Genetically Manipulated Food News

22 July 98

Table of Contents

Technological Responsibility: Agriculture, Biosafety, And Democracy
Health Canada Scientist Received Gag Order
Irish High Court Judicial Review Website
Monsanto `gobbling Up Food Industry', Say Green Campaigners
Grameen, Monsanto Sowing Seeds of Ruin?
Genetic food ban "FRANKENSTEIN"
Call For Independent Gm Crop Monitors
Ireland: Judgment reserved in challenge to EPA's consent to beet trials
Bucking U.S. Trend, Europe Blocks Gene-Altered Food
Forest Fragmentation Creating Genetic Bottleneck
Five Star Lift: Beware The Biological Century

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Date: Thu, 16 Jul 1998 20:49:12 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson rwolfson@concentric.net

Here is an interesting course that is going to be held at Schumacher College. They also have scholarships available. Contact info is below:

Technological Responsibility: Agriculture, Biosafety, And Democracy

Course taught by Christine von Weizsaecker, Tewolde Berhan G Egziabher and Wes Jackson

FURTHER DETAILS OF THIS COURSE ARE AVAILABLE ON REQUEST. PLEASE SEND YOUR FULL NAME, POSTAL ADDRESS AND EMAIL ADDRESS TO: schumcoll@gn.apc.org

10-29 January 1999

This course examines the challenges of genetic engineering and biotechnologies and their effects on politics, economics, culture, food, farming, and biodiversity in general. It will consider the intended and unintended consequences of human attempts to restructure the nature of our world, which is resulting in the reduction of diversity.

It will address questions such as: Who is responsible? How do science and technology, administrations and legislators, and industrial and agricultural players interact with each other? How do we handle the processes of labelling, patenting, liability and biosafety? These issues will be explored in the context of both highly technological countries and the developing world, and participants will look at research into alternative and sustainable agriculture methods based on the way nature's ecosystems have maintained stability over millions of years.

Christine von Weizsaecker is a biologist, activist, and writer in the field of genetic engineering, risk, and culture. She is a leading NGO representative at the international negotiations on biodiversity and biosafety. Wes Jackson is the president of The Land Institute and the author of New Roots for Agriculture, Altars of Unhewn Stone, and Becoming Native to This Place.

Tewolde Berhan G. Egziabher is General Manager of Ehtiopia's Environmental Protection Authority. He was involved with negotiations for the Convention on Biological Diversity and is the African spokesperson in negotiations for a Biosafety Protocol.

Transferable Masters Level Credits are available on this course. Some scholarships are available to people who can best use the knowledge gained on this course to contribute towards a sustainable future.

-----------------------

SCHUMACHER COLLEGE is an international centre for ecological studies which welcomes course participants from all over the world, from a wide range of ages and backgrounds. The College runs short residential courses on ecological issues, led by teachers and writers with an international reputation. It also runs a one-year MSc in Holistic Science.

For details of Schumacher College and its courses, contact: The Administrator, Schumacher College, The Old Postern, Dartington, Totnes, Devon TQ9 6EA, UK Tel: +44 (0)1803 865934; Fax: +44 (0)1803 866899; Email: Web: http://www.gn.apc.org/schumachercollege/

Schumacher College is a department of The Dartington Hall Trust, a registered educational charity.

_________________________________________________________

Richard Wolfson, PhD
Consumer Right to Know Campaign, for Mandatory Labelling and Long-term Testing of all Genetically Engineered Foods,
500 Wilbrod Street Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2
tel. 613-565-8517 fax. 613-565-1596 email: rwolfson@concentric.net

Our website, http://www.natural-law.ca/genetic/geindex.html contains more information on genetic engineering as well as previous genetic engineering news items Subscription fee to genetic engineering news is $35 for 12 months See website for details.


Health Canada Scientist Received Gag Order

On Monday July 13, an information session on genetically engineered foods was schedule in Ottawa. One of the speakers was to be Shiv Chopra, PhD a scientist working as a safety evaluator in Health Canada. Dr. Chopra is known for being honest and outspoken in expressing his concerns about safety issues.

On the day of the event, Dr. Chopra received a registered letter from Health Canada forbidding him to speak in public at this meeting. The letter stated that Dr. Chopra should not speak in public without first getting permission from his department because his views could be taken as representing the government. (While Dr. Chopra did not speak at the event, several others of us spoke and provided an extensive overview of genetically engineered foods and their hazards.)

