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February 6, 2003


Aversion or Arrogance?; Trade Barrier or European Culture?; Leaky


Today in AgBioView: February 6, 2003:

* European Aversion - Hilarious Expression of Arrogance
* Religion, Genetic Engineering Can Coexist
* The EU Conference Last Week (on Sustainable Ag and Biotech..)
* Conko Response to Livermore on Europeans and GM Food
* Wages of Fear: Societal Costs of Attacks on Human Ingenuity
* Amazing Soybeans: In Space and at Home
* New Book: Transgenic Plants: Current Innovations and Future Trends
* GMOs and Organic Agriculture
* Strategies for Analysing Unintended Effects in Transgenic Food Crops
* Projecting the Benefits of Golden Rice in the Philippines
* Plant Chloroplasts May Leak GM Transgenes
* Gene Hopping from Chloroplast: What Will It Mean for GM Crops?
* Jumping Genes Liven GM Debate
* Jumping Genes Seen In GM Plant Experiment
* Request For Grain Graphics
* Vandana Shiva and the Cowdung Controversy
* Chipko in India: Of Myths and Movements
* Chipko: Of Floated Myths and Flouted Realities
* Crop Improvement: A Dying Breed

Genetically Modified Crops

- International Herald Tribune, Letter to the editor, Feb 5, 2003

Regarding "Don't make Europe gag" (Views, Jan. 27) by Clyde Prestowitz:
The hypocritical objection of European bureaucrats and politicians
concerning genetically modified crops would be a hilarious expression of
their arrogance and ignorance if the results weren't so tragic for
millions of starving people in Africa and around the world.

Almost all domestic crops are genetically modified to some degree. Indeed,
the occurrence of bread wheat thousands of years ago was the result of a
spontaneous mutation among three naturally growing grasses.

The aversion to genetically modified crops is especially puzzling in light
of the millions of French and other European citizens who live happily
within sight of the numerous nuclear facilities from which they derive
much of their electrical power.

- Pamela Holmer, Benalmadena Costa, Spain


Religion, Genetic Engineering Can Coexist

- Christine M. Delucia, The Crimson (Harvard), Feb 6, 2003 (Sent by Andrew

A giant in the world of genetics argued last night in a speech at Memorial
Church that genetic engineering is not incompatible with religion.

Genetic engineering can offer opportunities to alleviate human suffering,
and universally condemning it is shortsighted, Francis S. Collins,
director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, told a crowd of
200 at the third and final talk of the 2003 Noble lecture series.

"To slow or stop the research may be the most unethical stance of all," he
said. Rapid strides in medicine and genetics raise a host of new ethical
and religious concerns, however, and possible misuses and risks of this
research must be carefully considered, he added.

"Thereķs incredible carnage in the process of trying to create a clone,"
he said. "This is a very, very inefficient process, and the inefficiency
is accompanied by a great deal of death and destruction." Collins noted a
certain "yuck factor" that makes the idea of cloning, even if done safely,
repellent to many people. He added that scientists have an obligation to
explain the specifics of these issues to all parts of societyóand the
Church has an obligation to become fully informed.

"Do your homework," Collins urged the religious in the audience. "Be a
committed student of science." Scientists, he added, also must be willing
to recognize the limits of science in answering many existential
questions. Fundamentally, scientific and religious world views are
compatible "in a most beautiful way," Collins said.

Rev. Theodore F. Peters, author of Playing God: Genetic Determinism and
Human Freedom, responded to Collinsķ presentation, saying it is possible
for scientists to be religious people. "If God created man in his own
image, he was a bit of a cloner himself," Peters quipped.

DNA has acquired a sort of "spiritual vibrancy" in modern society, but is
not itself sacred material, Peters said. "Souls are not dependent on our
human genome," he said.


The EU Conference Last Week

- Dr Julian Smith, CABI Bioscience (sent by David Gifford

The EU Conference "Towards Sustainable Agriculture for Developing
Countries: Options from Life Sciences and Biotechnologies" seemed to fail
to reach the core of the problem with the closing exchanges wrangling yet
again over the scientific merits of organic and GMO based systems. Whether
one method is right or wrong is not the issue, even if there was the
scientific evidence to support such a contention. The quality of the
speakers though and the platform presented was unquestionably commendable.

CAB International operates in many developing countries and is engaged in
various cropping systems projects, some inclusive of crop-related GM
technologies. From these experiences we have an almost unique perspective
on where crop-related GM technologies may be placed within cropping
systems and for what reasons, and where the debate is failing such
nations. Increasingly, it seems to me the way forward is not on scientific
outcomes alone, but an appreciation of the intuitive thinking that guides
public decision-making.

An example of the European context: organic production has not been proven
more healthy, more sustainable or more environmentally beneficial, indeed
some might give evidence to the contrary, yet the evidence in the
supermarkets of Europe states unquestioned acceptance by our consumers.
Whereas with GMO food the public is demanding, in response to a perceived
health and environment risk, very stringent limits of detection supported
by labeling. Yet no substantive health or environmental risk has been
proven. Thus, almost unwittingly, these limits that operate in Europe are
reflective of nothing but a right to choose, on social and ethical grounds
alone. This is evidence of society's, notably urbanized society's, reflex
action to accept products with purported better-living values, health,
environmental benefit etc. Sadly these are taken without any notion of
scientific justification and, more importantly,little or no consideration
of the consequences on rural communities, farming practices and developing
country decision-making.

The point missed, I felt, at the EU conference was that these decisions on
preference are being picked up and mirrored in developing countries. The
concepts of organic and crop-related GM production and the reasons for
labeling such products are being adopted for the same intuitive
non-scientific reasons as in Europe. Firsthand experience in Uganda and
the farmers of Kapchorwa support this. I am currently working with a group
of farmers in this remote district and have been asked about the merit of
such statements as "Is it so that pesticide usage is reducing our life
expectancy and a return to organic ways would reverse this trend", and
"will a GM potato variety cause the beans I planted subsequently on that
same land to fail?".

These perceptions are coming I believe from urban European consumers that
do their shopping without due thought or understanding upon which their
decision-making is based. European society is loosing understanding of and
empathy towards farming.

