Today in AgBioView: March 19, 2003
* Food for Thought
* Killer Tomato and Frankenfood - Distrust of AgBiotech
* Polarised GM Debate 'Damages Africa's Chances
* Corporations Help African Green Revolution
* Food Biotech Companies Leave Europe
* India: Rabobank Favours Investments In GM Technology
* Australia: Victorian Farmers Vote 'No' to GM Moratorium
* Pass the Peanuts, Hold the Anaphylaxis
* Altered Waves of Grain
* GE Fan Voted NZ's Top Scientist
* Cashing In on a Biotech Treasure Trove
* The Threat to Science as a 'Public Good'
* A Conversation with James D. Watson
* From Lab to Embassy: Scientists in U.S. Foreign Policy
* Scientist Makes Case for Continuing Genetic Engineering
* GM: Mark of Excellence?
* Symposium on Biopharming
Food for Thought
- Emilio Sahurie, Times Daily (Alabama), March 15, 2003 (via agbios.com)
He is a 1970 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, but still he waited in line to
grab a sandwich and a chocolate chip cookie from a reception table.
Well-respected around the world for a scientific career spanning more than
50 years, Norman E. Borlaug chatted with strangers Friday morning outside
the TVA auditorium. He posed for photographs and signed a few autographs.
Eight days short of his 89th birthday, the grandfatherly figure with a
hearing device in one ear is very much a people person. "I like to read
when I have the time or can't sleep at night," said Borlaug, responding to
a question about what he enjoys doing in his free time.
Free time is a commodity to Borlaug, who "officially retired" in 1979 but
nonetheless has kept a busy schedule of traveling around the world,
meeting people and helping farmers. The noted agronomist, who arrived from
Mexico on Thursday, gave a presentation Friday titled "Feeding a World of
Ten Billion People ˝ the TVA/IFDC Legacy."
Optimistic for a world that could face Malthusian fears ˝ fears that the
population would grow faster than the food supply ˝ that plagued the globe
40-50 years ago, Borlaug continues combating hunger. Known as the father
of the Green Revolution, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970
for research that prevented millions of people from starving.
"Feeding 10 billion ˝ can it be done?" Borlaug said about mid-century
world population projections. "Yes, it can be done without destroying the
Addressing a crowd of more than 250 people, Borlaug said countries like
Pakistan and India have reached self-sufficiency with the introduction of
high-yielding wheat and use of improved fertilizers. Among his ongoing
projects, Borlaug is working in Africa to introduce farmers to improved
crops and fertilizers ˝ including using technology developed by TVA and
While there are debates among scientists about not interfering with
traditional farming methods in developing countries, the alternatives will
be devastating, he said. Not taking advantage of high-tech fertilizers and
a new batch of genetically modified crops may mean farmers would cut more
forests, leading to species extinction and starvation, Borlaug said.
Borlaug's visit Friday also coincided with the 26th anniversary of the day
when President Jimmy Carter designated IFDC as a nonprofit, public,
international organization. Recognizing his life-saving work, the mayors
of the Shoals' four largest cities presented Borlaug with a proclamation
making March 14, 2003, Norman Borlaug Day.
IFDC president Amit Roy said Borlaug plans to be in the Shoals for a few
days before traveling to Michigan and likely other commitments overseas.
"He has dedicated his career to the issue of global food security," Roy
said. Besides working with farmers, Borlaug enjoys spending time with
children. Borlaug spent Friday afternoon talking to students at Bradshaw
Hardly a household name in the United States, Borlaug is welcomed with
open arms by heads of state and farmers in other countries. IFDC official
Jorge Polo hopes Borlaug's legacy will not be taken for granted by younger
generations of Americans.
"Everyone here has a full stomach," Polo said. "He comes here and not a
lot of people recognize him. "Other countries know what he has done," he
Borlaug, who works with fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter in
agricultural programs in Africa, said the continent is his greatest worry
in the coming years. Africa faces high rates of population growth and
ravaging diseases like AIDS.
Besides bringing agricultural technology to farmers, Borlaug said Africa
needs infrastructure to succeed. "Without roads, there are no schools,"
Borlaug said. "Roads are the first step in public education and health."
'Killer Tomato and Frankenfood - Distrust of AgBiotech'
Letter from the Chair . . . - Neal K. Van Alfen, NABC News, Spring 2003
no. 26 http://www.cals.cornell.edu/extension/nabc/
Why is biotechnology, in broad terms, considered by most of the world in
such a favorable light, but agricultural biotechnology with such distrust?
I have heard most of the arguments attributing this difference to
unfortunate incidents in Europe that resulted in distrust of government
oversight of the food-supply chain. This must certainly be part of the
reason for the difference in attitudes between the United States and
Europe, but it probably doesn't explain everything.
In this country most people have had a cautious, but not negative,
response to agricultural biotechnology. Initial concerns about adverse
health effects for those who eat foods derived from recombinant-DNA
technology have essentially dropped from view because of the total lack of
any credible reports of problems associated with consumption of these
foods. This body of experience has reinforced the cautious, but not
negative, attitude of our consumers. Our regulatory system seems to be
working well. It is, therefore, especially important that this attitude of
acceptance not be compromised for short-term goals.
For many years now, I have been puzzled by the broad acceptance of medical
biotechnology. Health-service consumers are not only accepting of the
latest technology being used to address their medical ills, but anxiously
await the development of anything that will prolong the quality of their
lives. Human gene therapy is not viewed as a "killer tomato" and no
fear-inducing terms like "frankenfood" have been coined, even though the
derivation of this word more closely describes what is happening today in
medical biotechnology than it does anything associated with agricultural
Medical biotechnology, in many ways, is much more controversial than is
agricultural biotechnology. Nothing in agricultural biotechnology has
received attention equivalent to the stem-cell debate. The issue of human
cloning has also been on the front pages of newspapers and has commanded
much air time recently, even though everyone assumes that the claims of
successful human cloning must be false. The public, and thus politicians,
are interested and actively engaged in discussion of medical biotechnology
advances. This interest and attention have clearly been beneficial to the
funding of biomedical research.
