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May 14, 2001


Zapped Spaghetti; Gene Hopping; Organic-Industrial Complex;


AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org

Regarding Irradiated Italian "spaghetti"

- From: piero.morandini@unimi.it

Dear folks, sorry for not commenting earlier this story about mutant
spaghetti and the use of mutation breeding, but the general election has
kept us busy.

I suspect the whole story could turn out either as marvellous occasion for
those who want to focus on facts (and defend the benefits of transgenic
plants) or as a further occasion for the people attacking the technology
without considering facts. What is ridiculous is that farmers knew the
story of mutation breeding for Creso and the other varieties developed in
Rome in the 60s by Bozzini and colleagues for almost 20 years. The story
appeared in an article od "L'informatore Agrario" (a monthly for farmers
which I believe fetches several ten thousands copies) in 1984 -issue 25,
p. 45.

Now the crossroad is to push it even further: make a black list containing
all the varieties developed through mutation breeding and all those ones
derived by crosses from the former ones. In Italy, for instance, the sum
of all these had a share of 25% in the market of certified wheat seeds for
pasta making and still has a 10-15% share. Creso alone was grown on
400.000 hectars in 1984.

Even more: make a list of all the varieties developed with anther culture
and artificial doublings with colchicine... What about all those which had
some passage in cell culture and so on. Say then that, if they want to be
consequential, they should remove all these from the market, since science
CANNOT give absolute certainty that these are 100% safe. Be sure you
suggest, in the end, what the consequences could be of this massive market
withdrawal and provide a table with yield of old varieties and modern
varieties. Then let the people make up their minds and decide what they

Is anybody willing to compile such a list? And the yield table? (McHughen
in "Pandora's Picnic Basket" suggests these are some 1.5 thousands)

Best regards, Piero Morandini (Dept. of Biology, University of Milan,


Zapping our Food! The horror of it all!

- From: Tom DeGregori

Comment No. 1: This past weekend, there was a Reuters news story on the
use of radiation for plant breeding. The first sentence of the story
states that it was just "revealed" that this has been taking place. This
gave it a sinister tone and implied that up till it had been some dark
secret which had just been disclosed when in fact, this has been a very
public matter with books, articles and a listing of products by a joint
committee of two UN agencies. As of 1995, the FAO/IAEA (Food and
Agriculture Organization/ International Atomic Energy Agency) Mutant
Varieties Database "included 1790 cultivars involving 154 plant species
... in more than 50 countries, of which the `top six' were: China, India,
the former USSR, the Netherlands, Japan and the USA" (A. M. van Harten.
1998. Mutation Breeding: Theory and Practical Applications. New York:
Cambridge University Press, Page 17).

A famous proselytizer is alleged to have said, give me the boy and you can
have the man. The luddite post-modernist slogan might be give me the
English (or whatever the national language maybe) Department and I will
claim the university and the media. The misuse of the term, "revealed" is
just one of may examples where the media routinely uses language that
reflects an unconscious (?) bias against modern science and technology be
it genetically engineered food or modern medicine. Neighboring fields are
allegedly "contaminated" by pollen from GM crops, safe, wholesome and
similar terms are used to describe organic produce while its production is
described as environmentally benign. I could go on and on but everyone on
this list knows the rhetoric. Lose the language battle as we clearly are,
then winning on the scientific and technical issues counts for little if
communication to the larger public is filtered through the language
distortions of New Age post-modernism. We could win all the other battles
and still lose the war.

Comment No. 2: In the Reuters article, a number of the leading opponents
of transgenic food such as Charles Margulis and Larry Bohlen claimed to be
surprised by the revelation of mutation breeding as they sought to
organize against it. I am just an economist but I have known about
mutation breeding for so long that I cannot remember when I first learned
of it. If they are experts on agriculture then they should have known
about it. If they didn't then we should make it clear to the media that
their credibility as agriculture and food experts is seriously undermined.
If they did know and claim otherwise then, their actions are pure
unadulterated demagoguery and should be so labeled and the media so

Comment No. 3. In the article, Dr. Jane Rissler repeated her mantra that
any claims that 40 or more years of mutation breeding have proved its
safety, are invalid since no tests have been conducted. This is a repeat
of her statement on GM crops arguing that we must label them (a not to
thinly disguised way of destroying them for all wheat, soy and other
products that are mixed since the cost of tracking GM products becomes
prohibitive) in order to have verifiable information as to safety. I
presume that the next "discovery" of the anti-GM crowd is that we have
been mutating seeds with toxic chemicals for over 60 years. I presume that
Dr. Rissler will consider that not enough time either to determine lack of
harm even though each and every one of us have been eating on a daily
basis the products of these two breeding systems. I wonder if Dr. Rissler
would consider 10,000 years not to be enough time to determine the safety
of mixing alien genes by conventional breeding? The Union for Concerned
Scientists might consider saving money by replacing Dr. Rissler with a
parrot or a recorded phone message that answers any question with the
statement that we do not know enough to determine safety?

Question: I have been following the many laudatory stories on the new
cancer drug, Gleevec. Finally, in a side story in today's New York Times,
the word "engineered" was used. Is Gleevec thus a product of genetic
engineering? Some clarification would be helpful here. If in fact, it is
genetically engineered, some suggestions might be helpful as to how to
contact the media and ask them why they have thus far omitted this fact. I
have searched the media and have been listening to the news coverage and
up to this morning's NY Times, I have not seen anything on how it was

Suggestion: Whether or nor Gleevec is genetically engineered is less
important that the fact that a week after the new drug has received
favorable news coverage, we have no idea how it was developed. May I
respectfully suggest that those on our list who are competent in these
matters, please inform us about the genetic engineering breakthroughs in
areas other than agriculture as they occur. All of us know that for nearly
20 years that we have been benefiting from biotechnology and genetic
engineering of pharmaceuticals, enzymes and other products. But it would
be useful now and again to refresh our knowledge with information about
new advances and breakthroughs. It would also be useful for debates and
letters to the editor pointing out the continuing benefits from a
technology that so many oppose.

- Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D., Professor of Economics, University of Houston


Legislation for the release of GM organisms
- From: m.adcock@sheffield.ac.uk

I am attempting to make a comparison of EU and US legislation surrounding
the release of GM organisms into the environment. Can anyone help me find
similar legislation for the US for the release of GM organisms and any
papers that may have been written on the subject in order to compare the
relevant EU/US legislation. Recently the EU has replaced the Directive
90/220 with the new directive 2001/18 in what can only be described at an
incredibly short time for the EU. It would be very interesting to me to
see if they have taken any of the USA's idea on board Thanks for any help.
- Mike Adcock University of Sheffield


Horizontal Gene Transfer / DNA in soil
- From: knielsen@oeb.harvard.edu

I would like to post the following response to the Dr. Innes question:
Horizontal gene transfer happens all the time?
>Recently (May 14) Dr. Innes raises the question; I am confused in that if
this (horizontal gene transfer, my addition) happens all the time anyway,
what > is so unnatural about transgenics? The argument appears

I have not seen the Greenpeace website referred to, so I address the above
question only. having followed the field of horizontal gene transfer (HGT)
for the last 10 years, I have noticed a remarkable shift has occurred in
the argument for why HGT is of no concern for transgenes. Earlier, it was
argued from data (or lack thereof) that HGT occurs so rarely, if at all,
that it would be insignificant for the spread of transgenes. Today, it is
argued (from accumulating data) that HGT occurs all the time so why worry
about possible HGT of transgenes?

Whereas the previous argument had some scientific basis, the latter is
questionable. The process of horizontal gene transfer (like mutations) can
occur frequently without leaving traces in a given bacterial population.
This is because purifying selection will remove those individuals (either
carrying mutations or horizontally acquired genes) from the populations
since the genetic changes introduced do not provide a benefit to the
carrier. Such (trans) genes will not reach fixation in the bacterial
population. Secondly, horizontally acquired (native) genes from distantly
related species are less likely to be retained and function in the
recipient bacterium due to differences between the donor organism and the
recipient i= n nucleotide sequence, gene expression, codon usage, and
possibly posttranslational modification and protein interactions.

Thus, assuming transgenes are equal to any other naturally occurring gene,
it is reasonably to assume that transgenes will behave no differently than
genes that are transferred from native donors.

However, transgenes do often differ in several ways from native genes.
This poses problems.
1. Transgenes often contain DNA sequence homology to prokaryotes thereby
increasing their likelihood of integration in bacteria significantly. Many
studies have shown that DNA homology is the main barrier to HGT of
chromosomal DNA (such as transgenes) in bacteria.

2. Transgenes are often modified to allow broad expression in a variety of
hosts; they often lack introns, contain promoters active across a broad
range of hosts (e.g. viral or bacterial of origin), and seldom require
extensive interactions with other proteins in the host cytoplasm for
functionality. Thus, transgenes may have an increased likelihood of
expression if horizontally transferred.

3. The transgenes may represent novel genetic variability due to the use
of synthetic genes with new protein domains or encoding novel biochemical
pathways that have not been subject to natural selection in their new host
environment. Therefore, they may or may not provide a selective advantage
i= n the new host. Most likely they will not, but this cannot be assumed
in all instances. Mechanisms providing genetic variability in bacteria do
not combine DNA sequences from several organisms into a compact functional
unit within the time scale done by genetic engineering. Thus, the argument
that this is naturally occurring, cannot be used when th= e genetic
novelty the transgenes extends beyond simple modifications.

Thus, when compared to any native gene of a divergent organism, transgenes
may differ both with respect to their likelihood of HGT, expression in the
new host, and selection. The current debate on the likelihood of HGT has
been much focused on the likelihood of transfer, whereas, as argued above,
transfer does not generate an environmental impact. Selection would, if

I enclose some relevant references which also refers to an earlier request
in the Agbioview list on fate of DNA in soil.

Kind regards
Kaare M. Nielsen, Ph.D.; Hartl Lab.; Dept. of Evolutionary and Organismic
Biology Harvard University; 16 Divinity Ave., Cambridge; 02138
Massachusetts, USA.


