GENET archive


9-Misc: BBC on the ABIC 2004 conference in Cologne

                                  PART I
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TITLE:  Struggling to find GM's middle ground
SOURCE: British Broadcasting Corporation, by Richard Black
DATE:   16 Sep 2004

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Struggling to find GM's middle ground

If a 3m-high inflatable maize cob can keep GM foods out of Europe, the
biotech industry doesn't have a hope.

For the duration of the Agricultural Biotechnology International
Conference (ABIC) here in Cologne - one of the world's biggest annual
gatherings of business people and scientists in the biotech field - a
group of protestors have maintained a vigil outside under the shadow of
their giant cob.

The group, led by the German NGO Misereor, say "no to GM in Europe" and
"no to GM in the developing world".

"Large-scale farmers could benefit from such a technology for a time,"
said Misereor's Bernd Nilles. "But it will never be sustainable.

"There's a huge lack of acceptance of genetic engineering in politics and
society, and it just isn't an effective tool to fight hunger and starvation."

Definitely there's a shift in public opinion within Europe

Ashley O'Sullivan, Ag-West Bio Overwhelmingly, the 700-odd delegates
inside the conference hall beg to differ.

Misereor's troops have been kept at a safe distance by a phalanx of
extremely large security guards, many sporting pony-tails and unwise
facial hair which would provoke ridicule if worn by gentlemen less
physically imposing.

Linked outcomes

Lucky they were there, though, as one saved delegates from major calamity
one morning by confiscating my plastic bottle of water.

"We have to take it; it is a security risk because you might hit someone
over the head with it," he said, with no trace of a smile.

I suggested that my microphone, equally long and much more solid, was
capable of causing considerably more damage if wielded aggressively
(something which has come to mind during more than one rambling and un-
editable interview).

Lovemore Simwanda, Environmental Conservation Association of Zambia "Yes
but you need that for your work," he said.

I was tempted to say that my need for water was considerably more primal
- but given the lavish conference hospitality, getting hold of another
bottle inside was not likely to be an issue.

If there is a global food crisis which only GM agriculture can prevent,
you wouldn't have guessed it from the laden tables of free food and drink.

This is the first time that the ABIC has been held in Europe - and it's
no co-incidence that it's come in a year when the European Union has
lifted its five-year moratorium on new GM foods, and, for the first time,
approved a GM seed variety - a Monsanto maize - for planting throughout
EU territory.

Biotech companies and the German state of Nord-Rhein Westphalia would not
have spent 1.5m euros on the conference if they didn't scent business

"Definitely there's a shift in public opinion within Europe," said Ashley
O'Sullivan, president and CEO of the Canadian company Ag-West Bio, and a
member of the ABIC foundation board.

"Europeans are looking, I think, at the North American experience and
seeing that these things have been grown quite successfully for a number
of years now and they're not causing damage to the environment, they're
not causing any human health issues; in fact these technologies are safer."

Polar opposites

Whether or not that's true - and whether the European public is following
the lead of the European Commission in moving to embrace GM - what just
about everyone here agreed on is that Europe's position may be crucial
for Africa.

Many African countries export food to the EU, and if European consumers
want their food GM-free, that sets limits on what African farmers can do.

Lovemore Simwanda, from the Environmental Conservation Association of
Zambia, was quite happy for Europeans to remain sceptical. The United
States, he said, was pushing genetically modified food on Africa before
African governments could establish legislation and infrastructure to
evaluate and monitor it.

"They want to dump the products of the technology on to Africa, and then
say 'you can manage it by putting the laws in place'", he said.

"But we think it should be the other way round. We need to know what the
technology is, and then have the capacity to handle the technology, have
the infrastructure in place, have the legal framework and policies in
place, and then you have the right expertise to implement this."

Other African delegates, such as Florence Wambugu of the Kenya-based
organisation Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International, were more
positive about the potential GM crops have for Africa.

"We need to look at what is going on in other developing countries like
China and India and Brazil," she said.

Noting that GM crops are being used in some African countries, she
commented: "Small-scale farmers are benefiting from better health because
they are not inhaling the pesticides; there is money in their pockets;
and they are benefiting because there are fewer toxins."

Genetic modification is, I would suggest, a uniquely polarising issue.

I can't think of another subject - with the possible exception of macro-
economic theory - where intelligent and concerned people can look at the
same set of facts and come up with such divergent conclusions.

And I say "concerned" deliberately, because there is a view that biotech
researchers are uniformly Frankenstein-like scientists who want to
inflict their evil creations on an unsuspecting world for their own
financial gain.

Iron vision

Such people may exist in the biotech world - though I suspect they
inhabit boardrooms rather than research laboratories.

But among scientists one chats to at a gathering like this - possibly
over a bottle of Swedish GM beer - there are many who, rightly or
wrongly, genuinely believe they are creating something which will benefit

Many admit that they were naļve in believing the public would accept
transgenic organisms without demur; "we got it wrong and need to listen
more" was a common refrain.

And a trend that was clear here is that researchers are increasingly
looking to step away from bringing novel genes into plants. Instead,
they're working on ways of changing the plant's own genome, for example
by introducing double copies of important genes, or changing the cues
which switch a gene on and off.

Tony Connor, from the New Zealand Institute for Crop and Food Research,
is working on ways of engineering plants which use DNA only from that plant.

"We want to overcome the requirement to use things like viruses or
bacteria as vectors for gene transfer," he said.

"Now we can get everything we need from the host plant; this technology
should overcome fears about moving genes from one species to another, and
to be honest that was the main motivation behind this research."

Chris Somerville, from the Carnegie Institution, closed the conference
with a talk on what new kinds of genetic modification we can expect in
the near future.

"Most of the people who are dependent on rice are starving for iron," he said.

"The minimum number is eight hundred million; and the problem is
compounded by the fact that many people with poor diets also have
intestinal parasites that make the matter worse.

"I have reason to predict that there is going to be a major international
effort to make transgenic plants for the developing world that have
improved iron as a high priority."

But, as he acknowledged, this would be a different biotech world from the
one we have now.

Middle ground?

Of biotech varieties planted today, almost all are engineered for one of
two traits - herbicide tolerance or insect resistance - the vast majority
are cotton, soy and maize; and they're widely used in just a handful of

He could have added that seeds are produced and distributed as a profit-
making venture by big agribusiness companies, rather than by non-profit
groups intent on helping the needy.

Big questions remain over who will pay to implement the vision Chris
Somerville was putting forward, even if it were to be accepted as
socially and environmentally desirable.

Ten minutes into his talk, Misereor finally made their presence felt
inside the conference hall, as two ladies leapt to their feet, produced a
cassette-player and a lyric sheet and launched into an anti-GM song.

"There is no future for the big polluters," they sang; then, changing
person, "We've got the soya, we've got the lawyers, the politicians in
our pocket."

The security guards finally had their moment in the sun, removing the two
protestors, still chanting; as they left the hall, Chris Somerville
commented "I don't think they could have been listening".

It could be a summary of the whole GM debate.

                                  PART II
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Rice in Asia: Too Little Iron, Too Much Arsenic
SOURCE: ISIS, UK, Press Release
DATE:   13 Sep 2004

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Rice in Asia: Too Little Iron, Too Much Arsenic

Asians are getting too little iron and too much arsenic from soil and
water. Unfortunately the remedy for one problem may increase the impact
of the other. The challenge is to find a remedy that takes care of both
problems, says Prof. Joe Cummins.

Problem of too little iron

It has been estimated that 40% of the world's women suffer some degree of
iron deficiency. Anaemia is associated with learning difficulties in
children, increased susceptibility to disease and reduced work capacity.
Pre-menopausal women are most severely affected by iron deficiency, while
men tend to retain iron (as indicated below, an iron overload diet may
increase risk of cancer in males). Increasing iron in the diet is a
desirable goal and rice is the preferred crop for genetic modification
(GM) to increase iron in the diet, especially in Asia.

Researchers from the Japanese Electrical Power Research Institute
increased the iron content of rice threefold by adding a seed-specific
ferritin (an iron storage protein) from soybean under the control of a
rice seed storage protein promoter. But although the iron content of the
rice grain was increased significantly, there has been concern that the
ferritin-bound iron may not be readily available in the digestive tract
of mammals.

A Swiss research group transformed rice with a ferritin gene from snap
beans under the control of a rice storage protein promoter accompanied by
a fungal phytase gene also under the control of the storage protein
promoter. The phytase gene produces an enzyme that increased iron
availability during digestion. An endogenous rice metallothionein (a
ubiquitous metal-binding cellular protein) was over-expressed in the
transgenic rice to further aid in iron digestion by providing a form of
iron readily taken up in the gut. An antibiotic resistance marker gene
for the antibiotic hygromycin was added during the transformations of the
rice. The iron content of the rice was doubled while, in contrast to the
Japanese study, the iron was more readily available during digestion. The
Swiss study was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

However, iron overload is a significant problem in males - it may lead to
a condition called hemochromatosis in which the liver and other organs
may be damaged, causing liver cancer or colorectal cancer. As much as one
person in a hundred may carry a mutation (hereditary hemochromatosis)
that makes them sensitive to iron overload at relatively modest iron
intake levels. There is an association between increasing iron stores and
risk of cancer.

In areas of the world where iron deficiency is commonplace, iron-enriched
rice may prove beneficial, but the same iron- enriched rice could prove
to be a liability in areas where iron intake is at high levels. Iron
overload should be considered in the distribution of iron-enhanced rice.
The need for labeling of iron rich rice products is evident.

The Arsenic Problem

Asia is facing a growing crisis in the use of arsenic- contaminated
ground water for drinking and in irrigation of rice paddies. Arsenic
pollution is a severe problem over Bangladesh/West Bengal and in the Red
River Delta of Vietnam but it is also a chronic problem in Taiwan, China
and Thailand. Most arsenic pollution is of natural origin, amplified by
drawing water from contaminated deep aquifers, but China has arsenic
pollution from burning high arsenic- containing coal. Arsenic has been
shown (from studies in Taiwan) to cause cancer and circulatory problems
at very low levels, the cancers include cancers of liver, lung, bladder
and kidney. It has been estimated that the arsenic pollution of drinking
water in the United States causes an average of 3000 cancer cases per year.

In Asia, the arsenic problem is amplified by the pollution of rice, the
primary food source. Arsenic has been accumulating in paddy soil,
resulting in the contamination of the rice grain. Rice contributes to an
estimated 30 to 60% of the dietary intake of arsenic in polluted regions.

There is hope that rice strains can be selected that take in less arsenic
than the varieties of rice currently in use. It has been found that
arsenic is sequestered on iron-plaques (rust-like deposits) on the
surface of roots of rice varieties that accumulate reduced levels of
arsenic in grain. Rice paddies will continue to be polluted with arsenic
in the soil because there is no practical method known to remediate the
vast expanses of polluted soil. Breeding rice to reduce grain pollution
seems to be an effective first step towards improving the diet in
polluted areas and varieties with reduced grain content of arsenic are known.

Iron and arsenic interact in rice

There is a potential conflict in governmental and foundation programmes
to develop and disseminate high-iron grain to alleviate iron-deficiency
among rice consumers. The high- iron rice varieties currently under
development include amplifying the expression of ferritin in grain and
solubilising iron for uptake in the gut using a phytase gene from a
fungus [3]. Arsenic reduced the concentration of iron in the plant in
rice varieties that form iron-plaques on the roots; but in varieties
lacking the iron-plaques, iron uptake was not reduced in the presence of
arsenic. It appears that the iron-plaques sequester both iron and
arsenic, so that both iron and arsenic are reduced in the rest of the plant.

The iron-enhanced grains designed to combat iron-deficiency are
therefore, very likely to increase grain-arsenic levels in arsenic-
polluted areas of Asia because the arsenic will not be sequestered on the
root surface in iron plaques but instead will be taken into the shoot and
end up in the rice grain. It seems a devil's bargain: either to make
high-iron rice available at the cost of elevated arsenic or to make low-
arsenic rice available without providing an alternate source of dietary iron.

But this dilemma only exists if one insists on GM rice as the only
solution. It disappears instantly when one realizes that iron can be
provided through other sources, such as beans and lentils which can
easily be grown, and are rich sources of other essential nutrients besides.


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European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
Kleine Wiese 6
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P: +49-531-5168746
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European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
Kleine Wiese 6
D - 38116 Braunschweig

P: +49-531-5168746
F: +49-531-5168747
M: +49-162-1054755
E: coordination(*)
W: <>

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