Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - April 27, 2004:
* GM Cotton 'Boosts Profits for African Farmers'
* Starving Amid Plenty: Global Accord on GM Foods Is Needed
* Worries About Weeds and Dams
* Uganda: Embrace GMOs, Scientists Recommend
* US Seeks £1bn from Europe Over GM Ban
* WTO Rejects EU Claims That US Failed to Present Case on GMO
* Animations in Biology Learning
* Environmentalists Accused of Promoting 'Eco-Imperialism'
* Bill Gates Donates $20 Million to African Science Academies
* What Are the Issues in Agricultural Biotechnology?
* Super Organics: World of Smart Breeding
GM Cotton 'Boosts Profits for African Farmers'
- Christina Scott, SciDev.Net, April 26 2004
The promise that genetically modified (GM) cotton would boost yields and profits for small-scale farmers in South Africa is already coming true, according to new research. A study of cotton grown by more than 2,000 farmers showed that those that planted Bt cotton -- which has been genetically engineered to resist the bollworm pest -- benefited by US$86 to US$93 per hectare more than those that planted conventional strains.
This is the first time that Bt cotton in Africa has been assessed on the basis of farmers' own practice, rather than on the results of controlled field trials. The results could be significant for Africa's agricultural
economy: cotton is grown on 2.5 million hectares of the continent, most of it on small plots of less than 10 hectares.
A team of scientists from Reading University, United Kingdom, analysed three seasons of records from farmers leasing state land in the Makhathini Flats on northeast coast of South Africa. They also carried out interviews and in-depth case studies with farmers.
Writing in this month's Nature Biotechnology, the researchers say that Bt cotton gave better yields in each of the three seasons studied, and that the results were particularly striking "in the poor, wet growing season of 1999-2000, which favoured the bollworm". In fact, farmers who did not use the GM cotton seed "had a negative gross margin, which resulted in them having difficulty paying back credit that they had borrowed".
The consistently higher yields with GM cotton over several years appears to contradict claims by the Cape Town environmental organisation Biowatch that floods late in the 2000/2001 season distorted the results because the GM cotton was an early-maturing variety.
Charles Louw, an independent consultant commissioned by Biowatch to conduct socioeconomic research among about 40 farming families in the Makhathini Flats, expressed surprise at the results. "Climate is an overwhelming factor, bigger than either GM or non-GM factors," he says. Louw adds that, owing to bad weather over the past three years, only two small-scale farmers in his research reported successful seasons. Both farmers attributed their progress to external factors that had nothing to do with genetic modification. He also says that his research, which will be published later this year, suggests that farmers and government agricultural advisors do not understand the concept of genetic engineering.
Bt cotton seeds are more expensive than conventional ones. But according to the research in Nature Biotechnology, this is more than compensated for by lower pesticide costs, both in terms of buying the product and the cost of hiring labour to apply it.
Carl Reynolds, chief technical officer of Vunisa, a company that sells farmers seeds on credit and then buys their harvests, confirms that farmers that plant Bt cotton have to pay a considerable 'technology fee' up front, equivalent to the savings in one hectare. "It's an additional cost of about 700 rands (US$105) per bag of seed, although you can plant two or three hectares with that bag," he says. Vunisa sells both unmodified and GM seeds. But Reynolds estimates that at least 80 per cent of their seed sales is now of the bollworm-resistant variety.
The reduction in pesticide spraying costs that Bt cotton provides is a significant factor, according to GM advocate Jocelyn Webster of the AfricaBio biotechnology association and the University of Pretoria's Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute. She says that in each growing season, labourers have to walk as much as 400 kilometres with heavy knapsacks on their backs to spray a four-hectare plot up to eight times.
Andrew Bennett of Monsanto South Africa, which distributes the Bt cotton seeds, says that the GM strains actually give the poorer farmers, often women, a bit of an advantage. "There was no evidence that wealthier farmers gained more than the less affluent: indeed, income inequality was slightly reduced," he says.
Starving Amid Plenty: Global Accord on GM Foods Is Needed
- Editorial, Sacramento Bee, April 25, 2004
The latest sorrowful episode in the global controversy over genetically modified foods has put more lives at risk in Angola, a country with huge oil reserves where millions live in poverty because of corruption, drought, a recently ended 27-year civil war and other afflictions. Aggravating all that is the government's recent refusal to accept a shipment of 19,000 tons of U.S.-grown GM corn.
Angola's resistance, and that of four other southern African countries, has several sources: fears that biotech foods may be harmful to humans; differences in soils, technology and growing conditions; the stranglehold that U.S. agribusiness firms have over GM technology; and concern that imported grains could "contaminate" native crops, making it harder to export foodstuffs to the European Union.
But the still-unexplained, last-minute Angolan decision to reject the aid shipment - so late that there was no time to mill the American corn (and thus purge it of its ability to "infect" local crops) - left an impression of official callousness. And given the bad governance that Angolans have endured, the impression may be justified.
Barriers to the free flow of farm products, genetically altered or not, can worsen hardships in countries that already have more than their share. What's needed is an international system to regulate the shipment of GM foods in ways that reflect the will of the global community and sound science.
To work, however, such an accord would need to be accompanied by other changes - most notably deep cuts in subsidies paid to farmers in America, Europe and Japan that have made it virtually impossible for farmers in poor countries to compete. Another needed change would loosen the monopoly of a few huge companies such as Dupont and Monsanto that starves poor countries of investment in GM technology adapted to local needs.
