Today in AgBioView Weekend from www.agbioworld.org : Dec. 4, 2004
* Eat Up! Why GM "Frankenfood" is Gaining Ground
* World Hunger Unnoticed
* Transgenic Trees and Legal Issues
* Monsanto's Chief Sees the Future of Biotech in Our Back Yard
* Multiple Viewpoints on GM Foods
* Germany: New Law on Gene Crops a 'De-Facto Ban'
Eat Up! Why Genetically Modified "Frankenfood" Is Gaining Ground
- Jay Palmer, Barron's, Dec. 2004 , Full story at http://online.barrons.com/article/SB110212079813090913.html?mod=b_this_weeks_magazine_main
The farm has been in the family for 134 years, ever since it was started by Bart Ruth's great-great-great grandfather soon after the Civil War. But for all the history and tradition leached into the soil, there's nothing old-fashioned about the crop he grew this past year. This 1,500-acre spread in east-central Nebraska, some 90 miles west of Omaha, was planted with corn and soybeans that had been genetically modified to be more resistant to pests, insects and disease.
Ruth likes the result of his high-tech plantings, part of the estimated 110 million acres planted with genetically modified seeds in the U.S. this year -- 12% of the nation's total.
"The seed costs a bit more to buy," he explains. "But I have been able to cut way back on spraying insecticides and weed control -- and I don't have to till the land so often or so much. I use less water for irrigation, my costs are lower and the crop yield per acre is higher."
Some more subtle improvements are also evident around Ruth's farm: "There are more quail and rabbits in the hedgerows, and there are many more cardinals and songbirds around the house," he says.
To some, Ruth and his family epitomize the promise of 21st-century agriculture, a high-tech future in which bioengineered plants may indeed be very friendly to the environment and to man: They should require fewer herbicides and pesticides, and allow for huge reductions in water irrigation. At the same time, these new plants can be nutritionally enhanced with extra proteins and vitamins to help combat malnutrition worldwide.
And that's just over the next few years. Within the next decade or two, we might reap the benefits of cheap, farm-grown pharmaceuticals; lawns that need to be cut only twice a year; flowers with different scents and new colors; nonaddictive and zero-nicotine tobacco; quick-growing trees that produce cheap, high-quality paper; and vegetables that are bigger, taste better and are more healthful.
If some researchers hit pay dirt, we may also in time benefit from crops that gather and remove air and soil pollutants -- or see farms that "grow" plastics and petroleum.
While that vision scares some people -- critics blast the altered crops as dangerous "Frankenfood" -- the opposition appears to be gradually letting up as the benefits of genetic modification become clearer. That's especially so in Europe, long the center of opposition. Earlier this year, the European Union finally eased regulations that had effectively banned all genetically modified organisms from the Continent.
If the momentum continues, as now seems likely, the economic and financial implications could be considerable. St. Louis-based Monsanto, the global leader in genetically modified commercial crops, would be a clear beneficiary. Swiss rival Syngenta could also get a lift. So could a host of smaller, private companies, some of which may eventually sell stock to the public. At the same time, big, established food companies that have been reluctant to back genetic modification, either directly or as customers,
The field is already growing briskly. Since the first commercial genetically modified seeds became available in 1994, biotech-crop acreage has soared worldwide, to more than 167 million acres in 2003. It expanded by 15%, or 22 million acres, last year alone and may repeat that growth rate this year. All of which makes genetic modification one of the most quickly adopted innovations in the history of agriculture, outpacing the emergence of animal-drawn plows, and the rise of tractors in the 1930s.
But the genetic manipulation of crops, like many new sciences in the past, is likely to continue to provoke controversy. And the polarized reactions to its development have pitted government against government, rich against poor and scientific fact against, for the most part, not-very-scientific scaremongering.
The truth is, the critics' case is losing force. To a large degree, the effort to stigmatize genetically modified foods has become a social movement aimed at protecting us from vague, unproven and still theoretical dangers. Even though basic DNA is common and identical in all species on Earth, activist groups insist that there is something utterly unnatural and wrong about moving a gene from one plant to another, let alone from an animal to a plant. It opens, critics maintain, a Pandora's box of potential
"Genetic engineering is one of those technologies that could compromise the integrity of life as we know it," write Laura and Robin Ticciati, founders of Mothers for Natural Law, an anti-modification group funded partially by U.S. organic-food supermarkets and businesses like Wild Oats and Whole Foods. "It is probably the largest nutritional experiment the world has ever seen, and we are the guinea pigs."
