Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : Jan 7, 2005
* Natural . . . But Not Nice
* Tsunami: Tragedy as a Teacher
* Pew's Parallel Universe
* Poorer Nations Turn to Publicly Developed GM Crops
* Insect Resistance Management In GM Crops: Past, Present and Future
* Re: GM Free or Not in Australia: Organic Farmer Julie Rebutts
* .....Scientist Roger Kalla Responds
* Funding Biosafety Programs: Call For Proposals
* Genetically Modified Trees: Down in the Forest, Something Stirs
* Report Recommends Ban of US GM maize in Mexico
* Monsanto Fined $2m for Bribe
Natural . . . But Not Nice
- Patrick West, New Statesman (UK?), January 10, 2005
We live in a time in which we are exhorted to worship or 'live in harmony' with nature. Human beings are seen as despoilers of the earth who seem interested merely in causing wars and wrecking the environment. Many, adopting James Lovelock's Gaia theory, believe that humans are a parasitic presence on the planet. Our misanthropic consensus deems that which is man-made 'bad' and that which is natural 'good'.
This is why organic food is seen as better than crops treated with pesticides, why orthodox medicine is spurned in favour of 'natural remedies', why genetically modified 'Frankenstein foods' are shunned, why bottled spring water is thought healthier than chemically treated tap water. On edible goods in supermarkets, 'natural' is now one of the words most commonly employed to appeal to consumers.
Yet the south Asian earthquake is a reminder that nature is not a benign force; it can often be far more destructive than humankind. It is precisely because humans are not slaves to nature that we can overcome it, that we are able to live happier and healthier lives.
Earthquakes are 'natural'. So are cancer, short-sightedness and troublesome wisdom teeth. But hospitals, spectacles, dentists - and, indeed, aid and rescue operations - are fundamentally unnatural.
Tsunami: Tragedy as a Teacher
- Thomas R. DeGregori, ACSH, January 5, 2005
Tragedies are great teachers, but unfortunately too many people draw the wrong lessons from them. Not too long ago, major tragedies were interpreted as some form of divine retribution for our sins. Now, geology (plate tectonics and volcanology), meteorology, other sciences offer hope for preventative and ameliorative actions.
A tragedy of the magnitude of the Indian Ocean tsunami brings out the best and the worst in the twenty-four-hour TV news cycle, the Internet, and massive print coverage. There is now room for interviews with experts on every aspect of the issue -- its causes, likely short- and long-term consequences, and the most effective means of delivering assistance. With the seemingly wall-to-wall coverage, we will inevitably hear from those who, like the doomsday theologians of earlier times, blame human action and modern life in general for the calamity or the magnitude of its impact. Had we only heeded the warnings of the environmental ideologues and other prophets of doom, tragedies of this magnitude could have been avoided, they say. One true believer went so far as deny the tsunami tragedy was a "natural" disaster and likened it to a "plastic Christmas tree."
Read on at http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.485/news_detail.asp
Pew's Parallel Universe
- Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko, Washington Times, January 6, 2005
The "new biotechnology," or gene-splicing, applied to agriculture and food production is here to stay. More than 80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves soft drinks, preserves, mayonnaise, salad dressings include ingredients from gene-spliced plants, and Americans have safely consumed more than a trillion servings of these foods.
But opposition continues to genetically improving plants by use of these precise and predictable techniques, largely due to a drumbeat of misrepresentations by anti-biotechnology activists.
Some of these radicals, like Greenpeace, make no secret they intend to stop at nothing to eliminate gene-splicing from agriculture, while other groups claim not to oppose gene-splicing but only to want it "properly" regulated. They are subtler, and therefore more insidious.
Reports by the lavishly funded Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, for example, receive extensive media and government attention, largely because Pew touts itself as the thoughtful, disinterested middle ground in the biotechnology debates. But Pew's PR machine saying that doesn't make it so.
Contrary to their claims to be neutral, honest brokers on biotechnology, Pew's workshops, conferences and publications consistently show a pervasive pro-regulation bias and try to create a presumption of genuine controversy where none exists. (Activists understand overregulation is a subtly effective tool to inhibit innovation and slow diffusion of even a superior technology they dislike.) Pew's most recent surveys offer excellent examples.
