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January 23, 2001


Organic Yes, GM Yes!; Appeal to Reason; Sokal Hoax; Hunger


Dear Craig:

I am have no problem with organic foods or gardening. I do have a problem
with the unscientific attacks based on "hysteria" against genetic
engineering. Genetic engineering IS an extension of conventional breeding,
but can do much, much more. And WILL. And it is more powerful and safe
than conventional breeding because known, characterized, and highly
studies genes can be transferred from one plant to another. In contrast to
moving entire chromosomes around or chromosome segments that often bring
undesirable traits in with desirable ones. Clearly, conventional breeding
is and will continue to be an essential part of agriculture. But you ARE
wrong -- maize/corn WAS engineered by early man and what was done 10,000
years ago was no less revolutionary than what is being done now. After
all, the invention of agriculture and the selection of plants and animals
for domestication lead to the dawn of civilization and completely changed
how "man" lived.

It is clearly important to have highly nutritional foods that are safe for
human and animal consumption. Genetic engineering can do that, but it is
not the entire solution, just part of a collection of technologies that
can be used to produce safe, highly nutritious, and high yielding crops.
Genetic engineering offers hope for the future -- especially for growing
crops in suboptimal parts of the world and growing enough crops to feed
people who desperately need food today and tomorrow. By 2050 there will be
10 billion people on the face of this earth and we will need to produce
more food than in the entire history of mankind. I question anyone's
motives when they reject a powerful technology on unscientific grounds
that can contribute to that effort.

Finally, we probably both have the same goals. The difference is that I am
willing to listen to your objectives, understand your methods, and adopt
what is positive about them. Are you willing to do the same. This is not
about "us vs. them", it's about the application of sound science. Progress
cannot be stopped and genetic engineering is one technology that can help
eliminate much suffering in the future -- just as it is doing now in the
medical area.


-- Professor Bob Goldberg, University of California

From: Rick Roush
Subject: Response to Sams

After Alan McHughen's thorough response (and others), I'll seek only to
address Sams' comments about Bt resistance, a subject on which I very

Craig, for all practical purposes, Bt resistance has evolved in the field
only in the diamondback moth (Plutella), where it was often sprayed more
than once a week. In cases in which Bt works and there is any serious pest
pressure, organic growers have been as bad or worse at overusing Bt as
non-organic growers because they did not rotate with any other
insecticides. For example, organic potato and cabbage growers in the US
(with whom I have worked), and tomato growers in Queensland Australia, all
used Bt as much as once a week during the growing season.

Whether resistance will evolve more quickly in Bt crops than than sprays
depends on how each is used. A Bt crop with good refuge (to support
susceptible insects to dilute resistance) can do at least as well as crops
sprayed weekly with no refuge. While at Cornell, I conducted experiments
in which weekly Bt sprays resulted in resistance FASTER than Bt broccoli
even where both treatments had the same refuge.

I think Goldberg meant 'Do we stop using antibiotics because bacterial
strains MAY become resistant?' In fact, I am unaware of any programs where
the use of antibiotics was successfully restricted before resistance. In
contrast, there are restrictions on the use of BT crops for resistance
management purposes in both the US and Australia. I helped design them.

>Sams wrote:
>7 & 8 Bt insecticide and resistance. Organic farmers have been using
> Bt for 30 years or so and some resistance has developed. They use it
> as an >occasional treatment, not as a routine spray. When Bt is
> engineered into >crops it is likely that insect resistance will
> develop more quickly. Prof. >Goldberg asks: 'Do we stop using
> antibiotics because bacterial strains >have become resistant?'
Yes, we do. In the UK 10% of all people who are >hospitalised develop
MRSA, and even Vancomycin, the 'last resort' >antibiotic, is becoming
ineffective. In Japan they have closed and sealed >hospitals where MRSA
has become ineradicable.


From: Craig Sams
Subject: Craig Sams' final appeal to reason

The flurry of critiques of my posting was a bit of a surprise as I tried
to be reasonable on issues like pesticide residues, E.coli, etc. My points
still stand. I will be brief.

1. Organic food usually contains no pesticide residues and, if it does,
they are at far lower levels than in conventional food.

