Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: November 19, 2005
* Ethics@work: Frankenfoods
* India: GM Foods for Ensuring Food Security
* Debate Grows Over Genetically Engineered Crops
* What's Really Really Happening with GE Crops in the USA?
* Africa: Burkina Faso's Gene Revolution Promises
* The Plant Doctor
* The Food You Eat May Change Your Genes for Life
* U.S. Should Not Import European Laws
* Mexico: Biotech Advocates Discuss Benefits, Business
* 'Vaccine Farmer' - Soviet Roots, American Growth
(Special thanks to Prof. Vivian Moses for forwarding many news items posted today...CSP)
Ethics@work: Frankenfoods - Rabbi Asher Meir, Jerusalem Post, Nov. 17, 2005 http://www.jpost.com/
A fascinating conflict is brewing in Europe over stringent EU rules for labeling of "Frankenfoods" - agricultural products that have been genetically modified. Gene splicing of various kinds is used to increase yields, to improve resistance to herbicides (so they harm only weeds and not crops), to enable crops to withstand weather extremes, and so on.
The European Union basically requires all such foods to be labeled unless they meet a virtually impossible standard of proof-of-safety to consumers and the environment. Foreign, and especially American, producers are incensed at these requirements and are insisting that the EU rules violate trade treaties that guarantee fair access for foreign agricultural products.
The claims of the marketers seem, to me, to be completely correct yet completely beside the point. I concur with their claim that there is not a shred of evidence that genetically modified (GM) foods are any more dangerous to consumers or to the environment than traditional crops, or even that they are in any way substantively different than hybrid crops.
Creating hybrids, a staple of agriculture for thousands of years, is after all also a kind of genetic engineering.
But at the heart of their argument to be released from labeling requirements there is a glaring paradox. On the one hand, they claim that there is nothing for consumers to object to in GM crops. Yet at the same time they complain that they will lose market share if they are required to label.
In business ethics, the assumption generally is that "transparency is the best policy". If the consumer doesn't mind GM foods, then labelling won't harm market share. If they do mind, then it is only fair to inform them about what they're buying.
This whole conflict seems to be a tempest in a teacup. The labeling requirements may very well be arbitrary and unfair, yet they also are quite harmless. The growers, like any other innovator who has a new product, have a responsibility to educate the consumer about the advantages of their products. They should proudly label their products: "Grown from specially genetically modified crops which use only a third the herbicide of conventional methods;" or, "Our patented scientific method enables us to provide you, the customer, with a tastier tomato," and so on.
Intuition suggests, and research supports, that labeling requirements don't affect sales beyond the very short run. If the customer really minds, she will find out even if you don't label and if she doesn't mind sales won't be harmed even if you do label. For example, much research suggests that the frightening warning labels on cigarettes have no impact on sales among smokers. (Though they may have an impact in discouraging people from beginning to smoke.)
I think that EU regulations on labeling of Frankenfoods, like so many EU regulations, are silly and superfluous, but ultimately harmless. I don't see any objection to requiring the producers of these foods to take the same responsibility borne by any innovator to educate the buying public about the unique characteristics of new products.
--- The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute located in the Jerusalem College of Technology. He is also a rabbi.
GM Foods for Ensuring Food Security
- Times of India Nov. 19, 2005 http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/
Out of 5.1 billion people who live in the developed world, 1.2 billion still confront the ravages of poverty.
Identification of genes to meet the challenge of ensuring food security through management of knowledge is the key to future success, stated, director, National Centre for Plant Genome Research, Asis Dutta while speaking at the National Symposium on Plant Biotechnology, organised by Central Institute for Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, (CIMAP) on Friday.
Genetically Modified (GM) foods are an answer. GM potato developed have four to six times increase in tuber yield, 35 per cent to 45 per cent increase in protein and an increases in amino acid. The purpose is to increase the productivity and nutritional quality of the plants, stated Dutta. Productivity can be increased by making the plants resistant to fungus, bacteria and virus while the nutritional quality can be improved by making the plant resistant to adverse condition like drought and salinity.
