Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: August 1, 2006
* A is for Africa, B is for Biotech
* Back to the past?
* China's GM cotton profits are short-lived, says study
* French Agricultural 'Vandalism' Condemned
* Organic foods may pose unforeseen hazards
* Monsanto monopoly over Bt cotton ends
A is for Africa, B is for Biotech
- August 01, 2006, By Ochieng Ogodo
Researchers and policymakers met in Kenya to discuss ways that biotechnology could contribute to the continent's development, according to the Science and Development Network (www.scidev.net).
A draft report, available on the SciDev.Net website, identifies ways of building the continent's capacity to use biotechnology to improve health, agriculture and industry, and urges African countries and regions to collaborate on biotechnology research.
Calestous Juma, the panel's co-chair of Harvard University in the United States, said that people who say biotechnology is being forced on Africa have a limited view of what it is taking place and are only considering genetically modified organisms.
He pointed out that serious research in various aspects of biotechnology was already under way in African countries including Egypt, Kenya and South Africa.
Panel member Tewolde Egziabher, the director-general of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority, said that biosafety issues relating to genetic modification are a small, but vital component of biotechnology as a whole.
GM products are safe: Juma
He said some industrialised countries are trying to force genetically modified products onto African countries that have no regulatory frameworks or laws in place to mitigate adverse effects that these products could generate. He said such countries are undermining the Cartagena Protocol, an international instrument intended to protect biodiversity from potential harm posed by genetically modified (GM) organisms.
Juma, however, is less worried about biosafety. "As far as I am concerned, genetically modified products are as safe as conventional ones, and both have risks," he said.
The meeting was the fourth gathering of the High-Level Panel on Biotechnology, set up by the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) to provide policy advice to African leaders.
The panel discussed a draft report to submit to the annual summit of African heads of state in January 2007. It has requested comments on the report from researchers, policymakers and the general public. - SciDev.Net
Back to the past?
- Dawn, By Ijaz Ahmad Rao, July 29, 2006
Pakistan is one of the largest agrarian economies in the region, but unfortunately its agricultural output has declined in the last few decades. Last year its major crops — cotton, sugarcane, wheat, rice and maize — recorded a growth rate of -3.6 per cent as compared to +17.8 per cent the previous year.
The dramatic ups and downs are due to various reasons like diseases, pests and weeds, nature of farming, unprecedented climatic conditions, limited water, poor land conditions, drought, heat, and saline soil conditions. However, other factors such as poor quality of seeds, inefficient pesticides, high costs of fertilisers and energy, poor access to advanced technologies and shabby marketing structures have also harmed the sector’s output, besides affecting adversely the living standards of farmers.
Many scientists believe that crop biotechnology can provide the needed spark and can become the engine for sustainable growth. However, it must go through proper and transparent safety assessment, improving not just the output but also reducing poverty and promoting rural development.
On the other hand, a few “Luddites” shudder at the mere thought of adopting advanced agricultural practices which their ancestors never dreamed of. As a consequence, debates are now in full swing over the use of genetically modified crops and over food security, health, environment and the economy.
Recently Jeremy Rifkin, President of the Foundation on Economic Trends, wrote an article entitled “Beyond GM crops” in which he argued that Marker-Assisted Selection (MAS) is a better choice than biotechnology for farmers. In MAS, scientists simply cut and paste genes within the same plant or its relatives to achieve desired traits like improved yield or pest resistance.
While transferring genes is not new, with all plant breeders being already aware of this, MAS simply serves to speed up and improve traditional plant breeding processes. The evolution of GM crops is beyond Mr Rifkin’s comprehension because these went through many tiers of scientific development and testing before being allowed to be grown and consumed. Earlier crop varieties were not assessed in such a comprehensive manner.
Mr Rifkin says: “With MAS, the breeding of new varieties always remains within a species, thus greatly reducing the risk of environmental harm and potential adverse health effects associated with genetically modified crops.” However, the most telling argument in favour of GM crops is that we don’t have a single documented case of an illness caused by foods developed with biotechnology right since they were introduced into the market in 1996.
