14 April 2000

Table of Contents

Organic Cropland Doubled in 1990s (US)
GM tree in North America
GM tree in Europe
Statement by Dr. Olden, NIH 2001 President's Budget
Vandana Shiva Calls for Food Freedom Zones
Ethical Issues Trouble Human Genome Researchers
Biotechnology: New danger or solution to Africa's food deficit?
Percy Schmeiser on Dutch TV
Sri Lanka bans import of genetically modified food!
RAFI Genotype – Revised Patent Policy
Botany vs Biotechnology
plastic genes
DNA Banks for Endangered Animal Species
Transgenic Crops Report Fuels Debate
Monsanto Rice Puding

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Date: 7 Apr 2000 19:23:25 +0100
From: Vegetarian Resource Center

Organic Cropland Doubled in 1990s (US)

By PHILIP BRASHER, AP Farm Writer, MARCH 31, 03:03 EST

WASHINGTON (AP) o Farmers doubled the nation's organic crop acreage in the 1990s, and production of organic eggs and milk increased even more to meet rising consumer demand, the government says.

The amount of certified organic cropland grew from 403,000 acres in 1992 to 850,000 in 1997.

The number of organic laying hens jumped from 43,981 to 537,826 during the same period, a time when public concern about bacterial contamination of eggs was on the rise. The number of organic milk cows grew from 2,265 to 12,897. Organic farming became one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture during the 1990s and producers, exporters and retailers are still according to a study by the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service.

Organic farming is still a very small part of U.S. agriculture, however. About 0.2 percent of U.S. cropland was certified organic in 1997, compared with 1.5 percent in Europe, where farmers are offered government aid to convert to organic agriculture.

The amount of organic pasture and rangeland actually declined from 1992 to 1997, from 532,000 acres to 496,000 acres. Economists say organic production of meat and poultry lagged during the decade because they could not be labeled as organic until February 1999.

A summary of the USDA study was released Thursday.

Organic farming practices prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for crops or antibiotics or hormones in livestock. New national standards for organic food that the department announced earlier this month are expected to stimulate growth in the industry by bolstering consumer confidence and making it easier to export the products.

But the study said it remains difficult for farmers to switch to organic practices for a number of reasons: the cost and risk involved in shifting to the new methods, insufficient numbers of processors and distributors, and limited access to capital.

While organic products can fetch significantly higher prices than conventional ones, farmers cannot sell their crops as organic during the three-year conversion period required to be certified.

Nationally, 2 percent of apple, grape, lettuce and carrot acreage was organic in 1997, along with 1 percent of oats, dry peas and tomatoes.

There is evidence that organic agriculture has continued to expand since 1997. California Certified Organic Farmers, one of the top certifying agencies in the state, estimated its 1999 acreage at 96,878, up 38 percent from 1997. Idaho estimated its 1999 organic cropland at 85,061 acres, up 55 percent from 1997.


On the Net: USDA's National Organic Program:

Economic Research Service:

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Date: 9 Apr 2000 14:15:39 +0100
From: "j.e. cummins"

GM tree in North America

8 April 2000, Prof. Joe Cummins

There has been discussion of tree genetic modification (GM) , most people seem totally unaware of the massive international efforts in that area. However, to my best knowledge and effort no GM tree has been commercially released. In Canada the Ministry of Natural Resources is responsible for forestry, that Ministry acknowledges a huge program in GM forestry including use of exotic viruses (lecontvirus, disparvirus and sertifervirus) to control forest insects.

Earlier research had included poplar with human metalothionine gene ( a gene activated in breast cancer and testicular cancer) but that production has not yet been released. Even though I have hunted extensively and made repeated requests the Canadian Forestry bureaucracy describes their extensive program in general terms but does not provide data on field tests, at least in a readily available form or in response to request. In contrast to the extreme retentiveness of Canadian Bureaucrats, most other countries provide full information on field tests.

The United States has reported a large number of field tests with GM trees. The forest industry has mainly modified poplar, cotton wood and pine. Poplar is most advanced in genetic modification. Field test have been done in States including, Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Michigan and Minnesota. The most frequent modifications include glyphosate tolerance, Bt insect resistance altered lignin synthesis. Herbicide tolerance may surprise many but forests are managed using herbicides over vast areas of North America to remove weed trees.

Use of Bt toxin in forest trees seems a questionable management of insects because resistance is likely to appear when trees are young. Lignin modification facilitates fiber recovery. Finally, the University of Washington tested poplar with human genes for halogenated hydrocarbon metabolism (human poplar hybrids should please Druids).

Cotton wood has been modified in South Carolina and Missouri . The reported experiments are with bacterial genes used to confer glyphosate tolerance. Pine has been tested in South Carolina with bacterial genes to provide visual markers.

GM Apples have been tested in California, Oregon and New York. The genes tested were mainly for insect resistance, fungus resistance, sugar in fruit or ripening. Gene sources included bacteria, plants or chickens. The last may make apples an item at KFC. Pears were tested in West Virginia, these were modified with a hormone gene from bacteria.Plum was tested in West Virginia modified with antisense gene for ripening and virus components for virus resistance. Walnut was extensively tested in California, the genes introduced were mainly Bt for insect resistance, bacterial hormone genes for root formation, snowdrop lectin ( recollect the potatoes of Scotland), barley lectin and systemic acquired resistance genes from tobacco.

GM Papaya was tested in Florida and Hawaii , the genes tested included virus resistance by introduced virus genes mainly, with one antisense ripening gene.

GM tree field trials have been undertaken extensively in US and Canada. The Canadian tests seem to have been concealed by bureaucrats. Canadian bureaucrats are markedly retentive of information. During a period when I was appointed to an advisory group on an environmental remediation panel the bureaucrat supervising the panel declared that we should all in Canada consider ourselves employees of the government (Canadian bureaucrats enjoy little independence and dare not reveal government activities until permitted by the bureaucratic hierarchy ).

That supervising bureaucrat is now negotiating environmental treaties and is known for putting forward the interests of multinational companies. These matters may be simply internal matters , however, the Canadian bureaucratic delegation to Codex was given the lead in the Codex Alimentarius task force on labeling GM foods and in that capacity bears international scrutiny.

My next report will be on GM tree experiments in EU.

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Date: 9 Apr 2000 16:39:53 +0100
From: "j.e. cummins"

GM tree in Europe

9 April 2000, Prof. Joe Cummins

Field tests of Genetically Modified (GM) trees have been undertaken in the Europe. For the most part, fewer tests have been done than in North America. The following field tests have been reported:

This list may not include all current tests or commercial releases. However, it shows that extensive field testing has been done in Europe but not as wildly as in North America.

Before closing I would add reference to a Japanese construction that seemed wonderful:

Biosci Biotechnol Biochem 1997 Sep;61(9):1580-1 describes an experiment in which goat growth hormone was introduced into the genes of poplar. This proves that if you build a better poplar the world of goats will beat a path to your door! There will be really BIG goats in them forests.Watch out for goat raisins the size of footballs :-)

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Date: 10 Apr 2000 00:24:15 +0100
From: Robert Mann

Congressional Testimony
30 March 2000


Statement by Dr. Olden, NIH 2001 President's Budget

Statement by: Dr. Kenneth Olden
Director, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences on Fiscal Year 2001 President's Budget Request


There is a paucity of information to make important environmental health regulatory decisions. When it's time for many of us to buy a car or a house, we take great pains to study the market, examining factors like reliability, safety and resale value, before committing ourselves to make such a major investment. As a nation, however, we frequently make decisions about how (or whether) to regulate chemical and physical agents to improve environmental health-moves that cost the public and private sectors hundreds of billions of dollars-without adequate information. This lack of information is becoming more evident as we move into an era when the biggest threats we face are from exposures to low doses, not the high doses we have traditionally faced and tried to control.

The most commonly used words in reference to environmental health risks are "not enough information." For example, a committee by the National Research Council recently concluded that "there is insufficient research, and therefore insufficient evidence, to say whether particular environmentalcontaminants known as endocrine disruptors may be dangerous to humans."

This information gap is not unique to endocrine disruptors. Most experts agree that inadequate information exists regarding the toxicity of chemicals, the variation in susceptibility to toxic substances, the type, pattern, and magnitude of human exposure to chemicals through the diet, the workplace, and the environment.

In part, the current dilemma has resulted from the success of environmental remediation and pollution control and reduction efforts over the past 30 years. These efforts have dramatically, reduced the human health threats posed by the thousands of new chemicals and technologies introduced into our environment. In fact, there are those who argue the environment no longer represents a serious threat to human health because the low- dose exposures currently experienced by most Americans pose no significant health threat. But the assumption that low-dose exposures do not present a potential health risk is seriously flawed. We now know that chronic low-level exposures have the capacity to accumulate and attain toxic concentrations in brain and other tissues. For example, it is well documented that ingested methylmercurycan be completely absorbed from the digestive tract and easily accumulate in the brain and poison the neurons involved in learning and memory processes.

Robt Mann consultant ecologist P O Box 28878Remuera, Auckland 1005, New Zealand (9) 524 2949

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Date: 10 Apr 2000 11:15:22 +0100
From: "Renu Namjoshi"

Vandana Shiva Calls for Food Freedom Zones

Vandana Shiva was one of the most outspoken small farm advocates during the WTO meetings in Seattle. The recently published interview below reveals why she's so passionate about the impacts of globalization in her home country of India, and her idea of Zones for Food Freedom may be very applicable local communities in this country.


Altering a Crooked Food Chain

By Michele Landsberg, Toronto Star, March 26, 2000

The beginning of a fine meal in a fancy restaurant: gleam of fresh table linen, tinkle of ice cubes in glasses. You pluck one pink prawn from the shrimp cocktail appetizer and sink your teeth into its plump flesh.

If you thought long and hard about that shrimp, if you could follow it back to its source and calculate its true cost, you might well hit upon one of the most exciting movements in the world today - the movement for food democracy.

"It's gathering momentum," declared Vandana Shiva, one of the world's most admired crusading environmentalists, in an interview last week. "We saw its power in Seattle, we'll see busloads of youth at the Biodevastation protests in Boston this weekend, and next it will be Washington in April when the World Bank meets."

Shiva believes that the revolt against "food dictatorship," in which a handful of monster corporations control the global food supply, is the springboard for ending globalization.

Shiva is a one-woman answer to environmental despair and political paralysis. An Indian physicist, activist, world lecturer, a winner of the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel, and a steady voice raised up against biotech totalitarianism, she was in Toronto to lecture about her crisply written, information-packed little book "Stolen Harvest, The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply" (South End Press).

In "Stolen Harvest," Shiva illustrates her case with the example of the heavily subsidized U.S. soy industry, and how it was able to "force-feed" India - wiping out the age-old mustard-seed oil industry in a single year, displacing 750 million indigenous farmers, and imposing a costly monoculture of genetically altered soybean on one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world.

Meanwhile, even as it pushed mustard seed close to extinction, a Monsanto-owned company quietly picked up a patent on that same mustard seed plant. If Indian farmers ever want to reclaim their beloved native crop, they'll have to pay through the nose.

But about that shrimp. India has been the world's largest exporter of shrimp for 20 years. The traditional methods are ecologically sound and sustainable. Rice paddies, for example, might be flooded with seawater after the rice harvest, letting natural marine nutrients enrich the land and feed the trapped shrimp and prawns until they are harvested.

The World Bank thought this was too "low yield" an approach. By the early '90s, the Indian government was pushing industrialized shrimp farms. Here are some of the results of that large-scale shrimp culture: trawlers wreck the sea bed and destroy thousands of sea turtles as they plunder marine stocks for millions of tons of wild fish to be ground into meal to feed the shrimp.

Only 17 per cent of the fish meal actually is converted to shrimp mass; the rest becomes waste, heavily laced with antibiotics and pesticides, which pollutes groundwater. Local water tables are also contaminated by the large-scale pumping of sea water into the shrimp ponds, killing off local trees and crops. In some of the villages affected by salinization, women are working an extra four to six hours a day in pursuit of ever scarcer water and fuel. Shrimp ponds are also the chief destroyers of mangroves, which are vital to coastal ecologies.

Do the transnationals and their global allies worry about the ecological devastation? Not at all. In Stolen Harvest, Shiva quotes an internal memo by the former chief economist of the World Bank, Lawrence Summers:

"Just between you and me," Summers wrote, "shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the less developed countries? . . . The economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage countries is impeccable . . ."

Summers noted that dumping toxins shouldn't be a big concern in countries where people don't survive long enough to develop prostate cancer. Summers is now chief of the U.S. Treasury Board.

Although these havoc-wreaking trade imperialists seem to have supreme power, Shiva is calmly confident that a different power base is building and connecting geometrically. (Interestingly, many of the leaders are women, including Shiva herself, Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, Mae Wan Ho of World Scientists, Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Mathai, not to mention Canadian women scientists who blew the whistle on genetically modified foods and untested drugs, like Dr. Ann Clark of Guelph and Michelle Brill-Edwards, formerly of Canada's Health Protection Branch).

Only a year ago, in India, Shiva helped found the Zones for Food Freedom, which has already mushroomed to include 4,000 villages where local farmers pledge to reject chemicals, genetically modified seeds and life-form patents. Her Navdanya group collects and conserves seeds of India's biodiversity; her global alliance of women's groups, called Diverse Women for Diversity, will link food security groups around the world. (Connect with any of these groups by writing Navdanya at Sectt.A-60, Hauz Khas, New Delhi, 110 016, fax 91-11-656-2093)

Shiva's next project: to unmask the truth about the costs of genetically engineered crops. "We will knit the world together with this truth," she exclaimed, clasping her hands in illustration.

"When small-scale farmers in North America and India see that big U.S. soy growers sell on the world market for $155 a ton, while receiving U.S. subsidies of $192 a ton on top of that, not to mention the export credits that agribusiness gets, they'll no longer believe in the supposed economic benefits of agricultural imperialism."

Food may seem an odd starting point for changing the world, but think about it. From France ("Let them eat cake") to America (the Boston Tea Party) to India (the ill-fated British salt tax) to last year's food riots in Indonesia, many of the world-changing citizen uprisings in history have happened when arrogant power went too far with its manipulations of and profiteering from the stuff that sustains life.

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Date: 10 Apr 2000 17:30:02 +0100

Ethical Issues Trouble Human Genome Researchers

By Allan Dowd, Reuters Online Service, Freitag, 7. April 2000 20:51:00

© Copyright 2000 Reuters Ltd. VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Genetic researchers, poised to complete the first version of the basic blueprint to the human body, are still wrestling with the social questions that arise from the information being discovered. International scientists who have collaborated in the Human Genome Organization (HUGO) will gather in Vancouver Sunday to exchange recent research findings that are producing new discoveries at a breathtaking pace.

The group's leaders hope the more than 600 researchers expected to gather for the three-day conference will also advance the difficult ethical debate over how the benefits of the scientific knowledge should be shared.

"I think we are at a crucial stage in terms of defining some of those principles ... at least engaging many different parties in that debate," said Dr. Michael Hayden of the University of British Columbia.

President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair put the ethical issue of human gene mapping in the public spotlight last month with a joint declaration that scientists should have free access to the basic information being developed. Their joint statement was warmly received by many scientists.

"From the world's point of view, it's very important because now, even at their level, (world leaders) recognize the importance of benefit sharing," said Dr. Lap-Chee Tsui, a Canadian scientist who will chair Human Genome Meeting 2000. But while there is general agreement among scientists that the basic genomic blueprint should be freely available, there is disagreement on issues such as how quickly it should enter the public domain.

The Human Genome Project, a public alliance of 16 institutions, has been racing with several private companies -- such as Celera Genomics (CRA.N) – to complete a human DNA map, the basic biological data that forms a person.

Celera announced Thursday it had finished the first step of sequencing the genes of one person. The U.S. company plans to use the genes of five different people to make up a final genome sequence, and then sell information from its database.

Leaders of the Human Genome Project have said they hope to finish a "working draft" that will include 90 percent of the human DNA sequence by late May or early June, and have a final version ready on or before 2003. Its information goes directly to the public domain as it is collected.

Knowing the layout of the human genome should aid medical researchers in finding the medical causes of many diseases ranging from diabetes to cancer.

"Genomics is really the basic tool to study biology," said Tsui of Toronto's renowned Hospital for Sick Children. The effort has led to a myriad of ethical concerns, such as whether genetic information about a person's likelihood to contract a disease would lead to discrimination in employment or health insurance.

Tsui declined to give details of a paper on benefit-sharing to be presented during conference, but said it was modeled on the HUGO's 1996 call for genetic research to follow principles such as "the upholding of human dignity and freedom." Scientists acknowledge the issue of patenting genetic information will be difficult to resolve, because it is not clear whether it would hinder or help future research.

"Suppose we were at the stage of human biology where we are discovering all the parts of human anatomy and every time a bone was discovered it was patented. Would that have an impact? It might. It might not," said Dr. Michael Smith, who shared the 1993 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

The Human Genome Project and Celera have used different research techniques to collect their information. Scientists agree that sharing information would help both sides, but talks on how to do that snagged earlier this year.

The public alliance began its work in 1989, and scientists involved with it acknowledge that the competition with Celera and other private companies may already have been beneficial by making the project speed up its work.

"Initially, remember, we were talking about the human genetic sequence being available in 2005. Then it was 2003. Now it's 2001 and maybe even 2000," said Hayden.

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Date: 12 Apr 2000 02:17:07 +0100

"This frees women and children's weeding time considerably, allowing them to engage in other activities."
Yes I agree, maybe a bit of crop pulling instead.
Jim Mc Nulty

Biotechnology: New danger or solution to Africa's food deficit?

Source: Africa News Service, Publication date: 2000-04-11

Nairobi - An entire country faces famine. The government calls out for food relief to help stem the death and starvation across. The relief food that is donated is genetically-modified. The government knows this. Should it accept the food or not? Or is this really a rhetorical question?

This scenario goes to the heart of the issue of genetically engineered food for Africa. It was painted by a University of Zimbabwe biochemist at an interview during a recent conference on bio- diversity in Mombasa.

The scenario brought together the science and economics of genetic engineering and the uncertainty surrounding the safety of genetically- engineered food. Genetic engineering is not yet widespread on the continent. The Executive Director of Nairobi's African Centre for Technology Studies (Acts), Dr John Mugabe, reports that only three countries are now involved in genetic engineering: South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya. In Dr Mugabe's assessment, Kenya is really in between tissue culture technology and genetic engineering.

Tissue culture technology and genetic engineering are part of a broader field of biotech, a technique using living organisms to make or modify a product, to improve plants or animals or to develop micro- organisms for specific uses.

Right now, Kenya has only one genetic engineering project. The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) and Monsanto, the besieged multinational, are working on a transgenic sweet potato.

Aventis, another multinational, formed by merging Rhone-Poulenc with AgrEvo, may be working with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) on another genetic engineering project in Kenya.

In the African and Kenyan context, genetic engineering is mainly a Western import. It follows that the debates in the West are important to Africans as they generate their own debates," says Dr John Nderitu of the Association for Better Land Husbandry (ABLH).

"The effects of genetically modified crops and products on the human body are not known. There is no conclusive evidence of whether or not they can be harmful."

The Association for Better Land Husbandry is an organisation that promotes organic farming as a sustainable form of agriculture. Dr Idah Sithole-Niang, a senior lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe's Department of Biochemistry, agrees. She "absolutely" supports the development of agriculture biotechnology.

"There are no data on the long-term impact or effects on human health that a genetically modified organism may have. Nobody has such data because nobody has eaten them long enough for the data to be collected".

In the United States, genetically modified organisms have been in use for close to a decade. So, ideally, that is where data should be available on the long-term impact of such food on human health.

The US Food and Drug Administration, the body officially charged with regulating new food and drug products in the US, declared in 1992 that there was no major difference between conventional and genetically engineered foods.

This meant that the rigorous testing to which new products are normally subjected in the US has not been applied to genetically engineered foods. The result is that no labelling is required for genetically engineered foods in the US and no special safety tests are carried out.

Therefore, data that would help clear the air about genetically- modified foods have not been collected in a country where genetically modified seeds are used by many farmers.

Sithole-Niang observes that such foods can be tested for toxicity and allergy in humans. She says this is standard and that such effects are not necessarily because the food is genetically engineered. For instance, an individual's allergic reaction to such food is similar to somebody else's allergy to eggs or meat.

In 1992, countries gathered for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio to discuss the environment and what needed to be done to reverse any damage done on it. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which resulted from those talks, has been ratified by several African countries, including Kenya. Significantly, the US has not ratified it to date.

Article 19.3 of the convention provides for Parties (countries that have ratified it) to consider the need for and modalities of a protocol on the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms, or what in this article are called genetically-modified foods, that may have an adverse effect on biodiversity.

The negotiations around such a protocol began in 1996 and have been extended several times. But a final text was eventually agreed on in Montreal in the wee hours of last January 29. That text is known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

It is named after the Colombian city where it was to have been adopted by the negotiating countries in February, 1999. The protocol will be open for signing during a conference in Nairobi next month.

One significant aspect of this protocol is that it allows countries to stop the importation of genetically-modified foods even when there is not enough scientific evidence of the risks presented. It also allows countries to stop the import of such foods if new scientific evidence shows negative effects of the foods.

Once 50 countries ratify the protocol, present it to their parliaments for ratification and then inform the UN, those with any worries about genetically-modified foods, especially as their long- term effects are not known as yet, can still stop importing such foods.

Article 18.2 of the Protocol also requires that such products be labelled. However, labelling states merely that product A "may contain" modified foods not intended for introduction into the environment. It also specifies a contact point to obtain further information.

Against genuine safety concerns about genetically-modified foods are the genuine food needs of many people in the world. "This technology will help fight hunger in Kenya," states agriculture economist Gem Argwings-Kodhek. A senior research fellow at Egerton University's Tegemeo Institute, he says: "The cost of production of commodities will decrease and help protect plants against pests." He sums it up as "High production for little seed input".

Nderitu sees the food needs issue in a different light. "Food-for- the-whole-world proponents argue that with modified foods there will be increased availability of seeds and it will be easy to feed the world," he observes. He sees this argument as, basically, a marketing strategy.

Generally the whole debate revolves around seeds that, for example, produce an insecticide-resistant crop that allows for indiscriminate spraying of the crop's area, killing harmful insects at one go while sparing the crop. Therefore, whoever controls the sale of that seed or other genetically engineered seeds will in effect control agriculture and its profits.

The Canada-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (Rafi) has been monitoring the agriculture biotechnology business for more than 20 years. In 1979 it carried out an assessment of who markets seed around the world.

They came up with a list of 7,000 public and private institutions. At that time not one company controlled a significant percentage of the global commercial seed market. Today, 10 companies control in excess of one-third of the global commercial seed market.

Another trend is seed companies merging to form what are now called "life sciences companies". These seed companies usually already have a division that develops and markets crop chemicals. In fact, according to Rafi, nine companies today control 91 per cent of the global market for insecticides, herbicides and nemacticides.

All are based in the West. And the monopolistic hold they have on seed and crop chemicals allows them to dictate the prices of their products, usually on the higher side to make more profits, because there is little competition to force their prices down.

The pitch for genetically engineered seeds today is part of a global marketing strategy. But that does not mean there is no serious food problem in Africa, in general, and in Kenya, in particular. In a November 1999 paper, Oxfam admits that 790 million people in the world are undernourished. However, in their view, food insecurity is primarily caused by low incomes and unequal access to land, water, credit and markets. In short, poverty is the cause of the food crisis in many parts of the world, and not low food production.

The obvious gains in planting modified crops include the lower costs of production owing to their herbicide and insect resistance properties.

In the words of Novartis' Dr Florence Wambugu: "This frees women and children's weeding time considerably, allowing them to engage in other activities."

If the whole debate is really just about more people having more food to eat in Africa, in general, and Kenya, in particular, has anybody asked the farmer why she (for, in most cases, it is a she) or he generally produce less and less each year? Why is she or he experiencing famine? The answers to these questions may be surprising.

(Copyright 2000 The Nation.)

Distributed via Africa News Online by Africa News Service.

Publication date: 2000-04-11 © 2000, YellowBrix, Inc.

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Date: 12 Apr 2000 14:19:44 +0100
From: wytze

Percy Schmeiser on Dutch TV

Finally, after a lot of superficial and mainly pro-GE press here in the Netherlands the last few months, tonight there was a half hour in depth tv programme around Percy Schmeiser vs Monsanto. Monsanto refused all invitations to be interviewed, so the microphone was almost completely for Schmeiser and other farmers. Really Great!

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Date: 12 Apr 2000 14:52:41 +0100
From: "NLP Wessex"

Sri Lanka bans import of genetically modified food!

SRI LANKA: April 11, 2000

COLOMBO - Sri Lanka has banned imports of all genetically modified (GM) foods with immediate effect, a senior health minstry official said on Monday.

"The government wants to wait until the controversy surrounding GM foods has cleared," S. Nagiah, chief food inspector of the health ministry, told Reuters by telephone. Nagiah said the government's food advisory committee was keen to avoid health risks associated with genetic modifications, adding there were no price advantages to be gained from importing GM foods. Sri Lanka does not produce any GM foods, but is a significant importer of wheat and sugar. GM foods contain a gene from another organism generally to make them resistant to herbicides or to produce their own toxins to kill pests. Proponents of the new technology say it contributes to higher crop yields and lower production costs while critics fear long-term health and environmental consequences.


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Date: 12 Apr 2000 17:01:47 +0100

RAFI Genotype – Revised Patent Policy

Rural Advancement Foundation Intl
12 April 2000, RAFI Geno-Types,

The Spill out from CIMMYT's Revised Patent Policy

Oil on Troubled Waters...or just a Tempest in a Test-tube?

In 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly voted to allow the patenting of a living microorganism intended to soak up oil spills. The decision ushered in a new era in intellectual property. Suddenly, the products and processes – even the formulae – of life became patentable. From microorganisms, patent offices have soldiered on to grant exclusive monopolies for plants, animals, entire species, human cell lines, and even fragments of human DNA that only computers have seen and no one has understood.

In 1980, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office allowed about 60,000 patents. By 1999, the number of annually approved patent claims at the USPTO had more than doubled. But this doubling says more about the strains afflicting overburdened patent examiners than the real surge in the importance of intellectual property in world commerce. It took from U.S. Independence Day more than 200 years ago until December 1999 for the United States to recognize six million inventions. At this moment, more than three million patents are pending in the USA on human genetic material alone. In the past two decades, the patent system has slid from the "better mousetrap" to the "better mouse" to the "better us"?

Given the omnipresence of the patent system then, it would have seemed hardly newsworthy when CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (one of the world's most influential Green Revolution institutes under the umbrella of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research – CGIAR) let it be known recently that it was amending its policy on intellectual property. The amended policy adopts a case-by-case evaluation that would accept patents (and other intellectual property options) where publication and other contract strategies were deemed nonviable. In a world in which there can be as many patents on a maize variety as on a 747, in a privatized environment wherein the Movers and Shakers in agricultural biotechnologies are a handful of Gene Giants, CIMMYT's decision sounded a "reality check" for all public-spirited research institutions trying to make their way in the midst of a patent pandemic.

RAFI's commentary on CIMMYT's intellectual property (IP) policy is not intended to isolate and attack CIMMYT, which is among the most honourable and transparent of all the CGIAR institutes, but rather it is an opportunity to raise broader issues that are critically important to the entire CGIAR and the future of public sector research.

"Reality Check" or just "Checking Out"? That the CIMMYT board decision was rushed to the pages of Nature (Vol. 404, 594. April 6th 2000) and, subsequently, ricocheted around the world on Internet list-servers, is testament to the fact that no changes in public sector intellectual property policy these days is taken lightly. Most particularly, not a change at CIMMYT – an organization that has been unhesitating in its criticism of predatory patents and the patent system's threat to scientific exchange. Until the Nature report, most observers, including civil society organizations (CSOs) such as RAFI, would have characterized CIMMYT's position on patents as unreservedly hostile.

Has CIMMYT – sadly – faced up to the "inevitable"? Are CSOs advocating against CIMMYT's policy shift out of touch? CIMMYT, after all, is on the firing line. CSOs (it is often wrongly assumed by industry and scientists) pontificate principles with impunity.

