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July 13, 2007


Hypochondria Resurrected; Transgenic Pharma-rabbits; USDA/APHIS' Long-Awaited EIS Review


* USDA/APHIS' Long-Awaited EIS
* U.S. to mull changes to crop oversight
* Assocham pushes for Bt cotton
* Farmers prosper with Bt cotton
* The political saga of GM crops in India
* Corn Sequencing May Lead to Increased Production
* Pharming Obtains GMP Status
* Mirkov rewarded for sugarcane research
* Maine may allow Bt corn
* Hypochondria Resurrected
* In the Wake of the Double Helix


USDA/APHIS' Long-Awaited Programmatic EIS on Biotech is Out

- L. Val Giddings, Ph.D., PrometheusAB, Inc., lvg+at+PrometheusAB.com

The long awaited draft environmental impact statement prepared by APHIS in support of their intention to revise USDA's biotech regulations is now available for public review and comment. The comment period ends on 11 September, 2007. This is a significant development. The proposals in the draft will no doubt fall short of what would satisfy those who think that regulation should be proportional to risk (hazard X exposure) and without regard to process. But even if implemented directly as proposed the changes contemplated in the EIS would bring some benefits -- more flexibility for APHIS in dealing with newer developments, such as multi-year permits for plants modified to produce pharmaceutical or industrial compounds, and a multi-tiered permit system which would (in theory) more closely match the degree of oversight and permit conditions to the level of risk posed by the particular plants subject to the permits. APHIS is also considering expansion of its regulatory oversight in a number of areas as well.

It is certain, however, that activist groups adept at distorting science and fomenting fear for ulterior motives will use the comment period and opportunity to inundate APHIS with demands for much more stringent regulation. It is to be hoped that those who understand these technologies best -- the industrial and academic communities developing new applications of biotechnology for agriculture, the agricultural producers and allied groups who grow biotech improved crops, and their customers in the food manufacturing and retail industries, will provide reasoned and rational input to help guide APHIS in their consideration of the alternatives.

For the draft EIS see

http://www.aphis.usda.gov/newsroom/content/2007/07/content/printable/complet e_eis.pdf

For the USDA press release see http://www.aphis.usda.gov/newsroom/content/2007/07/drafteis.shtml

And for a fact sheet with background see http://www.aphis.usda.gov/publications/biotechnology/content/printable_versi on/fs_programmatic_eis.pdf.


U.S. to mull changes to oversight of biotech crops

- Christopher Doering, Reuters, July 12, 2007


WASHINGTON - U.S. oversight of genetically modified crops, which critics charge is insufficient, may be overhauled following a series of proposed changes released on Thursday by the Agriculture Department.

Cindy Smith, associate administrator with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said any revisions it makes to its existing framework would be "the first comprehensive review of our regulatory structure" for genetically engineered crops.

One change USDA is considering would abandon the existing two-tiered permit system in favor of a multilevel one.

The new system would provide more stringent review for plants with which USDA is less familiar, or those that may pose an increased risk, such as plants that produce substances not intended for food use. Those engineered for herbicide tolerance or insect resistance would be less complicated.

The proposed changes would "expand our regulatory oversight while at the same time minimizing our regulatory burden for those (genetically engineered) organisms that have been safety field tested for more than 20 years," said Rebecca Bech, an acting deputy administrator at APHIS.

USDA is also considering expanding its oversight to include organisms that have the potential to become noxious weeds. This would increase review of genetically engineered organisms that may damage crops to include plants that pose a broader risk to agriculture, the environment and public health.

The draft environmental impact statement, which evaluates potential revisions to existing regulations, will be open to public comment for 60 days starting on Friday.

The draft, public comments and further scientific information will be used to create a proposed rule. USDA first announced in 2004 it was beginning a review of its biotech regulations.


Consumer groups, environmentalists and organic farmers oppose biotech crops, which they fear could mix with other crops or develop super weeds resistant to herbicides.

Currently, USDA no longer has oversight of a plant once it is deregulated and determined to be safe.

