Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - May 25, 2004:
* Potrykus: Experience from the Humanitarian Golden Rice Project
* GM crops and their developers have already proved that they have beneficial potential
* Consumer resistance puts GM corn on hold
* Gene firm pioneers desert crops
* DEMAND SEEN RISING FOR BT COTTON VARIETY
* Time to modify ideas about crops
* Monsanto and caveat formator
* BIOLOGICAL WEALTH & OTHER ESSAYS
* FAO: ‘Third world farmers need biotechnology to feed billions more’
* Modified papayas protected from virus
Experience from the Humanitarian Golden Rice Project:
Extreme Precautionary Regulation Prevents Use of Green Biotechnology in Public Projects
BioVision Alexandria 3-6 April 2004
By Ingo Potrykus
Professor emeritus Plant Sciences, ETH Zuerich, Switzerland
What are the consequences of the extreme precautionary regulation of green biotechnology for public research towards food security in developing countries? There are numerous scientists and institutions in developing countries who have the capacity, motivation, and often even funding to work towards scientific progress in the areas of pest-, disease-, drought-, heat-, cold-, saline-, heavy metal resistance with the potential to rescue harvests and to expand agricultural productivity to hostile environments; to improve photosynthetic efficiency and to enhance the exploitation of natural resources to increase productivity; to enhance nutritional content to reduce malnutrition with regards to micro-nutrients such as vitamin A etc.
Very few of those, however, have the financial and mental capacity to transform a scientific success into an applicable "product", which is the first prerequisite for benefit of the poor from a scientific advance. Probably no scientist nor institution in the public domain, however, have the resources, experience, and determination to carry a single GMO product across the hurdles of to days extreme precautionary regulatory procedures. Regulatory authorities in developing countries are less experienced, more insecure, and therefore, more stringent than their colleagues in developed countries.
Even with support from the experienced private sector deregulation of a novel GMO product has become a gigantic task. It is, therefore, very obvious that, if we continue with the present regulatory standards, the potential of green biotechnology will not reach the poor.
Full article at:
GM crops and their developers have already proved that they have beneficial potential
- Financial Times (Letter to editor)
Sir, Charlie Kronick argues that the promotion of GM technology owned by "multinational chemical companies" will not address the needs of the poor (Letters, May 20).
We share concerns that commercial companies and others who own intellectual property rights could have undue influence over the availability of GM crops. However, the example of Golden Rice (a genetically engineered product containing provitamin A), a successful collaboration between industry and public sector, shows that this need not necessarily be the case.
Licensing agreements will allow Golden Rice to be made available free of charge to farmers and traders whose profit is below Dollars 10,000 (Pounds
5,500) per year, reducing concerns about excessive corporate control. Similar public-private partnerships should be encouraged.
Access to GM technology is crucial for further research. New initiatives such as the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), which seeks to facilitate access to plant breeding technologies that are relevant to the needs of small-scale African farmers, are therefore particularly welcome.
The crucial challenge for policymakers is to find cost-effective and environmentally sustainable ways to improve human health, nutrition and the livelihood of poor farmers.
To suggest that GM crops "will do nothing" is disingenuous. The potential of GM crops has already been demonstrated, as the Nuffield Council has described in a recent discussion paper. This emphasised that possible costs, benefits and risks can only be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Sandy Thomas, Director, Nuffield Council on Bioethics, London WC1B 3JS
Consumer resistance puts GM corn on hold
Despite the Commission's recent authorisation of the GM corn Bt-11, the producer has announced that it will not commercialise it for the time being due to strong consumer resistance.
European consumers will not be offered GM corn in their supermarkets for the time being. Even after the recent authorisation of the product through the Commission, the Swiss company Syngenta has decided not to market its GM maize Bt-11 in the EU. As a reason for this, Syngenta cited the resistance of the European food industry to add GM corn to their product range.
In an interview with the French newspaper 'Les Echos', André Goig of Syngenta said that the food industry had clearly announced that they would not commercialise GM maize.
Mr Going stated that Syntega was now trying to secure EU approval to cultivate Bt-11 for animal feed, saying that farmers were more likely to accept the product. However, this also would only be commercialised if and when clients were interested in using the maize.
On 19 May 2004, the Commission's approval of the genetically modified sweetcorn variety Bt-11 in fresh or canned form for human consumption put an end to the de facto moratorium on new GM products that has been in place in the EU since 1998 (see EurActiv 19 May 2004).
