Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - April 18, 2004:
* Nobel Prize Winner Speaks with Iowa Quad City Leaders
* Swaminathan: 'Good' GM Seeds Have Place In World
* Genetically Engineered Rice Would Be A Valuable Addition to Agriculture in India
* ... Should India Cultivate GM Rice?
* Potential Worries From Crop-Weed Hybrids
* EU's New Rules Will Shake Up Market for Bioengineered Food
Nobel Prize Winner Speaks with Q-C Leaders
- Thomas Geyer, Quad City Times (Iowa), April 16, 2004
Seeing people rioting over jobs and food and begging for nickels on the streets of Minneapolis to buy bread during The Great Depression deeply affected Cresco, Iowa, native Norman Borlaug. That was in 1933 when he was heading to college at the University of Minnesota. "Being from a rural area, I'd never seen anything like that before," he said Friday night in the Quad-Cities. "People were going hungry. That left a big impression on me."
It also directed his life in ways he could not have imagined. Instead, for the past 60 years, Borlaug has either been conducting cutting-edge research to produce hardier and more prolific strains of food plants or has led or promoted other researchers and scientists in the production of those plants. Just as important has been his work in convincing political leaders to bring such agricultural advances to fruition and get them in the field.
His work has taken him from Mexico and Latin America to the Asian and African continents. It was Borlaug who almost single handedly started what is known today as the "Green Revolution," and in the process taught much of the world how to feed itself, beginning with strains of hardy wheat he developed while working in Mexico for the Rockefeller Foundation.
Through his research, he is credited with saving the lives of 1 billion people. For that, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. On top of saving lives, his work has improved the lives of another billion or so people around the world.
His travels to the poorest countries of the world have taught him a very valuable lesson. "Where there is hunger and misery, the seeds of terrorism take root," Borlaug said during a presentation at Deere & Co. headquarters in Moline.
Speaking to about 75 Quad-City business and community leaders, he explained how better agricultural techniques and the prosperity it engendered in places like Vietnam and Cambodia left insurgents in those countries with no recruits. "In Cambodia, we did what the Vietnamese could not," he said. "We wiped out the Khmer Rouge, a terrorist faction."
His passion for feeding the world remains as strong today at age 90 as when he first began. "Seeing misery and hunger and poverty in third world countries makes me angry," he said. "That's why I keep going." Seeing all the misery that continues in the world, Borlaug said he becomes angry with those environmentalists whose lack of vision leads them to protest the use of bio-tech wheat, corn, rice and soybeans and good fertilizers.
"There is no good evidence after all these years that bio-tech and genetically modified products are harmful in any way to humans or animals," he said. In fact, he added, given the healthy proteins in the genetically modified products, arguments against their use are specious.
In Africa, one of the real problem areas of the world, a place where people literally are starving to death daily, Borlaug said that without the use of chemical fertilizers, the chances of that continent being able to grow self-sustaining food sources are virtually nil. "The use of fertilizer nutrients in Africa is very low," he said. That is not the case in places around the world that are growing their own plentiful supplies of food, he added.
"People talk about the potential of the sub-Sahara region of Africa," he said. "Yes, the potential is there. But you can't eat potential."
And there is a danger in always searching for unobtainable perfection instead of getting the technology to the fields, the food grown and the people fed, he said. "There are 870 million illiterate adults in the world," he said. "There are 120 million primary-age children not in school. The way to defeat poverty and misery is through education and providing people the tools to grow their own food."
Quoting a fellow Nobel laureate, Borlaug said, "You cannot build peace on empty stomachs. To that I add 'human misery.' That's the world I've lived in for 60 years."
Swaminathan: 'Good' GM Seeds Have Place In World
Even in late March, the mid–day heat in subtropical Chennai, formerly called Madras, hovers near a Las Vegas--like 100 degrees. As our big bus bounces on a pot–holed street that hasn't seen repair since the first Gandhi, India's ever–present Brahma cows nose through the ever–present trash along the road.
We jostle to a stop. On one side sits an abandoned factory surrounded by walls topped with shards of flesh--cutting glass shimmering in the glaring sun. On the other side, a square of shaded, low buildings beckon. We enter it to find a courtyard oasis -- tumbling water, green plants, swaying trees -- that dampens the heat by 20 degrees.
A small, brown man in a dark, open-collar shirt steps briskly toward us. He is Dr. Monkombu Swaminathan and he welcomes us to the agricultural research foundation he established 16 years ago. This is "an investment in the livelihood of the poor," he explains as we stroll the perimeter of the center garden, "to mobilize the best technology to the reach the poorest of the poor. It is pro-nature, pro-women and pro-poor."
Swaminathan is India's Norman Borlaug, the Iowa farmboy who became the father of the then-Third World's Green Revolution. Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was the scientific pile driver that developed new wheat and rice varieties which quickly quadrupled food production in the 1960s throughout hungry Asia and Latin America.
If Borlaug was the way, Swaminathan was the means. As a young geneticist, he used Borlaug's new seeds to turn India's centuries–empty begging bowl into an overflowing breadbasket almost overnight. That pivotal role earned him the first World Food Prize, an award initiated by Borlaug, in 1987. A year later, Swaminathan used the Prize's $250,000 as seed to plant the research center in whose cool shade we now stand.
