Date: 29 Jan 2001 01:45:33 -0600
From: Robert Mann firstname.lastname@example.org
By A.V. Krebs Editor\Publisher,
The AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER
Issue#103 , January 29, 2001
After promised legal action by Iowa and 16 other farm states Aventis CropScience USA, assuring farmers and grain elevator operators that it is financially capable of handling the massive costs associated with containing StarLink, has agreed to cover the expenses farmers and elevators incur because of its genetically-engineered corn contamination.
To date the French multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical and agrichemical giant Aventis S.A., has spent $90 million on StarLink remediation while the costs are expected eventually to exceed $200 million.
Originally designed as a genetically altered corn to make it resistant to the European corn borer, Starlink was approved only for animal consumption, but unknown portions of both 1999 and 2000 harvests made it was into into the human food chain, prompting hundreds of food products to be pulled from grocery shelves last fall.
In recently announcing the agreement between the states and Aventis Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said the pact formalized previous company pledges and gives Iowa and the other states legal authority to sue Aventis CropScience should it fail to live up to earlier promises.
iAventis agreed that it is obligated to compensate growers and elevators for loss in value resulting from StarLink corn, buffer corn and commingled corn," said Miller.
Among the key portions of the agreement are:
"We appreciate the states' leadership and we will continue to work together to resolve this StarLink issue," Aventis CropScience said in a prepared statement.
consultant ecologist, P O Box 28878 Remuera, Auckland 1005, New Zealand, (9) 524 2949
Date: 29 Jan 2001 07:54:38 -0600
From: "Renu Namjoshi" email@example.com
ISIS Book Brief 26 Jan. 2001
by George Monbiot, MacMillan, London, 2000.
Review by Mae-Wan Ho, Ph.D.
The corporate take over is here and threatening the foundations of democratic government. That is the message of George Monbiot's explosive and important book Corporations have seized control of our hospitals, schools and universities. They have infiltrated the government and come to dominate government ministries, buying and selling planning permission, dispensing our tax money to research and development that benefit industry, taking over the food chain. To top it all, the British Government has colluded in ceding its power to international institutions controlled by corporations, such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Anyone who is under the delusion that corrupt or corrupted governments are only in the Third World has better think again.
The chapter on corporate takeover of universities is too close to home. I have been on the permanent academic staff of the Open University since 1976, but was strongly encouraged to take early retirement last June as I became more and more involved in the genetic engineering debate.
In the course of the genetic engineering debate, I had begun to realise that the corporate takeover of science was the greatest threat to democracy and to the survival of our planet . That was why I co-founded the not-for-profit Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) to work for social responsibility and sustainable approaches in science and the integration of science in society. As part of the agreement for my retirement, I was to be given an honorary secondment, so I could continue running ISIS from the University, while making it clear it was independent from the University. The situation soon began to rapidly deteriorate, however.
In August, less than two months after my retirement, my research assistant and I were both officially banned from the University campus. Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) alleged in a letter and phone-call to my head of Department that I was in possession of certain internal papers belonging to them. Huntingdon Life Sciences is a privately-owned laboratory, at the time doing contract research for the biotech companies, among them Imutran, a subsidiary of the corporate-giant Novartis.
The University made no attempt to communicate with me or with my assistant before imposing the ban. Had they done so, they would have found that HLS' accusation was false. I was sent some papers by a group campaigning for animal welfare, who were helping me obtain published scientific papers on cross-species organ transplant the experiments being carried out in HLS for Imutran so that ISIS could prepare a scientific critique, which we did . The internal papers were never used and have been destroyed since, as I judged that there was enough in the scientific literature to damn the whole project on safety and moral grounds.
But the chief of HLS, Brian Cass, tried to intimidate me, in phone calls, and in an e-mail, to get me to reveal the identity of the campaigning group. I refused to do so.
When I went on campus to prepare my reply to the ban, the Sub-Dean of Science came into my office and threatened to have me removed physically with the security guard.
After days on the telephone to my Union representative, the Dean of Science agreed to see me. Months later, the ban was lifted for myself, but my for my assistant; the University denied that she had, in fact, been given an honorary research fellowship a year earlier. I was further barred from using University facilities for ISIS.
The animal welfare group, Uncaged Campaigns, has gone public since with a 150 page report leaked to the press, documenting excessive suffering of animals at HLS, and Imutran's exaggeration of the success of the pig to primate organ transplant research. Imutran has brought an injunction against Uncaged Campaigns to prevent the release of the report. But just four days after the news broke, Novartis announced the closure of Imutran, and the removal of the research to the United States. Nevertheless, Novartis has pursued the case against Uncaged Campaigns to full trial and won. Since then there has been a plethora of prominent articles in the mainstream press condemning animal rights activists and defending Huntingdon Life Sciences.
George Monbiot gives many more examples of similar treatments the University administrations mete out to academics daring to dissent from the corporate agenda or to criticise it. The Centre for Human Ecology, started by distinguished evolutionist and geneticist C.H. Waddington more than 30 years ago, was hounded out of Edinburgh University in 1996, essentially for raising questions in both the scientific and popular press about the Conservative Government's science policies. Academic and government scientists are all too often asked to falsify data in order not to offend corporate funders.
"Today, there is scarcely a science faculty in the United Kingdom whose academic freedom has not been compromised by its funding arrangements. Contact between government-funded researchers and industry, having once been discouraged, is now, in many departments, effectively compulsory..our universities have been offered for sale, with the result that objectivity and intellectual honesty are becoming surplus to requirements."
The sell-out began under the Conservative Government, and with science research funding which effectively controls what kinds of science would be done. The 1993 white paper on science called Realizing our Potential, intended to "produce a better match between publicly funded strategic research and the needs of industry". The research councils, which distribute most of the public money for science would be obliged to develop "more extensive and deeper links" with industry. They would be required "to recruit more of their senior staff from industry".
