Today in AgBioView: February 20, 2004
* Norman Borlaug: International Agricultural Research
* The GM thing...
* UK Farmer welcomes GM crop licence hope
* British government to approve commercial GM crop
* GM Report Exaggerated the Depth of Opposition
* Potential benefits - Don't kill GMO tech
* Gene flow concerns overstated
* How Do I Brief Policymakers on Science-Related Issues?
* China OKs import of Monsanto's biotech soybeans
* Poor Nations Take the Lead in GM
* Kofi Annan: Science for All Nations
* Cornell's Steven Tanksley is a co-recipient of the prestigious Wolf Prize
* A Crop of Good Sense
* Self-Containment for GM Plants
* Scidev.net's E-Guide To Science Communication
* New Site Sheds Light on Biotechnology
* Is Golden Rice the crop to prove GM's worth?
* A call for grants from USAID
International Agricultural Research
- By Norman Borlaug, Science, Vol. 303 No. 5661, pp. 1137-1138. 20 February 2004
A new evaluation by the World Bank of the Consultative Group for International Research (CGIAR) and its 16 research centers has prompted me to give my views on the importance and contributions of international agricultural research and the confusion in which CGIAR now finds itself. The World Bank reports that plant breeding research at CGIAR centers has declined 6.5% annually for the last decade. Moreover, growing restrictions have been placed on the funding the centers rAeceive. International agricultural research began in Mexico in 1943 and has grown into an international system of collaborative research, seed exchange, and training organizations that helped build many national agricultural research systems in developing countries.
In only 10 years, wheat and rice harvests in Asia doubled, hunger declined, and incomes improved. The international wheat, rice, and maize programs that had developed high-yielding technologies became the models for a collaborative international research network.
In 1971, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, the World Bank, FAO, UNDP, and USAID created CGIAR, a donors' club dedicated to funding an expanded international research system. Over the next 30 years, the number of research centers grew from 4 to 16, covering the major food crops and farming systems in food-deficit, low-income countries. The total budget increased 10-fold--to nearly US$400 million per year.
But somehow in this evolution, the CGIAR lost touch with its original purpose--to feed the hungry. It has become an unwieldy and uncoordinated beast, with too many masters and proliferating goals.
Yet, a well-focused international agricultural research system that backstops and complements national agricultural research organizations and smallholder farmers is a vital component in a global research system. CGIAR must return to its original purpose and to its greatest comparative advantage--developing improved food crop varieties, using a combination of conventional plant breeding techniques and new techniques of biotechnology, with complementary crop management practices, to address major productionA issues in both the favored and the more difficult marginal lands.
Another concern stems from the spilling over of the controversy about genetically modified (GM) varieties from industrialized into developing countries, which has paralyzed legislative action on GM crops. We should not underestimate the degree of resistance to GM crops in many countries, although it is heartening to see Argentina, Brazil, China, and India moving ahead with well-considered applications of biotechnology.
I am optimistic that multinational biotechnology companies are willing to devote more resources to solving the problems of poor farmers and consumers. Creative partnerships have been established between private and public research institutions--especially universities, but also CGIAR centers--with financial support provided by private companies, governments, and private foundations. In addition, CGIAR, with seed collections representing much of the genetic diversity in the major food crops, is in a unique Aposition to negotiate with the private sector to generate GM technology that benefits the poor, in return for access to its gene banks.
The World Bank is in a unique position, with its US$50 million of CGIAR funding (until recently completely unrestricted; it now assigns half its contribution to multicenter research initiatives called Challenge Programs), to work with other donors to expand unrestricted funding in the CGIAR, which will help greatly to rationalize priority setting. The Bank can also help refocus the CGIAR mission on raising smallholder agricultural productivity in the near term, rather than trying to be all things to all people.
Norman E. Borlaug
Texas A&M University,
College Station, TX 77843,
From: "udin aziz"
Subject: The GM thing...
Date: Thu, 19 Feb 2004 08:46:31 +0000
My only comment on the cultivation of GM crops are explicitly revealed in the QURAN as follows:
1. "It is God who causes the grain and the fruit stone to germinate. HE brings forth life from that which is dead, and eath from that which is living. Such is God! How then can you turn away from HIM?"
-Qur'an, Al-An'am, Surah 6:95
2. You surely know that you were created. Why, then, do you not reflect on your creation? Consider the seeds that you sow. Do you make them grow, or do WE? If WE wanted, WE could turn your harvest into chaff. Filled with horror, you would exclaim: “We cannot now pay our debts. We have been robbed.”
-Qur'an, Al-Waqi'a, Surah 56:62-67
Such is ISLAM already revealed whether GM or not..the ALMIGHTY decides.
Farmer welcomes GM crop licence hope
- East Anglian Daily Times, By Roddy Ashworth, February 20, 2004
A FARMER who allowed his land to be used for GM maize trials has welcomed the prospect of the crop being commercially licensed.
