Today in AgBioView:
* Organic farmers - show GM ignorance
* GM crops find friends in China
* China's farmers embracing gene-modified crops
* China leads GM revolution: government funding puts Chinese plant biotechnology second only to US
* PLANT BIOTECHNOLOGY IN CHINA
* Italy Says Will Not Tolerate GM Seed Contamination
* Global expansion of GM crop use
* Plea to demystify biotechnology
* Europe Reverses Position to Support Genetic Engineering
* Green revolutionary wins NAS medal
* GM the next step forward - farmer
* DIVERSIONARY TACTICS IN ENVIRONMENTAL DEBATE
* International Food Policy Research Institute
* FAO NEWS:
* Brave New Foods
Organic farmers - show GM ignorance
Life Sciences Network
January 26, 2002
A recently published Queensland university study shows that organic farmers tend to be seriously misinformed about genetic modification the Chairman of the Life Sciences Network, Dr William Rolleston, said today.
The survey, undertaken by Dr Kristen Lyons from Griffith University’s School of Science, evaluated the attitudes of around 70 organic producers towards genetic engineering in Australia and New Zealand.
“It is no surprise that Dr Lyons research suggests the majority of organic farmers surveyed are opposed to GM technology, however we are shocked by the level of ignorance and misunderstanding which appears to be disclosed by the survey,” said Dr Rolleston.
The author of the study said organic producers identified genetic modification as being damaging to the environment.
“These views are clearly not supported by science or commercial application,” said Dr Rolleston. “For example in Australia where farmers grow GM cotton there has been a reduction of insecticides by over 40% every season.”
“Biotechnology and genetic modification have the potential to improve the lives of Australians and New Zealanders through new medical treatments and disease prevention measures, safer and more nutritious food, reductions in the use of agricultural chemicals, more sustainable land use practices and cleaning up the environment.
“Dr Lyons' study claims organic producers are concerned about the potential health effects of genetically modified foods. No such risks have ever been identified or proven scientifically.
“In Australia and New Zealand responsible biotechnology research, development and application is undertaken within strict regulatory controls based on scientific and risk management principles,” explained Dr Rolleston.
"Organic, conventional and GM farming can co-exist and continue to grow and prosper in both Australia and New Zealand.
“But the challenge for organic producers is to resist using emotional and irrational arguments to publicly condemn the use of GM technology, and to instead seek out factual, responsible and reliable information sources to raise their own levels of understanding and acceptance,” Dr Rolleston concluded.
GM crops find friends in China
24 January, 2002
Evidence is emerging that China is taking the potential of genetically modified (GM) crops seriously.
Researchers found that China accounts for more than half the developing world's expenditure on plant biotechnology.
It is working on more than 50 plant species, with a wide-ranging list of GM food plants. The researchers say China's experience proves that GM crops have a role to play in poorer countries.
What is happening in China appears to be at odds with the widespread rejection of GM technology in many other - particularly European - countries.
The researchers, from China and the US, report their findings in the journal Science.
They carried out a survey which they say covered approximately 80% of the nation's plant biotechnology research laboratories in nine provinces and two municipalities.
Keen to experiment
On the basis of the results, they say China "is developing the largest plant biotechnology capacity outside North America".
They write: "China is accelerating its investments in agricultural biotechnology research and is focussing on commodities that have been mostly ignored in the laboratories of industrialised countries.
"Small farmers in China have begun to aggressively adopt GM crops when permitted to do so."
The survey identified more than 50 plant species and more than 120 functional genes which scientists were using in plant genetic engineering.
>From 353 applications between 1996 and 2000, the Chinese Office of Genetic Engineering Safety Administration approved 251 cases of GM plants, animals and recombined micro-organisms for field trials, environmental releases or commercialisation.
Promise against pests
Approval was given to 45 GM plant applications for field trials, 65 for environmental release, and 31 for commercialisation.
Transgenic rice resistant to three major pests - stem borer, planthopper and bacterial leaf blight - have passed at least two years of environmental release trials.
GM wheat resistant to barley yellow dwarf virus is undergoing field trials, and experiments are under way on GM potatoes and peanuts.
Unlike the rest of the world, the authors say, where most plant biotechnology research is financed privately, the Chinese Government is responsible for almost all funding.
It plans to increase research budgets by 400% before 2005.
The first large-scale commercial use of a GM crop involved cotton, incorporating a gene isolated from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.
The authors say: "Response by China's poor farmers to the introduction of Bt cotton eliminates any doubt that GM crops can play a role in poor countries.
"From only 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) in 1997, Bt cotton's sown area grew to around 700,000 ha (1,700,000 acres) in 2000.
"The average farm size of the typical cotton farmer in the survey sample was less than 1 ha (2.47 acres)."
The farmers reduced pesticide use by an average of 13 sprayings per hectare per season, a reduction of 49.9 kilograms (110 pounds), and a saving of $762 (£536). Their production costs fell by 28%.
