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December 13, 2004


GMO rice; Bootleg Bt cotton wins support; Dennis Avery Interview; Growth of biotech crops continues; Gates Foundation gives $43 million to fight malaria


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : December 13, 2004

* Hybrid, GMO rice strains may help raise yields-FAO
* Of Rice and Men
* Bootleg Bt cotton wins support
* In Praise of Pesticides
* Growth of biotech crops continues
* Gates Foundation gives $43 million to fight malaria

Hybrid, GMO rice strains may help raise yields-FAO

- Reuters, December 10, 2004

Rice growers should make better use of biotechnology and hybrid strains to reverse falling yields from a crop that feeds more than half the world, the United Nations food agency said on Wednesday.

Yields had dropped rapidly since 1990 after sharp growth in the 1970s and 1980s, and crops remained vulnerable to pests and disease, said Mahmoud Solh, director of plant protection and production at the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

About 75 percent of the world's rice came from irrigated systems, Solh said, adding that the amount of land and water available for raising output was limited.

"As the population continues to grow, the land and water resources for irrigated rice production will continue to diminish," Solh told a conference hosted by plant science industry federation CropLife International.

"It is therefore likely that any future increase in global rice production will depend greatly on an increase in rice yield or productivity per unit area."

The yield potential of hybrid rice varieties used for irrigated rice production in tropical areas was much higher than yields obtained by farmers growing conventional strains, he said.

Closing this yield gap could substantially raise output without more investment in land and water development, he said.

"The battle against hunger and poverty does not end when bellies are full, but when they are nourished. We must also look to science and new technologies to confront the need for added value of this staple crop," he said.

"The successful mapping of the rice genome sequence offers still further opportunities to identify and characterise the genes and biochemical pathways for increasing rice yield...and improving rice quality for consumer preference."


Of Rice and Men

After years of indecision, China may soon let its farmers plant genetically modified strains of Asia's staple crop.

- Newsweek International, By Craig Simons, Dec. 12, 2004

Dec. 20 issue - Gu Riliang works long days tending the white and green sprouts growing in petri dishes at Beijing's Center for Plant Transformation. When the sprouts are big enough, Gu moves them to 20-centimeter-tall glass jars filled with a clear, gelatinous nutrient. Because the building's temperature and light are strictly controlled to avoid disturbing the sensitive plants, it's easy to forget whether it's day or night.

The work is tedious, but important. The sprouts are the first growths of corn seeds that Gu's professors at China Agricultural University have genetically engineered. Some of the strains are made to live longer than natural varieties, others to require less fertilizer, resist disease or be more nutritious. Gu, a 26-year-old grad student, doesn't allow himself to speculate whether the sprouts will be sequestered in the greenhouse behind the labs, along with other genetically modified crops, or be planted one day in a farmer's field. "I only test them," he says. "Policy isn't our responsibility."

Beyond the lab's eerie blandness, the work of Gu and his colleagues is causing a fierce debate over the future of the world's agriculture. At issue is whether genetically modified (GM) plants, like Gu's corn, should be used to supply the world with abundant and cheap staple crops. At present, the bulk of GM corn and soybean produced in the United States and other countries is intended for animal feed. Some scientists argue that the health effects of GM foods should be studied at length before the technology is adopted widely. This dispute is at the heart of a trade clash between Europe—which embraces the environmentalists' argument—and the United States, the world's largest producer of GM crops. For the last few years, China, one of the world's biggest agricultural powers, has been the wild card in this dispute. After taking an early lead in GM technology, China backed off in the late 1990s, largely because of Europe's caution. China's scientists have had to keep their seedlings locked away in the labs.

Now China is on the threshold of allowing the commercial planting of one of the world's biggest staple crops: rice. Six strains of GM rice have already passed a gantlet of field trials and studies, setting the stage for final approval by a meeting of ministers, perhaps as early as January. According to scientists advising the Agriculture Ministry, approval will most likely be forthcoming, which means that China could start planting GM rice as soon as spring 2006. Shortly thereafter GM rice could end up on millions of Chinese dinner tables.

