A new link between pesticides and Parkinsons disease Parkinsons disease is
one of the most common neurodegenerative diseases, affecting about 1% of
all people over the age of 65. It is characterized by rigidity,
bradykinesia (reduced movement) and tremors, which are caused by the
progressive degeneration of dopamine-containing neurons in a brain region
called the substantia nigra. Another characteristic feature of the disease
is that the brains of Parkinsons patients contain microscopic protein
deposits, known as Lewy bodies. Although some cases of Parkinsons disease
can be attributed to genetic risk factors, the majority of cases are still
unexplained; these so-called sporadic cases have been proposed to result
from environmental factors. In the December issue of Nature Neuroscience,
Tim Greenamyre and colleagues (Emory University) show that rotenone, a
commonly used organic pesticide, can induce the major features of
Parkinsons disease in rats. These results not only provide a new animal
model for testing potential treatments, they also support the idea that
chronic exposure to environmental pesticides may contribute to the
incidence of Parkinsons disease in humans.
Before this study, the most realistic animal model of Parkinsons disease
was the so-called MPTP model, in which mice or monkeys are treated with a
drug known as 1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP). This model originates
from the early 1980s, when a number of heroin addicts developed sudden and
irreversible symptoms of Parkinsonism after injecting themselves with an
illicit drug preparation contaminated by MPTP. The reason for the toxic
effect is that MPTP (or more strictly, its derivative MPP+) inhibits one
of the enzymes in mitochondria, intracellular organelles that provide the
cell with energy.
Rotenone, like many other pesticides, inhibits the same mitochondrial
enzyme (called complex I) as MPP+, and so Greenamyre and colleagues
hypothesized that chronic treatment with low levels of rotenone might
produce Parkinsonian symptoms in rats. They administered rotenone
intravenously over a period of several weeks, and observed gradual
degeneration of the dopamine neurons, accompanied by behavioral features
of Parkinsonism and the formation of structures that closely resemble Lewy
bodies. A likely explanation, as yet untested, is that rotenone acts by
causing the mitochondria to produce free radicals, reactive chemicals that
produce oxidative damage in a variety of contexts and have been implicated
in many human degenerative diseases.
Rotenone is a naturally occurring pesticide, and it is widely used both as
an insecticide and as a method for killing fish (as part of water
management programs). It is considered relatively benign compared to many
other pesticides. Although the new study does not prove that rotenone
causes Parkinsonism in humans, it is likely to raise new questions about
rotenones safety. More generally, it lends credence to the idea that
chronic exposure to environmental toxins, including pesticides, may
contribute to the incidence of the disease. The main risk factor for
Parkinsons disease is age, and it has also been claimed, more
controversially, that the disease is associated with living in rural
environments. Determining to what extent pesticide exposure can account
for Parkinsonism will require a great deal of further work. The present
findings, however, are consistent with the idea that chronic exposure to
low levels of environmental toxin may cause cumulative damage to the
brains dopamine system, eventually leading to the clinical symptoms of the
Benoit Giasson and Virginia Lee of the University of Pennsylvania discuss
the implications of these findings in an accompanying News and Views
Chronic systemic pesticide exposure reproduces features of Parkinson's
disease p 1301 Ranjita Betarbet, Todd B. Sherer, Gillian MacKenzie, Monica
Garcia-Osuna, Alexander V. Panov and J. Timothy Greenamyre
also News & Views
A new link between pesticides and Parkinson's disease p 1227 Benoit I.
Giasson and Virginia M.-Y. Lee
--------- PESTICIDE FOUND TO PRODUCE PARKINSON'S SYMPTOMS IN
RATS Nov. 5 2000 N.Y. Times SANDRA BLAKESLEE AP
NEW ORLEANS -- An organic pesticide widely used on home-grown fruits and
vegetables and for killing unwanted fish in the nation's lakes and rivers
produces all the classic symptoms of Parkinson's disease in rats that
receive steady amounts of the chemical in their bloodstreams, scientists
While it is much too soon to say that the pesticide, rotenone, causes or
contributes to Parkinson's disease in humans, the scientists said the
finding was the best evidence thus far that chemicals in the environment
may be factors in this devastating disease.
Their study, the first to implicate rotenone in Parkinson's disease, was
described here today at a workshop on the neurobiology of disease, held in
conjunction with the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, the
nation's largest gathering of brain researchers. The workshop, sponsored
by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, involved
work carried out by Dr. Timothy Greenamyre and colleagues at Emory
University in Atlanta. The results of the study will be published in the
December issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience. "This is a very
important new study," said Dr. William Langston, president of the
Parkinson's Institute, a leading center for research and treatment of the
disease in Sunnyvale, Calif. "It is the next major step in Parkinson's
Dr. John Q. Trojanowski, an expert on neurodegenerative diseases at the
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia and the
moderator of the workshop, said, "This is the best model we have ever had
for this disease being associated with an environmental agent." But Dr.
