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December 8, 2006


US Congress Says Yes; Disregarding Precautionary Principle; Another "Green Revolution"; Biotech Crops are a Boon; GM Mustard


Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - Dec. 8, 2006

* U.S. Congress Votes for Congressional Gold Medal for Borlaug
* Giving Thanks for Dr. Norman Borlaug
* WTO Ruling Disregards Political Precautionary Principle: Favors Science-Based 'Approach' to EU Biotech Rules
* GM Crops: Another "Green Revolution" or a Danger?
* What Does GM Potatoes Mean for Future Blight Control?
* Public Opinion About GM Foods Remains 'Up For Grabs'
* ... Americans Munch Away on Biotech Crops They Say They Oppose - Go Figure
* India: Biotech Crops are a Boon
* South Africa: Lab-altered Grapes Uncork Fears of 'Frankenwine'
* GE Mustard in India: 2. GE Technology to Produce Hybrids
* ISB News Report - December 2006

U.S. Congress Votes for Gold Medal for Borlaug

U.S. House of Representatives have voted to award the Nation's 'Highest Civilian Honor' - A Congressional Gold Medal - to the architect of Green Revolution. Once the President signs it, Borlaug would join the ranks of Martin Luther King, Jonas Salk, Charles Lindbergh, Rosa Parks, Frank Sinatra, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, the Wright Brothers and Walt Disney!

Let me take this opportunity to thank those of you who took time to write or call your Congress Rep in support of this well deserved recognition to the 'Man Who Has Saved Billion Lives'

More on Borlaug at http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech-info/topics/borlaug/index.html

List of U. S. Congressional Gold Medal Recipients since 1776

- Prakash

Also See




Borlaug Getting Congressional Gold Medal

- Associated Press, Dec 6, 2006

DES MOINES, IA - The U.S. House voted today to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who is known as the father of the green revolution.

Borlaug, 92, is a native of Cresco. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for creating varieties of wheat suitable for developing countries that doubled and tripled yields and were resistant to disease. His work helped fight starvation in countries such as India and Pakistan.

"Dr. Borlaug is responsible for saving a billion lives around the world," said U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa. "It is extraordinarily important that we recognize this great humanitarian."

Latham called Borlaug an "American superhero" who "completely altered agriculture as we know it." Borlaug founded the World Food Prize in 1986 to recognize work that increases the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.

Kenneth Quinn, World Food Prize president, said the award is a "remarkable tribute to Dr. Borlaug's legacy of feeding the world. "It is said of Dr. Borlaug that he has saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived," Quinn said. "We are extremely grateful to members of the Iowa congressional delegation for the bipartisan leadership effort to pass this resolution in recognition of Dr. Borlaug's accomplishments."

A bill to award the medal to Borlaug passed the Senate earlier this year. Borlaug continues to work for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, as well as the Sasakawa Global 2000 program in Africa. He also teaches at Texas A&M University and participates in World Food Prize activities in Des Moines.

First awarded in 1776 to General George Washington, there have been nearly 130 Congressional Gold Medals awarded. Recipients have included Thomas A. Edison, Charles A. Lindbergh, Bob Hope, Pope John Paul II and the Rev. Martin Luther King.

The medal is presented for singular acts of exceptional service and lifetime achievements. It is the nation's highest and most distinguished civilian award. The U.S. Mint will design and create the medal, which is unique and represents the individual it has been designed for.


Giving Thanks for Dr. Norman Borlaug


Des Moines, November 24, 2006 - As we stuff ourselves with turkey and mashed potatoes, tonight 850 million people around the world will go to bed hungry, much like the Pilgrims who started this Thanksgiving tradition hundreds of years ago. Without the Native Americans, the Pilgrims would have starved, and without a native Iowan, millions more around the world would have perished over the course of the 21st century.

Its been said, he has saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived. The scientist himself begs to differ. Dr. Norman Borlaug is a humble guy. He's a farm-kid from Cresco who came of age during the darkest days of the Great Depression. It was that hunger and misery that propelled his college career at the University of Minnesota and ultimately led him to Mexico, where he e ngineered new varieties of wheat that resisted disease. The fields of famished farmers exploded.

By the 1960s, Borlaug had taken on famine-infested India and Pakistan: two countries that were written off by most economists. Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, of India, says Borlaug's break-throughs saved millions from starvation.

At 92-years-old, with a Nobel Peace Prize already under his belt, Borlaug isn't ready to slow down. His pet project is the World Food Prize Foundation based here in Des Moines, through which he's passing his torch on to the next generation.

Dr. Borlaug won the nobel peace prize in 1970. He founded the world food prize 20 years ago, with the goal of creating a Nobel-caliber prize for agriculture. This year, the U.S. Senate voted to give him the Congressional Gold Medal, which is the civilian version of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Today, Borlaug continues to research and teach at Texas A & M University and in Mexico.


WTO Ruling Disregards Political Precautionary Principle: Favors Science-Based 'Approach' to EU Biotech Rules

- Institute for Trade, Standards and Sustainable Development, Dec. 8, 2006 http://www.itssd.org/publications.htm

In a legal backgrounder released today by the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF), entitled, WTO Ruling on Biotech Foods Addresses "Precautionary Principle", international business and trade expert Lawrence Kogan of the non-profit Institute for Trade, Standards and Sustainable Development, Inc. (ITSSD), argues that a recent World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling represents a blow to the proponents of the "Precautionary Principle" in Europe and a victory for 'best available science' in the regulatory process.

The Precautionary Principle eschews science-based 'risk' assessments and an evaluation of the economic benefits and costs of regulation. Instead, it favors the enactment of overly strict and burdensome environmental, health, and safety rules based on unfounded activist fears of hypothetical hazards, for the purpose of eliminating every possible future risk from economic conduct.

