Home > Politics (general) > A regular repost

A regular repost

March 21st, 2004

This piece has already been posted a couple of times since I started blogging, but the issue of GM food keeps coming up, this time in the comments thread to a recent post. This is what I had to say about GM food and ‘golden’ rice a year or so ago.

On this issue, I’m a big believer in the principle of subsidiarity, that is, letting the people directly affected make the decisions. Speaking for myself, I’m convinced by the scientific evidence that GM food is as safe as the ordinary sort, that is, not perfectly, but safe enough that I have plenty of bigger things to worry about. On the other hand, the idea of tomatoes with fish genes makes me a bit queasy, and I think I and others should have a choice about whether or not to eat them. Hence, I’m in favor of labelling and I think the producers of GM foods, as the innovators, should bear the cost of this.

Taking it a level higher, I think that this is an issue that is within the competence of individual countries to decide. If Australians, contrary to my preference, decide to ban GM foods altogether, then that is our decision to make and we should not be subject to punishment by bodies such as the World Trade Organisation. To paraphrase our beloved leader, we will decide what foods we eat and under what circumstances. Similarly I think the Americans are showing some chutzpah in taking Europe to the WTO. The Bush steel tariffs are a far more fundamental breach of free-trade principles than food-safety laws which, whatever their scientific basis or lack of it, have no obvious discriminatory impact. Obviously the same freedom should apply to poor countries that want to take advantage of GM foods – they should not be subject to bullying from anti-GM Europeans.

My only dispute with the pro-GM side on the latter point is that I haven’t seen much evidence of GM foods that are actually useful in feeding the poor. Rice with added Vitamin A sounds nice, but it’s scarcely the next instalment of the Green Revolution. Most of the effort seems to have gone into making crops like soybeans “Roundup Ready’, which is not much use in poor countries. I have a bit more to say in this 1999 article entitled, The pros and cons of labelling are food for thought

Categories: Politics (general) Tags:
  1. d
    March 28th, 2004 at 05:19 | #1

    PML thread continued.
    PML, your point that nature does not have drivers of fast genetic change that are relevant to natural evolution is false for microorganism, clearly.
    My point(probably over documented (sorry)) was that the mechanisms for such rapid change have been found in higher organisms; your response was their existent is irrelevant, they are never relevant to natural evolution.
    I have one stunning counter example that refutes your claim, in a book that you will have surely read “The Ruaway Brain: The Evolution of Human Intelligence (Christopher Wills)Flamingo 1995″. Fast evolution of brains is a topic in which fast drivers of genetic change are highly pertinent,and it is no accident that Wills gives a remarkable example of such a mechanism in the “period” gene in fruit fly.
    This is at page 225 of his book. It describes a genetic device that enables rapid change and variation of a gene that control frquency of song and similar behaviour patterns in this creature.

    The whole point of current research on such genetic drivers of change is that they are very interesting when it comes to influencing natural evolution.

    So I repeat the point of my contribution to this thread:
    Anti GM groups falsly claim that events similar to laboratory genetic engineering never occur in nature.This assumption is the basis for special regulation of “GM crops” and is factually wrong. Your acknowledgement that such events do exist in nature is welcome. However the clain that they (as fast drivers of change) are irrelevant to natural evolution is absolutely wrong for microorganisms (meningococci, malaria, yeast). It is also factually wrong for fruit fly (Drosophila period gene). In short totally false.
    And as I’ve already said before, this con job by the Green movement is one of the great intellectual scandals of the the last century, especially given there are books like Willis’ that beautifully explain the relevant biology.
    I now know how Goebbles was able to mould German public opinion, after witnessing the success of propaganda (and especially vilification)in moulding public perception , first in Europe, and now even Australia on issues like GM crops. Do you think that makes me cheerful, well no, but it makes me try harder, and when the truth comes out on this isue, the fallout will be a sight to behold.

  2. March 28th, 2004 at 10:26 | #2

    “PML, your point that nature does not have drivers of fast genetic change that are relevant to natural evolution is false for microorganism, clearly.”

    Clearly there is little point continuing.

    That is not my point and never has been (so d is not refuting my claim). My point was that the dominating process for creating changes to be selected was independent of, and much slower than, the process for selecting. That is not denying that other processes for generating change exist, it is denying that they are material; so they do not make evolution unstable. Since they – or rather, processes of comparable speed – would become material in GM dominated ecological niches, we cannot extrapolate current evolutionary behaviour to those. In particular, we might well get serious instabilities under GM, eventually producing damage. One might as well argue that introducing new species was safe on the grounds that nothing had gone wrong doing that in the first 50 years of settlement of Australia.

  3. Brian Bahnisch
    March 30th, 2004 at 23:51 | #3

    Today in a radio session on weeds I heard that we had introduced 28,000 plant species since white settlement. One aspect not mentioned in these GM conversations so far, I think, is the issue of super-weeds. Yet one of the early concerns was the appearance of roundup resistant rye grass, was it not?

    Back to golden rice (vitamin A enhanced). I found an article by Alex Kirby, the BBC online environment correspondent, that puts the issue pretty clearly.

    The genes for betacarotene are present in conventional rice. It is just that in the GM rice the vitamin A is more available. Nevertheless you still need to eat a diverse diet, including green, leafy vegetables. On this Kirby writes:

    “But the sorts of vegetables people used to be able to find have declined in number as the green revolution of the 60s and 70s emphasised monocultures of new varieties.

    “Household consumption of vegetables in India has fallen by 12% in two decades.”

    The establishment of markets that make available everything everywhere is far from complete in places like India. It is not surprising that people like Vandana Shiva distrust the whole process and would like progress and development to be more locally-driven, more democratic and less externally imposed.

    So the golden rice helps, but the old rice would do also if people could get two good feeds each day with lots of veg.

    Kirby reckons that political will is what is required to defeat hunger. Instead, he says:

    “Every day 800 million people go to bed with empty stomachs. Every day more than 30,000 under-fives die, from easily prevented diseases or from hunger.”

