Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - November 6, 2006
* Crop Biotechnology and the African Farmer
* Uganda: GMOs are Key to Commercial Agriculture
* India: Ag Acknowledges Rise in Bt Cotton Acreage
* UK: GM Potatoes Could 'Strengthen Competitiveness'
* China Faces Decision on Biotech Rice Seed
* Newly Cloned Gene Key to More Adaptable Wheat Varieties
* Genetically Engineered Mustard In India: 1. Anti-Ge Activists Open A New Front
* Agbiotech Evolution Needs A Regulatory Revolution
* Australia: Activist Hurt in Protest Against Canola Imports
* Keep "ill-informed hyperbole, simplification, exaggeration, PR spin and ranting" Out of AgBioView
* Greenpeace Using 'Fake Queen' to Promote its Agenda for Christmas
Crop Biotechnology and the African Farmer
- Carl K. Eicher, Karim Maredia and Idah Sithole-Niang; Food Policy, v,. 31, p504-527. 2006.
Recent reports, workshops and meetings on GM (Genetically Modified) crops tend to characterize GM food production as a solution to Africa’s food crisis. However, GM crops are currently grown commercially in only one country in Africa -- South Africa. Biotechnology tools range from tissue culture to molecular breeding and genetic engineering. This paper focuses on GM crop improvement and analyzes the development of seven GM crops (six food staples and cotton) over the past 15 years in Africa.
The case studies reveal a number of unexpected scientific, legal, economic and political barriers to the development of GM crops and long delays in developing and implementing national biosafety regulations and guidelines. We conclude that most GM crops are at least 10– 15 years or longer from reaching smallholder farmers in Africa. During this time special attention should be given to strengthening conventional plant breeding programs in NARS (National Agricultural Research Systems), African universities and the CGIAR.
Biotechnology approaches must be nested and integrated into plant breeding programs. Special attention should also be given to raising public awareness of biotechnology, mobilizing political support and commitment to strengthening African capacity in biotechnology, biosafety, food safety and IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) and mounting long-term training programs to train the next generation of African plant breeders and GM crop specialists.
Full Article at http://www.africabiotech.com/news2/article.php?uid=152
GMOs are Key to Commercial Agriculture
- Mutebi Kityo, New Vision (Uganda), Dec. 5, 2006
There are many products and processes of biotechnology such as brewing of beer, in-vitro (or in test tube) fertilisation, plant tissue culture, among others, that have been developed and applied for many years to the benefit of mankind without much controversy.
However Genetic Modification Technology has caused controversy despite the fact that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), which are products of products of biotechnology, have been commercialised in more than 40 countries with significant benefits.
In Uganda, no GMO crop has been commercialised but the potential is enormous. Scientists are already doing a good job at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories Institute (NARLI) at Kawanda.
Uganda can not afford to miss out on the biotechnology revolution as a means of improvement of crop productivity, curtailing the spread of crop diseases such as Black Sigatoka and bananas and coffee wilt diseases. For instance, work on addressing the Black Sigatoka and banana wilt has already started at NARLI.
Biotechnology is also important in the production of human medicines and vaccines. For instance, insulin that is used for treatment of diabetes is a product of genetic modification. Before this method was discovered, insulin was derived from pig and bovine liver and many patient were allergic to this impure product. In addition, not sufficient quantities could be derived from animals to cater for increasing number of diabetics. Today large quantities of insulin are produced using biotechnology. This saves millions of lives annually.
In Africa, more than 40,000 people die every day from hunger-related causes, millions of tonnes of good soils are eroded by water and wind every day, and man has put a lot of pressure on the environment in search for food, water, shelter and fuel.
Any scientific discovery geared towards addressing any of these challenges ought to be embraced. However, for this to happen, we need to have an explicit policy in place.
Kenya for instance has already done confined field trials of a number of genetically engineered crops including cotton, maize, cassava and sweet potatoes. Given that our boarders are porous, we need a policy under whose framework we shall enact a biosafety law that will help us handle challenges of commercialisation of biotechnology.
