Today in AgBioView: March 27, 2003
* Fears on Biotech Need to be Placed in Context - Nobel Prize Winner
* Planting A Seed
* Climbing the Helical Staircase
* Saving the World in Comfort
* Is US AID from Surpluses? Response to Dr. Kristensen
* UK: Young People Debate GM (and most vote in favor of it!)
* Protecting Intellectual Property - Please Pass The Salt
* The Biosafety of Molecular Farming in Plants
* GM Crops, Modern Agriculture and The Environment
* Genomics and Crop Improvement - Training Course
* FAO e-mail conference - Regulation of GMOs
* Focus on Agricultural Biotechnology
* Annual National Food Policy Conference - Washington, DC
* EU Biotech Ban Based on Fear, Not Science, House Leader Says
* Testimony in Congress by Biotech Experts
* Speech Honors Retiring Philosophy Professor Lacey (by bashing capitalism
Fears about Biotechnology Need to be Placed in Context, Says Nobel Prize
- Cordis News, March 27, 2003 http://dbs.cordis.lu/
The hysteria surrounding biotechnology must be seen in context, said Nobel
prize winner Kary Mullis at a lecture on opportunities in the
biotechnology era on 25 March.
Speaking at the (European) Parliament's scientific and technological
options assessment division (STOA), Nobel prize winner Dr Mullis argued
that forms of genetic modification have been around for thousands of
years, citing examples of corn and wheat and the recent development of
seedless melons. 'Genetic modification is nothing new', he emphasised.
Dr Mullis also referred to society's acceptance of mules as proof that
genetic modification can be perceived in a positive light. According to Dr
Mullis, society's perspective on biotechnology is greatly influenced by
the words used to describe such activities. 'The new vocabulary of
biotechnology scares us. What was once called horticulture is now called
genetic modification,' he said.
In response to politicians' demand for the mandatory testing of up to
35,000 chemicals for their toxicity, Dr Mullis said that politicians were
are legislating. He argued that it is impossible to test every chemical
for its possible effects on the endocrine system. In the end, it is the
companies assisting the tests that will benefit most from these
unnecessary tests, he added.
In a lively debate following the lecture, members of parliament raised
several issues, substantiating the concerns about biotechnology. Irish MEP
Nuala Ahern referred to recent studies claiming that the male reproductive
system is affected by the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
(from Prakash: Uh? God save this Irish Parliamentarian!). UK MEP David
Bowe drew attention to soya beans, enhanced with Brazil nuts, which cause
allergic reactions and had to be withdrawn from the market.
UK Eryl McNally agreed that fears about GMOs could sometimes be increased
by the vocabulary used and media speculation. At the same time, she
underlined the importance that the Parliament is placing on the
precautionary principle where GMOs are concerned.
For further information on STOA, please visit:
(From Prakash: Kary Mullis is the inventor of the polymerase chain
reaction (PCR), a technique that has revolutionized the molecular biology
research with applications in gene cloning to DNA fingerprinting. Many
readers may also recognize him from his appearance at the OJ Simpson trial
where he denounced the very DNA fingerprinting that he helped spawn. To
learn more about this great but idiosyncratic scientist go to
Planting A Seed
- The Economist March 27, 2003 http://www.economist.com/
'Despite appearances, agricultural biotechnology has been a success.
Whether it will bring truly radical change remains to be seen'
Medical biotechnology may have its troubles, but at least most people
favour developing new treatments and methods of diagnosis. Agricultural
biotechnology is not so fortunate. Between 1995 and 1998, the area planted
with genetically modified crops expanded from nothing to some 30m
hectares, mostly in North America. Nobody noticed. Then, after a pointless
experiment that involved feeding rats with potatoes modified to produce a
poison, parts of Europe developed mass hysteria. In some countries,
foodstuffs containing GM ingredients became almost unsaleable.
Matters were made worse by the publication soon afterwards of the results
of another experiment, in which pollen from GM maize was fed to
caterpillars of the monarch butterfly. The "transgene" that had been
introduced was for a natural insecticide called bt, and many of the
caterpillars died. In the eyes of some (who conveniently forgot to ask
what the effect of the insecticidal spray that bt replaces would have
been), this suggested GM crops damaged the environment. Another worry was
that crops containing transgenes might cross-breed with wild plants and
produce a generation of superweeds. It did not help when evidence of such
escapes was found in Mexico.
In Europe, experimental fields sown with GM crops were duly trashed by
environmental activists. Green biotech, evidently, does not appeal to
greens. Indeed, paranoia levels are now so high that last year some
African governments refused food aid that might contain GM grain, in case
their own crops were "contaminated" by cross-pollination that would make
them unacceptable to European consumers. Rather than risk that, they
preferred to let people starve.