2. Organic food has never permitted the many additives and hormones, some
of which have been banned in recent years.

3. There is no recorded case of certified organic production methods being
a cause of E.coli. How can anyone consistently and repeatedly ignore the
obvious problem? CDC records since 1983 show the main channel of
transmission of E.coli O157:H7 to human beings is via hamburgers and other
meat products that have originally been contaminated with cow faeces
shortly after slaughter. Please can we have one scientist on this website
who will accept that this is true? I am beginning to feel very lonely in
making this blindingly obvious assertion. Of course botulism and
salmonella are risks, as with all food, and hygiene and good manufacturing
practice are crucially important. But the suggestion that organic food is
the source of the tragic annual deaths from E.coli O157:H7 is a smear and
that is why I am dismayed to see it repeated despite its irrelevance.

4. The direct recipients of agricultural subsidies are the producers of
primary commodities such as soybeans, corn and wheat. This distortion of
the market is greater than any other comparable government intervention in
any other marketplace, except defense, where there are good political
reasons for it. Subsidies of Western farmers are a principle cause of
poverty and starvation in the Third World. If the US government subsidised
Iowa farmers but not Nebraska farmers, then subsidies would be a principle
cause of poverty in Nebraska. Subsidies create an artificially low price
structure for basic commodities that favour American and European
exporters and drive Third World unsubsidised producers out of business.
(Dumping surpluses has the same effect). The subsidies also make the
production of chicken, beef, pork, corn syrup, corn chips and other foods
cheaper, thereby giving an unfair competitive advantage to all the
participants in the subsidised chain. The subsidy 'trough' is an exclusive
one, only rich people are allowed to put their snouts in, everyone else in
the world has to stand on their own two feet. Am I the only person who
thinks this is immoral, cynical, corrupt and inconsistent with the
principles of a free global market economy?

5. Genetic engineering is not the same as traditional breeding. For years
the proponents of GM have sung its praises for just this reason. The Maya
clearly did something very clever to create maize out of teosinte, but I
am not aware of any evidence that this involved gene splicing .

6. Nobody has attempted to reproduce Puztai's research. The crucial
factor, intestinal lesions, is the source of public concern. Problems like
irritable bowel syndrome, autism and 'leaky gut' are chronic conditions of
little relevance to a farm animal that is going to meet its end as soon as
it achieves marketable weight, but it matters a lot to a human who is
hoping for at least three score years and ten.

7. Land. If everyone became vegetarian we could live on one seventh of the
amount of arable land we need now. Put another way, the world's population
could increase to 35 billion before there were food shortages. There would
be other problems of overpopulation long before that. If everyone in the
US ate less meat they would be a lot healthier and a lot less obese. Would
that be so terrible? If agricultural subsidies were dropped, then we would
see a fall in meat consumption as real market mechanisms took over from
the totally false mechanisms that currently apply.

Craig Sams

From: Frederic Abraham
Subject: Biotech, third world hunger and precaution

Firstly, I'd like to comment on Goklany's arguments

>Goklany: "Regarding "irreversible" consequences (raised by Abraham)
> which seem not to be considered generally, consider the following: if
> we eschew GM crops which might result in increased habitat conversion
> with the possible consequence of one or two species becoming extinct,
> then that would be just as irreversible as say "gene flow."

Yes, but unlike the "habitat conversion" and the possible extinction of
"one or two species", we are not responsible of "gene flow". Yet, we would
be of those "one or two" extinctions. (I personally think that the
consequences, beyond the actual number of species being extinct which I
think is more than "one or two", are to be evaluated on another level than
the mere losses of species: the "profoundness" of the environmental
alteration for example and the profound transformation of our ways to look
at it (if it didn't already occur..)).

>Goklany: "Similarly, if because of the lack of GM crops, mortality
> rates in developing countries does not drop as rapidly as it
> otherwise would, then the deaths resulting from that (and the lost
> life-years) would also be irreversible."

This is partially true if you take for granted that GM crops technology is
the only way to face the developing countries's hunger. I'm saying that
you CANNOT (honestly) claim that this biotech is the only solution
(especially when, as you seem to have stated in your post, a multi-sided
problem require a multi-sided approach). One of this approach, is to take
precaution toward this drastic (and dangerous, even though this element
doesn't seem to appear to everyone) biotech solution: this allows us to
look at other factors of this world hunger like the distribution of food
throughout the world...