They also reduced their use of toxic pesticides, organophosphates and organochlorines, by more than 80%.
Only 4.7% of farmers planting Bt cotton complained of pesticide-linked health problems, compared with 11% of farmers using both Bt and unaltered varieties, and 22% of those using non-Bt cotton alone.
Professor Julia Goodfellow is chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
She told BBC News Online: "China has a unique problem in feeding over a fifth of the world's population using only 7% of the world's cultivable land.
"The report shows that where there are real, tangible benefits to be gained from advanced plant biotechnology, this science can be put to use effectively.
"It could prove a vital resource in other developing nations where there is an express need for the often unique benefits it can bring."
China's farmers embracing gene-modified crops
January 24, 2002
By Keith Mulvihill
NEW YORK - Poor farmers in China are growing more genetically modified plants than small farmers in any other developing nation, according to a report released Thursday.(ref.2423)
"Our survey of China's laboratories identified over 50 plant species and more than 120 functional genes that scientists are using in plant genetic engineering, making China a global leader in the field," Dr. Scott Rozelle of the University of California-Davis and colleagues report in the January 25th issue of the journal Science.
The country is developing the largest capacity to use biotechnology to modify crop plants outside of North America and is targeting crops--including cotton, rice, wheat, potatoes and peanuts--that get little attention in other parts of the world. The amount of research and the number of scientists working on gene-modified plants is "impressive," according to the report.
"Regulators (in China) approved 45 genetically modified plant applications for field trials, 65 for environmental release, and 31 for commercialization," the authors write.
Genetic modification involves transferring genes of one species to another to acquire certain characteristics, such as hardiness or pest resistance. For example, scientists have spliced spider venom genes into corn and other food crops as a "natural pesticide" to deter insects and birds from feeding on the plants, and inserted fish "antifreeze" genes into tomatoes to extend their growing season into winter.
There has been bitter debate about the safety of genetically altered food, and some scientists warn of a "Trojan gene" effect that could damage or destroy species of plants or animals.
Worldwide sales of genetically modified foods grew an estimated $75 million in 1995, when the first commercial plantings occurred, to approximately $2.3 billion in 1999. More than 40 modified food plants have been marketed in the US for general use, most of them corn and soy products.
With a staff of biotechnology researchers that is approaching 2,000, and a 1999 budget of $112 million, "the developing world's other large biotechnology programs, in Brazil and India, fall short of China's," the report indicates.
Presently, China's efforts have largely been focused on Bt cotton--cotton that has been genetically modified to produce the bacteria-derived toxin Bacillus thuringiensis, which protects growing plants from insect pests.
Some of the benefits of the effort cited in the report include reduction in pesticide use and an increase in production efficiency, the authors point out.
"Using its own human and physical capital, (China) is creating not only a large viable biotechnology research program, it is working on creating new crops that are important to a developing country and poor people, and it is developing new methods...that one day may be able to compete with the life science companies in the industrialized countries," Rozelle told Reuters Health.
"Obviously, this has implications for extension of (genetically modified technology) to developing countries and may create more competition in international technology markets," he added.
"We really welcome having some solid data on what is actually being done (in China), said Dr. Margaret Mellon, director of the Food and Environment Program, at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group.
"For years there have been reports swirling around that China has been doing much more," she said.
Although the report notes that farmers using genetically modified crop plants have reduced their use of pesticides, this may be a short-lived effect, she explained. Whether a pesticide is manufactured biologically by the plant or applied by humans, insects will eventually develop resistance to the pesticide, Mellon noted.
The risks and benefits of the genetically modified crops should be weighed by Chinese regulatory agencies, Mellon said.
"The balance of risk versus benefits needs to be left to the Chinese," she said. "It is not the place of (others) to dictate to them what technology they use and how they balance risks versus benefits."
China leads GM revolution: government funding puts Chinese plant biotechnology second only to US
By Tom Clarke
January 25, 2002
While westerners vacillate about the risks and benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops, China is embracing the technology. A new survey shows that the Chinese are working on more plant biotechnology products than anyone outside North America1.(ref.2428)
Chinese research institutes claim to have developed 141 GM plants, 65 of which have been approved for release into the environment. Scott Rozelle, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis carried out the survey.
China's GM success challenges the concern that developing countries, which stand to benefit most from such crops, cannot afford technologies produced in the West.
"We keep getting fed this line that developing countries won't receive the benefits of biotechnology, instead they're deciding for themselves," says plant geneticist Nigel Halford of the Institute of Arable Crops Research in Long Ashton, England.
For a developing country China invests heavily in GM technology: spending $112 million in 1999 compared to about $15 million in India and Brazil, the other developing world leaders. By contrast the U.S. spends around $2 to $3 billion.
China's GM research programmes are entirely government funded. The foods being modified reflect the concern that current food production will not fill the hungry mouths of its future population.
