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December 22, 2004


Member States failing to implement GM rules; New Year and a New Biotech Policy; Monsanto introduces triple trait tech; Farmers-experts talk touches on biotech support


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: December 22, 2004

* GM crops: Member States still failing to implement their own rules
* At last, a New Year and a New Biotech Policy!
* Monsanto introduces triple trait tech
* Farmers-experts talk touches on biotech support
* New Computer Program Predicts Mycotoxin Levels in Corn
* Green Group's Recruitment of Grade Schoolers Called 'Shameless'


GM crops: Member States still failing to implement their own rules

- EuropaBio Press Release, December 21, 2004 (Via Agnet)

Yesterday, the EU Council of Environment Ministers failed to reach a decision on a Commission proposal to approve the importation and feed use of GT73 GM oilseed rape in the EU. It has already been approved in other parts of the world. This oilseed rape is herbicide tolerant which provides farmers with a management tool to control weeds (1). Since the EU Ministers did not reach a qualified majority, the dossier will now be referred back to the European Commission for a final decision.

The biotech industry is concerned about the lack of political coherence between what the Member States agreed when they approved the new regulatory framework for GM crops and in what they do when it comes to approving these products. Despite the positive recommendations from the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), some Member States keep voting negatively or abstain from voting.

‘Member States are not facing up to their responsibilities,’ says Simon Barber, Director of the Plant Biotechnology Unit, EuropaBio the European association for bioindustries (2). ‘Members States are ignoring the very laws on GM crops that they and the European Parliament have set up over the past five years . As long as it remains like this, Member States are denying Europe’s farmers the choice to use a technology which can help them be competitive.’

The first commercial planting of GT73 was in 1996 in Canada. GT73 oilseed rape has since been approved in Australia, the United States, Mexico, the Philippines, Korea and Japan.

In the EU, oil derived from GT73 oilseed rape was approved for food use in 1997 under the EU’s Novel Food Regulation.

(1) The oil seed rape has been developed by Monsanto, a EuropaBio member company
EuropaBio Fact sheet on Gt 73: http://www.europabio.org/articles/article_327_EN.doc


At last, a New Year and a New Biotech Policy!

- BioSpectrum, December 16, 2004, By Dr. Shanthu Shantharam

At the outset, mighty congratulations are in order for the Union Minister of Science and Technology and Union Secretary of Biotechnology for putting together a task force to draft a critically needed national biotechnology policy. It was really unfortunate that the previous leadership at the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) never saw the need for such a policy even when the rest of the stakeholders in the nation's biotechnology development craved for one. No time must be lost by the task force to get down to work right earnestly. But, one cannot help but wonder how any task force can whip out a draft policy document in three months. For a monumental job like drafting a technology policy document for a country like India, one would need at least a year. This time, it must be done right and there should not be any hurry. After all, the DBT ran without a policy for more than a decade. What is one more year!

There has been huge cry for public participation in formulating the biotechnology policy and for a good reason. Biotechnology today is caught in a global whirlwind of controversies and emotional debates. Public acceptance of biotechnology will be the litmus test of any sound technology policy, and this taskforce must ensure it steadfastly. In order to ensure a meaningful public participation, it is necessary that the task force hold town hall style meetings (public hearings) in atleast half a dozen centers in the country and pro actively seek inputs by opening an interactive website for this purpose. The website must be updated daily and all the deliberations must be posted to make it completely transparent. In the end, the DRAFT policy must be posted for public comment for a finite period of time before finalizing it. All of this will take time and cannot be done in three months. The composition of the task force as it stands has very many eminent names and all of them are known to be extremely busy, and remains to be seen how much of quality time they can devote to this exercise in the next three months. The only way for them to do it is to devote their time fully to the task to the exclusion of other responsibilities. Is that realistically possible?

