SnowBall archive


GE - lots from this weeks New Scientist

New Scientist Editorial
Seriously silly
Angst about GM foods is creating a farcical double standard in our thinking
AS EVERY fan of Monty Python knows, sketches can become too absurd for
their own
good. That's what seemed to be happening to Britain's great genetically
modified food saga earlier this week when it emerged that scientists at the
nation's biggest biotech company may have been breaking the letter of the law
when they merrily tucked into tomatoes that had been genetically modified. 

The newspaper scoop claimed that government officials would now have little
option but to investigate on the grounds that seeds from the tomatoes could
have passed through the scientists and germinated in a sewage farm. To date,
only GM tomato paste, which contains no seeds, has been approved for sale in
Europe. The scientists were rumbled when a photographer snapped them (see p 7)
munching tomatoes as part of a stunt to reassure the nation about GM food. 

It sounds like a spoof but in the present climate anything is possible. Are
officials really concerned about this petty breach of regulations? Or are they
merely playing a joke on the media and its current obsession with all things

Either way, the story exposes a serious issue. While we worry about the
of GM crops (would it really matter if a GM tomato germinated in a sewage
farm?), we apparently care little about the environmental dangers of
conventional crops. This double standard is reflected in European Union
legislation, which manages to be both stringent for GM crops and virtually
nonexistent for conventional varieties. 

Since GM farming seems fraught with potential hazards, you could argue that
this is justified. Looking at the facts, however, suggests not (see p 4). Cut
through the anti-biotech propaganda and you find that there is nothing
about GM
crops that gives them any special power to create superweeds and landscapes
chemically cleansed of wildlife. 

But we should already know that. Across Europe, farmland wildlife--especially
birds --has been in decline for decades, long before GM crops caught the
eye of
pressure groups. The problem has been caused by the everyday use of highly
toxic chemical sprays, by ripping up hedgerows, and by the relentless
spread of
intensive farming practices which we have never quite had the collective
or will to resist. 

The question that really matters in the GM debate is whether genetic
engineering simply offers us more of the same or a chance to farm more
intelligently. Or rather this is what matters in Europe. In the US, farmland
wildlife is not such an emotive issue because most of the nation's
is locked up in vast national parks. Pocket-sized nations like Britain, by
contrast, expect the countryside to provide us with cheap food, romantic
landscapes and a home for our wildlife all at the same time. 

Will genetic engineering help us get what we want? Without a lot more research
into things such as the impact on wildlife of genes which produce "natural"
insecticides, and the pros and cons of herbicide-resistant crops, it is
difficult to give a defini-tive answer. But what is clear already is that the
way farmers use these crops will be crucial. 

In the hands of an enlightened farmer, crops that have been engineered to be
resistant to herbicides could, paradoxically, work wonders for our herbivorous
insects and songbirds by enabling the farmer to let weeds grow alongside crops
for longer, secure in the knowledge that they can be eradicated later in the
season. In the hands of someone more ruthless, the same crops could be a
for a sterilised landscape. 

The story is similar with crops engineered to be resistant to insect pests.
Ecologists worry about these crops because they are designed to produce a
steady supply of a natural insecticide that could harm beneficial predators
such as ladybirds (see p 5). They argue that the wider effects of this
could be
quite different from those of chemical sprays which, because they are used
intermittently, can allow insect populations to recover. To minimise any
problems, it may be necessary to set aside areas of land to serve as GM-free
refuges for insects. 

In other words, it all comes down to the farmers. Again. Strange, then, that
amid the fuss there has so far been little discussion about these
custodians of
the environment. Egged on by pressure groups, people have been asking whether
they can trust the biotech industry and its political allies. Perhaps they
should also be asking whether they can trust the farmers. 
>From New Scientist, 27 February 1999
A question of breeding 
David Concar and Andy Coghlan
IT LOOKS just like an ordinary oilseed rape plant, but farmers in Canada
know it
as "Smart Canola". Because it carries genes for resistance to two families of
herbicides, the farmers can kill off every weed in sight, without fear of
damaging their harvest. 

