Today in AgBioView: May 15, 2002
* Conventional Food Is A Best Buy
* On Consumers Union press release
* "10 Reasons to Buying Organics" is wrong
* Ten Reasons to Buy GMOs, revised
* Organic Foods Are Overpriced And Unnecessary
* WHO Sponsors Mega Biotech Study
* No Evidence For Allergies To Starlink Corn
* Pontifical Academy Of Sciences Paper On Biotech Crops
* DNAP to Shutdown
* The Corn Hoax; Extremist groups sabotage U.S. farmers with
* Top UC Riverside scientist Noel Keen dies
* The Geneticist: Mary-Dell Chilton profiled in WSJ
From: "Joe Rosen"
Subject: Conventional Food Is A Best BuyÝ
Thanks to Tom DeGregori for his recent comments about the latest escapades
at Consumers Union, in particular their May 8 press conference to drum up
interest for their article in the journal, Food Additives and
Contaminants. First, let me state that there is nothing wrong with organic
food and if the public can be convinced to spend 50-300% more on products
that don't taste any better, are not more nutritious and contain a few
nanograms less pesticide, ...hey that's capitalism. However, Consumers
Union should not be part of this scam and if it were to apply the same
criteria to organic food as it does to toasters, then conventional food
would be rated a BEST BUY.
One problem CU has is the fact that organic farmers use natural pesticides
and the safety of these materials has not been rigorously tested. At the
press conference, Ed Groth, senior scientist at CU, said, "At present
there are no good residue data on the botanicals and other natural
pesticides, and some of those substances definitely should be more fully
evaluated for potential toxic effects".
Maybe Ed should have paid more attention to his paid consultant, Chuck
Benbrook, who previously had said, "Any materials used in the production
or processing of organic food must be proven safe. No materials will be
allowed simply because they have not been proven unsafe or because
benefits may appear to outweigh risks and uncertainties. The burden of
proof shall always be on the party wishing to use the material and
contending it is safe." (Charles Benbrook, "Sharing the Lessons of Organic
farming Conference" University of Guelph, Jan. 31, 1998). See
I personally don't think that there is any danger to the public in eating
organic food (except for those nagging questions about pathogen
contamination, but that's a whole other story). Nor do I believe that
there is any danger from conventionally-grown crops. How many times do
Bruce Ames and Lois Gold have to take pen in hand before Chuck and Ed
believe them? Maybe we can even bring Paracelsus back.
So, what did this press conference achieve? Not much and maybe even the
reverse. The AP headline was, "One-quarter of organic produce contains
pesticides, study finds"; CNN-"Organic produce not pesticide-free, study
says"; MSNBC-"Pesticides found on organic produce"; CBC News-"One out of
four organic fruits, veggies have pesticides". The Washington Post ignored
it completely. What was it that Lincoln said about fooling all the people?
Only Marian Burros of the New York Times was impressed. However, in trying
to achieve journalistic balance she sought a contrary opinion from Gilbert
Ross of the American Council on Science and Health but then promptly
destroyed his credibility by pointing out that 40% of ACSH funding was
There was no mention of where CU gets its funding.
From: Andrew Apel"
Subject: Consumers Union press release
Dr. Tom DeGregori recently pointed out a conundrum regarding organic vs.
biotech and evidence vs. absence of evidence, and how the organic PR
machine is playing with the latter dichotomy. It is true that absence of
evidence (A) is not evidence of absence (B). Since A does not equal B,
however, that means B does not equal A. The elements of the expression are
transposable. So the following is equally true: Evidence of absence is not
absence of evidence.
The slick elision committed by the organic contingent is pretending that
the non-identity relation is transposable for some people but not for
others. They invite the assumption that "organic" production can be
compared with other means of production without the use of evidence. The
organic contingent feels no need to prove anything, the supposed
"natural"ness of organic production is supposedly sufficient to show that
evidence of its claims is unnecessary. Well, as they say, for those with
faith, proof is unnecessary and for those without faith, no amount of
proof will be enough.
