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August 29, 2012


August 29, 2012 edition of AgBioView


The perils of humans playing God

In a democratic society, we have no choice but to leave science to the scientists

Will overregulation in Europe stymie synthetic biology

Capably Communicating Science

Wal-Mart Takes a Stance on GM Foods

GM plants represent low risk, say scientists

Analysis of open source biotechnology in developing countries: an emerging framework for sustainable agriculture

Limited Fitness Advantages of Crop-Weed Hybrid Progeny Containing Insect-Resistant Transgenes (Bt/CpTI) in Transgenic Rice Field

Chance Observation Leads to Plant Breeding Breakthrough

---- Tributes flood in following death of Kiwi scientist

6 More Good Reasons To Vote No On California Prop 37

Prop. 37: GE labels mean higher costs

Genome Engineering of Crops with Designer Nucleases

Thwarting Consumer Choice: The Case against Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Modified Foods [Hardcover]

History of Agricultural Biotechnology

A Searchable Database of Publications on safety testing of GM Food

Bt crops and insect pests: Past successes, future challenges and opportunities

Freedom of Research in Plant Biotechnology?

Only in California

12th International Symposium on Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms



The perils of humans playing God

- Roopen Roy, My Digital Life, Aug 28 2012

Some human beings have always been either sceptical or violently opposed to m­ankind playing God. Genetically Modified food evokes extreme emotions. It is often dubbed as Frankenfood

When I was a little child I watched a movie called The Bhairav Mantra. The plot centred a­round a tantrik who resurrected a dead person by chanting the terrible Kalabhairava m­antras. He converted the ‘c­orpse’ into a demon of destruction. Unfortunately in the end, the demon turns against its creator and in the end annihilates him before destroying himself. It is possible that plot was inspired by Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Frankenstein, where a scientist called Dr Victor Frankenstein produced a monster that threatened its creator.

Some human beings have always been either sceptical or violently opposed to m­ankind playing God. Genetically Modified (GM) food evokes extreme emotions. It is often dubbed as Frankenfood. The basic argument of the anti-GM evangelists is that genetic engineering runs the risk of upsetting nature’s balance and can cause irreversible environmental damages that we are unable to foresee or predict.

Quite independently of the GM debate, there is also a view that our farm produce should be natural and organic. Herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers enter our food chain and cause health hazards. Consumers are prepared to pay a premium for “organic” produce.

But sometimes these objectives create conflicts and are at cross-purposes leading to tough policy choices. For instance, one of the ways in which you can limit the use of pesticides is to genetically engineer the plant and produce GM seeds that are resistant to pests and insects. If we use these seeds, no pesticides may be required but the seeds will fall under the category of GM and hence cause a huge hue and cry with the GM activists.


In a democratic society, we have no choice but to leave science to the scientists


- Graham Strouts, Skeptco, August 26, 2012

Debates about controversial technology like Genetic engineering or nuclear power often come down to one simple question: who to trust? It is “normal” – for people who have not really thought about it- to be distrustful of science done or funded by or in anyway connected with Big Evil Faceless corporations, especially if they are Monsanto; and indeed it is of course standard procedure for science papers to declare any potential conflict of interest- if they do not do so, then there are double the reasons to be wary of their conclusions.

However, just because a study is funded by a company with a profit motive does not mean that the science is wrong or bad; it could just as easily be good science. The idea that corporations, in league with public scientists, would happily risk serious public health outcomes for profit seems an almost pathological level of paranoia on a par with the worst of conspiracy theories. It would clearly not be in their interests: to date, no adverse health effects from GE crops have been found; if there ever was any, it would set back the GE cause by decades. To show bad science is being practiced, you would need to read the studies, scrutinize its methods and conclusions and challenge it on its own terms to refute it- in other words, you would need to engage with the normal workings of science yourself.

This takes some study and work; much easier to just go to a dedicated anti-GE site and pull out some “report” or paper or anything really that tells us: GE is dangerous, the companies are trying to take over the world’s food supply and we should just not trust them.