The prospect of plants that could in effect conspire with farmers to produce
chemically sterilised fields has sent Europe's conservationists into a flat
spin. They have issued dire warnings about the perils of agricultural
biotechnology and call for moratoriums on GM plantings. But Smart Canola is
quite what it seems. While European officials agonise over the pros and
cons of
growing GM crops, they could do little to stop farmers planting this oilseed
rape. The reason: Smart Canola is not genetically engineered. 

Scientists at Pioneer Hi-Bred in Des Moines, Iowa, used normal breeding and
selection techniques to create Smart Canola. This involved screening thousands
of naturally occurring variants for strains resistant to herbicides. The
company rejects any suggestion that its crops will encourage farmers to
sterilise their fields and thus harm wildlife. "You don't just go out there
apply these chemicals randomly," says company spokesman Tim Martin. 

But because the crop is not genetically engineered, Martin's assertion would
not need to be put to the test before the rape could be grown in Europe. The
only trials required would be experimental plantings designed to evaluate its
performance to confirm that it really is a novel variety. In fact, Pioneer has
already made one application to market Smart Canola in Britain. This was
down, but only because the yield was too low--a problem the company is
confident it can solve. 

Smart Canola is just one of several conventionally bred crops that could in
theory pose the same environmental hazards as GM plants. And yet these crops
would bypass rules compelling companies to show that their GM crops are
unlikely to create environmental problems. Other plants that could slip
the net include maize and soya beans designed to resist the same herbicides as
Smart Canola, also from Pioneer Hi-Bred. 

David Robinson of the Scottish Crop Research Institute near Dundee, a
member of
the British government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment
(ACRE), says existing legislation is plagued by a "double standard" that
reason. "The idea that herbicide resistant crops produced by genetic
engineering are inherently more hazardous than ones produced by conventional
techniques is simply nonsense," he says. 

This point is reiterated in a report from ACRE on GM crops and wildlife that
was released last week. Headlines claimed that the document detailed a
catalogue of environmental disasters waiting to happen, from genes escaping
from GM crops to create superweeds to insect and bird populations already
decimated by intensive farming being killed off by genetic engineering. 

In fact, the report is an even-handed analysis of the risks and benefits of
introducing the crops onto Britain's farmland. It's true that the conservation
watchdog English Nature has called for a ban on commercial plantings of GM
crops that are resistant to broad spectrum herbicides. It is worried that more
farmland would be wiped clean of wild plants as a result. The ACRE report
acknowledges these fears but also lists possible advantages. These include
need to till soil to control weeds, which could help stem erosion. 

One of the document's more alarming observations has nothing to do with GM
crops, however. "Potential adverse effects," it notes, "may be just as likely
to occur as a result of conventional plant breeding programmes." 

Martin takes a more positive view of ACRE's statements on the similarity
between GM and conventional crops. "I see it as affirmation that conventional
breeding can work just as well," he says. 

But for environmentalists, the ACRE report carries as a sobering message.
they concentrate on attacking GM crops, the plants' conventionally bred
could sneak into Europe through the back door.

How to price what we put on our plate 
Debora MacKenzie
FOR most people, the main question about GM food is: do I have to eat it or
If we are to have that choice, GM crops will have to be segregated from plough
to plate and all products containing GM food labelled as such. 

The US government claims that this would impose heavy costs on its food
suppliers. It threatens a trade war if the European Union responds to public
pressure by demanding segregation of GM crops within US exports. But a new
analysis suggests that the costs of segregation and labelling are manageable,
and could even enhance trade. "This could be the only key to easing public
acceptance of biotechnology," says Allan Buckwell, an agricultural
economist at
Wye College near Ashford, Kent. 

Buckwell presented his findings in Brussels earlier this month. He says that
similarly stringent segregation--although not on the basis of genetic
modification--is already widespread. "Different varieties of wheat, for bread
or pasta, are already strictly separated from farm gate to production plant,"
he says. And in the US, soya growers already distinguish beans used in
different kinds of tofu for export to Japan. 

The cost of such segregation is not prohibitive, say Buckwell and his
Graham Brookes. For example, soya growers and processors in the US separate
label beans with different protein and oil contents for an extra cost of
just 6
to 9 per cent compared with unsegregated beans. Soya growers in Brazil
distinguish GM from non-modified soya for a premium of 10 to 15 per cent.
European dealers separate maize with a high oil content for 17 per cent extra
cost, while US producers do it for 6 per cent. Canadian farmers distinguish GM
from normal oilseed rape, or canola, for an 8 per cent premium. And costs will
come down, says Buckwell, if segregation becomes widespread. 

The organisation that commissioned the Wye College study remains sceptical,
however. The Food Biotech Communications Initiative, which represents
such as Monsanto, Coca-Cola and Nestlé, concludes that segregation will
increase food costs by "as much as 150 per cent". 

But this interpretation assumes that food labelled as non-GM has to be
absolutely pure. In practice, regulators are likely to allow food to carry
a label if contamination with GM materials is below a certain level. The EU,
which is currently debating its labelling criteria, is considering tolerances
for GM contamination for individual ingredients of around 1 per cent. From New
Scientist, 27 February 1999

The great divide 
Bob Holmes
WE MAY be living in the global village, but even villagers bound together by
language and culture don't always see eye to eye. In the US, biotech firms and
activists alike are bemused by events unfolding across the Atlantic. Even the
fiercest opponents of GM crops realise that they cannot hope to mobilise
opinion as effectively as their British counterparts. 

The main difference between Britain and the US is the long and terrifying
shadow cast by BSE, suggests Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists
in Washington DC, a group which argues that some GM crops may be
environmentally damaging. "It makes people very sensitive about what
is telling them and what science is telling them," she says. "I suspect if
had mad cow disease here, we would probably have more worry." 

Philip Angell agrees. He is the director of corporate communications at the GM
food giant Monsanto's headquarters in St Louis, Missouri. "This kind of
high-visibility, high-intensity reaction on the part of the British press is a
confirmation of how deeply scarred the British people are by the BSE
experience. It's going to take a long time for that wound to heal." 

Another factor behind the transatlantic divide is that North American
expect food to be cheap. They seem less willing than Europeans to pay a
for organic produce, for instance. Tim Martin of Pioneer Hi-Bred, a seed
company in Des Moines, Iowa, is convinced that Americans would not pay more
the segregation of non-GM foods. "Quite often they don't respond the same way
at the counter, when they're paying, as when a survey's being taken," he

In this climate, anti-GM crop activists in the US are turning to the law
than trying to inflame public opinion. Last week, 65 plaintiffs including
Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the International Federation of Organic
Agricultural Movements filed a suit in the district court in Washington DC
against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), arguing that it acted
unlawfully in approving crops engineered to produce Bt toxin, an insecticide
produced by the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. The EPA rejects this
accusation: "Biotech products we review fully comply with all legal
requirements designed to ensure that they are environmentally sound." 

The suit demands that the EPA withdraws approval of all Bt plants and stops
approving any new ones until it has done a complete assessment of their
environmental impact. The EPA's opponents claim that beneficial insects may
suffer and that genes for Bt could spread to other species. They argue that Bt
plants will accelerate the evolution of resistance to the Bt toxin by insect
pests, thus depriving organic farmers of a natural insecticide. The plaintiffs
say this violates a federal law that prohibits the EPA from approving
pesticides with damaging environmental effects. 

This legal battle could take years to resolve. In the meantime, more Bt and
other GM crops will be planted in the US. The expansion of GM agriculture in
the US will make it harder for consumers elsewhere to avoid them. "The problem
that Europeans have is that most of the GM foods they have are coming from the
US," says Kalee Kreider of Greenpeace in Washington DC. No matter how much
public pressure Europe's activists raise, it will do little to halt the onward
march of GM produce as long as the US continues to back the technology.
>From New
Scientist, 27 February 1999

Fears for the future 
THE CURRENT outcry about genetic engineering in Britain has left industry
leaders in a state of shock. They fear the backlash will jeopardise future
investment in the country across the whole of the bioscience sector. 

Nigel Poole, head of external regulatory affairs at Zeneca Plant Science in
Bracknell, Berkshire: 
"Britain could be classed as number two in biotechnology in the world, after
the US, but it's clinging on by its fingertips. These witch-hunts are crazy. I
feel quite emotional about this at the moment. We still believe in the UK, but
God knows why."

George Poste, chief science and technology officer with the Anglo-American
giant SmithKline Beecham, based in Philadelphia: 
"The hysteria we've seen can be used as a springboard to go after other
of gene research. Press and public opinion influence legislation and
legislation influences whether a company invests. The overall climate of
tolerance for extremes of the anti-technological movement is taken into

Chris Evans, founder of Merlin Ventures and Britain's leading biotech
"We're collectively being demonised as Frankenstein's assistants. It's
silly, like Salem witch-hunts. We must raise money, but people who buy shares
are affected by what they read. It could limit options for raising funds for
the medical side of the industry."

Bill Fullagar, president of the British arm of the Swiss-based multinational
Novartis, a major producer of pharmaceuticals and GM crops: 
"Anything like what we've seen go on in the last week must put pressure on the
authorities. This can lead to decisions that stop companies from investing. We
are a global company. Britain is not the only place where you can do research:
there's the whole of North America and the whole of Europe."

Jeremy Curnock Cook, head of the Rothschild Bioscience Unit in London,
responsible for funds worth some $500 million: 
"It will harm investment in the UK. Ultimately, investors don't differentiate
between the elements of the sector. No one will care whether it's GM crops or
healthcare." From New Scientist, 27 February 1999

Dispatches from the killing fields 
David Concar
PERHAPS the most serious charge levelled against crops engineered to produce
insecticidal toxins is that they will poison beneficial insects as well as
wiping out pests. The latest findings will fuel the debate over the
environmental safety of these crops by giving both sides more ammunition. 

One unpublished study, which looks at the impact on insects of a bacterial
toxin engineered into maize, suggests the toxin's effects mysteriously
as it passes along the food chain. But another team is disputing earlier
that ladybirds are harmed by plants that produce a protein toxic to aphids and
other sap-sucking pests. 

Experts can't agree on exactly what the two studies mean--particularly since
any harmful effects of insecticidal GM crops must be balanced against the
probable benefits of reduced pesticide use in fields where the plants grow.
Everybody accepts that plants producing insecticidal toxins will reduce the
number and nutritional value of the pests that beneficial insects feed on, but
confusion surrounds the extent to which the toxins poison predatory insects

At the Swiss Federal Research Station for Agroecology and Agriculture near
Zürich, Angelika Hilbeck and her colleagues say they have found evidence
confirming that lacewings, which eat caterpillars and aphids, can be poisoned
by an insecticidal toxin engineered into maize. The gene for this toxin,
Bt, comes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. 

Hilbeck raised a red flag about the effects of Bt toxin on lacewings last year
(This Week, 2 May 1998, p 21). In later experiments, her team fed identical
quantities of purified Bt toxin directly to lace-wing larvae or via
caterpillars that had consumed the toxin. Fifty per cent more lacewings died
after eating the caterpillars. Hilbeck believes that the toxin became more
potent, perhaps because its chemical structure was altered. 

Her results may require changes in the way that biotech firms test for any
"collateral damage" their crops might cause. They tend to feed the engineered
toxins directly to beneficial predators, rather than through their prey. "You
need to use a realistic route of exposure," says Hilbeck. 

Meanwhile, researchers led by John and Angharad Gatehouse at the University of
Durham have studied what happens to ladybird larvae fed aphids that had
eaten a
purified lectin protein from a snowdrop. This is the same protein that was
engineered into the potatoes that sparked Britain's current GM food scare. 

Fears for the safety of beneficial insects surfaced in 1997, when a team
led by
Nick Birch of the Scottish Crop Research Institute found evidence that eating
aphids reared on transgenic potatoes reduced the lifespans and egg production
of ladybirds (This Week, 1 November 1997, p 4). Now the Durham team suggests
the lectin is not acutely toxic to ladybirds. The lectin stunted the growth of
aphids, but when the ladybird larvae were given more aphids to compensate for
the aphids' small size, they developed normally to the pupal stage. From New
Scientist, 27 February 1999