Jim Dutton gave his endorsement after a Government plan to press ahead with licensing genetically-modified (GM) maize for commercial production was leaked yesterday.
Mr Dutton, from Sunnymead Farm, Wivenhoe, near Colchester, grew the modified seed for a three-year period - during which his crops were twice damaged by anti-GM protesters.
“It is nice to see a GM crop being licensed. It is a beginning. During the trials here, it seemed to be better for wildlife. It is good to see the powers-that-be agreed with that,” he said.
But Roger Mainwood, chairman of the campaign group Concerned Residents of Wivenhoe, said the Government appeared to be flying in the face of public opinion.
“The national GM debate last year clearly showed that the public don't want GM crops to be grown in the UK,” he added.
“This was not the answer the Government wanted and so a 'presentational strategy' is now being hatched to persuade us otherwise.
“If a Government go-ahead is given, then I would be surprised if many or any farmer in the UK would want to grow a product next year for which there is absolutely no market.”
According to the leaked Cabinet sub-committee minutes, ministers agreed “the public was unlikely to be receptive” to the move to licence GM crops.
However, it was agreed that “careful presentation” of the EU's focus on evidence-based decision-making could help and opposition might eventually be worn down by solid, authoritative scientific argument.
But former environment minister, Michael Meacher, said there was no “moral, scientific or political authority” for the move.
He argued the comparison with EU trials was “invalid” because of changes in chemical spray regulations.
Mr Meacher added voters remained unconvinced and no method of protecting conventional and organic crops from contamination had been agreed.
Tony Juniper, of Friends of the Earth, said the leak showed the interests of big business had triumphed over public opinion.
Patrick Holden, of the Soil Association, warned pressing ahead with the mover would be a “tragedy for our country”.
He added full-scale commercialisation would jeopardise Britain's ability to produce GM-free crops and claimed consultation had showed there was no economic case for commercialisation of GM crops.
Report: British government to approve commercial GM crop
- Associated Press, By Ed Johnson, 2/19/2004
LONDON — The British government is set to approve the commercial cultivation of a genetically modified crop, despite widespread public opposition, according to reports Thursday.
The Guardian newspaper and the BBC quoted what they said were leaked minutes from a Cabinet committee meeting, which indicated a decision to approve GM corn is imminent.
The government refused to comment except to say that ministers had not made a final decision.
No commercial GM crops are grown in Britain, where polls have shown strong opposition to genetically modified foods, but the government has conducted crop trials, scientific reviews and cost and benefit studies. (Related
story: Divided EU fails to lift biotech crop ban)
After a three-year research project, British scientists concluded in October that growing herbicide-tolerant corn under trial conditions had not harmed surrounding plants and wildlife.
A government-appointed committee broadly agreed with that finding last month, and ministers said they would study the advice before reaching a decision.
According to the reports Thursday, Cabinet ministers, including Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, met Feb. 10 to discuss the commercial sowing of GM crops.
Quoting from what it said were minutes of the meeting, The Guardian said ministers acknowledged that "the public was unlikely to be receptive."
But they felt a ban would be "the easy way out" and would be an "irrational way for the government to proceed."
"Opposition might eventually be worn down by solid, authoritative scientific argument," the report quoted the minutes as saying.
The government could offer the concession of "voluntary GM free zones" across the country and make clear "that it expects little market demand and thus little cultivation in the short term."
According to The Guardian, the first GM crop to be grown will be corn, produced by Cropscience, the British arm of German biotech company Bayer, which already has marketing consent for commercial cultivation in the European Union.
The crop did well in the three year trial, and scientists said it was less damaging to the environment than conventional corn doused with powerful herbicides.
Opponents of GM crops urged the government not to authorize planting.
"There are serious questions about environmental safety, coexistence (with conventional crops) is impossible, and the public are against it," Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, which campaigns for organic food, farming and sustainable forestry, told BBC radio.
Greenpeace said it would be a "disaster for farming and the countryside" and said there were "no rules in place to stop GM contaminating organic and non-GM crops."
A government survey last year concluded that four out of five people were against GM crops and that just 2% would be prepared to eat GM foods.
However, a MORI poll published Thursday suggested opposition was less intense, with 36% against, 13% for and 39% neutral. MORI interviewed 1,363 people aged 15 and over between July 19 and Sept. 12 last year.
GM Report Exaggerated the Depth of Opposition
- Birmingham Post (UK), Feb19, 2004
The Government's consultation exercise on genetically-modified (GM) crops may have seriously over-estimated the scale of public opposition, according to an independent report published today. The official report on the GM Nation exercise, conducted last summer, concluded that more than four out of five people were against GM crops and that just 2 per cent would be prepared to eat GM foods.
However, a team of academics from Cardiff University, the University of East Anglia and the Institute of Food Research, said the project had been over-hasty, under-resourced and 'flawed in a number of important respects'. It said that its own findings suggested that many people had yet to make up their minds about GM crops.
