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March 30, 2006


Positive Economic Returns; Dangerous Misconceptions; Outdated Rhetoric; Silver Bullet Still Ways Off; Genes by the Wayside


Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org : March 30, 2006

* Economic Impact of Transgenic Crops in Developing Countries
* Biotech Vampires and Other Tall Tales
* Indo-US Pact on Agriculture: A Redrag to the Activists
* GM Crops Offer Positive Future to Food Industry
* Genetically Engineered Silver Bullet Still A Ways Off
* Genes by the Wayside
* Health for All? - Agriculture and Nutrition

Economic Impact of Transgenic Crops in Developing Countries

-Terri Raney, (FAO Rome, Italy); Current Opinion in Biotechnology, March 7, 2006

Download full paper at

Transgenic crops are being adopted rapidly at the global level, but only a few developing countries are growing them in significant quantities.

Why are these crops so successful in some countries but not in others? Farm level profitability ultimately determines whether farmers adopt and retain a new technology, but this depends on much more than technical performance. Recent economic studies in developing countries find positive, but highly variable, economic returns to adopting transgenic crops.

These studies confirm that institutional factors such as national agricultural research capacity, environmental and food safety regulations, intellectual property rights and agricultural input markets matter at least as much as the technology itself in determining the level and distribution of economic benefits.

Plant biotechnology: looking forward to the next ten years

- Nam-Hai Chua and Scott V Tingey, Editorial overview, Current Opinion in Biotechnology, March 2006 http://www.sciencedirect.com/


Biotech Vampires and Other Tall Tales

- Business Day (South Africa), March 29, 2006 http://www.businessday.co.za/

Having just concluded an enjoyable two-week visit to South Africa to discuss genetically modified food, I am struck by two things. First, I found the research being done in the country to improve crops with biotechnology to be world class. Second, I found widespread and dangerous misconceptions about the biotech industry.

On the first point, South African biotechnology researchers were eager to tell me about their impressive projects to improve agricultural productivity for Africa's poorest farmers. Genetically modified maize that is resistant to maize-streak virus and genetically modified plants that are tolerant to drought are already being tested in the lab. Knowing that tens of millions of southern Africans are at risk of starvation because of crop disease and drought, I found these revelations extremely exciting.

The second point on dangerous misconceptions was drilled home after repeated questioning by South African consumers who believe large multinational corporations that market genetically modified seed, particularly American corporations, will enslave the world's poor farmers.

As a public-sector scientist who has devoted a 40-year career to research in biotechnology to advance the public good, it was disappointing to hear some South Africans equate advances in science with corporate greed and callous disregard for human welfare. Although this line is loudly espoused by an alliance of special interest groups, it is wrong.

For starters, there are five or six major corporations in the biotech seeds business -- hardly a monopoly. More importantly, they sell products for which 8,5-million farmers around the world voluntarily pay, in the belief that they will reap higher yields at lower costs. It is noteworthy that nearly 90% of these farmers are small holders in developing countries who are more than willing to pay the higher prices for better results.

We ought to let these farmers decide their own fate by allowing them access to improved seeds. Over the first 10 years of biotechnology, corporations and their genetically modified products have helped farmers around the globe earn an additional $27bn, have spared the application of nearly 200-million kilograms of pesticides, and have reduced greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by the equivalent of 5-million cars. One would have to be a dedicated anticapitalist to deny that biotechnology has delivered value to farmers around the world. If companies were to try to extort farmers with high prices -- setting aside that they may be undercut by the competition -- farmers will simply not buy the seeds because they will no longer be profitable.

I was even more perplexed to hear that South Africans are worried that so-called "terminator technology" -- genes are inserted into crops to prevent them from producing fertile seeds that can be replanted -- will force the world's poorest farmers to buy seeds every year from big agribusiness. The world's poorest farmers don't have the money to buy high-quality, high-yield seeds in the first place. They are not the industry's customers. The world's more prosperous farmers buy seeds every year anyway -- "terminator technology" to them is just insurance that genes won't flow between fields and native plants. In any case, the point is moot because not a single commercial seed in the world contains the terminator gene.