Medical biotechnology research is conducted in a climate in which there is
considerable public oversight and where many limits are imposed.
Agricultural researchers are not used to this type of oversight, and we
generally reject the notion that anything we do could result in harm. Some
of our past practices related to pesticides, however, leave us vulnerable
to those who feel more oversight of our research is justified. We are also
in the uncomfortable position of arguing that the perceived environmental
and health dangers from agricultural biotechnology are equivalent to those
associated with our current practices. For instance, the argument that
importation of exotic plants can as easily contaminate gene pools of
native species with exotic genes as can transgenic species is not a very
satisfying argument for the benign effects of agricultural biotechnology.
It may be that some of our practices need to be carefully reexamined.
My household is currently attempting to train a new puppy and that
experience has enlightened me regarding the importance of limits and
oversight. Training a dog to live inside with you requires that very clear
limits be imposed on its behavior. The incredible zest of a puppy for
uninhibited exploration is wonderful to watch, but becomes very irritating
when it results in shoes, carpets and furniture being damaged. Imposing
limits makes sense, and, in training a puppy, I have learned that
oversight is key to the process. Maybe medical biotechnology has achieved
its current level of comfort primarily because of strong oversight with
clear limits. Although no one enjoys having limits placed on their
activities, I am sure that my puppy prefers sleeping inside.
Personally, I feel that the health-safety issues related to agricultural
biotechnology will continue to fade as time passes. We have the potential
to defuse much criticism if the technology improves the quality and
healthfulness of foods available to consumers and, importantly, to chefs
and other food-opinion leaders. The important issues related to
agricultural biotechnology are related to environmental impacts, and these
will be difficult to defuse by appeals to trust us. We will probably need
to accept limits and oversight and so it may be wise for the agricultural
community to be proactive in establishing self-policing oversight panels
as a step toward restoring our credibility as good stewards of the
Polarised GM Debate 'Damages Africa's Chances'
- Nicky Lewis, SciDev.Net
The "toxically polarised" debate in the developed world about genetically
modified (GM) crops could stifle the potential of biotechnology to benefit
the poor, particularly in Africa, Gordon Conway, president of the
Rockefeller Foundation said today (12 March).
"Becoming enmeshed in the arguments over GM foods that rage in the
developed countries Í is not what Africa needs now," said Conway in a
speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in
Washington DC, United States.
Conway explained that the first green revolution of the late 1960s and
early 1970s, which brought India close to agricultural self-sufficiency,
largely passed by Africa. He spoke of the need to balance social and
environmental concerns with implementing new technologies, an approach he
calls the 'doubly' green revolution.
As well as good governance and wise policies, involvement of the private
sector will be crucial to this new revolution, Conway said. "We no longer
believe that governments alone can accomplish what needs to be done Í the
private sector is needed, including non-academic scientists, corporations,
and business people."
Such public-private partnerships have the advantage of combining "public
purpose" with "private entrepreneurship". But Conway acknowledges that
stronger institutions are required to develop successful relationships.
A new initiative being spearheaded by the Rockefeller Foundation, known as
the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), aims to play
precisely this role. The AATF ˇ which will be officially launched in
September in Nairobi, Kenya ˇ will be a broker of public-private
partnerships, and will act as a focal point for materials and information
On the subject of biotechnology, Conway said it would be "irresponsible"
if African countries were not helped to take advantage of the capabilities
of new techniques and products made possible by biotechnology, including
GM crops. He stressed the importance of African countries having the
experience and scientific capacity to make informed decisions about GM
food, and highlighted the recent crisis over GM food aid in southern
Africa as another "compelling reason" why the capacity to understand and
handle biotech must be developed widely.
This is particularly true in terms of assessing the safety of GM crops, he
said, given that most African countries do not have the necessary testing
and regulatory systems. On this issue, Conway criticised the United States
for "sitting on the sidelines" of the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol ˇ the
international convention adopted in 2000 to protect biological diversity
from the potential risks of GM organisms.
According to Conway, three factors are required for African countries to
decide whether to take up GM crops: a strong scientific community,
policies that encourage advanced research and regulatory systems, and a
better understanding of the complexities of biotechnology.
Conway said that in many ways intellectual property rights (IPRs) are the
"greatest barrier" to his vision of a new green revolution, owing to a
trend towards exclusive private control of agricultural discoveries, and a
shift in academic research away from public objectives.
While he acknowledged the need for regulation of new technologies, Conway
said that the way IPRs operate in connection with poor countries needs to
be adjusted, and labelled the situation as a "complicated tragedy".
Full text of Gordon Conway's speech at
Corporations Help African Green Revolution
- Dennis Avery, Center for Global Food Issues, http://www.cgfi.org/ March
Four of the world's largest agribusiness corporations are joining with the
Rockefeller Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development
in a major new effort to create a Green Revolution for hungry Africa.
Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and DowAgrosciences say they will donate
research tools seed varieties, patent rights, laboratory techniques free
to African scientists through the new African Agriculture Technology
Foundation being established in Kenya.
It's about time we cut through the First World's welter of anti-corporate
and anti-technology sentiment to refocus on real human and conservation
Southern Africa is currently suffering a drought-driven famine, and about
one-third of the African population routinely suffers from inadequate food
supplies. The International Food Policy Research Institute predicts Africa
will have more than 200 million chronically malnourished residents by
2020, even after clearing a Texas worth of wildlands to plant more
Unfortunately, the first Green Revolution's "miracle" wheat and rice
varieties aren't suited to Africa. Africa also lacks roads and good
irrigation sites, and its poor governance has kept fertilizers and pest
control chemicals too expensive for its millions of subsistence farmers.
The first Green Revolution was driven by public-sector research. But our
public sectors are no longer doing much agricultural research. Public
funding for agricultural research has become politically incorrect in the
well-fed First World where there is already more farm production than we
can eat. Our consumers are more worried about their weight and
activist-aggravated perceptions of risk from farm inputs than about
The new consortium is the brain-child of Gordon Conway, president of the
Rockefeller Foundation. That's fitting. In the 1940s, Rockefeller founded
the first agricultural research station for the Third World (in Mexico).