"We're exploring whether a different type of system might be applicable," said John Turner, another biotechnology official at


"You might envision a system where certain things would be unconditionally approved ... whereas others might be approved with conditions," he said.

A string of court cases has criticized USDA oversight. In May, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer upheld a ban on the planting of a genetically modified alfalfa crop variety developed by Monsanto Co. until government studies on its environmental effects were concluded.

The judge found in a preliminary injunction that U.S. regulators had not properly examined the effects of the alfalfa before allowing it to be commercialized.

A separate ruling in February by a District of Columbia judge found "substantial evidence that the field tests may have had the potential to affect significantly the quality of the human environment."


Assocham pushes for Bt cotton

- Sangita Singh, Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2007


Rubhash Jakhar, a farmer from Abhor in Punjab, has Internet connectivity at home, his son uses a laptop and his other children go to private schools. All this, he said, has happened after he switched from conventional cotton seeds to Bt cotton, or genetically modified cotton.

"While the conventional seed gave me an yield of five- eight quintal per acre, Bt cotton is giving me 12-15 quintal of cotton per acre. This also helped me get a 55% higher revenue per quintal," said Jhakar, who has a 50 acre land in Punjab. He switched to Bt cotton in 2003 and since then his family has seen an improvement in its socio-economic status. Jakhar's example was trotted out to release a new report, Bt Cotton Farming in India 2007, from industry lobby Assocham. The report is a joint effort based on two independent studies, by Indicus Analytics, an economic research firm, and market research firm, IMRB International.

The report said cotton farmers earned an additional income of Rs7, 000 crore In 2006 and a 50% increase in yield due to use of Bt cotton seed.

The Indicus report, which is based on surveying 9,300 households in 465 villages, talks mostly about upliftment of socio-economic conditions of farmers and its impact particularly on women and children. "We have seen high incidence of falling infant mortality rate, improvement in ante- natal and post-natal health of women, and better infrastructure with the farmer, such as borewells and generators. All this is due to higher revenues earned by diversifying into Bt cotton," said Lavesh Bhandari of lndicus.

The IMRB report is based on interviews with 5,980 farmers. "Farmers who grew Bt cotton in 2006 made a gross revenue benefit of 162% over the conventional crop. At the same time these farmers could reduce their spending on pesticides by 32%," claimed Nikhil Rawal, executive director, IMRB International.

While the use of Bt cotton has fetched farmers Rs12, 541 per acre, conventional cotton yields only Rs 4,484 per acre, the study says. About 3.8 million hectares are under Bt cotton cultivation in nine states.


Farmers prosper with Bt cotton cultivation

- Business Standard (India), July 11, 2007


Cotton farmers have earned an additional income of Rs 7,039 crore in 2006 after a 50 per cent increase in yield due to the used Bt cotton seed, says an Assocham report. Assocham's report 'Bt Cotton Farming in India', a joint effort of lndicus Analytics and lMRB, establishes the overall socio-economic benefits that have accrued to the cotton farmers as a result of the introduction of this technology.

"Farmers who planted Bt cotton 'Farmers who planted Bt cotton in 2006 earned an additional Rs 7,039 crore in income based on 8.77 million acreage penetration achieved during the crop season," the report said,

The report said that there has been about 50 per cent higher yield increase in Bt fields in 2006, when compared with conventional cotton fields.

"The net profit to farmers from Bt cultivations was significantly higher by 162% percent at Rs 7,757 per acre over conventional cotton," it said. While the use of Bt cotton has fetched farmers Rs 12,541 per acre, the conventional cotton has yielded Rs 4484 per acre, the study says.

"Bt cotton is now extensively used. India has become surplus in cotton and is ranked third in the world, About 3.8 million hectare of area is under Bt cultivation, which is a 2 per cent increase over 2006, across 9 states," said Anil K Agarwal, the former Assocham President.

The officials pointed out that despite the Bt seed costing 2.5 times more than the conventional ones, the farmers are able to generate additional income through savings in the reduction of pesticides besides the higher yield. "The total reduction in pesticide expense is Rs 934 per acre," an official said, adding overall cotton production had gone up by 31.20 million quintals of seed cotton or 18.35 million bales (I70 kg a bale) due to the shift.

