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December 8, 2001


Africans Debate; Blackmarket Crops; Greens Out in Cold; GM


Today's Topics in AgBioView.

* African Biotechnologists Debate GM Foods
* The Cotton, Soybean and Starlink Sagas
* Biotech May Offset Failures in War on Hunger
* Indian Govt Begins Testing on More GM Crops
* Gene Technology and Future Foods
* Greens out in Cold as Public Gives Government's GM Stand a Big Tick
* Sustainable Agriculture
* Reducing America's Dependence Could be Achieved Through GM Fuels
* Dr. Mae-Wan Ho Supports Terrorist Actions
* Harnessing the Potential of Plant-Based Biotech
* Mexicans Angered by Spread of GM Corn; Corporations Want Payment for Contamination

African Biotechnologists Debate GM Foods

- Charles Wendo, Lancet, Vol 358, No 9297; December 8, 2001


Genetically modified (GM) foods can help overcome hunger and malnutrition in Africa, but they should not be introduced hastily, biotechnologists from Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Ghana said last week. Rigorous assessment is essential to ensure that attempts to alleviate food shortages do not lead to health or environmental crises, the scientists agreed at a workshop on the communication of biotechnology to the public in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

Thomas Egwang, chairman of the National Biosafety Committee in Uganda, said that all GM foods must first be approved in their countries of origin before being exported to Africa. "If a US company comes to Uganda and says 'we want to introduce this food', yet that food has not been approved in the USA, I don't even think we should waste time discussing that application", he asserted. A plan to introduce a GM crop to an African country must be scrutinised and approved by the local council of science and technology, he noted. "We should start asking questions, not just accepting anything that comes", said Egwang. However, he also called for balance: "We should not pass a blanket judgment on GM foods. Judgment has to be done case by case depending on the component of the genetic modification."

Egwang also emphasised that African countries should harmonise legislation on GM foods and set up regional clearing houses. "If neighbouring Kenya has developed and tested a GM potato, should we go through the same process all over again? We need some organisation so that we do not duplicate", he said.

Presently, Africa remains only an importer of GM foods. In Uganda, for example, more than 80% of the population work in agriculture, but no GM crops are being developed. Uganda's National Council of Science and Technology is examining applications from the west to introduce GM food trials. Kenya is a few steps ahead and has been doing trials of an insect-resistant GM maize and a virus-resistant potato, but the new varieties have not yet been released.

Egwang said that as long as all GM food comes from the west, African consumers are likely to be suspicious. Thus, African scientists should begin developing GM crops rather than just adopting those developed in the industrialised world.

Apart from minimising suspicion, locally developed GM varieties could address specific local needs. Egwang cites GM rice that is engineered to be high in vitamin A. This crop, however, would not reverse vitamin A deficiency in Uganda because rice is not one of the country's staple foods.

Many genomes have been sequenced during the past 5 years. African scientists have not played a big part in these projects but the data are available to everyone. "The challenge is for African scientists to get this free information and exploit it to solve Africa's problems", said Egwang. He added, "As long as we don't develop technologies we are going to be hostages to multinational companies."

But the region still does not have enough scientists and equipment to develop and assess GM crops. "We don't have the capacity and that should be developed", said Tilahun Zeweldu, agriculture and biotechnology coordinator of the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organisation. Zeweldu, however, cautioned that introducing GM foods is not a matter of urgency. Africans, he said, should not jump from traditional plant breeding to genetic engineering. He said that other less controversial forms of biotechnology, such as tissue culture, should be fully exploited while the continent develops capacity for GM agriculture.

Steven Mugo, coordinator of the insecticide-resistant maize project of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, said GM food would be used to boost food security and health in Africa but is not a magic bullet. "It is a complex problem. Complex problems are never solved by simple solutions," he said. He disagreed with the view that all GM foods should be labelled. In Africa, he said, farmers sell their produce at nearby market places without packaging. Therefore, it is impractical to label all GM foods.

The scientists said all African countries should develop biosafety legislation and policy to guide the management of GM foods. "When you don't have biosafety regulations it is very dangerous to let GM foods come in", said Zeweldu. Yet, many African countries do not have the facilities or the urge to screen GM foods already on the market. In Uganda, for instance, at least five laboratories have the basic equipment for DNA analysis but none of them is tailored to detect GM foods. Egwang said governments should commission such laboratories, which would only need slight modifications to carry out GM food tests.

Beatrice Anyango, a biochemistry lecturer at the University of Nairobi, said biotechnology is a relatively new area that African scientists should eagerly explore to gain the ability to separate the good from the bad. "If we are going to use biotechnology we must as well prepare for any eventualities", she said. African scientists say that to win consumer confidence they need the means and skills to vet GM foods.

