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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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December 15, 2005

Attack of the Angry Viruses

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Posted by Derek

I mentioned the anti-science types in Europe the other day, and I should mention that I have some personal history with them. I did my post-doc in Germany, long enough ago that there were two countries by that name. (I came back to the US about two months before the Berlin Wall fell, and had been traveling in Eastern Europe while it was falling apart, but that's another story).

I was doing free radical chemistry at the Technische Hochschule Darmstadt (in one of the buildings shown here, lower center), when one morning I arrived to find fire trucks and ambulances all over the place. Three or four floors above our labs, someone had firebombed the place.

I went up and had a look. They did a pretty low-tech job of it, with a can of gasoline, an immersion heater, and an electrical timer, but they did an awful lot of damage to the labs up there. And why did these particular labs get the treatment? Because they were engaged in work with recombinant DNA, naturally.

A group calling itself the Zorne Zornige Viren (Angry Viruses, or maybe Viruses of Rage) left a note claiming responsibility. I read a copy of the thing, which went on about the military-industrial complex seeking to extend its patriarchal hegemony over untrammeled Nature and the very essences of our beings, la la la. You can imagine how melodious that all sounds in German. They were (as far as I know) never heard from again, but their attitude lives on.

Just take a look at these figures. There's a huge gap between most of European public opinion and the US (and between Europe and many Asian countries as well). I remember seeing similar magazine and newspaper survey results when I lived there. No matter what, genetic engineering always got hammered.

You can speculate for many paragraphs about why this is so, and people have. A fear of eugenics, from the racial theories of the Nazis? A romanticized view of nature and the land, from people who have gradually paved over large parts of it? Worries about private entrepreneurs owning rights to genetic material and running amuck without the State being able to restrain them? Not all the reasons to be cautious are are prima facie wrong, nor are they confined to Europe. Somehoe, though, they've combined there into a solid mass.

It must make it difficult for biotech researchers in Germany and France, though, if people ask them what they do. No doubt they talk about developing new medical therapies or diagnostic tools rather than say "I mess around with DNA all day". Safer to speak of the outcomes than the tools.

Comments (33) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


COMMENTS

1. Palo on December 15, 2005 9:55 PM writes...

Let's ignore for a moment your lumping together ecoterrorism with skepticism about the uses of technology...

A different, and equally superficial, reading of the data would indicate that the skepticism trend goes the same way as education, speaking both of higher education and of the education that comes from the discussion of technology uses in society. In that context, it is not surprising that the US is joined by most poor uneducated countries, while europeans are joined by the most educated countries in places like Latin America. Europeans discussed publicly issues of technology for decades (nuclear power, GMOs, etc) in the press and in politics. In the US you might find some of that in educated circles (those that read NYTimes, etc.) but you don't see it at all in the mainstream mass media, and definitely not in political campaigns. The natural consequence is that europeans are more aware of potential limits and problems of certain uses of science and technology. But I think you are quite wrong in labeling them 'anti-science'.

Permalink to Comment

2. Steven Jens on December 15, 2005 10:34 PM writes...

Are there Latin American countries with more educated publics than the United States? I hadn't been aware. Perhaps you should inform these guys.

At any rate, I think part of the problem is that "anti-science" is a simplistic phrase (not a useless one, I think, but simplistic). One could describe laws against Dr. Mengele's activities to be anti-science -- certainly, if we could perform experiments on unwilling subjects, we could learn more about human biology. More in the realm of the mainstream, the term "anti-science" seems most often to be thrown at opponents of federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, or those who support prohibiting it altogether, as some European countries do.

The phrase is also used (less problematically, I think) to describe those who are unwilling to pay attention to the results that science produces (I'm looking at you, Intelligent Design). I don't know that there's a solution to this besides educating the public.

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3. Daniel on December 16, 2005 5:19 AM writes...

