* Fencing In Europe's Farmers
* Genetically Engineered Cotton Release Poses No Risk - Agencies
* Of Mice and Men
* Next Decade's Traits Now In Development
* Cuba Ready to Authorize GM Corn Crop: Scientists
* Bt Brinjal (Egg plant) in India
* Scientists Want GM in Tool Kit
* Bioengineers Outsmarted by Intelligent Wheat
* The Impossibility of Objectivity
Fencing In Europe's Farmers
- Gregory Conko and Julian Morris
Wall Street Journal, Dec. 2008 http://online.wsj.com/
Genetically modified crops have been in commercial production in the U.S. for a dozen years now, and so far there are no signs of killer tomatoes rampaging through California. Europeans have been eating GM foods for most of that time, and not a sniffle, sneeze or other ailment has been linked to genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Yet some environmentalists still so oppose modern agricultural biotechnology that they insist on creating GMO-free zones. This week, EU environment ministers will decide whether Europe should have such zones.
How did we get here? Beginning in the mid-1990s, environmentalists saw BSE, or mad cow disease, as an opportunity to blame modern agricultural methods, even though the practice of feeding animal byproducts to livestock is centuries old. They raised the fear that the disease might have been transmitted to humans and could result in a catastrophic death toll. Some "experts" claimed that up to 10% of Britain's population might die; in the event, there were 160 BSE-related deaths in the U.K.
Today, radical environmental and consumer groups are taking advantage of public fear of modern agriculture, which they helped create, to oppose GM crops and products as dangerous "Frankenfoods." For more than a decade, they have blocked the planting of most genetically modified crops in Europe. Imports of GM foods have been hampered by the small number of approved products, expensive and complex requirements to track GM ingredients throughout the food chain and to label products containing such ingredients, and threatened boycotts of major producers and retailers selling such labeled products.
Things have recently begun to change, with farmers across Europe increasingly turning to GM crops to increase yields and reduce costs. Meanwhile, Brussels is now seriously entertaining proposals to speed up the authorization procedures for new GM varieties and to raise the threshold level that triggers mandatory GM labeling.
Yet this apparent progress masks a deep division. The governments of several EU countries -- most vocally Austria, France, Italy and Greece -- have repeatedly claimed the right to ban the cultivation and sale even of those GM crops that have been granted EU-wide authorization. In October, several member states demanded that the Commission permit them to create "GMO-free zones" in which the production of GM crops would be permanently forbidden.
The alleged justification for GMO-free zones is to protect sensitive ecological areas containing wild plant, animal and bird species. But EU rules already empower governments to restrict the planting of GM crops where there are identifiable risks to consumers or the environment. They can also require precautionary "isolation" distances between GM crops and sensitive areas.
So why the demand for GMO-free zones? EU legislation and various treaty obligations require such restrictions to be based on science. Furthermore, the remedial effect of any restrictions must be proportionate to any identified risk. Since the new EU-wide rules were implemented in 2004, not a single such risk has been identified.
Unsurprisingly, the antitechnology environmental minority objects to the requirement that restrictions be based on science, since it prevents governments from banning GM crop cultivation altogether. Under a proposal put forward by the French EU Presidency, and due to be voted on during the Environment Council meeting on Thursday and Friday, GMO-free zones could be created without providing a specific scientific justification. While the proposal itself is not available to the public, the most vocal GM opponents, such as Austria, France and Italy, clearly want an amorphous policy that would give them maximum flexibility to create zones as big or small as they choose. If successful, they could effectively make all or nearly all of their cropland GMO-free.
There is no good reason to believe a GMO-free zone could ever be justified scientifically. Protected ecological areas face little threat from new crop varieties, whether developed with GM or any other breeding technique. Numerous publicly funded studies, including a review of 81 research projects conducted over 15 years and funded by the EU, found that GM crops and foods are as safe for the environment as conventional crops.
GM crops are arguably safer for the environment because the genetic changes in the plants are much more precise. Conventional plant breeding relies on random genetic mutations, so breeders often cannot predict or identify potentially harmful effects easily. Because GM breeding involves the introduction of just one or two well-understood genes, it is much easier to identify unintended effects.
The EU's hyper-precautionary regulatory review and authorization process for GM plants already seeks to ensure that GM crops won't become invasive or weedy, that novel genes won't spread to wild plants, and that such novel traits as pest resistance and herbicide tolerance won't adversely affect insects, birds or animals that are not targeted. The very ecological concerns that allegedly necessitate the creation of GMO-free zones are considered many times before a GM variety is ever approved.
Similarly, published EU guidelines and evolving measures by member states to ensure coexistence between GM and conventional crops provide a whole range of possible restrictions. By relying on such methods as isolation distances, buffer zones, pollen barriers such as hedgerows, and even varied sowing and maturation times, neighboring farmers can ensure a high degree of segregation between GM and non-GM varieties.
