Today in AgBioView - March 4, 2002
* I'll Be Back!
* Terminator Comes Back
* UNEP "Buys Support for Cartagena," Say Critics
* Sacrificed on Altar of "Genetic Purity"
* Genetically Modified Foods Not The Problem
* European Acceptance of Modified Foods Inevitable, But Not for Another
* European Plant Science Organization Conference "Networks in Plant
* Bottomless Cup of Protest
* USAID Recruitment of Agriculturalists
* Using Transgenesis to Create Salt-Tolerant Plants
* WTO Negotiations ... Ag and Trade Policies: Consequences For Developing
* Battle Lines Drawn In Mexico - Native Corn Too Sacred To 'Infect'?
* To Publish or Patent? EU Study Addresses Scientists' Dilemma
I'll be back
- Nature Biotechnology , Editorial,
March 2002 Vol 20
No 3 p203 (Reprinted in AgBioView with the Permission of the Editor)
Platinum eyes, an iron grip, muscles of steel, and a wooden delivery.
Arnold Schwarzenegger truly was The Terminator. In the eponymous film, The
Terminator is an abject baddie, a killing automaton from the future sent
to extinguish the leader of the rebellious forces by killing his mother
before she conceives. Naturally, The Terminator fails in his task, as
anyone familiar both with the imperturbable nature of timelines and the
conventions governing movie storylines could have forecast. In the sequel,
however, the roles would be reversed, The Terminator turning out to be a
goodie, a robotic guardian sent back to protect the teenage rebel leader
from an adversary of pure liquid metal evil.
The story of the Terminator gene looks set to follow a similar path as one
environmental representative tentatively proposes that there may be a
role, after all, for genes that limit the fertility of GM crops (see p.
212). Inattentive readers may need to be reminded that the Terminator
technology was, in essence, a molecular switch that prevented the
germination of seeds. Crops containing the Terminator technology were
never marked. However, the mere concept of a gene that rendered plants
unable to provide seed was sufficient to foment revulsion in the breast of
those already discontented with the idea of GM plants. Gordon Conway, head
of the Rockefeller Foundation, argued that it was unethical to deprive
developing world farmers of the potential benefits of GM plants in the
cause of corporate profitability and called upon the agricultural seed
industry to "disavow the use of terminator technology." Monsanto
capitulated to the pressure in October 1999. The 2000 corporate pledge of
a born-again and humbler Monsanto affirmed its commitment "not to pursue
technologies that result in sterile seeds." Other seed companies have made
The new Terminator technology, like the robot in Terminator II, would, it
is envisaged, be a humbler, kindlier beast. Its role would not be to
prevent resource-poor farmers from gaining illegal access to GM crops. It
would be an environmental control mechanism-a way of reducing the unwanted
spread of transgenes in field situations. English Nature, environmental
advisors to the UK, have expressed concerns about the "stacking" of genes
for herbicide tolerance in crops, such as oil seed rape. It believes that
the environmentally designed GM crops of the future-developments which it
favors-may depend on incorporating genetic incompatibility into crops. The
genetic constructs may not be those for which DeKalb/Monsanto/USDA still
holds a substantial IP portfolio, but with hesitant support from the
informed end of the environmental movement, it looks as if the Terminator
may well be back.
Terminator Comes Back
English Nature (EN; Taunton, UK), the UK government's advisor on the
environment, is floating the idea that a form of terminator technology
could be introduced to GM crops in the future. Brian Johnson, EN's
biotechnology advisor, suggests that a proposal from the European
Commission allowing the existence of up to 0.7% of GM product in batches
of conventional seed intended for sowing is flawed. "The problem in
practice is that the 0.7% could be made up of a number of different GM
varieties, almost guaranteeing 'gene stacking' [the simultaneous presence
of several GM traits]." For the current generation of GM products,
multiple herbicide tolerance in unwanted "volunteer" plants would be the
most likely outcome of gene stacking; indeed, canola "superweeds"
resistant to three different herbicides have been discovered in Canada,
although one resistance gene was not transgenic. Johnson pointed out that
proposed policy would be virtually impossible to police and went on to
suggest that preventing gene stacking would probably necessitate building
genetic incompatibility into the crops themselves. "Terminator-like
approaches would be a possibility," he says, "as a biosafety mechanism
rather than a means of brand protection. In fact, I am pretty saddened
that these approaches had become politically unpalatable." JH
UNEP "Buys Support for Cartagena," Say Critics
- John Hodgson,
March 2002 Vol 20 No 3 p205 (Reprinted in AgBioView with the Permission of
Cambridge, UK. As part of a continuing program of support for the
Cartagena Protocol on BioSafety, worth around $100 million, the United
Nations Environment Program (UNEP; Nairobi, Kenya) has launched a $38.4
million scheme to help establish up to 100 biosafety administrative bodies
in developing nations. The program is funded by the UN's Global
Environmental Facility (New York, NY) and aims, ostensibly, to prepare
developing nations for the day that the Protocol comes into effect.
