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February 13, 2007


Roses are Blue, Violets are Red; Will Mexico Get GM Corn?; Blame Game; Charitable Greenpeace?; Fit Between Organic and Pharma Crops


Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - Feb 13, 2007

* Roses are Blue, Violets are Red - Don't Like GM Food? Try Flowers
* Will Mexico Get Modified Corn?
* Researchers Developing New Science-Based Crops
* Pew Analysis Finds State Legislatures Focus on Agricultural Biotech
* Safety Assessment of GM Foods - FAO Workshop report
* Blame Factory Farming, Not Organic Food
* .... Not So Fast!
* The Fit Between Organic and Pharma Crops in North Carolina
* Plant Metabolic Engineering - Gordon RESEARCH Conference
* Ghana's First International Forum on Biotechnology
* Just How 'Charitable' is Greenpeace?

- If You Don't Like GM Food, Try Flowers Instead

- The Economist, Feb 8, 2007

See the 'blue rose' at http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8663291

Beautiful flowers--like beautiful women--can separate the most sensible of men from their money. Those men invest in the reproductive organs of plants such as roses to signal, albeit coyly, analogous intentions of their own.

The result is a cut-flower industry in which roses alone are worth $10 billion a year. But that is peanuts compared with what happened in the past. In 17th century Holland, tulips (the fashionable flower du jour) grew so expensive that people exchanged them for houses. One bulb of the most sought-after variety, the flaming red-striped Semper Augustus, sold for twice the yearly income of a rich merchant.

For modern flower growers, the equivalent of the Semper Augustus is the blue rose, which horticulturalists have longed for since the Victorian period. Any blue rose sent on St Valentine's day this year will have been dyed. But if Yoshi Tanaka, a researcher at Suntory, a Japanese drinks company, has his way, that will soon change. Dr Tanaka is currently overseeing the first field trials of a blue rose developed by Suntory's subsidiary, Florigene. If the trials are successful, a dozen blue roses--even if they do look slightly mauve—could, by 2010, be what separates an unsuccessful suitor from Prince Charming.

Flaming tulips. Blue roses. What Dutch growers of old and Dr Tanaka's employers both grasped is that rarity, and hence economic value, can be created by genetic manipulation.

The stripes of the Semper Augustus were caused by the genes of a virus. Not knowing that an infection was involved, the Dutch growers were puzzled why the Semper Augustus would not breed true. The genetics of blue roses, too, have turned out to be more complicated than expected. The relevant genes cannot easily be pasted into rose DNA because the metabolic pathway for creating blue pigment in a rose consists of more chemical steps than it does in other types of flower. (Florigene has sold bluish genetically modified carnations since 1998.) Success, then, has been a matter of pinning down the genes that allow those extra steps to happen, and then transplanting them to their new host.

Buy any other name
Mere colour, however, is for unsophisticated lovers. A truly harmonious Valentine gift should smell beautiful as well. Sadly, commercial varieties of cut rose lack fragrance. This is because there is a trade-off between the energy that plants spend on making the complex, volatile chemicals that attract women and insects alike, and that available for making and maintaining pretty-coloured petals. So, by artificially selecting big, long-lasting flowers, breeders have all but erased another desirable characteristic.

Smell is tougher to implant than colour because it not only matters whether a plant can make odoriferous chemicals, it also matters what it does with them. This was made plain by the first experiment designed to fix the problem. In 2001 Joost Lücker, then a researcher at Plant Research International in Wageningen, in the Netherlands, added genes for a new scent into petunias. Chemical analysis showed that the new scent was, indeed, being made, but unfortunately the flowers did not smell any different. As happens in Florigene's blue carnations and roses, Dr Lücker's petunias dumped the foreign chemical they were being forced to create into cellular waste buckets known as vacuoles. Whereas pigments are able to alter a petal's colour even when they are inside a vacuole, because the cell contents surrounding the vacuole are transparent, smelly molecules must find a route to the sniffer's nose by getting out of the cell and evaporating.

Like Dr Lücker, Natalia Dudareva, of Purdue University, in Indiana, eschews experiments with roses, since these plants have scents composed of 300 to 400 different molecules. She prefers to understand basic odour science using petunias and snap-dragons, which have about ten smelly chemicals apiece. She has made an encouraging discovery. By studying the many different pathways through which flowers make their fragrances, she has found consistent patterns in the way these pathways are regulated.

Such co-ordinated patterns suggest that a type of protein called a transcription factor is involved. Transcription factors switch genes on and off in groups. If Dr Dudareva is right, cut roses have lost their fragrances not because the genes that encode their hundreds of scent molecules have each lost their function, but because the plants no longer make a few transcription factors needed to turn the whole system on.

