Corporations Waging War on Biotech Critics, Independent Science (24/4/2004)

1.Corporations Waging War on Biotech Critics, Independent Science
2.A Flood of U.S. Corn Rips at Mexico
3.US trade pressure on China

1.Corporations Waging War on Biotech Critics, Independent Science
13th April 2004

Four biologists from Europe and North America met face to face for the first time on the University of California's Berkeley campus last month.

Although none of them is particularly famous as a scientist -- not one Nobel among them -- they know each other's names and work as well as if they had been working together for 10 years in the same laboratory. They share a painful experience.

Between 1999 and 2001, unbeknownst to the others, each made a simple but dramatic discovery that challenged the catechism of the same powerful industry  - biotechnology -- that by then had become the handmaiden of industrial agriculture and the darling of venture capitalists, who are still hoping they have invested their most recent billions in "the next big thing."

If any one of the experiments of these four scientists is proved through replication to be valid, the already troubled agricultural arm of biotech will be in truly dire straits. No one knows that better than Monsanto, Sygenta and other biotech firms that have so aggressively attacked the four discoveries in question.

When he was the principal scientific officer of the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, Hungarian citizen Arpad Pusztai fed transgenically modified potatoes to rodents in one of the few experiments that have ever tested the safety of genetically modified food in animals or humans. Almost immediately, the rats displayed tissue and immunological damage.

After he reported his findings, which eventually underwent peer review and were published in the United Kingdom's leading medical journal, Lancet, Pusztai's home was burglarized and his research files taken.

Soon thereafter, he was fired from his job at Rowett, and he has since suffered an orchestrated international campaign of discreditation, in which Prime Minister Tony Blair played an active role.

While Pusztai was fighting for his professional life, Cornell Professor John Losey was patiently dusting milkweed leaves with genetically modified corn pollen. When monarch butterfly larvae that ate the leaves died in significant numbers (while a control group fed nongenetically modified pollen all survived), Losey was not particularly surprised.

The new gene patched into the butterfly's genome was inserted to produce an internal pesticide, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), intended to attack and kill the corn borer and some particularly troublesome moth caterpillars [The Bt gene was, of course, patched into the corn. The Monarch larvae ate some of the corn containing the Bt which killed them.]

What did surprise Losey was the vehement attack on his study that followed from Novartis and Monsanto, their open attempts to discredit his work and the extent to which mass media leapt to their support. Losey is still at Cornell, where his future seems secure.

Not true of Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecologist in the plant sciences department at UC Berkeley. In 2000, Chapela discovered that pollen had drifted several miles from a field of genetically modified corn in Chiapas into the remote mountains of Oaxaca in Mexico, landing in the last reserve of biodiverse maize in the world.

If genes from the rogue pollen actually penetrated the DNA of traditional crops, they could potentially eliminate maize biodiversity forever. In his report, Chapela cautiously stated that this indeed might have happened. He expressed that sentiment in a peer-reviewed study published by Nature in November 2001.

After an aggressive public relations campaign mounted for Monsanto by the Bivings Group, a global PR firm that began with a vicious e-mail attack mounted by two "scientists" who turned out to be fictitious, Nature editors did something they had never done in their 133 years of existence. They published a cautious partial retraction of the Chapela report. Largely on the strength of that retraction, Chapela was recently denied tenure at UC Berkeley and informed that he would not be reoffered his teaching assignment in the fall.

When Tyrone Hayes, a UC Berkeley endocrinologist specializing in amphibian development, exposed young frogs in his lab to very small doses of the herbicide Atrazine, they first failed to develop normal larynxes and later displayed serious reproductive problems (males became hermaphrodites), suggesting that Atrazine might be an endocrine disrupter.

Hayes' subsequent experience differed slightly from the other panelists', but was no less troubling to academic scientists. As soon as word of Hayes' findings reached Sygenta Corp. (formerly Novartis) and its contractor, Ecorisk Inc., attempts were made to stall his research. Funding was withheld. It was a critical time, as the EPA was close to making a final ruling on Atrazine. Hermaphroditic frogs would not help Sygenta's cause.

Hayes continued the research with his own funds and found more of the same results, whereupon Sygenta offered him $2 million to continue his research "in a private setting." A committed teacher with a lab full of loyal students, Hayes declined the offer and proceeded with research that he knew had to remain in public domain.

This time he found damaging developmental effects of Atrazine at even lower levels (0.1 parts per billion). When his work appeared in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sygenta attacked the study and claimed that three other labs it contracted had been unable to duplicate Hayes' results.

Hayes, who keeps his head down on the Berkeley campus, has obtained tenure and continues to teach. But his studies that could affect approval of the most widely used chemical in U.S. agriculture are being stifled at every turn.

In a public conversation attended by 500 people and Webcast to 4,000 more worldwide recently on the Berkeley campus, Pusztai, Losey, Hayes and Chapela shared their experiences and together explored ways to prevent similar fates from ever happening to their peers. Their similar stories provide a unique window into a disturbing trend in modern science.