As regarding the socio-economic benefit, the report said nearly 40 percent of the Bt users have endorsed the fact that they now need to spend less time on the field due to the adoption of Bt cotton. 'The time thus saved is utilized for nurturing their children by assisting them in education and planning their future, the report said.

Commenting on the socio-economic appraisal of Bt cotton cultivation in India, one of the study groups of the report, Indicus Analytics, says that the villages sowing Bt seeds have proved to be better than non-Bt villages in many aspects.

"Bt villages are better in health, education, usage of technology, economic conditions of the community, access to economic infrastructure and reproductive health among other things," it said.


The political saga of GM crops in India

- Shanthu Shantharam and C. S. Prakash, BioSpectrum (India), July 2007


'Biotech experts Dr Shanthu Shantharam and Dr CS Prakash share their take on the trials and tribulations of Bt cotton in India.'

This year the fifth anniversary of Bt cotton commercializa- tion in India, and a look back at the road it has traversed; it can be best described as a success with serious public relations deficit. If one were to believe all the ghastly stories of how Bt cotton has brought doom to the lives of poor farmers in India, then one might as well blame all natural disasters in India on this "dreadful" Bt cotton.

Certainly, the anti-GM lobby in India does everything possible, on a daily basis to discredit and disparage agricultural biotechnology, and get lots of traction in the media that does not care to verify facts. In fact, a journalist of a major daily said that "facts" are not news, sensation is. So far, the hapless Bt cotton has been dubbed genocidal and even homicidal. Going by the anti-GM lobby reports, it has killed sheep and goats in thousands, peacocks and cattle in hundreds. Next, it will be the turn of children who labor in the hybrid cotton seed production fields. Bt cotton is supposed to have made women sterile and made young girls attain early puberty; no news about what happened with boys so far. There are sporadic reports of Bt cotton field workers having developed allergic reactions. Thank heavens, no news of blood poisoning so far! A rooky farmer leader was brazen to declare that biotechnology is dangerous than nuclear technology, obviously betraying ignorance of both.

Unwarranted allegations

There has been an unfortunate spate of farmer suicides in the country in the last three to four years. Everybody has an opinion on why farmers are committing suicide, and so does the anti-GM lobby. According to them, Bt cotton is singularly responsible for suicides among cotton farmers in Vidharbha and Warangal. Ask for evidence, there is none. It is all based on God knows what kind of surveys, opinions and ad-hoc conclusions. The media laps it up merrily and never bothers to verify facts. The government agencies also don't care. But, for the first time ICAR has put out an official report on the performance of Bt cotton, which is on a positive note.

No doubt, the anti-GM lobby will not buy this. Good news about Bt cotton is bad news for the anti-GM lobby. If the same ICAR scientists allude anything even remotely negative about Bt cotton, then it is taken as authentic, but if the same ICAR says anything positive about biotechnology or GM crops, then it not kosher for the anti-biotech forces. It is really impossible to verify all these claims and counter claims. The proof pudding is in eating. This year, India has surpassed China is Bt cotton acreage. Does this satisfy the anti-lobby?

When one of us visited Warangal last November, there was no evidence of Bt cotton failure. We could not locate a single shepherd whose sheep had died and no farmer had heard of it. We could confirm from the State Department of Agriculture officials that 90-95 percent of cotton grown in Warangal is Bt cotton that was confirmed by educated farmers and pesticide dealers in town. Yet, the anti-GM lobby does not accept these facts, and continues to spread lies and canards about everything imaginary about Bt cotton.

Politicized issue

The big question is why do all NGOs (we know of only one NGO that supports modern biotechnology and science) are 'such die-hard' opponents of biotechnology and GM crops that is based on some of the best science in the world. The politicization of GM crops technology was complete when Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a partner in the ruling coalition in Tamil Nadu and the former lady chief minister of the same state have taken a stand against GM crops at the goading of the anti-GM lobby. Otherwise, it is hard to believe that these politicians would have any idea about these modern day cutting edge technologies.