Pew's 2003 report, "Public Sentiment About Genetically Modified Food," was a typically disingenuous pastiche of truisms, half-truths and sleight-of-hand. The survey found "Americans' knowledge about [gene-spliced] foods remains low," with 54 percent saying they had heard nothing or not much about them. Then, without enlightening the subjects or offering them any sort of context, the survey went on to pose leading questions about safety and regulation. Not surprisingly, 89 percent agreed that "Companies should be required to submit safety data to the FDA for review, and no genetically modified food product should be allowed on the market until the FDA determines that it is safe." Nine in 10 consumers say they want safe food: What a surprise.
The 2004 report is no better. Only 32 percent of those surveyed said they had heard "a great deal or some" about gene-spliced foods (a 12-point decline since 2001, despite biotech's expanding applications and successes), suggesting fully two-thirds offered wholly uninformed opinions.
Unsurprisingly, the 2004 survey also reveals consumers want safe food: Eighty-five percent want regulators to ensure "[gene-spliced] foods are safe before they come to market," and more than 90 percent favor the labeling of gene-spliced foods and food ingredients.
The public's muddled view of biotechnology is reflected in the results of a survey of 1,200 Americans, released in October 2003 by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University. In an 11-item true/false quiz in the survey, more than half of the subjects received a failing grade (defined as less than 70 percent correct). Only 57 percent recognized the falseness of the statement "ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do." Perhaps most shocking, only two-thirds knew eating genetically modified fruit would not alter their own genes. Do the one-third who got this question wrong think that if they eat rabbit stew, they will begin to hop?
The Pew surveys take advantage of the ignorance about key facts by those questioned: (1) with the exception of wild berries and mushrooms, game, and fish and shellfish, virtually all the organisms -- plants, animals, microorganisms -- in our food supply have been modified by one genetic technique or another; (2) because the new biotech is more precise and predictable than predecessors, biotech foods are likely to be even more safe than other foods; (3) food producers are already legally responsible for assIuring the safety of their products, and the FDA does not normally perform safety determinations but primarily does surveillance of marketed foods, and takes action upon if it finds any adulterated or mislabeled; and (4) unwarranted, excessive regulation, including unnecessary labeling requirements, discourages innovation, imposes costs that are passed on to consumers and disproportionately burdens the poor.
Pew exploits consumers' (understandable) unfamiliarity with the nuances of both the new biotech and how food now is regulated. Asking if the FDA should assure the safety of gene-spliced foods before they're marketed is like asking if repeat child molesters should be banned from teaching grade school.
Pew and other anti-biotechnology lobbyists perpetuate various manifestations of the Big Lie that gene-splicing in agriculture and food production is untested, unproven and unregulated. To these morally putrescent activists, we direct the question a lawyer at Senate hearings put to demagogic, commie-hunting Joe McCarthy, "Have you left no sense of decency?"
Henry I. Miller is a Hoover Institution fellow and former Food and Drug Administration official. Gregory Conko is director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. They are co-authors of "The Frankenfood Myth" (Praeger Publishers).
Poorer Nations Turn to Publicly Developed GM Crops
- Joel Cohen, Nature Biotechnology 23, 27 - 33 (Jan 2005). Full paper at www.nature.com/nbt (subscription). Excerpts reproduced below the permission of the editor.
Genetically modified crops are often framed as the products of multinational corporations, but in poorer nations it is public research that is vibrant and attempting their development.
The second conference on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety will be held in May in Montreal, Canada. One goal of the conference will be to reconcile practical challenges in implementing its articles concerning living modified organisms around the globe, particularly in developing nations. I present here the findings of a study that was a joint effort of partners from 15 developing countries on three continents and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI, Washington, DC, USA) to analyze the current state of research, regulation, genetic resources and institutional roles in developing genetically modified (GM) crops.
