Today in AgBioView - April 4, 2002:
* Journal Editors Disavow Article on Biotech Corn
* Fight Rages Over Bioengineered Corn
* Sugarcane Transformation
* Re: Fukayma's Bad Bet on Biotech
* Commercial Seeds Set To Take Root: Expert
* Cottoning On To Biotechnology
* PHILIPPINES TO REGULATE IMPORT OF GMOS
* GM risk studies are "ambulance chasing"
Journal Editors Disavow Article on Biotech Corn
By Marc Kaufman
April 4, 2002; Page A03
The science journal Nature has concluded that a controversial article it
published last year on the discovery of genetically engineered corn
growing in Mexico was not well researched enough and should not have been
In a highly unusual "editorial note" in this week's edition of the
journal, the editors said that based on criticisms of the article and
assessments by outside referees, "Nature has concluded that the evidence
available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original
That article had reported that corn from the southern state of Oaxaca
contained genetically modified material, although Mexico has prohibited
all engineered corn since 1998. The finding was especially important
because corn originated in the southern valley of Mexico and Central
America and the region remains the international center for corn
The initial study also offered evidence that the genes spliced into corn
plants were unstable, a finding that would challenge a basic assumption
about the workings of agricultural biotechnology.
The editor's note does not distinguish between the two aspects of the
study, by David Quist and Ignacio Chapela at the University of California
at Berkeley. But the two authors, a graduate student and a professor, said
they stand by their first finding and believe they were on the right track
with their second, although they may have misinterpreted some readings.
"None of the criticism put forward challenges our main statement, that
there is corn growing in Mexico with genetically engineered material,"
The initial study had been embraced by anti-biotechnology activists, who
said it confirmed worries that the technology was spreading in
uncontrolled and unapproved ways. But Nature's near-retraction of the
article was welcomed by advocates for the technology.
"We believe that Nature erred in publishing the article to begin with, and
it seems they came to the same unavoidable conclusion," said Val Giddings
of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "The authors made mistakes
that first-year grad students learn to avoid, which further demonstrates
that their commitment was not to data and science but to a religious
commitment to an [anti-biotechnology] dogma."
Nick Kaplinsky, also a professor at Berkeley, wrote one of the criticisms
of the Mexican corn study that are running in today's issue of Nature. He
said he was especially drawn to the conclusion by Quist and Chapela that
transgenes were "jumping around the genome" of Mexican corn, a conclusion
that he said "would have changed some basic assumptions about
biotechnology, if correct."
Kaplinsky said his review of the work showed basic errors in methodology
that made the conclusion inappropriate. But he said that on the first
question of whether genetically modified corn is growing in Mexico, "I
think at some point soon, someone will come up with good scientific
evidence that it is growing all over the country."
Nature is among the most respected of scientific journals, and its
articles are aggressively peer-reviewed. A spokesperson said the editorial
note saying the initial study should not have been published was
"unprecedented" in recent times. The journal also included some new
research from Quist and Chapela on Mexican corn alongside the note, and
said it wanted to "allow our readers to judge the science for themselves."
Chapela said yesterday that he believed the effort to undermine the
Mexican corn study was the work of biotechnology advocates, some of whom
had personal reasons for attacking him. Chapela said that he led a
successful movement at Berkeley several years ago to turn down a large
grant from Novartis, a major biotechnology company, and that some Berkeley
colleagues were still angry about that. Kaplinsky said their interest was
to expose flawed science.
Fight Rages Over Bioengineered Corn
Thu Apr 4, 7:26 AM ET
By ANDREW BRIDGES, AP Science Writer
A prestigious scientific journal is backing off a study concluding DNA
from genetically modified corn contaminated native maize in Mexico, amid
an unusually public and bitter exchange between its authors and their
critics over "bad science" and questions of incompetence.
In late November, the British journal Nature published a study by
University of California, Berkeley scientists claiming genes from
laboratory-altered strains of corn had found their way into indigenous
maize in rural Oaxaca.
The finding further clouded the contentious debate over genetically
modified crops and raised new fears among activists of threats to the
diversity of corn in the very region where the plant was first
domesticated millennia ago.
Mexico banned the planting of transgenic corn in 1998 to protect the
genetic integrity of its indigenous maize.
