Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : May 9, 2005
* One Billionth Acre of Biotech Crops Has Been Planted
* Scientists Must Make Themselves Heard
* Several Developing Countries Have Good Biotech Programs
* Syngenta's Gaff Embarrasses Industry and White House
* Defensive Eating
* Change Surfer Radio - Feed the World
* Julian Simon Award for Barun Mitra
* Framing the Issues on Transgenic Forests
* Lost in the Woods
One Billionth Acre of Biotech Crops Has Been Planted
'Farmers around the globe have adopted this technology with amazing speed'
Des Moines, Iowa, USA (May 8, 2005) - The one billionth cumulative
acre of biotech crops will be planted somewhere in the world today.
A counter designed to track biotech crop acres as they are planted
and harvested around the world, researched by Ross Korves, economist
and policy analyst for Truth About Trade and Technology (TATT)
www.truthabouttrade.org, has indicated that the one billionth acre
was planted on Sunday, May 8.
"The astonishing speed with which farmers from around the world have
adopted this technology is significant," stated Dean Kleckner, an
Iowa farmer and Chairman of Truth About Trade and Technology. "It
took us a generation to accept pasteurization and the full acceptance
and use of hybridization took years and years. Not that long ago, it
may have been possible to say that biotech crops were a new fangled
concept. Not today. With a billion acres planted - and in their
10th year of commercialization - seeds with biotech traits are a new
safe and conventional source of food."
The TATT biotech counters are based on a starting point established
for planted and harvested acres by ISAAA Brief No. 32-2004 Preview-
Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2004 by Clive James
of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech
Applications (ISAAA). On December 31, 2004 the accumulated global
biotech acres planted was 951 million acres. In 2004 alone, more
than eight million farmers planted 200 million acres of biotech crops
in 17 countries. Ninety percent of those farmers are resource-poor
farmers from developing countries. While the United States
continues to dominate agriculture biotechnology, more than one third
of the 2004 biotech crop was grown in developing countries and that
percentage is growing rapidly.
"Ten years of use and a billion acres planted around the world have
clearly shown the economic benefits of biotech crops" said Korves.
"Documented analysis of producer experiences in both developed and
developing countries indicate increased economic return as a direct
result of biotech crop production. Environmental benefits for
consumers and producers are realized through less pesticide use and
improved soil conservation. With more countries establishing new
regulatory frameworks for the use of biotech crops, acreage should
continue to expand rapidly in the years ahead."
Outline of Process for Estimating Number of Biotech Acres Planted and Harvested
- Ross Korves, Trade Policy Analyst, May 2005
1. The starting point for the estimates of planted and harvested
acres is ISAAA Brief No. 32-2004, "PREVIEW- Global Status of
Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2004" by Clive James of the
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech
2. According to the ISAAA reports, as of December 31, 2004, 951.3
million acres of biotech crops had been planted from 1996 through
2004. The report noted that this acreage estimate includes acres in
the Southern Hemisphere that had been planted in the fall of 2004 but
would not be harvested until sometime in 2005.
3. Based on the number of biotech crops acres reported as planted in
the Southern Hemisphere in 2004 and a small acreage of second crop
corn in the Philippines, I estimated that 893.5 million acres of
biotech crops had been harvested by December 31, 2004.
4. These acres planted in 2004 are being tracked as they are
harvested in 2005. The Department of Agriculture in Argentina
reports weekly harvest estimates for corn, soybean and cotton. The
private market analysis firm Safras e Mercado makes a weekly harvest
estimate for Brazil. Harvest in Uruguay and Paraguay is estimated
based on the estimates for Brazil and Argentina. Estimates for the
other countries are based on weather reports, industry reports and
information from U.S. ag attache reports.
5. The starting point for estimating biotech plantings in the
Northern Hemisphere in 2005 is the estimates by ISAAA for the 2004
crops. U.S. acreage is based on the March 1, 2005 U.S. Planting
Intentions report from NASS-USDA and the percent biotech acres in
2004 by state for corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. Weekly planting
estimates come from the weekly NASS-USDA reports. U.S. acreage will
be revised based on the June 30 Acres Planted report from USDA
providing acreage estimates and percent of the crops that are biotech.
6. Biotech acres in Canada are based on Statistics Canada's estimates
of planting intentions for March 31, 2005 that were released in late
April of 2005 and industry estimates of the percent of biotech crops
in 2004. Weekly planting estimates are based on U.S. plantings in
states with similar latitudes.
7. Biotech acres for other countries in the Northern Hemisphere are
based on the ISAAA estimates for 2004, U.S. ag attaché reports,
industry estimates, press reports and USDA specialists. Weekly
estimates of acres planted are based on traditional planting dates
with some adjustments based on weather reports.
