Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - August 24, 2006
* GE Crops Hold Promise for Growers and Earth
* Lee Silver Responds to Review of His Book - Challenging Nature
* Bumpy Road Ahead as Asia Pushes Transgenic Rice
* Filipinos Ready to Eat Biotech Rice, According to Study
* 'Marker-free' Golden Rice Developed
* UK: BASF Requests Trial of GM Potatoes
* GM Firm Plans Potato Trials in Britain
* Drought-Tolerant Crops Could Raise New Policy Issues
* Public, Private Sectors Work on Drought-Tolerant Crops
* Greens Don't Get It!
GE Crops Hold Promise for Growers and Earth
- Jackie Crabb, San Luis Obispo Tribune (California), August 23, 2006 http://www.sanluisobispo.com
Worldwide, genetically engineered crops are helping farmers improve production while protecting our environment.
About 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries grew engineered crops on 222 million acres last year, an 11 percent increase over 2004. In California, there are more than 600,000 acres of GE crops grown. Why is this? Because GE is a safe technology that is being used to create crops that are safe, and it is proven to improve yields and protect the environment.
The fact is that the commercialized GE crops today reduce the need for chemical spraying, allow farmers to safely improve yields, lower production costs, improve air and water quality and increase greater use of environmentally friendly, no-till agriculture. Research has already shown that in the future we will see GE crops that are nutritionally enhanced, drought tolerant and, hopefully, free of allergens.
Consider this: In the United States, GE crops improved plant yields by 6.61 billion pounds and reduced production costs by $1.7 billion in 2004. Also, GE crops reduced pesticide use by 62 million pounds, a 34 percent decrease from 2003.
GE technologies are commonplace in our lives. Most processed foods contain at least one GE ingredient. The majority of soybeans, cotton, corn and canola planted are GE varieties. And GE science has improved our lives through medical and industrial advancements.
Very few GE crops are grown locally today, but SLO County farmers are carefully watching developments in GE research that may someday apply to local crops and provide industry-saving solutions.
Take wine grapes, SLO County's No. 1 agricultural commodity: Mother Nature throws a lot of challenges at grape growers. For example, powdery mildew is a common threat to grapes, as well as other crops. Growers, including organic growers, rely on such pesticides as sulfur to control this disease. Viticultural researchers in Australia have identified genes in grape varieties that are resistant to powdery mildew. If they are successful in transferring that resistance to powdery mildew susceptible California varieties, this would hold great promise for allowing our growers to treat less often and reduce pesticide use. In addition, research is also under way into possible GE solutions to Pierce's disease and fanleaf virus.
Are GE crops safe? Well- respected international and national organizations, various universities, governments and companies have tested GM crops for food safety and environmental effects for more than 30 years and have found on a case-by-case basis that products from GE technology are as safe as, if not safer than, those developed from conventional plant breeding techniques. These organizations include the World Health Organization, United Nations' Food & Agriculture Organization, American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Food Technologies, American Dietetic Association and many others.
Are GE crops regulated? GE crops are regulated by three federal agencies - the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. These agencies also have internal audits that assist them with recommendations, and they also seek recommendations from such organizations as the National Academies of Science. Universities also assist with research in such projects as the development of tools and methodologies for independent, third-party risk assessment on GE crops.
Currently, 18 California counties have rejected bans on GE crops (either by popular vote or Board of Supervisors resolution). By contrast, only four counties have supported initiatives that limit the production of GE crops. The California Legislature is working on a bill, SB 1056, that will provide uniformity and conformity throughout the state regarding seed law in a manner similar to our statewide standards for pesticide, fertilizer and labor law. It's a step forward in the right direction.
Jackie Crabb is executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau.
An opposing view at http://www.sanluisobispo.com/mld/sanluisobispotribune/news/editorial/letters/15338660.htm
Lee Silver Responds to Review of His Book -' Challenging Nature'
- Lee M. Silver, -lsilver.at.princeton.edu-, Princenton University. AgBioView, August 24, 2006. www.agbioworld.org
'The American Scientist' has published a long review of Challenging Nature with the title "Biotech, Red in Tooth and Claw," in its fall 2006 issue. http://www.americanscientist.org/template/BookReviewTypeDetail/assetid/53123
The review is authored by Nathaniel Comfort, an associate professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Unfortunately, Comfort's review is marred by serious distortions and malacious misrepresentations of my arguments and ideas. To set the record straight, I have listed the most egregious misrepresentations and personal attacks in Comfort's review followed by direct quotes from "Challenging Nature" * (with page numbers) that contradict or contextualise the quoted text.
Comfort's misrepresentations are so numerous, emotional, and personally malicious that I am forced to wonder what is really at the heart of his anger. The answer is not hard to tease out. Like many other postmodern critics of modern science, Comfort seems unable to accept the political idea that profit-driven advances in technology can serve as a catalyst for improving the lives of vast numbers of human beings.