In any case, it is important for this task force to pay attention to some of the burning issues of biotechnology. The number one issue is the biotechnology regulatory policy. The task force has to push for an independent statutory regulatory body. DBT must completely get out of regulating any aspect of biotechnology as it is an agency that is in the business of promoting biotechnology to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. The second issue is technology development policy to promote public-private sector partnership and private investment in biotechnology development. Adjutant to the second issue is the policy on IPR in the context of WTO compliance. A pragmatic policy on IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) is the one in which there is a good measure of protection for really innovative and novel researches combined with benefit sharing commensurate with the amount of indigenous and traditional knowledge utilized. There must be a better way than what US or EU policies are on IPR. Third issue must be to tackle is the appalling standards of biotechnology education in the country. What is going on out there in the name of biotechnology education is a farce, and it must be set right forthwith. A biotechnology education council is one way in which to establish minimum standards for college level biotechnology education and curriculum. This council must be empowered to give accreditation to biotechnology programs and it must do away with undergraduate education in biotechnology altogether.

Perhaps, it is the time now to review the performance of various biotechnology taskforces that have dispensed research grants in the country as long as DBT has existed. The entire peer review system needs overhauling to ensure only high quality proposals get funded and only priority areas identified. Perhaps, it is also time to scrap the overseas science advisory committee of DBT whose contributions to the developmental biotechnology in the country is questionable. Because biotechnology is at the center of very many societal controversies, it is crucial that study section on social, ethical, legal and economic impacts of biotechnology be instituted. It would have been really beneficial if the biotech policy taskforce included a couple of social scientists. To support the biotechnology regulatory oversight body, it is equally important to set up a new study section on biotech risk assessment research on an ongoing basis. Three main task forces to cover agricultural, biomedical and environmental biotechnology should be considered as permanent pillars for future biotechnology policy development. No technology policy can be rigid much less biotechnology as it is a rapidly evolving field. One should be happy if a current policy regime can cover it for about ten years. A sound technology policy formulation supported by a proper infrastructure can be dearly costly. But, that is the only way to do it right. Happy New Year!


Monsanto introduces triple trait tech

- CropBiotech Update, December 22, 2004 (Via Agnet)

Monsanto Company will make available the first triple trait offering, YieldGard Plus with Roundup Ready Corn 2 technology, for 2005 season planting in the United States. The new product will offer corn growers in-seed protection against harmful corn insects and the flexibility of herbicide tolerance in one seed.

The latest technology provides corn growers both above and below the ground protection against Western and Northern corn rootworm larvae and the European corn borer, and weed control. Monsanto adds that corn growers have benefited from the flexibility and convenience of Roundup Ready and YieldGard and will now get more profits from its latest product.

More on this new technology from http://www.monsanto.com/ monsanto/layout/media/04/11-22-04.asp.

Farmers-experts talk touches on biotech support

- BusinessWorld, December 21, 2004

The strong campaign waged by biotechnology advocates to promote Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) corn has gained impetus after farmers in Mindanao and in many parts of Luzon confirmed their gains in cultivating Bt corn.

Promoting biotechnology has become a controversial issue in the Visayas after groups met in Cebu City last week and pledged to oppose the introduction of high-yielding and disease-resistant Bt corn.

Among the issues raised by farmers were the alleged low germination rate of Bt corn seeds and the reported occurrence of certain diseases in areas planted to the corn variety, which is a genetically modified organism (GMO).

Moreover, critics questioned the possible domination of the seeds and the GMO market by foreign corporations, particularly by transnationals like Monsanto.

However, experts like Dr. Emil Javier, a former president of the University of the Philippines, said that nurturing Bt corn would actually reduce dependence on imported and costly pesticides, which contains toxic compounds largely blamed for the incidence of disease in large plantations in Mindanao.

Mr. Javier said in the long run, farmers would benefit from biotechnology since GMOs will be less expensive than traditional varieties and the cost of producing them commercially would be much lower.

Dr. Saturnina Halos of the Department of Agriculture-Biotechnology Advisory Team (BAT), noted that some quarters have even alleged that the lobby against Bt corn was being encouraged by foreign companies that may lose a big market if Bt corn were promoted nationwide.

Once the disease-resistant Bt corn becomes industry standard, they said, there would be no need for pesticides since the variety contains genes that are resistant to Asiatic corn borers, which produce the molds in corn ears that harbor aflatoxin, a known carcinogen.

With Bt corn, these molds would be a thing of the past and would no longer haunt farmers and end consumers of the biotechnology product.