Scientists Must Make Themselves Heard
- Adrienne Clarke, Australian Financial Review, May 7, 2005 via
Vivian Moses; http://newsstore.fairfax.com.au
We are living in a time of great change driven, fundamentally, by the
exponential increase in global population and rapid industrialisation
of developing countries. Increases in greenhouse gases, destruction
of forests and arable lands and loss of biodiversity are all due to
human activity. We face global shortages of water and power as the
developing world increases consumption and aspires to the lifestyles
of the developed world.
There are no quick and easy solutions to the challenges the world
faces, but there is no doubt that many of the possibilities for the
future will be based on new technologies. The agenda to address these
challenges includes technologies for water recycling,
nanotechnologies, reproductive technologies, genetically modified
plants and nuclear energy, and many more.
An emerging role for universities may be to inform debate on the
risks and benefits of new technologies in a more organised and
deliberate way than has been possible in the past. The facts and
uncertainties about new technologies need to be presented objectively
in an accessible form. This would establish a knowledge base from
which the views of various anti-technology activist groups could be
considered. These groups often operate on the basis of belief systems
rather than facts.
The media is well informed by these groups of the imagined horrors of
a particular technology and horror stories sell very well. These
groups, which include some non-government organisations, have highly
paid professional staff who operate within an infrastructure that
delivers their view very effectively.
On the other hand, the media is not so effectively informed by the
university scientists who are actively involved in development of
these technologies. For scientists, informing the media is usually an
unfunded, add-on activity.
Two technologies, genetically modified foods and nuclear energy,
illustrate how misinformation distorts the debate and obscures the
reality. The GM food debate started with the spectre of
"Frankenfoods" a very clever mantra, but one without any scientific,
theoretical or practical credibility.
Essentially, the creation of a new trait in a crop using genetic
modification involves transferring one or more specific genes into
the plant. Some of the arguments put forward against the use of this
technology were that the genes were foreign and therefore in some way
The fact is that we eat foreign genes every day, including beef,
sheep and chicken genes as well as tomato genes and potato genes. All
this and other foreign DNA is degraded in the gut. There is no
evidence throughout human history that any foreign genes have ever
been incorporated into the human genome. There have been countless
inquiries by governments around the world and none have found any
evidence to warrant stopping the use of GM crops.
In a practical sense, more than 300 million people have eaten GM
foods for more than eight years and there hasn't been a single report
of any adverse health effect. There has been rapid uptake of GM
crops. Eight million farmers now plant GM crops in 17 countries.
About 81 million hectares were planted around the world last year.
The global value of GM crop production in 2003 was $44 billion.
The major GM crops are soya, corn, cotton and canola engineered for
one or both of two traits: resistance to herbicides and resistance to
insect pests. The rapid take-up of this technology is due to its
economic, environmental and health benefits, driven in part by the
dramatically lowered requirement for chemical pesticides.
Plants are the main renewable energy source of our planet. There are
many new traits in the pipeline, such as drought tolerance, tolerance
to salt, plants with a high content of oil, and golden rice
(containing vitamin A and iron).
The global market has accepted GM technology and the market for it
will grow further as these next-generation traits become commercially
Globally, the markets and governments have accepted both GM and
nuclear technologies. In Australia, the debates have been patchy and
the mechanisms for informing the debates imperfect.
There's no doubt that new technologies will continue to be developed.
Some will be in response to demand and others will be for
applications we can't yet even imagine. If we are to take part in new
technologies and we must we need to come up with radically different
ways to inform the public and decision-makers.
The facts must be accessible. In the absence of facts, belief systems
prevail, poor decisions are made and we all miss out.
Adrienne Clarke is Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne.
She is a shareholder and director of several companies with GM, food
technology and energy interests. These are her own views. This is an
extract from the 2004 Ian McLennan Oration.
Several Developing Countries Have Good Biotech Programs
ROME, 6 May (FAO) -- Several developing countries now have well
developed biotechnology programmes; they are approaching the leading
edge of biotechnology applications and have significant research
capacity, according to a new Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
assessment on the status of research and application of crop
biotechnologies in developing countries.
Based on a review of the information in the FAO database on
Biotechnology in Developing Countries (FAO-BioDeC ), which covers
both genetically modified ( GM ) crops and non-GM biotechnologies,
the assessment suggests that developing countries will soon have new
GM crops available, such as virus-resistant papaya, sweet potato and
cassava, as well as rice tolerant to abiotic stresses ( salinity and
Most of the genetically modified organisms ( GMOs ) commercialized so
far in developing countries have been acquired from developed
countries and focus on a limited number of traits ( mainly herbicide
tolerance and insect pest resistance ) and crops ( commodities such
as cotton, soybean and maize ).