It sounds as though agricultural biotechnology is in trouble, but in
reality it is not. Though there has been a general downturn in
agribusiness recently, sales of GM seeds themselves were worth more than
$4 billion last year, according to the International Service for the
Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), which monitors the
spread of GM crops. The area planted with genetically modified crops now
amounts to almost 60m hectares--admittedly only 4% of the world's arable
land, but a 12% increase on the year before. Where GM strains of a crop
species are available, they are starting to dominate plantings of that
species. Half the world's soyabean crop is genetically modified. And
despite the panic in Africa, three-quarters of those who plant GM crops
are farmers in the poor world.
All the same, GM crops have not lived up to the sales patter. In 1996,
when such crops started to be introduced in earnest, the market was
dominated by just two sorts of modification. One was the addition of bt in
order to reduce the need for insecticides. The other protected crops
against a herbicide called glyphosate, allowing them to be sprayed more
effectively. Moreover, only four crops--soya, maize, canola (a
high-yielding form of rape) and cotton--accounted for almost all the
The optimists claimed that this was only the beginning. A few years hence,
they said, the world would enjoy better, more nutritious crops, which
would be drought-resistant, cold-resistant, salt-resistant and
virus-resistant. All this would amount to a new green revolution, courtesy
of genetic modification.
In practice, all that has happened is that the protection genetic
modification provides against herbicides and insects has been made a bit
more effective, and some plants previously protected against one are now
protected against both. There have been no genuinely new
modifications--which is a pity, because there are a lot of good ideas
around, and the poor world in particular could do with them.
It is too easy to blame finicky consumers and Luddite environmentalists
for this state of affairs. They have played their part, but the real
culprit, as the Nobel-prize-winning Dr Brenner observed, is economics.
The genetics of maize allow the seed market to be controlled by a handful
of big firms, including Monsanto, which owns the bt and
glyphosate-resistance transgene patents. Maize, soya, cotton and canola
are supplied to farmers as so-called F1 hybrids, produced by crossing pure
parental strains grown exclusively by the seed companies. F1 hybrids do
not breed true, so farmers must go back to the seed merchants for new
supplies each year.
Developing a marketable transgenic strain is almost as costly as
developing a new drug, and this kind of control of the market helps to
make investing in transgenics worthwhile. Opponents of GM crops who claim
that transgenics concentrate power in the hands of seed companies have it
backwards. In reality, only those crops already in the hands of such
companies have got the treatment.
Another factor is market size. Even if the market is captive, it has to be
big enough to justify the investment. Wheat, with a planted area in North
America that is about two-thirds that of maize, would be worth genetically
modifying. Indeed, Monsanto has developed a glyphosate-protected strain of
wheat and hopes to have it approved soon. But transgenic versions of less
widely planted crops may never become worthwhile unless the technology
gets much cheaper.
Economics also helps to explain why such modifications as have been made
are aimed at the farmer rather than the consumer. It has been possible for
several years to make seeds containing healthier oils or more vitamins
(eg, the famous vitamin-A-enhanced "golden rice"). But such modifications
are commercially pointless, at least in the West, where most crops are
used in processed foodstuffs rather than sold as raw ingredients. If
people want extra vitamins or particular oils, it is easier and cheaper
for the food manufacturers to add these in the factory. The retail market
for raw ingredients is simply too small to justify spending money on the
development and approval of modified versions. And those in the rich world
who care about their ingredients might well resist the idea of a new GM
strain, however healthy.
Farmers, on the other hand, can see the virtue of paying a bit more for
their seed if that allows them to use fewer chemicals. So it is not
surprising that the only people interested in using genetic modification
to enhance the nutritional qualities of crops are farmers--and they want
it for animal feed.
To oblige its customers, Monsanto has formed a joint venture with Cargill,
another large agriculture company. This will modify the protein
composition of soya and maize grown for animal feed, boosting the levels
of essential amino acids (which animals cannot make but have to obtain
from their diets). A second deficiency of animal feed, its lack of useful
phosphorus, is being tackled by Diversa, a San Diego-based
protein-evolution firm. One of its most promising ideas is not a
protein-based drug, but an enhanced version of a bacterial enzyme called
phytase, which has just been approved by the American authorities. Feed
contains plenty of phosphorus, but most of it, particularly that in soya,
is bound up in a chemical called phytic acid, which mammals cannot digest
and which also inhibits the absorption in the gut of trace nutrients such
as zinc. Phytase breaks up the acid, liberating the phosphorus and helping
micronutrient absorption. That means less need for supplements, and
therefore cheaper feed.
