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Date:

November 14, 2006

Subject:

Food Aid; Block Technology to Ruin Agriculture; Every Tool in the Toolbox;Tomatoes Against Drought; Abandoning Science

 

Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - November 14, 2006

* An Ethiopian Scientist's Take on Genetically Modified Crops
* India: Agriculture Secretary to Take Stock of Coimbatore Protest
* India: Farmers' Fears on GE Crops Allayed
* USDA Seeks Nominations for Advisory Committee on Biotechnology
* Greenpeace Activists Board Ship in Protest
* German Portal - Biosafety of Genetically Modified Plants
* There's No Chance That This Technology Will Replace GM
* Tomatoes Against Drought
* Agricultural Input Traits: Past, Present and Future
* Ecological Impacts of GM Crops - Ten Years of Experimental Field Research
* Environmental Risks of Genetic Engineering
* Going Nuclear: Patrick Moore

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An Ethiopian Scientist's Take on Genetically Modified Crops

- James Wachai, November 12, 2006. Embedded links at http://www.gmoafrica.org/

Two news headlines caught my attention last week. One, by the Associated Press (AP) read, "U.S. Sends Relief Supplies to Ethiopia."

This headline referred to the ongoing campaign by the U.S. military to airlift relief food to flood -stricken residents of Eastern Ethiopia. I am imagining that this food aid is in the form of soy cooking oil, soy milk, corn (maize) flour, corn cooking oil - just to mention a few - all requisitioned from the U.S.

The other headline, by the U.S.-based news magazine Capital Press, screamed, "Ethiopian scientist decries genetic engineering." It was an interview Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, an Ethiopian scientist and a harsh critic of genetically modified food, gave to journalist Terence L. Day of Capital Press.

Dr. Tewolde was in the U.S., under the sponsorship of Ashton and Virginia O'Donnell Endowment, and delivered lectures at Whitman College and Washington State University.

It's important that the major highlights of Dr. Tewolde's interview with the Capital Press be presented here because they are the ones that will shape this opinion piece.
* Agricultural technologies such as genetic engineering that work well in large farms, industrialized agriculture are ill-suited to developing nations.
* Genetically modified crops pose risks to traditional agriculture, and can threaten the lives of commercial farmers in the United States.
* Genetically modified crops destroy biological diversity where they are employed.
* Genetically modified crops are still only a very small percentage of crops that are currently being grown.

First, Dr. Tewolde's remarks against genetically modified crops, bearing in mind the current ongoing efforts by the U.S. government to feed Ethiopia's flood victims, smirks of dishonesty.

It's an open secret, and Dr. Tewolde knows it, that U.S. laws stipulate that all food aid be bought from American farmers. There is no exception, unless in extraordinary circumstances.

So, virtually all the corn and soy that the U.S. military is airlifting to Eastern Ethiopia, is originating from U.S. farmers, and it's genetically modified because this is what most Americans grow and eat.

Dr. Tewolde, by attempting to discredit genetically modified food, yet the same is being used to feed victims of floods in his own country is a bit dishonest. One would have expected Dr.Tewolde to call on his country to reject all food aid from the U.S.

Secondly, the points Dr. Tewolde raise in his interview with the Capital Press, to fault genetically modified crops leave a sour taste in the mouths of those who appreciate their potential benefits.

Dr. Tewolde claims that agricultural genetic engineering is only appropriate for large-scale farmers in industrialized countries. Perhaps, he should read findings of a study published in August this year that found smallholder farmers in South Africa are benefiting from genetically modified crops in the same way as their commercial counterparts.

Nowhere has a scientific inquiry found genetically modified crops a threat to traditional agriculture, as Dr. Tewolde puts it. Farmers in the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Argentina, China, or Spain would tell you that GM crops have not prevented them from practicing organic agriculture.

Dr. Tewolde refers Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer, who was sued by a leading biotechnology company for infringing its GM Canola patent, to illustrate his point. Mr. Schmeiser was found guilty of patent infringement by a competent court, and to attempt to suggest otherwise is outright distortion of facts.

It's also wrong for Dr. Tewolde to claim that "only a very small percentage of crops are currently being grown in the world." Such understatement negates what's actually known about the current global acreage of GMO crops.

According to the latest report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), about 1 billion acres of land in 21 countries are under genetically modified crops.

Dr. Tewolde and others of his ilk must learn to state the true facts about genetically modified crops. A lie, irrespective of how many times it is replayed, will never become a fact.

