Today in AgBioView: February 19, 2003
* More Biotech Research Needed for Poor: U.N.
* Genetically Modified and Healthy Food Fight
* Roundup Unready
* Kucinich More Than Anti-war Candidate
* Swiss Launch Vote Drive to Ban GM Foods
* Is Europe Returning to the Dark Ages?
* Global Food Quarterly
* The Plant Journal: Key Conclusions on Ecological Risk Assessment
* Ag-Biotech Forum 2003 - Charting Success in Australia's Ag Sector
* Bye-bye, Banana - The Fruit Slipping Into Extinction?
* Plant Biotechnology and Breeding: Allied for Years to Come
More Biotech Research Needed for Poor, U.N. Official Says
- Washington File, Feb 19, 2003 http://usinfo.state.gov
'Research gap between rich, poor widening, she adds'
More funding is needed to research agricultural technologies -- including
biotechnology -- that will benefit poor countries, says an official of the
U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). The research and technology
transfer gap between rich and poor countries is widening, said Louise
Fresco, assistant FAO director-general, in a February 18 press release.
Noting that most current biotechnology research is focused on reducing
production costs in large-scale systems, Fresco said "biotechnology must
be redirected" to address the food quality and quantity needs of the poor.
Fresco added that more research is needed to improve varieties of sorghum,
millet, pigeon pea, chickpea and groundnut -- the five most important
crops in semi-arid areas -- and for cassava and small ruminants.
But she called biotechnology "only one way to increase food quality and
quantity in a sustainable way.
"Biotechnology may add new dimensions to the existing integrated
approaches, but not replace them," she said. Biotechnology research should
address key problems of developing countries such as drought, soil erosion
and salinity, Fresco said.
Following is the text of the FAO press release:
FAO warns of 'molecular divide' between North and South Biotechnology --
the gap between poor and rich countries is widening
18 February 2003, Rome -- The promises and potential of biotechnology are
not equally shared between developed and developing countries, the FAO
Assistant Director-General, Louise Fresco, said in a statement issued
today. She warned of a "molecular divide", saying that "the gap between
rich and poor farmers, between research priorities and needs, and between
technology development and actual technology transfer, is widening."
To bridge the molecular divide, "biotechnology must be redirected to
address the pressing needs of the poor and the new requirements for food
quality and quantity and new agricultural products." An open dialogue
should be ensured on the benefits and risks of biotechnologies. Poor
countries and farmers should have access to genetic resources and to the
technologies and means to use them.
Neglected crops. "There are currently no serious investments in any of the
five most important crops in the semi-arid tropics - sorghum, millet,
pigeon pea, chickpea and groundnut," said Louise Fresco, who heads FAO's
Agriculture Department. "This is largely because 70 percent of the
agricultural biotechnology investments are by multinational private sector
research, mostly in developed or advanced developing countries."
"Today 85 percent of all plantings of transgenic crops globally are
herbicide-resistant soybean, insect-resistant maize and genetically
improved cotton varieties, designed to reduce input and labour costs in
large scale production systems, not to feed the developing world or
increase food quality," Louise Fresco said. "There are no major public
sector programmes to tackle more critical problems of the poor and the
environment or targeting crops such as cassava or small ruminants."
Choosing the best option. Biotechnology is only one way to increase food
quality and quantity in a sustainable way, Ms Fresco said. Choosing the
best options to address specific production problems in developing
countries should be based on economic, technical, social, trade and safety
"Biotechnology may add new dimensions to the existing integrated
approaches, but not replace them." "Perhaps the greatest potential of
biotechnologies does not come from genetically modified organisms (GMOs),
but from genetic markers, genomics and proteomics which can complement
conventional breeding strategies and enhance their efficiency," Ms Fresco
"Vaccines and virus-free plant materials hold great potential.
Biotechnology-based diagnostic tools can be of great help to quickly
identify many viral, fungal, and bacterial pathogens. Biotechnological
research should focus on key challenges facing developing countries such
as drought, soil erosion and salinity. The point is harnessing genetic
resources through biotechnology, and not just manipulating them," Ms
Research needs to be reversed. "I am most concerned that agronomic
research is becoming increasingly specialized and exclusively focused on
the plant or cellular levels."