But why should we trust the activist sites? This is the question I would like to ask protesters, because in my frequent debates and conversations with them, they seem quite unaware that there maybe bias and vested interests on both sides of the issue. All too often it seems to come down to a conviction that Capitalism is Bad- and therefore Wrong-and anything that attacks Capitalism is Good- and therefore Right.

There are vested interests on the opposition side: Greenpeace, which calls for a complete ban on GE- has an annual turn-over of $100milion, and thousands of salaried employees. What would be the career prospects I wonder if a Greenpeace employee started to say, “well, you now, not all GE is bad, a lot of it is from publicly funded science; I think we should at least support well-regulated trials”? And Greenpeace don’t seem to do anything practical like, you know, producing food and actually feeding people with that money- it is all of it for propaganda.


Will overregulation in Europe stymie synthetic biology


- Henry Miller and Drew Kershen, Forbes, August 29, 2012

To put it bluntly, if the EU applies to synthetic biology its existing dysfunctional approach to genetic engineering, the former will join the latter in bypassing the continent and depriving its citizens of prodigious scientific, health and economic benefits.

Whatever Europe and others decide to do, the U.S. government should adopt a scientifically defensible, risk-based approach to synthetic biology. The field offers not only the promise of revolutionary new products to enhance health and create wealth but also affords the kinds of rewards that generations of kids have enjoyed from chemistry and Lego sets.


Capably Communicating Science


- Alan I. Leshner EDITORIAL, Science 17 August 2012: Vol. 337 no. 6096 p. 777

There is no shortage of topics where policy-makers or other members of the public seem to persistently misunderstand, misrepresent, or disregard the underlying science: climate change, genetically modified foods, vaccines, or evolution, among others. Consequently, the call for scientists to do a better job of communicating both the meaning and the nature of their work is getting louder. Public understanding of science not only affects people's ability to appreciate and make full use of the products of science, it also contributes to the extent of support for scientific research.

Yet far too many scientists are reluctant to engage with people outside their own community. The reasons range from a belief that this responsibility lies outside a scientist's “job description” to an expressed ignorance about how to go about it. In an attempt to find better solutions to this problem, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences convened a meeting of over 450 scientists, policy-makers, journalists, and other professional communicators to examine the underlying dynamics of science communication. The good news is that empirical studies across many disciplines, particularly in the behavioral and social sciences, are providing very useful baseline information about public attitudes and knowledge about science, as well as some fundamental principles that can help guide scientists to engage more effectively with both the public and policy-makers.

Alan I. Leshner is the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of Science.


Wal-Mart Takes a Stance on GM Foods


- Robert Vosburgh, Super Market News, Aug. 8, 2012 in Refresh

Everything Wal-Mart does is closely watched. Any action taken by the world’s largest retailer can cause ripples up and down the supply chain. Its size and influence are well known throughout the industry.

So, what to make of the company’s decision to sell genetically modified sweet corn? At a time when consumer groups have successfully raised public awareness of GM foods and are leading a movement to have products made with genetically modified ingredients labeled, Wal-Mart’s actions have done more than any march, protest or petition could do to bring the issue to the forefront.

“After closely looking at both sides of the debate and collaborating with a number of respected food safety experts, we see no scientifically validated safety reasons to implement restrictions on this product,” the company told the Chicago Tribune, which first reported the story.

GM plants represent low risk, say scientists


- Swiss Info, Aug 28, 2012

Genetically modified (GM) plants present little danger for the environment or people’s health, according to Swiss researchers. Also, while they offer almost no benefit to farmers now, this could change if plants had the right properties.

The government requested a national research programme on the risks and benefits of GM plants after the Swiss voted for a five-year moratorium on their use in 2005. The moratorium was extended for another three years by parliament.

Between 2007 and 2011, 30 projects were launched as part of the programme at a total cost of around SFr12 million ($12.5 million). Eleven focused on the environmental risks of GM wheat, maize and strawberries.