[1] J. Maynard Smith et al., Population structure and evolutionary
dynamics of pathogenic bacteria, Bioessays 22 (2000) 1115-1122.
[2] J. P. Claverys et al., Adaptation to the environment: Streptococcus
pneumoniae, a paradigm for recombination-mediated genetic plasticity,
Molecular Microbiology 35 (2000) 251-259.
[3] H. Ochman et al., Lateral gene transfer and the nature of bacterial
innovation, Nature 405 (2000) 299-304.
[4] K. M. Nielsen et al., Horizontal gene transfer from transgenic plants
t o terrestrial bacteria - a rare event? FEMS Microbiology Reviews 22
(1998) 79-103.
[5] G-H. Lee and G. Stotzky, Transformation and survival of donor,
recipient, transformants of Bacillus subtilis in vitro and in soil, Soil
Biology & Biochemistry 31 (1999) 1499-1508.
[6] K. M. Nielsen et al., Natural transformation of Acinetobacter sp.
strai n BD413 with cell lysates of Acinetobacter sp., Pseudomonas
fluorescens and Burkholderia cepacia in soil microcosms, Applied and
Environmental Microbiology 66 (2000) 206-212.
[7] M. DrF6ge et al., Horizontal gene transfer among bacteria in
terrestrial and aquatic habitats as assessed by microcosms and field
studies, Biology and Fertility of Soils 29 (1999) 221-245.
[8] J. Davison, Genetic exchange between bacteria in the environment,
Plasmid 42 (1999) 73-91.
[9] F. Widmer et al., Sensitive detection of transgenic plant marker gene
persistence in soil microcosms, Molecular Ecology 5 (1996) 603-13.
[10] F. Widmer et al., Quantification of transgenic marker gene
persistence in the field, Molecular Ecology 6 (1997) 1-7.
[11] E. Paget et al., The fate of recombinant plant DNA in soil, European
Journal of Soil Biology 34 (1998) 81-88.
[12] F. Gebhard and K. Smalla, Monitoring field releases of genetically
modified sugar beets for persistence of transgenic plant DNA and
Horizontal gene transfer, FEMS Microbiology Ecology 28 (1999) 261-272.
[13] G. Ro manowski et al., Use of polymerase chain reaction and
electroporation of Escherichia coli to monitor the persistence of
extracellular plasmid DNA introduced into natural soils, Applied and
Environmental Microbiology 59 (1993) 3438-3446.
[14] G. Recorbet et al., Kinetics of persistence of chromosomal DNA from
genetically engineered Escherichia coli introduced to soil, Applied and
Environmental Microbiology 59 (1993) 4289-4294.
[15] K. M. Nielsen et al., Natural transformation and availability of
transforming DNA to Acinetobacter calcoaceticus in soil microcosms,
Applied and Environmental Microbiology 63 (1997) 1945-1952.
[16] K. M. Nielsen et al., Induced natural transformation of Acinetobacter
calcoaceticus in soil microcosms. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 63
(1997) 3972-3977.
[17] K. M. Nielsen et al., Transformation of Acinetobacter sp.
BD413(pFG490nptII) with transgenic plant DNA in soil microcosms and
effects of kanamycin on selection of transformants, Applied and
Environmental Microbiology 66, (2000) 1237-42.
[18] S. A. E. Blum et al., Mechanisms of retarded DNA degradation and
prokaryotic origin of DNases in non-sterile soil, Systematic and Applied
Microbiology 20 (1997) 513-521.
[19] G. Romanowski et al., Adsorption of plasmid DNA to mineral surfaces
an d protection against DNase I, Applied and Environmental Microbiology 57
(1991 ) 1057-1061.
[20] A. Ogram et al., Effects of DNA polymer length on its absorption to
soils, Applied and Environmental Microbiology 60 (1994) 393-396.
[21] M. Khanna and G. Stotzky, Transformation of Bacillus subtilis by DNA
bound on montmorillonite and effect of DNase on the availability of bound
DNA, Applied and Environmental Microbiology 58 (1992) 1930-1939.
[22] E. Paget and P. Simonet, On the track of natural transformation in
soil, FEMS Microbiology Ecology 15 (1994) 109-118.
[23] E . Gallori et al., Transformation of Bacillus subtilis by DNA bound
on clay in non-sterile soil, FEMS Microbiology Ecology 15 (1994) 119-126.
[24] M. G. Lorenz and W. Wackernagel, Bacterial gene transfer by natural
genetic transformation in the environment, Microbiology Reviews 58 (1994)
[25] M. Vulic et al., Molecular keys to speciation: DNA polymorphism and
the control of genetic exchange in enterobacteria, Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences USA 94 (1997) 9763-9767.
[26] J. Majewski et al., Barriers to genetic exchange between bacterial
species: Streptococcus pneumonia transformation, Journal of Bacteriology
18 2 (2000) 1016-1023.
[27] K. M. Nielsen et al., Dynamics, horizontal transfer and selection of
novel DNA in bacterial populations in the phytosphere of transgenic
plants, Annals of Microbiology 51 (2001) (June issue, in press) [28] P.
Shen and H. V. Huang, Homologous recombination in Escherichia coli:
dependence on substrate length and homology, Genetics 112 (1986) 441-457
[29] J. Majewski and F. M. Cohan, DNA sequence similarity requirements for
interspecific recombination in Bacillus, Genetics 153 (1999) 1525-1533.
[30] P. Zawadzki et al., The log-linear relationship between sexual
isolation and sequence divergence in Bacillus transformation is robust,
Genetics 140 (1995) 917-932.
[31] F. Gebhard, and K. Smalla. Transformation of Acinetobacter sp. Strain
BD413 by transgenic sugar beet DNA, Applied and Environmental Microbiology
64 (1998) 1550-1554.
[32] J. De Vries, and W. Wackernagel, Detection of npt-II (kanamycin
resistance) genes in genomes of transgene by marker-rescue transformation,
Molecular and General Genetics 257 (1998) 606-613.
[33] J. De Vries et al., The natural transformation of the soil bacteria
Pseudomonas stutzeri and Acinetobacter sp. by transgenic plant DNA depends
strictly on homologous sequences in the recipient cells, FEMS Microbiology
Letters 195 (2001) 211-215.


Trouble in the House

- Manolo B. Jara, Manila Times May 1, 2001

THERE is trouble in the house of the environmental group, Greenpeace. Dr.
Patrick Moore, an ecologist and co-founder of Greenpeace, has let loose a
barrage against the group for its firm stance against transgenic crops or
genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Moore recently joined over 3,000 scientists all over the world in signing
a Declaration in Support of Agricultural Biotechnology in Auburn, Alabama.
The declaration assailed the “campaign of fear now being waged against
genetic modification (which) is based largely on fantasy and a complete
lack of respect for science and logic.” Besides, it added, “in the
balance, it is clear that the real benefits of genetic modification far
outweigh the hypothetical and sometimes contrived risks claimed by its

Strong words, indeed, which Moore has supported and which appears to
indicate that he has now completely turned his back on the activist
organization, which he helped establish. He recently broke away from the
group, accusing it of abandoning science and following agendas that have
little to do with saving the Earth.

Now an environmental consultant, the renowned ecologist served for nine
years as president of Greenpeace Canada. On top of that, he also served as
Greenpeace International director and helped steer the group into what it
is now. With this background and credentials, Moore knows whereof he
speaks regarding Greenpeace. And he doesn’t mince words. Reiterating his
comments he made to the New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic
Modification, he said:

“Genetic modification can reduce the chemical load in the environment,
reduce the impact on non-target species, and reduce the amount of land
required for food crops. There are so many real benefits from genetic
modification compared to the largely hypothetical and contrived risks that
it would be foolish to ban genetic modification.”

Moore also criticized his former Greenpeace colleagues for claiming that
there was “zero benefit” even from such modified plants as the so-called
“golden rice.” This cereal variety, with added Vitamin A, was developed by
Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus to help address the severe problem of
blindness which afflicts millions of children, most of whom are in the
developing world.

“Golden rice” aims to help check blindness among children, which is due
mainly to lack of Vitamin A. “Let someone come forward and state that the
possibility of saving 500,000 children from blindness is a zero benefit,”
Moore stressed.

Moore was joined by Potrykus and Tuskegee University biologist C.S.
Prakash in rebuking claims that “golden rice” does not include enough
pro-Vitamin A to be beneficial. According to Potrykus, “the amounts
required for preventing severe symptoms of Vitamin A deficiently are
significantly lower than given by RDA-values.” He noted that “golden
rice’s” Vitamin A equivalence is “already in the 20 to 40 percent range of
the daily allowance.” For his part, Prakash said: “We also know that the
Vitamin A dosage in golden rice can be increased over time. So, we have
good scientific reasons to be hopeful.”

But Greenpeace appears to have relented in its opposition to “golden rice”
when its representatives honored an invitation of the International Rice
Research Institute to visit its facilities in Los Baños, Laguna last
March. During the visit, the Greenpeace delegation, including
representatives from Thailand and Europe, gathered information on how IRRI
sets its priorities in biotech research.

The group learned more about the extensive work done by IRRI in biological
pest control, for example. The program, called integrated pest management,
encourages farmers to protect friendly insects that prey on insect pests
and other measures that aim to reduce pesticide use in rice production.