In the West, the GM crops that have gained farmers' acceptance are those that simply improve profits. Instead, Chinese researchers seem to be focusing on creating better food crops such as disease- or drought-resistant rice, wheat and potatoes. Says Rozelle: "Researchers are not overwhelmingly motivated to capture financial return on the technologies."
If China's GM crops do fill the food gap, their other GM innovations could end up being exported, suspects Rozelle. China may well become the world leader in exporting GM-crop technology to other developing countries. "There have already been sales between China and south and southeast Asian countries," he says.
Whatever the potential benefits of genetic modification, environmental and food safety concerns loom large. China has strict regulations regarding the testing of GM crops before release into the environment, but "less has been done on consumer safety", admits Rozelle. "My gut feeling is that most Chinese look to the US for guidance in this area," he says.
Freer regulations in China may be borne out in the figures. China's plant biotechnology industry is in its infancy compared to America's yet already has 65 plants licensed for environmental release. Fewer than 50 have been approved in the U.S.
And the developing world's investment in agricultural biotechnology could be drawing important resources away from research into other farming practices that may be better in the long term, argue GM sceptics.
"Biotechnology may well become another short-term solution to long-term problems," says Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC.
There are other low-cost solutions to problems that GM technologies seek to overcome, Rissler points out. For example, planting different varieties of rice together to combat disease would also benefit from more research in China2.
1. Huang, J., Rozelle, S., Pray, C. & Wang, Q. Plant biotechnology in China. Science, 295, 674 - 677, (2002).
2. Zhu, Y. et al. Genetic diversity and disease control in rice. Nature, 406, 718 - 722, (2000).
PLANT BIOTECHNOLOGY IN CHINA
January 24, 2002
Jikun Huang,1 Scott Rozelle,2* Carl Pray,3 Qinfang Wang4
A survey of China's plant biotechnologists shows that China is developing the largest plant biotechnology capacity outside of North America. The list of genetically modified plant technologies in trials, including rice, wheat, potatoes, and peanuts, is impressive and differs from those being worked on in other countries. Poor farmers in China are cultivating more area of genetically modified plants than are small farmers in any other developing country. A survey of agricultural producers in China demonstrates that Bacillus thuringiensis cotton adoption increases production efficiency and improves farmer health. 1 Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resource Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Building 917, Datun Road, Beijing 100101, China. 2 Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California, 1 Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616, USA. 3 Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics, Rutgers University, 55 Dudley Road
Italy Says Will Not Tolerate GM Seed Contamination
January 24, 2002
ROME - Italy will not tolerate the accidental contamination of seeds with genetic material and needs to invest at least 50 million euros to enforce its policy, Farm Minister Giovanni Alemanno said on Thursday.(ref.2430)
``The position that we have on seeds is a position of 'zero tolerance' within the technical limits,'' Alemanno told a news conference ahead of the country's spring crop sowing campaign, due to start in the next few weeks.
The minister also said that civil servants would meet farmers, seed industry officials and consumers in the coming weeks to chart a new strategy on agriculture and the marketing of genetically modified (GM) seeds.
Alemanno, a member of the center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said authorities would need to invest at least 50 million euros in customs and other controls to guarantee seeds were free of genetic material.
He did not elaborate.
Italian farmers expect to sow some 1.5 million hectares to maize and soybeans this spring, farm groups say.
Seed industry officials say it is very hard to ensure the complete absence of genetic material in seed shipments.
Environmental group Greenpeace welcomed Alemanno's declaration of ``zero tolerance'' and called for systematic controls by authorities to prevent accidental contamination of seed stocks.
``Now the minister should make sure that the zero threshold is really adhered to in the spring sowings,'' Greenpeace spokesman Luca Colombo said.
EU countries have imposed a moratorium on imports of biotech food, tolerating only up to one percent level of GMOs in each product in response to public concerns about the safety of such technology.
Global expansion of GM crop use
Letter to the editor of The Times
FROM PROFESSOR EMERITUS PHILIP STOTT
JANUARY 24 2002
Sir, Any further delay with the commercial planting of genetically modified (GM) crops in the UK (report, January 19) would clearly go against current world trends.
In 2001, the global area of commercial GM crops reached 52.6 million hectares, or 130 million acres, an increase of 19 per cent on the 2000 figure. The crops were grown by no fewer than 5.5 million farmers, of whom three quarters were resource-poor farmers in the developing world.
Argentina, despite its economic problems, has now the second largest acreage; China has tripled its production of GM cotton; Indonesia has planted commercial GM cotton for the first time; and Cuba continues to recognise the benefits of combining GM crops with organic agriculture.
If one adds up the areas under commercial GM cultivation each year from 1996 to 2001, the total is 175 million hectares, or 440 million acres. In addition, throughout the world, non-commercial trials are widespread. Throughout all this, there has not been one proven environmental or nutritional problem.
(Emeritus Professor of Biogeography, University of London),
24 Clarence Place, Windmill Hill,
Gravesend, Kent DA12 1LD.