A Mori poll for the UEA found that while 36 per cent opposed GM food, 13 per cent supported it and 39 per cent were neither for or against. Although 85 per cent agreed that not enough was known about the long-term effects on health of GM food, 45 per cent thought GM crops could hold future benefits for consumers and 56 per cent thought they could help developing nations.
'The results of our survey provide important complementary evidence suggesting that current UK 'public opinion' is not a unitary whole, but fragmented with considerable ambivalence coexisting alongside outright opposition,' the report said.
The report also said that the GM Nation exercise - which involved public meetings around the country - may have been damaged by the Government's own actions. 'We note that, whilst a difficult matter to judge, many actions and statements by Government around the time of the debate had the potential to undermine the credibility of the debate process,' it said. 'This effect may go some way towards explaining widespread cynicism among both participants and the wider public about the likely impact of the debate on Government policy.'
While the report praised the 'innovative' nature of the project, it said that most of the aims and objectives had been 'conceptually unclear' or difficult to measure 'in any sensible manner'. 'In our view the production of the final report was over-hasty and under-resourced, and featured a worrying analysis of the debate's findings,' it said.
The director of the research consortium which produced the report, Professor Nick Pidgeon, said that despite the problems with GM Nation project, their own findings broadly mirrored a number of its key conclusions - particularly on the need for independent regulation.
Potential benefits - Don't kill GMO tech
- Ithaca Journal, February 19, 2004
"As crude a weapon as a cave man's club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life. "
-- Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring.
Debates over genetically modified crops are reminiscent of the controversy surrounding the introduction of Pasteurization in the early 20th century. Pasteurization was seen as an unnatural process, which it is. Yet its routine use probably has spared millions of people from serious illness or death.
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are being used to reduce the use of synthetic or natural pesticides in both industrialized and developing countries. Many critics question the safety and effectiveness of such genetic engineering, just as people in the past worried about Pasteurization.
A recent issue of The Economist cited a report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, an Ithaca-based non-profit firm that noted fully 9 percent of the world's maize crop is destroyed by insects at a cost of $5.7 billion while $550 million is spent on insecticides. In trials of genetically modified maize crops, yields increased by 23 percent in China, 24 percent in Brazil and up to 41 percent in the Philippines, according to The Economist.
Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," published in 1962, outlined how the extensive use of chemical pesticides was endangering a wide range of organisms, including humans. It inspired agricultural practices, legislation and research to identify methods of controlling pests without using synthetic pesticides.
One alternative to such pesticides comes from a common bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, which is commonly called "Bt." This bacterium has been used for more than 50 years as an insecticide by organic and conventional growers with limited use. However, when scientists identified the Bt genes and were able to engineer them into plants, this bacterium's proteins became a major insecticide that is now widely used throughout the world to control troublesome insects.
When the Bt genes are engineered into a corn crop, for example, those plants express certain proteins that control pests such as the European corn borer. Thus, the need for synthetic pesticides can be reduced or eliminated and yields can increase. In fact, the trials cited in The Economist used Bt-modified maize.
Despite such potential, fears remain about genetically modified crops. For example, in a preliminary laboratory study which was criticized by many scientists, pollen from corn that was modified with Bt was fed to monarch butterflies with lethal consequences. Since that work was confined to a laboratory, it would be "inappropriate to draw any conclusions about the risk to Monarch populations in the field based on these initial results," according to Congressional testimony by Anthony M. Shelton, a professor of entomology at the Cornell University agricultural experiment station in Geneva.
"I'm a child of the 1960s and I read Silent Spring. Rachel Carson talked about Bt and how it could be helpful in containing insect populations in a sustainable fashion," Shelton said. "As an entomologist, when I look at what Bt can do, there are some very positive things."
One example is sweet corn. If you buy sweet corn in New York during the spring months, it generally comes from Georgia or Florida where there are tremendous pest problems and they have to treat their plants with numerous pesticides.
"However, if one is to use sweet corn that is expressing the proteins from Bt, essentially the corn does not have to be treated at all by any broad-spectrum insecticides and certainly it would be my choice to eat that," Shelton said.
Any new technology -- or a continuation of older technologies -- will have potential risks that should be thoroughly researched. To date, the risks of Bt-engineered corn and other genetically modified crops have not turned up any proven, significant health effects. It would be a mistake to make GMOs the subject of a witch hunt that would mislead the public and deter further research into this emerging technology.
Gene flow concerns overstated
- Bangkok Post, February 18, 2004 (Via Agnet)
Darunee Edwards, a Deputy Director at the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology writes that another iissue that has received considerable attention in the ongoing debate over GE foods, particularly in the farming community, is the whole issue of the exchange of genes between conventional and biotech crops. Essentially the debate focuses on whether conventional crops will be negatively affected if they are grown in close proximity to biotech crops.
Edwards says that a central feature of this issue is the fear that a type of superweed could be created as a result of the exchange of genes between biotech and conventional crops.
In an issue as important and potentially contentious as this, it is important to first clarify the facts of the matter. First the process whereby genes from biotech crops are transferred by pollen to either wild or conventional types of the same kind of crop is called gene flow.
