Today's AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org/ November 20, 2003
* Africa: A Continent Divided Over GM
* What's Up with Protato?
* Syngenta Ends Plant-Research Deal With Berkeley
* Engineering a Gene Revolution
* Gene Technology In Australia: Fact Not Fiction
* Genetically Altered States - How Crops are Engineered
* Altered Corn Doesn't Affect Livestock Performance
* Media Science Program Fellowships
* Precautionary Principle Cuts Costs As Well As Risks
* Terrorists with Tofu Breath
Africa: A Continent Divided Over GM
- Scidev.net November 20, 2003,
Today, some 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa don't know where
their next meal will come from and, despite international aid, Africa will
still have 183 million undernourished citizens by 2030, according to a
report published this year by the UN Millenium Task Force.
Against this backdrop, Ehsan Masood describes how Africa is emerging as
one of the front lines in the battle for acceptance of genetically
modified (GM) crops. Pro-biotech campaigners are fighting tooth and nail
-- often by somewhat controversial methods, including blatant media
manipulation -- to spread the word about GM crops. But the anti-GM lobby
is equally vociferous.
Vast sums of money are flowing into Africa in support of both sides of the
argument, as the various parties try to influence policy makers and the
public. Meanwhile, more moderate voices are trying to promote dialogue
between opponents, pointing out that while GM technology itself may not be
the answer to hunger in Africa, it could be one component in an overall
strategy to achieve a secure and sustainable food supply.
GM Crops: A Continent Divided
- Ehsan Masood, Nature 426, 224 - 226, Nov. 20, 2003
African activists, backed by wealthy supporters in the United States and
Europe, are locked in combat over the merits of transgenic crops. Ehsan
Masood tracks the people, the politics and the cash behind the campaigns.
When Jocelyn Webster was asked by a South African reporter for her opinion
on "genetically modified orgasms", she was exasperated but not surprised.
For Webster, who heads the pro-biotech campaigning group AfricaBio, this
question was just one more symptom of the endemic misunderstanding about
transgenic technologies in Africa.
Africa is emerging as one of the front lines in the battle for acceptance
of genetically modified (GM) foods. Webster believes that transgenic
agriculture is vital in the fight against world hunger, and AfricaBio,
along with agribiotech companies and other pro-biotech campaigners, is now
fighting tooth and nail, often by somewhat controversial methods, to
spread the word about GM crops. But the anti-GM lobby is equally powerful
and vociferous, and vast amounts of money are flowing in to Africa in
support of both sides of the argument, as the various parties try to
influence policy-makers and the public.
For AfricaBio, a coalition of scientists and companies based in South
Africa, the idea is to improve GM's image -- perhaps with good reason.
Today, some 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa don't know where
their next meal will come from, and the problem will not be going away.
Despite international aid to feed the hungry, Africa will still have 183
million undernourished citizens by 2030, according to a report published
by the UN Millennium Hunger Task Force this year. AfricaBio is one group
among many that believes transgenic crops, modified so that they will grow
in salty soils or conditions of drought, offer a solution to starvation.
But the group's methods would be considered in some countries to be
blatant media manipulation. Webster talks about training journalists how
to report GM stories, telling them that the term 'genetically improved' is
more accurate than 'genetically modified'. In early 2003 she hosted a
press briefing where the journalists were fed GM fritters without knowing
it. The idea, Webster says matter-of-factly, was to demonstrate that GM
food tastes just the same as conventional fare, and does no harm. She
claims that the journalists were amused and there were no angry headlines
in the next day's papers.
Although Webster stresses the role of GM crops in improving nutrition in
Africa, there are wider issues at stake for companies such as the US-based
agribiotech giant Monsanto, which is one of the funding sources of
AfricaBio. If GM crops can be sold as the way to feed the starving, there
could be a subtle shift in the political landscape worldwide, making GM
food more acceptable to consumers in Europe and elsewhere.
On the other side of the fence, opponents of GM crops are just as
determined to keep them out of Africa. Over the past few years,
international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in
development, such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and Action Aid, have joined
their environmentalist cousins from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in
lobbying against GM in both Europe and Africa. Their extensive network of
international media contacts has helped them to generate publicity for
their views in a relatively short time.
The two sides are squaring up to each other at a crucial time for Africa.
South Africa is the only country on the continent that is currently
growing GM crops commercially. Egypt, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Uganda are doing
GM research. But elsewhere, GM is still very much an emerging issue. Only
three countries so far -- Egypt, South Africa and Zimbabwe -- have
introduced regulations to govern transgenic agriculture.
The local policy-makers who will ultimately decide on the future of GM in
Africa are being pushed and pulled in both directions, and are being
showered with money from the developed world, some in the form of grants
for 'biosafety research' -- money for regulatory infrastructure and
testing of whether GM affects the environment or human health.