However, critics see the new program as little more than a cynical attempt
to buy support for the Protocol, thereby enabling it to pass into law. The
real intent, they say, is to muddy the waters of international trade rules
and to establish barriers to trade in GMOs.
Klaus T–pfer says the new scheme will enable developing nations to have
the skills and systems in place for assessing imports, which is "crucial
to the success" of the Protocol. But some commentators say the scheme is
just a way of making sure that nations ratify the protocol.
The Cartagena Protocol is part of the Convention on Biological Diversity,
described by Klaus T–pfer, the executive director of UNEP, as "an attempt
to reconcile [...] trade and environmental protection issues." He explains
that the Protocol is the first legal environmental treaty to
institutionalize "the precautionary approach," under which a given nation
can act on the assumption that biological diversity (in this case) is
threatened by GMOs. At the administrative core of the Protocol is the
"advanced informed agreement procedure;" this puts the onus for risk
evaluation on nations exporting GMOs and allows importing countries to
decide whether to accept the shipment (Nat. Biotechnol. 18, 17, 2000).
T–pfer says that making sure that developing nations have the skills and
systems in place for assessing imports is "crucial to the success" of the
Protocol. "This is why this multimillion dollar capacity building project
is so important," he stresses. However, critics say that UNEP's program
has little to do with "capacity building." Calestous Juma at the Center
for International Development at Harvard University (Cambridge, MA) argues
that the money available to each country-around $400,000-will be
ineffectual. "Much of the [money] will go to consultancies and the rest
will be used largely to cover workshop costs," he says. "It is
disingenuous to call this 'capacity building' without providing long-term
support for institutional development and professional training." Juma
remarks that the fact that so little funding is available "suggests that
the threat of genetically modified organisms is not as significant as
previously suggested." On the other hand, he argues that if the threat
were more significant, "the negligible funding would result in a false
sense of safety." UNEP itself does recognize that real capacity building
in this area is much more expensive. (In another part of its Cartagena
support program-the "demonstration projects"-nine countries, including
Mexico and Bulgaria, will receive funding to make advanced implementation
preparations. The budget for each "demonstration project," and for similar
programs funded through other UN agencies, could be in excess of $5
The UNEP program has also been criticized for being premature. One US
industry spokesperson, who declined to be named, suggested that the
attitude of the staff and consultants behind the UNEP program could be
summed up as: "Before we have any biotech, we have to have biosafety."
"This is clearly putting the cart before the horse," he says. An official
with another UN agency pointed out the practical implications of
preemptive training and the establishment of legal and administrative
instruments: "You can run courses one after the other but if you have no
formal legal structures [without the Protocol itself], or no activity in
import or export, then the trained people are just in suspended
animation." However, Christopher Briggs, the manager of the UNEP project,
rejects this view. "What we are doing is hardly preemptive," he says.
"Countries need guidance in understanding a Protocol that will pass into
law within a couple of years."
Briggs also refutes what is the most serious charge leveled by UNEP's
critics: that the "capacity building" program is just a way of making sure
that nations ratify the Protocol. Because the Cartagena Protocol regulates
the exchange of GM materials between nations, it is highly likely to come
into conflict with existing global trade rules, notably those of World
Trade Organisation (WTO; Geneva, Switzerland). WTO rules permit trade
restrictions based only on concerns that are demonstrably scientific
rather than those based on presumption or precaution as under the
Cartagena Protocol. Some commentators fear that protectionist nations and
trading blocs will use the Cartagena Protocol as a means of circumventing
their obligations under WTO.
Juma, for instance, claims that "The main focus of the project is to rally
ratification for a protocol that does not seem to enjoy much support." The
Protocol will only come into force when ratified by 50 nations. So far
only 10 countries, out of 107 signatories, have done so. With a clear
reference to those European politicians and legislators who have been
pushing forward the precautionary principle, Juma argues that "those
countries that provided the conceptual foundation of the protocol should
show leadership by ratifying instead of resorting to financial enticement."
Briggs concedes that there is some connection between eligibility for
funds under the UNEP program and ratification of the Protocol. To qualify
for funding, countries must express "an earnest intent to ratify," he
explains. He argues though that expression of intent and the ratification
itself are under separate control: the intent may be expressed by
officials or ministries while ratification is a sovereign issue and can be
decided only by a nation's parliament. Julian Kinderlerer of the
University of Sheffield (Sheffield, UK)-who was seconded to UNEP to run
the pilot scheme that preceded the current program and is now acting as a
consultant-says that the program and its available funds have a
"prioritizing" effect. "Its not buying ratifications," he says, "but it
is, perhaps, an incentive for countries to think harder about the
implications of the Protocol."
