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Date:

March 19, 2001

Subject:

More Starbucks; Japan OKs Corn; FDA Tests Begin; Selling

 

Andrew Apel asked, "5. If any of 1-4 above are colorable claims, why are
they never pressed in the courts?"

Who would press such a suit? Certainly, a large consumer-goods or service
company would not seek out such unfavourable publicity unless there was
absolutely no alternative. These groups pressuring Starbucks to use
"green" coffee and stop using milk from BST-treated cows seems a pretty
safe bet. After all, the risks to Starbucks from NOT caving in could be a
lot greater than the alternative route. This approach worked very well
with the grocery store chains and GMOs in UK; there is no reason to think
a similar domino approach wouldn't/won't work here.
- BOB

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Subject: Activism or Marketing?
From: Andrew Apel

With the advent of the campaign against Starbucks, it is becoming
increasingly difficult to draw a clear distinction between activism and
marketing.

According to the website of the Fair Trade Federation,
http://www.fairtradefederation.com/memwhl.html the following organizations
are fair trade coffee wholesalers: CafÈ Campesino, Cloudforest
Initiatives, Equal Exchange and Peace Coffee. The Organic Consumers
Association (OCA), which is spearheading the drive against Starbucks over
fair trade coffee issues, is linking the initiative to all four of these
wholesalers.
http://www.purefood.org/Starbucks/links.htm. While Starbucks sells fair
trade coffee beans in its stores, the initiative wants Starbucks to go one
step further and brew the coffee on-site.

"If Starbucks changes their policies, others will, too," Ronnie Cummins,
the national director of the OCA, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
http://seattlep-i.nwsource.com:80/business/retail171.shtml

Deborah James of Global Exchange told the newspaper roughly the same
thing: "If Starbucks does something, then most of the others in the
specialty coffee industry, and other businesses, will take a closer look
at (it), too."

If Cummins and James are correct, then a successful campaign against
Starbucks would result in increased volume for wholesalers of fair trade
coffee.

Starbucks is also one of the largest resellers of milk in the US (See the
Seattle Post-Intelligencer article). The OCA wants Starbucks to source
only milk produced without the use of bovine somatotropin (rBST). That
means sourcing organic milk, which would be quite a boost for the organic
dairy industry. Ditto for the demand that there be no GM ingredients in
the food items Starbucks sells another boost for the organic industry.

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Sub: Patagonia's attack on Biotech
From: Jamie Bishop

http://www.patagonia.com/extra/enviroaction/index.shtml

Your gentle readers may wish to review this clothing company's line on
harm to wilderness from biotechnology. It is sad that they do not
understand that increased agricultural productivity will protect
wilderness from further encroachment. Perhaps they do not wish to
challenge the notions of their customer base. Therefore, they will not
listen.

It would be enlightening to know where this company makes their apparel.
Do they pay their workers well? Do they use dyes? In what conditions are
those dyes used? Disposed of?

Jamie Bishop

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Subject: Earth Summit Discussions
From: "Ceri"

Dear Friends,

The Earth Summit 2002 in South Africa is going to be a key focus for
WORLDwrite over the next 18 months. Volunteers are launching a critical
appraisal of arguments which suggest the environment should be a key
concern for poor communities in the developing world. Volunteers working
with WORLDwrite on this research hope to take their new found
understanding and sharpen it up further with a visit to South Africa
before and during the Earth Summit.This project is open to everyone. Do
please pass this information on to friends, colleagues, students or
organisations who may be interested.

The next Earth Summit reaesrch meeting and discussion is this Wednesday
the 21st March at 7.30pm. It will be held at the WORLDwrite Centre,
Millfields Road, London, E5 OAR (Tel : 020 8985 5435). If you'd like to
join our Earth Summit team, then come along to the discussion on Wednesday
or contact the WORLDwrite centre for more details.