Another new area which has emerged to solve the problem of poverty is Nutritional Genomics which means nutritional security by value addition which includes addition of vitamin A and E, micro elements like iron and zinc and removal of nutritional stress.
But the question that arises now is why should GM foods be developed, does the source have a safe history and also does the source of the gene that would need to be assessed in the GM plants. The answer to it is GM foods must satisfy four E's i.e, it should be easy to grow, should be effective, economical and eco-friendly.
Not only that detailed DNA and protein-based protocols on safety assessment and testing needs to be done according to the international codes and protocols together with keeping the ethical principals in mind as well. Even in the current scenario, the global area of transgenic crops have increased from 1.7 million hectare in 1996 to 83.4 million in 2003, he stated. He further added that agriculture accounts for 20 per cent of India's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 58 per cent of Indian population depends on agriculture.
While India's target is to achieve a sustainable growth of eight per cent of GDP towards which GM foods can play a major role, he added. Director, CIMAP, SPS Khanuja, stated that biologists are at the verge of witnessing a new era of merging science and technologies leading to amalgamation of many traditional sciences.
Plant biotechnology represents the most dynamic and vibrant application which will set the road for a bright future, he stated.
Debate Grows Over Genetically Engineered Crops
- Robert Wager, Windsor Star (Canada), Nov. 18, 2005
Re: The Star's Nov. 4 story, Suicide Seeds Spark Fear. 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 UN 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.
Terminator Technologies 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 fr om 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. 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.
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 farthest along in development contain vaccines for hepatitis and Norwalk virus. Hundreds of millions of people stand to benefit from these advances in agricultural biotechnology.
--- Robert Wager is a member of the biology department at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo, B.C.
What's Really Really Happening with GE Crops in the USA?
- Christopher Preston , Senior Lecturer, Weed Management University of Adelaide, Australia
"GE crops a flop in the USA." The GeneEthics Network makes this bold statement as part of their recent publicity for the upcoming visit of Dr. Charles Benbrook to Australia. Dr. Benbrook is apparently to tell us "what's really happening with GE crops in North America, and why we should say 'no' to them here". I don't know quite what Dr. Benbrook will tell us about how GE crops have flopped. I do know the claim that GE crops have stalled, flopped or are otherwise being given up by farmers in the US and elsewhere is not infrequently made in letters to the editor, press releases and other statements in the Australia media. However, whenever I look at the situation, I can find little support for the claims made.
We can look at how farmers perceive GM crops by looking at the levels of adoption. If after 10 years GM crops were a flop, farmers should have already decided to stop growing them. A quick look at the area of crops grown demonstrates this is not the case. The statistics on the area sown to GM crops are easy to obtain for soybean, cotton and corn (or maize). They are available from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/reports/nassr/field/pcp-bba/).
In 2002 75% of all soybean acreage in the US was sown to GM soybeans. In 2004, that had risen to 85% of soybean acreage and to 87% in 2005. This year, 63.8 million acres of GM soybeans were grown. In 2002, 34% of the corn acreage in the US was sown to GM corn. By 2004, this had climbed to 47% and to 52% in 2005. That means 42.4 million acres of GM corn were grown. In 2002, 71% of the area of upland cotton was GM. This had also increased to 76% of the cotton area by 2004 and 79% in 2005. This year, 10.9 million acres of GM cotton were grown.
Data are not as readily available for the area of other GM crops grown in the US, papaya, canola and alfalfa. The primary source for information on the area of GM papaya, the Hawaiian Agricultural Statistical Service, gives variety information only up to 2002 (www.nass.usda.gov/hi/prisetoc.htm). In that year, between 44 and 48% of the area was sown to GM papaya. That would be just under 1000 acres. For canola, I have had to rely on a range of secondary sources (e.g. http://www.pewbiotech.org/resources/factsheets/display.php3?FactsheetID=2,
http://www.pgeconomics.co.uk/environment_select_committee_report.htm, http://www.grdc.com.au/growers/gc/gc53/genescene.htm) that normally cite "industry statistics". These suggest GM canola was planted on 60% of the area in 2002, 75% of the area in 2003 and 84% of the area in 2004. Colleagues in the industry have given me similar estimates for 2004. In 2005, there was 1.1 million acres of canola grown, of which at least 700,000 acres would have been GM. I could obtain no statistics on the area of GM alfalfa, which is being planted commercially for the first time this year. However, I have been told by weed scientists in both Colorado and California that most, and in some places all, of the seed available for 2005 has been sold. There are 22.1 million acres of alfalfa grown in the US, so even a small percentage of that will be a significant area.