This would be the first time that a genetically engineered plant was used widely as a staple food crop. For China, the implications are far-reaching. GM rice could add billions of dollars in annual revenue to the country's agricultural sector, reduce pollution as farmers begin to use fewer toxic pesticides and fertilizers, improve nutrition and produce higher yields to feed the country's huge population. China's influence would be felt throughout Asia as other countries jumped on the GM bandwagon.

Environmentalists have been doing their best to derail the move. Late last week Greenpeace, a longtime opponent of transgenic plants, denounced the ministry's "behind closed doors process" as "scientifically and ethically flawed" and warned that scientists "still know too little about the unintended impacts of genetic modification." China's press jumped on the story, setting off a firestorm of debate on the Internet. "We can use science," one blogger wrote, "but we'd better not damage the natural balance." The campaigning has had an effect. "Now, I cannot say definitely" whether GM rice will be approved, says Chen Zhangliang, president of China Agricultural University and chairman of a biosafety committee on GM crops. Bloggers aside, the environmentalists raise some legitimate points. As China's leaders prepare to take this big step, it's worth asking: How great is the risk? And will the benefits be worth it?

To China's geneticists, the answer is yes. They've been working for years on GM rice, and they've come up with six strains as candidates for commercializing. One contains a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a soil bacteria that produces a natural pesticide. Another rice strain uses genes from legumes that confer resistance to pests like the pink stem borer, a common Asian moth that eats rice during its larval stage. A third variety produces a protein that fights bacterial blight, and geneticists are working on "green rice" that would require less fertilizer and resist drought. According to one Chinese study, adopting GM rice, along with GM cotton, could result in an annual increased profit to China's agricultural sector of "roughly $5 billion in 2010."

One test plot of Bt rice in Hubei province showed an increased yield of 15 percent over conventional rice, and another required fewer pesticides. Cutting the tonnage of pesticides sprayed on China's crops would save the lives of at least some of the hundreds of farmers who die each year of pesticide poisoning, particularly in the rice fields. "The farmers stand for hours in shin-deep water that is full of chemicals," Huazhong University professor Zhang Qifa says, adding that one Chinese farmer out of 30 is hospitalized at one time or another for poisoning. At the same time fertilizers—often simply human waste applied to the fields—are polluting groundwater and rivers.

Economic and health figures aren't the only numbers Chinese officials are looking at. Across Asia, populations are booming: by 2045, demographers predict that together India and China will be home to 3 billion people. At the same time the amount of cultivated land in China is shrinking due to urbanization and road building. That's a stark contrast to European countries and some Asian ones, such as Japan and South Korea, where population growth is virtually stalled—and GM produce is mostly banned. "They don't feel a need for the future," says Banwari Mishra, a director of rice research for the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. "But in Asia we have to enhance our production." Little wonder then that the developing world increased its acreage of GM crops from one quarter in 2002 to one third last year, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a nonprofit GM advocacy group.

Poverty is another consideration. According to Mishra some 20,000 children go blind annually in Asia because of poor nutrition, primarily because they don't get enough vitamin A. Now, he says, researchers are working on creating vitamin A-enhanced rice that might help to cure much of the problem. The upshot, the International Rice Research Institute's Cantrell says, is that people in developing countries are willing to accept a higher risk than those in developed countries.

But how high are the risks? What bothers scientists is that nobody knows for sure. Too few tests have been done to gauge what eating unprocessed GM food could do to human consumers, especially to infants and children. For instance, the pesticides that China's Bt rice produces can trigger a response from the human immune system, potentially causing allergic reactions. According to Xue Dayuan, a professor at Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences, the most thorough test to date of the Bt gene's toxicity to mammals was a three-month trial on mice that showed no negative impacts. Scientists won't know if it's truly safe until they've done tests on humans. GM critics also argue that transgenic crops could have serious unintended impacts on the environment. Since GM crops have marked advantages over natural varieties, farmers will be keen to plant them. That might drive down the diversity of crop species, making crops more vulnerable to new pests. Studies have also shown that pollen from GM crops can drift for vast distances, which makes it difficult to contain them on farms.