Several questions were raised by the gag order forbidding Dr. Chopra from speaking: Is it not an infringement of freedom of speech, in not allowing Dr. Chopra to express his views to the public? Should the public be denied the right of hearing from experts about genetically engineered foods or other health hazards that they or their families are being exposed to? Should public relations and loyalty to one's department be given a higher priority over freedom of speech or access to information? Should not all consumers have a right to know about safety issues regarding the food they are eating?

About 85 consumers came out to this meeting, and heard about the hazards of genetically engineered foods. They were very concerned about the issue. They were also very disturbed that Health Canada was trying to block them from finding out about these issues from expert scientists.


Irish High Court Judicial Review Website

The following website provides a full outline to date of the Irish High Court Judicial Review of the EPA's granting of a license to Monsanto Plc. to field test GMO sugar beet in Ireland.

http://www.ul.ie/~biotech/page25.html


The next 2 articles are from: allsorts allsorts@gn.apc.org GE - news July 16th

Monsanto `gobbling Up Food Industry', Say Green Campaigners

By Eileen Murphy, Consumer Affairs Correspondent

Environmental campaigners have accused Monsanto, the controversial biotechnology company, of "gobbling up the whole food industry", as the US firm announced it had bought a British seed company today. The 320 million purchase of Plant Breeding International Cambridge follows a spate of worldwide multi-million pound buy-ups from Monsanto. The company is the major force behind the development of genetically-modified organisms or GMOs which are used in crop production.


Grameen, Monsanto Sowing Seeds of Ruin?

By Abid Aslam

WASHINGTON, Jul 16 (IPS) - An unusual alliance between a renowned village bank and an aggressive biotechnology corporation with ambitions in Third World markets is raising fears for the livelihood of peasant farmers in Bangladesh.

Under the deal, involving Bangladesh's Grameen Bank and US- based Monsanto Company, villagers in the South Asian nation are to be offered small loans to buy "appropriate, environmentally- sensitive" agricultural technologies - including Monsanto's own proprietary herbicides and hybrid rice and cotton, both important crops for Bangladesh. ...

The scheme ... could "turn poor but independent farmers into poorer and dependent peasants," warns RAFI, which has tracked the social and economic impact of new technologies on rural societies for 20-plus years.

That is because hybrid and genetically-engineered (or 'transgenic') seeds often are designed to become sterile after the first season or to develop undesirable genetic deformities, or 'throwbacks'. Not all hybrids are transgenic, but the difference often cannot be detected by agricultural and customs authorities.

Some scientists have embraced transgenic crops as boosting harvests but a growing number - citing the built-in flaws - see the technolgy's real advantage as forcing farmers back to the market every year to buy new seeds.

Agri-business analysts, however, say the deal could put political pressure on the government to adopt regulations favourable to Monsanto. The company produces 'Round-up', a leading 'broad- spectrum' herbicide, as well as crop varieties designed to withstand the plant-killing chemical.

"Grameen Bank operates in 36,000 Bengali villages and is often the farmers' only route to credit," notes RAFI Executive Director Pat Mooney. "Poor farmers could find themselves under intense pressure to buy Monsanto's seeds and herbicide."

Monsanto is the world's largest agro-chemical company and the third largest seed enterprise. It reportedly has spent more than eight billion dollars in the past two years buying biotechnology businesses and becoming the world leader in cotton seed sales. It is merging with American Home Products to create a 96-billion- dollar "life sciences" company producing everything from seeds and herbicides to headache pills and water purifiers.

"Monsanto's technologies will push Bangladeshi peasants into debt as they have to spend more money on herbicides, seeds, royalties and technology fees," she [prominent Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva] predicts, adding that "thousands of farmers have committed suicide in India," after hybrid crops failed, leaving them in hock to money-lenders and seed providers.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research now is seeking to bar imports of seeds containing the 'Terminator', a gene which 'self-destructs' and renders seeds sterile so farmers cannot store them for future planting. Farmers could be enslaved to the seed market and indigenous crops could be destroyed by cross- pollination, government experts warn.


