Today in AgBioView at www.agbioworld.org; September 24, 2004
* Avery and Benbrook on Organic foods
* Greens Confuse Science & Politics
* GMOS: Whole Foods' employees, customers need better information, critics say
* Coexistence Exists
* UC Berkeley researchers identify chlorophyll-regulating gene
* IITA trains Nigerian policy makers on biotech
* One step closer to the perfect crop plant back
A FOOD CHAIN RELEASE FROM METROFARM.COM
Avery and Benbrook on Organic foods
We now spend over $10 Billion a year on organic foods. And so it’s time to ask, “Is organic food really better than food that is not organic?”
This Saturday at 9AM Pacific, the Food Chain with Michael Olson hosts Alex Avery from the Center for Global Food Issues and Charles Benbrook from the Organic Center for Education and Promotion for a conversation about the veracity of organic foods.
(Listen on your computer at http://www.metrofarm.com)
Topics include the reasons behind the explosive growth of organic foods; what scientific evidence exists, or does not exist, as to whether organic foods are actually better; and what consumers can do to make up their own mind as to the veracity of organic foods.
Listeners are invited to call the program on KFRM, KGET, KGOE, KMPH, KNTK, KOMY, KSCO,KSIR, KTIP, KVON or TRUTH RADIO with questions and comments, or log them to the Forum page at www.metrofarm.com.
Greens Confuse Science & Politics
- New Zealand Life Sciences Network, 24 September 2004
The Green Party has confused science and politics, in claiming that Europe has rejected the genetically modified (GM) corn New Zealand accepted, the Chairman of the Life Sciences Network Dr William Rolleston said today.
“In fact, the European Union has only postponed a vote at the political stage of the approval process. This is despite the European Food Safety Authority’s Scientific Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms giving MON 863 a clean bill of health.
“The European Commission has said the decision was postponed because there were not enough votes for or against to make a decision either way. The matter will be voted on again, once member states have more information. These sorts of delays are typical of the approval process in Europe.
“We are fortunate in New Zealand that decisions on safety are based on science, not politics. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has completed a comprehensive safety assessment, and concluded that foods derived from MON 863 are as safe and wholesome as foods derived from other corn varieties. If there is credible new information, then of course the authority should consider it.
“Contrary to the Green’s claims, the rat feeding study which featured in the French media last April, does not indicate MON 863 to be unsafe for human consumption. The report of the *European Food Safety Authority’s Scientific Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms says:
“The results of 90-day sub-chronic rodent studies do not indicate adverse effects from consumption of MON 863 and MON 810 and the Panel concludes that there are no concerns over their safety. The Panel considers that the nutritional properties of these maize lines would be no different from those of conventional maize.”
“The rat feeding study Ms Fitzsimons refers to has also been completely disregarded by scientific experts.
“The real difference is that New Zealand is in the midst of local body elections, where the Greens are desperately trying to put GM back on the political agenda. Dressing politics up as scientific fact has happened too often in the GM debate for the media or the public to take it seriously,” concluded Dr Rolleston.
GMOS: Whole Foods' employees, customers need better information, critics say
- CEC Houston, BySarah Morgan, September 2004 (VIA AGNET)
With more and more consumers seeking out organic produce with nature's original genes still intact, Whole Foods has, according to this story, become a Mecca for environmentally conscious eaters. But questions have been raised as to whether Whole Foods, touted as America's first certified organic national grocer, is being completely honest with customers concerning the labeling of genetically modified foods. The story says that when questioned, employees at both of Houston's Whole Foods stores denied that they sell GMO foods, but a phone call to the corporate office yielded a more informed response. Representatives at the corporate level were cited as saying that they cannot guarantee that Whole Foods stores do not carry GMO products. In fact, odds are that they carry hundreds of products that contain GMOs.
The Whole Foods' web site was quoted as saying, "When it comes to our food supply we are very concerned about the disruptive effect genetic engineering may have on our environment and whether long-term human health issues have been thoroughly addressed. … We are actively engaged in efforts to establish mandatory labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients. Labeling will enable consumers to avoid products produced by means that may be contradictory to religious, spiritual, and/or ethical beliefs."