IRRI Director General Ronald Cantrell said he was satisfied that
Greenpeace now appears to have a better understanding of the future
development of “golden rice,” saying: “Much work remains to be done to
develop (it) into a successful new strategy that we feel it can become, to
help combat the terrible problem of Vitamin A deficiency in the developing

“Because of this, it will be at least three to four years before there are
any field trials and another two years before it may reach the farmers.”
By that time, biotech advocates hope that Greenpeace and its affiliates
here would ease up on their strong opposition to the introduction of
agricultural biotechnology and the field-testing of genetically modified
crops in the country.


Sleight of Hand
- From: Andrew Apel

The sleight-of-hand employed by the organic food industry is getting out
of hand and what is worse--the "earth magic" they peddle and consumers
swallow whole is simply prestidigitation. The organic folks say that their
form of farming is "safe" and "sustainable," but the pesticides they use
are rated to be far more toxic by government agencies than their synthetic
counterparts (check out "natural" vs. synthetic pyrethroids). And organic
farming often uses twice as much energy from petroleum for half the food
output, which is neither "natural" nor even really normal.

But it's worse than that, far worse. The "organic" industry uses modern
technologies even as it touts its "back to nature" approach. In this way,
the industry can take advantage of modern technology even as it touts
antique food production methods. There are increasingly sensitive
antibody-based tests for mycotoxins and pathogenic microbes, for
instance--if the "organic" industry prefers toxic agriculture because it's
"old-fashioned," the industry should be consistent and avoid modern food
testing and processing, too. No vacuum canisters, no low-moisture packing
in plastic bags either.

Wouldn't it be great to eat something made with old-fashioned "organic"
ground beef, guaranteed to possibly contain all-natural E.coli? How about
some bread made from ergot-infected wheat? (I've been told the effects of
ingesting ergot compare to the effects of LSD, and hence am not tempted in
either direction.)

Real, true "organic" food production should involve properly exposing the
consumer to the "true, natural" risks of "natural" food production like
tapeworms (which British veterinarians recently warned consumers about)
and tuberculosis and trichinosis, and avoid modern "industrial" methods to
prevent such risks. Consumption of vegetable products in winter should be
restricted to potatoes and similar less perishable crops. Meat products
should be preserved by wood smoke or pickling in salt brine, or by drying
if the flies aren't too bad.

The organic industry makes free use of modern food technology, while
deriding it at the same time. It says its food is "all natural" but
presto, it's not! Nice sleight of hand, but the trick is obvious.


New Scientist: Superbugs
From: sbrumbley@bses.org.au |

I would be very interested to hear what people on this list have to say in
response to this recent release by the Gene Ethics Network in Australia.
Note the appeal for contributions at the end of this message. Cheers,
Steve Brumbley

-----Original Message-----
From: Bob Phelps [mailto:geneethics@acfonline.org.au]

Spreading problem: Superbug genes are getting into soil and water *
will humans be next?
New Scientist 21 April 2001

Exclusive from New Scientist magazine (21 April 2001) Farmers should stop
using antibiotics as growth promoters, say researchers in the US. They
have uncovered evidence of a new route by which dangerous antibiotic
resistance genes can spread.

There is already strong evidence that feeding animals antibiotics can lead
to the emergence of resistant strains of gut bacteria such as salmonella,
which can then be passed on to people in food or through direct contact
with animals. Now microbiologist Rustam Aminov of the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his colleagues have discovered that
bacteria in the soil and groundwater beneath farms seem to be acquiring
tetracycline resistance genes from bacteria originating in pigs' guts.

Once transferred, the resistance genes can persist in the hardier soil and
water-borne bacteria and could be passed on to potentially dangerous
bacteria in the environment, or in humans who drink the water. Broad
ecological presence "This is very important. [The study] is the first of
its kind to demonstrate this kind of broad ecological presence of
tetracycline resistance genes," says Stuart Levy, director of the Center
for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University in Boston.

"And this is just tetracycline. Add all the other drugs that might be
there, and then I think it further supports the notion that we should be
prudent in how we use antibiotics in animals and people." While the
European Union has banned the use as growth promoters of most antibiotics
that are used in human medicine, farmers in the US still routinely add
antibiotics such as tetracycline, penicillin and streptomycin to livestock
feed to promote animal growth.

Nearly 70 per cent of all antibiotics produced in the US are fed to
animals as growth promoters, according to the Union of Concerned
Scientists, a non-profit organisation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Drinking water To study the environmental effect of these antibiotics
around two swine farms that use tetracycline as a growth promoter,
Aminov's team analysed samples from farm-waste lagoons and from
groundwater reservoirs beneath the lagoons.

They found that bacteria in the soil and groundwater carried tetracycline
resistance genes, or tet genes, that were almost identical to those in
bacteria living in the pigs' guts. This strongly suggests that the
bacteria from the pigs are transferring their genes to the ones outside,
says Aminov.

"People at both sites are drinking this groundwater without any treatment.
This may be a new way of increasing the local concentration of antibiotic
resistance genes and circulating them between animals, humans and the
environment," he says. And as groundwater accounts for a substantial part
of the public water supply in the US, the problem could be widespread. On
the increase Abigail Salyers, also at the University of Illinois, agrees.
She and her colleagues recently showed that bacteria passing through human
intestines exchange genes with the resident bacteria.

They found that 80 per cent of the strains of a major bacterial species
found in the colons of people in the late 1990s carried tetracycline
resistance genes, compared with 30 per cent before 1970. Together, the
studies suggest that antibiotic resistance genes are being transferred
from the environment into our bodies, she says.

"What we are seeing here is that if a resistance gene gets out into the
bacterial population in nature, it's like letting the genie out of the
bottle. So far it looks like there are very few, if any, limits to how far
a resistance gene can spread," she says.

More at: Applied & Environmental Microbiology (vol 67, p1494)
Correspondence about this story should be directed to
letters@newscientist.com 1900 GMT, 18
April 2001

Anil Ananthaswamy New Scientist Online News © Copyright New Scientist, RBI
Limited 2001
"If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a
mosquito" H.H. the Dalai Lama

Bob Phelps Director GeneEthics Network 340 Gore St, Fitzroy 3065 Australia
Tel: (03) 9416.2222 Fax: (03) 9416.0767 {Int Code (613)} email:
geneethics@acfonline.org.au (Bob Phelps) http://www.geneethics.org

The problem with the gene pool is, there is no lifeguard. Knowing is not
enough, you must also act. "If the people will lead, the leaders will
follow." David Suzuki

The Gene Ethics Network is totally dependent on your financial
contributions. We work hard to empower and activate all citizens and
groups concerned over the fast tracking of gene technology and its
products into all aspects of our lives, without public knowledge or
consent. To help us continue this important work, please donate (over $2
is deductible). Please send us an email for advice on how you can support


Environmentally Fashionable Act As Agents Of Fear On GMOs

- Dean Kleckner, Des Moines Register; May 11, 2001

Patagonia, maker of "environmentally conscious" sportswear and enemy of
conventional agriculture, issued a "chicken little" alert to its customers
over genetically modified crops. Employing the usual bad science and scare
tactics, the trendy clothing manufacturer is calling GMOs "a dark threat
to all that is wild." Instead of making use of proven new methods that
have fed billions of hungry people, Patagonia is urging its customers to
"Go organic! Only certified organic food is guaranteed to be free of
genetically engineered ingredients."