This is just the beginning, and should the anti-GM lobby persist in their efforts, they can get more converts among the political parties whose understanding of science and technology is worse than that of NGOs. A ham handed intervention by the agricultural minister of Andhra Pradesh to slash the price of Bt cotton by more than 50 percent, only to be followed by other states smacks of rank political populism to garner farmers votes. This is another brazen political intervention by the political mighty. In this instance, the role of NGOs in misleading the agriculture minister must not be understated. The state government reports on the failures of Bt cotton are bereft of any scientific or empirical evidence, and appear pitiable.

Lopsided views

All these oppositions from the NGO community are coming from ideological opposition to globalization, multi-national corporations, and free market capitalism, all sentiments liberally borrowed from the European greens and socialists. The idea of "re-ruralization" of India by taking back Indian farmers to old fashioned, pre-independence agriculture is a clear indication of technical bankruptcy of what these NGOs would like to accomplish, if they had their way. That is to keep poor Indian farmers poor by adhering to the backward and non-productive agricultural systems.

The anti-GM lobby draws lots of inspiration and resources from the European greens, the organic lobby, and anti-globalization lobbies (world social forum) to sustain their activities. Another constant refrain one hears is that Indian GM crops policies are being implemented without proper stakeholder or public consultations. Not withstanding hundreds of consultations that have been held, the NGOs are not happy because these consultations have not resulted in banning the GM technology. No amount of public consultations will satisfy these NGOs until they get their wish. The latest series of activism against GM crops is unraveling at the grassroots level where the anti-GM NGOs are going from village to village swearing villages to declare themselves GMO-free villages. No one knows what will come out of this GMO-free village campaign, but is an indication how motivated these forces are.

Regarding GM food safety, some NGOs wish that they be tested for next 50 years until they can prove to be safe beyond reasonable doubt. This way, they know that they can tie up the product forever and nothing will come to the market place. All these kinds of scientifically unreasonable demands by NGOs are a clear indication of what they want, and that is to see that the technology is killed in its infancy. Clearly an anti-biotech political agenda.

Who will bell the cat?

What is regrettable is the deafening silence of the great Indian scientific community. Even a scientist headed committee to reform the Indian regulatory system has recommended that GM rice must not be introduced into areas that are known to be centers of origin and diversity, a patently nonsensical idea. This was done just to appease the anti-GM lobby. The quarantining of areas will never work and GM rice will find its way to every nook and corner of the country. The point here is that since such a deployment strategy will not work, then push for total ban on GM rice, and the war cry has already started.

There are four academies of sciences in India, and scores of individual science associations, but none dares to take on this anti-GM lobby to inform the public or the media. These academies could have submitted an amicus curiae brief against the case in the Supreme Court of India filed by half a dozen anti-GM activists. But, these academies have gone on AWOL (Absent WithOut Leave) on the issue. The science establishment is totally apathetic about this raging anti-biotech and anti-GM controversy, the anti's have a field day, and the media has nowhere to go to verify facts.

This is a political battle, and must be fought at the political level by the combined activism of scientists and technologists. Otherwise, not only the technology deployment will be delayed, but many future products that are in the pipeline may never see the light of the day. Indian agriculture badly needs all the modern technology to upgrade itself and compete at the global level, and these ideological opponents must not be allowed to hijack the agriculture development of the country, and dictate terms to the nation. Opportunity costs are too high of not deploying modern science and technology for India's agricultural development.


Corn-Genome Sequencing May Lead to Increased Global Production

- Tony C. Dreibus and William Freebairn, Bloomberg News, July 12, 2007


Corn production, as well as the crop's resistance to disease, pests and drought, may increase within three years because researchers in Mexico have sequenced the grain's genome.

Scientists at the National Genomics for Biodiversity Laboratory, in Mexico City, made a rough blueprint of the genome of a Mexican variety of corn, the country's Agriculture Ministry said this week.

The breakthrough may lead to increased production because scientists can use the information to develop corn varieties resistant to bugs and diseases or capable of thriving when water is scarce. Farmers should have more-resistant corn within three years, seven years sooner than would have been possible without the research, Agriculture Minster Alberto Cardenas said.