Therefore, in total we have over 117 million acres of GM crops in the US. For those, who like me, are more familiar with the metric system, this equates to about 47 million hectares of GM crops. In my local perspective, this is twice the area of grain cropping in all of Australia. If this is a flop, what will Dr. Benbrook count as a success?
Not only is there a large area sown to GM crops in the US, the area sown is continuing to grow each year. This is even true for crops like soybeans and cotton where large percentages of the area have been sown to GM crops for some years.
Burkina's Gene Revolution Promises High Improvement In Yield and Sharp Decrease In Production Cost
- Karim Sonko, Daily Observer (Gambia) Nov. 17, 2005 http://www.observer.gm/
Many African countries are becoming more convinced about the potential of agricultural biotechnology, and are currently engaged in some aspect of research in particular areas of priority, and Burkina Faso is one of them.
Burkina Faso, the second biggest cotton producer in West Africa, has embraced agricultural aiotechnology and officially permits field trials (on station) of genetically modified crops such as the transgenic BT cotton since 2003. These trials are conducted by the Institute of Environment and Agricultural Research (INERA), in collaboration with Monsanto, a US based company.
The trials are located at Fada 230km east of Burkina, and the other at Bobodioulasso in the western part of the country. In a bid to share experience with other countries within the sub-region, and to de-mystify genetically modified (GM) crops in the eyes of Journalists, a field visit to the trials was organized from the 17th - 20th October, 2005. Participants were mainly members of the (newly-formed) network of anglophone and francophone journalist on biotechnology from West African countries and some agr"icultural scientists.
Dr. Jeremy Ouedraogo of INERA, in his presentation asserted that these trials aim to assess the efficacy of a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which produces a crystal-like protein that is capable of selectively killing specific group of insects, and is present in all types of soil. Bollgard II, a second generation variety of insect-protected cotton developed by Monsanto, is the one being tested for effectiveness on yield per hectare, and for any environmental risks.
According to Dr. Neya, a plant pathologist at INERA's Farako-Ba Research Station, there is substantial evidence about the superiority of transgenic cotton over their local variety in terms of resistance to insect pests, the number and size of balls per plant, quality of the fibre and the socio-economic benefits. Also with this technology, farmers and the environment would be less exposed to insecticides. This means an improvement in yield and sharp decrease in production cost.
Burkina farmers are quite eager to get access to the seeds of this new technology, This was stated by Professor Hamidou Boly, Director of INERA, during an exclusive interview with Journalist. He said farmers have been involved since at the initial stages of the decision making process for the acceptance of the Bt cotton trial in the country, and they have been very useful partners in the whole research process. Boly said that it would however take about three more years before the Bt Cotton gets into farme"rs' fields.
On the issue of biosafety, Professor Boly calls for a comprehensive biosafety framework for West Africa He said there is need for West African governments to harness the potentials of biotechnology, noting that what is needed in the sub-region is visionary leaders, a strong political commitment and well defined regulatory framework to promote technological independence by supporting new innovations.
The Plant Doctor
- The Standard (Kenya), Nov. 18, 2005 http://www.eastandard.net
Tetu constituency in Kenya's Nyeri District has produced some outstanding women. One is the famous Nobel Laureate, Professor Wangari Maathai. The other is the less famous but no less important plant doctor, Florence Wambugu, PhD.
Dr Wambugu is a plant pathologist, a researcher skilled in identifying the nature, origin, progress and causes of disease in plants.
Boo-oring, you may think, until you learn that it is thanks to this woman that the people of villages like Chura, Mukangu and Highridge are no longer living in poverty and are able to eat and sell what they grow. "I get so many 'thank you' cards from individuals and community groups that I cannot afford to display them all," she says.