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India: Agriculture Secretary to Take Stock of Coimbatore Protest

- G. Satyamurty, The Hindu (India), Nov. 13, 2006 http://www.hindu.com

'Government views drive against genetically engineered paddy seriously'

Coimbatore: Agriculture Secretary Surjit K. Choudhary rushed to Coimbatore to take stock of the situation arising out the drive carried out by some organisations against cultivating genetically engineered paddy.
Last Friday, hundreds of farmers and activists uprooted genetically engineered paddy crop on a trial field in Ramanathapuram village at Alandurai, 30 km from here. The local police had registered a case against Tamil Nadu Farmers' Association president K. Chellamuthu and 89 others. The Government took a serious view of the incident and wanted the Agriculture Secretary to look into the issue.

Sharing his views on the incident, Mr. Choudhary wondered how anyone could take law into their hands. "If you want to oppose something, there are ways of democratic protest. You could have given a memorandum to the Collector and requested him to monitor whether the prescribed regimen is followed," he told The Hindu. He pointed out that the Union Environment Ministry had prescribed a certain regimen for the trial of GE seeds and the district administration had to ensure that this was complied with.

Mr. Choudhary said that biotechnology was one of the most important developments in the field of agriculture. "You cannot stay away from it in the World Trade Organisation system."

He held the lack of technology transfer in agriculture the single most important reason for backwardness in farming practices. "China and Israel are far ahead of India in agricultural productivity because of technology," he said.

He wondered whether "bigotry and prejudice" should be allowed to come in the way of introducing technology and improving productivity at a time when the returns from agriculture were declining. "By trying to block technology you are trying to ruin agriculture in Tamil Nadu," he said.

Mr. Choudhary added that biotechnology should be used in a "positive manner" and it was imperative to train farmers in the latest advances. "We should also think of ways and means to bring new technologies within the reach of the poor farmer. And no prejudice should be permitted to prevent technology," he said.

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India: Farmers' Fears on GE Crops Allayed

- The Hindu, The Hindu (India), Nov. 13, 2006 http://www.hindu.com

Allaying the fears of farmers regarding genetically engineered rice, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) has clarified that it has been proved through "precise bio-safety experiments" that proteins contained in such crops is non-toxic to human beings and animals.

Reacting to a recent incident at Alandurai, about 20 km from here, where a group of farmers and green activists had destroyed GM rice plants, the TNAU said in a release that the development of genetically modified crops has been recognised the world over for the past two decades as a method of crop improvement.

Modern biotechnological approaches were employed to improve specific desired traits of crops, which were otherwise difficult through conventional methods, it said. No resistance source was available for cotton bollworms among cultivated genotypes and none of the traditional cotton varieties or hybrids is resistant to these pests. This made scientists look for alternative sources and the Bt (Bacillus Thuringiensis) proteins were the answer to the problem of bollworms.

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USDA Seeks Nominations for Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture

- Agricultural Research Service, Office of the Under Secretary, Research, Education, and Economics, USDA.

The Agricultural Research Service is requesting nominations for qualified persons to serve as members of the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21). The charge for the AC21 is two-fold: to examine the long-term impacts of biotechnology on the U.S. food and agriculture system and USDA; and to provide guidance to USDA on pressing individual issues, identified by the Office of the Secretary, related to the application of biotechnology in agriculture.

Written nominations must be received by fax or postmarked on or before December 11, 2006. All nomination materials should be sent to Michael Schechtman, Designated Federal Official, Office of the Deputy Secretary, USDA, 202B Jamie L. Whitten Federal Building, 14th and Independence Avenue, SW., Washington, DC 20250.
Phone (202) 720-3817.
Full notice:
http://a257.g.akamaitech.net/7/257/2422/01jan20061800/edocket.access.gpo.gov/2006/pdf/E6-19029.pdf

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Green Activists Board Ship in Protest

The St. Petersburg Times (Russia), Nov. 14, 2006
http://www.sptimesrussia.com/index.php?action_id=2&story_id=19478

Three activists from the international environmental organization Greenpeace on Monday chained themselves to a cargo ship carrying more than 5,000 tons of genetically modified soya en route from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg.Greenpeace has been campaigning in the past several years for a complete ban on production of GM soya.