``It's a way to figure out what causes diseases and how we can use different genetic tools to find resistances,'' said Nathan Fields, the director of research and business development for the U.S. National Corn Growers Association, in St. Louis, in a telephone interview yesterday. ``This offers the opportunity to switch on the plant's inherent capabilities.''

The sequencing of genes involves mapping the order of nucleotide bases, or organic molecules that serve as a genetic alphabet, in genetic material. Corn has 1.9 billion bases, said Alfredo Herrera Estrella, the primary investigator at the Mexico City laboratory, compared with 3 billion in humans.

Error Reduction

To reduce errors in the sequencing of microscopic bases, scientists use methods to take more samples of bases than needed. The scientists in Mexico City sampled, on average, four times the number of nucleotide bases in the genetic material.

Information from the gene map will be shared with a network of Mexican researchers working on crop improvements, Herrera Estrella said. The information could be used to devise transgenic strains of the crop, although Mexican law bars genetically modified corn, he said.

Researchers with the U.S. Agriculture Department, the U.S. Labor Department and the U.S. National Science Foundation are sampling 10 times the number of nucleotide bases in corn to get a more-detailed map of the genome, Fields at the corn-growers group said.

The accomplishment in Mexico is a ``very important contribution to science,'' said Sarah Hake, the director of a U.S. Agriculture Department research center in Albany, California, who has studied and mapped genes in several species of corn. ``It's not as easy to do science in Mexico. They found a novel way to do this quickly.''


The sequencing in Mexico cost about 600 million pesos ($55.3 million), the Agriculture Ministry said. The project took more than two years.

``We're proud that this project was completed not only by a single country, but by a single laboratory,'' he said in a telephone interview from the state of Guanajuato. ``We knew when we started that there were efforts under way in the U.S., but we felt we needed to do this for the country.''

Corn was domesticated in pre-Columbian times, and has been a staple of the Mexican diet for more than 5,000 years, according to Sophie D. Coe's 1994 book ``America's First Cuisines.''

The price of corn tortillas, an everyday food, jumped 5.9 percent in January, sparking inflation and pushing down the international value of the peso. Tortilla prices were capped in April at 8.5 pesos (78 cents) a kilogram to control inflation.

Corn futures for December delivery rose 40 percent in the past year, reaching a 10-year high of $4.5025 on Feb. 26 on the Chicago Board of Trade, partly because of increased demand for ethanol, the grain-based fuel additive. Global supplies are forecast to fall to 91.8 million tons by Aug. 31, 2008, the lowest since 1984, the U.S. Agriculture Department said.

The research may help companies -- including Tyson Foods Inc., Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. and Cargill Inc. -- that use corn to make foodstuffs and alternative fuels.


Pharming Facilities Obtain GMP Status

Important progress in European approval process of Rhucin

- Pharma Live (press release), July 13, 2007


LEIDEN, The Netherlands - Biotech company Pharming Group NV ("Pharming" or "the Company") (Euronext: PHARM) announced today that its facilities for the manufacturing of Rhucin have successfully passed all inspections conducted by the European Medicines Evaluation Agency ("EMEA") establishing that they comply to the standards of Good Manufacturing Practice ("GMP") for pharmaceutical production.

The EMEA has confirmed that all facilities and processes that are involved in the manufacturing of Rhucin, Pharming's lead product, operate according to GMP standards. These facilities include Pharming's facilities for transgenic rabbits, the external facilities where milk and product are stored and processed and the Company's headquarters in Leiden as far as it is concerned with quality aspects of Rhucin.

Dr. Bruno Giannetti, Chief Operations Officer at Pharming, commented: "Obtaining the GMP status for our facilities and processes is a major achievement for our Company. It is a critical step in the review and approval process of Rhucin and it is difficult to overestimate the importance of achieving this milestone. It is testimony to the hard and excellent work that our team has put in to convert a research idea of 'turning milk into medicine' into a well developed and GMP-approved manufacturing process. Our transgenic rabbit facility is the first of its kind in the world to obtain this status."