It is astonishing that a person, who portrays himself as a messenger of anti-biotechnology, is propagating MAS — a simple technique which has been in use since long and which has many limitations. It is worth mentioning that in India hundreds of farmers have committed suicide. More than 500 cotton farmers have committed suicide in the state of Maharashtra alone since June of 2005.
The main reason behind these unfortunate cases is that the farmers failed to manage their crops using old technologies. It is hoped that in future, crop biotechnology will help such farmers overcome some of their problems by using multiple genes, either from the same plant species or from foreign sources.
It is unfortunate that many developing countries, including Pakistan, missed the opportunities made available to them during the Green Revolution. Farming methods of the late 60s are now dying a painful death due to water shortage, soil degradation, loss of seed varieties and high input costs, while we enter a new phase in which we have to deliver multiple benefits to different stakeholders.
We now have to produce more but with a minimum use of insecticides and we have to improve the nutritious values of various varieties. So far, only the transgenic crops offer solutions to such issues. Farmers in most parts of the globe believe in this technology.
That’s why in the last ten years, since the first GM crops were commercially released, the area under them continues to grow at a double digit rate each year, despite a moratorium by many European countries. In a report, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications indicated that in 2005 biotech crops were grown by 8.5 million farmers over an area measuring more than 225 millions acres in 21 countries. The countries, in order of acreage of GM crops, were: the US, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China, Paraguay, India, South Africa, Uruguay, Australia, Romania, Mexico, Spain, Germany, Colombia, Honduras, the Philippines, Czech Republic, Portugal, France and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In Pakistan, the National Centre of Excellence in Molecular Biology (NCEMB), University of the Punjab, has developed four Bt pesticidal genes used in cotton and rice against American bollworm and rice leaf-folder. Confined field trials of Bt Basmati 370 were successfully carried out last season at different sites near Lahore.
Similarly, indigenously developed Bt cotton seed varieties supplied by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission have been grown successfully in Punjab and Sindh, with unofficial estimates suggesting that 3 to 5 per cent of the area of Punjab and 10 to 15 per cent of Sindh may have come under cultivation during 2005-06. In addition, studies are being carried out to evaluate virus and insect resistance in genetically modified crops of mango, potato, tomato, chickpea, sugarcane and tobacco.
Today, all major cotton producing countries are benefiting from the cultivation of Bt cotton. In the last season 54 per cent of the cotton crops grown in the US, 76 per cent in China, and 80 per cent in Australia were with “single” or “double” Bt gene technology. India — the third largest cotton producer — planted this crop on 3.1 million acres of land in its nine cotton-growing states in 2005. Over 1 million farmers benefited from this crop. This year the acreage under Bt cotton is expected to double.
Acceptance of GM crops by farmers all over the world points towards their trust and confidence in the technology, while illogical doubts raised by people like Mr Rifkin fail to cut ice. In fact, his belief that MAS will eventually replace genetically modified food raises certain vital questions.
Would it be possible through MAS to equip crops with the capacity to fight against pests? Similarly, would it be possible to enrich rice (an important food for the world’s 1.3 billion poor people) with Vitamin A, in order to help prevent millions from falling prey to night blindness which occurs due to malnourishment?
Scientists are now making efforts to add genes for Omega-3 fatty acids to oil crops like canola and soya bean. Efforts are also being made to develop GM tomatoes, bananas and other plants containing vaccines for cholera and hepatitis B. Would it be possible through MAS to alleviate the suffering of 15 million Pakistanis suffering from hepatitis B?
Mr Rifkin’s apprehensions are not limited to GM crops. He says: “The struggle between a younger generation of sustainable agriculture enthusiasts, anxious to share genetic information, and well established company scientists determined to maintain control over the world’s seed stocks through patent protection is likely to be hard-fought, especially in the developing world.” In Pakistan, we are already facing the negative consequences of such views as patents laws remain to be strengthened, due to which the markets are flooded with adulterated pesticides, inferior seed quality and poor quality of life-saving drugs.
