Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - October 10, 2006
* A Call to Green Revolution
* Borlaug: A Lifelong Quest to End Hunger
* $810K Balzan Prize for Plant Biotech Pioneers Meyerowitz and Somerville
* Modified Plants Show Promise, but Critics Fear Lax Oversight
* India Must Balance GM Fears with Food Security - Prime Minister
* Grain of Truth (speaking out his mind): PM says GM rice good for food security
* India: Genetically Modified Rules
* Haven't Cottoned On
* Introduction to risk assessment of GMOs - Italy
* Directory of Biosafety Organisations
* Rockefeller Travel Grants for International Plant and Genome Conference
* Sound Science or Sound Bite?
* ELF Activists Plead Guilty in 2001 UW Biotech Lab Firebombing
* ... In The Name of Nature
A Call to Green Revolution
- Dean Kleckner, Oct 6, 2006 http://www.agweb.com
Norman Borlaug is often called the father of the Green Revolution. Now it appears that Bill Gates wants to become its son.
Last month, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it would devote $100 million to African agriculture over the next five years, in combination with a decision by the Rockefeller Foundation to chip in an additional $50 million. They have the ambition of sparking a Green Revolution on the continent that more or less missed the first one.
Africa deserves for them to succeed. It is a blighted land--torn by war, ravaged by disease, and plagued by hunger. In no other place has food production actually decreased in recent years. Addressing these problems is a worthy project for two titans of philanthropy. The Gates Foundation is the world’s richest philanthropy, following Warren Buffett's pledge of $31 billion earlier this year; the Rockefeller Foundation, a behemoth in its own right, was crucial in supporting the first Green Revolution.
This time, biotechnology will need to play a key role: The 21st-century’s Green Revolution must also be a Gene Revolution. To be really successful, it will have to be.
The first Green Revolution transformed agriculture in the developing world and made it possible to feed a global population that now numbers more than 6 billion. No single breakthrough was responsible for its success, but rather a medley of factors: improved irrigation, better fertilizer, superior equipment, and new varieties of seed.
Likewise, a new Green Revolution must draw upon many sources of innovation. One of these is biotechnology, which wasn’t available to the original green revolutionaries a generation ago.
Genetically modified crops won't cure Africa's problems--they are no panacea. If the nations of that continent are ever to thrive, they will need to undergo serious political and economic reforms. GM foods are just one of several ingredients necessary to solving Africa's nutritional problems.
Yet they are an indispensable ingredient. Farmers in the United States and around the world have benefited enormously from improved soybeans, corn, and cotton. We've planted and harvested more than a billion acres of them in just 10 years. These crops boost yields and reduce costs. They're good for the environment because they help protect against soil erosion and require fewer applications of herbicide and pesticide. The future is even brighter, especially as biotechnology improves additional commodities. Rice--the world’s most important staple crop--is on the verge of its very own gene revolution.
What’s more, biotechnology is uniquely suited to address a fundamental problem that many poor farmers face: the enormous stumbling block of illiteracy. If farmers can’t read the instructions on their bags of seed, fertilizer, and herbicide, the potential for unintended mistakes increases. Biotech crops, however, require much less maintenance than their conventional counterparts. There are still directions to follow, but they’re less complicated. These seeds may come from the frontiers of science, but they're right at home in the developing world.
Fortunately, the Gates Foundation already has demonstrated its interest in these approaches, through grants it has given previously. It has refused to accept the anti-scientific paranoia of European activists who seem intent on denying Africans the best agricultural technology the world has to offer.
Just as biotechnology is no cure-all for Africa, the generosity of the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations will only go so far: $150 million is a relative pittance--less than the payroll of the New York Yankees. In 2005, the World Bank spent $537 million on rural development in Africa . Nations that belong to the African Union also have promised to commit a large portion of their budgets to agriculture.
But the involvement of the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations is nevertheless significant. For one thing, it represents a down payment on what may become a much larger investment. But it also carries symbolic weight. This marriage of the world’s wealthiest foundation, created by one of history’s greatest entrepreneurs, with the foundation that made so much of the first Green Revolution possible, sends a clear signal to the world that biotechnology has much to offer even the poorest people on the planet.
Let's hope that governments now hear their message.