Pharming has filed a marketing authorization application for Rhucin in Europe and has recently submitted answers to the list of questions from the EMEA. Based on the timelines associated with the review of this product, Pharming expects an opinion of the scientific committee of the EMEA in the second half of 2007. In the USA, Pharming aims to finalize its placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial in the second half of 2007. The Company will present results from the clinical trials of Rhucin for the treatment of HAE in the third quarter of 2007.

About Rhucin Rhucin (recombinant human C1 esterase inhibitor) is a human protein developed through Pharming's proprietary technology in milk of transgenic rabbits. Rhucin is currently under development to treat acute attacks of Hereditary Angioedema (HAE), a disease characterized by painful swelling of soft tissue. The disease is caused by a shortage of functional C1 esterase inhibitor in patients and results in an overreaction of the immune system.


Mirkov rewarded for patented sugarcane research

- Rod Santa Ana, The Monitor (Rio Grande City, Texas), July 12, 2007


A scientist in Weslaco has earned a string of awards recently for developing patented methods designed to greatly expand where sugarcane can be grown - and what it produces.

The pioneering research work of Dr. Erik Mirkov, a virologist and molecular biologist at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in Weslaco, is turning sugarcane into mini "biofactories," allowing it to be grown in barren, rural areas of the state to produce biofuels.

In a similar line of research, Mirkov is producing new sugarcane varieties that will produce proteins to treat human diseases and enzymes for industrial uses, he said.

Mirkov's work has earned him three major awards from the Texas A&M University System this year.

In January, he was given the Vice Chancellor's Award in Excellence for off-campus research. A month later, he was given the Vice Chancellor's Award for technology innovation for the number of patents he received in 2006. And earlier this month, Mirkov was named outstanding professor in Texas A&M's department of plant pathology for exemplary service to the department.

Until now, sugarcane could be grown only in tropical or sub-tropical climates like that of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Mirkov said.

"If we're going to use sugarcane to produce all the ethanol we need, we need to make it more water efficient to protect our water supplies," he said, "And we need to grow it in cooler parts of the state, say from Laredo to Corpus Christi. But we can only do that if sugarcane is cold- and drought-tolerant."

To do that, Mirkov has developed a series of procedures whereby genes from non-sugar producing plants are transferred into existing varieties of commercial sugarcane.

"The significance of that is that cane will be able to be grown north of the sub-tropical Valley, say in Falfurrias or Sarita (south of San Antonio)," Mirkov said. "In these areas it will be grown to produce ethanol, not sugar. Not only will that help decrease our dependence on foreign oil, it will create new jobs and new markets for rural Texans."

Cane improved to withstand only 5 degrees Fahrenheit of colder temperatures would greatly increase the range of where and when it can be grown, including areas with poor soils and limited water supplies, and during the winter, he said.

"Brazil f erments sugar to make their ethanol," he said. "We're proposing using the biomass, or fibrous part of the plant, in what's called a cellulose conversion process to make ethanol. Here in the Valley, the sugar would still be extracted for food uses."

In addition to ethanol, sugarcane plants converted from food crops to mini biofactories would allow growers to also produce new, high-value proteins for treating human diseases, Mirkov said. The plants also could be made to produce industrial and food processing enzymes.

"By using sugarcane as biofactories, we can produce these proteins and enzymes much cheaper than the way they are currently made industrially," he said. "And we do it with sugarcane because cane has a high ratio of biomass per acre and there is no concern that these new genes would spread to other crops in the food chain through pollination."

Mirkov explained that sugarcane in South Texas rarely flowers, and when it does it is sterile because it produces no pollen. He is confident the cane's sterility will reduce the federal regulatory process to between three and five years, and that the new cane varieties can eventually be grown commercially.

"We refer to these new sugarcane varieties as sugarcane platforms because they will allow companies in the future to come to us and ask that their particular proteins or enzymes of interest be produced and purified from sugarcane using our patented methods," he said.

Dr. Michael Gould, director of the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, said Mirkov's research is the future of agriculture.

