Today in AgBioView: July 14, 2003:
* Genetically Modified Foods Safer Than Organic
* Saving AgBiotech in India
* Do Europeans Really Weep Over Indian Farmers Suicides?
* Bt Cotton: Adopt Wait-and-watch Policy
* HT: Genes Might Come From Source other than Mother and Father
* Young European Biotech Network
* Letters to Daily Mail and Sunday Independent (UK)
* Pest Resistance Feared as Farmers Flout Rules
* Obituary: Jeff Schell
* The WTO Complaint--Why now?
Genetically Modified Foods Safer Than Organic
- Andrew Staehelin, Rocky Mountain News, July 6,
Organic foods are generally viewed as the "golden measure" against which
the safety and healthfulness of all other foods should be measured. This
carefully cultivated perception is used by the organic-food industry to
justify the higher price of organic produce. This industry has also
campaigned against genetically modified crops, claiming that GM foods -
"Frankenfoods" - are dangerous for human health, bad for the environment,
unnatural and exploitive of farmers in developing countries.
In a remarkable turn of events, an increasing number of scientific studies
have not only demonstrated that these claims have little merit, but also
that the opposite is true! For example, in several peer-reviewed studies
Bt-type GM corn has been proved to be on average safer for humans than
traditionally or organically grown corn, and Bt-corn and other GM crops
have been shown to be both beneficial for the environment and for farmers
in Third World countries.
Even the genetic process of transferring DNA between unrelated organisms
has been shown to be a common process, occurring trillions of times each
second around the world. Indeed, the most commonly grown non-GM wheat in
Colorado is a variety that contains half a rye chromosome.
Arguably the most stunning GM crop-related discovery pertains to the
demonstration that Bt-corn contains on average 90 percent less
cancer-causing mycotoxins than the non-GM corn varieties grown by organic
and traditional farmers. What makes these mycotoxins particularly
dangerous for humans is that most types of food processing do not affect
the toxic effect. Certain mycotoxins have been found in food products as
diverse as corn flakes and beer.
Three large international studies have recently reported on the mycotoxin
content of hundreds of corn samples collected in 18 countries. In one
study, the average content of just one type of mycotoxin in non-GM corn
samples was about 12 micrograms per gram of seed, whereas the content for
GM corn samples was only 1.3 micrograms per gram of seed.
Why does Bt-corn contain such drastically reduced amounts of mycotoxins?
The fungi that produce the mycotoxins,Fusarium molds, enter corn plants
primarily through holes produced by corn borers. Because every cell in
Bt-corn is equipped to fight corn borers directly, corn borers that attack
such plants are quickly killed and do not replicate, which results in
fewer Fusarium infections and reduced mycotoxin production.
The general safety of foods containing GM crop-derived products has been
further proven by the fact that over a billion people consume such foods
on a regular basis, and not a single illness or death has been reported.
In 2002, close to 6 million farmers around the world planted GM crops, and
nearly three-quarters of those farmers were in developing countries. The
advantages of GM crops for resource-poor farmers is illustrated by a study
of Bt-cotton growing farmers in Lang Fang Prefecture in Hebei, China.
During the five years in which they have planted Bt-cotton, their incomes
have gone up by 30 percent (less money spent on pesticides) and their
health and the health of their families has improved due to the reduced
exposure to these toxic chemicals. Finally, the quality of their drinking
water has improved due to the reduced contamination of their wells by
GM crops can yield safer and more nutritious foods, reduce the use of
pesticides and thereby help the environment, and help farmers around the
world lead better and healthier lives. In light of these developments, it
might be time for the leaders of the organic-food industry in the U.S. to
begin to think about growing GM crops on organic farms, and to institute
policy changes to allow such foods to be sold in organic food stores.
Andrew Staehelin is a professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular
and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Saving AgBiotech in India
- C Kameswara Rao , AgBioView, July 14, 2003
The happenings in Andhra Pradesh to malign agbiotech, which are sure to
follow in other states, are disturbing. More alarming are the signs of
the campaign getting physical to destroying standing crops and the
personal risk to the farmers themselves. This is where the State
Government should get ready to step in and deal with the situation as a
Law and Order issue.
The arguments for and against biotechnology must be based in science. In
India public awareness of issues related to biotechnology is abysmal.
Even educated public, including some biologists, do not have a clear
perception of the benefits and risks of agbiotech. The general policy of
the Government of India is pro-technology, but its departments have not
been involved in the area of public awareness and education programmes in
any appreciable manner. The Governments of the States are busy releasing
policy documents that focus on biotech business, with products nowhere in
In India the state of biotechnology education itself is in a deplorable
mess with hype and reality at opposite poles. The biotech industry has
done precious little to educate even farmers using their products, let
alone the general public. The media only care for sensational news like
demonstrations and vandalization. They have not been enthusiastic even
about getting educated themselves, and are not equal to the task of
playing any constructive role in enhancing public understanding. While
some Muslim religious bodies and the Vatican have come in support of
biotechnology, religious authorities in general are in the dark. The
activists have been taking advantage of this huge information gap, and mix
up ethical, economic and political issues, to spread misinformation and to
create scare in the public mind, from the emotive and sentimental
It is high time that a far-reaching programme of public awareness and
education is set in motion in India. Countering the sustained attack on
agbiotech requires a considerable financial support. While the activists
are functioning with a lot of financial backing from organizations with
vested interest in maligning biotechnology, those who are pleading for a
chance for agbiotech to prove or disprove itself in course of time, have
no resources to speak of.