Jenny Clark, a shareholder who has been active in the dialogue between shareholders and the Whole Foods' corporate offices concerning the marketing and labeling of GMO products, was quoted as saying, "We've been very disappointed with Whole Foods' response."
Candace Boheme, a shareholder advisor also active concerning GMOs, was quoted as saying, "They are building their business on a myth," and that the brochures about GMOs that the stores once carried are no longer being displayed prominently, if at all, and customers are not informed.
The story says that the Whole Foods' corporate office will openly admit that the only way to avoid GMOs is to buy organic food, but food products that are labeled as being organic may still contain GMOs, as the US Food and Drug Administration standard for the organic label requires that only 95 percent of ingredients be organic.
- Chairman, Truth About Trade & Technology, by Dean Kleckner, 9/24/2004
“It’s coexistence or no existence,” said the philosopher Bertrand Russell many years ago.
He was talking about war and peace in the nuclear age. But he might as well have been addressing one of the thorniest questions in U.S. agriculture today: the concern that biotech and organic crops can’t thrive side by side.
The simple fact is that they already do. Biotech foods are flourishing, as growing numbers of farmers decide that genetically enhanced corn, soybeans, cotton, and other crops are right for them. At the same time, organic products represent a booming sector of the food industry. Each one is a great American success story.
Yet there are points of conflict, and the most significant is probably the question of biotech “pollution”--the fear that genetically enhanced crops will somehow “contaminate” organic fields.
There are several problems with this kind of thinking, and the first is the notion that biotech enhanced foods are somehow less “pure” than organic foods. No staple crop occurs in what may be called its natural state--everything we eat is the product of genetic manipulation. It might be an organic cucumber, a conventionally produced ear of sweet corn or a biotech papaya that’s been built to resist disease; all are the result of centuries of crossbreeding and genetic improvement. All are perfectly healthy and delicious--and better than what came before.
Moreover, there’s no reason why biotech and organic crops can’t both find a place at the table, especially when consumers are expressing preferences for each.
To be sure, coexistence comes with complications. Even families occasionally have some conflict. Some organic farmers worry about neighboring fields of biotech crops spreading pollen onto their organic crops. The concern actually travels both ways: Biotech farmers could just as easily say organic fields threaten their own harvests because of their failure to control weeds effectively.
There’s a simple answer to both of these problems: paying careful attention to the field location and planting schedule. Nobody is more concerned about unknown pollen drifting into their fields than breeders developing new and improved plants. They protect their crops rigorously, physically separating them from perceived threats and growing barriers of trees as additional safeguards. No system is foolproof, but this one has worked successfully for decades.
Farmers understand the importance of crop integrity too. That’s why we support a strong, science and common-sense based regulatory framework. Producer involvement with the U.S. regulatory system in the design and implementation of appropriate standards and rules will help ensure the integrity of the crops they produce whether they are organic or biotech enhanced.
It’s worth noting that no organic farmer has lost his certification, as established under USDA rules, because the wind has blown a few seeds or pollen from biotech fields onto his own plot. It simply hasn’t happened--ever. It is also worth noting that of the four crops that have biotech varieties in the U.S. – corn, soybeans, cotton and canola – organic varieties of these crops are grown on less than 1% of the acres planted to these crops.
In the end, we need to recognize that we live in a market economy and the ultimate arbiters will be consumers. They’re the ones who continue to demand a diversity of foods any time of year at the lowest price possible – including those that are willing to pay a premium for organically produced food.
Before long, many of today’s organic consumers are going to say, “Make mine biotech.” That’s because up to now, the benefits of biotech enhanced crops have been most visible to the producers who have seen their yields increase and the environmental friendly safeguards go up. These advantages no doubt save consumers an awful lot of money, though most of them don’t realize it when they’re zipping through grocery stores and filling their shopping baskets.
In the near future, however, the benefits of biotechnology will be apparent to all as heart-healthy soybeans and other products begin to transform the marketplace. The foods will be healthier than many otherwise comparable alternatives--and people will even pay a premium for them, just as they do now for organic food.