Best wishes

Ceri Dingle, Director

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

Just a few comments on Mr. Sams' latest post
From: Alex Avery

>From: Craig Sams
>Re: Peanuts and Mycotoxins. The references cited to show that organic
>peanuts are higher in mycotoxins than conventional all refer to
>non-organic peanuts....a common error on this list that people
>confuse 'natural' and 'health food' with organic.......

Boy, is Mr. Sams splitting hairs here or what! This constant defense that
'natural' is not the same as 'organic' is rhetorically a great argument.
But in the real world, there isn't any significant difference--especially
in the eyes of most consumers. Every time someone points out data or info
negative about organic foods, the defense they scream is, "It wasn't
'certified' organic!!!!!" Yet, even the OTA admits that only half of foods
labelled as "organic" are certified. And remember, until the USDA program
is in full swing (a year from now, at least), there are dozens of
different certifying organizations, all with slightly different
standards--hence the USDA national program.

>Our data are available and if someone would like to establish a group
>to review them they are welcome to. The figures are unequivocal

Frankly, given the self-serving history of organic food proponents, I
simply wouldn't trust Mr. Sams's data. Only independently-gathered data,
from a respected research group will be acceptable to me. Mr. Sams can
peddle his wares and data elsewhere.

Alex Avery, Hudson Institute

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

Japan to allow foods to contain up to 5 percent biotech

TOKYO (AP) _ As part of new safety guidelines to take effect April 1, the
Japanese government will allow food products to contain genetically
modified corn in levels up to 5 percent, a newspaper said Tuesday. The
government decided to set a threshold for high-tech corn after new
technology made it possible to detect it in processed foods, the
nationwide Mainichi Shimbun said, without citing sources.

The Ministry of Agriculture's policy on corn was expected to draw
criticism from consumer groups across the country, as many Japanese are
opposed to the presence of any genetically modified organisms in food.
Ministry officials were unavailable for comment early Tuesday, a national
holiday. Japan has closely regulated biotech corn _ whose genes are
altered so that it produces its own pesticide _ citing concern over
possible health risks from eating products made from it.

American exports of corn to Japan _ the biggest overseas market for U.S.
planters _ tumbled after a Japanese consumer group complained in October
that genetically modified StarLink corn was detected in snack foods and
animal feed here. Officials from the two countries agreed in November to
jointly test future shipments for presence of genetically modified
varieties.

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

FDA to begin testing for biotech corn allergy

WASHINGTON (AP) via NewsEdge Corporation - March 20, 2001

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will soon begin blood-testing people
who say they may have been sickened by eating a variety of genetically
engineered corn. The test, which the agency recently developed, is
designed to indicate whether someone is allergic to a special protein in
the corn, known as StarLink, said Monica Revelle.

``It's a very new process so we're approaching it very cautiously,'' she
said. The government has been investigating about a dozen complaints of
people who said they became ill last fall after eating corn products.
StarLink corn, which has been withdrawn from the market, was never
approved for human consumption because of unresolved questions about its
potential to cause allergic reactions.

The corn was supposed to be used only for animal feed or industrial
purposes but was discovered in the food supply last fall, prompting
nationwide recalls of taco shells and other products. Aventis
CropScience, the corn's developer, says that more than 400 million bushels
of U.S corn have been contaminated with StarLink.

Some 94 million bushels of tainted corn have been routed from grain
elevators to approved uses, and another 343 bushels are in storage, said
John Wichtrich, general manager for Aventis CropScience. Most of the
contaminated corn came from the 1999 crop, Wichtrich said in a speech to
the North American Millers Association on Sunday.

FDA: http://www.fda.gov Aventis: http://www.starlinkcorn.com

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

The Risks on the Table
by Karen Hopkin, Scientific American

http://www.checkbiotech.org/root/index.cfm?fuseaction=newsletter&topic_id=5&subtopic_id=24&doc_id=800

More than half the foods in U.S. supermarkets contain genetically modified
ingredients. Have they been proved safe for human consumption?