This study is meant to be representative of key trends, rather than comprehensive in approach. Information from this type of study, the first of its kind, will help scientists, policy makers and regulators understand their respective country's public GM crop research agenda, identify polices and regulatory needs for specific GM events and provide a transparent picture of national research and regulation for stakeholders. This effort in no way minimizes the need for safety evaluation, but seeks research and regulatory efficiencies and effectiveness so that all benefit.
Conclusions--getting to specifics
This study finds the public sector to be a competent, but largely unproven, player for GM crop production in developing countries. Whether national policies in these countries stimulate or deter research and technology for publicly developed GM crops is unclear; the official approval of a publicly reported transformation event for insect-resistant cotton in China appears an isolated occurrence.
All in all, this study surveyed GM crop research conducted at 61 public research institutes in 15 developing economies. These institutes have demonstrated transformation capabilities across 45 plants, within eight categories of different transgenic phenotypes, and the ability to use such genes when transforming local genetic resources.
As scientific capabilities and the number of research institutes increase, so will the diversity of crops and phenotypes. Greater attention is needed, however, for specific events where resources and knowledge are lacking to complete efficacy and safety testing. Otherwise, GM crops will remain in preliminary testing. Indeed, on the basis of this study's data, we estimate that approximately 22% of the 201 transformation events created in public research programs remain in confined testing
In contrast to achievements in R&D, most developing countries have only limited experience in compiling regulatory data; in fact, it has become difficult to complete all regulatory requirements. Although many research trends in this report are positive, few transformed crops have been released from confined into pre-commercial testing or into use.
This can be attributed to several factors: first, the overall isolation of public research institutes; second, the inability of public research to meet food safety and environmental regulatory requirements and confusion regarding regulatory standards between confined versus open trials; third, lack of regional abilities to exchange and evaluate regulatory data on specific transgenes and crops; fourth, expertise with public genetic resources but few opportunities to use or evaluate proprietary germ plasm; fifth, difficulties in planning for advancement of specific products; sixth, limited progress in determining authorities and frameworks for science-based decision making; seventh, implementing processes arising from the international level (e.g., the Cartagena Protocol for Biosafety as well as at the regional level (e.g., special needs confronting Africa); and eight, external political barriers that either halt regulatory review (e.g., moratoriums in Thailand) or have implications for world trade (e.g., impasse over GM crops between the United States and Europe).
Policy, research and regulatory options are needed to expedite regulatory decisions and testing of public GM crops. The sooner such evaluations occur, the faster GM crops unsuitable for field application can be discarded and successful GM crops moved forward, thus saving public funds and minimizing opportunity costs. This report facilitates making specific recommendations by scientists, policy makers, regulators and other stakeholders striving to evaluate and foster development of publicly derived GM plants.
Fully exploit genetic resources. Using agronomically productive genetic resources for transformation, and not just for ease of regeneration, will expedite public research. This study reveals that access to proprietary genetic resources in developing countries is extremely limited; only 6% of all transformation events used private material.
Does the high percentage of local transformed material mean reliance or dependence on public genetic resources or a deliberate independence from protected varieties or commercial germ plasm? This question is not easy to answer, as both choices present benefits and costs, and different opportunities to the research institute. The ability to transform local, widely used public or indigenous genetic resources provides the potential for greater public and farmer acceptance. Using high-performance GM public germ plasm means that farmers will not be prevented from saving seeds, nor will they potentially be under monopoly pricing of seeds. However, some private companies have promised free rights to their genes in specific crops, such as sweet potato and the rice genome for public research.
Ensure research serves the public good. Examination of potential benefits and genetic resources will determine if local resources or adapted genes need IP protection. Benefit distribution, accounting for the success in transforming local genetic resources, can form the basis for agreements between public institutes, farmer organizations and commercial producers. Agreements can establish ownership among providers of transgenes (and the cost of their research) by equalizing investments with time and innovation provided by developing countries creating combinations of genes in localized crops or genetic resources19. Such decisions on ownership are made carefully to ensure an equitable arrangement between poor country institutions20 and those supplying new technologies. Our data offer many examples where further investigation into ownership would be of benefit, as abilities grow for incorporating privately developed genes into crops of local value.
