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New York Times Exposes Government Negligence Over
Serious Ecological Hazards of GE Squash & Other Frankencrops

NYTimes
page 1

November 3, 1999

A SPECIAL REPORT

Reassessing Ecological Risks of Genetically Altered Plants

Few Federal Checks Exist on the Growing of Crops Whose Genes Are
Altered

By CAROL KAESUK YOON
For most of the 30 years Bernie Thiel has been growing squash, he has
battled an invisible but potent adversary: viruses that can turn his
neat rows of sunny-yellow vegetables into a mottled, sickly green
harvest.

"When you see a virus in your fields, it makes you sick," said Thiel,
showing a visitor a patch of ruined squash in his fields in Idalou,
Tex., outside Lubbock. "There is no cure for it. You're done."

This year, however, Thiel fought back, trying out a yellow crookneck
that genetic engineers had armed with resistance to two devastating
viruses. In doing so, he joined hundreds of other American farmers
embarking on what some scientists say is an uncontrolled ecological
experiment carrying unknown risks: the planting of millions of acres
of genetically engineered crops on American land.

The United States Agriculture Department, the primary agency
responsible for assuring the ecological safety of such plants, has not
rejected a single application for a genetically engineered crop.
Scientists who studied the approvals say the department has frequently
relied on unsupported claims and shoddy studies by the seed companies.
Department officials defend their decisions but acknowledge that their
system for weighing applications is evolving.

Since 1992, dozens of biotechnology crops have been approved for sale
to American farmers and hundreds more are in the pipeline, with genes
borrowed from every form of life: bacterial, viral, insect, even
animal. Farmers like Thiel, seeking greater yields and profits, have
enthusiastically adopted the new plants, using biotech seeds for 20 to
45 percent of the country's corn, soybean and cotton last year. Most
Americans have probably eaten some food made with genetically modified
soy or corn. But Thiel's squash, produced by Asgrow Vegetable Seeds,
was the first approved bioengineered crop with the potential to spread
its doctored genes into the larger environment.

While fears that such crops are unsafe to eat have raised public alarm
in Europe, and to a lesser extent in the United States, some
biologists say the more immediate concern is this: that genetically
modified plants could interact with the environment in hazardous ways,
and that regulators are not demanding the proper studies to assess the
risks.

A close look at how the Asgrow squash made its way from laboratory to
the dusty fields of West Texas, based on documents and interviews,
shows that the virus-resistant strain was approved without rigorous
study, setting what critics say is a lax standard for assessing
environmental risk.

>From the start, scientists were worried about the possibility that the
squash could breed with wild squash, creating a "superweed" that would
proliferate in the wild or farmers' fields, comparable to relentless
invaders like the kudzu vine of the South and the zebra mussels of the
Great Lakes.

The critical question was whether viruses kept the population of wild
squash, which produces inedible gourds, in check. Asgrow determined
that they did not, by conducting a survey in which they did laboratory
tests on 14 plants from 9 sites. None had the virus.

Experts in environmental risk say the study proved nothing.

"What if we asked if the most important disease controlling human
population sizes, malaria, was in fact an important disease?" said Dr.
Norman C. Ellstrand, an evolutionary biologist at the University of
California at Riverside. "If you took 14 random individuals from
around the world, the chances of picking one that has malaria would be
relatively low, making the chance of getting a misleading result
really high."

Even scientists at Asgrow said that they could have done a more
thorough job of providing information to the Agriculture Department on
the plant's ecological safety.

"This was a learning process for all of us," said David Tricoli,
managing research scientist at Seminis Seeds, which now owns Asgrow
Vegetable Seeds. "I'm a molecular biologist. I'm not an ecologist." He
said he believed the squash posed no risks.

The Agriculture Department officials involved in approving the squash
stand by their decision and note that there are no signs of
environmental damage. But the department in effect acknowledged a lack
of safety data this summer when another U.S.D.A. agency financed a
study to determine whether the genetically engineered squash could
create superweeds.