A farmworker crouches in the hot Texas sun, harvesting celery for market.
That evening, painful red blisters erupt across his forearms. The
celery--a newly developed variety prized for its resistance to
disease--unexpectedly produces a chemical able to trigger severe skin
reactions.
Traditional breeding methods generated this noxious vegetable. But
opponents of genetically modified foods worry that splicing foreign genes
(often from bacteria) into food plants through recombinant-DNA technology
could lead to even nastier health surprises. The stakes are high: GM foods
are sold in many countries. In the U.S., an estimated 60 percent of
processed foods in supermarkets--from breakfast cereals to soft
drinks--contain a GM ingredient, especially soy, corn or canola; some
fresh vegetables are genetically altered as well.

Detractors cite several reasons for concern. Perhaps proteins made from
the foreign genes will be directly toxic to humans. Maybe the genes will
alter the functioning of a plant in ways that make its food component less
nutritious or more prone to carrying elevated levels of the natural
poisons that many plants contain in small amounts. Or perhaps the modified
plant will synthesize proteins able to elicit allergic reactions.

Allergy was the big worry last year when StarLink corn--genetically
modified to produce an insecticidal protein from the bacterium Bacillus
thuringiensis (Bt)--turned up in taco shells, corn chips and other foods.
Before the corn was ever planted commercially, U.S. regulators saw signs
that its particular version of the Bt protein could be allergenic; they
therefore approved StarLink for use only in animal feed, not in grocery
products. They are examining claims of allergic reactions to foods
harboring that corn, but a scientific advisory committee has determined
that the amounts in consumer products were quite low and thus unlikely to
provoke allergic reactions.
Proponents offer a number of defenses for genetically engineered foods.
Inserting carefully selected genes into a plant is safer than introducing
thousands of genes at once, as commonly occurs when plants are crossbred
in the standard way. GM crops designed to limit the need for toxic
pesticides can potentially benefit health indirectly, by reducing human
exposure to those chemicals. More directly, foods under study are being
designed to be more nutritious than their standard counterparts. Further,
GM crops that produced extra nutrients or that grew well in poor
conditions could provide critical help to people in developing nations who
suffer from malnutrition.

Advocates note, too, that every genetically engineered food crop has been
thoroughly tested for possible health effects. Relatively few independent
studies have been published, but manufacturers have conducted extensive
analyses, because they are legally required to ensure that the foods they
sell meet federal safety standards. In the past, the companies have
submitted test results to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
voluntarily in advance of sale. But an FDA rule proposed in January should
make such review mandatory.
The manufacturers' studies typically begin by comparing the GM version
under consideration with conventionally bred plants of the same variety,
to see whether the addition of a foreign gene significantly alters the GM
plant's chemical makeup and nutritional value. If the proteins made from
the inserted genes are the only discernible differences, those proteins
are checked for toxicity by feeding them to animals in quantities
thousands of times higher than humans would ever consume. If the genetic
modification leads to more extensive changes, toxicity testers may feed
the complete GM food to lab animals.

To assess the allergy-inducing potential, scientists check the chemical
makeup of each novel protein produced by the genetically altered plant
against those of 500 or so known allergens; having a similar chemistry
would raise a red flag. Proteins are also treated with acid to mimic the
environment they will encounter in the stomach; most known allergens are
quite stable and survive such treatment unscathed. Finally, investigators
consider the original source of the protein. "There is no way that a
peanut gene will ever be allowed into a strawberry," observes T. J.
Higgins of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research
Organization in Australia: too many people are allergic to proteins in
peanuts.

Arguably, the testing system has worked well so far. It showed that the
protein in StarLink corn might be allergenic (hence the animal-feed-only
approval) and led other products--such as soybeans that contained a
protein from Brazil nuts--to be abandoned before they had a chance to hit
grocery shelves. "I don't know of any evidence that any product on the
market is unsafe," says Peter Day, director of the Institute of
Biomolecular Research at Rutgers University.

