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Date:

December 2, 2004

Subject:

Protecting Biodiversity; China GM Rice; Syngenta Pulls GM From Europe; Woody Genetics; Bangladesh; Public Engagement in Science

 

Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : December 2, 2004

* Biotechnology's Benefits for Bodiversity
* China Could Be First Nation to Approve Sale of GM Rice
* USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology - Nominations
* Syngenta Halts Genetic Engineering Projects in Europe
* Genetics in the Woods
* The Impact of Test-Tube Trees on the Woods
* The Biotechnology Debate
* The Need to Increase Public Engagement in Science
* AgBioWorld Foundation needs support from its AgBioView readers!

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Biotechnology's Benefits for Bodiversity

- Robert Wager, Globe and Mail (Canada), Dec. 1, 2004 http://www.globetechnology.com/

Biodiversity can be defined as a wide variety of living organisms in their natural environment. Today most societies are aware of activities that threaten biodiversity and are acting to reduce the risks.

Although critics of Genetically Engineered Food (GE food) claim that the products of biotechnology threaten biodiversity, almost 10 years of commercial growing experience says something different. It is becoming very clear that growing GE crops helps reduce the impact of agriculture around the world.

Every year hundreds of millions of pounds of organophosphate insecticides are sprayed on crops. These broad-spectrum insecticides kill virtually every insect on contact. The run-off from the sprays kills even more organisms in the soil and waterways. In an ideal world we could just stop all use of these chemicals. But unfortunately the reality of such drastic measures would be reduced crop yields and mass starvation. So what is a caring farmer to do?

Nature provided an answer in a soil dwelling bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt. These particular bacteria makes a series of proteins that are very toxic to the target insects but virtually harmless to all other life forms. Organic farmers have been safely using these live bacteria for over a hundred years.

Agricultural scientists have been successful in transferring the gene for the insecticidal protein from the bacteria to plants. The resulting transgenic plants now protect themselves from insect pests without the need for continued organophosphate spraying.

Around the world these Bt crops have allowed farmers to reduce the amount of organophosphate insecticide sprayed by close to a hundred-million pounds each year. Today only the target pest is killed in the fields containing Bt crops and all other insects are unaffected. This means that the insect biodiversity is not threatened in the same fields where crop yields remain high.

Growing Bt potatoes resulted in dramatic reductions of insecticide use but, unfortunately, the main buyers of potatoes in North America (McCain Foods and McDonald's) have stopped buying these environmentally friendly potatoes so the farmers have returned to growing traditional varieties and spraying them with traditional insecticides.

Corn and cotton are the two main Bt crops grown today, but other Bt crops are working their way through the regulatory system and will further reduce our dependence on organophosphate insecticides in coming years.

Healthier food is an added bonus of growing Bt crops. When insect pests damage an ear of corn, the probability of fungal infection of the corn is enhanced. The fungi that grow on corn can produce nasty compounds (mycotoxins) that have been linked to animal and human birth defects. However, Bt corn has been demonstrated to have greatly reduced levels of these mycotoxins compared to conventional or organically grown corn.

Weeds are one of the largest problems for a farmer. Weeds drain nutrients and water from a field thereby reducing yields. The farmer can use mechanical or chemical means to reduce the weeds in the field. Mechanical weeding can have some significant negative consequences for soil structure, run-off and erosion. Therefore, a reduction in mechanical weeding would benefit the soil and the environment.

Chemical herbicide use has been a major alternative to mechanical weeding, but it too can have some negative impacts on the environment. Fortunately, not all herbicides are created equal. The newer herbicides have much lower environmental impact than those used just a few years ago. The replacement of older herbicides with the newer ones means far less impact on the soil microorganisms and also cleaner water for frogs and fish.

Tolerance to the newer, less harmful herbicides has been engineered into some crops. These herbicide tolerant (HT) crops allow the farmer to effectively control weeds while adopting reduced or no-till farming. The soil structure is enhanced, soil moisture and yields are maintained and topsoil loss is greatly reduced. In North America alone, over a billion tons of topsoil is saved each year by reduced tillage or no-till farming.

Approximately one-third of all food rots before it can be eaten. Often this rot begins in the field long before the crop is harvested. Harsh chemicals are applied to crops and the soil to slow the rot caused by fungus. Even organic farmers use highly toxic copper compounds to slow fungal destruction of their crops.

