Today in AgBioView: April 2, 2003
* Transgenic Trees Hold Promise for Pulp and Paper Industries
* Food Industry's Anxiety? Blair Versus Miller
* Bringing Down The Barriers
* Eco Soundings ..Acting for Whose Change?
* The Latest Anti-Science 'Smokescreen'
* GMOs in Agriculture Economics and Politics
* GMO and Less-developed Countries
* International Foundation for Science
* Stranded? AgBio at the Crossroads
* A Time to Sow?
* Making the Move Into Science Policy
Transgenic Trees Hold Promise for Pulp and Paper Industries
- Vincent L. Chiang, North Carolina State University, April 2, 2003
The expensive, energy-intensive process of turning wood into paper costs
the pulp and paper industries more than $6 billion a year. Much of that
expense involves separating wood's cellulose from lignin, the glue that
binds a tree's fibers, by using an alkali solution and high temperatures
and pressures. Although the lignin so removed is reused as fuel, wood with
less lignin and more cellulose would save the industry millions of dollars
a year in processing and chemical costs. Research at North Carolina State
University shows promise of achieving that goal.
By genetically modifying aspen trees, Dr. Vincent L. Chiang, professor of
forest biotechnology, and his colleagues have reduced the trees' lignin
content by 45 to 50 percent ? and accomplished the first successful
dual-gene alteration in forestry science. Their results are described in
the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
(PNAS). According to Chiang, the NC State research shows not only a
decrease in lignin but also an increase in cellulose in the transgenic
aspens. And their work demonstrates another benefit: the trees grow
That is very good news for the wood, paper and pulp industries, which do
multibillion-dollar business worldwide. Fast-growing, low-lignin trees
offer both economic and environmental advantages, because separating
lignin from cellulose ? using harsh alkaline chemicals and high heat ? is
costly and environmentally unfriendly. Harvesting such trees, using them
as "crops" with desirable traits, would also reduce pressure on existing
Chiang and his team chose aspens because, he says, "they're the lab rats
of forestry research." The scientists scratch the leaves and expose the
wound to bacteria carrying the beneficial genes. Treated leaf-disks, with
their enhanced genomic structure, are then cloned, producing trees with
As with any research involving genetic engineering, Chiang's modified
aspens have faced questions of real-world properties, resistance to
insects and diseases, and the possibility of unforeseen ecological
impacts. "There is a need for more data concerning the environmental
effects and field performance of transgenic trees," said Chiang, "but
four-year field trials of such trees in France and the United Kingdom show
that lignin-modified transgenic trees do not have detrimental or unusual
ecological impacts in the areas tested."
In previous work, Chiang and his team had successfully reduced lignin in
aspens by inhibiting the influence of a gene called 4CL. The current
research modifies the expression of both 4CL and a second gene, CAld5H, in
the trees. This dual-gene engineering alters the lignin structure, and
produces the favorable characteristics of lower and more degradable
lignin, higher cellulose and accelerated maturation of the aspens' xylem
The research is described in the paper "Combinatorial modification of
multiple lignin traits in trees through multigene co-transformation,"
published online by PNAS on March 31.
Chiang is co-director of the Department of Forestry's Forest Biotechnology
Group in the College of Natural Resources at NC State. Headed by Chiang
and Dr. Ron Sederoff, Edwin F. Conger and Distinguished University
Professor of Forestry and a member of the National Academy of Sciences,
the group is one of the world's leading research organizations studying
the molecular genetics of forest trees. The Forest Biotechnology Group is
a key part of NC State's research strength in genomics, an important new
area of scientific research focused on identifying and mapping all the
genes of living organisms. Its work is leading to a better understanding
of the genetic basis of biological diversity, improved disease resistance
in important tree species, and increased commercial forest productivity.
According to Dr. Bailian Li, associate professor of forestry at NC State,
Dr. Chiang's results in this aspen model species are "very significant"
and will have dramatic impacts on the future genetic improvement of forest
trees for pulp and paper production. "The improved tree growth and high
cellulose content will increase pulp-yield production, while the reduced
lignin content will reduce the pulping cost and energy consumption in the
pulping process," he said. "The ability to produce high-yield plantations
with these desirable characteristics will enable us to produce wood more
efficiently on less land, allowing natural forests to be managed less
intensively ? for habitat conservation, aesthetics and recreational uses."
Citing the Forestry Department's Industry-Cooperative Tree Improvement
Program ? working to improve plantation productivity, adaptation and
disease-resistance in North Carolina's loblolly pines ? Li said, "Results
from Dr. Chiang's research are very encouraging to our research. Although
his research is on aspen, the valuable information on genetic regulation
of wood formation should be useful for our efforts in producing pine
plantations with lower lignin, higher cellulose, and faster growth rates."
Zero Tolerance Creates an Intolerable Risk: Food Industry's Anxiety
- Jim Bair, NAMA (North American Millers'
>> Re: Food Fight - Henry I. Miller, Forbes.com, March 27, 2003
Mr. Miller states "the food industry wants to protect our efficient and
safe systems of food production and distribution, but their anxiety takes
into account neither the realities of contemporary agriculture nor the
nuances of biopharming."
Miller continues "What is the likelihood of consumers sustaining injury,
even in a worst-case scenario? Several highly improbable events would have
to occur. First, the active drug would have to be present in the food at
sufficient levels to exert an adverse effect via direct toxicity or
NAMA comment: Mr. Miller is apparently unacquainted with the federal rules
which regulate the presence of biopharmaceutical products in food.