The Bt-11 corn has been genetically modified to produce its own insecticide. According to the EU's new GMO legislation, which came into force on 18 April 2004, all products containing the corn will have to be clearly labelled. Grain from the corn variety has been authorised for EU import since 1998 and is already widely used in animal feed and food products such as oil, maize flour and sugar. At the moment, over 30 GM products and foods are awaiting approval for import into the EU.
Gene firm pioneers desert crops
- The Guardian, By Paul Murphy, May 21, 2004
The prospect of crops that can be irrigated with sea water and grown in hostile environments such as deserts has been promised by a group of American scientists whose genetic modification business was quietly floated on the London stock market yesterday.
FuturaGene, a company formed to protect patents over a series of gene discoveries, has pooled the work of plant experts at three US agricultural research institutions.
The scientists claim to be pursuing a new type of "eco-friendly" genetics which has allowed them to develop prototype tomato and rice plants able to thrive in salt-rich soils and hibernate in conditions of extreme cold or drought.
They are now raising money to fund trials of the new crops, aiming to win approval from the US department of agriculture and the food and drug administration for commercial use. But the fact they have turned to British investors - rather than the GM-friendly US capital markets - is likely to reignite the debate in this country over whether GM crops are safe to cultivate.
The scientists, from the universities of Purdue, Arizona, and Illinois, argue that their technology overcomes earlier concerns about agricultural genetics by avoiding the introduction of foreign genes into plant species.
Their approach has been to study how plants protect themselves from environmental stresses and then to enhance the plant's natural defence systems by amplifying the relevant genes. One gene in particular, SOS1, helps plants grow in salt-rich soils, which are becoming a problem thanks to poor irrigation. The gene helps plants pump salt out of their roots before it can damage them.
Ultimately FuturaGene hopes to develop plants that can be grown by irrigating them with sea water instead of fresh water. "This is our dream," said Bruno Ruggiero, the company's chief executive.
Despite the company's declared good intentions, some remained sceptical. "At this moment in time, the population is really sensitive about the whole GM issue and they don't trust these companies," said Carlo Leifert, a professor of organic agriculture at Newcastle University.
Until the trials have been completed it is impossible to know how well the plants will perform in the wild. To cope with salt-rich soils they will have to pump salt that gets into their roots back into the soil, a process which takes up energy.
FuturaGene's leading academic, Dr Ray Bressan, a professor at Purdue University, expressed frustration at the continued suspicion of the British and other European publics towards genetic modification of any type. "Those in the green movement may have their hearts in the right place, but there is very little knowledge. The debate is low-grade and alarmist.
"Our aim is to get more production on less land, which means that less land is used for agriculture. Any ecologist will tell you that conventional agriculture has a larger negative impact on the world than anything else," he says.
A third of the world's irrigated land is deemed useless because it contains too much salt. When soil is irrigated, especially in hot countries, the water evaporates, leaving salts behind. One solution is to flush the area with more water but when water is at a premium this is not an option.
In the US salt-rich soils account for £4bn in lost yields every year. The resistant crops would also find markets outside the US, primarily in China, Australia and South America.
DEMAND SEEN RISING FOR BT COTTON VARIETY
- Hindu Business Line, May 24, 2004
THERE appears to be a mad rush for getting newer Bt cotton varieties approved by the Review Committee on Genetic Modification (RCGM) of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) for field trials.
With the RCGM clearing a list, which is just 5 short of 100 from 10 seed producing companies for small-scale field trials at ICAR institutes, the seed producing sector is upbeat about the prospect. But the scientific community is not so.
They foresee the cropping up of sundry material and are in the process of limiting the number of entries (for test) by each of the companies.
However, with the RCGM approval in place, these varieties are ready for being taken up in ICAR field trials.
The All-India Coordinated Cotton Improvement Project (AICCIP) trials, it is reliably learnt, are to be conducted at 5 locations in each of the three cotton zones (North, Central and South) very soon.
The scientific community feel that the seed producing companies were over-reacting to the situation, as it was happening within 2 years of getting the GEAC clearance for the three varieties - Bt Mech 12, Bt Mech 162 and Bt Mech 184 - developed by Monsanto in collaboration with its Indian partner Mahyco for commercial cultivation in central and southern India.
According to estimates, the area under Bt cotton is still negligible at over 92,000 hectare out the total of over 9 million hectare under cotton.
