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December 20, 2004


Biotech crops cut pesticide use, boost yields and produce income; National cotton crop to be 80pc GM; Green with bigotry; Can India lead the GM revolution?


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : December 20, 2004

* Biotech crops cut pesticide use, boost yields and produce income
* National cotton crop to be 80pc GM
* Green with bigotry
* Can India lead the GM revolution?
* Amazing maize does a disappearing act for now
* Mill in Vadodara raided, bootleg Bt cotton seized
* EU Ministers to Debate Authorising GMO Rapeseed


Biotech crops cut pesticide use, boost yields and producer income

- Midwest Messenger, By Jane Fyksen, December 20, 2004

The widespread adoption of biotech crops last year increased farmer income, boosted yields, reduced pesticides use and spurred greater reliance of environmentally friendly no-till farming.

That's according to a recently released study by the national Center for Food and Agricultural Policy in Washington, D.C.

The study found that biotech crops compared with conventional crops last year "increased grower incomes by an additional $1.9 billion, boosted crop yields by 5.3 billion pounds and reduced pesticide use by 46.4 million pounds." The study looked at six bioengineered crops - corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, papaya and squash.

The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP) is a private, nonprofit, non-advocacy research organization that studies biotechnology, pesticides, U.S. farm and food policy and international trade and development.

Biotech crops were planted on 106 million acres in 2003, compared to 80 million two years prior. Since that first study, three new varieties have debuted - Bt corn (YieldGard¨ Rootworm), another Bt corn (Herculex¨ I) and Bt cotton (BollGard¨ II).

NCFAP's report covers biotechnology's impact on two of Wisconsin's crops - corn and soybeans. Biotech varieties increased the state's food production by more than 109 million pounds and improved farm income by $14.5 million. However, instead of decreasing reliance on pesticides, as noted in the nationwide results, biotech crops last year increased pesticide use in Wisconsin by one million pounds annually.

The study indicates new biotech varieties would have the greatest impact on Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. Iowa has achieved the greatest production gains and largest increase in farm income with more than one billion pounds of increased food production and a $239 million increase in farm income. Iowa also experienced the greatest reduction in pesticides, eliminating the use of 7.5 million pounds of farm chemicals annually. Illinois and Minnesota were close behind, each gaining more than $176 million in farm income while reducing pesticide use about 6.5 million pounds in 2003.

The study indicates that Bt corn varieties have had the greatest effect on yields, increasing food production by 4.9 billion pounds, while herbicide-tolerant soybean varieties have created the biggest pesticide reduction, eliminating the use of 20 million pounds of pesticide annually. Herbicide-tolerant soybeans had the greatest impact on farmers' pocketbook, improving farm income by nearly $1.2 billion.

Looking just at herbicide-tolerant soybeans grown in 31 states, including Wisconsin, which represent 100 percent of U.S. soybean production, biotech varieties have improved farm income by more than $1.1 billion and reduced insecticide use by more than 20 million pounds annually in this country.

The study covered corn grown in 36 states that represent 99 percent of U.S. corn production, where Bt varieties with resistance to European corn borer have increased production by more than 4.7 billion pounds, improved farm income by more than $146 million and reduced insecticide use by more than 3.6 million pounds annually.

The study also looked at corn grown in 12 states, but this time representing 88 percent of U.S. corn output. New varieties with resistance to corn rootworm - and planted acreage of less than one percent - have improved farm income by $2.4 million and reduced insecticide use by more than 224,000 pounds annually, the NCFAP reports.

As for biotech field corn grown in 24 states, (representing 94 percent of U.S. corn production), new varieties with resistance to black cutworm, corn borers, corn earworm and fall armyworm have increased production by 163 million pounds, boosted farm income by $9.7 million and reduced pesticide use by more than 40,000 pounds annually, the researchers found.

The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) is encouraged by the results of a new study.

Darrin Ihnen, chair of NCGA's Biotech Working Group, says the report underscores the value of biotechnology to corn growers.

"This report demonstrates that farmers benefit from having biotech crops available to them. Nearly half of this year's record corn crop will come from biotech hybrids," remarks Ihnen, who farms near Hurley, S.D. "For my farm, biotech crops allow me to achieve higher yields, higher income and do less fieldwork."

