Today in AgBioView - Feb 20, 2002
* U.K. -- Trials Show Some GM Crops Benefit Wildlife
* Science Council Dismisses GMO Concerns
* Go Easy On 'Public Good' Crimes, Greens Argue
* Fate of Antibiotic Markers in Transgenics Fed to Chickens
* Vitamin A Rice Part of Indian-IRRI Work Plan
* Time For Biotech In India
* Indian Govt Expected To Allow GM Cotton
* New Biotechnology Foods and Crops: Science, Safety and Society
* Gordon Moore: A Word from the Wise
* Corporate Intrigue Clashes With Science In Biotech
* Indian Plant Biology Enters the Biotechnology Era
U.K. -- Trials Show Some GM Crops Benefit Wildlife
Jonathan Leake, The Sunday Times, Feb 17, 2002 (forwarded by Katie Thrasher )
Leaked results from the trials of genetically modified crops being conducted throughout Britain will further polarise opinion on the controversial technology, with some varieties found to damage the environment and others found to improve it.
The results are preliminary - based on data from the first two years of crop trials, which have another year to run - but are seen by the researchers as a strong indication of what is to come. They show that while modified maize has cut the use of herbicides and encouraged the growth of grasses, weeds and seeds that prevent soil erosion and provide food for wildlife, GM oilseed rape and beet have done the opposite and are damaging the environment.
The results come as ministers brace themselves for a Whitehall war over the future of GM crops. On one side is Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, who is keenly in favour of such technologies. He has stayed out of the public debate over GM foods because of his previous commercial links to biotechnology companies, but privately he has made it clear to colleagues that he is strongly in favour of such technologies. His office controls the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which allocates millions of pounds of government money for GM crop research.
On the other side is Michael Meacher, the environment minister, who fears that Sainsbury's enthusiasm takes too little account of public concern over food safety and threats to the environment. Meacher has made it clear he believes that scientists still know too little about the impact of commercial cultivation of GM crops for the government to make a decision on their future. His real fear, however, is of a second public backlash against the government if it appears to be supporting the biotechnology firms.
"There are very real fears that GM crop production might have a negative effect on our wildlife," said Meacher recently. "That is why GM crops will not be grown commercially until we are satisfied there will be no unacceptable effects on the environment."
This weekend, however, it emerged that Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, who is also Meacher's boss, is closer to Sainsbury's views. An environment department source said: "Beckett's view is that it is no longer a GM-free world. This technology is out there and she is keen that Britain gets the benefits." Beckett's views will come as a blow to Meacher - but the leaked results will give ammunition to all sides. Maize is grown largely as fodder for cattle but produces very poor yields unless treated with herbicides to kill off the weeds that otherwise smother it.
Most farmers use atrazine, which kills weeds as they germinate, remains in the soil for months and is renowned for its longevity and toxicity. It is applied soon after the maize starts sprouting, so saving the crop from its deadly effects. The maize under trial, by contrast, is modified to withstand a much less toxic chemical called Glufosinate. The trials have shown that grasses and clover soon begin to grow again under the maturing maize - and then cover the field once it has been harvested.
Adrian Bebb, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said it was misleading to compare "a bad system with a less bad system". He added: "All they have done is replace a really nasty herbicide with one that is a bit less nasty."
Others disagree. Alan Gray, a professor of plant genetics who chairs the government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre), said it was now clear that declaring GM crops to be "either all good or all bad" was simplistic and naive.
This weekend, the environment department said Britain could be facing the first full-scale commercial plantings of GM crops within 18 months - soon after the trial results become available. Such a move risks a consumer backlash of the kind that prompted many supermarkets to ban GM products from their shelves three years ago. Since then biotechnology companies have been working on new modifications. Monsanto is looking at increasing the wax content of corn - enabling the creation of cornflakes that do not get soggy when milk is poured over them.
Science Council Dismisses GMO Concerns
- Dick Ahlstrom, The Irish Times, Feb 19, 2002 (From Agnet)
An advisory body on science has, according to this story, dismissed as unwarranted concerns about foods and drugs produced by genetic engineering. It argues however for a "comprehensive information centre" for the public and a "fully independent biotechnology ethics committee". The story says that the independent Government advisers, the Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, released its report on biotechnology yesterday. It described it as a key area "to sustain Ireland's economic growth and to enhance Ireland's capacity to become a knowledge based economy".
It acknowledged, however, that there was a lack of "independently validated and readable information for the general public". The public "is not given the opportunity to fully understand and therefore make informed decisions" on the use of the genetic technologies, the report states. The report "seeks to promote and achieve a dialogue in biotechnology" between those working in the field and the general public, according the the chairman of the council, Dr Edward Walsh.