Dean Kleckner is an Iowa farmer, member emeritus of the World Food Prize Board of Advisors and past president of the American Farm Bureau. Mr. Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)
Norman Borlaug: A Lifelong Quest to End Hunger
- Matt McKinney, Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Oct 2, 2006 http://www.startribune.com
'Thirty years past the age many people retire, Nobel winner Norman Borlaug -- still fighting hunger in Africa -- has a new biography and is in line for a congressional medal.'
The world still springs green for Norman Borlaug, the University of Minnesota scientist, Nobel Peace Prize winner and father of the "Green Revolution," who at age 92 commands a moral authority few others equal.
The man commonly credited with saving more than a billion people from starving through his high-yield wheat varieties has lots more recent news. The U.S. Senate voted last week to award him the Congressional Gold Medal, a bill that still needs House approval and a presidential signature. This month, he celebrates the 20th anniversary of an annual $250,000 prize he awards to scientists who battle world hunger. And the Gates and Rockefeller foundations announced last month that they would build on his Green Revolution to fight hunger in Africa, one of the few areas of the world that skipped his techniques the first time around, back in the 1950s and '60s.
It's enough to tire out a man half his age, but Borlaug found time last week to swing by the University of Minnesota to talk to students and to promote his new biography: "The Man Who Fed the World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug and His Battle to End World Hunger."
Whether it's his tireless approach or his résumé, Borlaug's name brings widespread credibility, colleague A. Colin McClung said. "I think the remarkable thing is the extent to which he has never let go," said McClung, a scientist who will share with two others the 20th annual Food Prize when Borlaug awards it this month. "If he wants to make a proposal to somebody, he can get in almost any door in the world and his voice is heard."
The news about Africa comes as late confirmation for Borlaug, who despite a lifetime of accolades has faced criticism in recent decades for his preference for pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation in developing nations.
The foundations will spend $150 million over five years to develop and spread high-yield crops in Africa and to assist small farmers. The project will train scientists, breed new seed varieties adapted to Africa's climate and distribute the seeds.
"I think it's way overdue, and I'm really happy to see it," Paul Faeth said. The managing director of World Resources Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, added, "Africa is the only continent where food per person is declining; calories per person is actually going down."
Some estimates say three-quarters of African farmland is severely depleted of basic nutrients needed to grow crops. A watershed agreement came recently, when the leaders of 40 African nations met in Nigeria to sign a pact lifting all tariffs on fertilizers, making them more affordable for poor farmers.
Borlaug lost support for an African Green Revolution in the 1990s, when several large philanthropic organizations backed away from his initiatives because of concerns that they would hurt Africa's environment.
"Yes, there was criticism of the unintended consequences of the Green Revolution, and there were some unintended consequences," said Gary Toenniessen, director of food security at the Rockefeller Foundation. Some farmers overused pesticides and contaminated their land; mismanagement of water and irrigation systems led to soil erosion and water pollution.
The sort of success that Borlaug had in Asia -- where his methods helped Pakistan and India raise enough food to feed their citizens -- are unlikely in Africa. There's no single crop, like rice, that could be used across many countries. And the age-old irrigation systems in Asia don't exist in parched Africa.
"It's a tougher challenge," Toenniessen said, adding that he never bought the criticisms of Borlaug. "The Rockefeller Foundation never gave up on those ideas," he said. The foundation has moved most of its resources for agriculture to Africa, he noted.
Borlaug, who earned his doctorate from the University of Minnesota in 1942 and has spent much of his professional life working and living in Third World countries, dismisses some of his critics by saying that they don't know what it's like to be hungry.
The Texas resident, who still teaches at Texas A&M University, was in town promoting his biography, written by longtime colleague Leon Hesser. The book "captures a fair amount" of his life, Borlaug said in an interview at Borlaug Hall on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus. But during the interview, on the day the Senate was voting to give him the country's highest civilian honor, his thoughts were mostly on Africa, and the lessons his life's work holds for the impoverished continent.
Borlaug said the road ahead for Africa's Green Revolution is fraught with difficulty.
Colonial powers built roads and railways deep into India and Pakistan to exploit the region for agricultural products, he said, and those roads later served the local population when they had surplus harvests to take to market. That doesn't exist in Africa.
"The colonial powers weren't interested in food [in Africa], they were interested in minerals or diamonds," Borlaug said. "They built railroads into the richest mineral areas of the world. Agriculture was ignored."
The path to development begins with roads, he said. Roads help farmers move surplus crops to areas that have a deficit. Ethiopia had good crops five years ago, but people 200 miles away were starving.
A reliable network of roads would become a lifeline for children to get to school, for the sick to get to clinics and for people in neighboring areas to build relationships. In Borlaug's vision, neighbors become friends as a bus moves people and crops back and forth across the countryside, "a beat up old bus moving down that road, tearing down ethnic and cultural barriers, linguistic barriers."
Plant Biotech Pioneers Meyerowitz and Somerville Win $810K Balzan Prize
'Each of the annual prizes for science and culture is valued at 1 million Swiss francs'
Milan (Italy), 4 September 2006 -- The International Balzan Foundation today announced the Balzan Prizewinners for 2006 during a public event held at Milan’s Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).
Plant Molecular Genetics Award to Elliot M. Meyerowitz (USA), California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California and Chris R. Somerville (Canada/USA), Stanford University, Stanford, California "for their joint efforts in establishing Arabidopsis as a model organism for plant molecular genetics. This has far reaching implications for plant science, both on a fundamental level and in potential applications".
The winners named today will be presented with their Balzan Prizes personally by the President of the Italian Republic, His Excellency Giorgio Napolitano, during an award ceremony to be held in Rome on November 24th at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, in the Palazzo Corsini. Each Balzan Prize is worth one million Swiss francs (circa US$810,000/ UK£430,000) and the winners are each required to allocate half of their prize money to funding research projects carried out by young scholars or scientists in their respective fields.
Modified Plants Show Promise, but Critics Fear Lax Oversight
- The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 5, 2006 via http://www.redorbit.com/
American farmers have adopted genetically modified crops with a vengeance since their introduction 10 years ago. Biotech seeds -available since 1996- already account for 61 percent of the corn, 83 percent of the cotton, and 89 percent of the soybeans planted in the United States.
"From a farmer's perspective, it was basically a pretty wonderful invention," said Abram Bakker, who farms 600 acres in Cumberland County, N.J., and uses herbicide-tolerant soybeans in crop rotations. "It's made it a lot simpler, more cost-effective, and you're putting less chemicals into the environment," he said.
Plants genetically engineered to resist insects and withstand herbicides dominate the market now, but DuPont Co.'s Pioneer subsidiary and other biotechnology companies have bigger plans: for plants that tolerate drought, soybeans that contain healthier oils, and plants that produce drugs and industrial chemicals more efficiently than factories.
In a laboratory called "The Bean Scene" at DuPont's Experimental Station in Wilmington, Del., for example, researchers have engineered soybeans to produce high levels of oleic acid and are working on beans with enhanced omega-3 oil content. Both are considered healthy fats.
Yet, despite its momentum, agricultural biotechnology keeps stumbling in ways that raise doubts about how carefully government regulators and industry are handling the relatively new technology. Consider an August report from Bayer Cropscience that it had found traces of an unapproved genetically modified rice -which Bayer had stopped field-testing in 2001 - in American long-grain rice.
Such incidents "contribute to what is ultimately slowing down the industry, and that is a public concern about biotechnology that is translated into market restrictions," said Gregory Conko, a senior fellow at Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington. The United States Department of Agriculture said the rice _ which contains a protein that allows it to tolerate a herbicide - poses no danger to humans and has put it on a fast track for approval.
"This isn't the tomato that ate Cleveland," said Norman C. Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at the University of California, Riverside. "What matters to me largely is that it sets a bad precedent. There will be transgenic crops coming down the pike that we will want to have contained," said Ellstrand, who studies the movement of genes from cultivated to wild plants.
Cindy Smith, the USDA's deputy administrator for Biotechnology Regulatory Services, said the unit was modifying its regulations to keep pace with the "very complex, very rapidly evolving technology." She said the agency's "focus is to ensure that the technology moves forward, but does so in a safe manner."
Critics of agricultural biotechnology worry about the USDA's dual role as promoter and regulator of biotechnology. "It's not a good combination," said Jane Rissler, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.
The public reaction to the rice incident has been muted, especially compared with the discovery six years ago that genetically engineered corn approved only for animal consumption slipped into the human food supply.
The concern in 2000 was that the corn could cause an allergic reaction in some people. In the rice case, the protein in question has been approved for human consumption in 12 other countries.
The rice discovery turned into a headache for U.S. rice exporters, who now have to certify their crop as nontransgenic before it can be shipped to the European Union and Japan. But other parts of the food industry remained unfazed. "This is not a food-safety issue, but rather a question of regulatory permissibility in certain markets outside of North America," said Kris Charles, a Kellogg Co. representative. "Here in the U.S., most consumers are not concerned about biotechnology, and we receive very few contacts on the subject from either the public or our retail customers," Charles said.
Indeed, genetically modified crops are not a top-of-the-mind issue for most Americans, according to the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology at the University of Richmond. Still, opponents of the technology have persisted in trying to block its spread. "Until USDA gets its act together," in its efforts to keep genetically modified plants from mixing with natural plants, "we recommend a moratorium on all new permits for open-air field-testing of genetically engineered crops not permitted in the food supply," said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety in Washington.
Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew biotech center, said it was not realistic to "expect 100 percent purity in any biological system growing out in the open. ... In traditional agriculture there is no expectation that there will be 100 percent purity in seed."
Some scientists said they were not worried by the escape of genes that provided herbicide tolerance and insect resistance but were troubled by the potential entry of genes that caused plants to produce drugs or chemicals into food plants.
Smith, head of Biotechnology Regulatory Services, said the government had instituted stricter regulations on the field-testing of such crops. Under the old regimen, each test field was inspected once. Now each is inspected seven times: five times during the growing season and twice in the year after, Smith said. This year, 181 acres in eight states were planted with crops that produce pharmaceuticals or industrial chemicals, according to Rachel Iadicicco, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
While the U.S. food industry is generally supportive of agricultural biotechnology, it is wary of "biopharming." For example, Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. threatened last year to stop buying rice from Missouri if a California biotech company planted rice there enhanced with synthetic human genes.
Such concerns have slowed down the expansion of this area of biotechnology. "I think people both within the industry ... and neutral observers of the industry thought we would be in an entirely different place 10 years on," said Conko, the Competitive Enterprise Institute fellow.
Some of the science has turned out to be more difficult than initially expected, and market acceptance - especially overseas - has not been achieved for some crops.
For example, government regulators have cleared genetically engineered rice, potatoes and wheat, but they are not commercially available now because the industry made a decision that the market was not ready for them, said Michael Phillips, vice president of food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington.
Genetically modified crops have been adopted at a phenomenal pace, but "if those areas had been opened up, it could be much bigger."
India Must Balance GM Fears with Food Security - Prime Minister
- Mayank Bhardwaj Reuters October 09, 2006
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Monday any possible health and environmental dangers from the development of new genetically-modified rice varieties had to be balanced with the need to feed more than one billion people.
"We need to strike a balance between using the potential of biotechnology to meet the requirements of hungry people, while addressing ethical concerns about interfering with nature," Singh told a international rice conference.
By 2025, the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates global demand for rice will have risen to 800 million tonnes a year against current output of 600 million tonnes. Asia accounts for 90 per cent of all rice production, a staple food for more than half of the world's population. Over two billion people source 60-70 percent of their energy needs from rice and its products.
Experts say that biotechnology will play a crucial role if supplies are to meet growing demand, and nutrition for many of the world's poorest people is to be improved. "With due course of time we may be able to match the rise in demand, but the real challenge will be to raise the nutrition level of rice," Robert S. Zeigler, director general of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, said on the sidelines of the meeting.
"We want a whole range of biotechnology tools to be used in the endeavour to raise per hectare yield and output of rice," he said. Zeigler said GM crops undergo more stringent tests than conventional crops. "We should not over-regulate something or under-regulate another. Balance is needed."
Singh expressed concern over India's stagnant rice production and said output urgently needed to be increased. "We in India are concerned that the growth rate of both production and productivity in rice cultivation in India has tapered off in recent years," Singh said. "We need a new boost to rice production and productivity."
In India rice is cultivated throughout the year spread over 44 million hectares, with an annual production of around 90 million tonnes, representing the largest area under the grain of any country, and the world's second-highest production. Some in India see the answer to stalling output as the increased use of biotechnology, while others are worried about the long-term impact of such a move.
India has so far not permitted commercial cultivation of any genetically modified crops for human consumption though some trials are continuing. Cotton is the only genetically altered crop grown commercially.
Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar said India was second only to China in developing hybrid rice -- rather than genetically modified -- which promises improved harvests. India has a million hectares under hybrid rice cultivation, he said, adding the target was to bring three million hectares under the varieties by 2010.
Grain of Truth (speaking out his mind) : PM says GM rice good for food security
- Ashok B Sharma, Financial Express (India), Oct 10, 2006 http://www.financialexpress.com
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday said we must strike a balance between tapping the biotechnology potential and the ethical concerns given the fact that the growth rate of both production and productivity in rice cultivation had tapered off in recent years.
