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January 2006 Updates

Cozy Relationship Between Universities, Industry, Hurts Science: Suzuki

CP Wire
January 26, 2006

WINNIPEG - Environmentalist David Suzuki was cited as telling students at the University of Manitoba that the cozy relationship between researchers and industry giants is compromising science and environmental security, and is fueling the premature use of biotechnology in areas like genetically modified crops and the end result could be disastrous.

The story says that Suzuki spoke about the dangers of genetic modification before the screening of a video on genetically modified crops that has created a controversy at the University of Manitoba.

Environmental studies professor Stephane McLachlan and his graduate student Ian Mauro created the documentary on farmers' experiences with genetically modified crops.

The release of the video was stalled for years after the researchers accused the university of blocking them from distributing results of their publicly funded research.

Last fall, the university granted permission for the video's release as long as it included a statement that the opinions expressed are not those of the university.

Suzuki said the tremendous amount of money being offered to researchers in the area of genetic modification is pushing the technology to be applied to foods, crops and other organisms before it has been properly tested.

He compared current researchers to Dr. Frankenstein who believed he was working towards the common good but instead created a monster because he didn't fully consider the implications and ramifications of his work, and that genetic modification may well produce unexpected and disastrous results, stating, "The vast majority of this science is being applied in sheer ignorance. It becomes downright dangerous," and that he was "sickened" by the lack of debate around environmental issues in the recent federal election.


Dr. David Suzuki


Iran Takes Rice Biotech Lead

By Philip Brasher
Des Moines Register
January 22, 2006

Iran's nuclear scientists get all the ink. But the country's biologists are making some strides that could shake up agriculture.

The Iranians commercialized the first variety of genetically engineered rice last year.

No one expects this rice to leave the country. Iran doesn't produce enough rice as it is, and the type modified is a locally important variety.

But the crop is a landmark development in biotechnology nonetheless.

It was the first time that a biotech version of rice, one of the world's most important food crops, legally had gone into production.

Just as significantly, the Iranian crop, plus similar advancements in China, show that biotechnology is spreading beyond the industry giants such as Monsanto or Des Moines-based Pioneer Hi-Bred International that have led the way.

For advocates of agricultural biotech, who have been arguing for years that farmers in poor countries could be major beneficiaries of genetic engineering, here at last is some evidence.

Even if it is Iran.

"This is a very important contribution from the public sector in terms of genetically modified food crops," says Joel Cohen, who follows biotechnology developments for the International Food Policy Research Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

The Iranians as well as the Chinese, who also are close to commercializing their version of biotech rice, are doing their research in the public, rather than private, sector.

Iran's new rice plants are toxic to insect larvae known as stem borers. The Iranian scientists crafted the crop in the Philippines at the International Rice Research Institute, a sister organization of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The rice contains a bacterium gene identical to one found in popular types of Bt corn that is now commonly grown in Iowa and throughout the Midwest. If the Iranians ever tried to export the rice, they could run into patent problems, says Cohen.

The rice was put through extensive safety testing before it was released to farmers, he says.

And so far the results appear promising: Iranians report that their Bt rice raised yields by 10 percent to 2.2 metric tons per acre. The average U.S. yield is about 3.2 metric tons.

"This is an excellent demonstration of the fact that you can use new technologies but in very basic material requested by farmers in the developing world," Cohen says.

Between 500 and 1,000 Iranian farmers are believed to have grown the crop in 2005. Full commercialization is expected to start this year, but on less than 50,000 acres.

U.S. rice farmers won't have anything to do with biotechnology until it's accepted in markets such as Japan and Europe. Because much of their crop must be exported, U.S. farmers can ill afford to lose any markets.

But the developments in Iran, and especially in China, will turn up the pressure on the Bush administration to figure out how the government would handle imports of foods that have been bioengineered in other countries.

Believe it or not, the country that pioneered agricultural biotechnology isn't sure yet how it will treat the products of other countries' scientists.

To date, the only imports have been of material intended for research purposes.

The U.S. Agriculture Department is still trying to figure how it should regulate imports, and there are significant questions to be answered: Would every crop or transformation need separate approval? Would USDA treat the products of some countries more leniently than others, depending on how similar their regulatory structures are to the U.S. system?

