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July 15, 2010


Opposing Principle; Need to Know or Right to Know; Toxin-free Castor; Italian GM Rebels; When ideas have sex; Safety of GM Trees


* Precautionary Principle Thwarts Scientific, Societal Advancements
* GM Food Labels: Is it the Need to Know or Right to Know
* Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.
* Toxin-free Castor Would be Major Help to Industry
* Italian GM Rebels
* European GM Move Branded ‘Dangerous Precedent’ by NFU
* Good for GM
* Matt Ridley: When ideas have sex
* Peter Mandelson: Prince Charles's Remarks on GM Crops 'Irresponsible'
* E-learning Master in Biosafety in Plant Biotechnology E-BIOSAFETY
* The 20-year Environmental Safety Record of GM Trees

Precautionary Principle Thwarts Scientific, Societal Advancements

Editorial, Capital Press, July 15, 2010 http://www.capitalpress.com/opinion/cs-apple-editorial-071610

It should come as no surprise that the development of a way to grow apples that won't brown when sliced would encounter opposition. It is, after all, progress. And progress is something some folks. Precautionary principle, that is.

This principle holds that no new development or activity should be allowed until the proponents can prove that no damage will occur to the environment or public health. The principle has taken hold in Europe and in some quarters of the United States, particularly among environmental and health-advocacy groups.

Under the precautionary principle, many of the millions of technological advances that have occurred since the dawn of time would not pass muster.

Fire? Forget about it. Think of all the damage fire causes every day.

The wheel? Nope, not even close. Where there are wheels, there are carts, wagons, cars, trucks and, inevitably, roadkill.

Electricity? This is the most dangerous of all developments. Electricity causes health and societal problems ranging from electrocution to obesity, because people sit too long in front of their television sets.

And the internal combustion engine? So what if it has advanced society as much as any other invention, it pollutes the air.

Compared to those "dangers" to society, a genetically modified apple that doesn't brown when sliced would seem to be a mighty small threat to humankind. Yet, someone, somewhere will no doubt find an eager lawyer who will argue that all of the effects are unknown and, because of that, apples must be left to turn brown naturally.

A Canadian company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, has petitioned the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to deregulate the trait that stops the browning. Originally developed in Australia for potatoes, the technique involves "silencing" the protein that causes browning.

Groups that oppose genetically modifying crops worry that the technique may make the apples more susceptible to disease or pests. They don't know that for a fact, but they will make the company prove beyond all reasonable doubt that it doesn't.

Time and again, groups have sued over technological advances such as genetic engineering. These suits don't seem aimed at protecting the environment so much as at stopping progress. And it's all in the name of the precautionary principle.

In fact, the rush toward regulating "greenhouse gases" as a way to address the climate change theory is based on the precautionary principle.

This is not to diminish the real concerns that revolve around the development of genetically modified crops and other scientific advances. Scientists have, and will continue to, study the effects of every development. That is as it should be.

But to presume that every development is bad until proven otherwise seems to be an idea out of the Dark Ages.


GM Food Labels: Is it the Need to Know or Right to Know--Label what and why? An interdisciplinary risk analysis methodological comparison in the context of green biotechnology and food labeling

- Stan Benda, Ph.D. (Law) Thesis, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, June 2009.

Dr. Benda recently retired by Justice Canada where he represented Agriculture Canada in technology transfer matters, and was the Canadian legal representative on the Agriculture delegation to the UN FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, as well as the Cartagena Protocol and CBD. Dr. Bends presently is counsel with the intellectual property law firm/ patent agent firm(s) of Sim McBurney / Sim Lowman Ashton & McKay in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Thesis may be secured from Thesis Canada: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/thesescanada/index-e.html . Dr. Benda can be reached via Benda@sim-lowman.com


Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.

- USDA ERS http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/BiotechCrops/

The area planted to genetically modified (GM) crops in the U.S. increased between 2009 and 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (USDA ERS) reports.

