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Date:

February 2, 2006

Subject:

Transatlantic Split; Vatican Views; Irish Potatoes; Can Pigs Fly...?; Africans Must Only Use What They Invent?

 

Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - February 2, 2006

* American Dietetic Association's Statement on Biotechnology
* Why A Transatlantic Split Persists Over GM Food
* Vatican Views Are Under Delicate Strain
* Ireland - Potatoes with Improved Resistance to Late Blight
* National Academies - Communication Awards
* Can Pigs Fly...? Novel Ideas from Problem Solvers
* "We Don't Believe in Process Labelling" - US Expert in India
* India, USA Farm Pact to Help Research, Crop Trials
* India Ranks 7th Top Biotech Crop Growing Nations
* African Molecular Marker Application Network
* Fellowships at Rothamsted International (UK)
* Tanzania Conference on Plant Biotechnology
* African Science Must Regain Control of Local Resources
* ......Oh, Really?
--

The American Dietetic Association's position statement on Agricultural and Food Biotechnology

- American Dietetic Association February

"It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that agricultural and food biotechnology techniques can enhance the quality, safety, nutritional value, and variety of food available for human consumption and increase the efficiency of food production, food processing, food distribution, and environmental and waste management. The ADA encourages the government, food manufacturers, food commodity groups, and qualified food and nutrition professionals to work together to inform consumers about this new technology and encourage availability of these products in the marketplace."

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Crop Resistance: Why A Transatlantic Split Persists Over Genetically Modified Food

- Jeremy Grant and Raphael Minder, Financial Times, Feb. 1 2006 http://news.ft.com/

At the cereal aisle of the Safeway supermarket in Washington's Tenleytown district, Ellen O'Brien scans the shelves. She picks out a box of Wheaties, made by General Mills, and turns to eye jars of Smucker's Goober Strawberry peanut butter.

Does she know both products contain genetically modified ingredients? "I have to say I'm blissfully unaware," says Ms O'Brien, who works in healthcare finance. Like most American shoppers, she accepts that three-quarters of processed foods sold in the US contain GM organisms. But in Europe, GM food is absent from supermarkets and remains a subject of much consumer suspicion.

A study produced for the International Food Information Council last year showed that fewer than 0.5 per cent of American consumers identified food biotechnology as a safety concern. In contrast, a Eurobarometer opinion poll across the 25-nation European Union found that 54 per cent considered GM food to be dangerous. It is a transatlantic divide that will be thrown into renewed stark relief this month as a landmark trade dispute between the two regions comes to a head.

The World Trade Organisation is about to rule in a case brought against the European Union in 2003 by the US, Canada and Argentina, which claim that an EU moratorium on the approval of GM foods and crops, introduced in 1998, lacked scientific basis and created an unfair trade barrier. The case has significance beyond the moratorium, which the EU argues has in any event become all but obsolete following its enactment of stricter labelling and tracing legislation and the limited resumption of product approvaAls in May 2004, when the EU gave clearance to a GM corn developed by Syngenta.

Instead, the ruling will be important in efforts by the US to prevent European GM concerns from spreading, especially to Asia and Africa. David Bullock, professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois, says with a neatly chosen metaphor: "The US is trying to nip things in the bud.''

GM crops - first grown in the three nations that brought the WTO case - now cover 90m hectares (222m acres) in 21 countries. Summing up the challenge for American farmers - for whom exports already represent one-quarter of their cash receipts - Richard Crowder, the chief US agricultural negotiator, says: "As incomes rise in the rest of the world and our market further matures, trade will be ever more important for agriculture."

Since the first commercial amounts of GM soyabeans, cotton and maize were planted in 1996, US farmers have become increasingly reliant on the advanced crop types produced through genetic modification. The technology involves selecting specific genes from one organism and introducing them into another to produce traits - such as drought-resistance or resilience against pests - that can increase farmers' harvests. About 85 per cent of soyabeans, 76 per cent of cotton and 45 per cent of maize planted in the UAS in 2004 were of GM varieties, according to the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

US President George W. Bush once provocatively invited visiting European leaders to the White House dining room with the words: "Let's go and eat some genetically modified food for lunch." In Europe, few politicians are willing to endorse GMOs - and some even avoid condemning the burning of trial fields by anti-GM activists such as José Bové in France. Patrick RudelsÃ’Â?heim, a specialist on European GM regulation who supervised field trials for several leading GM companies, says: "A field destruction in itself is a serious investment loss, but perhaps more depressing is the subsequent lack of support from the authorities. It's often pure judicial laisser faire.''

At the retail level, Europe's GM clock has arguably been turned back in the past decade. The little GM food that was available, notably tomato purée sold in the UK by the J Sainsbury and Safeway chains in 1996, was subsequently removed from the shelves amid a wider food safety debate. Today, one European supermarket executive says, it would be "almost commercial suicide'' to sell GM food.

