Crop Biotech Update

A weekly summary of world developments in agri-biotech for developing countries, produced by the Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications SEAsiaCenter (ISAAA), and AgBiotechNet

January 31, 2003

In This Issue:

German Organizations Issue Biotech Statement
GM 'Superweeds': Not Super After All?
SFL: Give GM Crops A Chance
WB Tackles Agri Science Issues
ARS Develops New Salt-Tolerant Plants
New Insights on the Double Helix
Third World Delegates: Support GM Initiatives 
Biotech Creates New Industry
Canada Accepts GM Papaya
EC Establishes Expert Group on Patents
GM Farmer Case Studies Online
New Challenges for Biotech in Kenya
BioThailand 2003


"We cannot afford to lag behind other countries in the development of biotechnology, which holds great promise for the future." This point was emphasized by 12 organizations of the German food supply chain which released a policy statement entitled "Promoting diversity - Safeguarding innovation potential."

The signatory organizations include the Federal Association of German Plant Breeders, Federation of Food Law and Food Science, National Association for the German Food Industry, National Association of German Wholesalers and Import/Export Firms, and Federation of German Cooperatives.

The organizations said that they do not categorically say "yes" or "no" to biotechnology. Instead, they favor an evaluation of each case of the use of agricultural biotech and evaluating it on the basis of the intended solution. However, they stressed that agricultural biotechnology is a global fact of life and that the question is how best to deal and manage it.

In addition, the organizations said that scientific evidence and international experience "appear to confirm that agricultural biotechnology is a valuable, beneficial method, which poses no additional, uncontrollable risks." Hence, they advocate field trials and parallel monitoring.


Scientists for Labour (SfL) assert that they are "well aware of the political hazards (in the current climate) of promoting genetically modified (GM) crops but we firmly believe that it can be carried out if there is a clear strategy based on rational dialogue with the public and vigorous promotion of government-funded research within the context of sustainable and environmentally sensitive agriculture, that will be seen to be of benefit to the public in the longer term."

The United Kingdom-based organization, which aims to raise the profile of science and technology in that country, issued this policy statement on Science and the Development of Agriculture. They explained that it believes that the government's current approach of analyzing the impact of GM crops on a case-by-case basis is correct. However, the scientists believe that "scientific case for developing GM crops has been submerged by the vigorous propaganda by the Soil Association and by organizations such as Greenpeace."

In the policy statement, Scientists for Labour urged "the government to vigorously support research and development of the agricultural sciences as the most rational strategy for meeting the future and current demands for sustainable agriculture. It further added that many of the problems arising from the challenges of the rapidly changing scene in agriculture could be tackled using GM approaches.

The full policy statement can be downloaded from


The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the US Department of Agriculture has developed two new lines of salt-tolerant plants. Richard R.C. Wang, ARS research geneticist, and colleagues developed the new plants, known as W4909 and W4910, at ARS' Forage and Range Research Laboratory in Logan, Utah.

Salt tolerance is a prized trait and is especially valuable in the irrigated wheat producing regions of the American West. Irrigation can accelerate buildup of salts which weakens or kills plants. Salinity can reduce crop yields by about 25 percent.

ARS says that W4909 and W4910 contain salt-tolerance genes from wheat grass and a Ph-inhibitor gene. Presence of the inhibitor gene allows plant geneticists to move the salt-tolerance genes among domestic wheats. Normally, a gene called Ph1b would thwart that exchange.

Wang and colleagues are the first to use the Ph1b gene-inhibition technology to incorporate into wheat genetic material, genes borrowed from another plant species. The full article is in the January 2003 issue of ARS' Agricultural Research magazine. It is also available online at:


EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries, reports that representatives of developing countries in Africa and Asia, visited Brussels to give their views on the opportunities and challenges of plant biotechnology in their home countries.

The delegation led by James Ochanda, chair of the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum in Kenya, said that European governments should reflect on the growing demand for biotechnology crops in Third World countries, and how that technology can offer developing world farmers another important tool in increasing domestic food production. There are strong links between European Union (EU) legislation and the choices that developing countries make. "Europe seems to be inward looking when producing biotech legislation. But any rules set in Brussels will affect the small scale farmer in Africa or India," says Simon Barber, Director of the Plant Biotechnology Unit at EuropaBio.

Among the aims of the delegates to Brussels is to call on the EU to help set up a technology transfer and capacity building program to the highest standards for developing countries. The Delegation will also be urging the EU and Members States to ensure that legislation on GMOs takes account of farmers in developing countries and does not become a trade barrier that would impede the adoption of biotech crops in developing countries.

Other members of the delegation include Jocelyn Webster of AfricaBio, S. Jaipal Reddy of the Federation of Farmers Associations in India, Bintony Kutsaira of Malawi's Parliament, and Margarita Escaler and Margaret Karembu of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

For further information, email Simon Barber at


Karen Dodds, director general of the food directorate of Health Canada, has notified the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association that two genetically modified (GM) papaya varieties are now acceptable for human consumption in Canada. These varieties are Rainbow and Sunup.

This news is a big boost for farmers who grow GM papaya in Hawaii. About 75 percent of papayas grown in the island are genetically modified to resist the ringspot virus. GM papayas have been available in supermarkets in the US Mainland since 1998.

Visit for the article released by Honolulu Advertiser.


The European Commission (EC) has set up a group of experts to advise and assist it in preparing future annual reports on the development and implications of patent law on biotechnology and genetic engineering. This is one move of the EC to fulfill the requirements in Article 16c of the Directive on legal protection of biotechnological inventions.

