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March 30, 2005


Brussels calls for risk analysis on GM ingredients; Bill banning local rules for crops approved; Farmers' weather worries: Hot, dry or wet?


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : March 30, 2005

* Brussels calls for risk analysis on GM ingredients
* ‘Investment in bio-tech crucial to overcome food scarcity’
* Bill banning local rules for crops approved
* Farmers' weather worries: Hot, dry or wet?


Brussels calls for risk analysis on GM ingredients

- Food Navigator, March 30, 2005

GM ingredients highlighted again on the Brussels agenda with the Commission calling for a risk assessment of the impact genetically modified foodstuffs might have on human health.

Europe’s legislative proposing body has published a call for tender for a study on the cumulative long-term effects of GM crops on human and animal health.

The objectives of the project include: assessing and documenting the adequacy of existing risk assessment methodologies and protocols for judging the impact of GM crops; and to identify any possible gaps in knowledge.

-Prioritising GM plants already released in the European community, the Commission said further aims of the project will be to develop specific methodology (for example, Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), checklists) in terms of risk assessment with associated risk assessment criteria (for example, specific indicators) for potential cumulative long-term effects from individual groups of GM crops (species) and for different transgenic phenotypes.

This latest investment in GMs follows swiftly on from a round table discussion earlier this month whereby the European Commission took stock of role GMO food ingredients can play in European society.

Heated discussions were inevitable as the biotech issue continues to divide national state opinion.

Tough new regulations on the labelling of GM ingredients on foodstuffs that essentially flag up a biotech ingredient to the consumer, have done apparently little to encourage approval and use of GM crops.

The food industry, in beat with the demands of the consumer, continues to steer away from using biotech ingredients in their formulations. By their reasoning the European GM-cynical shopper is highly unlikely to buy a foodstuff that contains a genetically modified product.

Since the end to Europe’s de facto moratorium last year on biotech food approvals, Commission proposals paving the way for the import of new GM crops into the European food chain have met with a mixed reaction from member states.

To date, only two crops, Bt11 sweetcorn from Swiss agrochemicals firm Syngenta whose approval last year broke the EU ban on GM food and feed crop imports, and NK603 maize designed by biotech giant Monsanto, have been approved under regulation (EC) No 97/258 on novel foods, in May and October 2004 respectively.


‘Investment in bio-tech crucial to overcome food scarcity’

- Daily Times, March 30, 2005

ISLAMABAD: Investment in biotechnology was essential to overcome food and water scarcity which had emerged as a pressing problem for the developing world, said special advisor to the prime minister on strategic programmes, Dr Ishfaq Ahmad, on Monday while inaugurating an international conference on ‘Biotechnology for Salinity and Drought Tolerance in Plants’ organised by the National Commission on Biotechnology in collaboration with the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and the United States National Science Foundation.

With the current rate of population growth, biotechnology had the potential to find a solution for these concerns. Conventional approaches to cure salinity like drainage and reductions in the water table were expensive and time consuming. Biotechnology and nuclear techniques could offer indigenous solutions for evolving crops growing on these lands and have met with substantial success in the past.

Biotechnology has the unlimited ability to incorporate desired traits into crops species and it plays an important role in improving water quality and facing unfavourable climate conditions. PAEC chairman Parvez Butt said apart from its national development contributions in basic research, nuclear power, industrial support services and development of minerals, the PAEC was playing a role in the field of biotechnology and agriculture-related services.

The chairman said PAEC had evolved more than 47 high yield crop varieties by harnessing nuclear techniques which had earned more than Rs 6 billion in additional annual income for farmers.

He said the PAEC was using nuclear expertise to run 13 cancer hospitals in the country which benefit more than 350,000 patients annually. Five more cancer hospitals are being constructed at Gujranwala, Nawabshah, Gilgit, Bannu and Muzaffarabad, he added. Through the combined use of biotechnology and nuclear knowledge, the PAEC has evolved technologies to utilise salinity-hit lands by growing salt-tolerant crops and trees in all provinces, said the PAEC chairman.