"Pressures on research institutes to obtain external funding may lead to
over-emphasizing biotech-related research. Already, the perceived profit
potential of GMOs has changed the direction of investment away from
systems-based approaches to pest management and toward a greater reliance
on monocultures: the possible long-term environmental and economic costs
of such strategies should not be overlooked," Ms. Fresco warned.
The key for reorienting research for the benefit of developing countries
is a funding issue, Ms Fresco stressed. "I would like to call urgently for
reversing the decline in funding to public research, and creating
incentives to harness private/public sector partnerships."
Genetically Modified and Healthy Food Fight
- David G. Victor and C. Ford Runge, International Herald Tribune, Feb 19,
The Bush administration wisely backed away this month from formally
challenging Europe's ban on genetically modified foods. It made no sense
to antagonize Europeans over the food they eat when they are pivotal to
more weighty matters, such as a new resolution on Iraq.
Still, Washington's threat that it would file a case against the European
Union at the World Trade Organization had palpable benefits. Even the
countries with the most hostile policies on engineered food - France and
Germany among them - took steps toward allowing the European Union to work
on replacing the blanket ban with a new system for tracing and labeling
But the decision to back off also means that American farmers are still
denied access to the lucrative European market. European consumers still
pay more for food than they should. And developing countries that could
most benefit from engineered crops are still frightened that losing their
"engineering-free" status will make it impossible to export food to
Yet the science on food safety is as certain as it ever gets: There is no
known danger from eating engineered food. Having backed down, the Bush
administration will find it hard to make the threat of going to the trade
organization credible again and to continue the momentum toward removing
Europe's ban. But even harder for the administration will be keeping
domestic politics at bay.
The biggest threat to the success of the U.S. strategy on engineered foods
is in the American heartland, which is angling for a fight with Europe
over the ban as the 2004 elections approach. Senator Charles Grassley of
Iowa called the decision to defer a trade dispute "the usual snobbery" of
a State Department "more concerned about international sensitivities than
the American farmer." Two tactics should guide the effort to open Europe's
markets. One is to let the Europeans lead their own reform.
The engineered foods available to consumers today mainly benefit farmers
who can grow them at lower cost. These foods look and taste the same as
their traditional counterparts. For rich consumers in Europe willing to
pay a bit more, it is easy to focus on hypothetical risks and shun these
products. But the next generation of engineered foods, already nearing the
marketplace, will have healthful benefits for consumers - fruits that
contain cancer-fighting lycopene, for instance - and this will make it
harder for European countries to bar all these foods.
During the furor last summer over Zambia's rejection of genetically
modified corn, prominent European politicians were forced to declare that
these foods were safe - a blatant contradiction of Europe's own policies.
The other tactic is outreach to the developing world. In the poorest
nations, agriculture provides the livelihood of most of the population,
and agricultural research proves that genetic engineering can make crops
that poor farmers grow both healthier and more productive.
Yet research on engineered crops and support for farmers who grow them
lack money, not only in U.S. agricultural development and extension
programs but also at the international agricultural research centers that
were the engine of the first green revolution. In the last decade American
support for international agricultural research has declined considerably.
An American program that would finance agricultural research on novel uses
for genetically modified crops in developing countries would help those
countries and could eventually help open European markets.
An American-led effort to pry open those markets would backfire. But one
led by a developing country could succeed, as Europe considers the moral
issues posed by barring food from a country which needs to sell its crops
to survive. So far, few developing countries (South Africa is one
exception) allow commercial planting of engineered crops. The United
States needs to overcome the fears of the developing nations by growing
such crops there and demonstrating how they could transform agriculture.
Runge is a professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota.
Victor is director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at
- The New York Times, Feb 19, 2003 http://www.nytimes.com
One of the most pervasive chemicals in modern agriculture is a herbicide
called glyphosate, which is better known by its trade name, Roundup. When
it was first introduced in 1974, by Monsanto, no one could have predicted
its current ubiquity or the way it would change farming. Roundup was safe,
effective and relatively benign, environmentally speaking. It became one
of the essential tools that made no-till farming -- a conservation
practice in which farmers spray weeds rather than plowing the ground --
But what really made Roundup pervasive was the development of genetically
modified crops, especially soybeans, cotton and corn, that could tolerate
having Roundup sprayed directly on them. The weeds died but these crops,
designated Roundup Ready, thrived. Seventy-five percent of the soybean
crop planted in this country last year was Roundup Ready, as was 65
percent of the cotton and 10 percent of the corn. On soybeans alone last
year, farmers sprayed about 33 million pounds of glyphosate.