The researchers all reached the same conclusion: there were no identifiable negative effects on beneficial organisms, microorganisms or soil fertility. Three so-called meta-analyses that looked at more than 1,000 international studies reached similar findings.

“The national research programme did not reveal any risk for human health or the environment,” said National Science Foundation delegate Thomas Bernauer.

The scientists pointed out that wherever undesirable side-effects of GM crops had been registered, this was not due to genetic engineering gone wrong but was the result of “unsustainable agricultural practices, such as monocultures”.

But even if the risks seem minimal, consumers and farmers remain wary of GM produce: only a quarter of consumers would consider buying these products. However, 80 per cent of those polled said they should be able to choose if they want to purchase GM produce.


Analysis of open source biotechnology in developing countries: an emerging framework for sustainable agriculture


Ademola A. Adenlea et al. Technology in Society, Vol 34, Issue 3, August 2012, Pp 256–269

Agricultural biotechnology (e.g. genetically modified (GM) crop technology) is rapidly growing and has immense potential to contribute to sustainable agriculture in developing countries. However, due to the privatization and increased intellectual property rights (IPRs) protection, many people in the developing world find it very difficult to access modern biotechnology research tools (e.g. genetic engineering, micro-propagation, mutation breeding etc.) to improve agricultural productivity. This paper reviews the existing open source literature and draws parallels between the open source paradigm and the effect of IPRs on agricultural biotechnology. Using standard qualitative research methodology and examining specific case studies and initiatives, an innovative Open Source Biotechnology Framework (OSBF) is proposed as part of the solution that could address the challenges with IPR and help bring about sustainable agriculture. This paper further examines the potential impacts, constraints, and adoption of open source for agricultural biotechnology. The paper concludes with a summary of issues arising from adopting the open source paradigm in agricultural biotechnology while proposing a way forward.


Limited Fitness Advantages of Crop-Weed Hybrid Progeny Containing Insect-Resistant Transgenes (Bt/CpTI) in Transgenic Rice Field


- Xiao Yang et al. 1 PLoS ONE 7(7): e41220. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041220

The spread of insect-resistance transgenes from genetically engineered (GE) rice to its coexisting weedy rice (O. sativa f. spontanea) populations via gene flow creates a major concern for commercial GE rice cultivation. Transgene flow to weedy rice seems unavoidable. Therefore, characterization of potential fitness effect brought by the transgenes is essential to assess environmental consequences caused by crop-weed transgene flow.

Insect-resistance transgenes may have limited fitness advantages to hybrid progeny resulted from crop-weed transgene flow owning to the significantly reduced ambient target insect pressure when an insect-resistant GE crop is grown. Given that the extensive cultivation of an insect-resistant GE crop will ultimately reduce the target insect pressure, the rapid spread of insect-resistance transgenes in weedy populations in commercial GE crop fields may be not likely to happen.


Chance Observation Leads to Plant Breeding Breakthrough


March 24, 2010

A reliable method for producing plants that carry genetic material from only one of their parents has been discovered by plant biologists at UC Davis. The technique, to be published March 25 in the journal Nature, could dramatically speed up the breeding of crop plants for desirable traits.

The discovery came out of a chance observation in the lab that could easily have been written off as an error.

"We were doing completely 'blue skies' research, and we discovered something that is immediately useful," said Simon Chan, assistant professor of plant biology at UC Davis and co-author on the paper.

Like most organisms that reproduce through sex, plants have paired chromosomes, with each parent contributing one chromosome to each pair. Plants and animals with paired chromosomes are called diploid. Their eggs and sperm are haploid, containing only one chromosome from each pair.

Plant breeders want to produce plants that are homozygous -- that carry the same trait on both chromosomes. When such plants are bred, they will pass the trait, such as pest resistance, fruit flavor or drought tolerance, to all of their offspring. But to achieve this, plants usually have to be inbred for several generations to make a plant that will "breed true."