By wrongly equating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with corporate monopoly, one also overlooks the fact that most developments in agricultural biotechnology are being made by public-sector scientists, including those in SA who intend to distribute improved seeds to poor farmers who need them at the lowest possible cost. It's a model being pursued in the developing world where farmers can't afford to buy better seeds. It's been proven to work with rice, wheat and maize varieties developed in the public sector by the International Rice Research Institute and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, and it promises to move African farmers from famine to surplus. Biotechnology companies often are partners in these projects, freely supplying their technology to the world's poorest farmers.

It's time to get the facts straight. Although biotech corporations can be blamed for being insensitive to consumer concerns and for at-times horrendous public relations, let's stop demonising them for what they haven't done. When I return to SA I'll be determined to help people further understand the benefits of GMOs, and how by working together as brother and sister, public scientist and corporate donor, we can overcome malnutrition and establish a sustainable agriculture in Africa.
Prof Chassy is associate executive director of the Campus Biotechnology Centre at the University of Illinois.


The Indo-US Pact on Agriculture: A Redrag to the Activists

- Prof. C Kameswara Rao, March 28, 2006; Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India www.fbae.org; krao@vsnl.com, http://fbae.blogs.com/

During the recent visit to India by the US President George Bush, a significant outcome was the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative, which includes a major thrust on agricultural biotechnology. No sooner, the anti-tech activists trashed the deal, using outdated rhetoric like 'Killing fields of India' (Times of India, March 16, 2006). A farmers' protest rally, organized in Delhi on March 21,2006 in a different context, was also exploited to criticize the deal.

The main charge is that the US will exploit the Indian genetic resources and dominate Indian markets with GE products that could not be sold elsewhere and that India would be paying heavily both in kind and cash. The technological advantages that India would gain from the deal are ignored. The activists even project the agricultural deal as a recompense for the Indo-US nuclear deal.

Sharad Pawar, the Union Minister for Agriculture, assured that the Indo-US agricultural deal would benefit both the countries by increasing agricultural research, particularly in biotechnology (Hindustan Times, March 24, 2006). Mangala Rai, Director-General, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, clarified that, a) there was no agreement to allow the US access to the country's indigenous gene pool, b) the issues related to Intellectual Property Rights would be decided on a mutual basis, and c) there are no potential risks to India's food security from the deal.

The Indo-American agriculture deal is timely as Indian agricultural research needs a jumpstart. At the farmers' protest rally, Ajit Singh, the former Union Minister for Agriculture, recognized the general decline of agriculture in the country.

The objections raised by the activists reflect anti-Americanism. Some of them are:

a) The "US has asked for the removal of restrictions on import of US farm products into India, in order to flood the Indian markets with US GE products".

- Under the WTO agreements, sooner or later, India has to review import restrictions; otherwise it will get into the same situation as the European Union, now facing a WTO ruling.

b) The US "made it clear that it would not invest a single dollar in the agricultural initiative and India has already committed Rs. 400 crore, of which Rs. 300 crore is for GE and biotechnology".

- The activists are either ignorant of, or have a selective amnesia to the fact that, in 1971, the US has written off a massive debt worth $1.26 billion owed by India under the PL 480 deal. India's national honour lies in paying for what it gets.

c) "Intellectual Property Rights on the outcome of research under the deal will belong to the US".

- This is absurd, as under international norms, IPR on research carried out under an official bilateral agreement, using Indian gene pool, will have to be shared by the partners, as the DG of the ICAR has already clarified.

d) "The goal is to generate agricultural products for trade and not to address food and nutrition."

- In order to be viable, a product for marketing should be superior to what is already available. Nutritional enhancement of agricultural products has for long engaged the attention of scientists. Golden Rice is one example and a dozen others are in research and development.

e) "Indian research establishment will essentially do contract research."

- This not essentially bad in itself as the Indian scientists gain new expertise and would be independent in due course. Contract research and projects are what have placed India on the international scene in the IT sector.

f) Two sentimental and emotional issues are also raised: One is that the deal will deliver India's genetic wealth into the American hands and the other is that amendments to IPR laws, prompted by the US, to introduce patents of seeds and genes would do away with the provisions for protecting farmers' rights. Every country has rich genetic resources of the crops of interest to it. The wisdom lies in utilizing these resources to enhance food and fiscal security.

