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March 2, 2005


Unscientific Bans; No Risk-Free Anything; Mexico's New Law; Chinese Rice; IRRI's New Chief; Misinformation Game


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : march 2, 2005

* Aussie Ag Minister Attacks State Bans on GM Crops
* The Good Found in GURTs
* Mexico's New Biosecurity Law
* China May Approve GM Rice Within An Year
* Impact of Biotech Regulation on University Research
* ISB News Report - March 2005 Issue
* New Director General for the Intl Rice Research Institute
* India Needs Biotech Varieties of Oil Seeds and Millets


Aussie Ag Minister Attacks State GM Crop Bans

- Robin Pash, Australian Associated Press Financial News Wire, March 2, 2005

Canberra - Australian farmers were falling behind their competitors because "unscientific" bans by the states were denying them the benefits of gene technology, a federal minister said today.

The comments by Agriculture Minister Warren Truss came as a senior researcher said the genetic modification of crops was probably the fastest adapted agricultural technology ever and should be embraced by Australia.

Cotton is the only commercial broadacre crop in Australia that contains GM plants, and most states have moratoria on the release of commercial GM food crops. About 80 per cent of the more than 300,000 hectares of Australia's cotton crop contains GM plants, and the figure is expected to grow when the tenth crop containing GM strains goes in later this year.

Mr Truss said the state moratoria were hurting farmers. "How much longer can Australian farmers compete if unscientific state bans on Genetically Modified Organisms deny access to higher yielding, pest and disease resistant, drought tolerant plant varieties?" he told the Victorian Rural Press Club today.

There was scepticism in the community and among consumers about Genetically Modified Organisms, and more needed to be done to assure them of the technology's safety and benefits, he said.

New GM varieties still had to be carefully evaluated, Mr Truss said.

"The reality is that gene technology is often just a quick way of doing in a laboratory what farmers have always done - select attractive traits in the breeding process for animals and plants," Mr Truss said. "The crops and livestock we grow today would be unrecognisable to the world's first farmers."

In Canberra, CSIRO Plant Industry senior research scientist Phil Larkin said 81 million hectares of GM crops were planted worldwide in 2004, up 20 per cent on the previous year. GM, or transgenic crops had grown to occupy five per cent of the world's cultivable crop land in just nine years. "Despite the polarised positions on its merits, this is arguably the most rapidly adopted new agricultural technology ever," Dr Larkin told the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics' annual conference.

Australia's experience with GM cotton had been very positive, with growers reducing pesticide use by 60 per cent. The Bolgard II strain of cotton, developed by bioscience giant Monsanto and used widely for the first time in the current crop, was expected to reduce pesticide use even further.

Dr Larkin said it had become fashionable for opponents of the introduction of GM crops to speak of a precautionary principal. "The precautionary principle is really a pretext for rejecting anything you don't like the sound of," he said.

"It's a formula for technological death by constipation. Nothing is risk free, and I would suggest that a better way to think about risk is to make comparisons of a new risk with risks that we already know, already work with, already understand and manage."

Market risks, Dr Larkin said, were real for some agricultural sectors but might have been exaggerated by some.

"The greatest risk facing Australian agriculture from GM technology is that we fail to position ourselves to benefit from its impact," he said.


The Good Found in GURTs

- Robert Wager, Globe and Mail (Canada), February 18, 2005 (reproduced with permission of the author)

'There is no such thing as risk-free anything. However, this fact does not stop some from demanding risk-free agricultural biotechnology.'

The controversies (mostly hypothetical) over genetically engineered (GE) crops and food never seem to end. As soon as one scare story is demonstrated to be false or highly unlikely, another floods the media. No doubt, this is by design. Canada recently stirred up a hornets nest when its representatives at the meeting of the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity in Bangkok called for the end to a de facto moratorium on the research and development of genetic use restriction technologies for genetically engineered crops.