Such outrage has often proved effective -- even when it shouldn't have. A year ago, Greenpeace and other groups opposed to genetic modification persuaded the government of Zambia to reject 20,000 metric tons of U.S. food aid for famine relief on the grounds that the U.S.-grown, genetically modified crops were dangerous. The Lusaka government also worried that seeds of the modified corn might be planted and spread to contaminate the country's existing crop plantings. The point became moot, however, when hun
In the U.S., the opposition is led largely by activist groups, including both Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. They take the view that the health risks of genetically modified plants outweigh such environmental benefits as water conservation and reduced use of herbicides. But the sharpest criticisms have come from Europe, in part, perhaps, because the mishandling of the mad-cow-disease outbreak shook consumers' faith in government food-safety regulations. Fears about genetic modification have also served as< a convenient excuse to limit U.S. grain imports.
A number of corporations have been listening to the warnings. Heinz and the Gerber unit of Novartis both say they don't accept genetically modified products for their baby foods, while Procter & Gamble's Iams pet-food unit bans them from its kibble and General Mills says its cereals are free of modified foods. PepsiCo's Frito Lay, Britain's Marks & Spencer and Japan's Kirin Brewery all prohibit genetically modified products. Both McDonald's and Burger King announced in 2000 that they would not buy modified potatoes for their fryers. Tellingly, neither hamburger chain says much about the genetically modified corn inevitably consumed by the livestock used for their beef: Almost all corn used in animal feed in the U.S. is genetically modified to resist insects. These companies are all playing to the gallery.
Though their voices are often drowned out, the lobby in favor of modified food is making a greater effort to be heard -- and succeeding. Proponents point out that 10 years after the first plantings, all the dangers remain theoretical. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not found "a single adverse reaction to any biotech food."
Polls show that consumer opposition is decreasing markedly: The percentage of people who feel genetically modified foods are safe has increased to 30%, from 27% a year ago, according to a recent survey by the nonprofit and neutral Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.
And some powerful forces have lined up behind genetically modified food, including the United Nations, the Vatican, the American Medical Association and the Bush administration. President Bush has personally spoken up for genetically modified food, calling it good for humankind, and his FDA chief and surgeon general have also given the nod.
With the administration unlikely to change its stand, the Environmental Defense Fund, for one, has scaled back its opposition to focus on other issues. Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist for the New York City-based group, says she'd like to a see "a bit more regulation" -- genetically modified foods are regulated no differently from others. "But this is not as big a focus for us as it once was."
Meanwhile, a number of top scientists are backing the technology, including a panel of 20 Nobel Prize winners. Among them: Norman Borlaug, the man known as the father of the Green Revolution, the dramatic improvement in agricultural productivity that swept the globe in the 1960s.
"The anti-[genetic modification] furor is a monumental hoax," says Henry Miller of Stanford University's Hoover Institution and once the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. "The new biotechnology is no more than an improvement over what has been done for millennia. We have been moving genes across species for 40 years and all evidence suggests the risks are low. Claims that genetic modification is untested, underregulated and dangerous has become a big lie of current technophobia."
Indeed, with the exception of wild mushrooms and wild berries, virtually all fruits, vegetables and grains in our diets have been "genetically manipulated" to make them bigger, tastier and more appealing. In the late 19th century, Californian plant breeder Luther Burbank created more than 200 varieties of vegetables and fruits by mixing seeds during the plantings.
All of today's potatoes, tomatoes, corn, oats and rice are hybrids. Seed manufacturers often plant one strain of a crop next to another, allowing for an unnatural cross-fertilization; the resulting crops are typically much more bountiful. Red grapefruits, black currants, pumpkins, pea pods that remain closed and watermelons are all man-designed and man-created, as are all "seedless" grapes and other fruits.
The difference is that the old methods were hit-and-miss, with a dismal success rate. In labs, rather than planting fields, we can now do it better, thanks to the discovery in the 1950s that DNA carries genetic information and that specific genes can be associated with specific traits. Since all living creatures, plant and animal alike, share the same DNA building blocks, it became a matter of finding the technology to transfer useful genes in one organism to another.
The breakthroughs in the lab -- marking either scientific advances or new heights of human arrogance, depending on one's point of view -- came in the late 1980s. Today, labs around the world use either bacteria to transport the selected gene to its new location or a gene-gun -- quite literally, a mini .22-caliber shotgun -- to fire the new genes into the host plant, where they become permanently attached to its chromosome.