The writer is a member of the National Biosafety Committee
India: Agriculture Ministry Acknowledges Rise in Bt Cotton Acreage
- Bharat Textile.com Dec. 5, 2006
New Delhi: The agriculture ministry, by acknowledging rise in Bt cotton acreage, has informed that government has no plans of banning the genetically modified crops including Bt cotton. The announcement which is made by minister of state for agriculture, Kanti Lal Bhuria is expected to provide major relief to the Bt cotton farmers.
The farmers are entitled to grow the transgenic crop on a commercial basis as in India only genetically modified cotton has been approved by the designated authority, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. The minister further clarified that government is not contemplating any ban or formulation of any policy on GM crops even as advanced countries like US and others reportedly had some reservations.
The area under cultivation of Bt cotton rose by 154 percent to 30.84 lakh acres in 2005 from 12.13 lakh acres in 2004; whereas the impressive increase in Bt cotton acreage was fuelled by substantial acreage increase in major producing states of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Maharashtra witnessed the maximum growth in Bt acreage, which went up by almost 206 percent to 12.20 lakh acres from 3.99 lakh acres during the review period.
GM Potatoes Could 'Strengthen Competitiveness'
- Anthony Fletcher, Dec. 12, 2006 http://www.foodnavigator.com
Amflora, the GM starch potato at the centre of recent controversy, could help strengthen the competitiveness of the potato starch industry, according to EuropaBio. Furthermore the European Association for BioIndustries said that the innovation, developed by researchers from BASF Plant Science, was only made possible through genetic modification (GM).
But environmentalists have argued that the development of GM potatoes increases the risk of contamination of the food chain. Europe is already a significant producer of potato starch. Normal potato starch is valued for its high molecular weight (giving excellent thickening properties) and low levels of fat and protein compared to wheat and cornstarch.
Nearly all starches have two components - a high molecular weight, highly branched molecule with excellent thickening properties, called amylopectin, and a smaller, linear molecule which gels, called amylose. The 20 per cent amylose in normal potato starch limits its usefulness for many industrial applications. Separation of the two components is not economic, so most industrial starch is first chemically modified to reduce the gelling tendency.
But through genetic modification, BASF Plant Science has developed a nearly 100 per cent amylopectin starch. This was achieved by tweaking the pathway by which it is made in the plant cells. Both amylopectin and amylose are built from the same simple sugar dextrose and the different physical properties come about because of the way the monomers are joined.
The linear chains of amylose are constructed using a single enzyme called GBSS (Granule Bound Starch Synthase). Scientists have used biotechnology to make a back-to-front copy of the gene (called an anti-sense gene) and then inserted this into the DNA of a conventional potato using a bacterium (Agrobacterium tumefaciens). The anti-sense gene interferes with the operation of the normal gene, and no GBSS is produced. In the absence of this enzyme, the polymerisation of dextrose all goes in one direction, to produce amylopectin.
EuropaBio says that this innovative potato is nearing the end of its approval procedure. The application, filed under the conditions of Directive 2001/18 (for deliberate release of GMOs) via the Swedish Competent Authority, is to be recommended for approval by the Commission early in December. The body considering this recommendation will be the Standing Committee on GMOs.
GM potatoes have been in the headlines of late. Defra, the UK's department of environment, food and rural affairs, recently gave the green light to BASF to carry out GM potato trials in England, starting in 2007. These potatoes are designed to be resistant to late potato blight. The purpose of the research trials is to test the effectiveness of the potato's resistance against UK strains of the disease.
Defra said that it was satisfied that the trials will not result in any adverse effect on human health or the environment. Furthermore, EuropaBio has said that potatoes are the perfect crop when it comes to keeping varieties separate. "Since they are propagated via tubers (seed potatoes) cross-pollination is not an issue," said the association. "There are also no native European species with which they are compatible."
But some environmentalists disagree. "These GM trials pose a significant contamination threat to future potato crops," said Friends of the Earth GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow. "We don't need GM potatoes and there is no consumer demand for them. The government should promote safe and sustainable agriculture, not this half-baked GM potato plan."
China Faces Decision on Biotech Rice Seed
- Omaha World-Herald, Dec. 4, 2006 http://www.omaha.com
In myth, seeds of rice came to China tied to a dog's tail, rescuing the people from famine after a time of severe floods. Ancient writings held that grains - rice foremost among them - were more precious than jade or pearls.
