Today in AgBioView: April 4, 2003
* Food Science Hindered by Extremists
* People Need GM Crops: Nobel Prize Winner
* Australia Set for Huge Change with GM Crops
* Biotech Regulations Impede Crop Domestication
* Genomics, Genetic Engineering, and Domestication of Crops
* UK: FoE's Attack on Farm Evaluations Totally Spurious - CropGen
* Super Crop Yields Top List of Key Agricultural Events in Last 50 Years
* Biotechnology Roundtable - Biopharming and Biosafety
* Gene Flow Assessment in GM Plants
* Course in Biotech Policy?
* Re: Europeans Seek Tighter Controls on Food Names
* Telling the DNA 'Secret': Gene Pioneer Demystifies Double Helix
Food Science Hindered by Extremists
- Canberra Times (Australia), April 4, 2003
'People should be concerned not with genetic engineering but with issues
such as access to and control of it, says Norman Borlaug'
Most agricultural scientists, including myself, anticipate great benefits
from biotechnology to help meet our future needs for food and fibre. In
the past 20 years, biotechnology has developed invaluable new scientific
methodologies and products which need active financial and organisational
support to bring to fruition. So far, biotechnology has had the greatest
impact in medicine and public health. However, there are fascinating
developments in agriculture.
Transgenic varieties and hybrids of cotton, maize and potatoes containing
genes from Bacillus thuringiensis that effectively control a number of
serious insect pests are now being successfully introduced commercially.
The use of such varieties will greatly reduce the need for insecticides.
Considerable progress also has been made in the development of transgenic
plants of cotton, maize, canola, soybeans, sugar beet and wheat. The
development of these plants could lead to a reduction in overall herbicide
use. Not only will this lower production costs; it also has important
Good progress has been made in developing cereal varieties with greater
tolerance for soil alkalinity, free aluminium and iron toxicities. These
varieties will help to ameliorate the soil degradation problems that have
developed in many irrigation systems. They will also allow agriculture to
succeed in acidic soil areas, thus adding more arable land to the global
There are also hopeful signs that we will be able to improve
fertiliser-use efficiency by genetically engineering wheat and other crops
to have high levels of Glu dehydrogenase. Transgenic wheats with high Glu
dehydrogenase, for example, yield up to 29 per cent more with the same
amount of fertiliser.
Other promising genes for disease resistance are being incorporated into
other crop species through transgenic manipulations.
I would like to share one dream that I hope scientists will achieve in the
not-too-distant future. Rice is the only cereal that has immunity to the
Puccinia sp. of rust. Imagine the benefits if the genes for rust immunity
in rice could be transferred into wheat, barley, oats, maize, millet and
sorghum. The world would finally be free of the scourge of the rusts,
which have led to so many famines over human history.
This is the power of new science.
Because most of the genetic engineering research is being done by the
private sector, which patents its inventions, agricultural policy-makers
must face a potentially serious problem. How will those resource-poor
farmers of the world be able to gain access to the products of
biotechnology research? How long, and under what terms, should patents be
granted for bioengineered products?
Furthermore, the high cost of biotechnology research is leading to rapid
consolidation in the ownership of agricultural life-science companies. Is
These issues are matters for serious consideration by national, regional
and global governmental organisations. First and foremost, governments
must establish regulatory frameworks to guide the testing and use of
genetically modified crops. These rules and regulation should be
reasonable in terms of risk aversion and implementation costs.
The world has, or will soon have, the agricultural technology available to
feed the 8.3 billion people anticipated in the next quarter of a century.
The more pertinent question today is whether farmers will be permitted to
use that technology.
Extremists in the environmental movement, largely from rich nations and/or
the privileged strata of society in poor nations, seem to be doing
everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. It is sad
that some scientists have also jumped on the extremist environmental
bandwagon in search of research funds.
When scientists align themselves with anti-science political movements, or
lend their name to unscientific propositions, what are we to think? Is it
any wonder that science is losing its constituency? We must be on guard
against politically opportunistic, pseudo-scientists.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to the environmental movement over the past
40 years. This movement has led to legislation to improve air and water
quality, protect wildlife, control the disposal of toxic wastes, protect
the soils, and reduce the loss of biodiversity. It is ironic, therefore,
that the platform of the antibiotechnology extremists, if it were to be
adopted, would have grievous consequences for both the environment and
Had 1961 average world cereal yields (1531kg per hectare) still prevailed,
nearly 850 million hectares of additional land would have been needed to
equal the 1999 cereal harvest (2.06 billion gross metric tonnes). Clearly
such a surplus of land was not available, and certainly not in populous
Even if it were available, think of the soil erosion and the loss of
forests, grasslands and wildlife that would have resulted had we tried to
produce these larger harvests with the older, low-input technology.
Nevertheless, the anti-biotechnology zealots continue to wage their
campaigns of propaganda and vandalism. That the European Union, for
example, placed a moratorium on genetically modified imports says little
per se about food safety, but says more about consumer concerns, largely
the result of unsubstantiated scare-mongering.
