Today in AgBioView - April 12, 2002:
* Chinese Tried Rice
* Trait Protection Systems (aka Terminator Technology)
* Scientists Discover Produce Gene
* Arsenic and Old Maize
Chinese Tried Rice
Times of India, Editorial
APRIL 11, 2002
China pipped her neighbours to the post this week by becoming the first
Asian country to decipher the rice genome, a project it embarked upon
barely three months ago. This is in keeping with Chinaís vigorous pursuit
It was China, again, which cottoned on quickly to the wisdom of adopting
large-scale cultivation of genetically engineered Bt cotton, and it has
reaped rich dividends on that score, bringing in the much-needed economic
benefits for its marginalised farmers.
Two factors motivated China to go ahead with Bt cotton: To address the
problem of hunger and to reduce the use of pesticide, according to Chinese
scientists. Indiaís cautious approach to Bt cotton was not wholly
unjustified, faced as it was with destructive demonstrations from fervent
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committeeís recent green signal to
introducing Bt cotton in India has, however, not come a day too late. The
suicide deaths of scores of cotton farmers both in Andhra Pradesh and
Punjab still haunt public memory. They had ended their lives simply
because they could not muster the resources or find new and effective ways
of saving their cotton crop from pests.
Surely, there is a lesson to be learnt from this episode. If only we had
handled the Bt cotton issue with greater care and expediency, the poor
farmers might not have been driven to suicide.
By deciphering the rice genome independently and in such a short period,
China has demonstrated that not only does it take biotechnology very
seriously, it also intends to be at the forefront of this sunshine
industry. The rice variety it has sequenced is indica, which is something
of a staple, both in China and India. Though our efforts to introduce GM
crops got mired in controversy over its safety, there was no such
consideration in the way of going ahead with laboratory research in
sequencing crop genomes or conducting controlled field trials.
The expertise India has acquired in the field of Information Technology
(IT) is a great advantage, for, research in biotechnology areas depends a
lot on number crunching, something thatís right up our street. With
one-third of the worldís population dependent on rice for more than half
of its calorie intake, getting to know more about what constitutes the
rice genome is clearly of great advantage, especially to help breed new
varieties with better nutrients and growing qualities.
At the same time that the Chinese team made public its rice genome
sequence, Sygenta, a Swiss company, published its own version of the
genome, but of a different variety. The Japanese, too, have been working
on a similar project, studying the japonica rice variety, whose results
are expected to be ready by the end of the year.
This is going to be a very elaborate and accurate sequencing effort, claim
the Japanese scientists, who feel the Chinese rice genome can barely
qualify as anything but a first draft. And yet, it is often the first
draft that ultimately produces the final script. The Chinese effort is
doubtless a major start to understanding a promising new field that is
growing in importance ó in terms of enhancing the quality and quantity of
food and making that vital difference between life and death for some
while providing a wider choice to others.
From: "Kershen, Drew L"
Subject: Trait Protection Systems (aka Terminator Technology)
Date: Thu, 11 Apr 2002 14:05:00 -0500
Bob McGregor asked if Trait Protection Systems had been patented that did
not sterilize the seed of the transgenic plant but that only protected the
transgenic improvement while leaving the transgenic seed fertile.
The answer is "Yes." Although I cannot cite the specific patents, I know
that patents exist on two different Trait Protection Systems (TPSs).
Each system has its own name.
Gene Use Retriction Technology (GURT) is a TPS that prevents the
germination of the seed from the transgenic plant. My understanding is
that GURT was the initial patented TPS. USDA scientists created GURT and
USDA licensed it to Delta Land & Pine Company. [Patent # 5723765:
Control of plant gene expression. March 3, 1998] The GURT system was
promptly named Terminator by the anti-biotechnology ETC organization
(formerly known as RAFI).
ETC campaigned vigorously against GURT and got the FAO to declare GURT an
immoral technology. As a result, the CGIAR insitutions adopted a policy
prohibiting the use of GURT in its breeding programs. This stigmatization
occurred despite the fact that the USDA scientists who created GURT system
envisioned GURT as preventing unwanted spread of transgenic traits into
weedy relatives and into non-transgenic crops.
In other words, the USDA scientists considered GURT as an
environmentally-protective system. ETC claimed just the opposite -- that
GURT was invented for the purpose of monoplizing the transgenic trait in
order to prevent farmers from replanting seed and, thereby, enslaving
farmers into the commercial seed treadmill.
Gene Expression Technology (GET) is a TPS that prevents the expression of
the transgenic trait but which does not make the seeds sterile. I cannot
recall who patented GET (Zeneca 1999??). As I understand GET, the seed
grows but in order to get the plant to express the transgenic trait a
switch (such as a herbicide or, fertilizer) must be used to activate the
transgenic expression. ETC has been as equally hostile towards GET as
GURT but ETC has been unsuccessful (I believe) in getting FAO to condemn
For two articles about GURT (also called V-GURT for variety gene use
restriction technology) and GET (also called T-GURT for traite gene use
restriction technology), please read:
1. TOP PRODUCER Magazine (Dec. 2000) pp. 28-29 "Not Yet Terminated:
Reports of Terminator's death are premature"
2. NY TIMES, April 19, 1999, Barnaby J. Feder, "Plant Sterility Research
Inflames Debate on Biotechnology's Role in Farming."