Biotech corn, especially corn-borer resistant hybrids, was found to produce the highest yield gains. In 2003, biotech corn increased yields by 4.9 billion pounds, resulting in an additional $258.4 million in farm income.

"Opponents of biotech crops often overlook the environmental benefits the technology offers," Ihnen adds. "Herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant hybrids significantly reduce the need for pesticides and other traditional crop protection products."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, corn growers planted biotech corn seed on 46 percent of their acreage this year, up 6 percent from 2003. The NCFAP report indicates the number of farmers who use biotech crops will continue to increase as new and improved hybrids are brought to market. Seed supply has been the limiting factor, the report says, and as more rootworm-resistant seed becomes available in the marketplace, the number of acres planted with the crop is expected to increase significantly.

The report also notes that since biotech crops were commercialized in 1996, U.S. farmers have increased their no-till acreage. The benefits of no-till agriculture include reduced fuel consumption, decreased machinery wear, reduced input rates and improved habitat for wildlife.

Grower surveys and expert polls "strongly indicate that the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops correlated positively with an increase in no-till acreage since 1996," the authors say, reporting growers planted 45 percent more soybean acres to no-till and 14 percent more corn acres in 2003, as compared with years prior to the introduction of glyphosate-tolerant crops.

Growers make biotechnology decisions based on the needs of their customers, Ihnen of the NCGA notes, and corn producers will readily continue to serve markets that demand both conventional and biotech corn.

"Plant biotechnology continues to produce real gains for growers and promotes sustainable agriculture in the United States," agrees Sujatha Sankula, the lead author of the study. "This new technology has revolutionized agriculture and is creating widespread economic and environmental benefits."

This new study updates and reinforces the findings of 2002 research by the NCFAP that focused on the same six crops (but only eight biotech varieties instead of 11 looked at in this latest study). That analysis of 2001 crops was one of the first comprehensive studies to document the impacts of biotech crops. Compared with 2001, biotech varieties increased grower income by 27 percent, boosted yields by 41 percent and reduced production costs by 25 percent.

According to Sankula, one of the greatest endorsements of biotech crops is that producers continue to adopt biotech varieties in greater numbers. Between 2001 and 2003, the number of U.S. acres planted with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has increased by 26 million acres. For all six crops, the percentages of acres planted with biotech varieties increased.

In 2004, a variety of Bt corn resistant to rootworm was planted on three million U.S. acres - 10 times the level in 2003 when the product was first introduced. In 2004, it's estimated that rootworm-resistant Bt corn increased yields by 754 million pounds and reduced pesticide use by 1.98 million pounds.

Based on last year's acreage, rootworm-resistant corn cut pesticide use by 225,000 pounds. It's projected that growers reduced insecticide use by an estimated 1.98 million pounds this year, based on typical insecticide use of about 0.66 pounds per acre for corn rootworm control.

Of the six crops studied in 2003:

* Biotech soybeans resulted in the greatest reduction in pesticide use, 20.1 million pounds, which produced the greatest economic return for growers - an additional $1.2 billion in income.

* Biotech corn (especially corn-borer resistant) produced the highest yield gains (4.9 billion pounds), which helped put an additional $258.4 million in farmers' pockets.

* The insect-resistance trait led to highest yield gains. Nearly all of the 5.3 billion pounds of additional production gained from biotech crops in 2003 can be attributed to insect-resistant varieties such as Bt corn and Bt cotton.

* Herbicide-tolerant varieties accounted for about 81 percent of the additional income biotech crops generated for farmers - equivalent to 1.5 billion of the total $1.9 billion economic gain.

Since biotech crops were commercialized in 1996, U.S. farmers have increased their acreage of no-till soybeans by 45 percent and corn by 14 percent.

Among the biotech crops planted last year, adoption of herbicide tolerant soybeans was highest at 82 percent nationwide, followed by herbicide-tolerant canola (75 percent). Comparisons between 2001 and 2003 suggest that expansion in planted acreage has been greatest for herbicide-tolerant corn (69 percent), followed by Bt corn (43 percent).

The complete study is online at www.ncfp.org


- The Washington Times, December 19th, 2004, By Charles Rousseaux

By Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko
Praeger, $39.95, 269 pages

Around this time of year, most of us wish we could make food disappear — before we've consumed it. Holiday feasts are as much a part of the season as New Year's fasts.

