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August 17, 2005


Superweeds and adventitious presence; Genetically Modified Corn Absent from Southern Mexico; GM test results point to approved GM soy


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: August 17, 2005

* Studies in hyperbole: Of superweeds and adventitious presence
* Scientific Study Says Genetically Modified Corn Absent from Southern Mexico in 2003, 2004
* GM test results point to approved GM soy
* Genetically modified food publication launched
* The benefits of GM crops
* Myths about GM crops

Date: Wed, 17 Aug 2005 01:31:35 +0930
From: "Christopher Preston"
Subject: Of Superweeds and adventitious presence

Studies in hyperbole: Of superweeds and adventitious presence

The responses of certain groups to several recent findings with regard to genetically modified crops have made fascinating reading.

In the UK, a follow up study on the FSE sites in the UK detected a single charlock plant that was apparently a hybrid between a herbicide tolerant canola and charlock. Immediately, the anti-GM forces held this plant up as evidence of a “Superweed” (see for example the stories in the Guardian: www.guardian.co.uk/gmdebate/story/0,2763,1535428,00.html and politics.guardian.co.uk/green/story/0,9061,1536021,00.html). Presumably, this “Superweed” was set to do something “super” like take over the English countryside. Unfortunately, for the purveyors of hyperbole about this superweed it has done nothing of the sort.

In the work published on the DEFRA website (http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/gm/research/pdf/epg_1-5-151.pdf), scientists from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology and in Dorset tested some 90,000 seeds from Brassica weeds growing on former FSE sites. In all, they found 2 Brassica rapa plants that were resistant to glufosinate. They also sprayed some areas with glufosinate and found a single charlock plant that survived. There were no real surprises here. It is well known that rapeseed (canola) and B. rapa cross at low frequencies. It is also known that charlock and canola can cross at even lower frequencies, but that the progeny are frequently sterile.

After establishing that the charlock plant did indeed contain the bar gene, the scientists went back to the site where the resistant charlock plant had occurred and collected charlock seed. They were unable to find any resistance among this seed. Unfortunately for the anti-GM forces, it seems that this “superweed” has misbehaved by going extinct.

A second story full of hyperbole has been the recent detections in Australia of small amounts of GM canola seed in shipments of canola being prepared for export to Japan. Firstly, a shipment in Victoria contained 0.01% (that is equivalent to 1 seed in 10,000) canola of the Topas 19 event. Subsequently, a second consignment in Western Australia found similar levels of GM seed. The Topas 19 event has not been grown in Australia since 1998. Prior to that it was grown in a limited number of field trials. There is considerable speculation as to how it got into canola shipments in Australia, including speculation that seed containing the Topas 19 event was unwittingly imported from Canada. What this exercise has done is demonstrate that testing protocols can be successful in detecting very small amounts of GM material in canola seed consignments.

It is indeed unfortunate that this material has turned up in shipments of canola in Australia as it has caused some concern in the marketplace. However, the response from Greenpeace has been nothing short of astounding. Jeremy Tager has described this as being “the most serious genetic contamination event that Australia has ever faced” (www.greenpeace.org.au/media/press_details.php? site_id=8&news_id=1756). That is, greater than the threat posed by the introduction of rabbits, foxes and other animals that have gone feral in the Australian bush! Greater than the threat posed by mimosa, rubber vine, prickly acacia and other weeds that are marching across the Australian savannah! Greater than the threat posed by the cane toad! Presumably we are to see this canola, which has been approved as safe for food and feed use in Australia, causing extinction to Australian icons like the koala and kangaroos. Hardly! The hyperbole simply does not match reality.

