Genetically Manipulated Food News

3 November 98

Table of Contents

Prince Charles urges total boycott of GM foods
Monsanto Facing Backlash over Bio-engineered Food
Genetic Alterations Under Fire
World Agr. Researchers Spurn Crops With 'Terminator Genes'
New Scientist: Much Ado About Something ?
Mutiny against Monsanto
Britain To Proceed With Caution
Future Shock
Brave New Rose
Strange Fruit
Live And Let Live
Food For All
Ineligible potatoes

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Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:05:56 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Prince Charles urges total boycott of GM foods

The Independent - London 29th Oct 98

THE PRINCE of Wales suggested consumers should boycott genetically- modified food imported into Britain in a renewed attack yesterday on bioengineered produce.

Following his public assault in June on genetically-modified food, which he said he would neither eat nor give to his family or guests, Prince Charles called on British consumers to take action themselves.

"We have to recognise that genetically-modified food is already coming into this country in large quantities from elsewhere. The only effective restraint will be strong and sustained pressure from consumers demanding choice in the matter," he said, presenting the 1998 Organic Food Awards at London's Savoy Hotel.

"Many will be asking, as I continue to do, whether we need genetically modified food at all." The Prince said he did not think it was right to "tamper with the building blocks of life".

"I also regard the technology as unproven, with the potential to cause serious and possibly irreversible damage to wildlife and the environment. And I know from a very large number of letters that I am not alone in not wanting to eat any genetically modified produce," he said.

Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:05:56 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Monsanto Facing Backlash over Bio-engineered Food

By John Greenwood Monsanto Co.
National Post Thursday, October 29, 1998 (Canada)
Final Financial Post C13

One of the world's leading biotechnology companies, has become the target of a consumer backlash against bio-engineered food crops. The British government is reportedly considering legal action against Monsanto after an experimental crop of rapeseed bio-engineered to resist herbicides had to be destroyed after it pollinated plants in a nearby field. Experts told London's Mail on Sunday that such experiments could result in the creation of a new breed of superweed, immune to normal chemical herbicides.

But this is just the latest episode in the controversy, and Monsanto claims it's being made to shoulder the blame for an entire industry.

"We certainly didn't intend to drop other companies in it," said Dan Verakis, a spokesman for the company. "If people think we started the controversy, we are certainly trying to clarify it." In the past, Monsanto and other agricultural biotech companies presented a united front to public criticism, but the alliance is showing signs of strain.

Willy de Greef, head of regulatory and government affairs at Novartis Seeds in Basel, Switzerland, blames Monsanto for recent hostile public reaction to his industry.

"We have a PR mountain to climb," Mr. de Greef is quoted as saying in today's edition of the highly regarded New Scientist magazine.

"You have a problem if the market leader has firmly set ideas about how to do things, which others might not agree with. Monsanto still has some learning to do." Observers say the current furor was sparked last year by news reports that a shipment of ordinary soy beans had been mixed with the company's genetically engineered Roundup Ready soybeans. In Europe, where the question of whether to label bio-engineered food products is a white-hot issue, it set off a wave of protest.

North American consumers have traditionally taken a much more positive attitude toward bio-engineered food products. Advocates argue it would be impractical -- and maybe impossible -- to identify all genetically modified ingredients in food products sitting on supermarket shelves.

Most genetic engineering of food crops is done for one of two reasons: either to breed plants that will be resistant to insect pests and diseases, or to develop varieties that can stand up to popular herbicides.

But many fear the unintended consequences of this technology. For instance, some scientists say superweeds could become a serious problem if the resistant genes get out into the environment. The result would be an extremely hardy plant, immune to normal chemicals.

There is also fear that bug-resistant crops, which are genetically modified to contain insecticides, could end up harming other species as well as the pests at which they're targeted.

At the centre of the controversy are reports a Monsanto subsidiary is developing something called a Terminator gene, a piece of DNA that would ensure the sterility of plants carrying it.

Delta & Pine Land Co., the Monsanto subsidiary behind the technology, says the gene is a safe way for companies to protect products they've spent billions of dollars to create.

But a growing chorus of critics fear the Terminator gene could wreak havoc if it does somehow escape into the environment.

Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:05:56 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Genetic engineering debate shifting to US

Genetic Alterations Under Fire

By Stan Grossfeld, Globe Staff, 09/23/98

Inside Monsanto
Gene transfer gun
The biotechnology race is on
Biotechnology still in its infancy


Inside Monsanto

Inside Monsanto's research farm, where the first genetically engineered tomato was grown in 1987. "Biotechnology is something beneficial to mankind," says entomologist Dennis Edwards. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld) C HESTERFIELD, Mo.

- Behind a door marked "closed" to the thousands of visitors who tour the Monsanto Life Sciences Research Center here each year, Cindy Clasen fires a DNA-loaded .22-caliber shell into corn tissue, changing its genetic makeup.

The process, called genetic engineering, allows scientists to transfer a single gene from any organism - plant, animal, or microbe - into a food crop so it can withstand insects and herbicides, as well as last longer before spoiling.

"What we do is the same as Mother Nature," says Clasen, a Monsanto Co. research technician. Genetically engineered, or transgenic, crops look and taste the same as conventional crops, and are not required to be labeled in the United States, unless they contain known allergens.

But some people think it's not nice to fool with Mother Nature.

The genetic engineering of plants has triggered a major food-safety controversy in Europe, where Monsanto's transgenic crops have been destroyed by activists in Britain, France, and Ireland and banned by governments in Austria and Luxembourg. Protesters call the rapidly expanding list of genetically engineered foods "Frankenfood."

But slowly, like ketchup creeping from a bottle, the genetic engineering debate is shifting to America.

"There's two extremes and the truth is somewhere in between," said Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of Urban and Environmental Policy at Tufts University. "The big question is, are we being adequately protected? Years ago they decided air bags saved lives. But now they know air bags also kill kids."

In 1996, scientists at the University of Nebraska proved that soybeans modified with a gene from Brazil nuts to increase proteins also caused a strong and potentially fatal reaction to people sensitive to Brazil nuts. The transgenic soybean was never marketed.

Mississippi Delta farmers were paid an estimated $5 million in damages when some of Monsanto's genetically engineered Roundup Ready cotton was found to have been deformed in 1997. And the company had to recall Roundup Ready canola seeds in Canada after an unapproved gene was found.

In July, 250 activists from around the world gathered in St. Louis, Monsanto's corporate headquarters, for what was billed as this country's "first grass-roots gathering on bio-devastation." Then 150 demonstrators picketed Monsanto, demanding it stop exporting genetically engineered corn and soybeans.

Demonstrator - NYC DIANE BEENY, a member of Pure Foods Campaign, an advocacy group, demonstrating last month against genetic engineering at a farmer's market in New York. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

The protests have spread to other parts of the country. Shoppers in western Massachusetts have been startled by moon-suited activists storming through local supermarkets, labeling genetically engineered products. And in early August, Diane Beeny, a member of Pure Foods Campaign, an organic advocacy group, stood at a farmer's market in New York City collecting signatures against genetic engineering, wearing a monster mask on her head and a T-shirt proclaiming "Keep your genes out of our greens."

"We are on a reckless course," Beeny said, citing technology that allows genes from an Arctic flounder to be implanted in a tomato to keep it from freezing. "Entirely new life forms are being created. This is an aberration of nature and a recipe for disaster."

In May, a lawsuit was filed in Washington charging the FDA with ignoring health risks by allowing genetically engineered food to be sold without mandatory labeling. The suit, coordinated by the Alliance for Bio-Integrity - a coalition of scientists, religious leaders, health professionals, consumers, and chefs - also demands safe testing.

"This suit sends a clear message that government policy on genetically engineered food poses a real risk to the public," said Steven Drucker, president of the alliance.

The FDA says it sees no distinction between genetically altered foods and conventional foods. But the lawsuit alleges that with each gene insertion "there is a possibility that a non-toxic element in the food could become toxic and create a human health hazard." Some religious groups are also concerned that by unknowingly eating genetically altered food, people may be violating religious strictures on what they can eat.

The lawsuit also warns of health risks to people with allergies. "We're running something of a roulette wheel as far as people that could have allergic reactions," said Margaret Mellon, director of the agriculture and biotechnology program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Allergists estimate that between 2.5 million and 5 million Americans have food allergies, including up to 8 percent of children.

Critics charge that genetically engineered foods get to market far too easily because the FDA allows companies to test the product themselves.

