Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - August 28, 2006
* California Assembly OK's New Genetically Modified Seeds
* Biotech Maize Approved for Sonora, Mexico
* Diving Into the Gene Pool
* Will the British Spud Survive?
* UK - GM Potato Field Trials - Good or Bad Idea?
* Editor comments on Good Morning America segment
* A Biotech Revolution For Africa?
* From Subsistence to Sustainable Farming in Africa
* GM Tree Could Be Used For Cellulosic Ethanol
* US Opposes India’S Initiative on Labelling of GM Foods
* Borlaug Awarded India's Highest Honor
California Assembly OK's New Genetically Modified Seeds
- Jake Henshaw, Palm Springs Desert Sun , August 26, 2006 http://www.thedesertsun.com
The state Assembly on Thursday approved legislation to ensure a statewide standard for genetically modified seeds The effect would be to preclude communities from prohibiting their local use.
Senate Bill 1056 is intended to give growers throughout the state the same opportunities to farm without conflicting jurisdictional rules, according to Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, the author. The measure now returns to the Senate for approval of Assembly amendments.
SB 1056 represents one front in the debate over biotechnology that allows scientists to manipulate the traits of various organisms. The measure was endorsed by a wide number of agricultural groups and opposed by many environmental organizations.
Four California counties - Marin, Mendocino, Santa Cruz and Trinity - have adopted measures to restrict the use of genetically engineered products in local farming. The bill would exempt these counties from its provisions. In floor debate, proponents said the bill would allow the state to realize the environmental and other benefits of genetically modified crops.
"These products have been engineered here (so) that we can reduce the amount of pesticide usage on different types of crops, and these type of things are very helpful in cleaning up some of our environmental issues as well as expanding the capability of production levels," Assemblyman Bill Maze, R-Visalia, said.
Other supporters added that continuing development and use of genetically modified crops could help address such pressing issues as world hunger. "Why are we afraid of innovation?" asked Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield.
Assemblyman John J. Benoit, R-Palm Desert, said the expertise for such issues is at higher levels of government. "With all due respect to our small counties and cities, do they really have the ability to be a better arbitrator of what's right or wrong in the agricultural arena than the federal or state departments of agricultural that have the resources to study these issues and make informed decisions?" Benoit asked.
Biotech Maize Approved for Sonora, Mexico
- CropBiotech Update August 25, 2006 http://www.isaaa.org/kc
Cesar Salazar Platt, the Agriculture Undersecretary of the state of Sonora, Mexico, has announced that permits allowing the commercial planting of biotech maize are being granted in the state of Sonora, Mexico. "We can't fight against technology, if we want to continue planting maize in Sonora and be competitive, we must face new avenues with the required cautions and considerations" said Salazar Platt.
The use of transgenic seeds allows farmers to obtain increased production with a 30% reduction in costs, mainly due to the reduced used of agrochemicals, thereby allowing farmers of the region to compete with other states and nations that have already adopted the technology, added Salazar Platt. Furthermore, transgenic varieties also promote a more efficient use of water.
The government official also said that the required trials to ascertain the performance of the approved biotech varieties had been carried out.
More information in: http://www.agronet.com.mx/cgi/notes.cgi?Action=Viewhistory&Type=Rn=2006-08-01%2000:00:00x=2006-08-31%2023:59:59
Diving Into the Gene Pool
- Jeffrey Sparshott, The Washington Times, August 27, 2006, www.washingtontimes.com
Ken Hartman Jr. is growing more than 1,000 acres of soybeans this year from seed that has been genetically modified to withstand a weedkiller that would wipe out most crops.
He also is cultivating several hundred acres of corn whose doctored DNA enables the plants to produce a toxin that wards off a particularly destructive pest.
And the 44-year-old would like to introduce crops engineered with additional traits, such as resistance to drought, onto his 3,500 acres of farmland. "I think we are just on the edge of biotechnology, versus where we will be in 20 or 30 years. There are a lot of traits coming about that will be not only beneficial to the farmer, but also to the consumer," said Mr. Hartman, who lives on his farm about 35 miles southeast of St. Louis with his wife and three daughters.
A new generation of genetically engineered plants and animals is moving from laboratories to fields and farms. Scientists are enhancing the nutrition and heartiness of some crops. Pharmaceutical companies are increasingly looking to mass-produce drugs in plants and animals. And scientific advances may soon allow herds across the U.S. to grow faster and feature novel traits.
Already, biotechnology has dramatically changed agriculture across the land. No genetically modified crops were grown commercially in the U.S. before 1996. This year, 89 percent of all soybeans, 83 percent of cotton and 61 percent corn planted in the country is genetically altered, usually to withstand herbicides or repel pests, according to U.S. Agriculture Department data.
