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March 19, 2008


Attitudes towards GM crops are softening; Drought, salt tolerant plants; Time to Love Frankenstein


* Soaring Corn Prices Test Japan
* Biotech may get separate ministry
* Attitudes towards GM crops are softening
* Farmers Face Glyphosate Price Hike
* Alliance formed for GLA-Rich Safflower Oil
* A built-in strategy for transgene containment
* Indonesia develops drought tolerant rice
* Scientists Discover Gene That Controls Fruit Shape
* Strawberry plants tolerant to salt stress
* Qatar plans law on GM products
* GM grain test stopped, Government blamed
* Benin renews moratorium on GMOs
* Asia Embraces Biotech, Despite the UN
* The New Organic
* Time to Love Frankenstein
* Off the rails


Soaring Corn Prices Test Japanese Distaste For GMO

- Reuters via PlanetArk, Mar. 17, 2008


TOKYO - Japan, the last major importer in Asia still holding out against genetically-modified corn for food use, could soon be buying more GMO material from US farmers as record prices force it to turn to cheaper modified grains.

The world's largest corn importer has long bought GMO corn for animal feed, but buys only a trickle for human food use.

But food makers are caught between US farmers demanding a higher premium for GMO-free corn and Japanese grocers and consumers, the last in Asia still resisting modified crops after South Korean processors last month bought GMO corn.

The rising costs and difficulty of dealing with modified corn separately from unmodified could also see more tie-ups in the industry, after No. 4 Oji Cornstarch Co last year formed an alliance with two smaller rivals.

"We've started to ask each of our customers in an interview whether and how much they can take," said Yoshihiko Shikakura, senior managing director at the sales department of Oji Cornstarch, a joint venture between Oji Paper Co and trading firm Mitsui & Co.

Until recently, most corn processors have used only non-GMO crops to produce corn starch and corn syrup, a widely used sweetener, as some customers, mainly beer and drug makers, refuse to use GMOs.

But smaller corn processors have already used unseparated cargoes, taking advantage of lax labelling laws for small quantities of raw materials in foods in Japan.

Shrinking supplies mean the price premium on non-GMO corn that processors pay to importers is set to double to 10,000 yen ($97) per tonne next year, industry sources said.

Currently, US GMO corn is imported at around 40,000 yen per tonne, doubling over the past two years on a similar rally in Chicago corn prices during the same period.

"They cannot help but give up 'non-GMO only' this year as it is now a question of 'to survive or not'," said a corn trading manager at a major trading house, who declined to be named.

The manager said one of the top corn processors had started test shipments of GMO corn for food use and another would follow suit, possibly from October.

Pro-GMO pundits argue that soft drink makers are the most likely to make the switch as the process to turn corn starch into syrup makes protein content in the product negligible.

Beer makers so far are resisting price hikes in corn starch, a key ingredient for beer, or a shift to GMO.

"Lack of public acceptance means we don't consider it," said a spokesman at Kirin Holdings Co which seven years ago led its peers to use only non-GMO corn starch for Japanese beer.

A survey last July by Japan's Food Safety Commission showed that only 4.1 percent of consumers think GMO food is free from risk.


Use of GMO products would trigger negative campaigning by anti-GMO groups such as Greenpeace, which led a successful attack on GMO foods in Europe.

"It is not something we can overlook due to a lack of strict labelling rules here," said Sachiyo Tanahashi, GMO campaigner at Greenpeace Japan.

"We've been proposing top food makers produce organic products at a premium price to gauge the appetite of consumers, but so far in vain," Tanahashi said.

Japan grows hardly any corn and imports 12 million tonnes a year for animal feed -- mostly GMO crops except for some 700,000 tonnes of non-GMO for organic eggs and other quality products.

It also imports about 3 million tonnes a year of corn for use in foodstuffs, almost all of which is non-GMO from the United States, the world's biggest corn exporter.

In 2007, GMO crops were found on 73 percent of US corn acres and were expected to rise further, increasing the costs to separate out non-GMO crops in planting, storing and transporting.

Use of GMO could be costly for corn processors. If an unapproved GMO trait is found, importers, not exporters, are responsible to pay the extra cost to dispose of the unwanted material.

Two new alliances of Japan's top corn processors will make it easier to introduce GMO corn, as their enlarged businesses can allocate complete plants to handle GMO supplies separately, a logic that could lead to further tie-ups in the food processing industry.

In the face of rising costs, fourth-biggest Oji Cornstarch last year formed an alliance with Gun-ei Chemical Industry Co and another smaller rival. If customers decide to accept GMO supplies, the bigger group means they now have the flexibility to allocate one factory to use GMO corn.

Another group is also forming. Nihon Shokuhin Kako Co announced an alliance with unlisted Kato Kagaku Co in January, bringing together two of the top three processors, while a grouping of smaller processors is also possible, either with or without unlisted major Nihon Cornstarch Co.

"The more the non-GMO premium rises, the more business alignment is formed here," said Oji Cornstarch's Shikakura.


Biotechnology may get separate ministry

- The Financial Express (India), Mar. 17, 2008


New Delhi - The government is planning to upgrade the department of biotechnology (DBT) to the status of a full-fledged ministry. At present DBT is under the Union ministry of science and technology and is responsible for promoting researches for development of genetically modified (GM) crops and other biotechnological applications in agriculture and health sciences.

Speaking at the 22nd Foundation day of DBT on Monday, the Union science and technology minister, Kapil Sibal said, "DBT is 22 years old where 27 people are working. As the 21st century would be the century of biotechnology with researches and applications being carried out across the globe, the time is ripe that DBT be upgraded to the status of an independent ministry or a commission."

He said that DBT had an annual budget of Rs 9,000 crore as compared to Rs 450 crore budget for the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). He said that biotechnology had the potential for improving agricultural productivity and combating climate change. It can help in sustaining 9% growth rate in the Economy and achieving 4% growth rate in agriculture. Biotechnology had also given lot of employment opportunities to women, he said.


Survey shows attitudes towards GM crops are softening

- Farmers Guardian, Mar. 17, 2008


CONSUMER attitudes towards genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are gradually softening, according to a new EU-wide survey.

