Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on

Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives





August 8, 2001


UNDP Author Responds; Brazil Black Market; Fighting Cancer; Knowledge


Today's Topics in AgBioView at http://www.agbioworld.org/

* Open Letter from Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, of the UNDP Report
* Brazil Black Market In GM Soybeans Booming
* Tobacco Plant May Help In Cancer Fight
* Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology
* Biotechnology on Parade: BIO 2001 San Diego
* Researcher Creates Salt-resistant Tomato, But Where Will It Sell?
* On Terminator Gene
* Survey?


An Open Letter from Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, lead author of the UNDP HDR 2001

7 August 2001: Open Letter on Human Development Report 2001 - Are we claiming GM crops
can feed the world?

UNDP's Human Development Report 2001, "Making New Technologies Work for Human Development", launched 10 July, has generated strong reactions from a number of organisations over the analysis of the potential risks and benefits of genetically modified (GM ) crops in developing countries:

"While the report in general follows the UNDP's highly respected tradition of providing hard facts and a critical view on major development issues, its assessment of Agricultural Biotechnology suspiciously reads as if it had been written by a Public Relations agency to promote genetically modified organisms." - Von Hernandez, Greenpeace, 10 July 2001

This open letter is intended as a reply and further clarification of our position to all of those who are concerned by our views.

There are some 800 million people who do not have adequate food, and 1.2 billion people in the world who live on only a $1 a day. GM crops are not a silver bullet that can feed them. At the root of poverty and hunger are complex social, political and economic reasons why there is more food than the world's six billion people need yet so many are hungry. There is no substitute for public policies that empower poor people with jobs, education, health, equitable opportunities, sustainable environment and natural resources, and governance that assures social justice and a level playing field.

Nonetheless, investing in more research and development of GM crops is a promising avenue for accelerating progress in tackling global poverty and hunger challenges. More than half of the world's poorest people depend on agriculture, many living in environments where crop failures are frequent due to drought and other natural catastrophes. They have little alternative but to continue to rely on farming, fishing and keeping livestock: increasing their productivity is a key to securing their livelihoods. Past agricultural research and productivity gains benefited the staple crops of many developing countries but left out some of the poorest farmers and countries. Wheat yields in Asia are now four times what they were in 1960 (2.7 tonnes per hectare compared with 0.7 tonnes) and rice yields have doubled from 1.9 to 4 tonnes per hectare. In sharp contrast, yields of sorghum and millet in sub-Saharan Africa have not increased since the 1960s.

Many sub-Saharan African countries have become food importers, something they can ill afford because their export earnings have not increased and their overall economic growth has been stagnant.

Improving food security for the world's poorest farmers means improving their productivity. The new tools of biotechnology offer the potential for creating crop varieties that meet the challenges of farming that they face - such as varieties that are more tolerant of drought or saline soils. Relatively little has been done to explore this potential so far and GM crop development has been concentrated in industrialized countries, focusing on crops and characteristics of little relevance to those farmers.

Recognising the potential of GM crops for developing countries does not imply rejecting the potential and importance of other forms of agricultural progress - notably those based on organic or other systems of sustainable agriculture and indigenous knowledge. Technology is an expression of human creativity and in developing countries today efforts are underway to utilize a whole range of knowledge systems, resulting in groundbreaking innovations such as low cost wireless communications in India and malaria drugs in Viet Nam that combined traditional knowledge with modern science.

Human Development Report 2001 is focused particularly on the new technologies because they are driving today's technological transformation and, together with globalization, are transforming development challenges. Policy choices are being made that will shape the path of technology development and access, with present and future interests of developing countries at stake. These policy concerns include: public investment (or rather the pitiful lack of) in technology; excessive private sector ownership of and control over tools of technology that are clearly of tremendous public concern; TRIPS negotiations and implementation; and public opinion of and involvement in assessing the risks of technological change.

Many opponents of GM crops are rightly concerned with two kinds of risk that this technology can carry - first, potential health and environmental impacts and second, potential negative social and economic consequences. Both need serious attention.