Some of them take up space in a corner of her living room, alongside a number of family photos. We are at her house in Loresho, a simple but stylish home with a brown sofa set and coffee table sitting on a thick maroon carpet.
There is no denying that fact that she is a plant lover: Flowers welcome you to her house. From the gate and all round her house are flowers - roses, mint, various types of cacti and aloe - you name it she's planted it. "There is life in flowers," she says. "I connect with them and they brighten my life."
Dr Wambugu is the founder of Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International, an NGO that uses technology to fight hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Africa. The organisation has offices in Nairobi, South Africa and the US and is best known for its introduction of tissue culture technology to small-scale farmers. Tissue culture propagation is the process of growing tissue culture for plant shoot-tips in a laboratory until they are ready for transplantation into the field.
Because they are initially grown in a highly controlled laboratory environment, the plants are less susceptible to disease and have greatly improved yields when grown using good agricultural practices. It has been particularly important in developing disease resistant bananas as the fruit is virtually seedless and the few varieties widely grown can easily be wiped out by one disease strain.
Dr Wambugu has authored or co-authored about 60 papers in local and international journals and publications. The most significant one, titled Modifying Africa: How Biotechnology can Benefit the Poor and the Hungry: A Case Study from Kenya, earned her the international 2002-2003 Golden Web Award.
In an issue of Forbes magazine in December 2001, she was named one of 15 people from around the globe who will 'reinvent the future.' In 2002 she was appointed to the Science Board of the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative.
Just recently, she was named among the Top 100 Public Intellectuals by Britain's Prospect magazine and the online Foreign Policy Journal. Today she is proud that she has lived to see her dream of giving back to the society succeed. But it has not always been smooth sailing to get to where she is.
Her story Florence was born in 1953 - during the Emergency - into a family of ten. Her father worked on a white settler's farm but was detained shortly after her birth. This left her mother with the hard task of raising the children alone.
"My mum struggled. She (later) told me that I helped her escape hard labour," she says with a giggle. "All she had to do was pinch me and I would cry so hard, she would be asked to take her baby home."
Florence's mother had great plans for her daughter. "She made me feel I was different from the others. She thought I had potential and would tell me 'You go and study'. I trusted her so much that I would tell her anything. That is what I'm trying to establish with my kids," she says.
Money and food were the biggest challenges that Florence and her family had to deal with. And even at a tender age, Florence mixed all kinds of concoctions to try and eradicate the bugs that were eating half of their food.
These pesticides did not always work, but that didn't discourage her. "I never knew what I was mixing but I just couldn't watch the bugs decimate our produce and do nothing," says Florence. Always up to a challenge, Florence was the first person in the family to do well enough in primary school education to be offered a place in secondary school.
"For the first time I had to wear shoes and get into a bus to get to school (Kabare Girls in Kirinyaga)," Florence remembers. "It was like going overseas and meant a really big challenge to the family." To raise money for school fees and other necessities, Florence's mother decided to sell their only cow.
This news was received with hostility by her clan members who believed that educating a girl was wasteful as she would eventually be married off and become a housewife. "There was an uproar from my brothers and clan members and my mother was taken to a clan court," she says. "She stood her ground saying: 'I see such potential in this girl. She will come back and help the community. This cow will bring more value than anything else'."
This incident had a powerful impact on Florence. "Just because I was a girl, my mum was taken to court?" she quips. This stayed in her heart and she knew that she had to go back and help her community, if only to vindicate her mother's decision. She continued doing well in school and, in 1974, joined University of Nairobi to study for a Bachelor of Science degree in Botany.
At the time, the government subsidised education and tuition fees were not much of an issue. Florence's mother was killed in a tragic accident while her daughter was in her first year in campus. She fell and hit her head as she was helping a friend fetch water from the river. "My mum lived for other people," Florence says. "We even told her that we didn't want to be like her. But the purpose she lived for continued to live."
After university, Florence got a job with Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) and was sent to work at the Muguga Research Station. In 1979, Florence got married and went on to have three children over the next few years.
But not even motherly responsibilities could slow down her urge to work. "I used to take my children with me to the lab," she says. It was at Muguga that her interest in biotechnology began, focusing mainly on tissue culture technology.