In the meantime, Angolans and people in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe continue to suffer from food shortages that, whatever the official motive or local circumstances, can only mean that those already suffering from malnutrition will be at even greater risk of starvation.
Worries About Weeds and Dams
- John W. Cross
Shanthu Shantharam makes a very important point , which I touched on in my earlier discussion of maize-Trypsacum hybrids: weediness is a rare trait. Only a few, highly evolved plants qualify as what weed scientists refer to as "noxious" or what botanists describe as "cosmopolitan" species.
The Washington Post today has an op-ed piece, "Movement off the Streets," by Sebastian Mallaby. Mallaby's article  details how certain well-organized radicals are using demands for increasingly detailed and prohibitively expensive regulations as a weapon against their opponents. It is worth reading, since much the same thing has occurred in Europe with transgenic seeds.
>  ...Weediness is a multi-genic trait and according to the Weed
> Science Society of America has some fourteen basic attributes. It
> would be a stupendous task for a scientist to convert a wimpy
> cultivated crop to a weed. It is beyond anybody's comprehension as to
> why activists cannot see through these
>  "...The template for this form of struggle is a body called the
> World Commission on Dams. Scarred by successive waves of protest, the
> World Bank created this outfit to forge a consensus on dam-building:
> How you can do it while minimizing environmental and social costs? In
> the hope of drawing its fiercest critics into a new consensus, the
> bank gave them a seat at the table. But the radicals understood that
> the bank's desire to include them gave them an effective veto, and
> they used it to ensure a report so loaded with requirements as to
> constitute a virtual ban. A dam in Laos would be expected to build in
> as many safety measures as a dam in Sweden. This was like telling the
> Laotians that they could not ride in motorized vehicles until they
> could afford brand-new Volvos with passenger-side airbags...."
Uganda: Embrace GMOs, Scientists Recommend
- Joyce Namutebi, New Vision/All Africa Global Media, April 23, 2004
Kampala -- Scientists have urged the country to embrace Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). In a workshop on 'Agricultural Biotechnology in Uganda' organised for Members of Parliament, the scientists said it was a global trend towards solving problems.
"The global environment is detecting that this is the direction the world is taking. The issue is what type of GMOs Uganda should have," the acting director general of the National Agricultural Research Organisation, Dr. Nape Otim, said on Tuesday. He urged Ugandans to take up the challenge and engage in biotechnology and GMOs. Otim said Uganda could not afford to ignore the global development.
US Seeks £1bn from Europe Over GM Ban
- Paul Brown, The Guardian (UK), April 27, 2004
The US has demanded that the EU abandon its ban on the growing of genetically modified crops and pay at least $1.8bn (£1bn) in compensation for loss of exports over the past six years. The challenge is outlined in papers filed to the World Trade Organisation that have been seen by the Guardian.
The WTO is now facing the biggest case in its history, one that could spark a damaging trade war between the US and Europe and split the international community. Although the US announced it intended launching the case last year, many believed it was bluffing and trying to bully the EU into giving way on the issue of unfettered trade in GM.
But the papers, which were sent to the WTO last week, accuse the EU of imposing a moratorium on GM products in 1998 without any scientific evidence and in defiance of WTO free trade rules. The EU has until the end of May to reply before a WTO panel meets in June to adjudicate. If it finds in favour of the US, the body will decide what trade sanctions can be imposed to force Europe to fall in line. The US has said it has lost $300m a year as a result of lost maize imports and would expect sanctions against the EU to help recoup the sums.
The affair has worldwide significance because if the US can force the EU into submission, then no country will be able to keep GM out without facing trade sanctions. But there is strong consumer resistance to GM in Europe and several countries have introduced rules banning imports of individual GMs, either for growing or in food. These countries, Austria, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Italy and Greece, are all cited by the US in the case presented to the WTO.
In its submission it says that none of these bans can be legal. This is probably the strongest part of the US case because the trade rules allow countries to ban products on health or environmental grounds but they need to provide evidence. The papers say that the EU "can present no scientific basis for a moratorium" and that the "product specific bans ... are not based on science and are thus inconsistent" with Europe's obligations under WTO agreements.
Britain has sought to avoid these trade sanctions by supporting the introduction of GMs at every opportunity and saying it is treating the growing of crops on a case-by-case basis. This led the government this year to ban the growing of GM oilseed rape and sugar beet on environmental grounds but to permit the growing of GM maize under strict conditions.
The case brought to the WTO will not be affected by the meeting of EU agriculture ministers yesterday which ended with a likely lifting of a ban on one specific variety of GM maize. In its defence to the American action, the EU can argue that the effective moratorium of five years in making any decision on the future of crops was to allow time for crop trials to test the effect on the European environment.
WTO officials are aware that imposing draconian penalties on Europe for adhering to the overwhelming wishes of its people is likely to make it even more unpopular. On the other hand, the US is determined to press the case and even if this fails it is set to bring a second case to prevent GM foods being labelled and traceability of crops being mandatory. Both these elements became EU law this month and are likely to form a second case to the WTO as a "restraint" of trade if victory is not total in round one.
