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August 18, 2001


Monsanto on Soy DNA; Pollen Flow Liability; ELF; Corn


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

* Monsanto Comments on 'Mystery DNA' in Soybeans
* Trumpeting the Trivia On Unknown DNA Is Meaningless
* Legal Liability of Pollen Flow Between Crops
* Don't Let The Lunatics Take Over The Asylum
* Corn Cloth Causes Stir at Market
* By Any Means Necessary - ELF, KKK Compared
* Firefighters
* Rio Falls Apart Down Mexico Way
* Genetically Modified Plants: Monsters or Miracles?
* Eat GM Food or Pay a Heavy Price: James Watson

Email your response to

Monsanto Comments On Windels et al. (2001) Publication Regarding Roundup Ready Soybeans (August 16, 2001)

- Marcia Vincent, Technical Communications Manager, Monsanto; marcia.n.vincent@monsanto.com

Background: Monsanto developed Roundup Ready soybeans and conducted extensive safety assessments which established the safety of this product from a food, feed and environmental perspective prior to commercial introduction. The safety information was reviewed and this product has been approved by numerous regulatory agencies around the world.

Monsanto subsequently conducted additional analyses of the DNA inserted into Roundup Ready soybean, using methods that were more sensitive and precise than the methods in use when the initial studies were conducted. These studies show that Roundup Ready soybeans contain one functional insert, which produces the full length EPSPS protein that provides for the tolerance to Roundup herbicide. A 250 base pair portion of the CP4 EPSPS gene is also present in the functional insert. A second, small, non-functional insert of 72 base pairs which is a portion of the EPSPS DNA is also present. In addition to the detailed description of the inserted DNA present in Roundup Ready soybeans, the DNA sequence flanking each side of the functional insert was also described and provided. This included 415 bp of DNA flanking the 3’ end of the functional insert (the sequence in question below), which was provided to facilitate the development of detection methods for this product. Data was provided which showed that only the ful

Recent Publication: Recently, Windels et al. (2001), Belgian scientists from Centre for Agricultural Research, published an article regarding molecular information on Roundup Ready soybeans. This report, submitted December, 2000, was published online May, 2001 and in print August, 2001. In their article, the authors described the isolation and characterization of the junction between insert DNA and plant flanking DNA in Roundup Ready soybeans.

They also described the DNA sequence of the region flanking the 3’ end of the functional insert, including the sequence of 534 base pairs of DNA which may have been rearranged during the insertion process.

It’s important to note that the results reported by Windels et al. are consistent with those obtained by Monsanto and previously provided to regulatory agencies. In fact, Monsanto scientists had on-going discussions with Dr. De Loose, the senior author of this paper, for more than a year to share information being developed by both research teams, including the research which was published in the paper cited above. The results obtained by both groups, including DNA sequence of the soybean genomic DNA adjacent to the 3’ end of the functional insert, are consistent; the only difference is in amount of the DNA sequenced. Both groups have also concluded that the soybean genomic DNA immediately flanking the 3’ end of the functional insert is likely to be rearranged soybean DNA.

Both Monsanto and the Belgium scientists concluded that 3’ flanking DNA is not homologous to the vector DNA used to produce Roundup Ready soybeans … or in other words, the DNA is not transgenic DNA. Monsanto has recently confirmed that this DNA is highly homologous to genomic DNA from non-transgenic soybeans. It should be noted that the phenomenon of rearrangements at the point of genetic insertion is widely recognized within the plant transformation field. The impact of such rearrangements was fully considered during the extensive safety assessment briefly summarized above. Bioinformatics assessments have also been conducted on this 3’ flanking region, including and extending beyond the 534 base pairs reported by Windels et al. to assess whether there is any potential transcription or translation into protein products. These assessment indicated that the theoretical open reading frames would be very short, highly unlikely to produce any mRNA or protein and show no sequence similarity to any known protein t

The consequences of the rearrangement of the DNA flanking the insert have been assessed as part of the larger safety assessment conducted on Roundup Ready soybeans. The studies led to the conclusion that Roundup Ready soybeans are agronomically, compositionally and nutritionally comparable to conventional soybeans, except for the Roundup Ready trait. The information generated previously by Monsanto and data discussed in the Windels et al. publication do not change the conclusions reached previously that: (1) Roundup Ready soybeans contain one functional CP4 EPSPS gene cassette; (2) Roundup Ready soybeans are as safe and nutritious as conventional soybean varieties; and (3) Roundup Ready soybeans do not pose a plant pest risk or otherwise pose an increased risk to the environment relative to conventional soybean varieties.