Plant-made pharmaceuticals and industrial products are not intended to be
cultivated for food and feed use, and are not required to seek food and
feed approvals. Therefore, their presence AT ANY LEVEL is currently not
allowed in products meant for consumption by humans or animals.
A positive detection of plant-made pharmaceuticals and industrial products
in food or feed IN ANY AMOUNT, therefore, would require the immediate
recall and destruction of all products manufactured from that grain. Under
current regulatory standards, this zero tolerance creates an intolerable
risk for U.S. food processors.
That is why NAMA has called for regulations requiring companies producing
plant-made pharmaceutical and industrial products to demonstrate mandatory
liability insurance coverage of to indemnify all downstream traders,
handlers, processors and food manufacturers for the full cost of recall,
destruction and brand degradation as a result of gene flow or other
release of genetic material into the food or feed industries.
The only parts Mr. Miller got right were that "human error is inevitable"
and the food industry has "anxiety."
Jim Bair, Vice President, North American Millers' Association;
Henry Miller Responds:
In his response to my article on biopharming in Forbes, Jim Bair, of the
North American Millers' Association, observes that "Mr. Miller is
apparently unacquainted with the federal rules which regulate the presence
of biopharmaceutical products in food. Plant-made pharmaceuticals and
industrial products are not intended to
be cultivated for food and feed use, and are not required to seek food and
feed approvals. Therefore, their presence AT ANY LEVEL is currently not
allowed in products meant for consumption by humans or animals (emphasis
Bair misses completely the point of the article, which was that the
unscientific, inappropriate overreaction by both the food industry and
government regulators (with whose one-size-fits-all rules I am most
unhappily acquainted) makes no sense, and that it represents a triumph of
parochial self-interest over societal interest. As Mr. Bair may be aware,
his own industry's products are, in fact, highly prone to contamination --
by highly toxic fungi and insect parts, among other unpleasant substances
(which are not intended for food and feed use, to coin a phrase).
If these substances were prohibited from grain AT ANY LEVEL, Bair's
industry would be out of business; instead, we use recognized techniques
of risk-assessment and risk-management, in order to design appropriate
handling, storage and treatment regimes to ensure consumer safety. (And
also occupational safety: Let us not forget the hazard of dust explosions
in grain elevators.)
What's grain for the goose should be grain for the gander. As I used to
preach during my many years as an FDA official, sometimes we need to
permit common sense to intrude on the regulatory process. But that would
interrupt Mr. Bair's rant.
- Henry Miller, The Hoover Institution, email@example.com
Bringing Down The Barriers
- Jaap Willems, Nature 422, 470 ; April 3, 2003
'Public communication should be part of common scientific practice.'
The public is fascinated by science, particularly astronomy. But despite
most researchers recognizing the necessity of communicating to the public,
many of them fail to do so. Although the media is the main source of
scientific information for most people, scientists throw up barriers to
their work being publicized. Scientists need to popularize their subject
as, sooner or later, society will have to deal with the results. Not only
do people need to keep up to date with rapidly changing knowledge, but
ignorance often leads to fear.
Although some scientists accept that the public must be kept informed and
interested if they are to obtain funding, many are puzzled by the
suggestion that the popularization of, for example, chemistry is important
for creating public support. Surely science no longer needs to justify
itself, they ask? Furthermore, many researchers would -- quite wrongly --
treat with derision the idea that scientists need to popularize their work
if they are to reach fellow professionals in their own or related fields.
Yet various surveys have revealed that communication between fellow
professionals often takes place through the mass media.
Most public communication about science is channelled through daily
newspapers, special-interest magazines and television. In the Netherlands,
articles written by researchers themselves are occasionally published in
newspapers or in popular science magazines such as Natuur & Techniek and
Greenpeace. (!!) However, about 90% of these articles are written by
science journalists, most of whom do not have scientific qualifications.
And according to surveys in the Netherlands, Germany and the United
Kingdom, the public is dissatisfied with the media's reporting of
innovations in science and technology. Media reports can heighten public
fear of certain areas, for example biotechnology, according to
A different approach is needed. Science communication professionals have
long advocated a shift from the one-way channel of the mass media, towards
interactivity -- science and discovery centres, public lectures and
company or institution open days -- to bring researchers into direct
contact with the general public. If nothing else, the resultant dialogue
is a useful addition to media reporting in conveying accurate information
and reducing fear of new technologies.
But scientists must also find ways of improving communication through the
media, as this is familiar to many and is the most efficient way to reach
large numbers of people. Yet our survey (see footnote) reveals barriers to
such communication, such as unreasonable demands from researchers that
journalists' reporting must be full and complete, or the lack of
appropriate expertise by journalists -- ignorance of basic technical
terms, or a desire to sensationalize or exaggerate the discovery.
Management and public-relations (PR) departments frequently block contacts
between scientists and the media. Our survey indicates that only one-third
of researchers in the Netherlands can decide what they tell journalists.
The rest have to defer to managers and PR departments, even in
universities. The PR department initiates contact with the press. Of
course, PR officials have a better understanding of the media and more
contacts than scientists. Nevertheless, many Dutch scientists do not want
to help PR departments popularize their research as they would prefer to
do it themselves.
