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April 23, 2002


Seeds of Better Future; Reducing Pesticide Use; Growing More Per


Today in AgBioView: April 243, 2002

* Sowing the Seeds of A Better Future - Ignore the Doubters
* Environmental Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops: Reducing Pesticide
* Growing More Per Acre Leaves More Land For Nature
* Poor Nations' Crop Research Hurt By Japanese Cutbacks
* India To Develop Transgenic Cotton In Three Years
* Most GM Seeds Lay Thrust On Pest Control
* Framework for Implementing Biosafety: Linking Policy, Capacity and
* Future of Agriculture: Challenges for Environment, Health and Safety
Regulation of Pesticides
* FAO Launches Biotechnology E-mail Service
* Agricultural Biotechnologies: New Avenues for Production, Consumption
and Technology Transfer
* Kirk Report Refuses To Rule Out GM Crops
* A New Organic Stew
* Merging Trends: Metabolic Engineering

Sowing the Seeds of A Better Future - Ignore the Doubters

'GM Crops Can Help To Feed ..'

- Johnjoe McFadden, The Guardian, April 24, 2002

While we in the west continue in our narcissistic obsession with our own
genome and the futuristic possibilities of human cloning, scientists in
the developing world are more interested in the crops that put food in
hungry mouths. This month a group of them laid bare the complete genome
sequence of rice in what may prove to be a turning point for science in
the developing world.

Rice is the staple crop for 3 billion people, mostly in Asia, so it was no
surprise when Japan fired the starting gun for the genome race in 1991.
But big markets generate big profits, so the major agrochemical
corporations were soon among the runners. In the end, the Swiss-based
multinational biotechnology giant, Syngenta, was a fairly predictable
winner. But before environmentalists or globalisation demonstrators
protest at yet more science in the pockets of big business, they should
note that the other winner was the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI).

Only four years ago, the BGI was an empty brick building. But through the
dynamism of its director, geneticist Yang Huanming, and with seed money
from the state, Yang's hometown municipal government, and even loans from
employees, family and friends, it became a world-class research institute.
Soon, several hundred employees were working two 12-hour shifts to keep
the sequencing machines running 24 hours a day. With little more than
ping-pong to distract them from decoding the rice genome, science in the
developing world took on multinational biotechnology, and won - or at
least drew.

But the rice genome is far more than a David versus Goliath story. More
than a billion people live on less than $1 a day and that usually buys
rice. The crop is prone to many diseases and much of it ends up in the
belly of an insect. An outbreak of brown plant-hoppers disease cost Java
70% of its rice crop in the 1970s. Climate change is a major worry in
marginal lands. Droughts brought by the 1997-98 El Nino inflicted losses
across Asia.

Genetic engineering to generate varieties resistant to disease, pests,
drought or salinity could revolutionise third world farming. The release
of the sequence will help researchers eager to improve crop yields.

Many aid organisations - often influenced by western green campaigns - say
GM technology does little to address the real causes of world poverty and
hunger. They said the same decades ago when famine was predicted to follow
population explosion. The population explosion materialised but the famine
didn't. While others argued for social reform, pioneering plant breeders,
such as Norman Borlaug, developed high-yielding varieties of maize, wheat
and rice. Global harvests soared and have continued to rise at a rate of
2% per year. The green revolution saved millions from starvation, but is
grinding to a halt as plant breeders run out of natural genetic variation.
To keep pace with population growth, breeders need to tinker with genes.
That is why China spent $100m on GM technology in 1999.

Biotechnology is more appropriate for the developing world than most high
technologies. At the click of a mouse, a researcher in Addis Ababa or
Kuala Lumpur can download the fruits of billion-dollar research projects.
And although western manufacturers charge prohibitive prices for their
gene-cloning reagents, local manufacturers can often produce the same
products cheaply and efficiently. Yang Huanming found a local glass-maker
who could make a piece of sequencing kit for a fraction of the price of
the import. Unable to acquire US-made supercomputers, BGI scien tists
bought locally and developed their own software.

China's ratio of six researchers or engineers for every 10,000 population
may seem puny against the 70 or so in the United States, but it is more
than 10 times the typical ratio for the poorest countries in Africa or
Asia. But China isn't alone in its interest in biotechnology. A coalition
of laboratories from Sao Paolo in Brazil has completed the DNA sequence of
a bacterium that causes disease in citrus fruits. Researchers from Brazil,
India and Mexico are involved in a global consortium to sequence the
banana genome. The UN-commissioned human development report 2001 concluded
"many developing countries might reap great benefits from genetically
modified food crops and other organisms".

GM technology can benefit the poor, but the western anti-technology lobby
is busy trying to prevent its use. Publication of the rice gene genome
shows how science, in the hands of developing world scientists, can be a
liberating influence for mankind. It's about time western lobbyists let
them get on with it.