There is still an element of chance, since the gene transfer doesn't always take. Still, when it does, the new seeds can be put through multiple planting cycles, with researchers checking closely to ensure that the new, desired traits have been transferred.
"The beauty and power for bio-agriculture is that you can use all of the genes in nature for crop improvement," says Hugh Grant, the Scottish-born CEO of Monsanto. "You are not limited to just the genes of that species. The simple fact is that after 10 years, the most horrible thing that has happened from genetic manipulation of plants is that millions of pounds of pesticides have gone away, yields have gone up and farmers have made more profit."
In the U.S., Monsanto's genetic-modification efforts have been focused on just four big commercial crops -- corn, soybeans, canola and cotton. Its corn seeds have been engineered to contain a gene that produces a protein that kills the corn borer and the corn-rootworm larvae, the latter a pest that the Department of Agriculture has nicknamed the "billion-dollar bug" because of its estimated impact on U.S. farming revenues. The company's soybean and canola seeds are modified to be more herbicide-resistant, while its cotton plants can fight off bollworm infestations, boosting annual yields by 80%.
The company has experimented with other crops, too, including a potato resistant to the Colorado beetle; a golf-course grass that would require fewer herbicides and waterings; and genetically superior wheat, also herbicide resistant. This last venture had appeared to be on a fast track for regulatory approval when, in May, Monsanto abruptly ended it, at least for now. Part of the reason was that farmers are growing less wheat and Americans are not quite ready for a genetically modified crop used primarily as human food -- nor would they be at ease with any wholesale tampering with our "amber waves of grain."
"As Monsanto continues adding new traits to crops, traits that will bring direct health benefits to consumers, I think opposition to [genetically modified crops] could fade," says Kevin McCarthy of Banc of America Securities. "The company's pipeline contains exciting product that could easily add $10 or more of value to the shares."
Other companies in the field, such as Syngenta -- formed by the merger of units of drug giants Novartis and AstraZeneca -- and DuPont's relatively small Pioneer Hi Bred biotech subsidiary, also offer pest-resistant corn and cotton seeds. And they are working on everything from tomatoes that could help fight prostate cancer to rice modified to contain a daffodil gene that increases levels of vitamin A; according to the World Health Organization, 500,000 children a year now go blind annually because of vitam
In all, the top 10 companies in the field are spending more then $3 billion annually on research and development -- and that's not counting the billions spent by universities, government and other nonprofits.
Much of the nascent industry is taking shape in Monsanto's backyard, in St. Louis. The city is home to both the Danforth Plant Science Center, one of the world's leading nonprofit research centers for genetically modified rice, cassava and tomatoes, and the Nidus Center, an incubator of startup companies seeking expertise in genetic modification and the requisite funding. Over five years, Nidus has accepted only 14 of 400 companies seeking help. "We are very selective," explains Robert Calcaterra, boss of the operation. Of the 14, he says, "three have graduated, three have failed and the rest are works in progress."
Companies now in the Nidus stable, which are required to relocate to St. Louis, are exploring pharmaceutical proteins in tobacco, crop infestations, RNA human viruses, plant production of human proteins and even cancer detection. Most aim to go public, although the offerings could still be several years away. Meanwhile, products continue to emerge from both research centers and universities.
Researchers in India, for instance, have developed a potato that contains half again as much protein as normal, while a Belgian scientist has created a banana that's resistant to a deadly airborne fungus called Black Sigatoka, which wiped out this basic crop in Uganda in 2002. And a Japanese company has inserted a carrot gene into eucalyptuses so they can flourish in acid soil.
All those crops are needed if Thomas Robert Malthus -- the British economist who predicted in 1798 that unchecked population growth will always exceed the growth of food supply -- is to be proved wrong. The world today produces twice as much grain as it did in 1960, on only a third more land, yet the harvest still falls short of demand, and an estimated 840 million people, or 13% of the world population, are still chronically malnourished, most of them in developing nations.
That's why the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization says genetically modified plants are essential to the future of the planet. In one of the most sweeping endorsements ever of the new technologies, the organization issued a report last spring calling for more support of genetically modified plants, particularly for drought-resistant strains to offset threatened water shortages.
Jacques Diouf, the director general of the organization, agrees with activists that in order to meet U.N. targets of halving hunger by 2015, genetically modified crops aren't necessary. After that, however, the situation changes. Diouf argues that modified crops will be essential to feed a world population that will rise to nearly 10 billion in 2050, up from 6.4 billion now. "There will have to be a second Green Revolution," he says.