"Right now companies don't even have to tell the FDA before they put something on the market," said Mellon. "If they decide they don't have to do studies, they don't. It's a voluntary system. They do their own testing."

The FDA said it relies on data provided by companies in a "consultation" process. It added that while the process is voluntary, the company is still responsible for making sure the product is safe.

Gene transfer gun

When a gene is identified for transfer, it is muzzle-loaded into a .22-caliber shell and fired with this device into plant tissue in a petri dish. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

In 1996, Monsanto genetically engineered its Roundup Ready soybeans to withstand treatment from its weed-killing herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). This process allows farmers to spray weeds instead of plowing over fields and spraying a variety of herbicides. The company says that Roundup, the world's best-selling herbicide, has low toxicity and reduces the amount of pesticides and soil erosion.

The United States has gone from having virtually no genetically engineered crops three years ago to having more than 50 million acres today, according to industry estimates. There are more than 20 varieties of genetically altered foods already on the market, including one-third of all US soybeans. In 1996, the first year Roundup Ready soybeans were introduced, 1 million acres were planted. This year an estimated 25 million acres will be harvested. Because 60 percent of processed consumer food products contain soybean material, chances are most Americans have already eaten a genetically engineered food.

Monsanto contends that its product is essentially the same as regular soybeans in nutrition, composition, and taste.

"We could label, but it would be at a premium price," said Monsanto spokesman Gary Barton. "Soybeans are a commodity and they get all stored together."

The biotechnology race is on

Chemical giants like Monsanto and DuPont are betting the farm that biotechnology will change the face of American agriculture. They are gobbling up smaller seed companies, racing to file patents, and investing billions in research.

"It's like Bill Gates in his garage with a microchip," says said Dennis Edwards, an entomologist who manages Monsanto's 240-acre research farm in Jerseyville, Ill., where the first genetically engineered tomato plant was grown in 1987. "Biotechnology is something beneficial to mankind," said Edwards.

Monsanto now calls itself a "life sciences" company. "The goals are to help people around the world lead longer, healthier lives, at costs that they and their nations can afford, and without environmental degradation," according to a letter to shareholders by Monsanto chairman Bob Shapiro.

But activists say that behind Monsanto's green mask is the same company that sold the now-banned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and which developed and produced Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

"You have chemical companies making tremendous profits from selling toxic chemicals that you pour on weeds," said Wendy McGoodwin, executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Cambridge. "They can make greater profits if they develop seeds genetically engineered to withstand even higher doses of chemicals."

Greenpeace says that Monsanto Roundup Ready soybeans are "a massive genetic experiment in which human beings and the environment are the guinea pigs." It says long-term effects are unknown.

But Monsanto says the product is "safer than table salt" and part of a natural progression of farming that has evolved since mankind started planting and selecting crops thousands of years ago.

"We go through the toughest regulatory process in the world," said Barton, the company's spokesman. "It's all done on our dime and it costs billions. As for the labeling, we are following FDA regulations. There's nothing to label. There is no substantial difference."

Monsanto says that transgenic plants are tested for years before they come to market. "We've done 25,000 field tests on transgenic plants," said Roy Fuchs, Monsanto's director of regulatory science. "We've done 1,400 tests on Roundup Ready soybeans. The food is as safe to eat as corresponding products. Nothing is absolutely safe. The way the FDA and the regulatory process is set up, we have the responsibility to test. They review our data. If there is a problem, we have the liability."

But critics question the basic need for the product.

Greenpeace says that Roundup Ready soybeans bring no benefit to the consumer. "They are not cheaper, tastier, or healthier."

Adds McGoodwin, of the Council for Responsible Genetics, "Why do we need genetically engineered foods? The producers and shippers want the longer shelf life and crops that can tolerate herbicides. The consumers don't need these things. The biotech companies are depriving us of the ability to eat natural foods and forcing on us a product we don't need."

Organic food is not the answer, according to Monsanto, whose goals include sustainable development for the world's population, now 5.8 billion, but projected to double by the year 2050.

"You can't feed the world with organics," said Barton. "Organics are a niche market, and not necessarily better. These people call themselves environmentalists, but they are really antis. They are against everything that's not organic. We are trying to feed the world ... to produce double the food with no more land or new water, we have to be more productive."

Last spring the Department of Agriculture was embarrassed when it tried to lump genetically engineered foods into the organic category along with irradiation and fertilizer containing sewage sludge. Officials were swamped with more than 275,000, mostly negative comments and reconsidered.

A new technique, nicknamed Terminator Technology, that renders seeds sterile after one planting season is further infuriating environmentalists who claim it would end the age-old practice of saving seeds.

Developed by Delta and Pine Land Co., a firm Monsanto is in the process of acquiring, the technique's patent is jointly held with the USDA, which partially funded intitial research. Opponents of genetically engineered foods say sterile seeds are inconsistent with Monsanto's "feed the world" philosophy and would unfairly burden Third World farmers.

Biotechnology still in its infancy

At Monsanto's Life Sciences Research Center outside St. Louis, 1,900 scientists are doubling their ability to decode and identify genetic information every 12 to 24 months. Prince Addae, one of the scientists and a native of Ghana, grows genetically engineered corn in a greenhouse at the facility. "Our farmers would like to use their own seeds over and over," says Addae. "If there is a trait we want - let's say insect-resistant so that the yield would be better - then we can produce that in one plant. We are not creating something new. We are using existing genes and transferring them. Every gene has a job."

"The biggest plant loss in the Third World is viruses," added Barton. "Think of the possibilities if you could end that."

But biotechnology is still in its infancy. "Mother Nature was very inventive," said Harry Harlow, Monsanto's director of bioinformatics. "There's 4 billion lines of code, but no manual. Each plant has a genetic code of 50,000 genes. We are using science to reduce the need for herbicides."

The Life Sciences complex includes 26 rooftop greenhouses and 176 laboratories. Each hallway has ropes dangling from emergency showerheads in the ceiling in case of an accident, but no drains on the floor.

Gene transfer is invisible. When the desired gene is identified, it is placed in a solution and muzzle-loaded into a .22-caliber shell. The shell is fired into a screen covering the plant tissue in a petri dish, dispersing DNA. To the eye, it looks like a splash of water. Through a microscope, it looks like needles being fired into a basketball. The transgenic plant is then grown in the traditional way.

But opponents worry about the possibility of something going very wrong.

As an example, the Alliance for Bio-Integrity lawsuit charges that the genetically engineered food supplement L-tryptophan is "the most probable explanation" for dozens of deaths and thousands of serious illnesses in 1988 in the United States and Canada. The food supplement was manufactured by a Japanese company, Showa Denko K.K.

The company paid $1 billion to victims and their survivors, while saying the cause of the accident is still unknown.

Some advocacy groups have raised scenarios that are particularly distasteful, like the possibility of lamb chops going to market with human genes originally introduced for pharmaceutical reasons and then slaughtered with USDA approval.

"It's pretty horrifying," said Joseph Mendelson III, legal director of the International Center for Technology Assesement, a Washington-based group that opposes genetic engineering. "When are we the cannibals, when we eat one human gene or two human genes?"

Monsanto acknowledges using human genes in its pharmaceutical products, but says it has no plans to use human genes in plants used for foods. It dismissed critics' claims of genetically engineered "super weeds" growing uncontrollably as "science fiction."

But researchers at Michigan State University have discovered that a virus-resistant gene inserted into a plant has the potential to recombine into a new, possibly more potent, virus.

"You do run that risk," said researcher Rebecca Grumet, who worked on the Michigan State study, and still believes that the benefits of genetic engineering far outweigh the risks. "It's not like in a laboratory. Once it's out, it's out."

Monsanto's Fuchs acknowledged that "some of the virus can recombine."

During a lunch and media tour of the research farm, entomologist Dennis Edwards ate Monsanto's NewLeaf Plus potato that is genetically engineered to be protected against the leaf roll virus and the Colorado potato beetle. "I'm a scientist, and I've got kids," said Edwards. "I have no problem letting them eat genetically engineered food."

But Mellon, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, argues it's not worth the risk. "The benefits are miniscule," she said. "The biotech companies and the government have taken away the reasonable choice people have not to take risks."

--------- End of series -----------

Globe Online

This series is available on the Globe Online at Use the keyword: Food.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 09/23/98. Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.

Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:05:56 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

World Agr. Researchers Spurn Crops With 'Terminator Genes'


WASHINGTON, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Scientists at the world's largest agricultural research network, who focus on feeding the poor, will not develop crops with "terminator genes" that produce sterile seeds, the network's leaders decided on Friday.

Crops with such "suicidal tendencies" would be a nightmare in the developing world, where farmers, as a matter of course, retain part of each harvest as seed for next year, said Ismail Serageldin, chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

"If you didn't know (about the seeds), you would be wiped out," Serageldin said at a news conference.

Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:06:04 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

forwarded from genetics

New Scientist: Much Ado About Something ?

New Scientist October 31, 1998, Comment: Editorial, Pg. 3

This issue has been genetically modified. Does it need a label ?

IN EUROPE, the debate over genetically modified foods is on the boil. Biotechnology companies are falling out with one another while governments are considering blanket bans on the commercial growing of genetically engineered crops - even though the same crops are already being harvested and sold in the US and elsewhere (see p 4). Much of this week's issue (see p 30) is devoted to examining the science and the conflicting views behind the debate.

Many of the biggest concerns still lie in the future. But there are two urgent questions that are being asked by public and governments right now. Should all GM foods be routinely segregated by farmers and labelled by manufacturers ? And should there be a moratorium on growing GM crops ?

Unfortunately, the answers are anything but simple. Take the issue of labelling - over which long-simmering transatlantic hostilities have finally broken out in the biotech industry.

The view championed by US government regulators is that segregating and labelling GM foods such as soya beans is a waste of time. European companies have concluded that not to segregate and label such foods is a PR disaster.

The question nobody seems to be asking, however, is what kind of labels GM foods should carry and what the real purpose of labelling is. No one knows how the GM label will be interpreted or what the words " genetically modified" are supposed to convey.

Taste and nutritional value ? Presumably not, for most genetic modifications to date have nothing to do with either.

The two most common modifications involve herbicide and pest- resistance genes that are inserted for the benefit of agribusiness, not consumers. In future, this will change as companies market a range of foods engineered to be high in vitamins and low in saturated fats. But even then, " genetically modified" won't mean anything without additional information about the nature of the modification. Nor, in isolation, does the label "GM" reveal anything concrete about the environmental impact of growing the food. This will depend not just on the specific nature of the modification, but where the crops were grown and how the farmer used the technology. As a rule of thumb, crops with pest-resistant genes are likely to spell good news for wildlife, but herbicide-resistant crops are another matter. Will farmers and food manufacturers be happy to provide consumers with this extra information ?

And will they also say whether the GM crop in question was grown anywhere near any wild and weedy relatives, or whether it even has such relatives ? Or whether it was engineered to be sterile ? Because if they do not, nobody will be any the wiser about the product's contribution to one of the most widely touted environmental risks of all - the threat of transgenes "escaping". You can see the problem. The term " genetically modified" doesn't really tell you what you need to know to make an informed decision in the supermarkets. For the same reasons, the term doesn't tell government regulators and advisers what they need to know about a crop in order to decide whether it's safe to grow. This is why a moratorium on growing GM foods - as though they were all the same - is illogical.

Or at least it is if your worries stray no further than consumer safety, superweeds and wildlife. For there are two objections to the genetic engineering of food crops where the GM label does become truly informative. Some people fear that transgenic crops will lead to more and more of the world's food production being controlled by a handful of big companies, to the detriment of poor farmers. Others regard the idea of companies owning genes and moving them from species to species as immoral. For these consumers, a GM label carries real meaning.

But for the vast majority of people who simply want to know whether a food is safe to feed their baby, or whether growing it harmed songbirds, the term is not much use without further information.

Which makes you wonder why many pressure groups are so keen to introduce a GM label. It could just encourage people to act blindly rather than think -surely not what they want ?

For more science news see

Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:06:04 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Mutiny against Monsanto

By Andy Coghlan, New Scientist October 31, 1998
This Week, Pg. 4

Angry biotech firms are blaming the industry leader for bringing modified crops into disrepute

MONSANTO, the American biotech giant, is facing an unprecedented wave of criticism from within the industry. Many of Monsanto's rivals say the company is largely to blame for a consumer backlash that could cripple the prospects for genetically engineered food in Europe.

Polls show that consumer acceptance of engineered food has collapsed in Europe since 1997, when it emerged that Monsanto's herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready soya beans had been shipped to Europe mixed with ordinary soya. Consumers interpreted the move as a ploy to force transgenic soya down European throats.

Monsanto officials have always maintained that the decision not to segregate was made by farmers and distributors, but they admit to misjudging the mood in Europe. Monsanto was convinced that smooth acceptance of transgenic soya in the US would be mirrored in Europe.

The entire industry is now having to deal with the consequences of that miscalculation. Though wary of breaking a tradition of solidarity against opponents of genetic engineering, other companies are distancing themselves from Monsanto. "We have a PR mountain to climb," says Willy de Greef, head of regulatory and government affairs at Novartis Seeds in Basel, Switzerland. "You have a problem if the market leader has firmly set ideas about how to do things, which others might not agree with," he adds. "An expensive failure can be made into an asset if you've learnt from it, but Monsanto still has some learning to do."

Zeneca, the British-based biotechnology giant, also feels aggrieved, not least because it won applause from consumer groups in 1996 by labelling its tomato puree as containing genetically modified tomatoes. "It's a matter of respect for your customer," says Nigel Poole, head of regulatory affairs at Zeneca Plant Science in Bracknell, Berkshire.

Another senior figure in the industry, who asked to remain anonymous, is more blunt, accusing Monsanto of "arrogant stupidity". He adds: "The issue with Roundup Ready soya beans is the elimination of choice. It's not about genetic engineering, it's an issue of 'no one's going to tell me what to eat'."

Other companies are less willing to single out Monsanto for criticism, but those contacted by "New Scientist" agree that the failure to segregate Roundup Ready soya was a setback. And the problems didn't end there, say some industry sources: a high- profile advertising campaign from Monsanto, designed to reassure European consumers, has if anything hardened negative public attitudes to agricultural biotechnology. "We're as fed up as some others with the Yankee-Doodle language that comes to our consumers," says de Greef of Novartis. Even some US companies, insulated from the worst effects of the European storm, are concerned. Du Pont of Wilmington, Delaware, is worried about the impact of Monsanto's stance on future launches of its products in Europe. "It may be more difficult now," says a spokesman.

When it comes to their own-brand products, many of Britain's major retailers are telling their soya suppliers to order as much material as possible from sources outside the US - mainly in Argentina and Brazil - that are guaranteed unmodified. But Brazil last month approved commercial plantings of Roundup Ready soya beans, and Monsanto aims to capture 20 per cent of the Brazilian market within three years.

Monsanto argues that the company is being singled out because it is the market leader. "We certainly didn't intend to drop other companies in it," says Monsanto spokesman Dan Verakis. "If people think we started the controversy, we are certainly trying to clarify it."

For more science news see

Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:06:04 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Britain To Proceed With Caution

New Scientist October 31, 1998, This Week, Pg. 4

CALLS for a moratorium on the commercial planting of engineered crops have been rejected by the British government. Instead, it intends to move towards allowing them be grown for sale via "farm scale" trials. If these reveal harm to the environment, "we can take appropriate action", says environment minister Michael Meacher.

The trial plots will be bigger than any plots grown in Britain to date, but for now will be restricted to crops made tolerant to herbicides.

Similar trials of plants modified to produce insecticides will be delayed for at least three years, as the government fears that these crops could pose a threat to species that are not pests.

Biotechnology companies are pleased to have avoided an outright ban. "This is the way to get data together to challenge claims that these crops damage the environment," says Nigel Poole, head of regulatory affairs at Zeneca Plant Science in Bracknell, Berkshire.

English Nature, the government conservation watchdog which had been pressing for a moratorium, expects the measures to "give time for further research into gene escape and allow ecological experiments to be done".

Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:06:04 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Future Shock

New Scientist October 31, 1998
Features: Living in a GM world, Pg. 28

American writer Alvin Toffler has a term for it - the dizzying disorientation people feel when the future arrives sooner than they expect it to Welcome to the latest installment of that shock: the GM revolution. Gene therapy.

Spare-part tissues grown from engineered fetal cells. Organ-donor pigs and their viruses. All these are part of it. But they are the remote part that exists only in the labs and the imaginations of scientists. GM food is different.

It's already left the labs . . . Even as you read this, genetically engineered crops of soya bean, maize, oilseed rape and potatoes are growing in fields dotted around the US, Canada, Argentina and elsewhere. An area of land the size of Great Britain is now home to these transgenic plants. And more are on the way.