It is important to note that gene flow is a natural phenomenon. Crops and compatible non-crop plants have always exchanged genes. This process helps explain the great diversity of plants in the world. Gene flow is not new or unique to biotech crops.
Another point that needs to be considered is the probability of a case of cross pollination taking place and the anticipated damage that would occur if in fact this did happen.
For any gene to cross-pollinate, two species must flower at the same time, share the same insect pollinator (if insect-pollinated) and be close enough to allow for the transfer of viable pollen. Gene flow via pollination can only occur between sexually compatible plants and wild relatives if the right conditions exist. Thus, it is far from certain that the exchange of genes from one plant type to another will occur, even when technically possible.
In the case of crop plants, gene flow is possible regardless of whether the crop plant was developed through conventional plant breeding or biotechnology. This being the case, it is necessary to be clear about a specific issue regarding biotech crop gene flow.
First the fact that a crop has been modified to express a particular trait does not automatically mean that this trait confers an advantage in the wild. A specific trait may be present for a generation or two in wild plants, but it may disappear after the next generation, because other plants are more suited to the specific environment.
Regulators all over the world are keenly aware of the concerns regarding gene flow and have introduced extensive review procedures to ensure that any risks from an exchange between biotech and other crops is minimised.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has assessed each of the Bt plant pesticide registrations to determine the likelihood of gene movement to weedy relatives and reported that "in almost all cases, the likelihood of occurrence of such movement is almost non-existent because compatible weedy relatives of Bt crops are isolated from areas of commercial production.
Where compatible weedy relatives do exist in isolated geographic pockets, the EPA has imposed stringent sale and distribution restrictions to prevent even the possibility of transgene movement to weedy relatives."
In the United States and elsewhere, great care is taken to develop new plant varieties that have no weedy relatives, do not outcross to weed relatives, or whose weed relatives exist only in regions where the domestic crops are not grown.
With respect to field trials undertaken to evaluate and ultimately ensure the safety of biotech crops, there are a number of ways in which pollen flow can be reduced to a level, which is effectively zero.
How Do I Brief Policymakers on Science-Related Issues?
- Chandrika Nath, UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology
Few politicians or senior policymakers have scientific backgrounds. Yet they must frequently make vital policy decisions on science or technology issues that have widespread implications for society - such as GM crops, the treatment of infectious diseases or intellectual property legislation. Politicians need to be adequately briefed about such subjects, and able to communicate their ideas about them both to colleagues and the wider public.
Scientists also have a stake in ensuring that accurate information about their work is effectively communicated to policymakers, for two main reasons. They may need to put forward recommendations on an issue about which they have specialist knowledge, or they may primarily be interested in justifying their own research and secure future funding. This article focuses on situations where a scientist must provide a background briefing for a politician or senior policymaker on a particular subject. Here, the researcher's aim is to provide these people with enough information to make informed decisions - while avoiding the temptation to try to make the decisions themselves!
For anyone faced with this task, there are a few general points to bear in
* Politicians are always busy! Be clear and concise in your communication.
* Explain why the issue is relevant to them, and why it is important now.
* Science alone is not enough - focus on the impacts on people, especially those about whose interests the politicians are likely to be particularly concerned.
* Be accurate, and always present (or at least summarise) the evidence for your argument. Avoid sensationalist language; be objective and let the science speak for itself.
What's the most effective way of communicating? There are several ways of communicating directly with politicians and senior policymakers. One of the most widely used methods is seminars and oral briefings. Seminars have distinct advantages in this context, as they can stimulate dialogue between all the main stakeholders, and are a good way of getting questions answered promptly.
Seminars and oral briefings should be held in a location that is convenient for politicians and senior policymakers. Many groups, for example, hold seminars and exhibitions in the House of Commons so that parliamentarians can drop by between other engagements. It is also important to give potential participants plenty of notice before the event.
You can target a much wider audience via written reports and briefing papers. These are also less likely to be misquoted than oral presentations, but offer fewer opportunities for interaction and dialogue.
Full article at http://www.scidev.net/ms/sci_comm/index.cfm?pageid=227
Report: China OKs import of Monsanto's biotech soybeans
- St. Louis Business Journal, Feb 20, 2004
The Ministry of Agriculture in China has approved the import of Monsanto's genetically modified soybeans, corn and cotton, according to published reports.
The approval applies to the company's Roundup Ready soybeans, two varieties of genetically modified corn and two varieties of genetically modified cotton, the reports said. It is China's first approval of genetically modified food products. It still has not approved six varieties of genetically modified corn and other varieties of canola.
China is the world's fourth-largest producer of soybeans, producing 577 million bushels in 2000, or 15.7 million metric tons, according to data from the United Soybean Board. The United States is the No. 1 producer, and 70 percent of its soybean crop is of genetically modified seed.
St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. (NYSE: MON) develops insect- and herbicide-resistant crops and other agricultural products. The company is seeking approval of the import of its genetically modified seeds in Europe, Canada, Japan and some South American countries.