John Wafula, chairman of the Africa Biotechnology Stakeholders' Forum, said painstaking research could go to waste without proper public education. The public should be made aware of the benefits and risks, but be informed that the risks can be managed. "The activities we are involved in do not expose themselves to the public for whom we are doing it. It is important that if we say we are doing this for the people of Africa they must be aware and they must be involved", he said. He said emphasis should be placed on educating the public in Africa so that people could make decisions based on facts, which would win consumer confidence and avoid the opposition that GM foods met in Europe. Egwang said that education should begin with politicians and that African politicians know little about biotechnology, yet allocate resources and influence public opinion.


The Cotton, Soybean and Starlink Sagas

- Andrew Apel, editor, AgBiotech Reporter Vol. 18 No. 12, December 2001 http://www.bioreporter.com

As the saga of GM cotton in India stumbles toward its inevitable climax, the plot elements it has in common with the emergence of the secret trade in Brazilian GM soybeans and the US StarLink debacle are becoming increasingly obvious. Maybe not to the point of establishing a case for plagiarism, but close enough to establish a reasonable suspicion.

For three years, US farmers grew Starlink Bt maize and it was generally thought that the maize, destined for anything but food consumption, was being properly channeled. It nonetheless escaped into the food chain, eventually causing alarm.

For three years, Indian farmers grew "insect protected" cotton, not exactly knowing it expressed Bt, but knowing it greatly increased production while drastically reducing the need for herbicides. They suspected, but did not know, that this was the GM cotton that the pesticide companies had been warning them about for so long. It, too, escaped into the system, later causing alarm. In the US, it took a coalition of activist groups to point out to the public that StarLink had escaped into the food supply. In India, it took a squabble between two seed companies - one hoping eventually to sell the GM seed legally, and another allegedly selling it on the 'black market'‚ which brought the situation to light.

The delays in gaining full approval for GM cotton in India was the result of foot-dragging by the Genetic Engineering Advisory Committee (GEAC), which is said to be heavily influenced by pesticide interests and Greenpeace. Other ministries and agencies would have given the product a full go-ahead. In the US, delays for full approval of StarLink was the result of foot-dragging by the US Environmental Protection Agency, said to be heavily influenced by pesticide interests and a gaggle of environmental activist groups, including Greenpeace. Other agencies gave the product a full go-ahead.

In both countries, threats of personal harm from the products were made. In the US, there were widespread claims of allergies to StarLink, none of which our best science has been able to verity. In India, Doreen Stabinsky of Greenpeace is warning that the cotton will lead to untreatable forms of gonorrhea - presumably, through the use of cotton - containing tampons. This Greenpeace claim has perennially been dismissed with derision by all but the least credible of scientists around the world.

In the US, StarLink was pulled off the market, with scarcely a complaint from any farmer (lawsuits over alleged lost markets notwithstanding). In India, Bt cotton is being pulled off the market and farmers are on the verge of rioting. Three years of using the illegal seed (for which they paid a substantial premium) showed they could produce much more cotton, while reducing herbicide applications dramatically. They'd been shown the seeds of hope, in a country that typically produces only about half as much cotton per acre as its competitors overseas, while devoting over 40 percent of its chemical pesticides to this single crop.

A combination of foot-dragging by some Brazilian government agencies, abetted by a judicial system sympathetic to Greenpeace, has blocked approval of GM soybeans there. But farmers, seeking to get the production advantages enjoyed by neighboring Argentina, have smuggled in GM soybean seed and paid a premium for the privilege. They have done this with such alacrity that an estimated 60 percent of Brazil's soybean output is GM.

Brazilian government inspectors seeking to destroy the GM soy fields were confronted by angry farmers and their dogs or found themselves barricaded in their offices. Not even a government buy-back program could lure these farmers into giving up on the benefits of GM seed. Brazil has long since given up on its program to destroy GM soybeans and for now, Brazil contents itself with merely "declaring" GM seed "illegal."

In Europe, governmental foot-dragging over GM crops is said to be heavily influenced by the Common Agricultural Policy, the threat of cheap imports and abetted by Greenpeace and other activist groups. This has created yet another 'black market'‚ in which European importers seeking 'non-GM soy' content themselves that shipments of soybeans from Brazil can be certified 'non-GMO' because GM soybeans are "illegal" there.

There are several morals to the stories. One is that if people want a certain product, and the government won't let them have it, the people will get it in other ways. Another is that the greater the benefit of the product, the greater the clamor will be. And if the government can't identify any real good reason for denying people what they want, hypocrisy is an obvious element of the system. How might these stories end? Perhaps when the hypocrites are exposed - but that would be giving the endings away.