Dr. DeGregori is absolutely correct in pointing out this strange
asymmetry; absence of evidence on their own behalf is deemed excusable for
the organic contingent, while evidence of absence, no matter how great,
will never satisfy them regarding the merits of any other form of
The organic folks quantify food risk as a positive integer that is
nonetheless smaller than zero; and they hold that the non-identity
relation is only transposable for believers. If neither of these claims
establish insanity, then the organic contingent is, truly, defenseless.
Many in the organic contingent complain of being attacked by those who
prefer science, reason and progress; but those in the organic contingent
have chosen to divorce themselves from these and instead to throw
themselves under the wheels of the train. If science, reason and progress
will not halt for them, can they really complain of the result?
From: "Gordon Couger"
Subject: 10 Reasons to Buying Organics is wrong
In my opinion every one of the 10 reasons given to buy organics at:
http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/issues/org_10reasons.html at best are
wrong and most are total deceptions.
I am a retired farmer and was actively involved in agriculture from 1957
to 1986. After recovering from an attack of multiple sclerosis I spent 9
years working in agricultural engineering developing among other things a
computerized sprayer that could be programmed to reduce herbicide usage up
to 50% without sacrificing any effectiveness or reduce nitrogen top
dressing of wheat by 50% with out any decreases in yield.
I have farmed using organic methods and fully understand the advantages
and short comings of it. Most of the advantages that the organic followers
claim are methods all farmers use to some degree or another. Using
rotation, legumes and organic manure are practices that most farmers use
when they need to and when they can. They just don't do it on a schedule
set by some "higher power". We do it as needed and when available. Failing
to replenish nitrogen, control weeds and insects because of arbitrary
rules are the obvious failings of organic agriculture. Less obvious
problems of organic agriculture include massive nitrate releases into the
environment when legumes are plowed down leaving most of the nitrogen
below the root zone of most of the following crops, an over application of
phosphorus when animal manure is used as a nitrogen source, increased
losses of organic matter in the soil cause by oxidation from tillage when
tillage is used as the primary source of weed control and in water limited
areas the loss of soil moisture due to tillage that is necessary to
control weeds that can be saved using no till or conservation tillage
By 1890 the approaching shortage of nitrogen from Chilean nitrates and
guano and the threat of British blockades was already a concern to
agricultural scientist who knew that methods we call organic today could
not feed the population of Europe at that time. Now the people that
promote organic agriculture want to feed the current population with
methods that wouldn't feed the population 100 years ago? Am I missing
While retired I still have family interests in 130 year old ranch in north
Texas, dry land farms in southwest Oklahoma and my wife and I are active
landlords on a crop share basis of two labors of irrigated land in west
Here is the way I see it.
>>:1 Support the environment.
Organic farming requires many more acres under the plow to produce the
same amount of food and conventional agriculture so per unit of output
organic is much less environmentally friendly than convention agriculture
and great deal more damaging than high yield conservation tillage
>>: 2 Support our future needs.
It couldn't do it in the past why should it be able to do it in the
future. There is no magic source of nitrogen.
>>: 3 Build a biologically diverse agriculture.
By putting more land under the plow?
>>: 4 Help protect our water resources.
By putting more land under the plow?
>>:5 Increase productivity of the land. >:Organic agriculture builds
productive nutrient-rich soil that resists >:topsoil erosion >
Conservation tillage of cotton in terminated wheat increased the organic
matter over 9%
Full no till would do even better.
>>:6 Help protect our health. >:Organic production systems limit inputs of
toxic and persistent chemicals
GM crops do the same or better with out having to put ever increasing
acres under the plow to feed a growing world.
>>:7 Help small farms. >:Although more large-scale farms are making the
>> organic practices, most organic farms are small, independently- owned
>and operated family farms.