The agbiotech industry has not fully realized its responsibility to help
the cause of disseminating factual information and to assuage the doubts
and fears of the public. Conducting workshops and seminars, sparsely
supported by one or two agbiotech companies or the Department of
Biotechnology, has its own undeniable benefits but it does not go much
beyond the urban scene. The agbiotch industry should realize the
seriousness of the consequences of anti-biotech campaign and its own moral
responsibility in the matter, and come forward to fully support public
awareness and education programmes. I made a case for such a realization
of the industry’s responsibility, at a Syngenta Lecture in Basel, last
If an organization or a group of individuals supportive of biotechnology
conducts a programme with funding from the industry, they immediately win
the label 'toadies of the industry', whereas the anti-biotech lobby, that
receives huge funding from mostly European Luddite greens, parade as the
protectors of the environment and patriots protecting their countries form
the marauding multi-nationals. Both the supporters of technology and the
industry should join hands and work together in the common cause of
biotechnology. Simply because an organization receives financial support
from the industry, should not mean that the organization sold itself and
blindly supports every product disregarding ethics of science and public
interest, which are as important as the technology itself.
A better option would be for the various agbiotech companies to form a
neutral body that receives and pools up funds from the Indian industry and
supports public education activities of proactive organizations and
educational institutions. At the international level, there are such
bodies like Crop Life International, receiving funds from the industry and
in turn support biotech related activities. A national level body would
minimize the procedural and time hassles.
Can AgBioWorld Foundation work toward this end?
All this will take time, but something must be done on an urgent basis to
counter the anti-agbiotech campaign first in Andhra Pradesh and
subsequently in other parts of India. In the Indian epic Ramayana,
Kumbhakarna, who would go into a comatose sleep months on, woke up when
his services were needed. Would the agbiotech industry wake up and
support the cause at least now?
Professor C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and
Education, Bangalore, India E-m: firstname.lastname@example.org
Do Europeans Weep Over Indian Farmers Suicides?
'Debate on GMO in UK -- Views of Farmers from India'
- P. CHENGAL REDDY, , AgBioview,
July 14, 2003
I represent a large farmers – (Non political) organization in India. This
missive is to British public and also Europeans interested in India’s
development. This is to explain the relevance of GMOs to our people,
Indians have long association with Britishers as colonial rulers, who
helped us by providing a common laws, language, Roads, Rail and Irrigation
projects. Even now through DFID many developmental activities including
education, health etc. are implemented.
India is now a global player in information technology, pharmaceutical
industry and Professional manpower supplier. Most of you have heard of
Noble laureate Amratya Sen, Mother Teresa, Pokran Explosion and India’s
space research achievement. Many consider India as huge consumer market –
“of course this is partially true”.
2. INDIAN AGRICULTURE IS SUCCESSFUL BUT FARMERS ARE COMMITTING SUICIDES
However, what the common Europeans need to understand is the problems of
650 million Indians living in villages and dependent on agriculture. Over
300 million of them are under below poverty line and 70%are unemployed/
under employed. The social unrest culminating in fundamentalism,
extremism has become rampant in our country. This is due to lopsided
policies in our Governance. India is segregated as urban India, capable
of competing with the West and rural India living in the dark ages. The
income disparity between the urban and rural areas which has 1:2 in 1970s
has increased to 1:6 in the past 30 years. The average productivity of
crops, consumption of food by farmers, mechanization of agriculture,
access to technologies in rural areas are amongst lowest in the world.
Our average land holdings are less than one hectare and fertilizer usage
is minimal. Even though, India claims of self-sufficiency in food, what
is available to poor in rural areas is minimal. Every year thousands of
farmers in India commit suicides due to failure of crops, permanent
indebtedness, exploitation and corruption. Farmers are the untouchables
of the present Indian society.
3. WTO AND CHALLENGES
For the 65% of the Indians dependent on land, agri-culture, and Animal
husbandry are a time honoured and life sustaining activity. In West it is
called cultivation but in India it is a culture with 3000 years tradition.
Farming activity is trivial to the British as its GDP and work force is
less than 45%. On the contrary for 650 million Indians it is vital as it
contributes 28% GDP and 65% work force.
We are now confronted with globalization challenges and WTO regulations.
Since 1990 Indian Government has unshackled the industry from regulations,
provided facilities and gave incentives to the organized sectors and
professionals to become globally competitive. However, we the farmers
remain under regulations, controls and restrictions.
“* Yet we are compelled to become globally competitive”
4. WHY GMOs ARE CRITICAL TO INDIAN FARMING?
Indian farmers are confronted regularly with natures furies of drought,
floods and cyclone. Due to tropical climate crops are affected by pests
and diseases. Over 40 million hectares are under water logged and saline
conditions. Since 1980 the food productivity levels are stagnated. The
per capita food availability is reduced in the past 10 years.
How is India to produce more food to meet the growing population of 1.2
How to produce quality raw material for industry?
How to control pests and diseases?
How to improve quality to global standards?
How to bring waste land under plough?
How to over come drought and floods?
Can the conventional agricultural research help India to over come above
problems and become globally competitive and face the challenges in 21st
Our Governments have constraints both in manpower and resources to do
research on GMOs. The private agriculture research in India is not
capable of GMO research. A perusal of agriculture development in USA,
Australia, South Africa, Mexico and Brazil has shown that their
agriculture competitiveness is due to adoption of technologies specially
Our neighbour China has increased their productivity levels reduced cost
of production and are successfully competing in the International market.
