Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : September 20, 2004
* Bush and Kerry Battle Over Science
* Norman Borlaug: Compromising the Potential of Biotechnology
* GM Linseed Produces Healthier Omega 3 & 6 Fatty Acids
* Fear of Pharming: Controversy at the Crossroads of Ag and Medicine
* Australia Defends Monsanto Corn
* US Scientist Suggests Viet Nam Have Law on Biological Security
* Worldwide Demands Require Plant Biotechnology - Bayer
* India: Is Bangalore Really A Biotech Hub Wonders US Scientist
* Zimbabwe: All Set for Biotech Meeting
* Risking Our Clichés
* .... Engaging Antibiotech Activists
Bush and Kerry Battle Over Science
- Paul Reynolds, BBC News. Excerpt below...
The leading international science journal Nature has focussed the US presidential election campaign on science by asking both President George Bush and Senator John Kerry for their views on the major issues.
Both candidates were given 15 questions and asked to confine their answers to a total of 1,500 words. Mr Bush had to be edited as he overran; Mr Kerry kept within the limit. The most significant difference identified by the magazine was over stem-cell research, with Mr Kerry wanting to go well beyond the quite restrictive policy adopted by President Bush.
Here the differences are more to do with the practice of how crops are regulated rather than whether they should be allowed in principle. Neither candidate opposes GM foods.
Mr Bush says it is important that the "regulatory framework keeps pace with science," a hint that it can be too restrictive.
Mr Kerry talks about how important it is to "give government agencies the power to effectively regulate genetically modified food products". And he gives a nod to international concerns by saying that he would work to address these while Mr Bush stresses the role of GM food in "meeting the world's demand for food".
Perhaps the hardest question for the candidates to answer was one about whether Americans should "change their lifestyles and consume less". A "yes" response might have landed them in trouble. So there is a good deal of waffle in their answers to this one.
Mr Bush: "America in a very real sense has changed, not by consuming less but by consuming and producing smarter", by which he means that it is economic growth which makes environmental progress possible.
Mr Kerry, who has a good reputation among environmentalists, takes a not dissimilar overall view: "Time and again, America has met environmental challenges through ingenuity and technological innovation." But he goes further by saying that "strong leadership" is needed to put public health and environmental interests ahead of the interest of the polluters. There could, therefore, be battles ahead on such issues if he becomes president.
Head to Head: Bush vs. Kerry on Science
From Prakash: See all the questions and answers from both candidates to Nature plus analysis at http://www.nature.com/news/specials/uselection/index.html
Norman Borlaug: Compromising the Potential of Biotechnology
- Norman Borlaug in "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution" by Henry Miller and Greg Conko (Praeger Publishers, 2004)
Henry Miller and Gregory Conko have written a brilliant account of how self-interest, bad science, and excessive government regulation have profoundly compromised the potential of the new biotechnology. This book is a call to action to resist a pernicious political process that is currently denying enormous potential benefits to consumers throughout the world.
All of life involves weighing risks against benefits. Through our own experience, and by observing that of others, we assess the risks of familiar activities and, sometimes almost subconsciously, we adapt to them. A child soon learns, sometimes painfully, about the high risk of touching a hot stove. Usually without a great deal of thought, we run the hazard of shark attacks at the beach. Academics and insurance company experts have been able to quantify the risks of, say, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, commuting to work by car, or undergoing cardiac surgery. Risk is more problematic when we are confronted with unfamiliar activities or products. In the absence of sufficient experience (what scientists would call "data") to make a confident assessment of risk, we tend to become anxious and to compensate for our lack of knowledge by overestimating the risk.
The authors use an apposite contemporary example to illustrate public policy run amok: the regulation in the United States and abroad of the new biotechnology, or gene-splicing, which has great potential to improve plants and microorganisms for agriculture and food production. Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko make a persuasive case not only that the benefits of the technology far exceed its risk but also that there has been an abject failure in the formulation of public policy. The result has been, they argue correctly, gross over-regulation of the technology and its products, disincentives to research and development, and fewer choices and inflated prices for consumers.
As a plant pathologist and breeder, I have seen how the skeptics and critics of the new biotechnology wish to postpone the release of improved crop varieties in the hope that another year's, or another decade's, worth of testing will offer more data, more familiarity, more comfort. But more than a half-century in the agricultural sciences has convinced me that we should use the best that is at hand, while recognizing its imperfections and limitations. Far more often than not, this philosophy has worked, in spite of constant pessimism and scare-mongering by critics.
I am reminded of our using the technology at hand to defeat the specter of famine in India and Pakistan in the 1950s and early 1960s. Most "experts" thought that mass starvation was inevitable, and environmentalists like Stanford's Paul Ehrlich predicted that hundreds of millions would die in Africa and Asia within just a few years "in spite of any crash programs embarked upon." The funders of our work were cautioned against wasting resources on a problem that was insoluble.
Nevertheless, in 1963, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government formed the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT) and sent my team to South Asia to teach local farmers how to cultivate high-yield wheat varieties. As a result, Pakistan became self sufficient in wheat production by 1968 and India a few years later.
As we created what became known as the "Green Revolution," we confronted bureaucratic chaos, resistance from local seed breeders, and centuries of farmers' customs, habits, and superstitions. We surmounted these difficult obstacles because something new had to be done. Who knows how many would have starved if we had delayed commercializing the new high-yielding cereal varieties and improved crop management practices until we could perform tests to rule out every hypothetical problem, and test for vulnerability to every conceivable type of disease and pest? How much land for nature and wildlife habitat, and topsoil would have been lost if the more traditional, lowyield practices had not been supplanted?
At the time, Forrest Frank Hill, a Ford Foundation vice president, told me, "Enjoy this now, because nothing like it will ever happen to you again. Eventually the naysayers and the bureaucrats will choke you to death, and you won't be able to get permission for more of these efforts." Hill was right. His prediction anticipated the gene-splicing era that would arrive decades later. As Henry Miller and Gregory Conko describe in this volume, the naysayers and bureaucrats have now come into their own. If our new varieties had been subjected to the kinds of regulatory strictures and requirements that are being inflicted upon the new biotechnology, they would never have become available.
From 1950 to 1992, the world's grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland -- an increase in yield of more than 150 percent. Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation -- with losses of pristine wilderness a hundred times greater than all the losses to urban and suburban expansion.
Today, we confront a similar problem: feeding the anticipated global population of more than eight billion people in the coming quarter of a century. The world has or will soon have the agricultural technology available to meet this challenge. The new biotechnology can help us to do things that we could not do before, and to do it in a more precise, predictable, and efficient way. The crucial question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use that technology. Extremists in the environmental movement are doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks, and their allies in the regulatory agencies are more than eager to help.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the environmental movement for raising global awareness of the importance of air and water quality, and of wildlife and wilderness preservation. It is ironic, therefore, that if the platform of anti-biotechnology extremists were to be adopted, it would have grievous consequences for both the environment and humanity. If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been priedicting for nearly 40 years.
For a decade, the United States has produced ever-larger quantities of gene-spliced, insect-resistant corn that yields as much as or more than the best traditional hybrids but with far less need for chemical pesticides. No negative health or environmental effects have been observed. Yet there is an immensely strong, rabid anti-biotech lobby, especially in Europe, where activists have convinced many governments thwart new approvals and have opposed the use of gene-spliced corn and soybeans as food aid in famine-stricken parts of Africa and Asia. Recently, in the southern African countries of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Angola, where many people are dying of starvation, this anti-biotech movement has helped to persuade government authorities to refuse food aid from the United States because it contains gene-spliced corn. But the risk-benefit characteristics of gene-splicing in general, and of this insect-resistant corn in particular, are extraordinarily favorable; this is an obscene exaggeration of risk.
Tragically, this is not an isolated case. There are many other examples of overreaction and resistance to technology. The American Council on Science and Health has documented a series of twenty cases -- including pesticides on cranberries in 1959, the supposed hazards of cyclamates in 1969, "agent orange" in 1979, and Alar® on Pacific coast apples in 1989in which scare stories trumpeted by the media became widely known and accepted but later were shown to be of little or no consequence. The resistance to igene splicing is yet another sordid episode in this larger anti-technology, junk-science movement.
In spite of the many powerful and precise new tools and the greater health and well-being that science and technology have offered us, our society has become overly risk averse. We obsess over impurities that are detectable at levels of one part per billion, for example, while not so many years ago we would have declared a product pure if adulterants were present at less than one part per five hundred thousand. Not infrequently, regulators worry about levels of contamination not because they are worrisome but because they are detectable. They regulate not because they should but because they can. This is both foolish and destructive. Sometimes greater analytical sensitivity requires greater intellectual perspicacity.
Regulators are not alone in their demands for ever-increasing margins of safety. It seems we are born with an instinct to resist change and to regard what is new with suspicion, while forgetting the faults and risks that were readily tolerated in the past and that were eliminated or ameliorated by new technologies; chlorination of water, pasteurization, and vaccination readily come to mind. Our very wealth and well-being, made possible by technology, now seem to offer the luxury of forgoing such additional improvement. But we are hard put to equal the immortal observation of the head of the U.S. patent office at the dawning of the twentieth century who suggested that the office be closed because surely everything possible had already been invented.
We must be more rational about our approach to risks. We need to think in broader terms, recognizing, for example, that the world cannot feed all its 6.3 billion people from organic farms or power all its cities and industries by wind and solar energy.
Although we must be prudent in assessing new technologies, these assessments must not be based on overly conservative -- or overtly inaccurate -- assumptions or be swayed by the anti-business, anti-establishment, anti-globalization agendas of a few activists, or by the self-interest of bureaucrats. They must be based on good science and good sense. It is easy to forget that science offers more than a body of knowledge and a process for adding new knowledge. It tells us not only what we know but what we don't know. It identifies areas of uncertainty and offers an estimate of how great and how critical that uncertainty is likely to be.
The authors of this book address the problems of the new biotechnology that have arisen not from limits of the technology itself or from the science underlying it but from the machinations and peregrinations of policy makers. We must begin to solve those problems before it is too late.
Norman E. Borlaug, Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture, Texas A&M University, Nobel Peace Laureate, 1970
Genetic Modification of Linseed Produces Healthier Omega 3 And 6 Fatty Acids
- American Society of Plant Biologists, www. aspb.org, http://www.innovations-report.com/html/reports/life_sciences/report-33745.html
Improved production of polyunsaturated fats in oilseed crops will benefit human health and the environment
In research reported this month in The Plant Cell, scientists succeeded in producing genetically modified linseed plants that accumulate significant levels of very long chain poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) in seed. This is the first report of the successful engineering of very long chain PUFA into an oilseed crop, and is an excellent example of how genetic engineering of agronomically important species can provide real benefits to human health and nutrition and the environment.
In research reported this month in The Plant Cell, Ernst Heinz at the University of Hamburg (Germany) and colleagues succeeded in producing genetically modified linseed plants that accumulate significant levels of very long chain poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) in seed. The work is the result of an international collaboration between scientists at several research institutions in Germany (University of Hamburg, BASF Plant Science GmbH and Forschungszentrum Borstel), Rothamsted Research Station in the U.K., and Kansas State University in the U.S. This research is an excellent example of how genetic engineering of agronomically important species can provide real benefits to human health and nutrition and the environment. As demand rises for edible oils that are low in saturated fats and high in poly-unsaturated fats, in particular very long chain omega 3- and omega 6-poly-unsaturated fats, the production of these oils in plants may reduce environmentally and economically unsustainable pressures on both wild and farmed fisheries.
Fatty acids are long straight chains of carbon atoms, ranging in length from about 12 to 22 carbons (C12 to C22). They have one water-soluble end and one oil-soluble methyl end, and are studded with hydrogen atoms along the length of the carbon chain. They are essential components of the membranes of all living organisms. Fatty acid chains that are linked by single bonds between carbon atoms are said to be "saturated" by hydrogen atoms, whereas the introduction of double bonds between carbon atoms leads to correspondingly fewer bonds to hydrogen atoms along the chain, and such fatty acids are said to be "unsaturated". A "mono-unsaturated" fatty acid contains a single double bond within the carbon chain, whereas "poly-unsaturated" fatty acids contain two or more double bonds.
PUFA are increasingly recognized as important components of a healthy human diet. Increased consumption, in particular of the very long chain PUFA such as those found in fish oils, has been linked to a decreased risk of heart disease, and also to a variety of other health benefits, including protection against inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome and some cancers, and the promotion of healthy brain and eye development in infants. Scientists have been working on engineering the production of the very long chain PUFA in plants, because increased consumption of fish and fish oils is associated with other nutritional and environmental problems. First, it is recommended that consumption of many types of fish be limited due to widespread contamination with pollutants, such as heavy metals and dioxins. Second, world wide fish stocks are being rapidly depleted, and fish farming is associated with its own set of environmental issues. Therefore, engineering the production of very long chain PUFAs into oilseed crops could confer significant advantages in terms of both human nutrition and the environment.
Oilseed crops, such as canola, safflower, and linseed, typically accumulate a high proportion of C18 PUFA such as linoleic acid and alpha-linoleic acid in their seed. These are called "essential" fatty acids for humans, because they are not synthesized in the human body and must be obtained from dietary sources. Once consumed, they may be metabolized into very long chain (C20 and C22) PUFA in the human body. However, this process is slow and inefficient compared to the direct consumption of C20 and C22 PUFA that may be obtained from fish oils. Oilseed crop species contain all of the proteins and enzymes necessary for the biosynthesis of the range of fatty acids present in seed oil, but they lack the few additional enzymes (certain fatty acyl desaturases and elongases) necessary for the biosynthesis of very long chain PUFA.
In addition to the possibility of providing healthier, more nutritious oils for human consumption, this work will lead to the production of high quality animal feed that could improve the PUFA content of animal products such as meat, eggs, and dairy foods.
Fear of Pharming: Controversy Swirls at the Crossroads of Agriculture and Medicine
- Alla Katsnelson, Scientific American, September 20, 2004 http://www.sciam.com/
Farming, one of the world's oldest practices has suddenly found itself entangled with modern medicine. Imagine this: at your child's appointment for a routine vaccination, the doctor proffers a banana genetically engineered to contain the vaccine and says, "Have her eat this and call me in the morning." Though still far-fetched, the scenario is getting closer to reality, with the first batch of plant-made medicines--created by genetically modifying crops such as corn, soy, canola and even fruits such as tomatoes and bananas to produce disease-fighting drugs and vaccines--now in early clinical testing
Splicing foreign genes into plants is nothing new--biologists have been doing it for about 25 years. Using the technology to produce protein-based medicine could revolutionize the drug industry, proponents say. Plants are inherently safer than current methods of using animal cell cultures, which carry a risk of spreading animal pathogens; plants also provide a much cheaper means of production. But fears that these "pharma crops" will contaminate the food supply are casting shadows on the promise of the technology.
The problem is that containing genes from GM plants seems to be harder than scientists expected. Recent data suggest that bioengineered genes spread more widely than previously thought. A pilot study released in February by the Union of Concerned Scientists (USC) found that more than half of native species of corn, soybean and canola tested contained low levels of DNA from strains engineered to confer resistance against herbicides. An analysis published in March established that genetically engineered corn had found its way into Mexico despite that country's six-year-old ban on growing GM varieties of the crop. And a major review of biologically modified organisms conducted last year by the National Academies of Science stressed the need to develop better confinement techniques. These findings and others illustrate the reality that experts are starting to acknowledge: the way things are going, maintaining zero levels of contamination from GM plants may be impossible.
Leaks of pharma crops have occurred as well. Two years ago, USDA inspectors found experimental corn plants containing a pig vaccine growing in nearby conventional fields in two separate incidents in Nebraska and Iowa. ProdiGene, the Texas biotech company responsible for the mishaps, was heavily fined for violating its permit and ordered to destroy 500,000 bushels of soybeans and 155 acres of corn plants. But perhaps more importantly, the leak shook the public's confidence in the technology. So far, no one has shown that current GM crops carry any health risks. But pharma crops, the new generation of GM plants, raise the safety stakes: the proteins spliced into these plants are specifically chosen to target physiological function.
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which oversees crops, responded to the ProdiGene incident by revising its regulations for growing pharma crops. Companies must now use designated equipment for planting and harvesting, provide better crop containment training for growers, and undergo at least five inspections a year. The new rules also require that pharmaceutical corn be grown at least one mile away from any other fields and planted at least 28 days before or after surrounding corn crops are planted. Lisa Dry, spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), says the new rules make drug pharming so distinct from producing commodities crops that future contamination is preventable. And industry, keen to avoid any further negative publicity, takes contamination very seriously. In fact, according to Neil Johnson, regulatory programs director at APHIS's Biotechnology Regulatory Services, many if not most companies running field tests for pharma crops currently operate under tighter restrictions than government regulations demand.
But even with stringent compliance by industry, the science of gene flow could flout APHIS's rules. Corn in particular, which accounts for about two thirds of pharmaceutical crops being tested, has a strong tendency to cross-pollinate. "Corn is the world's worst organism for this," says Norman Ellstrand, a plant geneticist at the University of California at Riverdale and director of the Biology Impacts Center. "When I heard about this, my first thoughts were, 'What were they thinking?'" Corn pollen is viable for only a few days, and the 28-day segregation requirement provides a good deal of additional protection against contamination. But the problem, Ellstrand observes, is that there is little actual data on how far genes can travel.
"We're working on isolation standards based on research done in the 1950's," declares Joseph Burris, an emeritus professor of seed science at Iowa State University who now owns a consulting company specializing in gene containment issues. "A lot of things have changed." More recent work is starting to suggest that genes can travel farther than previously thought. One report presented at the First European Conference on the Co-existence of Genetically Modified Crops with Conventional and Organic Crops last November found viable corn pollen as high up in the atmosphere as 2,000 meters. If pollen is present that high, the researchers say, there may be a chance that it can spread over dozens of kilometers if there is enough convection to maintain it aloft. "Our fields are factories without walls. We can't control the environment," Burris asserts. "With isolation distances of [1 mile], our odds of having a problem are very much reduced, but they are not eliminated."
On the other hand, says Michael Pauly of the Chicago-based biotech company Chromatin Inc., current techniques for detecting gene contamination, such as PCR, which measures DNA levels, may be too sensitive for our own good. (Chromatin is developing a novel technique for inserting drug-producing genes into plants.) "You can detect a level of DNA that doesn't actually reflect risk," he explains. Indeed, people and animals ingest foreign DNA with every hamburger they eat. "It's not the nucleic acid that's the problem, but the protein," he says, because it is protein, not the DNA itself, that has a biological effect. Burris, too, notes that the improvement in detection technology has essentially redefined contamination. "We've gotten so abstract about zero contamination. I don't even know what that means," he says.
Many researchers, as well as groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Food Manufacturers of America, and the Consumer Union, contend that the only measure sufficient to ensure zero contamination by pharmaceutical crops would be to avoid developing the technology in plants that can find their way into the stomachs of people or farm animals. But the biotech industry bristles at the suggestion, countering that oilseed crops such as corn not only provide the best medium for obtaining a high level of very pure protein, but are also safer because they are so well studied. "These are the crops that have formed the basis of our culture, our civilization, our economy. This is our knowledge base, and that is fundamentally enabling," Pauly insists.
A consensus about how worried people should be about contamination seems unlikely to emerge in the near future. When it comes to the risk of drugs making their way into the food supply, says Ellstrand, "I wouldn't say zero tolerance for all pharmaceuticals, because presumably some of those things would be totally benign if they got into the food supply." Those products that might not be harmless, he advises, "should be put into non-foods, grown inside of buildings, or simply shouldn't be created in plants at all." Margaret Mellon, head of UCS's food biotechnology program, disagrees. "We can't have a policy which only allows safe drugs in our food. It has to be no drugs."
Australia Defends Monsanto Corn
http://www.nutraingredients.com Sept 20, 2004
Australia's food watchdog reassures consumers on the safety of a genetically modified corn refined for use in a range of food products after new research sparks rumours. Designed by biotech giant Monsanto to combat corn root worm, MON863 was approved for food use in Australia in 2003, swiftly followed by New Zealand in April this year.
"No potential public health and safety concerns were identified during the assessment and no further data was deemed necessary or requested," said the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). But the food agency points out this week that it has since been aware of an additional 90-day feeding study in rats that was provided by Monsanto to the German Competent Authority and subsequently assessed.
Media reports last week drew attention to this feeding study, suggesting it was actually an animal toxicity study. A conjecture rapidly corrected by FSANZ. "This new study is not an animal toxicity study as originally reported in media releases. Animal feeding studies are designed to give general information about the normal growth and well-being of animals fed with GM food or feed and are therefore narrow in design, scope and interpretation," commented FSANZ.
Animal toxicity studies are designed to assess the potential for any adverse effects of a substance by assessing a wide range of concentrations and toxicological endpoints, added the authority. Earlier this year in April, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) examined this same 90-day feeding study in rats, together with the supplemental analysis completed by Monsanto, and subsequently adopted a positive scientific opinion, concluding that the 'the placing on the market of MON863 is unlikely to have an adverse effect on human and animal health or the environment in the context of its proposed use.'
FSANZ clarified that it does not require feeding studies in animals, such as this 90-day feeding study in rats, to be submitted as part of an application to FSANZ for a GM food. Where GM varieties have been shown to be compositionally equivalent to conventional varieties, feeding studies using target livestock species 'will add little to a safety assessment and are generally not warranted,' explained the authority. "In the case of MON863 corn, the extent of the compositional data, molecular characterisation and toxicity/allergenicity data was considered sufficient to establish the nutritional adequacy of the food," said FSANZ.
Canada, Japan, the Philippines and the US have all cleared MON863 for use in food, Europe has not. In 2003 maize (Zea mays L.), or corn, was grown commercially in over 150 countries and worldwide combined production hit 638 million metric tonnes harvested from 143 million hectares. Major producers were the US, China, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and France. Maize is grown primarily for its kernel, which is largely refined into products used in a wide range of food, medical, and industrial goods.
US Scientist Suggests Viet Nam Have Law on Biological Security
- Vietnam News Agency, September 15, 2004 http://www.vnagency.com.vn/
Viet Nam should invest more in researching biotechnology and develop a code on biological security to create a legal framework for scientists to conduct experiments and tests in biotechnology.
Talking with Lao Dong newspaper's correspondent in Ha Noi on Tuesday, Dr. Prakash, Director of the Tuskegee University's Centre for Plant Biotechnology, said the biological security code will contribute to raising people's awareness and helping them believe in the security of genetically modified crops (GMC).
Viet Nam will have long-term benefits if the country focuses investment in personnel training and biotechnological research, Prakash said, adding that Viet Nam has abundant human resources and a qualified contingent of scientists who are able to access new technologies.
The US scientist called for continued investment in biotechnology in Viet Nam with the aim of bringing benefits for farmers and trade activities. Viet Nam should not bypass the development of biotechnology as the domain would contribute to developing agriculture, boosting exports and creating jobs for 60 percent of the labour force, Prakash said.
Worldwide Demands Require Plant Biotechnology, Says Bayer CropScience
The worldwide demand for food, feed, and modern textile fibres can only be met in the future with the help of plant biotechnology. This is the assessment of Bernward Garthoff, Member of the Board of Management of Bayer CropScience AG, responsible for research and development: "Bayer CropScience is committed to plant biotechnology, which today aims at improving the quality of agricultural products and producing entirely new high-value products in plants. Examples range from bio-engineered plastics to plant-made pharmaceuticals," Garthoff emphasized at Bayer CropScience's second annual Science Forum. It focused on "Biotechnology in Agriculture: Shaping the future" and took place on September 17, 2004 in Gent, Belgium.
Bayer CropScience has created the Science Forum as an event to foster scientific dialog and promote open discussion with all the partners. This year's forum was held in combination with the official inauguration of its new 20 million euro innovation center for plant biotechnology in Gent.
Friedrich Berschauer, Chairman of the Board of Management of Bayer CropScience AG, underlines the importance of Bayer's plant biotechnology strategy: "Plant biotechnology has the potential to open up whole new business areas that will totally redefine the current market scope and perception. Novel plant based products for health, nutrition, fibres and other industrial uses to meet the demand for new solutions using renewable resources are some of the projects currently envisaged".
David Baulcombe of the John Innes Center (UK) held the keynote speech on RNA interference, a technology only recently discovered to be naturally occurring in cells. Researchers from Bayer CropScience complemented this by illustrating how the technology is used in today's molecular biology as a valuable tool in the discovery process of novel crop protection products as well as in crop improvement.
There was agreement among the participants, that the safety aspects of new technologies are an important factor to observe for all involved in innovation. Dr. Herman Koëter of the European Food Safety Authority addressed the issue from a European regulatory perspective.
Cotton served as a vibrant example of the various aspects involved in growing, producing and improving an agricultural crop. External and internal experts discussed ways and methods of applying plant biotechnology to a crop and the multitude of opportunities it holds in creating tangible benefits.
Berschauer clearly stated the company's objective of open and structured debate on the scientific, economic, social and ethical dimensions of plant biotechnology: "I am convinced that open dialogue with the public and all stakeholders is one of the key requirements our industry must meet in driving plant biotechnology forward and making the potential of this cutting-edge area of innovation transparent."
India: Is Bangalore Really A Biotech Hub Wonders US Scientist
- New India Press, September 18 2004, http://www.newindpress.com/
BANGALORE: Is Bangalore really a biotech hub wondered Autar K Mattoo a leading agri-biotechnologist of the Henry A Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Centre, Maryland, USA, who was in the city to interact with students and scientists. He spoke to this website's newspaper of great strides achieved in genetic engineering of crops, that can not only make food tastier and more nutritious but also help prevent and control chronic illnesses.
Q. Are you aware that Bangalore is called the biotech capital of India?
A. Really? One Biocon does not make a biotech capital. Scientists here may be head in farmistical biotech. But to my knowledge, very little fundamental agri-biotech research is being carried out here. Where are the field tests ? Have the farmers been integrated into the testing process? I am not sure.
Q. What is the current progress in this field in the US?
A. We are working with third generation transgenics -- genetically engineered plants to ensure that the constructed gene has the right orientation to function in a predicted environment.
Q. What are barriers you have crossed?
A. Advances in understanding of gene function has now allowed us to cross a rice gene with say a tomato gene to get certain beneficial traits in the latter. To this end we use 'regulatable promoters' which are recognised by the recipient gene. Simplistically put, we can now tell the gene how to behave. By attaching a 'postal code' on to the gene we can program the gene to go to a specific compartment in the cell. In future we can also set 'timers' in the gene to make it active only at a certain time, thereby saving the plant some energy. We can also eliminate the need for cold storage by modifying mangoes to last for a month or neutralise the allergens in soyabeans which cause allergies in some people. All this technology is available today.
Q. What are the tangible benefits of gene modification?
A. Genetically modified (GM) plants can yield vegetables and fruits with large quantities of anti-oxidants. When consumed they can prevent and control chronic illnesses like obesity, arthritis, cardiac problems, cancer and diabetes. GM food can be used as preventive medicine. This technology is also ready.
Q. How do you rate India in biotech research?
A. There are over a dozen good laboratories in India. But there is a big gap between lab and land (field research). What is needed is a intimate collaboration between private/public sector scientists and academicians with the farming community with more proactive field testing.
Q. There are apprehensions about GM rice here. Many protests have been held against its introduction.
A. These are misconceptions. GM crop is highly effective can help India gain food security, biodiversity and sustainability. I have heard people tell me that a pregnant woman walking in a GM crop field will miscarry. This is nonsense. The government and media have a major role in allaying such fears.
Q. How does one bridge the technology divide?
A. First by resolving Intellectual Property Rights and patenting issues paving the way for tech-transfers. India lacks teachers trained in molecular biology who can teach agri-biotech. A lot more indigenous research needs to be done here by involving farmers. The country cannot afford to rest on past laurels.
Zimbabwe: All Set for Biotech Meeting
- The Herald (Harare), September 17, 2004 http://allafrica.com/stories/200409170357.html
Harare: Regional leaders and biotechnology scientists would be meeting in Harare next week for a conference on African Policy Dialogues on Biotechnology session.
The Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), International Food Policy Research Institution (IFPRI) has organised the meeting in conjunction with New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). FANRPAN is an organ of the Southern African Development Committee.
The meeting to be held at a Harare hotel next week,would seek, among other things, to create dialogue on biotechnological issues with the aim of fostering a common regional stance on the contentious issues such as genetically modified foods.
The first such meeting was held in South Africa in April last year. The Minister of Science and Technology in the office of the president, Dr Olivia Muchena would grace the meeting. Delegates would be drawn from regional government officials, biotechnology groups, research scientists and the private sector.
At the meeting, the delegates would tackle the issue of demystifying the emerging industry and open it up to public debate. The dialogue would also seek to take the debate on biotechnology to the consumers.
It would also deal with the issue of biosafety and intellectual property protection. Mr Julius Mugwagwa, the managing director of the Biotechnology Trust of Zimbabwe whose organisation would play a pivotal role at the meeting said this was part of regional efforts to educate the people about biotechnology.
"We are not saying people reject or accept biotechnology and its products. We are simply saying people must make decisions based on correct information," he said this week. Mugwagwa said there was need to take the debate to the public arena where people would be educated about the benefits and constraints of the industry. "There has been a lot of polarisation surrounding this issue of biotechnology and this is part of our regional effort to create dialogue."
He said the meeting was particularly important in light of the recurrent drought in the Sadc region. "Because biotechnology might be an answer to our food problems in times of drought, I believe the southern region needs to establish a common understanding on Biotechnology products." A common stance would also make it easier to regulate the industry.
Risking Our Clichés
- Richard Gallagher (Editor), The Scientist, 18:6, July 5, 2004.
"Have you ever risked disapproval? Have you ever risked a belief? ... real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one's clichés." --From Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins
I recently attended BIO 2004, the annual jamboree of the biotech industry. The optimism and energy of the place invigorated me as industry pioneers shared their visions of the future and I learned about new technologies, the ongoing translation of research into products and services, and the process of commercialization.
But they weren't the only face of BIO 2004. I also spent some time talking to a couple of anti-biotech protestors who, like me, were in the bar taking stock after a long day. In truth, I was leveled by the parallels between us: they got a real kick out of what they were doing, too. They coveted the opportunity to get together for an "event," make new friends and contacts, get the latest information on topics of interest, and hear from some of the gurus of the protest movement. But beyond the cerebral component, they also got the physical buzz from the crowd scene, the adrenalin charge of seeing the police lined up in opposition, and the ego boost of wall-to-wall media coverage.
In the course of the conversation we each aired our clichés, though I am not sure that we risked them.
An oft-repeated misconception, one that I share with Leroy Hood, president of the Institute of Systems Biology, is that the anti-biotech lobby doesn't understand the science: "As we see the protesters, we must be forced to recognize how remiss we have been in taking science to the public," said Hood in one of the plenary sessions. In fact, the protestors that I talked to did have a good grasp of the science. And they admitted that, while they have a visceral horror of the "global experiment in genetic modification," no evidence shows that any harm has come from the planting of genetically modified crops.
Their grievances are perhaps shifting away from the dangers of the science. As if to emphasize this, the protestors pointed out that a mere 10% of registrants at the meeting were scientists (BIO organizers have not confirmed this). Their main contention, their cliché, was that biotech is about corporate greed and global oppression, through the production of drugs that are far too expensive and not nearly efficacious enough. Biotech crops, they say, benefit no one except the seed companies. It dawned on me why I'd been called a "corporate whore" as I passed through the protestors on my way into the convention center that morning.
Needless to say, on these issues we disagreed. Their arguments struck me as being naïve, failing to account for their privileged positions in terms of health, education, and lifestyle choices. Nothing in their pleasant world of massage, body painting, and organic chocolates will cure the ills of the world. But biotechnology might.
I did discover, however, that some protestors are thoughtful, knowledgeable people. Wider discussions between them and the research and biotech communities would be beneficial in helping to frame the issues more clearly and in isolating those who perpetrate violence and intimidation- the true nutters about whom you can read on page 10.
This represents a change in my view. I previously wrote: "Engaging in dialogue with activists in search of mutual understanding or a middle ground is dangerous." 1
But I'm not suggesting here that we debate the issues under the pressure of a public forum where the tendency is to take a confrontational line. I instead recommend get-to-know-you sessions behind closed doors, or maybe just chatting in a bar.
Referencec: 1. R. Gallagher, "Animal research is for human welfare," The Scientist, 17:16, May 5, 2003.
Engaging Antibiotech Activists
- The Scientist, Vol. 18; no.16, Aug. 30, 2004
As described in the Editorial (1) I have also moved from avoiding dialog with activists (or reading their literature) to realizing that there are thoughtful protestors who are truly concerned with wider issues of biotechnology.
However, my first attempt to talk to a member of an activist organization, who was also a scientist, was not a happy one. All of us who were later to participate in a round-table discussion were having lunch. This person was most reasonable at lunchtime, and since he was a scientist working in a leading university, he did understand the science very well.
As soon as he sat down at the public round-table discussion, however, he put on his activist costume and none of us were able to recognize him any longer. This has happened to me several times: In private, I have found many reasonable and thoughtful activists who have immediately taken the confrontational position as soon as they had the smallest audience. Yet, I agree, we should do it.
- Mertxe de Renobales Scheifler, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, País Vasco University Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain
1. R. Gallagher, "Risking our clichés," The Scientist, 18:6, July 5, 2004.