These bits of knowledge were discussed in a meeting held last Saturday at Annabel's Restaurant in Quezon City, where several farmers... leaders tackled the need for a more systematic way of propagating the positive results of Bt corn cultivation among cultivators.

The farmers promised to do their share in ensuring that Bt corn would eventually become the principal corn variety to be cultivated and bred.

Many farmers in the Visayas have openly asked for training in handling and breeding Bt corn, which has raised production by as much as 37% and hiked farm incomes to as high as 60%.

Farmers in Pampanga, South Cotabato, Isabela, and Camarines Sur have said their incomes rose because of high yields of Bt corn.

They promised to promote the corn variety among their colleagues once they return to their localities.

Meanwhile, Hybridism Consulting, the first bio-consultancy firm in the country and Businessmaker Academy (BMA), a business and livelihood training centers, will present the "Philippine biotech venture summit: The first Philippine conference on biotechnology enterprise and investment."

To be held on January 26 to 29, the conference aims to educate scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, managers in pharmaceutical firms, policy makers, as well as corporate and intellectual property lawyers to take their interests from science to enterprise and create as many environmental friendly biotechnology businesses.

Interested attendees may register online <http://www.philbiotech.com> and call to confirm at 687-4445, 687-4645, 687-3416 by January.

Unknown to many, biotechnology is a $250-billion industry. Although biotechnology has been around for centuries, no practical education and focus has been given on how enterprising Filipinos can get into this lucrative field.

The forum will highlight the following seminar sessions featuring experts such as Dr. Amber Batata from Cambridge University, United Kingdom; Maoi Arroyo, an international biotechnology consultant; and a series of guest speakers consisting of experts and pioneering biotechnopreneurs: Bonifacio Comandante on waterless live fish transport, Dr. Gisela Concepcion on marine biotechnology and oncology, Dr. Gloria de Castro-Bernas on natural products, and Dr. Cora de Ungria on forensics and paternity testing. The event is also being sponsored by the Philippine Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Filipinos do not realize that they are sitting on an untapped potential. Identified as one of the world's most biologically rich countries, the Philippines is among the top three biodiversity hotspots and number one in marine biodiversity.

Despite the fact that over 70% of the promising anti-cancer drugs come from plants in the tropical rainforests, according to the United States National Cancer Institute, the Philippine frontier of natural products from marine biotechnology and microbiology has not even been tapped and yet we find our environment mutilated by unprofessional practices.

The challenge is to capitalize on natural resources through responsible biotechnology enterprises.


New Computer Program Predicts Mycotoxin Levels in Corn

- ARS News, By Jan Suszkiw, December 21, 2004

Predicting mycotoxin levels in midwestern corn is now possible with a new computer program developed by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists.

Mycotoxins are natural carcinogens produced by certain molds, particularly Aspergillus flavus and Fusarium moniliforme. Strict regulatory controls determine the sale and use of mycotoxin-containing corn, because of the carcinogens' potential danger to humans and livestock. Corn with mycotoxin levels above the allowable limit may be rejected; harvests with levels at or below the limit may face devalued markets. Annually, mycotoxin-associated losses cost the U.S. corn industry hundreds of millions of dollars.

Mycotoxins can be detected in corn through testing. But predicting the conditions that cause the molds to produce the carcinogens has been a matter of guesswork, according to Patrick Dowd, an entomologist at the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, in Peoria, Ill.

Dowd's solution is Mycotoxin Predictor 1.1. Copyrighted by collaborators at Illinois Central College, the Windows-friendly software program uses equations to mathematically predict mycotoxin levels using temperature, soil type, numbers of insects and other factors that influence the molds' growth and spread.

By entering such data into the program, a farmer can predict the likelihood--and levels--of mycotoxin contamination more than a month before harvest. Mold growth is often tied to insect damage. So, if the program predicts that mycotoxin problems are likely to arise from heavy insect feeding, the farmer may opt to spray the crop before caterpillars can hide inside corn husks and cause damage that allows mold growth.

Dowd wrote the software program in 1998 after six years of collecting data on field conditions and corn ear contamination in connection with two mycotoxins, aflatoxin and fumonisin. He validated the program's predictions by comparing them with an independent lab's analysis of mycotoxin levels in more than two dozen corn hybrids used in field tests from 2000 to 2003 in collaboration with the Central Illinois Irrigated Growers Association.