She started off with a pyrethrum research project and came up with micro-propagation lab for pyrethrum (chrysanthemum), which helped farmers to increase productivity. It was adopted by the Kenya Pyrethrum Board and is still being carried on.
Her heart though was in researching and improving the growth of basic crops like bananas, cassava and sweet potatoes, because she knew there was a solution in science that could benefit society. But the government was not willing to finance such projects and was more interested in cash crop research. With the limited resources available, investing in coffee research seemed to make more sense to policy makers.
Moving on Realising that she was banging her head against a wall, she chose to start on her PhD through Kari and based her research on sweet potatoes. "I knew there was a problem somewhere," she says. "Why were we producing six tonnes of sweet potatoes per hectare when we could be producing 18 tonnes?" Though she didn't get to the root of the problem, her PhD research was given an honorary mention at Bath University, where it was termed exemplary.
In 1991, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored her for a three-year post-PhD attachment with Monsanto Corporation, a food biotechnology company in St Louis, Missouri. She was helped to relocate to the US with her husband and three children. At Monsanto, she continued with research into genetically engineered crops.
This opportunity saw her, together with other Kenyan colleagues and Monsanto scientists, develop Kenya's first genetically modified sweet potato plants. These carried a gene giving resistance to the sweet potato feathery mottle virus.
While America brought her career success, it also strained her marriage after about a dozen years. Her experience there left her wondering what it is that people adore about America.
The main challenge was to bring up the children who were then aged 12, 11 and six but, thanks to her Christian church group, she was able to handle it. "Children have too much freedom there," she says. "I was working and needed to help them with homework... it was just crazy."
After three years Florence, was ready to return to Kenya and use her knowledge to benefit the community, but her husband wanted to stay on. This led to their break up. They are no longer in touch. "I went there with a clear focus," she says. "I also thought of the sacrifices that had been made for me and thought I would be a loss to my country if I continued to stay there."
In 1994, she returned to Kenya determined to raise her children single-handedly and still power on with her career. Florence is a great advocate for genetically modified foods saying that what is needed is to put in place rules and regulations and know what to incorporate and what to leave out.
Although there has been critisism over the modified sweet potato, she is very clear on one thing; that what she is doing at the moment (tissue culture) does not qualify as genetic modification. "Tissue culture is not on the genetic modification level yet and the government has not authorised GM food production in Kenya yet. All I do now is give information, awareness/education on how to achieve the best in crop production."
photo captions: Dr Wambugu is skilled in identifying causes of disease in plants. After university, Florence got a job with Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) and was sent to work at the Muguga Research Station. Dr Wambugu in her stylish home. While America brought her career success, it also strained her marriage after about a dozen years, her experience left her wondering what it is that people adore about America
The Food You Eat May Change Your Genes for Life
- Alison Motluk, New Scientist, Nov. 18, 2005 http://www.newscientist.com
It sounds like science fiction: simply swallowing a pill, or eating a specific food supplement, could permanently change your behaviour for the better, or reverse diseases such as schizophrenia, Huntington's or cancer.
Yet such treatments are looking increasingly plausible. In the latest development, normal rats have been made to behave differently just by injecting them with a specific amino acid. The change to their behaviour was permanent. The amino acid altered the way the rat's genes were expressed, raising the idea that drugs or dietary supplements might permanently halt the genetic effects that predispose people to mental or physical illness.
It is not yet clear whether such interventions could work in humans. But there is good reason to believe they could, as evidence mounts that a range of simple nutrients might have such effects.
Two years ago, researchers led by Randy Jirtle of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, showed that the activity of a mouse's genes can be influenced by food supplements eaten by its mother just prior to, or during, very early pregnancy (New Scientist, 9 August 2003, p 14). Then last year, Moshe Szyf, Michael Meaney and colleagues at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, showed that mothers could influence the way a rat's genes are expressed after it has been born. If a rat is not lick ed, groomed and nursed enough by its mother, chemical tags known as methyl groups are added to the DNA of a particular gene.