But what if the food wasn't there? Empty platters and place mats might save some from over-indulgence, but they would also wreck the season, and could harm those faced with continual fasts. Even worse, what if there were plenty of safe-to-eat food on the table, but no one was allowed to touch it? Those already sated might experience hunger pains. Those already starving might perish.

That is exactly what is happening with genetically modified (GM) food, according to Henry Miller and Gregory Conko. In "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution," they describe how activists and regulators have almost literally taken foods off the table, out of the mouths of those who might choose it and those who desperately need it. Regardless of their motives, those anti-biotech zealots have caused tragic results, and they now threaten what could be the next Green Revolution.

Limiting the growth and production of GM foods might be merited if they proved dangerous according to scientifically defensible standards of risk. But that is not the case. As Mr. Miller and Mr. Conko point out repeatedly, genetically modified foods are actually safer than their "natural" counterparts.

To modify an organism predictably, whether plant or paramecium, one has to first have a sense of what genes are there and how they work together. Attempting modifications blindly — randomly crossing strains of wheat or rice to produce a high-yield line — tends to result in wastage and unpleasant surprises. In fact, farmers have been trying blind modifications for millennia — it's called traditional agriculture.

Modern molecular techniques differ from previous plant-improvement methods only in their higher degree of accuracy. Given that continuum, Mr. Miller and Mr. Conko insist that genetically modified foods are at least as safe for consumption as their conventional counterparts, and probably safer. They do outstanding work putting such foods in the proper context, and then backing up their claims with extensive studies and copious endnotes.

Those facts form the framework for what is essentially a guidebook to the policies and public relations of GM foods. Most of the 200-plus pages in the volume describe their regulatory landscape, ranging from discussions about the derivation of U.S. policies to a description of U.N. biosafety protocols.

It's not reading for the light of heart (or the heavy of stomach). Again and again, regulators have used vacuous reasoning to single out GM foods, increasing their costs and discouraging their developments.

Astonishingly, agriculture companies and even science boards have sometimes joined regulators, under the mistaken assumption that doing so will help allay foolish fears of GM foods. As Mr. Miller and Mr. Conko point out, that tactic has consistently resulted in the sowing of greater anxiety.

Moreover, Mr. Miller and Mr. Conko argue that there is little point in attempting to placate anti-GM foodies, "To well-meaning colleagues . . who would attempt to propitiate or carry on meaningful dialogue with the anti-science, anti-biotechnology activists, we would counsel that it is fruitless . . . . There is little common ground. One cannot have a reasoned debate with a mugger." In Europe GM food phobias and over-regulation have reached ridiculous levels. European policy-makers have even placed restrictions on GM foods to prevent hypothetical risks — the precautionary principle. As Mr. Miller and Mr. Conko note, the principle proves problematic in practice, since the potential benefits of the new product are silenced, while the risks inherent to the old product are amplified. The precautionary principle is problematic in principle too, since it is impossible to conclusively rule out all risks.

As the authors repeatedly point out, " 'Completely safe' is a never realized ideal." Rather, risks are always relative. Tradeoffs are inevitable. Policymakers are expected to make decisions based on a rational risk analysis and a careful weighing of alternatives. There are costs for both allowing unsafe products to reach consumers, and for disallowing safe products to reach them. Regulatory structures are much more biased towards preventing the former types of errors (Type I) than the latter (Type II) — it is much easier to see headlines screaming about product recalls than to see the foods (and medicines) that simply are not there.

The book closes with ideas for making policymakers more responsive to Type II errors, and to reforming the regulation of GM foods. Their provocative ideas deserve the attention of policymakers. Unfortunately, the expertise of Mr. Miller and Mr. Conko works against them at some points. They assume that their audience has more than a basic familiarity with the subject — descriptions of the science are sparse. There are no pictures, not even any of genetically modified plants, and the only diagram used is less than illuminating. Ultimately, the book is perfect for policymakers, but may prove difficult going for laypersons.

That is a pity, since there is a need for more books like it. One of America's little noticed freedoms is the freedom to feast and fast when one wants to (or at least as long as one can maintain the willpower). By restricting American's range of food choices, activists and regulators have constricted their freedom.

