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June 7, 2004


Revolutionizing Biotech; BIO 2004; Malaysia; Zero Tolerance in NZ


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - June 8, 2004:

* An Indian farmer bats for new technology
* BIO 2004 Conference in San Francisco - Who created this monster?
* Crop science/Better genes without splicing
* Let a Hundred Gene-Spliced Flowers Bloom
* 'Test-bed biotech ideas in Malaysia'
* Zero tolerance for GM crops could be eased



- Press Information Bureau of India, By Lalit Sethi, June 08, 2004

Biotechnology holds the promise to double food production, ensure adequate nutrition and rid small farmers from poverty. Biotech applications are already yielding health benefits by releasing what are considered life saving and life enhancing drugs. India is slowly emerging as one of the world leaders in this area.

The Task Force on Applications of Biotechnology in Agriculture headed by Dr M.S.Swaminathan presented its report to the Union Minister of Agriculture, Shri Sharad Pawar, the other day after a year’s labour. It covers the entire gamut of biotech research and activities. While stressing the enormous benefits that could be drawn from biotechnology, the report also emphasises on how to ensure the safety of people and India’s environment and biodiversity.

The report says: “The bottomline of our national agricultural biotechnology policy should be the economic well-being of farm families, food and health security of the nation, health security of the consumer, protection of the environment and security of our national and international trade in farm commodities”. This is a pithy summing up of India’s concerns which scientists, technocrats, policy makers and administrators are expected to keep in view in the diverse applications of biotechnology.

On the basis of a preliminary assessment of the funds needed to implement its recommendations, the Task Force says that Rs 1200 crore of additional funds would be needed for the application of biotechnology. Of this the Agriculture Department should provide Rs 300 crore to develop capacity building and human resources to set up organic farming zones and agro-biodiversity sanctuaries, initiating a special insurance scheme and setting up agri-clinics and agri-business centres. About Rs 200 crore may be provided in the remaining three years of the Tenth Five Year Plan as venture capital. A National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority may be set up at a cost of Rs 150 crore. Since agriculture is a State subject, regulatory advisory boards should be set up in the States. In addition, Animal Husbandry and Biotechnology Departments and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) may provide Rs 400 crore to upgrade research infrastructure and undertake human resource development.

Field trials of cash crops like cotton and mustard have thrown up prospects of disease-free and pest-free crops, apart from greater yields to make the seeds of these crops cost-effective. The task force has stressed that certain exotic crops like basmati rice, Darjeeling tea and soyabeen need not be tampered with in view of their special significance.

Genetic modifications of cattle could improve milk yields enormously even as India is already the world’s largest milk producer. Yet the need to preserve some resilient and centuries-old Indian breeds of cow have time and again been recognized by veterinary scientists. Research and experiments have brought out vaccines which could open the door to unrestricted growth of unhealthy cattle, although the ramifications of this work hold the prospect for similar research on human birth control devices, even if they are far from development and use at this point of time.

Biotech applications could promote rapid multiplication of river and sea fish or seafood to help improve nutrition or provide the desired diet for the non-vegetarians. The Task Force lays down the framework for a long-term biotechnology policy and says that it should provide direction to research and development based on social, economic, ecological, ethical and gender equity issues. The policy should devise a system for commercialization of transgenics and genetically modified (GM) products, beside clear formulations on GM food and feed in the country. “The transgenic approach should be considered as complimentary and resorted to when other options to achieve the desired objectives are either not available or not feasible. High priority should be accorded in the transgenic approach to the incorporation of resistance to insects and pests and diseases, including viruses and to drought and salinity.Transgenic research should not be undertaken in crops and commodities where our international trade may be affected, for example, basmati rice, soyabean or Darjeeling tea”. At the same time, the report points out: “Biotech applications, which do not involve transgenics such as biopesticides, biofertilizers and bio-remediation agents, should be accorded high priority . This will help enforce productivity in organic farming areas”.