The idea of making a haploid plant with chromosomes from only one parent has been around for decades, Chan said. Haploid plants are immediately homozygous, because they contain only one version of every gene. This produces true-breeding lines instantly, cutting out generations of inbreeding.

Existing techniques to make haploid plants are complicated, require expensive tissue culture and finicky growing conditions for different varieties, and only work with some crop species or varieties. The new method discovered by Chan and postdoctoral scholar Ravi Maruthachalam should work in any plant and does not require tissue culture.


Tributes flood in following death of Kiwi scientist


Tributes for one of New Zealand's top young international scientists have been flooding in following his death last week.

Simon Chan, 38, an associate associate professor of plant biology at the at the University of California, Davis, died on August 22, after a long battle against Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) - a chronic liver disease.

As well as being recognised as a world-leader in the field of plant biology, Mr Chan, was in the original lineup of Supergroove, before they became famous with singer Che Fu.

A former Selwynn College scholar and alumni of Auckland University, Mr Chan's lab work at the UC Davis led to breakthroughs in plant breeding, making it possible to breed with genes from only one parent without complications of inter-generational inbreeding. Reply Delete Favorite



6 More Good Reasons To Vote No On California Prop 37

- Steve Savage, Science 2.0, August 23rd 2012

I’ve posted a blog about why GMO labeling is basically illogical. If you take the time to read the actual proposition, there are at least six more reasons that proposition 37 on the California ballot this fall is a really bad idea that voters should reject.

1. This is asking for something that is a great deal harder than it sounds.

Almost all GMO crops are commodity grains. To understand what labeling these crop ingredients means means, think of a river. When it rains, little rivulets of water begin to run off of the ground, and then combine into small creeks. These combine to make streams that eventually combine to make a river. By the time the water is in the river, it is so mixed that you could never know which drop came from where. The commodity grain industry is much like that river. Many fields are harvested using the same harvesters and grain wagons (see first image above). That grain then goes either to a grower's silo or to a local elevator, which combines the harvest from many farms and fields. The grain is later moved in things like 110-car freight trains or giant barges or ships, which again mix various sources. Along that path, some of the grain is processed into ingredients for human food, while most of it goes to animal feed.

Along this complex, but highly efficient path, there is so much mixing (“co-mingling” in grain-speak) that a question like, “did this come from a GMO or non-GMO field,” is impossible to answer. In all those steps, keeping GMO and non-GMO grain separate is inefficient (e.g. different harvesting equipment, partially filled trucks, dedicated bins, paperwork…). That makes it costly. It would also be very difficult to prevent a little bit of one type of grain out of the other because a little can be left behind in a harvester, truck, bin, etc. In the industry that is known as “adventitious presence.”

The 0.5% threshold specified in the legal text of prop 37 would be highly problematic from a practical point of view. Considering that biotech traits are used in a very large percentages of the soybean, corn, canola and sugar beet crops, it makes much more sense to allow something that has been expensively segregated to be labeled “non-GMO,”as is already the case.

2. This initiative would create a field day for lawyers. If this initiative is passed, anyone who wants to can take accompany to court if they think they are selling unlabeled GMO foods. They don’t need to go to any government agency with oversight - just straight to court. There don’t have to be any damages in question. The courts are also allowed to award the accusing party compensation for courtcosts and for the costs of investigating the food in the first place. Given the practical challenges described above, this initiative would create a thriving litigation industry for exactly the kind of lawyers who wrote this proposition in the first place.

3. This initiative would effectively restrict the use of the marketing term, “natural.”

Any foods which are even minimally processed (e.g. milling of wheat to make flour) cannot be marketed as “natural” under this potential law unless they are either specifically tested for GMO status or come from a highly segregated channel complete with an audit trail and sworn affidavits. That would even be true for foods made from crops that don’t even have commercial, biotech traits. Thus, unless a food is certified Organic (specifically exempted in this initiative), it becomes expensive and legally risky to call it “Natural.” Arguably, the marketing term “natural” is over-used, but the answer to that isn’t to create an uneven playing field through a proposition that is promoted for a completely different reason.