Adoption of all GM cotton, taking into account the acreage planted either to herbicide tolerant (HT) or Bt traits or to both, reached 93 percent in 2010. The area planted to GM soybeans reached 93 percent (soybeans have only HT varieties). And plantings of GM corn (HT, Bt, and varieties combining both) made up 86 percent of the total corn area in 2010.


Toxin-free Castor Would be Major Help to Industry

- Bonnie Coblentz, Mississippi Ag News, July 15, 2010 http://msucares.com/news/print/agnews/an10/100715.html

The castor plant thrives in Mississippi and produces great quantities of valuable oil in its seeds, but it has a reputation that a team of researchers at Mississippi State University are trying to address.

Castor oil is the highly desirable, plentiful product of castor beans. The oil is used to produce everything from cosmetics and paints to jet aircraft lubricants and certain plastics. Generations ago, it was given by the spoonful as a laxative and used as a home remedy to treat a range of maladies.

Today, castor oil still has many desirable properties. The thick oil makes up 60 percent of the seed’s weight. For comparison, high oil corn or canola only produce about 25 percent oil by weight. Ninety percent of the oil is ricinoleic acid, a fatty acid found in large quantities only in castor oil. The acid has many industrial applications.

Brian Baldwin, a Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment station researcher in MSU’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, said castor can be used as a biodiesel but is more important as an organic raw material for industrial chemical processes. Because of Mississippi’s climate, the crop could be grown very successfully in the state. “Castor seed yields in Mississippi can exceed one ton per acre,” Baldwin said. “That seed can produce 1,000 pounds of oil per acre, which is a much higher rate than other high oil-content seeds produce.”

Daniel Barnes, a doctoral student in MSU’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, is trying to make it possible to grow the plant safely for commercial oil production in Mississippi. Castor seed meal, not the oil, contains ricin, a toxic protein that can become fatal if untreated in the body. “Castor is the only place we can get commercial quantities of ricinoleic acid, but because of the presence of ricin, we are not producing castor in the United States,” Barnes said. “We want to get rid of the ability of the plant to make the toxin altogether.”

There is no law or restriction against the domestic production of castor, but Barnes said castor has not been grown commercially in the United States since the 1970s. It is often planted as an ornamental in Southern gardens. “We import every bit of castor oil and caster seed, mainly from India and China,” Barnes said.

Once imported, the oil often must be refined and filtered yet again to meet Western industry’s quality standards. “This is an expensive two-part process. We are importing a product that could be grown here, and then we have to re-refine it,” Barnes said.

To make castor a commercially viable U.S. crop, he is trying to discover a way to genetically modify the plant so that either the gene that produces the toxin is no longer expressed or the toxin is no longer produced. One of the challenges is that castor resists being transformed. The genetic modification process involves a fragment of DNA foreign to the plant being inserted into the genetic code, where it is accepted and becomes active.

“Everything from cotton to corn and soybeans has been genetically modified, but castor is much more difficult. The castor cells can be transformed, but then you can’t get whole plants to grow from the cells,” Barnes said.

Compounding the problem is that castor is the only species in its genus, so there is no other plant like it. Poinsettia, spurge and rubber trees are among castor’s closest biological relatives, and these and other somewhat closely related plants are being examined to see if they contain genetic code useful to the castor research. “We’re starting from scratch,” Barnes said. “That’s what makes it a wonderful question for research.”

Barnes has been working on ricin in castor for four years. He earned his master’s degree from MSU examining ways to reduce workers’ exposure to ricin in the production process. Now he is trying to actually remove this toxic protein.

The project is being conducted by faculty in MSU’s departments of biochemistry, plant and soil sciences and biological sciences. Others involved in the interdisciplinary team are Ken Willeford in biochemistry, and Donna Gordon and Nancy Reichert, both in biological sciences. Funding is through MSU’s Sustainable Energy Research Center and the Office of Technology Commercialization.