The Labour government extended those reforms enthusiastically. Its 1998 white paper on competitiveness launched a 'reach-out' fund to encourage universities to "work more effectively with business". The role of the higher education funding councils, which provide the core money for universities, was redefined " to ensure that higher education is responsive to the needs of business and industry".
Thus, it comes as no surprise that the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research council (BBSRC), the main funding body for Britain's academic biologists with an annual budget of £190m, is chaired by Peter Doyle, an executive director of the biotech corporation, Zeneca. Among the members of its council are the Chief Executive of the pharmaceutical firm Chiroscience, the former Director of Research and Development of the food company Nestle; the President of the Food and Drink Federation; the general manager of Britain's biggest farming business and a consultant to the biochemical industry.
The BBSRC's strategy board contains executives from SmithKline Beecham, Merck Sharpe and Dohme and Agrevo UK (now subsidiary of Aventis, the company responsible for getting the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) to support the controversial 'farmscale' field trials with £3 million of taxpayer's money). The Council has seven specialist committees, each overseeing the funding of different branches of biology. Employees of Zeneca sit on all of them.
The BBSRC was established in 1994 to replace the biological program previously run by the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC). Whereas SERC's mandate was to advance science of all kinds. The BBSRC's purpose is "to sustain a broad base of interdisciplinary research and training to help industry, commerce and Government create wealth".
The BBSRC's press release falls into three categories: news about the research grants it allocates, news about the findings resulting from those grants, and fierce attacks on critics of genetic engineering. Arpad Pusztai' s publication in The Lancet was condemned as "irresponsible". When Friends of the Earth released the results of research showing that GM oilseed rape pollen was being carried four and a half kilometres (well beyond the legal 'isolation distances'), the BBSRC issued a statement that the finding was "a distraction from the key issues".
Gene biotechnology research is swallowing up the lion's share of the research funds. In January 1999, the BBSRC set aside £15m for "a new initiative to help British researchers win the race to identify the function of key genes". In July the same year, £19m was to be spent on new research facilities to "underpin the economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture in the UK" through "work on genetically modified crops". In October, £11m were allocated to projects that would enable the UK "to remain internationally competitive in the deveopment of gene-based technologies". Every year, the Council gives more than £10m in grants to John Innes Centre in Norwich, the genetic engineering institute which houses the Sainsbury Laboratory and has a research alliance with Zeneca and Dupont.
The BBSRC also funds the secondment of academics into corporations to "influence basic research relevant to company objectives". The Council launched a Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme, "aimed at encouraging a more entrepreneurial attitude in bioscientists". It has paid for researcher to work for Nestle, Unilever, Glaxo Wellcome, SmithKline Beecham, AgrEvo, Dupont, Rhone Poulenc and Zeneca.
Most telling of all, scientists working in university departments receiving BBSRC grants are formally gagged to prevent them becoming "involved in political controversy in matters affecting research in biotechnology and biological sciences". In practice, however, scientists can hype biotechnology to their heart's content. The gagging is strictly aimed at critics.
The same pattern of corporate takeover is repeated in the other research councils, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).
I recently visited the MRC website and found that an extra £1.9 billion is to be committed to "health genomics research" over the next five years . That is in addition to the Government's projected spending of £675m on university infrastructure through the Science Research Investment Fund, which includes high tech facilities for studying genes and proteins.
A number of the MRC proposals are controversial to say the least (see "MRC proposes human experiments in GM foods", and "UK population DNA database to be established" ISIS press releases www.i-sis.org/press.shtml
George has confirmed what many people already suspect and experienced in their personal struggles for freedom and democracy in different spheres of life. What can we do in the face of the ever-increasing consolidation of corporate control? Monbiot has only one answer: don't despair, fight on!
"The struggle between people and corporations will be the defining battle of the twenty-first century. If the corporations win, liberal democracy will come to an end. The great social democratic institutions which have defended the weak against the strong equality before the law, representative government, democratic accountability and the sovereignty of parliament - will be toppled. If, on the other hand, the corporate attempt on public life is beaten back, then democracy may re-emerge the stronger for its conquest. But this victory cannot be brokered by our representatives. Democracy will survive only if the people in whose name they govern rescue the state from its captivity."
This book is meticulously researched and scholarly, but despite the seriousness of the subject matter, it is refreshingly well written. The style of the prose is pleasantly evocative, light and engaging, even when his message is at its most uncompromisingly radical.
Institute of Science in Society
The October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester St.
London WC1N 3AL firstname.lastname@example.org
Date: 29 Jan 2001 21:35:05 -0600
From: Robert Mann email@example.com
Subject: Subject: [BIO-IPR] Resource pointer
Date: 30 Jan 2001 04:02:40 -0600
From: Robert Mann firstname.lastname@example.org
Colin Tudge's latest book, In Mendel's Footnotes: Genes and Genetics from the 19th Century to the 22nd, is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99)
By Colin Tudge,
The New Statesman,
Monday 29th January 2001
If we continue to heed experts, we shall have more disasters like BSE, argues Colin Tudge
To be anti-tech these days, in the snooty, arty English tradition, is effete and just plain silly. Science has not only revealed a universe that far excels the wildest flights of poetic imagination; it also allows vast numbers of human beings to survive. Without vaccines and telecommunications and all the other high technologies, they could not do so.
But we society and all our leaders, governments, priests and experts of all kinds, have lost control of our own abilities. We can do anything, but we have a very poor sense of what's really worth doing, or how to ensure that we get what is really needed, and avoid what is not. Science and high technology are caught up in economic and moral feedback loops that often seem to ensure they will operate antisocially, for the benefit of only a minority and at the cost of most of us. For the most part, we stand back and watch this happen. We accept the assurances of experts and governments that all is being done for the best, and that nothing can or should be done to change the way things are. Those who do protest are held to be crudely Luddite.