Conclusions: The DNA sequence 3’ to the functional insert in Roundup Ready soybeans: (1) is not new DNA; (2) the DNA is not from the transformation vector; (3) the DNA is rearranged soybean genomic DNA and does not represent a new insert; (4) the data is consistent with information provided by Monsanto to regulatory authorities around the world last year; (5) this soybean DNA which flanks the 3’ end of the functional insert was present in all the safety studies conducted by Monsanto; and (6) numerous regulatory authorities have confirmed that this information does not change the conclusion that Roundup Ready soybeans are as safe and nutritious as conventional soybeans.

Reference: Windels, P. I. Taverniers, , A. Depicker, E. Van Bockstaele and M. De Loose. 2001. Characterization of the Roundup Ready soybean insert. Eur. Food Res. Technol. 213:107-112.


From: "John W. Cross"
Subject: 'Mystery DNA'

I just sent the following message to Greenpeace:
Dr. Janet Cotter H
Greenpeace International, Science Unit, Exeter, UK. Tel: +44.1392.26 37 82

Dr. Cotter:
There are many hundreds of varieties of Glycine max under cultivation in the world today. They differ in a wide variety of genetic traits, including determinacy, apical dominance, maturation date, etc., these agronomic characteristics are generally multigenic and quantitative in expression. Only a little of this genetic variation has been mapped or sequenced. Marker studies, which are more advanced, do not provide complete sequences.

Moreover, the results of any soybean cross are totally unpredictable, both because of lack of knowledge of the sequence differences between the parents and because of the recombinational events that will occur in any cross. Thus, the 'unknown' DNA sequence recently identified in Roundup Ready beans is meaningless in the face of our general ignorance of the soybean genome and its normal recombinational events.

It is cause for concern that even this bit of trivia is trumpeted by Greenpeace as an argument against the general cause of genetic engineering of crop plants.

Sincerely, John Cross
Kimbely Zobrist, Khalid Meksem, Chengcang Wu, Quanzhou Tao, Hongbin Zhang, David A. Lightfoot, "Integrated physical mapping of the soybean genome: A tool for rapid identification of economically important genes." Soybean Genetics Newsletter - 2000. http://www.soygenetics.org/articles/SGN2000-010.htm

W. Yang, D. B. Weaver, B. L. Nielsen and J. Qiu, "A Preliminary Genetic Linkage Map of Soybean Using an Intraspecific Cross of Two Cultivars: 'Peking' and 'Lee'" Soybean Genetics Newsletter - 2000. http://www.soygenetics.org/articles/sgn2000-019.htm


Discussions of Sams and Avery on Pollen Flow Between Crops, and Legal Liability

- ThomasRedick@netscape.net

To respond further to the exchange, circa July 30, between Mr. Avery and Mr. Sams on the subject of pollen flow between crops, I would like to provide the non-lawyers out there with a primer on nuisance law relating to pollen flow -- to answer the question "What law gives [organic farmers] the legal right to demand shelter from pollen from fellow farmers' crops? No other farmers in history have had such power."

Mr. Sams is correct that farmers can be liable for pollen drift, and the law will allow comparative fault against the seed company whose negligence caused the nuisance (Aventis in the Starlink fiasco has proven biotech companies will stand behind their products and practices). The law of nuisance governs pollen drift (see my legal article at 30 ELR 10328) Like pesticide overspray that harms a neighboring field, pollen may, under the right circumstances, be deemed an unreasonable interference with the neighbor's use of his land.

This is not "new" law; nuisance is ancient law, as old as property law itself. Nuisance is a complex, adaptive common law theory. As applied, it is a balancing act between competing property uses. State statutes can define what is a nuisance, stating the community standard for an agricultural practice. We should expect that states with agricultural interests will declare certain pollen to be a legal nuisance if they wish. There are already long-standing laws regulating varieties that can be planted --- California even criminalized some strains of cotton over 30 years ago to maintain the genetic purity of the cotton produced there. More recently, California is requiring premarket permitting for new rice varieties, to keep rice blast and varieties unapproved for export out of the state (a bill entitled AB2622). This was due, in part, to the risk of nuisance from an unapproved variety commingling with those approved for export. Aventis did not oppose the bill, nor did California ! lobbyists for the seed indust

In some places, however, an organic community standard might evolve in some areas, forcing the GM grower to be the one to resort to protective measures. If a state or county were to "go organic", as some EU nations (and Brazilian state) may try to do, US laws protecting interstate commerce might kick in to slow down states that interfere with interstate commerce.

