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August 5, 2005


Lesson in Time; A Matter of Perspective; False 'GM-Free' Image; India Bt Cotton; Ghost of Lysenko; Crop Circles


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : August 5, 2005

* A Lesson in Time
* The Origin of the Naked Grains of Maize
* Transgenic Rice: A Matter of Perspective
* Protecting A False 'GM-Free' Image
* GM Safety Testing - An Article of Myths
* Will Bt Cotton Remain Effective in India?
* Cry Protein In Indian Bt Corn Hybrids Studied
* Reports of Superweed Greatly Exaggerated
* Why Dogma Into Science Won't Go - The Ghost of Lysenko...
* Human Safety and GM Plants - Review of Antibiotic Resistance Markers
* Crop Circles
* Transgenic Bt Technology: 2. Bt Crop Varieties

A Lesson in Time

- Tim Burrack, Truth About Trade and Technology,

If you know me, you know my jokes. Here's one that's bad but raises a
good question.

Q: What did the baby corn say to the mama corn? A: Where's the pop corn?

You were warned: I told you it was bad. But as it happens, it also
raises a good question. Just where or what is the "pop" corn--not the
kind you eat in movie theaters, but the ancestor of the crop I grow
and we eat today. There's an important lesson here as we discuss food
and biotechnology.

About 10,000 years ago, there was no such thing as corn. It didn't
grow in the wild, and agriculture was in its infancy.

In Mexico, however, there was a grassy plant called "teosinte." You
can still find it there today, but it is not cultivated as a crop.
Whereas an ear of corn grown here in Iowa is usually about a foot
long and contains 500 kernels or more, the ear of a teosinte plant is
just two or three inches long and doesn't contain more than a dozen

The teosinte kernels are not what we might classify as naturally
edible--their shells are so thick they could be labeled "industrial
strength" and still comply with truth-in-advertising laws. These
coatings grow hard because they're meant to survive the digestive
tract of birds and other animals. As these animals travel around,
they can spread teosinte seeds.

Early Native Americans saw the potential of teosinte, and began
domesticating it. They wanted to enlarge the ear, increase the number
of kernels, and make those hard shells thinner.

Nobody knows exactly when the domestication of teosinte began or how
long it took, but scientists believe that about 4,500 years ago a
plant resembling today's corn was being grown in the New World. A
recent study by researchers at the University of California-Irvine
claims that of the 59,000 genes in the corn genome, these early
farmers targeted about 1,200 of them for selection--and in doing so,
created the crop that is now grown on more than 81 million acres of
land in the United States and more than 270 million acres world wide
each year.

Needless to say, this was a long time before anybody knew the first
thing about DNA. But farmers knew a lot about breeding--they were the
world's first genetic engineers. In addition to evolving teosinte
into corn, they transformed little red berries into tomatoes and
developed broccoli and cabbage from the same wild plant.

The UC-Irvine researchers say that fewer than 3,500 individual
teosinte plants are the ancestors of modern corn. In biology, this is
called a "population bottleneck"--and it shows the extremes to which
farmers would go when they wanted to create a better plant.

Is there anybody who regards this genetic enhancement as something
other than a blessing? Without it, of course, there would be no such
thing as modern agriculture.

The process continues today--and the miracle of biotechnology makes
it possible for plant breeders to do in a short amount of time what
it took early farmers millennia to accomplish.

Unfortunately, there are some people determined to demonize all
biotech enhanced food as "Frankenfood." They have absolutely no
understanding of what farmers have been doing for eons--or how their
dedication across generations has made more food available to more
people than ever before. It tastes better - it's safer - and it's
more nutritious.

Throughout the centuries and continuing today, there is another
agriculture "constant" that is important to remember. Before a crop
from our fields, whether conventional or biotech, arrives on your
table, it has already been on ours. Farmers not only feed the world,
they feed their own families first. Since the commercial introduction
of this technology in 1996, not one person or animal has gotten sick
from eating a biotech enhanced crop.

Ironically today, corn farmers in Mexico often remove teosinte from
their fields because they consider it to be a weed. We've come a long
way! I'm excited about what's coming next. And just think, it all
came from an early "pop corn".