The council had established a task force chaired by Prof Emer Colleran of NUI Galway "to provide a scientifically credible, balanced and clear document" to identify public concerns. Those opposed to field trials using modified plants (GMOs) have argued strongly against the trials sponsored by companies such as Monsanto, amid fears for the transfer of antibiotic resistance genes or other modified genes into wild species.
The science council's report dismisses these concerns. The possibility that antibiotic resistance genes in GMOs could compromise the use of antibiotics in the treatment of diseases "is insignificant compared to the risk of this occurring because of the overuse of antibiotics in medicine, animal feeds and crop farming", it states.
It points out that the two main resistance genes used are for one "rarely used" antibiotic and another which "is not used in human medicine" at all. It also says that this gene exchange in the wild or "horizontal gene transfer" is commonplace in nature "and causes no intrinsic damage". It argues that biotechnology in food production "is considered the least beneficial application of genetic modification". It acknowledges worries about the risks of eating modified foods, but adds that despite all the plant and animal genetic material consumed in the foods we eat every day, "there is no evidence for the transfer of intact genes into humans" either from bacteria or foodstuffs.
Go Easy On 'Public Good' Crimes, Greens Argue
- The Evening Post (New Zealand) via NewsEdge Corporation
The Green Party believes people who commit crimes for the "public good" or in the interests of the welfare of others should be treated more leniently under new sentencing laws. The Greens argued in vain at a parliamentary select committee review of the Sentencing And Parole Reform Bill that such intentions should be considered mitigating factors when people were sentenced.
The committee's review of the Bill, which is due to become law in six weeks, was released yesterday with a raft of recommended changes. The legislation is designed to impose tougher sentences on the worst offenders, but to create more flexible sentencing options - such as restorative justice - for other offenders.
The committee's report said Green list MP Nandor Tanzcos wanted an amendment saying "that when an offence is committed in order to protect the public good or the wellbeing of others, it should be treated more leniently than those motivated by simple greed or by callous disregard for other people" .
Mr Tanzcos said today he believed a judge should be able to impose a lesser sentence if people stole food to feed hungry children, as against those who ransacked a home during a burglary. "The other one was the public good issue and there I was thinking of anti-nuclear protests and things like that."
Mr Tanczos, who has been criticised for appearing to support attacks on crops suspected of being genetically engineered, said he hadn't had anti-GE protesters in mind at the time. The committee rejected the recommendation after seeking legal advice. Key changes recommended by the committee included tougher sentences for "hate crimes" motivated by prejudice such as racism and homophobia and new guidelines for discharges without conviction to avoid bias in favour of wealthy and professional people.
The Fate of Antibiotic Resistance Marker Genes in Transgenic Plant Feed Material Fed to Chickens
- Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 49:(1)161-164 JAN 2002 http://jac.oupjournals.org/
We have examined the fate of an antibiotic resistance marker, incorporated into transgenic maize when fed to chicks. Plant-derived markers were found in the crops of five birds fed transgenic maize and in the stomach contents of two birds. The plant-derived marker gene was not found in the intestines. The survival of the antibiotic resistance marker gene mirrored that of plant DNA targets, demonstrating that it survives no better than other DNA and indicating that it is very unlikely that bacteria in the gut of chickens will be transformed to ampicillin resistance when the birds are fed transgenic maize.
Vitamin A Rice Part of New ICAR-IRRI Work Plan
- The Hindu (India), Feb 17, 2002 (From Agnet)
New Delhi -- The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Philippines, have, according to this story, signed a work plan for collaboration in rice research from 2001 to 2004. The collaboration would include sharing germ plasm on 'super rice' for higher yield and 'golden rice' with vitamin A for better nutrition quality.
The story says that the transgenic 'golden rice', which is now being evaluated for safety by the IRRI should be available for transfer to fields within four years, while the ICAR is indigenously working with 'Sambha Mussouri' variety for producing vitamin A rice transgenically which might be available in less than two years.
The ICAR is also set to produce its variety of genetically modified cotton before the next sowing season. The major collaboration research areas are for improvement and development of rainfed rice, hybrid rice technology, biotechnology and rice-based cropping systems. Both the institutes will also collaborate on crop resource management, socio-economic studies, human resource development and joint publications on rice research. The agreement was signed by the Director-General of ICAR, Punjab Singh, and the Director-General of IRRI, Ron Cantrell, here.
Time For Biotech In India
The time has come for clarity on biotech, says R.S. Paroda, former Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, and biotechnology "will have to be adopted". "India has the requisite strength and capacity to take advantage of the developments in biotechnology".
Paroda provides these insights in his book "Relevance of Genetically Modified Plants to Indian Agriculture" based on presentations in four workshops on genetically modified crops organized by the Tata Energy Research Institute.
The former DG says that people are "inquisitive about potential deleterious effects of transgenic varieties on biodiversity and environment, and that "these doubts cannot be dismissed and due attention will have to be paid to them". However, compared to Europeans, "we have to be a little more pragmatic, realistic and look for what is good", given the plight of poorer farmers in India.