If the authors are correct — and they make a compelling case — then GM food phobes and regulators have made the world a poorer place. The losses could become even graver if GM food phobes continue to have their way. As Mr. Miller and Mr. Conko argue, "If today's rich nations decide to stop or turn back the clock [to a point at which the new biotechnology is no longer used on GM foods] they will still be rich. But if we stop the clock for developing countries, they will still be poor and hungry. And many of their inhabitants will be dead."

Great costs have already come from the myth that GM foods are unfit for consumption. "Frankenfoods" should have a place at the table of all who want them.

Charles Rousseaux is the speechwriter for Interior Secretary Gale Norton. The all-natural views expressed are his own.


National cotton crop to be 80pc GM

- The Herald Sun, 20 dec 04

AUSTRALIAN cotton farmers have embraced biotechnology, with the national cotton crop to be 80 per cent genetically modified this season.

Monsanto Australia said a survey of cotton farmers had found 80 per cent of them had used a GM cotton plant in this year's 300,000 hectare planting.

It means around 250,000 hectares of cotton is now GM, up from 115,000 hectares grown for last season's drought affected crop.

Monsanto managing director Terry Bunn said it was clear farmers wanted GM cotton.

“Given freedom of choice, growers across New South Wales and Queensland have voted for biotechnology as an economically and environmentally sustainable tool for cotton production which has contributed to making Australian cotton a world leader in environmental best practice,” Mr Bunn said.

“The popularity of this technology is a testament to the farm management, environmental and economic benefits that it brings.”

Most of the increase is due to the release of a new GM cotton, Bollgard II, which has cut the amount of insecticide used by farmers.

The cotton was developed by CSIRO under licence from Monsanto.

Bollgard II has had two genes altered to protect it against the helicoverpa moth.

Previous GM cottons have had only one altered gene.

Mr Bunn said Bollgard required 85 per cent less insecticide than conventional cotton.

He said the huge increase in use of GM cotton this season meant the amount of insecticide used by farmers would be down 50 per cent on the 2003-04 growing season.

This season is the first that Bollgard 11 has been available to be grown in all cotton regions.


Green with bigotry

- Washington Times, By Thomas Sowell, December 19, 2004

First they destroyed the gasoline station, so you have to drive miles out of your way to get gas. Then they destroyed a parking lot. Now they want to destroy a dam and a reservoir supplying more than 2 million people with water.

No, these are not al Qaeda terrorists. These are our own home-grown fanatics — and the places mentioned are all in Yosemite National Park.
They call themselves environmentalists, but a more accurate term would be green bigots. What makes someone a bigot is his wish to deny other people the same rights he has. That is the hallmark of the environmental zealot.

Green bigots operate internationally, just like the more famous fanatics. They are trying to stop the building of a hydroelectric dam in Uganda and they have already got "nature preserves" created in various parts of Africa — which are vast lands where Africans are forbidden to hunt for food because the green bigots prefer keeping the land "natural."

African economist James Skikwati in Kenya put the case against affluent Western environmental extremists very plainly: "Wealthy countries want the Earth to be green, the underdeveloped want the Earth fed.... What gives the developed nations the right to make choices for the poor?"

A hydroelectric dam in Uganda would bring electricity to millions of Africans, but it would annoy the delicate sensibilities of Berkeley environmentalists who like waterfalls.

By and large, the green bigots use politics, nuisance lawsuits and physical obstruction, rather than violence. But some booby-trap trees, threaten those who cut them with injury or death. And they use the media to spin their party line.

A recent newspaper story — headlined "Renaissance at Yosemite" — refers to new restrictions on visitors to Yosemite National Park, created at the urging of environmentalist groups. "The fight to get people out of cars and onto bikes and buses has been won after years of bitter wrangling," the story says.

If people wanted to get out of their cars and onto bikes and buses, they could have done so at any time, without any wrangling. We are talking about green bigots forcing millions of Yosemite visitors to do what the green bigots want, rather than what the visitors themselves want. Such ego trips by coteries of self-exalting people are treated in the media as idealism, rather than the petty tyranny it is.

Making it a hassle to drive a car in Yosemite means letting the green bigots regiment visitors in buses. Instead of going where you want, when you want, you will go where the park bureaucracy wants to take you.

When you are in your own car, you can stop and get out to walk around when you see something you like, or just go to the bathroom when you need to. When you are regimented in buses, you can go only when and where the bus schedule permits. For children and the elderly especially, this can make needlessly stressful an otherwise enjoyable experience.

