New South Wales state ban on GM planting


SYDNEY - New South Wales has passed a bill imposing a three-year moratorium on the growing of genetically modified food crops.

The main effect of a bill passed by the NSW Parliament will be to delay the planting of Australia's first commercial GM canola crop, which could have been planted this year after earlier clearance in principle by the federal gene technology regulator.

The NSW Farmers Association has said it supports postponement of any general release of GM canola until segregation and trade issues are fully addressed.

The NSW moratorium is part of an effective Australia-wide stay on planting of a commercial GM canola crop.

Queensland, which does not grow canola, is the only Australian state which supports agricultural biotechnology.

Australia is the world's second largest canola exporter, after Canada, whose crop is mainly genetically modified.

Australian farmers fear the loss of some markets with the introduction of GM canola, but also fear missing productivity gains if they do not grow GM crops.

Australian canola, widely used for cooking oil, is mainly exported to Asian markets.


Herald Feature: Genetic Engineering

Biotechnology company pulls plug on GE sheep


Scottish biotechnology company PPL Therapeutics Ltd is pulling the plug for at least three years on New Zealand's first transgenic livestock field trial - in which more than 4000 sheep are grazing Waikato pastures.

No details have yet been announced on the fate of the New Zealand flock of genetically engineered sheep producing milk containing a human protein, now that PPL has canned its plans to develop a lung drug extracted from the GE milk.

PPL - which created Dolly the cloned sheep in 1997 - announced today it was laying off 90 per cent of its staff - between 90 and 140 jobs in Edinburgh and New Zealand.

PPL's project is based on a 50ha farm at Whakamaru, 140km south of Hamilton, and it had been in the process of buying another property so it could begin milking cloned ewes later this year.

PPL is thought to have as many as 1000 transgenic ewes among the 4000 sheep on its 50ha South Waikato property, which has been building up its flock numbers in preparation for milking.

The milk was to be taken from the ewes, frozen and sent to Edinburgh for the removal of the protein recombinant alpha-1-antitrypsin (rAAT).

Recombinant proteins are human proteins produced outside the body, often by genetically engineering herd sheep or cattle and then harvesting the proteins from their milk.

Shares in PPL Therapeutics fell nearly 10 per cent overnight in Britain after the biotech entrepreneur said it had interrupted the development of recombinant hAAT with drug company Bayer AG.

PPL had worked for three years with Bayer, which was due to carry out clinical trials and marketing, with PPL developing and making the protein.

But PPL last night expressed "disappointment" that its German partner had effectively pulled the plug on the whole scheme.

"In the light of today's joint announcement by PPL and Bayer concerning the future of the hAAT programme, PPL also announces today a significant restructuring of its business," the company said.

It would instead focus on the potential for building a surgical sealants business around PPL's Fibrin I programme, designed to offer surgical sealants for a potential market of 3 to 4 million operations a year in the United States. The hAAT protein was a major component of PPL's business, both in terms of its research and development activities and also its manufacturing capacity. The company said it had retained its intellectual property for hAAT "and will seek to maximise value for this".

"In the short term, placing this programme on hold will mean the potential loss of between 90 and 140 jobs in the company at its sites in Scotland and New Zealand," the company said in a statement.

The final number of job losses in the Waikato and at its Roslin head office near Edinburgh would be decided in a strategic review, but were hoped to help halve its spending of $1.7 million a month.

The strategic review by accountancy company KPMG may see PPL Therapeutics wound up, and its $25.3 million of remaining cash returned to shareholders - a step some investors expected to seek at the company's annual meeting, tonight New Zealand time.

Such a move could raise concerns in New Zealand about what should be done with the GE sheep in the Waikato.

Environmental Risk Management Authority chief executive Dr Bas Walker said today the authority had had no formal notice from PPL that the status of its New Zealand transgenic flock had changed. PPL would be legally responsible for ensuring the conditions under which the trial was granted were not breached.

PPL chief executive Geoff Cook said Bayer's decision left PPL with intellectual property but little chance of developing it in the short term.

"We have got few options other than to reduce cash burn," he said. "What we can offer shareholders ... is a sealants plan with Fibrin 1, liquidating assets, or the sale of the company."