"We're proud and excited that Erik's cutting-edge research is receiving such prestigious recognition," Gould said. "It's the kind of research to which the Weslaco Center is now devoting vast resources because of the promise it holds for the 21st century."

Mirkov also conducts research on producing insect and disease resistant citrus varieties.


Maine may finally let Bt corn be grown, sold

The state could make a decision this month on the genetically modified corn with a built-in pesticide.

- Josie Huang, Portland Press Herald (Maine), July 13, 2007


Over the past decade, a particular type of genetically modified corn has taken the farming world by storm with a built-in pesticide that wards off bugs from seed to harvest.

The exception has been Maine, the only state where corn engineered to produce the Bt toxin cannot be sold or grown. But that may change soon.

The biotechnology industry is trying to break into the Maine market again. And with science that protects against a wider array of pests and growing demand from Maine farmers, opponents of Bt corn are worried that the state won't say no this time around.

Dow AgroSciences, Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Monsanto have applied to sell seven Bt corn products that would be grown for animal feed.

The Maine Board of Pesticides Control could make a decision as early as its next meeting on July 27 in Waterville, according to agency officials.

Maine's organic farmers have spoken out against Bt corn at a past board meeting, warning that overuse of the crop would create insect resistance to the Bt toxin, a naturally occurring pesticide that is widely sprayed on organic crops. Another concern is that the pollen from Bt corn would contaminate crops that are not bioengineered.

Spencer Aitel, who is one of the 250 corn growers in Maine, said there would be no recourse for him if pollen from Bt corn drifted to his land.

"If your dog comes over in my yard and bites my kid, I can come back at the dog owner," said Aitel, who grows corn to feed 150 Jersey cows on his dairy farm in China. "It's not so with genetically engineered corn."

But Tom Cote, a dairy farmer in Pittsfield and an advocate for Bt corn, said he can only see benefits.

He said Bt corn is worth the additional $3 to $8 it would cost to plant per acre because it solves the conundrum of which type of pest will attack his corn in a particular year. Bt corn provides insurance against multiple pests, so Cote can avoid exposure to powerful pesticides while saving money from having to use them, he said.

"I've got a daughter who is doing more work on the farm, and if she doesn't have to handle the pesticides, then I don't have to worry about it," Cote said.

Biotechnology firms last made a bid to sell Bt corn in Maine in 1997. As part of the application evaluation, the pesticides agency determined that Bt corn did not pose a risk to human health. The pesticidal protein in Bt corn attacks the digestive system of larvae that eat the corn, but is destroyed by the acids in people's stomachs, according to staff toxicologist Lebelle Hicks.

The board, however, rejected the applications from Novartis Seeds and DeKalb Genetics by a 4-3 vote on the basis that growers in Maine did not demonstrate a need for the product, which at the time only protected against corn borers - a bug that farmers were not spraying against to begin with.

In the years since, the technology has advanced to where some Bt corn varieties can protect against combinations of pests, such as caterpillars, rootworms and cutworms.

Board member John Jemison, who leads its Bt Corn Technical Committee, said there still are mixed feelings about Bt corn on the board. But Jemison, who said he is abstaining from voting because he has accepted seeds from the applicants for his work as a water and soil specialist, could picture at least some applications getting approved.

"We're in a bit of a different place than we were in 1997," he said. "Today the biggest difference is that I've seen fields that have been mowed down by cutworms, and farmers have had to go and re-seed the fields. That costs a lot of money, especially if they're using a high-end hybrid variety seed."

Bt corn would not be the first genetically engineered crop grown in Maine - the Roundup Ready line of canola, corn and soybeans, which has been modified to survive herbicides, has been legally grown in Maine for at least 10 years, the board said.

And Bt corn is already present in Maine in the form of processed food such as corn flakes, said Lauchlin Titus, an agronomist who consults for Monsanto and Maine farmers. He said some of the sweet corn sold in Maine may be Bt corn.

But the fact that Bt corn can't be grown in Maine has been a point of pride for some environmental and agricultural groups, whose members worry that the rise of bioengineered crops will hurt wildlife and humans and give corporations too much control over farming.