Health and environmental risks associated with the introduction of new technology - any technology - are an important issue. GM technology is already in use in some developing countries and trials are underway in others. Given the inherent risks of this new technology, the report focuses on what countries can do to identify and manage them systematically and openly by building strong biosafety capacity with clear guidelines, systematic assessment and public consultation and product labeling so that each community or country can make its own choices. The challenge of establishing these systems is significant. Though some developing countrieshave the resources, personnel and institutional capacity needed, most donot. Hence the report calls for greater assistance to those countries attempting to establish a national biosafety capacity.

The current private sector dominance of GM technology risks locking it into a property rights system where a few large firms own the patents and control use of plant materials and GM techniques, eroding competitive markets and threatening both farmers' traditional varieties and the role of international and national public agricultural research alike. This problem is not specific to agriculture: it is recurring across different technological innovations, especially in health and the development of new medicines. Hence the report calls for greatly increased public sector investment in R&D to ensure that the tools of technology address people's needs, not just market demand. Likewise, new strategies for managing intellectual property are needed to ensure access to the tools for research and development - and on the basis of policy not charity. GM crop technology development is likely to benefit the poor only if the right technology is developed in the right way and put into the right hands.

* it is public institutions that must lead the way in tapping the potential to benefit the poor, researching crops and characteristics with and for poor farmers to meet their needs;

* strong environmental and health safeguards must be put in place through building institutions and regulatory frameworks in developing countries;

* national and global intellectual property policies must be implemented in a way that does not block the diffusion of products with high social benefits;

* participatory processes in shaping decisions regarding GM crops are essential, both at the country and community level.

Farmers have been innovators for centuries and technological progress can accelerate that process. The potential of modern biotechnology to do so deserves serious investment. As M.S. Swaminathan, Winner of the World Food Prize in 1997, says, "How can we ensure that the ever green revolution movement based on genetic and digital technologies is characterized by social and gender inclusiveness?

The answer...was given by Mahatma Ghandi more than 70 years ago. 'Recall the face of the face of the poorest and the weakest person you've seen and ask yourself if the steps you contemplate are going to be of any use to him'..My nearly 40 years experience...have led me to postulate two basic guidelines in the design of technology testing and dissemination programmes:

* if demonstrations and testing are organized in the fields of resource poor farmers, all farmers benefit, the reverse may not happen;

* if women are empowered with technological information and skills, all members of the family benefit, the reverse may not happen."

Technology can be a tool for human development - the role of good public policy is to shape the course of its progress to make it happen. That public policies, nationally and globally, have so far fallen far short of that task is a compelling reason to rethink and reform, not to condemn the technology.

- Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Lead Author, 'Making New Technologies Work for Human Development - Human Development Report 2001'; Sakiko.fukuda-parr@undp.org; Tel: 212 906 360
Director, Human Development Report Office, United Nations Development Programme

Read the Full Report:

Making new technologies work for human development


Brazil Black Market In GM Soybeans Booming

- Reese Ewing Reuters, 08 Aug 2001

SAO PAULO, Brazil, Aug 8 (Reuters) - In Brazil, the world's No. 2 soybean grower and exporter after the United States, a ban on genetically modified crops has created a thriving black market in bioengineered soybeans that is bringing conventional seed suppliers to their knees, an industry official said on Wednesday. The director of Brazil's Seed Producers Association (Abrasem), Joao Henrique Hummel, told Reuters in an interview he estimated that plantings of GM soy have doubled in the country since last year. This has occurred even as the environmental group Greenpeace has battled against government attempts to legalize GM products.

"Farmers in Brazil have two options: they can buy legal, conventional seeds or illegal transgenic seeds, and in Rio Grande do Sul state for example they now prefer to buy the illegal GM soybeans to plant," said Hummel. Smugglers have been trucking GM beans for at least three years across the porous southern border of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's No. 3 soy state, from Argentina, one of the world's top growers of GM soybeans, because Brazilian farmers see GM seeds as a cost-saving product, said Hummel.

In 2000, Abrasem estimated that the planting of GM soy had reached about 30 percent of Rio Grande do Sul's total area sowed in the profitable oil seed. But Hummel said this figure had since grown to over 60 percent. "Three years ago state-registered seed growers in Rio Grande do Sul alone produced 300,000 tonnes of soybeans to plant. This year production dropped to 100,000," said Hummel.

However, the state's production levels have remained fairly stable over the last few years, indicating that the parallel seed market now accounts for almost two-thirds of the state's crop, said Hummel. The government has threatened in the past to set fire to fields found with GM soybeans, but has never done so and instead has largely turned a blind eye to the rampant growth in GM plantings.

