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January 5, 2005


Clear Benefits Will Ease Fears; Half-Baked Knowledge; Food is Safe; Soil Assoc Spin; Fortified Peanut; Fooling Mother Nature; Debating in 2005


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : January 5, 2005

* Benefits of Biotech in Agriculture Will Become Clearer
* Little Knowledge Is Dangerous!
* Food is Safe
* Trust the Soil Association to Put the Worst Possible...
* Bt-Cotton In India: The Technology Wins as the Controversy Wanes
* ICRISAT Working on Biofortification of Peanut
* Global AgBiotech Map
* GM Clover 'No Threat'
* Fooling Mother Nature
* Cochran Fellowships - Short Term Training in US
* GM Crop Debate Developments for the Year 2005?
* Biodiversity: Crisis or Cusp?


Benefits of Biotechnology in Agriculture Will Become Clearer

- The Kiplinger Agriculture Letter, December 30, 2004

The benefits of biotechnology in agriculture will become clearer in a few years as genetic modifications unveil new advantages to people's health. That will help ease fears about such tweaking. Many biotech advances are on tap. Take a look at these examples:

The recently sequenced chicken genome. It may help save lives by letting researchers learn how avian flu mutates to infect humans. Their work could lead to vaccines to protect people from a flu pandemic if a highly pathogenic bird flu became easily contagious among humans.

Drought-tolerant corn and soybeans. They boost dryland cropping, enhance food production in needy regions and reduce irrigation demands.

Soybeans with no-cholesterol oil. They're low in linolenic acid, reducing the use of hydrogenation, which creates trans fats in foods.

Nutrition-enhanced rice. It can help folks on subsistence diets live healthier lives. USDA has awarded $5 million to 14 research centers to study rice genetics for disease resistance and milling quality.

A fungus designed to kill mites that devastate honeybees. Many plants depend on pollination by bees, so a breakthrough would help.

And beef that's more healthful. Scientists have isolated genes that blend fat into muscle, a key to producing tender beef with less fat.


Little Knowledge Is Dangerous!

- Mulu Ayele Re: Africa's Food Problem - GM Can Be One of the Solutions

Prakash: I fully agree with you on the issue of GM crops. There is a misconception or lack of proper understanding of what biotechnology can offer to Africa. It is another mistake to lag behind in adopting and practicing biotechnology specially in Africa. Many Latin American and Asian countries are adopting and benefiting from GMO's --- as a matter of fact, China was the first country to commercialize transgenics in the early 1990s followed by the US in 1994.

Part of the problem in Africa seems to me that those intelligentsia advising policy makers on GM crops are partially knowledgeable (perhaps most of them don't have adequate training and expertise in the field) or some of the policy makers themselves may be biased towards biotechnology from what they read in one-sided tabloids, etc. -- little knowledge is dangerous!

Let's not make a mistake that will cost another generation in catching up with the rest of the world.

>Africa's Food Problem - GM Can Be One of the Solutions - C. S. Prakash, Yale Global, Jan 2, 2005


Food is Safe

- Leon Corzine, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan 3, 2005

The Union of Concerned Scientists is at it again. The new report, "A Growing Concern," is the group's latest attempt to frighten and mislead consumers about plant-made pharmaceuticals and plant-made industrial products. The group insinuates that the food supply already may be "contaminated with drugs and other chemicals from pharma crops," though it fails to provide any facts to back up this claim.

In fact, there has not been a single documented case of a human consuming food that contains plant-made pharmaceutical or industrial chemical components. The organization's dramatic rhetoric - including the statement, "Nobody wants drugs in their cornflakes" - has no basis in fact or reputable science. Farmers who grow plant-made pharmaceuticals and industrial products willingly follow regulatory guidelines to contain and isolate these products to protect consumers.

Additionally, growers have worked with the Department of Agriculture to ensure strict confinement and cultivation.

The Union of Concerned Scientists recommends many measures already advocated by growers and adopted by the Agriculture Department, including temporal and spatial separation, dedicated equipment and channeling from conventional corn.