The assets to be liquidated would include its New Zealand operation.

PPL is reported to have written off nearly $22 million last year after dropping plans for building its new manufacturing plant for the hAAT from its New Zealand sheep.

Analysts said the PPL experience indicated that great technology did not necessarily make great business. A little over a month ago PPL dropped plans for a centre to produce a range of Dolly-type drugs, but said at the time it remained committed to developing hAAT.

PPL had said it hoped to launch the product in 2007, but there have been fears in investment circles that the company would run out of money first.

PPL was given permission to "field test" its genetically engineered sheep in New Zealand on March 23 1999, when it already had a flock of 100 transgenic sheep at Whakamaru, 140km south of Hamilton. It bred the flock from semen imported from Scotland, with permission given by the Environment Ministry's interim assessment group -- the forerunner to Erma -- in 1996.

The hearing on the field trials was one of Erma's highest profile public hearings. It was told by the authority's own Maori advisory committee, Nga Kaihautu Tikanga Taiao, that some Maori found the insertion of human genetic material into other species culturally offensive and abhorrent, and said the bridge between human and non-human species should not be crossed.

PPL's then managing director, Ron James, said he wants to lift the flock's size, first to 1000 ewes and later to 10,000, but it promised that no more than 5000 sheep would be based on its initial quarantine site in the Waikato.

Erma, a semi-judicial body of eight experts, said the adverse effects of the genetic engineering were outweighed by the beneficial effects "taking into account the scope for risk management".

A containment regime proposed by PPL, together with additional controls imposed by Erma, would adequately contain the organism, the authority said.

The controls included keeping all sheep in containment approved by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF), and disposal of all waste milk, sheep carcasses and any biological material on site or by incineration.

Unauthorised people and other organisms would be excluded from the farms, its 2m-high perimeter fencing electronically alarmed and individual sheep tagged and implanted with microchips.

The transgenic sheep have been modified with copies of human genes from a Danish woman to produce the human protein alpha-1-antitrypsin (hAAT).

The company has said this could theoretically be used to treat conditions such as cystic fibrosis and acute respiratory problems, although a vocal critic of the PPL project, New Zealand scientist Robert Mann, told regulators that preliminary trials overseas using AAT proved very little.


Herald Feature: Genetic Engineering
US policing of GE crops denounced


WASHINGTON, DC - (ENS) - United States federal government agencies are failing to monitor genetically engineered crops to protect the environment and public health, according to two separate studies released yesterday.

The Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says that according to its review of government data farmers are routinely over-planting corn that is genetically engineered to be insect resistant.

The corn growers are failing to comply with a government requirement to plant 20 per cent of their acreage with non-GE corn as a refuge. The refuge is intended to prevent the breeding of insects resistant to the pesticide produced by engineered corn that contains a protein from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

The protein kills Lepidoptera larvae, in particular, the European corn borer. Growers use Bt corn as an alternative to spraying insecticides for control of European and southwestern corn borers.

The data analysed by the CSPI were collected by the US Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. The statistics show that 19 per cent of all Bt corn farms in Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska - about 10,000 farms - violated the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) refuge requirements in 2002.

Thirteen per cent of farmers growing Bt corn in those three states planted no refuges at all.

"Noncompliance on this scale shows that current regulations aren't up to the task," said Gregory Jaffe, director of CSPI's biotechnology project. "Both the EPA and the biotech industry must do more to make sure that farmers meet these very basic obligations, so that the benefits of this technology won't be squandered."

Because of its pesticidal properties, Bt corn is regulated by the EPA, rather than by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In its report, "Planting Trouble," the Centre for Science in the Public Interest recommends that the EPA determine farmers' compliance with its refuge requirements using data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, rather than what the organisation terms "the less reliable data" from the biotechnology industry's telephone survey of farmers.

In a letter yesterday, the CSPI urged EPA Administrator Christie Whitman to implement the report's recommendations. The CSPI wants biotech firms to conduct on-farm inspections and to require farmers to document their compliance using maps and seed purchase records.

Unlike some environmental or consumer groups, the CSPI does not oppose agricultural biotechnology as long as it is appropriately regulated to safeguard human health and the environment, but the Centre has often faulted the biotech industry for its disregard of government oversight.

"As biotech applications become even more advanced, and potentially more dangerous, this kind of noncompliance will be even less tolerable," Jaffe said.

In a separate report, the US Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) criticises the Agriculture Department's oversight of field experiments in the United States. The report is critical of testing procedures used in monitoring experimental genetically modified crops in the field.

USPIRG warns that nearly 70 per cent of all field tests of genetically engineered crops conducted in the last year contain secret genes classified as confidential business information to which the public has no access.

A field test last fall of a genetically engineered crop designed to produce a pig vaccine contaminated commercial crops, USPIRG reports. As a result, 500,000 bushels of soybeans had to be quarantined and were destroyed.

USPIRG quotes a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report confirming that the federal government permitted commercial growth of a variety of genetically engineered corn found toxic to monarch butterflies under field conditions.

If field experiments are not properly monitored, USPIRG says the resulting genetic pollution can put farmers' livelihoods and the environment at risk.

"Our environment is being used as a laboratory for widespread experimentation on genetically engineered crops with profound risks that, once released, can never be recalled," said USPIRG environmental advocate Richard Caplan. "Until proper safeguards are in place, this unchecked experiment should stop."

US federal food law requires premarket approval for food additives, whether or not they are the products of biotechnology, molecular techniques that are used to insert genes from one type of organism into another - in this case the insertion of a Bt gene into a corn plant.

The federal agency responsible for regulating foods, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), treats substances added to food products through biotechnology as food additives only if they are significantly different in structure, function or amount than substances currently found in food.

If a new food product developed through biotechnology does not contain substances that are significantly different from those already in the diet, it does not require premarket approval.

Currently, genetically modified foods in the United States do not require special labelling to notify consumers that a food or ingredient is a bioengineered product.

Testifying on Tuesday before a House of Representatives subcommittee, FDA deputy commissioner Lester Crawford said the agency has found no evidence that the more than 50 bioengineered foods currently on the market in the US are unsafe to eat.

"The evidence shows that these foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts," Crawford told the lawmakers.

"Bioengineered foods and food ingredients must adhere to the same standards of safety under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that apply to their conventionally bred counterparts," he said.

Crawford told the subcommittee that scientists have been changing the genetic makeup of plants since the late 1800s. Hybrid corn, nectarines, and tangelos, a hybrid of a tangerine and grapefruit, are examples of such cross breeding, he said.

Genetic engineering, by contrast, is the manipulation of an organism's genetic structure by introducing or eliminating specific genes through modern molecular biology techniques. A broad definition of genetic engineering also includes selective breeding and other means of artificial selection.

Crawford did address one concern of biotechnology critics, the possibility of allergic reactions to genetically engineered foods. "As to potential allergens," he said, "foods normally contain many thousands of different proteins. While the majority of proteins do not cause allergic reactions, virtually all known human allergens are proteins. Since genetic engineering can introduce a new protein into a food plant, it is possible that this technique could introduce a previously unknown allergen into the food supply or could introduce a known allergen into a new food."

Food and Drug Administration guidelines and a consultative process help food product developers meet US requirements for the bioengineered foods they intend to market, Crawford said.

The FDA wants to assure that compounds in the engineered foods are safe for consumption, that no new allergens or higher levels of natural toxicants have been introduced and that there is no reduction of nutrients in foods being developed for market, Crawford said.

One risk to farmers of improperly monitored field tests is loss of export markets for their crops. Wheat, which has been authorised for more than 330 field tests of genetically engineered varieties, is of particular concern, the USPIRG report says. Many international trading partners have told wheat exporters that they will stop buying US wheat if any genetic contamination is detected.

Biotechnology is expected to be a major theme when world agricultural ministers meet next week at the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology in Sacramento, California.

GE group's court route criticised


A group of mothers has been told it cannot stop researchers' work on growing genetically modified cows by attacking the underlying science.

Mothers Against Genetic Engineering (Madge) is hoping to stymie the controversial project through a judicial review of the way permission was granted to AgResearch.

But AgResearch lawyer Justin Smith yesterday told the High Court at Auckland that the group's evidence on the project's adverse effects amounted to an attack on an expert body's scientific assessment.

He said Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) members had considered the application at a hearing to which Madge had made submissions. Mr Smith said the only proper course for Madge to question Erma's assessment would have been by appeal, but the group had instead sought a judicial review.

"An applicant should not put in a large amount of scientific evidence that it did not adduce at the hearing at first instance, and ask the court to weigh this evidence against the authority's conclusions."

He said all possible adverse effects of the genetically modified organisms on the environment had been raised and considered in the application, a report, the hearing, and in Erma's decision.

"Madge's evidence amounts to an attempt to have another hearing on the effects of this application ... with respect Madge's approach is inappropriate in the context of a judicial review proceeding."

Mr Smith also argued that despite Madge's assertion to the contrary, the ethical and moral issues surrounding the application had been addressed.

He accused Madge of advancing "highly political" arguments.

"If Madge believes this type of work should not be conducted in New Zealand, or the structure for approving applications is inadequate, the proper recourse is to seek law change, not judicial remedies."

Mr Smith said AgResearch was taking the judicial review seriously as its research, already in progress, could be immediately affected by the result.

Earlier, Erma lawyer Mary Scholtens, QC, had said that to literally identify all possible adverse effects on the environment was impossible, and could not have been the intention of Parliament, as "environment" had a very wide definition.

When Erma came to consider the possible harm from the application it adopted a risk assessment and management approach as required by legislation.

"It does not require all risks or adverse effects to be eliminated, nor fanciful risks to be closely evaluated."

Mrs Scholtens said Erma was satisfied sufficient information had been provided to meet the requirements of a valid application.

The risks were able to be identified, assessed and managed.

The setting aside of the decision and directing a reconsideration could not be justified, she said.

Herald Feature: Genetic Engineering


Monsanto says Brazil soy exporters to pay GE royalty


SAO PAULO - Brazilian soybean exporters are expected to pay royalties starting in 2004 for shipments of Monsanto Co.'s genetically engineered "Roundup Ready" soybeans, the US-based biotech behemoth's Brazilian subsidiary said today.

The royalty payments could have a significant impact on Monsanto's revenues because Brazil -- the world's No. 2 soybean producer and exporter after the United States -- accounts for over a quarter of the world's soy supply.

But exporters said they were sceptical of Monsanto's plans to use them as "collection agents" to get revenues from Brazil's thriving illicit GE soy market, which official seed suppliers estimate at over 30 per cent of the crop.

Brazil is the only agricultural producer of its size that still bans the commercial planting and sale of genetically engineered (GE) crops. Its government has granted amnesty until early 2004 for producers growing black-market GE soy.

Monsanto, of St. Louis, pioneered the development of soybeans and other crops genetically engineered to resist harm from its product Roundup -- the world's best-known herbicide brand.

Its Brazilian subsidiary said negotiations were proceeding well with exporters, whom Monsanto expected to sign royalty contracts by Aug. 1 for 2003/04 soy crop exports.

"We've been negotiating (with exporters) for two months and we are very close to closing these contracts," Monsanto's marketing director Felipe Osorio told a news conference.

Roughly 35 local exporters account for 95 per cent of the country's shipments of soy abroad.

Most of the Roundup Ready seeds are believed to have been smuggled into Brazil from Argentina and Paraguay, where they are legally planted.

Osorio said no value had been set yet, but estimated royalties would range between US$15 ($26) and US$66 ($115) per hectare (2.471 acres) of soy depending on regional yields, which vary from roughly 1.9 tonnes to 3.1 tonnes a hectare across Brazil's soy belt.

Brazilian producers, Monsanto said, pay an average of US$15 per hectare to get its Roundup Ready seeds (considering seeds that producers save and those they bring in illegally from Argentina).

In the United States, the cost to get Roundup Ready seeds is $67.45 ($118.14) per hectare and, in Argentina, the cost is US$49.83 ($87.28). That difference gives Brazilians an advantage, Monsanto said.

Brazilian shipments of soybeans to countries where Monsanto holds a patent for its Roundup Ready soybeans will have to show receipts to importers for royalties paid, Osorio said.

The United States, Canada, Japan and most European countries honour Monsanto's Roundup Ready patents.

But China -- Brazil's largest soybean customer -- does not recognise Monsanto's intellectual property rights to Roundup Ready soy.

Exporters would have to discount what they paid producers and co-operatives for Roundup Ready soy to compensate for royalties paid to Monsanto.

"Clients on the global level are demanding just treatment," said Osorio, who noted that producers in the United States and Europe complained they could not compete against Brazilian producers who were not paying for the GE technology.

But exporters said it was not their responsibility to collect Monsanto's royalties.

"I'm not saying it's impossible to get royalties from Brazil," said a soy director for a large US-based multinational grain company in Brazil. "But I don't know what exporter would agree and it would be difficult to enforce."

Traders said Brazil has no universal origination system to trace the soy seeds' origin. Illegal GE soy, grown mostly in the south, is mixed in with conventional soy.

"Who knows who brought the GE soy to the co-operative and how much?" asked another trader at a large multinational grain company. "The exporters aren't responsible for collecting Monsanto's royalties in other countries. Why should we agree to be collection agents? It's the producers who should pay."

Despite recent government efforts to curb the illegal GM soy market in Brazil, Monsanto said it expected the planting of Roundup Ready soy to increase with the next crop, when planting begins in September.

Importers from countries where Monsanto holds a patent are supposed to check if soy cargoes are licensed. They can be sued for piracy if they accept Roundup Ready soy without a license.

Monsanto's stock rose 1 per cent to US$21.15 on Wednesday on the New York Stock Exchange, not far below its 52-week high of US$27.50 hit on June 10, 2002.


Herald Feature: Genetic Engineering


Government 'spin' on GE report outrageous, say Greens


The Green Party says it is outraged by the Government's reaction to a report released yesterday on the economic impacts of releasing genetically engineered organisms in New Zealand.

"The report actually shows that there are more likely to be negative effects on the economy from GE release than positive effects, under realistic conditions," Green Party Co-Leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said.

"The Government has chosen to ignore the parts of the report that show that demand for New Zealand products will dramatically decrease if GE is released here.

"It is outrageous that Ms Hobbs is saying the report is great news for GE because, according to her, there won't be catastrophic effects on the economy. But that's not good enough - if the Government can't show significant benefits for New Zealand from GE release, it should not be exposing us to the risk."

The report, by Business and Economic Research Ltd, Economic Risks and Opportunities from the Release of Genetically Modified Organisms in New Zealand, was originally due in February.

Ms Fitzsimons said the report shows that although the impact on the overall economy is most likely to be slightly negative or neutral, the impact on the agriculture sector is likely to be devastating.

"A 20 per cent decrease in demand for dairy, meat and fruit as a result of GE release in New Zealand could lead to a 40 per cent reduction in producer returns. This is extremely bad news for farmers and growers."

She said the key finding of the report was that the negative effects of overseas markets buying less of New Zealand products because people don't want GE food, would have a much greater economic effect on New Zealand than any positive effects from increased productivity or lowered price.

"It is also interesting to note that 47 per cent of consumers surveyed in the United Kingdom, United States and Australia for the report said that if New Zealand remained GE-free, they would be more inclined to buy New Zealand products; as opposed to only 2 per cent who would be less inclined.

"Where Ms Hobbs says in her press release that: 'the most likely economic impact from the careful and considered release of GMOs would be a small increase in GDP over 10 years, compared to a small decrease from forgoing GMO releases' - Ms Hobbs is misinterpreting the report," Ms Fitzsimons said.

"The report actually says: 'the actual effect on New Zealand's annual GDP 10 years hence is  not very great under any of the scenarios. Impacts at the level of the individual industry - especially the agriculture industry - remain significantly large.'"

Ms Fitzsimons said the Government had had days to come to grips with the report, but still hadn't grasped its main message.

Herald Feature: Genetic Engineering

Related links

Barbara Sumner Burstyn: Unresolved issues in GM debate leave potential for disaster


I love a finely tuned argument, a sound justification or a well-debated issue. I've even been known to swap sides in response to new information or a reasoned defence.

So when I read about the first crops of genetically modified potatoes planned for planting after October when New Zealand's GM moratorium is lifted, I was at first dismissive. But by the end of the article, ably reported for the Herald by Simon Collins, I was almost convinced.

First, there's the pesticide argument. Genetically modified crops, in this case Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) infected potatoes will be resistant to alien invaders, allowing farmers to cut back on pesticide. In fact, biological controls will increasingly replace chemicals to control all manner of pests and diseases.

That argument worked for me. After all, with around 3300 tonnes of pesticides finding their way into our ecosystem annually, anything that reduces them has to be a plus.

Then there's the productivity angle. GM crops will produce more for less effort. Or as Lincoln University's Dr Colin Eady, from Crop and Food Research, puts it, genetic modification allows for the production of safe, sustainable and efficient food supplies.

Eady, who seems typical of New Zealand scientists, says his motivation comes from a desire to reduce the harm done to the environment. He believes his vision is complementary with a green viewpoint.

I see the virtue of a world in which biotechnology, and not poisons, is used to specifically deal with pests and disease - a world that can provide plentiful nutritious and varied food with reduced impact on natural environments and free of poisons like 1080, varroa mites and painted apple moths; a world without possums; and, most especially, a world able to deal with the problems of famine.

But ask Dr Suman Sahai about resolving famine through genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and she's dismissive. Dr Sahai is part of the Gene Campaign in India, an organisation dedicated to protecting genetic resources, strengthening self-reliance in agriculture and sustainable food production.

According to Dr Sahai, the first commercial Bt cotton in India, grown under normal local conditions, either did poorly or failed altogether. Even so, a report published in the reputable journal Science hailed the crop a huge success.

Now here's the really disturbing part. The article, which is being widely quoted, is based exclusively on data supplied by the company that owns the Bt cotton, Mahyco Monsanto. To make it worse, the figures were based on a few selected trial plots belonging to the company, not farmers' fields.

But it's not only India. The antipathy to GM foods is spreading to other Third World countries.

Last year Zambia refused 63,000 tonnes of GM corn from the United States.

And across Africa there's a growing concern that the US is taking advantage of famines to dump genetically modified foods on starving populations, which, in turn, depresses prices and destroys local markets

Then there's the issue of the growing importance of organic produce. Even though our own scientists want to believe they share the green agenda, the organic brigade does not agree.

In short, with worldwide demand for organic produce rising at about 10 per cent a year, European consumers are rejecting GM food as if it were the plague.

The American response to consumer rejection of GM is to blame tightened European labelling laws for fuelling fear. In fact, Americans, just like people in Africa and Europe, want to be able to make informed choices about what they eat.

In February a collaborative study by 12 US universities found that 93 per cent of Americans wanted GM food labelling.

But under present regulations it's an offence to label food as genetically modified.

That's because US food law recognises only outcome and not process - so a tomato is a tomato no matter its composition or how it's grown.

There are many other areas of concern, from contamination of non-GM crops and lack of compensation for the contaminated - in New Zealand as in the US - to the compromising involvement of agribusiness in pushing for and controlling the development of GM products and markets, to fundamental concerns about GM safety.

For example, new research just in by scientists at Imperial College London and the Universidad Simon Rodrigues in Caracas, Venezuela, has found that Bt, the same naturally occurring poison that New Zealand scientists are preparing to insert into potatoes - seems to be acting as a "supplementary food protein", nourishing the pests they have been specially engineered to kill.

According to the research, one of the key benefits of GM - crops that come equipped with their own pesticide - is being radically undermined, striking at the heart of genetic engineering in agriculture. The report also suggests an even greater threat to organic farming than has been envisaged.

Pete Riley, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth, said: "If we'd come up with the suggestion that crops engineered to kill pests could make them bigger and healthier instead, we'd have been laughed out of court."

Given all the loose ends of this debate and the safety and moral implications of the development and use of GM, you have to ask why New Zealand, a small, perfectly formed country, isolated in the middle of the South Pacific, is rushing to embrace a technology that has the potential to destroy its most compelling international advantage - being GM-free.

Herald Feature: Genetic Engineering