    That is about 11 million each year. In fact Johan Galtung, the Norwegian peace professor, (he’s currently visiting in WA, but is at home at Transcend) said last year that 100,000 die each day as a result of policies adopted by the advanced countries. That’s 36.5 million each year.

    For Galtung the conditions that cause these deaths (while there is plenty of food in the world, especially since much of it is fed to animals so that rich people can have more meat on their tables than they need) also go a long way to explaining anti-West terrorism.

    This situation would not have been a surprise to Marx, whose analysis of capitalism can sound surprisingly modern, also prescient of globalsiation (see for example Rob Schaap’s blog enry of July 24, 2002). So I would not prejudge Richard Hindmarsh of Griffiths Uni (see d’s comment above) out of hand. The current state of the world is clearly sub-optimal, I think, and some like to continue to critique it, not to tear it down but to first imagine another way.

    d tells me he’s pretty busy at the moment, so if he does not respond I won’t assume he agrees (we’ve had 3 conversations, one off-web). We all carry value positions, some of them hard-won from experience and reflection, plus a whole raft of conceptual paradigms in our heads that tend to influence how we perceive and interpret our lifeworld (to use a favourite sociological term). It would be no surprise if d’s and mine turned out to be a bit different-:)

  4. d
    March 21st, 2004 at 21:52 | #4

    Perhaps the most clearcut results or value to the poor shown so far is decreased incidence of insecticide poisenings in China as a consequence using Bt (Gm)cotton (Rick Roush was a coworker on the (?Science?)paper describing that if I recall correctly). Also over the last year or so, there is increasing use of GM crops in India and China, so more clearcut documentation of benefits to poorer people could hopefully be seen most directly in those countries in the coming few years.There are now several agronomic reports relating to those developments.

  5. Brian Bahnisch
    March 21st, 2004 at 23:51 | #5

    John, I’m pretty busy in the next few days but I have concerns about most of the pro-GM arguments. People should think about the monopolistic corporate model of farming that’s behind it. The record of using corporate muscle to get the stuff in, ruining scientists careers, ministers being sacked in Britain and India for having the wrong views, the false claims being made about yields etc. I don’t think all this can be dismissed as green slander.

    The record seems to be that crops designed to perform well in Kansas or somewhere in the US are not designed for different climates, soil types and different diseases in India, Africa etc.

    Has any-one heard of Dr Judith Carmen? She was a multi-qualified person from Adelaide with quals in medicine, public health and, I think, biochemistry who was interviewed on Radio National’s “Bush Telegraph” last year. She told of an experiment with GM brazil nuts and people with colostomy bags. Anyway the genetic barrier between the GM food and the little beasties that inhabit our gut was breached after a single meal. The GM companies said it would never happen. I’ve googled her and all I get is singers and dead people. She said she wouldn’t eat the stuff.

    Then there is the problem of the rights of non-GM farmers. The Network of Concerned Farmers say that if GM canola is introduced it will cost them at least 17% more to do what they are doing now – producing certified non-GM crops. They will have to take all the risk, which is uninsurable. The management problems of preventing cross-pollination, harvesting, grain transportation and storage are pretty mind-boggling.

    Finally I heard a couple of third world agriculture experts say that crop variety improvement was way down on their list of things to improve third world agriculture. Even so they thought that the local plant breeding, which has been going on for centuries, would yield the best results. GM did potentially have a role in exploring new directions to speed up the process, while preserving the local effort. But the technology doesn’t work like that. It works on wiping out the local and establishing large markets for monopoly-style profits.

    All that having been said, if I was growing cotton in Australia and I could reduce the number of times I sprayed from 10 to 3 I’d be thinking bt cotton. The spraying is typically done between 10.30 at night and 6am I believe.

  6. d
    March 22nd, 2004 at 08:07 | #6

    Genetic barriers.
    Lets think about this: if there is gene movement between plants and bacteria occuring in nature – as this “breaching the barrier” comment supposes, how can people claim that GM (transgenic) technology is doing something not done in nature. The two ideas are mutually contradictory.(In any case, the prolific natural movement of genes beween different gut flora dwarfs any problem mooted about moment of genes from plants to bacteria).

    Using crops from Kansas in Africa.
    In what way does GM technology preclude also cross breeding traits like bt into locally adapted varieties using conventional breeding. This is what is done in practice, for example in Australia using American varieties of canola and cotton cross bred into locally adapted races.

    Thus the claim about Kansus to Africa makes a connection with alledged practices GM practices that may well be inadvisable, but which have nothing to do with GM.

    Seems like the concerns are more like suspicions about the ethics of corporations rather than against actual GM crop’s alleged problems themselves.

    But certainly there is a need for multi-pronged and diverse approaches to agriculture around the world. But consider also arguments like those in the following paper, that local problems are addressable by modern techniques also:

    Paper:
    Major Heretofore Intractable Biotic Constraints to African Food Security that May be Amenable to Novel Biotechnological Solutions
    - Gressel, J., Hanafi, A., Head, G., Marasas, W., Obilana, A., Ochanda, J., Souissi, T., Tzotzos, G. 2004. Crop Protection. Online. Doi: 10.1016/j.cropro.2003.11.014. 29 Pages.

    The input costs of pesticides to control biotic constraints are often prohibitive to the subsistence farmers of Africa and seed based solutions to biotic stresses are more appropriate. Plant breeding has been highly successful in dealing with many pest problems in Africa, especially diseases, but is limited to the genes available within the crop genome. Years of breeding and studying cultural practices have not always been successful in alleviating many problems that biotechnology may be able to solve.

    We pinpoint the major intractable regional problems as:(1) weeds:parasitic weeds (Striga and Orobanche spp.) throughout Africa; grass weeds of wheat (Bromus and Lolium intractable to herbicides in North Africa;(2) insect and diseases:stem borers and post-harvest grain weevils in sub-Saharan Africa; Bemesia tabaci (white fly) as the vector of the tomato leaf curl virus complex on vegetable crops in North Africa; and (3) the mycotoxins: fumonisins and aflatoxins in stored grains.(SNIP)

    The potential value of modern biotech to tackling all of these issues is pretty clear cut. And by the way, the back breaking job on weeding, mainly carried out by poor African women, can be tackled using new biotech approaches. A pretty good example of the value of technology to the poor, I’d say

  7. Brian Bahnisch
    March 22nd, 2004 at 09:24 | #7

    d you clearly have scientific knowledge far superior to mine, and unfortunately I don’t have time to hunt down the references at present.