Environmental activists and sympathetic politicians have failed to scuttle GM technology with wholesale bans and scare campaigns. Farmers in such GM-skeptical countries as Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Romania and Germany have slowly begun to take up GM varieties. And, despite a high degree of public skepticism about GM technology, consumers have shown the viability of GM foods where it counts most, by purchasing labeled GM products in grocery stores.
So GM opponents must now rely on seemingly innocuous measures that will, in practice, have the effect of making it impractical or impossible for farmers to grow GM crops. We feel that the only appropriate response to such hubris is to call for our own GM-free zone: a zone free of the Green Minority.
Mr. Conko is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington. Mr. Morris is executive director of International Policy Network in London.
Genetically Engineered Cotton Release Poses No Risk - Agencies
- Dow Jones, Dec 3, 2008
The U.S. Government announced Wednesday that there is no food or feed safety concern from an incident in which a small portion of an unauthorized genetically engineered cotton variety was harvested along with commercially available genetically engineered cotton.
Three agencies - the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service - said they are working together following notification by Monsanto Co. (MON) that the cotton varieties were mixed, according to an FDA press release.
Monsanto notified the government that less than an acre of an unauthorized genetically engineered cotton variety was harvested along with 54 acres of a commercially available genetically engineered cotton variety.
The FDA said the unauthorized variety produces a pesticide that is a plant-incorporated protectant nearly identical to a registered product already in a marketed corn variety.
The EPA and FDA have concluded that there are no food or feed safety concerns related to this incident and if animals had consumed meal made from the unauthorized variety, there would be no residues in the meat, milk or eggs.
The USDA has determined that the unauthorized cotton poses no plant pest concerns, according to the press release. The FDA said it is not certain at this point if unauthorized cottonseed meal actually entered the feed supply and the processor is holding potentially affected material pending further investigation.
FDA, EPA and USDA conclude that accidental release of genetically engineered cotton poses no safety risk to humans or animals
- FDA, Dec 4, 2008 http://www.fda.gov Via Agnet
The U.S. government announced today that there is no food or feed safety concern from an incident in which a small portion of an unauthorized genetically engineered (GE) cotton variety was harvested along with commercially available GE cotton.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) are working together following notification by the Monsanto Company that a small amount--less than an acre--of an unauthorized GE cotton variety was harvested along with 54 acres of a commercially available GE cotton variety. This unauthorized GE cotton variety produces a pesticide that is a plant-incorporated protectant (PIP) nearly identical to a registered product already in a marketed corn variety. EPA and FDA have concluded that there are no food or feed safety concerns related to this incident. Also, if animals had consumed meal made from the unauthorized GE cotton variety, there would be no residues in the meat, milk or eggs.
Additionally, USDA has determined that the unauthorized GE cotton poses no plant pest concerns.
According to Monsanto, an estimated 60 tons of cottonseed was harvested, of which less than 0.5 percent was from the unauthorized GE cotton variety. Government policies for handling low-level presence (LLP) of unauthorized materials are applicable to incidents in which unaut horized materials become inadvertently mixed with commercial grain or seed. FDA, EPA and USDA are working together to investigate the matter.
The U.S. government is investigating whether a small amount of meal from the unauthorized GE cotton variety may have been inadvertently released into the animal feed supply. It is important to note that it has not been determined whether unauthorized cottonseed meal actually entered the feed supply. The processor is holding potentially affected material (both processed and unprocessed) pending further investigation.
Based on additional data provided by Monsanto on the protein produced in the GE cotton--a variant of Cry 1A 105 that acts as a pesticide against cotton insect pests--EPA has concluded that there would be no risk to animals consuming small amounts of feed from the unauthorized cotton, nor to humans from consuming meat or milk from these animals. While EPA has concluded that consuming small amounts of the cottonseed poses no food or animal feed safety risks, under that Agency's LLP policy, the presence of this material in food or feed would be illegal.
FDA, USDA and EPA are the three government entities primarily responsible for regulatory oversight of GE crop plants and their products. Their responsibilities are complementary. FDA has jurisdiction over food and feed uses of all foods from plants. USDA has jurisdiction over the introduction into the environment of GE plants which may be plant pests. EPA regulates pesticides produced by GE plants such as the pesticidal protein produced by the cotton in this case. These pesticides are called PIPs.
Of Mice and Men
- Cape Times (South Africa), Dec 3, 2008
The article "Scientists find link between GM maize, mouse infertility" (December 1) is flawed, misleading and does not reflect the facts. The study was done in Austria with GM maize NK 603 and MON 810 to determine the reproductive effects on mice.
What is not reported in the article is:
The study was not peer reviewed, the key to determining the credibility of any scientific information. The results were not replicable between studies.
Professor Jurgen Zentek, the author of the report on the study, said: "We cannot assert it is the same with human beings simply by the result derived from tests on mice."
The abstract of the study report says: "So far no negative effects of GM maize varieties have been reported in peer reviewed publications." (GM maize has been grown for the past 12 years, 11 in South Africa, and consumed by billions.)
Unsubstantiated, wrong assertions such as those in the article are not new. In March 2007, Greenpeace hired Professor Gilles Séralini in France to reassess a study done with MON 863 on rats in 2003. He claimed there were signs of toxicity and liver damage.