Tim Burrack raises corn and soybeans in partnership with his brother
on their NE Iowa family farm. Tim is a Board Member of Truth About
Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) a national grassroots
advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed and led by farmers in
support of freer trade and biotechnology.


The Origin of the Naked Grains of Maize

- Huai Wang, John F.. Doebley et al. Nature 436, 714-719; August 4,
2005. nature.com

The most critical step in maize (Zea mays ssp. mays) domestication
was the liberation of the kernel from the hardened, protective casing
that envelops the kernel in the maize progenitor, teosinte. This
evolutionary step exposed the kernel on the surface of the ear, such
that it could readily be used by humans as a food source. Here we
show that this key event in maize domestication is controlled by a
single gene (teosinte glume architecture or tga1), belonging to the
SBP-domain family of transcriptional regulators.

The factor controlling the phenotypic difference between maize and
teosinte maps to a 1-kilobase region, within which maize and teosinte
show only seven fixed differences in their DNA sequences. One of
these differences encodes a non-conservative amino acid substitution
and may affect protein function, and the other six differences
potentially affect gene regulation. Molecular evolution analyses show
that this region was the target of selection during maize

Our results demonstrate that modest genetic changes in single genes
can induce dramatic changes in phenotype during domestication and


Transgenic Rice: A Matter of Perspective

- Raymond L. Rodriguez, http://www.plantpharma.org (Director of
the Center of Excellence in Nutritional Genomics; University of
California, Davis)

I believe it is a bit disingenuous to characterize beer Goliath
Anheuser-Busch as the injured party because of Ventria's desire to
plant genetically modified rice in Missouri ("What's so scary about
rice" - August 1, 2005).

Let's put things in perfective. Anheuser-Busch uses rice to make
beer. Ventria uses rice to make the same health promoting and life
saving proteins that every nursing infant receives from its mother.
Anheuser-Busch and its products contribute directly or indirectly to
tens of thousands iof alcohol-related deaths each year due to liver
disease, homicide, suicide and drunk driving. Ventria's rice will be
used to prevent life-threatening infections in millions of infants,
the elderly and the sick around the world. When did the needs of the
beer industry take precedence over the need to provide the public
with new, safe and affordable therapeutics?

And what about those birds? With birds dropping out of the sky with
West Nile Virus and people dropping dead from bird flu, I'm really
not that concerned about the possibility of a bird pooping a
genetically modified seed containing mothers' milk proteins in my
backyard. Furthermore, no one has ever died (or even become ill) from
eating genetically modified food. Unfortunately, the same cannot be
said for undercooked hamburger meat and un-pasteurized apple juice,
which has killed several children and made dozens more, sick.

I applaud the press for bringing to the public's attention important
issues of the day particularly those involving technologies that can
have an important impact on our health and the health of million of
children and adults around the world. But sensationalistic coverage
that focuses only on potential risks regardless of how remote, while
ignoring real and well-documented risks, misleads the public and is
unfair to the scientific community and the biotech industry.

Full Discussion: http://www.plantpharma.org/forum/index.php?showtopic=104


Protecting A False 'GM-Free' Image

- Roger Kalla, Director Korn Technologies, srkalla'at'bigpond.net.au
(letter sent to Sydney Morning Herald, July 25, 2005)

The Independent member of NSW legislative council, Peter Draper of
Tamworth, recently made a comment in the media (ABC New England 18
July 2005) regarding the potential impacts on NSW grains exports
caused by the detection of trace levels of GM canola in a Victorian
export consignment of non-GM canola.

The facts of the matter is that the GM moratorium in Victoria
has been proven ineffectual in upholding a 'zero tolerance' attitude
to GM canola in our export grain shipments.

This should come as no surprise to Australians since we are
partners in an globally integrated system for grains research and
grains trading. The Australian Barley and Wheat Boards are not
surprised either as judged by their considered responses to this
perceived 'threat' to our grain export markets.

I would argue that the inevitability of the contamination of this 'GM
free' image is due to the facts that; 1) over 60 % of the canola
grown and traded in the world is GM; and 2) we are now starting to
apply forensic DNA testing technology to detect exceedingly low
levels of GM seed mixed up in non-GM seed.

