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Biotech industry funds bumper crop of UC Davis research

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What's in a name? A war of words

What's in a name? Quite a bit, when it comes to public acceptance of biotechnology.

The industry lost the first round of the culture war over biotech foods when its products entered mainstream parlance as “genetically modified organisms” - technical gobbledygook few understood - with the awkward acronym GMOs.

To make matters worse, anti-biotech activists attached the ominous tag of “Frankenfoods,” conjuring up a picture of out-of-control science. Industry leaders worry that other monikers, such as biotech, transgenic, genetically engineered and GE, mostly breed confusion for the general public.

“The activists did a wonderful job of painting us into a corner,” said Michael J. Phillips, vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C.

The solution?

“We need to use words that consumers understand,” Phillips told a roomful of biotech leaders in Sacramento. He encouraged the use of “enhanced” and “improved” to replace “engineered” and “modified.”

Phillips hopes to avoid repeating history as the industry looks forward to the first crops engineered to produce drug compounds. Focus groups helped select the industry's preferred term - “plant-made pharmaceuticals” - in an attempt to resonate with people who need the biotech drugs.

“We defined the language,” Phillips said. “The term...is not an accident.”

- Mike Lee

 


Prompt payment

University officials acknowledge mistakes in letting companies such as Pangene and others drag out their matching payments. They said defaults prompted changes.

Susanne Huttner, executive director of the grants program in Berkeley, said companies do typically pay on time. In all, there have been 23 defaults out of 624 grants since the program started in 1996, a rate of 3.7 percent.

A new grant policy adopted late last year gives companies just 30 days to make payments - a period during which research spending is frozen. Failure to pay means the grant will be terminated. “We are going to move very quickly now,” Huttner said.

Overall, the Discovery Grants office distributes about $17 million a year of state and UC money to help California biotechnology companies pay for UC research.

But on occasion, it also has subsidized the research bills of the industry's biggest firms - Monsanto, Novartis, Syngenta and Dow Chemical Co., all based out of state. It teamed with Monsanto to work on fruit and corn pollination; with Dow Chemical Co.for research on western corn rootworms.

Huttner said there's a shortage of California plant biotechnology companies but all funding - for companies large or small - must be “focused on a problem of immediate and critical importance to California agriculture.”

After the Pangene project collapsed, Maga, Anderson, Murray and several of the project's scientists published an article about their work in the journal Transgenic Research. The article contained no mention of Murray and Anderson's stake in Pangene. When asked by The Bee, however, Murray said he supports a movement within academia to routinely disclose financial ties in journal articles.

“Biotechnology ... is more tied in with companies and industry than basic research used to be,” he said. “To disclose ... is open and transparent.”

Industry funding for UC Davis' new Seed Biotechnology Center is openly acknowledged by the facility's director, Kent Bradford. Biotech and seed companies collectively contributed more than $1 million.

“Does that influence what I do? Sure,” said Bradford. “To me, I don't think that's a problem. What I am trying to do with that funding is things that are in fact of use to that industry.”

“If a sustainable ag group came to us and said 'Geez, here's a great project that's seed-related that would help the sustainability of ag,' and they've got money, I'd be happy to direct our resources that way.”

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Biotech terms

Last December, Bradford submitted court papers on behalf of a biotech industry group seeking to defeat a Mendocino County ballot measure banning genetically engineered crops, which ultimately passed. He also has consulted for Monsanto.

“I feel that as a university professor you also have a responsibility sometimes to speak up,” Bradford said. “How do I just sit on the sidelines?”

Other UC Davis ag biotech researchers feel the same way, and most of the time when they go public they do so to support genetically engineered crops.

Martina Newell-McGloughlin, who runs the UC system's biotechnology program from her UC Davis office, regularly appears at forums to promote biotech as hope for a hungry world - an industry mantra that has yet to live up to the claim.

“The real issue in this world is not biotechnology,” Newell-McGloughlin told a packed house during a biotech debate at downtown Sacramento's Crest Theatre last summer. “The real issue is starvation.”

'Home of biotech'

Crops and genes have long been a UC Davis passion. Gurdev Khush, known worldwide for his work to improve rice yields in Third World countries, is a 1960 graduate. Dennis Gonsalves, developer of the virus-resistant papaya - a biotech crop that rescued one of Hawaii's top farm exports - is another alum. So, too, is Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and author of “The Doubly Green Revolution - Food for All in the 21st Century.”

Since 1999, when gene studies officially got top priority at the UC Davis agricultural college, 10 genetics experts have been hired to work on everything from mosquitoes to weeds. More such “gene jockeys” are on the way to fill the monolithic Genome Center due to open later this year on a campus already well known as a life-science leader.

“We call it the home of biotech,” said a beaming Judith Kjelstrom, who runs the UC Davis biotech studies program. The goals of Kjelstrom's program include promoting biotechnology, creating partnerships with industry and educating the public.

Although universities crave industry connections, those liaisons may undermine something even harder to come by: the public's trust.

It's an issue that's starting to get more attention. At Portland State University, environmental economist David Ervin is part of a nationwide project to analyze industry sponsorships. One of his key questions is whether such ties hinder critical reviews of biotech crops, including potential environmental and health safety problems.

“There seems to be very little research in academia that dispassionately assesses all sides,” Ervin said. “It seems to be mostly, 'How do we use industry-university relationships to promote the development of this technology?'”

Ask almost anyone at UC Davis if the university is biased in favor of biotech crops, and they'll point to one man as the counterweight: Paul Gepts.

Gepts is a compact, soft-spoken professor who got into biotechnology through a side door. He spills a can of beans on his desk - various hues, shapes and sizes that he has collected from around the world - as he explains.

His primary interest was tracking the flow of genes between domesticated and wild beans. His research led him to Mexico, where he ran into questions about biotech genes infiltrating native Mexican corn, and back to Davis, where he's the de facto representative for critical assessment of biotech crops, also known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs.

Said Gepts: “On this campus... there is actually very little research going on - no organized effort - about the environmental effects of GMOs.”

Van Alfen, the college dean, attributes the lack of such work to the paucity of federal money for it. “That really is what decides what research is being done,” he said.

The USDA offers universities a relative pittance for work on biotech risk assessment - and since 2000, UC Davis hasn't had a single project funded through the agency's main grant program.

Instead, the UC's best-known biotech risk research program is at Riverside - not Davis. UC Riverside is where professor Norman Ellstrand runs a small Biotech Impacts Center out of his office. He wryly calls it “budget-free.”

Norman Ellstrand, a UC Riverside professor ... Norman Ellstrand, a UC Riverside professor who shuns industry donations for his research program on the risks of biotechnology, listens to UC Davis agronomy professor Paul Gepts in a class discussion on biotech crop policies. Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer

To do almost anything, he must solicit donations or grants - and from a much smaller pool of potential funders than peers who accept corporate contributions.

Ellstrand has won more USDA risk money in the past decade than all of UC Davis, including a grant last fall for a two-day conference weighing risks and benefits of biotechnology. For that conference, he scoffed at accepting company money to pay the bills.

“Somebody said, 'Why don't you have a Monsanto reception?'” Ellstrand recalled. “I said 'No - then we might as well hang it up and go home.'”


 

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