Trojanowski cautioned that the findings "may not represent what anyone
would experience in the real world." For one thing, the rats in the study
were exposed to the chemical through their jugular veins, so it was not
broken down or metabolized in the digestive tract. Still, Dr. Trojanowski
said, the results are "a major breakthrough" and "prompt us to look at how
a lifetime exposure" to a chemical or combination of chemicals might
actually lead to Parkinson's disease.
Rotenone is extracted from the dried roots, seeds and leaves of various
tropical plants, including the Jewel vine, derris and hoary pea. Like many
plants that produce what are in effect their own pesticides, these plants
apparently evolved to produce the compound as a way of warding off insects
and other pests. Rotenone is found in 680 compounds marketed as organic
garden pesticides and flea powders, said Dr. Caroline Tanner, director of
clinical research at the Parkinson's Institute. It is often sold as a
white powder that is dusted onto roses, tomatoes, pears, apples and
African violets, and even on household pets. It kills fire ants.
Because rotenone is naturally occurring, it is advertised as being safer
than syntheticpesticides, she said. In addition, unlike many artificial
pesticides, which linger in the environment, rotenone breaks down in five
to six days of spring sunlight or two to three days of summer sunlight.
Rotenone is also widely used in liquid form by fishery managers to destroy
pest species. The chemical is added to lakes and reservoirs, where it
kills all the fish by inhibiting their ability to use oxygen. Once it has
degraded, the water is restocked with the desired fish species.
Parkinson's disease is one of the most common neurodegenerative diseases,
affecting nearly one million Americans over the age of 50. The disease is
caused by the steady loss of cells, in a tiny region of the brain called
the substantia nigra, that produce a chemical, dopamine, which is crucial
for movement and cognition. Patients develop jerky, tremulous movements
that get worse with time. Eventually they become entirely rigid.
A hallmark of the disease is that dopamine cells in the substantia nigra
become clogged with tiny, gunky clumps of abnormal protein called Lewy
bodies. Scientists have suspected since the middle of the 19th century
that an environmental toxin might be involved in Parkinson's disease, Dr.
Tanner said. More......in NY Times..............
ORGANIC PESTICIDE LINKED WITH PARKINSON'S DISEASE ATTENTION
Nov.5 2000 Agence France Presse English
PARIS -- An organic garden pesticide widely considered safe for human
health and harmless for the environment may cause Parkinson's disease,
Lab rats intravenously injected with rotenone, a plant-based pesticide
used to eliminate unwanted insects, kill ticks on household pets and cull
pond fish in water management programmes, developed Parkinson's-like
symptoms and brain damage, they report. Parkinson's, which strikes about
one percent of all people over the age of 65, is a notorious degenerative
disease characterised by shaking, immobility and difficulty in speaking.
Sufferers include Pope John Paul II, Muhammad Ali and screen actor Michael
J. Fox. Some cases of Parkinson's have been pinned to genes, but most
cases remain unexplained, causing scientists to ponder whether there could
be an environmental factor. The scientists, from Emory University in
Atlanta, Georgia, report their work Sunday in the December issue of Nature
Neuroscience, a US specialist journal.
They say the degeneration occurred in dopamine-containing neurons in the
substantia nigra, part of the brain that helps to coordinate movements.
The rats developed clumpy proteins, called Lewy bodies, in this area and
also suffered some of the characteristic symptoms of Parkinson's. "The
results indicate that chronic exposure to a common pesticide can reproduce
the anatomical, neurochemical, behavioural and neuropathological features"
of the disease, the team say. University of Pennsylvania researchers
Benoit Giasson and Virginia Lee said many questions remain to be answered,
but there were already worrying implications.
"Rotenone is a naturally occurring substance that is eventually degraded
in the environment, and as such it is considered to be benign compared to
many other pesticides. "The results... are likely to raise new questions
about its safety," they write. Parkinson's disease is known to develop in
mice or monkeys treated with a drug called MPTP, which disrupts enzymes in
mitochondria, a component at the heart of a cell that provides the cell
with energy. Rotenone, like many other pesticides, inhibits the same
enzyme, which is called Complex 1. This is what led the Emory University
team to check out the pesticide's effect on the rats.