The scientists' group also makes the egregious recommendation to "avoid processed foods." Nearly every item on the shelves of your local grocery store contains processed foods. Appropriately, these foods are strictly controlled to ensure the health of consumers.

The U.S. food supply is the safest and among the most affordable in the world. Consumers should continue to disregard attempts to spread fear through the use of junk science and half-truths.

Leon Corzine, President, National Corn Growers Association, Assumption, Ill.


Trust the Soil Association's Director, Gundula Azeez, to Put the Worst Possible...

- Robert Sutton, Farmer's Weekly (UK), December 17, 2004

Trust the Soil Association's director, Gundula Azeez, to put the worst possible spin on your report Use of Pesticides on GM crops increases in USA (News, Nov 19).

"Regrettably, the government's farm-scale trials only tested the impact of GM crops in the first year," he laments. Can we take that as a policy statement that the Soil Association would support comprehensive fully-replicated trials of GM? Would he like to take this opportunity of condemning all those white overalled environmental saviours who trashed every experimental GM site they could find?

As for his comment: "GM crops will inevitably lead to more chemicals in British farming," were we reading the same report? It clearly stated that GM crops helped reduce the use of pesticides on BT cotton crops. The report indeed stated that herbicide use was increasing on herbicide-resistant crops as weed resistance developed. But this would be from a low level - possibly one glyphosate application per crop. It did not suggest that herbicide use in these crops had increased to the levels used in conventional crops. Even if it did growers would still have the option of reverting to traditional herbicide policies, therefore breaking even on herbicide use in the worst case.

And there was no discussion of the importance of using herbicide tolerant GM crops in a rotation as part of a weed-control strategy - a policy without which herbicide-tolerant GM crops would be unviable in the long term. GM isn't the answer to everything, nor is organic farming.

But how could organic agriculture feed the entire world, instead of a wealthy, self-indulgent, privileged, Western minority?


Bt-Cotton In India: The Technology Wins as the Controversy Wanes

- T.M. Manjunath, AgBioView, Dec 29, 2004. www.agbioworld.org


Abstract: Bt-cotton developed by Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company) containing the Bollgard Bt gene, cry 1Ac, licensed from Monsanto, was approved by Govt of India for commercial cultivation in March 2002. This approval was preceded by a large number of laboratory studies and about 500 field trials carried out during 1996 - 2001 to demonstrate the safety and benefits of Bt-cotton as per regulatory requirements.

The area planted with Bt-cotton in 2002, the first year of introduction, was 29,415 ha (72,685 acres). It increased to 86,240 ha in 2003 and to 530,800 ha in 2004. A nationwide survey carried out in 2003 indicated that the Bt-cotton growers in India were able to obtain , on an average, a yield increase by about 29% due to effective control of bollworms, a reduction in chemical sprays by 60% and an increase in net profit by 78% as compared to their non-Bt counterparts.

The indications are that the demand for Bt-cotton will grow significantly in the coming years. Realizing its potential, 19 other seed companies have already joined Mahyco-Monsanto as their sub-licensees for Bt-cotton. The details of the development of Bt-cotton, safety studies, field performance, opposition it faced, problem of illegal Bt-cotton and the prospects of this technology in India are outlined in this article.

Read full article at http://www.agbioworld.org/newsletter_wm/index.php?caseid=archive&newsid=2300


ICRISAT Working on Biofortification of Groundnuts

- Financial Express (India), January 4, 2005

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat) has launched research to enhance beta-carotene in groundnut. The research is part of the 'global challenge programme' of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) aimed at the biofortification of crops to combat malnutrition due to the deficiency of nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin A in food crops. Icrisat is one of the 15 international agricultural research institutes affiliated to CGIAR.