Organic works for small farms because they can get a premium price for
niche product in the rich first world. Get 100 miles from a city and let a
small farmer try to find a premium market for his produce that pays the
freight to haul it to town. There are a few but they are difficult to
find. If I owned land close to a major city I could make good money with
an organic farm on a quarter section if I was a farmer, promoter and
retailer all together. Unfortunately my place closest to a city that would
support that is in southwest Oklahoma about 250 miles from Dallas, Texas
the nearest market that I think would reliably support that kind of
On the other hand BT cotton benefits the small farmer any where in the
world. The experiance of small farmers in South Africa and the
unauthorized release in India shows that BT cotton helps small third world
farmers a great deal more than it helps first world farmers. BT cotton in
South Africa and India reportably doubled yields and greatly reduced
insecticide use. First world cotton farmers see yield increases of 2 to
12% with most of the advantage being in the cost savings from reduced
insecticide usage. [JOURNAL OF COTTON
SCIENCE, Volume 5, Issue 2, 2001]
>>:8 Support a true economy. >:Buying organic is a direct investment in the
long-term future of our planet. The choices we make now can free us from
costly >:pesticide-related environmental clean-ups in the future.
GM crops can reduce pesticide use with out sacrificing yields to insects
plus the normal 30 to 40% yield decrease that comes from switching to
>>:9 Save energy. >:Organic farming is less reliant on non-renewable energy
sources, >:substituting renewable sources or labor to the extent that is
Organic uses up to an order of magnitude more energy per unit of product
than no till high yield farming. I had a hard time finding hoe hands 20
years ago. I sure haven't seen any increase in the work ethic in the last
>>:10 Organic food tastes great! >:Chefs across the country are committed
to using organic ingredients because plants from >:healthy soils and
organically-fed livestock provide us with more flavorful food. Organic
>>:foods allow true flavors to shine through!
Blinded tests can't tell the difference.
- Gordon Couger www.couger.com/gcouger
From: "Muffy Koch" Ý|
Subject: Ten Reasons to Buy GMOs, revised.
I enjoyed Andrew Apel's revised version of 10 good reasons to buy organic
food, but believe we could get better mileage out of this message by
including 'GMO/GM and organic' in the revision. If we do this (see below),
we address one of the greatest fears about GM technology - an economic
fear that it will take over the lucrative market for produce prepared in
an environmentally friendly way. The anti-Gm activitists are careful not
to compromise their funding base by recognising that GM crops are bring
conventional farming closer to the ideals of organic farming.
The data are clear that the new pest tolerant GM crops allow conventional
farmers to produce more, better quality food, with less chemicals and less
negative envrionmental impact. In my discussions with organic lobby
groups, I notice that they are keen to avoid recognition of this fact. The
'combined' messgae uncovers this fact and brings us closer to reality:
Ten Reasons to Buy GMOs and organic
1.Support the environment. Production systems using GMOs and organics
support natural ecosystems by using long-term farming solutions. This
restores, maintains, and enhances ecological harmony, and positively
effects the health of the environment.
2.Support our future needs. Farming with GMOs and organics embraces the
principle that agriculture must meet the needs of the present without
compromising the needs of future generations.
3.Build a biologically diverse agriculture. Farming with GMOs and organics
respects diversity within the environment, including protection of plant
and wildlife habitats.
4.Help protect our water resources. Environmentally friendly farming
solutions with GMOs and organics contribute to the overall quality of our
lakes, rivers, estuaries, ground and drinking waters.
5.Increase productivity of the land. Agricultural biotechnology and
organic methods build productive nutrient-rich soil that resists topsoil
6.Help protect our health. Production systems using GMOs and organics
limit inputs of toxic and persistent chemicals into the environment.
Choosing foods made from GMOs and organics positively impacts our own
health, the health of our children, the health of farm workers, and the
health of future generations.
7.Help small farms. Although more large-scale farms are making the
conversion to using GMOs and organics, many farms using them are small,
independently-owned and operated family farms.
8.Support a true economy. Buying GMOs and organics is a direct investment
in the long-term future of our planet. The choices we make now can free us
from costly pesticide-related environmental clean-ups in the future.
9.Save energy. Farming with GMOs and organics is less reliant on
non-renewable energy sources, substituting renewable sources or labor to
the extent that is economically feasible.
10.Food made from GMOs and organics tastes great! Chefs across the country
are committed to using GM and organic ingredients because plants from
healthy soils and livestock raised on GMOs and organics provide us with
more flavorful food. Foods made with GMOs and organics allow true flavors
to shine through!