Local and multinational companies could play a key role for specific local GM crops, given their experience in commercial development and regulatory information, including environmental and food safety studies. However, examples of successful public-private partnerships in plant biotech are still rare, even at international research centers
Creating efficiencies and competencies. Although limited collaboration does occur between developing countries and Western companies, the study reveals that developing countries did not forge a single ('South-to-South') collaboration among themselves. Contacts with other countries of economic parity would create efficiencies by sharing knowledge on specific crops, traits and regulatory dossiers. For example, by using data on genes and phenotypes under study countries could meet and assemble data and experience on specific genes and their constructs, making collected and relevant information available to their respective regulators. Scientists and regulators from developing countries can also meet to discuss specific crops, where common transformation events are occurring.
Working from either specific crops or traits, joint studies can also highlight partnership models (or the lack of them) and address needs best suited for such collaboration. The same type of consultation can occur by examining crops at a particular stage in their regulation their required safety information and results from efficacy and safety trials. Such knowledge is valuable when selecting transgenes, considering regulatory requirements and determining which genetic resources are available or needed.
The bottom line. Although some commercially developed GM products have a role to play, GM crops developed by public research institutes should be most relevant to local needs in poor countries. Paradoxically, because they are novel, locally developed products pose unique challenges for institutes seeking regulatory approval, and gaining approval can be one of the biggest obstacles facing public GM crops in developing nations. In contrast, commercial GM crops preapproved in Western markets are more successful in gaining approvals in developing countries.
Demand for GM products by local farmers combined with the established regulatory and production track record of Western products sets the stage for interest in using GM crops in developing nations. This implies farmers may take advantage of options to grow locally unapproved Western products, thus avoiding licensing costs and IP issues. At the same time, locally produced GM crops remain in development and do not reach the same farmers, meaning their impact is yet to be seen.
Joel I. Cohen is at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Environment and Production Technology Division, 2033 K Street, NW, Washington DC, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org
Insect Resistance Management In GM Crops: Past, Present and Future
- Sarah L Bates, Jian-Zhou Zhao, Richard T Roush & Anthony M Shelton, Nature Biotechnology 23, 57 - 62 (2005)
Abstract: Transgenic plants expressing insecticidal proteins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) were first commercialized in 1996 amid concern from some scientists, regulators and environmentalists that the widespread use of Bt crops would inevitably lead to resistance and the loss of a 'public good,' specifically, the susceptibility of insect pests to Bt proteins. Eight years later, Bt corn and cotton have been grown on a cumulative area >80 million ha worldwide.
Despite dire predictions to the contrary, resistance to a Bt crop has yet to be documented, suggesting that resistance management strategies have been effective thus far. However, current strategies to delay resistance remain far from ideal. Eight years without resistance provides a timely opportunity for researchers, regulators and industry to reassess the risk of resistance and the most effective strategies to preserve Bt and other novel insect-resistant crops in development.
Re: GM Free or Not in Australia
- Julie Newman, Australia, email@example.com (National Spokesperson, Network of Concerned Farmers; www.non-gm-farmers.com)
Thank you Prakash, I appreciate your comments and your intention to allow farmers to express our concerns. I would like to respond to Dr Roger Kalla, (Director Korn Technologies) article in Agbioview titled "GM Free or Not -- The Shaky Scientific and Legal Foundation of a Marketing Strategy" (See http://www.agbioworld.org/newsletter_wm/index.php?caseid=archive&newsid=2294 )
Why do the GM industry, who clearly have a vested interest in promoting GM crops, feel they have the right to remove the GM-free status of Australia without adequately compensating those concerned if economic loss is experienced? A "trust us, but farmers can pay if we are wrong" attitude is clearly not accepted by farmers or the Australian State governments who have the role of addressing economic risk.
Farmers, farm lobby groups and politicians are targetted by a range of pro-GM activists promoting dreams and hiding realities. We have the GM industry wanting to profit by patenting and controlling the source that all food is derived from, the scientists and research industry wanting to profit from the advantage of encouraging corporate investment to plant breeding, the governments wanting to back out of funding research and development (one of Australia's only subsidies) and supply chain participants wanting to profit by developing closed loop marketing systems and contractual agreements to lock farmers in to specific products, production methods and supply chains.