Ragnar Löfstedt, professor in risk management at King's College London, identifies three main reasons for Europe's aversion to GM food. First, he argues, Americans' trust in their Food and Drug Administration is far greater than that of Europeans in their own health regulators (the wariness dating as far back as the 1960s Thalidomide birth deformities scandal). Second, the US has avoided food scandals on the scale of the "mad cow'' crisis of the 1990s, which led to a decade-long ban on British beef exports. That coincided with the first GM crop trials and brought "a knee-jerk reaction'' by the EU in its decision to stop approving new types of GM products in 1998.

Third, Prof Löfstedt and others stress, was a faulty communications strategy by GM companies, in particular Monsanto of the US, the industry leader, when it targeted Europe. He says: "Monsanto was not culturally sensitive enough to realise the potential for a European public backlash . . . GMOs, rightly or wrongly, are perceived to be an American issue and Europeans don't like Americans to tell them what to do.''

Europeans have therefore remained sceptical about whether GMOs are harmless, notably when it comes to growing GM crops alongside traditional produce, where strains can cross-pollinate. American politicians and GM scientists argue that the burden of proof lies the other way, namely to find evidence that GM crops cause harm. Jonathan Ramsey, a Monsanto spokesman in Europe, says European consumer perceptions will shift, adding that people had "reflected on the scare stories that were around 10 years ago on super weeds and fish genes in tomatoes and have come to see that this was actually scaremongering".

Yet the real ideological - and commercial - battleground for GMOs is increasingly in the developing world. Alarm was raised in the US when Zimbabwe in 2002 refused an aid shipment of US grain because it might have contained GM maize. The debate has also been intense in countries such as Zambia and Ethiopia. The US has tried to strengthen its case by arguing that GM crops can alleviate poverty, not least since they eliminate the need for poor farmers to budget for inputs such as insecticides. Officials haveA pointed to agricultural progress in countries such as Brazil, which almost doubled its GM crops last year to 9.4m hectares, the fastest growth rate worldwide.

However, many environmental and consumer groups contest those benefits. In a report last month focusing on Monsanto, Friends of the Earth underlined some of the paradoxical aspects of GM farming in the developing world - including an alleged increase in the use of herbicides to combat weeds that have grown tolerant to Roundup Ready soyabeans, a leading GM crop. The result, according to Charles Margolis of the Washington-based Center for Food Safety, a non-profit advocacy group, is that "companies like Monsanto are now telling these farmers to use really toxic chemicals. It's a joke.''

In spite of such scepticism - and regardless of the WTO case - the US can point to signs that it is starting to win the argument on GM acceptance globally, according to recent statistics on the extent of GM crop plantings. A study produced last month by the non-profit International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation showed that developing countries have adopted GM crops at four times the pace of developed economies in the last decade. Of the 8m Afarmers growing such crops globally, 90 per cent were located in developing countries.

Acceptance of GMOs is receiving a further boost with the emergence of largely government-backed research into the technology in China - which is developing a strain of rice rich in vitamin A - (see below right) as well as work in India and even Iran, which joined the GM-growing club last year.

Experts say such developments may have more effect than any WTO pressure on Europe to relax its opposition to GMOs. Even within the Vatican it is recognised that GMOs can have a role in reducing poverty (see below left). But the short-term prospects for GM farming in Europe remain unclear. Of the four countries that started or resumed GM crop production last year, three were EU members: Portugal, France and the Czech Republic. However, that has been countered by growing regional opposition to GMOs - 172 reAgional governments across Europe have sought or implemented bans on GM crops, according to Friends of the Earth, the environmental campaign group.

At a national level, Switzerland's voters rejected GM crops in a referendum last November. Maria Rauch-Kallat, health minister of Austria, which currently holds the EU's presidency, says she believes her country's "strict resistance'' to GMOs will remain. "Like others in Europe, Austrians are very close to nature. Our vision of a good society is certainly not one where everybody is allowed to do whatever is technologically possible.''

According to GM proponents, the first consequence of such resistance is that Europe is losing corporate investment. They cite Syngenta, which in 2004 started moving its biotechnology research headquarters from Britain to the US "to be in a more positive environment for this kind of work". Christian Verscheuren, director-general of CropLife, a trade association representing Monsanto and other leading GM companies, says: "The industry has not given up on Europe but it has considerably scaled back."

But the longer-term and more serious impact for Europe may lie beyond GMOs, in more sophisticated agribiotechnologies to develop modified foods that carry a particular health benefit - such as reducing the incidence of diabetes.