The center has a simple, ambitious goal: to harness science and technology "for an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable" job–led economic growth of India's rural areas. An overarching theme is "people first, technology second," Swaminathan stresses. It is a natural progression on the intellectual trip Swaminathan began 40 years ago. Green Revolution then, Ever-Green Revolution now.
Science -- plant breeding -- then; science -- genetically modified organisms, GMOs -- now.
At first blush, GM seed technology appears incongruent with his sustainable, pro–nature, pro–women, pro–poor ag research philosophy. Not at all, Swaminathan says. India does have concerns with GMOs, he explains: food safety, intellectual property rights and "will the technology increase the rich--poor divide." In these contexts, "Technologies that compound social problems are not needed," he explains.
So there's a dividing line somewhere -- on one side, GMOs are welcome; on the other, they're not?
"Yes," he explains. "Bt cotton is good; Roundup Ready soy is not so good." Bt cotton is welcome because is it a sustainable, natural technology that addresses India's insecticide--soaked cotton shortage which, in turn, could fuel the rise of a rural textile industry. GM soy, however, is not as good because it replaces wage--earning, female weed pickers with more chemicals. Indeed, GM seeds that do not "make an investment in the livelihoods of the poor" are unwelcome.
To emphasize the divide, Swaminathan squires us into one of the foundation's labs where researchers isolated the gene that allows mangrove trees to thrive in salt marshes. The gene then was introduced to rice because he believes salt–tolerant crops will play an increasingly important role as global warming impacts developing nations' future food supplies. In short, a good GMO. If aware of these good/bad distinctions, global biotech companies aren't addressing them. They see GM sees as always--green, and they are pushing for the right to protect their patents and sell the seeds across the developing world.
The shoving won't help because "one size does not fit all," warns Swaminathan. The nation, he has written, like much of the developing world, is positioned "to move forward with biotechnology," but it will do so on its own terms. It's a very sensible approach from a very sensible, almost saintly, scientist.
Genetically Engineered Rice Would Be A Valuable Addition to Agriculture in India
- C Kameswara Rao, , Special to AgBioView, April 18, 2004. http://www.agbioworld.org/
'Should India Cultivate GM Rice?', by Dr. Suman Sahai (The Hindu, April 5, 2004; See below), is the source of inspiration to present here certain basic facts of science relating to the points she raised, so that the general readers are not needlessly alarmed by what she wrote.
In the International Year of Rice, it should be our responsibility to promote qualitative and quantitative improvement of this staple crop to ensure nutritional and food security for the entire rice eating population of the world, mainly in the developing countries. This is not likely to happen if basic facts of science are a) ignored, b) used out of the context, c) mixed up with issues of management, sociology, economics and politics and d) issues of crop husbandry are not analyzed objectively. It is incumbent upon all of us to place the relevant facts of science before the general public, so that the safety or otherwise of technologies is understood in the proper perspective, to pave way to identify and adopt appropriate technologies by free choice, for benefit of both the farmer
and the consumer. Rice needs all the modern scientific and technological
interventions it can get for its improvement in quality and productivity.
1. Transgenes for rice:
Currently, genes for the following traits are being sought to be incorporated into rice through genetic engineering: a) Pest and disease
resistance: stem borer (some transgenic varieties are tissue specific), brown plant hopper, gall midge, stripe virus, blasts, sheath blight and bacterial leaf spot; b) Abiotic stress: salt, drought, and flood tolerance. c) Herbicide resistance; d) Nutritional enhancement: beta-carotene (from daffodil and Erwinia), iron (ferritin from Phaseolus vulgaris), and zinc, human milk proteins (human lactoferrin, lysozyme and alpha-anti-trypsin), and e) enhancing bioavailability of non-haem iron and
zinc: lowering phytic acid levels, increasing phytase levels (thermo-tolerant phytase gene from Aspergillus fumigatus), enhancing the levels of promoter compounds (lysine cysteine and methionine).
These traits have a high potential in enhancing the utility of rice in many directions and mitigating the nutritional imbalances in millions in the developing countries. They would be a value addition to rice.
Several private and public research organizations both within and outside India are involved in producing varieties of rice with these traits through genetic engineering. With the exception of Golden Rice (with genes for beta-carotene), none of the others are likely to be ready for
commercial cultivation in this decade. It is difficult to understand as
to what is wrong with these objectives. Is it possible to achieve any of this through conventional breeding techniques?
There are some genuine human safety concerns associated with pharma GM plants and rice is one such crop that should not be converted into a
pharmacy. Recently, the State of California denied permission to grow GM
pharma rice. Segregation of pharma GM rice in developing countries would
be a difficult task. The pharmaceutical industry must take this issue
seriously and desist from developing pharma GM plant products, until failsafe biosafety mechanisms are established.
2. Bt genes in rice:
Rice stem borer is among the major constraints of rice production. Bt Cry genes are being used to develop pest resistant rice. The bacterium Bacillus thuringinesis, the source of pesticidal crystal-like proteins, is known for over a century and used for over 60 years as a pesticide, and has not so far shown any adverse effects either to the recipient species or the environment. Safety of Bt to non-target organisms has been adequately demonstrated, even before the cultivation of Bt transgenic crops. The much-repeated toxicity to the Monarch butterflies has been restudied and was shown that the earlier data were deficient.