Date: Mon, 20 Jul 1998 11:36:13 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson rwolfson@concentric.net

The first 3 article are from: allsorts allsorts@gn.apc.org

Genetic food ban "FRANKENSTEIN"

Herald Express (Torquay) July 16, 1998

Environment: Protests, Genetic food ban "FRANKENSTEIN" food could soon be off the menu at Torquay Town Hall and other council-run premises. Torbay Council is to ask its food suppliers, whenever possible, to steer clear of genetically -modified products. The move was requested by St Marychurch councillor and environmental campaigner Andy Blake and adopted by the policy committee yesterday.


Date: Mon, 20 Jul 1998 11:36:13 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson rwolfson@concentric.net

Call For Independent Gm Crop Monitors

By Vic Robertson The Scotsman July 16, 1998

GOVERNMENT officials are being urged to tighten up on monitoring arrangements for genetically modified crops once they are released for commercial marketing.

It was wholly inappropriate that the companies responsible for bringing GM crops to the market should be left in charge of monitoring them for environmental and health effects, the former agriculture minister, Lord Jopling, said yesterday. At a meeting of the agriculture subcommittee of the Lords' European ommunities Committee, he told officials of the Department of the Environment that this was like leaving the tobacco industry in charge of monitoring the effect of tobacco on human health, which was "one of the greatest disgraces of the modern age".

Lord Jopling said: "Surely there should be independent monitoring of these crops, but financed by these companies. Given the tobacco example, why do you think these companies are competent?"

Dr Linda Smith, the head of biotechnology at the DETR, said that unlike the tobacco industry, monitoring of GM crops was a statutory obligation and the Government would have to be satisfied these companies were carrying it out properly. However, she agreed to take the suggestion back to the DETR for consideration.

Lord Jopling said there was growing concern that GM crops could become susceptible to fungal diseases over time. He cited a recent report by Professor Mark Williamson, of York University, into a GM maize variety in the US that accounted for 85 per cent of that crop's acreage becoming susceptible to fungal pathogens two decades after its introduction there. This confirmed the need for independent monitoring of the crops long after their market introduction, he said. The interactions between crop and environment could not be predicted over the long term.


Date: Mon, 20 Jul 1998 11:36:13 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson rwolfson@concentric.net

Ireland: Judgment reserved in challenge to EPA's consent to beet trials

By MARY CAROLAN, The Irish Times July 16, 1998

The High Court has reserved judgment on a case expected to have major implications for the biotechnology industry. Submissions concluded yesterday after 10 days of the hearing of a challenge taken by Ms Claire Watson, of Genetic Concern, to the decision of the Environmental Protection Agency on May 1st, 1997 to permit Monsanto conduct field trials of genetically -engineered sugar beet in Co Carlow.

Monsanto has become involved with another company, Novartis, in the development of a glyphosate-tolerant sugar beet plant. The trials, on Teagasc-owned lands at Oak Park, Co Carlow, aim to test the effect of Monsanto's weedkiller, Round Up, in which the active ingredient is glyphosate, on that sugar beet.

At the conclusion of yesterday's hearing, Mr Justice O'Sullivan reserved judgment in what he said was a "very important" case. The case has heard complex scientific evidence and the judge had asked both sides if they could agree a simplified guide to genetic engineering which he could refer to. He was told yesterday that this had not been possible.


Date: Mon, 20 Jul 1998 11:36:13 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson rwolfson@concentric.net

Thanks to MichaelP papadop@peak.org for posting the following two NY Times items on genetic manipulation

===============================================

Bucking U.S. Trend, Europe Blocks Gene-Altered Food

By Michael Specter, NY Times July 20, 1998

Sections:
Fears of Drastic Change and Memories of Abuse
An Old Challenge Met in New Ways
What the Vanille Gene Might Do to Madagascar
Science's Promise of Abundance
Shorter Research Cycles and Swift Actions
But he did not do that lightly.
Shoppers Unaware of Genetically Altered Food

-------------------------------------------

DALLIKON, Switzerland Like his father and grandfather before him, Kaspar Gunthardt is a man of the soil. He lives in the solid old farmhouse where he was born and he has worked the rich earth around it for most of his 52 years.

He is a traditionalist who has nevertheless embraced the future. Gunthardt owns a sophisticated cooling system for storing dairy products. He recycles waste to fuel his farm, and cameras strapped to beams in his barn are connected to the Internet, putting the personal habits of his cattle on worldwide display http://naturaplan.coop.ch.

But when it comes to playing with the rules of nature Gunthardt draws a line that he says he will never cross.