    GM is partly a matter of trust. Trust, that is in what officialdom and captured company scientists tell us is true. After mad cow in Britain and Europe especially that trust is broken big time. That’s why the Europeans, rightfully, insist on labelling. Apparently the American population overwhelmingly want labelling when asked in surveys, as you would expect. The American corporates want to avoid that as an additional cost.

    It may be chutzpah to take on the Europeans. But to claim that labelling is a restraint to trade is cynical arrogance and a denial of consumer rights.

    Part of the problem here is that the economics of the food industry do not allow the same testing procedures as required for drugs. The science is looked at and then waved through by the authorities until there are shown to be adverse effects. The catch 22 is that without labelling people suffering ailments have no way of tracing such ailments back to a GM food source. Anyway some-one with a headache or rash or something would be unlikely to suspect a particular food.

    I was inclined not to be worried about eating GM food, like George Monbiot, until I heard this Dr Carmen person. She seemed at least as well qualified as you, d, so in the layperson doubt arises. That’s why I’d truly like to see whether she has written anything.

    Kansas to Africa or India
    The cross-breeding is precluded by company policy.

    I said a major problem is the coporate model and this is what Monbiot focusses upon. In India many farmers were pushed into GM on promises of increased yield. Instead of seed saving and sharing they had to go into debt to buy the seed. Instead of yield gains of up to 80%, the reverse happened. Whether this was due to the inappropriateness of the actual crop varieties or a failure to manage the crops properly or some other cause, I don’t know. But a disturbing number of farmers ended up drinking their roundup according to reports.

    According to Devinder Sharma an official government report put this down to depression and the psychological weakness of said farmers. The prescription to raise their self-esteem was to boost the program of consolidating holdings, adopting monocultures with transnational technologies etc. Pity the poor buggers who got consolidated out of their land.

    In Australia the adoption of these technologies is easier because we have, in the main, left peasant farming behind and have moved to an industrial farming model. You have not addressed the issue, however, of the farmers who want to remain GM free. It’s not a problem in cotton, but in canola where the pollen and seeds are so tiny and fine it does seem to constitute a huge threat to farmers who want to remain GM free.

    Company ethics
    This does seem to be a major problem, beyond the normal, in this area. I believe that internet search engines have even been fixed so that when you search for GM you get a flood of favourable references first.

    Last year there was an SBS doco that showed how GM companies had penetrated Ag Depts and especially farmer organisations, so that GM education campaigns and field days were sponsored by GM companies. Farmer representatives ended up looking completely ridiculous under probing questioning, but maybe that was just the evil doco makers manipulating our perceptions as usual.

    I’m in favour of alleviating the back-breaking work of peasants. (As an aside the weeding with a hoe is not so bad. I’ve done it in my youth. It’s the cotton pickin’ that breaks the back.) There are, I think, legitimate concerns all around this issue, which need to be debated and explored in an open environment. But at the centre there seems to be a pretty frightening corporate model charging ahead at break-neck speed. German farmers in another SBS doco I saw complained about a return to serfdom.

  8. TJW
    March 22nd, 2004 at 09:50 | #8

    A lot of it depends on how well other food types are labelled. As an example, should organically grown foods include labels warning of the increased risk of bacterial contamination? If a consumer is to be fully informed then maybe they should be supplied with bacterial counts.

    Another issue is how much information should be supplied to the consumer and how much should be left to the food authorities? It might require many A4 pages of scientific information to be attached to all types of foods, much of it unintelligible to the average consumer, in order that they be “fully informed”.

    As an example try decaffinated coffee. If some company developed a coffee bean that was unable to make caffeine, it would be labelled “genetically modified”. That might lead a consumer to choose the non-GM brand. But shouldn’t they also be informed that one of the alternative means of removing caffeine is to use methylene chloride, a substance also used as a paint stripper? And if that information is not relevant to the consumer because it has been determined to be a safe process, why question these same food authorities when they also claim GM food is safe?

    It seems to me that what may occur is that consumers will be “selectively” informed – that is, they will be aware of what is GM but either not informed on the nature of the alternatives (eg organic foods), or would have to be supplied with so much information that they would not understand it.

    My opinion is that consumers either are, or are not, leaving the issue to food authorities. And if they aren’t, then they should be given access to all information on all food types. Of course, none of them would actually understand any of the scientific information, but if they are stepping into the shoes of the food authorities then isn’t that what they’ll have to accept? Labelling foods as GM makes them susceptible to scare campaigns but seeing as most consumers aren’t capable of critically assessing the safety of foods based on raw scientific data, it won’t make them any more “fully” informed.

    Of course, GM labelling could be an exception to the rule that it is food authorities that determine the safety of foods and consumers are merely given nutritional information. But I don’t think that can be justified in the name of fully informing them. It’s simply a convienient political solution that has nothing to do with food safety.

  9. d
    March 22nd, 2004 at 10:31 | #9

    I can clearly understand how the mad cow saga has undermined trust. But can I also point oiut comment by biologist Nina Federoff below that explains also that the undermining of trust has a downside in that it can lead to deaths. Also, she explains there isn’t a scientific justification for giving extra expensive intense scrutiny to technologies developed from 1975 on – earlier technologies are equally if not more “risky” (but less efficient and more expesive to use). Since wealth helps people life longer, penalising effciency has a health downside to).
    Paper Quoted (expression opinions I to have expressed elswhere):
    The Difficulties of Defining the Term “GM”
    - Science. Vol. 303 No. 5665, pp. 1765-176; 19 March 2004
    Nina Federoff’s Response on her use of the term GM to describe the invention of Maize thousands of years ago in Central America:

    My words were chosen with care. It is indeed true, as Ramsay points out, that the contemporary definition of genetically modified, or GM, applies only to plants modified by molecular techniques and that I have used this definition both in writing and in public lectures. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the distinction is not just artificial and unhelpful, but profoundly counterproductive on a global scale.