But nature, in turn, has been developing some Roundup Ready plants of her
own, weeds that can tolerate being sprayed with Roundup. Two weeds,
mare's-tail and water hemp, have already begun to show resistance, and
others will certainly follow. This is simply natural adaptation at work.
No one is saying that Roundup will lose its overall effectiveness any time
soon. But while Monsanto executives and scientists are doing their best to
protect the herbicide, nature is also throwing all her resources at
defeating it. In a very real sense, nature has been given an enormous
advantage by the sheer ubiquity of Roundup, just as some bacteria are
given an edge by the ubiquity of agricultural antibiotics. The logic of
industrial farming is to use your best tools until they're worthless, and
to hasten their worthlessness by using them as much as you can.
This is precisely why there has been so much opposition to marketing a
variety of corn that includes a BT gene, which creates a toxin that kills
an insect called the corn-borer. BT is a safe, natural and effective
weapon for gardeners and farmers, and to lessen its effectiveness by
overusing it, like Roundup, would be a terrible waste. Industrial
agriculture is always searching for a silver bullet, forgetting that
eventually a silver bullet misfires.
Kucinich More Than Anti-war Candidate
- Capital Times (Madison, WI), Feb 18, 2003
The shorthand description of Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairman
Dennis Kucinich's platform for his just-launched presidential bid is that
he is the anti-war candidate for the 2004 Democratic nomination. And the
Ohio representative who last week joined five other congressmen to sue
President Bush in a move aimed at blocking a unilateral attack on Iraq is
But when Kucinich made his first swing across Iowa - where next January's
caucuses will begin the Democratic Party's nominating process - some of
the loudest applause was for his position on an issue that most other
candidates have never even discussed: food labeling. Since his election to
the House in 1996, Kucinich has been the most outspoken advocate in
Congress for labeling food products that have been genetically altered or
that contain genetically modified organisms. He has yet to prevail on that
front, but Kucinich has been a key player in struggles to win federal
approval for consumer- and farmer-friendly labeling of food that is grown
Kucinich's first speeches in Iowa have focused primarily on his opposition
to war and on his criticisms of the corporate free trade pacts that have
done damage to Midwestern manufacturing and agriculture. But at virtually
every stop, he has been asked about his food fights.
When he finished speaking at a party in Iowa City, for instance, an
organic farmer ran up to the candidate, grabbed his hand and said, "I just
want to thank you for being our champion in Congress." Kucinich, who has
struggled for years to get food labeling issues taken seriously in
Congress, responded by telling the crowd, "I've always figured that if we
are what we eat, it's good to know what we're eating."
Later that night, when he was asked about Bush administration attempts to
undermine newly enacted labeling rules for foods that are grown
organically, the Ohio congressman said, "We have to do everything we can
to protect organic farming in particular. It's part of the bigger question
of how to protect farmers and consumers in a rapidly changing global
economy. Farmers need an advocate - someone who understands the economic
dynamics, who understands what the food and farming issues are, and who
isn't beholden to the corporate interests."
By framing the debate over food labeling as a battle between farmers and
consumers on one side and agribusiness conglomerates that oppose labeling
and other forms of regulation on the other, Kucinich could push the
dialogue about food safety and food quality to a point where it has never
before been in presidential politics. "Government has a moral
responsibility to ensure the purity and safety of the food supply," he
argues. "We cannot abdicate this responsibility to global corporations
whose goals may be limited to profit orientation."
* It is unlikely that debates about organic labeling or regulations on
genetic modification of food will move all the way to the forefront of the
2004 political agenda. But if Kucinich makes them a part of the dialogue
in Iowa - a state that takes farming and food seriously - he may yet be
proved right when he tells Democrats here:
"Iowa has a chance to change the debate in this presidential election. You
have a chance to expand the debate, to make it be about the issues that
matter in people's lives."