I wonder if that precipitated enthusiasm toward biotech in the food
industry is not hiding some fear of recognizing our responsibility in the
poor global distribution of enormous quantity of food... The world hunger
is a reality which one has to try solving without forgetting to look up
its possible causes. This requires some inquiry back in history and not
solely the consideration of what could be done via biotechnology.

Now, I'd like to comment on Andrew's Apel argument.

>Apel:"If the precautionary principle does not have an instrumental
> dimension, then all it does, at best, is remind us that
> consequentialist moral theory doesn't work perfectly. Abraham writes:
> While we lack scientific certainty in the matter of the GM plants, we
> do know enough in genetic science that if some alterations would
> occur, these would be irreversible. Alarming as it sounds, it is, of
> course, true. However, it will always be true, just as it is true of
> every choice made by a moral agent who is less than omniscient"

As moral agent, we are "less than omniscient" that is true. We are,
nonetheless, "responsible" moral agents.

What I'd like to point out here is the fact that this statement I made
calls for the following question: are we willing to take the
responsibility of causing irreversible alterations (as they would occur on
the genetic level) to our environment? I do think that this is what
"precaution" is calling for: our sense of responsiability toward our
actions before they take place. And this, unlike "prevention" which via
its instrumental dimension can rely on technological or scientific means
to prevent (or correct?) the situation which is likely to occur.

>Apel: "Abraham says that world hunger is a challenge we have to face
> actively. According to the best evidence available, genetic
> engineering improves agricultural output while reducing its impact on
> the environment. Given these facts, the right choice is obvious, and
> the precautionary principle seems to offer no help in reaching it.

Here I would ask: Is genetic engineering the ultimate choice? what about
our ways of managing global food distribution?

Frederic Abraham


From: Red Porphyry
Subject: Re: AGBIOVIEW: Potrykus and Vitamin A

After a month hiatus from this group to celebrate the twelve days of
Christmas and meet several pressing work deadlines, the Redster is back.
:-) After catching up on this list, I found the most interesting comments
to be those made by Potrykus himself (msg # 932) about golden rice. I must
say, however, that I'm not sure what he means about the golden rice
discussion being "not too helpful". It's unfortunate that he apparently
doesn't see any importance in discussing just how much vitamin A the
average Asian adult or child can actually expect to obtain from eating
golden rice. Be that as it may, I was heartened to see that he did at
least agree that the best strain of golden rice he and his co-workers had
created thus far ("Z11b") only yielded at best 1.6 micrograms of
beta-carotene per 1 gm (dry weight) of golden rice. We are, at last,
beginning to get somewhere. I also recognize that he is currently working
on making "Z11b" homozygous for the beta-carotene pathway in order to
increase the yield to 2.0 micrograms of beta-carotene per 1 gm (dry
weight) of golden rice and (presumably) ensure that the trait "breeds
true". Although the original Science article describing the achievement is
now one year old, it seems reasonable to me that Potrykus will succeed in
improving "Z11b" as outlined in his Science paper within the next two or
three years.

Even so, this still doesn't change the fact that, even if Asians
completely change their diets and eat 300 gm (dry weight) of golden rice
per day, adults will still only obtain 15% of the RDA of vitamin A from
it. Most likely, they will eat no more than 1/3rd of this per day, meaning
golden rice will only provide 5% of the RDA of vitamin A (for children,
these percentages are all cut in half). While 5% is better than nothing in
absolute terms, I stand by my claim that golden rice is not, and never can
be, the golden bullet that will solve the problem of severe vitamin A
deficiency in Asia. If solving VAD is truly the goal, golden rice will
(assuming Asians actually *do* end up eating *some* of it on a daily
basis) at most serve as one small piece in the overall solution puzzle.
Like it or not, most of the solution will involve vitamin A
supplementation (either by pill or by traditional fortification of
foodstuffs and cooking oils) and increased local production and
consumption of fruits and vegetables high in beta-carotene. On the other
hand, if actually solving the problem of VAD isn't really the point
("Asians don't need to be brought up to Caucasian nutritional standards,
they just need enough to get by") then perhaps it doesn't matter. I do
find it curious that an unusually large number of contributors to this
list seem extremely reluctant to even consider fortification +
fruits/vegetables + golden rice as an appropriate approach to VAD,
particularly given the fact that one-half cup (4 oz.) of cooked carrots by
itself provides the RDA of vitamin A for adults.