Comfort's false claims followed by the falsifying text:
COMFORT: In an eye-poppingly ahistorical passage, Silver attributes this invention [of agriculture] to "the abstract concept of genes" entering "the tribal consciousness." Gregor Mendel, eat your heart out. Such passages would be funny if they did not lead to such frightening conclusions.
SILVER: page 259-260: "We can only use informed speculation to guess the next steps in the process. . . . And at some point, scientifically minded people noticed that seeds recovered from different gourds produced offspring that were more likely to resemble their parental gourd than other gourds. . . . The invisible abstractions that carry specific characteristics of a plant, fruit, or seed from one generation to the next are genes. Although the material composition of genes and their mechanism of action would remain unknown for another 10,000 years (until the structure of DNA was discovered by Watson and Crick in 1953), they had made their presence known to the unnamed founders of the agricultural revolution. It was the conceptualization of genes that allowed the engineering of novel organisms expressing domesticated characteristics built to satisfy both human needs and newly emerging desires." (Definitions of "genetic" in the Oxford English Dictionary are "one that is the result of a common origin" and "the scientific study of heredity and variation." The word was first used in this second sense not by Mendel but by W. Bateson in 1905.)
COMFORT: He laughs off the highest extinction rates in the history of the planet, countering with the non sequitur that extinction can also occur without human intervention.
SILVER: page 304: "Why we should care [about the survival of other species] and what we should do." (a declarative subheading); page 308: "It is the human love of nature, and the human desire to maintain its existence into the future that drives Mike and many other conservationists in the work they do. Scientists, of course, don't normally speak in emotional -- one might say spiritual -- terms.
But acknowledgement of emotional imperatives, rather than falsely constructed scientific arguments, can better withstand anti- conservationist attacks, and provide the strongest "rationale" for proper stewardship of the planet." (for the record, ecologists do not believe that the predicted human-caused extinction rate will be at highest in the history of our planet.)
COMFORT: He paints biodiversity as a useless concept, because politically correct liberals stump for it without understanding ecology.
SILVER: page 192: "The greatest center of biodiversity in the world lies within the Amazon rainforest . . . I was drawn there by a burning desire to see a pristine natural ecosystem that represented Mother Nature in all her glory."
COMFORT: Wilderness preservation is a futile exercise, he says, because no place on Earth is untouched by human influence.
SILVER: page 79: "The challenge for humanistic humanitarians and environmentalists is to determine how to channel spiritual beliefs in directions that are most beneficial to humankind as well as the preservation of wilderness and vibrant plant and animal life within it;" page 308: "As long as the global human population stays the same or grows larger, simple arithmetic tells us that wilderness areas (along with species biodiversity) can only be preserved if more food is produced on less land."
COMFORT: So convinced is he that technology--especially biotechnology--is good for what ails us that he can see only one reason someone would disagree: Any opponents of biotechnology, he says, must be blinded by spirituality.
SILVER: page xiii: "I do not claim that all expressions of spirituality are harmful or bad. Nor do I think all biotech applications are inherently good, ethical, or risk-free."
COMFORT: He then introduces science as the antithesis of spirituality: objective, unbiased, based only on facts, free of belief or dogma. It is an old-fashioned positivist account, straight out of Draper's 1875 text. For decades now, historians have been adding texture and perspective to this cartoon version of science, revealing it as a complex, social human activity--grounded in empirical observation, to be sure, but also conditioned by politics, economics and, yes, belief.
SILVER: page 22: "Of course, individual scientists are merely human. They can make mistakes, they can be misled by subconscious bias, and sometimes they cling to false conclusions or ideas in which they have an emotional or monetary stake."
COMFORT: The core belief of science, of course, is that the supernatural is superfluous. The fact that science involves belief does not invalidate the enterprise; the risk is not in keeping the faith but in failing to recognize it. That failure marks the scientistic True Believer, the dogmatist. "I simply don't have ‘faith' in anything," Silver writes.
SILVER: (In this instance, Comfort distorts the meaning of my writing by taking a quote out of the qualified context in which it is made) pages 24-25: "Don't get me wrong. It's not that I don't have hopes and dreams just because I'm a scientist. Rather, I simply don't hold "faith" in anything. Instead, I view the future in terms of probabilities based on empirical and theoretical understandings of the world, however limited they may be. "
COMFORT: Supplemental vitamins are pointless because most people meet the recommended daily allowances in their normal diet.
SILVER: (Not once in my book do I mention or imply the concept of "recommended daily allowances" for vitamins.)
COMFORT: He admits of no genuinely thorny issues; his opponents are all ignorant or misguided and his solutions are all simple, once you see his side.