The fact is that genetic modification began long before humankind started
altering crops by artificial selection. Mother Nature did it, and often in
a big way. For example, the wheat groups we rely on for much of our food
supply are the result of unusual (but natural) crosses between different
species of grasses.
Today's bread wheat is the result of the hybridisation of three different
plant genomes, each containing a set of seven chromosomes, and thus could
easily be classified as transgenic. Neolithic humans domesticated
virtually all of our food and livestock species over a relatively short
period 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.
Several hundred generations of farmer descendants were subsequently
responsible for making enormous genetic modifications in all of our major
crop and animal species. There has been no credible scientific evidence to
suggest that the ingestion of transgenic products is injurious to human
health or the environment.
So far, the most prestigious national academies of science, and now even
the Vatican, have come out in support of genetic engineering to improve
the quantity, quality and availability of food supplies.
The more important matters of concern for civil societies should be equity
issues related to genetic ownership and control and access to transgenic
One of the great challenges facing society in the 21st century will be a
renewal and broadening of scientific education at all age levels that
keeps pace with the times. Nowhere is it more important for knowledge to
confront fear born of ignorance than in the production of food, still the
basic human activity.
Norman Borlaug is a plant scientist and the 1970 Nobel Prize Laureate for
People Need GM Crops: Nobel Prize Winner
- NineMSN (Australia), April 2003 http://news.ninemsn.com.au/
The world's people and the environment needed scientists to embrace
genetically modified crops, a former Nobel prize winner said. Norman
Borlaug, whose research into wheat helped lead to the green revolution of
the 1960s, said scientists should not be afraid to use biotechnology to
create new crops.
And he attacked the environmental movement, arguing its criticism of new
agricultural technologies was actually hurting its goals of ecosystem and
forest protection. Debate over GM crops has heightened this week after
gene technology regulator Sue Meek found there were no health or
environmental problems with a proposed genetically altered variety of
canola. If the canola is approved, which is likely to happen in about
eight weeks, it would become the first GM food crop grown in Australia.
Dr Borlaug said he and other scientists had been roundly criticised about
the advent of new varieties of wheat and rice when they started to appear
in the 1960s. But without those new varieties, billions of people would be
without food while the landscape would be denuded, he said. To produce the
same amount of grains with pre-1960 varieties of plants would require an
additional 1.1 billion hectares of arable land.
Dr Borlaug said more breakthroughs were needed in crop technology, and
these would include the use of GM. He said with those breakthroughs, more
of the world could be fed and vast tracts of the environment could be
saved from being turned into farmland. "It has an important role to play,"
he told a conference at the CSIRO. "When we see, for example, how
biotechnology has been used, especially at the present time in cotton
production and in soya beans for the control of weeds, this gives me great
Dr Borlaug said every time there was a change in agriculture, complaints
were made that it would lead to environmental and health problems. But the
lifespans of people continued to increase on the back of better and more
food. "As we search for better and safer environment in our food system I
think it behoves us all to remember that there is no zero risk in the
biological world," he said. "A new invention generally brings with it fear
of that risk being too high that we shouldn't adopt it."
GM opponents have argued it is unsafe to release the new technology
without more research, saying a precautionary principle towards food
testing is needed. Dr Borlaug said the precautionary principle was an
excuse by the anti-GM lobby to stop the technology. He said scientists had
to fight the precautionary principle because it would stop new food and
"This is being used as a blockage for the use of biotechnology, and all of
you who are involved, to sit quietly and not explain the scientific
debate, you're going to contribute us having certain extremists take
over," he said.
Australia Set for Huge Change with GM Crops
- AAP Newsfeed, April 4, 2003
Every spring, rural Australia comes alive with fields of gold. The
flowering canola not only brighten the countryside, but are worth almost
$800 million in exports. But a decision this week by the Office of the
Gene Technology Regulator is set to change the way we grow canola - and,
indeed, every other crop.
At stake is the very future of Australian farming and the way crops are
sold overseas. Gene technology regulator Sue Meek is effectively the guard
watching over the release of genetically modified (GM) products - from
crops to viruses. Dr Meek, after nine months of study, has found there is
no health or environmental problem with a genetically altered canola.
If formally approved, likely in about eight weeks' time, Bayer CropScience
would become the first producer of a genetically altered food crop grown
in Australia. Every canola plant carries about 30,000 genes - about the
same number as a human. Bayer has added four genes to make its canola
resistant to a herbicide called glufosinate ammonium and to increase the
plant's virility so as to boost crop yields. But the move has sparked a
furore among farmers, environmentalists and scientists about Australia's
tentative step into the world of GM agriculture.
Officially, farmers support GM crops. The National Farmers Federation and
the Grains Council of Australia have both enthusiastically backed GM as
the way of the future.
A University of Melbourne report this week estimated GM canola would add
$135 million a year to farmers' back pockets because of increased
production in both canola and wheat. Agriculture Minister Warren Truss has
also publicly championed the new technology. "I think that in time the
public will be accepting and it will be the face of agriculture in the
future," Mr Truss said.
Overseas farmers, especially those in Canada, the United States and parts
of South America, are also on the GM bandwagon. Last year, the total
global area of land growing GM crops increased 12 per cent to 60 million
But Australian farmers are not convinced. A survey last month by rural
group Kondinin found just 19 per cent of farmers in support of GM crops.