I also eagerly wait with bated breath to hear what Potrykus' "secret
strategy" is for completely changing the terms of the debate and ending
VAD in one fell swoop and for all time. My "secret strategy" is to feed
Asian adults 4 oz. of cooked carrots per day and Asian children 2 oz. of
cooked carrots per day. :-)



From: Don Duvick
Subject: One reason for anti-GMO activism?

See below the article on Sokal Hoax from the Science magazine.

It seems to me that this article in Science deals with (and explains) some
of the fundamentals that motivate many anti-GMO activists and academics.
On page 1705, middle column, the author says, "... the cultural Left
equates science with power that can be used for social oppression of
minorities. For them, science criticism is a way to liberation."

Prakash, I've come to believe that the fervent wish to empower the
oppressed (primarily by disempowering the corporate oppressors) is what
drives much (although not all) of the anti-biotech (=anti-agribusiness)
movement. Those who espouse this philosophy are convinced that if any
science (including biotechnology) empowers for-profit corporations, it
necessarily gives the corporations greater power to oppress the weak
(minorities, poor farmers, etc.) and therefore, that kind of science must
be stopped.


Best wishes, Don Donald N. Duvick, Johnston, Iowa

HISTORY OF SCIENCE: Stirred, Not Shaken

A review by Ullica Segerstråle*
The Sokal Hoax The Sham That Shook the Academy The Editors of Lingua
Franca, Eds. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2000. 283 pp.
Paper, $20. ISBN 0-8032-7995-7.

"My name has now become a verb!" quipped physicist Alan Sokal at a
February 1997 University of Kansas conference, one of several occasions
devoted to debating the relation between science and its critics in the
aftermath of his famous hoax. Presumably, Sokal was referring to Ellen
Willis' Village Voice article, "My Sokaled Life; Or, Revenge of the
Nerds." In his provocative "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a
Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," Sokal had parodied
postmodern stylistic conventions and derived politically correct
conclusions from an esoteric subfield of science. After the cultural
journal Social Text accepted the article for publication in a special
issue on the "science wars," he revealed his deception to the academic
gadfly Lingua Franca; the article and "revelation" were published almost
simultaneously in late spring 1996. They triggered a storm of commentary,
articles, editorials, letters, and e-mails, including a front-page story
in the New York Times headlined "Postmodern Gravity Deconstructed, Slyly."

What was this fuss all about? The immediate context was the so-called
(and, yes, later "Sokaled") science wars, which had flared up in 1994 with
Paul Gross and Norman Levitt's Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and
Its Quarrels with Science (1). These "proscience" activists lashed out
against what they saw as the irresponsible and obscurantist
theoretical-cum-political critique of science pursued by postmodernists,
relativists, social constructionists, feminists, Marxists, and assorted
other academic radicals. Against such claims as "science is only one way
of knowing," they held up truth, reason, and objectivity. Gross and Levitt
dug deeply into the literature of the new cultural Left to locate
offending texts, and their samples caught Sokal's eye. The postmodernist
statements sounded almost too good to be true. Had the targets been quoted
out of context? But a trip to the library soon convinced Sokal that the
authors were even worse in context. A plan began to take shape in his mind.

The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy presents all the pertinent
documents: Sokal's "faux-pomo" paper, his revelation of the hoax and
explanation of his motives, the reactions of the hoaxed editors, a stream
of commentaries and letters (including well-known exchanges in The New
York Times), and a number of much-quoted essays covering a broad cultural
and political spectrum. In addition, the book contains samples of press
coverage from Britain, France, Italy, and Brazil; talks by Sokal and
Social Text editor Andrew Ross at a New York University forum; and a
roundtable analysis of the whole affair. It is valuable to have all of
these collected in one place. Despite the lack of an index, the editors of
Lingua Franca and the University of Nebraska Press have produced an
appealing and well-organized little volume.