Now China is deliberating whether to allow farmers to plant rice seed born of biotechnology, modified by scientists in the laboratory. If China decides to go forward, it would become the first nation to commercialize this genetically engineered staple on a significant scale. It also would mark a watershed in the history of a food synonymous with Asia's culture, potentially opening the floodgates for such crops throughout the region.
But China's relatively swift march toward government approval has slowed in recent months, amid concerns that biotech rice could cause environmental damage or meet resistance from consumers. There has been a fierce backlash against gene-altered food in the West, particularly in Europe. European Union countries recently required all U.S. rice imports to be tested after a contamination scare.
Awareness is growing in China that making the leap into commercialization would put the country under the microscope, internationally and at home. "Rice is our main food. We eat it every day," said Xue Dayuan, a researcher at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences. "There should be more debating among scientists. We need more time."
China's internal debate over biotech rice treads on hallowed ground. Rice cultivation goes back more than 6,500 years in Asia. Several nations, China and India among them, have laid claim to being the first to plant it. Across Asia, it is a potent symbol, woven into religious and civil rites. In the Shinto faith, for example, Japan's emperor embodies the god of the ripened rice plant. "It's like France debating whether to modify grapes," said Duncan Macintosh, spokesman for the nonprofit International Rice Research Institute, based in the Philippines.
More practically, rice is the principal food of 1.3 billion people and the single most important crop for the world's poor. China, the top producer and consumer of rice, is under considerable pressure to boost its agricultural output. It has 20 percent of the world's population but just 6 percent of its arable land. Amid its rapid conversion of farmland and labor to industrial use, China was forced to take the rare step of importing rice in 2004, when it consumed nearly 150 million tons and produced 124 million, according to the University of California, Davis Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.
China has pumped billions of dollars into biotechnology since the 1980s, driven by the need to feed its growing population and a desire to stake a claim as a scientific superpower. Its research has extended to people and animals, including one well-known project to clone the panda.
To many in China and elsewhere, biotech crops are the future of farming, a way to produce higher yields and hardier plants while making agriculture less harmful to the environment and human health. Scientists have developed genetically modified plants that are insect- and bacteria-resistant, requiring less pesticide, and strains that need less water and fertilizer. They also have targeted nutritional gaps, engineering varieties such as so-called golden rice, which its developers say would add vitamin A to the diets of many poor Asians.
Over the last decade, biotech crops have gained a foothold in 21 countries, with much of the growth fueled by U.S. agricultural giants, which have planted millions of acres of genetically modified soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, squash and papaya.
Gene-altered crops also have faced determined resistance. Consumer groups have campaigned against them, warning that a small group of multinational corporations could come to control the seed industry through patents and that "Frankenfoods" could ultimately prove unsafe.
There is no irrefutable evidence that biotech crops pose a threat to human health, but Europe, Japan and South Korea have blocked the import of genetically modified foods, and retailers in some countries have refused to stock them. U.S. rice farmers, who export half their crop, have chosen not to plant biotech rice even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved several varieties as safe.
Environmental groups also have raised concerns about the effects of "biotech pollution," in which genetically modified plants mix with conventional ones through error or by being blown by the wind. In Asia, the "mother source" of rice, the effect of such contamination could be even more profound because biotech varieties could disrupt wild species' ability to compete in nature, said Susan McCouch, a rice geneticist at Cornell University.
"I'm not concerned about human health," she said. "The flames may be fanned in Europe, but that's not where we should be focusing. I'm concerned about ecological upset." In early 2005, after extensive field trials, China's National Biosafety Committee approved several varieties of rice for consumption. The Ministry of Agriculture indicated that the decision to license biotech rice for commercial growth would come later that year and that the crops might enter the food chain within 12 months.
But no announcement came. Some observers said an April 2005 report issued by Greenpeace China alleging that biotech rice, possibly from field trials, was already being sold illegally in southern China might have delayed approval.
A furor erupted after U.S. officials announced in August of this year that an experimental strain of biotech rice had gotten into the nation's long-grain-rice supply. Rice futures plummeted as countries blocked American imports and scientists wondered whether the system for overseeing gene-modified crops had failed. In September, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace reported finding products in Europe that contained modified rice traceable to Chinese field tests, indicating that unapproved material had entered the food chain.