The safety tests are not necessarily foolproof, though. For example, GM
plants often cannot make enough of the foreign protein for use in feeding
studies. So researchers have bacteria churn out the proteins. But a
protein made by plants, the form people would consume, might be slightly
different from the one made by microbes--a difference that might
theoretically affect the safety assessment of that protein. And studies
using whole GM foods are limited by the amount of any food that can be
introduced into an animal's diet without generating nutritional imbalances
that can confound the test results. This effect is one reason that
scientists have criticized a controversial 1999 study claiming that the
foreign DNA in GM potatoes led to abnormalities in the intestinal lining
in rats.

Beyond the acute safety considerations, some critics fear that GM foods
will do harm more insidiously, by hastening the spread of antibiotic
resistance in disease-causing bacteria. When food designers genetically
alter a plant, they couple the selected genetic material with a "marker"
gene that reveals which plants have taken up foreign genes. Often the
marker genes render plant cells resistant to antibiotics that typically
kill them. At issue is the possibility that resistance genes might somehow
jump from GM foods to bacteria in a consumer's gut, thereby aggravating
the already troubling rise of antibiotic resistance among disease-causing
bacteria.
The chances of such transfer are reportedly remote--"less likely than
winning a national lottery three times in a row," notes Hans G¸nter Gassen
of the Institute of Biochemistry at the University of Technology in
Darmstadt, Germany. Even so, to allay public concern, the use of
antibiotic resistance genes will probably be phased out in the next five
years.

Meanwhile many consumers remain disturbed that most safety tests are
performed by the very corporations that produce GM foods. Steve L. Taylor,
head of the department of food science and technology at the University of
Nebraska, admits that some may view the practice as unseemly. But, he
asks, who else should shoulder the burden--and the expense? "I'd rather
see the companies spend the money than have the government use my tax
dollars," he adds. "I don't care if we're talking about bicycles or GM
corn, it's their obligation to prove that their products are safe." No
doubt concerned scientists and citizens will continue watching to see that
they do so.


MORE TO EXPLORE
Adequacy of Methods for Testing the Safety of Genetically Modified Foods.
H. A. Kuiper et al. in Lancet, Vol. 354, No. 9187, pages 1315-1316; Oct.
16, 1999.
Effect of Diets Containing Genetically Modified Potatoes Expressing
Galanthus Nivalis Lectin on Rat Small Intestine. S.W.B. Ewan and A.
Pusztai in Lancet, Vol. 354, No. 9187, pages 1353-1354; Oct. 16, 1999.
Safety Aspects of Genetically Modified Foods of Plant Origin. Report of a
joint FAO/WHO expert consultation on foods derived from biotechnology.
Geneva, June 2000. Available at
www.who.int/fsf/gmfood/fao-who_consultation_ report_2000.pdf
Possible Health Risks of GM Foods. H. G. Gassen. Available from the OECD
Web site at www.oecd.org/subject/biotech/Gassen.pdf

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

Anti-GM Outburst misses salient facts
From: Francis Wevers

The outburst by Green Party MP, Sue Kedgley, about StarLink corn misses a
number of salient facts the Chairman of the New Zealand Life Sciences
Network, Dr William Rolleston said today.

“Ms Kedgley’s assertion that people have suffered a reaction to the
StarLink corn is premature. The FDA has initiated blood tests of a small
number of people who have filed allegations they suffered a reaction to
products which may have contained StarLink corn. The results will be known
shortly. This situation does not warrant the panic Ms Kedgley seems to
thrive on. StarLink corn is a genetically modified corn containing an
extra protein called Cry9C. Cry9C has some features, which are similar to
known allergens, but there has been no evidence that Cry9C or StarLink
corn is actually allergenic to humans. StarLink corn was not approved for
human use as a precaution pending further studies. It is interesting to
note that non-GM foods such as the newly developed Golden Kiwifruit do not
need to be tested and approved.

“There are other reasons why StarLink corn poses little or no threat to
human health, particularly in New Zealand. “Added to that Environmental
Protection Agency studies show the Cry9C protein does not survive normal
processing. “Also, the 430 million bushels of co-mingled grain from both
the 1999 and 2000 seasons are in storage and have not been released. The
300 affected products have been recalled and so cannot be exported to New
Zealand.