Almost half of the those surveyed fear GM crops would jeopardise
Australia's access into non-GM markets. The Shepherds Cooperative, based
in the southern NSW city of Wagga Wagga, has 300 members who produce about
20 per cent of the state's canola crop. A survey of these members failed
to find one GM canola supporter.
Cooperative chief executive Scott Bradley said farmers believed gene
technology would eventually bring benefits, but not in the case of the GM
canola proposed by Bayer or fellow chemical multinational Monsanto. He
said no grain-handling company had a system to segregate GM from non-GM
crops and there appeared to be no benefits to farmers from Bayer's canola.
"Farmers will take up GM if there is a benefit, like attacking diseases
that are a problem, rather than what is proposed here," Mr Bradley said.
Another major concern for farmers is ultimate ownership of their crop.
Most farmers conserve seed from their harvest to ensure they can plant the
following season. But as the intellectual property rights are owned by
companies such as Bayer, farmers have to pay a special fee every year they
plant a GM crop.
As has happened in Canada, farmers who inadvertently end up with GM plants
growing in their non-GM crop can be financially liable for the new
technology. "If some goes into your neighbour's crop, then Bayer owns that
crop" Mr Bradley said.
This fear about the inability of farmers to keep traditional crops free of
their GM counterparts is one the proposed regulations governing the new
technology has failed to address. At this stage, there will be just five
metres between GM and non-GM crops.
A member of the Network of Concerned Farmers, Scott Kinnear, said there
had been no thought given to the costs and problems farmers with
traditional crops would face. He said it would be such a big problem,
traditional crop farmers would simply say they were growing GM crops.
"Farmers will deliberately sell their non-GM crop as GM because it will be
easier and to avoid all the problems they'll face if they wanted to stay
GM free," he said.
Mr Kinnear said Bayer's canola would actually increase herbicide use and
offered no benefits to farmers or the environment. It would ultimately
pose a threat to Australia's overseas markets, which may close their doors
to GM crops. Although this is a common claim, only Europe - to which
Australia sells little grain - has so far banned GM crop imports.
Japan mixes its Canadian canola - which is 70 per cent GM - with non-GM
canola from Australia. Meanwhile, the battle over GM canola is the
precursor to what will be an even bigger fight - genetically altered
wheat. More than 12 million hectares of land is sown to wheat every year,
while the crop itself is worth almost $6 billion.
Canola normally ends up in margarine and cooking oils - wheat is the basis
for most basic foodstuffs. GM wheat is only one or two years away. Then
the fight won't be over the nation's golden fields, but over almost all of
Biotech Regulations Impede Crop Domestication
- Oregon State University, April 3, 2003 (From Agnet)
Corvallis – An increasing amount of genetic engineering in agriculture
closely resembles the conventional crop breeding that has been done for
thousands of years, and unnecessarily stringent regulation of this type of
gene research is choking off its usefulness, one expert says in a new
policy forum in Science.
Government regulations that lump all types of genetic engineering
together, instead of making reasonable distinctions between differing
technologies, is stifling research, favors the efforts of large and
wealthy corporations, and does little or nothing to protect the public
safety, says Steven Strauss, a professor of forest science at Oregon State
In a policy report to be published Friday in Science, one of the leading
international journals of scientific research, Strauss argues that the
time has come to dramatically reduce the level of government regulations
when genetic engineering is based on "native or homologous" genes, or
those commonly found within related plant species. This could free up the
energies of small companies and university scientists to produce valuable
new products, continue the green revolution into new areas, and can be
done with very high levels of environmental safety, he said.
"For centuries with conventional crop breeding we created plants that
never before existed in nature, and no one thought twice about it,"
Strauss said. "Now, as it becomes increasingly easier and less expensive
to map out the genomes of different crop plants, we have an opportunity to
make similar and more precisely designed types of changes with genetic
engineering. But the current environment of regulations and oversight is
making this almost impossible for all but large, wealthy companies."
In the early days of genetic engineering, Strauss said, it was in fact
more common for very unusual genes to be inserted into a plant that never
would have naturally contained such a trait – for instance, a gene for
herbicide resistance into a corn plant. The advent of inexpensive genomic
mapping has opened many new doors, he said. "Now, it's much more possible
to take different genetic characteristics of a grain crop, for instance,
and pinpoint the traits you want to turn on or off, create different types
of crops with improved characteristics," Strauss said.
"Conceptually, this is the same thing we've been doing on a hit-or-miss
basis with conventional crop breeding for centuries," he said. "For
instance, creating crops that grew faster, were more nutritious or had
seedless fruits. But now we can target our goals much more specifically
and achieve the types of products we're looking for much more quickly."
When this is all being done within the same plant or closely related
species, Strauss said, history suggests that it poses virtually no
environmental hazard, and there's no need to make such a dramatic
distinction between crops created with conventional breeding or those
created with genetic engineering.
Many of the types of traits selected for agricultural purposes, such as
dwarf fruit trees, seedless fruits or male-sterile hybrids, often have
little in the way of competitive survival value in a natural environment,
Strauss said, and thus pose very little danger of "invading" ecosystems.
