13 June 2003
Genetic Engineering Newsletter 42, May 2003
supported by Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft, Triodos-Stichting and Greenpeace
Legal and political developments
News From Organic Farming
Legal and political developments
WTO case against EU moratorium
On the 13th of May, the US trade representative Robert Zoellick and the US agriculture secretary Ann Veneman announced that the USA together with Canada, Egypt und Argentina will file a World Trade Organization (WTO) case against the EU moratorium on approving agricultural biotech products. Nine other countries are supporting the complaint, Australia, New Zealand and seven Latin American countries (USDA Press Release 05/13/03, cited from GENET 05/14/03). In the meantime, Egypt has withdrawn from this attempt (Friends of the Earth Europe Press Release 05/28/03). The European Commission (EC) regrets the WTO case as misguided and unnecessary (EC Press Release 05/13/03, cited from GENET 05/14/03). The EC pointed out that the USA has so far opposed the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety. The Cartagena Protocol sets international rules for the transboundary movement of GMOs. It claims e.g. that a country has to be informed and has to agree before GMOs are delivered to that country. The USA is not keeping up to these rules on prior information and labelling.
A WTO case will take 18 month. During that time, the EU will set up the directives on labelling and traceability for GM food and feed, claimed by the countries supporting the moratorium as one of the basic needs for a commercial use of GMO. When these directives are set up, the moratorium could be officially lifted. The required systems for labelling and traceability comply with the WTO policy. The WTO accepts strong labelling that gives the consumer the freedom of choice (Financial Times 05/15/03, cited from GENET 05/16/03). Even if the present moratorium is lifted, the European consumers still have the possibility to maintain the moratorium by not buying GM products (Hiltrud Breyer MEP, Press Release 05/13/03).
News on GM free initiatives in Europe
In Albania, the Agriculture and Food Commission voted for a ban of GMOs for a 5-year period. Now, the Ministry of Environment has to prepare the legal framework to implement the ban (GENET 05/13/03; http://www.organic.org.al). In Switzerland, the National assembly accepted a 5-year-moratorium on commercial releases for GMOs (GENET 05/08/03; Environmental Daily 05/09/03 cited from GENET 05/12/03). In England, the National Trust banned its 2,000 tenant farmers from growing GM crops on its land. (London Times 05/11/03, cited from GENET 05/15/03). Friends of the Earth Germany (Bund für Umwelt- und Naturschutz) launched the action No GM crops on municipal land! No GM crops on the land of the churches!on the ecumenical church congress in May. The slogan means that landowners such as the communes and churches can instruct tenant framers not to use GM crops (http://www.bund.net/lab/reddot2/landwirtschaft_ernaehrung.htm).
USA: Inconsistencies in the refuge size in Bt-cultures The Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) of the US American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) criticized that the EPA does not follow the SAP's recommendations concerning the refuge size for pest insects. In Bt-crops a certain percentage of the area has to be planted with non-Bt-plants to provide a refuge for pest insects in order to slow down the development of resistance to the Bt-protein. The SAP recommends to plant 50% non-Bt-plants in a Bt-culture, whereas the EPA guidelines officially demand 20%. Monsanto advises not to use a 50% refuge because it would cancel the benefit of insecticide reduction (Nature Biotechnology Vol 21 (5): 467-468). This discussion was opened in the course of the approval of a new Bt-line of maize. The new Bt-maize is resistant to the rootworm (Diabrotica spec.) and contains the construct of MON863. Because of the fact that this Bt-line is not approved in Europe and other countries, American corn growers cultivating this Bt-maize have to segregate it from other maize on the field and during processing to prevent contamination (Corn Segragation: A Necessary Evil in Today´s Biotech Age?, cited from GENET 04/30/03).
Zambia develops own strategy on biotechnology for GMO- regulation The Zambian government has developed a five-year plan for a national biosafety and biotechnology strategy. The new framework aims at nature conservation and the protection of the Zambian diversity on crops. Aside, the framework planes to support research especially in the medical field. The reason to develop this strategy was the food aid of GM maize delivered by the USA in winter 2002/2003 that Zambia rejected (Environment News Service 04/29/03, cited from GENET 05/08/03). For further information on the debate on GM food donations to Zambia see http://www.blauen- institut.ch/Tx/tT/ttSambiaDok/tt_s01GrainNo.html).
Brazil allows the sale of GM soy but requires labelling A governmental decree authorizes the sale of GM soy until the 31st of March 2004. But soybeans and soy products with more than one percent content of GM soy will require labelling. Cultivation of GM soy is not approved, but the decree meets the illegal cultivation of GM soy in the province Rio Grande do Sul (Reuters 05/16/03, cited from GENET 05/19/03). The Brazilian requirements for food labelling annoy Argentina that delivers 13% of its total food export to Brazil (Reuters 05/12/03, cited from GENET 05/13/03). The Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wants to cling to non-GMO production (see Genetic Engineering Newsletter 37), but he is under growing pressure in the parliament with this position (GENET 06/05/03).
Control of seed germination by a two step modification Canadian scientists developed a system to prevent the unwanted transfer of the transgene constructs over generations. The scientist of the "Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada" modified tobacco plants with a seed lethal (SL)-system. Plants containing the SL-system produce sterile seeds. The SL-system is composed by genes of the soil bacteria Agrobacterium tumefaciens and is complemented by a binding site for a repressor. By specifically binding on the DNA, a repressor prevents the transcription of a specific DNA segment. The gene coding for the repressor derived from the bacteria Escherichia coli was inserted in a second line of tobacco. Crossing the two lines of GM tobacco combined both constructs. The GM plants resulting from the crossing event produce normal seeds. But in a case of outcrossing both constructs are separated with a very high probability. Then the repressor is not expressed anymore, subsequently the SL system is expressed and the plants produce sterile seeds (Schernthaner J. P., Fabijanski S. F., Arnison P. G., Racicot M., Robert L. S. (2003) Control of seed germination in transgenic plants based on the segregation of a two-component genetic system. PNAS 2003 100: 6855-6859).
The German Newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung praised this system as a way to prevent outcrossing to wild relatives (FAZ 05/07/03). It is important to note that this method does not prevent outcrossing but only prevents the transfer of transgenes over generations. The question hereby is whether a wild population can survive on the long term if they undergo regular hybridisation with a sterilisation mechanism. Besides, the SL-system also affects cultures of the same crop species by outcrossing. This would render part of the harvest from neighbouring fields sterile and thereby limit replanting, as farmers often save part of their harvest to use as seed for the next year. Generally, those so-called terminator technologies are objectionable in both ecological and social terms.
The color of research: The German foundation Zukunftstiftung Landwirtschaftis holding a symposium on the 23rd of June to discuss future research that is necessary to reach a sustainable agri- and nutrition-culture. The symposium wants to launch a debate on the political aspect of research, herein called the color of research (http://www.zs-l.de/forschung/index.php4). The debate follows up a memorandum of the Federal Nature Conservation Agency titled Research for a sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture (http://www.bfn.de/10/index.htm).
Biodiversity implications of genetically modified plants: The conference, hold from the 7th to the 12th of September in Ascona, Switzerland, is organized by the Geobotanical Institute, ETH Zurich, Switzerland, and the Plant Research Institute Wageningen, Netherlands, (http://www.geobot.umnw.ethz.ch/bigmp/bigmp.html). The objectives of the conference are to present new results on the long-term ecological consequences of cultivation of GMOs, on which very little data exist so far.
GM-plants fluorescing under presence of specific chemical compounds: Scientists of the Pennsylvania State University, USA, modified the thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) in a way, that the GM-plant starts to express the inserted gene coding for the Green Fluorescent Protein when the plant is exposed to salicylic acid, which means that the plants starts to glow under laser light. This GM thale cress is to be the beginning of 300 thale cress´ lines that start to glow if they are exposed to specific chemical or biological agents. Those GM plants are planned to be cultivated around governmental buildings to detect terror attacks. The question is whether this method works reliably and fast enough. However, the US Defense Department is betting 3.5 million US dollar on this project. Also the development of GM bacteria as detectors is funded with 3.7 million US dollars. Detailed information on how the expression of the fluorescent protein is regulated is not given (The Philadelphia Inquirer 04/27/03, cited from GENET 05/05/03).
Expansion of the biotechnology sector stopped
The audit firm Ernst and Young has published the German Biotechnology Report and the European Biotechnology Report, titled Endurance. For the first time in ten years, the biotechnology sector registered a decrease in revenues and employee numbers Europe-wide. Revenues fell by 2% to 12.9 billion Euros and employee numbers fell by 6% to 82,100 in 2002. The UK remained the dominant player in European biotech industry with 43% of total market capitalisation. In Germany, the employee number decreased to 13,400 in 2002. The total revenue decreased by 3% to 1.014 billion Euros. The investments for research and development fell by 11% to 1.09 billion Euros. Data on the profit are not given so far (http://www.ey.com/GLOBAL/content.nsf/Germany/Branche_-_Health_Sciences_-_Biotechreport_2003). The German government amply supports the biotechnology sector. The Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) has doubled the biotechnology promotion since 1998. For 2003, more than 480 million Euros are available to support institutions. Another 180 million Euros are available to support special projects (idw, Press Release BMBF 05/07/03). Mainly major enterprises are economically stable. The twelve quoted biotech-companies share half of the total revenue in Germany (http://www.ey.com/Global/content.nsf/Germany/Presse_-_Pressemitteilungen_2003_-_Wachstum_der_deutschen_Biotech- Branche_gestoppt). Especially Bayer AG ranks among them. Bayer increased the profit by two digits in the last quarter. Especially in the sector of Health Care and Crop Science, better results were achieved. The acquisition of Aventis CropScience by Bayer AG in 2002 (see Genetic Engineering Newsletter 33/34) contributed substantially to an increase in sales of 92% to 1.66 billion Euro. Bayer Crop Science comprises production of pesticides and GM crops (FAZ 05/08/03, cited from Genpost 05/08/03).
The European Patent Office (EPO) decided that the so-called "soy" patent owned by Monsanto (EP 301 749 B1) is to be limited. The patent of doubt referred to a technique to genetically engineering plants, in particular soy plants, by particle bombardment. In its limited form, the patent now relates only to soybean plants, not generally to any kind of plant (http://www.european-patent-office.org/news/pressrel/2003_05_06_e.htm). In March 1994, the EPO granted Agracetus, subsequently taken over by Monsanto, the patent EP301749B1. The companies Syngenta Participations and Pioneer Hi-Bred, a Canadian environmental organization and a private person objected the patent (http://www.european-patent-office.org/news/pressrel/2003_05_05_d.htm). According to the European Patent Directive of 1998, patents on inventions in the area of biotechnology can be granted. Patents on plants are not excluded from being patented, if the process is not limited to a given plant species. The working committee of peasant farming (AbL) in Germany opines that the limitation of the soya patent is not sufficient to prevent patent legislation that grants patents on life. The AbL therefore claims that the European Patent Directive should not be implemented into national law (AbL Press Release 05/07/03; cited from agrar-aktuell 05/07/03). A recent example shows the large extend patents can have. The Australian company Genetic Technologies holds the rights to a patent on non-coding DNA - also known as 'junk' DNA. This patent is affecting every organism (Nature Vol. 423: 105).
News From Organic Farming
Better storage of apples after treatment with hot water After harvest, apples can easily be treated against the storage rot caused by the fungus Gloeosporium spec. by the case. This non- chemical treatment prevents the decay of the apple during winter. Scientists of the Federal Institute for Nutrition in Karlsruhe, Germany, have optimized the treatment. A bath of two minutes in hot water of 53°C (127°F) keeps the apples without any damage but inactivates the spores of Gloeosporium. Now, the scientists are working out a practice to treat the apples in the usual cases of 300 kg (idw Press Release 05/05/03; http://www.bfa- ernaehrung.de/Bfe-Deutsch/Aktuell/Forschungsreport-BFE.pdf).
Formation of the International Society of Organic Agriculture
The International Society of Organic Agriculture Research (ISOFAR) is going to be founded on the 20th of June in Berlin. The initiative is mainly launched by the Institute of Organic Agriculture (IOL), University of Bonn, Germany and the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Switzerland. ISOFAR aims at promoting and supporting research in all areas of Organic Agriculture by facilitating global co-operation in research, methodological development, education and knowledge exchange (http://www.isofar.org).
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