Swiss Launch Vote Drive to Ban Genetically Modified Foods
- Agence France Presse, Feb18, 2003
Swiss environmental organisations and lawmakers on Tuesday launched a
referendum drive to slap a five-year ban on genetically modified (GM)
foods, ATS news agency reported. Environmental, rural and consumer
organisations joined 15 MPs from six political parties in calling for a
referendum, which could impose a five-year ban on commercial use of GM
plants and total ban on the use of genetically modified animals.
However GMOs would be allowed for research, under strict conditions.
According to Swiss federal law, the "Stop GMO" campaign has 18 months to
collect 100,000 signatures in order to call a referendum. Referendum
organisers estimate 70 to 80 percent of Swiss consumers opt out of buying
GM foods and agricultural products.
Is Europe Returning to the Dark Ages?
- Patrick J. Michaels, CATO Inst, Feb15, 2003
What's going in Europe? Are we witnessing another historic retreat into
How else to explain three disturbing irrationalities in recent times:
distortion of genetic science resulting in massive African starvation;
perseveration on a global warming treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, which Europe
knows will have no effect on climate; and the public show trial of Danish
statistician Bjorn Lomborg, for writing a book that reveals what they
already knew about Kyoto.
A glance at a world map shows Europe to be a pretty small place compared
to the rest of the world that is chomping genetically engineered corn and
soybeans or their by-products (like that plate of ribs) with reckless
abandon. On Kyoto, Europe lost a critical referendum last year when
radical green Robert Watson was voted out as head of the U.N.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. On Lomborg, well, Denmark is
even smaller than Europe.
Each of these stories merits elaboration, as each represents a triumph of
irrationality in the face of some pretty obvious science-all with
In response to pressure from the European Community, and in the face of a
terrible famine, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa refused to allow the
distribution of 27,000 tons of genetically modified corn. Mwanawasa chose
to starve his people because Europe was afraid that some of the corn would
be planted, and the genes would "escape," contaminating subsequent corn
that could then not be exported to the Continent. Never mind that
"outbreeding" is extremely rare and that it doesn't matter anyway. Europe
eschews genetically engineered corn to protect its own, more inefficient
varieties, propping up the local price.
U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick minced no words, calling
Zambia's action "immoral" and "Luddite." Not being diplomatic, I'll add
another: "murder." The main genetic modification is the insertion of
genetic material from Bacillus thuringensis, which is lethal to the
European Corn Borer, requiring much less use of much more expensive (and,
to some, distasteful) pesticides. Organic gardeners in the United States
sprinkle this bacterium everywhere as a natural pest control.
While genetic scare stories abound, hyped by European greens, the
experiment has already been run. American agriculture and consumers
prosper because of genetic engineering, with no demonstrable negative
effect (except lower corn and soybean prices because of abundant
The Kyoto and Lomborg stories are related. In his book, "The Skeptical
Environmentalist," Lomborg demonstrated that planetary warming is likely
to be at the low end of projections, and that Kyoto wouldn't do anything
measurable to stop it. Every serious scientist knows the basis of his
argument: Kyoto really doesn't reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide much,
observed increases in this gas are falling far beneath the dire
predictions made only 10 years ago, and warming has been modest. Because
the tendency of most sophisticated climate models is to produce a constant
(not increasing) rate of warming, we therefore have a good idea of how
much it will warm, a mere three-quarters of a degree Celsius in the next
50 years. Variants of this calculation have been repeated in at least
three separate instances in the refereed scientific literature.
In response, the Danish "Committees on Scientific Dishonesty" accused
Lomborg of "scientific dishonesty." Did they cite one fact that he had
gotten wrong? No. His crime? He failed to endorse the pro-Kyoto insanity.
He refused to act irrationally.
One Kyoto would reduce U.S. GDP by about 2 percent per year, depending
upon assumptions. The 20-or-so Kyotos that European greens say are
necessary? Do the math. U.S. capital is precisely what is required for
investment in the miserable, starving, death-ridden world of Africa. As an
example, the less we invest in things like clean power plants and water
treatment facilities, the more they die from the complications of indoor
smoke inhalation from cooking fires and water-borne diseases. Together,
these kill millions-while Kyoto does nothing and takes away that capital.
The Danish "Committees" cited not one scientific finding against Lomborg.