SILVER: page xiii: "the decision to accept or reject many biotech applications will involve difficult tradeoffs among ethical values like human autonomy, preservation of cultural traditions, societal well being, and environmental protection."
COMFORT: The mature Gaia hypothesis, which Silver dismisses as mere spiritualism, in fact generates testable, materialist hypotheses about the emergence of self-regulation in complex systems.
SILVER: page 206: "If Gaia is used simply as a value-neutral metaphor to describe the entire complex network of biological interactions over the history of our planet, no evolutionary biologist or ecologist would complain. But when Gaia moves from the science sphere to the public sphere, it becomes translated into something entirely different."
COMFORT: Silver sees the history of technology as a story of uninterrupted progress in quality of life--without recognizing the parallel histories of environmental and sociopolitical impacts.
SILVER: page xv: "The earth is a finite place already altered drastically (although unconsciously, until recently) through direct or indirect exploitation by billions of human beings. Continued exploitive growth with increases in human population is unsustainable."
COMFORT: Silver despairs of romantics who wish to improve health and save nature by reducing our dependence on technology. The only solution to our current environmental and health problems, he argues, is to adopt a full-throated engineering approach to nature, both human and organic. . . . Silver insists that we not let sentimental attachment to some vaporous ideal of pure nature or spirit stand in the way of creating true happiness and harmony with technology.
SILVER: page xv: "humanity is best served by a democratic process of decision-making rather than technocratic or religious fiat. Democracy requires engagement -- rather than dismissal -- of the awkward conglomeration of rationality and emotionality, based on science and faith, that exists in the minds of most normal people."
* 'Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life' by Lee M. Silver- HarperCollins 2006; http://www.leemsilver.net
Bumpy Road Ahead as Asia Pushes Transgenic Rice
- Sambit Mohanty, Reuters, August 24, 2006
Consumer fears may force China and India to delay transgenic rice by another two years, but these countries will have to eventually embrace the technology to meet growing demand, a senior industry official said.
Ren Wang, deputy director general for research at the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, added that the exporting countries of Thailand and Vietnam were unlikely to introduce transgenic rice for many years on fears of losing market share.
He also said news that unapproved genetically modified rice was found in some U.S. long grain supplies -- which rattled the Chicago rice market -- was unlikely to have an big impact on global prices. World grain markets have been expecting China, the top rice consumer, to commercialize transgenic rice this year, but Beijing has applied the brakes to the plan on food safety concerns and on reports of illegal domestic sales of transgenic rice.
"Genetically modified rice in China is at least two years away," Wang told Reuters in an interview. "My understanding is that concerns of the government in China are mainly focused on the fact whether it's going to be accepted by consumers. There are also some political and environmental considerations."
China, India and the Philippines have been aggressively pushing research on genetically modified rice, saying that it would cut the cost of production, boost yields and make the grain more affordable to consumers in a region where rice is a staple.
But Greenpeace and other non-governmental organizations have stepped up protests on transgenic food grains, saying they threaten consumer health and the environment.
Concerns Remain. The opposition to GMO food crops is much stronger than for crops such as cotton and feed crops such as corn. In 2004, Monsanto Co. dropped plans to introduce the world's first genetically modified wheat, after worldwide protests.
Iran was the first country to commercialize transgenic rice in 2004, but no other country in Asia has followed suit. "In India BT rice has been field-tested but it could still take longer for commercialization, maybe three years," Wang said. "Before introducing any variety, my thinking is that China and India will first strengthen the food safety regulatory aspect to make sure that transgenic technology is used properly."
China annually produces about 180 million metric tons of rice and India about 85 million, together accounting for about 65 percent of world production. A bulk of that is consumed domestically. "But I personally do not believe that developing countries like China and India can avoid adopting transgenic technology in food crops such as rice," Wang said. "There has been no evidence so far suggesting any negative impact on health.
Some testing has been done in open fields and again there was no evidence of problems on environmental issues." While Thailand, the world's top rice exporter, had a very strict regulation on research on genetically modified rice, Vietnam was actively conducting some research on the issue. "But both countries don't have any time frame to introduce a transgenic rice," he said.
Thailand exports more than 7 million metric tons of rice a year and Vietnam exports about 5 million metric tons. Rice futures in Chicago slid to near two-month lows this week, with nearby months falling the 50-cent trading limit, on renewed concerns about export business after unapproved genetically modified rice was found in the United States.
But Wang said the impact on world prices from this would be limited. "The world's big rice consumers anyway don't import a lot of rice from the United States."
Filipinos Ready to Eat Biotech Rice, According to Study
- Carlos D. Marquez, Jr., BusinessMirror, August 23, 2006 via SEAMEO SEARCA Biotechnology Information Center http://www.bic.searca.org
Local eateries will soon be offering different kinds of rice for each of their varied costumers. There may be rice for gym for buffs, rice for jeepney drivers, rice for laborers, rice for the anemic. How about complete, or vi-and-less, rice?