Human volunteers were exposed to oral ingestion and inhalation of Bt
spores and no ill effects were discovered. Six or seven years ago, Bt
kurstaki was applied as aerial spray over Vancouver and Ontario to control the Asian gypsy moth and over Auckland to control the White-spotted tussock moth, without any reported adverse health effects to the human inhabitants. There is no other naturally occurring toxin/protein whose
properties have been studied more thoroughly than Bt toxin. Yet,
pronouncements on its alleged adverse effects and its efficacy in pest management continue to be raised, scaring the public.
The proposal that deployment of Bt proteins through transgenics should be a part of Integrated Pest Management schedules has already made headway in India.
3. Bt Cry9c gene:
The protein coded by Bt Cry9c has been clearly shown to be non-allergenic. The USDA gave an unconditional non-regulatory status to StarLink maize, but it was the US-EPA that accorded only a conditional registration, a restriction that was lifted when Cry9c was established to be non-allergenic. Seventeen cases of reported allergen reactions form eating StarLink were thoroughly investigated by Center for Disease Control
(CDC) in Atlanta, USA, and only one of them showed any antibodies in the blood serum of the affected.
If allergenicity should be the basis to ban food items, we have to ban cultivation of groundnut, some varieties of rice and also stop producing eggs, fish and even milk.
Some years ago, two private companies secured Government of India's permission to obtain Cry9c gene from Belgium, but the permit was not utilized. So far, there is no publicly acknowledged research and development work involving Cry9c in India. There is no adverse health issue associated with Cry9c and invoking this issue repeatedly is mischievous.
4. Conservation of rice genetic diversity:
The issue of India being a Centre of Origin and Centre of Diversity of rice has been discussed recently (AgBioView, April 13, 2004,
http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech_info/articles/origin.html) and Rice, The Cambridge World History of Food (2000), Vol. I Eds: Kenneth F. Kiple and Kiemhild Conee Ornelas, Cambrdge University Press). With some close monitoring in the initial years of introduction of transgenic varieties of rice into cultivation, the risk, if any can be identified and managed.
The impulse to call again and again for a ban on the introduction of GE rice must be curbed, as it is alarmist and is devoid of scientific rationale.
The statement that the greatest number of rice and related genes (whatever this means) are found in India is touching and strikes an emotional chord. But we only get rhetoric and not solid data on this issue. Of an estimated 100,000 varieties and land races of rice in the world, one guesstimate is that there are 250 major varieties in India while another
puts it at 4,000. I do not know where the late Dr Richharia's reported
collection of 30,000 (?) varieties of rice, as estimated by some activists, fits in.
There are certainly some fascinating varieties of rice in India that need
critical study for conservation. Pokkali grown in brackish waters in the
Cochin area, is moderately salt tolerant and adjusts with the raising and falling level of water, due to its long inter-noded culms. The black glumed Njavara, with recognized therapeutic effects, is regarded as
endemic to northern Kerala. Several varieties of rice contain lectins
(haemgglutinins) in the grain. Lectins have numerous applications in biology.
In order to assess the degree and potential of genetic diversity in rice in India, we need pointed answers to the following questions: a) How many species, botanical varieties, cultivars and land races are there? b) Has there been a scientific evaluation of these, facilitating proper naming
and means of identification? c) How many of these are in actual
cultivation and how many occur in the wild? d) What is their precise
distribution? e) What is the consumer preference to these varieties?
f) What uses, other than food, are there for these varieties? g) What is
the potential of this diversity in terms of quantitative and qualitative
improvement of rice in India? h) How much of this diversity was used by
us in rice improvement during the past half-century? i) How much of rice
genetic diversity is conserved ex situ in our seed and pollen banks? We
need a white paper on these issues to address these and other questions from different sources, and to plan a concerted protective and preventive action. This actually means that we need a rigorous risk assessment system in place.
It is not possible to conserve the whole of genetic diversity of rice in any country nor is it necessary. Even if this is possible, some varieties would be lost and new ones appear due to natural causes, as has been
happening all along. International agricultural research centers all
over the world have done a commendable job of preserving wild germplasm
for posterity. Any desired gene(s) can now be isolated from these
collections, even if the seed is inviable, using techniques of molecular biology. While urgent action is needed to conserve rice diversity both in situ and ex situ, we have to pick and choose pragmatically, what needs to
be conserved, but not all diversity. This is impossible, prohibitively
expensive and pointless.
Any blanket ban on the introduction of transgenic rice is wholly unwarranted. The Task Force on Applications of Biotechnology in Agriculture constituted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, seems to be inclined to recommend the identification and protection of Centres of Genetic Diversity for different crops for conservation, as for example the Jeypore tract for rice. It would be necessary to identify several such centers for each of the important crops. Such conservation should be in tune with the Biodiversity bill and there must be a provision to notify and de-notify centers of genetic diversity of each crop, so that no region is permanently and pointlessly barred from growing transgenic crops.
If all these years of introducing of high yielding varieties of rice did not harm rice genetic diversity, how would a few transgenic varieties of rice can cause untold damage, and more rapidly and dangerously? The major cause of diversity loss is habitat destruction, which prominently includes
bringing more and more land under cultivation. No efforts should be
spared to preserve existing genetic diversity for the benefit of future generations, and one promising way is to adopt modern biotechnologies for crop improvement that will not make additional demands for arable land.
