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May 31, 2006


Modified Food Benefits; GEAC suggests four BT cotton varieties; Hybrid vigor; Global seed vault; Super Cows


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: May 31, 2006

* Scientists study benefits of modified foods
* Genetically modified plants loosen the Corn Belt
* Scientists challenged on Genetically Modified foods' safety
* In A Brinjal Soup
* GEAC suggests four BT cotton varieties for central region
* Plant scientists begin to unravel the mystery of hybrid vigor
* Global seed vault to be built
* 'Super' cows could milk potential


Scientists study benefits of modified foods

- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, By Rachel Melcer, May 31, 2006

With the luxury of time - and support from the agricultural biotech industry - researchers at the University of Maryland say they can make a case in favor of genetically modified, nutritionally enhanced foods.

It will be years before the first of these products hit the market.

But if the evidence and technology stack up as developers - including Creve Coeur, Mo.-based Monsanto Co. - hope, consumers will get the heart-health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids from soybean oil instead of fish. Other products, such as vitamin-enhanced produce or grains, may come further down the line.

In the meantime, researchers are gathering evidence to prove health benefit claims to the Food and Drug Administration and win over consumers.

Biotech seed producers such as Monsanto, food processors and health organizations must join forces now in order to achieve these goals by the time the products are ready for store shelves, said Richard Forshee, deputy director of the Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy at the University of Maryland.

He and director Maureen Storey presented a model for quantifying the public health benefit of genetically modified foods during a panel discussion at April's Biotechnology Industry Organization, or BIO, 2006 conference.

Their work is funded by the Council for Biotechnology Information, whose members include all of the major biotech seed producers. Forshee and Storey also intend to submit it for scientific peer review and publishing in a reputable journal.

They studied the effects of adding Omega-3 fatty acids to soybeans or canola, which provide cooking oils used in processed foods ranging from potato chips to salad dressing. They followed methods that have been used to measure health benefits of nonbiotech enriched foods, such as milk with added vitamin D and calcium-fortified orange juice.

The early results show there is much promise, but a lot more work needs to be done.

Fish is the best dietary source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to improve heart health and decrease the risk of death from irregular heartbeats. But only 17 percent of consumers surveyed say they eat fish at least twice a week, as recommended by the American Heart Association, Storey said. About one in 10 people said they never eat it.

"We have a lot of room for improvement" in the American diet, Storey said. "And that's where [agricultural] biotechnology can help."

Seeing a market opportunity, companies including Monsanto and BASF Plant Science are taking genes from algae consumed by fish - the essential ingredient that gives fish flesh its high Omega-3 content - and adding them to food oil seeds.

Monsanto has grown high-yielding, Omega-3-enriched soybeans, extracted the oil and shown that it has a pleasant taste and no fish odor that might turn off food companies and consumers, said Robb Fraley, chief technology officer. If the oil proves to be stable enough for use in processed foods, which must sit on store shelves without spoiling, and gains regulatory approval, he sees it appearing some time after 2010 in salad dressings, soy milks, margarines, yogurts and other foods.

"We have a lot of excitement about this," he said. "We now can open the door to a whole new way of delivering Omega-3s in the diet through food" rather than supplements in pill form.

Food manufacturers are hungry for ways to add positive health claims to their products, which can boost sales.

Omega-3-enriched oil seeds could fit that bill. But first, Forshee said, scientists must study the particular type of Omega-3 fatty acids being added to crops: stearidonic acid, or SDA, which does not naturally occur in foods. Alpha-linolenic acid, which is a natural part of some vegetables, is converted by the body into stearidonic acid. Fish are rich in docosahexaenoic acid, another type of Omega-3.

Researchers must confirm that there are no unwanted health impacts from eating SDA, Forshee said.

In some people, taking an excessive amount of Omega-3 supplement pills has caused bleeding, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Such complications with biotech oil seeds are "not terribly likely because [the oil] will be in foods that are self-limiting," Storey said. "You'd get full" before eating enough to be harmful. And the potential heart health benefits are great, she said.

Using public consumption data, Forshee found no adverse effects among the 90 percent of Americans who eat the most naturally occurring Omega-3 rich foods. He said he will study the issue further.


Genetically modified plants loosen the Corn Belt

- Knight Ridder, May 30, 2006

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Don¡¯t look now, but the Corn Belt is moving.

Iowa and Minnesota are still "Field of Dreams" territory for corn, but now so is a good chunk of North Dakota, which was once considered too chilly for raising corn and soybeans. Ditto Minnesota¡¯s Red River Valley.

And Kansas, which features wheat on its license plates, now grows more corn than wheat despite its hot and dry summers.

Plant genetics is changing the Midwest. High-tech varieties of corn and soybeans are letting farmers reliably grow row crops where they never could before, and the results are confounding the grain trade. The change has been building for several years, but the magnitude of the shift finally hit home last fall, when a severe summer drought wracked the eastern Corn Belt, yet the crop flourished - to the astonishment of many.

"I thought there was no way" corn could do well, "given the heat we had," said Joe Victor, vice president of marketing at Allendale Inc., a grain-trading firm in Illinois. "Every day was 98 degrees, no rain. I thought, ¡®This crop is in trouble.¡¯ "

Amazingly, it wasn¡¯t. A new generation of super plants changed the game and redrew the map. Although genetically modified crops are controversial overseas, they have become commonplace here.

"North Dakota has gone from hardly any soybeans to one of the leading soybean-production states in the United States," said Mike Vande Logt, a vice president at Croplan Genetics. Now changes are coming so fast that, "over the last five years, you could say (the growing region) is moving 60 miles north every year."

In Otter Tail County, northwest of the Twin Cities, farmer Dave Johnson was out on his tractor in the third week of April, "probably the earliest I¡¯ve ever planted corn in my life."

"When I started growing corn almost 40 years ago, we weren¡¯t considered in the Corn Belt at all," Johnson said. "We were considered too far north, so the seed companies weren¡¯t breeding any corn for this region. Things have changed a lot."

Now those changes are accelerating, shattering old patterns and raising new questions. Agriculture is still sorting out the answers.

A decade of biotechnology has allowed crop breeders to change a plant¡¯s genetic instructions, like a chef changes a recipe. So what have scientists been coaxing plants to do?

By engineering insect resistance, corn breeders have created ways to fend off destructive pests like the corn borer and corn rootworm.

¡ñ Battle drought. By protecting plants against insects, scientists have realized a second benefit - better drought tolerance.

When plants are desperate for water, insects go crazy. "They feed much more voraciously," said Vande Logt of Croplan Genetics, a part of Land O¡¯Lakes. The mixture of drought and insects not only doubles the plant stress, but it also can destroy a plant¡¯s ability to recover once the rain returns. "Corn rootworm feeds on the roots, and when you have a drought, less roots are a big problem."

Bob Starke, corn technology manager at Monsanto in St. Louis, saw it play out in last summer¡¯s drought areas, where bug-resistant varieties performed well. So well, Starke said, "I have to admit I was very surprised when I saw some of the yields."

Frost-free days are so scarce in North Dakota that growing a decent corn or soybean crop has long been difficult.

This spring, North Dakota farmers are boosting their soybean acreage by 41 percent and corn by 17 percent, as the reliance on wheat, which is less profitable, fades.

¡ñ Thrive in crowds. Dave Nicolai, a University of Minnesota extension educator in Hutchinson, notes that now more plants can be crowded on every acre, increasing yields and potential revenue.

"You have plants that are able to withstand a higher population," Nicolai said. "We have 30,000 to 32,000 (plants per acre), whereas before you might have 26,000. ... There¡¯s higher levels of efficiency, with the plant being able to convert water and sunlight and nutrients into carbohydrates."


Scientists challenged on Genetically Modified foods' safety

- African News Dimension, By HENRY NEONDO, May 31, 2006

Lusaka (AND) Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, COMESA, is a region ravaged by food insecurity yet GM could provide options to boost food production. The region however still needs to prove safety of GM technology

THE Minister for Agriculture, Kipruto Kirwa challenged scientists in the countries of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa,(COMESA) to analyse the impact the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) would have on food security, emergency food aid and trade in agricultural products within and without the region.

Speaking yesterday on behalf of the minister at a two day regional policy on GMO crops among East, Southern Africa (RABESA), the Agricultural Secretary, Dr Wilson Songa said that although biotechnology offers Africa an opportunity to increase food security by offering tools that may be used to contribute to addressing agricultural production constraints, controversies generated by the new technologies must be addressed.

Dr Songa admitted that the issues and concerns surrounding GMOs are complex, involving scientific,economic, social, political and trade aspects and that it was important that various stakeholders weighed potential benefits and risks.

Calling on the region to develop clear biotechnology and biosafety policies and build adequate regulatory systems that address these issues to enable informed decision making, Dr Songa said, this was important given that the European Union has just lifted a six-year freeze on new GMO food approvals. He said that this would either provide new trade opportunities or have hidden risks for the region.

Dr Songa told the experts drawn from Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Zambia, Uganda and Tanzania said that the region is debating issues of GMO against a background of increasing number of people exposed to hunger, vitamin A deficiencies and anemic besides increased drought, pests and diseases; all of which affect crop and livestock production.

Talking at the function, the Secretary General of COMESA, Erastus Mwencha said adoption of appropriate agricultural technologies was needed as the sector constitute the main source of livelihoods to 80 percent of the population in the COMESA region.

Mwencha said that study done by the regional body shows that agriculture constitutes 65 percent of foreign exchange earner for the region and contributes to 32 percent to regional government¡¯s GDP and 52 percent to the industry as raw material.

He however challenged scientists to move fast on regulations on biosafety as borders across the region were porous against the background of fast integration of economies. This he said calls for a speedy implementation of regulatory policies that would help address any potential risk posed by the new technologies.

RABESA intiative was began in 2003 and is designed to examine the potential ramifications of GMOs on trade, food security and access to emergency food aid in the COMESA countries.


In A Brinjal Soup

- Indian Express, 5/30/2006

Monsanto Mayho Biotech's proposal for large-scale field trials of genetically modified Bt brinjals can show a way forward for Indian agriculture. But only if the regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, hastens the mechanism to evaluate permissions for trials. The need for Bt seeds cannot be overstated. GM technology offers a way of averting huge damages on account of pests. For instance, India loses about $221 million due to fruit and shoot borers. The Cryl Ac gene in the seeds makes the plant resistant to these pests, which attack it throughout its life cycle. It would, crucially, ensure a truly level playing field. Farmers in developed countries have access to these seeds. In addition to all the other disadvantages Indian farmers have, policy today prevents them from accessing superior seeds.

Admittedly, the myriad problems of Indian agriculture will not get solved at one stroke with genetically modified crops. The government has no escape from policy issues such as subsidies to cereals, water and power. However, the GEAC can help speed up reform in Indian agriculture if the clearance procedure is rationalised. Today the manufacture, use, import and storage of micro-organisms or genetically engineered organisms (GMO) or cells are prohibited without the approval of the GEAC. Recently the GEAC showed foresight in allowing the import of genetically modified refined soybean oil.

Comparisons are instructive. In 2000 China was already the fourth in the world in the acreage of GM crops. It is estimated that 30 to 80 per cent of its paddy, wheat, corn, cotton, soybean and rape crops may be genetically modified by 2010. Further, the question of having to buy new seeds every year by farmers has also been addressed by Monsanto in this case. Public sector institutes have been given seed free of cost to develop their own varieties. This means farmers can save the seeds and use them next year. This should put an end to objections by activists about creating dependence of Indian farmers on multinational corporations. The government must now take this opportunity and move ahead without delay.


GEAC suggests four BT cotton varieties for central region

- Financial Express, May 31, 2006

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has suggested four BT Cotton hybrids for commercial release and cultivation in the central region including Gujarat, which is known for its quality cotton.

These hybrids include MRC-7301 BG II, MRC-7326 BG II developed by Mahyco containing Cry I ac and Cry 1 Ac genes. On the other hand, Ajit Seeds and Krishidhan seeds have developed two other hybrids namely ACH 11-2 and KDCHH 441, respectively.

All these companies have used bollgard-II technology developed by US-based Monsanto Company. Moreover, these three companies have already started their marketing campaigns to attract farmers in Gujarat.

When contacted, Sandeep Sandhu, General Manager (Products), Mahyco, said that GEAC has approved the commercial release and cultivation of these hybrids in Gujarat. He further informed that these new hybrids would increase the acreage and production of cotton. The company has already embarked on marketing two hybrid products.


Plant scientists begin to unravel the mystery of hybrid vigor


For nearly 80 years, corn breeders and producers have taken advantage of hybrid vigor to grow high-yielding crops. Yet this biological process remains a scientific mystery. No one really understands why crossing specific lines of corn that are genetically quite different can produce a hybrid that outperforms both parent lines.

That could change, however, thanks to ongoing research in Iowa State University's Plant Sciences Institute. Researchers have uncovered a key to understanding the complex molecular mechanisms of hybrid vigor, also known as heterosis, which affects most aspects of plant growth and development. Once the gene activity behind hybrid vigor is well understood, scientists could more rapidly create hybrids that confer desired traits like ethanol production into the germplasm.

The research team, led by Patrick Schnabel, professor of agronomy and director of the Center for Plant Genomics, includes Dan Nettle ton, associate professor of statistics; and graduate students Ruth Swanson-Wagner, Yi Jai, Rhoda DE Cook and Lisa Brusk.

Their research is published in a recent issue of the scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA ("All Possible Modes of Gene Action are Observed in a Global Comparison of Gene _Expression in a Maize F1 Hybrid and Its Parents").

For the two-year experiment, the researchers used the maize F1 hybrid and its inbred parents corn lines, B73 and Mo17. The F1 is taller, matures more quickly and produces higher grain yields than both parents.

"We analyzed global patterns of gene _expression in these three genotypes because this hybrid and its relatives are widely grown in the Corn Belt," Schnabel said. "Also, the genetic map of corn is based on recombinant inbreeds developed from this hybrid."

The researchers grew seedlings of the three genotypes in growth chambers to tightly control environmental effects. They isolated RNA from each of the three genotypes, and used a maize gene chip to determine the amount of RNA that accumulates for each gene in each of the three genotypes.

"We used this gene _expression information to understand how each of thousands of genes behave in the genetic background," Schnable said.

Using microarray technology, the researchers observed the activity of nearly 14,000 genes at the same time. The technology enabled them to look simultaneously at the gene _expression of the hybrid and its inbred parents. This is the first study that has looked at hybrid vigor in any crop on such a large scale.

They found that some genes are more active in the hybrid than in both of the parental inbred lines (overdominant), some genes are less active than both inbred lines (underdominant) and most genes -78% - have activity levels in between the level of the inbreds (additive).

"Several molecular models have been proposed to explain the phenomena of hybrid vigor. Some models require that genes exhibit overdominance or underdominance. Others assume that overdominant and underdominant gene _expression is not an important contributor to hybrid vigor," Schnable said.

The results of the Iowa State experiment provide support for multiple mechanistic explanations for hybrid vigor.

"Although this research does not explain hybrid vigor, it begins to uncover what happens on a molecular level in a hybrid compared to the inbred parents. It shows us that there are multiple molecular mechanisms at work and that hybrid vigor is complex," Schnable said.

"To understand this important biological process, we will need to apply cutting-edge, high-throughput genomic technologies. The Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State is one of very few public-sector organizations in the world that has the technology and resources necessary to conduct this research," he said.

The research findings provide a foundation for the Iowa State scientists to explore specific genes of interest, or investigate the contributions of the different mechanisms resulting in the gene _expression patterns found. Their next step is to determine the genetic control of overdominance.

"Ultimately, it is likely that we would be able to predict which specific inbreds when crossed would produce a strong heterotic response. To a large extent, this is now a matter of trial and error. Consequently, we might be able to develop favorable hybrids more quickly for less cost. This would result in faster genetic gain," Schnable said.


Global seed vault to be built

- Reuters, 31/05/2006

A frozen "Noah's Ark" to safeguard the world's crop seeds from cataclysms will be built on a remote Arctic island off Norway, the Norwegian government said on Tuesday.

Construction of the Global Seed Vault, in a mountainside on the island of Svalbard 1 000km from the North Pole, would start in June with completion due in September 2007.

"Norway will by this contribute to the global system for ensuring the diversity of food plants. A Noah's Ark on Svalbard if you will," Norwegian Agriculture and Food Minister Terje Riis-Johansen said in a statement.

The doomsday vault would be built near Longyaerbyen, Svalbard's main village, with space for three million seed varieties. It would store seeds including rice, wheat, and barley as well as fruits and vegetables.


It would be a remote Arctic back-up for scores of other seed banks around the world, which may be more vulnerable to risks ranging from nuclear war to mundane power failures.

"Gene banks can be affected by shutdowns, natural disasters, wars or simply a lack of money," Riis-Johansen said.

Loss of genetic diversity would mean losing a part of cultural heritage. "We also reduce the ability of agriculture to meet new challenges relating to climate change, population increase, and so on," he said.

The seeds would be stored at -18¡ã. If the power failed, the seeds would probably stay frozen.

"The temperature there is around -3¡ã, -4¡ã in the summer but we believe that even if the freezers broke down a suitable temperature would last for months," said Grethe Helene Evjen, a senior adviser at the Agriculture Ministry.

Duplicate other seed banks

"This will be primarily a duplicate storage for plant seeds already stored elsewhere," she told Reuters. Seeds would remain the property of nations making deposits.

Norway would provide 30 million Norwegian crowns ($4.94m) to build the vault. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg would mark the start of construction during a meeting of prime ministers from the Nordic region on the island on June 19.

Norway has long talked of building the Arctic seed vault without previously taking action. For about 15 years some varieties of seed have been stored in a disused Svalbard mine under a plan to see if they can germinate after 100 years.

Norway has worked with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation on the plans. It would also get financial support from the Global Crop Diversity Trust to help poor countries use the storage.


'Super' cows could milk potential

- SAPA, 30 May 2006

Ordinary-looking cows could change the South African dairy market, increasing productivity in an industry hard-hit by declining fertility and burgeoning herds.

The six-month-old calves at Elsenburg agricultural research unit near Stellenbosch are special ¡ª the result of genetic manipulation to try and cross-breed the Fleckveich (also known as Simmentaler in South Africa) breed with the Holstein-Friesian, and Jersey type of dairy cow.

The aim of the two studies was to determine the effect on beef and milk production of cross-breeding Holstein and Jersey cows with Fleckveich sires.

"One of the main reasons for the low fertility is the increase in production. Cows are just producing more milk and what happens is that, especially in the early part of lactation... they are what we call in a negative energy balance. They can't take in enough food to produce milk and then they milk off the back, using their reserves, and that creates a problem for them to become pregnant again," said Dr Carel Muller, an animal scientist specialising in dairy cattle at Elsenburg.

Cows not pregnant at the end of the lactation are usually culled.

Muller said another reason why farmers were experiencing reduced fertility was increasing herd numbers. This meant more cows had to be milked, and observing the animals was more difficult.

He said the main objective of the artificial insemination experiment using the Fleckveich and Friesian breeds was to improve fertility without losing production.

By cross-breeding the dual-purpose breeds, which produced both meat and milk, researchers were trying to optimise productivity, in what Muller felt could influence dairy economics in countries around the world.

"Dairy farmers and breed societies in countries like Argentina, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand are very interested in the outcome of these trials."

Muller said it was too early to tell the preliminary results of veal calf production, which would only be available later this week, but things were looking positive.

"We've observed higher live weight and daily gain. They grow faster for the Fleckveich/Holstein crosses, for heifers and bull calves. We've also seen higher carcass weight, weighing heavier when slaughtered at five or six months of age. The meat data will be available later," Muller said.

Laying to rest any New Age apprehensions about the cows being genetically modified, Muller emphasised the bovines were standard and only a cross-breed between two different types.

"There's nothing like that [genetic modification]. We only want to improve the profitability of dairy farmers."

Muller said bull calves were normally sold for R250 on the open market, but the cross-bred cows might sell for double that.

Thys Swart, vice chairman of the Simmentaler milk interest group, said Simmentalers are the second largest cattle breed in the world ¡ª about a million animals.

"Although the Simmentaler is classified as a dual-purpose breed in South Africa, many farmers regard it as a beef breed. It is only in the last five years that South African farmers realised the potential of the Simmentaler in their dairy herds."

Swart said with very low milk prices even Jersey farmers could earn "beef money" from their cows.

He said Jersey bull calves could not be raised economically, but Simmentaler crossed with Jersey bull calves are sold for more than R11 a kg, the same as beef-breed calves.

"What is more fascinating is that these cross calves weigh more than 200kg at seven months, again almost the same as beef breed calves at the same age," said Swart.

Pieter Schutte of Southern Cape Livestock said the cross-breed calves were in demand because they had a similar growth rate to pure beef breeds.

However, the weaners of pure beef animals first lose weight for a week or two from stress, before regaining it.

"The feedlot owners are earning money from these Simmentaler crosses because they are gaining weight right from the start," said Schutte.

Swart said many Simmentaler-cross cows were producing even more milk than their dairy counterparts in the same herd.

"The aim is, however, not to produce more milk, that's a bonus, but to produce beef additionally with the milk. Especially now while beef prizes are at a high," said Swart, adding that Simmentalers were an Alpine breed known for their hardiness.

The Simmentalers were noted walkers and could be taken further out to pasture, had "excellent feed conversion," and good temperament.

"Because of its hardiness, Simmentaler is also being looked at as one of the best options for the small scale farmers. The fact that this breed could produce not only milk but also beef on a very high level makes it even more attractive."

Swart said dairy ranching for small scale farmers was also a viable option.

Besides having a cow producing enough milk for the family, it could raise a heavy beef calf that might be sold after eight months for up to R3 000. But Simmentaler animals for dairy purposes were in high demand, making the animals too expensive for small scale farmers, Swart said.

An option, already endorsed by the Germany company Bavarian Fleckvieh Genetics, is to use Simmentaler semen on existing stock and "upgrading" animals to Simmentalers.

"The advantages are that its cheaper and the first cross calves already could earn more money for the farmer. Bavarian Fleckvieh Genetics have already indicated their willingness to co-operate in such projects in Southern Africa," said Swart.