At last year's Earth Summit in South Africa, the US government pledged
$100 million over ten years to support agricultural biotechnology in the
developing world. In May, the US Agency for International Development
(USAID) announced a grant of $15 million to support biosafety
policy-making and research in Asia and in East and West Africa. At the
beginning of October this year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation -- the
charity established by Microsoft founder Bill Gates -- pledged $4 million
for GM technologies, as part of a $25-million project to combat
malnutrition. And later the same month, Germany approved a grant of 2
million (US$2.3 million) to help African countries strengthen biosafety
The USAID and German grants are particularly significant when viewed in
the context of a looming trade dispute between the United States and the
European Union (EU) over the latter's failure to approve new GM products
for sale and growth (see Nature 425, 655; 2003). Against this background,
both powers are trying hard to influence African interpretations of a new
international treaty on GM trade — the Cartagena biosafety protocol, which
came into effect on 11 September 2003. The protocol governs trade in
'living modified organisms' -- from seeds to fish -- intended for direct
release into the environment. A country can use it to block GM imports if
it thinks a crop will damage the environment, human health or the trade in
locally produced goods.
The United States and its private-sector allies would like the laws in
African countries to reflect their own views -- that GM technology is
inherently safe unless proven otherwise, and that countries should not be
allowed to refuse GM imports just because they don't particularly want to
eat GM food. There are strong reasons to think that the USAID grant will
be used to support this position. In April, the agency's head, Andrew
Natsios, told the US Congress: "The great bulk of African agricultural
ministers, presidents and prime ministers I have spoken with are all
interested in bringing this technology into their agricultural systems."
Natsios accused "Europeans" of spreading misinformation, which did
"enormous damage to poor people in Africa".
European governments and aid groups see things differently. The EU, unlike
the United States, insists that all GM produce is labelled and traceable
back to its source. Measures that would add those requirements, and even
stricter regulations, to the Cartagena protocol were endorsed by the
African Union's heads of state at a meeting in Mozambique this August. The
German grant will help member states to draw up similar regulations that
would allow them to block imports of all GM produce without needing to
cite specific reasons, and possibly to claim damages if a GM product harms
human health or the environment.
The brains behind this African law, and the man who is courting European
funding for the project, is Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, head of
Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority. Tewolde is soft-spoken and
understated; it is hard to believe that his influence extends across
Africa and beyond. He has powerful European supporters in environment
ministries and NGOs, including former British environment minister Michael
Meacher, who since his departure from government has emerged as a
figurehead for the anti-GM movement. Meacher hosted Tewolde at the House
of Commons in London last month to address members of parliament on the
African position regarding Cartagena.
When Nature caught up with Tewolde at his London base, the offices of the
environmental organization the Gaia Foundation, he argued that he isn't
entirely anti-GM, nor does he want to stand in the way of the technology
feeding the poor. "We simply do not want to grow GM crops without due
consideration given to human health, domestic animals and the
environment," he said over a plate of non-GM rice, bread and lentils. "We
suspect that Africa is high on the agenda for the United States' next push
for GM acceptance. And we resent the way that the stereotyped image of the
hungry in developing countries has been used to force a style of
agriculture that will only exacerbate problems of hunger and poverty."
Until the late 1990s, those views dominated nascent African public opinion
on transgenic agriculture. Environmental NGOs drip-fed messages
questioning the safety of GM technology, its relevance to the needs of
ordinary Africans, and the intentions of the multinational corporations
who promote it. Their argument was, and is, simple: Africa does not need
to waste its scarce resources on a technology whose principal products to
date are herbicide-tolerant cotton and longer-lasting tomatoes. The
anti-GM campaign reached a high point in 2000, when European and African
governments, led in part by Tewolde, formed an alliance to defeat the
United States and other grain-exporting countries at the United Nations
and forced through the Cartagena protocol.
Stung by this defeat, pro-GM campaigners realized that, if they wanted to
wield equal influence in Africa, they would need to take a leaf out of the
green activists' handbook and bring on board successful public-relation
strategies. The biotech lobby has since sought out charismatic African
scientists, farmers and policy-makers who believe in the power of GM, and
has built up their public profiles at home and abroad.
A prime example is Kenyan plant scientist and farmer's daughter Florence
Wambugu, who in 2001 formed A Harvest Biotech Foundation to spread the
message that Africa wants GM crops. She has strong connections to
Monsanto, having done her postdoctoral research at its labs in St Louis,
A boost for biotech
Wambugu, a passionate and assertive campaigner, wrote to a committee of
the US House of Representatives about GM and poverty earlier this year.