Plant breeder Dr KK Sharma told FE, "Icrisat's research will help combat vitamin A deficiency in the malnourished. We are planning to target the malnourished people, particularly women and children across the globe. Majority of the malnourished live in semi-arid tropics. This variety of groundnut can also be cultivated in India." He said that at Icrisat, tissue culture and transformation methods had been optimised to obtain high frequency (80-90%) shoot regeneration from cotyledon and leaf explants of groundnut. The technology is now being used to produce new transgenic groundnuts with higher levels of beta-carotenes.

Icrisat scientists hope that such groundnuts will form an important genetic base for incorporating resistance to other biotic and abiotic constraints to the productivity of this important crop of the semi-arid tropi|cs. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to night blindness and total blindness in children. About 350,000 children become partly or totally blind each year because of vitamin A deficiency and about 60% of them die within a few months after going blind according to an estimate of WHO, said Dr Sharma.

He said that while vitamin A was only present in animal products, its predecessor beta-carotene or provitamin A was found in several plant species. However, these are not taken up easily from digested food, because they are fat-soluble and their bioavailability depends on the presence of fat or oil in the same meal, failing which they are excreted undigested. Oral delivery of vitamin A is problematic, mainly because of the lack of infrastructure thus necessitating urgent need of alternatives, he said.


Global AgBiotech Map

- William Hoffman, University of Minnesota

This global biotech crops and plant sciences research map may be of interest to you as a background reference:



GM Clover 'No Threat'

- Paul Sellars, Weekly Times (Australia), January 5, 2005

Genetically modified subterranean clover is unlikely to be more of a weed threat than conventional subterranean clover, according to the CSIRO. As part of a wider study into GM organisms, CSIRO Plant Industry studied the environmental risk of GM subterranean clover as a potential weed in remnant native grasslands.

CSIRO Plant Industry scientist Dr Bob Godfree said field and glasshouse trials "provided no evidence the invasiveness and competitiveness of GM sub-clover was any greater than conventional sub-clover". "Indeed, at higher densities, GM sub-clover performs less well," Dr Godfree said.

Conventional sub-clover is a common pasture plant that can occur in native grasslands. In the trials, weediness was determined by comparing seed germination rates, plant growth and seed production, weight and dormancy in GM and non-GM sub-clover.

"We found that GM sub-clover seed tended to be `softer' (and) so slightly less dormant, meaning more seed was 'released' from the seed bank and could germinate every year," Dr Godfree said. "In a good year 'soft' seed is an advantage as the largest number of seed can grow in the favourable conditions, but in a poor year it's a disadvantage, as much of the seed is wasted that year, leaving a limited amount for the following season."

Dr Godfree said it was clear that in native grasslands, GM sub-clover populations would decline over time and in pastures both GM and non-GM, sub-clover might persist. He said while there were no plans to release GM sub-clover, the study improved the understanding of the ecology of GM plants and how they may differ from conventional plants.

However, the Network of Concerned Farmers claimed the study was a waste of money. Spokeswoman Julie Newman said it was clear consumers were rejecting GM foods. Ms Newman said that included food from sheep who grazed clover and other products derived from animals that ate GM plants.

She said conventional farmers would not accept liability for their products being contaminated by GM organisms. "Before they waste any more money on trials, they should work out the liability issues first," Ms Newman said.


Fooling Mother Nature

'Genetically modified foods can increase yields, but are they safe?'

- Valerie Phillips, Deseret Morning News. Full story at

Farmers today can raise corn with a built-in pesticide, soybeans that thrive when sprayed with weed killer and squash that resist viruses. Some say they're biotechnological wonders. Critics call them "Frankenfoods."

Should you worry if your food is swimming in the gene pool? Opinions were mixed among a group of experts who spoke at a day long biotechnology conference for the Association of Food Journalists last October in Puerto Rico. But most agreed that the products should be labeled so the public can decide if they want to use them or not.

Current genetically modified crops in America appear safe to eat, and their environmental risks are manageable, said Gregory Jaffe, who directs the Center for Science in the Public Interest's biotechnology project. But the products need better regulating, and future products need more safety testing before going on the market.