PR officials, of course, are usually only interested in good news about
the research in their institutions. Journalists are more interested in bad
news (such as risks associated with genetic modification) and would prefer
to publicize details before the full work is published in scientific
literature. These separate, selective agendas provide further barriers to
the communication of science.
That 90% of scientists in our survey believe that a journalist's reporting
should be full and complete, and the journalists should allow the
scientists to check their story and make requested changes before
publication betrays an ignorance of journalistic methods. As journalists
would naturally not agree to these conditions, scientists are very
reticent about cooperating with the press. Virtually none of our
respondents knew the names of the science editors of the major Dutch
quality newspapers, many of whom have been writing about science for
Finally, almost half of our respondents had never written an article for a
wider general readership, while a further 40% did so only very rarely.
Only 10% regularly write articles about their own speciality for a general
readership, a fraction that included a disproportionate number of
ecologists writing about environmental issues. Although not every
scientist can be expected to write popular and/or accessible articles
about their work regularly, and the media could not handle the resultant
volume of material, the fact that so few biologists take an active part in
popularizing their work highlights, once again, their lack of interest in
Many scientists, used to writing scientific articles, lack the rather
different writing skills needed to bring their work to a wider audience.
In addition to this, many feel that popularization would reduce their
status among their peers. Yet almost every university offers courses in
science communication, and although scientists go on these courses, they
are generally regarded as being on the margins of university education.
If we truly want the media to expand and improve its coverage of science
and technology, more researchers need training in public communication and
must be prepared to use these skills by participating in public events,
writing popular, accessible articles, and cooperating constructively with
Jaap Willems is in the Department of Science Communication, Vrije
Universiteit Amsterdam, 1081 HV, The Netherlands. Further information
available in Biologen en Journalisten (Biologists and Journalists) by Jaap
Willems, Betteke van Ruler, Linda Hartman and Neil van der Veer (Enschede,
Amsterdam, 2002). See also http://www.bio.vu.nl/WillemsinNature.pdf.
John Vidal and Paul Brown write in today's Pravda ..err.. No, The
"'Eco soundings' ..Acting for change: Friends of the Earth said an
emotional farewell last week to Charles Secrett, its inspired director for
10 years. But what will happen to the man who moved the group towards
social justice issues? Will he be joining Burson Marsteller or working for
BAA or RTZ, like other former FoE directors? He is in fact setting up a
campaign group "to mobilise constituency and taxpayer campaigns for
environmental rights and sustainable development priorities". The working
name is ACT - Active Citizens Transform. Watch this space. "
... Umm... So, anti-GMing is not the draw it once was; once you have to
stand on your own two feet and lose your corporate-style backing,
The Latest Anti-Science 'Smokescreen'
- Consumerfreedom.com, April 2, 2003
The largest scientific test of genetically improved food crops the world
has ever seen is over. The results aren't due until the fall, but that
hasn't stopped anti-biotech activists at Friends of the Earth (FoE) from
staging a preemptive attack. http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id
FoE issued a h48-page research paper last week arguing that governments
simply must demonstrate biotech food safety to activists' satisfaction.
the satisfaction of the world's best scientific minds isn't enough.
FoE wants a moratorium on genetically improved crops. At least until the
powers that be prove to them -- at some unspecified time in the future
when the technology has evolved sufficiently and a test case will somehow
be a perfect model for the real world -- that biotech crops are 100
percent safe and foolproof. That cannot be done.
And that's precisely the point. FoE's report embraces the "precautionary
principle," which the Wall Street Journal called "an environmentalist
neologism, invoked to trump scientific evidence and move directly to
banning things they don't like." Martin Teitel, who runs the misnamed
activist group, Council for Responsible Genetics, admitted as much in
2001. "Politically," Teitel said, "it's difficult for me to go around
saying that I want to shut this science down, so it's safer for me to say
something like, 'It needs to be done safely before releasing it.'"
Requiring scientists to satisfy the Principle by proving a negative,
Teitel added, means that "they don't get to do it period."
Even if the government could somehow overcome these impossible demands,
FoE has the gall to insist that government's mere involvement in the
science inherently skews -- and therefore disqualifies -- any and all
biotech studies. The remit [the testers] were given by the government,"
FoE asserts, "meant they were tied to a research programme that was
FoE's report is entitled "Science as a Smokescreen?" -- and that's exactly
what their work amounts to. It's 48 pages of nonsense (in the manicured
language of science) intended to cloud their real intent: to stop biotech
crops by any means necessary, regardless of what science has to say. The
American Medical Association described this kind of behavior well when it
said: "Opponents of GM food understand that diminished understanding and
lack of knowledge is the key to obstructing biotechnology."
FoE revealed its true colors by protesting at the trial of two hooligans
who damaged genetically improved crops in Wales. The defendants and FoE
insist they were acting in the public interest by pulling up the crops
even though one person was injured.
Genetically Modified Organisms in Agriculture Economics and Politics
- Gerald Nelson,Academic Press, $69.95; ISBN: 0-12-515422-4, pages 360,
"This publication is the best overall and up to date summary of this
important subject I have seen. ...The authors, editor and the 30
contributors (all but four from the US) are to be congratulated on an
excellent production which should help all sides of the current
discussion." --Nigel Steele Scott, Deputy Chief, CSIRO Plant Industry for
Food Australia (2002)
"There is something to interest scientists, economists and the
well-informed lay-person in the book." --M.O. Humphreys for Journal Of
Agricultural Science, Cambridge (2002)
Genetically modified crops have become a topic of great interest among
scientists, regulators, consumers, farmers, and politicians. Despite their
potential benefits, public hostility toward these crops is causing
dramatic changes to import/export policies, food safety regulations, and
agricultural practices around the world. Genetically Modified Organisms in
Agriculture provides a comprehensive overview of the subject and a
balanced look at the costs and benefits of GMO products.
