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December 22, 2001


No Wandering Transgenes in Mexico; Not 'Contamination',


Today in AgBioView - Weekend II

* Doubts Linger Over Mexican Corn Analysis
* Transgenes in Mexican Maize
* Positive Impacts of Crop Biotech Outlined at Entomology Meeting
* India: Centre Urged to Clear Bt Cotton Seeds Soon
* Biotech Gap Between North and South
* Biotechnology, Bioethics and the Poor
* Six Billion and Counting
* Int. Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources

Doubts Linger Over Mexican Corn Analysis

- John Hodgson, Nature Biotechnology, Jan 2002, Vol 20, No 1, pp 3 - 4

Research at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT; El Batan, Mexico) has cast some doubt on controversial earlier reports that DNA from genetically modified maize has been transferred to local varieties in Mexico. Although the earlier work describes the apparently widespread occurrence of the 35S promoter from cauliflower mosaic virus in locally developed maize varieties, the CIMMYT study could not detect the 35S promoter, either in historical accessions from its extensive seedbank or in samples collected recently from the field in Mexico.

The CIMMYT findings appear to be at odds both with work from Mexican government researchers announced in September and a study published in November 2001 in Nature (414, 541–543). The Mexican government research, which is supported by the National Commission of Biodiversity but which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggested that transgenes are present in creole maize from many sites around Mexico. The Nature paper reported that transgenic DNA constructs—the 35S promoter together with, in two cases, sequences from an alcohol dehydrogenase gene—had been found in a number of creole maize varieties in two remote mountain locations in Mexico. Subsequently, both authors of the paper, David Quist and Ignacio Chapela of the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California (Berkeley, CA), were reported widely in the general media, drawing attention to "risks to food security" and threats to "the genetic bank account of diversity." Environmentalist groups such as Greenpeace

CIMMYT's research was in part a defensive move. The center maintains an extensive maize seedbank and supplies seeds on demand to research institutions and extension services around the developing world. "We needed to be able to reassure our users that transgenes were not running rampant through the seedbank," says David Hoisington, director of CIMMYT's Applied Biotechnology Center, "and we have shown that." Their initial results, reported in mid-October (http://www.cimmyt.org/whatiscimmyt/init_test.htm), could not find the 35S promoter in any of 28 maize populations in its seedbank. They looked at 30 plants from each population. In a second phase, the CIMMYT researchers are looking for herbicide-resistance transgenes and, importantly, have started to examine materials that have been collected recently (1999 and 2001) from farmers' fields in Oaxaca, the state where Quist and Chapela collected their materials.

Those studies conflict with some unreported work by the Berkeley group: the Berkeley researchers used a CIMMYT maize sample gathered in 1971 from Oaxaca as a negative control in their experiments. The Nature paper reports that the original 1971 material was free of the cauliflower mosaic virus promoter but, according to Chapela, seeds grown from that original material in the mid- to late 1990s were not: "When we looked at later regenerations of the same material, we picked up CMV."

One way to start resolving the conflicts would be for the various groups to share samples. CIMMYT's recommendation to the Mexican government, for instance, has been that they have several different and independent laboratories perform a parallel analysis of the samples. "If they all see the same thing," says David Hoisington, "then you can be more sure that there is really something there. He points out that the sensitive nested PCR technique used by the Berkeley researchers is prone to false positives. Thus far, however, the exchanges between the research groups have been frosty. Tim Reeves, director-general of CIMMYT, faxed a letter to Ignacio Chapela on November 16 suggesting an exchange of experimental materials and has so far received no response. Chapela says he is willing to allow others to use his material but maintains that he has not received the CIMMYT request. He has, though, he says, received a letter from CIMMYT that in effect accuses him of stealing the material that he used as the negative c

Meanwhile, the agbiotech community is astounded that a leading journal such as Nature published a study containing no new information. "The paper shows, in essence, that genes move around in nature, and this is hardly new," says Vivian Moses, chair of the CropGen Panel, an agbio industry–funded information initiative. Val Giddings, the agricultural biotechnology spokesperson for the US industry organization, BIO (Washington, DC), also believes the paper's finding were obvious: "Should we be shocked to discover gambling in a casino?" he says.

