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April 28, 2006


Batting Criticism; Better Soybeans; Hardier Crops; Organic Milk; The New Religion


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: April 28, 2006

* GM cotton researchers win award
* Senate sows seeds of GM ban
* The road to better soybeans just got a big boost
* U of S 'super gene' discovery holds promise of hardier crops
* Organic Milk Goes Corporate
* Birth of a new religion?


By T. M. Manjunath, PhD,
Bangalore (India)
Email: tmmanjunath1939 at yahoo.com

The year 2006 is significant for agricultural biotechnology as it marks the 10th anniversary of large scale commercial cultivation of biotech crops in multiple countries. In 2005, transgenic crops were grown on 90 million hectares (222 million acres) by about 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries (10 industrial, 11 developing countries) – marking more than a 50-fold increase in the area since their first commercialization in the U.S.A. and a few other countries in 1996.

This increasing adoption and expanded research will continue in many parts of the world in the coming years. During the past decade, biotech crops have contributed to significant yield increase owing to effective pest/weed management, drastic reduction in the use of chemical pesticides and attractive revenues to both small and large farmers. They have not caused any untoward incidents related to food/feed safety, environment or pest resistance in any country.

In spite of the proven benefits and safety, the same set of a few hardcore individuals and organizations are continuing their tirade against this remarkable technology. They deliberately overlook the fact that every biotech product has to undergo rigorous safety tests, as prescribed by the concerned regulatory authorities in each country, before it is approved as safe for commercialization. With their well-orchestrated protests and calculated flow of misinformation, they have been trying to mislead and create confusion in the minds of farmers and general public. Protesting has become a profession for some!

There is no point in trying to convince such blind opposition. I feel it is better to take such criticism in our stride and move on, adopting the following approach, as far as possible, as in cricket:

Biotechnology: How to ‘Bat’ Criticism

• Irrelevant criticism is like a ‘Wide Ball’ – Just ignore it

• Direct personal criticism is like a ‘Bouncer’ – Try to avoid being hurt and let it go

• If the critics overstep the limitation, it is like a ‘No Ball’ – It is invalid and will get penalized

• Allegation based on speculation is like a ‘Loose Ball’ – It has no merit and helps you to score

• Seemingly scientific but far-from-truth statements by self-proclaimed experts are like ‘Chucking’ – They are not genuine, be watchful

• Back-biting out of jealousy is like a ‘Googly’ – It is very deceptive, be careful

• A genuine question or concern is like a ‘Good Length Ball’ or ‘Yorker’ – Respect and defend it. The best way to answer is by providing more convincing scientific data

Traditionally, any new technology or deviation from the convention has faced opposition from a small section of the society. Like ‘One-day Cricket’ which initially faced criticism, but has today emerged as one of the most popular and

sought after games and created a niche for itself, biotechnology will also find greater public acceptance once its actual benefits are realized. No doubt it has the potential to solve some of our major food and health deficiencies.


GM cotton researchers win award

- Australian Broadcasting Center, By Helen Carter, 27 April 2006

GM cotton fights back against the Helicoverpa armigera caterpillar. But this transgenic cotton has its drawbacks, say some scientists (see Related Stories below) (Image: CSIRO Plant Industry)

Research that led to genetically modified cotton, Australia's first transgenic broadacre crop, has been awarded a prestigious award.

Three CSIRO scientists were last night presented with an ATSE Clunies Ross Award for their work on Bt cotton.

They were among researchers in the fields of environmental science, metallurgy, information technology and physics to be presented with an award, in recognition of their "outstanding achievements in the application of science and technology for the social and economic benefit of Australia".

CSIRO's plant molecular biologist Dr Danny Llewellyn, plant breeder and agronomist Dr Greg Constable and entomologist Dr Gary Fitt were awarded jointly for their work in combating the moth Helicoverpa armigera, the most destructive pest to broadacre crops.

CSIRO licensed a gene from US biotechnology company Monsanto that produced a toxin from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt. The researchers then introduced the gene into Australian cotton plants.