Xue, the Nanjing Institute researcher, said China's leaders remained divided, with those responsible for food safety and the environment wanting to go slower and those responsible for productivity, science and technology pushing to go faster.
"They are hungry," Xue said. "They've paid a lot of money, so they want to see the benefits."
The committee that will make the licensing decision meets this month, but its agenda is not public. Xue said it might take as long as two years for an announcement to come.
China is right to proceed cautiously, said Clive James, chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, a nonprofit advocacy group. "This is the crop of Asia, the biggest test," he said. "They just want to be sure the world sees them not leaving a stone unturned."
Newly Cloned Gene Key to More Adaptable Wheat Varieties
- UC DAVIS, Dec. 4, 2006 http://www-pubcomm.ucdavis.edu
In a research discovery that has practical implications for improving wheat varieties, a team of scientists at the University of California, Davis, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have cloned a gene that controls the flowering time of barley and wheat. Differences in this gene, called VRN3, are essential for adapting these two important crop species to different climates.
The findings of the study, conducted by Professor Jorge Dubcovsky, a wheat breeder and leader of the UC Davis research group, and by plant geneticist Ann E. Blechl of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Albany, Calif., will appear the week of Dec. 4 in the online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A.
One of the critical differences that help wheat and barley adapt to different environments is the existence of winter and spring forms. Winter wheat and barley varieties are planted in the fall but wait until the very cold winter weather passes before flowering. This requirement for a long-term exposure to low temperatures to flower is called the "vernalization requirement."
In contrast, spring wheat and barley varieties do not have this vernalization requirement and can be planted in the spring. This is essential for regions of the world where winter weather is so severe that cereals cannot be planted in the fall. The vernalization requirement in barley and wheat is very flexible, Dubcovsky noted. "During the domestication of these species, the different mutations that occurred in the vernalization genes were selected by humans, resulting in spring varieties better adapted to certain regions," he said. "This flexibility has helped wheat to become one of the world's most important crops."
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that wheat now provides 23 percent of the food available for daily human consumption around the world. The vernalization requirement in wheat and barley is controlled by three major vernalization genes designated VRN1, VRN2 and VRN3. The first two genes were cloned two years ago by the same group of researchers.
The cloning of VRN3 now completes a 10-year research project to understand the genetic regulation of the vernalization requirement in barley and wheat. Results from this new study show that mutations in regulatory regions of the VRN3 gene are responsible for the evolution of several barley and wheat spring lines.
To confirm that they had identified the correct gene, the researchers transformed, or genetically altered, the winter wheat variety Jagger with the VRN3 gene from the spring variety Hope. The genetically modified plants showed the early flowering characteristic of the spring wheat varieties, whereas the control non-transgenic plants failed to flower in the absence of vernalization. This result confirmed that the gene cloned by this research team was the correct one.
"The VRN3 mutation we discovered in the wheat variety Hope can now be used to accelerate flowering time of other wheat varieties," Dubcovsky said. "The VRN3 molecular markers developed in this study will help breeders to detect the mutations present in their breeding lines and to study their effects on the adaptability of wheat and barley varieties to particular environments."
Genetically Engineered Mustard In India: 1. Anti-GE Activists Open A New Front
C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India email@example.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org
In consideration of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed on May 1, 2006, seeking a 'ban on the release of genetically modified organisms/seeds having the potential of causing major health hazards', the Supreme Court of India (SCI) directed the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) on September 22, 2006, not to give new approvals to genetically modified products until further orders. On October 13, 2006, the SCI, however, permitted the University of Delhi, South Campus (UDSC) to go ahead with field trials of a genetically engineered (GE) variety of mustard.
The Petitioner of the PIL has vehemently reacted alleging that the UDSC 'may have suppressed important scientific information', and that this 'has consequently undermined and compromised a critical bio-safety order of the Court'. A number of issues were raised, with little evidence of understanding the science and modern technology behind developing hybrid Brassicas. The allegations of the Petitioner were widely reported in the Press and are likely to mislead the public. It is necessary that the entire background of cultivation of Brassicas, the problems in producing conventional hybrids among them, the importance of the recent technology used, and the irrelevance of the allegations made by the activists, are made known to the public.