    Both Grun and Ramsay maintain that meaningful discourse requires making a distinction between “traditional selective breeding” and “biotechnology based on recombinant DNA.” I disagree. It is precisely this distinction that has created the widely accepted, albeit mythical, view that “traditional” plant breeding is somehow gradual, and, yes, natural, whereas contemporary techniques are rapid and unnatural.

    According to the Mutant Variety Database, established by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (1), more than 2000 crop varieties grown today were created using chemical or radiation mutagenesis. Is using neutron radiation to create the popular Rio Red grapefruit variety gradual and natural? Is using the somaclonal variation arising as a result of passage through tissue culture to create mutant herbicide-tolerant Clearfield Corn less rapid and unnatural than introducing bacterial or mutant genes cloned by molecular techniques to create Round-up Ready corn and soybeans?

    Pinstrup-Andersen and Schioler ask, “Why, in the debate on natural versus unnatural, should we draw the line right here, right now, at the point where genetic engineering has entered the scene?” [(2), p. 80-81]. And it is indeed a puzzle that people blithely accept churning up genomes with radiation, mutagenic chemicals, and a variety of other techniques, including intergeneric crosses, while looking askance at the newer, very much less disruptive molecular methods. But maybe they don’t know what traditional breeders do.

    Moreover, the ability to move genes between species is not a recent, or even a human invention. Agrobacterium and its plant-transforming plasmids are natural: Quite without human intervention, these bacteria developed a set of plant genes useful to the bacterium, as well as the ability to transfer them to plant cells without killing the plant. Why is using this natural genetic engineering system to introduce genes coding for bacterial Bt proteins to protect plants from insect attack less natural than spraying fields with concentrated preparations of the Bt bacteria grown in huge fermenters and sold in stores? If butterfly flap, you will know that the consensus of a very large U.S.-Canadian project to assess the impact of GM corn on the monarch came to the conclusion that only about 3 in 10,000 larvae will be in danger of getting sick or dying from eating corn pollen expressing Bt genes (3).

    This seems as benign and sensible an approach to crop protection as replacing a drug with a vaccine is in human health care. It is time to eliminate the altogether artificial boundary between what humans did before molecular techniques were developed and what they do now to improve their crop plants–a point I sought to make in my Perspective. A mutation is a mutation, whether spontaneous, induced by tissue culture, or induced by radiation mutagenesis. The kinds of genetic changes that underlie the origin of corn from teosinte are not fundamentally different from those that gave us dwarf Green Revolution rice, seedless oranges, Rio Red grapefruit. And if they spread more slowly than they might today, it was probably only because people hadn’t yet invented trucks, trains, and planes.

    What’s new is that our growing understanding and knowledge of genes and how they function means that we don’t have to wait for just the right spontaneous mutation to show up, nor do we have to hurry the process by bashing genomes randomly with radiation. We can instead identify and isolate just one target gene and alter it by molecular methods in a very precise way. We can then introduce it into a plant with minimal genomic disturbance.

    I agree with Grun’s assertion that the use of the term “GM” has economic implications and may influence whether GM crops are or are not accepted. In 2002, Zambia’s president Mwanawasa puzzled people around the world by rejecting a much-needed shipment of U.S. corn for his starving nation, despite assurances by the United States, the United Nations, and NGOs that the GM corn was safe to eat and was, indeed, the same as that eaten daily in the United States, Canada, and other countries. But he was neither ignorant nor nuts. Along with the rest of Africa, Mwanawasa confronted with a truly Hobbesian choice: starve now or lose access to European GM-free markets in the future.

    As Mexico has discovered, seeds from food aid shipments find their way into farmers’ fields. It seems almost beyond comprehending, yet the apparently personal preferences of European consumers for foods made from plants that have been genetically modified in many ways, but not by molecular methods, may set Africa’s agricultural and economic agenda.

    In a recent Op-Ed piece, Normal Borlaug (who won a Nobel prize in 1970 for developing the Green Revolution wheat strains) wrote, “Biotechnology absolutely should be part of Africa’s agricultural reform; African leaders would be making a grievous error if they turn their back on it” (4). He strongly urges Africa not to follow the lead of Europe, where biotechnology has been “demonized.”

    But how can Africa afford to adopt GM technology if doing so precludes future access to European markets? Yet how can Africa afford not to adopt GM technology, which is scale-independent and biologically based, in its struggle to attain food security? Are we not part of the problem with our insistence on hanging a special label on crops genetically modified by molecular techniques, quite without evidence of any kind that these crops pose new environmental problems or that foods made from them create new he in the developed world are certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods, but can we please eat first?” (5).

    - Nina Fedoroff, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Pennsylvania State
    University: [email protected]

  10. March 22nd, 2004 at 10:37 | #10

    John: Why must a decision be made on a country-wide scale? Why can’t the government simply allow those who wish to grow GM to do so, and those that don’t are not forced to.

    Isn’t it also true to say that if I decide to grow GM foods, then that is my decision? If I decide to eat theam, it is also my decsision. Why is majority rule the best course of action here?

    I find your ambivalence about golden rice a little disturbing. “Rice with added Vitamin A sounds nice, but it’s scarcely the next instalment of the Green Revolution.”

    You’re right, it’s neither here nor there. Who cares if a few chinky kids go blind, as long as western worriers are satisfied that the company has created enough trust, eh?

  11. John Quiggin
    March 22nd, 2004 at 14:32 | #11

    yobbo, the policy position I set out does allow those who want to grow GM food to do so, and allows individuals to eat if they want – try reading the post before you criticise it.

    Your comment on golden rice is not much better. There are plenty of ways of getting additional vitamin A into the diet (for example, as a supplement in sugar and skimmed milk. To my knowledge, there’s very little evidence to suggest that GM rice is going to be more cost-effective than existing methods. I don’t want to dismiss anything that might improve human welfare, but it’s reasonable to point out that it’s a marginal contribution by comparison with that made by traditional plant-breeding methods.