Poor Nations Take the Lead in GM
- SciDev.Net., Katie Mantell, January 16 2004
Farmers in developing countries are switching to genetically modified (GM) crops at more than twice the rate of farmers in the industrialised world, according to a new survey.
Last year, the amount of land planted with GM crops in developing countries grew by 4.4 million hectares, or 28 per cent. In comparison, the rate of growth in industrialised countries was 11 per cent. The figures come from a survey released this week by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), an organisation that supports the transfer of biotechnology to developing countries.
The survey finds that seven million farmers in 18 countries - more than 85 per cent of who are resource-poor farmers in the developing world - now plant GM crops. Almost one-third of the world's GM crops are now grown in developing countries, compared to one-quarter in 2002. "Farmers have made up their minds," says Clive James, chairman and founder of ISAAA. "They continue to rapidly adopt biotech crops because of significant agronomic, economic, environmental and social advantages."
But Alex Wijeratna, a food campaigner for the development organisation ActionAid, argues that the uptake of GM crops in the developing world may have more to do with aggressive marketing by influential seed companies than with any benefits that the crops might offer. "In Africa, the formal seed sector is dominated by three companies," he says. "We are increasingly worried about the concentration of the market."
According to the ISAAA survey, six countries together grow 99 per cent of the world's GM crops, up from four in 2002. Brazil and South Africa joined the United States, Argentina, Canada and China as the leading growers of GM crops. China and South Africa experienced the largest increases last year, each expanding the area planted with GM crops by a third.
The most commonly planted GM crop is soya, and 55 per cent of the world's soya crop, covering 41.4 million hectares, is now genetically modified, according to ISAAA. GM maize was planted on 15.5 million hectares worldwide in 2003, an increase of a quarter over the previous year; GM cotton was grown on 7.2 million hectares; and GM canola occupied 3.6 million hectares.
The ISAAA predicts that within the next five years, 10 million farmers in 25 or more countries will plant 100 million hectares of GM crops. According to the report, the global market value of GM crops is expected to increase from US$4.5 billion this year to US$5 billion or more by 2005.
Science for All Nations
- By Kofi Annan, Science, Vol. 303, No. 5660, Feb 13, 2004, p. 925.
In the world of the 21st century, critical issues related to science and technology (S&T) confront every nation. How can we stimulate growth in an information economy? How can we prevent global and regional environmental damage? What is the best way to introduce beneficial new technologies, thwart acts of terrorism, or respond quickly to the rapid spread of new diseases? Today, no nation that wants to shape informed policies and take effective action on such issues can afford to be without its own independent capacity in S&T.
At the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000, world leaders adopted the Millennium Declaration, a set of common objectives that focus on the central challenges of our time. At its heart are the eight Millennium Development Goals (http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals), which range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, all to be met by the target date of 2015. They form a set of simple but powerful objectives that every man and woman in the street, from New York to Nairobi to New Delhi, can easily support and understand.
But so far, progress toward reaching these goals has been mixed at best. There are many reasons, including slow growth in the world economy, slow progress in reforms among developing countries, and inadequate support from developed countries. What is needed is a true partnership of developed and developing countries--a partnership that includes S&T. Cooperation among the scientific and technological communities of different countries and regions yields a large collective reservoir of knowledge and expertise. If every nation gains full access to this broader world community of science and has the opportunity to develop an independent science capability, its public can engage in a candid dialogue about the benefits and risks of new technologies, such as genetically engineered organisms or nanotechnology, so that informed decisions can be made about their introduction into our lives.
We are fortunate to live in an age that offers new opportunities for involving all nations in the great adventure of S&T. New models of science education programs for upgrading educational opportunities are being developed everywhere, such as the Programa Amigos de la Ciencia of Chile (www.gener.cl/comunidad/ciencia.shtml), which teaches science to children from impoverished backgrounds and encourages them to pursue scientific studies at the secondary level; or the science education reform model of the U.S. National Science Resources Center (www.si.edu/nsrc), which provides hands-on linkage of students' newly acquired skills to their everyday lives. New forms of communication now allow scientists in even the least developed nations to join in research collaboration with colleagues in neighboring countries or on the other side of the world. For instance, the London-based Science and Development Network
(www.SciDev.net) offers up-to-date information on science-related issues to the developing world and builds regional networks of institutions.
These efforts are encouraging, but more is needed. Reaching these goals requires us to tap into human creativity, resourcefulness, and innovation to the fullest extent. A recent report, Inventing a Better Future: A Strategy for Building Worldwide Capacities in Science and Technology
(www.interacademycouncil.net/streport) proposes new initiatives to strengthen national scientific capabilities worldwide and to foster global cooperation. It is the product of an international study panel of renowned scientists convened by the new InterAcademy Council (IAC), a body formed partly in response to my own appeals to national science academies to mobilize their best scientists and provide expert knowledge and advice to the United Nations and other international organizations. The report recommends that every nation develop an S&T strategy that reflects local priorities, including support for basic science, education, and training that will allow it to achieve local competence in selected areas of national priority. The report suggests that developing nations commit a minimum of 1 to 1.5% of their gross domestic product to S&T capacity-building.