In a terse statement published Thursday on the journal's Web site, editor
Philip Campbell said Nature "has concluded that the evidence available is
not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper."
Rather than retract the study, Nature printed two criticisms of the work,
as well as a rebuttal from the authors. Their reply includes new data
resulting from further scientific work. The journal's editors, in an
unusual move, requested the Berkeley scientists undertake the work to
bolster their contention ó or face a demand for a retraction.
The journal stopped short of declaring the research flawed. Instead,
Campbell wrote that Nature would allow its readers "to judge the science
for themselves." Jo Webber, a London-based spokeswoman for Nature, said
the journal had no further comment.
The move enraged the study's authors, who concede only minor interpretive
"We certainly stand by our original, main statement and I have yet to see
anyone challenge it legitimately," said Ignacio Chapela, co-author of the
study with David Quist.
Nature took the unusual move after Chapela and Quist's study was severely
criticized by at least four groups of scientists, many with ties to
"The Quist and Chapela study is a testament to technical incompetence,"
said Matthew Metz, of the University of Washington and a co-author of one
of the two criticisms. "Evidence for the presence of transgenic DNA in
Mexican maize remains dubious and empirical."
Primarily, the study's critics suggest the researchers misidentified
sequences in the maize genome they believed indicated the presence of
transgenic material. Particularly egregious, critics said, was their claim
that the transgenic material, once it entered the maize's genome,
scattered randomly, an entirely unpredictably effect unseen in normal DNA.
"Since Quist and Chapela published bad science in Nature, both scientists
and Nature must come absolutely clean, retract and apologize. There is no
other issue," said geneticist Michael Freeling, also of Berkeley and a
co-author of a critical letter published by Nature.
Nature arranged for three additional scientists, all unidentified, to
review the criticisms and the researchers' reply.
All three pointed out that technical errors marred the research, according
to copies of their comments obtained by The Associated Press.
However, only one called for a retraction unless further evidence for the
claim could be provided ó advice apparently followed by Nature. The others
note transgenic corn is likely growing in Mexico, but that scientific
proof is still lacking.
Jane Rissler, a biotechnology critic with advocacy group Union of
Concerned Scientists, said the study's shortcomings should have been
detected prior to publication.
"It is important to note that we need to have the best science that we can
get and that our understanding and proper dealing with genetically
engineered crops is enhanced by that good science," Rissler said.
Berkeley's injection into the debate over transgenic crops is not new. In
1998, the university signed a five-year, $25 million contract with
Novartis, giving the Swiss chemical company first option on much of the
genomic discoveries made in its plant and microbial biology department.
Critics, including Chapela, alleged conflict of interest.
From: "prakash nijsure"
Subject: Dr Prakash Nijsure (Sugarcane Transformation)
Date: Thu, 04 Apr 2002 17:24:29 +1000
Dear all Agbio subscribers
I wish to know is there any institute working on production of transgenic
sugarcane resistant to drought, and other abiotic stresses.
Date: Wed, 3 Apr 2002 17:50:30 -0600
From: "Greg Pence"
Subject: Fukayma's Bad Bet on Biotech
First of all, not only does Fukuyama know nothing about biotechnology, he
knows nothing about bioethics. But he got people to think he was very deep
by arguing that we could understand the rise of capitalism if we knew
Hegel, so he's up to similar tricks with bioethics. What is his
background. According to the article by Nicholas Wade in yesterday's New
York Times, he studied "classics at Cornell and political science at
Harvard," neither one of which has anything to do with the last forty
years of bioethics. Nicholas Wade should be ashamed for doing such an ad
for Fukuyama's new book in an article purporting to be objective.
Commercial Seeds Set To Take Root: Expert
By Parul Malhotra
April 04, 2002
New Delhi, April 3: Indiaís commercial seed sector is set for take off, a
top plant biotechnologist has predicted. The assertion follows conditional
approval given to the Maharashtra Hybrid Company late last week for
marketing its Bt cotton. ìYou can expect significant new activity in the
commercial seed sector,î plant biotechnologist at Tuskegee University and
advisor to the department of biotechnology C S Prakash told FE on
Wednesday. Here in India for a series of lectures at IITs and agricultural
universities, Dr Prakash backs the conditions laid down by government, and
was optimistic that the regulator would exhibit greater dynamism
The optimism is well founded. Aurangabad-based Nath Seeds has already been
licensed by a Chinese research institute, Biocentury Transgene Company.