A stressful future? In rich countries where farmers are being paid to take
land out of cultivation, improving the resistance of crops to salt, cold
and drought is of no great interest, but that has not stopped research
completely. For example, Mendel Biotechnology, a small firm based in
Hayward, California, has been investigating resistance to such stresses in
a plant called Arabidopsis, a genetic workhorse that has had its genome
completely sequenced. Stress-resistance is known to be controlled by
biochemical networks that involve several hundred proteins. Fiddling with
these proteins one at a time is unlikely to have much effect, but Chris
Somerville, Mendel's boss, thought that the networks might be "tuned" to
be more or less active through the use of transcription factors--proteins
that regulate the transcription of messenger RNA from genes, and thus
control how much protein is produced from a gene.
In partnership with Monsanto and Seminis, the world's largest
vegetable-seed firm, Mendel's scientists checked all 1,900 transcription
factors produced by Arabidopsis. They identified those involved in
protecting the plants from salt, cold and drought, and found that altering
the expression of those factors could protect the plant more. For example,
they produced a strain of Arabidopsis that tolerated 17ÉC of frost. The
technique works in crop plants, too. Whether it will ever be commercially
viable is a different question. But it might help farmers in the poor
world, where drought, in particular, is often a problem. Mendel has
offered to donate its drought-protection technology to the Rockefeller
Foundation, a large philanthropic organisation, for just that purpose.
Rich farmers, though, might be interested in genes that do the same jobs
as existing transgenes, but do them better. To this end researchers at
Verdia, a subsidiary of Maxygen, have taken natural fungicidal,
insecticidal and herbicide-detoxification genes and improved their
efficacy up to a thousandfold. They have even tinkered with rubisco, one
of the proteins involved in photosynthesis, and managed to improve its
Fiddling with photosynthesis would certainly be a radical idea. But
biotechnology may also bring radical change of a different sort to
farming. Cotton aside, most GM crops are grown for food. Yet white
biotechnology could revolutionise the use to which the countryside is put,
shifting it away from growing food and towards growing raw materials for
(Read more Biotech stories on the current issue of The Economist at
Climbing the Helical Staircase
- Geoffrey Carr, The Economist, March 27, 2003
Full story at
'Biotechnology has its troubles, but in the long term it may change the
"It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have
postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the
genetic material." With these ironic words, James Watson and Francis Crick
began a biological revolution. Their paper on the structure of DNA,
published in Nature 50 years ago next month, described the now-famous
double helix. It showed that the strands of the helix complement each
other. It inferred, correctly, that either strand of the helix could thus
act as a template for the other, allowing the molecule to replicate
itself. And it suggested that because the four types of nucleotide
sub-unit of which each strand is composed can be arranged in any order, a
single strand could act as a message tape telling a cell which proteins to
make, and therefore what job to do.
As another Francis pointed out four centuries ago, knowledge is power. Sir
Francis Bacon's philosophy of turning scientific knowledge to practical
advantage eventually delivered the wealth of the industrial revolution.
That technology was based mainly on the physical sciences. Now the
discoveries made by Dr Watson, Dr Crick and their numerous colleagues,
successors, collaborators and rivals are starting to be commercialised as
well. Biotechnology is beckoning.
It promises much: more and better drugs; medical treatment tailored to the
individual patient's biological make-up; new crops; new industrial
processes; even, whisper it gently, new humans. A few of those promises
have been delivered already. Many have not. Some may never be. Some may
raise too many objections.
But the field is still in its infancy, and commercialising the edge of
scientific research is a hazardous business. False starts have been more
frequent than successes. The businessmen-scientists who are
biotechnology's entrepreneurs often seem driven by motives more complex
than a mere desire to make money, especially when they are trying to find
treatments for disease. And, at the moment, there is virtually no money
for new ventures, leading sceptics to question whether the field has a
future at all. But that is to confuse short-term problems with long-term
potential. This survey will endeavour to cover both, though with greater
emphasis on the potential than on the problems. Still, the problems are
real and should not be ignored.
Green biotech, too, has its problems. In parts of Europe, in particular,
it is beleaguered by militant environmentalists and doubtful consumers.
White has so far remained too invisible to the general public to have
stirred up any trouble. That may soon change. Several chemical firms plan
to market biotech plastics and artificial fibres on the back of their
biodegradability and the fact that they are not made from oil, thus
emphasising their environmental friendliness. That should help the makers
gain the moral high ground on which producers of genetically modified (GM)
crops missed out.