Jemison encountered an extreme form of the opposition when a field of genetically modified corn he was growing for research was vandalized in 1999.

But these days some of the biggest critics of bioengineering have been sounding less confident. Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said he would be disappointed but not surprised if the Bt corn applications are approved.

Should that happen, there need to be conditions placed on growing Bt corn, such as requiring farmers to receive training and provide a strategy to prevent pollen drift, Libby said.

He said farmers must also follow a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirement to use non-Bt corn on 20 percent of their corn acres, so insects have a refuge from the toxin.

"If the refuge is planted on the edge of cornfields then it would make a great buffer" with nearby farms, Libby said.

If approved by the board this year, Bt corn products would be available in time for a 2008 planting, said Julie Kenney, a spokeswoman for Pioneer.

Kenney said Pioneer and the other companies decided to coordinate their applications because increasing numbers of Maine farmers were asking for their products. "It was an industry approach to get this product approved and into the hands of the growers," Kenney said.


Hypochondria Resurrected [translated from the German]

- Thomas Deichmann, Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, July 10, 2007


A brouhaha like this over food is nearly unprecedented. Seldom have so many emotional and financial resources been squandered, in order to repeatedly reach the same conclusion: MON863 corn is safe. But for many, this message is obviously so hard to swallow that they aren't even willing to hear it.

MON863 was developed in the genetic engineering laboratories of the US multinational Monsanto. It is equipped with the ability to defend against corn rootworm, it is grown on millions of acres - and eaten by countless humans and animals. And why not? It is exactly as safe as the yellow cobs we grow domestically. This was confirmed all over again last Thursday by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The reason why the authority had to clarify matters once more is an announcement by the environmental group Greenpeace in March 2007. Its Hamburg office had reported a new "study by independent French scientists" who claimed that "gene-corn" carries "potential health risks." In rat feeding studies, the animals allegedly showed "symptoms of poisoning and damage to the liver and kidneys." And supposedly, for the first time, "a health risk for approved gene-plants has been proven."

In reality, however, there were no new sensational bioassays. Greenpeace had only reinterpreted old feeding studies, which were sufficiently examined already some years ago and verified. All smoke and mirrors, a finding immediately reached by several scientific institutions.

At the end of March, the Federal Institute for Risk Evaluation (Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung) stated that the "renewed statistical analysis of the data does not provide any reason" to question the earlier findings. One month later, the same thing was notified by France's Sood Safety Authority (AFSSA). In the mean time, the EFSA experts had also begun to evaluate the new Greenpeace interpretations of the bioassays. From it "no new safety concerns" emerged, according to the latest announcement.

The nation has once again trembled because of a statement by the "German fear industry". For the anti-genetic-engineering-front, however, the accomplishment is trivial. The rat story of 2004 is simply resurrected. Just like the fairy tale of the collapse of Monarch butterflies, which drop from corn-stalks; the story about allergens released from transgenic Brazil nuts and the legends about "killer-potatoes." By the middle of June Greenpeace was already working on the next "scandal": This time it concerns the transgenic corn line NK603, which they claim is "possibly injurious to health". Rat feeding studies supposedly demonstrated "effects on the functions of the kidneys, brain, heart and liver." We'll see how much money and anxiety will be wasted this time around in examining Greenpeace's hypochondria.


In the Wake of the Double Helix

The files of the Volume of Proceedings of the Congress "In the Wake of the Double Helix: From the Green Revolution to the Gene Revolution" are now available at


Section I - The Architects of the Green Revolution

Section II - Biodiversity and Germplasm Resources

Section III - Genes, QTLs and Crop Improvement

Section IV - Tools, Models and Platforms for Plant Genomics

Swction V - Genetic Engineering for Food Security and Biofarming

Section VI - Plant Biotechnology and Society

The pdf files of all articles can be downloaded freely. The website also presents the photos taken during the Congress and other material.

Prof. Roberto Tuberosa
Biotechnology Applied to Plant Breeding
Department of Agroenvironmental Sciences and Technology
Email: roberto.tuberosa+at+unibo.it

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