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Barriers to GM Food Revolution; GMObelus; Edging Towards BioUtopia; Stalin's War on Genetics; Nutritionally Improved Crops

Today in AgBioView - August 10, 2008

* Four Barriers to GM Food Revolution, and Why No One Is Talking About Them
* New AgBiotech Website: GMObelus
* Forcing the Issues
* Nutritionally Improved Agricultural Crops
* Safety Assessment of GM Plants with Endogenous Gene Expression
* Money For Crop Research Just A Drop In The Bucket
* Edging Towards BioUtopia - Book Review
* Stalin's War on Genetic Science

Food Fight - The Four Barriers to the Genetically Modified-Food Revolution- and Why No One Is Talking About Them

- Paul Roberts, Slate.com, August 8, 2008


Discussion of the article at

Could this be the turning point for genetically modified food? As food prices have soared around the world, agro-industry companies like Monsanto and Syngenta, along with their allies in Washington, have been carefully positioning GM technology as our last, best hope against a global food catastrophe. Since traditional crop-breeding methods aren't keeping up with soaring food demand, they argue, we have no choice but to re-engineer our crops at the molecular level to give bigger yields.

Appealing as this argument sounds, it misses the real obstacles facing GM. Yes, traditional crop science is struggling. And yes, rising food prices might help consumers and lawmakers overcome their fears about GM's safety (especially as some of those concerns are overblown). But neither change will alter the fact that GM crop technology itself isn't ready to save the world. Despite GM's potential, the technology faces substantial technical and economic barriers before it will spark a
second green revolution-barriers that aren't being discussed in the newly energized debate over genetically modified food.

For starters, for all the talk of saving the world from hunger, the GM industry isn't focusing on crops that are truly relevant to global food security. Today, most GM research targets big Western cash crops: Two of the best-selling GM products are corn and soybeans engineered to tolerate the popular herbicide Roundup. But these high-tech seeds are designed for large-scale, mechanized farmers in North and South America and are of no use to the billions of developing-world farmers who make
up three-quarters of the global-farming work force-but without whom lasting global food security can't be achieved.

By contrast, relatively little GM investment is going into the crops that do matter to poor farmers-cassava, sorghum, millet, pigeon pea, chickpea, and groundnut. These crops are more nutritionally balanced than corn or soybeans and are far better suited to the local soils and often-tough climates of poor nations. Yet, because poor farmers can't afford high-tech seeds, GM companies have little incentive to invest research dollars to improve "marginal" crops. Instead, they focus on the money makers: According to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, just four commercial crops-corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton-account for 85 percent of all GM crops planted worldwide.

GM companies also aren't being honest about what this technology can do-and what it can't. In the rush to exploit the current crisis, the industry routinely promises to re-engineer crops to give massive
yields-Monsanto has vowed to double grain yields by 2030-or to grow with less water or to thrive in degraded soils. But delivering on such promises will be much harder than is currently acknowledged. Whereas making corn tolerate Roundup required the manipulation of just one gene, boosting yield is vastly more complex, says Kendall Lamkey, a crop-breeding expert who chairs Iowa State University's Department of Agronomy. Yield is the expression of a plant's reproductive success, and reproduction takes nearly all of a plant's survival "skills," from its capacity to cope with temperature changes to its resistance to bugs. In other words, says Lamkey, to boost yields through genetic modification,
GM companies must manipulate thousands of genes-and so far, they've had limited success.

In fact, many breeding experts believe that the fastest way to boost yields isn't by engineering new seeds but by exploiting the untapped potential of existing seeds. As Lamkey points out, the yields for corn and soybeans on America's top-performing farms are more than double the national average for those same crops. (In 2007, the top soybean farmer produced 154 bushels per acre, compared with the national average of around 41 bushels.) That means there is considerable room for improvement before these seeds are maxed out. These "top producers" aren't using different seeds; instead, they're benefiting from better soils, using better farming practices, and applying lots of water, fertilizer, and other chemicals-factors that GM technology won't influence anyway.