One thing is certain: Biotech and organic foods have coexisted in the past, they’re coexisting now, and they’ll coexist in the future. The only other choice is mutually assured destruction.
UC Berkeley researchers identify chlorophyll-regulating gene
- UC Berkeley News, By Sarah Yang, 23 September 2004
BERKELEY – Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have identified a critical gene for plants that start their lives as seeds buried in soil. They say the burial of seeds was an adaptation that likely helped plants spread from humid, wet climates to drier, hostile environments.
In a study published in the Sept. 24 issue of the journal Science, the researchers found that a gene called phytochrome-interacting factor 1, or PIF1, affects the production of protochlorophyll, a precursor of the chlorophyll used by plants to convert the sun's energy into food during photosynthesis.
While a seed germinates under soil, in the dark, it is producing a controlled amount of protochlorophyll in preparation for its debut above ground. Much like a baby takes his or her first breath of air after emerging from the womb, seedlings must quickly convert protochlorophyll into chlorophyll once they are exposed to light for the first time.
"It's a delicate balancing act," said Peter Quail, professor of plant and microbial biology at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources and principal investigator of the study. "The young plant needs some protochlorophyll to get the ball rolling in photosynthesis. But if the plant accumulates too much of the compound, it leads to photo-oxidative stress, which is seen as bleaching on the leaves. The overproduction of protochlorophyll is like a ticking time bomb that is set off by the sun."
Quail is also research director of the Plant Gene Expression Center, a joint research center of the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of California.
The researchers targeted the PIF1 gene because it binds to phytochrome, a protein that is triggered by light and that controls a plant's growth and development. The researchers disabled the PIF1 gene in the species Arabidopsis thaliana, a mustard plant, and compared the mutant seedlings with a control group of normal plants.
They grew the seedlings in the dark to mimic conditions beneath the soil, bringing groups out into the light at different time points throughout a six-day period. In nature, seeds are typically buried under 2 to 10 millimeters of soil, taking anywhere from two to seven days to germinate and break through the soil surface.
"We found that mutated plants had twice the levels of protochlorophyll than normal, wild-type plants, suggesting that phytochrome acts as a negative regulator for protochlorophyll," said lead author Enamul Huq, who conducted the study while he was a post-doctoral researcher at UC Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. "We also saw that the longer the seedlings were grown in the dark, the more likely they would die when they were exposed to light."
The mutated seedlings failed to switch off production of protochlorophyll throughout the germination period, so the longer the seedlings stayed in the dark, the more toxic the levels became.
Huq, now an assistant professor of molecular cell and developmental biology at the University of Texas at Austin, pointed out that it is an "unbound" form of protochlorophyll that is toxic. Normal plants, he said, produce enough of an enzyme, called protochlorophyllide oxidoreductase, to bind with typical levels of protochlorophyll. But not enough of the enzyme is produced to handle the overabundance of unbound protochlorophyll churned out by the mutant seedlings.
The researchers say the ability of plants to precisely regulate production of protochlorophyll was probably an evolutionary development designed to ensure seed survival among higher plants.
Primitive plants, such as mosses and some species of fern, thrive in moist, humid environments where their spores can stay safely above the soil surface. But all higher plants - from grasses to trees to agricultural crops such as wheat and corn - must have the ability to transition from the darkness of an underground environment to life above ground.
"The development of seed burial in plants provided a long-term survival benefit through protection from predators and hostile surface conditions," said Quail. "The true test of our hypothesis would be to verify whether primitive plants have the PIF1 gene, and whether the gene is functional."
The finding may also have implications for agricultural biotechnology, allowing researchers to manipulate the gene to improve the efficiency with which plants carry on photosynthesis.
Other co-authors of the study are Bassem Al-Sady and Matthew Hudson of UC Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, and Chanhong Kim and Klaus Apel of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's Institute of Plant Sciences in Zurich, Switzerland.
The study was supported by grants from the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, the USDA and Syngenta.
