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February 3, 2001


Are Critics of Biotech Imperialists?; Are Proponents


Critics of Biotechnology Are Called Imperialists

By ANDREW POLLACK , New York Times February 4, 2001

Last year, with five million people in Kenya facing starvation because of
a severe drought, opponents of agricultural biotechnology urged the Kenyan
government to reject corn donated by the United States and Canada because
some of it was genetically modified. And when the United States sent corn
and soy meal to India after a 1999 cyclone that killed 10,000 people, a
prominent biotech critic in that country accused Washington of using the
cyclone victims as "guinea pigs" for bio-engineered food.

Such actions raise a troubling question about the critics of
biotechnology. Are they so against it that they are willing to let people
die? Indeed, the critics, most of whom live in wealthy countries, are
increasingly being called imperialists for opposing a technology that
could be used to develop improved crops for poor nations.

"To deny desperately hungry people the means to control their futures by
presuming to know what is best for them is not only paternalistic but
morally wrong," Hassan Adamu, until last week Nigeria's minister of
agriculture and rural development, wrote in an op-ed piece in The
Washington Post. Until now, the debate about biotechnology has focused on
whether modified crops are safe for consumption and for the environment.
And it has largely pitted the United States against anti-biotech Europe,
neither of which faces much risk of hunger. But there is a growing
recognition that the third world might have the swing vote on whether
genetically modified agriculture succeeds or fails. So both sides are
courting developing countries though some experts say the poor are being
used as pawns.

Focusing on hunger rather than safety could help the beleaguered
biotechnology industry because it emphasizes the potential benefits, not
the risks. The critics say the industry is using the poor to justify
selling their products to the rich. "The feeding-the-world argument is a
very carefully engineered P.R. exercise to create some moral legitimacy
for this technology," said Brian Halweil, an analyst at the Worldwatch
Institute in Washington. He points out that the industry concentrates on
crops like herbicide-resistant soybeans for farmers in the Midwest, not
drought-tolerant millet for subsistence farmers in Africa.

Not all critics want to stop biotechnology; some just want to increase
testing and regulation. But the most zealous seem to say that virtually no
benefit could outweigh the risk of genetic pollution from transferring
genes between species. In remarks to reporters last year, Benedikt Haerlin
of Greenpeace dismissed the importance of saving African and Asian lives
if it meant unleashing the technology. In fairness, most critics contend
that biotechnology won't alleviate hunger in the first place. The world
already produces enough food, they say, but the poor can't afford to buy
it. And they note that peasant farmers in India have destroyed fields of
genetically engineered crops, so it is not only well-fed environmentalists
who oppose them.

MANY critics see biotechnology as the latest incarnation of corporate
agriculture, which is heavily dependent on pesticides and which replaces
diverse crops with single varieties. Such an approach, they say, is
antithetical to lower-tech sustainable farming practices, like better crop
rotations, which in some cases can produce dramatic gains at lower cost.
There is also a fear that poor farmers, who often save seeds from one
year's crop to plant the next, will have to buy expensive biotech seeds
every year, making them dependent on multinational companies or driving
them off their land if they cannot afford the costs. Biotechnology
companies "don't really want to get to the crux of the matter, which is
about control of the food system," said Anuradha Mittal, co-director of
Food First, a food-policy research institute in Oakland.

Biotech backers, and many other food experts, say that for some farmers
and some regions, absolute shortages of production are a problem. And
while early efforts were indeed aimed at crops for rich countries, there
are now numerous projects to develop third world crops that are resistant
to pests, drought or poor soil. Such crops could lessen, not increase, the
need for expensive inputs like pesticides and water. And in any case,
farmers are free not to use the new seeds, if they choose.

"For us to take an attitude that these farmers are gullible and ignorant
and we have to take care to protect them from Western influences is
absurd," said C. S. Prakash, a professor at Tuskegee University who is
developing genetically modified crops for the third world. He accuses
biotech opponents of romanticizing the old ways that left people in poor
health and abject poverty.

The poster crop in this debate is "golden rice," which contains bacterial
and daffodil genes that allow it to make a nutrient that the body converts
to vitamin A. Such rice could help alleviate a vitamin deficiency that
blinds and kills millions of people each year. Developed by public sector
scientists in Switzerland and Germany, the rice seed is to be given free
to poor farmers in developing countries.