Mr Rifkin believes that MAS is a cutting-edge technology, while GM crops have no future. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to let them compete side-by-side and let the user decide which is better? After all, open market competitiveness is a key principle in globalisation today.
Science is not about fears, doubts and concerns. To be sure, it is possible that a technology benefits people today but certain problems crop up later on, as no technology can be entirely free of risks. It is the responsibility of the scientific community to monitor biotech products and to minimise their risks, if any.
But closing doors to crop biotechnology, or any other technology for that matter, would be akin to going back in time.
China's GM cotton profits are short-lived, says study
- SciDev.Net, 26 July 2006
[BEIJING] Chinese farmers growing genetically modified cotton have triggered an increase in insect pests that has cut their profits say US-based researchers.
But a senior Chinese scientist who provided data for the study says the conclusions are flawed and misleading.
Researchers from Cornell University in the United States presented the findings yesterday (25 July) at the American Agricultural Economics Association's annual meeting in Long Beach, California.
They found that from 2001 to 2003, farmers growing genetically modified (GM) cotton cut their pesticide use by more than 70 per cent and earned 36 per cent more than conventional farmers.
By 2004, however, the GM cotton farmers were using as much pesticide as conventional farmers but earning eight per cent less because of the higher cost of GM seeds.
The GM cotton produces a bacterial toxin called Bt that kills leaf-eating bollworms, the major insect pests of cotton.
The researchers say that an increase in other insect pests — mainly mirid bugs, which feed on stems and so are not affected by the Bt toxin — contributed to the 2004 results.
"These results should send a very strong signal to researchers and governments that they need to come up with remedial actions for the Bt-cotton farmers," says the study's co-author Per Pinstrup-Andersen.
But Huang Jikun, director of the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy, which provided data for the study, says the findings could be based on a faulty analysis.
He says 2004's summer months were cooler and wetter than usual, which led to outbreaks of mirids not only on cotton but also on other crops nearby.
Research by Huang's centre in 2005 and 2006 revealed much smaller populations of mirid bugs on the same farms the Cornell team studied.
Huang told SciDev.Net that the Cornell study underestimated the benefits of GM cotton by comparing differences in income between GM and non-GM farmers in 2004.
He says that by then, nearly ten years of farmers growing GM cotton had dramatically reduced the bollworm population on both GM and non-GM cotton farms, decreasing the amount of pesticides used.
Huang accepts however that it is very important to study and develop strategies against insects that are not affected by Bt.
The Cornell team interviewed 481 Chinese farmers in five major cotton-producing provinces.
Since China first allowed farmers to plant Bt cotton in 1997, the cotton-growing area has increased rapidly, reaching 3.3 million hectares in 2005.
This accounts for nearly 60 per cent of China's overall cotton area.
French Agricultural 'Vandalism' Condemned
- The Associated Press, Aug 1, 2006
France's agriculture minister on Monday condemned the destruction of two fields of genetically modified corn by activists in southwestern France.
Agriculture Minister Dominique Bussereau called Sunday's slashing of the crops "vandalism contrary to the rule of law and the respect of private property," a statement from his office said.
More than 200 activists tore up 7.3 hectares (18 acres) of the corn in two fields near the southern city of Toulouse. Five suspects were detained by police and held for questioning on Monday.
Jose Bove, a well-known anti-globalization activist who led the group, urged more "civil disobedience" if the government rejects its call for a national referendum on whether genetically modified crops should be permitted in France.
One of the fields belongs to U.S. seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred International. A private farmer owns the other.
Bussereau said the crops are legal. The activists advocate traditional farming methods, and insist the modified strains could affect other crops.