But decades of work with conventional crop breeding has shown that even
plants with some types of increased survival value on farms, such as
improved pest tolerance, have no increased success in invading a wild
Right now, Strauss said, government agencies regulate all genetically
modified organisms, or GMOs, pretty much the same – a plant that has been
genetically engineered to grow shorter faces similar regulatory hurdles as
a plant that has been genetically engineered to produce a novel protein.
This ignores the widely different potential that two different GMOs may
have for the risks people are genuinely concerned about – nutritional
safety, invasive potential or secondary ecological impacts.
"The net effect of this stringent regulatory environment is that many
incremental advances in crop research are not being pursued, and the field
tests needed to determine value to farmers and society are often avoided,"
Strauss said. "It's too expensive, risky and complex, especially for small
companies and academic researchers."
A better approach, Strauss said in the report, would be for the USDA's
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to make some initial
evaluations of the type of changes being done with genetic engineering and
the nature of the genes being changed. They could then inject a little
common sense and much less regulation into the process if it becomes clear
that a project has a similar level of environmental safety to conventional
crop breeding. After review, he said, some types of field tests should be
exempt from further regulation.
Another effect of the current regulatory environment, Strauss argues, is
to largely force out of business all but the largest and most powerful
companies that can afford the costly field tests. "Small companies and
academic scientists have much they could contribute to this field, and the
cumulative public benefits could be enormous, but the costs are often just
too overwhelming for them," Strauss said. "We need to democratize this
industry, and we need to start delivering to the public the benefits of
biotechnology on a wider basis."
Strauss is an international leader in the use of genetic engineering in
trees and has taught classes on biotechnology issues in society.
Genomics, Genetic Engineering, and Domestication of Crops
- Steven H. Strauss, Science, Vol. 300, No. 5616, April 4, 2003, pp.
Genomic sequencing projects are rapidly revealing the content and
organization of crop genomes. By isolating a gene from its background and
deliberately modifying its expression, genetic engineering allows the
impacts of all genes on their biochemical networks and organismal
phenotypes to be discerned, regardless of their level of natural
polymorphism. This greatly increases the ability to determine gene
function and, thus, to identify new options for crop domestication. The
organismal functions of the large majority of genes in genomic databases
At the same time, however, government regulatory regimes are making field
studies of genetically engineered (GE) plants needed to understand gene
function in the context of normal plant development increasingly
difficult. These regimes have been created largely because of biosafety
issues raised by genes imported from distant species. However, they have
been applied to asexually introduced genes whose source and effects
resemble those of traditional breeding. This imposes large costs that
impede the delivery of public benefits from genomics research.
The first wave of widely planted transgenic crops expressed traits that
were encoded by exogenous (bacterial or viral), gain-of-function genes
such as those for herbicide or pest resistance. Their action depended on
the solitary effects of single proteins that were virtually independent of
plant metabolism. By transferring functions between phylogenetically
divergent organisms, these genes imparted traits that could not be readily
obtained from traditional breeding. This created transgenic plants with
very high agronomic and environmental value but also raised difficult
questions because of their ecological and evolutionary novelty.
In contrast, genomics-guided transgenes (GGT) will increasingly be based
on native or homologous genes from related species. Such genes will often
modify metabolism in a manner similar to that of natural or induced
mutations, but it should be possible to create desired phenotypes with
greater precision and efficiency. Dominant alleles important to
agricultural goals, but poorly represented in breeding populations because
they are rare or deleterious to wild progenitors, can be created and
inserted into varied kinds of germplasm. Traits that have already been
genetically engineered in this manner include diverse modifications to
plant reproduction, stature, and lipid and lignocellulose chemistry. The
improvements achieved via GGTs should be comparable to or of greater value
than those obtained via traditional breeding approaches that have achieved
wide public acceptance, and have been free of calls for government
Field trials are important for identifying useful GGTs and provide several
biosafety mechanisms. GGT modifications will generally be achieved by
altering the function or expression of key regulatory molecules that
influence plant development, including enzymes, transcription factors, and
signal transducers. Organismal regulatory systems are expected to be under
strong stabilizing selection due to natural selection and their high
degree of internal complexity. Strong modifications to such systems are
therefore likely to be deleterious to fitness in wild environments.
The limited scale of release from small field trials provides a large
safety buffer for transgenes that produce deleterious, neutral, or even
mildly beneficial changes in fitness. For a recombinant gene from a field
trial to invade and therefore have a significant environmental
consequence, it must overcome the huge numerical obstacle that is normally
provided by extant wild and domesticated gene pools. Despite the great
diversity of genes that can comprise GGTs, many of the modified traits are
familiar, having a long history of domestication and consequent reduced
fitness through artificial selection. Male sterility, seedless fruits,
delayed spoilage, and dwarf stature are familiar examples.
