Today in AgBioView: April 25, 2003
* Moving Towards Genetic Literacy
* Tech Transfer is the Surest Way to End Hunger
* New Scientist Debate
* UK: New Reports Support for GM Crop Co-existence
* Farming Systems Must Be 'Tolerant' of Each Other, Says EuropaBio
* Pew Report Identifies Issues in Govt Oversight of Biotech Crops
* Participatory Assessment of Socio-Econ Impact of Biotech
* Indian Farmers for Approval of GM Mustard
* Animal Feeding Studies Confirm Safety of Biotech Crops
* Biogenetics in the Future - Thoughts of a Middle School Student!
* 'Genetic shield' May Beat Cancer
Moving Towards Genetic Literacy
- Tawanda Zidenga (firstname.lastname@example.org), AgBioView, April 25, 2003;
Language makes easy the art of communication, and communication is the
very pinnacle of human progress. Those who can learn more languages will
have a better chance in the global village. More so, those who can learn
new languages will have an urge in the competitive world of technology.
Computer experts talk about the Hyper text mark-up language (html), the
language with which internet web pages are designed. Understanding this
language has placed many at the forefront of IT. On the other hand, the 26
letters of the alphabet have allowed most of humanity to communicate, and
have facilitated this interaction I have with my reader. By decoding these
sequences of letters in this article, you are able to make sense of my
A new language has emerged with the developments in Molecular Biology; the
language of genetics, with only four letters in its alphabet, A, C, G and
T. These letters represent nucleotide bases in the DNA molecule. This
alphabet is related to the 20 amino acids that make up our proteins. Each
set of three letters in a gene code for one amino acid. The "dictionary"
of these letters that make up the amino acids is called the genetic code.
The year 1953 marked a turning point in the history of genetics with the
discovery of the double helical structure of DNA by James D. Watson and
Francis Crick. The breakthrough was unique in that it did not result from
the usual laboratory affair of petri dishes and test tubes, but was a
result of serious thought and discussion based on information already
Today, 50 years later, we boast of vast developments in the lifesciences;
a vibrant biotechnology industry revolutionising both agriculture and
medicine, and a finer understanding of life at the molecular level. It
takes no more than a simple act of insight to see why literally everyone
should understand this language. It therefore was not surprising that
about 1200 participants gathered in the beautiful city of Lyon in France
from the 7th to the 11th of April 2003 for the BioVision World Life
The participants were not only scientists. There were philosophers,
sociologists, economists and politicians, and all wanted to discuss and
debate on how the double helix has transformed and is set to transform
humanity. Topics from GMOs in agriculture and the environment to issues of
human life (expectancy, longevity, cloning etc) were discussed in four
parallel conferences during the forum. The need for genetic literacy among
the public in general was reiterated by a number of speakers. A notable
presentation was that by Juan Enriquez-Cabot of Harvard University, who
eloquently explained the need to understand the new code.
Science affects all of us, and all aspects of our lives. Yet very few
people understand it. In his book 'The Demon Haunted World', Carl Sagan
warned that this mixture of ignorance and power will make a dangerous
cocktail for the future. In my opinion the danger stems from two divergent
possibilities. The first is that those who do not understand science often
get in the way of those who do, preventing or disturbing its application
for human welfare.
Those who follow debates on GMOs and cloning will know of some the
unjustified fears and Hollywood style "movies" based on the "we don?t know
what will happen" crap. The second possibility is that those who
understand it may take advantage of the ignorance of those who don?t and
use it for the wrong things. The threats of bioterror and chemical weapons
are a case in point. As David Byrne, the European Commissioner for Health
and Consumer Protection said in his presentation at BioVision, we need to
ensure that science progress is matched by rigorous efforts to guard
against abuse of technologies. This is possible if we improve literacy
levels on matters of technology, gene technology in this case.
Increasing frustration was expressed on the apparent stagnation of the GMO
debate. For over a decade now the same questions are still being asked.
And in many cases, those who ask the questions, especially the so-called
"Greens" do not bother to listen to the answers. So the debate has
degenerated into something akin to a dialogue of the deaf, or a classical
case of a "you did" ? "I didn?t" argument between two five year olds.
Under such circumstances, we do not make much progress. Genetic literacy
is important, for with knowledge many of us will understand that concerns
are a cause of cautionary action rather than a reason for inaction.
In a closing address to the Nobel day during the Biovision forum, James D.