Johnjoe McFadden is professor of molecular genetics at the University of
Surrey and author of Quantum Evolution. j.mcfadden@surrey.ac.uk.


Environmental Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops: Global and European
Perspectives on Their Ability To Reduce Pesticide Use

- R. H. Phipps and J.R. Park Journal of Animal and Feed Sciences vol.11,
2002, 1-18
Centre for Dairy Research, Department of Agriculture, The University of
Reading, Reading RG6 6AT, UK


Abstract. The Green Revolution, which brought together improved varieties,
increased use of fertilizer, irrigation and synthetic pesticides, is
credited with helping to feed the current global population of 6 billion.
While this paper recognizes the ability of pesticides to reduce crop
losses, it also discusses their potential negative effects on public
health, with particular emphasis in developing countries, and the
environment. The response of the agricultural industry in bringing forward
new technology such as reduced application rates of targeted pesticides
with lower toxicity and persistency is noted. However, with increasing
world population, a slowing of the rate of crop improvement through
conventional breeding and a declining area of land available for food
production there is a need for new technologies to produce more food of
improved nutritional value in an environmentally acceptable and
sustainable manner.

Whilst the authors recognize that the introduction of genetically modified
(GM) crops is controversial, the benefits of these crops, including their
effect on pesticide use is only now beginning to be documented. Published
data are used to estimate what effect GM crops have had on pesticide use
first on a global basis, and then to predict what effect they would have
if widely grown in the European Union (EU). On a global basis GM
technology has reduced pesticide use, with the size of the reduction
varying between crops and the introduced trait. It is estimated that the
use of GM soyabean, oil seed rape, cotton and maize varieties modified for
herbicide tolerance and insect protected GM varieties of cotton reduced
pesticide use by a total of 22.3 million kg of formulated product in the
year 2000.

Estimates indicate that if 50% of the maize, oil seed rape, sugar beet,
and cotton grown in the EU were GM varieties, pesticide used in the
EU/annum would decrease by 14.5 million kg of formulated product (4.4
million kg active ingredient). In addition there would be a reduction of
7.5 million ha sprayed which would save 20.5 million litres of diesel and
result in a reduction of approximately 73,000 t of carbon dioxide being
released into the atmosphere. The paper also points to areas where GM
technology may make further marked reductions in global pesticide use.


Growing More Per Acre Leaves More Land For Nature

- Press conference next Tuesday, April 30th, with Dr. Norman Borlaug, Dr.
Patrick Moore (co-founder of Greenpeace) and Mr. Eugene Lapointe launching
High-Yield Conservation Declaration.

High-yield farming -- the Green Revolution -- has been a significant
environmental and humanitarian triumph. Since the 1960's it has led to
better lives and prevented the deaths and malnourishment of billions of
people. Additionally, the Green Revolution's higher yields have protected
millions of square miles from being put under plow for food production,
thereby saving large amounts of natural habitats for biologically diverse
plant and animal species. In the same way, high-yield forestry reduces
logging pressures on wild forests.

The world's population is likely to rise to nine billion people in the
coming decades. Global demand for food and forest products will double.
Yet we are already taking more than one-third of the planet's total land
area for farming. Thus, the greatest threat to the Earth's biodiversity is
habitat loss through the conversion of natural ecosystems to farmland.

Additional high-yield practices based on advances in biology, ecology,
chemistry, and technology are critically needed to improve the human
condition and preserve our natural environment.

- Alice Killian Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food


Poor Nations' Crop Research Hurt By Japanese Cutbacks

- DavidÝCyranoski, Nature 416, 777 (2002)

TOKYO. With recent breakthroughs such as the draft rice genome sequence,
agriculture researchers should have plenty to look forward to. But the
research centres that are best placed to to tap that promise are facing a
funding crisis this spring.

Japan, a major supporter of such research, is planning to cut funding for
the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) by
almost half, from last year's €3.6 billion (US$29 million). The CGIAR's 16
institutes form the main global network of research centres addressing the
agricultural needs of poor countries. The impact will be felt immediately
at the CGIAR's prestigious International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)
near Manila in the Philippines. "Japan had been our largest and most
faithful donor," laments Ron Cantrell, the institute's director.

The impending cut led IRRI, at a board meeting earlier this month, to
reduce staff levels by over 20% to 785. In addition, some projects will be
scaled back. The cuts will not affect the maintenance of the world's
largest collection of rice germ plasm, which is kept at the institute,
Cantrell says. Other members of the CGIAR are also feeling the pinch. The
International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, expects to lose about
US$700,000 in Japanese funding and will lay off one-fifth of its staff.
Research on late blight and the breeding of new pest-resistant varieties
will suffer, says Hugo Li Pun, a deputy director at the CIP. Li Pun has
also heard rumours that European nations are set to cut donations.