When the H. armigera caterpillar eats the transgenic cotton plant, the toxin attaches to its gut and poisons it.

This alternative approach to pest management has reduced the use of chemical pesticides by 90%, saving farmers about A$180 million a year on spraying, the researcher say.

"It used to cost A$200 million annually to spray cotton crops with pesticide to control the moth but now they only use about 10% of the insecticide they used to use," says Constable, the team leader.

"The main issue was insecticide could contaminate land, air and water so this is safer for the environment and everyone as it only kills the moth, without harming other helpful insects, creatures or humans."

Other award winners were:

• Environmental scientist Dean Cameron from Biolytix Technologies in Brisbane for developing a waste treatment system that uses worms, beetles and microscopic organisms to recycle sewage and household waste into safe irrigation water and compost.

• Professor Ron Sacks-Davis from Melbourne information technology company InQuirion, which creates information retrieval and text database management programs that searches tens of millions of pages per second. The programs have been used by US and Australian intelligence agencies for antiterrorism purposes and for drafting legislation

• Perth metallurgist Dr Gerald Roach from Alcoa World Alumna for reducing the cost of alumina production, environmental impacts and energy use and improving product quality. His research improving ore extraction efficiency has reduced bauxite waste by hundreds of thousands of tonnes annually.

• A lifetime achievement award was presented to Perth physicist Emeritus Professor Dr John de Laeter, AO, whose career began as a high school teacher. He was instrumental in developing five research centres in Western Australia, and in raising A$28 million for the scientific community and research.

Former Clunies Ross award winner, joint winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine Professor Barry Marshall, who discovered that the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, rather than stress, causes stomach ulcers, was guest speaker at the awards ceremony.

Senate sows seeds of GM ban

- Warsaw Business Journal, by Andrew Kureth, 24th April 2006

A ban on genetically modified seeds has passed the Senate.

Poland's upper house of parliament has passed a bill on banning genetically modified (GM) seeds throughout the country, raising the specter of yet another clash between Warsaw and Brussels.

The proposed ban has already drawn criticism from the European Commission (EC) - the EU executive - for potentially breaking EU regulations, specifically those ensuring a single market within the Union. The EC holds the position that any country banning GM crops must do so only when it is scientifically justified and crop-specific.

The bill passed by the Senate effectively represents a nation-wide blanket ban on all GM crops. It still must be approved by Poland's lower house, the Sejm, and signed by the President before it becomes law.

The bill was pushed through by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) and some smaller parties, who fear contamination of non-GM crops and want to build Poland's image as an environmentally friendly country.

Last year the EU's second-highest court upheld the EC's position, after Brussels blocked an attempt by Austria to create a GM-free zone. The EU has also threatened legal action against Italy for a law passed last year banning GM crops until all of its regions agree on regulations for the technology.

So far, no GM seeds have been planted in Poland, and PiS members have suggested that the government could look to change the bloc's policy on GM crops. (Reuters)


The road to better soybeans just got a big boost


The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and USDA have joined forces to work on the study of plant and microbial genomics. The project funded by this partnership is an $11-million-dollar effort to decode the soybean genome.

The DOE's Joint Genomics Institute (JGI) works to map the genomes of crops that meet rising needs in energy demand and food consumption. The DOE/JGI expressed interest in soybeans because they're a versatile crop able to be used in food, industrial applications and for biofuels.

"There are a large number of challenges faced by the soybean industry," says Gary Stacey, Associate Director of the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology at the University of Missouri. "Challenges such as Asian soybean rust, new regulations concerning trans-fatty acids in foods and increasing international trade competition affect U.S. soybean farmers, and research-based solutions to these kinds of problems will be greatly aided by knowledge of the soybean genome."

The research project that Stacey works on will be one of three soybean checkoff-funded projects that will benefit from the DOE grant. The other two projects are headed by Perry Cregan, of USDA-ARS and Jan Dvorak, of the University of California-Davis. Stacey, Cregan and Dvorak have collaborated closely, and the results of the three projects are being compiled into a fully integrated physical-genetic soybean map that can be used by soybean scientists as a resource.