Part I reviews the scientific, economic, and political issues relating to
the use of agricultural GMOs. Chapters cover specific applications,
regulatory concerns, import/export patterns, international trade issues,
and a discussion of future trends. Part II offers a unique look at all
sides of the GMO controversies, with short chapters contributed by leading
individuals with widely different perspectives. Part III presents a more
in-depth look at selected issues plus helpful reference materials.
GMO and Less-developed Countries
- Stockholm, Sweden; April 11, 2003
The seminar will cover such issues as the technology behind GMO, its
application to the agricultures of less developed countries and its
effects on free trade and the CAP. An Indian perspective will show the
effects on less developed countries.
The seminar will be held on Scandic Hotel Continental on Vasagatan (right
in front of Stockholm's central train station) on Friday the 11th of April
between 1600 and 1800 hours.
The speakers are: Waldemar Ingdahl, CEO Eudoxa Ewa Bjorling, member of the
Swedish parlament, Conservative Party with the specialty of development
issues, PhD of microbiology at the Karolinska Institute Christer Jansson,
professor of genetics and molecular biologi at the Swedish Agricultural
University at Uppsala Anil Trigunayat, Commercial Counsellor of the Indian
embassy to Sweden.
We would be very grateful if you noticed our seminar in the AgBioWorld
newsletter. It would be of great help. Those that wish to attend to the
seminar should contact me at The Eudoxa think tank Sveavagen 133 SE 113 46
Stockholm Sweden Telephone +46 8 83 87 73 Fax +46 8 33 81 68; E-mail
Best regards, Waldemar Ingdahl CEO
International Foundation for Science
IFS is an NGO providing support to developing country scientists to
conduct, in a developing country, relevant and high quality research on
the management, use, and conservation of biological resources and their
environment. IFS believes that the interests of both science and
development are best served by promoting and nurturing the research
efforts of young science graduates, who are at the beginning of their
research careers. Since 1974, IFS has provided support, mainly in the form
of small research grants, to over 3,200 scientists in 99 developing
Funding comes from governmental or non-governmental sources, as well as
national and international organisations. The annual budget is
approximately USD 5 million. IFS shall contribute towards strengthening
the capacity of developing countries to conduct relevant and high quality
research on the sustainable management of biological resources. This will
involve the study of physical, chemical, and biological processes, as well
as relevant social and economic aspects, important in the conservation,
production, and renewable utilisation of the natural resources base.
To further this goal, IFS supports young developing country scientists who
have the potential for becoming the future research leaders and lead
scientists in their nations. The criteria for eligibility for IFS support
stipulate that the scientist must be young and at the beginning of his or
her research career and from a developing country, where the research must
The support provided by IFS is primarily in the form of an IFS Research
Grant, which amounts to USD 12,000 and may be renewed twice. It is
intended for the purchase of the basic tools needed to conduct a research
project: equipment, expendable supplies, and literature. The IFS
Scientific Programme is organised into six Research Areas. The IFS has
three Awards for its grantees: The IFS/DANIDA Award, The IFS Jubilee Award
and The Sven Brohult Award. The IFS grantees are to date more than 3,000
in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean. For
more details and application, http://www.ifs.se/
Stranded? AgBio at the Crossroads
- Allen Weiner, BiotechTech, March 2003
The issues surrounding the state of the agrobiotechnology marketplace are
layers of a complex onion. On one level, the business is very simple with
clear-cut objectives. A far more detailed examination reveals
controversy, misunderstanding, lack of public awareness and a hazy future.
In terms of technology as a driver to propel the AgBio industry, it's
clear that various elements of information technology are at the core of
AgBio's growth with many of the same issues facing the pharmaceutical
world. In fact, the relationship between AgBio and pharmaceutical firms is
very close, as many tech-nology vendors in the ag space are spin-offs of
giant, global pharmaceutical companies.
The underlying fabric of the AgBio market is simple with a few basic
goals. One mission is to create plants/crops that have greater-than-normal
yield. The economic underpinnings of that concept are simple. Another
mission is to create plants/crops that are heartier and able to withstand
harsh weather conditions as well as harmful insects that can potentially
destroy crops. The economic proposition of that mission is also easy to
Bio Economic Research Associates, or bio-era, a new, independent research
and advisory firm providing analysis on issues related to human-induced
change to biological systems, recently issued its first study, an
assessment of the evolving structure of the agricultural biotechnology
industry and the key challenges facing industry participants.
Based on an R&D index developed by bio-era, the study quantifies a shift
in research and development activity in recent years toward large
agricultural biotechnology companies, such as Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont,
Dow, Bayer and BASF. These companies have the R&D capability, financial
depth and intellectual property assets to support long, costly and risky
new product development cycles. While more than 180 organizations are
involved in agricultural biotechnology, the top eight firms accounted for
69 percent of research and development activity in 2002. The top four
accounted for 57 percent.