Addressing the 2nd International Rice Congress, he said, "There are some anxieties about the risks associated with new biotechnological products which can at the same time provide food security for the poor." Taking a consumer angle to the issue, he praised the genetically-modified rice varieties like the Golden Rice, iron and vitamin A rich rice.
Dwelling on ethical issues, the Prime Minister said, "In India, rice is more than a mere commodity. It is an integral part of our civilisation, of most religious and social ceremonies. It is a symbol of festivity and joy."
Singh said concerted efforts should be made to develop rice varieties for submergence tolerance and tolerence for drought and salinity and for wider adaptation to the ongoing climate change. "Rice grown uder irrigated conditions is facing the threat of water shortage. This is forcing a paradigm shift towards maximising output per unit of water instead of per unit of land. Can you come out with technologies that convince farmers to use less water in rice production without compromising on returns?" he quipped.
Singh said since the early 1960s, rice production had increased by 2.35% annually which was more than the annual global population growth of 1.76%. This had resulted in an increased per capita availability of rice from below 50 kg in early 1960s to about 62 kg during 2002-04. The adaptation of modern rice varieties evolved by scientists in 71% area in South and Southeast Asia have resulted in annual gain of over $ 10 billion. "This amount is 150 times the annual investment made in rice research by the international and national research systems," he said.
"What we need is the further application of science and technology to develop the rice economies," he said. Calling for a supportive policy environment and favourable market conditions particularly for small growers, he said, "We need a multilateral trade regime that enables rice farmers to harness the full potential of their resources and capabilities."
Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar that plans were afoot to bring 3 million hectare lan under hybrid rice cultivation as against one million at present.
India: Genetically Modified Rules
- Sonu Jain, Indian Express, Oct5, 2006 http://www.indianexpress.com
India has come a long way since the first genetically modified cotton seeds were approved for cultivation in 2002. Thanks to Bt, India is now poised to displace the US in cotton production and there’s a bunch of applications with the regulators for hybrids of other seeds as well; indeed, the first edible GM crop, Bt brinjal, is on the anvil. Both industry and activists agree on the need to streamline its regulatory process -- not just for cutting down on time taken for clearance but assuring consumers of due diligence in the area of environmental and health safety. SONU JAIN sifts the grain from the chaff
How many genetically modified crops have been cleared for commercial use in India?
Since the first GM seed, Mahyco-Monsanto’s Bollgard Cotton, the Government has approved 59 GM hybrids (all cotton) for commercial release. Of these, 52 are based on the Bollgard gene technology of Monsanto, while the others are different gene constructs developed by JK Agri-Genetics Ltd or Nath Seeds.
What is the regulatory structure for GM crops in India today?
India currently has a three-tier regulatory system for GM crops: each research organisation must have an Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBSA), which assesses research proposals; a national Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) assesses field trials for environmental safety and allergic responses; and the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) -- part of the environment ministry -- carries out environmental impact assessment, and approves multi-location field trials and commercial cultivation.
What’s the problem with the present system?
Several, including a clash of interests between stakeholders and regulators, not enough experts to assess health and environmental safety of the crops and inordinate time taken for clearance. A scientist from the agricultural research system that applies for clearance of a particular seed is part of the GEAC, whose chairman is not a scientist and changes frequently. There is lack of transparency -- the Bt cotton field trial results were never made public -- despite protests. After pressure from civil society, Bt brinjal results have been put on the website this year.
What are the reforms suggested in the regulatory system?
A task force headed by M. S. Swaminathan, said that India’s approval system was "lengthy and cumbersome". It recommends creating an autonomous Agricultural Biotechnology Regulatory Authority to consider the approval of GM crops in the country. Under this body, the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), not the GEAC, should be authorised to conduct and assess large-scale field trials and approve commercial release of GM crops. He also suggested that the three tiers remain but their responsibilities change.
The major change that they recommend is to limit GEAC’s role to environmental clearance. The ICAR, rather than the GEAC, would decide whether GM crops could be planted for commercial purposes. The Monitoring cum Evaluation Committee should report to the GEAC on biosafety and environmental issues while post-release monitoring should be responsibility of Union Agriculture ministry and not the ICAR. It favours strengthening of the existing Seeds Act, 1966 and Environmental Protection Act 1986 to deal with illegal proliferation of GM seeds. It proposes single-window information on all aspects of bioethics and biosafety.
What is the roadblock?
Though Swaminathan submitted his report in 2004, its formation is stuck as a result of a power struggle between two ministries -- the environment ministry and the department of biotechnology. Both ministries want to control the panel.
What’s coming up ahead?
There is a whole range of crops in the lab trial stage in the private sector. In the public sector, there are seven transgenics which have crossed the RCGM-stage of approvals -- American bollworm-resistant cotton, yellow stem borer-resistant rice, fruit and shoot borer-resistant brinjal, leaf curl virus-resistant tomato, protein-enriched potato, and salinity-cum-drought tolerant tomato and mustard. If all goes well, these would be ready for the farmers’ fields by 2008-09.
Haven't Cottoned On
- Eidtorial, Indian Express, Oct 4, 2006 http://www.indianexpress.com/
'India’s GM regulation isn’t equipped for the coming flood of new applications'
With India poised to become the world’s second largest cotton producer, as reported in this newspaper, thanks largely to higher yields from genetically modified cotton, the most important follow-up question to this good news is why are the chances of more breakthroughs being held back by bureaucratic infighting. The department of science and technology and the environment ministry have been battling for months over whose nominee should head the proposed national biotechnology regulatory authority. This body, recommended by the M.S. Swaminathan task force, is to function as a single window for preliminary approval, research evaluation and final clearance, taking care of inter-ministerial wrangles that characterise the current three-stage process. It is surprising there has been no top-of-the-government intervention as yet to sort out this bureaucratic turf battle.
The surprise is greater because India, unlike, say Europe, has a fairly rational GM policy. Of course there have been examples of unnecessary obfuscation by government regulators, which is also one of the reasons Swaminathan advocated a single-window system.
But overall, India’s GM policy has been a reasonably good mixture of positive attitude to new technology and abundant caution while testing it. That the government has set up a special committee that will evaluate independent assessments of field trials for Bt brinjal -- the reason is that Bt brinjal, if cleared, will be India’s first GM food crop -- is one example of cautious policy. On the other hand, the system of event based clearance -- this means once a GM crop from one party has been cleared, other parties planning to employ the same variety need not seek approval -- shows policymakers have learnt flexibility.
But this government, which says farming is a high priority, should consider itself warned: its current GM regulation is equipped neither to efficiently handle the flood of applications coming India’s way -- GM tomato and golden rice, among others -- nor to manage the resultant high intensity NGO activism.
Introduction to risk assessment for the deliberate release of GMOs: Assisting decision-making in a biosafety framework.
- May 14-18 2007, Treviso, Italy. Workshop organised by the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in collaboration with the Istituto Agronomico per l'Oltremare. Deadline for applications is 30 November 2006. See
or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information
Directory of Biosafety Organisations - BCH
The Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity recently announced the launch of a new directory of organisations involved in biosafety activities. Accessible through the Biosafety Clearing House (BCH), the directory profiles the nature of work undertaken by each institution, focusing on its relevance to biosafety, and provides detailed contact information as well as links to relevant records in the BCH. It currently contains 134 records. See
or contact email@example.com for more information.
From FAO-BiotechNews at http://www.fao.org/biotech/archive.asp
Rockefeller Travel Grants for International Plant and Genome Conference XV
- (via Plant Breeding News; Clair H. Hershey, chh23.at.cornell.edu)
The meeting will take place January 13-17, 2007 in San Diego, USA. The Rockefeller Foundation will support five scientists from Africa to attend the event. For more information on the grant, contact Dr. Katrien M. Devos, University of Georgia, Athens, USA, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Application deadline is September 10, 2006. Other organizations offering travel grants can be viewed through http://www.intl-pag.org/15/15-grants.html.
For the full announcement of the conference, visit http://www.intl-pag.org
Sound Science or Sound Bite?
- Michael Bugeja, Inside Higher Ed, Oct 5, 2006
I direct a journalism program at a science-oriented university where my colleagues are modern-day alchemists, turning corn into fuel, conjuring twisters in wind tunnels, or morphing visitors at our virtual reality lab into plant cells during photosynthesis.
These professors rank among the most ingenious, passionate people I have ever met.
Put some of them in front of a reporter, however, and all bets are off.
Being misquoted in the media is commonplace, especially when the topic concerns science. Depending on the error, a quotation out of context can catapult a scientist into the national spotlight where the person gets to clarify the remarks and do it again, only this time for a mass audience. Read on...
ELF Activists Plead Guilty in 2001 UW Biotech Lab Firebombing
- KOMO 4 NEWS, October 4, 2006 http://www.komotv.com/news/story_m.asp?ID=45802
SEATTLE - Two women pleaded guilty Wednesday for burning down a University of Washington horticulture building -- an arson claimed by the Earth Liberation Front.
Jennifer Kolar, 33, of Seattle, and Lacey Phillabum, 31, of Spokane pleaded guilty in federal court in Tacoma to conspiracy, arson and using a firebomb. Under a plea agreement with federal prosecutors Kolar faces five to seven years in prison and Phillabaum three to five years when they are sentenced in January.
U.S. Attorney Mike McKay says the guilty pleas show violent acts are not a valid form of political speech. "We don't think the activities of ELF and ALF are in any way reasonable or should be condoned in civilized society," McKay said. "And we're making that statement today and two individuals will go to federal prison."
The Earth Liberation Front claimed it was trying to stop genetic engineering of trees with the May 21st, 2001, arson that destroyed the Center for Urban Horticulture on the campus in Seattle. It was rebuilt at a cost of $7 million.
The center's work on fast-growing hybrid poplars did not involve genetic engineering. Three others were indicted in the UW firebombing.
William Rodgers, of Prescott, Arizona, committed suicide in jail after being charged with other acts of ecoterrorism. Briana Waters, of Berkeley, California, has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial in May. Justin Solondz, formerly of Jefferson County, Washington is still at large.
In The Name of Nature
- Emma Morris, Nature, Vol 443|, Oct. 5, 2006. www.nature.com. Excerpt....
"That was 21 May 2001. For maximum effect, the FBI says, on the same night three others — William Rodgers, Stanislas Meyerhoff and Briana Waters — torched the University of Washington's centre for urban horticulture, about 230 kilo metres away in Seattle. They took time to remove some cages for pet snakes from the building, Merrill Hall, before setting it aflame.
The Merrill fire
The hall housed lab space for botanists and ecologists, and served as a meeting place for Seattle's horticulturalists. Assistant professor Sarah Reichard, a specialist in rare plants, remembers the day well. "It was a beautiful morning," she says, until she got the message that her lab was on fire. She rushed to the hall, which sits just down the hill from the main University of Washington campus and is surrounded by demonstration gardens, meadows, and a grove of native trees.
"There was Merrill Hall with flames leaping 30 or 40 feet into the air," she remembers. The young academic lost everything, including a tissue culture lab where she was growing the highly endangered showy stickweed, a bluewhite flowering plant in the forget-me-not family. Losses of specimens, along with irreplaceable books and slides, put her career back at least a year, she estimates.
It wasn't just the blow to her road to tenure that worries her. That morning, standing by the blazing building, she feared that someone had been killed. "Academic units are not nine-tofive places," she says. "In fact, it was very unusual that there was no one there at three in the morning. One graduate student told me that the only reason he wasn't there was because I gave an extension on an assignment." No one was hurt in the blaze, but the building was a total loss.
Reichard may have been the hardest hit but she wasn't the target of the arson. "We could see Toby's office was black -- a big black hole," she says. "Everyone realized immediately that it was not an accident."
Toby is Toby Bradshaw, a plant geneticist who at the time ran the Poplar Molecular Genetics Cooperative, a group working on finding genes in hybrid poplars that code for traits useful in a crop tree -- fastgrowing, disease-resistant and straight. The team used traditional breeding techniques, ultimately aiming to make productive tree farms more attractive than logging big trees from oldgrowth forests. Somehow, however, the radical greens got the idea that Bradshaw was genetically engineering trees.
Bradshaw says he has never done so, although his colleagues have. He'd been a target before. Someone had tried to overturn his potted seedlings during the protest against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999. And two weeks after the Merrill Hall fire, a communiqué was issued through Craig Rosebraugh, a former spokesman for the ELF who has not been indicted. It reads, in part,
"Bradshaw, the driving force in G.E. tree research, continues to unleash mutant genes into the environment that is certain to cause irreversible harm to forest ecosystems. As long as universities continue to pursue this reckless 'science', they run the risk of suffering severe losses. Our message remains clear, we are determined to stop genetic engineering."
Bradshaw likes to joke that the fire actually helped his career. He got tenure and a new lab shortly afterwards, and has since moved on to unrelated work. But the attitudes behind the crime trouble him. "As social commentary, these kinds of arsons are ineffective because they are so misguided," he says. "Science at its heart is a rational enterprise and, at its heart, this kind of terror tactics with fire-bombing is an irrational enterprise."
The crackdown The FBI last interviewed Bradshaw at the time of the arson, and he was surprised last December when the arrests were announced. In fact, the FBI had spent years putting together information for the indictment; the most recent of the 17 arsons listed in the charges dated to October 2001, at a Bureau of Land Management wild-horse facility in Litchfield, California. The small group that had acted under the ELF banner seems to have more or less broken up after that, scattering to Virginia, Arizona, and around the Pacific Northwest. Reportedly, the FBI laid the groundwork for the charges by getting activist and heavy-metal guitarist Jake Ferguson to call his old pals for some nostalgic, and wire-tapped, conversations.
The bust was important enough to bring out the top law-enforcement brass. On 20 January, FBI director Robert Mueller gave a press conference on the indictments in Washington DC. "Terrorism is terrorism, no matter the motive," he said. "The FBI becomes involved, as it did in this case, only when volatile talk crosses the line into violence and criminal activity." Terrorism, however, is not defined as a crime in the United States; the group was charged with arson and associated crimes.
Most of the indictees are now in jails in Oregon, with some under house arrest or out on bail. Lauren Regan, head of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, calls the arrests the 'green scare', a play on the 'red scare' of the 1950s in which US citizens with communist ties were persecuted.
Regan says that many of the indictees don't deserve the sentences they are facing -- life several times over for each. "A lot of these people were at the time very young," she points out. "You are easily swayed, you've got a lot of passion. You hold a radio while some genetically modified trees are burned down. Chances are that they were not thinking, in that pre-9/11 time, that they were looking at life in jail."
Repentance and escape
Many of those arrested have since pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the authorities. Gerlach made a public statement at the time of her plea, saying, "These acts were motivated by a deep sense of despair and anger at the deteriorating state of the global environment and the escalating inequities within society. But I realized years ago that this was not an effective or appropriate way to effect positive change." Those outside jail have reacted harshly to those cooperating with the government.
In Eugene, Jensen began his speech with a message: "What you are doing is wrong, and I plan on seeing you brought to justice. And f$#@ you." Ferguson, who never faced charges, is known in some activist circles as 'Jake the Snake'.
A few of the indictees are still at large. Their wanted posters reveal a bit about them. Justine Overaker's, for example, paints a portrait of her as a seeker; it mentions that she may seek work as a "firefighter, a midwife, a sheep tender or a masseuse" and that she can speak Spanish and has been known to use narcotics. She has a tattoo of a bird across her back.
Rodgers, also known as Avalon, was arrested at his bookstore in Prescott, Arizona. He suffocated himself to death with a plastic bag in his jail cell. He left a note that said, "Human cultures have been waging war against the Earth for millennia. I chose to fight on the side of bears, mountain lions, skunks, bats, saguaros, cliff rose and all things wild. I am just the most recent casualty in that war. But tonight I have made a jail break -- I am returning home, to the Earth, to the place of my origins."
At 41, Rodgers was the oldest of the indictees and by some reports the ringleader. His lover, Katie Rose Nelson, says, "Life mattered to him -- and that meant all life". She and Rodgers both felt the environmental cause was urgent -- too urgent to spend time on research. "In our hearts we can all see what is happening around us," she says.
With most indictees not talking, missing or dead, they can't explain the motivations and justifications for their alleged crimes. But a rare glimpse of three of the activists, including Ferguson and Rodgers, can be seen in the 1999 documentary film Pickaxe, which chronicles an 11-month battle in the mid-1990s to keep an area in Oregon called Warner Creek from being logged. Here, they engage in legal protests, such as hunger strikes, and the kind of non-violent illegal protest that many condone, such as blockading the road into the area. And they won. At least that one patch of forest is still there, old and moist and green. So why were these same people drawn to anonymous arson attacks late at night — and why target scientists?
"Science does not have a lock on truth," says David Agranoff, an animal-rights and veganism activist in San Diego, California, who knows some of the defendants. He says he is sure they considered their actions carefully: "I would guess they had a pretty good reason." Rosebraugh, the former ELF spokesman, notes that each would have had their own motives. "For all the people involved," he says, "you would probably give a different answer."