IRONY OF ILLEGAL GM SEEDS IN BRAZIL The consumer and environmental groups that have been effectively blocking biotechnology companies like Monsanto Co. from selling its Roundup Ready products in Brazil have failed to dissuade farmers from turning to the black market. As a result, they are ordering less non-GM seed from certified seed growers which threatens to destroy the industry and its conventional crop research efforts in Brazil.

"Profit margins for the certified seed producers are shrinking. It is a life or death issue for the seed industry which relies on these revenues to fund research in new seed development," added Hummel. Monsanto's Roundup Ready varieties of GM soybeans are designed to withstand the company's Roundup Ready herbicide, which requires fewer crop applications to destroy weeds, and thus costs less than conventional herbicides.

The clandestine GM soybeans are not being separated from the rest of Brazil's allegedly GM-free soy crop, for as one Rio Grande do Sul soybean trader put it, "Why should the government track or cooperatives make special room for something that is not legally supposed to be there anyway."

So far the government has been ineffectual at finding its way through the labyrinth of court injunctions that Greenpeace and local consumer rights groups have slapped on Monsanto. "If Brazil lifts its ban on GM soybeans, registered seed growers could easily produce better quality GM seeds at lower prices than the black market can offer," Hummel said. He said that only after registered seed growers began producing GM seeds would it be possible to track and register GM soybeans in Brazil.

Brazil's reputation as a non-GM food producer has won it healthy premiums from buyers in Asia and Europe, where consumers have been most resistant to bioengineered foods. "GM beans are showing up in new regions of Brazil outside the South. It only takes a planting of 50 hectares (125 acres) to create enough GM seed to plant 3 million hectares (7.5 million acres) in three years," Hummel noted.


Tobacco Plant May Help In Cancer Fight

The Baltimore Sun, Associated Press- August 5, 2001

OWENSBORO, Ky. - Could the much-maligned tobacco plant be used to help cancer patients? A California biotech company says it can, and it has set up shop in tobacco country to prove it.

Large Scale Biology of Vacaville, Calif., has built a commercial "biopharmaceutical production facility" in this Ohio River community of 54,000. It is one of a handful of companies harnessing plants to produce useful human proteins.

Genetic engineers already use many ploys to manufacture human proteins, such as insulin and growth hormones. Often, they isolate a human gene that carries the code for making a protein and splice it into yeast or bacteria, which multiply in fermentation vats. Other methods include putting genes into cancer cells, which grow endlessly in lab cultures, or into farm animals, which make the proteins in their milk. Now companies are doing the same thing by the acre. They hope molecular farming, as some call it, will be cheaper and more efficient.

"We borrow the plant's cellular machinery," said Barry Bratcher, Large Scale Biology's director of biomanufacturing. "The plant is just a host for us." Tobacco is a big bulky plant that produces lots of greenery, and it is one that scientists have already had plenty of practice genetically manipulating in the lab.

Large Scale Biology has contracts with four local farmers to grow a combined 27 acres of tobacco for research. Tobacco is also grown in the company's five greenhouses in Owensboro. "It is ironic that tobacco might actually be used to create health instead of reducing health," said Chief Executive Officer Bob Erwin.

Already, the company has begun early-stage testing of a tobacco-produced vaccine intended to trigger the body`s immune system to fight non-Hodgkin`s lymphoma. Each dose would be a customized protein, made by mutant genes taken from the patient`s own cancer cells. In theory, the proteins should stimulate the body to turn against the cancer. If the vaccine works, the company says it will produce a plant that can produce 15,000 individualized doses a year.

The company is also considering human testing of a treatment for Fabry's disease. The therapy is a tobacco-made copy of a normal human enzyme needed to break down fats that is missing in victims of the disease In earlier stages is a collaboration of the Navy and the National Institutes of Health to use tobacco to make stem cells grow. The goal is to find a natural human protein that will multiply blood-forming stem cells that have been isolated from the bone marrow.

Stem cells are the source of all human tissue. Those taken from early-stage embryos can grow into any cell in the body, and they will divide forever in test tubes. However, because they are derived from embryos discarded during in-vitro fertilization, many people believe their use is unethical. Adults also have stem cells. Though they can be isolated from the brain and other organs, they are difficult to grow on demand.