Research is well under way in developing fungal resistant crops that will not require toxic chemical sprays. Soon, millions of pounds of toxic anti-fungal chemicals will no longer be applied to the environment because the plants will be engineered to protect themselves from fungal attack.

Just like people, plants suffer from viral infections. We have vaccines to help us fight off viral infections like the measles or the flu. But unlike us, a viral infection of a plant usually means death of the plant or severe reduction of yields. Researchers have been successful in "immunizing" certain plants against the viruses that attack them. The principle is similar. We are given a small amount of an inactivated virus to boost our immune system. The engineered virus resistant plants get a similar boost with one gene from the pathogenic virus. Usually it is the surface protein gene from the virus that is transferred into the plant.

The result is a plant variety that is no longer susceptible to virus infection and damage. The papaya industry owes it continued existence in Hawaii to this technology. By engineering the surface protein gene from the Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRSV) into two varieties of papaya, there is now a healthy, growing industry when just 10 years ago the total destruction of the industry from the PRSV seemed inevitable. Ironically, these transgenic papayas are also being used to protect non-transgenic papaya plants. Bwy encircling the non-transgenic papayas with transgenic plants the virus is blocked from reaching the susceptible plants. The PRSV virus has been found worldwide; consequently this particular product is of interest to papaya growing countries around the world.

These transgenic papayas have one added gene and are immune to the devastation of the PRSV virus. Now critics of food biotechnology are saying that these transgenic papayas have caused "genetic contamination" of their non-transgenic papayas. This is nonsense. The virus is already worldwide, therefore so is the gene. If the critics like to call it "contamination" then this type of "contamination" with only the one gene separate from the pathogenic virus that is inserted into the papaya plant means the difference between a healthy field and crop verses a dead field and no crop.

A similar situation has occurred in Mexico. Again the critics claim "genetic contamination" of Mexican landraces of maize (corn) from Bt corn. So what is the result of the Bt gene introgression into the landraces of maize? More yield with less insecticide use and healthier food because of less fungal mycotoxins. Mexican maize farmers are very adept at maintaining a particular genetic makeup of their own landraces. It seems likely these added features from the addition of one gene may be of interest to them.

From coconuts to grapes, bacterial infections do tremendous damage to agriculture. Currently, the California grape/wine industry is facing a devastating bacterial assault. Pierce's Disease is a bacterial infection fatal to grape vines. A small insect called the glassy-winged sharpshooter spreads the bacteria. Currently, millions of dollars are being spent on insecticides to slow the northern march of this disease. Researchers have had some progress in engineering a different transgenic bacterium to counterw the pathogenic bacterial infections of grape plants. It is ironic that at this time there are four counties in California voting on whether to ban the growing of all genetically engineered products. If this proposed ban is voted in by the people of the four counties there will be nothing to stop the devastation of the wine industry in those counties. Of course that will be after tons of insecticides will have been used to try to slow the disease.

The green revolution saw new breeding techniques, chemical fertilizers and irrigation to help keep food production ahead of population growth. Today, food production has fallen below the increasing demand of the human population. It is well recognized that traditional breeding has hit its maximum for yield increases. Therefore, unless we develop new ways to increase yields, there will be tremendous pressure to bring new land into production.

Although irrigation has greatly enhanced food production in many parts of the world, it has also resulted in salt contamination of soils. Within the next 30 years it is estimated that one tenth of all arable land will be lost to salt contamination. Traditional breeding has few solutions for this, but biotechnology has been very successful taking genes that allow a mangrove to live in seawater, and moving them into crop plants. These salt-tolerant plants will help keep the 750 million acres of salty soil inw production.

A similar problem exists with aluminum. This common mineral threatens one third of all arable land. With no traditional breeding answers, the best hope is the work of plant biotechnologists, which have shown excellent results in the lab. Hopefully, aluminum tolerance will be a common engineered trait and, therefore, the one-third of all arable land affected by aluminum will stay in production.

Water is essential for all life. Experts, including the UN-Food and Agriculture Organization, have made it clear that water resources will be critical in the coming century. Biotechnology is developing many different drought-tolerant crops to maintain yields in water shortage conditions. Clearly, these will be of tremendous interest in drought prone areas of the world.