She argued that the European anti-GM lobby's primary accomplishment was to
"keep safe and nutritious food out of the hands of starving people". Those
are strong words, but her choicest remarks are directed at Tewolde. "This
is a very exciting time for biotechnology in Africa, but Tewolde's agenda
is to prevent Africa's participation in this. My agenda is to promote it,"
AfricaBio is singing from the same hymn sheet. When this article was being
researched, Webster was visiting Germany and Britain, where Tewolde's
influence is strong, trying to counteract the "nonsense", as she puts it,
that he and his allies promote. Webster was accompanied by Thembitshe
Joseph Buthelezi, a cotton farmer and chair of a federation of small
farmers' associations in South Africa's eastern Kwazulu-Natal province.
Over a breakfast meeting in London organized by Monsanto, the South
African pair enthused about the power of GM to reduce poverty.
Buthelezi argues that planting Bt cotton -- a GM variety that produces its
own insecticidal toxin -- has transformed his life. He says that, in
common with 90% of the region's cotton farmers, he is seeing better
yields, a better quality of cotton, and is spending less on the chemicals
and labour needed to spray insecticides. One of the slides that he uses in
his presentations to governments and corporations proudly says: "Normally,
I used to ask my wife how we intend to pay our bills. Now I ask her, how
are we going to spend this money?"
Taking such feel-good stories to consumers and the media in Africa and
abroad is an important plank in AfricaBio's strategy. To that end, it is
helping to train staff working in South Africa's supermarkets -- including
the UK-based Tesco chain -- to handle questions about GM foods from
shoppers. The organization is also working with women's groups in poor
townships, and is advising the government of Lesotho -- a tiny independent
country landlocked within South Africa -- with its planned biosafety
Perhaps surprisingly, considering AfricaBio's stance, not all of its
funding comes from sources with a strong pro-GM agenda. One of its biggest
donors is the Rockefeller Foundation -- the wealthy US-based philanthropic
organization set up by John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil. The
Rockefeller Foundation has positioned itself as a bridge between opposing
sides, and seems to have the trust of all the key players. It funds
AfricaBio and Florence Wambugu's A Harvest. But it also gives grants to
NGOs with a cautionary stance on GM, including the Winnipeg-based ETC
Group in Canada and the London-based Consumers International, a federation
of consumer groups and agencies worldwide.
Gary Toenniessen, the Rockefeller Foundation's head of food security, says
it supports both sides in the GM debate to ensure that the public has
access to a spectrum of information, both for and against. The hope is
also to promote dialogue between opponents and help them to see an issue
from another perspective. "Often they find they have more in common than
is evident from their public statements," he says.
Toenniessen does not think that GM technology by itself is the answer to
hunger in Africa -- it is, at best, one component in an overall strategy
to achieve a secure, sustainable food supply. This is evident in the
foundation's portfolio of food-security research: it invests about $3
million annually in genetic modification, and up to $7 million in
supporting conventional plant breeding.
The Rockefeller Foundation's approach is in tune with the thinking of an
international task force assembled by United Nations Secretary-General
Kofi Annan in 2000 to find ways of halving global hunger before 2015. The
Millennium Hunger Task Force, overseen by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the
Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, published its first
report this April. The task force agrees that biotechnology has opened up
new opportunities that could help feed Africa's starving, including
projects involving drought-tolerant maize and disease-tolerant cooking
bananas. But it points out that GM won't remove many of the present
barriers to feeding the poor.
Between 1980 and 1995, sub-Saharan Africa was the only region in the
developing world that showed a decrease in crop production. Yields
increased by 27% in Asia and 12% in Latin America, but fell by 8% in
Africa. The task force concludes that this is principally because of
poor-quality soils, inadequate irrigation, fertilizers that are sold in
remote areas at inflated prices, pot-holed roads that delay the sale of
fresh produce, and little access to the credit that would help farmers
manage their businesses better. Unless these conditions are improved, the
task force concludes, the GM revolution won't be able to live up to its
Pro-GM campaigners have a hard time disputing these findings. Wambugu
herself was a member of the task force and doesn't disagree with the facts
— although she observes that the emphasis on improving Africa's soils may
have something to do with the fact that the task force was co-chaired by a
soil scientist. Webster also agrees that GM alone is not a panacea. But if
anti-GM campaigners succeed in the battle now going on in Africa, she
claims, they will stock up problems for the future. "You can say 'no' to
the technology now," she argues. "But when you'll really need it, the
technology won't be ready."
It is difficult to predict where Africa's GM debate will go from here.
Almost certainly it will involve a legal minefield of international
treaties and arguments about the economics of trade. But you can count on
Wambugu, Webster and Tewolde remaining at the heart of the battle to win
the hearts and minds of Africa's people.
Ehsan Masood is a freelance writer based in London.
What's Up with Protato?
- Dr. S. Shantahram, Biologistics International, Ellicott City, MD.