Curiously, it is in developing countries where a way forward may present
itself for, as Florence Wambugu stated at this EU conference, within these
countries the consumers are also farmers, and thus informed
decision-making by the public may more meaningfully be achieved. It may
well be the case that on a country-by-country, region-by-region basis,
developing nations become the first to accept or reject GMOs

- Dr Julian Smith, CABI Bioscience, Egham, Surrey UK. j.smith@cabi.org


Response to Livermore on Europeans and GM Food

- From Greg Conko

I acknowledge I was wrong about the labeling of meat from GE-fed animals.
I was working from old news reports, but there is no excuse for not double

It's also true, as Martin Livermore notes, that a US victory at the WTO
isn't likely to change any European minds, and that it may instead
antagonize many people. True enough. I know of no one who disputes this.
Everyone this side of the Atlantic who's following the issue fully expects
(1) the US to win and (2) the EU to ignore the WTO ruling, as it did with
the beef hormone ruling. But there are still good reasons to move forward
with a WTO complaint.

First, the EU moratorium IS a trade issue, not a "cultural" issue as
Martin Livermore suggests. If consumers in the United States do not want
GE products, they are free to not purchase them. There is a market (albeit
small) in the US for affirmatively and voluntarily labeled non-GE foods.
That's a cultural/social issue.

Similarly, there is a market in European nations for affirmatively and
voluntarily labeled non-GE foods. Indeed, the prevalence of labeled non-GE
foods on supermarket shelves in the seven or eight European cities I've
visited in the past few years has been remarkable, considering that a law
requires GE foods to also be labeled -- again, a manifestation of the
cultural issue. Thus, once (if?) the moratorium ends, and new variety
approvals begin again, those new GE foods will be put to a genuine market
and cultural test. For now, European trade laws forbid such a test from
being conducted.

Second, though tops on the list of the US government, is the expectation
that a WTO victory will assure non-European countries that the US is
willing to take seriously violations of the Agreement on Sanitary and
Phytosanitary Measures when they harm US interests. (Admittedly, though,
the US government isn't above violating the SPS itself: witness the
Shrimp-Turtle and Tuna-Dolphin cases).

Third, some principles ARE worth fighting for. If the European Union is
allowed to get away with things like banning half of the beef from the US
and Canada, legally changing the definition of "anchovy" so it excludes
fish found outside of European waters, treating genetically engineered
foods as though they were inherently risky, etc., all in the name of some
amorphous "cultural" sensitivities, then we will slowly but surely hasten
the end of the liberal trade regime that has for the last 50 years helped
give North America and Europe ever rising standards of living, improved
consumer choice, and greater health and longevity. A stand has to be taken

Fourth, it is true that the US continues to export millions of tons of soy
to Europe each year. But, while the US government has given
commercialization approval to six soybean transformation events, only one
(Monsanto's RoundUp Ready variety) is available commercially in the US
because it is the only transformation event approved for marketing in the
European Union. Similarly, Argentina has approved only that variety, and
for the same reason. And US and Canadian wheat growers are resisting GE
herbicide-tolerant wheat because they know they won't be able to sell to
the EU market. The broader point is that, before any new GE commodity crop
varieties can be commercialized, the EU moratorium must end.

This last point is most important to LDCs. No one really believes that the
US is acting with solely altruistic intent. But the fact of the matter is
both the moratorium and the proposed labeling and traceability rules will
make it harder for LDCs to adopt safe and beneficial GE products. We
cannot simply throw up our hands and think, oh well, everything will be
alright once the labeling and traceability rules are finalized because
then the moratorium will end. We need to take a stand against harmful,
ill-conceived rules, and the moratorium is as good a place as any to

-Greg Conko

>> From: MartinLivermore@aol.com Subject: Europeans and GM food
>> First, a point of information: Greg Conko, in his analysis of Zambia's
>> rejection of unsegregated maize as food aid, says that "...corn-fed..

Wages of Fear: The Costs to Society of Attacks on the Products of Human


- See page 12 of this Lexington Institute publication feature
"Bogus Health Scares & the Costs to Society: GM Foods" by Alex Avery


Amazing Soybeans: In Space and at Home

- Dean Kleckner, AgWeb, Feb 6, 2003; http://www.agweb.com

As a nation, we mourn the loss of an outstanding group of astronauts -
"seven lives of great purpose" - who died as they neared completion of a
journey through space that involved exploration and discovery. Through the
years, myriads of advancements in science and technology have been
discovered, tested and retested within the parameters of the US space
shuttle program. Agriculture has been a key partner in some very
unprecedented scientific research opportunities - and we may be the

Just last June, Peggy Whitson, the Iowa farm girl turned astronaut,
delivered soybeans to the International Space Station. They became the
first plants to complete a major crop-growth cycle--from planting seeds to
growing new seeds--outside the earth's atmosphere. Scientists are
analyzing whether the seeds harvested in a gravity-free environment have
improved oil, protein, and carbohydrates, and whether these qualities can
be passed on to later generations.

The wonder of biotechnology is helping discover and build a better soybean
on the ground as well. Food allergies, of course, are a much more
down-to-earth concern. They occur when the body blunders. Here's how the
Food Allergy Network describes what happens: "The immune system mistakenly
believes that a harmless substance, in this case a food item, is harmful.
In its attempt to protect the body, it creates specific IgE antibodies to
that food. The next time the individual eats that food, the immune system
releases massive amounts of chemicals and histamines in order to protect
the body. These chemicals trigger a cascade of allergic symptoms that can
affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin, or
cardiovascular system."

I don't suffer from bad allergies, so I can only imagine the aggravations
of people who do. Food allergies must be especially frustrating, because
those who have them are forced to avoid many of the things that the rest
of us take for granted. Sometimes it isn't even that easy. People allergic
to peanuts, for instance, can't just turn down airline snacks. They also
need to be careful around sunflower seeds because these two different
products often share equipment. People allergic to milk must be wary of
meat from grocery-store delis because the meat slicers are often used on
cheese as well.

Soybeans may be the trickiest, however, because they find their way into
all kinds of food, from crackers and canned tuna to soup and baby formula.
About 1 or 2 percent of adults, plus 6 to 8 percent of children, can't eat
soy products because of allergies. For most of them, the reactions are
minor: just itching and hives. For a handful, however, it's much more

The result is that many foods derived from one of the most popular crops
grown by American farmers are off limits to millions of people. Many of
them find it difficult to achieve a balanced diet because of all the
restrictions. Scientists already have done amazing things with soybeans.
More than 70 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States are
genetically modified to reduce reliance on pesticides. Weed-free fields
not only look nice, they improve yields.

Modern medicine can cure many ailments, but allergies are not among them.
The best doctors can do is help people treat their symptoms. Telling those
who suffer from food allergies to avoid the foods that make them sick may
sound like common sense, but it's also the very best advice there is.

Yet recent studies have shown that it's possible to create a "knockout
bean"--a soybean that's genetically modified to suppress the proteins that
cause allergies. According to USDA scientist Eliot Herman, "This is
probably the first time a dominant human allergen has been knocked out of
a major food crop using biotechnology."