Genetic use restriction technologies or GURTs are systems designed to prevent the unwanted transfer of transgenes (the DNA engineered into GE plants) to other plants or the unauthorized propagation of transgenic crops. There are several different ways they work, but these systems have one thing in common. They all block the possibility of the engineered genes and traits from ending up elsewhere.

Some GURT-containing GE seeds will not germinate, for example, while other GURT engineered plants will produce only sterile pollen. Either way, no genetically engineered genes will spread to other plants. This is why critics of GE crops call these terminator technologies. Perhaps more than any other aspects of genetically engineered crops, these technologies have been the target of massive fear-generating campaigns by critics.

Critics say GURTs threaten farmers in the developing world by preventing the saving of seed from this year's crop for next years planting. But GURTs are not designed for developing world farmers. They are designed, in part, for farmers who already buy new seed each year. Most farmers in the developed world buy hybrid, certified or transgenic seed each year. These types of seed cost more, but produce far better yields, protect the environment or cost far less to grow, so the farmer gains in the end. Virtually all corn grown in North America is from hybrid seed with 50 per cent transgenic. Better than 70 per cent of the canola grown in Canada is transgenic. The benefits are well documented, including less pesticide use, healthier corn with less fungal toxin contamination and healthy canola oils that are trans-fat free.

The development and incorporation of GURT technologies would have several advantages over today's transgenic crops. Along with ending illegal propagation of transgenic crops, the issue of horizontal gene flow would also be eliminated. Therefore, there would no longer be any issue of cross-pollination between transgenic and organic crops.

Perhaps this is why certain groups are fighting the development of GURTs so ferociously. In fact, pollen from transgenic crops does not threaten organic crop certification at all. According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), there should not be any threshold of cross-pollination, and if it occurs it does not necessarily threaten the organic status of the product. The IFOAM does not even advocate mandatory testing for the cross-pollination of organically grown crops from transgenic ones.

It has been suggested that GURTs will threaten biodiversity. Critics claim the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, of which Canada is a signature, prohibits the development of GURTs. However, Article 2 of the protocol states: "Parties shall ensure that the development, handling, transport, use and release of any living modified organism [international term for GE crops] are undertaken in a manner that prevents or reduces the risks to biodiversity."

Since GURTs would block gene flow from transgenic crops to other plants, their incorporation into biotechnology crops is actually in keeping with the International Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety agreement. There are approximately 60,000 seed varieties sold in North America each year. There are approximately 100 transgenic varieties of crops. It seems very far-fetched to suggest 100 transgenic varieties with sterile GURT engineering are going to threaten 60,000 non-transgenic varieties.

Blocking gene flow is important in another area of agricultural biotechnology. Up to now the production of most pharmaceuticals has required very expensive laboratories and production facilities. This is all about to change. Scientists have developed ways to make pharmaceuticals in plants. This has tremendous health and economic benefits. Where once a particular pharmaceutical might cost $100 per dose to produce, it can now be made in a plant for pennies. Everything from vaccines to heart medicines will be produced in genetically engineered plants. Of course, safety issues surrounding the growing of "pharma crops" have been considered in detail. There are very elaborate rules to maintain separation between food and pharmaceutical producing crops, including dedicated fields, large isolation distances, dedicated equipment, as well as separate storage and processing facilities.

Adding GURT technology to pharma crops would further increase the safety with the complete elimination of the possibility of pollen flow from pharma crops to related plants.

The whole world stands to benefit from such developments. Soon the lack of refrigeration that has hampered vaccine delivery in many parts of the world will no longer be a problem, for example. Pharma crops containing edible vaccines will be grown wherever they are needed. Two of the pharma crops furthest along in development contain vaccines for Hepatitis and Norwalk virus. Hundreds of millions of people stand to benefit from these advances in agricultural biotechnology.

Almost 10 years of growing biotechnology crops has demonstrated huge environmental benefits, better yields and healthier food with absolutely no demonstrated harm from consumption. Canada should be applauded for its call for a return of a science-based approach to continued research and development of GURTs. It is clear there are many benefits to incorporating GURTs into agricultural biotechnology.