Each year Bt crops have allowed farmers to produce good yields without spraying hundreds of millions of pounds of insecticide. Herbicide tolerant crops maintain high yields with reduced tillage or no-till practices thereby saving huge amounts of topsoil and protecting waterways from run-off. Bacterial and viral resistant crops also maintain yield without the need for insecticide spraying. The future will see drought resistant, salt and aluminum tolerant and fungal resistant crops added to the varieties of wbiotechnology products that will help preserve arable farmland.

There are three certainties: the population will continue to rise for decades to come, people will be fed, and all agriculture has some impact. If we want to save biodiversity, we must save the remaining wilderness.

Without a doubt the largest threat to biodiversity is converting wilderness to farmland. Agricultural biotechnology has shown that it can reduce the impact on the environment while maintaining or increasing yields. Therefore its incorporation into world agriculture will help protect biodiversity.

--
Robert Wager is a member of the Biology Department at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo, B.C. Robert Wager has a science degree in microbiology and a masters of science in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of British Columbia.

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China Could Be First Nation to Approve Sale of GM Rice

Xiong Lei, Science, Vol 306, Issue 5701, 1458-1459, November 26, 2004

BEIJING--China is pondering the future of its most important crop. Next week the biosafety committee of China's Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) will meet to decide whether to approve the commercial use of the first varieties of genetically modified (GM) rice. If the committee says yes, the world's biggest producer and consumer of that staple grain will also become the first country to give its farmers a chance to grow GM rice.

Proponents say the varieties will deliver higher yields and greater resistance to pests without posing any risk to the environment. But some scientists believe that Chinese farmers can achieve comparable gains in productivity by conventional technologies without risking transfer of the engineered traits to the country's cultivated and wild rice. "It will be a tough decision to make, as policymakers must weigh the consequences," says Zhu Zhen, a biotechnologist at the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing.

Chinese scientists have developed dozens of transgenic rice strains since the 1980s. Zhu and his colleagues have developed an insect-resistant rice line that is one of four candidates for approval at the 30 November to 2 December meeting. According to Huang Jikun, who directs the CAS Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy in Beijing, all the candidate strains have gone through the small-scale, greenhouse trials and larger field trials required by the country's 1996 biosafety laws. The other candidates include one line that is resistant to stem borers and two that withstand bacterial blight and other plant diseases.

Ministry officials declined comment on the upcoming meeting. "It's a very sensitive issue," says Shi Yansheng of MOA's science department. Xue Dayuan, a researcher at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science involved in biosafety and biodiversity issues for the State Environmental Protection Administration, predicts that the committee, whose members meet twice a year, is "very likely" to approve at least some of the GM rice candidates. Even so, he believes that there are risks. "China is home to wild and cultivated rice," he says. "In case of gene floating, which is quite possible, the damage will be irreversible."

Zhu's strain, which received its preproduction trial permit in 2002, carries a Bt gene and a modified proteinase inhibitor gene. This approach increased the expression level of the transgene, he says. A recent study by Huang of test plots in Hubei and Fujian provinces found that insect-resistant rice can reduce the use of pesticide by 80% and lower average yield losses from pests by 6% to 7%. The reduced dependence on pesticides was also a timesaver for farmers and put more money in their pockets.

"Traditional rice farming is particularly labor intensive," says Zhu. "As more and more able-bodied farmers leave villages to seek better paid jobs in cities, women and old people are doing more of the work. GM rice can help alleviate their workload, and reduced pesticide use will improve their health and the environment."

But some scientists say there are alternative biological approaches to control pests and increase outputs that do not require GM rice. Zhu Youyong, president of Yunnan Agricultural University, says that he has increased yields by 10% and reduced pesticide use by 60% since 1997 by planting many different varieties of rice developed with traditional techniques: "GM technology could be a good way to resist pests and disease, but in the long run, the best method is biodiversity." Zeng Yawen, a researcher at the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, puts it more bluntly: "Why should we take the risks if we have a safer approach to raise our rice production?"

There is also the problem of an informed consumer, says Nanjing's Xue. In the far western Xinjiang region, Bt cotton has become widespread, despite rules against its use there, after seed companies told farmers that they were being given high-yield, pest-resistant varieties but failed to highlight its transgenic nature.

Zhu Zhen says that rigid rules have been followed in the breeding, shipment, and planting of GM rice to prevent contamination. "Even if the commercial release is issued, the GM rice is unlikely to be promoted on a large scale immediately," he says. "We'll take steps to tailor the different lines to varying environment and local conditions."