It is not just industry representatives who believe that the Berkeley findings are unsurprising. "Maize is an outcrossing species," says CIMMYT's Reeves, "and the farmers' varieties today are not the same as they were two years ago, let alone a hundred or a thousand years ago." Extensive work at CIMMYT has shown that the creole maize varieties planted by small farmers in Mexico are constantly changing, both as a result of the biology of the plant and traditional practices of the farmers. In areas such as Oaxaca, which is at the center of maize diversity, a land race is not stable, uniform, or distinct like a plant variety. CIMMYT's sociological studies have shown that farmers deliberately use external sources of seed to maintain vigor. "Gene flow is constant," says Reeves, "and the real question is whether it makes any difference if one of the genes that has flowed in is a transgene."

This is the major point of divergence in the current discussion. The Berkeley researchers have claimed that appearance of DNA from GM crops into creole maize compromises biodiversity. "If the transgene makes the carrier any more fit," says Chapela, "you would expect to see the crowding out of land races that do not carry the trait." He maintains not only that herbicide and insect resistance can increase fitness, but also that there is some evidence that DNA from transgenic plants is itself particularly promiscuous. "It is the loss of diversity that is of concern," he says, "rather than the appearance of any particular trait.

Luis Herrera Estrella, Director of CINVESTAV-IPN (Irapuato), Mexico's leading center for plant biotechnology, has pointed out that the Nature paper provides no experimental evidence of negative effects on biodiversity. To assess any threat to biodiversity, the researchers would have had to identify the phenotype of the maize they collected, something they did not do. He, too, argues that the presence of one or two new genes in the creole maize varieties would be unlikely to cause their disappearance.

Val Giddings agrees: "The most likely traits, if the material comes from commercial GM maize, would be herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. What would be the likely selective fate of those in the land races? At worst, the impact would be likely to be neutral. It's hard to see how protection against a pest would be negative, while herbicide resistance traits could only be neutral, in the absence of the herbicide."

"We know what threatens biodiversity," says Giddings, "and it is not the substitution of one variety for another in an agricultural field. It is the conversion of native and wild land to agriculture in the first place." He argues, therefore, that given its demonstrable influence in improving yields, improving agronomic performance and decreasing agricultural footprints, that biotechnology is combating the threat to biodiversity—"precisely 180 degrees around from what Quist and Chapela have proposed."


Transgenes in Mexican Maize

- Nature Biotechnology, Jan 2002, Vol 20, No 1, pp p 19

Juan Pablo Ricardo Martínez-Soriano1, Ana María Bailey1, Joel Lara-Reyna2 & Diana Sara Leal-Klevezas3 (1. Unidad de Biotecnología e Ingeniería Genética de Plantas, Centro de Investigación y Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Apartado Postal 629, 36500 Irapuato, Gto, México e-mail: jpms@ira.cinvestav.mx; 2. Instituto de Fitosanidad,Colegio de Postgraduados,Montecillo, Edo de México, México; 3. Secretaría de Salud de Guanajuato, Tamazuca 4 Centro, Guanajuato, Gto., México)

To the editor

Genetic flow between transgenic and native maize has apparently occurred in Mexico 1, resulting in wild strains containing one or more transgenic sequences (most likely encoding Bt toxin). These "transgenic" native maizes not only have every single trait that has been selected and preserved for thousands of years (making them perfectly adapted to specific geographic regions), but now also possess an additional and desirable characteristic—insect resistance, a trait likely to be consciously preferred by Mexican peasant farmers. Diversity will not be affected. On the contrary, we can predict that this useful transgene will be found in increasing numbers and types of native maizes.

We believe it is important to stress this is not genetic contamination! Contamination means unexpected, undesirable, and uncontrollable spread; that is not happening. The spread will be induced because of the advantage of having a native corn with resistance to insects.

Maize is so dependent on human intervention that it cannot survive in the wild. Maize seeds are attached to a cob and cannot free themselves: it absolutely requires human intervention. As maize was first domesticated more than 6,000 years ago, only genes and alleles that are important for humans have been selected and preserved.

Still, if someone wants to remove the transgene from these plants, the procedure would be simple: select and multiply those susceptible maizes and do not harvest and multiply the insect-resistant ones. That is something no Mexican farmer will do.

