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October 15, 2004


Banning biotech may deny safer foods to developing countries; Egyptian scientists produce drought-tolerant GM wheat; World Food Prize laureates credit biotechnology


Today in AgBioView at www.agbioworld.org; October 15, 2004

* Banning biotech may deny safer foods to developing countries
* Brazil's Lula Signs Order Allowing Gene-Modified Soy Crop
* Egyptian scientists produce drought-tolerant GM wheat
* World Food Prize laureates credit biotechnology

Note: A number of people have pointed out that the headline of the Cal State item from yesterdays AgBioView was incorrect -- in fact, it has exactly the opposite of what the piece was about. It should have read scientists "OPPOSE A BAN," on biotech crops, not "seek a ban."



Banning biotech may deny safer foods to developing countries

- The Tribune, By Bruce Chassy and Drew Kershen, Oct. 14, 2004

A vote to ban biotech crops in California counties could contribute to more babies being born with undeveloped brains or other neural tube defects.

That may seem like an outrageous statement for a couple of university professors to be making, but let's examine the facts. It is a well-established fact that neural tube defects (NTDs) such as anencephaly, hydrocephaly and spina bifida occur up to six times more often among babies born to women whose diets consist largely of corn.

A large and growing body of scientific evidence has established a link between these terrible and fatal defects and fumonisin, a toxin produced when insects feed on corn. Extensive research shows that biotech Bt corn, resistant to insects, has up to 90 percent less fumonisin.

If farmers in developing countries, many of whom have no access to insecticides, could plant Bt corn, they could greatly reduce the fumonisin levels in food and animal feed. Fumonisin presence is especially troublesome in countries where there is minimal food processing. Research in Guatemala showed that women who ate unprocessed corn as a significant part of their diet had an NTD rate six times higher than the global rate.

Fumonisin is also a concern in the United States. In the early 1990s, Hispanic women in southern Texas gave birth to babies with NTDs at a rate six times the national average. In a confined area of the Rio Grande Valley, 184 women and their babies suffered this devastating condition.

Air pollution was the suspected culprit until people began realizing that high fumonisin levels had been connected to animal maladies in Texas. This led to a survey, which found that women who said they ate 300 to 400 tortillas during their first trimester of pregnancy were more than twice as likely to have NTD babies as women who ate 100 or fewer tortillas. Surveys in Africa and China have found similar results. In addition to analyses of stricken livestock, laboratory studies with mice have positively linked fumonisin and NTDs. As corn replaces rice as the dominant food source in the developing world, we can expect even more of these devastating birth defects.

So what does this disturbing possibility have to do with proposals to ban biotech crops in California counties? An anti-biotech trend in a major agricultural state like California can reverberate in nations unfamiliar with the safety record of biotech crops. Consider what has taken place in Africa in recent months. Leaders of some African nations, misled by anti-biotech activists, have refused to accept shipments of U.S. corn sent to feed millions of starving people. If they won't accept free grain to feed their people, they certainly won't allow their countrymen to plant improved seeds that could reduce the risk of birth defects.

Organic food proponents who oppose biotech crops say that organic food is the safer way to go, and they argue that local bans of biotech crops would help boost organic interests. Obviously, banning competitive products is one way to improve your business, but is organic really safer? The United Kingdom's Food Safety Agency tested organic and conventional corn meal products for fumonisin. All the organic products exceeded levels recommended for human health by nine to 40 times and were recalled from grocery shelves. Californians who think they are voting for safer food by banning biotech may in fact be unintentionally denying proven safer foods to people in developing countries.

Faced with the mounting data demonstrating the superior safety of insect-resistant corn, governments perhaps could justify requiring farmers to plant it to help protect their citizenry. Instead, we are faced with the incongruous possibility that such a technology could be denied to children and mothers around the world, with misinformed Americans leading the way.

Bruce Chassy is professor of food, microbiology and nutritional sciences and executive associate director of the Biotechnology Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Drew Kershen, professor of law at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, developed a course on agricultural biotechnology law and policy and has published articles on the legal implications of grain contaminated with fumonisin.


Brazil's Lula Signs Order Allowing Gene-Modified Soy Crop

- Bloomberg, October 15, 2004

Oct. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed an executive order to allow planting and trade of genetically modified soy in the 2004-2005 harvest, enabling farmers to buy seeds from companies such as Monsanto Co.