CIMMYT's rationale for its distasteful policy choice is that, by selective patenting (as a last resort), it will be able to ensure that farmers in the South, and their national agricultural researchers, will have free access to CIMMYT's inventions. Preventative patenting, CIMMYT reasons, will keep unscrupulous enterprises (public or private – South or North) from capturing CIMMYT's work in corporate claims. By contracts and licenses, CIMMYT will keep the profiteers at bay while making sure that the South benefits.

Although there is no intent to finance CIMMYT's own work through patent royalties (and this would be a pipe dream anyway), presumably CIMMYT will plough whatever royalties it does acquire back into an independent "pro-poor" trust. As a second matter, the cautious adoption of a few intellectual property claims may be necessary for CIMMYT to collaborate with the Gene Giants on cutting-edge biotech research needed by the world's hungry. Thus, according to CIMMYT, it is making the best of a bad situation. According to others, it is opting "to go to hell to fight the devil". Folks going into battle generally prefer higher ground!

The CIMMYT board's unanimous policy vote garnered extra attention because though the final text was not completed, the board discussed its conclusions with the media. Many observers – seeing CIMMYT negotiate with companies on patents related to apomixis technology (a means of cloning plants through seeds) and collaborate with companies on other research – thought this was CIMMYT's de facto policy already. What was new? Why now?

Distant Drummers or Bad Tuning? To outsiders, the board's timing seemed either to be unfortunate, klutzy, or – for conspiracy theorists - choreographed to the not-so-distant drums of the biotech industry. The timing wasn't in CIMMYT's best interest. This week, Ministers of Agriculture throughout Latin America and the Caribbean convene in Mexico, down the road from CIMMYT's headquarters, for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's biennial regional conference.

With a thin agenda and many farmers' organizations and Civil Society Organizations present, the CIMMYT policy will rekindle corridor controversies about CGIAR legitimacy. Then, in mid-May, the first-ever Global Forum on Agricultural Research will hold court in Dresden, Germany. As a major meeting of CSOs, governments, industry, UN agencies and the CG System, the Forum will inevitably target IP issues and the CIMMYT shift as hot topics.

The Nature news story on CIMMYT's IP policy also capped a week of industry media hype. The week began with the biotech companies announcing a $50 million (per year) campaign to persuade North Americans that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are good for them. The next day, Monsanto (now mutating into Pharmacia) announced that it was "donating" its working draft of the rice genome to the public sector. Everyone from CG rice scientists to their donors went orgasmic.

Critics pointed out that Monsanto has little interest in rice and likened the PR move as less a "donation" than a "repatriation" that (if the CGIAR thought about it) Monsanto never should have been allowed to control in the first place. Still in the same week, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released a report, much welcomed by industry, suggesting that GM products were safe.

The report recommends pursuing techniques to decrease the potential for the escape of engineered genes into wild populations – in other words, it promotes the "Green," pro-Terminator argument to make what is "safe" (they think) even "safer". Then, along came the CIMMYT advance release of its own IP policy clarification. While not marching to the beat of the industry drummer, the rhythm was painfully well-tuned, if not well-timed.

Wrong Choice: Whatever the timing – and disregarding the conspiracy theories, we strongly disagree with the decision while welcoming the opportunity to address the issues raised by it. First, CIMMYT's goal will not be achieved through this policy. Second, it will find itself propelled to the front of a parade of CG institutes, shielded by its prestige, pushing it in a direction that won't take it where it wants to go. Third, there are two other broad strategies CIMMYT could and should pursue to achieve its goal.

Once patents are obtained, CIMMYT's policy will be politically-painful to review and harder still to reverse. Once personnel rotate off boards and staff change, the temptation to use patents as bargaining chips with the Gene Giants; to pursue strategic profit opportunities that stray from CIMMYT's research mission; to form alliances with industry that blur priorities and principles; will increase and become irresistible in a donor environment where CG Centres are in danger of becoming as malnourished as those they propose to feed. Other CG Centers such as the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Kenya or ICARDA, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, in Syria, may well grasp the policy space opened with CIMMYT's decision and adopt the same policy without the same principles.

No Capacity: How will CIMMYT defend its patents? Patents are a private affair. Civil law. The average cost of a patent litigation, per litigant, runs to well over a quarter of a million dollars. Will CIMMYT take from its research budget for the uncertain prospect of battling patent violations in Washington, Munich, and Tokyo? Will donors allow their foreign aid money to be used to feed lawyers?

In practical terms, will CIMMYT even know if its patents are being compromised? More than once in recent years, RAFI has had to notify CIMMYT that intellectual property claims violated its Trust Agreement with FAO. Once informed, CIMMYT (unlike some CG Centers) has acted promptly and appropriately but it has no capacity to monitor its existing agreements much less take aboard the burden of patent infringements.

Will it now invest scarce resources in new monitoring mechanisms to police its intellectual property? If not, why bother? Corporations routinely circumvent or encompass the patents of others with tactics difficult to discern and harder to defend against. CIMMYT could find itself ensconced upon a pile of patents submarined by wider claims they were completely unaware of. Why spend thousands of dollars acquiring patents that can't be protected?

Defence or Offense? Is CIMMYT's IP policy move designed to defend the South against the wiles of the Multinationals or is it, as well, an offensive move to position the Centre to bargain more effectively with the companies? Is the issue piracy or opportunity? The opportunity argument says that Centres need access to patented technologies held by major public and private research institutes (mostly – but not solely - in the North). Unless Centres can enter into IP licensing arrangements, they won't have access to the technologies.

This shouldn't be a problem. If you need it you pay for it. But, the logical continuation of the argument is that some of the corporate connections will not merely be contractual but also collaborative. In collaboration, the Gene Giants will want to be sure that the knowledge generated is proprietary. While they may (or may not) be willing to allow CG Centres to give the information away in the South, they will certainly want to sell the information in the North. Hence, CIMMYT needs to be able to enter into patent agreements.

This, however, is not where the "logical extensions" come to an end. Effective collaboration means effective bargaining power. CIMMYT has to have goods to trade. Different enterprises will have markedly different views on what is "South" and who is a "small farmer". For Latin American agriculture ministers meeting this week, the question is: are Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay – and their small farmers - in the "South"? When CIP (the International Potato Centre in Peru) entered into collaboration with Belgium's Plant Genetic Systems (PGS), both parties accepted an appended list of countries that would have free license to use the resulting technologies. When PGS was gobbled up by AgrEvo several mergers back, India was unilaterally cut from the approved list by the new owners.

The CGIAR has never been much for confrontation. Its ability to monitor, lobby, or litigate is legendarily feeble. CIAT, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, has yet to properly confront those who have abused its trust and its accord with FAO. In Nigeria, the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) has steadfastly avoided its commitments to FAO.

Unlike some other Centers, CIMMYT has demonstrated more courage and more bargaining power. It has high-caliber biotech expertise and it has one of the world's most important storehouses for maize and wheat germplasm –two of the world's most important crops. Of equal commercial significance, CIMMYT has an arduously developed cache with South governments that allows it to conduct field research and other experiments in many countries. Any collaboration with CIMMYT unavoidably bestows some of its Good Will – a much-prized commercial tool on any corporate partner wishing to do biotech research or develop markets in the South.