This suggests that the task of replacing lost fragrance is more manageable than it seemed at first blush. But even when the transcription factors in question have been identified, the problem of the energetic trade-off with pigment production and longevity will remain. So Dr Dudareva is also measuring how quickly the enzymes in scent-production pathways work, in order to identify bottlenecks and thus places where her metabolic-engineering efforts would best be concentrated.

Dr Dudareva's methods may also help to improve the job that flower-scents originally evolved to do--attracting insects that will carry pollen from flower to flower. By modifying the smell of crops such as vanilla, which have specific pollinator species, different insects might be attracted. That could expand the range in which such crops could be grown and thus make some poor farmers richer. A change, then, from making rich but romantic men poorer.


Will Mexico Get Modified Corn?

- Kenneth Emmond, February 13, 2007, McClatchy-Tribune News Service http://www.clarionledger.com/

Mexico's sudden, acute and possibly chronic shortage of corn brings into focus the question of whether genetically modified strains should be welcomed or shunned. As the price of corn goes, so goes the price of tortillas, since tortillas are a dietary staple of rich and poor Mexicans alike. And corn prices are rising.

A recent nationwide survey of nearly 4,000 tortilla-makers, by the Federal Consumer Authority (Profeco), showed a price range of 59 cents to $1.01 per kilogram, representing increases from zero to nearly double.

Not everyone is equally concerned about the effects of these price increases. Consumers certainly are. Thousands of them demonstrated in Mexico City and nine other cities last Wednesday, demanding strong government action to keep the price from going even higher.

Low-income Mexicans see this as the first inflationary gouge out of their 3.9 percent minimum wage increase that went into effect Jan. 1. They rightly worry that eggs, meat, milk and other foods that come from corn-fed livestock may soon follow. Bank of Mexico Gov. Guillermo Ortiz isn't worried. He sees no reason for an emergency increase in the minimum wage despite the threat of higher-than-expected inflation.

The environmental activist group Greenpeace thinks it's more important to keep genetically modified foods out of Mexico than to ensure a supply of affordable food for everyone, a viewpoint foreigners and the comfortable middle class can afford.

This ill-defined fear is reminiscent of a controversy in Canada a few years ago over potatoes that were irradiated to prevent sprouting. Irradiated potatoes passed all food safety tests and were certified safe, but consumers refused to buy them.

Genetic selection is as old as agriculture. And nowhere was it more successful than with corn, a hybrid crop that for 7,000 years has been dependent on humans for propagation and survival. The ears of corn from 2,000 years ago were small and yields were minuscule by today's standards. Yet it was so important to the diet that corn goddesses and gods, like Xilonen of the Aztecs and Yum Kaax of the Mayas, were worshiped.

By the turn of the 20th century, corn resembled what we see in fields and on our dinner plates today. Yields for non-genetically modified corn can reach 2.5 tons per hectare (about 1 ton per acre). Improvements over the centuries were accomplished by conventional genetic selection. Genetic modification is basically fine-tuning the methodology.

There's not enough corn here to feed 100 million Mexicans and their livestock: last year Mexico produced 22 million tons and imported 8 million tons more. Most of it came from the United States, where yields reach 12.5 tons per hectare (5 tons per acre).

One of the chief reasons for high corn prices - and the reason some experts think it will stay high - is its popularity as a source of ethanol. Ethanol is mixed with gasoline and used to fuel automobiles. Environmental groups should laud ethanol fuel: it's renewable, biodegradable and burns cleaner than fossil fuels. And genetically modified corn helps meet the burgeoning demand.

Genetically modifying corn can achieve many goals besides yield enhancement. It can be applied to combat food shortages that might result from climate change.

If Mexico becomes hotter and drier, researchers will be able to tweak its genes to help maintain yields, or they can tweak them another way if there's too much rain. Pest-resistant genetically modified plants can be developed, good news for those who decry the use of chemical insecticides.

There are challenges. New strains must be rigorously tested to ensure that they're safe for human consumption. The market must be strictly regulated to ensure that all producers have access to genetically modified seeds. That's especially true so long as they are produced by a small number of firms.

What about fears that genetically modified pollens will contaminate traditional corn strains, shrinking the gene pool? That, too, must be addressed. But it should be seen as a tradeoff, a concept that's often missing in environmentalist literature.

The risk of losing part of the historic and valuable genetic pool must be measured against the vastly increased probability of meeting future demand.

There's already been a call from some producers for Mexico to relax its ban on genetically modified corn. Legislators must decide whether to change that - or whether to settle in for a long period of insufficient corn production and high tortilla prices.
Kenneth Emmond is a columnist for MexiData.info.