"The agricultural biotechnology industry is at a crossroads," says bio-era
founder and CEO Stephen C. Aldrich. "On one hand, the industry is poised
to introduce a host of new, genetically modified organisms with remarkable
new attributes, ranging from crops with enhanced pest protection and
nutritional value, to grasses that cleanly manufacture plastic, to
bacteria that perform environmental clean-up. At the same time, the
industry faces serious resistance to some kinds of genetically engineered
products from the public and other agricultural industry groups.
Opposition slows down and increases both the risk and expense of the
product development-to-market cycle, and hurts the industry and its
investors. We think industry participants would be wise to address this
challenge by investing even more in mutual education with other
stakeholders, leading toward a more collaborative, multi-stakeholder
approach to product development."
"With industry consolidation, we're seeing agricultural biotechnology
mature," continues Aldrich. "It's not unusual for capital-intensive
industries to have R&D concentrated in large companies."
"Large companies can leverage complementarities between genetically
modified seeds for GMO crops that they developed and agricultural
chemicals that have specificity with those crops," says Gregory Graff,
bio-era director of research. "We're seeing the emergence of integrated
crop protection solutions that large companies have a competitive
advantage in developing."
"We're clearly seeing a playing field increasingly characterized by a few
elephants and lots of ants," notes Aldrich. "The elephants have deep
research capabilities and extensive market and distribution reach. The
small research-oriented firms are developing other market niches. Both are
under growing pressure to get their technologies to market quickly."
The study is the first in a series on the agricultural biotechnology
industry. Upcoming bio-era reports will focus on non-profit organizations
and advocacy groups, quantifying their size, resources, constituencies and
Other bio-era findings:
* Universities make significant research and development contributions,
accounting for 6 percent of R&D activity in 2002. Twelve universities rank
in the top 35 organizations. Universities tend to broaden the scope of
plant biotechnology by focusing on products that are less attractive
commercially but warrant attention for other economic or social reasons *
In 2002, large agrochemical firms accounted for 66 percent of U.S. field
trials of genetically modified organisms, up from 37 percent in 1998 *
Between 1997 and 2002, 5,433 field trials of genetically engineered plants
were approved, including 1,619 for insect resistant traits, 1,461 for
herbicide tolerance, 818 for product quality, 636 for disease or pathogen
resistance, 390 for agronomic properties, 235 for other novel proteins and
pharmaceuticals, and 212 for genetic markers.
"What we see emerging is a significant diversification of trials that
includes many new crops and new types of applications beyond traits
related to crop protection," says James Newcomb, bio-era managing director
of research. "This portends a new wave of biotechnological innovations
that will move toward commercialization in the years ahead."
The bio-era report states that even as the agricultural biotechnology
industry embarks on a "third wave" of innovations, it faces ongoing
concerns about GMO products, the most significant of which are:
* Gene flow from genetically modified crops into other plant species *
Unintended changes in plants' natural defenses or immune responses *
Acceleration of the evolution of resistance on the part of crop pests *
Contamination of food crops with genetic material designed to produce
pharmaceuticals or other materials
Precautionary regulations of GMO products at a variety of levels
inevitably raise costs and decrease commercial opportunities. Recent
* The U.S. National Organic Standard Program has imposed strict limits on
GMO products in certified organic foods. The U.S. organic food market has
exceeded $10 billion and is growing at roughly 20 percent. * Ten U.S. food
industry groups have urged the U.S. government to halt "bio-pharm" crops
until stricter regulations can be put in place to prevent accidental
contamination of other crops. * European consumer opposition to
genetically modified foods remains high, and European governments are
responding with entrenched support for labeling of food products that
contain GMO ingredients.
According to bio-era, the way forward will require companies to adopt new,
collaborative, multi-stakeholder strategies for product development, risk
management, public education and advocacy.
"By now, all biotechnology companies should realize that no amount of
?benefits jawboning' will, by itself, overcome the objections of a public
that responds emotionally to GMO products," comments Aldrich. "Companies
need to develop strategies that fully respect the power of other
legitimate stakeholders to influence the political, regulatory, trade and
consumer choices that will ultimately determine their success or failure."
Assuming these obstacles can be overcome, the "third wave" of commercial
GMO products will move well beyond the initial generation of products.
According to bio-era, the next-generation of products will cover a vast
array of applications, including: * GMO crops with pest and disease
protection traits for parts of the world where chemical pesticides are
prohibitively expensive. * Plant-based plastics, polymers and films that
could make inroads into the $60 billion U.S. market for products now made
by petrochemical companies. Other bio-based products: lubricants and
functional fluids, inks, enzymes, and renewable fiber papers and
packaging. * High value-added pharmaceutical crops.
Facing the Controversy. The world of AgBio has a wealth of opponents. The
issue of the toxicity of chemicals used on plants/crops and the relative
safety of food that results from them is a hotbed of debate. Europe, for
one, appears to be in the middle of a maelstrom surrounding genetically
modified (GM) food--food that is the result of chemically treated
Recently, Britain conceded there are problems surrounding the launch of a
public debate on genetically modified crops and it granted more time for
the exercise ahead of a decision on growing altered plants commercially.
UK farm minister Margaret Beckett said in a letter to Malcolm Grant, the
head of the GM debate steering board, that the debate could now be
extended to the end of September instead of June.
The government has promised to take the board's views into account before
making a decision on the commercial growing of GM crops. Environmentalists
have been skeptical and dismissed the discussion as a token gesture,
believing that the government is set to give a green light to GM crops.