It will be a few years before grocery stores stock products drawing from
this technology. When it happens, though, people suffering from soy
allergies will find that their lives are suddenly much less complicated
and hazardous.

That's great news for lots of people. There's also an irony in all this.
The enemies of biotechnology often complain that genetically modified
foods may cause unexpected allergic reactions. I've never heard of anybody
documenting a case of this, but that simple fact of course hasn't stopped
these radicals from making a speculative claim.

The new soybean research turns this assertion on its head. The enemies of
biotechnology have it exactly wrong. Because of gene-altered crops, we're
not on the verge of making allergy problems worse - we're getting ready to
ease them. --- Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)
is a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed by
farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.


New Book: Transgenic Plants: Current Innovations and Future Trends

- C. Neal Stewart University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee 37996

Horizon Scientific Press, Jan 2003; 1-898486-44; US $180 (hardback). 296
pp http://www.horizonpress.com/hsp/fbooks.html

Major advances in transgenic plant technologies in recent years have
generated a plethora of potential applications in agriculture and other
areas (food safety, vaccine delivery etc). In this book Internationally
acclaimed authors review the current state-of-the-art technologies as well
as many of the potential applications. The book contains chapters on
diverse topics, ranging from tree somatic embryogenesis, and chloroplast
transformation, to in planta transformation. One unique feature of the
book is its focus on the future of transgenic plants. Site-specific
recombination systems will certainly be part of that future. And exciting
applications such as edible vaccines and functional genomics are will also
be part of the future of transgenic plants.


GMOs and Organic Agriculture

- Simon Barber

Comments re Drew Kershen, Roger Morton and Meredith Lloyd-Evans -
AgBioView Feb. 4, 2003

As I listen to the debate on GM versus "organic" agriculture I become more
and more disappointed. Why, I wonder, do we have the use of an innovative
agricultural development "tool" constantly colliding with the closed
"philosophical/religious box" of practices and beliefs that are "organic"
farming? We surely need to be holistic in setting our agricultural
production goals, not religious. We need the best of old and new methods
to sustainably provide food security for ourselves, AND for those living
less fortunate lives in less productive farming environments. Anyway, some
information from the database of law in the EU with respect to GMOs in
"organic" produce may be of interest to your readers.


Amendments (EC) No 1804/1999 supplementing the earlier Regulation (EEC)
2092/91 "Organic" Regulation clearly state that GMO's and products
containing or derived from GMOs are not compatible with the organic
farming method.

"(10) Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and products derived from them
are not compatible with the "organic" production method;" "in order to
maintain consumer confidence in organic production, genetically modified
organisms, parts thereof and products derived therefrom should not be used
in products labelled as from organic production;"

What Melchett appears not to have mentioned in the letter that sparked
this debate (I have not seen the letter) is one key part of the amendment
to (EEC) No 2092/91 detailed in (EC) 1804/1999. Here it is quite evident
that under EU law there is the ability to set a de minimis threshold for
the "adventitious presence" of GMOs or GMO material that shall not be
exceeded in "organic" produce. Organic farmers in Germany are I believe
already proposing such a threshold be set. The extract below (with
non-relevant text deleted) sets this out nicely.

Article 1 Regulation (EEC) No 2092/91 is hereby amended as follows:
..................... 23. Article 13 shall be replaced by the following:
"Article 13 The following may be adopted in accordance with the procedure
laid down in Article 14: - implementation measures according to scientific
evidence or technical progress to apply the prohibition on the use of GMOs
and GMOs derivatives with regard, in particular, to a de minimis threshold
for unavoidable contamination which shall not be exceeded."

Let's all get together here and work on something practical, something
that permits coexistence, soemthing that doesn't prevent non-"organic"
farmers, including those in developing nations, from choosing to use
innovative and beneficial biotechnology derived crop plants. After all,
the "organic" producers can not consider the concept of setting thresholds
as something new. Here in the EU specified non-"organic" produce can be
added at levels up to 5% in produce that can still be labelled "organic."
In these cases such non-"organic" material isn't "unavoidable
contamination" in the end product - it can be deliberately substituted if
the "organic" counterpart is in short supply.

- Simon Barber, Director, Plant Biotechnology Unit, EuropaBio, 6, Av. de
l'ArmČe - Legerlaan 6, 1040 - Brussels, Belgium


Strategies for Analysing Unintended Effects in Transgenic Food Crops

- Noteborn, H., Peijnenburg, A., Zeleny, R. 2002. IN: Genetically Modified
Crops - Assessing Safety. Edited by K. Atherton. Chapter 4: 74-93.

The application of recombinant DNA technology has revolutionized plant
breeding in recent years. Genetic transformation in plant breeding greatly
increases the gene pool and broadens the scope of genetic changes that
modern breeders may draw upon. The first generation of genetically
modified (GM) crop plants hold great promise in carrying new or improved
agronomical traits that require less intensive farming methods (Estruch et
al., 1997) or which have improved quality traits (Fromm et al., 1993).

These GM crop plants have been produced to improve farming production
systems, aiming, for instance, to reduce negative impacts on the
environment, such as fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. In general,
they are of little direct interest to the consumer. However, the genetic
manipulation of the primary and secondary metabolism of plants offers
distinct possibilities in the development of nutritionally improved
products, raw materials with added pharmaceutical value, and crops with
real health benefits for the consumer. These are second generation GM


Projecting the Benefits of Golden Rice in the Philippines

- Zimmermann, R., Qaim, M. 2002.pines. ZEP Discussion Papers on
Development Policies No. 51, Center for Development Research, Bonn: 33.

Golden Rice has been genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene in
the endosperm of the grain. It could improve the vitamin A status of
deficient food consumers, especially women and children in the developing
world. This paper analyses the potential impacts in a Philippine context.
Since the technology is still at the stage of R&D, benefits are simulated
within a scenario approach. The health effects are quantified using the
methodology of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs).

Golden Rice will not completely eliminate the problems of vitamin A
deficiency, such as blindness or increased mortality rates. So it should
be seen as a complement rather than a substitute for alternative
interventions. Yet, the technology will reduce related health costs
significantly. In monetary terms, annual gains will lie between $23
million and $137 million, depending on the underlying assumptions.

A preliminary cost-benefit analysis shows high returns on R&D investments.
Micronutrient-enriched crops are an efficient way to reduce deficiency
problems among the poor, and related research projects should receive
higher political priority.