Right now, most farming of genetically modified crops is concentrated in just six countries: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China and South Africa and, most of all, the U.S. In the U.S., the latest numbers suggest, genetically modified varieties account for 85% of all soybean plantings, 45% of all corn and 76% of all cotton.
But the use of such seeds is spreading rapidly elsewhere. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a not-for-profit group that promotes genetic modification, nearly seven million farmers now plant genetically modified crops in more than 16 countries, with the fastest growth occurring in developing nations. Though the new seeds can cost up to 50% more, farmers are evidently finding that those up-front costs are offset by improved yields, labor savings and othe
Signs that opposition is fading are showing up around the world. The Philippines recently joined the ranks of countries allowing modified seeds to be sown. So did Brazil -- although Brazilian farmers had for years been illegally importing modified seeds from nearby Argentina. And Thailand, whose major crop-export market is the European Union, hints it will shortly allow the plantings.
Even Spain, Germany, Bulgaria and Romania now allow some. So, as of May, does Britain, where Minister for the Environment Elliot Morley went on record as saying that a number of recent studies arguing against the technology were "junk science." The European Union in April eased its five-year-old regulations that had effectively banned the import of any genetically manipulated crops -- or foods made containing them. Restrictions on planting modified crops were also eased.
The first crops have yet to be planted in quantity and make their way to supermarket shelves in Europe. And even when they get there, the fighting won't end: The products will have to carry prominent labels stating that the contents have been genetically modified, and activists promise to make life difficult for any supermarket chain carrying the products.
It may take more time, but modified crops seem sure to catch on. "The critical point to remember is that we are at a very early stage in the cycle of [genetic-modification] technology," says Robert Fraley, Monsanto's chief technology officer. "It's rather like the electronics industry in the 'Sixties. We knew everything there was to know about moving electrons around, but the best thing we could build was the transistor radio. But there was no quick way to go from there to cell phones, personal computers and plasma TVs. Likewise, genetic modification is going to change the way we grow crops and produce food, deliver health care and get our resources. We are at the beginning of a new era."
If supporters like Bart Ruth, the Nebraska farmer, have any say, there may soon be more songbirds in the hedgerows, too.
World Hunger Unnoticed
- William C. Thiesenhusen, The Capital Times & Wisconsin State Journal, Dec. 3, 2004
We are admonished to "eat our way through the holidays" at the same time we are reminded that obesity is a critical U.S. health problem.
On the other hand, in the Third World undernourished infants and mothers is the No. 1 health issue. When people are hungry, they also tend to lack proper sanitation, live in poverty, don't have educational opportunities and are not healthy. This ominous quintet of problems is the essence of underdevelopment.
The United Nations estimates the number of undernourished people in the world at 840 million, with 30 million in transitional countries, those formerly in the sphere of the Soviet Union, and 799 million in the Third World. The most serious cases are in sub- Saharan Africa and in South Asia and in refugee camps and war zones. But most less developed countries have pockets of poverty where under-nutrition runs rampant.
Remarkably, 70 percent of the malnourished live in rural areas where there should be abundant food. But farm people in the Third World often live on the edge.
We in developed countries have a big stake in the Third World hunger problem. People in this situation are being denied a basic human right.
Also, we think of ourselves as compassionate people who abhor suffering. and are willing to help. Areas of under-nourishment often are breeding grounds for extremism, local chaos, and terrorism. A major problem is that through war, we treat only a symptom - and war itself will make the hunger problem more acute. Yet during the recent campaigns, neither presidential candidate mentioned the hunger issue - and there was scant reference to poverty in the Third World and its relationship to terrorism.
In 1996 the United States joined with the UN in pledging to halve the incidence of poverty and hunger in the world by 2015. When he assumed office in 2000, President Bush repeated this promise. But recently a UN commission studying the matter concluded that because of a lack of financing the vast majority of Third World governments would be lucky to achieve half of this goal.
In addition, as population grows and more food is demanded, forests are cut and the environment is damaged. An alternative would be to produce more food on fewer acres with the help of technology.
What else can be done?
* Developed countries should, with the help of the World Trade Organization, arrive at a fairer system of administering trade barriers and subsidies so they do not hurt the world's poor.
* More research should be done on crops that Africa grows, since that continent was overlooked by the green revolution.
* More help should be available so that subsistence farmers can earn a decent living.
* Community groups should organize so that they can better utilize the help of humanitarian groups and engage in more community self-help efforts. And we can do our part by supporting qualified groups. Good ones are listed in InterAction.org.