However, the FAO assessment reveals that several developing countries
have been conducting research on a wider range of crops, such as
banana, cassava, cowpea, plantain, rice and sorghum, and on traits
relevant for food security, such as abiotic stress tolerance and
Argentina, Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Mexico and South Africa
have taken the lead. A second group of countries has medium-scale
agricultural biotechnology programmes, usually in a few key areas.
Other developing nations have relatively limited research capacity,
according to the FAO report.
"We hope that research activities in developing countries will
increasingly focus on issues important for food security", said
Andrea Sonnino, from FAO's Research and Technology Development
There are, however, some noticeable gaps in research. For example,
no research is reported in the field of nematode resistance despite
the considerable losses caused by these plant parasites. Another
fundamental but neglected research problem concerns post-harvest
losses. The study also notes that biosafety capacity-building is
needed to enable many countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin
America and the Near East to fully benefit from GMO technology.
Regarding non-GM biotechnologies, many are being used on a commercial
scale, but only a few studies have been carried out to assess their
socio-economic impacts. The report highlights that this is an area
needing urgent attention as it is likely to help guide research and
technology policies and investments towards wider and efficient
utilization of all biotechnologies.
Syngenta's Gaff Embarrasses Industry and White House
- Stephan Herrera, Nature Biotechnology 23, 514; May 2005,
www.nature.com/nbt ; reproduced in AgBioView with the permission of
'Accidental release of Bt-10 in US farms does not bode well for the
Late in March it was widely reported that the Swiss agribusiness
group Syngenta had inadvertently mislabeled and sold Bt-10, an
unapproved genetically modified (GM) corn seed, as Bt-11, which is
approved, to US farmers between 2001 and 2004. Although the US
government deemed the matter to be a legal rather than health or
environmental matter, this latest industry public relations mishap
may strengthen calls to tighten legislation on genetically modified
(GM) products in the US. Meanwhile, the incident provided new
ammunition for an old gripe over trade between the US and the EU,
which launched its own investigation.
After Nature broke the story on March 24, Syngenta disclosed that its
Bt-10 test line somehow found its way into five production lines of
Bt-11. Bt-10, which like Bt-11 contains a toxin gene from the soil
bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), was kept around purely for
research purposes as it did not prosper quite as well in fields as
Bt-11. Syngenta says the amount of Bt-10 corn that was sold as Bt-11
would cover an estimated 37,000 acres. For a sense of scale, during
that same time 113 million acres of GM corn were planted in the US.
We may never know exactly how or when the comingling occurred, to
what extent the global food system was contaminated, or how Syngenta
calculated its acreage proclamation. But, all agree that the fact
that it did occur suggests that there was some sloppy handling of
materials that should have been treated with the utmost of care at
all times for any number of reasons-some scientific, others purely
Quite predictably, the incident triggered a chain reaction of
high-voltage commentary from some European regulators and biotech
critics who all but likened the event to the release of a plume of
radioactive particles into the atmosphere and chided the company and
regulators for putting the public and the environment at risk.
"Incidents like the one with Starlink and Syngenta," says Steve
Strauss, professor of Forest Science at Oregon State University in
Corvalis, "unfortunately strengthen the case for tightening
regulations not loosening them at a time when regulations for
[biotech versus nonbiotech crops] are already totally out of sync
with actual and relative risk factors." (Nat. Biotechnol. 19, 11,
Although activists have charged that the biotech industry is not to
be trusted, Syngenta did, in fact, report this incident immediately
upon discovering it in December to the US Department of Agriculture
(USDA), the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) just as regulations require. US regulators
quickly confirmed that Bt-10 posed no human or environmental threat.
Because Bt-10 is not US government approved, planting, selling,
distributing, comingling or shipping it without a special government
permit is a violation of the Plant Protection Act. Thus far, the USDA
has determined that Syngenta was guilty of breaking laws on GM plants
and levied a $375,000 fine. The EU, on 15 April, announced its
intention to require imports of corn-based feed to be certified as
free of Bt-10. Meanwhile, the EPA and EU have launched their own
investigations, which could result in more fines for the company-and,
industry insiders fear, perhaps new regulations for the whole of the
GM crop industry.