Rockefeller's Mexican research launched the Green Revolution of the 1960s,
which is credited with saving more than one billion people from starvation
in Asia and Latin America. At the same time, it tripled the crop yields on
those regions' best farmland--thus saving 12 million square miles of
forest from being cleared for farmland.
Before 1960, India grew only 60 million tons of grain per year, instead of
the 240 million tons per year it currently produces. Clearly, India would
have suffered massive starvation and wildlands losses without the
high-yield crops. The new hope for combating Africa's tropical insects,
weeds and droughts is being pinned primarily to plant genetics and
biotechnology that can inexpensively deliver seeds with higher yields,
better pest resistance, and better nutrition.
Most of the world's genetic engineering investments to date have been made
by multinational corporations that have little hope for near-term sales to
impoverished Third World farmers. However, the companies in the new
consortium hope that, by first assisting Africa's own farm research, they
will unleash new crop productivity, ultimately helping to turn Africans
into affluent customers.
The new Foundation will feature an African-majority of directors, chaired
by Eugene Terry, a well-known and highly respected plant pathologist from
Sierra Leone. Even so, the new foundation can expect strong opposition
from eco-groups that have long condemned both corporations and the first
Green Revolution. (They claim it benefited only big farmers, and displaced
thousands of low-yield seed varieties with a few new ones.) Some even
blame higher crop yields for "global overpopulation," rather than
crediting the world's recent one-time population surge to lower death
rates triggered by clean water and vaccinations.
Several European governments are also demanding "sustainable" farming
systems for the poor countries, even knowing that the lower yields from
organic and traditional farming systems could not sustain today's
populations on today's cropped area. These governments are also hostile to
biotech crops even though the European Commission says biotech crop
development is probably somewhat safer than conventional cross-breeding.
Few of the well-fed consumers in the U.S. and Europe feel an urgent need
for biotech foods. Perhaps they don't realize that genetic engineers are
taking the allergy risks out of such allergy-dangerous foods as peanuts
and soybeans and this will save thousands of first-world lives.
Dr. Conway recently published a commentary in Science, describing how both
conventional and biotech research can help an African mother who farms two
acres: by fending off the parasitic witchweed and streak virus that
destroy her corn and sorghum, preventing the Black Sigatoka disease that
threatens her bananas, and combating the cassava mealybugs and mosaic
virus that attack her drought-staple cassava. As a result, she can double
her farm's production, which means feeding her own family better plus
growing enough food for sale to send her daughters to school.
Multiplied millions of times, that's the human goal of the new
agricultural research consortium.
Food Biotech Companies Leave Europe
- Food Production, March 17, 2003
A European Commission survey has indicated that while most Europeans are
in favour of medical applications of biotechnology, they are still
sceptical about agricultural and food-related biotech. This, the survey
indicates, combined with an uncertain legal situation and doubts on future
commercial markets, is leading to a sharp decrease in biotech research in
"Europeans and biotechnology 2002"reveals that 44 per cent of those polled
believe that biotechnology will improve their quality of life, compared to
17 per cent who do not, with 25 per cent undecided. But there is a lack of
support for agricultural and food applications, contrasting with a strong
backing for medical uses.
According to the EC, this is seriously slowing down biotech R&D in the EU,
particularly in the private sector, and may put at risk Europe's
competitiveness in a promising sector of new technologies.
According to another EU study on scientific and technological developments
in GM plants, the number of genetically modified organisms (GMO) field
trial applications in the EU has dropped by 76 per cent since 1998. GMO
research has also been seriously undermined. Some 39 per cent of the
respondents have cancelled R&D projects on GMOs over the last four years.
This share is higher for the private sector alone: 61 per cent of
respondents have stopped projects in this field.
"People in Europe are becoming increasingly aware of biotechnology
applications and their benefits", said European Research Commissioner
Philippe Busquin. "We must continue to champion a rational and informed
debate on biotechnology so that Europeans are able to make informed
decisions. Without sound scientific evidence, the debate will always be
distorted. There is a perceived lack of scientific and other information,
and the increasingly sceptic climate is scaring European biotech companies
and research centres away. If we do not reverse the trend now, we will be
unable to reap the benefits of the life science revolution and become
dependent on technologies developed elsewhere. Now that strict EU
legislation in this field is finally in place, there is no ground for
unjustified fears and prejudice."
The Eurobarometer survey on biotechnology and the life sciences is the
fifth in just over ten years. The survey is based on a representative
sample of 16,500 respondents, approximately 1000 in each EU member state.
The European Commission has emphasised the need for "societal scrutiny and
dialogue" in the Communication on "Life Sciences and Biotechnology - A
Strategy for Europe" in 2002, and in the recent progress report.
When asked whether biotechnology would improve our way of life or not, 44
per cent of European citizens were optimistic, 17 per cent pessimistic and
25 per cent said they did not know. This is about the same percentage as
in 1999. After a decade of continuously declining optimism in
biotechnology, the trend has reversed in this latest survey. In the period
1999-2002, optimism has increased to the level seen in the early 1990s.
This rise in optimism holds for all the EU Member States with the
exception of Germany and the Netherlands, where such a rise was observed
between 1996 and 1999.
While support for medical applications was strong, for genetically
modified (GM) crops, support is lukewarm. Respondents to the survey judged
this application to be moderately useful but agreed that there were risks
for GM foods. Public opinion tends to support GM crops in Spain, Portugal,
Ireland, Belgium, UK, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands, while France,
Italy, Greece, Denmark, Austria and Luxembourg have publics that are, on
average, opposed to GM crops.
Most Europeans do not support GM foods, considering them of little value
and dangerous for society. Overall support for GM foods is seen in only
four countries - Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Finland. These varying
degrees of acceptance show that Europeans continue to distinguish between
different types of applications, particularly medical in contrast to
All the EU countries, with the exception of Spain and Austria, showed
moderate to large declines in support for GM crops over the period
1996-1999. Thereafter support more or less stabilises in France and
Germany and increases in all the other countries with the exception of
Italy, which sees a 10 per cent decline in support.