BUT some critics have denounced golden rice as a Trojan horse aimed at
winning acceptance of genetically engineered food. They say the rice
doesn't contain enough of the vitamin-A precursor to make a difference and
that, anyway, the diet of hungry children lacks the fat and protein needed
to convert the precursor into vitamin A. They say that solving just one
vitamin deficiency won't make much difference for children who suffer from
multiple nutrition problems. They also say there are other ways of
providing vitamin A, like vitamin capsules or unpolished rice.

Some proponents agree that it is unclear how much vitamin A the rice can
provide. But, they say, why does trying it preclude other approaches which
obviously haven't solved the problem yet from being pursued as well?

Ingo Potrykus, the Swiss scientist who led the development of golden rice,
said opponents have a "hidden political agenda." In an article to be
published in the journal In Vitro Plant, he writes: "It is not so much the
concern about the environment, or the health of the consumer, or help for
the poor and disadvantaged. It is a radical fight against a technology and
for political success."

In fighting to keep golden rice from the poor in developing countries, he
adds, the opposition "has to be held responsible for the foreseeable
unnecessary death and blindness of millions of poor every year."


From: Red Porphyry
Subject: Ag Biotech Marketing Strategy
(See Also Reply to this below from Tom DeGregori)

First, some contributors to this list tell me that my problem is that I
"must be a Jew or something". Now Tom DeGregori comes along and implies
that my problem is that I actually might be a Nazi (Von jetzt an, koennen
wir auf Deutsch mitein ander sprechen, wenn Sie wollen :-) ). Calm down,
Tom. Take some time and actually read what I wrote. The point, sehr
geehrter Herr DeGregori, is that Goebbels perceived that people are often
more easily influenced by large distortions of the truth than by small
ones. Use of Goebbels' marketing strategy is something that,
unfortunately, is becoming more and more common in the articles written
for, and posted to, this list. Golden rice articles are the most egregious
example of this, but other topics are coming along, like "edible vaccines".

As I've said before, I have no problem with golden rice as a
food--whenever it becomes available in the U.S., I'll be right at the head
of the line checking it out. My concern is that in their zeal to market
the wonders of ag biotech, pro-biotech scientists show little concern
about putting such things as golden rice, edible vaccines and the like in
their proper context and in their proper perspective. In fact, any attempt
to do so is contemptuously dismissed, quite possibly out of fear that the
public will never fund ag biotech projects unless grandiose and fantastic
claims are made about them. At times it's almost like watching a new
religion coming into being. James Watson is truly the Messiah! Come hear
the Good News of Agriculture Biotechnology! Surely, you must be aware of
the Jewish saying that if you are planting a tree and someone rushes up to
you and says "I have found the Messiah! Come with me and hear what he has
to say!", be sure to finish planting the tree *first* before going with
the man. :-)

Perhaps all of you are right. Maybe grandiose and fantastic claims about
the benefits of ag biotech really *is* the only way to obtain steady
funding from the public for your researches. If that's the way it is, then
that's the way it is. You and I both know that if pro-biotech scientists
and science writers keep repeating that golden rice is "rich" in vitamin A
(and also iron and iodine and....) the public at large is *extremely*
unlikely to call them on it and probably will agree to continue funding
the research at a high level as a result. But please don't delude
yourselves into thinking that your marketing strategy is one based on
reason and sobriety. It's based on emotion and a large distortion of the
truth. In short, it's Goebbels' marketing strategy applied in support of
ag biotech. Them's the facts, Jack.

BTW, Tom, I'm not a Protestant, which means I'm incapable of writing
"epistles". Alles klar? :-)


Response from: Tom DeGregori
REPLY to RED By Tom DeGregori

It seems almost pointless to respond to Red Porphry since he has such a
history of asking and then answering his own questions and not taking the
trouble to try to read or understand what others are posting to this news
group. Brief though my posting may have been, he clearly did not read it
or at least did not read it in its entirety. If it is not too much trouble
for him, I hope that he can extend the effort to read the following points
which I unfortunately have to make at length.

1) I did not call him a Nazi and specifically stated that neither he nor
those with whom he identifies are Nazis. My effort then and now, is simply
to stop the name calling, Nazi or otherwise, and get on with the business
of discussing the central issues of this newsgroup in a rational,
intelligent manner.

2) Red, no matter how you parse and deconstruct your reference to
Goebbels, the simple fact in modern discourse is that any reference to
Goebbels carries a connotation of being a Nazi and you can't weasel out of
it with you contorted explanation. A lot of other people have used the
technique of the "big lie" so any reference to Goebbels is unnecessary
unless one is making the Nazi connection. Even accepting your contrived
explanation, you are still accusing those with whom you disagree, of
engaging in a deliberate, massive smear campaign of lies akin to that of
Goebbels for reasons that are not entirely clear. Sounds like name calling
to me and not rational discourse. And then in your defense, you play with
language in such a way as to imply that I may be a Nazi.