The situation is especially frustrating because so much data is now
available for agricultural research, says Cantrell. "The world is bursting
with new technologies," he says. "We are really on the cusp of something


India To Develop Transgenic Cotton In Three Years

The Hindu, April 24, 2002

India is likely to develop transgenic cotton within three years, the Union
Agriculture Minister, Ajit Singh, told a meeting of the Parliamentary
Consultative Committee attached to his Ministry on Tuesday. He said the
country was advanced in developing transgenic crops. Biotechnological
research for the improvement of crops such as mango, banana, citrus
fruits, grapes and pineapple was in the early stages of development.

"Extensive and rigorous testing of each transgenic crop by the regulatory
agencies could ensure that these products were not released unless they
were proven bio-safe,'' he assured the members when some of them expressed
concern at the efficacy of the approved Bt cotton seeds.

The Centre was holding discussions with Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan on
Bt cotton. The private sector variety that had been cleared for sowing was
for southern and western India and should not be cultivated in the north.
The Indian Council for Agriculture research would soon conduct trials on
Bt cotton suitable for the north. The ICAR recently isolated a gene part
called promoter from the tomato plant which could be used in a modified
form for delaying fruit ripening. This technology could be extended to
perishable fruits and vegetables.

"Besides proving to be economical and giving plant uniformity in terms of
ripening, it would also make fruits tastier and enhance their nutrient
content by allowing them to be on plants for a longer time,'' he said. In
the case of tuber crops, protocols had been developed for in-vitro culture
of cassava, sweet potato, taro, yams, and Chinese potato. In plantation
crops, micro-propagation through tissue culture had been successful in
coconut, oil palm and cashew.

Mr. Singh said that India, with a 70 per cent rural base, had to lay
greater emphasis on agricultural biotechnology to enhance its farm
productivity per unit land, water and capital without harming the eco-
system. Participating in the discussions, the Members of Parliament who
are on the committee urged the Government to properly handle the surplus
foodgrain stocks.


Most GM Seeds Lay Thrust On Pest Control

- Nidhi Nath Srinivas, The Economic Times (India), April 24, 2002

NEW DELHI: Though they say it will put more food on the table, only a
fraction of all new genetically modified cereals and less than a quarter
of GM oilseeds actually aim to increase yields and grow more food. The
overwhelming majority are designed simply to raise the farmerÇs
profitability by reducing costs on pesticides and fertilisers, or to
create new commercial uses for traditional crops.

This is the main reason why the big international food trading giants are
not in the least perturbed that GM seeds with superior yields could lead
to less imports by poor nations. The UN's Food and Agriculture
Organisation now finds that of the almost 1,000 priority patents for basic
foodstuffs filed between 1998-2000, 49 per cent of the patents on oilseeds
(soyabean, sunflower, and rapeseed) and 30 per cent of the patents on
cereals are to maintain yields through pest/disease resistance or reduce

Another 30 per cent of the cereal patents and 15 per cent for oilseeds are
for creating new uses, while 12 per cent of the patents on cereals and 5
per cent on oilseeds are to improve marketability. In contrast, just 13
per cent of the cereal patents and 23.4 per cent oilseed patents aimed to
increase yields.

"This indicates that the most likely first effect of biotechnology
developments on the global cereal trade would be to reinforce existing
trade patterns because the developments pursued so far have been directed
at and adopted by commercial producers in food-surplus exporting
countries," FAO's Intergovernmental Groups on Grains and Rice has

But is commercial advantage the reason why are scientists not tackling the
problem of superior yields? Not really. Yield is a very complicated trait
to handle, say experts at leading biotechnology firm here. "Yields are
governed by the expression of several thousand genes and we don't have the
technology yet to handle so many. The current technology - functional
genomics - is efficient only when it targets simple genetic traits like
disease resistance. So any increase in crop production, at present, will
only come from saving more plants from pests/disease rather than genuine
yield superiority,ÇÇ they said.

In comparison, improving marketability is a cinch. Scientists, for
instance, are seeking to improve the biochemical quality of cereals to
enhance nutrient quality or composition and Vitamin A-enriched rice is a
good example. Attempts are also being made to improve the structure of
starch to increase its biochemical value.

Experts say even creating new uses for traditional oilseeds and cereals is
relatively easy because only a few genes need to be dealt with. "There are
companies trying to modify carbohydrates in a way which can then allow any
crop to be used as a fuel additive. Since the research is at the molecular
level, any breakthough will have to be then transferred into the
cereal/oilseed", they said.

More importantly, even if the technological barrier for increasing yields
is eventually breached, the only way GM seeds will significantly alter
international food trade flows is if government-owned labs in developing
nations step in with their own efforts.

