due at
least in part to over-cleanliness and a misguided zeal for absolute safety.
Another danger of the "absolute safety" mentality is even more sinister
and is well-proven. Once people believe that they have taken measures that
render them safe, they tend to become careless. This can be seen in the
widespread failure of hospital personnel to practice even the most
elementary precautions such as hand washing. The result has been numerous
outbreaks of disease in hospitals and the continued high rate of
On the food front, we see people moving to organic produce to avoid
imagined dangers in the food supply. Fortunately, the big juice and milk
distributors have finally figured out that pasteurization is a good idea,
but there are still purveyors of unpasteurized drinks and cheeses and
parents who are foolish enough to feed these potentially contaminated
products to small children. Until the organic industry solves the
insufficiently composted manure problem, it is inadvisable to feed a small
child any organic produce that has not been peeled or boiled. But many
parents who feed children organic produce are under the impression that
they are protecting their children from harm. And many of these same
parents refuse to have their children vaccinated because of the imagined
risks of vaccination. Hundreds of children have died of preventable
diseases because of this mistaken view of vaccine risk.
Although minimizing risk seems to be a good idea, in practice common sense
works a lot better. Also, people need to decisions based on good
Subj: Ideology not greed or ignorance
From: "Bob MacGregor"
Gordon said, "I don't know if it ignorance or greed that drives the greens
on the GM issue. I hope it is the former but I fear it is the latter. "
I think for most it is neither of the above. It is more likely an
ideological issue. These are the most intractable since they are not
amenable to education. If the various organic farming organizations had
recognized the potential of GE technology to further their sustainability
goals rather than erect an impenetrable barrier to all products of the
technology, these benefits could be realized and much of the negative
ranting would never have happened. Still, I tend to think that this action
was taken out of a fundamental, ideological aversion (almost knee-jerk
reaction) to products of big business rather than being a deliberate ploy
to torpedo the competition.
Subj: genetic "pollution"
From: "Bob MacGregor"
Dr. Hannah points out the potential downside of establishing a
pollen-pollution legal precedent. A better example than hay-fever
sufferers might be the existing seed industry. Heretofore, it has been the
responsibility of the seed industry to provide adequate separation
distances to maintain industry standard purity of seed products (a purity
standard well below what is being demanded of GM genes, though!). If the
principle of gene pollution via pollen dispersion were established such
that the grower of a crop became economically liable for off-site impacts
of pollen spread, then seed growers would no longer have to worry about
maintaining wide buffer zones between their pedigreed seed crop and the
neighbour's commercial crop; the seed company could just sue for damages
if cross-polli nation resulted in hybridization above tolerance. 20 As Dr.
Hannah pointed out, this precedent could be a two-way street (ie, you
should be careful what you ask for... you might get it!).
Subject: The New Uncertainity Principle
Perhaps of interest to your list....
http://www.sciam.com/2001/0101issue/0101scicit1.html "The New Uncertainty
Principle: For complex environmental issues, science learns to take a back
seat to political precaution," David Appell, Scientific American, January
From: Malcolm Livingstone
Subject: Craig Sams
I am mostly fed up with the debate between organic growers and producers,
conventional farmers and advocates of biotechnology. From the point of
view of most scientists this is clearly a political or economic argument.
The facts are that:
1) organically grown food is not healthier or tastier than conventional
2) organic production methods are probably not much benefit to the
environment and in any case are not practical for the vast majority of
agricultural production systems.
I don't have a problem with the organic food industry. It is a quaint,
niche market as Craig Sams himself writes (~1% of production in developed
nations). However I noted that Sams himself says (in reply to Gordon
Couger) that they can be sure that there are very few cheats in organic
agriculture because they would have been found out by now. Well first of
all that is a very optimistic view of human character and an
uncharacteristic faith, by the organic industry, in scientific testing.
Secondly scientists have stated repeatedly to people like Mr.Sams that GM
crops have been grown for many years and consumed by hundreds of millions
of people and yet there is no evidence of harm. This level of evidence is
more reassuring to me than Craig Sams assertion that there is no chance
that cheats exist in the organic industry. Of course cheats exist. They
exist everywhere including scientific research. Is there no chance of harm
anytime, anywhere by the consumption of GM foods? Of course not. Nothing
is risk free but the chance is obviously slim otherwise, in Craig Sams own
words, we would have found out by now.
I never believed there was any danger from GM products well before anyone
had ever eaten any. At least no danger greater than already exists in
eating other organisms. By now I am convinced that it is safer than eating
other foods. It is certainly orders of magnitude safer than the risk of
getting food poisoning from eating fast foods or organic food grown by
I still don't know why supposed contamination of organic foods by GM
pollen is considered a problem by them. What possible problem could this
cause? Why is the contamination of a plant by the same plant considered
problematic for human health and nutrition? I can understand that people
may be concerned that their organic produce may be contaminated by
pesticides (unlikely and probably not harmful in any measurable way) but
why with the pollen of another organism?