Sacrificed on Altar of "Genetic Purity"
- Wall Street Journal, Letters,
March 1, 2002
To the Editor:
Neil King Jr.'s article about the brewing biotech-food contretemps in
Africa ("U.S. Courts African Allies...," Feb. 20th) illustrates yet
another example of the callous disregard of prosperous first-world
"environmentalists" towards human life in the undeveloped world. Despite
seven-plus years of widespread use, there is not a shred of evidence of
adverse health effects in humans from the new food technologies
represented by the rubric "Genetically Engineered." Despite shrill alarums
from anti-capitalist groups pitching their unscientific agendas under the
guise of friends of butterflies and "nature," there has never been any
reliable evidence of adverse impact on the environment from these
agricultural products (unless one includes "contamination" of tacos by GE
corn, which I equate to "contamination" of pure rock formations by veins
Similar to the fate of DDT, which while harmless to humans was effectively
banned, at a cost of millions of African and Asian lives lost to malaria,
the alarmists in Europe would sacrifice the great potential for lifesaving
improvements in nutrition on their altar of "genetic purity." Sounds like
a program we, and the starving masses in Africa, would be well-advised to
- Gilbert L. Ross M.D.,
Medical Director, the American Council on Science and Health,
New York NY 10023,
Genetically Modified Foods Not The Problem
- Rob Wager,
Times Colonist (Victoria, Canada)
March 2, 2002 (Via Agnet)
This week an organization called the Organic Consumers Association has
stated it plans to harass people in front of Starbucks coffee shops around
This group demands that Starbucks remove all products that are a product
of food biotechnology. They also demand that Starbucks sell organic coffee
as the coffee of the day one day of the week.
This group of 250,000 people are demanding that over 400 million people
cannot consume products that are deemed safe by food authorities from
around the world including Europe and Australia. After reviewing the
safety data on GM foods, country after country are adopting them as part
of a safe food system. The leaflets that will be passed out during the
protests make claims of sickness from consuming GM food products, a
continuation of a misinformation campaign that has been going on for years.
The fact is there is not one single case of an individual being harmed
from consuming a product of food biotechnology anywhere in the world. Now
considering that more than 300 million people have been consuming these
products for years, it seems pretty clear that if there is a risk it is
Nothing in life is risk-free. People should ask what is the safety record
for organic food. Why should less than one-tenth of one per cent of the
population be allowed to dictate to the population as a whole food
policies with a record that is less safe? Consuming organic food is a
right that everyone should have, but demanding that others must also
consume organic food is not.
-- Rob Wager, Nanaimo.
European Acceptance of Modified Foods Inevitable, But Not for Another
- David Safford,
International Environment Reporter, Vol 25 No 05,
Feb 27, 2002 p23
Ingrained cultural resistance to agricultural biotechnology is likely to
delay acceptance of bioengineered foods in Europe for at least another 10
years, but that would probably be too long for the United States to
accept, according to participants in a panel discussion Feb. 21 sponsored
by the U.S. Agriculture Department.
"Europe will realize that genetically modified crops are safe and will
accept them, but it may take another 10 years," Helena von Troil,
secretary of the Nordic Committee on Bioethics and a consultant on
Biotechnology Communication in Helsinki, Finland, said at USDA's
Agricultural Outlook Forum 2002.
In the short term, she said, little-to-no change is expected in the
existing attitudes toward and policies affecting bioengineered foods.
The moratorium on the development of genetically engineered crops may be
lifted in the near future, she said, but the proposed European Union rules
imposing a strict labeling regimen and requiring bioengineered ingredients
to be traceable back to their source probably will be implemented and will
have the same effect as the moratorium (24 INER 960 , 11/7/01).
Warning of Trade Problems
But a U.S. State Department official countered that Europe needs to move
faster to accept bioengineered foods, warning that serious trade problems
could erupt if Europe remains on its current course. "I do think that we
have to address this European issue; 10 years frankly is going to be too
long," said Alan Larson, undersecretary of state for economic, business,
and agricultural affairs. "This is having a real market impact today."
"That's why we will continue to work with the European Union to get these
approvals started, and we are going to work with the EU to get some
modifications in the labeling and the biotraceability programs that they
have issued," he continued. "I have a very strong fear that as conceived
today, if implemented, it would stop this soybean and corn trade, which
would be a disaster for our industry. It would be a problem for the
Europeans, who are dependent on us [for soy imports], and it would be a
disaster for the developing countries that want to export to the EU as
European Plant Science Organization
1st EPSO Conference "Networks in Plant Biology"; October 27 - 31, 2002
Seehotel Waldst”tterhof, CH-6440 Brunnen, Switzerland
Conference web page: http://www.epsoweb.org/catalog/conf2002.htm
Bottomless Cup of Protest
- Peter Shawn Taylor, National Post; March 1, 2002
Protests against Starbucks never seem to go away. It's just the causes
that change. A year ago, the coffee chain was besieged by demands that it
pay more for its beans and stop serving products containing growth
hormones or genetically modified foods. Today, Starbucks buys a million
pounds of Fair Trade coffee a year -- at nearly three times the world
price. It uses the toughest labelling requirements in the world for GM
products. And it offers customers soy and organic milk as substitutes.
It's reward? A Global Week of Action against its outlets culminating in a
rally outside its annual general meeting in Seattle on Wednesday.
