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February 11, 2002


GM Pollen Harmless to Butterflies (but storms can kill them)


Today in AgBioView:

* GM pollen 'harmless to butterflies'
* Storm in Mexico Devastates Monarch Butterfly Colonies
* Monsanto's Biotechnology Efforts Focus on Developing Countries
* Defintion of transgenic/genetically modified


GM pollen 'harmless to butterflies'

Feb 11, 2002
By Alex Kirby

US scientists say monarch butterflies suffer no significant harm from pollen from genetically-modified (GM) maize plants.

A two-year study led by the US Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has concluded that the risk of harm is negligible.

A group of federal, university and biotechnology industry scientists was involved in the study.

The ARS says it shows definitively that the pollen poses no "immediate significant risk".

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The debate over a possible risk to the butterflies from GM pollen on maize plants (known also as corn) has been simmering for several years.

In 1999 researchers from Cornell University reported that maize genetically engineered with the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to resist the corn-borer pest killed monarch caterpillars in the laboratory.

Problem strain

In 2000 researchers from Iowa State University said monarch caterpillars were seven times likelier to die from eating milkweed near GM maize than those eating milkweed leaves with no GM pollen on them.

The ARS scientists sought to establish how much Bt pollen was needed to cause toxic effects in the caterpillars, and how likely they were to encounter that level in natural conditions.

It assessed the feeding behaviour of caterpillars on milkweed leaves dusted with pollen from six Bt maize types, with no-pollen and no-Bt pollen controls.

The lead ARS scientist was Richard Hellmich, an entomologist from the Corn Insects and Crop Genetics Research Unit, Ames, Iowa.

He said: "We looked at larval weight and survival and found it took large amounts of pollen to get any statistically significant effect."

Below 1,000 pollen grains per square centimetre, the caterpillars' weight and survival rate were unaffected. Above that level the caterpillars were smaller, but they survived as long as the controls.

The exception was one of the six types of maize, BT176, which caused some harm at levels of ten grains per square cm.

Results corroborated

ARS says this was the earliest Bt maize developed and is likely to be phased out entirely by 2003.

To find how likely the caterpillars were to be exposed to significant amounts of pollen, one team measured pollen deposition around seven fields in Iowa.

Pesticides harm insects too

Dr Hellmich said: "We found that, on average, less than 30% of the pollen that corn produces ends up on milkweed leaves, even when conditions are perfect, and most of that gets deposited on milkweed within the cornfield."

Similar studies in Maryland, Nebraska and Ontario in Canada confirmed this pattern: they showed average pollen density on milkweed leaves within cornfields was about 170 grains per square cm, and seldom went above 600 grains.

Chemical decline

Dr Hellmich said this meant caterpillars in the fields would encounter the lowest observable effect dose less than 1% of the time.

He said maize pollen was too heavy to blow far, and rain easily washed it off milkweed leaves.

He added: "You need to compare the potential for risk to monarchs from Bt corn with the alternative, which is chemical insecticide use."

The US Environmental Protection Agency says use of insecticides recommended against European corn borers has fallen by about one-third since Bt maize was introduced to the marketplace.

Storm in Mexico Devastates Monarch Butterfly Colonies

NY Times
February 12, 2002

After a severe winter storm in mid-January, in the mountains of central Mexico, dead monarch butterflies lay in piles on the ground, in some places more than a foot high. Between 220 and 270 million frozen butterflies had rained down from roosts where they normally festooned towering trees, researchers estimated.

"It was really macabre," said Dr. Lincoln P. Brower, a butterfly biologist. "I've been going down there for 25 years, and I've never seen anything like it."

Most of the monarchs in the two biggest colonies in Mexico were killed in the storm, in the largest known die-off ever of these butterflies, according to a report by Dr. Brower and a team of researchers from Mexico and the United States. But the loss of life is not expected to threaten the species, they said.

In the report Dr. Brower, of Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va., and his colleagues estimated that 74 percent of the monarchs at the Sierra Chincua colony and 80 percent at the Rosario colony had been killed. Along with a few smaller colonies, which scientists have not surveyed, the butterflies in these major colonies make up the entire breeding stock of monarchs for the eastern United States and Canada.

The spectacle of the monarchs' long and rugged mass migration north from Mexico each spring, a highly unusual behavior for an insect, has made the species a favorite of nature lovers. The butterflies fly north, stopping to lay eggs in the southern United States. The monarchs that develop from those eggs continue the journey, and by summer butterflies reach as far north as Canada.

