Today in AgBioView - April 13, 2002:
* Dubious research on genetically modified corn hurts real science
* Toxicologists Label GM Foods Safe
* Researchers' Tomato News Strikes Chord for Davis, Calif., Biotechnology
* SASKATCHEWAN SOIL SCIENTIST WINS AGROLOGIST AWARD
* AFRICA LOOKS TO NEW BREED OF RICE TO COMBAT FOOD SHORTAGES
A Kernel of Truth
Dubious research on genetically modified corn hurts real science
The Ottawa Citizen
April 12, 2002
It's the scientific world's equivalent of the Jerry Springer Show:
scientists squaring off against each other and environmental activists
over the emotionally charged subject of genetically modified foods. But
this is not just an internecine fight among the laboratory set. Depending
on its outcome, it could mean the world is unreasonably denied access to a
significant source of safe food.
The battle centres on an article that appeared last November in the
respected scientific journal, Nature. Professor Ignacio Chapela of the
University of California at Berkeley, along with one of his students,
claimed to have found proof that DNA from genetically modified corn had
been introduced into indigenous varieties of Mexican corn, even though
Mexico banned the planting of GM corn four years ago.
If true, it was the holy grail environmental activists had been looking
for since their last "proof" of the harmful effects of GM food -- that GM
corn endangers monarch butterflies -- was shown to be false.
The indigenous seed banks in Mexico, where corn originated, are important
to help preserve global crop diversity. Organizations such as Greenpeace
and the Canada-based ETC Group launched an immediate campaign to demand
that Mexico ban all imports of GM corn. (Under free-trade rules, such
imports can only be blocked for health or scientific reasons.)
Last week, however, Nature effectively retracted Prof. Chapela's article
after several scientists complained that he had used improper research
techniques that didn't support his conclusions. "The evidence available is
not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper," Nature's
editors wrote on April 4.
Prof. Chapela claims he's the victim of a vendetta by other professors
upset that he helped block a $40-million research deal between his
university and the biotechnology company Novartis. His critics say Prof.
Chapela, who served on the board of the pro-organic group Pesticide Action
North America, is hardly an impartial researcher when it comes to GM
Nor is Greenpeace willing to let facts get in the way of its
scaremongering. Two days after Nature published its retraction, Greenpeace
activists took to the waters of Veracruz, Mexico to try to block a
shipment of GM corn from the United States. It not only cited the
questionable Chapela study as a reason for its actions, it also referred
to another study by the Mexican government that purportedly found GM corn
DNA in local seed banks. But that study has also been challenged, and the
Mexican government is "double-checking" it.
Nor did Greenpeace acknowledge an exhaustive study by the Mexico-based
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre which found absolutely no
contamination of its indigenous corn seed stocks by DNA from GM corn.
This is typical of the imbalance in the debate about the safety of
genetically modified foods. Any move to ban such foods must be based on
scientific evidence, not on conjecture or opinion masquerading as
evidence. Unfortunately, most scientists continue to toil in relative
obscurity while media-savvy activist groups pounce on any kernel of
"evidence" they can find -- even discredited ones -- to try to scare
consumers and pressure governments and corporations into banning GM foods.
Genetically modified foods have the potential to improve crop yields
significantly while reducing the need to apply harmful pesticides. Those
who oppose them have every right to argue their case, but not to play fast
and loose with the facts. Save the histrionics for Jerry Springer.
Toxicologists Label GM Foods Safe
Draft report is subject to membership approval
The Scientist 16:
22, Apr. 15, 2002
By Barry A. Palevitz
A study group appointed by the 5,200-member Society of Toxicology, based
in Reston, Va., recently issued a draft position paper affirming the
safety of foods made from genetically modified (GM) crops. If approved by
the society's full membership and council, the report should make biotech
enthusiasts happy: It supports key principles governing federal regulatory
policy and nixes pet arguments made by the technology's critics.
The draft report was posted on a 'members only' page of the society's Web
site (www.toxicology.org). Not surprisingly, it circulated more generally
by E-mail and made its way onto the Internet.
According to society secretary Kendall Wallace of the University of
Minnesota, Duluth, "any member can suggest to the council a topic to
consider" for study. Once the council, composed of the society's elected
officials, approves the suggestion, it asks appropriate sections to
nominate experts to serve on a working group. In this case, the group
consisted of six participantsóthey met for the first time a year agoówith
Wallace acting as society liaison. The council Okayed the preliminary
draft for posting to the membership.
Wallace concedes that biotechnology is a controversial topic, but that
didn't keep the poison mavens from tackling it. "If we are a leading force
in toxicology science, it was incumbent upon us to make a statement," he
says. "To be silent on the issue would be a disservice to society in
The toxicology study comes on the heels of a report issued by the UK Royal
Society in February calling for better safety assessment of genetically
modified foods (www.royalsoc.ac.uk).1
Scientists and industry advocates who support GM crops insist the plants
should be judged on the basis of their contentówhether they are
'substantially equivalent' to cousins bred via traditional
practicesórather than on the molecular tricks that birth them. The new
report forcefully supports that stand. "The safety of current
biotechnology-derived foods compared to their conventional counterparts
can be assessed with reasonable certainty using established and accepted
methods of analytical, nutritional, and toxicological research," the study
concludes. Based on available tests, there's no reason to suspect that
transgenic plants differ in any substantive way from traditional
By affirming the substantial equivalence standard, the report indirectly
questions the better-safe-than-sorry 'precautionary principle,' long
advocated by biotech critics as a strategy to ban the super crops. It also
sides with a view dear to the hearts of agricultural technology champions:
New crops should be judged on a case-by-case basis.