That's a particular worry in China, which doesn't have a good record in managing GM seeds. When Bt cotton was authorized in two Chinese provinces in 1997, peasants began growing it illegally, and it's since spread to more than 10 provinces. In the Yangtze city of Wuhan, where scientists run China's largest GM-rice-test fields, "a local company got some of the GM [rice] seed and began selling it to local farmers," Zhang says. Today, he says, more than 100 hectares of GM rice are being cultivated. "The government shouldn't move too fast," Xue says. "We need to solve many other problems before we can commercialize GM rice."

That's not likely to happen, given China's eagerness to go ahead with GM rice. And if GM seeds deliver high-quality rice cheaper than natural varieties, there's likely to be pressure throughout the region to adopt the technology. "If Chinese rice comes into India and it's cheaper, maybe [India will] switch over more quickly," says S. D. Shikamany, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Agricultural Research. The Philippines and India have already started field tests of GM rice, and India could be ready to commercialize GM rice in as little as three years. Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia are also testing GM rice varieties in their labs. Thailand is trying to boot-strap a biotech sector, and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last summer vowed to overturn any ban on commercial production and trade in GM products. "The government," he said, "won't let the country miss the biotechnology train." The engine seems to be pulling out.

Bootleg Bt cotton wins support

- Indian Express, Dec 10, 2004

Market flooded with bootleg Bt cotton, farmers swear by it

Ahmedabad, India - The debate over Bt cotton seems to have been settled in favour of its unauthorised varieties in Gujarat.

Nearly three years after the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Union Enviornment Ministry cleared the sale of Bt varieties in a few states, no one is talking about the ill-effects of the genetically modified crop in Gujarat.

The market is flooded with cheap unauthorised varieties of Bt cotton. Farmers cite better yield and cheap seeds as the reason for their thumbs up to the unauthorised varieties, available in all corners of the State. After all, it’s the same State where the first illegal variety-Navbharat 151-was grown.

Buyoed by last year’s bumper crop and the price it fetched, farmers have grown cotton over 19 lakh hectare, 2.75 lakh hectare more than the last year. Farmers in north Gujarat and south Gujarat, not known for their cotton, also opted for it.

Much before Mahyco-Monsanto and Rasi were permitted to sell their varieties, Gujarat had Navbharat 151, now available even in other states. In the state, several enterprising farmers have come up with their own variants.

From seed manufacturers to Navbharat Seeds to farmers’ associations, everyone seems to have given a thumbs up to Bt cotton. While the government estimates put the crop at around 45 lakh bales, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh says Diwali-eve rain has brought it down.

BKS president Praful Senjalia said as much as 90 per cent of the cotton crop will come from Bt seeds. ‘‘The local varieties are cheap and give good yield. If just one foreign company is given permission, cost will not come down.’’

Mahyco-Monsanto charges Rs 1,600 for a packet of 450 gm, the local varieties are available for Rs 300 onwards. Only, they come without bills. But no one is complaining. Even Monsanto, which patented the Cry 1 AC gene, has given up the fight. ‘‘There is little we can do, as such we have limited stocks,’’ says a Monsanto official.

Director of Agriculture, Dr R A Sareshia, admits production has shot up due to large-scale cultivation of Bt cotton. ‘‘We estimate that almost 70 per cent of the total production this year will come from the Bt variety,’’ he said. N M Sharma, managing director of the Gujarat State Cotton Co-operative Federation (GUJCOC), also bets on an increased output of Bt Cotton.

This, in a state where the GEAC had ordered destruction of Bt Cotton crop in 2001 following Mahyco-Monsanto’s complaint that Navbharat-151 was growing on 10,000 acres. The directive was never implemented and the seeds with its variants continue to be in use. Managing director of Navbharat Seeds Pvt Ltd, the brain behind Navbharat 151, is facing court cases.

