Today in AgBioView: February 18, 2004
* African AgBiotech Calendar of Events
* Bt seed helps ryots increase yield
* End to GM ban imminent?
* EU to study Monsanto request to import GM maize
* Biotechnology and Conservation Tillage Improve Bird Habitat
* Rival factions compete to control powerful Sierra Club
IYR) Event, 23rd Session of FAO African Regional Conference March 1-5, 2004; Johannesburg, South Africa
The International Year of Rice promotes improved production and access to this vital food crop, which feeds more than half the world’s population while providing income for millions of rice producers, processors and traders. More info: http://www.fao.org/rice2004/en/calendar.htm
Biotech, the Public and the Media - Towards Informed Decision Making March 2004 9-10; University of Pretoria
A "working conference" with an emphasis on disseminating cutting edge-biotechnology information and promoting informed debate on different aspects on biotechnology, this conference aims at building the interface between biotechnology and society through the media in South Africa. More info: http://www.pub.ac.za/events/bpm_conference.html
International Federation of Agricultural Journalists - Annual Congress March 12-20, 2004; South Africa The theme for our congress is: “Hope for the Millennium” and no continent needs this more than Africa, which has about 50 million people on the verge of starvation. We believe the world press needs to know more about what modern agriculture can do to solve Africa’s pervading problems of starvation and poverty. More info: http://www.ifaj.org/index.html
Assuring Food And Nutrition Security In Africa By 2020
April 1-3, 2004; Kampala, Uganda
This all-Africa conference will bring together the traditional and new actors and stakeholders to deliberate on how to bring about change and action to assure food and nutrition security. More info: http://www.ifpri.org/2020AfricaConference/index.htm
Bt seed helps ryots increase yield
- The Hindu, Feb 16, 2004
Cotton cultivation is likely to pick up in the coming years with Bt (Bacillus thurangiences) hybrids are able to reduce the cost on pesticides drastically. Farmers, who cultivated Bt hybrid varieties, have said they could save 60 to 70 per cent of the cost on pesticides while the yield has gone up by 20 per cent. Also, Bt hybrids could reduce the crop duration by 10 days as healthy and undamaged plants could bear flowers and fruit early.
Bollworm is a major pest, which accounts for about 60 per cent cost of pest management in cotton. Bt hybrids could successfully keep the bollworm at bay for 100 days by which time most of the fruit is set. However, the cost of Bt hybrids have been hurting farmers seriously. While the non-Bt type seed is being sold at Rs. 400 per 450 grams, Bt hybrids are priced at Rs. 1,600. Another major handicap is that the companies which brought the rights to produce Bt hybrids have no popular varieties with them.
In the last two years, the yield from Bt hybrids was no different from non-Bt hybrids. Except saving on the pesticide cost, Bt hybrid cultivators found nothing encouraging. However, some of the small-time seed players who could inject Bt strains into their hybrid varieties produced the best result. Farmers, who cultivated the unauthorised Bt hybrid varieties, have noticed the striking difference and there was great demand for such seed in the market.
In Gujarat, the unauthorised Bt hybrid varieties occupied a large area, as the Government did not interfere with the process. The cotton yield went up dramatically in the state this year. Cotton seed producers here have said it is time that Andhra Pradesh too adopted Bt technology to increase productivity and reduce the cost of cultivation. The seed producers were willing to buy the rights from the patent holders if the cost is reasonable. However, the patent holders demanded 70 per cent share in the profit. The seed producers have said the Government should interfere and negotiate a reasonable settlement between them and patent holders. Or the Government itself should buy the right and offer it to seed producers in the larger interest of farmers. The stalemate is likely to lead to production of Bt hybrids unofficially. Since the seed producers without proper rights could not make a claim for bollworm resistant variety openly, many unscrupulous elements are likely to sell spurious seed to cash in on the craze among farmers for Bt hybrids.
End to GM ban imminent?
- FoodProductionDailye.com, 18/02/2004
European scientists will meet today to decide the fate of a genetically modified corn developed by US biotech giant Monsanto. A positive outcome from the committee would end Europe’s five year ban on GM crops, attacked by a host of countries most notably the US as an illegal barrier to trade.
Meeting under the aegis of the Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstroem, the committee on the dissemination of GMOs in the environment will examine Monsanto's request to import into the European bloc its NK 603 variety of maize, which is resistant to the fertiliser Roundup.
While the European consumer continues to voice opposition to GM foods and crops, the Commission is under pressure to lift the illegal, de facto moratorium. The US, along with a handful of countries, last year took the EU to a World Trade Organisation dispute panel, claiming the ban was against trade rules.
Since 1998 the EU has introduced new regulations to improve the approvals process, tighten GM food labelling and traceability, and has established the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In December 2003 the EFSA issued a positive opinion after its scientists peformed a risk assessment for the GM maize in December 2003.
The Commission believes that creating a structure of tough new GM rules has effectively cleared the way to moving forward on the issue.
