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Biotech Trees Get Wooden Response From Sierra Club

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
August 1, 2003

Roll over, John Muir, and tell Johnny Appleseed the news: Biotechnology is coming to the forest and orchard.

Scientists are planting genetically engineered trees in dozens of research projects across the country, ignoring the pleas of environmentalists who fear dangerous, unintended consequences.

barren forest

"When we're talking about changing the very makeup of wild forests, we definitely need to apply caution," said Kathleen Casey, with the Northwest office of the Sierra Club.

"Trees send their pollen huge distances, and the idea that this won't contaminate the gene pool is ridiculous," said Phil Bereano, a University of Washington professor of engineering. He serves on the United Nations' "Biosafety Protocol" panel of experts recommending regulation of genetically engineered agricultural products.

"It won't be as widespread as agricultural biotechnology, but it could be much more destructive," said Jim Diamond, chairman of the Sierra Club's genetic engineering committee. "Trees are what's left of our natural environment and home to endangered species."

The Sierra Club wants a moratorium on the planting of genetically engineered trees outdoors until the science is better understood. But like a tree falling deep in the forest, the organization's call for a suspension of genetic tinkering in the woods has gone unheeded.

green trees

Biotech Trees Get Wooden Response From Sierra Club (continued)

As the research has gone forward, the scientists have had to deal with a different set of risks. The locations of the research projects are usually not disclosed because of the possibility of violence, such as the firebombing two years ago of the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture. The Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility.

"That act of terrorism cost the university millions of dollars and destroyed valuable research," said UW geneticist Toby Bradshaw, who was targeted for the vandalism by the ELF based on a mistaken belief that he worked with genetically altered poplars. Bradshaw's trees were genetic hybrids, but created by traditional cross-pollination methods.

The tree scientists say the critics don't understand how science, even biotechnology, also can give Mother Nature a fighting chance against ravages natural and manmade.

Biotechnology, they say, may provide just what's needed to help reverse global deforestation and industrial pollution while satisfying increased demand for wood and paper products. Fruit-tree farmers could also benefit from the creation of hardier crops.

Already, biotechnology has been credited with saving Hawaii's $14 million-a-year papaya industry. A virus had wiped out 40 percent of the crop and threatened to destroy the rest before seeds engineered to resist the virus were introduced in 1998.

Now, advocates of biotechnology say, Hawaii's papaya industry is thriving again. Critics of the technology, however, contend the altered papaya tree is weaker and requires heavier use of pesticides and fertilizer to survive.

Papayas are the only approved engineered tree for market. The rest are still experimental.

About 230 notices of genetically engineered tree experiments have been filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 1989, with about half coming since 2000.

"There is a lot of value in genetic engineering," said Oregon State University researcher Steven Strauss, who tends to a few thousand engineered trees.

Some researchers are infusing trees with genetic material taken from viruses and bacteria that helps them grow faster and fatter and yield better wood. Others are splicing mercury-gobbling bacteria genes into trees, enlisting nature to help clean polluted soil.

Still others are inserting foreign genes that might reduce the amount of toxic chemicals needed to process trees into paper.

Poplar, eucalyptus, apple and coffee trees are among those being engineered.

Researchers even hope to revive the cherished American chestnut, devastated by blight a century ago. Few of the trees, once a dominant feature of the eastern United States, grow higher than shrubs before succumbing.

The experimental tree plots are much smaller in scale than the 100 million acres of genetically modified food crops planted last year.

Except for the Hawaiian papaya, no genetically modified tree is expected to be commercialized for the next five to 10 years. Trees grow much slower than crops, and genetic researchers need years to compare and contrast generations.

But could biotech trees crossbreed with their natural brethren and ruin forests' genetic diversity? The Sierra Club fears that, among other ecological consequences.

Researchers hope to placate critics by engineering sterility into their designer trees, so their effect on the environment can be contained. But that technology remains elusive.

Many field trials are backed by paper and timber companies hoping to design trees that yield more wood and paper.

Numerous projects are aimed at growing more wood on less land or making it cheaper and less environmentally harmful to process trees in mills. Fruit-tree farmers, such as those in Hawaii, are looking for hardier trees with less reliance on chemical bug and weed killers.

The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency even awarded Colorado State researchers $500,000 this year to develop a pine tree or other plants that can change colors when exposed to a germ or chemical attack.

All this is being done now because of better understanding of tree genomes. The Dendrome Project at the University of California-Davis, mimics the Human Genome Project, offering detailed genetic information on 100 trees on its Web site.

Forestry researchers are proud of their work, but have learned to be circumspect about disclosing where their genetically engineered trees are growing.

In June, three protesters were arrested after chaining themselves inside a UC-Davis science building to protest tree research.