In keeping with their entrepreneurial streak, farmers in Gujarat have even extended the life of the crop from six months to nine months to reap advantages of continuous flowering and higher yield.

Three years later, several cousins of Navbharat 151 have sprouted up as the demand for cheap Bt goes up. Several representations have been made to the state and central governments for clearing the sale of cheap Bt varieties.

Though the state government’s official position favours only the approved varieties, its support to the local varieties is tacit for obvious reasons. The state government took a token punitive action against the vendors of the spurious seeds but this year it’s yet to begin.

Anil Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management says an exhaustive study is required to know if Bt cotton has environmental consequences but a study carried out by Srishti, an organisation he runs, did not find anything wrong.

‘‘To begin with, the consumption of pesticides has gone down drastically,’’ he says adding, ‘‘All this (use of Bt) has happened in a completely unauthorised manner, with full public knowledge and despite complaints from Mayhco and Monsanto that Navbharat has stolen their Bt gene.’’ ‘‘Farmers should be given multiple choices. We have been promoting herbal pesticides but the government is not doing anything about it,’’ he said.

Navbharat Company is happy with the way things are going but claims it has stopped producing seeds. ‘‘The seeds have been in circulation for nearly six years, including trials in the first three years, but no one is complaining,’’ company sources said.

But activists like Vijay Jawandhia of Shetkari Sangathna are not impressed. Interestingly, Sharad Joshi who founded the organisation is for the technology. Jawandhia says the technology can’t be given a clean chit.

But he agrees that the anti-Bt movement has lost its intensity because the government has permitted it.

Director of Surat-based Centre for Social Studies, Sudarshan Iyengar, advises caution. The claim that the transgenic crop is environmentally safe is not properly verified as there is no system of surveillance in place. ‘‘The argument that the unapproved varieties are also derived from Monsanto’s CRY 1 AC gene is yet to be verified. We don’t know what impact it will have on other crops.’’


In Praise of Pesticides

Dennis Avery, director of the Center for Global Food Issues at Hudson Institute, US, doesn't believe that organic farming can meet the world's food needs. Avery tells Chandrika Mago that the environment movement is feeding off new scares.

Question: Can we do without pesticides?

The environment movement is opposed to all aspects of modern farming — irrigation, fertiliser, pesticides, confinement feeding. My estimate is that high-yield crops and confinement lifestyle have saved more than 16 million square miles of wildlife habitat. The population is expected to rise from 6.3 billion to nine billion before it peaks, 1.5 billion affluent consumers will increase to between seven-eight billion. My guesstimate is that China will have 1.5 billion pets by 2050, Brazil has seen a 30 per cent increase in cat and dog numbers in five years. With all this, we will need more than twice the farming resources in 2050 as we use today. If we issue an organic farming mandate, there will be a 20 per cent decrease in yields, a 50 per cent loss due to global shortage of organic nitrogen fertiliser. You'll have to get rid of either two-thirds of the people or all the wildlife habitat. It's an ugly choice.

Question: An ICAR article estimated that nearly 90 per cent of pesticides don't hit pests, instead contaminate the soil, water and air.

There is no question that farmers have sprayed pesticides which haven't killed pests. I'm not trying to sell pesticides. But if we develop disease-resistant seeds, control weeds and give plants a complete menu of soil nutrients, we would have created a haven for pests — like a cotton field. If we don't protect it, we would have wasted it all. Global monitoring has shown that withdrawing pesticides makes pest losses significantly worse. If this isn't true, why are public tests of organic farming showing yields 10-40 per cent lower, after stealing nitrogen from somewhere else?

Question: What about the health effects of pesticide residues?

The dose makes the poison. The only thing we've tested and not found a threshhold for is lead. Low levels of chemicals have been found to be as often beneficial as harmful. Nobody has found them hugely impacting.

Question: What strategy do you recommend to increase production?

