Norfolk Genetic Information Network (ngin)
An unstoppable technology?

"The next year could be crucial for biotechnology, particularly in the
international arena" - US Undersecretary of State Alan Larson

The quote comes from an interesting article, below, that identifies in
passing the extent to which biotech hopes are now pinned almost entirely
on the South, as well as the extent to which the wheels keep turning due
to massive investment dollars.

Note, for example, how the comment "There's no way you are going to stop
that technology" is linked to:

"Here at Iowa State University, the technology is proving so useful
[read that hoiw you will] that 265 of the university's 1,800 faculty are
now working on it. Since 1984, the university has poured $70 million
into biotech"

Derived from where? Corporate research dollars are obviously great for
researchers, offering "toys for boys", patents and profits. The lure,
amidst scarce public resources and an almost feverish biobiz culture,
has been irresistable but as the director of the Integrity in Science
Project, at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, commented in
a recent article from the Legal Times (October 16, 2000):

"Scientists and universities have had their chance to adopt and actively
promote meaningful and fair standards of ethical conduct concerning
conflicts of interest."
[REGULATING Dr. FRANKENSTEIN: Money, Lax Ethics, & Clinical Trials]

And what ethical sense does it make to pursue a hi-tech food fix with
regard to the South, when this doesn't address the real problems
underlying hunger and malnutrition?

Jeremy Bartlett recently pointed out in a piece we posted to this list
that world agriculture currently produces one and a half times as much
food as is needed to adequately feed the world's population and in
India, which is specifically referred to in the article below as an
obvious example of where the technology has application, grain stores
are full to bursting while people still starve. As Jeremy commented,
"Fairer distribution of land and local control of the food supply are
the keys to preventing hunger, not GM crops."

Indeed, piling massive resources into hi-tech approaches that ignore and
indeed distract from the key issues, and where part of the motivation is
to use human suffering to legitimate and shoehorn in a technology whose
risks are highly unpredictable and whose introduction has not received
the informed consent of those most directly affected by it, is a more
than dubious contribution to the greater good.

No wonder Dr Richard Horton, Editor of The Lancet, has commneted that
"Seeking a technological food fix for world hunger may be the most
commercially malevolent wild goose chase of the new century."

For more on these issues:  

For more on conflicts of interests see Appendix 1 of: 

Behind the biotech push: world hunger

By Laurent Belsie (

Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor


On the face of it, farming's biotech revolution is wavering.

As hearings on reapproval of genetically engineered crops begin this week
in the United States, protesters have stepped up their attacks. Farmers
have slowed the rate at which they're adopting the new crops. And industry
missteps, such as the widening scandal over nonapproved modified corn
showing up in taco shells and other food, has done nothing to reassure

But quietly, another biotech push is gathering momentum that may prove
unstoppable. Universities and nonprofit research organizations are pressing
ahead to genetically engineer hardier crops and more nutritious food for
the world's poor. And while the US and Europe bicker over how to regulate
these new crops, several developing countries are forging ahead with
research that could lead to dramatic transformation of agriculture in poor

"There's no way you are going to stop that technology, anymore than you
could stop the automobile or the computer," says Al Clausi, an agricultural
consultant. "It's just too good."

Here at Iowa State University, the technology is proving so useful that 265
of the university's 1,800 faculty are now working on it. Since 1984, the
university has poured $70 million into biotech, including a plant
transformation facility to do the genetic grunt work for researchers - the
first public facility of its kind in the US.

At the moment, the facility handles 10 to 12 projects a year - half from
inside the university, half from institutions as far away as Britain. And
demand is growing, says director Kan Wang. "Other universities are starting
transformation facilities, and I still see the increase."

Researchers say the technology offers more precision and speed than
traditional plant breeding. Adding a specific trait to corn might take 10
to 15 years with conventional techniques, says Tim Reeves, director of the
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico. Genetic
engineering could bring that down to five years.

By itself, the technology won't feed all the world's hungry. In Southern
Africa, for example, Mr. Reeves calculates corn yields would have to double
to provide enough food. Genetic engineering might provide 10 percent of
that boost, but traditional breeding, fertilizer, and other efforts will be
needed, too.

Since biotech only provides a piece of the puzzle - and a controversial
piece at that - some researchers argue public money to battle hunger would
be better spent elsewhere.

"We don't have to use genetically modified methods," says Hans Herren,
director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in
Nairobi, Kenya. While seed companies have genetically engineered corn to
resist a corn borer common to the US and Europe, Mr. Herren's center is
teaching farmers to use natural grasses to repel the pests.

And genetic engineering carries risks - though how much remains unclear.
Evaluating it is like trying to predict the effects of the Y2K computer bug
in advance. It's possible the technology could spawn superweeds and pests
with enough resistance to spread like wildfire.

But the potential payoffs are huge. By inserting pest-resistant traits into
plants, the technology is already reducing the pesticides used on crops.
Future advances could produce hardier crops in such abundance that farmers
would be less vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and less inclined to
carve out new land from rain forests because their old fields were exhausted.

For consumers in the developed world, who already have ample food, the
potential benefits may not outweigh the risks of genetically modified food.

This week, the US controversy over biotech corn in taco shells widened
dramatically. Aventis FoodSciences, an agricultural biotech company in
Research Triangle Park, N.C., announced that its genetically modified corn
may have moved into the nation's food system in much larger amounts than
previously known.

Traces of the corn had already been found in taco shells sold under the
Taco Bell and Safeway brands. Now the company, which is desperately trying
to buy the crop back, says the corn was sold to 260 grain elevators, many
of which resold it to food companies. The corn was only approved for animal
consumption, and researchers say it might trigger allergic reactions in

The flap is likely to fuel further public distrust of the technology and
more government scrutiny.

Meanwhile, many European nations are adopting such high safety standards
that biotech seed companies could find it difficult to commercialize their
discoveries. And the European Union, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand are
considering mandatory labels on foods containing altered crops - a move the
industry fears will scare consumers away.

"The next year could be crucial for biotechnology, particularly in the
international arena," says US Undersecretary of State Alan Larson. The food
standards body of the United Nations will address biotech crops next year.

But in the developing world, where food production is more marginal and
population continues to burgeon, the risk-benefit calculus is different. In
some regions of India, for example, crop losses can run up to 50 percent.

"The conventional approaches have not provided a solution," says Usha
Barwale-Zehr, joint director of research for an Indian seed company. "We
cannot afford to ignore the potential application of biotechnology for the
Indian farmer."


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