Some tech news part 2

Carl Remick carlremick at
Tue Mar 14 06:38:42 PST 2000

>From: Les Schaffer <godzilla at
>[Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill] Joy's article is to appear in the
>April Wired, so i am guessing that
>their online site wont put it up for a month.
>NYTimes ran a Reuters piece yesterday on him. This section seems to
>outline his main contention:...
>All three of these technologies [-- robotics, genetics and nanotechnology
>--] share one characteristic absent in
>earlier dangerous human inventions such as the atomic bomb: They could
>easily replicate themselves, creating a cascade effect that could
>sweep through the physical word in much the same way that a computer
>virus spreads through the cyberworld.

Bingo! Bill Joy puts his finger on the fatal flaw of genetic modification from the standpoint of technological risk -- a point I've made so often on this list I've incurred carpal tunnel syndrome repeating it: that GM can create *self-perpetuating* catastrophes if adverse heritable traits escape into the wild.

Of course, you don't have to be a technophobe to hate GM. This technology can be opposed simply because it such a keen-edged tool of American imperialism. The following article is from today's NY Times:

New Genes and Seeds: Protesters in Europe Grow More Passionate

By Donald G. McNeil Jr.

The Hague -- At the big conference on genetically modified food here in January, the discussion among 300 participants in the hall was serious science -- intelligent, earnest and a bit dull.

Outside, things were livelier. Two protesters dressed as headless chickens strutted. A gorilla wailed over his pox-speckled bananas, and a mutant apple in a radiation suit passed out leaflets. The demonstrators played a tape of bubbling cauldrons and vile belches, and the perfect fillip was the stench that hung in the air -- which was not even their idea, just dumb luck that a sewer crew was working nearby.

Naturally, the television cameras lingered on the protesters, who numbered fewer than 20.

In Europe, the debate over genetically modified food is as much about passion as it is about science. British newspapers routinely call ingredients from genetically altered plants "Frankenfood," and pollsters say just 1 percent of Britons think that genetically modifying plants has any value at all. Environmental advocates in Europe have destroyed fields of test plants.

By contrast, in the United States such ingredients are in nearly two-thirds of the products on supermarket shelves, and few Americans seem to have noticed. For Europeans, "It's not at the level of a rational discussion any more," said François Perroud, a spokesman for Nestlé, the world's biggest food company, which is based in Switzerland. Nestlé has stopped buying any grain from genetically altered seed for its European operations.

"It's become a battle of doctrines, of religious beliefs, of inanities," Mr. Perroud said. "But unfortunately more and more retailers have jumped on the bandwagon and banished these products from their shelves."

Legally, the European Union requires labels on any food with 1 percent or more of genetically modified ingredients. Planting, importing or selling genetically altered seeds or foods has virtually stopped, because farmers will not plant the seeds, consumers will not buy the foods, and stores decline to stock them.

Regulators have not approved any new seed strains for nearly two years.

Total American corn and soybean exports slipped briefly, but American farmers are undeterred. Early indications this year from seed companies are that they are not significantly cutting back, because big food processors have agreed to buy modified grains and keep them separate from traditional ones.

The focus of the fury is a technology that borrows a genetic code from plants or animals and transfers it to a plant. Modified seeds, for instance, can produce their own pesticide and reduce the amount used in the fields. The seeds are now used throughout North and South America, China and Australia.

Opponents concede that no one has ever been harmed by genetically modified food. But there are questions about environmental threats. Will genes from herbicide-resistant corn get into weeds, creating "superweeds"? Will benign insects like Monarch butterflies be killed by pollen drifting from bug-killing corn?

Many Europeans fear the food itself, and some supermarket chains will not sell it. Those who object to the science argue that more research is needed on long-term safety.

Many factors are at work -- a mysterious science that occurs at the submicroscopic level, jingoism about food, scare campaigns by environmentalists, arrogant American responses and one bit of bad timing, the fact that freighters loaded with the 1996 American soybean crop sailed just as British mad cow disease, totally unrelated to genetically modified food, was terrifying Europe.

There is also an anti-American element. Demonstrators' signs often portray America and its agrochemical companies as one and the same. But Guy le Fur, an expert on biotech food at the Confederation Paysanne, a radical farmers' organization that has destroyed silos full of modified grain, drew a distinction.

He noted that there were European giants in gene-technology, too, although most of their work is in pharmaceuticals. "I don't see it as a national issue," Mr. le Fur said. "It is colonization by three or four companies who want total control of what goes onto the plates of people across the planet and who want to make a lot of money."

Pierre Lellouche, a Gaullist member of the French Parliament committee on environmental safety, said there was deep mistrust specifically of American assurances that the food was safe. "The general sense here is that Americans eat garbage food, that they're fat and they don't know how to eat properly," he said.

American endorsements, Mr. Lellouche added, were "like the British beef thing -- the British government is still screaming that their beef is perfect."

Whether or not European fears will spread to America is unclear. Biotech seed accounts for 36 percent of American corn, 55 percent of its soybeans and 43 percent of its cotton. Some Americans wonder how dozens of supermarket items like infant formula, cola and muffin mix could contain biotech products without their knowing it.

American seed producers like Monsanto and DuPont's Pioneer Hi-Bred International are under pressure not just by environmental activists but by food makers like H. J. Heinz, Gerber and Frito-Lay who have stopped using biotech ingredients and by corn farmers who switched to the seeds and then saw consumer fears shake European markets.