Suddenly, plant science is no longer a quiet backwater for genial professors and their cuttings. It is the stuff of big business, patent rivalries and closely guarded technical tricks.

If you believe biotech's gainsayers, this brave new plant science is also ushering in a dark age in which all genes will bear a "no trespassing" sign, and the companies that own them will move them from species to species like Lego bricks, to the detriment of what's left of the natural world and our respect for it.

We've seen lesser versions of the shock before. When scientists began manipulating the genes of bacteria in the early 1970s, environmentalists and politicians, especially in the US, voiced many of the same apocalyptic fears about scientists playing God and the risks of genetically manipulated organisms escaping.

A quarter of a century later, chemicals and pharmaceuticals plants are home to great stainless steel vats of GM bacteria producing scores of proteins and enzymes for medicine and industry - and nobody minds.

But complacency would be unwise, for biotechnology clearly has entered a new phase. Many of the organisms researchers are manipulating are more complex than bacteria and have greater emotional resonance for humans, either because they are mammals or part of our food supply, or both. Even with GM bacteria, researchers' ambitions have grown. Many no longer want merely to keep them in vats behind closed doors. They want to set them to work in the wider world, doing jobs such as neutralising toxic waste.

For now, though, the debate about the pros and cons of living in a GM world rages around transgenic plants. And rightly so, because their impact will be felt soonest. In the following articles, we look at the issues behind the controversy. Some problems seem to have been wildly exaggerated - the idea of "Frankenfoods" being inherently unsafe, for example. Others, notably the risk of transgenes escaping to create " genetic pollution" , may have technical fixes. But still others are more complex. Even though GM crops do not spell disaster for wildlife and the developing world, their impact is unlikely to be wholly benign. But first, the quest for the blue rose . . .

For more science news see

Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:06:04 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Brave New Rose

By David Concar, New Scientist October 31, 1998
Features: Living in a GM world, Pg. 30

It's 2020. You're lying on a lemon scented lawn. The roses are blue

TURNING a rose blue. In an era when researchers can clone mammals and insert genes into plants to ward off crop-devouring insects, you would think this would be easy. But it isn't. Ask Edwina Cornish. Years ago, this Australian biotechnologist and her colleagues began a quest to create in the lab what cannot be created by breeding. They founded a company, Florigene in Collingwood, Victoria. They raised money for the research.

They cloned the gene that enables petunias to produce the blue pigment that roses lack. But when they inserted the gene into rose cells, the resulting flower was no bluer than, well, a rose. Then there is the mysterious case of the mutant loblolly pine. Another dream of plant engineers is to create easy-to-pulp trees. For years, researchers believed the key in all species was an enzyme called cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase, or CAD. This, after all, was what the textbooks said all woody plants used to synthesise the lignin polymers that make cell walls sturdy and the extraction of cellulose costly.

But then last year, unexpectedly, Ronald Sederoff of North Carolina State University in Raleigh and his colleagues uncovered some mutant pines that broke the rules. The trees had a mutation that blocked all production of the CAD enzyme - yet they still made plenty of lignin. In pine trees at least, genetically manipulating levels of this enzyme would not dramatically help the pulp extractors.

You get the picture. Plant biochemistry is turning out to be more unpredictable - and harder to tame - than researchers had thought. Even the researchers say so. "In the early days it was easy to be optimistic," says Cornish. "We might have underestimated how long things would take and the complexity of the pathways we were trying to manipulate." But here's the rub. Hard to tame does not mean impossible to tame. Slowly but surely, researchers like Cornish and Sederoff are getting to grips with the complexities of engineering plants. Slowly they are laying the foundations for a world where the initials "GM" will come to prefix far more than just genetically manipulated tomato puree and soya beans.

It might take five years, it might take twenty, but we will have genetically modified roses that are blue, along perhaps with GM geraniums that smell of roses, GM orchids that glow when they need watering, GM leylandii hedges that stop growing at a reasonable height, GM lawns that (almost) never need mowing, and GM bin liners made from plastics synthesised in plants. Not to mention GM newspapers and wallpaper.

If this sounds silly, think what has been achieved so far.

Fifteen years ago, there was just one technique, based on the grown gall bacterium, for ferrying genes across the thick walls of plant cells. Now there are several, including two types of gun for propelling DNA into cells at high speed. A decade ago, researchers knew almost nothing about the genes that control the shapes, sizes and flowering characteristics of plants. Now dozens of such genes have been identified and a project to sequence the entire genome of a flowering plant, a weed called "Arabidopsis thaliana", is nearing completion. Already efforts are well under way to engineer potatoes to double up as vaccines; to create transgenic "smart" plants that will use a fluorescent "SOS" protein to give farmers or growers early warning of drought or disease; to equip oilseed rape with bacterial genes for producing biodegradable plastic; and to engineer cotton plants to produce wrinkle-free fibres.

Forests of clones One by one, even trees, which are notoriously tricky to grow from tissue cultures, as genetic engineering demands, are falling under the spell of biotechnology. As a result, timber and pulp will increasingly come from high-tech plantations where the trees are all clones, engineered to carry new genes for pest and disease resistance, and perhaps made sterile to prevent these transgenes escaping via pollen, says David Ellis of the BCRI Forest Biotechnology Centre in Vancouver.

Some tree plantations, mostly in the southern hemisphere, already consist of genetically identical trees, mostly produced the way gardeners and farmers have cloned plants for millennia - with vegetative cuttings. But as genetic engineering takes off, more and more forestry plantations will begin life as so many cloned tree embryos, frozen until they are needed and then cultivated in vast hydroponic vats. Granted, cloning can be labour intensive and genetic uniformity is not always desirable. But many growers are keen on it because it enables them to raise the quality of all their trees to that of the best. The availability of "elite" genetically manipulated trees will make them even keener.

" Biotechnology will accelerate the trend toward clonal forestry," predicts Martin Maunders of Cambridge-based biotech company ATS. One "elite" trait would be easy-to-extract pulp. Ellis points out that despite last year's mutant pine surprise, the synthesis of lignin in other commercial tree species is actually "very well characterised". "We know and have isolated every gene in the biosynthetic path," says Ellis. And in eucalyptus and poplar trees at least, engineering levels of the CAD enzyme does make pulp easier to extract.

Researchers elsewhere are experimenting with genes that may boost the growth of trees during winter months or curb the height of fruit trees so they take up less space and their fruit is easier to harvest. Mini cherry trees small enough for the tiniest city garden could be just a few years away. In labs like Sederoff's, meanwhile, efforts are under way to identify genes that affect wood strength and density. Where will it all lead ?

"A short, fat, fast-growing tree" might be the thing of the future, says Ellis, only half in jest. "With no taper so you don't waste space on the logging trucks."

And with technicoloured timber perhaps. For there's nothing about the biology of plant pigments that means grass has to be green or that wood has to be a yellowy brown. Polka dot button holes to match your tie or scarf are some way off, but already a couple of transgenic carnations that are mauve rather than the usual pink, yellow, white or red are being sold by florists in Australia, Japan and the US.

The carnations owe their strange hue to the pigment gene Cornish and her colleagues cloned from petunias - the one that has so far failed to turn roses blue. Why the gene works in carnations (up to a point) but not in roses isn't entirely clear. But the researchers suspect petal acidity is a major factor. The gene encodes an enzyme needed to synthesise blue pigment molecules called delphinidins, which are lacking in both roses and carnations. The problem for roses is that these molecules are only blue at high "p"H, and the cellular cavities, or vacuoles, that hold petal pigments in roses are acidic. To solve the problem, Cornish and her colleagues are pinning their hopes on one of two options - finding a conventional rose variety that is less acidic, or cloning the genes that control petal "p"H so that they can alter conditions in the vacuoles.

Even then, there remains a risk that the rose's natural pigment molecules, the red cyanadins and orangy perlagonidins, will drown out the added blue.

One reason why turning grass blue or red might be easier than it sounds is that any biochemical changes might only need to be skin deep. For instance, genetic engineers could use a pigment gene hooked up to a piece of DNA that keeps the gene switched off in all but the outer layer of cells. Another approach might be to make use of silent and unused pigment genes. After all, the green stems and leaves of ornamental flowers have the same genes as the petals. "The genes are there," explains Cornish, "but they are expressed in the flowers, not the leaves." In theory, genetic engineers could rouse these pigment genes from their slumber, producing leaves and stems awash with floral pigments.