Greenpeace went berserk and issued a press release worldwide to this effect. The maize was approved in 2004 by a panel of scientists from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) after a comprehensive risk assessment which concluded: "GM - MON 863 is unlikely to have any adverse effects on human and animal health or the environment."
After Séralini's report in 2007, EFSA rejected his findings as rubbish.
The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment and the French Sanitary and Food Safety Agency endorsed EFSA's opinion and MON 863 is being happily consumed in the EU.
MON 810 and NK 603 have been tested by regulatory authorities in more than 20 countries, and have been found to be as safe as conventional maize.
- Hans Lombard, Agricultural analyst and consultant to the agricultural biotechnology industry, Cresta. South Africa
Next Decade's Traits Now In Development
- Gil Gullickson, Agriculture Online. Dec 1, 2008
New products, new costs
If your promising 200-bushel per acre pre-harvest corn morphed into 150 bushel harvestime reality to a late-season lack of nitrogen (N), flash forward into next decade. Seed and chemical companies are developing N-use traits that could help you better manage N.
Earlier this fall, BASF and Monsanto hosted U.S. and European journalists at research laboratories in Belgium and Germany where they are researching and developing N-use and many other traits. These traits represent the next wave on top of the traits you now use to deter corn insects and resist non-selective herbicides like glyphosate.
Want more yield? Yield genes are in the works. Ditto for traits that help you better manage N, deter drought, or swat soybean cyst nematode (SCN).
The bad news? Well, pry open your wallet. At Commodity Classic in Nashville last February, BASF officials theorized prices of current corn triple-stacks laced with traits like drought tolerance and N efficiency could tally up to $500 per bag by 2012.
Company officials on this tour didn't peg a certain amount. It's certain prices will increase, though, says Hans Kanst, president and chief executive officer of BASF Plant Science. Farmers will weigh additional seed costs against the seed's value on their farms. "It's all dollars and math," says Kanst. "When you add more value (for the farmer), the seed is a more valuable component."
Drought tolerance early next decade
Monsanto and BASF entered into a contractual relationship in March 2007 to develop traits that include yield enhancement, drought tolerance, and SCN resistance. The companies are using advanced technologies like phenotypic screening and metabolic profiling to develop these products.
Pending regulatory approval, the first glimpse you'll get of these traits will be around 2012. That's when they plan to roll out a first-generation drought-tolerant corn hybrid.
BASF and Monsanto will target these hybrids for 10 to 12 million acres in the outer Corn Belt areas, such as western Nebraska, These are areas where lack of water is often the main yield-limiting factor. "It will help protect the plant against stress if there is a reduction in water," says Steve Padgette, vice president, Monsanto biotechnology.
Around mid-next decade, the companies plan to launch a second-generation drought-tolerant product that targets the main Corn Belt, such as central Illinois, pending regulatory approval. It aims more at stabilizing corn yields during droughty periods. "If you get water stress during pollination and grain fill, this will help stabilize yields," says Padgette. The companies are aiming at 6% to 10% yield increases in drought-stressed areas for both traits.
Yield, yield, yield
Monsanto and BASF also are developing yield-enhancing traits that will boost yield above those that normally increase via varietal improvement. "Traditional corn breeding gives yield improvement a bit over 1% per year, maybe 1.5% per year," says Padgette. "Ordinarily through conventional soybean breeding, yields increase .5% on average each year."
Both corn and soybean yield genes ramp this up by targeting a 6% to 10% yield boost over normal varietal improvement. Pending regulatory approval, they'll debut around the middle of next decade. For soybeans, the companies are researching a second-generation higher-yielding trait that will debut after this time frame.
N is a buzz saw these days for growers. Apply too much, and you can literally be pouring money down the ground in unused N. Apply too little, though, and your promising bin-busting corn at the end of July can quickly morph into a pale shade of green.
Company scientists are working on an N trait that will help plants optimize N use. This N trait can benefit farmers in a couple scenarios.
- Boost yields under normal N environments.
- Stabilize plant performance and yields under low N environments.
So far, the N-utilization trait shows promise. Under normal conditions over multiple years, company tests show an 8- to 10-bushel per acre yield increase, says Padgette.
Better SCN management
There are some excellent SCN-resistant soybean varieties on the market these days. Still, even the best resistant varieties are prone to SCN root attacks. BASF and Monsanto are genetically modifying the soybean plant to battle back against SCN.
"We help the plant protect itself against the soybean cyst nematodes by destroying the feeding sites that cyst nematode usually produce in order to get access to the sugar in the roots," says Jurgen Logemann, BASF vice president for global technology management. "We add one additional gene expressed in the roots that is preventing the cyst nematode from building these feeding structures to get fed and to take out these nutrients out of the plant that the plant needs. By destroying the feeding structures, the cyst nematode cannot live and survive anymore and falls off. The soybean plant can then produce 100% of yield as if there was no infestation." Logemann adds progress has been excellent and they are aiming at a mid-next decade marketing date.