It would be more appropriate to say 'species diversity' and/or 'genetic diversity' while referring to crop plants and not 'biodiversity', which is an all-inclusive term, and is out of context.
5. Mexico did not ban research on GM corn:
The journal Nature retracted Chapela's flawed paper on the escape of transgenes into the local maize varieties in Mexico, the Centre of Origin and Diversity of maize. Mexico banned only the commercial cultivation and
importation of GM corn and not research on GM corn altogether. In fact,
field tests are being conducted on GM corn at CIMMYT. No decision has yet been taken to impose a permanent ban on the import and cultivation of GM maize in Mexico. There must be GE corn getting into Mexico even now as USA does not label or segregate it, and Mexico has no such labelling or segregation laws either. Such a situation makes mockery of bans or moratoria. The recent suggestion that Teosinte is not the sole progenitor of modern day corn, will necessiate a modification of the concept of Mexico being the sole Center of Origin and Diversity of corn.
6. Transgenics as super weeds:
A ten-year experiment by Michael Crawley and associates, reported in Nature a couple of years ago, has shown that transgenics do not become super weeds. Over 15 years' of outstanding research on GM crops' risk assessment in the EU has provided ample evidence that GM crops do not become super weeds. There is very little risk of cultivated rice becoming a weed, while much hardier crops did not.
The repeatedly quoted American Red rice is the case of a weed and not of a cultivated crop that became a weed on account of genetic engineering.
7. Herbicide tolerant varieties:
I have talked to several agricultural scientists and farmers over a period of time, on the use herbicides and herbicide tolerant transgenics in India and hardly any one concurs with Dr Sahai's long known opposition.
There are certain occasional intractable problems with feral weeds that
are hard to control with currently available herbicides. Even so, the
general opinion of weed scientists and rice breeders is that herbicide resistant transgenic rice is the only option with a proviso that certain existing failsafe biosafety mechanisms be in place (Jonathan Gressell, Proc. 7th Intl Symp. On Biosafety of GMOs, Beijing, China 2002; TITECH, September 1999, vol. 17; pp-361-366; Amsellem et al., Nature Biotechnology, October 2002; Kanampiu et al., Plant Cell, Tissue and Organ Culture 69: 105-110, 2002).
The use of herbicides should better be within the ambit of Integrated Weed Management (IWM). Use of herbicide resistant transgenic rice in agriculture will have no demonstrable effect on wild and weedy relatives of crop plants, as there is little chance of anyone spraying the expensive herbicides over wild populations.
On the average, weeding costs constitute about 30 per cent of total
cultivation costs. Some farmers, who own 10 to 15 acres, said that they
would use herbicides because it is becoming increasingly difficult to get
manual labor during the peak times of weeding. In addition,
manual-weeding practice was always unsatisfactory.
I wonder as to how long the lovers of the farming community want to keep the farm workers as a source of cheap seasonal labour, albeit showering pity on them and force governments to offer sops. So long as this menial work is available even at pitiful wages, this lot of manual laborers would not improve. If GE technology displaces some manual labour from the low
paying seasonal work, they would seek better opportunities. Such a thing
happened all along on account of modernization and mechanization of
farming. History of agriculture is replete with instances of how
farmers love to shift from backbreaking and less rewarding work based in outdated practices to more comfortable and efficient technologies.
Critics cite the western practice of aerial spray of herbicides and declare that herbicides are not for us. Why can't herbicides be sprayed
from backpack sprayers used for pesticide spraying? When herbicides are
used, the natural consequential option is the use of cost and time saving herbicide tolerant varieties, which can be produced only as transgenics.
Again, there is a need for a white paper to assess the socio-economic impacts of introducing herbicide resistant transgenic rice in Asia, as
this is not just an environmental or biosafety issue. If the technology
were not economically beneficial, the farmers would certainly discard it.
There are several reviews on the use of herbicides in Asian rice
cultivation and on the transitions in weed management. The issue of
herbicide tolerant transgenic rice should be considered with the concern
it deserves. If we heed to the critics we will miss an important tool in
8. Gene Silencing:
The term Gene Silencing has unfortunately became an alarming name for RNA Interference (RNAi), which is an age-old natural biological phenomenon in
most forms of life. RNAi protects cells from invading viruses and from
damage by transposable genetic elements, and also performs a variety of cellular housekeeping functions essential to development and survival. GS may be caused by an organisms own genes (and not exclusively by the so-called foreign genes), as was known from the first discovery of GS in petunia, over two decades ago. GS occurs during natural chromosomal condensation. Heterochromatization of different segments of a chromosome at different phases of the life cycle of an organism is one form of GS,
which is transcriptional repression of gene expression. It takes a
certain degree of homology between a gene sequence and one (or more)
segments of interfering RNA to silence genes. There is hardly any
homology between the native genes and the transgenes introduced into
plants. Hence, transgenes are extremely unlikely to play a role in
silence any of the native genes. However, if there are multiple copies
of a particular transgene, GS is possible within this group.