Robert Wager is a member of the Biology Department at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo, B.C.


Mexican Biosecurity Law

- Prof. rew Kershen

I would much appreciate receiving a copy of the newly enacted Mexican Biosecurity Law.  I would most like to have the law in Spanish.  Thanks to anyone who can provide the law to me.


Mexico: Law on the Side of Transgenics?

- Diego Cevallos, Inter Press Service News Agency, March 2005 http://www.ipsnews.net/interna.asp?idnews=27676

MEXICO CITY - If anyone manipulates or trades in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) without authorisation, or uses them to make biological weapons, they will be hit with a fine of up to 127,600 dollars, according to a new Mexican law on biosecurity, one that could set the standard for all Latin America -- much to the chagrin of environmentalists.

Mexico took the lead by approving the Law on Biosecurity of Genetically Modified Organisms in mid-February. It is the first national legislation to encompass all aspects related to the use of transgenics in agriculture and introduce provisions to prevent the use of biotechnology to manufacture biological weapons.

More than 22.6 million hectares of farmland in Latin America are already planted with genetically modified crops, an area that includes portions of eight of the world's countries with greatest biodiversity: Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Costa Rica. (See infograph)

But laws on transgenic crops in Latin America remain unequal and spotty. ''It's a shame that they passed the Mexican law, because now our countries will want to take it as an example, even though it's a terrible law, because it lines up with the interests of the (biotech) transnationals,'' Morena Murillo, a director of the non-governmental Unidad Ecológica of El Salvador, told Tierramérica.

Since last year, Salvadoran lawmakers have been debating general legislation on biosecurity, as are their counterparts in Brazil, Guatemala and Paraguay. The global discussion and international agreements like the Cartagena Protocol aim to regulate the use of transgenics, because fears persist that these organisms have the potential to harm human health and the environment.

Genetically modified seeds were developed in the 1980s with the intent of improving certain plant traits, such as resistance to pests and extreme climate, greater nutritional content and better appearance. The technique consists of introducing the genes of one species into another, plant or animal, using vectors like inactivated viruses or bacteria.

But science has not provided conclusive answers about the impacts of GMOs on the environment and human health. However, there is a documented case of non-transgenic corn in the United States contaminated with the genetically modified corn variety Starlink, which had to be withdrawn from the market in 2000 after some human consumers reported allergic reactions.

Mexican scientists Bolívar Zapata, winner of the Prince of Asturias Prize for Science and Technology, and Luis Herrera, considered one of the ''fathers'' of biotech, maintain that the law passed in their country adapts to the reality imposed by the existence of the GMOs.

The two experts told Tierramérica that they hope the legislation's content serves as a guide for other countries. ''The Mexican law could be a big help for those who are interested in developing their own laws,'' said Herrera, who, along with other researchers, in 1983 created the first genetically modified plant in 1983, at the University of Gante, Belgium.

But despite the scientists' hopes, in most Latin American countries, the passage of the Mexican biosecurity law went by unnoticed. There is an array of laws in the region that establish special commissions to study the impact of transgenic crops, impose limits on cultivation, and sanctions on use that causes harm. But environmentalists believe that today's reality has rendered those laws obsolete, and that they need to be updated.

GMO crops are regulated in Argentina under a ''seed law'' dating to 1973, to which numerous provisions have been added. In the Americas, Argentina is second only to the United States for the total area planted with transgenics.

In Brazil, number three in GMO crop production in the Americas, the 1995 biosecurity law began to fall to the wayside as a result of the illegal -- but tolerated -- cultivation of transgenic soybeans. But contentious public debate about a new law continues to simmer.

The biosecurity bill currently under debate in parliament ''will have a hard time winning approval because it contradicts the constitution and does not require environmental impact studies,'' Paulo Pacini, attorney for the Brazilian Consumer Defense Institute, told Tierramérica. His group has taken its protest against cultivation of transgenic crops to the nation's courts.