Beckett also doubled the budget for the debate to £500,000 saying, "I
believe that this level of funding should be more thansufficient to enable
the steering board to deliver a credible and high-profile public debate."
Prime Minister Tony Blair has spoken in favor of GM technology, while
Environment Minister Michael Meacher has labeled it unnecessary, saying it
is difficult to foresee what troubles may be in store for future
generations. Environmentalists say GM crops will contaminate traditional
varieties and throw eco-systems out of kilter, while some scientists say
they could solve world hunger.
A Time to Sow?
- Mark S. Lesney, Today's Chemist at Work, March 2003
'Agricultural biotechnology might be entering a new phase of scientific
maturity even as the war for global acceptance continues.'
As this article goes to press, it is planting season throughout much of
the northern hemisphere. Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have
planted seeds containing the genes that Nature gave them. But for nearly
the past decade, some of the seeds in the ground have been genetically
engineered by humans to make better food, feed, fiber, and even medicine.
Despite vehement opposition from a significant number of countries around
the world, more such "genetically modified" (GM) crops will be planted
this year than last.
So, if indeed the biblical "time to sow" is truly upon us in the
biotechnology revolution in agriculture, what exactly do we expect to reap
from these transformed plants? Surely all of this promise cannot be just
to provide the much-touted herbicide resistance, which seems to benefit
primarily only the manufacturers of a handful of agricultural chemicals
and the farmers who use them. No, much more than that, the promise is of
greater crop yields from insect- and disease-resistant plants, of less
rather than more pesticide use, of safer and healthier foods. The promise
is of crops that can withstand a wide variety of environmental traumas,
from drought to salt incursion, from early frost to global warming. So, is
the next generation of agricultural biotechnology upon us? Or are the
sowers another generation of hypers and hucksters instead? Believers and
skeptics abound on both sides of the fencerows, and the truth, if not the
compromise position, seems to straddle them.
Why should any of this be of particular interest to chemists other than in
their roles as consumers and concerned citizens?
First of all, much of this work is being done by or in conjunction with
major chemical or pharmaceutical firms and has a direct impact on
employment and industry. More importantly, most of the research involves
the understanding and manipulation of complex biochemical pathways
relevant to plant growth and human nutrition--more traditional chemistry
than biology, by far.
The Current Crop Herbicide tolerance is by far the most commonly exploited
trait in GM crop species today. Such crop plants include the popular
Roundup-Ready and LibertyLink brands of corn and soybeans. In the United
States in 2002, 75% of soybeans, 56% of cotton, and 10% of corn were
engineered for herbicide tolerance (1). Insect resistance, generally
obtained through the incorporation of the gene for a bacterial toxin that
kills certain insect species, showed up in 24% of the corn and 35% of the
cotton in 2002. Resistance to pathogens such as viruses and fungi
accounted for much smaller percentages (1).
A handful of processing and nutritional traits have also been modified in
commercially available products, but to a much lesser extent than the
production-oriented traits focused on in farm biotechnology. Oilseed
plants, for example, have already been marketed with more of the healthy
fat compounds (and fewer trans-fats). Sunflower, soybean, peanut, and
canola oils have been engineered to maintain structure at high
temperatures, which reduces their need for processing and makes them
healthier for cooking. And soluble solids have been bolstered in tomatoes,
improving their taste and texture upon processing. But other than the
increased production derived from killing weeds and preventing plant
diseases and insect damage, enhanced yields as such have not emerged in
commercial plantings, because the priority for this goal is neither easy
nor high. That is changing, however, as a second generation of
biotechnology crops looms on the horizon.
Horizon Harvests Of course, any desirable trait (and what is desirable
varies widely, depending on the researcher and the crop) has, at some
time, been fair game for genetic engineering fantasies. Some of the more
exotic ideas include the old "meat in potatoes" visions of the earliest
plant biotech companies and the not-dead-yet vision of nitrogen-fixing
corn. On a more plausible level, researchers are making progress on a host
of research fronts that might lead to improvements in nutritional status,
yield, growth range, habits, and the environmental friendliness of
Biofortification. One of the key goals of the second wave of genetic
engineering of crop plant species is to produce "functional
foods"--products with altered nutritional status (such as altered fat or
amino acid composition) or increased health additives, such as vitamins or
cancer-fighting phytochemicals and antioxidants.
The much-touted "golden rice", still in development, is the current poster
plant for such efforts. ("Golden" describes the appearance of rice
genetically engineered to increase its content of vitamin A--a deficiency
of which causes blindness.) Rice has also been developed that accumulates
additional iron (2). For human nutritional needs, plant proteins generally
do not have a balanced set of amino acids in any individual crop species;
hence, the need to serve cereals with legumes--for example, tortillas with
beans--for a balanced protein meal. To address this problem, genes are
being added that alter protein composition by increasing the number of
rare proteins of the appropriate type to provide balance. Most plant
staples are also high in carbohydrates but low in total protein, so
researchers are attempting to increase protein concentration in key
subsistence crops, such as potatoes, cassavas, and plantains.
Significantly, adding additional protein to potatoes has also increased
its tuber yield (2).