Teosintes, ancestors and close relatives of corn, do not seem to be affected by genetic flow from (any) maize. Teosintes growing naturally in cornfields yield a very poor hybrid progeny. They do not release their seeds, and therefore the probability is very low for natural genetic introgression (incorporation of a gene or allele in a population) into teosintes. We also have found that teosintes are highly susceptible to insects and pathogens when growing under more intensive experimental field conditions, but they appear to be resistant to them when growing naturally in the wild.

Thus we conclude that even if the Bt transgene could be introgressed into teosintes, it will provide no biological advantage and thus would be lost by natural evolution. To reiterate 2, there is no need for concern.


From: Andrew Apel
Re: teosinte

Sure sparked some interest here on the maize/teosinte issue. Perhaps someone issue a press release: "Teosinte Threatens Maize Biodiversity: Campaigners Demand Teosinte Eradication Program."

>From: "Wayne Parrott"
>Actually, most teosintes will not produce seed when pollinated with
>corn pollen. In contrast, corn will produce fertile seed if
>pollinated with teosinte pollen (and the teosinte pollen does not
>have to compete against corn pollen). Thus, the ability of teosinte

Positive Impacts of Crop Biotechnology Outlined at Entomology Meeting

- Julianne Johnston, AgWeb, Dec 13, 2001 http://www.agweb.com/news_show_news_article.asp?file=AgNewsArticle_20011213728_412&articleID=82298&newscat=GN

At the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting, being held in San Diego, California this week, researchers identified major factors determining impacts of biotechnology-derived corn and cotton on the environment and grower choice.

New data was presented by six scientists, demonstrating the following key points:

* By selecting specific protein structures, scientists successfully target economically important insects. These specific structures explain why the proteins inserted into biotechnology-derived corn and cotton are toxic to the insects they are intended to control and are not toxic to beneficial insects or people.

* Beneficial insect populations in fields of untreated non-biotech and biotechnology-derived corn and cotton were not different in number or type. Beneficial insect populations in fields of biotechnology-derived corn and cotton were more abundant than in fields treated with insecticides even during periods of low infestation.

* Two varieties of biotechnology-derived corn (Mon 810 and BT11), which will continue to be commercially available in the U.S. in 2002 produce yields equal to or greater than conventional corn varieties in 98% of the fields tested during the 2000 planting season. At an average value of $2 per bushel, growers planting biotechnology-derived corn experienced a gain of $26.30 per acre.

* The rapid adoption of biotechnology-derived cotton in the U.S. has been attributed to a need to control insects when older control strategies were no longer effective in large regions of the cotton belt and the availability of biotechnology-derived cotton varieties containing both insect protection and herbicide tolerance properties.

* New data on monitoring the early development of insect resistance to biotechnology-derived crops will assist in delaying or preventing wide-scale resistance development, which would eliminate the efficacy of insect-protected biotechnology crops.

Presenters included, Brian A. Federici, Ph.D. - University of California, Riverside, California; David J. Ellar, Sc.D. - University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom; Scott D. Stewart, Ph.D. - Mississippi State University; Marlin E. Rice, Ph.D. - Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa; Bruce Tabashnik, Ph.D. - University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona; David J. Moar, Ph.D. - Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.


India: Centre Urged to Clear Bt Cotton Seeds Soon

Times of India, December 21, 2001 (Via http://www.agbios.com)

Gujarat Government on Friday said that it was in favour of earliest clearance for Bt cotton crop so that it could be released commercially for the benefit of the farmers in the state. "The state wants that all formalities including scientific tests be done within the shortest possible time so that the crop can be legally introduced throughout the state and production can be enhanced," Gujarat Agriculture Minister Parsottam Rupala said.

He said the genetically modified seed was yet to be approved by the Centre, but sowing experience in Gujarat shows that the seeds are not harmful, on the contrary the yield is high and they are pest resistant. Rupala said it was the Bt cotton seed which ensured that the state`s crop did not fail this year on the whole.

While the non genetically modified crop was devoured by the American Bollworm, it was the farms which used the Bt cotton seed which remained unaffected. In fact it was this attack of the bollworm which affected some farms even as the others remained immune which led to the discovery that transgenic seeds had been introduced without prior permission, he added.
The Bt seeds were in use since the last two years, something which would not have been publicly known till now but for the pest attack this year, he said.