To treat every shipment of canola or any other grain as a potential
crime scene investigation is a totally disproportionate response by
marketers and State Governments alike and ultimately a waste of tax
payer funded resources. What we need is managable segregation
protocols that ensure acceptable purity criteria for our export

To protect NSW 'GM free' image from further 'contamination', Mr
Draper suggests even stricter measures for testing of GM food crops
in NSW . However, pre-commercial testing of high oleic oil GM cotton
strains (DIR 039/2003 - Field Evaluation of Genetically Modified High
Oleic (HO) Cotton, http://www.ogtr.gov.au ) is taking place at the
CSIRO cotton breeding station in Narrabri not far from Tamworth.
These HO strains of GM cotton, under final stages of development, are
intended for human consumption and are expected to produce healthier
frying oils, lowering cholesterol levels in fast food consumers
in Tamworth and NSW within the next 2 - 3 years.

The NSW Government, supported by Mr Draper, is exempting GM cotton
from the NSW GM crops moratorium on the basis that cotton it is a
fibre only crop. This is totally disregarding the present use of
cottonseed oil and cotton seed meal as food and feed and what is
happening with HO cotton in Narrabri just up the road from Mr Drapers

With the end in sight of the NSW GM canola moratorium in June 2006
the NSW legislature has now got an opportunity to acknowledge that
the bans of GM canola, the second GM food crop in Australia, is all
about the protection of a false 'GM free' image. This is not a
scientifically or economically justifiable policy and is untenable
even in the short term and has cost the Victorian and NSW taxpayers a
lot of money for no or little real competitive benefit in our export

Furhermore this has been tacitly acknowledged by our marketers that
are not worried about trace levels down to fractions of 1 % of
allowed GM crop strains. The very same GM canola strain produced and
exported by our main competitor Canada is accepted in Japan that will
allow levels of up to 5 % of this particular strain of GM canola in
shipments of comingled GM and non-GM canola seed. This is 500 times
higher than the trace levels of GM canola of this variety that was
detected in the Victorian canola consignment and that has so far only
contaminated the false image advocated by GM ' zero tolerance' hard


An Article of Myths

- Weekly Times (Australia), Aug 3, 2005

The article by writer Chris Rule "Serious flaws in GM safety testing"
(WT, July 27) rehashes myths and misinformation touted by anti-GM
organisations. It is factually wrong and sloppy in construction.

There is no such thing as "advantageous" contamination. The common
industry terminology is "adventitious". It refers to unintended
presence of admixtures. The agricultural industry has always worked
to specified thresholds at least a hundred times higher than that
found in the recent trace detections.

There is no credence in Judy Carman's allegations, in light of the
overwhelming scientific conclusions supporting the safety of approved
GM foods. FSANZ has clearly rebutted the many specious arguments put
forward by Ms Carman (see FSANZ website).

The findings of FSANZ that GM food is adequately tested and safe is
supported by hundreds of peer reviewed scientific studies by
regulatory authorities in many countries. Ever since bodies have
assessed drugs and pesticides, private companies have generated data.
This also applies for GM foods -- the public purse cannot afford to
do this. This in no way invalidates the data. Any falsification would
threaten a company's existence.

To suggest private company data is automatically suspect is unfair to
many dedicated scientists who work in the area. The article is a
cynical view based on the misinformed views of anti-GM activists and
is a travesty of science and good journalism.

- Dr Ian Edwards, chair, AgBio Advisory Group


Will Bt Cotton Remain Effective in India?

- Govind T. Gujar Nature Biotechnology 23, 927 - 928; August 2005.
www.nature.com/nbt .
Reproduced in AgBioView with the permission of the editor.
(Division of Entomology, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New
Delhi, 110012, India. gtgujar@iari.res.in )

To the editor: A news article by K.S. Jayaraman et al. in the
February issue (Nat. Biotechnol. 23, 158, 2005) highlights a model
for predicting the emergence of resistance in the cotton bollworm
Helicoverpa armigera to cotton varieties containing the cry1Ac gene
that encodes Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin. The model, published
by a group headed by Keshav Kranthi of the Central Institute for
Cotton Research in Nagpur, predicts that Bt cotton will fail within
the next 3 to 4 years1. Thus far, field data on susceptibility of H.
armigera to Bt cotton in India and elsewhere, however, indicates that
resistance is taking longer than 3 to 4 years to emerge. On the basis
of this evidence, I argue here that the effectiveness of insect
resistance management strategy is likely just one of several factors
that will determine the effectiveness of Bt cotton in suppressing
bollworm populations.