In 2002-03, the first year of its approval for commercial cultivation, the area under Bt cotton at 38,038 hectare was just 0.51 per cent of the area under cotton during that period.
Time to modify ideas about crops
- Monterey Herald, May. 22, 2004, By Don Curlee
This may come as a shock to those hoping for an end to the acceptance of genetically modified crops and food products: It appears that the trend is much nearer the beginning than the end.
Alfalfa is one of the last major California crops to be genetically modified. Seeds are being prepped that will allow it to resist certain weed sprays. When the chemical is applied to a field of newly emerged alfalfa, the hay crop will remain healthy while sprouting weeds wither.
The popular term for such crops is "Roundup Ready," meaning they can tolerate Roundup, the well-known glyphosate herbicide compound developed by Monsato. Roundup Ready cotton has become widely accepted in the past two or three years -- the herbicide has become a staple for home gardeners as well.
Keeping alfalfa as weed-free as possible is a goal of every farmer who produces it. Prices for alfalfa can fluctuate drastically for hay choked with weeds, and bales that are clean.
Controlling weeds is essential when the alfalfa crop is young. A mature crop can shade out any weeds that try to grow.
Alfalfa, one of the earliest domesticated crops, is grown on more acres in California than any other crop, and in practically every county. Because it is so important to the state's dairy industry, one University of California researcher refers to it as "ice cream in the making."
The university is in the midst of research on genetically modified alfalfa in anticipation of a possible commercial release in 2005.
They warn that Roundup Ready alfalfa will not amount to a silver bullet for growers because not all weeds that thrive in the conditions of a young alfalfa field are susceptible to the glyphosate compound.
They also have concerns about "weed shift," in which certain weeds find new locations within a field to survive. Others may develop resistance. When that happens, a separate chemical must be added to the mix in order to provide broader coverage and weed control.
They are trying to anticipate consumer reaction to genetically modified hay and to the products from cows that feed on it. So far, they expect the most severe reaction to come from the export market, particularly Japan, where genetically modified phobia is well-entrenched.
Those who oppose genetically modified crops can take consolation in glyphosate's action against weed plants. It enters the plants' systems and kills from within, reducing amounts of the chemical -- which is non-toxic to humans -- that reaches the soil.
And horse owners, even if they balk at genetically modified produce initially, must recognize that a number of horses die each year from poisonous weeds hiding in baled hay. For them, being Roundup Ready beats heading for the last roundup.
Don Curlee is a freelance writer from Clovis who writes about farm-related topics throughout California. His column appears Saturdays. Please mail queries to "Agriculture at Large," c/o The Monterey County Herald, P.O. Box 271, Monterey 93942.
Monsanto and caveat formator
- Globe and Mail Update, By STEPHEN STRAUSS, May. 25, 2004
No matter where you lived in Canada, it seemed you could hear the whoops and whistles from the opponents of genetically modified everything when the Monsanto Corporation decided to withdraw its GM wheat from the market two weeks ago.
On its behalf, the company offered the most detumescent of explanations for why they were walking away from a research effort costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
They weren't ultimately abandoning their plans, they were just ”deferring” the herbicide-resistant wheat's introduction.
And they were doing this because, Monsanto's company chairman said, ”our buyers were saying they did not want this.” It was an interesting turn of events and worthy of a new Latin catchphrase – C aveat formator (Let the maker beware) – but what the Monsanto decision doesn't tell you was why wheat, of all human foodstuffs, cries out to be genetically engineered, and why GM engineering of it is all be inevitable.
To begin with, wheat is a uniquely complicated DNA creation. Each seed may carry within in it the genetic remains of not one, but three different wild ancestors.
Some time after human cultivation began about 10,000 ago, these species were cross pollinated, and in so doing produced a new wheat species with several genetic ”wows” attached to it. The three-parent background is one of the reasons wheat DNA is huge – 16 billion base pairs long – five times the length of the human genome. The three species each had seven chromosomes, but when they came together they produced a wheat with 21 chromosomes. And on each of those chromosomes can be duplicate copies of the same gene.
All told, there are somewhere from 50,000 to 100,000 genes in wheat – more accurate numbers should appear in the next year or so – and accordingly it contains two to three times as many genes as are in human DNA.
This translates into a situation where making changes in wheat is extremely complicated and chancy with classical breeding techniques.