What did the hoax prove? The debate was surely not about the question of
whether reality exists, although some (including Le Monde) believed this
was the essence of the science wars. (Sokal, too, pushed the reality theme
with his invitation to constructionists and postmodernists to jump out of
his 21st-story window.) Did the hoax prove that you have a greater chance
of getting published when you come to the "right" conclusions and use the
"right" form and terminology? Did it show that left-wing solidarity goes
before everything else? (Sokal presented himself to Social Text's editors
as having worked as a math teacher for the Sandinista government of
Nicaragua.) Two of the editors of Social Text (a handful were involved)
declare it is "absurd" to construe their editorial decision as proof of
the bankruptcy of cultural studies. But considering that their journal was
not peer-reviewed, should they at least have tried to show the paper to a
friendly physicist? Sokal and many others, including one of the editors,
think so. Unlike those who find it understandable that Social Text did not
catch obvious non sequiturs and absurdities in Sokal's manuscript,
physicist Kurt Gottfried argues that the editors should have known that it
was a hoax. Worse, he finds that Stanley Aronowitz's (presumably real)
contribution to the same issue has similar hoax-like qualities (2).

Was Sokal's hoax funny? That depends on whom you ask. Sokal found it
"very, very funny" and told the audience at the Kansas conference not to
miss his footnotes. To others, such as Stanley Fish (the publisher of
Social Text), it was not funny at all; it was a betrayal of trust. The
physics community itself seems deeply ambivalent about the affair, in part
because Sokal is seen as presenting a too simplistic picture of science
and truth, and in part because there are fields in physics whose prose
sounds just as impenetrable as Sokal's.

And the spoof gets less funny the more we know. It is not true that Sokal
just "shipped it off and waited," or that the journal "printed Sokal's
essay without question, not bothering to check it back with Sokal," as
some stories have it. In a published e-mail exchange with English
professor Michael Bérubé, Sokal admits that he and Ross were engaged in
pre-publication discussions about the paper. In other words, the deception
was actively sustained for some time. From the editors of Lingua Franca,
we also learn that before publication, the hoax was well-known among
friends of Sokal and had leaked to outsiders. Roger Kimball, managing
editor of the neo-conservative The New Criterion, was barely "contained"
and had to be persuaded to not reveal the scam prematurely. After that, it
was only a matter of time before Lingua Franca learned about Sokal and
contacted him. The result was Sokal's revelation piece in their journal.

At this point, the question arises, what did the editors of Social Text
know and when did they know it? Were they perhaps in on the joke
themselves? Was the whole Sokal affair a faux sparring match between two
New York University professors, highly visible Ross and his (until then)
less visible physics colleague Sokal? Was the Sokal hoax no hoax at all,
but rather a carefully managed "pomolotov" cocktail (Katha Pollitt's term)
thrown at the general public, resulting in notoriety for the respective
journals and for Sokal himself? Probably not, although deep differences in
opinion do not preclude the strategic management of academic controversy.
Examples of such symbiosis can be found, for instance, in the sociobiology
debate (3).

What was the hoax really about? It has often been seen as addressing
standard dichotomies such as the "two cultures" or the opposition between
Left and Right, but such views are rare in this collection. Physicist
Steven Weinberg thinks it addressed the universality of science (more
specifically, the laws of physics) and the importance of the disjunction
between the context of discovery and the context of justification;
whatever the background of a scientist's ideas, it gets "filtered" out on
the way to scientific truth. He sees the cultural left as believing that
scientific ideas inescapably reflect their social origin. That belief is,
indeed, one of the issues that connects the science wars with the
sociobiology debate, and which has led to great preoccupation with
textural analysis. There is also a "positive" side to this criticism in
the call for new epistemological-cum-political directions, such as a
"liberatory science" (this is why Sokal's paper called for an
"emancipatory mathematics").

Social Text editors Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross may have identified the
crucial matter. They ask: in the light of the power of science as a social
and political authority, should nonscientists have some say in the
decision-making processes of the professional scientific community? And
they answer:

Some scientists (including Sokal, presumably) would say yes, and in some
countries non-expert citizens do indeed participate in these processes.
All hell breaks loose, however, when the following question is asked:
Should nonexperts have anything to say about scientific methodology and
epistemology? After centuries of scientific racism, scientific sexism, and
scientific domination of nature, one might have thought this was a
pertinent question to ask. It is just this kind of "democratization" of
science to which an older Left, represented by Gross, Levitt, and Sokal,
object. The new cultural Left wants science to be more "democratic" than
the traditional Left believes it can afford to be. The older Left equates
science with reliable knowledge, a tool in the struggle for social
justice. Scientists need to be left alone to do what they do best. In
contrast, the cultural Left equates science with power that can be used
for social oppression of minorities. For them, therefore, science
criticism is a way to liberation. The science wars have become a locus of
this internal left-wing struggle.

