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May 21, 2007


Pest Resistant Cotton Trials; Malaysia Plans New Law; Confusion surrounds BVL notification; Origins of Resistance to Science


Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org, May 21, 2007

* Uganda: Pest Resistant Cotton Trials
* Treasurer may till soil for GM crops
* Malaysia Plans New Law
* Down on the biopharm
* Confusion surrounds BVL notification
* Origins of Resistance to Science
* Call for eco-activists to be labelled terrorists


Uganda: Usaid to Fund Shs270m Pest Resistant Cotton Trials

- Joseph Olanyo Kampala, The Monitor (Kampala), May 21, 2007


The United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) is to inject $160,000 (about Shs272 million) on pest resistant cotton trials.

Through its Agricultural Productivity Enhancement Programme (APEP), Usaid will facilitate the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) to undertake trials on the pest cotton referred to as Bt cotton. Africa 2007

Bt is a scientific name for Baccilus Thuringiensis, a beneficial bacterium that kills insects. It is a major component of pesticide industry used for control of specific caterpillar-like crop pests.

APEP Managing Director Clive Drew said on May 7 the trials are expected to start by end of May. Mr Drew said Usaid is still waiting approval from the National Biosafety Committee under the National Council of Science and Technology (NCST).

"When approved, confined field trials will be conducted to test the effects of Bt on bollworms compared to controlled cotton, which will only be sprayed," Mr Drew said. "But because of the porous nature of our borders, we got to move very fast in getting the testing done in accordance with the legal framework".

Mr Drew, however, said the trials would not be released commercially. "We don't know the outcome yet, the only thing we know is that whenever it is tested, it does not end up being released for commercial purposes," he said.

"As part of the commercial procedure, the trial sites are guarded. All materials used will be completely destroyed. So there is no chance of productive materials leaking".

The Biosafety Officer Uganda National Council of Science and Technology, Mr Arthur Makara, said the council was still reviewing the application and would come up with the date the trials will take off.

Mr Makara said the technology has a potential to increase yields, reduce number of sprays and costs of pesticides. "Yes, the confined field trials will be done, they are still at research stage but it is hard to fix a particular date as to when," Mr Makara said.

A research scientist at Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute, Mr Godfrey Arinaitwe, said during a field visit to South Africa recently that the trials will be conducted in conjunction with Cotton Development Authority (CDO), will try two technologies.

Mr Arinaitwe said one will be resistance to herbicide and the other will be resistance to the cotton pest called bollworms.

"It is a very good technology even for small scale farmers. You don't need to mix chemicals, instead you use one herbicide," Mr Arinaitwe said. Bt cotton has been tested and commercially released in a number of countries, which include among others South Africa, Brazil and India.

It is now under a testing study in Kenya and Burkina Faso.

Initially, the main application for Bt has been in maize crops.

USAID is doing trials on herbicide tolerance cotton, cotton that has been genetically modified so that if it is sprayed with round-up herbicide, the cotton is not affected but all weeds are killed.

"It will be very beneficial to Uganda because weeds are a very big problem in cotton contributing to apparently 30 per cent of yield loses, cotton being a long season crop," Mr Drew said.

If proved effective, the technologies are expected to improve the competitiveness of Uganda's cotton sector and result in increased cotton output.

The cotton output in the 2006/07 season was 135,000 bales down from 248,000 bales in the 2005/06 season. The output has generally increased from 103,000 bales in the 2004/05 season.


Treasurer may till soil for GM crops

- Jason Dowling and William Birnbauer, The Age, May 20, 2007


JOHN BRUMBY could be one of the first Victorian farmers to grow genetically modified crops on his land near Bendigo after the State Treasurer revealed he would have no problem sowing the controversial plants.

The State Government will soon announce a review of its moratorium on planting GM crops that expires in February and Mr Brumby is strongly backing the pro-GM case.

Mr Brumby's farm runs sheep and has grown olives, but asked if he had any problems about planting GM crops on his farmland, he said "I don't, no".

"My views on GM are well known and I am the Minister for Innovation, I support science, scientific research so I have always supported GM research," Mr Brumby told The Sunday Age .