« Clear labelling rules allow farmers to choose what to plant and consumers to choose what to buy. It is only logical that this safe system continues to be applied in practice and that the EU moves ahead with pending authorisations," said Commission President Romano Prodi last month.
But all are not in agreement. Environmental campaigners in particular have voiced their concerns. Friends of the Earth this week criticised the Commission for pushing ahead with the autorisation of NK 603 before the new GM labelling rules come into force in April. "It is irresponsible and premature to give this maize the go-ahead before the new GM labelling laws come into force and the serious safety concerns are fully investigated. The FSA [Food Standards Agency] must now look at the gaps in the safety studies, listen to consumers and reject this GM maize," said GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow.
Observers maintain that the defining moment for GM foods acceptance in Europe is not today, but at some future date when Europe takes the decision on the planting of GM crops. The committee decision this afteroon relates to the import of the food crop, not production.
Monsanto’s NK603 line of maize was developed to allow the use of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, also produced by Monsanto, as a weed control option.
The NK 603 maize was cleared for crop production in the US in 2000 and in Japan and Canada in 2001. All these countries allow its use in human food and animal feed. Australia joined the club in 2002 when it cleared the way for NK 603 use in food, although it is still banned in animal feed and crop production.
Non-GM maize, or corn, is grown commercially in over 100 countries, with a combined global harvest of 590 million metric tonnes. The major producers of maize in 2000 were the US, China, Brazil, Mexico, France, and Argentina. Maize is grown primarily for its kernel, which is largely refined into products used in a wide range of food, medical, and industrial goods.
Only a small amount of whole maize kernel is consumed by humans. Maize oil is extracted from the germ of the maize kernel and maize is also a raw material in the manufacture of starch. A complex refining process converts the majority of this starch into sweeteners, syrups and fermentation products, including ethanol.
Refined maize products, sweeteners, starch, and oil are abundant in processed foods such as breakfast cereals, dairy goods, and chewing gum.
EU to study Monsanto request to import GM maize
- AFP, Feb 16, 2004
European Union scientists are due on Wednesday to consider a request by US biotech giant Monsanto to be allowed to import a genetically modified (GM) strain of maize into the 15-nation bloc.
There is little chance of the request being approved at the moment, since it would effectively end the EU's four-year ban on genetically engineered crops.
The EU ban, introduced because of concerns over the potential dangers to health and the environment of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), has angered the EU's trading partners, in particular the United States, which is challenging it before the World Trade Organisation. Monsanto said in October 2003 it was pulling out of the European seed cereal business.
The EU's committee on the dissemination of GMOs in the environment will on Wednesday examine Monsanto's request to import into the bloc its NK 603 variety of maize, which is resistant to the fertiliser Roundup, also developed and marketed by the US agri-food giant.
Although Monsanto had not asked for authorisation to plant the maize in the EU, a spokeswoman for the European Commission -- the bloc's executive branch -- said there were fears it could be put to this use.
"It's a GMO that is imported for processing and could in theory be used as a seed," said Ewa Hedlund, spokeswoman for Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstroem.
Since NK 603 is intended for use in animal feed, it would also need the approval of the EU's committee of foodstuffs experts before it could be imported.
In December the foodstuffs experts, who represent the EU's 15 member states, failed to agree whether to allow Swiss agri-food company Syngenta to put its GM maize BT 11 on the EU market.
That request has now been sent on to EU ministers, who are expected to examine it in the spring. If the demand fails to win the support of a qualified majority of member states, the Commission, which tends to favour such authorisations, will decide.
On Monday environmental groups Greenpeace, Friends fo the Earth and the European Environmental Bureau urged the EU states to reject the request, saying there had been no research on the product's long-term effects on health.
For the Birds: How Biotechnology and Conservation Tillage Improve Bird Habitat Wildlife biologist sees link between biotech fields and bird population increases.
- Council for Biotechnology Information
Biotechnology is helping to create better habitat for bird species that live in and around cropland, say experts who've studied the connection between crop production and its effect on the environment.
Since biotech cotton came on the market in 1996, songbird populations that frequent habitats around cotton fields have grown 20 percent in Arizona, 37 percent in Mississippi, 34 percent in Alabama and 10 percent in Texas, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.1
While there is no hard data to confirm the specific link between biotech farming and increased songbird and ground-nesting bird populations, Jim Byford, dean of the University of Tennessee–Martin's College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences who has a Ph.D. in wildlife biology, says he has "no doubt" that the two are directly linked.
"With the GMO cotton, we don't need to spray much at all," said Byford, who grew up on a Tennessee cotton farm and still hunts in areas alongside cotton fields. "That has meant more insects that birds of all kinds use for food."
Specifically, Byford says he has seen an increase in brown thrashers, indigo buntings, towhees and song sparrows in the low-lying brush that is typically found on ditch banks and other areas alongside cotton fields.