4. It will be virtually impossible to fix any unintended consequences of this law. This initiative is designed to be difficult to change. It says that if any part is stricken in the courts all the remaining sections are in force. Even worse, it requires that any changes require a 2/3 majority in both houses of the legislature –something that is highly unlikely based on the extreme polarization of California politics. If we pass this initiative, we will likely be stuck with it no matter what expected, or unanticipated problems it creates

5. This is another example of the California initiative system being gamed by special interests from out of state. It is common for special interests to use the California initiative system by paying people to collect signatures and then buying advertisements. This has nothing to do with the original concept of a grass-roots, citizen-driven process. In this case the major funding came from the notorious food-fear merchant, “Dr.” Mercola, and also from some of the Organic food companies that employ distorted, negative descriptions of non-Organic food to promote their products. It was also driven by activist lawyers who stand to gain financially. The initiative is being promoted as a common sense requirement for consumer benefit. Common sense should actually drive California voters to follow the money.

6. It is worth asking, “why do farmers like these crops so much?” There is a bit ofa spoiled child flavor to statements like, “hey, I’m the consumer so I should get any information that I want.” We who actually depend on farmers for something as non-optional as food should at least ask, “why are GMO crops so overwhelmingly popular with any group of farmers with who has ever been given the opportunity to grow them?” Farmers that manage to stay in business in that risk-laden enterprise do so by making rational economic decisions. Biotech crops are something that has made good business sense for them, and by extension, a less costly and more reliable food supply for consumers. If this initiative has the disruptive effect on the food system that its writers are hoping, we may discover the downsides of ignoring the interests of people on whom we depend.

If you are a scientist, you can add your name to a petition against proposition 37 that has been organized by university and foundation researchers. Its not just industry scientists (like myself), who are opposed to prop 37. Its people who understand the science and its benefits.


Prop. 37: GE labels mean higher costs


- Henry I. Miller, San Francisco Chronicle, August 21, 2012

Proposition 37's backers claim it is a simple measure about slapping labels on certain foods. It's not.

This food-labeling scheme - written by trial lawyers who hope for a windfall if it becomes law - has many flaws: It creates a new bureaucracy, has huge loopholes and hidden costs and will result in higher grocery bills.

Prop. 37 would impose a California-only ban of tens of thousands of perfectly safe foods containing genetically engineered ingredients unless they are specially repackaged, relabeled or made with higher-cost ingredients. Genetically engineered foods have been determined to be safe in more than 400 studies. Americans have consumed more than 3 trillion servings of food with genetically engineered ingredients - with not a single documented ill effect.

UCLA molecular biologist Bob Goldberg, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, told The Chronicle earlier this month: "There is not one credible scientist working on this that would call it unsafe." He is absolutely right.

In fact, the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences and other respected medical and health organizations all conclude that genetically engineered foods are safe.

Prop. 37 is full of politically motivated exemptions that make no sense. For instance, it requires special labels on soy milk, but exempts dairy products, even though cows are fed genetically engineered grain. Alcohol is exempt, even though it can be made from or contain genetically engineered ingredients. Pet foods containing meat require labels, but meat for human consumption is exempt.

Food imported from foreign countries is exempt if sellers merely include a statement that their products are "GE free." Unscrupulous foreign companies surely would game the system.

According to the nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst, Prop. 37 would allow trial lawyers "to sue without needing to demonstrate that any specific damage occurred as a result of the alleged violation."

That means law-abiding grocers, farmers, manufacturers and distributors could be sued for products that are labeled properly. They would then need to choose between spending tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers and tests to demonstrate the product is "GE free" or settling out of court.

The last thing California's struggling economy needs is an avalanche of shakedown lawsuits hitting businesses. And the last thing consumers and taxpayers need is higher costs.

Prop. 37 should be rejected this November.