Syngenta made much of the fact that the Bt-10 corn is identical to
Bt-11, which is approved for human consumption in the US, the EU and
Japan. In fact, they are similar but not identical. Bt-10 differs
from Bt-11 is that it contains an inactive marker gene which
originally conferred resistance to ampicillin, a commonly used
antibiotic. The inactive gene is a relic from the process used to
select transgenic corn cells during strain construction. The release
of such genes into the environment has been contested in the past
because of the small chance that functional versions could transfer
from crops to microorganisms and spread problems of antibiotic
resistance. "But for the purposes of the government's investigation,"
says Jim Rogers a spokesman for the USDA, "this is not a question
about exactly how similar or different they are, or about public
safety. Both are nearly identical and both are safe. But, only one of
them is approved."
Still, Syngenta did themselves, newly installed US Trade
Representative Rob Portman and the biotech industry no favors--not
just by letting the Bt-10 seeds slip off radar in the first place,
but also by taking nearly 4 months to publicly release information
that something was amiss.
Friends of the Earth Europe was prompt to issue a statement saying,
"This is an industry out of control ... This [Syngenta] case makes a
complete mockery of the US regulatory system for GM crops." Even the
relatively mild-mannered Council for Responsible Genetics in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, called it a "massive failure of the US
regulatory system ... This is certainly going to be a big problem for
the United States."
Indeed, the White House has been dragged into this affair because of
the potential of Bt-10 to further complicate trade negotiations with
Europe. The incident has, however, not alarmed skittish agbiotech
investors, who surely would have fled Syngenta shares by now if they
believed, as they did with Monsanto shares in 2000 in the wake of a
laboratory study on the impact of Bt pollen on Monarch butterfly
larvae (Nat. Biotechnol. 17, 627, 1999), that political or
regulatory trouble was in the offing. In fact, Syngenta's share
price, after an initial drop when news broke of the Bt-10 incident,
remains close to its 52-week high.
Syngenta is not in the clear yet, however. Regardless of what
regulators decide to do about Syngenta's "unintended event," Margaret
Mellon of the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists says the
damage has been done to both the company and the industry.
"Environmentalists and the media might have overreacted to this
incident," she says. "But it was Syngenta that mishandled things from
beginning to end."
- Luis Miguel Ariza, Scientific American, May 9, 2005 http://www.sciam.com/
'Food vaccines show promise--now forget about them'
The lack of refrigeration remains a vexing problem in vaccinating the
world's poor, because drugs often lose their efficacy in the heat.
One solution 200 years ago was to propagate the vaccine in orphan
children. "It was a really fascinating idea," remarks Charles
Arntzen, founder of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State
University--but not one to be implemented today. Instead Arntzen has
hopes for vaccines that exist inside crops and could just be eaten.
Arntzen conceived the idea of edible vaccines in the 1990s and has
since tried to realize it. He genetically engineered potatoes to
produce a vaccine against the hepatitis B virus, which kills one
million people every year. This past February he reported that in a
trial of an edible vaccine, up to 60 percent of volunteers who ate
raw chunks of the potato developed antibodies against the virus. The
signs of immunity are "an excellent start," Arntzen says.
Even so, Arntzen and others in the field are abandoning food
vaccines. Consumer fear that the modified fruits and vegetables could
end up in grocery stores is one issue. The medical worry, though, is
the dosage: as public health expert Jurrien Toonen of the Royal
Tropical Institute in Amsterdam points out, a tomato or banana is
never the same size, so the quantity of the vaccine could vary from
one piece to the next.
Because of the dosage concern, Hilary Koprowski of Thomas Jefferson
University, the discoverer of the live polio vaccine, discounts the
use of raw plants for massive immunization, even for farm animals.
"The edible vaccine should be given in capsules containing desiccated
leaf extract," he says.
Others agree that shifting the strategy for edible vaccines from food
to processed pills makes sense. Achieving uniform doses would be
easier, whether the extracts come from potatoes, lettuce, corn or
even tobacco leaves (if the nicotine and other alkaloids could be
removed). "We can freeze and dry potato, pack it in gelatin capsules
and make uniform dosages of the vaccine," Arntzen notes. And pills
would be cheaper. The Biodesign Institute projects that 200 acres
would produce enough hepatitis B antigen to immunize all the babies
in the world, at a cost of $0.05 per dose, compared with $0.30, the
lowest price of the current vaccine. Trials for edible vaccine pills
will probably begin in four to five years.
"Edible vaccines offer great advantages, as they do not need cold for
conservation," Toonen says. "But they are not enough to resolve the
whole situation." Even if they prove their efficacy, he states, they
would face the logistical problems of some countries that make it
difficult to deliver even the simplest pharmaceuticals to places far
from urban centers, where most children are vaccinated. And Arntzen
is aware of groups that systematically oppose genetic engineering.
