Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: July 25, 2006
* The truth about Bt crops
* Light rice
* USDA does not always enforce organic label standards
* Biotech crops' role increases in clothing industry
The truth about Bt crops
- Crop Life, July 2006
A major benefit biotech crops bring to agriculture is plant resistance to insects.
This trait is made possible by incorporating genes from the naturally occurring soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bt strains have been used as an alternative to chemical insecticides for almost 60 years. They control several important pests, and are regarded as highly selective and environmentally friendly, with decreased impact to other, potentially beneficial insects. Indeed many farmers, including organic farmers, already use spray formulations containing Bt. In practice, whether farmers use Bt sprays or plant Bt crops, the issues concerning environmental impact are essentially the same.
Despite this, a range of NGOs and media charge that Bt has failed farmers and that its environmental risks far outweigh the benefits. The truth is that the benefits accruing to farmers growing Bt crops are substantial across a number of geographies and economic strata, especially in developing countries. These benefits include increased crop yields, reduced pesticide use, less environmental damage, less fungal contamination, and reduced labour.
In Makhatini Flats, South Africa, cotton can again be grown productively following the introduction of Bt cotton. In a typical season, on an average holding of 1.7 hectares, a woman farmer is relieved of 12 days of arduous spraying, saves over 1,000 litres of water, walks 100 kilometres less and increases her income significantly through using Bt-protected cotton.
Similar benefits have also been experienced in India. With four Bt cotton hybrids in market, area under Bt cotton rose from 44,500 hectares in 2002-03 to some 500,000 hectares in 2004-05. In 2004, more than 300,000 small and medium farmers enjoyed the benefits of Bt cotton technology with increased yields, reduced pesticide applications and other health and environmental benefits. In 2005, the number of farmers using this technology continued to expand with more than one million farmers growing around 13,00,000 hectares in Northern, Central and Southern cotton growing zones.
For more information on documented benefits of Bt crops around the world, check:
The truth about Bt cotton and farmer suicides in India
In India, many anti-biotech activists are blaming Bt cotton for many of the problems gripping cotton farmers, including farmers' suicide. This is equivalent to blaming the Green Revolution for starvation deaths reported in some parts of the country.
Yes, cotton is a very risky crop. If there is a mismatch between the agronomic conditions and variety, then independent of whether they are Bt or not, crops may fail. Moreover, Bt varieties are as susceptible to all the variables in cotton cultivation that non-Bt varieties are - climate, pests, soil conditions, rainfall -- including human factors such as farmers' familiarity with cotton in general and the variety in particular, spurious seeds, adulterated pesticides, delays in input arrival, and credit shortages. Any and all can cause disaster.
In fact, Bt cotton - which made its debut five years after farmers’ suicides were first reported - has resulted in quantum jump in cotton production and productivity. Reports by the Cotton Advisory Board (CAB) of the Government of India show that productivity has reached 460kg of lint per hectare in just three years since Bt Cotton was first introduced - exceeding the target of 320kg by 2007 by over 140%. In addition, the National Commission on Farmers has concluded that cultivation of Bt cotton allows for an additional net profit of at least Rs. 12,000 per ha and about 40-50 % savings in pesticide use. Sales of Bt cotton seeds continue to increase, and farmers are using saved, traded and locally-crossed illegal varieties of Bt cotton in ever-increasing numbers and acres. The fact that a million farmers have elected to plant Bt cotton over 1.3 million hectares in 2005 shows the significance of these crops Indian agriculture.
It is clear that technological advancement is a solution to and not a cause of this important issue in India.
(Sources: ISAAA, Krishimitra Agricultural Research and Development Association)
For more information, check:
http://www.indiatogether.org/2006/jun/ivw-herring.htm#continue (published in India Together)
The truth about Bt cotton and sheep mortality in India
During their 68th Meeting held on 22 May 2006, India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) deliberated at length the representation received from the Center for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) regarding mortality in sheep flocks after grazing on Bt Cotton fields at Warangal, Andhra Pradesh. According to the CSA report, three random villages surveyed said "animals that fed continuously on Bt cotton for up to a week became listless with erosive lesions in the mouth, nasal discharge and blackish diarrhoea."
However, after reviewing the case and the available data, it is the general opinion of GEAC that the report appears highly exaggerated and is based more on hearsay than on scientific facts.
The Bt cotton released for commercial cultivation has been approved after evaluation of biosafety data, which includes feeding studies. The 90-day animal feed studies conducted at the Industrial Toxicology Research Center, Lucknow, feeding studies conducted at G B Pant University of Agriculture, Pantnagar on lactating cows and on fish at Avian Research Institute, Izatnagar indicate no toxic effect.