One unfortunate usage of terms that originated in the science wars and is
perpetuated in The Sokal Hoax is the use of "science studies" as an
umbrella term for both postmodern criticism and constructivist sociology
of science. Despite some overlap in the field of cultural studies, the
historical roots of these two enterprises are quite different, and so are
their goals. In fact, the field of science studies (or science and
technology studies) was founded by scientists, and scientists and
sociologists of science have a long tradition of collaboration. It is the
last quarter century's turn to constructivism that has alienated
scientists. What the proscience warriors have largely missed is that most
constructivist sociologists (unlike their postmodern and cultural studies
colleagues) are not primarily interested in values and ideology; they see
themselves as epistemological radicals. Meanwhile, although less well
known, all along there has been a serious opposition to constructivism
within science studies itself (4). Therefore, it is exasperating to find
sociology and science studies used interchangeably with constructivism (or
postmodernism) (5).

For proscience activists, however, it may not matter whether science
criticism is politically or epistemologically radical. Indeed, it is hard
to see how the credibility of science would not be threatened when science
is described as having no special epistemological status, when it is
declared that facts cannot settle disputes, or when scientists' own
convictions are ignored in favor of "external" explanations of their

What is the current status of the Sokal affair? The editors of Lingua
Franca are confident that although it is already four years old,
"physicists and nonphysicists agree on one thing: It has not yet reached
its half-life." This may be an overstatement. Still, as input in the
science wars, it had a short and brilliant life. It acted as a lightning
rod for opinions in the larger cultural and political debate, and it
brought people and positions that previously had little to do with one
another into unexpected confrontations over science and truth. The Sokal
hoax seems fated to become one of those canned cases for teaching the
history or sociology of science (or, perhaps, even ethics). People will be
using it as a just-so story for different ends. Meanwhile, this book is a
useful reference that is sure to stimulate discussion--particularly in
conjunction with other "documents in the case" (1, 2) and accounts that
contextualize the entire science wars episode (5). On its own, The Sokal
Hoax represents an intriguing slice of cultural discourse at the end of
the millennium.

References and Notes

1. P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its
Quarrels with Science (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Baltimore, MD, 1994). 2.
Social Text's special science wars issue was later published sans Sokal
and with several new contributions (including some from scientists) as A.
Ross, Ed., The Science Wars (Duke Univ. Press, Durham, NC, 1996). 3. U.
Segerstråle, Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the
Sociobiology Debate and Beyond (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2000). 4. W.
Schmaus, U. Segerstråle, D. Jesseph, Social Epistemol. 6, 243 (1992). 5. A
variety of perspectives on the science wars, the various meanings of
"science studies," and the relations between science and science studies
are presented in U. Segerstråle, Ed., Beyond the Science Wars: The Missing
Discourse about Science and Society (SUNY Press, Albany, NY, 2000).


Designer Work

Parama Ray, THE STATESMAN (INDIA) January 21, 2001

Biotechnology is the science of extracting positive traits from one and
incorporating them into other organisms to bolster them. Parama Ray takes
a close look

Roses are red, grass is green, shrubs are squat and trees grow tall.
Attributes are the identifying badges of things. But what identifies
attributes? That answer has been discovered - the genetic make-up. Can the
genetic blueprint be modified to have something the way one wants to have
it? Much like a make-up artist transforming appearances? That's the answer
being formulated. The make-up artist is the genetic engineer and the
parlour is the biotechnology lab.

Biotechnology is the science of extracting positive traits from one and
incorporating them into other organisms to bolster them. In this process,
a specific gene is isolated and removed from the DNA of one organism then
relocated into the DNA of another to replicate that similar trait. This
finding and replacing of genes is much like adding a new spice to
inculcate the desired tangy taste. So, a wheat plant could be made hardier
and an apple could be made to last longer on the tree for the perfect

The fusion of biochemistry and molecular biology fired the birth of
biotechnology. The major breakthroughs have been in two vital areas of
human endeavor. The first has been medical research, where new techniques
for diagnosing and fighting disease were discovered. The second area of
impact was in nutrition and food production. With time, biotechnology is
being accepted as a useful tool that is delivering improved products and
will radically overhaul pharmaceutical, agricultural and industrial
products available. Advances in biotechnology this year include research
to understand aluminum toxicity resistance in plants and the development
of plant-based vaccines.