Nothing better illustrates this whole sorry process than BSE. In agriculture, there used to be something called husbandry. It was often picturesque cows in their meadows, the hens in the yard but this isn't just a matter of nostalgia. Traditional husbandry was rooted in good sense. It had to be: if the farmers didn't get the principles right, the animals died. Productivity was limited not too much milk per cow, or too many piglets per sow or the animals collapsed. Overcrowding promoted infection, so they were given space. The time and distance between slaughter and consumption were as short as possible, because all kinds of microbes were ready to feast on the unprotected corpses.
Science and hi-tech can be used to abet good husbandry. Ecology could give us more flowery meadows and more adroit discouragement of pests. Animal psychologists are devising ways of raising animals which allow them some personal and social freedom. Hi-tech is not, as has often been claimed, appropriate only in rich countries. In rural India, people and beasts alike would benefit from a robust vaccine against foot-and-mouth disease. The farmers of the Sahel need sorghum that is resistant to mildew and this requires genetic engineering, because no known sorghums contain suitable resistance genes that could be introduced by standard breeding. In general, hi-tech can promote individual liberty and social autonomy (as demonstrated by the telephone and the internet). Science and technology are not innately "inhuman". They can lend themselves to whatever is asked of them.
But often science and technology are used to flout and override the common sense from which good husbandry emerges. Animal feed is made more monotonous, not less, because it's cheaper that way. The animals are packed as closely as possible, however cruel and foul this may seem, and infection is kept at bay in a rough and ready fashion by tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of antibiotics, which promote bacterial resistance. The time and distance between farm and kitchen grow longer, because wholesalers and retailers alike demand "shelf-life".
This state of affairs has come about for all kinds of reasons, which are not necessarily evil. Evil is not the point. More seriously, we have created institutions and a modus operandi that produce evil outcomes, of which BSE is, so far, the most spectacular.
We are wedded, for a start, to the free market, and it is childish to suggest that this is necessarily to the bad. Free markets can deliver the goods that people want much more efficiently than centralised economies can. Yet the cash that flows around the free market will inevitably become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands unless this is vigorously prevented. In agriculture, it has not been prevented. In the world at large, there are many small farmers and retailers, yet production and distribution at all levels are dominated by remarkably few companies.
Further, though profit is not wrong in itself, it does impose constraints. Production must be maximised, value must be added, and costs must be cut. The dangers are clear. In agriculture, maximisation of output leads directly to cruelty: dairy cows really cannot produce 9,000 litres of milk per year (at least six times the output of wild cattle) without severe suffering and shortening of life. Flowery meadows do not produce the most energy per hectare so they must give way to custom-bred, monocultural ryegrass. In Britain, this, rather than pollution, has become the main cause of environmental degradation. Labour, in general, is more expensive than machinery so the workforce must be cut, and cut again. Overall, agriculture must be industrialised. The fields must be vast and packed exclusively with crops. The livestock must be bundled into "factory farms".
These are familiar shortcomings of capitalism. They do not by themselves make capitalism unworkable, but they do have to be looked out for; and in agriculture, clearly, they haven't been. The capitalism of farming is primitive. Agriculture has been allowed to become ugly, brutal, philistine, antisocial: in many important ways, the antithesis of civilisation. Science and the high technologies to which it gives rise have become party to the ugliness. They seem committed to drive those aspects of modern agriculture that, on moral and aesthetic grounds, seem the least desirable.
The rot truly set in in the early 1970s, when a government report chaired by Lord Rothschild proposed the "customer-contractor" principle. Science, said Rothschild, should be promoted in so far as it generates high technologies of the kind that can be seen to produce profit. Many, at the time and since, thought this approach was crass; that scholarship should as far as possible be independent of short-term gain. But Rothschild appealed to Edward Heath's government and to all governments since especially Tony Blair's and so the loop was established. Increasingly, scientific research is paid for by private enterprise, which in practice means big business. Big business promotes the kind of scientific research that will provide the kind of technologies that can underpin the most profitable modus operandi. The most profitable modus operandi in agriculture is industrialisation.
The result is deeply pernicious. The technologies that might improve life in villages in India or the Sahel are not, for the most part, developed: or if they are, then this is mostly as a side-product of technologies developed for other purposes elsewhere. The ecological science that could provide more flowery meadows, and the behavioural studies that could give us kinder husbandry, are very difficult to fund. They are marginalised. But the technologies that can (to take an example that has become a cliche) add a few quid to Monsanto's profits, by adding genes to rape to make it more resistant to herbicides and thus simplifying weed control, are given a free run. Thus it is that science and technology are again emerging, just as they do in times of war, as the natural enemies of what many people would consider to be the values of civilisation.
Commonsense husbandry, the kind that anyone who had dealings with animals would naturally espouse, says you don't feed the flesh of cows to cows. That is aesthetically and morally unpleasing disrespectful to the beast and, to be more down to earth, it could spread infection. But this is precisely what the modern cattle-producers did. We know what infections cattle can get, they said. We know that if we boil the flesh enough, the pathogens will all die. Aesthetics? Don't be silly. Good husbandry? Don't you know that the point of hi-tech is to supersede common sense?
The government asked Lord Justice Phillips to find out what went wrong and he "pulled no punches", as the journalists say. But did his report really get to the heart of things? It wasn't his brief, after all, to ask why hi-tech in general is deployed as it is in the world at large and in agriculture in particular and how we came to this sorry pass; so the underlying mechanism has been left in place, business as usual. It isn't the structure that is at fault, apparently; just a few ad hoc mistakes and oversights. A few greybeards have been hauled over the coals, but the deeper waters have been left untroubled. We should be asking how and why it is that science and technology have become the special tools of short-term profit; and why other considerations must always go by the board.