Nath plans to develop its own hybrids using the Bt gene. Two other cotton
hybrid seed companies, Rasi Seeds and Ankur Seeds, have tied up with
Mahyco Monsanto Biotech, to develop Bt cotton seeds. A a Hyderbad-based
seed company too has evinced initial interest. ìMore choice for the
farmers will naturally benefit them,î Prakash says.
Importantly, Dr Prakash backs the three year time frame of approval
granted to Bt cotton. He feels that the regulatory system has to evolve
over time and that thereís therefore ìneed to be cautious in the first
instanceî. The plant biotechnologist cautions against a replay of ìthe
protracted regulatory foot-dragging of the type weíve seen with Bt
cottonî. He laments that the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee has
got bogged down in non-scientific issues (such as assessing the economic
viability of GM crops for farmers), and stresses on the need for the
regulator to focus exclusively on knowledge-based aspects of safety of GM
seeds. ìRegulatory agencies are not the correct fora for discussing
societal and ethical concerns, important though they areî, Dr Prakash
The expert is unimpressed by fears about non-compliance of specified
refuge guidelines by farmers. ìIn India, even in the densest cotton
growing areas, farmers have not adopted a monoculture cropping pattern.
Other crops such as vegetables are always grown along with cotton.
Therefore, less than 100 per cent compliance is not a big deal. Itís only
a few years down the line, when the proportion of Bt cotton increases,
that this problem can emerge, but by then we should have different
varieties of GM cotton which will help tackle the pest resistance
problem,î he assures.
Dr Prakash has a message for governments. That they have a greater role to
play in the development of GM seeds for commercially unviable crops, in
fostering greater public-private partnership, increasing public sector
funding on biotech, as well as ushering a strong accountability system for
research institutes and agricultural universities in the public domain.
Asserting that GM technology was suitable for both developing country and
developed country farmers (ìit is is scale neutralî), Dr Prakash dismisses
the notion that the Indian farmer would become a slave of ëgreedyí
ìCurrently, intellectual property rights are an issue for hybrid
varieties, whether conventionally engineered or genetically engineered.
Thatís because the beneficial traits (such as improved yield) arising from
heterosis diminish substantially from the second generation onwards.
Even the farmers in Gujarat which saved the Navbharat seed variety for the
next cropping season admit to lower yields in the following season. On the
other hand, stronger intellectual property systems will act as an
incentive for biotech companies to develop pure line (non-hybrid)
varieties. Indeed, Monsanto introduced pure line seeds in China and could
attract 90 per cent of Bt farmers because of their superior quality,î he
As for price, even though the Bt seed may be more expensive due to patent
protection, the value generated from using Bt cotton seed (in terms of
savings in labour and pesticide costs and improved productivity) has far
outstripped the cost, Dr Prakash notes.
Cottoning On To Biotechnology
CONTRARY TO POPULAR OPINION, BHARAT HAS LED INDIA KICKING AND SCREAMING
INTO THE 21ST CENTURY
By N Chandra Mohan
April 04, 2002
Just a day before the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee gave its
conditional clearance to the cultivation of Bt cotton on March 26, 2002,
farmer representatives led by Sharad Joshi ó who formed part of the Kisan
Coordination Committee ó threatened to launch a civil disobedience
movement if the approval didnít come through. But paradoxically many in
the country still believe that farmers, instead of being harbingers of
change, are blocking genetically engineered seeds in India.
Nothing can be further from the truth, even though the earlier track
record of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha led by Professor Nanjundaswamy
set off the protest movement against Bt cotton in 1998. On March 25, 2002,
however, KCC representatives from all the cotton growing states in the
country like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh firmly
supported the introduction of Bt cotton in the current kharif season
Interestingly, tough questions then were posed to Mr Joshi and company by
the journalists ó notably, regarding the credentials of the foreign-funded
platform they were speaking from, right down to why they were pressurising
GEAC to approve Bt cotton. But the farmer representatives defended
themselves stating that they had the right to check out the latest
technology as their cotton crops were severely affected by bollworm
Besides the farmers, industry too has welcomed the official clearance to
Bt cotton. Ranged against them are the globally connected environmentalist
non-governmental organisations and segments of the Indian intelligentsia
who actually represent the real face of the protest movement against Bt
cotton and genetically modified seeds in general. NGO activists termed the
approval as a ìcorrupt decision under the pressure of MNCs like Monsantoî.