A second IAC report, to be released this summer, will contain specific recommendations for using S&T to improve agricultural productivity in Africa. It is being produced by a panel of experts from Africa and other regions working together to address an issue critical to the lives of hundreds of millions of Africans.
These efforts by the IAC show that the spirit of global partnership is alive and well within the scientific communities of the world. I hope that we will build further on that momentum and that it will spread to other spheres of human endeavor.
Kofi Annan is Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Cornell's Steven Tanksley is a co-recipient of the prestigious Wolf Prize
- Cornell Chronicle, By Susan Lang, January 22, 2004
Steven D. Tanksley, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Plant Breeding and chair of the Genomics Initiative Task Force at Cornell, is one of two scientists to share the 2004 Wolf Foundation Prize in Agriculture for his "innovative development of hybrid rice and discovery of the genetic basis of heterosis in this important food staple."
Each year since 1978, the Wolf Foundation, which is based in Israel, has awarded five Wolf Prizes to outstanding living scientists in agriculture, chemistry, mathematics, medicine and physics as well as one to a person in the arts. The prizes are intended to promote science and art for the benefit of humanity, and prize winners are selected by international committees of three renowned experts in each field. The Wolf Prizes are among the most prestigious scientific awards in the world.
Tanksley, who is sharing the honor and its $100,000 prize with Yuan Longping of the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center, also was cited by the Wolf Prize Committee as "one of the world leaders in plant genomic research. He has contributed to the understanding of heterosis in rice by identifying genes in a wild ancestor that significantly increased yields. ... Tanksley's research has led to the discovery of the genetic basis of hybrid vigor in this important food staple -- a discovery with profound implications for promoting the science of plant breeding for the benefit of humankind."
"I am delighted by the award made to Steve Tanksley by the Wolf Foundation," said Robert Richardson, vice provost for research at Cornell and a winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in physics. "The Wolf Prize is one of the most important medals a scientist can receive. The recognition of Steve for the work he has done at Cornell brings great credit to us and enhances our reputation in plant genetics as one of the great research centers of the world."
The award will be presented by Moshe Katsav, president of the State of Israel, at the Knesset (parliament) in Jerusalem, May 9.
A Crop of Good Sense
- Richard Gallagher (Editor), The Scientist, Vol. 18, No.3, Feb. 16, 2004
This issue illustrates the breadth and dynamism of plant science. In the Technology section, we focus on a series of dazzling genome initiatives that have transformed the field (see Toward a Clickable Plant). The Research section includes a story on the striking similarities between the innate immune mechanisms of plants and animals; another on the structure of a molecular complex at the heart of photosynthesis; and a third on the catastrophic impact of recent wildfires on forest ecosystems (see Same Tools, Different Boxes, A New Resolution for Photosystem II, and Once the Fire's Out, respectively). Our First Person interview is with geneticist Steve A. Kay.
Of course, the aspect of plant science most visible to the outside world, and perhaps most frustrating to insiders, concerns genetically modified
(GM) crops. The latest move from the research community is a letter (1) signed by 150 internationally known scientists and addressed to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, urging him to recognize "the positive impact that biotechnology is contributing to conventional agricultural practices in many parts of the world."
Prior to publishing this issue, we polled readers of The Scientist about their feelings regarding GM crops (see Snapshot - Voices on GMOs http://www.the-scientist.com/yr2004/feb/upfront2_040216.html). One reason for doing so was to test the mantra of the pro-GM lobby, namely, that informed people would favor the seeds' creation and use: We consider our readers to be well informed. A second reason was the intriguing straw poll conducted by another publication, Genetic Engineering News, in which 72% of respondents felt that farmers who purchase GM seeds should not be allowed to save seeds from their harvest for replanting. (2 )
Our faith in our readers' good sense was vindicated. Less than one in 10 felt that GM crops should not be used at all, but 60% opted for strict control. One respondent summed up the general feeling with this comment: "With appropriate safeguards, GM plants speed up the process and help us to deal with ongoing pest problems more quickly and perhaps more effectively."
The responses, pragmatic and evidence-driven, carry the hallmarks of the scientific approach. Compare and contrast this with the quarrelsome fashion in which the pros and cons are presented to the public. It is, to quote another reader, a "debate so polarized that it is difficult to draw impartial and valid conclusions."
The major concern in our poll, environmental disruption, may be overcome in part by the technology described in the Patent Watch article. (The spread of transgenes by pollen is avoided by genetic engineering of the chloroplast genome.)
Ethical and health concerns were not rated as serious misgivings.
We agree with our readers. Studies to date have shown that GM crops have a net positive impact on yield and on pesticide-use reduction, and future developments should enhance environmental friendliness. However, consideration of public fears is essential, as is some serious thinking about commercialization methods.