Having studied in biosciences Germany and Switzerland and completed my PhD in England, I can safely say that animal rights activists and futurophobics are more numerous and more vicious in the UK than in either Germany or Switzerland - by orders of magnitude. In Germany/Switzerland, Biotech is not held back by such societal debris, but in the UK researchers and executives have to fear for their lives, that of their family and their possessions. However, whilst in Germany such actions are categorized by law as "domestic terrorism", there is not such judicial lever in the UK.

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4. Jeff Bonwick on December 16, 2005 7:31 AM writes...

Nut-job critics also have unintended side effects: they diminish the credibility of rational critics, and some scientists feel so under fire that they make equally unscientific statements just to quell fears. (Remember the fear that the BT gene in BT corn could spread in the wild? This was met by unconditional assurances that there's no way that could happen. Whoops.)

I am about as non-Luddite as anyone over 40 can be, but even so, I think we could stand to be a little more careful with some forms of biological experimentation. The reason is simple: in biology, a mistake can reproduce. There was a paper in Nature a few months ago about someone making a real live bacterium with a modified DNA polymerase that incorporated a 21st amino acid. On the one hand, wow -- that's cool! On the other hand, it seems reasonable to me for the public to request that such experiments be limited to BL4 labs (and yes, if we need more, let's build them).

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5. Joerg on December 16, 2005 7:31 AM writes...

Being a german PhD student, I would also like to point out that at least Germany has lots of inertia problems regarding new technologies. Just look how slow we are to embrace internet technologies or Web 2.0...

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6. RKN on December 16, 2005 7:41 AM writes...

Just take a look at these figures

I tried, but was told: "The network path was not found."

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7. tom bartlett on December 16, 2005 9:04 AM writes...

Genetically modified food, right now, is foisted on the public with essentially no testing. To be sure, it is unlikley, in most cases that there will be anything harmful about particular products. But I am VERY unconfortable about taking that assumption as fact without adequate tix testing. DDT was once thought to be without "downside"

As for cloning and stem cell research--these are important tools and I worry about the Luddites in the US holding them back, particularly, the stem cell work. Some people afford more "rights" to clumps of cells that have no possibility of continuing on to become a human than they give to for-real humans on Death Row.

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8. Palo on December 16, 2005 12:14 PM writes...

Are there Latin American countries with more educated publics than the United States?

Yes. I don't think "years in school" is a good measure of education, specially when you consider the devalued high School diploma in the US.

I would say, and you can ask your colleagues from Argentina and Uruguay, that population in those countries is indeed better informed than the mainstream US. I was careful to point that "education" means both traditional schooling plus the discussion of big societal issues across mainstream media. You can simply remember that until recently most (really, most) of the US population believed that 9/11 was the action of iraqis, or that most (really, most) of the US population believes the literal interpretation of the bible to be true, to realize that the schooling statistic you quote is rather meaningless.

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9. Palo on December 16, 2005 12:44 PM writes...

As others pointed out, I think GMOs is a good example of how an important technology issue gets discussed in other places, but not in the US. There you have a technology created to, let's be honest, only benefit corporations and producers and with very little in it for the cosumer. Yet, the consumer is asked to accept food with GMOs for which very little safety data is available over traditional food for which we have had 'clinical-consumer trials' for centuries.
Not to mention the potential ecological issues raised by many (most of which I personally think are misplaced)
I agree with Tom, personally I don't think GMOs will turn out to be harmful, but we don't really need them, so the Precautionary Principle is a good approach to them. And yet, you don't see this discussion to even slightly appear in mainstream media, mostly because, of course, in the US you can't go against corporations or farmers. Europeans discussed it to death. In many cases, with somewhat irrational 'anti-science' arguments, in other cases with a healthy dose of technology and 'corporate' skepticism. Either way, at least they discuss it.

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10. red on December 16, 2005 2:09 PM writes...

So there are no GMOs in Argentina.

Because they just don't solve any problems for "the common man."

I guess I'm just one of those poorly educated Americans who happen to disagree with Palo.

