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Genetic Engineering Update Mar 99
New Zealand GE Issues
Seed Goes East New Sci 12 Dec 98 26
RICHARD SEED, the controversial Chicago scientist who wants to create human clones, has set his sights on Japan. But while no Japanese law explicitly bans human cloning, Seed may be mistaken in his belief that the country will be a haven for his work. Seed aroused controversy in January when his cloning ambitions hit the headlines (This Week, 17 January, p 4). The physicist-turned reproductive technology entrepreneur later said his goal was to clone himself-although he is now talking of cloning his wife. Last week, Seed announced plans to set up a laboratory in Kamifurano on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. From next August, he claims, the facility will create clones of pets and rare species. In the future, Seed says, it will conduct research into human cloning. He claims to have raised three-quarters of the $20 million he needs to start his operations in Japan. Japanese rules on cloning research are still evolving. The government's Council for Science and Technology has set up a panel which is expected to ban human cloning. In an interim report in June the panel ruled that cloning people or human organs would offend human dignity and should be banned. Already, the Ministry of Education has prohibited human cloning research at universities and public research institutes. Most experts believe the government will introduce legislation to ban human cloning or merely "guidance" asking scientists to stick to a ban. However, legislation would almost certainly appear in double-quick time if anyone defied the government. "The government wants to inhibit experiments in human cloning," says Yukio Tsunoda of Kinki University, whose team cloned an adult cow earlier this year. Peter Hadfield, Tokyo
Gene Therapy Rejuvenates Muscle New Sci Xmas 98 6
BIGGER, stronger muscles can be produced by gene therapy, an experiment on mice suggests. Loss of muscle mass can cripple and kill patients with conditions such as muscular dystrophy. And even ordinary ageing saps up to one third of our strength. "Slowing down that process could mean the difference between someone being mobile and being helpless," says Lee Sweeney, a physiologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. one possible explanation for muscle decline is an inability to repair normal damage. When muscle cells are damaged they send molecular signals to nearby "satellite" cells, which then produce new cells that fuse with the muscle and repair the damage. Sweeney suspected that muscle cells might stay sturdy if they pumped out more of these signals. To test this, he and his colleagues added the gene for insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which stimulates satellite-cell activity in a test tube, to a virus. They then injected the virus into one leg of young and old mice. Inside the limb the virus entered muscle cells and produced the growth factor. After several months the researchers looked at the muscles. The untreated legs of old mice were 27 per cent weaker than those of young mice, but the aged limbs that had received an IGF-I boost regained their youthful vigour. Even the muscles of the young mice had become stronger. That news is bound to attract weightlifters to IGF-1 gene therapy. Many have already used expensive injections of IGF-1 hormone, though it fs unclear whether this treatment increases normal muscle mass. But some experts think any use of gene therapy on healthy people is unethical, since genes might be passed to future generations. Sweeney hopes to test the therapy on muscle-wasting diseases.
Into the womb GENE therapy could be used on human fetuses sooner than expected. New Sci 16 Jan 99 12
Next month, a prenatal treatment for cystic fibrosis will be tested on rhesus monkeys. The technique could be ready for human trials in the US before the end of the year. The prospect of prenatal gene therapy was raised last year by French Anderson of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. But he does not intend to begin human trials for several years (This Week, 10 October 1998, p 5). The cystic fibrosis therapy was developed by Janet Larson at the Alton Ochsner Medical Foundation in New Orleans. People with cystic fibrosis carry a mutated form of a gene called CFTR which causes mucus to accumulate in their lungs. Larson's team has already cured the disease in fetal rats and mice by injecting a cold virus engineered to carry CFTR into the amniotic fluid of pregnant females. Larson now plans to try the therapy on 12 pregnant rhesus monkeys. The fetuses will not have cystic fibrosis, but she will test the technique by looking for unusually high levels of activity in the CFTR gene after the monkeys are born. If the results are positive, the therapy could be tested on pregnant women carrying fetuses with cystic fibrosis. Prenatal gene therapy remains controversial, partly because of fears that the genes might invade reproductive tissues, causing changes that could be inherited. So it is not clear whether the plan will be approved by the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee of the National Institutes of Health. Nell Boyce, Washington DC
Gut reaction New Sci 30 Jan 99 4
Could a mechanical gourmet help us digest a GM future?
FEARS that genes for antibiotic resistance could jump from genetically modified foods to bacteria in the gut may be fuelled by new research from the Netherlands. The results show that DNA lingers in the intestine, and confirm that genetically modified bacteria can transfer their antibioticresistance genes to bacteria in the gut. Using an "artificial gut", the Dutch researchers showed that DNA remains intact for several minutes in the large intestine. "It was a surprise to see that DNA persisted so long in the colon," says Hub Noteborn of the State Institute for Quality Control of Agricultural Products in Wageningen, who helped organise the research. One concern about some genetically modified (GM) crops, such as maize used as animal fodder, is that they include a gene for antibiotic resistance. The resistance genes are used to track the uptake of modified genes, and are not expressed in the crops. While some scientists fear that these genes could jump into bacteria in the guts of livestock and create antibiotic-resistant pathogens, others have said there is no such risk because the modified DNA breaks down quickly. The Dutch results cast doubt on these assurances, Noteborn says. The computer-controlled artificial gut, dubbed TIM, was designed by Robert Havenaar and his colleagues at the TNO Nutrition and Food Research Institute in Zeist to mimic the digestion of food. It provides a mechanical model of the stomach and intestines, and contains the normal microbes and enzymes in the gut. When TIM was used to study the effects of digestion on bacteria engineered to contain antibioticresistance genes, Havenaar found that DNA from the bacteria had a half-life of 6 minutes in the large intestine. "This makes it available to transform cells," he says. If the modified bacteria were a type normally found in the gut, such as Enterococcus, the experiment showed each had a 1 in 10 million chance of passing DNA containing antibiotic-resistance genes to an indigenous gut bacterium when they came in contact. There are normally around a thousand billion gut bacteria, suggesting many would be transformed. If some normal gut inhabitants were killed off -as in the guts of people or animals on antibiotics-the transfer rate from gut-type bacteria increased tenfold. "This is the first time the rate has been measured," says NotebomBacteria not normally in the gut, such as Lactobacillus, did not transfer antibiotic-resistance genes to a normal population of gut bacteria at a detectable level, according to a TNO internal report. Nor did the Flavr Save tomato, engineered by the California based company Calgene to resist rot, although up to 10 per cent of its DNA reached the colon. The researchers hope to carry out the crucial test of whether foreign bacteria and GM foods transfer their genes when gut microbes are de pleted. "We plan to ask the Eu ropean Union to fund further research," says Havenaar.
Finding the answers could resolve a long-standing debate. In Britain, a report from the House of Lords select committee for the European Communities last week judged it "extremely unlikely" that genes introduced into edible crops migrate into gut bacteria. But the new findings show more research is essential, says Derek Burke, former chair of Britain's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. "We can only say that the risk is not zero," he says. "Anything that would help put numbers on this, would be useful." Despite its confidence that genes are unlikely to jump from GM foods, the Lords' report called for the use of antibiotic-resistance genes "to be phased out as quickly as possible". But in the US, maize carrying these genes will continue to be harvested, mainly for cattle feed. Debora MacKenzie
Hold the champagne New Sci 14 Nov 98 6
Despite the latest breakthroughs, lab-grown organs are still a long way off
IT HAS been hailed as a medical revolution. Two teams have developed methods of culturing human embryonic stem cells, which they hope will lead to ways of growing tissues or even organs for transplants. But much needs to be done to prove that their cultures have any therapeutic valueand that tissue grown in this way would be safe (see story below). Embryonic stem cells can differentiate to form any of the body's tissues, such as skin or muscle. But keeping human embryonic stem cells dividing in culture proved difficult. Now that obstacle seems to have been overcome. "It's exciting work," says Mario Capecchi of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, a pioneer of research on mouse stem cells. "But it opens many questions that aren't going to be easy to answer."