Even FAO is hopeful that this is the only way that could give developing
nations a say in the GM stakes. "If public sector biotechnology research
picks up momentum and the results benefit the developing countries, this
could lead to a shift in cereal trade patterns", the FAO Committee on
Commodity Problems has pointed out.


A Conceptual Framework for Implementing Biosafety: Linking Policy,
Capacity and Regulation

- M. A. McLean, R. J. Frederick, P. Traynor, J.I. Cohen, J. Komen, ISNAR,
April 2002
http://www.checkbiotech.org/pdf/implementingbiosafety.pdf (From Agnet)

Products arising from modern biotechnology provide new opportunities to
achieve sustainable productivity gains in agriculture. Concerns over their
possible environmental and health implications stimulated regulatory
mechanisms for food safety and environmental risk assessment. Over the
past two decades, national biosafety frameworks, guidelines, and
regulatory systems have often been implemented on a ìpiece-by-pieceî basis
in response to the demands or urgent needs of the moment.

Ideally, a biosafety system would be developed from a comprehensive plan.
However, building such a system and making it operational is complicated
by the fact that there is no single best approach nor standard that
reflects national environmental, cultural, political, financial, and
scientific heterogeneity. Given these challenges and difficulties inherent
in building regulatory systems and needed capacity, the International
Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) convened an expert
consultation in July 2001. The purpose of this meeting was to develop a
conceptual framework to address regulatory implementation and
capacity-building needs of developing countries and Parties to the

A framework for implementing national biosafety systems emerged, which
consists of the following five elements: national policies, strategies,
and research agendas regarding biosafety; national inventory and
evaluation; the knowledge, skills, and capacity base to develop and
implement a biosafety system; development of regulations; and
implementation of regulations. The conceptual framework clarifies critical
decision points in the development of a national biosafety system,
systematically examines choices among policy options, and delineates some
of the scientific and social dimensions of these options. It complements
ongoing regional and global projects that facilitate the


The Future of Agriculture: Challenges for Environment, Health and Safety
Regulation Of Pesticides

-Louise O. Fresco, Assistant Director-General, FAO, April 2002
http://www.checkbiotech.org/pdf/FAOFEB.pdf (Via Agnet)

There is a need to double food production in developing countries, and,
some 80 % of this increase will need to be gained from land that is
already under production. It is clear that this increased intensification
of production cannot be met without chemical inputs. The question is how
to avoid the mistakes of the past and to fully benefit from the lessons
learned and experience gained to date. From a presentation made by Louise
O. Fresco, Assistant Director-General, Agriculture Department, Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, to the OECD Working Group
on Pesticides, Paris, 4 February 2002.

Agriculture between the global and the location specific. By its very
nature, agriculture is location-specific, and it is this specificity of
crops, soils and animals that, over the centuries, has led to the great
diversity and richness in agriculture which we see today. The principal
change in the 20th century was the Green Revolution, during which all
countries experienced a massive increase in yield per unit area and time,
owing largely to greater control of production factors. This resulted in a
decrease in some of the location specificity that had characterized
agriculture in the past and led to a more centralized or "blue print"
approach. While the mid-19th century marked the beginning of a more
scientific approach to agricultural production with the introduction of
fertilizers, it is the 20th century that must be considered the century of
science-based agriculture. The 20th century might also be characterized as
the "blue print century", in which a more centralized or engineering
approach to agriculture, including the setting of production targets, was
a principal driver for increased agricultural output.

I believe that the 21st century will be marked by a return to a more
location-specific, ecological approach to agriculture. While the public
eye is focused on globalization, globalization does not necessarily mean
homogenization or centralized control. However, advances in science should
allow greater specificity. In addition, there is a strong counter current,
driven by both NGOs and civil society, towards maintaining
local-specificity. Evidence for this may be found in the increased
appreciation of local foods and the fact that globalization is
increasingly seen in the context of local issues and not only of global
concerns. The other side of the globalization debate is the fact that
inequality and inequity still exist in the world.

More than 1,000 million people live on less than one dollar a day, and an
estimated 800 million people are hungry. The World Food Summit in 1996
pledged to reduce by half the number of hungry people by 2015. It is clear
that this goal will not be met. While there has been success in some
countries, the current annual reduction of 8 million people a year will
need to more than double to 20 million if the stated goal is to be met by
2015. The movement to reduce hunger will result in a parallel increase in
employment and purchasing power and directly impact on trade and the
movement of goods around the world. There is a need to double food
production in developing countries, and, some 80 % of this increase will
need to be gained from land that is already under production. It is clear
that this increased intensification of production cannot be met without
chemical inputs. The question is how to avoid the mistakes of the past and
to fully benefit from the lessons learned and experience gained to date.
Complete article available at http://www.checkbiotech.org/pdf/FAOFEB.pdf


FAO Launches Biotechnology E-mail Service

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) has
launched FAO-BiotechNews - an e-mail service to provide information on
biotechnology in food and agriculture in developing countries.