A team of Navy and NIH researchers, led by Dr. John Chute, is trying to produce a protein that will make blood stem cells divide repeatedly in a test tube. They already have evidence that the body makes such a protein, and the collaboration with Large Scale Biology is intended to find the gene responsible so it can be manufactured in quantity. Chute said the protein could be extremely useful for conducting gene therapy to correct inherited blood diseases.

The idea is to isolate a few of the exceedingly rare stem cells from the victim's marrow, then use the protein to produce many more copies of them. This will leave doctors with enough stem cells to attempt gene therapy, replacing the disease-causing genes with healthy copies. The repaired stem cells would be returned to repopulate the patient's marrow.

Dr. Larry Goldstein, professor of cellular and molecular education at the University of California, San Diego, cautioned that such research is difficult. "I hope they'll be successful, but I think it's unrealistic to expect rapid success," Goldstein said.


Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology


Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology or KC is part of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) family, we are committed to share crop biotechnology information with as many people as possible.

Services include, Crop Biotech Network a free, easy-to-use e-mail group service; the Crop Biotech Update, a weekly summary of news on global crop biotech with implications for developing countries; and the Crop Biotech Brief, a monthly summary of a theme or topic on crop biotechnology--all for free! All you have to do is send us an e-mail at

You can also visit our Web site at http://www.isaaa.org/kc where you can read more about ISAAA and the KC. You can also get information on the status of crop biotech in the developing world, products, issues, and news. Feel free to download our communication materials (some available in 10 languages), and documents on crop biotech issues.

- Clement Dionglay, Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology


Biotechnology on Parade: Meeting Report of BIO 2001 San Diego

William A. Wells, The Journal of Cell Biology, Vol 154, No 3, August 6, 2001 482-484,
(From http://www.checkbiotech.org/)

The thin end of the rice grain? By the second day of BIO 2001, San Diego's conference center was buzzing with activity. Inside the barricades were 14,000 registered participants and almost as many police officers; outside was a single raggedy group of seven protestors (two toddlers; five adults), one of whom looked like he had dropped way too much acid in the sixties.

This was the biotechnology industry's showcase, and nothing was going to disrupt it—there was to be no repeat of the chaos in Seattle during the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization. After a mild protest on the first day, Kelli Gray, a food-science major at San Diego State University and member of the Greenpeace True Food Network, was one of the few dissenters left.
"It's not really biotech that I have a problem with; it's the government," she said. Inadequate testing and labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods was her issue, and one that got support from a surprising quarter. Craig Venter of Celera Genomics (Rockville, MD), receiving a joint award with Francis Collins (National Human Genome Research Institute, Bethesda, MD) for coordinating efforts to sequence the human genome, called GM food safety issues "answerable questions. The research has not been funded to answer these questions."

GM foods were the most vital thread in the sprawling meeting, and the new battleground appears to be the developing world. Stories from Africa and Asia were put forward as models for how biotechnology could benefit poorer countries. The alternative—that the agricultural biotechnology industry is using poorer countries as a way to force GM foods into reluctant markets—was vehemently denied, but in the end, the true story was difficult to ascertain. In this debate, it comes down to determining motivations, and those motivations may well vary depending on which person from a particular project (from research scientist to company CEO) is doing the talking.

A glowing grain: Golden rice has become the poster child for agricultural biotechnology. The rice has three genes added to it so that it now makes ß-carotene (otherwise known as pro-vitamin A) and turns yellow. Vitamin A deficiency has been estimated to cause at least 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness per year, and between 1 and 2 million deaths per year, mostly in very young children. Golden rice has the potential to supply many of these people with pro-vitamin A in their food.

"We need more projects like golden rice," said Shanthu Shantharam of seed giant Syngenta. "In this way society will understand some of the benefits of biotechnology." Shantharam introduced Peter Beyer (University of Freiburg, Germany), who with Ingo Potrykus (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, Switzerland) spearheaded the scientific effort to create golden rice
The project started in academia with nonprofit funding, but when a new source of funding was needed, Beyer and Potrykus turned to the European Union, which requires that grantees have a commercial partner. This requirement, and the need to get access to multiple agricultural biotechnology patents, resulted in a partnership with Zeneca, now part of Syngenta.
The Syngenta partnership and a Greenpeace campaign led to some negative publicity. In Potrykus' opinion, the anti–golden rice campaign "has little to do with facts. It is a pseudo-religious war—very emotional. A few groups that are antiglobalization, antitechnology, and antiscience see this as a very efficient battleground. They use the fear from incidents like BSE to spread the feeling that transgenic plants are something very dangerous. There are really no data to support that view."