The Kharif (June-November season) sowing of Bt cotton began in India
in recent weeks, signifying the fourth year of cultivation of this
transgenic crop in the country (the fifth year if one counts Bt
cotton stands planted illegally in the Indian province of Gujarat in
2001). The cultivation of Bt varieties has improved cotton
productivity by 43-73% for Indian farmers2, 3, and the estimated area
of Bt cotton cultivation in 2004 was 1.3 million acres, although the
real figure may be much higher due to illegal planting (in total,
Indian farmers cultivate 22 million acres of cotton each year,
accounting for 16% of the world's cotton production).

Apart from socioeconomic factors (e.g., low cotton prices due to high
harvest yields in the 2004-2005 season may make costly Bt varieties
less attractive to farmers)4, continued success of Bt cotton in India
will depend on maintained effectiveness against target pests and the
thwarting of insect resistance development. In this context, better
models of the emergence of insect resistance to Bt cotton and
increased knowledge of the conditions that may lead to crop failure
will be key to the crop's continuing success.

In their paper, Kranthi and his colleague model an area in which Bt
cotton represents 70-80% of the total cotton crop over a 100-to
200-km radius (77,628-155,256 acres)1. Such conditions could be found
in the field in Gujarat in 2004, where the total area (legal and
illegal) in which Bt cotton was cultivated exceeded 70-80%. Given
that the Bt crop in Gujarat covers the requisite area and is already
in its fourth year of cultivation, why have we not witnessed the
failure of Bt cotton due to resistance development in H. armigera? A
related question is whether, within the next 2 or 3 years,
Bt-resistant H. armigera will emerge in Gujarat and other areas in
Central and Southern India?

Clues may be found by looking at the performance of Bt cotton in
controlling H. armigera at home and abroad. For example, China has
cultivated Bt cotton for more than eight years, the area of
transgenic crop increasing from 24,700 acres in 1997 to 9.1 million
acres in 2004, with more than two dozen Bt cotton varieties now being
grown. In certain Chinese provinces, such as Hebei and Shandong, the
percentage of cotton that was transgenic for Bt was >80%. And yet,
there is still no documented case of Bt cotton failure due to
resistance in H. armigera.

Instances of failure of sprayable Bt formulations to give a desired
level of insect control are those of the diamondback moth (Plutella
xylostella) in cole crops in many countries. Similar examples of
field level resistance in H. armigera to synthetic pyrethroids were
observed a few years after introduction of these pesticides in the
early 1980s. In each case, failure of the pesticide could be measured
in terms of survival of the pest population and unacceptably high
damage to crops (itself a function of insect infestation and

In 2001, the year before Bt cotton introduction in India, an outbreak
of H. armigera occurred during the Kharif season all over India. Yet
in subsequent years--2002, 2003 and 2004--there has been no evidence
of infestations, except in isolated locations, such as an outbreak
recorded in Nanded in Maharashtra State in 2004. In this latter case,
Bt cotton performed well compared with non-Bt cotton, controlling H.
armigera and producing better yields. The resistance in H. armigera
to Cry1Ac was just twofold greater in the surviving larvae from Bt
cotton fields than in those from non-Bt fields. These initial
resistance levels were not good enough to segregate and develop a
highly resistant population over a limited area. Furthermore, it
appears that the recessive nature of Bt cry1Ac resistance in H.
armigera, the high fitness/developmental costs of the trait, the
polyphagy (feeding on multiple sources) and high mobility of the
species might contribute to a delay in resistance development. High
mobility was reportedly found accountable for the species' failure to
develop resistance to Bt cotton in China5.

On the basis of the above evidence, I contend that the delayed
development of resistance to Bt cotton in H. armigera may not be so
much attributable to Bt resistance management tactics as to the
biology of the target insect and the agronomy of Bt cotton. Even so,
as the area of Bt cotton cultivated grows from its present level of
only 5?7% of the total crop to 18-20%, there is no doubt that insect
resistance management strategies will become increasingly important.
For example, India's regulatory authority for transgenic crops, the
Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), has recommended the
sowing of at least five border rows of non-Bt cotton or 20% of non-Bt
cotton area on borders, whichever is greater6, 7.

