Why did Bayer do it? / Marker assisted selection (7/4/2004)

"Bayer said the conditions imposed by the government were too restrictive - richly ironic when the government is leaving no stone unturned to get GM crops approved and grown in Britain." - Michael Meacher, Britain's environment minister 1997-2003

1.You reap what you sow
2.more on marker assisted selection

1.You reap what you sow
Biotech giant Bayer has halted GM cultivation in Britain because of flawed trials and financial risk. If only the government was so wise, says Michael Meacher
The Guardian, Wednesday April 7, 2004

Why did Bayer do it? The company's decision to pull its genetically modified Chardon LL maize so soon after the British government authorised its cultivation is a huge setback for the industry and a major embarrassment for the prime minister's championship of GM.

Bayer said the conditions imposed by the government were too restrictive - richly ironic when the government is leaving no stone unturned to get GM crops approved and grown in Britain. Ministers had already gone out of their way to wave through GM maize following the farm-scale evaluation (FSE) trials, even though the trials' conclusion did not justify the go-ahead.

The government's decision was flawed on several counts. No valid conclusions can be drawn from these trials because the weedkiller atrazine was used on almost all the conventional maize - a highly toxic chemical with damaging side effects which is now banned EU-wide. Any tests based on atrazine as a comparator are now irrelevant. New trials with a new chemical are needed; the government, however, disagrees.

The trials were flawed in other respects. The weedkiller used on the GM maize was glufosinate ammonium (brand name Liberty). In the US, farmers growing GM maize have to use Liberty ATZ, a more powerful and environmentally harmful mix of Liberty and atrazine. Bayer must have been aware that Liberty alone was ineffective. Perhaps it hoped to first secure marketing consent for GM maize crops, and later switch the pesticide recommendations to ATZ-type mixes.

These tactics almost paid off, but two things went wrong. First, the government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre) proposed that if GM maize cultivation were allowed to go ahead, the same regime would have to be followed as in the FSE trials.

It presented a dilemma for the government and the industry. The government could only guarantee FSE-comparable trials by amending EU regulations on atrazine. The commission and 14 other member states would be unlikely to agree to this. For the industry, without the option to use the Liberty ATZ mix, too many weeds would survive, making the crop yields uneconomic for most farmers.

In addition, biotech companies always maintained that there was no problem over cross-contamination of organic and conventional crops because separation distances ensured almost none occurred, or if it did, it could be dealt with quite easily by the GM farmer taking out insurance.

But no insurance company would provide cover for GM crops, and the government properly refused to use taxpayers' money to bail out the industry if anything went wrong.

The industry was hoist on its own petard. It was invited to cover the costs of what it roundly declared to be a virtually non-existent problem, and it balked at it. Its big lie was exposed. Rather than taking the risk of having to compensate organic or conventional farmers driven out of business by GM contamination, it cut its losses and pulled out.

So what now? The problems associated with GM are becoming clearer and, in the case of issues such as co-existence and separation distances, are probably insoluble. In Britain, the more that people find out about GM the more they are opposed. And in the EU as a whole, the refusal of   member states to process GM applications shows no sign of weakening.

Globally, GM crops are confined (in other than insignificant amounts) to just four countries - the US with 66% of global GM production, Argentina 23%, Canada 6%, China 4%, and the other 181 countries together with less than 1%. Most staggeringly of all, no systematic testing has yet been carried out on the health impacts of eating GM foods.

GM crops will not be planted in Britain for several years, and we should use that time to draw breath and reflect. Is GM really the way forward when there are no consumer benefits and huge potential risks? Let's switch the focus to alternative technologies, notably marker assisted selection, which offers a qualitative leap in precision over traditional breeding techniques.

Michael Meacher was environment minister 1997-2003

2.more on marker assisted selection
from Tearing Down Biotech's Berlin Wall http://www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/genomicsparadigm.htm

"From a scientific perspective, the public argument about genetically-modified organisms, I think, will soon be a thing of the past. The science has moved on and we're now in the genomics era." - Professor Bob Goodman, Former head of research and development at Calgene, creators of the flavr savr tomato, the world's first GM food Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 18 February 2001

"GM is only one easily recognised byproduct of genetic research. The quiet revolution is happening in gene mapping ['genomics'], helping us understand crops better. That is up and running and could have a far greater impact on agriculture.... There really are no downsides, particularly in terms of public perception... [By contrast in the case of GMOs] there are public perception problems and the technology itself is still not optimised, with antibiotic and herbicide resistance genes still needed and bits of bacterial DNA hanging about. Whether that poses any danger is debatable, but it is not desirable." - Professor John Snape, John Innes Centre, Gene mapping the friendly face of GM technology', Farmers Weekly, 1 March 2002, p54

"The development and release of commercial transgenic crops is the most widely publicised application of plant biotechnology, but is arguably less significant than the deployment of molecular genetic methods and tools for the recognition, selection and breeding of improved non-transgenic crops.... In the longer term, there are many potential applications of synteny-based genomic approaches to crop improvement. For example, they open up the prospect of being able to manipulate some of the most basic features of crop plants without involving transgenics..... Evidence is already emerging that it may be possible to use non-transgenic methods to alter some fundamental aspects of plant growth and development, including salt tolerance in certain cereals, quality traits like fatty acid quality in oil crops and even input traits like herbicide tolerance..."

Agricultural Biotechnology and oil crops: current uncertainties and future potential  Murphy, D: Applied Biotechnology, Food Science and Policy 2003: (1) (1)

"....genomics research has the potential to define the total extent of the genetic variation for simple and complex characters within our crop plants. This will allow our plant breeders, using high-through-put molecular marker systems, to produce 'designer' varieties.... As well as leading to economic prosperity, this research can also make an important contribution to world food security through development of varieties much more resistant to pest and diseases both in major crops, and in 'orphan' crops of the less developing world through comparative approaches. Clearly we have only just started to see the fruits of this genomics revolution leading, hopefully, to the evolution of a new Green Revolution."

Arable Agriculture and the Genomics Revolution Snape, J: Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, Volume 163, 2002 (p12-20)

"A key aim of the Biotechnology Strategy [for New Zealand] should be a long term strategy to educate the public of ...... what biotechnology constitutes outside of genetic modification"

Neil Barton, Board Member of New Zealand Federated Farmers AgraFood Biotech No 96, January 6, 2003  

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