In Chile, genetically modified seeds are authorised only for producing more seeds and their subsequent export. A government decree has regulated GMOs since 1993. The Chilean government pledged two years ago to present a bill on biosecurity, but in the unfavourable political climate, it ended up shelving the initiative. The total area planted with transgenics in Chile is less than 8,000 hectares. ''Chile doesn't have the capacity to monitor and regulate the indiscriminate release of transgenics,'' Juan Carlos Cuchacovich, coordinator of Greenpeace-Chile's campaign against transgenics.

And the situation in Peru doesn't seem to be much different. This Andean nation has had its Law for the Prevention of Risks from the Use of Biotechnology since 1999. But according to an evaluation by experts, conducted as part of a United Nations project, the law has not been fully implemented and even so has several loopholes.

The scientists and environmentalists consulted by Tierramérica agreed that close attention should be paid to the new Mexican law on biosafety, but there was discrepancy about whether it should be replicated in other countries.

Those opposed to transgenics argue that the law, approved amidst protests, should be called the ''Monsanto law'', referring to the transnational corporation that is the world leader in production of genetically modified seeds, and which was one of several companies to lobby for the law's passage. In 124 articles, 33 pages and dozens of addenda, the text establishes the promotion of biotech research and creates mechanisms to regulate entry of transgenic products into the country, including required labelling of seeds.

The Mexican law establishes the intention of confronting the potential negative environmental impacts of GMOs, but also of making the most of potential advantages. It creates a framework for authorising the entry of transgenics on a ''case by case'' basis and ''step by step'' follow-up, with the participation of several ministries, advised by a special committee of scientists, which can also request input and opinions from civil society.

Alejandro Calvillo, director of Greenpeace-Mexico, said in a Tierramérica interview that the legislation has its positive aspects, but also has gaps and errors, largely because it was written behind civil society's back. In the opinion of the environmental watchdog Greenpeace, the Mexican legislation is geared towards developing biotechnology, and does not have an adequate framework to ensure that local communities be informed when transgenics are released into the environment, nor does it provide a space for lodging complaints about those projects.

Furthermore, the law sets up a fund for biotech development, but not have anything similar for preventing or counteracting the potential harm caused by transgenic crops, says Greenpeace.

Scientist Zapata says opposition to GMOs is the result of ignorance and fear of innovation. Herrera and Zapata say that in all the years that genetically modified crops have been cultivated and consumed around the world, no evidence has emerged that they cause harm to health or the environment. This technology has come to stay, according to the two scientists.

With reporting by Marcela Valente in Argentina, Mario Osava in Brazil, Daniela Estrada in Chile and Jorge Grochembake in Guatemala. Originally published Feb. 26 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme


China Seen Approving GM Rice Within An Year


China is expected to approve the production of genetically modified rice within the year, potentially spurring other rice-producing countries in the Asian region to follow suit, according to a report by the Xinhua agency.

"All signals indicate that China may begin commercial cultivation of biotech rice within the year," said Randy Hautea, Manila-based global coordinator of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Hautea said China had been undertaking extensive field trials for biotech rice in the past few years and expected the approval of authorities for commercial production within the year.

Field-testing of two biotech varieties in the provinces of Hubei and Fujian showed yield increases of around 4% to 8% and pesticide reduction of around 80%, translating to an overall increase in net income by US$80-US$100 per hectare, Hautea said.

According to Hautea, tighter domestic supply last year, which forced China to import even low-grade rice, was apparently a major contributing factor in the aggressive pursuit of genetically modified rice varieties by the country.

While fluctuations in China's rice production were caused mostly by adverse weather conditions, the availability of pest-resistant rice varieties could help stabilize output. "The real problem is the instability in year to year output because of weather factors and outbreaks of pest infestation. You may not be able to control the weather, but a pest-resistant variety would help stabilize production," Hautea said.

