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June 13, 2006


Chinese scientists develop salt tolerant grass; Companies Urge Africa to Catch Up; Supersizing cassava


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: June 13, 2006

* Chinese scientists develop salt tolerant grass
* US Biotech Companies Urge Africa to Catch Up
* Supersizing cassava
* Organic food too costly?

Chinese scientists develop salt tolerant grass

Tall fescue is grown as a forage crop in many parts of the world

- SciDev.Net, By Wagdy Sawahel, 13 June 2006

Scientists in China have developed a salt-tolerant form of grass that they say could be used to help bring millions of hectares of degraded land back into production.

The team led by Wu Zhongyi of the Beijing Research Center of Agro-Biotechnology published their findings on 2 June in the African Journal of Biotechnology.

The researchers genetically modified tall fescue grass (Festuca arundinacea) by inserting a gene from a relative of mustard called Arabidopsis thaliana.

The modified plants had "remarkable salt tolerance", all growing better than non-modified plants under conditions of high salt stress, say the researchers.

Tall fescue is grown widely in Africa, China and South America as turf and as a forage crop for grazing animals, but soil salinity is becoming increasingly problematic in many areas.

"The development of a salt tolerant tall fescue is an important improvement for this species," says Zengyu Wang of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation's forage improvement division.

"This improved grass has the potential to benefit livestock operations that depend on sustainable forage production," Wang told SciDev.Net.

Rongda Qu, professor of crop sciences at North Carolina State University in the United States says more research is needed to confirm the findings and to work out how the inserted gene confers salt tolerance.

Link to full paper in African Journal of biotechnology [568KB]



US Biotech Companies Urge Africa to Catch Up

- Islam Online, By Ochieng' Ogodo, June 13, 2006

While Africa remains reluctant to embrace the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), some experts contend that this will only isolate the continent from cutting-edge agricultural sciences.

Jane Stautz works in the plant genetics and biotechnology department of Dow AgroSciences, a US-based company specializing in the provision of "innovative crop protection, seeds, and biotechnology solutions." Stautz spoke to a team of journalists invited to the US by the US Grains Council to attend the celebrations of the 10th green biotechnology harvest. She said that the reluctance of African countries to establish strong regulatory frameworks and legal instruments to guide the use of biotechnology will be one of the continent's greatest undoings, as efforts continue to feed millions of its poverty-stricken and malnourished population.

Even worse, said Stautz, the continent faced the risk of isolation in this "new exciting" genre of agricultural science because of its reluctance to embrace biotechnology. "Africa will be closed to research and research funding as leading global food science and technology organizations could be getting impatient with the pace," she said.

Biotechnology has the potential to improve biodiversity, substantially reduce insecticide use, advance food security and tremendously transform agriculture in the next 10 years, according to Stautz.

Stautz believes that Africa's solution such problems as drought and crop diseases is in growing genetically engineered crops specifically tuned to resist difficult weather conditions and to mature quickly. This could result in saving Africa's crops from huge and sometime complete losses of harvests, which are followed by hunger and starvation of the continent's poor. "Biotechnology will become an acceptable practice throughout the world soon and Africa must not be left behind," she stated.

A Starving Continent

Africa's food insecurity is phenomenal, as nearly 200 million people in the continent are undernourished. The consequences of chronic and episodic food insecurity in Africa are manifest in the prevalence of hunger and malnutrition and without deliberate efforts especially on the part of policy makers there seems to be no end in sight.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated in its global information and early warning system on food and agriculture report dated December 25, 2005 that 27 countries in sub-Saharan Africa were in need of urgent food assistance. They included Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

Countries with general lack of access to food included Liberia, Mauritius, Niger and Sierra Leone. Kenya was listed among 14 countries facing severe localized food insecurity. In central, eastern, and southern Africa, more than 40 percent of the population is undernourished, and the number has risen over the past few decades.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to almost one-quarter of the developing world's food-deprived people, according to FAO.

Surveys by FAO conducted between 1987 and 1998 revealed that 33 percent of African children are stunted, underweight, or emaciated. Illiteracy and ignorance, alongside poor housing and infrastructure, are predisposing conditions to ill health in many countries, which impacts on food security.

Lagging Behind

The majority of African countries still do not favor GMO crops or foods. This is due to the lack of regulatory approval systems to safeguard biodiversity.

This is so despite the fact that more than 35 countries have signed the Cartagena Protocol. The Protocol, adopted in January 2000, is an agreement known as the convention on biological diversity. This agreement seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. During the years of negotiating this convention, modern biotechnologies, such as GMOs, were beginning to emerge and many countries were concerned about the impact they could have on biological diversity.

Recognizing this, Stautz said leading foundations in agricultural science and technology must work closely with local governments and scientists to make biotech available. This process must be started with capacity building and infrastructure for the approval of regulatory frameworks and adoption of the technology.

Stautz explained that there are issues that need to be addressed, such as the availability of seeds to farmers at affordable prices and providing safety procedures to protect human beings and the environment during field trials of GM crops. "But, she hastens to add, "this may not be possible if the governments in place do not understand people's needs and how technology can solve them." Such an understanding, she believes will result in the allocation of more resources to science and technology.

Stautz believes that we cannot underestimate the importance of establishing strong regulatory frameworks to protect the environment and the food chain. But this process, she contends, must be done quickly in order to enable African farmers to become part of the green revolution taking place in agriculture, improving yields, nutrition and earnings.

Proponents of GMO crops argue that Africa has serious food gaps and should embrace biotechnology farming for enhanced food production and nutrients. Since the initial commercialization of GM crops in 1996, the global planted area of biotech crops has soared by more than fifty-fold from 4.2 million acres in six countries to 222 million acres in 21 countries in 2005.

But in Africa, only South Africa has started benefiting from biotech farming and has increased its combined area of GM maize, soybean and cotton to 0.4 million hectares.

At present, most African countries cannot advance GM crop research because national policies or regulatory systems are not prepared to deal with safety requirements for approving its general use. This is even worsened by the fact that most decision-makers lack science-based biosafety information crucial to improving the clarity of these regulatory policies and procedures.

Only South Africa and Nigeria have a specific policy for biotechnology development and application.

South Africa began growing its first genetically modified commercial crops in 2003, with cotton farmers in KwaZulu Natal reporting dramatically improved yields, up to 89 percent higher than conventional seed. Last year, it was also among the 11 developing countries where biotech crops have increased income of 7.7 million resource-poor farmers.

GM crops, Stautz argued, will directly result in the reduction of production costs, and will increase yields, seed availability and crops with which farmers can work easily. The indirect benefits of biotechnology will be increased food exports, food security and increased employment in the agricultural sector.

A Solution to Africa's Food Insecurity?

It is argued that African food insecurity and trade imbalance in the global arena could worsen due to the reluctance of African countries to take up modern agricultural sciences.

The international trade in agricultural products and processed foods continues to increase and African nations must strive to be effective partners in this global network.

African nations considering biotechnology as an integral part of their agricultural economy and food supply, it is argued, will contribute significantly to the development of agricultural biotechnology and thus food security. Africa could become a key player in the global food economy.

Plant biotechnology is still in its infancy. The development of commercial biotechnology products has been achieved without particularly addressing farming problems in developing countries.

However, research is ongoing in the US and elsewhere, particularly in universities, public institutions and international plant breeding centers, that is focusing on staple crops that are typical in many developing countries. These include rice, cassava, sweet potatoes, cowpea banana and maize among many others.

Researches are focusing on traits that would solve key farming problems such as disease resistance, drought tolerance, and pest resistance. Their goal is to enable small resource farmers to produce enough food to eat in addition to surplus which is commercially attractive to sell.

But for African farming to truly go commercial, Stautz argued, there are other fundamental factors that must be addressed. These include pricing policies and government controls imposed on agriculture, access to reliable water supplies, taxation, road and rail infrastructure and even direct factors like access to health care.

The business of agriculture has become bigger and more specialized since the mid 1950s and is now one of the world's largest industries, employing 1.3 billion people and producing US$ 1.3 trillion worth of goods each year.

Farming is the most important economic activity in Africa, occupying 60 to 80 percent of the population and contributing 30 to 50 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in African countries. Eighty percent of farming is in the hands of small-scale farmers, most of whom farm on small, low-yielding overexploited farmlands. Farming thus remains an unattractive occupation and those involved are members of the lowest rungs in the poverty index.

According to the US Grains Council, economic forces and government policies are changing the farming landscape the world over and Africa should not be left behind. Sustainability is an important concept for agriculture in the 21st century and implies the creation of food and fiber systems that promote food security and economic vitality within the community in an environmentally responsible manner which biotech agriculture is purported to offer.

Lands in developing countries, and especially in Asia, are thoroughly degraded due to ruthless exploitation and they must be helped to restore their soil fertility if they are to grow commercially attractive crops and compete in the global food economy. "The developed world must help developing countries adopt scientific agriculture for sustainable food production and economic growth," journalists were told. Yet even with these assertions, the raging debate for and against adoption of GM crops/foods in Africa is far from over.

Ochiengí Ogodo is a Nairobi based journalist whose articles have been published in various countries in Africa, the US and the UK. He was among a team of 16 journalists from various parts of the world invited by the US Grains Council late last year to witness the tenth harvesting of biotech crops in the US.


Supersizing cassava

Using genetics, OSU researchers grow bigger plant to feed Africans

- THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH, June 13, 2006, by Poh Si Teng

Uzoma Ihemere left Nigeria to feed his countrymen.

A postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State University, Ihemere came to the United States in 1995 to study and improve cassava, a food staple for 250 million sub-Saharan Africans.

So far, so good.

The 40-year-old researcher and his colleagues at OSU recently "supersized" the woody shrub in a campus greenhouse. The team grew a cassava plant 2.6 times the size of average specimens. Researchers saw their root yield grow from seven to 12, and the weight grow from 3 ounces to 7 ounces, Ihemere said."Itís like a dream come true," he said.

Cassava, or Manihot esculenta, is native to South America and can grow in extremely dry conditions. Also known as yucca, tapioca and manioc, the yellowfleshed root is used in making bread, soup and chips. For years, researchers at Ohio State have been studying how to improve cassava, including reducing the plantís cyanide content. If not cooked properly, it can be highly toxic.

In the latest work, OSU researchers say they hope the supersized crop will provide food security in developing countries where drought is prevalent. The research was recently published in the online version of Plant Biotechnology Journal. "We want to bring the best performing plants to Africa," said Richard Sayre, the studyís lead researcher.

Sayre, a plant cellular and molecular biology professor, directs BioCassava Plus, an organization that focuses on making cassava more nutritious and hardy.

The research team is also working on a separate cassava project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to increase the cropís iron, zinc, vitamin A and protein content, as well as slow down its postharvest deterioration.

The same project also aims to increase cassavaís resistance to drought and diseases.

The project to increase starch in cassava, which began in 1997, involves inserting and turning on a modified bacterial gene, E. coli, in cassava.

The gene then encodes enzymes in the plantís tuberous roots and increases its starch production. That, in turn, increases the plantís size.

"Farmers will be able to process the additional harvest and see it on the local market and increase their livelihoods," said Martin Fregene, cassava geneticist with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia.

The work is important, said Dorin Schumacher, president and chairman of the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, which funded the study.

"Iím very proud of whatís being accomplished ó of the scientists that we have been able to support like Richard Sayre," she said.

The genetically modified cassavas have been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for field tests in Puerto Rico.

Critics say scientists working with genetically modified food should be cautious about introducing transgenic crops in developing countries.

"If something harmful happens, they donít have the medical resources to intervene," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist for the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that promotes organic agriculture.

Researchers must ensure that their transgenic cassavas do not contaminate wild species, said Gurian-Sherman, who used to regulate genetically modified crops for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Other scientists say itís too soon to tell whether genetically modified cassava is hazardous.

"Itís very possible to have safe transgenic crops," said Allison Snow, a professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State.

Snow, who is not involved in the project, added that the new variety of cassava should not replace existing ones.

She said transgenic crops have to pass extensive biosafety standards before they are planted in the wild or sold commercially. That, she said, cuts the risks.

After a six-month approval process, Sayre said he is excited to move his cassavas out of the campus greenhouse and into the testing fields.

There is no deadline for introducing the bigger cassavas to Africa. But by 2009, transgenic cassavas with increased nutritional value will undergo field tests in Kenya.

Ihemere said he canít wait for farmers in Africa to benefit from Ohio Stateís research.

Working on cassava, he said, has been the highlight of his stay in the country.

"I feel like Iíve accomplished something in my life," Ihemere said.


Organic food too costly?

- Health24.com, June 12, 2006

Your local grocer remodels the store, and one of the big changes takes place in the produce department.

Like many other markets, he has decided to expand the organic produce section. Now, if you want, you can buy organically grown apples, bananas, carrots, kiwis and other fruits and vegetables.

But you must also answer the question: Is it worth paying more for the advertised advantages of organic foods?

If you're like a growing number of people, you just may say "yes."

Market growing rapidly

The organic food industry in the United States surpassed $10 billion in consumer sales in 2003, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), which is based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. The market has grown from between 17 percent to 21 percent each year since 1997, according to OTA estimates.

In a survey done by Ohio State University Extension, researchers interviewed 2 000 Ohio residents in 2004 and found that 40 percent "often" or "occasionally" buy organic foods. Thirty-two percent of the respondents said they would pay 10 percent more for organic foods; six percent said they'd pay 25 percent more for organics, and one percent said they'd be willing to pay 50 percent more.

Significantly more expensive

While prices fluctuate, organic dairy products typically cost about 15 percent to 20 percent more than conventional products, and organic meats can cost two to three times more than traditional meats, according to the OTA.

"Meats and milk are where you will see a greater difference in price," said Barbara Haumann, a spokeswoman for the OTA, while the differences are usually less for fruits and vegetables.

The OTA doesn't conduct price surveys, Haumann said, but meats probably show the largest variation between organic and conventional products.

Why are organic foods more expensive? Higher operating costs, among other factors, Haumann said. "It takes three years to get the land ready," she said. "[Organic farmers'] yields go down while they are transitioning" from conventional to organic production.

More labour intensive

"They also face higher costs in growing crops," she said of organic farmers. "They don't use herbicides and fungicides so it is more labour intensive."

But a critic of the organic movement, Alex Avery, director of research for the Hudson Institute's Centre for Global Food Issues, a Washington, DC think tank, said organic farmers use pesticides, too. Instead of calling them pesticides, however, organic farmers are likely to call them "botanical products." For example: some organic farmers use pyrethrum, which is a derivative of the chrysanthemum plant.

That's a fact organic farmers don't dispute.

As for organic food advocates' claim that non-organic foods contain too many pesticides, Avery said: "You are talking about residues at the part per billion level."

More markets are expanding their organic offerings not to boost consumer health, Avery said, but their own bottom line.

"Retailers are realizing there can be good profits in this," he said. "To date, nobody has shown any meaningful difference in the quality of food produced."