Organic foods may pose unforeseen hazards
- The Record, Aug 1, 2006
Barbara Hankins, writing about pesticides in her July 27 letter to the editor, Organic Foods Are Best, felt that it's an easy decision to switch to organic food. I'll leave it to others to challenge her simplistic understanding of biology when she makes sweeping statements about agricultural practices killing the bacteria essential for healthy soil, and whether our growing of food contributes significantly to the "chemical soup" in our cities.
I'm arguing that the choices we consumers need to make are actually far from simple. Thoughtful advocates of organic, small-scale agriculture are increasingly having to agonize over a number of ethical questions. What is the environmental impact of trucking this special food from thousands of kilometres away? Aren't the exhausts of diesel engines many times more dangerous than the trace amounts of pesticides on the skins of our fruits and vegetables?
Should we glibly patronize farmers in California and elsewhere who are exploiting illegal migrant workers for the extremely labour-intensive growing of organic food? Is it not a concern that large multi-national corporations are swiftly buying up all the producers of organic food?
In addition, the completely arbitrary, often irrational rules that determine whether a particular treatment is permitted defy common sense.
Here is an example: Organic growers are allowed to use Rotenone because it's a "totally natural" insecticide found in the roots of certain tropical plants. It's been implicated in Parkinson's disease and will likely be banned both in Canada and the United States, but it's still being enthusiastically promoted by many gardening centres.
I'm hoping that consumers will eventually view our organic gardening practices and the marketing of organic foods with an equally healthy dose of skepticism.
Karl Dick, Kenilworth
Monsanto monopoly over Bt cotton ends
- MONEYCONTROL.com, July 31, 2006
Monsanto's monopoly over Bt cotton technology in the country is finally over.
During the current planting season, two new players - the Hyderabad-based JK AgriGenetics Ltd and Nath Seeds Ltd of Aurangabad, have launched hybrids based on alternate technologies (`constructs') for incorporating genes from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt.
With kharif sowing virtually complete in most States - barring Tamil Nadu, where planting is mainly from November - total sales of Bt cotton seeds are said to have crossed 85 lakh packets of 450 gm each. "We see final sales touching 90 lakh packets this year, which would cover 90 lakh acres or 36 lakh hectares," said Mr Bhagirath Choudhary, a Delhi-based agri-biotech consultant.
Significantly, out of the 90-lakh packets, JK Agri and Nath Seeds both expect to do business of 2.5 lakh packets each. That may add up to only six per cent, but still a change from last year, when the entire 32 lakh packets sold was based on Monsanto's patented `Bollgard' technology. The Centre has, till date, approved 59 Bt cotton hybrids for commercial release, of which 44 incorporate the cry1Ac Bt gene construct of Monsanto. In addition, there are eight hybrids containing `Bollgard-II', which is a stacked combination of cry1Ac and cry1Ab Bt genes.
JK Agri has got clearance for four hybrids: `JK Varun Bt' in the Central zone, `JK Durga Bt' and `JKCH-99 Bt' in the South and `JKCH-1947 Bt' in the North. Nath's three approved hybrids are `NCEH-6 Bt' for the North, `NCEH-2R Bt' for Central and `NCEH-3R Bt' for the South.
"This year, we will do 2.5-3 lakh packets. Next year, we are targeting 10-15 lakhs," said Dr Satish Raina, Chief Advisor to Nath Seeds. While JK Agri has used an alternate cry1Ac gene construct developed by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, Nath has sourced its `cry1Ab-cry1Ac fusion gene' technology from Biocentury Transgene Technology Company, a Chinese Government-promoted joint venture.
According to industry sources, 80 per cent of Bt cotton sales this year would be at the Rs 750-per packet price mandated by the Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu Governments. In the northern States, where no explicit pricing orders were issued, the seeds were sold at Rs 1,200-1,300. Besides, about 1.75 lakh `Bollgard-II' packets were marketed at Rs 1,310-1,360. "The total value of the Bt seed market this year would be Rs 800 crore," they added.