Watson expressed fury over unjustified resistance to the applications of
molecular biology in agriculture and medicine. "Everyime I hear the word
Precautionary principle my blood pressure rises?.". Jim Watson for you!
(Tawanda Zidenga attended the BioVision Life Sciences Forum in Lyon,
France as an all-expense-paid BioVision.nxt fellow, thanks to a posting
by C. S. Prakash on AgBioView. He is a graduate student at University of
Note from Prakash: Tawanda is one of the brightest graduate students I
know. Recently I sponsored him to attend a biosafety workshop at Nairobi,
Kenya and thus was able to meet him for the first time. He is working on
corn transformation with Bt gene for his masters thesis and about to
complete the research soon. He is looking for a Ph.D. opportunity in
North America or Europe and intends to eventually help biotech move
forward in Africa.
If you are a college professor interested in mentoring Tawanda or know of
some one who can, please write to him directly at
. He is very
thoughtful, writes so clearly and very knowledgeable. He comes with my
Technology Transfer is the Surest Way to End Hunger
- A Harvest Biotech Foundation International,
Africa countries can effectively tackle the challenge of poverty, hunger
and malnutrition through intra-Africa technology transfer and sharing
models of good practice in agriculture.
"In order to be relevant, African biotech organizations must focus on
delivering the benefits of biotechnology to those most in need," says A
Harvest CEO, Dr. Florence Wambugu. "Agri-technology transfer is even more
urgent now as Africa continues to grapple with the starvation of at least
four million people in Southern Africa," she says.
"Although the issue of starvation has been crowded out of the global media
radar by differences related to GM food, we must remember that even in
South Africa where 72% of the people live in rural areas 70 % of the rural
people are poor (just like their counterparts in the rest of Africa)".
Dr. Wambugu laments that "best models in agriculture are not widely shared
at the continental, national or regional level". She says few biotech
organizations on the continent have any plans for actual programs of
delivery or documentation of best practices or combinations of them.
Starving In A Sea of Plenty
Even in South Africa where 72% of the people live in rural areas 70 % of
the rural people are poor just like their counterparts in the rest of
Africa "Never has Africa needed sustainable solutions to poverty, hunger
and malnutrition like today," says Dr. Wambugu. "We must think outside the
box when it comes to increasing smallholder agriculture productivity and
promoting food security".
Dr. Wambugu says many African countries would benefit from "simple and
effective technology transfers such as related to the Tissue Culture
banana program in Kenya which now benefits over 10,000 farmers". Instead
of focusing on proven programs "many agriculturalists reinvent the wheel
in development programs, or repeat very well proven failures, as 'new'
agricultural development initiatives. This often results in a waste of
resources that could have been spared if space had been provided for the
sharing of knowledge and experiences".
"Through its pan-African biotech coalition strategy, A Harvest is
facilitating the sharing of information within each country and among
countries with a view to making this serve as a powerful meeting of minds
to some of the challenges of food insecurity in Africa", says Wambugu.
"A Harvest is documenting best practices as a deliberate strategy to
facilitate the application of knowledge to critical decisions. This will
help create a knowledge base that enables policy makers, planners and
managers to develop appropriate policies. It will also provide better
understanding of strategic direction in terms of target farm groups,
policy and programming, constraining and enabling legislation in
stimulating agricultural productivity and food security," says Wambugu.
Download PDF version of the complete document at the AHBI site
New Scientist Debate
- John W. Cross
Dear AgBioWorld: New Scientist has not published my comments regarding the
expertise of Mr. Colin Tudge, but they did see fit to publish the a letter
(see below) from Gundula Azeez, a representative of "The Soil
Association", which I gather is the UK lobbyist for commercial Organic
interests. I am sending this reply to New Scientist:
Ms Azeez claims that genetic engineering techniques are very different
from natural processes. Because Azeez is fuzzy on how she distinguishes
natural genetic events from genetic engineering, it is difficult to
discuss the point. Nevertheless, she is wrong: the processes of DNA
modification done in the lab also occur in the field. What is different is
not the processes, but the ability of human beings to use their brains to
selectively introduce or change specific genes, preventing and/or
screening out undesirable changes.
Ms Azeez makes a number of factual errors, particularly claiming that GM
grain has not be subjected to feeding tests and other safety studies.
Substantial equivalence and safety studies are and have been a standard
(and burdensome) aspect of the regulation of GM crops. Substantial
equivalence includes assessing the biological traits of the genetically
modified crop and levels of key nutrients and anti-nutrients in the food.