The CSPI is a food/nutrition watchdog group that assailed movie theater popcorn and the fake fat Olestra. So, it's a little surprising to hear the group isn't necessarily against genetically engineered foods. But it's obviously wary, considering that the group devotes part of its Web site to the topic and monitors new developments.


The Cochran Fellowship Program - For Training in US

See more information at http://www.fas.usda.gov/icd/food-industries/cfp/index.html

Contact your local US Embassy's Agricultural Attache for more information.
The Cochran Fellowship Program, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service, Food Industries Division

The Cochran Fellowship Program (CFP) is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS). It provides U.S.-based agricultural training opportunities for senior and mid-level specialists and administrators from public and private sectors who are concerned with agricultural trade, agribusiness development, management, policy, and marketing.

Almost 20 years ago, U.S. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi envisioned providing training and support to help developing nations improve their agricultural systems and strengthen and enhance trade links with the United States. Since its inception in 1984, the program has provided U.S.- based training for over 9,400 international participants from 87 countries worldwide.

Training Focus: The program offers short-term training opportunities, most ranging from two weeks to three months, depending on the objectives of the program. Participants meet with professionals in their fields, participate in field observations and industry visits, experience on-the-job training, and attend university courses and seminars.

Applicant Eligibility: Program participation is open to the staff of agribusinesses, government departments, universities, and other agricultural organizations. In their own countries, applicants may be managers, technicians, scientists, professors, administrators, or policy makers.

Selection Procedures: Program Announcement CFP will announce the program for each eligible country at the start of each fiscal year (October 1).

For more information, contact: Cochran Fellowship Program: margaret.mcdaniel@usda.fas.gov; Telephone: (202) 690-0349; Fax: (202) 690-0349


GM Crop Debate Developments for the Year 2005

- Klaus Ammann

For the coming 2005 some remarks on possible developments in the GM crop debate:

1. Scientific developments: There are many new developments, one could fill a book with the topic.
here just one link to a book which was published in 2004, dealing with the topic of recent advances in genomics related to regulation. Nap, J.P., Atanassov, A., & Stiekema, W.J. (2004) Genomics for Biosafety in Plant Biotechnology 359 NATO, IS: 1 58603 432 4, pp 256

A chapter in this volume: Ammann, K. (2004), How To Learn About Risk Assessment For Novel Crops Based On Future Genomics Research, Borovets, Sofia, Bulgaria NATO, NATO Advanced Research Workshop on "Genomics for Biosafety in Plant Biotechnology: New Challenges" (eds J. Nap & A. Atanassov)

There are hopes that gene insertion will be done by even more precise methods in future:
Puchta, H. (2005) The repair of double-strand breaks in plants: mechanisms and consequences for genome evolution. J. Exp. Bot., 56, 409, pp 1-14 http://jxb.oupjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/56/409/1 or http://www.botanischergarten.ch/GM-General/Puchta-DNA-Repairs-2005.pdf or http://www.biotechknowledge.com/biotech/knowcenter.nsf/ID/F4652E1FC765465F86256F7200621E58#doc

More about the same topic:

Genomics will also be the theme for many new publications on GM crop developments, a preview:

Thro, A., Parrott, W., Udall, J., & Beavis, W. (2004), Genomics and Plant Breeding: the Experience of the Initiative for Future Agricultural and Food Systems, Crop Science, Genomics and Plant Breeding: the Experience of the Initiative for Future Agricultural and Food Systems pp 1893-1919

A chapter in this summary report Nelson, R.J., Naylor, R.L., & Jahn, M.M. (2004) The role of genomics research in improvement of "orphan" crops. Crop Science, 44, 6, pp 1901-1904

Strauss, S.H. (2003) Genetic technologies - Genomics, genetic engineering, and domestication of crops. Science, 300, 5616, pp 61-62

VandenBosch, K.A. & Stacey, G. (2003) Summaries of legume genomics projects from around the globe. Community resources for crops and models. Plant Physiology, 131, 3, pp 840-865