But biotechnology also raises an array of long-term environmental, health and economic questions that are often ignored by the American public. "Despite the rapid increase in the adoption of [genetically engineered] corn, soybean, and cotton varieties by U.S. farmers, questions remain regarding the impact of agricultural biotechnology. These issues range from the economic and environmental impacts to consumer acceptance," Jorge Fernandez-Cornejo, an economist in the USDA's Resource Economics Division, said in an April report.
Origin of species
Biotech plants and animals have had their genetic material altered in ways that do not occur in nature. Scientists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen in 1973 perfected a technique that allowed DNA from separate organisms to be cut and pasted together, and then reproduced.
The breakthrough allowed the production of human proteins in bacteria and laid the groundwork for the first modern biotech company, Genentech, co-founded by Mr. Boyer in 1976. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the company successfully developed synthetic insulin to treat diabetes, a growth hormone for underdeveloped children and a product that helps dissolve blood clots.
Other scientists quickly applied the recombinant DNA techniques to other organisms, including plants and animals. Researchers grew the first biotech plant, a petunia, in 1982. Plant testing moved from labs and greenhouses to open fields in 1987. And in 1996, genetically modified crops became commercially available. "Starting out, I thought we could do some things that would be interesting, difficult, challenging and have some benefits to [farmers]," said David Fischhoff, a molecular biologist who in the 1980s worked to develop some of the first biotech crops for industry pioneer Monsanto Co.
"I don't think I imagined I would drive around St. Louis and literally all I could see of a particular crop would have a trait that I had a hand in developing," he said at the company's St. Louis headquarters. Mr. Fischhoff helped develop Bt corn, which incorporates DNA from Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium, into the corn plant. The new gene produces a protein that is toxic to the European corn borer. The borer is the most damaging insect pest for corn in the U.S. and Canada, causing losses in excess of $1 billion a year, according to a 2002 report published by Iowa State University.
Soybeans and cotton are most often genetically engineered to withstand application of Roundup, a weed killer originally patented by Monsanto but now available as a generic product. Genetically modified seeds are more expensive than conventional seeds, but farmers have adopted biotech crops because they sometimes
The crops, when properly managed, require smaller amounts and fewer applications of herbicides and pesticides, allowing farmers to handle fewer chemicals, cut time spent in fields and burn less fuel in farm equipment, said Graham Brookes, director of PG Economics and author of an industry-funded study that examined the economics of biotech crops.
Mr. Brookes said genetically modified crops have reduced worldwide pesticide use, by volume, by 6 percent and cut greenhouse-gas emissions significantly because farmers spend less time using heavy equipment to control weeds and pests. "It is equivalent of taking 5 million cars off the road for a year," he said.
'A risk for society'
Despite the popularity of biotech among farmers, most consumers don't know that the technology is so prevalent, while environmental groups and some health advocates warn it may be dangerous. "Obviously, these crops are out there and pretty ubiquitous. Most Americans are unaware of that," said Michael Fernandez, director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.
A 2005 Pew survey found that 58 percent of Americans are unaware that genetically modified foods are sold in grocery stores, though 70 percent to 75 percent of all processed food contains genetically modified ingredients, the Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates. Corn- and soy-based ingredients -- such as the high-fructose corn syrup in soda and vegetable oil in snacks -- most likely have been genetically modified.
Other parts of the world are much more averse to the science. Europeans, for example, generally oppose agricultural biotechnology and reject food containing genetically modified ingredients, George Gaskell, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics, found in a survey published in May. "GM food is widely seen as not being useful, as morally unacceptable and as a risk for society," Mr. Gaskell wrote.
Consumers are resistant because they see few benefits from agricultural biotechnology. Meanwhile, health and environmental groups -- who call genetically modified crops "Frankenfood" -- warn that introducing novel organisms into the wild constitutes a giant genetic experiment with unknown consequences for the ecosystem and humans.
"We are creating new organisms whose behavior we are absolutely unable to predict. They cannot be contained, and if a gene has a negative impact on the environment, we won't be able to stop this pollution," said Arnaud Apoteker, a Greenpeace campaigner based in Paris.
Joe Mendelson, legal director at the Center for Food Safety, a Washington nonprofit group, said concerns include possible creation of weeds or grasses resistant to herbicides widely used alongside genetically modified crops, evolution of insects immune to pesticides created in genetically modified crops, and possible allergic reactions in humans.
Already, the technology has had unintended consequences. Pollen from biotech crops has drifted to nonbiotech fields, creating new hybrids, and ingredients not approved for human consumption have made their way into food. In one of the most notorious cases, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a corn variety for use only as animal feed because it may cause allergic reactions in humans, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
But in September 2000 the corn, then manufactured by France's Aventis and grown in the U.S. under the brand name StarLink, was found in taco shells sold in U.S. stores. Congress, following the initial public outcry, considered legislation that would require special labels on food containing genetically modified ingredients.