USDA hopes to have a proposal ready later this year.

The government needs to be looking ahead before "something shows up at the door," says Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Washington-based Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

"It's not just going to be the U.S.-dominated commercialization that it once was," he says.


Genes From a Wild Plant, Solanum Bulbocastanum, Used to Resist Potato Blight Fungus

By Prof. Joe Cummins
The Independent, UK
January 28, 2006

The German company BASF Plant Science GmbH is planning to test genetically modified (GM) potatoes in Ireland by deliberately releasing the modified potatoes into the environment. The field trial is planned to be undertaken during a five year period. The GM potatoes are modified using a gene from a wild Mexican plant, Solanum bulbocastanum, related to potato along with marker genes including a gene for resistance to a herbicide. The potatoes are modified to be resistant to the fungus causing late blight disease No environmental and health studies appear to be planned (1). Animal feeding studies on the GM potatoes do not appear to have been done. Release to the environment of untested GM crops to the environment are unwise because even related plant to related plant single gene transfers have resulted in unexpected toxicity which appeared in the transgenic gene product resulting from altered structure and immunogenicity of the modifying gene product (2).When single genes from plants such as bean are used to modify another plant, the pea, it was assumed that such transfers could not produce toxic products in the plant being modified. However, the unexpected prevailed. The people and animals of the townland of Arodstown should not be exposed to inadequately tested genetic constructions.

Late blight is one of the most devastating plant diseases. It is caused by the fungus, Phytophora infestans, a pathogen of potato and to a lesser degree tomato. In potato, Solanum tuberosum, there are four main dominant genes for resistance to blight infection, R1 through R4, an additional 7 genes were identified 5 of which are alleles of the complex R3 locus (for a total of 11 dominant R genes). Hybridization with wild Mexican species began in 1909 and continues to the present. However, in spite of constant effort the fungus rapidly developed strains that overcame the genetic resistance. Chemical fungicides have been developed to control blight but these to succumbed to the versatility of the fungus. The fungus has two mating types (A1 and A2) both of which appeared first in Mexico, however, only the A1 mating type was present in European potatoes until 1978 when the A2 mating type appeared in Britain. The presence of the two mating types greatly enhances gene exchange leading to accelerated loss of genetic resistance and fungicide control (3,4).

Early resistant potatoes were obtained using true sexual hybridization with wild Mexican species but the resistant strains soon succumbed to mutants of the blight fungus. A wild Mexican plant, Solanum bulbocastanum, was stably resistant to blight but could not be sexually crossed with potatoes. A process called somatic hybridization was used to create sexual hybrids. Somatic hybridization includes fusing cells from cell cultures of Solanum bulbocastanum and potato, fused cells contain nuclei of both potato and Solanum bulbocastanum. When the fused cells undergo mitosis the chromosomes of the two species are mixed and a single hybrid nucleus is formed in the cell. The cells can be cultured on solid media to form solid callous (tumor) which when treated with plant growth hormones produces plantlets that produce flowering plants. The somatic hybrids have irregular meiosis and irregular chromosome pairing but relatively stable blight resistant lines can be obtained (5,6,7) Along with the 11 potato blight resistance genes that produce broad spectrum resistance are very effective against blight, these include the gene RB (8) along with the genes Rpi-blb1 (9) and Rpi-blb 2 (10) which are active in both potato and tomato. The somatic hybrids are useful in identifying resistance genes and transmitted into potato breeding lines by crossing. Nevertheless, genetic modification of potato breeding lines is presently preferred because resistance can be introduced into commercial lines with greater speed.

The BASF proposal for field testing GM potatoes (11) involves the use of two broad spectrum resistance genes, Rpi-blb1 and Rpi-blb2, These two genes have a structure associated with regulatory genes called nucleotide binding site-leucine rich repeat (NBS-LRR) class of regulatory proteins. Many disease resistance genes code for proteins of that class. Numerous plant NBS-LRR genes are present are present in the typical plant genome, each protein is specific for a particular pathogen signaling a defense response frequently a localized plant cell death called a hypersensitive response. The C terminus of the protein containing LRR recognizes a ligand feature of a pathogen activating the NBS signaling module to initiate the defense response (12). The blight fungus suppresses the potato defense genes in sensitive plants but thwarted by successful defense genes. The NBS-LRR resistance genes in plants are localized in the cell cytoplasm and do not span the cell membrane but are activated by pathogen signals that penetrate the cell (13). The plant NBS-LRR proteins generally produce antibodies when injected into mammals but the modifications of the disease resistance proteins by glycosylation or mryistylation which contribute to the immune response are not yet studied.