One major problem, however, is whether Indian farmers will comply
with the recommendations, which are legally mandatory, but often
implemented inadequately. There is a great need to fine-tune
resistance management tactics and educate the stakeholders in a
country like India where cotton is cultivated by as many as 4 million

1. Kranthi, K.R. & Kranthi, N.R. Curr. Sci. 87, 1096-1107 (2004).
2. Morse, S., Bennett, R.M. & Ismael, Y. Crop Prot. 24, 433?440 (2005).
3. Bambawale, O.M. et al. Curr. Sci. 86, 1628-1633 (2004).
4. http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/1071820.cms
5. Feng, H.Q. et al. J. Econ. Entomol. 97, 1874-1883 (2004).
6. http://envfor.nic.in/divisions/csurv/btcotton/bgnote.pdf
7. Tabashnik, B. Nat. Biotechnol. 23, 414 (2005).


Cry Protein In Indian Bt Corn Hybrids Studied

- Crop Biotech Update, http://www.isaaa.org/kc

Dr. K.R. Kranthi and colleagues of the Central Institute for Cotton
Research (CICR) (India) document their four year in depth study of Bt
corn in India in 'Temporal and intra-plant variability of Cry1Ac
_expression in Bt-cotton and its influence on the survival of the
cotton bollworm, Helicoverpa armigera (Hübner) (Noctuidae:
Lepidoptera).' The article appears in the latest issue of the Indian
journal Current Science.

By quantifying the Cry1Ac content and activity of leaves and fruiting
parts taken from eight Bt cotton hybrids, scientists found that at
least 1.9 micrograms of Cry1Ac should be available per gram of tissue
in order for H. armigera to be made susceptible to the toxin. They
also found that 1) Cry1Ac _expression was variable among hybrids; 2)
_expression of the gene declined progressively over crop growth and
went below critical levels when plants turned 100-115 days old; and
3) Cry1Ac _expression was variable among different plant parts, with
leaves expressing the highest amounts of the toxin, and ovary and
boll rind the lowest.

Dr. Akhilesh Prasad Singh, India's Minister of State for Agriculture,
said in response that the government is evolving resistant management
strategies for Bt cotton technology to increase the crop's effective
life span from 11-12 years to 30-40 years, with the hope that it will
continuously yield bumper cotton production and ensure environmental

Read the press release at http://pib.nic.in/release/release.asp?relid=10674
or download the article from http://www.ias.ac.in/currsci/jul252005/291.pdf.
You may also Bhagirath Choudhary of ISAAA South Asia at b.choudhary@cgiar..org.


Reports of Superweed Greatly Exaggerated

- New Scientist, July 30, 2005

A freak event in south-west England has transformed a lowly weed into
a "superweed" capable of fending off herbicide attacks. Or has it?

Scientists at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) in Dorset,
UK, tested the herbicide glufosinate ammonium on weeds growing in
fields of oilseed rape modified to carry a herbicide resistance gene.
A single charlock plant carried on growing, triggering concerns that
the resistance gene had jumped from the GM crop.

But this is not proof that gene transfer has taken place, says Les
Firbank, head of land use systems at CEH. "And even if it did occur,
it's not a superweed, because there's no sign it can produce viable

Lab tests show that gene transfer is possible between GM oilseed rape
(Brassica napus ) and closely related field mustard (B. rapa ). But
there is no proof that it has happened between oilseed rape and the
more distantly related charlock, Sinapis arvensis . Charlock may
instead have evolved its own resistance.

"Contrary to some media reports, the so-called hybrid has not been
confirmed by researchers as a cross between oilseed rape and
charlock," says UK environment minister Elliot Morley, "but it is a
finding we cannot ignore."

In the wake of the media attention the German biotech company Bayer
has withdrawn its application to grow GM oilseed rape in the EU. It
was the only company to have applied for permission to grow GM rape
commercially in Europe.


Why Dogma Into Science Won't Go

- Jon Turney, The Times Higher Education Supplement, July 29,2005

"The Lysenko Effect: The Politics of Science By Nils Roll-Hansen,
Humanity Books, 335pp, Pounds 16.50 ISBN 1 59102 262 2"

The state's role in science is to provide cash, then to leave
researchers alone to uncover the truth. And just look what happens
when this rule is broken. For 25 years in the mid-20th century,
Soviet biology was hamstrung by official adherence to the theories of
Trofim Lysenko, who rejected classical genetics and preached crop
improvement through a Lamarckian breeding programme. The crops,
unaware of the ideological imperative to behave as prescribed, failed
to improve.