Oregon State's Strauss says the protesters' legitimate concerns are virtually identical to those of scientists. After all, he is working to engineer sterility into poplars.

"The violent guys just don't understand the science," Strauss said. "Genetic engineering is not one thing; it's a thousand things. But the extremes want to stop it all."


Tobacco Millions Awarded to Colleges [for biotech research]

Diane Suchetka
The Charlotte Observer
Aug. 08, 2003

Up to $60 million will go for training students

North Carolina's community colleges and two of its universities were awarded up to $60 million in tobacco settlement money Thursday to train thousands of students for jobs in the biomanufacturing and pharmaceutical industries.

The goal of the new program is to use highly trained workers to lure more businesses in the fast-growing industries to North Carolina.

Martin Lancaster, president of the N.C. Community College System, is optimistic the program will succeed because, he said, no other state provides the depth and breadth of training the N.C. schools plan to offer. He added that it will "set North Carolina apart."

"These grants from the Golden LEAF foundation will be an incredible boost to North Carolina's economic transition from manufacturing to biomanufacturing," he said.

Ultimately, the schools hope, new businesses will create tens of thousands of jobs to replace ones North Carolina is losing in textiles, tobacco and other sectors of the economy.

The schools will work in conjunction with the N.C. Biosciences Organization, a trade group of more than 60 companies whose products include therapeutic drugs, genetically modified crops and diagnostic devices.

The board of directors of Golden LEAF Inc. -- Long-term Economic Advancement Foundation -- agreed to provide the money in a meeting Thursday afternoon, according to college and university officials who attended.

The organization distributes some of the money tobacco companies are paying to North Carolina to cover the cost of treating tobacco-related illnesses.

The foundation's share is expected to reach $2.3 billion by 2025.

Initially, the schools had asked for $84 million. But officials said they could still proceed with the plan with the lower funding.

In addition to the $60 million, Golden LEAF asked companies that could end up hiring students from the program to provide $4.5 million in equipment and support for the project, school officials said.

N.C. State University will use its portion -- up to $36 million -- to design, build and equip a Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center.

The center will include a pilot plant, a replication of the sterile rooms and expensive equipment found in biomanufacturing and pharmaceutical facilities, so students can practice before taking jobs.

It will be available to students from across the state, including community college students, for final hands-on training before they enter the work force.

It is expected to take more than three years to complete.

N.C. Central University will receive up to $19.1 million to build, staff and equip research labs in what will be called the N.C. Biomanufacturing Research Institute.

"We hope it will open the fall of 2005," said Rosalind Fuse-Hall, executive assistant to the chancellor at N.C. Central.

North Carolina's community college system will get up to $9.4 million to create five training centers at existing campuses. The location of those will be decided later, Lancaster said.

More than 65 percent of the jobs in these fields do not require a bachelor's degree, Lancaster said. And North Carolina's 58 community colleges will train students for those jobs.

In addition, the community college system will provide a mobile training lab that can be quickly dispatched anywhere in the state to train or retrain workers.

"There's a lot of work to do yet," said Stephen Jones, vice chancellor for the Office of Extension and Engagement at N.C. State.

"But I think the feeling that we all share is one of relief and celebration.

We've now reached the point where we can begin taking the next step toward ensuring that we are in position for our state to be the premier location choice for this industry."


Unwelcome Underperformers

Guelph Mercury
August 14, 2003 [based on report on Agnet]

E. Ann Clark, Ph.D., an associate professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph writes that she has read with interest the dialogue surrounding the recent Guelph visit of Michael Meacher, former Minister of the Environment in the UK.

In response to anecdotal evidence provided by Terry Daynard in "I have sinned: I grow genetically modified crops" (The Guelph Mercury, Aug. 9) on crop performance on his farm, Clark says that information from

  • the United States Department of Agriculture (Fernandez-Cornejo and McBride, 2002;,
  • from Charles Benbrook 1999 ( and 2001 (www.biotech-] -- former Chair of the Board on Agriculture of the U.S. National Academy of Science --
  • and from the scientific literature (Elmore et al., 2002a and b; Agron. J. 93(2):404-407 and 408-412)

show that contrary to Daynard's favorable experience, independent analysts have not found that Roundup Ready soybeans yield more, reduce herbicide use, or increase farmer profits.

Clark says that the United States Department of Agriculture found that Roundup Ready soy yields would increase by a scant 0.3 per cent, if 10 per cent of U.S. soybean growers adopted the Roundup Ready technology. In contrast, a range of industry, university, and state-sponsored surveys summarized by Benbrook showed that Roundup Ready soybean yields averaged five to 10 per cent less than conventional soybeans.