Broccoli is highly touted as being good for you because it has a wide
variety of antioxidants and other phytochemicals that benefit the immune
system and even help to prevent heart disease and cancers. Looking to
capture more such benefits, one of the most critical areas of research is
to genetically engineer plants to produce larger quantities or different
kinds of these important metabolic byproducts. Thus researchers are trying
to increase the content of other health-inducing nutrients, such as
lycopene, polyamines, glutathione, and vitamin E in several crop species
One of the key concerns about GM crops is the introduction of new or
unknown allergens into the food supply. This has led to the necessity for
common allergen testing as part of the evaluation process for new GM
foods. But non-GM food allergies and food intolerance are already a fact
of life for countless human beings (as well as many family pets). Genetic
engineering techniques are being applied to eliminating or minimizing
these allergens in common foods. Soybeans, peanuts, and rice are among the
main crops being researched. Although such crops are not likely to be on
the market in the next few years, many predict the ultimate development of
hypoallergenic foods (4).
Stress resistance. Insects, diseases, and weeds are not the only stresses
faced by agricultural crops. Abiotic stresses, such as inappropriate
temperature, drought, or excess mineral salts also routinely decrease food
quality and yield. The next generation of genetically engineered plants is
being developed to deal with such stresses--something that might prove
critical in the face of global warming, or "thermogeddon", as Rowan Sage
from the University of Toronto referred to it at a 2003 Gordon Conference
on Temperature Stress in Plants.
In one example, researchers investigating high-temperature stress at the
University of Sheffield (U.K.) demonstrated that overexpression of the
enzyme Beta-carotene hydroxylase led to changes in chloroplast membranes
that imparted improved tolerance to both high-light and high-temperature
conditions in the model plant species Arabidopsis (5).
The rice trehalose story is a particularly good example of how biochemical
analysis can lead to a potential genetic engineering "fix" for a variety
of abiotic plant stresses. Trehalose is a glucose disaccharide that
stabilizes biological structures in bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates in
the face of high salt, drought, and low temperatures. It is not present at
appreciable levels in crop species. Researchers at Cornell University
demonstrated that when they used a fusion construct of two trehalose
biosynthetic genes from E. coli, they could produce transgenic rice that
accumulated trehalose at levels 3?10 times higher than control plants.
Significantly, these transformed plants exhibited continued growth, a more
favorable mineral balance, and less photo-oxidative damage than
non-engineered plants under salt, drought, and lowt emperature stress
Other attempts at managing abiotic stress through genetic engineering
include research into rd (responsiveness to dehydration) gene effects.
Transgenic tomatoes that over-expressed CBF1 (C repeat?dehydration
responsiveness element binding factor 1) showed increased freezing
tolerance in the absence of prior acclimation to cold as well as increased
resistance to water deficit stress (3).
Enhancements et al. Beyond alterations of human food sources, plant or
animal, researchers are also focusing on trees and other woody plants,
fiber plants, and crops used specifically for animal feed (see box, "Fiber
and Feed"). Other examples of attempts to improve crop characteristics
through genetic engineering abound. For example, research is being done to
develop beans that don't split when they are cooked, as well as soybeans
and other beans
Fiber and Feed Of course, farm products are not "merely" used to feed
human beings. Genetic engineering is being heavily applied to the
improvement of plants used for fiber and wood production, including cotton
and a host of woody species, including trees. One of the most significant
research areas is the development of low-lignin trees that retain their
structural integrity. Wood from such transgenic species provides a more
efficient, less polluting source of pulp for the paper industry (2).
In the area of animal feeds, increasing iron absorption is a key goal for
improving nutrition. Plants with high amounts of phytic acid sequester
iron and other minerals, making them less available. Cereals engineered to
over-express the enzyme phytase, which breaks down phytic acid, provide
enhanced nutrient availability (2). Although such research in the
developed world is often directed at improving animal feed, there is no
doubt that it could also prove beneficial to human beings in other parts
of the world whose diet is deficient of the same key mineral elements that
induce less flatulence because they have more digestible sugars.
Researchers are also attempting to develop methods to grow human
biomedicines in plants as well as applying the methods of genetic
engineering to the improvement and transformation of livestock.
The Once and Future Gene. With the United States, Canada, Argentina, and
China firmly committed to GM agriculture; with Europe moving from outright
ban to labeling laws; and with India and Brazil recognizing the seeming
inevitability of the technology, GM foods and fibers appear to be here to
But a period of retrenchment and rethinking of long-term goals may still
be in the offing. Monsanto, for example, has restructured into a more
directed company with less grandiose goals-- focusing on four core crops
(corn, rapeseed, cotton, and wheat) and abandoning plans to commercialize
transgenic potatoes and other smaller-acreage crops. And with the closing
of the Torrey Mesa Research Institute (the basic plant-genetics research
facility of the Swiss-based agribusiness company Syngenta), largescale
corporate enthusiasm might indeed be showing signs of stalling, if only
Still, universities, small biotech firms, and government and nonprofit
groups appear to be increasing their efforts. They are researching a host
of new applications directed, in many cases, more toward yield and
nutrition than to traits primarily designed to improve production costs.
Only time will tell whether the movement into the engineering of improved
nutrition, farm-aceuticals, and new forms of stress resistance will prove
to be viable technologies in the field, capable of reinvigorating the
major corporate excitement of the 1990s concerning the profitability of
Beyond profitability, according to agricultural agbiotech's most
enthusiastic proponents, the real future of transgenic crops is in feeding
the world. According to Norman Borlaug, founder of the Green Revolution
and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize for Peace, the need for growing more
and more food is still very real. Here again, the potential of agbiotech
remains to be seen.