Instead, they referred to four anti-Lomborg essays published in Scientific
American by known environmental ideologues, which themselves have been
heavily criticized. Lomborg was allowed no defense.
He's got an issue now. He's been blackballed. No more government research
money for him. The Danish "Committees" citing Scientific American as
evidence have irrevocably damaged his reputation.
Should Lomborg sue Scientific American as the ultimate cause of this
damage? The result would be a highly publicized trial that would reveal
for all the descent of Europe into yet another scientific Dark Age, as
well as the bullyboy tactics that are now rising in America to quash
rational scientific dissent. He may have a case.
-- Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the
Cato Institute and author of "The Satanic Gases."
Global Food Quarterly
- News from the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues
The Plant Journal Papers: Key Conclusions on Ecological Risk Assessment
- Marcia Vincent, Special Focus - Global Biotech Science News, Feb 17,
The Plant Journal has released the latest series of publications on plant
biotechnology. These two papers focus on the release of biotech crops into
the environment. These and other papers in the series are available online
* Nap, Jan-Peter, Metz, Peter L., Escaler, Marga, Conner, Anthony J. 2003.
The release of genetically modified crops into the environment. Part 1.
Overview of the current status and regulations. The Plant Journal 33:
* Conner, Anthony J., Glare, Travis R., Nap, Jan-Peter. 2003. The release
of genetically modified crops into the environment. Part II. Overview of
ecological risk assessment. The Plant Journal 33: 19-36.
Part 1: Overview of the current status and regulations by Nap et al.,
covers the current status of biotech crops based on the latest information
released from the International Service for the Acquisition of
Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA: http://www.isaaa.org). The paper also
provides a review of regulatory frameworks, legislation and review
processes in a number of global regions including: USA, Argentina, Canada,
China, European Union, Australia, Japan, and other countries. The paper
outlines the types of regulatory information needed for environmental
releases and the subsequent review of the data by global regulatory bodies
and experts. The paper provides a number of references and web-based
databases for additional information on biosafety and field trials of
Part II: Overview of ecological risk assessment, by Conner et al.,
provides an analysis examining the potential impacts of biotech crops
based on a review of 250 publications on the topic. Part II reviews a
series of perceptions of the potential environmental risks of biotech
crops and offers the authors' conclusions based on the scientific studies
available. The topic areas analyzed include: outcrossing and weediness
potential, potential for horizontal gene flow, and potential ecological
impacts such as biodiversity. The authors assert that there is an
increasing body of evidence from industrial and developing countries that
current biotech crops in conjunction with conventional agricultural
practices, can contribute to a cost-effective, sustainable, productive and
sufficiently safe form of agriculture.
Key Conclusions of Report on Ecological Risk Assessment:
1. Will transgenic crops invade agricultural and natural ecosystems?
Conclusion based on scientific studies: "Calculations of the potential
weediness of GM crops, bases on population growth studies, showed that GM
crops were no more invasive or persistent than their conventional
counterparts in a range of environments."
2. Will transgenes outcross to other species and increase their weediness?
The authors conclude based on scientific studies: "For most transgenic
traits, GM crops are no more likely to transfer either their transgenes or
any other gene, to other species than crop cultivars have done in the
3. Could transgenes that provide resistance to pests and diseases if
transferred to weed enhance the fitness of the weeds in particular
environments? Could transgenes conferring herbicide tolerance increase
weed fitness where the herbicide continues to be used?
Conclusion of the authors based on scientific studies: Cultivars produced
via traditional breeding with similar resistance to pests, diseases and
environmental tolerances have not transferred these advantages to weeds in
the past and biotech crops are not likely to either. Also, the development
of herbicide resistance in weed species should be resolved based on good
agricultural management regardless of whether the herbicide-resistant
crops are biotech or traditionally bred.
4. Will biotech crops contribute to horizontal gene transfer (HGT)?
Conclusions of the authors based on scientific studies: It appears that
HGT can occur but at exceptionally low frequencies. HGT from biotech
plants to other organisms should be considered a calculable risk and genes
with obvious potential impacts should be avoided.