Perhaps the biggest question this survey will try to answer is this: will
biotechnology remain a niche business, or will it become ubiquitous--as
widespread (yet invisible) as the products of the chemical industry are
In the 1870s, the science of chemistry was in much the same position as
biology is now. It had recently acquired a coherent theoretical framework,
the periodic table, which may not have answered all the questions but at
least suggested which of them it was sensible to ask. The equivalent for
biology is genomics, because a creature's genome is, in a loose way, its
own private periodic table of possibility.
The industrial chemistry of the 1870s was likewise similar to today's
biotechnology. Then, chemists were applying their new, systematic
knowledge to a limited range of applications such as dyes and explosives.
Existing biotechnology is similarly limited in range. Nowadays, though, it
is hard to reach out and touch something which industrial chemistry has
not touched first. In a hundred years or so, will the same be true of
Saving the World in Comfort
- The Economist, March 27, 2003
'Applying biotechnology to industry could reduce both costs and pollution'
When enthusiasts talk of sustainable development, the eyes of most people
glaze over. There is a whiff of sack-cloth and ashes about their
arguments, which usually depend on people giving up the comforts of a
modern economy to achieve some debatable greater good. Yet there is a
serious point at issue. Modern industry pollutes, and it also seems to
cause significant changes to the climate. What is needed is an industry
that delivers the benefits without the costs. And the glimmerings of just
such an industry can now be discerned.
That industry is based on biotechnology. At the moment, biotech's main
uses are in medicine and agriculture. But its biggest long-term impact may
be industrial (see survey). Here, it will diminish demand for oil by
taking the cheapest raw materials imaginable, carbon dioxide and water,
and using them to make fuel and plastics.
Fermenting sugar into ethanol is an art as old as the ancient Egyptians;
the enzymes used are slow and steady ones provided by nature. Not for much
longer. It is now possible to create enzymes that work thousands of times
faster than their natural counterparts. These should turn the manufacture
of ethanol as a petrol additive from a subsidised boondoggle into an
industry that can pay its way. Biotechnologists are also working on
enzymes that can digest cellulose--the tough, fibrous plant material
referred to dismissively as "biomass" and thought fit merely to be burned.
Turning biomass into fermentable sugars really would give petrol a run for
The plastics industry, too, may be transformed by biotechnology. This
year, plastics made entirely by bacteria that have had their metabolic
pathways redesigned will go on sale. And that is just the start. Soon,
plastics may be grown on farms, in genetically engineered plants, rather
than being manufactured in huge, centralised industrial plants.
Plastics and fuels made in this way would have several advantages. They
could accurately be called "renewables", since nothing is depleted to make
them. They would be part of the natural carbon cycle, borrowing that
element from the atmosphere for a few months, and returning it when they
were burned or dumped. That means they could not possibly contribute to
global warming. And they would be environmentally friendly in other ways.
Bioplastics are biodegradable, since bacteria understand their chemistry
and can therefore digest them. Biofuels, while not quite "zero emission"
from the exhaust pipe (though a lot cleaner than petrol and diesel), would
be cleaner overall even than the fuel-cell technology now being touted as
an alternative to the internal-combustion engine. That is because making
the hydrogen that fuel cells use is not an environmentally friendly
process, and never will be--unless it, too, uses biotechnology.
All this will, in the end, depend on costs. But these do not look
unfavourable. Already, the price of bioplastics overlaps the top end of
the petroleum-based plastics market. Bulk production should bring prices
down, particularly when the raw materials are free. Meanwhile, ethanol
would be a lot easier to introduce than fuel cells. Existing engines will
run on it with minor tweaking, so there is no need to change the way cars
are made. And since, unlike hydrogen, it is a liquid, the
fuel-distribution infrastructure would not need radical change.
The future could be green in ways that traditional environmentalists had
not expected. Whether they will embrace that possibility, or stick to
sack-cloth, remains to be seen.
Is US AID from Surpluses? Response to Dr. Kristensen
- John W. Cross
I have replied privately to Dr. Kristensen. In that message, I made the
1. Kristensen stated that US aid is always in the form of surpluses. He
was mistaken. Although the food aid that the US provides is, by law, in
the form of agricultural surpluses, other US aid is in the form of cash or
services. One example of this is the training and assistance of Peace
Corps volunteers. I didn't mention the private and religious based aid
coming from the USA, which is not insignificant.
2. He claims that US food aid is not appropriate for the people receiving
it. Again, he seems confused on his facts. US food aid has been, in fact,
in the form of whatever is available and appropriate. Wheat has been
donated to countries where wheat is a staple. In Northern Europe after
World War II, when people there were starving, America sent powdered milk
(and other foods). Milk is consumed in Europe.