"In the spring of 2003, the United Soybean Board (USB) hosted 25 soybean genome researchers in St. Louis," says Jim Sallstrom, USB director and a soybean farmer from Winthrop, MN. "The common goal was to find a way to sequence the soybean genome. The group specifically targeted projects that were of top priority, and several million dollars of soybean farmer checkoff funds were dedicated to the effort."

The efforts of the genome researchers and the initial genomics projects funded by the soybean checkoff played a role in leveraging the $11 million from the DOE's Joint Genomics Institute. This will lead to further research, which in turn will benefit the entire soybean industry. A better understanding of soybean genomics will allow for opportunities for soybean farmers to remain competitive through meeting market needs, whether that may be increased oil content for biodiesel production or improved protein quality. Genomic tools will aid the search for disease and stress resistance.

"The really important and exciting part about the DOE/JGI effort is that the whole sequence of the soybean genome will be available for soybean researchers to access and use to better understand how the soybean works and to determine how best to improve traits of interest," says Cregan.

"Having the soybean genome sequenced will benefit soybean farmers in two major ways," says Sallstrom. "First, there will be more rapid soybean yield improvements, and, second, there will be improved oil qualities and meal characteristics."

Sequencing the genome will not just provide opportunities for yield and trait improvements, but opportunities to pass these along to U.S. farmers at a faster rate than before.

"What we will be able to do with the information gained from the DOE/JGI funding can trim anywhere from three to six years off the time from the initial genetic cross to the production of a new cultivar for release to farmers," says Stacey. "It will also be a tremendous aid to our basic research programs, leading to a better understanding of the soybean plant."

U of S 'super gene' discovery holds promise of hardier crops:
Plants tolerate temperature extremes better, grow faster

- The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon), By Janet French, April 27, 2006 (VIA AGNET)

A University of Saskatchewan research team has, according to this story, discovered what it calls a "super gene" that makes crops more resistant to heat, Prof. Larry Gusta and his team are now, the story says, wooing biotech companies to use the gene in the development of newly resilient crops, which could help farmers frustrated by drought and wacky weather, with Gusta quoted as saying, "In a way, it is a super gene, and that's why there's several large companies interested in licensing (it)."

Gusta and collaborator Albert Robertson, who is also a farmer, found a gene called Rob-5 is responsible for keeping a hardy perennial plant called brome grass tolerant to drought, heat and freezing.

When researchers treated grass cells in a dish with a hormone called abscisic acid, they found it was the Rob-5 gene that sprang into action, spurring the creation of protein to help protect the plant from harsh conditions.

Once they figured out which gene was responsible, the team created transgenic crops of canola, flax and potatoes by inserting the brome grass Rob-5 gene into those plants' genes.

When they planted the crops in fields across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, they got a 25 to 30 per cent increase in crop yield -- and it was a dry year, Gusta added.


Organic Milk Goes Corporate

- Mother Jones, By Cameron Scott, April 26, 2006

Mark Kastel’s motto these days is “Be careful what you ask for — you might actually get it.” The long-time organic foods activist fought hard for the passage of the 1990 Organic Food Production Act. He believed that replacing the hodge-podge of voluntary and state regulations that had, until then, governed organic agriculture with oversight by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would offer organic farmers clear, uniform standards and guarantee consumers healthy, eco-friendly products. Instead, the maddening bureaucracy and pro-agribusiness policies that plague the USDA’s oversight of conventional agriculture have come to bear on organic farming as well.

Nowhere has this been clearer than on the issue of access to pasture. The agency has refused to clarify or enforce its own regulations requiring that organic dairy cows be raised on pasture rather densely packed in feedlots, despite the repeated recommendations of its own advisory body, three formal complaints, and the comments of over 40,000 farmers, and two lawsuits filed by the Cornucopia Institute, a family-farm research and advocacy group Kastel co-founded in 2004. Objections to the USDA’s inaction focus on three dairies that claim to produce organic milk--which can sell for up to twice the price of the non-organic kind--yet are strikingly similar in scale and operations to conventional factory dairies, where cows are kept in pens and fed from troughs. “They really enjoy having that organic seal,” says Kastel, “but what’s behind it is really questionable.”