Some of that research is being carried out in Europe, including a project called Lipgene, involving 25 laboratories across Europe co-ordinated by Trinity College, Dublin, which is working on a linseed oil to contain fats that occur in fish oil and have cardiovascular benefits. But more advanced and large-scale efforts are under way in the US. Last month Kellogg, the cereal maker, said it would put in its baked products a type of soyabean oil developed by Monsanto that eliminates the need for hydrogenation,A a process that normally creates harmful fatty acids.

Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative, says: "There is some potential that the European industry could be left behind with regard to other kinds of applications [for GMOs]. If you have a regulatory and political climate that is not conducive to R&D, they [Europeans] could end up losing out."

Europeans might not take readily to Goober Strawberry peanut spreads, with or without genetic tweaks. But for the world food business, even in Europe, gene modification is fast becoming what could be described, not just metaphorically, as a bread-and-butter issue.

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Vatican Views Are Under Delicate Strain

- Tony Barber, Feb 1, 2006 Financial Times http://news.ft.com/

If the Vatican were to endorse genetically modified organisms, it would have a profound impact on global discussion of the issue. With a flock of 1.1bn faithful, the Roman Catholic church's ethical messages penetrate the whole world.

But GMOs are a divisive issue in the church, pitting clergymen sympathetic to their use (who have enthusiastic support from the US embassy to the Holy See) against others who express opposition.

Perhaps for this reason, the Vatican under Benedict XVI, who was elected Pope last April, has yet to take a definitive stance.

Some African and South American bishops have doubts about GMOs because they worry that control of world food supplies will rest with a few giant companies. GM crop use in developing countries may exacerbate the poverty and vulnerability of poor farmers, they say.

But advocates of GMOs in the church contend that there is a moral obligation to eradicate hunger if the technology exists to do so. By 2025, half the world's population will be living in regions with severe water shortages, so higher-yield crops that need less water must be developed, they argue.

The most authoritative Vatican statement on GMOs appeared in a 2004 publication, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, prepared by the Holy See's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In a passage devoted to safeguarding man's environment, the council pleased supporters of GMOs by stating: "In effect, nature is not a sacred or divine reality that man must leave alone . . . The human person does not commit an illicit act when, out of respect for the order, beauty and usefulness of individual living beings and their function in the ecosystem, he intervenes by modifying some of their characteristics or properties."

However, opponents seized on another pair of sentences in the compendium that said: "The authorities called to make decisions concerning health and environmental risks sometimes find themselves facing a situation in which available scientific data are contradictory or quantitatively scarce. It may then be appropriate to base evaluations on the precautionary principle."

In other words, the jury is still out as far as the Vatican is concerned. This conclusion seems reinforced by the fact that the compendium was reviewed before publication by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the Vatican organ that enforces theological discipline and that Benedict ran for 24 years before he became Pope.

Cardinal Renato Martino, the 73-year-old Italian prelate who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is seen as one of the Vatican's highest-level supporters of GMOs. He organised a scientific conference on the matter in 2003, describing the stakes involved as "high and delicate" but stressing the Vatican's view that it was a field of inquiry "subject to evolving research".

On one point, the Vatican seems certain not to budge. Those who support contraception as a way of limiting families and thereby improving access to food find no support at all at the Holy See.

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Ireland - Potatoes with Improved Resistance to Late Blight

http://www.seedquest.com/ January 25, 2006

'Submission of field trial notification of BASF Plant Science - Dublin, Ireland'

BASF Plant Science announced today that they have submitted a notification on January 12th 2006 to the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the conduct of a field trial with genetically modified late blight-resistant potatoes. This notification was submitted in line with the relevant regulatory framework.

The proposed field trial would be conducted on a farm at Arodstown, Summerhill, Co. Meath. The trial plants will occupy no more than 2.5 acres in an experimental plot of about five acre. The proposed trial period is from 2006 – 2010. There is a full schedule and outline of the proposed release in the formal notification to the EPA.

Potatoes with improved resistance to late blight have been successfully tested in the field in Sweden in 2005. In addition to Ireland BASF Plant Science intends to conduct similar trials in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany this year, and has submitted notifications to the relevant authorities in these countries.

To exploit the potential of biotechnology, BASF, a leading player in agricultural products and fine chemicals, established BASF Plant Science as its proper plant biotechnology company in 1998. BASF Plant Science operates a research and development platform in Europe and North America, where more than 450 employees are developing products in the following areas: crops for a more efficient agriculture and for the production of renewable raw materials as well as plants for healthier nutrition. Examples are plants with higher vitamin content, or with omega-3-fatty acids that can prevent cardiovascular diseases.

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National Academies - Communication Awards

http://www.keckfutures.org/awards

Each year, beginning in 2003, the National Academies present three $20,000 Communication Awards recognizing authors, journalists, and producers who have demonstrated excellence in reporting and communicating science, engineering, and/or medicine to the general public through print, Internet, radio, or television.