Plant Chloroplasts May Leak GM Transgenes

- Graeme O'Neill, Australian Biotechnology News, Feb 6, 2003

An Adelaide University study has shown that confining transgenes to
nature's own handy bottle, to prevent them escaping from genetically
modified crops into non-GM crops or their weedy relatives, will not
necessarily prevent transgenes escaping. Dr Jeremy Timmis and his
colleagues at Adelaide University have confirmed that the bottle - the
plant chloroplast - has a tendency to leak, albeit at a very low rate.

Chloroplasts are the tiny, chlorophyll-packed organelles in plant and
algal cells that house the machinery of photosynthesis. Each chloroplast
has its own small complement of genes, independent of the main genetic
library in the plant cell's nucleus. Nuclear genes are packaged into
pollen - along with any transgenes that might be inserted into the
nucleus, such as the Bt insecticide genes and herbicide-tolerance genes
used in many of today's GM crops.

One way of blocking transgene escape via pollen would be to insert
transgenes into the chloroplast genome, because pollen lacks chloroplasts.
But the Adelaide University team's finding that transgenes inserted into
chloroplasts occasionally migrate into the nucleus is not unexpected. Over
evolutionary time scales, many native chloroplast genes have been
transferred to the nucleus - as reported this week by Australian
Biotechnology News, in its article on the plant ancestry of the malaria
parasite Plasmodium, 466 ex-chloroplast genes now reside in the parasite's

Timmis and his colleagues inserted a marker gene, conferring resistance to
the antibiotic kanamycin, into the chloroplasts of tobacco plants. They
then fertilised wild-type plants with pollen from the transgenic plants,
and grew 250,000 resulting hybrid seeds on kanamycin-laced media. In about
one in 16,000 of the seedlings, the gene had jumped from chloroplast to
nucleus to become heritable, via pollen transfer to other plants.
Transgenes must be specially modified with special DNA 'switches' to
function properly in the chloroplast, but many such genes would still be
viable in the nucleus, according to Nature.

Timmis' team suggests such integration events would have the same
potential to change the course of the plant's evolution as normal mutation
events involving nuclear genes. They say further experiments are now
necessary to determine whether this low, background rate of transfer,
presents a realistic risk of transgenes jumping into pollen, and from
there, into non-GM crops, through wind-blown or insect-carried pollen

Some media have reported the Adelaide University group's findings as
supporting claims by anti-GM activists that transgene transfer to non-GM
crops or weeds will create "superweeds". But according to GM crops expert
Dr Rick Roush, of the CRC for Weed Management, in Adelaide, the actual
risk of that happening is extremely low - as Timmis was at pains to point
out in his paper.

The chloroplast is derived from an ancient bacterial symbiont, and retains
its original bacterial promoters - gene switches - that work very
inefficiently in the nucleus. To obtain detectable expression of the
antibiotic-resistance transgene, the Timmis group had to equip it with
nuclear-gene promoters - something that was extremely unlikely to happen
spontaneously under field conditions.

Even then, the Adelaide University researchers had hand-pollinated the
wild-type tobacco plants; in the field, any vagrant transgenic pollen from
a crop like GM canola would have to compete with vast quantities of non-GM
pollen from nearby flowers to successfully fertilise a flower and produce
seeds with the GM trait. Roush said suggestions that the chloroplast had
been regarded as the great hope for plant transgene containment in future
were inaccurate.

Molecular geneticists' chief interest in the chloroplast was in using it
to obtain higher levels of transgene expression, through the great
abundance of chloroplasts in plant cells. Nor did chloroplast containment
solve the problem of accidental transgene transfer, because it provided
only a one-way barrier. It didnot prevent pollen from weeds fertilising
transgenic crops to produce hybrids carrying transgenic traits, said


Gene Hopping from the Chloroplast to The Nucleus: What Will It Mean for GM

- Chris Preston , AgBioView, Feb 6,

Nature's recent advance online publication by Huang, Ayliffe and Timmis
shows the ability for DNA from the chloroplast to the nucleus and be
stably integrated within the nucleus. It has been suspected for some time
that organelle DNA can become incorporated into the nucleus and stretches
of mitochondrial and chloroplastic DNA have been discovered in the nucleus
during genome sequencing projects. The surprising result from this new
work is how frequently such exchanges happen. Given the frequency of
plants carrying the marker gene in the nucleus, it appears that pieces of
DNA are hopping from organelles to the nucleus at a frequency of about 1
in 16,000 pollen grains.

I predict the opponents of GM technology will use this paper to attack the
safety of GM crops. Equally predictably, this will be used to claim that
GM genes cannot be contained and will wreck havoc creating "superweeds"
everywhere. Just as predictably, anti-GM campaigners will ignore what they
have learnt of biology (if anything) and make grand statements while
ignoring the facts.

There are a few vital points from the paper by Huang et al. that have to
be undestood in any discussion of its implications for GM technology.
Firstly, Huang et al. introduced a nuclear specific gene with a nuclear
specific promoter into the chloroplast. This protein was poorly processed
when transcribed from chloroplastic DNA, but was highly expressed when it
turned up in a nuclear chromosome. At the same time, a plastid-selectable
antibiotic gene was also inserted. This gene was correctly transcribed and
the protein expressed in the transgenic plants when present in the

However, this spectinomycin gene, while also hopping to the nuclear
genome, was not expressed there. That is, no spectinomycin resistant
progeny plants were obtained. This is because chloroplast genes are not
expressed in the nucleus, or only poorly so. So, a herbicide resistance
gene moving from the chloroplast to the nuclear genome will not make the
pollen herbicide resistant.

Equally important is to realise that GM crops have the introduced genes
placed in the nuclear genome. The idea of putting genes into the
chloroplast to limit gene spread has been kicking around for a while now,
but does not have a practical application as it only limits gene flow by
pollen in one direction (eg., from crop to weed, but not from weed to

Perhaps of more practical benefit is that placing genes in the chloroplast
would mean that synthetic versions of bacterial genes do not have to be
created. That is, the native bacterial gene could be used to obtain high
expression. Early attempts to transform plants with the native BT gene
placed in the nuclear genome only produced low expression, because the
native bacterial gene was only poorly transcribed to protein. Chloroplast
genes moving from chloroplast to the nucleus are not going to be well
expressed once in the nucleus. We already have hundreds of thousands of
hectares of triazine tolerant canola grown in Australia. All of these
plants have a herbicide resistance gene residing in the chloroplast. Yet
we don't hear of conventional canola picking up triazine resistance
through outcrossing!