The monarchs' epic migration is so exceptional that scientists have called it an "endangered biological phenomenon." If the populations that fly north each year from Mexico were to disappear, the mysteries of that migration might never be solved.

While saying it was unlikely that a single event could ring the death knell for the Mexican monarch populations, researchers said the radically reduced numbers left the butterflies vulnerable to future whims of weather, disease and continuing deforestation in and around their winter resting grounds in Mexico.

Scientists noted that the species as a whole was not in danger because other, smaller populations of monarchs that did not migrate to Mexico could be found elsewhere, such as in the western United States.

Scientists will know in coming weeks how precarious the situation of the devastated populations has become, as they get a better sense of how many millions survived and what shape the butterflies are in as they begin to move north.

"A bad winter followed by a bad spring could be catastrophic," said Dr. Karen Oberhauser, a monarch ecologist at the University of Minnesota.

Casual observers are unlikely to notice an obvious drop in monarch numbers this spring, in part because of the natural variability in population size from year to year.

The Rosario and Sierra Chincua colonies are thought to harbor perhaps two-thirds of all the butterflies in Mexico's monarch sanctuaries, which are in mountains in the state of Michoac·n, west of Mexico City.

The results of the report, based on research in late January, were released yesterday by World Wildlife Fund Mexico, which financed the research along with Sweet Briar College and the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Foundation.

Scientists who did not take part in the study expressed confidence in the team of researchers and the data, which have not yet been published in a scientific journal. Dr. Chip Taylor, an ecologist at the University of Kansas, called the findings "clear and compelling."

According to the report, the storm on Jan. 12 and 13 dropped about four inches of rain in the area and was followed by freezing temperatures, a deadly combination as monarchs are known to be particularly susceptible to freezing if they become wet. While noting that records were spotty, Dr. Brower said temperatures following the storm were the lowest recorded in the winter colonies in the last 25 years.

Because forest trees can act as an umbrella against the rain and a blanket that can retain heat, scientists and conservationists have been warning for years that the thinning of the forests in the relatively small area they have chosen for their habitats could threaten the butterflies by increasing their exposure to these elements. And an earlier study showed that in the last 30 years, nearly half the prime forest in the area had been degraded or destroyed.

Dr. Brower said that he believed the loss of forests had contributed to the die-off. But Dr. Taylor suggested the that storm was so severe it might have taken its huge toll even with the cover of intact forests.

Every year some of the millions of monarchs that spend the winter in these high mountain forests die from predation, freezing or other causes. Last year, hundreds of thousands of butterflies were found dead in another colony, raising concern that they had been intentionally killed with pesticides. But the butterflies were found to be free of insecticides when tested in the laboratory, and scientists soon reached a consensus instead that a severe cold snap was the cause of death. Scientists still do not have precise estimates of the typical numbers of monarchs that die in Mexico each winter, but researchers agree it is considerably lower than the estimates of mortality from the storm in January.

Scientists say monarch butterflies tend to gather in similar densities in the colonies from year to year. As a result, the number of acres covered by monarchs and counts of monarch- filled trees are thought to provide reliable estimates of colony size. So researchers compared the size of the area covered by monarchs and the numbers of trees, both before and after the storm, to determine the reduction in colony sizes.

"This is the lowest known number of butterflies at these sites over the last 27 years, " Dr. Taylor observed.

The team also took random samples throughout the two colonies to estimate total numbers of dead monarchs in the forests.

Dr. Brower said he feared that the numbers, if anything, were an underestimate of the actual death toll, as researchers only counted the butterflies on the ground. He said he had just received word from researchers in Mexico that the storm had left monarchs dead everywhere, including at their roosts in the trees.

"Some of these clusters hanging on the trees are just all dead," he said. "It's terrible."

Monsanto's Biotechnology Efforts Focus on Developing Countries

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
February 12, 2002

Feb. 12--Selling biotech crops to farmers in the world's developing nations is more difficult than in the United States and Canada. But the effort is worth it, say scientists, humanitarians and business executives.

For Monsanto Co., whose products were planted in nine out of 10 acres of biotech crops last year, developing countries -- many in the Southern Hemisphere -- represent a vast, growing market.

The South is extremely important to agriculture, said Mark Wells, leader of strategic products for Monsanto's global products group. Southern countries are important markets to us, but also our technology will bring a lot of value there.

In world agricultural politics, North and South are more than geographic definitions, said Clive James, director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, a nonprofit international group of scientists and others.