The most vocal opponent of growing GM rice in China is the nonprofit environmental group Greenpeace. Sze Pang Cheung, a campaign manager of Greenpeace China, compares the commercial release to "a gamble with life" and scolds MOA for what he terms its secretive biosafety procedures. "Rice is the staple food of millions of Chinese, so the public must have a say in its fate," he says. He also notes that a majority of the biosafety panel members are biotechnologists, and few members are knowledgeable about environmental and biodiversity issues.

What will the biosafety committee decide? Huang is optimistic, but Zhu is hedging his bets. "I'm confident our product will be released," he says, "if not this time, then in 2 years."

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USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture

The AC21 will continue its work to develop a report examining the impacts of agricultural biotechnology on American agriculture and USDA over the next 5-10 years. The committee is requesting nominations for qualified people to serve as members. Nominations due 23 Dec. Info Michael Schechtman, Designated Federal Official, telephone (202) 720-3817; fax (202) 690-4265; e-mail mschechtman@ars.usda.gov
 
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Syngenta Halts Genetic Engineering Projects in Europe

- Hannelore Crolly, Die Welt, November 29, 2004; via http://www.checkbiotech.org

'The world’s biggest agro-chemicals group transfers all its biotechnology research activities to the USA'
 
BERLIN - Syngenta, the world biggest agro-chemicals group based in Basel, has halted all its European field trials of genetically modified plants and seed material varieties. Syngenta research director David Lawrence told Die WELT that Syngenta had no intention of quitting genetic engineering altogether. But the group had placed all its projects on ice in Europe because of public resistance, high authorization hurdles and the lack of market opportunities. The entire biotech research function is being transferred to the USA. Lawrence warned that Europe was causing itself lasting harm by its sceptical attitude to new technologies. There was a risk that it would miss the green genetic engineering boat and leave other forces, especially in Asia and the USA, with the task of shaping the rules of the game.

In Germany, Syngenta had, for example, conducted field trials to fight fungal diseases affecting wheat. After the fields had been repeatedly destroyed, Syngenta finally declared the failure of its repeated attempts to organize trials. The business which was incorporated in 2000 from the agricultural divisions of Novartis and Astra Zeneca has also pulled out of the United Kingdom after many setbacks. Syngenta’s Institute at Jealott's Hill near London remains the world’s biggest private agricultural research centre. But its research is now focussing entirely on conventional techniques.

Syngenta has now followed in the footsteps of Monsanto, Du Pont and Bayer Crop Science which have all abandoned their biotechnology activities in England. Not one field trial has been registered in Great Britain this year and Germany is well on the way to finding itself in a similar situation. In Germany, the European Commission still reports five field tests planned by various companies and research establishments. The largest number of field trials is scheduled in Spain. Applications for nine projects are still pending in that country.

In Germany, the growing of genetically modified plants is now possible although stringent conditions have been imposed. Following a lengthy debate, the Bundestag adopted the genetic engineering act tabled by the social democratic and green parties. However, the authorization and liability rules are so stringent that experts doubt whether genetically engineered crops will be grown on any extensive scale.

Lawrence said that Syngenta’s withdrawal from research in Europe would have no significant impact for the time being. The fact was that the company in any case only achieved around three per cent of its sales (2003: 6.6 billion dollars) on genetically engineered products. However, biotechnology accounted for a significantly higher proportion of research. Of Syngenta’s total research and development expenditure amounting to 727 million dollars, 454 million are spent on plant protection, 127 million on the development of traditional seed materials and 146 million on biotech research. The group employs 19,000 persons worldwide, including nearly 5000 working in research, development and technology, largely in the three main research centres located in Switzerland, Great Britain and North Carolina in the United States.

Lawrence pointed out that his business had often found conventional methods to be more effective than biotechnology. "We have conducted many genetic engineering experiments for seed materials and plant protection and they have often failed." On the other hand, excellent results had frequently been achieved with the traditional approach to plant growing. The convenient "Pure Heart" water melon was the best example. The Syngenta melon in picnic format was not only better for single households than the traditional big water melon for families but also had a thinner rind, no pips and was just as sweet on its edges as in the centre. The market launch in Europe is scheduled for 2005 and the melon is already on sale in the USA.