The affected gene codes for the glucocorticoid receptor gene, expressed in the hippocampus of the brain. The gene helps mediate the animal's response to stress, and in poorly raised rats, the methylation damped down the gene's activity. Such pups produced higher levels of stress hormones and were less confident exploring new environments. The effect lasted for life (Nature Neuroscience, vol 7, p 847).
Now the team has shown that a food supplement can have the same effect on well-reared rats at 90 days old - well into adulthood. The researchers injected L-methionine, a common amino acid and food supplement, into the brains of well-reared rats. The amino acid methylated the glucocorticoid gene, and the animals' behaviour changed. "They were almost exactly like the poorly raised group," says Szyf, who announced his findings at a small meeting on environmental epigenomics earlier this month in Durham, North Carolina.
Though the experiment impaired well-adjusted animals, the opposite should be possible, and Szyf has already shown that a chemical called TSA that is designed to strip away methyl groups can turn a badly raised rat into a more normal one.
No one is envisaging injecting supplements into people's brains, but Szyf says his study shows how important subtle nutrients and supplements can be. "Food has a dramatic effect," he says. "But it can go both ways," he cautions. Methionine, for instance, the supplement he used to make healthy rats stressed, is widely available in capsule form online or in health-food stores - and the molecules are small enough to get into the brain via the bloodstream.
Rob Waterland from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, who attended the meeting, says Szyf's ideas are creating a buzz, as they suggest that methylation can influence our DNA well into adulthood. A huge number of diseases are caused by changes to how our DNA is expressed, and this opens up new ways of thinking about how to prevent and treat them, he says.
But Waterland points out there is still much work to be done. Substances like methionine and TSA are, he says, a "sledgehammer approach", in that they are likely to demethylate lots of genes, and we don't even know which they will affect. But he speculates that techniques such as "RNA-directed DNA methylation", so far tested only in plants but theoretically possible in mammals, may allow us to target such methylation much more precisely.
U.S. Should Not Import European Laws
- Steven Milloy, Fox News, Nov 17, 2005 http://www.foxnews.com/
As globalization fosters economic growth around the world, Americans should be vigilant of an unintended consequence: the imposition on U.S. businesses and consumers of the non-science-based, environmentalist-promoted, European Union-embraced standard known as the "precautionary principle."
The precautionary principle is the subject of a new Washington Legal Foundation report entitled "Exporting Precaution: How Europe's Risk-Free Regulatory Agenda Threatens American Free Enterprise." Authored by Lawrence Kogan of the Institute for Trade Standards and Sustainable Development, the report describes how "international bureaucrats and influential activist groups use the precautionary principle as a vehicle to diminish America's competitive position in the global economy and advance special interest agendas hostile to free enterprise and technology."
Kogan aptly calls the precautionary principle "regulation without representation." The precautionary principle is a scheme for establishing environmental, health and safety regulations that are based on irrational fears rather than empirical science.
Under the precautionary principle, activities, products and substances may be banned or restricted if it is merely possible that they or the processes used for their manufacture, formulation or assembly might cause health or environmental harm under some unknown and unspecified future circumstances. In other words: It focuses on purely hypothetical risks rather than actual hazards.
The precautionary principle inherently rejects scientific and cost-benefit analysis as bases for regulation. It is arbitrariness unleashed in the hands of powerful government regulators and others who have no use for facts or common sense.
Although the European Union expressly admitted that no evidence indicates biotech foods are less safe than conventional foods, the EU's precautionary principle-based Biosafety Protocol was used to block more than $2 billion worth of U.S. biotech crop exports from 1998 to 2005, according to Kogan.
The EU's Cosmetics Directive bans the use of chemicals called "phthalates" in cosmetic products even though no scientific data suggest that consumer exposure to phthalates in cosmetics and personal care products poses a human health risk. By also banning animal testing on most cosmetics prior to consumer use, Kogan says, a strictly applied Cosmetics Directive would run counter to U.S. laws and regulations mandating animal testing of cosmetics classified as over-the-counter drugs and require reformulation of almost all current cosmetics products.
The EU also intends to make the garbage pail obsolete by presuming that all trash is hazardous. Under the precautionary principle, EU businesses must develop "life cycle management principles" that include "take-back" provisions under which businesses must reclaim and dispose of all new products put on the market upon their obsolescence, mostly at business' expense.