The expert group will analyze important issues surrounding biotechnological inventions, particularly on legal and technical aspects as well as on the mutual impact of the legal framework and the research and innovation area. Chaired by Vincenzo Scordamaglia, a legal expert and former director of the Secretariat of the Council, the expert group brings together representatives from the patent profession, patent practitioners, legal experts and scientists.

Download the full text of Directive EC 98/44 on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions at:

The composition of the expert group can be found at


Two recent events in Kenya are predicted to affect the development of biotechnology in Kenya and other countries in the Eastern and Central African regions. One is the change in government leadership - from the Kenya African National Union which held power for 40 years - to the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition. The second event is the death of John Stephen Wafula, the Director of the African Biotechnology Stakeholders' Forum (ABSF).

ABSF notes that before the change of government in Kenya, ABSF and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter had established dialogue with Kenyan parliamentarians and members of the regional East African Legislative Assembly. Several seminars were held to sensitize and educate the legislators on biotechnology prior to the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

The Kenya Government through the National Council for Science and Technology and the Attorney General's chambers was in the process of preparing a draft bill on the regulation of biotechnology development and application for presentation to parliament. More than 50% of the 210 legislators in the previous parliament lost their seats in the December elections and the majority of legislators in the current Kenyan parliament are new. Awareness level on biotechnology among the new legislators is perceived to be lower than that of the previous parliament.

ABSF also says that with the death of John Wafula, "the Biotech fraternity in the region lost a strong driving force necessary to sustain the biotechnology momentum. The challenge is for institutions and organizations involved in biotechnology development and application to identify a common rallying point to enhance synergy in advocacy for sustainable biotechnology development in the region."

ABSF is a non-political and non-sectarian association providing a platform for sharing, debating and understanding all issues pertaining to biotechnology in agriculture, health, industry and environment. ABSF represents all stakeholders in biotechnology in Africa currently with individual members in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda and Ghana.

More information on ABSF at


Initial results from a field trial in the US show that the effects of gene flow from transgenic crops may be less than anticipated by environmentalists.

Neal Stewart and his team at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville crossed a genetically modified oilseed rape crop with a wild relative Brassica rapa. They then backcrossed the resulting hybrid with the wild plant again, and released the resulting 'superweed' into a field of wheat. The "superweed" was evaluated for its ability to compete with other weeds including non-GM weeds which the team introduced for comparative analysis. The team found out that the transgenic weed was not dominant, having 20% less effect on wheat yield than the unmodified B. rapa weeds.

Stewart says that genetically modified crops are currently "over-regulated". He opines that modified weeds lose potency because they are disrupted by the genetic load of crop genes being carried over with the Bt transgene.

The full article is in Nature 421, 462 (2003).


A concept paper of the World Bank Group proposes an international assessment of the scientific, technical and institutional issues associated with agricultural production, food (systems, safety, quality, security) and livelihood improvement This consultative process, led by the World Bank, reviews the risks and opportunities of using agricultural science to reduce hunger and poverty.

The proposed international assessment aims to provide quality information for decision makers (both at the national and international levels), farmers and consumers. This entails a focused and appropriate agricultural research agenda, and the conduct of a global dialogue to address the conflicting views on key issues such as organic farming, traditional plant breeding, new farming technologies, and biotechnology.

The concept paper highlights the current difficulties experienced by nearly 800 million people worldwide in availing sufficient, safe and nutritious food. In the next few decades there is a possibility that the production of agricultural products (vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, forest products and commodities) will dwindle, and eventually be insufficient to meet the demands.

The World Bank Group urges that immediate action must be undertaken to increase agricultural productivity and product diversification. These measures are also required to protect the environment, encourage the sustainable use of natural resources, and ensure a stable economic growth. An equitable policy environment, in both developed and developing countries, is also required to address other key issues such as trade, intellectual property rights, and land tenure.

The full paper is available at and


Structural biologists now believe that the DNA is much more than its famous structure. Recently, researchers examined the DNA molecule as it coils in the cell nucleus. They found out that the double helix regularly morphs into alternative shapes and weaves itself in knots. Contrary to the popular belief, researchers now have realized that the DNA has a fascinating life in three or perhaps four dimensions. This makes the DNA more than a simple string of code like it was believed for 50 years.

Some researchers believe that these mysterious movements may be just as important as the genetic sequence itself in deciding which genes are switched on and off.

The full report is published in Nature, Vol 421 or visit


The 1953 discovery of the structure of the DNA did not only give Jim Watson and Francis Crick a Nobel Prize in 1962, but it also encouraged many scientists to maximize the potentials of the genetic information.

This inspired Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer in 1973 to develop DNA cloning and recombinant DNA, giving birth to a modern-biotech industry that integrates biology, chemistry, engineering and computer science.

Analysts Ernst and Young estimated that this industry has created over 200,000 jobs across 4,000 biotech companies worldwide. The diverse applications of modern biotechnology have benefited the medicine, environment, food and feed industries.

The special report is published in Nature, Vol 421 or visit



CropGen, a consumer and media information initiative, has made available online its six-part illustrated study "GM Around the World". It provides case studies of GM farmers in Australia, Romania, South Africa, Argentina, Spain and the United Kingdom. The study can be found on CropGen's Web site at


BioThailand 2003: Technology for Life will be held on July 17-20, 2003 at the Pattaya Exhibition and Convention Hall, Pattaya, Thailand. The event aims to update the academic, research and industrial communities with new innovations in the field, and promote the bio-business opportunity in the region. For more information, visit


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