It is not I or other scientists who have started this so-called debate. We
don't know how to look at the world except as scientists and as scientists
we don't know what the problem is. The only conclusion that can be drawn
is that this is a religious issue. That is, one that is not amenable to
rational discussion. When are organic farmers going to get back to growing
their crops their way and leave the rest of us to grow ours our way? I
know that religious beliefs can be very emotive but we live in a
pluralistic, multicultural, mostly secular democracies. These are not
perfect societies but they are the best we've got. Please live and let
live. Show some tolerance for others as, in the past, I have done for the
quaint and curious organic food industry.
Malcolm Livingstone CSIRO Plant Industry
(the views expressed here are entirely my own and in no way reflect those
Subj :More Craig Sams
From: "Gordon Couger"
In reply to Mr. Sams. I am certainly not saying that there is intentional
use of banned substance in organic products. I am pointing out that the
organic system is the best system we have for producing, packing, and
shipping maintained identify products they can still not keep contaminates
out of the food. In the case of organic food these contaminates cause a
serious problem because their whole point is to raise food with out them.
I don't question the ability of the certification of growers in the EU and
the USA to follow the rules. I have some problem with educating tropical
farmers to follow EU or US rules. I know a few tropical farm managers and
they are pretty much cowboy operations. I can easily understand how a
complying farm could have drift problems around them or even in the US.
A large part of the problem is the ability to find things in the parts per
billion and soon we will be able to find thing in 1 part per trillion. At
that rate you can probably find everything in everything
These contaminates are in such low amounts that they pose no health risk.
We face a much greater problem with keeping GM crops separate from non GM
crops. The Starlink mess shows that.
Having farmed most of my life and purchased seed and raise seed for sale
on occasion I have seen many mistakes in the system. The worst was one bag
of a tall red wheat in with a load of wheat that would plant 50 acres. At
harvest there was one row of tall red wheat that ruined about 30 acres of
wheat for seed.
Other times I have found noxious weed seed in seed I bought from reputable
dealers. Had my truck loaded with the wrong variety and several times had
one or two sacks of the wrong kind in a load. Since I was not raising this
for seed it posed no problem. Normally when I was raising wheat for seed I
would buy it from the seed dealer connected with the university and store
it in my own bins after harvest selling the excess to the grain elevator
to avoid the problems outlined above. The case where the odd sack got in a
load was when I was growing a crop for the seed dealer and he furnished
Now we have wind borne pollen that can "contaminate" crops near it as well
as the usual mistakes at harvest such as the combine getting in the wrong
field, the truck taking to the wrong elevator, the truck driver saying it
is from the wrong field or farm. Not cleaning out the harvester between
fields and taking half a truck load to the next field. I have seen all
these happen on a daily basis when I was working in a grain elevator.
Harvest time is a very busy time and I hired a custom harvester because I
was busy planting cotton and working wheat ground. I could not justify the
cost of a combine and trucks and the added help to run it at that time of
year. To make up for the cost of custom harvesting wheat I custom
harvested cotton in the fall when things moved at a much slower pace. In
overseeing the operation of 1,000 acres I couldn't be every where at once
so a lot of loads of wheat went to town that I only saw the receipts.
Then once you get to the elevator they have no way to preserve identify
except store it in different facilities but that won't work because of the
problems in the above paragraph and the "contamination" by pollen. I
question if we can deliver a 100% GM free load of corn or soy beans.
The only way that we can maintain crop identify is to bypass regular
marketing channels and go straight from the farm to the ship. And the only
way to do that is in containers. Because it takes to long to fill a ship
from trucks. That would make it an expensive proposition indeed. And the
crop would still be subject to pollen drift that might not show up in the
sample take on the farm but show up in the samples at the destination
because it would only show up in the edges of the crop.
I have a great deal of respect for the organic system. They are dedicated
people doing a very good job of producing the product they claim they are
and developing a market for it. If I was living on 160 acres near a major
city I might take a very hard look at organic truck farming and direct
marketing. Not because I think organic farming is the "right" way to farm
but because it may be the most profitable way to farm in some areas and I
have done it in the past and all is takes is a little more planning and a
sharp hoe and the willingness to use it.
Gordon Couger email@example.com
From: Belinda Clarke
Subject: Query about biological control
I am trying to find out any information about the
perception and use of biological control in Africa.