The awards are given to individuals in three categories: - Book author - Newspaper, magazine, or online journalist - TV/radio correspondent or producer

The winners of the 2006 National Academies Communication Awards will be chosen by a selection committee chaired by Barbara Culliton of Health Affairs. Nominations for the 2006 awards are now open.

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Can Pigs Fly...? Novel Ideas from Problem Solvers

- Erin Hooley, Fort Morgan TimesTimes (Colorado) Feb 2, 2006

When the topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) came up in Luann Boyer's session on nutrition Tuesday at Baker Central School, a few of the nine students in the group had other ideas. "Could you make a pig have wings?" asked River Barton.

Boyer, family and consumer education and youth development extension agent with the Morgan County Extension Office, laughed and asked just what the purpose of a flying pig might be. "You could make a pig fly to other places without pigs so they can have bacon," replied Danielle Gross.

The novel ideas came at the end of a discussion about food, genetics, nutrition and biotechnology, part of a Future Problem Solvers program at Baker run by parent volunteers Karin Gertner and Christie Creighton. The nine students involved, Kaitlin Roark, Danielle Gross, Amalia Ng, Sophia Saravia, Alexis Bills, Jacob Frick, Josef Gertner, Jacob Gerken and River Barton, already met to learn about global warming and free speech.

Boyer began the discussion by posing a number of questions about whether or not a process is an example of biotechnology: Is altering a molecule in sugar so it passes through the intestines without absorption an example? What about replacing genes in a tomato plant with genes from a fish that thrives in cold water to produce a frost-resistant tomato? Using artificial hormones in dairy cows to produce more milk?

Biotechnology, explained Boyer, is the process of using living organisms, such as bacteria or enzymes, to make other products. The term is not new; it was first used in 1917, but science has recently made leaps and bounds in regards to GMOs. Boyer explained genetics using the example of attached or hanging earlobes. Danielle Gross seemed slightly concerned she was the only one at the table with attached earlobes.

"There is nothing right or wrong about either," said Boyer. Boyer pulled out a bag of fat-free potato chips and two diet sodas as examples of GMOs (sic) originally designed for diabetics but now consumed by the weight-conscious.

"How many of you drink milk?" she asked the group, and most raised their hands. Dairy farmers use an artificial version of the hormone BST to cause cows to produce more milk. Some tomatoes are genetically modified so they don't get squishy as they ripen. Beta carotene can be added to rice to provide necessary vitamin A to a diet.

Boyer asked the kids what are some benefits and concerns of genetically modifying foods. They agreed that sometimes modifying a food can add nutrition or help farmers produce a lot of a crop very quickly.
Concerns included potential allergies to added ingredients. For example, someone allergic to fish who eats a tomato with the cold water fish genes might have a reaction. Added antibiotics might eventually create stronger bacteria or diseases. Genetic modification is also expensive and only larger companies can afford the process, which may put some farmers out of business (from CSP - How?).

At the end of the session the kids seemed to see both sides, but were still dreaming about flying pigs.

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"We Don't Believe in Process Labelling" - US State Dept. Biotech Expert in India

- R. Prasad, The Hindu (India), Feb. 2, 2006
http://www.hindu.com/seta/2006/02/02/stories/2006020200411600.htm

This is the first time that Madelyn E. Spirnak, Senior Advisor for Agricultural Biotechnology, U.S. Department of State, is visiting India. In an interview during her recent visit to Chennai, she spoke about various issues concerning genetically modified crops. Excerpts:

What brings you to India?
- I primarily travel to different countries to discuss agriculture technology products as a developmental tool to increase production in developing countries and to also talk about regulatory policies. India is an important country in so many ways.

There has been so much resistance to genetically modified (GM) crops in European countries and a few other countries. How do you intend to overcome it?
- I think we hear a lot about resistance. We don't hear a lot about acceptance and how widely it is being used. In Europe, just over three years, three more countries are growing GM crops. Critics of the technology may criticise it because the technology is new and it is unknown and there is a fear of the unknown, which is a normal human fear. But the science has been tested for over ten years. We [the U.S.] first commercialised Bt [Bacillus thuringiensis] cotton in 1996.

The Bt cotton crop failed in Andhra Pradesh and some other states. Commercial cultivation of three varieties in Andhra Pradesh has not been allowed. Your comments.
- I don't know about it specifically and I don't have details of the case. So I don't want to talk about something I don't know. But my information is farmers, on the whole, are supportive of Bt cotton. The yields have increased significantly and the acreage was 500,000 hectares in 2004 throughout India. In 2005 that increased to 1.3 million hectares. It is a significant increase for a one-year period. So that must indicate that farmers are interested in using the technology.

I am not an India expert, but I have heard and I understand that there were other conditions that led to problems with cotton crops that were not connected with the gene technology. Climatic conditions like drought or rain, where many crops failed not just the Bt cotton.