“Why should Indian farmers be afraid of Transgenic usage while farmers in
other countries are successfully using them?”
5. CAN INDIA BECOME AGRICULTURE SUPER POWER?
The Indian Professionals have become globally competitive due to the
training, infrastructure and facilities. We are hard working and
intelligent enough to become globally competitive. India has 1000 Mango
varieties, 5000 medicinal plants and 3000 auromatic plants. What is
required is to develop Indian farmers as “knowledge Workers”
6. DO EUROPEANS WEEP OVER INDIAN FARMERS SUICIDES?
We find the Europeans supported NGOs are championing the cause of anti GMO
lobby in Indian and also in developing nations. The question is how
genuine are these preachers and their sermons? Does these NGOs represent
the opinion of genuine E.U. farmers, scientists and industry?
Modern technologies are freely adopted by people all over the globe if
found beneficial. It is evident in consumables, pharmaceuticals and
technologies. The US and EU have a healthy competition in this arena.
However, in GMOs Europeans are expressing strong disapproval. Is it due
to their real concern for the welfare of farmers in developing nations?
Or is it a business rivalry between US and EU? If transgenic food is bad
for health and environment why there are no legal proceedings by American
consumers and the 20 million European tourists to America?
“Will you show us the evidence about the ill effects of GMOs on humans and
7. “DOES EUROPEANS NEED GENE TRANSFER!”
History has recorded that the colonial Europeans are ruthless and rule
less when it comes to protecting their business interest! However, in
confronting the business challenges of vibrant Americans they are lagging
behind in GMO research and marketing. Perhaps, the American have
developed the capabilities due to genetic infusion from all parts of the
globe. In the fight against fundamentalism the US policy is aggressive
and open. On the contrary the Europeans are evasive except Mr. BLAIR THE
“Perhaps, Europeans need a quality gene transfer to become competitive!”
8. DON’T FIGHT BUSINESS WARS IN THE 3rd WORLD COUNTRIES
It is the opinion of Indian farmers that Anti GMO activism in India is a
business rivalry between US and EU. The US advance in GMO research and
marketing has forced the EU to create obstacles of false and mischievous
propaganda on the dangerous of GMOs, so that they will delay the adoption
of GMOs till the Europeans catch up.
I complement the smartness of the EU campaigners for successfully
checkmating the Mighty US Government and the powerful MNCs on GMO issues
through a handful of NGOs and absurd arguments.
*”The Game is worth it. What is at stake is 3 billion customers?”
9. LET FARMERS DECIDE
It is high time that the perverse Anti GMOs campaign initiated, funded by
EU stopped immediately. We want you to realize that our nations need to
over come many difficulties, which are possible only through technologies.
The Indian professionals have successfully faced global challenges, so
will the farmers! We know which are good agricultural practices. Leave
the choice to us.
P. Chengal Reddy, Federation of Farmers Associations, India;
Bt Cotton: Adopt Wait-and-watch Policy
- P.K. Khosla, Tribune (India)
The recurrence of suicides by farmers in cotton-growing regions of
southern India has become a national debate. This started with the
introduction of fourth-generation synthetic pyrethroids some 20 years ago
for the control of American bollworm, the dreaded pest of cotton.
The low efficacy of the pesticides in many cases plagued by high cost and
low yield have been thought to be the prime reasons for the loss to
farmers. That is why when the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee
(GEAC) approved the commercial cultivation of three Mahyco-Monsanto Bt
cotton transgenics (Mech-184; Mech-162; Mech-12) on March 26, 2002, it was
received with open arms by cotton growers of the country. The higher yield
and low pesticide consumption were the attractions, irrespective of the
high cost of seeds. Environmentalists of the country, on the other hand,
saw this scientific innovation as another suicidal trap, along with
dangers of killing our natural biodiversity and the generation of super
In spite of heavy usage of pesticides amounting to about Rs 16,00 crore,
which is half of the total of other crops, about 13 per cent of the crop
was damaged in the country due to heavy attack of American bollworm.
The issue has drawn the attention of policy makers, scientists,
industrialists and others to find ways and means to check such
catastrophes and to improve the cotton yield. Mr S.P. Oswal, Managing
Director, Vardhman Spinning Mills, Ludhiana, has said: "In Punjab there
are some farmers which produce 800 kg or even more of cotton. The
practices followed by them require to be replicated. A Consortium of
Cotton Promotion is mooted in Punjab to tackle the problem. If five
farmers can achieve the startling targets then others too can do it,
provided the technological packages as adopted by elite farmers are
demonstrated to them. The consortium intends to adopt an extension system
that would include all stakeholders, including industry and progressive
farmers. The need of the hour is to improve production through the optimal
management of existing hybrid varieties. Once the controversy of Bt cotton
is over, then that can also be used for furthering the cotton yield in
While the nation was busy analysing the reason for the alleged poor
performance of the Bt cotton in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, a paper
entitled "Yield Effects of Genetically Modified Crops in Developing
Countries" (Science-February, 2003) by Matin Qaim of the University of
Bonn, Germany, and David Zilberman of the University of California,
Berkley, UK, employing yield performance of Bt cotton for advocating the
cause of genetically modified crops in the developing countries, added
fuel to the fire. This triggered a controversy in India and several
articles appeared in the Press questioning the field test data of 2001
used for deducing yield increase of 87 per cent from Bt cotton.