“Therefore there is no point in health authorities or anyone else spending
money on random testing. “To insist on the authorities imposing expensive
testing for something they are unlikely to find and for which there has
been no evidence of harm is wasteful. Ms Kedgley’s concern is misplaced
and based on incomplete research of the subject.”

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

Concentration and Technology in Agricultural Input Industries

John L. King, Electronic Report from the Economic Research Service (Via
checkbiotech.org)

Full Report at: http://151.121.66.126/publications/aib763/aib763.pdf

Abstract: Consolidation in the agricultural biotechnology industry can
both enhance and dampen market competition. This report examines the
causes and consequences of industry consolidation and its effect on market
efficiency. In some cases, concentration realizes economies of scale,
which can improve market efficiency by driving down production costs. The
protection of intellectual property rights is integral to the agricultural
biotechnology marketplace, stimulating research and development,
investment, and the development of substitute markets. However,
excessively broad intellectual property rights can hinder the market for
innovation. Recent data on mergers, acquisitions, and strategic
collaborations in the agricultural biotechnology industry, as well as the
emergence of ìlife scienceî conglomerates, indicate some level of
consolidation. However, the move by some companies to divest their seed
operations calls into question the long-term viability of these
conglomerates.

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

Greenpeace makes silent entry into Andhra Pradesh (India)
The Times of India News Service 20 Mar 2001 (Via Checkbiotech.org)

HYDERABAD: Greenpeace, the high profile international environment action
group, on Monday launched its first campaign in Andhra Pradesh, though
bereft of the group's usual pyrotechnics that are designed to catch the
eye. Greenpeace has been marking its presence in the country for the last
four years. It has been focussing largely on the ship breaking industry at
Kandla in Gujarat, groundwater and environmental pollution caused by
industrial effluents in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala. On Monday, by
launching a low-key campaign here against genetically modified bollworm
resistant BT cotton seed created by Monsanto, Greenpeace took its first
step in the state.Normally, Greenpeace campaigns, in the organisation's
own words, are radical, dogged, often confrontationist and enthusiastic.

"You could say this is the first time Greenpeace has done something in
AP," said Michelle Chawla, the group's genetic engineering campaigner. The
group, is now working against the commercial introduction of BT cotton
seed along with Centre for World Solidarity, AP Vyavasaya Vruthidarula
Union and Science for People, all non-governmental organisations.

Greenpeace expects to follow up its opposition to BT cotton in the state
more vigorously in the days to come. It is also expected to take up a
campaign against illegal dumping of toxic industrial wastes in public
lands in the state.

Greenpeace, which was in the news last year when its flagship Rainbow
Warrior reached India with a campaign to focus on the Bhopal gas tragedy,
had on March 7, `secured' a mercury waste dump of Unilever company's
thermometer manufacturing unit in Kodaikanal. The unit was in news when a
118 tonne shipment of mercury waste meant for India was refused entry by
the Central government and the ship was recalled to the USA by the sender
Holtrachem. It was then reported that mercury recovered from the waste
would be used in the manufacture of thermometers.

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

Agribusiness Urged to Prepare for Onslaught Of 'Non-Standard' Ecological
Genomic Data

By Pat Phibbs, International Environmental Reporter Volume 24 Number 06
Wednesday, March 14, 2001 P 211

ORLANDO, Fla.--Research on how genes in myriad species respond to
pesticides and other agrichemical products will raise profound questions
the agribusiness sector must be prepared to address, a British scientist
said March 7. Jason Snape, an environmental microbiologist, said the
agrichemical industry will be "very hard hit" by environmental genomic
research that already is and will be conducted in universities and other
academic settings.

Snape spoke at a two-day meeting on genomics sponsored by the
International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), which represents
chemical trade associations around the world. Snape spoke for two
organizations: his employer, AstraZeneca's Brixham Environmental
Laboratory in Devon, United Kingdom, and the British government's National
Environmental Research Council (NERC), where Snape serves as science
coordinator of the environmental genomics program.