* To help small farmers, land reform is often necessary together with improved access to productive inputs.
* Research in genetically modified crops should continue, as should their accessibility to small-scale farmers.
* Food aid is especially necessary in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, the Darfur region of Sudan and the refugee camps in Chad and Uganda.
As for all of us, we should keep educating ourselves on this issue and urge our congress people to do the same.
Thiesenhusen, of Fitchburg, is emeritus professor of applied and agricultural economics, UW-Madison.
Transgenic Trees and Legal Issues
- Drew Kershen
In an article published in the Charlotte (N.C.) News & Observer on November 30, 2004, Professor Claire G. Williams (Environment & Earth Sciences, Duke University) posed questions and provided answers about genetically modified pine forests. In her article, she called for open dialogue on the issues she raised. One question in particular addressed legal issues – legal liability for pollen flow and intellectual property rights. I respond to participate in the open dialogue. I begin by printing in full the one question to which I am responding.
> “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.”
Although I am not a forest agronomist or scientist, I think it is important to talk about the magnitude of the pollen flow that Professor Williams raises.
Trees do produce massive quantities of pollen. Every tree! Hence, the transgenic pine trees, while producing massive amounts of pollen, will be competing with the massive amounts of pollen from every other pine tree. Moreover, from other studies about pollen flow, the basic fact is that the vast amount of pollen travels a relatively short distance. Hence, the amount of pollen dispersing very far is thus at an even more competitive disadvantage in fertilizing a seed in competition with the massive amounts of locally-derived pollen.
Even if the wandering pollen fertilizes a seed, the seed itself is but one of many, many seeds that compete for germination once the seed falls to the ground. Most seeds do not germinate.
When one takes into account the distance pollen flows, fertilization rates, and germination rates, transgenic pollen spread to non-transgenic pine trees is likely to be very low, even for other pine trees that are short distances away. Of course, these comments I have made should be the subject of agronomic studies. Companies seeking regulatory approval for transgenic trees will assuredly be required to provide information on pollen flow issues. Forest scientists too should be encouraged to do studies on pollen-flow.
I also think it important to realize that those who are working on transgenic trees, particularly those with a commercial interest in protecting intellectual property rights in transgenic trees, have an incentive to devise scientific answers to protect their property rights in the valuable traits. Companies may work to develop transgenic trees that produce little pollen so that the tree grows for the lumber quality rather than the pollen quantity. Companies may even create sterile trees because the company may think it best to use laboratory clones to replace harvested trees. Trees from clones may be a better quality genetically than trees from pollen-fertilized seeds. With companies having an incentive to devise scientific answers to pollen-flow as an additional factor above and beyond the probably low-success of pollen flow ordinarily, the significance of pollen-flow, with regard to its impact of neighboring trees in private or public forests, may be almost nonexistent.
Turning to the issues of ownership and intellectual property rights, I have written an article entitled “Of Straying Crops and Patent Rights,” 43 WASHBURN L. J. 575-610 that discusses these issues with regard to crops. My conclusion is that the inadvertent presence of patented plants and seeds on farmers’ lands is very unlikely to give rise to a viable patent infringement claim by the patent holder. [I should add that Professor Norman Siebrasse, University of New Brunswick, has published two articles that reach conclusions very similar to those I reached, although he provides a different, persuasive explanation.] While I am subject to correction based on the studies of pollen flow for particular species of trees, I have not thought of any obvious reasons why the intellectual property laws as applied to crops (patents and plant variety certificates for both non-transgenic and transgenic crops) should not apply as well and easily to those trees (transgenic and non-transgenic) covered by intellectual property rights.
Moreover, even if forest owners were to be subject to infringement claims, these claims are unlikely to come to the forefront for ten to twenty years after transgenic forests are planted. Forest owners do not sell the seed as the harvest; they sell the lumber as the harvest. Hence, our discussion is focused on an issue most likely to arise in the intermediate future, as opposed to the present or immediate future. By then companies, lumber mills, and neighbors may well have made arrangements for an Australian-style collection of royalties – point-of-harvest payment.
The envisioned scenario works as follows. The forest owner brings in trees for milling. Tests are quickly and efficiently performed to determine whether a particular tree is from stock (transgenic or non-transgenic) covered by intellectual property rights. If the test shows an affirmative response, the mill company deducts an agreed royalty from the sale price of that particular tree. As the tree owner probably benefited from the transgenic or non-transgenic trait – such as an insect-resistant tree that grew more quickly and better quality wood, or a tree that grew with increased usable lingnin for paper-manufacture,– the owner would pay for a trait from which the owner benefited.