"There is some sickness spreading across Europe right now," he said, striding quickly through a 20-acre patch of organic potatoes on his farm just south of Zurich. "A bunch of people are trying to get rich by telling us that nature isn't good enough and that we will have to take genes out of a fish and put them in a strawberry if we want to survive. They are changing the basic rules of life and they want to try it all out on us."

"Maybe they will get their way," he said, referring to the failure of a recent national referendum here on curtailing genetic engineering. "It happened in America. But it won't happen on this farm. Here we are going to live like God intended."

If Gunthardt seems inflexible on the issue he certainly has company. From one end of Europe to the other consumers are in open revolt over the prospect of a future in which nature has somehow been altered by people holding test tubes.

Throughout the world last year more than 30 million acres of commercial farmland were planted with genetically modified seeds -- 10 times as much as the year before. But not one of those acres was in the 15 countries of the European Union.

Prince Charles recently voiced a common sentiment when he announced that no genetically altered food would ever pass his lips. "That takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone," he said.

The debate here about how and whether to unleash the most powerful tools of modern biology says much about the cultural and philosophical differences between pragmatic and risk-ready America, where genetic technology that focuses on food has largely been accepted, and the far more reticent people of Europe.

But it says more than that, because what happens to crops from Bialystok to Bruges will have major consequences not just for farmers, but also for industrial policy and for fields like medicine, agriculture and pharmaceutical research.

Europeans do make distinctions. They see genetic engineering in the pursuit of better medicine as worth a few moral doubts, and like many Americans they are profoundly unsettled about the prospect of such research involving humans.

Fears of Drastic Change and Memories of Abuse

Yet often the differences between research in plants and animals are completely blurred by sensational events. The cloning of an adult lamb in Scotland two years ago only deepened fears people already had.

There are many ways to explain the European conservatism, a strong environmental movement rooted in the 19th-century philosophy that nature is as wise as man, a fear of drastic change and the unusually large number of small farms still run by families who are reluctant to end practices that have been honed over centuries.

Recent history also plays a role, for in this part of the world the uses of genetics have not always been benign. In almost any discussion the dark but recent past also comes up.

"The shadow of the Holocaust is dense and incredibly powerful still," Arthur Caplan, the ethicist who is at the University of Pennsylvania, said. "It leaves Europe terrified about the abuse of genetics. To them the potential to abuse genetics is no theory. It is a historical fact."

Despite the victory for researchers in Switzerland, the battle for Europe continues to rage. Norway no longer accepts U.S. soybean imports because more than one-third are genetically modified to ward off pests. Austria and Luxembourg have totally banned genetically modified food.

In France where food is never just food the issue was recently put before the nation by a "citizens conference" that produced an ambiguous statement of "cautious" support for such crops. In Britain vandalism has become so common at sites where genetically modified crops are tested that the government is now considering concealing their locations.

An Old Challenge Met in New Ways

"These people who say they are defending nature simply harm the countries they pretend to protect," said Daniel Vasella, president and chief executive officer of Novartis AG, the pharmaceutical giant that has energetically begun to move into food production. "We have enough food in Europe. So that's not really an issue. That lets them fight to keep everything forever the way it is now. They move ahead by looking backward. It is so very egotistical."

All farmers try to grow crops that resist disease and last long enough to arrive safely at the market. The task is obvious but not simple. Officials at the United Nations World Food Program estimate that up to 40 percent of the world's crops are destroyed as they grow or before they leave the field. Attempts to find a way to protect them have therefore been intense.

Scientists can now tell with precision which of 50,000 genes in a plant governs a particular trait. If it is beneficial, they can take that gene out of one species something that wards off a common insect, for instance copy it and stick it into another organism, to protect it. That organism, and its offspring, will then have a genetic structure that lets them resist such pests.

In a way that is nothing new. For centuries farmers have been trying to breed crops to make sure that the biggest and best survive.

It has been more than 500 years since people realized that rennet from calves' stomachs turned milk into cheese. At the time nobody knew why exactly. An enzyme called chymosin does the job.

Nevertheless it was a use of biotechnology that prevails today in modern form, an enzyme made through genetic engineering that has replaced the rennet from calves' stomachs.

"What is this 'mad' science?" asked Joseph Zak, who is paid by the American Soybean Association to try to calm European fears about how soy products are grown. "It is just another step in the history of agricultural technology. It falls in the same line as when tractors replaced the horse. It's like when fertilizers came into the picture and when we moved to breeding to make a better product."

