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GM Firms Finally Give Up On Planting In Britain

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
Independent (UK)
November 21, 2004

Industry has dropped its last attempts to get GM seeds approved for growing in Britain, in a final surrender of its dream to spread modified crops rapidly across the country.

Bayer CropScience has withdrawn the only two remaining applications for government permission for the seeds - a winter and a spring oilseed rape, both modified to tolerate one of the firm's herbicides. Supporters of the technology say this will put back their commercial use in Britain for years. Environmentalists cite it as one more indication that they are never likely to be grown here.

The withdrawal of the applications marks a sharp contrast to the situation when The Independent on Sunday began its campaign over genetic modification nearly six years ago. At that time, 53 different GM seeds were awaiting approval, and widespread cultivation was assumed to be only a year away.

The Government had put all its weight behind the technology, aiming to make Britain its "European hub", and Tony Blair privately dismissed opposition as a "flash in the pan".

But rising public concern forced the Government to introduce a moratorium while tests were carried out on the effects on the environment of growing GM crops. The trials - the results of which were reported last year - found that the way GM beet and spring oilseed rape were cultivated damaged wildlife more than the growing of conventional crops (the results for winter oilseed rape are due to be published shortly).

The trials appeared to clear GM maize, but the IoS revealed that the verdict was invalid because a pesticide central to the clearance was about to be banned. The Government still gave approval for the maize to be grown - the only one given to a GM crop in Britain. But shortly afterwards, Bayer announced it would not proceed, saying that the controls on how the maize would be cultivated were too strict.

GM advocates presented this as a temporary setback, arguing that new varieties could be grown as early as 2006. Now, however, industry, ministers and environmentalists agree that the abandonment of the last applications means it will be the end of this decade, at the earliest , before any GM crops can be grown.

Any new application will now have to go through a long process to be approved. First, it will have to be passed by the European Union, an unlikely prospect as it has a moratorium on GM crops. Even if that hurdle were surmounted, the crop would have to go through two years of trials in Britain, and then get government approval - a process that will be fought by protesters.

Last week Bayer said it would not even try to carry out trials in Britain until the Government took strong measures to stop protesters pulling up the plants. And ministers now believe that there is no market for the crops, so they would not be grown even if approval were granted.

Yesterday, Pete Riley, director of the anti-GM campaign Five Year Freeze, said: "This development makes it even less likely that modified crops will ever be grown in Britain. The Government should now abandon its doomed obsession with GM crops and put together a coherent strategy to put the whole of UK farming on a sustainable basis."


Crop Testing Rules Menace Food Supply, Say Critics

By Stephen Leahy IPS News Agency
November 25, 2004

BROOKLIN, Canada, Nov 25 (IPS) - Proposed rules for experimental genetically engineered (GE) crops will allow contamination of the U.S. food supply, critics said this week, as a new poll reported Americans want stricter regulation of GE foods.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a "draft guidance document" Nov. 24 that acknowledges experimental GE crops (also known as genetically modified or GM crops) that have not been approved for human consumption could cross-pollinate or mingle with food crops.

Under the proposed guidelines companies are "encouraged" to submit to the FDA their safety evaluation of a new protein "prior to the time you have concerns that (it) could enter the food supply," which critics interpret to mean that by advising beforehand, firms will escape legal liability for any contamination.

The guidelines, which now face a 60-day public comment period, do not mention amounts, thresholds or concentration levels.

According to an FDA statement, the potential risk from new proteins is limited to their being an allergen or toxin. But, "The government is allowing the contamination of our food supply with experimental material they haven't tested," says Bill Freese, a research analyst for Friends of the Earth, U.S.

"What these rules really do is allow companies to dodge any legal liability for contamination," Freese told IPS.

Such contamination has happened in the past and cost biotech companies more than one billion U.S. dollars.

In 2000, a GE corn variety called StarLink, which had not been approved for human consumption, contaminated the U.S. food supply and its food exports. Traces of StarLink continued to be detected in food shipments to Bolivia, Japan and South Korea as recently as the fall of 2003, Freese said.

In 2002, an experimental GE corn containing a pharmaceutical (one of the so-called new "pharma crops" being developed) sprouted unassisted in a field of soy one year after the trial crop had been harvested. The company involved, ProdiGene Inc, was forced to pay millions in damages and a 250,000-dollar fine even though the ''pharma'' corn never reached the food supply.

Nearly 70 percent of the world's GE crops are planted in the United States, where the biotechnology industry earns nearly 40 billion dollars annually, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organisation (BIO).

BIO Vice President Michael Phillips said the FDA proposal will increase regulation on the industry and improve safety, according to a report in the 'Omaha (Nebraska) World-Herald'. "It's an extra safety precaution," Phillips said.

He also acknowledged the new rules would help companies escape liability for contamination, according to the newspaper.

Experimental GE crops are currently grown on at least 23,000 hectares in the United States, according to the FOE. Monsanto, Dupont and a few other multinational companies currently hold 1,017 permits to field test crops engineered for herbicide or insect resistance, altered nutritional properties, anti-fungal compounds or sterile pollen or seeds.