ARS is seeking a software company that can market Mycotoxin Predictor 1.1 to farmers, millers, refiners and others.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.


A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods
by Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown
Joseph Henry Press, 370 pp., $24.95

Reviewed by Richard Manning

A young postdoctoral student in a molecular biology lab once told me the problem with her line of work is that she can't explain to her mother what she does. This is more than a personal problem. If the rest of us benighted laypeople could get some sort of idea of what is being done in those labs, we would better understand the depth of the world's environmental problems and the character of life itself. Indeed, those scientists who tinker with DNA have drifted into isolation from the rest of us, simply because they see something we cannot.

One of the things we need to see is that the controversy about genetically engineered foods is misguided. The problem is not genetically engineered crops; it is crops. The world is in terrible trouble because of the fundamental design of agriculture. Genetic science is finally developing some tools that may at least help with a redesign that is sustainable.

Still, when the world in general thinks about gene science, it thinks about genetic engineering. I wish we could get beyond this, and we will, but not because of any sudden outbreak of rationality. We will get beyond it because gene science has moved on to something far bigger and more profound than genetic engineering.

Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown's Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods helps us move on to these larger issues. It does so with the simple device of clarity. The book is not so much a polemic as a primer, delivering in plain language and apt analogy the nuts and bolts of genetic science and its history, and ultimately making the case that the opponents of genetic engineering are wrong. That young postdoc should give this book to her mother.

The clarity of the book stems in part from its coauthorship: Fedoroff is a leading geneticist and molecular biologist and Brown is a journalist, a combination that frames a comfortable doorway into the arcane world of genetics. I too am a journalist, and I got my education in this discipline, such as it is, by traveling to some 20 countries over the past five years, visiting labs and interviewing scientists, plant breeders and gene jockeys alike.

It's not at all easy to comprehend the fundamentals of biotechnology in an unheated lab in Shanghai in March, slurping bad tea and listening to an explanation of polymerase chain reactions from someone for whom English is a not-even-close second language. Yet in an odd way it's also easier, because at some point in the second or third megabyte of repeated naive questions from a jet-lagged visitor, the exasperated scientist will leap up, drag the questioner to a microscope, and say, "Look. Here. This is DNA." And then one understands that what is abstraction to most of us is as clear and readable to these folks as a calendar on the wall.

Fedoroff and Brown's book can do something like this for all of us. We are shown, not told, the evidence for science's key arguments in support of genetic engineering: that bumping genes around is nothing new, nor is playing God with various domesticated life forms.

The domestication of plants 10,000 years ago was the big bang of civilization, and it was indeed de facto genetic engineering. Proto-farmers moved genes through the natural-selection pressure that is domestication, a favoring of mutants that also made a wolf into a beribboned Pekinese. Everything humans have done since, including that which we call genetic engineering, has consequences that are trivial by comparison.

The tinkering accelerated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after Gregor Mendel's insights sent plant breeders to seriously rearrange genes, even before they knew that such things existed. Plant breeders crossed species lines -- that is, performed the equivalent of crossing a human and a chimpanzee -- at least as long ago as the late nineteenth century, when Luther Burbank, the scion of modern plant breeding, did his seminal work. Long-standing techniques of biotechnology, such as artificially forcing mutations, tissue culturing, and hybridization, have rearranged the genomes of domesticates with the same grace and precision Hurricane Charley used to rearrange Florida. Genetic engineering is a laser in comparison.

In fact, biotechnology comprises a wide range of tools, and genetic engineering is only one of them. Further, while the rest of us have been off fighting about the single tool of genetic engineering, science has made others far more powerful. The most fundamental of these tools is raw information, a part of biotechnology that is coming to be called functional genomics. It involves mapping and sequencing genes to the point where they can be read as clearly as that calendar on the wall, and it is telling us a lot.