We should also be asking why the scientists who have appeared in public these past 15 years or so, as BSE has worked its course, have been so mealy-mouthed. Scientists in public seem to conceive it as their role not to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. They do not seem to be on the side of society as a whole (peremptorily known as "the public"). Instead, they seem most concerned to protect the dignity of their calling; to avoid saying anything that "goes beyond the evidence".
Their famous it should be infamous phrase is "There is no evidence that . . .", which they use in all the contexts in which their opinion is sought. In this case, they told us "There is no evidence that BSE can spread from species to species" which later became, more specifically, ". . . can spread from cattle to humans". Invariably, they fail to add "But absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence". To append this vital codicil would be to venture beyond mere data actually to flesh out an idea; and this, they evidently feel, is beyond the call of duty or, perhaps, more than their job is worth. But the bland assertion, "There is no evidence . . .", though commonly all too true, lends itself to disastrous misunderstanding, as John Gummer so sadly (we may hope not tragically) demonstrated when he publicly fed his daughter with a potentially dubious hamburger.
Scientists are very good at getting hot under the collar, firing pompous round-robins to national newspapers, complaining about "irresponsible" media and the "ignorant" public (that's us, folks). They should get off their high horses; remove the beams from their own eyes; ask whose side they are on; consider that they are citizens, too, and as such are moral beings; consider that the morality of the scholarship they espouse is not just that of the prevailing government, or of commerce.
Lord Phillips might also have asked why we still tie ourselves so complaisantly to the establishment. The committee that met under Sir Richard Southwood in 1988 to assess the unfolding of BSE was learned, eminent and well-intentioned. Yet it left stones unturned. Thousands of ordinary, intelligent people, who were neither learned nor eminent, would have done a much better job. They would not have taken at face value the scholarly but vague suggestion that BSE was unlikely to jump from cattle to people, even if it seemed to jump to cats. They would have asked awkward questions such as "how do you know?" and "why not?". It is primitive, hunter-gatherer politics simply to assume that the tribal elders necessarily know best. Even if they sometimes do, they can be too polite to each other. This general lesson has to do with the nature of government: that experts aren't enough; that mandarins have their limitations; that committees of inquiry need people on board and possibly in charge, alert and importunate, specifically to make trouble.
Yet the greatest lesson by far extends to all human knowledge and endeavour. Quite simply, it is logically impossible to know how much we do not know. The technicians of the 1980s assumed that if they boiled cow meat for long enough, then all infective agents would be killed. After all, scientists over many years had compiled a weighty catalogue of bacteria, worms and other parasites of the kind that may live in cattle flesh, and knew that they would all be killed by heat.
But BSE is not caused by a bacterium or a worm. It is caused by a prion: a kind of rogue protein that spreads like a computer virus a thing undreamt of until recent years: a completely novel life form that multiplies without the agency of DNA. How could the feed processors have known that such a thing existed?
And that is precisely the point: they couldn't. Science at any one time gives the impression that its explanations are complete; that everything pertinent has been taken into account. Scientists often speak as if this were the case: as if there were nothing left to do but dot the Is and cross the Ts. But this feeling of pending omniscience must always be an illusion. The physiology books of the 1960s that I was exposed to at university explained, in apparently exhaustive detail, how the human body works: yet they omitted the long string of mechanisms and systems that have been discovered since and are now known to be crucial - cyclins, apoptosis, genomic imprinting, the many roles of nitric oxide, and so on and so on. Perhaps modern science has already floodlit most of the universe. But perhaps, so far, it has merely lit one narrow, twisting path across the darkness. When you look out from the point of illumination, it is impossible to tell the difference.
The ancient Greeks appreciated this. Their technology and philosophy were wonderful. Yet they knew how little they really knew, and how delusory it was to suppose they were in charge. Whenever they grew overconfident, they were sure to be struck down by some hideous ague. The Mediterranean is littered with their abandoned settlements. Thus they conceived the cardinal sin of "hubris". In secular terms: don't chance your arm. More grandly: don't usurp the power that properly belongs to the gods.
If we didn't chance our arms at all, then there could be no new technologies of any kind, or any applied science; and that, taken all in all, would be a bad thing. But we should always bear in mind how vast is the scope of our ignorance and, worse, that we cannot know how vast it is; that there is always a chance of disaster that may be quite different in kind from anything that can yet be conceived, and far bigger. BSE shows precisely this. Always, then, we should weigh the perceived gain against the possibility of disaster that is not only unknown, but is in principle unguessable. BSE is a catastrophe and what was the perceived gain that gave rise to it? Fractions of a penny off a gallon of milk. We hardly need concepts as grand as hubris to tell us how ludicrous that was; how wicked, indeed. Common sense would have done the trick. The hubris lies in the mentality that has written common sense out of the act.
Date: 30 Jan 2001 04:38:02 -0600
By Ziauddin Sardar,
The New Statesman,
15th January 2001
Is genetically engineered food good for us? This is no simple "yes" or "no" question; the answer depends on interpretation of current research, our belief in science and progress, our attitude to the environment, our perception of risks and our politics. Even where we live has a bearing on the answer. If you live in Europe, where the BSE crisis has left an indelible mark on the public consciousness, you will probably worry about the long-term hazards of genetically modified (GM) foods. But if you live in the US, where the public still has a reverential belief in private enterprise, you are likely to see GM foods as inevitable scientific progress, carrying the promise of a better and healthier future.
