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March 17, 2004


Show Me the Money Trail; Corporate 'Control'; Australian Drama; Cleaning Contaminated Ground; Biotech & Green Revolution - Borlaug Speak Up


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - March 18, 2004:

* Show Me the Money Trail
* Neither New Nor Evil: Corporate 'Control' of Germplasm
* Fairness of Contractual Agreement with Farmers
* Australia's Waiting for the World on GM
* GMOs: To Opt or Not to Opt
* Plants That Clean Contaminated Ground
* Biotechnology Ethics and Public Perceptions of Biotechnology
* Biotechnology and the Green Revolution: Interview with Norman Borlaug


Show Me the Money Trail

- Graeme O'Neill, Australian Biotechnology News, www.biotechnews.com.au
(Reproduced in AgBioView with permission from Iain Scott, Editor-in-Chief)

'Who make up the anti-GM lobby, asks Graeme O'Neill, and who's behind them?'

Non-government organisations (NGOs) have shaped and driven the anti-GM debate in Australia, with enormous success. The world's most stringent food-labelling laws, and existing or planned moratoriums on GM crops in five states, are testament to their political influence.

Yet they are led by non-elected officials, and almost nothing is known of their membership, or funding sources. Western Australian farmer and anti-GM activist Julie Newman, founder of the Network of Concerned Farmers (NCF), sits on the Gene Technology Grains Committee, which she says claims to represent the Australian grains industry is preparing coexistence protocols that will supposedly allow GM and non-GM farmers to plant side-by-side without problems.

Newman said farmers' chief concern was that grain storage and handling agents would require growers of conventional canola, wheat and other cereals to guarantee that their grain was free of GM contamination, and to accept legal liability if it were not.

She says that GM contamination is inevitable -- so "why should we be forced to pay the costs?" Asked how many farmers were members of the Network of Concerned Farmers, Newman said the group had no mechanism for formal membership by subscription. She spent large amounts of her own money on travel, but received occasional donations from sympathetic farmers.

The NCF claims to represent a majority of Australian farmers concerned about GM canola. But when asked how many members were on its books, Newman said there was no formal membership list, because it lacked the resources to organise subscriptions.

The network was formed during an infamous Australian tour by Saskatchewan canola farmer Percy Schmeiser, who became a martyr and hero to the international anti-GM movement after he was convicted by the Canadian court for illegally growing Roundup-Ready canola without a commercial license from Monsanto.

Officials of the Australian GeneEthics Network and Greenpeace were present, but maintained a low profile, at all of Schmeiser's Australian meetings. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Greenpeace was involved in establishing the Network of Concerned Farmers, and remains a sponsor.

The Australian GeneEthics Network, headed by professional activist Bob Phelps, continues to ignore a year-old request from Australian Biotechnology News, Dr Rick Roush, former director of the Cooperative Research Centre for Weed Management in Adelaide, and Melbourne University geneticist Dr David Tribe, to disclose its funding sources, and provide details of its membership.

In a recent, widely syndicated article on NGOs, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, foreign editor of the 'Hindustan Times' wrote that "...the money trail of most NGOs resembles that of Al Qaeda rather than that of ExxonMobil. The 2003 Global Accountability Report labels NGOs among the least transparent global institutions, particularly in money matters.

"The result is that NGOs can be, and often are, funded by cranky millionaires, flat-earth foundations, criminals and old ladies who believe in the power of crystals. Such NGOs actively promote these idiosyncratic world views.

"As NGO staff are not beholden to anyone in their country of activity and have no incentive towards moderation, their behaviour often resembles that of a small, hostile religious sect. Such whimsy is of little moment in the developed nations, where media, judiciary and political institutions help to moderate the madness. In the Third World, however, the result can be social engineering at its worst."

One of the most potent weapons wielded by the anti-GM NGOs in Australia are public opinion polls that purport to show that a majority of consumers and farmers are opposed to GM crops and foods. But other polls by government agencies in Australia and New Zealand suggest that such polls do not accurately reflect community sentiment.

Their results are biased by a methodological flaw: the mere act of asking people if they have concerns about GM crops or foods requires them to express a view on a subject that ranks very low in their everyday concerns. Because modern political decision-making is so poll-driven, these polls have convinced government of an enormous groundswell of public opposition to GM crops and goods - and to take inordinate measures to assuage such opinion.

Like the Cheshire cat, the heads of the anti-GM NGOs materialise wherever there is a stage, a TV camera or a microphone. But they are less formidable than they appear -- the NGO corpus is not only invisible, but insubstantial.

Australia made history in 1988 when it became the first country in the world to release a genetically modified organism into the environment -- Alan Kerr's neutered crown gall virus, used since 1988 to prevent crown gall disease in fruit orchards and nurseries. Sixteen years on, Kerr's achievement has been forgotten, and Australia has released just one other GM organism into its fields: cotton.

Australia now some of the world's best legislation, and a system of rigorous scientific checks and consultative procedures, to ensure that GMOs pose no unacceptable threat to human health or the environment before release. It also has the world's most stringent labelling system for GM foods.

The anti-GM movement has played a key role in introducing these systems, but for its professional activists, too much will never be enough. While governments vacillate, activists will raise endless doubts about GM crops, until the sun sets on Australian research, and an unprecedented opportunity to improve the prosperity and productivity of agriculture, and lessen its impact on the environment.

Wracked by uncertainty, and paralysed by political and bureaucratic timidity, Australia has squandered its leadership in agricultural gene technology. It now lags behind developing nations like South Africa, India and China in making the transition to the New Agriculture.

It is grotesque that Australia, an industrialised nation and a world leader in agricultural gene technology, is still agonising over whether to allow its farmers to plant a crop that has been grown safely, and profitably, by Canadian farmers since 1996. By acting decisively to end the Victorian moratorium in May, the Victorian government would be doing its own biotechnology industry, and Australian agriculture, a massive and historic favour.

The latest statistics from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications, an organisation that supports the transfer of biotechnology to developing countries, show that the area land planted to GM crops last year grew by 15 per cent, maintaining the double-digit annual rate of increase since 1996. Most of the growth was in developing nations. Seven million farmers in 18 countries -- 85 per cent of them resource-poor farmers in developing nations, now grow GM crops.

The anti-GM movement has lost, just as an equally ill-informed campaign 75 years ago, led by fundamentalist Christian zealots, failed to block the introduction of high-yielding, disease-resistant hybrid crops, with the argument that scientists were interfering with God's designs.

(c) Australian Biotechnology News, 2004


Neither New Nor Evil: Corporate 'Control' of Improved Plant Germplasm

- Response to Piero Morandini's Question by Andrew Apel

Dear Dr. Morandini:

In my readings, I have found that attempts to control germplasm are far older than intellectual property notions were first conceived. There is evidence of attempts to control, as I recall, sugarcane, date palm and breadfruit germplasm to preserve export markets, but these were enforced at the point of the sword in the national interest.

Perhaps the most notorious military enterprise to gain control of biotechnology was Britain's conquest of a portion of Spain now known as Portugal, in order to gain control of port wine for the benefit of British sailors. Port wine contains a great deal of stabilized vitamin C and is effective in preventing scurvy, a vitamin deficiency which reduced the effectiveness of the British navy. To this day, Portugal remains a separate nation merely because of its early advance in biotechnology.

I agree with you completely that without rights in intellectual property, breeders will have little incentive to improve seeds, but this incentive is scalable. The mythical Gaia-worshiping neolithic farmer will work to improve seeds only for the most local benefits, i.e., improved nutrition for the tribe. The scale will be dependent on the technology available, and only the crudest technologies (such as visual seed selection) will be employed without a greater incentive and technological ability.

Those noticing that some seeds or crops in some areas are better than others will naturally see that there is a highly portable economic benefit in improving seeds and crops, most especially since they propagate themselves. Improving a crop is like inventing a printing press that not only produces books, but printing presses as well. The value becomes exponential. When this value becomes apparent, seed breeding efforts become more sophisticated and with that, efforts to reap the benefits of seed breeding become more sophisticated (better than the sword, at least).

What is unfortunately overlooked in "the debate" over biotechnology is that there is a new, and unprecedented, value in control over germplasm. So long as the seed companies maintain licensing control over the use of their seeds, if anything adverse emerges, they can cancel the product in one season and the product is no longer available to the farmers. (Brazilian soy and Indian cotton are worthy of discussion on this point.) Licensing control is a form of biocontrol that is important to farmers, consumers and governments, and essential to reasonable regulation of biotechnology.

Many demand corporate accountability for engineered germplasm. Corporate single-use licensing and control of germplasm is essential to that accountability. To enable that, governments must stand behind and enforce intellectual property rights. Not merely to encourage innovation, but also to keep developments in the hands of developers who can be held responsible because of the ownership rights, and stewardship responsibilities, that result from novel technology.

- Andrew Apel

Piero asked:
>As far as I could understand Monsanto RR canola is being given to
for planting only if they sign a contract binding them to give back the variety after use. Basically, as far as I can understand, they do not own the seed but they are simply given a licence for cultivation. Is this correct? Is there any other transgenic crop that is being "lent" to farmers like RR ready canola? Do you know the reason for this policy? Is it because otherwise farmers would quickly propagate the seed and produce their own seed stock without of buying it every year?


More on Piero Morandini's Query: Fairness of Contractual Agreement with Farmers

- Drew Kershen   

Yesterday, I responded to Piero Morandini’s question about RR soybeans and the Monsanto contract with farmers. I would like to supplement my comments.

My comments yesterday focused on contracts to protect intellectual property in plants whether created through traditional breeding or transgenic breeding. My comments today will focus on a distinct relationship between processors and farmers called contract production.

For at least forty years in the United States, processors of poultry (chicken, turkeys, ducks) and processors of many vegetables (green beans,
peas) have contracted with farmers for the production of these agricultural products. These contracts create a bailment relationship between the processor and the farmer whereby the processor owns the seed, the crop, the harvested product and the farmer is paid for contract production (the farming).

Processors have used these contracts (under which the farmer does not own the animals or the plants) not for the purposes of protecting intellectual property rights but for two other purposes. First, by the processor owning the animals or plants, the processor is assured a supply of the agricultural product to the processor’s plant. The farmer is contractually bound to return the agricultural product at the end of the production cycle to the processor. Second, by the processor owning the animals or plants, the processor can better control the production practices and the quality of the harvested product because the processor can give instructions to the contract farmer about how the processor wants its animals or plants grown.

The farmer who enters into these production contracts has an income that is set forth in the contract. The farmer with a production contract has transferred, to a degree depending upon the terms of the contract, the market risk to the processor. The farmer no longer sells into an unpredictable cash market, rather the farmer is paid in accordance with the contract payment schedule.

Contract production is wide-spread in the United States and has been wide-spread in certain segments of agriculture for many years. Contract production is controversial, raising concerns about the structure of agriculture (i.e. the independence of farmers) and about the fairness of the contracts (disparity of bargaining power between the processor and the farmer).
In contract production, the farmer does not own the plants, animals or product being produced. By contrast, under the intellectual property contracts discussed yesterday, the farmer does own the plants and the crop but the farmer has contractually agreed not to save seed for further reproductive purposes.
- Drew L. Kershen, Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law, University of Oklahoma College of Law


Australia's Waiting for the World on GM

- Graeme O'Neill, Australian Biotechnology News, www.biotechnews.com.au (Reproduced in AgBioView with permission from Iain Scott, Editor-in-Chief)

M-Day is approaching for the Australian state of Victoria: will the government of state premier Steve Bracks end its 12-month, voluntary moratorium on commercial cropping of genetically modified canola, imposed in May last year?

When Victoria opted not to follow other states into a legislated, multi-year moratorium on GM herbicide-tolerant canolas, it prevented an effective Australia-wide lockout of all new GM crops. The government's attempt to assuage consumer angst about GM crops, without doing lasting damage to the state's biotechnology industry, made Victoria a lightning rod for a storm of anti-GM propaganda. The anti-GM movement knows it would only take one season of limited-scale commercial trials to break the spell of suspicion that it has cast over Australian farmers and consumers.

Any large-scale Victorian trial would become a must-see attraction for canola farmers from the moratorium states of NSW, Western Australia, and South Australia -- most of them already familiar with the advantages of growing conventional HT canolas.

For all the anti-GM movement's best efforts to convince farmers to the contrary, GMHT canolas are compellingly ordinary in the photosynthetic flesh, but visibly taller and more robust than the stunted, low-yielding triazine-tolerant (TT) canola varieties that currently dominate the industry.

Farmers would see profits, not Triffids. Their clamour to grow the new canolas would soon convince the other states to lift their moratoriums.
The Victorian government imposed its voluntary moratorium just in time to prevent Bayer CropScience from planting farm-scale trials in the 2003 season. The federal GM watchdog, the Office of the Gene Regulator, had just given Bayer permission to release its GMHT canolas for commercial use. Monsanto Australia has now also received OGTR approval to release its glyphosate-tolerant Roundup Ready GM canolas.

Both companies submitted reluctantly to the voluntary moratorium. After all, Canada has been growing the same types of GMHT canolas safely since 1996, and has had no problems selling its entire crop, despite the loss of its former markets in Europe -- which were not large, as Europe is a net exporter of canola.

NZ loosens up
The international GM crop scene has changed markedly since Victoria imposed its moratorium. In New Zealand, where anti-GM sentiment is stronger than in Australia, the Clark government has lifted its moratorium on field trials of GM organisms, and freed up legislation that had hogtied research and development.

The NZ moratorium was imposed during a royal commission into genetically modified organisms, which did much to expose the anti-GM movement's arguments as scientifically untenable, even downright silly. GM researchers and the biotechnology industry followed the proceedings of the royal commission intently, in a forlorn expectation that it might put the international anti-GM movement to flight.

The commission found that New Zealand could not afford to ignore the potential benefits of the technology, that it was not inherently dangerous and that R&D should proceed with caution. Inevitably, New Zealand's anti-GM movement simply rejected its findings, and redoubled its efforts to keep New Zealand agriculture 'clean and green'. Meanwhile, New Zealand's moratorium is off, and the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) has recently approved the first, limited field trial of a GM crop: herbicide tolerant onions.

US-born GM crops expert Dr Rick Roush, former director of the Cooperative Research Centre for Weed Management, who returned to the US last year, says one of the things he most admired about Australia was that it was a very secular, rational nation, not usually swept by quasi-religious views.

"One of the saddest things is that even a very sensible country like Australia can be led down a prickly garden path by a few activists, abetted by a gullible or even self-serving media," he said.

Euro thaw
Even in rabidly anti-GM Europe and Britain, there are unmistakable signs of a thaw in political sentiment. Politicians have finally run out of scientifically plausible concerns that might justify a continuing ban on all GM crops, and rejection of imported GM produce.

The German chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, recently insisted that his agriculture minister, Renate Kunast -- a member of the Greens party, and a resolute opponent of GM crops -- announce that Germany will proceed with trials of GM crops this year. Soon after, the European Union's executive commission announced it would support a proposal to allow imports of at least one type of pest-resistant GM maize -- the Bt-11 variety developed by Swiss agrochemical giant Syngenta.

The EU has since rejected the proposal, despite a 9-5 vote in favour by member nations. The vote was lost 62-53 in a voting system that weights each nation's vote by population. Oddly, Germany abstained, but the vote confirmed that political resistance to GM crops is ebbing in the anti-GM movement's heartland. If EU agriculture ministers cannot agree to approve GM crops, the executive commission has the power to rubber-stamp its own proposal.

Warnings dated
GM soybeans are used in a wide range of processed foods, and in animal feed. In the US, the world's largest soy producer, GMHT varieties account for 80 per cent of production.

Europe has banned US soy, and relies on the world's second largest producer, Brazil, for non-GM imports. But for nearly half a decade, many Brazilian growers have been illegally growing Roundup Ready varieties smuggled over the border from Argentina. Because the crops are illegal, there is no segregation of GM and conventional soy for export. European importers and consumers knowingly accept Brazilian soy as 'clean and green', knowing it probably contains GM seeds.

This see-no-evil tale has a parallel in Australia. It suits the purpose of Greenpeace and the Australian GeneEthics Network to use the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument that GM canola would be Australia's first homegrown GM food crop. It's not -- Australians have been eating margarine and cooking oil extracted from the seeds of home-grown, pesticide-resistant GM cotton for more than half a decade.

The same organisations have also singled out Australia's biggest chicken producer, for feeding its birds imported GM maize protected by the Bt pesticide gene. But they neglect to point out that Australian feedlot beef producers feed cattle the high-protein GM cottonseed meal left over after the oil is extracted. Feedlot companies actually prefer the GM cottonseed, because it is free of the pesticide endosulfan, whose residues caused importers to reject shipments of Australian beef in the early 1990s.

The anti-GM movement's dire warnings about potential long-term health effects of GM foods have exceeded their expiry date -- the world has been eating processed foods containing GM ingredients since 1996, with not a single confirmed case of toxicity, allergenicity or any acute or long-term health effect.

Meanwhile, the organic food industry, perennial cheerleader and clandestine sponsor for the anti-GM movement, produces only 1 per cent of the food consumed in the US, but accounts for about 10 per cent of all cases of food poisoning.

To its credit, the Victorian government was at pains to point out when it imposed its moratorium last May that it accepts the OGTR's conclusion that GM canola poses no greater risk to human health or the environment than conventional canola. The moratorium was imposed only to provide time for an analysis of the potential impact of commercial GM canola production on Australia's overseas trade, and the grain industry's capacity to keep GM and non-GM canola segregated through the supply chain. Last November, the government asked eminent Melbourne University economist Professor Peter Lloyd to conduct the review. It is now awaiting his report.

Triazine ban
Strangely, no Australian government -- state or federal -- is investigating the health or environmental impacts of the conventionally triazine-tolerant canola varieties that currently dominate the Australian industry.

What nobody in government seems prepared to say is that there there is good scientific evidence that GMHT canolas would actually be less damaging, even beneficial, to the environment.

But like the wise monkeys of fable, the politicians who authored the state moratoriums have their hands firmly over their eyes and ears.

Since the Victorian moratorium began, the European Union has banned triaizine herbicides (atrazine and simazine) as a threat to the environment, and possibly to human health. Triazines are highly soluble and persistent. Because they do not degrade rapidly, or bind to the soil, they can contaminate waterways and groundwater tables.

A researcher at the University of California, Berkeley has claimed to have evidence that triazine residues in waterways can cause deformities in frogs, although such evidence is reportedly weak.

Triazine use in Australia is highest in Western Australia, whose farmers grow triazine-tolerant canolas almost exclusively, and also use the herbicides to control sandplain lupin crops. WA's highly permeable, sandy soils, make the state's groundwaters particularly susceptible to contamination. However, the hazard to human health is probably minimal, because in rural areas, the state's groundwaters tend to be too saline for human consumption.

The anti-GM movement has been urging Australian farmers to reject GMHT canolas, on the grounds that Europe is a potentially lucrative market for Australia's non-GM canola.

But Europe is a net exporter of canola: it is only an itinerant customer for the Australian product, and accounts for only 13 per cent of Australia's export sales. Most of Australia's canola is sold to Japan, China and Pakistan, which do not discriminate against GM canola.

It will be interesting to see if the Victorian Reynolds report considers the market-access implications of the European ban on triazine herbicides. The logical extension of the ban is that Europe will also refuse to import canola grown with triazine herbicides, even it contains undetectable or acceptable levels of triazine residues.

Because of their own domestic ban on GM crops, EU nations refuse to fund research and development of GM crops in Africa because of potential environmental and health hazards to Africans. If Japan were to follow the European ban on triazine herbicides, Australia would lose its most lucrative market -- a market that readily accepts GM canola from Canada.

Because the Reynolds inquiry has taken health and environment issues out of the equation, the anti-GM movement has been hammering the issue of GM contamination and market access for GM canola.

(c) Australian Biotechnology News, 2004


GMOs: To Opt or Not to Opt

- B. M. Subbalakshmi, Deccan Herald (India), March 18, 2004. http://www.deccanherald.com/deccanherald/mar182004/snt2.asp

Scientists must communicate to the masses - in the language that they understand, the benefits of the bio-technology. Regulatory policies need to get more transparent if apprehensions about GMOs are to be cleared

They've now turned from debate to the 'only' talk of the town - the GMO’s (Genetically modified organisms) - be it genetically redesigned food crops or vaccines. Even as the patrons of biotechnology -industry and academia included, are trying their best to convince the general public about the benefits of the technology; and farmers rights activists, NGO's and so many others, are attempting to drive home the threats of an alien invasion into agriculture, one wonders whether the debate is worth the time? or is ‘talking about something you don't know’, a fancy that the world has taken to?

While on the lookout for answers, Deccan Herald met Dr Sivramiah "Shanthu" Shantharam, President of Biologistics International. Formerly, Regulatory Compliance Manager at Plant Sciences Division, Syngenta Basel, Switzerland, he was responsible for developing public affairs and communications strategies for two important biotechnology projects viz. Golden Rice and Rice Genome Sequence Data Projects. Prior to joining Syngenta, Shanthu was employed with the US Department Agriculture’s Biotechnology Regulatory Program in Washington for 14 years.

"I am extremely distraught at the way things have taken a turn not just in this country but the worldover, when it comes to GMOs. When we sit back and analyse, we see that many things have gone wrong. For one, scientists have not learnt to communicate to the masses - in the language that they understand, the benefits of the genetic engineering technology. That’s more than enough to cause trouble. The next big issue, especially in India, is the regulatory lethargy. The kind of a ‘laid-back’ so to say, attitude of the regulatory bodies to approve GM crops. These two put together are more than ample for the so-called activists to raise a hue and cry. In fact most of the people who are debating against the technology are those who do not even understand the complex nature of the technology."

GMO debate
Does that mean that the debate itself is uncalled for? "Debate is a must. When in doubt it is important that clarifications are sought. How else can one be convinced whether what is being given to them is good or bad or ugly? What is first needed is an understanding of GMOs are. What kind of technology is being applied for their creation? And, whether in the true sense they cause the kind of harm that are alleged to? To do that one needs to communicate well. First, the developers of the technology - the scientists, need to reach out to the public and tell them what they are doing. Second, the regulatory policies need to get more transparent.

Regulatory bodies must look at the issue in a more open-minded fashion and communicate the same to the public. The root of most apprehensions lies probably in the fact that Biotechnology is industry-driven and industry is profit-driven. When the Industry invests so much of its expertise and money to do good to the public, it has to keep in mind the returns.

That’s natural. That should not be a cause for concern. What becomes concern is when profit-making turns into profiteering. If the Industry is just trying to push its products without testing for safety standards or without enough field trials, it needs to be monitored. Whether they like it or not, everybody has to go through all the norms before they get approval for any product. Yes, in case there has been a cut in the time frame for field trial or any such thing, its because the product has already proved its worth before trial time." "Assuming that the Industry is actually forcing its stuff into the market, history is evidence to the fact that be it food products or drugs or any other product of utility - bad stuff is automatically rejected by the consumers. The simple fact that such rejections have not happened to any GMO proves that they are quality products."

IPR issues
While talking of the GMOs another topic that has raised a lot of debate is that of the Intellectual Property Rights issue. What does Dr Shantharam, have to say about that?

"IPR issue is another bone of contention. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong in seeking protection for intellectual property. But it should be fair and equitable. If we can seek protection for physical property why not intellectual? After all, the creators of a technology need some protection that would ensure that their ideas are not exploited by others. Even in the Indian context I do not see any problem."

Debate apart, as Dr Shantaram says, "We must accept that technology brings in a lot of new stuff. Bad or good we will soon find out, but give the technology a chance. If it proves itself, then let it stay, otherwise it’s automatically out."


Merging Genes Could Create Plants That Clean Contaminated Ground

- Rachel Melcer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 18, 2004

St. Louis - In a Creve Coeur, Mo., laboratory, biochemists Joe Jez and Tom Smith are working toward a day when plants and trees will replace earthmovers and landfills in cleaning contaminated industrial sites. The duo, who work at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, are advancing a method of phytoremediation, a broad term that refers to using green plants to absorb or break down contaminants in soil, sludge, sediment and groundwater.

Jez has identified a gene that allows certain plants to thrive in soil contaminated with cadmium, a toxic heavy metal. Smith has found a different gene that helps some bacteria to capture and transport zinc, which is important for nutrition but can be threatening at high concentrations. They would like to augment and transfer both traits to large, fast-growing plants and trees, enabling them to store various heavy-metal pollutants absorbed from the ground. The plants could be harvested and incinerated, leaving a relatively small amount of ash for proper disposal.

"There is no single plant that has all of the things you'd want in a cleanup factory," Jez said. "And we only have one little piece of the process. ... But it's a place to start."

Genetic modification is a promising method for combining the most desired traits and plants. But it's controversial. Some people fear that genetically modifying plants could cause long-term harm to the environment, though that has not been proved. Jez and Smith will have to show that the changes they make won't spread to other types of vegetation.

Meanwhile, engineers are using types of phytoremediation that take advantage of naturally occurring qualities in some plants and trees. For example, poplar trees grow quickly and form long roots that reach far below the surface. They can absorb large quantities of water and withstand contamination.

Scientists and engineers are using poplar trees as natural barriers to stop underground plumes of contaminated water from reaching rivers and streams. They absorb the polluted water and also can aid in the breakdown of certain organic chemicals.

Phytoremediation methods are gaining steam as an ecologically sound, relatively low-cost way to deal with brownfields, the Environmental Protection Agency says. Brownfields are abandoned or underused industrial sites where environmental contamination hinders redevelopment. There are thousands of them across the United States.

The EPA is overseeing 10 of the Superfund cleanups that use simple forms of phytoremediation, such as planting poplar trees, said Walter Kovalick, a director in the Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation. At a dozen additional sites, full-scale or smaller pilot-level trials are under way to prove that other approaches can work.

More than 15 companies are listed in an EPA database as being able to provide phytoremediation services, Kovalick said. "It's not a full-fledged, off-the-shelf technology, for sure," he said. "But it's well past emerging. ... It's maybe in its teenage years, in terms of use as a technology."

Further field tests are planned for this year and next, he said. But it will take awhile to see the results because phytoremediation depends on plants' natural growth rate and reliance on favorable weather conditions. "It can take eight to 10 years for someone's new discovery to get beyond the lab stage," Kovalick said. "Then, even the best ideas seem to take anywhere from five to 10 years - if they truly are a breakthrough or a new way to do cleanup in our world - to be adopted."

Jez and Smith said their work is years away from yielding commercial results. They are seeing promising signs as they test basic concepts, however. Their projects are supported with startup funds from the Plant Science Center, as well as part of a $500,000 grant that the center received in January from the EPA. Jez and Smith said they will apply for more federal grants and, once they have published results, seek industry sponsors.

"We have a lot to prove in this next year," said Roger Beachy, president of the Plant Science Center. "Lots of things look good on paper. ... We're at the stage of saying this works in principle." Even in the best case, where Jez and Smith succeed in producing ideal plants for cleanups, phytoremediation is not always an ideal solution.

David Glass, a biochemist and molecular biologist, is one of phytoremediation's biggest supporters. He's an environmental technology consultant as well as part-time chief executive of Applied PhytoGenetics Inc., or Apgen, a phytoremediation startup company in Athens, Ga. Yet he sees the technology's limitations. "It tends to be cheaper than most competing technologies, but it's also slower," so it's not ideal for all sites, he said. "If you're not in any hurry and you want to save money and it's a large site ... then phytoremediation would be a good option."

Today, engineers typically clean sites by excavating the entire layer of contaminated soil. It's then transported to a contained landfill. Underground plumes of contaminated groundwater are stopped with physical barriers. And water is sucked from the ground, treated and reinjected. The process is costly and cumbersome, but it can be accomplished quickly, if necessary.

Kovalick said phytoremediation probably would not be fast enough for a developer who wants to convert a brownfield into a shopping mall, for example. But it could be ideal for sites that are abandoned or in poor locations. In such cases, a government could undertake an inexpensive cleanup and eventually put the land to public use, he said. "Phytoremediation is good (for people) who have time to watch the grass grow, so to speak," he said. "It's good for niches."

Apgen is taking a dual approach: It is field-testing plants that naturally are able to break down certain organic pollutants into less harmful forms. It also is developing genetically engineered cottonwood trees that should be able to absorb and store mercury.

The goal of most phytoremediation scientists is to develop a toolbox of plants and trees that can be matched with cleanup needs at specific sites
- whether they are wet or dry, in a warm or cold climate, deep or shallow. Most observers say this can happen only through genetic modification. Glass said he hopes environmental activists, who have objected to genetically engineered food crops, will support these types of uses for genetic technology.

"The benefits to society of having an arsenal of remediation and pollution prevention technologies, (in plants) that are themselves environmentally benign ... is clearly environmentally beneficial," he said. "Our work has great importance. And when people start being successful, it will make a major contribution to getting our environment clean and keeping it clean."


Advanced Course on Biotechnology Ethics and Public Perceptions of Biotechnology

28 March - 7 April 2004, St Edmund Hall, Oxford, UK http://www.efbpublic.org/site/page.liones.php?pointer=1-2-20-117-1285

The course programme is designed to provide the theory and skills necessary for effective interactive communication in biotechnology. The workshop is targeted at PhD students, post-graduates and lecturers in research institutes and companies from throughout Europe and Accession Countries.

After a general introduction on ethics, there will be a debate on ethical aspects in biotechnology, highlighting the reasoning for decisions. In the ethical aspects of biotechnology, examples will include the status of human beings in cloning and genetic diseases, GM food issues, patenting and commercial use of living organisms. Rational decision-making in ethics will be discussed in relation to regulations, patent issues, liability, risk assessment procedures and risk perceptions.

The second part of the course will be dedicated to public perceptions, science communication and company's/organisation's communication strategies. Various means for public perceptions understanding and analysis, as well as the issues and consequences will be presented. The course programme covers the media culture, its use and how it works, followed by training in writing, public speaking and interview handling. Training in design and execution of a communication strategy will be supported by presentations by experienced managers of companies, institutes and consumer and patients' organisations.


Blast from the Past...

'Biotechnology and the Green Revolution: Interview with Norman Borlaug'

- An ActionBioscience.org original interview, November 2002 http://www.actionbioscience.org/biotech/borlaug.html

Interview highlights: The Green Revolution began in the 1940s in the croplands of Mexico and its spirit must continue into this century
because: * many countries continue to have food shortages * global overpopulation threatens adequate food supplies * new technologies can help increase food production

ActionBioscience.org: What is the Green Revolution? Borlaug: It started in the 1940s when I joined a new program, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, aimed at assisting poor farmers in Mexico to increase their wheat production. We spent nearly 20 years breeding high-yield dwarf wheat that resisted a variety of plant pests and diseases and yielded two to three times more grain than traditional varieties.

Eventually, in the 1960s, we were able to expand the program and teach local farmers in Pakistan and India to cultivate the new wheat properly. The results were wonderful: * Pakistan produced 8.4 million tons in 1970, up from 4.6 million in 1965. * India's production was 20 million tons in 1970, up from 12.3 million 1965.

In 1968, when the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) wrote in his annual report that there was a big improvement in Pakistan and India, he said, "It looks like a Green Revolution." That is how the label 'The Green Revolution' got started. As an aside, the "greenies" have nothing to do with the Green Revolution, which is all about alleviating world hunger. In the 1980s, the success of the Green Revolution spilled over to China, which is now the world's biggest food producer..

* ActionBioscience.org: Is global hunger still a threat as it was in the 1960s?
-Borlaug: Yes, it is. For example, Africa now has a food crisis in a number of countries. That is what our African program is trying to solve
-- and former President Jimmy Carter is involved in it. Our joint program is called Sasakawa-Global 2000. We're helping farmers in countries struggling with food shortages to help them with the best possible farming practices, such as choosing seed and controlling weeds. We have the technology to double or triple food production but there is no viable system of transportation in these countries -- no roads, no railroads. The cost of moving fertilizer to these places, for example, would be three to four times more than what American farmers currently pay. Even if African farmers could produce more grain, how do they get it to their cities?

Sub-Saharan countries suffer from poor soil and uncertain rainfall, a shortage of trained agriculturalists, and lack of technology among other things. But our African program's test plots for corn, sorghum, wheat, cassava, rice, and grain legumes have two or three times higher yields than the control test plots using conventional methods.

* ActionBioscience.org: What do you say to those who oppose the use of agricultural biotechnology in developing countries?
Borlaug: Biotechnology will help these countries accomplish things that they could never do with conventional plant breeding. The technology is more precise and farming becomes less time consuming. The public needs to be better informed about the importance of biotechnology in food production so it won't be so critical.

You have to recognize food habits and it's difficult to change food habits. You have to start with the crops that are the most basic to the country and apply technology to it so you can double or triple the yield. You begin by planting in select test plots to demonstrate to farmers the potential of the new crop. You can bring seed to them easier than fertilizer. In places where fertilizer is available, many farmers don't have the money to buy it anyway. Farmers who see success in their test plots will be able to help change governmental policy and public attitude towards biotechnology.

There is a big potential for biotech in Africa. For example, Roundup Ready® crops. The gene for herbicide tolerance is built into the crops. These kinds of biotech crops promote good farming methods. For example, traditional African farms are plagued with razor-sharp grasses and so the farmers slash and burn. Herbicide-resistant crops can eliminate these grasses.

While biotechnology holds much promise in food production, we cannot ignore conventional plant breeding methods since these methods continue to be important. In the last century, conventional breeding produced higher yields and will continue to do so in this century.

* ActionBioscience.org: Studies have shown that some genetically modified
(GM) food crops carry toxins and allergens. Aren't these foods a health risk to humans?

Borlaug: There is no good evidence of toxicity in these foods but I am aware that allergenic properties may exist. Allergies caused by natural foods have been with us for a long time, so why wouldn't they happen with GM crops? Researchers are constantly monitoring crops for allergens and should be able to modify seeds to lessen the risks. There is a report by scientists at University of California at Berkeley who analyzed foods, including some that humans have eaten since the dawn of agriculture. The report shows that there are natural foods that contain trace amounts of natural chemicals that are toxic or carcinogenic. These foods don't seem to harm us.

If you're a theoretical scientist, you can philosophize about this but I've been in the field for a long time and I believe genetically modified food crops will stop world hunger. I recognize the value of crops created by traditional plant breeding but I also see the viability of crops that carry an herbicide-resistant gene or whatever gene is incorporated by biotechnology.

* ActionBioscience.org: What about risks to the environment?
Borlaug: Biotechnology helps farmers produce higher yields on less land. This is a very environmentally favorable benefit. For example, the world's grain output in 1950 was 692 million tons. Forty years or so later, the world's farmers used about the same amount of acreage but they harvested 1.9 billion tons -- a 170% increase! We would have needed an additional 1.8 billion hectares of land, instead of the 600 million used, had the global cereal harvest of 1950 prevailed in 1999 using the same conventional farming methods.

If we had continued practicing conventional farming, we would have cut down millions of acres of forest, thereby destroying wildlife habitat, in order to increase cropland to produce enough food for an escalating population. And we would have to use more herbicides in more fields, which would damage the environment even more. Technology allows us to have less impact on soil erosion, biodiversity, wildlife, forests, and grasslands.

* ActionBioscience.org: Can farmers in developing nations access biotech products?
Borlaug: In spite of biotech's great potential, access is a problem. Most of the research on crops is conducted by private enterprise and corporations hold patents on their inventions. Farmers in developing nations have little resources. How can they afford these patented products? Global governments need to seriously address the problem.

Governments also need to address issues such as a framework for testing genetically modified foods, funding research in the public sector, and educating the public better about agricultural science and technology. Most people in the "western" world are urbanites and they don't know what it takes to feed the world. These people can afford to buy expensive "organic" food and to criticize genetically modified food. They pressure governments to ban genetically modified foods and that could be disastrous for developing nations. Conclusion: Better agricultural methods for increasing yields will be needed as global populations escalate.

* ActionBioscience.org: What do you see for the Green Revolution in this century?
Borlaug: The Green Revolution is an ongoing continuum. Millions of people are currently undernourished in the world. The world population for 2025, at a medium fertility rate, is projected to be about 8.3 billion people. I calculate that we will need an additional one billion tons of grain by then. We have to increase yields to feed these people -- more bushels per acre, more tons per hectare. Higher yields are especially important now due to spreading urbanization, which takes away agricultural land. We will need to use both conventional breeding and biotechnology methods to meet the challenges of this century.

Norman Borlaug, Ph.D., father of the "Green Revolution," received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his lifetime work helping feed the world's hungry. Dr. Borlaug currently divides his time as a Senior Scientist at the Rockefeller Foundation and as a Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, at Texas A&M University.

He also serves as ex-officio consultant on wheat research and production problems to many governments in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. His numerous civic and scientific awards include the 1977 Presidential Medal of Freedom and the 2002 Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences USA. Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences USA, has said of Borlaug: "Some credit him with saving more human lives than any other person in history." Dr. Borlaug received his Ph.D. in plant pathology from the University of Minnesota in 1941.