To be fair, GM technologists may eventually master the complexity of yield-but not without spending lots of money and lots of time; Monsanto says it will need at least two decades for its big yield boosts. That means the world has little hope for quick relief-and that GM companies have little hope for a quick return on their investment. Thus, for all the hype about using GM to solve the current crisis, or to end hunger generally, the industry will be financially inclined to focus on simpler projects with faster payoffs, such as new varieties of commercial crops bred to tolerate herbicides and pesticides.

Even if GM companies do manage to improve crops that truly matter for food security, these miracle seeds won't help if they're not accessible to poor farmers. That means companies must either price seeds cheaply enough for farmers to buy each year or stop objecting when poor farmers save and reuse the seeds the following year. Today, Monsanto and other seed companies object strenuously to seed saving, which they call "seed piracy" and which they claim deprives them of profits. Yet seed saving is central to food security for the billions of farmers too poor to buy new seeds every season. More to the point, while pirated profits are a real issue among wealthy Western farmers, it's a bogus concern in the developing world, where poor farmers were never going to buy new seeds-and certainly not expensive GM seeds-every year anyway.

In fact, many critics believe the GM industry's objections to seed saving have less to do with lost profits in the developing world than with the industry's long-term goal of owning, literally, the seed sector. When seeds are conventionally bred, breeders don't own them-anyone can use or improve the seeds. But genetic modification allows a company to claim property rights over a particular DNA blueprint and to charge a licensing fee for each and every copy-much as Microsoft now claims an interest in each and every copy of Windows. By relaxing its proprietary zeal and allowing seeds in the developing world
to be "open source," the GM industry could do much to bolster claims that it is really trying to help poor farmers.

Finally, if the industry wants public support, it can no longer dismiss public concerns about the risks of GM crops-health risks for humans but also the ecological risk that GM crops will escape farms and contaminate the wilderness. True, some concerns are overblown. Ecological contamination, or "gene flow," is a real threat only when pollen from a GM crop in a farm field finds a nearby wild relative; in the United States, most commercial crops such as corn or soybeans don't have any wild relatives. But gene flow is a possible concern in places like Chile, where commercial potatoes do have wild elatives. Human health risks are even less clear-cut. Though we've yet to see credible reports of GM foods causing human health problems, we've also not had the benefit of credible long-term health studies.

Until such studies have been completed, the GM industry needs to stop regarding a skeptical public as a nuisance. And even if GM technology is shown to be safe, the industry needs to accept that many consumers may still choose not to eat genetically modified foods. That means no more lawsuits against food companies that market their food as "GM free." That also means no more lobbying against laws requiring that foods with GM ingredients be labeled as such. Consumers have a right to know what's in their food.

What would the industry get in return for such good behavior? Money, for one. Whatever one thinks of the GM industry, it's hardly fair to force private companies to make products for farmers so poor they can't pay. Once upon a time, breeding new crops for poor farmers was inseparable from the West's larger food-aid strategy and was managed-and financed-largely by governments. (Indeed, most of the green revolution miracle crops from the 1960s were bred by government- and foundation-backed researchers.) Since then, much of the public-sector breeding enterprise has been dismantled (partly at the behest of the seed industry, which was tired of competing with public agencies), leaving a massive gap in our system for developing critical new crops.

GM companies say they (and their technologies) offer the best means of closing that gap. But it's hard to see why these companies would invest heavily in regionally appropriate, but potentially unprofitable, crops. Rather, what's more likely is that the industry will use the promise of a solution to the food crisis to press for more regulatory flexibility and more consumer acceptance-and then use that freedom to keep making the same big-money cash crops they always have.

We shouldn't be shocked by such pragmatism. Seed companies, like any company, are in business to make money. But our policy toward GM companies should be no less pragmatic. If we want private companies to take on what is essentially a public job-helping farmers too poor to participate in the market economy-we're going to have to pay them to do it. So let's make a deal: In return for targeting vital regional and local crops, and for making the seeds accessible to poor farmers, GM companies will get hefty subsidies for research and development of these crops.