Consumers are used to Patagonia latching on to fashionable environmental
causes to sell $110 fleece pullovers, but this campaign comes at a
particularly critical time in the debate over biotechnology. With the
support of the farm community, North Dakota's Legislature is weighing a
bill that would impose a two-year moratorium on planting genetically
modified wheat. Farmers point out that their support isn't based on
principle -half the soybeans and cotton American farmers plant are
genetically modified -but on fear. The global propaganda campaign against
biotechnology, aided and abetted by the capitalists-cum-fearmongers at
Patagonia, convinced them that their exports to Europe and Japan will
suffer if North Dakota wheat is grown from genetically modified seeds. The
Patagonia campaign implies that new Food and Drug Administration rules
will allow genetically modified products to reach supermarkets without
scientific review of safety for humans and the environment. No U.S. farmer
is interested in marketing products that are unhealthful and unsafe.
Safety is determined through testing and peer review. The American Medical
Association recently published a study that concluded these foods are safe
for people and won't harm the environment.

It is critical for farmers to stand together to expose the cynicism of
anti-biotech campaigns. U.S. farmers brought about the "green revolution"
that is credited for saving a billion people from starvation. It continues
with the help of biotechnology. By 2050, there will be 9 billion people to
feed. Only biotechnology can bridge the gap between the growing population
and shrinking amount of arable land. Genetically modified crops produce
higher yields of more nutritious crops. One day genetically modified foods
will contain vital vaccines to fight disease.

Biotech advances are ridding agriculture of the environmentally damaging
practices that Patagonia condemns. Products in use and others in
development reduce the need for chemicals to control weeds and insects and
produce higher-yielding crops without cultivating more land. But instead
of embracing biotechnology as the key to enviro-friendly agriculture,
Patagonia advocates its opposite. It proudly advertises the claim that its
sportswear uses only "organic" cotton. In fact, organic methods use more
farmland and often produce crops with lower nutritional value -and pass
the higher costs to consumers. Conventional farming methods often surpass
organic yields while using fewer acres. Less land use prevents soil

Farmers have two roles that are being enhanced by biotechnology. Farmers
are in business to produce and sell a product. That means we have to worry
about having markets for our product.

But farmers also are part of a larger, moral mission to feed people who
otherwise wouldn't be able to feed themselves. Instead of capitulating to
the agents of fear, farmers should seize the moral high ground that is
rightfully theirs in the biotechnology debate.

Ask those who demagogue the issue of biotechnology: How many vitamin
A-deficient, blind children will you allow to achieve your objective? How
many iron-deficient women must die in childbirth so you can sell outdoor
gear to the "environmentally conscious"? How many more lives will you
sacrifice for your "cause"?
DEAN KLECKNER, former president of the American Farm Bureau, is chairman
of Truth About Trade based in Des Moines.


FAO Chief Says Gene Crops Needed, Safeguards Vital

STOCKHOLM, May 14 (Reuters) - Gene-modified crops will be needed to feed
the world's growing population because land available for agricultural
production is shrinking, the head of the United Nations world food body
said on Monday.

Speaking at an international conference - "Genetically Modified Crops,
Why? Why not?" - U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)
Director-General Jacques Diouf also said careful analysis of the health
and environmental risks possibly associated with gene-modified organisms
(GMOs) was vital. "Evidence today clearly shows that genetically
engineered technology and GMOs have the potential to significantly raise
the level of efficiency and productivity in plant and agricultural
production," Diouf said.

"Biotechnology offers a great opportunity to develop a world that is truly
food secure," he said, noting that an estimated 800 million people were
suffering from hunger daily and many more from malnutrition. Genetically
engineered varieties of some 20 crops including bulk food stables such as
soybean, corn and rapeseed were already being grown on 44 million hectares
of land in 13 countries, among them major farming nations such as
Australia, Canada, China, Mexico, South Africa and the United States, he

Asked by the conference moderator whether this was desirable and whether
the benefits outweighed the risks, Diouf said: "Nobody kows...there are
risks, but what level of risk, what potential of risk, we don't know."

Genetical engineering, by which crop yields and nutrient content as well
as virus resistance and pesticide tolerance can be increased, offered a
"quantum change" for both quantity and quality, he said. "I don't believe
we should stop," Diouf said. "The potential is great, undoubtedly." But
objective evaluations of the risks and benefits associated with GM crops
must be made available to all stakeholders, including consumers in poor
countries, he said.

"We are creating risks for health and for the environment." "We have to
find the solutions that will give increased productivity without those
negative elements. Only science can help," he said, underlining that each
GM application must be fully analysed case-by-case. This posed a
"tremendous challenge" for the scientific community, big multinational
agribusiness companies which Diouf said were carrying out most of the
research in GMOs, and public authorities.

He called for a set of internationally agreed, ethically acceptable
safeguards including labelling to give consumers the choice to avoid GMOs.


Opinion: Americans Drag Feet On Crucial Seed Pact

Los Angeles Times; May 13, 2001

Here's a choice: to become paralyzed from the waist down or to die of
starvation. This is not one of those macabre questions that rivet the
imaginations of 10-year-olds, but a real-life choice faced by some 20,000
to 30,000 people every year. Caught in the tragedy of famine, thousands of
people from Ethiopia to Bangladesh find that the only thing standing
between them and starvation is the drought-tolerant legume Lathyrus
sativus , known as the grass pea. In a mixed diet , Lathyrus is safe.
Eaten in large quantities, it leads to a build-up of neurotoxins that
causes spastic paralysis of the legs, an irreversible condition known as

At the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas
(ICARDA) in Syria, scientists are trying to engineer less toxic strains of
Lathyrus. The problems of drought and famine cannot be solved by genetic
engineering alone, but it is hard to imagine a more worthwhile application
of biotechnology. Yet, the future of this project is now in jeopardy.
International talks aimed at producing a global treaty on the scientific
exchange of plant genetic resources are in danger of being derailed by the
United States. And work like the Lathyrus research depends on scientists
being able to share germplasm freely. In the absence of a treaty, the
exchange of plant materials between nations has already begun to shut
down. At a meeting last month in Spoleto, Italy, much of the rest of the
world appeared on the edge of agreement, but U.S. negotiators refused to
play ball, insisting that intellectual property rights should take
precedence over the demands of developing nations. But while the media
have paid lavish attention to the bickering surrounding the international
biodiversity and global-warming treaties, U.S. recalcitrance has gone
widely unnoticed. Still, the consequences of inaction would be grave.

Failure to produce an agreement--formally known as the International
Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture--"would be
a global tragedy," says Pat Roy Mooney, executive director of Rural
Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), the only nongovernmental body
participating in the talks. Since the treaty would cover the exchange of
genetic materials from all the world's major food crops, it is critical to
maintaining world food security. In the long run, failure to produce a
treaty could prove disastrous to international attempts to feed the Third
World as scientists, including those developing new breeds of crops aimed
at easing starvation, rely on open access to germplasm.

ICARDA is one of 16 international agricultural-crop centers that since the
1960s have collected, stored and propagated seeds, preserving the
irreplaceable heritage of our agricultural genetic diversity.
Collectively, the centers hold an estimated half a million plant
varieties. During the 1960s and '70s, the centers' germplasm provided the
genetic feedstock from which were bred the high-yield variants of staple
foods such as rice, wheat and maize that were the triumph of the "green
revolution" and which have helped to feed the world as its population has
doubled over the past 35 years.

As global warming picks up speed, bringing with it the attendant problems
of increased drought and flooding, it is to these collections that all
nations will have to turn to develop crop strains able to thrive under the
new environmental conditions, Mooney adds. Crops such as Lathyrus, for
example, have special genes for surviving in arid conditions, a genetic
bonus we may wish to draw on if, as many scientists expect, global
temperatures rise by several degrees over the coming century.

Until now, access to plant genetic resources held in the agricultural-crop
centers and other national gene banks has relied on voluntary agreement
among governments, but that system is now breaking down. For the past six
years, a contact group of 40 nations, including the U.S., has been meeting
to thrash out a treaty to formally govern the exchange of seeds and
germplasm among nations for purposes of scientific research.

At the core of the proposed treaty is a list of staple crops whose genetic
material would, in effect, be declared the common heritage of all
humanity. These crops--wheat, rice, maize, sorghum, beans, rye, barley,
potato, beet, lentil, cassava, chickpea, coconut, apple, banana,
etc.--would be exchanged freely among treaty signatories and could not be
patented unless substantial genetic modifications were made. Such an
agreement is necessary because some nations, notably the U.S. and
Australia, have already granted patents and other intellectual property
rights on unmodified seeds obtained from the seed banks. This practice has
infuriated some nations in Africa and Latin America.

One major roadblock that treaty negotiators face is a fundamental divide
between the nations of the south and north. Many of the southern nations,
burned by centuries of exploitation, are suspicious of any moves to open
up their genetic resources to the north. In an increasing number of
southern nations, Mooney says, there is public pressure to halt altogether
the flow of genetic material from their borders.

At the moment, Mooney says, "the system is relatively open, but it's
getting tighter and tighter by the day." He suspects that if a plant
resources agreement is not reached soon, preferably at the next meeting in
Rome next month, the entire system "could shut down very quickly. We'd see
a real decline in the transfer of germplasm."

Without easy flow of material, much of the research done at the
agricultural-crop centers would be threatened. Researchers are already
worried that funding for work on any crop not on the treaty's list will
quickly dry up, as funders will be reluctant to support work that could
create legal nightmares. For this reason, Mooney says his foundation is
determined to get Lathyrus onto the official list.

At a meeting in Tehran last year, the International Assn. of Plant
Breeders for the Protection of Plant Varieties, the body that represents
the seed industry, made a stunning conciliatory offer. It offered to pay
into an international fund a small percentage of any royalties earned from
patents derived from materials originating in the seed banks. This fund
would subsidize research and conservation of genetic diversity, largely in
the developing world. No formal figures were promised, and Mooney says no
one is talking big bucks here, not more than $10 million a year.
Nonetheless, most developing nations saw this as a hugely important step.
More than the money, they viewed it as an acknowledgement of the intrinsic
value of their indigenous resources. In response, many of these nations
made important concessions. And at the Spoleto meeting last month, the
G-77 developing nations, along with Europe and Japan, appeared to reach
consensus on the wording of a draft treaty. The U.S., however, supported
by Canada, New Zealand and Australia, objected.

A Bush administration official from the State Department said the U.S.
does not approve of the mandatory fund now proposed, which the
administration believes would "infringe upon intellectual property rights
in the U.S." In principle, the administration has objected to agreements
requiring private companies to make mandatory payments. As the draft
treaty is currently worded, the U.S. would not be able to sign it, the
same official said. This policy cannot be blamed on the Bush
administration because the U.S. position was set under former President
Bill Clinton. Ironically, Mooney says, seed-industry executives are
furious about the U.S. stance. Most other nations are also outraged, and
when U.S. negotiators at Spoleto tried to reopen discussions on this
point, the Europeans and Japanese refused to allow it.

So irritated are these nations over what they see as U.S. haggling, they
might go ahead and negotiate a treaty that doesn't include the United
States. But the American team could still derail the process by pressuring
the seed-industry association to back down. At the World Seed Congress in
South Africa later this month, Mooney expects that the seed executives
will come under intense pressure from U.S. officials. If the seed-industry
association reneges, Mooney says that developing nations might pull out
altogether. Then "we'd be back to square one."

What is at stake here is the security of the world's food supply. For the
sake of us all, we must not fail.

Behind The Organic-industrial Complex

- Michael Pollan The New York Times Magazine May 13, 2001

Supermarket Pastoral.
Almost overnight, the amount and variety of organic food on offer in
Pollan's local supermarket has mushroomed. Fresh produce, milk, eggs,
cereal, frozen food, even junk food -- all of it now has its own organic
doppelgänger, and more often than not these products wind up in his
shopping cart.