Researchers Developing New Science-Based Crops, experts say. Benefits of biotechnology especially could help developing countries

- Kathryn McConnell, U. S. International Information Programs, Feb. 11, 2007 http://usinfo.state.gov

Agricultural biotechnology research being conducted around the world is leading to the development of new crops that will help fight human diseases and increase productivity in cropland that is stressed due to such conditions as drought and poor soil. The research holds immense promise, especially for the developing world, according to several scientists interviewed by USINFO.

Continuing improvements in biotechnologies are contributing to the development of "functional foods" -- those with components associated with the prevention or treatment of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, arthritis and improved mental alertness, said Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California's biotechnology research and education program.

Plants are being modified to deliver anti-oxidants, which protect against cancer; lipids, which contain essential fatty acids that serve as energy sources; vitamins, such as beta-carotene or vitamin A, which protect against premature blindness and susceptibility to other illnesses; and iron, whose deficiency results in fatigue and decreased immunity, she said.

Bananas and tomatoes are being engineered to deliver, among other things, antibodies for E. coli bacteria-induced diarrhea, a major killer of children around the world. Other plants are being engineered to counteract allergies, Newell-McGloughlin said.

The first crops derived from biotechnology, or genetic modification, were modified to be insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant, which led to increases in production, according to Bruce Chassy, executive associate director of the University of Illinois' biotechnology center.

Research that began approximately 15 years ago on these and other traits in a variety of crops continues today in laboratories around the world. So far, the United States has approved more than 70 genetically modified crops. These crops, which can be grown commercially, include canola, papaya, potato, rice, squash, sugar beets, tomato and tobacco, which is used to help produce a vaccine that fights against a type of lymphoma, said Newell-McGloughlin.

The latest biotech crop commercialized in the United States was alfalfa, a feed crop, which entered the market in 2006, according to Wayne Parrott, professor of crop and soil sciences at the University of Georgia. The first African-engineered crop to go into field trials is a type of maize resistant to a devastating virus, Parrott said. It is expected to be planted in 2007. China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and South America are among countries at the forefront of research, the scientists said. Biotech crops are being grown commercially in 22 countries.

Research is being directed to making already healthy foods, such as protein-rich soy and soy oil with low or no saturated fats, taste better to consumers, Chassy said. Also being developed are bioengineered trees capable of absorbing harmful chemicals from the soil and plants that can be converted into plastics and industrial products, he said.

More research is being directed to plants such as cassava and sorghum that are consumed mostly in developing countries but not in countries where most biotech research has been taking place, the scientists said. Another area of research is plants that can be grown productively in such harsh conditions as drought, salty or acidic soil, and cold, and to resist viruses and fungi, Parrott said.

Making more crops able to grow in current nonarable conditions could contribute to food security and help promote sustainable agriculture, the scientists said. At the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, researchers are developing plants that are "phytosynthetically more efficient." These have more leaf surface exposed to the sun, making the leaves more efficient in converting carbon to energy for higher yields, according to Carlos Quiros, a professor and geneticist at the University of California-Davis.

"Farmers now realize they have an economic and commercial advantage" planting biotech seeds that produce crops that are easier to grow, have greater harvests and various uses, Quiros said.

Although considerable research is being conducted by governments, international organizations, foundations, companies and academic institutions, few new products are being commercialized, the scientists said. They explained that the many, separate country regulatory and patent dispute processes that often are lengthy and costly discourage commercial production. Several of the researchers called for a worldwide regulatory regime.

Also affecting the pace of commercialization is resistance from some consumers to accept that bioengineered foods have been proven to be safe, the scientists said. Yet, said Chassy, "We are breeding plants that are safer than those from conventional breeding."


Final Pew Initiative Analysis Finds State Legislatures Continue to Focus on Agricultural Biotechnology


Regulating GMOs and Support of Biotechnology Most Popular Topics of Legislation Introduced in 2005-2006 Session

A new fact sheet and web database released today by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology reveals that agricultural biotechnology continues to be of interest to state legislatures, particularly with respect to concerns about marketing, economics and liability – issues that historically have not been the focus of federal regulatory efforts. During the 2005-2006 legislative session, 134 pieces of legislation related to agricultural biotechnology were introduced in 33 states and the District of Columbia.

The announcement of findings marks the fifth time that the Pew Initiative has monitored state legislative efforts in the area of agricultural biotechnology. As the PIFB project will be ending in March 2007, this is the final state legislation report.

This most recent analysis identified legislative engagement on issues identified in prior fact sheets, such as liability and contracts, but also highlighted some new areas of action, such as coexistence between GE, conventional and organic farmers and producers.