Funny thing, whatever Starbucks does, it never seems to be enough. This
week's protests, organized by the Organic Consumers Association, turn last
year's victories into this year's beachheads. The group is calling on
Starbucks to serve more Fair Trade coffee and ban all genetically modified
ingredients and growth hormones. "In October, 2001, Starbucks made a
commitment to buy one million pounds of Fair Trade coffee and brew Fair
Trade coffee once a month. Don't let Starbucks stop there -- demand that
Starbucks brew Fair Trade coffee of the day EVERY WEEK!" reads one leaflet
released at the protests. Just offering customers the choice of
higher-priced, lower-quality coffee isn't enough these days; now Starbucks
has to force it down their throats.
Besides not serving enough Fair Trade coffee, Starbucks is also criticized
for not monitoring how farmers spend their extra cash. (Are they blowing
it on smokes and DVD players, or building hospitals like they're supposed
to?) Then there are the new demands that Starbucks serve "shade grown"
coffee beans to protect the habitat of rain forest birds. But according to
its own Corporate Social Responsibility report, Starbucks is already
buying shade-grown Mexican coffee. With Starbucks' management so eager to
please its critics, the protesters have trouble keeping up with their own
Arguments for banning growth hormone milk were comprehensively destroyed
by Jon Entine in a column in the National Post earlier this week, but that
hasn't stopped Starbucks from lending needless credence to the issue. Last
week, in a response to the OCA campaign, Starbucks pointed out that it
provides organic milk as a substitute even though "consumer demand for
organic milk in our stories continues to be very minimal." It has adopted
strict Australian food labelling requirements to show its sensitivity to
the GM debate. When Starbucks began offering soymilk as a substitute to
cow milk, the OCA objected to the 10¢ surcharge.
There are two reasons why the protests against Starbucks are endless.
First is its track record of giving in on nearly every demand. There is
nothing more satisfying to a protester than forcing a company to
capitulate, and Starbucks serves up capitulation like it does cappuccinos.
Second, easy victories against Starbucks quickly become ammunition against
other, bigger, targets. If Starbucks bans growth hormone milk, Kraft might
be next. The Fair Trade coffee campaign is to springboard from Starbucks
to Procter & Gamble.
It's not just Starbucks that comes across as a dupe, guilelessly trying to
purchase peace from protest. McDonald's dropped its polystyrene clamshell
packaging in response to (meaningless) environmental objections. It sets
up animal welfare councils and frets about recycling and social
responsibilities. But still the hamburger chain is a global focal point of
rage against capitalism, meat eating, forest-degradation and cultural
imperialism. Chartered banks fall over themselves accepting affirmative
action targets and quotas only to be excoriated by human rights groups
when the results predictably fail. British Columbian logging firms find
that every coastal valley they forgo leads to another new valley that must
The blackest scene in the altogether black comedy If... from 1968 concerns
a bloody rebellion by students at a British boarding school. Led by a
sneering Malcolm McDowell in his first movie role, the students camp out
on a rooftop and spray the quadrangle below with machine gun fire. Bodies
lie everywhere as the headmaster ventures out from behind cover. "Boys,
boys, I understand you," he yells to them. He gets a bullet square in the
One of the great conceits of the Corporate Social Responsibility movement
is that corporations and protesters can find common ground merely by
constraining how firms act. "I understand you," Starbucks shouts to the
people handing out leaflets in front of its shops. It meets almost every
demand, and is rewarded with another pile of demands smack in the
forehead. The protesters don't want to change Starbucks; they want to bury
it. The firm could ensure every bean it serves is grown in sun-dappled
forests serenaded by warbling rain forest birds and harvested by farmers
in Hugo Boss serapes. It could ban growth hormones, GM ingredients of all
kinds and serve nothing but coffee bought at three times the world price.
And if it were still in business a year from now, those same protesters
would be back as mad as ever.
From: "Swanson, John" Subject: USAID Recruitment of
Agriculturalists for our New Entry Program
Please share this web site as widely as possible. USAID is looking for
more Agricultural professionals interested in careers in international
development. The web site below has the specifics. I hope you will
encourage anyone with an interest and some overseas experience to apply.
The process is lengthy, so interested persons should begin the application
process as soon as possible. Thanks for helping. - John
Using Transgenesis to Create Salt-Tolerant Plants: The hope is to grow
crops where none could thrive before
- Ricki Lewis
March 4, 2002
Crop agriculture has succeeded because growers have identified and
cultivated useful plant variants through selective breeding and
environmental alterations. Transgenic technology improves the precision of
agriculture, modifying crops in ways that are uniquely useful that
probably would not have arisen naturally.
Salt tolerance is one such coveted trait. Recent research on promoting
salt tolerance through transgenesis focuses on boosting salt-sequestering
physiological mechanisms within species, and transferring this ability
from the model organism Arabidopsis thaliana to selected crop species.