"We feel like we're making the best decisions that can be made on the
basis of the information that we have," said Keith Pitts, an adviser
to the agriculture secretary. The agency announced Sept. 29 that the
National Academy of Sciences would be conducting a review of the
agency's regulatory process. Pitts added, "We don't claim to have this
system totally worked out."

A growing number of studies suggest that the genetically engineered
crops could lead to rapid evolution of pesticide-resistant insects,
creation of new plant diseases and harm to insects that benefit
mankind. A recent laboratory study, for example, showed that corn
pollen engineered to carry a toxin against the European corn borer can
kill monarch butterflies.

"Eventually we are going to have some problems," said Dr. Allison A.
Snow, a plant ecologist at Ohio State University. "I don't think the
risks are being taken seriously or addressed seriously by the system
we have now."

Supporters of genetically engineered crops say such fears are
overblown and are creating roadblocks for a technology that could feed
the world and offer a host of other benefits. For example, Dr. Charles
J. Arntzen, president and chief executive of the Boyce Thompson
Institute for Plant Research, is developing bananas that grow
medicines and could act as child-friendly vaccine delivery systems.
Dr. Arntzen compared the risk posed by genetically engineered crops
with the risk of getting hit by an asteroid while sitting in his New
York office: "The real risk is the hysteria."

The Creation: A Plan to Build the Perfect Squash

For centuries, plant breeders have mated the plants bearing the
biggest fruits to produce plants with even bigger fruit, and the
hardiest plants to produce hardier ones. But emboldened by the
biotechnology revolution, researchers envision giving the world crops
that can do much more: fend off pests, thrive in hostile environments
and bear fruit offering better nutrition and disease-fighting
compounds. Soon, they say, genetically modified plants will serve as
biofactories growing plastics and other products; one plant in
development would grow cotton with polyester built right into it.

One of the first companies to exploit the new technology was Asgrow
Seed Company in Kalamazoo, Mich. In 1986 an Asgrow scientist, Dr.
Hector Quemada, teamed up with Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, a biologist at
Cornell University, to create a squash resistant to viruses, the bane
of farmers. Four years later they were taking genes from two viruses
devastating to squash and inserting them into the DNA of normal
squash.

The genes produce coat proteins, which encase a virus's genetic
material. For reasons not fully understood, coat protein genes provide
powerful resistance to the viruses from which they come.

The result was the creation of a squash nearly invulnerable to the two
diseases associated with those viruses.

But before Asgrow could begin selling its new squash, it had to get
the plant out from under Government supervision. Regulations for
genetically modified crops required Asgrow to get federal permission
each time the squash was planted in the field and to abide by a number
of safety procedures.

If deregulated, the squash could be freely sold or planted anywhere in
the United States.

So in 1992, Dr. Quemada and Tricoli petitioned the Agriculture
Department, the main government body overseeing genetically modified
plants, requesting that the squash be deregulated. (The Environmental
Protection Agency regulates plants engineered to produce pesticides;
the Food and Drug Administration does not require engineered products
to go through an approval process, but is available for
consultations.)

In its petition, Asgrow, then part of the Upjohn Company, stated that
the plant presented no risk to the environment.

Industry officials and environmental groups watched the case closely.
The squash was the second plant to be considered for deregulation,
after the Flavr Savr tomato, and the first to raise the possibility of
significant ecological threats.

"It was a test case," said Dr. Margaret Mellon, director of the
agriculture and biotechnology program at the Union of Concerned
Scientists, a watchdog group. "We were all testing the waters."

Scientists were concerned that the squash might turn its relatives
into virus-resistant weeds by interbreeding with them. The squash also
posed the risk that its virus genes or the coat proteins they produced
might interact with other viruses to produce new diseases. And, as
with any genetically engineered crop, the squash posed the risk that
its new genes might cause it to spread and become difficult to
control.