These measures are indicators of the cumulative impact of numerous
biochemical pathways and processes. The required also tests include
biochemical characterization and toxicological testing of introduced
While it is true that a few (not many) people claimed to have had allergic
reactions to StarLink, none of those claims has withstood investigative
scrutiny. The biggest nutritional study of all is the health of the public
in the USA, where GM grain is consumed in massive quantities. No negative
changes in health of the US public have been correlated to the
introduction and increasing consumption of GM crops. We're doing fine,
No one disagrees that laboratory and field tests are imperfect predictors
of future behavior. However, for those with an attitude like that of Ms
Azeez, no degree of testing will ever suffice. I call this attitude
"Unprincipled Precaution." The products of agricultural genetic
engineering are, in fact, excessively tested and regulated. This
over-regulation is holding back the field and costing everyone the
benefits that a more rapid and less expensive introduction of this
technology could provide. This is particularly true in the less-developed
countries, whose farmers are crying out for improved seeds.
- John W. Cross, Ph.D.
Gambling on GM
Your three-way debate about genetically modified crops raises a number of
issues that need to be addressed (5 April, p 44). First, Chris Leaver and
Anthony Trewavas ask, "If we replicate by genetic engineering what nature
has already done, are we really doing anything different?" But scientists
are not at all replicating nature. In our view, genetic engineering
techniques are very different from natural processes and that's the
problem. Nor do we think genetically modified organisms are rigorously
tested for safety. They are tested far less than pesticides that we still
believe could be having undetected long-term effects.
ou cannot extrapolate results from controlled lab conditions or even
controlled field trials to the wider environment and human body.
Ecosystems and health are complex, and all sorts of new stresses and
interactions come into play which mean that in our view you cannot predict
the actual impact of GMOs from the limited tests currently used. This
concern was raised by the many scientific advisers who opposed the US
government's GM approval procedures, but unfortunately they were ignored.
We also think it is wrong to say GMOs have had no negative effects. Many
people claim they have suffered allergic reactions to the GM StarLink
maize in the US - some serious. There are no other reports of negative
effects, simply because no one in the US has studied the health effects of
- Gundula Azeez, Soil Association Bristol, UK
UK: New Reports Support Prospects for GM Crop Co-existence
(Forwarded by Daniel Pearsall and Vivian Moses:)
Fresh information from UK farm industry body SCIMAC has given a major
boost to prospects for managing GM and non-GM crops at the practical farm
The two new reports were issued as EU stakeholders met at a roundtable
forum in Brussels (24 April) to discuss co-existence - how to manage the
production of GM and non-GM crops on the same farm or between neighbouring
The first report is a survey of all farmers who took part in GM crop
trials over the past three years. It found few practical difficulties in
managing GM and non-GM crops according to co-existence guidelines. The
second, an independent audit of growers conducted by ADAS Consulting Ltd,
confirmed very high levels of compliance with the requirements of the
'The positive response from trial growers and the audit process is very
encouraging,' said SCIMAC chairman Dr Roger Turner. 'Overall it shows that
the guidelines are based on procedures which farmers are familiar with,
and which do not represent a major departure from current best practice
within the industry.'
'The farm-scale evaluations in the UK have presented a unique opportunity
within Europe to apply a set of protocols developed specifically to allow
access and choice to both GM and non-GM crop production. This experience,
in what is without doubt the largest ever series of co-ordinated field
trials in the UK, clearly demonstrates that the SCIMAC approach is
workable in practice, robust in safeguarding the integrity of GM and
non-GM crops, and capable of being audited.'
Scientific results of the Government's farm-scale evaluations (FSE) will
not be published until later this year. However, the trials have provided
a key opportunity to assess the performance of the SCIMAC guidelines at
more than 260 field-scale sites around the UK.
Overwhelmingly, growers found the protocols offered a workable and
effective basis for managing co-existence under normal farming conditions.
There has been no loss of non-GM or organic status as a result of the
trials, an achievement on which SCIMAC will seek to build.
Growers taking part in the survey also gave a resounding thumbs-up to the
performance of the technology, with 95% saying they would grow GM crops on
their farm if available commercially. The two key advantages of GM crops
cited by growers were: ) the opportunity to reduce sprays and cultivations
2) reduced dependence on residual herbicides
Other benefits identified included: 1) greater ease and flexibility of
crop management 2) enhanced weed control.