Would such a deal be enough to ignite a gene revolution? If the main obstacle to GM miracles is lack of financial and political support, as the industry argues, then such a deal could be the catalyst for serious innovation. But if, as many critics believe, the real obstacle here is that GM technology simply isn't all that its proponents claim, that the real challenges of food insecurity-degraded soils, political
instability, lack of water, and soaring energy costs-are beyond the reach of a single technology, that, too, would quickly become clear. In either case, by reframing the GM debate as a challenge to do the
revolution right, we can encourage a more constructive conversation about the real role that this technology might play in the future of food security.
Paul Roberts is a journalist specializing in resource economics. His latest book, The End of Food, was published in June.

See readers' responses including this one

New AgBiotech Website

A new website covering news and commentary in the field of agricultural biotechnology has just "gone live" on the web. Known as GMObelus (a cryptic name with a simple explanation), it is edited by Andrew Apel -- who has been guest editor here in the past, and will be again, shortly.

Although GMObelus differs significantly from other online publications in the field, it is meant to complement them, rather than to compete with them.

GMObelus takes a noticeably different approach to selecting and editing the daily news, and ends each week with a commentary that wraps up the week's events.

In addition, it offers those who register with the website a free, and highly secure, method of posting their own insights on the news.

The intended result of this format is to offer the ag biotech community, and the general public, a running account of the latest political, business, legal, and scientific developments regarding GMOs in
agriculture. In addition, it presents the 'lighter side' of genetic engineering -- a development late in coming, but nonetheless welcome.

You are all invited to register with GMObelus, and to contribute your insights.

Please visit http://www.gmobelus.com for more information. Last week's wrap-up is posted below.

Forcing the issues

- Andrew Apel, GMObelus, August 8, 2008


The issues surrounding the use of biotechnology in agriculture are mainly political creations, and there are various ways to force them. The week's news offer many examples of how such issues can be forced -- and examples of what's being done by people who would rather solve issues than create them.

The European Union is forcing the issue by proposing to ban a vast array of agricultural chemicals, including those necessary for the control of nematodes and blight in potato fields. Technology is available which would allow potatoes to ward off these threats, but GM potatoes are effectively banned. (And not just in Europe.) The issue will either be faced while the legislation is on the table, or later, during a potato shortage.

Europe could perhaps deal with the issue as Canada has done, by simply compensating potato farmers for their losses. That wouldn't fix consumer prices, though, which is an issue Canada did not force upon itself.

Another way to force the issues is by laying out regulations for public comment in countries where the controversy over biotechnology is intense. That's what Thailand, Australia and New Zealand have just done, and what the UK's National Food Policy threatens to do. The biggest self-induced fracas could be in Poland, which aspires to harmonize its GM crop regulations with European regulations by means of 'coexistence' rules which make coexistence impossible.

This can actually be done unwittingly. It happened in Australia, where a farmers' association has has asked for government protections for the production of GM crops which amount to 'coexistence' legislation. If the government responds, the farmers will likely find themselves embroiled in issues they never meant to raise.

Still another way to force the issues is to politicize the peer-review process, and publish articles without scientific merit in scientific journals and other places.

Then there's the method of advertising the issues, which South Korean beverage giant Jinro is likely to use as part of making its alcoholic liquor 'non-GMO'. This is related to the method of contracting with farmers to produce non-GM soy, which Japanese grain trader Marubeni Corp. will be doing shortly in the US. Both of these methods invite what's come to be known as a 'contamination scandal'.

Then there's blocking a field trial which scientists have approved, or confiscating and destroying a shipment containing rice which scientists developed but did *not* approve -- measures similar to, but arguably more civilized than, attacking a farmer's crop of GM maize.

At the same time, there are a number of people who work harder on solving issues, than on raising them. This week, they came up with a solution for striga, Africa's most deadly weed. They located a family of virulence proteins involved in both plant and human disease, and embarked on developing drought-resistant potato and soy. And that's the short list. We know who these people are, and they aren't politicians.

Nutritionally Improved Agricultural Crops

- Martina Newell-McGloughlin, Red Orbit, August 9, 2008

Agricultural innovation has always involved new, science-based products and processes that have contributed reliable methods for increasing productivity and sustainability. Biotechnology has introduced a new dimension to such innovation, offering efficient and cost-effective means to produce a diverse array of novel, value- added products and tools. The first generation of biotechnology products commercialized were crops focusing largely on input agronomic traits whose value was
largely opaque to consumers.