Now the moot question is whether we should follow the environmentalists in
India and withdraw the sanction accorded for growing Bt cotton or follow
the line of the US, China, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand and other
countries for harnessing the benefits from Bt cotton. Seeing the ensured
benefits of Bt cotton even in warm countries like Thailand and Indonesia
the argument of critics that Bt cotton is effective against bollworm only
in cool niches as in the US is untenable. A study by Kasetsart University,
Bangkok, illustrates that each rai of Bt cotton gave a benefit of 195.5 to
275.5 baht. The cost of pest control came to 300 baht per rai in contrast
to 570 baht in non-Bt cotton (Bangkok Post, September 18, 2000).
The poor performance to complete failure of Bt crop in certain localised
pockets in the first year of its official introduction in India cannot be
ignored. The complex pest and disease scenario of cotton in general and Bt
cotton in particular warrants the adoption of integrated pest management
(IPM) as a sound approach to control pests and pathogens with significant
saving. The findings of the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR)
indicate that the cost of plant protection for Bt Mech-184 in the event of
pest population crossing the economic threshold is as high as Rs 5,000 per
ha and such a limit increases once in 90 days. CICR findings suggest that
at initial stages the average expenditure on IPM will come to Rs 1,413/ha
for Mech-184 and Mech-l02 and Rs 1,727/ha for Mech-12.
The arguments given by critics of Bt cotton do not include the supply of
spurious insecticides in the market, leading to low yields with high cost
of pesticide sprays. This may possibly be another reason for yield
aberration in many pockets. As long as the quality and efficacy of the
insecticides are not ensured the conclusions drawn will always go against
the introduction of transgenics. Ask any farmer and he will attribute low
yield of Indian crops to spurious chemicals.
The advice to the critics of Bt cotton would be to wait and see. Farm
scientists are not necessarily dragging farmers into the lap of MNCs by
promoting transgenics. During the Green Revolution the application of
chemical fertilisers was instrumental in attaining self-sufficiency in
food and now transgenics may open a new era of entrepreneurship and
employment generation in primary and secondary sectors.
We may reject the observations of Qaim and Zilberman for using the field
test data of Mahyco for advocating the cause of genetically modified crops
(GMC). But what needs to be done is that our own scientists should be
pushed to develop seeds of GMCs and ensure that they are available at
affordable prices, rather than depending upon MNCs alone. Ask scientists
to produce transgenic crops that are completely resistant to pests and
pathogens. Give a fair chance to Bt cotton. If it fails farmers will
reject it, or otherwise, like any other successful technology, it will
dominate the Indian farm scene.
Genes Might Come From Source other than Mother and Father
- Sarah Webb, Indiana Daily Student, July 14, 2003
Mother Nature is proving that the transfer of genes is more complicated
than scientists thought.
Believed to be extremely unlikely among multi-cellular organisms, gene
swapping appears to occur widely among unrelated species of plants,
according to researchers led by IU biology professor Jeff Palmer.
In the most recent issue of the journal Nature, Palmer and colleagues
reported five out of more than 100 genes sequenced from flowering plants
were transferred from unrelated species. Their findings hint that
horizontal gene transfer also might occur among other unrelated complex
organisms, including animals.
The findings are surprising news to biologists who believed gene
inheritance in multicellular organisms could only occur vertically, by
transmission from parent to offspring.
"This work will certainly force genomic researchers to rethink the
evolutionary forces affecting genome structure and definitely widens our
horizon on the biological potential of nature," said James R. Brown of the
Bioinformatics Division of GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical company.
Scientists have been studying this kind of gene swapping among bacteria
and other single-celled organisms for many years. The incorporated genes
are often important for bacteria, giving them additional traits, such as
resistance to antibiotics.
The importance of these gene transfers for plants is part of a continuing
study, but it seems clear that at least some of these genes take an active
role in plants. Palmer's team has shown that two out of the five
discovered genes are processed within the cell. Surprisingly, one of these
active genes from bloodroot is chimeric, meaning that a portion was passed
faithfully from parent to offspring and another portion acquired by a
different mechanism from a different species.
The cases that Palmer and his coworkers have found are probably only a few
among many cases of gene transfer in plants. "In aggregate, I'm certain
the five cases we've documented now represent the tip of an iceberg,"
Palmer said. "There's probably thousands of cases that occurred during the
flowering plant evolution."
But each case of horizontal gene transfer is relatively rare because these
potentially thousands of incidents have occurred over tens of millions of
years. Therefore, discovering exactly how these transfers occurred might
be incredibly difficult, or there might not be a consistent mechanism.
"What we're doing here is basically a kind of molecular archaeology,"
Palmer said. "We're sifting through the genetic debris of millions of
years of evolution looking for clues."
And because these events might occur once in a 100,000-year period,
horizontal gene transfer from genetically modified crops should not
represent a threat to other unmodified plant species, said Palmer and
postdoctoral associate Ulfar Bergthorsson, who is working on the project.
In a world where scientists have sequenced the genome for many species of
plants and animals, the issue of horizontal transfer complicates the
interpretation of that data. With the assumption that all genetic material
was passed relatively faithfully from parent to offspring, scientists have
mapped trees of relationship based on genetic data.
In cases of horizontal transfer, largely unrelated organisms show
unexpected relationships to organisms far outside their branch of the
family tree. Bergthorsson said he sees a new interpretation of the tree of
life as the most significant implication of the research.
"I think the main message from this work is that we have to start taking
the process of lateral transfer seriously," he said. "We always tried to
interpret everything in terms of things falling down in a tree-like
fashion, but the tree of life may not be so much a tree but more like a
web, perhaps, with connecting branches."