References (1) Agricultural Outlook, Sept 2002;
www.ers.usda.gov/publications/ AgOutlook/Archives. (2) Harvest on the
Horizon: Future Uses of Agricultural Biotechnology 2001;
http://pewagbiotech.org/research. (3) Information Systems for
Biotechnology (ISB) News Report, Dec 2002; www.isb.vt.edu. (4) ISB News
Report, Oct 2002; www.isb.vt.edu. (5) ISB News Report, Nov 2002;
www.isb.vt.edu. (6) Garg, A. K.; et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A.
2002, 99 (25), 15898?15903. (7) Vogel, G. Science 2002, 298, 2106.
Mark S. Lesney is a senior associate editor of Today's Chemist at Work.
Making the Move Into Science Policy
- Virginia Gewin, Nature 422, v.453 p 52; March 27, 2003,
For Leah Goldfarb, an invitation to work in science policy was written in
the sky. After following the negotiations for the Montreal Protocol -- the
landmark international agreement to protect the stratospheric ozone layer
-- she chose to do her PhD work at the University of Colorado, Boulder, on
atmospheric chemistry. "I knew I wanted to do science that was relevant to
society," says Goldfarb.
Working with UC Boulder faculty involved in national and international
discussions on climate and ozone kindled her desire to work in science
policy rather than policy-relevant science. Work with a climate-modelling
research group got her to Paris, where she soon found her present position
as a science officer for the environment and sustainable development at
the International Council for Science (ICSU). As problems such as climate
change and desertification become more apparent, many European scientists
are taking an interest in science policy. But how do they find work in
Like Goldfarb, many start out doing science for organizations involved in
social issues, before their concern leads them towards helping to shape
policy. Scientific societies, international organizations, charities,
lobby groups, government bodies and non-governmental organizations all
need specialists working on science policy.
Others join independent think-tanks, to advise official bodies from the
outside. Some even create their own science-policy positions by setting up
a think-tank, or acting as independent advisers. But before anyone takes
the plunge into policy, veterans say they should consider what they wish
to do in the long term: whether they want to move back and forth between
science and policy, or make the decision to leave one world for the other.
Short Term. One way to test the water is to take a short-term position.
These are often available for scientists with specific technical knowledge
and policy interests. This may also offer the opportunity to work abroad,
with international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the
Thomas Rosswall, executive director of ICSU, applauds the increasing
number of opportunities for people with experience in policy-relevant,
interdisciplinary science. Short-term positions at ICSU come up
periodically and offer training in international policy. As the invited
'voice' of the scientific community at the World Summit on Sustainable
Development meetings in Rio de Janeiro, ICSU enables trainees to get a
bird's-eye view of policy development and become part of the network of
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recruits
scientists for short-term, project-based positions that deal with
legislation or public awareness of specific issues. Opportunities vary by
country. "Many parliaments do not even have science committees," says
Mustafa El Tayeb, director of UNESCO's science analysis and policies
The European Parliament's Scientific and Technological Options Assessment
office offers a limited number of opportunities for short-term work
experience. Its Ramón y Cajal scholarships are available to scientists and
engineers, but unpaid research visits can be arranged as well.
Some countries are promoting interactions between scientists and
policy-makers at the national level. In the United Kingdom some ten formal
fellowships, each lasting three to six months, are funded by scientific
societies, research councils and the Parliamentary Office of Science and
Technology. The fellows provide briefings on scientific issues to members
of parliament (MPs).
Another option for experienced scientists is to be appointed a committee
specialist for the House of Commons or the House of Lords, to advise their
specialist committees. These are full-time paid positions lasting up to
four years. The Royal Society has set up a short-term pairing scheme in
which a scientist shadows an MP for one or two weeks. In turn, the MP
visits the scientist's lab. The hope is that each will then better
understand the demands and constraints of their two worlds. Researchers
will appreciate the parliamentary timetable, while the MP will become
acquainted with the scientific community and its work.
Researcher-led think-tanks have popped up all over Europe to provide
policy-makers with scientific advice. The US think-tank RAND has been
advising policy-makers through research and analysis since 1948, and has
European branches in Cambridge, Berlin and Leiden, the Netherlands.
Relative newcomers include the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research
in Norwich, UK; the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and
Energy in Wuppertal, Germany; and the International Institute for Applied
Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria.
These are creating jobs. Mike Hulme, executive director of the Tyndall
Centre, hires a few postdocs each year to conduct research. Within the
entire organization -- a collaboration of nine research institutions and
three UK research councils -- there can be up to 80 postdocs. Research at
Tyndall includes assessing viable options for reducing carbon dioxide
emissions and examining society's options for adapting to unavoidable
Mixed Terms. Opinions differ over the usefulness of scientists leaving
science for policy. "Looking at the big picture -- you don't want
transfers of people from science into policy, you want a temporary shift,"
says Jonathan Grant, a health-policy specialist at RAND. "You want
circulation." Some say that the most useful result of short-term exposure
is for scientists to return to the bench with a greater understanding of
Those who stay in policy may have to make sacrifices. "There is clearly a
lack of structure, and little professional incentive for developing your
career," says David Stanners, programme manager for strategic development
and international cooperation at the European Environment Agency. But for
some, such sacrifices are worthwhile. Goldfarb was happy about leaving the
lab, but she passes on a warning she received when she switched from
atmospheric chemist to science-policy officer. "Once you leap into science
policy it's hard to get back into science," she says.
International Council for Science
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
World Health Organization
United Kingdom Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology
European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options Assessment