3) I might have let the reference pass, except that there is a long
history going back to the end of World War II, that argues that the
horrors of the Nazis and the Holocaust were the outcome of the rise of
modern science and instrumental rationality. Begining with Max Horkheimer
and Theodor W Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment at the end of the War,
Horkheimwer, Adorno and others of the Frankfurt School developed an
elaborate theory that it was the enlightenment, modernity, science,
technology and instrumental rationality, that were responsible for the
holocaust. Marcuse became a major influence in the U.S. in the 1960s and
1970s when many of today's senior faculty in the humanities were in
graduate school. While the Frankfurt school was seeking to save science by
humanizing it, the emergence of post-modernism, eco-feminism and similar
isms are clearly and unequivocally ant-science and blame science and
technology for about every modern ill including the Holocaust. There are
today, German Marxist historians who even deny that anti-semitism was
responsible for the Holocaust but that it was instead, the inevitable
crisis in capitalism that caused it.

On the above paragraph, allow me to quote a paragraph from an article
manuscript of mine without adding in the citations:

- In contemporary Germany, an understandable concern about the Nazi past
has introduced the Nazi issue into current discourse about biology and
biotechnology. Nobel Laureate, Christiane Nusslein-Volhard has said
"Social scientists [in Germany] tend to associate "selection" with
Auschwitz, whereas natural scientists think foremost of Darwin's book."
Writing in Science, Manfred Laubicher believes this quotation captures the
problems in discussing biology in Germany. "What most distinguishes the
`two cultures' in Germany is their different understanding of certain key
concepts of science and history." he says. "The close association of Nazi
ideology with the language of biology still hangs like a shadow over any
discussion of the implications of modern biology and biotechnology."

4) In this particular newsgroup, I might have ignored the Nazi reference
(and once again, Red, a reference to Goebbels is a reference to the Nazis
in most readers minds unless Goebbels wasn't a Nazi?) except for the fact
that I have seen specific posted references comparing biotechnology to
what the Nazis did. I was moved to action last summer when I saw a quote
by a well known medical doctor at a large London hospital comparing
likening biotechnology to the Nazis. One can go online and find
anti-biotechnology websites where it is even stated that biotechnology is
even worst than the Nazis as it threatens the entire planet. Try this for
size: "Genetic engineers, neoDarwinists and the biotech industry are the
new Nazis. The Nazis in the 1930s only experimented on the Jewish race,
the new Nazis are experimenting on the entire human race". Among animal
liberationists, it is common place where they even compare the the killing
of chickens to the holocaust. How about this ad: "Six million people died
in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this
year in slaughterhouses." (Personally, I find it chilling that some people
equate the lives of humans and chickens in this way.)

5) So I am sensitive about any reference to the Nazis no matter how
oblique (and your reference was not oblique). The anti-GM food antics of
the last half decade or so, have awaken many scientists to the visceral
anti-science beliefs that drive people to violent acts. My purpose as an
economist/social scientist is to awaken scientists to the fact that those
performing these acts are not a bunch of isolated crazies but are by and
large the product of a set of beliefs that are being nurtured on the
scientists' own campuses by seemingly reputable faculty in other
departments. Alan Sokal (and Jean Bricmont) have done marvelous service in
exposing the charlatanims of post-modernist thought. But the anti-science
absurdities that they have so humorously exposed, are also the basis for
the violent anti-science and technology activities that are so harmful to
the interest of the world's poor and hungry. Scientist have come out of
their labs in recent years to defend their profession. They need to become
more aware of the currents of thought that feed the anti-science
mentalities so that they can more effectively counter them.

6) The irony of the comparisons to the Nazis, is that those most guilty of
leveling these accusations, are those whose belief systems are most
similar to those widely held the Nazi leadership or at least by a "green"
wing of the Nazis more or less in tune with Hess and Darre. I note that
you did not deny any of the specific points of comparison that were
raised. How about it Red, counter them or can't you do so? To many of us,
there is an underlying similarity between the Nazis and modern Green
extremists in their blind irrationality, their belief in their own purity
of will, thought and deed and their williness to impose their will
forceably on others while claiming to be the victims themselves. The few
items that I listed, are but a small portion of the many more
similarities. But once again, let me reiterate clearly and unequivocally
that I do not consider you or any of your fellow organic enthusiasts to be
Nazis or capable of a holocaust even if, heaven forbid, you achieved
power. Why don't you show us the same consideration and withdraw your
Goebbels reference and apologize to those against whom you leveled it. And
if someone made personal attacks against you, anti-semitic or otherwise,
in private communication or on-line as a result of this news group, I
would offer my apologies to you and ask them to do the same. Could you
identify the culprits and the specific indignities to which you have been