The survey showed that across Europe as a whole about 25 per cent lack
confidence in farmers, shops, government and industry. In addition, there
is more confidence in the European Commission, than in national
governments in relation to regulations and their implementation.
The study on scientific and technological developments in GM plants
published by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) shows
that the prolonged slowdown in R&D for agricultural GMOs has had
widespread consequences. The EU has seen significant delays to new GM
varieties and applications; small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have
stopped participating in innovative plant biotechnology research and large
biotech companies have relocated research, field trials and
commercialisation of new GMOs outside the EU. This will quite possibly
lead to importing and processing only of GM materials in the EU. However,
in marked contrast, interest in GM technology continues to grow outside
Europe, with many new applications being researched and followed up in
The Commission study provides for a list of new commercial GM varieties in
the pipeline in the short, medium and long term. The intention is to
devise a sound scientific basis for EU policy development and
implementation, particularly regarding the traceability, labelling and
regulation of GMO use in food, feed and seed.
However, despite the lack of confidence from consumers, the study shows
that in the next decade, the range and quality of genetic modifications in
crops and the numbers of new products likely to be seeking regulatory
approval will be greater than those already considered.
Two Information Sources on Biotech in Europe:
- Martin Mieschendahl
Biotech companies leaving Europe:
India: Rabobank Favours Investments In Transgenic Technology
- Financial Express (India), March 16, 2003,
Europe's major cooperative bank, Rabobank has come out openly to support
investments in Indian industries engaged in developing transgenic seeds in
the country. The Rabobank's views are, in fact, different from those of
other European banks like Deutsche Bank, UK Cooperative Bank, Royal Bank
of Scotland and others which had expressed their regrets to fund the
transgenic technology sector.
Last year Britain's ethically-minded Cooperative Bank said that it would
not do business with biotech companies involved in genetic modification or
cloning. The director of corporate affairs of the bank, Simon Williams was
reported to have said "our stance in genetic modification, which received
widespread support amongst those polled, reflects our customers' genuine
concerns.....They are not fundamentally opposed to it but they worry about
the potential impacts that may arise from the application of GM
Earlier the Deutsche Bank had produced a report for investors advising
them to steer clear of companies associated with GM crops. The report even
went to the extent of saying "GM organisms are dead." The report warned
that farmers who plant GM crops could lose money and that the stock market
value of companies engaged in GM technology could collapse and that food
companies will not risk using such ingredients. It said that GM-free crops
are already being sold at a higher price than their GM equivalent and this
would encourage farmers to steer clear of the technology.
The Deutsche Bank report said "we predict that GM, once perceived as the
driver of bull case for this sector, will now be perceived as a
pariah....The message is a scary one - increasingly, GM organisms are, in
our opinion, becoming a liability to farmers." The Royal Bank of Scotland
had once cancelled its euro 22.6 million loan offer to Britain's
Huntingdon Life Science Group as it was targeted by activities for testing
drugs on animals. The Rabobank, notwithstanding being an European
cooperative bank, has steered out clear of any such apprehensions and has
called for investment in biotech industries engaged in developing GM crops
In an industry note prepared by its food and agribusiness research unit it
said "transgenic technology has found its application in agriculture in
the last decade and has made steady progress. The technology provides new
tools to improve crop productivity through the insertion of novel genes
into a crop species so as to incorporate either input-related traits such
as resistance to herbicides, disease, insects or drought or out-put
related traits such as fortification with vitamins, proteins, etc."
The Rabobank report, however, has been cautious in its comment on
commercialisation of Bt cotton in India. While stating "recent reports on
the performance of Bt cotton (in India) suggest that the response has been
fairly acceptable and that technology can offer the farmer a net cost
benefit", it also cautioned "a significant decrease in the total level of
pest attack on cotton this year does, however, leave the real merit of the
technology as yet untested."
The Rabobank report has also not missed to put the apprehensions about the
technology in place. It said "while potential benefits offered by the
technology are attractive, concerns are being raised that genetic
modifications achieved through genetic engineering may have an adverse
impact. These worries relate to consumers being exposed to toxins and
allergens in modified foods and the possibility of gene transfer to
unintended organisms such as wild progenitors."
The report said that while five big global companies like DuPont
(Pioneer), Monsanto, Syngenta, Groupe Limagrain and Grupo Pulsar (Seminis)
have continued to dominate the market, there has been considerable
activity on the strategic alliance front between prominent players in the
industry. It has said that small players in Indian seed sector will either
exit or be acquired by large companies.
It hoped that policy changes being initiated in the country would give a
boost to the transgenic biotech industry. It said transgenic technology
has been limited to only a few crops viz. soyabean, corn, corn and canola
because these are the crops that contribute significantly to the
international commodity market.
Australia: Victorian Farmers Vote 'No' to GM Moratorium
- ABC Rural News, March 19, 2003 (via Agnet)
Victorian farmers have joined South Australia in keeping the door open to
genetically modified crops, voting against a moratorium on GMO's in their
But the vote taken at the grains conference of the Victorian Farmers
Federation was not without controversy. A number of unhappy growers
accused the VFF of selling out to biotechnology companies, two of which
were major sponsors of the conference. Mallee grower Stuart King says he
wasn't surprised at the outcome, given what he claims is the VFF's pro-GM
"I believe they've done everything they possible can to promote GM
technology, the video that they put out was a propaganda exercise, the
speakers that they provided today were all pro-GM and there's been no
opportunity from a professional speaker from the other side of the debate,
whether science-based or emotive-based, to come forward and give their
point of view."
But the Victorian Farmers Federation executive has defended the vote,
saying it was based on pure science, rather than emotion.
Pass the Peanuts, Hold the Anaphylaxis
- Kendall Powell, Center for Bioinformatics News, Peking University
Denver --Peanuts cause one of the most common--and most deadly--food
allergies. Now, plant biologists have attempted to create the first
hypoallergenic peanut through genetic engineering. The group reported its
progress here 8 March at the annual meeting of the American Academy of
Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
In the United States, roughly 1.5 million people are allergic to peanuts.
