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GM crop trials 'flawed' Sunday, 9 September, 2001, BBC

A bright new dawn with GM crops? The field trials are meant to explore the arguments

By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The UK's field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops are seriously deficient, the government's advisers say.

They say the trials, known as farm-scale evaluations (FSEs), are "not an adequate basis" for deciding whether the crops should be grown commercially.

The advisers believe the trials should continue, provided they meet certain conditions.

But they say the way the trials were introduced encouraged the belief that they were shrouded in secrecy.

The criticism comes from the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC), which advises the government on biotechnology issues affecting agriculture and the environment.

It has published a report, Crops on Trial, whose recommendations, it says, "aim to foster openness and transparency".

Greater separation

The AEBC says the trials will provide valuable ecological data, but that this is not enough.

Ministers will need to take other information into account, it says, and consult people more widely than the government has done so far.

The report says the FSEs should continue, on certain conditions:

the government should confirm there will be no GM crops grown commercially until the trials are complete and the results have been evaluated alongside other factors and other evidence; the separation distances between GM trials and conventional crops should be large enough to suit everyone involved, including organic farmers; people should be clearly told the objectives and the limitations of the trials; there must be effective local public consultation around the trial sites.

The report says that ministers must consider not only the FSE results, but a range of other information, before taking any decision on allowing GM crops to be grown commercially.

This includes other scientific data, ethical concerns, strategic and economic issues raised by the forthcoming Policy Commission on Food and Farming, and concerns voiced by members of the public.

And the AEBC also recommends "an independent baseline review of all the information that will need to be considered in addition to the results from the FSEs".

Its comments on the way the trials were introduced are scathing.

The report says: "The absence of consultation, the very short notification, and the particularly unfortunate location of some of the chosen sites have made it seem that the trials have been conceived and designed in a secretive way, with key players not fully engaged."

The AEBC chairman is Malcolm Grant, professor of land economy at the University of Cambridge.

No bulldozing

He said: "GM crops are part of the greater debate about what kind of agricultural production people want in the UK, and how it can be achieved.

"We believe this report sets out some practical steps the government should take."

Professor Grant told BBC News Online: "Our concern is really that there may be a simplistic assumption that the FSEs are the last piece in the jigsaw.

"We want the government to start gearing up now to obtain all the other data and addressing the concerns that we think it should be considering too.

"When we speak of a baseline review, we want data included from other forms of agriculture. Some AEBC members think conventional agriculture may be more harmful to wildlife than GM crops.

Broad church

"People do feel GM is something that's being imposed on them. But we think the government realises there's no way this can be bulldozed through."

The AEBC represents a wide range of views, including among its members, academics, farmers, scientists and environmental campaigners.

Greenpeace said the report "identifies gaps in scientific research as well as political, ethical and commercial issues which need to be resolved before the commercial growing of GM crops in Britain should begin".

Dr Doug Parr, its chief scientific adviser, said: "If the government wants to show that it isn't in the pocket of the biotech giants, it needs to hold this wide debate and stop the farm-scale trials programme."

Colonise space or die from GM Virus, says Hawking Tuesday, 16 October, 2001, BBC

Could this be our lifeboat? Professor Stephen Hawking has told the Daily Telegraph that the human race faces the prospect of being wiped out by a virus of its own creation.

"The danger is that either by accident or design, we create a virus that destroys us," he told the UK newspaper in an interview published on Tuesday.

"I don't think that the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space.

"There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet," he said.

But Professor Hawkings, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, said that he was optimistic that humanity would manage to reach out to the stars.

Book extracts

Biology, rather than physics, he says, presents the biggest challenge to the survival of the human race.

"Although 11 September was horrible, it didn't threaten the survival of the human race, like nuclear weapons do.

"In the long term, I am more worried about biology. Nuclear weapons need large facilities, but genetic engineering can be done in a small lab," he told the paper.

"You can't regulate every lab in the world," he said.

The paper is serialising extracts from Professor Hawking's new book, The Universe In A Nutshell.

GM pollen 'can kill butterflies' Thursday, 20 May, 1999, BBC

The monarch caterpillars feed on the milkweed plant By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Pollen from one of the most successful genetically modified (GM) crops in the US can kill the larvae of monarch butterflies, scientists say.

Their study, published in the journal Nature, shows how the new GM technology might have unwanted consequences for biodiversity.

The Cornell University researchers say their results "have potentially profound implications for the conservation of monarch butterflies" and believe more research on the environmental risks of biotechnology in agriculture is essential.

Their experiments looked at Bt-corn which has been modified to incorporate a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

This makes the plant tissue toxic to the European corn borer, a significant pest that hides in the stalks of the plant, making it difficult to control with chemical sprays.

Although the Bt-corn plant itself is harmless to humans and other creatures such as ladybirds and bees, the researchers found pollen from the GM crop could have a lethal effect on the larvae of monarch butterflies if it lands on the plant on which they feed - milkweed.

This is commonly found around cornfields and is the exclusive food of monarch caterpillars.

Dead caterpillars

In the laboratory, Monarch caterpillars fed on milkweed leaves dusted with Bt-corn pollen ate less, grew more slowly and suffered a higher mortality rate than those fed on leaves with normal pollen, or with no pollen at all.

Nearly half of the GM pollen-fed caterpillars died, while all the rest survived the study.

The scientists say the GM pollen enters the caterpillar's gut, where it binds to specific sites. The gut wall then changes from a protective layer to an open sieve, allowing pathogens normally contained in the gut and then excreted to enter the insect's body.

Last year more than seven million acres of Bt-corn were planted in the US. Before its development, borers used to cause an average annual loss of $1.2bn.

The technology offers significant potential for reducing pesticide use and increasing yields. Any negative effects therefore need to be balanced against these benefits, says Assistant Professor of Entomology John Losey, the lead researcher on the Nature paper.

"We need to assess the risks from this Bt pollen and then balance those with the proven benefits and then decide, objectively, what is better for the environment," he told the BBC.

"We want to look at the plants that are common around cornfields and the different butterflies whose caterpillars would feed on those plants. By putting those together, we can start to get a sense of what the total impact of this pollen might be."

Novartis Seeds were the first biotechnology company to sell Bt-corn and their products are now grown commercially in the US, Canada, Argentina and Spain.

"This study does not give any basis for a change in our marketing of Bt-corn," their spokesperson Sheena Bethell told BBC News Online.

"Bt-corn has been extensively studied and we already have several years of growing experience in the US - one lab experiment does not change that. We follow and exceed all the requirements made by regulatory authorities which are very rigorous.

"Even if there are unwanted effects on the Monarch butterfly, you still have to put that into the context of comparison with other forms of control."

However, English Nature, the UK Government's wildlife advisor is using the publication of the report to renew its call for a delay in the commercial planting of insect-resistant crops in Britain.

"This new research confirms the views put forward by English Nature last year that there are serious concerns about the commercial introduction of GM crops before research has been done on their potential effects on biodiversity," it says.

The biotech debate: The monarch butterfly Friday, 27 April, 2001, BBC

Monarch larvae feed on milkweed in corn fields By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

Entomologist John Losey could hardly have imagined the furore that would ensue when he happened to wonder, during a field trip one summer, whether dustings of pollen on milkweed growing in a Bt-cornfield might harm the monarch butterfly.

This curiosity, the lifeblood of any scientist, sparked one of the biggest environmental debates of the decade - could butterflies like the monarch be at risk from genetically-modified (GM) crops?

As with any big scientific question, arriving at an acceptable conclusion is an uphill slog.

Nearly two years after Losey and co-researchers at Cornell University, New York, showed that monarch caterpillars died in the laboratory after eating pollen from genetically engineered corn, experts are still divided over whether monarchs are at risk in the wild.

Meanwhile the monarch, the state symbol of Minnesota, has become an emblem of the struggle between environmentalists and industry over the changing face of farming.

Hazard warning

The first alarm bells were sounded in spring 1999, when a letter by the Cornell team appeared in the leading scientific journal Nature. Their laboratory study showed that consumption of large amounts of Bt-pollen is hazardous to monarch larvae.

Further evidence in support of these findings came in August last year. Researchers at Iowa State University said they had found monarch caterpillars were seven times more likely to die when they ate milkweed plants dusted with pollen from Bt-corn rather than conventional corn.

But demonstrating what happens in the real world is more contentious. In theory, for butterflies to be at risk, they would have to be present in the cornfields at the time that pollen was shed. They would also need to be exposed to enough pollen for it to be harmful. In an attempt to resolve the question of risk, independent and industry-sponsored scientists headed to the field to study the butterfly in its natural habitat.

The monarch butterfly leads a fragile existence. In the winter, it hibernates along the coast of southern California or in the fir forests of central Mexico. Come the spring, it heads northwards in the most spectacular migration of any insect. By the time the monarch reaches its breeding ground, the vast American cornbelt, it may have flown as far as 4,800 kilometres (3,000 miles).

The monarch faces many threats to its survival. A snowstorm in 1995 killed 5 to 7 million monarchs during their incredible journey north. Prey to predators like ladybugs and lacewings, less than 5% of the caterpillars survive to adulthood, even on standard corn.

But human activities pose perhaps the biggest threat. The mountain forests of central Mexico are vulnerable to logging and the coast of southern California to development. At the monarch's breeding grounds, pesticides destroy milkweeds, the sole food source for the caterpillars.

Any added risk from Bt-corn, say environmentalists, could tip the delicate balance too far. But that stance has been attacked by some scientists as over-hyped.

"The kinds of things that are blown up out of proportion are that monarchs are going to be gravely endangered," says Dr Robin Yeaton Woo of the Ceres Forum, Center for Food and Nutrition Policy, Washington DC.

"Frankly as an insect developmental biologist, that's a real half story, there's no way when you look at broad-spectrum pesticides that monarchs are even in as great a danger with Bt-corn as they are when airplanes fly over dusting whole crops with poison."

Lobby groups

Since the Cornell study was published, environmental lobby groups opposed to GM crops have used the monarch butterfly as a focus for their attacks on the biotech industry.

Industry soon hit back, seizing on data, announced at a symposium organised by a consortium of biotech and pesticide companies, which suggested that most Bt- corn pollen was shed within a cornfield rather than outside of it. Any risk to the butterflies would be small, said an industry spokesman, if, as was then thought, monarchs seldom ventured into cornfields.

But last summer, researchers led by Dr Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota discovered that cornfields act as a haven to monarchs. They found large numbers of monarch caterpillars between the rows of corn. Debate now centres on whether pollen levels present at the time the monarchs breed is enough to do the larvae any harm. Preliminary results suggest not.

"A lot of work has been done on how much pollen actually gets on milkweed leaves in a cornfield," says Mark Buckingham, a spokesman at the biotechnology company Monsanto's headquarters in St Louis, Missouri.

"This is work in progress but it looks like in the field, even for the single day in the season when pollen shed is at its greatest, which is obviously only a very small fraction of the pollen of the monarch breeding season, does pollen shed get up to one-third of the level necessary to damage monarch butterflies."

But not everyone is convinced. "We don't have a clear picture of the overall risk yet, however we're a lot closer," says Dr David Andow, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota who has been monitoring the developments.

And there are further complications. It seems that monarch caterpillars may be particularly vulnerable to the toxic pollen at a stage of development when they start feeding on the outside, rather than the underside, of the milkweed leaf, where pollen is more likely to scatter.

In an attempt to calm public anxiety, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called for all registrants of Bt-corn plant pesticides to submit data on the effects of Bt-corn pollen on non-target species, particularly the monarch butterfly, by March 2001.

Although the EPA said in a draft report on GM crops last September that the risk to the butterflies ranged from low to very little, insiders acknowledge that "the jury is still out" on the issue.

And Dr John Losey says that resolving the risk question will take a substantial commitment of resources, from industry or government agencies.

"It doesn't seem like there's an immediate catastrophic risk to monarchs," says Dr John Losey. But he warns that any long-term risk to the butterflies may be more subtle and harder to measure.

Dr Losey's team originally estimated that it would cost between $2m and $3m to solve the monarch question. Two years on, there is still a long way to go. It is a measure, perhaps, of how difficult it is to resolve some of the big environmental questions posed by biotech crops and the financial resources needed to do so.

'Negligible' risk to butterflies from GM Monarch butterfly: 10 September, 2001 BBC
A powerful US conservation symbol By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

Fears that genetically modified (GM) corn can harm butterflies were furthered on Monday, with the release of six environmental studies in the United States and Canada.

Long-awaited results of field trials indicate that a type of engineered corn is toxic to black swallowtail caterpillars.

But the corn is being phased out in the United States. Scientists said the risk to butterflies from other types of genetically engineered corn was negligible.

The overall conclusion of the new research is that caterpillars living in cornfields are not likely to be exposed to levels of pollen high enough to be harmful, except for from one type of GM corn.

Risk 'manageable'

"I wouldn't say that butterflies are terribly at risk, given that the dangerous form is not being planted," May Berenbaum, professor of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, US, told BBC News Online.

"There is a potential for risk but it seems to be a manageable potential."

All biotech (BT) corn contains a bacterial gene that causes it to produce a toxin that kills pests that eat the plant.

A particular type of corn, called Knockout corn, appears to have a particularly high level of the toxin in its pollen.

The company which makes the corn, Syngenta, is withdrawing it from the market because of poor sales. The crop accounted for less than 2% of the total corn grown in the US in the year 2000.

"All forms of agriculture have environmental impacts," said Demetra Vlachos, Syngenta's senior manager for regulatory affairs in the US.

She said they were moving towards newer BT crops with less potential for environmental impact.

"BT crops are a new technology that have improved our environmental performance and are safer for the environment in the long-run," she told BBC News Online.

Alarm bells

Environmentalists first raised concerns about the effect of BT corn on butterflies following a lab study published in 1999.

The experiment showed that monarch butterfly caterpillars - which live on milkweed plants often found in or near cornfields - died when they were fed milkweed leaves dusted with pollen from engineered corn.

A report last year at Iowa State University showed that toxic effects could be seen at pollen levels normally observed on the leaves in and near cornfields.

The new research - conducted by scientists in the United States and Canada and part financed by the US Department of Agriculture and industry - goes some way to addressing these concerns.

The six scientific papers, which were reviewed by Professor Berenbaum, are published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

UK Dolly scientists target biomedical research rather than cloning 24 September, 2001, BBC

Roslin scientists created Dolly the sheep in 1996
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

Dolly the sheep might never have been created if current attitudes to genetically modified food had prevailed in the 1990s.

The pioneering Roslin Institute, which made the famous clone, says public hostility towards GM food in the UK has forced it to reassess its research goals.

It intends to focus on biomedical applications of cloning technology rather than pure agricultural research like that which led to Dolly.

"An institute likes ours can no longer sustain itself entirely on agricultural research," Professor Grahame Bulfield told BBC News Online.

"We have decided we need to build on our strengths by developing products for use in the biomedical industry," he added.

Political climate 'unfriendly'

The Roslin Institute, based near Edinburgh, sprang to fame in 1997 when it announced it had cloned Dolly.

It is now one of the world's leading centres for genetic research on farm animals.

However, agricultural research has fallen over the years and now comprises only 20% of its work, compared with 70% in the early 1990s.

The Roslin blames a dwindling agricultural research budget for its change in policy, as well as public and political attitudes to GM foods.

"The political climate in agriculture hasn't been particularly friendly," Professor Bulfield said.

Instead, the Roslin will focus on biomedical research based on stem cells and nuclear transfer.

Divided values

Professor Bulfield believes the public is prepared to accept medical applications of such technology.

"People will permit technology to be used in producing drugs that they would be uncomfortable being used in agriculture," he said.

It will mean that some potential applications of genetics in farming will not be pursued at present, by the Roslin at least.

It might be possible, for example, to genetically engineer chickens so that they do not carry food poisoning bugs like salmonella.

The Roslin says there would be little point in trying to do this, if no-one would want to eat the end result.

The lamb clone grazes with its domestic foster mother

Endangered sheep cloned 1 October, 2001 BBC

By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

Scientists have revealed the existence of the first surviving clone of an endangered mammal.

The animal is a European mouflon lamb, a rare breed of sheep found on Sardinia, Corsica and Cyprus.

The female lamb was produced by scientists in Italy using a technique pioneered in Dolly the sheep.

Several attempts have been made to clone endangered species but until now they have ended in failure.

The mouflon lamb, which is being cared for at a wildlife rescue centre in Sardinia, is now about six months old.

It was made by a European team led by Pasqualino Loi of the University of Teramo, Italy.

Clone 'confirmed'

The domestic sheep was the first mammal to be cloned, in 1996. Since then, other farm animals, including pigs, goats and cattle, have been cloned.

The Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, which created Dolly, collaborated on the mouflon cloning project.

Genetic tests at the institute confirmed that the lamb was a genuine clone.

"It's the first successful surviving birth of an endangered cloned mammal," Roslin's Michael Clinton told BBC News Online.

The lamb was cloned from the genetic material from one of two ewes found dead at a wildlife rescue centre in Sardinia. DNA was extracted from the carcass and injected into the empty egg cell of a donor domestic sheep to create an embryo.

A surrogate mother, also a domestic sheep, then carried the lamb clone to term.

Genetic rescue

Many scientists believe cloning may be necessary to save endangered animals as a last resort.

DNA banks containing genetic material from rare breeds are already being set up in many countries, including the UK. But until now, attempts to clone endangered animals have been fraught with difficulties.

The first endangered animal clone - a baby gaur - was born in the United States in January this year. But the baby bull, Noah, died within 48 hours of birth, from dysentery.

Another bid to clone a wild sheep - the argali - failed to produce live offspring. The mouflon cloning project shows that domestic cousins of rare breeds can be used as a source of live eggs or as surrogate mothers in cloning experiments.

"In the unlikely event that all the animals of an endangered species died out suddenly, if you could get the genetic material within 18-24 hours you could rescue the species," Dr Clinton told BBC News Online.

"This would be an argument to begin storing cells from species that are endangered and try to identify domestic species that are compatible," he added.

The research is reported in full in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Scientists boycott cloning conference 18 September, 2001, BBC

Dr Antinori: Delivered twins to a 59-year-old mother British scientists and fertility experts have pulled out of an international cloning conference hosted by a doctor who wants to produce the first human baby clone.

Dr Severino Antinori had invited more than 70 experts to speak at the meeting in Monte Carlo next month, but many have now pulled out.

They include Professor Ian Wilmut, one of the scientists behind Dolly the sheep clone, and Dr Anne McLaren, a member of the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

The group of private fertility clinics originally behind the meeting has now suspended Dr Antinori from the organisation and withdrawn its support.

Non participation

The Italian fertility doctor, who wants to clone a human despite widespread condemnation, has said the October meeting will still go ahead.

The conference was originally organised by a group of more than a hundred private fertility clinics known as Apart (Association of Private Assisted Reproductive Technology Clinics and Laboratories), of which Dr Antinori was a member.

Dr Antinori took on responsibility for the congress earlier this year and offered to find financial backing.

But Apart became concerned when several problems emerged. Registration was poor, speakers pulled out and no abstracts had been submitted to an accompanying journal.

Private meeting

Professor Wilfried Feichtinger, President of Apart, said Dr Antinori was suspended from the organisation last week and was facing expulsion.

The group has now cut all ties with the Monte Carlo meeting.

Professor Feichtinger told BBC News Online: "[Dr Antinori] upset serious scientists and doctors because of his ridiculous, unsound and unscientific propaganda in the media.

"This is not a conference of our association anymore," he added. "This is a private meeting organised by Dr Antinori."

Professor Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute in Scotland said he had received an invitation to attend the Monte Carlo meeting but had now withdrawn.

"I accepted the invite in order to explain why human reproductive cloning would be dangerous," he told BBC News Online. "Apart have now withdrawn and so have I."