  12. d
    March 22nd, 2004 at 15:04 | #12

    I’d point out that your lack of awareness in biotechnology and its benefits for poor people does not mean that evidence is not available, and as far as vitamin A is concerned, my recollection is that a Rockefeller foundation study indicated that golden rice or equivalent is very cost effective compared to alternatives. I guess the main factor is that it produces seed where as vitamin supplements do not, and so poor farmers can make their own once they get some seed. Its benefits multiply so as to speak.

  13. Tom Davies
    March 22nd, 2004 at 15:08 | #13

    Can you explain why you feel that all consumers should bear the cost of labelling GM foods, rather than having it born by those who particularly don’t — or particularly do — wish to consume them? “Because it’s an innovation” seems rather weak.

  14. John Quiggin
    March 22nd, 2004 at 15:29 | #14

    A better argument is that most people want to have this information. This survey is from European sources, and Australian results might not be quite so overwhelming, but I’m sure thye’d be much the same.

    It’s clear from reading the opponents of labelling that their opposition is not based on cost but on the fear that GM food will prove hard to sell.

  15. March 22nd, 2004 at 15:34 | #15

    d, I’m going to point out a couple of places where even your knowledge of the area falls short:-

    - “clearcut results or value to the poor” aren’t clear cut, because it’s only looking at one area of benefit (you need to find out what else is going on and make sure there isn’t a greater downside somewhere else); and

    - ‘if there is gene movement between plants and bacteria occuring in nature – as this “breaching the barrier” comment supposes, how can people claim that GM (transgenic) technology is doing something not done in nature’ assumes, again, that there is only one problem area; in fact the thing with GM that isn’t happening in nature is its Russian Roulette approach, with spontaneous mutation being replaced by a much faster engine of change that is actually driven by feedback from its results (natural evolution uses slow spontaneous mutation with a much faster natural selection, a process that does not produce instability).

  16. d
    March 22nd, 2004 at 15:37 | #16

    An even weaker claim made by some is that meat from animals fed on GM grain should labelled GM. This was mentioned in an editorial in the Melbourne Age today for instance. The safety relevance of this is close to zero, the costs not zero.
    Meanwhile no objective levels of tolerance , or labels, are set by organic food producers for mycotoxin levels, or E. coli pathogen presence, all arguable risks of “organic producers”.

  17. Tom Davies
    March 22nd, 2004 at 15:45 | #17

    Do we really need to bother our hard-working politicians with this?

    As long as labelling is not explicitly forbidden, then it seems to me that people will get the labelling they want a la Dolphin friendly Tuna — or concern about GM food will be a nine day wonder and labelling will be forgotten.

  18. John Quiggin
    March 22nd, 2004 at 15:54 | #18

    Tom, your concern is commendable but misplaced. A policy on labelling was adopted in 2000. So it’s only those who want to reopen the issue who will be bothering our politicians unnecessarily.

  19. d
    March 22nd, 2004 at 19:57 | #19

    PML,
    Thanks for your comments.
    But I think you underestimate how quickly natural evolution can act, and are not factually correct in saying it only involves slow mutation. In fact some genes have evolved sophisticated mechanisms to change quickly using DNA arrangement and natural genetic switches to generate new genetic structures at rapid rates. In fact numerous mechanism to generate such genetic instability have been identified in a wide range of organisms and it is a topic of great research interest to to biologists. The examples of natural genetic instability I am most famililiar with are the genes of parasites such as meningococcus bacteria, or malaria organisms, but other genetic examples occur in certain diseases such as Huntington’s disease where repetitive DNA provides a means for human genes to change quickly. Human ability to make immune responses rests on similar devices to generate genetic diversity rapidly. But you dont have to take my word for it, Nina Fedoroff (whom I quoted earlier was in effect touching on a similar argument if you trace her story back to the original papers, and she’s much more known as a genetics expert than I am.

  20. Kinich Gatsky
    March 22nd, 2004 at 20:04 | #20

    It seems to me that the medical risks GM foods pose to humans are quite minor in the scheme of things, or at least on a par with the risks associated with any food that has been around for less than a generation. It is possible that GM soya contains an undetectable neurotoxin that gives you Alzheimer’s disease 20 years down the track, but it is also possible that ChupaChumps do the same. That isn’t to say of course that people shouldn’t have a choice whether they want to eat it or not.

    The abstract for the article describing gene transfer from GM food to human gut bacteria can be found here. To be precise, the synthetic gene they were looking for in gut bacteria was apparently already there before the subjects were fed GM-soya as part of the experiment. The experimenters conclusion was:

    “Although we found some evidence of preexisting gene transfer between the GM soya and the human small intestinal microflora, the bacteria containing the transgene represented a very small proportion of the microbial population, and there was no indication that the complete transgene had been transferred to the prokaryotes [ie. gut bacteria]. Thus, it is highly unlikely that the gene transfer events seen in this study would alter gastrointestinal function or pose a risk to human health. Nevertheless, the observed survival of transgenic DNA from a GM plant during passage through the small intestine should be considered in future safety assessments of GM.”

    Thus, it is possible that a gene transferred from a GM plant could create some kind of superbug that goes on to destroy humanity. However, these worst-case scenarios should not be allowed to unduly skew the cost-benefit analysis of GM-food. I think the risk that GM crops pose to the ecosystem is much more pertinent and unpredictable.

  21. James Farrell
    March 22nd, 2004 at 22:28 | #21

    The above examples of GM foods doing this or that for farmers in poor countries all sound as if they’ve been cut and pasted from biotech corporate press releases. Of course there are benefits, but the risks of creating ecological pests and plagues is far too high. And as Brian Bahnisch reminds us in his splendid first paragraph, who wants to be at the mercy of corporate lawyers, lobbyists and PR sleazebags as this process gets underway? The health aspect of the issue serves as a convenient distraction for these people, confining the debate to terrain where they feel they are stronger ground.