To follow up on Prof. C. Kameswara Rao and Andrew Apel's comments on the
quantity of protein in the much hyped "protato" in India is that Andrew is
relying too much on newspaper reports of relatively abundant levels. What
has been reported by media is what was relayed to the media reporters by
people who think that this is yet another magic bullet. Perhaps!
The scientific evidence at the disposal of GEAC tell a different tale of
which I happened to have some insight. The maximum levels of protato
measured in "protato" is about 2.5% compared to the non-engineered counter
part. Most of the people who are pushing the product are those who are
truly excited about the first totally indigenously engineered GMO that
they want to bring it to the market. A sense of national pride and
jingoism is also involved in it.
The irony of this protato saga in India is that what Professor Asis
Datta's group achieved was a proof of concept with a gene that was
identified and cloned by his research group and was also patented in the
United States. The first variety that was transformed was a diploid
variety which is not cultivated anywhere in India and therefore totally
unsuitable for agriculture.
Lateron, the cultivated varieties that are tetraploid have been
transformed and the product is making its way up through testing and is
still a long way to go through regulatory clearance. God knows there is
acute protein deficiency in many vulnerable and poor population of India,
and they need all the nourishment that they can get. "Protato" might be
one among the many to fight protein deficiency. We all would like it to
succeed, but any premature and misleading claims that leads to hype is not
in the best interests of promoting safe and healthy GMO under the present
circumstances. The jury is still out, and let us all wait and see what
really hits the dirt!
Syngenta Ends Plant-Research Deal With Berkeley
- Rex Dalton, Nature 426, 216, Nov. 20, 2003
An industrial–academic partnership on plant research that rocked the
University of California (UC), Berkeley, when it started five years ago is
quietly coming to an end.
The deal, under which Syngenta, the Swiss agricultural biotechnology firm,
provided $25 million to the university's department of plant and microbial
biology, will expire on 23 November, after the company declined to
exercise its option to continue it. The deal was originally drawn up by
Novartis, which spun off its agricultural interest in 2000 to form
"There is a shift in how we do discovery research," says plant biologist
Simon Bright, head of technology interaction for Syngenta at Jealott's
Hill, Berkshire, UK. "We are focusing on moving discoveries in the
pipeline to products."
UC Berkeley officials say that they are unsurprised, but that they would
have liked to renew the agreement. "It funded a lot of blue-sky research
that would not otherwise have taken place," says political scientist
Robert Price, UC Berkeley's associate vice-chancellor for research.
Early next year, an independent analysis of the partnership's impact is to
be completed by a research team from Michigan State University (MSU) in
Lansing. The $225,000 study —run by sociologist Lawrence Busch of MSU's
Institute of Food and Agricultural Standards — was commissioned by the UC
Berkeley academic senate.
When the Syngenta pact was revealed five years ago, it caused a fierce
argument about relationships between industry and university departments
(see Nature 399, 5; 1999). It gave faculty and students access to dynamic
technologies, such as proprietary plant sequence databases, but allowed
the corporation to keep rights to discoveries.
UC Berkeley officials say that Syngenta reviewed some 375 abstracts of
scientific research undertaken by faculty members and students.
Preliminary discussions have been held about the corporation licensing one
undisclosed discovery for development, officials say. Plant pathologist
Brian Staskawicz, the UC Berkeley professor who supervised the deal, says:
"I think everyone would agree the collaboration was a great success. It
really was an experiment." Other faculty members say that they will await
the results of the outside analysis before commenting.
Engineering a Gene Revolution
- Michael Fumento, Science, Technology and Innovation
(Michaelf@hudsondc.org, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute, Washington, D.C.)
Ironically, no one would disagree more forcefully with Professor
Sinclair‚s position than the father of the Green Revolution himself, Dr.
Norman Borlaug (See Sinclair Viewpoint). In an online interview he
declared, "Biotechnology will help [underdeveloped] countries accomplish
things that they could never do with conventional plant breeding." [i] As
a specific example, he noted "You can bring seed to farmers in these
countries easier than fertilizer."
The most comprehensive evaluation of the impact on U.S. agriculture of
crops developed through biotechnology came out in June 2002 from the
National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP) in Washington,
D.C. It found that six crops genetically engineered to fight insect or
weed pests increased yields by 3.8 billion pounds in 2001, saved growers
$1.2 billion and reduced pesticide use by over 45 million pounds.[ii]
Estimating the impact of 21 other crops that have been approved but not
yet employed or are under late-stage development, NCFAP found total annual
yields could be increased by over 14 million pounds, costs could be cut by
about $2.5 billion and pesticide usage reduced by over 162 million pounds.