Underlying all of the approaches to making salt-tolerant crops is a nod to
nature. "Organisms solved problems using their genomes for eons, through
evolution. Rather than trying to outguess them, we let organisms tell us
what mechanisms they can use to overcome stress," explains Ry Wagner, vice
president for research at Exelixis Plant Sciences Inc. in Portland, Ore.
If going the genetically modified (GM) route to making crops salt tolerant
can withstand anti-technology scrutiny, the benefits would be
considerable, researchers say. "Salt tolerance is one of a number of
traits that can have a major impact in both the developed and developing
world by allowing crops to be grown where they normally can't, with less
water, or with poor quality water," says George Scangos, president and
chief executive officer of Exelixis. About one quarter of irrigated land
worldwide has sustained salt damage to plants, to the tune of 60 million
hectares, according to Eduardo Blumwald, the Will W. Lester endowed chair
at the University of California, Davis. The problem has plagued ancient as
well as modern growers, he adds.
Few plant species are true halophytes, which thrive in the saltiness of
oceanfront or estuarial habitats. Inland species can nonetheless face high
salinity from extended irrigation, when water evaporates and is pulled
upwards into roots. This action leaves behind salt in the soil that can
accumulate to toxic levels. Such salt build-up impairs plants in two ways:
It disrupts the roots' ability to draw water up, causing osmotic stress
and enzyme damage in the cytoplasm, an insult called ion toxicity. It can
destroy the enzymes that are vital for protein synthesis and
Many crop plants are sensitive to salt. Corn, citrus, lettuce, onion,
pecans and beans are among the most vulnerable, withering into uselessness
when grown in high salinity soil. Barley and cotton can withstand moderate
salt levels; date palms and sugar beets are particularly salt-tolerant. A
few halophytes, such as salt cedar (Tamarix species) and the salt bush
(Atriplex species), route the sodium and chloride ions of salt to
specialized glands on their leaf surfaces, where they combine to form
nontoxic crystals. It is more common for plants to ship sodium ions to
vacuoles, the huge storage compartments that are a hallmark of plant
cells. (Chloride ions are excluded at the roots of salt-sensitive plants
because their concentration is greater inside the root cells.) Like a
threatened human body that sends blood to the organs that carry out a
"fight or flight" response, a plant flooded with salt manages to keep it
away from tender meristem tissues and young leaves at the starts of their
photosynthetic careers. "Arabidopsis, canola, and tomato plants store
toxic salts mainly in their older leaves, trying to avoid at any cost the
migration of salt into the reproductive parts," explains Roberto Gaxiola,
assistant professor of plant molecular genetics in the department of plant
sciences at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
At a cellular level, shipping sodium ions to vacuoles shelters vulnerable
enzymes in the cytoplasm. But this protection requires energy. Since more
sodium ions are continually coming in, the plant cell must actively
transport it into the vacuole; a protein called an antiport is the escort.
One intensely studied antiport protein is AtNHX1. The antiport's power
comes from another protein that functions as a hydrogen pump, jettisoning
hydrogen ions (protons) to provide cellular fuel. Both the antiport and
two forms of the proton pump span the vacuole's membrane. Genetically
modifying salt tolerance targets these two membrane members.
Gaxiola's research focuses on one of two proton pumps, called vacuolar
H+-translocating pyrophosphatase, or AVP1.1 Reasoning that equipping a
plant cell with more copies of AVP1 would rev up the proton-out, sodium-in
traffic at the vacuole's interface with the cytoplasm, Gaxiola modified
Arabidopsis to overexpress the gene that encodes the proton pump. The
result: enhanced salt tolerance.
"AtNHX1 is like a revolving door that exchanges sodium for hydrogen ions,"
explains Gaxiola. "The gene we are overexpressing is a proton pump that
will generate the gradient that revolving doors such as AtNHX1 require to
function." Other transport proteins tap into the energy that the proton
pump provides, altering the ion balance so that the plant can retain more
water. "As a result, our plants are not just salt-tolerant, but they are
drought-tolerant too," Gaxiola adds.
As a model organism, Arabidopsis is commonly used to prove principles, and
Gaxiola is optimistic that the ability to render the small plant
relatively salt-tolerant will have important applications. "The
up-regulation of vacuolar proton pumps such as AVP1 in economically
important crops holds promise for the reclamation of farmlands lost to
salinization and lack of rainfall," he says.
Evidence that Arabidopsis' abilities can indeed be transferred to crop
species comes from Blumwald's laboratory, where the target is the antiport
protein AtNHX1. The team has created tomato and canola plants that harbor
and overexpress the Arabidopsis version of the antiport gene.2,3 Both
transgenic crops grew, flowered, and produced seeds in a high-salt
environment. The altered tomato had high sodium concentrations in the
leaves, but not in the fruits, suggesting that the genetically modified
plant could be of agricultural value. The transgenic canola plants were up
to 6% dry weight sodium, yet their seed oil quality and seed yields were
The work on the Arabidopsis antiport and protein pump indicates that the
potentially powerful effects of manipulating individual genes can control
salt tolerance. But other genes are probably important too. "Although this
gene is necessary (for salt tolerance) it is not sufficient, and more
traits have to be acquired in order to obtain true salt tolerance, such as
compounds that help the plant to deal with stress-induced oxidative
damage," says Blumwald. Some of those putative genes that contribute to
salt tolerance just might turn up at Exelixis, where its "ACTTAG trait
discovery technology" is being used to find a numerous genes that enable
plants to survive stress.