GM benefits need to be assessed more carefully and we need to look beyond the promises to the reality of what farmers are actually being offered. We are being offered chemical resistant canola that does not appear to yield or return more benefit than our many non-GM chemical resistant canola varieties.
All Australian states that rigorously assessed economic risk called moratoriums for good, well documented reasons. While Dr Kalla is proud of the recommendation to Victorian Government by Professor Peter J Lloyd (independent adviser), he should have found the following: "Self-regulation by the industry does not adequately address the issues in an industry with systemic problems affecting other stakeholders."
As coexistence is scientifically proven to be impossible to comply with the zero tolerance of legal requirements and market demands, or too difficult and too expensive to implement, all farmers will be expected to market on the GM market despite market risk being considerable. Although it is the intention of the GM industry to expect consumers to accept GM on the basis that there will be no choice, consumers will not be so obliging and will merely turn to an alternative non-canola oil on the basis that all canola is GM. Our domestic canola market (around 30% of our market) has clearly indicated their reluctance to accept GM, several Japanese and Chinese customers have made similar claims and EU (with a clear market demand for non-GM) accounts for roughly 13% of our export market when based on a 5 year average.
Perhaps the biggest concern regarding market loss would be that over half of our wheat export volume is sent to GM-sensitive clients that have indicated they want no trace of GM canola in our wheat which would be impossible to comply with considering wheat follows canola in a normal crop rotation system and it would be far too expensive to grade the volume of grain concerned. Similar market loss will occur on a range of products from barley, lupins, hay, honey, stock feed and stock fed traces of GM grain. Farmers market a food crop and many consumers and markets are rejecting GM, all farmers can not afford to throw these markets away just to let a few farmers give GM canola a try.
Governments and decision makers have a duty of care to ensure that they can not ignore the fact that there will be economic loss and market risk. When so many markets will be affected by the introduction of GM canola, it is very very clear that the risks far outweigh any perceived benefits. Farmers can not, and will not, accept the associated loss to our income and as GM crops are the intruder to our industry, the GM industry should accept the responsibility for containing their product and ensuring it does not contaminate other markets.
Response to Julie Newman
- from Dr Roger Kalla, Director Korn Technologies, Australia,
Julie Newman asserts that Australian and more importantly overseas consumers prefer, nay demand 'GM free' Australian ag produce. Moreover according to Julie 'GM free' is part of an Australian successful marketing strategy that Australian producers would be well advised to protect at all costs.
Julie continues with concluding that coexistence between Gm and non-GM crops is impossible ( if GM free or non-GM = zero tolerance) and consequently Australia should ban the cultivation of GM crops at any scale and also ban all imports of 'contaminated' food and feed for sheep , cows and humans alike.
My main problem with this alternative antipodean view of world trade of ag products is that it is demonstrably false. Overseas markets can live with certain amounts of adventitious presence of allowed GM produce (see Acil Tasman report to the Victorian Government).
GM free labelling inherently implies that all non labelled produce contains some amount of GM and trigger costly testing and legal battles to define what GM-free, GMO-free, LMO-free, GE-free, non-GM etc . means since these labels often have based on a shaky scientific foundation as I outlined in my previous letter to Agbioworld.
World trade in agricultural products are based to a large extent on trust for the regulatory systems that are in place in all our major trading partners. Food safety regulations incorporating GM labelling are based on the best science available that underpin rational decisions on the things that really matters namely that australian ag produce is safe, healthy, nutritious and of top quality.
GM technologies as applied to agriculture is largely in a transition stage in Australia and the Research and development that has gone into the creation of superior crops of the future will need to be judged on the benefits they will bring to the environment and the end consumers here in Australia and in our export markets.
Program for Biosafety Systems: Call For Pre Proposals for Funding
The 2005 Request for Pre-Proposals for the Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS) Biotechnology and Biodiversity Interface (BBI) Competitive Grant Program can be found at the Program for Biosafety Systems webpage: http://www.ifpri.org/themes/pbs/pbs.htm
The BBI Grant program will fund collaborative research on the impacts on biodiversity of biotechnology in agriculture in developing countries in Africa and Asia. The deadline for pre-proposals is February 8, 2005.