The goal is to inform policy and decision makers about developments and
issues in agricultural biotechnology. Subscribers to this free service
will receive monthly updates containing brief news and events articles
focused on the work of the FAO, the UN and partner organizations. Web
links and/or e-mail addresses will be included for users to obtain more
detailed information.

The term "biotechnology" encompasses a range of topics including gene
manipulation, molecular markers, recombinant vaccines, DNA-based disease
characterization and embryo transfer.

FAO-BiotechNews covers the crop, forestry, animal, fishery and
agro-industrial sectors. E-mail information will also offer insights on
agricultural biotechnology for food security, sustainable use of
biodiversity, the environment and food safety.

To subscribe, send an e-mail message to mailserv@mailserv.fao.org and
leave the subject field blank. Type in the following text message:

subscribe FAO-BiotechNews-L

No other text should be added to the message. For more information,
contact FAO-Biotech-News@fao.org.


Agricultural Biotechnologies: New Avenues for Production, Consumption and
Technology Transfer
Ravello, Italy; June 11-14, 2002

- From: Vittorio Santaniello

Abstracts of the papers to be presented at the 6th ICABR International
Conference on" Agricultural biotechnologies: New Avenues for Production,
Consumption and Technology Transfer", at
Ravello ( Italy ) on July 11 - 14, 2002 are posted at

http://www.economia.uniroma2.it/conferenze/icabr/ .

You can register for the Conference at:


Kirk Report Refuses To Rule Out GM Crops

- Fordyce Maxwell, The Scotsman, April 24, 2002

A Kirk committee report on sustainable agriculture recommends more
encouragement for organic methods, but does not rule out genetically
modified crops or intensive farming.

The report, prepared for the Church of Scotlandís General Assembly next
month, appears as the organic versus GM argument has become more bitter,
with the destruction by protesters of a GM crop trial on the Black Isle
last weekend. That was seen as an unequivocal response to the refusal by
the Scottish Executive to scrap the GM oilseed rape trial at Munlochy as
voted for by its own Transport and Environment committee a week ago.

GM crop trials in other parts of Europe have also been destroyed by
protesters, who believe that they will affect traditional crops, the
environment and possibly human health. Countering this, the US government
insists that it is committed to getting the rest of the world, especially
Europe, to accept GM biotechnology "as a means of promoting development
and feeding the world."

About 100 million hectares of GM crops are now growing in the world, but
there are no commercial scale crops in the European Union. If
environmental protesters prepared to go to prison for their beliefs have
their way, there never will be. Edging the fray alongside the big guns of
government and global biotech companies, such as Monsanto, the report
published today by the Society, Religion and Technology Project of the
Kirk concludes:

"Organic farming is well worth trying on a larger scale to see how
sustainable it is in economic, practical and environmental terms. But if
it were, say, 30 per cent of farmland, it would raise new problems of
scale and widening its practice from a relatively small group of dedicated
enthusiasts to the wider farming community, which may compromise the
standards. "In general, it would be a good thing environmentally, but its
nutritional and health claims are much more uncertain."

There is also a risk, says the report, that it might not be economically
viable on a large scale, or provide enough food. It adds: "Rather than
embrace organic agriculture as the exclusive choice, this report advocates
a range of alternatives which could be defined as environmentally
sustainable and which have hopes of proving economically and socially

This would certainly include organic methods, and encourage their much
greater development in Scotland and the UK. But intensive and integrated
farming should also be used because these are more flexible and, under the
right circumstances, chemicals and genetically modified crops should not
be rejected. The report adds: "The absolute prohibition of GM by organic
systems is seen by some as a mistake. Some of the cultivars currently
approved for organic use have had no less invasive origins [than GM] and,
in some cases, GM technology could, in the view of some, achieve things
very helpful to organic systems."

In spite of crop trials being destroyed and well-organised vocal protests
about GM, plant breeders and many farmers are confident that GM crops will
be grown commercially in the UK within the next five years. That message
was delivered to the House of Commons environment, food and rural affairs
committee this week by the industry body SCIMAC, the supply chain
initiative of modified agricultural crops.

