Opinions Sun, 17 Oct 2010
Part One.Feature ArticleBy Nana akyea Mensah, The Odikro.
Introduction: "Father of GM Food" Receives a TKO on BBC's "One Planet"?
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"The father of GM foods, bolivian seeds and wildebeest
Dr Roger Beachy, the father of GM foods on scientific ignorance and our
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By way of introduction, I would like very much to hurriedly draw your
attention to this programme, and pray, you make it a point not to miss it,
while it is available.The accuracy or otherwise of the following
transcription is still verifiable. Currently running on the website of the
BBC is an important humiliation of the arrogant "Monsanto scientists"
President Obama seems to rely upon to take charge of US Department of Food
and Agriculture. You may want to call it the most up-to-date public debate
(last broadcast, Sun 10 Oct 2010, available to listen online for a few more
days) on allowing genetically modified organisms into our food chain.
Another claim one can successfully make about this debate is the fact that
it brought together, some of the best brains on the opposing sides of the
issue in a broadcast that was beamed to millions of people across the globe.
I have decided to write about this as an introduction to a special focus on
the threat of GMO invasion on the African continent. The reason why I
urgently want to bring this out is because even though I have improvised a
transcription, owing to the importance of the issue the debate covers, it is
still possible to listen to the discussion online. It goes off forever after
a few days!
On "One Planet", a BBC World Service "Factual and Science and Nature
Programme", Dr. Roger Beachy, the man reputed to have made the first
genetically food crop, also described by the presenter as "the father of GM
Food", "the man appointed by Barack Obama to head the National Institute of
Food and Agriculture" (www.csrees.usda.gov), answers the following question
from BBC's Mike Williams. I like very much the style of the presenter. He
takes his time to let his listeners know the experience and qualifications
of the people he is interviewing. To Dr. Beachy he asks:
"You have been called 'the father of GM food' how does that feel like?", Dr.
Beachy confirms with admirable humility, "But then so have a number of other
people, I am one of the members of the club, I guess, of those of us who
adopted the science nearly twenty five years ago. And I was privileged
enough to be at the right place at the right time with the right idea."
"And with the help of the company, Monsanto, you made the first genetically
modified food crop?" Mike wants us to know whom he is talking to,
"We did, successfully," Dr. Beachy's answer is in the affirmative, "and
then had the first field trial of genetically engineered food plant, that
was a tomato that was resistant to a virus disease. The field trial was held
Then comes the long-awaited question:
"Does it bother you that there is resistance, people are scared, some
people, are scared of this technology, concerned about it?"
Here is Dr. Beachy's answer:
"You know, there is a recent article that was published about why people
make decisions about accepting cell-phone technology, or driving a fast
car,, or GM crops, or having a vaccine for measles. And there are always
some who will choose against all facts, against all knowledge, simply not to
participate for some other reason, reason in their hearts, in their heads,
in their souls, they choose not based on science. so, maybe you want to turn
the question around. How have they taken those attitudes, where do those
attitudes come from?
"If they hold those attitudes strongly and honestly," an obviously surprised
Mike Williams would only mildly ask, "It's, I'm sure, you would accept that
it's not your job, not trying to change that?"
"Exactly right," Dr. Beachy responds, "the job of the scientist is to
discover new solutions. What we would hope is that decisions that are made
by the public are based upon their knowledge and understanding of the
science. And, clearly, we know that that is not happening in many cases. We
know in the case of vaccines, that some people simply wont take vaccines for
reasons that are not based on science but for something else."
"Forgive me, if I..." Mike tries to intervene without success.
"Then on the other hand, we know that people will not take new food, who
will not accept a new food variety because they believe that it should be
grown in a certain way. And I think those decision-making process is often
in the absence of science. Now, one could say that, perhaps, we should have
started fifty years ago, and maintained our level of science education, so
that when new facts come along, it would be more understood and so forth,
but we haven't done that."
At this stage, I simply can't wait to bring you with me to Mike, back in
London, inside the laboratory of Dr. Michael Antoniou, as a molecular
geneticist, surely a man no one can call a "scientific illiterate", whose
opposition to GM food is not only "based on science", but also has a ring of
credibility completely absent in Dr. Beachy's hocus pocus on the reasons why
there is resistance to the attempts to impose GM crops on the world. What
makes the rebuttal of Dr. Antoniou so sweet is not simply because he happens
to be an expert in the field, but also the manner in which he tears the
arguments of Dr. Roger Beachy and Mr. Jack Bobo, "Senior Advisor for
Bio-Technology in the US Department of State.". So, I continue with the
interview in Washington before we come back to London.