So what will all this cost?
More than you're paying now for seed. At this time, though, it's difficult to gauge how much more. At the risk of visiting cliché corner, it all hinges upon how much value these traits have on your farm. Padgette adds that farmers use these criteria to gauge seed value:
Its substitution value, such as whether the value of an insect-resistant trait outweighs the value of a chemical control method.
Potential yield increase.
Convenience and cost-cutting factors, such as fuel and time savings from fewer field trips. Padgette notes farmers have limited control in many input decisions, such as nitrogen prices, current land rents, equipment or current economic conditions.
However, the type of seed they select is within their control. "They carefully assess the top-yielding seeds," he says. "The transparency of yield is there. Farmers in the combine can get a readout and see how it is yielding as they harvest."
More traits coming
"This is a long-term effort," says Kanst. Traits you see on the market reflect an 8 to 10 year effort to get them on the market, he notes.
So what's next? Monsanto and BASF officials say they have plenty of genes on the way. Kanst notes one potential area could be traits dealing with fungal resistance. In Europe, for example, small grain producers typically apply several applications of fungicides to small grains battered by fungal infections.
In the U.S., fungicide use is spreading beyond its usual niche in fruit and vegetable production toward row crops and small grains. "Maybe the next generation of fungicides may be a biotech solution," says Kanst. "Rather than applying fungicides, there might be a gene to treat fungal disease in small grains."
Cuba Ready to Authorize GM Corn Crop: Scientists
- Esteban Israel Reuters, Dec. 2, 2008 http://www.reuters.com/
Havana - Cuba could soon authorize the planting of 124 acres of genetically-modified corn for the first time to help reduce its dependence on costly food imports, Cuban scientists said on Tuesday.
Regulators are expected to approve this initial crop of biotech corn, which would provide enough seed to expand to 14,830 acres next year, said Carlos Borroto, deputy director of state-run Institute for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.
"We expect over the next few days to get the license for those 50 hectares," he told reporters. "This is very important, because the alternative is to keep relying on imports."
Cuba imports around 60 percent of its food, including large amounts of soy, wheat and corn. The United States is the Communist-ruled island's largest food supplier under an amendment to its trade embargo on Cuba.
Cuban President Raul Castro recently called increased agricultural output a matter of "national security" as soaring international food prices are expected to drain more than $2 billion from the government's coffers this year.
Some environmental groups oppose transgenic crops because they say the food may hold unknown long-term health dangers. But GMO supporters say the crops carry no health risks and are the only way to reduce world food shortages.
Borroto said biotech corn similar to the Cuban type had already passed strict controls in Japan, Canada and Europe. Cuban laboratories are also in the development stages of producing genetically modified soy, potatoes and tomatoes.
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, a non-profit group promoting biotech foods, estimates GMO crops are now grown in 23 countries, mostly by poor farmers in developing countries.
"You have a need for more and better food, nutritionally. This technology can provide you with that option," said the group's founder Clive James, a British scientist who was invited to Havana by the Cuban institute. "I believe there is an opportunity for Cuba to do so in the near term."
Cuba's harvests have been battered this year by three hurricanes that the government estimates caused nearly $10 billion in damages. The storms destroyed 30 percent of the country's crops, touching off brief food shortages.
Bt Brinjal (Egg plant) in India
Brinjal or baingan, known as eggplant and aubergine in North America and Europe respectively, is a very important common man's vegetable in India. It is often described as a poor man's vegetable because it is popular amongst small-scale farmers and low income consumers. A poor man's crop it might be, but brinjal is also called by some as the 'King of Vegetables'. It is featured in the dishes of virtually every household in India, regardless of food preferences, income levels and social status.
Low in calories and high in nutrition, the vegetable has very high water content and is a very good source of fiber, calcium, phosphorus, folate, and vitamins B and C. It is also used in ayurvedic medicine for curing diabetes, hypertension and obesity. In addition, dried brinjal shoots are used as fuel in rural areas. Brinjal has embedded itself deeply into the Indian culture. Numerous folk songs in Indian languages center on the humble vegetable.
Brinjal is grown on nearly 550,000 hectares in India, making the country the second largest producer after China with a 26% world production share. It is an important cash crop for more than 1.4 million small, marginal and resource-poor farmers. Brinjal, being a hardy crop that yields well even under drought conditions, is grown in almost all parts of the country. Major brinjal producing states include: West Bengal (30% production share), Orissa (20%), and Gujarat and Bihar (around 10% each). In 2005-2006, the national average productivity of brinjal was recorded around 15.6 tons per hectare.
In spite of its popularity among small and resource-poor farmers, brinjal cultivation is often input intensive, especially for insecticide applications. Brinjal is prone to attack from insect pests and diseases, the most serious and destructive of which is the fruit and shoot borer (FSB) Leucinodes orbonalis. FSB feeds predominantly on brinjal and is prevalent in all brinjal producing states. It poses a serious problem because of its high reproductive potential. FSB larvae bore into tender shoots and fruits, retarding plant growth, making the fruits unsuitable for the market and unfit for human consumption. Fruit damage as high as 95% and losses of up to 70% in commercial plantings have been reported.