Furthermore, the acute oral toxicity study of Bt protein in mice conducted at Agriculture Group/ Environmental Health laboratory, USA concluded that there was no treatment-related adverse finding in any of the groups administered B.t.k. HD-73 protein (Bt protein) by oral gavage at dosages up to 4200 mg/kg. The oral LD50 for B.t.k HD-73 (Bt protein) protein in mice is greater than 4200 mg/kg and the no-observed effect level is 4200 mg/kg. Further mice gavage studies have shown that an intake of 4300 mg Cry1Ac / Kg body weight had no ill effect on the mice. Assuming a similar upper safe limit for goats, in order to have an intake of 4300 mg. of Cry1Ac/Kg of body wt., the goat should eat (assuming the goat weights 15 kgs) 24,339 kg of leaf/50,300 kg of boll rind, which is not practically feasible.
The Member Secretary of the Review Committee on Genetic Modification (RCGM) informed that, the above representation was discussed at their meeting held on 23 May 2006 wherein it has been recommended that the Department of Biotechnology may sponsor a study to assess the problem at Warangal District with the help of the local Veterinary Hospital. The Committee requested DBT to expedite the study so that the allegation made by the NGOs can be brought to a logical conclusion. The Committee also agreed that, in future, leaf toxicity studies need to be included as part of the biosafety studies. The Committee further decided to refer the matter to the State Department of Agriculture for a factual report on the allegation made by the NGOS and the findings of the post mortem report.
GEAC 68th Meeting decision held on 22 May 2006:
- CheckBiotech, July 24, 2006, By Lukas Herwig
A highly specialized molecule that responds to light, called a photoreceptor, provides new plant architecture and increases grain yield.
Translucent white grains with a great aroma – these are the well-known characteristics of Basmati rice that renders this rice so attractive for global agricultural markets.
However, yields are reduced by other traits of Basmati rice. For example, a tall stature and a weak stem are among the traits that trigger low yields. Yet, genetic engineering could solve this issue. This is exactly what a research group at Cornell did.
Recently, researchers of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Cornell University published their work in the Journal Planta. They reported on how they were able to increase the production of Arabidopsis thaliana PHYTOCHROME A (PHYA), which led to an increase in grain yield in a rice variety called Pusa Basmati-1 rice.
The PHYA gene that they studied encodes a photoreceptor belonging to the phytochromes, a family of molecules absorbing light in the range of red to far-red. When light hits the PHYA photoreceptor, it induces a structural change in PHYA, which triggers an intercellular signal called a signal-transduction.
The team generated transgenic Pusa Basmati-1 rice seedlings containing the Phytochrome A gene - the photoreceptor - of Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant common in research. The main effect of increase the production PHYA has been observed by the research group in several experiments. For example, in experiments with tomatoes, a phenomenon called dwarfing occurred, where the overall stature of the tomato plant was reduced. In addition, by increasing the production of PHYA, the adult tomato plants grew bushier and increased their branching.
Although the complete mode of action of PHYA is not understood, what is known is that this type of photoreceptor belongs to the phytochromes, a family of molecules absorbing light in the range of red to far-red. When light hits the PHYA photoreceptor, it induces a structural change in PHYA, which triggers an intercellular signal called a signal-transduction.
Dr. Ray Wu’s and his team believe that the alteration of this specific signal-transduction pathway somehow changes the resource partitioning - resulting in a higher grain yield - could be fulfilled.
Since hunger and poor agricultural conditions contribute a lot to today’s global issues, genetic engineering may help to solve such problems. Dr. Ray Wu and his research group believe that if they are able to extend their observations to other rice varieties this could provide high yielding, semi-dwarf plants that can be used as donors in breeding programs.
Lukas Herwig is studying biology at University of Basel and is a Science Writer for Checkbiotech. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Journal Planta (2005)
A. K. Garg & R. J. Wu
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics,
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA
Analysis: USDA does not always enforce organic label standards
- The Dallas Morning News, By Paula Lavigne, Jul. 25, 2006
DALLAS - More and more shoppers are forking out extra money for organic foods to avoid chemicals, eat healthy and to support the environment.
But the USDA Organic label, stamped on everything from chocolate chip cookies to milk to mangos, may not be a mark the public always can trust.
Organic food is supposed to be free of most chemical pest killers, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, and genetic engineering. Organic farmers and ranchers must enrich the soil and be kind to animals; chickens should strut outside and cows should regularly graze.
But a Dallas Morning News investigation has found that the United States Department of Agriculture does not know how often organic rules are broken and has not consistently taken action when potential violations were pointed out.
