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November 12, 2004


NAFTA Report on GM Maize; Biotech helps farmers, environment; How Nature Makes Transgenic Plants; Sterile male potatoes 'make GM field trials safe'


Today in AgBioView at www.agbioworld.org; November 12, 2004

* NAFTA Report on GM Maize
* Biotech helps farmers, environment
* Bio-engineered crops turn over higher yields, revenue
* The Results are in – Biotech Wins
* How Nature Makes Transgenic Plants
* Sterile male potatoes 'make GM field trials safe'
* Italy accepts biotech crops but allows regions to ban them

Date: Fri, 12 Nov 2004 12:17:20 +1030
From: "Chris Preston"
Subject: NAFTA Report on GM Maize

Before everybody gets too carried away with the NAFTA report on "Maize and Biodiversity: The Effects of Transgenic Maize in Mexico: Key Findings and Recommendations", it would be good to take a moment to read the draft report.

The report certainly does not support the claims made by some environmental NGOs. For example, the transnational NGO Greenpeace trumpeted on October 18 "Monsanto and the US Government have been telling the world that genetically engineered crops pose no contamination threat to natural indigenous species. But Greenpeace has learned from a leaked report that NAFTA disagrees and is recommending steps to avoid a genetic threat to natural maize in Mexico." (see http://www.greenpeace.org/international_en/news/details?campaign%5fid=3997&item%5fid=617830).

It seems a pity that nobody at Greenpeace read and/or understood the report before making that claim. The report is quite clear. Transgenes pose no greater risk to Mexican landraces or teosinte than do other genes. To quote "There is no reason to expect that a transgene would have any greater or lesser effect on the genetic diversity of landraces or teosinte than other genes from similarly used modern cultivars. The scientific definition of genetic diversity is the sum of all of the variants of each gene in the gene pool of a given population, variety, or species. The maize gene pool represents tens of thousands of genes, many of which vary within and among populations. Transgenes are unlikely to displace more than a tiny fraction of the native gene pool, if any, because maize is an outcrossing plant with very high rates of genetic recombination. Instead, transgenes would be added to the dynamic mix of genes that are already present in landraces, including conventional genes from modern cultivars. Thus, the introgression of a few individual transgenes is unlikely to have any major biological effect on genetic diversity in maize landraces." (Page 12).

Indeed, on all grounds of risk to health and the environment, the report states that transgeneic maize is no more hazardous than other varieties of maize. Therefore, the recommendations made are not to reduce risks to human health or the environment (except for the recommendation to do with industrial or pharmaceutical traits), they are solely related to other issues.

The report also debunked the popular myths that Mexican maize is somehow "pristine". In fact gene flow between landraces happens all the time and is encouraged by the farmers themselves. "Gene flow is important in the dynamic process of on-farm (in situ) management of maize genetic resources in Mexico. Mexican farmers often trade seeds, sow mixtures of seeds from different sources, including the occasional modern hybrid variety, and often allow and intend, cross-pollination between different strains to occur when they grow close together. Despite gene flow, farmers are able to select and perpetuate different landraces and cultivars." Page 10 and "Experimental planting and breeding of maize is a millennia-long tradition that is at the core of the generation of the many native landraces of maize. Mexican landraces are neither genetically static nor genetically homogenous: they are constantly being changed by those who use them. As part of this process, genes from improved/modern varieties are sometimes deliberately or inadvertently introduced into the landraces." (Page 15. )

Again, in contrast to the supposed threat posed by transgenic maize alone to maize landraces, the report says "Modern agricultural practices have real and significant impacts on the genetic diversity of Mexican landraces. For example, economic pressures associated with modern agriculture and the current asymmetries and economics of US-Mexican maize trade could cause some small-scale farmers to abandon their use of indigenous landraces." (Page13)

However, the report did recognize socio-cultural issues with the introgression of transgenes into maize landraces, stating that some in Mexico feel that introgression of transgenes into maize landraces presents an unacceptable risk to traditional farming and that sense of harm was independent of the scientific risks. Given that in some cases it appears that farmers deliberately use sow seeds containing transgenic traits as sources of genes for their landraces, the opposite point of view could also be argued.

The crux of the issue is the following quote "The policy of a moratorium on commercial transgenic maize planting is undermined by the unapproved cultivation of imported maize and does not accomplish its aim if imports of unlabelled, unsegregated, and fertile GM maize from the United States are allowed." (Page 17). Put more simply this statement means, 'if Mexico wants to maintain a moratorium on transgenic maize, it needs to stop its farmers from planting it'. A number of the recommendations in the report are ways of achieving this goal. In particular, maize imported from the US as food is seen as an easily identifiable and manageable route of entry. However, despite identifying migrant workers returning from the US as a potential source of transgenic seed that is then planted, recommendations have not been made to manage this source of transgenic seed.