The coming generations of crop plants can be grouped into four broad areas, each presenting what, on the surface, may appear as unique challenges to regulatory oversight. The present and future focus is on continuing improvement of agronomic traits such as yield and abiotic stress resistance in addition to the biotic stress tolerance of the present generation; crop plants as biomass feedstocks for biofuels and ''biosynthetics''; value-added output traits such as improved nutrition and food functionality; and plants as production factories for therapeutics and industrial products. From a consumer perspective, the focus on valueadded traits, especially improved nutrition, is of greatest interest.

Developing plants with these improved traits involves overcoming a variety of technical, regulatory, and indeed perception challenges inherent in the perceived and real challenges of complex modifications.
Both traditional plant breeding and biotechnologybased techniques are needed to produce plants with the desired quality traits. Continuing improvements in molecular and genomic technologies are contributing to the acceleration of product development. Table I presents examples of crops that have already been genetically modified with macronutrient and micronutrient traits that may provide benefits to consumers and domestic animals.

Read on at

Safety Assessment Considerations for Food and Feed Derived from Plants with Genetic Modifications that Modulate Endogenous Gene Expression and Pathways

- Kier, L., Petrick, J. 2008. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 46: 2591-2605.
The current globally recognized comparative food and feed safety assessment paradigm for biotechnology-derived crops is a robust and comprehensive approach for evaluating the safety of both the inserted gene product and the resulting crop. Incorporating many basic concepts from food safety, toxicology, nutrition, molecular biology, and plant breeding, this approach has been used effectively by scientists and regulatory agencies for 10-15 years. Current and future challenges in agriculture include the need for improved yields, tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses, and improved nutrition.

The next generation of biotechnology-derived crops may utilize regulatory proteins, such as transcription factors that modulate gene expression and/or endogenous plant pathways. In this review, we discuss the applicability of the current safety assessment paradigm to biotechnology-derived crops developed using modifications involving regulatory proteins. The growing literature describing the molecular biology underlying plant domestication and conventional breeding
demonstrates the naturally occurring genetic variation found in plants, including significant variation in the classes, expression, and activity of regulatory proteins. Specific examples of plant modifications
involving insertion or altered expression of regulatory proteins are discussed as illustrative case studies supporting the conclusion that the current comparative safety assessment process is appropriate for these types of biotechnology-developed crops

Money For Crop Research Just A Drop In The Bucket

- Sue Kirchhoff, USA TODAY, July 30, 2008
WASHINGTON - A deadly wheat fungus known as stem rust is shriveling crops from Africa to the Middle East, threatening the breadbasket of Pakistan and India, and could eventually reach the United States.

The potential threat to food supplies and the economy is enormous, yet Congress and the White House during the past several years did not react to urgent pleas from U.S. scientists for millions of dollars to develop wheat varieties resistant to stem rust. Instead, the main federal lab working on the disease fought budget cuts.

Help now appears to be on the way. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation this spring promised $27 million to Cornell University to run an international research effort to thwart stem rust: a fungus borne by the wind, on clothing or in cargo holds that creates sores on wheat stems that blacken and wipe out once-healthy plants. In Congress, pending spending bills would increase research. But the inability of the federal government to react quickly to a potential crisis - about 90% of all commercial wheat varieties are susceptible to the new strain of the disease - is a telling statement about the beleaguered state of federal crop science funding.

U.S. government spending for agricultural research has been largely flat for a decade. Priorities have shifted from long-term efforts that increase yields, a development that has contributed to the current
global food crisis as the world copes with shrinking grain supplies and record prices.

Limited funds have been siphoned to emerging areas such as biofuels, nutrition and food safety while aid to international research bodies has been reduced, says Phillip Pardey, director of the International Science and Technology Practice and Policy Center at the University of Minnesota.