So, when blue roses do finally begin to emerge from labs, perhaps some them will have the chance to express their native pinkness in their leaves. Some might also have the chance to smell of lemons. "Some people find sweet roses overwhelming, and most cut roses have almost no odour at all," says Michael Dobres.

Two years ago, in Philadelphia, Dobres helped found a company called NovaFlora that aims to remedy this sorry state of affairs. One of their projects involves inserting a gene into roses that would enable their petals to produce lemon fragrance molecules. The gene encodes an enzyme called limonene synthase, which citrus plants use to synthesise scent molecules known as monoterpenes. The researchers have already given the gene to petunias and are waiting for their first crop of what they hope will be a lemon scented transgenic flower. Limonene synthase is only one way to perk up scentless plants. "There are hundreds of different monoterpenes out there, synthesised by different enyzymes," says Dobres. Not to mention two other major types of plant fragrance molecule. In future, predicts Dobres, genetic engineers will be able to create finely-tuned fragrances to order in almost any plant. Among the many possibilities would be lemon scented golf courses and GM camomile lawns that are much easier to maintain than the traditional kind. And as for the idea of Calvin Klein scented GM roses. "That would be dynamite," says Dobres. "That's something we definitely aspire to."

Of course, achieving all this won't be easy. The scent molecules that transgenic plants make will be produced in vain if they remain trapped inside their tissues. One reason many commercial cut flowers are so odourless in the first place is that breeders select for tough petals with waxy coats. Then again, perhaps genetic engineering could be used to make these coats permeable to scent molecules.

It can certainly be used to alter the shape, form and number of flowers that a plant produces. Knowledge of the gene code which specifies the physical arrangement of a flower's sepals, petals, stamens and carpels is so advanced that it is already possible to design "fantasy flowers" that have any of these organs in any position in the flower. And genetic engineers can also alter when a plant flowers.

At the University of Leicester, Garry Whitelam and his colleagues have engineered asters so that they flower in the middle of winter, not just in summer. Growing conventional cut flowers in greenhouses in winter is expensive because of the extra lighting needed to make them flower. In a bid to cut costs, the researchers manipulated an aster gene so that it would produce higher than normal levels of a phytochrome protein that enables plants to sense changes in daylength. The GM asters required only 6 hours of daylight to flower compared with the usual 14.

And when it comes to manipulating the sex lives of plants, this is only the tip of the iceberg, thanks in no small part to "Arabidopsis thaliana". In less than two decades this unprepossessing weed with white flowers has risen from obscurity to become the megastar of plant science. The attraction for researchers is that it has an unusually small genome and grows to maturity in just six weeks. And in the 1980s, they decided to make it their fruit fly - the model organism they would mine for important genes involved in plant development.

In the past few years, such genes have been tumbling out of " Arabidopsis" labs, turning the heads of plant biotechnologists everywhere. Three years ago, for instance, Detlef Weigel of the Salk Institute in La Jolla and Ove Nilsson at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Umea identified two genes in "Arabidopsis" that act as master switches for triggering flower formation at the ends of shoots.

When the researchers engineered "Arabidopsis" so that the genes would be active all over the plant, every shoot produced a flower. And when they inserted one of the two genes, "leafy", into aspen, a tree that normally takes up to two decades to flower was fertile after two months. A spectacular result given that slow sexual development is the bugbear of tree breeding.

Death signal Other researchers are exploring ways of using "Arabidopsis" genes to do the exact opposite - prevent flowering. And not just to prevent transgenes spreading into wild relatives. For annual crops such as lettuce and potato plants, flowering is a prelude to death. It sends a signal to the leaves telling them to shut down photosynthesis. Blocking that signal might mean farmers could grow the crops for longer and perhaps get bigger yields because the plants would no longer need to invest resources in making flowers.

Nobody has engineered crops this way yet, but the discovery of an " Arabidopsis" gene called "Frigida" could encourage researchers to try. In the weed, the gene seems to function as its name suggests - to prevent flowering, or at least to delay it until winter is over. "It would be nice to stick the gene into sugar beet and see what happens," says Caroline Dean, at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

In future, farmers and growers may even use chemical sprays to make their genetically engineered plants flower on cue.

Earlier this year, Brian Tomsett and Mark Caddick at the University of Liverpool used an alcohol-sensitive gene from a fungi to make the activities of plant genes controllable from the outside. Simply drenching the roots of the engineered plant with alcohol was sufficient to switch on a gene that stunted growth.

And why stop there ? Why not manipulate plants so that they can change, on cue, their colour or fragrance ? Why not engineer fast growing hedges whose growth can be "switched off" once they reach the required height ? Why not... create a GM world ?

For more science news see

Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:06:04 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Strange Fruit

By Phil Cohen, New Scientist October 31, 1998
Features: Living in a GM world

The food industry has everything to gain FROM coming clean ABOUT products with bolted-on DNA

CONSIDER the cautionary tale of the celery. In the mid-1980s, celery growers in the US introduced what they thought was a wonderful new strain. Highly resistant to insects, it promised to boost yields dramatically. There was just one small problem. People who handled the celery sticks began complaining of severe skin rashes.

Dermatologists discovered that the celery was shedding psoralens, natural chemicals which become irritants and mutagens when exposed to sunlight.

Or take the once notorious American Lenape - or rather, don't. All seemed well with this hardy new variety of potato launched in the US and Canada in the 1960s. Then came the bitter truth. Biochemists discovered the source of the tuber's unusual burning flavour: dangerous levels of toxins called glycoalkaloids.

"Many nightmares predicted for genetically engineered crops have already happened," reflects Tony Conner of the New Zealand Institute for Crop and Food Research near Christchurch.

It's just that "not many people noticed or cared" because they were the fruits of conventional breeding, not genetic manipulation.

In fact, many biotech insiders and government food regulators, especially in the US, believe that the public has got it all wrong. By the time a "gene food" reaches people's plates it is not merely as safe as a conventional food -in some respects it is actually safer, because of the intensive testing that regulators demand for high-tech food crops. By the end of this year millions of Americans will have eaten these foods, says Arnold Foudin of the US Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland. "And yet you won't be seeing anyone dying in the street."

Frankenfoods However, you won't be seeing opponents of gene foods downing their placards, either. In Europe especially, campaigners have been working flat out in recent months to prevent genetically engineered crops being grown on the same scale as in North America. Their tactic has been to play the moral/emotional card for all it's worth and brand all genetically engineered crops "Frankenfoods" regardless of the specifics of each genetic modification. So far, it has worked amazingly well. All hell broke loose in Britain in August when a food scientist appeared on TV claiming - wrongly as it turned out - that a potato he'd engineered was toxic to rats.

Inevitably, the questions that really matter have vanished amid the confusion and theatre. How do specific genes and the proteins they encode behave in the body ? Do the types of genes and proteins being introduced into high-tech crops raise any new threats to food safety that could go undetected by researchers in companies or government labs ? The answers reveal that the biotech industry is on solid ground when it claims its products are no riskier than conventional foods. But it strays into some distinctly swampy territory when it claims, as it continues to with some force in the US, that genetically engineered foods need not be routinely labelled. First, there is the issue of food safety.

In traditional breeding, scientists often introduce unknown genes into a plant species en masse by hybridising them with a related species with a desirable trait. Genetic engineering, by contrast, involves splicing no more than a few well characterised genes into a plant. That seems less drastic but can still produce unforeseen effects. In either case, the influx of new DNA might end up in critical parts of the genome, altering the behaviour of the plant's normal complement of genes, slashing the production of nutrients or pumping up the level of natural toxins. In many species, plant biochemistry is not just complex and sensitive, it's actually geared up for producing toxins to ward off predators - hence the bitter Lenape and toxic celery.

"That's why it's standard to thoroughly analyse these new transgenic plants," says Roy Fuchs of Monsanto in St Louis, Missouri. "We need to see that they are substantially equivalent to commercial plants." To that end, Fuchs and his team run each promising transgenic crop through a battery of biochemical checks. They monitor levels of nutrients, proteins and potential poisons, and, in some cases, feed the crop to livestock to check that the animals gain weight at the normal rate and remain generally healthy.

But what about more insidious effects ? Some people worry that genetic engineering brings new DNA into the food supply, from microbes, for example. Couldn't this new DNA end up invading our genomes or the genomes of our gut bacteria ? Few scientists take this threat seriously. Not even Walter Doerfler, a researcher at the University of Cologne in Germany, whose work has been seized on by opponents of gene foods.