As the American Soybean Association has made very clear to seed companies since 1997, it is in everyone's interest to prevent cataclysmic economic harm from occurring. It has insisted that soybean varieties lacking full regulatory approval only reach the market with adequate identity preservation. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, in the aftermath of Starlink, has assured the world that better stewardship will ensure the necessary pollen drift management.

Where I will agree with Mr. Avery is that it would be novel to give an organic grower a nuisance claim against neighboring GM pollen when the organic grower is the one getting a premium price for being different from the community standard. A grower producing Roundup Ready soybeans (over 66% of the market in the US) should not have to warn an organic soy grower of the remote chance of pollination by insects. If organic farmers promise their buyer "zero" GM content, they are duty-bound to ensure that the normal flow of pollen across their property does not interfere with that ambitious promise of "zero" GM content.

With corn that is not approved for export (e.g., Roundup Ready Corn), however, a court might find that the community standard requires careful segregation measures by the grower of the unapproved corn, which pollinates more freely, and lacks regulatory approval in Europe, unlike Roundup Ready Soybeans. Monsanto has a stewardship plan in place for Roundup Ready Corn which will help prevent nuisance liability. With the EU demanding "zero tolerance" for unapproved variety mixing, this stewardship plan has little room for error.

The organic industry could make a huge mistake by siding with the EU's "zero tolerance" policy for GM content. Organic advocates who seek "zero tolerance" for gene flow (where no suspect allergens are involved, in contrast to Starlink) threaten US organic exports. See, Anne Garcia, "Industry Struggles with Contamination Warnings" (June 2001) at http://naturalbiz.com (Organic exports threatened by overseas zero tolerance standards for commingling of GMOs.)

For those who seek more information about the law of nuisance as applied to agbiotech, I recommend attending (or paying $35 for the CD ROM of speaker papers) the panel discussion that I will be moderating October 4 entitled "Environmental Liability for Agricultural Biotechnology: The Nuances of Nuisance" at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association's Section on Environment, Energy and Resources (http://www.abanet.org/environ), in St. Louis. Starlink, Soybean Stewardship and Monsanto's vision of managing pollen will all be featured, with detailed legal papers in support of the speeches.

The ABA will offer a peek into what the leading legal scholar on nuisance, Dean Prosser, called an "impenetrable jungle" of precedents dating from the 13th Century. Rest assured that generalities with broad applicability are almost never to be found in this area of the law; nuisance law is by its nature a local, tangled, "adhocracy" of case law. Whatever turns this story takes, it will be lined with lawyers seeking to understand conflicting precedents in multiple jurisdictions.

- Thomas Redick

'Don't Let The Lunatics Take Over The Asylum': Advice from the Farm Bureau:

-Posted to Biotech Activists group by Fri, 17 Aug 2001
Biotechnology: Feeding the whole world, Utah Farm Bureau News May 2001

On October 12, Truth About Trade Chairman, Dean Kleckner, gave the following presentation on the acceptance of biotechnology advances nationally and globally. The event was a special symposium sponsored and hosted by the Governors Partnership on Biotechnology. Governor Vilsack (D-IA) and Governor Schaeffer (R-ND) hosted the presentation, scheduled in conjunction with the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa.

Being a farmer today really means being two things, both of which are increasingly impacted by the growth of biotechnology. First, farmers are businessmen and women. We have to produce and sell a product. That means we have to have markets for our product. And that means we have to have open and expanding trade. But being a farmer also means being a part of a larger, moral mission to feed people who otherwise wouldn't be able to feed themselves.

The green revolution led by American farmers saved over a billion people from starving to death. But our job is far from over. Last year, world population passed the six million mark and the United Nations estimates that by 2050, there will be 9 billion of us.

At the same time, the amount of arable land is expected to decrease by half over the next fifty years. If American farmers are to continue to play their traditional role in feeding the world's hungry, we must be able to rely on biotechnology to bridge the gap between our soaring population and limited resources.

But standing in the way of American farmers realizing the promise of biotechnology today is a growing coalition of diverse international actors. Statist governments in Europe, Asia and, increasingly, developing countries have joined with a motley crew of non-governmental groups to present a serious threat to shut down trade in genetically modified foods. These groups are radical environmentalists, protectionists, unions, Green party members and bored kids looking for thrills. They have different agendas, but they are bound together in a common disregard for the truth in the debate over biotechnology.

The good news is that a new round of trade talks has begun that gives American farmers a chance to push back against this anti-trade, anti-biotech, anti-progress coalition. Discussions that have already begun in Geneva will eventually be rolled into a new round of trade talks conducted under the auspices of the World Trade Organization that some are calling the Millennium Round.