Many studies that show positive results in India are either done by seed companies or are funded by them. How much of objectivity can we expect from such studies?
- Any regulatory process has to look at the studies and make some determination. As I understand, States determine which varieties have to be licensed. That is the [State's] responsibility to determine that an appropriate variety is being used. I don't want to get into the ethical issues. That is not the issue here.

There is a need to have refuge when growing GM crops. But with the average land holding in India being small, how relevant is GM technology here?
- I think the technology has to be used properly. If the farmer thinks he would profit he would buy it. Maybe the technology is not appropriate for all farmers. But then they should have a choice if the Government has conducted the tests and determined that the technology is safe.

If you have a science based regulatory system, you have adequate transparent risk perception process that can establish some confidence about the product. And if the process has deemed that the technology can be used, then it should be a choice for the farmer whether or not to use it. But you need to have a regulatory process in place.

There is widespread apprehension that pests would develop resistance faster to GM crops and weeds would become superweeds. Your comments.
- Many fear about resistance. On resistance, let me mention I am not a scientist; I am a diplomat and not a farmer either. So I will tell you what I know. Resistance is an issue for any herbicide or pesticide.

So you have to follow certain methods to reduce the chances of resistance. So you need to have refuge, you need to follow integrated pest management to reduce the chances of losing the efficacy of the herbicide or pesticide. So I don't think anyone can say that any one method of herbicide is going to last forever. So you need to think about the next generation. That is one answer.

I have read about some instances where there may be some weeds developing resistance but don't think it is a situation that is widespread. So you need to be always thinking ahead.

But we focused much on Bt and Roundup Ready. There is the next generation of biotechnology that is being developed to increase nutrition. There is a project in existence for a while for golden rice to increase betacarotene.

There are projects going on in the U.S. to increase starch and reduce sugar in crops. So there is great promise in the technology beyond the issues of herbicide and pesticide. And it is important for this [Indian] Government to work on crops with salinity and drought resistance, and enhanced nutrition.

There have been instances where the yield from GM crops has been less compared with conventional crops. Your comments.
- Whether it was a gene or hybrid variety that was not an appropriate variety, I don't know. I don't believe from what I have heard that the cause for failure has to do with the transgenic nature of the crop.

Monsanto was fined $1.5 million under the (U.S.) Foreign Corruption Act last January for bribing Indonesian officials. So is the apprehension about its track record unjustified?

I don't want to talk about any specific company or case. We have strong anti-corruption Act [in the U.S.]. So all companies know that they need to comply, else they will be fined.

Public attitude towards the company has been influenced by negative stories and certain incidents and by the way the media has projected them. The media wants to find a story. It is interested in cases that interest the public. We don't hear of successes of different countries growing Bt cotton; those are ones that don't come up all the time but negative stories do.

Why is the U.S. very much against labelling GM food?
- In the U.S., we have a policy. If you have a final product that is a substantial equivalent to a conventional product, you need not have to label that it contains GMOs [genetically modified organisms] just because it is a product of GMO; it is a process involved. At the end of the day, it is considered equivalent to the conventional product and so we don't believe in labelling.

On the other hand, if you have nutrient enhanced product or a product that contains allergens or toxin, then labelling is required. So we don't believe in process labelling and that is the difference between the U.S. and other countries. Products can be labelled as a marketing issue, or companies or retailers can choose to label, but it is not a requirement.

But why is the U.S. against labelling even for exports?
- Because it would increase costs to producers as well as consumers. As I told you, nearly 90 per cent of soybean, 80 per cent of cotton and 50 per cent of maize are GM [in the U.S.]. We don't segregate [GM and non-GM food].

So if you are requesting a shipment which has no GM or you just have a threshold for GM ingredient, then you are requesting special handling. That will increase costs.

Some people might say, why don't you want the consumers to know and the question is what will it help to know if it has been produced by a certain process. It doesn't change the product. Because we believe there is no substantial difference between GM and conventional product.

What will be your stance in the continued opposition to GM food in Europe due to the labelling issue?
- The EU will import soybean, will grow corn and will import processed food with some ingredients produced through GM technology. But it will be a costly and difficult process to sell this product to the EU now as it has to be labelled to meet EU requirements.

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India, USA Farm Pact to Help Research, Crop Trials

- Business Standard (India), Feb 1, 2006 http://www.business-standard.com

Kolkata - A knowledge initiative for agriculture has been signed between the ministries of agriculture of India and the United States of America, said Madelyn E Spirnak, senior advisor for agricultural biotechnology, US department of state at an interactive session at the Bengal National Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Under the Initiative, the US agency for international development and Indian institutes will undertake research and develop transgenetic crop varieties. Spirnak said work was underway to develop a pest resistant brinjal and virus resistant groundnut, both of which will come for approval by 2007. Efforts were on to develop drought-resistant rice and fungus resistant potato, both of which would benefit Indian farmers, felt Spirnak. Despite the advances made by other countries in adopting transgenetic crops, AIndia has approved only plantation of cotton.