But the European Parliament, also addressing the issue this week, has many
sceptics - notably from Italy, France, Austria, Denmark, Greece and
Luxembourg - who are expected to block further developments. On the table
of the parliament are the proposed regulations on GM food and feed on
labelling and traceability. In addition, they will be considering whether
GM products should be included in the directive on environmental

Once these decisions are made, the proposals will go back to the EUís
ministerial councils for ratification. It could be a long and slow
process. Dr Roger Turner, from the British Society of Plant Breeders, said
he was "cautiously optimistic" that commercial plantings would arrive in


A New Organic Stew

- Howard Fienberg, Tech Central Station, 04/22/2002

A classic canard from supporters of organic food is that it is more
healthy for you than regular, pesticide-grown food. Decent scientific
evidence to support this position has never materialized and some
supporters have had to admit that the health claims of organic food seem

So organic food proponents must have been elated by a New Scientist report
last month that "eating organic food may help reduce your risk of heart
attacks, strokes and cancer." Was this the evidence they've been searching

Scottish researchers (from the Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary and
the University of Strathclyde) published a study in the European Journal
of Nutrition comparing the levels of salicylic acid (SA) in organic and
regular varieties of vegetable soups. They discovered that the organic
soups contained almost six times the amount of SA as the regular ones.

What's the big deal about SA? It is, according to the New Scientist,
"responsible for the anti-inflammatory action of aspirin, and helps combat
hardening of the arteries and bowel cancer." The researchers speculate
that SA in the diet "may help to prevent these conditions."

Souped Up Numbers. Unfortunately, a look at the study raises some jarring
questions. Why didn't the researchers test the vegetables directly? A
more rigorous design would have been to compare specific vegetables,
organic versus ordinary, to look for the difference in SA levels. Why did
they instead test soup, which is a combination of many different

In all, the researchers looked at 11 different organic soups and 24
different regular soups. Commercial soups all use different ingredients
and the information available on exactly how much of each ingredient is in
the final product is often poor. Why did the researchers not design a
properly controlled study where they cooked the soups themselves, with the
same types of ingredients in each one, organic versus ordinary?

To Your Health? Another big question revolves around salicylic acid
itself. The kind of SA in vegetable soup is not necessarily comparable to
that in aspirin, where the researchers are speculating it has an effect.
The active ingredient in aspirin is not ordinary SA, but a soluble version
more easily absorbed in the stomach called methyl salicylate. Thomas
Coles, research leader at the New Zealand Institute for Crop & Food
Research, says that because the SA component of vegetable soups (organic
or ordinary) is determined by "what has happened to the vegetables prior
to being cooked," the amount of SA will inevitably vary. That makes it of
little use to patients trying to prevent blood clotting, which requires a
finite, known amount of aspirin (and thus, methyl salicylate) to be taken

If consumers want SA in their soup, it would presumably be cheaper and
more effective to crumble aspirin tablets and add the crumbs into their
soup than to fuss over organic or ordinary varieties.

Salicylic acid also has its own down side. Coles also points out that some
people suffer from a disease called acute porphyria, which makes them
effectively allergic to SA. If organic growers intend to tout the health
benefits of the "increased" levels of SA in their organic food, should
they not also slap warning labels on their produce, saying "May contain
high levels of salicylates; should not be consumed by persons with
salicylate intolerance"?

Amount Matters. Such questions on their own would ordinarily be more than
enough to demonstrate the value in a study (or, in this case, the absence
thereof). However, even disregarding all the above questions, one problem
still remains: scale.

What did the researchers find exactly? The organic soup they tested had an
average of 117 nanograms of SA per gram of soup, while the regular soups
averaged 20 nanograms/gram.

What does that mean for the consumer? According to their research, a
typical 400-gram serving of organic vegetable soup would thus contain
46,800 nanograms of SA versus the 8,000 nanograms of SA found in an
equivalent serving of ordinary vegetable soup. That looks like an
impressive difference at first glance.

However, let's look at the scale more closely. A nanogram is a billionth
of a gram (that's 9 zeros). Or 0.000000001% of a gram. So for our
comparison above, the differential of 3,880 nanograms favoring the organic
soup is mind-bogglingly minute. The 400 gram organic soup serving would
have 0.000047 grams or 0.00047% of a gram of SA. The equivalent regular
soup serving would have 0.000008 grams or 0.00008% of a gram of SA.

Alex Avery, director of research for the Center for Global Food Issues,
laughed at the "tiny amounts." He wished he could have seen the
researchers arguing about the physiological differences involving
thousandths and ten-thousandths of a gram while holding a straight face.

Scientists may yet discover tangible evidence that organic food is
healthier for us than regular food. Unfortunately, this study doesn't show


Merging Trends: Metabolic Engineering

- Zac Hanley & Kieran Elborough, ISB News Report, April 2002

The second wave of genetically modified plants is nigh. These organisms
address consumer demand on two fronts. They deal with concerns regarding
safety and genetic pollution by using gene containment technologies, by
not including DNA from viruses, pathogens, or bacteria, and by passing the
stringent regulatory hurdles now in place for genetically modified
organisms. They also deal with concerns of consumer participation in that
they provide benefits to the end-user, the customer, rather than solely to
suppliers, distributors, and transnational conglomerates. They are more
sophisticated in both their science and marketing, and it is unfortunate
that they have arrived after "industry-benefit" products such as
late-ripening tomatoes and pesticide-resistant corn.