The Lysenko affair ranks second only to Galileo's condemnation by the
Inquisition in the folk history of science. The moral of both stories
is that extra-scientific authority has no place in scientific debate.
That conclusion remains beyond reproach, but closer examination shows
both episodes to be more complex and more interesting than
superficial accounts admit. There are many reasons why Galileo failed
to reach an accommodation with the Catholic Church. And, as Nils
Roll-Hansen shows, there was more to Lysenko than a man who won
Stalin's backing for a wrong-headed theory.

Roll-Hansen's book offers a nuanced, post-Cold War account of
Lysenko's rise that draws on newly accessible archives and on popular

Lysenko was indeed an opportunist who rose to power under the shadow
of a ruthless dictatorship. As early as 1927, a visitor to his base
in Azerbaijan found him an "experimenter who was fearless and
undoubtedly talented, but also an uneducated and extremely
egotistical person, deeming himself to be a new Messiah of biological

These personal weaknesses, though, were outweighed by the promise of
his work on "vernalisation", the treatment of seeds to induce winter
wheat to germinate in spring.

These experiments, as Roll-Hansen shows, were not out of line with
what was then known of plant physiology and development, and they fit
in with much other agricultural research. It was only later that
Lysenko set his face against the mainstream of biological theory. By
then, he had attracted political support from a ruling party that was
committed to a progressive view of science, but combined this with an
increasingly restricted view of what counted as progressive.

Lysenko scored heavily for being of peasant stock, for apparently
uniting theory and practice and for promising results in an area
where they were sorely needed. He also latched on to aspects of
Mendelism many biologists were uncomfortable with, and not only in
the Soviet Union. The inviolable gene, he maintained, denied the
power of selection, so it was unDarwinian.

Worse, he thought it implied that the route to social improvement lay
through eugenics. These and other factors kept Lysenko's star in the
ascendant even though the evidence for his claims of practical
benefit grew ever more flimsy.

Roll-Hansen suggests that his impressively researched and subtle
account of Lysenkoism has contemporary relevance in showing "how bad
science grew out of good under the influence of a particular science
policy". Certainly, the whole episode is still troubling. But perhaps
it also shows that it takes rather special conditions for attempts at
planning science to turn into the policing of scientific thought.

Jon Turney is senior visiting fellow in the department of science and
technology studies, University College London.


Human Safety and Genetically Modified Plants - A Review of Antibiotic
Resistance Markers and Future Transformation Selection Technologies.

- Goldstein, D., Tinland, B., Gilbertson, L., Staub, J., Bannon, G.,
Goodman, R., McCoy, R., Silvanoch, A. Journal of Applied
Microbiology. 99: 7-23.

The first generation of genetically modified plants suitable for
agriculture was largely produced using antibiotic resistance markers
(ARMS) for the preparation of plant transformation vectors or for the
plant transformation process itself. In some instances, the ARM gene
remains in the finished commercial plant product.

Theoretical concerns regarding the risks posed by such markers have
resulted in a demand for the production of commercial plants free of
ARMS. This, in turn, has resulted in the development of technologies
which avoid the use of ARMs or which allow far the efficient excision
of such markers following the initial transformation process, but in
advance of the selection of commercial plant lines. We review the
current status of ARM safety information relevant to existing
genetically modified crops as well as reviewing in some detail the
available alternatives to ARM use, the utility of these technologies
for commercial production, and the issues that might pertain to the
use of these alternative technologies for the production of
commercial genetically modified crops.

Many of the alternative techniques have the potential to be
commercially viable, and one or more will necessarily be used for the
future production of genetically modified plants free of ARMS.
Nonetheless, existing ARM-containing products will remain in the
market for the foreseeable future, and the safety of these products
therefore remains a relevant issue. Further, the ease of use, cost,
availability, safety profile, regulatory status, and utility of
alternative techniques should be kept in proper perspective relative
to the long history of safe use of ARMS in plant biotechnology


Crop Circles

- Lene Johansen, Tech Central Station, August 3, 2005

The expected World Trade Organization arbitration in the fight
between Washington and Brussels over genetically modified (GM) crops
did not happen at the end of June, but a revolution by the European
Council unexpectedly did.