Organic Foods Are Overpriced And Unnecessary
- David Martosko, Director of Research Center for Consumer Freedom
Times Union Albany, NY May 10. 2002
While I'm used to seeing a variety of silliness paraded through newspapers
on Earth Day, I wasn't prepared for one ridiculous statement made by
organic food marketer Eckhart Kiesel ("Thinking globally, acting locally,"
April 22) in defense of his overpriced organic wares.
Kiesel complains that "people spend more on oil for their car than on food
for their own bodies." What kind of car does he have? A rusted-out Yugo?
Even heavy drivers who change their oil ever month spend less than $400
per year for the service.
Food, on the other hand, costs the average U.S. consumer $5,000 annually
(according to the USDA). And the Consumers Union of the United States
estimates that shifting your diet to organic food will bring that total to
Most of the "natural" and "organic" food industry desperately wants
Americans to fork over that extra $4,000 this year (and every year), for
products that the federal government has said offer "no guarantee of
safety" and "no added health benefits."
WHO Sponsors Mega Biotech Study
ISAAA , May 10, 2002
The World Health Organization's Food Safety Program is commissioning a
study on the implications of GM organisms and food products on human
health and development. It is an evidence-based study that began last
February. Deadline for submissions is set for June 30, 2002.
The study involves a wide range of stakeholders including the Food and
Agriculture Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development, other international organizations, as well as research
institutes, industries and other groups. They are invited to respond to a
questionnaire posted on the website to address issues where evidence is
not readily available. Evidences on other issues not covered by the report
are also welcome. Responses should be short, concise and based on specific
evidence such as cited scientific literature.
The questionnaire includes product research and development; impact on
human health; food security, cost and access to modern food biotechnology;
ethical, legal and social issues; and capacity building. The questionnaire
encourages a comparison between the effects of modern biotechnology and
other traditional technologies.
WHO places a high priority on the safe use and application of modern
biotechnology to food production and processing. The idea for the study
came from a resolution of the 53rd World Health Assembly last may 2000.
The study seeks to complement the efforts of other international agencies.
WHO will collaborate with FAO and involve various stakeholders and
interest groups to enhance transparency. The background of the paper as
well as the questionnaire can be found at
No Evidence For Allergies To Starlink CornÝ
The Life Sciences Network , May 14, 2002
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has released a report on its
investigation into the human health effects associated with potential
exposure to genetically modified corn.
The study tested stored blood including that of patients claiming allergic
reactions to the genetically modified StarLink(tm) corn inadvertently
introduced into the human food supply. Blood from people known to be
highly sensitive to a variety of allergens was tested along with
historically banked serum samples collected before Starlink corn entered
the food supply.
An FDA laboratory used an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) method
to detect antibodies to the Cry9c protein in the Starlink corn.
None of the samples reacted in a manner consistent with an allergic
response to the Cry9c protein.
Pontifical Academy Of Sciences Paper On Biotech Crops
The "Science and the Future of Mankind" report from the Pontifical Academy
of Sciences is now on the internet at :
The part of the report regarding agricultural biotechnologies is the study
document on the Use of Genetically
Modified Food PlantsÇ to Combat Hunger in the World. It begins on page
516 of this report. The study document is fairly positive about the
opportunities biotech can offer.
The report concludes: " The developments we have discussed here constitute
an important part of human innovation, and they clearly offer substantial
benefits for the improvement of the human condition worldwide. They are
essential elements in the development of sustainable agricultural systems
capable of feeding not only the eighth of the worldÇs population that is
now hungry, but also meeting the future needs of the growing world
population. To make the best use of these new technologies and the
agricultural management opportunities they create is a moral challenge for
scientists and governments throughout the world."
Science and the Future of Mankind. Science for Man and Man for Science;
Proceedings - Working Group, 12-14 November 1999. Jubilee Plenary Session,
10-13 November 2000, Vatican City, 2001, pp. 527, XV
tables. Scripta Varia No. 099 at webpage
DNAP to Shutdown
Press Release, May 13; SOURCE: Bionova Holding Corporation *(Forwarded by
Bionova R&D Operations to Be Shut Down
OAKLAND, Calif., May 13 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Bionova Holding
Corporation announced today that it has begun closing down its research
and development operations, carried out primarily through its wholly owned
subsidiary DNA Plant Technology Corporation (DNAP).