Biotech Gap Between North and South

-Jorge A. Huete-Pérez,David A. Orozco, Science, 294, 2289 (2001)

, Center for International Development,Harvard University; Department of Research and Development,University of Central America, Managua, Nicaragua

In the past few years, we have heard a great deal about the uses of biotechnology and how new technologies can improve health and agriculture in developing countries. It is clear that there is an urgent need for biotechnology research and training in many of these nations. In their Viewpoint article "Harnessing genomics and biotechnology to improve global health equity" (special issue on Unlocking Biology's Storehouse, 5 Oct., p. 87), P. A. Singer and A. S. Daar highlighted a number of important factors necessary for biotechnology growth. It should be added, however, that in order for these new technologies to make a long-lasting contribution, the role of government cannot be left out.

At the Program in Science, Technology and Innovation of Harvard University (1), we have been analyzing strategies used by developing nations to build their strength in biotechnology. Our research has identified local government commitment to innovation as the major common element for success. This commitment is manifested not only in the form of financial instruments (research grants and tax incentives) but, more importantly, as a policy of human resource development. Countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and India have integrated biotechnology research as part of a comprehensive local development plan, creating the necessary critical mass of scientists and technical personnel for their nascent biotechnology industries. This model, however, requires a significant initial investment, and thus could only be relevant for the larger, more prosperous developing countries with greater research capacity.

Of particular concern, however, are less developed nations with extremely limited financial resources, such as the Central American countries, which are facing serious economic constraints and a human development index in the range of 150 to 152 (2) (countries are ranked from 1 to 162 on the basis of life expectancy, educational attainment, and adjusted real income). For illustration, according to the World Bank, Nicaragua's 1998 gross national product was just over $1 billion, which is very little to supply the needs of a country of more than 4.5 million people. As a result, Nicaragua's university system receives only a meager fraction of the national budget and cannot afford the cost of high-level molecular biological and biochemical equipment. One pertinent question that emerges is whether biotechnology methods are sustainable in the more severely under-developed countries without continuous outside technical and material support.

An alternative approach for these struggling nations could be the establishment of direct links to international biotechnology firms and the creation of regional biotechnology initiatives. One example is the initiative of the University of Central America (UCA, Nicaragua) in partnership with the University of Florida, Gainesville (3), and also its initiative developed in collaboration with the Competitiveness Program of Harvard University, which aims to transfer biotechnology expertise through Inter-University Centers in various countries. The program is based on the idea that biotechnology research and development is a fundamental factor for economic growth in the Central American region (4). These university-industry partnerships, coupled with governmental commitment to scientific expansion, could begin to close the technological and economic gaps between the North and the South.

References and Notes
1. http://www.cid.harvard.edu/cidtech
2. Human Development Report, 2001 (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 2001). Available at http://www.undp.org/hdro
3. http://www.biotech.ufl.edu/btopsite/pages/btoptext.html
4. http://www.cid.harvard.edu/andes

We agree. The role of government is important. In relation to the strategy we describe in our Viewpoint article, government would be a key focus of the research in the country case studies, a crucial participant in consensus building and capacity strengthening, a potential investor in the fund, and the key receiver of public input.

- Peter A. Singer,* Abdallah S. Daar, Department of Medicine,, University of Toronto,
Toronto, Ontario M5G-1L4, Canada. < peter.singer@utoronto.ca, a.daar@utoronto.ca>


Biotechnology, Bioethics and the Poor

Minakshi Bhardwaj, Electronic Journal of Biotechnology, http://ejb.org/content/vol4/issue3/issues/04/index.html
Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba Japan

Convention on Biological Diversity describes biotechnology as "any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use" (UNEP, 1992). There is a wide array of biotechnologies and its different techniques and applications have provided various goods at different times. Considering the definition under CBD, we can regard using biotechnology dating back when humans started using yeast for making bread or using lacto bacillus for yogurt or curd. We are dependent on biotechnology in our everyday life and it has become inevitable to not to use it. <..cut..>

Conclusions. Ethical issues of biotechnology are not limited to the issues discussed in this paper. We need to examine our own judgment before we apply ethical principles in any aspect of life. How to balance our own interests with the interests of the society in which we live and share the fruits of the knowledge and expertise? Bioethics gives value to everything, either intrinsic or extrinsic. When we apply bioethical principles to biotechnology, the greatest challenge for humankind is to accredit value of food, value of human health and well being, value of oneself and community, most importantly value of nature and natural resources.