In recent times GS is being put to diverse ingenuous uses. Now any gene of interest can potentially be silenced in a highly predictable, reproducible and accurate manner. There is already a naturally decaffeinated transgenic coffee plant produced by knocking down a gene involved in caffeine synthesis. Several new biotech companies are solely concerned with the use of GS technology to make extremely useful products in medicine and agriculture. More details on GS in different fields, particularly medicine, can be found at www.medscape.com/medscapetodayhome.
Biotechnologists developing transgenic varieties of crop plants are all
the time on the look out for even the slightest indications of GS. If GS
occurs, it occurs in individual plants and not in entire populations at the same time. If the gene(s) silenced in these individuals are related to
any vital process, such individuals are naturally eliminated. Since GS
is the natural way of allowing other genes to express at relevant times in the life cycle of an organism, there is hardly any reason to be wary of it.
9. The Precautionary Principle:
The Precautionary Principle (PP), an advice to proceed cautiously in the absence of adequate, direct and positive evidence, is applied in different contexts, not just in the case of GE, and it is certainly not central to
GE work. Only the critics of GE technology invoke the PP whenever they
have exhausted other arguments while the bureaucrats hide behind it when
they defer decisions under pressure. The wisdom behind PP is certainly
to be appreciated but its overuse or misuse will be a retrograde step that hinders development. More information is available on the PP at
http://www.fao.org/biotech/logs/c9logs.htm. Risk assessment, risk
management, risk mitigation, and risk communication are the best form of PP in action, as opposed to blanket bans on technology deployment.
10. Rice Intensification:
One would think that the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) is another method of cultivation, like organic farming, rather than a means of
genetic modification or improvement, as implied by Dr Sahai. SRI can
certainly be adopted in the cultivation of transgenic rice as organic
cultivation methods can be. A recent review on rice cultivation
(Chrisopher Surridge, Nature, March 25, 2004) indicates that SRI is largely a false-positive technology, and cannot deliver all of what its
proponents promised. SRI being in still a nascent phases one should give
time for its development and not hurriedly implement or reject it.
Dr Sahai avers that 'what little is known about GM crop is largely negative' is unbelievable. Those who regularly visit AgBioView, Checkbiotech , Crop biotech and other authentic and scientific reports realize that GE crops are perhaps the most well studied of all organisms in agriculture today and all that is known is not only not negative, but
is immensely reassuring. In fact, we know far less about conventionally
bred varieties and hybrids than we do of transgenics. Given a fair chance, GE crops will reach the same comfort level as the conventional
crops in time. Dr Sahai ignores all available evidence and advises that
we wait for evidence, which can be gathered only when transgenic rice gets under wider cultivation for some years. To understand how transgenics behave in commercial cultivation, we actually need to study them under large-scale cultivation.
The Indian Task Force on Agriculture is now poised to recommend transgenic technology for stem borer, brown plant hopper, salinity, high temperature tolerance, and nutritional enhancement (beta-carotene and iron), and molecular breeding for gall midge, blast disease, and water stress, in rice.
GE is a very valuable tool in solving many of the egregious problems in bringing about a qualitative and quantitative improvement of rice in the developing countries. Certainly we should deal with GE technology carefully and thoughtfully, but not with prejudice.
In October 2002, the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences of India conducted an International Workshop at Chennai, where all issues related
to the biosafety of transgenic rice were thoroughly discussed. Dr Sahai
was a participant at this workshop. The consensus was that the
introduction of GE rice varieties in centers of rice diversity does not pose any appreciable risks, any more than conventional cultivars and
hybrids. The Recommendations of this meeting were posted on AgBioView
and published in Current Science. The NAAS has released the
recommendations as a Policy paper (Biosafety of Transgenic Rice, Policy
Paper No. 24, NAAS, December 2003), which is under wide circulation. The
Proceedings of the Workshop are now Press. What Dr Sahai wrote in the
Hindu article is in utter disregard of the consensus of the Workshop.
Dr Sahai wrote, "Too little is understood about what happens when foreign genes are abruptly pushed into the genetic material of living organisms like plants", but I understand one thing these genes do—cause knee-jerk reactions in the critics of the technology.
Professor C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India. firstname.lastname@example.org.
> Should India Cultivate GM Rice?
> - Suman Sahai, The Hindu (India), April 5, 2004
'India must not cultivate genetically modified rice until a solid body of research is done under local conditions to understand the implications of foreign genes for rice diversity.'
THIS YEAR has been declared the International Year of Rice in acknowledgement of the central role this cereal plays in global food security. Nearly half the world's population eats rice as its staple food. The reason for focussing on rice is the fear of shortages because of declining productivity in some parts of the world and the burgeoning world population. In this backdrop, genetically modified (GM) rice is being discussed as an answer and both public sector and private sector research institutions in India and elsewhere, have launched projects to produce GM rice with various properties.
Golden Rice is already well known. There are efforts to introduce resistance to fungal diseases. Researchers are also working to produce herbicide tolerant rice, similar to Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn, and Mahyco, the company that gave us Bt cotton, is working, along with other research institutions, to produce a Bt rice.