To guide them in their negotiations, Truth About Trade recommends the following areas of emphasis for U.S. negotiators:
- Beware of new trade barriers posing as food safety and environmental concerns. What do you do if you're a country that wants to find a reason to keep products out of your market and you can't do it the old fashioned way with tariffs and quotas? Well, you turn to junk science and scare tactics over products produced using biotechnology.

If a country or a group wants to badly enough, they can always find a scientist who will tell them what they want to hear about the supposed harmful effects of a product. U.S. trade officials must be on alert to this tactic and insist that safety and environmental concerns are real - not excuses for protectionism.
- Insist on sound science over scare science, and reason over emotion. No American farmer is interested in marketing products that are unhealthy and unsafe. Period. And we have ways, through testing and re-testing and re-testing again, to determine if products are safe.

And yet repeatedly, the so-called "science" used to keep American GMOs out of international markets is either demonstrably faulty or missing altogether. How is it, then, that opponents of genetically modified foods have been so successful? By appealing to emotion above reason. When the tabloids carry headlines trumpeting the dangers of "Frankenfood" and that eminent British scientist Prince Charles spouts off about "playing God" with fruits and vegetables, people have a tendency to take note.
- Don't be afraid to tug on some heartstrings. The fact is, morality and emotion are on the side of the American farmer in the biotechnology debate. We have the potential to save millions of people from lives of poverty, starvation and ill health with the technology that is available to us today.

We ought to 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 for your direct mail fund raising efforts? How many more lives will you sacrifice for your "cause" ?
- Don't let the lunatics take over the asylum. U.S. negotiators should demand an end to the practice of un-elected, unaccountable non-governmental organizations throwing their weight around in trade talks and effectively dictating to Americans what kind of technology we can develop.

International bodies like the WTO are supposed to be representative of governments who are in turn (at least in the West) accountable to their citizens. But who elected the members of Greenpeace or Earth First? Listening is one thing, but as someone once said, you can't have such an open mind that your brains fall out.
- Take a pass on the "precautionary principle". This dangerous and unrealistic philosophy of risk-assessment forbids any action, innovation or product development where there is "a lack of scientific certainty regarding the extent of the potential adverse effects".

But what sounds like a common sense "look before you leap" philosophy has been used to set the bar of scientific proof to any new product so high as to be unattainable. And this impossible burden of proof on producers has been used by the European Union to justify banning imports and requiring labeling of genetically modified foods.

Now, every country should be cautious when it comes to food safety. But the precautionary principle is designed to give anybody who raises any possibility of threat or harm "no matter how far-fetched" an effective veto on new products or technology. It is, in short, a license to do nothing. U.S. negotiators should either change it, or reject it.


(From: Andrew Apel
Colleagues, Looks like Patagonia needs to be educated on a few points!)

Corn Cloth Causes Stir at Market

Salt Lake Tribune, August 17, 2001. Excerpted from

A new fleecelike fabric made from corn rather than petroleum is being touted as revolutionary by its inventor at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market at the Salt Palace Convention Center. But at least one major outdoor retailer - Patagonia Inc. - is refusing to use the new textile until it can be made from corn that has not been genetically engineered. The cloth made of polylactic acid (PLA) feels and functions like the popular petroleum-based fleece commonly used in jackets, pants, hats and gloves. But the corn-based version decomposes when discarded in landfills. This is the first mass-produced fabric made from annually renewable natural material that performs like a synthetic, said Michael O'Brien, a spokesman for Cargill Dow, the fabrics developer.

Despite the new cloths environmental benefits, Ventura, Calif.-based Patagonia on Thursday launched an education campaign against its use. There is strong evidence that genetic engineering may cause more environmental problems than it solves, said Jil Zilligen, Patagonias vice president for environmental affairs. There will be grave disappointment when customers realize that this current product is being marketed on a flawed environmental story.


‘By Any Means Necessary’

Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report, Summer 2001 Issue # 102
(Forwarded by Andrew Apel Sub: ELF, KKK Compared)

A left-wing enviromental group is targeting the federal government

There is an obvious ideological gulf separating the radical right, with its racist and fascist appeals, from the left-wing, environmentalist Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which advocates “equality, social justice and … compassion for all life.” But when it comes to the current economic and political system, the two groups increasingly find themselves on the same side.