Brassica is a group of species of the mustard family Brassicaceae, which are an important source of edible and industrial oil, condiment and vegetables. Utilizing variation in their economical and nutritional trains, both from natural mutations and natural hybridization and induced mutations and artificial hybridization, agricultural scientists and farmers have developed a very large number of cultivated varieties in different parts of the world, which resulted in a perennial disagreement on their scientific classification and naming. It may be convenient to use the popular names of the crops but it is essential to use the scientific names in the interests of accuracy in international communication, quality control and Intellectual Property Rights. The scientific names given below were taken from a recent review of the taxonomy of the Brassica group of crops.
a) Canola, Oil rape: Varieties of the Brassica rapa (Oleifera group) are the main source of oil, but the varieties of the Napus and Campestris group (Bird rape) may also be used for oil extraction.
b) Oil mustard: In India, canola is uncommon, but other species such as Brassica juncea, Brassica nigra and Sinapis alba are widely used for oil extraction.
a) Black mustard: Brassica nigra.
b) White mustard: Sinapis alba, subspecies alba (same as Brassica alba) (used as a condiment, in pickles and sauces and to temper food)
a) Brown mustard, Leaf mustard, Baaraalai, Raai, Pahadee Raai: Brassica juncea subspecies integrifolia (same as Brassica juncea var. rugosa and Brassica rugosa).
b) Brown sarson, Kaali sarson, Indian rape: Brassica rapa (same as Brassica campestris)
c) Raai/Sarson: Brassica rapa (Trilocularis group)(Yellow sarson, Indian Colze, Peeseeraanee, Peesee sarson, Raanee sarson)
The mustard greens called sarson, used as a vegetable in India, are different from the seed varieties grown for oil and condiment purposes.
Turnip: Brassica rapa var. rapa.
Cabbage, cauliflower, knolkohl, broccoli, Brussels' sprouts and related group of vegetables are different varieties of Brassica oleracea. Radish is Raphanus sativus, also included in the family Brassicaceae. All these are cultivated in India.
Rapeseed oil and Canola:
Rapeseed seed oil is used extensively as an industrial lubricant in the temperate countries and is now seriously considered as a source of biodiesel. It is not suitable for human consumption, as it has an unacceptable sharp taste due to the presence of glucosinolates (500 _ mol/g) and greenish colour. Rapeseed oil is toxic to humans and animals as it contains over 60 per cent erucic acid (over 60 per cent), suspected to cause several ailments including cancer. The seed meal was also not palatable to the livestock.
Canola is the acronym for the Canadian Oil Low Acid crop, developed in 1974, by the Canadian plant breeders from the oil seed rape, genetically modified by conventional techniques, to make it fit for human consumption. Canola is very low in erucic acid (about one per cent), and glucosinolates (30 _ mol/g). It is considered a healthy edible oil as it contains about 70 per cent of monounsaturated fatty acids such as oleic acid, more than most other edible oils. Canola seed cake can be used as cattle and poultry feed.
During the last decade, GE varieties of canola for resistance against pests, diseases, drought and herbicides, were developed, though only pest and herbicide resistant varieties have come to be commercialized.
Reproductive biology of Brassicas:
Wild species of Brassica have genetically determined self-incompatibility factors that prevent the male cells of a flower from fertilizing the female cells of the same flower (true self pollination), while this is easy between flowers of neighbouring plants of the same variety (cross pollination). However, during domestication and centuries of cultivation this has changed considerably and the extent of cross pollination is usually only 20 to 30 per cent.
Different varieties of Brassica oleracea used as vegetables as mentioned above, are inter-fertile. Nevertheless, farmers had no difficulty in maintaining them distinct without loss of their identity.
Brassica flowers are honey flowers, visited by bees, which are the pollinators. People who understood the behaviour of honeybees appreciate the fact that pollen are not carried by bees beyond 15 to 20 meters, away from the crop fields. Pollen may also be airborne. Much depends upon the temperature, rain or humidity, flowering stage and other related factors.