The European Commission has published a new Eurobarometer survey about the attitudes of European citizens towards the environment, including GMOs. The results showed:

= 20 per cent of Europeans are worried about GMOs, compared with 24 per cent in 2004

= 80 per cent are not concerned about the use of GMOs in farming.

= 26 per cent consider there is a lack of information relating to use of GMOs in farming, down from 40 per cent in 2004.

= GMOs are classified as an 'issue of great lack of information and medium level of concern'.

Respondents were also asked to rank the main environmental issues they are most worried about:

= Climate change was ranked first, up from 47 per cent in 2004 to 57 per cent.

= Water pollution was second, down from 47 per cent to 42 per cent.

= Air pollution was third, down to 40 per cent from 45 per cent.

Commenting on the survey, Dr Julian Little, chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (abc) said the industry was 'pleased to see that concern about the use of GMOs in farming has reduced'.

"It is important to continue to ensure that people have access to appropriate information about GM but these relatively low levels of concern demonstrate that hysteria around the use of GM in farming is misguided.

"Interestingly, the report suggests that at least part of the concern regarding GM can be correlated with a perceived lack of information. abc is committed to improving the communication of the use of this technology in the UK."


Farmers Face Glyphosate Price Hike.

- Rod Swoboda, Wallaces Farmer, Mar. 17, 2008


Fuel and fertilizer price increases are being joined by rising prices for glyphosate herbicide in 2008. After years of price declines for the widely-used weed control product, farmers are facing sticker shock as suppliers struggle to keep up with strong demand. Prices for generic glyphosate have doubled since last year and Monsanto-branded Roundup has jumped 30% in price.

Jim Zimmer, Monsanto vice president for U.S. brands, says the company has been forced to raise prices at unprecedented rates due to market dynamics. "Over the past year on a global basis, glyphosate demand has increased significantly - to the point where demand is increasing faster than supply." In particular, he adds, South America has emerged as a strong market for glyphosate products.

Another factor is most manufacturers of generic glyphosate haven't increased their production. About 30 companies worldwide make glyphosate, and many of them are in China. Energy shortages created by China's booming economy have caused some plants to shut down periodically, while others are being shut down for periods of time as Chinese officials want to make sure the plants conform to pollution control regulations. The Chinese government is stepping in and putting environmental regulations on manufacturers.

Don't cut glyphosate application rates

The worst thing farmers can do in reaction to the glyphosate price hike is to cut application rates of the herbicide. "By applying less than the recommended rate of glyphosate per acre, you run the risk of not getting satisfactory weed control," cautions Mike Owen, an Iowa State University Extension weed scientist.

The old adage of "Penny wise and pound foolish" comes to mind. With the widespread and continuous use of glyphosate on more acres of corn and soybeans in recent years, there are some weeds that are becoming increasingly difficult to control. Those include common lambsquarters, common waterhemp and giant ragweed. Trying to get by with reduced application rates of glyphosate may speed up the shift in weed populations and result in more escaped weeds.

For farmers who are having a problem with a weed species that is not responding to glyphosate, ISU Weed Science Extension is getting ready to introduce a program this spring that will encourage those growers to further investigate the problems by contacting ISU Weed Science Extension. "We want to take a harder look at the situation this year, to see if glyphosate resistance in weed populations is occurring in Iowa fields," explains Owen. "We will be announcing a program in detail about this in a few of weeks."

Watch for new Extension weed program

Basically, the program will work like this. If you are having problems with a weed not being controlled by glyphosate, you can let the ISU specialists know and they can come out and investigate. Owen says probably 99 times out of 100 there are other issues involved and it's not weed resistance that is causing the escapes. For example, the ISU specialists can help you determine some useful information to zero in on the real cause. For example, was the herbicide applied at the right rate per acre and applied at the right time?

"That's the first thing we'll do when we investigate," says Owen. "We'll ask these types of questions. If we determine that the glyphosate was applied appropriately then we'll go into the field and collect some weed seed and plant them in our growth chamber and greenhouse and assess the response to glyphosate. We may look at the heritability of the resistant trait, if specific populations meet our criteria and ultimately we will seek the cooperation of the grower and request permission to go back to the fields in question the following year and run a small glyphosate application rate comparison."

"Many times the things that happen with weeds when we grow them in a growth chamber or greenhouse aren't exactly what we see going on in the real world out in the farmer's field," says Owen. "So we have to double check that when we do this testing. The specific details for this new ISU Extension weed management program are under development now, and when they are finalized, we'll publicize the information and explain how you can take part in the program."


SemBioSys' GLA Partner Enters Strategic Alliance for the Sales and Marketing of GLA-Rich Safflower Oil

- SemBioSys Genetics (press release), Mar. 14, 2008


CALGARY - SemBioSys Genetics Inc., a biotechnology company developing a portfolio of therapeutic proteins for metabolic and cardiovascular diseases, today announced that Arcadia Biosciences, Inc., made an important step forward in the commercialization of High GLA Safflower Oil. Arcadia entered into an exclusive global alliance with Bioriginal Food and Science Corp., to market and distribute High GLA Safflower Oil, an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid with proven heath benefits, as a nutritional supplement and food ingredient. SemBioSys was contracted by Arcadia to utilize Arcadia's proprietary genes and SemBioSys' promoters and safflower transformation technology to produce and deliver safflower seed lines containing more than 40 percent GLA. Under the agreement, SemBioSys receives milestone payments upon the successful scale-up of GLA safflower lines as well as royalties from commercial sales.

GLA (gamma linolenic acid) is an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid which, along with omega-3 fatty acids, has demonstrated health benefits. GLA's clinically-validated benefits include anti-inflammatory effects and improved skin health and appearance. Existing commercial sources of GLA, evening primrose oil and borage oil, contain 10 or 20-23 percent GLA, respectively. With a GLA content of 40 percent, Arcadia's high-GLA safflower oil would significantly reduce the daily consumption of GLA oil capsules and make it more convenient and affordable for consumers. According to ICIS Chemical Business Americas, the U.S. market for GLA oils is currently valued at more than US$100 million. With a more convenient, more highly concentrated source of GLA, Arcadia believes the market can grow beyond this figure.