GGTs that improve abiotic stress tolerance of crops, including tolerance
of cold, heat, salt, and drought, would appear to pose a higher risk of
spread in the environment than domestication traits. However,
physiological considerations and breeding experience suggest this might
not be the case. Alterations of regulatory genes that control pathways
related to tolerance of abiotic stresses often have complex antagonistic
effects on other dimensions of fitness. Natural adaptations to highly
stressful environments, including the C4 pathway of carbon fixation, often
involve multiple physiological mechanisms controlled by sets of
elaborately regulated genes. Manipulations of one or a few genes to
promote stress-tolerance in agronomic environments may therefore not
significantly elevate fitness in wild plants and could even do the
Despite intensive direct and indirect breeding for abiotic and biotic
stress- tolerance in annual crops, where populations or species adapted to
highly diverse ecological conditions are hybridized, inbred, and
effectively cloned, there appear to be no known cases where populations
that are substantially more invasive in the wild were generated as a
consequence. It appears that wild plants achieve stress resistance
differently from crops bred for high yield under agricultural conditions.
Field trials need to be conducted in the early stages of research and
development to identify valuable GGTs. The differences in crop physiology
in field versus laboratory and greenhouse environments are well known.
Anticipated benefits, as well as unexpected pleiotropic effects, may be
missed if field trials are avoided at this stage. Because of large
variation in plant phenotype as a result of transgene configuration (e.g.,
promoters), chromosomal site, host variety, soil, climate, and their many
complex interactions, studies need to include many insertion events,
years, and locations. This is especially true for transgenes that impart
complex phenotypes such as abiotic stress resistance. In contrast, the
first wave of transgenic traits, largely pest and herbicide resistance,
could be evaluated to a high degree of confidence in artificial
environments because their expression was little changed by growth
In many parts of the world, however, conducting adequate field tests is
extremely difficult. Many European countries stringently limit all but a
few kinds of recombinant field trials (i.e., those for major crops and
transgenes that have very high economic value to companies). Except for
China and a few other countries with sophisticated biotechnology research
programs, developing countries generally lack the research infrastructure,
or effective regulatory institutions, for extensive field tests. In the
United States, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental
Protection Agency regulations permit many kinds of field tests to be
undertaken, so long as performance standards are followed that provide
high levels of confinement (e.g., large crop borders and separation
distances), and there is sufficient infrastructure in place to allow
regulatory procedures to be monitored. However, the time span and expense
of rigorous field studies that conform to regulations often far exceed the
resources available to genomics researchers, particularly academic
scientists funded by research grants.
The possibility of vandalism and the threat of attacks on personal
property associated with publication of field trial notices can be
intimidating to researchers and institutions. They may necessitate large
investments in security systems and, because of the potential for arson,
may pose substantial risk for personal and institutional liabilities.
Increasing concerns over legal and public perception impacts from
low-level contamination of food crops especially by industrial feedstock
or pharmaceutical-producing crops, even if of negligible health or
environmental consequence, may require that costly measures are put in
place to restrict gene flow from all kinds of GE crop trials, or that
field test sites are placed in isolated, difficult-to-reach places.
For transgenes that produce a domestication trait and are in a small-scale
trial (see table below, Type 1), the degree of intrinsic environmental
safety seems sufficiently high that most trials could, perhaps after an
initial USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)
notification and review, be exempted from continued regulatory oversight.
This exemption assumes that linked transgenic sequences, such as
selectable markers or other pieces of transferred DNA, are acceptable
(online fig. S1). This would likely be the case in the U.S.A. for an
intensively studied gene like nptII (resistance to the antibiotic
kanamycin), which has been deemed acceptable for food use and entry into
the environment on a large scale.
Where there is a concern about gene movement and possible invasive
properties, more detailed data on both extent of confinement and fitness
effects could be required, particularly for larger tests. This might be
the case where an abiotic stress- resistance gene, under the control of a
physiologically appropriate promoter, appears to improve stress resistance
substantially and without negative pleiotropic effects in field or
laboratory environments. The degree of domestication of the crop, the
social value of the GGT, and the characteristics of the test environment
(e.g., proximity and weediness of wild relatives), are also important in
decisions about regulation and data collection.
The U.S. National Research Council and its parent body, the National
Academy of Sciences, have issued three major reports that identified
traits, rather than the method of production, as the key factor for
consideration of risks of GE plants. Until recently, this distinction was
mostly academic, as there were very few introduced genes, and most were of
exotic origin and conferred novel phenotypes. Genomics is changing this
significantly. It is allowing breeders to generate similar kinds of traits
to those sought conventionally by targeting the underlying genes. These
kinds of GGT traits--particularly those that impart obvious domestication
phenotypes or utilize native or homologous genes--should require far less
oversight by government regulators, especially at the field-testing stage.
Decisions about which traits are sufficiently domesticating or homologous
in mechanism to consider suitable for exemption will not always be simple.
However, a logical starting point might be to consider the extent of
diversity likely to be present in relatives of crop plants. Where novel
biochemical pathways or distinct kinds of proteins are added that are
unknown within a crop genus, a strong scientific rationale or new
experimental data about its domesticating effect and food safety would
need to be presented to qualify for exemption. Regardless of exemption at
the field-trial stage, it is expected that data on environmental and food
safety would need to be presented before commercial release was permitted.