The allergy typically develops during childhood and usually lasts a
lifetime. Even tiny amounts of peanut or peanut oil can trigger a
reaction. It's among the most serious of allergies; 90% of deaths caused
by severe food reactions are nut-related.
By silencing the genes that account for the three major allergy-causing
proteins in peanuts, researchers at Alabama A&M University in Normal hope
to grow safer peanuts. Hortense Dodo, a food molecular biologist on the
team, says other attempts to solve the problem, such as immune therapy or
vaccines, have failed so far. Instead of focusing on the patient's
reaction to peanuts, she says, "why not go after culprit itself--the
allergens coded by peanut genes?" An allergen-free peanut would help
reduce the risk of accidental ingestion by allergy sufferers.
At the meeting, team member Koffi Konan, a plant molecular biologist,
showed how the plants were made by inserting shortened or backward
versions of each of the genes--Ara h1, Ara h2, and Ara h3--into cultured
cells from peanut plants. Plants grown from these cells make abnormal
versions of messenger RNA, the molecule used to make the proteins. These
abnormal RNAs trick the plant into destroying the corresponding normal
RNA, thus silencing the normal genes. So far, the group's plants look and
grow like normal peanut plants but have not yet produced seeds. Konan says
infertility is common in plants grown from cultured cells, but he says
that by the end of the year he should have peanuts to test, if all goes
Others working on genetically modified (GM) peanuts say that's a big "if."
Gary Bannon, a biochemist at the food biotechnology company Monsanto in
St. Louis, Missouri, says this approach is tricky. Ara h1, Ara h2, and Ara
h3 are three of the major genes that peanut plants use to store seed
protein. If you silence them, he says, "you might not have a peanut." He
and others believe that the only way to get allergen-free nuts will be to
add back non-allergenic seed storage genes after silencing the original
Altered Waves of Grain
- US News & World Report, March 24, 2003
It's 32 degrees, positively balmy for a winter morning in Bismarck. But
inside the state capitol, additional heat is rising as the House
Agriculture Committee debates biotechnology. "I'm growing genetically
modified soybeans, so I'm not antibiotech," says state Rep. Phillip
Mueller. "But lots of our customers don't want genetically modified wheat,
and they've told us they don't want it. So we'd better not do it."
The short history of genetically modified agriculture has been riddled
with contradiction and controversy. Spearheaded by agricultural chemical
giant Monsanto, GM crops have proved a dazzling success in the United
States. The first such seeds were introduced in 1996, and already 75
percent of soybean acreage and 34 percent of corn acreage are planted with
GM varieties. But in many other countries, it's a different story.
Europeans, more traditional-minded and fearful after the mad cow disease
debacle, largely reject GM food, and Japan and many developing nations
share their concerns about potential risks to human health and the
Can't win. This poses a dilemma for farmers, who want the cost-lowering
benefits of GM seed, like the ability to withstand herbicides or resist
pests, but fear losing export markets. Proponents also believe GM crops
can help feed the world's hungry. Earlier this year, the United States was
set to sue the European Union for its anti-GM policies but backed off to
avoid antagonizing its allies as the Iraqi war looms.
Wheat remains the last major grain without a commercialized biotech seed.
But Monsanto is awaiting U.S. government approval of a wheat seed that can
stand up to its popular weedkiller, Roundup. The first variety on tap is
hard red spring wheat, prized for its high protein and used primarily in
Wheat is the biggest crop in the heavily agricultural economy of North
Dakota, which is the largest grower of hard red spring wheat in the
nation--with about half going to exports. "If the world decided not to buy
our wheat, it could really wreck our state," says Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple.
One sticking point for farmers: Before GM wheat is unleashed, there has to
be a way to keep it segregated from conventional wheat. But it's not clear
who will pay for the special harvesting, storage, and transport. "I take
my wheat to a huge transit terminal 80 miles west of here, where they load
the same grain on one long train with 110 cars," says Dennis Renner, who
farms in Mandan, N.D. "They're not set up to keep stuff separate."
Varieties can also intermingle through cross-pollination in the field.
Tainted. Organic farmers feel that threat most acutely, as government
standards state that nothing GM can be dubbed organic. Already, organic
farmers can no longer grow canola because of seed stock contamination by
GM canola. "If genetic modification of a crop gives a farmer such a cost
advantage, it should be his responsibility to keep his pollen on his side
of the fence," says Theresa Podoll, executive director of the Northern
Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, an organic farming group. "This is
a situation where if you adopt a technology, it could ruin my livelihood."
Even mainstream U.S. consumers may not like anyone's messing with wheat.
"We are talking about the staff of life," says Betsy Faga, president of
the North American Millers' Association. Most U.S. consumers don't know or
care that, say, corn-syrup sweetener in processed foods is made from GM
corn. But the baking industry fears consumers will react differently to
biotech wheat because it is usually the main ingredient in bread,
crackers, and cookies.
Many experts believe agricultural biotech wouldn't be so contentious today
if GM crops had been initially rolled out with nutritional benefits, like
the wheat Monsanto is developing for people allergic to gluten. Clearer
benefits for farmers would help, too. In North Dakota, farmers would jump
at wheat modified to withstand the fungal blight scab, a variety that
Syngenta, the big, Swiss-based agribusiness company, is working on. "If
Monsanto were offering scab resistance, it would be a whole different
ballgame," says Marvin Nelson, a crop consultant in Rolla, N.D.
Even if it gets the U.S. go-ahead, Monsanto has agreed to wait until Japan
and Canada give their thumbs up before marketing GM wheat. To protect
exports, the company has also promised to wait until the grain industry
establishes handling protocols and a system to prove that a product is GM
Most legislators in North Dakota see biotech as the future of agriculture
and don't want to discourage private investment in research and
development. That's why they recently rejected bills that would have given
the state, not Monsanto, the power to control the timing of GM wheat's
release. But opponents are taking their case to the federal government.
Commercializing GM wheat is surely no piece of cake.
GE Fan Voted NZ's Top Scientist
- Simon Collins, NZ Herald March 15, 2003 (Via Agnet)
A biologist who wants to genetically modify new plants to improve the
world's environment has been elected president of the Royal Society of New
Zealand - officially our top scientist, says a story for the New Zealand
The story cites Dr Jim Watson, chief executive of Auckland firm Genesis
Research and Development, as saying New Zealanders can become "the
environmental engineers of the world".