Spirnak said India had a very stringent and scientific process of approving crops and was making the process more streamlined and faster. India has lagged behind the world, which saw 11 per cent growth in transgenic crops planted between 2004 and 2005. Around 90 per cent of the 8.5 million farmers planting transgenic crops were from developing nations like China and Malaysia. Spirnak felt the resistance of Indian farmers in adopting such crops was caused by lack of communication between developers and userAs of crops.

She said the government needed to approach farmers to educate them about the benefits of transgenic crops and allay their fears and suspicions about them. For consumers, websites including unified government websites were good places to gather information about crops that have been approved. Spirnak met officials of the department of biotechnology, the ministry of health and the agriculture ministry in New Delhi to discuss the poor acceptance of transgenic crops in India and policies to boost its promotion.

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India Ranks 7th Top Biotech Crop Growing Nations

Ratnajyoti Dutta, The Press Trust of India, Feb. 1, 2006

India has emerged as one of the fastest adopters of biotech crop, occupying the seventh slot among 21 nations that have so far planted such crop varieties since their introduction a-decade ago, said a latest study by a global agency engaged in technology transfer of biotech crops.

"India experienced the greatest proportion growth for any biotech crop globally in 2005, with biotech cotton production soaring by 160 per cent," said International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) in its latest report titled 'Global Status on Commercial Biotech/Genetically Modified Crops: 2005'.

Two-thirds or 14 out of 21 nations growing biotech crops achieved 'mega-country' status by planting 50,000 hectares or more in 2005, and they included the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Paraguay, India, South Africa, Uruguay, Australia, Mexico, Romania, the Philippines and Spain.

The growth of biotech crops in developing countries is four times (23 per cent) as rapid as industrialised countries (five per cent). Around 10 lakh farmers (1 lakh = 100,000) planted the Bt cotton in nine states last year which was a three fold rise over 2004, ISAAA National Coordinator Bhagirath Choudhary said. India registered three-fold increase in Bt cotton acreage last year.

"One thing by and large is clear that the biotech crop has come to stay," Chairman of Agricultural Scientists Recuritment Board of ICAR, C D Mayee said. Mayee, a cotton expert, said that the expected record cotton output of 240-250 lakh tonne bales this year was mainly due to higher acreage under Bt variety. "The Bt cotton variety is likely to account for 20 per cent of the cotton production," he added.

Two cotton farmers, S Jaipal Reddy from Warangal District of Andhra Pradesh and Rabash Singh Jakhar from Ferozpur district of Punjab, said that they had gained by switching over to Bt variety as the cultivation cost got reduced due to lesser use of pesticide sprays, along with low water usage. "We are happy with the Bt experience so far. It helps us reduce cultivation costs and higher yields through less pest attacks," said Reddy, a seasoned cotton farmer with experience of over 20 years.

However, both the farmers highlighted the widespread prevalence of spurious seed varieties which are selling at lower price violating the prescribed quality norms for such seed varieties. Mayee, who served as country's agriculture commissioner, said research was on to develop indigenous biotech cotton varieties.

"We are at Tier-II development stage for biotech cotton seeds and hope to make this a reality by 2007," he added. He hoped that once Bt seeds are marketed through institutional network, a lot of complaints related to pricing of the seed variety would automatically get resolved.

The ISAAA global report also highlighted the growing acceptance of biotech crops by European Union members during 2005. With France, Czech Republic and Portugal granting nod to plant biotech crops last year, the number of total EU nations rose to five as Germany and Spain had already approved biotech crops. "We want to continue to grow more than the double digit growth recorded for biotech crops during last decade in next decade too," said Clive James, Chairman and Founder of ISAAA.

Bt cotton acreage in India grew by an impressive 160 per cent last year, with Maharashtra occupying the numero uno slot, followed by Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, said a latest survey by an international agency engaged in biotechnology transfer in the field of agriculture. Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat are the top three states in terms of Bt cotton acreage, the report said.

In India, Bt cotton acreage rose to 13 lakh hectare in 2005 from five lakh hectare in 2004. Maharashtra recorded 195 per cent increase in Bt cotton acreage to 5.9 lakh hectare in 2005 from mere two lakh hectare in previous year.

Similarly, Andhra Pradesh recorded 250 per cent increase in acreage from 80,000 hectare to 2.8 lakh hectare. In Gujarat, Bt cotton acreage rose by 20,000 hectare to 1.5 lakh during the review period. "The impressive acreage increase in Andhra Pradesh points to higher adoption of Bt Cotton variety in the state," Choudhary said.