Agbiotech Evolution Needs A Regulatory Revolution
- Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko, Information Systems for Biotechnology, Dec 2006 http://www.isb.vt.edu
The application of recombinant DNA technology, or gene splicing, to agriculture and food production, once highly touted as having huge public health and commercial potential, has been paradoxically disappointing. Although the gains in scientific knowledge have been stunning, commercial returns from two decades of R&D have been meager. Although the cultivation of recombinant DNA-modified crops, first introduced in 1995, now exceeds 100 million acres, and such crops are grown by 7 million farmers in 18 countries, their total cultivation remains but a small fraction of what is possible. Moreover, fully 99 percent of the crops are grown in only six countries the United States, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China, and South Africa and virtually all the worldwide acreage is devoted to only four commodity crops: soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola.
Attempts to expand "agbiotech" to additional crops, genetic traits, and countries have met resistance from the public, activists, and governments. The costs in time and money to negotiate regulatory hurdles make it uneconomical to apply molecular biotechnology to any but the most widely grown crops. Even in the best of circumstances that is, where no bans or moratoriums are in place and products are able to reach the market R&D costs are prohibitive. In the United States, for example, the costs of performing a field trial of a recombinant plant are 10 to 20 times that of the same trial with a virtually identical plant that was crafted with conventional techniques, and regulatory expenditures to commercialize a plant can run tens of millions dollars more than for a conventionally modified crop. In other words, regulation imposes a huge punitive tax on a superior technology.
Singled out for scrutiny
At the heart of the problem is the fact that during the past two decades, regulators in the United States and many other countries have created a series of rules specific for products made with recombinant DNA technology. Regulatory policy has consistently treated this technology as though it were inherently risky and in need of unique, intensive oversight and control. This has happened despite the fact that a broad scientific consensus holds that agbiotech is merely an extension, or refinement, of less precise and less predictable technologies that have long been used for similar purposes, and the products of which are generally exempt from case-by-case review. All of the grains, fruits, and vegetables grown commercially in North America, Europe, and elsewhere (with the exception of wild berries and wild mushrooms) come from plants that have been genetically improved by one technique or another. Many of these "classical" techniques for crop improvement, such as wide-cross hybridization and mutation breeding, entail gross and uncharacterized modifications of the genomes of established crop plants and commonly introduce entirely new genes, proteins, secondary metabolites, and other compounds into the food supply.
Nevertheless, regulations in the United States and abroad, which apply only to the products of gene splicing, have hugely inflated R&D costs and have made it difficult to apply the technology to many classes of agricultural products, especially ones with low profit potential, such as noncommodity crops and varieties grown by subsistence farmers. This is unfortunate, because the introduced traits often increase productivity far beyond what is possible with classical methods of genetic modification. Furthermore, many of the recombinant traits that have been introduced commercially are beneficial to the environment. These traits include the ability to grow with lower amounts of agricultural chemicals, water, and fuel, and under conditions that promote the kind of no-till farming that inhibits soil erosion. Perhaps society as a whole would have been better off if, instead of implementing regulation specific to the new biotechnology, governments had approached the products of gene splicing in the same way in which they regulate similar products?pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and new plant varieties made with older and often less precise and less predictable techniques.
Curiously, the largest agbiotech companies may have risked their own long-term best interests, as well as those of consumers, by lobbying for stringent government regulation in order to procure short-term economic advantages. From the earliest stages of the agbiotech industry, regulations acted as a type of governmental stamp of approval for biotechnology products, while the time and expense engendered by overregulation acted as a barrier to market entry by smaller competitors. A ripple effect of overly restrictive regulations is that they reinforce the idea that there is something uniquely worrisome and risky about the use of recombinant DNA techniques. Many companies have had to abandon potentially excellent products because of regulatory obstacles.
Another manifestation of the unfavorable and costly regulatory milieu is the sharp decline in efforts to apply recombinant DNA technology to fruits and vegetables, the markets for which are minuscule compared to commodity crops such as corn and soybeans. Consequently, the number of field trials in the United States involving gene-spliced horticulture crops plunged from approximately 120 in 1999 to about 20 in 2003.