The order, which is published in the official gazette today, allows farmers to plant the transgenic soybeans until Dec. 31 and to sell them until Jan. 31, 2006. The trade deadline can be delayed for another 60 days, the decree said.


Egyptian scientists produce drought-tolerant GM wheat

- SciDev.Net, By Wagdy Sawahel, 14 October 2004

Scientists in Egypt have produced drought-tolerant wheat by transferring a gene from barley into a local wheat variety.

The researchers, at Cairo's Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute (AGERI), say their technique reduces the number of irrigations needed from eight to one, and that the wheat could be cultivated with rainfall alone in some desert areas.

The AGERI team hope to develop their technique and address biosafety issues in order to commercialise the transgenic wheat seeds as the first genetically modified (GM) product on the Egyptian market.

The research findings, which have been accepted for publication in the journal Physiologia Plantarum, were presented last month at a symposium on applied biotechnology in Egypt organised by AGERI and the Egyptian Centre for Biotechnology Information.

Water stress caused by drought is a major factor limiting plant growth and crop productivity worldwide. The researchers showed that by transferring a gene called 'HVAI1' from barley to wheat, the plants could tolerate low water levels for longer before their leaves wilted.

Following laboratory tests, the GM wheat was tested in greenhouse and field trials. The field trials were conducted for three seasons, starting in 2001-2002.

During the 2002-2003 season, Ahmed Bahieldin, the plant geneticist who led the research, and his colleagues compared the growth of the GM wheat and a local variety under normal rainfall conditions, without irrigation. The GM plants were taller and had higher yields than the non-modified plants.

"Now we are transferring the gene for drought tolerance to other local wheat varieties using traditional plant breeding programmes," Bahieldin told SciDev.Net. "In future, GM wheat plants with improved drought tolerance could be incorporated into breeding programmes throughout the Mediterranean region."

According to Bahieldin, just 38 per cent of Egypt's demand for wheat is met domestically because the country's lack of water limits the area of land that can be cultivated. He also says boosting plants' ability to deal with water stress might mitigate other environmental stresses.

"The gap between supply and demand makes GM drought-tolerant wheat very important for increasing cultivation in areas where sub-optimal conditions such as water deficit, salinity or high temperature prevail," says Bahieldin.

Mohammed Hamoud, head of genetic research division at the Egyptian Tanta University's botany department cautiously welcomes the research findings, acknowledging the potential for drought resistant GM wheat to boost agricultural output in the Western and Sinai deserts.

"However, studies on its safety for human consumption and the environment must be carried out first," Hamoud told SciDev.Net.


World Food Prize laureates credit biotechnology

- Truth About Trade and Technology, by: Jerry Perkins, 10/14/2004

Two rice breeders who will be jointly awarded the World Food Prize tonight in Des Moines said modern biotechnology provided a shortcut in their work to develop high-yielding rice plants.

Yuan Longping of China and Monty Jones of Sierra Leone will share the $250,000 prize, which will be formally presented to them during ceremonies beginning at 7 p.m. in the Iowa Capitol.

The ceremony comes at the end of the first day of the World Food Prize international symposium, titled "From Asia to Africa: Rice, Biofortification and Enhanced Nutrition." The symposium, which concludes Friday, brings together scientists and officials from around the globe.

Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize, said Yuan and Jones both have conducted "breakthrough scientific achievements, which have significantly increased food security for millions of people from Asia to Africa."

Because 2004 is the United Nations' International Year of Rice, Quinn said, it is particularly fitting that both laureates worked on rice - a crop that helps feed more than 3 billion people in the world.

Yuan's breakthrough achievement came in the early 1970s when he developed hybrid rice varieties that yield 20 percent more than conventional varieties. He has become known as the "Father of Hybrid Rice."

Jones was selected as the co-recipient of the 2004 World Food Prize for crossing Asian and African rice varieties and developing "New Rice for Africa," which has been adapted to growing conditions in west Africa, where it has led to dramatically increased yields for poor farmers there.

Although Yuan was recognized for his work using conventional plant-breeding techniques, he said new technologies like molecular analysis, DNA insertion from a common weed, and cloning techniques to increase photosensitivity of rice plants have led to large yield increases in rice varieties.

Yuan said his goal is for the high-yield rice varieties to be commercially available to farmers in five years.

Biotechnology in agriculture has stirred controversy in some nations. But Yuan said, "In the long run, if you want to increase potential yields and improve the quality of food in the world, we must use biotechnology."