Private industry and non-profit sources, such as the Gates Foundation, are stepping into the breach. Congress, in a recent, five-year farm bill, took a major step toward boosting agriculture science programs, and the World Bank has promised a broad effort to increase global food development. But the U.S. government, a longtime leader in financing research aimed at increasing world harvests, is still behind soaring need as the world stares down the most serious food crisis in a generation and the United Nations calls for doubling food production by 2030.

"The agriculture-research system ... has eroded very significantly over the past few decades and was, and is, unable to respond adequately to a threat such as (stem rust)," says Ronnie Coffman, chair of the Cornell Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics, who is administering the Gates Foundation grant.

The last major wheat rust epidemic, in the 1950s, destroyed about 40% of the U.S. spring wheat crop. Worldwide, even a far more limited outbreak than that of the 1950s could have a huge impact, because wheat is nearly a third of grain production, and global food stockpiles are the lowest in decades.

"Food, over the past half-century, has basically been taken for granted in this country," Coffman says.

By the numbers
From 1970 to 2005, the U.S. population grew by 100 million and the economy grew 293%, but Agriculture Department research funding rose by $650 million, or just 1.85% a year. By comparison, in that same period Congress approved $22.6 billion in increased research at the National
Institutes of Health, Jeffrey Armstrong, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University, said in a presentation at a Chicago Federal Reserve seminar.

U.S. agricultural productivity rose at a 2% pace from 1950 to 1989, but has slowed to a 1.1% rate from 1990 to 2002, according to Pardey. Worldwide yields for wheat, corn and rice are rising about half as fast as a decade ago. "The slowdown effect is kicking in," Pardey said of flat spending for crop research and slower yield growth.

Lower productivity may not sound like a big deal, but it means billions of dollars in higher costs and lower profits for farmers, and more stress on limited land and water. The ethanol industry, which will
consume a third of this year's U.S. corn crop, is banking on enormous gains in corn yields to remain viable. New technologies are also needed to meet federal goals for other, alternative biofuels. Global warming and changing weather patterns are increasing the urgency to find new crop varieties.

Adding to the difficulty of reorienting research priorities is the fact that federal funds have been flowing increasingly to pet projects of members of Congress. Lawmakers in some years allocate as much as a fifth of overall agriculture research, education and economic funds, which totaled about $2.5 billion last year, through earmarks for such things as high-desert landscaping or urban aquaculture, says the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Crop scientists are divided on congressional earmarks. Cornell's Coffman says earmarks have sustained some important, low-profile crop-research programs. But Richard Standiford, of the University of California system, says his state is shortchanged by earmarks and does better under
competitive programs.

Prodded by the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, Congress in a new five-year farm bill created a program for competitive funding into food safety, organic agriculture and other areas. Scientists hope the competitive research will also free up additional funds elsewhere, and pending spending bills do include increased aid.

Fred Cholick, dean of agriculture at Kansas State University, says stepped up research is vital given global warming, growth of the biofuels industry and surging demand worldwide.

Industry-funded research has increased dramatically as federal funding has stalled, helping pick up the slack. Private firms are also mounting initiatives to address tight global food supplies. Agriculture giant Monsanto, a worldwide leader in developing seed and plant varieties, in June said it would provide a five-year, $10 million grant to improve rice and wheat yields, with the research to be overseen by experts on food production in poor countries. Monsanto will also try to double yields of its genetically modified corn and soybeans.

Industry-financed research, though, has its limits in feeding a hungry world. Corporations, with a bottom line to meet, are more likely to focus on areas that benefit rich nations, or to shy away from long-term projects with uncertain payoffs.

Chris Hurt, agricultural economist at Purdue University, notes that major crop-science advances in recent decades have relied on publicly financed research that was widely disseminated, as opposed to closely held corporate research. Companies, Hurt says, take the approach, "If you want this (private) technology, you have to pay us for this technology."

New green revolution In the mid-20th century, foundation money - mainly from the Ford and
Rockefeller foundations - fueled the international push to increase crop yields to match the nutritional needs of a growing global population. The so-called Green Revolution spread plant-breeding techniques pioneered by Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, the Iowa-born researcher, during the 1940s through the 1960s. It eventually doubled crop production in developing nations and brought India from the brink of starvation.