The last thing you can expect to learn from most media accounts of green bigots' activities is other people's objections to their power grabs. Instead, there is a whole vocabulary of misleading words papering over and sugarcoating the plain fact green bigots feel entitled to impose their vision at the cost of other people's rights. Thus, it is called a "renaissance" to lose your right to choose what to do in Yosemite.

There is never a lack of excuses when people want to boss other people around. There are many vague and lofty words about a "fragile" or "sensitive" environment — but ask the green bigots for concrete criteria for determining if a particular environment is or is not "fragile" or "sensitive." Then ask for hard evidence. You are unlikely to get any.

The story about the Yosemite "renaissance" speaks of the new changes having "restored" the Merced River. I have watched the river flow and cascade through Yosemite more than 20 years without seeing anything that needed to be "restored." Maybe honesty needs to be restored.


Can India lead the GM revolution?

- Economic Times, By PRADEEP KURUP, DECEMBER 20, 2004

As the population multiplies and the area under cultivation shrinks, technology has stepped in to provide the assistance to feed the millions struck by pooverty and malnutrition in Asia and Africa. The rapid strides made by bio-technology as a field of study and the developments in the branch of genetics have given birth to Genetically Modified (GM) food.

GM foods was the centre of controversy lately. European environmental organisations and public interest groups have been actively protesting against GM foods soince the inception of the concept. Some studies showing the negative impact of genetic engineering on insects and wildlife have thrown in conflict in US as well.

The planting of BT Cotton and the huge upheavel against it was the first instance of public outcry against GM crops in India. But, the government preferred to go ahead with the entry of GM crops into Indian soil siting the huge potential of the bio-technology sector and the huge strides taken by key competitor China in the area of bio-science application.

The reasons for India's continued affair with GM may be traced to two main reasons. Firstly, There is tremendous lobbying from the biotechnology industry, mainly the MNCs like Cargill and Monsanto, to allow GM crops. These companies have the financial resources to mobilise scientific opinion as well as political support.

Secondly, there is the case of academic potential for agricultural scientists from a rather new and emerging field. With not many scientific breakthroughs in the many decades, GM research offered immence potential for research and development unlike the other fields of science which have already reached a knowledge saturation.

What are Genitically Modified foods?

The term GM foods or GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest molecular biology techniques. These plants have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content.

The enhancement of desired traits has traditionally been undertaken through breeding, but conventional plant breeding methods can be very time consuming and are often not very accurate. So, genetic engineering is used which can create plants with the exact desired trait very rapidly and with great accuracy.

What GM crops are experimented in India?

Cotton, maize, mustard, sugarcane, sorghum, pigeonpea, chickpea, rice, tomato, brinjal, potato, banana, papaya, cauliflower, oilseeds, castor, soyabean and medicinal plants are the major crops in which India is inve3sting on.

Apart from plant species, several species of fish is also looked into.

Is India a significant player in the GM business?

India is emerging as a significant player in the $44-billion global genetically modified (GM) crop business

India is set to become a "centre of influence" that will help lead development, according to a new study, 'The Global Diffusion of Plant Biotechnology: International Adoption and Research in 2004'.

Since the first commercialisation of GM crops in 1996, these are being grown in 18 countries while 45 others are engaged in research and development.

A broadbased adoption of GM globally will transform production and development around the world,according to C Ford Runge, director of the University of Minnesota's Centre for International Food.

India has only approved commercial cultivation of insect-resistant cotton, though researchers have conducted field trials on drought-tolerant canola, insect-resistant cotton and tobacco.

India is further experementing with cabbage, potatoes, rice and tomatoes.

Indian farmers grow and sell insect-resistant cotton. But there are at least 20 academic and research institutions involved in plant biotech research covering 16 crops.

There is a hope among the scientific community in India that GM will possibly trigger a second green revolution. India, with its surging knowledge-based economy will witness GM crops playing a pivotal role in future development.

What is the global hierarchy in GM business?

Of the global trade in GM crop, 98 per cent is from five countries - the US, Argentina, China, Canada and Brazil - growing one or more of four biotech-enhanced crops: soybeans, cotton, corn and canola.

The US leads with $27.5 billion worth of GM crops like soybeans, corn, cotton and canola.