For the first time ever the council of European environment minis
ters managed to come to a consensus on food biotechnology policy. Of
the EU's 25 member countries, 22 voted against the commission's eight
proposals to lift the ban on certain GM organisms across the entire
region or, as the council phrased it, "rejected withdrawal of
safeguard measures".

In effect, it was an affirmation of states' sovereignty. France,
Luxembourg, Greece, Austria and Germany are now permitted to continue
banning these crops on their soil, even though they are permitted in
the rest of the joint market. It is going to cost a lot of money.

But let's take a broader look at the issue. The wording is essential
to understanding what the conflict between the EU and the countries
that allow GMO is all about. GMO proponents claim the end-product is
what matters, that if there are no chemical differences between
products that contain GMOs and those that do not, the production
method is irrelevant. Opponents say the production method is the only
relevant measure. Recombinant DNA is
invasive/unnatural/insert-your-own-preferred-yuck-word-here and the
long-term consequences to the ecosystem and the food chain are yet

On a practical level, the EU has tried to force food producers to
treat GMO crops as identity preserved crops. This will increase the
cost of harvest, storage and distribution for GMO crops, as well as
force the crops into a distribution flow separate from non-identity
preserved grains. This is done for some crops already, but it does
increase the end-cost of those crops for the consumer.

Farmers, since day one, have not treated GMO crops as any different
from other crops, and the GMO seed has become intermingled with
non-GMO seed at grain elevators, on barges, and on freight ships.
Farmers did not even know this would be an issue when the first GMO
crops were planted in 1996. It will be a very costly affair to
separate GMO crops from the seed flow, and there are no consumer
benefits to show for it.

Interestingly, experimental studies measuring consumer behaviour in
EU grocery stores show that labelling does not change the purchasing
decision of the consumer. Other studies have shown that the push for
a GMO ban and labelling schemes in Europe comes almost entirely from
nongovernmental organization activists and food retail chains. Most
consumers in Europe do not care.

Labelling sounds like a reasonable measure; after all, it is only ink
on paper. However, choosing what products to label as containing GMOs
requires the source of the grain to be identifiable all the way
through the food supply chain. Labeling requires identity
preservation of GMO grain even after it has been processed to a point
where the genetic modifications cannot be traced or measured anymore.
GMO purity demands will increase the price of grain anywhere from
about 9% (assuming a 1% GMO allowance in the final consumable
product), to about 35% (with an 0.3% GMO allowance in the final
consumable product). This, of course, will be passed on to the

The seed industry does not enjoy very wide profit margins, as several
of the plant biotech giants learned the hard way when the biotech
bubble burst. Studies have shown that seed purity demands will lead
to significant structural changes in the seed business. The small and
medium-sized seed producers who cannot afford to comply will slowly
be pushed out of business, leaving the large companies still in
business. That doesn't seem like a trend anti-corporation
GMO-opponents should support.

In the nine years since the first RoundUp Ready soybeans were
planted, the growth in GMO acreage across the world has been
explosive. In 2004, 200 million acres of GMO crops were planted,
about two-thirds of that in developing countries. The list includes
most of the major grain-producing countries in the world.

The wide adaptation of GMO crops would imply that they should be
considered the norm. The aforementioned study of European consumer
behavior indicates identity preservation of non-GMO crops is the way
to go. Let the minority who prefer non-GMO crops pay the extra money
required to identity-preserve the grain, but don't shift the cost to
consumers who don't give a hoot. Making food more expensive is bad
social justice policy.


Transgenic Bt Technology: 2. Bt Crop Varieties

- C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India

Specific Bt toxin encoding genes were isolated from Bacillus
thuringiensis and incorporated into the genetic complements of
several crop plants such as cotton, corn, rice, tomato, potato,
soybean, and others, to develop transgenic Bt varieties, using
complex yet elegant procedures of genetic engineering. This
results in a crop variety with a single systemic insecticide that
kills specific caterpillars feeding on the respective crop. For
each crop the most damaging pest has been targeted, as for example,
the bollworms of cotton, and the stem borers of rice and corn. The
objective is that, while the Bt toxins take care of the major pests,
the rest can be controlled by conventional practices.