"In the 2005-2006 legislative session, states continued to balance a diverse set of interests – from capturing the economic value of agricultural biotechnology to weighing potential conflicts with existing conventional and organic producers," said Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. "As states grapple with these issues, some stakeholders may also consider the broader existing regulatory framework and assess specific state responsibilities as they encounter situations where regulatory gaps appear to exist."

Twenty-nine percent of introduced legislation addressed the regulation of seeds and crops; 22 percent of introduced bills were in support of agricultural biotechnology; 16 percent of introduced bills sought to impose moratoria on GM crops and animals and 15 percent of legislation addressed rights and responsibilities of farmers and biotech seed producers by establishing liability for damages caused by genetically modified crops.

The fact sheet, entitled "State Legislative Activity Related to Agricultural Biotechnology in 2005-2006," chronicles and catalogues state and federal legislative activity relating to agricultural biotechnology in 2005 and 2006. It is accompanied by Legislation Tracker, a database that archives legislation. These items update a similar fact sheet and database prepared last year on legislative activity in 2005.

Highlights of the research include:
* Of the 134 pieces of legislation introduced in state legislatures, 27 were adopted (20 percent of introduced bills), compared with 37 bills (22 percent of introduced bills) in 2003-2004 and 45 (28 percent of introduced bills) in 2001-2002.

* A new development emerged in 2005-2006 that focused on local lawmaking with 16 bills introduced to preempt (disallow) local and county regulations on GM seeds and crops.

* Hawaii and New York introduced the most bills respectively generating 44 and 13 pieces, with Hawaii adopting the most bills (7 pieces).

The database can be viewed at: http://pewagbiotech.org/resources/factsheets/legislation


Safety Assessment of Foods Derived from Modern Biotechnology - FAO Workshop report

On 31 October and 1 November 2006, a training workshop on "Safety assessment of foods derived from modern biotechnology - Biosafety within a Biosecurity framework" was held in Ottawa, Canada, organized by FAO in collaboration with the Government of Canada. The summary report of the workshop is now available. The workshop was held as one of a series of biosafety-related activities within a Biosecurity framework. The overall objective of the project is to provide a standardized training package to assist countries in implementing international texts related to the food safety assessment of products derived from modern biotechnology. The purpose of the workshop was

to pilot test the training package. See
ftp://ftp.fao.org/ag/agn/food/meetings/2006/canada_ws_report.pdf or contact food-quality@fao.org for more information.

(Nature Biotech articles below reprinted with permission of the editor. www.nature.com/nbt )

Blame Factory Farming, Not Organic Food

- Craig Holdrege, Nature Biotechnology - 25, 165 (2007) ; The Nature Institute, 20 May Hill Road, Ghent, New York 12075, USA. craig.at.natureinstitute.org

To the editor:
Clearly, editorials provide a journal the opportunity to express opinions. But your October editorial "Why silence is not an option" (Nat. Biotechnol. 24, 1177, 2006) goes too far by misrepresenting some basic facts.

The editorial laments that biotech crops get bad press whereas organic crops, when something goes awry, seem to come away unscathed. Your example is the recent contamination of fresh spinach with the food pathogen Escherichia coli O157:H7, which led to numerous human illnesses and, up to now, four deaths. You insinuate that organic spinach was the carrier of the pathogen. That is not the case. The manufacturing codes from the contaminated bags of spinach have, to date, all been from conventionally and not organically grown spinach. The conventionally grown spinach was packaged at the same warehouse as Earthbound Farm's organic spinach 1.

You go on to decry that no one has pointed out that "the combinations of 'organic' and 'spinach' [are] simply a time-bomb waiting to go off." You provide absolutely no evidence for this radical claim. I would expect more substance and less hyperbole from a scientific journal. The problem of E. coli O157:H7contamination is complex. The largest known reservoir of these pathogens is the colon of cattle. When cattle are fed large portions of grain--as is the case in feedlots and large factory farms--both the number of E. coli and their acid resistance rise significantly 2, 3, 4. This increases the likelihood that pathogenic E. coli--including O157:H7--will survive and reproduce. Perhaps 30–50% of grain-fed cattle harbor E. coli O157:H7. Because the strain is acid resistant, if it contaminates uncooked food it survives the acid environment of human stomachs, which normally kills most bacteria, and then can cause serious illness.

Manure and runoff from factory farms and feedlots can easily pollute streams and groundwater--water used to irrigate those huge vegetable farms in California that produce most of the produce for the United States, including fresh spinach. The US Food and Drug Administration sees contamination of irrigation water supplies as a primary means of spreading E. coli O157:H7 and warned California growers about this danger in a letter in November 2005 (ref. 5). Factory farming and concentration of the food supply is the issue here, not organic food. Your editorial got it wrong.