The rice is a genetically modified variety that is resistant to the stem borer pest, a major problem across Asia, including China. In China, insect borers are prevalent on up to 75% of the country's approximately 30 million hectares of rice plantations. Faced with a challenge of having to feed about 20 percent of the world's population, China had taken an aggressive policy stance to take advantage of the benefits of biotechnology, Hautea said.


Exploring the Impact of Biotech Regulation on Small Businesses and University Research

- Conference call: Friday, March 4, 2005, at 11:30am EST; Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology

Since agricultural biotechnology was first introduced in the mid-1990s, stakeholders have debated whether or not the regulatory system places undue burdens on small businesses and university researchers, who typically lack the financial and technical resour ces of larger companies. USDA's announcement in January 2004, that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) would review the way it regulates agricultural biotechnology provides an opposrtunity to reconsider the impacts of regulation on small businesses and university research without jeopardizing product safety.

On Friday, March 4, 2005, at 11:30am EST the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology will host a conference call with a small group of experts on the unique needs of small businesses and university researchers with respect to biotech regulation.

Interested media can participate in the call by dialing (888) 825-6574. Advance registration is required. The call will be moderated by Dr. Michael Fernandez, director of science with the Pew Initiative, and feature: Roger Wyse, Ph.D., Managing Director, Burrill & Co., who will discuss the impact that uncertainty in the regulatory system has on venture capitalist investment and how that in turn affects the research and innovation of small businesses and universities.

David Williams, Senior Vice President of Operations, Chlorogen, who will discuss the impact current biotech regulation has on small businesses, existing concerns and ways the regulatory system could be improved to address those concerns.

David Tricoli, Facility Manager, Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Plant Transformation Center at the University of California at Davis, who will share his thoughts about the effects current biotech policy has on university research on genetically modified organisms.

Comments will focus on issues raised at a roundtable discussion co-sponsored by the Pew Initiative and APHIS in June 2004. Proceedings from that event, titled "Impacts of Biotech Regulation on Small Business and University Research: Possible Barriers and Potential Solutions," will be released on Monday, March 7, 2005. To RSVP and receive an advance copy of the proceedings contact Kim Brooks 202-347-9055 ext. 230 or kbrooks@p ewagbiotech.org


ISB News Report - March 2005 Issue
at http://www.isb.vt.edu/news/2005/news05.mar.html#mar0506

* A Workshop on Agricultural Species as Biomedical Models
* A Gene Repression System in Plants via Chromosome Remodeling by Histone Deacetylases
* TILLING: Harvesting functional genomics for crop improvement
* Tobacco and Rice Plants Express Insulin-like Growth Factor*
* Unwinding after High Salinity Stress: Development of Salinity Tolerant Plant without Affecting Yield
* Upcoming Meeting: Agricultural Biotechnology: Ten Years After


New Director General for the International Rice Research Institute


Los Baños, Philippines -- An internationally respected plant pathologist with more than 20 years experience in agricultural research in the developing world has been named as the next director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

A citizen of the United States, Robert (Bob) Zeigler, 54, takes over from Ronald P. Cantrell who retired as IRRI’s director general in December 2004. Dr. Zeigler worked at IRRI from 1992 to 1998 as a plant pathologist. During this period, he led the Rainfed Lowland Rice Research Program (1992-96) and the Irrigated Rice Research Program (1996-98).

Keijiro Otsuka, chair of IRRI’s Board of Trustees, said he was delighted that Dr. Zeigler had accepted the Board’s offer. "We were very fortunate to have had a shortlist of world-class candidates for the director general position and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who applied and especially those who took part in the interview process," he added.

Dr. Zeigler earned his Ph.D. in plant pathology from Cornell University in 1982, his Masters in botany (forest ecology) from Oregon State University in 1978, and his B.Sc. in biological sciences from the University of Illinois in 1972. After graduating in 1972, he joined the Peace Corps and spent two years as a science teacher in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa (formerly known as Zaire). He then returned to the U.S. to complete his studies before joining in 1980 IRRI’s sister center in Colombia, the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT) as a visiting research associate working on cassava.

