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9-Misc: GE controversy in Malaysia

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                                         PART I
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TITLE:  The GM divide
SOURCE: New Straits Times, Malaysia, by Sarah Sabarathnam
DATE:   June 25, 2002

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The GM divide

Giant biotechnology companies have developed genetically-engineered crops 
which they claim will give us better and more nutritious food, reduce the 
use of pesticides, save the world from hunger, and improve the lives of 
farmers by increasing yields. However, many parties and half the science 
community are worried about the safety of this new technology. The 
following interviews with a representative from a biotech company, a 
researcher and an environmentalist show how divided the debate is. SARAH 

MEENA VAIDYANATHAN, manager, public affairs-Asia region, Monsanto

What are some of the benefits of genetically-engineered (GE) or genetically-
modified (GM) food?
Food and fibre crops that use less pesticide are definitely healthier for 
consumers. It is estimated that the use of genetically-improved biotech 
soyabeans, rapeseed, cotton and maize varieties reduced pesticide use by 
22.3 million kilogrammes of formulated product in 2000. It is also 
healthier for the environment.

Why is there resistance to labelling of foods that contain genetically-
engineered ingredients?
Labelling is a complex issue. Various governments will have to set up 
standards and services.

Testing may be relatively easy in products like tofu and popcorn where the 
biotech crop produce is directly used. But in the case of products like 
oils, sugars and starches where there is practically no trace of DNA, 
detection and labelling may be a complex task.

Cost is also a major issue. A study recently conducted in Canada shows that 
labelling would result in an increase equivalent to nearly 9-10 per cent of 
the cost of processed food.

Eventually, consumers will have to pay more for the costs incurred in 
testing and documentation.

In most developing countries, products like vegetables, meat and other food 
stuffs are not packaged. It will be a challenge to come up with suitable 
labelling rules for such products.

Why do you think Japan and Europe are opposed to GM food and why should 
Asia accept it with open arms?
Biotech crops today are grown over 52 million hectares across 13 countries, 
which include some of the world's most productive agricultural nations.

They include European nations like Spain, Bulgaria and Romania. In fact, in 
a strategy paper scheduled to be adopted early this year, the European 
Commission says that Europe's fears about biotechnology are costing it in 
terms of jobs, growth and prosperity and that the 15-nation EU can no 
longer afford to heap suspicion on biotechnology as a whole.

Japan has a comprehensive system in place for biotech regulation and is 
approving food products and additives derived through biotechnology.

The most compelling reason for Asia to adopt biotech crops is that it 
provides a sustainable option to increase agricultural productivity to feed 
and clothe its teeming millions, while preserving her forests and reducing 
environmental pollution.

Biotechnology will be a powerful tool for preserving the self-sufficiency 
of countries in time to come.

How would you refute claims of potential health risks caused by GM products?
Recently, the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) managing 
director Ian Lindenmayer said that studies conducted on genetically-
improved corn and canola oil showed these products to be safe for human 

"I can say with some certainty that we know more about the genetic make-up 
of these GM foods than any other food in the food supply," he said.

More than 60 per cent of processed foods in the United States contain 
ingredients derived from biotech corn and soy. There has not been a single 
mishap resulting in injury to a single person or ecosystem.

What about antibiotic markers?
Scientists are aware of the potential problem that come from using 
antibiotic markers and are busy developing other ways of identifying 
engineered plants that do not rely on antibiotics, such as through the use 
of fluorescent markers.

What about horizontal gene transfer between plants and the possibility of 
Horizontal gene transfer between plants occurs when there are wild 
relatives nearby, and there is a degree of sexual compatibility between the 

For a gene transfer to occur, they must be close enough for the pollen to 
reach the relative, and they must be flowering or fertile at the same time -
 a complex set of circumstances, but not an impossibility.

The fact remains that there is no evidence to-date that any "super weeds" 
have been created. But even if horizontal gene transfer happens, the 
resultant "super weed" may well die in the wild, as a gene that may help a 
crop could be detrimental for a weed.

DR MERYL J. WILLIAMS, director-general of ICLARM -- The World Fish Centre

The current method used for GE is unpredictable and unstable. Please 
It is very difficult to give a general statement on GE technology. Like any 
other technology which deals with biological systems, the success of using 
it is highly dependent on the species, system and individual you are 
working with.