Science has learned that genes routinely flow through the environment between wild and domestic plants and have done so for 10,000 years. Genes cross species lines on their own; mutation is common; genomes are full of mistakes, junk, clutter, and jumping genes; and all of life has far more in common than the best of genetic science could have imagined 15 years ago. Genetic science is now learning that distinctions like species and race are artificial constructs. In the end, this emerging picture of the squishy, protean, and chaotic nature of life is going to be a lot more unsettling than genetic engineering. It is nonetheless accurate.

Midway through their admirable book, Fedoroff and Brown quote Robert Bud, the historian of science, with an idea that gets to the heart of all this: "In the history of biotechnology...lies the story of the twentieth century wrestling with the concept of life." And the twenty-first. Beneath the philosophy, though, there are practical implications for agriculture, poverty, overpopulation, and the environment, each of the intertwined strands of our world's Gordian knot.

Fedoroff and Brown offer a fairly conventional and limited argument that is the main purpose of their book: Genetic engineering can unwind some of agriculture's worst excesses. To a degree, it can. For instance, when China adopted cotton genetically engineered to exude a natural insecticide, pesticide use on that country's cotton crop dropped 80 percent. This is no small matter: When cotton farmers in China sprayed each year, they logged a human body count. Certainly environmentalists can be cheered by this, even if the cotton comes to us courtesy of the Great Satan, Monsanto.

This is the sort of fix the authors have in mind, but we need to draw on their information to take the argument further. Limiting the discussion to Band-Aids on a broken agricultural system that was fundamentally flawed from the outset won't untie the knot.

Luckily, though, there is more to report. Fedoroff and Brown build much of their case on golden rice, which uses daffodil genes to boost the vitamin A intake of some of the world's poorest people. The authors conclude -- as most scientists do -- that the political dustup about genetic engineering delayed the introduction of golden rice, a development that could yet prevent 230 million cases of childhood blindness in developing nations each year.

In fact, there were two roadblocks to golden rice and to all other genetically engineered crops, and political opposition was the lesser of those. More formidable was intellectual property law. The Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus and his colleagues first made golden rice in 1999. The Rockefeller Foundation, which paid for the research, has spent most of the time since wrestling with patents. Potrykus's groundbreaking research ran afoul of as many as 70 patents on the basic techniques of genetic engineering, now mostly held by two corporations, Monsanto and Syngenta.

This is not unique to golden rice. One group of researchers, for instance, found it took a 360-page report to summarize the complex thicket of patents covering agrobacterium transformation, a tool that is to a genetic engineer what a table saw is to a carpenter. Nor is the problem limited to patents, which often don't apply in developing countries. Many researchers have signed "material transfer agreements," which create patentlike restrictions in countries where there are no patents.

The flaw of genetic engineering is that while the science was still in its infancy, corporations won some key legal decisions and bought the patents that gave them complete control of the technology -- not just of the genes they needed but of the tools for moving genes that everyone needs. The technology has become not so much an instrument for progress as an instrument corporations use for social control.

And this is the necessity that mothered invention.

As I said, I learned my molecular biology from public-sector scientists in the developing world, a group in deliberate opposition to the corporate control of genetic engineering, but not to genetic engineering itself. These folks -- and there are thousands of them -- will match the activists in their anti-Monsanto rhetoric, epithet for epithet. Beyond this, though, some of these researchers have been stunningly creative in evading the blockades of patents.

They have plunged into inventing a whole new area of gene science, just as they plunged into practical village-by-village solutions to hunger, poverty, and environmental destruction. They have applied their science not to mainstream, for-profit crops like corn and wheat but to orphans like cassava, sweet potato, papaya, chickpeas, and the Ethiopian cereal tef -- the foods that around the world go hand to mouth. Using tools like marker-assisted selection, tissue culturing, and functional genomics, they are building a light-on-its-feet guerrilla science that has already become so powerful that it can accomplish almost all of what genetic engineering can (and some things it can't) without introducing genes from other species.

Many of these innovations are also Band-Aids, but because this work is so rooted in basic information, something more profound is emerging. These scientists are starting to backtrack through the genetic record of domestication. They are learning that over 10,000 years, plant breeders lost important traits, such as innate defenses against insects and diseases. They are learning how to recover these traits from wild relatives. All of this promises eventually to allow us, in effect, to redo domestication. Agriculture fails because it is an oversimplification of natural systems. Ultimately, genetic science promises to render enough information so that we can design and manage the complexity that drives natural systems.