"Indeed you might remember when we had the conference last year, the world agriculture biotech conference out here, I took them all out to La Trobe University where they are doing the research on the new rye grass," he said.

"This is the anti-allergenic rye grass, so it will save us about $750 million a year in hay fever and asthma and make a lot of people's lives more comfortable," he said.

"That's a GM product, everyone was pretty relaxed about that."

Despite Mr Brumby's support for a lifting of the ban, the move is already causing deep divisions within the normally unified Bracks Government.

Gembrook MP Tammy Lobato is believed to be planning a major anti-GM campaign that includes seeking support from the public, which she urged to become involved.

She told The Sunday Age that the moratorium should continue beyond February because of concerns over the impact of GM crops on human health and the environment.

If GM crops were introduced it would mean the end of agriculture as we know it, including the eradication of the age-old method of seed saving, Ms Lobato said.

The introduction of GM crops could mean that all crops inadvertently became genetically modified against the wishes of farmers and food consumers, she said.

Ms Lobato warned that rural communities could be divided over the issue and that farmers might face big liabilities and costs over cross-contamination.

GM technology was a profit-driven enterprise and she could not support a technology that placed money ahead of people's welfare.

She said GM technology roped farmers into a system where all seeds were controlled and patented by multinational agribusiness companies.

Despite the division within the Government, it is unlikely Labor members will be granted a conscience vote on the issue.


Malaysia Plans New Law to Regulate Genetically Modified Foods

- Canadian Business, May 21, 2007


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Malaysia will introduce a new law to regulate genetically modified foods but the move is not aimed at stemming imports of biotech products, officials said Monday.

A proposed biosafety bill has been tabled in Parliament and will be debated next month, Home Affairs Minister Radzi Sheikh Ahmad told reporters after opening a regional biosecurity conference.

Under the proposed bill, any food products including animal feed, crops or animals that contain genetically modified organisms must be approved by a new government panel as part of efforts to boost food security, officials said.

Importers will also be required to label genetically modified contents in food products to allow consumers to make informed decisions, said K. Nagulendran, a senior official with the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry.

"Malaysia has rich biodiversity resources. We are concerned about any unapproved variations entering into our food chain that have implications on human health and the environment," he said.

"We regulate to ensure its safety. We are not taking the position to ban GM food, that's not in our interest."

Nagulendran said Malaysia will join Japan, the European Union and more than 50 other countries that already have laws or mechanisms regulating genetically modified food.

Malaysia imports maize from the United States for animal feed, as well as soya products from other countries, but there are currently no laws requiring labeling of genetically modified organisms, he told The Associated Press.

He said the proposed law could also be a boost to Malaysia if it produces and exports its own genetically modified products in the future. Government researchers are already working on developing genetically modified papaya, orchid flowers and other products that are resistant to diseases, he said.

"We are not saying no to technology as long as it is done safely, ethically and judicially," Nagulendran said.


Down on the biopharm

- Anna Lewcock, in-Pharma.com, May 17, 2007


The critical role transgenic animals could play in the future of biopharmaceutical production has been tackled by a task force in a new report out this week.

The potential such animals could have in the manufacture of biopharmaceutical proteins has been one of the major incentives driving investigation and creation of transgenic animals, and with therapeutic products derived from these genetically modified creatures now beginning to gain regulatory approval, commercial interest is in the technique is hotting up.

The significant cost savings to be had through using transgenic livestock instead of traditional methods of protein production have been well documented, and comparisons make for stark reading.

To illustrate, experts have estimated that producing a single gram of therapeutic protein using traditional cell lines such as Chinese Hamster Ovary (CHO) cells can cost anywhere from $300 to $3,000 (Eur221 to Eur2210).

In contrast, using a transgenic goat to produce the protein in milk drops the cost to $20-$105 per gram, and transgenic hen eggs are even cheaper, working out at around $0.1-$0.25 per gram of protein

The initial capital expenditure is also somewhat less intensive using transgenic livestock, with the cost of constructing a new facility based on traditional cell-based techniques hitting $150m - $400m, compared with the cost of a transgenic goat or cow at $10,000 - $50,000, or a transgenic chicken coming in at $1,000.