The United Kingdom, among other countries such as Germany and Japan, has
made environmental genomic research a high priority, Snape said.
Environmental genomics is the study of how organisms and ecological
communities respond at the molecular and genetic level to environmental
stressors, such as climate change, and chemical stressors including
pesticides, industrial chemicals, and pharmaceuticals, he said. Snape told
BNA March 8 that the American Chemistry Council, which represents major
U.S. chemical manufacturers, and the ICCA already have told him they may
be interested in supporting a workshop on environmental genomic research
in September or October in Germany. One reason for holding the meeting in
Europe is to address the ecological concerns of regulators there, Snape
said, adding that some European countries have stricter ecological
regulations than the United States.

British Research Effort The British government is spending between £150
million ($220.4 million) and £250 million ($367.4 million) over the next
five years on human and environmental genomic research, Snape told BNA. Of
that sum, nearly £100 million ($147 million) is slated for research on
issues such as ways to manage the vast amount of data generated through
genomic studies, ways to use information about species' genes to develop
hardier crops and animals, and ways to use genomic information to protect
the environment, he said. NERC will receive £17 million ($25 million)
specifically for environmental genomic research, Snape said. It is
difficult to clearly distinguish environmental research conducted for
biotech purposes, such as developing genetically engineered corn, and
environmental research that is conducted for ecological protection, he
acknowledged. The primary distinction is the ultimate purpose of the
research. However, information generated in either subject area may be
used by both, he noted.

Identifying 'Fitness' Genes: NERC will award multiyear research grants to
universities, Snape said. A primary research goal is to identify genes
that help species be "ecologically fit," Snape said. Researchers will do
this by exposing species to stressors and identifying genetic effects, he
said. NERC will meet March 19 and 20 to discuss more than 170 grant
pre-proposals it has received; ultimately about 20 grants will be funded.
Research that may be funded could include identifying genes that help
species adapt to hotter climates, as well as identifying genes that help
species survive chemical exposures, Snape said. Such research also could
include identifying genes that, when exposed to a particular chemical or
pesticide, trigger reproductive or developmental defects, he added.
Reproduction is a key measure of "ecological fitness," he noted.

'Non-Standard' Endpoints, Species: Such research may take agrichemical
companies by surprise because it involves endpoints, such as genomic
effects, that are not part of traditional regulatory tests, Snape said.
Academic researchers also use "non-standard" test protocols and species,
he said. Instead of limiting themselves to the fathead minnow, fruit
flies, and algae, as regulatory tests generally do, Snape said academic
researchers are focusing on the genetic effects pesticides and other
chemicals have on species such as zebrafish, carp, and earthworms. Results
from these environmental genomic studies will begin to be published within
12 months to 24 months, Snape predicted. "The agricultural business will
have to watch out. A lot of questions will be asked," Snape said.

Companies Called Unprepared: As the papers are published, regulators are
likely to ask manufacturers questions about the environmental impacts of
their products, he said. At this point many firms are not prepared to
answer such questions, he said. For example, companies do not know whether
some of these non-standard species are more or less sensitive than
regulatory species to their products, he said. "Ecological risk assessment
is driven by the most sensitive species."

It is possible that environmental genomic research could eventually spur
regulators to use different species for ecological risk assessments, Snape
said during his March 7 presentation. At present, many companies are
reluctant to conduct environmental genomic studies of their products due
to their concern that regulators might use this information to more
strictly regulate pesticides and chemicals, many participants in the
two-day workshop said. Regulatory agencies should acknowledge that the
data coming from genomic research involve tests that have not been
validated and information that is not fully understood, Snape said. For
example, a pesticide could trigger an estrogenic response in a zebrafish,
but scientists do not yet know if that response is adverse.