Today, the Gates Foundation has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars for agriculture research and has joined with the Rockefeller Foundation to create the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, AGRA. The first major initiatives are seeking to improve seed varieties in Africa, where
the population is malnourished in several nations.

Meanwhile, stem rust continues to threaten wheat harvests worldwide. The USDA's Cereal Disease Laboratory at the University of Minnesota, the only domestic facility with a full-time researcher working on stem rust, faced a $300,000 cut - about 17% of its funding - in the annual budget proposed by the White House. That would slow the lab's work on a host of potential threats to crops. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has restored funding for the program in a pending spending bill. USDA has 10
scientists elsewhere working on facets of the problem.

Dangerous wheat rust strain spreads Wheat rust has been around since the Romans, but until recently it had been largely under control. Improved strains of wheat provided protection to farmers for most of the past half-century, but new forms of the disease have evolved.

The latest threatening strain of stem rust was discovered in Uganda in 1999, and the so-called Ug99 has spread from East Africa to Yemen and Sudan and is now in Iran. The prevailing winds could carry the spores into India and Pakistan. The USDA this fall will release the first lines of wheat with genes for resistance to Ug99, and commercial breeders can use them to develop new varieties. The breeds were developed by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, which patched together funding,
working in collaboration with researchers worldwide.

At the Minnesota lab, director Marty Carson says researchers are still years away from a new wheat type with both resistance to Ug99 and other desirable traits, like hardiness.

"We're somewhat fortunate here that we detected this new (strain of wheat stem rust) as soon as we did," Carson says. "Hopefully we've bought a little bit of time in order to prepare for it. Right now (the
worry) is what happens if it gets into South Asia?"

In addition to whatever federal money Carson's lab receives, the Gates Foundation grant will provide money for work in Minnesota. The Gates grant will also finance stem rust research in Kenya, Ethiopia, Mexico and other countries.

Kathy Kahn, an executive of the Gates Foundation, says it's "hard to overstate the seriousness" of the stem rust problem. "Given (high) world food prices, even a 10% loss in (wheat) production would be
devastating," she says. "We've taken our eye off the ball on things like wheat rust. When you haven't seen the disease for a long time, you get complacent."

Edging Towards BioUtopia - Book Review


As a PhD student in life sciences, I'm more than comfortable with language having a high concentration of technological jargon, acronym and newly constructed terms. I noticed Griffith University academic Richard Hindmarsh's new book, Edging Towards BioUtopia, in the 'recent
arrivals' section of the school library, and was interested by the grab line from the cover: "A New Politics of Reordering Life and the Democratic Challenge."

Edging Towards BioUtopia book cover

Hey, I'm one of those people 'reordering' life, why don't I have a read?

Within 23 pages of picking up the book, I'd had my first good belly laugh and yet another realisation of how important it is that academics dedicate their writing style and narrative skills to being easily
interpreted by people outside their own microcosm.

To quote Richard Hindmarsh in my Worst Academic Technobabble of 2008 (thus far) award:

    "In summary, uncertainties about the techno-nature proposed in the science, regulation and emergent or proposed outcomes of genetic engineering, in large part drives the questioning of genetic engineering, and the mobilisation of worldwide resistance to both the release of GMOs into the environment and to the notion of a biotechnolgogically recast futurenatural."

I'm not going to begin pulling apart all the threads of academic babble that makes that such a horrible sentence (and admittedly, the book did start to flow at least a little better as Hindmarsh was able to bring his true skills to the table as a policy historian), so will rather concentrate on what I see as some of the flawed arguments in what Hindmarsh critiques as the pervading evil force that is the "BioElite".

From what I can tell through the his coded language, one of Hindmarsh's key complains about GMOs is the "BioElite's" push for a lack of discovery-based regulatory oversight, and the obsfucation of scientific rigor in the name of agribusiness. I find it so highly ironic then that the tiny four paragraphs that he dedicates to the few published descriptions of differential cellular-morphology of animals fed GMOs are as one sided and grossly negligent of the growing body of knowledge of GMO safety, as anything that has ever been published pro GM. Instead, he just frames further minor evidence in pushing the science into supporting the negative aspects of what he refers to as the "BioUtopian
Futurenatural" narrative.