The trade group that represents big food makers, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, says it believes that much of the concern is overblown. "It's barely a blip on the radar screen," a spokesman, Brian Sansoni, said. "It's just not an issue that's front and center with the American people."

The protests in Europe also stem from lingering cultural differences in the ways Americans and Europeans look at food. Since World War II, despite raised eyebrows from the academic elite, Europeans have eagerly lapped up most American culture, from blue jeans and computers to movies and music.

But, though the older generation remembers the chewing gum handed out by American G.I.'s, other American culinary innovations like frosted cereals and marshmallows meet with less enthusiasm.

"Every traveler knows the strawberries and asparagus in America look beautiful but have no flavor," said Marc van Montagu, a professor of genetic science at the University of Ghent in Belgium. "They're bred for shelf life."

Last year, the European Union bought just $1 million worth of American corn, down dramatically from $305 million in 1996.

Europe buys 25 percent of the American soybean crop, worth $2.6 billion in good years. Purchases dropped, to $1 billion last year, according the United States Agriculture Department. That decrease largely reflects price cutting by exporters in Brazil and Argentina, the American Soybean Association said. Now their prices are rising.

The anti-biotech movement affected soybeans less, because most imported beans are used to make animal feed and cooking oil. Under European law, food for animals is not labeled, and processed oil contains no DNA, meaning that it does not have to be labeled, either.

The European Union is debating making those laws stricter.

While Europeans fear the "G.M." label, scientists like Chris Somerville, a Stanford University plant biologist, say that genetic technology is "hundreds of times more predictable than traditional means" like cross-breeding plants or mutating seeds with radiation or heat. The fear of creating unpredictable monsters is "largely unfounded," Mr. Somerville added.

Among American shoppers, surveys show that they have confidence in the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department. Europeans, on the other hand, having faced mad-cow disease and scandals over dioxin and sewage sludge in animal feed, have no such confidence in their regulators.

Also, in a debate over gene-splicing in the United States in the mid-80's, a decade before the seeds were widely planted. Jeremy Rifkin, an anti-biotech campaigner, raised the alarm. But it blew over like the population scare of the 70's.

Through a chance meeting in Washington in 1986, Mr. Rifkin made a convert of Benedikt Haerlin, then an official of the Green Party in Germany and now head of a campaign by Greenpeace to stop bioengineered food.

Nearly a decade later, just as mad-cow disease struck, the first American crop with some herbicide-resistant soybeans was on the ocean. Advocates still talk about the 1996 crop as if it was the Normandy invasion.

"Now we had concrete targets," a spokesman for Greenpeace, Mika Railo, said. "We had to hit the ground running."

British newspapers leaped into the fray, and soon British companies were asking American exporters for unmodified grain. Big shippers initially refused.

Worse, some Americans were insulting. Bill Wadsworth, the technical manager for Iceland, a British frozen-food and supermarket chain that is leading the fight against biotech food there, attended a meeting in 1997 of the American Soybean Association and American farmers.

"I told them our customers wanted choice, and if they would supply us with one bucket, just one bucket of non-G.M. beans, then we'd make some product without,"' he said.

In his presence, Mr. Wadsworth said, an association speaker referred to him as "a backward European" and assured the farmers that "European objections are irrelevant."

"That's when I organized a separate chain of supply from Brazil," Mr. Wadsworth recounted.

Europeans often see the United States government, aggressively free trade and keen on technology, as a co-conspirator. Last July, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the administration would use all legal remedies to compel Europe to accept American soybeans and corn, even if that meant punitive tariffs. In the same speech, he conceded for the first time that the administration wanted long-term studies of the food's safety. He has since modified that tone considerably.

American resistance to labeling, though, rankles some Europeans, who say it looks suspicious.

In January in Montreal, 130 countries hammered out the first international treaty on the issue by agreeing that shipments of modified grain be labeled. Under the treaty, which 50 nations have yet to ratify, countries can prohibit imports of a crop deemed a threat to its environment. The treaty does not deal with labeling consumer packages.

European governments and scientists worry about another form of backlash. Genetic science is becoming a huge industry. If Europe earns a reputation for Luddite reactions to new fields, they fear, it will continue to lose its best scientists and thousands of jobs to the United States.

"People say we're playing God," said Daniel Vasella, president of Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical and biotech giant that owns Gerber. "But that's what they said about Icarus and flying or Prometheus and fire or Galileo. You put the old order to rest, and you're told you've questioned the rule of God and you will now be punished like the fall of the Tower of Babel."

Mr. Haerlin of the Greenpeace campaign made a strongly worded speech at conference here. To an audience of scientists, he said that many scientists were liars and that "smarter science and smarter scientists" were needed to improve organic farming.

He was criticized by an African official of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, who said, "Organic farming is practiced by 800 million poor people in the world because they can't afford pesticides and fertilizers -- and it's not working."

In remarks to reporters afterward, Mr. Haerlin dismissed the importance of saving African or Asian lives at the risk of spreading a new science that he considered untested. The Greenpeace position, he said, was that research could continue as long as no seeds or animals were ever released.

Not all Europeans agree. Swiss voters, for example, have twice rejected by large margins referendums that would have banned all genetic research or put a 10-year moratorium on field trials or sales.

[end of article]


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