Here are some examples:

The Environment. Discoveries in biotechnology allow for certain key crops
to have their own protection against insects, disease and weather. These
crops can be grown using less chemicals which allows farmers to choose the
best combination of products and farming practices to control harmful
pests and diseases. USDA scientists are researching the potential for
alfalfa cultivators to tolerate drought, frequent grazing and poor soil

World Hunger. Biotechnology has been earmarked as one of the approaches
to help address the challenge of feeding a growing population.
Developments in food biotechnology are enabling the growth of more food
and better food on less land. Researchers are one step closer to
developing a tomato that will be 40 percent firmer than their conventional

Nutrition. Research into numerous improved food products includes food
crops with higher levels of nutrients that may help reduce the risk of
heart disease and certain cancers, fruits that contain vaccines, and
vegetables that contain higher amounts of vitamins. Such food products
could provide much-needed nutrients and immunizations - more simply and
effectively - in countries around the world. It is estimated that as many
as 2 billion people suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Through research led
by Ingo Potrykus, a strain of rice - a staple food for many in developing
countries - has been developed with increased levels of beta-carotene, a
precursor to vitamin A. Medicines and Health Care. Since the initial
production of human insulin to better treat diabetes, biotechnology
continues to create more effective drugs and vaccines. These medicines
benefit hundreds of millions of people worldwide who suffer from
devastating diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's,
Alzheimer's and AIDS. Scientists have developed an edible vaccine against
the Norwalk virus using the sweet potato, a staple food in many African
countries. According to Fumento, a specialist in health and safety issues
at the Hudson Institute, "biotech can even be used to make allergenic
foods non-allergenic, or less allergenic, by 'switching off' certain

Industrial Applications. It is anticipated that some applications of
biotechnology will be used to make materials such as fibres for clothes
from "renewable" resources like corn. Other applications may help reduce
our dependence on oil and natural gas and could reduce water and energy
use by as much as 50 percent.

The science of biotechnology has its roots in centuries of experience -
whether it's using microorganisms to make wine and cheese or using
crossbreeding to introduce or enhance specific and useful traits in
livestock, flowers and field crops. In the early 1970s, however, it became
possible to isolate individual genes from organisms and to transfer them
into others without the usual sexual crosses necessary to combine the
genes of two parents. This requires the use of natural processes such as
those provided by a common soil bacterium that "inserts" or "transfers"
some of its own genes into the root cells of plants. This led to what is
now termed "modem" biotechnology. All insulin produced since 1983, for
example, is "transgenic": a synthetic human gene, inserted into bacteria,
now produces the exact replica of human insulin.

Before this revolution in production, insulin was only available from
animals at an extremely high cost and was subject to intolerance problems.
In agriculture, plant breeders have been moving genes from one species to
another for a very long time through sexual crosses, often using
"bridging" species. Biotechnology significantly broadens the available
gene pool for plant improvement. As research results point out, "Although
some might object to moving genes from a bacterium, for example, into a
plant on the grounds that this is not "natural" or ethical, it should be
remembered that the similarity between bacteria and humans, for example,
at the molecular or genetic level is much higher than most people would
think. The mitochondria in each of our cells are most likely bacteria that
once entered our cells and made multicellular organisms possible. The
genes of the soil worm Caenorhabditis elegans are 90 percent identical to
those of mice and over 70 percent to those of humans. No one can therefore
claim that a few genes out of the 140,000 genes that make up the human
genome contain the essential nature of that species."