"Nutritional supplements and nutraceuticals are a growing market as health conscious consumers are increasingly choosing to augment their diet with nutrients that have proven health benefits. Arcadia's high-GLA safflower oil is a convenient and cost-effective source of GLA compared to existing alternatives," said Andrew Baum, President and CEO of SemBioSys.


A built-in strategy for transgene containment

Creation of selectively terminable transgenic rice

- Zhejiang University (press release), Mar. 18, 2008


Hangzhou, China - A method of creating selective terminable transgenic rice was reported by the scientists of Zhejiang University in this week's PLoS ONE. Unintended spreading of transgenic rice by pollen and seed dispersal is a major concern for planting transgenic rice, especially transgenic rice expressing pharmaceutical or industrial proteins.

The transgenic rice plants created in the past usually can only be detected by sophisticated molecular detection methods and it is prohibitedly difficult to identify and selectively kill the transgenic rice plants once they escape into environments and contaminate conventional rice.

However, with the technology reported by Dr. Zhicheng Shen's group, the transgenic rice plants mixed in the conventional rice could be selectively eliminated by a spray of Bentazon, an herbicide commonly used for rice weed control.

This technology appears to be quite simple, reliable and inexpensive for implementation. "If you use Bentazon for weed control in your rice field, you do not need to worry about any possible contamination caused by transgenic rice created by our method. The herbicide will take care of it" said Dr. Shen, the corresponding author of the article. "Containment of transgenic crops only by physical isolation is not sufficient in our view, as human errors, animal activities and nature accidents will lead to the spreading of transgenic rice plants sooner or later" added Chaoyang Lin, graduate student in Dr. Shen's laboratory and one of the leading contributors of the article. Indeed, several major accidents of unintended spreading of the transgenic crops did happen in the past several years in USA.

This technology may be best for use to contain transgenic rice as bioreactors. "While all biotech products today are safe and nutritious, this technology could allow certain crops targeted for industrial, energy or health uses to be grown under controlled conditions and kept separate from other channels" said Nick Duck Vice President of Research for Athenix Corp. in the USA.

The principle beneath this strategy is elegant and simple according to the article. The genes of interest in these transgenic rice plants will be linked with an RNAi cassette which suppresses the expression of the rice detoxification enzyme of Bentazon, rendering the transgenic rice to be sensitive to the herbicide. Conventional rice is highly tolerant to Bentazon.

Dr. Shen's lab is currently using the technology for developing transgenic rice as well as corn for expression of industrial enzymes and pharmaceutical proteins. "We believe that transgenic crops are the future, and we feel much better knowing that we may release selectively terminable transgenic plants in the future to address the concern of transgene spreading", said Dr. Shen.


Indonesia develops a biotech drought tolerant rice

- Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Research Center for Biotechnology (press release), Mar. 13, 2008


Rice (Oryza sativa), one of the most important food crops, is drastically affected by drought, especially at the reproductive stage, thus, immensely affecting yield. Dissecting the important genes and the genomic regions influencing drought tolerance and yield will aid the breeders in understanding the genetic mechanisms underlying the plants' response to drought. This will then be the basis of the breeding strategies for the development of high yielding and drought tolerant varieties. The Research Centre of Biotechnology, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) has successfully developed a genetically engineered rainfed lowland rice cultivar with drought tolerance. "We have created the cultivar by overexpression of the genes encoding the transcription factors OsHOX" , said Prof. Dr. Umar A. Jenie, Head of LIPI. Furthermore, the cultivar is now being tested and is already in the early stage of a confined trial in a green house facility. This will be followed by environment and food safety testings as well as a multilocation field testing.

LIPI has also developed a yellow stem borer {S. incertulas (Walk)} -resistant rice variety. According to Prof. Jenie, the preliminary field testing result showed that the transgenic crops are not adversely affecting the environment ecology since there is no geneflow to another crop as well as to other insects or soil microbes. He also emphasized that all transgenic rice developed in Indonesia will be tested for its environmental and food safety.


Ohio State Crop Scientists Discover Gene That Controls Fruit Shape

- Ohio State University (press release), Mar. 13, 2008


WOOSTER, Ohio - Ohio State University crop scientists have cloned a gene that controls the shape of tomatoes, a discovery that could help unravel the mystery behind the huge morphological differences among edible fruits and vegetables as well as provide new insight into mechanisms of plant development.

The gene, dubbed SUN, is only the second ever found to play a significant role in the elongated shape of various tomato varieties, said Esther van der Knaap, lead researcher in the study and assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at Ohio State's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) in Wooster.

The discovery was reported, as the cover article, in the March 14 issue of the journal Science.

One of the most diverse vegetable crops in terms of shape and size variations, tomatoes have evolved from a very small, round wild ancestor into the wide array of cultivated varieties - some large and segmented, some pear-shaped, some oval, some resembling chili peppers - available through seed catalogs and for sale in supermarkets. However, very little is known about the genetic basis for such transformations in tomatoes, and virtually nothing has been discerned about morphological changes in other fruits and vegetables.

"Tomatoes are the model in this emerging field of fruit morphology studies," van der Knaap pointed out. "We are trying to understand what kind of genes caused the enormous increase in fruit size and variation in fruit shape as tomatoes were domesticated. Once we know all the genes that were selected during that process, we will be able to piece together how domestication shaped the tomato fruit - and gain a better understanding of what controls the shape of other very diverse crops, such as peppers and the cucumber and squash family."

Here comes the SUN

One of the first pieces in van der Knaap's fruit-development puzzle is SUN, which takes its name from the "Sun 1642" cultivated variety where it was found - an oval-shaped, Roma-type tomato with a pointy end. The gene also turned out to be very common in elongated heirloom varieties, such as the Poblano pepper-like "Howard German" tomato.

"After looking at the entire collection of tomato germplasm we could find, we noticed that there were some varieties that had very elongated fruit shape," van der Knaap explained. "By genetic analysis, we narrowed down the region of the genome that controls this very elongated fruit shape, and eventually narrowed down that region to a smaller section that we could sequence to find what kind of genes were present at that location.

"In doing that," van der Knaap continued, "we identified one key candidate gene that was turned on at high levels in the tomato varieties carrying the elongated fruit type, while the gene was turned off in round fruit. And after we confirmed that observation in several other varieties, we found that this gene was always very highly expressed in varieties that carry very elongated fruit."