Lastly, the idea of using chloroplasts as a way of limiting gene spread
would be fairly limited anyway. Genes can spread both through pollen and
seed and using a chloroplast location would only stop gene flow from the
crop through pollen. Our own work on wild radish hybridising with canola
(Theoretical and Applied Genetics 103, 555-560 2001) showed hybrids were
obtainable by gene flow from weeds into the crop.

One thing we can be sure of is there will be plenty of emotive language
applied to this research to convince the public that GM is bad for us. A
short quote from the article in today's Melbourne Age should suffice to
demonstrate this: "Scientists had hoped that by injecting foreign genes
away from a plant cell's nucleus, the GM plant's pollen would remain free
of the genes and not infect other plants." When I trained as a biologist,
pollen didn't "infect" anything it was part of the fertilisation process.

- Dr. Christopher Preston, CRC for Australian Weed Management, Adelaide,


Jumping Genes Liven GM Debate

- Leigh Dayton, Australian, Feb 6, 2003 (Sent by Rick Roush)

The debate on genetically modified crops is set to heat up, with
Australian plant geneticists arguing that GM plants are not potential
eco-vandals. In fact, the scientists -- from the University of Adelaide
and CSIRO Plant Industry in Canberra -- report today in the journal Nature
that genetically modified plants are "unlikely" to share modified genes
with GM-free neighbours, as critics have warned.

The researchers base their claim on a finding that genes jump around
inside plant cells far more frequently than anyone expected. "There's an
astoundingly high amount of jumping out of one compartment in the cell
into another," said University of Adelaide associate professor Jeremy

Some may say that if genes jump around at such high rates that means the
risk they will spread to nearby plants is equally high.

Not so, says Professor Timmis, adding: "It's easy for the public to
misinterpret such complex science. Using funding from the Australian
Research Council, Professor Timmis and his colleagues created two types of
"marker" genes and inserted them into tobacco plant cells. They then
looked for the markers in 250,000 of the plant's offspring. One marker was
designed to suit the nucleus where most of the plant's roughly 20,000
genes are found. The other was just right for the chloroplast, a separate
"organelle" in the cell that converts sunlight into energy.

In a quirk of nature, chloroplast genes are not transmitted by pollen, but
by ovules contained in the female part of the plant. Professor Timmis's
team found that in about one in 16,000 of the seedlings, a marker gene had
jumped from the chloroplast into the nucleus and from there into a
seedling. The catch is that only the nuclear markers were inherited as
functional genes.

Phil Davies, a plant geneticist with the South Australian Research and
Development Institute in Adelaide, argues the work "rings a bell of
caution" because the gene jumping rate was so high. "What worries me is
that if they'd grown several million progeny (seedlings ), the chloroplast
marker may have been seen as well" he said.

But chief of CSIRO Plant Industry, Jim Peacock, who was not involved in
the research, says Dr Davies is incorrect. "For instance, we've done
hundreds of thousands of experiments with cotton and we've seen no
evidence of gene transfer," he said.


Jumping Genes Seen In GM Plant Experiment

- ABC Online?; February 6, 2003; Sent by Rick Roush)

Genes in the chloroplast of a genetically-modified plant cell have been
observed jumping into the cell's nucleus for the first time, Australian
scientists have announced.

But the researchers, from the University of Adelaide, said that their
study of tobacco plants did not indicate genetically-modified (GM) crops
are less safe. The work is described in today's issue of the journal
Nature. Led by Associate Professor Jeremy Timmis, the group bred a marker
gene into the plant's chloroplasts, semi-autonomous organelles inside each
plant cell that are chiefly responsible for photosynthesis. They then
looked for signs of the marker gene in 250,000 of the seeds the plant
produced. In about one in every 16,000 seedlings, the marker gene had done
the unexpected - it had moved into the nucleus of the cell, where DNA is
stored and replication controlled.

This means it not only migrated through the cytoplasm of the cell, but
passed through the double membrane wall protecting the nucleus. immis
downplayed the implications for GM plants, saying the marker gene used was
specifically chosen for the purpose. And while movement of genes from
chloroplast to nucleus does not occur naturally, there are many more
processes before a complete and functional gene could make the migration.
"We put a new gene in - but made it absolutely ready to be expressed in
nucleus," he told ABC Science Online. "The gene was not expressed at all
in the chloroplast, only if it ended up in the nucleus."

It is possible to differentiate between the two regions as chloroplast
genes are controlled in a completely different way, he said. Most DNA
material in cells is located as a tightly-bound pocket in the nucleus,
with a small amount in the mitochondria, an energy-producing organelle
floating in the cytoplasm. Plant cells also have about 150 genes in the
chloroplast. "Some of those genes are very active," said Timmis, who is
chief geneticist in molecular biosciences at the university. Chloroplast
and mitochondrial DNA are distinct from nucleus DNA in that they are
almost bacterial in form. Scientists believe the two organelles may once
have been individual lifeforms that eventually merged with nucleus-based

"But the 150 or so genes in the chloroplast, and the handful in the
mitochondria, is not enough to sustain a lifeform," Timmis said. According
to theory, the chloroplasts and mitochondria may have shared 2,000 or so
genes with the nucleus over time. "This has been known for a long time,"
he said. "But we didn't know if it was a rare event or a frequent event.
We measured the rate in real time of bits of chloroplast DNA moving into
the nucleus."

GM still 'safe'

The finding may have people worried about the safety of placing modified
genes into chloroplasts, a practice ostensibly undertaken to prevent the
material escaping into pollen and then into wild plants, Timmis said.

When cells divide, they rely on the genetic information in the nucleus to
form seeds, eggs and sperm for reproduction. The experiment used a gene
designed to be expressed in the nucleus. Natural genes in chloroplasts are
not ready to be expressed in the nucleus, and require a fair amount of
modification in order to do so.

"Just transferring across is simply not enough," he said. "We only
measured the rate of DNA transposition itself, not a functional
chloroplast." The results of the experiment are not a quantification of
the risk of GM pollen escaping, he said. The rate of functional genes that
pass from chloroplasts to nuclei is considerably less than one every
16,000 "by an order of several magnitudes", Timmis said.


Request For Grain Graphics

- Gale West

Dear AgBioView subscribers,

After weeks of independent searching, I have come to the conclusion that I
need your help to find a drawing of grain. I will soon be mailing out a
questionnaire to a random sample of 1,000 Quebec corn, soybean and canola
producers regarding their opinions about GM technology and their
observations of GM plants in the field. I would like to put a nice, black
and white, graphical representation of corn, soybeans and canola on the
cover of the questionnaire (not a photograph, but rather a drawing).

Do any of you have such a drawing that is in the public domain that I
could reproduce on the cover of our questionnaire? I would be most
grateful for your help: gale.west@eac.ulaval.ca.