One theory, said Giasson and Lee, was that the disruption causes the
mitochondria to crank out free radicals -- agents that induce cell death
and mutation which have been already been implicated in numerous diseases.
Rotenone is extracted from roots, seeds and leaves from plants such as
barbasco, cub, haiari, nekoe and timbo, which are members of the pea
family. US trade names for products containing rotenone include Chem-Fish,
Cuberol, Fish Tox, Noxfire, Rotacide, Sinid and Tox-R, according to
Emtoxnet, a Web-based data bank on pesticides run by several US
universities. It is also marketed as Curex Flea Duster, Derrin, Cenol
Garden Dust, Chem-Mite, Cibe Extract and Green Cross Warble Powder. The
pesticide is classified as highly or slightly toxic for humans, according
to its formulation. It can be lethal if taken in large, concentrated
doses, which is not the case for commercially-sold products. It is
considered safe for the environment as it loses all its toxicity within a
Subj: Gore on Biotech
From: "Henry I. Miller"
Whatever Vice President Al Gore might say in interviews during the
presidential campaign, his lengthy record on biotechnology speaks volumes.
See the article below, for example, and also Chapter 2 of "Policy
Controversy in Biotechnology: An Insider's View," by Henry I. Miller,
Academic Press and R.G. Landes Co., 1997.
Henry Miller, Stanford University
February 2, 1999
AL GORE'S SECRET WAR ON TECHNOLOGY Henry I. Miller, MD American
politicians' rhetoric is often belied by their actions. Presidents Woodrow
Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt both promised they would keep us out of
wars; George Bush said, "read my lips, no new taxes"; and Bill Clinton
pronounced "the end of the era of big government."
The disconnect between the Clinton administration's words and deeds is
nowhere more profound than in federal regulation, whose architect has been
Vice President Al Gore. Biotechnology policy offers several recent
examples. In January, while extolling the importance of technology and
claiming to reduce governmental intrusiveness and burdens, US ambassador
to Belgium Paul Cejas and Vice-President Al Gore, at separate events,
delivered disingenuous speeches to prominent international audiences about
agricultural biotechnology; another was found in the March 3 testimony of
Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Agricultural Affairs James M.
Murphy, Jr. before a House Agriculture subcommittee. It will come as no
surprise that all three avoided any mention of Gore's long-standing and
well-documented hostility towards technology.
Speaking to a food industry group in Brussels on January 26, Ambassador
Cejas began by describing the need for the new biotechnology and its
intrinsic safety. "Experts estimate the global demand for food will triple
within the next 50 years," necessitating the development of genetically
engineered organisms that "increase crop yields, reducing the need to
clear more land to grow food. They permit increased output at lower
production costs, benefitting both producers and consumers. Drought- and
insect-resistant plants permit reductions in the use of pesticides and
water, bringing important environmental and health benefits to farmers and
Murphy's remarks were complementary. He described the importance of
biotechnology as "more than just an economic issue," and continued, "It's
a humanitarian issue, it's an environmental issue, and it's an issue of
global food security. It is one of our best defenses against
deforestation, land erosion, and water depletion that can destabilize
So far, so good. But among Clinton appointees, veracity extends only so
far. Cejas went on to offer a self-serving, revisionist view of US
regulation, characterizing it as "based on sound scientific principles,
transparency and integrity." As discussed below, nothing could be farther
from the truth.
The point of Murphy's speech was the excoriation of the European Union's
unscientific and burdensome biotechnology regulation, which he
characterized as "susceptible to political interference, non-transparent
[that is, not clear or predictable] and virtually endless in duration." He
concluded that "scientific principles" must guide public policy.
However, what Murphy and Cejas may not know, or conveniently ignored, is
that -- at the insistence of Vice-President Gore -- biotechnology policies
and decision-making at three US agencies have precisely the same basic
flaws as the European regulations that Murphy railed about. All fly in the
face of widespread scientific consensus.
First, by way of background, there is a broad and longstanding scientific
consensus about the continuum between "classical" (that is, old) and new
biotechnology, which was summarized thusly in a 1992 editorial in the
distinguished scientific journal, NATURE, "The same physical and
biological laws govern the response of organisms modified by modern
molecular and cellular methods and those produced by classical methods,"
and therefore, "no conceptual distinction exists between genetic
modification of plants and microorganisms by classical methods or by
molecular techniques that modify DNA and transfer genes."