Once SUN was identified, the next step involved proving whether this gene was actually responsible for causing changes in fruit shape. To do so, van der Knaap and her team conducted several plant-transformation experiments. When the SUN gene was introduced into wild, round fruit-bearing tomato plants, they ended up producing extremely elongated fruit. And when the gene was "knocked out" of elongated fruit-bearing plants, they produced round fruit similar to wild tomatoes.

"SUN doesn't tell us exactly how the fruit-shape phenotype is altered, but what we do know is that turning the gene on is very critical to result in elongated fruit," van der Knaap said. "We can now move forward and ask the question: Does this same gene, or a gene that is closely related in sequence, control fruit morphology in other vegetables and fruit crops?"

Van der Knaap and her team also found that SUN encodes a member of the IQ67 domain of plant proteins, called IQD12, which they determined to be sufficient - on its own - to make tomatoes elongated instead of round during the plant transformation experiments.

IQD12 belongs to a family of proteins whose discovery is relatively new in the world of biology. So new that IQD12 is only the second IQ67 protein-containing domain whose function in plants has been identified. The other one is AtIQD1, discovered in the plant model Arabidopsis thaliana, which belongs to the same family as broccoli and cabbage. In Arabidopsis, AtIQD1 increases levels of glucosinolate, a metabolite that Ohio State food and medical researchers are studying in broccoli for its possible role in inhibiting cancer (http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/goodbroc.htm).

"Unlike AtIQD1, SUN doesn't seem to be affecting glucosinolate levels in tomato, since these metabolites are not produced in plants of the Solanaceous family (which includes tomato, peppers, eggplant and other popular crops)," van der Knaap explained. "But there appears to be a common link between the two genes, which is that they may be regulating tryptophan levels in the plant. Thus, SUN may be telling us more about the whole process of diversification in fruits and across plant species, perhaps through its impact on plant hormones and/or secondary metabolite levels."

Jumping Gene

In the process of identifying and cloning SUN, van der Knaap's team was also able to trace the origin of this gene and the process by which it came to reside in the tomato genome.

SUN, it turns out, arose as a result of an unusual gene-duplication carried out by a retrotransposon - a type of transposable element or "jumping gene" that can amplify itself anywhere in a genome. Studies showed that the segment of the genome associated with SUN "jumped," from chromosome 10 to chromosome 7, via this retrotransposon (named Rider).

Such gene duplication, in the end, helped generate a longer tomato fruit that differed significantly from the berry-like fruits that existed before domestication and breeding of this popular modern crop.

"Our discovery demonstrates that retrotransposons may be a major driving force in genome evolution and gene duplication, resulting in phenotypic changes in plants," van der Knaap pointed out.

Another unique characteristic of the SUN gene is that it affects fruit shape after pollination and fertilization, with the most significant morphological differences found in developing fruit five days after plant flowering. The only other fruit-shape gene previously identified - OVATE, a discovery by Cornell University plant breeder Steven Tanksley, van der Knaap's advisor while she was a post-doctoral associate there - influences the future look of a fruit before flowering, early in the ovary development.

Practical Applications

Beyond their contributions to the scientific community's understanding of plant development, van der Knaap's SUN gene discovery and her ongoing research program have important implications for the vegetable- and fruit-production industry. Being able to control and modify fruit shape could lead to the development of new varieties, helping growers to serve specialty markets and processors to reduce costs.

"This discovery will tell us, too, how we can influence the process of fruit formation and facilitate the development of 'designer fruit,' " van der Knaap explained. "The design or control of fruit shape is especially useful when introducing new varieties. Depending on the goal of the breeding project, the creation of niche markets may require an unusual shape of the product so that consumers are curious to check it out."

Co-authors of the Science paper include Eric Stockinger, associate professor in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at OARDC; Han Xiao, a postdoctoral researcher also in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science; Ning Jiang, assistant professor of horticulture at Michigan State University; and Erin Schaffner, a former undergraduate student from the College of Wooster who conducted her independent study in van der Knaap's lab.


Development of transgenic strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa Duch.) plants tolerant to salt stress

- Amjad Masood Husaini and Malik Zainul Abdina, Plant Science, vol. 174(4), pages 446-455, Apr. 2008



Transgenic technology provides currently the best hope for improvement in plants where traditional breeding is not feasible. Strawberry is one such plant where polyploidy complicates breeding efforts. Introduction of genes directly into strawberry has been successfully achieved. The study presented here is the first report where transgenic plants of strawberry tolerant to salt stress were produced. Leaf discs of in vitro grown plantlets of strawberry (cv. Chandler) were used as explants and Agrobacterium tumefaciens strain GV2260 harbouring osmotin gene under the control of CaMV 35S promoter in a binary vector system (pBinAR) was used in co-cultivation experiments. Transgene integration and copy number were assessed by PCR and Southern hybridization confirming single copy as well as multiple copies of transgene integration in 10 different lines of transgenic strawberry. Expression of osmotin gene was confirmed in transgenic lines TL3, TL5, TL9 using northern hybridization, while biochemical analyses of these transgenic plants revealed enhanced levels of proline, total soluble protein and chlorophyll content as compared to the wild plants. Leaf disc senescence assay showed that these transgenic lines were tolerant to salt stress. The growth pattern of transgenic plants overexpressing osmotin did not show any abnormality, except their growth rate being slower than other plants.


Qatar plans law on GM products

- Trade Arabia, Mar. 13, 2008


Qatar is giving final touches to a law to check the entry of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) into the country.

The country is also making labelling of GMOs products mandatory giving consumers the right to pick their choice of GMO or non-GMO products, reported the Qatar Peninsula.

This means the law will allow people to enjoy the benefits of biotechnology while avoiding its possible risks.

Wildlife Conservation Director Ghanem Mohammed Al Abdullah said the next meeting of the National Committee on biosafety will discuss the details of introducing a labelling system of GMOs in Qatar.

Ahead of the meeting, the committee will also host a workshop that will be addressed by international experts in the field, he added.

Al Abdullah said the proposed biosafety law was prepared on the basis of Cartegena Protocol, to which Qatar is a party.

'The protocol will enable everyone to enjoy the benefits of biotechnology while avoiding unnecessary risks,' he said.

The long-term effects on human health of consuming GM food have not been investigated so far.