Still, after two months the Agriculture Department issued a proposed
ruling approving the squash. Environmental groups and some state
agriculture departments protested, prompting the federal agency to
commission a report by Dr. Hugh Wilson, a squash expert at Texas A&M
University.

But instead of backing up Asgrow and the Agriculture Department, Dr.
Wilson agreed with critics. In his report in July 1993, Dr. Wilson
found there was insufficient scientific information to draw
conclusions about safety and that studies "point toward the clear
presence of risk."

Dr. Wilson's report revealed that Asgrow's petition contained crucial
errors and omitted information that pointed toward risk. For example,
Asgrow claimed that wild squash was unlikely to interbreed with
genetically engineered squash, despite much scientific evidence to the
contrary. Dr. Wilson's report also noted that the wild relatives of
the new squash were already problematic weeds in parts of the country,
suggesting it might take little to push them into the category of
superweed, another fact omitted by Asgrow.

Despite these findings, in the spring of 1994 the Agriculture
Department again proposed approving the new squash and issued draft
documents dismissing ecological risks.


The Superweed Threat: Assessing the Risk of a Gourd Gone Wild

The most contentious of Agriculture Department's conclusions in the
draft documents was the dismissal of the superweed risk.

The department acknowledged that the new squash would interbreed with
wild relatives and pass along its foreign genes. But the virus
resistance could only create a superweed problem if viruses were
preventing the spread of wild squash in nature. Asgrow had already
shown that the wild plants were highly susceptible to viral disease in
field experiments. In order to determine how important viruses were in
nature, the department in 1993 asked Asgrow to conduct a survey of
wild plants.

Researchers did visual scans of an unknown number of plants in nine
areas scattered over three states and saw no signs of disease. In
addition, they collected 14 plants: one vine from each of eight areas
surveyed, and six from a ninth area. Dr. Gonsalves tested the plants
for viruses in the laboratory -- the only definitive way to test for
viral infection -- and found no signs of disease.

The survey, the Agriculture Department contended, proved that wild
populations of the squash were not attacked by viruses. Therefore, the
department concluded, the new genes would not be enough to turn wild
relatives into superweeds. Therefore, the squash could be deregulated.


But ecologists vigorously objected. They said it was impossible to
draw such a conclusion from such a small number of plants over just
one summer.

Dr. Peter Kareiva, senior ecologist for cumulative risk assessment at
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, called the study
"amazingly small" and noted that if disease was truly a devastating
problem, scientists might never find a plant with disease because the
virus would have quickly wiped out any plants it encountered.


Even Dr. Gonsalves, a co-creator of the squash, called the survey
"preliminary data." Dr. Gonsalves said the Agriculture Department's
decision "could be open for criticism. The sample is very small."

But Dr. James White, senior operations manager with the Animal and
Plant Health Inspection Service, the Agriculture Department agency
that regulates genetically modified crops, defended the approval and
the survey.

"There's no evidence that the gourds were ever infected with the
virus," Dr. White said, "and there's been no evidence since 1994." He
added that there were no known cases in any crop of a new gene
resistant to viruses or other anything else making the crop or its
wild relatives any weedier.

Despite scathing criticisms of its conclusions, in December 1994, the
Agriculture Department again dismissed ecological risks and gave final
approval to the squash.

In 1996, a second Asgrow squash with resistance to three viruses was
approved by the Agriculture Department. A third Asgrow squash with
resistance to all four major viruses is being tested in field
experiments.

Since then Dr. Quemada, in a surprising turn, has succeeded in
persuading the Agriculture Department to support further analysis of
the possible risks of the squash.

After years of arguing on behalf of Asgrow that the squash posed no
environmental risk, this summer, Dr. Quemada, now an independent
regulatory consultant, received a $253,000 grant from the Agriculture
Department to study whether the new squash posed a superweed risk and
whether viruses infected wild populations.

Dr. White declined to comment, saying he had not seen the grant. Dr.
Quemada said he saw no conflict between his previous work and his
receipt of the grant.