Argentina ranks second, handling $8.9 billion worth of soybeans and corn, followed by China with $3.9 billion worth cotton, Canada with $2 billion worth canola, corn and soybeans, and Brazil with $1.6 billion worth soybeans.

Biotech crop is expected to boom in Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa, the parts of the world experiencing population explosion.

While North America is the epicentre for plant biotechnology research, more than half of the 63 countries engaged in biotech research, development and production are developing countries.

Western Europe, China, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Australia and India are estamated as the centres of influence that will help lead development into the future.

South Africa, which has already approved GM varieties of corn, cotton and soybeans for planting, now ranks sixth in the world in terms of acres planted with biotech varieties.

What are some of the advantages of GM foods?

The world population has topped 6 billion people and is predicted to double in the next 50 years. Ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population is going to be a major challenge in the years to come.

Pest resistance Crop: losses from insect pests can be staggering, resulting in devastating financial loss for farmers and starvation in developing countries is minimised.

Disease resistance: There are many viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant diseases. Plant biologists are working to create plants with genetically-engineered resistance to these diseases.

Drought tolerance/salinity tolerance: As the world population grows and more land is utilized for housing instead of food production, farmers will need to grow crops in locations previously unsuited for plant cultivation. Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater will help people to grow crops in formerly inhospitable places.

Nutrition Malnutrition: is common in third world countries where impoverished peoples rely on a single crop such as rice for the main staple of their diet.

Pharmaceuticals: Medicines and vaccines often are costly to produce and sometimes require special storage conditions not readily available in third world countries. Researchers are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes. These vaccines will be much easier to ship, store and administer than traditional injectable vaccines.

Phytoremediation: Not all GM plants are grown as crops. Soil and groundwater pollution continues to be a problem in all parts of the world. Plants such as poplar trees have been genetically engineered to clean up heavy metal pollution from contaminated soil.

Why then is GM foods criticised?

Environmental concerns: Unintended harm to other organisms Last year a laboratory study was published in Nature 21 showing that pollen from Bt corn caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars.

Reduced effectiveness of pesticides: Just as some populations of mosquitoes developed resistance to the now-banned pesticide DDT, many people are concerned that insects will become resistant to GM or other crops that have been genetically-modified to produce their own pesticides.

Gene transfer to non-target species: Another concern is that crop plants engineered for herbicide tolerance and weeds will cross-breed, resulting in the transfer of the herbicide resistance genes from the crops into the weeds.

Human health risks: Many children in the US and Europe have developed life-threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods. There is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals.

There is a growing concern that introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health.

On the whole, with the exception of possible allergenicity, scientists believe that GM foods do not present a risk to human health.

Economic concerns: Bringing a GM food to market is a lengthy and costly process, and of course agri-biotech companies wish to ensure a profitable return on their investment.

Many new plant genetic engineering technologies and GM plants have been patented, and patent infringement is a big concern of agribusiness.

In conclusion: GM foods have the potential to solve many problems like, hunger and malnutrition. It can also help protect and preserve the environment by increasing yield and reducing reliance upon chemical pesticides and herbicides.

But the governments of the countries opening their gates to GM foods need to address safety testing, regulation, international policy and food labeling.


Amazing maize does a disappearing act for now

- Mail and Guardian, By Kimani Chege and Mike Shanahan, 19 December 2004

The introduction of genetically modified (GM) maize to Kenyan farmers is to be delayed, according to the Science and Development Network.

The GM maize is now scheduled to make its debut in 2010 following revised safety regulations for the Insect-Resistant Maize for Africa project.

The project's first line of the GM maize has been tested in the world-class biosafety greenhouse officially opened in Nairobi earlier this year.

Approval for open field-testing is currently being sought from the government. If obtained, these tests will take place early next year. The changes in regulations now give greater attention to potential threats that GM maize could pose to the environment.

Genes from genetically modified maize imported into Mexico from the United States have entered local varieties, are likely to spread, and will be very difficult to remove, according to a major report released last month. The North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation says there is no evidence that the genes pose threats to human health or the environment, but action should be taken to conserve the biodiversity of maize varieties in Mexico.

"It became clear that regulatory issues were not exhaustively covered in the original project plan," said Nairobi-based Stephen Mugo, project manager for Irma (Insect-Resistant Maize for Africa).