"The anti-fungal crops appear to have proteins that are the type that can cause allergies," said Freese.

It is difficult to know exactly what experimental crops are being planted because almost half of them are labelled as confidential, he says.

Following the StarLink incident, the White House issued a directive through its Office of Science and Technology Policy in August 2002 to the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop rules where contamination by experimental crops "could be found acceptable."

The FDA is the first to propose such rules, in part because it expects the volume of biotech field tests to grow.

The Europeans are outraged by all this, says Freese.

Europe has led opposition to GE crops and import of genetically modified foods, putting in place a de facto moratorium in 1999. The administration of U.S. President George W Bush has challenged that ban at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

"Because of the secrecy behind experiments in the United States, no one -- not food companies, not even governments -- will be able to test food products or food imports for contamination because they won't know what to test for," said Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth Europe, in a statement.

"This will leave consumers worldwide exposed to new risks from genetically modified foods."

But the U.S. public does not want to take risks with its food. About 85 percent of consumers questioned in an independent poll released Nov. 24 strongly believe regulators should ensure biotech foods are safe before they come to market.

About 40 percent also say there is too little regulation of GE foods. The poll was conducted by the Washington-based Pew Initiative for Food and Biotechnology, a non-profit group that studies GE food and biotechnology in agriculture.

According to an expert familiar with the poll, Americans have tremendous faith in their regulators, but wrongly believe GE foods have been approved and tested by the FDA.

"They're under the false impression there is thorough testing like there are for drugs," said the expert, asking to be unnamed.

When people learned that GE foods are not tested, they were very uncomfortable and indicated they want mandatory, uniform testing and evaluation of GE foods, noted the expert.

Indeed, 81 percent of those surveyed by Pew believed the FDA should approve the safety of GE foods before they come to market, even if that would mean "substantial delays."

"We need mandatory safety testing for all genetically engineered crops coming to market and not FDA actions allowing companies to contaminate our food supply with unknown genetically-engineered test products," says Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Centre for Food Safety, a Washington, DC-based non-governmental organisation (NGO).

"The government is admitting that genetically-engineered field test sites are polluting our food supply and environment, yet it consistently exempts these field tests from full environmental review," he added in a statement.

"We need the agencies to prevent pollution not find new ways to make it okay," said Mendelson.


Syngenta Halts Genetic Engineering Projects In Europe

By Hannelore Crolly
Die Welt
November, 29 2004

The world's biggest agro-chemicals group transfers
all its biotechnology research activities to the USA

BERLIN - Syngenta, the world biggest agro-chemicals group based in Basel, has halted all its European field trials of genetically modified plants and seed material varieties. Syngenta research director David Lawrence told Die WELT that Syngenta had no intention of quitting genetic engineering altogether. But the group had placed all its projects on ice in Europe because of public resistance, high authorization hurdles and the lack of market opportunities. The entire biotech research function is being transferred to the USA. Lawrence warned that Europe was causing itself lasting harm by its sceptical attitude to new technologies. There was a risk that it would miss the green genetic engineering boat and leave other forces, especially in Asia and the USA, with the task of shaping the rules of the game.

In Germany, Syngenta had, for example, conducted field trials to fight fungal diseases affecting wheat. After the fields had been repeatedly destroyed, Syngenta finally declared the failure of its repeated attempts to organize trials. The business which was incorporated in 2000 from the agricultural divisions of Novartis and Astra Zeneca has also pulled out of the United Kingdom after many setbacks. Syngenta’s Institute at Jealott's Hill near London remains the world’s biggest private agricultural research centre. But its research is now focussing entirely on conventional techniques.

Syngenta has now followed in the footsteps of Monsanto, Du Pont and Bayer Crop Science which have all abandoned their biotechnology activities in England. Not one field trial has been registered in Great Britain this year and Germany is well on the way to finding itself in a similar situation. In Germany, the European Commission still reports five field tests planned by various companies and research establishments. The largest number of field trials is scheduled in Spain. Applications for nine projects are still pending in that country.

In Germany, the growing of genetically modified plants is now possible although stringent conditions have been imposed. Following a lengthy debate, the Bundestag adopted the genetic engineering act tabled by the social democratic and green parties. However, the authorization and liability rules are so stringent that experts doubt whether genetically engineered crops will be grown on any extensive scale.

Lawrence said that Syngenta’s withdrawal from research in Europe would have no significant impact for the time being. The fact was that the company in any case only achieved around three per cent of its sales (2003: 6.6 billion dollars) on genetically engineered products. However, biotechnology accounted for a significantly higher proportion of research. Of Syngenta’s total research and development expenditure amounting to 727 million dollars, 454 million are spent on plant protection, 127 million on the development of traditional seed materials and 146 million on biotech research. The group employs 19,000 persons worldwide, including nearly 5000 working in research, development and technology, largely in the three main research centres located in Switzerland, Great Britain and North Carolina in the United States.