5. Will biotech crops have unanticipated ecological impacts in the future?
Conclusion of the authors based on scientific studies: Any secondary
ecological impacts of a biotech crops must be balanced against the impacts
of the agricultural practices the biotech crops will replace. Regarding
potential impacts of biotech crops further along the food chain, the
authors found that generally there are no differences in insect predator
numbers or undesirable effects when comparisons are made between biotech
crops and traditionally-bred crops. The authors also state that few
examples of secondary effects have been found to date that are negative
enough to result in problems at an ecosystem level.
6. Will biotech crops lead to super pests and super diseases?
Conclusion of the authors based on scientific studies: Biotechnology
offers unique solutions for the future and farmers should continue to use
integrated pest management strategies to minimize the development of
resistance. Pests and diseases are as likely to adapt to resistance in
crops regardless of whether the resistance was introduced using
traditional breeding or using biotechnology.
7. Will biotech crops affect biodiversity?
The authors state that biotech crops are no more, or less likely to affect
biodiversity than any other change in agriculture and they also suggest
that some of the potential benefits of biotechnology have likely had a
positive effect on agrobiodiversity.
More information available at:
A condensed summary of this paper is also available at:
Ag-Biotech Forum 2003 - Charting a Path for Success within Australia's
- Melbourne, Australia: Apri 30 - May 1, 2003
Venue: Duxton Hotel, Melbourne; Date: April 30th - May 1st 2003
For many years now the Australian Agricultural sector has faced an
increasing amount of discoveries in the biotechnology field that promise
enhanced agricultural productivity, lower costs, improved quality
assurance, and superior food nutrition. Whilst exciting opportunities
exist, these scientific discoveries need to be assessed on their
individual merits and be developed in line with market conditions,
government regulations as well as consumer attitudes.
In today's Agri-food marketplace this climate poses new challenges for all
parties situated along the food chain from farm to supermarket. This
conference will therefore highlight new innovative biotechnology
applications that will have a positive effect on Australia's agricultural
and food market. The event will also highlight the necessity of building a
long term education program that will instruct both the general public as
well as the farming community on the advantages of this technology.
The conference will also focus on strategies used to increase Australia's
Ag-Biotech skills base, the production of new technologies and
applications, as well as developing advanced commercial opportunities.
Keynote speakers include the likes of Professor German Spangenberg,
Institute Director of The Plant Biotechnology Centre, Department of
Natural Resources and Environment, Dr Bryan Whan, CEO, CRC for Molecular
Plant Breeding as well as Dr Channapatna S. Prakash, Professor Plant
Molecular Genetics at Tuskegee University, USA.
AgBioView subscribers receive a 10% discount off the full ticket price
when booking through the link below. Please see
http://www.marcusevans.com.au/conference_companion/364p.pdf for full
conference details and the registration form.
- Chris Low, Marketing Manager , marcus evans, Level 3, 60-70 Elizabeth
St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia, T: +61 2 9223 2137 F: +61 2 9223 2352 E:
Bye-bye, Banana - Can Scientists Find a Way to Keep the Fruit from
Slipping Into Extinction?
- Fred Pearce, The Boston Globe, February 18, 2003
Just five scientists stand between the banana and its commercial
extinction, researchers are warning. Unless their numbers are dramatically
increased, the fate of the world's most popular fruit could be sealed
through worldwide indifference.
Headline writers loved it last month when the phallic fruit was exposed as
sterile, genetically decrepit, and doomed. The banana's problem is that it
is the seedless, infertile mutant cousin of a wild herb. The absence of
seeds makes its fruit edible, but also genetically vulnerable, according
to researchers from the International Network for the Improvement of
Bananas and Plantains in Montpellier, France.
Bananas cannot reproduce sexually. They have survived only because for
some 10,000 years banana-lovers have propagated the fruit by taking shoots
from the base of the plants. Each cutting is thus a genetic clone. Without
the variety generated by sexual reproduction, the world's 500 or so banana
varieties are genetically almost identical - and highly prone to new
super-pests at large on the world's banana plantations.
According to Emile Frison, the Belgian director of the network, unless
there are some scientific breakthroughs soon, "we can be fairly confident
of a drastic decline in banana production worldwide, and possibly the
complete collapse of the banana as a major staple as well as an export
The most widespread banana disease currently is a leaf fungus called black
Sigatoka. It cuts yields by 50 percent or more on hundreds of millions of
small farms across the tropics. Commercial banana plantations keep up
production with weekly applications of fungicides - the most intensive
application of chemicals on any major food crop. But now a new strain of
an old disease, Panama disease, threatens to make even fungicides useless.