Other than repeatedly saying that India has very rich agricultural genetic resources, no responsible scientist has ever stated what these genes are and what benefits could be derived from them. India did practically nothing to benefit from its much talked about genetic resources. Poor and subsistence farmers' rights need to be protected but the activists are ever eager to protect undocumentable and even non-existent farmers' rights on Indian crop varieties and seeds but do not concede IPR to India's own scientists and establishments who have invested time, money and efforts in making appreciable advances.

An MNC-phobia-rooted objection is that the Bush delegation included representatives of Monsanto and Wal Mart. All international delegations, including those of India, include representatives from the trade sector, whose interests are also the interests of their countries. The Indian side contained well meaning and responsible people, but the activists want us to believe that they know better than the official Indian team.

Indian activists did not raise any objections to some of the worst deals in modern Indian history, particularly those with the erstwhile USSR, where India was an obviously junior partner and had to turn to the West in order to save the situation in such deals as heavy electrical (BHEL) and natural gas (ONGC), when they ran into problems.


GM Crops Offer Positive Future to Food Industry

- Shawn Hanrahan, The Battalion, March 28, 2006 (via Vivian Moses)

College Station, Texas -It is estimated that 70 percent of products on U.S. grocery shelves include genetically modified ingredients. The U.S. Agriculture Department estimated that 38 percent of the 79 million acres of corn planted in 2003 were genetically engineered. With numbers like these, it is a wonder that people are still fearful of transgenic crops.

Genetic modification (GM) is the process where individual genes can be inserted or modified in an organism through various biotechnology approaches to achieve a desired result. GM crops are mainly produced to increase yield production and reduce the use of chemical pesticides. This process is heavily regulated by the U.S. government. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates a crop when a pesticide is involved, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates where they are grown and 3how it will affect the environment, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates for food safety. A GM plant will go through several years and millions of dollars of testing before it can be available as a commercial crop.

GM foods have a lot of positive potential. Eliot Herman recently came to Texas A&M to give a presentation on reducing allergies to peanuts and soybeans. He said it was estimated that one in 50 children and one in 200 adults have an allergic reaction. Allergies to peanuts and soy can result in anaphylactic shock, the rapid constriction of the airway leading to death in minutes if the victim doesn't receive medical attention. By removing the protein causing this reaction, many people with food allergies would be able to breathe easier without having to carry around a needle of adrenalin3e 24 hours a day. Currently, the risk of a lawsuit for producing a non-allergen soybean has kept companies at bay due to food allergies having multiple causes.

There is fierce opposition to GM crops. The most common argument has been that the effects of GM crops are not known. The problem with this argument is that all the crops go through the same regulatory agencies that make sure commercial fish are not swimming in mercury, drinking water is safe and commercial meat won't cause salmonellosis. It comes down to a level of trust. If one trusts the FDA to approve of the steak sizzling at a steakhouse, then he should also be able to trust the side of corn with his 3meal.

GM crops have existed for over 10 years so far without a single case of widespread human problems. Even if a problem were to occur over the next 10 years, there are people starving who do not have the food to last that long. Golden rice has been modified to produce vitamin A. This crop is needed in developing countries in Africa, where vitamin A deficiency is at epidemic levels.

Sadly, golden rice has been blocked from commercial production due to fierce opposition by Greenpeace and other groups that argue it could "open the door" to other GM crops. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have even gone so far as to tell the president of Zambia that millions of tons of corn being sent to them for humanitarian aid were poisonous. These actions clearly show a disregard for life over scoring political points against GM foods.

In short, GM crops have a very promising future. There is current research to produce bananas with vaccines to hepatitis B, fish that grow faster and are healthier and crops without allergens. To argue that these crops may harm people when there is no proof of it, while many are dying from starvation is, simply put, arrogant.


Genetically Engineered Silver Bullet Still A Ways Off

- Byron Lu, University Wire, March 29, 2006

New York - A quick glance at the health section of the New York Times online earlier this week revealed a headline that should have literate pork chop fans worldwide heading to their favorite meat supplier: "Pork That's Good for the Heart May Be Possible With Cloning." These cloned animals produce Omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. But before you go on that 24-hour bacon binge, consider the case of rice - and not just any rice.