The focus of DNAP's research has been the production of transgenic plants
which provide improved disease resistance for fruit and vegetable crops.
Concerns about public acceptance of transgenic products in these markets
have made producers reluctant to invest in the development of transgenic
fruits and vegetables. Further, the agricultural industry has been
suffering with reduced prices in the past few years, leading growers, food
companies and other providers to delay new R&D investment. Despite an
intensive search, these factors have made it difficult for the company to
develop new customers. With this absence of a customer base, DNAP has not
been able to obtain venture capital or other financing sufficient to
continue R&D operations. Accordingly, research and development operations
are being terminated, and over the next two months, DNAP's Oakland R&D
facility will be closed down and nearly all personnel will be laid off.
DNAP will shift its focus to the licensing or sale of its intellectual
property. It is anticipated that the shut-down of R&D operations will be
complete by June 30, 2002.
The Corn Hoax; Extremist groups sabotage U.S. farmers with misinformation
- The Tulsa World, May 12, 2002 (Forwarded by "Andrew Apel"
Greenpeace and other eco-activists have been staging protests across the
country this spring -- erroneously charging that American biotechnology is
contaminating Mexican native corn.
A Greenpeace news release actually claims that ìthe genetic contamination
of Mexican native corn varieties threatens not only the genetic integrity
of corn, one of the worldís most important basic crops, but the food
security for millions in the Americas.î
Unfortunately, this noisy campaign for media attention is a prime
illustration of the old saw that goes ìGiven a head start, a lie will
always outrun the truth.î
The lie gained its initial momentum when the British science journal
Nature published a story reporting that genes from genetically modified
corn were ìpollutingî the DNA of regular corn in an area of southern
Mexico. Ironically, the alleged pollution took place near the historic
city of Oaxaca in the same region that historians believe is the actual
birthplace of the grain that developed into what we now know as modern
The story by two University of California researchers drew immediate and
widespread criticism by independent scientists across the globe.
Embarrassed, the editors of Nature asked a team of outside referees to
conduct a comprehensive assessment of the story. When they also found it
highly flawed, the journalís editors ran a rare skinback in their March
issue -- conceding the evidence accompanying the article was ìnot
sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper.î
The correction set the scientific world abuzz, but unsurprisingly ìnever
caught upî with the original lie. The incident is deeply disturbing
because it allowed Greenpeace and its partners in misinformation to fan
fears among the general public that genes from genetically modified crops
could actually ìjumpî into regular plants and destabilize their makeup.
Conveniently ignoring the correction in Nature, Greenpeace continues to
perpetuate the lie. It is the latest example of bio- fraud -- an
all-too-common tactic of radical environmental groups.
Even as the claim at the base of the controversy was being debunked, the
activists were disseminating the scare story to media outlets around the
world. Hundreds of newspapers carried the false report. Few are ever
likely to print retractions.
Worse, using the false data, Greenpeace and other activist groups
persuaded the Mexican Interior Ministry in February to consider modifying
the existing Federal Penal Code to severely penalize anyone engaged in the
ìintroduction, commercialization, transportation, storage, or release into
the environment of any genetically modified organism.î
Punishment would include imprisonment for one to nine years and a fine
from 300 to 3,000 times the minimum daily wage of those convicted of such
The economic implications for Americaís farmers and agribusinesses are
staggering. The U.S. exports to Mexico more than $600 million worth of
corn and about $100 million worth of processed corn products, such as high
fructose corn syrup, annually.
The Greenpeace propaganda almost certainly will hurt American farm exports
in other countries where biotech is an issue. The eco-activists are still
using the discredited Nature report to mount protests in Europe against
genetically engineered corn and other foods that even European Union
scientists concede is perfectly safe for human consumption.
In doing so, they are performing a grave disservice to millions of
European consumers, who will benefit from more competitive pricing in
supermarkets and restaurants, and to American farmers, who could be denied
an opportunity to sell billions of dollars of their crops in Europe.