But public concern soon abated, and the legislation died. Today, the USDA, Food and Drug Administration and EPA regulate biotech crops and food, though USDA has been cited for lax oversight and FDA consultations are only voluntary. A federal district judge this month ruled that the USDA violated the Endangered Species Act when it granted permits to grow biotech crops in Hawaii in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner.
Cure for cancer
While Americans appear to have largely accepted the biotech plants and foods that are now widely in use, a new generation of products in the labs may give rise to questions about the safety and desirability of certain genetic modifications. Those include introduction of new traits into crops, the use of genetically altered plants to produce pharmaceuticals and the commercialization of genetically modified animals.
"I think every new application [of biotechnology] will bring new complications and controversy," said Roger Beachy, president of the Danforth Plant Science Center, a not-for-profit research institute in St. Louis that is working to develop heartier crops and healthier foods. "I think the issue of how we discuss our research will be important for how consumers accept it," he said.
Mr. Beachy said biotech companies should make more products available and encourage broader discussion of the technology. But biotech companies have shied away from pushing for commercial growth of some major crops. The reluctance stems in part from concern that they may not sell overseas but also that American customers -- corporate and consumer -- may resist certain genetically modified food.
"This is when you get into crops that have direct food use. There is a gentleman's agreement not to commercialize them until there is more consumer acceptance around the world," said Michael J. Phillips, vice president for food and agriculture science at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), an industry group.
Genetically modified soy and yellow corn, for example, are typically used in animal feed or processed before making their way into the human food chain. But white corn, wheat and rice, as well as fruits and vegetables, are a different story. Anheuser-Busch, for example, last year said it would boycott Missouri rice farmers if Ventria Bioscience field-tested rice genetically altered to produce therapeutic human proteins in the state.
The St. Louis brewer said it was concerned the pharmaceutical crops could contaminate conventionally grown rice, a key ingredient in Budweiser. The sides settled when Ventria, headquartered in Sacramento, Calif., agreed to isolate the crops from other rice fields.
A week ago, federal officials said long-grain rice samples tested positive for trace amounts of a genetically modified strain not approved for consumption. The rice, developed to resist a herbicide, is not approved for sale in the United States, but two other strains of rice with the same genetically engineered protein are.
Some biotech companies are turning to nonfood crops to avoid concerns about food contamination. Scientists at Chlorogen, a St. Louis startup, are introducing new genetic material into tobacco-plant cells. The altered tobacco leaves, if the technology progresses, will mass-produce a protein that attacks certain types of cancer cells. Eventually, it could treat ovarian, uterine, breast and other cancers.
David Duncan, Chlorogen's president and chief executive, emphasized that the protein would be produced from a nonfood crop. "The public perception might be different if we were in corn or rice," he said.
One of the most controversial fields for genetic modification is animals, with Americans citing moral and ethical concerns, according to a Pew Initiative survey. "The reaction to animals is definitely different. There is more opposition to it," said Pew's Michael Fernandez. That has slowed commercialization but not research. The USDA reports that labs have created livestock and fish with increased growth rates, more meat, enhanced resistance to disease or improved use of dietary phosphorus to lessen the environmental impact of animal manure.
Poultry, swine, goats and cattle also have been engineered to generate human proteins in eggs, milk, blood or urine, USDA said. The proteins would be used in pharmaceuticals. Still, there is limited commercial application for the technology. "We realize consumer acceptance is probably the Number One challenge," said Barbara Glenn, managing director for animal biotechnology at BIO.
Cecil W. Forsberg, lead scientist for the department of molecular and cellular biology at Canada's University of Guelph, helped create the Enviropig. The animal is genetically modified to digest phosphate, which allows farmers to forgo some dietary supplements and lowers phosphorus content in the pigs' manure. Phosphorus in water runoff is a major environmental problem on industrial farms, and can eliminate fish habitat in streams and lakes.
Mr. Forsberg said the pig is the food equivalent to a conventional animal, though he hasn't eaten one. "The reason we haven't is because it's illegal," he said, noting that Canada's regulatory agencies had not approved it for human consumption. Public opinion, driven by ethical considerations, will have to change before public policy allows such an animal in North America, he acknowledged.
"There are a whole range of things are going to come into play that will bring focus on more efficient production of food -- global warming, the availability of fossil fuels, clean water. When you bring all these things into play and come to ethical issues, I expect there would be some compromises there," he said.
"I think as we move into the next generation of people ... the acceptance of biotech will become quite common," Mr. Forsberg said.
Will the British Spud Survive?
- Letters, Guardian (UK), August 25, 2006
In your well-informed article, you quote Friends of the Earth, which has a problem with BASF's blight-resistant potatoes and raises the spectre of "ensuring you get every scrap of the crop out of the ground afterwards". Could I draw your attention to the work of Professor Mick Crawley and his colleagues (Transgenic crops in natural habitats, Nature , 2001) which showed the lack of evidence for an ecological impact of GM potatoes in natural habitats or arable fields.