Ron DePauw, a researcher with Agriculture Canada in Swift Current, Sask., has recently made a calculation showing that if you were to be looking for one different gene on all of wheat's 21 chromosomes, it would take two million cross-breedings between parent stock to ensure that you had a good chance of getting the plant with all the characteristics you wanted..
If you added another requirement, say something such as the three genes that resist a common wheat blight, it takes 16 million crosses to get a plant that carries together all the multiple traits.
These are not pie-in-the-sky big numbers, because there are a host of different, and often conflicting, genetic qualities that farmers, manufacturers and the eaters of the world look for in new wheat varieties.
How strong the stalk is may be as important as how many kernels you produce. How easily milled a new variety is and how it tastes may trump its ability to thrive in cold or dry conditions.
Once you create a hybrid that carries the desired traits, you cross it back with your initial species to produce something with both the good qualities of the original and the new traits you have bred in. A long process.
Ultimately getting from new variety to official approval of a new strain can take from seven to 12 years.
In comparison, genetic engineering allows you to pluck a gene out of one species and stick it into your target species. The technology is not quite ”zip-zip” yet, but it is getting there.
Wheat gene selection is so complicated that when we get a sense of how many wheat genes there are and what they do, nobody – let me emphasize that – nobody is going to continue to create new strains with classical cross-breeding.
Everybody is going to reach in and pull a gene from the DNA of this wild relative, and another gene from the DNA of that one, and yet another from a third and insert them in just the proper chromosomes to create a new kind of wheat. And likely in about a New York research minute, scientists are going start pulling genes from different varieties of wheat's near cultivated relatives, rye and barley and sticking them in as well.
It is not only going to be quicker to make wheat that way, but cleaner, as classical breeding does not move just a gene but the whole, sticky mass of chromosomal DNA to which the gene is attached. And once you get the wheat-gene transfer system automated and you know what genes do, you can easily imagine the two-million-cross-breeding operation requiring only a few tens or a hundred of individuals and being accomplished in an afternoon.
Thus, unless something quite unforeseen arises, the change to GM from classical breeding will likely be as absolute and irreversible as the move from telegrams to telephones or from typewriters to computers has proved in the past.
And why not? Why would you do something that is grossly time consuming and just as grossing inaccurate, if you didn't have to? If there is an evolutionary law of technological change it is that however unnerving at first, the quickest, easiest way wins out.
GM is easy and quick, and resisting it will probably in the long run prove as futile as Luddites' trying resist the flow of electricity.
All of which leads us back to Monsanto.
Why didn't they just wait a little while until wheat genetic modification had become so normal that nobody remembered when it wasn't normal?
Greed, some may say, and the failure to realize that being first in line in a technological revolution is often the wrong place to be when people have not yet realized that the revolution is inevitable.
BIOLOGICAL WEALTH & OTHER ESSAYS
By Krishna R. Dronamraju, Published by World Scientific Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd., PO Box 128, Farrer Road, Singapore 912805.
BIOLOGICAL WEALTH is a unique resource exclusive to the planet earth and almost all the other wealth is derived from it. " The DNA revolution in recent decades has focussed attention on the biological wealth of our planet that is exemplified in the biodiversity that is around us. As the economic and scientific implications of the biological wealth of our planet have become more obvious in recent years, commercial interests have taken a keen interest in exploiting these new opportunities," observes the author of the book.
Biotechnology is one of the hotly debated topics of the decade. Research on genetic modifications have thrown open unlimited opportunities for developing novel genetic combinations, and some of them can be of immense value in the battle against biotic and abiotic stresses. It opens up new vistas in bringing about a nutrition revolution.
However, like any new technology, it is also riddled with problems. There is serious apprehension in the minds of the public about the food and environmental aspects of genetically modified crops. Newer issues such as the legally binding Intellectual Property Rights, Convention on Biodiversity, the Cartegena Protocol on Bio-safety and plant breeders' and farmers' rights have come to the foreground and implemented with earnestness.
The author, a distinguished geneticist and biotechnologist, has dwelt at length on contentious issues such as patenting in biotechnology, patenting in agriculture and medicine and drug development and intellectual property.
His well-informed essays on global economy and genomics, risks resulting from the application of agricultural biotechnology highlighting the ground truths, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) safety measures, and GMOs and politics will serve as excellent reference material for the students and researchers of biotechnology in agriculture and medicine.
He has extensively discussed interesting issues such as culture and biodiversity, DNA technology, ethics and genetic engineering and the relevance of biotechnology to the developing countries.