Speaking about commerce, this is one area in which our readers differed with their counterparts at GEN: Assigning the means of food production to a few large corporations sounded a warning bell to our respondents. Said
one: "The overarching issue is really one of ownership of the food chain." And another: "The worst aspect [of GM crops] is that it solidifies agribusiness' control over agriculture." A final opinion sums it up
nicely: "The [ag]biotech industry does not need enemies. It is its own worst enemy."
Richard Gallagher, editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)
References 1. http://www.agbioworld.org/openletterUK.html 2. Genetic Engineering News, 24:1, Jan. 1, 2004.
Self-Containment for GM Plants
- Ivan Oransky, The Scientist, Vol. 18, No.3, Feb. 16, 2004
Genetically engineered plants pose several major environmental concerns, according to Henry Daniell, a professor of molecular biology and microbiology at the University of Central Florida. When foreign genes are introduced into the nuclear genome, they end up in pollen, posing the risk of transfer to other species. And sometimes, expression levels are low.
Daniell and colleagues have come up with what he says is a solution: chloroplast genetic engineering. The method--the recipient of several patents, most recently US #6,680,426--offers two benefits, says Daniell. First, like mitochondria, chloroplast genes are maternal and therefore not passed through pollen. And because each cell has 10,000 copies of the chloroplast genome, expression levels are generally high. "This is absolutely a beautiful system," he says.
The transgene construct is de- signed to minimize disruption of the chloroplast genome. The gene to be inserted is put under the control of chloroplast regulatory signals so that errant transgenes won't express in the nucleus, Daniell says. Those that do hit their mark in the chloroplasts integrate via homologous recombination into a non-coding spacer region, where, Daniell says, "they won't disrupt anything else." Gene delivery is achieved via a biolisitic "gene gun."
From there, it's typical transgenic manipulation--selection of cells that have modified chloroplasts, followed by testing the construct's maternal inheritance. Daniell has founded a company, Chlorogen, to license the method.
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New Site Sheds Light on Biotechnology
- Patricia Daukantas, Newsbytes News Network, Feb 18, 2004, http://www.gcn.com
A new State Department-funded Web site brings together agricultural biotechnology regulations from three federal agencies.
The site, http://usbiotechreg.nbii.gov, is intended as a "one-stop shop for people who are interested in regulation of biotechnology," said Megan Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
APHIS is one of the participating agencies in the new biotech Web site, along with the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. These three agencies share responsibility for regulating agricultural biotechnology in the United States, as the new Web site's frequently asked questions state.
At the heart of the new Web site is a database of regulatory-agency reviews of genetically modified crop plants. Users can search by product name, scientific name, applicant name, and engineered traits such as pest resistance, events or keywords. The database draws some of its information from an APHIS application called the USDA Field Release Database, Thomas said. The Field Release Database displays the status of applications to import, move or test genetically engineered organisms and petitions to deregulate such organisms.
Other sections of the Web site provide explanations of the roles of the three agencies in biotechnology governance and links to texts of relevant legislation. The Agricultural Biotechnology Support Fund of the State Department's Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs provided funding for the Web site, which went live last Friday.
U. S. Regulatory Agencies Unified Biotechnology Website
The Federal Government of the United States of America has a coordinated, risk-based system to ensure new biotechnology products are safe for the environment and human and animal health. Established as a formal policy in 1986, the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnologydescribes the Federal system for evaluating products developed using modern biotechnology. The Coordinated Framework is based upon health and safety laws developed to address specific product classes. The U.S. Government has written new regulations, policies and guidance to implement these laws for biotechnology as products developed. This framework has allowed the United States to build upon agency experience with organisms and products developed using conventional techniques.
This website focuses on the agricultural products of modern biotechnology. At this time, the searchable database available on this site only covers genetically engineered crop plants intended for food or feed that have completed all recommended or required reviews for food, feed or planting use in the United States.
The U.S. Government agencies responsible for oversight of the products of agricultural modern biotechnology are the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Health and Human Services' Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Depending on its characteristics, a product may be subject to review by one or more of these agencies.
Is Golden Rice the crop to prove GM's worth?
- Reuters, By Nao Nakanishi, February 20, 2004
It will still take years, if it ever happens, before genetically modified
(GM) Golden Rice reaches the millions of children threatened with blindness or premature death due to vitamin A deficiency.
Yet scientists have not lost hope that transgenic Golden Rice, enriched with vitamin A, may prove one day that the controversial biotechnology can help feed the poor and needy if applied with caution and care.
More and more farmers, seeking lower production costs, are planting insect-resistant or herbicide-tolerant GM soy, corn or cotton. But not all consumers are convinced that such products are safe for the environment or people.
Opposing activists have dubbed such crops "Frankenstein food".
Some have also voiced doubts that the technology is really being used for meeting human challenges, such as hunger or water shortages, rather than just to maximise industry profits.
"GM food cannot eradicate hunger," said Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy specialist in India who is fighting to bar the introduction of transgenic crops into the country.