The term, 'North and South' has developed over the years as a dialogue between industrialized countries, mainly in the North, and developing countries in the South, said James, whose 10-year-old group is publicly and privately funded. Biotech companies provide less than 10 percent of its support.

Put simply, James said: South means poor, and North means rich. Exceptions exist: Australia is a rich, developed country in the South; North Korea is a poor, developing country in the North.

According to James's definition, Mexico, China and India also are Southern.

Southern countries have the most people, the most farmers and the most poverty. An improvement in agricultural efficiency in Southern countries would raise the economic well-being of the entire world, James says.

Last year, the world's farmers planted 118 million acres of crops with biotech traits developed by Monsanto, the company said. That was an increase of 14 percent over the year before.

James's group reported last week that about 130 million acres were planted in biotech crops. In acreage, biotech crops are concentrated in two industrialized countries and two developing countries:

-- The United States, 68 percent.

-- Argentina, 22 percent.

-- Canada, 6 percent.

-- China, 3 percent.

When you count farmers, the picture changes. About 5.5 million farmers planted biotech crops last year, James said, and about 5 million of them were in the South.

Southern agriculture offers promise and challenge, says Wells, of Monsanto.

A big plus is that some of the countries have multiple seasons, Wells said. With not such a harsh winter, they're able to grow crops through the winter and summer.

In Indonesia, for instance, Farmers are cropping about 1 1/2 times a year. By using herbicide on weeds instead of plowing them under several times between plantings, You can close the gap to get three crops a year, Wells said.

Monsanto changes its marketing practices the most in countries where you have many, many small farmers -- on half an acre in parts of China, and five to 10 acres in India, Wells said.

A North American farmer might buy hundreds of gallons of herbicide or large bags of seed delivered by truck, he said. In Asia and small holders in Latin America, farmers might buy seed for one acre.

Monsanto is working on packaging for one acre-farms, Wells said. Farmers need to be able to ride a bicycle or motorcycle into the local village and pick up their supplies.

Wells spent four years in India, selling farmers on the advantages of herbicide. They have 23 languages, and literacy is very light, he said.

India has more than 150 million farmers, Wells said. The farmers tend to live in villages and farm outside of them.

Wells learned not to underestimate illiterate farmers. He often was surprised at the number of farmers who turned out for meetings to talk about better farming techniques.

It's easy to be lulled into a sense that, because literacy is not high, they may not know what you're talking about, he said. They know.

Date: Tue, 12 Feb 2002 12:45:15 -0500
From: "Jacqueline Leshkevich"
Subject: defintion of transgenic/genetically modified

I like to ask the agbio forum if anyone would like to offer a good,
scientific, and concise definition of transgenic and or genetically
engineered regarding transgenic fish, perhaps for legislative purposes,

Here is a definition:

Genetically engineered means modified by the insertion of genes or
genetic sequences using genetic engineering techniques. Genetic engineering
techniques mean techniques through which genes or genetic sequences can
be isolated in a laboratory, manipulated and then inserted stably into
an organism.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this definition. Is the word insertion
too narrow? I am not familiar with all techniques. Are most, if not
all, biotech products produced by the insertion of genes, and/or
regulatory sequences into an organism (either sense or antisense). Would forum
members consider other techniques, not involving insertion of genetic
sequences, to produce a transgenic organism? A genetically modified
organism? a genetically engineered organism?

For instance, the definition offered by the National Organic Standards
Board is:

Genetically engineered organism is an organism made with techniques
that alter the molecular or cell biology of an organism by means that are
not possible under natural conditions or processes. Genetic engineering
includes recombinant DNA, cell fusion, micro- and macro-encapsulation,
gene deletion and doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing
the positions of genes. It shall not include breeding, conjugation,
fermentation, hybridization, in-vitro fertilization and tissue culture.

This definition includes techniques I am not familiar with such as
micro- and macro- encapsulation, is genetic material inserted into the
organism during this method. Is the organism so produced from micro- and
macro- encapsulation what one would call a transgenic organism? a
genetically engineered organism?

Can deleting a gene or changing a position of genes be accomplished
without insertion of genetic material?
If any techniques not involving insertion of genetic material would
produce a transgenic organism, how prevalent is/are the production of
these types of transgenic organisms when compared with the production of
transgenic organisms that involve the insertion of genetic material, ie.
Bt products, salmon with extra growth hormone genes?

Does the definition need to include subsequent generations of the
genetically engineered/transgenic organism.
I would welcome any thoughts anyone has and I thank you in advance.
Jacqueline Leshkevich