Paroda also highlights the need to induce the private sector "to join the biotechnology race". "Since research in biotechnology is capital-intensive, biotechnology firms can be given extra concessions including tax benefits, longer repayment programme of loans and lower interest rates on credit."
Biotech can help solve problems relating to food and foreign exchange, says Paroda. However for this to happen, "we must talk on scientific principles and we must educate the NGOs and the farmers". "I think farmers are disillusioned and misguided because the messages that reach them are based not on scientific principles but on other reasons, and do more harm than good. It is our responsibility to see that this does not happen" he concludes.
Indian Govt Expected To Allow Genetically Modified Cotton
- Asia Pulse, Feb 19, 2002
MUMBAI - The Indian government is expected to allow the entry of genetically modified BT cotton into the country for commercial production before the next sowing season in March, said Krishna Iyer, former director of Cotton Research Institute of Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
The introduction of commerical BT cotton was long overdue and farmers should get the benefit of bio-technology, said Iyer, who also serves as a consultant for the Cotton Corporation of India. Meanwhile, accoring to a press statement from Monsanto International quoted the Shetkari Sanghatna leader and Kisan Coordination committee President Sharad Joshi as saying that BT cotton minimises the expense of spraying the crop with pesticides and should be encouraged.
New Biotechnology Foods and Crops: Science, Safety and Society
OECD Bangkok Conference, 10-12 July 2001; http://www1.oecd.org/bangkok/
The three-day international conference concluded with recommendations that all stakeholders commit to greater transparency on genetically modified organisms and that governments increase their support for independent and publicly funded scientific research into the risks and benefits of GM foods and crops.
The Conference brought together some 250 participants from more than 50 countries, including scientists, government regulators and representatives from industry, academia and civil society, including speakers from all these sectors. Preparations were undertaken by a Steering Group composed of experts from intergovernmental organisations, scientific institutions, consumer and environmental interest groups, industry, government regulators, and policy makers. Presentations and discussion focussed on four principle themes:
* Science; * Safety: International Consensus Building on New Biotechnology Food and Crop Safety; * Society: How Stakeholder views inform national and international decision-making; * Outcome and Conclusions.
The Conference conclusions will inform G8 Heads of Government discussions at the Genoa Summit (G-8) and other international fora.
Visit http://www1.oecd.org/bangkok/ to *Read the Conference Rapporteurs' FINAL report [PDF 76KB] * Read the Chairman's Summary * Watch or listen to the video or audio broadcasts. * Provide your comments.
Gordon Moore: A Word from the Wise
- OnPoint, Winter 2002, http://www.tim.co.il/
'Q & A with co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of Intel Corporation'
Gordon Moore is widely known for "Moore's Law," which recognizes the trend of microprocessors doubling in power and halving in price approximately every 18 months. It can be said that Moore's Law has become the guiding principle of the semiconductor industry. Early in his career, Moore worked on semiconductor process technology with William Shockley, coinventor of the transistor, at the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. In 1959, after Moore became director of Research and Development, the first commercial integrated circuit was produced by Fairchild Semiconductor. In 1968, Gordon Moore co-founded Intel with Robert Noyce. Moore is a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE)-the worlds largest technical professional association. Among his countless accolades, Gordon Moore has received the IEEE Founders Medal, and the 1990 National Medal of Technology awarded by former President George Bush.
$5 Billion Dollar Philanthropist: Gordon Moore and his wife, Betty, established a new multibillion-dollar private grant-making organization http://www.moore.org. The foundation focuses on education, conservation, and science as a means of improving the quality of life for generations to come. Gordon Moore has generously set aside half of his ownership of Intel Corporation to create this philanthropic foundation.
* Is technological progress incompatible with sustaining the environment?
- Oh, no. I don't think so at all. I think that if anything technological progress should be able to help us. There is a lot of pressure on the environment with the rapid growth of world population. I think technology should help in dealing with that.
* Do you consider biotechnology as having a negative or positive impact on the environment and human kind?
- I think it certainly has a major impact in both directions. I think a lot of things that have been done well allow us to see more clearly how various plants and animals relate to one another. Like any technology, it has the potential to be good or not so good and I think biotech will probably become the same thing. For good it will probably have many favorable impacts on genetic mapping for example. I suppose that in the other direction it has the possibility of replacing some of the bio-diversity that exists today.
* Is the power that global companies hold equivalent to the responsibility they actually take?
- Well, in my view corporations are set up with relatively narrow purposes. They have two obligations. One is to carry out those purposes and the other one is being a good citizen wherever they operate in the world. I don't think they ought to take global political responsibilities. That is certainly not their role.
* What are your future predictions for the environment?