Taken as a whole, the intention of the recommendations in the report is to limit the spread of transgenic maize in Mexico until such time as the Mexican government approves its use. How successful such recommendations will be will ultimately depend on how the farmers of Mexico react. In part, the recommendations are based on the attitude that farmers are planting transgenic maize unwittingly. As we know from the experience in Brazil and Paraguay with soybeans, sometimes farmers vote for technology with their feet. While the recommendations, if implemented will ensure that maize imported for food is not sown, it is difficult to see how they could stop the deliberate importation of seeds from the US by returning migrant workers.

Clearly some of the recommendations will be costly to implement, such as providing a quality assurance scheme for landraces, with testing. Equally, a requirement for maize imports to be milled will likely increase the cost of food. How far the Mexican Government is willing to apply the recommendations and bear their costs remains to be seen.

(THE FULL REPORT IS AVAILABLE AT http://www.cec.org/files/PDF//Maize-and-Biodiversity_en.pdf)

Dr. Christopher Preston
Senior Lecturer, Weed Management
University of Adelaide


Report: Biotech helps farmers, environment

- The Wichita Eagle, By Phyllis Jacobs Griekspoor, Nov. 12, 2004

A new study by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy says the widespread adoption of six biotechnology-derived crops has increased farmers' yields and income while reducing their use of pesticides.

The study also found that biotechnology is helping the environment by spurring greater use of no-till farming.

Focusing on canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soybeans and squash, the study found that growers of biotech crops gained $1.9 billion more in income and harvested 5.3 billion pounds more product while reducing pesticide use by 46.4 million pounds in 2003.

Growers in the major corn and soybean belts in Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota realized the greatest economic gains. But there were benefits in all 42 states were the six biotech crops are grown, including Kansas.

Farmers continue to grow more biotech varieties, which include crops engineered to be pest resistant such as Bt corn, cotton and canola.

In Kansas, biotech soybeans and corn increased production by 309 million pounds and added $43 million to farm revenue.

Almost all of the soybeans planted in Kansas are Roundup Ready varieties, genetically modified to resist the Monsanto herbicide Roundup, which allows farmers to kill weeds without damaging the soybean plants.

The ability to use Roundup to control weeds also has enabled more farmers to move to no-till practices, planting new crops without tilling under the remnants of the old.

Those remnants help hold the soil in place during periods of dry weather and high winds between crops, and the root residue builds organic matter in the soil and helps hold water as well.

In recent years, Bt corn, which contains a gene from a common soil bacterium, has gained acres in Kansas.

The Bt gene allows the corn plant to produce a toxin that kills the southwestern and European corn borers, both of which are Kansas pests.

The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy is a private, nonprofit, non-advocacy research organization based in Washington, D.C. Researchers conduct studies in four program areas: biotechnology, pesticides, U.S. farm and food policy, and international trade and development.


Bio-engineered crops turn over higher yields, revenue

- The Daily Nonpareil, By Brien Boyce, 11/12/2004

The use of bio-engineered seed is resulting in an increase in yields and revenue, according to a recent release from the Iowa Farm Bureau.

In the United States, farmers who raised bio-engineered cotton, corn and other crops in 2003 saw their collective annual incomes increase by $2 billion, due largely to the reduction of pesticide use.

Farmer Kevin Jacobsen, who farms in the Avoca and Harlan areas, agrees.

"The ease of using the product and the reduced use of pesticides is better for user and consumer," he said.

The Iowa Farm Bureau reported Iowa saw an economic boost of approximately $239 million, and pesticide use decreased by 7.4 million pounds from farmers raising bio-engineered corn and soybeans.

Clark McGrath, area agronomist with the Iowa State University Extension Office's Armstrong Research Farm near Oakland, defined a bio-engineered crop as "undergoing some type of transformation for a trait that it didn't possess before."

One would be hard-pressed to find a farmer who doesn't incorporate some type of genetically-altered crop in their fields, McGrath said.

"Almost every company offers some type of bio-engineered seed, and almost every farmer uses them," he said.

Jacobsen and Kevin Gee, who farms near Emerson, both use Bt corn, which was created to fend off the European corn borer.

Defense of the crop from pest damage must begin from the moment seeds are planted. Jacobsen said there are seed treatments that will fend off more pests before the corn seed is germinated.