The farms are associated with Horizon and Aurora, the two biggest organic dairy labels in the country. Horizon, which operates two farms and buys from more than 300 independent farmers, commands a 55 percent market share of the $1.27 billion annual business. Aurora Organic, with a 10 percent market share, operates two farms and sells its milk under store labels in every part of the country.

Organic milk is one of the few agricultural products for which demand outpaces supply. In recent years, major food corporations have entered the organic market, lured by the industry’s rapid growth and high profit margins. The Organic Consumers Association, a non-profit group representing organic consumers and businesses, has expressed alarm at “the spread of lower quality products being labeled organic to meet the increasing consumer demand for organic.”

The three controversial farms have about 4,000 cows each, while an average organic dairy farm has between 50 and 100. Horizon—the first organic dairy brand, which in 2003 became a subsidiary of the nation’s largest milk bottler, Dean Foods— operates a 4,000-cow farm in Paul, Idaho. Horizon buys 5-10 percent of its milk from Case Vander Eyk, Jr.’s 8,000-cow split organic/conventional farm in California. Mark Retzloff, one of Horizon’s founders, later started Aurora Organic, opening another factory farm in Platteville, Colorado. When Kastel, a former family-farm consultant, visited the Aurora farm last year, he found only about 85 cows out grazing.

Although the USDA’s organic regulations--which were finally adopted in 2001, 11 years after the original bill passed--require that cows have “access to pasture” and derive part of their nutrition from it, they do not provide any way to evaluate whether cows have significant access to nutritious pasture. Making matters worse, the standards create room for confusion by permitting cows to be temporarily confined in circumstances such as illness and certain “stages of production”—a reference to basic life events like birth and, for beef cattle, slaughter. The USDA’s advisory body, the National Organic Standards Board, was already aware in 2001 that Horizon was defining "lactation," or milk-production—which amounts to almost half a dairy cow’s life—as a “stage of production” justifying confinement. It also knew that Retzloff was gearing up to open another huge farm, so it immediately sought to exclude lactation as a rationale for confinement.

Horizon and Aurora have more recently defended their cows’ infrequent grazing by pointing to the arid lands on which their farms sit, claiming that neither the land nor the cows would benefit from extensive grazing. But their critics say the companies stint on pasture time simply to save money. (It's cheaper to keep cattle in feedlots.) Both companies acknowledge that their vision for organic dairy includes larger, more productive operations. Kelly Shea, a Horizon vice president, told Mother Jones, “We thought you could do it big, and it’s been an amazing success story.” Retzloff maintains that “some people want organic dairy to stay a tiny niche industry, but we’re trying to stimulate the growth so that more Americans can enjoy organic products.” But Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association, says, “[Y]ou can’t run a 3,000-4,000 cow dairy in a semi-arid region and give them access to pasture.”

In early 2005, the Cornucopia Institute stopped waiting for the USDA to halt the proliferation of factory-scale organic dairies. The USDA had failed to take any action on the NOSB’s 2001 recommendations—outgoing NOSB chair, Jim Riddle, says, “We had identified a list with very specific language…. Those have never been adopted”—and so the Cornucopia Institute three legal complaints with the USDA’s compliance division, demanding that the USDA enforce existing pasture requirements at Aurora, Horizon and the Vander Eyk farm. The complaints presented evidence—including photographs and former-employee testimony—that the dairies were confining cows.

The day of Cornucopia’s filing, Richard Matthews, then the manager of the USDA’s organic division, requested that an updated version of the 2001 guidance document be presented at the next meeting. That meeting, in February 2005, had record attendance, drawing farmers from around the country. OCA presented a petition, signed by 4700 consumers, calling on Horizon and Aurora to “abandon their factory farm feedlot strategy.” This time, the NOSB was proposing a rule change—the limit of its advisory mandate--that would have replaced the vague phrase “access to pasture” with a requirement that cows “graz[e] pasture during the growing season.” This would have banned milk-production as a rationale for confining cows.