  22. d
    March 22nd, 2004 at 23:06 | #22

    I’d like to point out that its also possible for genes to be transferred from non GM plants to bacteria and in fact this has occurred many times during natural evolution, and yes theoretically this natural process could also cause superbugs to evolve. But why is there no discussion of the relative risks possed by this natural process compared to movement genes from GM crops?

    The GM traits present in GM crops are often from bacteria in the first place so, shock horror, the genes are going back to where they came from! And people are scared about the consequences? Of bacteria getting more bacterial genes?

    Gene movement has been proven to be the main mechanism of bacterial evolution. It is generally more frequent than mutation as a source of genetic change.
    This movement and rearrangement of genes among all bacteria goes on a large scale all the time, so the same types of risk envisaged for the postulated transfer of DNA from GM food to bacteria are going on repeatedly all the time in the bacterial world of maybe 10 power 30 cells – literally billions of genetic events per day. Its called microbial evolution. The risks posed by transfers from Gm crops to bacteria are miniscule compared to the natural gene flow.

    My point is that most of the scaremongering is ludicrous nonsense by people who don’t know the basic context of natural science.

    This has not stopped incessant very successful scaremongering about this issue driven by the anti GM groups but to professional geneticists almost all the anti GM genetics stories are con jobs. But mix them in with a few jibes about evil corporations to create the right degree of emotional paranoia and the gullible gulp them in.
    If the reader of this post is one of those scared individuals, I’ve got news for you: one day you are going to discover you’ve been taken for a ride by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and their fellow travellers, and it will be really interesting when you start asking your self: Why did Greenpeace take me down that particular dead end? Why is is that Greenpeace literally ignored all the contrary comment by genetics professionals? Could it be that their money will stop rolling in?

  23. Brian Bahnisch
    March 23rd, 2004 at 00:31 | #23

    It’s late and I’ll just say three things tonight.

    One is about the corporate model. The GM companies don’t allow farmers to save or share seed. The idea is that you buy your seed each year from them. In fact there has long been talk of selling seeds that will only produce one generation, but I’m not sure where that’s at.

    You also buy your weedicides and pesticides from them.

    There are only 5 or 6 big corporates involved. They have not shown a lot of interest in supporting localised plant breeding as the markets are small. The loss of biodiversity is one of the issues. As I recall it there are over 100 varieties of cotton in Gujerat.

    Of the corporates, Monsanto is by far the most aggressive and may be giving the GM industry a bad name.

    I understand Monsanto were even getting into the business of water supply to farmers, but were joint-venturing so that the locals could grease the palms, remove the people from the lands to be flooded etc.

    Secondly, GM food aid to Zambia.
    Yes it is true that the real reason Zambia rejected the GM food was that Zambia would risk losing their future markets in Europe. But Europeans have rights too and they are proceeding with a great deal of care in this area. The consumers (citizens, voters, people) are worried.

    It need not have been a Hobbesean choice. The simple solution was for the US to give aid in cash, WHICH THEY WILL NEVER DO. I understand that food was available in other parts of Africa. But there are other objectives in US food aid. One is that they want to help their own farmers. The second is that they want to assist their corporations.

    On the corporations, one would be forgiven for thinking that they want to pollute (or spread their seed, if pollute is too emotive) all over the world as fast as possible and they don’t care how they do it.

    Thirdly, this laissez faire approach won’t do. The rights and conditions of non-GM farmers are not unaffected. As I said earlier, the presence of GM in a district makes it more expensive for others to produce non-GM certified produce and the farmers bear all the risk. There was a case in the US where the farmer had a GM free contract in Japan, which specified less than 1% GM. Well 1 point something blew in on the wind and his nice niche market turned into pig food.

    Then think of Percy Schmeiser in Canada, a seed grower. He found he couldn’t kill the wild canola on the verges. Then he found his whole crop polluted. Last I heard he was being sued by Monsanto for stealing their intellectual property. The irony was that the only lab around that could certify how much he had stolen belonged to Monsanto.

  24. Brian Bahnisch
    March 23rd, 2004 at 11:45 | #24

    UP

    The Commonwealth gene regulator has approved the stuff, but she only looks at human health and the environment. WA looked also at economics and the legal implications.

    The WA minister will have the capacity to approve GM crops but only under circumstances where non-GM growers are not thereby adversely affected. GM cotton under these circumstances is expected to be fine. The legal onus will be on GM growers to contain their genes within their own boundaries. This may well be world first as it side-steps arguments about the adequacy or otherwise of buffer zones.

    Other states are expected to announce their positions soon, but please note that NSW seems to have stacked the advisory committee with pro-GM people.

    I’ve heard a lot of debate on this issue and I am amazed at how the various proponents can’t come anywhere near agreeing on the facts. Please don’t denigrate anti-GM proponents as ignorant. Some are incredibly well-informed and consistently come over as more credible than Monsanto representatives.

    Please understand also that many “independent” commentators, including scientists, often turn out to be beholden to the GM corporates in some way.

    Cheers

  25. d
    March 23rd, 2004 at 13:47 | #25

    What Percy Schmiesser doesnt tell the general public, but is documented in his trial documents is that he deliberately treated his field with herbicide and selected himself a harvest of canola which was 98% herbicide tolerant,due to his own deliberate actions and instructions to his “hired hand”(Court testimony of Schmiesser’s hired hand.)
    ,so his line that his crop was “accidently contaminated” is a furphy. And Why didnt you mention this Brian, you are well informed and must have read the Canadian court documents.
    As far as rights are concerned, the fact that claims of european rights are so detrimental to the well being of poor Africans does’t make me particularly sympathetic to them. As Amil Attaran said in his famous DDT paper “it’s balancing risks on the backs of the poor.” What’s more amazing is that so-called “civil society”, the very people who proclain an interest in social equity,work so hard at finding excuses for it.

    I agree, a solution in which the rights of all parties are respected is what we should work for, but giving cost handicaps to Australian canola farmers (by denying them technology that gives their North American competitors a $136 million dollar a year cost advantage) is not, to my way of thinking repecting their rights.