To begin with, the ELF’s use of underground violence strongly resembles ex-Klansman Louis Beam’s concept of “leaderless resistance.” The ELF is composed of autonomous and secretive “cells” that initiate terrorist acts independently, and do not communicate with or even know one another. In fact, with dozens of terrorist attacks causing an estimated $30 million in damages since 1997 — the ELF disavows harm to “any animal, human or non-human,” and so far, apparently, has not caused any — the shadowy ELF makes much of the radical right look rather meek. But like most groups on the radical right today, the ELF sees global capitalism as an enemy.

Now, these similarities are even more marked.

A recent communiqué announced that the group, which espouses “militant direct action … by any means necessary,” will now target “F.B.I. offices and U.S. federal buildings,” “liberal democracy,” and even “industrial civilization” itsELF. Until now, the group’s nationwide bombings, arsons and vandalisms had been directed only at corporations “profiting from the destruction … of the natural environment.”

In addition, the ELF recently set this year’s “International Day of Action” for April 19 — a mythic date for the antigovernment right. It was that day in 1993 when about 80 Branch Davidian cult members died in a fire in Waco, Texas, as federal agents attempted to end a 51-day standoff. It is also the day that Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168.

Leslie Pickering, who along with Craig Rosebraugh is an ELF spokesman, suggests the group chose the 19th to be close to the new moon on the 23rd — when night is darkest. Yet Pickering says that he cannot be sure, since he claims that he knows no ELF members personally and merely passes along anonymous communiqués to the media.

The group’s antigovernment stance may have been triggered by intense law enforcement interest. Until very recently, the FBI has had no leads at all in ELF crimes, but now they may be closing in. A standing grand jury investigating the ELF in Portland, Ore., has repeatedly subpoenaed the testimony of Rosebraugh and other activists. In Indiana, Frank Ambrose was charged in January with crimes previously claimed by the ELF — spiking trees to discourage logging. And in New York, three teenagers pleaded guilty in February to burning down partially built luxury homes on Long Island in the name of the ELF.

Many on the radical right admire the ELF, although it seems clear that the ELF doesn’t share their racist views or have other connections to their groups. “To suggest such a relationship is absurd,” says spokesman Rosebraugh.

Still, right-wing extremists like the look of those involved in eco- and animal rights terrorism. “A typical group of animal rights activists looks whiter and blonder than a typical group of kkk members,” enthused one recent Internet posting from a neo-fascist “Third Position” group, one which rejects the traditional left/right dichotomy. “The worst abuses of animals are almost always done by mud peoples. … Hitler and Wagner were both vegetarians.”

Such ideas are repugnant to the vast majority of environmentalists. But a message posted to a “deep ecology” Internet group, presenting ideas for protecting the earth, shows how the thinking of some environmentalists verges quickly into violence.

The message suggests a training camp for “monkey-wrenching” eco-vandals and the establishment of a vigilante “Earth Police.” From there, the proposals get scarier: “Ask the governments of Iraq, Iran and Libya for a million dollars or so to help harass the U.S.” Or, in the spirit of educating the young, offer a prize “to the high school student who comes up with the best plan to bring about the destruction of civilization without seriously harming the biosphere.”


From: Andrew Apel
Subject: Firefighters


This discussion of the dead firefighters must, for purposes of this discussion, be properly directed. For that reason, several points should be made:

1. The story of the firefighters is not, strictly speaking, a story of biotechnology, any more than reports of riots in Seattle, Prague, Gothenburg or Genoa.

2. Whether or not the story published by H&C is factually accurate must be left for other investigators, and in this climate, it seriously deserves that treatment.

3. Regardless of the accuracy of the H&C claims, it is clear that there are many who advocate letting people die, be they firefighters or people indigenous to developing nations, because of fears of "unknown environmental impacts."

4. This means that if the H&C report is false, it is an exception to the trend of letting people die on behalf of imagined threats to the environment; and if the report is true, it reinforces the trend towards letting people die on behalf of imagined threats to the environment.

5. Arguing over the quality of the tents given the dead firefighters merely serves to make the incident/story/allegory all the more painfully opaque.

In conclusion, I insist that those who wring their hands instead of helping others who face death are culpable of the deaths that ensue - whether the dying face fire or hunger. Evils committed for the sake of an ideal (or as a result of baseless timidity) are still evil. And these misdeeds are doubly evil, when the excuse is ideological, because that perverts our most benign aspirations, making them apologies for abandoning those in need.