He will replace Christchurch software entrepreneur Sir Gil Simpson in June
as head of the Royal Society, the umbrella body for 55 professional bodies
ranging from the Royal Astronomical Society of NZ to the NZ Veterinary
Association. Dr Watson, 59, grew up on a dairy farm near Edgecumbe and
became a professor at the University of California before returning to
Auckland University as professor of microbiology in 1981.
Genesis, which he founded in 1994, is the oldest and biggest of a string
of biotechnology companies created by scientists from Auckland and Otago
Universities in the past decade. It has developed potential drugs for skin
diseases psoriasis and eczema, and built up a database of more than
500,000 gene sequences from plants. It is working with Wrightsons, which
bought 15.4 per cent of Genesis last week, to create new grasses, and with
US firm ArborGen to create new trees. Dr Watson said the new plants would
be better for the environment because they would be designed with disease
resistance and other factors to reduce the need for chemical fertilisers,
pesticides and weedkillers.
"As the quest for the production of more crops or higher yields per acre
has gone on, that's driven the use of fertilisers, of weedkillers and
pestkillers. "The downstream has been that the environment is slowly being
damaged," he said. "I don't think the world can avoid better plant
breeding techniques because you have got to breed plants to yield to the
Dr Watson said New Zealand was well-placed to develop plants due to its
strength in farming and forestry. "We've got to become almost the
environmental engineers of the world. We've got to understand our
environment and understand how we can develop solutions to problems, and
In his new role in the Royal Society, Dr Watson aims to encourage more
young people to study science, which he believes will become "a dominant
culture" in business in the next few decades.
Cashing In on a Biotech Treasure Trove
- (sent by Andrew Apel)
Full article at http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff/0,2106,2333333a1865,00.html
The 135 scientists at Genesis Research & Development, our leading
biotechnology company, must feel unappreciated. It is not their problem
alone, but a problem for the biotechnology sector and country at large. If
we don't quickly figure out how to commercialise biotechnology, we're
doomed to keep earning a large part of our export income from commodity
products of rapidly diminishing value. We'll keep getting poorer.
Here's one small comfort: biotechnology is struggling around the world to
generate value, particularly from plants and animals. Biotechnology in
human pharmaceuticals is more promising. However, thanks to our dependence
on a biology-based economy and our scant financial and scientific
resources, we're in deeper trouble. It's not for lack of trying. (cut)
The Threat to Science as a 'Public Good'
- David Dickson, SciDev.Net, March 17, 2003
Political action is required to address the excessive privatisation of
scientific resources that is fuelling the 'knowledge gap' between rich and
At the end of this year, representatives of the world's nations will meet
in Geneva for yet another 'world summit'. This time, the focus of their
attention will be the national and international implications of the
spread of information and communications technologies (ICTs). The
so-called World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), organised by the
International Telecommunications Union, will be an opportunity to discuss
the need for action on issues ranging from software piracy to bridging the
'digital divide' between the rich and poor nations of the world.
At first glance, there appears to be little of direct relevance to the
world's research community in WSIS (which will in fact be not one meeting
but two, the second taking place in Tunis in 2005). Despite the critical
role of science in providing the means that have made the information
revolution possible ˇ from semiconductors to the world wide web ˇ and
despite the obvious ways in which ICTs have revolutionised both the
practice of science and the way that its results are communicated (for
example by this website), the concerns of scientists will play a
relatively marginal role in the official proceedings of the summit.
Nevertheless there is a key issue to which, it can be argued, the world
summit is ideally placed to draw both public and political attention. This
is the range of growing threats to the flow of scientific information,
both between individuals and between nations.
These threats do not originate in the 'information society'; indeed a
central feature of this phenomenon is ironically the very ease and
rapidity with which information can now travel rapidly around the world,
much of it without hindrance. Rather, the threats come from a different
direction ˇ from those who are imposing increased constraints on access to
information, including scientific information, in order to benefit
commercially from the growth of the information society.
Many feel that, through legislation on issues that range from intellectual
property rights to copyright on databases, attempts to turn scientific
information into private property have gone too far. The WSIS presents an
ideal opportunity to highlight this issue before the world's political
leaders, and help forge an international consensus that urgent measures
are needed to redress the balance between public access to, and private
control over, scientific data.
Successes of science
Ironically, it has been the success of science in laying the groundwork
for the information society that itself has led directly to these
tensions. In a previous, simpler, era, it was relatively easy to draw a
line between basic and applied science, and thus to argue that the first
of these was a 'public good' that should be freely accessible to all. This
is the basis, for example, on which governments have justified supporting
the work of university researchers out of public funds. It is also the
basis on which it is generally forbidden to take out patents on scientific
Information technology ˇ and more recently its complementary activity,
biotechnology ˇ has changed all this. In both cases, as the timescale
between discovery and technological application has shortened
dramatically, so the boundary between basic and applied science has become
blurred, in some cases disappearing completely. In the process, the
constituent elements of scientific activity in these two fields, and not
just their technological products, have gained a commercial value. This
means that there are profits to be made by those who develop new research
tools, either by selling to others the right to use them in their own
research, or by excluding them.
Recent government policies, previously so supportive of open access to
scientific information, have exacerbated this trend. In the United States,
the Bayh-Dole act of the early 1980s encourages universities not only to
generate income from selling the rights to the results of federally-funded
research, but also to extend these rights as far as possible over the
ideas generated in their laboratories. In Europe, parallel moves to seek
profits out of government-funded activities ˇ including the collection of
meteorological and geophysical data ˇ has led to databases in such fields
being covered by legislation that was designed primarily to defend the
financial interests of the publishers of privately-collected directories
of commercial data.
Risks to developing nations
Developing nations are at particular risk from these trends. Indeed, as a
number of speakers pointed out at a symposium organised in Paris last week
by, among others, UNESCO and the International Council for Science*, the
growing privatisation of scientific knowledge is widening the knowledge
gap between rich and poor countries at precisely a time when ˇ in
principle ˇ the potentially marginal costs of access to electronic
information is offering a way to close it.