The Biosafety National Committee believes that through labelling, customers can distinguish GMO products from the rest.

Though most of the GCC countries have become the party to the Cartegena Protocol in the rent past, Qatar is the first country to draft a law in check the proliferation of GMOs. Greenpeace has hailed Qatar's initiative.


Guest ed. note: Greenpeace has good reason to 'hail' the initiative, since it was actually Greenpeace's initiative. The group launched the initiative in the Gulf states late last year, using tactics such as claiming that India was exporting "seven types of produce known to be genetically engineered (GE) to the UAE, including basmati and non-basmati rice, tomatoes, aubergines, maize, groundnut, potatoes and cabbage." See, "Genetically modified food imports raise concerns", Emmanuelle Landais, Gulf News, Oct. 7, 2007, http://archive.gulfnews.com/articles/07/10/07/10158565.html


GM grain test stopped, Government blamed

- Jodie Thomson, The West Australian, Mr. 18, 2008


WA's first broadacre trial of genetically modified canola has been abandoned, with project proponents blaming the State Government's hardline stance against commercial use of the technology for its failure.

The South-East Premium Wheat Growers Association and research provider Kalyx Agriculture announced the 2.5ha trial of Roundup Ready canola, which had been given approval to go ahead this year at an Esperance research station, would not proceed after they were unable to get access to seed for the trial.

SEPWA president Chris Reichstein said the group had hopeful of securing seed until recent comments by Premier Alan Carpenter at the Pastoralist and Graziers Association's annual conference, where he said there was "no hope" of the Government lifting its ban on GM food crops in WA. "The political reality in WA is that there is no opportunity for commercialisation of the GM canola cropping system in the foreseeable future (so) there is no incentive for the companies to dedicate resources here," Mr Reichstein said.

He said farmers would watch with interest performance of GM canola varieties now permitted in NSW and Victoria, where the moratoria had been lifted.

"Given a favourable performance there, we will continue to apply pressure to the Government to allow WA farmers to have commercial access to this," he said.

Pioneer Hi-Bred Australia national marketing manager James Holden said the company would focus on Victoria and NSW with its Roundup Ready crop technology, which was designed to give better weed management and higher yields to growers, arguing there was currently no commercial pathway for the technology in WA.

Agriculture Minister Kim Chance said yesterday he was also disappointed the trials would not go ahead, because they would have provided an independent examination of whether the GM crops held any "agronomic advantage" for WA farmers.

"We can look forward to learning something of the economic performance as a result of trials in NSW and Victoria," he said. "I will be interested to see, though, if there are any independent trials in either of those States either and that will be the ultimate test." But Slade Brockman, of the PGA, which is calling for the moratorium to be lifted, said growers in NSW and Victoria would now have a production advantage over WA growers with world-best technology.


Benin renews moratorium on GMOs

- Afrique-Actualité, Mar. 17, 2008


Cotonou, Benin - Benin has decided to renew for period of five years, the moratorium on the import, marketing and use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and GMO by-products on its territory, official sources told the PANA here Monday.

The renewal of the moratorium, introduced in 2002, was based on the lack of a legal, technical and scientific framework on the threat of transgenic products from some member states of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) invading the sub-regional market.

In keeping with the precautionary principle, Benin adopted on 2 March 2002, a five-year moratorium on the import, marketing and use of GMOs or GMO by-products on its territory.

There is no act of law in Benin governing the sector and the country lacks scientific skills and equipment for the detection, monitoring and control of GMOs.


Asia Embraces Biotech, Despite the United Nations

- Henry I. Miller, The Far Eastern Economic Review, Mar. 2008

http://www.feer.com/features/2008/march/agbiotech-thrives-in-asia-despite-the-u.n .

It is hard to open a newspaper without finding a new example of corruption, malfeasance or misconduct by United Nations officials or agencies. But such aberrations are not the only cause for concern: The organization's business as usual, most of which occurs outside public scrutiny or accountability, is undisciplined, unscientific, unwise and often anti-social. Moreover, it encompasses an almost unimaginable spectrum of products, technologies and activities, including climate change; chemicals and waste; biodiversity and wildlife; forests, deserts and land; sustainable development; water, oceans and wetlands; and human and animal health.

A microcosm is the U.N.'s decades-old approach to crops and foods produced with the newest techniques of biotechnology-gene-splicing or "genetic modification" (GM). These are particularly important in agriculture-intensive Asia, where various nations began about a decade ago to recognize their importance and to adopt them. World-wide, GM crops have been cultivated on approximately 700 million hectares, and Asian/Pacific countries rank fourth, fifth, 10th and 11th-India, China, the Philippines and Australia, respectively-in the world in planting.

The early benefits have been impressive. After China first made it legal in 1997 for farmers to plant GM Bt-cotton (so called because it contains a gene that expresses an anti-insect protein from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis), there were impressive and rapid gains in farm income: $357 per hectare in 1999, $650 per hectare in 2000, and $502 per hectare in 2001. Along with the economic benefits came positive environmental impacts and fewer worker and family health problems from exposure to chemical pesticides. (Bt-crops possess enhanced pesticidal properties and reduce drastically the need to spray chemicals.) China has also planted about a quarter of a million Bt-poplars and in 2006 started to commercialize an approved virus resistant biotech papaya, a virus-resistant sweet pepper and a delayed-ripening tomato.

India is another remarkable GM success story. Since farmers there first received permission to grow Bt-cotton in 2002, its cultivation has soared. In 2007, India reported the highest proportional increase in GM crops in the world, gaining 63 percent over the previous year. The reason for this impressive growth in Bt-cotton is that it has consistently delivered unprecedented benefits, increasing yields by up to 50%, reducing insecticide sprays by half, and increasing income by up to $250 per hectare. At the national level, additional income to farmers from Bt-cotton was estimated at $840 million-$1.7 billion in 2006. India, which used to have one of the lowest cotton yields in the world, is now an exporter rather than an importer of cotton.

These kinds of developments, which enhance farming's resilience to environmental and climatic challenges, can spell the difference between prosperity and starvation.