Owners should not expect to be free riders on technology developed by others and for which other forest owners have paid when they purchased saplings (transgenic or non-transgenic) for their forests. Indeed, most commercial pine-farmers purchase improved seedlings from nurseries, not depending upon open pollination for their tree crop, and would pay a royalty for the improved tree at the time of sapling purchase.
In other words, patent infringement issues have two likely answers. Patent infringement will not exist for inadvertent presence. If royalties come into play, royalties may become a point-of-harvest payment negotiated between holders of intellectual property rights, forest owner associations, and lumber mills. While discussions of intellectual property laws are always worthwhile, there appears to be nothing in present law that should be considered overly worrisome.
Thus far I have focused my discussion on intellectual property rights in trees. I turn now briefly to any legal liability for the spread of transgenic trees from commercial farms to non-commercial forests like national or state forests. I have also written on this topic: “Legal Liability Issues in Agricultural Biotechnology” at http://www.nationalaglawcenter.org . This article presents the fullest exposition of my ideas.
While the spread is likely to occur at a very low level, those seeking to impose legal liability for the spread must prove damages. Proving damages worthy of a lawsuit may be difficult for two reasons. First, what is the definition of damages? Would a transgenic tree resistant to a blight that epidemically killed trees, if the resistant tree spread to a national or state forest, be a form of environmental damage? Defining what is or is not environmental damage will be a difficult issue. Second, if the spread of a transgenic tree to a national or state forest was undesired, forest managers would most likely be interested in the removal of the tree. Forest managers may be more interested in a regulatory approach requiring the removal of the tree than a lawsuit seeking damages. If the tree is properly and promptly removed, the likelihood that transgenic trees would give rise to large verdicts for monetary damages seems unlikely.
For the reasons just stated, I have the first impression that the likelihood of significant legal liability from transgenic trees is a not great. I have not thought of any obvious reason why transgenic trees should pose more legal liability than transgenic crops. As my article cited above explains, transgenic crops that have obtained regulatory approval have not created any significant legal liability. Discussions about legal liability are certainly worthwhile but, like transgenic crops, transgenic trees are not likely to create new, different legal liability issues or to create significant risks of legal liability.
Drew L. Kershen, Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law, University of Oklahoma Collage of Law
Ownership of Biotech Trees
- Bob MacGregor
If seeds or pollen from GM trees spread to neighbouring properties, would resulting trees growing there still be under patent protection when they were ready for harvest in 30 to 50 years?
Monsanto's Chief Sees the Future of Biotech in our Back Yard
- Linda Tucci St. Louis Post-Dispatch Dec. 3, 2004
'Hugh Grant stresses the importance of educating the kids who'll grow into tomorrow's leader.'
Monsanto Co. has been transformed from a chemical maker of blockbusters, such as the world's most widely used herbicide, Roundup, to a creator of genetically modified seeds. But the new products give environmentalists pause, especially in Europe.
Last year, the company put Hugh Grant in charge. Trained in molecular biology and business administration, the soft-spoken yet passionate Scot seems ideally suited to explain this technology to a doubting public.
Last month in New York City, between his meetings with the financial community, we talked about the perceptions and realities of genetic modification.
QUESTION: What's the bigger challenge: making advances in biotech crops or convincing skeptics of their value?
ANSWER: I think they are two sides of the same coin. Next spring, we will see our 10th year of planting biotech crops in the U.S. We'll probably pass the billionth acre. So, from the perspective of acceptance or adoption, I think we're well down the path. Today in the U.S., 85 to 90 percent of soybeans are biotech, about half the corns and about 60 percent of the cotton.
Q: Which costs more?
A: We are spending $1.5 million a day on research. So, that's where the lion's share of our total costs are, in research and development and the advances in our pipeline. One concern is that resistance to Roundup could spread from genetically modified seeds. The chances of that happening between corn and weed species are very low. . . . If we met here 10 years ago, I think it would be a much more valid question, because it was completely unknown. But after 25 years of testing, these are the most widely tested food products the world has ever seen.
Q: You're convinced that we can live with the risk?
A: You tell me something that bears no risk. I would never say there's no risk. And companies don't make that judgment. Companies make the recommendations, but at the end of the day, they're validated in the U.S. by the EPA, the FDA and the USDA. In Europe, it's validated by similar organizations.