Plea to demystify biotechnology
January 24, 2002
BANGALORE: Farmers and governments must be made aware of the biotechnology benefits, according to Prof Marc van Montagu, Director, Vlaams Institute of Biotechnology.
Speaking at an international conference on 'Demystifying biotechnology' he said GM crops were necessary to increase agricultural production and food security, especially of developing countries and this had to be communicated to the public.
The lack of understanding of biotechnology was also the reason for the lack of investments from the common man into these stocks, said Mr Patrick Sutch, Director, Nasdaq (Asia Pacific). With a view to imparting more information on this sector, it had a biotech index, biotech media education programme, a biotech industry guide apart from sponsoring a Web site called biospace.com, he said.
Europe Reverses Position to Support Genetic Engineering
January 24, 2002
BRUSSELS, Belgium, January 24, 2002 (ENS) - A manifesto in favor of biotechnology in the European Union issued Wednesday by its executive branch, the European Commission, calls for stronger backing for a sector seen as critical to future competitiveness. The communication proposes adopting "the highest standards of governance" to win over a sceptical public.
Ethical and environmental worries have "detracted attention" from the strategic importance of the life sciences, the Commission asserts. "This has stifled our competitive position, weakened our research capability and could limit our policy options in the longer term."
Rather than accept such a "passive and reactive role," it goes on, Europe should "develop proactive policies to exploit" biotechnology. "The longer Europe hesitates the less realistic this...option will be."
A key battleground will be the development of new genetically modified (GM) crops, the EU approvals process for which has been deadlocked since 1998. Over the past year the EU executive has gradually stepped up its rhetoric, with agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler last September accusing anti-GM member states of "populism."
"A revolution is taking place in the knowledge base of life sciences and biotechnology, opening up new applications in health care, agriculture and food production, environmental protection, as well as new scientific discoveries. This is happening globally," the commission states.
"The common knowledge base relating to living organisms and ecosystems is producing new scientific disciplines such as genomics and bioinformatics and novel applications, such as gene testing and regeneration of human organs or tissues. These in turn offer the prospect of applications with profound impacts throughout our societies and economies, far beyond uses such as genetically modified plant crops," says the commission, which does not want Europe to be left behind.
Opposition to genetically modified crops has been shown in public rallies across Europe, and has been espoused by some high profile dignitaries including the UK's Prince Charles.
In May 2000, the Prince of Wales said on the BBC, "Above all, we should show greater respect for the genius of nature's designs, rigorously tested and defined over millions of years. This means being careful to use science to understand how nature works, not to change what nature is, as we do when genetic manipulation seeks to transform a process of biological evolution into something altogether different." "The idea that the different parts of the natural world are connected through an intricate system of checks and balances which we disturb at our peril is all too easily dismissed as no longer relevant," the Prince said.
Friends of the Earth Europe has been campaigning for years to safeguard for the people of Europe "the right to choose GM-free food, to grow GM-free crops and to protect GM-free habitats," the group says.
Acknowledging public hostility to this and other aspects of biotechnology, the commission paper asserts that Europe must develop policies that "enjoy the confidence and support of its citizens." In response it proposes a five point agenda for achieving "the highest standards of governance."
These include commitments to "societal dialogue and scrutiny" plus respect for "ethical values and societal goals." Furthermore, consumers should be able to exercise "informed choice."
The Commission goes on to promise action to "clarify the need, and possible options" for measures to ensure "sustainable coexistence" of conventional and organic farming with GM crops.
The Commission will support the development of methodologies for monitoring "potential long term environmental impacts of GMO's as compared with conventional crops, and methodologies for the monitoring of effects of genetically modified food and feed as compared with conventional food and feed."
With the establishment of the European Food Safety Authority, the work on the early identification of emerging risks will be reinforced and upgraded, the commission says.
It also pledges to report next year on the feasibility of "further improving...the framework for authorizing GMOs for deliberate release into the environment, including a centralized Community authorization process."
In opposition to genetically modified crops, the organic foods movement is gathering steam. On Tuesday, hundreds of people from across the country came to London to urge the government to do more to support organic farming in the UK. The Organic Targets campaign wants the Government to ensure that 30 percent of UK agricultural land is organic by 2010 and that an organic action plan is put in place.
But the commission is now firmly behind genetic modification, and extends this support to developing countries. There the EU supports, "the redefining of national research towards an appropriate mix of traditional techniques and new technologies, based on priorities developed with local farmers."
The commission supports "the development and enforcement of effective measures to conserve, to use sustainably and to provide access to genetic resources and traditional knowledge, as well as to share equitably the benefit arising from them, including income generated by intellectual property protection."
Green revolutionary wins NAS medal
By Larry O'Hanlon
January 23, 2002
The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) today announced that it is awarding its prestigious Public Welfare Medal to agricultural scientist Norman E. Borlaug. The award is a reminder that, before genetically modified foods, traditional science was saving millions of people from starvation. (ref.2431)
Many consider Borlaug the father of the "Green Revolution." He is credited for saving millions of lives in Mexico, Africa, Asia, and South America by developing and introducing dwarf varieties of wheat. With the hardier and more nutritious wheat and better agricultural practices, many starvation-stricken nations in the twentieth century were able to forego grain imports and finally feed their people.