And they are playing into the hands of special-interest politicians, who
prefer to maintain the status quo, as well as a burgeoning protectionist
movement that wants to rollback the free trade that is spreading
The lessons of the phony Mexican corn scare are quite clear. When
presented with the opportunity, environmental extremists have no hesitancy
in subjugating truth to propaganda.
Such alarmist rhetoric damages the scientific process and costs Americans
badly needed jobs and export income. Those who would march in the street
in support of such lies deserve our contempt and pity, but not our
Americans should demand that Greenpeace and its allies be held to the same
standards they demand from corporate America. In the case of the Mexican
corn hoax, itís time to let the truth catch up with the lie.
Top UC Riverside scientist Noel Keen dies
- California Business Press May 6, 2002, p. 8
Academically renowned plant pathologist Noel Keen reportedly was surprised
two years ago to discover his likeness included on a life-size mural
depicting notables from the University of California, Riverside. As was
his fashion, he downplayed the honor, and was quoted as saying the
190-foot-long, $ 73,000 painting on a wall along University Avenue
underneath Highway 60 was good for the school.
It was Keenís humble nature and efforts to improve the university that
many remembered last month. The 61-year-old plant pathology professor died
at his Riverside home on April 18 after a two-year battle with leukemia.
ìTrying to fill his position is going to be extremely difficult,î said
Donald Cooksey, associate dean of the agriculture experiment station and
cooperative extension programs. Cooksey is a professor of plant pathology
who often collaborated with Keen on research projects.
ìOne of the best things he did was to form a weekly group meeting on
genetics,î Cooksey said. The faculty meeting for comparing notes and ideas
was held Mondays at noon and dubbed the Monday Cloning Group.
The meetings led to the establishment of the interdepartmental genetics
program and the hiring of specially trained genetic scientists.
William Jury, distinguished professor of soil physics at UC Riverside
worked with Keen for 28 years, and was a fellow inductee with Keen in the
prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Jury described Keen as highly
respected in the scientific community and a trailblazer in research at the
ìHe was one of the early pioneers in bringing the university into genetic
engineering and in molecular biology in plant sciences,î Jury said.
Jury remembered Keen as possessing a ìvery colorfulî personality, and an
aggressive, sometimes cynical nature, but who remained a ìlikable personî
with a strong and unique tennis backhand. The two competed against each
other in tennis doubles.
ì[Keenís backhand] was effective, but I couldnít see how he could hit the
ball without falling down,î Jury said, with a laugh.
Keenís efforts to advance the school and its research included
establishinglinks with the business community to help build research into
startup ventures. He was acting director of the Center for Biotechnology,
which worked with industry, and was one of the founders in 1997 of CORE21,
or Connecting Research and Economic Development for the 21st Century.
CORE21 is a consortium of local colleges and universities striving to
commercialize university research.
ìHe saw a need in the Inland Empire for an organization that would support
faculty and staff interested in starting entrepreneurial activities,î said
Ed Setzer, former chief executive of CORE21.
Keen spent his entire academic career at UC Riverside. He arrived on
campus in 1968 after earning degrees in botany and plant pathology at Iowa
State University and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin.
His career accomplishments were many.
At the time of his death, Keen was president of the American
Phytopathological Society, an international organization advocating
research into plant diseases.
Keen held the Johnson Endowed Chair in Molecular Biology and served as
chair of the UC Riverside Department of Plant Pathology from 1983 to 1989.
He was awarded the 1996 Faculty Research Lecturer, ìthe highest honor
granted by the campus for research,î according to the university.
Keen is survived by his wife, Diane. The family has established the Noel
T. Keen Memorial Fund.
The Geneticist: When Mary-Dell Chilton began as a researcher, there was no
such thing as biotechnology; Now, she's helping to define it
- Carey Sargent, The Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2002,
GENETIC ENGINEERING of plants has come a long way in the 25 years that
Mary-Dell Chilton has been working on it. She's determined to take it a
The Syngenta AG scientist and her small team in Research Triangle Park,
N.C., are working on a technique that could allow bioengineers to
introduce new genes into plants at predetermined and well-understood
locations on the chromosome, the structure that carries genetic material.