    Your final line about there only being one lab that would certify what he’d stolen doesn’t ring true. I’d do it if someone would cover my costs, and therare genetic ID testors all over the place.
    If Greenpeace are so principled, why dont they acknowledge the great majority of professional biology opinion disagrees with them, and deal explitly with the criticisms? Why do they coninue for years to spread untruths about golden rice? If worries of corporate influence are so important, why arn’t the ant-GM groups in Australia so secretive about where their generous funds are coming from? Why won’t the so called farmers group who protest GM canola reveal how many farmers are in their group and where they get their money from.? It should be easy to demonstrate that they arn’t a Greenpeace front organisation.

    In Australia, Brian, you must be aware that Monsanto have sold their herbicide business to another company. I won’t mention their name to give them free advertising, but it starts with N.
    Due to low cost imports from China, roundup herbicide is not profitable, so how does ill this stuff about forcing people to use seed and herbicide make sense?

  26. March 23rd, 2004 at 22:34 | #26

    d, you misunderstand.

    Let’s look at “I think you underestimate how quickly natural evolution can act…”. Compare this with my comments on the comparative speeds of random mutation and natural selection. It’s completely different.

    The key thing is not the speed of evolution at all, it is the fact that one of its components is materially faster than the other; yes, of course natural selection is fast – that’s the obverse of saying that random mutation is slow, which is what saves us (mutations can be treated as occurring in isolation, with an instantaneous response restoring equilibrium). It is that that is destroyed under GM, leading to a loss of the stabilising features of evolution (the other drivers of change you mention are small in comparison and so do not introduce instabilities to evolution). GM is subject to chnages driven by feedback from the results, on a comparable time scale – a notorious recipe for instability (“keep going until you get it wrong”). In fact, GM is even open to PIO (Pilot Induced Oscillation), from mistimed human input.

  27. Brian Bahnisch
    March 23rd, 2004 at 23:39 | #27

    Well d you learn something every day. I’m just a layman who grew up on a farm and is generally interested in trade, investment, ‘globalisation’ (although it is an over-used term) and generally the state of the world and whether it could be better organised for the long-term comfort of the human race, among other things. I’m sort of semi-retired but do a lot of work on acerages here in the west of Brissie. I buy Monsanto roundup over other brands because I find the cheaper stuff can crystallise under some circumstances, but I won’t bore you with the details. I didn’t know they’d sold it to N.

    I get a lot of information about GM from ABC radio. Bush Telegraph did heaps on it last year, representing all points of view over a period of time. I read most of what I see and have seen 4 or 5 documentaries on it. Sandy McCutcheon’s “Australia Talks Back” has tackled the topic several times. I’d been hoping to research it some time but have not yet. When it has been raised before I’ve let it go throught to the keeper, but this time I thought I’d have a go.

    So I’m really disappointed to hear Percy S has been naughty. I won’t mention him again until I’ve checked him out. It’s a salutory lesson!

    Did I say Greenpeace was trustworthy? I think there is an intrinsic problem with environmentalists. They gain expertise in one area, but then comment on lots of other areas where they have no expertise. They also engage in tactical lies at times, at least they must or else they’re thick.

    So quality of sources is a problem. I have an assertive style but I’m happy to change in the light of new information. But there is a lot of info that is difficult to assess. For example there is no way I’d take that $136m cost advantage figure at face value without knowing a lot more than I’m ever likely to know about how the numbers were compiled. So I note it and put it to one side.

    Now to enter the fray again, consumers like the Europeans have the right to choose what they put into their mouths and it’s a bit unrealistic to expect them to assess the impact on the other side of the world for every item they put in the shopping basket.

    On golden rice, Devinder Sharma in India says that the 12 million who suffer vitamin A deficiency really need 2 meals a day of rice and a few veg. That’s any sort of rice. The existence of Golden rice in the world means nothing to them because they won’t get it. He’s getting quite bitter in some of his writing. In this article he frames the story with a report of an incident where a young widow sold her baby to buy food for her remaining two children. I don’t know whether he tells fibs, but I haven’t caught him out yet and his portrayal of the conditions of the poor in India are highly consonant with what I’ve heard from at least four other Indian commentators.

    Meanwhile if I ever do get really serious about this topic I may well start with the book Recoding nature edited by Richard Hindmarsh and Geoffrey Lawrence. The latter is Professor of Sociology at the University of Queensland and I suspect may be just down the passageway from Prof Q. I know he’s a sound chap. My brother, a farmer, knew him in Rockhampton and says so. My bro is about as anti-green as they come. My son co-ordinated his criminology program for him in 2002 and reckons he’s good too, that is, competent, fair, a good bloke etc.

    If you google him carefully he’s done quite a lot on the subject. It doesn’t look very GM friendly!