Mugo said the revised rules will comply with existing Kenyan regulations, which allow research on genetically altered crops but not their sale. The new rules are also stringent enough to anticipate any changes to the law.

A group drawn from the Irma project and the government regulator, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, decided on the changes. They also updated plans relating to plant breeding, facilities and permits, and the social and economic implications of introducing GM maize to Kenyan farmers.

The Irma project is a joint venture between the Kenyan government and international research institutes. It aims to develop a variety of maize able to resist attack by stem borers, major insect pests. Each year, stem borers are responsible for crop losses of up to 12%, amounting to $76-million in lost harvests.

The Irma project, which began five years ago, aims to create both conventional and transgenic maize varieties to resist the pest. The GM plants, incorporating genetic material from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, are referred to as Bt maize.
The research is being done by scientists from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.

It is expected to cost more than $6-million during the next five years with the bulk of the funding coming from the Swiss-based Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. The Rockefeller Foundation is also a donor.

The project's GM maize was initially scheduled to be distributed to farmers by 2008. According to Mugo, widespread distribution will only be achieved by 2011.

Joe DeVries of the Rockefeller Foundation said he hoped extra regulations would not slow the pace of the project. "It is clear that [this type of GM] maize has been tested and proven to work elsewhere hence there is no need for unnecessary regulations," he added.
When officially opening the greenhouse facility, Kenya's president Mwai Kibaki endorsed the use of genetically modified crops to increase yields, but warned that guidelines were necessary.

"We have to move quickly and embrace biotechnology in our farming," said Kibaki, who stressed the financial impacts of crop pests and disease in Kenya. "With judicious application of biotechnology, it is possible to save this country from incurring these losses."
Masa Iwanaga, director general the International Center for Maize and Wheat Research, says the opening of the greenhouse in Kenya opened up a stream of new opportunities both in research and agricultural progress.

"With this greenhouse opening, and the training of competent staff to manage it, Kenya has positioned themselves to be leaders in sub-Saharan Africa in the use of biotechnology to meet the rapidly growing need to increase food production", says Iwanaga.
Meanwhile, maize genes continue to amaze scientists. Scientists have moved a step closer to learning the genetic secrets of maize, and using this knowledge to boost crop yields.

Researchers led by Joachim Messing, director of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University in the United States, have published a series of papers providing the most comprehensive picture yet of the crop’s evolution.

"This research will help enable scientists and farmers to make major improvements in one of the world's most significant crops," says Messing.

The researchers conservatively estimate that the maize genome -- its entire genetic makeup -- includes about 59 000 genes, short sequences that code for individual proteins. That is more than any other species whose genome has been sequenced so far. In contrast, the most recent assessment of the human genome, published in the journal Nature, puts the total number of human genes at between 20 000 and 25 000.

Messing said that the research has importance implications for developing countries.

"More nutritious maize is critical for Africa," he says, adding that it should be possible to boost the crop's nutritional value because "it already has all the genes necessary".

According to Messing, the richness of the maize genome means that increasing its nutritive value would not require adding genes from other species, but only changing the way existing genes function.

"One example is amino acids, which are stored as proteins in the seeds that we eat," says Messing. Some maize varieties have more nutritious proteins, but the genes controlling their production can be 'silenced' when the variety is crossed with other strains. Messing anticipates being able to prevent this silencing by moving a short sequence of genetic material called a "regulator" from a gene that is not silenced to the one that is.

The research also revealed that the maize genome is highly complex because many of its genes have moved to different locations on chromosomes during its evolution. This phenomenon -- unknown in any other species -- has implications for genetic engineering.
According to Messing, it means that fears that genetic modification could lead to instability in a species’ genetic material are unfounded.

Sequencing the entire maize genome is a priority driven by the world’s economic and nutritional needs, says Messing. About $12-million has been spent so far on research laying the groundwork for full genome sequencing, and the US National Science Foundation recently announced a $30-million programme to fund that research.

The Mexican report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), which was set by the North American Free Trade Agreement and reports to the governments of Canada, Mexico and the United States, estimates that 25-30% of maize imported into Mexico for human or animal consumption is genetically modified.

It warns that small-scale farmers could experimentally plant the grain that government agencies have distributed to rural communities. The resulting plants could then pollinate local varieties growing nearby.

However, it notes that it is unlikely that a small number of individual genes could have any "major biological effect" on the genetic diversity of Mexican maize.