"The study shows every region in the country stands to benefit from
development of the new varieties evaluated in this study," said chief
author Leonard Gianessi. Further, "In nearly every case we evaluated,
biotechnology provides equal or better control of harmful pests at reduced
costs," he said. Moreover: "We are still in the early stages of realizing
the impact of biotechnology on food and fiber."[iii]
Yet yield increases in underdeveloped countries may be far greater because
they are starting from such a lower baseline; they gain more because they
have so much more to gain. A 2003 study published in the 7 February 2003
issue of Science looked at 400 field trials in seven different Indian
states and found that use of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton increased
yields by up to 80 percent compared with non-transgenic varieties. That is
incomparably greater than increases in developed countries, which are more
on the order of 10 percent.
The first crop of Bt cotton boosted the yields of black farmers in South
Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province by 50 to 89 percent compared to
conventional varieties. Per amount of seed the yield was all the greater
with increases up to 129 percent, because fewer seeds are needed for the
Bt variety. Moreover, labor and pesticide poisonings were reduced. Small
wonder that practically overnight seven of every 10 South African cotton
farmers switched to biotech varieties.
Yet pesticides are not the only input chemicals that transgenics will
reduce the need for even as they increase yields. Researchers at the
Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Irapuato, Mexico have found a
gene for citric acid production that when inserted into plants growing in
high-aluminum soils allowed them to achieve maximum growth using half the
fertilizer normally required.
On Dr. Sinclair's own campus at the University of Florida, Gainesville,
researchers discovered that by inserting an algae gene into plants such as
wheat they could grow the same amount of wheat with less fertilizer.
Monsanto is now developing the product.[iv]
Professor Sinclair also insists, „There are no obvious mechanisms to
achieve major advances in the nutrient and water economy of plants through
genetic modifications.‰ Can he not have heard of golden rice, in which
genes inserted from the daffodil and other organisms have not only given
the grain beta-carotene but also "unlocked" the iron in the rice so that
it is now bioavailable? There are actually three other vitamin A-enriched
plants under development, along with those being engineered to provide
more iron and zinc. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently
contributed $25 million to an international consortium called HarvestPlus
which has as its only job promoting major advances in nutrients of plants.
Water economy? Researchers at the University of Toronto and University of
California at Davis have genetically engineered tomato plants that thrive
in water with salt levels so high it would normally have killed them.
Since the salt goes to the leaves, the taste of the fruit is unchanged.
Hebrew University scientists are doing something similar with trees that
they plan to transfer to plants. Avesthagen, an Indian company based in
Bangalore, is developing a variety of transgenic rice that it expects will
require only about half as much water, while their compatriots at the
National Research Institute on Plant Biology in New Delhi found that by
inserting a gene from a weed relative of the mustard plant they could make
a new mustard plant that required only half as much water.
I know all too well the difficulty of keeping up with the latest biotech
research, but many of these studies were first conducted several years ago
and one, as noted, was on Professor Sinclair‚s own campus. But maybe now
he'll understand why "scarce research dollars are currently being targeted
for biotechnology research" and why far more dollars should be.
Endnotes [i] http://www.actionbioscience.org/biotech/borlaug.html
Reference: Fumento, M. (2003). BioEvolution: How Biotechnology is Changing
our World. San Francisco Encounter Books.
Gene Technology In Australia: Fact Not Fiction
- Agrifood Awareness Australia, http://www.afaa.com.au/
This booklet contains basic information about the science used in gene
technology, the laws and guidelines surrounding the research; the new food
labelling system; an overview of the global production of genetically
modified (GM) crops; details about which products are sold in Australia,
and current research in the area. Opinions from some leading organisations
in the debate are also contained in this booklet as well as contacts for
'Gene technology in Australia: fact not fiction' can be downloaded as a
PDF at http://www.afaa.com.au/ or hard copies can be obtained by emailing
your request and postal details to firstname.lastname@example.org
Click also on 'What's New' and download the new November 2003 edition of
the Biotech Bulletin, which focuses on the large amount of horticultural
gene technology research currently undertaken in Australia and
Genetically Altered States
- Chris Clayton, Omaha World-Herald, Nov. 16, 2003
'Developing biotech crops to meet the world's needs is a long, complicated
and expensive project. How crops are genetically engineered'
The promise of biotechnology potentially means grains that reduce heart
disease, vegetables with higher concentrations of vitamins and minerals,
and crops that produce antibodies or vaccines.
All of that, however, is in the future. Right now, it can take 15 years
and $200 million to $400 million to bring a product to market. And that's
for a relatively uncomplicated product that might kill a bug, not one that
would improve human health.
The science behind changing a seed of grain begins with trying to figure
out what you want to do and which gene can get that done. A gene is a
segment of DNA that contains a particular protein or trait. Genetic
modification takes a gene and enhances it or shuts it off to produce a
Such science accelerates the selective breeding process of crossing two
varieties of plants that scientists estimate humans have been doing to
plants for more than 4,000 years. In plant breeding, it ordinarily takes
generations of crops to achieve a certain trait.