Lastly, we come to the case of the disappearing adventitious presence. In 2001 Quist and Chapela reported the presence of transgenes in landraces of Mexican maize. This report created a significant worldwide stir with widely differing interpretations of the significance of the finding. Some, such as Greenpeace, considered this a disaster of the highest order and claimed that the “genetic pollution” was likely to threaten maize in Mexico and that contamination was widespread in Mexico (see for example www.greenpeace.ca/e/campaign/gmo/depth/pollution/index.php, although this article does make the strange claim that bees can move maize pollen many miles from its source, a blunder so significant it should make you question the other claims in the article). Again hyperbole did not match reality. Some four years later, a study by Ortiz-Garcia et al. published in PNAS was unable to find any transgenes in 125 fields from 18 localities in Oaxaca, Mexico. Of course, this does not mean transgenes are not present in maize in Mexico as it is impossible to prove a negative. What it does mean is that transgenes are not widespread in maize landraces in Oaxaca, otherwise the study of Ortiz- Garcia et al. would have picked them up.

The response of some in the anti-GM community to this debunking of one of their favourite myths has been interesting. For example, Jonathon Matthews of GM Watch has attacked the ethics of Barbara Schaal, who edited the paper on behalf of PNAS, and obliquely suggested slight of hand in its publication (www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=5588, see also www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp? arcid=5586). This criticism has included the strange disqualification that Schaal lives in St Louis, on the basis that it is Monsanto’s hometown.

The critics of GM crops frequently take the opportunity of lambasting promoters of GM crops for talking up the technology. After these recent events, would we be criticised for calling some of the anti-GM campaigners hypocrites?

Dr. Christopher Preston
Senior Lecturer, Weed Management
University of Adelaide


Scientific Study Says Genetically Modified Corn Absent from Southern Mexico in 2003, 2004

- Associated Press, By Lisa J. Adams August 16, 2005

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- A study found no trace of genetically altered corn in southern Mexico four years after reports of its discovery there caused concerns that a modified intruder could contaminate and possibly take over the birthplace of maize.

But the findings reflect only recent conditions, not necessarily future trends, warns a report on the study by scientists from the Mexican government, Ohio State University, Washington University in St. Louis and the Iowa-based company Genetic ID North America.

The study was done in the Sierra de Juarez region in the southern state of Oaxaca, the same mountainous area where independent and government researchers found evidence of transgenic corn contamination in 2000.

The new research found "no evidence that genetically modified maize...invaded local maize crops" in Oaxaca during 2003 and 2004, said the report, published this month in the Washington-based journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Many concerns about unwanted or unknown effects" of transgenic corn "can be discounted at present, at least within the sampled region," it said. But it said the conclusions should not be applied to other regions of Mexico, "nor is the current situation likely to remain static."

Groups that oppose the importation of transgenic corn said it remains a threat in Mexico despite the findings.

"It's good that they found no contamination in the places where they took samples, but this does not mean that contamination has disappeared," said Gustavo Ampugnani, an activist with Greenpeace Mexico.

As long as Mexico imports genetically modified corn, "the doors to contamination remain open," he said.

The issue is a touchy one in Mexico, where farmers first bred corn 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, and surviving native species are considered a valuable natural gene pool as well as a source of cultural pride.

Environmental groups and rural farmers fear corn with modified genes could corrupt the genetic diversity of Mexico's 59 species of corn and possibly pose a threat to consumers' health.

Farmers in the United States have been growing transgenic corn for commercial use since 1996. In 2003, approximately 40 percent of the corn grown north of the border had been modified genetically to resist insects and herbicides.

Mexico, in contrast, imposed a moratorium on the planting of genetically modified crops in 1998, although earlier this year President Vicente Fox said he would sign a bill establishing a framework for approving such planting.

Mexico's Agriculture Department defends genetically modified corn, noting there have been no reported cases of harm to human or animal health in Mexico or elsewhere.

Meanwhile, as much as half of the corn that Mexico imports from the United States each year for human and animal consumption is genetically modified. And in some instances, rural farmers have planted the modified corn, government officials say.

An organization of Oaxacan farmers that opposes transgenic corn criticized the latest study and suggested its purpose was "to give the green light to the cultivation of transgenic maize in Mexico."

Baldemar Mendoza of the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca also questioned whether the study's methods were sufficient to detect minor levels of contamination.