The grant was paid for by the Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research
Grants Program, a branch of the Agriculture Department independent of
the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The Regulators: A Safeguard, or a Rubber Stamp?

Ecologists say that more worrisome than any threat from the squash is
the quality of science and the regulatory process that was used to
deregulate the plant, a process meant to be the nation's safeguard
against ecological disaster.

In a 1995 study of Agriculture Department petitions, Dr. Joy
Bergelson, an ecological geneticist at the University of Chicago, and
Dr. Colin B. Purrington, an evolutionary biologist at Swarthmore
College, examined the seven petitions approved at that time and
reported that much of the data was from critically flawed experiments.
They also reported a "remarkable reliance" in the petitions on
unsupported claims.

Four years later, Dr. Bergelson said: "It still is the case. A lot of
the key experiments don't seem to be being done."

Part of the problem, scientists say, is that the Agriculture
Department has set no scientific standards for proving the
environmental safety of a plant. Government agencies regulating new
products often demand specific experiments and data to establish
safety. In contrast, the Agriculture Department asks only that
petitioners explain why the new plant is unlikely or likely to pose a
number of broadly defined risks.

Most of the tests that companies do use to argue for a crop's safety,
researchers say, are inadequate for risk assessment because they are
designed specifically to avoid ecological risk. For example, in field
trials flowers are often covered to avoid interbreeding with wild
plants. In addition, field tests typically run for one or two years,
too short a time, ecologists say, to assess a plant's potential
weediness.

Dr. Arnold Foudin, assistant director of scientific services at the
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, defended the regulatory
process. The requirements are not vague, he said, but rather are
"necessarily generic -- it gives us the flexibility, and the
applicant, to supply the necessary information." He added that he
believed longer field tests were impractical.

Many scientists, particularly those who genetically engineer plants,
applauded the approval of the squash and said environmental risks were
overblown. Supporters of genetically engineered plants say critics ask
the impossible: technology without risks and a promise of
unconditional safety.

"In an ideal world you'd know all the risks and all the benefits
before you use something," said Dr. Herb S. Aldwinckle, plant
pathologist at Cornell University, "but we'd be very slow to progress
if we had to know all that."

Ultimately, risks posed by these crops must be weighed against the
benefits they offer farmers, consumers and the environment. But even
as the first large-scale studies of benefits of genetically modified
plants appear, more questions than answers remain. Even for Asgrow's
squash, the plant that Tricoli called "the most highly regulated and
reviewed squash product ever produced," the costs and benefits to
farmers and the environment remain unclear.

In Idalou, Thiel, who has been planting and picking squash all his
life, was philosophical. "We've got a long way to go before we know
whether it's good or bad," he said. "The way I see it, whenever you
get something, you lose something else. We just don't know what we'll
lose yet."


(sidebar)

Studies Note Risks of Genetically Modified Plants

Since genetically engineered crops came on the American agricultural
scene in 1992, farmers have enthusiastically adopted these plants,
last year harvesting genetically altered corn, soybeans and cotton
from 50 million acres -- an area one and a half times the size of New
York State. Meanwhile, several studies have been published pointing
toward ecological risks from genetically modified plants.

A major concern is that foreign genes from these plants could escape
into wild plants by interbreeding. The fear is that wild plants
endowed with new genes and potent new abilities, for example, to
produce insecticide or withstand herbicide, might spread quickly,
becoming difficult or costly to remove.

Previously researchers talked about the movement of foreign genes into
wild plants as unlikely, but the picture emerging today is that with
many crops it will be inevitable. Recent studies of radishes, grain
sorghum, canola and sunflowers found that genes, in one case foreign
genes, moved quickly and easily from crops to wild relatives.

Corn, soybeans and cotton pose no such risks in this country, as there
are no plants with which they can interbreed. But other genetically
engineered crops in development do have wild relatives in the United
States with which they can interbreed including rice, beets, canola,
sunflowers, cranberries and strawberries.