Last year, Doerfler's team found that when DNA from a bacterial virus was eaten by a mouse, some snippets of viral genes invaded the animal's bloodstream and cells - and, on rare occasions, even linked itself to mouse DNA ("New Scientist", 4 January 1997, p 14; "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences"94 p 961)). "This generated a lot of hysteria in the genetically engineered food arena," remembers Doerfler. But he believes that mammals have defences against this genetic onslaught. In his experiments, the vast majority of the viral chromosomes were shattered into pieces too small to contain intact genes. And despite scouring tissues throughout the mouse, Doerfler has never found any evidence of active ingested genes - even ones designed to work in human cells.

Shredded genes Nor are microbes in the human gut likely to pick up genes from food. Most DNA from food will be destroyed well before it reaches the bacteria, with any surviving remnants being shredded again inside the bacteria by so-called restriction enzymes. Even if intact genes were to successfully invade a bacterium or human cell, they're unlikely to spring into action because their activity will be controlled by DNA switches designed to work only in plants.

The one exception may turn out to be the antibiotic resistance genes that biotechnologists routinely use as "markers" for handling DNA in bacteria and identifying its presence in plant cells. Despite all the scare stories about these marker genes, those in crops now approved for commercial growth have been genetically scrambled, so there is little chance for their resurrection, or they are of no clinical importance. So it's unlikely that these particular genes could boost the spread of antibiotic resistance in human pathogens.

Even so, critics worry that there is nothing to prevent scientists from using different markers in future, and while scientists agree that the chance of one of these genes jumping from food into a new cell is tiny, few will say it is impossible. Technology could soon make it impossible, however. Some years ago, David Ow and his colleagues at the Plant Gene Expression Center in Albany, California - a lab belonging to the US Department of Agriculture - discovered a way of removing marker genes and other extraneous DNA from engineered plant cells. Their approach involved using a pair of molecular scissors called CRE, an enzyme from a bacterial virus, to snip out the antibiotic resistance DNA. Since then, Ow's group has shown the same editing trick also works in an important food crop, wheat.

Until now, industry researchers have shown little interest in the work because they insisted that their genes posed no threat. But attitudes seem to be changing. "There is no clinical concern here whatsoever," says Jeff Stein of Novartis in Greensboro, North Carolina. "But we do worry about public perception." While not disclosing too many technical details, Stein says that all future Novartis crop products will be "100 per cent" free of antibiotic resistance genes. Other companies are also investigating ways of cutting out antibiotic resistance genes and surplus DNA.

More recently, Ow's team showed that the editing process can run in reverse, enabling researchers to insert foreign genes into plant chromosomes at exact locations ("Plant Journal," vol 7, p 649) - something that has so far been impossible. The method involves the insertion of DNA "docking sites" into unimportant areas of a chromosome. In future, researchers will be able to use such sites to slot new genes into plants without disturbing their normal complement of genes. Genetic engineering will finally become the precision tool that the biotech industry claims it to be.

Not that this would deal with every worry. In some cases, the transgenic protein encoded by this precision-engineered DNA might itself turn out to be toxic, although detecting this wouldn't be a problem. Unlike conventional breeders, biotechnologists can use the genes that interest them to produce transgenic proteins in bacteria to test on animals.

A more subtle effect of proteins is harder to deal with.

When molecular biologists shuttle new genes into plants, they might inadvertently introduce proteins capable of triggering respiratory or inflammatory problems in the one to two per cent of people who suffer from food allergies. Scientists at Iowa- based Pioneer Hi-bred, one of the world's largest seed companies, learnt this the hard way. In the early 1990s, its researchers engineered a more nutritious strain of soya bean by adding a gene taken from brazil nuts. The gene encoded a protein rich in methionine, a nutrient that is in short supply in ordinary soya beans. At the company's request, allergy specialist Steve Taylor of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln studied antibodies and immune responses from patients allergic to brazil nuts. Pioneer Hi-bred dropped the soya bean project when Taylor discovered that the hybrid was likely to trigger a major attack in people with brazil nut allergies.

To some, it seemed like a narrowly averted disaster. After all, research based on animal experiments published only a few years earlier suggested that the same protein was not an allergen. "Allergy science is in its infancy," says Jane Rissler, a plant pathologist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC. "That's a good reason to collect a lot more data before doing these widespread transgenic releases." Taylor himself extracts a different lesson. "It shows you can't be cavalier about allergies," he says. "But it also shows the system is working."

The system he refers to is a series of tests that scientists now use to flush out allergens before they are put into crops.

If the transgenic protein comes from a known allergenic food, it is subjected to immunological tests. If the protein comes from other sources, researchers study its molecular structure (amino acid sequence), looking for similarities with allergy-triggering proteins in the databases. The protein's chemical hardiness is also scrutinised. In test-tube simulations of the heat, acid and enzymes found in the stomach, most proteins are torn to shreds in seconds. Allergens tend to survive several minutes before they, too, are destroyed.

Mystery ingredients Even if true allergens do escape detection and make it into transgenic crops, immunologist Yueh-hsui Chien of Stanford University questions whether this represents a new risk to the consumer. "If you regularly eat tomatoes, and then you eat a transgenic one, you know you are eating a few new proteins," she says. "The first time you eat a lobster, you eat several thousand new proteins."

But that's a false comparison, argues Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group in New York. She points out that someone knows they are eating a lobster. But the new ingredient in the tomato is invisible because transgenic crops are, for the most part, unlabelled and mixed in with the rest of the harvest. "The industry is depriving us of one of our most important natural defence mechanisms," she says. "Reading ingredients."

In the US, companies argue that the chance of allergic responses to the current generation of modified crops is too remote to warrant segregation and labelling. And so far, the US Food and Drug Administration has supported this view by introducing rules that require farmers and manufacturers to segregate and label transgenic foods only if there is good reason to suspect they might behave differently in the body than more conventional foods. Officials in Europe made a similar ruling in September, but in Britain and many other countries in the European Union, some manufacturers and retailers have decided to label products voluntarily.

Full disclosure may soon be a major fashion. In the industry, the most excited talk is about using molecular biology to lower undesirable chemicals or boost nutrients in food. At Nagoya University in Japan, for example, researchers have managed to slash levels of the major allergenic protein in rice by 70 to 80 per cent by inserting a so-called antisense gene to block the protein's production in the plant.

If biotechnology dramatically increases the quality or safety of food, companies on both sides of the Atlantic may soon be falling over each other to market new and improved gene crops - and to provide the public with more information about what they are eating.

Then we can decide for ourselves which of the risks - low tech or high tech - we are willing to take when we eat our next meal.

For more science news see

Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:06:04 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Live And Let Live

By Martin Brookes and Andy Coghlan
New Scientist October 31, 1998, Features: Living in a GM world,

Engineered crops will be the best thing that's happened to wildlife for years, say their advocates. Others fear it could all go horribly wrong

BIG science plus agriculture spells bad news for wildlife. This has been the mantra of environmentalists ever since Rachel Carson documented the impact of chemical pesticides on American wildlife in her 1960s classic, "Silent Spring". And that is the mantra that Dan Verakis, spokesman for biotech giant Monsanto and defender-in-chief of genetically engineered crops, is keen to turn on its head. "People are saying this technology is the last nail in the coffin of our wildlife," he says. "But we believe it could help wildlife recover." Genetic engineering could slash the volume of herbicides and pesticides that farmers need to dump on the land each year; it could "reverse the Silent Spring scenario".

Advocates of the new high-tech crops clearly see this as their strong card, the one that can simultaneously wrong-foot anti- biotech greens and all those who are sceptical simply because they can see no benefits in the technology for anyone other than farmers and shareholders. There's just one small problem. Biotech's biggest money-spinners to date are crops that seem designed to keep farmers hooked on chemicals.

Of the 27.8 million hectares of land planted with genetically engineered crops this year in the US, 71 per cent is covered with plants resistant to herbicides, largely soya bean and maize engineered to carry an enzyme that neutralises glyphosate, Monsanto's famous Roundup herbicide. Thanks to this enzyme, the biotech industry gets to sell transgenic seed and a chemical, and farmers can wage war on weeds like never before.

In theory, they can spray as much as they want whenever they want and not endanger their crop. Of course, the industry claims these crops are greener than they seem. Farmers planting soya beans resistant to glyphosate have only to apply the herbicide once or twice instead of six or seven times, says Val Giddings of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation. "The notion held in Europe that farmers want to spray herbicides willy-nilly is nonsense because they want to cut costs."