A partnership program for biosafety capacity development
Biosafety systems are key to responsible decision making regarding the use of genetically modified plants and other organisms. Appropriate use of the products of biotechnology may help countries, especially in the developing world, to meet national goals for agricultural production and food security, public health, biodiversity conservation and economic growth. The Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS) supports partner countries as they develop the policy and legal framework, adminisrative procedures, technically qualified personnel and outreach mechanisms integral to their national biosafety systems. PBS work emphasizes sound science-based decision making and research, while also addressing socioeconomic considerations.
Genetically Modified Aboriculture: Down in the Forest, Something Stirs
- The Economist, Jan 6 2005 http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=3535741
In September 2004, a group of scientists from around the world announced that they had deciphered yet another genome. By and large, the world shrugged and ignored them. The organism in question was neither cuddly and furry, nor edible, nor dangerous, so no one cared. It was, in fact, the black cottonwood, a species of poplar tree, and its was the first arboreal genome to be unravelled. But perhaps the world should have paid attention, because unravelling a genome is a step towards tinkering with it. And that, in the end, could lead to genetically modified forests.
The black cottonwood was given the honour of being first tree because it and its relatives are fast-growing and therefore important in forestry. For some people, though, they do not grow fast enough. As America's Department of Energy, which sponsored and led the cottonwood genome project, puts it, the objective of the research was to provide insights that will lead to "faster growing trees, trees that produce more biomass for conversion to fuels, while also sequestering carbon from the atmosphere." It might also lead to trees with "phytoremediation traits that can be used to clean up hazardous waste sites."
It is also pretty sure to lead to a lot of environmental protest—hence, perhaps, the environmental emphasis of the energy department's mission statement. Given the argument about genetically modified field-crops that has taken place in some parts of the world, genetically modified forests are likely to provoke an incandescent response. Soya, maize, cotton and the like were already heavily modified for human use before biotechnologists got their hands on them. One result is that they do not do very well in the big, bad, competitive world outside the farmer's field. But trees, even the sorts favoured by foresters, are wild organisms. GM trees really might do well against their natural conspecifics.
Lofty mission statements aside, the principal commercial goals of arboreal genome research are faster growth and more useful wood. The advantage of the former is obvious: more timber more quickly. More useful wood, in this context, mainly means wood that is more useful to the paper industry, an enormous consumer of trees. In particular, this industry wants to reduce the amount of lignin in the wood it uses.
Lignin is one of the structural elements in the walls of the cells of which wood is composed. Paper is made from another of those elements, cellulose. The lignin acts as a glue, binding the cellulose fibres together, so an enormous amount of chemical and mechanical effort has to be expended on removing it. The hope is that trees can be modified to make less lignin, and more cellulose.
In a lucky break, it looks as though it might be possible to achieve both goals simultaneously. A few years ago a group of researchers at Michigan Technological University, led by Vincent Chiang, started the ball rolling. They produced aspens, another species of poplar, that have 45% less lignin and 15% more cellulose than their wild brethren, and grow almost twice as fast, as well. The mixture the team achieved leaves the combined mass of lignin and cellulose in the trunk more or less unchanged and, contrary to the expectations of many critics, the resulting trees are as strong as unmodified ones.
The trick Dr Chiang and his colleagues used was to suppress the activity of one of the genes in the biochemical pathway that trees employ to make lignin. They did this using so-called "antisense" technology.
Antisense technology depends on the fact that the message carried by a gene is encoded in only one of the two strands of the famous DNA double helix. Because of the precise pairing between the components of the two strands, the other strand carries what can, in essence, be described as an "antimessage". The message itself is copied into a single-stranded messenger molecule which carries it to the protein-making parts of the cell, where it is translated. But if this messenger meets a single-stranded "antimessenger" before it arrives, the two will pair up. That silences the messenger. Dr Chiang therefore inserted into his aspens a gene that makes antimessengers to the lignin gene in question.