I would be very grateful if anyone on the list has any
background information on whether biological control
techniques are being used in agriculture in developing
Many thanks in advance
Dr Belinda Clarke Science Liaison Manager Norwich Research Park-Science
PO Box 715 Norwich NR4 7SY
Where's the golden rice? A lifesaving grain is being held hostage by
Reason Magazine. December 6, 2000. By Ronald Bailey, Reason Science
You've probably seen the poignant and inspiring national TV ads from the
Council for Biotechnology Information, an industry group, touting the
development of "golden rice," a genetically modified product that packs
extra nutrients and vitamins into the familiar staple crop. In an ad
called "The Promise," scenes showing children and farms in the developing
world flash by as the announcer talks about the new miracle rice that
could help prevent disease and blindness in millions of poor children each
year. The music crescendos, children smile, and all is right with the
But all is not right. Golden rice is nowhere near the poor children who
need it. Instead, it's locked away in a grenade-proof greenhouse in
Poor people in developing countries could benefit hugely from golden rice,
which was created by biotech researcher Ingo Potrykus. Potrykus and his
colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have created a
variety of rice that makes beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A. The
orange-yellow color of beta-carotene is what makes golden rice "golden."
Some international agencies estimate that as many as 2 billion people in
the developing world, especially those living in countries in which rice
is the dominant grain, suffer from vitamin A deficiency; about 500,000
children a year go blind from vitamin A deficiency. No known rice variety
produces beta-carotene, so Potrykus put the appropriate genes from
daffodils and bacteria into rice, which then produces the missing
beta-carotene. His team achieved this success more than a year ago. The
next step in getting this lifesaving product to poor people is to send it
to plant breeders at the International Rice Research Institute in the
Philippines. There, it can be crossbred with varieties useful for local
But this hasn't happened.
Why? Partly because Potrykus is still wending his way through a legal maze
of the more than 70 patents that are involved in creating golden rice.
Potrykus is brokering a deal with leading international biotech companies
that have agreed to license their technologies for free. For example,
Monsanto announced in August that it is providing royalty-free licenses
for all of its technologies that can further development of golden rice.
This sudden attack of generosity can be attributed to the fact that crop
biotech companies, battered by successful activist campaigns against their
products worldwide, are seeking some good public relations. Whatever the
corporate motives, it is good news for the world's poor that the patent
thicket is being hacked away. That means golden rice can reach them
But the lifesaving grain is not protected in a grenade-proof greenhouse
because Potrykus fears attacks from irate patent lawyers. Like biotech
corn and soybeans in the Midwest, this biotech crop has militant enemies.
Mae Wan Ho, director of the U.K. activist organization, the Institute of
Science in Society, asserts that "the golden rice project is a useless
application" and demands that it "be terminated immediately before further
damage is done." Greenpeace is leading a global campaign against biotech
crops, asserting that they are unhealthy and environmentally unsafe. A
press release says that "Greenpeace opposes golden rice because it has all
the risks of any [genetically modified] crop."
These groups are adept at sketching out scary scenarios. But they have not
offered a scintilla of scientific evidence that biotech crops have harmed
human health -- or the natural world.
They're also known for their "decontamination" raids on biotech crop
fields throughout Europe, where they rip up or vandalize genetically
modified crops. Thus, the Ft. Knox treatment for golden rice. Researchers
are afraid that activists will try to take the product out before it's
even able to get to markets in the developing world. The New York Times
reports that activists are supporting legislation that would make it
illegal to export biotech crops like golden rice from Switzerland.
The question is: Will anti-biotech activists succeed in breaking the
promise that golden rice holds for poor people in the developing world?
Ronald Bailey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Reason Magazine's science
More from 'Reason': "Frankenfood" Frenzy
In the developing world, a million kids die and millions more go blind
every year because they don't get enough vitamin A. Over 50 percent of
pregnant women in poor countries are iron deficient, a condition
responsible for nearly 20 percent of all maternal deaths. The staple food
in many parts of the developing world is rice -- a grain that doesn't
provide enough of these essential nutrients.
Researchers have found a way to enrich rice with beta carotene (which the
body converts to vitamin A) by inserting genes from a daffodil and a
bacterium. By adding another gene derived from a French bean, the iron
content of rice can be doubled. This genetically modified rice could
become available to farmers as soon as 2003, promising to save millions of
lives in poor countries.
Products of agricultural genetic engineering available today include crops
that are disease and insect resistant, delayed-ripening fruits that stay
fresh longer, and cow hormones that lead to increased milk production.
Advances in the works include foods containing vaccines and antibodies
that fight diseases like cholera and hepatitis, and foods that have been
modified to eliminate common allergens.