Feedback from trial growers suggests that the vast majority (94%) found
the SCIMAC guidelines very or fairly straightforward to follow. While
growers identified increased requirements for record-keeping and
segregation, the overwhelming consensus was that the guidelines offered an
effective basis for managing co-existence between crops on the same farm
(97% of growers) and between neighbouring farms (91% of growers).
The independent audit, involving on-farm and telephone checks, focused on
eight critical control points throughout the production process, from seed
storage and planting to separation distances, harvesting procedures and
ADAS confirmed there were no incidents of non-compliance at these critical
control points over the three years of the trials from 2000 to 2002. Their
report did, however, identify minor administrative shortcomings in
documentation and record-keeping. This information will feed into an
ongoing review of the guidelines and their performance.
Some improvements were suggested by growers. Most covered ways to simplify
the guidelines, to take account of regional or crop-specific variations,
and to reduce the paperwork involved.
'No GM crops have yet been fully approved for commercial cultivation in
the UK,' said Dr Turner. 'At this stage, our aim is to have a system in
place which will allow GM crops to co-exist with other production systems.
There is more to be done, but we have made huge progress towards that
Copies of the full survey results and audit report are available now at
Farming Systems Must Be 'Tolerant' of Each Other, Says EuropaBio
http://www.europabio.org Brussels, 25 April 2003
For generations, farmers around the world have managed co-existence
between different crop production practices, just as they have managed the
production of the same crop type kept separate because of different end
Coexistence has been achieved by accepting agreed trace levels of produce
from one farming practice, or crop, in the produce of another; such traces
are not intentional but are adventitiously present because farming is
conducted in the open environment. For example, higher priced waxy maize
grain is likely to contain traces of feed quality maize grains when they
are grown in the same neighbourhood or if the farmer uses the same
machinery for seeding and harvesting all maize crops. "Coexistence is not
a new concept. What we need is to agree on practical allowances for traces
of GM crops in other crops including organic farming produce," says Simon
Barber, Director of the Plant Biotechnology Unit at EuropaBio.
EuropaBio welcomes the holding by the Commission of a stakeholders'
discussion on co-existence but warns against using the debate to further
delay the implementation of existing EU legislation on GMO's. "There is no
question of the safety of these GM crops, they will all have undergone
rigorous health and environmental safety assessments before they are
authorised for growing by farmers. Co-existence is purely about enabling
choice in the marketplace," says Simon Barber.
The evidence from areas around the world where GM crops have been
commercially grown over the past seven years shows that both large and
small scale farmers have benefited from using these crops. While providing
clear evidence of economic and management benefits for the growers, data
also show environmental benefits - growing these crops enables a more
economically and environmentally sustainable agriculture.
European farmers should be allowed to choose the crops they wish to grow,
whether they are GM, traditional or organic so that the market can
continue to provide farmers, food and feed processors and consumers with
choice. "No form of agriculture should be excluded in the EU and no sector
of agricultural production should have the power of veto over another,"
says Simon Barber. "The EU must guard against the calls for zero tolerance
or the setting of unrealistic allowances that result in the exclusion of
one crop type or farming practice to the detriment of another."
Report Identifies Issues in Government Oversight of Biotech Crops
Washington, D.C. (April 24, 2003) - While much of the debate over biotech
crops has been focused on their approval before they enter the environment
or reach the market, there are significant issues concerning post-market
oversight of these crops that need to be addressed as this technology
continues to grow, according to a new report released today by the Pew
Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.
In "Post-Market Oversight of Biotech Foods: Is the System Prepared?"
authors Michael Taylor and Jody Tick of Resources for the Future find that
the current regulatory oversight system for agricultural biotechnology is
focused mainly on pre-market approval and that there are potential
vulnerabilities in the system due to the relatively low priority and
limited resources for post-market oversight. Post-market oversight is
intended to ensure compliance with restrictions that agencies might impose
as a condition of approval (such as requiring buffer zones between
genetically modified and conventional crops) and to detect and address any
unanticipated health or environmental problems that could occur after a
biotech product is planted in fields or enters the marketplace.
Although these gaps in post-market oversight have not resulted in
widespread noncompliance with regulatory requirements nor any known food
safety or environmental problems, the real challenge for the post-market
oversight system lies ahead as future biotech products that cross
traditional boundaries, such as plants that produce pharmaceuticals, may
call for tighter regulatory control.
Two recent experiences have tested and demonstrate the importance of
post-market oversight: StarLink, a variety of biotech corn approved only
for use in animal feed but that accidentally ended up in the human food
supply, triggering massive recalls; and the ProdiGene incident, where corn
that was engineered to produce a pig vaccine became commingled with
soybeans destined for the human food supply -- but were stopped in the
nick of time.