He said the PAEC was providing this technology to nine IAEA member states, including Jordan, Sudan, Myanmar, Egypt, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Science and Technology Secretary Khawaja Zaheer Ahmed spoke on behalf of the minister. Dr Robert Gaxiola, a representative of the United States National Science Foundation (USNSF), said: “We are here for a long term collaboration with Pakistan and other countries of the region, as it is the responsibility of the international scientific community to share knowledge of higher agricultural and food productivity to benefit the common man.”


Bill banning local rules for crops approved

- Des Moines REgister, By JONATHAN ROOS, March 30, 2005

Gov. Tom Vilsack is expected to sign a bill that precludes local governments from banning the planting of certain crops, such as seeds that have been genetically modified.

The Senate completed legislative action on House File 642 by voting 33-16 in favor of the bill on Tuesday.

The "pre-emption" bill gives the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship final authority on seed grown in Iowa.

Supporters say that means cities and counties can't bar the planting of genetically modified, organic or any other type of seeds.

"I think this is a good first step in the regulation of agricultural seed," said Sen. Tom Rielly, an Oskaloosa Democrat.

Critics suggested that local government powers were being sacrificed to satisfy the biotech industry and other large agricultural interests. "When you vote for this bill, you're voting against home rule. . . . You're voting against your locally elected officials," said Sen. Keith Kreiman, a Bloomfield Democrat.

Senate Democratic leader Michael Gronstal of Council Bluffs, a supporter of the bill, said he expects Vilsack, a Democrat, to approve the legislation.


Farmers' weather worries: Hot, dry or wet?

- Des Moines Register, By ANNE FITZGERALD and JERRY PERKINS, March 27, 2005

Ames, Ia. - Plant scientists have used biotechnology to make crops repel pests and withstand application of weed killers that otherwise would be lethal to the crops.

Now researchers are trying to devise crops that can tolerate drought, which annually causes billions of dollars in losses for farmers and the crop seed industry worldwide. In Iowa alone, the nation's largest corn-producing state, drought can cause losses totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Whenever we have a dry year, it's the kind of insurance we would like to have," said Stephen Howell, director of the Iowa State University Plant Sciences Institute in Ames. "It's an issue almost everywhere."

Drought is just one type of stress that can cause yield losses and other problems for crops, but lack of moisture is one of the worst - and, globally, most persistent - factors.

"It's the No. 1 problem crops face year in, year out," said Mark Westgate , an Iowa State professor of crop production and physiology. "It's a pervasive thing. We're not just talking about the deserts."

When drought hits a crop, molecular signals tell plants that there is no available moisture and they shut down, Howell said.

"The plant undergoes a stress response and quits growing," he said.

A key goal of researchers, he said, is "to make the plant 'blind' to drought stress. . . . Understanding the signaling and stress response and how to prevent it from kicking in is part of this."

Drought tolerance is considered one of the next big developments in the $30-billion global crop seed industry. It is particularly important to corn production in the Midwest, the world's single largest grain-growing region, because pollination - a primary stage in corn development - occurs there in mid- to late July, often at the height of summer heat. But researchers also are working with soybeans and other crops.

The work includes public and private researchers, and it involves both traditional plant breeding techniques and biotechnology, which employs such tools as genetic engineering and genomics to understand and alter plants at the molecular level.

Researchers with the ISU Plant Sciences Institute are more focused on developing crops resistant to biotic stresses, such as pathogens and disease, than to abiotic stresses, such as drought, Howell said. But others at the university are exploring ways to make crops drought-resistant.

Westgate, for instance, uses traditional plant breeding techniques to develop more stress-resistant crops. A plant physiologist, he focuses on phenotypes, studying how plants look and perform under drought conditions. He has teamed with other ISU researchers who work at the molecular level.