But consumers often see it as tampering with their food. And in Europe, where regulatory bodies are not nearly as powerful or as respected as the Food and Drug Administration is in the United States, the fact of manipulation drives people crazy. In addition, Mad Cow Disease, which exposed fundamental flaws in food-safety regulation, reminded people that science is never infallible.

"I am sure all this food is safe and that there might be some promise to it," Lianne Wilier, 31, an accountant in Zurich, said. "If it helps poor people somehow, I'm all for it. But I would never feed something to my children that is not natural. It feels wrong to me I guess because if we make a mistake on this level there is no going back. Saying we were wrong isn't going to be good enough."

What the Vanille Gene Might Do to Madagascar

Despite enormous experience that shows the crops are safe to grow and eat, fundamental questions do exist about the possible uses of such technology. It is now simple, for example, to put the taste of vanilla in almost any food by inserting the right gene into that food. It seems harmless, and physically it is.

"We looked into this carefully," said Maria Zimmerman, who is in charge of agricultural research for the sustainable development department of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. "If we start making fake vanilla we will destroy the lives of thousands of farmers in Madagascar," the African island-nation that is home to most of the world's vanilla crop. "We would ruin the island's economy. So we aren't moving forward with that."

Others would argue that farmers in Madagascar need to find new crops to grow, and that could force them to do it. But it is a difficult issue for Ms. Zimmerman, because her job is to push genetically modified research toward its greatest goal, more and more effective food at lower cost for millions of people.

"It takes one hectare," or two and a half acres, "of land to feed four people," she said. "But as a result of population growth, drought and the rise of a middle class that eats better food and more food in many countries, that same amount of land is going to have to feed six people in about 20 years. That means we need 50 percent more food. And this technology can help. It must help."

Science's Promise of Abundance

She and other researchers say biotechnology can provide more nutritious rice, as well as cotton that requires less water to grow and fewer pesticides. She wants to find genes that will preserve crops, enrich their protein content and make them easier to grow. All that, theoretically at least, is possible.

There are dozens of varieties of genetically modified seeds corn, soybean, potatoes and cotton are examples that have been planted in the United States. Many more are on the way.

Soybeans that have been modified to tolerate an herbicide have revolutionized one of the world's most important crops. And, yes, it is now possible to take a gene from certain fish, which permits it to tolerate the extreme cold of the deep ocean, and insert it into a strawberry.

"Who wouldn't feel a little strange about all of this?" asked Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, president of the Vatican Bioethics Institute, which follows closely debates about genetic technology. "It is a troubling aspect of a world that seems to be moving too fast, one in which people often make terrible mistakes in the name of progress."

"Europeans are particularly aware of that problem," Sgreccia said. "Still, there are genes and there are genes. From the Catholic point of view we are open to the use of genetic technology in agriculture and with animals, as long as we don't do it with man. We believe that man has a primacy on this planet and that as long as he uses it wisely nature is here for him."

At first glance Florianne Koechlin might seem an unlikely advocate in the struggle to ban the use of genetically modified organisms. She lives near Basel, the home of the Swiss pharmaceutical industry, and she is a member of the Geigy family, which started the company that has become part of Novartis.

Shorter Research Cycles and Swift Actions

Ms. Koechlin said she was convinced that humans were racing to put themselves in a position that they will ultimately regret.

"I am not saying genetic research should disappear," she said, sitting in the bright kitchen of her unassuming suburban house. "This pervades all areas of life on earth, food, seed, the cells of human beings. I know that. But why can't we slow down and think about it all?"

That may no longer be possible, not even in Europe. Research and development cycles shorten every year. International competition demands swift action to remain competitive.

"We have eaten the apple and now we will have to live with the knowledge it gives us," said Gian Reto Plattner, a professor of physics at the University of Basel. He is also a Socialist member of the Swiss Parliament who broke with his own party to oppose the ban.

But he did not do that lightly.

"If you look at this as a question of risks it's pretty clear that these crops are safe," Plattner said. "Explosions and fire are far more dangerous, and we use them every day. But nobody is looking at the use of genetics that way. This is a religious discussion we are having. Many people feel nature is immutable. This work tells them they are wrong, and then they are being told to forget about their basic beliefs. It's really asking a lot."