2. Developments about the GM crop debate itself

a) I have learned the last few years that it is well worth wile to distinguish between opponents who make big money with anti GM campaigns (and who consequently have not the slightest interest in a rational debate) and those opponents who bare a genuine interest and concern about the future development. Those opponents have to be targeted with non-compromising attitude and confronted with scientific facts, for which they have a professional attitude to distort them, resulting into pseudoscience.
For the first ones, the fundamentalists, I have only one comment, summarized in a chart, see the link below:: http://www.botanischergarten.ch/Fundamentalists/Help-Fundis.pdf

b) Before we open a fruitful dialogue, we must all agree on a basic thought: It is of crucial importance to get away from the old fashioned habit of dealing with risk alone, not by systematically overlooking it, but by putting it into context with opportunity, and even taking chances where possible. We should be carefully weighting risks and chances at the same time and then decide for the better solution. With other words: the precautionary approach (illegitimate name: precautionary principle) should include also the careful weighting non-application of GM crops. For people refusing such thought should carefully consider the old Chinese view on risk: It is a composite of two icons, meaning risk and chance (opportunity).

c) The question is then how we should organize the discussion with all other opponents willing to conduct a discourse (I admit that the bifurcation made here in a) and c) may depend on regional, temporal and personal differenciation). The debate suffers from so many misunderstandings and simplistic concepts.

I am not very optimistic when I realize how often I have heard in regional and international conferences the naive credo of scientists that "discussion partners need to listen and to learn about the scientific facts, and if so, they would be apeased and would think more positively about green biotech".

This has now over many years been disproven as a general tactics: Preaching and teaching, or worse: how do I say this to my children (pardon, I mean naive, maybe misguided lay people)... There is a big BUT to such attitudes: A growing number of people is feeling more and more uneasy about the monopoly of science trying to explain most of the worlds complexity. We live nolens volens in a society which wants to see a balance between science, culture, tradition and progress which includes equity.

What we need is not only to learn how to communicate with the public (again I admit that many scientists are not really talented and worse: many are not educated or interested in communication; for those I also have an illustration for easy understanding: Two charts are enough: http://www.botanischergarten.ch/Discourse/Discourse.pdf

It is certainly not an easy task to change attitudes in the debate on GM plants, since we are dealing with a highly complex matter, not only on the molecular and ecological level, but also realizing that the issues implicate also social and cultural elements. All debate partners are shopping the suitable arguments in the anonymous mist of the complexity cloud, this is clearly visible even in peer reviewed risk assessment papers: It is advisable to carefully scrutinize the list of cited papers, and

A review on which factors are influencing the debate are given in the Handbook of Plant Biotechnology:
Ammann, K. & Papazova Ammann, B. (2004) Factors Influencing Public Policy Development in Agricultural Biotechnology. In RISK ASSESSMENT OF TRANSGENIC CROPS. (ed S. Shantaram), Vol. 9, pp. 1552. Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, NJ, USA.P. Christou & H. Klee Handbook of Plant Biotechnology,

Let me close this reflection on the GM debate with a wise word of Ken Wilber, a philosopher from California see: http://www.shambhala.com/html/catalog/items/ISBN/1-57062-501-8.cfm/

Integral: the word means to integrate, to bring together, to join, to link, to embrace. Not in the sense of uniformity, and not in the sense of ironing out all the wonderful differences, colors, zigs and zags of a rainbow-hued humanity, but in the sense of unity indiversity, shared commonalities along with our wonderful differences: replacing rancor with mutual recognition, hostility with respect, inviting everybody into the tent of mutual understanding. Not that I have to agree with everything you say, but I should attempt at least to understand it, for the opposite of mutual understanding is, quite simply, war. Wilber, K. (2002) Boomeritis, a novel that will set you free, 1st. edn. Shambala Publications, Inc., IS: 1-57062-801-7, pp 456, citation p. 15

I have to confess that sometimes I did not live up to these wonderful words, but its always important to make a resolution for the New Year.