The melon points the way in which the business is thinking. Research director Lawrence is looking for markets for his group extending beyond the traditional plant protection business in which chemical products are used to control insects, weeds and fungus infections. Plant protection still accounts for 85 per cent of group sales but the global market is flat. The Swiss therefore hope to achieve growth primarily in the seed materials business where Syngenta is currently world number three behind Monsanto and the pioneer Hi-Bred owned by Du Point. In addition to new varieties of field crops such as soy beans and colza, this also included business in flower and vegetable seed materials. For example, Syngenta is already number one in Europe for flower seeds and seedlings. “In this particular area, one task of research is to find out what consumers like and what they think tastes best“, Lawrence says. For instance, Syngenta is currently testing a new tomato with a particularly strong aroma – a meaty, deep-red contender to replace tasteless standardized tomatoes.

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Genetics in the Woods

- Claire G. Williams, News & Observer November 30, 2004

The recent forum at Duke University on the pros and cons of genetically modified (GM) pine forests attracted a national and international audience. On hand were venture capitalists, biotechnology firms, timber corporations, state and federal government officials, academicians and environmental groups. But some of the best questions came from private landowners and forestry consultants here in North Carolina. As the organizer of the forum, I'd like to share some of the questions -- and my answers.

Can a small wood-lot owner purchase genetically modified loblolly pine seedlings?

Today the answer is no. Genetically modified loblolly pines or any other kind of tree cannot be planted commercially even on private timberlands. Few tests of genetically modified forest trees have taken place, and these are subject to close federal government scrutiny. Each test tree is cut down before onset of reproduction.

This question signals an immediate need for a continuing education workshop on the genetic composition of our forested wood-lots, even if sales are based on non-modified seedlings. Knowledge needed for choosing the right genetic composition of a future forest is growing more complex, subject to technological change. Few of our natural-resources majors in higher education receive formal classroom training about the genetic composition of forests, either old-growth or plantations. A workshop would update those few professionals who have received formal classroom training.

Outreach to wood-lot landowners about the genetic composition of forest tree seedlings is needed as a counterbalance to the state's progressive investment in forest biotechnology. The emerging for-profit market in forest seedling sales can only benefit from informed consumers. But a cautionary note is needed: workshop instructors should be drawn from those who are not on the payroll of any seedling seller, i.e., not state nursery employees, biotechnology firms or timber companies.

Who will actually own the genes in genetically modified pines?

The landowner continued with this example: if genetically modified pine pollen or seed moves from another's land onto my land and produces a forest, am I going to be penalized for stealing the intellectual property of another? On the other hand, who is liable for these escaped genetically modified pine seeds or pollen anyway?

On the surface this seems a simple question. Yet genetically modified pines are not equivalent to genetically modified row crops. Mature pines, as perennial plants, produce copious seed and pollen each year (just look at your windshield in spring!) for 10 or 20 years before timber harvest age. Wind-dispersed pine seeds and pollen move across the landscape on the scale of miles.

So the question is right on target. We do need some alternative thinking about intellectual property management for genetically modified pines.

Intellectual property management as practiced by pharmaceutical and agricultural biotechnology companies is simply not a good fit for forestry. Controlling movement of pine genes onto less managed or even unmanaged ecosystems is not a trivial problem to solve. Consider that landowner patterns in North Carolina form a mosaic of national forests, corporate timberlands, state forests, wildlife refuges and family timberlands. Open dialogue on intellectual property management of genetically modified pines now, before commercial release, would be a progressive and timely act.

Will genetically modified pines planted on private lands disperse seeds and pollen to public forests?

We have no research to inform us on this question. Private forests will be ever more technology-intensive. They are working forests, a necessity for meeting our rising timber demands. But our state and national forests are adjacent to intensively managed timberlands, and it seems doubtful that genetically modified pines will be planted in public forests. Gene pollution could be the sleeping giant for genetically modified pine commercialization.

The answer? Open dialogue now, well before commercial release. Open a genetically modified forest dialogue for all types of concerned citizens in North Carolina. Rethink whether we need or simply want genetically modified pines. Fund research and even award a prestigious prize to any researcher who can broaden value from our biotechnology investment beyond the creation of more types of genetically modified trees.

This direction is consistent with sustaining timber production and protecting our less managed forests. Genetically modified pines are not genetically modified row crops. Healthy, well-adapted indigenous forests bode well for all.

(Claire G. Williams, a geneticist, is a visiting professor at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.)