3. It is unethical to carp about the charity of others. I haven't
complained about European charity. Why should Kristensen complain about
In response, Kristensen then sent me another message in which he said that
food aid is not true charity, but rather an obligation. That seems to be
quibbling about words. If Africans go hungry, do they care if food is
defined as charity or obligation? The point is to get food to the
Another complaint of Kristensen is that the US hasn't sent more food aid.
That view is hard to jive with his complaints about the value and
helpfulness of that aid. He is just inconsistent.
Finally, Kristensen was pained that I thought Denmark might have received
American food aid in the 1940's. Perhaps someone else who knows the facts
better than I can research this. I do know that many countries in Europe
received US food aid in those years. In fact, the Netherlands was so
grateful for our food aid that they built a large monument, a carillon in
Arlington, Virginia adjacent to the National Cemetery to honor that
- John Cross
>> Reply from Anders Buch Kristensen > Dear John
>> Thank you very much for your information, that the US aid for less
>> developed countries is always in kind from US agricultural surpluses..
>> Good for you as American taxpayer that you are satisfied with that use
>> your development aid, I would not be......
>>- Kind regards Anders Buch Kristensen Ph.D
More on this from Alex Avery
Aide from the fact that the US is a perpetual food surplus nation because
we were disproportionately well-endowed with highly productive farmland,
have well-educated highly efficient farmers with access to the best inputs
and support infrastructure, and aside from the existence of the
decades-old federal law requiring humanitarian food aid from the US to be
supplied in the form of US food commodity stocks, why do you think that
giving cash to the governments of nations where there is a food crisis is
preferable to donating actual food? I strongly disagree with you on this.
Consider the following:
-- Often such cash donations would never actually be used to buy food, as
most of the governments in affected countries are notoriously corrupt and
cash donations have a long and proven history of finding their way to
anonymous bank accounts in Switzerland. Robert Mugabe cannot be trusted
with big piles of cash. The ag ministers of Malawi have just siphoned off
at least $40 million from the illicit sale of the country's 167,000 ton
grain reserves (which the IMF had suggested they could "reduce" slightly,
not sell off totally and spirit the money into Switzerland -- which is
-- Food is scarce in the entire region, which: a.) means that there isn't
likely to be enough food nearby to meet demand, even if you had unlimited
cash to purchase it with, and b.) the regional shortage increases food
costs and means that for a given dollar outlay, fewer people are fed.
-- And finally, giving cash donations delays the delivery of food to the
hungry, which should be the focus in a hunger emergency like Africa is
Just some thoughts as to why many of us are happy that as taxpayers our
government sees fit to deliver actual food to the hungry, rather that give
their corrupt, inefficient, untrustworthy governments the cash to play
UK: Young People Debate GM (and Most Vote in Favor of GM!)
http://www.food.gov.uk/gmdebate/newsevents/gmschooldebatevote March 27,
A majority of young people at Durham Union Society Schools Debating
Competition voted in favour of eating GM food after two hours of heated
debate. The annual event was sponsored this year by the Food Standards
Agency and you can view it here as video-on-demand.
After an extremely well-informed and passionately argued debate by
competition finalists and speakers from the floor, the motion 'This house
would eat GM food' was passed by a majority of the students attending the
competition on 23 March.
The overall winners of the competition were selected by a panel of
independent judges for their skills in debating the issues relating to GM
food, were George Molyneaux and Anna Crosby of Robert Gordon's School in
Aberdeen, who argued against the motion.
The competition, hosted by Durham University for the past 14 years, is
organised by student officers of the Durham Union Society.
Protecting Intellectual Property - Please Pass The Salt
- Dean Kleckner http://www.truthabouttrade.org/ March 27, 2003
Winston Churchill once attended a fancy dinner, where he was told that one
of the guests had slipped a silver saltshaker into his pocket. Churchill
then took the matching peppershaker and put it in his own pocket. At the
conclusion of dinner, he sat down next to the thief and said, "Oh dear, we
were seen. Perhaps we had both better put them back."
I assume the trick worked--and that Churchill shamed his colleague into
returning the saltshaker. It would be nice if theft were always so easy to
correct. But it's not, and that's especially true when it comes to ideas.
In the United States and much of the Western world, we've created a
reliable system of protecting intellectual property rights--copyrights,
patents, and trademarks--to make sure that the immaterial property of the
mind is guarded against the saltshaker thieves among us.
A lot of people wrongly assume that these protections exist everywhere.