Although GM products could alleviate famine, water shortages, and vitamin-deficiency diseases for billions, and even lead to the development of edible vaccines incorporated into fruits and vegetables, a virtual alphabet soup of U.N. agencies and programs-WHO, UNEP, FAO, UNIDO, CBD, to name just a few-have conducted a senseless and destructive war on GM. The outcome-unscientific, highly politicized and excessive regulation of biotechnology that has slowed critical advances-has hindered innovation and the diffusion of the technology.

It is one thing to regulate new plants or foods with traits that are of potential concern, but quite another to regulate merely because a certain technique has been used, especially when that technique is state-of-the-art and superior to its predecessors. U.N. policymakers and regulator-wannabes have systematically ignored scientific principles as well as the basic axiom that the degree of regulatory scrutiny should be proportionate to risk. They disregard the scientific consensus that GM technology is an extension, or refinement, of older, traditional techniques of genetic modification, and that it does not warrant discriminatory, excessive regulation. They overlook the fact that during two decades of widespread use, the performance of GM crops has been spectacular, with farmers enjoying increased yields, decreased use of agricultural chemicals, lower occupational exposures to pesticides and decreased release of carbon dioxide-and that during 15 years of extensive cultivation and consumption, there has not been a single consumer injured or an ecosystem damaged.

GM will not achieve anything approaching its potential unless enlightened nations introduce scientifically defensible and risk-based regulatory regimes. This will be difficult to achieve unless they revolt against the U.N.-an appropriate response to the revolting UN.

Dr. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Food & Drug Administration from 1977 to 1994. His most recent book is "The Frankenfood Myth" (Praeger, 2004).


The New Organic.

- Pamela Ronald, The Boston Globe, Mar. 16, 2008


The future of food may depend on an unlikely marriage: organic farmers and genetic engineering.

BEGINNING IN 1997, an important change swept over cotton farms in northern China. By adopting new farming techniques, growers found they could spray far less insecticide over their fields. Within four years they had reduced their annual use of the poisonous chemicals by 156 million pounds - almost as much as is used in the entire state of California each year. Cotton yields in the region climbed, and production costs fell. Strikingly, the number of insecticide-related illnesses among farmers in the region dropped to a quarter of their previous level.

This story, which has been repeated around the world, is precisely the kind of triumph over chemicals that organic-farming advocates wish for.

But the hero in this story isn't organic farming. It is genetic engineering.

The most important change embraced by the Chinese farmers was to use a variety of cotton genetically engineered to protect itself against insects. The plants carry a protein called Bt, a favorite insecticide of organic farmers because it kills pests but is nontoxic to mammals, birds, fish, and humans. By 2001, Bt cotton accounted for nearly half the cotton produced in China.

For anyone worried about the future of global agriculture, the story is instructive. The world faces an enormous challenge: Its growing population demands more food and other crops, but standard commercial agriculture uses industrial quantities of pesticides and harms the environment in other ways. The organic farming movement has shown that it is possible to dramatically reduce the use of insecticides, and that doing so benefits both farm workers and the environment. But organic farming also has serious limits - there are many pests and diseases that cannot be controlled using organic approaches, and organic crops are generally more expensive to produce and buy.

To meet the appetites of the world's population without drastically hurting the environment requires a visionary new approach: combining genetic engineering and organic farming.

This idea is anathema to many people, especially the advocates who have helped build organic farming into a major industry in richer countries. As reflected by statements on their websites, it is clear that most organic farming trade organizations are deeply, viscerally opposed to genetically engineered crops and seeds. Virtually all endorse the National Organic Standards Board's recommendation that genetic engineering be prohibited in organic production.

But ultimately, this resistance hurts farmers, consumers, and the planet. Without the use of genetically engineered seed, the beneficial effects of organic farming - a thoughtful, ecologically minded approach to growing food - will likely remain small.

Despite tremendous growth in the last 15 years, organic farms still produce just a tiny fraction of our food; they account for less than 3 percent of all US agriculture and even less worldwide. In contrast, in the same period, the use of genetically engineered crops has increased to the point where they represent 50 to 90 percent of the acreage where they are available. These include insect-resistant varieties of cotton and corn; herbicide-tolerant soybean, corn, and canola; and virus-resistant papaya.

After more than a decade of genetically engineered crops, and more than 30 years of organic farming, we know that neither method alone is sufficient to solve the problems faced - and caused - by agriculture.

It is time to abandon the caricatures of genetic engineering that are popular among some consumers and activists, and instead see it for what it is: A tool that can help the ecological farming revolution grow into a lasting movement with global impact.

By 2050, the number of people on earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion. To feed those people with current crop yields and farming practices, we will need to clear, fertilize, and spray vast amounts of wild land. Millions of birds and billions of beneficial insects will die from lost habitat and industrial pesticides, farm workers will be at increased risk for disease, and the public will lose billions of dollars as a consequence of environmental degradation. Clearly, there must be a better way to boost food production while minimizing its impact.

An alternative is to expand the number of organic farms, which do not use synthetic pesticides and thus support higher levels of biodiversity than conventional farms. Some organic farmers even retain patches of natural habitat on farms to provide shelter for wildlife. But at current crop yields, farming will still need to absorb huge amounts of additional land that is now home to wildlife and diverse ecosystems. A clear challenge for the next century is to develop more productive crops, not just better farming techniques, and genetic engineering has demonstrated great promise here.

One way to boost yields is to develop crops that can survive harsh conditions such as drought, cold, heat, salt, and flooding. Many of the world's poorest people farm in areas that are far from ideal, and freshwater sources are decreasing in quantity and quality throughout the world. Organic farming can help somewhat: Organically cultivated soil tends to hold water longer because of the higher levels of organic matter. Still this approach has limits. Far more helpful would be new crop varieties designed to survive in difficult environments, and in the future this is where genetic engineering will likely have the most significant human and ecological impact. Crops with enhanced tolerance to drought, for instance, would allow farmers to produce more food using less water. Already there are varieties of genetically engineered wheat that can tolerate drought, as well as rice that can tolerate flooding and tomato plants that can tolerate salt.

Another important challenge is to fight pests and disease, which take an estimated 20 to 40 percent bite out of agricultural productivity worldwide. Reducing this loss would be equivalent to creating more land and more water. But current pesticide use is a health and environmental hazard, and organic and genetic engineering offer complementary solutions. Genetic engineering can be used to develop seeds with enhanced resistance to pests and pathogens; organic farming can manage the overall spectrum of pests more effectively.