Q: A paranoid environmentalist might look at your genetically modified crops that are resistant to Roundup as a business strategy to introduce a new herbicide that would be patent-protected. Is that a realistic scenario?
A: It's too Machiavellian. . . . We're spending about $500 million a year, 80-plus percent, entirely on seeds and biotech, and the remaining 15 to 20 percent we spend on process chemistry and formulation improvements for Roundup. So, we don't spend a cent on new chemistry. Our view of the world is . . . that improving human agriculture probably isn't about other chemicals; it's about improving yield through better seed. So, finding that next chemical, I can guarantee you, wouldn't be us. That's not where we're placing the bets.
Q: Where are you placing your bets?
A: We are a St. Louis company, and we are entirely dedicated to farmers. We don't have a food company. We don't have a drug company. We don't have a rich uncle somewhere else. If we disappoint farmers, we pay for that, literally. It's as simple as this: Every year, we need to help growers, not just in the U.S. but worldwide. We compete every year for a share of their pocketbook, and every year when the snow melts or the flood recedes, they decide how they're going to spend their money. And that's a new game every year. The weeds come every year. The bugs come most years, not every year.
And then once the farmer does those basics, the question is, can he add value? If you're a little farmer in Asia . . . here's the hierarchy: feed my children, feed myself, feed my chickens, trade. If I have anything left, I sell it for money. If you make a mistake in Asia, your kids go hungry. You go hungry. You don't feed your chickens. You've got no money to trade. You make a mistake in the Midwest, you disappoint the bank.
Q: What about the socio-political ramifications of biotech seed?
A: Our guess is that in the next 15 to 20 years, we need to grow yields by about 30 percent on the acreage that we have today. You have to make acreage go further; that's just the hard reality. I think improving the seed is one way of doing it.
Q: You are a scientist.
A: I used to be.
Q: Did the scientific training prepare you for your job?
A: Science alone isn't enough. What we've learned the hard way, this is a dialogue. There is a communication here that is half-science and . . . half-societal.
Q: Maybe you've taken a course in public relations.
A: No. You need good science, and that's a starting point. Great communication and lousy science has got a predictable outcome. Great science and lousy communication has got a predictable outcome. So, you need the science, but you need more than that.
Q: Civic leaders have pinned their hopes on an agricultural BioBelt initiative centered in St. Louis. How is this going?
A: I think it's going well, but these things take time.
Q: What advantages does St. Louis have over the East and West coasts?
A: If you drew a radius of 400, maybe 500, miles from St. Louis, you've got 50 percent of U.S. agriculture inside that circle. Everybody claims to be the heartland. St. Louis is the heart of the heartland. In our back yard, we have the agriculture. And here in the city, we have some of the best technology in the world at the moment.
Q: Who else is the big competition?
A: In the last four or five years, I've seen coming through the offices here representatives from Thailand, from Singapore, from South Africa. They were the ministers of education, so they are not really here to talk about Monsanto; they're here talking about the curriculum redesign for 12- to 14-year-old kids. They're looking at how to revamp their curriculum in middle school to increase the studying in biology, biotechnology and biochemistry. Sometimes there's a myopia, where St. Louis says the competition is Boston or San Diego. I believe the competition is Shanghai, Bangalore, Cambridge.
So, the competition is who best can educate the next generation. I believe that very firmly. If today, we conceptually came up with a brilliant new biotech idea, the fastest we would have it in the field would be seven years from now. . . . If it takes seven years to develop a product, my belief is it takes at least seven years to develop a cohesive, brilliant new biotechnologist.
Hugh Grant: Chairman, president and chief executive of Monsanto Co.
Education: Bachelor of science in molecular biology and agricultural zoology from Glasgow University; post-graduate studies at Edinburgh University; master's in business administration from the International Management Centre in the United Kingdom.
Personal: Lives in Richmond Heights with his wife, Janice, and their three children.
Career: Joined the old Monsanto Co., 1981, in Scotland, working for 10 years with the agricultural business in European sales, product development and management; relocated to St. Louis as global strategy director of the agriculture division, responsible for Roundup herbicide, 1991; managing director of Asia-Pacific region, 1995; co-president of agriculture division, 1998; appointed president and chief executive of the new Monsanto Co., May 2003, and chairman, October 2003.