Unfortunately, they don't. American laws only cover products inside the
United States. This includes imports, of course, but for the most part
intellectual property rights end at the border. They're honored in many
parts of the developed world, but they're also dishonored in plenty of
Consider China. Walk down a street in Shanghai, and it won't take long to
find a bootlegged version of the recent movie "Shanghai Knights." People
who buy copies will probably find the entertainment they're looking for,
but none of the proceeds will find its way back to the producers,
directors, writers, or actors who made the movie possible. The movie is a
piece of intellectual property, and it's essentially been stolen. The
problem is even worse for the music industry.
And it affects agriculture, too--and ordinary farmers who don't anticipate
ever holding a copyright, patent, or trademark in their own name still
need to be concerned. That's because several countries are now trying to
reap the benefits of agricultural biotechnology without having to open
their markets to these products. Brazilian farmers, by law, aren't allowed
to grow gene-altered soybeans. Their country follows Europe in making a
phony fuss over genetically modified crops. And yet about a third of
Brazil's soybean harvest is genetically modified, with seed smuggled in
from Argentina, a neighboring country with biotech-friendly laws.
It's hard to blame Brazilian farmers for wanting to use a safe product
that boosts yield and is safe for the environment. But it also gives them
an unfair advantage over the rest of us because they're not paying the
technology fees that American farmers must pay. They're stealing
intellectual property from the scientists and researchers who created it
in the first place.
Any country that wants to become a full participant in the global
marketplace must have a functioning system that enforces the protection of
intellectual property rights--and if it doesn't have one, it must be
compelled to create one.
China tops everybody's wish list, because its market is so big and it
currently steals so much. The government in Beijing has embraced
biotechnology--but in a classic bit of protectionism, it has not approved
any new transgenic crops since 2000. Many experts believe Beijing is
trying to nurture its own embryonic biotech industry by sheltering it from
outside competition. "China is trying to make major investments in
biotechnology research," says Julia Moore of the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars, in a recent issue of Nature. "But it is
also taking advantage of biotechnology concerns in Europe and elsewhere to
limit its import of the technology."
If China were to begin enforcing intellectual property rights protections,
it would find that it has much to gain from cooperating with scientists
and researchers in other countries. Chinese farmers who grow bt cotton,
currently China's biggest gene-altered crop, understand the enormous
advantages of increased yield, decreased production costs, and the
environmental friendliness of the seed. They're experiencing it firsthand.
The rest of the world also would benefit from China's know-how, and
China's biotech industry would receive substantial foreign investment.
But first, they've got to agree to leave the saltshakers on the dinner
The Biosafety of Molecular Farming in Plants
- U. Commandeur, R.M. Twyman and R. Fischer. Full review at
www.AgBiotechNet.com April 2003
Molecular farming in plants provides an inexpensive and convenient way to
produce biopharmaceutical molecules and other valuable proteins on a large
scale. Proof of principle has been demonstrated for a large number of
recombinant human proteins, subunit vaccines and antibodies (Schillberg et
al., 2002a, b), and detailed cost evaluations have been described for the
production of technical proteins in corn (Kusnadi et al., 1997;
Evangelista et al., 1998).
In terms of biosafety, plants have several advantages over traditional
production systems, such as the absence of endotoxins, human pathogens and
oncogenic DNA sequences. However, other biosafety concerns remain to be
addressed. These not only reflect the quality and safety of the final
product, but also the wider effects of molecular farming on health and the
environment. In this review we discuss the technological basis of
molecular farming in plants and identify potential biosafety risks:
transgene spread in the environment, recombinant protein accumulation in
the ecosystem, contamination of food and feed chains with transgenes and
their products, and product quality and safety.
GM Crops, Modern Agriculture and The Environment
- Halina Dawson, Full review at www.AgBiotechNet.com April 2003
Presentations from a Royal Society meeting are summarised under the
following headings: The impact of conventional agriculture, Gene flow: the
great escape? Risks and benefits of GM crops.
Genomics and Crop Improvement - Training Course
- New Delhi, India; November 17-28, 2003,
Training course organised by the International Centre for Genetic
Engineering and Biotechnology
More details at http://www.icgeb.trieste.it/TRAINING/CRS03/GenomicsND.htm
Techniques: * Markers in aid of plant breeders * Map-based gene cloning *
Functional genomics * Plant transformation * Genomics and agriculture *
Issues related to GMOs * Molecular marker technologies * Bioinformatics
Closing date for applications - August 1, 2003; Registration is limited
to 16 participants. Funding: Nationals of ICGEB Member States who are
selected to participate on an ICGEB grant will receive their accommodation
(twin share) and local hospitality for the duration of the course; travel
is NOT funded. Please note that there is no registration fee.