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The Impact of Test-Tube Trees on the Woods

- Patrik Jonsson, Christian Science Monitor, November 29, 2004

After one of his famous walks, the bearded naturalist John Muir wrote in 1896, "Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees."

But if today's trees could tell their stories, some American branches would be whispering new tales of origin: epics of genetic engineering in 150 groves from Puget Sound to the palmetto flats of South Carolina. Scientists are increasingly tweaking the genetics of trees in the laboratory to enable them to do such things as live at higher altitudes, produce more fruit, convert more easily into pulp for paper products, and grow faster for timber harvesting.

Moreover, advocates point to ways the new population could help the old. In some cases, harvest of the newfangled trees would save older ones from being cut down. And had the technology been available when the American chestnut blight broke out in the early 1900s, say some, it might have saved the US chestnut tree from near extinction.

To critics, however, these newest members of the sylvan society are Frankentrees - potentially toxic mutants and harbingers of an age when Muir's "lordly monarchs" might be superseded by megatrees from the lab. And as China and Brazil experiment with genetically engineered pine cones and apple blossoms, the debate in America is spreading beyond the laboratory, the Ivory Tower, and the confines of experimental groves.

"We're looking at a very dramatic impact on the ground here in the US, and especially the South," says Alyx Perry, director of the Southern Forests Network in Asheville, N.C. "There are inevitable risks that can irreversibly alter native systems."

Watchdogs with leaves?
Commercial use of "transgenic" crops began here in the South when the first genetically engineered tobacco plant was planted in 1986, barely a decade after American scientists figured out how to cut and paste DNA segments to create everything from spider silk to glow-in- the-dark guppies.

Now, as the tinkerers take on the forests, the big question is less how to do it than whether it should be done. The South - America's fastest-growing pulp producer - is the most likely region for commercial use of the experimental trees. The US Department of Agriculture has received more than 100 applications for use of the trees. And even as some heavy paper users, such as Kinko's, pledge not to use their products, the technology is taking root:

* The UN has approved use of genetically engineered trees that take in more carbon than normal trees, and so help to offset industrial emissions.
* Hawaiian officials have approved pest-resistant papaya trees in response to infestations that nearly wiped out native populations. The new class of trees has already provided a critical economic boost.
* The Department of Defense has ordered research into arboreal warning systems - for instance, trees with foliage designed to change color in reaction to a biochemical attack.

Blowing in the wind
Unlike altered crops such as soybean and wheat, genetically engineered trees are surrounded by their wild cousins. One worry is that the seeds of the experimental trees will take root amid wild populations, changing the aesthetics of the woods. But scientists caution that doesn't mean a slow incursion of the new breed: Trees, the ultimate survivalists, will express only those genes that are necessary for their longevity. "When they escape, the [new genetic material] may act differently or it may not express at all," says Jim Hemrick, a tree-genetics expert at the University of Georgia in Athens.

That's small comfort to critics, who say industry representatives seem more concerned with addressing public-relations issues - key to approval of the technology for commercial use - than confronting the ethical side of tampering with the lungs of the world. Many were outraged when scientists began keeping the locations of their experimental groves secret, in response to activists' attacks on genetically engineered plots in Oregon a few years ago.

Conservation and recycling of paper products, these environmentalists say, are the safest routes to protecting forests. "Regardless of all the problems with agri-crops, [tree geneticists are] saying, let's do this with trees, which live for hundreds of years. What are they thinking?" asks Anne Petermann, codirector of the Global Justice Ecology Project in Hinesburg, Vt.

Hey - that's not your pollen
Aside from the potential environmental impact, the trees could also have an impact on commercial uses of the wood. If some of the softer trees, bred for pulp production, were to show up on timber lands, for instance, saw mills could cut them unwittingly for use as lumber, then find out they're too soft to be turned into usable boards.

But perhaps a more essential question is this: Who owns the trees, and who can claim the products of engineered seeds that drift into the wild? As companies produce the trees and use their products, they want to make sure that drifting seeds don't get used by other interests. Already, more than 100 "gene drift" lawsuits have been brought over various farm crops by companies such as Monsanto, and a similar phenomenon is expected with engineered trees.

"This brings up the issue of intellectual property rights of life forms, and that gets into a whole other can of worms," says Brad Hash, a board member at the Native Forest Network in Missoula, Mont. "You could have loggers and private landowners who would not have ownership to the organisms on their own property."