And so they do, but the total volume of chemicals alone doesn't tell the whole story, especially not with herbicide- resistant crops. Whether these are a good thing for wildlife depends not just on how much herbicide farmers spray, but when and where they spray it, and, above all, what their attitude is to weeds. The fact that many take an aesthetic pride in running a farm with "clean fields" means that reversing the Silent Spring scenario might be easier said than done.

But first the good news. Even staunch critics of the speed with which biotechnology is revolutionising the world's agriculture acknowledge that transgenic crops engineered to be resistant to specific fungi and insects could make many old- style chemical sprays redundant. In Arkansas alone last year, farmers planted 1 million acres with engineered cotton resistant to the cotton bollworm, and hardly any of the usual organophosphate pesticides were applied. "It amounts to a saving in pesticide application of 1 litre per acre, enough to fill about 14 large railroad tank cars," says Giddings.

"People in the US are more pleased than Europeans when you tell them you don't need chemicals to control insects and nematodes," says Roger Beachy, a plant biologist at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla. "The public in Europe don't seem to be aware of the benefits to the environment, and therefore to them personally," he says.

How long those benefits will last is not so clear. Introduce a new method of pest or weed control and "you always get a temporary dip in the cost to the farmer", says Margaret Mellon, director of agriculture and biotechnology for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a pressure group in Washington DC. "In the past, those dips have never persisted because resistance has emerged." Sure enough, biotech companies already have to take seriously the problem of pests acquiring resistance to Bt toxin (see "Resistance is useless"). Others, meanwhile, fear that inserting certain pesticide genes into plants could jeopardise the balance between pests and beneficial insects in agricultural ecosystems.

Friendly fire The aim of such manipulations is to provide the crops with a toxin that can ward off or kill specific pests such as bollworms and aphids, while sparing friendlier insects such as ladybirds.

But this year a British team found that a potato engineered to resist an aphid pest also harmed ladybirds, at least in lab conditions.

Nick Birch of the Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee and his colleagues inserted a gene from the snowdrop into potatoes, enabling the tubers to make a lectin capable of stopping aphids from snacking on them quite so much. When aphids reared on these potatoes were fed to ladybirds, however, the females lived only half as long and produced more than twice the number of unhatched eggs compared with ladybirds fed normal aphids.

Still, most ecologists see this as an argument for testing each pesticide gene fully before using it, not for banning them en masse. There are some pesticide genes that shouldn't be inserted into crops until their wider biological effects have been determined, says Brian Johnson, an ecologist with the conservation group English Nature who advises the British government about the release of transgenic organisms. But overall, the environmental benefits of pest-resistant crops could be immense, he says.

Herbicide-resistant crops, however, are another matter. English Nature is urging the British government to impose a moratorium on their use until their effects on biodiversity have been explored. Johnson accepts that the crops are not all bad. In the US, for instance, they have led many farmers to switch to Roundup from atrazine, a herbicide chemical that is far more likely to leach into water systems and harm animals and humans.

One of Roundup's virtues is that it binds to soil as it breaks down. Another is that it can reduce the need for ploughing, which may contribute to erosion.

It is also a very effective herbicide. Perhaps too effective. English Nature fears that armed with Roundup and transgenic crops, farmers will end up wiping out more wild plants than ever before. They may spray less, Johnson says, but because chemicals like Roundup kill a broader spectrum of weeds than many other herbicides, their impact would be greater. The result could be weed wipeout. In the US, that might not matter so much because less of the nation's biodiversity is locked up in farmland. But, as Johnson says, "Europe doesn't have the luxury of vast wilderness areas like the US". Much more of its wildlife depends on agricultural practices for its survival.

In Britain, says Johnson, farmers often permit a modest growth of weeds in and around their fields. These weeds support a variety of insects which provide a lifeline for threatened birds such as linnets and skylarks. In fact, research is just beginning to reveal in detail which plants do and do not harm the yields of different crops, promising a new era of laissez- faire crop management. What will happen to all this if British farmers switch to engineered crops and broad-spectrum herbicides ?

Not a great deal, according to Alan Dewar at the Institute for Arable Crops Research at Broom's Barn in Suffolk. Dewar says that with conventional herbicides most farmers cleanse their land of weeds anyway. In fact, to avoid damaging their non- resistant crops, most farmers spray their land before the growing season even begins. At least with the transgenic crops, farmers have the option of letting the weeds grow with the crop for part of the season. In experiments carried out this summer for Monsanto, Dewar and his colleague Mike May found that yields of transgenic sugar beet treated with Roundup remained higher than with conventional herbicides even when Roundup was applied late, letting the weeds survive for much longer than usual in the growing season.

"It was obvious to see that the weedy plots were heaving with life," says Dewar. Aphids that normally attacked the beet, for example, colonised the weeds instead. Conservation-minded farmers could use Roundup to allow weeds to grow a bit longer, says Dewar. "But it requires a bit of nerve because it looks a bit of a mess."

The major disincentive for letting the weeds grow, however, is that the best yields were in plots sprayed early enough for Roundup to destroy everything. In other words, herbicide- resistant crops could be used in an environmentally friendly way - but only by farmers who are not driven by a "clean field" mentality and who don't mind dropping their yields below the maximum achievable. These are not the farmers Monsanto seems to have in mind in its brochure for Roundup-ready oilseed rape.

One Manitoba farmer endorses the product thus: "The weed control has been exceptional. It (Roundup) annihilated everything."

Whether the same would happen in Britain and other countries is hard to say, but one thing at least is clear. The biotech industry is developing two very different sales pitches for its products - one for farmers and one for the rest of us.

Resistance is useless By Bob Holmes IT SOUNDS like a farmer's dream: crops that produce a steady supply of their own insecticide so there's no need to drench fields periodically with toxic chemicals to kill off the pests.

In the US the dream has been a reality for three years now, as farmers enthusiastically plant crops genetically engineered to produce Bt, an insecticidal protein originally found in a soil bacterium, "Bacillus thuringiensis".

This year Bt cotton engineered by Monsanto accounted for over 20 per cent of all the cotton planted in the US, while Bt maize developed by several companies grew in over 10 per cent of America's cornfields. A third crop, Monsanto's Bt potato, has also begun to hit fields. In total, the US's Bt crops cover an area almost as big as Scotland.

Critics fear that in their rush to take advantage of the new technology, however, farmers and the companies that supply them may be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Insects have a long history of evolving resistance to chemical insecticides.

But scientists worry that Bt crops may provoke resistance even more quickly.

Sprayed insecticides usually degrade rapidly, and if relatively few pests show up in a given year, money-conscious farmers may not spray at all. Bt plants, on the other hand, are equivalent to a continuous deluge of insecticide that keeps the pests under constant pressure to evolve resistance. As Bt crops move into Europe and huge new markets such as China and India in the next few years, the threat of Bt-resistant superbugs seems likely to grow. And that matters because many see Bt as the last line of defence against insect pests.

The best response to such a threat, scientists agree, is to stack the cards against resistance by making sure that enough insects survive that are still susceptible to the toxin. Farmers can do that by planting some of each crop without the "Bt" gene, so that insects can mature without any evolutionary pressure to become resistant. If there are enough insects in this refuge, any resistant ones that evolve in the Bt field will mate with susceptible pests. And if the "Bt"-containing plants deliver a toxic dose hefty enough to kill insects with just one resistant parent, this so-called "high dose/refuge" strategy should keep resistance at bay for many years.

But that "if" may be a big one. So far none of the three commercial Bt crops has been grown long enough for resistant insects to show up in farmers' fields in the US. Researchers are already seeing ominous hints, however, that for a few pests, Bt plants aren't delivering the knockout punch. In some Bt corn varieties, for example, toxin levels drop towards the end of the growing season, which allows some larvae of the European corn borer to survive even without resistance genes.

Even when the toxic dose is high enough, refuges work only if susceptible insects survive on them, and farmers aren't used to encouraging pests. As a result, agricultural companies - and government regulators - tend to recommend refuges that are barely big enough to do the job.

If enough susceptible insects manage to survive in the refuge, they will do little good unless they mate with resistant survivors from the Bt fields. And here, too, some troubling signs are beginning to emerge. At the University of Minnesota, Donald Alstad and his colleague David Andow have found that European corn borer adults rarely fly more than 75 metres during their lifetime. That means the refuges must be tucked in very close to the Bt corn, which they seldom are. Entomologists know less about the flight ranges of other pests, but it's clear that some refuge placements are nearly useless.