Lawrence pointed out that his business had often found conventional methods to be more effective than biotechnology. "We have conducted many genetic engineering experiments for seed materials and plant protection and they have often failed." On the other hand, excellent results had frequently been achieved with the traditional approach to plant growing. The convenient "Pure Heart" water melon was the best example. The Syngenta melon in picnic format was not only better for single households than the traditional big water melon for families but also had a thinner rind, no pips and was just as sweet on its edge s as in the centre. The market launch in Europe is scheduled for 2005 and the melon is already on sale in the USA.

The melon points the way in which the business is thinking. Research director Lawrence is looking for markets for his group extending beyond the traditional plant protection business in which chemical products are used to control insects, weeds and fungus infections. Plant protection still accounts for 85 per cent of group sales but the global market is flat. The Swiss therefore hope to achieve growth primarily in the seed materials business where Syngenta is currently world number three behind Monsanto and the pioneer Hi-Bred owned by Du Point. In addition to new varieties of field crops such as soy beans and colza, this also included business in flower and vegetable seed materials. For example, Syngenta is already number one in Europe for flower seeds and seedlings. “In this particular area, one task of research is to find out what consumers like and what they think tastes best“, Lawrence says. For instance, Syngenta is currently testing a new tomato with a particularly strong aroma – a meaty, deep-red contender to replace tasteless standardized tomatoes.


Genetics In The Woods Boughing To Progress?

By Claire G. Williams
November 30, 2004

DURHAM -- The recent forum at Duke University on the pros and cons of genetically modified (GM) pine forests attracted a national and international audience. On hand were venture capitalists, biotechnology firms, timber corporations, state and federal government officials, academicians and environmental groups. But some of the best questions came from private landowners and forestry consultants here in North Carolina. As the organizer of the forum, I'd like to share some of the questions -- and my answers.

Can a small wood-lot owner purchase genetically modified loblolly pine seedlings?

Today the answer is no. Genetically modified loblolly pines or any other kind of tree cannot be planted commercially even on private timberlands. Few tests of genetically modified forest trees have taken place, and these are subject to close federal government scrutiny. Each test tree is cut down before onset of reproduction.

This question signals an immediate need for a continuing education workshop on the genetic composition of our forested wood-lots, even if sales are based on non-modified seedlings. Knowledge needed for choosing the right genetic composition of a future forest is growing more complex, subject to technological change. Few of our natural-resources majors in higher education receive formal classroom training about the genetic composition of forests, either old-growth or plantations. A workshop would update those few professionals who have received formal classroom training.

Outreach to wood-lot landowners about the genetic composition of forest tree seedlings is needed as a counterbalance to the state's progressive investment in forest biotechnology. The emerging for-profit market in forest seedling sales can only benefit from informed consumers. But a cautionary note is needed: workshop instructors should be drawn from those who are not on the payroll of any seedling seller, i.e., not state nursery employees, biotechnology firms or timber companies.

Who will actually own the genes in genetically modified pines?

The landowner continued with this example: if genetically modified pine pollen or seed moves from another's land onto my land and produces a forest, am I going to be penalized for stealing the intellectual property of another? On the other hand, who is liable for these escaped genetically modified pine seeds or pollen anyway?

On the surface this seems a simple question. Yet genetically modified pines are not equivalent to genetically modified row crops. Mature pines, as perennial plants, produce copious seed and pollen each year (just look at your windshield in spring!) for 10 or 20 years before timber harvest age. Wind-dispersed pine seeds and pollen move across the landscape on the scale of miles.

So the question is right on target. We do need some alternative thinking about intellectual property management for genetically modified pines.

Intellectual property management as practiced by pharmaceutical and agricultural biotechnology companies is simply not a good fit for forestry. Controlling movement of pine genes onto less managed or even unmanaged ecosystems is not a trivial problem to solve. Consider that landowner patterns in North Carolina form a mosaic of national forests, corporate timberlands, state forests, wildlife refuges and family timberlands.

Open dialogue on intellectual property management of genetically modified pines now, before commercial release, would be a progressive and timely act.

Will genetically modified pines planted on private lands disperse seeds and pollen to public forests?

We have no research to inform us on this question. Private forests will be ever more technology-intensive. They are working forests, a necessity for meeting our rising timber demands. But our state and national forests are adjacent to intensively managed timberlands, and it seems doubtful that genetically modified pines will be planted in public forests. Gene pollution could be the sleeping giant for genetically modified pine commercialization.

The answer? Open dialogue now, well before commercial release. Open a genetically modified forest dialogue for all types of concerned citizens in North Carolina. Rethink whether we need or simply want genetically modified pines. Fund research and even award a prestigious prize to any researcher who can broaden value from our biotechnology investment beyond the creation of more types of genetically modified trees.

This direction is consistent with sustaining timber production and protecting our less managed forests. Genetically modified pines are not genetically modified row crops. Healthy, well-adapted indigenous forests bode well for all.

Claire G. Williams, a geneticist, is a visiting professor at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.

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