7) Finally, Red, I don't appreciate the condescending tone of your
postings and your reply to me. This has become all to common by you and
others of your persuasion who post on this newsgroup. Telling someone to
"calm down" is to treat them as if they were children on a tantrum and not
offering a reasoned argument. In your reply, you once again make personal
attacks against a number of people and you continue to libel and call
advocates of biotechnology liars who are lying to the public in order to
get funding for their research which you deem to be worthless. You are not
troubled in your opposition to vitamin A and iron enriched rice in basing
your judgement on the musings of Vandana Shiva who first opposed it
because it provided too much vitamin A and then because it did not provide
enough as if no good could be achieved by adding even a small amount to
the diet of those in need. Unfortunately, it has become a standard ploy of
critics of biotechnology to set up a straw man by claiming that we who
favor it are claiming that it will solve all our problems (the "magic
bullet" argument and now your "Messiah" argument) when all we claim is
that it is a vital, possibly critical or even essential part of a larger
set of activities that must be carried out in order to be able to feed the
growing world population. What you are claiming, is more your fantasies
than anything that i have read or seen posted.

Never forget, that this is a newsgroup dedicated to free, open and
rational discourse that allows a variety of points of view to be posted
even those at variance with what may be the prevailing perspective. True
to these principles, postings are permitted by people such as your self
even though the newsgroups of people of your persuasion, do not allow
dissenting views to be posted. The least that you can do is show us the
same respect that we show you.

P.S. - RED, you do not need to be a Protestant to send an epistle. Look it
up and read pass the first definition or two. And, by the way, thanks for
giving me an excuse to post my "wake-up" call to scientists on the threat
to them of anti-science belief systems.

Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D., Department of Economics, University of Houston

Indian regulatory system stifles industry growth

KS Jayaraman Nature February 2001 Volume 19 Number 2 pp 105-106

A damming report by industry umbrella group, the All India Biotechnology
Association (AIBA), blames the failure of India's biotechnology industry
to deliver competitive biotech products to market on competition between
the country's public and private sector bought about by conflicts of
interest in a "draconian" regulatory approval system. It says that "red
tape and lack of transparency" have stifled private sector investment and
that the system requires total revamping, if India is to become
competitive in Asia. AIBA calls for a fundamental re-structuring of the
regulatory system, as well as more resources for the private sector.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee commissioned AIBA in June to
analyze why industry growth has been poor despite a $500 million spend by
the government in the last 15 years. The resulting 57-page report, which
was published in November 2000 after worldwide consultation with such
experts as Sarwat Hasan of the World Bank and Calestous Juma of Center of
International Development at Harvard University, is the first ever
industry feedback on the Government's biotechnology program.

The AIBA points out that although about 50 GMOs have been approved for
commercial production, environmental release, or small-scale testing in
China, "India has not moved up above baseline in this regard." The report
also notes that India has yet to have its first large-scale GMO field
trial, and that only one home grown recombinant product÷hepatitis-B
vaccine÷has been approved. "Success of many biotechnology products
globally and rise of South Asian countries like China, Korea and Taiwan
specifically and inability of Indian industry to compete is of national
concern," says the report.

The AIBA has identified six principal reasons why the biotechnology
industry has failed in India. These include a lack of focus and
sub-critical funding resulting in poor scientific productivity from
several biotechnology centers. Nearly two thirds or more of government
spending was of "me-too" or "re-inventing the wheel" category and have not
been successful in product development, according to AIBA. Another
mistake, according to the report, is that the government has diluted
resources too far over a wide spectrum of biotechnology areas, and that
the choice of subjects has in some cases been politically motivated rather
than technically justified. Other problems include a public sector
unresponsive to global developments and the needs of the Indian market,
and large public sector funding dissuading private investment.