Shoppers Unaware of Genetically Altered Food

American shoppers would be surprised to know that much of the food they buy has genetically engineered ingredients. But they cannot tell just how much, because the United States, unlike many other countries, does not require the labeling of gene-modified food. Most consumers are unaware of the amount of genetically engineered food that is available, making it difficult to judge their resistance to such products.

When the government granted Monsanto Co. permission to sell rBGH, recombinant bovine growth hormone, which increases cows' milk production, and milk containing a gene-altered hormone went on sale, some states and several dairies tried to label their products as free of the hormone. Monsanto threatened to take them to court. Some capitulated. But a number of dairy products are now labeled to show that they do not contain rBGH. With only a few consumer groups seeking wider labeling, the greatest awareness of genetically engineered food comes from the organic-food industry.

Whole Foods Market Inc. of Austin, Texas, which has 91 supermarkets in 18 states, requires its suppliers to guarantee that none of the products they sell to the company have gene-altered ingredients. Last year, when the Agriculture Department proposed national standards for organic food that included genetically altered food, more than 200,000 comments were received protesting the proposed regulations. The inclusion of genetically modified food was one of the reasons most often cited, and the proposal was withdrawn.

On Jan. 1 the government gave the green light to genetically modified soybeans, cotton, corn, summer squash, potatoes, canola oil, radicchio, papayas and tomatoes. The amount of genetically modified soybeans, cotton and corn on the market is significant. According to one study, the gene-altered corn crop in the United States this summer is estimated to be 32 percent of the total, for soybeans 38 percent and for canola oil, from Canada, 58 percent. There is no estimate for cotton.

There are no figures for the smaller crops like papaya and radicchio, and just because a crop has approval does not mean that it is being sold. But within a year or two such crops are quite likely to be available. The Consumers Union, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Center for Science in the Public Interest are among those pushing for labeling. Norway and India are leading the fight to require the strictest labeling on all foods.

And virtually all European Union countries want some labeling for gene-altered food. A senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, Rebecca Goldberg, said the United States might be forced to require some labeling because of international trade.

"Many products made abroad," Ms. Goldberg said, "will be labeled, and in order for the United States to sell food products abroad we may have to label them." get rich by telling us that nature isn't good enough and that we will have to take genes out of a fish and put them in a strawberry if we want to survive. They are changing the basic rules of life and they want to try it all out on us."

"Maybe they will get their way," he said, referring to the failure of a recent national referendum here on curtailing genetic engineering. "It happened in America. But it won't happen on this farm. Here we are going to live like God intended."

If Gunthardt seems inflexible on the issue he certainly has company. From one end of Europe to the other consumers are in open revolt over the prospect of a future in which nature has somehow been altered by people holding test tubes.

Throughout the world last year more than 30 million acres of commercial farmland were planted with genetically modified seeds -- 10 times as much as the year before. But not one of those acres was in the 15 countries of the European Union.

Prince Charles recently voiced a common sentiment when he announced that no genetically altered food would ever pass his lips. "That takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone," he said.

The debate here about how and whether to unleash the most powerful tools of modern biology says much about the cultural and philosophical differences between pragmatic and risk-ready America, where genetic technology that focuses on food has largely been accepted, and the far more reticent people of Europe.

But it says more than that, because what happens to crops from Bialystok to Bruges will have major consequences not just for farmers, but also for industrial policy and for fields like medicine, agriculture and pharmaceutical research.

Europeans do make distinctions. They see genetic engineering in the pursuit of better medicine as worth a few moral doubts, and like many Americans they are profoundly unsettled about the prospect of such research involving humans.


Date: 20 Jul 1998 20:49:12 -0500
From: Richard Wolfson rwolfson@concentric.net

Thanks to: jtoth@lisco.com (Joe Toth) for posting this "American farmers already know of the problems this can cause, since they barely avoided a near-disaster because of over-planting of corn with too little genetic diversity in the 1970s."

Forest Fragmentation Creating Genetic Bottleneck

By Environmental News Network staff
from http://cnn.com/TECH/science/9807/20/forest.genetics.enn/ Monday, July 20, 1998

(CNN) -- Scientists have recently discovered that the deforestation of tropical areas may be more devastating than previously thought.

A new study by botanists at the University of Georgia shows for the first time that trees left standing in pastures can actually dominate the reproduction in nearby remnant forests, creating a "genetic bottleneck." The research indicates that the survival of tropical forests could be far more complex than was known before and that new approaches to conservation strategies may be needed.