The US Environmental Protection Agency may correct some of these problems when it reconsiders its regulations for Bt plants over the next three years, says Janet Andersen, who directs the agency's biopesticides division. But even if the US plugs the largest loopholes, there's no guarantee that other countries will do the same. In Europe, where Bt crops are starting to get approval for commercial planting, regulators are still wrestling with the question of how big the refuges would need to be for European pests and cropping patterns. In poorer countries, where farms are small and farmers uneducated, any regulation may be hard to achieve.

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Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:06:04 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Food For All

By Debbie Mack, New Scientist October 31, 1998
Features: Living in a GM world

Crops that resist drought and disease promise to transform the lives of poor farmers/if only they could afford them

FIVE MILLION Brazilians faced starvation this year. This time it was a drought related to El Nino that halved grain crops in the northeast of the country, but next year it will be something else. Famine is perennial in Brazil. In September Monsanto, the world's largest supplier of genetically modified seeds, announced it would invest dollar 550 million in Brazil to build a factory producing its herbicide Roundup.

Shortly afterwards the Brazilian government made Monsanto's Roundup- resistant soya beans the country's first legally approved, genetically engineered crop. The soya beans will boost profits for the big landowners who grow them to feed beef cattle for export. But most rural Brazilians are subsistence farmers who do not grow soya. No help will trickle down from Monsanto's beans to the starving millions. The story exemplifies the limited contribution genetically modified crops have made so far to eradicating world hunger.

It is not that biotech companies are uninterested in the developing world. Far from it: Brazil and other newly industrialising countries are in fact prime targets, with their growing demand for agricultural products, little opposition to biotechnology, and farmers who have risen above hard graft subsistence, but have not yet become customers of the world's seed and agrochemicals conglomerates.

But who will benefit from genetically modified crops in these countries ? The companies speak of feeding the starving millions, while conserving the environment. They say that the new technology will have greater benefits in the Third World than anywhere else. " Biotechnology is a key factor in the fight against famine," claims the literature from EuropaBio, the association of European biotechnology companies. " Biotechnology will help increase the yield on limited land."

Critics maintain that there is little evidence of this. Instead, they say most of the engineered crops developed or in the pipeline will benefit rich farmers, not the needy. Worse still, they fear the biotech industry's increasing domination of crop research will hurt, not help, the poor. Agriculture does need a new technological saviour. Most of the world's food calories come from grain. A simple redistribution of what we grow now, even if it were possible, will not feed the 10 billion humans expected by 2030. Traditional methods of improving crops seem to have gone about as far as they can. "The fact that we start from the results of more than 5000 years of selective breeding makes further staggering yield increases unlikely," says Lloyd Evans of the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry in Canberra, Australia. "The biggest opportunity for increasing grain yields is to produce varieties more precisely adapted to local conditions."

Yet few of these crops have emerged so far. Those that are on or near the market aim to increase farmers' profits by cutting expensive "inputs", such as pesticides. This is little help to farmers who can afford no inputs to begin with, not even the reduced levels needed for these crops, and no help if they cannot afford the patented seed. Steven Briggs, head of the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute in San Diego, which sequences plant genomes, points to several innovations in the pipeline which might help: fodder crops that contain more calories, so more meat can be produced per hectare of corn or soya; crops that destroy toxins produced by moulds, such as fumonisin, which cause massive crop losses after harvest; and disease-resistant crops, such as sweet potatoes and cassava, staples of the poor, which fend off viruses. Crops that thrive despite drought and salty soils could also let farmers expand production into marginal lands. And the nutritional content of staples could be improved. If maize, for example, can be made to produce more of the amino acids it naturally lacks, the 80 million people who live almost exclusively on maize would get more protein. Ganesh Kishore, head of nutrition at Monsanto, says: "We can make it into a complete balanced meal." Briggs agrees that there are contradictions inherent in bringing high- tech remedies to low-tech farmers. Breeding crops for subsistence, he says, is "emergency aid, not a path to economic growth". Pol Bamelis, from the German giant Bayer and chair of the German and European biotechnology associations, says that the industry "cannot help the fact that there are rich and poor in the world".

Buy out Biotech companies think genetic engineering will be in the best position to help once farmers everywhere switch from small- scale subsistence to large-scale mechanisation. But many activists fear just that process. The high price of the technology could allow the few farmers who can afford it to out- compete their poorer neighbours and eventually buy them out, driving people from the land, says Hope Shand, of the Rural Advancement Fund International in Canada.

Monsanto also argues that helping poor farmers would reap another kind of benefit: richer peasants who no longer need to destroy forests to get more land. But this could be simplistic. Steve Vosti, of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC, has studied poor farmers and deforestation in Amazonia. He says any technology that increases a farmer's profits, or reduces the labour needed per hectare, will cause the farmer to cut down trees to get more land. It is not clear whether the kind of farmer who needs to fell forests to get land, or who eats little but maize meal, will ever be able to afford genetically modified crops. But even if only rich farmers benefit, says Vosti, their expansion would tend to push poorer farmers into forest margins.

And there are other disadvantages for the poorest farmers.

"New biotechnologies threaten to aggravate problems of genetic uniformity, and increase the dependence of farmers on transnational corporations," says Shand. Even in the industrialised world, people are worried about genetic uniformity arising from the widespread introduction of genetically modified crops. In Missouri this summer, half the soya plants on some farms died of "Fusarium" mould, after three- quarters of the land was planted with Roundup-resistant varieties which turned out not to resist mould.

The handful of modified varieties offered by biotech companies will inevitably be more genetically uniform, hence more susceptible to unforeseen stress, than the plethora of classically bred varieties grown now. That problem could be worse in the tropics, where there is more existing crop diversity together with stresses that seed breeders based in the North may not have anticipated. Tropical countries will also have less money to pay multinationals for the rights to incorporate proprietary genes into several local varieties.

The last problem stems from the big companies' growing control of both markets and plant genes. Crop scientists must continually breed new crop varieties to meet the ever-evolving threats of pests and disease. In the Third World, this is mainly done by government-funded institutions, and the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research. But public sector breeders are losing funding, while companies such as Monsanto are rapidly becoming the only source for improved varieties. It already, for example, sells half the maize seed in Argentina.

Losing access The public breeders are also losing access to plant genes.

Last May the CGIAR completed a detailed study of the problems posed by the fact that the genes it needs to do its work are increasingly available only at a price, because companies hold the patents. India recently declined to pay Monsanto dollar 8 million for the use, by its state-owned crop laboratories, of Monsanto's "Bt" insecticide gene. Those labs will not be able to provide Indian farmers with cheap, locally bred insect-resistant crops. Farmers who can afford to will have to buy whatever Monsanto has to offer.

Even if Third World breeders get access to patented genes, they may be forced to protect them in ways that put them out of reach of the poor. "Terminator", a gene owned by Monsanto, keeps a plant from producing viable seed. So farmers cannot save seed from patented, genetically modified varieties for the next harvest. It also keeps farmers from crossing patented strains with other crops to create new varieties. "Public sector breeders could be under great pressure to use "Terminator" to protect patented genes in the breeds they produce, in exchange for access to those genes," says Shand. The overall effect could be that breeders will not be able to create new varieties to meet evolving threats unless they pay for the genes, and couple them with technologies to prevent the saving of seed. That means fewer, more expensive varieties, plus increased costs for the 1.4 billion poorest farmers who grow 80 per cent of subsistence crops from saved seed. As big northern companies expand their control of crop genes, their choice may be to buy seed, or die.

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Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:06:04 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson

Ineligible potatoes

By Peter Baker (London), October 31, 1998

Robin Oakley-Hill need have no concerns either for the expertise of Britain's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment or for potential problems arising in his garden due to crossing between his potatoes and other members of the family Solanaceae (Letters, 10 October, p 54). In a recent study published by the OECD, attempts to cross-cultivated potatoes with either "Solanum nigrum" or "S. dulcamara" produced no viable seeds or plants.

Embryo rescue resulted in hybrids which were found to be less vital, male-sterile, formed no tubers and showed less female fertility. After pollination (backcross) no viable seeds were formed.

The recent statement from the Royal Society (" Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use", September 1998) also confirms that potatoes have no sexually compatible wild relatives in Britain.

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:

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