"With moderate alterations in production practices, it is possible to take advantage of the tremendous protein-producing capabilities of domestic livestock," states the report, published this week by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST).

"Biopharming, the production of biopharmaceuticals using domestic livestock, can have significant advantages compared with other production methods in terms of safety, biological activity, and production costs."

Back in June 2006 the European Medicines Agency (EMEA) gave the very first European approval of a transgenically produced protein product. ATryn, produced by US firm GTC Biotherapeutics, is produced in the milk of goats that have a transgene for human antithrombin, and is used as an anticoagulant to treat a rare congenital disease.

This first step to move trangenically produced protein products out onto the market could prove to be the just the tip of the ice-berg, with all eyes on ATryn to see how it fares out in the cold reality of the marketplace.

According to the chairperson of the CAST task force, Carol Keefer, wide-scale commercial adoption of protein production using transgenic animals is getting closer and closer, with GTC's product cutting a path for other biotech companies.

"I think as soon as ATryn goes to market and proves acceptable and profitable, more pharma companies will explore the use of transgenic animals for protein production," she told in-PharmaTechnologist.com.

Already there are many companies investing in research into producing bioproducts through transgenic livestock. The majority are still in research stages, but US company Avigenics and Netherlands-based firm Pharming currently both have products in clinical trials.

Aside from the economic cost benefits biopharming appears to promise, the procedure can also offer other distinct advantages over current cell-based production methods.

For example, using transgenic animals to produce biopharmaceuticals currently harvested from human tissues represents a safer technique in terms of preventing transmission of human diseases such as HIV/AIDS or Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease, say the report authors.

In some cases, using transgenic animals can also lead to production of a better protein, said Keefer, i.e. a protein more similar to the version naturally produced in humans.

"Proteins are modified during production in the cell, and transgenic animals can do these modifications in a manner more similar to the human-produced protein than other production systems such as yeast or bacteria."

Despite the apparent attractions of biopharming, the report acknowledges that it is critical to establish economic feasibility of the process before it will be adopted by drug firms. For example, issues surrounding protein purification can seriously affect the ultimate economics and commercialisation of a final product.

Feasibility concerns or lack of funding have caused some commercial pharma projects applying these new technologies to be scrapped or delayed on a purely economic basis.

"These are business issues caused not necessarily by technical challenges but by unknown factors that arise as new technologies develop without an established track record or sufficient guidelines for completing the necessary regulatory steps," states the report.

"In fact, regulatory guidelines are being developed concurrently with the establishment of the new technology, creating uncertainty within the business community as to the costs and timelines associated with recombinant protein production."

While transgenic livestock are likely to play an increasingly significant role in the production of therapeutic proteins, Keefer was by no means suggesting that it would to do away with other production methods altogether.

"Each production method has its advantages and disadvantages," she said.

"Depending on the protein, the amount of protein needed (based on market demand and dosage required), and the activity of the protein, a company would choose the best suited system. [For example] if the therapeutic protein could have an effect on the physiology of the transgenic animal, then you would either modify the protein so it was inactive during production, or perhaps choose another system."

Despite this, the authors of the report clearly have very high expectations of biopharming and the part it will play in the production of new medications to treat human diseases. The unique possibilities that transgenic livestock present in this area are too big a prospect to be ignored, and the authors call for "continued support of research by both government and commercial entities...such that additional promising biotherapies can be developed."

Further information and the CAST report can be found here.

[http://www.cast-science.org/publications.asp ]


New risks to the environment? Confusion surrounds BVL notification

Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (Germany), May 14, 2007


The sale of seed of the genetically modified maize variety MON810 is prohibited in Germany with immediate effect until such time as the producer, Monsanto, submits an up-to-date monitoring plan. This does not however affect maize already planted in this year's cropping period. The official explanation for this decision is causing confusion: It states that new findings indicate that the cultivation of MON810 maize could harm the environment. While anti-genetic engineering associations called on agriculture minister Seehofer to ban MON810 maize immediately, scientists were puzzled by the sudden U-turn in the safety assessment.