Papers that Hindmarsh briefly mentions include some very detailed structural anatomical analysis of organs from mice fed on long term diets of GM-crops. Here I have summarised them to indicate the one-sided nature of their common anti-GM usage:

read on at

Stalin's War on Genetic Science

- Jan Witkowski, Nature 454, 577-579 (July 31, 2008)  nature.com
Review of book: "The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century by Peter Pringle Simon and Schuster: 2008. 384 pp. $26"

It is not surprising, given the parlous state of Russia in the years following the Revolution, that its political system put ideology and practical outcomes above all else, including scientific fact. This was
most evident in agriculture, where it was imperative to produce more food by whatever means. The consequences were tragic for the Russian people and for Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, Russia's greatest geneticist. Vavilov fell foul of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko who, through political manipulation and intrigue, came to dominate Soviet genetics.Peter Pringle's compelling book, The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov, tells the story of the Lysenko affair with verve and pace. Pringle makes it clear how Vavilov's patriotism, dedication to science and determination to be open-minded led to his downfall and death.

Vavilov was born in 1887 in Moscow into a comfortable, bourgeois family. In 1906 he entered the Petrovskaya Agriculture Academy, or Petrovska, one of many institutes established after the devastating famine of 1892. Russian agricultural practices lagged behind those of other European
countries and the United States, and efforts to reform them were unsuccessful. Vavilov undertook "to work for the benefit of the poor, the enslaved class of my country, to raise their level of knowledge".
This pledge, Pringle explains, drove Vavilov throughout his life.

After graduating, Vavilov spent a year researching wheat with Robert Regel at the Bureau of Applied Botany in St Petersburg, before embarking on a two-year tour of European laboratories. His stay with William Bateson in Cambridge, UK, was the highlight. Bateson was the leading proponent of Gregor Mendel's work on inherited traits, rediscovered 10 years earlier, and wrote the first genetics textbook, Mendel's Principles of Heredity, published in 1909. Bateson's enthusiasm for Mendelian genetics seems to have rubbed off: Vavilov based his life's work on Mendelian principles and their elaboration by, among others, fly geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan. Bateson had led an expedition to the Russian Steppes in 1886 to examine the interactions of environment and species variability. Pringle suggests that this may have inspired Vavilov to undertake similar expeditions to search for crop varieties
whose traits made them suitable for particular environments, such as dry or cold regions.

On Vavilov's return to Russia and the Petrovska, he was sent to investigate why soldiers on the Persian front were falling ill after eating bread. Vavilov used the assignment to collect varieties of plants growing in the harsh climate of the Pamir mountains, in the hope that these hardy plants might be cultivated in northern Russia to provide more food for the Soviet people. Vavilov endured great hardship in travelling to such remote regions, trips that would now be unthinkable without insulated jackets, mobile phones and satellite navigation.

Vavilov returned from the Pamirs in 1916 to find Russia in political turmoil. In March 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and by October, the Bolsheviks had seized the reins of government, plunging the country into civil war. Nevertheless, Vavilov's career began auspiciously - he took up a full professorship at the University of Saratov, a large city on the Volga river some 700 kilometres southeast of Moscow. Vavilov mounted expeditions to Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, North and South America and the Mediterranean, seeking plants that might increase agricultural productivity in Russia. He regarded this as an essential task after the disastrous collapse of Soviet agriculture that followed the consolidation of land and labour known as collectivization that began around 1929. Vavilov's collection of 250,000 seeds of cultivated plants and their varieties was the most extensive in the world. In 1930, he was appointed director of the Institute of Genetics of the USSR Academy of Sciences in recognition of his position as the country's leading plant geneticist and his international reputation. Just six years later, Vavilov was in disgrace.