That would be a big step from the scattershot approach that has hampered
scientists and heightened concerns about the safety of genetically
"If she's having success with this, it's very, very important work," says
Thomas Hodges, emeritus professor of plant physiology at Purdue University
in West Lafayette, Ind., who has done significant work himself in plant
biotechnology. Knowing Dr. Chilton's other work as well as he does, he
says, "I'm not skeptical at all that she can do this."
Scientists have been able to introduce genes, which regulate inheritable
traits, from other organisms into plants for 20 years. They have harvested
genes from bacteria, viruses and fish to produce crops that are resistant
to herbicides and insects and are better able to tolerate extremes of
weather and environment. The science has spawned a burgeoning industry.
Consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, estimates
the global market for genetically modified seeds totaled $3.67 billion
last year and will grow more than 50% to $5.57 billion in 2005.
But the inability to place new genes on plant chromosomes precisely means
success comes only through extensive, and costly, trial and error. Genes
react differently depending on where they wind up on the chromosome, so
the vast majority of transfers fail to achieve the desired result.
Besides the inefficiencies of such random gene insertion, opponents of the
process fear that uncontrolled and unpredictable interactions involving
the new genes can produce unwanted and even dangerous effects, such as new
allergens or toxins in genetically modified foods.
If Dr. Chilton can prove the process she is developing works, much of the
uncertainty in the genetic engineering of plants would dissipate. "The
regulators would love to see that," says Dr. Hodges, and "it would
certainly save the companies money" that is currently being wasted on
unsuccessful gene insertions.
Dr. Chilton couldn't have foreseen any of this when when she started out
as a researcher 30 years ago. "I went into research because it was fun,
interesting and challenging," she says. "Biotechnology didn't even exist
Her interest in science was sparked by a mandatory course in her freshman
year in high school. She abandoned an earlier interest in art and enrolled
at the University of Illinois to study physics, but soon switched to
chemistry and microbiology because the fields seemed to offer more
possibilities to a young scientist. A course on DNA -- the chains of
genetic material in the chromosome -- and the genetic code led to an
interest in molecular genetics and eventually plant biotechnology.
An early turning point in her career came when Washington University in
St. Louis gave her the opportunity to set up her own lab "from scratch,"
as she says. With the opportunity came a challenge. As she was
establishing her lab, "the very large teams in competing labs continued at
a rapid pace," she says. "It was scary, but we caught up quickly and even
raced ahead of them."
Moving to industry from academia was another turning point. "It was time
to put the technology developed in my academic lab to work," she says. She
joined the Swiss chemicals company Ciba-Geigy AG in 1983, staying through
the merger with Sandoz Corp. that formed Novartis AG, and the 2000 spinoff
that created Syngenta, which is based in Basel, Switzerland.
Her fascination with science has sustained a distinguished career
highlighted most recently by the 2002 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life
Science. In announcing the award, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia
praised the work Dr. Chilton has done in the field as "critical in
transforming the genetic engineering of plants from science fiction to
science fact." Syngenta has named an administrative and conference center
in her honor.
But Dr. Chilton isn't resting on her laurels. "I am in the lab day, night,
Sundays and holidays," she says. And beyond her current project, she says
she is "on the lookout for a way to contribute" directly to the
advancement of agriculture in the developing world.
"She is a very serious person, totally dedicated to her science," says
Paul Lurquin, professor of genetics at Washington State University and
author of "The Green Phoenix," a history of genetically modified plants.
"She doesn't lack humor, though. I would describe hers as perhaps
Certainly it takes a degree of humor to carry the moniker Queen of
Agrobacterium. The nickname is a tribute, from her colleagues in the
field, to the contribution Dr. Chilton's early work made to the
development of the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens as a vehicle
for introducing new genes into plant chromosomes.
The agrobacterium method is still preferred in many crops, but researchers
have developed alternative methods, including the gene gun, which works by
coating microscopic gold or tungsten particles with the gene to be
introduced and injecting them into plant cells.
A drawback of all these techniques, though, is that only a few out of
hundreds or even thousands of cells may be successfully transformed during
"The majority of gene insertions . . . are very random and the positioning
is often not very good," Dr. Hodges says. "And by not being very good I
mean the gene's not expressed -- it's silent" in the next generation.