The BASF proposal (11) indicates that the potatoes being studied were transformed using two plasmids each containing copies of the S. bulbocastanum resistance genes Rpi-blb1 and Rpi-blb2 both of which contained an intron. The two genes were each driven by Rpi-blb 1 or 2 promoter with including an intron as an enhancer and accompanied by a transcription terminator from Rpi-blb1 or 2. The plasmids also contained a mutant acetohydroxy acid synthetase (ahas) gene from the tiny mustard plant Arabidopsis that conferred resistance to the herbicides of the imidazolines group (which are not approved for use on potatoes in Ireland). The ahas gene was driven by the nopaline synthase gene promoter of Agrobacterium and its transcription was terminated using the nopaline terminator. The transformed potatoes aare herbicide tolerant but the herbicide is only used during selection of transformed potato cells and not during cultivation of the potato. All GM lines intended for the release contain one or two copies of the plasmid inserts. Neither the resistance genes nor the ahas gene is expected to effect pollen or seed dispersal of the potato. The possibility that the GM potatoes will outcross to field potatoes was not expected to be effected by the genetic modifications. Interestingly , the expression of the modifying genes was not studied under extreme conditions of stress such as drought, water logging, heat, cold, nitrogen excess or starvation in glass house experiments. In the past, gm crops have been tested under optimum conditions for growth prior to commercial or test release into real environments. Certainly, stress conditions may lead to unexpected toxicity in gm crops.

The BASF proposal (11) indicate that the resistance genes are not expected to exert any toxic , allergenic or harmful effects on human health arising for genetic modification. The genetic modifications are assume to be safe because plants contain numerous NBS-LRR proteins and cultivated potatoes contain R genes from the wild species S. demissum. The assumptions of safety are specious. The S. demissum genes in commercial potatoes are NBS-LRR genes but are not from the broad spectrum NBS-LRR genes used in the BASF potatoes. Mainly, however, observed finding that transfer of genes between related species may actually lead to proteins with powerful (sometimes fatal) immune responses.(2). The procedure used to scan DNA sequences for epitope specifying codes for allergic responses (IgE) would overlook the powerful immune responses leading to fatal or near fatal inflammation . It is only sensible to test glass house grown GM potatoes for not only allergenicity but for inflammation before releasing the GM potatoes to the environment. The immune response that triggered the immune response described in reference 2 was triggered to altered protein modification following transfer between species . However, little information is available on the modification of plant NBS-LRR genes. It sems a simple matter to conduct animal experiments on glasshouse grown GM potatoes prior to release of the potatoes to the environment yet that does not seem to have been done. Impact of the site on non-target organisms seems to be based on an assumption safety and does not provide for an adequate monitoring scheme. If the GM potato proves immunologically active the impact on both human and animals may be severe.

In the proposal the handling , release controls and disposal of Pytopthora infestans innocula and infected plants was alluded to but not described in detail. That should be done. The isolation distance 20 meters to cultivated potatoes does not seem adequate. Control of GM seeds and tuber escape from the site did not seem to be adequately described in the proposal. Post release treatment of the test site did not seem adequately monitored nor will it achieve a clean post harvest site. There does not seem to be any reason that a round the clock guard cannot be kept over the test sites. In conclusion, the considerations of human and environmental safety seem primarily based on wishful thinking not on serious efforts to gather or obtain factual information on the safety of the gm constructs. Monitoring also seems based on wishful thinking rather than serious efforts to detect negative impacts.