- Yours, Gale E. West, Ph.D., chercheure, CREA/INAF, Univeriste Laval,


Vandana Shiva and the Cowdung Controversy

- Thomas R. DeGregori, AgBioView, Feb 6, 2003. http://www.agbioworld.org/

One has to have a sneaking admiration for someone like our Vandana who can
hymn paeans of praise for cowdung even when she steps in it,
metaphorically speaking. Her appreciation of its many virtues seems more
appropriate to her character than being a Ph.D in physics. Being a
physicist means much more than having a couple of diplomas. Among other
things, being a physicist means understanding basic principles such as the
law of conservation of matter and energy.

One doesn't need to have a Ph.D to recognize that if a molecule is in a
plant it or its constituents have to come from someplace. In the case of
plants, it is either the soil or the atmosphere. For crops it means that
if it is grown one place and eaten in another, than the soil is being
mined for nutrients which have to be replaced. If the nutrients are not
replaced, then no matter how rich the soil was originally, it will
eventually be mined to exhaustion and therefore agriculture will be not
"sustainable" as BS Shiva claims.

Even where the entire crop is eaten locally, the second law of
thermodynamics and common sense tells us that recycling can never be 100%
so that recycling alone delays but does not deny eventual soil exhaustion.
Further as has long been known by agriculturalist, most of the soils of
the great agricultural areas of the world were transformed by humans to
make them arable just as humans transformed the technologies involved in
agriculture in order to open new areas to cultivation.

Dave Wood has made an important contribution to AgBioView by giving us
valuable data on the rather sizeable gap between the nutrient that was
annually taken out of the soil by agriculture in India and the "organic
matter" that was available to return to it. He has frequently quoted from
the late distinguished Indian historian of agriculture, Mohindar Singh
Randhawa as follows:

"The cultivated crops in India remove annually, on average, 3 million
tonnes of nitrogen, 1.5 million tonnes of phosphorus oxide and 3.5 million
tonnes of potash. This comes to 8 million tonnes of plant food. The
organic sources of the plant food returned to the soil is hardly 1.8
million tonnes of nitrogen, 0.60 tonnes of phosphorus oxide and 1.8
million tonnes of potash. This amounts to 4.2 million tonnes of plant
food. Even allowing for the biological and other natural processes for
recuperation of fertility, the balance is tremendous. This was the main
reason for low crop yields in India." - Randhawa, Mohindar Singh. 1983. A
History of Agriculture in India. New Delhi: Indian Council of Agricultural
Research (ICAR), vol 3 - 1757-1947, p. 314.

Randhawa's source for this data was Radha Raman Agarwal. 1965. Soil
Fertility in India. Bombay: Asia Publishing House. If we check this book,
we find that the data is for 1961-1962. In first giving this data, Agarwal
(page 7) indicates that the numbers for the added nutrient was "the
addition through all sources, including fertilizers and manures." On p.
14, Agarwal notes that from 1952 to 1962 there was a ten fold increase in
fertilizer use. Nevertheless, "according to the present consumption level,
each acre of arable land in India was getting during 1961-1962 about 9 lb.
of nitrogen through organic sources and 1.5 lb. of nitrogen in the form of
chemical fertilizers, when removal of the same crop harvest is around 20
lb of nitrogen. The same is true for other nutrients like nutrients like
phosphorus and potassium. The deficit in the balance sheet of plant
nutrients in the soil is a big drain on the reserve of soil fertility and
is telling upon crop production in India."

May I state the obvious that Wood's informative observation are even more
powerful and persuasive in that they are an understatement of the need for
fertilizer use in Indian agriculture. This is reinforced by Agarwal's data
for 1955-1956 showing that when fertilizer use was lower, the nutrient
deficit in Indian agriculture was greater - "the net loss of plant
nutrients from our total cultivated area was about 2,093,000 tons of
nitrogen, 1,247,000 tons of P2O5 and 2,915,000 tons of K2O, or a total of
6,255,000 tons of plant nutrients in 1955-56 (p. 214)."

Note these are all figures prior to the Green Revolution when output and
fertilizer use skyrocketed. (Please note, contrary to BS Shiva, because of
the greater efficiency of Green Revolution plants owing to factors such as
a higher harvest index, it takes less nutrient input per unit of desired
output. In other words, saying that it takes more nutrient input -
fertilizer - for "Green Revolution" crops is comparable to saying that it
takes more food to raise three children than it does to raise one.) Since
Indian population has more than doubled since 1961-62 and come close to
tripling since the mid 1950s while food production has come close to
quadrupling, it is a virtual certainty that the nutrient deficit between
the nutrient extracted from the soil each year and the maximum nutrient
available from "organic" sources is vastly greater.

It looks like Vandana has stepped in it once again! Does anyone have more
recent data on the nutrient deficit in India?


Of Myths and Movements

- Haripriya Rangan,

(Offers an interesting insight into how the ecology-women link has been
turned into bankable rhetoric ; forwarded by Tom DeGregori

Women in the villages of 'underdeveloped' economies like India are the
primary managers of the natural resources available to them. They do most
of the work on the farm and in taking care of the livestock. This "living
environment" of soil, water, forests and energy form the patterns of their
daily lives from sun up to sun down. In addition, women also participate
in buying and selling of agricultural produce. The raw materials they use
in their crafts and tool making also come from nature and are vulnerable
to environmental degradation.

As farmers and traders, women experience environmental problems directly
undermining the basis of their lives. This link between environment and
women is obvious, but rarely acknowledged. It has been of little scholarly
interest, and other than an occasional conference paper here and there, it
has been undeservedly ignored. of Myths and Movements, rewriting Chipko
into Himalayan History by Haripriya Rangan is not about this subject
either - it is primarily a brilliant account of the journey of the Chipko
movement from fact to myth, but it offers an interesting insight into how
the ecology-women link has been turned into a bankable rhetoric.

The book has a vast sweep as it unravels the fascinating ecological
history of Garhwal, linking the Chipko movement to pre-British history and
the Uttarakhand agitation, and describing the roles played by some of the
now most famous names in India's environmental pantheon, like Chandi
Prasad Bhatt, Sunderlal Bahuguna, et al. The author is herself "amazed by
how Chipko has found a niche in the imaginations and memories of numerous
scholars" in the West and "appears, without fail, in conversations that
centre on sustainability, the Himalayas, deforestation in India, or social
movements in poor regions of the world." Chipko is, in fact, almost a
metaphor for this country's environment on the world stage.