Jones said he also used both conventional plant-breeding techniques and newer biotechnologies to overcome some of the hurdles he faced in his work.

Sterility and inconsistencies in the seed of rice varieties that had been crossed were solved by using "some modest biotechnology tools," Jones said.

Researchers had tried unsuccessfully for 50 years to cross the Asian and African rice varieties, Jones said.

"We were able to do it in four years," he said. "Biotechnology has speeded up the process and improved our ability to attain these lines and multiply the seeds for farmers."

Biotechnology refers to a collection of technologies that can be used to shift genetic material among plants and animals. Critics say biotechnology has unknown consequences for the safety of food and other products produced by inserting different genes in plants and animals.

The USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service said the number of acres in the world planted to biotech crops increased 15 percent in 2003 compared with 2002.



The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) based in Hyderabad, India, is using biotechnological tools to improve the performance of orphan and poor man's crops like groundnut, pearl millet, chickpea, and pigeonpea. Dr. Farid Waliyar, head of the biotechnology program at ICRISAT, told South Asia journalists attending a media workshop that transgenic work is being done only for major and widely distributed stresses, and when no sources of resistance are available in cultivated germplasm.

Waliyar enumerated ICRISAT's biotech research projects, among them being enhanced drought tolerance of mandated crops; improved crop resistance to pests (shoot fly, stem borer, Striga in cereals; pod borers in legumes); increased crop resistance to viral, bacterial, and fungal plant pathogens; better food, feed, and fodder quality plus efficient hybrid seed production systems; and more efficient conservation and utilization of germplasm resources.

Dr. Kiran Sharma, head of the transformation laboratory, reported that the first ICRISAT transgenics are now in contained field trials. These are groundnut transgenics with resistance to the Indian peanut clump virus, and pigeonpea transgenics for legume pod borer.

For more information on ICRISAT's work on transgenic crops, email Kiran Sharma at k.Sharma@cgiar.org.



Dr. Jose Yorobe of the College of Economics and Management, University of the Philippines Los Baños (CEM-UPLB) assessed the performance of Bt corn in Philippine fields a year after its commercial approval.

As a presenter at the 45th Convention of the Philippine Agricultural Economics and Development Association’s (PAEDA) plenary session “Achieving a New Wave of Technical Change,” Dr. Yorobe disclosed that the use of Bt corn led to yields 37% greater than crops from conventional corn harvests. There was a high cost of production associated with adopting Bt technology, he added, but net income was still higher when Bt corn was used.

For corn harvests in the last year, Dr. Yorobe found, farmers earned an additional PhP 10,132 (about $US 170) per hectare of Bt corn planted (/ha) and saved PhP 168/ha (about $US 3) on pesticide use.

In a related paper, Dr. Liborio Cabanilla, of the College of Economics and Management of the University of the Philippines in Los Baños (CEM-UPLB), remarked, “The agricultural scene is in disarray, but biotech has promise,” and compared Bt corn to the local hybrid variety. The greatest profits were to be gained, he found, if Bt corn was used during the wet season, when corn borer infestation rates were highest.



Print and television media practitioners from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal converged in Hyderabad, India to interact with scientists and representatives from government, the regulatory system, civil society, seed industry, and communication fields on “Covering Biotechnology: Issues and Opportunities for the News Media.”

The three-day workshop also enabled the participants to see greenhouse and field trials on transgenic groundnut and chickpea, which researchers at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT) hope will be ready for farmers’ fields in three years. The journalists wrote science stories for their respective news agency or publication, which were reviewed by co-participants for style and presentation, and by the scientists for content accuracy.

“I’ve noticed a change in scientists in dealing with the media. They are more willing to open up and are ready to talk with us about their research activities,” said TV Jayan, special correspondent of Down to Earth, a science and environment fortnightly magazine of the Society for Environmental Communications in Delhi. In turn, Dr. Farid Walijar, ICRISAT plant pathologist and head of the biotechnology program, averred that scientists like him now understand how the media thinks, and now know how to deal with them.

Plans are underway to form a virtual network that will link media practitioners with key institutions like ICRISAT and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) to allow sharing of experiences and access to science-based information on crop biotechnology.

Organizers of the workshop were ICRISAT, ISAAA, Asian Media, and Information Center of India, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

For more information about the workshop, contact ICRISAT media officer Gopi Warrier at g.warrier@cgiar.org.