Despite having expressed interest in the document, the USDA in August rebuffed the NOSB's recommendations, calling them “ambiguous and without clear regulatory intent.” The same month, the Cornucopia Institute received a notice from the USDA stating that its complaints against Aurora, Horizon, and the Vander Eyk farm had been dropped. The agency provided no explanation, suggesting instead that Cornucopia file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to discover the USDA's rationale.

Kastel didn’t hesitate to do so. The documents he received included a copy of an email to the compliance officer handling the case from Neil Blevins, Deputy Administrator for Compliance, Safety and Security, stating that the Deputy Administrator of Transportation and Marketing Programs of the Agricultural Marketing Service—a woman named Barbara Robinson, who also oversees the entire organic program—was requesting that the compliance division close its investigation into the Horizon and Aurora farms because the NOSB was recommending changes to the regulations in question. But the NOSB transcripts make very clear that the Board was trying to eliminate the very violations Robinson refused to investigate. This is what finally led Cornucopia to sue the USDA, charging that its enforcement was “arbitrary and capricious.”

The friction between the NOSB and the USDA is unusual, because the fifteen members of the NOSB, who notionally represent farmers, scientists, retailers and consumers, are appointed by the USDA. Former members of the Board said that its relations with the USDA are generally smooth. But tensions continued to mount over the pasture issue. After the failed March meeting, the NOSB again proposed a rule change—this time including quantifiable pasture requirements—and requested a meeting to adopt the changes that November. The USDA agreed to a meeting but refused to put the pasture issue on the agenda. Riddle managed to pass the Board’s recommended changes, but as a “draft” with no legal standing. After the meeting, Riddle says Robinson—who had been out in the hall, chatting with lobbyists while farmers gave their testimony— “got in my face and said, threateningly, ‘I told you not to do this!’”

Despite an unprecedented level of public comment on the pasture issue, the USDA convened the Dairy Pasture Symposium (link) last week to gather yet more input. Kastel, reached at the symposium, reported that “there wasn’t anything here that wasn’t widely known and had been testified about for 5 years…but it was valuable information.” He did feel that the invited participants were heavily slanted toward agribusiness. Kastel was suspicious enough of the USDA’s motives for stonewalling on the pasture issue to file another FOIA request in August, demanding to know who the USDA has consulted on the pasture issue. The USDA, despite a 20-day limit on responding to FOIA requests, never responded to Kastel’s repeated requests, prompting Cornucopia to file suit for the second time just before the symposium, on April 12.

But others are more resigned to the USDA’s favoritism. “It’s business as usual. That’s the way USDA works at higher levels,” says Riddle. “It’s responsive to agribusiness, not to small farmers or consumers, and these are the people who are demanding the pasture standard be enforced.” George Siemon, head of the CROPP cooperative—the producers of Organic Valley products—says the co-op’s small farmers “feel that they shouldn’t be held to a standard that others who already have benefits of scale aren’t.”

Cummins thinks the USDA is disinclined to do anything that might threaten the supply of organic milk. “There’s a huge demand for organic products which has caused a shortage in supply because our public policy doesn’t help farmers make the transition [to organic]. So you either lower the standards or import from overseas.”

Robinson admits that she is hesitant to make changes to the regulations, because, she says, the entire organic program—with its ultimate ideals of healthy nutrition and environmental sustainability—is a "marketing program," "not a health and safety" one. Asked what she hoped to learn from the symposium, she mentioned “what kind of issues farmers and certifiers will confront in the field” and “how will it affect farmer’s bottom lines.” Interestingly, Robinson’s view of the organic label as a money-making proposition, rather than a new paradigm, is similar to the motivations Kastel ascribes to large agribusinesses, like Dean Foods, which have entered the organic industry in the last few years.