Young European Biotech Network
‘Young European Biotech Network’ (YEBN) is an independent, non-profit
network of those, who run it: engaged young scientists. Our aims is to
help out by providing platform capable to introduce the young generation
to biotechnology, its hot topics and controversies as well as its business
aspects. The action within YEBN comes from interest-driven projects raised
Further YEBN projects will provide the Biotech Youth with information and
means of exchanging ideas: by extending the www.yebn.org site into a web
portal; the addition of extendable links and a forum will produce an
interactive platform. Work on the improvement of education and
communication in biotechnology is also thought of. YEBN is an Association
Section of European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB)
For more information visit http://www.yebn.org/ or contact email@example.com.
- Mikolaj Slabicki, Executive Board Member, Young European Biotech Network
Letter sent to The Editor Daily Mail
Subject: GM foods and crops
Sir, Your stance on GM foods and crops continues to be hysterical and
Why should any of us be concerned about genes in food if we are happy to
eat live yoghurts (full of bacterial genes) and Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato
sandwiches (full of animal and vegetable genes, all mixed up with genes
from our gut bugs by the time we are digesting the genes in our
All the evidence so far, which you have ignored in your campaign, points
to no problems with GM crops and food, far less than with organic food,
which can carry lethal germs or be treated with 'natural' poisons such as
copper, and totally ignores the benefits to our environment and to a
sustainable future that GM is bringing all round the world. Isn't it time
your newspaper grew up and stopped being so dog-in-the-manger?
Sincerely, Mr Meredith Lloyd-Evans, Managing Partner BioBridge Associates,
Letter sent to The Editor Sunday Indy
Subject: GM bugs and the intestine
Sir, Michael Meacher is talking out of his bottom - even if 'GMO DNA'
transfers to bacteria in the human gut, our natural environment is full of
micro-organisms that are alive when we eat them, containing masses of
foreign DNA, which we break up and digest, and we even artificially dose
ourselves with bacteria containing what we fondly assume to be
'beneficial' DNA (Lactobacilli et al.) with no evidence of harm to humans
Please let's put these GM 'scares' into perspective - yes, there 'might
be' a risk of disease, but it is as remote as turning into a tomato
because we have eaten a bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich (not to mention
the micro-organisms on it).
Regards, Mr Meredith Lloyd-Evans
Pest Resistance Feared as Farmers Flout Rules
'Small refuge areas found in midwest transgenic maize crops.'
- Tom Clarke, Nature online, July 10, 2003 http://www.nature.com/
Nearly one-fifth of farmers in the US midwest are ignoring federal rules
about how much transgenic maize (corn) they can plant, according to
government figures. Experts fear that this non-compliance could encourage
insects to develop resistance to the insecticide produced by the crop.
Some transgenic maize contains a gene from the bacterium Bacillus
thuringiensis (Bt), which allows the corn to produce a natural
insecticide. Under rules laid down by the Environmental Protection Agency,
farmers who plant Bt maize must devote 20% of their acreage to non-Bt
varieties. These 'refuge' areas should prevent pests from developing
resistance to the insecticide, as resistant insects will breed with
susceptible insects living in the refuge and dilute the trait.
But a study released last month by the Center for Science in the Public
Interest (CSPI), a Washington-based pressure group, reveals that this rule
is being ignored. The report describes data from the US Department of
Agriculture showing that last year 19% of all Bt maize-growing farms in
Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska failed to plant the necessary refuges. No
refuge at all was planted on 13% of the farms.
Most farms that broke the rule were small, planting less than 80 hectares
(200 acres) of Bt maize. Farms of this size are not monitored by the
Agricultural Biotechnology Stewardship Technical Committee, the industry
body that monitors growing practices.
"It's just a matter of time before resistance develops," warns the
report's author Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology projects at the
CSPI. Bt maize will be rendered useless, adds Jaffe, if pests such as the
European corn borer, the chief target of transgenic maize, develop
But transgenic-crop firms disagree. "This won't jeopardize the long-term
effectiveness of the technology," says Eric Sachs, director of scientific
affairs at biotechnology company Monsanto, based in St Louis, Missouri.
Those ignoring the rules grow just 5% of Bt maize planted in the three
states, he says.
Only 25% of maize grown in the midwest contains Bt, and the likelihood
that non-compliance from a fraction of these farms will lead to resistance
is small, agrees insect ecologist Bruce Tabashnik at the University of
Arizona in Tucson. "It's unlikely that there is sufficient pressure on the
insects," he says. In seven years of academic field surveys, insects
resistant to Bt maize have not been documented in the United States,
But this could change. New Bt maize, developed by Monsanto and designed to
control a root pest, the maize rootworm, is due to be sown next year, and
is expected to be adopted far more widely than existing Bt varieties.
"Although non-compliance may not be an immediate hazard, it could lead to
a serious problem in the future," says Tabashnik.
The transgenic-crop developers maintain that small farms won't pose a
major problem - but they are concerned. "It's not clear that we have a
problem of biological significance," says Val Giddings, vice-president for
food and agriculture with the US Biotechnology Industry Organization, "but
we do have a problem of regulatory significance."
Obituary: Jeff Schell (1935–2003)
- Marc van Montagu, Nature 423, 934; June 26, 2003
What can we learn from a soil bacterium that induces tumours in plants?