By facilitating field trials, however, relaxed regulation of GGTs will
help in collection of high-quality safety data.
Regulations that distinguish between classes of recombinant plants may
decrease some public condemnation of agricultural GE. If regulatory costs
and hurdles were significantly reduced, it might promote GE crop
development by small companies and public sector investigators. Given the
widespread suspicion of the power and ethics of many large corporations,
and the major role that this social skepticism has played in the
controversy over GE crops, such "democratization" of biotechnology might
be as important as biological advances in promoting public approval of GE
in agriculture. (See original paper for references)
UK: FoE's Attack on Validity of Farm Scale Evaluations Totally Spurious
April 3, 2003 - The Friends of the Earth's (FoE) report into the Farm
Scale Evaluations (Science as a Smokescreen) is a spurious, naïve and
cynical attempt at a pre-emptive strike.
The claim that the trials - the result of which are due to be published in
September - will be of limited value because critical components of the
arable ecosystem are not included is inaccurate. The data set collected in
these trials is 300% bigger than anything collected in ecological
experiments in the past.
Information from 272 fields is being included in the analyses. As
explained by Firbank et al this colossal data set embraces an extensive
range of plant and invertebrate genera and species, covering all key
It is true that some soil organisms are not included in the trials but
this was not because there were 'insufficient resources' as claimed by
FoE. Rather, as Firbank explains, it is because variations are unlikely to
These experiments will provide a sound basis on which to assess likely
impact of the two treatments (GMHT vs conventional crops) on the ecosystem
as a whole. The research concentrates on invertebrates and plants but will
provide strong evidence for the anticipated effects on birds and mammals.
This type of approach is firmly established within the ecological
literature and is well validated.
FoE suggest that whatever the outcome of the experiments, those advising
on the herbicide use on the GM part of the field would have deliberately
reduced the level of herbicide used to reduce the performance of the
product. This shows a naïve grasp of the realities of weed control. It is
hard enough to advise on high levels of weed control and far, far more
difficult to advise on partial weed control as suggested by FoE. It just
is not realistic to propose such a scenario.
The report suggests that the crops may have been farmed for 'biodiversity'
and not yield. This is a ridiculous assumption. The farmers needed the
yield from the crops to ensure a reasonable income. They would never have
manipulated their weed control practices deliberately to reduce their
yields. It would have been nonsensical. Farmers have a justifiable pride
in producing healthy weed-free crops and it would have been extremely
difficult to force them deliberately to create weedy fields.
The review also suggests that the treatments used on the GMHT maize were
not commercially relevant, as farmers in the USA were now starting to use
sequences of herbicides rather than single use of glyphosate or
glufosinate. It is unreasonable to extrapolate from totally different
farming systems, climates and weed spectra. This is another attempt by the
FoE to cover both conclusions that could arise from the FSE trials.
Firbank et al., (2003) An introduction to the Farm-Scale Evaluation of
genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops. Journal of Applied Ecology,
40, 2-16. Perry et al., (2003). Design, analysis and statistical power of
the Farm-Scale Evaluation of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant
crops. Journal of Applied Ecology, 40, 17-31
Revolutionary Crop Yields Top List of Key Agricultural Events During Last
- AgNews,Texas A&M Univ, April 3, 2003
Washington, D.C. – The most important change in agriculture in the past 50
years, say members of North American Agricultural Journalists, was the
hybridization and improvement of many crops.
A list of 40 important events and changes in agriculture was prepared for
NAAJ by three leading agricultural historians: R. Douglas Hurt of Iowa
State University, C. Fred Williams of the University of Arkansas at Little
Rock, and David Vaught of Texas A&M University. NAAJ members then voted on
the top 10 developments in agriculture during the past 50 years. The
results were released Sunday at the 50th anniversary meeting of NAAJ in
Hybridization is the process of inbreeding plants, then crossing their
offspring to create stronger, higher yielding varieties. Hybrid corn was
developed long before NAAJ was formed in 1953. Plant scientists were
experimenting with it at the turn of the 20th century, and hybrid corn
began to be sold commercially in the 1920s, noted Dan Looker, Successful
Farming magazine writer and project organizer.
"But during the past 50 years, the combination of hybrid crops, cheap farm
chemicals derived from fossil fuels, and mechanization has created a
technological revolution in agriculture that has helped feed billions of
people on the planet," he said.
When NAAJ founded 50 years ago, the average corn yield in the United
States was 40.7 bushels per acre. Last year, even after a severe drought
in many states, hybrid corn helped U.S. farmers harvest an average of 130
bushels an acre, Looker said. "Hybridization accounts for about half of
that huge increase in yields as well as corn's improved ability to
withstand drought," he said.
Here are the events and developments of the past 50 years that
agricultural journalists picked, in order of importance:
1. Hybridization and other improvements of crops.
2. Genetically modified crops that have been engineered to kill insect
pests and tolerate herbicides. Most U.S. farmers adopted this technology
in less than a decade, starting in the 1990s. Some consumer groups,
especially in Europe, oppose modifying crops through genetic engineering.
3. The discovery of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the chemical building
block of heredity, by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. These
researchers discovered the ladder-like double helix structure of DNA,
helping to start the biotechnology revolution now underway.