The first transfer of golden rice varieties to a local research institute happened in January 2001, at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI; Los Baños, Philippines). The recipient was Ronald Cantrell, IRRI's director, who estimates that transferring the genes to local cultivars and boosting the levels of pro-vitamin A production will take 3 to 5 years. As for the protests, "I don't have a lot of time for people who don't have something they can come up with that is a better alternative," he said.

But Cantrell has more in mind for golden rice than a fix for vitamin A deficiency—he hopes it will stimulate commerce. "Today there is no seed market [in Asia], but it can be big," he said. "I want that subsistence farmer, I want him to be able to purchase seed."
Under the agreement with Syngenta, any farmer producing less than $10,000 per year of grain has access to the technology for free. For those in the poorer countries, said Cantrell, "at some point they will start purchasing products, but it will not be golden rice."

The African story: Florence Wambugu has been working in agricultural biotechnology for many years, but lately she has become the biotech industry's favorite spokesperson. She puts a forceful case that food-poor Africa is not interested in the West's skittishness about GM foods, and that it resents outsiders telling it that it should not make use of this technology. Her views have been backed by the recent United Nations (UN) Human Development Report 2001, which concludes that the possible benefits of GM food outweigh the risks for developing countries. Wambugu, director of the ISAAA AfriCenter in Nairobi, Kenya, agrees with Cantrell's economic arguments. "Nobody gets out of poverty by begging," she said. "The African community has to get into the market economy. This technology is going to enable people not only to become consumers but also ... part of a global community."

Agriculture sustains Africa, and yet production per hectare in Africa is less than half the average seen worldwide. Jocelyn Webster, executive director of the South African biotech organization AfricaBio, said that GM foods can work in Africa. "The benefits are packaged in a seed," she said, "and that means the farmers can have access to the technology."

Unfortunately for Wambugu and Webster, opposition to GM foods exists both in Africa and its trading partners. A 1999 AfricaBio survey found that 26% of South Africans were in favor of GM food, 19% were opposed, and 55% were unsure, and Webster said the opposed and unsure numbers have increased further following negative press in South Africa. Furthermore, Namibia recently stopped buying South African maize to feed its cows, because it was concerned that the 6% GM content in the feed would jeopardize their share of the European beef market. Despite these problems, there were over 70 applications for GM plant trials in South Africa last year alone, and Webster is not about to give up on GM technology. "Africa needs this technology," she said. "There's no doubt about it. There's no debate about it. We need it."

Whole-genome shuffling: Maxygen, Inc. (Redwood City, CA) was founded on the technology of gene shuffling, in which test-tube experiments yield the sort of genetic reassortment normally seen as a result of sexual reproduction. In brief, multiple variants of a gene are subjected to cycles of cutting, reannealing, ligation, and testing for increased or novel activities based on the new combinations of genetic variants now found in the same molecule. Now Russell Howard, CEO of Maxygen, has announced that the company has successfully extended the technique to whole genomes. Starting with related bacterial strains, Maxygen scientists shuffled the genomes in the test tube, then reconstituted organisms that now thrived in acidic conditions (pH 3.8) that the parent organisms could not tolerate. Howard said that the technique allows the company to optimize parameters even when the underlying biology is not understood.