- Well, I think there are a lot of changes that certainly will take place. I hope that we'll be able to preserve most of the species we have on earth as we go to a period of maximum pressure on the environment. The general models suggest a peak somewhere in the century and after that a decrease. So hopefully we'll get through that bottleneck and be able to get most of the things that will come through. On the other hand there are major problems. The problem of global climate change-that will change the environment dramatically and I don't think anyone knows how it will be changed.
Download Pdf version of 'Poisoning the Land that Feeds You' at http://www.tim.co.il/main/index.ie.php3?sid=500 which has other articles including: The Nature of Growth by Prof. Lester Thurow; Creating More from Less by David Miron-Wapner Agiculture Superhero Keeps Mother Nature Proud by C.S. Prakash; Planning in the Service of Man by Daniel Gat; Environmental Heavy-Weight by Steve Sawyer)
Corporate Intrigue Clashes With Science In Biotech
CBC Radio Transcripts (Canada), Feb 16, 2002; Via http://www.checkbiotech.org/
BOB MCDONALD: It has all the elements of a good TV miniseries: corporate intrigue, professional competition and back-stabbing, court battles, money, greed, politics, and idealism. Hard to believe it's actually the tale of a few scientists, a couple of plants, and how together they changed the face of modern agriculture. You see, the scientists work mostly for a company called Monsanto. That's where the corporate intrigue comes in. And the plants happen to be genetically modified. That's where the idealism clashed with the money. Together it's a fascinating story about the rise of plant biotechnology and the opposition movement that it's spawned. The story is told in a new book called Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money and the Future of Food. It's written by the American science journalist Dan Charles, who joins me from Washington, DC. Mr. Charles, welcome to Quirks and Quarks.
DAN CHARLES: Nice to be here.
MCDONALD: First of all, can you take me back to, I guess, a more innocent time in the early days of genetic plant research at Monsanto in the 1980s. What were they initially trying to do, and why were they trying to do that?
CHARLES: They kind of caught the first big biotech wave, the wave of enthusiasm that came along in the very early '80s, 1980, '81. We sort of forget the newspapers and the magazines were full of enthusiasm about what this new technology could bring, and a lot of companies were jumping into it with both feet. Monsanto did too, and they had a group of people within the company who really sort of felt like this was this revolutionary new science. They were entranced with the possibilities and they were engaged in this scientific competition. They were this little shop within this big chemical company, and they saw themselves as kind of the rogues, the revolutionaries, almost a subversive force within the company. You know, in the. in that period, the late '70s, the early '80s, biology was what you went into if you were. if you considered yourself an environmentalist, and a lot of these people did. They were the green guys, they thought.
MCDONALD: Well, you say revolution. What. what were they actually hoping to do? What was the driving force behind it?
CHARLES: Well, their idea. and this is the scientists coming in. was biology was the future. Chemistry and the chemicals. they dismissively called the chemical people within the company the nozzleheads.
CHARLES: That was the past. And they were going to create new plants that were even better. Now, the corporate side of this comes in, as you might expect. Within a few years it became clear that they had to find at least the glimmerings of a product, a product that the people up in the company could understand, and they really settled on this one project that they were working on that would make plants resistant to the company's new flagship chemical, which was Roundup. So that was the advent of this crash program to create Roundup-resistant plants, the idea being that you could spray the whole field and the crop survived and the weeds all died.
MCDONALD: Well, how much pressure was there at Monsanto for these researchers to come up with something that was really practical and profitable?
CHARLES: Oh, huge pressure. They had to, at some point. There was kind of a blood letting that happened in the mid-1980s, when lots of people were let go, and the crunch was on at that point. Basically, come up with a product, preferably in this case a Roundup-resistant plant, or perish, basically. You know, the academic scientists talk about publish or perish; this was product or perish.
MCDONALD: And was there a competition as well? I mean, was there a sense that this was world-wide revolution, that somebody else might jump on this, like we need to get this out now, you know, if we're going to really make it?
CHARLES: Well, there was competition. There were certainly a lot of companies in this game in the early '80s. Some of them were little start-ups like Calgene(?) out in California, and Plant Genetic Sciences over in Belgium, and Agricetus(?) in Wisconsin, along with big companies like Monsanto and Dupont. But the thing is, you know, in that era a lot of the start-ups kind of fell by the wayside. They ran out of money and the big companies ran out of patience. And Monsanto, for various reasons, kind of kept forging ahead and pursuing it, losing money in the process, until they finally got their product out the door in the mid-90s.
MCDONALD: Well, you point out in your book that Monsanto has spent billions on research into genetically modified plants, but has only made back a small fraction of that money so far. Why did they put so much effort into it?
CHARLES: Well, I mean, the short answer is Roundup. You know, the figure that I quote in the book, you know, they make hundreds of millions of dollars, let's say, annually, but spend billions on research. That doesn't count Roundup sales. They really have made their money, to the extent that they've made it, selling the herbicide that gets sprayed on those Roundup-resistent crops. A lot of other companies, you know, went belly-up in the meantime, and very few, when the accounting is all done, have made money on this technology so far.