The AIBA has also identified 11 flaws in the approval system, the most
serious being secrecy surrounding the regulatory committees. Currently,
for biotechnology products to be approved, they must pass through
monitoring committees at district and state level and then review
committees in the department of biotechnology, ministry of environment,
department of health or the ministry of agriculture, depending on the
product's end use÷a process governed by the 1986 Environmental Protection
Act. Chandra Prakash, chair of the AIBA committee that wrote the report,
says that the regulatory committees pander to the government, which is
keen to be seen to be anti-GMO in order to curry favor with
non-governmental organizations. And even if a product makes it through the
maze of committees, says Prakrash, the drug controller general of India is
free to reject any recommendation on the basis of the 1940 Drug and
Cosmetics Act. In addition, "there is no appeal process of the
often-draconian decisions and their interpretations."

According to AIBA, India's product approval process is more complex and
time consuming than that of the US, and the lack of transparency dissuades
foreign agencies from collaborating with or investing in Indian
biotechnology. "It is impossible to state if or when a given biotechnology
product, which is approved in many countries, will get approval in India."

Moreover, AIBA finds strong conflicts of interest among the approval
bodies÷a situation it says has resulted in the blatant suppression of
industry by the public sector. "The Government approval process looks at
the data generated for product approval by private sector with unnecessary
suspicion," says AIBA. The trouble is that research agencies, such as the
government-owned Indian Council of Agricultural Research, are part of the
approval process while at the same time involved in their own development
of biotech products. SK Kapur, managing director of ProAgro Seed Company,
explains: "Public sector scientists engaged in developing the same
products as the private sector are under pressure to tell the parliament
that they have developed something for the people, and they use their
position in the committees to deliberately delay approval of private
company products by unnecessarily asking them to supply this data or that

To remedy this, the AIBA has called on the government to set up an
independent national regulatory authority÷directly under the prime
minister÷to act as a "single window clearance" for all biotechnology
products, withdrawing regulatory power from the committees.

While Kapur says that Abdul Kalam, principal scientific advisor to the
government, is in favor of the proposal, such re-structuring is meeting
some resistance. Prasantha Ghosh, advisor in the Department of
Biotechnology and secretary of the committee that clears small-scale
trials of recombinant products, says it is unnecessary. "There is no
denial that delays do take place, but there is nothing wrong with the
existing three-tier regulatory structure. . .Our problem is
implementation." Ghosh says AIBA is "totally wrong" in blaming the
regulatory mechanism for industry's failure. "Industry wants blanket
clearance for imported products which we cannot do," he insists.

Meanwhile, AIBA has also approached the Technology Development Board of
the Department of Science and Technology (DST) to beef up resources for
the private sector. The board was created five years ago to provide loans
to industries that have promising products to bring to market. "At the
request of AIBA we are going to apply for a $100 million loan from the
World Bank," DST secretary Valangiman Ramamurthy told Nature
Biotechnology. Under the AIBA proposal, $47.5 million of the loan would be
used by the board for promoting biotechnology industries in special parks
to be set up in Chandigarh, Hyderabad, and Delhi, and $30 million to match
three major venture capital funds in the private sector. The finance
ministry has yet to okay the world bank loan.


Rice Genome Brings Hope, Controversy

By Bradley J. Fikes February 2, 2001


A cacophony of comment greeted last year's announcement of the human
genome's sequencing. Response to the Jan. 26 announcement that the rice
genome has been mapped has been a comparative whisper. That's
understandable, because in Western countries, rice is an also-ran grain.

Yet rice is the staple for half the planet--three billion people. It is
mankind's single most important food. So a lot of people around the world
will be watching very closely what Syngenta--the Swiss-based agribusiness
company that owns the genome data--will do.

Syngenta asserts proprietary rights over its data, and will require
academic as well as commercial researchers to sign a contract
acknowledging its rights. Since free exchange of data is a fundamental
principle of academic science, some researchers are considering taking a
pass and waiting for a public rice genome initiative scheduled to finish
in 2003. (An earlier "working draft" of the rice genome completed for
Monsanto has been made available to the International Rice Genome Sequence

Syngenta is committed to helping subsistence farmers, including providing
improved rice already available, such as the "golden rice" genetically
modified to provide more Vitamin A, says Steve Briggs, president of the
Torrey Mesa Research Institute, Syngenta's San Diego-based research
center. Syngenta earlier made 100,000 rice genome sequence fragments
publicly available on the Web. "All the technology that's required to
bring improved varieties to the hands of subsistence farmers is being
donated free of cost or royalties," Briggs says. The genome sequence
itself is highly reliable, he adds. "It's a complete genome sequence. It's
high quality. The coverage is greater than 99 percent, compared to the
human genome that's only 90 to 95 percent. The accuracy is higher, so it's
a lot better map than (that of) the Human Genome Project. We refer to it
the agricultural equivalent of the Human Genome Project, but in fact it's
a higher quality project." Few would dispute the significance of
Syngenta's accomplishment, done in collaboration with Myriad Genetics
(Salt Lake City, UT) and Clemson University in South Carolina.