Forgetful flies: Tim Tully (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, NY) has raised the stakes in fly memory research. It took ten calendar years, and approximately 50 person years, for Tully and others to isolate the first three Drosophila genes implicated in memory and learning. But now in a large-scale screen, Tully and his colleagues have isolated 55 genes involved in fly learning and memory in just the last nine months. Tully pairs certain odorants with electric shocks, then tests his mutants for their ability to learn to avoid the odorants. In normal flies, multiple, spaced training sessions are needed to cement an odorant–shock pair into long-term memory; multiple training sessions without intervening gaps do not work. Tully has reported previously that he can override this system by expressing an activated form of the cAMP response element binding protein (CREB), yielding flies that form a long-term memory after a single training session.
Remembering is all very well, but will a CREB-stimulated brain overload? This is not just a question for the flies—Tully is involved with Helicon Therapeutics, Inc. (Uniondale, New York), which hopes to exploit CREB and other memory proteins to treat brain degenerative disorders and perhaps to increase memory abilities in normal individuals. But the answer may come first in flies. A fly brain can learn only five odor–shock pairings before additional pairs displace the first set. Tully is now looking into whether CREB or the newly isolated genes affect this finite brain capacity.


Researcher Creates Salt-resistant Tomato, But Where Will It Sell?

- Paul Elias, AP Biotechnology Writer, August 7, 2001 (c)2001 Associated Press


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A California researcher has created a tomato that can grow and thrive with salty water, a breakthrough he said could lead to the cultivation of now-barren fields around the world. University of California, Davis Professor Eduardo Blumwald's tomato plants can grow using water containing 50 times more salt than normal. His findings are published in this month's issue of the peer review journal Nature Biotechnology.

The resulting tomato contains three times as much salt than a traditionally grown tomato, but the salt can't be tasted, Blumwald said. He believes his invention can be used by farmers toiling with bad soil and on a variety of crops. Fields doused in large amounts of irrigated water over long periods of time develop high levels of salinity, which stunts crop growth.

Blumwald envisions tomatoes growing in the deserts of the Middle East and on now-fallow lands in India. But for now, the scientist's tomatoes, with a salt-fighting gene from a plant related to cabbage fused with a tomato plant, is being rejected by many California farmers. In the Central Valley town of Five Points, the heart of tomato-growing country, growers are refusing to grow genetically modified crops for the simple reason that they aren't selling in supermarkets. Until they do, California's largest farmers won't touch Blumwald's tomatoes or any other biotechnology-created crop.

"Biotech is taboo," said Tom Braner, business manager of Five Points-based grower Tanimura & Antle, which grows 240,000 acres of tomatoes. "Everybody wants organic. Nobody wants genetically modified food." Blumwald's creation isn't playing well on small organic farms like the ones found around Santa Cruz either. "It's a Band-Aid," said Mark Lipson, co-owner of Molino Creek Farm, which grows organic tomatoes on six acres. Lipson said the "real problem" is over-irrigation of crop land by large corporations. Developing salt-resistant tomatoes isn't going to improve the deteriorating conditions of the world's farm lands, Lipson said. Lipson and other organic farming proponents are also concerned that pollen from biotech crops will contaminate their plants. They also fear hard-to-kill super weeds will sprout from genetically modified pollen.

Other genetically modified food opponents, such as Peter Meechan, chief executive of Newman's Own Organic food company, contend that not enough research has been done to ensure the food is safe to eat. "We need to see more testing," he said.

All of which frustrates Blumwald. He complains that salinity levels continue to rise while traditional methods of selective breeding of crops has resulted in little relief over the last 100 years. Furthermore, he argues that he's merely "crossbreeding" plants like farmers have done for centuries. "I'm not doing anything different than farmers did a thousand years ago," he said. "Nothing bad is going to happen. This is a solution, not a problem." Blumwald said he has developed hundreds of the salt-resistant plants, now being kept in a University of Toronto greenhouse where Blumwald did most of his research. He joined the Davis faculty last year where he hopes to grow his plants in a salt-damaged field if he can secure funding.

In arid areas such as California's Central Valley, where most of the country's tomatoes are grown, farmers use irrigation water -- as opposed to rainfall -- to grow crops. As the water flows from its source in rivers and streams, minerals are picked up and deposited in farmers' fields. Eventually, fields using this water can become too salty and unfarmable. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that crop production has fallen by 25 percent on irrigated land in the United States because of rising salinity levels.

Blumwald said his plants will help repair salt-damaged soil. They actually remove salt, retaining most of it in their leaves. Salt blocks plants from absorbing enough water. Blumwald and his colleagues engineered the plants to produce proteins that hide the salt in vacuoles, large storage areas in cells that don't interfere with the plants' growth. Most of the soil's salt ends up in the tomato plants' leaves. California fields, which haven't been farmed as long as the rest of the country's, aren't having significant salinity problems yet. But Blumwald said that in the next 30 years, California farmers will have to deal with salty fields as they continue to rely on irrigation. "There's going to be trouble," Blumwald said.