MCDONALD: So take me through that. What was the Roundup-ready crop and the pesticide that went with it?
CHARLES: Well, this was an idea that people had quite early on, the idea being we've spent a lot of money over the years trying to create herbicides that are selective in their effect, in other words, they'll kill the weeds but won't kill the crop, won't kill the corn or the cotton or the soybeans. And some people said well, how about we create the selection within the plant? How about we take the crop and make it immune to the effects of a chemical that otherwise will kill all vegetation? That was the initial idea, because some people thought let's take biology as our starting point instead of the chemical. And it so happened that Monsanto had the perfect chemical to marry, you know, to biology in this case. Roundup was relatively safe, it was increasingly cheap. Had to be because it was coming off patent and Monsanto would face competition within a few years. it killed all vegetation, it was becoming increasingly popular. They said, you know, a Roundup-resistant crop or crops would be the perfect application from our corporate point of view for this technology. They attacked it in every possible way with huge numbers of people. You know, they. people refer to it as, you know, plant biotechnology's Manhattan Poject. They came up with all kinds of different genes that they thought might work to confer this trait to the plant. And eventually, you know, in a stroke of luck, they found the gene that they eventually used in some bacteria that were living in a waste pond of a Roundup plant. which stands to reason because here this plant had been putting out residues of Roundup in its waste stream for years and years and years. So there was this pressure to select. to find. and anything that would live in that environment must be immune to the effects of Roundup. It must have a form of the gene that Roundup doesn't basically block. And they put that into plants and it worked.
MCDONALD: So from Monsanto's point of view, they have both ends of the product here. They have the seed and they have the pesticide to go with it.
MCDONALD: So it was a complete package.
CHARLES: Right. And because the herbicide was coming off patent and they were cutting the price on it, it made sense for them to try to make up. Make more money on the seed side of things by charing extra for the seed rather than the chemical. Which led them into this kind of. you know, this classic confrontation with the seed industry. They had to remake the rules of the seed industry if they were going to be able to charge large amounts of money for seed. The seed industry had never been able to do that before.
MCDONALD: So how successful was it?
CHARLES: Well, more successful than anybody in the seed industry could have dreamed. I mean, there was this collision of worlds between the biotech industry, led by Monsanto, and the seed industry, which was led by the biggest seed company in the world at that time, Pioneer Hybrid of Desmoines, Iowa. And it was a collision of world in both a scientific and a business sense. You know, in a scientific sense, the seed people could not believe that Monsanto thought that their one gene was that important. You know, plant breeders had worked with genes. hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of genes at a time. They knew that it was the whole. they thought they knew that it was the whole package of genes, the thing they called germ plasm, that was crucial in delivering, you know, a better plant to farmers. A single gene, they kept saying, it doesn't matter. A single gene is so unimportant. And the business side of this was they said you'll never be able to charge that much money for the genetic improvement wrought by a single gene. Because you know, the seed business. seeds are this wild and crazy thing. I mean, you sell a seed and it multiplies in the hands of your customer, and seed companies never really controlled their product and been able to charge large amounts of money for it.
MCDONALD: But wasn't there also. we talked about it on this show. that there was another problem beyond that, where the farmers had to buy seed the next year. They couldn't. they couldn't grow their own seed.
CHARLES: Right. This was another piece of it, remaking the rules of the seed business, making seed into a product instead of this. kind of this biological thing that you didn't control. Monsanto said. they actually talked this way: We were going to be the Microsoft of agriculture. Our gene was going to be the software, the seed was the hardware. We were going to license, they said. we would license our gene to the seed companies the way Microsoft licenses Windows to, you know, the owners of computers. So Monsanto, you know, went to the seed companies, they lined up deals, and when the farmers came into the. into the seed business, they had to sign a deal that said, you know, I hereby license this gene, this patented gene, from Monsanto, and I agree that I'm not going to replant any part of this harvest because I don't control that patented gene, Monsanto does. And the rule for if I'm going to buy the seed is I'm going to agree not to replant it. That was the rule they signed when they bought the seed.
MCDONALD: If you've just tuned in, you're listening to Quirks and Quarks on CBC Radio, and I'm speaking with Dan Charles, the author of Lords of the Harvest, a new book about the biotech revolution in agriculture. Now, Mr. Charles, much of the story you tell in your book is about patents and the idea of actually patenting a form of life. Why were they the key to success of Monsanto?