It was, after all, the 1950s Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson who demanded that farmers “Get big or get out.” Organics have offered salvation for many farmers caught between the harsh realities of this dictum. Indeed, fear that the organic market will replicate conventional agriculture’s binge of corporate consolidation offers the best explanation for the bitter fight over pasture requirements when virtually all parties agree that, in Siemon’s words, “cows should be out grazing.”


Birth of a new religion?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Sometimes I'll spot a trend of some sort and I'll think I'm one of the few people to see this trend, but then someone else will write about it. The latest observation is the emergence of a religious-style environmental movement, or depending on your point of view, an environmental-style religion.

I'm not talking about anything as concrete as, say, the Wiccan religion. Not yet at least. But there are some segments of the environmental movement which are developing some strong similarities to a religion. Some of these similarities include:

* A strong Puritanical streak. Humans are inherently impure or evil. These enviros see humanity as a figurative, or literal, cancer upon the Earth. Only those who "see the light" are worthy of being associated with, or ultimately of salvation.

* A strong resistance to modernity. Fundamentalist religion is not so much a zealous, literalist interpretation of holy texts as it is a resistance to modern culture, modern living, and modern traditions. It is a desire to return to some perceived "simpler time" when humanity was supposedly more conscious of his place and closer to god/nature than today.

* A profound ignorance and dislike of particular biological concepts. Just as most creationists and ID'ers know very little about the actual workings of genetics and evolution (despite what they may claim), so too do most "enviro-fundamentalists" know little about genetics as applied to technology and modification. Fear of and resistance to genetically-modified organisms (GMO's) is mostly founded on ignorance of the process involved in creating GMO's as well as how genes behave.

* Periodic doomsday or end-of-the-world predictions. Enviros have been tossing out doomsday-scenarios as fast as the media will lap them up. In recent years they've probably out-stripped the xtian end-timers in both the number and urgency of predictions. Abrupt climate change, global pandemics, Malthusian overpopulation, lethal pollution everywhere, out-of-control Frankenfoods rampaging down Main Street...one way or the other, humanity is apparently doomed, and it will be Any Day Now.

* An "us vs. them" mentality. Are you a capitalist, an entrepreneur, a Republican, a xtian, an SUV-owner, or simply someone not obsessed with saving the environment? Then you're part of the problem; you're one of them.

* Behaviors and beliefs which are considered not just bad, but sinful, as an affront to the object being worshipped (in this case, nature). Such behaviors include technological innovation (especially in the service of a corporation), capitalism (or anything involving obvious profit-making), being of another religion (particularly xtianity), polluting (or contributing to pollution), tampering with nature (e.g. genetic engineering), etc.

* Pop-culture phenomenons which, despite being based on junk science or outright fantasy, are taken almost as "gospel truth" the way xtians view such fiction like The DaVinci Code or the Left Behind series.

It is kind of exciting to watch all this play out: the birth of a new religion before our eyes. To be sure, environmentalism isn't a full-fledged religion yet. It is still, for the most part, lacking in such things as houses of worship, ceremonies, and common symbols. It does have, however, organized assemblies, various denominations, growing political involvement, and even a holiday. Like traditional religious denominations, enviro denominations are mostly united on the overall theme but differ on some of the details. For instance, some enviros are opposed to wind or hydroelectric power for various reasons, while others see these as essential alternatives to fossil fuels.

The enviro movement claims to be based on science, and to a degree it is. Where they depart from science, though, is in their misuse and abuse of science. Cherry-picked data, overreliance on and overconfidence in modelling and predictions, trotting out worst-case scenarios as what "will happen," and relying on emotional arguments. To be sure, they also accuse anyone who disagrees with them of doing the same, and in any "us vs. them" situation that is probably true. But the environmental movement, particularly its more radical elements, is much less science-based than they would like people to believe.

And indeed the point of this article isn't so much a condemnation of the entire movement as it is a comparison of its more radical fringe (the stereotypical "bitter enviro") with its supposed polar opposite in the Religious Right. Both of these groups have much more in common than a penchant for teeth-gnashing. They are, literally or figuratively, both religions, and both prone to the same type of dogmatic thinking and zealous beliefs found in religion.