"Can I just bring you back to that reference to vaccines which the science
shows to be beneficial to them? what you can then do is to put the vaccine
in the water and I think one of those arguments people make about GM crops
is that there are concerns that those genes would spread and end up
ingesting genetically modified material. That is what they are concerned
"You know," Dr. Beachy replies, "I gave a talk in Dublin a number of years
ago, and a young man was really, really concerned about potatoes. And we
said we were mostly talking about corn and cotton. He said the corn pollen
would contaminate the potato. He didn't know that the corn pollen couldn't
pollinate potato. Which gets us back the issue of illiteracy about science.
It is very easy to promote fear and distrust when there is lack of knowledge
in those who are reading or listening. So in the case of cross-pollination
as issue, if you had a guy who was exporting organic weet corn, and somebody
next door is producing commercial corn for cows and other uses, the sweet
corn has a different pollination time than does the commercial corn. So, the
chances for contamination in that example are non-existent or can be managed
very nicely. If the farmer, that is, one or the other, says I am going to
plant my crop a little bit later, then, yes, there is no cross-pollination.
My point is by knowing about the biology of organisms and how they are
grown, one can find ways that side-by-side, we can have a safe organic
production or commercial production and bio-tech,. It is straight science
knowledge and the inability not to vilify but to get along with each
"Joining us here is Jack Bobo, Senior Advisor for Bio-Technology, US
Department of State," Mike turns his attention to Jack Bobo, "Erm, Mr.
Bobo," Mike asks, "can I just ask you about United States policy? I mean, it
seems clear that the United States is interested in promoting genetically
modified food world-wide, tell me why?"
"Actually, I would say that the United States is interested in promoting
agriculture world-wide, and bio-technology just happens to be one of those.
We promote organic agriculture, and bio-technology. But as an export issue
and as a development issue, I think there is a particular importance though,
trying to address the issue of acceptance of bio-technology both from a
farmer perspective, and consumer perspective."
"I wonder whether you would agree", Mike fires, "that, we are, in the West,
exporting Western consumerism to the rest of the world, and the GM crops is,
perhaps, an attempt to export a solution to that particular problem?"
"The fact is, we need a double food production between now and 2050. that is
a huge challenge." Mr. Bobo confidently explains, "Climate change means
there is going to be a 27% decline in productivity. We need to double
production and we have declining productivity. How are we going to do about
that? And so we need all the technology that are available in order to do
that, and so the developing world desperate need of technologies that are
going to reduce the variability of yields, and that would allow them to
produce their own food. this is not about exporting consumerism. This is
about production and self-sufficiency."
"I would like to add," Dr. Beachy interjects, "that I think this is an area
that the developed nations must collaborate on. This partnership in
knowledge sharing and in building the ability of countries to feed
themselves is our responsibility, it's your responsibility, and should be
based on science. It should not be based on a demonization of technology per
se. It should be based on the best science that meets the needs of the
world. And I think that is a responsibility that goes beyond philosophy,
whether it is GM, organic, or conventional. It becomes a moral obligation of
not feeding people but educating them so that they can feed themselves."
"Do yo think that the technology has been demonized?" Mike asks.
"I think it has been, largely." Dr. Beachy replied. "In our country, it has
been demonized because it is a way to value something else more. An organic
product costs more than conventional product. That 20, 25, maybe even in a
hundred per cent premium on an organic banana compared to conventional,
allows somebody to make more money. It is about finances in that case. And I
would like to see this come down to what is safer for the environment, safer
for people, and more economic so that those who don't have as much as you
and I have, sitting here around this table, with a biscuit and a cup of tea,
can say that the woman who has less, has the same capabilities of feeding
herself and her kids, as we do sitting around the table. And I think that's
only going to come when we adopt the safest and best technologies of
whatever type, to help to make things happen. And then we can put that
"Some of the problems you are fighting to overcome through genetically
modified food seem to many, to have come about because of monoculture and
that monoculture has caused the problem and that GM monoculture isn't going
to provide the solution."