Madhya Pradesh, North Zone, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu occupied the slot of four, five, six and seven respectively. The north zone, which received approval for Bt cotton in 2005, comprised of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. In Madhya Pradesh, Bt acreage rose to 1.45 lakh hectare from 85,000 hectare while 60,000 hectare came under Bt cotton in North zone.] In Karnataka, Bt cotton acreage rose to 30,000 hectare in 2005 from 18,000 hectare in 2004 while Tamil Nadu registered 15,000 hectare increase in acreage at 25,000 hectare last year over the pervious year.

In 2005, three companies received permission for large-scale field trials of biotech cotton with different genes, Choudhary said adding the approval rate may even increase in 2006. Anticipated adoption of the biotech rice in China could significantly impact adoption rates in India, he said, adding Iran has already started growing biotech rice from last year.

More countries under European Union have started planting biotech crops and the number has reached to five in last year with France, Czech Republic, Portugal joining the Bt club that consisted of Germany and Spain who had accorded approval to biotech crops earlier.

Meanwhile, earlier this year Andhra Pradesh filed a case in Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTPC) against Monsanto contending that the seed company is charging exorbitant prices from farmers in the state for genetically modified Bt Cotton seeds. "The four seed companies, under licence from Monsanto, are currently charging a price of Rs 1,850 per acre against a supply of 450 grams of the seed. Whereas the farmers who are producing the seed are paid only Rs 250 per acre for 750 grams," State Agriculture Minister N Raghuveera Reddy said. ($1 = Rs. 43)

The company is charging abnormally high trait value of Rs 1,250 as royalty from the farmers for 450 gms of seed, he said. "While the company charges royalty of Rs 108 for 450 grams of seeds in America where it enjoys patent rights, whereas it charges Rs 1,250 towards trait value as it does not have royalty rights in India. The trait value is 300 per cent of bare seed cost in India," he said.

The Minister said Monsanto is supplying Bt cotton seeds in India through a joint venture company 'Mahyco Monsanto Biotech Ltd', which further has given licences to four seed companies- Mahyco, Rasi, Proagro, Nuziveedu - against licence fee of Rs 50 lakh (1 lakh = 100,000).

A complaint against Monsanto has already been filed with the Commission by some farmers' associations, the minister said adding Andhra Pradesh is the first state in the country to file an unfair trade practice against Monsanto in India. Andhra Pradesh received approval for Bt Cotton in 2002 and out of 27 lakh hectare under cotton, nearly 5.5 lakh hectare is under Bt variety.

The minister has also appealed to other state governments to join Andhra in opposing the abnormally high prices for the seed. Reddy, however, made it clear that the state government's objection is mainly to pricing mechanism, but not to Bt Cotton technology.

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African Molecular Marker Application Network

To promote regional marker assisted selection network growth by developing, introducing and disseminating MAS (Marker Assisted Selection) technologies and enhancing the application of DNA markers in crop breeding in the region for speedy delivery of products to the farmers as a way of achieving food security as well as economic growth.

The African Molecular Marker Applications Network (AMMANET) was initiated in 2003 by four scientists: Uganda (Dr. Richard Edema), Kenya (Dr. Jedidah W. Danson, Dr. Kahiu Ngugi), and Zambia (Dr. Charles Mutengwa) with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. It was during the conference on Biotechnology, Breeding and Seed Systems for African crops organized by the Rockefeller Foundation that it was realized that the application of molecular markers in breeding programs in Africa can accelerate product development and make a difference.

Scientists from all African countries are welcome to join as members. Currently there is membership from; Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Mozambique, Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa and many national scientists working in CGIAR centers.

More at http://africancrops.net/ammanet/files/about.htm

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Fellowships at Rothamsted International (UK)

http://www.rothamsted-international.org/HTML/Fellowships/RIFS_main_page.html#anchor1

Deadline for Pre-proposals - March 6, 2006 Email: marie.orford@bbsrc.ac.uk or rothamsted.international@bbsrc.ac.uk

The Fellowship scheme is managed by Rothamsted International and enables scientists from developing and less developed countries to carry out research projects for 6 to 12 months in collaboration with partner scientists at Rothamsted Research. Currently, we have particularly strong institutional links with Cuba, India, Kenya and China.

The primary objective of this prestigious Fellowship Scheme is the exchange of vital scientific skills and technologies relevant to the agricultural and environmental needs and aspirations of developing and emerging countries. Fellowships are funded by charitable donations; they are available to scientists of proven ability, working in developing or emerging countries, to pursue research with scientists here at Rothamsted for periods of up to one year. It is expected that Fellows will return to their home country at the end of the Fellowship period.