In all, 99 per cent of the world's GM output comes from three countries: 17 per cent from Argentina, 10 per cent from Canada and 72 per cent from the US. If GM foods lead to some sort of environmental disaster, the US will get the blame. If GM turns out to be a boon for humanity, the US will bathe in glory. That is why it is essential to understand the American position.
So I accepted an invitation to join a handful of other journalists on an "international visitor program", sponsored by the US State Department, for a specially tailored GM tour.
Our first port of call was the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Washington, DC. It is FDA policy, we were told, to ensure that new varieties of plant food are carefully and thoroughly tested for dangerous levels of toxins. All possible risks are identified and eliminated. In one case, for example, testing revealed that soybeans modified with genes from the Brazil nut triggered an allergic reaction. Once this was discovered, the FDA did not allow the company to market the product.
Who carries out the safety tests, I asked. The companies themselves, I was told. Are these tests mandatory? No, but they are strongly encouraged. The Brazil-nut allergen gene, I pointed out, was identified because the allergen was known and could be tested for. What if the allergen is not known? What if the new gene triggered a dormant gene producing new side effects, or if the effects emerged only over a long period of time? What if a genetically engineered food engendered quite novel toxicity and effects?
The FDA spokesperson became confused. GM foods, we were told, are no more dangerous than the corresponding non-GM foods. The FDA believes that GM foods are "substantially equivalent" to non-GM foods in terms of safety and nutritional value, so, contrary to EU demands, labels have no need to mention how the food was grown.
Are you saying, we visitors asked, that GM techniques are not radically different from traditional breeding? Conventionally, we pointed out, only genes from closely related species are combined. In GM techniques, the combinations involve genes from totally unrelated species. How can that be "substantially equivalent"? At this juncture, the PR lady intervened and the meeting ended abruptly with promises of further clarification and exchanges of e-mail addresses.
The US regulatory infrastructure, we were told, is one of the best in the world. So we moved on to another of its arms: the US Department of Agriculture.
Here, we learnt that the US is on an irreversible drive to GMs. Last year, 54 per cent of soybean crops planted, 61 per cent of cotton and 25 per cent of corn were given over to varieties that included a biotech trait. So rapid and extensive is this use of GM crops that it is almost impossible to separate them from non-GM crops. Moreover, the pace of development has persuaded the agriculture department to make the regulatory process easier and more efficient. Field-tested GM plants that are candidates for commercialisation can now acquire a non-regulated status that allows them to be moved and planted freely.
Our third and most insightful discussion was held at the US Environmental Protection Agency, which has particular jurisdiction over pesticides, including biopesticides derived from natural materials. The most widely used biopesticides are subspecies or strains of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium naturally present in soil and which is well known for its ability to control pests. The agency approved its use in 1996. By the end of 1998, there were 175 registered biopesticidal active ingredients and 700 products.
The day we arrived at the agency's "crystal city" office, it released its much-anticipated report on StarLink corn, which was developed by introducing genetic material from the Bt bacterium. As a result, it produces a unique protein which has insecticidal properties that control the European corn borer. But the protein is also suspected of causing potentially dangerous allergies in humans.
Because of these doubts, the agency approved the corn for use as livestock feed only. But last year, evidence began to emerge that StarLink had entered the food chain; it was found in taco shells that came from at least two different producers and were distributed under various brand names, including Safeway. StarLink has also been detected in human food in Japan.
So the agency asked for an urgent assessment from its scientific advisory panel. It found a "medium likelihood" that StarLink protein is a potential allergen but, given the low levels of StarLink in the US diet, only a "low probability" of any reaction among those exposed to the corn. It recommended that "individuals who claim to have experienced adverse effects from StarLink corn consumption be studied as soon as possible to determine whether StarLink was the source of the reactions".
The agency's representative was refreshingly candid. It was impossible, she said, to establish a threshold below which it could be said with certainty that there was no health risk. Further, she quoted the case of the monarch butterfly. Its larvae feed on milkweed and, according to initial research, when the plant is covered in Bt corn pollen, it kills them. But later research showed that Bt pollen can be interpreted to be less dangerous than the insecticides and herbicides poured on conventional crops. Thus only continued research could give us an accurate picture of the balance of risks.
By this time, it had become obvious that there was a rather cosy relationship between the regulators and the biotech companies; that there was an unquestioned, blind faith in science; and that the failures of the regulatory process the StarLink affair, the soybeans with a Brazil-nut allergy were actually presented as successful examples of its ability to control and manage risks.
Moreover, everyone involved was suffering from historical amnesia. In the 1950s, pesticides were sold with exactly the same rhetoric; in the 1960s and 1970s, nuclear power was promoted with equal confidence. One led to Silent Spring and numerous species extinctions, the other to the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters. Memories did not even extend back to 1989, when the FDA banned L-tryptophan, a genetically engineered dietary supplement. It had killed 37 people, permanently disabled about 1,500 and poisoned more than 5,000 before it was recalled.
Mostly, we were ushered into meeting the whole-hearted GM supporters - on bodies such as the US Grains Council, the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, the National Food Processors Association and lobby groups such as the Consumer Federation of America who had beatific smiles on their faces, the kind one sees on the followers of cults such as the Moonies. Some innocuous-sounding bodies, such as the International Food Information Council, turned out to be supported almost exclusively by biotech companies. But we did meet a few doubters.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, established by a group with links to Ralph Nader, criticised the extent of the FDA's scrutiny. It also pointed out that vegetarians and members of certain religious groups, as well as those who suffer from allergies (and who fear that foods they were previously able to eat safely might now harbour new substances), had a perfectly reasonable case to demand clear labelling of GM foods. The National Farmers Union, which represents family and ranch farmers, wants "a moratorium on the patenting and licensing of new transgenic animals and plants developed through genetic engineering".