But U.S. biotechnology regulation, under Vice President's Gore's personal
direction, has specifically targeted the newer, more precise techniques,
and has been near-catastrophic for entrepreneurial companies, academics
Item: In 1997, the EPA issued a regulation under the Toxic Substances
Control Act that has inhibited research on any "new'' organism (strangely
defined as one which contains combinations of DNA from unrelated sources)
that might be used, for example, to degrade oil spills or clean up toxic
wastes. For EPA, "newness" is synonymous with risk, and because
gene-splicing techniques can easily be used to create new gene
combinations with DNA from disparate sources, these techniques therefore
"have the greatest potential to pose risks to people or the environment,"
according to the EPA. But as described above, there is a broad scientific
consensus that the genetic technique employed is irrelevant to risk, as is
the origin of a snippet of DNA that may be moved from one organism to
another; what matters is its function.
Item: The EPA is expected in March 1999 to issue a final regulation,
based on a 1994 proposal, that requires review as PESTICIDES of the
testing of gene-spliced crop and garden plants, such as corn, wheat and
marigolds, that have been modified for enhanced pest- or
disease-resistance. This policy is so potentially damaging and outside
scientific norms that in 1996, eleven major scientific societies
representing more than 80,000 biologists and food professionals published
a report which excoriated the EPA's proposal. The report warned that the
policy would discourage the development of new pest-resistant crops,
prolong and increase the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, increase
the regulatory burden for developers of pest-resistant crops, limit the
use of biotechnology to larger developers who can pay the inflated
regulatory costs and handicap the United States in competition for
Item: The Department of Agriculture likewise treats the new biotechnology
in a discriminatory way, making agricultural biotech products more
expensive to develop and more vulnerable to attack by anti-technology
activists. The USDA continues to impose unnecessary and hugely expensive
field test design and other requirements on plants that have been improved
with the most sophisticated and precise genetic techniques. For example,
gene-spliced plants being shipped or cultivated cannot be mixed with
plants modified with older, less precise techniques (which includes
virtually all cultivated crop and garden plants), and all living plants
must be destroyed at the completion of the field trial. The effect is to
make a field trial with a gene-spliced plant 10-20 times more expensive
than the same experiment performed with a plant that has identical
properties, but modified with less precise genetic techniques.
Item: Until 1996, the FDA had a clear policy of regulating biotech foods
no differently from those produced in other ways, a policy supported by
scientific knowledge and consensus. In July 1996, however, the FDA began
quietly to promulgate new requirements. A seven page document, "Foods
Derived from New Plant Varieties: Consultation Procedures" went out to
state officials (without the benefit of the rule-making procedures
required of federal agencies). In it, the FDA adopts a pretense that the
burdensome new policy is applicable to all new plant varieties and not
just those produced with the new biotechnology. But the agency's intent is
transparent: oversight of the consultation process rests with the
BIOTECHNOLOGY Evaluation Team. And the data requirements of the new policy
are substantial. The FDA lists nine categories of obligatory information
whose level of detail is far greater than would be required (or possible)
for food products made with less precise, less sophisticated techniques.
Item: On instructions from Mr. Gore, the Departments of State and
Agriculture and other federal agencies have collaborated in the
development of United Nations-based biosafety regulations -- which are
expected to be finalized this year -- under the 1992 Convention on
Biological Diversity (the "Biodiversity Treaty"), in spite of the Senate's
explicit unwillingness to ratify it. Under this unscientific and Draconian
regulatory regime, all field trials will require approval from the UN bio-
police. (With rare exceptions, plants genetically manipulated with more
primitive, less precise techniques will continue to be subject to no
government scrutiny at all, from the first tests in the field to the
consumer's plate.) Paperwork, red tape and corruption will dog the process
from beginning to end, from the first seed to the store shelves, around
The impetus for these unscientific and regressive biotechnology policies
has come largely from a single source: Al Gore's malign influence, as
congressman, senator and vice-president.
Coincidentally, just three days after Ambassador Cejas's speech, the
vice-president was also in Europe, performing his "technological Al Gore"
act at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He lauded "safe,
new technologies that can help us feed millions of hungry families," and
promised that "the United States is committed to ensuring that the world's
agricultural producers can use safe and proven biotechnology in food
production without fear of trade discrimination." But Gore's almost 20
years of relentless antagonism towards biotechnology tells a different
In 1983, then-Congressman Gore endorsed Algeny, Jeremy Rifkin's
anti-biotechnology diatribe, calling it "a framework for critical
consideration of future technological advances . . . an insightful
critique of the changing way in which mankind views nature." (Harvard
evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould said of the same book, "I don't
think I have ever read a shoddier work," and characterized it as
"anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship.")