Other rice projects are attempting to change the quality of rice starch and, disturbingly, a private company is producing rice containing the Bt cry9C gene, which is the gene used in Starlink corn, suspected of having allergenic properties and therefore banned for human use by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The fundamental question is whether India should allow the cultivation of GM rice since it is a `high risk' area, being a major centre of origin and diversity for rice. Mexico, the country that is the centre of origin and diversity for corn, has a clear-cut policy. It has imposed a ban on not just the cultivation of GM corn, but also research in GM corn.
Mexico has taken this position in order to safeguard the natural gene pool of corn, another major staple food of the world. A centre of origin is from where a particular crop originated a few thousand years ago. Food crops, as we know, are not collected from the forests; they were developed
(bred) by a careful process of selection and crossing, by tribal and farming communities from the wild plants found in nature.
India is one of the centres where rice originated; so lots of rice varieties and the plants related to rice (wild relatives) are also found here. This means that the greatest number of rice and related genes are found in India, particularly in the Jeypore tract of Orissa, and the swathe cutting across Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, as well as the Northeast.
Centres of origin are considered high-risk areas for GM crops because if the foreign genes contained in the GM variety were to move into the natural gene pool, the results could be potentially catastrophic. Scientists promoting biotechnology in agriculture argue that rice is a self-pollinating crop and will not accept outside pollen and genes. This is simply not true. Several studies exist showing cross-pollination happens in rice. Recent reports from China and Latin America are showing that gene flow between GM rice and other rice happens at rates that are high enough to cause concern. Experiments have also found that the herbicide tolerance gene can move to native varieties and create new, difficult to control, weeds.
There are other studies that show that the introduction of foreign genes by the process of genetic engineering can cause a phenomenon called `gene silencing' in the plant that is receiving the foreign gene. This means certain genes in the plant will become silent (non-functional) and not produce what they normally should. Gene silencing could have very grave implications if it were to be spread to the natural gene pool by careless scientists.
Genetic diversity is crucial for the long-term survival of any crop. When a crop variety somewhere becomes vulnerable either due to the onslaught of a disease it cannot fight, or because the soil has become water logged or alkaline, scientists need to breed another variety of the crop for that region. They do this by searching for suitable genes in related varieties and the natural gene pool. If these genes were to be unavailable, the vulnerable variety would perish, depriving people in that region of food. That is why it is important to maintain genetic diversity. If GM rice were to harm the native gene pool of rice by making certain genes non-functional or changing the normal functions of other genes, it would have terrible implications for the food security of the rice eating regions of the world.
Too little is understood about what happens when foreign genes are abruptly pushed into the genetic material of living organisms like plants. What little is known is largely negative. The Precautionary Principle is central to GM work, dictating that when faced with uncertainty, it is better to be cautious and not proceed. India must not cultivate GM rice until a solid body of research is done under Indian conditions to understand the implications of foreign genes shifting to rice diversity. Agriculture biotechnology proponents argue collecting this data could take several years. So be it. One cannot rush when the stakes are so high.
In any case, several other lines of research are yielding more promising results than the GM route. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) pioneered by Madagascar is showing spectacular results in various countries including India.
Can GM Crops be Introduced Into Crop Centres of Origin and Diversity?
- By C Kameswara Rao and S Shantharam, Special to AgBioView, April 13, 2004
Full article at http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech_info/articles/origin.html
Critics of the use of GM technology for crop improvement argue that the introduction of transgenic (GM) varieties into the Centres of Origin (CO) and/or Centres of Diversity (CD) of the concerned crop plants would eliminate the existing diversity and impoverish natural genetic resources. This is scare mongering that has now become an emotional and sentimental issue of serious proportions, but is bereft of any rationality, with science being paid a Nelson's eye.
There is certainly a possibility of transgenics and their wild or cultivated relatives inter-crossing in nature. Since this is a very broad generalization, only a crop-wise and region-wise scientific evaluation of possible events and their consequences should guide our decisions and not rhetoric. Full article at http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech_info/articles/origin.html
Potential Worries From Cultivar-Wild Progenitor Hybrids
- John W. Cross
Dr. Neal Stewart has some criticism of Rao and Shantharam's article which disserves comment itself. I have quoted from Mr. Stewart below.
Mr. Stewart's approach is to make a claim for a logical POSSIBILITY as though it were a PROBABILITY and infer that this POSSIBILITY represents a hazard. The anti-biotech NGO's and activists take this a step further and infer the POSSIBILITY of risk is enough to elicit harsh regulatory actions by governments.
This (ill)logic is the basic problem we have with the anti-biotech NGO's, activists and even many governments. Basing their actions on the divinely-inspired philosophy of the PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE, they demand regulatory action based on their active minds creative imagings of lurking yet-UNKNOWN DANGERS.
In my humble opinion, based on the prospective of what is actually known about the genetics of crop-wild progenitor hybridization, and the agressiveness of their progeny, Rao and Shantharam's article was a rather mild and guarded statement of the potential risk.
In the general case, those warning of dangers appear to be unfamiliar with the consistent unfitness of most cultivar-wild relative hybrids and the relative infrequency of their occurrence under normal field conditions. The cases where this occurs are the exceptions, not the rules. One does not need to be an expert in molecular biology to appreciate that geographic distribution of the wild progenitors, differences in the timing of fertility, the lack of seed dispersal genes and mechanisms in most cultivated plants, the fact that many crops that are self-pollinated or that have complicated self-incompatibility systems which limit which varieties will produce viable progeny all contribute to limiting this problem. These hybrids have never been a problem in most crops, and the introduction of transgenes does not change that situation. Rao and Shantharam have a good command of these issues.
Let me give an example that is becoming well understood, maize-Trypsacum hybrids. There is a long history of research into these genetic curiosities in research on the origin of maize. Recent research by Mary Eubanks supports the long-held theory that Trypsacum (Gamagrass, Trypsacum
dactyloides) was a progenitor of maize, likely by interbreeding with teosinte. However, maize-Trypsacum hybtrids are not easy to make, and maintaining Trypsacum chromosomes in modern maize plants is difficult. This difficulty is why for many years the idea that Trypsacum was a maize progenitor was met by skepticism by maize geneticists. Although such hybrids can be selected, they do not persist in nature. The conclusions Mary Eubanks draws from her findings are still controversial
Thus, it is profoundly unlikely that, while Trypsacum is common, maize-Trypsacum hybrids will become an aggressive weed.
Eubanks recently found that Trypsacum-teosinte hybrids are easier to make, but they are irrelevant to the issue of escaping transgenes from cultivar-wild relative hybrids.
Mary Eubanks herself is of the conviction that "contamination" of Mexican landraces with genes from transgenic cultivars may reduce the diversity of the landraces. I do not agree. Only genes that are tightly linked to the loci of the introgressed transgenes would have any selective advantages, and then only under selective conditions (e.g. when sprayed with glyphosate). In general the day neutral cultivars of maize used in North American agriculture are not adapted to the tropics, so there is little reason that their genes will supplant those of the native landraces without human intervention. It is more likely that the meso-American farmers, seeing the productive advantages of modern North American cultivars, are themselves accelerating the process by selectively introgressing desirable agronomic traits (which may include the
transgenes) into the landraces. However, such selective introgression does require or imply that other genes from the north American cultivars (not tightly linked to the genes being selectively introgressed) will replace their indigenous alleles.
This issue should be investigated by people who do not have philosophical axes to grind. Unfortunately, some of those who have published in this area have not been neutral observers. I am not referring here to Mary Eubanks, but to certain others.
The concern about herbicide resistance is a non-issue that somehow keeps coming back. Although some activitists' literature may imply otherwise, the various herbicide groups work through independent molecular mechanisms. A glyphosate-resistant cultivar is not resistant to any other herbicide group. Thus, introgression of glyphosate resistance into wild relatives is easily controllable via any of the many alternative herbicides.
Although insect resistance genes might be another example of selective advantage, it should not be forgotten that every cultivated plant has many pre-existing insecticidal genes already. For example, grasses have a variety of benzoxazolinones which are protective of their seedlings. The Bt genes are just one addition to a range of existing protective genes, so the effect on cultivar-wild relative hybrids is not clear without experiments. It is possible that the clear unfitness of most cultivar-wild progenitor hybrids may be due to their reduced share of the naturally-occurring resistance genes, which have been stacked in the cultivars through selective breeding.
Whether cultivar-wild progenitor hybrids containing transgenes and the selective introgression of transgenes from cultivars into landraces will be a problem is not a given. It is an open question and should be investigated. Only when it is shown to be a problem should it be regulated or discouraged.
Sincerely, John W. Cross, Ph.D.
"Eastern gamagrass (Trypsacum dactyloides), a warm-season perennial bunchgrass indigenous to Oklahoma and much of the southeastern United States." http://www.noble.org/Ag/Forage/EasternGammagrass/
"...corn, or maize, originated as a cross between teosinte and gamagrass" http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-04/du-poc033004.php
With regards to Tripsacum-Zea diploperennis (Teosinte) crosses
"...the molecular evidence reveals that the crosses produced are extraordinary. Major genomic reorganization is required for viable progeny to be formed. " http://www.thehallofmaat.com/maat/read.php?f=1&i=193274&t=193257
EU's New Rules Will Shake Up Market for Bioengineered Food
- Scott Miller, Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2004
BRUSSELS -- The European Union, one of the major holdouts against genetically modified foods, will start opening the door wider next week, with huge implications for farmers and agricultural companies around the globe as well as European consumers.
New rules will present an opportunity for producers of bioengineered food to battle for consumers in one of the world's biggest, albeit toughest, markets. And those millions of shoppers, who have largely shunned genetically modified foods, may be forced to swallow the notion that unmodified foods are becoming increasingly rare.
Starting Sunday, new regulations will require labels that alert European consumers when a product contains as little as 0.9% genetically modified ingredients. Farmers and food packagers everywhere will have to maintain paper trails on genetically altered food products -- tracking ingredients from field to store shelf -- if they're destined to end up in Europe. Europe also is expected to soon lift a six-year government ban on testing new bioengineered crops for cultivation on European soil.
But companies targeting Europe with genetically modified foods will find it a tough nut to crack. In a world that increasingly cultivates and consumes foods made from bioengineered seeds, Europe has remained stubbornly resistant -- a legacy of its green traditions and its strong doubts about the safety of such food for diners and the environment. The European Union currently allows genetically modified food to be sold in member states, but under pressure from organizations such as Greenpeace, food companies and grocery stores have kept such products to a minimum. The EU also has approved 18 different crops for cultivation, but only Spanish corn farmers grow any on a commercial scale. Greenpeace has already mobilized volunteers to fight off incursions under the new rules.