Bt corn is heralded as one of the first successes of biotechnology and agriculture. Researchers developed an insecticidal protein from the bacteria strain bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt.

Like many crop pests, the damage to crops caused by the European corn borer can be disastrous. In past years, it was not uncommon for the insect to be responsible for corn losses in the United States and Canada in excess of $1 billion annually.

"Pest management is the obvious reason (that $1 billion is no longer being lost)," McGrath said. "But the technology to do this comes at a price. The farmers will pay extra for the products and will hopefully save that money in pest management.

"They will hopefully make some of their money back in increased yields as a result of using bio-engineered crops and products."

Gee said developing biotech genes is not only expensive, but also requires lengthy development times.

"They have to go through seven years of research and EPA approval," he said of the process necessary before bio-engineered seeds hit the market. "It can be somewhat of a deterrent, seeing how expensive it is to develop these products."

While expensive, developing bio-engineered crops is cost-effective. According to an Oct. 20 report from the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, such crops cut production costs by $1.5 billion in 2003.

In addition to using Bt corn, farmers like Jacobsen and Gee raise other types of genetically-altered crops, such as Roundup Ready soybeans. Jacobsen said he hopes to use rootworm corn, similar in effect to Bt corn, except designed to take care of rootworm.

"Genetically-engineered crops have made production a lot simpler and (made it) easier to produce more crops and take care of more acres, due to the window of application we're now given," Jacobsen said.

The overall effect of such crops may not be completely known, McGrath said, but he believes the risks are minimal.

"I think the science is out on some of the effects, but looking at what may happen to a farming ecosystem, I don't believe the EPA would approve some of this if there was an adverse effect to the environment."

Biotechnology has a positive effect on the environment, according to the IFB report. Biotech crops make it easier to employ no-till cultivation practices, which leave the soil undisturbed and reduces erosion and pesticide and water runoff.

Other benefits listed were reduced fuel use, machinery wear and improved habitat for local wildlife.

In the future, McGrath said to look for plants that generate crops with higher nutritional value, precursors to pharmaceutical drugs and the ability to withstand harsher environmental conditions.

"It's the constant of trying to improve on what we have," he said.


The Results are in – Biotech Wins

- Truth About Trade & Technology, by: Dean Kleckner, 11/11/2004

Winning isn’t everything, but it sure does feel good.

Like most people, I was glued to my television set last week, eager to learn who would win the presidential election. The vote here in Iowa was so close that the final result wasn’t confirmed until Friday.

In addition to the presidential race, I was tracking ballot initiatives in four California counties. The enemies of biotechnology were trying to outlaw crops that thousands of American farmers over the last decade have made an essential part of the agricultural mainstream.

I’m delighted to report that voters in three of the four counties rejected these measures--and rejected them by healthy margins.

I never thought that the ultimate fate of biotech foods was at stake in their votes. Biotechnology is here to stay, no matter what a handful of California counties say. But I did think there were substantial risks attached to losing. Politicians as far away as Vermont have been watching developments in California. At a minimum, it was important to send a message that these bans would not succeed automatically wherever they were tried.

There was nothing automatic about a positive result. Indeed, the enemies of biotechnology possessed all the momentum going into Election Day. In March, voters in California’s Mendocino County approved a ban on biotech crops. A few months later, in Trinity County, the county’s executive board passed a similar measure. Everything seemed to be going the right way for the wrong side.

So there was no telling what voters in Butte, Humboldt, Marin, and San Luis Obispo would do.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I was fairly confident Humboldt County would reject a ban because the people who had put it on the ballot in the first place were urging a “no” vote. As amazing as that sounds, they had recognized their proposed law was so poorly written that it just couldn’t be allowed to succeed. It defined DNA as “a complex protein,” for example, when in fact DNA is a nucleic acid. And so even its supporters were calling for the political equivalent of a mercy killing.

Voters had all sorts of good reasons for rejecting these initiatives, among them the fact that they would have been virtually impossible to enforce. But their fundamental hostility to sound science--exemplified by the stunning failure of activists in Humboldt County to define basic biological terms correctly--offered the best reason of all. It highlighted the scientific illiteracy of the people who want to ban biotech crops.

In Humboldt County, 65 percent of the electorate voted against this radical proposal.

The other result that didn’t surprise me was Marin County’s decision to approve a ban, 61 percent to 39 percent. This Bay Area County is more familiar with wine-and-cheese soirees than hardscrabble farming.

The two counties that did concern me were Butte and San Luis Obispo, because each is home to farmers who depend on innovation to remain competitive. If bans in these places had succeeded, then virtually all of California’s counties would have been put at risk, either through their own bans or perhaps a statewide referendum. “We knew that if they could pass it here, it was going to go right on down the state,” said Doug Rudd, a Butte County rice farmer, in the Sacramento Bee.