Despite its tremendous potential for greater supply, safer and more
nutritious foods, biotechnology has become a major bone of international
contention. Concerns about genetically modified plants has intensified
significantly over the last year, particularly in Europe, setting the
terms for the international agribiotech debate and heavily influencing the
policies of the World Trade Organization and the Convention on Biological
Diversity. Yet the commercialisation of these crops continues to steeply
increase. In 1995, there were 4 million acres of biotech crops. The number
of these exploded to a dramatic 100 million in 1999. In its latest
announcement, the International Service for the Acquisition of
Agri-biotech Applications said the total global area tilled with
genetically modified crops hit 44.2 million hectares in 2000, up 11% from
39.9 million hectares in 1999. These new crops are popular because they
provide farmers, life sciences companies, and consumers with major such as
reduced pesticide applications, higher yields, and lower consumer prices.
Observers remark that "The increased use of these crops, however, is also
creating international friction over the political economy of agriculture,
the environmental impact of agribiotechnology, the regulation of
transgenic foods, consumer choice, and, of course, the relative
competitiveness of nations."

Following the success of mapping the human genome, an international
research team, the "Arabidopsis Genome Initiative", has deciphered for the
first time the entire genetic makeup of a plant. This signifies a
breakthrough in genetics that could accelerate our ability to grow better
food and identify the drugs of tomorrow. While the technology of changing
the genome of plants has been gradually refined and increasingly
implemented the commercialization of genetically modified crops has
exceeded expectations. Several risks associated with genetically modified
crops and foods have been identified. And the popular press, roused by
protest groups especially environmental groups, have disproportionately
highlighted the risks which has left the general public with a sense of
imminent danger. Much of the mass' reservation and foreboding are based on
the fear of the unknown technology. The agricultural biotechnology
industry is placed in an uncomfortable position concerning their opinion
in the public debate because of their obvious financial stake in the

The first generation of genetically enhanced foods has focused on
increased yield and other agronomic properties, which primarily benefits
agribusiness corporations and farmers. The second generation is
emphasising consumer health benefits. It is only with these new crops that
the public will come to accept the uses of genetic modification of foods,
and it is here that the overlap of nutrition science, ecology, and plant
biotechnology will become most evident. Experts recommend, "What is needed
now is more collaboration between the nutrition and plant science fields
to adequately evaluate the functionality of genetically modified foods and
to develop new products that could significantly benefit the general
population. In addition, biotechnologists need the objective participation
of ecological researchers in helping to better determine ecological
biosafety of transgenic plants."

The second biotechnology issue that is occupying centre stage is - of
what help can biotechnology be to developing countries? The detractors
argue that a technical fix for world hunger is not possible and that the
problems are essentially political. Biotech developments have been focused
on developed world problems and large-scale agriculture, and that they
entail increase inputs and expense. They also suggest that transgenic
plants may decrease genetic diversity if used in the developing world. The
pro camp believes that, nevertheless, biotechnology can help in offering
solutions that can be part of the drive to improve health and welfare.
Genetically modified plants enriched with vitamin A or iron, or capable of
growing in extreme environments or tolerating pests and diseases, offer a
real opportunity to improve nutrition in developing countries. They also
suggest that novel developments, such as vaccines produced in transgenic
plants, may enable prevention of human diseases that is not currently
practicable by other means. Probably the clinching argument in this debate
is stated by Oxfam Canada Executive Director Rieky Stuart, "The world has
enough food to feed everyone but 800 million poor people can't afford it."

Across Asia, public sentiment about genetically modified organisms
differs. As reports reveal, Japan has shown alarm over the StarLink maize
controversy, where the product was found to have been present in human
food. While Thailand remains less affected by the issues surrounding GMOs.
India has suggested that Vietnam could use skills and knowledge that it
has developed in biotechnology as part of a bilateral agreement. Pakistan
and China are to collaborate in areas including agricultural
biotechnology, under the recently signed 15th S&T Cooperation Protocol.
The Indian government has not yet announced a policy on genetically
modified foods because no such crops are grown in India and no products
are commercially available yet. However, Indian agriculture will need to
adopt drastic measures to counteract the country's endemic poverty and
feed its booming population.

As all things in our chequered life, globalization has its shadow and
light. On the upside it can help us mobilise technological advances to
improve the lives of people throughout the world like never before. A
direct result of this movement is the growing network of biotechnology.
Technology adoption, however, is driven by capacity not by need. And so,
in a tragic paradox, industrialised countries are currently enjoying
biotech' s benefits while developing countries, where most of the world's
poor reside are unaware. The choice is ours to make. The many challenges
are spread ahead for governments. The promise is ours only if we play fair
and decide to share improved products with the poor and wealthy alike.