Rio Falls Apart Down Mexico Way

- Thomas Barlow, Financial Times August 18, 2001


Taxol, the drug used in cancer treatment, was originally discovered in the bark of the Pacific yew tree, which grows in the forests of the north-west US. Curare, a constituent of the arrow poison used by Colombian and Ecuadorian Indians, has been widely used as a muscle relaxant in surgery. And Taq polymerase, which is used in DNA fingerprinting, was discovered inside a micro-organism living within the geothermal springs at the Yellowstone National Park in the US.

It is an enduring feature of human psychology that just a few key examples will generally stick in the mind and work on the imagination far more effectively than any number of statistics - so people are optimistic about playing in lotteries and pessimistic about the safety of nuclear power. But the very success of some research discoveries is now, perversely, hampering efforts to catalogue and preserve knowledge of the world's diverse biology.

Since 1992, when 140 countries meeting in Rio de Janeiro signed the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, one might have expected to see an increase in the level of collaboration between scientists of the developed and the developing worlds over the preservation, cataloguing and commercialisation of the world's biodiversity.

After all, the two main tenets of the convention were: a commitment to the conservation of biological diversity; and an aspiration to share the benefits arising from the natural biological resources of developing countries in an equitable way. But, instead, things have only become more restrictive.

In Mexico, three big plant-based research programmes involving US/UK/Mexican collaborations and worth millions of dollars have been stalled or partially stalled in recent years, despite the promise of considerable investment in Mexican training, and full profit sharing in the event of any commercial products coming out of the research.

Meanwhile in India and several other countries throughout Africa and Latin America, first world prospectors, who aspire to catalogue and collect the world's plants and animals in the hope of discovering some new, useful piece of biological chemistry, are today unable to gain permits to work.

In Colombia, the situation is so bad and suspicions run so high that one scientist based in the US, who has carried out fieldwork there for 30 years, reports that not only has he had to stop but Colombian scientists in his field have even been forbidden from collaborating with foreign researchers outside the country.

What is going on? It's almost like the cold war all over again - only this time it is north versus south, instead of east versus west. Naturally, all parties are aware of the historical tendency among scientifically sophisticated nations to exploit the resources of the scientifically naive - a walk through any of the world's great natural history museums or botanic gardens will attest to that. Even so, one would have thought that developing countries had more to gain than to lose.

Why then, you have to wonder, should this happen now, just when developed countries have begun making their most serious efforts yet to be fair about the way they pursue science in far-flung places? And why, above all, should things have suddenly become more restrictive over the past decade or so?

One explanation lies in the possibility that the very rhetoric that won the world over to the cause of conservation has engendered among the governments of some developing countries a false idea about what natural biological resources are actually worth, in commercial terms.

In the 1980s, the environmental movement tried to help its cause by looking for economic justification for conservation. At that time, few societies - especially in developing countries - seemed prepared to accept that there was an intrinsic value in preserving a rich and diverse flora and fauna. So conservationists highlighted instances where biological diversity could be linked with commercial or practical benefits.

In the light of Taxol, for instance, every tree becomes a potential cure for cancer. In the light of curare, every nation with an indigenous population suddenly owns a store of commercially invaluable knowledge. But in the light of statistics, things do not look so promising.

Take the common assumption that the biologically rich tropics are the best place to go looking for novel compounds. This seems sensible enough - one need only recall that the UK has about 1,800 plant species, compared with Peru's estimated 18,000. And yet a widespread screening programme of temperate plants conducted by the National Cancer Institute in the US between 1960 and 1982 - in the course of which an extraordinary 35,000 samples from 12,000 species were examined - only yielded two good anti-cancer drugs, one of which was Taxol.

In comparison, in the 15 years since 1986, the same organisation has embarked on an ambitious screening programme of tropical plants; the Missouri Botanical Gardens alone has collected 40,000 plants on its behalf. So far, nothing has been found that seems to have the potential to be a great drug.

As for the assumption that traditional or indigenous knowledge is a highly desirable complement to a country's biodiversity resources: there are, needless to say, some examples that suggest some truth to this - curare and aspirin, for instance. However, although high-throughput screening, by which thousands of plant extracts can now be screened in one go, is now in operation, the hit rate has hardly varied; for randomly collected plants and those collected with the aid of indigenous knowledge produce similar numbers of biologically active molecules.

Out of thousands of specimens collected in Surinam in recent years by David Kingston, professor of chemistry at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, only 3.8 per cent of plants used by local shamen showed even moderate bioactivity against yeast, compared with 2.8 per cent of randomly collected plants.

The drugs game has always been something of a lottery. Lately, though, it has also become an excuse for those who would not normally get funds to explore the earth's biodiversity for its own sake, or to record the dying ways of traditional cultures, simply because they are fundamentally interesting.