Agriculture is today the world's leading environmental problem. It pollutes, and it is largely responsible for the fact that our species, one among millions, claims 40 percent of all the plant biomass the planet produces each year. We must fundamentally redesign agriculture if the human enterprise is to continue. We will do so not by turning away from biotechnology but by looking as deeply as we are able into the microscopes and into the core design of life. Therein we will find not just the techniques we need, but some of the wisdom to guide them.


Green Group's Recruitment of Grade Schoolers Called 'Shameless'

- CNSNews.com, By Marc Morano, December 22, 2004

(CNSNews.com) - An environmental group dedicated to "protect[ing] the rainforest" is under attack for recruiting public elementary school students to protest the lending practices of a major U.S. bank in New York City.

The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) organized the group of second grade children on Dec. 16 to protest JP Morgan Chase. A RAN press release stated the elementary school children attended to "hand deliver over 700 colorful handmade posters from children around the world asking William B. Harrison, chief executive officer of JP Morgan Chase, to keep his promise and stop lending money to projects that destroy endangered forests and cause global warming."

But Robert Bidinotto, an editor at the nonprofit watchdog group Capital Research Center, called RAN's efforts a "shameless manipulation" of the children.

"It's difficult to know which is worse: the factual nonsense propagated by RAN, the capitulation to them by major corporations or the political exploitation of innocent children," Bidinotto told the Cybercast News Service. Bidinotto also publishes the website, www.ecoNOT.com, which chronicles the environmental movement.

"I'd have to say it's the shameless manipulation of little kids for propaganda purposes," he added.

The children were recruited with the help of Fairfield County, Conn., second grade teacher Paula Healy. "Children around the world are asking JP Morgan Chase to invest in their future by doing its part to protect the world's last remaining rainforests," Healy was quoted as saying in the RAN press release.

"Earth is on loan to us from future generations, and these students know the value of protecting their natural inheritance," Healy added.

But Bidinotto called the use of the children for "these propaganda campaigns morally disgusting."

"Teachers, schools and parents who allow this are guilty of a form of child abuse. They're hiding their own partisan voices and political agendas behind the innocent faces of little kids, turning them into propaganda tools. Why? Can't these grown-ups speak for themselves?" he asked.

RAN even held a "best poster" contest, and a sixth grade student from Dayton, Ohio, won. The winning poster featured a watercolor of a rainforest scene with a message to JP Morgan Chase.

"Be A Hero ... Save the Rainforest. Save the World. Please protect the rainforest instead of hurting the Earth for oil," the winning poster stated.

'Anti-industrial revolution'

Bidinotto said RAN does not have the best interests of children in mind. "Ran has no respect for law, for private property, for human productivity or for free trade," Bidinotto said.

"Operating like a goon squad, they violate the rights of people to freely produce and trade, using intimidation and scare campaigns as a weapon. They're exploiting their tax-exempt status to undermine every pillar of the free enterprise system," he added.

Bidinotto said RAN's main goal is to stop all industrial development.

"RAN's real interest isn't protecting 'old growth forests.' Because they believe nature should be left entirely undisturbed, these radicals want to stop all logging -- everywhere. And shut down all mining. And auto manufacturing. And oil exploration. They represent what has been called 'the anti-industrial revolution'," Bidinotto said.

RAN's attempts to scale back industrial development are going to impact the developing world's poor the most, according to Bidinotto.

"Ending all development of timber, fossil fuel and mineral resources in the Third World will only guarantee that these people remain jobless, backward and impoverished. Is that what they call 'being socially responsible'?" he asked.

"Whatever they are, these environmentalist radicals are no friends of the world's poor -- and no respecters of the innocence of the world's children," he added.

Tracy Solum, director of Rainforests in the Classroom, a program sponsored by the Rainforest Action Network, has a ready response for critics.

"Today, young rainforest heroes from around the world are reminding JP Morgan Chase that its most important stakeholders are future generations," Solum stated on the RAN website. "This is education in action, and these are kids the Earth can count on. These posters represent the wisdom and creativity of a new generation inspired to protect the Earth."