This was the question that Jeff Schell set out to tackle when, in 1967, he
became an associate professor of genetics at what was then called the
Rijksuniversiteit Gent. Schell died on 17 April 2003. In the intervening
quarter-century, the lessons that he and others extracted from work with
the bacterium concerned, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, were to provide the
basis for the plant biotechnology industry.
In the mid-1960s, it had just become generally accepted that some viruses
cause tumours, as was acknowledged with the award of a 1966 Nobel prize to
Peyton Rous. But bacteria capable of inducing tumours in animals were
unheard of. And although there had long been an awareness of plant tumours
called 'crown galls', they generated only minor research interest. Schell,
however, wanted to explore at the molecular level what, 20 years
previously, Armin Braun had dubbed "tumour-inducing property": the ability
of Agrobacterium to induce crown galls.
Schell had been trained in Gent as a bacterial taxonomist, and had then
had the good fortune to do postdoctoral work with Bill Hayes, the father
of bacterial genetics, at Hammersmith Hospital in London. Later, with Lou
Siminovitch in Toronto, he discovered the fascinating world of
bacteriophage — viruses that infect bacteria. Along with this grounding in
bacterial and phage genetics, he had an especial talent for formulating
hypotheses and designing experiments to test them. All of this was the
perfect background for solving the crown gall puzzle.
Jeff and I had both been active in the same student movements. When he
became a professor, his lab was next to mine, and we decided to join
forces. A good collection of oncogenic and non-oncogenic strains of
Agrobacterium was available to us at the taxonomy laboratory where he had
done his PhD, and we set to work comparing the strains. We found that
tumour-inducing strains of Agrobacterium harboured a large element, which
we called the Ti-plasmid. And we proposed that some DNA of this Ti-plasmid
might become integrated into the genome of its host and induce the crown
gall. This hypothesis met with scepticism from most plant physiologists as
a seemingly wild and untestable idea -- of course, molecular biology was
then only just coming into existence.
It was not long, however, before the appropriate techniques were
developed. With the advent of gene cloning and DNA hybridization by
Southern blots, proof came fast that a copy of a segment on the Ti-plasmid
was preferentially inserted in expressed DNA sequences of the plant. But
why were genes in a bacterium active only in a plant cell?
The answer stemmed from work by Georges Morel and Jacques Tempé, who had
shown that the Ti-plasmid causes a plant to produce certain unique
amino-acid-derived molecules. From this, Schell developed the concept of
'genetic colonization', according to which the whole raison d'être of the
Ti-plasmid is making plant cells secrete these molecules, which constitute
a source of carbon and nitrogen that only Agrobacterium can use. Crown
galls, then, constitute a unique ecological niche for the microbe.
The implication of these findings was clear: if DNA was being transferred
by Agrobacterium, it should be possible to replace the tumour-inducing
genes by others that conveyed new traits to plants. The race to turn
Agrobacterium into a reliable gene vector was on, with fierce competition
from Gene Nester at the University of Washington in Seattle, and Mary-Dell
Chilton at Washington University and Monsanto in St Louis. Schell was a
keen sportsman, with a particular interest in sailing, and he relished
competition (especially when he felt he could win). Nonetheless, this was
a scientific race conducted on amicable terms, with information being
exchanged and synchronized publication of many of the notable papers.
In 1978, Schell had become director of the Max Planck Institute for Plant
Breeding Research in Cologne, Germany. This he turned into an
international leader in plant research, nurturing generations of students
and young scientists from around the world. He continued co-directing the
team in Gent, however, and our work culminated in 1983 with the
announcement, simultaneously with Chilton and Monsanto, of the
Agrobacterium-mediated creation of the first genetically modified plants
that expressed a new trait.
With this development, plant molecular biology had a key tool with which
to flourish: from then on, transgenes and gene regulatory sequences could
be routinely transferred into plants. Financiers and agrochemical
companies became keen to invest in the new discipline of plant
biotechnology through start-up companies focusing on crop improvement.
Schell was instrumental in helping many of these industrial initiatives to
integrate the findings of fundamental research into their activities.
Throughout his career he was concerned about injustice and suffering; he
was particularly alarmed by environmental problems, and was convinced that
this new technology would be instrumental in achieving more sustainable
agricultural practices. He believed that, for all their good intentions,
those who wish to ban genetic modification in crops, or who argue that
developing countries should reject food-aid with a genetically modified
component, are profoundly misguided.
Even though Schell was suffering from a neurodegenerative disease, right
up to his death he continued to put the case for the need to apply plant
biotechnology to help farmers in developing countries. He was also
particularly active in promoting German–Israeli cooperation in the plant
sciences, through the Otto Warburg Minerva Center in Jerusalem, which runs
joint programmes with the Weizmann Institute and the Hebrew University.
Jeff Schell was not only a thoughtful and innovative scientist, but also
an outstanding speaker and a charismatic mentor. And in one sense, the
best may be yet to come, for the enduring influence of his work is likely
to be seen in many of the advances in agriculture in the decades ahead.
The WTO Complaint--Why now?
- Julian Kinderlerer, Nature Biotechnology (www.nature.com), July 2003
Vol. 21 No. 7 pp 735-736; Reproduced in AgBioView with the permission of
After years of frustration at an inability to sell genetically modified
(GM) foods and crops in the European Union, and because of concerns about
the impact of the de facto moratorium on the import by developing
countries of these products, the United States, with Canada, Argentina and
initially Egypt, has recently decided to instigate an action at the World
Trade Organization (WTO; Geneva, Switzerland), citing article 4 of the
Disputes Procedure and articles in the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS)
Agreement, the Agreement on Agriculture, the Technical Barriers to Trade
(TBT) Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) 1994
agreement. Although the EU bureaucracy has been sluggish in tackling
politically troubling GM products, I argue here that the WTO complaint is
poorly timed and ultimately likely to be counterproductive.