The Bt cotton saga begins way back in 1996 when the Maharashtra Hybrid
Seeds Company obtained permission to import and test genetically altered
seeds obtained from Monsanto. Mahyco ó in which Monsanto has a 26 per cent
stake ó got the seeds, made back crosses with local varieties and applied
for permission for field trials. It got the permission but in 1998, KRRS
activists burnt down trial fields in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
But such protests soon petered out. The KRRS toured Europe as part of the
Inter-continental Caravan but its influence in stopping Bt cotton was
limited thereafter: ìDirect action in Andhra and Karnataka ...didnít halt
GMO seeds. A single persistent public intellectual ó Vandana Shiva ó did,
but only officially and temporarily. Beneath the regulatory gaze of the
state, Bt seeds were multiplying and growingî, argued Professor Ron
Herring in his 2001 Mary Keatinge Das lecture ëPromethean science,
Pandoraís jug: Conflicts around genetically engineered organisms in Indiaí
delivered at Columbia University.
The KRRS basically self-destructed from within. Farmers elsewhere reeling
from pest attacks on their cotton crops turned to an unapproved variety of
Bt cotton. In September 2001, around 500 farmers in Gujarat were found to
have planted the seed on 11,000 acres. Around 480-odd acres in Andhra
Pradesh too had plantings of the illicit Bt cotton. The surprise is that
corporate rivalries ó especially from Mahycoís side to safeguard its
intellectual property rights ó resulted in the governmentís attention
being drawn to the matter.
Basically farmers ìvoted with their ploughsî ó to borrow an expression of
Herring ó under the regulatory gaze of the State to force it to act
speedily. And act it did: ìIn a reversal of roles between activists and
State, in an ironic replay of the ëcremate Monsantoí campaign, Delhi (via
GEAC) at first ordered that the crop be burned; all Bt cotton fiber was to
be recovered from the marketî noted the US-based professor.
Dramatic stuff, but why did farmers vote with their ploughs? They were
upset that GEAC was taking its own time in approving Bt cotton. In June
2001, the agency denied permission and asked for larger trials to be done
by Mahyco. Joshi termed this as a Seattle-type road block, which amounts
to ìdenying the jawans on the Northwest border automatic guns and
insisting they continue with the old 303 rifles till the environment
ministry .. is satisfied with the global consequences of the automatic
Clearly, any reconstruction of those events has to consider that farmers
steadily mounted pressure on GEAC to approve Bt cotton. That it was Bharat
that was forcing the government to act fast, despite the excited vigilance
of NGOs. Nothing illustrates this resolve more firmly than Punjabís chief
minister, Capt Amarinder Singh, who told he Indian Express that ìthe
infotech revolution missed Punjab, we wonít let Bt pass us by.î
The reason why farmers prefer Bt cotton is simple. Take for instance
Punjab which produced 27 lakh bales of cotton earlier, which is down to
seven lakh bales this year. When a state experiences the seventh straight
failure of its cotton crop, there is bound to a broad constituency for
adopting a better technology. For a technological solution that provides
higher yields and lower pesticide consumption. That implies better
Such is the calculus of farmers, yet there is deep-seated feeling within
India that they are not rational agents. Sadly, that remains true also of
global NGOs who think they can ultimately dictate what choices farmers
must make. ìFarmers everywhere are in a bad situation over low prices.
Whenever you see these crops come to market, you see a significant take-up
because farmers see it as their salvationî, stated Ms Doreen Stabinsky of
Greenpeace to The Financial Times.
Salvation or no salvation, the decks now have been cleared for the
introduction of genetically modified seeds in India. One really wonders
whether all this opposition from NGOs would have been any less had an
indigenous outfit like the Central Institute for Cotton Research at Nagpur
given its Bt cotton seeds for trials instead of Monsanto. In all
probability, it would have been less because the target really was MNCs.