Drew L. Kershen
Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law
University of Oklahoma College of Law
Norman, Oklahoma 73019-5081 U.S.A.
Scientists Discover Produce Gene
Thu Apr 11, 2002
By PHILIP BRASHER
WASHINGTON - Scientists say they have figured out a way to make tomatoes
taste fresher and last longer by tinkering with a gene that controls
The researchers, who report their findings in Friday's issue of the
journal Science, believe the procedure may also work with strawberries,
bananas, bell peppers, melons and other produce.
"For understanding tomato ripening and eventually taste, this could be the
Holy Grail," said Jim Giovannoni, an Agriculture Department scientist who
led the research.
Gardeners know that tomatoes that ripen on the vine are much tastier than
the tomatoes sold in supermarkets. That's because farm-grown tomatoes have
to be picked before they ripen and develop their flavor. To turn them red
and restart their ripening, tomatoes are treated with ethylene gas, a
natural ripening agent in fruit.
Giovannoni's team of scientists turned off the ripening gene in the tomato
plant, which would allow farmers to leave the tomatoes on the vine for
several days longer. The tomato would still be firm enough for shipping
across the country.
The tomatoes also would be healthier, because vine-ripened tomatoes have
higher levels of lycopene, an antioxidant that has been linked to lower
rates of prostate and other cancers.
This isn't the first time that scientists have genetically engineered a
tomato to last longer.
The Flavr Savr tomato, which was developed through modification of a gene
that was through to cause softening, was approved for sale in 1994 but ran
into production and shipping problems and was off the market by 1997. The
tomatoes were so delicate they were difficult to transport without damage.
The Flavr Savr tomatoes didn't taste that good because of the variety from
which they were developed, said Chris Watkins, a horticulture professor at
Cornell University. "There was very little flavor to save," he said.
Some biotech companies also are doing private research into developing
fresher-tasting produce, said Val Giddings, an agricultural specialist
with the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
"Ripening is a complex pathway. There are any number of interventions that
could have an impact," Giddings said.
In the early 1960s, a Cornell scientist discovered how to extend the shelf
life of tomatoes by crossing a plant that had a defective ripening gene
with plants that were normal.
Giovannoni's team identified two genes, one that regulates ripening and
another that controls floral development.
The research could speed the breeding of improved varieties of tomatoes,
but they are years away from reaching supermarkets. New biotech crops must
be reviewed by USDA and other agencies.
Scientists from the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research in Ithaca,
N.Y., Texas A&M University and Jeallots Hill Research Station in Britain
also participated in the research.
Arsenic and Old Maize
April 9, 2002
By Kenneth Green, Chief Scientist, Reason
You've heard that quote, "The trouble is not what we know, it's what we
know that isn't so?"
Well, one of the things I do at the Reason Public Policy Institute is
argue for safety, health, and environmental policy that is rooted in the
sound use of science, and more often than not "what we don't know" is
glossed over in favor of unsupportable statements of certainty. Time after
time, we hear that this policy or that policy is based on "sound science,"
and that the "debate over the science is done, now it's time to
implement!" But it's virtually never that simple.
From dietary fat to dietary salt, from Alar, to DDT ó time after time, the
claims of activists have been shown to be erroneous but not until after
hasty policy actions have caused more harm than good. As policy analyst
Aaron Wildavsky has pointed out, making policy while uncertainty is high
is almost guaranteed to produce a net harm, depriving us of resources
while doing nothing to reduce or eliminate risk.
In my reading, I happened across two articles of interest in this regard.
In a Reuters news article, "Arsenic, King of Poisons Gets an Image
Makeover," we learn that arsenic, the chemical that poisoned the Bush
Administration's early days, may not be the demon it was made out to be.
In fact, on closer inspection, this chemical that some called unsafe at
any dose looks more like a medicinal and micronutrient! Of course, that
probably won't stop the clamor for driving arsenic levels in drinking
water down to zero, regardless of the cost.
And in an Associated Press article, "Fight Rages over Bioengineered Corn,"
we see that claims being made about the danger of bio-engineered crops are
being rolled out faster than the science can back them up. First, the
scare over the poisoning of monarch butterflies by bio-engineered corn was
refuted by follow-up studies, and now, no less prestigious a journal than
_Nature_ is eating its (scary) words about engineered corn, words that
many scientists feel should never have seen print. In a world full of
starving people whose hope rests on the successful development of
biotechnology, the scare-campaign against genetically-engineered foods
adds insult to injury.
Neither of these articles represents the last word on the subject, of
course, and science is always evolving. But both of them should offer food
for thought to those who want to make policy first and ask questions
later. Not only does that impulse waste society's resources and misdirect
its attention from larger threats, hasty regulation undermines our
individual liberty and economic competitiveness, both of which are
wellsprings of safety, health, and environmental quality.
Kenneth Green, D.Env., is Chief Scientist for the free-market Reason
Public Policy Institute (www.rppi.org), which is part of the Reason
Foundation, and he can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org