BASF petitioned for field test release of resistant potatoes modified with Rbi-blb1 and 2 beginning 2005 in the Netherlands. The notice of petition indicated that the GM potato would be released in Germany, United Kingdom and Sweden. (14). In the United States five field tests have been undertaken using GM potatoes modified with RB1 and RB2 broad spectrum NBS-LRR blight resistance genes obtained from Solanum bulbcastanum. The releases were undertaken in Minnesota and Wisconsin, by USDA or the university of Minnesota (15) The isolation and deployment of the RB genes in potato has been described (16,17) Field testing of broad spectrum. NBS-LRR genes has begun with the potato blight resistant strains. Broad spectrum pest resistant strains of rice, maize, soybean, and numerous food crops will soon follow. It is imperative that the safety of these genetic modifications to humans and the environment be fully evaluated before the GM crops are commercialized. The proposition that the NBS-LRR family of plant pest resistance genes and their products provide safe transgenes for human consumption and for environmental release because they are found in food crops and for that reason require no further testing is simply fool hardy. The suggestion that NBS-LRR genes must be assumed safe until proven hazardous certainly appeals to greedy promoters of GM crops but does not serve the public good.

References available on request



Biotech Fears Are Growing

By Robert Fish
Bangor Daily News
January 26, 2006

Last week, the BDN introduced an idea to Mainers that has become all too common around the world -- biotech contamination, biotech pollution, or genetic trespass. We’ve all heard of contamination by toxic chemicals, but this new phenomenon may be even more threatening. ­ This is pollution that reproduces and spreads.

Genetically-engineered (GE) canola is now being grown in Aroostook County. Other farmers growing canola in the County can no longer be sure that their crop is not contaminated by some biotech company’s patented seeds. Ironically, according to the UM research, these genetically modified seeds offer no economic benefit to the farmer.

How will the state, the feds, or the company that produced the seeds respond? Will they send in a team in white biohazard suits or compensate farmers for their losses? Representatives of the biotech industry in Maine say we should just get used to this contamination. "Foreign genes in seed lines are nothing unusual,” they claim.

We’re not talking about hybrids here, however. Far from an extension of traditional breeding technologies, genetic engineering extracts genes from one organism such as an animal, plant, or virus, and artificially forces them into another completely different organism. These “foreign genes” were never intended to be in a canola plant. Worse yet, this pollution reproduces.

As Professor John Jemison declared last week, "The genie is out of the bottle." So far we are lucky. The contamination level is relatively low and only about 50 acres of genetically engineered canola have been planted.

This is how it was for farmers in Canada ten years ago. Now, in parts of Canada, genetically modified canola has become an invasive weed, popping up in fields where it wasn't planted, isn't wanted, and doesn’t die with the rest of the weeds, since it’s genetically altered to resist herbicides. Instead of making weed control easier, as the companies claim, growing canola became more complicated and more expensive. Through contaminated seed, cross-pollination, residues in equipment or storage, or any combination of these, genetically engineered crops are appearing in unexpected places. Farmers are having to add a second or third herbicide to kill the plants that resist more common herbicides. For organic growers it's a serious problem. Any contamination of seed stock with genetically-engineered crops is prohibited in organic production.

The cultivation of genetically modified canola and other crops could gradually render futile any efforts to keep these new genetic combinations out of traditional or organic harvests. The breeze, the birds and the bees aid cross-pollination. Wind and water move seed from field to field. Seeds get mixed during processing, distribution and planting. These are just a few reasons why biotech contamination is happening and will accelerate if the technology is left unchecked.

While this situation is cause for alarm, it also points to a unique opportunity to promote sustainable economic growth in the County. There is a strong demand for certified GE-free canola overseas and in the domestic natural and organic food industries. It has become extremely difficult to grow GE-free canola in traditional areas such as western Canada. While there is no economic benefit for a farmer growing modified canola, there is now a strong incentive to stay GE-free and sell one’s crops at a premium.

It is time for the Baldacci administration and especially the Maine Department of Agriculture to step up to the plate and protect Maine farmers from genetic contamination. We urge the state to take the political initiative and assist in creating markets where GE-free canola can be sold at a premium, investigating the feasibility of building a processing plant for GE-free canola, and discouraging planting of GE canola where it can pollute farms striving to be GE-free. Farmers must also be legally protected from contamination. Such initiatives would fit squarely with the goals of the newly adopted State Food Policy.

The contamination of canola seed by biotech pollution is taking away farmers' right to choose to grow non-GE crops. Farmers in Maine have a right to farm without fear of the economic, environmental, and legal risks posed by this uncertain technology.

Robert Fish is an organizer with GE Free Maine.

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