In 1982, Dr. Zeigler went to Burundi to work for three years as a technical adviser for the African nation’s maize program at the Institut des Sciences Agronomique du Burundi. He then returned to CIAT as the institute’s senior staff plant pathologist until 1992, ultimately taking over as the head of its rice program.

It was his success at CIAT that led IRRI to offer Dr. Zeigler his first position in the Philippines as the leader of the Institute’s Rainfed Lowland Rice Research Program. "We are especially pleased to be able to appoint as director general someone who has worked here so successfully for as long as Dr. Zeigler," Dr. Otsuka said.

After six years at IRRI, Dr. Zeigler left to become professor and head of the Department of Plant Pathology and director of the Plant Biotechnology Center at Kansas State University in the U.S., before briefly working as director of the Generation Challenge Program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) based in Mexico.


India Needs Transgenic Varieties of Oil Seeds and Millets: Interview with Dr C Kameswar Rao

- Namratha Jagtap, Biospectrum (India), Feb. 2005. Excerpts below..
Full article at http://www.biospectrumindia.com/content/shakers/10502111.asp

Dr C Kameswar Rao needs little introduction to the biotech community. An eminent botanist, he is currently the executive secretary of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education (FBAE), a non-profit organization that works to spread biotechnology awareness and to promote sustainable development through safe biotechnologies. Dr Rao is also a member of a US-based committee of the National Academies, which is dedicated to the furtherance of science and technology and to their use for the general welfare.

* How does the general public perceive agricultural biotechnology?
- If you talk to people on the streets of India, it becomes apparent that few people are against biotechnology per se. Medical biotechnology, for example, is broadly accepted: there seems to be no reservations about biotechnology if the end result is believed to be improvements in medicine. Agricultural biotechnology is another matter. Although more than 100 generic products have been made available in India in recent years, we have had enormous difficulties in introducing Bt cotton and genetically modified mustard. And we face similar difficulties now with regard to the introduction of 'golden rice'.

The public perception of genetically engineered agricultural products in India is largely one based on suspicion and doubt. This is mainly due to misinformation and ignorance about what agricultural biotechnology is, and what it can do for us.

* What do you think is the reason behind the fear and suspicion in public mind?
- The anti-technology activists are responsible for all misinformation. Information is taken out of context, blown up out of proportion and disseminated widely through the media. For example, cotton plant contains a polyphenol that is used in medicine as an abortive agent and to induce menstruation, in effect it is an anti-fertility factor. A representative of a farmers' organization once cautioned that Bt cotton contains this anti-fertility factor, and this led to a major scare-women refused to pick Bt cotton in the field and as a result, farmers faced delays in picking. But the point is that if Bt cotton has an anti-fertility factor, it is because it is a cotton plant and not because it is Bt cotton. Hence there is a need for more industry sponsored action to bridge the information gap.

These activists hardly have any scientific background. They seamlessly mix up scientific, ethical, economic, societal and political issues. If you talk about 'golden rice', they will say that it will not reach the poor. Why will it not reach the poor? The agreement between the government and the patent owners is that at any time, if the cost of 'golden rice' is higher than that of a comparable variety of rice sold in the market, the government will have to pay the technology costs, otherwise the technology transfer of 'golden rice' to developing countries is free of cost.

Talking of 'golden rice', I would like to clarify something here. It is a misconception that 'golden rice' contains vitamin A. It actually is rich in beta carotene, which is converted into Vitamin A in our body.

* Your comments on the agricultural biotechnology scenario in the country ...
- India principally needs transgenic varieties of oil seeds and millets. The cultivation of these crops fell drastically in the past four decades in preference to cultivation of rice, tobacco, cotton, sugarcane and other cash crops. And as a result, the rural economy of the country is upset.