We should produce as much as we can sustainably from the good land because most of the biodiversity is on poor land. If we do this, I don't think we would need to sacrifice any species to get large amounts of food production. The real problem is a billion people trying to subsist in the bio- diversity hotspots of the planet, where farming systems are not good enough. We should do agricultural research on high sustainable yields and encourage liberalisation of farm trade. The research budget for the international consultative group on agricultural research has been about $300 million a year — it's tiny, and shrinking.

Question: Is this changing?

The pendulum is probably beginning to stop, but not swing the other way. I think it's all related very strongly to a perception that the population surge is ending. Within the last year, high-yield conservation has been recommended, among others, in The New York Times and in Science magazine. This includes biotechnology and use of pesticides among the strategies for sustainable high yields. It was really affluent children of the well-fed leading the environment movement. They seemed to feel that if China or India got rich, they would take resources away from them. I think we would be creating resources through knowledge.

Question: You seem to blame many of the problems on the environment movement.

They said DDT caused cancer, studies have shown it doesn't. They say human emissions are raising temperatures, the temperature history of 200 years shows no impact from CO2. The environment movement has deliberately offered mis-information in some cases to stop the world on things they consider important.

Question: You don't think the movement has done any good at all?

We're all environmentalists, and should be. I think they may have started with very legitimate concerns but were overwhelmed by their own success, and realised this success depended on coming up with new scares. I think they also had a bias against population growth and affluence. We now realise the rich actually have smaller families, use better technology to protect the environment, try to restore the water quality in rivers — all pretty good things. Contrast it with Congo or Zambia, with slash and burn farming, hunting for meat, and large families. They thought we needed to turn the Third World into a gene museum. We have an enormously complex biology and we manage to thrive amid it with enormously complex societies. To sit in New York and offer solutions to problems you haven't even seen isn't just ignorance, it's arrogance.

Question: Do you think India should go in for GM crops?

It has to be your call. The debate is on the testing, the environment movement is proposing tests which go beyond anything ever done. The European Commission recently said biotech crops are safer than non-biotech crops — they are tested, the transformation in a lab is more precise, they are regulated much more. So far, tests and the real world experience indicate that it works fine. The lurking danger is that each of these transformations has to be looked at individually.


Growth of biotech crops continues

- The Associated Press, December 13th, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Biotech crops are flourishing in the United States, but they’re also taking root across the globe, accounting for about $44 billion in crops in five leading countries, according to a report last week by an industry group.

Argentina has planted $8.9 billion worth of genetically engineered soybeans and corn. In China, biotech cotton is worth $3.9 billion. There are $2 billion in genetically altered canola, corn and soybeans growing in Canada, and Brazil has biotech soybeans worth $1.6 billion.

The United States eclipses them all with its nearly $28 billion in biotech soybeans, corn, cotton and canola.

The report, by a University of Minnesota researcher for the industry’s Council for Biotechnology Information, anticipates that growth of these gene-altered crops will soar, particularly in Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa.

"What I’m suggesting is that we are probably at the threshold of a much larger and more extensive adoption of plant biotechnology," said C. Ford Runge, director of Minnesota’s Center for International Food and Agriculture Policy. "You can conclude there are many more crops in the pipeline than the four major ones that I mention."

The study found that more than half of the world’s soybeans are now biotech varieties. Thirty percent of all cotton comes from biotech seeds, and 15 percent of corn and canola are genetically engineered, the study said.

Traditional plant breeding requires growing generation after generation of plants to develop a specific trait, such as corn that resists insects or potatoes that bruise less easily. Genetic engineering is like a high-tech shortcut; scientists transfer certain traits by attaching genes from one organism to another.

Even in Europe, where fears run high about the safety of gene-altered food, there has been substantial research and development of new crops. However, activity slowed dramatically in 1999, after the European Union placed a moratorium on biotech crops. Officials agreed to resume approvals earlier this year, but a political stalemate remains.