But he is optimistic: "It is going to be hard to justify blocking
genetically modified plants if we can document we are reducing infant
Re: Marker-assisted breeding
- Bob MacGregor
I have a question about marker-assisted breeding. Are breeders using
existing (innate) markers or are they adding their own markers? If
the latter, doesn't that make the resulting, "conventionally-bred"
varieties GM... at least by the definition that the antis seem to be
Response From Prakash:
Breeders are using pre-existing natural DNA markers identified
through fingerprinting and other similar techniques (PCR markers such
as RAPD, AFLP and SSR) and thus not adding any new markers for this
purpose. So when one refers to 'marker assisted breeding', it does
not involve any genetic modification using rDNA techniques.
Change Surfer Radio - Feed the World
Host Dr. James J. Hughes chats with Channapatna Prakash, a
biotechnologist at Tuskegee University and founder of AgBioWorld, a
science-based information service on agricultural biotechnology
Listen to the interview, or download the MP3 at:
James Hughes Ph.D. teaches Health Policy at Trinity College in
Hartford Connecticut; also serves as the Executive Director of the
World Transhumanist Association. Dr. Hughes produces the weekly
syndicated public affairs talk show Changesurfer Radio, writes the
Change Surfing column for Betterhumans.com, and contributes to the
democratic transhumanist Cyborg Democracy blog. Dr. Hughes' book
Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the
Redesigned Human of the Future will be published by Basic Books in
Julian L. Simon Memorial Award 2005 for Barun Mitra
Liberty Institute's work on economic and environmental issues has
received international recognition.
Barun Mitra of Liberty Institute, New Delhi, has been nominated for
the Julian Simon Memorial Award 2005, by the Competitive Enterprise
Institute, in Washington DC. This is a recognition for his efforts in
highlighting the need for market oriented reforms in India, to
promote economic opportunity and combat poverty.
Mitra will receive CEI's Julian L. Simon Memorial Award at CEI's 11th
Annual Dinner on May 11 in Washington, D.C. This special award is
presented to the individual who best exemplifies the late Prof.
Julian Simon's ideals and optimism about the future of mankind. Prof
Simon was a pioneer who showed that human mind matters more than
material resources, and that progress and prosperity, in a free
economy, contributes not only to better quality of life, but also
improves environmental quality.
"Barun Mitra has demonstrated an outstanding dedication and
results-oriented approach to expanding economic liberty and
empowering the peoples of India," said CEI President Fred L. Smith.
"India seems at long last to be breaking the economic chains that
have too long kept its people in poverty," Smith said. "The Liberty
Institute offers the intellectual ammunition and grassroots activism
that makes reform possible."
The Liberty Institute http://www.libertyindia.org develops
market-based responses to contemporary social, economic and
environmental issues to promote awareness of the institutional
pillars of a free society - individual rights, the rule of law,
limited government and free markets.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute presents the Julian L. Simon
Award to an individual who best exemplifies the late economist's
ideals and optimism in the future of mankind.
The research of Julian Simon (1932-1998) was truly
ground-breaking. Dr. Simon recognized that human beings are not a
liability to the earth but an asset and that natural resources derive
their value from the intellect of man and are, therefore, always
renewable. Dr. Simon's research was highlighted by a bet he made
with Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich. Wanting to prove his theory
that natural resources are not finite in a true sense, Dr. Simon
challenged Ehrlich in 1980 to choose five commodities that he
believed would become more scarce and therefore more expensive over a
decade. Ten years later, the price of each metal had fallen. In
commemoration of the bet, the Julian L. Simon Award includes a
sculpture of oak leaves, with the veins representing the five metals
chosen by Ehrlich: chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten.
For more information, or if you would like to attend CEI annual
dinner on May 11, 2005, you may please contact - Christine Hall-Reis
Framing the Issues on Transgenic Forests
- Claire G. Williams, Nature Biotechnology 23, 530 - 532, May 2005,
www.nature.com/nbt ; reproduced in AgBioView with the permission of
the editor. (Duke University, Durham, North Carolina)
To the editor:
Your News Feature in the February issue (Nat. Biotechnol. 23,
165?167, 2005) highlighted rapid advances being made in forest
molecular domestication. Counter to Herrera's assertion that "most of
the global funding for forest biotech is being funneled to
universities," the pursuit of genetic engineering in forest research
is principally corporate, shaped by the imperatives of private
investment, market forces and government regulatory institutions.
Novel forest tree phenotypes are thus created as a means to increase
shareholder value of investor companies. And although potential
benefits will accrue to shareholders, it is clear that ecological
risks of certain transgenic traits engineered into trees are likely
to be shared by all. Indeed, as the forest-products companies driving
adoption of transgenic technology hold less than 11% of US forest
acreage, it is the remaining majority-public landowners and private
small woodlot owners-that stands to lose the most.