Poor countries find themselves in a double bind. On the one hand, their
scientists lack the financial resources to pay for access to the
privatised resources enjoyed by their colleagues in the North (ranging
from licences on basic laboratory techniques through subscriptions to
scientific journals to highly structured information on funding sources)
In turn, this lack of financial resources means that they are unable to
develop the capabilities to produce the scientific knowledge and resources
required to become a full member of ˇ and thus be able to both contribute
to and profit from ˇ this 'science knowledge economy'. How can you feel a
member of a global scientific community it your library can no longer
afford access to the latest scientific results, or your laboratory lacks
the funds required to access certain stores of genomic data?
The need for action
There have, of course, been a number of attempts to redress this
situation. One route, explored by organisations such as the International
Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) and the
World Health Organisation, has been to negotiate a system of differential
pricing for poor countries. More broadly, initiatives such as the Public
Library of Science have been pioneering the idea of Open Access to
published scientific data (with the page charges required of authors
being, in the case of scientists from developing countries, by the Open
Society Institute) And SciDev.Net is pursuing a similar goal by providing
free access each week to a limited number of articles from both Nature and
But most of these initiatives are ad hoc arrangements. What is now needed
is a political recognition that, just as the laws of the free market
discriminate in favour of those with the power to benefit from the
operation of such a market and against those who are marginalised by it,
so it is with the flow of information in general ˇ and scientific
information in particular. In issues from intellectual property rights to
electronic publishing, an international consensus is now required that the
needs of the disadvantaged cannot be met by palliatives alone.
It remains to be seen whether the WSIS is prepared to grasp this nettle
with the firmness that it requires. The work of the preparatory committees
has not given much reason to be optimistic; moves to create a more
equitable equilibrium are invariably resisted by private corporations in
the developed world, from software producers to scientific publishers, who
would lose out as a result. It will take political courage to stand up to
these forces and demand a commitment by governments to change. The
scientific community, with its traditional commitment to the open
communication of information, can provide the words; but only the
political community can follow these up with deeds.
* Symposium on Open Access and the Public Domain in Digital data and
information for science, 10-11 March 2003.
A Conversation with James D. Watson
- Scientific American, April 2003
To mark the 50th anniversary, Scientific American's Editor in Chief John
Rennie recently spoke with Watson in his office at the Cold Spring Harbor
Laboratory on Long Island, where he was director for 25 years. Watson
reflected on the origins of the double helix discovery, the current state
of molecular biology, and controversies surrounding genetic science.
SA: Does the public know enough about genetics to make these decisions
prudently? Do you worry about people's abilities to debate the merits of
genetically modified foods and the rest?
JW: If you thought every plant was the product of a god who put it there
for a purpose, you could say that you shouldn't change it. But America
isn't what it was like when the Pilgrims came here. We've changed
everything. We've never tried to respect the past, we've tried to improve
on it. And I think any desire to stop people from improving things would
be against the human spirit.
Read this very intersting complete interview with Watson at
From Lab to Embassy: A Plan to Get Scientists Involved in U.S. Foreign
- Sally Lehrman, Scientific American, March 2003 issue
Bioengineered food has exploded into a hot-button trade issue: the U.S.
Department of State is threatening to file suit as European countries balk
at accepting American-grown genetically modified goods. Early input from
scientists could have helped the State Department handle the policy crisis
more effectively, suggests George H. Atkinson, a biophysicist at the
University of Arizona. Atkinson experienced the tension firsthand when he
visited Europe two years ago as a science fellow brought in to augment the
agency's meager technical resources. "It's as if people are trying to
communicate in different languages without access to a good translator,"
he says. "If you can get policymakers to understand where science is going
instead of where it just went, there are opportunities to avoid major
In the hopes of changing the situation, Atkinson is trying to establish a
competitive fellowship program that would bring up to 20 accomplished
scientists every year to U.S. agencies and embassies throughout the world.
They would work closely with diplomats, then return to their labs and
remain on call for special projects for another five years. Over time, a
growing cadre of tenured experts with international reputations in their
disciplines would retain ties to the highest levels of the State
Department, helping to bind policy approaches to an awareness of
Scientist Makes Case for Continuing Genetic Engineering
- Gazette, March 18, 2003 http://www.gazetteonline.com/ (via
Coralville, Iowa--The science of tinkering with genetics is like a black
hole to some people. They don't understand it, and the lack of knowledge
causes fear, so they condemn it.
But if they did understand more about genetic engineering, they wouldn't
fear it, said Eric Devor, a senior research scientist at Integrated DNR
Technologies Inc. in Coralville. The company is a leading manufacturer of
synthetic DNA for research.
Devor, 53, talks publicly to groups to educate people about genetic
research. He also conducts classes for people within the industry to
advance their knowledge. He earned a doctoral degree at the University of
New Mexico and has published 80 papers and the book "Molecular
Applications in Biological Anthropology."
"Every technological advance, even the light bulb, has caused anxiety.
Some questioned the health risk of electricity," Devor said. "There are
enormous benefits with genetic engineering, but it comes with the
responsibility to under stand the technology."
The benefits will come in three major waves this century, he said. First,
we're already seeing advances in human and veterinarian medicine through a
high number of drug discoveries. These will be developed at a lower cost
than in the past, with the aid of genetic engineering, which could make
the drugs available at lower prices. Second, we're seeing the beginnings
of agricultural biotechnology. These applications can go two ways: to
enhance food or to modify plants to do something they weren't doing.
An example of the first is more flavorful tomatoes or faster growing
salmon. An example of the latter is corn that fights rootworms. "Even more
valuable is genetically engineered drought resistance in a food plant that
produces starch granules made to encapsulate vaccines," Devor said. Think
of corn that's drought resistant and delivers vaccines to developing
countries. "As Gov. (Tom) Vilsack says, that's when biotechnology will be
the great humanitarian ef fort of the 21st century. I wholeheartedly agree
The third wave of genetic engineering advancement, bioremediation, may
come by the end of this decade. "Already we know some bacteria will eat
oil," Devor said. "We can engineer bacteria that will degrade plastics.