Farmers resort to frequent insecticide applications and biological control measures to counter the threat of FSB. However, since FSB larvae are concealed within shoots and fruits, the pest normally escapes insecticide sprays. Threfore farmers tend to over-spray insecticides, because they rely mainly on the subjective assessments of the visual presence of the pest. In addition to the financial cost associated with indiscriminate insecticide applications and its negative effects on the environment, high pesticide residues in vegetables and fruits pose serious risk to consumers' health and safety.
Although, several attempts have been made to develop resistant cultivars through traditional plant breeding, these have met with limited or almost no success. There are no existing brinjal varieties with adequate resistance to FSB in India. Accordingly, scientists have used biotechnology to develop a brinjal variety that can resist FSB attack.
India's First Vegetable Biotech Crop
FSB-resistant brinjal or Bt brinjal was developed using a transformation process similar to the one used in the development of Bt cotton, a biotech crop that was planted on 6.2 million hectares in India in 2007. Bt brinjal incorporates the cry1Ac gene expressing insecticidal protein to confer resistance against FSB. The cry1Ac gene is sourced from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). When ingested by the FSB larvae, the Bt protein is activated in the insect's alkaline gut and binds to the gut wall, which breaks down, allowing the Bt spores to invade the insect's body cavity. The FSB larvae die a few days later.
Bt Brinjal was developed by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco). The company used a DNA construct containing the cry1Ac gene, a CaMV 35S promoter and the selectable marker genes nptII and aad, to transform young cotyledons of brinjal plants. A single copy elite event, named EE-1, was selected and introduced into hybrid brinjal in Mahyco's breeding program. Mahyco also generously donated the Bt brinjal technology to the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Coimbatore and University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Dharwad. The event EE-1 was backcrossed into open-pollinated brinjal varieties. Mahyco also donated the technology to public research institutions in the Philippines and Bangladesh
Several other research institutions, both public and private have also been developing Bt brinjal using different genes. The National Center on Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB) has developed Bt brinjal varieties expressing the cryFa1 gene. The technology was subsequently transferred to companies including Bejo Sheetal, Vibha Seeds, Nath Seeds and Krishidhan Seeds. The Indian Institute of Horticultural Research (IIHR) is also developing Bt brinjal using the cry1Ab gene. Scientists are also looking for ways to develop Bt brinjal in conjunction with other multiple and beneficial traits.
Climbing the Regulatory Ladder
Bt brinjal is the first food crop under evaluation for commercial release in India. Since its development in 2000, the crop has undergone rigorous scientific evaluation to assess its food safety, environmental safety, human and animal health safety and biodiversity. Figure 1 summarizes the protocol followed for the regulatory approval of Bt brinjal.
Biosafety and Food Safety Assessments
Rigorous scientific tests, including toxicity and allergenicity evaluation as well as nutritional studies on rabbits, rats, carps, goats, broiler chickens and dairy cows, have confirmed that Bt brinjal is as safe as its non-Bt counterparts. The safety of Bt brinjal was further validated by the results of the studies on pollen escape, effects on soil microflora and non-target organisms, agronomy, invasiveness and Bt protein degradation. Results of the studies demonstrated that Bt brinjal does not affect beneficial insects such as aphids, leafhoppers, spiders and lady beetles.
Farmer and Consumer Benefits
Bt brinjal was found to be effective against FSB, with 98% insect mortality in Bt brinjal shoots and 100% in fruits compared to less than 30% mortality in non-Bt counterparts. The Multi-location Research Trials (MLRTs) confirmed that Bt brinjal required, on average, 77% less insecticides than non-Bt counterparts for control of FSB, and 42% less for the control of all insect pests of brinjal. The benefits of Bt brinjal, translate to an average increase of 116% in marketable fruits over conventional hybrids, and 166% increase over popular open-pollinated varieties (OPVs). Furthermore, the significant decrease in insecticide usage reduced the farmers' exposure to insecticides and results in a substantial decline in pesticide residues in brinjal fruits. Scientists have estimated that Bt brinjal will deliver farmers a net economic benefit ranging from Rs.16, 299 (US$330) to Rs.19,744 (US$397) per acre with national benefits to India exceeding $400 million per year.
Bt brinjal has enormous potential to benefit both farmers and consumers. Results of studies submitted to regulatory authorities in India confirm that Bt brinjal offers the opportunity to provide effective control against fruit and shoot borer, and decrease insecticide input by as much as 80%. Bt brinjal also yields significantly more marketable fruit than conventional hybrids and open-pollinated varieties.
The remarkable success of Bt cotton in India, which now occupies 65% of the 9.6 million hectares planted to cotton in the country, is a clear demonstration that biotechnology can be harnessed to contribute to alleviation of poverty and hunger. The development of Bt brinjal, the first biotech vegetable crop, is an appropriate and timely step because it will further demonstrate the significant benefits that biotechnology offers farmers, consumers and India as a nation.