Permalink to Comment

11. Palo on December 16, 2005 2:45 PM writes...

Dana,
the precautionary principle says precisely the opposite of your statement. The question is, what do you do with science that could have bad consequences and for which there's no good data on whether is indeed bad or not? Do you keep going on? (like, say, Global Warming), or you stop and make sure you have all the potential consequences figured out? Your statement is very misleading. It is not, or should not be up to critics to prove that a technology is unsafe, it should be up to the introducers of that technology to prove that it is safe.

Better and/or cheaper food benefits anyone who eats (and who isn't superstitiously afraid of "Frankenfood")

What food from GMOs have you tried that is better and cheaper? Name one.

Red:
Who said there's no GMOs in Argentina? And what that have to do with my argument?
I am not against GMOs, and I do believe that eventually we'll be living with GMOs among us, and happily so. The question is that Monsanto and other agrobiotech companies have not fully addressed the concerns regarding the introduction of GMOs. Whether Argentina uses them or not (in fact most GM soy produced in Argentina is for export) is beside the point, although there sure is a lot more discussion in Argentina about GMOs than in the US

Permalink to Comment

12. PandaFan on December 16, 2005 4:22 PM writes...

One of the first GMO foods was intended to sell based on a direct benefit to the consumer -- the FlavrSavr tomato. Unfortunately though it apparently still tasted like cardboard (I never got a chance to try one).

Many of the anti-GMO activists do favor a complete ban on GMOs, even those (such as yellow rice) that might well have important public health benefits in third world countries.

The idea that the 21st amino acid (well, its really higher -- we all have a lot more in our proteins) accepting _ribosomes_ create a dangerous critter is really off the mark -- they can't use this except where it is coded in the genome & where it is going to actually do something. Indeed, a major goal of many of the synthetic biology folks is to design in specifically such safeguards -- if organisms are stuck using feedstocks that are not naturally available, they can't escape into the environment

Permalink to Comment

13. Grubbs the cat on December 16, 2005 4:24 PM writes...

might be a minor point but just for the record: the cell that messed up this institute was the 'Zornige Viren' (zornig = angry).

googling for them I found this. Had to smile about the 'revolutionary viruses'...

Permalink to Comment

14. tom bartlett on December 16, 2005 4:26 PM writes...

"The so-called "Precautionary Principle" is just a new name for the argument from ignorance."

Dana, I have this great stuff that kills cancer in a number of cell lines-- really, I do. Do you want to try it? Perhaps you'd like animal tox done first? I would.

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15. Jim Hu on December 16, 2005 10:40 PM writes...

Palo,

The problem is that it is impossible to "make sure you have all the potential consequences figured out" because you can never prove that you haven't missed something.

With respect to whether GM foods have done some good, I'm pretty sure that there are some virus-resistant strains of papayas and sweet potatoes that are GMOs and that have preserved supply, which would imply lowering costs.

There are bacteriophage that can wipe out bacterial fermentations of foods like yogurt and cheese. It's very well understood at the level of mechanisms how to make the bactertia resistant, but as I understand it, EU GMO rules don't allow this, even though the science is overwhelmingly on the side that this poses as close to zero risk as one can measure.

Permalink to Comment

16. Palo on December 17, 2005 10:45 AM writes...

Jim,
you are right. I didn't mean to say that you need "all the potential consequences figured out" before using any technology. I should have said that you need to address all the potential problems that could be addressed, and balance in the need for the technology and whether there are other proven technologies that do the same. Only then you should assess whether you want to go ahead with it.

You are correct when you say:
"I'm pretty sure that there are some virus-resistant strains of papayas and sweet potatoes that are GMOs and that have preserved supply, which would imply lowering costs."

that was precisely my point: so far, the only use of GMOs is to increase profits of agrobusiness. GM Soy or Cotton or Corn has not resulted in better product or price for the consumer.

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17. Daniel Newby on December 17, 2005 4:18 PM writes...

"that was precisely my point: so far, the only use of GMOs is to increase profits of agrobusiness. GM Soy or Cotton or Corn has not resulted in better product or price for the consumer."