A forester and plant pathologist by training, Borlaug used the traditional and arduous methods of Gregor Mendel and generations of plant breeders to create genetic modifications that eliminated much of starvation worldwide. His first hybrids died, and he had to go back to work and try again. But in the end he "started with ten or twelve seeds" to set off the Green Revolution, says wheat breeding expert Calvin Qualset of the University of California at Davis.
Borlaug began to create the dwarf wheat hybrid in the 1940s, working in Washington State with Mexican wheat that he had manipulated so that it could withstand a variety of climates. This involved such tactics as moving the plants to novel locations in Mexico in order to breed out photosensitivity, which allowed them to yield grain in different seasons. The new hybrid was short and had stronger stalks than traditional varieties, allowing more nutrients to be applied to plants without their growing tall, bending over and breaking. That meant higher yields.
The first place Borlaug took his improved wheat was Mexico in 1944, where he organized the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program - a joint venture of the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation. The innovative wheat and improved growing practices increased yields there to the point that Mexico stopped importing wheat in 1956.
Next, Borlaug took his wheat varieties to India and Pakistan. "Obviously there's still major hunger in India, but nothing like it was," said agricultural anthropologist Stephen Brush of the University of California at Davis.
Today, Borlaug's wheats are being planted in Turkey, Iran, and many other countries where famines are not uncommon. Borlaug, who won the Nobel Prize in 1970, continues to work on food and agricultural matters in Africa as the president of the Sasakawa Africa Association. He is also a professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M in College Station.
Only a handful of people - among them Herbert Hoover, George Shull, and Davis Fairchild - have received the NAS Public Welfare Medal for their work on agriculture or food distribution since it was initiated in 1914. Other notable honorees include John D. Rockefeller, J. Edgar Hoover, and C. Everett Koop.
GM the next step forward - farmer
Life Sciences Network
January 26, 2002
“GMO cropping is the next step forward for Australian farmers” claims Victorian farmer Andrew Weidemann, who has recently travelled to the US and Canada to look at farming issues including genetically modified crops.
“It’s just smart science. Benefits would include cleaner and healthier food”, said Mr Weidemann.
“Our role as farmers will be to monitor the types of gene and crops introduced and have some say over seed distribution.”
Contracts and marketing choice were important issues, he said which farmers had to closely watch to ensure they were not tied into a ‘closed loop’ arrangement.
According to Mr Weidemann, a benefit from GMO technology will be less reliance on herbicides and insecticides in the growing of crops.
In North America, Mr Weidemann said, 70 per cent of corn and soy beans are genetically modified. Canola also has high incidence of Round-Up readiness. This means chemical cost savings, greater flexibility in growing and spraying crops and fewer chemicals end up in the water table.
The 12,400 kilometre trip over 6 weeks included visits to Monsanto and Aventis research stations in the US and ‘back to school’ at the Agwest Biotech research centre at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. All research and produce GMO crops.
Mr Weidemann, the winner of the 2001 Wimmera Conservation Farming Association Muller Award, will also speak about his overseas trip and GMO technology at the Conservation Farming seminar to be held in Dimboola, Victoria in February.
DIVERSIONARY TACTICS IN ENVIRONMENTAL DEBATE
January 24, 2002
Nature 415, 364 (2002)
Stephen Budiansky, writes that the irrelevant observations by Stuart Pimm and Jeff Harvey about Bjørn Lomborg's book The Skeptical Environmentalist (Nature 414, 14950, 2001) exemplify the unfortunate tendency of some environmental activists, when challenged with well-founded objections to the scientific validity of their alarmist claims about the state of the planet, to respond with such diversionary tactics as counting the number of footnotes cited by their critics, disparaging their critics' credentials and misrepresenting their views ‹everything, in short, but dealing honestly with the evidence.
Budiansky says that in his book, for example, Lomborg presents a detailed analysis, based on widely accepted United Nations (UN) data, to show how the alarmists have been consistently wrong about the global population and food supply. Contrary to the predictions of impending catastrophe by Paul Ehrlich, Lester Brown and Pimm himself (who in 1998 told a meeting at the American Museum of Natural History that the world population might reach 40 billion by the end of the twentieth-first century), the data actually show that, over the past four decades, per capita food production has increased substantially, even in the developing world, while population growth has slowed so that the world population will level off at about 9 billion by mid-century.
Lomborg shows with devastating effect how the alarmists have been able to generate their forecasts only by extrapolating from very short-term or local negative trends, while disregarding the larger positive trends. Yet, instead of discussing this evidence, Pimm and Harvey simply attack Lomborg's credentials by attempting to associate him with the absurd view that an ever-growing population could be sustained for the next 7 billion years. Lomborg says no such thing, nor anything like it.