The study asserts that the EU can slow the global spread of biotech crops but cannot halt it. The study found that eight other countries are producing significant amounts of biotech crops. They are South Africa, Mexico, Australia, India, Romania, Spain, Philippines and Uruguay.

Greenhouse experiments and other research and development has been done in 63 countries, Runge found.

Activity isn’t limited to traditional row crops. Many biotech vegetables and fruits -- such as potatoes, tomatoes, squash, sweet peppers, papaya, melon, banana and apples -- are in various phases of research or approval. And researchers in many countries are working on biotech tobacco, coffee, peanuts, mustard, cocoa and other crops.

In the United States, a recent report raised concerns about whether state governments have the legal and financial tools they need to oversee the fast-growing industry.


Gates Foundation gives $43 million to fight malaria

- Associated Press, By PAUL ELIAS, Dec. 13, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO - The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is expected on Monday to donate $42.6 million to a novel, nonprofit drug company that hopes to make a cheaper malaria treatment by applying a new biotechnology recipe to an ancient Chinese remedy.

The San Francisco-based Institute of OneWorld Health will work with the University of California, Berkeley and a small Albany-based biotechnology company to turn the genetic engineering work of Berkeley's Jay Keasling into an inexpensive and effective drug to fight malaria in the Third World.

Keasling is developing a new way to manufacture artemisinin, a malaria fighter made from finely ground wormwood plants. Chinese first extracted artemisinin from the sweet wormwood plant for medicinal use more than 2,000 years ago, and since then it's been applied to a variety of ailments including hemorrhoids, coughs and fevers. But the method is expensive, time consuming and limited by access to wormwood.

"The plant can't supply a whole continent," said Victoria Hale, OneWorld's chief executive.

So Keasling and his colleagues are working on a way to eliminate the need for the plant by splicing its chemical-producing genes and yeast genes into E. coli and ultimately coaxing artemisinin from this creation.

Each year, 300 million to 500 million new cases of the mosquito-borne disease are diagnosed, according to the World Health Organization, and many of those who become ill can't afford the drugs to treat it. Some 1.5 million people, mostly children, die each year, mostly in Africa and Asia. Drug resistance is also a growing problem.

It costs about $2.40 per patient to treat malaria with a three-day drug regimen that includes the artemisinin. Many Third World malaria sufferers can't afford the treatment, and Hale said the Gates money will be used to develop a malaria treatment that costs under $1 each within five years.

"Our goal is to make this the primary source for fighting malaria," Hale said.

Hale launched OneWorld three years ago to develop drugs to treat Third World diseases largely ignored by pharmaceuticals companies because of profit concerns.

The university owns the patent covering the genetic engineering of the wormwood and has licensed it free of charge to OneWorld and Amyris Biotechnologies.

Combatting malaria is one of the primary goals of the $27 billion Gates Foundation, which has doled out nearly $300 million in malaria-related grants. Unlike most science grants, the Gates' money covers the whole discovery process - from basic science to drug manufacturing.

"This is an extraordinary partnership between public and private institutions that combines cutting-edge science with a commitment to affordability and accessibility for those people in need," said Dr. Regina Rabinovich, director of infectious diseases at the Gates Foundation. "I hope that UC Berkeley's participation will serve as a model for other academic institutions to apply their scientific knowledge and resources to critical global health problems."

Keasling said the Gates' grant has enabled him to hire ten more researchers to complete the hunt for all the wormwood's genes needed to make the drug. So far, they've found one key gene and suspect they'll need to add three more to complete the process.

"It's an incredibly large amount of money," Keasling said. "We really need that kind of investment to get it done.

Producing such chemicals in bacteria could also preserve plants now destroyed for their chemical benefits, Keasling said. For example, the popular cancer-fighting drug Taxol is extracted from the Pacific yew tree, by only about four million Pacific yews grow in the Northwest. The researchers say Taxol could be manufactured in their genetically engineered bacteria.

U.S. researchers are investigating whether artemisinin could be used in fighting breast cancer.