Although there are sound reasons to worry whether or not such collaborations could violate the FAO Trust Agreement – or that the basis under which farmers donated their germplasm to CIMMYT could be distorted or destroyed – given the current leadership at CIMMYT this is less a danger than that company collaborators will abuse the Centre's good name and ready access to the South's policymakers. (Under the terms of the 1994 Trust agreement between CGIAR institutes and FAO, "in trust" germplasm is maintained in the public domain and is not allowed to be included in any intellectual property claim.)

CIMMYT's policy move raises one of the most enduring issues surrounding the CGIAR. Does CIMMYT have the right to take this risk? Says who? CIMMYT's policy adjustment once again raises the issue of who governs the CGIAR. With a governance structure that would set any Gene Giant a-giggling, the CG Centres need to sort out who they are and to whom they answer before they gamble with the resources others have shared with them. This is also a question for Latin American agriculture ministers this week and for the Global Forum in Dresden in May.

Real Alternatives: What were the alternatives? They are of two kinds. First, CIMMYT can utilize two legal mechanisms – either or both as the situation requires. In the world's premiere patent office, the USA, it could obtain "non-patent patents" which legally entrench the invention in the public domain so that patent examiners and applicants must take its claims into account when considering new claims.

Less aggressively, CIMMYT can simply publish its research and work with other public institutes to make sure that the option of "prior publication" is effective. This, theoretically, prohibits others from making patent claims on the same information. It is true, of course, that dishonest claimants try to circumvent this. Just as they do with patents. The important difference is that it costs nothing to publish while it costs considerable to patent. CIMMYT, if it wishes, can as readily challenge a patent based upon its published research as it can if it has paid for its own patent. The other difference is that, by publication, CIMMYT is not participating in the system it insists it despises. It is "fighting the devil" from higher ground. If the publication option needs strengthening, then work with other public institutes to have it strengthened.

But, CIMMYT's best weapon against predatory patenters is the one that has already worked for it. Publicity. The Australian States of Queensland and Western Australia, a number of U.S. Universities, the U.S. government, and others, have dropped intellectual property claims in recent years because their abuse of the system simply got too obvious and too embarrassing. There were no legal fees. No courts. All that is needed is the guts to cry foul, maybe a news release or two, and some phone calls and (on rare occasions) plane tickets to take the issue to the country where the wrongful claims are being made. If CIMMYT is not prepared to aggressively and publicly fight abuses this way; it certainly won't win in court.

This is not merely a strategy to fend off fly-by-night biopirates. Aided by CSO's, the CGIAR, FAO, the Rockefeller Foundation, and numerous governments have used publicity to great effect in fighting Terminator Technology. The war is very far from over, but the first battles against a whole technology have been won by the little guys.

Call for Codes: There is a second policy front that CIMMYT and other public institutes should explore. In 1980, when RAFI was fighting patents and plant breeders' rights, there were about 7,000 public and private seed enterprises that we had to monitor. False or usurious claims could come from almost any quarter. While many of these enterprises still survive, the control of agricultural biotechnology rests with a handful of commercial companies.

These few companies are relatively easy to monitor and they are universally anxious to avoid a bad rep for patent piracy. Similarly, as publicly funded research crumbles away around us, the number of public enterprises that need to be watched – or partnered with – is also diminishing. More importantly, most of them are tied to governments that are members of the CGIAR. By and large, they can be made to behave.

Rather than opt for the one policy choice that puts CIMMYT in combinations with the Gene Giants, CIMMYT and CGIAR should be forging new public sector alliances or even "trade unions" that establish norms of conduct and collaboration that predators would be loath to transgress. The Rockefeller Foundation, among others, has been talking about dialogues related to intellectual property that could still create such Codes or Trade Union Movements. Such options should be explored and their possibilities exhausted before setting on a course so injurious.

CIMMYT is grappling with real problems needing real solutions. Unimaginatively, it has chosen the well-trod path of intellectual property that has led nowhere (but down) for public scientists. Did the board seriously consider other options? Were studies commissioned? Was board time devoted to a thorough evaluation of choices like those suggested here? We think not.

The CIMMYT policy was struck by a well intentioned and well informed board. It is nevertheless the wrong decision. Too narrow, too shortsighted, and lacking in intellectual innovation. RAFI nevertheless is convinced that the need for dialogue and honest discourse is greater now than ever before and we will work with CIMMYT, the CGIAR, and others to evolve better choices. In 1980, some in the environmental movement reluctantly endorsed the patenting of the gas-guzzling microbe that opened the way to the patenting of all life. The microorganism never worked. Environmentalists are still cleaning up oil spills. But that first fateful patent could still be in force. And the force of that wrong decision remains with us for the rest of our lives.


RAFI, the Rural Advancement Foundation International, is an international civil society organization headquartered in Canada. RAFI is dedicated to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and to the socially responsible development of technologies useful to rural societies. RAFI is concerned about the loss of agricultural biodiversity, and the impact of intellectual property on farmers and food security.

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Date: 12 Apr 2000 23:38:19 +0100
From: "Renu Namjoshi"

Amory Lovins, a physicist and MacArthur Fellow, and Hunter Lovins, a lawyer and social scientist, are cofounders of Rocky Mountain Institute, the copyright holder. An unabridged version is available at

See article Pro-GE answer to "Botany and Biotechnology"

"A Tale of Two Botanies" Amory & Hunter Lovins articulates the difference between genetic evolution and the sped-up misnomer, "genetic engineering."

As a Chinese says goes: "If we don't change our direction, we will end up where we are heading." Not a happy prospect. We are entering an era of mass consequences – not from our evil deeds, but from imbalances and dysfunctions in our social, political and economic systems. Please consider this query; the life energy we invest now will make all the difference in the world. It is the only thing that will.


Botany vs Biotechnology

A Tale of Two Botanies

By Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins

Plants, shaped into incredible diversity by 3.8 billion years of evolution, make possible all life and are resilient against almost any threat – except human destructiveness. From botany came the genetics of Mendel and Lamarck, formalizing the patient plant-breeding that created 10,000 years of agriculture.

Now, however, in the name of feeding a growing human population, a completely different kind of botany, in the Cartesian tradition of reducing complex wholes to simple parts, strives to alter isolated genes while disregarding the interactive totality of ecosystems. Its ambition is to replace nature's wisdom with people's cleverness; to treat nature not as model and mentor but as a set of limits to be evaded when inconvenient; not to study nature but to restructure it.

The new botany aligns the development of plants with their economic, not evolutionary, success: survival not of the fittest but of the fattest. High-yield, open-pollinated seeds abound; the new crops were created not because they're productive but because they're patentable. Their economic value is oriented not toward helping subsistence farmers to feed themselves but toward feeding more livestock for the already overfed rich. Most worryingly, the transformation of plant genetics is being accelerated from the measured pace of biological evolution to the speed of next quarter's earnings report. Such haste makes it impossible to foresee and forestall: Unintended consequences appear only later, when they may not be fixable, because novel life forms aren't recallable.