CHARLES: Well, patents were kind of the. seen as the bedrock of the whole biotech industry back in the early 1980s. They figured, you know, if we don't own this we can't charge money for it because it's public property, and anybody can duplicate our research, our innovation. So the biotech industry really kind of was waiting for rules from the courts and from the patent office on patents before they really proceeded. In 1980 there was a famous case decided in the US Supreme Court that said yes, an organism modified by the human hand in its genetic make-up, in this case a bacteria, can be patented. I actually think that, you know, this is kind of the hidden history of the whole debate over genetic modification in agriculture, genetic engineering in agriculture. You know, this business of turning the seed into a product that the company controlled, that was what drove the companies into this business. That was what fuelled their enthusiasm for it. And on the other hand, I think that's the root of a lot of the opposition to it. But people don't talk about it so much. The companies would rather talk about how this technology is wonderful for society and for feeding the world, and the opponents would rather talk about kind of unforeseen risks, either to human health or to the environment, because those are ways that they hope to mobilize public opinion. These are, in many cases, not the real reasons that brought either side into this debate. At the root of it, I think, is an argument about either profits, in the case of the companies, their desire for profits, and in the case of the opponents, opposition to private and big business control of seeds, of this genetic heritage of humankind.
MCDONALD: Well, you describe this battle over biotechnology as kind of a trench warfare. Why do you say that?
CHARLES: Trench warfare today, because similar to World War I when both sides were dug into trenches and there was very little movement but a lot of shooting and a lot of casualties, that's where I think we are right now. We're at this stalemate, where public opposition, particularly in Europe, has really slowed the introduction of new products onto the market in agriculture. So the companies are kind of stuck where they are. But at least in North America, I think, the opponents have not yet succeeded in shutting the industry down either. And I think they've succeeded in convincing a certain segment of the population that genetic engineering is risky, and even evil, but the majority, at this point, I think, remains unconvinced about that and seems kind of apathetic.
MCDONALD: Well, how did the anti-biotech movement begin in the first place?
CHARLES: Ah, well, now you're going back into history. You know, it's interesting. I think the essential arguments about this have not changed in almost 15 years. You know, you could summarize it very briefly as it's rooted in feelings about nature and in attitudes toward the people who were controlling. And the companies who were controlling this technology and driving it forward with the greatest vigour. You know, so on the one side, there was feelings like this was overstepping the proper bounds and the relationship of human beings and nature, the natural world that surrounds us, feelings like, you know, you start manipulating genes in plants and you'll start manipulating genes in cats or, you know, eventually in humans, and it's not proper. It's sort of this ethical feeling about messing with Mother Nature, as they say. And on the other side were these attitudes toward the big chemical companies which were embracing the technology with greatest enthusiasm, and they were the ones that were bringing products to market. You know, environmentalists have a history with big chemical companies. They don't like big chemical companies. And so they didn't trust this new product that those same chemical companies were bringing to market, and they didn't trust the assurances, you know, that this was going to be safe. So I think those were the roots of the suspicion and opposition that greeted the technology.
MCDONALD: So it's opposition to a lot of different things here. We've got. it's like the opposition today against globalization. And you have globalization against the impacts on the environment.
CHARLES: Right. It comes from many different sources. And then once people were sort of mobilized and suspicious about the technology and where it was heading, and about the people who controlled it, they started to look more carefully at some things like well, can you prove that this is safe. And it's very to prove any food safe. I have to say that at the outset. And so. and there's always room for doubt and things that you might not know about. And so that proved to be a potent argument. Also risks to the environment, and there was much talk about gene flow, and how genes from a genetically engineered plant might crossbreed with a wild relative, let's say, in the case of canola. And then there would be this manmade gene out there in the environment. And even though it was very difficult in most cases to prove that this was an actual. that this was actual harm to the environment. Now, I have a big problem with some of those arguments because some of them seem quite surreal if you put them in the context of agriculture as it exists. You know, if you're worried about food safety, there are so many things to actually be worried about that are demonstrably bad for you. And the potential risks posed by what's in genetically engineered food seems so far-fetched I have trouble kind of putting it all together. Same way with environmental risks. The kinds of things that have been either demonstrated or posited as potential environmental risks are so trivial compared with the environmental catastrophe that is agriculture as it exists. Right? You plough up half a continent, right? Eliminate all native species and plant it with exotic species like soybean and corn and new grasses, and then you worry about the environmental consequences of a genetic tweaking of one of those exotic species? To my mind it's a little bit surreal and it sort of points toward deeper motivations in this debate.
MCDONALD: So you. I mean, where do you find the balance? How do we find the balance?
CHARLES: Well, I think the balance is look at. OK, if you could use the argument over genetic engineering as a window into agriculture, I think we ought to pay attention more to both sort of the food and nutritional effects of, you know, food production as it exists and the environmental impacts of agriculture as it exists. So, you know, let's use this debate as a window to march through and start looking at agriculture and the effects that we, the human species, in our desire for food have visited upon the landscape. And that, I think, we be a really productive debate.
MCDONALD: What about, though, the original ideals, where they were saying hey, this could reduce the impact of chemicals that we have on our fields, this might increase productivity and help feed people in the developing world. Were they valid, or is this a good idea that just got bogged down in bad business, or was it. you know, do you think it was kind of a dumb idea in the first place?