Similarly, Pimm and Harvey dismiss Lomborg's detailed, well-founded critique of exaggerated extinction-rate predictions with the ugly charge that this is morally equivalent to denying the Holocaust. Yet far from denying that loss of biodiversity and other environmental threats are occurring, Lomborg plainly states that these are indeed serious problems. What he is criticizing is the habitual exaggeration and white lies that have become the common currency of environmentalist advocacy (see the Correspondence by A. Trewavas, Nature 414, 581582; 2001).
It is thus particularly ironic that Pimm and Harvey level the supercilious charge that Lomborg's book ("like a bad term paper", they say) cites secondary sources. Lomborg does indeed cite secondary sources ‹ to provide examples of the exaggerations and distortions made by environmental activists. But to demonstrate the inaccuracy of these pronouncements, Lomborg cites primary sources such as UN data and articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Lomborg's whole point is that the refusal of some environmental activists to deal honestly with the data harms the credibility of both environmental science and environmentalism. Pimm and Harvey in their review appear to have provided a further example in support of this thesis.
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1) UNEP/GEF biosafety project
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) produced a press release (January 16) about a three year $ 38 million UNEP/GEF global project entitled "Development of National Biosafety Frameworks" which aims to help developing countries prepare for the entry into force of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety adopted in January 2000. The Biosafety Protocol seeks to ensure the safe transfer, handling and use of GMOs that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health. See http://www.unep.org/Documents/Default.asp?DocumentID=233&ArticleID=2995 or contact email@example.com for more information.
2) Biotechnology and bananas
The Intergovernmental Group on Bananas and on Tropical Fruits, which is part of FAO's Committee on Commodity Problems, held its 2nd session in San José, Costa Rica, 4-8 December 2001. The Sub-Group on Bananas evaluated the emerging role of biotechnology in bananas. A report entitled "Biotechnology and Banana Production" was prepared for the meeting and is available at http://www.fao.org/unfao/bodies/ccp/ba-tf/2001/default.htm or a copy can be requested from Daniela.Piergentili@fao.org. In their recommendations and conclusions from the meeting, the sub-group "cautioned against excluding small farmers from the benefits accruing from the application of biotechnology to this sector".
3) Treaty on access to plant genetic resources approved
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture was approved by the FAO Conference on 3 November 2001. FAO experts say that it is a unique comprehensive international agreement that takes into consideration the particular needs of farmers and plant breeders, and aims to guarantee the future availability of the diversity of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture on which they depend, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits. See the text of the treaty at ftp://ext-ftp.fao.org/waicent/pub/cgrfa8/iu/ITPGRe.pdf (59 K); an FAO press release at http://www.fao.org/WAICENT/OIS/PRESS_NE/PRESSENG/2001/pren0181.htm or a news story on the signed treaty (also available in Arabic, Chinese, French and
Spanish) at http://www.fao.org/ag/magazine/0112sp3.htm. For further information, consult <http://www.fao.org/ag/cgrfa/default.htm>or contact firstname.lastname@example.org .
4) Review of EC-supported research into safety of GMOs.
The European Community (EC) has recently published a review of EC-supported research into the safety of GMOs, spanning the period from 1985 to 2000. The research areas included genetically modified plants and fish, biocontrol, food safety, bioremediation, plant microbes, vaccines produced using GM technology and tools/techniques to track GMOs. See http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/quality-of-life/gmo/index.html. Copies of the publication can be requested from email@example.com
5) OECD Biotechnology Update
The November edition of OECD Biotechnology Update is available (it is sent roughly every 6 months). The aim of the Update is to provide information on the diverse activities at the OECD related to biotechnology. The new edition includes, among others, items on regulatory, trade and legal aspects of biotechnology and gives weblinks and e-mail addresses for accessing additional information and publications. See the Update at http://www.oecd.org/pdf/M00008000/M00008255.pdf or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
6) Talk on biotechnology by FAO Director
James Dargie, Director of the FAO/IAEA Joint Division for Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture and Chairman of FAO's Working Group on Biotechnology, presented a paper entitled "Biotechnology, GMOs, ethics and food production" at the European Media Seminar on Global Food Security, Stockholm, 14-16 October 2001. See the full article at http://www.fao.org/News/2001/stockholm/biotech.pdf; an abbreviated version (also available in Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish) at http://www.fao.org/ag/magazine/0201sp1.htm or request a copy from M.E.Guerra-Garduno@iaea.org.
7) Keynote address on GMOs by FAO Assistant-Director General
Louise Fresco, Assistant-Director General, FAO Agriculture Department gave the keynote address to a conference on "Crop and Forest Biotechnology for the Future", Falkenberg, Sweden, 16-18 September 2001. The talk was entitled "Genetically modified organisms in food and agriculture: Where are we? Where are we going?". See full document at http://www.fao.org/ag/magazine/GMOs.pdf
(38 K); an abbreviated version (also available in Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish) at http://www.fao.org/ag/magazine/0111sp.htm or contact email@example.com to request a copy.