The looming WTO sanctions place increasing pressure on ministers to show willing by allowing some crops but do not remove the objections to the EU stance from across the Atlantic. One of the key issues will be the attitude of the wider world. According to the US, Australia, China, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, New Zealand, Norway, Thailand and Uruguay have an interest in the case. But exactly what these countries will say to the WTO is unclear.
Sue Mayer of Genewatch said: "This is politically a nightmare for the WTO. Does it accept that the EU has the right to listen to the will of its peoples and be very cautious about the way it introduces GM - including spending five years completely overhauling its regulatory processes, or does it give into a technical argument from the US that rides roughshod over the wishes of millions of Europeans? "It is anyone's guess what the consequences might be."
WTO Rejects EU Claims That U.S. Failed to Present Viable Case on GMO
- FDA Week Vol. 10, No. 17, April 23, 2004; www.InsideHealthPolicy.com.
A World Trade Organization dispute settlement panel recently rejected European Union claims that the United States failed to meet international standards in presenting its challenge against the EU's de facto moratorium against the approval of genetically modified organisms, according to informed sources. The EU had charged that the U.S. request for a panel failed to show what type of measures were covered by the de facto moratorium and had therefore fallen short of what is required to make a case.
WTO dispute settlement rules state that countries' panel requests must identify the "specific measures" at issue and provide a brief summary of the legal basis of the complaint sufficient to present the problem clearly, according to Article 6.2 of the Dispute Settlement Understanding. These requirements are put in place to provide respondents with sufficient information to defend themselves.
Specifically, the EU requested that the dispute settlement panel issue a preliminary ruling on whether the U.S. panel request met the threshold in Article 6.2. The EU maintains that there is no moratorium because there is no specific decision or legislative decree implementing such a ban. The very fact that no GMOs have been approved for sale in the EU for years does not amount to a moratorium, the EU argued.
In an April 8 ruling, the panel said the EU's request was not justified since it had not provided any evidence of measures that the United States could have cited to describe the moratorium with more precision, according to informed sources. The panel said the EU had the burden of proof to provide the evidence that the U.S. had not made its case, the panel said. One observer said this ruling was particularly ironic since the EU had argued that the moratorium on GMOs does not exist.
Animations in Biology Learning
(Alerted by Sonny Ramaswamy )
Check this website for neat modules for various areas of biology, biochemistry, etc. for use in teaching/learning.
Environmentalists Accused of Promoting 'Eco-Imperialism'
- Marc Morano, CNSNews.com, April 23, 2004
Washington - A coalition of civil rights activists and scientists accused the green movement of promoting "eco-imperialism" in poor nations on the 34th annual Earth Day.
"[The world's poor] are being kept impoverished, racked by disease and dying very early, and their children -- just like kids back in the 19th century -- are dying before they reach age five," Paul Driessen, the
http://www.eco-imperialism.com author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power - Black Death, told CNSNews.com at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington on Thursday. "The world's poor don't need sustainable development. They need sustained development, so that they can take their rightful places among the Earth's prosperous people," Driessen said.
Organizers of the event claimed that international green groups are halting efforts to bring infrastructure and development projects to the developing world that would provide running water and electricity to millions. The focus only on what environmentalists consider "Earth-friendly development" is causing unnecessary misery and death among the world's poor, according to panelists at the event.
"The developing world's residents need a chance to conquer malaria, conquer malnutrition, and they need electricity. Ninety-five percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to electricity at all, Driessen said, blaming much of the situation on green groups' opposition to such infrastructure development.
"That means they have no modern hospitals, no clinics, no lights, no refrigeration. Food spoils. They have no water sanitation. People die from that. They die from having to breathe the burning cow dung and burning wood fumes and the pollutants and smoke that are a constant fixture in their homes and throughout their villages," he added.
Other speakers echoed Driessen's sentiments. "Safeguarding environmental values is essential," said Niger Innis, national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, a conservative African-American civil rights group. "But we must stop trying to protect our planet from every imaginable, exaggerated or imaginary risk. And we must stop trying to protect it on the backs, and the graves, of the nation's and world's most powerless and impoverished people," Innis explained.
The Kyoto Protocol was also attacked as misguided effort to control climate change and for its projected negative economic effects on poor people. "Ineffective actions taken to prevent climate change will significantly increase energy prices for poor Americans and Europeans, making it even more difficult for many to afford heating and air conditioning," said Dr. Sallie Baliunas, astrophysicist and TechCentralStation.com science host.
"Unfounded fears about global warming are also used to justify policies that prevent poor Africans, Indians, Asians and Peruvians from using fossil fuels to generate electricity, thus forcing them to keep using wood and animal dung for fuel," Baliunas added.
But Anne Petermann, co-director of the Vermont-based environmental group Global Justice Ecology Project rejected the notion that environmental groups' concerns for the planet's plant and animal species are negatively impacting poor people. "That is ridiculous. We as activists are working with and in concert with people all over the global south, working with them on development schemes that are fair," Petermann told CNSNews.com.
"To say that we are opposed to that is, it's completely asinine," Petermann said. "It's not about the development that is happening, it's about who is getting the benefit of it, and [the poor people] are not getting the benefit of it," she added.
Petermann pointed the finger of blame for international poverty squarely on the United States. "The United States is consuming 25% of the world's resources with 6% of the world's population. That is what is keeping people impoverished. That is what is keeping people from not having the development they need and want, not environmental protections," she said.