GM maize, oil-seed rape, sugar beet and potato were grown alongside their conventional equivalents in 13 UK locations over a period of 10 years. These genetically improved crops proved to be neither invasive nor more competitive than wild species - the only potato to outlive the experiment was a conventionally grown one such as anyone could grow in their garden - disproving the theory that GM crops would persist in the wild should they spread from their cultivated habitat. Friends of the Earth are scaring people without the benefit of any science.
- Chris Leaver, Sibthorpian professor of plant science, University of Oxford
UK - GM Potato Field Trials - Good or Bad Idea?
- Farmers Weekly (UK), August 28, 2006 http://www.fwi.co.uk/Home/Default.aspx
GM potato field trials - good or bad idea?
Great - 52%
Big mistake - 48%
Should Genetically-Modified Crops Be Grown in Derbyshire?
Yes - 57.0%
No - 43.0%
Editor's Viewpoint (on Good Morning America's one-sided segment)
- Ron Smith (Editor), Southwest Farm Press, August22, 2006 http://southwestfarmpress.com/
Good Morning America featured a short segment on genetically modified food today and insinuated that some potentially dangerous elements might be lurking in our chocolate chip cookies, corn chips and cooking oils.
Diane Sawyer, GMA co-host, included several anti-GMO groups in the program who claimed that no one knows whether genetically modified foods are safe or not and that Americans have been consuming them, unknowingly, for the past decade.
(As far as I know, no reports of green humans glowing in the dark have occurred over the past 10 years.)
GMA also included spokesmen from the food industry who testified that the products were safe. That, apparently, was intended to provide balance. Unfortunately, they dropped in comments about genetically modified rice not intended for human consumption that recently and unintentionally got into the food chain. They did not mention that the rice posed no threat to humans.
The segment also ended with a comparison of products, some of which contained (or likely contained) genetically modified corn, soybeans or canola. That parting shot left the impression that GMO products were not safe and that consumers should seek alternatives: shredded wheat instead of corn flakes, for instance.
The big push was to include GMO labeling on products. The segment did mention that genetic modifications improve production efficiency. It did not point out the nutrition enhancements made possible by the technology nor did it focus on the positive environmental benefits genetic modifications have made.
No one brought up the reduction in pesticide applications made possible by genetic technology. No one noted the potential for eliminating famine. And no one brought up the possibility for ending hunger because of this technology.
Maybe we need to label GMO products, except that would offer the often-misguided opponents definitive targets at which to aim their scare tactics, which require no scientific facts.
Secrets in Your Food - Genetically Modified Food: Is It Safe?
Watch the video at http://www.abcnews.go.com/Video/playerIndex?id=2337659
Text at http://www.abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=2337731&page=1
A Biotech Revolution For Africa?
- Douglas Southgate and Douglas H. Graham, August 16, 2006. Excerpted from "Growing Green: The Challenge of Sustainable Agricultural Development in Sub-Saharan Africa". http://www.sdnetwork.net/files/pdf/growing-green-final.pdf
'Is anti- GM activism having an adverse effect? Are African leaders sufficiently supportive? '
Agricultural biotechnology offers the potential to increase yields, enable adaptation to more extreme environments, and improve nutritional content. However, its uptake and progress has been slowed by a variety of concerns, including environmental safety issues such as gene flow/gene transfer, pest/pathogen effects, impacts on other crops, and the development of pest resistance, as well as human and animal safety issues, such as possible toxicity and altered nutritional content of edible products.
While testing for environmental and food safety is an appropriate part of approval and regulatory processes that should precede the commercialization of GM products, the concerns that have been raised by interest groups seem disproportionate to the risks posed. Of course, the precise balance to be struck between the benefits of agricultural biotechnology and its risks is bound to differ from one part of the world to another. In rich countries, virtually everyone is adequately fed and aversion to environmental and other risks is acute. Accordingly, approval and regulatory processes for GM products are costly and lengthy. However, an entirely different balance is to be expected in less affluent places, where large segments of the population are food-insecure.
Unfortunately, however, African authorities cannot base their decisions exclusively on national priorities and assessments of risk. The EU is an important market for the region’s agricultural output, which implies that tastes and preferences in Europe need to be taken into account when deciding whether or not to approve GM products. One might even speculate that the high costs and long periods of time that characterize approval and regulatory processes in Europe, which has the strongest anti-GM movement in the world, are in part a signal to other regions that adopting the products of agricultural biotechnology could lead to the loss of European markets.
But if African authorities respond to this signal by rejecting GM products, they will harm large numbers of their fellow citizens and agricultural biotechnology might well bypass the region. The EU will be partly to blame but not entirely: African governments have a choice. So far, the only nation to take a firm stand against external pressure is South Africa, which has permitted commercialization of two GM crops and is continuing to investigate a number of others.