"Completing the rice genome is a major landmark in our advancement in
plant biotechnology," says C.S. Prakash, professor in plant molecular
genetics and director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at
Tuskegee University. "Not only is it the most important food crop in the
world, we expect we'll need to be producing 60 percent more rice in the
next 20 years, with less land, less water, and perhaps less chemicals.
Understanding the rice genome will bring us one step further toward
achieving that goal."

However, recent history shows that many activist groups won't be mollified
by these promised gains, because they reject much of what agricultural
biotechnology has to offer, or at least the corporations that want to be
its vehicle. Last year's introduction of "golden rice" was opposed by
activists such as Greenpeace because it was developed through their bête
noir of transgenic engineering and because it helps modern agribusiness.
So the genome mapping of rice by a private company unleashes all the
elements of a socio-economic drama: the tension between rich and poor
countries, old cultural traditions vs. modern biotechnology, and the
search for corporate profits.

Small Genome, Big Prize Despite its secondary role in Western countries,
agbiotech focused on rice first because its genome is the smallest of
major cereals--six times smaller than that of corn and 37 times smaller
than that of wheat. So given the close homology already known to exist
between rice genes and those of other cereals, knowing the rice genome
automatically means one has a rough guide to where genes in the other
genomes might be. And Syngenta is looking at using conventional breeding,
along with more controversial transgenic technology, to take advantage of
this knowledge. ."

"There's not only similarity, but co-linearity," Prakash says. "Even the
arrangement of genes, how they're scattered on the chromosomes, tends to
be fairly similar among crop plants.

One of the most urgent needs in rice cultivation is to increase the yield
to keep up with a booming global population. The annual increase in yield
of rice has dropped in the last 40 years, says Christopher R. Somerville,
director of the Carnegie Institute of Washington's department of plant
biology at Stanford University in California. Up until 1960, the rate of
increase was four percent, while today it's stuck at one percent per year.
"That's all that can be achieved by breeding, and it's heading toward
zero," Somerville says. Knowing the genome map should speed up genetic
work in rice and other cereals by a factor of 50, Somerville says. A
specialist in arabidopsis, Somerville says that's how much research speed
has increased since that workhorse plant's genome was made public at the
end of last year.

"My lab cloned the first plant gene by map-based cloning in 1992,"
Somerville says. "That took us 6 person-years in arabidopsis. Now we can
do it in 6 weeks. As that rice sequence becomes available to researchers,
it greatly reduces the cost and time to find the genetic basis for a
trait. It brings it down to the level where you don't have to have big,
heavily funded mechanized research labs. Individuals now, working all over
the world can do it without huge research support .. Things that people
just knew they couldn't do in the past, because students didn't have long
enough in their whole career to carry out one of the projects, now they
can be undertaken." Somerville says that examining cultivated varieties
will unravel how they grow and why some plants are small and slow-growing,
and others large and grow quickly. Because of the similarity across the
cereal grasses, Somerville says the findings in rice should be
transferable to wheat, oats, and other crops.

"Gene discovery of location and function happens faster in a model
system," says Mark E. Sorrells, a professor of plant breeding at Cornell
University. "It will always happen faster in model systems than in species
that have large, complex genomes and are polyploid. The idea is to take
advantage of that faster rate of gene discovery by transferring that
information to other species."

As head of the Small Grains Breeding Project, Sorrells is looking for ways
to improve tef, a grain that is a major staple in famine-plagued Ethiopia.
Tef has a high protein content and is drought-tolerant, and the Small
Grains Breeding Project is looking for ways to increase tef yield. The
rice genome will be more useful than that of arabidopsis for comparative
analysis of tef, Sorrells said, because arabidopsis is only a distant
cousin to the grains.

"We're looking for genes in the rice genome that have been characterized,
both in terms of their effect on the phenotype and in their metabolic
pathway function," Sorrells says. "Then we can utilize that information by
finding the same gene in tef, and hopefully it matches up with a phenotype
or a QTL (quantitative trait locus) that we've characterized in a test

Rice itself has several defects as a human food. Its cultivation depends
upon a plentiful water supply, and it's vulnerable to some serious
diseases such rice blast. Aside from that, the grain is deficient in
Vitamin A and iron. Rice actually produces a chelating compound, phytic
acid, that takes iron out of the diet, Somerville says. And rice is far
from the only water hog; it takes 17,000 pounds of water to produce one
pound of cotton, Somerville says, and the ratio is similar for grains.