John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore isolated his stem cells from aborted fetuses. James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, obtained his from embryos created by IVF and grown for about five days until each developed into a hollow ball of cells called a blastocyst. Gearhart revealed early data on his cells last year (This Week, 19 JULY 1997, p 4). But his paper (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 95, p 13 726) was narrowly beaten into print by Thomson's (Science, vol 282, p 1145). The two papers are the culmination of years of effort. Thomson and Gearhart eventually succeeded by growing the stem cells over a "feeder" layer of irradiated mouse cells. "Take the feeder cells away, and the stem cells start to differentiate," says Gearhart. "But we don't know whv." In mice, embryonic stem cells are used for genetic engineering. After their genes are altered, they are injected into an embryo which develops into a chimera that has both engineered and unaltered cells. Pure engineered mice can be bred from these chimeras. Thomson and Gearhart don't want to create transgenic people. Their goal is to grow cells and tissues to reinvigorate diseased or ageing bodies, perhaps by combining their methods with cloning. For example, cells could be taken from a person, used to clone a blastocyst and thus obtain stem cells. Tissues grown from stem cells taken from the blastocyst would match that person's own tissues-eliminating problems with rejection. At least one biotechnology company was already thinking along these lines before Thomson's paper appeared (This Week, 11 July, p 4). Turning such dreams into reality won't be easy, however. No one knows how to make a stem cell differentiate to form a specific tissue, says Roger Pedersen of the University of California, San Francisco. "The language is one of growth factors and molecular signals. What we don't know are the magic words needed to create each tissue." Gearhart and Thomson can't even be sure that their cells really can form any tissue. Ethical concerns mean that they can't perform the acid test: deliberately creating a human chimera. The cells do have many of the right properties, however. They possess high levels of telomerase, an enzyme needed for cells to divide indefinitely. And they can form cells representative of the three main types of tissue: endoderm, mesoderm and ectoderm. But some differentiated cells, such as those from mouse yolk sacs, also pass this test. Philip Cohen
Grow-your-own organs New Sci 30 Jan 99 6
Adults may have all the cells needed to regenerate their own tissues
USING a patient's own tissue to grow replacement organs could be easier than anyone imagined, judging by the ease with which scientists have turned adult brain cells into blood. Such a dramatic identity switch was thought to require nuclear transfer, the technique that made the cloning of Dolly the sheep possible. That involved stripping an egg cell of its own genetic material and replacing it with the transplanted nucleus of an adult cell. Now an international team says that simply injecting the brain's neural stem cells (NSCS) into the bone marrow of mice is enough to promote this metamorphosis. If the same is true in humans, the technique could lead to new sources of perfectly matched transplanted tissue-without the controversial use of human embryonic stem cells, which are taken from aborted fetuses or discarded IVF embryos. Until two years ago, the process of specialisation, in which ES cells change to form individual tissues, was considered irreversible. Then Dolly's creators at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh showed that the developmental potential of an adult cell could be recovered. They think factors in the egg "reprogram" the cell's genes to an embryonic state so that it can form any kind of tissue. It was from a reprogrammed udder cell nucleus that Dolly was bom. But Angelo Vescovi of the National Neurological Institute in Milan, Italy, says his team suspected that some reprogramming might happen without cellular surgery. They thought that NSCS, the least speciahsed cells in the brain and the basis of all the brain's different cell types, were likely candidates. Vescovi's team injected NSCs from adult mice into the bone marrow of mice that had been irradiated to cripple the cells that form blood, hoping that this new environment might trigger reprogramming. Sure enough, after five months, the recipients developed new blood cells. Genetic analysis confirmed that many of these cells were direct descendants of the NSCS. Intriguingly, the NSC recipients took a month longer to recover their blood cells than a control group of irradiated mice that had received bone marrow (Science, vol 283, p 534). This time-lag fits nicely with the idea that cells are reprogrammed, says Vescovi. It suggests that the cells must first reverse their development to a near embryonic state before they can develop into the new tissue. His latest results suggest the new blood cells are functional: the irradiated rmce that received the NSC transplant lived longer than the irradiated niece that received no transplanted ceus 'It's a totally new observation, it's very striking," says John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University in Balti more, Maryland, whose team recently isolated human embryonic stem cells. Vescovi believes it may be possible to use stem cells from other tissues such as skin as the source of new tissue. These would be easier to obtain than the brain stem cells used in his work so far. "This way each patient, rather than an embryo, would be the source of the cells that heal them," he says. Philip Cohen
Embryonic Stem Cell Transplants New Sci 30 Jan 99 6
THE fight apinst illnesses as different as Parkinson's and diabetes has been boosted by a decision by the US National Institutes of Health to start funding research into human embryonic stem cells. Because of their ability to differentiate into many types of tissue, stem cells derived from human embryos may someday provide a unique source of transplant material to treat many illnesses, including brain diseases such as Alzheimer's. But before this becomes a reality, scientists will have to learn to grow large quantities of these cells and how to direct their transformation into various kinds of tissue. In the US, only a few privately funded laboratories have tackled this research. This is because NIH officials feared that the work might be prohibited under a ban that the US Congress imposed on fqderal funding for embryo research. But last week NIH director Harol emus announced that stem: cells would not be affected by the ban, even If they were originally derived from embryos, because the cells alone cannot form a complete human being. Varmus's ruling means that although government scientists are not funded to pluck the cells out of spare embryos left over after in vitro fertilisation, they can work on stem cells obtained by privately funded researchers, or take the cells from aborted fetuses. This will allow many more labs to pt involved. "This is a very, very big deal," says John Gearhart, an expert on stem cells at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. "There will be many researchers who will shift from using nonhuman primate stem cells or mouse stem cells to human stem cells." adds Varmus.
Selling the Family Secrets New Sci 5 Dec 98 20
ICELAND's 270 000 citizens are a dream come true for genetics researchers. One thousand years of near-isolation has meant that their ancestry can be traced right back to the original Viking and Irish settlers. With their medical records, which stretch back a century, the genes of Icelanders offer scientists unparalleled opportunities to map the evolution of human diseases. Iceland's parliament realises this and is about to cash in its people's legacy. It is on the verge of passing a bill that would authorise the creation of a single database containing genetic, genealogical and medical details about all Icelanders. The bill would also license decode Genetics, a private company in Reykjavik funded mainly by American investors, to manage the database. decode has already signed a $200million deal with Hoffman-La Roche, the Swiss-based pharmaceuticals company, for exclusive access to the database to probe the genetic origins of 12 common diseases (This Week, 21 February, p 19). A large majority of MPs support the bill, which is still being revised and will be voted on later this month. They claim the deal will bring prestige to the country and create hundreds of new jobs in research. In addition, Hoffman-La Roche has agreed to supply Icelanders free of charge with any medicines that result from their research. But many Icelanders were fiercely critical of the proposed law when a first draft was published in March. They have since been joined by voices from abroad, including the European Union's powerful Data Protection Commissioners, who police member countries' compliance with the EU directive on data security. These critics claim that the new law fails to respect internationally recognised safeguards designed to protect the privacy, dignity and rights of people whose records are entered into databases for genetics research. Scientists are as concerned as privacy campaigners. If the new legislation fails to respect these safeguards, they argue, it could tarnish the image of genetics research across the world. "If people think they've been cheated, deceived or let down, the backlash will be bad for research," says Henry Greely, a professor of law at Stanford University, who wrote a letter of protest to the Icelandic government. "People will be unwilling to participate if it's unethical, so it's an important first test and it may influence how [genetic research] is done in other places." Richard Lewontin, a professor of zoology and biology at Harvard University, agrees that if Icelanders are seen to have been "sold down the river", the law will only add to rising levels of cynicism about genetics. "There's this general feeling that genes are being exploited for private profit. The population of Iceland has been turned into a tool for this one company, and that seems completely objectionable," he says. However, most criticism has been focused not on decode, but on apparent weaknesses in the law that could compromise people's rights. For example, Icelanders will not be asked for consent before their records are entered onto the database. A third draft, drawn up after consultation with critics, allows objectors to opt out, but Icelanders will otherwise be presumed to have consented. "The parliament is really making a decision [about consent] on behalf of Icelanders, and we think that's wrong," says P6ter Hauksson, chairman of Iceland's Mental Health Alliance and founder of Mannvernd, a consumer group set up to oppose the plan. His misgivings are echoed in a letter he received a month ago from the EU's Data Protection Commissioners, who voiced their concem after seeing an earlier draft of the law. "The principle of free and informed consent of the person concerned to the storage and further processing of his or her data must be fully respected," they stated. Kdri StefAnsson, the Harvard-trained Icelandic geneticist who founded decode, says that consent will be sought from individuals when they provide tissue samples. But he says it would be unnecessary and impractical to obtain consent for entering medical records onto the database for epidemiological studies. "What we are doing is exactly the same as what people are doing all round the world." But the commissioners point out in their letter to Hauksson that the earlier versions of the proposed law fall short of international obligations by failing to allow subjects who initially give their consent to withdraw it later. They urge the Icelandic government to reconsider the project "in the light of fundamental principles laid down in a number of international declarations and treaties", including the European Convention on Human Rights, the Council of Europe Convention on Data Protection and the European directive on the protection of personal data. Another sticking point is decode's intention to encrypt the medical records rather than make them anonymous, a provision that critics say would break all conventions on the use of personal data by enabling information to be traced back to individuals. "In a country with a relatively small population, information on genetics is likely to indicate biological lineage and to reveal identities of persons concerned," say the EU data commissioners. "The use of a code to replace [names] is in any case not sufficient to secure anonymity." The bill also denies Icelanders the right to choose whether to receive data from geneticists about their future health, such as a previously unknown predisposition to cancer. This right is enshrined in UNESCO's Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, to be adopted by the UN itself next week. Jon johanes jonsson, director of clinical biochemistry at the National University Hospital of Iceland, echoes this concern: "If it's coded [rather than anonymous], you have obligations towards the patient." StefSnsson says these are issues not for deCode, but for the Icelandic Health Ministry, which must decide whether to act on new information. "What we are doing in the database is to discover basic knowledge. It will be the duty of the healthcare system [to decide] how to deal with it." But all these criticisms have hardened opposition to the plan abroad. "The scientific community of the world will not sit idly by without making a considerable protest," says Lewontin, who is drafting a letter of complaint to the Icelandic government on behalf of the US Council for Responsible Genetics, a coalition of geneticists. He warns of a possible boycott of scientific cooperation with Iceland if the bill is passed. The EU's data commissioners appear to be slightly happier with later versions of the bill, although they are reserving their final judgement until it is passed. Iceland is incorporating the EU directive on data protection into domestic law next year, so in theory the commissioners could prosecute Reykjavik for any breaches. In Iceland, doctors, geneticists and academics are leading the opposition. Doctors wield considerable power as it is they who will feed information about patients into the database. "We've said this bill won't work unless there's an agreement with the doctors," says Gudmundur Bjomsson, chairman of the Icelandic Medical Association. "It will be stillborn." Yet with a huge majority of MPs in favour, the bill is almost certain to be passed. And Stefdnsson says he has evidence from opinion polls that only I in 10 Icelanders opposes it. But others are unconvinced. "I'm sure we will see an international backlash against genetics, the scientific community will respond aggressively and there will be a great many protests," wams Hauksson. Andy Coghlan
Viking wars 9 Jan 99 13
Iceland is turning into a genetics battleground
DOCTORS and scientists are threatening to sabotage the transfer of the medical, genetic and genealogical records of all Icelanders to a private company. Opposition to the plan has been mounting since last month when Iceland's parliament approved a controversial law authorising the creation of a database containing the personal data. The law allows a single licensee to control the database. This licensee is almost certain to be named as decode Genetics, a company based in Reykjavik and financed largely by investors in the US. By combining Iceland's meticulously kept family histories and medical data with modern genetic analysis, decode hopes to discover genes connected with disease and develop new drugs (This Week, 5 December 1998, p 20). Although decode says it isn't interested in personal data relating to individual Icelanders, opponents point out that the plan lacks adequate safeguards to prevent disclosure of this information. Critics are also worried that people will not be asked to consent to their details being entered on the database. Instead, those who wish to be excluded will have to formally "opt out". On 17 December, the Icelandic parliament passed the bill by 37 votes to 20, with 6 absentees. But opponents aren't accepting defeat. "We've lost a battle, but the war is still going on," says Einar Arnason, a professor of biology at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. Amason believes the database will ultimately prove unworkable. A third of Iceland's family and hospital doctors have submitted petitions to the government saying that they will not feed information into the database unless their patients request that they do so in writing. Most of Iceland's scientific societies are also opposed. "It will end in chaos," predicts P6ter Hauksson, founder of Mannvemd, a body set up to fight the database plan. Andy Coghlan
Cloning by Numbers New Sci Xmas 98 28
IT IS lunch time at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, and Ryuzo Yanagimachi is encouraging a visiting reporter to eat his own words. "This year, a magazine predicted who was likely to clone the next adult animal," he says. "You know, my lab didn't even make that list." True, the article to which he refers ("Clone Watching", New Scientist, 9 May, p 35) gave no clue that Yanagimachi and his colleagues would, within two months, unveil dozens of cloned mice. But New Scientist wasn't alone in overlooking the potential of this Hawaiian lab-initially, even Yanagimachi wasn't let into the secret. To understand the background to the scientific coup of the year, it helps to visit Yanagimachi's base. On a campus where offices with a view of the forbidding volcanic walls of Diamond Head Crater must be highly coveted, Yanagimachi has for decades inhabited a windowless suite. If he is oblivious to his surroundings, it is because he is so focused on his science, says Tony Perry, a researcher in his lab. It isn't unusual for Yanagimachi, now 70, to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. "He works hard, knows everything, and is incredibly supportive," says Perry. Yanagimachi was best known for his work on IVF in animals. But when Dolly the sheep made her debut, Teruhito Wakayama, one of Yanagimachi's post-docs, seized his chance to work on an idea that had fascinated him since reading science fiction as a boy in Japan. "I used to dream about cloning," he says. Everyone working for Yanagimachi has to work three days a week on their main project, but can explore other interests in the remaining time. Wakayama's main challenge was to create mice from freezedried sperm. Cloning became his hobby. At first, he said little to YanagimachiCloning an adult animal involves reprogramming the genes from one of its cells. Mice were thought to be difficult because their genes become active early on in embryonic development, giving little time to achieve the necessary reprogramming. Without time for elaborate preparations, Wakayama used the materials at hand. For his donor cells, he used the cumulus cells which coat the surface of the egg. He was used to injecting sperm heads into eggs. So rather than fusing donor cells with eggs stripped of their chromosomes, like other groups, he injected only the nuclei of the donor cells. Wakayama implanted the resulting embryos in surrogate mothers. Yanagimachi first found out about the project in August 1997, when Wakayama dragged him to a microscope. "I saw a healthy mouse fetus with a beating heart," Yanagimachi remembers. The lab's focus shifted overnight. The fruit of their tabour came on 3 October 1997 when Cumulina, the first cloned mouse, was born. Wakayama's original choice of cells turned out to be a lucky break. About 2 per cent of cumulus cells yielded clones, while the researchers were unable to produce full-term embryos from Sertoli cells, which nourish developing sperm, and neurons. The team has since produced more than 80 cloned mice-some of them clones of clones of clones of clones. This is the most important breakthrough in cloning since Ian Wilmut's team at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh produced Dolly. But until Cumulina's arrival, the prospects for ever again cloning another adult animal had seemed remote. In January, Norton Zinder of Rockefeller University in New York spoke for many when he speculated that Dolly was cloned from a contaminating fetal cell, rather than adult tissue. Those dark days of doubt now seem like a distant memory. Researchers in Japan and New Zealand both claim to have cloned adult cows and a genetic analysis appears to confirm that Dolly was cloned from an adult. Investors are keenly aware of the progress being made, says Simon Best, chief executive of Roslin Biomed, a company set up to develop biomedical applications from Wilmut's work. "Each time a new group clones an animal, I predict they'll be able to set up a company the next day," he says. Not surprisingly, researchers are beginning to clash over patent rights to cloning technology. One exciting area would be to combine cloning with another of the big biological announcements of 1998, the isolation of human embryonic stem cells. Adult cells would be cloned to create an embryo, from which stem cells could be extracted to grow tissues for transplants. And as New Scientist revealed in July, this need not involve the creation of a viable human embryo, if the egg cells used in the cloning process were from cows. Cumulina's other legacy will be a boon for basic science. Because so much is already known about mouse genes and because mice reproduce so quickly, the Hawaiian researchers could rapidly address some puzzling questions. When animals are cloned from adult cells, do they age more rapidly? Why is the success rate of cloning still so low? How do long don,nant genes get revived during cloning? Yanagimachi should have some answers next year. Philip Cohen, Honolulu
A terrifying power New Sci 30 Jan 99 10
THE world's first simple artificial life form could be constructed in the next few years, the AAAS heard. But the team leading the way have stopped work for the moment, fearing that their discovery might lead to the creation of the ultimate bioweapon in the shape of a synthetic "superbug". The project is the brainchild of Craig Venter of Celera Genomics and his colleagues at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), both in Rockville, Maryland. In parallel to the human genome project, Venter and other researchers have been sequencing the genomes of various bacteria that cause human disease. In 1995, TIGR revealed the sequence of the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae, which can cause respiratory disease. This was the first complete DNA sequence for any cellular organism. Now about 20 genomes are known and 30 more are expected by 2000. Eventually all this information will be available from online databases. Venter's team has compared the genomes of simple microorganisms, disrupting their genes in turn to find out which are essential for survival. They have pinpointed a minimum of 300 genes which seem to be necessary for life [particularly involving micoplasma genitalis with about 400 and its pathogenic relative M. pneumonia with 200 more genes]. In theory, they could now build an artificial chromosome carrying these genes and wrap it up in a membrane with a few proteins and other biochemicals to create a simple synthetic organism. This organism could reveal much about the evolution of early life on Earth. But it could also be a gift to bioterrorists. A streamlined cell of this type would be an attractive template for building a devastating bioweapon. "All at once we wondered whether we were getting into dangerous territory here," says Venter. The genome projects for various pathogens now nearing completion will explain why dangerous microorganisms are so virulent and how some evolved resistance to drugs. Experts fear that terrorists could splice the genes involved into Venter's proposed synthetic organism to create a biological superweapon. "The consequences could be so horrible that not to prepare is unconscionable," says Frank Young, a retired doctor formerly with the US Food and Drug Administration. Both Young and Venter sat on a panel that advised President Bill Clinton on the growing bioterrorist threat. Last week, Clinton announced a $1.4 bilhon programme to combat chemical and bioterrorism. Venter says that the new possibilities opened up by genome research add to the urgency. "This is partly what spawned our report," he says. Clinton's plan concentrates on measures such as stockpiling of vaccines and antibiotics.
Breathe easy New Sci 5 Dec 98 14
Could a nasal vaccine finally put an end to the Black Death?
NOSE drops can protect mice from bubonic plague, the disease that wiped out a third of Europe's population in the 14th century. If this new vaccine also works in human trials, it may allay fears of a worldwide pandemic started by antibiotic-resistant plague bacteria. Round the world, one to two thousand cases of the plague are reported each year. Bubonic plague is caused by the bacterium Yersitzia pestis, which is spread by fleas that live on rodents. But the bacteria can also spread directly into the lungs through infected droplets coughed out by sick people. This pneumonic plague spreads faster and is more deadly than the bubonic form, and was the main cause of the Black Death. Antibiotics can save someone with pneu monic plague if they get treatment within 18 hours of infection. But last year, researchers found plague bacteria in Madagascar carrying five different anfibiofic resistance genes. This raised the spectre of a pneumonic plague pandemic. The disease could also become a weapon in the hands of bioterrorists. Many researchers pin their hopes on an effective vaccine. The only vaccine now licensed for plague, which consists of killed bacteria, protects just half its recipients. Clinical trials of a vaccine that may be more effective will start next year. "But that vaccine must be injected, which presents logistical problems if you have to give it quickly to 100 000 soldiers or civilians," says Rick Titball of Britain's Defence Evaluation Research Agency in Porton Down, Wiltshire. Ideally, he adds, the vaccine should be in a form that can target tissue lining the gut or respiratory system. That is what Oya Alpar and her colleagues at the University of Birmingham have come up with. They took a protein from the surface of Y. pestis and combined it with another that is secreted by the bacterium. They encapsulated the proteins in polylactic acid polymers to stop them being broken down by enzymes in the body before reaching their target. The researchers say mice whose noses and throats were treated with the vaccine were fully protected from inhaled Y. pestis (Vaccine, vol 16, p 2000). Tests showed that the capsules released the proteins for several weeks, and the mice produced two types of antibodies: one secreted by the tissue lining the gut and respiratory system, and another which circulates in the blood. Alpar says a nasal spray based on this vaccine could be a viable means of protecting people from pneumonic plague, and she is planning clinical trials. "We think this is a promising approach for a whole range of diseases," she adds. "We are looking at similar vaccines for tetanus and diphtheria." Debora MacKenzie NS+
Scientists support Pusztai's Findings LONDON, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Twenty international scientists on Friday urged more research into genetically modified foods and demanded the reinstatement of a British researcher who found that rats fed on GM potatoes suffered a weakened immune system.
Arpad Pusztai was last year forced to retire from the prestigious Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland two days after giving a television interview in which he said it was ``very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs.'' He was accused of having presented provisional data to the public without it having been reviewed by fellow scientists.
The Guardian newspaper published the names of scientists from Britain, other European countries, the United States and Canada who had signed a public statement in support of Pusztai. They say they have examined all the published data and concluded that Pusztai was right to be concerned about the effect on rats, which after 10 days of feeding trials showed signs of harm to their kidneys, thymuses, spleens and guts.
They call for further research to establish the risks of allowing GM crops to be used in foodstuffs. One of them, Vyvyan Howard, from Britain's Liverpool University, said Pusztai's findings should have a massive effect on the world's burgeoning biotechnology industry. ``We are going to have to test these plants rather like pharmaceutical agents,'' he told BBC radio.
Howard pointed out that it could cost some $400 million to bring a new drug to the market, largely because of the amount of testing needed to guard against side effects.
Left wing Labour MP Allan Simpson called for a moratorium on the use of GM crops while further research was done. ``If we don't want a BSE Mark Two, then we ought to put a halt to the whole process,'' he said. A mad cow disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, epidemic has produced a crisis in Britain's beef industry and resulted in 35 human deaths.
Jack Cunningham, a former agriculture minister who is now in charge of the presentation of government policy, said GM foods were not grown commercially in Britain at present and to stop the growing of experimental crops would be counter-productive. ``A moratorium on the experimental work is neither necessary nor sensible in the circumstances,'' he said. Cunningham said the government was planning to make labelling of genetically modified foods compulsory.
An opinion poll showed that 31 percent of Britons believe that GM food poses a health risk to their families and 53 percent wanted more statutory controls on them.
Attempt to calm public on food safety LONDON NZ Herald
The British Government has sought to reassure consumers over the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods. after shops warned they could lose biMons of dollars if confusion was not resolved. Retailers had called for an 'unequivocal" Government statement a day after 21 top international scientists demanded the reinstatement of a British researcher who claimed that rats fed on modified potatoes suffered a weakened immune system. Scientists are calling for more research into what some have nicknamed 'Frankenstein food' amid speculation that it could damage the human inunune system and cause cancer. Cabinet Office minister Jack Cunningham said there were only four types of GM food on sale in Britain maize, soya, tomato paste and some cheeses.
They have been on sale for a number of years in this country," Cunningham said. Pressed to say the foods were as safe as any other, Cunningham told BBC radio: "Yes. We believe the products currently on sale are safe." Deep-seated concern over the safety, of GM foods was sparked anew when scientists from Britain, Europe, the United States and Canada came out in support of Arpad Pusztai, who was forced to retire last year after he said his experiments showed GM food could damage rats' vital organs. "Dr Pusztai's results, at the very least, raise the suspicion that genetically modified food may damage the immune system," Dr Ronald Finn, a past president of the British Society of Allergy and Enviroronmental Medicine, said last week. The scientists said not enough was known about the effects of GM food. They called for better labelling and suggested GM foods should go through the same stringent trials as drugs before they were approved. The British Retail Consortium had said earlier it feared the food scare would put shops out of business and cost the industry bahons of dollars just as it was recovering from a crisis over "mad cow" ease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). European Union farm ministers agreed'ui November to end a ban on British beef exports as a result of a Government programme to slaughter thousands of suspect cattle. Thirty-five people in Britain have died of a new variant of the human version of BSE, known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, contracted by eating,infected beef. Reuter
Monster mash New Sci 20 Feb 99 3
Take one transonic potato and a colony of lab rats
EVERY cause needs a martyr. And in Arpad Pusztai, the scientist at the centre of the row over transgenic potatoes that has engulfed Britain, opponents of GM foods seem finally to have struck gold. Not since King Ludd and his followers marched on the cotton mills of Lancashire has there been such virulent hostility to a new technology intended for peaceful purposes. What have we leamt? First, that nothing sets a nation's pulse racing like a food scare, especially one spiced with allegations that a whistle-blowing scientist has been unfairly sacked and gagged as part of a government-inspired cover-up. Whether Pusztai's science is good, bad or-as seems likely at present-simply inconclusive, the high-ups at the Rowett Research Institute where he worked clearly blundered when they suspended him just days after he appeared on TV. Unless, of course, it was always their intention to hand envirorimentalists ammunition on a plate. The second lesson is that despite everything that happened with BSE, the British government still doesn't seem to be getting the message. When it comes to evidence conceming food safety-no matter how inconclusive it is, and how overblown the media reports-the government and its research institutes must not only act impartially, they must be seen to be acting impartially For the Rowett to silence Pusztai at a time when ministers were offering Monsanto financial encouragement to expand its British operations was a gift to conspiracy theorists, even if there was never any conspiracy going on. What is still woefully unclear is what Pusztai's experiments really mean for the safety of GM foods. The lectin gene used in his potato could certainly be hugely importantand not just to the food industry. It may yet end up warding off insect pests from rice, a staple crop for millions. Pusztai's one indisputable result-that the lectin does not in itself harm rats-is therefore reassuring. But if the scientists who are supporting Pusztai's claims are right, there is [email protected] else to worry about-an unforeseen and as yet mysterious toxic hazard caused by the extra bits of DNA that are inserted into plants during the genetic engineering process. But extraordinary claims of this kind require extraordinary evidence, and so far the evidence Pusztai has allowed us to see is decidedly weak. There is, in any case, a simpler and less scary explanation for what he claims (see p 4). This is why it was irresponsible of the scientists who are seeking to rehabilitate Pusztai to talk, as some did at a press conference last week, about epidemics of cancer and impaired immunity caused by GM foods. When the alarm bell rang over BSE we at least had some evidence of an infectious agent lurking in the food chain. With GM foods, we have nothing remotely like that. Clearly, Pusztai's experiments need to be repeated on a bigger scale to see whether the effects he reports are reproducible. And a thorough biochemical study of the potatoes he used is needed to get to bottom of what, if anything, is wrong with them. There is also a case for insisting that companies test the safety of the DNA they insert into food, as well as the proteins. And for demanding that they find some way of monitoring the long-term impact of GM foods on humans. What is much less obvious is whether there should be a blanket moratorium on the introduction or testing of further GM crops. In Britain, the chorus calling for such a move is becoming deafening. This magazine has always regarded that option as a kneejerk response which, among other things, ignores the possible environmental benefits of some modifications. Nothing has happened in the past week to change our view. Fortunately for Tony Blair and his ministers, there is another way of calming the hysteria. They must act swiftly to set up an independent commission (and that means no industry representatives and no environmentalists) on the safety of GM foods, along the lines of the Warnock Committee that looked into reproductive medicine and embryology following public alarm over test-tube babies. Its first job: to hold an open inquiry into the Pusztai affair. El
Frankenfears New Sci 20 Feb 99 4
Hostility to genetically modified food has exploded in Britain amid claims that it is being rammed down the public's throat without proper safety testing. At the centre of the storm is a researcher who argues that GM foods could create unforeseen hazards. New Scientist looks at the science behind the accusations. Just how worried should we be?
AT FACE value, Arpad Pusztai's findings cast a pall over the entire GM food industry. His results, obtained at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, suggest that procedures routinely used in genetic engineering can make plants harmful. No wonder, then, that the British public and media-primed to distrust official assurances about food safety after their experience with BSE-are up in arms. Yet Pusztai's data remain mired in confusion. His claim that rats are harmed by eating a particular kind of genetically engineered potato has yet to be confirmed. And even if the potatoes are harmful, this may not have any relevance to GM crops approved for sale. Any ill effects could have been caused by something specific to the transgenic potatoes he used-which were never intended for human consumption-rather than the process of genetic engineering itself. Pusztai was trying to discover if a protein taken from snowdrops could harm rats when fed to them in potatoes. Several labs are investigating whether the gene for this protein, which is of a type known as a lectin, could be added to crops such as rice to make them resistant to sap-sucking insects. So data on its safety are important. Some of Pusztai's rats were fed ordinary potatoes laced with the lectin. Others ate potatoes genetically engineered to make the lectin themselves. A control group of rats ate ordinary potatoes. Pusztai found differences in the size of several organs in young rats eating the transgenic potatoes (see Figure), and evidence of damage to their immune systems. Rats eating the lectin-spiked potatoes showed no such effects, he claims, suggesting that something other than the lectin caused the damage. One suggestion is that the problem lies with what genetic engineers call the "construct"-the package of DNA introduced along with the foreign gene. This DNA includes a gene that makes the potato resistant to the antibiotic kanamycin and another that makes a substance which stains blue. These extra genes give researchers a convenient way to identify plants that have incorporated the lectin gene into their DNA. The construct also includes a "promoter" sequence from a cauliflower mosaic virus, which boosts the production of the lectin protein. The idea that such a construct is a health risk flies in face of the conventional biological wisdom. But given that similar con-: structs are found in other GM plants, it's a disturbing suggestion. One of Pusztai's supporters, Stanley' Ewen, a pathologist at the University of Aberdeen, has made further observations that add to the controversy. When Ewen examined samples of gut lining from rats which had eaten the transgenic potatoes,, he saw abnormalities such as increased: production of cells in intestinal crypts,: the clefts between the finger-like villi, that line the wall of the small intestine. Pusztai's own report on his experiments, which he sent to Rowett director Philip James in October, was released last week by the environmental group Friends of the Earth at a press conference attended by scientists sympathetic to Pusztai. They are angry with the institute for disciplining Pusztai after he spoke out on television (see "Anatomy of a food scare"). Most of the researchers contacted by New Scientist are unconvinced by Pusztai's data and sceptical of the theory that the construct is to blame. One problem is that Pusztai's report does not include key raw data on the spiked potatoes needed to verify his claim that the genetic manipulation was the source of the problems. The most likely explanation, says Willy Peumans, whose team at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium has supplied Pusztai with lectins to feed to rats, is that the process of inserting the lectin gene into potato cells and their growth in tissue culture disrupted the behaviour of the potatoes' other genes. This mily have altered the plants' biochemistry and made them produce high levels of other toxic substances, such as alkaloids. This theory is strengthened by the fact that the protein, starch and glucose levels of the transgenic potatoes all differed markedly from those of the natural plant. They contained 20 per cent less protein than normal, for example, and Pusztai had to add protein supplements to the rats' meals. If the altered potatoes' strange biochemistry, rather than the inserted DNA, lies behind their toxic effects, the implications for food safety are less serious. Crop engineers already test for altered biochemistry, and regulators won't approve such a plant. "We would chuck it out straight away," says Mike Gasson of the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, who sits on the British government's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. Companies that produce GM crops claim that their own toxicity tests would have identified similar problems. James Astwood, head of product safety at Monsanto's headquarters in St Louis, Missouri, says the company. routinely carries out feeding trials on mice in which internal organs are closely examined and weighed. Novartis of Basel, Switzerland, which makes maize with a gene for an insecticidal toxin, says that mice were unharmed when they ate the maize. On one thing, however, everyone agrees. Answering all the questions raised bv Pusztai's preliminary findings will require tests on plants engineered to contain DNA constructs, but lacking genes for lectin or the other genes added in commercially grown GM crops. "What we need is a set of data from experiments with the construct alone," says Ewen Andy Coghlan, David Concar, Debora MacKenzie
Great Shakes New Sci 6 Feb 99 14
RELIEF could be at hand for the millions of people forced to avoid dairy products because they can't digest lactose, the principal sugar in milk. By putting a rat gene into mice, French researchers have produced mouse milk that has between 50 and 85 per cent less lactose than normal. If they can do the same with dairy cattle, they hope to mass-produce milk on farms that is low in lactose. "We hope to do it in cows next," says [email protected] Freund, leader of the team which produced the mice at the Strasbourg laboratories of INSERM, the French medical research agency. The market for low-lactose milk could be huge. Lactose intolerance affects 70 per cent of the world's adult population. Most Caucasians are unaffected, but according to the US National Institutes of Health some 90 per cent of Asians suffer from the condition, as do three-quarters of Africans and half the world's Hispanic people. As many as 50 million Americans are estimated to have the condition. Most symptoms start in childhood, when sufferers can't produce enough lactase, the gut enzyme which splits lactose into its constituent sugars, glucose and galactose. So lactose builds up, triggering diarrhoea and painful bloating when gut bacteria digest the lactose, creating intestinal gases. Not surprisingly, people with lactose intolerance shun lactose-rich foods. The alternatives include taking capsules of lactose-degrading enzymes before meals, or adding drops of the appropriate enzymes to milk. Milk low in lactose is available, but to produce it milk must be processed with enzymes or spun in a centrifuge, so it's not cheap. Freund and his colleagues introduced a gene into mice that manufactures lactasephlorizin hydrolase, the rat equivalent of human lactase. To this gene they attached the alpha-lactalbumin promoter, a genetic switch which confined production of the enzyme to the mammary glands of the niece. Analysis of milk from the mice confirmed that lactose content had dipped by between 50 and 85 per cent. The milk was otherwise identical, the team reports this month in Nature Biotechnology (vol 17, p 160), and the mice successfully suckled their pups. Traces of the active enzyme were found on fatty milk globules, but Freund doubts whether such enzymes will pose any hazards. The pig and cattle equivalents of the enzyme are already widely consumed in meat products without ill effects. "The enzyme would not be dangerous," says Freund. And rat genes would not have to be used in cows. "The human and pig genes for lactase are already cloned, so you could use them instead," he says. He could not, however, say whether cutting down lactose would affect the taste of milk. "This can't be tested very easily in mice milk," he says. Jackie Beming, a lactose intolerance specialist at the University of Colorado, says that if the procedure could be repeated in cows, then lactose-intolerant women, who are at risk of osteoporosis, could benefit from drinking the low-lactose product. But she warns that the new milk may be too sweet for some palates. Andy Coghlan N*
Of Mice and Men New. Sci. 13 Feb 99 4
THE day when rodents routinely foster human sperm has come one step closer to reality. A scientist in Japan claims that he has used the testes of rats and mice for this purpose. The first fertilisations of human eggs from rodent-reared sperm could come within the next few weeks, he says. Growing the sperm of one species in the testes of another has been a serious possibility since 1996, when Ralph Brinster and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia showed that sperm precursor cells, or spermatogonia, from rats could develop into mature sperm in the testis of a mouse. This led other researchers to suggest that human sperm might be cross-fostered in the same way (This Week, 31 January 1998, p 4). If so, the technique could offer hope of fatherhood for many infertile men. One researcher who took up the challenge was Nikolaos Sofikitis of Tottori University in Yonago, Japan. Sofikitis took spermatogonia from infertile men and injected them into the testes of rats and mice that had been specially bred to have defective immune systems. "For three years, I iailed," he says. Finally, Sofikitis hit on the secret. Along with the human spermatogonia, he injected cells from the recipient rodent's eye. These cells-from the fluid just in front of the lens-secrete a protein called fas ligand, a signalling molecule that triggers immune cells to commit suicide. This eliminated the last vestiges of an immune response and allowed the spermatogonia to take, Sofikitis says. Sofikitis gave the injections to 10 rats and 8 mice. Five months later, he detected large numbers of mature human sperm in three rats and two mice. In one rat, he found fully motile sperm "with better motility than that of many fertile men". Other scientists remain sceptical, noting that Sofikitis's work has not yet passed peer review. However, all agree that such an achievement would be a major advance. "If this guy's done it, it's great. We haven't been able to get past first base," says Roger Short, a reproductive biologist at the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne. If Sofikitis's technique holds up, it would give researchers a powerful new tool because they could study the development of human sperm in animals instead of humans, says Short. That could speed up the development of male contraceptive drugs that prevent sperm from maturing. Fostered sperm could also allow infertile men who cannot produce sperm to father children through IVE Sofikitis has fertilised hamster eggs with hamster sperm fostered in rat testes, and he expects the same should be possible for people. However, no one knows yet whether such sperm might run a higher risk of being genetically damaged. The sperm could also carry disease if they become contaminated with rodent viruses, says Dolores Lamb, an andrologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Because of these doubts, experts are cautious about human tests. "You'd sure want to see it work in nonhuman primatefirst," says Arnold Belker, a urologist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Nonetheless, Sofikitis has applied to the Japanese government for permission to proceed in humans, and hopes to fertilise human eggs with fostered sperm within a few weeks, allowing the embryos to develop for no more than 6 days. "There are ethical barriers," he admits. "But in medicine if you want to do something new you always have ethical barriers to overcome." Bob Holmes
Delamere Backs Gene Food Labels from NZ Herald 19 Feb 99
Associate Health Minister Tuariki Delamere now says he supports calls for labelling of genetically modified food in an apparent U-turn after threatening to reject the ANZFA decision to do so. ANZFA headquarters commented 'In December he was definitely opposed tot he majority view. It is definitely a U-turn and one wonders what has prompted Mr. Delamere's change of mind."
In Britain a report has shown that mative birds, animals and plants could be wiped out by modified agriculture.
He has said two Monsanto products given approval will be labelled. Safe Food campaigner Sue Kedgley complained that the soya bean and cotton seeds contained genetic material that had never been in the human diet before. The soybeans contained material from a cauliflower mosaic virus, a petunia plant and a soil bacterium, the cottonseed from a soil microbe. Cottonseed oil is a premium oil used forfrying, salads etc.
Demand Grows for Gene Experiments NZ Herald
Several genetic modification related to the agriculture industry are being proposed in New Zealand. While regulators are pondering a request for a herd of 4000 modified sheep applications have been received from the government's own organization AgResearch .
At least two of these would contain antibiotic resistance genes for neomycin.
A further application is to test a flock of sheep from PPL Therapeutics to produce alpha-1-antitrypsin for treatment of illnesses including some forms of congenital emphysema.
Modified Crops already Grown NZ Herald
Trials permitted before the Environmental Risk Management Authority became established included experiments on popatoes, pine trees, tamarillos, apples, broccoli, barley and even genetically altered sheep.
Complaints have been vociferous about a trial by Wrightsons of a genetically modified beet with herbicide resistance genes found in soil microorganisms.
Do we want our spuds spliced with Toad Genes? NZ Herald
Last month the new Environmental Risk Management Authority held hearings in Wellington on a proposal from the Institute for Crop and Food Research to grow plots of potatoes containing a synthetic gene that encodes an antibiotic toxin from the African clawed toad. The experimental programme is designed to discover whether production of the toad antibiotic in potatoes protects them against the troublesome soft rot that plagues growers and distributors. Most people are unaware of - how easy genetic engineering has made it to mix and match genes from creatures belonging to completely different biological Idngdoms. And when they are told about it they are assured that the process is really no different from the techniques of selective breeding which hwnans have been engaging in for thousands of years. Genetic engineering speeds up the process and is much more precise, we hear. Crop and Food scientists are sure that potatoes lack something very important and desirable genes that confer resistance to soft rot. But not to worry, they have set that right using information that can be found on the Internet about the gene from the African clawed toad, and now the genetic diverse of potatoes has been Increased by the addition of a synthetic gene coding for the toad toxin. They even describe the gene as a new potato gene.
They even describe the synthetic gene as a new potato gene. The Environmental Risk Management Authority has to decide whether Crop and Food should be allowed to grow plots containing 150 different lines of genetically modified potatoes during each of the next five years. Some of the spuds produce a toxin found in the giant silk moth rather than the toad, others an enzyme from a phage, a sort of virus that attacks bacteria, and still others Bt insecticide toxins derived from the bacterium which was used to great effect in Auckland against the white spotted tussock moth. The application from Crop and Food stated that all the transgenic potato lines were produced essentially following their standard transformation protocols. But it turns out that most of the potatoes, perhaps three or four hundred different varieties, have not yet been produced at all. Crop and Food's counsel argued that an application under the new Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act was like a request for a discharge under the Resource Management Act. You shouldn't have to specify every occasion on which you are going to discharge waste, or the exact composition of the waste, provided the levels of chemicals are within certain limits.
So, they argue, you shouldn't be required to have already created all the modified potatoes you want to grow. One of the problems with available techniques for genetic engineering is that when you introduce a new gene into an organism, the DNA can become inserted at essentially any point in the organism's chromosomes. The genetic engineer lets this happen more or less at random then looks for transformed organisms that seem to behave normally, those whose genetic structure has probably not.been seriously disrupted by introduction of the new foreign gene. The Crop and Food application is designed to cover billions of such possibilities. It is not possible to test many important characteristics of transformed potatoes before they are field-tested in open experimental plots. For one thing, potato plants don't usually flower when grown in a containment glasshouse. This means there is considerable uncertainty conceniing the possible characteristics of modified potatoes, even after they have been produced and grown in containment. However, blanket approval is being sought to grow open plots of potato lines that have not yet been created, let alone met the limited tests of normality that can be conducted in a glasshouse. No one denies that the proposed experiments rqn a risk of "genetic escape" but the probability of the toxin genes being transferred into other organisms in the wild is claimed to be minuscule. It is up to the authority to decide whether the benefits of the experiments outweigh the risks. . In making its judgment, it is directed by the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act to 'take into account the need for caution in managing adverse effects where there is scientific or technical uncertainty." This is an expression of the precautionary principle that was incorporated into the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. What approach would New Zealanders like to see the authority adopt in reaching its decision? A special advisory group, Nga Kaihautu Tlkanga Taiao, has been set up to look after Maori interests and conunent on treaty issues. The group noted in its report that some of the general concerns about genetic engineering raised in public submissions to the authority were similar to those likely to be raised by Maori, but Lingata whenua cannot be lumbered with the task of acting as a conscience for the whole of society. The Maori attitude to indigenous flora and fauna differs from the attitude of scientists to 'biodiversity," as the living world is now called in official circles.
If I sequenced the gene encoding the katipo toxin, inserted a modified version into kumara which I then wanted to grow in experimental plots with a view to testing the vegetables as possum bait, great weight would be given to the statutory role of Nga Kaihautu in protecting the status of katipo and kumara as taonga However, genetic engineers do not regard the provenance of evolutions as a treasure, the integrity of which they have a responsibUity to preserve. In New Zealand we allow the transfer of genetic information from the African clawed toad into potatoes to be done in an ethical void. We are all complicit. While tangata whenua act to protect and preserve the whakapapa of their valued taonga, we allow genetic engineers to reduce the evolutionary tree of life to a jumbled heap of broken twigs
In fact, the Goveniment is right behind such activity and foreign corporations are given liberal access to New Zealand as a testing ground for their genetically engineered products. When scientific and technological innovation produces applications with far-reaching social, political and economic consequences, all sorts of ethical questions that need careful consideration and debate come to the fore. At the very least, the authority needs an ethics conunittee, analogous in its mode of function to Nga Kaihautu, which can advise on the attitude of New Zealanders to a range of questions concerning the effects of genetic engineering. More desirable, , and in addition, we should have a full public inquiry, a royal conunission, before, whom members of the public can express their attitudes about modem biotechnology. In the meantime, as a precautionary measure, we should declare a moratorium on the release of all genetically modified organisms into the environment.
Dr Peter WilIs is an associate professor in the department of physics at the University of Auckland.
The sequel: Wild Greens destroy the toad-sliced GE crop and precipitate further calls for a referendum or commission of enquiry from the Commissioner for the Environment.
Growers Nervous as new Ground Broken NZ Herald Mar 99
Growers say they are in the dark about genetically modifled food, even though they partly funded an experimental potato crop destroyed by activists, yesterday. The New Zealand Vegetable and Potato Growers Federation said it supported the labelling of genetically modified food, but the whole science had to be made clear to growers in an intensely competitive industry. Federation president Brian Gargiulo admitted he did not understand all the issues and suspected that neither did most other growers. "I don't want to grow something which is not safe." Gargiulo stressed, no genetically modified vegetables were being grown for sale in New Zealand and said whatever resulted from trials would be subject to intense scrutiny. "You can also rest assured that none of the seed companies would ever take on a new potato variety if there was any suggestion there could be something wrong with it. The project at the New Zealand Institute of Crop and Food Research at the Lincoln Agriculture and Science Centre aimed to grow potatoes with a synthetic gene resistant to bacterial soft rot. Another was under way to produce a crop resistant to tuber moth. However, the Wild Greens, a direct action group which includes members of the Green Party and has a following among Auckland University students, said the crop contained toad genes, a natural antibiotic which could compromise human resistance to disease. Spokesman Nandor Tanczos, so far the only Green Party nominee for the Auckland Central candidacy, would not confirm if he was involved in the raid but said it was 'morally neccesary'. The attack aimed to highlight opposition to the lack of public consultation over genetic engineering. ' ' "There are times when it becomes a duty to break the law in order to do what is right," he said. 'There are other places where genetically engineered food is being grown in Aotearoa, and we're quite prepared to do this again. A Crop and Food Research gene technology science Tony Conner, said the genes used were not actually from toads or silkworm larvae. Rather, they were similar, artificial genes. The head of the institute, Dr Michael Dunbier, said the raid destroyed more than a year's work by three doctorate students. The trial was damaged beyond repair. I There was a small risk the vandals could have spread genetically engineered plant material. He suspected they were not very technologically literate. NZPA
CHRISTCHURCH An act of eco-sabotage and growing public unrest has brought calls from scientists and politicians for a highlevel inquiry into genetically modi-fied organisms. The calls follow the destruction experimental potato crop.
There are five other experiments under way, including tests on radiata pine and sheep.
The Parliamentary Commisionner for the Environment, Dr Morgan Williams, yesterday called for a moratorium on genetically modified organisms, or at least a commission of inquiry. He said there was a desperate need for some kind of public forum. A public referendum was also an option, but there was no stopping genetic science. "This is not going to go away. This will be the revolutionary branch of science in the next century." The chief executive of AgResearch, Dr Keith Steele, said the international competitiveness of New Zealand agriculture could be seriously undermined if the value of genetically modified organisms was not assessed. Dr Steele said. "Therefore we need to thoroughly test every avenue which may help in keeping our industries at the leading edge." He called for a public debate on the issue, which he said had three elements: food safety, food labelling, and human health aspects. The Vegetable and Potato Growers Federation said New Zealand needed to review its policy of not labelling genetically modified food. Its president, Brian Gargiulo, welcomed the suggestion.
Prime Minister Jenny Shipley said consumers have the right to know what they were eating. The Government was working with interest groups to fmd a workable solution to the labelling of genetically modified food. Labour's science and associate health spokesman, Mark Peck, said the real issue was what kind of labelling should be used and how it could be monitored so consumers could make informed decisions. One of New d's largest bakers, Goodman Fielder, has an'nounced, it wfll no longer use genetically-altered soy in its products.
The Prime Minister has stepped into the debate over genetically modified foods, saying she may set up an independent group to advise on a system of labelling. She accepted yesterday that some form of labelling for consumers was inevitable. "It does require an answer. I don't think it is avoidable politically. We have to solve it." The difficult and technical question was what information and how much detail to convey to consumers. "People are entitled to know what they are eating." Jenny Sbipley met senior ministers last night and they are thought to have discussed establishing an independent panel. Her deliberate decision to enter the debate suggests she shares some of her puws concems about her Associate Healffi Minister, Tuariki Delamere, and his apparently dismissive attitude to critics of genetically modified foods. Acrimony emerged this week in exchanges between Mr Delamere and the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners. The doctors say Mr Delamere is being irresponsible in his handling of the issue. Pointedly, Mrs Shipley said last night that the doctors had been very responsible in the way they expressed their concerns. And, while she cannot afford to be too heavy-handed with Mr Delainere, an Independent MP who helps prop up her minority Government, she has recognized the issue is drawing public concem Mrs Shipley said that she expected to announce within weeks, not months, how the Government would proceed. She hoped the decision would give New Zealand a competitive edge as a food-producing nation. 'We must come up with a practical way to speak confidently about what sorts of food we are selling to New Zealanders and worldwide. 'Consumers will demand it and smart Governments will understand that if we do this well, it wfll be a comparative advantage, not a disadvantage."
The Government's handling of genetically modified food is under attack from doctors and scientists. The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners has accused the Associate Minister of Health, Tuariki Delamere, of being irresponsible in his handling of the issue and says public health is being put at risk. And the pressure group Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics is calling for a royal commission to be set up on the issue. A spokesman, Dr Robert Mann, said New Zealand needed 'a proper and unbiased critical forum to investigate this subject, similar to the one that investigated the nuclear power issue. "The public are very understandably confused as to who to believe at the moment," he said. College chairman Dr Ralph Wiles last night accused Mr Delamere of saying that because there was a minute genetically modified component in food already available in New Zealand 'we may as well open the floodgates." Mr Delamere last month suddenly announced he supported labelling of all genetically modified food. This followed approval by the Australia New Zealand Food Authority for two genetically modified foods to be put on sale in this country. Dr Wiles said the issue raised serious health and safety concems and he alleged the Government was ignoring scientists' concerns.
"We're talking about a technology which affects, at the most fundamental level, the food we eat. It is not being alarmist to urge that exceptional caution be applied until such time as we have avauable information to satisfy a reasonable person that the products of this technology are safe. The technology we are talking about goes beyond selective cross breeding or minor genetic modification that has taken place in the past 'When you hear of experiments that combine genetic material from species so disparate as toads and viruses and insert that into the nucleus of a potato, that's going to make any reasonable person pause for thought. New Zealand doctors are echoing concerns of colleagues in Britain, who fear people could suffer serious side-effects from eating the foods if insufficient testing is carried out into the risks. Dr Wiles said the available information was far from complete and he accused ministers of paying too much heed to research by firms with a vested interest in profits. Last night, Mr Delainere said Dr Wiles' call for caution was "vague, ill-thought-out and unhelpful." The college should contribute facts and rational argument to the debate, rather then hasty slogans and personal attacks, he said. "Does a precautionary approach mean that we ban all foods from our stores where we have a suspicion they might possibly have some genetically modified organism content?"
GUATEMALA CITY Facing anti-US protests over deportations, President Bill Clinton yesterday admitted to Guatemala that US support for 'widespread repression" in their bloody 36-year civil war was a mistake. For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that the support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression ... was wrong," Clinton said as he began a round-table discussion on Guatemala's search for peace. "The United States must not repeat that mistake. We must and we will continue to support the peace and reconciliation process in Guatemala As Clinton spoke, several hundred demonstrators outside Guatemala City's National Palace could be heard accusing the United States of complicity in the war, in which 200,000 people died, mainly Mayan indian peasants. In one of the harshest rebukes of the horrors of the conflict between the Army and leftist insurgents, which ended in 1996, a Guatemalan truth commission last month painted a picture of state sponsored genocide and massacres. It also said US military aid and advisers employed by the the Central Intelligence Agency played a pivotal role in the bloodshed. Clinton, the first post-Cold War era US leader to visit Central America since it moved away from the civil wars of the 1980s and towards democracy, was kept waiting on the tarmac for 30 minutes after arriving because of the protests. White House officials said the Secret Service wanted to make sure things were "under control" before Clinton set off in his convoy of annour-plated limousines for an official welcoming ceremony.
The Frankenstein Feud NZ Listener 13 Mar 99 16
BY DENIS WELCH AND MARGO WHITE
First, the good news. If you're worried about eating genetically modified (GM) food and scientific evidence is mounting that you should be worried then you'll be pleased to know that a GM food-labelling regime will soon be in place. Right now, on your behalf, the Australia New Zealand Food Authority is busy framing regulations building, in effect, a stable door behind which this strange new beast of a food can be penned. The bad news is that the horse has already bolted. And the worse news if you're the worrying kind is that the government is not exactly making strenuous efforts to get it back. For a start, genetically modified food has been infiltrating our shop shelves for some time. It's out there now and it's in you now. No matter what plans are being made to identify it and label it from here on in, you've almost certainly eaten some already without knowing it probably in the form of that ubiquitous ingredient, soy. Soy is used in 60 percent of processed food eg, margarine, cereals, infant formula, pasta, bread and chocolate. The US produces 85 percent of the world's soybeans, and last season 40 percent of that crop was genetically engineered so, as Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons says, "It's hard to imagine a New Zealand diet which would not by now have included something that was genetically engineered." Welcome to your new diet. Nice of them to tell you, wasn't it? But the whole history of GM food has been one of giant corporates pushing the stuff into the marketplace just going ahead and doing it anyway while governments and bureaucracies trail some distance behind, bleating about checks and balances. Belatedly, three months ago, Australian and New Zealand health ministers decided by majority vote that all GM food would in future have to be labelled; and, although New Zealand Associate Health Minister Tuariki Delamere originally opposed the decision, he has since come into line, which suggests that, as far as Australia and New Zealand are concerned, consumers will at least know whether their spinach has more than one species in it. GM labels are set to come into force in May. A step in the right direction, surely? Delamere is pessimistic. In fact, he makes it clear in an interview that he doesn't think the May deadline will be met, that he only changed his mind for the sake of honouring New Zealand's commitment to Anzfa (the food authority), and that the whole idea of labelling GM food is fundamentally unworkable. "I don't believe," he says, "that we will be able to come up with a sensible, practical regime."
This is the challenge facing politicians and bureaucrats the world over. Notwithstanding the popular image of toads Tin tomatoes, the quantity of GM components or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in any processed food product is generally so small as to make it difficult to define. A mantra along the lines of "It's so refined it can't be defined" tends to characterise those who, like Delamere, regard the task as near-pointless. The upshot in this part of the world is that, though Anzfa is considering three labelling categories CONTAINS, MAY CONTAIN and DOES NOT CONTAIN (or GMO-FREE, if the manufacturer prefers) the vast majority of such products will probably wind up in the MAY CONTAIN basket. Which, both Delamere and opponents of GM food agree, would be next to useless. The technology for identifying food components is improving all the time, however, and, no matter how tiny the GM trace, no matter how unrecognisable it may be in the final product, it ought to be possible to track it down and give it a name. Delamere all but acknowledges this, but says it would cost too much to find out. "Ideally," he says, "it would be nice to have every component listed up there. But I think that has to be balanced up with what is reasonable and practical. Society certainly wouldn't forgive government if compliance costs doubled the cost of food." To his opponents, this argument is a red herring, and possibly a genetically modified one at that. The Alliance's Phillida Bunkle points out that in "virtually all of the other foodstuff we produce we have traceability back to the paddock", and that you can make a market virtue of such traceability think of the Quality Mark. Delamere, in tum, challenges critics to come up with a way of doing it that works and won't cost the Earth. Such is his scepticism about mandatory labelling that he has not even given much thought to how the new regime will be policed. "We've certainly got no concrete plans to do anything at this stage," he says. "I'm not sure how we do it. Because anything would be a huge cost, and I can think of better ways to spend the taxpayers' money." In other words, even if Anzfa devises a viable definition of GM food, the labelling system is likely to have loopholes big enough to build a supermarket in, and preventing people from abusing the system will not be a high priority anyway. Delamere shrugs. "I guess that like other people I do have some disquiet over it. We need regulatory bodies to keep tabs on it as best they can. But there's no such thing as a 100 percent guarantee in life." Bunkle and Fitzsimons believe that the government's reluctance to take a tough stand on GM food stems from its fear of offending the US, home of food technology giants such as Monsanto; and there is certainly a hint of that in leaked ministerial minutes from last year, which refer to American concern that even a relatively toothless labelling regime "could impact negatively on the bilateral trade relationship and potentially end any chance of a NZ-US free trade agreement". Delamere says that he has never met anyone from Monsanto and doesn't intend to; nor, for that matter, has he ever been pressured by US Ambassador josiah Beeman. But then, he's a junior minister. If influence is being brought to bear on New Zealand in this matter, it will be taking place much higher up the political food chain.
Behind the labelling debate lies the question: is GM food, no matter how tiny the amount, safe to eat? This poser Bhas vexed experts the world over, and in their collective wisdom they have come up with the folloking answer: "We don't know." Or, as Mao Zedong is reputed to have said when asked what the consequences of the French Revolution were: "It's too soon to say." There simply hasn't been time enough yet to see what long-term effect GM food has on the human metabolism. All the testing so far has been on laboratory animals "With some products it's as little as feeding rats for four weeks," says Fitzsimons and the validity of even those findings has divided the scientific community. One might also wonder how meaningful testing can be when you're dealing genetic material such as the world has never seen before when, in other words, you don't know what you're testing for. Anzfa won't be testing, full stop. The authority's selfproclaimed job is to submit applications for new GM food products to "rigorous case-by-case assessment", but such assessment does not take the form of laboratory or field trials. It consists, rather, in studying the results of tests done by the applicants themselves and comparing them with the peer literature. "We rely on published and unpublished scientific data," says Peter Liehne, general manager of food standards. "We're not resourced to undertake major field trials or those sorts of things with products." Last month Anzfa approved the first two official applications for GM foods, granting Monsanto the right to introduce "Roundup-Ready" soybeans and Ingard cottonseed. Said the draft decision: "No potential public health and safety concerns were identified." To grant such approval on the basis of tests done by Monsanto, says Bunkle, is like letting exam students mark their own papers. Both she and Fitzsimons want a moratorium on the introduction of GM food, a major inquiry into the whole technology of genetic engineering, and the replacement of Anzfa with what they call an "unbiased regulator". Fitzsimons, meanwhile, is taking no chances. "When I'm buying cooking oil," she says, "I avoid soy and cottonseed and canola oil. I don't eat margarine made from canola. If I'm buying biscuits or muesli bars, I try and avoid ones with soy, because they're the ones most likely to be engineered. I certainly wouldn't use soy milk or infant formula. I try and look at the wrappers of bread as to whether they've got soy or canola oil in them." Can't see Delamere doing that. "Genetic modification has improved the ability to grow foods in areas where you couldn't grow them before," he says. "By and large they're safer, nicer-tasting, and certainly the quality of foods we see in supermarkets today is better as a result of new technology and that's what the consumer wants.
Soy is used in 60 percent of processed foods. "It's hard to imagine a New Zealand diet which would not have included something which was genetic ally engineered." GREEN PARTY CO-LEADER JEANETTE FITZSIMONS
Delamere may be right. In New Zealand, public opposition to GM foods has been modest. But this year the issue exploded in the British and European press with the sound and fury you would expect to accompany your average revolution (which is exactly what GM food science is). Monsanto was ordered to pay :El7,000 for failing to prevent the spread of pollen from a trial site of genetically modified oilseed rape in Lincolnshire. (An amount environmentalists condemned as "lunch money".) A British company was fined :El4,000 for the same offence. Lord Sainsbury, supermarket billionaire, science minister and known supporter of the biotech industry, was revealed to have lent several million to a biotechnology firm and to own the worldwide patent for a key gene. Much of the current furore was sparked off by revelations that Arpad Pusztai, a scientist working for a British-government-fiinded institute, was forced to retire after he publicly claimed that rats fed GM potatoes showed weakened immune systems and organ damage. (The cauliflower mosaic virus in the potatoes is also used in "Roundup Ready" soy beans.) Although several scientists still question Pusztai's professional credibility, 22 signed a memo supporting him and his work. "The row has long been portrayed as a dispute between environmentalists and scientists," writes George Monbiot, in the UK Guardian. "But many of the most persuasive and cogent critics of this technology are themselves among the foremost gene scientists in their fields." Middle England's current attitude to GM foods can perhaps be best summed up by the front-page picture of Tony Blair modified to look like Boris Karloff. The headline read, "The Prime Monster; Fury as Blair Says I Eat Frankenstein Food and It's Safe." (Blair had said he ate GM foods all the time. Greenpeace dumped four tonnes of GM soya beans on his doorstep.) All of which culminated in the removal of modified foods from the menus in schools, old people's homes and town halls, mandatory labelling in all restaurants and takeaway bars and, eventually, the government agreeing to a one-year moratorium on the commercial growing of GM crops. But few foods are irrefutably safe and plenty are acknowledged to involve health risks. People still eat them; they choose to do so. Choice over what we do or do not eat is assumed to be a fundamental consumer right, and this is the heart of the issue. As Jeremy Rifkin, US-based activist, said, "If food producers are so proud of these 'Brave New World' products, why are they so afraid to label them?" In a nutshell, labelling is bad for business. The food industry knows this from its experience with irradiated foods. In the late 80s, opposition to foods bombarded with gamma rays to promote longer shelf life resulted in voluntary and, later, mandatory labelling. In Eat Your Genes, Stephen Nottingham writes: "Given the choice, consumers preferred not to buy products that had been treated with ionising radiation. Because of poor sales, supermarkets stopped stocking irradiated foods." Labelling is also undesirable from a political point of view. Were GM foods labelled, initial public resistance might jeopardise the development of the industry as a whole at a time when many developed countries are encouraging investment by the industry. Although constant pressure from consumers has resulted in the industry's agreeing to some kind of labelling regime, the US's continued refusal to segregate makes any meaningful system hard, if not impossible, to implement. Not surprisingly, the most compliant environment for GM foods is the US which labels only foods that pose a potential health and safety risk for certain individuals, or if there are significant compositional or nutritional changes. After years of proposals being tossed back and forth in Brussels, Europe came up with a directive that requires manufacturers to clearly label products containing GM foods. In place since last September, this European directive has been criticised as a curate's egg, designed to appease consumers, although not inconveniencing main players. It exempts foods that contain soya oil or other soya derivatives, food additives and highly processed foods where novel proteins or DNA sequences aren't detectable in the final product. "This excludes 60 percent to 70 percent of foods because processing greatly reduces the ability to trace GM components, " says Greenpeace NZ's Michael Szabo. "Such loopholes mean that most foods produced with the help of GM are not labelled as such. Consumers often want to know how something is produced, and not necessarily what it contains. For instance, free-range eggs are no different to eggs from battery hens, but are labelled 'free range' because consumers are concemed about the production method."
Choice over what we do or do not eat is assumed to be a fundamental consumer right. "if food producers are so proud of these 'Brave New World' products, why are they so afraid to label them? US-BASED ACTIVIST JEREMY RIFKIN
Only Switzerland, which is not part of the EU, has developed a system that requires mandatory labelling if new or modified DNA can be detected in the final product. Only when the modified ingredient comprises less than two percent will it be exempt from labelling. Meanwhile, supermarket chains in both Europe and the LJK, motivated by consumer backlash, are implementing their own labelling systems that go beyond the European directive and/or sourcing GM-free products. So far the various and varying policies have proved confusing for consumers. The most uncompromising stance has been taken by UK super-market chain Iceland, which will ban all GM foods from its own brand from May 1. In a special issue of Ecologist (some copies of which were shredded by printers afraid of libel action), Kenny Bruno writes, "In the long term, Monsanto believes it will win us over to transgenic crops. I imagine its executives see European opposition as a temporary setback, but one which will be inevitably overcome as progress and profit marches on. 11 The likely ftiture in New Zealand? We can assume that, if Monsanto doesn't find it necessary to launch a multi-million dollar advertising campaign here, it has already won the battle for the hearts, minds and stomachs of New Zealanders.
Political Science NZ Listener 13 Mar 99 18
Last week, attempts to establish the first global treaty regulating trade in genetically modified foods collapsed when the US and four other big agricultural exporters rejected a proposal supported by about 130 other nations. The treaty would have meant that exporters'of genetically modified plants, seeds or other organisms needed to get advance approval from the importing nation. The US along with Australia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay opposed this applying to agricultural commodities such as wheat, com and soya beans. Five against 130 you'd think it wowd count for something. But where the US goes, the rest of the world is bound, by free-trade zealotry, to follow. The main argument of the industry and its political acolytes is that GM crops will help feed the world and its burgeoning population. But the world already produces 50 percent more food than it needs. The world just isn't very good at sharing it. The biotech industry insists that GM foods need not be labelled because they are no different from those bred from foods produced using traditional crosshybridisation. It's a common defence, but opponents say that it fudges scientific fact. Unlike conventional hybridisation, genetic engineering involves the transfer of foreign genes not previously present in a species' gene pool. It can also cross the species barrier. This, it is argued, is more likely to have unpredictable effects on the consumer and the environment. Moreover, making the desired gene function requires transferring a bunch of other genes that act as markers. Genes for antibiotic resistance are commonly used as markers, which could carry another set of risks, as do the bacterial or viral vectors involved in many gone transfers. The industry also insists that it is impossible to separate transgenic crops from their traditional counterpart. Crops such as soya or maize are pooled together and sold in bulk. Even if you segregated at source, maintaining segregation further down the food chain is impossible, or requires changing the global distribution process. Monsanto released its first harvest of "Roundup-Ready" soya beans on the US market in 1996 without labelling or segregation.
Protestors outside the Lincolnshire court where the Monsanto company was fined.
Despite pockets of protest, it was a fundamental change to
the American diet that only a tiny percentage of Americans were
aware of. It was only when the company exported those same beans
to Europe later that year, along with its policy of non-segregation
and nonlabelling, that the company got a whiff of things to come.
Greenpeace was waiting at the ports, where defnonstrators quickly
chained themselves to dock railings to prevent unloading. European
consumers were alerted to a new kind of food they had no warning
about, no choice over, little knowledge of, and no regulatory
process to control. To placate angry consumers, countries and
companies were left scrambling to source non-modified soya beans
themselves. It was a public relations fiasco. Author of Eat Your
Genes, Stephen Nottingharn, writes, "By choosing to ignore
advice from Europe in favour of advice from economists in the
USA, Monsanto alienated wholesalers, retailers and consumers who
wished to receive segregated shipments." Monsanto and the
rest of the industry probably expected the outrage to die down.
It hasn't. According to an analysis commissioned by the company
on the LJK attitude to GE foods, leaked to and printed in the
Guardian last year: "Biotechnology and Monsanto face their
toughest European test in Britain, where the broad climate is
extremely inhospitable to biotechnology acceptance ... we keep
thinking that we have reached the low point and that public thinking
will stabilise, but, apparently, that has not happened yet."
Last year, the company achnitted it had underestimated [email protected] and
scientific concems, and agreed to a more "transparent approach".
It launched a multi-milliondollar PR and advertising campaign
to improve its image with a public already cynical and suspicious
after the experience with BSE. The success of GM foods depends
more on the right kind of political and legal environment than
public opinion. Monsanto understands this perfectly. It was a
generous donor of "soft dollars" to Clinton's 1996 presidential
campaign, and Clinton phoned Tony Blair to persuade him that nothing
should be done to restrict the biotech expansion into Britain.
It has also actively lobbied the WTO to forbid labelling and has
said it would take states to the organisation should anything
inhibit the flow or marketing of these foods. (The WTO regards
"unreasonable labelling" as a non-tariff barrier to
trade.) In 1997, Austria, Italy and Luxembourg tried to ban the
import of genetically engineered maize but were forced to repeal
their position by the European Commission. (The democratically
elected European Parliament has limited influence with the powerftil
European Commission and Council, which face the possibility of
a trade war with the US if the issue becomes divisive.) The European
Union did, however, ban US milk and beef treated with a growth
hormone developed by Monsanto. On behalf of Monsanto, the US appealed
to the WTO which has given Europe until May 13 to start importing
both products. As George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian, "Our
decisions are made for us by invisible and unaccountable organisations.
We are just about to discover how powerless we are."