Metabolic engineering is the in vivo manipulation of biochemistry to
produce non-protein products or to alter cellular properties. The products
may be native or novel, and the tools used are usually those of genetic
engineering. The non-protein products may be alkaloids such as quinine,
lipids such as long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, polyterpenes such
as rubber, structural components such as lignin, osmoprotectants such as
glycine betaine, aroma compounds such as S-linalool in tomatoes, pigments
such as blue delphinidin in flowers, vitamins such as folic acid,
biodegradable plastics such as polyhydroxyalkanoates, and more. Metabolic
engineering is a key part of the second wave of plant genetic engineering

Two genes are often better than one The second wave is late because it is
a more ambitious, technically challenging task to modify physiology and
biochemistry than to overproduce a protein such as Bt or spider silk
monomer. Often, several novel or altered genes must be introduced (the
process is often termed `gene stacking'), or several changes made to
existing metabolism. The first wave of modified plants used single-gene
single-enzyme manipulations, but these are often unpredictable in their
effectiveness due to the multilevel regulation of cellular metabolism. A
multidimensional network of equilibria rich in feedbacks, fail-safes,
redundant backups, and antagonistic pathways is unchanged by most single
gene additions or deletions.1 Variation in the wild already includes a lot
that can be achieved by such manipulations, though single-gene
manipulations have of course been successful, as demonstrated by the
publications arising from yeast and Arabidopsis single-gene knockout
populations and the raft of publications on the manipulation of lipid
metabolism. However, little has been done where the biochemical pathways
concerned are obscure, branched, or essential.

This delimitation of possibilities via single-gene alterations is in part
due to the nonrandom sampling of genomes that has taken place in the past
decade. The gene resources available for the first wave of genetically
enhanced plants have been predominantly EST datasets, which are rich in
genes involved in the biochemical labor but not in those which supervise,
manage, and control.2 An example is transcription factors, which control
and coordinate the expression of numerous other genes involved in a common
biochemical goal. Transcription factors offer the possibility of powerful
single-gene manipulations leading to metabolic engineering, for example by
turning on or off whole suites of biochemical reactions, yet genes for
these proteins are largely missing from EST datasets.

After the publication of the Arabidopsis genome sequence, it was
discovered that greater than 5% of genes in this plant were transcription
factors and only 10% of those had been characterized. Mendel Biotechnology
(Hayward, California) is a company founded solely to assess the function
of each of these genes and develop products;3 there is clearly value in
single-gene manipulations of the right variety. Meanwhile, plant metabolic
engineering has had significant successes, for example in biodegradable
plastics and of course vitamin A in Golden Rice.4

Control is everything. Where multiple genetic elements are required for a
desired phenotype, an important prerequisite is often to switch them on
simultaneously and to a similar degree, yet coordinate expression of more
than one gene has proved difficult to achieve. Bacterial polycistronic
constructs, in which one promoter drives transcription of numerous genes,
do not function in plants. Two types of strategies are employed when
introducing multiple genetic modifications: simultaneous and sequential
transformation. In the former, several genes are collected into one
transforming molecule and introduced, or they may be simultaneously
inserted while on different transforming molecules. In sequential
transformation, a transgenic plant is re-transformed with a second gene,
or two lineages receive one transgene each and their progeny are crossed.

All of these approaches suffer from two related major drawbacks. Firstly,
there are a limited number of well-characterized, useful gene control
elements (i.e., promoters) and only a handful of marker genes with useful
characteristics and without patent ownership constraints.5 Gene stacking
using multiple or large constructs therefore quickly runs out of options,
since any repetition will trigger a viral defense mechanism that switches
off the transgenes at some point in the next few generations. The second
drawback is that the viral defense mechanism limiting gene stacking also
prevents the use of identical promoters and therefore never guarantees
coordinate expression. Each approach also suffers unique problems, e.g.,
retransformation can cause many other changes due to the two cell culture
phases, and all add considerably to the research and development costs. In
'golden rice,' no attempt was made to coordinate the expression of the
genes and all were constitutively overexpressed; the need for the public
to see genetic modification used responsibly and with precision and
predictability will probably prejudice against such methods in the future.

