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September 1, 2006


You Want Fries with Chemicals?; Biotech Forests; No Threat to Rice; Challenging Anti-GM; Incurable Optimist


Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - September 1, 2006

* Chips With Everything?
* USDA Issues Biotechnology Report
* Biotech Forests: Menace or Salvation for Wild Forests?
* Regionalization of Biotech Investments the Only Hope for Africa
* Arkansas State's Ag Chief Sees No Threat to Rice Eaters or Environment
* Drought-resistant Crops Face Hurdles
* Insights Into Feeding the World
* Scientist Challenges Anti-GM findings
* Biotech as an Integral Supplement to Plant Breeding
* NAC Overexpression Makes Rice Drought, Stress Tolerant
* India Organizes International Agri-Biotech Conference
* Incurable Optimist
* The Fertile Mind
* Harvest of Hope?

Chips With Everything?

- Derby Evening Telegraph (UK), August 30, 2006 http://www.thisisderbyshire.co.uk/

I read with interest the reports regarding the planned planting of GM potatoes at a site in Derbyshire (Evening Telegraph, August 24).

From the moment this was suggested, those against GM food such as Derby Friends of the Earth campaigner Dorothy Skrytek have told us how disgusting it is. I do not agree with a lot of GM work on food crops as I often feel that what scientists plan, such as resistance to herbicides, could potentially escape into wild plant species causing super weeds.

BASF appear to be suggesting that wild forms of potato carry a gene which protects against late blight which can devastate farmers crops and lead to many applications of fungicides to produce a crop.

If such wild forms carry the gene, then I don't think it is out of the question to put it back into cultivated forms, which clearly must have had it bred out over the years.

What do people want - chips made from potatoes that have had something put back into them or chips made from potatoes that have been drenched in chemicals?

S. Bacon, Swarkestone Drive, Littleover.


USDA Issues Biotechnology Report

WASHINGTON, Aug. 30, 2006--Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner announced today that a report about the future of biotechnology is available to the public. Prepared by USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21), "Opportunities and Challenges in Agricultural Biotechnology: The Decade Ahead” describes the advances in agricultural biotechnology's first decade and discusses a range of topics related to agricultural biotechnology that may be addressed by the secretary over the next decade.

“We are pleased to get this report and thank those involved for their interest and efforts. This consensus report, from a diverse group of stakeholders who express different perspectives, will be important in helping us understand the evolving landscape for agricultural biotechnology," said Conner.

The AC21 was established in 2003 to examine how biotechnology is likely to change agriculture and USDA’s work over the long term. he 20-member committee represents a wide spectrum of views and interests and is composed of farmers, technology providers, academics, representatives from the food manufacturing and shipping industries, and representatives from consumer and environmental organizations. The committee meets in public session three to four times per year.

The web site for the AC21, which contains all the committee’s reports and information about its meetings, can be accessed through USDA's biotechnology portal at

Report at http://www.usda.gov/documents/final_main_report-v6.pdf


USDA Issues Report on The Future of Ag Biotechnology

Seed Today, Aug. 30 2006, ttp://www.seedtoday.com/

Washington, DC (August 30, 2006) -- Prepared by USDA's Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21), "Opportunities and Challenges in Agricultural Biotechnology: The Decade Ahead" describes the advances in agricultural biotechnology's first decade and discusses a range of topics related to agricultural biotechnology that may be addressed by the secretary over the next decade.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner announced August 30 that a report about the future of biotechnology is available to the public. "We are pleased to get this report and thank those involved for their interest and efforts. This consensus report, from a diverse group of stakeholders who express different perspectives, will be important in helping us understand the evolving landscape for agricultural biotechnology," said Conner.

The next ten years
It is impossible to predict exactly which new modern biotechnology-derived plants or animals will be ready for the marketplace over the next decade. Some possibilities include:
* Genetically engineered plant varieties that provide improved human nutrition (e.g., soybeans enriched in omega-3 fatty acids)

* Products designed for use in improved animal feeds (providing better nutritional balance by increasing the concentration of essential amino acids often deficient in some feed components, increased nutrient density, or more efficient utilization of nutrients such as phosphate that could provide environmental benefits)

* Crops resistant to drought and other environmental stresses such as salinity

* Crops resistant to pests and diseases (e.g., fusarium-resistant wheat; chestnut-blight resistant chestnut; plum pox resistance in stone fruit; various insect resistant crops)

* Additional crops containing a number of transgenic traits incorporated in the same plant (stacked traits)

* Crops engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, such as vaccines and antibodies

* Crops engineered for particular industrial uses (e.g., crops having improved processing attributes such as increased starch content, producing useful enzymes that can be extracted for downstream industrial processes, or modified to have higher content of an energy-rich starting material such as oil for improved utilization as biofuel)

* Transgenic animals for food, or for production of pharmaceuticals or industrial products (e.g., transgenic salmon engineered for increased growth rate to maturity, transgenic goats producing human serum factors in their milk, and pigs producing the enzyme phytase in their saliva for improved nutrient utilization and manure with reduced phosphorus content).

There are several factors beyond whether a genetically engineered crop or animal can be developed and found efficacious which will help determine whether it is successful as a marketable product. For each such possibility, before any product reaches the marketplace, the federal government must ensure it is safe for human consumption, safe for the environment, and will not adversely affect the food supply. To appropriately manage risk, the government might impose additional measures on developers, farmers, or others throughout the food and feed chain that may affect the economic or technical viability of the product and the realization of potential benefits.

The AC21 was established in 2003 to examine how biotechnology is likely to change agriculture and USDA's work over the long term.

The 20-member committee represents a wide spectrum of views and interests and is composed of farmers, technology providers, academics, representatives from the food manufacturing and shipping industries, and representatives from consumer and environmental organizations.


Biotech Forests: Menace or Salvation for Wild Forests?

- Ronald Bailey, Reason Online, Sept. 1, 2006 http://www.reason.com

Last March, activists at the 8th Conference of the Parties (COP-8) for the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Curitiba, Brazil called for a global moratorium on genetically modified trees (GM trees). The activists claimed that genetically enhanced trees could harm the environment and the livelihoods of indigenous and local communities. In response, the COP-8 passed a resolution recommending the CBD signatories "take a precautionary approach when addressing the issue of genetically modified trees."

The precautionary approach "recognizes that the absence of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing decisions where there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm." In general, it is chiefly decisions that would permit the deployment of new technologies that the precautionary approach postpones. We shall see that this line of attack cuts both ways when considering the effects of genetically enhanced trees.

In response to the COP-8 resolution, the United Nations Environment Programme is considering a global moratorium on the planting of genetically modified trees. UNEP is accepting comments on the proposed moratorium until September 1.

Are GM trees a danger to the natural environment? Opponents claim that the potential effects of GM trees include the contamination of native forests, the destruction of biodiversity and wildlife, loss of fresh water, the collapse native forest ecosystems, and cultural destruction of forest based traditional communities and severe human health impacts.

What biotech opponents mean by "contamination" is that GM trees could interbreed with conventional trees passing along their modified traits. That could happen, but is that a real threat to native forests? For example, one of the traits that biotechnologists have modified is boosting soft cellulose and reducing tough lignin fiber in wood. Such trees are easier to turn into paper and produce much less waste. However, trees with this bioengineered trait would have great difficulty surviving in the wild, so it is very unlikely to spread to native trees. Oregon State University forestry professor Steven Strauss dismisses activist concerns over GM trees somehow wiping out wild forests as "sheer nonsense." As for destroying biodiversity and wildlife, GM trees are much more likely to help than to harm. How? By boosting the productivity of tree plantations.

Opponents dismiss tree plantations as "green deserts" devoid of the natural biodiversity of wild forests. Actually, tree plantations do harbor a lot of wild species, but even if they didn't they would still offer significant environmental benefits. Right now about one-third of the world's industrial wood comes from tree plantations and if it could all come from tree plantations that would dramatically relieve pressure to harvest natural forests. An Israeli biotech company claims to have been able to engineer eucalyptus trees that grow four times faster than conventional trees. The modified trees are being field tested by a major Brazilian forestry company. If it works, this means that more trees can be grown on less land.

In fact, Roger Sedjo, a senior fellow at Resources from the Future notes that "all of the world's timber production could potentially be produced on an area roughly five to ten percent of the total forest today." Sedjo points out that this would mean that "more of the earth's forests could remain in their natural states, thereby maintaining continuous habitat for biodiversity conservation." It's hard to see what could be more eco-friendly than saving natural forests from loggers' axes.

What about the claim that biotech trees would harm indigenous and local communities? Again, to the extent that indigenous communities are directly dependent on native forest products and species for their livelihoods, reducing commercial pressure to cut down those forests will protect their traditional ways of life. Another concern is that forestry corporations in cahoots with developing country governments will expand tree plantations onto indigenous lands. Surely the better and more direct solution to problems caused by defective land tenure is to give indigenous people strong property rights to their land rather than banning biotech trees.

Biotechnology can also help protect and restore tree species that are threatened by pests and disease. For example, the American chestnut was devastated by an introduced fungal disease that killed more the 3.5 billion trees in the first half of the 20th century. These majestic trees could reach 100 feet in height and five feet in diameter. The chestnut had been the dominant hardwood species throughout the Appalachian Mountains. An enterprising squirrel, we are told, could travel from Maine to Georgia without touching the ground through the interlinked branches of chestnut trees. Now scientists at the University of Georgia and the State University of New York are investigating ways to insert blight-resistance genes into American chestnut artificial seed embryos. Thanks to biotechnology, the American chestnut could be restored later this century to the forests from which it has been missing for nearly two generations.

Looking at current silvicultural practices can also help clarify the benefits and risks involved with GM trees. "Many ecological criticisms of GM trees appear to be overstated," concludes a recent study by silviculturalists at Oregon State University. "The ecological issues expected from the use of GM poplars appear similar in scope to those managed routinely during conventional plantation culture, which includes the use of exotic and hybrid genotypes, short rotations, intensive weed control, fertilization and density control."

For example, choosing to plant a conventional poplar or a poplar genetically modified to produce less lignin will have far fewer ecological effects than choosing between planting a poplar, modified or not, and a conifer species. "The specific changes in wood chemistry imparted by GM will be orders of magnitude less than the vast number of new chemicals that distinguish a pine from an aspen," notes the Oregon State study.

Some activists are not content to campaign for moratoriums backed by the United Nations. In 2001, the activists from the radical Environmental Liberation Front destroyed genetically modified trees at the University of Washington-Seattle and a poplar farm in Oregon.

Recall that under the precautionary approach favored by anti-biotech activists the absence of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing decisions where there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm. By opposing biotech trees, it seems that the activists have gotten it backward. The risks to the environment, specifically to wild forests, are far too great to postpone further research and development of genetically enhanced trees. The only sensible conclusion is that imposing a United Nations' moratorium on GM trees risks serious and irreversible harm to the earth's wild forests.
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.


Regionalization of Biotech Investments the Only Hope for Africa

- James Wachai, August 27, 2006 http://www.gmoafrica.org/2006/08/regionalization-of-biotech-investments.html

Should Africa regionalize biotechnology investment? This is one of the key issues in the draft report on the future of biotechnology in Africa, prepared by a panel of eminent African scientists and policy makers.
The panel, set up by the Africa Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), has "proposed a key biotechnology mission for each of Africa's regions where such investments will have the largest potential to boost development and nurture excellence."

The proposal envisages, for instance, concentrating HIV/AIDS-related biotech in sub-Saharan Africa, where infections remain astronomically high.

This proposal has aroused controversy – unnecessary one – to the extent that some countries are considering torpedoing it. These countries fear being starved of biotech-related research funds, because, if the proposal is implemented, attention will henceforth focus on consensually agreed centers of excellence.
Such fears are misplaced and selfish, to say the least. Biotechnology investment should never be a one-man-show. The proposal's critics are reading mischief where there is none. They are construing regionalization to mean zoning.

Cross-border partnership remains critical in biotech work. Prof. Calestous Juma, the panel's chair, has made it very clear that the proposal's sole mission is to cluster biotech investments in regions where Return on Investment (ROI) will be high. Such investments will also be tailored to meeting immediate and/or long-term needs of the regions where they'll be located.

The proposal is clear that countries would not be denied opportunities to indulge in their own biotechnology investments. "[The proposals are] not saying that we shouldn't put money into crops in Southern Africa. It's just saying that, from the way we look at it, HIV/AIDS is a critical issue in this region, so it can be taken up as a key area of investment for biotech," explains Aggrey Ambali, coordinator of the Nepad African Biosciences Initiative.

All scientists of goodwill must support this proposal. Biotechnology-related centers of excellence stand to hasten the integration of genetically modified crops and other biotech products into Africa's economy. As it stands now, biotech research in Africa is uncoordinated. It's a case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing. This is unfortunate.

Time has come to change the course. By according unreserved support to the proposed regionalization of biotech investment, Africa's agriculture and health sectors stand to gain immensely.


Arkansas State's Ag Chief Sees No Threat to Rice Eaters or Environment

- Pine Bluff Commercial, August 31, 2006 http://www.pbcommercial.com/

LITTLE ROCK (AP) - The discovery of trace amounts of unapproved genetically engineered rice in U.S. long-grain rice supplies poses no threat to either consumers or the environment, state Agriculture Secretary Richard Bell says. Bell briefed state legislators Wednesday on the issue, which he said was mostly a regulatory and marketing concern.

In an appearance before a joint meeting of the House and Senate Interim Committees on Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development, Bell said he had gone through three similar episodes during his 18 years with the federal Agriculture Department and 27 years with Riceland Foods of Stuttgart, the world's largest rice miller and marketer.

All those cases _ corn blight, problems with wheat exports to Japan, and dioxin mixed with soybean meal _ went through similar stages, he said: a search for answers, followed by turmoil and, ultimately, the conclusion that the issue was overstated.

"I think this will follow that same pattern as we work through it," Bell said. Since Aug. 18, when the USDA announced the discovery, the September futures price of rice on the Chicago Board of Trade has dropped from $9.83 per hundredweight to $8.47 per hundredweight, a 14 percent decline.

Three lawsuits have been filed in Arkansas accusing Bayer CropScience _ which developed the genetically engineered rice _ of negligence in handling the experimental grain.

One of the suits also accuses Riceland, which has said it first learned of the problem in January, of negligence and fraudulent concealment. Bell said U.S. rice was neither "tainted" nor "contaminated."

"The only place that we really have a potential problem at the present time is, in fact, in western Europe, in the European Union, which is made up of 25 countries, where genetically engineered foods have been slow to gain acceptance," Bell said. He said rice is moving in the domestic market "and business is going ahead as usual."


Drought-resistant Crops Face Hurdles

- Debbie Carlson, Wall Street Journal, Aug 30 2006

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 something -- 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 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, Mr. Fernandez said, in regard 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 to 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 Department of Agriculture before being able to be grown commercially.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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," Mr. Doering said.

Jane Rissler, senior scientist at the Union for Concerned Scientists, said in the 20 years she has followed genetic engineering, there has been heavy interest in drought-tolerant crops.

For the past 20 years there has 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 that transgenic crops are safe, she said.

"That's the viewpoint from [which] 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," Ms. Rissler said.

Mr. Doering agreed with Mr. 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 far away, it is too early to predict what regulatory trials will be required for the two U.S. companies studying drought tolerance -- Monsanto Co. and Pioneer, a DuPont company.

William Niebur, DuPont vice president, Crop Genetics Research and Development, said: "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, Mr. 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," he said.


Insights Into Feeding the World

- Hembree Brandon, Delta Farm Press, September 01, 2006 http://deltafarmpress.com/ (via checkbiotech.org)

Perhaps no individual has done more to save people from hunger and starvation over the past six-plus decades than Norman Borlaug, whose "Green Revolution" in the 1960s helped farmers in developing countries use high-yield technologies to revolutionize grain crops production.

The Iowa farm boy, now 92 years old and still going strong, has spent 62 of those years working in food-deficit countries, in the process helping to save millions of lives, and being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and countless other honors.

A new book, The Man Who Fed The World, by Leon Hesser, will be out Sept. 5. It chronicles the life and achievements of this remarkable man, those who've worked with him, and those who are continuing to carry elements of the Green Revolution to areas of the world still confronting food shortages, famine, and starvation.

If you've never had the opportunity to hear Dr. Borlaug, there's a radio interview with him, conducted Aug. 9 by Penn Jillette (the big guy of the show biz team, Penn & Teller), that is well worth the hour of listening time. It's at [ http://podcast.penn.freefm.com/penn/25352.mp3 ]http://podcast.penn.freefm.com/penn/25352.mp3.

Borlaug doesn't mince words when it comes to defending modern agricultural practices. Some comments from the broadcast:

"(Despite doomsday predictions) it's possible to produce enough food to feed the predicted 10 billion people of the future. The more difficult problem is distributing that food equitably once it's produced and to be sure we can do it without destroying the environment and to have funding for additional research into new biotechnology and transgenics."

"In 1950, total world production of all major cereal grains was about 620 million tons; in 2000, it was more than 1.9 billion tons. (With conventional technologies) we'd have had to cut down approximately three times as much forest or plowed up three times as much grazing landto produce a harvest equivalent to 2000. That's how much land high-yield technology saved for Mother Nature."

"If we're interested in tranquil world conditions for our sons, daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, they won't be built on empty stomachs and human misery. When we have widespread misery in many African and Asian countries, it's a very fertile ground for sowing seeds of disruption by extremists."

"(Those against genetically-engineered crops take) a ridiculous position. If we look at the genetic makeup of bread wheat, which constitutes more than 95 percent of all the wheat in the world, it's a natural cross done in pre-history of wild wheat and two other wild grasses, producing the basic chromosome we've used for traditional genetic modification and more recently with transgenics. (Opposition to GMO crops) is a lot of nonsense."

"Same thing with organic versus chemical fertilizers. For God's sake, I've always said, 'Use all the organic fertilizer that's available, but don't come around Third World nations telling them they can produce all the food they need with organic fertilizer.' (If we tried to substitute manure for chemical fertilizer) we'd have to increase world cattle population by about six-foldIt's a lot of nonsense, and it comes from people who've never produced one ton of food in their entire lifetime."


Scientist Challenges Anti-GM findings

- Anthony Fletcher, Food Navigator, Sept. 1, 2006 www.foodnavigator.com

An Australian scientist has challenged claims that a GM crop may produce dangerous herbicides in human intestines. Dr Christopher Preston of the University of Adelaide, Australia, wrote this week that Jeffrey Smith's assertion that LibertyLink crops could pose a risk to human health were an "example how a few kernels of truth can be dressed up into a royal banquet".

Jeffrey Smith wrote on the Institute for Responsible Technology website, a source of anti-GM information, that a previously unidentified danger exists from Bayer's LibertyLink crops. LibertyLink crops are genetically modified to be tolerant to glufosinate because they have been transformed with an enzyme that acetylates glufosinate.

"After you eat the GM corn, some inactive herbicide may become reactivated inside your gut and cause a toxic reaction," he wrote. "In addition, a gene that was inserted into the corn might transfer into the DNA of your gut bacteria, producing long-term effects. These are just a couple of the many potential side-effects of GM crops that critics say put the public at risk."

According to Smith, whose forthcoming book on the health risks of GM food is out this autumn, the problem lies in NAG, a metabolite of the herbicide glufosinate that can be converted back to glufosinate and cause all sorts of problems. Because glufosinate is a highly toxic compound causing all sorts of physiological and psychological problems, this poses a 'unique risk'.

Preston however does not fully agree with Smith's conclusions. "Transgenic glufosinate resistant plants do convert glufosinate into NAG; however, very little if any NAG ends up in the grain and none in processed foods," he wrote in response on the AgWorldBio website, which provides information on agricultural biotechnology. "The chances of consuming any significant amount of NAG are very low."

Preston however did accept that small amounts of NAG could be converted to glufosinate in the gut. Some rat experiments have shown this to be the case. However, he said that the conversion is fairly poor. "It is true that transgenic glufosinate resistant plants metabolise glufosinate to NAG. It is also true that a small amount of NAG can be converted into glufosinate on passage through mammalian intestinal tracts.

"However, the rest of the steps required for Smith's 'unique risk' do not occur. NAG appears only at low concentrations, if at all, in grain from glufosinate-treated crops and not at all in processed foods. "Therefore, the chances of consuming sufficient NAG to convert to sufficient glufosinate in the gut to produce any measurable effect must be exceptionally remote."

The issue of GM food has again been in the headlines following the discovery in the US of traces of unapproved GM rice in commercial batches. The EC adopted a decision last week requiring imports of long grain rice from the USA to be certified as free from the unauthorised GM (genetically modified) LL Rice 601from Bayer.


Modern Biotechnology as an Integral Supplement to Conventional Plant Breeding: The Prospects and Challenges

- Prem P. Jauhar, Crop Sci 46:1841-1859; 2006 http://crop.scijournals.org/
(USDA–ARS, Northern Crop Science Laboratory, Fargo, ND 58105; prem.jauhar.at.ndsu.edu)

"It would be an unsound fancy to expect that things which have never yet been done can be done except by methods which have never been tried. - Sir Francis Bacon"

The art of plant breeding was developed long before the laws of genetics became known. The advent of the principles of genetics at the turn of the last century catalyzed the growth of breeding, making it a science-based technology that has been instrumental in substantial improvements in crop plants. Largely through exploitation of hybrid vigor, grain yields of several cereal crops were substantially increased. Intervarietal and interspecific hybridizations, coupled with appropriate cytogenetic manipulations, proved useful in moving genes for resistance to diseases and insect pests from suitable alien donors into crop cultivars.

Plant improvement has been further accelerated by biotechnological tools of gene transfer, to engineer new traits into plants that are very difficult to introduce by traditional breeding. The successful deployment of transgenic approaches to combat insect pests and diseases of important crops like rice (Oryza sativa L.), wheat (Triticum aestivum L.), maize (Zea mays L.), barley (Hordeum vulgare L.), and cotton (Gossypium hirsutum L.) is a remarkable accomplishment. Biofortification of crops constitutes another exciting development in tackling global hunger and malnutrition.

Golden Rice, genetically enriched with vitamin A and iron, has, for example, the real potential of saving millions of lives. Yet another exciting application of transgenic technology is in the production of edible vaccines against deadly diseases. How these novel approaches to gene transfer can effectively supplement the conventional breeding programs is described. The current resistance to acceptance of this novel technology should be assessed and overcome so that its full potential in crop improvement can be realized.


NAC Overexpression Makes Rice Drought, Stress Tolerant

- CropBiotech Net http://www.isaaa.org/kc

Drought and salinity are major abiotic stresses to rice production, and have long been targeted in designing better rice. To cope with such adverse conditions, plants develop physiological and biochemical strategies, such as by activating stress-related genes and synthesizing diverse functional proteins. The _expression of such proteins is regulated by specific transcription factors, designated as NAM, ATAF, and CUC (NAC).
After successfully over-expressing NAC in rice japonica cultivar Nipponbare, Honghong Hu and colleagues of various research centers in Wuhan, China report that 'Overexpressing a NAM, ATAF, and CUC (NAC) transcription factor enhances drought resistance and salt tolerance in rice' Their findings appear in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists found that transgenic rice had better drought resistance, and 22-35% higher seed setting than controls in the field under severe drought stress conditions at the reproductive stage. The transgenic rice also showed significantly improved drought resistance and salt tolerance at the vegetative stage. In all cases, growth and productivity were not affected in transgenic rice plants, as there were no significant differences in photosynthesis rates between transgenic plants and controls. When scientists profiled gene _expression patterns, they found that a large number of stress-related genes were up-regulated in the transgenic plants. All these suggest that the technique holds promise in improving drought and salinity tolerance in rice.
Read the complete article at http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/
full/103/35/12987, or view the abstract at http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/abstract/103/35/12987.


India Organizes International Agri-Biotech Conference

- CropBiotech Net http://www.isaaa.org/kc

The ILSI-India and ILSI International Food Biotechnology Committee in collaboration with the government of India are organizing the International Conference on Recent Scientific Developments in Agricultural Biotechnology: Sharing Experience and Knowledge, to be held September 29-30, 2006 in New Delhi, India.

The conference will review the latest developments in agriculture biotechnology, with a view to assess how traditional breeding methods can be supplemented by the modern technological tools in breaking yield barriers in different crops, as well as in improving quality and nutritional value of foods with the objective of achieving food security for India. For more information, visit http://india.ilsi.org/About+Us/
forthcomingactivities.htm or contact Ms. Rekha Sinha at ilsiindia@nda.vsnl.net.in.


Incurable Optimist

- Douglas S. Barasch (editor), On Earth, Winter 2005- from Natural Resources Defense Council, http://www.nrdc.org/onearth/05win/editor.asp (Hat tip: Rick Roush)

Sometimes I get kidded about my optimism. But I'm no fool. I know the world is a place of heartbreak.

I contemplate the ravages of starvation among children in Sudan or Kenya, and I think of my own children, who through some stroke of luck were born into abundance. Faced with a child's hunger -- how does a parent bear such sorrow? This question led us to a man who is transforming agriculture in villages across Africa. His work could help feed millions who now cling to the edge of survival. Confronted by incomprehensible suffering, people like Pedro Sánchez envision a new future and discover solutions based on the best available knowledge, even when the data might challenge conventional wisdom.

For example, Sánchez believes that one of the keys to ending hunger is the wise use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). No subject is more controversial among environmentalists. Mendel in the Kitchen, a new book by Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown, agrees with Sánchez that we should reach a greater acceptance of GMOs, especially given their promise to feed the hungry in developing countries. In his review of the book, Richard Manning, the author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, points to the important distinction between the science of genetics, which is still too little understood by the general public, and the abuse of this knowledge by multinational conglomerates such as Monsanto exerting a shameful proprietary control over these promising technologies.

Science sometimes takes us to places that are tough, new, and controversial. But over time, the facts win out -- as in the virtual consensus over global climate. We know that automobiles emit hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases every year, pushing the earth's thermostat into the danger zone -- the direst threat of all. Yet despite this incontrovertible truth, Detroit executives still seem hooked on cars that are profitable in the short term but get fewer miles per gallon than Henry Ford's Model T. Fortunately, a hopeful, unlikely collaboration among industry executives, labor leaders, environmentalists, and former high-level government officials of all political stripes seems poised to yield a plan that will demand more stringent fuel-economy standards that are linked -- pragmatically -- to some innovative market incentives. The result could be a revolutionary breakthrough in one of the world's most dangerous cases of industrial gridlock.

The key to any solution, it seems, is an open mind.

On many issues the science is emergent and thus far from settled. Our readers can be confident that on such questions we will continue to publish independent and challenging thinking from a variety of different perspectives. After all, you can't find the truth if you're afraid of what the truth might reveal. An open mind is best when united with a courageous heart, intellectual rigor, and, yes, optimism.


The Fertile Mind

- Elizabeth Royte, On Earth, Winter 2005; Full story at http://www.nrdc.org/onearth/05win/briefings2.asp

'A renowned expert in tropical agriculture is designing a green revolution to reduce Africa's staggering hunger'

Pedro Sánchez won the World Food Prize in 2002 and a MacArthur Foundation award in 2003 for his pioneering work in raising food yields in developing nations. The director of the tropical agriculture program at Columbia University's Earth Institute, Sánchez is also co-chairman of the Hunger Task Force of the United Nations' Millennium Project, which has set ambitious targets for reducing poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women by 2015. Sánchez spoke recently about his work with Elizabeth Royte.

Why should people in the United States care what happens to African farmers?
Land resources are more threatened in Africa than anywhere else in the world. There is very little forest left outside of the Congo basin. The loss of biodiversity has been tremendous. And environmental destruction equals poverty. The people who can fix the problem are the farmers. They're the ones in charge of the biggest chunk of arable land.

The first green revolution led to an enormous increase in food production, but at a very high environmental cost. Could that happen again in Africa?
The original green revolution of the sixties and seventies was one of the most amazing achievements of humankind in the last century. Production tripled in the developing world. In India, 200 million people were going to starve to death, and now India is a food exporter. But in those days we weren't conscious of environmental issues. Fertilizer was so cheap, especially in the United States, and we applied too many pesticides to control insects and diseases. Forty years later, we know a lot more. We know the importance of organic fertilizers, of zero or minimum tillage to decrease erosion, and of plants taking carbon dioxide from the air and sequestering it in the soil, not only to negate global warming but as the basic energy source of microorganisms. We've learned that there are beneficial bugs, that not all bugs are bad. So the kind of green revolution we are advocating in Africa now is one that is ecologically sound.

Still, some environmentalists criticize you for favoring the use of genetically modified seeds in Africa.
Quite a bit of Bt [Bacillus thuringiensis] corn and cotton is being cultivated in Africa right now because it cuts down on insecticide use, just as it does here. So far, the scientific evidence shows no detrimental effect from genetically modified crops that hybrid crops have not shown. This is very important. In an open-pollinated crop like corn, with separate male and female flowers, the male pollen, like a sperm, has to reach the female flower. It's wind-dispersed. So it can fertilize some of the native female corn flowers. But that has been happening since we've had hybrid corn, for almost 90 years. My emphasis is on using biotechnology and conventional breeding for traits that the poor like and need. The poor do not need [Monsanto's herbicide-tolerant] Roundup Ready soybeans. But they certainly could use a drought-tolerant corn. And there are some important advances in conventional breeding and biotechnology that seem to be headed in that direction. In India, which has a lot of saline soils, breeders are putting genes of mangroves, which grow in saltwater, into rice to make it salt-tolerant.

But how can farmers be self-sufficient if they need genetically modified seeds?
We're not going for self-sufficiency. We're going for ecologically sound, profitable farming. I want the woman with five kids to be well nourished and get out of poverty. But you're not going to get rich. I don't care how much corn you can grow on one hectare of land. It just isn't big enough.

What if all that woman wants to do is to feed her family?
She wants to get rich! There's no lack of motivation here. Some of these farmers in Kenya suddenly realized they could put only part of the farm into corn because it was yielding three times as much per hectare. So they planted kale, onions, and tomatoes that they could sell to the markets. They began to make money. Then they diversified and got a milk cow, and that changed everything. We have farmers now who have two or three cows. They sell the milk to their neighbors and they're making money. They're even selling manure.

Your recommendations have implications beyond individual prosperity, don't they?
Getting these people out of poverty and making them trading partners is good business for everyone. We're turning them into consumers. And we're talking about a market in Africa of about 800 million people. But it's not just economics. In a globalized world the poor can watch CNN and see how well others live; this is a cause of unrest, and of migration. To address the root causes of terrorism you have to eliminate poverty. So increasing agricultural production and eliminating poverty is good for everybody. It's good for business. It's good for security. It's also good for us to feel like human beings, and that's one of the reasons I got into this business.


Harvest of Hope?

- Richard Manning, Reviews, On Earth, Winter 2005 http://www.nrdc.org/onearth/05win/reviews.asp

'Agriculture is a colossal environmental problem; genetic science could be part of the solution.

'MENDEL IN THE KITCHEN A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods by Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown; Joseph Henry Press, 370 pp., $24.95

A young postdoctoral student in a molecular biology lab once told me the problem with her line of work is that she can't explain to her mother what she does. This is more than a personal problem. If the rest of us benighted laypeople could get some sort of idea of what is being done in those labs, we would better understand the depth of the world's environmental problems and the character of life itself. Indeed, those scientists who tinker with DNA have drifted into isolation from the rest of us, simply because they see something we cannot.

One of the things we need to see is that the controversy about genetically engineered foods is misguided. The problem is not genetically engineered crops; it is crops. The world is in terrible trouble because of the fundamental design of agriculture. Genetic science is finally developing some tools that may at least help with a redesign that is sustainable.

Still, when the world in general thinks about gene science, it thinks about genetic engineering. I wish we could get beyond this, and we will, but not because of any sudden outbreak of rationality. We will get beyond it because gene science has moved on to something far bigger and more profound than genetic engineering.

Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown's Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods helps us move on to these larger issues. It does so with the simple device of clarity. The book is not so much a polemic as a primer, delivering in plain language and apt analogy the nuts and bolts of genetic science and its history, and ultimately making the case that the opponents of genetic engineering are wrong. That young postdoc should give this book to her mother.

The clarity of the book stems in part from its coauthorship: Fedoroff is a leading geneticist and molecular biologist and Brown is a journalist, a combination that frames a comfortable doorway into the arcane world of genetics. I too am a journalist, and I got my education in this discipline, such as it is, by traveling to some 20 countries over the past five years, visiting labs and interviewing scientists, plant breeders and gene jockeys alike.

It's not at all easy to comprehend the fundamentals of biotechnology in an unheated lab in Shanghai in March, slurping bad tea and listening to an explanation of polymerase chain reactions from someone for whom English is a not-even-close second language. Yet in an odd way it's also easier, because at some point in the second or third megabyte of repeated naive questions from a jet-lagged visitor, the exasperated scientist will leap up, drag the questioner to a microscope, and say, "Look. Here. This is DNA." And then one understands that what is abstraction to most of us is as clear and readable to these folks as a calendar on the wall.

Fedoroff and Brown's book can do something like this for all of us. We are shown, not told, the evidence for science's key arguments in support of genetic engineering: that bumping genes around is nothing new, nor is playing God with various domesticated life forms.

The domestication of plants 10,000 years ago was the big bang of civilization, and it was indeed de facto genetic engineering. Proto-farmers moved genes through the natural-selection pressure that is domestication, a favoring of mutants that also made a wolf into a beribboned Pekinese. Everything humans have done since, including that which we call genetic engineering, has consequences that are trivial by comparison.

The tinkering accelerated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after Gregor Mendel's insights sent plant breeders to seriously rearrange genes, even before they knew that such things existed. Plant breeders crossed species lines -- that is, performed the equivalent of crossing a human and a chimpanzee -- at least as long ago as the late nineteenth century, when Luther Burbank, the scion of modern plant breeding, did his seminal work. Long-standing techniques of biotechnology, such as artificially forcing mutations, tissue culturing, and hybridization, have rearranged the genomes of domesticates with the same grace and precision Hurricane Charley used to rearrange Florida. Genetic engineering is a laser in comparison.

In fact, biotechnology comprises a wide range of tools, and genetic engineering is only one of them. Further, while the rest of us have been off fighting about the single tool of genetic engineering, science has made others far more powerful. The most fundamental of these tools is raw information, a part of biotechnology that is coming to be called functional genomics. It involves mapping and sequencing genes to the point where they can be read as clearly as that calendar on the wall, and it is telling us a lot.

Science has learned that genes routinely flow through the environment between wild and domestic plants and have done so for 10,000 years. Genes cross species lines on their own; mutation is common; genomes are full of mistakes, junk, clutter, and jumping genes; and all of life has far more in common than the best of genetic science could have imagined 15 years ago. Genetic science is now learning that distinctions like species and race are artificial constructs. In the end, this emerging picture of the squishy, protean, and chaotic nature of life is going to be a lot more unsettling than genetic engineering. It is nonetheless accurate.

Midway through their admirable book, Fedoroff and Brown quote Robert Bud, the historian of science, with an idea that gets to the heart of all this: "In the history of biotechnology...lies the story of the twentieth century wrestling with the concept of life." And the twenty-first. Beneath the philosophy, though, there are practical implications for agriculture, poverty, overpopulation, and the environment, each of the intertwined strands of our world's Gordian knot.