Biotech May Offset Failures in War on Hunger

- Southwest Farm Press via NewsEdge Corporation, Intertec Publishing Corp., A Primedia Co. December 5, 2001

Continued development of agricultural biotechnology offers hope for feeding a growing global population and finding solutions to malnutrition and poverty, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman said at the United Nations Food Conference in Rome. "Working together, we can break the crushing cycle of poverty and win the war on hunger," she told delegates from 182 nations participating in the biennial conference.

Veneman's comments constituted a note of optimism in the conference where two officials said the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's programs to reduce hunger in the world have failed. Its own statistics indicate that at the present rate of 6 million people per year rescued from malnourishment, it will take more than 60 years to reach the World Food Summit goal of a 22 million per year reduction.

Patricio Aylwin, president of Chile, in the conference's inaugural address, bluntly labeled the FAO efforts "a tragic failure," noting that "only poverty has been truly globalized in our age." FAO Director General Jacques Diouf said "the tragedy of hunger in a world of abundance and waste continues to be a troubling reality." He cited statistics that 815 million people in the world do not have access to sufficient food.

Despite the need, Aylwin pointed out, the world's richest industrialized nations have reduced their aid to developing nations from an average of .33 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 1992 to only .24 percent in 1999 -- far below the .7 percent the richer nations committed to providing in 1970.

Veneman said the U.S. is "committed to the goal of ending world poverty and hunger and will walk alongside any country prepared to travel the same path." New technologies, including biotechnology, "will help meet the challenge of feeding a growing world population from a limited resource base," she said, citing several examples, including the use of drought-resistant crop varieties in Africa, genetically enhanced cotton in South Africa, and Vitamin A-enhanced rice that could significantly reduce blindness in many countries.

"Biotechnology will also help produce vaccines against many diseases, including cholera, that could be administered through dietary staples such as rice and bananas," Veneman said. As with the war on terrorism, she noted, success in the war to eliminate world poverty and hunger "will require an international coalition, united for collective action." The secretary praised the work of the FAO in playing a critical role in trade liberalization, which she said "must be a key component of food security to assure all countries of equal access to world food supplies."

>From Rome, Veneman went to Qatar as part of a U.S. delegation to begin negotiations for the next round of the World Trade Organization negotiations. "International trade is critical to U.S. farmers and ranchers," she said. "We're optimistic that these meetings will set the stage for further reductions of tariffs (now averaging 60 percent) on our agricultural products and a stronger science-based dispute settlement process."

The Bush administration, Veneman said, has made agriculture "a top priority" for the new round of international trade talks. "For too long, agriculture has been left outside the trading rules. Over the past 50 years, tariffs on U.S. agricultural products have barely budged downward, while tariffs on manufactured goods have fallen some 90 percent."


Indian Govt Begins Testing on More Genetically Modified Crops

- Asia Pulse, Dec 7, 2001

NEW DELHI - The Indian government has begun testing for more genetically modified crops, including rice and maize. The tests are being carried out along the lines of those undertaken for the controversial Bt cotton, which is likely to be introduced for commercial use in the next cropping season. While initial trials for rice, maize, tomatto and cauliflower have just begun, the Bt cotton seeds are undergoing a final round of testing.

"The final round of testing for Bt cotton is currently on, and the results are expected by February, 2002, which should be positive, as nothing adverse has so far been found during various phases of field trials since 1997," Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh said. He said cultivation of the genetically modified cotton would be allowed in some regions if the final trials also confirm that it has no harmful impact on the environment, bio-diversity and animal and human health.

Agriculture Commissioner C.R. Hazra said the testing process for rice, maize, tomato and cauliflower have also begun. While the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) applies for GM rice testing, some private companies have sought trials for the other crops, he said, adding that it would take about 4 years to obtain the final clearance.


Gene Technology and Future Foods

- Robinson, S., Scott, N., Gackle, A. Asia Pacific J Clinical Nutrition. 9. Sup 1: S113-S118. Dec 1, 2000

Molecular biology is revolutionizing biology. agriculture and medicine. It is now possible to isolate and sequence the basic genetic material (DNA) from any organism and techniques have been developed to copy and 'cut and paste' DNA molecules to produce new combinations. This has led to the development of genetically modified (GM) plants by the targeted introduction of a small number of well-defined genes directly into the cells of an existing plant variety to improve its quality or performance.

Early efforts concentrated on major field crops. such as corn, soybeans and canola. Products from these plants, such as oil and flour, are components of many processed foods, so the rapid adoption of GM commodity crops in the United States has led to widespread appearance of GM plant material in foods. The initial traits targeted, such as herbicide tolerance and pest resistance. provide improved production efficiency with benefits for agrochemical and seed producers, farmers and the environment but little obvious benefit to consumers.

The second generation of GM plants will provide consumer benefits and will extend beyond bulk commodity crops. Genetically modified plants with improved flavour, nutritional composition and shelf life are currently being developed in a range of grains, fruits and vegetables. Genetically modified plants pose no risks for human health beyond those that we readily accept in other foods. In most developed countries. GM plants undergo thorough testing and evaluation, well beyond that required for a conventionally bred new variety, and this should ensure that the current high safety and quality of foods is maintained.


Greens out in Cold as Public Gives Government's GM Stand a Big Tick

- National Business Review, Nov 30, 2001 (Source: Rick Roush )

The New Zealand government has, according to this story, scored a hit with the public on the volatile issue of genetic modification, a new poll out today has found.

The National Business Review-Compaq poll revealed 67% of people supported the government's decision on GM, a move that opened the way for field trials of GM products but on a case-by-case basis with strict controls and monitoring. The commercial release of GM products is banned for two years. Twenty-six per cent of people opposed the government's move and 7% said it depended or were unsure. The positive answer to that question was in line with the public's response to a range of other GM questions. Overall, 26% of people said they "generally support" GM, up 10 points on the previous month, while 23% opposed GM down 13 points from October.

The shift toward a pro-GM stance continues a long-term rising trend since June 2000 when 10% of people supported GM. The story says that the long-term polling shows a blip in attitudes to GM after the royal commission's report in early August but it was temporary. That was when anti-GM activists were trying to drum up support, recruiting celebrities to front a campaign, holding marches and getting wide coverage in the media. But the apparent public enthusiasm for a so-called "GE-Free New Zealand" was short lived. In September the anti-GM lobby swelled from 33% to 42% in a month but dropped back to 36% in October - while all the other polling suggests the public is coming round to accept GM but with careful regulation and strict controls. The one consistent finding from the NBR-Compaq poll is that there is a strong desire from the public to know more about GM.


Sustainable Agriculture

- From: realkids_au@yahoo.co.uk; Posted to: biotechdebate@iatp.org; Wed, 05 Dec 2001

kindly supplied me with a reference to some work was familiar with regards to the use of Organic Agriculture as a solution to the problems of African Agriculture. Thank you for supplying this reference. Contrary to your expectations I am not about to reject this research out of hand.

I note that in fact this research is not about organic agriculture but is in fact about Sustainable Agriculture. Now the proponents of organic agriculture would like you to think theat these are the same thing. But they are not. Below you find the Essex researchers definition of Sustainable Agriculture. It differs from the definition of organic farming.

For example in the definition of sustainable agriculture you will note that there is no mention of the exclusion of genetic engineering. In contrast all organic farming bodies explicity exclude genetic engineered products.

Note also that sustainable agriculture "minimises the use of non-renewable inputs" and "aims to minimise harmful non-renewable and fossil-fuel derived inputs". By contrast organic farming encorages to use of cultivation for weed control (fossil fuels and destruction of soil structure), it encorages the use of Bt pesticides sprays (made using fossil fuels) and explicitly excludes pesticides made using solar energy (Bt crops).

Organic agriculture as it is practiced in a commercial enterprise makes no attempt to account for the sustainability of its practices as long as they fit the - this compound is allowed because it is on this list and this compound is not allowed because it is on this list. On the other hand researchers into Sustainable agriculture take a real look at the sustainability of their systems. They actually do the sums and figure out which practices are better for the environment IN PRACTICE. They are not biased by some list of compounds where it is just taken as an act of faith that these must be better for the environment.

Sustainable Agriculture can obviously make good use of some applications of genetic engineering because this technology helps achieve the aim of minimizing external inputs. And this is why anyone serious about sustainability would not exclude all forms of GE technology under all circumstances from their system of agriculture.

So sustainable agriculture yes - I agree this is definitely the solution to Africas Agricultural problems. Organic farming - no. This is most definitely not the solution.

Definition and Components of Sustainable Agriculture

.. In the first instance, a more sustainable farming seeks to make the best use of nature’s goods and services whilst not damaging the environment (Altieri, 1995, 1999; Thrupp, 1996; Conway, 1997; Pretty, 1995, 1998; Drinkwater, 1998; Tilman, 1998; Hinchliffe et al, 1999; Zhu et al, 2000; Wolfe, 2000). It does this by integrating natural processes such as nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation, soil regeneration and natural enemies of pests into food production processes. It also minimises the use of non-renewable inputs (pesticides and fertilizers) that damage the environment or harm the health of farmers and consumers. It makes better use of the knowledge and skills of farmers, so improving their self-reliance. And it seeks to make productive use of social capital - people’s capacities to work together to solve common management problems, such as pest, watershed, irrigation, forest and credit management

Sustainable agriculture is also multi-functional within landscapes and economies – it jointly produces food and other goods for farm families and markets, but it also contributes to a range of public goods, such as clean water, wildlife, carbon sequestration in soils, flood protection, landscape quality. It delivers many unique non-food functions that cannot be produced by other sectors (eg on-farm biodiversity, groundwater recharge, urban to rural migration, social cohesion).

Sustainable agriculture is, therefore, defined as agricultural technologies and practices that maximise the productivity of the land whilst seeking to minimise damage both to valued natural assets (soils, water, air, and biodiversity) and to human health (farmers and other rural people, and consumers). It focuses upon regenerative and resource-conserving technologies, and aims to minimise harmful non-renewable and fossil-fuel derived inputs in the short-term and eliminate them in the long-term.

As sustainable agriculture seeks to make the best use of nature’s goods and services, so the technologies and practices must be locally-adapted. They emerge from new configurations of social capital (relations of trust embodied in new social organisations, and new horizontal and vertical partnerships between institutions) and human capital (leadership, ingenuity, management skills and knowledge, capacity to experiment and innovate). Agricultural systems with high social and human capital are able to innovate in the face of uncertainty.


Reducing America's Dependence Could be Achieved Through Genetically Engineered Fuels

- The Associated Press, December 3, 2001 http://pewagbiotech.org/newsroom/summaries/display.php3?NewsID=51

Farmers could benefit from the heightened attention now being paid to security issues following the events of September 11th which have given rise to renewed government attention in developing fuels from crops, reports the Associated Press.

In an effort to create new subsidies and markets for the production for ethanol and other biofuels, farm groups are trying to use a reauthorization of farm programs and a pending energy bill to push the issue. Saying biofuels are the "fuels of our future," President Bush last week and linked their production to national security. "These fuels are made right here in America, so they can't be threatened by any foreign power," Bush said.

Former CIA Director James Woolsey, speaking to the same agribusiness group as the president, noted that new methods of turning range grass, crop stubble and even common garbage into ethanol through the use of genetically engineered catalysts could replace 30 percent of the gasoline now used. Ethanol is now made principally from corn, a much more expensive feedstock, and used primarily as a gasoline additive; it is subsidized by the federal government through a tax break, as is biodiesel, a product of soybeans.

"North America is to farms what Saudi Arabia is to oil," said Woolsey, who is on the board of a company that is developing the new enzymes for making ethanol from crops. "We have an opportunity to have a huge impact on our own national security."

John McClelland, a policy analyst with the National Corn Growers Association, said the Sept. 11 attacks added "urgency to this whole issue of energy security." A farm bill waiting action in the Senate would provide more than $100 million a year in new subsidies for bioenergy development. Some $75 million over five years is set aside for construction of new refineries for production of crop-based fuels. Also in the bill is a requirement that federal agencies purchase biofuels whenever they are found to be comparable in price, performance and availability to fossil fuels.

The General Accounting Office said this year that federal agencies have done little to switch to alternative fuels. The Agriculture Department was cited for being slow to publish a list of biobased products for agencies to consider buying. The department is trying biodiesel, a derivative of soybeans, in about 800 of its vehicles, including some boats, and has switched an additional 700 gasoline vehicles to an ethanol blend.

John Frydenlund, a farm policy analyst with the conservative Center for International Food and Agriculture Policy, said the government should leave it to private industry to develop new fuels without federal assistance. "If it's going to be worth doing, it will happen; it won't need to have the government subsidize it," he said. "What happens with any of these programs is that you get a subsidy program in place and it exists forever."

It costs as little as $5 a barrel to pump oil out of the ground in Saudi Arabia and ship it to the United States, about $15 less than it costs to produce it in Alaska, said Duane Chapman, an energy economist at Cornell University. Producing ethanol from corn costs as much as $40 a barrel. Nonetheless, Chapman said that the government should "encourage the slow, practical growth" of alternative fuels even if they will have no significant impact for many years. The continued reliance upon low-cost oil from abroad "carries with it both environmental and political difficulties," he said.


Dr. Mae-Wan Ho Supports Terrorist Action

- From: "Roger & Carolyn Morton"
Support Petition for Release of Bove Now!

Science is in crisis all over the world. Science and scientists supported by the public are being corrupted to act as agents of corporate oppression. They are promoting technologies that not only turn people into slaves and indentured labourers for the corporations, but at the same time, imperil the earth and all its inhabitants. Independent science and scientists who want to tell the truth and to work for the benefit of society are being marginalised and victimised.

Jose Bove and Dominique Soulier have done us all a great service for their courageous act in exposing the corruption. It will be a crime against humanity to sentence them to imprisonment. To the world at large, the guilty ones are the perpetrators of GM crops, the politicians who allow that to happen, and those who pass sentence on responsible citizens like Bove and Soulier.

I am signing the petition for the release of Jose Bove on behalf of my Institute.
- Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Institute of Science in Society United Kingdom

How come Dominique Soulier does not get ISIS to sign for him too? ??


Harnessing the Potential of Plant-Based Biotech

- Vicki Brower, Genetic Engineering News, vol 21, no. 21. Dec 2001. p 40 &71

'Edible Vaccination, Enhanced Nutrition & Reduced Pesticide Use Being Pursued'

Scientists at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia are developing a plant-based, edible vaccines for HIV and hepatitis B which could be grown and eaten in developing countries to fight infectious diseases. Plant-based vaccines represent the way of the future primarily because of two considerations - cost and safety," according to Alexander Karasev, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology at Jefferson, who described his team's progress at the recent American Medical Association briefing on food biotechnology held in New York City.
"Plants are the safest vaccine delivery vehicle imaginable," he said. "When fully developed, plant-based vaccines will be much less expensive than current vaccines." One person's full immunization against hepatitis B can cost as much as $450, but future plant-based vaccines will cost a fraction of that and will therefore be available to many more people, Karasev added.
Interestingly, Karasev observed that plant-based vaccines are viewed more like prescription drugs than foods, and thereby have received much less criticism from anti-biotechnology groups. "When people think about drugs, they are less concerned about genetic manipulation, and their main concern is whether or not it works," Karasev observed. The public's concern about biotechnology and the industry's response to these concerns were the driving force behind the AMA briefing. Bringing facts to the public to override negative misconceptions and lack of information about agricultural biotechnology provided the day-long meeting its focus.

Edible Vaccines
Under the leadership of Hillary Koprowski, MD, Karasev and colleagues are using spinach, lettuce and soybeans to develop edible vaccines that can be delivered in an extremely cost-effective manner. Using the tat protein, which is a potential target for a broad, subtype-nonspecific HIV-1 vaccine suitable for the harsh conditions of Africa, the group assembled the full-length tat gene of the MN strain of HIV-1 using synthetic primers and cloned it into a tobacco mosaic virus (TMV)-based vector. This enabled the tat protein to be expressed in plants. They designed several constructs expressing either the tat protein alone or as fusions with different stabilizing tags or plan virus capsid proteins used as carriers.

"The chimeric TMV-derived constructs replicated successfully in inoculated leaves of Nicotania benthamiana and spinach. When expressed alone, the tat protein gene caused mild or no symptoms in N. benthamiana, and no symptoms in spinach," Karasev said. "When the team fused to plant virus capsid proteins, gene constructs containing the tat protein caused stunting of the N. benthamiana plants, leaf curling and mosaic, but only mild yellowing in spinach leaves," he added. The yield of tat protein expressed in both plants was estimated to top 300mcg of extractable protein per 1g of leaf tissue. The plant-expressed tat protein fully retained immunological reactivity against tat-specific monoclonal antibodies. The technology is easily scaleable and inexpensive, and can be used when the appropriate genes are determined to confer immunity to HIV, added Dr. Karasev.
Karasev's group has also cloned the gene used in the recombinant hepatitis B vaccine into the lettuce genome using traditional transgenic plant generation methods. The vaccine currently used costs about $150 for each of the four necessary doses, he said. They fed the plant vaccine to a group of volunteers in Poland, who showed a good immunization boost response after the initial application of the lettuce. This vaccine is about 2-3 years from full development. The group is also developing a rabies vaccine using spinach; study participants, who ate about 150 gm of spinach, have shown a good response to three doses of the vaccine - good antibody response. The rabies vaccine should be fully developed in the next 2-4 years and is needed especially in India, he said. The current vaccine is only used in post-exposure cases.

Feeding the Hungry
Food itself - or the lack of it -- is still a big issue in developing nations, said Channapatna Prakash, Ph.D., professor of plant molecular genetics and director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University (Tuskegee, AL) and a leader in the development of transgenic sweet potatoes and the genetic map of the peanut. He stressed in his presentation that biotechnology offers a way out of hunger in the developing world that is so widespread. "Each night, 774 million people go to bed hungry, and almost 30,000 - about half of them children - die each day to due hunger-related causes," said Dr. Prakash.

"By 2020, the number of sub-Saharan residents, where much of world hunger is found, is expected to increase greatly, he added. In the next 50 years, the outlook for feeding projected 9 billion world inhabitants without allowing for additional imports of food, Africa will have to increase its food production by 300%, Latin America by 80% and Asia by 70%," Dr. Prakash said. Even North America will have to increase food production by 30% to feed its projected population of 348 million.

Over the past 20 years, food consumption increased per capita everywhere except in Africa. (One example of a nation that has seen benefits of food biotechnology and more food self-sufficiency is India, where food production rose from 50 to 205 million tons in the past 50 years). Food shortage in some African nations is caused by limited resources, low agricultural productivity, a growing population, and low purchasing power, among other factors. "Focusing just on low productivity, one answer is biotechnology, as conventional plant improvement methods are reaching their limits," Dr. Prakash said. Genetic modifications, on the other hand, can increase protein and other nutrient content, produce greater yields with less natural resources and few chemicals, extend crop area and season, improve shelf-life, and improve stress-tolerance (to drought, soil acidity, salinity, heat and flooding).

Prakash's own team recently enhanced the protein content of crops several fold through genetic modification. Bt corn, widely used in the US, produces its own protection against the corn borer, and research is ongoing with sweet potatoes to protect them from against viruses, and on rice, beans, cassava and other staple foods for enhanced natural tolerance to diseases, pests and physical stresses. Another example of promising food crop modifications in development include "golden rice," with increased levels of vitamin A to prevent and treat deficiency and accompanying blindness, which befalls 500,000 children each year, with another 200-400 at risk.

Improving Food, Cutting Costs in the Developed World
Researchers are using the same genomic tools as used in the Human Genome Project to enhance and enrich crops also for industrialized countries with value-added micronutrients, including phenolics, phytoestrogens, flavenoids and carotenoids to prevent diseases of aging, and macronutrients such as increasing lysine in grain for those who do not consume meat, said Martina McGloughlin, director of the Biotechnology Program at the University of California at Davis.
Davis scientists are also working to transfer a-amylase, a human milk protein, to rice, and conversely, to eliminate antinutrients which interfere with the availability of and/or absorption of nutrients, such as phytate. This is found in animal fee and makes supplementation of phosphorus, zinc and iron necessary; however, phosphorus supplementation causes environmental pollution. Researchers are introducing a gene into corn for animal feed that breaks down phytate so that the feed doesn't need supplementation.

Modifying crops means safety issues must be re-examined with respect to allergies, said Steve Taylor, Ph.D., head of the department of food science and technology at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Rather than causing more concern for added allergens, Taylor predicted that "in the long term, we will have foods that are less hazardous because biotechnology will have eliminated or reduced their allergenicity." Chances of creating new "designer" foods with more allergenicity are actually quite slim because of what is understood about allergens in food.

"There are about 50-100 known allergenic proteins in foods, and most allergenic foods contain more than one allergenic protein," he said. "We have to date identified half of the major allergens that exist in allergenic foods but many of the unidentified food allergens are likely to be similar to already-identified allergens from other foods. Research is underway to reduce allergenicity of known allergens, and it is unlikely that researchers would insert a gene for a known allergen into a food, he added. "There are good ways of predicting the potential allergenicity of a genetically modified food, and these methods are under discussion worldwide, with some agreements being reached to approaches to be taken," Taylor said.

One example of the safety-net being cast in developing genetically modified foods is the development of a higher-protein Brazil nut a few years ago. Researchers discovered that the very protein being transferred to these nuts was the one that causes an allergic reaction by some to this nut type. The project was discontinued.

Finally, preliminary results of a new study to be released in December indicated in dollars and cents that agricultural biotech has already saved money and reduced pesticide use in 30 crops, said Leonard Gianessi, Ph.D., of the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP) and an author of the upcoming report. The NCFAP, a nongovernmental organization that provides research and educational information on issues related to US and global agricultural policy, includes 44 case studies on a range of crops including corn, cotton, soybeans, and papaya.

Genetically engineered, herbicide-tolerant soybeans grown in 30 states have lowered growers' annual costs by $15 per acre to date, which translates into $735 million across 49 million acres, Gianessi said. This Monsanto product, Roundup Ready, requires that only one herbicide be used, rather than multiple chemicals, because over 30 plant species can infect soybean crops. "By the 1970s, 70 weed control herbicides were registered). If Roundup Ready soybeans were not available, growers would increase production costs by $12 per acre in Illinois, $23 per acre in NY, $33 per acre in South Dakota, and $14 per acre in Mississippi.

Similarly, for Bt corn which was introduced in the US five years ago, three major cotton pests have been controlled, obviating the need to spray crops with insecticides. In 12 of 16 reporting states, yield losses due to Bt target pests have declined. In the six states studied, there were dramatic reductions in the use of pesticides, of yield losses, and in insect c ontrol costs. Overall, for insect-resistant US cotton, production increased by 260 lbs per year, pesticide use declined by 2.7 million lbs per year, and revenues increased by $99 million per year.

Gianessi also described how the papaya industry in Hawaii was saved by engineering a papaya ringspot virus-(PRSV)resistant fruit, which escaped the virus; it had infected 50 % of acreage in 1992 and by 1995, had halved the state's production. Researchers inserted a PRSV viral coat gene into an elite papaya cultivar and developed two new varieties with resistance to the virus. In May 1998, virus-resistant seed was distributed for free to growers, and by last year, about 53% of acreage planted with one of the viral-resistant cultivars. In one year, statewide production increased by 33%.


Mexicans Angered by Spread of Genetically Modified Corn; Corporations Want Payment for Contamination

- The Associated Press, December 5, 2001

Mexico City - In a cautionary tale about the difficulty of controlling genetically modified plants, researchers in Mexico _ the birthplace of corn _ went ever higher into remote mountain villages looking for completely natural varieties of the 4000-year-old crop.

Time after time, they couldn't find them. Sample after sample revealed that just a few years of unlabeled U.S. imports had transferred genetically engineered traits to local corn in the southern state of Oaxaca. The discovery, confirmed in an article last week (Nov. 29) in the science magazine Nature, caused outrage in Mexico, where the vegetable's lofty status is reflected in ancient murals that depict the first human being springing from an ear of corn.

"It's a worse attack on our culture than if they had torn down the cathedral of Oaxaca and built a McDonald's over it,'' said Green Peace activist Hector Magallone. The case has also drawn international attention. In an open letter, 80 scientists from a dozen countries asked the Mexican government to stop the genetic contamination.

There is no evidence that genetically modified grains affect the health of those who eat them. But scientists who oppose them worry more about the possibility that genetically modified strains could displace or contaminate Mexico's genetic warehouse of over 60 corn varieties _ a wealth that enriches staple crops across the world, and includes varieties that have yet to even be catalogued.

U.S. grain growers _ who export about 6.2 million tons of corn to Mexico annually, perhaps one-fourth of it genetically modified _ not only aren't worried by the contamination: they want to charge Mexican farmers for it. "If a locally occurring variety receives some improvement from genetically engineered crops, it's up to the courts to decide whether farmers should be made to pay for that,'' said Ricardo Celma, head of the U.S. Grain Council's Mexico office. "But we want the patent rights of the owners of that genetic modification to be honored.''

Mexican activists see the situation differently. Greenpeace lawyer Maria Colin said her group is considering suing the companies, or the government, for damages. Greenpeace called for an immediate ban on imports of genetically modified corn, and simultaneous support for natural varieties.

Researchers from Oaxaca's Uzachi agricultural research center weren't looking for genetically modified corn when they went to the Zapotec Indian village of Calpulalpan in late November 2000. They went to the area high in the Sierra Norte mountains because they were sure it was remote enough to offer pure locally occurring hybrids that would serve as a 'control sample' for a project to produce natural, organic corn.

But researcher Francisco Chapela recalls that when they analyzed the sample, it contained a genetic "switch'' commonly used in genetically engineered plants. "At first we thought our equipment was malfunctioning, that it wasn't possible,'' Chapela said. "Then, we thought, 'Okay, maybe this field had some problems, we'll go to another one farther back in the mountains.'''

But even in the hamlet of Trinidad, about three hours from the state capital of Oaxaca, they found genetic alterations. After testing six samples in all, they finally found two fields that did not contain traces of modification. That was no reason to cheer. The mountains of Oaxaca are far removed from the big commercial farms of northern Mexico, where contamination may be much worse, Chapela said.

Planting genetically modified crops has been banned in Mexico since 1998. Officials of Mexico's Agriculture Department said there were no plans to halt imports, or demand labeling of genetically modified corn, a step U.S. exporters say would raise costs significantly. On Dec. 7, Australia is set to impose labeling requirements on genetically modified food products. Japan already has such limits in place.

In Europe, the European Union has banned new imports of genetically modified foods since 1998, and is considering strict labelling procedures. It is unclear how the genetically modified varieties got a foothold in Oaxaca. Samples showed altered strains in a government food distribution program, meaning that local residents may have planted some kernels that were intended only for consumption.

"It could have been accidental,'' Chapela said. "Or somebody may have seen it in a rural store and said, 'That's a pretty kernel, I think I'll plant it.' It has no warning label. Either way, this shows how negligent authorities were to import this without labels.''