CHARLES: It wasn't a dumb idea, you know, and there have been some really good environmental effects. you know, insect-resistant cotton, BT cotton in the south has really reduced the spraying of insecticides, you know, that's clear. Down the road you could say well, you know, this technology in the hands of the public sector, say non-profit organizations that are trying to figure out a way to make things that would be useful to plant in sub-Saharan Africa, say. they might actually come up with something that would be useful for people.
MCDONALD: Mr. Charles, thank you very much for your time.
CHARLES: It was a pleasure.
MCDONALD: Dan Charles is a regular science contributor to National Public Radio and author of Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money and the Future of Food, published by Perseus Books. Coming up next, dashing dinosaurs.
Indian Plant Biology Enters the Biotechnology Era
- Nandula Raghuram, HMS Beagle, BioMedNet, Feb 15, 2002; Issue 120
http://news.bmn.com/hmsbeagle/120/notes/feature10 (Excerpts Below....)
This article will appear in a forthcoming issue of Trends in Plant Science
India is endowed with 47,000 known species of plants and at least two-thirds as many scientists working on plants. Experimental plant research in India is almost a century old, and traditional knowledge has existed in the Indian civilization for well over two millennia. Today, Indian plant biology research is spread across nearly 200 universities, including 31 fully fledged agricultural universities, >90 research institutes and centres, and a few private foundations and companies. Research in these organizations is almost entirely funded by the government through various agencies such as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Dept of Science and Technology (DST), Dept of Biotechnology (DBT), Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Dept of Atomic Energy (DAE), University Grants Commission (UGC) and, to some extent, the Ministry of Environment and Forests. India currently spends ~0.1% of its gross national product (GNP) and 15.0% of its total research and development (R&D) expenditure on agricultural research and plant biology.
Since the mid-1960s, when the "GREEN REVOLUTION" (see Glossary) was launched in India to boost crop production with the help of high-yielding varieties, fertilizers and irrigation schemes, Indian agricultural scientists have developed >2,300 high-yielding varieties and hybrids. These varieties played a major role in doubling food-grain production (especially wheat and rice) without using additional land. India was the first country to produce hybrids of several crop varieties. Today, India is the world's largest producer of fruits, spices and condiments, and the second largest producer of vegetables . Agriculture constitutes up to 28% of the Indian economy and 15% of exports. Tissue culture is another area of strength in applied plant biology that has brought tremendous economic benefits using a range of crop plants, medicinal plants, horticultural varieties and forest species. Recently, the Micropropagation Technology Park at the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, has transferred the technology for micropropagation of teak trees (Chlorophora excelsa) to International Plant Laboratories (Glastonbury, UK). This is perhaps the first plant biology example of technology transfer from India to a Western country.
There has been considerable expansion in the institutional infrastructure for modern plant biology. For example, several Centres for Plant Molecular Biology (CPMB) have been established in the past decade, one of which has been upgraded recently into an autonomous National Centre for Plant Genome Research (NCPGR) in New Delhi. Plant molecular biology is also one of the major components at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, New Delhi. In addition, three National Gene Banks have been established for germplasm conservation. Of these, the one located at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi, has been recently modernized and upgraded to a capacity of 1 million accessions, making it the largest gene bank in the world. It has already secured 7,100 accessions of underused crops, among others. See reference  for a history of plant molecular biology in India.
Plant Biotechnology. During the past five years, there has been a rapid growth in plant biotechnology R&D in India. For example, several laboratories have acquired or developed the skills for raising transgenics in Indian crop plants, including those for which transformation and regeneration protocols were not available. The biopesticidal genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) have been transferred into pigeonpea (Cajanus cajan), brinjal (Solanum melanogena), tomato, potato, rice, sorghum, cauliflower, cabbage, mustard and chickpea (Cicer arietinum), and are at different stages of testing. Efforts are also on to identify other endotoxins to combat resistance to the commonly used cry1 endotoxin from B. thuringiensis. Some groups have identified promoters for developing tissue-specific statement systems in crop plants, whereas others have been targeting the transgenes into chloroplasts to achieve higher statement levels.
Scientists from the University of Delhi and Indian Agricultural Research Institute have been sequencing a part of chromosome 11 in rice under the international rice genome project, and NCPGR has initiated the genomics of the indigenous chickpea. There are some groups working on the manipulation of fatty acid content in oil crops, or improving protein content in rice and potato by transgenic methods, and others have been working on delaying fruit ripening in tomato and banana using antisense technology. Although transgenic varieties have yet to be cultivated on a commercial scale, hopefully these efforts should produce various transgenic plant varieties in government-funded laboratories and provide them at affordable costs to the farmers, helping to prevent private-sector monopolies.