"Modern agriculture is by definition a monoculture." Dr. Beachy would
surrender no grounds, "You can drive around through - I love driving through
- the southern parts of England and watching the fields of wheat. That is
monoculture. Don't pretend it's not. But don't blame that on GM, blame it on
modern, high output agriculture. The wheat is cheap because we grew them in
the wheat fields. Our beef isn't expensive because they grow a lot of corn
in large monoculture so that we can feed at lower cost than if we had it in
small plots. So, it is agriculture that you are talking about. You are not
talking about GMOs or conventional agriculture."
Thus it was that my hopes that this could be an opportunity to hear what I
needed to know to understand the best and the most current argument making
the case for GM food passed by in vain. Unfortunately, instead of squarely
confronting the real issues surrounding the biology, politics, and the
economics of GM technology the advocates only insult our intelligence. If I
was looking for any insight or argument that would have effectively
addressed my own apprehensions about GM crops, I was alarmingly
disappointed. Dr. Beachy is no doubt a brilliant geneticist, but as an
advocate of his wares, he is certainly not the best in town. The fundamental
choice of ignoring the highly informed and science-based opposition to the
current push to promote genetically modified organisms into our food chain
with lower and lower restrictions, and the erosion of the precautionary
measures installed to safeguard against possible hazards must be rightly
considered a crime against humanity.
I call on all the people's of the world to uphold the precautionary approach
contained in Principle 15 of the "Rio Declaration on environment and
Development" as relates to the current uncertainties surrounding GMOs. The
"Lack of scientific certainty due to insufficient relevant scientific
information and knowledge regarding the extent of the potential adverse
effects of an LMO on biodiversity, taking into account risks to human
health, shall not prevent a Party of import from taking a decision, as
appropriate, with regard to the import of the LMO in question, in order to
avoid or minimize such potential adverse effects." Annex III on risk
assessment, which notes that "Lack of scientific knowledge or scientific
consensus should not necessarily be interpreted as indicating a particular
level of risk, an absence of risk, or an acceptable risk." (Article 10.6 and
I was expecting answers that go beyond questions raised by advocates of GMO
particularly in Africa, such as summarized in the following abstract: "Even
after more than 15 years of the emergence of modern biotechnology in
agriculture, much of Africa remains reluctant if not hostile to it. Some
view modern biotechnology as the new messiah to lift Africa from starvation
and food insecurity while others hold the contrary view and advise Africa to
stay away from the technology for reasons ranging from health and
environmental concerns to economic considerations. They fear that the
unfolding ‘gene revolution’ is destined to fail on its promises because of
the existing complex economic, social, and political circumstances in Africa
as was the case in the green revolution." (Presented at the SIEL 2010
Conference in Barcelona., Birhanu, Fikremarkos Merso, Biotechnology and the
Future of Africa’s Agriculture (June 30, 2010). Society of International
Economic Law (SIEL), Second Biennial Global Conference, University of
Barcelona, July 8-10, 2010. Available at SSRN:
In his response to the question, "Does it not bother you that there is
resistance, people are scared, some people, are scared of this technology,
concerned about it?" Dr. Beachy chose to blame the resistance to what he
calls "scientific illiteracy". Said Dr. Beachy:
"You know, there is a recent article that was published about why people
make decisions about accepting cell phone technology, or driving a fast car,
or GM crops,or having a vaccine for measles, and there are some who wil
choose against all facts, against all knowledge, simply not to participate
for some other reasons, reason in their hearts, in their heads, in their
souls, they choose, not based on science. So maybe, you want to turn the
question around. How have they taken those attitudes? Where do they come
It is a pity that Dr. Beachy had clearly not read Crossed Crocodiles, "Why
Is Kofi Annan Fronting For Monsanto? GMO Assault On
If he had done that, he would have been ably to give a more intelligent
response, or at least one that is not as stupid and insultingly arrogant, as
as this one. I am not a geneticist, and I do not cease to be amazed by the
brilliant contributions to knowledge particularly in fighting disease, but I
bet I know where my concerns about GM food are coming from! These have
nothing to do with "scientific illiteracy"! They are coming from the bitter
experiences of over twenty five thousand farmers in India who committed
suicide with Monsanto''s pesticides after being misled into the believing
that genetically modified cotton was the key to higher yields and bigger
They are coming from reports that scientists working for Monsanto refused to
drink the milk that they themselves had helped to invent. As Jeffrey M.
Smith puts it, "former Monsanto scientist said that after company scientists
conducted safety studies on bovine growth hormone, all three refused to
drink any more milk, unless it was organic and therefore not treated with
the drug. They feared the substantial increase of insulin-like growth factor
1 (IGF-1) in the drugged milk. IGF-1 is a significant risk factor for
cancer." - Monsanto: The world's poster child for corporate manipulation and
deceit, Friday, July 30, 2010.
Our fears also come from the fact that GMOs remain inside of us. "The only
published human feeding study revealed that even after we stop eating GMOs,
harmful GM proteins may be produced continuously inside of us; genes
inserted into Monsanto's GM soy transfer into bacteria inside our intestines
and continue to function.(64) If Bt genes also transfer, eating corn chips
might transform our intestinal bacteria into living pesticide factories."
"Un-recallable contamination: In spite of the enormous health dangers, the
environmental impacts may be worse still. That is because we don't have a
technology to fully clean up the contaminated gene pool. The
self-propagating genetic pollution released into the environment from
Monsanto's crops can outlast the effects of climate change and nuclear
For Dr. Beachy to simply brush all these legitimate, and many more
science-based concerns aside, with the ridiculous claim that opposition to
the acceptance of GM crops in our food chain is largely based upon our
ignorance is the cheapest way to avoid the hard questions which tip the
debate against GMOs. What makes this particular programme very interesting
is the fact that the "One Planet" also interviewed a molecular geneticist,
Dr Michael Antoniou, Kings College London (www.kcl.ac.uk). The beauty of
this lies in the fact that Dr. Antoniou is himself a genetic engineer and as
such can not be deemed to be "scientifically illiterate".
"Dr. Antoniou, what is it do you do here?" The question was asked whilst
inside a laboratory of King's College, where Dr. Antoniou works.
"What we do in my research group", Dr. Antoniou responds, "is to investigate
fundamental mechanisms of how human gene systems are controlled, and then we
exploit those discoveries to design safe and efficacious gene units to be
used within a therapeutic context, within a human gene therapy context, for
treating for example, inherited diseases such as immune deficiencies,
thalassemia, sickle disease, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and so
"The people who create GM crops use very similar techniques to yours,
different applications though, are you comfortable with that?"
"I am not comfortable at all with the way that GM is being used in
agriculture". Dr. Antoniou answer categorically, "because compared to what
we do in a clinical context, where not only research is done under contained
genes, they are non-replicated. They can't reproduce and spread and cause
harm. In agriculture the same technique is used in open fields, the organism
can spread in an uncontrolled way and we suffer with the consequences of
"You use this technology to device medical therapy to help people to live
longer and healthier lives, to keep more of us on the planet for longer,
what is wrong with other scientists using these same techniques to fed those
extra millions and billions? They say - you heard the argument - that
there was a need, a moral moral obligation?", Dr. Antoniou responds:
"Indeed, the world has a moral obligation to feed itself. What is invariably
ignored by advocates of GM crops in explaining why almost a billion of
people in the world go to bed, each day, hungry, is that actually, we have
more than enough food to feed everybody now. In fact, we have have doubled
the amount of food to feed everybody in the world now, but people don't have
access to food. And in terms of meeting future food needs, specifically in
the face of climate change, then the latest United Nations Food and
Agriculture Organisation sponsored report clearly pointed that the future in
meeting future food needs lie in applying agro-ecological methods. They said
that genetic engineering would play little or no role in meeting immediate
food needs of the world and future food needs of the world. Which is why the
Americans were not signatory. But 62 other nations, actually signed up,
including the UK, signed up to that report. We have to take on board, the
report compiled by 400 independent scientists from around the world, in all
manner of expertise and discipline, which said go forward with low-input,
agro-ecological, sustainable agriculture, not GM, because GM simply does not
fit the bill."
We shall be focusing on Bolivai and the GMO debate soon. This is what I
call, a "technical knock-out"! And the winner is... Bravo! Dr. Michael
Antoniou!!! Thanks, Mike, and the BBC for this eye-opener!
Forward Ever! Backwards Never!!!
Nana Akyea Mensah, The Odikro
Blogs: Feature Articles: nanaakyeamensah.blogspot.com,
Columnist: Mensah, Nana Akyea