Forty years ago, Panama disease, a soil fungus that attacks banana roots,
wiped out the world's then-favorite banana variety, the Gros Michel.
Plantation owners switched to a backup variety resistant to the disease,
the Cavendish. But the Cavendish has no resistance to a new Panama strain
that is spreading round the world.
"Fungicides won't work against Panama disease because it is so persistent
in the soil," Frison said. "New resistant banana varieties are urgently
But, coming up with new hybrids of the sexless fruit is an extremely
time-consuming business. To cross one variety with another requires
laboriously grafting cuttings and waiting 18 months for the fruit to
appear. Probably for that reason, Frison said, little research has been
done. Almost the only result of 80 years of endeavor has been a banana
that tastes like an apple and is only eaten in Cuba, where there is
nothing else on the supermarket shelves.
Now, just at a moment of greatest crisis for the banana, tragedy has
struck the tiny scientific community of banana experts. Three years ago,
three banana researchers working for the International Institute for
Tropical Agriculture in Uganda died when their plane crashed into the sea
off West Africa. And soon after, the man widely regarded as the world's
top banana breeder, Phil Rowe, died in Honduras.
"Only five scientists worldwide are presently working to breed improved
bananas," Frison told the Globe. He blamed a lack of interest from the big
banana companies, who acknowledge that they got bored with funding
unsuccessful breeding programs and now concentrate their research budgets
on finding new fungicides.
David McLaughlin, Chiquita's senior director for environmental affairs,
said the company had supported breeding for a better, more
disease-resistant banana for 40 years. "It cost us a lot of money for very
little result," he said. "We concentrate on research into fungicides now."
And he defended the company's reluctance to become involved with
biotechnology. "It's expensive and there are serious questions about
The crisis is a matter of life and death. Nearly 90 percent of the bananas
eaten around the world are grown for local consumption in backyards and on
small plots in developing countries. The banana ranks fourth after rice,
wheat, and maize among the world's most important food crops.
Carbohydrate-rich varieties known as plantains or cooking bananas are an
essential staple for hundreds of millions of people.
Frison said that parts of Africa face an equivalent of the Irish potato
famine as their bananas succumb to Panama disease, black Sigatoka,
weevils, nematodes and a virus that worms its way into the banana's genes,
infecting each new cloned sucker.
The banana was first propagated by Stone Age plant breeders somewhere in
Southeast Asia. Perhaps 10,000 years ago, they stumbled on a seedless -
and, hence, edible - fruit from a mutant form of a wild jungle herb called
Musa acuminata. They began to take cuttings. The new fruit proved popular.
The first banana boats may have been ancient vessels crossing the Indian
Ocean to Africa. Two years ago, researchers rooting around in a fossilized
rubbish pit in Cameroon found mineralized banana tissue 2,500 years old.
Pierre de Maret, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Brussels
who made the discovery, said he believes the highly productive rainforest
crop may have helped the Bantu people to spread across Africa and
eventually become the dominant people across much of the continent.
Modern banana varieties became established after European Colonial
botanists brought back promising finds from the gardens of Southeast Asia
in the early 19th century. The French found the Gros Michel and the
British found the Cavendish, named after the family of the Duke of
Devonshire who kept the first samples at his ancestral home at Chatsworth.
Transferred to plantations in faraway Latin America, these varieties
flourished. But their ancient Asian pests have been tracking them down
ever since. The new version of Panama disease, called "race 4," is now
killing Cavendish bananas and many other varieties in Australia, South
Africa and parts of Asia. "It is only a matter of time before it reaches
the hub of commercial production in Latin America and the Caribbean,"
For most researchers, the big hope is genetic manipulation, which they
believe will speed up the search for resistant hybrids. They are currently
looking for genes in wild Asian bananas that can resist diseases such as
black Sigatoka and Panama disease.
Genetically modified bananas, they argue, should not frighten anti-GM
activists. Being sterile, the plant won't be able to pass on its modified
genes to nearby plants through sexual reproduction. But one anti-GM
campaigner, Gundula Azeez of the UK Soil Association, warned against
seeing GM technology as a quick fix for the banana. "Genetic engineering
can only introduce single traits, which mean that it would only resolve
the immediate disease problem and will run into the same resistance
treadmill that the chemical approach has."