In nature, all experiments are rigorously tested over eons. Single mutations venture into an unforgiving ecosystem and test their mettle. What's alive today is what worked; only successes yield progeny. But in the brave new world of artifice, organisms are briefly tested by their creators in laboratory and field, then mass-marketed worldwide. The USDA has already approved about 50 genetically engineered crops for unlimited release; US researchers have tested about 4,500 more.

Over half the world's soybeans and a third of the corn now contain genes spliced in from other forms of life. You've probably eaten some lately – unwittingly. The official assumption is that they're different enough to patent but similar enough to make identical food; Europe's insistence on labeling, to let people choose what they're eating, is considered an irrational barrier to free trade.

Traditional agronomy transfers genes between plants whose kinship lets them interbreed. The new botany mechanically transfers genes between organisms that can never mate naturally: An antifreeze gene from a fish becomes part of a strawberry. Such patchwork, done by people who've seldom studied evolutionary biology and ecology, uses so-called "genetic engineering" – a double misnomer.

It moves genes but is not about genetics. "Engineering" implies understanding of the causal mechanisms that link actions to effects, but nobody understands the mechanisms by which genes, interacting with each other and the environment, express traits. Transgenic manipulation inserts foreign genes into random locations in a plant's DNA to see what happens. That's not engineering; it's the industrialization of life by people with a narrow understanding of it.

The results, too, are more worrisome than those of mere mechanical tinkering, because unlike mechanical contrivances, genetically modified organisms reproduce, genes spread, and mistakes literally take on a life of their own. Herbicide-resistance genes may escape to make "superweeds." Insecticide-making genes may kill beyond their intended targets. Both these problems have already occurred; their ecological effects are not yet known. Among other recent unpleasant surprises, spliced genes seem unusually likely to spread to other organisms. Canola pollen can waft spliced genes more than a mile, and common crops can hybridize with completely unrelated weeds.

Gene-spliced Bt insecticide in corn pollen kills monarch butterflies; that insecticide, unlike its natural forebear, can build up in soil; and corn borers' resistance to it is apparently a dominant trait, so planned anti-resistance procedures won't work.

It could get worse. Division into species seems to be nature's way of keeping pathogens in a box where they behave properly (they learn that it's a bad strategy to kill your host). Transgenics may let pathogens vault the species barrier and enter new realms where they have no idea how to behave. It's so hard to eradicate an unwanted wild gene that we've intentionally done it only once – with the smallpox virus.

Since evolution is a fundamental process, it must occur at every scale at which it's physically possible, down to and including the nanoecosystem of the genome. It's unwise to assume, as "genetic engineers" generally do, that 90-plus percent of the genome is "garbage" or "junk" because they don't know its function. That mysterious, messy, ancient stuff is the context that influences how genes express traits. It's the genetic version of biodiversity, which in larger ecosystems is the source of resilience and endurance.

Transgenics is showing disturbing historical parallels to another problematic invention, nuclear fission. In both enterprises, technical ability has evolved faster than social institutions; skill has outrun wisdom. Both have overlooked fundamentals, often from other disciplines wrongly deemed irrelevant. Both have overreached – too far, too fast, too uncritical.

Our key choices now are not between unwelcome alternatives – nuclear power or freezing in the dark, transgenic crops or starvation – but between those bad choices and attractive ones outside the orthodoxy.

For crops, the best choice would be fairer distribution of food grown by a respectful and biologically informed agriculture that stops treating soil like dirt. But sound choices tend to emerge and get adopted in time only if we take seriously the discipline of mindful markets and the wisdom of informed democracy. Botanists have a professional duty to help us all understand the vital differences between biology and biotechnology – between the foundations of their traditional science and the scientifically immature but commercially hell-for-leather enterprise, a billion times younger, that aims to replace it.

Top PreviousNextFront Page

Date: 13 Apr 2000 07:06:47 +0100
From: "j.e. cummins"

plastic genes

The article below is pretty high tech but worth knowing about. Such promoters could sweep the biotech industry in no time at al. It is also a step towards semisynthetic beings such as partly plastic plants ( very much like salad at MacDonalds ;-)).


Activation of gene expression by small molecule transcription factors

Anna K. Mapp*,, Aseem Z. Ansari,, Mark Ptashne,, and Peter B. Dervan*,
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, Vol. 97, Issue 8, 3930-3935, April 11, 2000 Vol. 97, Issue 8, 3930-3935, April 11, 2000

* Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125; and Molecular Biology Program, Sloan-Kettering Institute, New York, NY 10021

Contributed by Peter B. Dervan, February 15, 2000

Eukaryotic transcriptional activators are minimally comprised of a DNA binding domain and a separable activation domain; most activator proteins also bear a dimerization module. We have replaced these protein modules with synthetic counterparts to create artificial transcription factors.

One of these, at 4.2 kDa, mediates high levels of DNA site-specific transcriptional activation in vitro. This molecule contains a sequence-specific DNA binding polyamide in place of the typical DNA binding region and a nonprotein linker in place of the usual dimerization peptide.

Thus our activating region, a designed peptide, functions outside of the archetypal protein context, as long as it is tethered to DNA. Because synthetic polyamides can, in principle, be designed to recognize any specific sequence, these results represent a key step toward the design of small molecules that can up-regulate any specified gene.

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Date: 13 Apr 2000 23:26:58 +0100
From: "j.e. cummins"

Somehow it might make more sense to save whole living organsims!


DNA Banks for Endangered Animal Species

By Oliver A. Ryder, Anne McLaren, Sydney Brenner, Ya-Ping Zhang, Kurt Benirschke

Although biological diversity is being lost through endangerment and extinction, efforts to conserve genetic resources can mitigate some of the losses. The authors recommend collecting and banking genetic resources in a coordinated worldwide effort to store samples of DNA, DNA libraries, and frozen cells or tissues that could yield DNA, beginning with recognized endangered animal species. Such efforts should be recorded via a Web-based information collection effort in order to assess the extent to which extant biological diversity is being sampled for future utilization and in support of the conservation effort.

Volume 288, Number 5464 Issue of 14 Apr 2000, pp. 275 - 277 ©2000 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Copyright © 2000 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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Date: 13 Apr 2000 23:32:54 +0100
From: "j.e. cummins"

the NAS report (National Academy of Science)


Transgenic Crops Report Fuels Debate

Jocelyn Kaiser

Wading into one of today's most politically charged scientific issues, a National Academy of Sciences panel* last week called for tightening the regulation of plants genetically modified to repel pests. Transgenic crops have generally been adequately tested for health and environmental effects, but agencies should collect more data and coordinate their reviews, concluded the panel. In keeping with the drama that accompanies anything about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), industry groups immediately trumpeted the report's conclusion that biotech foods on the market are safe, while environmentalists dismissed the report as "tainted" by industry ties.

The long-awaited study is the first academy report in more than 10 years on biotech crops, which are flooding the market. Indeed, more than one-fifth of all corn and cotton crops planted in the United States last year contained a bacterial gene for a pest-killing toxin called Bt. Many activists and some scientists have argued that the health and ecological risks of these plants haven't been adequately assessed (Science, 26 November 1999, p. 1662).