"It is clear to everyone that Mexican native maize is contaminated ... in Oaxaca and many other parts of Mexico," Mendoza said.

But scientists from the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, who were not involved in the study, told The Associated Press that the research was scientifically sound.

"I found that the study featured a careful sampling strategy, a good experimental design, well-articulated assumptions, solid analysis, rigorous interpretation of results and solid and balanced conclusions," said the center's director, Masa Iwanaga.


GM test results point to approved GM soy

- New Zealand Ministry Of Agriculture And Forestry, 17 August 2005

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) and New Zealand Food Safety Authority’s (NZFSA) investigations into a recent discovery of the presence of a genetically modified organism (GMO) in harvested maize grain indicate that this presence has not come from the maize itself, but rather from a residue of imported soya bean meal held in the same storage or transport facilities.

On 27 July 2005 MAF announced that it was investigating a GMO-positive test result from a maize sample following routine industry testing. The maize, stored in the upper North Island, was tested as part of normal quality assurance procedures and has been isolated while further investigations were completed. Those investigations included sending samples to an accredited overseas laboratory. None of this material has passed into the human food chain.

MAF eradication programmes manager Ian Gear said that in addition to laboratory testing, MAF and the NZFSA have conducted an analysis of the storage and processing facilities involved, and had received full support from the companies involved as well as from the grain and seed industry.

“On the basis of all of the information we have received, we believe that the GMO detected here came from imported soya bean meal, rather than from maize. Laboratory testing of maize and soya bean meal have tested positive for a Roundup-ready construct used in soy. This is approved under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. Our site investigations show that the same facilities had recently been used for the storage of non-viable soya bean meal imported for livestock feed. Maize samples taken from other silos containing the same seed lines as those in the contaminated store have all tested negative to the presence of GMOs,” Ian Gear said.

The presence of a GMO in imported non-viable soy bean meal poses no biosecurity risk, although presence of soy in the maize consignment may raise issues of compliance with the Food Standards Code, for foods made from the maize.

NZFSA Director (New Zealand Standards) Tim Knox, said “The Authority is working closely with the companies involved and notes it has been advised that the maize concerned will not be used in the manufacture of food for human consumption.”

Genetically modified food publication launched

- Food Standards Australia New Zealand, August 17, 2005 (Via Agnet)

GM Foods, a new publication by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), was launched today at Parliament House in Canberra by Christopher Pyne, the Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Ageing. Mr Pyne said he was pleased to launchGM Foods as part of the 8th National Science Week.

"One of the greatest influences science has on our day-to-day lives is through the food we eat," Mr Pyne said.

"Gene technology is a very new science and it is a complex issue to explain to consumers. GM Foods goes a long way towards explaining how genetically modified food is checked for safety and how it is regulated by FSANZ. "The safety assessment process carried out by FSANZ is recognised as one of the best in the world and FSANZ scientists are in demand to explain the process at overseas seminars.

"I appreciate that consumers, more and more these days, require information about the food that they eat so that they feel more comfortable about making an informed choice about that food through food labelling. The publication also explains how the labelling of GM food works. "The GM food standard requires that the food must be labelled if there is altered DNA or protein in the final product. This is important, of course, for people who may, for one reason or another, wish to avoid food with genetically modified ingredients. It also establishes a system that is not overly complex, is enforceable and does not increase the cost of food. "I recommend this booklet to you and particularly recommend it for use in schools as it is important that young people have a broad understanding of both today's and future technologies," Mr Pyne said.

GM Foods was written by FSANZ, and its publication has been funded by the Australian Government agency Biotechnology Australia. It is available from Biotechnology Australia by calling 1800 631 276 or sending an e-mail to gtis-australia@unumelb.edu.


The benefits of GM crops

- By Jim Peacock, 17 August 2005

(This is an edited version of a speech given to the National Press Club on July 27, 2005. The full transcript can be found on the Australian Academy of Science website at http://www.science.org.au/events/npc2005.htm.)