Many of rice's shortcomings can be corrected without transgenic
technology, Prakash says, by delving within the genome to make better use
of what's already there. For example, golden rice was developed using a
daffodil gene, but rice already produces provitamin A. The trouble is that
it's in the husk, which is removed when rice is processed. With knowledge
of the genome, it should be possible to coax this gene to produce
provitamin A in the seed--without using controversial transgenic
technologies. "That technique, called chimeraplasty, is already
available," Prakash says. "We could make minor changes within a gene in a
plant without introducing a foreign gene--more targeted, directed changes.
This is just one of the applications. There's already research at putting
iron genes into rice, and we could perhaps expedite that and make iron in
a form that is bioavailable."

Somerville says the iron deficiency could be attacked by searching for all
the genes that make phytic acid, so they can be either removed or
modified, "probably by conventional mutation breeding." Although Syngenta
is also planning to use conventional breeding, Briggs says the company
isn't dropping transgenic crops; rather, it views breeding and transgenics
as each having appropriate roles in crop development, with decisions made
case by case.

"Our point of view is they're not substitutes for each other," Briggs
says. "Whole genome recombination that breeding makes possible is
extremely powerful. Now that we can observe all of the genes and their
recombinations in unlimited detail, we can extract, for example, a rice
blast gene that may already be present in exotic rice but not in germplasm
that's used by breeders. I think this breeding application will be not
only the fastest to marketplace, but also an ongoing and major way to
improve varieties. And then (transgenics) deals more with discrete traits,
and they can often be applied across crops species, not limited to
one…both are important."

Briggs acknowledged that Syngenta will tailor its product development to
the demands of its markets, including those that don't want transgenic
crops. For example, Briggs says Syngenta is looking into the possibility
of making a non-transgenic golden rice. "Now that we have a rice genome
map, we can ask what are all the genes required for carotinoid synthesis,
and then we can set up a diagnostic for each of those, and use that to
screen the thousands of rice varieties that are not used in breeding
programs," Briggs says. "We can perhaps find an old variety that maybe has
one step in the carotinoid pathway that's highly expressed, and a
different variety that has the second step, and so on, and pull them
together through conventional breeding, until we recombine the pathway."

This knowledge will help recapture genetic diversity lost in the
development of these crops, Briggs adds. "When humans domesticated these
crops, they did it with a very small fraction of the genetic diversity in
the species, so all of our breeding material represents 1 percent, let's
say, of the genetic potential that already exists in that species ... it
opens up the genetic potential of the traditional unused varieties."

Academic qualms
Syngenta plans to work in a collaborative model with those who wish to use
the rice genome information, Briggs says. "If in the collaboration itself,
a commercially useful invention is made, we would expect at least the
opportunity to share in that," he states. "In some cases we would pursue
that, in others we wouldn't." Prakash says he hasn't yet looked at the
contract Syngenta is proffering researchers, but isn't too concerned, as
the limitation appears to apply to commercial uses and to the developed
world. "For using in developing countries, for use on rice for poor
farmers, I don't think there will be any problem," Prakash says.

Scott Jackson, a plant geneticist at the University of Minnesota, has
registered to look at the Syngenta rice map. Jackson, a postdoctoral
scientist in the department of agronomy and plant genetics, is researching
the genetic characteristics of wild rice, recently found against
conventional wisdom to be closely related to cultivated rice, the two
having 80-05 percent gene co-linearity. Wild rice has some superior
nutritional traits to cultivated rice, but yield is harmed by its tendency
to shatter, or drop seeds from the head before harvest. Knowing the
cultivated rice genome might yield genes controlling shatter that would
apply to wild rice. Conversely, wild rice has traits that might be useful
in cultivated rice. Native to northern Minnesota, wild rice is cold-hardy.

But Jeffrey L. Bennetzen, a professor in the department of department of
biological sciences at Purdue University, says he's not interested in
signing up for data if he's restricted from sharing it. "There's always,
when an industrial group makes a contribution, an initial statement that
this will be available to the public with relatively few strings
attached," Bennetzen says. "In the end, that's usually not the case. Often
they make it so [highly restricted that] the public researchers are
unwilling to use that resource."