"The key is to understand how much genetic movement there is between fragments of forest," said Dr. James Hamrick. "When we lose fragments of forest, we lose genetic diversity. Gene exchange between fragments helps to maintain this diversity."

The study, by Hamrick and his graduate student Preston Aldrich, was published in the journal Science.

Genetic diversity is vital in both plant and animal communities. Farmers have, for hundreds of years, bred crop plants and farm animals to maintain a healthy diversity of what were, before the 20th century, called traits. Now, with advanced techniques to determine the exact genetic makeup of individuals, scientists understand considerably more about how genes drift through populations.

Aldrich and Hamrick studied a tree species called Symphonia globulifera in a little-examined premontane rain forest area in southern Costa Rica. S. globulifera is a shade-tolerant canopy tree with bright red flowers that are pollinated primarily by hummingbirds. Bats disperse the seeds by eating fruits and then passing seeds on through guano at their resting sites. Like many areas in the tropics, the study area consisted of an area of fragmented forest with a number of large nearby members of the species standing alone in open pasture land. There were neither seedlings or saplings of S. globulifera in the pastures, suggesting poor habitat quality for germination and growth.

The question was simple: What trees are the parents of seedlings growing in the forest fragments? Finding the answer would have been nearly impossible even a decade ago until the invention of sensitive techniques that allow researchers to determine the exact genetic makeup of individual plants in an ecosystem. Even now, the problem is daunting, since there were more than 800 possible parent pairs.

"In trying to tell who the parents are, we had to use the same techniques used in forensic analysis to determine a child's parents," said Hamrick. "We were able to do this only because Preston was able to develop the techniques for our specific genetic analysis himself."

The breakthrough came in using segments of DNA called microsatellites as specific markers for S. globulifera. These markers allowed Aldrich and Hamrick to determine the pedigree for a number of seedlings and saplings in a one hectare forest fragment on their 38.5- hectare research area. (A hectare is a metric unit of area equal to 2.471 acres.) The scientists knew the genetic composition of all the adults, 42 individuals, in the study area.

The results of the genetic analysis were startling. Out of nearly 250 seedlings studied from a single forest fragment, some 68 percent were produced by adults in pastures -- not from adults within the fragments themselves. Moreover, of the seedlings produced by pasture trees, 77 percent came from only two trees. Adults left in the fragment produced less than 5 percent of the seedlings in their own patches. The importance of the discovery lies in the fact that the genetic diversity of seedlings in forest fragment may be relatively small indeed.

"If you looked at the number of seedlings superficially, you might say that this is a healthy rate of regrowth," said Hamrick. "But in truth, the effect is ecologically unhealthy due to the potential for inbreeding in subsequent generations." As humans know, inbreeding can expose deleterious genes.

The scientists have several theories why the pasture trees have such an overwhelming impact on gene flow. First, there is little competition for the pasture trees for sunlight and nutrients, giving them superior abilities to flower and fruit. Second, the abundance of flowers may attract more hummingbirds for pollination. Finally, bats have easy pickings of the fruit and take them from the pasture trees to the forest fragment, where they eat and then pass seeds back to soil in guano.

The study has important implications for conservation and forest restoration. And it shows that the impact of deforestation has been far more devastating that the simple removal of individual trees. At least in this species of tree, fragmentation has resulted in the possibility of a serious loss of genetic diversity in this test area.

Thus, areas that look healthy in terms of regrowth may not be healthy at all over the long term. They may be facing serious future problems due to problems with genetic drift and inbreeding. American farmers already know of the problems this can cause, since they barely avoided a near-disaster because of over-planting of corn with too little genetic diversity in the 1970s.

Still, scientists say it is beginning to become apparent that it will be difficult to make any kind of blanket statements about gene movement among populations of forest species. Indeed, botanists say we are now only beginning to understand what happens to genetic diversity in natural populations over time -- and why.

"One of the important things this study has shown us is that the superficial appearance of an area might not be telling you the whole story," said Hamrick. "Each situation has unique characteristics that make if very difficult to say that tropical trees in a certain situation will behave this way or that. Quite simply, our study area looked healthy, but it wasn't."