While both approaches have made inroads, the big money is on using biotech-based development of seed corn hybrids that yield plants capable of withstanding excessive heat or dryness, industry analysts said.

Major seed companies are racing to be first to market with the drought trait. Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. and Monsanto Co., among others, are investing heavily in the effort.

"It's very big," said Westgate. "There is a lot of pressure for coming up with a product."

More arid grain-producing regions in other parts of the world may have more trouble with drought than the Midwest, but seed companies are focused on delivering drought tolerance first to this market because it is the world's biggest seed corn market.

Drought-resistant seed corn is "a top-tier priority" for Pioneer, but commercialization of the biotech-based trait is still years away, said Joe Keaschall , a plant geneticist who is director of the Des Moines-based company's corn research.

Developing the trait takes time, in part because it is complex, Keaschall said. Drought tolerance is a function of heat resistance, water availability and soil type, among other factors, he said. The research requires balancing a plant's drought tolerance with its ability to take advantage of timely rains, he said.

"You don't want a yield disadvantage if you have good growing conditions," Keaschall said.

With spring planting chores looming, Iowa farmers better prepare for some rainy-day delays, weather prognosticators say.

Elwynn Taylor, Iowa State University Extension climatologist, said Iowa's soil profile is full of moisture, with most of the state at average or above-average moisture levels this spring.

That's good, Taylor said, because ample soil moisture allows plants to draw on those reserves during dry times.

"The one disadvantage of having above-normal soil moisture is that it doesn't take a whole lot of rain to make it too wet for planting," Taylor said.

The April outlook recently issued by the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center calls for above-average precipitation for Iowa and much of Minnesota.

However, Taylor added this caveat: "April weather is always unstable, so it's difficult to predict."

Complicating the already unstable spring outlook this year is what Taylor calls "a strange El Nino."

El Nino refers to the unusually warm temperature of the Pacific Ocean current off the western coast of South America that disrupts typical regional and global weather patterns.

Although the atmospheric pressure gauge known as the Southern Oscillation Index is pointing toward El Nino-like conditions, Taylor said, ocean temperatures and wind patterns don't indicate that an El Nino is taking place.

In 1983, when there was a similar mixed picture for El Nino, summer weather turned hot and dry, Taylor said.

That was during a 19-year cycle of drought-like conditions, he said. Droughts occurred in Iowa in 1974, 1983 and 1988 during that 19-year period.

There hasn't been another drought in Iowa since, with the possible exception of a slight drought in 1995.

"We are now due for two serious droughts between 2005 and 2010," Taylor said, if the cycle holds true to form.

While Iowa and other states in the western Corn Belt are looking at ample soil moisture, things have gotten out of control in parts of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, said Harry Hillaker, state climatologist at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

From central Missouri through Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, "it's very, very wet," Hillaker said. "In some places, they're as wet as they've ever been."

Hillaker echoed Taylor's caution that spring weather is always difficult to predict. But he said the National Weather Service is looking for April, May and June to be cooler and wetter than normal.

Northwest Iowa is the wettest part of the state these days because of heavy rains last September, Hillaker said.

"Spencer had its wettest month ever in September 2004," he said, when more than 14 inches fell in and around Clay County. "The farther northwest you go in Iowa, the wetter you are."

Adding to the excess moisture was the recent heavy snow that hit the northern two tiers of Iowa counties, where snowfalls of 10 to 15 inches were fairly common., Hillaker said.

The driest part of the state, he said, is southwest Iowa, especially Mills, Fremont and Montgomery counties.

That's typical for a period such as this when there is a dying El Nino phase, Hillaker said.

"That often leads to cooler and wetter springs," he said.

Looking ahead to summer, Hillaker said, the National Weather Service expects cooler and wetter-than-normal weather.

"Generally, the more moisture we have in the soil, the harder it is to heat things up," Hillaker said.