For example, Bennetzen says, Monsanto's release of the draft rice genome
sequence last year "wasn't of any value to me, because I wasn't willing to
give up what I needed to give to get access that information." And there's
a lot more to research than raw genomic data alone, he adds. "My research
as a public scientist is funded by the U.S. government, by the citizens of
this country. And when…10 percent of what I need [comes] from industry,
whereas the other 90 percent is funded by federal dollars, and now the
industry has complete rights over what I've done, I've really given away a
whole lot of public value for a minor gain," Bennetzen says.

Sorrells says he has not applied to use the Syngenta data, and is still
considering what effect the company's restrictions might have on his
research. In addition, partial sequences are available from other sources
such as Monsanto, albeit also with restrictions, Sorrells noted.
Somerville, of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, doesn't need the rice
genome because he specializes in arabidopsis, whose genome is already in
the public domain. However, he says those who work on rice need a public
domain map such as that now being worked on. A public genome map will tend
to make purveyors of privately held genome information offer better terms
than if they alone held that information. "I don't think we can have sole
sources for these really important sequences," Somerville says.

For reprints of this article email dloux@rmsreprints.com with your contact


From: Francis Wevers


2000 Newsletter, Greenlee School of Journalism and Communications, Iowa
State University, page 18, Volume 60, Number 68, ISU Printing Services,
January 2001. Prof. Eric Abbott, Iowa State Univ. Greenlee School of

It is one of the hottest topics on the communications speaker circuit
these days. And it is a topic that may increasingly be coming to your mass
medium. Although scientists have been talking about it for years, GMOs --
genetically modified organisms -- just began hitting the mass media two
years ago, first in Europe and then in the United States.

Prof. Eric Abbott has made presentations to six regional or national
groups of scientists and communicators this year (2000) on the topic,
including the National Animal Science/Dairy Science convention, national
Agricultural Communicators in Education Congress, national Corn Borer
Research Committee, a national group of mass media professionals, the
north central regional entomological society, and the USDA Monarch task

Why did all these groups suddenly decide they needed communication help
about GMOs? The answer is that GMOs have leaped from the frying pan of
scientific research into the fire of public controversy.

Said another way: they have moved from being a scientific issue to being
a social issue. A trigger in Europe was a scientific study showing that
rats fed a diet of genetically modified raw potatoes suffered ill health.
The potatoes were genetically altered to contain a very small amount of a
naturally occurring insecticide called Bt, an insecticide commonly used by
organic farmers. A media hoopla ensued that amounted to an average of more
than three stories per day in the Times of London and the Daily Mail.
Citizen groups begun denouncing genetically modified products, especially
those grown in the United States and exported to England. Even Prince
Charles chimed in, saying that the British should only eat natural foods.

In the United States, a leap in coverage occurred when a Cornell
University researcher found that Monarch butterfly larva that fed on corn
pollen produced by a corn plant with the same Bt gene as the potato also
did not fare well. Since more that a quarter of the corn in Iowa and other
states was Bt corn, environmentalists were concerned that the Monarch
might be endangered. In late 19999, the New York Times was running almost
one article per day on this topic. The stampede of public coverage and
denunciation of genetically modified organisms stunned scientists, who saw
transgentic research as the next pot of scientific gold.

Abbott studied media coverage of GMOs in England and the United States
from 1997 - 2000. What he found was not reassuring for scientists. Over
time, newspapers such as the New York Times and the Times of London were
using scientists as sources less and less. In fact, by September 2000,
only 12 percent of news stories on the subject quoted a scientist. In
contrast, environmental activist groups such as Greenpeace, the
Environmental Defense Fund, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, were
increasing over time.

At present, these newspapers are more than twice as likely to use a quote
from one of these groups as one from scientists in their stories. They are
more than three times more likely to quote a public official such as a
politician or regulatory official. Employees from businesses such as
Monsanto have also seen their quotes decline substantially in the New York

Summarizing the findings, Abbott noted that when an issue bursts upon the
public scene, many different groups take ownership and use it for various
purposes. For example, the fund-raising symbol for the Environmental
Defense Fund is now a Monarch butterfly. As more and more individuals and
groups become engaged in the topic, the scientists are heard less and
less. In a democracy, of course, hearing a multitude of voices is good,
Abbott said. However, important scientific aspects of these issues may be

Long term, many believe that as the public comes to understand genetically
modified products, it will accept them. This has happened with other
scientific innovations such as milk pasteurization, which was first
opposed as "unnatural." But then, of course, there is also the example of
nuclear power.


IFPRI will hold an important 2020 Vision Conference on "Sustainable Food
Security For All By 2020" in Bonn, Germany, in September 4-6, 2001. For
further details please visit