But these anti-GM voices appear to be completely marginalised. We were taken to the office of Congressman Dennis J Kucinich (Democrat, Ohio), who has sponsored two bills in the House, one requiring the mandatory labelling of GM foods and another to safety-test all GM foods. His spokesperson readily admitted that there is hardly any support for the bills.
At the Monsanto Life Sciences Research Center, based in a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, visitors are greeted by a strategically placed display. It has two plants: one looks bloomingly healthy; the other appears to have been hit by a plague of locusts. No prizes for guessing which is the GM plant "Food, Health, Hope", as the Monsanto logo puts it, of humanity.
At the visitors' centre, lecturers told us that Monsanto's vision of "Abundant Food and a Healthy Environment" was helping farmers produce more food, more economically, in an environmentally responsible way. This is a new caring, sharing Monsanto, one that wants us to believe that GM agriculture will save humanity. There is even talk of working with the peasant farmers of the high Andes to speed up, rather than replace, the traditional skills of plant breeding.
What brought about the change were the aptly named terminator seeds. Crops grown from these produce sterile seeds only, which cannot be replanted. In this way, farmers become completely dependent on Monsanto. Not surprisingly, there was an international outcry.
But there was no talk of that in St Louis. Instead, we were treated to a homily on new Monsanto products such as Roundup Ready (herbicide-tolerant) Canola, launched recently in the US, and Roundup Ready Soybeans, now widely available in Romania, Russia and Japan. Roundup Ready products, said Gary Barton, the firm's director of business strategy and communications, are "analogous to Coke and Pepsi - individual countries can have their own local varieties".
We had a guided tour of the laboratories, which were among the most sophisticated I have seen. Although much of the research is automated, there are a thousand or so humans; the bulk of them work on modifying cells to develop seeds with specific traits. We saw researchers, mostly women and mostly oriental, toiling at microscopes. What we heard on biotechnology safety simply repeated what we had been told elsewhere. (Do the regulators, decision-makers, corporations and scientists agree on a common line, I wonder?) But one important question came to the fore: why don't Europeans believe Monsanto when it says GM organisms are perfectly safe?
Perhaps, it was suggested, because Europeans are just too cynical; this is a common American prejudice. Or maybe it has something to do with Monsanto's previous assurances of safety. For example, BST (bovine somatotropin), the chemical injected into cows to increase their milk yields, was declared by Monsanto to be totally safe, until researchers at Cambridge University showed otherwise.
I got a strong impression that safety is not a major issue for biotech corporations such as Monsanto or, indeed, for the US government. For them, the issue is selling GM crops and foods to the rest of the world - as fast and as aggressively as possible. But the European backlash against GM crops has thrown a spanner in the works. It took both the US administration and the GM industry by surprise. Then came the uncertainty over StarLink, which rattled US commodity markets. Japan, the single biggest buyer of American corn, has stopped shipments of Bt corn for the first quarter of 2001. Thailand has refused to grow GM rice, for fear that it would be unable to export it. Greece and Brazil talk about designating entire regions GM-free. Tasmania is proposing to use its quarantine laws to ban GM foods. As the anti-GM fires spread across the globe, they threaten the future of American bio-agriculture.
This explains the US concern about EU plans to label GM foods. James Murphy, an assistant US trade representative, made his country's position absolutely clear: the EU labelling system would kill exports of GM crops to Europe. "We are losing trade; already we have been shut out of the corn market," he told us. To stop GM foods from being labelled, the US is ready to go to the World Trade Organisation. A full-blown trade war cannot be ruled out.
But the US objects not just to the labelling of GM foods, but also to the labelling of other foods as GM-free. Part of the argument is that it is extremely difficult to guarantee that a food is 100 per cent GM-free in a country where all processed food contains some GM maize or soya. But this is largely a manufactured problem. Or, to use the words of one State Department official, the US engages in some deliberately "advantageous commingling". It is quite feasible to separate GM crops from non-GM crops, as DuPont has shown. It grows non-GM crops on selected farms and provides a guarantee that the whole process can be traced from seed to final product. DuPont wants this food clearly labelled as "non-GM".
The GM debate has moved so far from the American position that it is beginning to generate a mild panic. One can see it in the faces of industry representatives such as the American Soybean Association members we met in St Louis. Their aim is to distance GM foods from environmental and safety issues, and to link them to two trump cards: third world hunger and medicinal benefits.
The claim that GM agro-technology is intended to feed the hungry is undoubtedly the greatest hypocrisy of all. Hunger in the developing world has nothing to do with how food is grown and everything to do with how it is distributed. Both China and India have suffered major famines at times when they also had food surpluses. Hunger and famine are caused, as the literature on the subject testifies, by inequality and unjust economic structures. It is the denial of what Amartya Sen calls the "entitlements" of the poor such as access to markets and ownership of land that is the root cause of hunger. In times of famine, only the poor starve, whatever kinds of crops are being developed or grown.
Indeed, GM crops are likely to increase, rather than decrease, hunger. Many of the crops that Monsanto wants to "improve" in Africa are cash crops, grown solely to earn foreign exchange. Such crops sustain and reinforce distorted patterns of ownership. The poor are pushed on to marginal land where they cannot grow economically viable crops and where even subsistence food crops give meagre returns. So the only people who can benefit from GM crops are likely to be the already advantaged.
In the third world, GM developments follow the classic patterns of dependency. A new technology, presented as a saviour, is imposed with the full co-operation of the World Bank. Developing countries have to buy everything from the suppliers the seeds, the fertilisers, the technology, the expertise, the consultancies. Dependency increases, along with poverty and hunger. It is a well-established equation. When things go disastrously wrong as they often do everyone jumps ship, taking the profits with them, and leaving the poor countries to fend for themselves.