Endocrine Disruption: Due to the interest in endocrine disruption and
wildlife, Snape expects that many academic researchers are likely to,
initially, focus on endocrine effects of pesticides and other chemicals.
Snape said it may take at least 10 years before the scientific community
sufficiently understands environmental genomic information to be able to
use it for regulatory purposes. He called for industry, regulators, and
institutions that fund environmental genomic research to make a long-term
commitment--more than 10 years--to support and collaborate on such
research. During this period, scientists must take actions such as trying
to reach agreement on the distinction between genetic reactions that
signal that an organism has adjusted to a change in its environment and
changes that show an organism has been harmed.

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

Selling Science to the Public

Roger Highfield, Science Magazine. Roger Highfield is the science editor
of the Daily Telegraph. He wrote The Physics of Christmas and coauthored
The Arrow of Time, The Private Lives of Albert Einstein, and Frontiers of
Complexity. He has won several prizes for science and medical journalism,
and a British Press Award.

http://www.checkbiotech.org/root/index.cfm?fuseaction=newsletter&topic_id=5&subtopic_id=25&doc_id=798

"Many journalists would like you to think that they are seekers of the
truth, but I suspect most are like me: curious gossips who like to show
off by sharing hot news with a big audience. That audience distrusts hacks
as much as boffins. But scientists could still learn from journalists.
Journalists think carefully about their audience and communicate
accordingly."--Roger Highfield


I was the first person to bounce a neutron off a soap bubble. It wasn't
much of a contribution to the scientific canon, I know, but it was fun. My
choice of project was less driven by an urge to play atomic ducks and
drakes than by the lure of a nuclear reactor in Grenoble, where expenses
gave me--experiments permitting--a wine-soaked lifestyle I had not been
able to enjoy fully as a chemistry student at Oxford University.
The ennui of developing software to process yet-to-come results, the
drudgery of dipping Langmuir-Blodgett films (another target of my
neutrons), and scarce beam time provided me with the urge and opportunity
to try student journalism. Driven on by the grim career prospects in
British science, I ended up at Britain's biggest-circulation daily
broadsheet, the Daily Telegraph.

When I joined Fleet Street in 1986, AIDS and Chernobyl were the big
stories. Room-temperature nuclear fusion ("cold fusion") came and went.
Next were salmonella and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), followed
by a lamb named after Dolly Parton. Now it is the turn of genetically
modified (GM) food, stem cells, and new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Throughout, one factor has remained constant: A story is only news if the
readers find it interesting and novel.

Many journalists would like you to think that they are seekers of the
truth, but I suspect most are like me: curious gossips who like to show
off by sharing hot news with a big audience. That audience distrusts hacks
as much as boffins. But scientists could still learn from journalists.
Journalists think carefully about their audience and communicate
accordingly.

Each day I search through dense scientific jargon and endless releases
posted on the World Wide Web to find news of interest to my readers (not
to educate them with what scientists think they ought to know). Journalism
is not merely about writing but about seizing a story by the scruff of the
neck. I have spent most of a day being thrown off the car deck of a ferry
to understand what sank the Herald of Free Enterprise, sprinted down a
road in pursuit of a gene therapist in the quest for a scoop, and told
Tony Blair that his science minister should take a bungee jump off the
Dome to illustrate Newtonian dynamics for National Science Week. (He
didn't.)
I face stiff competition within the paper. To carve out a slot among
column inches of murder, politics, and mayhem, I file three or more
stories daily. Under this pressure, stories rarely grow beyond 800 words.
Most never make it into print.

In one key respect, my job differs from that of my American peers: There
is much more competition in Fleet Street. Every day, my efforts are judged
against three direct competitors and two midmarket tabloids as we fight
for the attention of 14 million readers. Every day, my news editor
compares my stories, angles, and intros with those in the other nationals.
Every day, I have to justify my existence.
There is an obvious downside to this aggressive culture. It encourages
triumphalism, so that every gene is a milestone on that road to a cure. It
nurtures scaremongering, so that every GM crop seems likely to run amok. A
quote that pours cold water on a "breakthrough" is often sunk deep in a
story. The pressure to be first leads to half-baked copy. The endless
emphasis on the reader tempts editors to pander to prejudice and print
"talking point stories"--essentially entertaining garbage.