The report suggests that the regions in India which represent either primary or secondary centres of genetic diversity in major crops like rice should be conserved for posterity as agro biodiversity sanctuaries and a technical committee should identify and earmark them.

The task force regrets that at present biotech research is conducted in a project mode. To achieve the goals of developing commercial products, a mission mode approach should be followed. Programmes of five year duration and involving multi-disciplinary partners should be considered and adequately funded and monitored. The Task Force suggests that food safety standards should be put in place. The Ministry of Science and Technology besides the Indian Council of Medical Research should take the lead in laying down codes and standards in the area of genetically modified foods. It calls for a mechanism to facilitate segregation, identify preservation and certification and labelling of GM and non-GM products. As the Government has declared 2004 as the Year of Scientific Awareness, a quality literacy movement should be launched among farmers by the concerned departments. They should have complete information on the benefits and risks associated with the genetically modified crops to ensure assessment by the farmers themselves. It calls for registration of varieties of seeds sold to farmers and this should be made mandatory. “The illegal proliferation of GM varieties, as is happening in some States, must cease or else bio safety regulations will be rendered meaningless”, it says.

Agriculture comprising crop and animal husbandry, fisheries, agro-forestry and agro-processing are the backbone of India’s national food security and rural livelihood security systems. There are about 110 million operational holdings in the country. The smaller the farm, the greater is the need for higher productivity and marketable surplus to enable a family have some cash income. The human population being predominantly young, the youth can be attracted and retained in farming only if it is intellectually satisfying and rewarding. But that could happen only through technology upgrading. Biotechnology provides an opportunity to convert bio resources into economic wealth. There are a myriad applications of biotechnology in agriculture and these deserve to be tapped. As nano biotechnology is taking rapid strides, this new area should direct research on the basis of priorities, social, economic and equity issues.


An Indian farmer bats for new technology

- Hindu Business Line, June 7, 2004, G. Chandrashekhar

MR M.S. Shankarikoppa, a 74-year old from Adur village in Haveri district of Karnataka, is a farmer of modest means but with progressive ideas. He is one of the growing number of farmers starting to benefit from planting genetically-modified cottonseed.

He cultivates about 14 acres of land and has supplemental water facilities in the form of borewell to tend crops such as groundnut, maize, paddy and sugarcane.

Mr Shankarikoppa has turned an unabashed admirer of the latest technology
- GM seeds — that helps him cut crop losses, reduce expenses and make a higher profit than he used to. He is one of the participants at BIO 2004 here - the annual convention of the world's biotechnology industry.

Speaking to Business Line on the sidelines of the convention, the progressive Indian farmer - dressed in traditional style that marked him apart - said he was one of the first cotton growers in the country to have started planting Bt cotton in 1998 when the Government cleared the seed for field trails.

There has been no looking back for him since then. Bt cotton is an engineered cottonseed that contains a gene from bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and is known to fight bollworm, the pest that attacks cotton plants and cuts yields.

"Commercial cultivation of Bt cotton began in 2002. Every year, I allot two acres for the new variety which gives me a yield of 15 quintals per acre as compared with 5-6 quintals that non-Bt varieties produce," he said adding that eventhough Bt cotton seed is costly, it is profitable to plant it because of savings on other inputs.

"Although the seed is more expensive by around Rs 1,000, I save about Rs 2,000 per acre in terms of reduced sprays (of agro-chemicals) under normal conditions," he remarked.

Disclosing that in Haveri district, more than 75 per cent farmers growing cotton under semi-irrigated conditions in the kharif season had taken to Bt cotton, Mr Shankarikoppa pointed out that in 2002, about 3,000 acres were planted to the new variety of cotton in his area, and the next year it expanded to 8,000 acres.

"For 2004 season, seeds for about 25,000 acres have already been sold," he said.

When quizzed on the efficacy of the new technology and whether the seed solved all the pest and disease problems, the progressive farmer categorically stated: "The seed is meant to kill bollworm and it does its job."