Six Billion and Counting
Population and Food Security in the 21st Century By Klaus M. Leisinger, Karin M. Schmitt, and Rajul Pandya-Lorch


180 pages / Forthcoming; $14.95 paperback / ISBN 0-89629-705-5; Distributed by Johns Hopkins University Press.

ABOUT THIS BOOK: In 1999 global population surpassed 6 billion people, and this number rises by about 70-80 million people each year. Six Billion and Counting examines the consequences of continuing population growth for the world's resource systems and for national and global food security.

Leisinger, Schmitt, and Pandya-Lorch offer here a sober analysis of a complex and alarming situation. They assess the progress the world has made in controlling population growth and point to the areas where future difficulties will lie. They describe the effects of rapid population growth on social and economic conditions and on natural resources, and they consider what population growth will mean for the food security of poor people and poor countries. In addition, the authors make clear how the roles of women and children in traditional societies affect birth rates.

Six Billion and Counting shows that neither the population pessimists, who predict a catastrophic exhaustion of natural resources, nor the population optimists, who foresee technological solutions for all of the problems raised by population growth, offer the most useful approach to this problem. Instead, Leisinger and his coauthors argue that new technologies mitigating the harmful effects of rapid population growth can give the world valuable time to take the complex and multifaceted steps needed to reduce population growth rates to sustainable levels.

"Population growth has recently been overshadowed by other development issues competing for governments' and donors' attention. Six Billion and Counting clearly places this important problem back on the agenda." -- Nafis Sadik, Senior Adviser to the United Nations Secretary General and Former Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund

"This book delivers a message of both alarm and hope: the Earth's resources are already under strain given the current global population and wasteful patterns of production and consumption, but tools are available to help us reach sustainable levels of population growth and resource use. Now is the time to use them." -- Maurice Strong, Senior Adviser to the United Nations

"Even today, too many Sub-Saharan African countries are struggling to achieve food security for their people, and continuing high absolute population growth makes the achievement of this goal much harder. This book presents a thoughtful and well-reasoned analysis of the population-poverty nexus and its consequences for food security. Most important, it provides a valuable contribution toward the understanding that there are known effective and humane best practices in population and food policies and that remaining problems are due more to lack of political will than deficits in knowledge and technologies." -- Robert S. McNamara, Former President, World Bank

"In a few decades, the world's population will be 9 or 10 billion and counting. These authors show that new technologies are not the only solution, but they are crucial if we are to use the resources we have more efficiently, and thus avoid hunger and human misery on a massive scale." -- Norman E. Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Winner

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Klaus M. Leisinger is the executive director and delegate of the Board of Trustees of the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development, Basel, Switzerland. Karin M. Schmitt is the director for social development programs of the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development. Rajul Pandya-Lorch is head of the 2020 Vision for Food, Agriculture, and the Environment Initiative of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C.

DOWNLOAD: The table of contents and the first and last chapters of this book are available for download in PDF format at http://www.ifpri.org/pubs/jhu/sixbillion.htm


International Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources


Overcoming seemingly insurmountable barriers has always been one of the hallmarks of human ingenuity and intellect. Improving upon nature, making nature more "habitable" is not un-natural. Such "improvements" can be seen in the way nature's inhabitant's adapt their behavior and how species evolve to better suit their particular environments.

The deliberate "engineering" of species found in nature into sometimes better, sometimes wholly different species has been part of Nature's experience since humans first cultivated a wild "grass" into a domestic "wheat" crop. The same can be said of breeding desired characteristics in fruits, vegetables, livestock, grains, even flowers. Today, scientists continue that pursuit in the field popularly called "Biotechology." Today, too, the stakes are greater than ever before. Such breakthroughs promise new ways to conquer disease and provide healthier, more robust crops while at the same time reducing the dangerous use of pesticides and the need to plow under wild places.