"This is a very finite planet. We cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. What we are talking about is working in partnership with organization and people around the world on development that makes sense... as well as looking at the over consumption that is happening in the U.S.," she added.
African Science Academies Get $20 Million Boost from Bill Gates
- David Dickson, SciDev.Net, April 23, 2004
The foundation set up by software billionaire Bill Gates has agreed to provide US$20 million over the next ten years to promote better decision-making on science-related issues in Africa, particularly those concerning human health. The money will be channelled through the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Much of it will be used to build up the policy-related activities of three African academies to be selected later this year, in the hope that these will be able to exert similar influence on their governments as the NAS does in Washington.
In addition to strengthening the role of the three selected academies, the money will also be used to develop what the US academy describes as "an alliance of African science academies" through annual symposia and collaborative workshops. "Understanding the critical importance of basing decisions on sound science and incorporating it into the policy-making process could be an important step forward for many African nations," says Bruce Alberts, president of the NAS, who has long held a deep personal interest in promoting science in developing countries.
Full story at http://www.scidev.net/News/index.cfm?fuseaction=readNews&itemid=1340&language=1
Super Organics: World of Smart Breeding
- Richard Manning, Wired, May 2004 http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.05/food.html?pg=1&topic=food&topic_set=
'Forget Frankenfruit - the new-and-improved flavor of gene science is Earth-friendly and all-natural. Welcome to the golden age of smart breeding.'
Once upon a technologically optimistic time, the founders of a swaggering biotech startup called Calgene bet the farm on a tomato. It wasn't just any old tomato. It was the Flavr Savr, a genetically engineered fruit designed to solve a problem of modernity.
Back when we all lived in villages, getting fresh, flavorful tomatoes was simple. Local farmers would deliver them, bright red and bursting with flavor, to nearby markets. Then cities and suburbs pushed out the farmers, and we began demanding our favorite produce year-round. Many of our tomatoes today are grown in another hemisphere, picked green, and only turn red en route to the local Safeway. Harvesting tomatoes this way, before they've received their full dose of nutrients from the vine, can make for some pretty bland fare. But how else could they endure the long trip without spoiling?
Flavr Savr was meant to be an alternative, a tomato that would ripen on the vine and remain firm in transit. Calgene scientists inserted into the fruit's genome a gene that retarded the tendency to spoil. The gene-jiggering worked - at least in terms of longer shelf life.
Then came the backlash. Critics of genetically modified food dubbed the Flavr Savr "Frankenfood." Sparked by the Flavr Savr's appearance before the US Food and Drug Administration, biotech watchdog Jeremy Rifkin set up the Pure Food Campaign, stalling FDA approval for three years and raising a ruckus that spread to Europe. When the tomato finally emerged, it demonstrated that there was no accounting for taste at Calgene. Flavr Savr wasn't just oddly spelled; it was a misnomer. Even worse, the fruit was a bust in the fields. It was highly susceptible to disease and provided low yields. Calgene spent more than $200 million to make a better tomato, only to find itself awash in red ink. Eventually, it was swallowed by Monsanto.
But the quest for a longer-lasting tomato didn't end there. As the Flavr Savr was stumbling (Monsanto eventually abandoned it), Israeli scientist Nachum Kedar was quietly bringing a natural version to market. By crossbreeding beefsteak tomatoes, Kedar had arrived at a savory, high-yield fruit that would ripen on the vine and remain firm in transit. He found a marketing partner, which licensed the tomato and flooded the US market without any PR problems. The vine-ripened hybrid, now grown and sold worldwide under several brand names, owes its existence to Kedar's knowledge of the tomato genome. He didn't use genetic engineering. His fruit emerged from a process that's both more sophisticated and far less controversial.
Welcome to the world of smart breeding.
The tale of the Flavr Savr is a near-perfect illustration of the plight of genetically modified organisms. A decade ago, GMOs were hailed as technological miracles that would save farmers money, lower food prices, and reduce the environmental damage unintentionally caused by the Green Revolution - a movement that increased yields but fostered reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and wanton irrigation. Gene jocks said they could give us even greater abundance and curb environmental damage by inserting a snip or two of DNA from another species into the genomes of various crops, a process known as transgenics.
In some cases, GMOs have fulfilled their promise. They've allowed US farmers to be more productive without as much topical pesticide and fertilizer. Our grocery stores are stuffed with cheaply produced food - up to 70 percent of all packaged goods contain GM ingredients, mainly corn and soybean. GM has worked even better with inedible crops. Take cotton. Bugs love it, which is why Southern folk music is full of tunes about the boll weevil. This means huge doses of pesticides. The world's largest cotton producer, China, used to track the human body count during spraying season. Then in 1996, Monsanto introduced BT cotton - a GMO that employs a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to make a powerful pesticide in the plant. BT cotton cuts pesticide spraying in half; the farmers survive.
But while producers have embraced GMOs, consumers have had a tougher time understanding the benefits. Environmentalists and foodies decry GMOs as unnatural creations bound to destroy traditional plants and harm our bodies. Europe has all but outlawed transgenic crops, prompting a global trade war that's costing US farmers billions in lost exports. In March, voters in Mendocino County, California, banned GMO farming within county lines.