Ultimately, this food fight could boil down to whether EU consumers are forced to accept the inevitable. Europe changed the rules to let the market, rather than regulators, determine what foods will sell in an EU that expands on May 1 to 25 nations from 15 and to 460 million people from 380 million. Around the world, bioengineered crops have been spreading like weeds, showing explosive growth in the U.S., South America and China. Europe's grocery chains and multinational food packagers could find it increasingly hard to supply Europe with foods that aren't genetically modified.
"The question at one point will be: Is there enough non-GM [genetically modified food] for people who want it?" says Francois-Xavier Perroud, a spokesman for Nestle SA.
In the U.S., where 86% of soy and more than 40% of corn are genetically modified, farmers say it costs them hundreds of millions of dollars in lost business a year. In developing countries, farmers have been resisting pressure to grow bioengineered crops -- even if they could improve their productivity and reduce hunger -- for fear of losing their European market.
Some opponents of genetically modified foods have tried to take advantage of Europe's resistance. Last month, Mendocino County, Calif., became the first county in the U.S. to prohibit growing genetically modified crops and animals. Backers said the ban would make food produced there more marketable, especially in Europe. Several other California counties are now considering similar drives. Legislators in Vermont are working on a bill that would place a two-year moratorium on planting and growing geneticalloy modified crops.
But over half the world's soy, a key ingredient for products ranging from candy bars to animal feed, comes from genetically modified strains. Global acreage has climbed at a double-digit pace for seven years. About seven million farmers in 18 countries now plant genetically-altered seeds. According to one estimate, the global market value of genetically modified crops last year was as much as $4.75 billion.
Even as food companies hold off on immediate changes, they are ready for any shift in European taste -- or in relative cost -- that would open the opportunity for them to sell bioengineered food.
"We see GM as a promising science," says Unilever spokesman Tom Gordijn, though the company won't sell it in Europe because of consumer opposition. Germany's Metro AG chain, like other major European grocery stores, doesn't allow bioengineered ingredients in its store brands. But it wouldn't sign a Greenpeace pledge to keep them out because it may want to sell them later, a spokesman says.
The new rules won't bring many immediate changes in European supermarkets; crops grown starting next week have to make their way into packaged foods. But the battle in the supermarket aisles already has raised the stakes for the most active supporters and opponents of genetically modified foods: Monsanto Co., of St. Louis, Mo., the world's largest producer of bioengineered products, and the environmental group Greenpeace, which sees those products as a threat to the world's biodiversity.
Greenpeace has promised to marshal thousands of volunteers throughout Europe to police grocery stores in the weeks that follow the launch of labeling. "If consumers start buying it and get used to it, we will lose," says Dan Hindsgaul, the head of Greenpeace's effort. The leader of the opposing effort, Monsanto's Daniel Rahier, agrees. "If Greenpeace doesn't succeed now, they will be in a very difficult position."
The two sides staged a preview of the coming conflicts in January. A new Swedish beer called Kenth became the first European food labeled with a "genetically modified" warning to hit store shelves, months before the new rules were to take effect. That was no accident: Mr. Rahier's team conceived the idea and Monsanto helped fund it to start preparing consumers for genetically modified foods.
Greenpeace responded by shadowing the beer's first delivery trucks through the streets of Copenhagen and pressuring store owners into barring the beer from their shelves. "We stayed up all night printing materials to hand out at the stores and arranging chase cars, but it was worth it," said Mr. Hindsgaul.
The current clash was nearly eight years in the making. In late 1996, Monsanto exported the first genetically modified soybeans to Europe, assuming that consumers there would accept them as Americans had. But Europe was still recovering from the shock of "mad cow" disease and saw the new grain as a terrifying development.
European food-safety authorities, who hadn't yet drawn up any regulations on genetically modified products, were caught flat-footed. Before companies involved in genetically modified foods knew what hit them, public sentiment had turned against the technology. Supermarkets swiftly took sides. Britain's Daily Mirror ran a front-page headline in 1998 warning against "Franken Food." Prince Charles said genetically modified crops made him nervous.
In 1998, five European countries said they wouldn't process any further applications for GM crops. But by 2002, under pressure from the U.S. government to restart approval testing, the European Parliament began to take up the issue again. By last summer, Parliament had struck a political
compromise: The EU would move forward on testing new strains of genetically modified crops, to the delight of U.S. farmers and companies making genetically modified seeds. Already there are indications that the first new corops since 1998 could be approved by the end of May. But that apparent easing of Europe's attitude toward genetically modified food will be offset by labeling requirements. Some product may even have to carry a GM label even if no gene-altered material is detectable in the final product.
One of the big mysteries about the labeling rules is how many products will actually end up carrying the warning. Animal feed could put the fight for consumers' attention into sharpest relief, because the price difference between genetically modified and conventional feed can be large. Animal feed will have to carry a label in Europe. Though no labels will be required on the meat, eggs and milk that come from animals eating genetically modified feed, Greenpeace is making feed a major theme in its campaignso. Earlier this year, for example, it persuaded many of Germany's leading sausage makers to use only meat from animals raised on nonbioengineered feed.