Submit your application form, curriculum vitae in English and a short list
of publications (if any) to: Ms. H.S. Narayanan, Chief of Administration,
ICGEB New Delhi Component, Aruna Asaf Ali Marg, 110 067, New Delhi, India.
Tel: +91-11-26167356; Fax: +91-11-26162316; E-mail: shubhaicgeb.res.in
From FAO Biotech News : http://www.fao.org/biotech/index.asp
FAO e-mail conference - Regulation of GMOs
The FAO Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture is
devoting its next e-mail conference to the theme of "Regulating GMOs in
developing and transition countries". This moderated conference covers the
agro-industry, crop, fisheries, forestry and livestock sectors and begins
in late April, lasting for four weeks. It is organised by the FAO Working
Group on Biotechnology and is the first conference to be held this year.
The outcome of the conference will be used for the upcoming FAO
publication, The State of Food and Agriculture 2003. A Background Document
will be provided to Forum Members before the conference. All messages
posted during the conference will also be placed on the Forum website
(http://www.fao.org/biotech/forum.asp). You are hereby invited to join the
Forum and to participate in the conference !! To join the Forum (and also
register for the conference), send an e-mail to email@example.com
leaving the subject blank and entering only the following two-line text
message: subscribe BIOTECH-L subscribe biotech-room1
Those who are already Forum members should leave out the first line of the
above message, to register for the conference. For more information,
Focus on Agricultural Biotechnology
As part of its on-line "Focus on the issues" series, FAO's Media Relations
Office has just released "Agricultural biotechnology: will it help?". This
series of nine articles, aiming to provide background information for the
non-specialist, describes current and potential applications of
agricultural biotechnology, focusing on genetic modification, for animals,
crops, fish and trees.
It also presents the main arguments put forward both for and against the
use of GMOs in agriculture and, finally, provides links to other
information sources. See
http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/focus/2003/gmo1.htm (in Arabic,
English, French and Spanish) or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more
26th Annual National Food Policy Conference
- National Press Club, Washington, DC; May 8 and 9, 2003
The National Food Policy Conference is coordinated by the Consumer
Federation of America, in cooperation with the National Food Processors
Association. Additional help is provided by the International Food
Information Council. A summary of conference sessions follows. Online
registration is available on Consumer Federation of America's website
http://www.consumerfed.org . For additional information, contact Art
Jaeger, Consumer Federation of America. Phone: 202-387-6121,
A few select topics:
Transgenic Animals: Beauties or Beasts? It's only a matter of time before
food from cloned or bio-engineered animals turns up in the local
supermarket. These products may be safe, but will consumers embrace them?
What social, ethical and moral issues do they present? Those on different
sides tackle the next big issue in the biotech food debate.
Food Labeling: Challenges for the Future. New nutritional guidelines from
the National Academy of Sciences are one of several factors that could
mean big changes in food labels in the coming years. Another is FDA's
decision to allow "qualified" health claims for food. An advocate, a
government official and an industry spokesman take a look at what's on the
Designer Diets: Is Nutrigenomics the Answer? New research holds out the
promise of diets tailored to each individual's genetic make-up. Backers of
so-called "nutrigenomics" say this approach could help us avoid heart
disease, diabetes, cancer and other illnesses. This session explores the
prospect of designer diets and the science behind them.
Biopharming: Field of Dreams or Prescription for Disaster? Some
Midwestern farmers are staking their futures on the assumption that
pharmaceuticals can be "grown" economically in bio-engineered corn and
other food crops. But the technology has been plagued by high-profile
mishaps that have both consumers and the food industry nervous. Those on
various sides debate the future of biopharming.
EU Biotech Ban Based on Fear, Not Science, House Leader Says
- Washington File, March 26, 2003 http://usinfo.state.gov/
The European Union (EU) and other countries are using non-tariff barriers
against agricultural biotechnology that are based on fear and conjecture,
not science, says the leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In March 26 testimony to the House Agriculture Committee, House Speaker
Dennis Hastert of Illinois said he and other members of Congress are
urging the Bush administration to take a case to the World Trade
Organization (WTO) protesting the EU's moratorium on the granting of
import licenses for foods derived from biotechnology. The moratorium has
been in effect for more than four years.
"Official WTO action is the only course that would send a clear and
convincing message to the world that prohibitive policies on biotechnology
which are not based on sound science are illegal," Hastert stated in
prepared testimony. "The EU should immediately lift its unfair moratorium
and evaluate biotechnology products using a scientifically based process
with definitive timeframes [and] ... keep U.S. exporters informed about
developments in the approval process," he said.