Multiple Viewpoints on GM Foods
- Crop Biotech Update, www.isaaa.org/kc
Public debate in Europe shows that rigorous assessments are necessary but not enough to gain social acceptance of agricultural biotechnology. Hence, the challenge is to identify prerequisites to introduce agri-biotech products in a manner that is broadly accepted in societies with various viewpoints. So says, ENTRANSFOOD, a European Commission-sponsored consortium. Taking the viewpoints of representatives from various sectors of society, ENTRANSFOOD, concluded that:
* Uncertainties related to GM foods are similar to the questions raised with regards health impact of other plant-derived foods. New molecular tools will help scientists better understand potential health impacts of all foods consumed.
* Assessments of gene transfer should compare the risk of transfer of modified genes from GM crops to microbes or human cells to the risk of a similar event occurring in nature. The risk assessment should focus on two factors: first, on the function of the transferred DNA in the recipient cell; and on whether the recipient cell may have acquired the same gene from a source other than the GM crop.
* Consumer trust is key and social scientists in the consortium highlighted that process-based labeling of all foods containing GM crops is one prerequisite to allay the fears of EU citizens. There was agreement, however, that there are difficulties in implementing the EU's labeling requirements.
For more information on ENTRANSFOOD’s discussion on combining multiple viewpoints on GM foods, visit http://www.eufic.org/gb/food/pag/food45/food454.htm.
Germany: New Law on Gene Crops a 'De-Facto Ban'
- Kristina Merkner, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Dec. 3, 2004
'Opposition and farmers say green biotechnology regulations make agricultural genetic engineering impossible'
A new law that takes effect next year will allow farmers to cultivate genetically modified organisms on German fields. A victory for farmers against Greenpeace, it seems. But farmers and plant breeders are not happy about the new law, which they say will actually keep farmers from exploiting the potential of gene splicing.
"In essential aspects, the law bears the handwriting of the Green coalition partner," said the managing director of Germany's association of plant breeders (BDP), Ferdinand Schmitz, referring to the Green party. "Its goal is to prevent genetic engineering. It's another setback for Germany as an innovative business location," Schmitz said.
The law on genetic engineering in agriculture, which parliament passed last Friday, was drafted by Agriculture Minister Renate Künast of the Green party. On paper, it allows the commercial cultivation of genetically modified organisms. In practice, however, little will change, since the risks to farmers are too high.
The law, which will take effect in January, entitles conventional farmers to claim compensation if their crops are contaminated by genetically modified organisms. Contamination takes place when conventional plants are pollinated from genetically modified crops in a nearby field. If the culprit cannot be identified, all non-conventional farmers in the area will be held liable. Since cross-pollination cannot be ruled out even if minimum distances are adhered to, the German Farmers' Association (DBV) fears that the regulations will keep German farmers from experimenting with genetically modified cultivation.
Genetically modified crops, which are resistant to herbicides, are common in other countries such as Argentina and the United States, where one-third of all corn crops are genetically modified. The only EU country that has already introduced commercial gene splicing is Spain, where around 20,000 hectares of modified corn are being cultivated.
In Germany, 60 percent of DBV's farmers have now said in a survey that the liability risk will keep them from cultivating genetically modified plants. At the same time, two-thirds of them said gene splicing was necessary to remain competitive. "As a consequence of the law, research and development activities will not be undertaken, which are necessary to examine the opportunities and risks of green biotechnology without prejudice," said DBV president Gerd Sonnleitner.
While the law was being drafted, he had suggested that farmers could not be held liable if they adhered to certain security standards and that conventional farmers would in such cases be compensated out of a common fund maintained by all farmers and plant breeders.
Schmitz said that German farmers will earn between €30 and €50 less per hectare if they stick to conventional plants. "There is also reason to fear that research and development activities will be relocated abroad."
Similar concerns had been voiced in the Bundesrat, the German parliamentary chamber representing the federal states. Baden-Württemberg's state premier, Erwin Teufel, called the law a "de-facto ban" on green biotechnology. The Bundesrat parliamentary chamber of state representatives also criticized the law, which aims to fulfill an EU directive calling for clear rules on the coexistence of genetically modified and conventional crops. The opposition Christian Democrats, which control the Bundesrat, said the government clearly overshot the mark since the law prevents rather than enables the coexistence of conventional and genetically modified crops in Germany.
But on Friday, the German parliament overturned the Bundesrat's decision to reject the law. Since the law does not directly concern the federal states, the Bundestag parliament was able to pass it without the consent of the Bundesrat. The federal state of Saxony-Anhalt has already said that it would take the law to the constitutional court, and the EU commission has voiced doubts that the law is in keeping with the underlying directive. A ray of hope for Schmitz, who is "confident that the last word on the law on genetic engineering has not been spoken."