"The USDA has failed to enforce the regulations," said Jim Riddle, former chairman of the National Organics Standards Board and an appointed adviser to the USDA when the organic standards were enacted in 2002. "There have been no prosecutions of violations for the organic law yet. ... They've failed to take action."
Though a small slice of the overall food market, organics is growing at 16 percent a year, while overall food sales are rising only 3 percent. They are forecast to continue that pace as big grocers, most recently Wal-Mart, expand their organic offerings.
Barbara Robinson, the USDA executive who oversees the National Organic Program, said her small staff struggles to keep up with the booming industry.
"When you have eight or nine people and everybody wants something, you try to do a little bit of everything."
She said the label is as good as the people who are growing and monitoring the products.
"I don't think there are any absolutes in the world anywhere. I think that's kind of a ridiculous question," she said.
Robinson acknowledged that the agency hasn't fined anyone for misuse of the label, but she said certain products have been ordered to yank it.
Retailers say the label is their cue that products are authentic.
"If you buy an organic product at Wal-Mart, you can trust that it is USDA-certified. But I would not be able to speak to whether those are the right standards or the wrong standards. We are retailers; we are not agronomists or scientists," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Gail Lavielle.
The organic program monitors at least 20,000 organic growers, ranchers, processing plants and others worldwide.
Texas looms large in organics with more organic land than any other state. It is also home of one the nation's biggest organic companies, Dean Foods in Dallas, which distributes Horizon Organic dairy products and Silk soymilk. Whole Foods of Austin is the largest organic retail chain. Representatives from both companies say they take measures to make sure their products are organic.
USDA officials say the organics label is a selling point rather than a mark of nutrition. The dietary benefit of organics is the subject of dueling debate. However, shoppers often view organic food as an investment in their health.
About 66 percent of U.S. consumers buy organic products occasionally, according to a 2004 survey by the Hartman Group, a consumer research company. Almost half said they bought organic for their health and nutrition.
Those surveyed said having children was the most significant reason to go organic, and that's exactly what prompted 28-year-old Megan Stewart of The Colony, Texas.
Her 1-year-old daughter was recently strapped into a shopping cart filled with organic baby food in an aisle at Whole Foods in Plano, Texas.
"I only get the USDA-certified, rather than just packages that say all-natural or organic," Stewart said. "They are really under tight regulations."
But the Dallas Morning News found the following reasons that organic shoppers may not be buying what they think:
_A review of 216 internal USDA audits shows several examples of violations at organic farms and production plants. However, reports about problems that are supposed to filter up to the agency from on-the-ground monitors are incomplete.
_Much organic food is produced overseas where there is even less oversight. Inspectors in China, for example, describe obvious violations that are not well-tracked or known by the agency.
_Vague rules leave much to interpretation, especially when it comes to treatment of animals.
Organics is full of true believers, farmers and food processors who go above and beyond what they're required to do. But they worry about organic scofflaws making a bad name for the whole industry.
"There's definitely people who don't follow the rules," said Conner Updike, who grows organic beans and squash in central Florida. He uses chicken manure to fertilize his crops, but he has heard that some people cut corners and use ammonium nitrate - a banned fertilizer - that costs half as much and is hard to detect.
"It's not fair to me," he said. "I'm trying to obey all the rules and then someone else cheats."
The Washington State Department of Agriculture, for example, discovered a fruit farmer who applied banned chemicals to his orchard and a mint grower selling regular mint under the organic label.
A Canadian certifier cried foul when inspectors found chickens at a Manitoba poultry producer that had no access to the outdoors, as required in organic laws.
Among 268 complaints released by the USDA, about 50 were products erroneously claiming to be organic or falsely using the label. The USDA ordered them to stop.
Problems continue to crop up, but there's no way for the public to know how many cheaters there are.
The Dallas Morning News requested in April records of all violations regarding individual farms, ranches and handlers. USDA officials said they could not provide the documents for at least six months.
Officials said it would take that long to collect and organize the information, though organic program rules mandate the USDA make violation information available to the public on the program's Web site. But after four years, Robinson said her staff hasn't had time to make that happen.
The USDA does not know how many violations there are because it is missing information from those who are supposed to police the industry at the ground level.
The agency collects information from 56 certifiers in the United States and 40 in foreign countries, usually state-run agencies or private companies. Farms and processing plants can choose any USDA-approved certifier.
A banana from Ecuador or rice from southeast Texas can carry the USDA label only if a certifier has given approval. Certifiers hire inspectors to walk through fields, interview plant workers and comb through records. The certifiers are then supposed to notify the USDA when there are problems.