But he believes quail and other birds are actually nesting in cotton fields — something he never witnessed as a child and rarely before biotech cotton was introduced in 1996.
That's because farmers who plant biotech crops, particularly soybeans and cotton, are more likely to practice conservation tillage, an environmentally friendly farming method where farmers plow less and leave more crop residue, grasses and weeds on the ground for wildlife — like quail and pheasants — to nest in.
In its "greenest" form, called no-till, soil is left virtually undisturbed from harvest to planting. There's been a 35 percent increase in no-till acres in the U.S. since 1996, according to a study by the Indiana-based Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) that "strongly supports the conclusion that these crops developed through plant biotechnology are facilitating the continued expansion of conservation tillage, especially no-till." Roughly 75 percent of no-till soybean acres, and 86 percent of no-till cotton acres, are planted with biotech varieties.2
"There are definitely more birds on the periphery of these fields," said Byford. "There are just innumerable advantages to GMO crops."
Bob Janssen, a consultant with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, agrees that conservation tillage can help prevent the creation of more "black deserts" — plowed agricultural fields that have been stripped bare of the nourishment and cover that birds need.
"By plowing and spraying less, retaining crop residue plus taking other steps like preserving wetlands, farmers can have a greater positive impact on bird populations than anyone," Janssen says.
For ground-nesting birds like the meadowlark, quail and pheasant, no-till farmland provides:
* Nesting material. These birds weave homes from grasses, crop residues and other material that are not available in a plowed field. Plowing and mowing destroy those nests that are built, since meadowlarks nest in the farming months of June and July. "Conservation tillage practices which reduce surface disturbance during the nesting and brood-rearing period unquestionably save many nests [and] chicks," concluded Ralph Dimmick and William Minser in their study, Wildlife Benefits from Conservation Tillage.3
* Protective cover. Crop mulch helps protect these birds from predators.
* Food supply. Because biotech crops such as Bt cotton — enhanced with a naturally occurring soil bacterium that wards off insect pests — require less spraying, birds in and around these fields have more grasshoppers, caterpillars and other insects to feed on.
* In no-till fields, for example, quail need just 4.2 hours to find and eat the insects necessary for survival — less than one-fifth the time it takes to obtain the same number of insects in a conventional-till field, according to the CTIC.4
While half of all bird species currently are in decline, "birds generally are very resilient," says Janssen. The best news may be that as biotech plantings continue to increase, farmers have a growing opportunity to protect birds as well as other wildlife.
The CTIC's study, for example, noted that while there are currently 55 million no-till acres in the U.S. (an area the size of Illinois and Indiana), an additional 100 million acres of biotech corn, cotton and soybeans could use this environmentally beneficial, bird-friendly approach to agriculture.5
“When you combine biotechnology with increased habitat from conservation provisions of the new farm bill, the outlook for birds in farmland habitat is optimistic,” says Byford.
1 Byford, Jim. "GMO Systems Good for Wildlife," Southeast Farm Press, December 18, 2002, <www.biotechknowledge.com/BIOTECH/knowcenter.nsf/ ID/22847FA28E7BD0E186256CBD007953C1?OpenDocument>.
2 "Conservation Tillage and Plant Biotechnology: How New Technologies Can Improve the Environment by Reducing the Need to Plow," Conservation Tillage Information Center, February 23, 2002, press release and study, <www.ctic.purdue.edu/CTIC/Biotech.html>.
3 Dimmick, Ralph, and William Minser, "Wildlife Benefits From Conservation Tillage," Southern Conservation Tillage Conference for Sustainable Agriculture, 1988, <http://www.ag.auburn.edu/nsdl/sctcsa/Proceedings/1988/Dimmick.pdf>.
4 "Conservation Tillage and Plant Biotechnology: How New Technologies Can Improve the Environment by Reducing the Need to Plow," Conservation Tillage Information Center, February 23, 2002, press release and study, <www.ctic.purdue.edu/CTIC/Biotech.html>.
5 "Conservation Tillage and Plant Biotechnology: How New Technologies Can Improve the Environment By Reducing the Need to Plow," Conservation Tillage Information Center, February 23, 2002, press release and study, <www.ctic.purdue.edu/CTIC/Biotech.html>.
Rival factions compete to control powerful Sierra Club
- Associated Press, Feb 18, 2004
A fierce battle is brewing over the future of the Sierra Club, and an unlikely issue is at the center of the debate: immigration.
A growing faction in the nation's most influential environmental group has urged a stronger stance against immigration, calling the growing U.S. population and its consumption of natural resources the biggest threat to the environment.
Past and present Sierra Club leaders say the anti-immigrant faction has teamed up with animal-rights activists in an attempt to hijack the 112-year-old organization and its $100 million annual budget.
"At stake is really the heart and soul of the organization," said Adam Werbach, the club's president from 1996-98. "It's a sad attempt by a very small special-interest group to take over the entire Sierra Club organization."
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