In fact, researchers studying E. coli O157:H7 found that when cattle feed was shifted from grain to forage (hay or silage), both the pathogen population in the cattle and the bacterial acid resistance dropped drastically 2, 3, 4. Although it may be hard to swallow, you're probably much safer eating a hamburger made from grass-fed beef slaughtered in a local slaughter house and topped with a piece of lettuce from your neighbor's organic farm that used the grass-fed cow's composted manure as a fertilizer than you are eating products of all-American industrial agriculture.

I would agree with your editorial's conclusion that "there is a basic truth that bears repetition: and that is that basic truths bear repetition." The basic truth I missed in your editorial is that the recent food contamination has to do with systemic problems in conventional industrial food production and processing. Don't blame organic farming.

1. http://www.ebfarm.com/Press/SpinachUpdates/index.aspx.
2. Diez-Gonzalez, F. et al. Science 281, 1666–1668 (1998). 
3. Russell, J.B. et al. J. Dairy Sci. 83, 863–873 (2000). 
4. Callaway, T.R. et al. J. Dairy Sci. 86, 852–860 (2003).
5. US Food and Drug Administration. Letter to California Firms that Grow, Pack, Process, or Ship Fresh and Fresh-cut Lettuce, November 4, 2005. http://www.cfsan.fda.gov

Response to Blame factory farming, not organic food

- Nature Biotechnology - 25, 165 - 166 (2007)

Nature Biotechnology responds:

It is instructive that a proponent of organic agriculture is outraged and prompted to speak out against an editorial that intentionally (and ironically) sought to apply to organic spinach the types of media distortions that are all too often applied to genetically modified (GM) products. If only the industrial and academic research community were as forthright in defending GM products from media distortions and scaremongering, our editorial would have been unnecessary.

When we wrote that "all spinach was bad for consumers, organic fresh produce per se was hazardous" and "combinations of 'organic' and 'spinach' [are] simply a time-bomb waiting to go off," our intention was not to alert readers to the explosive dangers of organic spinach, nor to tarnish the image of spinach or organic food as a whole—it was simply to illustrate the preposterousness of some of the claims concerning GM food that are bandied about by the media without challenge.

As stated clearly in our editorial, the facts presented concerning the suspected source of contamination were correct at the time Nature Biotechnology went to press. Subsequently, Natural Selections Foods' Earthbound Farm did issue a press release (the release mentioned in ref. 1 above appears to be no longer active on the website) claiming that manufacturing codes from packaging retained by patients were all from nonorganic spinach—a claim parroted widely and without critique in the media; however, what was not widely reported was that these codes were obtained for only a relatively small number of victims. So the possibility that organic spinach was responsible for illness in other patients has never been ruled out by federal authorities; indeed, perhaps an important question to ask is why Natural Selections Foods issued press releases absolving its organic products from culpability only three days into a national outbreak of a food-borne illness for which no products had been cleared by regulatory authorities and in which the source of the E. coli O157:H7 contamination had yet to be ascertained.

We agree with Holdrege that "the problem of E. coli O157:H7 contamination is complex." Thus far, this strain has been found in every cattle herd tested by US Department of Agriculture researchers, including animals raised on open pastures at low densities in remote areas. On the basis of information available to date, government investigators have traced the most likely source of the September E. coli outbreak to a herd of cattle raised on a pasture-based, grass-only beef ranch--not "cattle fed large portions of grain as is the case in feedlots and large factory farms," as insinuated by Holdrege. The grazing cattle were about a half mile from the field where the tainted spinach was grown. E. coli O157:H7 was found in samples from a feral pig killed on the ranch, together with evidence that pigs had breached the fencing around the spinach fields. The supposition is that wild pigs spread the E. coli from the cattle pastures to the spinach fields 1.

Holdrege is correct that industrialized agriculture and its distribution system contribute to the problem of food-borne illness in the United States. Indeed, cattle on US feedlots produce more than a billion tons of manure every year--manure chockfull not only of nasty microbes like E. coli 0157:H7, but also high concentrations of pharmaceuticals used to medicate feedlot animals--which can end up on fields and in food. At the same time, increasingly centralized food washing and distribution systems are likely to continue to give microbes ample opportunities to cross-contaminate a vast amount of our food.

But organic food is not an absolute solution. It is not going to feed the entire country (or indeed the whole world)--it is an expensive lifestyle choice available to only a minority of consumers. And contrary to the wholesome hamburger picture painted by Holdrege, organic practices may even increase the likelihood of E. coli 0157:H7 contamination. The most comprehensive peer-reviewed study 2 to look at contamination of produce found that organic fruits and vegetables are three times more likely to be contaminated with bacteria than conventional produce; indeed, of all the produce tested, the study found the pathogen Salmonella exclusively in organic lettuce and organic green peppers. Of a total of 15 farms that had E. coli–positive samples, 13 were organic and only two were conventional 2.