None of the four complained that his science had been challenged, although in each case it had. All science is and should be challenged. No one knows that better than a practicing scientist, who also knows that if tenure depended on a perfect experimental record, there would be very few tenured scientists anywhere in the world.

These four men were not attacked because of flawed or imperfect experiments but because the findings of their work have a potential economic effect. The sad part is that the academies and other allegedly independent institutions that once defended scientific freedom and protected employees like Hayes, Chapela, Losey and Pusztai are abandoning them to the wolves of commerce, the brands of which are being engraved over the entrances to a disturbing number of university labs.

Mark Dowie lives in Point Reyes, California and teaches a science writing class at UC Graduate School of Journalism. He also published this article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Published by : Mark Dowie
Tuesday 13th April 2004

2.A Flood of U.S. Corn Rips at Mexico
by Michael Pollan
Published on Friday, April 23, 2004 by the Los Angeles Times

Americans have been talking a lot about trade this campaign season, about globalism's winners and losers, and especially about the export of American jobs. Yet even when globalism is working the way it's supposed to — when Americans are exporting things like crops rather than jobs — there can be a steep social and environmental cost.

One of the ballyhooed successes of the North American Free Trade Agreement has been the opening of Mexico to American farmers, who are now selling millions of bushels of corn south of the border. But why would Mexico, whose people still subsist on maize (mostly in tortillas), whose farmers still grow more maize than any other crop, ever buy corn from an American farmer? Because he can produce it much more cheaply than any Mexican farmer can. Actually that's not quite right — it's because he can sell it much more cheaply.

This is largely because of U.S. agricultural policies. While one part of the U.S. government speaks of the need to alleviate Third World poverty, another is writing subsidy checks to American farmers, which encourages them to undersell Third World farmers.

The river of cheap American corn began flooding into Mexico after NAFTA took effect in 1994. Since then, the price of corn in Mexico has fallen by half. A 2003 report by the Carnegie Endowment says this flood has washed away 1.3 million small farmers. Unable to compete, they have left their land to join the swelling pools of Mexico's urban unemployed. Others migrate to the U.S. to pick our crops — former farmers become day laborers.

The cheap U.S. corn has also wreaked havoc on Mexico's land, according to the Carnegie report. The small farmers forced off their land often sell out to larger farmers who grow for export, farmers who must adopt far more industrial (and especially chemical- and water-intensive) practices to compete in the international marketplace. Fertilizer runoff into the Sea of Cortez starves its marine life of oxygen, and Mexico's scarce water resources are leaching north, one tomato at a time.

Mexico's industrial farmers now produce fruits and vegetables for American tables year-round. It's ridiculous for a country like Mexico whose people are often hungry to use its best land to grow produce for a country where food is so abundant that its people are obese — but under free trade, it makes economic sense.

Meanwhile, the small farmers struggling to hold on in Mexico are forced to grow their corn on increasingly marginal lands, contributing to deforestation and soil erosion.

Compounding these environmental pressures is the advent of something new to Mexico: factory farming. The practice of feeding corn to livestock was actively discouraged by the Mexican government until quite recently — an expression of the culture's quasi-religious reverence for maize. But those policies were reversed in 1994, and, just as it has done in the United States, cheap corn has driven the growth of animal feedlots, sewage concentration and water and air pollution.

Cheap American corn in Mexico threatens all corn — Zea mays itself — and by extension all of us who have come to depend on this plant. The small Mexican farmers who grow corn in southern Mexico are responsible for maintaining the genetic diversity of the species. While American farmers raise a small handful of genetically nearly identical hybrids, Mexico's small farmers still grow hundreds of different, open-pollinated varieties, commonly called landraces.

This genetic diversity, the product of 10,000 years of human-maize co-evolution, represents some of the most precious and irreplaceable information on Earth, as we were reminded in 1970 when a fungus decimated the American corn crop and genes for resistance were found in a landrace in southern Mexico. These landraces will survive only as long as the farmers who cultivate them do. The cheap corn that is throwing these farmers off their land threatens to dry up the pool of genetic diversity on which the future of the species depends.

Perhaps from a strictly economic point of view, free trade in a commodity like corn appears eminently rational. But look at the same phenomenon from a biological point of view and it begins to look woefully shortsighted, if not mad.

Michael Pollan, a professor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of three books, including "The Botany of Desire."

Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times

3.US trade pressure kills China's home-grown tech
By Andrew Orlowski in San Francisco
Published Friday 23rd April 2004 [shortened]

Protectionist US technology companies won a significant lobbying victory through the US Trade Department this week, as the Chinese government pledged not to promote its home-grown TD-SCDMA technology for 3G and not to interfere with royalty negotiations between Chinese carriers and foreign interests.

China has invested heavily in funding its home grown technologies, ranging from microprocessors to communications standards.

...China has vowed to "support technology neutrality with respect to the adoption of 3G", to allow "telecommunications service providers in China … to make their own choices as to which standard to adopt, depending on their individual needs," and not to get involved in royalty negotiations.

The US also forced China to take genetically-modified crops in the same agreement; it’s not often you see soybeans and CDMA in the same short press release.

How closely China will follow the agreement remains to be seen. Qualcomm's first and some of its most important pat  

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