Opponents have found an ally in crop scientists who condemn the conglomerates behind transgenics, especially Monsanto. The company owns scores of patents covering its GM seeds and the entire development process that creates them. This gives Monsanto a virtual monopoly on GM seeds for mainline crops and stifles outside innovation. No one can gene-jockey without a tithe to the life sciences giant.
Which brings us back to smart breeding. Researchers are beginning to understand plants so precisely that they no longer need transgenics to achieve traits like drought resistance, durability, or increased nutritional value. Over the past decade, scientists have discovered that our crops are chock-full of dormant characteristics. Rather than inserting, say, a bacteria gene to ward off pests, it's often possible to simply turn on a plant's innate ability.
The result: Smart breeding holds the promise of remaking agriculture through methods that are largely uncontroversial and unpatentable. Think about the crossbreeding and hybridization that farmers have been doing for hundreds of years, relying on instinct, trial and error, and luck to bring us things like tangelos, giant pumpkins, and burpless cucumbers. Now replace those fuzzy factors with precise information about the role each gene plays in a plant's makeup. Today, scientists can tease out desired traits on the fly - something that used to take a decade or more to accomplish.
Even better, they can develop plants that were never thought possible without the help of transgenics. Look closely at the edge of food science and you'll see the beginnings of fruits and vegetables that are both natural and supernatural. Call them Superorganics - nutritious, delicious, safe, abundant crops that require less pesticide, fertilizer, and irrigation - a new generation of food that will please the consumer, the producer, the activist, and the FDA.
Nearly every crop in the world has a corresponding gene bank consisting of the seeds of thousands of wild and domesticated relatives. Until recently, gene banks were like libraries with millions of dusty books but no card catalogs. Advances in genomics and information technology - from processing power to databases and storage - have given crop scientists the ability to not only create card catalogs detailing the myriad traits expressed in individual varieties, but the techniques to turn them on universally.
One of the smart breeder's most valuable tools is the DNA marker. It's a tag that sticks to a particular region of a chromosome, allowing researchers to zero-in on the genes responsible for a given trait - a muted orange hue or the ability to withstand sea spray. With markers, much of the early-stage breeding can be done in a lab, saving the time and money required to grow several generations in a field. Once breeders have marked a trait, they use traditional breeding tactics like tissue culturing - growing a snip of plant in a nutrient-rich medium until it's strong enough to survive on its own. One form of culturing, embryo rescue, allows breeders to cross distant relatives that wouldn't normally produce a viable offspring. This is important because rare, wild varieties often demonstrate highly desirable characteristics. After fertilization, a breeder extracts the premature embryo and fosters it in the lab. Another technique - anther culture - enables breeders to develop a complete plant from a single male cell.
The science behind some of these techniques makes transgenics look unsophisticated. But the sell is simple: Smart breeding is the best of transgenics crossed with the best of organics. It can feed the world, heal the earth, and put an end to the Big Ag monopoly.
Take it from Robert Goodman, the former head scientist at Calgene who now works with the McKnight Foundation, overseeing a $50 million program that funds genomics research in the developing world. "The public argument about genetically modified organisms, I think, will soon be a thing of the past," he says. "The science has moved on."
In the mid-'80s, a grad student in plant breeding at Cornell University was handed a task that none of her peers would take. Her name: Susan McCouch. Her loser assignment: Create a map of the 40,000 genes spread across the rice genome. In 1988, the completion of that work would be heralded as a scientific breakthrough. Sixteen years later, it's beginning to shake corporate control of science.
A genome map is a detailed outline of an organism's underlying structure. Until McCouch came along, rice - the most important food for most of the world's poor - was an orphan crop for research. Big Ag was interested only in the Western staples, wheat and corn. But good maps enlighten - geologists once looked at maps of South America and Africa and figured out that the edges of the two continents fit together, giving rise to the idea of plate tectonics. McCouch's map was just as revealing. Researchers compared it to the genomes of wheat and corn and realized that all three crops, along with other cereal grasses - more than two-thirds of humanity's food - have remarkably similar makeups. The volumes of research into corn and wheat could suddenly be used to better understand developing world essentials like rice, teff, millet, and sorghum. If scientists could find a gene in one, they'd be able to locate it in the others.
By extension, characteristics of one crop should be present in related plants. If a certain variety of wheat is naturally adept at defeating a certain pest, then rice should be, too; scientists would just need to switch on that ability. McCouch started her project as a way to unlock the door to the rice library; it turned out she cut a master key.
Still at Cornell, McCouch is now learning how crossbreeding domesticated rice with wild ancestors can achieve super-abilities that neither parent possesses. "We're finding things like genes in low-yielding wild ancestors, which if you move them into cultivated varieties can increase the yields of the best cultivar," McCouch says. "Or genes of tomatoes that come out of a wild background - they make a red fruit redder. We also have ways to make larger seeds, which can yield bigger fruit." Generations of unscientific plant breeding have inadvertently eliminated countless valuable genes and weakened the natural defenses of our crops. McCouch is recovering the complexity and magic.
Food scientists around the world are picking up on her work. In China, researcher Deng Qiyun, inspired by McCouch's papers, used molecular markers while crossbreeding a wild relative of rice with his country's best hybrid to achieve a 30 percent jump in yield - an increase well beyond anything gained during the Green Revolution. Who will feed China? Deng will. In India, the poorest of the poor can't afford irrigated land, so they grow unproductive varieties of dryland rice. By some estimates, Indian rice production must double by 2025 to meet the needs of an exploding population. One researcher in Bangalore is showing the way. H. E. Shashidhar has cataloged the genes of the dryland varieties and used DNA markers to guide the breeding toward a high-yield super-rice. In West Africa, smart breeders have created Nerica, a bountiful rice that combines the best traits of Asian and African parents. Nerica spreads profusely in early stages to smother weeds. It's disease-resistant, drought-tolerant, and contains up to 31 percent more protein than either parent.
This is not exclusively a matter of crafting new rice varieties in the developing world. Irwin Goldman, a horticulture professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, cites McCouch's work as critical to the progress he's made with carrots, onions, and beets. For example, he has spawned a striped beet through some sophisticated genome tweaking - and in the process revealed methods to improve the appearance and taste of all sorts of vegetables.
Beet genes make two pigments of a class of chemicals called betalain. When both are present, the beet is red. Switch off one gene, as happens in natural mutations, and the beet is gold. Switch it on and off at different stages and the beet becomes striped. Creating a striped beet is not hugely important by itself - striped heirloom varieties date back to 19th-century Italy. What's significant is that Goldman pinpointed the genes responsible for the trait and figured out how to turn them on.
By scouring the carrot gene bank, Goldman discovered several exotic varieties of carrots (ranging in color from yellow to orange, red, and
purple) that make vitamin E. Capitalizing on that native ability is a matter of tagging the relevant genes and crossbreeding the wild relatives with ordinary, everyday carrots. Gene bank searches are also revealing a whole host of antioxidants, sulfur compounds, and tannins - chemicals that bring sharp color and strong tastes - that have been stripped out of our lowest-common-denominator crops over the centuries. Many of these qualities not only fight cancer and increase the nutritional value of our vegetables, but also make them taste better while helping plants fight disease. We now have the ability to bring these traits back.
And we can do it quickly. It often takes seed companies several years to establish a new variety. To recover their investment, they release seeds that don't usually pass on the parents' traits, forcing farmers to buy new seed every year. Smart breeding, by contrast, is faster and cheaper because much of it can be done in the lab - reducing the time and expense of growing countless varieties in the field. Goldman's work is funded by university dollars, which allows him to give away the spoils. He links up with local organics growers, farmers' markets, and the expanding counter-agribusiness food movement and hands out open-pollinated seeds - ag's version of open source.
Richard Jefferson is an iconoclastic American bluegrass musician living in Australia. He's also a brash biotechnologist intent on wrestling control of our crops away from Big Agriculture. As head of Cambia (the Center for the Application of Molecular Biology to International Agriculture), a plant science think tank in Canberra, he's sowing the seeds of a revolt, citing the open source ethos of Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman as inspiration. "In the case of almost every single enabling technology, the corporations have acquired it from the public sector," he says. "They have the morals of stoats."
If McCouch and Goldman are making an end run around GMO by improving on methods that predate genetic engineering, Jefferson is taking a direct approach. All three scientists use an expanded knowledge of plant genomes to create new crop varieties. But where McCouch and Goldman do gene bank searches and study genome maps to figure out which plants to bring together, Jefferson digs into the genome itself and moves things around. He doesn't insert anything - he calls transgenics "hammer and tong science; as dull as dishwater" - but he's not above tinkering. His big
idea: manipulate plants to teach ourselves more about them.
Jefferson made a name for himself as a grad student in 1985 when he discovered GUS, a clever little reporter gene that causes a glow when it's linked to any active gene. He distributed GUS to thousands of university and nonprofit labs at no cost - but charged the Monsantos of the world millions. He used the money to establish Cambia, which invents technologies to help developing world scientists create food varieties without violating GMO patents.
Transgenic researchers treat the genome like software, as if it contained binary code. If they want an organism to express a trait, they insert a gene. But the genome is more complicated than software. While software code has two possible values in each position (1 and 0), DNA has four (A,C,T, and G). What's more, a genome is constantly interacting with itself in ways that suggest what complexity theorists call emergent behavior. An organism's traits are often less a reaction to one gene and more a result of the relationship between many. This makes the expression of DNA fairly mysterious.
Jefferson is out to master this squishy science with a practice he calls transgenomics. You are different from your siblings because your parents' genes were unzipped during reproduction and the 23 chromosomes on each half rejoined in a unique pattern. The same thing happens in plants. Jefferson has modified native genes to act as universal switches that turn a plant's latent genes on and off. Simply put, he's rigging the reproductive shuffle.
In a process he calls HARTs - homologous allelic recombination techniques
- Jefferson manipulates genomes (no insertions allowed) to force plants to mimic other crops. "We're taking inspiration from one plant and asking another plant to make that change in itself," he says. One example Jefferson likes to talk about is sentinel corn - a plant-sized version of the GUS gene that would turn red when it needs water. It may not sound like much, but by the time a traditional corn plant wilts, it's usually too late. More efficient irrigation would mean the difference between profit and loss - or nourishment and starvation.
Jefferson's greatest hope to challenge Big Ag comes in what's known as apomixis - plant cloning. He wants to teach all sorts of crops to clone themselves the way dandelions and blackberries do naturally. When a plant's seeds produce genetically identical offspring, there's no need to buy hybrid seeds every year. Jefferson and rival scientists claim to have several paths to apomixis - but the race is competitive and no one's offering details. The real problem, says Jefferson, is not developing the methods, but releasing them into a world of patents. "I am not a technological optimist who thinks that if you put a technology out there, everything is going to be fine," he says. "How you put it out there matters as much or more than what it is."
It's tempting to reach for the Linux versus Microsoft analogy to describe Cambia's plan to unlock some of the astounding technologies that remain dormant in labs and greenhouses. It's powerful, but also decentralized, networked, and accessible - democratic. It's like Monsanto's mainframe giving way to biotech's equivalent of the PC.
Agriculture is one of the most ill-conceived human endeavors. We plow down stable communities of hundreds of species of plants to get single-row crops. We replace entire ecosystems with pesticides, fertilizers, precious fresh water, and tractor emissions. Then, after every harvest, we start all over again. Organic agriculture breaks this cycle. But it's just a Band-Aid on the wound.
Add the knowledge and tools of biotechnology, though, and we are on the verge of something enormous. Plant genomes carry age-old records that reveal the complex manner by which nature manages itself. Researchers around the world - McCouch, Goldman, and Jefferson are a few examples - are learning to not only read those records but re-create them.
Which is not to say success is automatic. This new era of food won't arrive with a technological big bang. But that's a good thing. Single events are too easy to control and monopolize. A steady trickle of innovation will buy time to get the marketing right. Public perception is as complex as the genome, and just as important to master. The science is taking hold. If the business side can clearly communicate what superorganics are - and what they are not - these new foods will not only change the way we eat, they'll change the way we relate to the planet.
How Smart Breeding Works
The mission: Develop rice that's resistant to bacterial blight and will thrive around the globe.
SEARCH Food scientists scour the rice gene bank, consisting of 84,000 seed types, in search of varieties with blight immunity. INSERT MARKER Scientists extract DNA from selected varieties and tag the blight-immunity gene - previously identified by researchers - with a chemical dye.
CROSSBREED A network of researchers around the world cross disease-resistant varieties with thousands of local versions. With some plants, this means merely putting two varieties in a room. Self-pollinating rice requires manual pollen insertion. ANALYZE The offspring are analyzed to detect the presence of the immunity gene. Those containing the gene are planted in a field.
TEST Mature plants are exposed to bacterial blight to confirm resistance. Those that don't die, and maintain desired traits from the local variety, are distributed. Unless REPEAT Sometimes, the process reveals several genes responsible for a trait. Three genes confer resistance to different blight strains. In such cases, breeders repeat the crossbreeding until all genes are turned on.
END RESULT A rice plant with broad resistance to bacterial blight that will thrive in local conditions. ==
Richard Manning (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of 'Against the
Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization.'
What Are the Issues in Agricultural Biotechnology?
* What is biotechnology and why is it being used in our food supply?
- Agricultural biotechnology is really a collection of scientific techniques, including genetic engineering, used to improve plants, animals and microorganisms. Throughout history societies have been concerned with having a safe and abundant food supply. Our ancestors learned to improve their crops and livestock by breeding them to be hardier and provide more food. As a result, most of our crops and farm animals now look and taste different than they did centuries ago. Today, crops and livestock can be modified even more precisely through biotechnology.
* What is genetic engineering?
- All living things - including the fruits, vegetables and meat that we eat - contain genes that provide the instructions that tell the cells how to function. That information and many important traits are passed from generation to generation through genes, which are made of a large molecule called DNA, shaped much like a spiral staircase or "double helix." Every living thing contains DNA. Scientists do genetic engineering by cutting and moving snippets of DNA from one plant, animal or microbe to another in a process called gene splicing. Unlike traditional crossbreeding techniques that simultaneously introduce many genes (including unwanted genes), genetic engineering uses just the gene for a specific desirable trait.
* How long has genetic engineering been used in agriculture and food production?
- The first food products of biotechnology - an enzyme used in cheese production and a yeast used for baking - appeared on the market in 1990. Since 1995, farmers in the United States have been growing crops that are genetically engineered. You'll sometimes hear these referred to as biotech crops or GMOs (genetically modified organisms). In 2001, an estimated 5.5 million farmers grew biotech crops on 130 million acres in about 15 countries, led by the U.S., Canada and Argentina. Virtually all of the biotech crops on the market today were developed to reduce crop damage by weeds, diseases and insects.
* What other products are genetically engineered?
- The food industry has used genetically engineered bacteria and yeasts for more than 20 years to produce vitamins and nutritional supplements. Biotechnology also has produced medicines to treat a number of human health problems, including arthritis and heart disease. Virtually all insulin used to treat diabetes is now produced by biotechnology. Genetic engineering is commonly used in the production of detergents, textiles, pulp and paper, leather, metals, fuels and minerals
* What are the goals and potential benefits of agricultural biotechnology?
- Scientists who use genetic engineering techniques for food production have the same goal as traditional breeders -- making our food supply safer for consumers and the environment and less expensive to produce. Adding a new gene to a crop plant may benefit growers and consumers. This technique is being used to produce crops that are less vulnerable to insects, diseases and weeds. In the future, scientists hope to develop crops that can be used to create new materials or energy sources, provide more nutrients, treat diseases or serve as vaccines to prevent diseases.
* Are there potential risks associated with agricultural biotechnology?
- As technology advances, it is important that scientists and regulatory agencies assess the impacts of both new and existing technologies for farmworker and consumer safety and for any environmental effects on plants, animals and water systems. Some areas of risk-assessment considered with our present biotechnology crops include the potential for genes moving from genetically engineered crops into wild plants; pests eventually developing resistance to pest-resistant crops; introducing allergy-causing compounds or changing the nutritional composition in foods. These are the same types of concerns that should be evaluated with traditional methods of producing our food and fiber. Research conducted at land grant universities, like those that produced this brochure, is critical to this evaluation process.
* What are the effects of agricultural biotechnology on the environment?
- The environmental benefits of biotech crops vary by region and crop. They may include substantial reductions in traditional pesticide use and improved soil conservation practices. University scientists are comparing many of the short- and long-term impacts of biotechnology and alternative technologies. For example, they are studying how non-pest insects and plants are affected and the potential for pests to become resistant to various methods of control. Likewise, university scientists are examining the potential for pollen from biotech crops moving to other crops, and are trying to determine what impact, if any, such pollen transfer might have.
Production of a safe and sufficient food supply, grown in an environmentally responsible fashion, is essential for humanity. Like any technology, agricultural biotechnology will have economic and social impacts in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Agricultural biotechnology is just one thread in the complex tapestry associated with modernization and other aspects of an increasingly interconnected world. As biotechnology continues to evolve, factual and open public discourse is vital in order to define the role it will play in society. Which foods might contain ingredients made from genetically engineered plants?
If you eat the same foods as most Americans, you probably are consuming some foods from biotech crops. Because genetically engineered corn, soybean and cotton have been so widely planted by farmers, about 60 percent to 70 percent of all processed foods now contain at least one ingredient from a genetically engineered plant. Some of these ingredients may contain the DNA or protein from the biotech crops, while other common ingredients such as corn syrup, soybean oil and cottonseed oil are identical to ingredients from non-biotech crops.
In the U.S. in 2002, it is estimated that more than 70 percent of the soybean crop, over 30 percent of the corn crop and about 70 percent of the cotton crop will be genetically engineered for pest control. In Canada, more than half of the canola is genetically engineered to help in weed management. Biotech disease-resistant papaya and squash also are available. Biotech varieties of potato, tomato, rice, flax, sugar beet, sweet corn, melon and radicchio are approved for use in the U.S., but are not currently on the market.
* How can consumers be sure that biotech food products are safe to eat?
- The U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Department of Agriculture (USDA) have established regulations that govern the production and consumption of foods produced through biotechnology. These agencies work with university scientists and other individuals to develop the data to ensure these regulations are based on sound science. All available evidence to date shows that foods from biotech crops are as safe as foods from non-biotech crops. The U.S. food supply is among the safest in the world, but that doesn’t mean it is 100 percent safe. Nothing is. For example, the U.S. government attempts to ensure the highest possible level of food safety, but there still have been outbreaks of illness due to contamination or spoilage of our traditionally produced foods.
* What about dairy and meat products?
- No genetically engineered fish, cows, pigs, sheep, chickens or other food animals are on the market as of the publication of this brochure. However, livestock routinely eat feed made from biotech crops. More than 70 percent of the cheese on the U.S. market is made with a genetically engineered enzyme, replacing an animal-derived enzyme. And milk is commonly obtained from cows treated with a biotech version of a naturally occurring hormone called bovine somatotropin (bST), which is used to increase milk production.
* Why aren't biotech foods labeled?
- In the U.S., food labels reflect composition and safety, not the way the food is produced. Presently biotech foods do not require labeling because they have been judged to have the same nutritional content as similar non-biotech foods and no changes in allergens or other harmful substances. Additionally, some ingredients, such as oils derived from biotech crops, are identical to those from non-biotech crops. Future biotech products are expected to have improved nutritional value, and will be labeled to that effect.
* If biotech foods were required to be labeled, the labeling would not be based on nutritional quality or safety, but on the way those foods were produced. Should the method of production require labeling?
- Conventionally produced agricultural products do not require labels describing how they were produced. If a product is certified as organic it may be labeled as such for marketing purposes, but such a label does not mean that the product is safer to eat or that it was grown in a safer manner. It is estimated that foods certified to be biotech-free would cost more because the product would have to be tracked from the field to the market. And it would be far more complex to certify processed foods, which may contain dozens of ingredients. Each of those ingredients would have to be traced to confirm that it did not come from a biotech crop. It is unclear how biotech products would be set apart in a complex food system and who would pay for the additional costs. The fundamental question is whether labeling would help consumers make an informed choice about the safety or nutritional value of their foods.
* What if I don't want to eat foods made with biotech ingredients?
- You have that option. You can purchase food products that meet certified organic standards. These products don't allow the use of genetically engineered foods or processing aids. In addition, the FDA is considering voluntary labeling standards to assist manufacturers who choose to label their foods as being free of biotech ingredients. These standards would be designed to make sure the labels were truthful and not misleading. The FDA views the terms "derived through biotechnology" and "bioengineered" as acceptable, whereas it does not accept the terms "GM free," "GMO," or "modified" for labeling. These standards are being developed so consumers can have the option to purchase nonbiotech foods, not because biotech foods are unsafe or any less healthy.