On the flip side, a number of scientists have voiced concerns about overregulation. A coalition of 11 scientific societies has been lobbying the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to scrap a 1994 proposed rule that regulates transgenic "pesticidal plants," arguing that it is unscientific to regulate the process, genetic engineering, as that could encompass features as innocuous as pest-repelling hairs on a plant's leaves (Science, 9 April 1999, p. 249). Instead, the societies argued that EPA should regulate the plant's products, such as expressed proteins that might be toxic.

The academy panel, chaired by Perry Adkisson, an entomologist and chancellor emeritus at Texas A&M University in College Station, was formed a year ago partly to address scientists' concerns about the EPA rule. Looking only at what it termed "transgenic pest-protected plants," the panel endorsed their use, saying they could help to reduce the amount of chemical insecticides applied. The panel also dismissed health concerns: "The committee is not aware of any evidence that foods on the market today are unsafe to eat as a result of genetic modification." But it urged more research on, for instance, the flow of genes from crops to weedy relatives, long-term ecological effects of transgenic crops, and potential health effects, monitored through long-term animal feeding studies.

As for EPA's proposed regulations, the panel came down firmly on the side of keeping – indeed strengthening – them. It recommended scrapping two EPA exemptions that assume certain plants are safe: those made by adding viral coat proteins (because the virus could spread to weeds), and those made by inserting a gene from a plant similar enough to interbreed. And it suggested that regulatory agencies add a few requirements – for example, tests for protein allergenicity – and share their data with the public.

The panel's report is "schizophrenic," says R. James Cook, a plant scientist at Washington State University in Pullman and spokesperson for the 11 scientific societies. Cook wonders why the panel endorses a different type of regulation for transgenic crops while concluding that they are not inherently more risky than traditional crops. The answer is simple and pragmatic, says panelist Fred Gould, an entomologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh: "If you got rid of that rule, public confidence would be down the toilet."

Even so, public confidence could still use some shoring up. Although the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) was delighted with the report – it issued a press release proclaiming that transgenic foods "are thoroughly tested and safe" – many activists weren't. Before the report was released, protesters gathered in front of the academy with Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-OH).

He urged the academy to "scrap the study" because the panel was "tainted by pervasive conflicts of interest," including the departure of the study's original director, Michael Phillips, last July for a job with BIO. The academy concedes that two panel members – an attorney and an industry consultant – did have conflicts of interest, but, according to executive officer William Colglazier, "we felt their regulatory expertise was needed." An internal investigation determined that the report was not biased by Phillips's involvement, he says. The one activist on the panel, ecologist Rebecca Goldburg of Environmental Defense, concurs. "Obviously, I think the panel had enough to offer that I stuck with it."

* Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants: Science and Regulation, National Academy Press,

Volume 288, Number 5464 Issue of 14 Apr 2000, pp. 245 - 247 ©2000 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Copyright © 2000 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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Date: 13 Apr 2000 23:36:19 +0100
From: "j.e. cummins"

Monsanto Rice Puding


Stealth Genome Rocks Rice Researchers

Elizabeth Pennisi*

For the past 3 years, researchers from 10 countries, led by Japan, have been working on an ambitious effort to sequence the rice genome. Last week, many of the participants were stunned to learn that the biotech giant Monsanto is well ahead of them. Monsanto and collaborators at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, announced on 3 April that they had almost completed a rough draft of the entire rice genome. Equally surprising, the company said it would turn its data over to the international consortium. "This is very big news," said Takuji Sasaki, director of Japan's Rice Genome Research Program, with more than a touch of understatement.

Monsanto's clandestine achievement is impressive. Not only is rice the first plant to be sequenced in rough form, but at 430 million bases it is also the largest genome ever sequenced – more than twice the size of the recently published Drosophila genome (Science, 24 March, p. 2185). If the company lives up to its promise to make the sequence public, the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project could complete its work in just 2 or 3 years – and for half the estimated cost of $200 million. As a result, "public institutions committed to doing crop science research for developing countries' crops will have access [to the genome] much sooner, and without restrictions," says microbiologist Gary Toenniessen, director of the Rockefeller Foundation's food security program.

But because Monsanto (now a division of Pharmacia Corp.) kept the project secret – presumably to keep competitors in the dark while it got a first look at the sequence – few outsiders have seen the data, so it's hard to judge their quality or utility. And because there are few precedents for free public use of corporate data, some scientists are wondering whether the offer might be too good to be true.

The rice sequence is the fruit of a collaboration between Monsanto and Leroy Hood, now president of the Institute for Systems Biology. The company gambled that a sequencing approach developed in part by Hood would quickly decode the rice genome. If so, the results could be useful for engineering rice, and they may also help in understanding corn and other crops in which Monsanto is interested. Hood's approach is a refinement of the strategy being used by the public-ly funded Human Genome Project. It entails fragmenting the genome, putting the pieces in bacterial artificial chromosomes for copying, and working out the nucleotide sequence of each BAC one at a time. The refinement developed by the Hood team, led by UW's Gregory Mahairas, is a "very efficient" way to determine which BACs to sequence, and in what order.

The result, announced in simultaneous press briefings last week in Beijing and Tokyo, is a map that covers some 80% of the rice genome at least four times over – a good enough draft to enable gene prediction programs to find many of the estimated 30,000 genes, Mahairas says. Neither the UW team nor Monsanto would reveal how long the project took or how much it cost. Mahairas would only say that "the whole approach worked very, very rapidly."

Sasaki, who has seen the data, says the quality of the sequence varies from BAC to BAC, but "it's still very valuable." Rod Wing, a molecular biologist at Clemson University in South Carolina who has been scrambling to determine the optimal set of rice BACs for the sequencing consortium, is more circumspect: "We're going to have to look at the data very closely" to determine how best to use both the public and Monsanto sets. Some partners may take up where Mahairas left off, using the Monsanto BACs directly in their sequencing efforts; Wing, on the other hand, is considering using the company's data to make the sequencing of his own BACs more efficient.

Although some researchers wonder whether Monsanto will be as forthcoming with the data as promised, Hood insists it will. He describes the project as a "win-win situation": Monsanto gets a jump start on finding the genes with commercial value, and the consortium saves several years and perhaps as much as $100 million.

Rockefeller's Toenniessen holds out Monsanto's data-release policy as a model for other public-private collaborations. Some details are unclear, but as early as next month, the consortium will have access to much of Monsanto's data. Once a piece of Monsanto sequence goes into the consortium's public database, anyone – even competitors – can use it, no strings attached, says Sasaki. Until then, however, other academic researchers who want to use Monsanto's sequence must agree to give the company an option to negotiate nonexclusive rights to license any patents derived from its use. "It would be nice if other companies followed suit and made their fundamental genomics information available under similar circumstances," says Toenniessen.

DuPont, for example, has a private rice database, as does Novartis. Neither has released these data, but Novartis did help to launch the public rice effort by supporting Wing's research. Says Michael Bevan, a plant molecular geneticist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, U.K., Monsanto's actions "certainly put other companies on the spot."

With reporting by Dennis Normile in Tokyo, Pallava Bagla in India, and Li Hui in China.

Volume 288, Number 5464 Issue of 14 Apr 2000, pp. 239 - 241 ©2000 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Copyright © 2000 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.