To opponents of the engineered trees, it's not just the world's forests, but the marvel and culture surrounding them, that hang in the balance - and many on both sides are recommending caution. "It's good to be conservative," says Mr. Hemrick at the University of Georgia. "It's good to have people reminding us that a worst-case scenario could happen. But it's fairly unrealistic that we'll get a disaster."

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The Biotechnology Debate

- Dr S K Bhadra, Daily Star (Bangladesh), December 2, 2004 http://www.thedailystar.net/2004/12/01/d41201020529.htm

The debate on merits and demerits of the use of transgenic crops in our country first started in 1998 and in the last five years quite a good number of commentary articles written by scientists, journalists and NGO workers appeared in our national and regional dailies. Very recently Nazrul Islam has expressed his view on the possible disaster that may arise with the introduction of biotechnology in our agriculture ('The Biotechnology Trap,' The Daily Star, 1st Nov. 2004). According to him the experts incluwding technocrats and decision makers of our country are working in favour of some multinational companies (MNCs) and for that only they are arguing for introduction of biotechnology in our agriculture.

In this perspective I like to mention here some points. It is true that every technology has merits as well as demerits. But only the judicious application of a technology can bring its benefit for us. Atomic energy in the form of atom bomb is catastrophic but we cannot ignore the benefits human society received with the peaceful uses of atomic energy. Only in agriculture sector a good number of crop varieties have been developed with the use of radiation, which are widely used even in our country. So we cannot put any straight negative comment on the application of biotechnology in our agriculture.

Biotechnology as such is a vast subject and GMO technology (Genetic Engineering) is only a part of it. In his article Islam has focused the only possible adverse effects of the introduction of GM crops in Bangladesh. Our country is densely populated and we must hunt for new technology that can help us in solving our food and nutrition problem. In this process there is no scope of ignoring our farmers' interest. Yes, our farmers are very poor and we must take care of their interest and not the interest of MNCs. And it is the responsibility of our national agricultural institutes such as Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute to see our national interests related to agriculture. I believe our decision making body includes the experts from such institutes.

Islam has pointed out the negative impact of the introduction of green revolution and biotechnology in agriculture. Is it so? Was it possible to feed the increased population if the high yielding varieties of crops particularly of rice and wheat were not developed or introduced and acclimatised. For example, according to one estimate, global rice production must reach 800 million from 585 million in 2003 to meet the demand in 2025. And the agricultural scientists are looking for adoption of both conventional and high technologies to reach this goal. In the mean time the plant breeders and physiologists at IRRI outlined a new plant type (NPT) and advanced significantly.

Improving nutritional quality of rice has been identified as one food-based approach to remedy nutritional deficiencies prevailing in large parts of the developing world. In this context, the genetically modified golden rice, engineered to contain the vitamin A precursor B-carotene in the endosperm, has been celebrated as a biotechnological breakthrough. Further it has been identified that exploiting the genetic diversity and the associated nutritional properties of autochthonous land races provides an option for addressing nutrition-related health hazards. So it is important to identify the problem and then to solve it with integrated approach. There are convincing examples that the application of biotechnology in conjunction with conventional techniques have yielded promising results.

It has been pointed out that the introduction of green revolution has come from the idea of commercialisation of agriculture. But so far report goes without green revolution it was not possible to feed the increased population of the world. Even if we look at our neighbouring country, India the picture becomes clear. It is only through green revolution India turned to be a self-sufficient/food surplus country from a deficit one. And the credit goes to the eminent scientist, Dr MS Swaminathan, for green revolution in India.

It is true that famine or starvation of poor people is not only related to total food production but also to uneven distribution of food. It is a different issue and government policy needs to be reoriented for that. But to feed increased population, our food production must be increased and here lies the development of efficient technology.

Islam has expressed his dread that with the introduction of biotechnology in our agriculture there will be further genetic erosion in our traditional crops as the farmers will concentrate more on monoculture. Biotechnological devices, on the contrary, offers opportunity of widening genetic diversity as mutation breeding does. Here the decision makers need to direct the authorities concerned to frame laws and programmes for conservation of the land races and widening genetic diversity. It is pertinent to mention here that recently made global treaty on sharing plant genes as ratified by 55 countries, has come into force. This can be considered a milestone in the context of upholding farmers' right and conservation of land races.