On the Net: www.ucdavis.edu; www.ofrf.org; www.ctga.org


Commission Plots Transgenic Future

By Peter Pockley, Nature August 9, 2001; 412, 573 (2001)

An extensive study by a royal commission has opened the door for New Zealand to cautiously embrace genetically modified (GM) agriculture for the first time. The findings of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification in New Zealand were welcomed by many scientists. But they angered the country's Green Party, whose considerable political influence led to the commission being established.

Peter Gluckman, dean of medicine at the University of Auckland, says the report is "very sensible in that it rejected outright the concept of a genetic-engineering-free New Zealand as incompatible with the modern world and the nation's future".

The commission's 1,200-page report, released on 30 July, says that transgenic agriculture should be introduced to New Zealand "selectively with appropriate care". It recommends loosening existing controls on field trials of GM crops, and creating new mechanisms for controlling their commercial release. No GM crops have yet been released for commercial sale in New Zealand. But the commission says that genetic modification should be banned in certain circumstances where its introduction might threaten growers' interests.

It also suggests that decisions on the first commercial release of GM crops should be shifted from the Environmental Risk Management Authority to the environment minister. A parliamentary commissioner on biotechnology would be given powers to investigate issues, independently of the government, to produce accessible reports for the public and to advise parliament on genetic-engineering policies.

The royal commission was established by the Labour Alliance government 15 months ago (see Nature 404, 914; 2000). It is made up of four commissioners - a retired judge, a biomedical researcher, a medical practitioner of Maori heritage and an Anglican bishop.

The government is not bound by the commission's recommendations, but the prime minister, Helen Clark, and the environment minister, Marian Hobbs, welcomed the commission as "the most wide-ranging inquiry into genetic modification ever undertaken in any country". They set a deadline of 31 October for announcing the government's plans to enact its recommendations.


Subject: On Terminator Gene
From: Hartmut Meyer

>Re: USDA Says Yes To Terminator
>From: William Muir (posted to an Internet discussion group)
Dear William,

In your recent contribution in AgBioView on the Terminator technology you mentioned that "Terminator type technology is exactly what is needed to prevent such harm", which means "to ensure the gene cannot spread". I heard this biosafety argument in some discussions in Germany and asked the speakers to clarify the issue in more detail.

My point was: As far as I understood the technology, such plants are still able to produce pollen and to cross with sexually compatible plants. Parts of the following generation than will carry - according to the genetic rules - the Terminator genes and as a consequence produce infertile seeds. So Terminator technology will not stop cross pollination per se but the spread of (trans) genes in the following generations.

I asked following questions:
1) Is my above understanding correct?
If yes:
1) What will happen to those sexually compatible wild populations which year by year produce a certain amount of infertile individuals?
2) Will the population suffer from this cross pollination with Terminator genes?
3) What will happen to farmers who rely on own seed production and seed saving from their harvest, if their plants will be cross pollinated by neighbouring Terminator crops year by year?

Unluckily nobody could answer my questions, because those speakers developed their arguments and rationale of the lecture on the understanding that Terminator genes prevent transgene spreading as such.

Can you give answer my questions? Thanks a lot,

- Hartmut Meyer; German NGO Working Group on Biological Diversity


From: Ken.Cunliffe@nre.vic.gov.au
Subject: Organically-Grown Food Is Safer And Healthier: Soil Association?

Comment: When there is still doubt after protagonists and antagonists have reviewed around 400 research articles comparing the nutritional qualities of organic and conventional foods, I'd say that any argument either for or against has to be rather shaky.


From: Andrew Apel
Subject: Survey?

Perhaps you know someone who might be interested in conducting a survey something like the following. If so, please pass it on.

(1) If I were genetically modified, I would prefer to be: (Yes or No)

- Healthier
- Last longer
- More productive
- Resistant to chemicals
- Resistant to insect pests
- Resistant to disease

(2) If you replied 'yes' to any of the above, would you prefer to pass on the same trait(s) to your children? (Yes or No)

(3) If you replied 'yes' to any of the above, do you have any objection to crops having the same trait(s)?