Setting matters aright
The public policy miasma that exists today is severe, worsening, and seemingly intractable, but it was by no means inevitable. In fact, it was wholly unnecessary. From the advent of the first recombinant DNA-modified microorganisms and plants a quarter century ago, the path to rational policy was not at all obscure. The use of molecular techniques for genetic modification is no more than the most recent step on a continuum that includes the application of far less precise and predictable techniques for genetic improvement. It is the combination of phenotype and use that determines the risk of agricultural plants, not the process or breeding techniques used to develop them. Conventional risk analysis, supplemented with assessments specific to the new biotechnology in those rare instances where they were needed, could easily have been adapted to craft regulation that was risk-based and scientifically defensible. Instead, most governments defined the scope of biosafety regulations to capture all recombinant organisms but practically none developed with classical methods.
An absolutely essential feature of genuine reform must be the replacement of process-oriented regulatory triggers with risk-based approaches. In January 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it would begin a formal reassessment of its regulations for gene-spliced plants. One area for investigation will include the feasibility of exempting "low-risk" organisms from the permitting requirements, leading some observers to hope that much needed reform may be on the horizon. However, regulatory reform must include more than a simple carve-out for narrowly defined classes of low-risk recombinant organisms. An absolutely essential feature of genuine reform must be the replacement of process-oriented regulatory triggers with risk-based approaches.
Just because recombinant DNA techniques are involved does not mean that a field trial or commercial product should be subjected to case-by-case review. In fact, the introduction of a risk-based approach to regulation is hardly a stretch; it would merely represent conformity to the federal government’s official policy, articulated in a 1992 announcement from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which calls for "a risk-based, scientifically sound approach to the oversight of planned introductions of biotechnology products into the environment that focuses on the characteristics of the . . . product and the environment into which it is being introduced, not the process by which the product is created." One such regulatory approach has already been proposed by academics. It is, ironically, based on the well-established model of the USDA’s own plant quarantine regulations for nonrecombinant organisms. Almost a decade ago, the Stanford University Project on Regulation of Agricultural Introductions crafted a widely applicable regulatory model for the field testing of any organism, whatever the method employed in its construction. It is a refinement of the "yes or no" approach of national quarantine systems, including the USDA’s Plant Pest Act regulations; under these older regimens, a plant that a researcher might wish to introduce into the field is either on the proscribed list of plant pests, and therefore requires a permit, or it is exempt.
The Stanford model takes a similar, though more stratified, approach to field trials of plants, and it is based on the ability of experts to assign organisms to one of several risk categories. It closely resembles the approach taken in the federal government’s handbook on laboratory safety, which specifies the procedures and equipment that are appropriate for research with microorganisms, including the most dangerous pathogens known. Panels of scientists had stratified these microorganisms into risk categories, and the higher the risk, the more stringent the procedures and isolation requirements.
Strategies for action
Rehabilitating agbiotech will be a long row to hoe. In order to move ahead, several concrete strategies can help to reverse the deteriorating state of public policy toward agricultural biotechnology.
First, individual scientists should participate more in the public dialogue on policy issues. They should demand that policy be rational instead of insisting primarily on transparency or predictability. Some scientists appear convinced that a little excess regulation will assuage public anxiety and neutralize activists’ alarmist messages. Although defenders of excessive regulation have made those claims for decades, the public and activists remain unappeased and technology continues to be shackled.
Scientists are especially well qualified to expose unscientific arguments and should do so in every possible way and forum, including writing scientific and popular articles, agreeing to be interviewed by journalists, and serving on advisory panels at government agencies. Scientists with mainstream views have a particular obligation to debunk the claims of their few rogue colleagues, whose declarations that the sky is falling receive far too much attention.
Second, groups of scientists professional associations, faculties, academies, and journal editorial boards should do much more to point out the flaws in current and proposed policies. For example, scientific societies could include symposia on public policy in their conferences and offer to advise government bodies and the news media.
Third, reporters and their editors can do a great deal to explain policy issues related to science. But in the interest of "balance," the news media often give equal weight to all of the views on an issue, even if some of them have been discredited. All viewpoints are not created equal, and not every issue has "two sides." Journalists need to distinguish between honest disagreement among experts, on the one hand, and unsubstantiated extremism or propaganda, on the other. They also must be conscious of recombinant DNA technology’s place in the context of overall crop genetic improvement. When writing about the possible risks and benefits of gene-spliced herbicide-tolerant plants, for example, it is appropriate to note that herbicide-tolerant plants have been produced for decades with classical breeding techniques.