Skeptics argue that inserting foreign genes into plants could disrupt
normal metabolic pathways or turn on cryptic processes leading to the
accumulation of toxins. Biotech crops expressing non-native proteinsósuch
as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) insecticidal toxins in cornócould foster
allergic reactions in sensitized consumers. That concern prompted what's
now known as Tacogateóin fall, 2000, the Food and Drug Administration
recalled hundreds of corn-based products contaminated with a gene for
Cry9C Bt toxin, which had been banned for human consumption.2
Circumstantial evidence indicated Cry9C could be allergenic.
The toxicologists see no current danger from allergies, citing tests
conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in
collaboration with the FDA.3 The report takes an even wider perspective in
concluding that "over 5,000 field trials with more than 70 transgenic
plant species have been conducted since 1987 in the [United States] by the
Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. In
only one instance has an unexpected result been seen," and that involved
surprising color patterns in petunia flowers.
Biotech advocates maintain that conventional breeding is just as risky if
not more so because large numbers of unknown genes are transferred along
with traits of interest. Yet, transgenic foods are unfairly held to higher
safety standards than conventional crops, merely because of hypothetical
risks posed by molecular biology. The report essentially supports this
contention. "The extent of the genetic changes resulting from conventional
breeding techniques, which is generally undefined, far exceeds that
typically produced by transgenic methods," the toxicologists say. They
even question whether the term 'genetically modified' is a useful
distinction in light of wholesale gene juggling practiced 'the old
The report didn't throw caution to the wind, though. Future biotech crops
containing multiple or stacked traits could pose problems that would be
difficult to detect with current tests. The authors of the study conclude
that "there is no guarantee that all future genetic modifications will
have apparently benign and predictable results." That's why they call for
"a continuing evolution of toxicological methodologies and regulatory
strategies to ensure that this level of safety is maintained."
The draft report is subject to change by Society of Toxicology members.
Comments will be forwarded to the working group, which will then get any
revision back to the council for final approval, probably in early May.
Barry A. Palevitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contributing
1. See also S. Mayor, "Better safety checks needed on GM foods,"
2. B.A. Palevitz, "EPA reauthorizes Bt corn," The Scientist, 15:11,
Oct. 29, 2001.
3. National Center for Environmental Health, "Investigation of human
health effects associated with potential exposure to genetically modified
Researchers' Tomato News Strikes Chord for Davis, Calif., Biotechnology
April 13, 2002 02:45 AM
Apr. 13--It sounds like a scientific breakthrough worth savoring:
Researchers announced this week they can genetically engineer a
longer-lasting, better-tasting tomato.
But some former employees of Calgene Inc., a once-promising biotechnology
company in Davis, greeted the news with a bit of bemusement and a sense of
dÈjý vu. When it comes to a genetically engineered tomato, they've been
there, done that -- and fallen flat on their faces. They said the new
discovery is intriguing, but doesn't guarantee success.
Isn't that a miracle? quipped ex-Calgene executive Tom Churchwell when
told of the latest research, which was reported in the journal Science.
Tiny Calgene set the food industry on its ear in 1994, when it introduced
the world's first genetically engineered food, the slow-ripening Flavr
But the tomato was hobbled by poor crop yields, transportation problems
and other issues. Two years later, the Flavr Savr was dead, and soon
after, a nearly bankrupt Calgene was sold to agrichemical giant Monsanto.
Many of Calgene's top officials scattered to other cities, and Davis lost
a golden opportunity to become a hub of the biotech industry.
Since then, various companies have experimented with genetically
engineered tomatoes, with little to show for it. The cost of bringing such
a product to market can be prohibitive, and consumers won't necessarily
pay a premium for the added flavor.
It's not clear that you can make money with it, said ex-Calgene scientist
Luca Comai, now a professor at the University of Washington. Look at what
happened to Calgene.
But the search for the high-tech tomato continues. For decades scientists
have tried to slow down the ripening process in tomatoes. The idea is that
slower-ripening tomatoes can stay on the vine longer -- and build up more
As it stands now, commercially grown tomatoes are picked green and hard in
order to stand up to the shipping process, and then treated with ethylene
gas to turn them red. The early picking hurts the taste.
Calgene found a way around that. Its scientists succeeded in clicking off
a single gene that triggers the breakdown of the tomato's skin during
ripening. That way, the tomatoes could ripen on the vine longer.