Genome Engineering of Crops with Designer Nucleases


Shaun J. Curtin, Daniel F. Voytasb and Robert M. Stupara, Plant Genome 2012.06.0008, Vol. 5 No. 2, p. 42-50

Recent advances in the field of genome engineering indicate that it will soon be routine to make site-directed modifications to the genomes of crop species, including targeted mutations, gene insertions, and gene replacements. This new technology will be used to help elucidate gene function and develop new and valuable traits. Key to enabling site-directed genome modifications are sequence-specific nucleases that generate targeted double-stranded DNA breaks in genes of interest. To date, three different sequence-specific nuclease systems have been used in crop plants: zinc finger nucleases, transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs), and LAGLIDADG homing endonucleases, also termed “meganucleases.” In this review, we report on the current state of genome engineering in crop plants, comparing the different nuclease and gene delivery systems. We also consider some of the limitations that nuclease-mediated crop improvement technologies may encounter.


Thwarting Consumer Choice: The Case against Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Modified Foods [Hardcover]


- Gary E. Marchant (Editor), Guy A. Cardineau (Editor), Thomas P. Redick ; May 16, 2010 | ISBN-10: 0844743267 | ISBN-13: 978-0844743264

Are consumers entitled to full disclosure about what is in their food? Many countries, including key U.S. trading partners in Europe and Asia, have adopted mandatory labeling laws for genetically modified crops such as corn and soybeans. Policymakers in the United States are under pressure from activist groups to adopt similar laws, and some public opinion polls suggest that 90 percent of Americans support mandatory GM labeling. But does GM labeling really protect consumers? In Thwarting Consumer Choice, Gary E. Marchant, Guy A. Cardineau, and Thomas P. Redick contend that mandatory GM labeling laws actually harm consumers by pushing genetically modified foods off the market.

Although proponents of mandatory labeling often question the safety of genetically modified foods, the National Academy of Sciences and other leading research institutions agree that "GM foods present no unique risks, or greater risks than non-GM foods." Genetically modified foods are not only safe, but abundant and inexpensive. Because they require less use of pesticides and fewer acres of land than conventional crops, they do not overtax the environment. Future innovations could produce GM foods with increased vitamin levels and reduced fat content.

Despite these vast benefits, the GM food industry is threatened by labeling requirements that are burdensome, expensive, and stigmatizing. Mandatory labeling would deter investment in this burgeoning biotechnology and deprive the public of important innovations. Ultimately, the authors conclude, GM labeling laws are antithetical to the notion of consumer choice.


History of Agricultural Biotechnology: How Crop Development has -

- Wieczorek, A. M. & Wright, M. G. (2012) History of Agricultural Biotechnology: How Crop Development has Evolved. Nature Education Knowledge 3(3):9

Have you ever wondered where our agricultural crops come from? And what were they like thousands of years ago, or hundreds of years ago? Our food crops today are in fact very different from the original wild plants from which they were derived.

About 10,000 years BC, people harvested their food from the natural biological diversity that surrounded them, and eventually domesticated crops and animals. During the process of domestication, people began to select better plant materials for propagation and animals for breeding, initially unwittingly, but ultimately with the intention of developing improved food crops and livestock. Over thousands of years farmers selected for desirable traits in crops, and thus improved the plants for agricultural purposes. Desirable traits included crop varieties (also known as cultivars, from "cultivated varieties") with shortened growing seasons, increased resistance to diseases and pests, larger seeds and fruits, nutritional content, shelf life, and better adaptation to diverse ecological conditions under which crops were grown.

Over the centuries, agricultural technology developed a broad spectrum of options for food, feed, and fiber production. In many ways, technology reduces the amount of time we dedicate to basic activities like food production, and makes our lives easier and more enjoyable. Everyone is familiar with how transportation has changed over time to be more efficient and safer (Figure 1). Agriculture has also undergone tremendous changes, many of which have made food and fiber production more efficient and safer (Figure 1). For example in 1870, the total population of the USA was 38,558,371 and 53% of this population was involved in farming; in 2000, the total population was 275,000,000 and only 1.8% of the population was involved in farming. There are negative aspects to having so few members of society involved in agriculture, but this serves to illustrate how technological developments have reduced the need for basic farm labor.