Today’s agricultural practices are different from yesterday’s and tomorrow’s agriculture will be different from today’s. Winston Churchill said, “The farther backward you can look the farther forward you are likely to see”. He was emphasising change and improvement.

Today, farmers know they have to look after natural resources, maintain the fertility of the soil, be careful with water use, use chemicals wisely and use the biological advantages of rotation farming.

The difference between yesterday’s and today’s agriculture has depended upon better management, better varieties (as in increased yield, more drought resistant and so on) and a better understanding and response mechanism to market requirements. In turn, these improvements have depended on research and the translation of new knowledge into farming practice. Further research will lead to enhanced management techniques and better product varieties to meet increasingly differentiated specifications of the global markets.

There has never been a time when improvement in agricultural performance has been needed so much. As the world’s population increases, we need to produce more food reliably, with greater empathy for the environment and with more nutritious products. Every person on Earth should have the right to enough food, but it should be good food - as good as we can make it.

Biological research has been transformed by technologies which allow us to comprehend the workings of genes, providing a new understanding of how plants function in their environments and of the molecular and cellular bases of their development. These are areas critical to crop performance and food production.

Understanding genes and their role in crop performance has been important for our cotton industry. The industry has used chemical insecticides recklessly to protect crops from insects which can reduce yields to zero. But the insects soon became resistant to the pesticides. The new technology modifies the crop’s biological software so that it can protect itself against its worst pest. It has enabled the plant to produce specific molecules in its leaves and bolls which kill the major pest, moth larvae. Another gene construct has provided protection against the best “weedicide”, revolutionising weed control in the cotton farming system.

These transgenic cottons put important management constraints on farmers - to preserve the value of the impacts of the new technologies. Yield, quality and profits have gone up, and chemical usage has gone down drastically. The environment has benefited enormously and farmers and farm workers have a better quality of life.

This is not the end of needed improvements, though. There are severe challenges from pathogens, and although our breeders have given us a wonderful quality of fibre, we need to further differentiate our products from those of other countries’.

In a non-drought year, new technologies support a $1.7 billion Australian cotton industry, which exports 98 per cent of products and has a planting seed industry within Australia worth $175 million. Australian varieties of seed make up 30 per cent of the planting seed in the US and the seeds are becoming a significant component of the cotton industry in southern Europe and South America.

Canola is the next crop being considered for transgenic technologies in Australia, but faces state-based moratoria against its introduction. Currently, the advantages being offered through transgenic varieties relate to herbicide resistance and the introduction of high-yielding hybrids. Canadian canola growers have had plentiful yield using transgenic hybrids when compared with Australian canola farmers’ output.

Canola growers and marketers should unite as an industry to get behind transgenic varieties and model their actions on the introduction of transgenic cotton in Australia. The industry, through the Australian Cotton Growers Research Association, played a major role in interacting with the researchers and government regulatory bodies. The transgenic crop was introduced gradually with strict controls of management. Regulatory bodies made decisions based on recommendations from industry committees who examined the performance of transgenics in relation to conventional varieties. These were crucial factors in the successful adoption of the transgenic crop.

There are three major markets for our canola and at least two of these countries have cleared the way for the use of transgenic canola. Other oft-cited dangers of super-weed production have been dispelled by careful research studies. The industry should easily be able to organise itself with necessary segregation procedures.

Breeders of cereal crops, wheat and barley, have enormous challenges ahead of them. In many cases, the germplasm is not available to meet the challenges of disease and environmental stresses. New technologies may be able to significantly increase breeders’ capabilities, but that doesn’t mean we have to move to transgenic crops. What it means is that we can define the ways forward, either in asking for better input traits or in developing new quality features for these grains.

One area where transgenic technology will be critical in the near future is in matters related to public health. The diseases of western societies are largely a consequence of lifestyle changes, including diet. Many diet-related diseases, like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and colonic cancer, result in large part from the way we live. Diabetes is the epidemic of the 21st century. This is as true in developing countries as it is in western countries like Australia.