There is a simple fix available, however, that could stem the rising tide of cases of food-borne illness in the United States. Irradiation of fruits and vegetables would eliminate 99.999% of pathogens. It would have prevented or drastically reduced all of last year's E. coli outbreaks. And most important of all, it would have saved lives. It's hard to understand why a country that already irradiates its meat should not do the same to its fruits and vegetables.

1. http://www.fda.gov/ola/2006/foodsafety1115.html
2. Mukherjee, A. et al. J. Food Prot. 67, 894–900 (2004). 


The Fit Between Organic and Pharma Crops in North Carolina

- Claire G. Williams, Nature Biotechnology - 25, 166 - 167 (2007) ; Department of Biology, Box 90338, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708 USA. claire.williams.at.duke.edu

To the editor:
A news feature by Jeffrey Fox in the October issue (Nat. Biotechnol. 24, 1191–1193, 2006) highlights progress in molecular pharming (or farming), the practice of growing plant-made pharmaceuticals (PMPs) and industrial proteins (PMIPs) using genetically modified (GM) plants. In certain US states, molecular pharming is being touted as a solution to an ailing local agricultural sector. Indeed, some growers are drawn by a simple fallacy: if Monsanto's (St. Louis, MO, USA) Roundup Ready GM soybeans are a profitable product, then GM crops making PMPs or PMIPs must be as good or even better. But field-grown PMP or PMIP crops are not food products and provide no panacea for the ailing agricultural sector. By contrast, liability and steep capital outlay pose a steep barrier to entry for the average grower. I illustrate this below using North Carolina as a case in point.

North Carolina has arrived at a critical juncture, caught between its agrarian heritage and a progressive investment in biotech. Even so, sustaining the local food supply for North Carolina is becoming a central issue for consumers—and voters. The state's population will increase to 12 million people in less than 20 years, a challenge that few agrarian states must confront 1. Demand has already outstripped the local food supply. In 2005, North Carolina became a net food importer for the first time 2, which means increased reliance on rising fuel costs. Nationally, the average food item now travels 1,596 miles from producer to consumer 3. The rising interest in local food production can be traced not just to rising fuel prices but practical necessity. In recent years, the state's citizens frequently experienced catastrophic weather events ranging from prolonged ice storms to the occasional hurricane, which constricted transportation, fuel and food.

At the same time, the capacity for local food production is declining. Similar to many other states, the average North Carolina farmer is 56 years old 4. The average farm in North Carolina is only 168 acres, netting a modest annual income of $28,000 4. Major sources of farm revenue are now livestock and animal feed crops, displacing tobacco 4. With tobacco-buyout programs in full swing, many farmers are experimenting with new specialty products. One specialty is organic farming, the fastest growing segment in North Carolina agriculture. Organic farming has a focus on direct sale of local foods, although eventually it will develop regional or national distribution systems. Organic farmers in North Carolina, of which only 73 are certified, are making premium returns. Those that are certified pay for a quality-control process in which the food is routinely tested for the presence of GM DNA. The larger question is profits--and prices--from local food production, which is a problem not only for organic farmers and buyers but also, more broadly, for all local small-scale producers and consumers.

Local growers are also considering a far more controversial specialty, molecular pharming. The story of Ventria Biosciences (Sacramento, CA, USA; http://www.ventriabio.com/)) illustrates its appeal to independent growers in eastern North Carolina. Ventria is testing two industrial proteins already in use as dietary supplements, lysozyme and lactoferrin. After several unsuccessful attempts in other states ]5, Ventria secured US Department of Agriculture (USDA)-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service permits for North Carolina for the years 2005 and 2006, and contracted with independent growers in coastal North Carolina. Last year's planting was 335 acres of rice (Oryza sativa) transgenic for lactoferrin or lysozyme.

Scaling up such PMIP crops presents these growers with several challenges. First is the problem of containment in this hurricane-prone riparian ecosystem. In the Ventria case, this is a minor objection because rice is a self-fertilizing plant, which minimizes the possibility of pollen escape. Still, concerns have been voiced about long-distance dispersal of PMIP rice pollen via hurricane-speed winds and about consumption of PMIP rice by birds and other wildlife.

Second, compliance guidelines for PMP and PMIP crops require a steep investment in new equipment and infrastructure. It is not clear whether North Carolina growers other than those with a large land base and deep pockets will be able to make the necessary capital outlay to produce these products. US regulators now require each grower to set aside special farmland, farm equipment and separate areas for cleaning and processing PMIP crops. Costly employee training is also required as part of compliance with new US Food and Drug Administration and USDA regulatory statues for molecular pharming ]6. At this early-stage PMIP market, Ventria covers all costs for the North Carolina contract growers. In the future, however, independent growers will be expected to provide a seed-to-harvest package deal for the firm's recombinant protein product. Only the larger, wealthy growers in North Carolina will profit.

The third issue, liability, is the most critical. Who is liable in the event of a food or feed mixup with PMP or PMIP crops? The unanswered question of liability blocks entry even more than capital outlay. And liability risk will be highest where GM food plants are grown side by side with PMP and PMIP crops.

With these caveats in mind, field-grown PMP crops by independent growers in North Carolina (or other agrarian-based US states) is not a practical solution for drug firms either. These firms place a premium on uniformity and purity of recombinant proteins. Field-grown PMP crops require more complex processing, produce uneven protein quality and yields and are more likely to include residues from herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. Non-food crops grown in containment systems provide a better solution for PMP production.

Such systems have been built around higher plants, such as duckweed (Lemna spp.) 7 and tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) 8, 9, or algae (Chlamydomonas reinhardtii) or moss (Physcomitrella patens). In the case of duckweed, the containment system allows unlimited scale-up, efficient product purification/processing and no residues from pesticides. Proteins exuded via roots of genetically modified plants are harvested from the container's aqueous media also offer some advantages over processing green tissues. Indeed, North Carolina already has a competitive edge in producing PMPs through the use of duckweed, tobacco and other non-food plants safely cultivated in containment systems 7, 10, 11.

Perhaps Ventria's field-grown PMIP tests in North Carolina are a stray outlier and not indicative of a larger trend towards non-local molecular pharming field operations positioned to contract with independent North Carolina growers. True, growers in North Carolina badly need new markets but molecular pharming based on food crops in open fields is not the answer.

We should strongly consider legislative support for biotech firms developing containment systems. This would be especially important for PMIP products, as well as PMP products, because the former are less valuable and more sensitive to cost-of-goods arguments, with the impetus on field-grown systems rather than containment. Such support would attract private sector investment while protecting small growers and consumers. By doing so, legislators will have found the fit between PMP production and local food suppliers.

For densely populated states like North Carolina, politicians, scientists and growers alike must live, work—and eat—within the same narrow geographic coordinates. The citizens in these states may rely on a globalized food transport system, but grocery prices will favor local food production as prices soar with rising fuel costs. And rising fuel costs—not just catastrophic weather events—will favor local food production and organic farming. Those pursuing field-grown molecular pharming will likely find themselves up against an increasingly vocal group of opponents—not only activists, but also independent growers and consumers—with the following mantra: "not in my backyard."

1. US Census Bureau, Population Division, Interim State Projections, 2005. [ http://www.census.gov-population-projections-34pyrmdnc2.pdf/
2. Hamrick, D., oral presentation at "Finding the Fit Between Molecular Farming and Organic Farming Opportunities for North Carolina," roundtable discussion at Duke University, Durham, NC, April 3, 2006. [ http://kenan.ethics.duke.edu/PDF/Roundtable-Final.pdf
3. Pirog, R., Van Pelt, T., Enshayan, K. & Cook, E. Food, Fuel and Freeways. Report for the Leopold Center, Iowa State University (Leopold Center, Ames, Iowa, 2001). http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/pubs/staff/ppp/food_mil.pdf
4. USDA National Agricultural Statistics Services. http://www.nass.usda.gov/QuickStats/PullData_US.jsp.
5. Fox, J.L. Nat. Biotechnol. 23, 636 (2005). 
6. Stewart, P.A. & Knight, A.J. Technology Forecasting and Social Change 72, 521–534 (2005).
7.Gasdaska, J.R., Spencer, D. & Dickey, L. Bioprocessing J. 2, 49–56 (2003).

8. Somerville, C.R. & Bonetta, D. Plant Physiol. 125, 168–171 (2001).
9. Poirier, Y., Dennis, D.E., Klomparens, K. & Somerville, C. Science 256, 520–523 (1992). 
10. Streatfield, S.J. Expert Rev. Vaccines 4, 591–601 (2005). 
11. Fischer, R., Stoger, E., Schillberg, S., Christou, P. & Twyman, R.M. Curr. Opin. Plant Biol. 7, 152–158 (2004). 


Response to The fit between organic and pharma crops in North Carolina

- Nature Biotechnology - 25, 167 (2007)

Nature Biotechnology responds:

Although industry organizations, such as the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), continue to support food crops for PMP and PMIP expression systems, we hold to our original view that they pose too many problems and nonfood crops are a better alternative (Nat. Biotechnol. 22, 133, 2004).