It has been presumed that if GM crops are introduced our farmers will have to purchase its seeds at every sowing time. It has also been mentioned that such crop seeds are unable to produce their true types and therefore it is non-renewable. This is not true as in case of our major crops such as rice, wheat, pulses (self pollinated crops) once a variety is developed either through hybridisation or transgenesis, that can be maintained by the farmers. Only in case of hybrid variety (still such variety has notw been released in Bangladesh in case of self pollinated crops such as rice or pulses) seeds need to be provided at every sowing time. Even in case of self pollinated crops such as brinjal and tomato it is very easy to supply hybrid seeds to the farmers as a single pollination can yield hundreds of seeds.

In Bangladesh at this stage the question of using of pesticide and herbicide resistant variety is not very important. We must concentrate on the development and release of improved varieties only in terms of yield, quality and disease resistant. With regard to the trial of Bt cotton in India it may be pointed out that the experiments are still in progress and the results received so far are different depending upon environment. In such experiments genotype-environment interaction cannot be ignored. And I know many scientists in India are now engaged in development of insect resistant cotton varieties by modification of genetic system through transgenesis.

Islam has rightly mentioned the allergic and toxic effect of some GM foods. Any GM crop before release in a country needs to be screened both at field and laboratory for testing its suitability in terms of its performance and quality. Even in case of many naturally existing field crops such as grass pea (Khesari) toxic substance has been reported and it is only through genetic manipulation necessary correction has been done. It is therefore important to concentrate on the proper and judicious application of biotechnology in our agriculture. Without depending only on foreign countries if we evolve new varieties ourselves as per our need then there will be no question. And in this connection we need to initiate collaborative research programmes with International Agricultural Research Institutes such as IRRI, ICRISAT, ICARDA rather than allowing MNCs to sell their seeds.

A positive sign is that a number of young and energetic scientists having good research experience in the field of Genetic Engineering are now engaged in research in different Institutes and Universities of Bangladesh. I believe they are very careful and capable to meet our national need with judicious application of biotechnology in our agriculture. Our scientists and decision makers will do their duties in the interest of our country and not in favour of MNCs. They will plan our national programmes in such a way that our farmers' rights are uphold and our environment is not polluted with any undesirable genetic contamination.

We must admit that we cannot sit idle without justifying the application of this technology in agriculture, which has already been accepted in the field of medicine and industry even in our country.

--
Dr S K Bhadra is Professor, Department of Botany, University of Chittagong, Bangladesh

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The Need to Increase Public Engagement in Science

- David Dickson, Scidev.net, November 30, 2004

There are inevitable limitations on the extent to which the public can become usefully involved in determining how science should be carried out. But that doesn't mean that demands for greater public involvement should be rejected.

How far should the public be directly involved in the work of scientists? In the distant past, when science was essentially a curiosity-led pursuit carried out by talented amateurs using their own funds, the question was largely irrelevant. Even today, there are many who still stick to the conviction that scientists should be left to get on with their work unimpeded by the public's view of their work. As a recent correspondent to Nature put it succinctly, "science, like art, is not a democratic activity. You do not decide by referendum whether the Earth goes around the sun".*

There is substantial logic behind this point of view. The fact that modern science — particularly the research carried out in universities and government laboratories — is paid for out of public funds means that the public has a legitimate interest both in what research priorities are pursued, and what results emerge. But that does not necessarily mean that the public also has an interest in the precise strategies pursued by scientists to obtain these results as effectively as possible.

Furthermore, where public values are allowed to impinge directly on the ways that scientists work, the results are not always beneficial. Take, for example, research using embryonic stem cells. Countries that outlaw such research for essentially religious reasons — namely that allowing the destruction of a fertilised human ovum is equivalent to endorsing abortion — are deliberately choosing to cut off work that could have important applications across a range of medical conditions.

Despite such objections, however, those who demand a greater democratic control of science, in both developed and developing countries, have a stronger case than their critics are frequently prepared to admit. The challenge facing policymakers is not to find ways of heading off such demands. Rather it is to develop ways of incorporating them into the mechanisms by which science is managed, while simultaneously ensuring that the intellectual imagination that scientists require to operate effectively is allowed to flourish.

Read on at http://www.scidev.net/Editorials/index.cfm?fuseaction=readEditorials&itemid=138&language=1


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