According to a report of the EU-US Biotechnology Consultative Forum1,
"Regulation is a means by which governments seek to gain the benefits and
ameliorate the potential negative consequences of a market economy. The
United States and the European Union differ in the particulars of how they
approach regulation for agricultural biotechnology products" but share the
same goals in assuring safety. There is a need to recognize that science
cannot provide all the results needed to ensure environmental and health
'safety'; in many instances, further experimentation will not provide
answers that enable us to make decisions because of the inherent
variability of biological systems.
The first EU directives on GM technology were agreed on in 1990. Directive
90/220 (ref. 2) addressed the release into the environment and the
marketing of GM organisms. European governments were required to bring the
directive into force through national legislation. Directive 90/219 on the
contained use of GM microorganisms was passed at the same time3. This
directive differs from that for release in that permission to use
organisms in containment is a national decision and contained use has not
been affected by the moratorium. Trials involving field release of GM
organisms are governed through legislation derived from 90/220; field
trials have continued throughout the time when approvals for marketing of
transgenic materials have dried up in most of the EU countries.
Much has been done to change the EU legislative framework since 1990. In
1998, two directives were introduced that were intended to have a major
impact on the use of modern biotechnology in Europe. Directive 98/81 (ref.
4) significantly amended Directive 90/219, and Directive 98/44 (ref. 5)
required modification of the patent law in EU countries to ensure that
inventions involving modern biotechnology are protected. In 2001,
Directive 90/220 was modified substantially, providing much clearer time
limits for the decision-making processes so as to (attempt to) ensure that
those applying for permission to market transgenic products would know the
timescale for decision. This directive should have been incorporated into
national law during October 2002, but many European nations have failed to
do so. It provides for principles for the environmental risk assessment
that "should be carried out in a scientifically sound and transparent
manner based on available scientific and technical data," including, as
stated in Annex II: "The objective of an e.r.a. [environmental risk
assessment] is, on a case-by-case basis, to identify and evaluate
potential adverse effects of the GMO [GM organism], either direct and
indirect, immediate or delayed, on human health and the environment which
the deliberate release or the placing on the market of GMOs may have. The
e.r.a. should be conducted with a view to identifying if there is a need
for risk management and if so, the most appropriate methods to be used."
In 2002, the European Commission (EC; Brussels, Belgium) published their
strategy for using modern biotechnology for the benefit of the citizens of
member countries. It recognized that biotechnology offers "opportunities
to address many of the global needs relating to health, aging, food and
the environment and to sustainable developments" but "[B]road public
support is essential and ethical and societal implications and concerns
must be addressed." It went on to state, "Science-based regulatory
oversight should enhance public confidence" as long as the technology is
developed in a responsible way that is "in harmony with ethical values and
In 2002, The UK Royal Society (London) published an update on their report
on GM plants in which they stated that "scientific assessments must inform
policy decisions but cannot preempt them, and that public opinion must be
taken into account throughout. We believe that the public debate about GM
food must take account of wider issues than the science alone. We also
wish to stress the importance of informing debate with sound science"6.
There is consensus in Europe that risk assessment must be science-based,
but that risk management, including the decisions as to whether or not to
permit a particular use must take wider considerations into account.
It has long been recognized in the European Union that consumers have been
reluctant to purchase foods derived from GM organisms, and many of the
major food producers and retailers have chosen (since 1998) to use the
absence of these from their own brand products as a marketing tool. Many
commercial organizations have chosen to remove GM products because of
consumer concerns, rather than because of government edict. This consumer
reluctance has had an effect on policy initiated by governments and by the
EC. Since 1997, foods that consist of or contain GM organisms have not
been approved for use in the European Union, and it is feared that the new
labeling system that is likely to be implemented within Europe will
effectively extend this 'moratorium.' In March of this year, J. Dennis
Hastert, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, suggested that
the moratorium was based on fear rather than sound science. The impression
given was that it was the authorities that were fearful and that consumers
would gladly buy the products if they were available, which is patently
not the case. Codex Alimentarius (Rome, Italy) has not yet finalized its
guidance on GM foods, but draft recommendations permit labeling to
indicate derivation from GM organisms8.
A Regulation on Novel Foods and Novel Food Ingredients (258/97) had been
introduced in 1997 to provide for risk assessment and labeling of GM
foods9. This has never worked, for GM foods have not been approved for
sale in the European Union since the regulation came into force. Labeling
requirements have been strict. Initially, Council Regulation 1139/98 laid
down provisions for the labeling of foods and food ingredients derived
from maize and soybean that had already been approved10. In 2000,
Regulation 50/2000 was adopted to ensure that additives and flavorings
would have to be labeled if either DNA or protein resulting from the
modification is present in the final product11. Regulation 49/2000 was
also introduced in 2000, aimed at ensuring that foods be labeled if there
is >1% GM material in the foods (adventitiously)12.