The insect-resistant Bt brinjal hybrids and varieties were developed through close and harmonious cooperation between public and private research institutions. The joint contribution of the two sectors is of critical importance, given that national food security is a strategic issue. The adoption and acceptance of Bt brinjal by farmers and consumers in India will be a very important event from which the country and the world can benefit enormously.
Scientists Want GM in Tool Kit
- Otago Daily Times (NewZealand)) Ddc 6, 2008 - 04:55 http://www.odt.co.nz
Public disapproval fuels New Zealand's risk-averse stance on genetic modification, but frustrated researchers say the world has moved on. Chris Barton, of The New Zealand Herald, reports.
John Lowenthal is praising chickens - in particular the broiler variety that takes just 42 days to grow from egg to maturity. The extraordinary bird, bred to quickly grow big and plump for our dinner tables, could play a significant role in fighting world hunger.
Especially because the Australian scientist and his CSIRO research team at the high security Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Victoria may just have the technology to breed an avian flu-resistant chicken. It is early days yet, he tells his audience at the recent 10th International Symposium on the Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms, in Wellington.
But the proof of concept project signals the cutting edge of genetic modification - gene silencing to create a resistance to viral infection that is then integrated into DNA, so it is passed on in future generations through normal breeding. If it works, the avian influenza virus - which in its H5N1 strain has led to 240 reported human deaths in 15 countries - could be stopped in its tracks.
Genetic modification - aka genetic engineering - in animals is perhaps the most controversial frontier of this burgeoning new science that reconstructs genes, most often by taking DNA code from one species and putting it into another. But it is this sort of advance - combating bird flu - that is changing public perceptions about a technology many view as too dangerous to be messing with.
It is worth noting, too, that the big broiler chickens Lowenthal praises - some of which have attracted animal welfare concerns because they seem too heavy to stand on their own feet - are created not by GM but by conventional breeding methods. And the GM intervention that Lowenthal proposes could be used across a range of animals to breed disease resistance.
GM advances do not stop there. The breast cancer drug Herceptin comes via a genetically modified pathway.
So does insulin - produced from genetically modified bacteria - which is identical in structure to the insulin found in the human body.
There are also vaccines for cholera and hepatitis B produced using genetically modified bacteria acting as chemical factories. And other medicines, such as interferon anti-viral drugs - used for treating multiple sclerosis and cancer - are products of a GM process.
But if genetic modification can do so much good, why are we so much against it? New Zealand runs one of the strictest regulatory regimes controlling genetic modification in the world. The legislation - the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act overseen by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) - is seen by many as a de facto moratorium on genetic modification.
Since provisions relating to new organisms took effect in July 1998, only 16 GM contained field tests have been approved. Prior to this 50 GM field tests had been approved by the Minister for the Environment.
Among the 16 allowed were approvals to test GM cows modified to express the human lactoferrin protein in milk, GM onions modified for resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) and GM brassicas (cabbages) for resistance to insects.
None of the field tests have proceeded to commercial application.
Meanwhile the rest of the world ploughs ahead. About 114 million ha of GM crops were grown last year across 23 countries by 12 million farmers - the bulk of which were in resource-poor areas.
Closer to home, the Australian Gene Technology Regulator has issued 64 licences, including 10 for commercial-scale releases: six for insect-resistant or herbicide-tolerant GM cotton, two for GM canola, one for GM carnations and one for a GM cholera vaccine. Limited and controlled releases have been approved for 12 other plant species with a range of modifications including wheat (to encourage drought tolerance), bananas (for enhanced nutrition), pasture grasses (to improve forage) and rose (to alter flower colour).
Trials have also been approved for GM viral vaccines. Costs - starting at a $35,000 plus GST but mounting to several hundred thousand dollars in time spent by staff and lawyers preparing an application - are one reason so few field trials are under way here.
The time involved, including public hearings and consultation, is another hindrance.
Most applicants can expect a year-long process, but in one case it took two years.
And this is just for contained field trials.
Many scientists say that not only would an application for commercial release never see the light of day, but they simply do not have the resources for such a battle.
It was a common lament among international delegates at the Biosafety Symposium too - that the burden of regulation had meant that only very large companies with very deep pockets had the resources to enter the GM arena.
But New Zealand suffers from a further disadvantage - widespread public disapproval of the concept of GM. The concern led to the 2001 Royal Commission on Genetic Modification which resulted in an overall policy of "proceeding with caution while preserving opportunities". Erma decision-maker Dr Max Suckling told the symposium that a new approach to GM in New Zealand would require a shift in the risk framework of the legislation - a change in some degree to its precautionary principle.
"Our legislation is very risk-averse."
Risk aversion features strongly in New Zealand lobby groups - so much so that they want GM stopped dead. Two Crown Research Institutes have had field tests destroyed by anti-GM activists who have broken into secure areas, pulled up crops and cut down trees.
In October, AgResearch's application to Erma to field-test transgenic animals was derailed by court action seeking a judicial review. "Our main focus has been the production of proteins in milk," says AgResearch senior scientist Goetz Laible.
The aim was to produce transgenic animals that could be bred to produce health-boosting milk - laden with human biopharmaceuticals, proteins, or antigens, enzymes, and hormones that would be useful for human health. AgResearch is also investigating GM to fight animal diseases such as mastitis in cattle, and for finding ways to alter milk composition such as reducing allergens and modifying fat content.
GE Free NZ in Food and the Environment, which has filed the court action due to be heard in March, argues AgResearch's application is too generic and Erma, in allowing it to proceed, has made errors of law. AgResearch's applications seek approval for any species within nine livestock genera (cows, buffalo, sheep, pigs, goats, llamas, alpacas, deer, and horses) and for several genera of laboratory animals. "This means that the applications cover 80 and possibly more species," says GE Free in its statement of claim. It also says there is an absence of information required by the HSNO Act.
And that information provided is so limited or generic that it means the public are unable to consider "whether or how they might be affected by the applications or make meaningful submissions in opposition or to propose conditions". GE Free is particularly concerned that "the gene sequences derived from animals, micro-organisms, viruses, plants or synthetic sequences and nucleic acids" are not specifically identified.
It'snot the first time AgResearch has faced legal challenges. In 2003, Mothers Against Genetic Engineering (MaDGE) lost a court bid to stop an AgResearch application for the "outdoor" development of GM cattle and was ordered to pay $24,000 in court costs.
"Any delays are problematic for the research because we are competing with scientists around the world and it creates great uncertainty for commercial applications," says Laible.
The Crown Research Institute also came under fire earlier this year from the Green Party which questioned explanations about a less than 9% live birth rate in AgResearch's transgenic cattle. The Greens raised animal welfare concerns about "aborted deformed fetuses, deformed calves, gangrenous udders and 'animals suffering from respiratory conditions'."
Laible says the company regularly faces inquiries via the Official Information Act about its work. "Part of this is a misconception of what we are doing and that we are hiding something which is not the case." He says the complexities of the nuclear transfer [cloning] process is the reason why the efficiencies to generate animals have not been very high. "These problems don't originate from the different gene constructs we put, it is related more to the technology used to produce the animal."
Laible says the institute has always been open about what it is doing and allowed the media to visit and photograph its animals.
Ironically, photographs of AgResearch's transgenic cows - which look the same as non-GM cows - are often used by media organisations as generic photos to illustrate stories about the dairy industry.
GE Free's legal action prevents Laible from commenting about AgResearch's current Erma application.
But he points out GM science is moving so fast that it is important to have the freedom to use the latest GM tools and knowledge rather than reinvent the wheel - hence the need to be able to import and use GM products across a wide range of animals "What I find frustrating is that the issues haven't changed since our first animal trial approval," he says. "Essentially we are talking about the same scope, the same methodology, the same purposes. "It's maybe slightly broader, but the risks are still pretty much the same.
We have a good record and no problem with any escapes, but the process [of approval] doesn't get any faster. Why does it take so long when the issues are known?"Back at the Biosafety Symposium, Claire Bleakley of GE Free NZ asks a question at the public forum: "The public is looking at what a transgene does. It is stitched together with viral, microbial and antibiotic elements. So we are creating a synthetic chromosome.
The concern of the public is what it will do in an often foreign environment - whether it will jump, whether it will fragment in how it's put in, and how it will work with the diversity of nature. "What is occurring in GM is we are getting a smaller and smaller pool of genetic diversity.
We are breeding out what nature has bred in --. Species have their own integrity and we are breaching that by putting human genes into animals.
Can you tell me how you address that risk?" The question is answered by the symposium programme chair, Jeremy Sweet, who has 17 years' experience in risk assessment of genetically modified organisms and has been an adviser to the European Commission, Danish Parliament, and British Government on the subject.
He says studies on a range of crop varieties show the opposite of what Bleakley is saying and that new genetic technologies are actually enabling the preservation of primitive varieties of crops. "The argument that we are depleting genetic diversity in the sort of work we are doing is rubbish. We are actually creating and utilising more genetic diversity."
Bioengineers Outsmarted by Intelligent Wheat
The Impossibility of Objectivity
- The Scientific Alliance (UK), Dec. 5, 2008
Too often, disagreements on any issue - including scientific ones - are a dialogue of the deaf. It is rare indeed for two people with radically opposed views to be prepared to listen or accept that there may be nuggets of truth in their opponent's arguments. This does not just apply to activists with a firm belief in a particular cause, it is also characteristic of professional scientists who we might naively expect to behave better.
The reason for this is simple. We all have inbuilt world views and biases, and they inevitably colour our judgement, however objective we strive to be. We talk about scientific facts, but (at the risk of sounding too post-modernist) many of these are based on a particular accepted interpretation of the available evidence.
Scientists should always strive to be objective and base their conclusions on hard data. As the newly-fashionable Keynes said "when the facts change, I change my mind". But the human mind all too often does not work like that. Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to look for evidence which supports our own views, and ignore or devalue contrary observations.