Modified staple foods will help guard against the onset of these diseases and will reduce the enormous expenditure of therapeutic medicine. If the starch component of wheat, rice and maize had a low glycemic index, for example, we would be close to reducing the incidence and severity of diabetes. As well as starch, proteins, fatty acids and antioxidants can all be adjusted to better fit human nutrition requirements.

A good example is barley, where changing a single genetic letter in the starch biosynthetic pathway makes it a low glycemic index food. This barley is so close to barley changed by mutagenesis and conventional breeding that it could be introduced to the market right now. In fact, we are likely to see it soon in breads and breakfast cereals.

We can now teach plants to make long-chain omega 3 fatty acids, oils that we currently get through the consumption of fish, which in turn feed on microscopic algae that produce it. Researchers have taken these algae’s genes and infused our crop plants with it so that they too can make long-chain omega 3 oils, so important for cardiovascular and other body systems.

Our food will be an important component in our preventative health system.

Are genetically modified crops safe? Our regulatory bodies say that there is no reason to suspect that genetically modified crops will be any less safe than the food we consume at present. There are 80 million hectares of GM (genetically modified) crops around the world and the area is increasing rapidly - 5 per cent of agricultural production in the world is a convincing safety recommendation, particularly since there have been no substantiated negative effects on human or environmental health. Thirty million farmers are growing GM crops: we should see this as a wake-up call.

Australian agribusiness faces the challenge of cheaper imports. Consumer preference and acceptance for Australian agricultural products will be hard to achieve because most people are urban dwellers and do not know where their food comes from. A product grown with 86 per cent less chemical insecticides means little to the consumer. It is not until we have direct health benefits at fair prices that we can expect real acceptance and preference for our agricultural products - transgenic or conventional.

The same applies to our export markets. If we want to be assured of markets for our products, we have to make sure that the whole business chain for any crop and its products has an integrated drive for export performance. Consumer countries need to be persuaded, as we have done in the past, that Australian products are superior quality products.

Where we have a market opportunity we need to make sure we do not make any mistakes. While transgenic cotton was a big success, it was dependent not only on the new genetics, but on farmers who adopted appropriate management protocols. It is the genetics and the management together that will make a lasting success.

Biotechnology’s contributions to future agribusiness has already seen some major successes and we can expect many more. Biotechnology is like any other business -the opportunities and objectives need to be carefully defined in the early stages. We need to develop a realistic business plan, extending from basic research to intellectual property claims, to the cost of adhering to regulatory requirements and finally to forming partnerships that will be needed along the business chain.

Finally, I want to emphasise the need for effective communication at all levels of the community and of business, and extending to decision makers. It is important for parliamentary representatives to fully understand what is being proposed so they can assess the benefits and risks based on factual evidence. In Australia, we have a number of regulatory bodies to examine the safety, performance and environmental impacts of GM crops and all food products. Their recommendations deserve to be recognised. It is sometimes easier for a politician to say no to any proposition, for example to a new technology, than to have the courage to say yes, even though to say no may ultimately have untoward and serious negative consequences to business, to the environment and to human health.

Date: Tue, 16 Aug 2005 23:01:54 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: Myths about GM crops

Myths about GM crops among some Agricultural officers in karnataka,India.

The Agricultural officers and Asst Directors of Agriculture are the key players in disseminating the knowledge of innovations to farmers in karnataka, India.. I had a chance to deliver a talk on "Applications of Biotechnology in Agriculture" at Sri Nazeersab Institute iof Rural Development (SIRF), Mysore on 11th August 2005.

I was surprised to see that fifty percent of the officers have no knowledge about transgenic crops. They have fear about consuming the GMO's. Most of the officers feel multinationals will take advantage of GM crops and poor farmers suffer due to this technology. Even some may think GMO's are suitable only for the westren people and not for others. The SIRF is training all the village leaders and officers of Agriculture regularly. I could convince to some extent the usefulness of Biotechnology in Agriculture. Large scale awareness programmes are needed for educating the officers of Agriculture rather than the farmers. Directly.

Dr.P.H.Ramanjini Gowda
Department of Biotechnology