This publication with a foreword by M.S. Swaminathan, will be a valuable guide to the students and researchers of biotechnology in agriculture and medicine.
FAO: ‘Third world farmers need biotechnology to feed billions more’
- Monday Morning (Lebanon), May 24, 2004
Biotechnology could help third world farmers feed two billion extra people 30 years from now, but so far very few countries and only a handful of crops are receiving its benefits, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has said.
Basic food crops of the poor such as cassava, potato, rice and wheat receive little attention by scientists, the FAO’s director-general, Jacques Diouf, said in the organization’s annual report.
“Neither the private nor the public sector has invested significantly in new genetic technologies for the so-called ‘orphan crops’ such as cowpea, millet, sorghum and tef that are critical for the food supply and livelihoods of the world’s poorest people”.
The FAO’s deputy director-general, Hartwig De Haen, told a news conference, however, that “we do not want to say that the biotechnologies can solve all the problems”, adding that he hoped the report “will be helpful to countries who want to have their own capacity to make their own decisions”.
The report noted that private-sector research dominates biotechnology. The top 10 transnational bioscience corporations spend nearly three billion dollars a year on agricultural biotechnology research and development. Most private investment is concentrated on cotton, maize, soybean and canola, also called rapeseed.
Last year, six countries -- Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, South Africa and the United States -- and those four crops, developed for insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, accounted for 99 percent of the global area planted in transgenic crops.
“There are no major public or private-sector programs to tackle the critical problems of the poor or targeting crops and animals they rely on”, the report said, pointing out that biotechnology was much more than genetically-modified, or transgenic, organisms and said it should complement, not replace, conventional agricultural technologies.
Biotechnology could also speed up conventional animal breeding programs and provide diagnostic tools and vaccines to help control diseases.
It could reduce the use of chemicals that harm the environment and human health, improve the nutritional quality of staple foods and create new products for health and industrial uses.
But poor farmers could only benefit from biotechnology products if they “have access to them on profitable terms. Thus far, these conditions are only being met in a handful of developing countries”.
Barriers to access included “inadequate regulatory procedures, complex intellectual property issues, poorly functioning markets and seed delivery systems and weak domestic plant breeding capacity”.
Brazil, China and India, which have the largest public agricultural research programs in developing countries, spent less than half a billion dollars each annually, while private research in most developing countries was negligible, according to the report.
A key constraint in many developing countries was the lack of agricultural research capacity, particularly in plant and animal breeding.
In the few developing countries where they are used, “transgenic crops have delivered large economic benefits to farmers”.
In China, more than four million small farmers grew insect-resistant cotton on about 30 percent of the country’s total cotton area. Yields were about 20 percent higher than for conventional varieties and pesticide costs were 70 percent lower.
Pesticide use was reduced by an estimated 78,000 tons in 2001, an amount equal to about a quarter of the total chemical pesticides used in China.
“Scientists generally agree that the transgenic crops currently being grown and the foods derived from them are safe to eat, although little is known about their long-term effects.
“There is less scientific agreement on the environmental impacts of transgenic crops. The legitimate concerns for the safety of each transgenic product must be addressed prior to its release. Careful monitoring of the post-release effects of these products is essential”.
Modified papayas protected from virus
- The Straits Times, May 20, 2004
THE papaya ring spot virus decimated harvests of the fruit in Hawaii in the 1990s, shrinking yields to less than half of the normal 50,000 tonnes a year.
Attempts to get rid of the disease by removing the affected plants, developing a vaccine and using traditional plant breeding systems failed.
So scientists modified the fruit's genes, inserting a small portion of the virus' genetic structure. The new fruit is resistant to ring spot, and papaya production is back to normal.
The example of how genetic modification can have tangible benefits and pose no safety problems to those who eat the genetically modified (GM) item was cited by United States State Department's senior negotiator for agricultural biotechnology, Mr Peter Chase.
In fact, the non-GM papaya plants also benefited, he added.
By growing them within a ring of GM crops, this protected them from potentially fatal insect attacks.
Mr Chase, whose country is the world's largest producer of GM food, said that many opponents of such technology dismiss all such produce as bad.
'Biotech products should be regulated. And that regulation should be based on science, something which is not universally the case now,' he told The Straits Times.
'There seems to be an over-emphasis on the risks rather than the benefits. My objective is keeping the door open for people to use the technology.'