In a 1991 article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology,
then-Senator Gore displayed remarkable lack of appreciation of the
historically positive linkage between science and economic development,
describing investors' eager reception of Genentech, Inc.'s 1980 stock
offering disdainfully as the first sellout of the "tree of knowledge to
Wall Street." He went on to deride biotechnology research, claiming that
"the decisions to develop ice-minus [bacteria], herbicide- resistant
plants, and bovine growth hormone . . . LENT CREDIBILITY TO THOSE WHO
ARGUED THAT BIOTECHNOLOGY WOULD MAKE THINGS WORSE BEFORE IT MADE THINGS
BETTER" (emphasis added). One has to marvel at the vice-president's vision
of how a harmless and ubiquitous bacterium that prevents frost damage to
crops, or plants that will reduce the use of agricultural chemicals and
provide farmers with new tools, could be detrimental. In the same article,
in order to rationalize unnecessary congressionally mandated regulations
for biotechnology Gore coins a legislative "principle that applies to
regulating new and strange technologies such as biotechnology": "If YOU
don't do it, you know somebody else will."(emphasis in original) In an
original but bizarre twist that both contradicts Ambassador's Cejas's
speech and confounds every expert forecast about the need for greater
agricultural productivity, Gore worries in the journal article even about
biotechnology's possible success: "The most lasting impact of
biotechnology on the food supply may come not from something going wrong,
but from all going right. My biggest fear is not that by accident we will
set loose some genetically defective Andromeda strain. Given our past
record in dealing with agriculture, we're far more likely to accidentally
drown ourselves in a sea of excess grain."
Mind you, this is the same Al Gore whose spinmeisters portrays him as
savvy and positive about technology. But his ignorance and antagonism
aren't limited to biotech. In Gore's Earth in the Balance, he repeatedly
uses the metaphor that those who believe in technological progress are as
sinister, and polluters as evil as the perpetrators of World War II's
Holocaust. He trashes the scientific method and laments the passing of the
time when religious dogma dominated science (historians call that period
the Dark Ages). "But for the separation of science and religion, we might
not be pumping so much gaseous chemical waste into the atmosphere and
threatening the destruction of the earth's climate balance." He condemns
American society as "dysfunctional," because it embraces products like
Astroturf, the Walkman, microwave ovens and frozen dinners.
Agricultural biotechnology holds tremendous potential benefits for the
world's consumers and farmers. Products will continue to emerge in the
marketplace, but at a disturbingly low rate because of the regulatory
barriers constructed by Al Gore and his acolytes. Under current
circumstances, R&D will focus primarily on commodity crops grown at huge
scale, at the expense of opportunities to improve important small-acreage
crops. For example, innovation will seldom target improvement of the
genetics of environmentally-threatened but low-value-added species such as
trees, or of subsistence crops such as millet, cassava and yams. The
ability of poor countries to use the new biotechnology to feed their
expanding populations will thereby be limited.
William Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It is not even past." Al
Gore's anti-technology past lives on and continues to discredit him.
Henry I. Miller is a senior research fellow at Stanford University's
Hoover Institution and the author of "Policy Controversy in Biotechnology:
An Insider's View." E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
LEFT IN THE DUST OF THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL November 2000 Nature Biotechnology
Volume 18 Number 11 p 1119
Despite Nature Biotechnology's best efforts on the telephone, fax, pager,
and e-mail to quiz the campaigns of the main US presidential
candidates-Vice President Al Gore and Republican Governor George W.
Bush-about their plans for agbiotech, specifics have, according to this
editorial, not been forthcoming. In fact, hardly anything about the
candidates' views on any aspect of biotechnology has been made public from
what we can gather.
The editorial does say that neither Gore nor Bush mentions agricultural
research among their top priorities in science and technology. As usual,
biomedical research takes center stage, with Gore proposing an $18 billion
increase in the budget over 10 years and Bush also hinting increases. Both
candidates have, however, emphasized the importance of a science-based
approach to the regulatory oversight of GM crops; and Bush has been
particularly bullish about trade, warning that he will not tolerate EU
barriers to the import of new US GM crops. This is fine as far as it goes,
but really how far is that? Dwarfing pharmaceutical biotechnology in world
capital many fold, the agricultural sector really deserves some more
specific pledges rather than the platitudes we've heard so far. With this
in mind, we have a few suggestions of our own that Messrs Gore or Bush
might like to consider once they're ensconced in the Oval office.
First, food safety and labeling-the editorial says let's state once and
for all that safety and labeling standards for foods, food ingredients,
and feeds should be applied regardless of the techniques used in their
production and manufacture. There is widespread expert consensus about
this (in fact, genetic engineering may be safer/more precise than
conventional breeding), so why is it even discussed anymore? Foods should
continue to be assessed on the basis of substantial equivalence, with
labeling required only for (GM) foods that differ significantly in
composition or nutritional value from their conventional counterparts.
