Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - January 29, 2004:
* Crops Behaving Badly: Are GM Crops the Reckless Delinquents?
* Outcrossing and Environmental Liability in the 'Zero Tolerance' Era
* GM Beer! - 'Modified' Label Debuts
* Did NRC Leak the Report? Does it Matter?
* Sticking to Sound Science: Response to Irvine's Comments
* Shantharam's Comments and the NRC Report Leak
* Researchers Raise Corn's Freeze Tolerance With Genetic Tweaking
* How Can We Trust Science?
* South Africa: Is GM Farming Feasible?
* US Should Alter Biotech Patent Policy to Aid Africa
* Trivial and Unscientific but Still Published
Crops Behaving Badly: Are Transgenic Crops the Reckless Delinquents Their
- Rick Roush, Nature (Book Review) 427, 395 - 396; Jan. 29 2004)
"Dangerous Liaisons: When Cultivated Plants Mate with their Wild Relatives
by Norman C. Ellstrand ; Johns Hopkins University Press: 2003. 268 pp.
The ecological effects of genetically modified (GM) crops remain
controversial, despite evidence of the crops' agricultural benefits, such
as reduced pesticide use, fewer human poisonings and increased net incomes
for farmers. Their most ardent critics argue that GM crops lead to the
rapid evolution of resistance in pests, harm non-target species and soil
organisms, and create 'superweeds' by introducing transgenes into wild
However, the transgenic crops that have been commercialized to date seem
largely to have defied these predictions. For example, there has been no
detectable increase in insects' resistance to the bacterial toxin produced
as a pesticide by transgenic Bt crops. Resistance to the herbicides used
with GM crops (mostly glyphosate) is still relatively minor compared to
that with other widely used herbicides. The damaging effect of Bt crops on
Monarch butterflies proved to be exaggerated, and studies on other
non-target species have consistently failed to find any significant direct
effects. Studies of the interactions of soil organisms and processes with
GM crops have also failed to show any significant detrimental effects.
In Dangerous Liaisons, Norman Ellstrand addresses the risk of GM crops
sharing their genes with wild and weedy plants -- either uncultivated
populations of the crop itself or closely related species. His
well-written book is aimed at a wide audience of students, academics and
policy-makers. The popular press seems to have a difficult time with
stories about pollen flow from GM crops, typically extrapolating from
studies on sunflowers, maize, canola or sugar beets to all GM crops grown
anywhere. Ellstrand's book will help them identify more specific risks.
The book will surely gain wide attention because of its sexy title and
emphasis on GM crops, but I was more impressed by Ellstrand's
documentation of the broader effects of conventional agriculture in
swamping wild populations of rare plant species.
Ellstrand provides an introductory section for readers who are not
population geneticists, before detailing hybridization between
domesticated plants and their wild relatives, and then presenting his
interpretation of these observations.
Despite his effort to provide this broad context for hybridization between
crops and wild plants, and its consequences, I suspect that most readers
will focus on chapter 7, where Ellstrand contrasts his views with an
opening quote from the Israeli plant scientist Jonny Gressel: "Most crops
have no interbreeding relatives in most of the world." Ellstrand reviewed
the data for the world's 25 most widely planted crops, summarized their
interbreeding with wild plants in a single table, and showed that 22 of
them do hybridize with wild relatives somewhere in the world. I suspect
that this table will be the most widely referenced in the book, and wish
that a few of the distributions were more precisely stated. For example,
cotton, beans and potatoes are listed with a "multicontinental"
distribution of hybridization; more precisely this refers to Latin America
(and, for cotton, some islands in the Caribbean and Pacific).
But what about Gressel's proposition, especially in the context of GM
crops? Using statistics from the database of the Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations, cited by Ellstrand
(http://apps.fao.org), I checked on the dominant GM crops. At least 87% of
the world's soybean crop, and 95% of the world's maize and cotton, are
grown in countries for which Ellstrand lists no hybridization — and even
for those countries with hybridization, such as China for soybeans, wild
relatives are found in only some areas. Many of the other crops are
complicated to tabulate, but Gressel seems to be correct that most crops
are not interbreeding locally with wild relatives.
This still leaves the possibility that serious problems could arise in the
few areas of the world where hybridization can occur. This currently seems
possible for GM canola in Canada and the United States, and for transgenic
maize that is probably growing illegally in Mexico (but has apparently
escaped documentation in the refereed literature). But even after reading
this book, I haven't seen any evidence of harm to human health or to the
environment (including weediness) from such hybridization. Where are the
super-weeds that were predicted to occur from the exchange of transgenes
with wild relatives?
In contrast to the lack of evidence for deleterious effects of gene flow
from GM crops, there is evidence that conventional agriculture has
adversely affected wild plants through genetic swamping of their
populations, and that wild plants have generated weediness in crop--weed
hybrids. As noted by Ellstrand, "problems associated with hybridization
between conventional crops and their wild relatives received scant
attention until potential gene-flow problems were described for transgenic
For example, hybridization with cultivated rice has been implicated in the
near-extinction of an endemic Taiwanese wild rice. Hybridization of maize
with its ancestor teosinte may be contributing to the extinction of
teosinte populations. Indigenous cotton in the Galapagos Islands could be
at risk of extinction or replacement as a result of hybridization with
cultivated cotton. Ellstrand cites similar evidence for at least another
nine species. He also documents in great detail the history of sugar beets
in Europe, where hybrids between cultivated beets and their progenitors,
the sea beets, have caused major weed problems.
Everyone interested in the effects of cropping on plant biodioversity, the
evolution of weeds and the risks of GM crops should read this book.
Critics and supporters of transgenic crops will continue to debate whether
the relatively benign environmental and agronomic disadvantages of GM
crops have been due to largely to luck or to an adequate regulatory
system. Ellstrand reminds us in detail that the reliability of future
successes depends on more careful risk assessment of hybridization with
Rick Roush is director of the University of California Statewide
Integrated Pest Management Program, based at University of California,
Davis, California 95616, USA.
Outcrossing from Biotech Crops and Environmental Liability in the Zero
- Thomas P Redick, Attorney at Law,
While Dr. Ellstrand's book (which I have yet to read but plan to pick up)
does not address the policy implications of outcrossing from biotech crops
to wild relatives, I would like to provide an outline of certain legal
issues involved in liability for biotech crops, and invite further
discussion. I am chair the Agricultural Management Committee of the
American Bar Association's Environment, Energy and Resources Section,
which has hosted numerous seminal conferences discussing issues relating
to liability prevention in agricultural biotechnology (and will be having
another such session on March 13 in Keystone, CO (www.abanet.org/environ).
Some policymakers involved in biotech liability issues have suggested that
the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety should have a liability element that
imposes strict liability for the release of genetically modified crops.
Since the first meeting in 1996 of the working group on the protocol, I
have suggested that any approach to managing liability for loss of genetic
resources to outcrossing from agriculture should be comprehensive,
starting within the authority of Article XIV of the Convention, and
addressing all threats from agrcicultural activities that could harm
biodiversity (non-GMO or GMO). This would protect agricultural genetic
resources from all sources of outcrossing, not just biotech crops. As Dr.
Ellstrand's research illustrates, genes from non-biotech crops are able to
outcross and cause an environmental impact.
The reason is simple. Biotech crops are a potential tool for the
sustainable use of genetic resources, in ways that traditional breeding
could not hope to match. As a result, biotech crops should be fostered, as
a valued tool, not treated as regulatory pariahs that are singled out for
special 'strict' liability laws.
Since this issue is so important to conservation of agricultural
biodiversity (which has enormous value, which has been enhanced by
biotechnology tools), I have also suggested that the parties to the
biosafety protocol take a precautionary approach, and look before they
leap into a Biotech-specific liability regime. This will give individual
states the flexibility they need to craft a biosafety policy that promotes
sustainable use of biotech innovations, and helps them conserve and use
genetic resources wisely.
A uniformly anti-biotechnology "precautionary approach" to regulation
would seek to serve a narrow range of commercial interests -- non-GMO,
organic -- while actually undermining those industry sectors ability to
deliver product (by imposing "zero tolerance" standards for commingling of
traces of biotech crop DNA).
Both Dr. Ellstrand's book and the recent NAS report in the US on
"containment" may fan the flames of an unfortunate fire -- these "zero
tolerance" standards for outcrossing or commingling of biotech crops are
like a forest fire threatening the library of life. Biotech innovation in
agriculture is like a single fireman in a group of people devoted to
preserving the world's agricultural biodiversity.
It is a tricky policy decision to determine what a nation should do to
protect the genetic resources within its borders. To many nations are at
risk of banning the firefighters, while inviting those commercial
interests (who look to the EU and genetic testing companies for guidance)
to dictate the terms under which nations will feed their people and
preserve agricultural biodiversity --- without losing lives, or species,
to unnecessary levels of "precaution" directed at biotech crops. The
nations of the EU will continue to bow to political pressure (i.e., the
Belgian government, as rapporteur recently denied regulatory approval for
Bayer's Liberty Link rape/canolain the EC import-approval process citing
the risk that some wild weeds in Europe can outcross to rapeseed/canola --
contrast this precautoin with the EU failures regulate outcrossing of
traditionally-bred rapeseed to those wild species)
Each nation should be allowed to determine whether some outcrossing from
agricultural crops (biotech or non-biotech) actually leads to a net
increase in genetic diversity and enhanced protection for genetic
resources. It is easy to see how the US has increased its agricultural
biodiversity by permitting (even encouraging) the use of biotech crops.
Careful environmental management prevents loss of species and the biotech
industry has the potential to be the consummate gene-hunting, engine for
conservation of genetic resources.
Ironically enough, it was developing countries, projecting future benefits
from genetic innovation, who endorsed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Does anyone disagree that
biotech hopes gave that ground-breaking international Convention
(www.biodiv.org) the boost it needed for ratification? Yet that same group
of parties is now considering biotech-specific liability standards that
fly in the face of good conservation science.
I would like to suggest, and invite comment on, the idea that biotech
crops are uniquely suited to a program for conserving genetic resources.
First of all, the recombinant DNA process of plant breeding can identify
and extract a broader array of genetic resources to find and reduce to
practice valuable traits for agriculture more quickly than traditional
breeding methods. Second, these biotech crops also provide a few tools for
ensuring that they do not harm agricultural biodiversity, with (1) unique
genetic identifiers that permit outcrossing to be found quickly and
managed well (2) if permitted, restriction on reproduction (the "GURTS"
mentioned by Dr. Shantaram) that prevent outcrossing in the first place.
Third, biotech tools for finding gene function -- which tools exist in
greater quantity if we ensure that biotech companies and scientists are
funded to use the tools -- are essential to reading every volume in the
genetic "library of life" and putting it to use. Even anti-biotech
activists recognize this function, if they have not abandoned reason
Unfortunately, the global trend in policy-making for biotech crops is
moving toward blocking this biotech-based path to optimum management of
agricultural genetic resources. Most liability proposals on biotech crops
leave out non-biotech outcrossing (the mere fact that the "biosafety
protocol" is the leading forum on such outcrossing liability confirms
this). I hope that readers of Dr. Ellstrand's book and research can keep
in mind the role that bioengineering could play in preserving genetic
resources. He is rightfully concerned about losing these resources long
before we know their true value to future generations.
More from Shanthu Shantharam
In my humble opinion, I don't think liability of gene escape into wild and
weedy relatives (biodiversity) can become a legal issue as it has to prove
a damage to biodiversity. Mere gene transfer to wild and weedy relatives
in the flora is not a risk at all as evidenced in many of the risk
assessments. In the best possible scientific opinion prevailing, gene
transfer enhances genetic diversity provided that gene gets introgressed
in a stably inheritable manner. It is the consequences such a gene
expression that should have any effect, if at all and that will not be
manifested for generations. Gene escape in and by itself is not a risk or
danger, but it is the natural order.
In order to prove liability, people have to prove loss. The only group
that is hell bent on this clause is the organic growers who have somehow
think that their organic produce is pristine and everything else or
pollutants or contaminants. By their self-imposed "purity" standard and
unfortunately regulations approved by USDA might present a ticklish
problem. But, even then, if the contamination were to occur within the
pedigreed seed's purity standards as is the American Seed Trade
Association's standards of seed purity, the organize growers case can be
Please note, I am a not a qualified lawyer, but these is my analysis of
'Modified' Label Will Make Debut: GM Beer!
- Scott Miller, The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 29, 2004
'Stores in Sweden to Offer Test of Consumer Reaction To Food Flagged as
The first product carrying a label warning it contains genetically
modified ingredients is about to hit Swedish retail outlets, offering a
glimpse at how Europeans will react to mandatory biotech food labeling
rules that take effect throughout Europe in less than three months.
While the product -- a beer -- is part publicity stunt by a Swedish
microbrewer seeking to use a controversy to boost sales, it nevertheless
signals that Europe's longstanding debate over whether GM food is safe to
consume is about to meet the acid test: Will consumers buy the stuff?
Brewer Kenth Persson, for one, isn't worried that consumers will be turned
off by a little genetically modified corn in their beer. "I really don't
think they will care," he says of his new brew, called Kenth.
But opinion polls show that many consumers remain nervous about GM
products as Europe slowly lifts a six-year moratorium against GM food
while also requiring food products containing GM ingredients to be so
labeled, starting April 18. For example, one survey of 1,000 Swedish
consumers, conducted last autumn by Sweden's Sifo Research and Consulting,
found that nearly half were reluctant to buy GM food.
Biotech food has long been viewed more skeptically in Europe than in the
U.S., partly because of worries about food safety after the outbreak of
mad-cow disease, which first appeared in Britain in 1996. At the same
time, activist groups such as Greenpeace have aggressively campaigned
against GM crops, warning their pollen or seeds could spread, taking over
habitats of natural plants. GM boosters, including some farmers and
companies that make biotech seeds, counter that in addition to producing
higher yields, GM crops actually are more environmentally friendly because
they require fewer pesticides.
Europe has had an effective moratorium against testing new types of
genetically modified food since 1998. It has been a constant source of
tension with the U.S., the world's largest producer of biotech food, which
last year charged the European Union with breaking trade rules. That case
is pending at the World Trade Organization.
Partly because of the U.S. pressure, the European Parliament agreed last
summer to replace the moratorium in part with the requirement that
products derived from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, carry a
brief statement informing consumers. Meanwhile, the moratorium is being
lifted, albeit slowly. On Wednesday, the European Commission asked
government ministers to formally approve a strain of canned sweet corn
grown from GMO seeds made by Swiss agrochemicals firm Syngenta (and
different from the corn in Mr. Persson's beer).
Now the big question is how European consumers will react to GM products
-- and warning labels -- when they are offered for sale. So far, there has
been little Europe-wide research. People might worry about GM, but it's
unclear how closely they'll read the labels and if other factors might
outweigh their concerns.
In the Swedish survey, for example, participants said they might buy a GM
product if they thought they were helping a developing country, presumably
believing the biotech crop had been grown in a poor country. (Actually,
most GM crops are grown in developed countries such as the U.S. and
Canada.) The second most-important factor in deciding whether to buy GM
products was concern about the environment, while price ranked third.
Sticking to Sound Science: Response to Ross Irvine's Comments
- From the Anonymous British Scientist
Of course the biotech companies should learn from the NGOs, but not
emulate their mistakes. For example, most NGOs have spent the last four
years rubbishing the scientific basis of the farm-scale evaluations (FSE)
in the UK. Then, once the results were reported in ways more to their
liking than even they expected, they twisted them to their benefit. Do you
honestly think the UK government, who are likely soon to give the go-ahead
for the first commercialisation of a GM crop, would have any confidence in
the biotech industry if they were also to play such puerile pr games?
The voluntary agreement between industry and government
www.defra.gov.uk/environment/gm/fse/scimac/agreement.htm bound both sides
not to comment on the FSEs until the results were published; NGOs were
under no such constraint - indeed, they refused to endorse the FSEs in
the first place, but the way SCIMAC farmers subsequently "walked the talk"
with the media meant the pro-biotech lobby has won the FSE war even though
it may have lost some of the battles along the way.
The chaos that would emerge by each pro-biotech supporter being a NGO-type
communicator would be as bad as it was in the 1990s when there was just
one company and no scientists speaking up for sound science. Sticking to
the facts does not mean "occasional motherhood policies issued by trade
associations". From my watching of this now boring farce drawing to an
end, each time industry comments, it has been a member company speaking on
behalf of all the others to illustrate their unanimity - unlike the case
As for NGOs being active with the most obscure local council, what is the
point when councils have been told by DEFRA none of them have the power to
declare itself "GMO-free" in the real world, as even Her Majesty's
Government has limited powers when the big decisions are taken at European
Of course the biotechnology debate is not going to be settled simply on
the basis of science - sound or otherwise. But once the EU regulatory
process has restarted, THEN it will be the time to publicly influence the
food chain stakeholders - in the same way Zeneca classically did with
their tomato puree in the early 1990s.
But neither we, nor industry, should be feeding the media with
off-the-record or uncoordinated briefings, which might then leave our
comments open to 'misinterpretation' by broadcast media - who only today
at reporter, management and director levels in the UK have all been
roundly censured as "defective" with their reputation & integrity now in
tatters. (From Prakash: read BBC controversy)
I still maintain that it is not foolhardy to stick to sound science as the
beginning and end of winning this war. However, the main confusion of the
present debate originates from the media's failure to distinguish what is
fact, opinion and hypothesis, when force-fed by single issue pressure
groups. And this all stems from NGOs' call for a risk standard that has
no level of measurement beyond politics. And it's still politicians in
government who make up the rules by which industry sells its products.
> Learn from NGOs! It's Not about Science: Response to the Anon British Scientist
> - Ross S. Irvine
> Most biotech companies are neither leaders nor combatants. They're
> acquiescers whose main objective is to avoid conflict. Even worse, when a
Did NRC Leak the Report? Does it Matter?
- From: Tom DeGregori
Re: Shanthu Shantharam's ( ) comments in his posting titled "On the NRC
Report on Biological Containment of GEOs " that my "protestations ...
about who got the report first and why and wherefore seems to be
I argue quite the contrary and that is why I asked. If there was a
deliberate leak of the report (repeat - if there was a deliberate leak)
then it could be quite serious because there are rules that almost
certainly were violated. If there is one thing that we should have learned
by now, is that many or at least some (repeat - some) NGOs do not feel any
necessity to play by the rules. If Greg Jaffe had an advance copy that he
should not have had, then he and his organization have decided not to play
by the rules. If the first news account was incorrect and he did not have
a copy of the report then on what basis could he draw his very broad
conclusions about the prohibitive cost of containment? In either case, how
can we trust whatever else is said by him and his organization.
I hate to keep repeating myself but this is all hypothetical and awaits
answers and not dismissals. I do not wish to seem to impugn anyone's
integrity that is why I asked the questions to see if there was any
possibility of an innocent answer. After all, too many (or at least some)
NGOs are always trying to find some alleged "scandal" to publicize so why
can not we raise what I would consider a legitimate question that would be
trumpeted as a scandal if a biotech firm had been the sole recipient of a
I asked the questions and tried to minimize further comment in the
original posting because the fact of who may have leaked the report
(again, it it was leaked) may have been someone involved in its
formulation and therefore may have biases that could have made their way
into the report. Again, this is predicated on a series of "ifs" and we
should not dismiss the question as academic until we receive some answers.
Shanthu Shantharam's further commented that "Greg Jaffe may not be a
scientist, but is a stakeholder in the debate. In fact, Jaffe's criticism
against biotechnology has more to do with the regulatory oversight
mechanisms than biotechnology itself."
In what way may I ask is Greg Jaffe "a stakeholder in the debate" more
than the rest of us except that he earns a living from his public comments
which could as well indicate a potential bias. But again, maybe most
stakeholders have a bias of some sort. Further, Jaffe's - "sad conclusion
from the report is that there really aren't any viable bioconfinement
methods that could be adapted commercially without significant additional
research and testing" - goes way beyond regulatory issues and assumes a
technical knowledge about the feasibility of containment. I am surprised
that Shanthu Shantharam is not troubled by the ability of a representative
of an NGO ability to shape an important debate by having an advanced copy
of a report if that is what actually happened.
Maybe there are some innocent explanations of what on the face of it seems
to be a possible serious lapse of judgment and maybe ethics by those to
whom I addressed my questions. Maybe I am paranoid but too often I have
seen NGOs twist and shape a debate in such a way as to preclude a rational
discourse. Asking a few questions should not be considered an "academic"
exercise in the pejorative use of that term.
I did not in any way suggest that Prof. DeGregori's remarks are academic
in the pejorative sense. I maintain that it is immaterial who got the
report first as long as everyone gets a crack at the report to comment on
them. I think by now we all had a crack at it.
Greg Jaffe, like the rest of us can be stakeholder whether he earns a
living from it or not. A stakeholder can be anyone who has an interest in
the subject matter and cares enough to make time and put in efforts to
articulate his or her own considered view. Greg Jaffe's comment on the
non-availability of any bioconfinement methods for commercial exploitation
without more research and development might reflect lack of his scientific
expertise or up to date technical knowledge. But that should not deny him
Many of us also take liberties in passing some cavalier and some not so
cavalier comments or remarks on various topics and subjects as evidenced
from the world wide debate on GMOs. There are facts and there are truths.
Truth always prevails in the end. Technical feasibility of a given
technique or technology also falls within the purview of appropriate
regulatory review as regulatory decisions are also based on them. A
perusal of any number of environmental risk assessments will stand
testimony to it.
In fact, regulatory review is a part of larger technological assessment,
and that is why I strongly recommend qualified and competent regulatory
reviewers must have sound and up to date training and knowledge in the
technology. Such a regulatory review procedure when deployed judiciously
gives an excellent opportunity to the decision makers to evaluate a given
Researchers Raise Corn's Freeze Tolerance With Genetic Tweaking
- Susanne Quick, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jan. 28, 2004
Although "knee-high by July" is the rule of thumb for Wisconsin corn
growers, most would prefer it to be "thigh-high by June." And new
research directed at pumping up corn's freeze tolerance could be the first
step in giving legs to that alternate axiom. Wisconsin is the
second-biggest producer of sweet corn in the country, but most corn sold
in the state before July is imported from warmer states.
In a paper appearing in this week's online edition of the Proceedings of
the National Academies of Science, Kan Wang, an Iowa State agronomist, and
her team from Harvard University and a biotech firm in San Diego,
demonstrated that corn's cold factor can be enhanced with a little genetic
By inserting a gene into corn that is known to buffer tobacco plants from
the effects of freezing, researchers showed that altered corn could
withstand temperatures nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit lower than they could
without genetic enhancement. And for farmers in Wisconsin itching to plant
their corn early in the spring, this technology could prove a boon.
Wisconsin is the second-biggest producer of sweet corn in the country,
said Bob Oleson, executive director of the Wisconsin Corn Growers
Association. But "any corn you eat before the Fourth of July is imported"
from warmer states such as Illinois.
A technology that could potentially prolong corn's growing season -
enabling it to tolerate lower temperatures - will only benefit Wisconsin
farmers, he said. "A longer growing season means higher yields," he said.
Jim Coors, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of agronomy and
maize-geneticist, agreed. "When you talk about anything that can increase
corn's freezing tolerance," he said, "there's potential for benefit." He
warns, though, that Wang's work is still too new to be applied
commercially. "It's still pretty far away from genetic use," he said. "And
a lot of times these things just don't translate all that well."
In any case, asked Oleson, "you know what percentage of the corn you eat
is transgenic?" "Zero," he said. (From Prakash: He is referring to sweet
corn) Indeed, transgenic corn has not yet been introduced to the market
for human consumption. And until that happens, this work remains somewhat
irrelevant for Wisconsin sweet corn production, he said.
Corn, whose ancestor is a plant called teosinte, is native to the warm,
tropical hills of Mexico - a far cry from the bitter winters and long,
cold springs of the upper Midwest. But since its initial domestication,
the plant has traveled farther and farther from its native climate. And
growers have helped it along its way by breeding and selecting only the
But, eventually, both growers and plants reached an impenetrable wall of
frost - no matter how hardy the plant was, when the temperature fell to
freezing, the plant died. "Corn is very frost sensitive," said Wang. Wang
and her team had been looking at a specific area of corn DNA called the
active mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase kinase. It's a pathway
activator or master regulator - an area that when turned on, off or
manipulated - can have an effect on a whole slew of genes it controls.
One can think of a master regulator as the main circuit breaker of a
house. Although individual lights and appliances can be turned on and off
throughout the building, if the master breaker is off, none of those will
Well-studied regulator. The particular pathway activator they were looking
at had been studied for a long time. The researchers wondered whether
inserting a gene known to cause freeze tolerance in tobacco - a hardier,
temperate crop plant - into this area of the corn's DNA might endow the
more fragile crop with similar benefits. Their results showed that it did.
And although stress tolerance has been achieved in transgenic crop plants
before, said Wang, as far as she knows, this was the first time cold
tolerance in corn had been accomplished by manipulating a pathway
activator. Indeed, if you switch a gene downstream of the master
regulator, the same effect can be achieved.
But, these researchers did it using the main circuit breaker. And Wang
thinks there may be benefits in working with master regulators. "We learn
a lot about a plant" from understanding its pathway activators, she said.
Although she concedes that unknown side effects could occur when toying
with a master switch.
When you are working at that level, said Shawn Kaeppler, a UW agronomist,
"you increase the possibility of negative effects." In any case, he said,
"freezing usually isn't the biggest problem" for corn.
The biggest hindrance to corn growth in the early season is the plant's
tendency to have a sluggish metabolism at temperatures below 50 degrees. A
real benefit for Wisconsin corn farmers would come from solving that
problem, he said. But increasing its tolerance to freezing is one stickler
in early-season corn growth.
At this point, "this is really just basic research," said Wang. But corn
growers from Iowa to southern Canada will be watching - waiting to see
when they can someday say, "just above the knee in July."
How Can We Trust Science?
- Feb. 10, 2004 , London; Royal Institution of Great Britain
This an Ri Talking Heads forum in association with the Tavistock Institute
designed to enable the audience to meet people with the latest and most
interesting ideas in science. The audience will be given the opportunity
to challenge and question the speakers' perspective. This forum will be
led by Professor Chris Leaver, Professor Robin Wensley, Lucian Hudson and
Niall Dickson. The panel will discuss why science becomes mistrusted, how
society assess what it believes and how organisations such as Amnesty can
deal with conflicts and still remain trusted. At the end of the day, if
Society doesn't trust science what can be trusted?
Prof. Chris Leaver, who is speaking at this meeting, is requesting
AgBioView readers to please send him any comments on the topic and
specifically your thoughts on his following questions:
1. Do you believe that some journalist or media are only interested in the
story at the expense of the validity of the underpinning science (or
2 How do we weigh/balance a scientists views and opinions against an
activists (paid?) views?
3. What is the way forward to increase trust in science (which is probably
one of the main options for continuation of life on this planet).
4. How can scientists and media communicators work together in any
meaningful way to improve and contribute to public understanding of
science as a basis for future informed political decision making?
Please send us your thoughts at so that it can be posted on AgBioView
South Africa: Is GM Farming Feasible?
Johannesburg, 29 Jan 2004 (IRIN) - A debate on whether South African
small-scale cotton farmers should opt for genetically modified (GM) seeds
continues with the release of a study on the subject. Environmental
action group Biowatch argued that GM technology was not cost-effective for
the small-scale farmer, weighed down by debt, and a raw deal for exporting
to western markets.
However, the findings in one of the first academic studies to map the
growth of GM farming in South Africa have pronounced it a success. The
study, comprising two papers, was prepared by researchers in the
Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Pretoria.
One of the papers, "The Adoption and Impact of Agricultural Biotechnology
Innovation in South Africa", by Johann Kirsten and Marnus Grouse, outlines
the pattern of GM farming in the country. The other, "BT Cotton in South
Africa: Adoption and the Impact on Farm Incomes amongst Small-scale and
Large-scale Farmers", by Marnus Gouse, Johann Kirsten and L Jenkins,
studies the effect of GM policies on the production of cotton.
South Africa is the only African country that has adopted GM crops for
commercial production. Besides GM cotton, genetically altered maize, soya
and oilseed rape are grown. International bio-safety protocol requires
that bio-safety legislation be in place before GM crops can be planted in
any country, and only South Africa and Zimbabwe qualify in the continent.
The cotton study by the University of Pretoria researchers claims that the
percentage small-scale farmers growing GM cotton rose from seven percent
in 1997/1998 to around 90 percent in the 2001/2002 season. The authors of
the paper report that of the 43 large-scale farmers interviewed, 39
percent indicated that the most important benefit of GM cotton was the
saving on pesticides, with the second reason identified as the "peace of
mind" about bollworms, a generic name for the various kinds of moth
caterpillars that destroy cotton bolls.
The findings noted: "When asked to indicate all the benefits of
insect-resistant cotton, 77 percent of farmers indicated 'peace of mind',
and 72 percent indicated 'better crop and risk management' as a benefit."
Koot Louw of Cotton South Africa, an association of the key players in the
cotton industry, confirmed the popularity of the GM variety of the crop,
with 70 percent of the country's cotton production coming from genetically
Biowatch's Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss pointed out that bollworms were not
the only pests which attacked cotton. "Reduced pesticides expenses
promised by the GM crop also proves attractive to farmers," she explained.
"But little do they realise that they still have to spray pesticides to
keep other pests away." Louw said most small-scale farmers did not bother
spraying pesticides at all. "Once they have planted the GM cotton crop,
which is resistant to bollworms, they just let the crop be." The saving on
pesticides was "quite huge."
But Biowatch said it could still cost the farmer up to R500 [US $69] per
hectare to spray pesticides. According to the research paper, "when asked
about the disadvantages of GM cotton, the prominent answer was 'the cost
of seed and the technology fee'", which is the cost of the patent.
US Should Alter Biotech Patent Policy to Aid Africa
- AgBiotechNet, Jan 28, 2004 http://www.agbiotechnet.com
In their new study, American Patent Policy, Biotechnology, and African
Agriculture: The Case for Policy Change, Resources for the Future (RFF)
Senior Fellow Michael Taylor and Jerry Cayford document current patent
policy in the United States and argue that it may well impede use of
biotech agricultural advances in developing countries. They suggest a set
of policy changes that could help African farmers access these new
technologies, while leaving intact the structure of the patent system and
not undercutting the innovation incentives it provides. RFF describes
itself as an independent institute dedicated exclusively to analyzing
environmental, energy, and natural resource topics.
The report argues that US patent policy is not fully aligned with goal of
achieving global food security. RFF believes modern biotechnology, along
with other important tools, can help solve some of the basic productivity
problems that affect African farmers, but notes that much of the
biotechnology toolkit has been patented in the US and elsewhere by
companies "with little economic incentive to develop and disseminate the
techhnology to meet the needs of these farmers."
To improve access to patented technologies, it is argued that policy
should * create a strong research exemption, * establish a compulsory
licence requirement for agricultural biotechnology,* establish a "working
requirement" for agricultural biotechnology patents (anything not used for
a developing country purpose within 3 years could be subject of a
nonexclusive licence), * exercise US eminent domain authority (allowing
developing country use * make available US government-funded or owned
To preserve flexibility for developing countries the US should: * Support
incorporating TRIPs flexibility provisions in any new WIPO agreement and
in any bilateral or regional trade agreements * Support preserving the
TRIPs flexibility provisions (including the two examples below)
* Endorse application of Articles 8 and 30 to Food Security Needs
(allowing developing countries to devise IPR approaches that best serve
food-security needs) * Specifically endorse retention and use of Articles
27.3(b) in the TRIPs agreement. (which would allow plants to be excluded
from patentability if alternatives for protecting plant varieties were
established) * Fully implement Article 66.2 of the TRIPs agreement
(encouraging incentives for technology transfer from developed to
RFF says the changes could improve developing country access to technology
"without significantly undercutting the core invention incentives of the
patent system. These changes deserve consideration as the United States
grapples with its heightened nation interest in global food security and
works to build a harmonized global patent system that embraces the needs
of developed and developing countries alike."
Download full RFF report at http://www.rff.org/Biotechnology.cfm and click
on "American Patent Policy, Biotechnology, and African Agriculture: The
Case for Policy Change" 12/2003 - Michael R. Taylor, Jerry Cayford
Trivial and Unscientific but Still Published
- Tom DeGregori-
In March 2002, I posted observations on a study that purported to show
that "organic" vegetables were more nutritious than those that were
conventionally grown. This study even appeared in a peer-reviewed journal
that is a rare occurrence for such studies, given the paucity of evidence
(Baxter et al. 2002).
Canned soups made with "organic" vegetables were found to have a higher
level of salicylic acid than vegetable soups that were not labeled
"organic." Salicylic acid is the active ingredient in aspirin which some
claim has beneficial health effects for those who take one or two a day.
This was taken as tantalizing evidence of nutritional superiority that
warranted further research.
I noted that no matter how heroic the efforts to hold other factors
constant, it is difficult to take seriously a study comparing commercially
canned vegetable soups where one could either have compared the vegetables
directly or made the soups themselves to make sure that everything else
was the same except the vegetables.
Alex Avery added in that even if we accepting the study's validity, its
conclusion are still in doubt. The tiny amount of salicylic acid that they
found was 117 nanograms/gram. This is "1/10,000,000 of a gram or 0.00001%
or (1/100,000 of 1%). For a typical 400 gram serving of soup at 117
nanograms/gram = 50,000 nanograms of SA, which is 0.005% of a gram, or
0.05 milligrams of salicylic acid, or 1/20th of one milligram" (Avery
2002). A bowl of organic soup provides "roughly 1/6,000 of a standard
aspirin compared to conventional soup" which provides "only 1/36,000 of an
aspirin" (Avery 2002).
Despite the small amounts of salicylic acid, there was a posted warning
about the dangers of eating "organic" food, citing testing by the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association, as
excess consumption may cause "bleeding problems or gastric ulcers and
should be avoided by pregnant women, nursing women and children under 12."
The posting gave warnings to many groups that they should avoid eating
organic vegetables. I thought the posting was a spoof turning the "logic"
that even barest trace amounts of a "chemical" are dangerous, used by the
organic proponents against them until I received an email from a research
scientist in Australia "with an acute sensitivity to salicylates. These
minute amounts can mean the difference for me between having a serving of
vegetables every day or only once a week" (Brumbley 2002).
The article admitted that the lower level of protection against
micro-organisms and disease bearing insects in "organic" agricultural
plants causes them to produce higher levels of secondary metabolites such
as the salicylates. Since most secondary metabolites are rodent
carcinogens, maybe the same researchers ought to have tested for other
secondary metabolites though it is unlikely that such tests would get the
same media attention if they found carcinogens. Since the plants produced
them, it is reasonable to conclude that they experienced greater
infestation by fungi or other harmful organisms. It would be fair to
conclude that the study is trivial for those who need salicylates and,
contrary to the claims, it is dangerous for those with acute sensitivity
to salicylates. In other words, the study demonstrated the exact opposite
of what it claimed and what is being claimed for it (DeGregori 2002a&b &
This past week, Joe Rosen who posts on this newsgroup shared with me an
exchange of emails that he had with John R. Paterson, the senior author of
the article. Rosen pointed out that if a plant was induced to produce more
salicylic acid, it would also be induced to produce more caffeic acid
which is a proven carcinogen. Joe also noted that salicylic acid is used
in agriculture to stimulate plants to produce toxins to resist insect
infestation. These and other factors were not explored by the authors,
nor presumably were they considered by the editors or peer reviewers.
Along similar lines, I was involved in discussing another study purporting
to show the nutritional superiority of "organic" produce. This study was
"A Comparison of the Total Phenolic and Ascorbic Acid Contents of
Freeze-dried and Air-dried Marionberry, Strawberry and Corn Grown Using
Conventional, Organic and Agricultural Practices." Joe sent me the
exchange that he and Alan Felsot of our group had with two of the authors
of the study. Their exchange occurred in the Journal of Agricultural and
Food Chemistry 52(1):146-149 and was posted on the web on December 13,
2003. Their comments (along with the URL) merit an abbreviated or
simplified posting on AgBioView that only they can provide. Having
discussed this with Joe over the phone, I am sending him and Alan a copy
of this posting in the hope that their comments will follow it
Asami, Danny K,; Yun-Jeong Hong, Diane M. Barrett and Alyson E. Mitchell.
2003. A Comparison of the Total Phenolic and Ascorbic Acid Contents of
Freeze-dried and Air-dried Marionberry, Strawberry and Corn Grown Using
Conventional, Organic and Agricultural Practices, Journal of Agricultural
and Food Chemistry 51(5):, May.
Avery, Alex. 2002. Warning--Organic Foods Contain Higher Levels Of
Chemical Dangerous To Infants AgBioView online, 16 March.
Baxter, Gwen J.; Allan B. Graham; James R. Lawrence; David Wiles; and John
R. Paterson. 2001. Salicylic Acid in Soups Prepared from Organically and
Nonorganically Grown Vegetables, European Journal of Nutrition
Brumbley, Jean. 2002. Dangers of the Salicylates in Organic Food,
AgBioView online, 20 March.
DeGregori, Thomas R. 2002a. Warning -- Organic Foods Contain Higher Levels
Of Chemical Dangerous To Infants, AgBioView online, 16 March.
DeGregori, Thomas R. 2002b. Dangers of the Salicylates in Organic Food,
AgBioView online, 20 March.
DeGregori, Thomas R. 2003. Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate. Iowa
State Press: A Blackwell Scientific Publisher.