Fourth, biotechnology companies should eschew short-term advantage and actively oppose unscientific discriminatory regulations that set dangerous precedents. Companies that passively, sometimes eagerly, accept government oversight triggered simply by the use of recombinant DNA techniques, regardless of the risk of the product, ultimately will find themselves the victims of the law of unintended consequences.
Finally, venture capitalists, consumer groups, patient groups, philanthropists, and others who help to bring scientific discoveries to the marketplace or who benefit from them need to increase their informational activities and advocacy for reform. Their actions could include educational campaigns and support for organizations such as professional associations and think tanks that advocate rational science-based public policy.
The stunted growth of agricultural biotechnology worldwide stands as one of the great societal tragedies of the past quarter century. The nation and the world must find more rational and efficient ways to guarantee the public’s safety while encouraging new discoveries. Science shows the path, and society’s leaders must take us there.
Henry I. Miller ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Gregory Conko is the director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. This article is derived from their book The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution (Praeger Publishers, 2004).
Australia: Activist Hurt in Protest Against Canola Imports
- Donna Sawyer, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec. 7, 2006 http://www.smh.com.au
Environmental activists were arrested in Newcastle yesterday after attempting to block the first shipment of genetically engineered canola coming into Australia.
Police used cutting equipment to free three Greenpeace protesters, who used neck locks to chain themselves to vehicles blocking the gates to the Cargill processing plant at Kooragang Island. One of the protesters required medical assistance after she was cut on the neck by machinery used to free her.
The shipment of 57,000 tonnes of canola was imported from Canada. Greenpeace campaigner Louise Sales said activists wanted to send a message to possible canola buyers such as Coles to reject genetically engineered products.
Cargill's commercial manager, Robert Green, said the protest was "unfortunate". "The east coast of Australia has suffered a massive shortfall of canola due to the drought and this will go towards products such as vegetable oil and anima feed. Shipments such as this also keep people employed in Newcastle."
Re: AgBioView 21 November on 'cisgenesis'
- Dominic Glover (D.Glover(at)ids.ac.uk) DPhil candidate, Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex , UK
Dear AgBioView Coordinator,
I'd just like to record my thanks for the 21 November edition of the AgBioView list-serve, reproducing a debate from Nature about "cisgenic" plants and regulation, which I have finally found time to read. This is exactly the kind of useful, informative, scientifically informed and stimulating material I would like to read more often. AgBioView has provided a valuable service in compiling and circulating the bulletin.
I would like to contrast this with the regrettable inclusion, in too many editions of the newsletter, of rather ill-informed, poorly written and uninformative opinion articles, such as some of the op-eds copied from mainstream newspapers or, even worse, blogs written by high schoolers. I really find it tedious to have to wade through these articles in order to reach the really valuable information that may be included in the same edition of AgBioView. I would strongly request and encourage you to filter out such items in future. There is plenty of ill-informed hyperbole, simplification, exaggeration, PR spin and ranting out there; AgBioView could strengthen its value and credibility by sheltering us from it!
Thanks once more for maintaining what is usually a helpful and informative service.
Greenpeace Using 'Fake Queen' to Promote its Agenda for Christmas
Queen-e delivers environmental speech for Greenpeace by Joanne Payne
- Brand Republic 6 Dec 2006
LONDON - The Queen has gone green this year and will be issuing an alternative Christmas message thanks to a viral e-card campaign created by Greenpeace UK. Concept and creative for the project was developed by E3 London and will feature a royal look-a-like emulating HRH in her Christmas message by way of viral e-message that gives recipients festive tips, hints and advice on how to have a greener Christmas.
The e-card sender will be asked to answer a handful of different questions about the card recipient and given the option to subscribe to Greenpeace's e-bulletin. E3 has created and shot a host of videoclips, actions and responses to enable its "Queen-e" to personalise her message to every one of her subjects.
(Thanks to Andy Apel)