It was instructive to learn that nobody involved in selling GM foods, from Monsanto to the FDA, tries to claim that GM foods at present provide benefits for consumers: they are not cheaper, safer or healthier. But eyes and rhetoric are fixed on the next generation of GM products: bananas that vaccinate, apples that enlarge breasts, potato crisps that fight cancer, milkshakes that cure obesity. Rice fortified with vitamins, soybean oils with the taste and health benefits of olive oil, corn stripped of artery-clogging fats and spiked with extra nutrients all these are almost ready to come off the production line. And beyond that, in the third wave, GM crops will replace factories and be used for producing pharmaceuticals and fuels. Where will consumer resistance be then?
For all the talk of science (a word brandished with messianic fervour throughout my US trip), I cannot help reflecting that GM technology really operates on a much older model of human behaviour. The staple foods consumed by people around the globe are the product of long development, stabilised through a process of mutual adaptation stretching over millennia. It all began with some inquisitive human being operating the basic "suck it and see" methodology.
The issue with GM foods is not all that different. Science is no longer about prediction and control: it is increasingly about uncertainty and man-made disasters. The long-term environmental and ecological effects of GM technologies will be discovered only over a long period of time. It is a case of letting the genie out of the bottle. Science proceeds - and has always proceeded not by abolishing risks, but by applying itself ever more urgently to devising remedies for escaped genies. Only those motivated by ideology or politics will say for certain that GM crops are totally safe and good for you.
So the ultimate question is: is a verdict of "inconclusive", "low probability", "not proven" good enough? Because, in all honesty, that's as good as it gets.
Date: 30 Jan 2001 15:51:46 -0600
From: Robert Mann email@example.com
Interview by Him Kill (real name Fiona Hill)
Radio New Zealand, National programme 01-1-31
jottings by R Mann
HK = Him Kill (interviewer)
SD = US Attorney Steven M. Druker
The lawsuit was a class action. The judge dismissed it. Mr Druker has appealed.
She agreed the FDA's own scientists had told the FDA that no long-term tests had been done on GEF. This was contrary to the Reagan and then the Bush admins' policies. The FDA had lied about it. The FDA declared, in a lie, that it was not aware of any evidence of possible harm. A scientist in charge of the assessment had written in a memo to the contrary.
I told the RCGM, with copies of the original documents, that the FDA had been told by its own scientists that there are unique risks and therefore each GEF may be hazardous. Go to our wesbite www.biointegrity.org to see the FDA scientists' statements and then decide whether the FDA approvals were right.
One of the hazards is poisons or cancer-causing substances never before seen and unforeseeable. The FDA scientists said chemical analysis won't do. The FDA's head of organic chemistry and other senior FDA scientists told them there's no consensus. These are not politically apptd, whereas the politically apptd deputy FDA commissioner had been a DC attorney for a major GEF corporation. He took out of all public FDA documents all criticisms of GEF and then was hired by Monsanto as VP for policy. He had begin his career with the FDA then went to the industry he was supposedly regulating, then back to FDA, and now finally to Monsanto.
Nobelist [Harvard biology] Prof George Wald stated this is the biggest break in nature ever.
We have 9 scientific witnesses saying the approval is unsound.
If the US govt told the truth, GEF would be out of commerce soon.
The laws of the USA have instituted the precautionary principle since 1958.
We know a genetically-engineered food supplement, the amino acid L-tryptophan, killed dozens and maimed thousands. It was over 99% pure but killed. It certainly WAS s e. Animal tests have yet to duplicate the symptoms of the human illness. We know that even long-term animal feeding tests aren't enough.
But anyhow there's a whole range of unforeseen harm ignored by the s e concept.
Date: 30 Jan 2001 16:10:49 -0600
From: Paul & Katrin Davis firstname.lastname@example.org
The US Vector Group has announced the first genetically modified nicotine free cigarette. They will begin marketing this year.
Of course it is not the first GM cigarette, just the first to be announced officially!!!!
Maybe the news will convince more people to go GM-Free and give up smoking all together!!! :-)
Date: 30 Jan 2001 13:10:22 -0600
From: Robert Mann email@example.com
Rachel Massey is a consultant to Environmental Research Foundation.
by Rachel Massey
Genetic engineering is the process by which genes are altered and transferred artificially from one organism to another. Genes, which are made of DNA, contain the instructions according to which cells produce proteins; proteins in turn form the basis for most of a cell's functions. Genetic engineering makes it possible to mix genetic material between organisms that could never breed with each other. It allows people to take genes from one species, such as a flounder, and insert them into another species, such as a tomato thus, for example, creating a tomato that has some of the characteristics of a fish.
Starting in the 1980s and accelerating rapidly in the past decade, companies have begun using genetic engineering to insert foreign genes into many crops, including important foods such as corn and soybeans. Just in the past few years, genetically engineered ingredients have begun appearing in many foods in U.S. supermarkets; they have been detected in processed foods such as infant formulas, drink mixes, and taco shells, to name a few examples. These foods are not labeled, so consumers have no way to know when they are eating genetically engineered food.
Genetic engineering is an extremely powerful technology whose mechanisms are not fully understood even by those who do the basic scientific work. In this series, we will review the main problems that have been identified with genetically engineered crops.
Most genetically engineered crops planted worldwide are designed either to survive exposure to certain herbicides or to kill certain insects. Herbicide tolerant crops accounted for 71% of the acreage planted with genetically engineered crops in 1998 and 1999, and crops designed to kill insects (or designed both to kill insects AND to withstand herbicides) accounted for most of the remaining acreage. A small proportion (under 1%) of genetically engineered crops planted in 1998 and 1999 were designed to resist infection by certain viruses.
Genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops are able to survive applications of herbicides that would ordinarily kill them. The U.S. food supply currently includes products made from genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops including "Roundup Ready" canola, corn, and soybeans which are engineered to withstand applications of Monsanto's Roundup (active ingredient, glyphosate), as well as crops engineered to survive exposure to other herbicides.
Genetically engineered pest-resistant (or pesticidal) crops are toxic to insects that eat them. For example, corn can be engineered to kill the European corn borer, an insect in the order lepidoptera (the category that includes butterflies and moths). This is accomplished by adding genetic material derived from a soil bacterium, BACILLUS THURINGIENSIS (Bt), to the genetic code of the corn. BACILLUS THURINGIENSIS naturally produces a protein toxic to some insects, and organic farmers sometimes spray Bt on their crops as a natural pesticide. In genetically engineered "Bt corn," every cell of the corn plant produces the toxin ordinarily found only in the bacterium.
Unfortunately, genetically engineered crops can have adverse effects on human health and on ecosystems. And by failing to test or regulate genetically engineered crops adequately, the U.S. government has allowed corporations to introduce unfamiliar substances into our food supply without any systematic safety checks.
Here are some of the reasons why we might not want to eat genetically engineered crops:
Genetic engineering can introduce a known or unknown allergen into a food that previously did not contain it. For example, a soybean engineered to contain genes from a brazil nut was found to produce allergic reactions in blood serum of individuals with nut allergies. (See REHN #638.) Allergic reactions to nuts can be serious and even fatal. Researchers were able to identify the danger in this particular case because nut allergies are common and it was possible to conduct proper tests on blood serum from allergic individuals. In other cases, testing for allergenic potential can be much more difficult. When genetic engineering causes a familiar food to start producing a substance previously not present in the human food supply, it is impossible to know who may have an allergic reaction.
In some cases, new characteristics introduced intentionally may create toxicity. The Bt toxin as it appears in the bacteria that produce it naturally is considered relatively safe for humans. In these bacteria, the toxin exists in a "protoxin" form, which becomes dangerous to insects only after it has been shortened, or "activated," in the insect's digestive system. In contrast, some genetically engineered Bt crops produce the toxin in its activated form, which previously only appeared inside the digestive systems of certain insects. Humans have little experience with exposure to this form of the toxin. Furthermore, in the past humans have had no opportunity or reason to ingest any form of the Bt toxin in large quantities. When the Bt toxin is incorporated into our common foods, we are exposed each time we eat those foods.[6, pgs. 64-65.] And of course, a pesticide engineered into every cell of a food source cannot simply be washed off before a meal.
Toxicity can also result from characteristics introduced unintentionally. For example, a plant that ordinarily produces high amounts of a toxin in its leaves and low amounts in its fruit could unexpectedly begin to concentrate the toxin in its fruit after addition of a new gene. (See REHN #696.)
Unpleasant surprises of this sort can result from our ignorance about exactly how a foreign gene has been incorporated into the engineered cell. Foreign genes can be added to cells by various methods; among other options, they can be blasted into cells using a "gene gun," or a virus or bacterium can be used to carry them into the target cells. The "genetic engineer" who sets this process in motion does not actually control where the new genes end up in the genetic code of the target organism. The "engineer" essentially inserts the genes at a random, unknown location in the cell's existing DNA. These newly-inserted genes may sometimes end up in the middle of existing genetic instructions, and may disrupt those instructions.
A foreign gene could, for example, be inserted in the middle of an existing gene that instructs a plant to shut off production of a toxin in its fruit. The foreign gene could disrupt the functioning of this existing gene, causing the plant to produce abnormal levels of the toxin in its fruit. This phenomenon is known as "insertional mutagenesis" unpredictable changes resulting from the position in which a new gene is inserted. Genetic engineering can also introduce unexpected new toxicity in food through a well-known phenomenon known as pleiotropy, in which one gene affects multiple characteristics of an organism. (See REHN #685.)
Whatever method is used to introduce foreign genes into a target cell, it only works some of the time, so the "genetic engineer" needs a way to identify those cells that have successfully taken up the foreign genes. One way to identify these cells is to attach a gene for antibiotic resistance to the gene intended for insertion. After attempting to introduce the foreign genes, the "engineer" can treat the mass of cells with an antibiotic. Only those cells that have incorporated the new genes survive, because they are now resistant to antibiotics.
From these surviving cells, a new plant is generated. Each cell of this plant contains the newly introduced genes, including the gene for antibiotic resistance. Once in the food chain, in some cases these genes could be taken up by and incorporated into the genetic material of bacteria living in human or animal digestive systems. A 1999 study published in APPLIED AND ENVIRONMENTAL MICROBIOLOGY found evidence supporting the view that bacteria in the human mouth could potentially take up antibiotic resistance genes released from food. Antibiotic resistance among disease-causing bacteria is already a major threat to public health; due to the excessive use of antibiotics in medical treatment and in agriculture, we are losing the ability to treat life-threatening diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and salmonella. (See REHN #402.) By putting antibiotic resistance genes into our food, we may be increasing the public health problem even further.
The British Medical Association, the leading association of doctors in Britain, urged an end to the use of antibiotic resistance genes in genetically engineered crops in a 1999 report. "There should be a ban on the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM [genetically modified] food, as the risk to human health from antibiotic resistance developing in micro-organisms is one of the major public health threats that will be faced in the 21st Century. The risk that antibiotic resistance may be passed on to bacteria affecting human beings, through marker genes in the food chain, is one that cannot at present be ruled out," the Association said.
To be continued.
Action Network North America (PANNA), "Genetically Engineered Crops and Foods: Online Presentation," available at http://www.panna.org/panna/resources/geTutorial.html
consultant ecologist, P O Box 28878 Remuera, Auckland 1005, New Zealand, (9) 524 2949