Bryce Anderson, chief agricultural meteorologist of DTN in Omaha, said the El Nino weather pattern he is observing shows a neutral trend through mid-June.

"Iowa's spring weather should be a little cooler than normal because temperatures will be ruled by the polar jet stream," Anderson said.

East of the Mississippi River, Anderson said, above-average precipitation streaming north from the Gulf of Mexico should hit the eastern Corn Belt hard.

"They already are pretty wet there in their soil moisture profile," he said, and more spring rain could cause planting delays.

Anderson said Iowa will be on the northwestern boundary of that Gulf precipitation track. Thus, the state should experience wide weather fluctuations because of the wandering path of the jet stream over the Midwest in April and May.

That will make it hard to warm Iowa's soil, he said, so there won't be much early planting of crops this spring.

Weather in Iowa should be normal from mid-June through July and August, Anderson said. But he isn't ruling out some unsettled weather conditions.

"There could be some problems developing," Anderson said. "You can't depend on a southern branch of the jet stream dragging in precipitation from the Gulf. It sets up a variable weather pattern. I think we are looking for a much more eventful summer growing season this year than last."

Anderson said much attention will focus on this summer's wind patterns because of the potential for an infestation of Asian soybean rust.

The wind-borne fungus blew in from areas in the South and Southeastern United States, where the rust has survived winter.

It is much more likely that rust spores from the South would be blown into the Ohio River valley up through the eastern Great Lakes and into Ontario, Canada, he said.

"Our main airstream in the summer moves in from the Southwest, from the Texas Panhandle through Kansas," Anderson said. "That's a little bit drier air and will have less of a tendency to contain Asian rust spores."


Biotech start-up developed, grown with help from BU's Technology Development Fund

For Release Upon Receipt - March 28, 2005
Contact: Ann Marie Menting, 617/353-2240, amenting@bu.edu

(Boston) — Genes that could bolster crop yields, improve nutritional content, or make food crops more disease resistant can now be more easily identified and developed because of breakthrough technology developed by Modular Genetics Inc. (MGI), a Woburn, Mass.-based biotechnology company.

MGI recently struck a three-year collaborative deal with St. Louis-based agribusiness giant Monsanto to apply MGI’s technology to agriculture. The patented technology, known as a protein optimization platform, assembles and screens proteins that have promising agricultural traits.

The deal marks a huge step forward for MGI, a company that has been growing for the past four years with the help of Boston University’s Technology Development Fund (TDF, formerly the Community Technology Fund). According to Terence Brennan, who heads up life science investing for the fund, TDF led the last round of financing for MGI in May 2004.

“It can take five or more years to move a company like MGI from seed to full-fledged company,” says Brennan. “The rough economic patch we’ve recently weathered has made fund-raising difficult. But we’ve remained innovative in how and where we look for support to grow our companies. This collaboration between Monsanto and MGI reflects one success from that sort of innovative approach.”

MGI co-founders, Kevin Jarrell, a former BU faculty member, and Temple Smith, a professor of biomedical engineering in BU’s College of Engineering, developed the company’s technology. Fundamentally a system for building and modifying genes by selecting and linking together segments of DNA, MGI’s high-throughput gene-engineering platform cuts the time needed to identify useful protein products. The technology provides a big advantage to researchers who seek to discover genes that help produce new crops, drugs, or other products.

“We are very pleased to have established a strong collaborative relationship with Monsanto,” say Jarrell, who is president and chief scientific officer of MGI. “We feel this relationship validates our technology, demonstrating its utility as a tool for creating valuable new bioengineered products.”

The Technology Development Fund, the oldest university-affiliated venture capital firm in the nation, invests in early-stage technology and life science companies and builds new companies around promising technologies developed by researchers at Boston University or Boston University Medical Center.

Boston University, with an enrollment of more than 29,000 in its 17 schools and colleges, is the fourth-largest independent university in the nation.