The EU also applies the precautionary principle to industrial chemicals, disinfectants, preservatives and global warming. Science is out; capriciousness is in.
The tangible impact of the precautionary principle is immense. "The administrative, financial and legal burdens imposed by EU precaution-based environmental regulations are cumulatively equivalent to a hidden business tax that, as of 1999, constituted as much as 15 percent of the new capital invested by certain European industry sectors," writes Kogan.
The precautionary principle may help to explain why EU nations lag behind the U.S. in economic growth. According to a June 2004 report from the Swedish think tank Timbro, U.S. gross domestic product (the measure of the value of the goods and services produced by a country in a given year), was 17 percent higher than the nearest European country, Switzerland.
There are also intangible costs associated with the precautionary principle. Intellectual property rights are compromised because confidential information must be shared among producers, intermediaries and distributors in a product's vertical supply chain. Labeling steers consumers to bureaucrat- and environmentalist-preferred products, such as those labeled "eco-friendly," rather than politically incorrect brand name goods.
It doesn't take too much to imagine the harm the precautionary principle could do if imported into the U.S. as a legal standard. Existing standards of negligence, strict liability, products liability and public nuisance might go out the window in favor of legal outcomes like the $253 million verdict against Merck in a recent Vioxx trial.
Although Merck had complied with all legal requirements for testing and labeling and there was no scientific evidence supporting the verdict, emotional jurors nevertheless wanted to send Merck and the drug industry a precautionary principle-tyoe message: 'Stop doing the minimum to put your drug on the market," Kogan points out.
And all this may be coming our way. Kogan describes how American and European environmental and so-called "social responsibility" groups operated fear campaigns to generate public pressure for the EU to implement the precautionary principle. Now, these same groups are using strict EU laws and regulations as a platform for promoting similar regulatory change in the U.S.
Large multinational corporations, primary instruments of globalization that are subject to EU regulation, are now trying to import those same regulations back to the U.S. General Electric, for example, is subject to the EU-adopted Kyoto Protocol, and is actively advocating that Congress enact global warming regulation. Significantly hampered by its self-inflicted wound, the EU supports U.S. adoption of the precautionary principle as a means to become more economically competitive with American products and services.
We ought to take action "to extinguish the complex threat posed by the precautionary principle," Kogan writes. "The stakes are very high. America's very enterprise system, individual freedoms and international interests may be hanging in the balance."
---- Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com, is adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).
Mexico: Biotechnology Advocates Discuss Benefits, Business Opportunities
- Alyssa Giachino,The Herald (Miami - Mexico Edition), November 18, 2005
Less than a week after the environmental activist group Greenpeace flew a giant balloon over Mexico City's center to protest transgenetic crops, biotechnology advocates gathered Thursday in the capital to discuss the potential benefits and future applications of the science in Mexico.
"Biotechnology is of primary importance for our country," said Sen. Rafael Melgoza, noting that the field has important applications in agriculture and human health, as well as providing important opportunities for private initiative in research and development.
He was speaking at a seminar intended to generate dialogue and attract participation by Mexico in an international conference on Biotechnology scheduled for April, 2006, in Chicago. The event was sponsored by the U.S. State of Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
However, Melgoza also acknowledged that the use of genetically modified organisms is a cause for concern and emphasized the role of the government in "developing laws that protect our natural resources while also providing investment incentives."
Seminar participants included private sector biomedical laboratories, university scientists, U.S. Embassy spokespeople and government representatives from county, state and federal entities across Mexico.
In the area of agriculture, biotechnology has the "capacity to increase productivity and resolve some of the critical problems faced in the sector such as drought and plagues," said Susan Heinen, advising minister for Agricultural Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.
She noted the promise of such technologies for developing countries such as Mexico that face serious hunger problems in their populations. Mexico is signatory to several international agreements on biodiversity and biotechnology. At the same time, legislators have also been designing laws to address concerns of the potential for harm in the field, as well as providing protection for those working with the technology such as intellectual property rights.