Genetically engineered crops have already enjoyed major success against pests. For example, on farm field trials carried out in central and southern India, where small-scale farmers typically suffer large losses because of pests, average yields of genetically engineered crops exceeded those of conventional crops by 80 percent. In Hawaii, the 1998 introduction of an engineered papaya plant that could resist the papaya ringspot virus virtually saved the industry. There was no organic approach available then to protect the papaya from this devastating disease, nor is there now.

When engineering hits its limits, though, organic farming can help. For example, the Bt cotton that transformed Chinese farming only kills caterpillars of some species, so it cannot be a stand-alone solution for general insect control. In fact, after seven years of pesticide reductions in Bt cotton fields in China, populations of other insects increased so much that farmers had to resume spraying certain insecticides. Organic farmers, by contrast, control these secondary pests by introducing beneficial insects that feed on the pests and by rotating crops to reduce the overall pest populations.

Genetic engineering also helps achieve other goals of the organic farming movement. By reducing the use of pesticides and by reducing pests and disease, it can make farming more affordable and thus keep family farmers in business and assure local food security. It can also make food more nutritious: In 2011, plant breeders expect to release "golden rice," a genetically engineered variety that will help fight Vitamin A deficiency in the developing world, a disease that contributes to the deaths of 8 million young children each year.

To successfully blend the two important strands of modern agriculture - genetic engineering and organic farming - we will need to overcome long animosity between the advocates of organic farming and conventional farmers. We also need to address the repulsion many consumers feel toward the idea of genetic engineering.

To many supporters of organic agriculture, genetically altering crops feels fundamentally wrong or unnatural. They believe that farmers already have enough tools for a productive and healthy farming system.

On an environmental level, many worry that genetically engineered crops will cross-pollinate nearby species to create a new kind of weed that could invade pristine ecosystems and destroy native plant populations. On a personal level, many consumers worry that genetically engineered foods are unsafe or unhealthy to eat.

So far, however, it appears those concerns are driven more by technological anxiety than by science. Virtually all scientific panels that have studied this matter have concluded that pollen drift from genetically engineered varieties currently grown in the United States does not pose a risk of invasiveness. (Although this does not mean that future crop varieties will also be harmless: each new crop variety must be considered on a case-by-case basis.) And in terms of food safety, a report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the process of adding genes to our food by genetic engineering is no riskier than mixing genes by conventional plant breeding.

Today 70 percent of all processed foods in the United States have at least one ingredient from genetically engineered corn, cotton, canola, or soybean. Unlike the well-documented adverse effects of some pesticides, there has not been a single case of illness associated with these crops.

Many opponents of genetic engineering fear that a blizzard of patents on genetically engineered plants and seeds will put control of agriculture in the hands of a few giant companies that produce the seeds.

Yet there are many new and imaginative methods that businesses and universities are now using to ensure that breakthroughs and useful technologies benefit less developed countries and small-acreage farmers. For example, the nonprofit initiative Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture brings together intellectual property from more than 40 universities, public agencies, and nonprofit institutes and makes these technologies available to developing countries around the world for humanitarian purposes.

Pitting genetic engineering and organic farming against each other only prevents the transformative changes needed on our farms. There seems to be a communication gap between organic and conventional farmers and between consumers and scientists. The stakes are high in closing that gap. Without good science and good farming, we cannot even begin to dream about establishing an ecologically balanced, biologically based system of farming and ensuring food security.

It seems nearly inevitable that genetic engineering will play an increasingly important role in agriculture. The question is not whether we should use genetic engineering, but more pressingly, how we should use it - to what responsible purpose. Agriculture needs our collective help and all appropriate tools if we are to feed the growing population in an ecological manner. Consumers have a significant opportunity to influence what kinds of plants are developed and to address the key agricultural challenges. Let us direct attention to where it matters - the need to support the use of seed and farming methods that are good for the environment and for the consumers.

What we can hope for is a future in which farmers use the best organic farming methods to grow the most beneficial engineered crops. Any effective approach in feeding the world in a sustainable manner will require us to embrace more than one great new idea.

Pamela Ronald is a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, and co-author with her husband, an organic farmer, of "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food."


Time to Love Frankenstein

- Country Life Magazine via The Telegraph (UK), Mar, 20, 2008


THE phrase 'Frankenstein foods' has been one of the most successful coinages of modern journalism. The theme of a Daily Mail campaign, it sums up the public's instinctive fear of develop-ments it doesn't understand, and which at one point seemed about to be foisted on them by uncaring multi-national companies. The biotec food giant Monsanto was cast as the mad scientist, and, it has to be said, didn't make matters easier for itself by the arrogance with which it treated the consumer. Greenpeace ought to have been more roundly condemned for destroying test sites. The Blair Government, having appeared to champion genetically modified (GM) technology at the outset, quickly recognised the tide of opinion was against it, and sat on its hands. The NFU tells us that only one GM product is being trialled at the moment: a blight-resistant potato in Cambridge.

Does anyone now believe this state of affairs can continue? The sudden rise in the price of food must surely focus minds on how the world's population can be fed in the future. Previously fertile areas will become desert, or disappear under the sea. At the same time, the remaining farmland will be expected to grow a greater range of crops. In just two centuries, mankind has managed to deplete the planet of reserves that took Nature hun-dreds of millions of years to lay down. We shall look to plants to produce not only fuel, but replacements for the plastics, fibres and pharmaceuticals that are at present also derived from oil. Meanwhile, the population of the world is expected to grow from the present 6.7 billion to nine billion. We shall need different kinds of plants.more productive, multi-tasking.and need them quickly.

Genetic modification is a means of speeding up the process of selective breeding that's been practised for millennia. In a hungry world, the refusal of a rich and well-fed country such as Britain to exploit its agriculture to the full could soon be regarded as immoral. Elsewhere on the planet, pressure to adopt GM technology will become irresistible. Places where deeper and deeper boreholes have sucked the land dry will need drought-resistant crops, if they're to grow any crops at all. Where too much water has been abstracted from aquifers, allowing seawater to seep in, there will be a demand for saline-tolerant plants. As GM crops are more widely adopted around the globe, British farmers will not be able to compete without them. Once, the public might have turned a deaf ear to agriculture, while continuing to gobble up its products. Attitudes will change quickly when food becomes not merely dearer, but scarcer. Unfortunately, the appetite for GM in other countries is so great that agribusinesses aren't putting money into researching products suitable for Britain, when the regulatory climate and threat of direct action are against them.

Opposition to GMOs is led by the Green lobby.the self-same people who are most exercised by the need to curb greenhouse- gas emissions. Paradoxically, an argument for GM crops is precisely that they will help farming reduce its carbon footprint. Roots that fix a greater proportion of nitrogen from the soil will require less fertiliser made using fossil fuels. We want to discourage farmers from ploughing the land because that releases carbon; it's possible to imagine the development of a perennial wheat that makes ploughing unnecessary.

This Easter weekend, we shall celebrate the rebirth and resurrection that is symbolised by spring. It provides a moment, perhaps, to contemplate the long-term future of the world, which looks far from bright. Wars could break out over water. Flooding and desertification could cause huge movements of people, on a par with those experienced during the Dark Ages. We're running short of oil; before long, we may find ourselves running short of metals, too. Our children and grandchildren will be hard pressed to meet the enormous challenges that face them. But GM technology has the potential to alleviate some of the dangers. Future generations will think us crazy, or crimi-nal, not to embrace it.


Off the rails

To restore its scientific credibility, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) should rethink its vision for biotech.

- Editorial, Nature Biotechnology 26, 247 (2008)


A process intended to provide a grand unifying vision for how agriculture will meet the needs of the world's 850 million poorest over the next 50 years has developed astigmatism so severe with regard to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that it comes close to blindness.

The IAASTD is unprecedented in scale, appropriately so, perhaps, given its lofty ambition to provide the world's leaders with a roadmap for mobilizing agricultural knowledge, science and technology to reduce hunger and poverty and encourage sustainable development. With "900 participants and 110 countries," the three-year, multimillion-dollar process was launched in 2005 under the auspices of five United Nations agencies, the World Bank and the World Health Organization. It is led by Bob Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which with Al Gore won a Nobel Peace Prize last October.

In recent weeks, the IAASTD issued its 'synthesis' report - in essence a 126-page executive summary of five separate regional reports - that will be debated line by line by government experts at the IAASTD plenary meeting in April in Johannesburg, South Africa, with ultimate publication scheduled for November.

Unfortunately, its conclusions about biotech are at best equivocal and at worst downright negative.

The IAASTD's GMO myopia was of the early-onset variety. The original plan was to have an entire chapter devoted to a "Focus on Transgenics," sharply identifying genetic modification as an important theme. As a result of lobbying by Greenpeace and others, however, the focus was muddied to a "Focus on Biotechnology," where the definition of biotech is so broad it's virtually meaningless. The chapter now endeavors to cover in 10 pages "conventional biotechnology" (meaning breeding techniques, marker-assisted breeding, tissue culture, cultivation practices and fermentation) as well as GMO approaches. Organic farming is thrown in for good measure.

The unfocused chapter then proceeds to devalue almost entirely the potential contribution that GMO technology might make. It states that the adoption of GM technology has been modest, citing a statistic that 90% of GM crops are grown in only four countries - the USA, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. This may be true, but it is also true that those four countries together with India and China between them represent over 53% of world cereal production, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization, and 93% of soy bean production.

Virtually every mention of GM crops is grudging and hedged about with doubts unsupported by data. In January, the Public Research & Regulation Initiative (PRRI), an international forum for public researchers involved in biotech, posted an open letter that cites nearly 20 instances of this kind of equivocation in the synthesis report. On environmental implications, for instance: "Long-term data [...] are at best deductive or simply missing and speculative." On cost-benefit: "the poor tend [...] to receive more of the costs than of the benefits". And on admixture: "Seed supplies may be put at risk when they become mixed with [GM seed]..."

In short, the report and perhaps the entire IAASTD exercise appear to be an attempt to blind world leaders to any potential positive contribution from GM crops. Although this just about might be arguable with regard to the achievements of the past 10 years, the IAASTD process is supposed to be dealing with a 50-year timescale.

No surprise, then, that industry and scientific groups are crying foul. Two companies, Monsanto (part of global industry federation CropLife International that was an IAASTD donor) and Syngenta (which was represented on the IAASTD's steering committee), have quit the assessment because they feel the potential of GM technology has not been adequately reflected in the draft document.

The PRRI is backing the companies' decision. It concludes that the biotech chapter "is written from a perspective that is so fundamentally different from what we believe should have been the perspective of such an evaluation, that a submission of comments on the many technical omissions and errors would not be meaningful." It urges the IAASTD to completely rewrite the biotech section of the report. In February, The Scientific Alliance, another nonprofit organization of scientists and nonscientists, also pitched in, lamenting the report's "negative attitude toward technology, compounded in this case by a visceral dislike of international capitalism."

The major problem for the science and industry groups - and incidentally for the World Bank and US Department of Agriculture, both of which are reportedly angry at the anti-corporate stance of the report - is that they didn't engage with the process early enough or in the right manner. The IAASTD steering committee is crowded with bureaucrats and representatives from nonprofit organizations, most of whom have little reason to be knowledgeable about, and some of whom are ideologically opposed to, 'top-down' biotech solutions. It was this committee that oversaw the creation of the IAASTD reports and the process of author selection.

One author of the biotech chapter, Deborah Keith of Syngenta, dropped out during the report's preparation, citing a lack of time and dissatisfaction with the text. Of the remaining four, Jack Heinemann, Tsedeke Abate and Angelika Hilbeck have expertise in ecology, pest management and gene transfer and Doug Murray is a sociologist, with a focus on fair trade issues in the developing world. Hardly a group representative of the broad church of scientific thinking on GM crops. No surprise, then, that the synthesis report presents biotech from a highly skewed viewpoint.

When the IAASTD meets in Johannesburg, it needs to thoroughly revise its vision for biotech to include the views of industrial and public plant science researchers. Industry, which didn't keep its eye on the ball in the first place, needs to come back to the table. And the NGOs need to put aside their prejudices and not discount an approach that might just have quite a bit to offer to agriculture in the next 50 years.

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