"Although the agencies with oversight for biotech crops have shown
substantial resilience and capacity to react to significant problems, as
was evidenced by the StarLink and ProdiGene incidents, there are some
serious questions about whether the current regulatory regime is prepared
for what lies ahead," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the
Pew Initiative. "Plant biotechnology holds promises for products with
strong consumer benefits, such as allergen-free crops or plant-made drugs
that help solve unmet medical needs, but these new applications also call
into question whether the government's post-market oversight can ensure
compliance as well as maintain consumer confidence, which is essential to
the well-being of this industry."
Crops produced through biotechnology are currently regulated through a
patchwork of laws: the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of
Biotechnology was established in 1986, after it was decided that no new
laws were needed to regulate the products of agricultural biotechnology.
As a result, three federal agencies (the Food and Drug Administration, the
Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency) use at
least ten different laws and numerous agency regulations and guidelines to
address biotechnology products. Each of the laws currently used was
developed before the advent of biotechnology products and reflects widely
different regulatory approaches and procedures.
The report identifies some potential vulnerabilities in the post-market
oversight programs established under this regulatory framework. For
USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which oversees
biotech plantings, does not have the authority under current regulations
to impose conditions on the use of biotech crops once they have been
"deregulated" (approved for large-scale planting) and cannot require
biotech developers to monitor those crops' impact on the environment
Although the EPA is responsible for setting standards to manage the
environmental impact of pesticides, including so-called plant-incorporated
protectants (or PIPs, like Bt, a bacterium that is engineered into the
plant so that it produces its own pesticide), farmers are not legally
accountable to EPA for meeting those standards. EPA now only imposes
conditions on the biotech companies; the companies, in turn, are supposed
to monitor how farmers use their products based on what farmers tell them.
There are no official EPA standards for what constitutes an adequate
degree of compliance or government audits of how well farmers are
Currently, the FDA has no affirmative postmarket inspection or compliance
program for biotech foods, such as it has for other categories of food and
drug products it regulates. Should there ever be a question about whether
food has been contaminated with some non-food GM crop (such as a
biopharmed plant), there are questions as to whether the agency has the
detection methods it needs, the capacity to conduct large-volume sampling
and testing, and adequate legal tools, such as the authority, to examine
food industry records.
These findings raise some significant questions about the degree of
control society wants over the presence of GM traits in the food supply
and the roles of the government and the private sector in achieving that
degree of control. To further explore what degree of control might be
appropriate and challenges to achieving it, the report analyzes the issues
surrounding how the regulatory system should address adventitious presence
(the low-level, unintended presence of something other than the specific
crop being sold), and the government's role, if any, in establishing
identity preservation and traceability systems.
"Our report raises questions about the future preparedness of the
post-market oversight program to achieve its traditional objectives,
including the enforcement of regulatory restrictions and the detection and
correction of unanticipated health or environmental problems," said
Michael R. Taylor, the report's key author and Senior Fellow at Resources
for the Future. "There almost certainly will be a need to enhance the
resources devoted to post-market oversight and to consider strategies that
effectively harness public and private resources to ensure that consistent
and credible compliance with regulatory requirements is achieved. The time
is ripe to address these issues - before a crisis occurs."
The peer-reviewed report is based on an extensive literature review and
interviews with experts representing regulatory agencies, various segments
of the food and technology sectors and consumer advocacy groups (from food
companies, technology providers, agricultural producers, grain traders and
processors, consumer and environmental groups, government regulators and
policy officials). A full copy of the paper, as well as the names of the
interviewees and reviewers, can be found at
Participatory Assessment of Social and Economic Impact of Biotechnology
Our research project, funded by the Initiative for Future Agriculture and
Food Systems (IFAFS), is a collaborative effort among members of Virginia
Tech University, Virginia State University, University of Tennessee, North
Carolina State University, and the International Rice Research Institute.
The goal of this 4-year project is to inform and sharpen public debate on
the benefits, costs, risks, and tradeoffs associated with agricultural
biotechnologies, using rice and tobacco as examples.
Tobacco was chosen because of the extensive biotechnology program
currently underway toward discovering pharmaceutical uses for the crop.
These uses have the potential to deliver broad health benefits to the
public. Moreover, the benefits to tobacco growers, many of whom are
limited resource producers, may be large.
Rice was chosen because it is the subject of one of the largest
biotechnology programs in the world, with significant implications not
only for United States producers, but producers and low income consumers
throughout the developing world.
The project aims to: * Identify the issues and concerns held by various
stakeholders regarding agricultural biotechnology. * Document the
potential benefits, costs, and risks of these new technologies. * Increase
public understanding of biotech benefits, costs, risks, and tradeoffs.
We anticipate that increased awareness may lead to greater clarity on the
appropriate roles for public versus private sector biotech research and
development. Additionally, a more informed public may better contribute to
shaping regulatory oversight for agricultural biotechnologies.
Indian Farmers and Industry Alliance Urges GEAC to Increase Farmers'
Incomes by Approving GM Mustard
- P. Chengal Reddy
The Indian Farmers and Industry Alliance urges the Genetic Engineering
Approval Committee in its meeting on April 25, 2003, to approve the use of
genetically modified mustard. Mr. Chengal Reddy, co-chairman of the
Alliance has said, "Indian farmers need to compete with those in the rest
of the world. They should not be denied the technology that allows them to
compete." He added that farmers were looking forward to getting a better
income from mustard, especially farmers in rainfed areas in the states of
Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat, where the
productivity is low.
However, he cautioned the seed companies that they should support the
farmers by giving them continuous information and technical advice, even
after selling the seeds. He also requested the companies to make their
seeds affordable to small and marginal farmers, thus increasing their use.
The Indian Farmers and Industry Alliance is an association of farmers'
organizations and the Confederation of Indian Industry. It was launched
last year to promote mutually beneficial partnership between the two
groups. It is jointly led by Mr. Chengal Reddy and Mr. Anand Mahindra, the
Vice President of CII.
According to independent studies carried out by the Indian Council for
Agricultural Research, these genetically modified hybrid mustard seeds
provide higher yields than the best comparable non-modified seeds across
different regions. It is estimated that using these hybrid seeds will
result in higher mustard oil production, giving the farmer more income of
at least Rs. 3,000 a hectare.
These seeds have gone through nine years of research and extensive tests
in fifty locations in five states. Given India's poor productivity of
mustard seeds, with a national average of 941 kilos a hectare, against an
international average of double this amount, it is important to take all
steps to increase India's productivity of this important crop.
Increasing domestic production of mustard oil is important because India
imports a lot of edible oil (in 2001-02, imports totaled more than Rs.
6,500 crore). Therefore, IFIA believes that any step that will result in
higher domestic production of edible oil needs to be encouraged.
Last year, the GEAC had approved the use of Bt Cotton in six states. This
has been a big success, especially in Andhra Pradesh, with farmers
reporting higher incomes and demanding more seeds for this growing year.
Therefore, we request the GEAC should also approve the Bt Cotton for sale
in three more states. IFIA believes that a similar success story awaits
India's next GM crop, mustard.
IFIA recognizes that mustard is consumed by humans, whereas cotton is not.
However, all studies have shown that GM mustard is safe and that it has
the same nutritional parameters as ordinary mustard.
India's biotech industry has now reached take-off stage. A lot of research
is taking place; investments are flowing into the sector; governments,
especially state governments, are backing biotech in a big way. However,
regulatory barriers still remain that prevent the sustained growth of this
industry. Clearing GM mustard on April 25 will send a big signal to
India's biotech industry that the hard work of Indian scientists is
translating into products that are profitable both to their users and to
the companies, both Indian and foreign, that invest in research and
Animal Feeding Studies Confirm Safety of Biotech Crops
- Dennis Avery, Center for Global Food Issues, April 24, 2003
Birds, animals, and fish were recently fed genetically enhanced crops in
more than 40 tests conducted around the world with no evidence of biotech
genes being transferred to the creatures that ate the biotech crops.
The tests included pigs, chickens, catfish, dairy cows, beef cows, and
sheep. Comprehensive analysis of their blood, tissues, eggs, and milk
showed no evidence of any genetically modified gene fragments.
Granted, these tests were done primarily to check the healthfulness of the
meat, milk, and eggs. However, this is also some of the most comprehensive
testing we can expect from the standpoint of human safety. (After all, we
aren't going to take human tissue samples from people who've eaten biotech
The first reason for this lack of gene transfer is that nature doesn't
want random gene transfer constantly fouling up the process of evolution.
Natural mutations only rarely succeed.
Biotech researchers also try for stable gene transformations, because
unstable transformations won't serve any useful purpose. You can't sell a
farmer plants with built-in Bt pesticide protection if only half the
plants have the protection. (The Bt protein is from a common soil bacteria
that is harmless to humans and most other creatures, but is engineered
into corn because it's toxic to corn borers.)
The biotech crops that have been approved for release have had not only
the research lab's development testing, but millions of dollars worth of
regulatory testing under the watchful guidance of the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration, Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection
Agency. Government approvals are not granted for unstable transformations.
Secondly, birds, animals, and humans are consuming only tiny amounts of
novel DNA. Dr. David Beever, of Britain's University of Reading, noted
that the novel DNA in Bt corn makes up only 94 hundred-thousandths of a
percent (0.000094%) of the corn's DNA. Thus, a dairy cow eating 53 pounds
of dry matter per day, with 60 percent of it genetically modified corn or
corn silage, would eat only about one nine-millionth of a pound of novel
DNA per day. That's what scientists call "negligible exposure."
Thirdly, DNA is readily digested. A U.S. study testing growing steers
showed a digestion rate greater than 97 percent in about 5 minutes.
No wonder researchers have not been able to find any Bt DNA in the milk of
cows that eat Bt corn. An Iowa State study, for example, tested for both
DNA and the Bt protein in the milk of 12 dairy cows. The cows were fed for
14 days on one of two different genetically modified corn varieties (or a
conventional corn variety as a control).
To make sure the test was effective, the researchers actually "spiked"
some of the milk samples with extra Bt protein. The tests found no Bt
protein in the regular milk samples from the Bt-fed cows, although they
did detect Bt protein in the 55 'spiked' samples. There were no
differences in the amount of milk, milk quality, feed intake, udder health
or milk composition (fat, protein, lactose, etc.) between the biotech and
conventional feed regimes.
Animal feeding tests are another confirmation that the world's high-yield
farmers and agricultural research scientists know far more about feeding
people and saving room for wildlife than Greenpeace activists. (Charles
Margulis of Greenpeace recently asserted on national TV that genetically
enhanced foods have undergone no safety testing, when, in fact, they are
among the most thoroughly tested research products in history.)
We now have nearly a decade's experience with human consumption of
genetically enhanced foods, several generations of livestock and poultry
that have been raised on genetically enhanced grain and oilseeds, and many
generations of pests that encountered biotech products. The results have
confirmed none of the scaremongers' claims of mutations, allergies, and
Instead, we're finding that biotech is improving pest control on modern
farms (especially weeds and caterpillars), removing Mother Nature's
life-threatening allergies from human foods (peanut, soybean), making the
Third World safer for its famine-haunted poor (virus-resistant and thus
higher-yielding sweet potatoes and bananas for Africa), and doubling the
incomes of small family cotton farmers in China and India with Bt cotton.
Biogenetics in the Future
- Marshall Edwards, Student, Ebenezer Middle School, Georgia. Thanks to
Linda M. Chimenti and Cindy Richards for forwarding this.
(National III place winner in the CAST high school essay competition;
Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. 2003. Boundless Science
for Bountiful Agriculture: Winning Student Essays, 2003. Special
Publication 23. CAST, Ames, Iowa)
Imagine this scenario.
The weather is cool and gloomy. You are at a plant genetics lab at State
As you approach the greenhouse you notice something strange. There are
tears in the plastic on the greenhouse. Your heart begins to beat faster.
As you open the door your heart drops. Your mouth is dry and you have a
sick feeling deep in the pit of your stomach. You realize your greenhouse
has been vandalized. On the floor the intruders have spray-painted the
words "STOP GENETIC MUTILATION!" Years of valuable research have been
This scenario is true. These events actually happened to Dr. Bob Milikin
at the University of Buffalo. Dr. Milikin was doing research on
genetically modified crops. He was trying to develop a plant that would
be resistant to pests without the use of pesticides. Ironically, the
"ecoterrorists" had destroyed the work of a scientist who was doing
research to HELP the environment! Dr. Miliken was trying to find a way to
develop a safe, plentiful, healthy crop without using so many chemicals.
Now, pesticides are no small problem in our world. Farmers use about 2.5
million tons of pesticides each year. In 1992, the World Health
Organization reported that 3 million pesticide poisonings occur each year.
Scientists believe that overusage of pesticides could result in immune
dysfunction and may be linked to sterility. A number of states have
programs in place to reduce pesticide usage by 50% by the year 2010.
So, WHY? Why would ANYONE want to sabotage genetic engineering research?