Or so it is claimed in the Land O' Thoughtless Hysteria. Meanwhile, back in the real world, there are quite a few public benefits:

Consumer: Fewer chemical treatments have been applied to the foods they eat. Protein levels are higher because of reduced competition for nitrogen by weeds.

Economy: Higher crop yields drive farmers and farm product suppliers out of business, freeing their labor for other work and industries. (Well, this is good if you subscribe to the creative destruction theory of economics.)

Land: Less land needs to be under cultivation at any given point. This reduces topsoil loss and airborne dust, and permits land to be left fallow for longer. I suspect that it also allows less aggressive, and therefore environmentally friendlier, tilling to be used.

Pollution: More concentrated cultivation means less fertilizer is wasted, less fuel is used to power farm equipment, less pollution is produced by farm equipment with poor pollution controls, and so forth. Not only good for the environment, this also lowers prices of other products that compete for the same feedstocks, and reduces strategic dependence on unstable supplies (such as Arabia).

Public: Many of these purportedly-greedy agribusinesses are actually wholly-owned by the public. (And don't whine that most stock is owned by giant institutional investors, not the general public. Those institutions are the public's insurance and retirement piggy banks.)

Future developments: research budgets come out of the margin, the gap between income and expenditures. When a profitable company increases their income by X%, they can afford to increase research funding by substantially more than X%. Monsanto, for instance, ploughs about 10% of revenue back into research, which is astonishing for a company that exists solely to put commodities on the shelves of Wal-Mart. (The benefits are not just theoretical. Agri profits paid for the development of soybeans whose oil can be used to replace trans fatty acids, which will have tremendous cardiovascular benefits for Americans.)

Security: More efficient crops mean less possibility of shortage during drought or pestilence.

Permalink to Comment

18. Jim Hu on December 17, 2005 8:03 PM writes...

Palo,

The sweet potatoes and papayas were cited in response to this question you posed:
"What food from GMOs have you tried that is better and cheaper? Name one."
I named two... I didn't realize that benefiting a company disqualified entries that met the better and cheaper criteria.

My understanding is that the papaya farmers are not what I would consider agrobusiness, at least not big agrobusiness; YMMV. this page(which I think is anti-GMO) describes them as mostly small farmers...and also talks about market resistance to the GMO papayas. Googling reveals that the GMO papaya story is much more controversial than I had thought...but not for reasons that I would consider to be based on rational risk assessment upon first impressions...I could be wrong. I'm looking into it and I might post to my blog if I get a clearer picture of what the story is.

My understanding of the sweet potato story is that it was being developed for use in the third world (like golden rice) and that it was being done to help small farmers do better than marginal subsistence in areas where viruses decimate the yields of normal varieties.

So in these two cases, it may be (again, I'm going to try to make time to look at it more) that GMOs provide cheaper and better foods. That this might benefit Monsanto seems to trump any possible benefits to others in your view, as far as I can tell. I am willing to concede that this could very well be a GMO version of loss leaders. Monsanto has an interest in programs that are not going to be big profit centers if it helps them break down resistance to GMO crops in markets where the big bucks are - EU and Japan. In addition to the PR, Monsanto scientists may get grants or tax breaks...I don't know yet.

But if consumers, small farmers, and third world countries also benefit, and the harm is negligible, what's the problem?

Permalink to Comment

19. Dr Crippen on December 18, 2005 9:26 AM writes...

I did not know that there was more unease about biotech in Europe than in the USA. I am surprised, but this data certainly seems to suggest it is the case.

There is certainly concern about agricultural genetic engineering in the UK, and why that should be escapes me. I think one has to say, rather pompously, that it is lack of education or understanding perhaps aggravated by fears engendered by science fiction. Remember the glorious "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes?"

Permalink to Comment

20. daen on December 19, 2005 8:47 AM writes...