Even in India, the idea of Chipko has been clung to as tenaciously as
supposedly did the original tree-huggers, by many activists, scholars,
journalists and academicians. One of these players who brought the story
to world audiences was Vandana Shiva, who gave Chipko her own twist of

Of Shiva, Rangan says, "It would be fairly accurate to say that her
recognition as the spokesperson of Third World women and their
relationship to nature derives, in large part, from her repeated and
widespread narration of the Chipko story to environmental audiences in the
English-speaking world. ShivaĒs narratives of Chipko centre on women. She
draws the village women of Garhwal into her narratives by binding them to
the Himalayan forests and nature "Nature is feminine; the Earth is

Rangan then goes on to explain Shiva's elaborate feminist logic. Women in
India are an intimate part of nature both in imagination and in practise.
At one level, nature is symbolised as the embodiment of the feminine
principle, and at another, she is nurtured by the feminine to produce life
and provide sustenance.

According to Vandana Shiva, even the legendary Bishnoi love for nature is
a feminist environmental action, when, 300 years ago, they were led by a
woman called Amrita Devi to cling to trees to prevent them from felling.
Embodying the same feminist principle, the Garhwal women clung to the
trees to prevent their economic exploitation by the patriarchal elements
of society (like the British colonisers, timber merchants in independent
India, etc.). In Shiva's own words: Peasant women came out, openly
challenging the reductionist commercial forestry system on the one hand,
and the local men who had been colonised by that system, cognitively,
economically, and politically on the other.

Rangan concludes that it is precisely by this constant insertion of
"Chipko women" into Shiva's narratives that she is able to reinforce her
own authenticity as an eco-feminist in contemporary environmental

'of Myths and Movements' while outlining the details of the so-called
movement, does so with an objective detachment. This, however, does not
fail to convey to the reader the thought that Shiva's concept of
eco-feminism seems to be just a convenient rhetoric with little basis in
fact. This is true of a lot of other rhetoric we are at times fed by
environmentalists: Were the British ruthlessly mining the Garhwal forests
of its timber? Were Garhwali women dead against the economic exploitation
of their forests, while their men were insensitive predators? To Rangan,
it is not important whether these myths are based on fact, but the motives
that perpetuate them. Nevertheless, she examines these ågivensĒ in-depth,
and reveals to us the truth in its complexity. Fortunately, Rangan has the
advantage of distance; as a researcher in an Australian University, she is
not burdened by the politics and counter-politics that often govern the
local environmental discourse.

It is always a challenge to bring science to those not possessing that
specialist knowledge, but Rangan has written an eminently readable book.
In fact, the book is unputdownable. The strength of the book is not just
its impeccable research, but its gripping style. Both academics and
laypersons ą not to forget the activists ą will find it invaluable in
understanding the science and politics of our rapidly degrading
environment. ---- Pankaj H Gupta works with video for development, and is
an occasional documentary filmmaker and writer. He can be contacted at


Chipko Movement: Of Floated Myths and Flouted Realities

- Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, Full article at
http://www.mtnforum.org/resources/library/bandj99a.htm (PO Box 16757,
Calcutta 700027 India; bandyopa@hotmail.com) (Forwarded by Dave Wood

On 26 March 1999, a quarter of a century will be over since a group of
women in the Reni forests of Garhwal Himalaya succeeded in chasing away
timber felling contractors. In course of time this event became a
milestone in the evolution of the world famous Chipko movement. An
impressive and useful bibliography on the literature around the movement
has also developed since then. A number of activists with remarkable
philosophical richness and social commitment have devoted their lives to
this movement, which is one of the most written about, in the world today.

In spite of the volumes of literature, or probably because of it, there
appear some serious gaps in the public impressions and actual realities of
the movement. Myths have often flouted realities, individuals with no
links with the movements have often been projected by the media as its
leader. Thus, some widely accepted yet mistaken concepts have got
currency. There is a need to re-establish the realities about the movement
and to honour the selfless hard work of the numerous less-known and
unknown Chipko activists.

As a student of environmental activism, over the past 20 years, the
present author and his associates have travelled extensively through
mountain villages in large parts of Garhwal and Kumaon Himalaya, where the
Chipko movement emerged. This article is written as a tribute to the
numerous and largely unknown activists of the movement on the occasion of
the completion of 25 years since the successful forest protection action
in Reni under the leadership of Gaura Devi, the head of the local village
women's organisation. It is also aimed at a wider examination of the
reliability of the media created 'messages' and dispelling some of the
myths about the movement that have floated around for quite sometime.

In addressing this, the following questions are taken for examination: 1.
Is Chipko a movement rooted in economic conflicts over mountain forests or
guided by ideas of deep ecology? 2. Is Chipko a social movement based on
gender collaboration or a 'feminist movement' based on gender conflicts?

<<3. Has anyone in the Chipko movement actually embraced trees at the risk
of her/his life and not for waiting photographers?

A common impression exists all over the world, except in the villages of
Garhwal and Kumaon, that large number of people, especially women, have
been embracing trees to prevent their felling. While the media has played
an important role in spreading the positive message of the movement, some
journalists have failed miserably to maintain minimum professional
standards and have created serious confusions at the international level
on the above question. Examples of such unprofessional reporting is given

In a magazine Sanctuary, Shiva (1992) declared that 'one Gaura Devi' led a
group of village women to hug trees. A number of researchers had discussed
the Reni action with Gaura Devi. However, there is no documented support
to the claim of Shiva. She was neither present at the spot in Reni, nor
she refers to any discussion with Gaura Devi. There has been a media
created confusion on the issue of who embraced the trees in Chipko
Movement. This has also disturbed the activists of the movement. The
spreading of misinformation is taken to comical heights by a Malaysian
journalist Fong (1996) who, in an article in The Star wrote that :

Her (Vandana Shiva's) name is synonymous with the Chipko Movement (Chipko
means embrace) in India, an active anti-logging movement in the 70s and
early 80s. To stem environmental destruction, Vandana (Shiva) led
thousands of women to embrace (literally) the trees in the Himalayan
mountains in their bid to stop logging activities.

In the characteristic style of sensationalist journalism, Fong (1996) does
not provide any date, place, forest area, or villages associated with the
incidence he reports. Nor he mentions one name out of the thousands of
women that Shiva, reportedly, had led somewhere in the Himalayan
mountains. The activists of the Chipko movement were, on one hand, amused
at the totally comical nature of Fong's claim. On the other hand, in a
letter of protest to the editor of The Star, they wrote (Jardhari et al.