It is quite possible to persuade someone of your point of view if they have no strong opinion in the first place, but almost impossible if they have already made their own judgment. This is why rational, evidence based argument so often fails to convince. It does not mean that scientists (and others) should stop doing it, but they should be realistic about the chances of success. The aim must be to persuade the non-aligned members of an audience, rather than win over opponents.
Of course, there are examples of people changing their deeply-held beliefs, but these tend to be in the form of damascene conversions rather than a dispassionate weighing of the facts. Conforming to group beliefs is part of human nature. And it is not just a question of changing their mind; in many cases it means becoming a heretic and outcast from the group whose beliefs they shared.
So, for a whole raft of reasons, we are all biased to some degree. The same evidence will be seen through a different set of lenses by people with opposing views, who may come to quite different conclusions. Both are being true to their beliefs and neither sees anything wrong in what they are doing.
In most cases, where there is already some frame of reference, true objectivity is all but impossible. But this should not make reasoned dialogue impossible. Rather than decrying one's opponent and ignoring everything he or she says - in the worst cases, simply indulging in ad hominem attacks - we should all be honest about our own inbuilt bias and be aware of how this influences our judgment.
In my own case, for example, I tend to be sceptical of the received wisdom in any case where dissenters are automatically slapped down without a proper response, or where a scientific "consensus" in invoked. I do not instinctively distrust things which emerge from private industry. Yes, companies have their own commercial drivers, but they also have every reason to build a sustainable business rather than alienate their customers by going for a quick buck and ignoring environmental or health impacts.
On the other hand, I am wary of reports from environmentalist NGOs, because in my experience they cherrypick facts to support their case, rather than drawing conclusions from the evidence. But this does not mean that I swallow everything coming from the private sector without question, nor that I assume everything Greenpeace says to be misleading. Judgments can rarely be black and white and we should not be blind to facts wherever we may find them.
Readers of this newsletter will have their own particular preconceptions which will colour their own judgment. The same issue can generate both praise and criticism. And it is important that this is received with as open a mind as possible. We are all, after all, slaves to human nature, but we will only make real progress on thorny scientific issues if we are prepared to accept to valid evidence, whatever its source.
The next bubble?
Markets are usually created on the basis of scarcity but can sometimes get out of control. Keenness to invest in the next big thing leads to rapid inflation of prices and bubbles which finally burst when people begin to realise their folly. It started with tulip mania in the Netherlands in the 17th century, and the most recent example was the dot com boom at the turn of the present century.
Could carbon markets form the next bubble? A whole industry sector has evolved in the last decade, based around tradable emission permits and the "Clean Development Mechanism" whereby industrialised countries pay developing countries to undertake carbon-reduction projects (which may well happen regardless of this funding). For the man in the street, there is "carbon off-setting" where the emissions from flights or other activities can be offset by paying for trees to be planted (for example). These are the papal indulgences of the 21st century.
This means there is money to be made by the middlemen who act as brokers. And where there are new ways to create wealth, even if it may be illusory, a complex net of derivatives, futures and investment funds emerges. Private investors put their money into the funds in the expectation of making a better return than elsewhere. With backing for trading schemes from national governments and the EU, this looks to many like a safe bet.
But the whole edifice is predicated on the orthodox view of anthropogenic climate change being right and the correct policy response being emissions reductions. However, some doubts must surely be creeping in across scientific and policy-making circles. There has been no rise in global temperatures for the last decade. We are assured by researchers that this is just a blip and the natural factors which have somehow masked the dominant effect of fossil fuel burning will soon recede and warming will return with a vengeance.
But what if the present trend continues? How confident will national governments be in continuing with unpopular policies if the science which underpins them looks increasingly shaky? Already, we see ranks being broken, with the new governments of Canada and New Zealand taking a more cautious approach, and squabbling among EU Member States about coal-fired power stations and car manufacturers. What would it take to reach a tipping point where the carbon market bubble also bursts? Maybe we will not have too long to wait.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is calling for greater use of "induced mutation" in plant breeding: subjecting seeds to radiation and screening the resulting mutants for useful traits. This, according to the IAEA spokesman, speeds up natural processes, and unlike genetic modification, does not introduce any new genetic material. Thus, in their view, it is safe and natural.
This seems like semantics, since irradiation will randomly scramble the plant's DNA. Among the majority of infertile seeds or deformed plants, there may be useful traits which emerge, but the damage done to the genome is uncharacterised. In one sense, this is of course what happens in the evolution of plants. Chance mutations occasionally provide some competitive benefit. But it seems illogical to characterise induced mutation as somehow natural, while the targeted and precise techniques of recombinant DNA technology are subject to far more stringent control and are suspect in the eyes of many.
Surely it is the end result which matters, rather than how it is achieved. But organic agriculture, which aims to "go with the grain of nature" happily accepts radiation-induced mutant plants while rejecting GM crops, even if they have environmental benefits. Hopefully, the future lies in using the best of all approaches, based on what they achieve rather than their process. Doctrinaire approaches benefit no-one.