Funding should be allocated to promote research that supports the design
of more accurate toxicological and allergenicity tests. For example, on p.
1157, Oliver Fiehn and colleagues report the systematic analysis of over
300 compounds in four different strains of Arabidopsis thaliana;
systematic and careful phenotypic analyses of this type could allow more
rational determination of product composition and assessment of potential
risk. A wider public discussion of the risks of processed and organic food
and herbal supplements should also be encouraged to provide a context for
the risks of GM products (and perhaps dispel the myth that the former are
necessarily always more wholesome and safe).
Second, environmental risks-Yes, thousands of acres of GM crops are grown
each year in the US without Armageddon, and over 5,000 field trials of GM
plants have been safely conducted since 1987 with no apparent ill effects.
However, the editorial says, it is still important to acknowledge that our
understanding of gene flow in the environment is still far from complete.
More genome manipulations have been carried out in plants than in any
other higher organism, yet we still await the first complete plant genome
sequence and a deeper understanding of gene integration, silencing, and
stability. If there is a potential that transgenic DNA can be released
into the environment and passed onto other organisms, such as bacteria or
weedy relatives, we should investigate it. We need to focus research on
finding alternatives to the introduction of antibiotic resistance genes
(e.g., see p. 1172 this issue), on understanding how recombinant DNA
persists in the environment, on the mechanisms and dynamics of gene
transfer to weedy relatives, and on the importance of selective pressure
on recombination events. Strictly controlled field trials must be allowed
to proceed without fear/threat of sabotage so that we can establish the
nature (if any) of specific environmental risks. Activists who vandalize
field trials and/or terrorize farmers should be locked up.
Third, genetic diversity- collections of plant and animal germ plasm are,
the editorial says, a vast resource for genetic improvement and
identification of useful traits. This is particularly important because
only 12 crops now account for 95% of the world's plant food base. A recent
survey by the World Bank's Consultative Group on International
Agricultural Research suggests it will require $70 million to upgrade
present plant collections, and $8 million per year to maintain them.
Conventional breeding during domestication of crop species has left
untapped many alleles of potential benefit in wild and unadapted germ
plasm. We should make funding available to finance these genetic resources
in a more sustainable way and to encourage research into untapped traits.
Last but not least, public funding-The editorial says that six global
corporations now dominate agbiotech, an area that was once a hotbed of
entrepreneurial activity. While these corporations have continued to
appropriate intellectual property and expand funding of R&D, public
funding for agbiotech has remained stagnant for the past five years (last
year, US funding was around $3.4 billion; during the same period, the top
6 agrochemical companies made around $22 billion). Low public funding
presumably reflects political sensitivity to GM research (and more
recently downright unpopularity of its products) in the eyes of certain
governments. Because it is not clear that monopolies are particularly good
at promoting the development of technology and products beneficial to
society increased public funding aimed at promoting biotechnology research
for the developing world should be a priority.
So that's a start. Let's hope the incumbent president, whoever he is,
reads more than cue cards and briefing statements, and perhaps even reads
this editorial. Some clear thinking from Washington about the present
realities and future possibilities of agricultural biotechnology would be
a welcome change indeed.
Corn recall gives RTP firm huge headache
By JAMES ELI SHIFFERAND ALAN M. WOLF, Staff Writers
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK -- The world of genetically engineered crops
changed forever when Larry Bohlen grabbed a package of Kraft taco shells
off a Maryland supermarket shelf in July.
Bohlen never bit into the crunchy fried tortillas. Instead, he sent them
to a laboratory in Iowa. Bohlen, a biotechnology critic with the Friends
of the Earth organization, thought a random check of yellow corn products
would confirm his suspicion that genetically altered corn not licensed for
human consumption had gotten into the food supply.
Bohlen was right. Six weeks after the contamination of the taco shells
became public, the discovery is still roiling the nation's food industry
and Aventis CropScience, the company that sold the pesticide-imbued corn,
called StarLink, to seed companies.
Aventis, which employs 550 workers in Research Triangle Park, began
selling StarLink in 1998 after telling the federal government it would be
used only for animal feed and industrial products such as ethanol.
Once the contamination was reported, Aventis stopped selling StarLink and
started damage control. Company officials have given widely varying
estimates on the cost of recalling corn inadvertently scrambled with
StarLink in fields and silos. A statement Friday put the cost at "less
than $100 million," but lawsuits from food producers and consumers could
cost the company even more.
The crisis won't bankrupt Aventis CropScience, whose parent company is
expected to bring in $20 billion this year. But Aventis' U.S. headquarters
in RTP, which developed and sold the StarLink technology, is an operation
under siege. Its office, tucked in the woods off T.W. Alexander Drive, has
taken hundreds of calls from angry farmers, grain elevator managers and
Its vice president for commercial operations, John Wichtrich, is leading
Aventis' effort to buy back the StarLink corn. Reporters' calls to
Wichtrich and other Aventis employees were referred to a New York public
relations company that specializes in helping companies in crisis.
Federal policy changed
What was a minor product for Aventis has already changed federal policy on
licensing genetically modified crops, shut down food processing plants,
caused a trade squabble between Japan and the United States and changed
the color of Taco Bell taco shells from yellow to white.
The recalled corn poses only a tiny risk of allergic reactions in people
who eat it, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But
because Aventis wasn't able to keep StarLink out of the food supply, the
damage to the industry could be severe.
Neil Hamilton, a professor of agricultural law at Drake University in Des
Moines, Iowa, understands why there's an uproar. "This isn't the biotech
industry responding to unfair charges brought by wacky environmentalists,"
he says. "They did this to themselves. It [StarLink] wasn't supposed to
enter the food system. It did, apparently as a result of how it was
marketed. You lie in the bed you make."
StarLink's origins date back to experiments in Belgium in the 1980s.
Researchers there perfected a way to insert genes in corn kernels that
makes the stalks exude a common soil bacteria called Bacillus
A built-in insecticide
Bt is favored by organic farmers as an environmentally benign form of pest
control. Biotechnology boosters thought corn with such a built-in
insecticide would appeal to farmers, so in the early 1990s, a Belgian
company called Plant Genetic Systems Inc. obtained patents on Bt-producing
corn. Plant Genetic Systems was later absorbed into Aventis SA, a
French-German pharmaceutical conglomerate.
The EPA has approved several varieties of Bt corn for use in any products,
including food. But when Aventis asked the agency to allow the marketing
of its StarLink variety, the EPA said more research was needed. The
protein inserted in the corn, called Cry9C, was not immediately broken
down in digestion tests. The EPA thought the protein might cause an
allergic reaction in humans.
Aventis asked for approval to sell StarLink only for non-food uses, with
the expectation of full approval in the future. In May 1998, for the first
time in its history, the EPA gave permission for a genetically modified
crop to be grown only for non-food uses. Aventis was required to tell its
customers to keep StarLink separate from food corn in fields and grain
Almost everyone involved now agrees the restricted approval was a big
mistake. "We found that it was unenforceable," said Stephen Johnson, an
EPA deputy assistant administrator in Washington, D.C., who oversees the
office of prevention, pesticides and toxic substances. "The safeguards
failed because of the company's lack of adherence to their license."
Aventis has declined to comment on the extent of its responsibility, but a
spokeswoman said that in the future, it will not request permission to
sell a similar product unless that product has been approved for human
Johnson said some farmers who bought StarLink corn never knew about the
special requirements to keep it separate. Those who did may not have told
the people running the grain elevators.
By this year, 340,908 acres of StarLink were growing, mostly in Iowa,
Nebraska and other Great Plains states. Little by little, the kernels
mixed with others in bins, silos and elevators. StarLink corn fell into
hoppers at mills, and StarLink flour poured into mixing bowls in food
"Producers had specific obligations when they agreed to grow StarLink,"
said Ed Beaman of the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, which represents
most of the state's 425 grain elevators. "They were supposed to let us
know. That just didn't happen."
One truckload of StarLink that is dumped into a 100,000-bushel bin will
contaminate the whole bin. "It's like dropping some dye into a vat of
water," said James Wilbur, an industry analyst with Salomon Smith Barney.
"Now it's all over the darned place."
Taco shells test positive
From the moment the EPA approved StarLink, environmentalists doubted the
agency's ability to keep the corn kernels separate.
On July 26, Bohlen went grocery shopping in Silver Spring, Md., on behalf
of the anti-biotech coalition Genetically Engineered Food Alert. Bohlen
loaded a shopping cart with 23 kinds of muffin mix, breakfast cereal, corn
chips, corn meal, an enchilada TV dinner and the taco shells. If StarLink
had gotten into the food supply, he reasoned, it would show up in products
such as these.
Bohlen sent the foods to Genetics ID, an Iowa laboratory, where their
molecular structure was examined for the StarLink protein. Twenty-two of
the products tested negative.
The Kraft Taco Bell Home Originals taco shells tested positive. The
laboratory ran the test again, and a third time. "We knew several things
were at stake -- millions of dollars, consumer confidence and the fate of
farmers," Bohlen said.
On Sept. 18, the coalition announced that for the first time in U.S.
history, a genetically modified organism not approved for human
consumption had gotten into the food supply. The furor began.
Few considered the contamination a serious threat to public health. But
the perceived breakdown in the federal government's food safety net
resonated from Washington to Des Moines to Tokyo.
On Sept. 22, Kraft announced it would recall up to 2.9 million of its
supermarket taco shells. Mission Foods of Dallas followed suit, recalling
taco shells, tortilla chips and other food sold at Wendy's, Safeway,
Wal-Mart and other outlets. Together, the recalls of almost 300 products
could cost $60 million.
In the last week of September, a large number of Taco Bell's 7,000
restaurants threw out all their yellow-corn taco shells. Without a
reliable yellow corn supply, the chain has started serving tacos made with
white corn, said Laurie Gannon, a Taco Bell spokeswoman in Irvine, Calif.
In October, a Kellogg Co. cereal plant in Memphis shut down for lack of a
reliable flour supply. Last week, 38 train cars of grain from the Farmers
Cooperative Exchange in Prairie City, Iowa, tested positive for the
StarLink protein, said Larry Stayner, manager of the co-op's elevator.
That will cost the co-op as much as $40,000 in lost revenue and extra
transportation costs. As much as 80 percent of the 2 billion-bushel crop
in Iowa could be contaminated, Stayner said.
"Farmers, grain elevators and processors, and food companies all had to
incur significant costs for something that wasn't their fault," said
Thomas Hoban, a sociology professor at N.C. State University who studies
attitudes toward bioengineered foods. "Obviously, someone has to take
responsibility for cleaning this up."
The responsibility may be shared among Aventis, seed companies and their
This week, representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture
traveled to reassure the government of Japan, the No. 1 customer for U.S.
corn. Japan has threatened to turn to other suppliers, such as China or
Argentina, if U.S. officials can't guarantee its corn is StarLink-free.
Buying back the corn
Aventis responded by affirming the safety of StarLink corn on one hand,
and working frantically on the other to keep it out of the food supply.
Under pressure from the EPA, the company agreed to stop selling StarLink,
and it has worked with the USDA to track down every farmer and distributor
who handled the corn.
Aventis has refused to release the names of farmers who grew StarLink
corn, but said that only 384 acres of StarLink corn were grown in North
The company has agreed to pay 25 cents a bushel to buy back the modified
corn grown this year. The company is working to find a missing 1.2 million
bushels of StarLink corn that could be mixed into the food supply.
Lawsuits could drive the cost of the recall even higher. Two people in
Illinois have filed suit claiming that eating Kraft taco shells made them
sick. Kraft and other food companies could sue to recoup the cost of
getting rid of contaminated corn.
To save even greater expenditures, Aventis asked the EPA last week for
temporary approval of StarLink to be used in human food. Aventis wants
approval for four years, which would allow the modified corn to work its
way through the food chain on its own and save additional costs of finding
The EPA has promised a stringent and public scientific review before
granting such approval. "If that comes through, the losses will be
minimized," Stayner said. "If not, I'm not sure Aventis has deep enough
pockets to take care of the state of Iowa."
So far, stock analysts who follow Aventis SA, the parent of Aventis
CropScience, aren't worried. Aventis, one of the world's largest drug
makers, expects $20 billion in revenue this year from blockbuster
pharmaceuticals such as the anti-allergy pill Allegra and cancer treatment
The potential market for StarLink was a tiny portion of the company's
CropScience division, which represents about 20 percent of the parent's
Still, there are indirect costs associated with the StarLink fallout.
Aventis officials are considering a spinoff of the CropScience division to
focus on drugs. Consumers' and regulators' backlash could delay or scuttle
those plans, said Lionel Labourdette, an analyst with ODB Equities in
The effects on the growing controversy over genetically manipulated food
remain to be seen. So far, most consumers aren't clamoring for tighter
restrictions or a ban on genetically modified crops, said NCSU's Hoban,
who conducted a survey after the taco-shell recall. That doesn't mean
Aventis isn't facing a host of challenges, Hoban said.
"In the long run, I can't imagine that they will ever fully recover their
tarnished image in the eyes of farmers, the other biotechnology companies
and the public," he said.
The problem extends beyond this single company, said Jane Rissler, a
biotechnology critic with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.
"It shows us how weak the regulatory scheme is for biotech," Rissler said.
"It looks like we can trust neither the government nor the industry to do
the right thing."
Staff writer James Eli Shiffer can be reached at 836-5701 or