Several other legislative initiatives have attempted to address the
over-elaboration of legislation, including the setting up of the European
Food Safety Authority (Brussels, Belguim; http://www.efsa.eu.int/) and
several new regulations or directives proceeding slowly through the
labyrinthine parliamentary approval system of the European Union. These
include a new food and feed regulation13 and regulations for the labeling
of GM foods and feeds14. Labeling will be required for food and feed
produced on the basis of GM material, even if GM organisms cannot be
identified in the final product, for example, in soybean oil. The labeling
requirement will not apply for adventitious presence of GM organisms below
a 0.9% threshold. Products that have not received permission to be
marketed in Europe, but for which a scientific assessment is positive,
will have to be labeled if the GM content exceeds 0.5% adventitiously.
Another layer of regulatory complexity has been added by the Cartagena
Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which was agreed on in
2000 and obtained its fiftieth ratification in June, thus coming into
force; 50 countries and the European Union has ratified the treaty (the
United States cannot without ratifying the Convention on Biological
Diversity). Many of the member states of the European Union have not as
yet ratified the treaty, but a decision of the European Parliament on June
4, 2003 to agree to a Regulation on the Transboundary Movement of GM
Organisms means that ratification by the remaining members should happen
shortly and therefore the protocol will soon come into force. This places
many obligations on parties to the protocol, which may be different from
those under the terms of the GATT agreements.
The protocol outlines a risk assessment system based on science and is
intended to establish procedures that can assure the safety of products
that can be imported. The protocol is a trade-related treaty in that it
governs trans-boundary movements of 'living modified organisms' but sits
firmly within the Convention on Biological Diversity, an environmental
treaty. The agreement setting up the WTO
(http://www.wto.org/english/docs_e/legal_e/04-wto.doc) states in the
preamble that while allowing the optimal use of the world's resources in
accordance with the objective of sustainable development, there is a need
both to protect and preserve the environment and to enhance the means for
The European Union thus aims to set up a science-based assessment and
regulatory procedure. It has taken account of consumer reluctance to buy
these goods, and respects the concerns of consumers by providing for
labeling. The systems in place have been ineffective, in that they have
not allowed (so far) for the approval of products, but the many
publications of the commission and of member states show an appreciation
of the need to develop and use this technology and of the importance of
modern biotechnology for developing countries. It may be that the decision
to proceed to the WTO will harm the process of instituting effective
legislation and of building up public confidence that GM organisms already
approved for use in the United States and Canada pose no harm to human
health or the environment.
The differences between those nations taking this action and Europe is
that the European public have shown a strong resistance to using GM
products and this has been expressed in the reluctance of politicians to
override the strongly held views of their constituents. It is unlikely
that legal action would have a positive effect on consumer choice. The
EU-US Biotechnology Consultancy Forum recommended in 2000 "that once the
basic threshold of human safety has been met it is also appropriate to
consider, on a case-by-case basis, the potential risks and benefits of
each new product given the health and nutritional status of the people and
the ecological and agricultural systems in a particular region of use."
They went further, recommending that there be monitoring and that
"Governments should undertake to develop and implement processes and
mechanisms that will make it possible to trace all foods, derived from GM
organisms, containing novel ingredients or claiming novel benefits. Before
such new products are approved for marketing or when there are significant
environmental questions, a detailed plan for mandatory monitoring should
be established on a case-by-case basis." These are processes that Europe
If politics should be avoided, and if the needs and wishes of stakeholders
on either side of the Atlantic should be ignored if they are not
science-based, then I ask "why now?"
1. The EU-US Biotechnology Consultative Forum. Final Report (EU, Brussels,
2. The European Council. Official Journal L117 08/05/1990, 0015-0027
3. The European Council. Official Journal L117 08/05/1990, 0001-0014
4. The European Council. Official Journal L330 05/12/1998, 0013-0031
5. The European Parliament and Council. Official Journal L213 30/7/1998,
6. European Commission. Life Sciences and Biotechnology--A Strategy for
Europe. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the
Council, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the
Regions. COM(2002)27 (EC, Brussels, Belgium, 2002).
7. The UK Royal Society. Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use and
Human Health--an Update. Policy document 4/02 February 2002 (UK Royal
Society, London, UK, 2002).
8. Codex Alimentarius. Report of the Thirtieth Session of the Codex
Committee on Food Labeling, Halifax, Canada, 6-10 May 2002. Proposed Draft
Guidelines for the Labelling of Food and Food Ingredients Obtained through
Certain Techniques of Genetic Modification/Genetic Engineering (Codex,
Rome, Italy, 2002).
9. European Parliament and Council. Official Journal L043 14/02/1997,
10. European Council. Official Journal L159 03/06/1998, 0004-0007 (1998).
11. European Commission. Official Journal L6 11/1/2000, 0015-0017 (2000).
12. European Commission. Official Journal L6 11/1/2000, 0013-0014 (2000).
13. European Parliament and Council. Proposal for a Regulation of the
European Parliament and of the Council on Genetically Modified Food and
Feed (25.7.2001) COM(2001) 425 final 2001/0173 (COD)
http://www.europa.eu.int/comm/food/fs/biotech/biotech08_en.pdf (25 July
14. European Parliament and Council. Proposal for a Regulation of the
European Parliament and of the Council Concerning Traceability and
Labelling of Genetically Modified Organisms and Traceability of Food and
Feed Products Produced from Genetically Modified Organisms and Amending
Directive 2001/18/EC (25.7.2001) COM(2001) 182 final. 2001/0180(COD).
http://www.europa.eu.int/comm/food/fs/biotech/biotech09_en.pdf (25 July
The author is at the Sheffield Institute of Biotechnological Law and
Ethics, Department of Law, Conduit Road, University of Sheffield,
Sheffield S10 1FL, UK. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org