However, The Dallas Morning News reviewed hundreds of audits of certifiers that show many violations. Yet the USDA has never yanked or suspended a certifier's accreditation, despite auditors' recommendations to do so.
Auditors, from a separate USDA branch, wrote that certifiers approved food producers despite evidence that banned chemicals were used. Some gave approval without conducting inspections. USDA officials would not discuss the individual audits. It's unclear whether officials addressed problems auditors pointed out. But several audits note the same problems with the same certifiers year after year.
Inspectors, organic farmers and certifiers themselves say they know some cut corners.
Sam Welsch, owner of OneCert, a certification agency in Lincoln, Neb., said some companies hire the cheapest inspectors, not the most qualified.
"Even if one organization is doing a bad job, and a fraud issue would come up, that's bad for the whole industry," he said.
Big companies, such as Dean Foods, say they protect their consumers by going with reliable, trusted certifiers.
"A lot of certification agencies have been doing this for decades. I see a lot of integrity in the certifiers and think they really have been working hand-in-hand with the USDA," said Kelly Shea, vice president of organic stewardship for WhiteWave Foods, a Dean Foods subsidiary.
Shea said the industry would benefit if the USDA spent more money on enforcement.
Whole Foods took another route to assure customers, and is a certified organic retailer. This special status requires the chain to make sure labeled products have documents to back them up. Whole Foods also tracks food back to its producers, said Joe Dickson, organic programs coordinator for the company.
About 40 percent of organic farms and handlers are in foreign countries, including 300 farms and processing plants in China.
Wal-Mart used some Chinese organic soybeans in its private label soymilk. They've also been in Silk, the popular soymilk brand from WhiteWave.
The United States has 2.2 million organic acres; China has 8.6 million. Almost 90 percent was certified in 2004, which raises a red flag with Riddle, who said it's questionable that China could have transitioned farmland that quickly.
China has a history of dousing fields with chemicals.
Fred Gale, a senior USDA economist who has researched Chinese agriculture, said it was "almost impossible to grow truly organic food in China.
"The water everywhere is polluted, and the soil is contaminated from industry and mining, and the air is bad."
Despite concerns about China, Robinson said the USDA only is responsible for approving the certifiers and it is their job to check on Chinese farms or handlers.
The Organic Crop Improvement Association, a certifying agent in Lincoln, Neb., has given USDA Organic certificates to about 200 operations in China. Executive director Jeff See said his company has built trust with its producers since it started in China more than 12 years ago.
At Rizhao Huasai Foodstuffs Co., in China's Shandong province, sales official Cui Min said workers sometimes use a fertilizer mix that includes human waste on their crops. It's a common practice in China, but a clear violation of the USDA rules.
See, whose company certified Rizhao Huasai, said workers there signed an affidavit stating they follow the rules, including those regarding fertilizers.
Simply trusting the word of a farmer might not be fail-safe, said Gale, of the USDA.
In China "there have always been laws and regulations on the books, but you find a way around them," he said.
Mutsumi Sakuyoshi, a Japanese inspector who has checked Chinese soybean fields for many of the world's largest certifiers, said she confronted one farm's workers after finding an empty plastic bag of herbicide.
Workers told her wind must have blown it from a neighbor's field.
Another farmer gave her an affidavit stating the land under inspection hadn't been used for at least three years. Sakuyoshi found the government official who stamped it and questioned its accuracy.
"He said, `No. I don't know. I don't care. They just asked me to stamp it, so I stamped it,'" she said.
See said American farmers are more skeptical of Chinese organics because they're a competitive threat to domestic producers.
"I wouldn't say there's probably never any problem with what OCIA has going on in China, but we find problems all around the world, even in the U.S," he said.
Even when standards are upheld, there are concerns throughout the industry that rules are unclear.
One of many examples is a rule that livestock must have "access to pasture." It doesn't say how much, for how long, or how much of a cow's meal has to come from leisurely munching.
Big dairies, such as Aurora Organic Dairy and Horizon Organic, were criticized by activist groups for running "industrial-scale" feedlots, where they said cows rarely roamed on acres of dry, stubbly grass. Both companies insist their cows do graze and met the requirements.
The debate triggered boycotts, and led to a lengthy discussion during the Dean Foods shareholders meeting in Dallas in May.
The National Organic Standards Board stepped in, and offered more detail, including a provision that cows must be on pasture for at least 120 days each year. It's now up to the USDA whether to make the recommendation law. Representatives of both dairies said they support the precision.
Chris Grotegut is a farmer in the Texas panhandle who grows corn, wheat, soybeans and other organic crops used in products distributed nationally. He said enforcing clear rules is the only way to make consumers trust the organic label.
"That is a concern ... that credibility is maintained and people don't look at (organics) as a way to turn a conventional product into a fast buck to cheat the system."
Biotech crops' role increases in clothing industry
- Tech Journal, July 24, 2006, By PAUL ELIAS
SAN FRANCISCO, CA (AP) - In a sneak peek of what could be fashion's future, leggy models draped in dresses by designers like Oscar de la Renta and Versace strut their stuff on the runway.
But this is no Paris or New York fashion show. Rather, the scene is a Toronto biotechnology conference and the dresses are made from a new fiber called Ingeo, made largely from genetically engineered corn.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization used the fashion statement last week to burnish its battered image as an environmental scourge.
Biotechnology is quietly playing a growing role in an apparel industry waking up to its customers' concerns about the environment and the country's reliance on the foreign oil used to make synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon. But the trend is raising concerns among some environmental purists who oppose genetically engineered crops of any kind.
"Ingeo still supports genetically engineered crops and we really view it as a slippery slope," said Jill Dumain of Ventura, California-based Patagonia Inc., which pays a premium to use only organic cotton in its clothes.
But other clothiers are developing biodegradable fabrics from natural fibers that have their start as genetically engineered crops.
Of course, cotton is still by far the most popular natural fiber. But chances are even the T-shirt you're wearing is made at least partly from genetically engineered crops. That's because 52 percent of cotton grown last year was genetically engineered with a bacteria gene to resist bugs without the need for pesticides, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Now, with more apparel manufacturers turning to Ingeo, more clothes on the rack will have gotten their start in a gene lab. Nearly half the nation's corn crops are genetically engineered to withstand sprayings of a popular weed killer.
NatureWorks LLC, the Nebraska company that turns corn into Ingeo, said it doesn't separate the genetically engineered crop from the conventionally grown crop that comes into its factory. So there's a good chance that just about every Ingeo product is derived, at least in part, from genetically engineered corn.
"We think there is a tremendous future for it, particularly because the consumer world is starting to wake up and recognize that it makes sense to employ some of these different materials as an alternative to both energy and fabric," said Martin Dudziak, research director for Linda Loudermilk Inc., a designer making Ingeo clothes.
Depending on how it's finally used, the fiber can feel like cotton or polyester.
"It has all of the attributes of polyester," said Steve Davies of NatureWorks, "and is much more environmentally friendly."
Early next year, Linda Loudermilk will begin selling five different items, including jeans, made from Ingeo. Many other clothing companies, such as the sock maker Fox River Mills Inc. of Osage, Iowa, plan to follow suit.
Biotech's largely unseen hand in creating natural fibers has set off a debate among apparel makers who consider themselves environmentally sensitive. Many critics of agricultural biotechnology - from organic farmers to the Sierra Club - fear the engineered crops will co-mingle with conventionally grown plants.
Others draw a distinction between genetic engineering in food crops and those used in fashion.
"Would I prefer that the world was nothing but organic agriculture? Yes," said Leslie Hoffmann, director of the nonprofit environmental group Earth Pledge, which hosted the Toronto fashion show and staged a similar event in April at the biotechnology industry's annual convention in Chicago.
"But on the other hand, (genetically engineered crops) have a much higher yield per acre and use less pesticides," she said.
There are even plans to develop for the U.S. market corn-based, disposable diapers that biodegrade quickly rather than filling landfills for decades. An Ingeo diaper is already being sold in Italy and Spain, but making an inexpensive diaper to compete with disposable products in the United States remains a hurdle.
NatureWorks makes the raw materials for Ingeo, fermenting sugar extracted from corn and turning it into plastic-like pellets that are made into the fabric sold to apparel makers like Linda Loudermilk.
Other uses for NatureWorks' pellets include the produce packaging found in Wal-Mart stores. But the small subsidiary of food and agricultural products company Cargill Inc. sees a big future cracking into the $181 billion (euro144.3 billion) apparel industry with its pellets.
NatureWorks declined to discuss Ingeo sales figures.
Because NatureWorks doesn't separate the genetically engineered corn from the conventionally grown corn, it can't serve companies who demand biotech-free Ingeo. For its European customers, who are notoriously averse to genetically engineered crops, the company promises to buy an amount of organic corn equal to the amount of corn it took to produce their Ingeo orders.
That still isn't enough for some environmental purists.
"They can't separate it," said Patagonia's Dumain, "and that's our problem."
Biotechnology Industry Organization: http://www.bio.org