Herrera indicates in his article that for forest biotech, "investors
are virtually nonexistent." Even so, private investment in forest
biotechnology is still sufficient to be fueling the creation of novel
transgenic phenotypes in trees at a rate that is outstripping public
policy deliberation and scientific assessment of environmental
concerns specific to trees. For example, trees disperse their seed
and pollen over unprecedented distances compared with crops. The
sheer scale of gene flow dynamics for trees presents a daunting
challenge in assessing the environmental impact of a transgenic trait
Second, trees produce an abundance of seed and pollen for many years
before they are ready for timber harvesting. Thus, in contrast to
seasonally harvested crops, pollen and seeds from trees disperse
without hindrance into their surroundings for many years. As seed and
pollen production increase with the age and height of a tree, each
year more seed and pollen travel progressively farther by a process
known as long-distance dispersal.
And third, most commercially cultivated tree species have many wild
relatives that grow in similar locations; thus there is a high
potential for mating. In contrast, in the US at least, such crops as
corn, cotton and soybeans have no wild or weedy relatives in the
vicinity, making gene spread from transgenic varieties more unlikely.
It is instructive to discuss these concerns in the context of
loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), a tree indigenous to the southeastern
United States and our major timber commodity. Pinus taeda grows as
natural or plantation forests on nearly 58 million acres in the
American South, providing 16% of the world's annual timber supply.
Annual planting demand is roughly one billion seedlings per year.
Harvest age for P. taeda is between 25 and 35 years, so standing
timber may be bought and sold several times before harvesting.
Pinus taeda and other pines have been domesticated since the mid-20th
century-relatively recent compared with food crops. Thus, it is
likely that a conifer expressing a transgenic trait would thrive
without human intervention after escape into an unmanaged ecosystem.
Because traditional breeding is managed at a population level to
conserve genetic diversity, neither inbred lines nor even breed
structure exists for domesticated P. taeda trees. The cost and effort
of traditional breeding has been borne by the private sector with the
notable exception of a few state agencies. No gene conservation
program has been formalized by the federal government for P. taeda.
Certain biotechnology firms--Arborgen in Summerville, South Carolina,
and CellFor in Vancouver, Canada--cited by Herrara in his article now
offer clonal P. taeda trees to timber companies via somatic
embryogenesis (the culture of undifferentiated cells from immature
embryos to yield unlimited quantities of a single genotype). The
availability of somatic embryogenesis for P. taeda makes genetic
engineering of this species feasible on a commercial scale for the
As yet, no extensive analysis of the environmental impact of a P.
taeda transgene has been undertaken. What is clear is that these
trees would outcross and produce abundant windborne pollen and seeds
each year. Consider that a fraction of seeds uplifted above the
forest canopy will move by the long-distance dispersal process as far
as 11.9 to 33.7 km. Out of 105 seeds produced per ha-1 yr-1 in a
16-year old plantation, roughly 70 seeds ha-1 will reach distances in
excess of 1 km from the source, a distance too great to serve as a
biocontainment zone. Pollen dispersal distances are even greater. The
probability of long-distance dispersal of transgenic conifer seeds
and pollen at distances exceeding 1 km approaches 100%. Although
99.9% of P. taeda seeds and pollen fall near the source tree, via a
dispersal process known as local neighborhood diffusion, it is the
remaining 0.01% that pose the greatest ecological concerns.
Long-distance dispersal provides the biological mechanism for
establishment of remote satellite colonies from transgenic P. taeda
seeds and pollen, even though it is not the most common process of
To date, the benefits of specific transgenic traits in P. taeda have
not been fully gauged because technology innovation is recent and
transgenic wood products have not reached timber harvest age. But
what will happen as these tests get older? At present, transgenic P.
taeda test stands must be cut down at onset of reproduction, whereas
the species reaches peak merchantable value only after the age of 25
years. This constitutes a regulatory impasse for collecting data on
benefits, especially given prospects of transient expression or
'gene-silencing' through harvest age.
Risk analysis is similarly incomplete. Mathematical models suggest
that movement of escaped transgenic seed and pollen on the scale of
kilometers from the source is a certainty. Movement of transgenic
pollen and seeds is problematic only if there is potential harm
associated with a specific transgenic trait, but potential harm has
not been tested. To be harmful, a tree must express a transgenic
trait that exhibits enhanced invasiveness properties compared with a
wild type. Increased invasiveness is harmful if it translates into
displacement of local endemic species or even long-term forest
maladaptation. No experimental evidence, pro or con, yet exists to
show whether specific transgenic traits in the context of forests are
harmful. The take-home message is that no experimental results for
either benefits or risk associated with transgenic P. taeda are
Commercial exploitation of transgenic trees, particularly indigenous
conifer P. taeda, is technically imminent; putting this into practice
will, however, be stymied by concerns over the environmental impact
of gene flow and the unique pattern of ownership of forest lands in
the United States.