IITA trains Nigerian policy makers on biotech
- Crop Biotech Update, September 24, 2004
About 100 Nigerian top civil servants from the Ministries of Agriculture and Rural Development, Science and Technology, and Environment participated in a biotechnology seminar organized at Abuja, by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), under the auspices of the Nigeria Agriculture and Biotechnology Project (NABP). The seminar aimed at assisting top government officials to make policy decisions on biotechnology. They were also enlightened on the contributions of biotechnology to the socio-economic development of Nigeria especially in health, medicine, agriculture, food security, human nutrition, and environmental protection.
In a message to the participants, Nigeria’s Minister of Environment, Alhaji Bala Mande said food biotechnology offers a viable option for achieving food security. He remarked that despite the potentials of biotechnology, there was still some level of reluctance and hesitation to embrace it, adding that public education was an important strategy to achieve acceptability. He urged Nigerian biotechnology stakeholders to apply the best practices in the course of research and development on environmental considerations, while adhering faithfully to the Nigerian biosafety guidelines.
Dr. Christian Fatokun, IITA Cowpea Breeder, explained that among NABP’s objectives are to build national capacity to conduct research and development for bioengineering of priority crops; develop the capacity of t he national biosafety committee to review and approve applications for field testing and commercialization of bioengineered crops; and to develop public awareness and acceptance of the benefits of biotechnology through balanced dissemination of information on the benefits and possible risks. He said the project supports the Federal Government’s policy to initiate appropriate steps to explore the use of biotechnology and ensure that Nigeria becomes a key participant in the international biotechnology enterprise within a decade.
For more information about the IITA workshop on biotechnology, contact II TA Taye Babaleye, Head, Public Affairs, at email@example.com.
One step closer to the perfect crop plant back
- Checkbiotech, September 24, 2004, By Flora Mauch,
REDWOOD CITY – Herbicide tolerance is the most common transgenic crop trait in the world. Its importance might increase in the next years, as researchers discovered a new gene, providing a robust tolerance against glyphosate, one of the most important commercially sold herbicide active ingredients.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the herbicides Roundup from Monsanto and Touchdown by Syngenta. Generally, it is toxic to all kinds of weeds and crops. Thus for a long time, it was not possible to use it in agriculture. Only since glyphosate tolerant crops have been developed with the help of genetic engineering, has glyphosate been frequently used to increase crop yields. 80% of the U.S. market in soybeans and cotton are now plants that tolerate glyphosate.
The way glyphosate operates, is it inhibits the synthesis of essential aromatic amino acids. Under these conditions, plants are not able to survive. However, there is a similar enzyme in some microorganisms that does the same work, but is not affected by glyphosate. Researchers took this into account and inserted the resistant enzyme’s gene into crop plants. Thus, desired plants can even survive in the presence of high concentrations of herbicide. Regrettably, glyphosate remains in the plant and accumulates. In this way, it might interfere with reproductive development and may lower crop yield if plants are sprayed late in development.
Seeing this disadvantage, researchers from Pioneer Hi-Bred, Intl. and Verdia Inc. in Redwood City searched for a method to detoxify glyphosate. One solution was to let an enzyme called glyphosate N-acetyltransferase (GAT) carry out the process. GAT modifies glyphosate and turns it into N-acetylglyphosate that is indeed stable as well, but no longer herbicidal.
With the process of DNA shuffling, the team obtained an enzyme that had a nearly 10,000-fold improvement over the parental enzyme. The improved enzyme confers glyphosate tolerance to corn plants in the field.
Before these plants will be brought out on the market, it will take at least five years, Dr Castle explained because, “It takes years to test trait efficacy in the field, convert the trait into elite varieties, and to assemble product safety data for the U.S. regulatory agencies. Pioneer Hi-Bred is evaluating corn plants now and the joint venture between Verdia and Delta and Pine Land is evaluating the trait in cotton.”
According to reports, Verdia Inc. also has projects underway in the areas of insect, herbicide and disease resistance. Probably we will hear a lot more in the future.
Flora Mauch is a Science Writer for Checkbiotech in Basel, Switzerland and is currently studying Biology.