All this is made possible, thanks to genetically engineered rice.
Filipinos are now ready to plant and eat genetically modified (GM), or transgenic, rice - not he naturally grown. This is the kind that scientists have manipulated to obtain certain desired characteristics, a recent study indicated.
The study showed "a wider acceptance to GM rice, particularly if it is high yielding, safe for human consumption, has good eating quality and has sufficient market demand."
There are so far three such rice varieties being developed in the Philippines at present - the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) rice, which promises lesser chemical use; and the "Golden Rice" and the iron-enriched rice with improved nutritional contents.
The latter two are expected to contain the nutrients needed to keep Filipino consumers away from major illnesses.
The Golden Rice, also envisioned as the "complete rice", is expected to give the necessary nutrients even when eaten without side dish.
The study titled "Ex-ante Assessment of Farmers and Consumers Acceptability to Genetically Modified Rice Products in the Philippines" showed that Filipinos are now prepared for transgenic rice, barring the generally "low level awareness of rice biotechnology, genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs)."
The research work, conducted jointly by scientists from the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), is a sequel to their 2004 study that focused only on "key stakeholders of different organizations and institutions."
The new paper, which also checked the commercial potential of transgenic rice in the Philippines, covered farmers, millers and traders, and end consumers.
"Determining the fallacies and misconceptions of these sectors would be of great help for scientists to gain their support while policymakers can use the results of the study to address the concerns of the respective groups," the paper said.
The study, led by PhilRice Alice B. Mataia and IRRI's Mahabub Hossain and Lolita Garcia, was conducted in the country's major rice-producing provinces of Isabela, Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, Mindoro Oriental, Camarines Sur, Bukidnon and South Cotabato. These are the places where Bt corn was first introduced and, thus, farmers there were presumed to already understand agriculture biotechnology.
The researchers tried to know the level of impressions about genetic engineering, which was previously associated with artificial breeding, change in agriculture practices and the risks posed to human health and the environment.
They interviewed 489 respondents who were categorized into: farmers group and consumers group. The farmers group were made up of 200 rice farmers and 39 seed growers and the consumers groups consisted of 210 consumers, 21 traders and 19 millers.
The respondents - whose respective sex, educational reach, job and income level were checked - were asked of their awareness of the Green Revolution, GMO, genetic engineering and rice biotechnology.
About 75 percent of the respondents are inclined to accept Bt pest-resistant rice, and 88 percent voted for Golden Rice and iron-riched rice.
As to planting the GM rice, 66 percent of the farmers are willing to try, believing "it would lessen their use of pesticides and, hence, reduce their cost of production."
More than half of the consumers group believed that genetically engineered rice is beneficial to human health because it is assumed chemical-free.
Mataia, PhilRice chief socio-economic research specialist, said respondents from lower-income level are more likely to accept GM rice as "they are willing to accept anything that will feed them".
'Marker-free' Golden Rice Developed
- Niranjan Baisakh, NBaisakh(at)agcenter.lsu.edu, Louisiana State University; AgBioView, August 24, 2006. http://www.agbioworld.org
Scientists at the International Rice Research Institute based in the Philippines not only aim at genetically engineer rice for value-added traits but also look into the avenues to develop ‘clean’ transgenic rice. This would make the regulatory process lot easier for approval for field trial through farmer field and to keep eyebrows down of the so-called environmentalists who are afraid of the otherwise non-harmful selectable marker gene(s).
In two independent studies scientists under the guidance of Dr. Swapan Datta (former IRRI Plant Biotechnologists) have produced marker-free transgenic (MFT) lines of golden rice. Baisakh et al. (2006) (http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-7652.2006.00196.x?journalCode=pbi) developed near isogenic introgression lines (NIILs) of by far the most popular indica rice cultivar IR64 through simple cross breeding. The most important part of this achievement was to find out the segregant among the di-haploid lines (developed through anther culture) of the original golden rice (T-309) that was developed by Prof. Ingo Potrykus and his group, and then introgress the beta-carotene biosynthetic pathway to IR64 by conventional crossing.
Similarly, in another study Parkhi et al. (2005) also developed marker-free transgenic indica rice in popular Bangladesh variety BR29 and ‘high iron’ rice IR68144 (http://www.springerlink.com/content/rj542gn210126625/).
In both the studies, the parental materials were generated through co-transformation via Agrobacterium. This allowed the researchers to find out the null (for marker gene) segregant from the progenies having only the gene(s) of interest (GOIs) needed for beta-carotene in the seeds.
Although the golden rice generated by these two studies are not as high compared to the one developed by Syngenta (Paine et al. 2005), the authors suggest a co-transformation strategy in a model cultivar (like Taipei 309) followed by a detail yet precise molecular studies of the transgenics, which is important to isolate such progenies that lack the marker gene. Further breeding through conventional cross-pollination could result in a golden rice in a desirable genetic background, which otherwise are difficult to transform.
UK: BASF Requests Trial of GM Potatoes
- Lisa Urquhart, Financial Times, Aug. 23, 2006
UK field trials of genetically modified potatoes could begin as early as April, a move that is bound to spark controversy among environmental groups.
German chemicals group BASF will on Wednesday announce that it has applied to the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs to conduct what will be the first wide-scale field trials of GM potatoes.
If the government gives it approval, two trials of one hectare each in Cambridgeshire and Derbyshire will mark the first production of GM foods in more than three years in the UK, following cultivation of oilseed rape in 2003.
BASF is proposing to grow potatoes that have been genetically modified to give them resistance to late blight, a fungal disease. The potatoes will contain a natural trait, resistant to the blight, found in wild potatoes. Late blight was responsible for the devastating potato famine in Ireland that was thought to have caused the death of up to 1m people and sparked the mass migration of Irish citizens across the globe.
Barry Stickings of BASF said he did not expect too much opposition to the application because the group would follow both UK and European regulations. But BASF has faced protests in Sweden, where crop production is in its second year. Mr Stickings added that it would be at least seven to eight years before people could consume GM potatoes produced by the group.
Late blight is thought to result in the loss of 5-10 per cent of the UK potato crop and worldwide it is estimated the disease costs producers £2bn annually. In the UK up to £20m a year is spent on fungicides to protect crops.
Andrew Beadle, project manager at BASF Plant Science, said the group was offering farmers the choice of using fungicides or using modified potatoes. "We have nothing to hide and we just hope that people accept that what we are trying to do here is to conduct a scientific experiment that will give us information to help launch new products in the future."
But BASF's application comes amid heightened sensitivity to GM crops following yesterday's decision by the European Commission to prevent US rice contaminated with an unauthorised genetically modified strain from entering Europe's food chain.
On Tuesday the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed it had received an application from BASF that would be assessed for safety and health. Defra said it would also consider representations from the public.
BASF is proposing to surround the crops with 2m-5m of fallow land and have a 20m boundary from other conventional potato crops. If BASF is successful, planting is expected to take place in spring 2007, with harvesting in October. The trials will be repeated over four years.
GM Firm Plans Potato Trials in Britain
- Ian Sample, The Guardian (UK), August 23, 2006 http://www.guardian.co.uk/
Fields of genetically modified potatoes could be planted in Britain as early as next spring under controversial plans being considered by officials.
The plant science company BASF has applied to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to conduct two field trials of GM potatoes, modified with genes to resist late blight, the fungus that devastated Ireland's potato crop in the famine of the 1840s.
If permission is granted by the environment secretary, David Miliband, the trials will become the first in Britain since the government's field scale trials, which were conducted to assess the environmental implications of GM crop farming and completed in 2003. The prospect of GM crop trials alarmed anti-GM campaigners who fear they could lead to contamination of non-GM food supplies.
The application represents a testing of the water by multinational biotechnology companies since GM crop research was shifted out of Britain en masse in response to the negative public opinion and the widespread trashing of GM crop trials by anti-GM activists.
If the plans are approved, BASF will plant two hectares of GM potatoes in April next year, one in Derbyshire and another at the National Institute for Agricultural Botany in Cambridge. After three to four years of trials the company will seek permission to market, grow and sell the potatoes in Britain.
All of the potatoes grown in the trials must be dug up and transported to laboratories in secure vehicles for testing before being destroyed. Researchers must then observe the field the following season and uproot any remaining potatoes that appear.
The trials would follow ongoing tests of the GM potatoes in Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. "This would be our first GM trial in the UK and we need to conduct these to see how the crop grows in different conditions," said Barry Stickings of BASF. "I hope that society, including the NGOs, realise that all we are doing is increasing choice."
Late blight (Phytophthora infestans) causes devastating losses to the farming industry, amounting to about £50m each year, despite regular spraying of fungicides. To genetically modify potatoes to resist the blight, researchers at BASF extracted genes from wild relatives of the potato found in Mexico and inserted them into crop potatoes. The genes respond to the fungus by killing off cells around the site of infection, a sacrificial defence that saves the plant from destruction.
If the trials are approved, scientists will infect some GM potatoes with the fungus and wait for natural infection to strike others. They will then assess the effectiveness of the protection.
Andy Beadle, an expert in fungal resistance at BASF, said the risks of contamination from GM crops are minimal because potatoes reproduce through the production of tubers, unlike other crops such as oil seed rape which produces pollen that can be carried for miles on the wind.
Julian Little, spokesman for the GM industry group, the Agricultural Biotechnology Commission, said: "This is a big deal. There have been no trials in this country since the government's field scale trials and the industry is going to be very interested to see how these go."
A Defra spokesman said: "This application will be assessed thoroughly for safety to human health and the environment and considered by the independent experts on the advisory commitee for releases to the environment (Acre)."
Liz Wright, a GM campaigner at Friends of the Earth said: "We have a problem with field trials and with potatoes. The main problem is ensuring you get every scrap of the crop out of the ground afterwards. If you don't manage that, you can get them growing again the next year."
Gains and risks
* How are GM crops produced?
- Beneficial genes are snipped out of organisms, often other plants, and inserted into the genome of the crop. One way to do this is to use a harmless virus that has been modified to carry the beneficial genes
* Are GM crops grown in Britain?
- Not yet, but last year six European countries farmed GM crops
* What are the risks?
- Some GM crops, such as oilseed rape, produce pollen that can potentially fertilise non-GM varieties. To minimise the risks, farmers would have to plant these away from other crops. GM potatoes produce a minimal amount of pollen
* How big is the potato market?
- Potatoes are the fourth-largest staple food crop in the world. Farmers spend about £20m on fungicides to protect against late blight
* What is the benefit of GM potatoes?
- Potatoes are sprayed about 15 times a season to protect them against late blight. GM potatoes would need spraying only a couple of times
Drought-Tolerant Crops Could Raise New Policy Issues
- Debbie Carlson, Dow Jones, August 22 2006 http://www.agriculture.com
Chicago - Biotechnology advances offer crop science new vistas in the creation of drought-tolerant plant varieties and in dealing with other thorny agriculture concerns, but regulatory and environmental pitfalls may slow the plow rather than speed it.
Solutions appear to be just over the horizon, but like much in science there are many promises, and it will take years of painstaking research before anything -- if anything -- yields fruit. In that time, laws regulating biotechnology will need to keep up with the work of scientists.
There are policy implications that should be considered as both public and private sector scientists study biotechnology and its ability to possibly create drought-tolerant crops, said Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Biotechnology.
Much actually depends on what type of biotechnology is used, Fernandez said, in regards to regulations.
Molecular-marker technology, or marker-assisted selection, allows scientists to select for desirable traits and enhance them. With marker-assisted selection, "you're figuring out what is in the corn genome and use the molecular markers to enhance traditional breeding programs," he said.
Because this technology uses, say, corn genes in a corn plant, it wouldn't trigger a special regulatory review because the plant is considered a traditional corn crop and could be grown next two a corn plant without molecular-marker technology.
Transgenics, or genetically modified organisms, are another story. Transgenics are best known for use in crops to make them herbicide or insect-resistance by placing a non-native single-gene in a crop. Current commercial use of transgenic technology is limited to these simple, single-gene needs. Any crop using transgenic technology is subject to a regulatory review by the U.S. Department of Agriculture before being able to be grown commercially.
Fernandez questions whether drought-tolerant crops might not raise new issues, given some of the concerns already in place regarding transgenic plants. "One thing people talk about with genetic engineering is gene flow into other crops or into weedy varieties. If there is no advantage to the weeds in keeping those genes, then they would likely disappear. But with drought-tolerance and stress-tolerance, that's a characteristic of weeds....to be drought-tolerant, that's the kind of trait that might pose more difficult questions for regulatory agencies," he said.
In drought-tolerance research, scientists are studying the dreb gene from a tiny grain plant called Arabidopsis. This gene could be implanted into food crops to confer drought tolerance, Fernandez said.
Don Doering, research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, said he envisions molecular-marker technology is likely to help scientists make many of the advances they need to create a commercial variety of drought-tolerant crops or transgenics will be made with the plant's own drought tolerance genes.
"That will tune out a lot of the food safety concerns and the allergy concerns, those will be very low from a public acceptance point of view," Doering said.
Jane Rissler, senior scientist at the Union for Concerned Scientists, said in the 20 years she's followed genetic engineering, there's been heavy interest in drought-tolerant crops. "Even though we're in the early stages, they've been long on promise it looks like nothing has developed in genetic engineering, it has not come to fruition," Rissler said.
For the past 20 years there's been significant concern toward genetic-engineered crops for its impact on the environment and on human health, she said. But the regulatory process by the USDA is from the bias transgenic crops are safe, she said.
"That's the viewpoint from the review is done . They're not required to do a cross-breeding with wild relatives. They're not required to do an ecological/biological implications review. The problem with USDA's reviews is they're not required (to look) at data from an ecological impact of genetic engineering," Rissler said.
Care Needed In Preparing For Regulatory Review
Doering agreed with Fernandez about the importance for companies to take great care with any transgenic drought-tolerance crops.
"That's a question that needs to be asked and answered well. ... If companies are wise, they will be thinking far ahead for questions that society will pose. It's less likely (to be controversial since) we know much more (about biotech)... It's a good thing to help farmers deal with drought. If companies can do their homework and field trials on the environmental side, to address potential public concerns, drought tolerance approval on paper it looks like a sure thing.
Since commercialization of these crops is so far away it's too early to predict what regulatory trials will be required for the two U.S. companies studying drought tolerance -- Monsanto and Pioneer, a DuPont company.
William Niebur, DuPont vice president, Crop Genetics Research and Development, explained it as such: "Each new trait is a unique set of genes. In regulatory context, each trait will likely require a unique data packet, and a specific set of studies to evaluate the value of qualities of the discovery."
If there are worries that these crops might deplete water supplies in arid areas, those concerns are unfounded, Doering said.
"What's important is that what none of these genes do is help the crop grow without water. That's the myth of developing drought-tolerant crops. People are afraid that if we get these crops suddenly they're going to march across the desert and use all the available water; that just isn't so. These genes help plants withstand stress or make better use of the water that's there. More or less, you only get so much corn per gallon of water that the plant absorbs. It's a common misunderstanding," he said.
Public, Private Sectors Work on Drought-Tolerant Crops
- Debbie Carlson, Dow Jones, August 22, 2006
Chicago - Farmers have faced drought and pestilence since crude agriculture began, and the quest to achieve a breakthrough on drought-tolerant plants is the crop science equivalent of finding the Holy Grail.
One of the top causes of crop failures, droughts have spawned widespread famines throughout millennia, and while modern agriculture can help stave off the worst of dry weather effects through irrigation, this year's drought in the U.S. Plains shows humans remain at the mercy of Mother Nature.
Advances in agriculture research allow some small victories against this scourge, such shortening growth duration in order to harvest before any seasonal drought cycles. Farmers also select crops for hardiness and yield when hybridizing to create stronger, deeper root systems to tap subsoil moisture.
Modern crop scientists want to go much further. Biotechnology is leading to promising discoveries in crop genomics that go behind simple hybridization. These advances are finally allowing scientists to study the complexity of a plant's reaction to drought stress in a new way. While much of the research is in its early stages, if realized, the results could be potentially revolutionary, considering agriculture uses 80% of the world's fresh water. The ability to grow crops with less water or in areas where water is not as abundant could prevent water or food shortages in years to come.
Crop Research Makes Two Big Breakthroughs
There have been two big technical breakthroughs within the past 10 years, allowing some of these advances, said Don S. Doering, research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
The first uses transgenics, or genetically modified organisms. Transgenics are best known for use in crops to make them herbicide or insect-resistance by placing a non-native single-gene in a crop. Current commercial use of transgenic technology is limited to these simple, single-gene needs.
The second is molecular marker, or marker-assisted selection, which allows scientists to select for desirable traits and enhance them, by following the inheritance of small DNA sequences, the "markers" associated with drought tolerance, Doering said. Knowing the specific DNA of certain crops advances the knowledge of complex traits, such as drought-tolerance, so crop researchers can now do breeding by DNA markers which can be faster and more sensitive than classic breeding by selection.
Private Companies Studying Corn
To put the breakthrough on drought-tolerance in the Holy Grail category, however, the advances have to specifically affect food crops and enable them to be grown with less water. Such an advance doesn't mean, however, that these crops can be grown in the desert. What researchers hope to do is cut down on the amount of water the crops need to not only survive, but still produce a harvestable yield.
Two companies, Monsanto, and Pioneer, a Dupont company, are actively working on drought-tolerance in corn using both transgenic and marker-assisted technology.
Given corn consumes the greatest acreage in the U.S. - at more than 80 million acres this year - it makes economic sense to concentrate on this crop. Corn roughly uses between 20 and 30 inches of rain to grow and produce an average to good yield per acre. Yield-wise one inch of rain produces 8 to 10 bushels of corn an acre for modern hybrids, a logarithmic gain from the corn plants that could produce only 3-4 bushels per inch of rain in the 1920s and '30s said William Niebur, DuPont vice president, Crop Genetics Research and Development.
The most critical time for any crop is pollination, when the yield is set. Excessive heat and dryness during pollination can limit yield. Further, extended dryness during grain-filling time can stunt development and lead to less-than-optimal test weights.
Niebur said Pioneer is studying genes to allow crops to withstand midseason water stress. Pollen and silks are mostly made of water and when they are desiccated it interferes with pollination. "We can select and change the relative energy distribution in the plant by altering the relative size of the ear, plant and tassel. A smaller tassel means less excess pollen and less energy required . We can redirect those to making a larger ear . and change the energy from putting its resources in the tassel," Niebur said.
He also said Pioneer is also looking at a suite of genes that could help the corn crop withstand prematurely aborting the kernel and miss the opportunity if rains come late in the season.