The certainty of gene flow from transgenic forests is problematic
because neighboring lands are often less intensively managed public
and private forest lands. At present, the scale and staggering
expense of regulatory oversight alone could drive the political
outcome in the absence of risk-benefit analyses. Ecological
consequences of investment decisions on private lands deserve closer
scrutiny at a national level.
Calls for public deliberation are coming late in the life of the
forest product life cycle. I advocate that transgenic conifers be
considered separately from agricultural biosafety policy due to the
sheer scale and complexity of forest tree gene flow. Biocontainment
zones suited to transgenic food crops cannot deter escape of seeds or
pollen from transgenic P. taeda. Reproductive sterility research for
conifers, a complex problem, remains in its infancy and has not
received serious consideration as a national research priority.
There is thus an urgent need for policy makers to move on two fronts.
First, a gene conservation program should be formalized through the
National Forest System. In Region 8 of the southern United States,
for example, indigenous P. taeda forests need to be protected from
the potential impact of transgenic varieties. Widespread use of
clonal forests with or without genetic engineering will likely
rapidly narrow the numbers of P. taeda genotypes, opening the
question of how to protect undomesticated germ plasm and close
relatives, which remain largely undomesticated.
Second, forestry-specific research programs that address key issues
specific to the implementation of transgenic technology in forestry
need to be promoted within the existing cadre of national competitive
funding programs. We are in dire need of funding for research to
gauge the environmental impact of gene flow from trees. At present,
we remain ignorant on numerous aspects of tree biology and ecology
that affect whether or not we should proceed. Can pine pollen move in
the jet stream and, if so, will it remain viable? How does gene flow
from transgenic P. taeda affect indigenous pine forests or small
woodlot or public forest ownership patterns?
A singular priority for forest research is determining the scale of
regulatory oversight for transgenic forest trees. Responsible
biotechnology governance is indeed questionable for transgenic
conifer plantations located within less intensively managed forest
ecosystems in the American South. The genetic composition of our
nation's indigenous forests is at issue.
Lost in the Woods
- Sofia Valenzuela &Steven H. Strauss; Nature Biotechnology 23, May
2005, www.nature.com/nbt ; reproduced in AgBioView with the
permission of the editor. (Forest Science Faculty, Universidad de
Concepción, Concepción, Chile.; Forest Science, Oregon State
University, Corvallis, OR )
To the editor:
In "Struggling to see the forest through the trees" (Nat. Biotechnol.
23, 165?167, 2005), Herrera cites many of the important issues
surrounding the state of forest biotechnology, yet at the same time
fails to give an accurate impression of the extremely difficult state
of the industry worldwide.
First, there are serious technical problems that stand in the way of
this industry maturing. Although it is abundantly clear that simple
traits like herbicide resistance and insect resistance, when encoded
by single genes as in transgenic agricultural crops, can provide
major benefits in some species and geographies with responsible use1,
it is not clear that these traits are valuable enough in forestry,
given the costs of transformation, integration into breeding programs
and associated field testing. For transformation, this is partly a
result of the expected need to use new markers in place of antibiotic
resistance genes to get broad international regulatory approvals2,
even though the commercially authorized (USA) nptII gene for
kanamycin resistance used in transgenic agricultural crops has never
been shown to be a significant health or environmental risk. In
addition, transformation methods must be robust enough to work in the
high diversity of germplasm used in most industrial forestry
programs-which can include several species and dozens of genotypes.
We know of no transformation systems up to this task.
Were there to be a number of companies and/or public sector
institutions seriously investing in technological solutions to these
problems, we are certain they could be solved. But the reality, in
contrast to the impression Herrera gave, is that there is a very low
level of industrial activity worldwide. Of the companies listed in
Table 1 of his article, only Arborgen in Summerville, South Carolina,
is seriously pursuing transgenic breeding science. CellFor in
Vancouver, Canada, has ended all transgenic and molecular biology
research; SweTree of Umeĺ, Sweden, works primarily on basic genomics
and has never had an applied breeding-related program, and the
transgenic breeding research programs in Chile and New Zealand have
all been dramatically cut back in recent years. Large,
technologically advanced companies like Weyerhaeuser, Federal Way,
Washington, have never had their own transgenic research, though they
have supported some basic transgenic-related studies in universities,
primarily for biosafety and wood quality. Most of the major forestry
companies in Chile are effectively turning away from transgenic
research because of concerns about activist boycotts and their
European markets. Finally, with the high regulatory risks (discussed
below), few forestry breeding programs would wish to encumber their
efficient programs with transgenic-level regulatory costs and
Second, and most important, the thorny regulatory environment,
designed without regard to the years of scientific consensus from
national academies and ecological societies (e.g., see a position
paper from the Ecological Society of America3), treats genetic
engineering itself as dangerous by choosing to regulate every
transgenic product in virtually the same way (the so-called
'case-by-case' approach). This extreme 'precautionary' system
effectively precludes the use of trial-and-error, empirical methods
that characterize all tree breeding programs. It is hard to imagine
that changes to growth, wood chemistry or structure that are of
significant economic benefit, but that do not also impair tree
physiology and adaptation so important in all perennial crops, can be
identified mainly in glasshouses and laboratories. Yet, costly
requirements for containment of pollen and seed from trees of
commercially relevant sizes, when grown in a representative diversity
of environments, make such essential adaptive research virtually
impossible to carry out. This is in spite of highly promising
small-scale field results from Europe and elsewhere4, started in the
optimistic 1990s. Finally, vandalism has led to local decisions in
places such as British Columbia, Canada, to ban all transgenic field
research with forest tree species, despite any scientific rationale
to do so.
Of course, as Herrera hints, such draconian regulations are in place
owing largely to the scare tactics and pressure on government
officials from anti-genetically modified organism (GMO) activist
organizations, which hope to see all transgenic trees regulated based
on imagined worst case scenarios-not based on the increasing interest
in modified expression of functionally native genes and pathways
enabled by tree genomics. These regulations also ignore the reality
that conventional breeding and silviculture, not just genetic
engineering, also bring about substantial changes in wood structure,
lignin, flowering, growth rate and many other attributes. Yet there
is little call for their stringent regulation. It is time that the
absurd, anti-scientific (that is, process not product) claims that
all Agrobacterium tumefaciens or biolistics-delivered genes are
somehow capable of causing 'destruction and contamination' of wild
forests be identified as the scare-mongering that it is. Instead,
lawyers and bureaucrats who have a limited understanding of breeding
science or practice are working to insert language into local and
national regulations, and into international treaties5, whose effect
will be to completely or effectively (due to cost and liability risk)
ban all genetic engineering from forestry and agriculture.
Finally, these same groups, primarily by threat of boycott of
retailers and corporations, rather than on advice from the leading
scientific societies, continue to pressure companies for adoption of
'green' certification programs, such as the Forest Stewardship
Council's (FSC), that ban all field use of transgenic trees, even for
contained research. For FSC, any use of transgenic trees is
considered a major violation of their 'principles,' even where it
involves completely contained field research and is intended to solve
a major environmental problem (e.g., to reduce chemical use during
pulping, increase the rate of bioremediation or reduce the risk of
invasiveness of forest trees when they are exotics6). As these
programs slowly proliferate under the myth that avoidance of all
genetic engineering is somehow an environmental good, companies'
willingness to engage in transgenic research understandably
These unwieldy social problems (for a review, see ref. 7), combined
with the growing anti-commons caused by the fragmented patent estate
of technologies important to forest biotechnology, make it a place
where most companies understandably fear to tread. It will take
strong political leaders and highly engaged scientists empowered by
public funds for outreach, to stand-up and prevent green
fundamentalist religion from trumping what could be a highly green
new tool for breeding practice. Instead of genetic engineering
helping to produce more efficient forms of plantation forestry that
generate cost-efficient renewable energy and biobased products, we
are instead being forced to continue planting more tree farms and
harvesting more wild trees than necessary. How green is that?
1. Sedjo, R.A. in The BioEngineered Forest: Challenges to Science
and Society, (eds. Strauss, S.H. & Bradshaw, H.D.) 23-35 (Resources
for the Future, Washington, DC, 2004).
2. König, A.A Nat. Biotechnol. 21, 1274-1279 (2003). | Article |
3. Snow, A.A. et al. Ecological Society of America Position Paper.
Genetically Engineered Organisms and the Environment: Current Status
and Recommendations (ESA, Washington, DC, 2004).
4. Pilate, G. et al. Nat. Biotechnol. 20, 607-612 (2002). | Article |
5. DeGreef, W. Nat. Biotechnol. 222, 811-812 (2004). | Article |
6. Strauss, S.H. et al. Int. Forestry Rev. 3, 85-102 (2001).
7. Strauss, S.H. & Bradshaw, H.D. (eds.) The BioEngineered Forest:
Challenges to Science and Society (Resources for the Future,
Washington, DC, 2004).