What may work with one species may not do so for another. Aside from that, 
there is also a great variety in the way recipients respond to an 
introduced gene, and all these factors have to be accounted for in further 
refining the technology.

Is all the hype about improved crops and species justified, or are there 
really any benefits? First, improved crops and species may be developed 
through selective breeding technologies and this we are all familiar with.

An example would be the chicken that are now available to us. These are 
improved varieties of the original wild chicken. They grow faster and lay 
more eggs and the improvement has been made through selectively breeding.

The chicken on our table is a far cry from the kampung chicken - though 
many of us may prefer the taste of the kampung chicken! Note that in the 
breeding process, no "genetic engineering" or insertion of a foreign gene 
to an existing chicken occurred - just the systematic selection of better 
parents, which eventually produced the variety that is bred commercially.

People have been using these methods to get better crops and animals for 
thousands of years - doing it scientifically and systematically for over 
100 years for plants and over 50 years for livestock.

Improved breeds of fish have a much shorter history and this is where our 
interest lies. Because fish breed improvements are so new, fish are showing 
the typical large early gains seen from this approach. Many generations 
later, the gains start to taper off, and many plants and animals are at the 
tapering off stage in their breeding improvement from traditional methods.

New technologies such as genetic engineering are being tried to improve the 

So genetic engineering is okay?
This area of biotechnology is still in its infancy and it therefore needs 
to be considered very carefully...

Many people around the world are concerned and even afraid of the possible 
effects on human health and the environment. In most countries, very 
detailed studies are legally required to satisfy regulations for the 
release of genetically-engineered organisms.

The studies required to ensure the safety of genetically-engineered plants 
and animals are necessary because these technologies are new, and the new 
types of animals and plants have to be tested both for food safety, and for 
their effects on the environment.

Should GE crops/species be allowed to be released into the environment 
before we can confirm that there are no risks?
In the case of fish, we believe that a huge investment is needed in the 
risk assessment of release and use of genetically-engineered strains.

We would also add that our work shows that much more needs to be done to 
examine and control the risks of even releasing new strains from selective 

The World Fish Centre has a policy of not introducing new strains back into 
areas where the wild stock still exists and where mixing could occur and 
threaten the local biodiversity for that species.

For example, we will not transport the GIFT fish back to Africa for that 
reason. One of the most precious treasures of the planet and one that is 
disappearing too fast due to human actions is natural biodiversity.

This biodiversity is the raw material for any breeding, whether with new or 
old technology, and so biodiversity relies on its conservation. What are 
some of the risks and dangers of releasing genetically-engineered fish, for 
instance, into the environment? There are two major concerns about 
releasing GE fish into the environment. First, how will they affect wild 
population of the same species in the area? Secondly, how will they affect 
the existence of other species or the quality of the environment? A GE fish 
species may not be previously occurring in an area and thus the concern for 
their escape in substantial numbers is very similar to the concern over 
introductions of any foreign species to an ecosystem.

If they escape from the farm or cage, which will be almost inevitable, 
natural predators may not be there to control their numbers. They may 
become invasive pests and cause problems. Is genetic engineering the 
solution to food security, hunger and poverty problems? Genetic engineering 
cannot be the sole solution for food security. Yet it is one of several 
possible solutions, and will have a role to play in reducing hunger and 
increasing food security particularly in certain developing countries that 
can afford to control, regulate and use it wisely.

The hunger and food security problems, particularly in the developing 
world, are not solely issues of lack of food supply but also a result of 
complex economic, social, political and technical issues.

Access to food, and the means to purchase it, is also at the root of much 
malnutrition and hunger.

GURDIAL SINGH, lecturer, Law Faculty, Universiti Malaya; consultant to 
Third World Network

Industry claims that there are no proven risks to genetically-modified 
crops. It's like the whole argument of the tobacco industry and the causes 
of cancer. Till today there is no known organic link to cancer. Does this 
mean that tobacco is safe?
Through the Biosafety Protocol, the world has acknowledged that there is a 
safety aspect involved and because of the potential hazards that could be 
of major proportions, the precautionary principal governs the protocol 
which allows governments to take precautions before waiting for serious 
calamities to occur.