In relation to Williams' concern over litigation, in our view, neighboring certified (e.g., GM free) organic growers in particular represent a litigation risk for farmers who elect to grow PMP/PMIP food crops in close proximity. Even if certified organic growers are comparatively scarce--only 73 organic growers are certified in North Carolina--their livelihood and certification status are under threat from PMP/PMIP crop admixture/introgression/hybridization events and thus they are likely to be especially vigilant for such events, more willing to file suit to protect their business interests and serve as rallying points for opposition.


2007 Plant Metabolic Engineering - Gordon RESEARCH Conference

- July 15-20, 2007, Tilton School, Tilton, New Hampshire.

As research in the plant sciences enters the post-genomic era, exciting opportunities to redesign and engineer the biochemical and molecular networks responsible for agronomic traits, increased nutritional value, and for the generation of alternative, renewal fuels, and commercial products continue to emerge.

This conference integrates the most recent advances in genetics and genomics, with biochemical, metabolite and gene expression analyses. Fundamental questions in the field such as understanding how biosynthetic pathways are assembled to facilitate substrate competition and channeling, how enzymes and biochemical pathways evolve, and exploring opportunities for the manipulation of biochemical transformations towards novel substrate specificities, regio- and stereochemical transformations, and models to explain the localization, structure, and assembly of biosynthetic metabolons in native and nonnative environments are among the topics covered.

The conference provides the ideal environment to present and discuss novel approaches for metabolic profiling and flux analysis, the mathematical modeling of metabolism and the conception of rational metabolic engineering strategies using directed enzyme evolution, and the engineering of transcription factors. More information and registration is available at http://www.grc.org:80/programs.aspx?year=2007&program=plantmet.

For the first time in 2007, GRADUATE RESEARCH SEMINAR IN PLANT METABOLIC ENGINEERING will be held immediately before the GRC (July 13-15, Tilton School, Tilton, New Hampshire).

This event is specifically tailored towards graduate students and postdocs and a number of awards supporting travel and registration are available for US and international participants.
More information at http://www.grc.org:80/programs.aspx?year=2007&program=grad_pme.

Contact Dr. Erich Grotewold -grotewold.1.at.osu.edu-


Ghana's First International Forum on Biotechnology

- June 11 – 14, 2007; Accra, Ghana http://www.bnari.org

Theme: Biotechnology: A tool for Food Security and Sustainable Development
The Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute (BNARI) in collaboration with Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture and other stakeholders is organizing an International Biennial Conference on Biotechnology. This particular conference will focus on Biotechnology as a tool for food security and sustainable development.

To create a forum for the exchange of information, views, experiences and cross fertilization of ideas related to biotechnology among stakeholders; To sensitize stakeholders on the need to promote biotechnology for sustainable development; To strengthen interactions among established and younger researchers from academia, science community, policy makers and the consuming public to challenge stakeholders to develop innovative products for the benefit of mankind;To foster and create opportunity for establishment of joint collaborative research and development projects among stakeholders; To develop a West African Biotechnology/Biosafety Capacity Building Programme


Just How 'Charitable' is Greenpeace?

- Thomas Deichmann, Spiked online, Feb 12, 2007. Full commentary at http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/2843

Thomas Deichmann reports from Germany, where Greenpeace looks set to lose its charity status over its explicitly political campaigning.

The environmental group Greenpeace is recognised as a charitable non-profit organisation in Germany. But now the German government is planning to reduce the tax benefits associated with this status – and Greenpeace activists are furious. But is Greenpeace really a 'charitable' organisation? Does society benefit from its campaigning?

German Greenpeace activists are a persistent lot. The organisation spends millions of Euros every year on sometimes spectacular initiatives. It also publishes numerous leaflets and pamphlets, many of which focus on arguing against the introduction of genetic engineering (GM) technology into agriculture and food production in Germany. Its efforts have made an impact: public scepticism about GM remains high, and German politicians are wary of openly promoting the planting of GM crops.

One reason why the Hamburg-based organisation has been able to carry out such high-profile activities is because it is accorded charitable status, which means it is exempt from big tax burdens. Recently, however, the German government announced its plans to reform German laws on charitable organisations and donations, and Greenpeace, and other groups, have been up in arms ever since.

Greenpeace may have a high public profile, but donations to the organisation have stagnated in the past few years. In December 2006, Greenpeace leaders announced that they were laying off 20 of their 160 employees in Germany, and cutting the pay of the remaining workers. Two months earlier, in October, German Greenpeace announced that it was discontinuing its Einkaufsnetz campaign, which it had launched in 1997 to encourage Germans to change to more fuel-efficient cars, buy organic foods and invest in alternative energy sources. Apparently, the project turned out to be too costly, and had a limited success rate. Now, the government’s announcement of reforms to the law on charitable organisations puts Greenpeace’s very existence at risk....

Read on ... http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/2843