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Five Star Lift: Beware The Biological Century

By Jeremy Rifkin 07/19/98 St. Louis Post-Dispatch Page B3 Editorial Commentary Column:

While the 20th century was shaped largely by breakthroughs in physics and chemistry, the 21st century will belong to biology. Scientists are deciphering the genetic code of life. Global life science companies are beginning to exploit the discoveries in myriad ways. Genes are already being used in such fields as energy, bioremediation (bugs that eat pollution), building and packaging materials, pharmaceuticals and medicine. The biggest impact, however, is likely to be in agriculture. Life science companies such as Monsanto promise a biological renaissance. Critics worry that seeding farmland with transgenic food crops could spread genetic pollution and damage the biosphere. The critics are right.

It is true, as supporters of genetic engineering say, that human beings have been remaking the Earth for as long as we have had a history. Until recently, however, our ability to manipulate the environment has been tempered by the restraints of species boundaries. We have been forced to work narrowly, crossing only close relatives in the plant or animal kingdoms.

But scientists can now manipulate the natural world at the most fundamental level - the genetic one. They can take genes from unrelated species and create life forms. Scientists have taken the gene that emits light in a firefly and inserted it into the genetic code of a tobacco plant; the mature plant glows 24 hours a day. Other researchers have introduced an anti-freeze gene from the flounder fish into the genetic code of a tomato plant to protect it from cold spells.

Over the next 10 years, life science companies plan to introduce hundreds of laboratory-conceived transgenic plants over millions of acres of farmland. The risks in releasing these genetically engineered crops are similar to those in introducing exotic organisms. While many have adapted to new ecosystems without severe dislocations, a small percentage of them have wreaked havoc. Gypsy moth, Dutch elm disease, starlings and Mediterranean fruit flies come to mind.

Whenever a genetically engineered organism is released, there is always a small chance that it will run amok. Like exotic species, it has been artificially introduced into local ecosystems that have developed a complex web of relationships over evolutionary history.

Much of the effort in agricultural biotechnology centers on creation of herbicide-tolerant plants. To increase their share of the growing global market for herbicides, companies such as Monsanto and Novartis have created transgenic crops that tolerate their own herbicides. For example, Monsanto's, herbicide-resistant patented seeds are resistant to its best- selling chemical herbicide, Roundup.

The life science companies hope to convince farmers that herbicide-tolerant crops will allow for a more efficient eradication of weeds. If farmers can kill weeds without destroying their crops, they may use more herbicides. The increased use of herbicides, in turn, raises the possibility of weeds developing resistance, which will force an even greater use of herbicides.

New pest-resistant transgenic crops are also being introduced. Several plants, including Ciba Geigy's pest-resistant "maximiser corn" and Rohm and Haas' pest-resistant tobacco, are already available. New evidence points to the likelihood of creating "super bugs" resistant to pesticide-producing genetic crops.

The new generation of virus-resistant transgenic crops poses the equally dangerous possibility of creating new viruses. Some ecologists also warn of the danger of "gene flow" - the transfer of transgenic genes from crops to weedy relatives by way of cross-pollination. Transgenic genes for herbicide tolerance, and pest and viral resistance might escape and insert themselves into the genomes of weedy relatives, creating weeds resistant to herbicides, pests and viruses.

Such fears were heightened in 1996 when a Danish research team observed the transfer of a transgene from a transgenic crop to the genome of a wild weed - something biotech companies have ignored as a remote or nonexistent possibility. The insurance industry, however, has made clear it would not insure the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment against the possibility of "long-term" catastrophic environmental damage. Who, then, will be held liable for losses if a transgenic plant introduction triggered genetic pollution for an indefinite period? The life science companies? Government?

The debate could affect humans more directly. Most new genetically engineered crops contain genes from non-food organisms including viruses, bacteria, insects and exotic animals. With 2 percent of adults and 8 percent of children allergic to common foods, consumer advocates argue gene- spliced foods need proper labelling. The Food and Drug Administration has fallen short of requiring across-the-board labelling; The New England Journal of Medicine concluded FDA policy "would appear to favor industry over consumer protection."

The industry has all but dismissed such criticisms. The biotech companies may be right. But what if they are wrong?

A worldwide moratorium should be declared on releasing genetically engineered food crops and other gene-spliced organisms into the environment pending further study. It would be irresponsible and foolish to begin seeding farmland with such crops when we have yet to develop a rudimentary risk- assessment science by which to regulate these new agricultural products.

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