Exelixis' proprietary technology introduces DNA sequences that insert next
to, and enhance, the expression of particular genes in plant species of
interest. The high-throughput screening protocols use the fast-growing
microtomato, Arabidopsis, and rice as experimental systems. "We are
building a very large collectionóa botanical libraryóof independent
transgenic events," says Wagner. "For Arabidopsis, we have more than
250,000 transgenic lines, each with a tag in a different part of the
genome." The researchers, assisted by robots, collect seeds from each
line, then grow the plants and look for interesting variants. "For
Arabidopsis, we are screening for eight targeted traits. One is abiotic
stress tolerance, such as drought or high salinity. The drought tolerance
screens have yielded a number of interesting leads, and one line may help
regulate salt stress in a novel way when the gene is upregulated," he
says. Wagner identifies the mechanism only as "a pump that causes the
plant to excrete high salt, when in a high salt environment." The goal, he
says, "is to identify genes in these species that we can later transfer to
Crop plants that are transgenic for salt tolerance may face the same
consumer backlash that has greeted other GM plants. But many researchers
feel that with time and improved communication, current opponents may
eventually feel that the benefits outweigh the risks. "The resistance to
GM crops is at some level an elite, middle-class privileged point of
view," says Scangos. "People who don't have enough to eat don't have that
resistance. [Biotechnologically]-derived crops hold unbelievable promise
and some risks, even if those risks are exceedingly small. But there must
be more open dialogue about the risks of the technology, as well as the
risks of not using the technology."
Meanwhile, research can also focus on altering the environment to temper
salt damage to plants. Concludes Gaxiola, "Salt tolerance of plants will
work if at the same time we take care of the problem of water quality. Low
quality water will increase the level of salt in soil to levels that not
even transgenic plants can help. Treatment of water sources is as
important as generating transgenic plants."
Ricki Lewis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contributing editor.
1. R. Gaxiola et al., "Drought- and salt-tolerant plants result from
overexpression of the AVP1 H+-pump," Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences (PNAS), 98:11444-9, Sept. 25, 2001.
2. H. Zhang and E. Blumwald, "Transgenic salt-tolerant tomato plants
accumulate salt in foliage but not in fruit," Nature Genetics, 19:765-70,
3. H. Zhang et al, "Engineering salt-tolerant Brassica plants:
Characterization of yield and seed oil quality in transgenic plants with
increased vacuolar sodium accumulation," PNAS, 98:12832-6, Oct. 23, 2001.
WTO Negotiations and Changes In Agricultural and Trade Policies:
Consequences For Developing Countries
- Danish Research Institute Of Food Economics Research Project, Policy
Full paper at http://www.foi.dk/publ/PolicyBriefs/pb_3GMOnet.pdf
In Western Europe where food supplies are abundant and in-comes are high,
people can afford to be critical about the introduction of new
agricultural technologies and production processes. In developing
economies, by contrast, the benefit/ cost ratio is very different. Many
food-insecure people in de-veloping countries live in rural areas, earn a
significant share of their income from agriculture, and satisfy a
substantial share of their food needs from their own production. For them,
increasing agricultural productivity and thereby real income is a high
priority. And for the urban poor in those countries, anything that lowers
the effective price of basic foods is highly desirable.
The use of genetically modified (GM) crop varieties has the potential of
providing developing countries with a much-needed boost to their currently
low levels of agricultural pro-ductivity. In this way it can contribute to
alleviating the severe food security problems experienced in these
countries. Yet the extent to which developing countries can reap those
potential benefits is not independent of policy actions by developed
If rich countries ban the use of this technology, this will reduce the
aggregate rich-country investment in GMO (genetically modified organism)
research and development, thereby reducing spillovers of that research to
developing countries. Moreover, the developing countries are often heavily
dependent on exporting agricultural and food products to the developed
world. One example is the European Union, where scepticism toward genetic
engineering has been particularly outspoken.
The developing countries must therefore - in addition to assessing
potential environmental and food safety risks of particular GM crops -
take account of the policy choices made and the consumer attitudes
expressed in these vital export markets. If a developing country chooses
to grow productivity-enhancing GM crops it may risk being excluded from
the EU market. If it chooses to grow non-GM crops, in addition to the
productivity benefits foregone, the costs of actually verifying this
characteristic at the EU border may be so high that exports of this
product are no longer profitable.