For most people, success and satisfaction in life usually involve an element of delusion; and the same no doubt is true of many scientists. They look past the burden of their weekly administrative duties; they see beyond their apathetic students; and they transcend the numbers on their meagre pay cheques in order to imagine a world where their work is more important than it really is.

Sounds sad? Now try to imagine the perverse inverse of this: being denied permission to work at all because one's work is widely thought of - by everyone else - to be more important than it really is. (Thanks to Julian Morris alerting on this article to me.....CSP)


AgBioView - Selections from the Past:

Genetically Modified Plants: Monsters or Miracles?

- Nina Fedoroff , Willaman Professor of Life Sciences Director, Life Sciences Consortium and Biotechnology Institute The Pennsylvania State University; 30 November 1999

The term GMO or genetically modified organism has recently come to designate organisms, especially plants, which have been altered by adding one or a few genes through recombinant DNA techniques. This is now often contrasted with what is called "traditional" plant breeding techniques. The use of recombinant DNA techniques, collectively termed "genetic engineering" has come to be viewed as something altogether new and different from anything that "traditional" plant breeders do. Some even see it as "unnatural" and the potential source of mutant plants that could be harmful to the environment and human health.

Oddly enough, traditional plant breeders are always on the lookout for mutants - perhaps it's worth reminding you that mutation simply means change. The short wheat plants that gave us the Green Revolution were mutants - mutants that yielded much more wheat because the plants were short and sturdy and didn't fall over and produced more seeds. Farmers around the world planted those mutants, growing more wheat than they'd ever grown and feeding more people than the world had ever contained before. These mutants gave the lie to Malthus' prediction, about a hundred years ago, that the number of people in the world would soon outstrip the food supply.

Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, had to wait for nature to toss up the right mutation. Today, using recombinant DNA technology and our expanding knowledge of plant genes, we can do it ourselves. This is like the difference between having to depend on a lightening strike for the fire to cook your evening meal and learning how to make matches to be able to make a fire when and where you want it. My point is simply that rDNA technology is another step forward on a human continuum of acquiring and using knowledge to make life easier and food more plentiful.

Now let's step back and examine the world stage on which these steps are being taken. The human population is roughly 6 billion - at least that's the official estimate as of October 12th 1999. At the beginning to the century, there were a billion and a half people on the earth. The number passed 2 billion in 1927, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, and 5 billion in 1987 - and today it's 6 billion, only seconds (on a historical time scale) after it passed the 5 billion mark. Birthrates are coming down everywhere in the world - faster than expected. That's the good news. But the bad news is that we're still adding almost 80 million people to the population every year. This means that there will be another 2 to 4 billion people on the earth before the population stops growing.

We are all increasingly aware of the fragility of our environment. Although we hardly give it a thought, agriculture itself is tremendously destructive ecologically. So we face the dilemma that we must feed a still larger population, yet become better stewards of our environment everywhere in the world. We can only succeed in doing so by knowing more and using that knowledge to make our agricultural practices less destructive and our food more nourishing. When we evaluate the risks and benefits of any particular innovation, such as the use of herbicide resistant crops, we need to evaluate them in the context of what we are already doing.

What are the risks of genetically modified plants? Well - if you're worried about the recombinant DNA techniques, it is already clear that there aren't special risks that result from using the new techniques themselves. By this time, literally billions of genetically engineered organisms have been made and there is not a single report of a monster or a mutant that's out of control. But does this mean everthing's ok and there's nothing to worry about? Not at all. What it means is that the kinds of things that we need to worry about are the kinds of things we are already having to manage. They have to do with the kind of plant and its particular characteristics. There aren't any useful generalizations here.

Let's take one familiar case. Many millions of acres, both in the US and elsewhere, have been planted with cotton that is resistant to a certain kind of major cotton pest, the cotton bollworm. People don't eat cotton plants, so there aren't any human health risks. But even for plants which people eat, adding the toxin doesn't create a health risk, it just adds a little protein - and I mean a little tiny bit - because the protein that makes them resistant is quite toxic to insects but it isn't toxic to people. The good news for the environment is that in 1998, as an example, some 2 million fewer pounds of pesticide were applied to the fields than would have had this been an ordinary cotton crop.

The genetic modification in these plants is that they contain and express an gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, aka Bt, that codes for a protein that is toxic to the cotton bollworm. What about the problem of "gene flow?" Well, genes only flow between very closely related plants, because the only way they can get out is through the pollen. But cotton pollen doesn't do a thing for other plants - only very closely related weeds and cotton doesn't have any close relatives in the US. So this isn't an issue for this kind of plant in this country.