It's really quite disturbing how much money industry is spending on public 
relations to promote GM food in an unbalanced way.

I must say certain articles written by someone from the Malaysian 
Biotechnology Information Centre were very unbalanced.

The articles imply that there are no serious concerns in eating GM food and 
growing GM crops. This flies in the face of a large body of scientific 

This "independent" organisation is, I believe, also funded by Monsanto - 
the biggest producer of GM food in the world.

In the West, industry is willing to orchestrate the denegration of any 
scientist or any study or articulation in the media of this concern.

The most recent example is the Science Media Centre (funded by industries 
investing millions in biotechnology) which tried to prevent BBC from airing 
Fields of Gold (a thriller about GM crops gone wrong).
(Read more about this conspiracy at

Is labelling a complex issue?
Actually it is a very straightforward issue. You cannot use any grounds to 
deny consumers the right to choose. Labelling is to show what goes into 
food and what goes into the stomach. They are refusing to label and they 
want to force their products on an unsuspecting public.

Even if food is in its loose form, it can still be labelled. Meat in loose 
form in Malaysia and the world over is identified as halal and non-halal, 
so what is the problem with labelling fresh GM produce? Anyway, section 18 
(2) (a) of the Biosafety Protocol states that GM commodities should be 
identified as containing living modified organisms.

What do you understand by horizontal gene transfers?
Recently, the results of a three-year study in a university in Germany 
concluded that genes from GM crops can spread from plants to wildlife. This 
has prompted action by British Agriculture Minister Nick Brown to make an 
emergency announcement advising farmers to plough in the crop.

Environmentalists and concerned individuals like you have been called 
alarmists. The fact is there is no consensus as to whether GM food is safe 
or not. The scientific community is divided.

Industry is hiding behind "sound science". At one time, DDT was considered 
sound science. Its inventor was given the Nobel Prize because of its health 
benefits. Now it is banned in most countries.

Why should we be concerned?
Because of the sheer magnitude of potential problems - since we are dealing 
with life forms. You cannot rein it in once it is out there. It only needs 
to occur once for a calamity to happen.

Secondly, the nature of the beast is such that it will take a long period 
for the manifestation of its possible impacts. It took 200 years before 
fossil fuel burning was acknowledged to cause environmental problems and 
now we don't know what to do about it.

The writer can be contacted at

                                         PART II
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TITLE:  A medical plant up a rubber tree
SOURCE: New Sunday Times, Malaysia, by Theresa Manavalan
DATE:   June 2, 2002

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A medical plant up a rubber tree

Even as the rubber tree beats a retreat from Malaysia's plantations, RRI 
scientists have come up with a new and revolutionary use for it. Stand by 
for the new, natural medicine maker, says THERESA MANAVALAN.

THE smell of smoked rubber seizes you at the Rubber Research Institute 
experimental station in Sungai Buloh. It's an old smell, with familiar 
imagery -endless rows of trees, shady paths, clicking cicadas, a vague 
industrial feeling, bicycles, the countryside, tappers at dawn.

These are the earliest shots in' the permanent picture library of the 
Malaysian psyche. Now, a series of new impressions is forming, which in a 
moat definitive way will change the course of the industry on which this 
country was built.

Rubber is being re-engineered. One day, perhaps in less than a decade from 
now, rubber trees will become natural pharmaceutical -factories producing 
life-saving medicines.

Researchers at RRIM have implanted a gene into the rubber tree to produce 
human serum albumin (HSA), a protein in blood essential for staying alive. 
And that, after more studies and trials, is expected to enter the US$4.2 
billion market for HSA.

"You don't cut the tree, you just tap it," says P Arokiaraj, senior 
researcher at RRIM's biotechnology division. "And from the latex, you can 
spin out the HSA protein. The system is working."

Indeed it is. This project has won awards at this year's Malaysian 
Invention, Innovation, Industrial Design and Technology Exhibition (ITEM), 
at TMPEX, the world's largest invention expo in Pittsburgh, and at the 
Salon Internationals des Inventions in Geneva.

Even as Arokiaraj's team measures the HSA protein showing up in their 
transgenic rubber plants in the' nursery, pharmaceutical companies are 
already, calling to investigate its potential.

To understand their excitement, you need to see HSA as the monorail of the 
circulation system, transporting stuff like enzymes, fatty acids, amino 
acids and hormones through the body. It also maintains the fluid balance in 

If you lose a lot of blood in an accident, your, life enters danger zone 
when there isn't enough HSA to transport life-saving stuff around the body. 
Global demand for HSA is gigantic, and transfusions an everyday features in 
hospital emergency rooms.

Currently, HSA is made from yeast cultures in giant bioreactors and from 
the milk of cows with an implanted gene. The other option is to get it from 
human blood. But all these can be expensive and carry a risk of viral 

"By harvesting HSA from rubber trees, you can rule out many of these 
problems," says Arokiaraj, "because latex doesn't support bacteria, and 

Latex has three major parts. The rubber part goes to niake'glovea and 
tyres. Another part contains organelles which are assorted compounds, some 
of them useful, found in all latexplants. The third component is called 
Clear Serum, a water soluble mix of proteins, enzymes and sugars which the 
tree uses to govern, itself in nature. This serums forms about 50 per cent 
of latex.

The HSA protein shows up in the clear serum. Latex's three parts are 
separated by spinning it at high speed. The likely scenario is that drug 
manufacturers will take this serum, process it to get the HSA and condition 
it for hospital use. It is likely the same factory will also extract other 
useful compounds from rubber serum.

The scientific process begins with the tree's male flowers. (Yes, rubber 
trees have fragrant flowers but they're so high up, we never see them). 
>From flowers, tiny cells are cultured into a callus which are a 
disorganised bunch of cells with no specific function.

Into this, Arokiaraj inserted the HSA gene which came from, his 
collaborator Professor Florian Rueker of the Agriculture University, in 
Vienna; who isolated it some years ago.

In the lab, the calluses flourished into plantlets. Hafsah Jaafar, a tissue 
culture specialist, transferred them to big glass tubes and wrapped them in 
black, plastic, giving the tiny rubber plants a feel of their future in 

Once big enough, she gently coaxed them into the open. "This is the tricky 
part," says Hafsah, who holds the keys to the secure nursery. "In the lab, 
these little plants thrive well but outside, the elements are tough on 

But once past this phase, rubber trees are hardy. Already, cell biologist 
Shamsul Bahri is tenting them for HSA protein. He's found it in the leaves 
~ and in the latex. Using chemicals which detect the presence of HSA, he's 
found 25 micrograms o? it in every one milliliter of rubber clear serum.

"And we end that the older the tree, the more HSA the latex has;" he says.

The plan to make rubber trees produce drugs started in the late 1980s when 
new, lab techniques helped understand how genes work and gave rise to an 
exact science. Rubber, it turned out, was friendly to genetic 
transformation but few people pursued it because results take so long. 
Rubber trees need several years to mature.

But that didn't stop Arokiaraj and his colleagues from working on it. 
Another project is studying ways to get insulin out of the rubber tree: Yet 
another line of study is making the rubber tree produce an antibody to be 
hooked on to an antibiotic. Together; it can be added to toothpaste to kill 
off Streptococcus sanguis, the main cause of tooth decay.

As things stand, Malaysia has over 1.4 million hectares planted with 
rubber, accounting for some 23 per cent of cultivated crops. We are now the 
world's fourth biggest producer at about half a million tonnes annually, 
after Indonesia, Thailand and India.

By moving rubber research into this new realm, Malaysia enters the future 
of drugs. Biotechnology is basically science-mimicking nature, and biotech 
drugs are based on that mimickry.

But what about the controversies that surround genetic engineering of 
plants? "The gene doesn't show in the rubber serum," says Arokiaraj.

Rubber doesn't hybridise with anything in Malaysia and all its wild 
relatives live in Brazil. When its leaves fall to the ground, soil enzymes 
will break the HSA protein into amino acids, which then become building 
blocks of life.

Arokiaraj, a Chevening undergraduate and doctorate scholar at King's 
College in London, sees a far bigger picture for rubber.

Rubber trees, he says, are a practical way to regulate the environment. 
Rubber trees sequester carbon dioxide efficiently. Currently, the eight 
million hectares of rubber worldwide sequester one billion tons of carbon 
dioxide. "I think we can increase that by planting more rubber," he says, 
"and, add value to each and every tree."


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