Conclusions: If a country is highly dependent on trading with GM-critical
markets such as those within the European Union, consumer attitudes and
GMO policies in these countries can be decisive as to whether or not a
developing country will benefit fully from the introduction of genetically
modified crop varieties. Whether a developing country chooses to adopt GM
crops or not depends crucially on the extent of GM-rejection by consumers
in critical export markets and the size of the productivity gain foregone
in comparison with the relative price premium obtainable on non-GM
varieties. In the best of worlds, the development of segregated GM and
non-GM food markets will be a way for developing countries to retain
access to important export markets in Europe - if and only if the non-GM
characteristic can in fact be Preserved and verified throughout the
marketing system at reasonable costs. In the worst of worlds, critical
consumers in Western Europe can prevent poor farmers in developing
countries from benefiting from a technology that can alleviate hunger and
Battle Lines Drawn In Mexico - Native Corn Too Sacred To 'Infect'?
- Susan Ferriss,
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution,
Feb 28, 2002
Capulalpam, Mexico --- Olga Toro ripped open the husk of a corn cob and
sheepishly displayed the kernels inside, as if they were naughty children
she had failed to raise properly.
She said she did not know the cob's ancestral seed was "infected." High in
the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico's southern Oaxaca state, Toro
purchased some corn kernels in 1997 at a low-cost feed store subsidized by
the Mexican government. What she didn't realize was that by sowing the
seeds --- probably imported from the United States --- she was planting
genetically modified corn unlawfully in Mexican soil.
Now Toro's cornfield and the Zapotec Indian town of Capulalpam are at
ground zero of an emotionally charged debate over transgenic foods that's
dividing scientists and causing an international ruckus. "I just wanted to
see what it would do. There's a lady named Margarita here, and she told me
she did it, too," said Toro, who like most of the subsistence farmers here
usually plants tried-and-true native seed she saves from her annual
To produce transgenic foods with special traits like resistance to certain
insects or herbicides, genetic material from other organisms is inserted
into plants' DNA. Once there, future generations replicate the genes
Mexico is the birthplace of corn and home to the world's greatest
varieties of the plant. Because of corn's special place in Mexican culture
--- and also as a precautionary measure --- the Mexican government enacted
a moratorium in 1998 on the commercial planting of transgenic corn.
Tomatoes, by contrast, are unregulated. But Mexico also imports huge
quantities of corn from the United States and sells it at cheap prices for
animal feed and human consumption.
The fight over genetically modified corn is not just over whether
transgenic foods --- a very new phenomenon --- help or do harm to humans
and the environment. The debate also focuses on whether governments like
Mexico's are doing enough to prevent the rapid, unintentional spread of
the altered plants while the jury is still out.
Once those foreign genes are out of the bottle, some scientists say, it
may be impossible to contain them, because corn pollen can be spread by
the wind for hundreds of yards. Some of Toro's most recently harvested
cobs appear to have the mixed characteristics of imported foreign corn and
native Oaxacan maize, which supports the contention that transgenic corn
may already have cross-pollinated with the natural varieties. At stake,
some scientists also fear, is the genetic purity and diversity of Mexico's
native races of corn, anchored in Oaxaca and other southern states, where
mankind began to cultivate corn 10,000 years ago.
An estimated 40 percent of the corn produced in the United States now is
transgenic, less than a decade after the technology was introduced on the
commercial market in 1995. "With the moratorium in Mexico, I thought we
all agreed before that this was something to be concerned about. So,
hello? Why do we have this happening?" said Ignacio Chapela, a University
of California at Berkeley scientist.
A specialist in microbial ecology, Chapela identified Mexico's illicit
transgenic corn from samples he and associates took in November 2000 from
Toro's harvest and other yields in the same region. Chapela, who is
Mexican, published the results of his and a graduate student's research
last November in the prestigious magazine Nature.
Now his methods and credibility are being challenged, Chapela said, and
Mexican officials have subjected him to what he called "gangster
treatment" by sending him a letter he considered threatening. Victor
Manual Villalobos, an agricultural undersecretary, wrote Chapela in
November before the Nature piece was published. Villalobos told Chapela
the government has "serious concerns" about the "consequences that could
be unleashed" from his research.
The federal government, the letter said, "will take the measures it deems
necessary to recuperate any damages to agriculture or the economy in
general that this publication's content could cause." 'I consider this
intimidation and an attempt to suppress information," Chapela said. He
said his findings are "like taking a photograph. Make what you will of it."
Chapela said he's not "religiously opposed" to genetically modified foods,
but he thinks they've evolved so fast that society is far from having
enough information about their side effects. He's in the camp that's
worried about the impact on insects and parasites that are part of the
In an interview, Villalobos said Chapela's allegations were alarming
enough that the government decided to follow up by launching its own
project, now under way, to take more samples of corn and test them for the
presence of genetically modified material. A number of scientists in
Mexico involved in the study said Chapela's findings could be "false
Image problem feared. Back in Capulalpam, Toro said nobody from the
government has visited her lately to take samples of her latest crop.
Villalobos believes the uproar over transgenic corn is overblown, but that
it could create an image problem for Mexico and confuse farmers.
Indeed, some of the farmers in Capulalpam and neighboring towns referred
to transgenic corn as "contaminated" and thought it might contain a virus.