His nemesis Lysenko was born in 1898 into a peasant family. Unusually for the time, he attended a school of agriculture and horticulture; clever and ambitious, he aspired to make great contributions to Soviet science. His big break as an agricultural researcher came in 1927, when the newspaper Pravda reported his work on changing the time of sprouting in seeds by exposing them to differing periods of cold temperatures, known as vernalization. The reporter noted that Lysenko was working for the people, not carrying out research for its own sake by studying the "hairy legs of flies". Lysenko promoted himself as the discoverer of vernalization, although it had been known since 1858, and trumpeted it as a solution to the Soviet Union's chronic food shortages.

Lysenko claimed that plants could be 'educated' so that the changed germination time became heritable after several generations of vernalization. This was a variant of Lamarckism, or the inheritance of acquired characters, that had been discredited first by August Weismann's distinction between germ cells and somatic cells, and second by Mendel's work. Scientists rejected Lysenko's claims, but by skilful manipulation of the political situation throughout his career, Lysenko scaled the Soviet scientific hierarchy. He was twice awarded the Order of Lenin, and became president of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the USSR, a full member of the country's Academy of Sciences and a member of the Supreme Soviet.

The conflict between Lysenko and the 'Mendelian-Morganists' came to a head in 1936 at a conference at the Lenin Academy. Despite geneticists' devastating scientific critique of Lysenko's claims, the government-controlled press declared Lysenko the winner. Attacks on Vavilov's position increased and Lysenko consolidated his position. Senior scientists in the Soviet administration were among the victims of Stalin's Great Purge, when perhaps as many as one million anti-revolutionaries and enemies of the people were executed over two years, including Muralov, president of the Lenin Academy. Lysenko took his place to become Vavilov's boss. In October 1939, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union held another genetics conference. This again ended in
triumph for Lysenko.

Why were the reins of Soviet agriculture held by a charlatan whose policies were disastrous? As Pringle makes clear, Lysenko prospered because he promised rapid advances in agriculture that were seized on by a Soviet government desperate to feed thousands of citizens dying of starvation. Lysenko promised Stalin that new strains of wheat and other crops with desirable traits could be produced within 3 years, much quicker than the 12 years that Vavilov required. Perhaps as importantly,
Lysenko's views of genetics were in sympathy with prevailing Marxist dogma.

Experts, by virtue of their education and role, were members of the bourgeoisie and regarded with suspicion in Russia. There was a strong political movement to replace the intelligentsia with elevated peasants and other members of the proletariat, even if they were untrained and ill-fitted to their new posts. Lysenko was one such example. Vavilov, by contrast, was an educated, well-travelled businessman's son who was thought to be susceptible to foreign influences.

And why did Vavilov not fight Lysenko earlier and more aggressively? Pringle demonstrates that Vavilov was guided by his student pledge to help the Soviet people and that he was committed to exploring all leads, however improbable, that might increase food production. Vavilov encouraged many scientists, including Lysenko, to test different approaches. Naively, Vavilov did not expect that Lysenko would play by political rather than scientific rules. At a 1948 session of the Lenin Academy, Stalin was so determined that Lysenko should triumph that he drafted Lysenko's opening remarks himself, emphasizing the correctness of Lamarckian thinking. A letter included in the official report ended: "Glory to the great Stalin -- coryphaeus of progressive science!"

Neither Vavilov nor his work featured in this session. Following the 1939 conference, Lysenko had progressively dismantled Vavilov's institute, but Vavilov had remained free even as criticism of him became ever more vituperative. Then, on 6 August 1940, while collecting plants in the Ukraine, Vavilov was seized by the Soviet secret police and taken to Moscow. Pringle's account of Vavilov's 11-month interrogation is horrifying. In July 1941, Vavilov and two colleagues were tried and sentenced to death. Vavilov's appeal to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet was turned down, but a personal plea to the head of the secret police led to his sentence being commuted to life imprisonment. His colleagues were shot. Vavilov died of starvation on 26 January 1943 in a prison in Saratov, the city where he had begun his illustrious career 26 years before.

Even now, politics continues to trump good science, as is evident from the delays in reducing global carbon emissions. Pringle's very readable account is a timely reminder that public policies must be based on rational decisions drawn from the best data available.

Edited by C. S. Prakash. Please email agbioworld@yahoo.com if you have any comments or suggestions!

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