Other actors in the debate over GM products include national authorities as well as the donor community. Outside of South Africa, national leaders have not been particularly supportive of agriculture in general and agricultural biotechnology in particular. Multiple roadblocks in regulatory and approval processes for these crops have been created. Furthermore, with modest exceptions, African governments have not invested significantly in the prime movers of agricultural technology, namely universities with strong agricultural science departments and productive agricultural research centers. For the most part, African leaders have become too donor-dependent to undertake such investments entirely or mainly on their own, which as emphasized in this paper is a major impediment to agricultural development in the region.
For four decades, international donors have exhibited more interest than national authorities in the agricultural sector. Many of the projects and programs underwritten by these donors have not turned out to be durable, and more than a few have been counterproductive. In contrast, positive contributions have come out of the CGIAR. Practically all of the modest yield improvements of African crops registered from the 1980s onwards resulted from the transfer of germplasm from international centers to national agricultural research systems (NARS). The general pattern for these transfers has been for the CGIAR to undertake most of the scientific effort and for the NARS to adapt improved varieties to local conditions. The contribution of the NARS is limited, of course, by modest professional staffing and inadequate budgets.
Finally, it has to be said that the donor community has not stood up forcefully to the anti-GM lobby in Europe and other parts of the world. For example in 1993 the CGIAR decided against developing GM products. Currently, just 10 percent of the system’s budget is allocated to GM research.
The World Bank and most bilateral donors also have largely avoided any significant funding for this research. Although at least 45 percent of the CGIAR’s annual budget is utilized for Africa-related research, donor support for the system itself has been declining substantially in recent years, which in the end curtails agricultural R&D of all kinds in Africa.
From Subsistence to Sustainable Farming in Africa
- Sustainable Development Network. http://www.sdnetwork.net/
To achieve a sustainable food supply, Africa needs an agricultural revolution, according to the authors of a new report, "Growing Green: The Challenge of Sustainable Agricultural Development in Sub-Saharan Africa". The report was released at the Sustainable Development Network conference, "Sustainable Agriculture in Africa: from ideas to action" (16 August 2006, in Johannesburg, South Africa).
Download report at http://www.sdnetwork.net/files/pdf/growing-green-final.pdf
"From the mid-1960s through the 1980s, the Green Revolution enabled millions of people in Asia and Latin America to escape famine and poverty, by increasing agricultural productivity through the use of modern agricultural technologies. In contrast, a majority of African countries did not adopt those technologies – and agricultural yields in most African countries stagnated or even declined in the same period. Today, millions of Africans suffer from malnutrition and continue to lead lives of penury, engaged in toilsome subsistence agriculture," said report co-author Professor Douglas Southgate.
The report examines three main problems behind low agricultural yields: Government policy: African governments largely have ignored the agricultural sector, often focusing on misguided attempts to industrialize. Poor infrastructure means that farmers have little access to inputs (such as fertilizer and pesticides) and also inadequate access to markets for finished products. Policies such as marketing boards, price controls, parastatal monopolies and punitive taxation have been used to benefit the politically connected elite, while farmers have suffered.
Policy of international donor agencies: International donor agencies have done little to help African farmers. The report shows that in recent decades, donor agencies have been more likely to fund projects favoured by politically powerful NGOs in wealthy countries. Between 1986 and 2001, the amount of donor resources devoted to agriculture, forestry and fisheries declined from 27 to 10 percent of total donations.
Land degradation: With much land already unsuitable for farming, subsistence farming takes an environmental toll, trapping much of the rural population in a downward spiral of land degradation and mounting poverty. When soil nutrients and moisture are depleted in one area, small-scale producers often move to less degraded land, including forested land. As a result, the proportion of forests being converted to agricultural use is greater in Sub-Saharan Africa than in any other region in the world.
The report outlines how yields can be increased, for the benefit of farmers, consumers and the environment. These steps include dramatically increasing the use of fertilisers to replace nutrients and minerals; increasing the use of irrigation; using insecticides to control insects, which eat crops, and herbicides to control weeds, which compete with crops for nutrients. Biotechnology is also needed to develop new crop varieties for Africa.
The report also concludes that African governments must remove barriers to trade, both internal and external. In addition, these governments must improve basic public goods, including infrastructure (roads, etc.) and legal institutions for the protection of property rights and contracts, which are fundamental to the market economy but generally absent in a majority of African countries.
"Sub-Saharan Africa is not doomed to misery," said Professor Southgate. "To move from subsistence to sustainable farming, African farmers should not be discouraged from employing modern agricultural methods. Indeed, such methods are necessary to improve environmental conditions, nutrition, and to enhance economic growth," he concluded.
For a copy of the report, to interview the authors, or for more information, contact: Ellen Bisnath - ebisnath.at.policynetwork.net- +44 207 836 0754. Douglas Southgate and Douglas H. Graham are faculty at Ohio State University (USA)
GM Tree Could Be Used For Cellulosic Ethanol
- Purdue University, August 24, 2006 http://news.mongabay.com/
'Fast-Growing Trees Could Take Root as Future Energy Source'
A tree that can reach 90 feet in six years and be grown as a row crop on fallow farmland could represent a major replacement for fossil fuels. Purdue University researchers are using genetic tools in an effort to design trees that readily and inexpensively can yield the substances needed to produce alternative transportation fuel.
High oil prices fuel bioenergy push High oil prices and growing concerns over climate change are driving investment and innovation in the biofuels sector as countries and industry increasingly look towards renewable bioenergy to replace fossil fuels. Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, has recently invested $84 million in an American ethanol company, while global energy gluttons ranging from the United States to China are setting long-term targets for the switch to such fuels potentially offering a secure domestic source of renewable energy and fewer environmental headaches.
Why is oil palm replacing tropical rainforests? Recently much has been made about the conversion of Asia’s biodiverse rainforests for oil-palm cultivation. Environmental organizations have warned that by eating foods that use palm oil as an ingredient, Western consumers are directly fueling the destruction of orangutan habitat and sensitive ecosystems. So, why is it that oil-palm plantations now cover millions of hectares across Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand? Why has oil palm become the world’s number one fruit crop, trouncing its nearest competitor, the humble banana? The answer lies in the crop’s unparalleled productivity. Simply put, oil palm is the most productive oil seed in the world. A single hectare of oil palm may yield 5,000 kilograms of crude oil, or nearly 6,000 liters of crude according to data from JourneytoForever. For comparison, soybeans and corn—crops often heralded as top biofuel sources—generate only 446 and 172 liters per hectare, respectively.
Cellulosic ethanol fuels environmental concerns In recent months, high fuel prices and national security concerns have sparked interest in biofuels. Cellulosic ethanol, which can be derived from virtually any plant matter including farm waste, looks particularly promising. The U.S. Department of Energy projects that cellulosic conversion technology could reduce the cost of producing ethanol by as much as 60 cents per gallon by 2015. Green groups see cellulosic ethanol as a carbon neutral energy source that could be used to fight the build up of atmospheric carbon dioxide responsible for global warming.
Corn waste potentially useful for more than ethanol After the corn harvest, whether for cattle feed or corn on the cob, farmers usually leave the stalks and stems in the field, but now, a team of Penn State researchers think corn stover can be used not only to manufacture ethanol, but to generate electricity directly.
Scientists closer to understanding key to cellulosic biofuels Cellulose -- a fibrous molecule found in all plants -- is the most abundant biological material on Earth. It is also a favored target of renewable, plant-based biofuels research. Despite overwhelming interest, scientists know relatively little about how plant cells synthesize individual cellulose fibers.
A tree that can reach 90 feet in six years and be grown as a row crop on fallow farmland could represent a major replacement for fossil fuels.
Purdue University researchers are using genetic tools in an effort to design trees that readily and inexpensively can yield the substances needed to produce alternative transportation fuel. The scientists are focused on a compound in cell walls called lignin that contributes to plants' structural strength, but which hinders extraction of cellulose. Cellulose is the sugar-containing component needed to make the alternative fuel ethanol.
The Department of Energy's Office of Biological and Environmental Research is funding a $1.4 million, three-year study by Purdue faculty members Clint Chapple, Richard Meilan and Michael Ladisch to determine ways to alter lignin and test whether the genetic changes affect the quality of plants used to produce biofuels. A hybrid poplar tree is the basis for the research that is part of the DOE's goal to replace 30 percent of the fossil fuel used annually in the United States for transportation with biofuels by 2030.
In 2005 ethanol accounted for only 4 billion gallons of the 140 billion gallons of U.S. transportation fuel used - less than 3 percent. About 13 percent of the nation's corn crop was used for that production. Purdue scientists and experts at the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Energy say corn can only be part of the solution to the problem of replacing fossil fuel.
"If Indiana wants to support only corn-based ethanol production, we would have to import corn," said Chapple, a biochemist. "What we need is a whole set of plants that are well-adapted to particular growing regions and have high levels of productivity for use in biofuel production."
Chapple and Meilan want to genetically modify the hybrid poplar so that lignin will not impede the release of cellulose for degradation into fermentable sugars, which then can be converted to ethanol. The changed lignin also may be useable either in fuel or other products, they said. Currently about 25 percent of the material in plants is the complex molecule lignin, which in its present form could be burned to supply energy for ethanol production, but cannot be transformed into the alternative fuel.
Altering lignin's composition or minimizing the amount present in a cell wall could improve access of enzymes. With easier access, enzymes would be able to more efficiently convert cellulose to sugars. Current treatments used for extracting lignin from woody products for pulp and paper production are harsh and pollute the environment, said Meilan, a Purdue Department of Forestry and Natural Resources molecular tree physiologist.
To advance production of non-fossil fuels, Chapple and Meilan are using genetic tools to modify the poplar and then study how the alterations changed the plants' cell walls. Meilan also is attempting to find ways to produce trees that are reproductively sterile so they are unable to transfer introduced traits to wild trees.
When Chapple and Meilan are satisfied with the results, they will give wood samples to Ladisch, a distinguished professor of agricultural and biological engineering, so he can determine if the changes have created trees suitable for high-yield ethanol production.
Using hybrid poplar and its relatives as the basis for biofuels has a number of advantages for the environment, farmers and the economy, they said.
"Poplar is a low-maintenance crop; plant it and wait seven years to harvest it," Meilan said. "You're not applying pesticides every year; you're not trampling all over the site every year and compacting the soil. You're allowing nutrients to recycle every year when the leaves fall and degrade. In addition, you are more likely to have greater wildlife diversity in poplar plantings than in agricultural fields."
Experts are proposing planting the trees in rows just like any field crop. The basis of these tree plantations will be tens of millions of acres that the DOE and USDA have inventoried as being unused or fallow - previously used farmland that is standing empty because farmers are paid not to grow anything.
"We need a bioenergy crop that can grow many places year-round," Meilan said. "The genus Populus includes about 30 species that grow across a wide climatic range from the subtropics in Florida to sub-alpine areas in Alaska, northern Canada and Europe."
Corn can be grown only in a few areas of the world and only during a relatively short growing season. Besides needing potential fuel-source crops that can be grown year-round and in many geographical locations, experts also want to increase the per acre tonnage yield of crops and the gallons of ethanol per ton.
Researchers believe that using the hybrid poplar in its present form could produce about 70 gallons of fuel per ton of wood. Approximately 10 tons of poplar could be grown per acre annually, representing 700 gallons of ethanol. Corn currently produces about 4.5 tons per acre per year with a yield of about 400 gallons of ethanol. Changing the lignin composition could increase the annual yield to 1,000 gallons of ethanol per acre, according to experts. Planted on 110 million acres of unused farmland, this could replace 80 percent of the transportation fossil fuel consumed in the United States each year.
"We don't want to compromise the structural integrity of the plant," Meilan said. "We just want to alter the lignin composition to make it easier to liberate the cellulose for conversion to simple sugars that the yeast can gobble up and turn into ethanol."
US Opposes India’s Initiative on Labelling of GM Foods
- Ashok B Sharma, Financial Express, August 28, 2006 http://www.financialexpress.com/
The US has raised concerns over India’s plans to formulate labelling norms for genetically modified (GM) foods at the WTO committee on technical barriers to trade.
US has urged India to rather resolve the issue through a dialogue between the regulatory specialists of both the countries. It said that both the countries believe in biotechnology as an important tool for enchancing farm growth and hinted at the recent US-India accord on agricultural research and education.
US believes that GM foods are "substantially equivalent" to their non-GM counterparts and any attempt to segregrate and label GM foods would amount to "trade restrictive measures." It has said that India should notify its decision for labelling of GM foods before the WTO panel also as a sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures since it involves "approval for biotechnology".
The new India’s Foreign Trade Policy (FTP) had made labelling mandatory for imported GM products and also prescribed penalty for imports of unlabelled GM products. Accordingly, the health ministry took up the onus of finalising the details of labelling norms. The ministry has recently set up a taskforce for the purpose.
As the detailed guidelines for labelling are yet to be finalised, the directorate-general of foreign trade has deferred its decision to insist on labelling till March 31, 2007.
Apart from labelling, is the issue of allowing its imports. As per the existing law, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) is the only authorised body to approve import, production and sale of any GM product. So far the only GM crop approved in the country for commercial use is Bt cotton.
US has questioned India’s approval process for GM products and said: "The scope of the 1989 Rules under the 1986 Environment Protection Act is vague and appears to be broader than any other existing regulatory system in the world for biotechnology products." It has questioned the rational for such broad product coverage and measures.
US has sought clarification for use of GM material in industrial production. It has asked whether the GEAC's recent approval process for import of GM soyaoil would be the same for other imported GM products and whether there would be a testing regime for imported GM products. It has also asked whether the law would be same for the domestically produced GM products like Bt cotton seed cakes used as animal feed.
Father of India's Green Revolution Given India's Highest Honor Padma Vibhushan
- Ajit Jain, Rediff India, August 24, 2006
Mexico City - Dr Norman Borlaug, 92, known as the father of India's Green Revolution, was presented the Padma Vibhushan today by India's ambassador R K Bhatia in Mexico City. The ceremony took place at a formal luncheon sponsored by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, in the presence of 350 agricultural scientists from all kinds of disciplines from many countries.
Also present at the event was Mexican Secretary of Agriculture Franciso Javier Mayorga and a number of dignitaries.
In an interview with Rediff.com, Borlaug, a Nobel Laureate (1970), said he deems it his greatest privilege to receive this award from the Indian government and it takes him back to 1965, when India was on the verge of famine. It was then he started working with Indian and Mexican scientists to introduce high-yielding varieties of wheat in India.
He said he had to work with a large number of people, especially Dr M S Swaminathan, then with the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, and Agricultural Minister C Subramaniam, to persuade the Indian government to accept high-yielding varieties of wheat. That happened when India finally agreed to import from Mexico 18,000 tonnes of the seeds, which marked the beginning of the Green Revolution.
According to Borlaug, there was also an active role in this played by Siva Raman, then Union Secretary of Agriculture. "I used to call them 3 Ss Subramaniam, Swaminathan and Sivaraman," Borlaug said.
While presenting the Padma Vibhushan, the highest award conferred by India on foreigners, Ambassador Bhatia said, "It was on the research stations and farmers' fields in Mexico that Dr Borlaug developed successive generations of wheat varieties with broad and stable disease resistance, broad adaptation to growing conditions across many degrees of latitude, and with exceedingly high yield potential. These wheat and improved crop management practices transformed agricultural production" in several counties, including India, "sparking what is known as Green Revolution."
Dr Borlaug has been awarded 57 honorary doctorates and belongs to the academia of science in 12 nations, noted Bhatia.
The ambassador said when he wrote to Borlaug a few months back about the Padma Vibhushan, he sent back a communication "conveying his willingness to accept it 'in the name of hundreds of Indian scientists, policy-makers and millions of farmers, without whom there would have been no Green Revolution`." Borlaug also wrote: 'I am deeply grateful to be so honored by my beloved country India'.
In his brief remarks Mexico's Agricultural Secretary Mayorga noted that Dr Borlaug "has saved more lives in the history of mankind," through his high-yielding varieties of wheat and other food crops.
Borlaug himself was critical of some bureaucrats and reporters in India who, when he had tried to persuade India to accept his high-yielding varieties of wheat, were very critical of him, even asking when 'India would get rid of this man'.
"These were people who had never in their lifetime produced a single kilo of foodgrains," Borlaug said in humour. "Many people in India are still against new technology. We should go back to the olden days, say 1950s, when the world population was about two billion people. Now we are 6.4 billion. What was adequate then cannot be adequate now. Many of these people in India and elsewhere are thinking in theoretical terms. They haven't lived round hunger and miserable people."
The chief organizer of the luncheon event was Masaru Iwanaga, director-general of CIMMYT. He was happy that Borlaug was awarded the Padma Vibhushan at his institute. While happy that India is self-sufficient in food production, he expressed concern that India may have to, like Japan and China, import large quantities of wheat and that would by implication increase food prices internationally, and developing countries will not take that kindly.
Despite all the talk about Green Revolution, the task in India hasn't ended. Indias wheat production was 11 million tonnes in 1960s. It reached 75 million tonnes by the turn of the century but production is not keeping pace with the increasing population, Borlaug said.
In this respect, Iwanaga was concerned that India may have to soon resort to import of foodgrains.
Borlaug agreed: "I am sure India will have to soon import wheat. Buffer stocks are declining in the country and those stocks can only be replenished through import."
When Borlaug started going to India in the mid-1960s, his three slogans were: 'Credit to farmers 6 weeks before the crop'; 'Fertiliser'; and 'fair price to farmers. He was sad that "farmers in India are still not getting fair price for their produce, which has a negative impact on food production."
Ambassador Bhatia was delighted to present the Padma Vibhushan to Borlaug. "This is the first time [in my long diplomatic career] that I had this privilege to exercise [of presenting the award]. Naturally as ambassador I represent the President of the Republic. It is kind of him to ask me to perform this role. It was also a matter of both pride and happiness that one was doing this for a great cause and to a great man."
"With the establishment of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico in 1966, Dr Borlaug assumed leadership of the Wheat Program, a position he held until his 'official' retirement in 1979. Since 1984, Dr Borlaug has been the Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture in Texas A&M University, where he teaches one semester each year. Since 1986, he has also been the President of the Sasakawa Africa Association, and leader of the Sasakawa-Global agricultural program in sub-Saharan Africa."
The luncheon organized by the CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) was also part of the International Plant Breeding Symposium the Institute had sponsored with several hundreds agricultural scientists from dozens of countries attending.
At the end of the Padma Vibhushan presentation and his acceptance speech, a large number of people mobbed Borlaug, to have their photographs clicked with him, as if he was a Hollywood star. In a sense, he is undoubtedly so.