Not everyone is pessimistic about the banana's future. Normally sterile
banana varieties sometimes mutate to produce a few seeds that can be used
to induce sexual reproduction. But the logistics are daunting. In one
successful experiment using this method, researchers hand-pollinated
30,000 commercial banana plants with pollen from wild bananas. The
resulting fruit - all 400 tons of it - produced just 15 seeds, only a
third of which germinated. Even so, David Jones, editor of the journal
Diseases of Banana, Abaca and Enset, argued that it may be possible in
this way to breed a new version of the Gros Michel banana that can resist
Meanwhile, Philippe Vain of Britain's John Innes agricultural research
center last month announced success in producing a version of the East
African cooking banana that resists nematodes using GM techniques. It is a
small and potentially significant victory.
But, as the tiny band of banana scientists go to work, "race 4" is
advancing. And, Frison said, "when it reaches Latin America, it will do to
the Cavendish what its predecessor did to Gros Michael." That is, wipe it
out as a commercial crop.
Plant Biotechnology and Breeding: Allied for Years to Come
- Piero Morandini and Francesco Salamini, Trends in Plant Science, vol. 8
no.2; Feb 2003
http://plants.trends.com (firstname.lastname@example.org). Excerpts below.....
Plant metabolic engineering is lagging behind other kinds of genetic
manipulation of plants. Creating metabolic pathways or improving their
yields requires a better understanding of plant metabolism and of its
regulation. Metabolic Control Analysis provides an interpretation of
experimental failures and a guide for manipulators. It suggests also that
there might be intrinsic limits to raising yields in already abundant
products. At present, these limits can be dealt with more effectively by
Agricultural biotechnology has the potential to develop more-sustainable
farming practices. For instance, plants expressing single insecticidal
proteins, such as Bt cotton, reduce the use of exogenous pesticides. This
application of biotechnology usually requires the transfer of single genes
from distantly related species and, in spite of the problem of acceptance
by consumers, farmers in developed and developing countries have readily
taken them up.
A less attractive application of biotechnology, which nevertheless holds
great promise, is the rational and selective alteration of metabolism (the
so-called 'metabolic engineering') to increase the production of
endogenous metabolites or to achieve the synthesis of metabolites not
produced by plants. Metabolic engineering in plants has indeed yielded
remarkable and encouraging results by increasing the yield of minor
components, such as vitamin A, vitamin E and essential oil, as well as the
composition of major components, such as fatty acid or starch, and by
engineering entirely new pathways, as in the case of
The alternative possibility, aimed at improving yields in already abundant
metabolic products, such as starch, has been less successful and has been
unable to yield viable market products. In certain cases, results were
even contrary to expectations: attempts at increasing sink strength and
starch accumulation in potato tubers by increasing sucrose hydrolysis and
metabolism, led to the induction of glycolysis but to a decrease in starch
By contrast, plant breeding has been extremely successful in increasing
yields, even though, as a technology, it is purely empirical and based on
established practices rather than on understanding the
molecular-physiological bases of the traits under selection. Are there
reasons to explain this contradiction? We argue that plant breeding will
not be substituted in a few years by plant biotechnology, rather the two
different approaches are and will be cooperating for years to come.
Crucial issues The purpose of this Opinion is neither to assess the
present status of plant metabolic engineering nor to explore all future
applications [several reviews both broad and specific are already
available; the whole issue of Metabolic Engineering (2002) 4 (1) is
devoted to plant metabolic engineering. Instead, we want to highlight the
following issues: The chances of success in metabolic engineering can be
increased by considering the lessons of MCA.
The role of plant breeding in the generation of better varieties cannot be
easily substituted by genetic engineering, particularly when a flux
increase in complex pathways is required. Plant genetic engineering should
provide the tools (slow or unavailable in plant breeding) for producing
varieties with 'intelligent' phenotypes by expressing one or a few genes
(e.g. resistance factors, for activating pathways via transcription
factors, diverting metabolic fluxes or eliminating the production of toxic
compounds (via gene knock out or silencing (applicable for instance to the
domestication of species not available for consumption).