I doubt that the consequences are as awful as some scientists fear. Most
readers are ignorant but smart, just like scientists reacting to news
outside their field. Years of hot/cold reporting have hardened them
against hype. Equally, they are skeptical of bland reassurances, one of
the many legacies of the BSE fiasco.
Scientists could learn from the journalist's obsession with the reader. At
the Telegraph, we have commissioned a dozen polls on public attitudes
toward science. It is even more important to create a genuine dialogue
with one's "market." Perhaps the best example of this is a series of mass
experiments we have run with BBC's Tomorrow's World TV program since 1994.

The first experiment, investigating the cues used by people to detect
lies, saw more than a million attempts to ring our phone lines. We have
since staged hunts for flatworms, studied the sun by measuring its effect
on radio broadcasts during the eclipse, staged the Turing test on the
Internet, and more besides. Between hundreds and tens of thousands of
people take part, and millions watch each experiment unfold. Best of all,
the public gets a firsthand glimpse of how science works.

Inspired by a paper in Science,* we wanted to find out if fidgeting can
help the obese to slim. To ensure that the control group was equally
motivated to take part over 4 weeks, half the volunteers were selected at
random to "think" themselves thin. The results revealed that 55% of the
controls had lost 1.5 kg--about the same as those encouraged to wriggle on
the sofa, dance while washing up, and so on. Hard to explain, even
embarrassing. But at least the experiment provided the public with a
glimpse of the scientific method, the tricky bit that journalists usually
ignore.

These mass experiments are a kind of "conversation" with the audience on
immediate topics, such as obesity, the environment, or attraction. To
work, they must speak to a basic human need. This is the foundation of all
good communication. Scientists take note.

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BITTER COLD, NOT DDT, KILLS B'FLIES
March 19, 2001 The Vancouver Province
(Via Agne: Douglas A Powell )

MEXICO CITY -- Environmental authorities have blamed an unprecedented cold
spell in the sprawling forests of Michoacan state for the death of more
than 22 million Monarch butterflies, which habitually migrate to the
region to escape Canada's winter.

Millions have been found dead since the beginning of the year in the San
Andres mountains in western Michoacan. At first environmentalists believed
that loggers operating illegally in the forests were deliberately killing
the butterflies with DDT and other pesticides. But the Federal Procurate
for the Protection of the Environment department said tests on dead
butterflies had "not shown intoxication from pesticides.'' This year the
temperatures have been unusually low, reaching the freezing point at
night. Rangers have found large numbers of the dead butterflies on
frost-covered ground.

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Indian Government: Vitamin-A rich Indian rice varieties in six years

http://www.individual.com/ March 19, 2001

Pro-Vitamin - A rich Indian rice varieties would be available in six
years. These varieties would go a long way in helping poor farmers. The
Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Council for Agricultural
Research (ICAR) are jointly working towards finalising a Swiss proposal in
this regard. The proposal for joint research on Golden Rice figures in the
second phase of Indo- Swiss collaboration in biotechnology.

Institutions such as the Indian Agricultural Research Institute,
University of Delhi, the Tamilnadu Agricultural University, (Coimbatore)
and the Directorate of Rice Research (Hyderabad) will be associated in the
proposed research activities on the Golden Rice Project within the
framework of national safety guidelines.

It may be noted that a plenary on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
held during the Indian Science Congress in January recommended that
bio-safety protocols and safeguards must be followed for new
biotechnologies. Genetically modified seeds and foods also require safety
clearance from the Indian Environment Protection Act, governing the use of
GMOs and products thereof. A national containment facility for testing
transgenic planting material has also been established at the National
Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi

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Ecolabels

From: Julian Morris

I wrote a longish piece on ecolabels several years ago, which agbioview
folk may find of interest. A US version can be found here:
http://www.rppi.org/es217.html

The full study can be found at: http://www.rppi.org/environment/ps217.html

- Julian