It goes on to say that transgenic maize did not appear to have any effect on other plants and animals such as insects found in Mexican maize fields, but that specific studies have still to be conducted.

The CEC's 16-member panel made a series of unanimous recommendations. The panel said transgenic maize imported to Mexico should be labelled, and milled at the point of entry to prevent genes from spreading to native varieties. The genetic modification of maize to produce pharmaceuticals or industrial compounds that are incompatible with food and feed should also be prohibited, they say.

Efforts to protect Mexican maize varieties should be supported, according to the CEC. To this end it recommends the development of a quality assured seed programme from which farmers could not only acquire seeds but could also have their own seeds tested for presence of foreign genes.

In response, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Trade Representative called the report "fundamentally flawed and unscientific".

"Key recommendations are not based on sound science, and are contradicted by the report's own scientific findings," says the statement. "Implementing many of the report's recommendations would cause economic harm to farmers and consumers in all NAFTA countries and restrict international trade."


Mill in Vadodara raided, bootleg Bt cotton seized

Seized goods have been sent to laboratories for genetic testing.

- Ahmedabad NewsLine, December 20, 2004

Vadodara, December 19: A TEAM of state agriculture officers confiscated 1,100 kgs of illegal BT cotton crop and 67 kgs of illegal BT cotton seeds during a raid at a ginning mill in Vadodara district on Sunday.

The seized goods have been sent to laboratories in Gandhinagar and Nagpur for further genetic testing.

The raid took place at Ganesh Engineering Works in Sadhli village, Sinor taluka, Vadodara district.

According to agriculture officers, the crackdown came after they received an anonymous tip-off about the illegal use of BT cotton seeds by farmers of the area.

A Dabhoi-based farmer, Yogesh Patel, is alleged to have bought the cotton crop for ginning here.

The agriculture department has also issued notices against such unauthorised usage of illegal BT cotton or its ginning.

Cotton farmers are not happy about the crackdown. Vipin Patel of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj said: ‘‘The state government is acting at the behest of multinationals, namely Monsanto company.’’

He said ginning mills could not be raided in such a manner as it was difficult to determine the legality of the cotton crop.

Patel alleged that acting on the behest of multinational seed companies, the state government was trampling on farmers’ right to experiment in their own fields.

‘‘This is not the first time that such a crackdown has taken place. As earlier, the farmers will oppose the move in peaceful manner,’’ he said.


EU Ministers to Debate Authorising GMO Rapeseed

- Reuters, December 20, 2004

BRUSSELS - EU environment ministers will discuss allowing imports of a biotech rapeseed next week but the chances of agreement are slim, meaning EU process may well lead to another default authorisation, officials said on Friday.

If so, it would be the third approval by bureaucratic default since the EU restarted new GMO authorisations in mid-May and ended a longstanding moratorium on new biotech imports that has angered major trading partners like the United States.

In June, experts from the EU's 25 member states failed to agree on approving the rapeseed, known as GT73 and marketed by US biotech giant Monsanto. Under the EU's complex decision-making procedure, the matter has passed to ministers.

If the ministers, who are due to meet on Monday, fail to agree, then the EU's executive Commission gains the legal right to allow the rapeseed for import and use across EU territory.

"Some member states have changed their position but the overall picture is that there would not be a majority either for or against," said David Grant Lawrence, an acting director in the Commission's environment department.

"So the matter would return to the Commission," he told a news conference. If the ministers cannot agree on the rapeseed, it would be the ninth occasion in a row where the EU has been unable to reach a consensus on allowing a new GMO import.

Assuming this outcome, the Commission can be expected to rubberstamp an approval, probably some time in January.

Monsanto's requested use is for animal feed and industrial processing, not for growing. GT73 rapeseed is altered to resist the non-selective herbicide glyphosate, making it easier for farmers to manage weeds effectively.

In June, a committee of member state experts broke up in disarray on whether to allow imports of the rapeseed, generally seen as a more controversial GMO product than maize.

European consumers remain largely hostile to biotech foods with opposition rated at more than 70 percent. Supermarkets and food manufacturers have responded to this and still tend to avoid stocking produce that contains GMOs.

"EU member states have to take a clear position to defend consumers and the environment from the threats posed by this GMO," international environment group Greenpeace said.