Most don't seem to want to plant seeds they purchase from the government
store now, but many still buy the corn because it's cheap.
Miguel Ramirez Dominguez, a leader in charge of the town's communal
landholdings, said townsfolk turned down a suggestion by environmentalists
that they sue the government. "We just want some answers," Dominguez said.
Because Mexico's native races of corn are the result of thousands of years
of selecting the finest-tasting and best-growing seeds, farmers in Oaxaca
probably will continue to choose those over others, Villalobos said. But
if some kernels contain genetically altered material, he said, his opinion
is it wouldn't matter that much. Those genes would only go into action to
fend off certain insects --- which are not found in Mexico --- or resist
herbicides that farmers here do not use.
Why, then, is the government reacting so strongly to Chapela's findings?
"Because we are the center of the origin of corn and its biological
diversity, we not only have a responsibility to our society but also to
the world," Villalobos said. "That's why we take this seriously."
Mixed messages sent. Another reason is because many countries are giving
off mixed messages about transgenic foods' acceptability. While transgenic
grains have been hailed as the future savior of countries haunted by
famine, Europe and other regions are very cautious about them.
The 15-nation European Union enacted its own moratorium in 1998 on the
continued introduction of transgenic food, which the United States is
fighting to lift. Australia has adopted strict labeling requirements. Just
outside Mexico City, transgenic corn is the talk of the staff at the
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, a large research
organization funded by international lending agencies.
The center is involved in food-production projects in Africa and Asia, and
most of the scientists here believe there has been no credible evidence
developed so far to show that transgenic corn is a threat. "We don't want
to be at the other end, though, where we're saying there is no problem,"
said Tim Reeves, the general director. Mauricio Bellon, a researcher at
the center who has worked with farmers in Oaxaca, said, "People need to
come up with good arguments. Otherwise, it's just fluff. But if there are
good arguments, we should listen."
To Publish or Patent? EU Study Addresses Scientists' Dilemma
- Cordis Rtd-news/© European Communities, 2001.; 2002-03-01
(Forwarded by : "Andrew Apel" ;
Subject: Publish or Patent? Or Both)
A survey published by the European Commission has found that academia
favours the protection of scientific results when they are first
published, before a patent has been granted, whereas industry is against
such an initiative and SMEs remain divided on the issue.
The survey was requested in accordance with the EC Directive on 'The legal
protection of biotechnological inventions', which requires that the
Commission produce a report assessing the implications for genetic
engineering research of failure to publish, or late publication of papers
on subjects which could be patentable. The research was carried out by the
European Commission's Internal Market and Research DGs.
Research institutes, universities and small biotech companies sometimes
wish to file patent applications, but at the same time want to disclose
the results of their research to the scientific community and investors as
quickly as possible. The conflict between protection and publication can
lead to a delay in the publication of scientific results and thus slow
down the dissemination of scientific knowledge and therefore progress. An
efficient patent system however ensures the publication of results that
might otherwise have remained confidential.
The survey found that publication delays do occur, but less frequently the
more experienced the user of the patent system is. With experienced users,
significant delays occur in less than 20 per cent of all cases (20 per
cent for academic institutions and 8 per cent for industry).
'It is quite clear that small and innovative companies as well as young
researchers need European patent protection. This is particularly true for
fast moving sectors such as biotechnology, where Europe has a real chance
to become a world player and to create employment. The Commission has
stated clearly in its strategic plan for life sciences that a level
playing field is needed in patent protection for industrialised
countries,' said EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin.
'This survey once again underlines the demand for cheap and easily
accessible patent protection valid throughout the EU. It is therefore
vital that our proposal for a Community patent is adopted urgently,' added
Internal Marked Commissioner Frits Bolkestein.
The report recommends efforts to define and harmonise the concept of a
'grace period' across the EU, but warns that a new patenting system will
only work at global level if it provides legal certainty, which is a major
concern of the industrial users of the patent system.
The report also suggests that, in order to facilitate the use of the
patent system by academics and SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises),
a provisional patent application system is introduced in all Member
States, support and advice for academics and SMEs in the proper use of the
patent system and the strategic use of intellectual property rights is
provided and ultimately, a simple and cost-effective patent system is
provided by the Community patent.
Responses from industry and public research organisations varied on how
they thought publication delays could best be avoided. Industry of all
sizes favoured the provisional patent application as the most effective
measure and large industry was strictly against a grace period.
Academia favoured the grace period as the most important measure to
minimise delays in scientific publication, with support and advice for
patent filing ranking in second place. The research showed that almost
half of the surveyed researchers from academia that have no previous
experience with the patent system expect it to lead to considerable
delays. The report writers therefore recommend the implementation of
awareness actions and support activities to counteract these perceptions
and to help researchers become more familiar with the patent system.
Data Source Provider: European Commission
Document Reference: Based on a report on the assessment of the
implications for basic genetic engineering research of failure to publish,
or late publication of papers on subjects which could be patentable. To
see the full study, please consult the following web address: