Ethiopia goes organic to feed herself - The Institute of Science In ...

Ethiopia goes organic to feed herself - The Institute of Science In ...

Science in Society

ISSUE 23 Autumn 2004 £3.50

E t h i o p i a g o e s o r g a n i c t o f e e d h e r s e l f

Rice Wars: high-yield low-input systems trump GM rice

Delivering good health through good food - Selenium for AIDS

Toxic pharm crops unregulated in US - Europe to grow plant vaccines in South Africa

New Age of Water from biochemistry to conciousness

In this issue

One Bird - Ten



- page 17


Without Caution

- page 40


Investment Busy

Going Nowhere

- page 23

Is Water Special?

- page 47


From the Editor

Greening Ethiopia for Self-Sufficiency

Greening Ethiopia

The Tigray Project

Organic Production for Ethiopia

Rice Wars

Fantastic Rice Yields Fact or Fallacy?

New Rice for Africa

Top Indian Rice Geneticist Rebuts SRI


Does SRI Work?

One Bird - Ten Thousand Treasures

Corporate Patents vs People in GM Rice

Promises & Perils of GM Rice

Two Rice Better than One

Freeing the World from GM

Biotech Investment Busy Going


Superbug with Anthrax Genes

Approval of Bt11 Maize Endangers

Humans and Livestock

Pharm Crop Products in US Market

Ban Plant-Based Transgenic



















Collusion and Corruption in GM Policy

Questions over Schmeiser's Ruling

DNA in GM Food & Feed

GM Trees Alert

No to GM Trees

Low Lignin GM Trees and Forage Crops

Technology Watch

Bio-remediation Without Caution

ISP News

ISP to FAO: GM Crops Not the Answer

Rethinking Health

Selenium Conquers AIDS?

Delivering Good Health Through Good


New Age of Water

Is Water Special?

The 'Wholiness' of Water

Water Forms Massive Exclusion Zones

Full references and sources are available to ISIS members on the ISIS members website













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The Institute of Science in Society

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ISSN 1477-3430

Editor & Art Director: Mae-Wan Ho

Assistant Editor: Lim Li Ching

Production Editor: Julian Haffegee

Production Assistant: Andrew Watton

Marketing and PR: Sam Burcher

Associate Editors: Joe Cummins, Peter

Saunders, Claire Robinson and Peter


Other Contributors to this Issue:

Henry Becker, Sue Edwards, A.



Sam Burcher

tel: 44 20 7383 3376

ISIS Director:

Mae-Wan Ho

tel: 44 20 7272 5636

Front cover illustration "Night garden"

by Li Poon; Back cover photo by Mae-

Wan Ho

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From the Editor Corporations coveting our rice

Rice, the staple food crop for more than half the world's population, among

them the poorest, is the current target of genetic modification, an activity that

has greatly intensified after the rice genome was announced two years ago

(see "Rice is life" series, SiS 15, 2002). Since then, all major biotech giants

are investing in rice research, with the clear intent of exercising monopolistic

rights through gene patenting and genetic modification.

At the same time, a low-input cultivation system that really benefits small

farmers worldwide has been spreading, but is dismissed by the scientific

establishment as "unscientific". This is one among several recent innovations

that increase yields and ward off disease without costly and harmful inputs,

all enthusiastically and widely adopted by farmers in Asia and Africa.

A war is building up between the corporations and the peoples of the

world for the possession of rice. The food security of billions is at stake, as is

their right to grow the varieties of rice they have created and continue to create,

and in the manner they choose.

We bring you a comprehensive exposé of how the scientific establishment

is serving the corporate agenda against peoples' interests.


Ethiopia goes organic

Famines and Ethiopia have become

irrevocably linked in the public mind

since Bob Geldof's Live Aid Concert in

the 1980s. But big changes are afoot. We

carried the first exclusive report (Science

in Society 16, 2002) on how Ethiopia is

determined to feed herself. This success

story is now told in full.

A project with small beginnings,

based on introducing the traditional

Indian farming practice of pit composting,

has increased yields over and above

chemical fertilizers and turned barren

degraded land into productive greenery.

The results are so impressive that the

Ethiopian government is ready to adopt

organic agriculture as one of its strategies

for food security. Ethiopia is taking

the lead in delivering not just food security

to the nation: but good quality, nutritious

food free from agrochemicals and a

clean environment, which are crucial to

delivering good health. This is what every

country in the world should be doing, rich

or poor.

The composting package was first

introduced in 1996 to the northern state

of Tigray by distinguished Ethiopian ecologist,

Dr Tewolde Berhan Gebre

Egziabher, recipient of the Right

Livelihood award. Tewolde (what his

friends call him) is no stranger in international

politics. As representative of the

Ethiopian government and African Union,

he has been championing the rights of

the poorest countries at the FAO

Commission on Plant Genetic

Resources, and played a key role in the

successful negotiation of the Cartagena

Biosafety Protocol for regulating genetically

modified organisms.

We are privileged to have the inside

story told by Sue Edwards, the Director

of the Institute for Sustainable

Development in Addis Ababa, who

shared responsibility of the Tigray project

with Tewolde.

New age of water

Water has come of age. It is cool on everyone's lips. Decades of research on

water is yielding remarkable insights into its dynamic collective structures,

and changing our big picture of life and living process.

Organisms are seventy to eighty percent water. Is this water necessary to

life? What vital functions does it serve?

Entire biochemistry and cell biology textbooks are still being written without

ever mentioning the role of water. It is simply treated as the inert medium

in which all the specific biochemical reactions are being played out.

Instead, recent findings are raising the possibility that it is water that's

stage-managing the biochemical drama of life. Water is life, it is the key to

every living activity. Some people will even say it is the seat of consciousness.

Nowhere else will you find such a feast for the discerning mind. And there

will be more in the coming issues.

Ban pharm crops

As one after another biotech giant retreated from GM crops for food and feed

in Europe amid massive losses and lack of investment, the desperate industry

is redoubling its efforts to use GM crops to produce transgenic pharmaceuticals

in North America and elsewhere.

These pharm crops pose a range of health hazards; as documented in

numerous reviews in past and present issues of SiS: allergies, immune-suppression,

immune sensitization followed by anaphylaxis, oral tolerance leading

to loss of immunity to pathogens. An AIDS vaccine produced in the maize

crop has been compared to the release of a "slow bioweapon". What have our

governments been doing to protect the public?

Prof. Joe Cummins uncovered a major scandal: these pharm crops have

been produced and marketed in the United States for at least two years

behind our backs, via a gaping loophole in the regulatory process. This has

galvanised public interest organisations to call for a moratorium on the

release of transgenic pharm rice in California.

Meanwhile, the European Union announced the award of 12 million euros

to a "Pharma-Planta" consortium, a network of laboratories in 11 European

countries plus South Africa to develop pharm crops for vaccines and treatments

for AIDS, rabies, diabetes and TB. South Africa's role is to be the testing

ground for the first pharm crops.

The exploitation of Third World countries to produce transgenic pharmaceuticals

unacceptable in Europe and the United States harks back to the

days of colonialism, and raises the spectre of unmonitored and unregulated

human exposures to the dangerous products without the informed consent of

those directly affected. This will become worse as opposition grows in North

America and Europe.

We are calling for a global forum to alert people to the dangers as well as

the "benefits" (see p.29). Meanwhile, it is imperative to impose a global ban

on field test releases and biopharmaceutical production, especially in Third

World countries.


Greening Ethiopia for Self-Sufficiency

Greening Ethiopia

Sue Edwards reports on the challenges and opportunities facing Ethiopia

as steps are taken to reverse the ecological and social damages that have

locked the country in poverty

Above: Pit composting training (photo by Solomon Hailemariam).

Left: Sue Edwards and Tewolde Egziabher (photo by Mae-Wan Ho)


Ethiopia is a land-locked country in

the 'Horn of Africa' to the northeast

of Africa. Its topography is very

diverse, encompassing mountains

over 4000 m above sea level, high

plateaus, deep gorges cut by rivers

and arid lowlands including the Afar

Depression 110 m below sea level.

The South Westerly is one of the


three moisture-bearing

wind syst

e m s .


from the

S o u t h

Atlantic, it

brings the greatest amount of moisture

during the wet season (June-

August). The mean annual rainfall

is highest (above 2 700 mm) in the

southwestern highlands, gradually

decreasing to below 200 mm in the

southeastern lowlands, and to 100

mm or less in the northeastern lowlands.

The mean temperature

ranges from a high of 45°C (April-

September) in the Afar Depression

to 0°C or lower at night in the highlands


Ethiopia's population was 53.48

million in 1994, of which 86.3 percent

was rural. It grew at the rate of

2.9 percent per annum between

1984 and 1994; by 2003, it was

estimated to have exceeded 67 million

and could reach 94.5 million by

2015. The population has an average

age of just 21.8 years, with

44% under 15 years and the group

15 to 25 years making up more than

20%. School enrolment has

increased, but the literacy rate

remains about 35%. There is a high



dependency ratio and although official

unemployment is around 3%, it

exceeds 30% in the urban youth,

while under-employment is widespread

in the rural population.

The country currently faces a

number of environmental challenges

resulting directly or indirectly

from human activities, exacerbated

by rapid population growth and

the consequent increase in the

exploitation of natural resources.

The challenges range from land

degradation to environmental pollution,

due to the misguided application

of chemicals in agriculture, for

domestic purposes or for the manufacture

of industrial products.

Ethiopia has accumulated one of

the largest stockpiles of obsolete

pesticides in the continent, estimated

to be around 3000 tonnes in

2003. The misuse of natural

resources includes burning dung as

fuel, instead of using it as a soil

conditioner. Losses to crop production

from burning dung and soil erosion

are estimated at over 600,000

tonnes annually, or twice the average

yearly requests for food aid.


Ethiopia is one of the least developed

countries in the world, and its

economy rests mainly on agriculture.

It accounts for more than 75

percent of total exports, over 85

percent of employment; and about

45 percent of the GDP (gross

domestic product). Coffee alone

makes up more than 87 percent of

the total agricultural exports. Hides

and skins are the next most important

export items, as raw,

processed or manufactured goods.

Several seasonal and perennial

crops are grown. The main ones

are cereals (tef, barley, maize,

wheat, sorghum, oats and finger

millet), root crops (enset, Irish,

sweet and indigenous potatoes,

taro, yams), pulses (horse bean,

fenugreek, field pea, haricot bean,

chickpea, grass pea and lentil), oil

crops (niger seed, linseed, safflower,

rapeseed, groundnut, safflower

and sesame), vegetables

(cabbage, tomato, hot peppers,

pumpkin, onions and garlic) and

many herbs and spices. The major

cash and industrial crops are coffee,

tea, citrus, papaya, banana,

avocado, mango, oil seeds, pulses,

cotton, sisal, tobacco, fruits, vegetables,

spices, sugar cane and

chat (also called mira).

Agriculture is one of the key

sectors in which to devote efforts in

accelerating socio-economic development

and reducing poverty.

Problems of chemical inputs

The Sasakawa Global 2000 (SG-

2000) programme was started by

the Ministry of Agriculture in 1995

to boost food crop production

through a focused campaign to get

farmers to use chemical fertilizer

along with high yielding varieties

(HYVs) and pesticides. However, it

promoted only the adoption of fertilizer

through credit schemes and

subsidized prices. Prior to 1995,

Ethiopia had one of the lowest per

capita uses of fertilizer in the world.

Under SG-2000, farmers were

allowed to select and use the best

of their own local varieties rather

than buy seed of HYVs. Very little

use of pesticides has developed

except for dealing with migratory

pests, particularly armyworm, and

local swarms such as Pachnoda

beetles on sorghum and the

endemic Wello Bush Cricket on


Since 1998, the subsidy on fertilizer

has been withdrawn while the

price of fertilizer has risen. Despite

that, by 2001, around 5% of the

smallholder farmers of the country,

particularly those growing maize,

had become accustomed to using

fertilizer. But that year, the price

dropped out of the bottom of the

maize market and the farm gate

price in some areas fell to the

equivalent of US$1.50 per 100 kg of


In 2002, many farmers were

heavily in debt and withdrew from

the fertilizer schemes. Many parts

of the country were also hit by

drought with the result that yields

declined, or crops failed completely

and the government requested food

aid for more than 14 million people,

nearly a quarter of the total population.

Expanding horticultural production

is making increasing use of

chemical inputs, often with little or

no understanding of either how to

handle those chemicals safely, or

how to use them correctly. For

example, a survey by the local Safe

Environment Association and PAN-

UK (Pesticide Action Network, UK)

found malathion being sprayed on

the leaves of the local stimulant,

chat (Catha edulis), in order to

make them shiny and more attractive

to purchasers. Another group of

farmers had been using DDT to

control insect pests on chat until

they associated increasing stomach

problems with the use of the chemical.

The use of agrochemicals in

smallholder agriculture is rapidly

increasing; and this is in addition to

the substantial amounts already

deployed on the few large-scale

farms, particularly cotton farms.

The misuse of pesticides and fertilizers

is damaging human health

and polluting the surrounding environment.

Greening Ethiopia

The Environmental Policy of

Ethiopia has incorporated a basic

principle similar to one adopted in

organic agriculture: "Ensure that

essential ecological processes and

life support systems are sustained,

biological diversity is preserved and

renewable natural resources are

used in such a way that their regenerative

and productive capabilities

are maintained, and, where possible,

enhanced...; where this capacity

is already impaired to seek

through appropriate interventions a

restoration of that capability."

Key elements of the policy cover

soil husbandry and sustainable

agriculture, and can support the

development of more specific policy

and regulations for organic agriculture.

These include promoting the

use of appropriate organic matter

and nutrient management for

improving soil structure, nutrient

status and microbiology; maintaining

traditional integration of crop

and animal husbandry in the highlands,

and enhancing the role of

pastoralists in the lowlands; promoting

water conservation; focusing

agricultural research and extension

on farming and land use systems

as a whole, with attention to

peculiarities of local conditions;

promoting agroforestry/farm

forestry; ensuring that potential

costs of soil degradation through

erosion, chemical degradation and

pollution are taken into account;

shifting the emphasis in crop breeding

to composites and multi-lines to

increase adaptability to environmental

changes and to better resist

pests and diseases; using biological

and cultural methods, resistant

or tolerant varieties or breeds, and

integrated pest and disease management

in preference to chemical

controls; and applying the precautionary

principle in making decisions.

This enabling policy context

dovetails with a unique experiment

in sustainable development and

ecological land management conducted

with farmers in Tigray (see

following article).



The Tigray Project

Sue Edwards reports on a project that could launch Ethiopia on her way to self-sufficiency

Above: Adi-Nifas-1997 & 2003 "Is there sufficient biomass in Ethiopia to make

Right: Farmer with maize cobs adequate quantities of compost?" This is the

grown with (L) and without

question most often raised whenever there is

compost (R)

All photos by Solomon any suggestion that Ethiopia could use organic

principles to increase crop yields.


In 1995, Dr Tewolde Berhan Gebre

Egziabher, on behalf of the Institute for Sustainable Development

(ISD), was asked by some government officials to design a project

that could be promoted with farmers of poor and marginal areas in

order to improve the productivity of their land and rehabilitate their

environments. The project started in 1996 under the supervision of

the Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resources (BoANR) of Tigray.

The other partners in the project are Mekele University, the local

communities and their local administration.

Project activities in four communities were established in

1996/97 and 1997/98. After 2000, the project was extended to 11

other communities, with more than 634 people now participating.

Much effort has been made to include households headed by

women in the project because these are generally among the poorest

of the poor in their villages.

Since 2002, the BoANR has been promoting the compost-making

'package' - trench bunding and planting multipurpose trees, particularly

Sesbania - in over 90 communities within 25 Woredas

(administrative districts) in the more marginal areas of the Region.

In November 2001, ISD had some preliminary yield data showing

the positive effects of using compost (first reported in SiS 16).

More data on yields were collected in 2002, and these were

equally impressive. Compost generally gave the highest yields,

often out-performing chemical fertilizers, in a variety of crops and

over the entire range of ecosystems from the moister areas in

Southern Tigray with fertile alluvial soil, to the deforested Central

Zone with moderate rainfall, and the arid Eastern Zone with poor,

thin sandy soil (see below).

As each community grows a different mix of crops types and

varieties, only the data that could be compared are presented. It

should be noted that 2002 was a drought year, and many crops

failed altogether. For example, only Adi Gua'edad and Adibo Mossa

had successful harvests of faba bean; field pea only in Adibo Mossa;

and finger millet only in Guroro and Adi Nifas. In years with better

rainfall, most communities would grow at least one pulse crop.

Comparing yields

An important feature of the Tigray Project is that it is to a large extent

led by the farmers. They choose which crops to treat with compost

and which with chemical fertilizer. Sampling was done with the farmers.

Fields were designated/chosen with the farmers and 3 onemeter

square plots were cut and threshed, and the straw and grain

weighed separately with the farmers.

Each figure presented in the tables is the average from several

fields of the same crop variety in the same area given the same

treatment. 'Check' means the field received no treatment in 2002,

although it may have received compost in one or more previous

years. 'Compost' is for fields treated with mature compost. The rates

of application range from around 50 q/ha (1 quintal = 100 kg, hence

50 q can be represented as 5000 kg) in poorly endowed areas, such

as the dry Eastern Zone of the Region (Zeban Sas and Gu'emse),

to around 150 q/ha in the moister Southern Zone (Adibo Mossa).

'Chemical fertilizer' is for fields treated with DAP (diammonium phosphate)

and urea. The recommended rates are 100 kg/ha of DAP,

and 50 kg/ha of urea.

The original data were collected site by site, but here they have



Figure 1. Maize yields in 5 sites

Figure 2. Tef yields in 8 sites.

Figure 3. Wheat yields in 6 sites.

Figure 4. Barley yields in 6 sites.

been compiled by crop: figures 1-4 for maize, tef, wheat and barley,

respectively. Table 1 gives the yields for faba bean, field pea and finger

millet for 2002 with yields for 1998/99 for the Southern Zone

included for comparison.

The farmers' experience

As the data show, yield increases whenever compost is applied. The

yields from compost are comparable, and higher than those from

chemical fertilizer. Farmers who have learnt how to make and use

compost effectively are not interested in continuing to use chemical

fertilizer, i.e. they have willingly withdrawn the use of chemical fertilizer

without any loss in production. Some farmers are even making

their own observations on comparing compost with animal dung

and/or chemical fertilizer.

It is interesting that the yields of the check and composted crops

(maize, wheat, barley, field pea and faba bean) in Adibo Mossa in

the Southern Zone show little difference. The farmers here apply

about 150 q/ha of compost to their fields, the highest rate of any of

the sites. It is possible that the soil is sufficiently rehabilitated (since

1998) to give good yields without compost being applied every year.

Farmers, development agents, and ISD staff have identified the

Table 1: Yields (q/ha) for faba bean, field pea and finger millet in 4 sites;

1998 compared with 2002.

Crop/Location/year Check Compost Chemical fertilizer

Finger Millet/ Adi Nefas/02 4.2 16.8

Finger Millet/ Guroro/02 5.1 11.1

Faba Bean / Adibo Mossa/98 3.4 15.0

Faba Bean / Adibo Mossa/02 25.7 26.3

Field Pea / Adibo Mossa/98 2.5 12.8

Field Pea / Adibo Mossa/02 26.4 27.7

Faba Bean / Adi Gua'edad/02 23.8 34.0 34.9

following as the positive effects of using compost:

• Yields as good and often better than those from using chemical


• Maintaining or increasing agro-biodiversity

• Reduced weed loads in composted fields

Increased moisture retention capacity of soil

• Plants grown with compost more resistant to pest and disease

than crops treated with chemical fertilizer.

• Compost has a residual effect on soils; farmers do not need to

apply compost each year

• Farmers have been able to get out of debt from buying chemical


• Foods made from composted grain have a better flavour than

foods made from crops treated with chemical fertilizer

Some farmers diversified their production once the quality of

their land improved. For example, one farmer in Adi Nifas now regularly

plants vegetables, particularly tomato and chilli pepper in his

tef field. These do not interfere with the tef, maturing after the grain

is harvested and bringing the farmer additional income.

In Adi Nifas, where the main gullies and hillside were treated

with check dams at the start of the project, the stream from the hillside

now holds water all year round, and

several farmers downstream have developed

irrigated vegetable production after

they harvested their grain crops. They are

able to regularly get two crops a year.

Many farmers have also started to plant

fruit trees, both around their homesteads

and in rehabilitated gullies.

The data from the Tigray project were

collected by Arefaine Asmelash and Hailu

Araya, and analysed and compiled by Hailu

Araya, Sustainable Community

Development Team Leader in ISD. SiS


Organic Production for Ethiopia

The success of the Tigray Project will now be consolidated by government policy. Sue Edwards reports

Adi-Nifas hill top photo by

Solomon Hailemariam

Spurred by the successes of the Tigray

Project, the Ethiopian government has stated

its interest to increase the capacity of

farmers to use organic methods of crop production.

The Rural Development Policy, meanwhile,

emphasizes the need to improve

local marketing infrastructure, and also to

develop agricultural products to diversify the

economic base of the country.

Last year, the government announced it

will support the development of organic

agriculture, and a task force was established

to draw up an Ethiopian Organic

Agriculture Regulation, which can become

law, and a Regulation for Organic

Agriculture Products to describe how organic

products are defined, and what may or

may not be used in their growing and processing.

The documents cover crop and

animal production, as well as food processing

and marketing, with the second document

providing a basis for a local organic

certification scheme.

The international trade in organic products

is an expanding niche market that

Ethiopia is geographically well situated to

exploit. Already, some communities in the

south and southwest have started to develop

and export Arabica coffee with an organic

and fair trade label.

There is also expanding awareness of

the importance of producing healthy fruits

and vegetables for the expanding educated

middle-class and expatriate market in Addis

Ababa. For example, Genesis Farm started

three years ago and production now covers

over 40 ha. The farm combines dairy and

poultry production with growing vegetables,

fruits and ornamental plants. It is totally

organic and sells certified products on the

export market. However, there is a fast

expanding local market and it is interesting

to note that none of the items sold by

Genesis are more expensive than other

locally produced items, and several are

even cheaper. When I recently visited the

farm, there were local workers buying their

vegetables from the farm shop.

As a further development, the administration

of the Woreda (administrative district)

with one of the best sites of the Tigray

Project, now wants to have the whole

Woreda involved in the project. This will

include 2 100 farming families divided in 16

'parishes'. To start this ambitious up-scaling,

9 parishes (4 from before and 5 new ones)

have been chosen to be involved in the project

this year.

At the invitation of the local administration,

over 200 farmers and their local development

agents and experts gathered for a

4-day workshop in July 2004, including one

day of field visits, to hear testimonies and

discuss the challenge of extending real land

care and improved production techniques

based on composting and water harvesting

to over 1000 farming families.

Both men and women told how using

compost, harvesting water and rehabilitating

the land had turned their lives around

from near starvation to food security and

better living. The most remarkable feature

of this workshop was the complete confidence

of the farmers in presenting their

cases after the local experts only made

some introductory remarks. The farmers

referred to the experts as their "parents" and

"mentors" in bringing about their new lives.

Another exciting element is the involvement

of the local justice system, the 'social

courts', to help uphold and enrich local bylaws,

to back up improvements to land and

its management.

The experience with the farmers in

Tigray in producing and using compost

shows that the aim for Ethiopia to have a

substantial number of farmers producing

organically can be realized. It also shows

that the introduction of ecologically sound

organic principles can have very quick positive

impacts on the productivity and wellbeing

of smallholder farmers so that they do

not necessarily have to face a conversion

period of reduced yields as they change

from chemical to organic production. Most

farmers, particularly those in marginal

areas, are not able to afford external inputs,

so for them an organic production management

system offers a real and affordable

means to break out of poverty and obtain

food security.

It is important to bear in mind that

although it may be external market interests

that initially stimulate the development of a

policy environment for organic agriculture,

the benefits should be available to all members

of the local society to build a healthy

and food-secure future for Ethiopia.

Sue Edwards is the Director of the

Institute for Sustainable Development,

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and co-editor of the

seven-volume Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

ISD would like to acknowledge the

unfailing support of the Third World Network

for the Tigray work.


Rice Wars


Fantastic Rice Yields Fact or Fallacy?

A low-input rice cultivation system invented in Madagascar and spreading all over the world is apparently exposed as without

scientific basis. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho investigates

Rice feeds more than half the world's population,

but yields of the crop have been

levelling out, and 400 million are said to

endure chronic hunger in rice-producing

areas of Asia, Africa and South America.

According to the United Nations, demand

for rice is expected to rise by a further 38%

within 30 years. To call attention to the problem,

2004 has been declared the

International Year of Rice. "Rice is on the

front line in the fight against world hunger

and poverty", said Jacques Diouf, directorgeneral

of the UN Food and Agriculture


Many farmers all over Asia have

already identified low-input, sustainable

solutions to the problem (see other articles

in this series).

One simple method that boosts rice

yields at much lower cost to farmers originated

outside Asia. The System of Rice

Intensification (SRI) developed in the late

1980s in Madagascar, has since been

spreading to other parts of Africa and to

Asia. In Madagascar itself, some 100 000

farmers have converted to it. And more

than 20 other countries, from Bangladesh

to Thailand, have either adopted SRI, or

field tested it, or expressed firm interest. In

Cambodia, SRI was unheard of in 2000,

but by 2003, nearly 10 000 farmers had

converted to it, and that figure may reach

50 000 this year.

Advocates of SRI routinely report yields

up to twice or more those achieved by conventional


However, eminent agronomists are dismissing

those claims as "poor record keeping

and unscientific thinking"; and results of

new field trials, published in March 2004 in

the journal Field Crop Research, appear to

support this view.

History of SRI

SRI was developed nearly 20 years ago by

Father Henri de Laulanié, a Jesuit priest

who worked with farming communities in

Madagascar from 1961 until his death in

1995. In conventional rice growing, the

plants spend most of the season partially

submerged in water. During a 1983

drought, many farmers could not flood their

paddy fields, and de Laulanié noticed that

the rice plants, in particular, their roots,

showed unusually vigorous growth.

From this and other observations, de

Laulanié developed the SRI practice: rice

seedlings are transplanted quickly when

young, spaced widely apart, and most

importantly, the rice fields are kept moist but

not flooded. In addition, he emphasized

using organic compost over chemical fertilizers,

so that poor and rich farmers alike

could practise SRI.

Norman Uphoff, a political scientist and

director of the International Institute for

Food, Agriculture and Development at

Cornell University in Ithaca, New York,

stepped into the picture in 1993. He was

part of a team trying to find alternatives to

the damaging types of slash and burn agriculture

that were destroying Madagascar's

rainforest. It was clear to Uphoff that if rice

yields in the area could be increased from

about 2 tonnes per hectare, as it was then,

a lot of forest could be saved. He came

across de Laulanié's not-for-profit organisation,

'Tefy Saina' meaning "to improve the


Uphoff was looking for a yield of 4

tonnes per hectare, and when he heard

them say they could get 5 or more, he did

not believe them. But such doubts vanished

once farmers in the rainforest regions

started using SRI. The results were stunning.

"By the end of the second growing

season we were getting 8 tonnes per

hectare". In 1997, Uphoff began promoting

SRI throughout Asia.

Why SRI benefits farmers, consumers

and the environment

SRI's benefits lie in important differences

from conventional rice growing practice,

which, proponents believe, interact synergistically

to give high yields.

First, seedlings are transplanted at 8-12

days instead of 15 to 30 days after germination,

singly as opposed to 2-3 seedlings,

and spaced up to 6 times apart compared

to traditional practice; for example, up to

50cm x 50cm instead of 20cm x 20cm. This

represents a substantial saving on seeds,

up to ten-fold or more in some cases. The

increased spacing has the effect of encouraging

tillers or side shoots to develop quickly,

giving many more rice-forming panicles

per plant.

Second, the fields are kept moist during

all or most of the growing season instead of

being flooded continuously. This tremendous

saving on water is particularly important

in areas of water scarcity, and avoids

the damages of salination that accompanies

over-irrigation. It also encourages vigorous

root development, which in turn gives

more vigorous growth of the rice plants.

Third, no herbicides are used. Weeding

is done by hand or, preferably, a simple

rotary hoe, which returns the weeds to the

soil as green manure. This financial saving

is offset by increased labour, but labour

shortage is seldom a problem for farmers in

the Third World, and weeding becomes

less arduous in successive years. Giving

up herbicides is a health bonus for all concerned:

the farm worker most of all, and the

consumer; and there is no pollution of the

environment and ground water.

Fourth, no mineral fertilizers are used,

only liberal application of organic compost.

This financial saving is accompanied by an

improvement to the quality and fertility of

soil, reducing runoff, and improving its

water-retaining properties.

Despite its early start in Madagascar,

SRI has only begun in other countries since

2000, and already, positive results are

pouring in (see "Does SRI work?" this


Critical scientists

Major critics of SRI include John Sheehy,

an agronomist at the International Rice

Research Institute (IRRI) in Manila, the

Philippines. He said most SRI field studies

have appeared in conference proceedings

and other publications not subject to peer


That is hardly surprising given the lack

of interest from mainstream scientists, and

its relatively recent uptake in countries other

than Madagascar.

In March 2004, Sheehy, together with

IRRI researcher Shaobing Peng, A.

Dobermann of the University of Nebraska,

Lincoln in the United States, and other

researchers from Sheffield University in the

UK; from Yangzhou University, Jiangsu,

Hunan Agricultural University, Changsha,

and Guangdong Academy of Agricultural

Science, Guangdong, China, published

their first trials of SRI under the telling title,

"Fantastic yields in the system of rice intensification:

fact or fallacy?"

This report was written up as a news

feature in the top journal Nature, under the

yet more telling title, "Feast or famine?" asking

whether SRI was a diversion from

"more promising approaches" to increasing

yield such as genetic engineering.

Sheehy and coworkers planted a single

rice cultivar, shanyou 63, at three experimental

stations in Hunan, Guangdong and

Jiangsu provinces of China, using SRI and

conventional best practice in living-roomsized

(8 x 5m) plots in the same fields.

Weeds were suppressed with herbicides

on the conventional plots but pulled by

hand in the SRI plots. SRI plots received

extra rapeseed cake fertilizer. Conventional

plots were flooded as usual; SRI plots were

kept saturated and only flooded 2 weeks

before maturity.

Overall, no significant differences were

found between the two cropping systems.

SRI yielded 8.5% higher in Jiangsu, but

8.8% worse in Hunan.

Dobermann was reportedly "not sur-


prised", as he said every component of SRI

had been studied before and found to have

little effect. The results also fit Sheehy's theoretical

calculation of how much rice a field

can produce, an upper limit set by the

amount of sunlight falling on it. Based on

weather data for Madagascar, Sheehy calculated

theoretical maximum outputs for

areas that have reported the most impressive

yields of 21 tonnes/ha under SRI. By

his estimates, the yields are as much as 10

tonnes more than is possible. "You can't get

out more than gets put in," he reportedly


They concluded that, "SRI has no

major role in improving rice production generally".

That was a remarkable sweeping dismissal

of the extensive research and trials

done by both scientists and farmers on

numerous rice varieties in 19 countries over

two or more growing seasons. Especially

so, when the conclusions are based on the

results of limited trials of a single variety for

only one growing season.


Chinese scientists have experimented with

SRI since 2000, and their experience had

indicated that not all varieties responded to

SRI, and that responses improve in successive

seasons. Dobermann himself had

referred to the possibility of confounding

effects when SRI was compared to traditional

systems that did not represent the

current "best practice". Of course, what is

best practice for corporate agriculture is not

necessarily best practice for the farmer.

Thus, Sheehy and workers could have

stressed the obvious benefits to small farmers,

consumers and the environment, even

from the results of their own trials. They

have obtained the same yields with less

than half the seeds in SRI, with no inputs of

herbicides, and substantial saving on


Norman Uphoff pointed out, in a

detailed rebuttal to appear in Field Crop

Research, that Sheehy and colleagues

have simply not followed the SRI practice in

their trials. It did not include the measures

recommended for water management and

weeding to ensure active soil aeration.

Moreover, the high concentrations of

chemical fertilizers used with the putative

SRI plots (180-240 kg N/ha) would simply

have inhibited the soil activity that

enhances plant nutrition and growth.

"The merits of SRI methods have been

validated by scientists at leading institutions

in China, India and Indonesia, the largest

rice-producing countries in the world," he


Why are scientists in research stations

failing to replicate the enormous yield gain

with SRI methods obtained by farmers?

For example, IRRI started trials with SRI at

Los Baños in 2002, and obtained a yield of

only 1.44 t/ha; and the next season, it was


still just 3 t/ha. Yet, concurrent SRI trials in

the government's Agricultural Training

Centre in Mindanao, using three varieties

(PSBRc18, 72H and 82) yielded an average

of 12 t/ha.

When asked by IRRI staff why this discrepancy

occurred, Uphoff suggested that

IRRI's on-station soils, after decades of

monocropping and application of fertilizers,

insecticides, fungicides, herbicides etc.,

might be "almost dead", and hence unable

to respond to SRI practices, which depend

on increasing the abundance and diversity

of soil microorganisms to enhance plant

growth and health.

The basis for dismissing the high yields

obtained in some parts of Madagascar as

"fallacy" is highly questionable. It rests on a

'model' for predicting theoretical maximum

yield using 'constants' derived solely from

empirical observations on conventionally

grown crops, which have no independent

justification in terms of the plant's metabolism.

For example, biomass accumulation

depends on the balance between photosynthesis

(which builds up biomass) and

respiration (which decreases it), and that

can change under different conditions. A

healthy plant is also more efficient in using

energy and accumulating biomass than an

unhealthy one.

An indication that yields more than 20

tonnes/ha may not be "impossible" is that

such yields have been recorded for rice

growing systems in China in historical


Professor Yuan Longping, an expert in

breeding high-yielding hybrid rice, who

brought SRI to China, stated, "According to

the estimates of most plant physiologists,

rice can use about 5% of solar energy

through photosynthesis. Even if this figure

is discounted by 50%, the yield potential of

rice would be as high as 22-23 t/ha in temperate


Uphoff maintained that the critics'

assumptions are too firmly rooted in conventional

practice. Models for estimating

maximum yields will not necessarily translate

to SRI. "The coefficients for the calculations

are based on plants with stunted

root systems. SRI plants have extensive

root systems," he said.

Nor will single-season trials reveal the

full potential of SRI, because over time, better

oxygenation leads to the build-up of soil

bacteria that interact with the roots and

improve the condition of the soil. Even if

SRI fails to increase yields when first introduced,

as was the case in Thailand, for

example, further seasons will see it come

into its own.

Proponents insist that SRI is popular

because it really increases yields impressively.

T.H. Thiyagarajan, dean of the

Agricultural College and Research Institute

in Killikulam, India, rejects criticisms of individual

aspects of SRI. In combination, he

says, the whole is greater than the sum of

its parts. "The synergistic effect of all these

components is the crucial thing." He helped

convince the Tamil Nadu state government

to spend US$50 000 to promote SRI to

local farmers.

In fact, the individual components have

been tested in Madagascar and other

countries, and each component was found

to increase yield. The one that appeared to

give the most increase was transplanting

younger seedlings. But this practice is

more challenging for inexperienced farmers

used to handling sturdier older


New evidence

Norman Uphoff's weighty response drew

attention to new evidence from scientists in

China (see "Does SRI work?" this series),

Indonesia and India. SRI evaluations were

started in Tamil Nadu Agricultural University

in India in 2001, and by 2003, it had

demonstrated such improvements in yield

and profitability that the state government

provided $50 000 for spreading SRI practice.

About half the rice crop in the Cauvery

Delta, the main rice-producing area of Tamil

Nadu, will be given over to SRI cultivation;

the farmers are so impressed with the size

of the harvest and cost savings, including

water, over the past two years.

While Sheehy and coworkers reported

that SRI crops took 2 weeks longer to

mature, that was most likely due to the soil

not being well drained and aerated. When

properly managed, crops mature more

quickly under SRI. In Andhra Pradesh SRI

crops matured 10 days earlier, while in

Cambodia, they ripened about one week

before the conventional crops.

The claim that SRI gave no advantage

compared with "best practice" or officially

recommended improved cultivation methods

is also refuted. In Nepal, farmers compared

SRI with their own usual practices

and 'improved' practice. In 2002, the average

SRI yield of 8.07 t/ha was 37% higher

than the average with improved practices,

and 85% higher than the average with

farmers' practices.

A. Satyanarayana, rice geneticist

responsible for introducing SRI in the

Indian state of Andhra Pradesh since the

summer season of 2003, responded to

Nature's news feature by pointing out that,

"The experiences of farmers are quite different

from what is reported by sceptical


More importantly, the costs of SRI are

low and its potential productivity very high,

which is "more important than ever now

that the Green Revolution technologies are

showing signs of fatigue."

He gave further evidence that SRI definitely

works for Andhra Pradesh farmers

and called on scientists to collaborate constructively

with farmers (see "Top Indian

rice geneticist rebuts SRI critics", this



Fantastic yields fact or fallacy; profusion of panicles; both courtesy of Dr. Zhu Defeng, China National Rice Research Institute, Zhejiang


New Rice for Africa

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports on a new rice

variety that is boosting rice yields for

farmers all over Africa

African rice species proliferate like

weeds, but are low yielding. Asian rice

species, brought to Africa 450 years

ago, are high yielding, but cannot

compete with weeds. Scientists at

West Africa Rice Development

Association (WARDA) succeeded in

crossing the two to produce "new rice

for Africa", or "Nerica", that combines

the ruggedness of local African rice

species with the high productivity of

the Asian rice.

This has happened at a time when

demand for rice is growing faster in

West Africa than anywhere else in the

world. Rice imports have increased

eight-fold over the past three decades

to more than 3 million tonnes a year,

at a cost of almost US$1 billion.

The African species lodges, or

falls over, when grain heads fill. It also

shatters easily, wasting more precious

grain. The higher-yielding Asian

species has largely replaced its

African cousin. But, West African

farmers in rainfed (dryland) areas

can't grow the semi-dwarf rice varieties

from Asia, because they don't

compete well with weeds, nor do they

tolerate drought and local pests. And

African farmers are too poor to buy

herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers.

Dr. Monty Jones, WARDA rice

breeder, initiated a biotechnology programme

in 1991, making use of the

1500 African rice varieties kept in

gene banks, which have faced extinction

as farmers abandoned them for

higher-yielding Asian varieties. A

number of international agricultural

research institutions were partners

with WARDA in creating Nerica, plus

farmers and national agricultural

research programmes in 17 African


The creation of "Nerica" involved

crossing the African with Asian

species, and 'rescuing' the inter-specific

hybrid embryos in tissue culture.

These hybrid embryos would otherwise

have died if left on the plants.

The panicles of Nerica hold up to

400 grains compared to the 75-100

grains of its African parents, and can

potentially double the production of

rice. Nerica also matures 30-50 days

earlier than traditional varieties, allowing

farmers to grow extra crops of

vegetables or legumes. They are

taller and grow better on the fertile,

acid soils that comprise 70% of the

upland rice area in the region. In addition,

it has 2% more protein than

either the Asian or African parents.

This is an instance of 'hybrid vigour' or


Nerica is not just one variety; it is

a family of more than 3 000 lines.

Savitri Mohapatra, Communication

and Information Officer of the Africa

Rice Center, said in reply to my

enquiry, "Hundreds of Nerica lines

have been developed and they are

true-breeding." In other words, farmers

can save and replant seeds, without

having to purchase seeds every

year. Poor farmers are therefore getting

the benefit of hybrid rice without

having to pay for it

every year.


research is the key to

the Nerica success

story. Farmers grew

several varieties and

provided valuable

feedback to the scientists.

The scientists

were able to learn

about the traits most

valued by farmers and

incorporate those into

the breeding programme.

More than

1300 farmers took

part in the 1998 project

to start growing

the new rice varieties

in Guinea. This was followed by a

1999 project to increase seed supply

at national level and a farmer awareness


In Guinea, farmers increased yield

by 50% without fertilizer and by more

than 200% with fertilizer.

Building on the success in Guinea,

WARDA and its partners joined forces

to scale up dissemination of Nerica

throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. This

culminated in the launch of The

African Rice Initiative (ARI) in March


According to ARI's projections, by

the end of the 5-year project (Phase

1), some 200 000 ha will be under

Nerica cultivation with a production of

nearly 750 000 tonnes per year,

achieving rice import savings worth

nearly US$90 million per year.

Nericas are spreading fast in Sub-

Saharan Africa. In 2002, Nerica 1, 2, 3

and 4 were the top varieties selected

by farmers in trials in Benin, Burkina

Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, The Gambia,

Ghana, Mali, Sierra Leone and Togo.

Within West Central Africa, Côte

most rice growers in

Africa are women

d'Ivoire released

the first two

Nerica varieties in

2000, and Nigeria

released one in

2003. Farmers in

The Gambia,

Guinea, and

Sierra Leone are

growing several

Nerica varieties.

In Benin, Gabon,

Mali and Togo,

several Nerica

varieties are

under extension.

Uganda has released a Nerica variety

as "Naric-3". Ethiopia, Madagascar,

Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania

are evaluating several Nerica varieties.

"In trials, we're getting yields as

high as 2.5 tonnes per hectare at low

inputs - and 5 tonnes or more with just

minimum increase in fertilizer use,"

says Dr. Monty Jones, who is to

receive the 2004 World Food Prize

jointly with Chinese Rice Breeder, Dr.

Yuan Longping, Director-General of

the China National Hybrid Rice

Research and Development Centre in

Changsha, Hunan (see "Does SRI

work?" this series).

"Barring unforeseen difficulties,"

says Hans Binswanger, Sector

Director of Rural Development and

the Environment of the World Bank,

"we anticipate a rapid growth of rice

production, leading to self-sufficiency

within three or four years. We expect

improved incomes and nutrition for

the rural population and more affordable

domestic rice for the urban population."




Top Indian Rice Geneticist

Rebuts SRI Critics

Dr. A Satyanarayana responds to

criticisms of SRI as someone

responsible for introducing the practice

to the Andhra Pradesh state of


I read the news feature "Rice cultivation:

feast or famine" in Nature

(25 March 2004) with great interest

as I was responsible for introducing

the System of Rice

Intensification (SRI) in the Indian

state of Andhra Pradesh since the

kharif (summer) season of 2003.

I found the message conveyed

by the article not quite balanced.

The experiences of farmers are

very different from what is said by

sceptical scientists. Instead of trying

to understand how a rice plant

can respond differently under an

SRI environment, they are confused

about the potential of SRI,

giving information based on rice

cultivation under flooded conditions

that are definitely not SRI


Having worked as a plant

geneticist for over 3 decades on

the genetic improvement of leguminous

crops under rice-based

cropping systems, I have released

34 varieties of various grain

legumes that are widely adopted in

rice-pulse or rice-rice-pulse cropping

systems covering over one

million hectares in the state. I have

been responsible, from 1995 to

2000, for research in the Krishna

and Godavari deltas, which, with

1.5 million ha of rice-growing area,

are known as the rice bowl of

Andhra Pradesh. At present, I am

Director of Extension for the state

agricultural university (ANGRAU)

and transfer of technology is my

job. So, I do know about the rice


In January 2003, I was able to

learn about SRI on a study tour to

Sri Lanka, and was amazed to see

the potential of this system. On

returning to Andhra Pradesh, I

started educating farmers on the

skills involved in SRI and motivated

them to take up this system on

a small scale in demonstration

plots. We planned to organise 50



ANGRAU's extension service and

150 through the State Department

of Agriculture. But more than 300

farmers took up SRI during the

summer season of 2003.

On average, the size of the

demonstration plot was 0.4 ha,

with the largest at 1.6 ha. As many

as 10 different varieties, chosen by

the farmers themselves, were tried

in all 22 districts of the state,

under different soil and irrigation

systems. The results achieved

were highly satisfactory, giving an

average yield advantage of over

2.0 t/ha. About 40 farmers got

yields over 10 t/ha, and 5 districts

had average yields over 10 t/ha.

The highest recorded was 16.2

t/ha followed by 15.7 t/ha.

The average over all the

demonstration plots was 8.36 t/ha

compared to 4.9 t/ha with conventional

practice and the state average

of 3.89 t/ha. These yields are

not theoretical. They were properly

recorded after thorough drying. On

seeing the performance of this

system, many farmers volunteered

to practice SRI during the current

winter season on more than 5 000

acres in the state.

Many farmers used SRI on over

10 acres. One farmer (Mr. N. V. R.

K. Raju) practiced SRI on over 100

acres (40 ha.), and an average

yield of more than 10 t/ha is

expected. I request sceptics to

visit Andhra Pradesh and see SRI

in practice before drawing conclusions.

Under SRI, the rice crop is

maturing 10 days earlier than with

usual cultivation practices, irrespective

of the variety, which is

contrary to what was stated in the

Nature news feature, that SRI

takes two weeks longer to mature.

Also, SRI required less water and

less chemical inputs. SRI gave

higher grain as well as straw yield.

Moreover, the SRI rice crop has

withstood cyclonic gales and a

cold spell.

It is unfortunate to say in the

headlines of the news feature that

proponents call SRI a "miracle".

No one has ever said this because

SRI results are quite explainable.

Planting young seedlings carefully

and at wider spacing gives the

plant more time and space for

tillering and root growth. Careful

water management keeping the

field wet and not flooded gives better

yield because it supports

healthy root growth. This practice

should be encouraged everywhere

as the whole world is facing water

shortages. Weeding rice fields with

a rotary weeder helps by churning

the soil and incorporating the weed

biomass as it aerates the root

zone. This encourages the soil

microorganisms to proliferate and

makes the soil living and healthy.

All of these practices are known to

agronomists, and there is nothing

new or magical.

The productivity of SRI as a

function of input is very high,

which is more important now as

the Green Revolution technologies

are showing fatigue. SRI has the

potential to give higher yields at

lower costs. Even when the farmers

were unable to practice all the

aspects the first season, just planting

young seedlings carefully at

wider spacing with somewhat better

water management resulted in

over 2.0 t/ha extra yield compared

to conventional methods using

higher inputs. With more experience

and mastering of skills, still

higher yields are possible, as

those obtained by the best farmers

clearly suggest.

Rice yields all over the world

have levelled out under the present

system of flooded cultivation.

Genotype x environment interactions

are known to affect the

plants' phenotype and performance.

We need to be looking for

alternatives to the present costly

practices with an open mind. SRI

is still evolving with the innovations

of the farmers making implements

and practices more laboursaving.

There is more than enough evidence

accumulated here and elsewhere

for scientists to take SRI

seriously. I hope that the scientific

community will collaborate in further

research. Possibly it can

refine the technology and reveal

the factors responsible for the

higher productivity observed. That

would be more constructive and

more in the spirit of science than

dismissing it with limited or faulty

data and preconceptions.

The author is Director of

Extension, Acharya N. G. Ranga

Agricultural University, Hyderabad-

500030, Andhra Pradesh, India,

and this article is adapted from his

response to the Nature news feature




Does SRI Work?

The first reality check of a low-input rice-growing

system took place two years ago and more successes

have been documented since.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports

The clearest sign that SRI works, if

not miracles, then certainly well

enough, is the number of participants

drawn to the first in-depth international

assessment of it.

Nearly a hundred people from 18

countries were listed as participants

in the 192-page proceedings of the 4-

day conference, which took place in

Sanya, China, in April 2002. More

than three-quarters were scientists,

with policy-makers, representatives of

non-government organisations, international

organisations, private companies

and farmers making up the

rest. Participants from the host country

China made up more than half of

the total, and all were scientists from

prestigious rice research institutes,

agriculture academies or universities.

The conference was convened,

not to assess whether SRI works - for

that was the experience of almost

everyone who presented papers at

the conference - but to assess across

nations, "the opportunities and limitations"

of a practice that "can give

yields about twice the present world

average without reliance on new varieties

or agrochemicals."

The conference did bring together

a substantial body of evidence from

around the world that SRI can

increase yield in a variety of soils, climatic

conditions, with various local

adaptations, and using both indigenous

and commercial 'high yielding'

rice varieties.

SRI has been "practice-led" thus

far, but participants at the conference

felt it was time for scientists to catch

up and research the knowledge-base,

so that a healthy dialectical relationship

between practice and knowledge

can be achieved to help advance this

important project of delivering food

security and health to more than half

the world's population.

Since then, more successes have

been reported, leaving the scientific

establishment even further behind

(see "Fantastic rice yields fact or fallacy?"

this series).

Super-yields in Madagascar

The province of Fianarantsoa, situated

in the south-central highlands of



Above: Professor Yuan Longping and Dr. Monty

Jones two rice breeders are joint recipients of

2004 World Food Prize

Left: sparser spacing and Right; profusion of

roots, both courtesy of Dr. Zhu Defeng, China

National Rice Research Institute, Zhejiang.

Madagascar, now lays claim to the

highest yielding rice-fields in the world

since the introduction of SRI in the


The highlands are subtropical,

with annual rainfall averaging

1375mm. The rainy season occurs

during the hot months in the year,

where the average temperature rises

above 20C. The Fianarantsoa region

is often affected by cyclones during

the rainy season.

Fianarantsoa attained rice yields

of more than 8 t/ha in the first year of

applying SRI methods, up from the 2

t/ha national average. SRI in this

region is increasingly linked with the

use of compost in rotational cropping

with potatoes, beans or other vegetables

in the off-season. In the second

and succeeding years, the residual

and cumulative effects of soil organic

matter from composting increased

yields still further, to 16 t/ha. By the

sixth year, yields as high as 20 t/ha

were measured on farmers' fields in

Tsaramandroso, Talatamaty and


Bruno Andrianaivo, senior agronomist

of FOFIFA (National Centre for

Applied Research on Rurual

Development in Madagascar) emphasized

that such high yields cannot be

achieved immediately, but requires

the cumulative effects of 6 years

under SRI.

However, simply on the conservative

figure of 8 t/ha yield from SRI

practice Andrianaivo estimated a net

return to the farmer of 5 million Fmg

(about US$770), compared with

around 250 000 Fmg (less than

US$40) for conventional practice.

Acceptance in China

Professor Yuan Longping of

China National Hybrid Rice

Research and Development

Centre played a key role in creating

high-yielding superhybrids

throughout the late

1990s and early 2000s by conventional

breeding methods.

This distinguished researcher,

now in his 70s, has a long string

of national and international

awards behind him, and is joint

recipient of this year's World

Food Prize. Yuan's Centre had

already broken all records in

boosting rice-hybrid yields when

he first heard about SRI from a

paper written by Norman Uphoff of

Cornell International Institute for

Food, Agriculture and Development

(see "Fantastic rice yields fact or fallacy?"

this series).

Yuan conducted the first trial of

SRI in his Centre's station in Sanya

from winter 2000 to spring 2001. Only

three varieties yielded above 10 t/ha,

and SRI gave an average increase of

around 10% over the conventional

practice. The following year, tests

were conducted in the summer at the

Centre's station in Changsha. Two

varieties yielded 12 t/ha, and one 12.9

t/ha, a record for the Centre so far.

This encouraged more Chinese scientists

to conduct SRI research. Of the 8

locations in which his Centre was

involved, 5 locations got good results,

with yields over 12 t/ha.

Since then, trials by a private sector

company, the Meishan Seed

Company in Sichuan Province, using

a modified SRI method, achieved

yields of 15.67 t/ha and 16 t/ha in two

different plots, both new records in

Sichuan Province (yield in the conventional

field was 11.8 t/ha).

Yuan's preliminary evaluation of

SRI is enthusiastic: "SRI is a promising

way to increase rice yield and to

realize the yield potential of any variety…whether

high-yielding variety

(HYV) or local variety." He confirmed

that the method can promote more

vigorous growth of rice plants, especially

tillers and roots, and noted in

addition, less insect and disease

problems during the vegetative

growth stage, and that there are definite

varietal differences in response to

SRI practices: those with strong tillering

ability and 'good plant type' are

more favourable for SRI cultivation.

"SRI gives higher output with less

input, but requires very laborious

manual work which makes it more

suitable for small farms in developing

countries" he said. Moreover, SRI

should be modified and adapted to

suit local conditions, and as experience


For China, he recommended a

long list of modifications, including

using tray nurseries to raise the young

seedlings instead of flooded

seedbeds, so as to reduce the trauma

of transplanting; and controlling tillerformation,

for although increased

tillering gives many more rice-forming

panicles, the percentage of productive

tillers falls off with the number of

tillers, so there is an optimum maximum


He definitely thinks there is scope

for combining genetic improvement

with SRI methods. For example,

breeding plants with a strong ability to

form tillers would be appropriate for

improving the response to SRI.

Detailed analyses of the trials

were presented in several multiauthor

research papers. For example,

the economic benefits of applying SRI

methods were estimated for the


hybrid rice Liangyoupei 9, which

came both from savings and

increased yield. The amount of hybrid

seed needed in SRI methods was

only 3 - 4.5 kg, which represented a

seed saving of 8.3 - 10.5 kg and nursery

saving of 90%, thereby reducing

the cost by 215 Yuan/ha. As only

compost was applied, the saving on

the 10-12 t/ha fertilizer that would

have been used was 1 200 Yuan/ha.

The saving on water, some 3 000

tonnes, was about 150 Yuan/ha. The

total saving with SRI methods thus

amounted to about 1 565 Yuan/ha.

Add to that a 15% increase in yield

(1.5 tonnes/ha) and the farmer gets a

total additional profit of about 3 000

Yuan/ha (about US$ 360).

The Sichuan Academy of

Agricultural Sciences has done SRI

trials for three years in succession. Its

2003, trials showed an average SRI

yield of 13 t/ha. Another series of trials

in 7 regions of Zhejian Province

using 8 varieties all resulted in

increased yield under SRI; the average

increase being 1.5 t/ha over

already high-yielding controls.

The China National Hybrid Rice

Research and Development Centre

introduced hybrid varieties into Africa

and recommended that they be used

with SRI methods. In 2003, a 9.2 t/ha

yield was obtained with hybrid GY032

in Guinea under SRI methods, which

was 4 times the national average


SRI in Gambia

The Gambia, a small country

(11700km 2 ) in West Africa, is a 50

km-wide ribbon of land extending

eastward from the coast, bisected by

the River Gambia and surrounded on

three sides by Senegal. Its annual

rainfall is 900 to 1400 mm; the rainy

season between late May and early

October. Rice is the staple of the

country and there are 5 very different

production systems: upland, lowland

rainfed, irrigated (pump and tidal),

freshwater swamps and seasonally

saline mangrove swamp.

Annual rice consumption averages

70 to 110 kg per capita; domestic production

lags behind by 60%, and the

balance is met by imports. The

national average yield of rice is only 2


SRI was introduced to The

Gambia in the rainy season of 2000

as part of the Ph. D. thesis of

Mustapha M. Ceesay in Crop and Soil

Sciences at Cornell University in the

United States. Farmers were invited

to visit the first SRI trial site at the

Sapu station of the National

Agricultural Research Institute (NARI)

in The Gambia before they enrolled

voluntarily in the research programme.

During the first year of experimentation,

three different plant population

densities were investigated with several

varieties. Yields ranged from 5.4

to 8.3 t/ha. In 2001, plant population

densities were investigated alongside

fertilizer treatments, and on-farm trials

involving 10 farmer households.

The on-station SRI trials were conducted

under pump irrigation, and onfarm

trials under tidal irrigation.

Plant population densities investigated

were 20cm x 20cm, 30cm x

30cm and 40cm x 40cm. Two rice

varieties were used, and instead of

compost, three fertilizer treatment

rates were assessed: NKP in the following

proportions: 70-30-30 (national

recommended), 140-30-30 and 280-

30-30. All trials took place in the lowlands.

The on-station trials indicated that

30cm x 30cm spacing did not

decrease yield over the 20cm x 20cm,

and was hence recommended to the

farmers for the on-farm trial. Fertilizer

treatments indicated that under SRI,

the nationally recommended lowest

rate was as effective as doubling the

rate, while tripling the rate gave higher

yields, but it was not economically


The on-farm trials, conducted in a

communal tidal irrigation scheme,

gave "exciting" results, "a tripling of

yield" on average, 7.4 t/ha compared

with 2.5 t/ha obtained with farmers'

current practices. Some farmers

experienced more than five-fold

increases, from 1.6 to 9.0 t/ha in one

case, and 1.4 to 8.0 t/ha in another.

But there are problems facing the

farmers in land preparation. Farmers

in The Gambia still do not have a welldeveloped

culture of water control.

Fields are simply kept flooded after

transplanting until the rice plants

mature, and fertilizer application and

weeding are done under submerged

conditions. These practices will conflict

with the adoption of SRI, but the

yield increases may be a sufficient

incentive for farmers to overcome

these problems.

SRI in other countries

Many countries reported remarkable

increases in yield. Salinda

Dissanayake, Member of Parliament

in Sri Lanka, personally tested SRI in

his own rice field of a little more than

2 acres for four seasons, using seeds

of various varieties. He got the highest

yield of 17 t/ha with BG358, a variety

developed by the Sri Lankan rice

researchers. Even with local varieties

such as Rathhel and

Pachdhaiperumal, usually much lower

yielding at ~2 t/ha, impressive yields

of 8 t/ha and 13 t/ha were obtained.

Dissanayake formed a small group

to inform farmers of SRI; and farmers

who took up SRI from 18 districts

have doubled their yields on average.

"These yields were obtained with

less water, less seed, less chemical

fertilizer, and less cost of production

per kilogram …among SRI users, we

find people of many different income

and educational levels and different

social standing, including many poor

farmers having only small plots of

land, farmers with moderate income,

some agricultural scientists, and a

few administrators, businessmen and

political leaders who practice it with

their own convictions," Dissanayake


H. M. Premaratna, a farmer from

the Ecological Farming Centre,

Mellawalana, Sri Lanka, backed up

the enthusiasm of his Member of

Parliament, and has personally provided

training on SRI to more than

3000 farmers by 2002. "From my

experience, I have observed that the

rice plant becomes a healthier plant

once the basic SRI practices are

adopted," he said.

Reports from 17 countries in 2002

showed that three-quarters of the

cases gave a significant yield advantage

of at least 20 to 50% increase,

and although the super-yields reported

from Madagascar have not been

obtained elsewhere, some farmers in

Cambodia and Sri Lanka have come

close. Overall, the conventional systems

yielded 3.9 t/ha, very close to

the world average for rice production.

The average for all the SRI yields

reported was 6.8 t/ha.

A report from the Philippines not

only documented yield increases over

several successive growing seasons

since 1999, but also a reduction of

crop pests such as rats and brown

and green leafhoppers, carriers of the

dreaded rice tungro virus disease.

This was attributed to the increased

spacing of plants, allowing more sunlight

to penetrate even the base of the

plant, exposing the hoppers, which

detest and avoid sunlight.

In Cambodia, SRI is spreading

very rapidly. Only 28 farmers were

willing to try SRI in 2000, by 2003, this

number had grown to almost 10 000

and in 2004, 50 000 farmers are

expected to adopt it.

Perhaps the greatest testament

that SRI works is the increasing number

of farmers who have adopted the





Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports on how

ducklings in the paddy fields turned

weeds to resources and increased

yield and leisure for farmers

During the last leg of a six-day lecture tour in Japan in 1999, I was fortunate

enough to have visited an organic farmer not far from

Fukuoka, who was reputed to have done wonders introducing ducks

into the rice paddy field.

The train ride from Tokyo lasted five and a half hours, speeding

through a most unusual landscape, which repeats itself in endless

variations for the entire duration. It consists of large and small clusters

of houses and the occasional single abode, all floating, it seems, on

a sea of paddy fields. Paddy fields fill every available inch of land that

is not built upon, and most of the plots are tiny. That was a real surprise

for me, who, like most people, imagine Japan to be a fully industrialized

developed nation.

Our hosts from the Green Co-op in Fukuoka met us at the sta-

One Bird - Ten Thousand Treasures

tion, and after the usual polite exchange of bows, we were taken to

another platform for the local train to Keisen, where the famous

organic farmer Mr. Takao Furuno had kindly invited all three of us:

Tony Boys, my interpreter for the occasion and Mr. Watanabe, a fellow

speaker, to stay the night with his family.

It was getting dark by the time we arrived in Keisen. Tony telephoned

from a booth outside the station, and some minutes later, Mr.

Furuno himself came to pick us up in his mini-van. We drove a short

distance and stopped in front of a largish but modestly built and modestly

furnished bungalow. Mrs. Furuno opened the door and gave us

a warm traditional Japanese welcome. We were invited to sit down

around the dinner table where all the children came to greet us. Five

healthy, suntanned and smiling children, two boys and three girls

between the ages of 16 and 8, introduced themselves, then retreated

next-door to the kitchen where they were served supper. Grandma

and Grandpa were busy with food preparation, and appeared only

later to say hello.

The Furunos were a handsome couple in their forties. He, wiry

and dark, with a winsome squint and sparkle to his eyes, had the

appearance of being both amused and content with life, as he had

every reason to be. He spoke in an even, unhurried manner, with a

gentle tone. She was of medium build, lively, good-looking and more

openly ebullient about their success. Of course, they did not mean

financial success, they meant success of the farming method, which,

since its introduction ten years ago, has been spreading all over

Southeast Asia. In Japan, about 10 000 farmers had taken it up by

1999; and it has also been adopted by farmers in South Korea,

Vietnam, The Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia.

Farmers have increased their yield 20 to 50 percent or more in the

first year. One farmer in Laos increased his income three-fold. It is

obviously a boon to Third World farmers.

"We want to help", the Furunos declared, "financial success is

unimportant. We did not patent the method, we just want it to be widely

adopted." The method has been researched and perfected over

the years in their own fields. At this point, Mr. Furuno introduced a

young visitor who was working with the family in order to learn the

method. "There's always someone here who wants to learn, and

everyday, I get several phone calls from people needing advice," he

said as a matter of fact, without either false modesty or pride.

The young man's eyes widened when he learned that I was the

niece of Kyu Ei Kan's wife. Kyu Ei Kan is a writer most renowned for

his books on how to make money. And to demonstrate that what he

writes is sound, he proceeded to make a lot of money himself. The

excited young man pushed the book he was reading in front of me. It

had my uncle's photograph on the cover, and the title, How I Became

Rich - An Autobiography. Mr. Furuno must really be a great success

if a young man who dreams of becoming rich should be so eager to

learn from him. I made a mental note to tell my aunt, and maybe persuade

my rich uncle to go into the organic farming business.

"Well, it has been called a 'one-bird revolution'", my host began,

"the duck is the key to success." The secret is to release ducklings

into the paddy fields soon after the seedlings are planted. But won't

the ducklings eat the rice seedlings? No. "It is in their nature not to eat

the rice seedlings." Mr. Furuno assured me, then added, "agronomists

in the university say it's because rice seedlings have too much


They have made a very good video, complete with English narration,

which shows how the ducklings readily take to the paddy field

when they are led there to be released. About 20 ducklings are

released per tenth of a hectare. They genuinely seem to enjoy getting

into the water, where they paddled contentedly between the rows

of rice seedlings, now ducking under the surface of the water, now

raising their heads to swallow something, but never harming the rice

seedlings. In fact, the ducks are good for the rice plants in many ways,

including the mechanical stimulation they provide, which makes the

plant stems thicker and stronger, as demonstrated by careful experimentation.

Mr. Furuno did attend agricultural college, but he did not learn the

Aigamo method there. Aigamo is the name for the ducks, which is a

crossbreed between domestic and wild ducks. He simply worked out

the method by a combination of "contemplation, inspiration and

experimentation". Actually, ducks have been raised in paddy fields in

China and probably other parts of South East Asia since a long time

ago. But the farmers never left the ducks in the fields, and were

unaware of all the benefits that the ducks can bring.

The benefits the ducks give to the rice plants are numerous;

again, that was worked out by Mr. Furuno's scientific experiments

carefully set up in the field. The ducks eat up insect pests and the

golden snail, which attack rice plants. They also eat the seeds and

seedlings of weeds, using their feet to dig up the weed seedlings,

thereby oxygenating the water and encouraging the roots of the rice

plants to grow. You can actually see the difference between the plants

in the Aigamo plots and the control plots without Aigamo.

In fact, the ducks are so good at weeding that farmers who have

adopted the method now have time to sit and chat instead of spending

up to 240 person-hours per hectare in manual weeding every

year. Besides, 'pests and weeds' have been miraculously transformed

into resources for rearing ducks. The ducks are left in the

fields 24 hours a day, and do not need to be herded back to the shed.

They are protected from dogs by an electric fence or some other bar-

Takao Furano by Mae-Wan Ho

ier around the field. There is a patch of dry land for the ducks to rest

and also for them to be fed waste grain from the rice-polishing factory,

so they maintain a relationship with the farmer. But otherwise, the

ducks are completely free-range until the rice plants form ears of grain

in the field. At that point, the ducks have to be rounded up (otherwise

they will eat the rice grains). They are then confined in a shed and

fed exclusively on waste grain. There, they mature, lay eggs, and get

ready for the market.

It was too early in the year to plant the rice seedlings in Furuno's

own paddies. Japanese farmers time their planting according to the

length of the growing season quite precisely. So, as we came south

on the train, we noticed more and more dry vacant fields. Furuno's inlaws,

who live some distance away, have already planted the

seedlings and flooded the fields, and we were to be taken there to see

the ducklings being released the next morning. The father-in-law was

once a rich businessman, but had decided to give up business for

organic farming. The in-laws, who look ten years younger than their

age, live in a large house with a beautiful garden and a permaculture

orchard where chickens roam freely to keep the ground free of weeds

- another labour-saving invention - and also provide chicken manure

to fertilize the trees.

The ducks are not the only inhabitants of the paddy field. The

aquatic fern, Azolla, or duckweed, which harbours a blue-green bacterium

as symbiont, is also grown on the surface of the water. The

azolla is very efficient in fixing nitrogen, attracting insects for the ducks

and is also food for the ducks. The plant is very prolific, doubling itself

every three days, so it can be harvested for cattle-feed as well. In

addition, the plants spread out to cover the surface of the water, providing

hiding places for another inhabitant, the roach, and protecting

them from the ducks. In fact, the roach grows so well in the paddy that

Mr. Furuno has not bothered to count them. What do the fish feed on?

They feed on duck faeces, on daphnia and other worms, which in turn

feed on the plankton. The fish and ducks provide manure to fertilize

the rice plants all through the growing season. The rice plants, in

return, provide shelter for the ducks.

The paddy field with ducks and all is really a complex, well-balanced,

self-maintaining, self-propagating ecosystem. The only external

input is the small amount of waste grain for the ducks. And the output?

A delicious, nutritious harvest of organic rice, duck and roach. It

is quite productive. The Furunos' farm is 2 hectares; 1.4 of which are

paddy fields, while the rest is devoted to growing organic vegetables.

The organic vegetables fields were full of butterflies of all kinds when

we visited them the next morning. This small farm yields annually 7

tonnes of rice, 300 ducks, 4000 ducklings, and enough vegetables to

supply 100 people. At that rate, no more than 2 percent of the population

needs to become farmers in order to feed a nation. Tony Boys

indeed believes that with proper management, Japan can become

self-sufficient once more. So who needs GM crops? The choice is

clear, not only for Japan, but also for all of South East Asia, and the

world at large.

This Aigamo method also explodes the myth that organic farming

is necessarily labour intensive. "Organic farming need not be

labour intensive, it is fun!" said Mr. Furuno emphatically. The Furunos

are not purists, and they use both mechanical harvesters and tractors.

Their method is so simple and enjoyable, that five years ago, the two

eldest boys managed their own small plot and got a bumper harvest

from it. That was also documented on video. Mr. Furuno, however, will

complain that they are very, very busy, and no wonder. They run their

own vegetable business, process their own ducks and sell those as

well. In addition, he writes books, papers, runs courses, and lectures

all over S.E. Asia.

Later that evening, we were treated to a delicious meal of home

grown organic rice, duck, chicken and vegetables, complete with

unlimited bottles of Furuno's own brand of organic sake and fragrant

pine wine, both bearing the label, One Bird, Ten Thousand Treasures.

Mr. Furuno's one ambition in life is to share these boundless treasures,

this unlimited harvest, with the world.

We bathed in the warm glow of this wonderful thought, and ate

and drank deep into the night, becoming more convinced by the hour

that the harvest is indeed limitless and free to all who work creatively

in partnership with nature.

This is an edited version of an article first circulated by ISIS in 1999.



Corporate Patents vs People in GM Rice


Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Lim Li Ching get to the bottom of current attempts by corporations

to usurp rice varieties through genetic modification

Has the International Treaty sufficient

bite to protect Farmers' Rights?

In 1998, masses of angry Indian and Thai

farmers took to the streets of their capitals

to denounce US company RiceTec

Inc's claim of monopoly rights over their

basmati and jasmine varieties of rice. US

breeders had acquired samples from

Philippines-based IRRI (International

Rice Research Institute), which holds a

large seed bank of Asian farmers' varieties.

That was among the first warnings

of a corporate agenda to usurp and control

rice varieties created and used by

local communities for thousands of


The International Treaty on Plant

Genetic Resources for Food and

Agriculture, which came into force on 29

June 2004, facilitates "the free flow of

genetic material to plant breeders" as

well as to farmers and research institutions.

This is achieved through a

Multilateral System for Access and

Benefit Sharing, which covers a list of 35

food crops and 29 forage crops, among

them rice.

The Treaty clearly acknowledges the

contribution of farmers to agricultural biodiversity

and recognises Farmers' Rights

to save, use, exchange and sell seeds.

This is an important milestone in international

law. However, it falls short of unambiguously

banning patents on plant

genetic resources, leaving farmers' varieties

in international Gene Banks under

the CGIAR (Consultative Group on

International Agricultural Research),

which come under the Treaty, just as vulnerable

as before. The text clearly states

that no intellectual property rights (IPRs)

may be taken out on the plant genetic

resources and their components that are

exchanged and as covered in the Treaty;

but this is qualified by limiting the condition

to resources "in the form received".

In short, this could leave the door

open for unscrupulous patenting of plant

genetic resources that are not "in the

form received", for example, if, after they

have been freely exchanged within the

Multilateral System, they are genetically


As the Treaty has just entered into

force, its continuing interpretation and

how it is implemented will need to be

monitored closely, to prevent powerful

countries (and their corporations) getting

rights to extract and privatise genetic

resources covered by the Treaty. It is also

crucial to strengthen the primacy of

Farmers' Rights over IPRs.

Gene-patenting and corporate rice


This fight will be critical as biotech companies

are increasingly muscling in on

rice research. "The advent of biotechnology

has caused a spurt in patents on

gene products associated with rice," said

Ronald Cantrell, director of IRRI. The

sequencing of the rice genome has not

only opened up largely untapped commercial

possibilities but has also set the

pace for potential IPR disputes between

corporations and governments. "I'm really

concerned that we should have

enough public sector research that would

generate knowledge, putting it in the public

arena, and we should make sure that

the private sector is properly regulated,"

he added.

The Syngenta Foundation for

Sustainable Agriculture, despite its honourable

name is part of the biotech multinational

Syngenta, and is now a member

of the CGIAR. In one fell swoop, the private

sector has become part of the network

of international agricultural research

centres, paving the way for it to participate

in policy making and determining

the kind of research that gets funded.

This, critics say, turns the once publicly

funded research body into "an agricultural

research outsource for the multinational

corporations". Although the Syngenta

Foundation doesn't currently contribute to

IRRI, there's no doubting the interest of

the corporation in rice research.

An article published in the New

Internationalist in September 2002 commented:

"The multinational biotechnology

industry has global rice production in

its gunsights. It is manoeuvring for control

through intellectual property rights

(IPRs), such as patents, and legislation is

quickly being pushed into place in Asia

and around the world to satisfy industry's


GM rice versus people's sustainable


All this is coming at a sensitive time, as

farmer-led movements for sustainable

agriculture are also in ascendancy. For

example, MASIPAG, the farmer-scientist

network, is a farmer-led community-managed

breeding and conservation effort on

rice and vegetables throughout the

Philippines. It started in 1986 and now

involves 50 trial farms. Some 543 farmerbred

lines and 75 varieties of rice are

grown and further improved by well over

10 000 farmers throughout the country.

The Nayakrishi or 'New Agriculture'

Movement is active in Bangladesh,

where farmers typically use hundreds of

varieties of rice, and have little trouble

surpassing the productivity of the industrial


Asia produces over 90 percent of

world's rice supply, and an estimated

140000 different varieties of rice have

been created by small farmers in Asia.

In the 1950s, the US put rice production

at the centre of a strategy to address

food insecurity and political unrest. The

resulting campaign led by the Rockefeller

and Ford Foundations, known as the

Green Revolution, transformed rice production

dramatically. Traditional farming

systems and varieties were replaced by a

package of credit, chemicals and high

input varieties. By the early 1990s, just

five super-varieties accounted for 90 per

cent of the rice-growing area of Malaysia

and Pakistan, and nearly half the rice

lands of Thailand and Burma.

Several major transnational seed corporations

- Aventis, Dupont, Monsanto,

Syngenta - now have rice programmes.

Rice is self-pollinated, making hybrid rice

seed production costly and difficult, and

nearly all rice in Asia is still grown with

farmer-saved seed. The seed industry

believes that the combination of genetic

engineering and patents can overcome

this hurdle.

"Through patents and contractual

agreements, seed companies will seek to

prohibit farmers from sharing or saving

seed, control what pesticides are used

and even assert ownership rights over

the harvest."

In October 2001, an ActionAid study

found that of the 250 patents on rice, 61

percent are controlled by just 6 seed

companies, three of them also the world's

largest pesticide corporations.

After the rice genome sequence was

announced. Dr. Steven Briggs, head of

genomics for Syngenta, told the New

York Times that while the companies

would not seek to patent the entire

genome, they would patent individual

valuable genes. He indicated that

Syngenta and Myriad were well on their

way to finding many of those.

China a major player

Meanwhile, the Chinese government,

which has invested considerable public

money into the sequencing of the rice

genome, thereby breaking the 'knowledge

monopoly' hitherto held by the

developed countries in the West, is

reported to be ramping up efforts to commercialise

GM rice.


Chinese researchers have developed

several GM rice varieties resistant to the

country's major rice pests and diseases,

such as the lepidopteran insect stem

borer, bacteria blight, rice blast fungus

and rice dwarf virus (see "Promises and

perils of GM rice", this series). "Significant

progress" was also reported for droughtand

salt-tolerance. Zhen Zhu, a leading

rice scientist and deputy director of the

Bureau of Life Science and

Biotechnology of the Chinese Academy

of Sciences, told Nature Biotechnology

that "China [is] technically mature

[enough] to commercialise several varieties

of its GM rice".

China's biotech budget for 2001-2005

is $1.2 billion, a 400% increase compared

with 1996-2000, and about $120

million out of the current budget is devoted

to GM rice programmes, Zhu estimates,

and more will be allocated to field

trials of GM rice. At least 10 new field trials

for GM rice are expected this year,

keeping the planting level comparable to

2003 of at least 53 hectares.

In the United States, USDA authorized

10 GM rice field trials over 11

hectares in 2003 and 12 trials over 45

hectares in the first quarter of 2004, 90%

of which were done by Monsanto.

China will be closely watched by both

the developed and the developing world.

China's activities in GM rice have gone

on simultaneously with extensive trials in

sustainable, low input rice-growing systems

that benefit small farmers (see

"Fantastic rice yields fact or fallacy?" and

"Does SRI work?" this series).

Huanming Yang, Director of the

Beijing Genomics Institute in China, the

lead author of a paper on the rice

genome sequence published side by side

with Syngenta's in the journal Science

two years ago, told ISIS recently that he

is "strongly opposed" to patenting the rice


"As one of the important sequencing

centres [of the rice genome], we think it

should be covered by Bermuda Rules

and should [be] made freely available.

That is the reason that we have released

the rice genome sequences," Yang said.

The 'Bermuda Rules' refers to guidelines

for releasing human sequence data

established in February 1996 at a

Bermuda meeting of heads of the biggest

labs in the publicly funded human

genome project. The rules require the

labs to share the results of sequencing

"as soon as possible", releasing all

stretches of DNA longer than 1 000 units,

and to submit the data within 24 hours to

the public database known as GenBank.

The goal, as stated in a memo released

at the time, was to prevent the sequencing

centres from "establishing a privileged

position in the exploitation and control of

human sequence information."



Rice, the food crop for half the world's population is

the current target of genetic modification. What are

the health and environmental consequences?

Prof. Joe Cummins reviews

Promises & Perils of

GM Rice

Rice a target for corporate


Rice is the primary food for half the

people in the world, providing more

calories than any other single food. It

supplies an average of 889 calories

per day per person in China, as

opposed to only 82 calories in the

United States. Rice is a nutritious

food, providing about 90 percent of

calories from carbohydrates and as

much as 13 percent of calories from

protein. Such a crop of immense

global importance is a certain target

for control by multinational corporations,

especially since the rice

genome was announced two years

ago (see "Rice is life" series, SiS 15,


Only one GM rice trait - tolerance

to the herbicide glufosinate - is currently

available on the market. The

rice varieties under development

include resistance to insects, microbial

pests and tolerance to high salt

levels. Pharmaceutical products and

multiple transgenic traits are being

pyramided into a single strain of rice.

It is likely that the next GM rice to be

approved for commercial release will

contain an insect toxin gene from the

bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt),

but that will be followed by a range of

modifications, including insect resistance

based on lectins and protease

inhibitors. Because rice has a huge

impact on the world's food supply, we

should at least make sure it is safe.

Herbicide tolerance and insect


Two glufosinate-tolerant GM rice

events, LLRICE06 and LLRICE62,

have been approved for commercial

production. They have been inserted

into the rice varieties M202 and

Bengal, consisting of the bar gene

encoding the phosphoinothricin-Nacetyltransferase

(PAT) enzyme.

Safety testing of the bar gene and

PAT enzyme was done using the bacterial

gene and protein, not the synthetic

gene and its product in the rice

crop. Despite this obvious flaw, the

United States Department of

Agriculture determined that the GM

rice strains were suitable for commercial

release, and these are marketed

by Bayer as Liberty Link rice. In 2002,

Aventis (later purchased by Bayer)

destroyed 5 million pounds of Liberty

Link rice because they feared rejection

by the international market, but

efforts are continuing to promote and

disseminate the transgenic crop.

Bayer is currently seeking approval

for the import of LLRICE62 for food,

feed and industrial uses into Europe.

Synthetic analogues of the Bt Cry

toxin genes have been used extensively

to construct experimental rice

varieties. Indica Basmati rice was

transformed by a synthetic Cry1Ab

gene in several different constructs.

These transgenic rice plants contained

up to 0.15% of their total protein

as synthetic toxin. Such high levels

of toxin are preferred because it

discourages insect resistance, but it

also means that the synthetic toxin

protein makes a significant contribution

to people's diet and to the rice

straw fed to animals.

Rice lines containing Cry1Ab and

Cry1Ab/Cry1Ac fusion protein genes

were reported to have no effect on

the fitness of non-target insects.

Rice with Cry1Ab toxin gene and

resistance genes for the antibiotics

hygromycin and neomycin was

reported to be resistant to rice

leafhopper insects. However, elite

Indica rice with a synthetic Cry1Ac

toxin gene, although resistant to the

yellow stem borer insect, had high

toxin levels in all of the plant tissues.

European rice cultivars were

transformed with synthetic Cry1Aa or

synthetic Cry1B toxin genes under a

constitutive ubiquitin promoter, which

turns on the gene in all the tissues all

of the time, or synthetic Cry1B gene

under a wound inducible maize promoter,

which responds to stresses

such as insect predation. The constitutive

promoter-driven toxin genes

produced high toxin levels that prevented

striped stem borer predation

but left toxin in all the rice tissues and

seeds, while the wound inducible


strain produced toxin mainly at the

site of insect attack.

Research has established that Bt

toxin was introduced into soil by root

exudates of transgenic rice. The toxin

released into the soil affected the

enzymes of soil microbes, increasing

soil acid phosphatase and decreasing

soil urease.

The benefit of insect protection

from Bt rice is offset by the potential

harmful effects of high levels of toxin

protein in the rice grain. As rice is

such an important food crop, the

safety of Bt rice must be concretely

established. It has been found that

food irradiation improved the "quality"

of GM rice modified with the Cry1Ab

toxin, by selectively removing the

toxin protein. However, study of the

radiation products and adducts created

during destruction of the toxin is

essential. Furthermore, it is clear that

food irradiation may be used to disguise

GM rice.

A number of projects have studied

the use of snowdrop lectin, Galanthus

nivalis agglutinin (GNA) alone or in

conjunction with other genes to control

rice pests. Lectins are proteins

that interact with human blood cells

(agglutinin) and also act as anti-predator

chemicals in plants or microbes.

A GNA gene was driven by a phloem

specific promoter accompanied by a

hygromycin antibiotic resistance gene

and was used to transform japonica

rice strains. The modified rice controlled

sap-sucking insects that

spread rice viruses. However, Stanley

Ewen and Arpad Pusztai showed that

potatoes modified with GNA affected

different parts of the rat digestive system.

Similar research on the in vivo

effects of rice genetically engineered

with GNA has not been reported.

Rice plants containing both the

GNA gene and the unlinked Cry1Ac

gene were reported to be resistant to

the major rice insect pests, striped

stem borer and brown leaf hopper

(rice with only Cry1Ac resisted striped

stem borer while rice with GNA resisted

brown leaf hopper). Rice transformed

with a single vector containing

Cry1Ab along with GNA and the bar

gene for herbicide tolerance was

intended to be resistant to yellow

stem borer and three sap sucking

insects, and also tolerant to the herbicide

glufosinate. This huge package

of genes was integrated at a single

chromosomal site. No account has

been taken of the interaction of the

various toxins in the human food supply

and in the environment.

Basmati rice was co-transformed

with three plasmids carrying four

genes including GNA, synthetic

Cry1Ac, synthetic Cry2A and resistance

to the antibiotic hygromycin. As

in the previous construction, care

must be taken to evaluate the toxicity

of the toxin products and their interaction

in the human diet and in the


Elite Chinese rice cultivars were

transformed with a gene for bacterial

blight and a GNA gene. The transformed

rice was resistant to sap sucking

insects and to bacterial blight.

Insect and bacterial disease

resistant lines have been pyramided

(pyramiding is combining transgenes

by genetic crosses). A strain with a

fused Cry1Ab/Cry1Ac gene was combined

with a gene derived from a wild

rice for resistance to bacterial blight,

in a male sterile restorer line of rice.

The pyramided line was resistant to

bacterial blight and to stem borer

insects. In the pyramided lines, regulators

must consider and evaluate the

toxicity of each transgenic toxin and

the combination of toxins brought

about by crossing.

Resistance to the rice stem borer

was produced using a synthetic

trypsin inhibitor that interferes with

insect food digestion. The synthetic

gene was roughly based on a winged

bean chymotrypsin inhibitor. A synthetic

copy of a gene product that

interferes with digestion surely

requires extensive safety testing!

Salt tolerance & enhancement of


Increasing the transcription level of a

rice sodium antiporter (a pump that

moves sodium ion into a vacuole)

gene, called OsNHX1, is reported to

improve the salt tolerance of rice, with

the potential of opening large tracks

of land to rice cultivation. Over

expression of barley aquaporin gene

in rice led to increased carbon dioxide

conductance and assimilation. Such

modifications are potentially able to

enhance biomass production in rice.

Nutritional enhancement

Rice has also been the target of

genetic modifications that nutritionally

enrich food crops. 'Golden Rice'

genetically engineered to produce

pro-vitamin A has been discussed

extensively elsewhere. Although

much touted as a cure for vitamin A

deficiency in developing countries, it

has yet to be commercialized and its

effectiveness in addressing vitamin A

deficiency has been called into question.

Pharm rice

Production of pharmaceutical proteins

in rice crops poses potent

threats to the food supply. Recent

efforts to test and produce rice modified

to produce the human gene products

lactoferrin and lysozyme have

been temporarily thwarted. However,

rice producing human growth hormone

has been developed despite

the likelihood that the GM rice could

cause cancer in those consuming it.

Rice is not a suitable crop for producing

pharmaceutical products because

of the high likelihood that the products

will pollute the food supply.

Environmental impacts

The genetic modifications being used

or promoted for rice pose a significant

threat to the environment if they contaminate

conventional rice fields or

spread transgenes to weedy relatives

such as red rice. Pollen mediated

gene flow was substantial from

Mediterranean GM rice bearing a

gene for herbicide tolerance to conventional

rice and to the weed, red

rice. Gene flow from herbicide tolerant

to cultivated rice was also substantial

in another study of

Mediterranean rice. Rice pollen was

spread from a test plot up to 110

meters from the boundary of the test

plot. It is very clear that transgenic

rice will pollute any nearby conventional


Health impacts

GM rice may soon be approved for

commercial production in a number of

countries. Safety testing of the currently

described products has not yet

been published. GM rice cannot be

presumed to be substantially equivalent

to conventional rice, but that may

not hamper approval in the United

States of many such constructions.

For the most part, GM rice is formed

from synthetic genes that should

require much fuller safety testing than

has been done in the past.

In North America, regulators have

allowed substitution of genes and

proteins produced in bacterial surrogates

for the actual genes and proteins

produced in crop plants in toxicity

tests of human and environmental

safety. The use of the bacterial surrogates

is allowed, to save corporations

the cost of preparing genes and proteins

from the crop plants, even

though the genes and proteins tested

differ significantly from the genes and

proteins produced in the crop plants.

The public should insist that the actual

genes and proteins produced in the

crops be tested.

The world's leading food crop

should be treated with more care than

has been done with maize, soy and




Two Rice Better than One

Lim Li Ching reports on remarkable results from a simple experiment in China that combats

rice disease and increases yields

Planting a diversity of crops instead of

monocultures can do wonders.

Thousands of Chinese rice farmers

have increased yields and nearly eliminated

the most devastating disease -

rice blast fungus - without using chemical

fungicides or spending more


These farmers and extension workers

in Yunnan Province collaborated

with a team of scientists from Yunnan

Agricultural University, the Plant

Protection Stations of Honghe

Prefecture, Jianshui County and

Shiping County in Yunnan Province,

the International Rice Research

Institute and Oregon State University in

the United States to implement a simple

change in cultivation practice in

order to control rice blast, a disease

that destroys millions of tonnes of rice

and costs farmers several billion dollars

in losses each year.

The area is prone to rice blast epidemics

because of its cool, wet climate.

The fungus that causes blast disease,

Magnaporthe grisea, spreads

through multiple cycles of asexual

spore production during the cropping

season, causing necrotic spots on

leaves and necrosis (death) of the rice


Instead of planting large stands of a

single type of rice, as had been their

usual practice, the farmers planted a

mixture of two different kinds of rice: a

standard hybrid rice that does not usually

succumb to rice blast, and a much

more valuable but lower-yielding glutinous

or 'sticky' rice known to be very

susceptible to the disease. Before

1998, 98% of rice fields in the area

were monocultures of the hybrid rice

varieties Shanyuo22 and Shanyuo63.

The glutinous varieties, although highly

valued, were planted in small amounts

due to their low yields and vulnerability

to rice blast.

The experiment with mixed varieties

dispersed single rows of glutinous

rice between groups of four rows of

hybrid rice, but at a rate sufficient to

meet the local demand for glutinous

rice. As rice is hand-harvested in

Yunnan, farmers can easily separate

the hybrid and glutinous grains, which

are used for different purposes.

In 1998, the first year of the trial,

four different mixtures of varieties were

planted over 812 hectares, comprising

all the rice fields in five townships of

Shiping County, Yunnan Province. The

mixtures gave excellent blast control,


such that only one foliar fungicide

spray was applied. The study expanded

to 3 342 hectares in 1999, encompassing

all the rice fields in 10 townships

of Jianshui and Shiping Counties.

No fungicidal spray was needed that

year. Farmers were so convinced of the

benefits of the rice diversification program

that the practice expanded to

more than 40 000 hectares in 2000.

The mixed rice fields were compared

with control monoculture plots.

The overall results showed that disease-susceptible

rice varieties planted

in mixtures with resistant varieties had

89% greater yield and blast was 94%

less severe than when they were

grown in monoculture. Both glutinous

and hybrid rice showed decreased


Specifically, in 1998, panicle blast

severity on the glutinous rice averaged

20% in monocultures, but was reduced

to 1% when dispersed within the mixed

populations. Meanwhile, panicle blast

severity on the hybrid varieties averaged

1.2% in monocultures, but was

reduced to varying degrees in the

mixed plots. Results from 1999 were

very similar to the 1998 season for

panicle blast severity on susceptible

glutinous varieties, showing that the

effect of mixed planting was very

robust. Panicle blast severity on the

less-susceptible hybrid varieties averaged

2.3% in monoculture in 1999, and

was reduced to 1.0% in mixed plantings.

This despite the fact that the

hybrids were planted at the same density

in mixed and monoculture plots.

The hypothesis for the reduced

severity of blast attack is fairly clear for

the disease-susceptible glutinous rice.

If one variety of a crop is susceptible to

a disease, the more concentrated

those susceptible types, the more easily

the disease will spread. The disease

is less likely to spread if susceptible

plants are separated by other plants

that do not succumb to the disease and

the distance between the susceptible

plants increased (a dilution effect). In

addition, the glutinous rice plants,

which are taller and rise above the

shorter hybrid rice, enjoyed sunnier,

warmer and drier conditions that discouraged

the growth of rice blast.

Disease reduction in the hybrid

variety is more difficult to explain, but is

possibly due to the taller glutinous rice

physically blocking the airborne spores

of rice blast and/or altering wind patterns.

It is also likely that there was

greater 'induced resistance' playing a

part in disease suppression. Induced

resistance occurs when non-virulent

pathogens induce a plant defence

response that is effective against other

pathogens that would normally be virulent

on the plant. Indeed, preliminary

analysis of the genetic composition of

pathogenic populations indicated that

mixed fields supported diverse

pathogen populations with no single

dominant strain. By contrast, pathogen

populations in monocultures were

dominated by one or a few strains.

Hence, the more diverse pathogen

population of the mixed stands may

have contributed to greater induced

resistance in the plants, and in the

longer term this increased pathogen

diversity may also slow down the adaptation

of pathogens to the resistant

genes functioning within a given mixed

plant population.

Grain production per hill of glutinous

varieties in mixtures averaged

89% more than when planted in monoculture.

As a result, although glutinous

rice in mixtures was planted at rates of

only 9.2 and 9.7% that of monoculture

in 1998 and 1999, respectively, it produced

an average 18.2% of monoculture

yield. The higher yields are certainly

due to the reduced severity of

rice blast fungus, though other factors

(for example, improved light interception)

may also have contributed.

Hybrids planted in mixtures, despite

facing an increased overall plant density,

experienced grain yields per hectare

that were nearly equal to the hybrid

monocultures. Thus, mixed populations

produced more total grain per

hectare than their corresponding

monocultures in all cases.

The mixed varieties of rice were

also more ecologically efficient. It was

estimated that an average of 1.18

hectares of monoculture cropland

would be needed to provide the same

amounts of hybrid and glutinous rice as

were produced in one hectare of a mixture.

Additionally, after accounting for

the different market values of the two

rice types, the gross value per hectare

of the mixtures was 14% greater than

hybrid monocultures and 40% greater

than glutinous monocultures.

The scientists concluded that intraspecific

crop diversification is a simple,

ecological approach to disease control,

which can be extremely effective over a

large area and can contribute to sustainable

crop production.


Freeing the World from GM


Biotech Investment Busy Going Nowhere

Claire Robinson exposes the financial woes of the biotech industry

Biotechnology is the answer to problems

ranging from hunger in Africa

and Asia to obesity in the West. This

was the upbeat message from the

industry's promotional showcase,

the BIO 2004 conference, which

took place in San Francisco in June.

In launching the conference, BIO

(the Biotechnology Industry

Organisation) trumpeted, "the

biotechnology industry is performing

well across a variety of financial and

product development measures."

But not everyone was persuaded.

This year's media coverage of the

annual event was decidedly cynical.

A report in the Asia Times commented,

"For many in the scientific community,

the smorgasbord of marketing

claims merely adds to the credibility

problems that are piling up

against genetic engineering, especially

as its base claims of boosting

food output have not been realized."

Another jaded reporter, David

Ewing, wrote in the San Francisco

Chronicle, "As of yet, most of what

I'm looking for here is in the 'promise'

category - and has been each

year I have come to this ever-larger

industry fete."

Falling investment

Disappointment at the biotech industry's

unfulfilled promises is reflected

in its falling bottom line. As the New

Zealand Herald said, "Investment in

genetically modified food is drying

up in the world's biggest GM market,

the United States, because consumers

in the rest of the world are

not willing to buy its products."

Roger Wyse of Burrill and

Company, the biggest investment

firm focused on life sciences, said

the consumer backlash against

GMOs had forced a lull in projects

aimed at modifying food. "We are

probably looking at three, four or five

years before the GMO issue subsides

sufficiently that we will feel

comfortable investing in it," he said.

Lack of investment has led to

massive losses. Back to Ewing:

"Last year, this industry lost $5.4 billion,

and has lost a staggering $57.7

billion since BIO last held its annual

conference in San Francisco in

1994, according to an Ernst and

Young study. Only a few companies

have been consistently profitable in

the 30 years since biotech was born

- a few, such as Amgen and

Genentech, fantastically so. Remove

them, and the losses and numbers

are far worse for the rest of the


An article in the usually biotechbullish

Wall Street Journal drove

home the point. Entitled "Biotech's

dismal bottom line: More than $40

billion in losses", the article said,

"Biotechnology… may yet turn into

an engine of economic growth and

cure deadly diseases. But it's hard to

argue that it's a good investment.

Not only has the biotech industry

yielded negative financial returns for

decades, it generally digs its hole

deeper every year."

The Journal points out that this

truth becomes lost in the periodic

bursts of enthusiasm for biotech

stocks, one of which is under way

right now. After a three-year slump,

biotech companies raised $1.5 billion

from new stock offerings in the

first quarter of 2004, almost three

times the level of a year earlier.

Thus BIO was able to boast that

while major stock indexes have

slipped this year, the Nasdaq

Biotech Index had edged up about 6

percent at close of markets on 2


In the absence of consumer takeup

of its products, selling stocks has

become a biotech industry lifeline. In

2003, US biotech firms raised almost

$4 billion by selling new stock to

investors, according to Burrill & Co.

The same year, US biotechs as a

group posted almost that much in

losses. Only 12 of the 50 largest

biotechs turned a profit in 2003.

Meltdown continues

In the UK, the biotech meltdown

continues apace. Earlier this year, it

emerged that two biotech firms

linked to science minister and donor

to the Labour Party, Lord Sainsbury,

are facing serious financial difficulties.

Diatech Ltd, which holds several

patents for techniques designed

for use in GM foods, has gone into

liquidation, while biotechnology

investment firm Innotech is making

huge losses.

At the end of June, the British

GM science lobby despaired at news

that Anglo-Swiss biotech giant

Syngenta was withdrawing from the

UK and transferring to North

Carolina in the US. Syngenta was

the last biotech company to retain a

significant GM research presence in

the UK after decisions by Monsanto,

Dupont and Bayer Cropscience to


Whether Syngenta will face a

more sustainable future in the US is

open to question. Almost one-sixth

of the more than 350 US biotechs

that went public over the past two

decades were bought out for pennies

on the dollar, dissolved themselves

or had filed for bankruptcy

protection by the end of 2003.

Examples include Escagenetics,

Advanced Tissue Sciences,

ImmuLogic and Gliatech.

In May, San Diego-based Epicyte

Pharmaceutical, one of the last vestiges

of the city's attempt to become

an agricultural biotech stronghold,

closed. The demise of Epicyte was

lamented as "the latest casualty for

the region's fledgling agricultural

biotechnology industry, which just

five years ago appeared to hold considerable

commercial promise." In

1999, Stephen Briggs, the head of

San Diego's Novartis Agricultural

Discovery Institute, which was building

a major research campus, predicted

San Diego could become the

"Silicon Valley of agricultural


Yet the industry didn't retain a

stronghold there: a consumer backlash

against GM food, along with

high-profile industry blunders such

as the StarLink contamination incident,

nipped investor enthusiasm in

the bud. In 2000, the Novartis

Agricultural Discovery Institute was

folded into Syngenta. Then in 2002,

Syngenta closed the La Jolla, San

Diego unit. Other San Diego agricultural

biotechs also disappeared.

Mycogen was purchased by Dow

Chemical, and Akkadix Corp. faded

from the scene. Dow retains a

research unit in San Diego, but

moved a second agbiotech unit out

of the state.

Biotech medicines a refuge of


Biotech drugs have long provided a

refuge of hope for investors wary

about the prospects for agricultural

biotech. The promise of lucrative

magic bullets against intractable diseases

attracted those who kept faith

in the genetic determinist model of

illness. Biotech pioneers stoked

investor enthusiasm by arguing that

since biotech drugs are often versions

of human proteins, genetic

engineering could cut short the long

safety trials that traditional drugs go

through. But that didn't turn out to be

the case, and most genetically engineered

medications take 10 to 15

years to win approval, much the

same as other drugs.

At the turn of the millennium,

hopes rose with the hype when the

deciphering of the human genome

appeared to herald a new age of

treatments tailored for individual

genetic differences. This sparked an

incredible 170% rise in biotech stock

prices in just four months - followed

by a steep crash over the next year.

By 2002, disillusionment had set in.

Canadian magazine Maclean's

reported, in an article called

"Biotech hope and hype: The genetics

revolution has failed to deliver",

"Federal and provincial governments

have long had a love affair with

genetics, pumping billions into the

biotech biz… 20 years later and how

many breakthrough products has

biotech produced? Gene therapy

may actually have harmed more

people than it's helped. … The few

drugs derived from GE such as

insulin simply replace existing products

while creating new risks."

Bad-idea virus

We've seen how one lifeline for a

largely unprofitable industry is selling

stocks. Another is public money.

The BIO conference, reported

Associated Press, was packed with

mayors and governors from across

the US desperate to lure biotech

companies to their area with promises

of tax breaks, government grants,

even help with parking. Yet biotech,

wrote the AP, "remains a money-losing,

niche industry firmly rooted in

three small regions of the country:

'This notion that you lure biotech to

your community to save its economy

is laughable,' said Joseph Cortright,

a Portland, Ore. economist who cowrote

a report on the subject. 'This

is a bad-idea virus that has swept

through governors, mayors and economic

development officials.'”

A case in point is Florida governor

Jeb Bush, brother of president

George W. Bush. Jeb Bush spearheaded

an initiative to hand over

$510 million of Florida and Palm

Beach County taxpayers' money to

build a new biotech centre for the

Scripps Research Institute, based in

San Diego. Land, buildings, labs,

offices, equipment, even employees'

salaries for seven years: Scripps got

it all for free, putting in no money of

its own. The company will eventually

repay Florida up to $155 million, half

of the state's investment. But the

payback provision will not kick in

until 2011. Bush and other Florida

officials hope that Scripps will make

Florida a biotech hub - like San


The wisdom of using San Diego

as a model is questionable, given

the industry's record of failure there.

But Bush seems blind to the risks.

"It's always good to have sceptics,

but I like to be on the dreaming

side," he told the press. "It's a lot

more fun on the dreaming side of the


According to a report prepared

for BIO and released at its annual

convention in San Francisco, at

least 29 states have formal plans to

woo the biotech industry. Many, like

Pennsylvania, are using money

gained from the global tobacco settlement

to fund biotech development


How does this "bad-idea virus"

gain such a hold over so many? In

an article in Nature Biotechnology,

medical bioethicist Leigh Turner of

McGill University, Quebec, suggests

that biotech fulfils many of the same

needs as religious fanaticism:

"Biotech, in a similar manner to

many religious movements, has its

charismatic prophets, enthusiastic

evangelists and enrapt audiences.

Like religions, it offers a comforting

message of salvation. Instead of

imagining a day of rapture when the

dead rise from their graves to begin

eternal life, biotech enthusiasts

imagine the era when medical technologies

provide a renewable, largely

imperishable body. … Biotech is

not just an assemblage of research

programs and techniques. In a scientific

and technological era, biotech

also offers a surrogate religious

framework for many individuals."

Within this framework, it is a

small step to the type of language

found in the Nuffield Council report

and repeated by biotech 'evangelists'

such as Derek Burke, which

insists on the "moral imperative for

investment into GM crop research in

developing countries". And once that

article of faith is swallowed, it is but

another small step to appropriating

public money to promote and export

biotech to the third world under the

guise of aid and development programmes.

As private finance for biotech

dries up, the industry is increasingly

turning to government to provide

investment to force the crops the

West doesn't want into Africa and

Asia. The British government has

already quietly sunk over £13m of

public money into such projects via

the Department for International

Development during a period of

intense domestic disquiet over GM.

It has also sunk further money,

along with USAID, into the Nairobibased

African Agricultural

Technology Foundation (AATF) project

to push GM crops into Africa.

What is so insidious about this,

as Dr Tewolde Berhan Gebre

Egziabher, the head of Ethiopia's

Environmental Protection Authority,

has noted, is that "the moral imperative

is in fact the opposite. The policy

of drawing funds away from lowcost

sustainable agriculture

research, towards hi-tech, exclusive,

expensive and unsafe technology is

itself ethically questionable. There is

a strong moral argument that the

funding of GM technology in agriculture

is harming the long-term sustainability

of agriculture in the developing


Nobody should be in any doubt

that the GM lobby's real aim has little

to do with feeding the hungry. It is

to shore up GM research in the UK

in the face of industry's current

retreat, to associate the technology

in the official mind with the public

interest, and to give GM's public

relations campaigns a charitable




Superbug with Anthrax Genes

The Bacillus species causing anthrax and food poisoning are closely related to each other and to a

third, Bacillus thuringiensis, whose toxin genes are extensively exploited to create genetically modified

Bt crops. ISIS has warned of the potential for dangerous recombinants to emerge; such a recombinant

has now been identified. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Joe Cummins caution against growing Bt crops,

especially in the Third World.

The three Bacillus bacteria all live in the

soil and are so closely related that they

may as well be regarded as a single

species. B. anthracis causes anthrax, B.

cereus is linked to food poisoning, and

B. thuringiensis is extensively exploited

as biopesticides in genetically engineered

Bt crops, now widely cultivated

in the United States, and increasingly

being promoted in Third World countries.

The three bacteria readily mate

with one another and exchange plasmids

(circular pieces of DNA) carrying

specific toxin and virulence genes. They

share very similar viruses (phages) that

can integrate into the bacterial genome

as 'prophage', and can hence also

move toxin and virulence genes among

them, many of them reside in the bacterial

chromosome. Cummins has warned

that dangerous recombinants could

arise, from gene exchange between the

bacteria and between the Bt plant

debris and bacteria in the soil.

Now, an international team of infectious

disease researchers led by Claire

M. Fraser of the Centers for Disease

Control and Prevention (CDC) in

Atlanta, Georgia, USA, has identified a

recombinant between B. anthracis and

B. cereus. They were alerted last year

when two hospital patients in Texas

died of severe pneumonia that

appeared to be caused by inhalation

anthrax, but neither patient was infected

with B. anthracis. Instead, DNA tests

showed that both patients were infected

by a strain of B. cereus that normally

causes mild food poisoning, which has

somehow acquired the lethal anthrax


When the Texas cases came to

light, the CDC scientists were sequencing

a strain of B. cereus isolated from a

man in Louisiana who, in 1994, showed

up with severe anthrax-like symptoms.

The Texas and Lousiana patients were

all metal workers who seemed to have

inhaled the bacteria.

Anthrax is an acute fatal disease

among mammals and B. anthracis

became widely known as a biological

weapon soon after September 11, 2001.

It has two plasmids: pXO1 carrying the

lethal toxin complex (edema factor,

lethal factor and protective antigen),

and pXO2 carrying the glutamic acid

polymer that inhibits white blood cells

from engulfing and digesting the bacterium.

Until a few years ago, B.

anthracis was thought to be distinct

from B. cereus, because they look different

and cause different diseases.

The researchers sequenced the B.

cereus genome using draft genome

sequences obtained and assembled by

the company Celera, and the resulting

sequence annotated through The

Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR)

bioinformatics pipeline, set up by Craig

Venter, the maverick scientist who

founded Celera to sequence the human

genome, succeeded only too well, and

was sacked from the company in

January 2002, after he remarked on

there being too few genes to support

the simplistic idea that organisms are

hardwired in their genes.

It turns out that the culprit strain of B.

cereus G9241 had acquired a plasmid

very similar to the pXO1 of B. anthracis.

In addition, analysis of seven other

metabolic genes showed that the strain

is closely related to, albeit distinct from,

B. anthracis.

The sequence of the B. cereus

G9241 genome reveals a mosaic structure,

which could be due to the presence

of a great number of what appears

to be known and novel mobile genetic

elements that can insert sequences

from other sources. It also has a

119110bp circular plasmid with high

similarity to B. anthracis pXO1. There is,

further, a cryptic phage of 29 886bp that

encodes phage-like proteins and a plasmid

replicon (replicating unit) similar to

B. anthracis plasmid pXO2. It also carries

genes that, if functional, should provide

the strain with resistance to b-lactam,

chloramphenicol and macrolide

antimicrobial agents.

When injected into mice, B. cereus

G9241 proved to be 100% lethal, as

was B. anthracis, but it killed the mice

almost twice as fast. All the mice injected

with an ordinary B. cereus strain survived

the experiment.

As a result of these findings, the

researchers concluded that, "it may not

be appropriate to consider B. anthracis,

as currently defined, as the only species

capable of causing inhalation anthraxlike


Another noteworthy feature is that at

least two isolates of B. cereus (ATCC

14579) and M 1550) are extremely

closely related to, and cluster with, B.

thuringiensis. A number of delta endotoxins

from B. thuringiensis strains are

implicated in allergies and other illnesses,

or known to be immunogenic. What

sort of disease agent might emerge

from B. cereus if it acquired endotoxin

genes either from B. thuringiensis or

from Bt crop debris in the soil? This

question is especially pertinent in view

of the substantial changes in the genetically

modified Bt genes that are completely

untested and hence unknown in


Countries, especially those in the

Third World, where farmers live next to

their fields, should be particularly wary

about growing Bt crops.




Approval of Bt11 Maize Endangers

Humans and Livestock

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho explains why the European Commission's decision

to approve Syngenta's GM maize is illegal and criminal based on

existing scientific evidence.

The European Commission ended

6 years of de facto moratorium on

GM authorization by approving

Syngenta's Bt11 sweet corn for

food use in Europe on 19 May

2004 (see Box 1). That, despite

the fact that voting by experts last

December in the EU's Standing

Committee on Food Chain and

Animal Health was an even 6-6

country split with three abstentions.

Finland, Sweden, Ireland,

UK, Netherlands, and Spain voted

in favour; Greece, Denmark,

France, Austria, Luxembourg,

Portugal voted against; and

Belgium, Italy and Germany

abstained. The same split happened

at the Council of Ministers

on 27 April, but this time Italy

voted in favour, while Spain


Belgium's scientists first

expressed concerns over the

safety of Bt11 when they subjected

Bt11 to molecular characteri-

Box 1

History of Bt11 maize approval

An official dossier was submitted to the European Union in 1996 and

approved under the old Directive for deliberate release into the environment

(90/220/EEC) for import and processing since 22 April 1998.

Two notifications for cultivation were submitted in 1996 (to France)

and 1998 (to Spain). The Scientific Committee on Plants (SCP) gave a

favourable opinion for these two notifications, although Syngenta has

since withdrawn the latter. The 1996 notification was updated in 1998

and 2002, and finally in 2003, additional information was supplied as

required by the new Directive for deliberate release 2001/18/EC. The

French competent authority concluded that, in this respect, Bt11 "does

not present a greater risk to human health or the environment than any

other variety of maize". Approval of the application, which includes

import, cultivation and all other uses, is still pending.

In February 1999, a request was submitted under Regulation (EC)

258/97 for placing sweet corn from GM maize line Bt11 on the market

for food use (fresh or processed). On 17 April 2002, the Scientific

Committee on Food gave its opinion that Bt11 sweet corn is as safe for

human food use as its conventional counterparts.

The vote in the Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal

Health, December 2003, resulted in an even 6-6 country split with

three abstentions. A similar split ratio in the Council of Ministers 27

April 2004 led to a stalemate. The European Commission broke the

deadlock by deciding in favour of approval.

sation, as required by Europe's

current Directive for deliberate

release. These concerns were

strongly reinforced by French and

Austrian scientists.

According to an article in Le

Monde published 24 April, two

scientific evaluation committees,

in France and Belgium, had

refused to give their approval for

food use of Bt11 sweet corn. On

22 April, AFSSA (French Agency

of Food Sanitary Security)

opposed the authorization of Bt11

sweet corn for the third time, after

having refused it twice before, in

2000 and 2003, on grounds that

the scientific results were insufficient.

In a brief note published 22

April, implicitly replying to the

European Commission statement

on 5 February that "the results

supplied by Syngenta…are in

accordance with the criteria and

rules defined in the recommendation

618/97/EC", AFSSA said it

"maintains its previous opinion

which concluded that to rigorously

evaluate the impact of regular

consumption of a maize carrying

the Bt11 event, toxicity/tolerance

experiments on rats must be carried

out… Such toxicity/tolerance

experiments are not required by

the actual regulation, though they

might be advisable … because

the sweet corn is the only one to

be consumed by humans."

The Belgian Council for

Biosafety had already refused to

give its approval for the Bt11

maize on 1 April 2004.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Joe

Cummins from ISIS and the ISP

(Independent Science Panel)

have objected strongly to the

approval of a range of GM crops;

and called for the withdrawal of

approval already granted, most

probably for the same reasons as

the Belgian and French scientists:

the GM inserts in all these crops

were found to have rearranged

since characterised by the company.

That is a sign that the GM

varieties are unstable, and hence

contrary to requirement laid down

by the current European Directive

for deliberate release

(2001/18/EC). Furthermore, there

is evidence that some GM varieties

are non-uniform, also contrary

to the requirement of the

current European Directive. Thus,

the European Commission is contravening

its own laws in approving


Ho and Cummins have referred

to this as both "illegal and criminal";

criminal because transgenic

instability is a key safety issue,

and there is already evidence

suggesting that GM food and feed

are far from safe, even though

very few feeding trials have been

carried out, and toxicological

tests on natural Bt toxins are thoroughly

inadequate to predict the

much altered GM toxins incorpo-

GM sweet corn anyone?


Box 2

Molecular characterisations by Belgian Council for Biosafety

The plasmid used for making Bt11 contains a synthetic truncated crylAb sequence isolated from soil bacterium Bacillus

thuringiensis kurstaki HDI, and a synthetic pat gene, isolated from Streptomyces viridochromogenes, another soil bacterium.

Both coding sequences are driven by a 35S promoter sequence derived from cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) 35S

promoter and the 3' untranslated region of the nopaline synthase (nos) gene from a third soil bacterium Agrobacterium

tumefaciens. In addition, the promoter sequences of the pat and cry1Ab gene were combined with respectively intron Int II

and Int VI derived from maize alcohol dehydrogenase adh1S gene to enhance expression.

The company's dossier claimed a single copy insert with the structure:

p35S-Int II-pat-tnos-p35S-Int VI-crylAb-tnos

But analyses by the Belgian Council for Biosafety revealed "primary insert with rearrangements, truncations and unexpected

insertions", and "it is not certain if only one copy of the insert is present". Furthermore, 1.1kbp of the plasmid

sequence was present at the 5' end of the insert, followed by plant DNA with homology to 180bp knob specific repeat

sequence. At the 3' end, the plasmid sequence is again present followed by plant DNA with homology to the 180bp knob

specific repeat sequence.

Although not discussed by the study, knob specific sequences are present in many maize chromosomes, and are suspected

to be "megatransposons" involved in exchanges of whole chromosome segments in the genome. If so, the insert

has landed in a megatransposon, and has the potential to spread uncontrollably over the entire genome.

Another worrying finding is that PCR primers for Bt176 amplify sequences from both Bt176 and Bt11, suggesting that

Bt11 may have been contaminated by Bt176. Bt176 has been linked to the death of 12 dairy cows in Hesse Germany

between 2001 and 2002; and approval for growing Bt 176 has just been withdrawn in Spain on grounds that it has an

antibiotic resistance marker gene that the European Food Safety Authority recommends should not be present in GM crops

placed on the market.

The Belgian Council for Biosafety concluded: "There are still uncertainties concerning the molecular data provided in the

dossier C/F/96/05-10; rearrangements in the insert and truncations of parts of the insert might have occurred. Therefore,

the sequence of the insert should be further checked together with the number of inserts."

rated into GM crops. In short,

approval of Bt11 sweet corn is

endangering livestock and human


Belgian scientists characterised

the GM insert in Bt11 and

reported, that "rearrangements,

truncations and unexpected insertions"

have taken place (see Box

2), that further inserts may be

present, that the insert has landed

in what turns out to be suspected


involved in exchanging segments

between chromosomes, and that

further it is contaminated with

Bt176, a GM variety that has just

been withdrawn from cultivation in


This is a damning indictment

of the European Commission's


A few days after gaining

approval for food use of Bt11

sweet maize, an interview with

Andre Goig, Director-General of

Syngenta Seeds France and

Europe, in the French newspaper

Les Echos quotes him as saying

that the product will not be commercialised

in Europe, for now,

due to strong consumer resistance.

However, Syngenta still

intends to press ahead with its

application to cultivate Bt11

maize in Europe.



Prof. Joe Cummins discovers that

dangerous GM pharmaceutical

crops have been produced and

marketed in the United States for

at least two years, unbeknownst to

the public, via a gaping loophole in

the regulatory process.

Pharm Crop


in US Market

There has been a great deal of

public opposition recently to the

testing of rice genetically modified

to produce the human proteins

lysozyme and lactoferrin in the

United States. So far, plans to

commercialize this rice have been

stalled (see SiS 22).

But, Sigma-Aldrich, a US chemical

company, has been marketing

the biopharmaceutical products

trypsin, avidin and beta-glucuronidase

(GUS) processed from

transgenic maize, for at least two

years. Meanwhile, Prodigene

Corporation and Sigma-Aldrich are

marketing aprotinin (AproliZean)

from maize and from a transgenic


Trypsin is a digestive enzyme

used extensively in research, to

treat disease and in food processing.

The product TrypZean is marketed

as an animal free product,

and is produced jointly by Sigma-

Aldrich and Prodigene (the company

fined for contaminating food

crops with biopharmaceuticals in

the United States last year).

The development of genetically

modified (GM) food crops generally

follows a certain pattern in the

United States: First, controlled

field tests are undertaken for a

number of seasons. Then, the proponent

applies for deregulation of

the GM crop following reviews by

the Animal Plant Health Service

(APHIS) of the Department of

Agriculture (USDA), the Food and

Drug Administration (FDA) and by

the Environmental Protection

Agency (EPA) if the GM crop

includes a plant incorporated biopesticide.

Upon completion of the

process, the GM crop is deemed to

be deregulated and can be grown

without monitoring.

However, none of the biopharmaceutical-producing

GM crops

appears to have gone through the

usual regulatory process. Instead

they appeared to have progressed

from field-testing to marketing

without the benefit of final regulatory

approval, with apparently full

cooperation of the FDA and USDA

(the agriculture department has

proprietary interest in some of the

biopharmaceuticals). The biopharmaceuticals

have proceeded to the

market via the backdoor, thanks to

a loophole in the regulation of field


According to the Pew Initiative

on Food and Biotechnology, "current

APHIS regulations do allow

the commercialization of a GE

[genetically engineered] crop without

a prior affirmative approval by

the agency and without public

notice. Developers are not

required to file a petition for nonregulated

status before they produce

a plant commercially. It is

possible for developers to grow

plants at a commercial scale under

notification or field trial permits,

even if the plants might pose some

identifiable environmental or

human health risk".

Crop production facilities are

permitted as "field tests", but locations

of such facilities are designated

"confidential business information"

and are not disclosed to

people living nearby, even though

the genes and products of such

sites can easily contaminate crops,

ground water and surface water.

There seems to be no direct way to

find out where the production facilities

are, except via producers and

government regulators.

The US government seems

committed to going ahead with a

procedure that bypasses public

input and scrutiny, and which if,

when disclosed, will threaten the

marketability of US food exports. In

contrast, the Canadian Food

Inspection Service maintains that

"plant products of test sites cannot

be marketed", even though numerous

plant biopharmaceutical products

have been tested.

The regulation of plant-derived

biopharmaceuticals was reviewed

by the FDA in 2000; and by the

Pew Initiative in 2004. Only the

Pew report came to grips with the

practice of marketing virtually

untested products commercialized

without public input.

As indicated earlier, test plot

permits for crops producing biopharmaceutical

proteins are usually

designated confidential business

information so that the nature of

the products is hidden from the

public as well as the location of the

test sites. APHIS does, however,

record the crop and the state in

which the modified crop is tested.

Between 2003 and 2004,

Prodigene had test plots in

Nebraska, Texas, Iowa and


Production of the commercial

biopharmaceuticals was, for the

most part, achieved using maize,

even though it is a food crop of

fundamental importance and

should not have been used to produce

biopharmaceuticals, especially

when the products are by no

means benign for humans and animals

exposed to them.

Trypsin is an enzyme produced

in the pancreas to digest proteins.

It is extensively used in laboratory

applications, in wound treatment

and to treat diabetes. It is also

used in food processing and often

put into infant formulations to aid

in digestion. The plant-produced

product is desirable because it is

free of prions and animal viruses.

According to the safety data

sheets provided by trypsin manufacturers,

the product is capable of

causing allergy - it is a skin, eye

and respiratory irritant and may be

a mutagen.

Avidin is a protein found in

birds' eggs. It functions to bind the

vitamin biotin, which is required for

many insect pests. The pests are

inactivated by the absence of the

necessary vitamin. Transgenic

maize modified for avidin production

is resistant to storage insect


A case study done by the

Friends of the Earth turned up substantial

evidence that the protein

avidin caused dangerous biotin

deficiency in humans and animals,

leading to immune deficiency and

growth retardation. Even marginal

biotin deficiency is linked to birth

defects in mice and in humans.

Aprotinin is a protease inhibitor

normally prepared from the pan-



creas and lung of cows.

Recombinant aprotinin produced

in plants is currently marketed.

Bill Freese of Friends of the Earth

reviewed the problem of allergy

and pancreatic disease associated

with this product.

Aprotinin is also listed as a

reproductive hazard. There is

serious danger to those exposed

to aprotinin after having had a

previous exposure. For example,

a two-year old child suffered

severe anaphylactic shock (a lifethreatening

allergic reaction characterized

by swelling of body tissues

including the throat, difficulty

in breathing, and a sudden fall

in blood pressure) after a test

dose of aprotinin. Fatal anaphylaxis

followed aprotinin exposure

in a local application of fibrin

glue. A similar application led to

an immediate skin reaction following

re-exposure to fibrin sealant.

Secret field testing of plantbased

recombinant aprotinin

could result in severe or fatal anaphylaxis,

either in a brief exposure

in the maize field of someone

previously treated during surgery,

or exposure of someone

exposed to the maize field followed

by treatment during surgery.

The final commercial recombinant

protein in maize is beta-glucuronidiase

(GUS). The gene is

used in a wide range of experimental

situations but does not

appear to have therapeutic importance.

It has been observed that

formula milk for infants had a low

content of GUS while mother's

milk had elevated GUS.

Elevated GUS has been implicated

in bilirubinaemia (jaundice)

of breast-fed infants and breastfed

infants of diabetic mothers.

GUS is used extensively as a

marker, believed to have little

effect on the phenotype of the test

organism. However, GUS was

found to enhance the feeding

activity in the peach aphid, suggesting

that the marker may not

be entirely without effect on the


In conclusion, the secretive

production of dangerous pharmaceuticals

in food crops is a truly

disturbing development. The sale

of such products without transparent

public approval is adding

insult on injury, reinforcing the

public perception that the regulatory

authorities are putting corporate

profit far above public safety.


Ban Plant-based Transgenic


Prof. Joe Cummins and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho call for a global forum and a

ban on testing pharm crops, especially in Third World countries

As one after another biotech giant

retreated from genetically modified (GM)

crops for food and feed in Europe (see

"Biotech investment busy going

nowhere", this issue), the industry is

redoubling its efforts to develop plantbased

transgenic pharmaceuticals in

North America and elsewhere.

In April 2004, California stalled a

major attempt to introduce GM rice producing

human lactoferrin and lyzozyme

into 10 counties, but efforts to use rice

and other food crops to produce hazardous

pharmaceuticals have continued


On 12 July, the European Union

(EU) announced the award of 12 million

euros to a network of laboratories in 11

European countries plus South Africa to

explore the possibilities of producing

pharmaceuticals grown in genetically

modified plants. The consortium,

"Pharma-Planta", will use plants to produce

vaccines and treatments against

major diseases including AIDS, rabies,

diabetes and TB. Human trials of the

drugs are to begin within the next five

years. The project is co-ordinated in the

UK by Prof. Julian Ma of St. George's

Medical School London; and John Innes

Centre, UK's top GM crop research institute

is also a member of the consortium.

A day later, it was revealed that

South Africa, the only member of the

consortium outside Europe, is to be the

test site of the first pharm crops. South

Africa's Council for Scientific and

Industrial Research is particularly interested

in potential vaccines against HIV.

Philip Dale, plant technologist at John

Innes Centre in Norwich and the project's

biosafety co-ordinator, reportedly

said that the cost of 24-hour surveillance

of GM fields in the UK has made it

expensive to conduct similar trials in


The use of Third World countries for

testing and producing plant-based pharmaceuticals

unacceptable both in

Europe and the United States smacks of

colonialism. It also raises the spectre of

unmonitored and unregulated human

exposures to the dangerous products.

This problem will be exacerbated as

opposition to pharm crops is growing in

the United States, and more Third World

countries will be targeted for test sites

and production facilities. ISIS has

played a key role in exposing the marketing

of pharm crop products in the

United States previously unbeknownst

to the public, via a gaping loophole in

the US regulatory system (see "Pharm

crop products in US market", this issue).

A coalition of consumer and environmental

organizations in the US issued a

call for a moratorium on genetically engineered

pharm crops on 21 July. They

want the California state agencies to

conduct a rigorous investigation of the

potential hazards posed by a biotech

company's plan to produce pharmaceutical

drugs from genetically engineered


There is an urgent need for proper

international regulation on the testing

and production of plant-based pharmaceuticals.

The first step may be a wider

discussion of the drawbacks and dangers

of plant-based pharmaceuticals as

well as the "advantages" put forward by

proponents in academe and corporations.

The overlooked dangers of pharm

crops include pharmaceuticals that are

toxic, that could produce immune sensitization

followed by anaphylaxis, or oral

tolerance leading to loss of immunity to

pathogens; and general loss of confidence

in the food supply. These have

been discussed in numerous reviews

from the Institute of Science in Society.

The United Nations Food and

Agriculture Organization (FAO) has run

a number of electronic conferences

around "Agricultural Biotechnology for

Developing Countries - an Electronic

Forum". These moderated discussions

have been quite productive. It is time to

have an electronic forum on "Plantbased

Pharmaceuticals in Developing


Do contact the administrator of the

FAO project Dr. John Ruane, at

to call for such a forum

as a matter of urgency. The FAO forums

are described at the following URL:


It is important that the testing and

production of plant-based pharmaceuticals

in the Third World are made public

before they are quietly and extensively

carried out without the informed consent

of those directly affected.

Meanwhile, it is imperative to impose

a ban on field test releases and biopharmaceutical

production by multinational

corporations and foundations, especially

in Third World countries.



Collusion and Corruption in GM Policy

Claire Robinson uncovers

some uncomfortable

truths about the machinations

of the pro-GM establishment

in Britain

In a recent debate on genetically modified

(GM) foods at the House of

Commons, Dr. Ian Gibson, who chairs

the all-party Parliamentary Science

and Technology Committee, dismissed

concerns over GM food safety.

As a scientist, he said, he could

"decimate" the arguments of his

opponents. Gibson, MP for Norwich

North, said: "The epidemiology studies

carried out in every major centre,

including in the universities in the

States and elsewhere, into the effects

of [GM] food ... have shown no effects

whatever that correlate with the food -

although I understand how difficult

that is to prove."

Unfortunately for Gibson, one of

the few scientists to have done GM

food safety tests, Dr. Arpad Pusztai,

responded to his comments in an

open letter. Pusztai pointed out that

"there have been no epidemiology

studies, and certainly none published.

This is obvious from the fact that,

apart from this generalisation, you

could not refer to a single such study.

It is not surprising because in the

absence of labelling of GM food in the

Ian Gibson. Photo Mae-Wan Ho

USA such studies could not be carried

out! However, it is known from

official statistics that in less than ten

years food-related illnesses have

practically doubled in the USA since

the introduction of GM food into the

American diet." He went on to add

that while the reason for this is

unknown, it is blatant bluster to

declare that everything is well in the

USA and that none of these ill effects

correlate with food, including GM


Gibson went on to claim that "the

evidence is piling up to say that the

[GM] food is, indeed safe." But when

Pusztai asked Gibson to elaborate on

this evidence, Gibson's reply was less

Who is Derek Burke?

Prof. Derek Burke was chair of the UK regulatory committee on GM foods (Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and

Processes - ACNFP) for almost a decade (1988-97), during which time the first GM foods were approved for the UK. In the

1980s he worked for a biotech company (Allelix Inc of Toronto) and until 1998 was a director of Genome Research Ltd.

During much of his time at ACNFP, Burke was also Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia (1987-1995) and a

member of the governing council of the John Innes Centre (JIC). Both institutions have benefited from investment in GM

research, with the JIC subsequently enjoying multi-million pound investments from biotechnology corporations like

Syngenta and DuPont. Burke participated in the UK government's "Technology Foresight" exercise to decide how science

could best contribute to the UK's economic competitiveness. He was then charged with incorporating the Foresight proposal

to build businesses from genetics into the corporate plan of the UK's public funding body, the Biotechnology and

Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). As a result, BBSRC developed a strategy for integrating scientific opportunity

with the needs of industry, which left it heavily aligned with industry.

Burke was a member of the Royal Society working group on GM foods whose report, "Genetically Modified Plants for

Food Use", is said to have reassured ministers on the GM issue. He was also a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics

group that produced the report "Genetically modified crops: the social and ethical issues". This pro-GM report emphasising

the "moral imperative" to push GM crops into the Third World was described by Guardian columnist George Monbiot

as "perhaps the most asinine report on biotechnology ever written. The stain it leaves on the Nuffield Council's excellent

reputation will last for years." Burke was also a member of a small Nuffield working group who produced a follow-up report

along the same lines in 2003.

Burke has been revealed as having a hand in initiatives coordinated by the prominent industry-backed lobby group

Sense About Science. In October 2003 he sent a letter together with 113 other scientists to Tony Blair complaining about

the government's failure to intervene in the GM Public Debate in the UK. The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES)

initially reported the letter as "written and coordinated by Professor Derek Burke". But a THES article of 7 November said,

"The letter was coordinated by Sense About Science", while a THES Leader on the same topic did not even mention Burke,

referring instead to, "The new organisation behind the letter, Sense About Science". Burke is on the Advisory Council of

Sense About Science.



confident. He gave just three examples

to support his case, including a

Monsanto study. Pusztai commented,

"I expect what constitutes a pile is a

matter of definition. One can reverse

this argument by saying that the evidence

is in fact piling up to show the

health problems of GM foods reported

in the published science literature…

However, these you and other pro-

GM supporters conveniently ignore."

Indeed, Gibson has ignored other

recent evidence that further casts

doubt on the safety of GM foods.

These were raised at an Independent

Science Panel (ISP) briefing in

Parliament organised by ISIS and

Gibson's fellow MP, Alan Simpson.

The evidence includes reported illnesses

in villagers living near Bt

maize fields in the Philippines, recent

disclosure in Le Monde of kidney

abnormalities and changes in blood

sugar and blood cell numbers in rats

fed Bt maize resistant to corn rootworm,

published scientific papers

documenting problems with Bt toxins

and transgenic instability in commercial

GM lines. Gibson had pointedly

declined the invitation to attend the


The evidence should, at the very

least, set alarm bells ringing and

prompt scientists and policy makers

to take appropriate action. Surely this

should mean not approving GM foods

unless they can be unequivocally

proven safe; and at the same time,

conducting serious, independent

research into GM food safety. In

ignoring all of the evidence, Gibson is

adopting an extreme anti-precautionary

approach, one that is totally unacceptable

and irresponsible, considering

that it is human health that is at


In contrast, former environment

minister Michael Meacher had, at the

briefing, demanded a new, full-scale

expert GM enquiry in the UK, in light

of the lack of good research into the

long-term effects of GM foods on

human health and the rubbishing and

lack of follow-up on research that

turns up evidence of potentially

adverse impacts (see "Meacher calls

for enquiry into GM safety", SiS 22).

Duplicity galore

What forces could bring Gibson, a former

Dean of Biology at the University

of East Anglia, who is proud of his

independent-mindedness, to join the

chorus of spin with which GM technology

is promoted? After all, this is the

same man who, just a few years ago,

warned against the inclusion of GM

ingredients in school meals: "There is

an awful lot unknown about hazards

of new [GM food] crops and until it is

fully tested we should not be subjecting

people to risks, least of all young


A clue to the source of Gibson's

apparent conversion lies in the introduction

to his speech to the House of

Commons: "The point has often been

made here that genetically modified

crops are being grown extensively in

north and south America and in

China, although not in Europe. They

have in a sense become part of the

normal diet in those places, if not in

Europe, where there is still contention,

despite the fact that 300 million

US citizens continue to eat GM

soya without any ill effects in a very

litigious society, and many

Europeans, including people here,

have eaten it while in the US, with no

adverse consequences."

Compare Gibson's words to the

following introduction to an article:

"Genetically modified (GM) crops are

now being grown extensively in North

and South America and China,

although not in Europe. Food produced

from these crops has become

a part of the normal diet in North and

South America and in China, but not

in Europe, where contention continues

despite the fact that millions of

US citizens eat GM soya without any

ill effects in a very litigious society,

and many Europeans have eaten GM

soya while in the US without any

adverse consequences."

Gibson's introduction is copied

almost word for word from this article,

which, it turns out, was published in

May as an EMBO Report - intended to

provide short papers on molecular

biology - by Nature Publishing. It was

written by Derek Burke, a former Vice

Chancellor of the University of East

Anglia - where Gibson also worked.

Burke is known among campaigners

as the 'GM godfather' for his aggressive

protection of biotech interests

and his alleged tendency to influence

so-called "independent" reports and

government policy.

Analysis by campaign group GM

WATCH of Gibson's speech revealed

that whole sections were lifted from

Burke's article (see

?arcid=3822). It became clear from

this comparison that the politician

who boasted he had the scientific

knowledge to "decimate" his adversaries

is in reality nothing but a parrot.

For the record, ISIS has invited

the Royal Society to debate the scientific

evidence in public more than

once; but it has never accepted the

invitation. The ISP is now happy to

extend the same open invitation to

Ian Gibson.

Gibson also, at the behest of the

pro-GM lobby group Sense About

Science, asked Tony Blair in the

House of Commons to respond to

Derek Burke's letter calling for more

government support for GM. It subsequently

emerged that this letter, too,

was the work of the industry-funded

group (see box).

Why the Gibson-Burke collusion


So Gibson plagiarised Burke and

made false statements about the

state of GM science. Does it matter?

Just why it does can be seen from

what emerged following Gibson's

exposure as "a parrot".

Gibson's local newspaper picked

up the story and wrung an important

admission out of him about his

speech's similarity to the words of his

former employer, Derek Burke: "When

pressed Dr. Gibson admitted: 'We are

working together to try and erode the

anti-GM debate.'"

The whole point of the Select

Committee on Science and

Technology, which Gibson chairs, is

to provide parliamentary scrutiny of

science issues independent not only

of government but of the vested interests

that can impact on government

policies and public bodies. When the

UK Science Minister is a known

enthusiast for GM crops and biotech

entrepreneurship, independent scrutiny

is vital.

The Select Committee has issued

reports critical of Arpad Pusztai and,

more recently, supportive of the

BBSRC - the public body that Derek

Burke did so much to align with industry.

Indeed, the only serious criticism

the Gibson-led Committee made of

this corporate-friendly body was that

it was not pro-active enough in promoting

communication with the public

on issues like GM crops where public

trust needed to be achieved.

At a time when the biotech industry

is retreating from the UK in despair

at the GM-sceptical climate, Gibson

appears to be stepping up his activities

on its behalf. In collaboration with

the industry-friendly lobby group The

Scientific Alliance, he arranged a

lobby assault on Parliament called

"GM Question Time" on 13 July. The

panel was uncompromisingly pro-GM

(see a full rundown, with industry affiliations,

at /

archive2.asp?arcid =4004). Naturally,

the speakers' links with industry and

its associated lobby groups are undisclosed

in the press releases announcing

the event.



Questions over Schmeiser's Ruling

Percy Schmeiser's battle with the GM giant Monsanto came to an end with the recent

Supreme Court ruling, but what does it really mean? Lim Li Ching raises key questions

Schmeiser vs Monsanto

The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld

the lower courts' rulings that Percy

Schmeiser infringed Monsanto's patent on

the transgene that confers resistance to

glyphosate herbicides such as Roundup.

The judgement, by a narrow 5-4 margin in

favour, was given on 21 May 2004. It

marked the end of an uphill legal battle for

the Saskatchewan farmer.

In 1998, Monsanto brought Schmeiser

to court, alleging that he had planted and

reproduced canola seeds and plants containing

genes and cells claimed in its patent,

and had sold the harvest, without consent or

licence (see "Schmeiser's battle for the

seed", SiS 19). Schmeiser, a seed developer

and seed saver, argued in his defence

that he had merely planted his fields with

seed saved from the previous year, and that

his crops must have been contaminated by

Roundup transgenes.

The judge ruled in Monsanto's favour in

March 2001, finding that Schmeiser had in

1998, planted without licence, canola fields

with seed saved from the 1997 crop, which

"he knew, or ought to have known", was

Roundup tolerant. The crop, when tested,

did contain the gene and cells claimed in

Monsanto's patent. But, "the source of the

Roundup resistant canola… is really not significant

for the resolution of… infringement".

Thus, a farmer whose field contains seed or

plants originating from seed spilled or blown

into them, in swaths from a neighbour's land

or from germination by pollen carried by

insects, birds or wind, does not have the

right to use the patented gene, or the seed

or plant it is in, the judge said.

Schmeiser was ordered to pay

Monsanto its court costs and the profit from

his 1998 canola crop, amounting to approximately

Canadian $175,000. Schmeiser

appealed, but all three judges of the Federal

Court of Appeal ruled against him in May


Split decision

This latest appeal, brought to the highest

court in Canada, resulted in a split decision:

five to four. While the judges agreed that

higher life forms, including plants, cannot be

patented, the majority (by one) found

Schmeiser guilty of patent infringement, but

the minority held that patented genes should

not grant exclusive rights over the plant in

which it occurs.

The judges unanimously set aside the

crop profits that Schmeiser had been earlier

ordered to pay Monsanto. This was

because his profits were "precisely what

they would have been had [he] planted and

harvested ordinary canola". Nor did he gain

any advantage from the herbicide resistant

nature of the crop, as he didn't spray

Roundup to reduce weeds.

Furthermore, the judges concluded that

he should not pay Monsanto's legal bills, a

considerable sum accumulated over the

years. The 'loser' of a case is usually obliged

to absorb the legal costs of the 'winner'. In

this case, each party had to bear their own


These findings were a personal victory

for Schmeiser and his wife, who had spent

the last seven years and much of their own

resources to fight their case.

'Expansive' patent

Five of the nine judges said that Monsanto's

patent was valid irrespective of whether protection

for the gene and cells extends to

activities involving the plant. Although

Monsanto only claims protection for the

genes and cells, "a purposive construction

of the patent claims recognizes that the

invention will be practised in plants regenerated

from the patented cells…"

As the trial judge's findings that

Schmeiser saved, planted, harvested and

sold the crop containing the patented gene

and cells were uncontested (although the

original plants came onto his land without his

intervention), the issue was whether this

amounted to "use" of patented material.

According to the five judges who found

Schmeiser guilty of infringing Monsanto's

patent, the acts of saving and planting the

seed, then harvesting and selling plants

containing the patented cells and genes,

constituted "utilization" of the patented material.

Furthermore, by cultivating the canola

without license, Schmeiser was deemed to

have "deprived [Monsanto] of the full enjoyment

of the monopoly".

The five judges maintained that infringement

does not require use of the gene or cell

in isolation. They also said that Schmeiser

had failed to rebut the presumption of use,

as he had actively cultivated Roundup

Ready canola as part of his business operations.

They maintained that infringement

does not require the use of Roundup, to

account for the "stand-by" utility of the herbicide

tolerant trait (i.e. whether or not a farmer

sprays Roundup, cultivating Roundup

Ready canola means that the farmer may in

future spray and benefit).

The presence of one patented gene

thus in effect confers control over the entire

plant, something that Monsanto cannot

actually patent. In so accepting this "expansive"

conception of patents, the five judges

seem to contradict their own 2002 decision,

which saw the Supreme Court ruling that

higher life forms cannot be patented in

Canada (see "Canada rejects patents on

higher life forms", SiS 19). Now, 18 months

later, these judges ruled that higher life forms

containing a single patented gene are effectively

the property of the owner of the single

patented gene. These two diametrically

opposed positions are difficult to reconcile.

Dissenting view

In contrast, the four dissenting judges used

the Supreme Court decision that plants, as

higher life forms, are not patentable, to

argue that Monsanto's patent claims over

the transgene and cells, while valid, should

not "grant exclusive rights over the plant and

all of its offspring". In short, they argued that

Monsanto's valid claims should be solely for

genetically modified (GM) genes and cells in

the laboratory prior to regeneration, and for

the attendant process for making the GM


Moreover, the Canadian patent explicitly

limits protection to the transgene and the

cells containing it. By not including whole

plants, seeds or crops, the dissenting judges

said that Monsanto had specifically disclaimed

plants in their patent, i.e. "what is not

claimed is considered disclaimed". As such,

one could not reasonably expect patent protection

to be "extended to unpatentable

plants and their offspring".

In the opinion of the minority, the appropriate

test for determining "use" is whether

the patentee has been deprived of monopoly

over the use of the invention as construed

in the claims, rather than whether the

patentee was deprived of the commercial

benefits flowing from the invention. Applied

here, the question is whether Schmeiser

had used Monsanto's GM cells and genes

as they existed in the laboratory prior to differentiation

and propagation, or the GM

process. Their answer was "no".

The dissenting judges said that the

lower courts had erred not only in construing

the claims to extend to plants and seed, but

also in construing "use" to include the use of

the plant, which is explicitly disclaimed by

Monsanto. Accordingly, they argued that

cultivation of plants containing the patented

gene and cell does not constitute infringement,

neither do those plants have "standby"

utility. To conclude otherwise would, in

effect, confer patent protection on the plant.



Uncertain implications

The court, while confirming the validity of

Monsanto's patent on the transgene and

modified cells, did not rule on the validity of

patents on life forms, or whether it is right or

wise to genetically modify plants. Neither did

it answer the difficult questions about how

GMOs can be controlled once released.

These issues will have to be addressed by


The 2002 Supreme Court decision that

higher life forms, such as plants, are

unpatentable still stands. Monsanto did not

claim patent protection over a GM plant, only

the modified genes and cells and the process

for making them. However, the effect of this

judgment is that Monsanto's rights on a

patented gene and cells extend to the

(unpatentable) plant in which it is found, if the

alleged infringer is judged to have used the

patent; in Schmeiser's case, by saving, planting,

harvesting and selling in a commercial


A Canadian farmer's right to save and

use seeds generally should not be inherently

jeopardised by the decision. Even plant varieties

protected under the Plant Breeders'

Rights Act have an exemption, in that a

"farmers' privilege" applies, allowing farmers

to save and replant seeds from a protected

variety, on their own farm. (However, it does

not allow farmers to exchange or sell seeds

of a protected variety.)

But how the Plant Breeders' Rights Act

interfaces with the Patent Act in the light of

this decision is unclear. Canada has ratified

the 1978 Act of the International Union for the

Protection of New Varieties of Plants

(UPOV), which accepts that granting a plant

breeders' right on a given variety implies that

no patent can be granted to the same variety.

What happens when a patented gene inadvertently

lands in (or is present in) a variety

protected under the Plant Breeders' Rights

Act, which allows farmers to save seeds from

that protected variety?

As canola pollen and seed are uncontainable,

Monsanto could accuse virtually

any farmer of 'infringement', simply because

virtually every field is likely to inadvertently

have plants bearing its patented genes.

However, contamination of plants by patented

genes, by itself, will not automatically be

patent infringement in Canada. For the issue

in Schmeiser's case was not the adventitious

arrival of Monsanto's GM canola on his land.

(The majority emphasized they were not considering

the innocent discovery by farmers of

"blow-by" plants.) Rather, what were pivotal

were the acts of sowing and cultivation, so

the conduct of farmers on discovering

unwanted GM crops in their fields will be crucial.

Will saving and planting seed containing

a patented gene without authorisation then

be illegal? Perhaps, yes, if a farmer saves

and reuses seed they know to be contaminated

by a patented gene, instead of informing

the company. Perhaps, no, if a farmer is

able to rebut the presumption of use arising

from possession by showing that they never

intended to cultivate plants containing the

patented material (e.g. quickly arranging for

its removal). They could prove that the presence

of patented genes was accidental, by

showing that its concentration is consistent

with that expected from unsolicited "blow-by"


But, what concentrations are judged as

attributable to "blow-by" plants? The decision

is silent on this. Why does the burden of monitoring

and reporting fall on the farmer? The

judgement forces everyone who does not

sign a technology-use agreement to accept

responsibility for identifying contaminants

and reporting them. Failure to do so incurs

liability, as it did for Schmeiser. What about a

plant that has more than one inadvertent

patented gene? Such plants already exist.

Will farmers now have to report for every

crop, every company and every patented


Furthermore, as the dissenting judges

point out, it would be difficult for a farmer to

rebut the presumption of use once they

become aware that a plant containing patented

genes was present - or likely to be present

- on their land and continued to practice

traditional farming methods, such as saving

seed (as Schmeiser had done). They recommended

that the complexities and nuances

of "innocent bystander protection" in the context

of GM crops be urgently considered by


If a single contamination event contaminates

self-saved seed, does this make the

seed saver a permanent infringer? Prof. Ann

Clark of Guelph University proposes that the

only way to resolve this liability may be to

destroy all the seed as one cannot distinguish

contaminated from uncontaminated seed

without spraying Roundup (in the case of herbicide

tolerant genes), which itself kills uncontaminated

seed. But then, who should bear

the costs?

What about contaminated certified

seed? Companies already recognize that it is

impossible to segregate GM from non-GM

seed and contamination has been found in

certified seed stocks. Who is liable when GM

seed arrives in a bag of non-GM seed?

What about patented genes and marker

genes that are not genetically modified?

Marker-assisted breeding could identify

genes for various traits, for example, drought

or salt tolerance, which exist naturally in local

varieties. And once identified, these markers

could be patented. Does the Schmeiser

judgement mean that local varieties, selected

through conventional plant breeding and

including the work of generations of farmers

and seed savers, would also come under the

control of the patent holder of a gene, genetically

modified or otherwise?

The flip side, Monsanto's responsibility

for its uncontainable technology, was not

considered. Is Monsanto liable for contaminating

the farmers' fields? Can the companies

be held accountable for their technology?

The decision says nothing about these


Already the Saskatchewan Organic

Directorate's Organic Agriculture Protection

Fund has supported certified organic farmers

in taking legal action to impose responsibility

and hold biotech companies liable, for their

patented genes. They are seeking compensation

for damages caused by contamination

of certified organic crops by Monsanto's and

Bayer's herbicide tolerant canola, clean-up

costs, and an injunction to prevent commercialization

of Roundup Ready wheat if

Monsanto tries to reintroduce it. This case is


It seems that the Schmeiser judgement

has raised more questions than it answers,

and by not addressing the full implications of

the uncontainability of patented genes, the

judges have missed the point, and proliferated

more confusion.

Some positives

The fact that the court found that Monsanto

was owed none of the value of Schmeiser's

crop may, however, be an important counter

to the finding of patent infringement. Growing

and re-growing contaminated seed may not

oblige a farmer to pay Monsanto anything,

presuming that they are not benefiting from

the herbicide tolerant gene by spraying

Roundup. The company now has nothing to

gain by taking such a farmer to court, so in

effect, Monsanto's 'expansive' patent may

have lost some teeth against seed savers.

Monsanto had, in the past, threatened

financial reprisals against farmers for alleged

patent infringement. Knowing that contamination

is unavoidable, wary farmers might

have been persuaded to buy Monsanto's

seed to avoid such charges. The present ruling

that the company was owed nothing of

Schmeiser's crop might make Monsanto

think again before using such a strategy of

intimidation to expand its market.

Significantly, the case has exposed

Monsanto's unacceptable and unnecessary

behaviour toward Schmeiser and other farmers.

As Ann Clark points out, the other two

companies (Bayer and Pioneer) that market

herbicide tolerant canola in Canada do not

resort to the Patent Act to protect their intellectual

property nor prosecute farmers

whose fields are inadvertently contaminated

with their patented genes. The dissenting

judges also noted that Monsanto in any case

licenses the sale of seeds produced from the

patented invention and imposes contractual

obligations (e.g. prohibiting seed saving) on

the licensee.

Schmeiser raised awareness globally on

many issues - GM crop contamination,

patents over living organisms, the need to

protect farmers' rights, and corporate control

of our food and agriculture. He says, "This ruling

is an injustice", and many agree with him.

The struggle now moves from the courts to

the political arena. The tide may yet turn. SiS


DNA in GM Food & Feed

The government's scientific advisory committees have repeatedly tried to

reassure the public that there is nothing to fear from genetically modified (GM)

DNA, but critics disagree.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho offers a quick guide for the perplexed

Is GM DNA different from natural DNA?

"DNA is DNA is DNA," said a proponent of

GM crops in a public debate in trying to convince

the audience that there is no difference

between genetically modified (GM) DNA and

natural DNA, "DNA is taken up by cells

because it is very nutritious!"

"GM can happen in nature," said another

proponent. "Mother Nature got there first."

So, why worry about GM contamination?

Why bother setting contamination thresholds

for food and feed? Why award patents for the

GM DNA on grounds that it is an innovation?

Why don't biotech companies accept liabilities

if there's nothing to worry about?

As for GM happening in nature, so does

death, but that doesn't justify murder.

Radioactive decay happens in nature too,

but concentrated and speeded up, it

becomes an atom bomb.

GM DNA and natural DNA are indistinguishable

according to the most mundane

chemistry, i.e., they have the same chemical

formula or atomic composition. Apart from

that, they are as different as night and day.

Natural DNA is made in living organisms;

GM DNA is made in the laboratory. Natural

DNA has the signature of the species to

which it belongs; GM DNA contains bits

copied from the DNA of a wide variety of

organisms, or simply synthesized in the laboratory.

Natural DNA has billions of years of

evolution behind it; GM DNA contains genetic

material and combinations of genetic

material that have never existed.

Furthermore, GM DNA is designed -

albeit crudely - to cross species barriers and

to jump into genomes. Design features

include changes in the genetic code and special

ends that enhance recombination, i.e.,

breaking into genomes and rejoining. GM

DNA often contains antibiotic resistance

marker genes needed in the process of making

GM organisms, but serve no useful function

in the GM organism.

The GM process clearly isn't what nature

does (see "Puncturing the GM myths", SiS

22). It bypasses reproduction, short circuits

and greatly accelerates evolution. Natural

evolution created new combinations of

genetic material at a predominantly slow and

steady pace over billions of years. There is a

natural limit, not only to the rate but also to the

scope of gene shuffling in evolution. That's

because each species comes onto the evolutionary

stage in its own space and time,

and only those species that overlap in space

and time could ever exchange genes at all in

nature. With GM, however, there's no limit

whatsoever: even DNA from organisms

buried and extinct for hundreds of thousands

of years could be dug up, copied and recombined

with DNA from organisms that exist


GM greatly increases the scope and

speed of horizontal gene transfer

Horizontal gene transfer happens when foreign

genetic material jumps into genomes,

creating new combinations (recombination)

of genes, or new genomes. Horizontal gene

transfer and recombination go hand in hand.

In nature, that's how, once in a while, new

viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics

are generated, and how antibiotic

and drug resistance spreads to the disease

agents, making infections much more difficult

to treat.

Genetic modification is essentially horizontal

gene transfer and recombination,

speeded up enormously, and totally unlimited

in the source of genetic material recombined

to make the GM DNA that's inserted

into the genomes of plants, animals and livestock

to create genetically modified organisms


By enhancing both the rate and scope of

horizontal gene transfer and recombination,

GM has also increased the chance of generating

new disease-causing viruses and bacteria.

(It is like increasing the odds of getting

the right combination of numbers to win a lottery

by betting on many different combinations

at the same time.) That's not all.

Studies on the GM process have shown that

the foreign gene inserts invariably damage

the genome, scrambling and rearranging

DNA sequences, resulting in inappropriate

gene expression that can trigger cancer.

The problem with the GM inserts is that

they could transfer again into other genomes

with all the attendant risks mentioned. There

are reasons to believe that GM inserts are

more likely to undergo horizontal transfer and

recombination than natural DNA, chief

among which is that the GM inserts (and the

GM varieties resulting from them) are structurally

unstable, and often contain recombination

hotspots (such as the borders of the


After years of denial, some European

countries began to carry out 'event-specific'

molecular analyses of the GM inserts in commercially

approved GM varieties as required

by the new European laws for deliberate

release, novel foods and traceability and

labelling. These analyses reveal that practically

all the GM inserts have fragmented and

rearranged since characterised by the company.

This makes all the GM varieties

already commercialised illegal under the new

regime, and also invalidates any safety

assessment that has been done on them

(see "Transgenic lines proven unstable", SiS

20 and "Unstable transgenic lines illegal", SiS

21). As everyone knows, the properties of the

GM variety, and hence its identity, depend

absolutely on the precise form and position of

the GM insert(s). There is no sense in which

a GM variety is "substantially equivalent" to

non-GM varieties.

GM DNA in food & feed

In view of the strict environmental safety

assessment required for growing GM crops

in Europe, biotech companies are bypassing

that by applying to import GM produce for

food and processing only. Is GM food safe?

There are both scientific and anecdotal evidence

indicating it may not be: many species

of animals were adversely affected after

being fed different species of GM plants with

a variety of GM inserts (see "GM food safe?"

series, SiS 21), suggesting that the common

hazard may reside in the GM process itself,

or the GM DNA.

How reliably can GM DNA be detected?

DNA can readily be isolated and quantified in

bulk. But the method routinely used for

detecting small or trace amounts of GM DNA

is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This

copies and amplifies a specific DNA

sequence based on short 'primers strings' of

DNA that match the two ends of the

sequence to be amplified, and can therefore

bind to the ends to 'prime' the replication of

the sequence through typically 30 or more

cycles, until it can be identified after staining

with a fluorescent dye.

There are many technical difficulties

associated with PCR amplification. Because



of the small amount of the sample routinely

used for analysis, it may not be representative

of the sample, especially if the sample is

inhomogeneous, such as the intestinal contents

of a large animal. The primers may fail

to hybridise to the correct sequence; the

PCR itself may fail because inhibitors are

present. Usually, the sequence amplified is a

small fraction of the length of the entire GM

insert, and will therefore not detect any other

GM fragment present. If the target sequence

itself is fragmented or rearranged, the PCR

will also fail. For all those reasons, PCR will

almost always underestimate the amount of

GM DNA present, and a negative finding

cannot be taken as evidence that GM DNA

is absent.

A new review on monitoring GM food

casts considerable doubt over the reliability of

PCR methods. Mistakes can arise if the sample

is not large enough to give a reliable

measure, or if the batch of grain sampled is

inhomogeneous, or the PCR reaction not

sensitive enough, or the data presented to

the regulatory authorities simply not good

enough. Consequently, the level of contamination

is almost invariably underestimated.

There is an urgent need to develop sensitive,

standardized and validated quantitative

PCR techniques to study the fate of GM

DNA in food and feed. Regulatory authorities

in Europe are already developing such techniques

for determining GM contamination.

One such technique has brought the limit of

detection down to 10 copies of the transgene

(the GM insert or a specific fragment of it).

In contrast, the limit of PCR detection in

investigations on the fate of GM DNA in food

and feed is extremely variable. In one study

commissioned by the UK Food Standards

Agency, the limit of detection varied over a

thousand fold between samples, with some

samples requiring more than 40 000 copies

of the GM insert before a positive signal is

registered. Such studies are highly misleading

if taken at face value, given all the other

limitations of the PCR technique.

Despite that, however, we already have

answers to a number of key questions

regarding the fate of DNA in food and feed.

1. Is DNA sufficiently broken down

during food processing?

The answer is no, not for most commercial

processing. DNA was found to survive intact

through grinding, milling or dry heating, and

incompletely degraded in silage. High temperatures

(above 95 deg. C) or steam under

pressure were required to degrade the DNA


"The results imply that stringent conditions

are needed in the processing of GM

plant tissues for feedstuffs to eliminate the

possibility of transmission of transgenes," the

researchers warned.

They pointed out for example, that the

gene aad, conferring resistance to the antibiotics

streptomycin and spectinomycin, is

present in GM cottonseed approved for

growth in the US and elsewhere (Monsanto's

Bollgard (insect-protected) and Roundup

Ready (herbicide tolerant) cotton).

Streptomycin is mainly used as a second-line

drug for tuberculosis. But it is in the treatment

of gonorrhoea that spectinomycin is most

important. It is the drug of choice for treating

strains of Neisseria gonorrhoeae already

resistant to penicillin and third generation

cephalosporins, especially during pregnancy.

The release of GM crops with the bla TEM

gene for ampicillin resistance is also relevant

here, because that's where resistance to

cephalosporins has evolved.

Another study found large DNA fragments

in raw soymilk of about 2 000bp (base

pairs, unit of measurement for the length of

DNA), which degraded somewhat after boiling,

but large fragments were still present in

tofu and highly processed soy protein.

Heating in water under acid conditions was

more effective in degrading DNA, but again,

the breakdown was incomplete (fragments

larger than 900bp remaining).

It is generally assumed, incorrectly, that

DNA fragments less than 200bp pose no

risk, because they are well below the size of

genes. But that's a mistake, as these fragments

may be promoters (signals needed by

genes to become expressed), and

sequences of less than 10bp can be binding

sites for proteins that boost transcription. The

CaMV 35S promoter, for example, is known

to contain a recombination hotspot, and is

implicated in the instability of GM inserts.

2. Is DNA broken down sufficiently

rapidly in the gastrointestinal tract?

Although free DNA breaks down rapidly in

the mouth of sheep and humans, it was not

sufficiently rapid to prevent gene-transfer to

bacteria inhabiting the mouth. DNA in GM

food and feed will survive far longer. The

researchers conclude: "DNA released from

feed material within the mouth has potential

to transform naturally competent oral bacteria."

Several studies have now documented

the survival of DNA in food throughout the

gastrointestinal tract in pigs and mice, in the

rumen of sheep and in the rumen and duo-

GM DNA in food and feed. Photo Mae-Wan Ho


denum of cattle. The studies were variable in

quality, depending especially on the sensitivity

of the PCR methodology used to amplify

specific sequences for detection.

Nevertheless they suggest that GM DNA

can transfer to bacteria within the rumen and

in the small intestine. In neither sheep nor

cattle was feed DNA detected in the faeces,

suggesting that DNA breakdown may be

complete by then.

The only feeding trial in human volunteers

was perhaps the most informative.

After a single meal containing GM soya containing

some 3x1012 copies of the soya

genome, the complete 2 266 bp epsps transgene

was recovered from the colostomy bag

in six out of seven ileostomy subjects (who

had their lower bowel surgically removed).

The levels were highly variable among individuals

as quantified by a small 180bp PCR

product overlapping the end of the cauliflower

mosaic virus (CaMV) 35S promoter

and the beginning of the gene: ranging from

1011 copies (3.7%) in one subject to only 105

copies in another. This is a strong indication

that DNA in food is not sufficiently rapidly broken

down in transit through the gastrointestinal

tract, confirming the results of an earlier

experiment by the same research group.

No GM DNA was found in the faeces of

any of 12 healthy volunteers tested, suggesting

that DNA has completely broken down,

or all detectable fragments have passed into

the bloodstream (see later) by the time food

has passed through the body. This finding is

in agreement with the results from ruminants.

In general, the studies report that GM

DNA degrades to about the same extent and

at about the same rate as natural plant DNA.

However, no quantitative measurements

have been made, and GM DNA was often

compared with the much more abundant

chloroplast DNA, which outnumbers the

transgene by 10 000 to one.

3. Is GM DNA taken up by bacteria and

other micro-organisms?

The answer is yes. The evidence was reported

in the human feeding trial mentioned. The

transgene was not detected in the contents

of the colostomy bag from any subject before

the GM meal. But after culturing the bacteria,

low levels were detected in three subjects out

of seven: calculated to be between 1 and 3

copies of the transgene per million bacteria.

According to the researchers, the three

subjects already had the transgene transferred

from GM soya before the feeding trial,

probably by having eaten GM soya products

unknowingly. No further transfer of GM DNA

was detected from the single meal taken in

the trial.

The researchers were unable to isolate

the specific strain(s) of bacteria that had

taken up the transgene, which was not surprising,

as "molecular evidence indicates that

90% of microorganisms in the intestinal

microflora remain uncultured. …they can

only grow in mixed culture, a phenomenon

seen with other microorganisms."

Actually, GM DNA can already transfer to

bacteria during food processing and storage.

A plasmid was able to transform Escherichia

coli in all 12 foods tested under conditions

commonly found in processing and storage,

with frequencies depending on the food and

on temperature. Surprisingly, E. coli became

transformed at temperatures below 5

degrees C, i.e. under conditions of storage of

perishable foods. In soy drink this condition

resulted in frequencies higher than those at

37 degrees C.

4. Do cells lining the gastrointestinal

tract take up DNA?

The answer is yes. Food material can reach

lymphocytes (certain white blood cells) entering

the intestinal wall directly, through Peyer's

patches. And fragments of plant DNA were

indeed detected in cows' peripheral blood


It is notable that in the human feeding

trial, a human colon carcinoma cell line

CaCo2 was directly transformed at a high frequency

of 1 in 3 000 cells by an antibiotic

resistance marker gene in a plasmid. This

shows how readily mammalian cells can

take up foreign DNA, as we have pointed out

some years ago (see also below).

5. Does DNA pass through the gastrointestinal

tract into the bloodstream?

The answer is yes, as mentioned above,

fragments of plant DNA were detected in

cow's peripheral blood lymphocytes.

However, attempts to amplify plant DNA fragments

from blood have failed, most likely on

account of the presence of inhibitors of the

PCR amplification.

6. Does DNA pass into milk?

The official answer from the UK Food

Standards Agency is no, based on a single

study it commissioned that was practically

worthless (see "Exposed: More shoddy science

in GM maize approval", SiS 22). The

researchers tested DNA from 333 microlitres

of milk - about 3 drops - using a PCR detection

method that required the equivalent of

4059 copies of the GM soya genome and

905 copies of the maize genome to give a

positive signal.

Recently, Greenpeace in Germany published

the results of a study from the

Research Centre for Milk and Foodstuffs in

Weihenstephan, Bavaria, which was reportedly

"kept under lock and key for three

years". It contained the results of a farmer's

milk samples that tested positive for GM

DNA from Roundup Ready soya and Bt176

maize. The researchers pointed out that the

GM DNA fragments might have found their

way into milk via GM feed given to the animals

that produced the milk, or else via dust

from GM plants contaminating the milk.

7. Is DNA taken up by tissue cells?

The answer is yes, and this has been known

since the mid 1990s. GM DNA and viral DNA

fed to mice ended up in cells of several tissues,

and when fed to pregnant mice, the

DNA was able to cross the placenta, and

enter the cells of the foetus and the newborn.

These results were confirmed in 2001, when

soya DNA, too, was found taken into the tissue

cells of a few animals.

In general, abundant chloroplast

sequences have been detected in the tissues

of pig and chicken but not single gene

DNA nor GM DNA. But rare events are most

likely to go undetected, on account of the limitations

of the PCR technique.

Recently, "spontaneous transgenesis" -

the process of spontaneous uptake of foreign

DNA resulting in gene expression - has been

rediscovered by a team of researchers looking

for new possibilities in gene therapy. They

documented the phenomenon in several

human B lymphocyte cell lines as well as

peripheral blood B lymphocytes. The transgene

in a plasmid was readily taken up and

was found in many cell compartments including

the nucleus, where gene transcription

took place. The plasmid was not integrated

into the genome, but the researchers say that

its eventual integration cannot be ruled out.

8. Is GM DNA more likely to insert into


This is perhaps the most important question.

There are reasons to believe GM DNA is

more likely to insert into genomes after it is

taken up into cells, chief among which, its

sequence similarities (homologies) to a wide

variety of genomes, especially those of viruses

and bacteria. Such homologies are

known to enhance horizontal gene transfer to

bacteria up to a billion fold.

More significantly, the integration of nonhomologous

genetic material can occur at

high frequencies when flanked by homologous

sequences. A recent report highlights

the importance of this "homology-facilitated

illegitimate recombination", which increases

the integration of foreign (non-homologous)

DNA at least 105 fold when it was flanked on

one side by a piece of DNA homologous to

the recipient genome.

No experiment has yet been done to

assess whether GM DNA is more likely to

transfer horizontally than natural DNA.

However, in the human feeding trial, where

three ileostomy volunteers tested positive for

the soya transgene in the bacteria cultured

from their colostomy bag, the soya lectin

gene Le was not detected in the bacterial cultures

from any of the subjects.

The researchers found it necessary to

remark, "Although the plant lectin gene was

not detected in the microbial population…it is

premature to conclude that the epsps transgene

is more likely than endogenous plant

genes to transfer into the microbial population."

But until this possibility has been adequately

addressed, it cannot be ruled out. SiS


GM Trees Alert


No to GM Trees

Sam Burcher reports on a global movement to ban GM trees

Some 400 GM birch trees (Betula pendula)

in a single GM field study situated in

Punkaharju, Finland have been either

ripped up or cut down by unknown parties

at an estimated cost of 1.21 million euros

in June 2004.

After the attack, the researchers at

the Finnish Forest Research claimed that

their purpose was to examine the environmental

risks of horizontal gene transfer.

When they originally applied for permission

for the field trial in 2000, however,

it was to study the carbon-nitrogen

processes of GM trees.

Protests against GM trees greeted

the 4th UN Forum on Forests (UNFF) in

Geneva in May 2004 because of the

"Decision" to draft plans for GM tree projects

made at the UN Framework

Convention on Climate Change (COP9)

in Milan in December 2003.

GM trees have been included in the

Kyoto Protocol as a means of generating

carbon credits under the Clean

Development Mechanism. Carbon

credits sold in this way are not subject to

the traceability legislation that applies to

all other GM imports into Europe and

therefore countries hosting GM trees will

have no way of knowing whether their

credits are GM free or not.

The hopes pinned on GM trees

include slowing the progress of climate

change and ameliorating the effects of

mercury vapours in the atmosphere

caused by fossil fuels and medical waste


The plan is to "phyto-remediate" plots

of land by planting GM trees that take up

ionic mercury or organic mercury and

convert it to less toxic elemental mercury,

which can then be expelled into the

atmosphere where it is supposed to

become less harmful. But what this will

achieve is relocate soil mercury from contaminated

soil sites in the south and

redistribute the mercury to the north.

Also, the mercury expelled to the atmosphere

will go back to the land through precipitation,

and convert to its original toxic

state in the soil. This poses threats to animal

and human health as well as problems

of cross-contamination of native

plants. Prof. Joe Cummins, among others,

has warned that populating expansive

areas with mercury transgenic trees

could cause a global catastrophe (see

"GM trees alert", Science in Society 16,

2002 and


Trees are also genetically modified to

reduce the amount of fibrous lignin that is

the substance of the wood of trees, providing

strength and resistance to pests

and disease. GM trees may contain up to

50% less lignin than their conventional

counterparts, which reduces the ability of

the plant to reach optimum levels of fitness

in the environment. This reduced

capacity leads to decreased biomass and

degraded biodiversity.

It is thought that reducing lignin in

trees will make wood easier and cheaper

to pulp and paper, especially soft woods,

as well as creating faster growing trees.

But a forest of slow decaying trees is a

major carbon sink whereas fast decaying

forests will result in carbon dioxide being

returned to the atmosphere too rapidly

(see "Low lignin GM trees and forage

crops", ISIS report 5 June 2004;

Science in Society 23).

The US Department of Agriculture

has issued more that 300 permits for

open GM tree trials since 2000 and officials

are expected to grant permission to

grow GM trees commercially by 2005.

According to the World Wildlife Fund

(WWF) GM tree trials are also taking

place in China and Chile. In New Zealand

GM tree trials are underway by Aventis

and DuPont who have engineered pine

trees (Pinus radiata) and Norwegian

Spruce (Picea abies) to be resistant to

their herbicides "Buster" and "Escort". A

second trial involves speeding up the

growth of these GM tree species.

The introduction of "novel bio-engineered"

trees into stocks of indigenous

trees that "out compete" the native populations

will have a disrupting effect on

ecosystems and poses similar risks as

GM crops, on an increased scale.

Problems with GM trees in the environment

are amplified because trees engineered

to contain pesticides have

increased ability to harm non-target

insects and birds as well as distributing

pollen extensively. Tests have shown that

pollen from pine trees can travel up to 600

km. Furthermore, trees remain in the

environment for a lot longer than seasonal

crops like maize.

There is very little evidence as to what

GM trees may do to the soil, but there is

every possibility that they may absorb

more nutrients than traditional trees,

which further threatens biodiversity. And it

is not yet know whether GM trees can

withstand strong winds, a condition of climate


A campaign to ban GM trees was

launched in January 2004 by Finnish

Environmental Groups, The Peoples

Biosafety Association and the Union of

Ecoforestry. So far they have attracted

support from many concerned groups: -

The World Rainforest Movement, Friends

of the Earth International, ISIS, The

Forest Action Network and Scottish

Green Party.

At a side event in Geneva under the

banner "The People's Forest Forum"

Anne Petermann, co-director of the Stop

GE Trees Campaign in the US presented

evidence about the hazards of GM trees

and the risks of contamination across

state borders from even single field trials.

She said: "Once the pollen from those

trees escape there is no going back."

An open letter to Governments was

circulated on the last day of the UNFF by

the Finnish Environmental Groups which

stated that there is no control system for

GM pollen flowing with the wind or seeds

transported by birds, and that this "breaks

with the Cartagena Protocol on

Biosafety", the first international law to

control the transportation of LMOs (Living

Modified Organisms) across national borders.

Mikko Vartiainen, a lawyer specialising

in international law on natural

resources confirmed that the burden of

proof of safety should lie with the proponents

of GM trees and that "We should

follow a very tight precautionary principle

with such risks." The campaign delegation

at Geneva has facilitated dialogue

between Government agents and NGOs

and hopes to stimulate discussions

between GM proponents and concerned

scientists. But they argue that the

"Decision" made at COP9 regarding GM

trees should have been preceded by

such dialogue.

American Lands Alliance, WWF and

Greenpeace have all called for a moratorium

on the release of GM trees. They

suggest positive moves be made to

"reduce the need" for fast growing trees

that increase global demands for virgin

wood and paper products along with further

research and more regulations in

place before GM trees are manufactured

in the forests.

Hannu Hyvonen, the co-ordinator of

the Union of Ecoforestry and an organic

farmer said that planting GM trees was

not the answer to Climate Change prevention,

"One cannot put out the fire with

gasoline," he said.

Sign onto the petition: Global Ban on GM trees



Prof. Joe Cummins explains why

genetically modifying trees and forage

crops to reduce their lignin

content could make them more

susceptible to pests. Other issues

related to the GM construct, such

as genetic instability, the persistence

of antibiotic resistance marker

genes in the ecosystem and

biosafety in general, have also not

been sufficiently considered.

Low Lignin GM Trees

and Forage Crops

The plant cell is protected by a cell

wall that has a structure analogous

to reinforced concrete represented

by lignin. Lignin determines the

rigidity, strength and resistance of a

plant structure.

When wood fibre is processed to

make paper or composite products,

lignin must be removed using polluting

chemicals and a great deal of

energy. Also, the digestibility of animal

feed is influenced by lignin

content - the greater the lignin content,

the poorer the food source.

Genetic engineering is now being

used to fundamentally modify the

lignin of forest trees and animal


Reducing lignin content of fibre

and forage leads to greatly reduced

costs of preparing fibre and

improved digestibility of fodder and

forage. However, the advantages of

reduced lignin are offset by the disadvantage

of plants with reduced

lignin, which are more readily

attacked by predators such as

insects, fungi and bacteria. Indeed,

increasing lignin content has been

promoted as a defence against


The importance of lignin in disease

resistance has been known

for well over twenty years. For

example, lignification was crucial in

reducing predation by spruce bark

beetles, and lignin in the roots of

the date palm played a key role in

defence against the fungus

Fusarium. It has been suggested

that a guaiacyl (a type of lignin subunit)

rich lignin was produced as

"defence" lignin when Eucalyptus is

wounded by a predator. Lignin content

of larch species determined the

level of heartwood brown-rot decay.

Genetic modification of plants to

enhance lignin production is covered

in United States Patent


However, Arabidopsis plants

modified in the metabolic pathway

leading to lignin formation produced

abnormal lignin that was

associated with severe fungal

attacks. Tobacco plants modified to

limit production of lignin subunits

were susceptible to virulent fungal

pathogens, but it was suggested

that the precursors of lignin and not

lignin protected plants from

pathogens. Genetic modifications

for reduced lignin level nevertheless

resulted in reduced fitness

including increased winter mortality

and decreased biomass.

It seems clear that plant genetic

modification leading to reduced

lignin, as proposed for use in pulp

and paper or in livestock production,

must be fully evaluated for fitness

in the environment.

The monomeric structure of

lignin influences the properties of

the plant material. There are two



Woody trees decompose slowly and are an important carbon sink

main types of lignin, guaiacyl lignin

and guaiacyl-syringyl. Guaiacyl

lignin is characteristic of softwoods,

which are resistant to

chemical and biological degradation.

Guaiacyl-syringyl lignin is typical

of hardwoods such as poplar,

which are more readily degraded.

Modifying plants with a gene

enhancing the proportion of guaiacyl-syringyl

lignin therefore provides

a lignin more readily degraded

by chemicals or enzymes.

Reducing lignin content also leads

to plants more readily digested with

enzymes or chemicals.

Lignin reduction has been

achieved using anti-sense genes to

limit production of key enzymes on

the lignin biosynthesis pathway.

Multiple genetic transformations of

forest trees have been used to

enhance production of guaiacylsyringyl

lignin and to limit total

lignin production. Four

Agrobacterium T-DNA vectors,

each with a cauliflower mosaic

virus promoter, two of which included

anti-sense to limit undesirable

enzymes and two with sense constructions

to enhance desirable

enzymes, were used to simultaneously

alter the genome of aspen

(Populus tremuloides). This resulted

in reduced lignin content of guaiacyl

lignin and increased guiaicylsyringyl

proportion in the remaining


Even though a potentially desirable

end product is created, the

multiple transformations (gene

stacking) are liable to create chromosome

instability leading to

translocations, duplications and

deletions through homologous

recombination during germ cell formation

and in somatic tissues



Independent studies of transgene

integration using T-DNA vectors in

aspen showed extensive DNA

sequence scrambling at the insertion

points. DNA sequence scrambling

occurring in the cells during

growth is a significant complication

in long-lived trees.

Lignin genetic engineering is

promoted as a promising strategy

to improve fibre production but the

drawbacks of anti-sense manipulation

and transgene stability are not

seriously dealt with. Trees genetically

modified to produce low lignin

are called "super" trees with little

consideration of pest resistance

and genetic stability. Field and

pulping performance of transgenic

poplars with altered lignin was

evaluated to be superior by the

developers of the poplar and abnormal

pest damage was not found.

However, the pest damage studies

were cursory and not compared

with experimental controls, but with

norms reported by government


The antibiotic resistance markers

from the leaves of transgenic

aspen have been studied for their

persistence in the soil. The field

study showed that the marker DNA

of the aspen leaves persisted for as

much as four months in the soil.

The persistence of antibiotic resistance

genes in the forest ecosystem

is likely to impact not only soil

microbes, but human and animal

inhabitants of the forest as well.

Lignin content increases as

crops age or are stressed. Animal

feed rich in lignin is poorly

digestible and considered to be of

low quality. Grass, alfalfa or maize

with reduced lignin or lignin with

increased guaiacyl-syringyl proportion

(readily digested) may provide

a large economic benefit in animal

production, provided that the

genetic modifications do not result

in susceptibility to predatory

insects, fungi and bacteria and do

not compromise food or feed safety

(for example, fungus food contamination

may lead to pollution of food

with toxins, causing liver damage

and cancer).

The main technique used to produce

lignin modifications is antisense

genes designed to reduce

one or another enzyme level on the

pathway to lignin production. Maize

with improved forage quality was

produced by down-regulating the

enzyme O-methyl transferase to

limit lignin production. Tall fescue

pasture grass with improved forage

digestibility was produced using an

anti-sense gene for the lignin precursor

enzyme cinnamyl alcohol

dehydrogenase. Alfalfa down-regulated

for lignin enzyme caffeoyl

coenzyme A 3-O-methyl transferase

produced plants with

increased guaiacyl-syringyl lignin

proportions leading to improved

rumen digestibility.

There is little question that the

forage and fodder with reduced

lignin and lignin with improved

composition are more desirable

food sources for grazing animals.

However, the downside of lignin

manipulation - greater disease susceptibility

- was not thoroughly considered

by developers of crops with

modified lignin. The developers

seem to ignore safety issues while

they promote the modified crops.

Furthermore, smooth brome

grass clones selected using conventional

breeding showed that

reduced lignin was associated with

severe rust fungus disease. Alfalfa

selected for forage quality (including

reduced lignin) had reduced

vigour but was not expected to

affect levels of disease resistance.

Sudan grass selected for brownmidrib

trait (an indicator of reduced

lignin) experienced severe yield

reductions and environmental sensitivity,

particularly during cooler

growing seasons.

Lignin modification of trees and

forage crops has been a focus of

research in genetic engineering.

But lignin provides both fundamental

structural features and resistance

to animal and microbial pests.

Lignin enhancement that leads to

greater forage or tree pulp quality

also leads to susceptibility to disease,

while lignin enhancement

that leads to greater disease resistance

makes forage less digestible

and tree pulp more expensive to


The economic consequences of

effective lignin modification could

be tremendous, but producing

forests and rangelands highly susceptible

to insects, fungi and bacteria

would lead to economic and

environmental disaster. The low

lignin trait is comparable to a loss

in immune functions comparable to

AIDS in mammals. The chemical

corporations might well welcome a

huge increase in pesticides to fight

disease in forests and pastures.

Nevertheless, the best strategy is

to proceed prudently and honestly

evaluate the consequences of far

reaching genetic engineering


Note added by editor: Another

consideration is ecological. Wood,

with its naturally high lignin content,

generally takes a long time to

decay and recycle in the ecosystem,

probably for good reasons. It

is a long-term energy store complementing

the shorter-term energy

storage depots, which enables the

ecosystem to function most efficiently

and effectively (see "Why

are organisms so complex? A lesson

in sustainability", SiS 21).

Slow-decaying wood is also a major

carbon sink. Reducing its lignin

content to enhance degradation will

end up returning carbon dioxide too

rapidly to the atmosphere, thereby

exacerbating climate change (see

"Why Gaia needs rainforests" SiS

20). SiS


Technology Watch

Bio-remediation Without Caution

A bacterium living inside plants could be improved for cleaning up environmental

pollutants without genetic modification. Prof. Joe Cummins

and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reveal that this seemingly beneficial development

is beset with danger, as the bacterium concerned is a known pathogen.

Water soluble and highly volatile organic

environmental pollutants, such as benzene,

toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene compounds,

chlorinated solvents and nitrotoluene

ammunition wastes, are being

cleaned up using plants in combination with

microorganisms that naturally live inside the

plants (endophytes).

Endophyte bacteria live within the tissue

of the plant without harming it. They are

found in most plant species, and many can

colonize the vascular system. The highest

densities of bacteria are usually found in the

roots, less in the stem, and least in the

leaves. The plants take up the pollutants

through their roots, and the bacteria break

these down within the roots or in other parts

of the plant.

This natural process is inefficient

because the compounds tend to get transported

up the plant faster than the bacteria

can break them down. Once transported up,

the plants metabolize the contaminants, and

some of the metabolites as well as the contaminant

can be toxic. For example,

trichloroethane is metabolized into

trichloroacetic acid, both of which are toxic.

Worse still, plants tend to release volatile pollutants

and their metabolites into the atmosphere

via evaporation from the leaves, which

turns bio-remediation into bio-pollution.

A recent article in Nature Biotechnology

reports how this clean up process could be

greatly improved by engineering an endophyte

bacterium Burkholderia cepacia, a natural

resident of the yellow lupine.

Researchers from Linburgs University in

Diepenbeek, Belgium and Brookhaven

National Laboratory in New York, USA, created

a strain of B. cepacia that has enhanced

ability to degrade toluene within the plant,

enabling the plant to tolerate high levels of

toluene, and also substantially reduced the

amount of toluene released into the atmosphere.

The engineered strain of the bacterium

carries marker genes for kanamycin resistance

and nickel resistance and is derived

from the natural endophyte. By adding to this

endophyte strain a toluene-degrading plasmid

from another strain of B. cepacia that normally

lives in the soil through natural conjugation

(bacterial reproduction) between the

strains, a new endophyte strain is created

that can live in the plant and degrade toluene

taken up by the plant.

Plants inoculated with the engineered

bacterium grew much better than plants that

were not inoculated; or else inoculated either

with the control strain lacking the plasmid, or

with the strain that normally lives in the soil.

More impressively, the plants inoculated with


the engineered bacterium reduced toluene

evaporation into the atmosphere to about

50% of the control. This looks very promising,

and as the researchers point out, the experiment

could have been done without any

genetic modification. The plasmid containing

all the toluene degrading enzymes belonged

to a natural soil bacterium, and an endophyte

host without the marker genes could easily

have been used to receive the plasmid by


A non-GM bacterial endophytic strain

created in this way may well be the very first

really useful and beneficial product from the

industry. So what's wrong?

The research paper did not deal with

safety. What metabolites of toluene are generated

in the plant, and will they be toxic?

How will the plants be disposed of? There

are three lupine species cultivated for fodder

- blue, white and yellow - and there are also

a number of wild species. The wild species

contain alkaloid chemicals that are very toxic

to cattle and sheep while the cultivated

species are edible for farm animals, provided

care is taken to treat the seeds in such a way

as to remove the toxins. Lupines thrive on

poor soil and provide ground cover and

green manure as well as fodder for animals.

More importantly, the research report

failed to mention that B. cepacia has the ability

to cause fatal disease in humans.

The groundwater of Wichita, Kansas

was found to be polluted with the chemical

solvents dichloroethylene and trichloroethylene,

and was cleaned up using a natural

strain of B. cepacia. But no special public

health measures or follow up seemed to

have been implemented after the clean up.

The United States Environmental

Protection Agency (EPA) has considered the

problems associated with approval of B.

cepacia as a plant pesticide, for, not only is

the bacterium used to fight plant pests but is

itself a pest as it is a disease agent in

humans. EPA, through a Scientific Advisory

Panel (SAP), reviewed B. cepacia as a plant

pesticide and acknowledged that it is linked to

human disease. The SAP risk assessment

peculiarly noted, "Bc [B. cepacia] has been

referred to as an opportunistic human

pathogen. However, as might be expected,

the strains registered or proposed for use as

biopesticides were isolated from the soil or

plant roots, rather than from human patients".

In reality, the SAP comment offered cold

comfort because the B. cepacia strains isolated

from patients proved essentially undistinguishable

from strains isolated from the

roots of crops such as corn. The American

Phytopathological Society produced a useful

review of the risks from plant disease or

human disease along with the benefits in

cleaning up chemical pollution and fighting

some plant diseases. Unfortunately, there

has been no clear and simple way to differentiate

between the 'evil' and the beneficial

strains of B. cepacia, and no way of preventing

the two from exchanging genes.

B. cepacia has an unusual genetic

makeup; it has a relatively large amount of

DNA (about twice that of E. coli) and unlike

most bacteria, which usually have a single

chromosome, B. cepacia strains have as

many as five large replicons (chromosomes)

and the different chromosomes are rich in

insertion sequences that allow for extensive

gene exchange between different strains,

and insertion of disease related genes from

other bacterial species. B. cepacia is a prominent

cause of death among cystic fibrosis

patients, the bacterium frequently reaches

epidemic proportions among such patients

and an epidemic related strain was identified

in soil samples in the USA. It is believed to be

a complex species made up of seven distinct

genomic subspecies all of which are capable

of infecting humans; and all of the diseaserelated

subspecies were isolated from maize

rhizosphere (root zone). The disease is difficult

to contain because disease bacteria may

be replenished continually from the soil and

plant material.

Hospital acquired B. cepacia epidemics

appeared among patients with diabetes,

malignancy, heart failure and chronic obstructive

pulmonary disease. One such B. cepacia

outbreak appeared in an intensive pediatric

care unit, and B. cepacia infection was common

among renal transplant patients.

Different B. cepacia clones showed different

infectivity among cystic fibrosis patients and

patients with different complaints. Antibiotic

resistant B. cepacia infection was the most

common cause of death among lung transplants

for cystic fibrosis patients. B. cepacia

causes feared infections because the strains

tend to be antibiotic resistant. Bacteria isolated

from different infections were found to be

resistant to all seven tested antibiotics but

were sensitive to treatment with honey.

Do lupines pose a threat to people with

compromised immune systems or cystic

fibrosis? Yellow lupines, and perhaps the

other commercial species as well, contain

potentially disease-causing B. cepacia endophytes,

so their presence in hospitals and

homes of compromised people is unwise.

The bacteria may be transferred by direct

contact with broken plant stems or petals

along with the dust and debris associated

with the plant; a gift of lupines could be fatal.

There is clearly a large literature on the

threat of B. cepacia infection and its death toll

among compromised patients. The existing

evidence indicates that the bacterial infections

may pass from the ecosystem to the

hospital ward and there seems no way of

ensuring that the B. cepacia strains used in

biotechnology are unable to infect compromised



ISP News



GM Crops Not the Answer

Lim Li Ching reports

The Independent Science Panel (ISP) ( has criticised the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the

United Nations for its qualified backing of genetically modified (GM) crops in the global fight against hunger.

The FAO recently released its annual publication, The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-2004. This year, the theme

was on "Agricultural Biotechnology: Meeting the needs of the poor?" The report touches on the full range of agricultural

biotechnology tools and applications, but focuses largely on transgenic or GM crops and their impact on poor people in

poor countries.

While acknowledging that biotechnology is not a panacea, the FAO maintains that it holds great promise as a new scientific

tool for generating applied agricultural technologies. The report claims that biotechnology is capable of benefiting

small, resource-poor farmers, yet also cautions, "Given that technologies that are on the shelf today (generated by conventional

research methods) have not yet reached the poorest farmers' fields, there is no guarantee that the new biotechnologies

will fare any better."

Thus, the FAO seems to ignore the implicit message of its own study: GM crops have thus far delivered negligible benefits

to the world's poor. And there is little indication that these trends will change in favour of the poor. As the report points

out, crops and agronomic traits of importance to developing countries and marginal production areas have been ignored.

Instead, the focus has been on four crops (soybean, maize, cotton, canola) more suited for industrial agriculture and

unlikely to meet the food security needs of poor farmers, and two traits (herbicide tolerance and insect resistance) of limited

relevance; herbicide resistance, in particular, is less relevant for developing countries where farm labour is abundant.

These four crops and two traits have, however, been the mainstay of the GM industry, controlled largely by transnational

corporations that have reaped most of the benefits. This private sector-led investment in agricultural research and

development depends on strong protection of intellectual property rights (IPRs) over GM crops.

The FAO is disingenuous when it calls on countries to develop stronger IPR regimes to promote GM crop research,

even as the independent Commission on Intellectual Property Rights has expressed reservations over patent protection

for plants and animals. Many developing countries that are World Trade Organisation (WTO) members, particularly the

Africa Group, have also expressed similar concerns, joining countless non-governmental and civil society organisations,

and some 700 scientists (including ISP members, see, to call for no patents on living


Is the FAO ignoring these views, much as it seems to be selective in the evidence it draws on to justify the report's

conclusions? For example, in the section on public attitudes, the report relies heavily on a survey that asks imbalanced

questions. This section concludes that people in developing countries are generally likely to support agricultural biotechnology,

which is not surprising, given that the risks are not mentioned in the questions asked, only the potential benefits.

Yet the risks of GM crops are increasingly apparent. The FAO report is unacceptably silent on the transgenic contamination

of traditional varieties of maize in Mexico, a centre of origin and diversity of maize; it doesn't discuss biodiversity

and food security impacts, let alone the immense implications on cultural and indigenous practices.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, director of the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) and member of the ISP, points to further flaws:

"The FAO claims that scientists generally agree that current transgenic crops and the foods derived from them are safe to

eat. But there are many scientists - ISP members included - who have questioned this premise, and there is increasing

evidence that casts doubt on GM food safety."

The ISP's report, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World, is an extensive review of the scientific and other evidence

on the problems and hazards of GM crops and the manifold benefits of all forms of sustainable agriculture.

It is clear, from the evidence therein, that there are many unanswered questions on the safety of GM crops. Very few

studies have been conducted, particularly as to the effects of GM foods on human health. There is a dearth of published

scientific papers on which a reliable database of safety can be established, and the few independent studies that have

been carried out raise serious concerns. There is also increasing indication of the environmental and socio-economic

impacts of GM crops, particularly on smallholder farmers.

The ISP has called for a global ban on environmental release of GM crops, to make way for agroecology, organic farming

and other forms of sustainable agriculture. There is growing evidence that many smallholder farmers in developing

countries already have the knowledge, experience and innovative spirit that enable them to farm sustainably and productively,

without depending on GM crops. These traditional farming practices best address agriculture that is complex,

diverse and risk-prone; GM crops would create many more risks for these farmers. The FAO should be calling for more

research into these sustainable practices, so as to better them and make them equitably accessible, rather than into GM


If the world is to seriously address hunger, this means rethinking agriculture and associated policy making, and exploring

how traditional knowledge and science can work together, while learning from farmers themselves. World hunger today

is more a consequence of economic and political forces that hamper distribution, and less one of inadequate food supply.

These, and other issues including access to land, water, credit and markets, the loss of agricultural biodiversity and the

inequities in multilateral policies that affect agriculture and rural development, must be addressed.

The FAO would do better to focus on these issues, rather than on GM crops, if it is really serious in "helping build a

world without hunger".


Rethinking health

Selenium Conquers AIDS?

Sam Burcher reports on a nutritional hypothesis with possible implications for prevention and treatment of the

global pandemic

During the last decade, research has

indicated an important geographical

link between regions of selenium deficient

soils and peak incidences of

HIV/AIDS infection. AIDS disease

appears to involve a slow and progressive

decline in levels of the trace element

selenium (Se) in the blood along

with CD4 cells, which are both independent

predictors of mortality.

AIDS infection in Africa has reached

pandemic proportions with over a quarter

of the population said to be suffering

from the disease in some areas,

although there is debate over how the

World Health Organization (WHO) has

extrapolated their statistics (see

"African Aids epidemic?" SiS 22).

Figures from Harvard in the United

States put infection rates as follows:

Zimbabwe 25.84%, Botswana 25.10%,

Zambia 19.07%, South Africa 12.91%,

Côte D'Ivoire 10.06%, Tanzania 9.42%,

Ethiopia 9.31%, and Congo 4.31%.

But Senegal in West Africa has the

lowest numbers of AIDS prevalence at

1.77% in the general population, and

0.5% in antenatal clinic attendees

along with the highest levels of selenium-enriched

soil. Geologically, Senegal

is situated in the desiccated or dried up

Cretaceous and early Eocene Sea, and

the land is formed from sedimentary

rocks from dissolved minerals in the

evaporating seawater. Consequently,

calcium phosphates are one of the

country's mined mineral products used

for fertilizers, and are derived from the

selenium rich phosphorite. Senegal

can also claim the lowest level of cancers

on the African continent.

Geographical disease pattern

analogies made by Prof E.W. Taylor,

University of Georgia, suggest that

AIDS, Karposi Sarcoma and cancers

are rife in regions of selenium depleted

soils and that this has further implications

in the seemingly unstoppable

spread of AIDS incidence worldwide.

Depleted selenium in soil creates


In China, selenium deficient regions are

known as the Chinese "disease belt".

Here, the daily average intake of selenium

is less than 10 micrograms. This

contrasts with parts of the US and

Canada where daily selenium intake is

170 micrograms. Viral diseases such

as Coxsackie's B3, hepatitis B and C,

and HIV/AIDS are all on the increase.

Coxsackie B3 is further complicated by

a heart condition known as "keshans",

which is endemic in "disease belt"

areas. Since the introduction of selenium-enriched

fertilizers onto soils and



Circle dancing by Sam Burcher

crops and into feedstocks and table

salt, there has been a decline in


A three year study of an entire town

in Jiangsu Province where 20 847 residents

were given table salt fortified with

selenium showed that hepatitis infection

decreased to 4.52 per 1 000 compared

to 10.48 per 1 000 in communities

using regular table salt. The same

researchers concluded that a 200-

microgram daily dose of seleniumyeast

supplement significantly reduced

primary liver cancer associated with

hepatitis B and C. It appears that death

rates from viruses such as hepatitis,

Coxsackie B3 and associated heart diseases

like keshans can be greatly

reduced by increasing dietary selenium

intake and would be similarly effective

in slowing the progress of AIDS deaths.

The selenium CD4 T cell 'tailspin'

Prof Harold Foster of the University of

Victoria in Canada has named the link

between the viral diseases of

HIV/AIDS, Coxsackie's and hepatitis B

and C, "The selenium CD4 T cell tailspin",

as a way of describing the relationship

between selenium and the

human immune system. Adults and

children with advanced AIDS syndrome

display both highly depleted selenium

plasma stores and reduced CD4 cell

counts. Foster argues that the fall of

selenium levels triggers the reduction in

CD4 cells, which in turn causes further

decline in serum selenium.

Retroviruses like HIV depress selenium

levels in their hosts by encoding

the gene for the human selonenzyme

glutathione peroxidase. This allows the

virus to replicate indefinitely by continuously

depriving the host of glutathione

(an inhibitor of reverse transcriptase)

and the four basic components of glutathione

peroxidase: selenium, cysteine,

glutamine and tryptophan. As

levels of selenium decline so do CD4

cells which allow "opportunistic"

pathogens to invade the immune system

and further deplete levels of selenium

and CD4 cells in a positive feedback

loop whereby if one variable

declines, it causes further depression in

the other. This downward spiral compromises

the ability of the immune system

to defend the body from infection,

which plays a significant role in AIDS


Foster is currently treating dozens

of HIV/AIDS patients in Africa using a

protocol of the four nutrients - selenium,

cysteine, glutamine and tryptophan.

He says that the treatment of HIV/AIDS

with nutrition is similar to "curing" type-

1 diabetes with insulin. When high

doses of all four nutrients are administered

to patients, deficiencies dissolve,

Box 1

For a healthy person a daily supplementary intake of 50-200mg of selenium (Se)

is safe, but for someone with a compromised immune system an increase of

100% may be necessary to improve selenium plasma levels. Where soil quality

is good and produce fresh, the four essential nutrients in preventing and fighting

HIV/AIDS and other viral diseases are found in these foods:

Selenium - Brazil nuts, garlic mushrooms, liver, round steak, lobster, shrimp,

cod, crab, herring, oysters, tuna, barley, whole wheat, egg noodles, Brewers'


Cysteine - Duck, turkey, pork, wheatgerm and yoghurt.

Glutamine - Sausage meats, ham, bacon, cottage cheese and ricotta cheese,


Tryptophan - Ham and beef, eggs, almonds, salted anchovies, Parmesan

and Swiss cheeses.

as do the symptoms associated with

AIDS. Patients have been able to return

to work within one month of receiving

nutritional treatments. Treating primary

nutritional deficiencies with selenium

and essential amino acids costs

approximately $10-$15. (See Box 1)

As HIV/AIDS sufferers are often

extremely deficient in all four nutrients

associated with glutathione peroxidase,

the "selenium CD4 T cell tailspin"

hypothesis which describes HIV/AIDS

as a disease of nutrient deficiency

caused by a virus may explain how HIV

progresses to AIDS.

The American AIDS expert Dr

Roberto Giraldo said at a recent seminar

in South Africa that AIDS can

presently be conquered and curtailed

although not totally cured through the

adequate ingestion of appropriate

micro-nutrients in sufficiently large

doses, such as vitamins, amino acids

and minerals.

The cause of progression of HIV to

AIDS is still unknown, but the role of

nutrition and supplementation in the

prevention and treatment of the disease

cannot be ignored. Prof Luc

Montagnier (the co-discoverer of HIV)

states that AIDS is characterised by a

persistent oxidative imbalance and a

decrease of glutathione. Changes in

biochemical markers cause systemic

oxidative stress and damage and

Montagnier believes that antioxidants

are useful in inhibiting viral replication

and associated apoptosis in HIV/AIDS


The role of N-acetyl cysteine (NAC)

in boosting immunity

Glutathione (GSH) is the ubiquitous

tripeptide essential for the function of all

cells. Studies show that low GSH levels

increase HIV replication and impair

T cell function that can lead to a progression

of HIV disease. And oral

administration of the GSH-producing

drug N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) improves

survival rates in HIV/AIDS patients.

NAC helps the body to synthesise glutathione

and is beneficial in protecting

lung tissue through its antioxidant activity

as well as supporting nerve cells,

and is effective in treating liver failure

where drug toxicity is indicated. NAC

also counteracts apoptosis (cell death)

and helps maintain and replenish the

HIV-damaged CD4 T lymphocytes, crucial

for dampening the progression of


NAC supplement is recommended

to HIV/AIDS sufferers who are receiving

anti-retroviral treatments as well as

those who are not. There is growing

evidence that HIV/AIDS patients want

alternative and non-toxic immuneboosting

treatments, but would prefer

them to be prescribed by the doctors or

health care professionals. Despite billions

of pounds spent on AIDS

research, very little funding or research

is allocated for the provision of these

types of treatment on the National

Health Service (NHS).

Raising glutathione levels encourages

the immune system to go into

anti-cancer and anti-viral mode by

replacing decreased levels of plasma

cysteine, a major source of sulphur.

Patients with advanced HIV infection

have tryptophan levels at less than

50% of those in age and gender

matched controls and boosting levels of

tryptophan can enable the body to synthesise

serotonin and niacin which protect

against dementia. Improving glutamine

levels can alleviate depression

and improve digestion by increasing

intestinal cell proliferation, and intestinal

fluid/electrolyte absorption, which

can help combat diarrhoea.

The cause of selenium depletion in


Three major factors have contributed to

selenium depletion in the soil. Acid rain

is caused by large quantities of sulphur

and nitrogen that convert into sulphuric

and nitric acids in the atmosphere and

changes the capacity of soil to bind ele-

continued on page 46


Delivering Good Health Through Good Food

Prof. Henry Becker on the critical changes needed to avert the national health crisis

Like most Western countries,

and increasingly the

rest of the world, Canada

faces a staggering,

swelling burden of medical

costs that challenge its ability

to maintain the quality,

comprehensiveness and

universality of health care

services. In April 1991, the

federal government set up

a Commission on the

Future of Health Care in

Canada, headed by Roy J.

Romanow. Its mandate

was to review medicare,

engage Canadians in a

national dialogue on its

future, and deliver recommendations

for enhancing

the system's quality and

sustainability. The Final Report of the

Commission, Building on Values: The

Future of Health Care in Canada, was published

in November 2002 (

Unfortunately this otherwise laudable, public-spirited

and thorough study falls far short

of its stated goals.

Not one title among the 40 discussion

papers commissioned from scholars, policy

analysts and experts across Canada and

internationally mentions prevention.

Although Romanow acknowledges in

his preface to the report that, "it is common

sense for our health care system to place a

greater emphasis on preventing disease

and on promoting healthy lifestyles", only 7

out of 354 pages deal with prevention, and

the greater part of that on the evils of tobacco

and on vaccinations.

The report presents 47 recommendations,

of which only three relate to prevention

- one on reducing tobacco use and obesity,

another on promoting physical activity, and

the third on a national immunisation strategy.

This projects and encourages, in my

view, a most unfortunate skewing of priorities

that is not in the public interest.

The Canadian situation has much

broader relevance, as the diseases of industrial

civilisation have taken hold and health

care systems are bending under the load

nearly everywhere. Significantly, a United

Nations study in 1999 found the prevalence

of overweight and obesity - a strong predictor

of chronic ill health and shortened lifespan

- to be increasing alarmingly in the

developing countries as well as the developed,

and particularly among children. A

worldwide epidemic of obesity has been

recognized, spread by globalisation and

penetrating to the remotest corners of the

Traditional meal of fasting food in Ethiopia; by Mae-Wan Ho


The nature of the beast

During the past century, the common afflictions

in Western societies have dramatically

shifted from infectious to degenerative diseases.

Infectious diseases were subdued

largely by public health measures: improvement

in housing, provision of clean water

and air, sanitary waste disposal, quarantine

of the infected, etc. Rise in living standards

and education also helped. Medical interventions

such as vaccinations and increasingly

potent drugs came relatively late, but in

today's public imagination, they get the

major credit for ridding us of infectious diseases.

Infectious diseases typically strike in

unpredictable waves, or epidemics.

Degenerative diseases, however, have typically

risen from small beginnings and grown

nearly exponentially to a level where much

of the population is chronically afflicted.

Today these diseases are the major burden

on our health care system, and their proliferation

the main cause of spiralling costs.

We are what we eat

While some degenerative diseases have

occurred in various societies throughout history,

those which most vex us now, such as

cardiovascular disease, inflammatory bowel

disease, type II diabetes, asthma and many

cancers, were rare or virtually unknown a

mere 80 years ago. Cases of myocardial

infarction (heart attack), for instance, began

to appear in the 1920s and grew decade by

decade to epidemic proportions. Most

degenerative diseases are not caused by

disease vectors such as micro-organisms or

viruses. They are primarily due to 'lifestyle'

factors of both the individual and various layers

of society and, as such,

are highly preventable.

These factors include faulty

food, dietary immoderation,

abuse of harmful substances,

physical inactivity,

disturbed biorhythms, environmental


social breakdown and


The most important

determinant of health is

food. Just as good nutrition

is vital for a healthy immune

system, faulty food is implicated

in the infectious diseases.

In his book The

Wheel of Life, first published

in 1938, G. T.

Wrench observed, "The

inescapable conclusion is

that in a very large number of diseases

faulty food is the primary cause. The suspicion

is that faulty food is the primary cause

of such an overwhelming mass of disease

that it may prove to be simply the primary

cause of disease [in general]."

Hippocrates taught, "Let thy food be thy

medicine". The corollary we must learn is,

"Let not thy food be thy sickener!"

Let's remember

It's important to realise there were once

whole populations - not just individuals here

and there - flourishing in states of robust

good health and virtual absence of disease.

That is not a utopian myth, but well-established

fact. The evidence is compelling that

our hunter-gatherer paleolithic ancestors

who subsisted mainly on animals supplemented

with such wild plant foods as were

available - tender leaves and stems, roots,

fruits and nuts, but virtually no grains - typically

had fine physiques and enjoyed

remarkable freedom from degenerative disorders.

Seafood appeared to be particularly

valuable, and there is a growing school that

argues these were pivotal in the special

development of the human brain.

Since the Neolithic (agricultural) revolution

10 000 years ago, many agricultural

communities that maintained a sufficient

animal component (fish, meat, milk, cheese)

in their diets also achieved excellent health.

Examples of healthy communities have

extended into our own time, though in rapidly

diminishing numbers. They have been

scientifically observed and documented,

most notably by Weston A. Price (Nutrition

and Physical Degeneration, first published

in 1939), Sir Robert McCarrison (Studies in

Deficiency Diseases, 1921; Nutrition and

national health, in J. Royal Soc. of Arts,



1936), and Viljhalmur Stefansson (The Fat

of the Land, 1956; Food and food habits in

Alaska and Northern Canada, in Human

Nutrition, Historic and Scientific, 1958).

These lessons of the past demonstrate

what's possible for human health, and what

can be achieved again. The foods eaten by

healthy peoples of the past were perforce

"organic", as no others existed before modern

industrialised agriculture. They were

whole, fresh and completely natural. The

genius of industrial civilisation has been to

introduce a vast array of highly processed

foodstuffs that are anything but whole, fresh

or natural. Attention is paid to packaging,

appearance, presentation, palatability, uniformity,

convenience, transportability, shelf

life and - it must be said - addictiveness,

while almost wholly ignoring the crucial

issues of nutritional value. A gigantic middleman-the

processed food industry- now

stands between the consumer and the primary

producer (the farmers, ranchers, fishers,

etc.) and profits richly from economic

value added. The consumer buys these

products, which are typically heavily promoted,

and pays the predictable price of nutritional

value subtracted, i.e., degenerative


The growth of degenerative disease is

an indubitable economic burden on society

as a whole, but enterprising parties have

skilfully exploited that as an opportunity for

profit. This gave birth to the pharmaceutical

industry, another mega enterprise of our

times. The main effect of the industrialisation

of medicine on degenerative diseases is

palliative rather than curative, usually with

many adverse side effects. As with

processed foods, the manufacturers' interest

is overwhelmingly the pursuit of profit.

Finally, the "health care" system has

come to rest on acceptance of degenerative

diseases as inevitable features of life and

the medical treatment of symptoms as the

normal response to this grim reality. There

is, to be sure, an ongoing quest for "cures",

e.g., the "war on cancer", but what it mostly

accomplishes is to produce ever more

drugs that fall well short of the ever-receding

goal of cure but succeed at return on investment.

Physicians are indoctrinated in and coopted

into this defeatist paradigm by their

basic training, and reinforced by their continuing

education at the hands of the pharmaceutical

companies. Thus, the people we

should expect to tackle the plague of degenerative

disease at its sources, instead act

like firemen who have strategically decided

not much can be done to stop fires from

happening, so it's best to downplay prevention

and concentrate on fire-fighting.

Our 'lifestyle' failings

So how did we get here? These are some

in the long list of our 'lifestyle' failings:

1. Excessive intake of carbohydrates,

particularly those leading to high blood

sugar (sugars, flour, potatoes, white

rice, etc.).

2. Excessive energy intake (too many

calories), exacerbated by the trend to

super-sizing of portions of fast foods,

snack foods, soft drinks, etc.

3. Consumption of partially hydrogenated

fats and oils; consumption of overheated

and rancid fats and oils; excessive

intake of omega-6 fatty acids (a

major component of many common

vegetable oils, excepting flaxseed, olive

and some nut oils).

4. Consumption of most processed

foods. The main ingredients of many

include white flour and sugars, partially

hydrogenated oils or fats, which are further

compromised by the absence, loss

or damage of vital nutrients, impaired

digestibility, and incorporation of nutritionally

questionable additives (fillers,

extenders, thickeners, stabilisers,

preservatives, flavourings, dyes, etc.).

Most products offered by fast-food outlets

rate in this category.

5. Inadequate intake of omega-3 fatty

acids (major components of flaxseed

oil and of marine fats and oils).

6. Inadequate total intake of high quality

fat. Contrary to recent prevailing wisdom,

this includes natural animal fats.

7. Inadequate intake of high quality protein.

A high carbohydrate, low-fat diet

easily becomes a low-protein diet.

8. Inadequate intake of water.

9. Inadequate intakes of various minerals,

vitamins and other micronutrients.

Many whole foods today are very deficient

relative to earlier examples, or

compared to good organic products.

Diets high in processed foods are particularly

likely to be inadequate.

10. Inadequate exposure to sunshine,

leading, among other effects, to widespread

vitamin D deficiency.

11. Inadequate levels of physical


12. Inadequate rest and disturbed circadian

rhythms, due to shift work, long

work hours, too much noise, bad habits

such as late-night TV, etc.

13. Pollution of soil, water, air and food

with agro-chemicals, industrial chemicals

and various other noxious substances.

14. Immoderate intake of alcohol, use

of recreational drugs, etc.

15. Hugely excessive use of pharmaceuticals

- both over-the-counter and


16. Poverty, particularly when associated

with highly uneven distribution of

income, which is rapidly growing

almost everywhere.

17. Stress of unsatisfying work, or of


18. Breakdown of family and community


What to do

I shall limit myself here to addressing nutrition,

the single biggest determinant of


A paradigm change is needed in


"Orthodox" physicians have too long based

their practice principally on knowing drugs.

To prevent or effectively treat the degenerative

diseases, they must know food and

make it their primary instrument. These diseases

are largely caused by faulty food, and

cures-to the extent possible-depend largely

on the prescription of the right food. The

education of physicians has too long neglected

nutrition. Physicians should, in fact,

be thoroughly acquainted with all the

lifestyle factors that promote health or precipitate

disease. Although still a minority, a

growing number of physicians are already

committed to prevention and cure by

lifestyle modification. Currently, their practice

is commonly referred to as "alternative", but

it is time for them to become the mainstream.

Major changes needed in the field of

applied nutrition and nutritional goals

There are many things very wrong today in

applied nutrition and the nutritional goals set

for citizens by authorities such as Health

Canada. Standards such as Canada's

Food Rules and the USDA Food Pyramid

are badly skewed and need drastic revision.

The obsession with the alleged dangers of

dietary saturated fats and cholesterol is a

proven but persistent and egregious folly.

There's nothing wrong with sound natural

fats. Nor is there anything wrong with beef

and lamb, with all their fat, if the animals are

healthily raised and not dosed with antibiotics

and hormones. There are, though, truly

bad fats that indeed do contribute to degenerative

diseases: synthetic fats; partially

hydrogenated fats; oxidised and rancid fats;

and excesses of omega-6 fatty acids.

Carbohydrates have been hugely over-promoted;

the healthiest amount of sugar is

none, and white flour products aren't much

better. Processed foods should be revealed

for what they are: mainly junk, dangerous to

health, and never a fit substitute for whole,

natural foods. Synthetic foods, such as soft

drinks, are typically slow poison. I can hardly

begin to list all the reforms desirable in

nutritional teaching and consultation. It is

essential to get the story right according to

the best knowledge of the facts, and to stay

open to correction by new findings. It is also

necessary to get the story out so the public

is well informed, without kow-towing to

industrial interests (processed foods,


Optimum nutrition must be our aim

Optimum nutrition is especially crucial for

good outcomes during conception, pregnancy,

infancy and childhood, the whole


process in which new humans are moulded

for better or worse. Canada should be vigorous

in providing parents with supportive

information, programmes, resources and

assistance. Lifelong good nutrition is the

foundation of a healthy and happy old age.

But even when many years have been lived

in poor nutrition, appropriate changes in diet

can still ameliorate much of the damage

done and greatly diminish needs for medical

treatment. The nutritional quality and adequacy

of food served in homes for the aged

should be a matter for public concern and

government attention.

Optimum nutrition is not uniquely

defined, diversity and individuality must

be respected

Canada has citizens with ancestry in all

regions of the world: central African and

south Asian, Mediterranean, North

European, and from recent hunter-gatherer

to 10 000-year experience of agriculture.

Thus there is a broad range of food tolerances

and intolerances that should be taken

into account rather than prescribing a onesize-fits-all

solution. The case of Canada's

first nations is especially notable for suffering

from the foods of industrial civilisation in high

rates of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease,

etc. Generally, everyone is an individual

with characteristics that may deviate

substantially from the average and merit

special attention. One of the jobs of the

enlightened physician will be to discover

those individual vulnerabilities and needs

and help the patient make due adjustments.

Public institutions must set an example

Publicly funded hospitals and institutions of

education, and cafeterias and restaurants in

government buildings, should lead by

behaving as models of excellence in the

foods offered on their premises. Currently, a

minority of schools, colleges and universities

offer their students healthy food and drink.

Many, however, have admitted fast food outlets

to their halls, with monetary benefit to

the institution but a great disbenefit for the

health and food habits of students and staff.

Utterly scandalous are the deals with cola


Huge reforms needed in agriculture and

animal husbandry

A return to wholly organic operation is needed

to put an end to the incidental poisoning

of land, water, air, people and most other life

forms. Today's high-input "modern" agriculture

is simply mining the land, sapping future

productivity for the sake of temporary monetary

gain. It's not sustainable. Further, the

concentration of animal production on factory

farms should be stopped and production

redispersed over the land. Animals should

be raised humanely and in such a way that

they are naturally healthy. Grazing animals

should be raised largely by grazing; it is part

of what gives their meat and milk high quality.

Much greater attention should be paid to

raising the nutritional quality of farm, ranch

and market garden products.

Government must ensure quality in

food supply

Government should not hesitate to use its

powers of regulation, inspection and stimulation

to ensure high quality in the food supply.

Programs to recognise and promote

quality, such as is happening with Canadian

wines and Québec cheeses, should be

expanded to other products. Quality production

should be encouraged. The nutritional

implications of any food processing should

be evaluated by competent agencies and

adjustments required to ensure acceptable

nutritional outcomes.

National and provincial laboratories

need to be reinvigorated

They should be given a new mandate and

funding to effectively serve the public interest

with appropriate research in nutrition,

testing of foods and drugs, etc. Their primary

concern should be protecting and

informing the public, rather than assisting

industry and promoting business. The government

should also fund a number of university

research Chairs and/or Institutes

specifically to work on questions of food and

nutrition that are of significant national or

local importance.


In order to deliver health, we must deliver

good food through implementing sweeping

changes in medical education and goals,

food and agriculture and government policies.

We may still need as many physicians,

if they indeed become guardians of our

health rather than managers of disease.

Economies will result primarily from vastly

reduced demands for diagnostics, hospital

care and other patient services, and medical

therapies (medications, radiotherapy, etc.).

Sales of pharmaceuticals may plummet, but

the sacrifice of this economic activity will be

happily endured as part of the price of better

health. The same may be said of major sectors

of the processed food industry.

The many people who regard degenerative

disease as an inevitable feature of living

are wrong. We've seen these diseases

proliferating and appearing earlier and earlier

in life, so young children are now succumbing

to obesity, Type II diabetes and

even cardiovascular disease. However, if

the needed reforms are made, onset of

such diseases can be retarded and relegated

to extreme old age, and indeed most of

these diseases need not be commonly

experienced at all. The choice is ours.

The author is Professor Emeritus of

Chemical Engineering, Queen's University,

Kingston, Canada. This paper is based on

his submission to the Romanow

Commission and a forthcoming book. SiS

continued from page 43 ments at pH neutral or slightly alkaline. The altered pH balance increases bioavailability of certain elements

and decreases that of others including selenium. Heavy metals in rainfall also contain mercury, which can

combine with selenium to produce the insoluble mercury selenide. Soil acidification therefore lowers the abundance of selenium in

the global food chain, which may have contributed to the rapid increase of cancers and HIV/AIDS.

Chlorofluorocarbons are unique to the latter half of the 20th Century and have contributed to the thinning of the ozone layer, which

causes an excess of ultraviolet B radiation. Overexposure to ultraviolet light decreases helper T-lymphocytes and increases suppressor

T-lymphocytes making the individual more susceptible to diseases.

Chemical pollutants also play a role in altering the immune function and lowering host resistance to pathogens. The WHO estimates

that there are 500 000 pesticide related illnesses and 20 000 deaths per year. Scientific studies on exposure to polychlorinated

biphenyls (PCBs) show that glutathione peroxidase activity is depressed and induces apoptosis of pre B-lymphocytes in the plasma

of animals.

Whey protein, a derivative of milk production routinely discarded by the diary industry, contains all the essential and non-essential

amino acids necessary to improve immunity by increasing glutathione levels in the blood. Oral supplementation of whey proteins

can also help to combat wasting associated with AIDS.

A wide variety of nutrients, vitamins, amino acids, herbs and minerals such as copper, zinc and selenium are clearly beneficial in

slowing death rates in the HIV infected individual. And vitamins A, C and E can help to reduce the oxidative stress and viral load that

characterises HIV/AIDS sufferers. This is especially important in areas where combination therapies are unavailable.

Worryingly in Europe, moves are afoot to prohibit the sale of fourteen forms of selenium including organic forms, selenium yeast

and selenomethionine if the EU Directive on Food Supplements comes into force in August 2005.

A geographical perspective into the possible causes for the late 20th century phenomenon of AIDS is welcome adjuvant in the

absence of a conventional vaccine or safe affordable treatments for all.



New Age of Water


Water has a collective structure that's extremely flexible

and dynamic, which may explain some of its 'anomalies'.

Is Water Special?

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports

Water is simple, isn't it?

There is nothing simpler than water as a molecule. Its chemical formula, H 2 O, is almost the first thing in

chemistry that one learns in school. However, its structure in the bulk is multifarious and changeable. There

are 13 known crystalline structures of ice that appear under different temperatures and pressures. As a liquid,

water forms dynamic 'flickering clusters' or networks of joined up molecules, with intermolecular bonds

that flicker on and off at random. The basis for all this complexity lies in the ability of a water molecule to join

up with its neighbours through a special kind of chemical bond, the hydrogen-bond.

The hydrogen-bond

To understand how the hydrogen-bond comes about, picture the water molecule consisting of an oxygen atom

bonded to two hydrogen atoms. The water molecule has a shape approximating a tetrahedron, a three-dimensional

triangle with four corners. The oxygen atom sits in the heart of the tetrahedron, the hydrogen atoms

point towards two of the four corners and two 'electron clouds' belonging to the oxygen molecule point

towards the remaining corners of the tetrahedron. The 'electron clouds' are negatively charged, and result

from the atomic structures of oxygen and hydrogen and how they combine in the water molecule.

Oxygen has eight (negatively charged) electrons disposed around its positively charged nucleus, rather

like the layers of the onion, two in an inner shell and six in the outer shell. The inner shell can only accommodate

two electrons, so its capacity is filled. The outer shell, however, can hold as many as eight electrons.

The hydrogen atom happens to have only one electron, so oxygen, by combining with two hydrogen atoms,

completes its outer shell, while the hydrogen atoms each completes its first electron shell with two electrons,

which it shares with the oxygen atom. That is how the usual 'covalent bond' of chemistry arises.

The oxygen nucleus has more positive charge than the hydrogen, so the shared electrons are slightly

more attracted to the oxygen nucleus than to the hydrogen nucleus, which makes the water molecule polar,

with two 'electron clouds' of negative charge at the opposite poles to the two hydrogen atoms, which are each

left with a slight positive charge. (Though quantum mechanical calculations have shown that the two electron

clouds are not really separate from each other.)

The positively charged hydrogen of one water molecule can thus attract the negatively charged oxygen of

a neighbouring water molecule to form a hydrogen-bond (H-bond) between them. Each molecule of water can

potentially form four H-bonds. Two in which it 'donates' its hydrogen atoms to the oxygen atoms of two other

water molecules, and two in which its oxygen atom 'accepts' one hydrogen atom from each of two other water

molecules. In other words, each molecule is capable of acting as hydrogen 'donors' and 'acceptors' for two

other water molecules, so it has four bonded neighbours, or a '4-coordination'.

Ice structures

Water molecules in ordinary hexagonal ice crystals are close to the ideal tetrahedral structure described

above. The hydrogen-bonded O-O distances are almost identical, varying between 2.759 Å and 2.761 Å (an

angstrom is 10 -10 m), while the O-O-O angles also vary only slightly between 109.36 o and 109.58 o , which is

close to the H-O-H angle of 104.52 o of the individual water molecule.

However, there are many more forms of ice crystals (at least 12 others known) under different temperatures

and pressures, where the bond lengths and angles vary much more widely. For ice II, which forms under

moderate pressure of about 5 kbar (1 kbar is equivalent to a pressure of ~ 1 000 atmospheres), the basic

four-coordinated motif is maintained. But the bond length varies between 2.74 Å and 2.83 Å, while the bond

angle varies between 80 o and 129 o .

In liquid water, there is much less constraint compared to a solid crystal lattice, and so the variations in

bond length and bond angles take on a much wider continuous range. Instead of the regular hexagonal (6-

member) ring structure of ordinary ice, a snapshot of the hydrogen-bonded network shows five, six and

seven-member rings, and even smaller or larger rings. Instead of the 4-coordination motif, 2-, 3- and even 5-

coordinations are possible, with the H of some water molecules in a 'bifurcated' schizophrenic state, seemingly

bonded to two different neighbours.

Why is water special?

Why is water so special that life cannot exist without it? According to John L Finney of University College,

London, the basic tetrahedral structure of the water molecule is central to the structural versatility of water

in the condensed state (solid and liquid). It enables water to form extended, flexible networks of H-bonded


molecules in liquid, allowing rapid coordinated

molecular motions to take place. This same

extended network also supports proton conduction,

a flow of positive electricity that occurs

much faster than the diffusion of ions.

Other substances might have some of those

special characteristics, says Finney, but only

water has them all, and that might be enough to

make water especially 'fit' for life.

New insights into water structure

The picture of the structure of water just

described has been obtained with powerful

measurement techniques such as x-ray and neutron

diffraction, which involve firing x-rays or

neutron beams at water, and looking at the way

the beams are deflected or scattered to make a

diffraction pattern, which gives information about

the structure of the atoms. These experimental

techniques are combined with computer simulations

(molecular dynamics) to give a consistent

picture, which is supposed to form a firm molecular

basis for all other investigations.

But in April 2004, an international team of scientists

from universities and research institutes

in the United States, the Netherlands, Sweden

and Germany, challenged this picture with the

next generation of an even more powerful measurement


They reported the behaviour of liquid water on

a timescale of less than one femtosecond (one

femtosecond is 10 -15 s) using a new x-ray absorption

spectroscopy technique. This involves firing

x-rays of different frequencies at water, and from

the spectrum of frequencies absorbed - which is

characteristic of each atom - making inferences

concerning the structure of the water molecules.

They found that most molecules in bulk liquid

water at room temperature are like those at the

ice surface, with only two strong hydrogen

bonds. The proportion of molecules with 4-coordination

similar to bulk ice is very small. The

contributions of the two different species - molecules

with two H-bonds and those with 4 H-bonds

- are 80% and 20% at room temperature, and

increase to 85% and 15% at 90C with uncertainties

of +15% and +20% in both cases.

As consistent with earlier results, the bond

lengths and bond angles are found to vary widely

from those in tetrahedral ice, attesting to the

flexibility of the water structure in liquid.

They concluded: "Water is a dynamic liquid

where H-bonds are continuously broken and

reformed. The present result that water, probed

subfemtosecond time scale, consists mainly of

structure with two strong H-bonds, one donating

and one accepting, nonetheless implies that

most molecules are arranged in strongly H-bonded

chains or rings embedded in a disordered

cluster network connected mainly by weak H-


So, in a sense, it doesn't really alter the picture

too much. But are these methods focussing

too much on the individual molecules to reveal

anything interesting? A growing number of water

scientists are beginning to think so, and for good



Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports on how a

body of water appears to change as a

whole and wonders if oceans do it too

Decades of bombarding water with X-rays and neutron

beams have convinced most scientists that there is no

long-range order in water. And although extended networks

of hydrogen-bonded molecules are present, these

networks are thought to be simply the result of local

interactions between molecules at close range.

However, other measurement techniques are beginning

to yield results suggesting that bodies of water

behave as coherent wholes, in other words, their collective

structure extends globally to all the molecules. One

such technique, NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance),

measures chemical shifts of the nuclei of certain atoms

by their response to radio waves when placed in a

strong magnetic field (see Box 1).

The atomic nucleus in a molecule is influenced by

other particles that are charged and in motion. NMR

spectroscopy can therefore distinguish one nucleus

from another and reveal the chemical surroundings of a

nucleus. The NMR chemical shift is known to be very

sensitive to intra- and intermolecular factors, and hence

is capable of giving information concerning collective

phases of molecules.

Chemists S.R. Dillon and R.C. Dougherty in Florida

State University, Tallahassee, in the United States,

looked at the changes in NMR chemical shifts of salts

dissolved in water, and came up with some interesting

results, which led them to conclude that, "the entire

solution is a single electronic whole".

The NMR chemical shift of a salt goes up as its concentration

increases. However, when the chemical shift

is plotted against the concentration, there is typically a

sharp change in the slope of the curve at certain critical

concentrations. For a solution of KF (potassium fluoride),

the chemical shifts for both 19 F and 39 K (the numbers

in superscript identify the particular isotope of the

element) increased linearly from 1.9 to 2.4 mol per litre,

then changed abruptly to a different slope thereafter

(see Fig. 1).

Similarly, the chemical shift of 39 K in KCL (potassium

Figure 1. Change in chemical shift with concentration.



The 'Wholiness' of Water

chloride) solution showed a break in slope around 1.7

mol per litre, while the chemical shift of 7 Li in LiOH (lithium

hydroxide) solution changed in slope at 3.0 mol per


These changes in the slope of chemical shifts with

concentration are correlated with corresponding

changes in the specific heat of the electrolyte (salt)

solutions. The specific heat of pure water changes with

temperature, starting at high levels below 280K and

drops to a minimum at around 305K before increasing

again at higher temperatures. When salts are dissolved

in the water, the curve changes, and in particular, the

minimum appears at a different temperature, the position

of the minimum depending on the concentration of

the salt in solution.

Dillon and Dougherty found that the concentration at

which the temperature minimum of specific heat is 298K

- the temperature at which the NMR experiment was

carried out - closely matches that at which the change in

slope of the chemical shifts occurred. This was 2.4 mol

per litre for KF (see Fig. 2), 1.6 mol per litre for KCL and

2.95 mol per litre for LiOH.

The specific heat capacity of the solution is its

capacity to absorb heat energy, measured in energy

units per gram per degree K increase in temperature.

Plots of the specific heat capacity of electrolyte as a

function of temperature are similar to the corresponding

plot for pure water, but the perturbation of water structure

by the electrolyte results in a shift in the location of

the minimum (compared with pure water) as well as subtle

changes in the shape of the curve. A correlation of

the changes in slope of chemical shifts to minima in specific

heat capacity suggests that there is a weak continuous

phase transition (see Box 2) in the structure of the

solution at the critical concentration corresponding to

the specific heat capacity minimum. A phase-transition

is a global phenomenon involving the entire solution.

This global phase transition, involving the entire

solution, can be explained by changes in water structure

occurring as a result of changes in the hydrogen bond

Figure 2. Change in specific heat of KF solution at 2.4 mol/l with temperature

compared with pure water.

Box 1

NMR and NMR chemical shift

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) is the absorption of

electromagnetic radiation of a specific (resonant) frequency

by an atomic nucleus placed in a strong static magnetic

field, used especially in spectroscopic studies of molecular

structure, and in medicine to measure rates of metabolism.

Nearly all atomic nuclei can be detected with NMR. The

most useful are 1 H and 13 C with spins of +1/2 and -1/2 in

the presence of a static magnetic field. When the sample

is exposed to electromagnetic radiation of a certain frequency

corresponding to the difference in energy between

these two orientations, the spins all become in phase with

each other, a process known as resonance. The resultant

electromagnetic radiation from these in-phase spins is

detected as an NMR peak.

The atomic nucleus in a molecule is influenced by other

particles that are charged and in motion. The NMR chemical

shift, δ, is expressed in parts per million (ppm) with

respect to a standard compound which is defined to be at

0 ppm, as follows:

NMR spectroscopy can distinguish one nucleus from

another and reveal the chemical surroundings of a nucleus.

The NMR chemical shift is known to be very sensitive

to intra- and intermolecular factors, and hence capable of

giving information concerning collective phases of molecules.

Box 2

Phase transitions

Phase transitions refer to abrupt changes in the collective

properties of all the molecules (phases), with a small

change in a variable such as temperature; for example,

when ice changes into water or water changes into gas

and vice versa.

Phase transitions are classified into two broad categories.

First order phase transitions are discontinuous,

involving the absorption or release of a 'latent heat', a fixed

amount of energy, as in the changes of water between the

liquid and gas phases. Second order phase transitions are

continuous phase transitions that have no associated

latent heat. Examples are ferromagnetic transition and

transition into superfluid state.

strength, due to changes in electrolyte concentration,

and "electron delocalisation throughout the liquid". In

other words, dissolving salts in water changes the structure

of water globally as a whole.

Could that interpretation apply to entire lakes and

oceans? That's enough to send shivers up and down my


These and other exciting results (see article following)

are likely to fuel the wide-ranging debates on water,

from its dynamic structure at one extreme to the scientific

basis of homeopathy and consciousness at the




Water Forms Massive Exclusion Zones

Water, the most abundant constituent of living organisms, is associated with an enormous amount of surfaces

inside cells and in the extra-cellular matrix. Is all of this biological water different from water in bulk? The

answer is definitely yes, if the incredible new findings are to be taken on board. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports

What is biological water?

"Biological" water includes practically

all the water in living organisms, inside

the cell as well as in the extra-cellular

matrix, except, possibly, for large

reservoirs or conduits such as the

bladder, gut, stomach and vacuoles

inside some cells. Biological water is

rarely far from the surface of a membrane

or a macromolecule such as proteins,

nucleic acids and polysaccharides

like starch and glycogen.

Inside the cell, the concentration of

proteins in cytoplasm is between 170

to 300 mg/ml, which suggests that 7 to

9 shells of water (hydration shells) coat

the available surfaces, corresponding

to a distance of 4 to 5nm (nanometre,

10 -9 m) between the surfaces. A substantial

fraction of the water is quite

closely associated (at a distance of

less than 0.5nm) with the proteins,

nucleic acids, polysaccharides and

assemblies of smaller molecules that

make up an organism, and is essential

for their functioning.

The idea that cell water is distinct

from bulk liquid water goes back a long

way to pioneers like Gilbert Ling and

Albert Szent-Györgyi in the 1960s and

70s; to many physicists and chemists

in the latter half of the 19th century fascinated

by the distinctive properties of

'protoplasm' inside living cells.

Since the 1970s, many physical

and physiological techniques have

demonstrated that cell water behaves

very differently from bulk water. It is

dynamically ordered or oriented, and

exhibits restricted motion compared to

water in the bulk.

More recently, ordered interfacial

water has been found to be associated

with pure protein or DNA crystals

obtained at cryogenic (very low freezing)

temperatures. These ordered

water molecules do not form the typical

ice structure, but are involved in many

different forms of hydrogen bonding

networks with the macromolecule and

with each other.

A major uncertainty is what fraction

of the water in living organisms and

cells is distinct from bulk water, and to

what extent water is essential for different

living functions.

Using sophisticated techniques

with big machines, such as NMR and

more recently, neutron diffraction, no

more than one or two layers can be

detected to have altered properties,

which would imply that a substantial

part of the water inside cells and in the

extra-cellular matrix is still bulk water.

But other scientists, notably, Gilbert

Ling, who emigrated to the United

States on a Boxer Fellowship from

China, have been insisting since the

1960s that practically all the water in

the cell is in an 'altered' state different

from bulk water.

Interfacial water as model of

biological water

Water generally forms ordered layers

over solid surfaces, and this ordered

'interfacial water' can tell us a great

deal about water in living organisms.

Interfacial water has different properties

from bulk water; for example,

certain solutes that dissolve in bulk

water are excluded from interfacial

water, or fail to dissolve in it.

Interfacial water is generally

thought to be no more than one or at

most several layers of water molecules

thick. But several reports published in

the 1990s suggested that hydrophilic

(water-loving) surfaces could extend

their influence over much larger distances

from the interface.

Small experiments that tell a big


Gerald Pollack and Zheng Jian-ming in

the Department of Bioengineering,

University of Washington, Seattle in

the United States decided to do some

simple elegant experiments to find out

exactly how far such hydrophilic surfaces

can extend their influence; and

came up with some startling results.

They used as solutes, microspheres

0.5 to 2 µm in diameter, which

can be seen with the ordinary light

microscope. For the hydrophilic surfaces,

they employed several common

hydrogels known to interact strongly

with water.

In the first experiment they put a

small gel sample between two large

glass cover slips, and filled the space

to either side with a suspension of the

microspheres, then sealed the chamber.

The whole assembly was placed

on the stage of a microscope fitted with

Figure 1. Exclusion zone formed next to the

surface of polyacrylic acid gel.

a camera to follow what happens.

In the second experiment, the gel

was formed around a glass cylinder,

which was withdrawn after the gel was

formed, leaving a channel, 1 mm in

diameter, which is then filled with the

suspension of microspheres and

placed under the microscope.

To their amazement, they found

that the microspheres were excluded

from the gel surfaces in both experiments

over distances of tens of mm,

and in extreme cases, up to 250µm or

more. Such massive exclusion zones

are totally unexpected, and have never

been reported before (see Fig. 1).

Microspheres were almost completely

absent from the exclusion zone,

and the boundary between exclusion

and non-exclusion rather sharp, of the

order of 10% of the width of the exclusion

zone. The zone forms rather

quickly, and appears 80% complete

after 60 seconds. Migration velocity

was about 1.5µm per second, and

microspheres near the boundary

migrated at the same speed as those

far away from it. Once formed, the

exclusion zones remained stable for


Could this be an artefact? For

example, could there be some invisible

threads sticking out from the gel surface

to push the microspheres away?

They tested this by using the atomic

force microscope and other sensitive

probes to detect such strands, but no

protruding strands were detectable,

not even after they fixed and crosslinked

the gel and washed it extensively,

so no loose strands could ever leak


Could it be that the gel was in fact

shrinking away from the surface and


Water turns the world upside down; photo Mae-Wan Ho

extruding water, and therefore squirting

the microspheres away? But no

such shrinkage was detectable; the

boundary did not shift appreciably as

the microspheres migrated away from

it. Over a period of 120 minutes, the

diameter of the cylindrical hollow in

the gel changed by less than 2µm.

Thus, in the 2 min period during which

the exclusion zone was formed,

shrinkage was insignificant.

Could it be that polymers were

leaking out into the exclusion zone,

and pushing away the microspheres?

They added a polymer to the microsphere

suspension, but this only narrowed

the exclusion zone.

Yet another test was to continuously

infuse microsphere suspension

into the cylindrical hollow in the gel

under pressure at a speed of about

100mm/s, so that any suspended

invisible solutes ought to be washed

out. But the exclusion zones persisted,

virtually unchanged even at the

highest speeds.

The exclusion zones were not a

quirk due to the particular gel used.

Polyvinyl alcohol gel, polyacrylamide

gels, polyacrylic acid gels, and even a

bundle of rabbit muscle all gave similar

results (Fig. 2); and microspheres

of different dimensions, coated with

chemicals of opposite charge nevertheless

resulted in exclusion zones.

Thus, exclusion zones are a general

feature of hydrophilic surfaces. One

gel that did not show exclusion was

when polyacrylamide was copolymerised

with a vinyl derivative of

malachite green.

Exclusion was most profound

when the microspheres were most

highly charged, so negatively charged

microspheres gave maximum exclusion

at high pH, whereas positively

charged microspheres gave maximum

exclusion at low pH. The presence of

salt tended to decrease the size of the

exclusion zone somewhat. The size of

the exclusion zone also went up with

the diameter of the microsphere.

How could it be explained?

What could be the explanation for this

strange phenomenon that has never

been observed; that apparently goes

against all expectations based on

data from the latest big machines?

After ruling out several trivial

explanations, Zheng and Pollack considered

whether it could be due to layers

of water molecules growing in an

organized manner from the gel surface

and extending outwards, pushing

the microspheres out at the same

Figure 2. Exclusion zone next to surface of

rabbit muscle.

time. That would seem consistent with

the observation that the speed of

migration of the microspheres is constant

regardless of distance from the

boundary. It is also consistent with the

finding that larger microspheres give

bigger exclusion zones.

The increase in exclusion zone

with charge, too, is consistent with

their water-structuring hypothesis, as

higher surface charge is known to be

associated with larger extent of water

structuring. But, as they remark,

"While these several observations fit

the water-structure mechanism, no

reports we know of confirm any more

than several hundred layers of water

structure at the extreme, and not the

10 6 solvent layers implied here." SiS

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