Already, we have a bacterium that will degrade 2,4-D in Agent Orange (a
strong herbicide). "Think what it would mean to genetically engineer some
thing that could go into Love Canal and reclaim that with organisms
otherwise totally innocuous and at a fraction of the clean up cost."
Yet genetic engineering has its naysayers. "They just make noise. They
haven't stopped anything," Devor said. "The biotech industry is alive and
healthy and, for the most part, in the hands of sensible people. With the
exception of the Raelians, who claim they cloned people.
GM: Mark of Excellence?
- Peter A. Follett, American Scientist, (via checkbiotech.org)
'Pandora's Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically
Modified Foods. Alan McHughen. viii + 277 pp. Oxford University Press,
Because all organisms share a common genetic language, DNA, a gene for a
desirable trait can be taken out of one organism and inserted into
another, where it will be read and properly understood even if the new
host is an unrelated species. Genetic engineering of this sort has become
routine. For example, the genes producing beta carotene (vitamin A) in
daffodils have been transferred to rice to make it more nutritious;
bacterial DNA that codes for proteins toxic to insects has been
transferred to corn, potatoes and cotton to control important pests. An
organism that has gained new genetic information from the addition of
foreign DNA is described as genetically modified (GM) or transgenic.
The technology used to genetically modify organisms has agricultural,
medicinal, industrial and environmental applications, but protests against
it have focused primarily on food and agriculture. Since the commercial
debut of transgenic crops and foods in the mid 1990s, environmental
activists and consumer advocacy groups have severely curtailed
commercialization in Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland, and similar
groups are now gaining ground in the United States. Critics of GM foods
argue that the long-term effects of the technology have not been studied
adequately, that the food itself or the environmental release of the
modified organism could have unintended adverse effects (such as allergic
reactions, increased resistance to antibiotics and environmental threats),
and that GM foods should be labeled to allow consumers to avoid them if
they so choose.
Most popular books on the subject are decidedly opposed to genetic
modification of crops. In Pandora's Picnic Basket, Alan McHughen argues
that a rational debate on the risks and benefits of GM foods should focus
on the science behind the process and products. His goal is to dispel the
myths about genetically engineered crops and provide background knowledge
that will enable readers first to form their own opinions about the
technology as a whole and then to evaluate the benefits and possible risks
of individual GM products from a scientific point of view.
McHughen is a senior research scientist at the University of Saskatchewan,
Canada, and chair of the International Biosafety Advisory Committee of the
Genetics Society of Canada. As a plant breeder, he has extensive
experience with both conventional breeding and the development of
transgenics; he has firsthand experience with the scientific, political
and regulatory issues relating to GM foods. In this book he addresses the
key issues brought up in the popular press: Are GM crops safe? Do they
pose a threat to the environment? Should GM foods or products containing
them be labeled?
I found McHughen's insights, opinions, personal accounts and occasional
ramblings to be engaging and informative. He doesn't pull any punches,
exposing the miscalculations of multinationals developing and marketing GM
organisms, the hasty reporting of research findings without careful peer
review, the flawed reasoning behind pollen-escape studies performed before
environmental release, the problems that may lie ahead with labeling of
foods containing GM products and the inherent flaws of the regulatory
McHughen theorizes that public reaction to GM organisms has been stronger
in Europe than in North America because of widespread distrust of
government regulatory agencies in Europe, the perception that agricultural
intensification is undesirable and a threat to wildlife there, and a
diffuse distrust of any genetic manipulation because it stirs up
historical fears of social engineering.
McHughen tries to avoid jargon and technical details, except in the
tutorials and primers on molecular genetics, genetic engineering and plant
breeding that he provides early in the book. Although these are
simplistic, they are probably still too technical for the average
readerˇwhich is unfortunate, since they are essential to understanding his
viewpoint. He provides no references throughout, presumably to put readers
without a scientific background at ease. The absence of any references at
first made me discount the content, but as I read farther, I relaxed and
adopted a more generous perspective: McHughen has a broad knowledge of the
scientific literature that forms the basis of his arguments, but he also
knows that this is a debate in which science gets distorted; thus his
style is to roll up his sleeves and talk plainly. Pandora's Picnic Basket
is not meant to be the definitive treatise on agricultural biotechnology;
rather, it is McHughen's attempt at a rational discussion of this
In the end, McHughen predicts a steady demystification of GM organisms in
the marketplace: At first, GM, conventional and organic produce will be
offered for sale in separate bins, but ultimately advertising and
packaging will loudly announce revolutionary new attributes made possible
only by genetic modification.
If I see one deficiency in the book other than the lack of references, it
is that it focuses too much on controversy, with scarce mention of many
potential beneficial agricultural applications of genetic engineering:
Transgenic crops can be developed for pest resistance, improved yield,
tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses, use of marginalized land,
improved nutritional content and the production of vaccines and
pharmaceuticals. Such applications are likely to be of critical importance
in the fight against disease and malnutrition in developing nations.
Peter A. Follett is a research entomologist for the U.S. Department of
Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Pacific Basin Research
Symposium on Biopharming
- Wellington, New Zeland, April 28, 2003
The Royal Society of New Zealand, the Association of Crown Research
Institutes and the Life Sciences Network have joined forces to present a
one-day Symposium on Biopharming the production of therapeutic proteins in
plants or animals.
The Symposium will bring together farmers, scientists, investors,
officials, politicians and journalists to discuss the opportunities for
New Zealand and the issues which arise from the production of high value
therapeutic products within the agricultural sector.
Speakers include Professor C.S. Prakash (Tuskegee University, Alabama),
Bill Falconer, Co-Chair of the Biotechnology Task Force, Dr Tony Conner
(Crop & Food Research), officials from Ministry for the Environment and
ERMA, a representative from the Sustainability Council of NZ. The
Symposium is limited to 80 participants. Registration: $100 plus GST.
Contact Marilyn Baker Ph (04) 9161240 or fax (04) 9160101 email:
firstname.lastname@example.org Brochure available from: