Communicate to the public
Posted by: Prof. Dr. M. Raupp
Date: October 22, 2005 10:04AM
www.checkbiotech.org ; www.raupp.info ; www.czu.cz
As the early morning fog lifted last Wednesday in the French town of
Illkirch, during the BioValley Green Biotech Event, it might have been a
symbolic outlook for the future of genetic engineering in Europe, October
2005 by Robert Derham, Checkbiotech.
Try as it might, the fog could not dampen a morning of enthusiasm and
accomplishment. Shortly after the morning presentations began, the fog
started to burn off.
With talk of genetically modified (GM) plants that would clean the
environment, produce plastics, have more vitamins, produce more disease
preventing antioxidants and act as the pharmaceutical drug producing
factories of tomorrow, there was reason for the sun to shine.
The researchers were focusing on the second generation of transgenic crops
and foods ? whose improvements would more directly benefit costumers. The
first generation of GM crops also benefited the consumer, albeit indirectly.
Farmers more directly benefited from the first generation supported in part
by the annual global increase of GM crop plantings.
Despite the global increase, Europe is one region that has been reluctant to
adopt policies that favor transgenic agriculture. The speakers? frustration
with the status quo in Europe grew more evident during the afternoon
Dr. Ralf Reski, professor at the University of Freiburg, spoke of how his
joint research project on moss has encountered road blocks at times, but due
to foreign support, it is moving forward.
The overall success of the moss research program at the University of
Freiburg has led to the identification of important genetic knowledge for
BASF Plant Science, and to the formation of a company called, Greenovation.
Greenovation uses uniquely designed moss plants to produce pharmaceutical
drugs. The moss plants are grown in special incubating systems, which allow
them to secrete the medicine of interest into their surrounding. The
resulting drugs can then be separated and prepared for human use. Such a
system is know as a bioreactor.
Considering the success of the moss research project, it could be presumed
that European funding sources would be jumping at the opportunities to
advance the field. Yet, when Dr. Reski looked for funding in Europe to
sequence the moss genome, he noted, ?It took me about two years to look for
something in Europe, but no one would sponsor such a project.?
Dr. Reski then found an online advertisement for funding from a US website,
and decided to apply. Two and a half months later he received a reply that
his project would be granted funding, and it should be carried out ?with
?That is the difference between Europe and the States [USA],? added Dr.
Greenovation ran into similar problems in Europe as it sought potential
investors and partners for their moss bioreactors. Dr. Reski then came into
contact with a Chinese investor, who after learning about Greenovation?s
technology, emphatically stated, ?I want you to build your bioreactors in
?As with the States, here is the difference between China and Europe ?
forward thinking. They see an opportunity and they go for it,? suggested Dr.
Reski to his audience.
From Golden to Danger
After Dr. Reski?s presentation, the enthusiastic mood from the morning
started to change to serious reflection. There was even more to contemplate
as Dr. Peter Beyer, from the University of Freiburg presented his second
generation GM crop ? and the first of its kind ? Golden Rice.
As Dr. Beyer noted, ?The rice kernel ? the mother of all foods ? is void of
iron, vitamin E and pro-vitamin A.? So he and co-inventor Dr. Ingo Potrykus,
from the ETH Zurich in Switzerland, worked together to give rice the ability
to naturally produce pro-vitamin A, which is the root for its orange color
and its nickname ? Golden Rice.
Pro-vitamin A, also known as beta-carotene, can then be used by the human
body to make vitamin A. On its own, the body cannot produce vitamin A, which
leads to problems in many developing countries of the world, since half of
the world?s population depends on rice for their caloric intake, and of that
50 percent, 80 percent live solely from rice.
Commenting on the gravity of this global issue, Dr. Beyer stressed, ?A diet,
based solely on rice, can lead to serious health problems, such as: partial
or full blindness, skin diseases, nervous system problems, among others.?
With the advent of Golden Rice, many of these health problems that
developing countries face could be eliminated, if Golden Rice can be brought
to the people in need. However, success is slowly progressing and again, a
familiar target resurfaced. ?The danger zone is in Europe,? implied Dr.
The ?danger,? to which Dr. Beyer alluded, stems from a growing perception
that new scientific advancements need to be absolutely safe, to which he
added, ?This does not exist.?
?We need to look at a risk-benefit analysis,? noted Dr. Beyer, as he made
reference to scientific advancements. ?Look for the benefit analyses
[concerning GM crops] in Europe and you will only find risk analyses.?
This development has not been without repercussions. Europe is home to the
most extensive regulatory system for approving genetically engineered
agriculture. In order to import goods into Europe, many other countries have
enacted similarly strict regulatory guidelines to ensure European markets
remain open to their exports.
?The regulatory guidelines these days are undeniably exaggerated. They are
not based on science,? and Dr Beyer?s frustration is well understood. No
country is unstained from playing economic games with regulatory laws to
protect its country?s markets.
However, Dr. Beyer?s pro-vitamin A enriched rice is not about economics ?
its about saving lives and improving the quality of people?s lives. That is
why he has a plan.
?We are now working on giving Golden Rice ownership to the countries
themselves. By doing so, we hope to reduce the regulatory guidelines,? or as
he later clarified, he hopes the countries will enact legal routes that will
allow humanitarian projects, such as Golden Rice, to face less stringent
Despite road blocks, Dr. Beyer believes Golden Rice faces a bright future,
which was more optimism than Dr. Pascual Perez, from the French-based
company Biogemma, could offer. During his presentation, Dr. Perez evidenced
how Europe has a limited amount of farmland, with a population that
continues to rise.
The Pen vs. the Sword
Biogemma believes the solution to limited farm space can be found in
improving the genetic make-up of crops, so that they can produce larger
yields from the same amount of farmland. >br>
As their research has translated into products, they have moved to
undergoing field trials to see how their yield-increasing crops measure up ?
however, results have been difficult to come by.
Time and time again, individuals have deliberately destroyed their field
trials. In some cases, Dr. Perez highlighted, ?These people, who claim to be
for the environment, have put salt on the fields, thus making future
plantings impossible,? because high salt concentrations act as a poison,
thus rending the soil infertile.
When asked by a member of the audience what his company plans to do to
overcome this situation, Dr. Perez replied, ?What can we do, if the French
Government does not act. We, as a company, are held to the law, but they are
somehow held above the law. Eventually, we may have to do like everyone
else ? take our trials to the US.?
?This is happening everywhere in Europe. The companies are relocating their
research to other places outside of Europe, like the US,? an answer that
further damped the hopes of many in attendance.
Throughout the day, some of the most exciting and promising research in the
world was presented, though many were left wondering if the work that they
have heard about at the conference would ever benefit the place they call
As the auditorium vibrated with proposals, while sub-discussions broke out
over topics that ranged from how transgenic research ?was being
misunderstood,? how politicians were not helping and how to rectify the
damaging flow of ?brain drain? ? the loss of Europe?s elite scientists to
other countries in the world ? none satisfied the tumult until Dr. Jean
Masson from the INRA in France, offered a paradigm shift.
?You have to take the time to communicate to the public. If we don?t, the
activists will.? And with that, people settled back into their chairs and
side conversations almost immediately ceased ? the fog of doubt and
disbelief had abruptly cleared the room.
Dr. Masson spoke from experience. INRA had sought permission for over four
years to undergo field trials with genetically modified grapevines that can
withstand the devastating Pierce disease, and in the end, it was
communication that finally convinced the public that the study should
However, recognizing a solution, such as better communication, and being
able to capitalize on it are two different things ? especially when dealing
with scientists, whose attitude towards communication might best generalized
by the cliché, ?let the facts speak for themselves.?
Although many of Europe?s best plant scientists convened at Wednesday?s
BioValley Green Biotech Day to give the world a taste of the future benefits
that agricultural biotechnology has in store for the world, it may have been
the scientists who were handed the best invention of the day ?
communication. However as with any great invention, the greater task lies in
ensuring that it can be put into practical use.
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