More advanced methods of coordinate expression have been tried.
Bicistronic (two genes from one promoter) constructs have been shown to
work where the promoter is bi-directional or the expressed DNA is short.
Genes can be linked `in frame' so that their protein products are joined
at a cleavable site. More recently, Mlynarova et al. (2002) showed that a
DNA element identified from a chicken gene can coordinate the expression
of two genes driven by different promoters.6 The transforming construct
contained the two genes and their promoters, flanked by chicken lysozyme A
element. In tobacco, as in chicken, the flanking DNA elements appear to
proffer the genes for expression on an easily accessible DNA loop by
binding to the structural proteins supporting the chromosome. Another
recent successful and clever approach aimed to reduce the effect of three
genes involved in lignin production in tobacco by exploiting the
aforementioned viral defense mechanism. Abbott et al. (2002) were able to
switch off three genes using a single artificial chimerical gene composed
of parts of all three, since, to switch genes off, the defense system
requires only part of the gene.7

Different regulatory problems Across the world, legislation is evolving to
deal with the issues surrounding genetic engineering. Like most
legislation, this has been reactive and subjective rather than
anticipatory and objective. Biotechnology is a fast-moving field; today's
technical advances result in tomorrow's genetically modified products,
which are eventually regulated by next month's laws. Metabolic engineering
poses new problems for legislation designed to react to the existence of
the first wave of transgenic organisms.

In many cases, the plant or a relative already manufactures the product.
Much legislation and recycled paper has been expended attempting to
prevent the escape of genes from transgenic plants that might confer
pesticide resistance to weedy relatives. While this unlikely event is
indeed a concern with some credibility (though not much), the same rules
surely do not apply if the gene concerned is a species-specific switch
intended to increase the levels of certain flavor compounds in tomatoes.
Not all genetic modifications are created equal, and the merits of each,
as well as the financial penalty on developers as they attempt to get
their product to market, should be concomitant with the scientifically
valid dangers posed and the benefits offered.

Likewise, multiple, dispersed genetic alterations such as those arising
from sequential transformations require a different approach. Each
alteration may make only a small contribution to the transphenotype, or a
small step towards it. The transfer of the trait from the host species to
a weedy relative is therefore many times less likely. While the movement
of one of a suite of genetic elements to another lineage is undesirable
and methods to minimize this should be used, triffids will not result. DNA
constructs used in metabolic engineering that contain many genes collected
together (simultaneous transformation) are of course horizontally
transmissible as `trait islands,' but the traits conferred still offer no
advantage to any would-be superweed. It should be noted that the
distinctions described in this paragraph offer little solace to those
whose view is that a plant with two genetic modifications is merely twice
as polluted and twice as likely to pollute.

For the future.There are exciting possibilities and near-horizon products
from plant metabolic engineering. For example, recent publications have
covered increasing essential oil production, decreasing lignin deposition,
stimulating the bioconversion of secondary metabolites to medicinally
important alkaloids, introducing processing steps leading to the
production of industrial feedstock chemicals, and improving tomato
flavor.8 Interest is high in the industryóthose involved include not only
the established agribiotech companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta, but
food commodity producers such as NestlÈ and Fonterra, along with
university research groups around the world. The biotechnology revolution
is poised to deliver. The public and legislators have heard this before
and remember the mistakes of the past from the manipulation of the human
food chain without consumer benefit to the promised-but-still-pending
panaceas of the human genome. The second wave of agricultural
biotechnology, metabolic engineering, will demonstrate why this industry
is in existence. It is time to make good on some promises.

1. ISB News Report, July 2001. (
http://www.isb.vt.edu/news/prep/news01.jul.html#jul0102 )
2. ISB News Report, December 2001. (
http://www.isb.vt.edu/news/2001/news01.dec.html#dec0101 )
3. Riechmann JL, et al. 2000. Arabidopsis transcription factors:
Genome-wide comparative analysis among eukaryotes. Science: 290(5499):
4. See Bohmert, et al., 2000, Planta 211: 841-5 for biodegradable
plastics via one large transforming molecule containing four genes, and Ye
et al., 2000, Science 287: 303-5 for `golden rice' via multiple
simultaneous transformations.
5. ISB News Report, August 2001. (
http://www.isb.vt.edu/news/2001/news01.aug.html#aug0103 )
6. Mlyn·rov· L, et al. 2002. Assembly of two transgenes in an artificial
chromatin domain gives highly coordinated expression in tobacco. Genetics
160: 727-40.
7. Abbott JC, et al. 2002. Simultaneous suppression of multiple genes by
single transgenes. Down-regulation of three unrelated lignin biosynthetic
genes in tobacco. Plant Physiology 128: 844-53.
8. See Mahmoud and Croteau, 2001, PNAS 98: 8915-20 for essential oils
(although they have yet to combine the two effects they describe for
optimum production); Abbott et al. cite above for lignin; Van der Fits and
Memelink, 2000, Science 289: 295-7 for alkaloids via transcription factor
manipulation; Cahoon et al. 2002, Plant Physiology 128: 615-24 for an
industrial feedstock chemical via a key single gene; Wang et al. 2001,
Phytochemistry 58: 227-32 for tomato flavor via a key single gene.
Zac Hanley and Kieran Elborough Consultants in Plant Biotechnology New
Zealand http://www.greengenz.com