Wood can be improved in other ways, too. When it comes to papermaking, long fibres of cellulose are preferable to short ones. Thomas Moritz, of the Umea Plant Science Centre in Sweden, and his colleagues, have found out how to make hybrid poplars that reflect this industrial preference. In this case they did it by making a gene work overtime, rather than by suppressing its activity. The gene they chose is involved in the synthesis of a hormone called gibberellin and, once again, a side-effect of the alteration was to cause the trees to grow faster.
How such genetically modified trees would fit in with the natural environment is, of course, an important question-and it is important for two reasons. The first is political. The row about GM crops shows that people have to be persuaded that such technology will have no harmful effects before they will permit its introduction. But there is also a scientific reason. Trees have complex interactions with other species, some of which are necessary for their healthy growth.
Claire Halpin, of Dundee University in Scotland, and her colleagues have been looking into the question of environmental interactions using hybrid poplars that contain antisense versions of two other genes for enzymes involved in the production of lignin. The trees were grown for four years at two sites in France and England, in order to see how they fitted in with the local environment.
The answer seems to be that they fitted in reasonably well. They grew normally and had normal diplomatic relations with the local insects and soil microbes. They also produced high-quality pulp.
A tree's interactions with soil microbes are often beneficial to it (the microbes provide nutrients) so this is an important result. But insects are frequently hostile, and some researchers are looking for ways to protect trees from them. Lynette Grace of Forest Research in Rotorua, New Zealand, for example, has taken an approach based on introducing the gene for Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin, a natural insecticide. This gene is already used to produce versions of crops such as cotton that do not require the application of synthetic insecticides. Dr Grace and her colleagues adapted it to the radiata pine, which is plagued by the caterpillars of the painted apple moth.
Genetic modifications based on Bt are environmentally controversial. On the one hand, they reduce the amount of pesticide needed. On the other, there is a fear that the gene might "escape" from crops into wild plants that form the foodstuffs of benign insects. In the case of trees it might not even be necessary for the gene to jump species. GM trees, with immunity to insect pests and faster growth rates than their unmodified competitors, might simply spread by the normal processes of natural selection. That really would be survival of the fittest.
Report Recommends Ban of US GM Maize in Mexico
- Jeffrey L. Fox, Nature Biotechnology, January 2005, v23, p6. www.nature.com/nbt. Reprinted in Agbioview with the permission of the editor.
'Reports rejects GM import on sociocultural grounds while government passes law to regulate them. Farmers in Mexico should carry on using traditional corn, instead of its genetically modified version, for socio-cultural reasons, a new report recommends.'
A recent report on the possible effects of GM maize from the US on maize and other native plants in neighboring Mexico points to problematic regulatory and cultural gaps between the two countries, despite a recent move by Mexico to regulate GM crops. Moreover, recommendations in the report, which include maintaining a de facto moratorium in Mexico on GM corn, could prove ominous for other countries where GM crops could outcross to native plant relatives. Although this report has no direct bearing, its spirit runs counter to longstanding US interests in that country's trade case against Europe over GM crops, which was brought before the World Trade Organization in May 2003.
Nearly three years ago, a coalition of Mexican farmers, environmentalists and representatives from indigenous communities asked for a study of the effects of GM corn on native maize and related plants such as teosinte. This petition went to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC)—an organization that Canada, Mexico and the US established under the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation, itself an offshoot of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The ensuing CEC advisory report, Maize and Biodiversity: The Effects of Transgenic Maize in Mexico: Key Findings and Recommendations, was made public in November. The report calls for enforcing the current de facto moratorium on commercial planting of GM corn in Mexico and for milling corn that's imported for feed to keep it from being planted, as acceptable ways for preserving the integrity of the wild races of corn and teosinte, which are deemed of special importance by the indigenous peoples and also by many clerics in Mexico. Although the CEC advisory group was careful to say that GM corn is safe and useful in the US and is "probably even safe in Mexico," explains Julian Kinderlerer, Professor of Environmental Law at the University of Sheffield in the UK and a member of the CEC advisory group, "the report is also saying 'respect peoples' culture...and there's a need to take issues other than the purely scientific into account.'"
Other recommendations in the report include the need to find better ways of conserving Mexican maize and teosinte races and to better coordinate biotechnology regulatory policies among Mexican, Canadian and US governments. Among its 16 formal recommendations, which are purely advisory, the report calls for further research into and use of better methods to monitor gene flow and potential health effects of GM corn as well as ways to mitigate gene flow, should it occur.
The US government formulated instant and sweeping criticisms to the report whereas Mexican and Canadian officials only objected to parts of it. In a pointed, jointly issued statement, officials of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of the US Trade Representative called the CEC report "fundamentally flawed and unscientific" and claimed that many of its recommendations are untenable for being "based solely on sociocultural considerations." Moreover, according to the joint statement, "Implementing many of the report's recommendations would cause economic harm to farmers and consumers in all NAFTA countries and restrict international trade."
The emphatic response of US officials surprised Don Doering of Winrock International in Arlington, Virginia, who was part of the advisory group that wrote the CEC report. "It's kind of amazing the US is so reliant on its regulatory system [for biotechnology] but shows such disregard for regulatory systems in other countries" (see Box 1). One important theme in the CEC report is to allow the Mexican government time to establish its own regulatory regime for evaluating the local impact of GM corn. Incidentally, soon after the report was published, Mexico voted a new law, on December 14, that regulates GM crops. Opponents complain that the law caters for the interest of big business without protecting the country's biodiversity.
The US reaction reflects a broader strategy to discredit criticisms of GM that interfere with exports of such agbiotech products, including those meant for European markets, according to Kinderlerer. "Part of the reason the US is scoffing at this report is to protect its markets and because of concern that other countries will put up barriers to US (agbiotech) products," he says. If accepted even informally as establishing a precedent, the CEC report could prove damaging to the challenge before the World Trade Organization that the United States brought against Europe regarding its alleged trade barriers to GM crops and foods.
The CEC report focuses on traits in a GM crop from one country potentially contaminating native and related species of that crop in a nearby developing country—a situation that need not be limited to corn or to the US and Mexico. Thus, for example, GM plantings in South America are increasing, questions about GM imports to African nations persist and China seems poised to step up its GM-crop-related activities, according to Doering. In this context, he says, "Lots of countries look more like Mexico than they look like the US...My suspicion is that the CEC report will have a long life, and certainly where Mexican GM crops are concerned."
Monsanto Fined $2m for Bribe
- Jonathan Birchall, The Australian, January 8, 2005
Monsanto is to pay $US1.5 million ($2 million) in penalties to the US Government over a bribe paid in Indonesia in a bid to bypass controls on the screening of new genetically modified cotton crops. According to a criminal complaint by the Department of Justice, the agrichemical company paid $US50,000 to an unnamed senior Indonesian environmental official in 2002, in an unsuccessful attempt to amend or repeal the requirement for the environmental impact statement for new crop varieties.
The cash payment was delivered by a consultant working for the company's Indonesian affiliate, but was approved by a senior Monsanto official based in the US, and disguised as consultant's fees. The company also admitted that it had paid more than $US700,000 in bribes to various officials in Indonesia between 1997 and 2002, financed through improper accounting of its pesticide sales in Indonesia.
As part of the agreement with the DoJ and the US Securities & Exchange Commission, Monsanto has also pledged to appoint independent consultants to review its business practices over a three-year period, when the criminal charges against it would be dropped permanently by the DoJ.
Assistant US Attorney-General Christopher Wray said the agreement required Monsanto's full co-operation and acceptance of responsibility for the wrongdoing. "Companies cannot bribe their way into favourable treatment by foreign officials," he said. Monsanto general counsel Charles Burson said: "Monsanto accepts full responsibility for these improper activities, and we sincerely regret that people working on behalf of Monsanto engaged in such behaviour."
Monsanto said it had first become aware of financial irregularities in its Indonesian affiliates in 2001. The company also said it had voluntarily notified US government officials of the results of an internal investigation, and had fully co-operated with the investigations by the DoJ and the SEC.
The attempt to circumvent environmental controls on genetically modified crops in a developing country is a significant embarrassment for Monsanto, which is engaged in an ongoing campaign to win public support in the European Union for its GM crops.
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