But the idea of transplanting genes has panicked many environmental and
health activist groups -- and some consumers. Greenpeace calls genetically
modified (GM) food "biological pollution." Much opposition to GM foods is
based on the concern that "natural" plants could be forever changed -
perhaps for the worse - when exposed to pollen from altered crops.
Opponents also fear that people and animals that consume GM food could
develop health problems.
The battle has been especially intense in Europe, where GM crops have been
banned since April 1998. In trade talks, the European Union is also
pushing for strict controls over the importation of GM foods. And the
controversy is heating up in the United States. Opposition to agricultural
genetic engineering was a major theme for many American protesters at the
WTO meeting in Seattle and IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington, DC. In
December, biotechnology opponent Jeremy Rifkin initiated a class-action
lawsuit against Monsanto and other companies for bringing genetically
modified seeds to the market (Monsanto's response). And anti-biotech
demonstrators dominated a recent FDA public hearing on GM foods in
Oakland. (The agency has a "new initiative to engage the public about
foods made using bioengineering.")
Anti-biotech sentiment prevails in other parts of the world too. A
Brazilian state has turned itself into a "transgenic free zone" and Japan
is cracking down on GM foods. And not all anti-GM food protestors are
peaceful. Eco-vandals throughout the world are stepping up their campaign
to destroy genetically modified crops.
Expert opinions and studies can be found on both sides of the issue. The
monarch butterfly became the symbol of the anti-GM food movement last year
after Cornell University issued a study claiming that pollen from
genetically modified corn could kill the insect. Other researchers have
subsequently shown the actual risk to the monarch to be minimal. A report
attacking the safety of genetically modified potatoes is largely
responsible for the controversy over GM foods in Europe, even though a
thorough independent review by the UK's Royal Society concluded that the
report was flawed. (See full report as PDF file.) A battle over the safety
of GM foods also recently erupted in the pages of the scientific journal,
Are GM foods any more of a risk than other agricultural innovations that
have taken place over the years, like selective breeding (See Biotech
Timeline)? Do the existing and potential future benefits of GM foods
outweigh any risks that do exist? And what standard should governments use
when assessing the safety of transgenic crops? The "frankenfood" frenzy
has given life to a policymaking standard known as the "precautionary
principle," which has been long advocated by environmental groups. That
principle essentially calls for governments to prohibit any activity that
raises concerns about human health or the environment, even if some
cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.
As Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker told the BBC: "We must always apply
the precautionary principle. That says that unless you're sure of adequate
control, unless you're sure the risk is minimal, unless you're sure
nothing horrible can go wrong, you don't do it."
But can any innovation ever meet such a standard of certainty - especially
given the proliferation of "experts" that are motivated as much by
politics as they are by science?
And what about those millions of malnourished people whose lives could be
saved by transgenic foods? Perhaps the "precautionary principle" isn't so
precautionary after all.
"Genetically engineered plants are held captive as biotech slaves. By
harvesting them early [killing them], we free them from the bonds of
corporate servitude." - Bioengineering Action Network
A Quick Recipe for "Frankenfood" Frenzy
Combine lots of emotionally-charged doomsday rhetoric with a good amount
of anti-capitalist sentiment. Add just a pinch of scientific uncertainty
about safety and you've created enough "Frankenfood" Frenzy to serve the
Caution: This dish can be ruined if contaminated by facts about the health
or environmental benefits of genetically modified foods.
Greenpeace demonstrates at biotechnology conference
December 14, 2000
MONTPELLIER, France (AP) _ Greenpeace activists on Wednesday dumped tons
of genetically modified soy meal onto a spread-out U.S. flag as they
demonstrated outside a conference where world officials are discussing
The activists said they hoped to draw attention to U.S. policy on
exporting genetically modified crops, which they say pose health risks.
The environmentalist group waged its protest in the southern French city
of Montpellier, where representatives from 177 countries are discussing
ways to implement an international biosafety protocol that was adopted in
January. The congress is to close Friday.
``The U.S. is imposing its unwanted (genetically modified crops) on the
rest of the planet,'' activist Veronique Papon said in a Greenpeace
After five years of negotiations, talks in Montreal in January finally
produced a set of rules governing trade in genetically engineered
products. The United States, where almost 40 percent of crops are
genetically modified, was forced to make concessions.
A previous round of discussions in Cartagena, Colombia, had collapsed due
to opposition from many large crop-exporting countries, including the
United States and Australia.
The idea for a global protocol on biosafety came out of the 1992 Earth
Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where world leaders came together to pledge a
greater commitment to cleaning up the environment.
Opposition to genetically modified crops is strong in much of Europe. On
Wednesday, speaking at a conference in Paris, French Prime Minister Lionel
Jospin said the government was upholding its moratorium on the production
of such crops.