There have also been a number of recent reports suggesting that the
popular crops that produce the insecticidal toxin known as Bt may pose
previously unsuspected risks. Bt corn, cotton and potatoes are already
on the market but many more Bt crops are in development.

Normally Bt is sprayed on plants to kill pests and is thought to
remain active for a matter of days. But in sharp contrast to industry
studies, Dr. Guenther Stotzky, soil microbiologist at New York
University, has found that Bt toxin in the soil, as it might be found
after a crop is plowed under, can remain active for at least eight
months.


"We were surprised," Dr. Stotzky said. "I'm sure it hangs around
longer. We just terminated the experiment after eight months."

In addition, recent studies of insect genes and insect development
suggest that resistance to Bt may evolve more quickly than expected
and that current resistance-management schemes for these plants may be
ineffective.

Other new studies suggest that Bt crops may have adverse effects on
non-pest species. A study published earlier this year showed that, in
the laboratory, monarch butterfly caterpillars can be killed by eating
Bt corn pollen. Again in contrast to industry studies, Swiss
researchers have published evidence that beneficial, predatory insects
get sick when they eat Bt or eat pests that have eaten Bt corn.

Ultimately, as with any new technology, risks must be weighed against
benefits. So far researchers have found that some crops can provide
striking financial and environmental benefits, but only under some
conditions.

The Department of Agriculture released a report in July showing that
many farmers planting Bt cotton enjoy increased yields and decreased
insecticide use, but many also do not.

"Proponents of the technology would like it to be all things to all
people," said Ralph Heimlich, deputy director for staff analysis at
Economic Research Service, which put out the new study. Opponents
prefer to claim it does nothing. The messy truth, however, lies
somewhere in between.

"It really is a mixed bag," Heimlich said.

CAROL KAESUK YOON

Also, a chart at

http://www.nytimes.com/library/national/science/110399sci-ge-squash-gr
aphic.html

Text below:

MORE THAN ONE WAY TO ALTER A PLANT
The recent debate about the genetic engineering of crops raises the
question, How does it differ from traditional methods of breeding
specialty crops? Here is a look at the two processes and their
advantages and limitations. Traditional Plant Breeding

For centuries, when farmers wanted to introduce a new trait to their
favorite crops (making them more durable, productive or marketable)
they would breed the crop with a plant of the same or similar species
possessing the desired characteristic.


HOW IT IS DONE
In trying to get a pear with the coloration of an apple, for example,
agricultural engineers might crossbreed their preferred pear with a
chosen variety of apple. This would produce a range of hybrids with
combinations of the characteristics of both fruits. Of those, the
fruit closest to the desired result would be chosen and bred again
with the apple. This process would be repeated over many generations
until the desired trait was achieved.

LIMITATIONS
Only traits from species that are relatively close to one another can
be combined. The process can take months to years to produce the
desired results.

GENETIC ENGINEERING
Advances in a number of fields have allowed agricultural scientists to
take genetic material responsible for a desired trait - from any
plant, animal, insect, bacterium or virus - and introduce it to a
given crop.


HOW IT IS DONE
There are two common methods for introducing the genetic material:

1: The first uses Agrobacterium, a bacterium that naturally alters a
plant's DNA. Researchers place the desired genes into the bacterium,
then infect the plant. The bacterium inserts the new genetic codes
into the plant's DNA. The cells are then grown to maturity, producing
future generations with the desired characteristic.

PRIMARY CROPS
Wide-leafed plants like tobacco, tomato, apple and pear.



2: The second method uses a "gene gun" to propel genetic material
coating thousands of microscopic shards of tungsten into a group of
plant cells. The tungsten penetrates the cells and carries the DNA to
the area of the nucleus. The DNA makes its way to the nucleus and
joins with the genes inside.

PRIMARY CROPS
Narrow-leafed plants like grasses and grains.

LIMITATIONS
Traits can be bred more accurately, but some complex traits remain
difficult if not impossible. Also, there is some risk of achieving
unexpected results.

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