The interview is based on false claims of Vandana Shiva and has angered
many.......The real activists are so simple that they do not know why
Vandana Shiva is reportedly publishing wrong claims about Chipko in the
foreign press. We should all stand up against this new green exploitation
of the people's simplicity and courage by clever, greedy and selfish
persons like Vandana Shiva.>>

{Note from Prakash: Interestingly, the author of this commentary Dr.
Jayanta Bandyopadhyay (who is a professor at the Indian Institute of
Management and I used to attend his ecology forum as a grad student during
early 1980s) should clearly know Vandana better. He was married to her.}


Crop Improvement: A Dying Breed

- Jonathan Knight, Nature 421, 568 - 570 (2003)

Public-sector research into classical crop breeding is withering,
supplanted by 'sexier' high-tech methods. But without breeders' expertise,
molecular-genetic approaches might never bear fruit. Jonathan Knight

Normally, at this time of year, agricultural scientists from around the
world would be converging on the headquarters of the International Maize
and Wheat Improvement Center, known as CIMMYT, in Texcoco, near Mexico
City. They would then travel together to a desert field station near
Ciudad ObregŪn in northwestern Mexico to study the current crop of
experimental wheat cultivars, planted at the beginning of winter.

But not this year. For the first time in half a century, the research
centre that helped to sow the seeds of the 'green revolution' of the 1960s
and '70s has been forced to skip a cycle of wheat breeding trials, because
of a lack of money. More than half of CIMMYT's fields in ObregŪn lie
fallow, and the trainee plant breeders are staying at home.

CIMMYT is not alone. All over the world, conventional plant breeding has
fallen on hard times, and is seen as the unfashionable older cousin of
genetic engineering. "Plant breeding is getting dumped along the wayside
for not being sexy enough," claims Greg Traxler, an agricultural economist
at Auburn University in Alabama. Government funding of plant-breeding
research has all but dried up in the United States and Europe, and the
World Bank and donor nations have recently slashed their support for the
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the
international research consortium of which CIMMYT is a part.

Meanwhile, a steady push by companies to claim exclusive commercial rights
to new plant varieties has progressively tied the hands of publicly funded
efforts at crop improvement. If this trend isn't halted, some experts
claim, tomorrow's supercrops may end up like many of today's medicines:
priced out of the reach of much of the developing world's growing
population. "We are headed down the same path that public-sector vaccine
and drug research went down a couple of decades ago," says Gary
Toenniessen, director of food security at the Rockefeller Foundation in
New York.

Sowing success. Classical breeders improve crops simply by crossing plants
with desired traits, and selecting the best offspring over multiple
generations. Sometimes they use chemical mutagens to disrupt crop genomes,
in the hope that some of the resulting mutants will have useful new
traits. Crosses may be as simple as letting two plants grow together, or
they may require pollination by hand. And for crops such as wheat, one
parent must first be emasculated to prevent self-pollination. In some
ways, breeding is like accelerated, targeted evolution, and as long as
test crops and seed banks are maintained, the possibilities can never be
fully exhausted.

These methods, applied intensively at CIMMYT and the International Rice
Research Institute (IRRI) near Manila in the Philippines, provided the
impetus for the green revolution. Breeders produced dwarf varieties of
wheat, maize and rice that were less likely to fall over in wind and rain,
and which could carry larger seeds. Thanks to these varieties, farmers
could use more fertilizer without risking losing their crops, and grain
harvests in some areas have doubled or even trebled over the past three

Central to CIMMYT's success in wheat was the practice of 'shuttle
breeding', in which two seasons of plant selection could be completed in
one year. Grain would be rushed from the fields in Ciudad ObregŪn after
the harvest in April for summer planting in Toluca, near Mexico City.

This year's cancellation of the ObregŪn end of the shuttle was part of a
10% reduction in CIMMYT's programmes in the face of budget cuts, says the
centre's director general, Masa Iwanaga. This was a result of the
reduction in support for the CGIAR, which supports CIMMYT, IRRI and 14
other agricultural research centres around the world.

Whereas the CGIAR's funding crisis has come to a head in the past couple
of years, exacerbated by the global economic downturn, the world's
academic plant-breeding labs have suffered steady attrition over a far
longer period. Molecular genetics and transgenic technologies hold great
promise for crop improvement, and have consumed a growing portion of the
limited funding pie. University administrators have reinforced this trend,
tending to replace retiring plant breeders with molecular geneticists who
are more likely to produce high-profile journal articles.

Changes in the intellectual-property environment have also taken their
toll. From the late 1960s onwards, developed nations introduced a legal
framework of plant breeders' rights, giving new varieties and cultivars
patent-like protection. The goal was to stimulate innovation in corporate
labs, but the reforms also meant that public-sector breeders were no
longer free to tinker with plants grown from commercial seed.
"Plant-variety protection was the death knell for public breeding
programmes," says Michael Gale, head of comparative genetics at the John
Innes Centre in Norwich, Britain's leading public plant-science research

Root of the problem. The figures reinforce Gale's view: until the 1960s,
breeding for crop improvement was largely a public endeavour, but a survey
of US plant scientists in the mid-1990s found more than twice as many
breeders in the commercial sector than at universities and government
agencies combined1. And although breeders' skills are still alive in the
private sector, they are now working to subtly different ends. For seed
companies and agribiotech firms, the top priority has been developing
crops that can maximize profits from the intensive agricultural practices
that are widely used in the developed world. Sadly, there is less money to
be made in seeding a second green revolution for the world's poor.

In recent years, of course, the big news in the commercial and public
sectors has been transgenic technology, rather than conventional breeding.
Genetically modified (GM) crops that are resistant to the effects of
broad-spectrum herbicides or that carry genes for insecticidal toxins have
been widely planted across North America ó but simultaneously shunned by
European consumers, who are deeply suspicious of the technology. The
welter of media coverage has obscured recent achievements in classical
breeding, and although breeders generally view transgenics as a valuable
tool, they stress that conventional breeding is far from obsolete.

In fact, for many GM crops, there is a comparable conventionally bred
variety. The seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred, based in Des Moines, Iowa, for
instance, produces a conventional, herbicide-resistant oilseed rape, or
canola, that has similar advantages for weed control as its GM
counterparts. And whereas the GM 'golden rice'2, engineered to contain a
gene that boosts the production of vitamin A by people who eat its grain,
has attracted much publicity, conventional breeding is also being deployed
to improve the nutritional value of this staple crop. IRRI has produced a
cultivar of rice called IR68144 that bears grain rich in iron3, and so
could be used to combat anaemia. Even for crops such as the banana, which
is unable to reproduce sexually without specialist human intervention,
conventional breeding may still have a role to play (see