John Headrick, development lead on drought-tolerance corn for Monsanto, said the company is in the early development stage of testing for drought-tolerance in corn and is going into its third season of field testing. To date, the company has seen an average mean of about 9% yield advantage versus a conventional corn crop in drought conditions.
Monsanto is looking at corn leaves for moisture-loss control. Plants grow by photosynthesis, but this often occurs during the hottest part of the day. Plants breathe by opening stomates, which are essentially little pores on the surface. The crops breathe through these pores, but by doing so the plant also loses water, called evapotranspiration, causing wilt. "We go back and forth on whether leaf-rolling is a good or not. Leaf-rolling indicates the crop is drought-stressed, but it's also a defense mechanism where it's protecting itself," he said.
Niebur and Headrick said getting crops off to a healthy start and avoiding insect damage is critical. In fact, both said corn rootworms can be the most damaging, drought or not. "Our Herculex rootworm trait is the most important gene we have for drought-tolerance today. It ensures the corn plant has all the roots it needs to extract water in the most efficient manner. If an insect chews off the root, it's like running a 100 yard dash without any legs," Niebur said.
Headrick said during last year's drought in Illinois "you had a high rootworm pressure and even on a commercial scale the crops that did well on yield were those YieldGard Rootworm technology Guard." Because the research for drought-tolerance remains in early stages, both Niebur and Headrick said likely it would be around 2010 before these transgenic drought-tolerant crops are ready for commercial use.
Public Entities Studying Drought Too
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service also is studying drought-tolerance using molecular-marker and other non-transgenic research. Tommy Carter, research geneticist, USDA-ARS at North Carolina State University, focuses on soybeans and has studied drought-tolerance since 1980.
Carter said research done as part of a team of scientists focusing on drought show soybeans shut down nitrogen fixing under water stress. Nitrogen fixing is how soybeans and other legumes produce protein to grow. By working with some soybean varieties not commercially grown now, he and he research team have had some success in allowing nitrogen-fixing to continue.
Wilt is also an issue for stressed soybeans, and Carter said some varieties under study are slower to wilt than current commercial lines. A slow-wilting soybean conserves water and limits stress. Tests done in North Carolina Minnesota and Nebraska, show promise and are now being crossed with high-yielding varieties.
Some of those varieties can photosynthesize during the early and late part of the day and not lose as much water. "It's a very efficient way to save water. If they shut down during the hot part of the day, it's like they take a siesta," Carter said.
Exactly how much water soybeans use during development isn't well documented, but Carter said he and his fellow researchers calculated it takes about 5,000 gallons of water to grow a bushel of soybeans, which surprised even him.
Compared to conventional varieties, these slow-wilting soybeans suggest a yield gain in droughty conditions. "In North Carolina, the average yield in soybeans is 40 bushels. When it's a drought its more like 20 bushels. Our material is yielding 25 bushels or more, so we're looking at 5-7 bushels more than conventional," Carter said. Carter is guardedly optimistic the team of researchers he works with will have cultivars available for farmers in two to three years.
Greens Don't Get It!
- Gordon Couger, Retired farmer, Gordon.couger.at.gmail.com, Stillwater, OK 74075
As a child on of the the first bits of philosophy I remember is, "The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions." I don't remember if it was my grandmother that staved out on a homesteaded near Clovis, New Mexico in 1906.
My grandfather that was a organic chemist working in the Iron Range of Minnesota and drew the short straw was the one that had to go out and prove up a timber claim in Washington that 3 of them formed a partnership and bought with two that keeping their jobs bankrolling the third. They lost in the 30's it would have made them rich in and after World War II. Or my great grandmother that as bride of 2 years at 15 years old settled 3 days from the rail head on ranch in North Texas that we still have in the family today. But they all knew it was results not intent that paid the bills. No matter what happened you were responsible for what you did. Out come mattered not reason.
The newfound 'Green Religion' means well but have no idea all the problems that the farmers of the world face let alone how to solve them. To them a drought is no water for the grass. To me its no income form the farm this year. To the fellows that farm my wife's and my place it may be bankruptcy. For an African Farmer it may mean killing or starving some of their children so others may live and in the end they all may die.
Aid doesn't get everywhere. How they expect to solve problems they don't understand is beyond me. But is sure doesn't keep them form trying. Them and their kind were four square behind eradicating malaria, yellow fever and polio from their part of the world. It was really hard going in the beginning. But as soon as we got the tools to do the job and it was done in their part of the world they pulled the plug on the rest of the world damning millions to die every year for the last 35 years and 100,000 of millions more to suffer diseases - they don't even know of as they don't know history or care about the world that really is only the one they see through the prism of their naive minds. They use the fear of what might be to over rule the real risks of what are. If the want to solve the problems of the third world farmer they need to go spend two years working for and with the people that want to save. Then farm on their own in those conditions for 10 years. Then they would know enough to have an opinion. They need to know a lot more to have a solution.