Italian GM Rebels

- Anna Meldolesi, Nature Biotechnology 28, 638, July 2010 http://www.nature.com/nbt/

Libertarian farmer Giorgio Fidenato and former journalist, Leonardo Facco, have sown six genetically modified seeds in an act of civil disobedience. Fidenato, who grows conventional corn, is one of a few hundred farmers wanting to plant genetically modified crops in Italy. The MON810 variety seedlings are growing in an undisclosed site near Vivaro, in the north of Italy, and their progress is being posted on YouTube.

Although MON810 is approved for planting in the EU, it is still unclear whether the six GM plants are legal, since the Italian Ministry of Agriculture never authorized the sowing but neither did it invoke a safeguard clause in directive 2001/18 to enforce a ban. The symbolic harvest is expected for mid-September and will be displayed on YouTube:


GM Move Branded ‘Dangerous Precedent’ by NFU

- Meat Trades Journal (UK), July 15, 2010

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has branded the European Commission’s decision to let individual member states decide GM policy a ‘dangerous precedent’ as it threatens farmer choice.

Despite the move by the Commission to allow member states to choose if they want to allow the growing of GM crops, the NFU is worried that the announcement will also allow some countries to restrict or ban GM crop cultivation completely.

The NFU added it wanted to see an inclusive and transparent proposal for the future authorisation of GM crops that enables farmers and growers to have the choice of accessing the very best technologies available to their competitors across the world.

Dr Helen Ferrier, NFU chief science and regulatory affairs adviser, said: “Instead of giving reassurances to support an effective and rigorous authorisation process for GM across the EU, this proposal is all about enabling countries to ban the growing of GM crops.

“The NFU represents all methods of farming and growing and has always believed that any GM legislation should be based around sound science, rather than politics or emotional rhetoric. Ultimately, the market will decide if British growers use the technology. “Effective coexistence is essential for farmers to make the choice between organic, conventional and GM. But the approach announced will cause serious problems with the internal market.”

Anti-GM groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have also criticised the Commission’s ruling for “opening Europe’s fields to GM crops”. Greenpeace policy adviser Stefanie Hundsdorfer said: “The Commission failed four times to overturn national bans against GM crops and their poisonous agricultural model.

“Now, President Barroso is admitting defeat by presenting a compromise deal. In an attempt to muddle through with his pro-GM agenda, he is offering countries national bans if they turn a blind eye to the health and safety concerns they have about new crops during the EU authorisation process.”


Good for GM

- Editorial, The Indian Express, July 14, 2010 http://www.indianexpress.com/news/Good-for-GM/646138

French Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo is something of a power in the ruling party of President Nicolas Sarkozy, and is generally considered the third most powerful man in France. He did not get there, it appears, through being trusting. When news came this weekend that the European Commission intended to dilute its blanket ban on genetically modified foods — instead letting its member states decide individually what they would prefer — Borloo sniffed: “We see a trap in this proposal — which consists in calming everybody by letting each one do as they please.”

Letting everybody do as they please would, of course, defeat the purpose of regulation. But what is intended by the European Union is to allow each of its constituent countries to decide its level of comfort with GM food. There’s a reason for this: Europe is deeply divided on the issue. Some countries, like Austria and France, don’t like the idea at all; others, like the Netherlands and the UK, would rather go with the scientific evidence that says there’s little that’s wrong with it.

Then there’s a ruling, a few years ago from the World Trade Organisation, on a dispute between the EU and the US, that says that Europe’s curbs on GM food are anti-trade. The centralisers in the Brussels-based European Commission, fed up with all the competing pressures, seem to want to cede authority for once. But there’s more to it than just that: the arguments for a blanket ban on GM foods are no longer as persuasive as they were a few years ago, as more and more scientific evidence piles up, and larger-scale trials are conducted.

When Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh went against scientific opinion and the expressed preferences of his cabinet colleagues to announce a “moratorium” on transgenic brinjal hybrids, one of the reasons stated was the European unwillingness to countenance GM foods. This was weak even at the time: Europe’s culture of sniffiness about processed foods is one India does not, and cannot, share. But now, like most of Ramesh’s other reasons, it has been revealed as completely hollow.

Combined with a US Supreme Court ruling last week that, 7-1, nullified a ban on GM alfalfa, the world’s stand on GM foods has just taken another turn towards acceptance. India cannot be left behind.


Matt Ridley: When ideas have sex

Watch at http://www.ted.com/talks/matt_ridley_when_ideas_have_sex.html

British author Matt Ridley knows one thing: Through history, the engine of human progress and prosperity has been, and is, the mating of ideas. The sophistication of the modern world, says Ridley, lies not in individual intelligence or imagination; it is a collective enterprise. In his recent book The Rational Optimist, Ridley (whose previous works include Genome and Nature via Nurture) sweeps the entire arc of human history to powerfully argue that "prosperity comes from everybody working for everybody else."

It is our habit of trade, idea-sharing and specialization that has created the collective brain which set human living standards on a rising trend. This, he says, "holds out hope that the human race will prosper mightily in the years ahead -- because ideas are having sex with each other as never before."

"Ridley systematically builds a case through copious data and countless studies that “the vast majority of people are much better fed, much better sheltered, much better entertained, much better protected against disease and much more likely to live to old age than their ancestors have ever been." Scientific American


Peter Mandelson: Prince Charles's Remarks on GM Crops 'Irresponsible'

- Nicholas Watt, The Guardian UK), July 15, 201

Tony Blair asked Mandelson to tell royal to stop 'unhelpful' attempts to influence government policy, according to memoirs

Tony Blair asked Peter Mandelson to tell the Prince of Wales to stop his "unhelpful" attempts to influence government policy on genetically modified crops.

In a sign of the private irritation among ministers at the prince's interference over the years, Mandelson accuses him of being "anti-scientific and irresponsible", in the third instalment of his memoirs. Mandelson writes that he regularly received representations from Prince Charles, who has been writing to ministers for more than 20 years.

"Interested as he was in issues from architecture to agriculture, after Diana's death Charles would write me notes about areas of public policy which he believed to be misguided," Mandelson writes.

He continues: "I would always answer and of course pass on his views to Tony. At times I would be the carrier of messages in the other direction, for example when Charles began publicly to speak out against genetically modified crops ...

"Like Tony, I felt his remarks were becoming unhelpful. I thought they were anti-scientific and irresponsible in the light of food shortages in the developing world." He adds: "I am sure Charles did not change his mind as a result of our conversation, but he did tone down his public interventions on the subject."


E-learning Master in Biosafety in Plant Biotechnology E-BIOSAFETY

This is to inform that the Faculty of Agriculture of the Marche Polytechnic University, Ancona (IT) has opened the call for applications for the V Edition of the International E-Biosafety Master, information and application forms are available on the following webpage: http://www.univpm.it/Entra/Engine/RAServePG.php/P/646010013400/M/253510013478/T/First-level-distance-learning-Master-in-Biosafety-in-plant-biotechnology

For the 2010-2011 edition, thanks to a contribution from the Minister of Environment http://bch.minambiente.it are expected 3 grants for students of Italian Nationality, 1000 euro each, to cover costs for registration fees, and 3 grants for students with other Nationality, 2500 euro each, including 1.000 euro for the registration fee and 1500 to cover costs for the participation at least at one on campus. Thanks to a collaboration started with NEPAD http://www.nepad.org/) organization other grants for African students can be available. The selection of students eligible for the different grants will be based on the scientific curricula and on experience and competences in the biotechnology and biosafety sector.


The 20-year Environmental Safety Record of GM Trees

- Christian Walter, Matthias Fladung & Wout Boerjan, Nature Biotechnology, v. 28, p 656–658, July 2010

To the Editor: In a commentary last May, Strauss et al. pointed out that opposition to genetically modified (GM) organisms has recently intensified on GM trees and that recommendations of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have encouraged regulatory impediments to undertaking field research. We concur with Strauss et al. that the CBD appears to be increasingly targeted by activist groups whose opinions are in stark contrast to the scientific consensus and indeed the opinions of most respected scientific and environmental organizations worldwide.

Strauss et al. call for more science-based (case-by-case) evaluation of the value and environmental safety of GM trees, which requires field trials. However, the regulatory impediments being erected by governments around the world, with full corroboration of the COP, are making such testing so costly and Byzantine, it is now almost impossible to undertake field trials on GM trees in most countries. Here we summarize the key published evidence relating to the main environmental concerns surrounding the release of GM trees. On the basis of our findings, we urge the COP to consider the opportunity costs for environmental and social benefits, and not just risks, in its deliberations of field trials and releases.

A very large amount of performance and safety data related to GM crops and trees has now been gathered since field trials were first initiated in 1988 (ref. 2). Our search in publicly accessible databases worldwide reveals >700 field trials with GM trees (including forest trees, fruit trees and woody perennials). None of them has reported any substantive harm to biodiversity, human health or the environment. In the following paragraphs, we summarize our main findings as they relate to ecological impact, the stability of transgene expression over time, the effectiveness of transgene containment and the status of nontarget organisms on leaves, stem and in soil.

Field trials with GM poplars (Populus sp.) with modified lignin composition were among the first to include potential ecological impacts on the environment as goals. In this case, the poplars were engineered to express antisense transgenes that reduced the expression of lignin biosynthesis genes cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase or caffeic acid/5-hydroxyferulic acid O-methyltransferase. Field trials of these trees, conducted in the UK, were regularly inspected for alterations in growth and development, as well as for damage caused by insects, including ladybirds, ants, aphids, copper beetles, earwigs, shield bugs, froghoppers, caterpillars, spiders and fungi. No differences were observed comparing the wild-type and GM trees.

In addition, after termination of two trials in the UK and France, analysis of the levels of carbon, nitrogen and microbial biomass as well as of the soil microbial population revealed no consistent differences between plots with wild-type trees and plots with GM trees. In fact, the only significant differences in these parameters were observed between the soil of the field trial and the soil taken under the grass just <4 meters away from the field trial, indicating that the influence of the different vegetation types is considerably larger than the variation induced by the genetic modification. Although decomposition assays revealed that the roots of lignin-modified trees do compost slightly faster than those of wild-type trees, this is in agreement with the role of lignin in resistance to biodegradation and the expectations of the researchers. Thus, no unexpected ecological impacts could be attributed to the GM trees; instead, differences in soil characteristics and microbial biomass were caused by environmental variation.

With relation to the ability of transgenes to be stably expressed over many years, studies of GM poplars over 3 to 8 years have found no evidence for loss of transgene expression in the field. Nearly all of the instability observed is during in vitro production and propagation. This suggests that once GM trees pass in vitro and early field screens for stability, their traits remain highly stable. The same also applies to RNA interference (RNAi)-based gene suppression traits, which have been shown to be stable and reproducible over multiple years and independent of outdoor temperature. This suggests that gene suppression continues to occur, even during early bud development and leaf senescence.

In two other field trials poplar trees resistant to glufosinate by virtue of expression of the phosphinothricin acetyltransferase or poplars carrying the Agrobacterium rhizogenes rolC gene have also been confirmed to stably express the transgenes after selection of GM lines. Unpublished data from trials in New Zealand of transgenic pine, which express the antibiotic resistance gene encoding neomycin phosphotransferase (nptII), also provide further corroboration of transgene stability in the field (C. Walter, unpublished data).

Transgenic containment traits for mitigating gene flow have also been effective when tested in the field. Studies with male transgenic poplar trees containing a male-sterility gene showed that several transgenic events had very low or undetectable levels of pollen production, which persisted over several years12. This suggests that containment genes can be highly efficient and stable. The Strauss laboratory has produced ~1,000 transgenic events in poplar with advanced forms of sterility genes (via RNAi or dominant-negative mutations) with the intent of similar field studies.

Finally, data on the status of nontarget organisms on leaves, stem and in the soil surrounding GM trees also indicate that the traits tested thus far are comparable to wild type. A comparison of wild-type and rolC transgenic poplars in German field trials revealed no differences in the status of nontarget phytopathogenic fungi on leaves and stems, or evidence of differences in carbohydrate and hormonal metabolism in the transgenic trees (M. Fladung, unpublished data). These studies have also systematically investigated the possibility of horizontal gene transfer to mycorrhizal fungi. Transgenic poplars carrying a fungal-specific promoter controlling the Streptococcus hygroscopicus bar gene were planted in the field to assess if horizontal gene transfer to the mycorrhizal fungi living in association with the transgenic trees occurred. Subsequently, large screening programs were initiated to identify putative phosphinothricin herbicide (Basta)-resistant mycorrhizal fungi. Although the results remain unpublished, the investigators running the trials have communicated that even though >100,000 mycorrhizal fungi were isolated from roots of the transgenic trees, there was no indication of a horizontal gene transfer event10 (M. Fladung and U. Nehls, unpublished data).

Nontarget effects have also been studied in transgenic pines. In experiments conducted in New Zealand using radiata pine (Pinus radiata) genetically modified with nptII and genes related to reproductive development, the impacts on invertebrates and soil microbial populations were assessed over a period of 2 years (on trees that had been grown in the field for up to 9 years; personal communication). When the composition and abundance of invertebrate populations usually present on non-GM radiata pine were compared with those on GM pines, no differences were found other than seasonal differences, and invertebrate species and numbers were unchanged.

Feeding studies with GM needles revealed no impact of transgenic material on fertility or fecundity of the invertebrates. Microbial populations living in association with, or close to, the roots of trees were characterized using an approach capturing the culturable and nonculturable fractions of microbes. Although seasonal differences were observed in population structures, no significant differences between GM and unmodified trees were found (C. Walter, unpublished data). These experiments again show that variation caused by environmental factors is much more pronounced than variation induced by the genetic modifications studied.
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Decisions on whether or not to use GM (or conventionally bred) organisms should be based on a scientific evaluation of possible risks associated with a particular new trait and the degree of novelty of the genes encoding it. However, it is also important to keep in mind the significant environmental benefits that such organisms could provide.

The negative effects of the creeping regulatory burdens are becoming progressively more obvious as GM methods cannot be effectively employed despite the growing anthropogenic threats to native forests, the urgent needs for new biofuels and biomaterials, the already substantial impacts of climate change on forest health and the growing demand for forest products. And all of this in the face of pressing demands for increased forest conservation. Given these grave challenges, among which are serious threats to the very survival and basic productivity of native and planted forests, we need to put hypothetical residual risks of GM in context. In our view, they appear very modest indeed.

Sooner or later, the COP should recognize the huge opportunity costs its current recommendations impose for GM technology. When it meets in Nagoya, Japan, in October, COP should urgently take note of the scientific evidence on the biosafety of GM traits that have been tested in the field so far and reconsider the regulatory and political hurdles that currently make meaningful field tests of GM trees almost impossible. The strong concerns against all GM plants and trees, initially expressed more than 20 years ago, are no longer justified. They are obviated by the long record of safety obtained from hundreds of field trials with several transgenic traits and the urgent societal and environmental problems for which the technology could be one additional, valuable tool. Therefore, we recommend the COP seriously consider the endorsement of policies that actively promote, rather than retard, further field testing of GM trees.