The three activists, who got on board of "Rusich-1" on Sunday to take samples of soya — tests have already revealed the soya is GM — were detained by the police. Greenpeace's boat "Arctic Sunrise" caught up with "Rusich-1" on Sunday in the Baltic Sea, about 200 miles away from St. Petersburg

Exported to Europe from the U.S., Brazil and Argentina as animal feed, the GM soya is grown on deforested Amazon rainforest area, Greenpeace says. "Russia does not produce genetically modified soya, so whatever GM soya there is in the country, is all imported," said Natalya Olefirenko, head of Greenpeace's Gene Program in Russia. "There is little control over the import of GM products and we see a lack of necessary expertise. The only solution — until reliable independent research is done to establish the risks and damages of GM soya — is to suspend all imports of these products to Russia."

Russian legislation does not require any products made with GM ingredients to be marked with an appropriate label. According to Greenpeace, 77 percent of the imported GM soya arrives to Russia by sea via the Amsterdam-St. Petersburg route.

St. Petersburg's strategic location as a sea port has recently made the city an object of harsh criticism by environmentalists who cite the transport of cargo including radioactive nuclear waste through the city as a danger to public health.

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Biosafety of Genetically Modified Plants

http://GMO-Safety.eu information portal brings transparency to biosafety research

Does genetically modified maize have an impact on beneficial insects? How does genetically modified oilseed rape affect pollen-collecting bees? How can transgenic pollen and seeds be prevented from spreading in the environment? These are just some of the questions being investigated in biological safety research worldwide. Answers and research findings, which are otherwise usually made public only at scientific conferences and congresses, are accessible to the public at www.gmo-safety.eu.

The information portal was commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and over recent years has become the central information hub for everything to do with biological safety research in Germany. Now the website is also available in English. At www.gmo-safety.eu interested laymen, journalists and politicians can find out what effect the modification of plant DNA has on the ecological interaction between plants and their environment.

The primary focus of the site is on crops - maize, oilseed rape, potatoes and cereals. Other topics include the development of more accurate tools for plant genetic engineering and concepts for post-market monitoring. A comprehensive database provides clear information about current and completed research projects, their aims and results. The research information is supplemented by background reports, interviews and insights into the day-to-day work of researchers. The site also presents major international studies on the environmental safety of GM plants.

The website accompanies the BMBF's support programme for biosafety research into genetically modified crops, which was launched in 2001. The ministry's aim is to create greater transparency and to offer the public the opportunity to form an informed opinion about the opportunities and threats of transgenic plants.

Contact: Sandra Wilcken, GMO-Safety.eu Team, Genius GmbH, Germany, www.genius.de; press@gmo-safety.eu

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There's No Chance That This Technology Will Replace GM

- Tony Combes, Guardian (UK) Nov. 7, 2006

'Genetic modification will remain a vital tool in the global production of crops.'

I seemed to have heard Jeremy Rifkin's advocacy of marker assisted selection (MAS) plant breeding - "new", "cutting edge" - somewhere before (This crop revolution may succeed where GM failed, October 26). I had. In 2001, Rifkin extolled MAS in the New York Times: "I think that's where the future is," he said.

In order to ensure future agricultural sustainability, plant breeders and scientists need access to a toolbox of technologies. Traditional breeding by cross-pollination, MAS and GM technology are like having three grades of toolbox. The first is tried and trusted, but the tools are limited and precision is difficult. MAS allows one to do a bit more, focusing better on some more specific objectives. But the way to do things exactly is to know just what you want to do and to have a set of precision tools for doing it. GM technology is well on its way to achieving that, transferring only the benefits farmers want in order to improve their crops, without the limits of traditional plant breeding.

In the words of Mike Gale, an emeritus cereal geneticist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich: "If we are going to produce enough food locally to help feed the world, plant breeders need every tool in the toolbox."

Rifkin is letting his hatred of the use of biotechnology in agriculture get ahead of his better judgment when suggesting MAS could be a "replacement" for GM techniques. The two technologies are very different.

For example, Rifkin claims that MAS works by locating "desired traits in other varieties or wild relatives of a particular food crop, then crossbreeding those plants with the existing commercial varieties to improve the crop". That is a very blunt tool; it can take years to identify the correct markers. In comparison, gene splicing inserts a beneficial gene into a plant, thereby imparting a specific property. That might, for example, be herbicide tolerance, reducing the amount of herbicide the farmer needs to spray - as the United States Department of Agriculture reported is happening in America. Or it might be resistance to insect attack, saving countless applications of old-fashioned insecticides especially in resource-poor countries.

And it now includes drought tolerance, enabling plants to grow in the semi-arid conditions which the Stern report last week identified as one of the most serious challenges of global warming in the developing world. Crops are already being field tested, but will activists permit African farmers to benefit in time?

All these advances are bringing hugely important agro-environmental benefits, but we know little about what MAS can deliver. Not surprisingly, even European farmers can now choose the benefits of GM corn/maize - those in Spain have done so continuously since 1998.

The Agricultural Biotechnology Council's role is to promote understanding through open debate on GM crops and technologies, hence we deplore the misinformation from all NGOs' anti-GM campaigns. Fuelling repetitive media scare stories, while attempting to marginalise those farmers who choose GM crop benefits (and why else would GM harvests repeatedly increase?) is the real failure here.

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Tony Combes is deputy chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, and director of corporate affairs for Monsanto UK www.abcinformation.org.

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Tomatoes Against Drought

- Lukas Herwig, Checkbiotech, Nov. 14, 2006 http://www.checkbiotech.org

Without water there is no life, but even in deserts, where water is rarely available, life is possible. How? A research team in Connecticut asked the same question in their quest to produce a drought resistant tomatoes.

Recently, a research team under the lead of Dr. Roberto Gaxiola, from the University of Connecticut managed to engineer a drought resistant crop plant by enabling the plants to produce more of a specific enzyme called H+-pyrophosphatase (H+-PPase).

Since hunger and famines are still omnipresent issues of our planet, it is of global interest to improve agriculture. Beside political barriers that limit agriculture, several environmental conditions effect global agriculture for these issues and may be fought by researchers. One of most limiting problems is drought.

Different life forms have evolved mechanisms to deal with drought or have even become drought resistant. It is easily imaginable that drought resistant crop plants would provide a great benefit to the global market. Dr. Roberto Gaxiola told Checkbiotech, "Especially arid and semi-arid areas of the planet would benefit the most from such an invention."

To achieve this, the research team first tested if genetically modifying plants so that they produced an increased amount of a specific enzyme, the H+-pyrophosphatase (H+-PPase) AVP1, would result in salt and water stress tolerant Arabidopsis plants. Arabidopsis is commonly used as model organisms. They found that the increased production of enzyme rendered the Arabidopsis plants more resistant to drought.

Thus, encouraged by these positive results they went one step further by testing whether AVP1 could be used to engineer a drought-resistant crop plant. By using a special biological technique they transferred the AVP-1 gene to tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum, a cultivar tomato).

The results were astonishing: an increased root system and an enhanced ability to recover from water deficit stress. Due to a more robust root system, the transgenic tomatoes were able to increase their water uptake during drought periods.

Considering the results of this study, the team concluded that the overexpression of the AVP-1 gene could provide a general strategy to gain drought-resistant crop plants. When Checkbiotech asked Dr. Gaxiola whether his team is testing other plants as well, or is intending to study the effect in other plants, he answered, "Yes, we are currently working with rice and poplar trees and plan to work with legumes."

Since many people are afraid of organisms that have been genetically modified, Checkbiotech asked Dr. Gaxiola what the general public needs to understand about his enhanced tomatoes, Dr. Gaxiola told Checkbiotech, "GMOs should be analyzed on a case by case basis. In this particular case, we are only up-regulating the expression of a natural plant gene conserved through evolution.

The investigations of Dr. Gaxiola and his team are important and stand to improve agricultural situations in many developing countries.

--
Lukas Herwig is studying biology at University of Basel and is a Science Writer for Checkbiotech. Contact him at l.herwig@stud.unibas.ch.

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Agricultural Input Traits: Past, Present and Future

- Castle, L., Wu, G., McElroy, D. 2006. Current Opinion in Biotechnology. 17: 105-112.

For thousands of years farm practices have evolved as new innovations have become available. Farmers want more value per unit of land, clean fields, and high yields with less input. Plants with incorporated pest resistance and herbicide resistance help meet these needs through increased yield, reduced chemical use, and reduced soil impacts.

Although researchers have developed useful traits for a wide variety of plant species, only a few traits are available commercially; however, global adoption of these traits has and continues to increase rapidly. Availability of future traits will be dependent on input not only from researchers, but from governments, interest groups, processors, distributors and ultimately consumers, in addition to the farmers that drive demand for transgenic seed.

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Ecological Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops - Experiences from Ten Years of Experimental Field Research and Commercial Cultivation.

- Sanvido, O., Stark, M., Romeis, J., Bigler, F. Swiss Expert Commitee for Biosafety. 2006. October: 109 pages.

The global area planted with genetically modified (GM) crops has consistently increased each year since GM crops were first commercially cultivated in 1996 reaching 90 million hectares in 2005. GM crops are currently grown by 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries, where 90% of the farmers using the GM technology live in developing countries.

Five countries (USA, Argentina, Brazil, Canada and China) are growing nearly 95% of the total area of these crops and there are four main GM crops that are grown worldwide. Soybean is the principal GM crop occupying most of the global area, followed by maize, cotton and oilseed rape. Herbicide tolerance is the dominant trait that is deployed in all four crops, while maize and cotton are the only two insect resistant GM crops commercialized. Concerns have been raised that the commercial cultivation of GM crops could result in adverse effects on the environment.

Agroscope ReckenholzTänikon Research Station ART was commissioned by the Swiss Expert Committee for Biosafety to review the scientific knowledge on environmental impacts of GM crops deriving from ten years of worldwide experimental field research and commercial cultivation. The sources of information included peer-reviewed scientific journals, scientific books, reports from countries with extensive GM crop cultivation, as well as reports from international organizations.

For some of the questions addressed only limited information was available from commercial cultivation. Therefore most chapters of the study include to some extent scientific data deriving from large-scale experimental field research. The authors recognize that results from large-scale cultivation systems, as often characteristic in the countries growing GM crops, have to be transferred with care to small-scale agricultural systems like in Switzerland.

However, we believe that the worldwide scientific knowledge and the existing practical experiences should be taken into account for future decision making when discussing potential risks of field releases of GM crops in Switzerland.

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Environmental Risks of Genetic Engineering

- Clark, E.A. 2006. Euphytica. 148: 47-60.

Before release into commerce, genetically engineered organisms are first assessed for possible risks, including risks to the environment. The present paper first identifies the environmental risks recognized by regulators, and reviews the parameters considered predictive of risk.

Recent field-scale studies suggest opportunities for improvement of the environmental risk assessment process. Risks unique to genetically engineered crops – if any – could pertain to the specific traits chosen for commercialization and to unintended trait expression caused by the process of transgene insertion itself. Both the standard against which to compare genetically engineered traits and the scale of exposure need to be considered when assessing environmental impact.

Evidence of environmental risk in the recognized areas of weediness on agricultural land, invasiveness of unmanaged systems, and non-target impacts from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) maize is presented. Targeted, statistically sound, rigorously conducted, multi-trophic studies analogous to the Field Scale Evaluation trials recently completed in the UK are needed to clarify the many questions which remain unanswered.

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Going Nuclear

- Edward Weinman, Iceland Review, November 13, 2006.

The co-founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, left the prominent environmental organization in 1986 because it began "abandoning science and logic." Now the director of Greenspirit, Moore speaks out for the nuclear industry, the forest industry and supports genetically engineered crops. Is he still an environmentalist?

Edward Weinman: What are the most serious environmental problems facing us today?

Patrick Moore: Poverty, deforestation in the tropics, micronutrient deficiency (malnutrition), urban sprawl, population growth and air pollution.

EW: You left Greenpeace in 1986. Why leave what was perhaps the first environmental organization with clout?

PM: I left because I saw my colleagues abandoning science and logic and adopting zero-tolerance policies that made no sense. In many ways, Greenpeace is now promoting policies that are environmentally negative. Genetically modified crops reduce pesticide use; nuclear energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions; sustainable forestry produces the most abundant renewable material; aquaculture produces healthy oils and protein, and takes pressure off the wild stocks.

EW: How do we reconcile global needs to exploit natural resources for food and energy with the need to protect the environment? Are these needs incompatible?

PM: There are many ways to reconcile human needs with environmental protection. Sustainability is about continuing to satisfy civilization's need for food, energy, and materials while at the same time reducing negative environmental impact. This can be done through changes in behavior (e.g., energy conservation) and technological change (e.g., using nuclear energy and renewable energy instead of fossil fuel).

Full interview at http://www.icelandreview.com/icelandreview/features/politics_and_business/?ew_news_onlyarea=&ew_news_onlyposition=0&cat_id=21123&ew_0_a_id=244252

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