"Golden Rice" is a genetically modified strain of Asia's starch-du-jour engineered to express three daffodil genes integral to the synthesis of beta-carotene. This molecule, which also makes carrots orange, imparts a warm saffron glow to each grain, hence the engineered strain's appealing moniker. Beta-carotene is a precursor molecule to Vitamin A, so the hope then was that this new rice would alleviate Vitamin A deficiency, a problem that annually kills between one and two million children.

Like every apparent breakthrough technology that appears, however, Golden Rice had its share of problems. Genetically modified foods were (and are) considered suspicious for safety reasons. The question of who would benefit most from Golden Rice was complicated by economics. Not least of these flaws was that, according to one estimate, to derive a sufficient level of beta-carotene, a child would have to consume nine kilograms of Golden Rice a day. Consumer groups called it a hoax and a failure.

In an age when we are reminded constantly of the rapid pace of discovery, it's sometimes easy to lose perspective. As anyone who has ever conducted research knows, disappointment is part of the game. Even worse, the most well-designed protocol might not yield satisfactory results. Going back to the pigs, the Times article says that their health benefits are still theoretical.

That's not to say that we shouldn't try to explore new technologies, which is what Laura Bush hinted at when she asserted in 2004 that stem cell research was too preliminary to allow for unrestricted federal funding. Paradoxically, her words obliquely mirrored those of groups like Greenpeace, who refer to Golden Rice as dangerous.

So where has Golden Rice research progressed since then? Well, about a year ago, the BBC ran an article detailing a British company's creation of "Golden Rice 2." Syngenta, the firm in question, claimed to have engineered a new strain that contains nearly 20 times the levels of beta-carotene as the original. There's probably still an appreciable level of spin to Syngenta's assertions. Their claim to have no commercial interest in the whole affair seems fishy. In addition, their press release admits that it is uncertain how long it would take to work out the international legalities surrounding the crop.

Nonetheless, it is clearly a step in the right direction. Even if it's not the silver bullet that obliterates worldwide Vitamin A deficiency (it is unlikely to be), at least it is an addition to our disease-treatment arsenal. It's also a bit of a kick in the teeth to naysayers who thought the promise of Golden Rice was some lunatic's fever dream.

So those of you who daydream about a day when eating pork tenderloin will be like taking a dose of Lipitor, that day is unlikely to come any time in the immediate future. However, humanity has a long track record of genetic engineering. If polyploid strawberries, fluffier sheep and Golden Rice are any indication, that ham-based theme party you've always wanted is on the horizon. All you need is patience.


Genes by the Wayside

- Colin Tudge, The Guardian (UK), March 25, 2006

Review: Science: 'Colin Tudge salutes a lucid study of biology in all its complicated glory: Seed to Seed: The Secret Life of Plants by Nicholas Harberd 320pp, Bloomsbury, 16.99'

If we were asked to work out how a computer works, most of us would make very little progress in 1,000 years. Yet even the simplest living creatures are at least a thousand times more complicated than any computer, and they come without instruction manuals. Biology, the art of finding out how living creatures function, is very, very hard indeed. Millions of people-hours have been expended over many centuries, and present knowledge is impressive. Yet the wisest scientists are the humblest and are first to acknowledge, as Socrates did, that the more we know the more the mystery increases.

Nicholas Harberd is of the wise kind. In Seed to Seed he explains how he and his colleagues at the world-renowned John Innes Centre in Norfolk are helping to work out how plants control their growth and reproduction in the face of life's vicissitudes. He tells it like it is: not as a logical, inexorable progression from ignorance to omniscience but as a sequence of leaps and lurches from becalmment to epiphany achieved by - who knows? In Harberd's case by cycling through the wind and hail of the Norfolk countryside, watching plants grow in a local churchyard and hoping for inspiration. Coleridge would have understood the approach perfectly. Success so far has been excellent - but still, it's all to do.

Harberd and his team focus on the botanists' current favourite, the eminently over-lookable wayside weed known as Arabidopsis thaliana, the thale-cress, a fairly close relative of cabbage that looks roughly like shepherd's purse. Arabidopsis itself may not seem of prime interest, but since it runs through its entire lifecycle in a few weeks and has a simple genome - a mere 30,000 genes on just a few chromosomes - it is a very convenient "model" by which to study plants in general. (For the same kinds of reasons the fruit fly Drosophila is the favourite lab animal.)