What about loss of gene diversity or biodiversity. Concern over losing gene diversity arises because some people think that we now have lots of genetic diversity in our crop plants. We don't. We now grow the best strains on as many acres as we can. GMOs don't change this substantially. Another concern is about the loss of biodiversity. This means different things to different people, but the central concern seems to be that GMOs are so efficient at killing pests that we'll have fields that have no insects left, so the birds will starve. The reverse is true. The Bt plants kill only those insects that munch on them and only the small subset of insects that are sensitive to that particular and very specific toxin, while a broad-spectrum pesticide kills every insect in sight.

But there are risks. The Bt gene is being introduced into many crops in a very short period of time. However we may try, we can't outrun nature forever and insects resistant to the Bt toxin already began to appear simply from the use of the bacterium itself, which we've been using in agriculture and in the control of gypsy moths for many years. So the bottom line is that there are risks - they're mostly economic and none of these risks are unique to GMOs.

Jim Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, has said that this is the safest technology humans ever invented. To this I would add that it has the potential of being the most environmentally conservative way of increasing the food supply as we struggle to slow the runaway train of human population growth with the slower fixes of education and economic development.


Eat GM Food or Pay a Heavy Price: James Watson

Daily Telegraph of U.K., February 25, 1999

'As we examine the gene food furore, the scientist who launched the DNA revolution, Dr James Watson, talks to Roger Highfield about his fears'

THE father of the DNA revolution spoke this week of his fears that "Luddites" who oppose genetically modified foods and crops could make Britain's agriculture falter and its scientists flee.

Given the recent media coverage of GM food and crops, Britain had been gripped by "total hysteria", said Dr James Watson, 70, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, America's leading molecular biology institute, located on Long Island, New York.

Dr Watson, who has been a regular visitor to Britain since he discovered the structure of DNA in Cambridge half a century ago, fears the country will "go regressive" if the Government bows to a green movement that he characterises as resistant to change, fond of bans and anti-scientific. "They tend to be ideological, intolerant and uninterested in the facts. It is another form of fundamentalism."

Dr Watson said he had been dismayed by the strength of public emotion, blaming it on the green movement and the legacy of distrust left by the BSE fiasco. "If Europe rejects science in its agriculture, it will be marginalised." European nations would see their young scientists "go to the States because that is where the action is". The distinguished scientist is more than happy to eat genetically modified food: "I have absolutely no anxiety. The only person harmed so far by DNA is President Clinton. I am worried about a lot of things, but not about modified food." Dr Watson added that he was mystified by claims that organic food was of higher quality than GM food. "It is just a slogan."

Agriculturists would become more competitive as a result of GM crops and only wealthy farmers, such as the Prince of Wales, were in a position to reject them. "Your crown prince can afford to be a Luddite," said Dr Watson. "He doesn't have to be efficient. He is a rich farmer. You have to think of farmers who might suddenly go out of business because someone else can do it cheaper."

To stay competitive, said Dr Watson, British agriculture would have to adopt the most efficient methods on offer. "They have no choice when it comes to GM crops. The truth is that if something is more effective, such as pesticide-resistant GM cotton, and farmers want to use it because they want to spray less pesticide, let's do it."

The use of GM cotton "is down to an economic calculation - whether farmers want to pay a little more for the seed and less for the pesticide. Given my knowledge of pesticides, I would rather pay more for the seed." There was no evidence that GM foods caused harm, he added, making it impossible to weigh up the risks faced by anyone who ate them. "You can't say that someone is going to get sick or damaged until someone does get sick or damaged. You have to quantify risks and not just say, 'I don't like it'."

Dr Watson rejects the common argument used by environmentalists that there should be a ban on GM food because the long-term effects are unknown. "To argue that you don't know what is going to occur is true about everything in life. People wouldn't get married, have children, do anything . . . "

In America, a nation obsessed with food safety, genetically modified crops have now slipped easily into general use. There was opposition to early GM proposals in the late Seventies and early Eighties but there seems to be little now. Dr Watson does not expect the furore in Britain to reignite US fears about GM crops and food.

America had already learnt its lesson, he said. It did react strongly against biotechnology a quarter of a century ago, when biologists discovered they could genetically modify living things. After one discussion in California, known as the Asilomar meeting, scientists called their own brief moratorium. All that achieved, said Dr Watson, was to delay research on treatments for disease by four years. If the ban had continued, "it would have stopped us from understanding cancer and a whole host of things".