Isn't it wiser, like Jeff Bonwick says above, to err on the side of caution? I'm uncomfortable when comparisons are drawn between medicinal chemistry and GMO's. There's a vast difference in the degree of complexity involved. Many drugs are small molecules of a single species which are usually metabolically degraded by the patient, mostly having no effect on the immediate and broader ecosystem. In comparison, many GMO's are modified on a "plug-and-play" basis by adding genes from other organisms. Intragenomic pleiotropic effects and external ecological impacts can be very hard or impossible to predict in advance. Of course, there are obvious economic - and humanitarian - benefits in BT delta endotoxin producing corn, and of bacterial blight resistant rice which need to be weighed against the risks and hazards. What of ornamental fluorescent zebra fish (http://www.glofish.com), though? The FDA washed its hands of regulatory involvement here(http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/2003/NEW00994.html). What impact will these fish have when sufficient numbers get into the wild? Will they breed successfully? Will they perish without trace? Will they compete with native wild species? Who knows? Who cares? Not the FDA, anyway. William M. Muir, on the other hand, mentioned GloFish in his discussion of the threats and benefits of GM fish last year (EMBO reports 5, 7, 654–659 (2004) -- http://www.nature.com/embor/journal/v5/n7/full/7400197.html), while Nature Biotechnology published an interesting letter from Pat Gibbs (http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v22/n4/full/nbt0404-379a.html) around about the same time, analysing the transgenic makeup of GloFish. In addition to the red fluorescent protein expression transcription unit, it seems that GloFish contain six unnecessary DNA segments, including a kanamycin/neomycin antibiotic resistance marker. Gibbs is concerned about horizontal transfer of this gene to wild populations. NB responds that they are not aware of any studies investigating gene transfer in teleost species. Perhaps someone ought to do them, before we find out the hard way?

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21. Palo on December 19, 2005 10:34 AM writes...

Jim,
you are still not making the case for papayas and potatos beign better for the consumer. The cheaper in this case is still going to producers and manufacturers.

The case for golden rice or other GMOs that might benefit the Third World is a great rethorical argument from the industry's PR departments. Whoever thinks hunger in the world has anything to do with availability of food is living in a different world I am.

If you want a case in point: Argentina's farmers switched to GMOs by the end of 90s. By 2002 poverty in Argentina hit an all-time high, with 60% of argentines living under poverty levels and with a huge spike in infant famine and mortality.

There you have it. A perfect correlation between use of GMOs and hunger/poverty. Do I believe GMOs are responsible for that? Of course not. It is political. It always is.

GMOs helping the Thirld World is pure BS.

Permalink to Comment

22. Palo on December 19, 2005 10:43 AM writes...

Daniel, you are a great cheerleader for the industry. If you are not under their payroll now, you should apply. I'll answer to your points later with more time. In any case, if you read anything said you would be dishonest in accusing me of thoughtless or hysterical. I said it many times: I do believe in technology (I work in biomedical research), I do believe in GMOs, I do believe they will be useful. The difference between you and me is that I believe those that are skeptical and demand more from the introduction of a radical new technology do make good rational points that need to be addressed.

Permalink to Comment

23. Jim Hu on December 19, 2005 12:32 PM writes...

Palo,

Over the weekend, as I was looking back at your comments, I recognized that your statements in support of technology and GMOs had gotten lost in the discussion. With respect to papayas, I kinda went nuts and wrote a ridiculously long multi-post series on my blog. Bottom line - while some of the critiques sound plausible scientifically, there's a lot of questionable stuff in the criticisms of the papaya program.

For GM plants, I think the critics have a very valid point when it comes to contamination. No one should be forced to grow GMOs by wind-born pollen. In the case of papayas, there are claims of massive contamination in Hawaii, and significant contamination in Thailand. My problem is that papaya growers in Hawaii use hermaphroditic plants, and have been selfing them for generations prior to the introduction of engineered papaya to keep conventional strains pure. So there's something fishy going on, IMHO.

Insofar as this is unrelated to my real job, I hope I don't get a similar bee in my bonnet about sweet potatoes and mottle virus resistance!

Permalink to Comment

24. Jim Hu on December 19, 2005 12:51 PM writes...

With respect to your other points,

1) I suspect that you are correct that GMOs have not significantly helped the third world... yet. I'd argue that given the extent of problems with PRSV, and the interest in GMO papaya in Brazil, the Phillipines, Thailand, Mexico, and Malaysia, this is largely limited by political factors related to anti-GMO groups.

2) I view increases in supply and decreases in production cost as benefiting consumers and producers. You seem to think that price and availability don't get reflected at the consumer end at all.

3) I view benefits to farmers, including small ones, as a plus. You seem to lump them in as undeserving producers.

4) I agree that politics and war are much larger factors in hunger. But I'd argue that much of the opposition to GMOs is tainted by politics and economic self-interest as much as the support for biotech is.

Permalink to Comment

25. Palo on December 19, 2005 3:32 PM writes...

Jim,

I agree with many of your points. I have nothing against small producers. Perhaps in my arguments I have in mind traditional farming in Latin America, the part of the world I know better, where the land is typically in the hands of the rich.

I still don't see GMO technology benefiting the consumer. Trickle-down economics doesn't seem too effective so far. I do think that the day corn is considerably cheaper, many consumers will jump at it. But manybe I should stay away from the benefit argument. The day corn is 25% cheaper, still there will be people that worry about some unproven facts surrounding GMOs. And in most cases, they are rational concerns.

I definitely agree with your fourth point. You know, as a molecular biologist that worked in the past in plant biology, I used to be terribly mad at GMOs critics when the whole issue arose. I thought they were ignorant and irrational. With time, with my respect for the opposite argument growing and their arguments becoming more sophisticated, I changed. I'm still a pro-tech pro-science guy, but now I get more annoyed by the biotech cheerleading and the lies that the industry puts up. Having lived for years in a country with indecent levels of poverty and malnutrition, I get particularly irritated by the humanitarian-biotech spin. I guess sometimes it shows.

Permalink to Comment

26. Palo on December 19, 2005 3:39 PM writes...

Daniel Newby says:
"Or so it is claimed in the Land O' Thoughtless Hysteria. Meanwhile, back in the real world, there are quite a few public benefits:"

Consumer: Fewer chemical treatments have been applied to the foods they eat. Protein levels are higher because of reduced competition for nitrogen by weeds.

Less pesticide on the leaves that the consumer can wash away with water, an a lot more of a gene product now present in parts of the plant that did not have them before. Can the consumer wash it away? No, it's in the tissue. It goes in with the great taste of the mock duck. Is the massive presence of a foreign protein in the whole plant good? safe? who knows. Is the introduction of the gene in a planned region of the genome? Not necessarily. Most of the time, using shotgun technology or agrobacterium, insertion is at random. If we don't know where it landed, is it possible that it might affect the expression of other genes we don't want to be expressed? We don't know. The question is, do we need this uncertainties? Are they necessary? You have the right to eat your mock duck full of RoundupReady if you want, others have the right to prefer the traditional tofu.

Economy: Higher crop yields drive farmers and farm product suppliers out of business, freeing their labor for other work and industries. (Well, this is good if you subscribe to the creative destruction theory of economics.)
That's right. Thousand jobless people is a good thing because they could go work somewhere else. I'm beginning to understand your 'real' world.
Land: Less land needs to be under cultivation at any given point. This reduces topsoil loss and airborne dust, and permits land to be left fallow for longer. I suspect that it also allows less aggressive, and therefore environmentally friendlier, tilling to be used.
That could be potentially true. Maybe someday GMOs will be the key to a more controlled ecological farming. For now, it's the opposite. GM soybean means overworked land to produce more grain.
Pollution: More concentrated cultivation means less fertilizer is wasted, less fuel is used to power farm equipment, less pollution is produced by farm equipment with poor pollution controls, and so forth. Not only good for the environment, this also lowers prices of other products that compete for the same feedstocks, and reduces strategic dependence on unstable supplies (such as Arabia).
Again, this could be true in the future. A more ecological farming is indeed one of the reasons I believe GMOs could be good, and likely will be good. Still, you are selling as present accomplishments future potential goodness. I'm not buying. That doesn't exempt you from demonstrating that the technology is safe. I'll deal with pollution below.
Public: Many of these purportedly-greedy agribusinesses are actually wholly-owned by the public. (And don't whine that most stock is owned by giant institutional investors, not the general public. Those institutions are the public's insurance and retirement piggy banks.)
A corporation publicly owned is still a private business. Its goal is not public good but profit. It doesn't respond to society, it responds to stockholders. While this could be a good way to organize the economy, it is not always better for the consumer, and much less for the environment. Corporations have short term goals, to maximize stockholders dividends. They couldn't care less about the potential effects of their actions in 50 years. And it is not their role. It's society's role to set regulations that balance private interest with common good. That's why we need skeptics to point out where the problems with GMOs and other technologies might be, to push the discussion and find the right balance. Maybe we'll find great uses of GMOs in promoting the environment. As today, its all rethoric. No Boitech company is developing GMOs to protect and improve the environment.
Future developments: research budgets come out of the margin, the gap between income and expenditures. When a profitable company increases their income by X%, they can afford to increase research funding by substantially more than X%. Monsanto, for instance, ploughs about 10% of revenue back into research, which is astonishing for a company that exists solely to put commodities on the shelves of Wal-Mart. (The benefits are not just theoretical. Agri profits paid for the development of soybeans whose oil can be used to replace trans fatty acids, which will have tremendous cardiovascular benefits for Americans.)
Let me see if I understand your point. Transgenic foods, with all the potential risks, are good because they increase Monsanto's profits, profits that in turn will allow Monsanto to invest more on new technology that we should eventually buy, without protest, to help Monsanto make more money to provide for a new round of investment in new technology and so.... All you are saying is that GMOs are great for Biotech companies. My point. Thanks.
Security: More efficient crops mean less possibility of shortage during drought or pestilence
. There is a surplus of food in the world, yet, people go hungry. They go hungry not because there's no techno farming in their land, they go hungry because they cannot afford to buy food.

Look, I don't want to appear as anti-biotech, but your arguments are no more than half-cooked corporate propaganda. Yes, some grains created by Monsanto might have potential benefits. Some natural products not developed by Monsanto also could have great benefits. Eat apples instead of a BigMac and you don't need monsanto's seeds. The idea that fighting cardiovascular disease is in Monsanto's business plan is naive, to be charitable. Monsanto introduced GMOs for profit, not for humanitarian reasons. The whole point here is still the fact that biotech introduces a technology with potential problems and little effort to address them. The benefits are not that clear. There was nothing wrong with the corn or the soybean we ate before GMOs. The price didn't go down, the popcorn tastes the same. The long-term consequences of suppressing natural corn diversity or of piling up Bt protein in your body are less certain.
You can be positive about technology. I am. You can also be skeptic of technology that was not created to address any other problem than maximizing profits. I am.

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27. emilia on December 20, 2005 5:25 PM writes...

Derek,

The European stance towards biotechnology and chemicals is predicated upon three factors
- Ignorance of science due to poor education systems
- Romantic notions of nature
- Self-righteous superiority towards progress

The assertion that Europeans are better educated than Americans is complete garbage. Those offering such an assertion are at odds with facts.

I am tired of Europeans who are going extinct (do they know how to reproduce), lecture Americans and the rest of the world on topics that range from science to the death sentence. How quickly they forget that they have a more bloodied and barbaric past than the US (I wont mention two world wars).

Europe is the past across almost every dimension one measures civilization.

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28. daen on December 21, 2005 7:44 AM writes...

OK, emilia: if you promise not to mention World Wars I and II, then I promise not to mention the Spanish-American War, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, vicarious backing of military action in Central America, Asia and the Middle East, or the invasion of Iraq. Deal?

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29. Derek Lowe on December 21, 2005 10:10 AM writes...

I could see that one coming! No, unfortunately, I don't think there's any part of the Earth that can lay claim to being more peaceful and civilized than any other part. Even Tibet's history isn't too pretty when you look closely.

I remember having someone go on to me about Sweden and Switzerland being so innately peaceful, and having them stare at me when I pointed out that the Swedish army cut a huge swath during the Thirty Year's War, while the Swiss were the most highly paid mercenary soldiers in Europe.

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30. marco on December 21, 2005 12:30 PM writes...

The debate on who has started more wars is immaterial (emilia and daen).

The fact remains, Europe is becoming more anti-science. This trend is evident in the green movement and anti-biotech movements. There is an urgent need to better educate Europeans on modern biology and chemistry. They are largely ignorant of the biological sciences.

My teaching experience in Europe has been striking. Those students I have had in Germany were excellent and thoughtful. My informal contacts with students in other disciplines revealed a student mass poorly educated in the biological sciences. Their notions of natural (green) versus modern science were childish at best. The elitist tracking system in Germany and the rest of Europe is largely to blame for this outcome.

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31. daen on December 21, 2005 1:24 PM writes...

marco, in England there has been a tendency over recent years to scorn scientific authority. Cronyism, fraud and "fat cat" cases in London institutions in the 80's and 90's, coupled with government's failings to differentiate and communicate risk vs hazard (BSE, foot and mouth, MMR vaccinations) have combined to produce a robust chimera of public opposition to biotech, mistrusting anything involving biology/chemistry and money. Witness the hounding of HLS, and the resistance to GMO crop trials. This can probably be traced back to the advent of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, two noble organizations whose positions I don't necessarily totally disagree with. However, I do often disagree with their reasoning (usually some fluffy Gaia-invoking rationale, or faulty logic) and the way they get the message across. It's interesting that England, which did away with the "elitist" system some 25 years ago, still has these "Two Cultures" issues, whereas Denmark, which until this year still streamed humanities/sciences separately, does not. Perhaps Denmark, with its tradition of debating every issue at great length in the media and in private, is more savvy to what the real risks and hazards are? Politiken (one of the more left-inclined papers, same leanings as the UK's Guardian) gets a bit confused and flustered about science sometimes, though ...

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32. John Mashey on December 25, 2005 5:04 AM writes...

1) regarding GMO food, it might be worth noting Norman Borlaug's opinions on the topic:
Google Borlaug GMO.

One may or may not agree with Borlaug, but a lot of people having opinions on all this don't even know who he is. He has spent a lot of time in third-world farmers' fields.

2) "Mendel in the Kitchen" is a useful read.

3) A lot of people eat pasta, drink beer, or eat California rice. Creso durum wheat [about 1/3 of Italy's durum wheat), and Scotland's Golden Promise barley, and some of the rice were all created by using (usually gamma) radiation to generate mutations from which useful ones were selected. Obviously, exposing things to radiation in the hope of getting something useful must not count as GMO... whereas designing them does. :-)

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33. James Teo on December 29, 2005 11:52 AM writes...

As a clinical researcher working in UK, I suspect the reason that the resistance to new technoliogy in UK and Europe is greater than in the USA is purely cultural-historical not educational.

The Romantic Movement started in Europe and persists very strongly here to this day. This is enhanced by apprehension of the evils of the Industrial Revolution and the guilt of empire. There are more courses on Sustainable Progress and being Gaia-friendly in UK universities than in many other universities I've seen in the USA or Far East. This is a reflection of DEMAND rather than the CAUSE of the problem. Europe has not experienced technological inferiority in its modern history so they undervalue to it, and rank other things above it.

USA does not have this distrust of technology because the prevalent ideology is that 'new is better'. Also, USA is an immigrant country where a vast majority of the population are immigrants fleeing less-industrialised countries and so appreciate the value of technology.

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