Fortunately, the farmers in Butte and San Luis Obispo put up a spirited fight. Their homegrown opposition movement succeeded brilliantly: 61 percent of the voters in Butte County said no to a ban. The result in San Luis Obispo was nearly as good: 59 percent voted against it.

When the results from all four counties are combined, 54 percent of the electorate voted in favor of biotech crops. The raw vote totals were 171,773 people rejecting the bans and 143,797 supporting them. The margin of victory was bigger than President Bush’s 12,000-vote triumph in the 99 counties of Iowa.

Winning three contests out of four so handily was a remarkable achievement. I don’t think biotech food could have had a better day.

The broader fight certainly isn’t over. The activists in Humboldt County will be back. Other California counties may decide that they want to mimic Marin.

But the friends of biotechnology have won three important victories. We’ve halted a harmful movement in its infancy and we’ve sent a message to radical activists everywhere they won’t win every fight they pick. In fact, it looks like they’ll lose most of them.


How Nature Makes Transgenic Plants
Parasitism allows gene exchange between species

- BetterHumans.com, 11/10/2004

Plant parasitism has been confirmed to swap genes between species, showing how nature created transgenic plants long before humans.

US researchers from Indiana University in Bloomington say that their finding establishes plant parasitism as the first known medium for plant horizontal gene transfer, the exchange of genes between different species.

"Plant parasitism has emerged as the first solid mechanism of horizontal transfer in plants," says researcher Jeff Mower. "Other mechanisms also are likely to be important but, as of yet, they remain in the realm of speculation."

Horizontal transfer

In July, US researchers from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC reported in the journal Science that genes can move from plant hosts to plant parasites.

Mower and colleagues have now reported movement in the other direction: Gene transfer from plant parasites to plant hosts.

The researchers found that three species of Plantago, commonly known as plantains, have a normal functioning copy of the mitochondrial gene atp1 and a second defective copy.

This second copy resembles the atp1 gene in parasitic plants called dodders, of the genus Cuscuta. Dodders have no chlorophyll, so must find hosts or die. They sprout long stems that twine around host stems and send in roots. In attacking plants in this way, dodders penetrate their host's cells, enabling DNA to be transferred.


Sterile male potatoes 'make GM field trials safe'

- SciDev.Net, By Mike Shanahan, 12 November 2004

A genetically modified (GM) variety of potato able to resist a major crop pest does not threaten other organisms, and — because the plants produce no viable pollen — is unlikely to pass genes to related varieties, according to research published yesterday (11 November) in Nature.

The researchers, led by Howard Atkinson at the University of Leeds, UK, say their method ensures biosafety without challenging the value of the precautionary approach to the introduction of GM crops in regions where many closely related species exist. The precautionary approach could, according to the Nuffield Centre of Bioethics, prevent poor farmers and consumers in developing countries from reaping the potential benefits of modified crops.

Atkinson and colleagues in Bolivia, Peru, and The Netherlands inserted a gene from rice into potatoes to protect them from a microscopic nematode worm that causes tens of millions of dollars of damage in Andean countries by reducing crop yields.

The gene produces a protein — cystatin — that interferes with the nematode's ability to digest protein in its diet. By ensuring that the gene is only active in potato roots and not the part of the plant above ground, or the potato tuber itself, the researchers minimised its potential for interaction with non-target species.

The gene would therefore not enter the human food chain, although cystatins already occur in the human diet in rice and maize and are also present in saliva, so are considered unlikely to pose risks to human health.

By comparing the insects and microbes associated with GM potatoes, non-GM potatoes and other non-GM crops, the researchers showed that the addition of the rice gene had no more effect on non-target organisms than common agricultural practices such as choice of crop.

However, they found that pollen from GM potatoes can spread over short distances to related varieties and species, giving rise to hybrid offspring carrying modified genes. Because the gene protecting GM potatoes from nematodes might also benefit these relatives, there is a risk of such plants becoming invasive.

To overcome this problem, the researchers inserted the rice gene into a variety of potato called Revolucion. Potatoes have male and female parts in the same flower but Revolucion is 'male sterile'. It fails to produce viable pollen and cannot pollinate other potato plants or their wild relatives. This, say the researchers, "provides a basis for initial field trials of nematode resistance or other traits of value without gene flow from the potato on trial".

"This approach is practical for crops such as potato and banana that can reproduce asexually," says Atkinson.

Yesterday's paper in Nature, written by Carolina Celis of Wageningen University in The Netherlands, says that transgenic planting of potatoes in the Andes should be limited to male sterile cultivars until concerns about possible spread of genes to related species are investigated experimentally. Celis and colleagues say the findings mean there is no need to invoke the precautionary principle to bar field trials of their GM potatoes.

"We seek to carry out field trials of the technology for potato and banana in areas where no wild relatives exist, such as in China in the case of potato," Atkinson told SciDev.Net. "We would also like to test Revolucion under field conditions in the Andes in isolation from other related plants to assess the benefits and to show a lack of environmental impact on non-target organisms".


Italy accepts biotech crops but allows regions to ban them

- AFP, Nov 11, 2004

ROME (AFP) - The Italian government gave the green light for genetically modified (GMO) crops but said regions were free to ban them if their citizens wished.

Already 13 of the country's 20 regions, 27 provinces and nearly 1,500 towns and communities have proclaimed themselves "GMO-free zones" and they will be able to continue doing so.

But Agriculture Minister Gianni Alemanno said decree adopted by the cabinet would allow for "coexistence" between opponents and supporters of biotech crops.

The government has stressed the need to defend traditional farming methods as well as the right of consumers and producers to choose.

He said 70 percent of Italians are opposed to genetic modification of crops.

While allowing biotech production, the law insists on extreme caution to avoid cross-contamination by GMO seeds in the country's highly fragmented agricultural land.

The law had been delayed by the reticence of Prime Minister Silvuio Berlusconi, who said his government had been elected to give more rather than less freedom to citizens.

But Alemanno said liberty had to be accompanied by rules.

Defenders of engineered crops had a champion in former Health Minister Umberto Veronesi, who said there were no products more carefully controlled.



A new, 10-year strategy on food biotechnology has just been passed to the Parliament of Denmark, in an effort to free up funding to investigate the key role biotechnology could play in designing better tasting, safer foods, and ultimately the opportunity for higher quality, cheaper foods.

Based on figures for other countries taken from Ernst & Young’s European Biotechnology Report 2003, Denmark ranks fifth among European countries in terms of number of biotech companies, after Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Sweden.

Of its 174 firms, 87 per cent are devoted to activities in human health, with just 4 per cent involved in food.

For the full article, visit http://foodproductiondaily.com/news/ng.asp?id=55974&n=dh315&c=ljsjuezwvsuqhgn



A study by a team from the College of Agricultural Sciences of the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale (SIUC) have recently found that no traces of a "foreign" gene wound up in the flesh or blood of 56 piglets fed genetically modified (GM) corn.

Under the leadership of swine expert Gary A. Apgar, the team fed GM corn to weanling pigs. Younger pigs are more efficient at turning a pound of feed into a pound of gain, hence increasing the potential for the transgene to be absorbed.

When they looked for evidence of the gene in the pigs' stomach contents and feces, they found nothing. They, however, detected fragments of transgene in the stomach contents of 50 of the piglets, and found fragments in only one of the samples screened from the small intestine. This suggests further that the additional gene generally does not survive the digestive process.

This new study reinforces findings from an earlier work, also by the SIUC, where larger, older pigs were used as model organisms, and where no remnants of the transgene were found in samples of contents from the small intestine and feces.

Read the complete story at http://www.thesouthern.com/rednews/2004/11/07/build/business/BIZ005.html.



In Transgenic Papaya in Hawaii and Beyond, Dennis Gonsalves of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) looks at the progress made by Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRSV) resistant papaya, from the laboratory, to the field, and into markets worldwide. The paper is published in the latest issue of Agbioforum.

The article discusses the history of the transgenic papaya, from the discovery of PRSV in Puna, Hawaii in 1992; to a field trial to test a PRSV-resistant transgenic papaya; and to the development of the 'Rainbow' and 'SunUp' transgenic cultivars in 1995. Lessons from the papaya experience have also been used to bring the technology to Thailand, Jamaica, Brazil, and Venezuela, Gonsalves writes, and procedures are currently being undertaken to have the transgenic papaya deregulated in these countries.

Agbioforum recently released a special issue of its online magazine, this time focusing on Progress, Achievements, and Constraints for Plant Biotechnology in Developing Countries. With guest editors Nigel Taylor, Lawrence Kent, and Claude Fauquet of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A., the special edition contains more articles that discuss the experiences of various organizations and agencies in introducing biotechnology to the developing world.

Read the complete article at http://www.agbioforum.org/v7n12/v7n12a07-gonsalves.htm. For more articles, Access the full issue at http://www.agbioforum.org