Pollan says that he likes buying organic, for the usual salad of rational
and sentimental reasons. At a time when the whole food system feels
somewhat precarious, Pollan assumes that a product labeled organic is more
healthful and safer, more "wholesome," though if he stops to think about
it, he is not exactly sure what that means. Pollan says that by buying
organic, he is casting a vote for a more environmentally friendly kind of
agriculture: "Better Food for a Better Planet," in the slogan of Cascadian
Farm, one of the older organic brands. Compared with all the other food in
the supermarket, which is happy to tell you everything about itself except
how it was grown, organic food seems a lot more legible. "Organic" on the
label conjures a whole story, even if it is the consumer who fills in most
of the details, supplying the hero (American Family Farmer), the villain
(Agribusinessman) and the literary genre, which Pollan thinks of as
"supermarket pastoral." Just look at the happy ermont cow on that carton
of milk, wreathed in wildflowers like a hippie at her wedding around 1973.
Look a little closer, though, and you begin to see cracks in the pastoral

It took Pollan more than a year to notice, but the label on that carton of
Organic Cow has been rewritten recently. It doesn't talk about happy cows
and Vermont family farmers quite so much anymore, probably because the
Organic Cow has been bought out by Horizon, a Colorado company (referred
to here, in proper pastoral style, as "the Horizon family of companies").
Horizon is a $127 million public corporation that has become the Microsoft
of organic milk, controlling 70 percent of the retail market. Notice, too,
that the milk is now "ultrapasteurized," a process the carton presents as
a boon to the consumer (it pushes the freshness date into the next
millennium), but which of course also allows the company to ferry its milk
all over the country.

When Pollan asked a local dairyman about this (we still have one or two in
town) he said that the chief reason to ultrapasteurize -- a high-heat
process that "kills the milk," destroying its enzymes and many of its
vitamins -- is so you can sell milk over long distances. Arguably,
ultrapasteurized organic milk is less nutritious than conventionally
pasteurized conventional milk. This dairyman also bent my ear about
Horizon's "factory farms" out West, where thousands of cows that never
encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced dry lot,
eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milking machines three
times a day. So maybe Organic Cow milk isn't quite as legible a product as
Pollan thought.

Pollan said he wasn't sure if the farmer had his facts straight (it would
turn out he did), but he make Pollan wonder whether he really knew what
organic meant anymore.

Pollan goes on to say that the organic movement has become a $7.7 billion
business: call it Industrial Organic. Although that represents but a
fraction of the $400 billion business of selling Americans food, organic
is now the fastest-growing category in the supermarket. Perhaps
inevitably, this sort of growth -- sustained at a steady 20 percent a year
for more than a decade -- has attracted the attention of the very
agribusiness corporations to which the organic movement once presented a
radical alternative and an often scalding critique. Even today, the rapid
growth of organic closely tracks consumers' rising worries about the
conventional food supply -- about chemicals, about additives and, most
recently, about genetically modified ingredients and mad cow disease;
every food scare is followed by a spike in organic sales. And now that
organic food has established itself as a viable alternative food chain,
agribusiness has decided that the best way to deal with that alternative
is simply to own it. The question now is, What will they do with it? Is
the word "organic" being emptied of its meaning?


India's glorious technological future


Julian Morris, Economic Times, May 12 2001 |

THE PAST few years have seen explosive growth in India's IT industry. At
the same time, other knowledge-based industries, such as pharmaceuticals
and biotechnology, have languished.

The main reason for this is the deficiency in India's intellectual
property laws. Reform of these laws could place India at the forefront of
the important emerging field of bioinformatics. As Dr R A Mashelkar,
Director of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, pointed
out recently, only fourteen new pharmacological molecules have been
developed in the past forty years in India, and 11 of those were developed
by CSIR.

In other industries, the costs of research and development may be
recouped through strong initial sales, made possible by a combination of
secrecy and strong marketing, which give the developer a `first-mover'
But for pharmaceuticals and the products of biotechnology, development
costs are typically very high, whereas the products, once developed, may
be easily copied. In addition, the requirement that products be rigorously
tested prior to marketing increases development costs and makes secrecy a
bigger problem. The result is that without product patent protection there
is insufficient incentive to engage in commercial research and development
on new pharmaceuticals and bio-tech crops.

India's information technology industry has been less badly affected by
the lack of product patent protection. In part this is because computer
code is protected by copyright; in part it is because encryption makes it
easier to keep the source code secret.

Indeed, the growth if the IT industry has been the most dynamic sector in
the Indian economy over the past decade. In 1990, the IT industry produced
$150 million; in 2000, this figure was close to $6 billion, including
around $4 billion in exports. The IT industry will continue to expand over
coming years for several reasons. First, India will remain a far cheaper
place to source IT expertise than most other parts of the world. Second,
nearly 30 million people in India speak English.

Third, many of these people are acquiring IT skills at private training
companies such as NIIT, where a month-long course costs only a fraction of
what it would in the UK or US. Expansion of the Indian IT industry will
also be driven by synergies with other industries particularly
biotechnology. Bioinformatics, or the application of databases and
computer algorithms to biological information, will be amongst the most
important technologies over the next few decades.

It is bioinformatics that underpins the decoding of the human genome. And
it is bioinformatics that will enable the development of ultra-targeted
pharmaceuticals and third generation biotech crops.

Even without local patent protection, bioinformatics companies have been
sprouting in India relying on the possibility of patenting pharmaceuticals
in the US and elsewhere. Ranbaxy Laboratories and Nicholas Piramal have
announced initiatives aimed at developing drugs using bioinformatics.
Meanwhile, four computer scientists recently announced the formation of a
bioinformatics company in Bangalore called Strand Genomics.

These new ventures are exciting, but compared to efforts already underway
in the US and elsewhere, they are modest. US companies are already
spending about $20 billion a year on bioinformatics that's four times the
total revenue of India's IT sector. As with pharmaceutical research more
generally, inadequate patent protection is discouraging investment in the
Indian bioinformatics industry.

Fortunately this omission is due to be corrected shortly. Under the Trade
Related Aspects of Intellectual Property agreement, India must establish a
patent system that protects such products by 2005. But why wait? The next
few years will be crucial in developing an expertise in bioinformatics. If
India wants to become a world-leader in this field and it is otherwise
well-placed to do so it must enact strong product patent laws as soon as

(The author is the director of the science and environment unit at
Institute of Economic Affairs, London.) -


Alliance for Better Foods Welcomes 'National Biotechnology Week';
Salutes U.S. Senate Resolution

WASHINGTON, May 14 /PRNewswire/ -- The Alliance for Better Foods today
congratulated the U.S. Senate for passing a bipartisan resolution
recognizing the growing importance of biotechnology in American
agriculture and environmental protection by declaring this week "National
Biotechnology Week." "We salute the Senate for focusing national attention
on biotechnology's achievements and promise," said C. Manly Molpus,
President and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), a
founding member of the Alliance for Better Foods (ABF).

"America's global leadership in biotechnology is producing healthier foods
for consumers, earth-friendly farming methods, and a new source of hope
for the world's hungry. "The Alliance for Better Foods was formed to
encourage a fact-based discussion of the role of food biotechnology,"
Molpus added. "Through this declaration, the Senate has moved in a
bipartisan way to help raise public awareness about this exciting new
technology." ABF comprises more than 30 member organizations representing
diverse agriculture and food-related groups, including farmers, food
processors, distributors and retailers; scientists and food technologists;
and professionals in other fields dedicated to improving nutrition,
protecting the environment and fighting world hunger.

Said Sen. Tim Hutchinson, founder and co-chairman of the Senate
Biotechnology Caucus: "There have been phenomenal advancements in science
over the last few years that are allowing us to improve health care,
increase crop yields, reduce the use of pesticides, and replace costly
industrial processes involving harsh chemicals with cheaper, safer,
biological processes." Senator Hutchinson added: "It is our hope that
public officials, community leaders, researchers, professors, and school
teachers across the country will take this week to actively promote
understanding of biotechnology in their communities and their classrooms."
Other senators cosponsoring the resolution include: Michael Crapo (R-ID),
Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA),
Larry Craig (R-ID), James Inhofe (R-OK), Jesse Helms (R-NC), Patty Murray
(D-WA), Arlen Specter (R-PA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Joseph Biden (D-DE)
and John
Kerry (D-MA).


Far From Dead, Subsidies Fuel Big Farms

- ELIZABETH BECKER (Forwarded by sbrumbley@bses.org.au)
The New York Times on the Web Monday, May 14, 2001

ALHART, Tex. - By any measure, Lanny Bezner is a successful family farmer.
His eldest son, John, rides herd over his cattle, spread out on
pastureland from here to nearby New Mexico. A younger son, Brian, looks
after the farm's heavily irrigated cornfields, with help from the husband
of Mr. Bezner's daughter, Virginia. As a Texas patriarch, Mr. Bezner
rigorously sticks to the principle that economy of scale is the only way
to survive in modern farming. The bigger the farm, the better likelihood
of turning a profit, he says.

By buying adjacent fields, he has expanded his cropland from its original
700 acres to more than 8,000. In five years he has doubled his grazing
land by leasing 90,000 acres of pasture. He owns a fleet of tractors and
heavy farm equipment; he fills their tanks with fuel from his own gas
pumps. He dries and stores his harvest in his own imposing grain
elevators, which hold more than a million bushels of corn.

Surveying the farm that he carved out in the Panhandle landscape of dry
mesquite and sagebrush, Mr. Bezner says the key to his family's prosperity
is federal farm subsidies. "We're successful primarily because of
government help," said Mr. Bezner, 59, an entomologist who grew up on a
farm outside Amarillo. Although Mr. Bezner hesitated to discuss the size
of those subsidies (and refused to divulge how much he makes without
federal help, or what his expenses are), government documents show that in
the last four years of the 1990's, he received $1.38 million in direct
federal payments.

Most remarkably, Mr. Bezner and the other big farmers here in Hartley
County and across the country received those record-breaking payments in
an era when farm subsidies were slated for extinction. Under the Freedom
to Farm Act of 1996, swept up in the language of the Republican revolution
under Speaker Newt Gingrich, farmers who planted row crops - corn, wheat,
soybeans, rice or cotton - were freed from government production controls.
In exchange for being able to plant what they wanted, they were told, they
would have their subsidies gradually phased out.

While farmers embraced their new freedom to decide what to plant, they
balked at accepting the rigors of the free market. When prices for their
crops held stagnant and their costs rose, farmers lobbied Congress for
"emergency" payments. Their friends in Congress relented. Instead of
diminishing, the subsidies have nearly tripled with steep emergency
payments that reached $22 billion last year, according to Keith Collins,
the top economist at the Agriculture Department.

Supporters of farm subsidies, which were enacted in the Depression, argue
that they are needed to save the family farm. But government documents
indicate that the prime beneficiaries hardly fit the image of small,
hardscrabble farmers. Because eligibility is based on acreage planted with
subsidized crops in the past, the farmers who have the biggest spreads
benefit the most, according to the Environmental Working Group, a
nonprofit advocacy organization that obtained government records of farm
subsidies through the Freedom of Information Act.

"The data shows that government subsidies are tilting the playing field
in favor of the largest farms," said Clark Williams-Derry, the senior
analyst at the Environmental Working Group who created a national database
of subsidies.

Mr. Bezner, who saw his direct federal payments balloon from $164,621 in
1996 to $741,839 in 1999, is one of the elite 10 percent of American
farmers who receive 61 percent of the billions of dollars the program
distributes. The subsidies have been a chief source of capital for large
operators to expand their holdings, often by buying out their smaller
neighbors. And unlike other federal entitlement programs, farm subsidies
have no requirements of income, assets or debts.

Friends in High Places
As Congress considers reauthorizing the Freedom to Farm Act, lawmakers
have already made one fundamental decision: they will keep the subsidies.
The phaseouts are a thing of the past. The cost, and the fact that the
money goes mostly to a select few, will be at the crux of the debate over
how to reshape subsidies. "The cost of this program is astonishing," Mr.
Collins said. "Any person engaged in small business in America would be
amazed looking at this. Their jaws would drop at the money farmers

Mr. Bezner makes no apologies for accepting the money. To his mind,
government subsidies help the American consumer by making sure grocery
stores are stocked with inexpensive food "That government money is
keeping cheap cereal on the shelves in New York City," he said.

And no one expects farmers to lose their subsidies - not with the friends
they have in Congress. The top leaders of both parties represent farm
states that rely on subsidies. In the Senate, the majority leader is from
Mississippi and the minority leader from South Dakota. In the House, the
speaker is from Illinois and the minority leader from Missouri. The
relevant committees are headed by representatives from farm states; the
chairman of the House Agriculture Committee is Representative Larry
Combest, a Republican who represents Mr. Bezner's district in the northern
plains of Texas.

"Look at the Nasdaq: those companies are going out of business and we
don't open up the Treasury to them," Mr. Collins said. "But Congress chose
not to let farmers bear that kind of pain." Like their counterparts in
Hartley County, large farmers around the country have complained to
Congress that Freedom to Farm is not working because their crops are
selling at the same low prices their grandfathers' crops fetched 40 years

When lawmakers passed the act in 1996, they approved generous subsidies
for the first two years in order to give farmers a cushion to prepare for
their independence. But when the world market pushed prices down, farmers
asked for emergency payments. In 1998, Congress approved additional
money, adding 50 percent to the core subsidy payments. In 1999 and 2000,
the lawmakers doubled the core payments. This month, with the strong
backing of the White House, Congress added $5.5 billion to next year's
budget blueprint to cover potential emergencies.