Figure 1: A timeline showing how human transportation systems have evolved.
A timeline showing how human transportation systems have evolved, from primitive, slow, and inefficient vehicles, to modern, faster, and more efficient options. Corresponding advances in agricultural biotechnology are shown below, similarly illustrating how advances changed our ability to develop new agricultural crops.
© 2012 Nature Education Courtesy of Ania M. Wieczorek and Mark G. Wright. All rights reserved.

This article concentrates on how scientific discoveries and technological developments have allowed us to improve crop development in agriculture. Most people do not realize that among early agriculture developments, really at the genesis of agricultural technology, the ancient Egyptians made wine and made rising dough for bread, using fermentation. A significant event in the development of agriculture occurred in 1492 with the introduction of corn, native to the Americas, to the rest of the world, and European growers adapted the plant to their unique growing conditions. At this stage of history, crops were being transported around the world and grown under a diversity of conditions.


A Searchable Database of Publications on safety testing of GM Food


Biofortified GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas (GENERA). This is a database of published, peer-reviewed scientific papers that are related to the risks and safety of genetic engineering in agriculture. You can search the Atlas below.


Bt crops and insect pests: Past successes, future challenges and opportunities


- Aaron J. Gassmann and William D. Hutchison, Editorial Introduction, GM Crops and Food - Special Issue, Volume 3, Issue 3 July/August/September 2012


Freedom of Research in Plant Biotechnology?


- Judith Schrauf-Papadopoulos, SciLogs, 15 August 2012

“What future does Germany have as a research location for impending technologies?” asked numerous scientists, in January when BASF announced they would relocate their plant biotechnology division abroad. One of the key technologies of the 21st century doesn’t meet with the necessary acceptance in Germany. What consequences will this have for university research? To learn more, we spoke to Hans-Jörg Jacobsen, Professor of Plant Biotechnology at Leibniz University in Hannover.

Prof. Jacobsen, Industrial research into plant biotechnology has withdrawn almost completely from Germany. What is the research situation currently like at universities?
Jacobsen: Green gene technology has not yet completely disappeared in Germany. At several universities and research facilities, and also in company laboratories, it is still being pursued. The question is “For how long?” Because increasingly, university research scientists are no longer conducting the decisive field experiments in Germany, but in North America.

What is the reason for this?
Jacobsen: The political situation surrounding plant biotechnology has worsened in the last few years and is making research activities difficult for universities and scientific institutions. The obstacles researchers are facing range from field destructions that sweep away years of valuable research activity, to coalition agreements between red and green politicians which indicate that there will be no state level sponsorship of plant biotechnology and fear-inducing news by various media and NGOs which could eventually fund their campaigns. This development began a long time ago. As a result, a fear of an allegedly uncontrollable biotechnology has taken root in the public’s minds. Reports such as the official confirmation of the EU Commission that biotechnology and particularly GMOs1 do not involve more risks than conventional methods of plant breeding are ignored.

How does this development affect your work as a professor at a German university?
Jacobsen: When you work in a German Federal State like Baden-Württemberg in which plant biotechnology research is not politically welcome and is not sponsored with state funding because of a coalition agreement, a conflict of conscience can arise. I ask myself “How far do these agreements encroach upon the research activities? Is a scientist paid with public money allowed to research a politically undesired topic using third-party funding? Is he or she allowed to use his basic equipment financed by the Federal State of Baden-Württemberg for such a project? Is he or she permitted to think about plant biotechnology projects during the working hours bankrolled by the state, or should he be researching organic farming?” I think this already constitutes a restriction on the freedom of research2, even though officially politicians have elegantly circumvented violating Article 5 of the Federal Constitutional.