Now scientists are taking a slightly different approach. In Friday's
edition of Science, researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture,
Cornell University and elsewhere identified a gene called rin (for
ripening-inhibitor), which influences color change, softening and other
traits that occur as the tomato ripens. Rin is seen as a master switch
that controls the entire ripening process, not just the softening of the
skin. It can influence the tomato's nutritional value, and the genetic
alteration could even be applied to strawberries, bananas and other
For understanding tomato ripening and eventually taste, this could be the
Holy Grail, USDA scientist Jim Giovannoni told the Associated Press.
But a dazzling lab discovery is no guarantee of a viable commercial
Tomato lovers shouldn't run to the supermarket and ask for this thing,
Comai said. It'll be a ways to go before it'll be available.
Calgene's scientists scored their lab breakthrough in 1988. It took
Calgene six years to fine-tune the technology, wade through government red
tape and build up a production and distribution infrastructure in order to
bring the Flavr Savr to supermarkets. Even that was rushing it -- in
retrospect, Calgene should have spent more time experimenting with crop
production techniques -- but the company couldn't wait any longer. By 1994
Calgene had burned through so much money, and had built up investors'
expectations so high, that it had to launch the product as soon as
possible. The Flavr Savr -- sold under the brand name MacGregor's -- went
on sale in Northern California and Chicago in spring 1994.
The genetic engineering worked fine, but the Flavr Savr was a failure.
Costs were much higher than anticipated. Because Calgene planted the wrong
variety of tomato, crop yields were terrible. Most of the tomatoes had to
be sold to canners at low prices.
Shipping problems hurt, too. Although Flavr Savrs ripened slowly, they
still were more fragile than traditional commercially grown tomatoes. As a
result, many got mashed in the heavily mechanized packing and shipping
process, which was geared to accommodate hardened tomatoes.
Technology gets you part of the way, but not all the way, said Churchwell,
now a venture capitalist in Chicago. Commercial success takes good
management, good logistics, good marketing.
By the time Calgene harvested its last Flavr Savr crop, in the fall of
1996, the company had probably lost $150 million on the program. The
following spring, down to less than $2 million in the bank, Calgene sold
out to Monsanto.
Calgene today works mainly with canola. For the veterans of the Flavr Savr
era, the announcement of another tomato breakthrough left them thinking
about old times.
I did have the 'dÈjý vu all over again' response when I first saw it, said
ex-Calgene official Andrew Baum, now a biotech executive in Calgary. As
someone who loves tomatoes, I hope they make it.
SASKATCHEWAN SOIL SCIENTIST WINS AGROLOGIST AWARD
April 12, 2002
Farmscape, Episode 937
An award winning Saskatchewan soil scientist says high yield agriculture
can be conducted in an environmentally sustainable manner. University of
Saskatchewan Senior Research Scientist Dr. Jeff Schoenau was presented the
Saskatchewan Institute of Agrologists "Outstanding Young Agrologist Award"
last night in recognition of his service in the area of research and
extension. Dr. Schoenau says when nutrients are applied at balanced rates
the crop can use to maximize yields, there's very little evidence of
nutrient escape to the environment. Clip-Dr. Jeff Schoenau-University of
Saskatchewan When we look at soils as part of a sustainable agricultural
production system we have to insure that we are in fact replacing the
nutrients that we're removing in crop harvest, that we are managing our
nutrient inputs like commercial fertilizer and animal manures
appropriately so that we are providing optimal nutrition for the plants
and at the same time making sure that those nutrients aren't escaping out
of the system and ending up somewhere where they can cause problems like
in water or in the atmosphere. Any time we look at a change in land use,
for example converting annually cropped land into pasture or if we're
looking at expanding the livestock industry and looking at using those
manures as fertilizers as a resource there needs to be some research
information that is developed and extended to producers and others in
order to make the best use of that resource and maintain or improve the
quality of the soil. Dr. Schoenau says research has shown, it's when
nutrients are applied at excessive rates year after year that exceed the
ability of the crop to use them, that we see potential for leaching or
escape into the atmosphere.
AFRICA LOOKS TO NEW BREED OF RICE TO COMBAT FOOD SHORTAGES
April 12, 2002
West African farmers have, according to this story, begun receiving seeds
for a new breed of rice that scientists hope will help combat food
shortages and reduce African nations' reliance on imported rice. New Rice
for Africa, known as NERICA, has been developed by the West African Rice
Development Association (WARDA), based in the Ivory Coast. The project, to
distribute the new rice to farmers, was officially launched at a ceremony
in the central town of Bouake on March 27. The seeds will be distributed
to farmers in Benin, Gambia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria, and Togo.
Around 1…7 million farmers are expected to use the new rice. The new rice
variety was developed by WARDA rice breeder, Monty Jones, by
cross-breeding African rice with an Asian variety. The result is a 50%
increase in harvests without fertilisers, and a 200% increase with
fertilisers, and improved crop management. The story says that the
project's backers hope these gains will yield US$88 million worth of
savings in rice imports in 2006. The rice also matures 30-50 days earlier
than current varieties and is rich in protein--an important benefit in a
region blighted by poverty where rice is a staple food with an annual
growth rate in consumption of 5%. The rice is also more tolerant to
disease, drought, and acid soils, and resists some of the most destructive
pests in West Africa.