The Arabidosis study involved a gene, and mutant forms thereof, and proteins coded by that gene in its proper or mutant forms. The "proper" protein is responsive to a hormone called gibberellin which makes plants grow tall; if the gene is mutant, the plant stays "dwarf". But when mutant seeds were exposed to gamma rays they grew into tall plants - because the mutant genes that caused the dwarfing were themselves destroyed. By such means the team have worked out the whole sequence of checks and counterchecks that regulate growth in general.

What matters is not the detail but the principle: how even the biggest ideas of science are really inferences, based on tiny observations that no one but a scientist would make in the first place; and those ideas in turn are then tested by very simple experiments (such as raising a lot of plants, seriously assaulting them, and then seeing how many are short or tall). Yet the simplicity is only conceptual: the practicalities of experiment are endlessly exacting. In the end, if the work is successful, mechanisms are revealed that on the one hand tend to be enormously complicated - regulators of regulators of regulators - but are also exquisite: if they were any simpler, they would not work. Thus, study of the humblest organisms humbles us; or at least, humility is the only sensible response.

What use is all this? Well, it depends what's meant by "use". Crops have been improved enormously these past few thousand years by breeding, which traditionally meant selecting the ones that grow the best, and then "crossing the best with the best and hoping for the best". The science of genetics, initiated by Gregor Mendel, hugely advanced the efficiency of breeding; and formal plant physiology helps things along even more, as breeders can now envisage the mechanisms that lie behind the changes they effect. For decades the John Innes Centre was publicly owned and dedicated to British and world agriculture. Making better crops is a necessary and noble pursuit - and as the climate changes, we will need a lot more, often novel, kinds, and quickly. Genetic engineering, astutely deployed, could help to push things along.

But in these vile times the best ambitions are corrupted so that now nothing is deemed worthwhile unless it makes rich people richer and powerful governments more powerful. The crops that find their way to the market are of the kind that only the mega-companies can engineer, while farmers, pressured by corporate-friendly governments, are obliged to grow them whether or not they are good for humanity or for the countryside. Thus, even here, in the study of wayside weeds, we see both the power and the ambivalence of science - on the one hand vital to our survival (providing the know-how that enables us to feed ourselves), and on the other the means by which control can be exerted from above. So science can liberate us as nothing else can but also, alas, it is the natural agent of fascism.

Yet science isn't just the route to high technology. Its Renaissance founders saw it in large part as an exercise in devotion: an endeavour not merely to change the world, but to appreciate it more fully. Harberd is in this vein. He likes to quote John Gerard's Herball or General Historie of Plants , of 1597: ". . . odours and taste are both so soveraigne that no confection of the Apothecaries can equall their excellent vertue. But these delights are in the outward senses: the principal delight is in the mind."

Harberd does not expressly speak of religion but he does use the word "reverence" - for the sheer extraordinariness of this life, which is not of our making but which, none the less, we are privileged to understand. Up to a point. If we spend a few thousand lifetimes at it and then some more.


Health for All? - Agriculture and Nutrition - Bioindustry and Environment

- Report from The World Life Sciences Forum (ed.) (Lyon, France)


The definitive report from the 2005 World Life Sciences Forum includes analyses and recommendations by world leaders in science, industry and politics on the three most important areas in global development: human health, agriculture and nutrition, bioindustry and environment.

Volume 2: Agriculture And Nutrition
Introduction by M. Gale, John Innes Centre; R. C. Offenheiser, Oxfam America; F. G. Bastiaens, Cargill

Module I Agriculture: Livelihood, Politics and Sustainability
contributions by P. Pinstrup-Andersen, Danish Science Council; P. Bloomer, Oxfam International; B. Garthoff, Bayer CropScience

Module II Access to Food for All
contributions by I. Potrykus, Swiss Institute of Technology; K. Ammann, Bern Botanical Garden; R. Rangel-Aldao, Empresas Polar

Module III Feeding 9 Billion People by 2050
contributions by P. Raven, Missouri Botanical Garden; F. Wambugu, Africa Harvest; R. Flavell, Ceres