What does the emigration of research in plant biotechnology mean for Germany?
Jacobsen: Plant biotechnology is of major global social significance. The world population is growing, the number of starving people is increasing, the climate is changing and the demand for alternative renewable forms of energy is rising. Plant biotechnology can contribute to providing solutions for all these trends. But this means that we need continued top quality research. If the opportunity to pursue this research in Germany is removed, research will have to be completed abroad. This research outsourcing process is already in full swing. Unlike many other disciplines, the results cannot be retrieved easily because field research in plant biotechnology is conducted in areas with different climatic conditions than in Europe; specific to the region where the research is conducted. Therefore, promising opportunities are being missed, although the discoveries and developments have their origin in this country.

How do you personally intend to continue with your research?
Jacobsen: At the moment, we are meeting in Canada, where we have field trials in progress. I encounter a very open climate of opinion here, our work is welcomed, and I have constructive colleagues at the universities. What more could one want?


Only in California


Steve Williams, Daily Press, August 08,

Proposition 37 on November's ballot is one of those measures that, when voters walk into the booth, will cause them to say, "What's this all about," then vote without knowing why.

Turns out Proposition 37 is anti-business, anti-agriculture, pro-union and pro-trial lawyer, which makes it a perfect vehicle for liberals to extend their already iron control over California consumers.

Who supports Prop 37? The usual suspects, led by Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Rep. George Miller, and, of course, unions, including the Consumer Federation of America, the United Farm Workers, California Certified Organic Farmers, Public Citizen, Organic Consumers Association, the California League of Conservation Voters, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Food Safety, and the Sierra Club.

And what does Prop. 37 do? It requires labeling of genetically engineered foods, which are plant or animal products whose DNA has been altered by genes from other plants, animals, viruses or bacteria. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Plenty. Prop. 37 would essentially ban thousands of common food products that contain ingredients made from modern varieties of corn, soybeans, canola, sugar beets and other crops produced with the benefit of biotechnology in California unless they are specially labeled as “genetically engineered.” In addition, it would prohibit any food that is pasteurized, heated, dried, juiced or otherwise processed from being labeled or advertised as “natural.” No such labeling requirements exist in any other state. Only in California.

Yet the overwhelming majority of the scientific community, including the World Health Organization and the National Academy of Sciences, agrees — foods made using biotech ingredients are safe. The US Food and Drug Administration has concluded that requiring special labels for foods that contain ingredients from biotech crops would be “inherently misleading” to consumers, since they are nutritionally the same as, and just as safe as food made from non-biotech crops.

But don’t just listen to them. Listen also to the American Medical Association, which issued a statement in June that included the phrase: “There is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.”

So why are supporters ignoring all this? Because it will be a gold mine for litigation lawyers.

Proposition 37’s forerunner was Proposition 65, which became law 20-plus years ago, and since then has generated more than 16,000 actions against businesses and nearly $500 million in settlements, attorney fees and costs.

And what has this done? The usual. Made trial lawyers richer, boosted the price of food everywhere in California, and reduced choices for consumers. Vote for Proposition 37 and the same things will happen again. Which is why we think No is the appropriate recommendation.


12th International Symposium on Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms


- 16-20 September 2012; St Louis, Missouri, USA

A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY for scientists from across the globe to share experiences and engage in open and meaningful dialogue about biosafety research and policy. A MEETING DESIGNED FOR regulatory authorities, technology developers, academics, non-government organizations, and other credible stakeholders involved in biosafety research and policy.

The ISBGMO is a biennial international meeting organized by the International Society for Biosafety Research (ISBR), a society whose membership is composed of individuals with an interest in risk assessment and research related to the environmental risks associated with genetically modified organisms (http://www.isbr.info).

Main topics for the five plenary sessions include:

GM crops in context
Current regulatory challenges
Defining environmental harm: concepts and applications for environmental risk assessment and regulatory decision-making
Biotechnology and crop improvement in development in developing countries: opportunities and challenges
New applications of modern biotechnology in agriculture and future implications
Symposia and workshops will also be offered on these topics: