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Date:

February 6, 2001

Subject:

Golden Rice on Time Asia Cover; Fear Thy Not Superweeds -

 

Grains of Hope

Time. Asia Edition. BY J. MADELEINE NASH Wednesday, February 7, 2001
http://www.time.com/time/asia/biz/magazine/0,9754,98034,00.html

Golden rice and other genetically engineered crops could revolutionize
farming and help solve world hunger. Protesters fear they could also
destroy the environment

At first, the grains of rice that Ingo Potrykus sifted through his fingers
did not seem at all special. But once their dark, crinkly husks were
stripped away and the interiors polished to a glossy sheen, Potrykus could
behold the seeds' golden secret. At their core, these grains were not the
pearly white of ordinary rice but a very pale yellow—courtesy of
beta-carotene, the nutrient that serves as a building block for vitamin A.

Potrykus was elated. For more than a decade he had dreamed of creating a
golden rice that would improve the lives of millions of the world's
poorest people. At least 1 million children, weakened by vitamin-A
deficiency, die every year and an additional 350,000 go blind. Potrykus
saw his rice as the modest start of a new green revolution: bananas that
wouldn't rot on the way to market; corn that could supply its own
fertilizer; wheat that could thrive in drought-ridden soil.

But imagining a golden rice was one thing, Potrykus found, and bringing
one into existence quite another. Year after year, he and his colleagues
ran into unexpected obstacles, beginning with the finicky growing habits
of the rice they had transplanted to a greenhouse near the foothills of
the Swiss Alps. And when success finally came in early 1999, Potrykus, 65
and about to retire as a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of
Technology in Zurich, faced even more formidable challenges. The golden
rice that he and his colleagues developed is a product of genetic
engineering, what opponents call Frankenfood. As such, it was entangled in
a web of hopes and fears and political baggage, not to mention a fistful
of iron-clad patents.

For about a year now—ever since Potrykus and his chief collaborator, Peter
Beyer of the University of Freiburg in Germany, announced their
achievement—their golden grain has illuminated an increasingly polarized
public debate over genetically engineered crops. Last month Potrykus and
Beyer arrived in the Philippines carrying golden rice seeds and genetic
material bound for the International Research for Rice Institute, IRRI for
short. The goal of IRRI scientists will be to develop a golden tropical
rice, based on the techniques Potrykus has used for his temperate rice
variety. And this is only the first step. Two private
companies—Swiss-based Syngenta and Myriad Genetics of Salt Lake City in
the U.S.—revealed last week that they have mapped the entire rice genome,
paving the way for other dramatic breakthroughs. Years of lab work on a
viable genetically modified (GM) rice variety are still needed, but
scientists in Asia will undoubtedly find their rice subjected to the same
kind of hostile suspicion and scrutiny that has already led to curbs on
the commercialization of these crops in Britain, Germany, Switzerland and
Brazil.

The increasingly acrimonious debate over genetically engineered crops
erupted the moment they made their commercial debut in the mid-1990s.
European environmentalists and consumer-advocacy groups were the first to
launch major protests that have since spread worldwide. Environmentalists
in India have filed suit against Monsanto to prevent it from testing
genetically modified cotton. In the Philippines, farmers have demonstrated
against seed giants Monsanto and Dupont's field tests of Bt corn. And
activists there point to Miracle Rice—a product of the Green Revolution in
the '60s—as a cautionary lesson. Its wholesale adoption in Southeast Asia
led to a rice monoculture, making crops more vulnerable to insect pests
and disease, and more dependent on pesticides.

Public hostility is understandable. Most of the genetically engineered
crops introduced so far represent minor variations on the same two themes:
resistance to insect pests and to herbicides used to control the growth of
weeds. And they are often marketed by large, multinational corporations
that produce and sell the very agricultural chemicals farmers are spraying
on their fields. So while many farmers have embraced such crops as
Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans, with their genetically engineered
resistance to Monsanto's Roundup-brand herbicide, that let them spray weed
killer without harming crops, consumers have come to regard such things
with mounting suspicion. Why resort to a strange new technology that might
harm the biosphere, they ask, when the benefits of doing so seem small?

Indeed, the benefits have seemed small—until golden rice came along.
Golden rice is the first compelling example of a genetically engineered
crop that may benefit not just the farmers who grow it but also the
consumers who eat it.

No wonder so many of those concerned about poverty and hunger are
convinced that such crops have a critical role to play in feeding the
world. China, one of the first countries to grow genetically engineered
tobacco and cotton commercially, is investing heavily in the technology as
a way to combat its chronic domestic food problems. C.S. Prakash, a
scientist at the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee
University in Alabama, recently accused anti-GM activists of being
"well-fed folk" who "jet around the world" to disrupt technology that will
benefit the poor. According to Prakash: "Biotechnology is one of the best
hopes for solving ... food needs when we have 6 billion people, and
certainly in the next 30 to 50 years when there will be 9 billion on the
globe."

Indeed, by the year 2020, the demand for grain, both for human consumption
and for animal feed, is projected to go up by nearly half. Add to that the
need to conserve overstressed water resources and reduce the use of
polluting chemicals, and the enormity of the challenge is apparent.

GOING FOR THE GOLD
In the late 1980s, after he became a full professor of plant science at
the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Ingo Potrykus started to think
about using genetic engineering to improve the nutritional qualities of
rice. Of some 3 billion people who depend on rice as their major staple,
around 10% risk some degree of vitamin-A deficiency and the health
problems that result. The problem interested Potrykus for a number of
reasons. For starters, he was attracted by the scientific challenge of
transferring not just a single gene, as many had already done, but a group
of genes that represented a key part of a biochemical pathway. He was also
motivated by empathy. As a child growing up in war-ravaged Germany,
Potrykus and his brothers were often so desperately hungry that they ate
what they could steal.

Around 1990, Potrykus hooked up with Gary Toenniessen, director of food
security for the Rockefeller Foundation. Toenniessen had identified the
lack of beta-carotene in polished rice grains as an appropriate target for
gene scientists like Potrykus to tackle because it lay beyond the ability
of traditional plant breeding to address. For while rice, like other green
plants, contains light-trapping beta-carotene in its external tissues, it
does not produce beta-carotene in its endosperm (the starchy interior part
of the rice grain that most people eat).

At a Rockefeller-sponsored meeting, Potrykus met the University of
Freiburg's Peter Beyer, an expert on the beta-carotene pathway in
daffodils. They decided to combine their expertise. In 1993, with some
$100,000 in seed money from the Rockefeller Foundation, Potrykus and Beyer
launched what turned into a seven-year, $2.6 million project, backed by
the Swiss government and the European Union. "I was in a privileged
situation," reflects Potrykus, "because I was able to operate without
industrial support. Only in that situation can you think of giving away
your work for free."

The two scientists soon discovered, however, that giving away golden rice
was not going to be easy. The genes they transferred and the bacteria they
used to transfer those genes were encumbered by patents and proprietary
rights. Only after extensive negotiations have the two scientists managed
to strike a deal with Syngenta, Monsanto and the four other companies that
held exclusive licenses to the technologies used by Potrykus and Beyer to
create golden rice. In exchange for commercial marketing rights in the
U.S. and other affluent markets, the companies recently agreed to donate
the technology free to developing countries.

Still, critics of agricultural biotechnology erupted. "A rip-off of the
public trust," grumbled the Rural Advancement Foundation International, an
advocacy group based in Winnipeg, Canada. Potrykus was dismayed by such
negative reaction. "It would be irresponsible," he exclaimed, "not to say
immoral, not to use biotechnology to try to solve this problem!"

WEIGHING THE PERILS
Beneath the hyperbolic talk of Frankenfoods, even proponents of
agricultural biotechnology agree, lie some real concerns. To begin with,
all foods, including the transgenic foods created through genetic
engineering, are potential sources of allergens. That's because the
transferred genes contain instructions for making proteins and some
proteins—those in peanuts, for example—cause allergic reactions. Then
there is the problem of "genetic pollution," as opponents of biotechnology
term it. Pollen grains from such wind-pollinated plants as corn, for
instance, are carried far and wide. The continuing flap over Bt corn and
cotton—the gene of a common soil bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis), a
natural insecticide, is transferred to the plants—has provided more fodder
for the debate. Ecologists are concerned that widespread planting of these
crops will spur Bt resistance among crop pests, and Bt is popular with
organic farmers.

Even more worrisome are ecological concerns. In 1999 Cornell University
entomologist John Losey performed a provocative, "seat-of-the-pants"
laboratory experiment. He dusted Bt corn pollen on plants populated by
monarch-butterfly caterpillars. Many of the caterpillars died. Losey
himself is not yet convinced that Bt corn poses a grave danger to North
America's monarch-butterfly population, but he does think the issue
deserves attention. Others agree. "The problem with transgenics is the
risks and hazards involved," says Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriskh, an Indian
environmental group working to preserve the country's biodiversity. "We
still don't know what this can do to other plants and organisms."

There are more potential pitfalls. Among other things, the possibility
exists that as transgenes in pollen drift, they will fertilize wild
plants, and weeds will emerge that are hardier and even more difficult to
control. No one knows how common the exchange of genes between domestic
plants and their wild relatives really is, but Margaret Mellon, director
of the Union of Concerned Scientists' agriculture and biotechnology
program, is not alone in thinking that it's high time we find out. Says
she: "People should be responding to these concerns with experiments, not
assurances."

That is beginning to happen, although—contrary to expectations—the reports
coming in are not that scary. For three years now, University of Arizona
entomologist Bruce Tabashnik has been monitoring fields of Bt cotton that
farmers have planted in his state. And in this instance at least, he says,
"the environmental risks seem minimal, and the benefits seem great." First
of all, cotton is self-pollinated rather than wind-pollinated, so that the
spread of the Bt gene is of less concern. And because the Bt gene is so
effective, he notes, Arizona farmers have reduced their use of chemical
insecticides 75%. So far, the pink bollworm population has not rebounded,
indicating that the feared resistance to Bt has not yet developed.

ASSESSING THE PROMISE
Are the critics of agricultural biotechnology right? Is biotech's promise
nothing more than overblown corporate hype? The papaya growers in Hawaii's
Puna district clamor to disagree. In 1992 an epidemic of papaya ringspot
virus threatened to destroy the state's papaya industry; by 1994, nearly
half the state's papaya acreage had been infected, their owners forced to
seek outside employment. But then help arrived, in the form of a
virus-resistant transgenic papaya developed by Cornell University plant
pathologist Dennis Gonsalves.

In 1995 a team of scientists set up a field trial of two transgenic
lines—UH SunUP and UH Rainbow—and by 1996, the verdict had been rendered.
The nontransgenic plants in the field trial were a stunted mess, and the
transgenic plants were healthy. In 1998, after negotiations with four
patent holders, the papaya growers switched en masse to the transgenic
seeds and reclaimed their orchards. "Consumer acceptance has been great,"
reports Rusty Perry, who runs a papaya farm near Puna. "We've found that
customers are more concerned with how the fruits look and taste than with
whether they are transgenic or not."

The widespread perception that agricultural biotechnology is intrinsically
inimical to the environment perplexes Gordon Conway, the agricultural
ecologist who heads the Rockefeller Foundation. He views genetic
engineering as an important tool for achieving what he has termed a
"doubly green revolution." If the technology can marshal a plant's natural
defenses against weeds and viruses, if it can induce crops to flourish
with minimal application of chemical fertilizers, if it can make dryland
agriculture more productive without straining local water supplies, then
what's wrong with it?

Of course, these breakthroughs have not happened yet. But as Potrykus sees
it, there is no question that agricultural biotechnology can be harnessed
for the good of humankind. The only question is whether there is the
collective will to do so. The answer may well emerge as the people of Asia
weigh the future of golden rice.

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Nature Paper Examines 'SuperWeed' Fears

(Note: The following paper due to appear in this week's 'Nature' dispels
the fear that the current GM crops may become invasive weeds based on a
ten-year empirical study with four crops (despite its title) . Please note
that this news is embargoed until Feb 7, 2 PM Eastern)

BIOTECH: GM PLANTS MAKE WEEDY WEEDS

Nature Press Release ; Full Description: vol. 409 no. 6821 (pp682-683) 8
FEBRUARY 2001 EMBARGO: 1400 US Eastern Standard Time Wednesday 7 February
[409682]

A ten-year survey of four types of genetically modified (GM) crop has
found that they do not survive well in the wild, and are no more likely to
invade other habitats than their unmodified counterparts. The study
reported in a Brief Communication this week will help allay fears that GM
plants will be super-weeds, either in their own right or by breeding with
unmodified plants.

In 1990, Michael Crawley and colleagues, of Imperial College, London,
began testing how well modified and unmodified crops would survive in the
wild. They planted all the GM crops available at the time - varieties of
oilseed rape, sugar beet, maize and potato - alongside non-GM versions of
the same crops. Within four years, all plots of maize, beet and rape had
died out naturally. Only one plot of potatoes lasted the full decade, and
all the survivors are unmodified. But the researchers caution that plants
genetically modified in the future for traits such as drought tolerance or
pest resistance could be better at surviving on their own, and that
varieties with these traits will need to be tested as they are developed.

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The power and politics of food biotechnology
www.checkbiotech.org ; 07 Feb 2001 News Release, Farm Bureau

With a world market focusing on technology, regulatory controls,
economics, politics and consumer acceptance, America's farmers and
ranchers find themselves in the center of an emotional debate.
Historically challenged by the weather and commodity price levels,
agricultural producers are in uncharted territory struggling to balance
profits and and changing consumer markets.
Dr. Roger Beachy, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in
St. Louis, Mo., and Cathryn Mattson, director of governmental relations at
Unilever-Best Foods, discussed biotechnology and agriculture in the 21st
century at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting last month
in Orlando, Fla. Advancements in food biotechnology have spawned new
opportunities for producers and potential consumer benefits never before
imagined. Benefits range from high-yield crops requiring less acreage to
produce higher outputs, reduced use of herbicides and pesticides, and
nutritional benefits for consumers. "This kind of science is to allow
farmers to adapt to changing weather and changing markets," said Beachy.
"The first products of agriculture biotechnology are 'green' and were
chosen to improve production and reduce the use of ag chemicals."

Unfortunately, the scientific benefits are being overshadowed by emotional
rhetoric. The debate has shifted into an arena questioning the morals and
ethics of the science. Both the application of the technology and the
restriction of its use has entered the debate. Rather than focusing only
on the science, Beachy explained, "It is a different setting than there
has ever been before. "We are looking at what are the moral implications
if we restrict the development of foods that can improve the health and
welfare of people worldwide," he continued.

With consumers in the driver's seat, America's farmers and ranchers find
themselves looking into a crystal ball trying to gauge the acceptance of
future genetically modified foods worldwide. U.S. consumers, according to
Mattson, have shown little concern at present in spite of additional media
coverage as regulatory agencies have pushed to tighten approval processes
for biotech seeds to require higher levels of stewardship. The same
confidence is not evident in other world markets. Resistance has primarily
come from Europe where unrelated health scares have undermined public
confidence in government regulatory policy. This has been coupled with
sensationalized media coverage.

For American agricultural producers, the solutions will require a wide
array of tools, educational efforts, sensitivity to the societal issues
emerging throughout the debate and reliance on scientific data validated
through regulatory channels. In the end the consumer will be the ultimate
judge. Beachy and Mattson estimate that more than 70 percent of the
processed foods available today are biotech. Obstacles that the food chain
will have to address if biotech foods require segregation include
establishing and financing a large-scale grain handling system, regulatory
processes and compliance requirements.

"There is a tremendous benefit to this technology," said Mattson. "Now we
are seeing production benefits, not consumer benefits. We hope we can get
there before the science is derailed."

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ORGANIC BELIEVERS SEE NO COMPROMISE
Jim Romahn February 5, 2001 K-W Record (Via Agnet)

Columnist Romahn writes that University of Waterloo student Eric Van
Spronsen of Flamborough posed the first question at a recent panel
discussion that was the highlight at the huge organic conference held
recently at the University of Guelph.

Is the organic movement absolutely and totally opposed to genetic
engineering that involves food and if so, why?

Van Spronsen explained that he's in a class that is studying
genetically-modified food. The class has been divided into groups that
represent various interests in the Canadian food system and he's been
assigned to the organic-farming group. These class groups are supposed to
try to reach a concensus by the end of the course. So the challenge to the
panel was not only a clear and reasoned answer, but also one that Van
Spronsen could take to class to help develop a consensus. But this is more
than a classroom exercise. It's a very real situation facing Canadian
society.

Panel moderator Tomas Nimmo, who has worked tirelessly for the Canadian
organic movement, referred the question to Brewster Kneen, former Ontario
cleric, then Maritime sheep farmer and now a vitriolic writer living in
British Columbia. Keen's answer: there can be no compromise. "Genetic
engineering is nothing other than a very dubious science." Professor Ann
Clark, a pasture management specialist in the crop science department at
the University of Guelph, followed up saying the problem is "linear
thinking" instead of the organic movement's "wholistic approach" to
farming and food production.

So van Spronsen got a religious answer to his political challenge. Kneen
and Clark expect him to go back to class and stand firm, not yielding an
inch to the enemy. And that, in a nutshell, is why the organic movement
remains on the radical fringe of North American society. It wants to
expand and grow. Some within the movement recognize opportunities to grow
by producing and marketing food the kind of food that appeals to people.
But most want to grow and expand by winning converts to the organic
movement as a religion. But what is that religion? It's hard to know
because there are so many different organizations and standards.

One organic grower who came to the microphone during the panel discussion
hit the nail on the head when he said the organic movement's "wholistic"
logic of working with, not against, the environment leads him to think we
ought to stop farming and return to being hunters and gatherers. That's
religious purity. Clark said in her keynote address to the convention that
she's disturbed by those Ontario organic farmers who grow only three crops
on their land and have no livestock or poultry to contribute manure. And
she warned that the lure of success in the marketplace will seduce organic
farmers into the vices that corrupt conventional agriculture. She is
another degree of religious purity.

So, back to Van Sprongen's question. What is there about genetic
engineering that is beyond the organic-farming pale? Is it the science and
its techniques? Or is it the practical applications of that science? Can a
faithful adherent to the organic movement's religious beliefs practice
genetic engineering? Can society devise sensible rules and regulations to
establish boundaries? If the religion is as radical as requiring mankind
to give up all farming, and to depend on hunting and gathering for
survival, the answer is no.

But if the religion tolerates farming, then the answer must be yes because
genetic engineering is simply another advance in the technology of plant
breeding. Romahn says that he sees possibilities that Van Sprongen could
propose and accept a compromise that would hold his classmates together as
a friendly society.

But that's only the first and easier challenge. The second and more
difficult challenge will be dealing with fellow believers in the organic
movement.

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A NEW SCREEN FOR BEAN GENES
February 2, 2001 Wired News Kristen Philipkoski
http://www.wired.com/news/medtech/0,1286,41576,00.html

If you hate genetically modified foods, you'll love this new gadget
they're making. Soon you'll be able to arm yourself with a scanner to
identify altered foods with the push of a button. Clinical MicroSensor,
owned by Motorola, and GeneScan Europe, says it will collaborate to
develop the handheld DNA scanner in the next two to three years.

Officials involved in the project wouldn't say how much the device will
cost, but they did say sales would be directed more toward businesses
rather than consumers. In other words, chances are you won't be able to
afford one.

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