He added that while the administration has been negotiating with the EU
about agricultural policies, development of biotechnology is slowing, with
potential "dire consequences" for developing countries that have rapidly
growing populations and limited arable land. Some African countries have
turned away U.S. food aid that contains biotech maize, fearing the EU's
later rejection of their food exports, Hastert said.
EU policies are putting pressure on African governments to reject the aid,
testified Congressman Frank Wolf, a Republican. "This is a trade issue but
more importantly, it's an issue of life and death," he said. He added
that last year India also rejected food aid when nongovernmental aid
agencies could not meet the country's demand to guarantee the food
contained no biotech grains.
The European moratorium was having "a chilling effect" on developing
countries who most need the benefits" of biotechnology, testified Jo Ann
Emerson, co-chair of the Congressional Hunger Center. African
governments' concerns about accepting food aid containing biotech traits
also stem from their lack of national biosafety and regulatory capacity,
"No other food crops in history have been tested and regulated as foods
developed through biotechnology," she said.
Saying most African officials in ministries responsible for enacting
biosafety laws lack the policymaking skills to draft effective
legislation, John Kilama, a bioscientist, told the committee that
development assistance should focus more on strategic capacity building.
Full Text of Hasterts' prepared testimony is at
Testimony in Congress by Biotech and Farming Experts
Dear AgBioView Readers:
To access the full text of the written testimony by other speakers at the
US Congress House Committee on Agriculture, please visit
(Thanks to Dr. John J. Goldberg of the House Committee on Agriculture for
providing this information...CSP)
List of Speakers:
Dr. John Kilama, President, Global Bioscience Development Institute,
Dr. Calestous Juma, Director, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Mr. Bob Stallman, President, American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington,
Mr. Gary Joachim, American Soybean Association, Claremont, MN
Mr. Leon Corzine, National Corn Growers Association, Assumption, IL
Mr. Michael W. Deegan, President and CEO, Agricultural Cooperative
Development International and Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative
Assistance, Washington, DC
Speech on Agriculture Honors Retiring Lacey
- Mary Mintel, Phoenix, Swarthmore College's Online Newspaper, March 27,
In honor of retiring philosophy professor Hugh Lacey, a symposium entitled
"Science, Values and Society" took place last Friday and Saturday. The
symposium covered a wide range of topics, from the social role of the
university to the values of popular movements. There were five topics
overall, with a different visiting scholar speaking on each.
The conference themes were all subjects that Lacey has done a large amount
of work on. Lacey was very pleased with the conference. "It was to me a
real pleasure to hear people talking on a range of topics all of which
have been important to me," he said. The conference generated a fair
amount of original thought that Lacey found particularly exciting. "I am
always delighted when people take my ideas and go further with them," he
Dr. Richard Lewontin, from the Harvard University Museum of Comparative
Zoology, spoke first on Saturday. He commented on the political economy of
agricultural research. He began by making the point that agriculture is a
capitalistic endeavor and should be considered as such. "Agriculture is as
penetrated by capital as anything," he said.
(From Prakash: Perhaps the learned professor from Harvard would have been
happier if all farmers remained primitive by practising subsistence
agriculture?; I presume that the great scientist would have also preferred
to grow all his food in his Cambridge home backyard rather than buy it
from capitalistic farmers and food companies?)
To increase profits, Lewontin said, many organizations invest in
agricultural research. Lewontin questioned the merits of biology being
used as a way to secure one's property rights. He gave the example of seed
"terminator technology," where seeds are genetically modified so that
subsequent generations can't reproduce. This way, "seed-men" can make a
better profit. These stories are not exceptions, but part of what Lewontin
finds to be a disturbing trend. "Property rights dominate research into
biological agriculture," he said.
Lewontin said that only seed producers benefit from this new technology,
which actually puts farmers and consumers at a disadvantage. Lewontin
noted the fact that the production of the "terminator technology" was
government funded, and he questioned the value system of the United States
Department of Agriculture in making such an investment. "Why would the
USDA invest money to research something whose only effect is to protect
the property of its creators?" he said.
Amy Vollmer, a Swarthmore professor of biology, commented on Lewontin's
speech. She agreed that it was important to consider why scientists
conduct certain research. She suggested everyone ask, "How did we as
biologists get here, and where are we going?"
Vollmer noted that recent progress in agriculture is due to advances made
in molecular biology. Unfortunately, molecular biology is a highly
specialized field, and, consequently, these specialists often don't
consider the moral consequences of their work. "Specialization has served
them well, but the myopia that has resulted has been pretty devastating,"
It was Vollmer's hope that students learn from Lacey's work and begin to
consider the values involved in doing biological research. "We can't just
teach our students how, we have to teach them why. Because if you ask why,
you also have to ask why not," she said.