For instance, there are about 8,000 naturally occurring strains of the Bt
protein -bacillus thuringiensis. Commercially approved as a corn-seed
trait in 1995, some particular strains of Bt resist corn borers. When the
insect ingests the corn, the Bt-protein attacks the corn borer's digestive
system, which forces the insect to stop eating. They die within days. The
largest company in seed technology, Monsanto Co., has about 450 lab
employees at its Chesterfield Village Research Center in suburban St.
Louis, where the company is based.
Scientists begin modifying a crop seed by identifying the gene or trait
they want to change. They start test lines by blending the new gene into
tissue cultures. Successful lines are expanded to make plants in
greenhouses. Scientists may start with as many 10,000 cell lines in
cultures that eventually are narrowed to one or two lines that end up in
field tests. Monsanto's corn rootworm project, which began in 1989, was
released for sale on a limited basis last growing season.
Virtually all the commercial traits created so far concentrate on benefits
for farmers. Traits either kill or deter insects, or they are designed to
allow herbicide sprays to kill weeds without harming the crop. This year,
Monsanto received approval to take its technology to a new level by
"stacking traits," creating the first genetically modified crop that
attacks two pests - the corn borer, which is a moth, and the rootworm,
which is a beetle.
Consumers are expected to become more excited in biotechnology with the
second wave of genetic traits. That's when changes will create products
such vegetable oils from soybeans with higher healthy oleic acids and
reduced trans fats.
Though there are questions over whether healthier foods or pharmaceutical
crops will come first, the third wave in biotechnology will come from
plant-manufactured pharmaceuticals. Crops are being tested to produce
higher volumes of specific proteins already used in vaccines or other
medicines. This is leading to further genetic research to determine if
crops can produce medicines for cancer, Alzheimer's or other serious
Building blocks of life
Every cell in every organism contains a nucleus with chromosomes made of
DNA molecules. DNA acts as a genetic blueprint for building proteins the
organism will need to survive. DNA is composed of nucleotides bonded
together in a double-stranded sugar-phosphate frame.
The DNA code uses the same four basic nucleotides for all living things.
Only the order of the nucleotides change to create different organisms. A
segment of DNA that expresses a particular trait is called a gene. There
are thousands of genes in a single chromosome. Bacteria contains two
kinds of DNA. One remains inside the cell, the other, plasmid, a circular
DNA molecule found in bacteria, is able to leave the bacteria and
penetrate other cells.
How crops are genetically engineered
1. DNA from the organism with the desired trait is extracted.
2. A restriction enzyme is used to cut the DNA strand. Restriction enzymes
target specific nucleotides in the DNA strand and cut the strand into
thousands of separate sections, each containing genes that code for
3. Plasmid DNA is extracted from bacteria. The same restriction enzyme is
used to cut a gene section out of the bacteria plasmid DNA. 4. The cut DNA
strands from the organism and bacteria plasmids are mixed together. Since
both the plasmids and DNA pieces were cut at the same nucleotide bonds,
some of the gene-sized DNA pieces bond with the plasmids. They are now
called recombinant plasmids.
5. The recombinant plasmids are mixed with bacteria cells. Electric pulses
are used to open holes in the cell walls of the bacteria, allowing some of
the recombinant plasmids to penetrate.
6. The bacteria is then transferred to a petri dish and combined with an
antibiotic. Plasmids contain a natural antibiotic resistant gene, so only
the bacteria not containing the recombinant plasmids die, leaving the
7. Thousands of different transgenes can be expressed in the resulting
bacteria colonies. Each colony is placed on a separate petri dish to
multiply. This is called a gene library.
8. The bacteria colony with the gene of interest must then be located in
the gene library. As the bacteria cells multiply, each new cell also
produces copies of the new engineered gene. The culture will grow untill
it is eventually visible to the naked eye.
9. The transgenic bacteria then serves as a vessel to transfer the desired
gene into the recipient crop plant cells nucleus. The two most common
Agrobacterium is a soil bacteria that invades plants by entering wounds.
Agrobacterium works as a natural genetic engineer when the bacteria
contains the altered recombinant plasmid with the beneficial gene of
Agrobacterium containing the recombinant plasmid is added to plant cells
growing in a tissue culture. The agrobacterium invades the plant tissue
inserting genes from the recombinant plasmid, including the gene of
interest, into the plant cells nucleus.
Particle acceleration (gene gun) method
Microscopic gold particles coated with hundreds of copies of the gene of
interest are blasted into the plant tissue using compressed air or a small
explosive charge. Some particles penetrate the nucleus of the plant cell.
The genes can then enter the chromosomes.