If the new gene lands on a part of the chromosome that contains a gene
critical for cell survival or development, the cell will die or won't be
able to divide. In other cases the plant formed from the transgenic cells
-- those carrying the new gene -- doesn't exhibit the desired trait, or
does but isn't able to pass the trait on to the next generation.
So bioengineers play a numbers game. "You usually have to make a large
number and then screen through them looking for the characteristics you
want," Dr. Chilton says. "We're actually not very efficient at what we
Thus the excitement over her project. "The real benefit of Chilton's work
is the fact the scientist will need to produce only a few transgenic
events to select a plant which expresses the desired genes successfully
and in a stable manner," Syngenta scientist Leo Melchers says.
The current imprecise techniques also have raised concerns about genes
being inserted into DNA sequences that control plant development in ways
that aren't well understood. Genes naturally found in the plant can be
inadvertently deactivated or activated by the new genes. So while a plant
might show the trait the bioengineer is looking for, it might also have
undesirable properties that aren't immediately obvious.
Groups like Greenpeace have expressed concern that unknown interactions
could result in toxins usually produced in small quantities being produced
in larger quantities, or in the emergence of allergens not usually
associated with a given crop. There is also concern that these
interactions could have an effect on the nutritional qualities of a crop.
U.S. government regulators also have expressed some concern that genetic
engineering could lead to unforeseen consequences, but they have issued
approvals when satisfied that rigorous testing has resulted in a
reasonable certainty of a product's safety.
Doubts about genetically modified plants are a large part of the challenge
for Dr. Chilton. Among the things she would like to accomplish, she lists
her desire "to share with the public my deep conviction that biotechnology
is a very natural process, and that the products made with biotech are
more environmentally soft than any that we've had in the past."
Her work on precise targeting, along with increased knowledge of plant
genomes -- the entire genetic makeup of an organism -- could take away
much of the persistent uncertainty by allowing scientists to put the new
genes where they better understand how they function. Syngenta and Myriad
Genetics Inc. of Salt Lake City completed the mapping of a rice genome
last year, and projects to map the genomes of corn and other important
crops are under way.
Achieving precise targeting "would certainly be valuable to counter
criticism that opponents have leveled at genetically modified organisms,"
says Vivian Moses, visiting professor of biotechnology at King's College
in London and chairman of CropGen, a group that describes itself as "an
information initiative designed to make the case for crop biotechnology."
Government regulators, whose primary concern is proving the safety of
genetically modified food for human consumption, would likely be swayed to
faster approval by the refined technique, some analysts say. A spokeswoman
for the U.S. Department of Agriculture says only that "any new scientific
research that comes to the forefront is certainly useful and will be taken
into account in the regulatory process."
Some critics won't be easily convinced. "There are still too many
unforeseeable effects of putting foreign genes into plant DNA; we still
don't fully understand what's going on there, and this problem won't be
solved by placing the gene exactly," says Greenpeace Switzerland activist
Bruno Heinzer. "And so Greenpeace is still of the opinion that
[genetically modified organisms] shouldn't be released into nature."
Dr. Chilton declines to discuss the details of her work because of pending
patent applications, but says her team is working on methods of gene
placement involving both agrobacteria and the gene gun method.
"I wouldn't say there are a lot of people working on this, but competitors
are certainly out there," she says. "There are several reports of sporadic
successes in the literature, but the methods don't seem to be very
Fred Mathisen, head of crop protection research at Wood Mackenzie,
concurs, saying, "All the existing products were modified by imprecise
techniques, and work on exact positioning of genes is still at the early
Purdue's Dr. Hodges suspects Dr. Chilton is working with an emerging
method known as site-specific recombination, in which a position on the
chromosome established as effective for gene transfers can be targeted
over and over again with new genes, a process known as gene stacking.
It could be 10 years or so before products developed using the new methods
hit the market, but Dr. Chilton says her team hopes to present its work in
the next year or two. In the meantime, she'll be having a ball. "It is so
much fun to do this experimental work now," she says. "I love the problem
Ms. Sargent is a staff reporter of Dow Jones Newswires in Zurich.