4. Norman Borlaug's "Green Revolution." Plant breeder Borlaug, who won the
Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and now teaches at Texas A&M, developed high
yielding dwarf wheat varieties that helped turn Third World countries such
as India into food exporters. The wheat varieties were introduced into
India and Pakistan in 1965. Borlaug's work helped prevent starvation and
malnutrition across the globe.
5. The agricultural debt crisis of the 1980s, which started when the
Federal Reserve Bank encouraged higher interest rates to slow inflation.
This forced many full-time family farms out of business, created rural
bank failures and crippled small towns.
6. The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring." Carson,
a nature writer and former marine biologist, documented how the
insecticide DDT accumulates in the environment and harms mammals and
birds. Her book helped start the environmental movement.
7. The use of antibiotics for livestock and poultry, approved by the Food
and Drug Administration nearly 50 years ago. Adding antibiotics to the
feed of hogs and chickens not only prevents diseases, it makes the animals
grow faster. And it makes it easier to confine them in large buildings
with fewer disease outbreaks. Medical research has also identified overuse
of antibiotics in livestock production as one reason antibiotics are
becoming less effective medicines for humans.
8. Tie. NAAJ members gave equal votes to two developments: the adoption of
no-till farming, which avoids plowing and slows soil erosion, and the fact
that the farm population dropped below 2 percent of U.S. population for
the first time during the 1990s.
9. The adoption of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, a cheap source of
nitrogen fertilizer made by using natural gas. Until anhydrous ammonia was
adopted in the 1950s, farmers relied on animal manure and leguminous
plants such as clover to provide this key plant food. Without cheap
nitrogen, the high yields of hybrid corn and dwarf wheat would not have
10. Integration of the poultry industry. Most farmers once owned a few
chickens to raise for meat and eggs. In the 1960s, once chickens could be
confined in large buildings thanks to antibiotics and abundant cheap corn,
the ownership of chickens gradually concentrated with a few companies.
Those companies pay farmers a fee for each bird they raise for the
company. A similar process of vertical integration is taking place today
in the hog industry.
NAAJ members identified several other key trends that weren't on the
historians' lists. They include the increasing mechanization of
agriculture in general. For example, mechanical tomato pickers (which were
on the list but didn't make the top 10) became popular in the 1960s. The
U.S. grain export boom of the 1970s that followed sales to the former
Soviet Union in 1972, was another key event. So was elimination of rail
freight subsidies for grain in Canada, which led to more exports of
Canadian crops and livestock into the United States.
NAAJ was formed as Newspaper Farm Editors of America. Today the group
represents about 100 newspaper, magazine and news service writers who
cover agriculture in the United States and Canada.
Biotechnology Roundtable - Biopharming and Biosafety
-St. Louis, MO, May 21, 2003, American Bar Association
The Section's Agricultural Management Committee has developed this program
in cooperation with the Council for Agricultural Science & Technology,
CropLife America, and the American Agricultural Law Association. Fifth in
a series of roundtable discussions on biotech crops, this roundtable will
feature top scientists and policymakers and attorneys analyzing the latest
twists in the debate over international biotechnology regulation.
Scientists, activists, food producers, growers and biotech companies will
present their views on the risks and benefits of biotech crops. Learn
http://www.abanet.org/environ/programs/bioroundtable/ more about the
roundtable and register
- Thomas P. Redick
Gene Flow Assessment in GM Plants
- Crop Biotech Update March 21, 2003, http://www.isaaa.org/kc
The potential risk of gene flow has to be assessed case by case and
caution is necessary when making general conclusions. Gene flow and
introgression will happen to some extent. Jaquima Messeguer of Centre de
Cabrils, in Barcelona, Spain made this conclusion in her review of major
studies on gene flow assessment.
Messequer notes that in some particular crops, containment strategies can
greatly reduce the risk of gene flow through cross-pollination. However,
it would be very difficult to control the appearance of transgenic
volunteers due to the seed dropped, blown or inadvertedly planted during
harvest and conventional management practices. She adds however, that
during the time that transgenic crops have been released into the
environment, there was no consistent evidence that their release had been
more dangerous to the environment than traditional plant breeding crops.
The lady scientist stresses that "genetic transformation is a potent tool
whose efficiency cannot be annulled by the possible risk of gene flow.
"Hence, the need for conservation of the environment which also applies to
traditional agricultural practices. "Knowledge acquired in recent decades
has to be applied to both transgenic and traditional breeding to
contribute to the increase in food supply, but must take into account the
need to preserve the environment," Messenquer concludes.
Messequer's article "Gene flow assessment in transgenic plants" appears in
Plant Cell, Tissue and Organ Culture (73: 201-212, 2003). Email the author
Course in Biotech Policy?