GEACís belated approval finally enables India to catch up with China. The
country has the worldís highest acreage under cotton but its productivity
is low. As a result, India is the worldís third largest producer behind
China and the US. The neighbouring country had a headstart in the
introduction of Bt cotton and its R&D expenditures on plant biotechnology
are also way above ours. Of course, they donít have environmentalist NGOs
to contend with, but its progress truly illustrates what India can
potentially do in biotech. Contrary to popular impression, Bharatís role
in leading the country kicking and screaming into this brave new world
clearly is an important one.
PHILIPPINES TO REGULATE IMPORT OF GMOS
April 3, 2002
MANILA - The Philippine Department of Agriculture was cited as saying on
Wednesday that the government has approved guidelines to regulate imports
of genetically modified plants and plant products by July 1 next year. The
department said Agriculture Secretary Leonardo Montemayor signed the
administrative order governing the release of genetically modified
(GMOs) for field testing, propagation and for direct use as food or feed
in the southern Cagayan de Oro City while attending a food congress in
that area. The story says that the issuance of the guidelines was approved
by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the Cabinet on Tuesday. Under the
administrative order, the government would prepare by June 30 next year a
list of approved commodities that will be allowed entry into the country.
After that date, any company importing a GMO not included in the list of
the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) will be required to secure a permit, it
GM risk studies are "ambulance chasing"
by Bea Perks
2 April 2002
Two US studies that famously linked genetically modified crops to deaths
among monarch butterflies were "fundamentally flawed" and typify a trend
towards "ambulance chasing" science, fumes one of the UK's leading
"Scientists sensationalize stuff because they get noticed ... They're
staking out their territory, causing alarm, so that there's more funding
in that area," said Angharad Gatehouse, group leader in agricultural and
environmental science at the University of Newcastle. "I guess that's
human nature but I think it's fundamentally dishonest," she told BioMedNet
"There is more and more a trend to what some people call 'ambulance
chasing' science," she added.
The two studies that suggested that crops engineered to express a gene for
an insecticidal toxin from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) could harm the
monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, caused alarm in scientific and public
arenas, recalls Gatehouse.
Numerous studies were set up to investigate the matter further, and
Gatehouse has reviewed this work in the May issue of Trends in Genetics,
due out later this month.
"All these studies came to the same conclusion," said Gatehouse, "that
wide scale planting of GM corn expressing Bt was not a real threat to
The first study to suggest the link in 1999, from entomologist John
Losey's group at Cornell University, was subsequently shown to have
treated butterflies with quantities of GM pollen that "bore no
relationship to the levels of maize pollen that would accumulate," she
The argument that carrying out studies at extremes could identify
potential effects does not impress her.
"I think that that concept actually is fundamentally flawed," Gatehouse
said. "You must use realistic levels of whatever - pollen, toxins -
otherwise the results you get are essentially meaningless."
Another researcher, who after a second independent study published
evidence supporting Losey's work, is unrepentant.
"I don't think it was a mistake," said John Obrycki, professor of
entomology at Iowa State University, referring to his and Losey's studies.
"These studies were certainly valid," he told BioMedNet News. Losey was
unavailable for comment.
Obrycki and Losey became the focus of "intense criticism" from the
scientific community after publication of their data, recalls Obrycki.
Nevertheless, he remains surprisingly philosophical. It was "interesting"
to attract attention from experts outside his own field of entomology, he
"[Losey] raised an important question," said Obrycki. "His study showed
that this is something we need to think about." Obrycki recalls that he
and Losey discussed the experiment's design; it was all done by eye, he
says. Losey used the amount of pollen that he thought he had seen on
plants at the edges of maize fields, notes Obrycki, although he now
accepts that Losey ultimately used too much.
Obrycki's latest unpublished findings suggest that Bt crops do play a
role, albeit "relatively minor," in monarch butterfly mortality. He is one
year into a field trial examining the relationship.
"We did see increased mortality this year," said Obrycki. But the data are
preliminary, he warns. "That's just one year and we'd need a couple of
years to confirm that."
He dismisses the accusation of "ambulance chasing." "I'm not certain that
investigating the potential effects of a transgenic crop would be
'ambulance chasing,'" he laughed.