Some people believe that genetic engineering is an activity akin to
"frankenscience." While a bit of fear and reservation is understandable,
we in the agriculture community should make it our duty to inform the
public of the immense benefits of biotechnology.
For example, there is research going on today to genetically modify
bananas to fight dysentery. Although great progress has been made in
inoculating children in much of the world, in the poorest nations very
little has been achieved. It would be possible for millions to be
protected from life-threatening illnesses.
On the other hand, there are documented health effects for genetically
modified (GM) crop varieties. For example, a GM food with a higher
content of digestible iron is likely to have a positive health effect if
consumed by iron-deficient individuals. Alternatively, the risks of
transferring genes from one species to another need to be evaluated and
classified before commercialization. Individuals allergic to certain
nuts, for example, need to know if genes conveying this trait are
transferred to other foods such as soybeans. Among the possible
ecological risks classified are extended weediness, a result of
cross-pollination where pollen from GM crops spreads to non-GM crops in
In closing, a quiet revolution in the way food is produced is under way.
Last year, American farmers planted more than 50 million acres of GM
soybeans, corn, cotton, and potatoes. Four years ago, the figure was
zero. Biogenetics is our country?s future.
Biogenetic Services, Inc. 2002. Genetic seed and GMO testing,
Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). 1999.
Applications of Biotechnology to Crops: Benefits and Risks. Issue Paper
No. 12. CAST, Ames, Iowa, <http://www.cast-science.org/biotc_ip.htm>
The future of food, Bioengineering. 2002.
Genetically engineered foods. 2002.
'Genetic shield' May Beat Cancer
- Tim Radford, The Guardian (UK) April 24, 2003 http://www.guardian.co.uk
'DNA offers hope of altering path of evolution, say pioneers'
Humans could be close to deliberately altering their evolutionary
"destiny" and one day even introducing a natural cancer vaccine into their
inheritance, claimed the giants of genetic research gathered in London
last night to celebrate "50 years of DNA".
"Human progress comes from knowledge," said James Watson who, with Francis
Crick in Cambridge, announced the double helix structure of DNA on April
25, 1953. "We have got not only to accumulate knowledge but to use it.
Right now, society - many people, at least journalists - think it somehow
immoral if we use genetics to enhance ourselves. I think that we should be
allowed to try to improve human life."
The DNA celebrations coincide with the completion of the entire 3bn-letter
genetic code of humans. DNA carries the recipe for life, controls the
replication of each cell and the reproduction of every species.
Miro Bradman, of the French national institute for health and research,
predicted that soon people would know enough to modify their own genomes.
"This marvellous molecule encodes for its own doctors - enzymes that
repair and fix and change DNA. This DNA repair is associated with
mutation; mutation is associated with evolution, which is how life is
perptuated, but also with cancer and other terrible diseases," he said.
Cancer researchers have identified more than 100 gene changes associated
with tumours. They have also focused on one of the genes most linked to
genetic repair. Mice treated with extra copies of this gene have managed
to stave off cancer.
Could humans do the same? "There is an interesting case to discuss: is it
necessarily better to feed ourselves with chemicals to suppress symptoms
rather than go and heal the disease where it starts, at the genome?"
The gathering, at the Royal Society yesterday, and at a dinner last night
at Guildhall in London, marks a series of anniversaries. Sir Alec
Jeffreys, of Leicester University, the pioneer of genetic fingerprinting,
pointed out that it was 30 years since researchers devised the techniques
that led to the genetic modification of organisms, and it was the 25th
anniversary of the discovery of variations within the human genome that
could be used to identify individuals.
"One of the challenges now is to understand where that variation is coming
from, how forces out there in the population, such as natural selection,
are moulding those patterns of variation, and what the future evolutionary
trajectory of the human species possibly is," Sir Alec said.
Professor Watson, 75, became leader of the project to sequence the human
genome, and then director of the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory, in New
York state. He, Crick and the New Zealand scientist Maurice Wilkins, of
King's College London, shared the 1962 Nobel prize for discovering the
structure of the double helix. Prof Watson stirred up the world of science
in 1968 with a provocative bestseller, The Double Helix, and he has
continued to provoke ever since.
"I don't see genetics as offending the gods because I don't think there
are any gods up there. So who are we offending by trying to use genetics
to improve human life? What's wrong with a woman wanting to have a healthy
child?" he said.
Asked about the attitude of the US president George Bush to genetic
research, he said: "I had a better upbringing. I had a father who didn't
instill religion into me."