On 27 April 2007 the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) sent a formal notification to agro-biotech company Monsanto. In it, the BVL, the authority responsible for genetic engineering in Germany, orders an immediate sales ban on seed from genetically modified MON810 maize. Sales may resume only when the company submits a suitable monitoring plan for monitoring undesirable effects on the environment and identifying them in good time. The notification lists nine points for checking, including what happens to the Bt toxin produced by MON810 maize in the soil, impacts on non-target organisms and long-term effects on biodiversity.

[photo caption: Federal agriculture minister Horst Seehofer: The bumpy road of genetic engineering: He instructed the BVL, which is responsible to him, to ban the sale of MON810 maize, on the grounds that "new scientific findings" show that cultivation of MON810 maize presents a risk to the environment.]

[photo caption: Monarch butterfly, a popular butterfly in the USA. The BVL cites a study published three years ago which showed harmful effects caused by Bt maize. However, the study authors regard the risk to be "negligible".]

MON810 maize has been authorised in the EU since 1998 and is the only GM plant currently grown commercially in Germany and many other EU countries. At the beginning of February 2007, farmers - particularly those in the eastern German states - had registered a total cultivation area of 3700 hectares in the site register, although some of these were later withdrawn.

At the time the BVL sent the notification with the sales ban, most farmers had already sown their MON810 seed. "Seed already delivered to farmers or sown is not affected by this ruling," the BVL clarified in a press release. And there are no plans to restrict use of the harvest for food and feed. This means that the ruling will not make any difference to farmers planting fields with MON810 maize this year. Cultivation is still permitted with no restrictions, Monsanto explained. The company also claimed it was already carrying out a monitoring programme "that fully complies with the future requirements."

"New and additional scientific findings"

What triggered heated public discussion was the explanation given for the measures. In its explanatory statement, the BVL cited "new and additional scientific findings" that "provide justified grounds for assuming that the cultivation of MON810 represents a danger to the environment." A large number of scientific studies are listed to justify this claim.

The response was immediate.

* On the one hand, organisations against genetic engineering, and organic farming associations called on agriculture minister Seehofer to draw the conclusions from the BVL explanation and ban the cultivation of MON810 immediately.

* On the other hand, scientists in particular were puzzled that the authority responsible in Germany is now assuming that there is a change in the environmental safety assessment of MON810.

As recently as the end of 2006, the expert panel of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA ) looked in a detailed statement at the national MON810 ban in Greece, which is based largely on the same scientific sources as the explanatory statement for the sales ban in Germany. The EFSA experts examined all the current scientific data on MON810 and the Bt toxin produced in the plant and found no indications to justify revising the cultivation authorisation for MON810.

What is most surprising though is that for many years the German government has been promoting a biological safety research programme. Numerous projects and field trials spanning several years have investigated, among other things, potential environmental effects of Bt maize - mostly MON810. However, the results, which have since been published in scientific journals, have not been taken into account in the BVL explanation.

This mentions two areas in which "new and additional information" give grounds for a re-evaluation of the environmental risks posed by MON810: "risks for the soil" and "risks for non-target organisms ", i.e. all organisms apart from the targeted pest that come into contact with Bt maize directly or indirectly. Predatory insects: Ingest Bt toxin with their prey, but no clear indications of risk

According to the explanation of the BVL notification, it is only more recent research that has shown "that Bt toxin reaches higher links of the food chain and to what extent." By "higher links" they mean e.g. predatory insects that ingest Bt toxin indirectly with their prey. An evaluation of numerous laboratory investigations (Lövei & Arpaia 2005) showed that negative effects were measured in 41 per cent of the parameters investigated for predatory insects, including lifespan, development time and breeding rate.

* However, on closer inspection, it appears that the majority of the 44 studies evaluated were not dealing with Bt toxin but with other proteins used to combat pests, such as protease inhibitors and lectins (insect resistance ). Many of the studies did not investigate the Bt toxin used in MON810 (Cry1Ab), but looked instead at other variants - and not just in Bt maize, but also in insect-resistant potatoes, cotton and rice.