  28. d
    March 24th, 2004 at 03:47 | #28

    Brian, (and below PML) thanks for your interesting and genial reponse. In fact I don’t have to google Richard Hindmarsh and Geoffrey Lawrence as I have read a lot of what they have written and could almost have recognised their line of opinion from the line of remarks that you have made.( Believe it or not I make it my business to read all this kind of stuff I can find). In fact a survey from Dr Lawrence on the topic in question came through my email very recently. (I’ll forward it to you if you like, its a survey of geneticists though but the questions are not technical, just obviously dopey to its intended target). It consisted of a lot of self contradictory questions about genetics that did cause me a lot puzzlement about what was the least meaningless answer to tick. Out of puzzled random resposes they intend to glean something about the views of geneticists on new agricultural breeding methods. I am corresponsing with Dr Lawrences people about them at the moment as the form has no place to say that the questions are ambiguous. I must say your personal remarks about Dr L ring true though, the tone of his writings are properly scholarly and my differences with him are to do with intellectual approach.
    Dr Hindmarsh – what can I say – one of the most extreme, apparently Marxist driven, anti-Gm activists around, and, I believe, a trainee from a humanities department at Melbourne U and associated with Friends of the Earth if my memory serves me correctly. Frankly, the fact that academia produces people like him with such depressing views about how rancid our society supposedly is saddens me. ( The fact that one similar campaigner, a Mr B.P. reputedly thinks the world is so bad and evil, he doesn’t want to have children with his partner says it all!) If these are the main sources of your perspectives on Gm crops, and particularly Dr Hindmarsh, I’m really not surprised that you have strong views. But if you ask me if a Green Marxist anti-capitalist paranoia is a constructive vision for the future I’d have to differ. What you are listening to is not a reasoned assessment of a technology, or a construcive approach to sensible technological innovation, but a depressing polemical continuation of the glorious ongoing fight to defeat evil capitalism, using a new technology as the battleground. Gm is not the real topic of that debate, but a backdrop to the clash of ideologies.
    What is really important to make clear is that what they refer to as “industrial agriculture” feeds billions of people, and it would be prudent to be a bit careful about tearing it down in order to replace it, in a great leap forward, with a Green Utopia, if only because earlier Utopias turned out to be dystopias.
    PML,
    I’m saying natural gene hot spots for variation mimic GM and can be a “fast engine of change” too, so I have to continue to differ from you: I agree that evolutionary selection can be fast but I disagree “that the engine of change” in natural evolution cannot also be fast, and still claim your assertions, seemingly claiming that the “natural engine of change” is always slow are factually innacurate.
    You mention some other points that relate, it seems , to theoretical models of evolution which may well be very interesting, and why not cite a few specific references in the professional literature about them so they can be given closer scrutiny?
    My point though relates to factual observations about the mechanisms of the “engine of change” and the localised hot spots of rapid gene rearrangement (eg as documented at http://www.ergito.com, subscription service or Genes VIII by Ben Lewin, a standard text) that mimic GM, and I would be very interested in whether you accept that particular point, as you seem to be side-stepping it. I’ll end on that, and dash off in the morning to http://www.ergito.com to see if I can find a telling quotes and really specific examples, but I thought I’d allready given enough examples to make the point clear.

  29. d
    March 24th, 2004 at 04:26 | #29

    Chapter 18 at http://www.ergito.com (=Genes VIII , Oxford University publishers) is devoted to tne topic of natural DNA rearrangement and illustates how mechanisms exist to provide the “rapid engine of change” surprisingly doubted to exist by PML.

    I cite a few relevant quotes below to document how this concept are part of standard teaching in genetics (and has been for 10-20 years). They are just the tip of a vast iceberg in the scientific literature. Delving into the current research literature could provide hundreds, if not thousands of other examples.

    To anti-GM groups like Genethics (run by sa psychologist) these natural GM like processes don’t exist. I doubt they read the professional textbooks ever. According to them GM introduces events never before seen in the history of evolution, but natural GM processes in fact happen in nature every day billions of times.

    Benjamin Lewin writes (and I quote without altering the text but selecting key simple paragraphs):

    Although genomic DNA is usually unaltered by somatic development, there are some cases in which sequences are moved within a genome, modified, amplified, or even lost, as a natural event. In this chapter, we discuss a variety of such events in yeast, plants, and lower eukaryotes. Examples of rearrangement or loss of specific sequences are especially common in the lower eukaryotes. Usually these changes involve somatic cells; the germline remains inviolate. (However, there are organisms whose reproductive cycle involves the loss of whole chromosomes or sets of chromosomes.) We also discuss the introduction of new sequences into the genome by experimental means. Reorganization of particular sequences is rare in animals, although an extensive case is represented by the immune system. In 25 Immune diversity, we discuss the rearrangement and expression of immunoglobulin genes.
    Yeast mating type switching and trypanosome antigen variation share a similar type of plan in which gene expression is controlled by manipulation of DNA sequences. Phenotype is determined by the gene copy present at a particular, active locus. But the genome also contains a store of other, alternative sequences, which are silent. A silent copy can be activated only by a rearrangement of sequences in which it replaces the active gene copy. Such a substitution is equivalent to a unidirectional transposition with a specific target site.
    The simplest example of this strategy is found in the yeast, S. cerevisiae. Haploid S. cerevisiae can have either of two mating types. The type is determined by the sequence present at the active mating type locus. But the genome also contains two other, silent loci, one representing each mating type. Transition between mating types is accomplished by substituting the sequence at the active locus with the sequence from the silent locus carrying the other mating type
    Yeast mating type is determined by whether the MAT locus carries the a or α sequence. Expression in haploid cells of the sequence at MAT leads to expression of genes specific for the mating type and to repression of genes specific for the other mating type. Both activation and repression are achieved by control of transcription, and require factors that are not specific for mating type as well as the products of MAT. The functions that are activated in either mating type include secretion of the appropriate pheromone and expression on the cell surface of the receptor for the opposite type of pheromone. Interaction between pheromone and receptor on cells of either mating type activates a G protein on the membrane, and sets in train a common pathway that prepares cells for sporulation. Diploid cells do not express mating-type functions.
    Additional, silent copies of the mating-type sequences are carried at the loci HMLα and HMRa. They are repressed by the actions of the sir loci. Cells that carry the HO endonuclease display a unidirectional transfer process in which the sequence at HMLα replaces an a sequence at MAT, or the sequence at HMRa replaces an α sequence at MAT. The endonuclease makes a double-strand break at MAT, and a free end invades either HMLα or HMRa. MAT initiates the transfer process, but is the recipient of the new sequence. The HO endonuclease is transcribed in mother cells but not daughter cells, and is under cell-cycle control. So switching is detected only in the products of a division, and the mating type has been switched in both daughter cells.
    Alterations in the relative proportions of components of the genome during somatic development occur to allow insect larvae to increase the number of copies of certain genes. And the occasional amplification of genes in cultured mammalian cells is indicated by our ability to select variant cells with an increased copy number of some gene. Initiated within the genome, the amplification event can create additional copies of the gene that survive in either intrachromosomal or extrachromosomal form

  30. March 24th, 2004 at 18:50 | #30

    d, don’t misrepresent.

    I did not say that fast drivers of change did not exist. I said they were not material – that random mutation is the main one at the moment. That would change with GM, at least in those particular ecological niches.

    If I have time I’ll look into your other points/questions.

Comments are closed.