Today in AgBioView: October 29, 2003:
* British Biotech in Crisis
* Re: Ecologist Responds - Avery and Apel Take on..
* Oh No! Greenpeace Has Infiltrated the Morning Shows..
* NZ: Time to Move On
* NZ Lifts Moratorium on GM Organisms
* Saving the World's Bananas
* Biotechnology and Genetic Diversity
British Biotech in Crisis
AgBiotech Reporter, http://www.bioreporter.com, November 2003
Biotechnology in Great Britain, both in research and in agriculture, is
facing a crisis. The country no longer has field trials, since the
government insists on revealing the location of field trials to the
activists who routinely destroy them. Its top scientists are leaving for
greener pastures, seeing their efforts publicly denounced even as
investment in research dwindles. Its largest agricultural cooperative has
promised never to plant GM crops or sell food made from them through its
retail arm, continuing a theme that has for years disrupted transatlantic
trade. Activists have pledged in advance to attack the fields of any
British farmer using GM seed, recalling that no jury has ever convicted
any one of them on criminal charges stemming from prior attacks.
And in the wake of findings from Britain's farm-scale field trials, the
worlds largest, most concerted evaluation of the environmental impact of
GM crops, activists and the world press have concluded that British
scientists succeeded in proving that herbicide-tolerant GM crops do not
yield sufficient quantities of weeds, weed seeds and bugs. That is, with
the possible exception of herbicide-tolerant maize, which during tests
yielded more weeds, weed seeds and bugs than competing technology - a
crucial measure of what many call 'biodiversity.'
Field trials in Britain ended with Bayer's decision to halt the last there
were. The company blamed Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett for its
decision. Her insistence that the locations of all trial sites be made
public had forced its hand, a spokesman said. For a while, Bayer
CropScience believed it was close to a deal that would allow GM crop test
sites to be kept secret. Instead of having to publish exact map references
for fields, companies would only have to name the county in which it was
holding a trial.
The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) had said this
vaguer notification was 'acceptable in terms of risk assessment,' while
the police have always complained that explicit disclosure of test site
locations has been a major factor in aiding attacks on field trials.
However, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
told Bayer it would not support this change in regulations.
"In the absence of any moves to ensure the security for trials, Bayer
CropScience has no choice, therefore, but to cease its variety trial
activities in the UK for this coming season," said an official with
Bayer. It is disappointing the criminal activities of a small minority of
people have prevented information on GM crop varieties being generated.
Bayer said it hoped to resume field trials when conditions were more
When conditions become more favorable remains to be seen, but British
scientists aren't waiting. At least seven of the country's top GM crop
scientists have recently moved abroad to work and two more are due to
leave in the next few months.
Mark Tester, a senior lecturer in plant genomics at Cambridge University,
has decided to quit Britain for Australia later this year. "Most of the
industry has left already because of the bad atmosphere here", he said.
Tester decided to leave after the industrial funding he had won to expand
his research group in the UK vanished. Wayne Powell, the deputy director
of the Scottish crop research institute and one of Britain's most
acclaimed crop scientists, has also decided to emigrate to Australia in
the next few months.
Many have left the internationally renowned plant research laboratory, the
John Innes Center in Norwich. They include: Derek Lydiate, a senior
scientist who now runs a lab in Canada; the center's ex-director, Richard
Flavell, who has joined Ceres, a crop research company in California, and
George Coupland, who has left to join the Max Planck Research Institute
for plant breeding research in Germany.
Others to leave include Alastair Robertson, the former director for the
institute for food research in Norwich, Simon Santa Cruz, at the
DEFRA-funded plant research laboratory Horticulture Research
International, who has set up a crop biotechnology company in Spain; Peter
Day, the former director of Plant Breeding International, who has joined
Rutgers University in New Jersey, and Wolfgang Schuh, who has left Zeneca
for a university job in Canada. Having left Royal Holloway University in
London in 1988, Richard Dixon is now the director of plant biology at the
Noble Foundation in Oklahoma.
Michael Wilson, the chief executive of Horticulture Research
International, warns that the looming crisis would have serious
consequences for Britain's reputation for scientific research. "The way it
is going, Britain is lining itself up to become an intellectual and
technological backwater", he said.
This exodus only confirms a trend; the past 20 years have seen the number
of crop scientists employed by major companies in Britain decline by more
than 60 percent, with the majority of that decrease occurring after 1999.
At least four big companies have closed their crop research facilities in
Britain in the past three years.
The only major multinational crop research center left in the UK is
Jealott's Hill, owned by Syngenta. "In the last two years, we haven't been
able to do a field trial in the UK because activists come and dig them
up, " said Dave Lawrence, Syngenta's head of research and technology.
A representative of the organic foods industry was not sympathetic to
their plight. "It was the exaggerated claims of biotech companies that
lured a lot of scientists into this research", said Gundula Azeez, a
spokesperson for the Soil Association. "It is a good thing that the
scientists are now starting to catch up with reality."
The notion that efforts to develop biotechnology in Britain were wasted
was echoed by Britain's Co-op supermarket group, which said it will reject
any government proposal that paved the way for commercial plantings of GM
crops. The food retailer, which is also Britain's largest 'farmer' with
34,400 hectares (85,000 acres) of land, said an independent survey of its
customers and members had found that 55 percent were against GM, while a
further 38 percent said they were yet to be convinced of its benefits.
Co-op also said 78 percent of those surveyed said they had yet to be
convinced that the commercial growing of GM crops should be allowed in
As a result, Co-op said it had decided against growing GM crops on its own
land or selling GM food under its own brand. It also wields financial
muscle; the Co-op group, which sells around US$8.37 billion worth of food
annually through 1,800 convenience stores, also owns the Co-operative
Bank, which will now refuse to lend any money to any biotechnology-related
Such a concerted effort to block the use of biotechnology in food
production has its counterpart among British activists, who have signed a
pledge to attack GM crops if the government permits them to be grown
commercially. A new group calling itself 'Greengloves' says it is hoping
to get ten thousand people to sign the pledge. The group already includes
several people who have been acquitted in the courts for damaging field
trials as well as activists from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. "The
idea is to let people register their intentions in advance of a decision
being made", said a spokesman.
The Agriculture Biotechnology Council (ABC), which represents the biotech
industry, doesn't anticipate such a decision any time soon but sees a ray
of hope. "When are we going to see a commercial GM crop cultivated in
Britain? It's a long time away. Some of the heat may have dissipated by
then", said an ABC spokesman. This contrasts with the intransigence of
the Greengloves pledge: "If the UK government gives the go-ahead to
commercialize the growing of GM crops against the overwhelming wishes of
the British public, I pledge to non-violently remove GM crops from the
ground or support those who take action to remove GM crops. "
Little could have underscored the crisis in British biotechnology more
than the public relations debacle that ensued from the results of
Britain's program of farm-scale field trials of GM crops. According to the
Royal Society, which released the results of years of exhaustive
investigation, the trials revealed 'significant differences in the effect
on biodiversity when managing genetically modified herbicide-tolerant
(GMHT) crops as compared to conventional varieties.'
About 60 fields each were planted to beet, maize and spring oilseed rape.
Each field was split, one half being planted to a conventional variety
managed according to the farmer's normal practice, the other half being
sown with a GMHT variety, with weeds controlled by glufosinate-ammonium in
maize and spring oilseed rape, and glyphosate in beet. Comparisons in
biodiversity were made by looking at the levels of weeds and
invertebrates, such as beetles, butterflies and bees, in both the fields
and the field margins immediately surrounding them.
In GMHT beet and oilseed rape crops more effective weed control led to a
decline of the number of weed seeds left in the soil at the end of each
growing season. Although this has been going on in cropped fields in
Britain for many decades, researchers said it could be accelerated by the
management associated with these particular crops. In contrast, GMHT maize
showed the opposite effect. Typically, conventional maize has lower weed
burdens because of the widespread use of persistent herbicides; the
herbicide regimes used on the GMHT maize were not as effective at
controlling the weeds.
In beet and oilseed rape, the densities of weeds shortly after planting
were higher in the GMHT treatment. This effect was reversed after the
first application of broad-spectrum herbicide in the GMHT treatments. By
the end of the season, the weight of weeds collected from a fixed area and
number of weed seeds falling to the soil among these GMHT crops were
between one-third and one-sixth those of conventional treatments.
Twelve of the most common weed species in the UK were examined. The
biomass of six species in beet, eight in maize and five in oilseed rape
were significantly affected. Generally, weed biomass was lower in GMHT
beet and oilseed rape and higher in GMHT maize. For many species in beet
and oilseed rape (19 out of 24 cases), weed seed densities were lower
after GMHT cropping. According to the researchers, these differences, if
compounded over time, could result in large decreases in population
densities of what they called arable weeds. Where the weeds were less
abundant, there were fewer insect herbivores, pollinators and insects
which prey on the herbivores.
Comparison of the amounts of herbicide applied with the density of weeds
showed that farmers applied more herbicide when the density increased in
beet and maize. Generally GMHT crops were found to receive less herbicide,
later in the season, than the conventional crops.
"The results of these farm scale evaluations reveal significant
differences in the effect on biodiversity when managing genetically
herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) crops as compared to conventional varieties,"
said Les Firbank, coordinator of the project that submitted the papers on
the trials. "The study emphasizes the importance of the weeds growing
among crop plants in sustaining natural communities within, and adjacent
to, farmer's fields". (emphasis added)
Amid all of this, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair says that
governmental decisions about agricultural biotechnology will be based on
science. "We will act according to the scientific evidence and I think the
system that we have set up is one that is robust because it is one that is
allowing us to get proper scientific evidence," he said. "For some GM
crops there are problems to do with biodiversity, for others they say
there are fewer such problems. I know there is a huge campaign against GM
and all the rest of it and to be frank about it the government has got no
interest in this one way or another, other than to do the right thing."
Compiled from reports by Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences
(journal of Britain's Royal Society), The Guardian (UK), The Observer
(UK), The Press Association and Reuters.
Editor's note: Now that Tony Blair has conceded that 'doing the right
thing' includes protecting biodiversity (i.e., protecting the
proliferation of weeds and bugs among food crops), the role he foresees
science playing in decisions made by Britain's government will be marginal
Editor's note: With the focus of the field trials on 'biodiversity',
meaning the ability of farms to produce weeds and bugs, it should not be
surprising that activists have taken these results as vindicating their
position against GM crops. What they appear to be most anxious to overlook
is that the differences observed between GM and conventional crops have to
do with the herbicides used, rather than the crops themselves.
The press is having a field day with these results, judging from the
headlines alone: UK gene crop test results fuel demands for ban (China
Daily); New Study Confirms Greenpeace Theory: GMOs Harmful to Environment
(Agenzia Giornalistica Italia); Some GM crops 'harm environment' (CBBC,
UK); Study: modified crops threat to wildlife (Washington Times); GM
Trial Fuels Species Wipe-Out Fears (The Scotsman); Fresh call to halt
GM crops (BBC); Blair must ban GM crops - green group (Gloucestershire
Citizen); GM crop trials fuel demands for ban (Reuters); Major British
studies find some GM crops harm wildlife (ABC, Australia).
This media fiasco could have been forecast from the very beginning of the
field trials; every farmer knows that weed control reduces biodiversity,
i.e., reduces weeds and the bugs that live on them. That's what weed
control, even with a hoe, is supposed to do. So at vast public expense,
British scientists merely succeeded in demonstrating what has been known
since the dawn of agriculture. However, biodiversity is the darling of
activists and the media, so even pathological claims gain credence. For
instance, more weeds and bugs were found among the herbicide tolerant
maize than among the conventional surely an embarrassment for the
technology involved, but this weed control failure was hailed in the press
Apparently, some scientists (and most of the media) involved in UK
agricultural issues have completely lost sight of the notion that the
purpose of farming is to produce food. Even the British scientists
conducting the study purposely ignored the food production aspect of
farming. The Royal Society wrote that "these evaluations were not intended
to compare the performances of the crops but rather the effects on
biodiversity of the management of the crops." Having decided agronomic
value is irrelevant, it would have been far more honest of them to say
that the field trials were actually about the management of weeds and
Re: Ecologist Responds
- Alex Avery
I have some very strong reactions to the anonymous UK ecologist regarding
the FSE and the role of farming in fostoring so-called biodiversity. This
ecologist suggests that dismissing the negative interpretation of the FSE
results (GM Crops "Devastating to Wildlife", "Harmful to Wildlife", etc)
is not "the right strategy." Instead he/she suggests that: This
interpretation "does not appreciate the difference between the countryside
of North America and that of the Great Britain."
That is valid. My response is that if Britain has a critical lack of
habitat for wildlife (especially after the removal of many centuries-old
farm hedgerows that harbored many songbirds), then that is a separate
issue from crop field management and should be dealt with seperately.
There are many ways to provide habitat to wildlife without demanding that
farmers sacrifice agricultural resources to weeds within their fields.
>>2) For conventional farming, management systems have already been
>>that allow weeds and biodiversity to flourish and that can halt the
decline of abundances reported recently ... managed set aside, game cover
Essentially, this ecologist is advocating "farming tailored to
farm-associated wildlife". But this is pandering to a decidedly "man-made"
biodiversity, not natural biodiversity. The FSE researchers plainly label
the biodiversity studied as "farmland biodiversity" and I think that sums
So I ask, how much real, natural habitat and associated natural
biodiversity does Britain want to give up via lower yields (either there
or in other places besides Britain) for "farmland biodiversity"? This
isn't natural ecology, it's man's ecology and we should never forget the
>>3) For GMHT these systems could be adapted to give a positive increase
>>biodiversity, ... It will be necessary to do further research to find
>>balance between productivity and biodiversity.
>> 4) There may be a yield penalty to pay but that might not be great.
>> Although it would be necessary to use GMHT systems with restrictions to
>>achieve this desired increase in biodiversity, it is probably
Perhaps. However, weeds left to grow in fields, between rows, fields
margins, etc. for the benefit of man-made farmland biodiversity result in
a larger weed seedbank and more weeds the next year. This necessitates
greater efforts (more spraying/tilling, etc.) the following season to
combat weeds, with a concomitant increase in the negative ecological
impacts associated with these activities. No free lunch.
Ecologists of all people should not confuse the difference between natural
environments and man's environments, but it appears as if they do (note
the use of the term Agro-ecology, which rightly describes an artificial
ecology, not nature):
I am not denigrating this ecologist for honest input to the discussion.
Britain has been heavily farmed across much of its landscape for hundreds
of years, and the wildlife present there may truly be mostly "farmland
biodiversity". However, I still don't see how deliberately fostering this
man-made ecology is of real benefit to the environment, either in Britain
or elsewhere. We should be working as much as possible to limit the land
we expropriate from nature and return as much land as possible to natural
ecology and biodiversity. Think Globally, Act locally.
Respectfully, Alex Avery Hudson Institute, Center for Global Food Issues
Re: Comments by an Ecologist
- Andrew Apel
The anonymous comments on the British Farm Scale Trials by a UK ecologist
(AgBioView, Oct. 28, 2003) did a fine job at illustrating the divide that
exists between ecologists on one hand, and agronomists and
biotechnologists on the other.
For instance, the author dismisses the notions that "farmers need to kill
as many weeds as possible" and that "thatās what herbicides are designed
to do" because the notions are insensitive to "the difference between the
countryside of North America and that of the Great Britain." Thatās only a
sound criticism to the extent that the differences in "the countryside"
constitute different growing conditions for crops. Farms may find
themselves situated within the countryside (as opposed to downtown), but
that does not make them *the* countryside.
This attempt to blur the essential distinction between farm fields and
"the countryside" is insensitive to the needs of farmers and the consuming
public, which are the same in North America and Great Britain: all
consumers need to eat, and farmers are most efficient at feeding them by
reducing to the maximum extent possible all weeds and bugs in their fields
that compete with that endeavor.
The author also employs this phrase: "harm to biodiversity (i.e. harm to
the environment)." Equating harm to biodiversity in a farm field with harm
to the environment at large also blurs the essential distinction between
farm fields and "the countryside." If all 'harm to biodiversity' is always
'harm to the environment,' and if the latter must avoided at all costs,
then the obvious conclusion is that we could not even forage for our food
-- because the act of foraging would reduce biodiversity to the extent
that tasty weeds are consumed preferentially.
The fact of the matter is, what is best for a farm field is the simplest
ecosystem possible, that is, one composed of food crops and the things
that benefit them (i.e. symbionts in the case of legumes). The optimum
farming system is the most intensive possible, with an impact on the least
amount of land possible, and this is -- and will always be -- incompatible
with the notion of having biodiversity for its own sake within a field.
For this reason, it is not reasonable, as the author suggests, to find the
"best balance between productivity and biodiversity." Within a farm field,
there is no point to such a balance, nor any good reason to compromise
food production to any extent. To be sure, it is desirable that
butterflies and other species irrelevant to food production be able to
enter and depart farm fields safely (resisting collateral impact on
non-farm land is highly compatible with the notion of intensive farming),
but anything in a farm field that competes with food production should not
be there. It should be out in ćthe countrysideä instead.
It would help their own cause if more ecologists read and understood the
large literature on agriculture and food production, and began to take it
Oh No! Greenpeace Has Infiltrated the Morning Shows to Cajole the Working
- Sandeep Prakash
Re "Today Show: Genetically Modified Foods"(Oct. 28, 2003):
Marc Lappe is the co-director of the Center for Ethics and Toxins. A part
of the CETOS mission statement reads, "We will reduce existing risks to
human health." I find it perverse that Mr. Lappe can go on the 'Today
Show' and bring up the Starlink episode. Not only did he bring up this
justifiably excused incident, he also uttered, "There are no proteins in
[GM food]." Mr. Lappe claims to be a protector of human health, yet he
wants to restrict an impetus to end human starvation. Is starvation so
unimportant, so trifling to Lappe, Reducer of Risk to Human Health?
Mr. Lappe's comments on the Today Show came straight out of a Greenpeace
textbook. Worse than using the media as a classroom for fear-instillment,
is denying the human race the technology to help starvation and general
In 20 years the United States will have no more attainable farmland.
Foreign food aid will no longer exist. And then the people will look back,
remembering people like Mr. Lappe and organizations like Greenpeace, and
NZ: Time to Move On
- Francis Wevers, Life Sciences Network, Oct. 29, 2003
Four and a half years ago the Labour Party, then in opposition, decided it
was going to crystallize the debate about GM in New Zealand. Rather than
support a misguided attempt to freeze all research and development of gene
science the Labour Party voted with the National-led government to defeat
Phillida Bunkleās private memberās bill.
The Labour caucus decided a high priority, following a successful
election, was to set up a structure for detailed consideration of all the
important issues arising from the use of GM in New Zealand.
Election success was quickly followed by the announcement of a commitment
for a Royal Commission on GM.
New Zealand has now had the most thorough and public examination of the GE
question of any country in the world. There can be no-one in this country
who hasnāt been exposed to a wide range of views about the issues.
Yet, despite this protracted, expensive and highly transparent public
discussion the opponents of the technology are just as entrenched in their
antipathy as ever.
Why is that? After all, tens of thousands of New Zealanders have
participated in discussions and debates all over the country. Many of them
have made submissions to the Royal Commission and to the Environmental
Risk Management Authority (ERMA). Could it be that opponents are so locked
into their protest they canāt find a way out of opposition?
One suspects thatās the case and therefore the vocal minority will
arrogantly take upon themselves the role of being guardians for the whole
nation. They will save us from the dire consequences of our ignorance ö
they are the only ones who know the real truth about GM.
So they will promise to tear up GM crops and destroy the research which
will prove or disprove that GM is safe. Far better to have no GM in the
environment than to know for sure what its impacts are.
This is the tyranny of the minority. Not for them continued participation
in a decision making process democratically arrived at. Not for them the
gravitas of sound science to support assertions about the dangers of GM in
Not for them the rights of individuals to choose to use products which
independent regulators have pronounced safe after careful assessment. For
them, only the right to impose their own views on the rest of society.
Any science which contradicts or refutes their belief system is the work
of bought scientists paid for by the sinful corporates which dominate the
world while scientists who support their case are ćindependentä.
But these protestations, like so many others, are figments of an over
fertile imagination and a desire to invent convenient ćfactsä when the
real stuff isnāt there.
Letās have a look at claims of support for their cause. Many times over,
every day it seems, we hear various spokespeople for the cause claim to
represent 68% of New Zealanders. It depends on which question you ask. All
surveys have consistently shown a high level of concern about GM among New
Zealanders ö which is not all that surprising considering the exposure the
issues have had and the relentless campaign to expose every little
problem, fictional or not.
There are no reliable figures to show how many New Zealanders oppose the
use of GM at high percentages at all ö the figure for total opposition to
any use of GM has hovered at less than 15% for a considerable period. A
sizeable figure but somewhat short of a majority.
The high profile campaign to raise a million names against GE by the
expiry of the moratorium only landed a smidgeon over 35,000 names
including a bogus message from the Prime Minister, unborn children and
duplicates. The target of 1 million names will be reached many years from
now if current signing rates can be maintained against the falling trend.
Most people want GM to be treated with caution - the approach recommended
by the Royal Commission and endorsed by the Government. Caution is not
exercised by pulling the blanket of a moratorium over our heads, putting
the blinkers on and shutting our eyes and ears as well. It is best
exercised by careful decision making taking into account all the facts at
That is where we are at. Itās time to move on to look at those uses of
gene technology which may provide health benefits, environmental solutions
and economic value. To work through the processes of sensible and careful
decision making about what is useful to us and what is not.
And to trust in our ability to make informed choices for the whole
community, not just a minority.
NZ Lifts Moratorium on GM Organisms
- NineMSN, October 29, 2003
New Zealand's moratorium on the commercial release of genetically modified
(GM) organisms ends on Wednesday night, with opponents vowing to continue
their fight to keep the country "GE" free.
After months of debate and protests over genetic engineering (GE), the
moratorium on applications for the general release of GM organisms expires
at midnight to be replaced with new legislation providing strict rules on
their release. Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said New Zealand
remained a GE-free country despite the lifting of the moratorium and the
party would be working with the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders
who wanted to keep it that way.
The independent agency responsible for making decisions about GM, the
Environment Risk Management Authority (ERMA), was not expecting a flood of
applications once the moratorium was lifted. ERMA chief executive Baz
Walker said there could be an application within the next few days but
that may be all for the time being.
Environment minister Marian Hobbs said the end of the moratorium would not
mean a rash of GM releases. "The floodgates will not suddenly open," she
said in a statement. "Anyone preparing to release a GMO (genetically
modified organism) has to apply to ERMA and go through a rigorous
assessment process, which includes public submissions. "An approval will
only be given if a proposal meets stringent minimum standards designed to
protect health, safety and the environment, and if the benefits of a GMO
outweigh any adverse effects, including the economic effects."
Ms Fitzsimons said the ruling Labour party was committing "economic
sabotage" with GE. "Labour has seriously miscalculated the international
situation, the economic risks and the depth of public feeling on this
issue," she said.
A number of anti-GM groups banded together under the "People's Moratorium"
banner to continue their campaign. The groups, which include Greenpeace,
GE Free New Zealand and Mothers Against Genetic Engineering (MAdGE), said
they would encourage people to work to have their regions declared GE free
zones and to formally challenge any applications to grow GE crops in New
Neither Australia nor New Zealand grow commercial GM food crops, although
a genetically altered canola has been approved for use in Australia. GM
crops, although widely grown in the United States, China, Canada and
Argentina, have been resisted strongly by the European Union.
Saving the World's Bananas
'Biotechnology is giving this popular fruit a new chance at survival'
A steady supply of an important staple crop that is being threatened by
disease may be assured, thanks, in part, to plant biotechnology.
Researchers from around the world are working to develop biotech bananas
that are resistant to two of the fruit's worst enemies - black Sigatoka
and Panama fungal diseases. On some banana plantations, black Sigatoka has
reduced yields by 80 percent.
Researchers are working to map the entire genetic code of a wild banana
from East Asia in the hopes it will reveal the genes that provide
resistance to these devastating diseases.
Once identified, researchers hope to copy the genes from the wild banana
and insert them into edible varieties so they, too, can resist the
diseases that have laid waste to a crop that is the fourth most important
staple food in the developing world ł and a healthy snack for many in the
developed world. This strategy has worked well for other crops.
Researchers, for example, have successfully inserted a gene from a wild
plant related to the potato into an edible potato ł which is not yet
commercially available -- to make it completely resistant to the disease
that triggered the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.
And a different plant biotech technique was used to successfully combat a
virus that had decimated the papaya industry in Hawaii. Biotech papayas
are now being commercially grown in the United States and the technique
for growing them is now being transferred to several developing countries
where papaya is a staple.
Researchers say plant biotechnology could be particularly beneficial to
bananas because they are very vulnerable to disease and difficult to
crossbreed using conventional methods due to their complex genetic
structure. In addition, at least half of the more than 300 varieties of
bananas bred for cultivation are sterile -- they've lost the ability to
make seeds ł and therefore can't be crossbred with a wild relative to
boost resistance to disease.
Banana farmers typically restock their plantations by replanting
below-ground offshoots of existing banana plants. Using this technique
means once a disease or pest has taken hold in one plant, it can ravage an
entire orchard of genetically similar plants.
This problem is faced by the United States' third most-consumed fruit, the
sweet Cavendish banana, as well as many of the starchier varieties that
developing countries rely on for sustenance. As a result, some varieties
of bananas have vanished. In the 1960s, an earlier strain of Panama
disease wiped out the Gros Michel species, once the primary sweet banana
grown for export to the United States.
Black Sigatoka, a leaf-spot disease, stunts the plants and shrinks
harvests. Panama disease lives permanently in the soil, and when it
infests the plants, it kills them outright. Other pests and diseases
include yellow Sigatoka, bunchy top, root nematodes and banana weevil.
In West Africa, disease and pests have cut banana production in half over
the last 30 years. In Kenya, the combined onslaught of weevils, nematodes,
Panama disease and black Sigatoka have cut average banana yields on
traditional farms to 14 tons per hectare, less than one-third of the
crop's potential under humid tropical conditions, according to biotech
researcher Florence Wambugu, founder of A Harvest Biotech Foundation
Since the lion's share of the annual global banana output of 86 million
tons are harvested and consumed locally by poor subsistence farmers in the
developing world where food insecurity is frequently a top concern, any
agricultural technique that can boost production is viewed as a benefit.
Using plant tissue culture - where a cell is extracted from a plant and
grown in a sterile medium such as a petri dish - to grow bananas is one
such technique that has worked.
In the early 1990s, researchers from the International Service for the
Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) began using tissue
culture to grow disease-free plantlets. The process works because even a
diseased banana plant contains a few cells that are free of disease. A
technician removes those disease-free plant cells under sterile
conditions, places them in a growth medium, and allows new plantlets to
sprout up a few inches.
These plantlets are then allowed to generate roots and grow until they are
strong enough to transfer to a farmer's field.11 This technique allows a
field of banana plants to be less susceptible to disease, because, not
only does each plantlet start out disease-free, but a field of plants
grown from several different parent plants is less susceptible to disease
than an entire field grown from offshoots of one parent.
Since 1996, ISAAA has collaborated with the Kenya Agricultural Research
Institute, the Ministry of Agriculture and women's groups to distribute
thousands of these tissue-cultured plantlets to farmers in Kenya, which
have increased fruit production by as much as 50 percent.
Researchers are now working to develop bananas that don't just elude these
diseases - as is the case with tissue-cultured varieties - but that
actually resist disease. Using plant biotechnology, researchers from the
International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP)
in Montpellier, France, and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium have
been growing test crops of genetically enhanced bananas to resist black
Sigatoka and Panama diseases.
Emile Frison, director of INIBAP, is also the driving force behind a
global consortium of publicly funded institutes working to sequence the
genome of a wild banana from East Asia to help identify genes that could
be used to create disease-resistant edible varieties. Other researchers
around the world are also working to develop disease-resistant bananas.
For example, the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane,
Australia, has teamed up with Farmacule BioIndustries, also of Brisbane,
and Demegen, Inc., of Pittsburgh, Pa., to develop biotech banana varieties
resistant to black Sigatoka.
Recognition is growing that biotechnology may be the only way to save the
banana from the ever-changing pests and diseases that prey on it. The
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) supports this view.
"Since more than 50 percent of the banana germplasm are sterile,
biotechnology and mutation breeding are important tools that can improve
banana varieties," states an FAO press release.
Biotechnology and Genetic Diversity
Experts say risks and benefits of biotechnology must be weighed on a
case-by-case basis. Could plant biotechnology affect wild ecosystems?
Critics fear a genetically enhanced gene could "escape" from a farmer's
field and breed with a wild relative to create a "superweed" that could
overwhelm the natural environment and curtail genetic diversity.
Proponents, on the other hand, say the productivity gains of genetically
enhanced crops allow more food to grow on existing farmland, which
preserves natural areas from being plowed under to feed a growing
population. This, supporters say, promotes genetic diversity.
Researchers increasingly say the question is no longer whether a
genetically enhanced gene, or transgene, will "escape." Pollen flow
between plants is a natural phenomenon that has been occurring for
thousands of years.
Indeed, a 1999 study found that 12 of the world's 13 most important food
crops hybridized with at least one of their wild relatives. As Klaus
Ammann, director of the botanical garden at the University of Bern in
Switzerland puts it, "I can assure you that pollen did not learn to fly
with the transgenes." So release of genetically enhanced genes is as
likely to occur as with conventional varieties.
But the better question to be asked is what could happen when specific
genetically enhanced genes do enter the natural environment, says John
Burke, a biology professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.2
"Our work · indicates a clear need to assess the relative risks and
benefits of genetic modification on a case-by-case basis," he wrote in a
paper titled, "Assessing the Risks of Transgene Escape: A Case Study in
While there is much to study, most experts have concluded that the process
of genetic engineering does not pose any unique risks to the environment.
"So far, most scientific inquiry into the subject has failed to support
the notion that there is something about the genetic engineering process
itself that intensifies any threats from gene flow," states an August 2003
report titled "Have Transgenes, Will Travel," issued by the Pew Initiative
on Food and Biotechnology.4
A panel of experts assembled by the National Academy of Sciences reached a
similar conclusion. "The genetic engineering process, per se, presents no
new categories of risk" to the environment compared to conventional
breeding, said the August 2002 report titled, "The Environmental Effects
of Transgenic Plants."
Although there is no question that the natural process of gene flow via
pollination does occur, a number of conditions must be met:
* First, there must be sexual compatibility between a domesticated crop
and its wild relative for gene flow to occur -- just as a bird cannot
successfully mate with a frog.
* Second, the plants need to be close enough so the pollen can move from
plant to plant (pollen from canola, for example, can travel farther than
pollen from corn).
* Third, the plants need to flower at the same time.
In general, biotech crops that can easily hybridize with their wild
relatives could theoretically pose greater risks than those that don't,
explained Burke. Because there are no wild relatives of corn or soybean in
the United States, for example, researchers say there is no chance for
genetically enhanced genes from either crop to breed with a wild relative.
So the risk of any ecological problems from these crops in the United
States is very low.
But there are wild relatives of corn in Mexico and wild relatives of
soybean in Korea and China. So the same crops can potentially pose
different risks of breeding with their wild relatives depending on where
they are grown. That's why experts like Burke say genetically enhanced
crops must be studied on a case-by-case basis.
Similarly, different genetically enhanced traits pose varying degrees of
risk. A gene for herbicide tolerance, for example, isn't likely to confer
an advantage to a plant in the wild because herbicides won't be
encountered there. But other traits -- such as resistance to pests,
disease or hostile growing conditions such as drought --could
theoretically give a weedy relative an upper hand, says Burke.
Burke studied sunflowers (which have been developed but not approved for
market) that have been genetically enhanced to resist white mold, one of
the most widespread diseases that can cause yield losses of up to 70
percent. Because cultivated sunflowers are grown in regions where wild
sunflowers are common, Burke says "crop-wild gene flow is a virtual
But what he concluded was that although the transgene for mold resistance
was transferred to wild sunflowers, it "will have little effect on the
evolutionary dynamics of wild sunflower populations." It appears that wild
sunflowers already have resistance to white mold, so the additional white
mold resistance gene didn't allow them to survive any better.
Before any biotech product reaches the market, the possible risks to the
environment are carefully analyzed, and safeguards -- such as buffer zones
around the perimeter of fields planted with biotech varieties -- are
required. A buffer zone is planted with traditional crop varieties to
minimize any possible effects of pollen flow to a neighboring farmer's
field or to a wild plant relative.
Farmers have long learned to keep different varieties of the same crop
separate. For example, rapeseed was originally grown in Canada to be used
as a lubricant because it has high levels of erucic acid, which can be
harmful when eaten. Conventional plant breeders developed improved
varieties of rapeseed -- now called canola -- with low levels of this
harmful acid. Canola is now a widely used cooking oil.
Both types of rapeseed are still grown in Canada. "Canadian farmers and
processors easily and routinely" keep these two varieties separate, said
Henry Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and founding director of
the Office of Biotechnology at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Similarly, experts say new varieties of biotech corn could exist
side-by-side with their wild relatives in Mexico without posing a threat
to genetic diversity.
Corn in Mexico
Corn, or maize, is a cornerstone of society in Mexico, widely considered
the birthplace of corn. So news in a September 2001 issue of Nature, a
respected science journal, that traces of biotech corn had been discovered
in farms field in Oaxaca created widespread concern. Nature later
disavowed its original article, and several researchers say biotech corn
will not have a negative impact on traditional varieties.
"There is no scientific basis for believing that out-crossing from biotech
crops could endanger maize biodiversity," said Luis Herrera-Estrella,
director of the Mexico-based Center for Research and Advanced Studies,
which is known by its Mexican acronym, CINVESTAV. "Gene flow between
commercial and natural varieties is a natural process that has been
occurring for many decades."
Some genetically engineered traits, such as built-in pest resistance,
could fold into traditional crop varieties and may help them survive
better, he said. Others will die out if they don't provide a recognizable
benefit to farmers or consumers.
The real threat to genetic diversity in Mexico, say many researchers, is
the exodus of small farmers who are leaving their small plots in Mexico
for more lucrative jobs in the cities of Mexico and the United States.
Since corn requires human intervention to thrive, unique varieties are
being lost when the plots are abandoned.
"The most important consideration in the loss of diversity has to do with
the fact that farmers are simply abandoning farming," Mauricio Bellon, of
the International Center for the Improvement of Wheat and Maize (CIMMYT),
told National Public Radio in December 2001.
Increasing genetic diversity
The exodus of rural farmers to cities is occurring at a rapid pace around
the world -- not just in Mexico. So the genetic diversity of more crops
than corn is at stake.
At the same time, a growing world population, coupled with increased
urbanization and higher incomes, is creating a greater demand for food.
The United Nations predicts that the global population will increase to
8.9 billion by 2050 -- a 40 percent increase over the 6.3 billion people
on Earth today.
By helping farmers produce greater yields, biotechnology can play a part
in making farms of all sizes more viable, which in turn could help reduce
the pressure on remaining wilderness areas.
Currently, about 38 percent of the Earth's land area is cropland or
pasture. To keep pace with growing food demand, the increase in natural
land converted to cropland or pasture has been about 0.3 percent -- about
the size of Greece or Nicaragua -- every year.18 By one estimate, an
additional 4 billion acres of arable land will need to come under the plow
by 2050 if there are no increases in farm productivity. That's more than
twice the size of the continental United States (about 3 million square
Experts fear that in the coming decades, half of the world's remaining 6
billion acres of forests will be lost to agricultural expansion.19 If
forests continue to disappear at the current rate, as many as 20 percent
of all tropical forest species of plants and animals could become extinct
in 30 years.
An August 2002 United Nations report predicted that agricultural and urban
expansion will threaten biodiversity on 72 percent of the global land area
by 2032. The "World Atlas of Biodiversity: Earth's Living Resources for
the 21st Century" report said that as much as 48 percent of these areas
will become converted to agricultural land, plantations and urban areas,
compared with 22 percent today.
"By slowing the rate at which natural habitats are destroyed, GM crops and
other technologies that increase agricultural productivity can help to
preserve natural biodiversity," said Ammann of the University of Bern.
References at http://www.whybiotech.com/index.asp?id=4009