"It is not the question of production, but the distribution and access...Food is rotting in front of the people as they cannot afford it," he told Reuters from Mumbai.
Next week, signatories of the UN Cartagena Protocol, which aims for transparency in trade in GM organisms, will meet in Malaysia to discuss how to implement the protocol.
No GM rice is yet on the market, possibly because it has not been a leading subject in expensive bio-research.
Although it helps feed almost half the world's population, rice, grown largely by small farmers in Asia, has slipped off the priority lists of many private researchers.
Asked why Monsanto Co (MIN.N) was not developing GM rice, the US-based biotech giant said: "Several years ago, Monsanto decided to focus its efforts on several core crops — corn, soybeans/oilseeds, cotton and wheat."
"We made a conscious decision to focus our efforts, as it made good business sense to do so," the company said in an e-mailed reply to questions.
CHINA LEADS IN GM RICE
Scientists say China leads in development of GM rice after pumping in huge sums of government funds into plant biotechnology to improve national food security. Some say it is developing the largest research capacity outside of North America.
The country is already conducting large-scale field trials on insect- and disease-resistant rice in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, they say.
Still, Beijing has put off commercialisation of the GM rice due to rising safety concerns.
"China may approve the GM rice," said Dayuan Xue, a professor at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences, who also works for the State Environmental Protection Administration of China.
"(But) I think it will take at least another three years," he told Reuters, adding that Beijing had demanded more safety tests for both the food and the environment.
For example, farmers in China and elsewhere grow BT cotton, a GM crop that is toxic to insects that attack it. But Xue said
the crop might encourage successive generations of the insects to become more resistant to poisons, making the problem worse.
He added that, while farmers benefited from BT cotton, which requires less pesticide against bollworms, the benefits were not necessarily large in some areas suffering from other pests.
Scientists say that, while most GM crops commercialised so far were engineered to cut production costs, the next generation of transgenic crops, such as Golden Rice, would benefit consumers directly.
"The second generation is beginning now," said Samuel Sun, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who runs a joint project with China on rice that contains more lysine, one of the essential amino acids that the human body cannot make.
"This is harder to do. More genes are involved," said the biologist. "For the first-generation products, such as insect resistance, one gene would do."
Golden Rice — which is a yellowish grain with beta-carotene, a substance that human bodies convert to vitamin A — includes three new genes, including two from daffodil and a bacterium.
While GM critics have said the vitamin A content in Golden Rice is too small, others say any addition could make a difference to about 125 million children suffering from serious deficiency.
Scientists have successfully raised the vitamin A content since the invention of Golden Rice in 2001.
Swapan Datta, a scientist working on Golden Rice at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, told Reuters IRRI would start field trials this year. It also planned tests on whether the vitamin A can be absorbed by the body.
Yet even if everything goes well, Datta and other scientists say, it will take at least another four to six years before Golden Rice makes it to the market.
Scientists say Golden Rice, if successful, would also become a model for cooperation between public and private sectors in pursuit of human welfare.
Inventors Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer are claiming no property rights in Golden Rice. Neither are the companies whose technology they used to devise it, such as Monsanto, Syngenta AG (SYNN.VX) and Bayer AG (BAYG.AG).
"This is one of the best examples that the private sector and the public institutions can work together," said IRRI's Datta.
"If this project becomes successful, I believe in future many private sector (scientists) could be more interested in developing those technologies that can go to the people in developing countries."
In fact, some scientists and industry officials say that is already happening. The outcry from GM critics has also encouraged the private sector to do more to win consumer support.
"I think things are changing," said Andrew Powell, an independent bio-consultant based in Singapore. "We see more and more partnerships between public research institutes and private sector companies."
A call for grants from USAID
- February 20, 2004, Crop Biotech Update, www.isaaa.org/kc
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has issued a call for grant applications for research projects on the effects of agricultural biotechnology on biodiversity in developing countries. The projects will be funded through USAID's Biotechnology Biodiversity Interface (BBI) program. According to the press release issued by the USAID, genetically modified (GM) crops, livestock, and fish have potential benefits, however the safety concerns and their supposed effects on human health and biodiversity are also major issues that should be addressed.
Further, the USAID stressed that although GM food safety studies conducted in the USA, Europe, and other developing countries are being conducted, studies on the interaction between the environment and GM crops should b e dealt with on a case-to case basis since different countries have varied crop systems and species with which crops interact with.
In line with this, the BBI program is giving grants for research on:
* GM crop and animal outcrossing and other unintended environmental effects;
* Risk assessment, risk management, and post-commercialization monitoring for GM crops and animals; and
* Possible risks associated with animal vaccines
The program is a component of USAID's Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS), and is part of a broader effort "to support science-based decision-making and policy development." Grants, amounting to US$1.3 million, will be awarded for three- to four-year-long research programs. Grant proposals will be accepted until April 15, 2004.
For more information about USAIDE28099s activities, visit their website at http://www.usaid.gov/.
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