As shown by Elmore and colleagues, Roundup Ready soy yield is reduced even between hand-weeded (unsprayed) lines differing only in the presence of the Roundup Ready gene. So, the yield drag cannot be explained as an artefact caused by the Roundup itself or from comparing genetically different lines. Indeed, because they are not bred for higher yield, the only way that Roundup Ready crops could "increase yield" would be if other herbicides or approaches proved unequal to the task of suppressing a heavy weed population.

United States Department of Agriculture researchers reported that Roundup Ready soy requires more, not less, active ingredients (a.i.) per acre than competing herbicides, many of which are designed to act at very small concentrations. Using typical U.S. tank mixes, herbicide rates on farms range from 0.84 to 2.63 kg a.i./ha for Roundup Ready soybeans versus 0.09 to 1.68 kg a.i./ha for conventional cultivars (Table 1.10; Benbrook, 2001). The net effect is that Roundup Ready soybean growers are now applying about 0.56 kg/ha more herbicide -- or nine million kg more herbicide a year in the U.S.

While Roundup Ready soybeans don't reduce herbicide use, they have allowed producers to replace more toxic herbicides with Roundup, which is much less hazardous to human health. However, this benefit is short-lived, because overuse of Roundup on Roundup Ready crops has already selected for resistance or tolerance to Roundup in several key weed species, obliging producers to revert to additional herbicides or more applications of Roundup. U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers attributed a net reduction of 2.5 million pounds pesticide a.i. to the adoption of genetically modified corn, soy, and cotton crops, primarily due to Bt-cotton in some states. As calculated from ERS-USDA figure, total pesticide use on corn, soy, and cotton in 2000 was about 327 million lb. Thus, converting 68 per cent of U.S. soybean acreage to HT soybean, 56 per cent of U.S. cotton acreage to HT cotton, 19 per cent of U.S. corn acreage to Bt corn, and 37 per cent of U.S. cotton acreage to Bt cotton reduced pesticide use by 2.5 of 327 million lb or a barely distinguishable 0.7 per cent in pesticide a.i.. The premise that Roundup Ready soy or Bt corn reduce pesticide use is unsupported.

Clark says that the reference to the Wilson farm market study assessing preference for Bt- versus non-genetically modified sweet corn warrants elaboration. In particular, refer to Chapter 4 of a new text by Stuart Laidlaw of the Toronto Star, entitled Secret Ingredients.

The tenor of the trial, which was run by Doug Powell, a risk communicator at the University of Guelph, is reflected in a photo taken at the Wilson farm market. Above the non-genetically modified sweet corn bin is a sign: "Would You Eat Wormy Sweet Corn?"

Regular Sweet Corn: insecticides: carbofuran sprayed 3X or Bt foliar spray sprayed 1X; Fungicide: Bravo sprayed once; Herbicide and Fertilizer: 1 application of each".

In contrast, the Bt-sweet corn bin was labelled: "Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn,"followed by a list of fertilizers, with the fact that it was Bt-corn shown on a separate sign. Given the clear experimental bias introduced by the label wording, Laidlaw's key finding was that consumers were nonetheless willing to buy 5000 cobs of "wormy" (versus 8000 cobs of "quality") sweet corn -- clearly indicating consumer distrust of, rather than preference for, Bt sweet corn.

Clark goes on to ask, why do farmers continue to buy genetically modified seed? If genetically modified crops do not perform as promised, then why do farmers continue to buy the seed, and specifically the genetically modified canola which so disturbed Meacher? Understanding that HT and mostly Roundup Ready canola accounts for all the genetically modified canola sold in western Canada, several reasons could be offered:

  1. To make weed control more convenient, as suggested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers. This is particularly plausible where ecologically unsound crop management practices have produced a large population of intractable weeds;

  2. To avoid the risk of a lawsuit. Percy Schmeiser, a 72 year old Saskatchewan canola grower, was found guilty of patent infringement when Monsanto's Roundup Ready gene was found in his canola, despite the fact that the contamination was inadvertent, that he didn't benefit from it, and that he couldn't have avoided it. His case, which has already cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars, will be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada in January 2004;

  3. To access other desired traits, The same seed companies which offer genetically modified cultivars also control the seed supply of non-genetically modified cultivars. Seed of the best varieties may be in limited supply, unless fitted with a genetically modified trait; or

  4. To deal with the problem of contamination in non-genetically modified seed. Seed companies no longer guarantee that non-genetically modified seed is actually genetically modified free, for the same reasons that Schmeiser's fields were contaminated.

Clark concludes that genetically modified crops have served to enrich biotech companies at the expense of financially strapped farmers, expose non-adopters of GM to the unavoidable risk of lawsuits, eliminate organic canola-growing in the west, contaminate the food supply with genetically modified crops that consumers don't want, and compromise the marketability of our crops to off-shore buyers.

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