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Conference: Recent advancement in plant biotechnology research and its potential applications to plant protection in East Africa

- Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania; 18 - 21 July 2006. http://africancrops.net/biotecnet/index.htm

The symposium is sponsored by different organizations interested in promoting Plant Biotechnology Research in East Africa. It will serve as a forum for participants from different countries to present and share the most recent advances in plant Biotechnology and Molecular Biology Research and their applications to plant pests and diseases of importance to East African and African crops.

Through this forum, young East African scientists working in the field of plant molecular biology will gain insight and knowledge and exploit it to identify research needs in the field of plant protection relevant to East African countries. Scientists will be able to explore opportunities for future research collaboration in the area of Molecular Plant Biotechnology.

During this meeting the forum will be used to establish the East African Plant Molecular Biologists Network (EAPMBNet). The major objective of the network will be to bring together scientists in the field of Plant Molecular Biology and Biotechnology in the East African Region, for collaborative benefits.

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African Science Must Regain Control of Local Resources

- Kazhila Chinsembu SciDev.Net, Feb 1, 2006. Excerpt below...Full Text at http://www.scidev.net/content/opinions/eng/african-science-must-regain-control-of-local-resources.cfm

Kazhila Chinsembu says Africa risks being 'enslaved' by technology it doesn't own and urges African nations to regain control over their biological resources and indigenous knowledge.

Africa is the birthplace of humankind. Unsurprisingly, over many thousands of years, its people have accumulated a vast amount of knowledge about their environment.

Look, for instance, at how Africans have used plants to treat wounds and disease. Long before the discovery of antibiotics, Africans had identified plants that could treat bacterial infections. Families guarded -- not patented -- such indigenous knowledge, passing it down from generation to generation.

But in the modern age, Africa is in danger of losing custody of this knowledge, even as acceptance of the power of plant-based remedies grows.

What about African agriculture? It used to be based on multi-cropping ecosystems where crops such as cassava, maize and beans grew together. There were no chemical fertilisers -- we used manure as compost instead.

But 'monocultures' of single crops, combined with chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers -- produced mainly by multinational corporations -- have replaced our environmentally friendly traditions.

And as the companies' profits grow, so does the reliance of African farmers on their technologies. Seeds produced by new hybrid crop varieties cannot, for instance, be saved for planting the following season as they do not share their parents' genetic vigour.

But it seems Africans have not learnt their lessons. If we did, we might not be so excited about genetically-modified (GM) crops.

Implications of ownership

An old African proverb says: 'if you want to test the depth of a river, don't do it with both feet'. Although African scientists can earn lucrative consultancy fees for developing and promoting GM crops, we should think with our heads, not our stomachs, and advise our governments about not only the technology's prowess and potential, but also the implications of who owns it.

African agriculture has always depended on farmers owning and sharing seeds, storing them to plant the following season. Farmers using GM seeds made by multinational companies will lose this right.
We also risk losing control over some of the desirable characteristics, such as drought and pest-tolerance, that farmers painstakingly selected and preserved in our local seeds over hundreds of years.

I don't deny that African agriculture would benefit from some Western biotechnologies such as molecular marker-assisted selection to screen for seeds with characteristics suited to our different conditions.
We also need irrigation to overcome the droughts that can cripple rain-fed agriculture. Such improvements, together with land, seed and the collective indigenous knowledge about our fragile environment, are cardinal to the survival of African agriculture.

But we must not try to solve our problems with technologies that could enslave us because we do not own the patents on them. This is the prism through which we should view GM crops.

We should be returning to the good old days when older people were living libraries of knowledge critical for our survival. But our sciences will be useless and our knowledge wasted unless they are used to help the vast majority of African people.

--
Kazhila Chinsembu is a lecturer in the department of biology at the University of Namibia, and a former lecturer at the University of Zambia and researcher at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, Kenya.

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From Prakash -

Good old days Indeed - where everyone had enough to eat and lived up to 100! This is an utopian fantasy invoking a mythical past which did not exist anywhere.

The 'environmentally-friendly traditions' and 'indigenous knowledge' that Dr. Chinsembu fondly reminisces are really metaphors for the 'status-quo'. Africa has the highest malnutrition and infant mortality rate and the high prevalence of infectious diseases such as AIDS and malaria. Science can be our best ally in the fight against these problems.

The poetic essay above shows how one can easily be persuaded by the Western eco-luddite thoughts. While much of the criticism of modern agriculture and science is simply unfounded (such as his tirade against fertilizers and hybrid crops), he argues largely against genetic technologies that can help propel Africa to achieve greater food security.

He says '... we must not try to solve our problems with technologies that could enslave us us because we do not own the patents on them'. Oh really? Then must Africans only use what Africans have invented? Are you going to then throw away your cell phone, TV, computer, automobile, and every gadget and modern medicine?

While no one advocates irresponsible application of any technology, blanket rejection of Western science as sugested by Dr. Chinsembu with a paranoid fear of 'ownership' will only spell further doom for this fascinating land.

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