Another major area of ongoing research is the search for genes responsible for biotic and abiotic stress resistance by using molecular markers, and the transfer of these genes into various crop cultivars. Several groups have begun working on these aspects in the past few years across the country, with some success. Similarly, major multidisciplinary and multi-institutional collaborative projects have been initiated recently, which will screen all the important medicinal and aromatic plants of India for compounds of pharmaceutical and agricultural relevance, and convert them into patentable products. These programmes owe their origins, at least partially, to the US patents relating to neem, turmeric and other plant-based products that have been used in traditional Indian medicine and agriculture for centuries. These controversial patents granted to foreigners have provoked an urgency in India to tap the biodiversity and indigenous knowledge for new products and biomolecules of pharmaceutical and agricultural importance. In addition to these initiatives by the government, several Indian pharmaceutical firms have also begun screening for plant-based bioactive molecules.
Gap Areas. There are gap areas in Indian plant biology that do not feature in the future research agenda of any of the above agencies. For example, much work is needed on plant biochemistry and metabolism, especially metabolic regulation and assimilate partitioning. This would be particularly helpful in metabolic engineering for the next generation of plant transgenics. Similarly, the discovery of the DXP PATHWAY of terpenoid biosynthesis in plant chloroplasts has opened up a range of new possibilities for both basic and applied research in plant secondary metabolites , but this area is not being pursued actively in India at present. Secondary metabolism is also relevant because of the current focus on plant-based bioactives. India has a rich diversity of medicinal and aromatic plants; most of the active compounds in herbal drugs are likely to be secondary metabolites. One of the areas that has not received the research attention it deserves in India, in spite of some recent advances elsewhere, is enhancement of fertilizer-use efficiency (particularly of nitrogen), even though it is considered an important area of research. Among the advanced technologies, microarrays and proteomics are still in their infancy and are yet to be applied in Indian plant biology research.
Although there has been some discussion regarding enhancing private-sector participation in agricultural research, there are also concerns over the possible emergence of private monopolies for certain crops or technologies. There are several private seed firms in India that breed and sell seeds, and some of them also have ambitious R&D programmes. But it is the entry of large multinational corporations with broad patents in GM technologies that has raised concerns and protests by farmers' organizations, especially since the WTO regime brought Indian agriculture under intellectual property rights (IPR) for the first time. Fortunately, efforts are being made to master new technologies within government-funded laboratories, so that risks of monopolies can be averted, and the new technologies can be made available to the farmers at affordable prices. But an inability to sustain financial support could defeat this purpose, and give a handle to the critics of biotechnology who easily confuse the technology issues with issues of ownership, equity and access. The new Director General of ICAR, Panjab Singh, in his first public statements after assuming office recently, argued in favour of a stronger role for the public sector in Indian agriculture, and government support for research to the tune of 1.0% of the agricultural gross domestic product (GDP). The current level of government support is ~0.3% of the agricultural GDP, which is much lower than even the developing countries' average of 0.5%.
Therefore, government and public sector involvement in research and technology development will continue to be necessary for addressing the national needs, as well as for balancing public interest with private monopoly. In fact, India could provide an alternative model to the world through "public" biotechnology.
Public Policy. In terms of public perception and policy perspective, Indian plant biotechnology stands somewhere between the US and European extremes - the no holds barred, whole-hog approach of the USA, and the anti-biotechnology wave sweeping Europe. Being a late entrant, India also has the advantage of learning from the experiences of both these extremes, to adopt an appropriate mix that suits its needs and resources. In spite of the increasing influence of environmental movements, which predominantly have European affiliations (with due regard to them), there is no reason to believe that there is a strong public consensus, let alone unanimity, on issues related to plant biotechnology and GM foods in India. Fortunately, to date, the debate has remained among the directly involved parties, that is, environmentalists, farmers' organizations, scientists, companies, policy analysts and government. The media have also been fairly neutral in this debate, which allows space for informed and constructive dialogue between various stakeholders.
The Indian plant biology community, and the policy makers guided by them, seem to believe firmly that transgenic methods will provide the best means to achieve maximum gains in the minimum time. However, the government recently refused clearance to introduce Bt-cotton developed by Monsanto (St. Louis, MO, USA) for commercial cultivation in India, in spite of the recommendation by the DBT-monitoring committee that the field trials were satisfactory. This was apparently because agricultural scientists from the ICAR pointed out that the pest resistance was checked at a time when the pest load was not at its peak, and insisted that the trials be repeated under the supervision of agricultural scientists. The trials are currently being repeated and depending on the results, a decision is expected this year. But GM or no GM, Indian agricultural scientists, with government support, seem to be confident of meeting the food demands for the next few decades, by an appropriate mix of loss-prevention and yield-enhancement strategies.
In conclusion, India has built a firm foundation for a bright future for plant biology and biotechnology and is determined to defeat Lester Brown's and Hal Kane's dismal predictions  for India in the 21st century.