* Many studies do in fact show that Bt toxin ends up in organisms in the higher levels of the food chain. But there appear to be hardly any clear scientific findings that demonstrate a harmful effect of the Bt toxin. Another review (Romeis et al. 2006), which is also mentioned in the BVL explanatory statement, comes to the conclusion that negative effects of the Bt toxin on predatory insects are observed only when the prey in question is fed with Bt toxin and is sensitive to it. Only in cases where the prey is obviously weakened by the Bt toxin does this have a negative effect on their predators, as is to be expected. There is much to suggest that Bt toxin does not in general have any direct toxic effect on the predatory insects.

* As part of the BMBF-funded biological safety research programme, numerous field studies have been conducted to investigate potential effects on non-target organisms. The elaborate experiment design meant that it was possible to make statistically reliable statements. In total, around a million organisms were collected, identified and assessed. The few Bt effects that were detected were slight and much smaller than the effects of conventional insecticide treatments.

Butterflies: Only a few trials with MON810 maize

The Bt toxin produced in MON810 is found to have "clearly harmful effects on caterpillars", according to the BVL explanation. However, almost all the studies used to support this statement relate to Bt176, a different insect-resistant maize. However, this variety has not been sold for a long time now, since it has an unnecessarily high Bt concentration in its pollen, 150-250 times higher than that found in MON810.

Only one of the studies listed (Diveley et al. 2004) actually relates to MON810. It looks at potential negative effects on the Monarch butterfly, a popular butterfly in North America. And in fact, it was found that one-quarter fewer butterflies reach the larval stage if they are exposed to the Bt toxin in high doses. Although negative effects were observed in individual caterpillars, the effects on the Monarch population as a whole are limited. No more than 2.4 per cent of the Monarch population in the American corn belt was thought to be affected. In view of natural fluctuations, e.g. as a result of climate change, the study authors felt that the effects of MON810 cultivation were negligible. In Germany comparable research carried out over three consecutive years found no harmful effects even on the most sensitive species of butterfly. Bt toxin in the soil: persistence, but no accumulation

The effect and persistence of Bt toxin in the soil is "currently unclear," so the BVL claims in its notification, but "holds considerable potential for ecological consequences." Bt toxin can enter the soil through plant remains or secretions in the root area.

The behaviour of Bt toxins from plants is, however, basically no different from that of conventional Bt preparations that are used as biological pesticides. Regardless of the form of application, the active Bt substance can be detected in the soil for several months. After the cultivation of Bt plants, traces of Bt toxin can persist in the soil in plant remains for a whole growing season - this too was shown by a BMBF-funded biosafety research project. But the concentrations are so small that no harmful effects can be detected on soil life. This means that there are no indications that the Bt toxin could accumulate in the soil and so reach toxicologically relevant concentrations.


Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science

- Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg, Science, May 16, 2007 (Vol. 316. no. 5827, pp. 996 - 997 DOI: 10.1126/science.1133398)


Resistance to certain scientific ideas derives in large part from assumptions and biases that can be demonstrated experimentally in young children and that may persist into adulthood. In particular, both adults and children resist acquiring scientific information that clashes with common-sense intuitions about the physical and psychological domains. Additionally, when learning information from other people, both adults and children are sensitive to the trustworthiness of the source of that information. Resistance to science, then, is particularly exaggerated in societies where nonscientific ideologies have the advantages of being both grounded in common sense and transmitted by trustworthy sources.


Call for eco-activists to be labelled terrorists

- Legalbrief Today, May 21, 2007 (Issue No: 1828)


Federal prosecutors have asked US District Judge Ann Aiken to declare the string of 20 arsons in five western states by a cell of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front to be terrorist acts, qualifying the defendants for longer sentences under federal guidelines, notes a report on the MNSBC site.

The six men and four women have pleaded guilty to conspiracy and arson in connection with fires, set between 1996 and 2001, that did $40m in damage to a ski resort; national forest ranger stations; meat packing plants; research laboratories; lumber company offices; a tree farm; and a car dealership. Assistant US Attorney Stephen Peifer argued that the fires qualified as terrorism because they were intended to coerce the government to change its policies on logging, selling wild horses for slaughter and genetic engineering. Defence attorneys replied that the fires do not qualify as terrorism because the defendants took great care to be sure no one was killed or injured.


*by Andrew Apel, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net