Brave New Foods
First, genetic scientists worked to save crops. Now they are engineering plants to produce human vaccines. But can they get consumers to take the medicine?
By Fred Guterl
Jan. 28, 2002
Watching plants grow was never hugh mason’s idea of a good time. He was always more interested in organic molecules—DNA, proteins, viruses—than in the organisms themselves. But these days he’s spending a lot of time fretting over his tomatoes. They grow in pots—dozens of them—in a greenhouse at Cornell University’s Boyce Thompson Institute in upstate New York. At first glance they seem quite ordinary—bright red and a bit larger than a golf ball.
UPON CLOSER INSPECTION, however, there’s something odd about them. What is it, exactly? Mason pauses, allowing his visitor a few moments of puzzlement. His boyish face and calm demeanor are reassuring in a molecular biologist whose specialty is tampering with food. A few years ago he was inserting foreign genes into plants to make them better able to resist drought when a colleague suggested a more exciting possibility: why not find genes that would make common, edible plants produce vaccines against a human disease?
That is precisely what Mason is trying to do. The tomatoes he nurtures bear a synthetic gene that causes them to produce a protein identical to the one that serves as a protective shield for the Norwalk virus, which causes stomachache and diarrhea. Mice that eat the tomatoes (freeze-dried and powdered) develop immune responses to the virus. Later this year Mason hopes to serve his fruit to people, and then test its efficacy by exposing them to the live virus. This research, he hopes, will lead to radically cheaper ways of making and delivering vaccines.
If this technology is ever going to see the light of day, Mason and his colleagues will have to perform a similarly radical altering of public attitudes toward genetically modified (GM) foods. When the first GM food products were introduced a few years ago, they were targeted narrowly at farmers (and American farmers at that) to protect crops from insects and herbicides. Partly for this reason, their benefits have gone largely unappreciated by the public. The next generation, by contrast, is aimed squarely at consumers. Products being developed in laboratories throughout the world include not only vaccine-bearing plants like Mason’s tomatoes but food staples such as rice, corn, soy and other vegetables and vegetable by-products with enhanced nutritional value.
To get there is going to require surmounting a lot of public distrust. In the past few years agro-biotechnology has joined nuclear physics as one of the world’s most reviled scientific endeavors. The food industry and its regulators are partly to blame: they are guilty of serious bungling, including grossly underestimating the degree to which people—and in particular Europeans—are sensitive to any tampering with what they eat. Dark, unconscious fears about what scientists do is one thing, but who wants to confront them each time you raise a fork?
Despite Mason’s benevolent nerdiness, there is definitely something odd—sinister, perhaps?—about those bright little tomatoes. “Have you figured out what it is?” he asks. “It’s the leaves. They’re crinkly.” Sure enough. Unlike the smooth leaves of a normal tomato plant, Mason’s are wrinkled, as though they had been dried on the stem. It doesn’t affect the taste of the tomatoes or their safety, he explains. “It’s just an undesirable result of them being transgenic. I’m not entirely sure why it happens. Maybe because they have an excess number of chromosomes. It doesn’t happen in all of the plants. Most of them look pretty normal.”
What are crinkly leaves compared with the potential of tomato vaccines to prevent illness in thousands of children who die each year because they haven’t been vaccinated against such commonplace illnesses as diphtheria, diarrhea, whooping cough, polio and measles? Unlike many conventional vaccines, food-borne ones wouldn’t need refrigeration. They could be distributed as seeds and grown locally, making them cheaper to deliver to remote Third World villages. It’s not hard to imagine how much easier and safer it would be to deliver, say, a tuberculosis vaccine contained in the genome of a tomato or banana than in a perishable serum that must be injected with a syringe.
When Mason’s mentor, biologist Charles Arntzen, first proposed engineering plants to make vaccines more than 10 years ago, Mason recalls being “stunned.” “The plan sounded a bit crazy, but I couldn’t think of a reason why it wouldn’t work,” he says. They chose to start with a vaccine for hepatitis B that was derived from a gene found in yeast. They spliced the yeast gene onto some plant DNA and used an “agrobacterium” to deliver the genetic material to cells of a tobacco plant. From each cell they cultivated complete plants, extracted leaf cells and examined them with an electron microscope. At last they found what they were looking for: the hepatitis B antigen—a harmless protein that, once in a person’s bloodstream, would trigger an immune response to the disease. They knew they had engineered a plant that contained the desired yeast gene and that would manufacture the hepatitis B vaccine.
The experiment was encouraging, but when the two scientists began talking about their work at conferences, they realized how naive their original idea of plant-borne vaccines had been. “The idea was, maybe we can produce the vaccine in plants, and then with common agricultural methods you could scale up. If you need a million more doses, you just plant a few more rows. But it turns out you have to worry about correct dosages and all sort of things like that. You have to treat these plants as pharmaceuticals, not food.”