The choice of Bt genes depends upon the crop and the targeted pest,
as most of the Bt toxins are insect group specific. For example,
the proteins encoded by the genes Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab control the
cotton bollworms, Cry1Ab controls corn borer, Cry3Ab controls
Colarado potato beetle and Cry3Bb controls corn rootworm.

Transgenic Bt varieties: A gene construct (or a cassette) consisting
of the chosen Bt gene is made, along with other molecular components
needed for its expression in the transgenic crop variety. The
construct consists of sequences of nucleotides (the building blocks
of DNA, the genetic material) to initiate the expression of the
selected gene, to promote such expression, the actual sequence for
the gene and a nucleotide sequence to signal the termination of the
process of expression. This construct is then incorporated into the
tissue of a (chosen primary) variety of the crop, and this is called
an event. A large number of plants are developed from the event,
through micropropagation (tissue culture) for agronomic and
regulatory testing processes. Since this primary variety may not be
suitable for cultivation in all countries or even in different
regions in the same country, the event has to be transferred into the
genetic component of other varieties suitable for cultivation in
different parts of the world. For example, the event MON 531,
containing the Cry1Ac gene, was used to develop the Bt cotton variety
Coker 312, which is not suitable for cultivation in India. The
chosen Indian regional varieties were repeatedly backcrossed with
Coker 312 to develop different Bt cotton varieties. All Bt cotton
varieties containing Cry1Ac gene and developed from MON 531 are
marketed under the trade name Bollgard. In India now 20 Bt cotton
varieties are permitted for commercial cultivation in different parts
of the country and all of them are Bollgard varieties as they were
developed from MON 531 and contain Cry1Ac gene, under license from
Monsanto and its partner Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco).

Acquired resistance and refugium: A prolonged exposure to a toxin at
sub-lethal doses may result in the development of gene-based
resistance in organisms. This is called acquired resistance.
Famous examples of such acquired resistance are mosquitoes resistant
to DDT and human pathogenic bacteria resistant to antibiotics, which
are so casually used, particularly in the developing countries.
There is a distinct possibility of crop pests acquiring genetic
resistance to Bt toxins in Bt crop varieties, due to natural
variation in susceptibility to a particular toxin, in the caterpillar
populations. Nevertheless, in the past decade of cultivation of Bt
cotton, there is not even a single instance of acquired resistance of
bollworm to Bt toxin.

In order to de-accelerate the development of acquired resistance, the
regulatory frame work in all countries has stipulated that a certain
number of rows of the isogenic non-Bt plants should raised along with
the Bt crop and this is called the refugium (border or barrier). A
certain number of the caterpillars feeding on Bt plants may escape
death and if there was mating among these worms, the resulting
progeny would be resistant to Bt toxins to various degrees.
Acquired resistance is a very slow process but may build up to
alarming levels if such mating continues for several generations.
The caterpillars feeding on the non-Bt refugium are not exposed to
the Bt toxin and so would be susceptible to it. In the presence of
a refugium, a certain proportion of the progeny would be from the
mating of Bt-exposed and Bt-unexposed worms, and this progeny would
be less resistant to the Bt toxin than the progeny from Bt-exposed
worms. The refugium is thus expected to retard the pace of
acquired resistance.

Cotton farmers are reluctant to lose the product form the non-Bt
refugium and often no refugium is planted. Cotton bollworms also
feed on several other crops (polyphagous) and do not seriously affect
the commercial product in them. A non-cotton refugium in a cotton
field will function as well as a cotton refugium and should be a
viable alternative.

Gene stacking: Most transgenics contain only one gene, such as for
pest tolerance or herbicide tolerance. In order to compound the
benefits, more than one gene is used in the development of a
transgenic, by gene stacking or pyramiding. Transgenic cotton
containing both Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab is being developed.
Possibilities are being explored to incorporate both pest and
herbicide tolerance in the same variety. In future, there would be
transgenic varieties with three or even four different genes stacked.

Gene stacking can also occur in nature. If two transgenic varieties
of the same crop are resistant to a different herbicide each,
intercrossing of these two varieties may result in a hybrid resistant
to both the herbicides.