- Drew Kershen
I recall that someone recently asked about academic programs for the study
of Biosafety. Today another listserv posted the following announcement:
DIPLOMA IN BIOSAFETY: The United Nations Industrial Development
Organization (UNIDO), and the University of Concepcion in Chile announces
its diploma course in Biosafety. This course is an international
academically accredited course, and is based on distance-learning
techniques. For more details, view the website at
On the same list serve I also saw the following announcement,
NEW BOOKLET ON GM FOOD: The Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the United
Kingdom just released its new booklet on GM food entitled "GM food -
opening up the debate." The 20-page publication provides basic information
on genetic modification; food assessment methods; labeling; and sale,
growth, and consumption of biotech crops. Download a copy of this booklet
Re: Europeans Seek Tighter Controls on Food Names; From: John Cross
- Jonathan Gressel "
>> There's a global food fight coming. European food producers want the
John, Good idea, if followed through. If they severely limit trade and
thus intake by also requiring that hamburgers come only from from Hamburg,
French fries from France and the calorie ridden sweet rolls from Denmark,
the world will be a healthier and leaner place. The world might look nicer
if jerseys came only from Jersey. They will have to stop calling white
Professor Jonathan Gressel, Plant Sciences, Weizmann Institute of Science
Telling the DNA 'Secret': Gene Pioneer Works to Demystify Double Helix in
- Stephanie Schorow, Boston Herald, April 3, 2003
So DNA's the secret to life? Some secret.
On DNA's 50th birthday, the double helix is as familiar as the Coca-Cola
logo. Every few weeks we hear of another breakthrough in genetic research
- here's the gene for cancer! For weight gain! For blind optimism about
the Red Sox! Or we get the warning du jour about genetically modified
foods, patented genes and human-cloning cults.
But though we all know what DNA is, most of us can't really explain how it
works. Oh, a few nonscience types can channel high school biology and
rattle off the four components of the nucleotide, DNA's basic unit. But
adenine, thymine, guanine and cystosine don't exactly roll off the tongue,
Yet 50 years after James D. Watson and Francis Crick published their
findings on the double helix, the impact on our daily lives is just
beginning to be felt.
Now, one of the men who started it all is trying to explain it all to you.
James Watson, who with Crick published the first description of the double
helix in the journal Nature on April 25, 1953, has co-written a basic
guide to DNA. With Andrew Berry, a research associate at Harvard
University's Museum of Comparative Zoology, Watson has published "DNA: The
Secret of Life" ($40, Knopf).
The book was conceived as a way to mark DNA's 50th anniversary. But the
authors soon discovered it would be perhaps "the first big book on DNA for
the public,'' Watson said in a phone interview. Such a book hasn't been
published before because "what we're finding now is directly relevant to
your life. Twenty-five years ago we said it would be relevant but it was
not yet relevant."Yet, co-author Berry said, most people hear DNA and
"they think, 'Oooh, it's dangerous. It's bad.' There's a voodoo quality to
DNA because of that. It's from a mixture of ignorance and alarm in the
Watson, who turns 75 on Sunday, seems as spirited and opinionated as the
brash 24-year-old who walked with Crick into a pub on Feb. 28, 1953, where
they announced over a pint they'd found the secret to life. "If you (as a
scientist) have knowledge which has some importance for public policy
issues, you should speak out," he said. "Most people feel more comfortable
staying in the scientific arena."
Not Watson. He boldly plunges into the more controversial aspects of DNA
research. For example, he strongly supports developing genetically
modified crops, saying opposition to those foods was fueled by
"professional agitators" such as Greenpeace.
He supports stem cell research, saying the issue boils down to whether
there is "something sacred about fertilized egg - if there's a soul. I
don't know a scientist who believes there is a soul in the stem cell."
Teaching creationism alongside evolution in public school is teaching
religion, he believes. "Science can be disproved. Creationism - there's no
way of disproving it.
"I do not believe in truth by revelation. I don't believe in a supreme
deity. I don't believe anyone hears my prayers. It's up to humans to
decide how other people behave," he said.
Watson also has a healthy respect for competition in the pursuit of
science. He and Crick rushed to solve the mystery of DNA's structure a
step ahead of researchers such as Linus Pauling. And while the discovery
received little fanfare initially, in 1962 Watson, Crick and Maurice
Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Competition in the
lab "is just like sports: People want to show their best. They want to
show they're good (by) getting there first," he said.
Crick's and Watson's paths diverged some years after their co-discovery.
Watson went to Havard's biology department and in 1968 became director of
the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York; he remains president of the
lab. He also helped spearhead the Human Genome Project, which sought to
create a blueprint of the human chromosome. Watson's approach always has
been to plunge ahead with research; he dismisses fears that new genes
"might produce new forms of life."
"You should go ahead until you have some real evidence you're doing harm,"
As for ethical problems, he insists they existed long before DNA research
began. "The current situation is pretty cruel to a substantial minority of
those with (a genetic) disease. If you're born with Tay-Sachs disease,
that's pretty cruel," he said. Watson has previously said his mentally
disabled son had got a "bad throw of the genetic dice."
He does not, however, oversell the immediate benefits of genetic research.
Determining the functions of human genes might help some, but not all
those born with a chromosome mutation or a propensity to diseases such as
"I'd love to have cancer under control while I'm still able to appreciate
it," Watson said. "You certainly can't say, 'It will not happen.' But to
cure Down syndrome? There's no reason to believe that's possible."