Mr Shankarikoppa has no hesitation in experimenting and adopting new technologies; nor is he afraid of threats from activists. He had challenged the protestors 3-4 years ago to prove that the technology was harmful. The violent movement against Bt cotton found in several parts of Karnataka a few years ago has of course considerably mellowed now.

According to him, the activists are not farmers and therefore, do not know about the benefits the technology can deliver.

"In our area, seed borer is a big problem for maize. If genetically-modified maize (corn) is introduced in India, I will not hesitate to plant it," he asserted.

Farmers like Mr Shankarikoppa who have reaped real benefits from embracing new technology and planting modified crops are likely to be the most vocal advocates in the country for introduction of agbiotech products. Clearly, life science companies have found new spokespersons to take the message to policymakers.

The US Grains Council has organised a biotechnology tour of the corn-growing areas for media representatives from around the world to showcase how American farmers have benefited from using modified corn.


BIO 2004 Conference in San Francisco - Who created this monster?

- San Francisco Chronicle, By Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko, June 8, 2004

As one of the nation's largest and richest trade associations holds its annual meeting in San Francisco this week, it is worth noting that all is not coming up genetically engineered roses for the biotech industry. Although the biopharmaceutical sector is for the most part robust, biotechnology applied to agriculture, food production and environmental problems has a long row to hoe.

Many of biotech's travails can be traced back to two decades of unwise strategic decisions by individual companies and by the trade association itself -- the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Long before the first gene-spliced plants were ready for commercialization, a few agrochemical and biotechnology companies, led by Monsanto and Calgene and supported by BIO (and its precursors), approached policy-makers in the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s and asked that the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration create a regulatory framework specific to gene-spliced products.

The policies recommended by the biotechnology industry, predicated on the myth that there is something fundamentally novel and worrisome about gene- splicing techniques, were far more restrictive than could be justified on scientific grounds and often even more burdensome than proposals by regulators.

Ostensibly, the goal of these policies was to placate anti-biotech activists and provide reassurance to consumers that regulators had evaluated and cleared gene-spliced products, but the real motives were less benign. Industry representatives have admitted after the fact that the companies wanted excessive regulatory requirements to make biotech R&D too expensive for possible competitors such as start-ups and seed companies; in other words, regulatory expenses and delays would serve as a market-entry barrier.

The USDA and EPA in particular were glad to oblige industry, with draconian policies that focused specifically on and discriminated against plants and microorganisms crafted through gene splicing. As a result, a field trial on a gene-spliced organism today costs 10 to 20 times as much as the same trial with a plant that has virtually identical traits, but that has been modified with less precise and predictable conventional techniques.

This strategy of the biotechnology industry has backfired horribly. Unrealistic and unnecessary regulatory requirements have created the foundation for various kinds of pseudo-crises that are precipitated whenever inconsequential transgressions of the overly stringent rules occur, and also for a variety of nonevents that, nevertheless, have been public-relations debacles: For example, the alleged killing of Monarch butterflies by pollen from gene-spliced corn and supposed "contamination" of native corn varieties in Mexico. The public imagination seems to have been captured by the apparent newness and uniqueness of gene-splicing, although with the exception of fish, wild berries, wild mushrooms and game, all the grains, fruits, vegetables and animals in our diets have been genetically improved in some way. Gene-splicing is an extension, or refinement, of less precise and predictable techniques.

All of this has given rise to a disastrous domino effect. In March, Mendocino County voters passed a referendum that prohibits any cultivation of gene-spliced organisms. In May, Monsanto announced that it was shelving plans to sell a gene-spliced wheat variety, attributing the decision to changed market conditions. That decision, however, was forced upon the company by the reluctance of farmers to plant the variety and of food processors to use it as an ingredient, factors that are directly related to the over-regulation of the new biotechnology in important export markets.

Monsanto also announced last month that it has abandoned plans to introduce its gene-spliced canola into Australia, following consumer skepticism and environmental concerns. Other companies have acknowledged giving up plans to work on certain applications of the technology because of excessive regulations.

After receiving tentative approval from the British government for a gene- spliced variety of corn, Bayer CropScience decided not to sell it because additional regulatory hurdles would delay commercialization for several years.

The anti-biotech activists have been right about one thing: The ag- biotech industry did create a Frankenstein's monster -- a regulatory one of its own making.

Henry I. Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. From 1989 to 1993, he was director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. Gregory Conko is the director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Their book, "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution," will be published later this year.


Crop science/Better genes without splicing

- Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 8, 2004

From Wired magazine, of all places, comes an intriguing look at new agricultural technologies that could deliver all the benefits of genetically modified foods while avoiding their objectionable aspects.

Despite their significant advantages and widespread use, it seems unlikely that plants and other organisms created through gene-splicing will ever shake their "Frankenfoods" image. No amount of science will persuade those who believe GM foods are inherently risky to human health. Even if those fears could somehow be put to rest, thornier issues would remain: potential environmental harm, inadequate regulatory review, enlarged corporate control of food supplies, the risks of increasing reliance on single strains of important crops. Thus Monsanto Co.'s recent decision against releasing a pesticide-resistant strain of wheat, bowing to the reality that the world marketplace would reject it.

But the same genetic knowledge that has allowed some scientists to cut and paste bits of DNA from one species to another also allows other researchers to pursue older forms of plant modification -- hybridization, grafting, selective breeding -- with vastly greater efficiency. And these techniques, argues author Richard Manning, sidestep pretty much all of the objections, fair or unfair, that gene-splicing has provoked.

Manning, a longtime environmental journalist, has complicated views on transgenic foods. He's a sharp critic of modern agricultural practices, which he sees as generally destructive to cropland, the environment and the quality of the foods themselves. But he readily acknowledges the potential of GM crops to alleviate some of those insults -- for example, by reducing the use of noxious chemicals and scarce water, and by increasing yields.

An organic farmer himself, Manning looks to a future of "superorganic" foods, "nutritious, delicious, safe, abundant crops that require less pesticide, fertilizer and irrigation -- a new generation of food that will please the consumer, the producer, the activist and the FDA."

His article, in Wired's May issue, describes an interesting array of achievements in the young field of "transgenomic," as opposed to transgenic, crop development. In China, a scientist has cross-bred the country's most popular strain of hybrid rice with a wild cousin, boosting yields by 30 percent. In West Africa, a hybrid of Asian and African varieties of dryland rice grows so fast that it outcompetes the weeds -- while resisting drought and disease, and delivering more protein. In Australia, a researcher has developed a form of "sentinel" corn that turns red when it needs watering, signaling growers to water the rest of the crop. His next project: developing self-cloning crops that spread like dandelions.

The key to all of these efforts is simplicity itself. Using knowledge of plant genomes, and the ability to "tag" critical genes with dye, lab-bench hybridizers can create and test new crop varieties in a fraction of the time once required by generations of trial-and-error field testing. In some cases, they can simply coax a plant to start using a desirable but dormant trait it possessed all along.

Best of all, much of this research is being funded by philanthropies that pledge to make the results freely available, especially in the developing world. Among these is the McKnight Foundation of St. Paul, whose Robert Goodman told Manning, "The public argument about genetically modified organisms, I think, will soon be a thing of the past. The science has moved on." What an encouraging thought -- that advances in genomics might ultimately do more to feed the world than frighten it.


Let a Hundred Gene-Spliced Flowers Bloom

- The Chronicle of Higher Education, By HENRY I. MILLER and GREGORY CONKO, June 11, 2004

Over the past two decades, regulators in the United States and many other countries have created a series of rules for the new biotechnology, also known as recombinant-DNA technology, gene splicing, or genetic modification. Regulatory policy has consistently treated the technology as though it were inherently risky and in need of intensive oversight and control, but a broad scientific consensus holds that it is merely an extension, or refinement, of less precise technologies that we have long used for similar purposes. Except for wild berries, all of the grains, fruits, and vegetables grown in North America and Europe come from plants that have been genetically improved by one technique or another.

Regulations specific to gene splicing have hugely inflated the costs of research and development and have made it difficult to apply the technology to many classes of agricultural products -- especially ones with low profit potential, like crops grown by subsistence farmers for their own use. That is unfortunate because the introduced traits often increase productivity and are beneficial to the environment, including a reduced need for water and chemicals. We would have been far better off if, instead of creating regulations specific to the new biotechnology, governments had approached the products of gene splicing the same way they did similar products -- pharmaceuticals, pesticides, new plant varieties, and so on -- made with older, less predictable techniques.

But regulators, always eager to expand their empires and budgets, have been egged on by activist groups whose members fear technological progress and are suspicious of for-profit agricultural companies. The activists understand that overregulation, which not only inflates R&D costs but also discourages innovation, advances their agenda. And paradoxically, rather than demand scientifically sound, risk-based regulation, some corporations have jeopardized their own long-term best interests -- as well as those of consumers -- by lobbying for discriminatory, excessive government regulation to gain short-term advantages. The companies hope that superfluous regulation will act as a type of government seal of approval for their products, and that the time and expense required by overregulation will make competitors less likely to enter the market. Those companies, of which Monsanto is the prototype, seem not to understand the ripple effect of their advocating overly restrictive regulations based on the false premise that gene splicing is uniquely worrisome and risky. But the consequences are becoming more difficult to deny.

In May Monsanto announced that it was shelving plans to sell a gene-spliced variety of wheat, attributing the decision to changed market conditions. However, the reluctance of farmers to plant the variety and of food processors to use it as an ingredient, clearly a factor in that decision, stems directly from overregulation of the new biotechnology in important export markets. Days later, Monsanto announced that it was also suspending plans to introduce its gene-spliced canola into Australia, after concerns about exportation led farmers there to call for bans, and led several states in that country to restrict field trials and postpone commercial approval.

Other companies openly acknowledge giving up plans to work on certain applications of the technology precisely because of excessive regulations. Bayer CropScience is one example: After receiving tentative approval from the British government for a gene-spliced variety of corn, the company decided not to sell it because additional regulatory hurdles would delay commercialization for several more years.

To remove the unnecessarily stringent controls on the new biotechnology will require reform within the United States and abroad. Some of the remedies needed at home are also applicable to other areas of research: Regulatory policy must, like doctors, first do no harm; sound science and common sense should be the basis for decisions; both the degree and the cost of oversight must be commensurate with the potential risk; and policy makers should design regulations to work with market forces, which will come into play in any case.

Federal agencies also need to reform the way they regulate the products of the new biotechnology. Most important is replacing regulations that restrict all gene-spliced organisms, regardless of risk, with policies that trigger regulatory scrutiny only if a product has characteristics that suggest moderate to high risk. Just because the process of gene splicing is involved does not mean that an activity should be subjected to case-by-case review. That is like subjecting only grant proposals that arrive on certain days of the week, or only cars that have disk brakes and radial tires, to especially rigorous scrutiny.

At the same time that the U.S. government begins to rationalize public policy at home, it must stand up to the other countries and organizations that are responsible for unscientific, debilitating regulations abroad. U.S. representatives to international bodies -- like the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the United Nations' agency for setting food-safety standards -- must be directed to support rational, science-based policies and to help dismantle politically motivated, unscientific restrictions. All science and economic attachés in every U.S. embassy and consulate around the world should have biotechnology policy indelibly inscribed on their diplomatic agendas.

Other steps would also help to change public policy that is hamstringing the new biotechnology. First, individual scientists should participate more in the public dialogue on policy issues. Perhaps surprisingly, most scientists have not demanded that policy be rational; instead they have insisted only on transparency or predictability, even if that delivers only the predictability of research delays and unnecessary expense. Others have been seduced by the myth that just a little excess regulation will assuage public anxiety, neutralize activists' alarmist messages, and bring about a golden age for technology. Although proponents of regulations have made those claims for decades, the public and activists remain unappeased, and technology continues to be shackled.

Scientists are especially well qualified to expose unscientific arguments and should do so in every possible way and forum, including writing scientific and popular articles, agreeing to be interviewed by journalists, and serving on advisory panels at government agencies. Scientists with mainstream views have a particular obligation to debunk the claims of their rogue colleagues, whose declarations that the sky is falling receive far too much attention.

The second step involves groups of scientists -- professional associations, faculties, academies, and editorial boards of journals. Those organizations should do much more to point out the flaws in current and proposed policies. For example, scientific societies could include symposia on public policy in their conferences and offer to provide advisers to governmental bodies and the news media.

Third, reporters and their editors can do a great deal to explicate policy issues related to science. But in the interest of so-called balance, the media often give equal weight to all the views on an issue, even if some of them have been discredited. All viewpoints are not created equal. Journalists need to distinguish between honest disagreement among experts, on the one hand, and unsubstantiated extremism or propaganda, on the other.

Fourth, biotechnology companies should set aside short-term advantages and oppose unscientific, discriminatory regulations that set dangerous precedents. Companies that accept governmental oversight triggered simply by the use of gene-splicing techniques, regardless of the risk of the product, will suffer many unintended consequences of that flawed approach. Those include reduced profits and productivity because of the cost of compliance with unnecessary regulations, difficulty in obtaining venture capital for a field perceived as risky, lawsuits based on procedural violations that harm nobody, and adverse public opinion that equates a high degree of regulation with danger.

Fifth, venture capitalists, consumer groups, patient groups, philanthropists, and others who help bring scientific discoveries to the marketplace, or who benefit from them, need to increase their informational activities and their advocacy of reform. Their actions could include outreach campaigns intended to educate reporters, policy makers, and consumers about the benefits of gene-spliced products and the risks of overregulation, as well as cooperation with and financial support of organizations that advocate rational, science-based public policy.

Finally, the government should no longer assume sole responsibility for regulation. Nongovernmental agencies already accredit hospitals, allocate organs for transplantation, and certify the quality of consumer products as varied as seeds and bulletproof glass. Moreover, to avoid legal liability, following safe practices is in the best interests of the practitioners of agricultural biotechnology.

Flawed regulation of the new biotechnology has slowed the rate of innovation in that crucial area of research. We need to find other, more scientific and efficient ways to guarantee the public's safety while encouraging new discoveries.

Henry I. Miller is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Gregory Conko is a senior fellow and director of food-safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. They are the authors of The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution, forthcoming this year from Praeger Publishers.

'Test-bed biotech ideas in Malaysia'

- New Straits Times (Malaysia), June 8, 2004, By Syed Nadzri

THE Malaysian Government has extended an invitation to world-class biotechnology (biotech) companies to "test-bed" their ideas and innovations here.

Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Dr Jamaludin Jarjis said Malaysia had a strong tradition in research and development (R&D) institutes and universities specialising in agricultural and medical R&D.

"We have journeyed to the land of opportunity to talk to you, to invite you to Malaysia, where you will be able to leverage and position your business in the global market," Jamaludin told them.

"We are, after all, acknowledged as one of 12 mega biodiversity countries in the world," he said.

Jamaludin is heading a 40-member delegation to the four-day Biotechnology Industry Organisation (BIO) 2004 convention here.

These remarks were contained in his message in a booklet prepared for the mission. BIO is a grouping of leading US biotech companies.

At yesterday's ministerial session, which was also attended by his counterparts from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, India and Germany, Jamaluddin said Malaysia was an ideal location for the outsourcing of research contracts in biotechnology.

He said apart from good infrastructure and competitive manpower costs, Malaysia also had a strong related global industrial base such as in chemicals and agro-processing.

"We have invested a considerable amount of resources in building a biotech industry infrastructure," he said.

"This includes matters such as intellectual capital development, R&D expansion, talent development and a sound ethical framework."

In a sales pitch, he quipped that Malaysia was not only one of the most biodiverse nations in the world, but also the most "ethno-diversified".

Jamaludin said it would be unthinkable for Malaysia not to look at biodiversity in a big way, given the country's long association with rubber and oil palm and its sustainable management of forests.

"We are keen to build alliances with global biotech companies. We are on the doorstep of China and India. We will help you make use of this advantage by converging and building upon our strengths in agriculture, manufacturing and ICT to deliver the biotech strategy," he told the conference.

"Think of business tie-ups," he said. "We are a fully developed entrepreneurial culture. Our businesses are straddling the world."

In his message, Jamaluddin said the Government had also put together the logistics under the Biotechnology Agenda to make biotech the country's next engine of growth.

"They offer you a wide base of expertise and skills to support your R&D, technology and business development. The 30-odd universities shall provide the manpower support," he said.

In addition, three research institutes - in Genomics and Molecular Biology, Pharmaceuticals and Nutraceuticals, and Agro-Biotechnology - were being formed to further strengthen biotech R&D and technology development, he said.

"We offer a wide spectrum of financing structures, including business angel financing, venture capital financing, debt ventures and technology ban king," he said.

"We are committed to providing attractive incentive packages to biotechnology companies investing in Malaysia."

Jamaludin also said that building strategic linkages with international venture capitalists was one of Malaysia's priorities in its biotech initiative.

Zero tolerance for GM crops could be eased

- The New Zealand Herald, June 8, 2004, By ANNE BESTON

Officials are reconsidering New Zealand's "zero tolerance" threshold for GM plants.

The move looks set to rekindle the GM debate - just when the Green Party had decided to adopt a softer line to help Labour get re-elected.

Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said any attempt to lift the threshold would meet strong opposition.

"If Labour is interested in remaining the Government after the next election, they would be quite foolish to do something that would be such a red rag to a bull for the Green Party," she said.

"I actually don't think Labour will go there, but if they try, we will use every avenue open to us."

The Greens' hard line on keeping the moratorium prevented any chance of coalition talks between the two parties after the 2002 election.

The Greens dropped their demand for reinstatement of the GM moratorium at the weekend conference, saying they were prepared to open negotiations with no bottom line after next year's election.

But now the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry is looking at the "practicalities" of New Zealand's "zero tolerance" policy for genetically modified organisms after the latest accidental release of contaminated maize seed.

Low-level contamination was found in seed batches imported from the United States and undetected by a US testing laboratory.

The maize has grown in South Auckland, Waikato, Gisborne and Hawkes Bay.

It is now being harvested, transported and processed under strict MAF supervision but, once it has been processed so it cannot germinate, grain companies would be allowed to sell it, said MAF spokesman Brett Sangster.

The maize seed was sold to about 30 buyers but poses no human health risk. The variety of GM seed detected in the contaminated consignments is generally used as stock feed.

Maintaining the strict zero tolerance threshold "was clearly an issue", Mr Sangster said.

"There is a lot of work involved in maintaining a zero-tolerance regime and we are having a look to see what other countries do in the same circumstances."

Ms Fitzsimons called that "code for, 'We don't think it's practical to maintain it'."

The accidental release of low-level contaminated seed last month was the biggest so far. MAF seized enough bags to plant around 350ha of maize with contamination at one seed per 2000, or 0.05 per cent.

If New Zealand had a tolerance level of 0.05 per cent, below which contamination is almost impossible to detect, the "LibertyLink" maize could have been grown here legally.

Under the zero tolerance threshold, all detectable GM seed is illegal unless approved by the Environmental Risk Management Authority.

Pro-GM lobby group Life Sciences Network has consistently called for the policy to be dropped as unrealistic.