With my best personal regards, Klaus Ammann


Biodiversity: Crisis or Cusp?

- Brad Allenby, GreenBiz, January 2005. http://www.greenbiz.com/news/columns_third.cfm?NewsID=27508

Most environmentalists and conservation biologists believe that there is currently a crisis in biodiversity driven primarily by extinctions resulting from human activity. Precise numbers are controversial for many reasons, the most fundamental being our limited grasp of how many species even exist, especially in the microbial realm (The Economist notes that Craig Venter of human genome fame recently reported 47,000 new species of bacteria from one sample off the coast of Bermuda; previously about 5,000 species of bacteria had been classified in toto). Nonetheless, that there are a number of extinctions attributable at least in part to human activities, dating from megafauna extinctions thousands of years ago, is increasingly clear.

But a new and powerful idea challenges the idea that biodiversity is diminishing. Those who follow biotechnology know that we have already created viruses from basic molecular building blocks, and that creation of a baseline bacterium is only a few years away (the baseline bacteria could then be built up and customized by using packaged metabolic pathways, already being created at MIT and elsewhere). And the progress of genetically modified organism (GMO) technology continues despite strident opposition from deep greens. This raises the possibility that what appears to be a crisis is in fact simply a transition in the mechanisms by which biodiversity is produced: from "evolutionary biodiversity" to "designed biodiversity". This line of thought would argue that a century from now, there may well be more, not less, biodiversity but that biodiversity will be the result of human engineering of genomic systems, not the result of traditional biological evolution.

To consider this argument is not to say such a development is "good" or "bad"; merely to ask whether we are understanding the implications of, or indeed even perceiving, current trends. Certainly, such a transition raises difficult questions. For example, one of the advantages of "evolutionary biodiversity" is that it reflects the context within which it occurs, and it therefore leads to relatively stable and resilient systems. "Designed biodiversity," however, may well reflect economic and cultural pressures, and short term industrial goals, that are not necessarily integrated with other components of the physical and biological world, and thus result in a biodiversity that is fragile and even dysfunctional. Moreover, for many who equate "nature" with the "Sacred" the idea of biodiversity arising from human intentionality verges on blasphemous, despite the fact that existing patterns of biodiversity already reflect human activities, and have done so for a long time.

But there is a high cost to refusing to perceive, or consider the implications of, the possibility that biodiversity is not in crisis, but in transition. If this trend is real, there are many profound consequences, from the religious and the ethical to the severely practical (e.g., how can humans purport to create anthropogenic biodiversity when we have so little knowledge of the structure and dynamics of the systems involved?). Such implications require considered thought and dialog from a number of perspectives, not just the technical. If groups which might contribute in important ways to such a dialog remove themselves from it by unconsidered opposition, it does not mean that the technologies will be stopped, but that important voices that might contribute to a more desirable trajectory for those technologies will have, in essence, deliberately chosen not to participate.

Although the question of the transition phase of biodiversity is a critical and important one for anybody seriously interested in sustainability, it hasn't been addressed for a number of reasons, including the fact that the communities interested in biodiversity tend to have been trained, and to value, only "evolutionary biodiversity." But ignoring phenomenon that challenge one's ideology is a luxury that anyone who thinks sustainability is more than a slogan cannot afford. Accordingly, what sorts of research agenda does the biodiversity transition suggest?

Obviously, the first is to determine whether the purported trend exists, and, if so, how rapidly it is occurring? An important corollary is how it should be measured (irreducible information content of genomic systems is an obvious possible metric). The second is to establish a research program to look at the implications of the transition, to identify critical issues, and to begin dialogs intended to provide both accurate perception of the trends, and identify challenges and potential problems before they become locked in by technological and cultural evolution. These only begin the work, but are important steps towards responding to the challenges of living at the birth of the anthropogenic world.

Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T's vice president of environment, health, and safety.