Mason and Arntzen have since grown potatoes that express Norwalk virus and E. coli antigens. They’ve served the potatoes—raw, because cooking might damage the antigens—to human test subjects and succeeded in stimulating immune responses. The tests established not only that vaccines can be grown in plants but that they can survive the trip through the stomach to the bloodstream. But much remains to be done before the technology is ready for general use. Scientists don’t know how much vaccine a person would need to eat to ensure protection and how often, and how to avoid overdosing. Dosage levels of plant-borne vaccines are low, so researchers need to find a way to boost them. Eating vaccines might also lead to “oral tolerance,” suppressing the immune response and rendering the vaccine impotent. “There’s been some really excellent work,” says Roger Beachy, president of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri. “But can we really protect people or animals with these vaccines? It’s still an open
Academic research alone isn’t enough to answer this question. These research curiosities will first have to be developed into potential products, which will have to run the gantlet of approvals and trials for new medicines. The problem is that the current public distaste for GM foods has made it difficult to find the investment needed to develop these products in the first place.
Europe is the center of opposition. Europe’s antipathy over GM foods dates back to the late 1980s, when the German chemical giant Hoechst collided with environmentalists over its plans to use then leading-edge GM techniques to manufacture insulin at a plant in Frankfurt. Even though similar methods were already used in the United States, Germany’s influential Greens could not be convinced that the plant was safe. It was 10 years before it was finally allowed to open.
The insulin affair paled, however, next to the fiasco of St. Louis-based Monsanto Corp. It blundered into the European market with GM corn and soy varieties tailored for the benefit of American farmers. French activist Jose Bove led a group that stormed a Monsanto plant in the Brazilian town of No Me Toque, trashing several hectares of transgenic soybeans. The police simply looked on as the experimental plots were turned into so much genetically modified mulch. The firm eventually launched a public-relations campaign explaining the merits of GM foods, but too late. “The message was never fully explained,” says David Hughes, professor of food marketing at Imperial College, London. “People just thought that the company was trying to pull the wool over their eyes.” Monsanto’s perceived arrogance was all the more damaging because the mad-cow scandal had made Europeans leery of the food industry in general.
The Monsanto case was only one of the food industry’s screw-ups. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made the dubious decision to approve the Starlink variety of GM corn, made by agrosciences firm Aventis, for animals but not people. In 2000 the corn was found in the products of fast-food restaurant Taco Bell. The incident made regulators wary, slowing approvals for research trials. ProdiGene, a Texas-based biotech firm formed in 1996 to develop food-borne vaccines for livestock, saw its funding from venture capitalists virtually dry up overnight. “Venture capitalists got cold feet,” says chief scientist John Howard. “They started asking, ‘Are you ever going to be able to market this stuff?’ ”
ProdiGene fared better than the Cambridge, England-based Axis Genetics, which developed edible vaccines for hepatitis B. Two years ago the firm failed to secure financing for clinical trials and went belly up. Says former CEO Iain Cubitt: “Public anxiety was reflected in investors’ refusing to have anything to do with GM plants.”
Axis’s assets and intellectual property were sold to Dow, the U.S. chemical and agricultural-sciences company. Dow, as well as several other large agrosciences firms, refused to discuss its activity in GM foods for this article. Its shyness about publicity can be explained in part by the need to keep trade secrets, but the negative example of Monsanto in the 1990s has clearly put these firms on the defensive.
European politicians have also proceeded cautiously. Even though many ministers take a favorable view of GM foods, the EU has had a virtual moratorium on new GM food products for the past three years. In an effort to reassure consumers, EU ministers are instituting rules requiring labeling of all GM products beginning in 2003. “Unless we restore consumer confidence in this new technology, genetic modification of food is dead in Europe,” EU Agriculture Minister Tony Van der Haegen said recently. But the issue is unlikely to rest there: the United States opposes labeling as unworkable, and the French government is talking about new laws that deal with issues of liability. “This isn’t just French recalcitrance—it’s a big political problem for people in France,” says Julia Moore, a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “In Europe, there is no public trust in government’s ability to keep food safe.”
To re-establish that trust, the food industry is going to have to risk confronting the public’s fears. Niall FitzGerald, chairman of European food company Unilever, which yanked its GM food products when the crisis broke a few years ago, has shown some willingness to reconsider. “The mistake that has been made with GM crops and food is the failure to reach the consumer,” he said in a speech last week. “We need to begin afresh. That doesn’t mean following public opinion. It means setting a lead, communicating directly and honestly with the consumers and answering all the questions that people have.”
A cynic might say that FitzGerald is merely an opportunist: because the price of non-GM cooking oils has risen recently, Unilever would save money switching now to GM brands. Another kind of cynic might point out the children dying from lack of vaccines who might be saved if investment in food-borne vaccines were more forthcoming. That’s about how polarized the issue of GM foods has become.