"We are working to establish clear regulations on the safe use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture and human health, and using the technology to develop sustainable agricultural techniques," Sen. Melgoza said.
However, some scientists feel that the current laws do more harm than good. Jaime Uribe, president of the medical biotechnology firm Probiomed, criticized Mexican law, saying: "defective laws have set biotechnology back in this country." He expressed concern that China and India have a significant head start thanks to laws that encourage investment and development in the field, and he warned that Mexico is falling behind.
Sen. Melgoza acknowledged that "laws must be written based on input from different sectors, particularly because we are looking at a recent and constantly evolving field." In addition to the work of private laboratories such as Probiomed, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the National Polytechnical University (IPN) both have extensive research programs in the field.
Dr. Mario Trejo of the UNAM said it is critical to build links between academic research and commercial applications. Mexican companies and scientists are interested in forging relationships with U.S. counterparts to promote advances that are mutually beneficial. "There are real business opportunities between Mexico and the United States," said Omar Mendoza, commercial attaché for the Illinois Latin America Trade and Investment office.
Building international ties in biotechnology in the private sector is of interest to both Mexico and the United States, agreed U.S. Embassy representative Heinen. Mexico ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2002, a document formed in 1992 through the United Nations Environment Program, that today has been ratified by 190 nations with the goals of promoting conservation of biodiversity, sustainable use of natural resources, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic material.
'Vaccine Farmer' - Soviet Roots, American Growth
- Victor Greto, Delaware Online, Nov. 18, 2005. Full story at http://www.delawareonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051118/LIFE/511180307/1101
Delaware biologist Vidadi Yusibov's research into coaxing plants to produce human vaccines lands him on Esquire Top 10 list. Idadi Yusibov first became a farmer when he was 5 years old.
In the Caucasus Mountains, by a small town in Azerbaijan near the Caspian Sea, his mother and father showed him how to make a hole in the soil with his finger so he could help plant the tobacco seedlings they had grown during the winter in their greenhouse.
He had to get it just right. It was the family's livelihood, after all, and the determined boy, on his knees at times, crouched at others, grew up observing everything around him growing as quickly as himself. It was there in the field that Yusibov, now the 44-year-old executive director of the Fraunhofer USA Center for Molecular Biotechnology in Newark, first sowed the roots of his future as a biologist.
The center specializes in developing plant-based vaccines, a relatively new field that has taken on added importance after 9/11 and the more recent fears of an avian flu epidemic. Fraunhofer USA is a subsidiary of a German company, which does scientific research at more than 40 locations throughout Germany.
This week, Yusibov, whose 15,000-square-foot, four-lab center sits in the middle of the Delaware Biotechnology Park, was recognized by Esquire magazine as one of the 10 "best and brightest" minds in science nationwide. "They call me a 'vaccine farmer,' " he said of the magazine, noting the irony.
Why all the attention for a self-described "low-key" biologist with "mixed feelings" about being in the Top 10 of anything, and let alone in a national magazine? "He's an interesting character," said Robin McFee, medical director and president of Emergistics US Inc., a bio-terrorism-preparedness company that consults with government and law enforcement and is based in Washington, D.C. "The jury's still out on what he's doing," she said. "But it offers a lot of hope."
That hope includes vaccines for the avian flu, anthrax, diabetes and prostate and cervical cancer. Traditional vaccines have consisted of a killed, weakened or derivative form of an infectious germ. When the body receives the vaccine, it triggers an immune response by causing it to believe it's being invaded by a specific organism. "Your body builds an antibody against it," McFee said, "so when your body sees the real virus, it can defend you from it."
If you create a vaccine through plants, however, there will be no need for needles and injections in the arm or shoulder. You would take it orally, usually by eating, or by sniffing it, or by swallowing pills. No more contaminated stockpiles of vaccines that put populations at risk, because plants hold the promise of having a much smaller risk of contamination by human and animal pathogens or microorganisms.
And the manufacturing of a plant-based vaccine theoretically could be done by the acre. "We're able to get the attention of the farmer, because now we're not just growing soybeans to feed chickens," said Mike Bowman, president and CEO of Delaware Technology Park. "We're creating a new platform for chemistry for the world."