10. With either method, the goal is for the new transgene to penetrate the
plant cells nucleus and then combine with existing DNA. There are hundreds
of possible gene combinations that can occur. Each resulting gene
combination is called an event. It is a matter of hit or miss, and can
take hundreds of attempts before the desired gene event occurs.
11. The cells from a plant are totipotent, which means a cell from any
part of the plant can divide and multiply and eventually grow into a whole
plant with each cell expressing the new gene.
12. The final steps involve using traditional backcross breeding to
produce a seed-yielding GM crop hybrid with the desired traits. The whole
process can take years.
Studies: Altered Corn Doesn't Affect Livestock Performance
- Associated Press, Nov. 19, 2003
New research from the University of Nebraska suggests that genetically
modified corn feed has no effect on livestock performance. The NU
Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources animal scientists have
evaluated performance of livestock fed or grazed on genetically engineered
corn for the last three years to provide information on what has become
known as "biotech" corn.
The studies looked at cattle fed corn modified to resist pests, known as
Bt corn, and corn modified to thrive even if sprayed with Round Up
herbicide. Feeding trials for beef, dairy and swine were conducted at
NU's Agricultural Research and Development Center near Mead, Neb.
The research findings reinforced earlier ones by scientists at Nebraska
and at other land-grant universities, said animal scientist Galen
Erickson. "The bottom line for livestock producers is they can expect the
same livestock performance whether they feed currently available
genetically modified corn or conventional corn," Erickson said.
One concern expressed by some producers is that cattle spent more time
grazing conventional corn than Bt cornstalks. Erickson explained the
apparent preference comes down to simple matter of accessibility: More
corn is left in conventional fields because of insect damage than in
genetically modified fields. The study's findings come at a time when
genetically altered crops are under intense scrutiny, particularly from
overseas markets. Some countries within the European Union recently
demanded that the EU allows them to become biotech-free zones.
But Erickson offered a more pragmatic reason for the studies. "It's
important if we change corn traits that we do not decrease the feeding
value," Erickson said. "Bt and Roundup Ready corn are very advantageous
from an agronomic point, but we needed to research this to ensure that the
feed value was not negatively impacted."
Nebraska is one of the nation's leading states in planting genetically
modified varieties of corn. The Nebraska Agricultural Statistics Service
said this year, 55 percent of all Nebraska corn fields were planted with
biotech corn, compared to the national average of 38 percent.
Media Science Program Fellowships
The American Society of Plant Biologists is delighted to join with the
American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of SCIENCE
magazine, in an exciting opportunity to recruit plant biologists for this
highly competitive science journalism program. The AAAS/ASPB Mass Media
Science & Engineering Fellows Program strives to better prepare scientists
to more effectively communicate with the public.
Fellows work for ten weeks during the summer as reporters, researchers,
and production assistants in mass media organizations nationwide. They
collaborate with media professionals at radio and television stations,
newspapers, and magazines to make important science news clear and
comprehensive to the public.
The AAAS/ASPB fellowship is designed to enhance coverage of
science-related issues in the media in order to improve public
understanding and appreciation of science and technology. As you know, it
is often difficult to effectively explain our fieldís discoveries. We
think that the AAAS/ASPB fellowship is an ideal opportunity to learn to
present the facts in a way that best represents our work to the general
Although this is ASPB's first year participating, the program is in its
30th year and has supported more than 450 fellows. The program is open to
applicants who are enrolled as college university students (in any
graduate or postgraduate level, or who have shown exemplary performance in
their senior undergraduate year) in the natural, physical, health,
engineering, computer, or social sciences or mathematics.
Please take a moment to visit http://ehrweb.aaas.org/massmedia.htm to
learn more about the AAAS/ASPB fellowship program and to download an
An informational flyer is available at
http://www.aspb.org/downloads/AAAS_ASPB_fellowship.pdf. If you have any
questions, please donít hesitate to contact me at (301) 251-0560,
Sincerely, Nancy Winchester, ASPB Director of Publications
Precautionary Principle Cuts Costs As Well As Risks
- Nature 426, 227, Nov. 20, 2003
Sir – In his Book Review of Politicizing Science, "Science exiled" (Nature
425, 663–664; 2003), Paul M. Grant repeats the views expressed by several
of the book's contributors that science is often subverted by politics and
that the precautionary principle is widely overused. Such an uncritical
reading is not helpful to Nature readers.
Contrary to the alarms raised in the review about "political
interference", none of the book's authors have been cowed by their
encounters with politics. All remain outspoken, and it is hard to see even
Fred Singer as marginalized when the president of the United States has
rejected Kyoto and forsworn any action to slow carbon dioxide emissions in
the near future.
It is also strange that Grant points to quantitative risk analysis as a
necessary antidote to overuse of the precautionary principle. In
environmental regulatory practice, cost–benefit analyses rarely account
for the cost of waiting for better data before acting. A recent economic
study argues that a more liberal application of the precautionary
principle in environmental regulation would pay for itself despite the
greater rate of false alarms (S. W. Pacala et al. Science 301, 1187–1188;
2003). The United States Office of Management and Budget has also recently
reported that the benefits of the country's environmental regulations
exceed their cost by a factor of six.
The frustrations of making public policy in a democracy have been with us
since ancient Athens and will not disappear soon. In my view, a warmer
embrace of both politics and the precautionary principle would do a world
of good for scientists who presume to instruct the public and its
- Jonathan M. Gilligan, Department of Geology, Vanderbilt University,
Terrorists with Tofu Breath
- Michelle Malkin, Townhall.com, Nov. 19, 2003
They are bomb-throwing Birkenstock brats. Wolves in hemp clothing. Enemies
of scientific progress. Inveterate haters of humanity.
They are environmental extremists and animal rights zealots. They are
running loose. And they are endangering us all.
The national press, which has put a happy green face on the environmental
movement for three decades, has largely ignored a recent rising tide of
violence being waged by eco-nuts across the country -- and around the
world. In August, someone planted explosives at biotechnology giant Chiron
Corp. in Emeryville, Calif. Less than a month later, cosmetics
manufacturer Shaklee Corp. in Pleasanton was hit. Both targets have ties
to Huntingdon Life Sciences, a research lab that conducts animal tests for
pharmaceutical, agrochemical and biotechnology products. Huntingdon has
for years been the victim of a sustained campaign of intimidation,
harassment and violence by anti-science thugs. No one was hurt in the
northern California attacks, but the bomb blasts struck terror in
researchers at both companies who have dedicated their careers to
improving their fellow citizens' quality of life.
The chief suspect in the bombings is Daniel Andreas San Diego. The feds,
who have issued an all-points bulletin listing him as armed and dangerous,
say he has gone underground -- most likely with the help of a loose-knit
network of radical animal-rights activists. The San Francisco Chronicle
described San Diego as a "clean-cut, soft-spoken 25-year-old Sonoma County
man, who was trying to invent a vegan marshmallow."
"Vegan marshmallows." What an apt metaphor for domestic terrorists who
take cover under the guise of "mainstream" environmental activism with its
mushy and harmless facade. PETA, the pet charity of famous vegans such as
Alicia Silverstone and Paul McCartney, may seem as pale and innocuous as a
marshmallow. But it doesn't just dole out money for celebrity anti-meat
ads. The group has provided financial support for the Earth Liberation
Front, which along with its sister organization, the Animal Liberation
Front, is responsible for committing more than 600 criminal acts between
1996 and 2002, according to the FBI. In Washington, mainstream green
lobbyists are silent about anti-biotech mayhem that has resulted in the
destruction of experimental crops in the Pacific Northwest, Louisiana,
France and India.
What's at stake? While aspiring terrorists with tofu breath build nail
bombs and play with matches, the best and brightest scientists around the
world are forging miraculous breakthroughs that will benefit all mankind
-- and especially the poor in underdeveloped nations that the leftists and
Luddites claim to care about so much.
Science journalist Michael Fumento comprehensively documents such stunning
developments in his eye-opening new book, "Bioevolution: How Biotechnology
Is Changing Our World." It's an invaluable antidote to the irrational
hysteria of eco-terrorists. Fumento reports on how agricultural biotech
researchers are refining methods of pumping up protein levels in corn,
boosting vitamin levels in a wide variety of crops, making crops resistant
to the cold, and finding ways to accelerate the growth of cotton, potatoes
and tomatoes. They've developed a process called "gene silencing" to fight
bacterial diseases that can devastate fruit and nut harvests and have even
come up with a potato plant that glows green when it's thirsty.
The same technology that is producing miracle crops is producing miracle
medicines to improve human health and longevity. Biotech is also being
used to tackle toxic waste, reduce lead contamination and clean up sewage
systems. But in the minds of the technophobes, the only politically
correct way to cure disease is to wear red-string bracelets, eat
organically grown ginger and pray to Gaia. The only environmentally
acceptable way to improve the earth is to compost banana peels and recycle
soy milk cartons. And the only morally tolerable way to use modern
technology -- e.g., the Internet -- is to use it to preach violence and
destroy the progress of others.
With each new scientific breakthrough, the anti-biotech militants have
grown more desperate and reckless. "Ultimately," Fumento writes, "only two
things can defeat such negativism. One is education; the other is the
products themselves." There is a third force: the voices of biotech's
myriad beneficiaries, from the cancer patients whose lives have been saved
by Gleevec to the Third World consumers of golden rice. It's time to
verbally roast the vegan marshmallows and let biotech move forward without