The WTO issued its ruling on the complaint by the United States, Argentina, and Canada, on September 29, and much to the chagrin of environmental groups, EC accepted it as final, on November 22. As Mr. Kogan relates, the WTO panel found that European Union restrictions on approval of genetically-enhanced seeds and food products violated provisions of the WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement. The EU's anti-biotech policies, the panel found, were based more on political considerations than scientific evidence.

The ruling is significant, according to Mr. Kogan, "because it clarifies the central role of science in evaluating the presence of health and environmental risks prior to the adoption of national food safety regulations not otherwise based on relevant international standards." The Europeans attempted to argue that WTO law and international law norms allowed them to apply a "better-safe-than-sorry" Precautionary Principle when restricting biotech food approvals. The WTO panel made very clear, the paper relates, that such a principle cannot be used, especially when scientific evidence is available on which to base a risk assessment. The panel also refused to embrace Europe's argument that the Precautionary Principle rises to the level of customary international law.

While this ruling is a positive development for best available science in the international regulatory process, Mr. Kogan believes that the drive to codify a Precautionary Principle will continue. He cites to public statements by EU regulators and NGO efforts at the United Nations as examples of ongoing efforts to advance risk-free thought into international law. In fact, according to Mr. Kogan, "perhaps there are now sufficient legal grounds to commence another WTO action against the EC's unscientific and unnecessarily burdensome precautionary principlebased biotech regulatory regime."

Washington Legal Foundation is a national, non-profit public interest law and policy center. This article is also accessible online at: http://www.itssd.org/publications.htm


GM Crops: Another "Green Revolution" or a Danger?

- Nancy Reyes, Blogger News Network, Dec. 8, 2006. Embedded links at http://www.bloggernews.net/12842

One of the tragedies I saw in Africa were children who became blind from lack of vitamin A.

The Helen Keller foundation estimates "between 250,000 and 500,000 children go blind from a lack of vitamin A in their diet, which also affects their growth, cognitive development and immune system. 70% of these children die within one year of losing their sight, and a total of 800,000 children every year from a lack of vitamin A.Supplementation with vitamin A capsules is the single most cost-effective health intervention according to the World Bank and other global health experts. It only takes two doses a year to prevent blindness – at a cost of approximately $1.

Yet even that small cost might be prohibitive to some countries, and other countries lack the infrastructure and personnel to give it out properly (too much vitamin A is toxic). And, of course, some children will not go to clinics, or their parents will refuse the medicine.One solution to this is a new genetically engineered rice, called golden rice because of it's colour. "..Golden Rice is a transgenic variety of rice, which has genes for the synthesis of b-carotene (a vitamin A precursor). These genes are taken from the garden favourite Narcissus pseudonarcissus (daffodil) and inserted into the genome of a temperate strain of rice." The rice has a golden color from the beta carotene (think carrots), and is being offered free to India where blindness from Vitamin A deficiency is common.

The problem? It's not politically correct to artificially insert genes into crops. There is a philosophical opposition to any "genetically modified" food, no matter how benign.But what is worse is that activists are scaring certain African countries into not using and not importing GM food and seed, even though people are starving in these countries and the food and seed could remedy their dying of malnutrition.

For example, Greenpeace opposed planting the rice because a child couldn't get it's full requirement of vitamin A from rice alone. Presumably, a little is worse than none? But not according to their activists.
A more important question is that if only the genetically modified grain is planted in places like China, the native rice will no longer be grown, and biodiversity will be lost.There are also worries if the implanted genes might adversely affect animals or humans if ingested constantly.

The ironically named "Friends of the Earth" has persuaded some African countries to refuse rice and other staples needed for starving populations out of fear of being poisoned. And President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, whose economic policies have caused a man made famine, actually was allowed to give a speech at the World Food Summit , and was praised for his opposition to "importing unsafe food" (i.e. food aid that might include genetically modified grain).

Today's Washington Post shows Americans are also uneasy about biotechnology, and most people are unaware that a large percentage of food ingested in the US has either GM food or comes from animals fed with GM feed. "Today, 89 percent of soybeans, 83 percent of cotton and 61 percent of corn is genetically engineered to resist weed-killing chemicals or to help the plants make their own insecticides…"

You see, in the practical world, the choices are GM food vs pesticide/herbicides and "ordinary" hybrid crops. But poor countries don't have the choice for expensive "organic" food. The result of their "organic" food production is too often famine and malnutrition.

Yet biodiversity is an important issue, but should not be ignored. Indeed, newer rice variants have been devised by old fashioned methods that have many of the advantages of the GM type crops. Losing seeds long cultivated to thrive in specific climates and ecological niches would be a terrible loss, especially if a new "resistant" disease or insect appeared. The lessons of the potato famine of the 1840's should remind us of the danger of monoculture crops.

As for us, our family grows organic rice and sell it at a premium. So I eat "organic", because we eat our own food.

Yet the yield of our fields is lower than our neighbors, and if everyone went "organic", the poor people would not have enough to eat. And as a doctor who has seen too many children die of malnutrition, I am not one to ignore crops that could be another "green revolution".
Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines with her husband, six dogs, three cats, and a large extended family. Her blog is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket. She also posts about African news at MugabeMakaipa Blogspot.


What Does GM Potatoes Mean for Future Blight Control?

- Farmers Weekly (UK), Dec. 7, 2006 http://www.fwi.co.uk

If you asked consumers whether they would like to buy potatoes which hadn't been sprayed eight to 10 times for potato blight, one would assume most would be in favour. Of course, ask them if they wanted to eat genetically-modified spuds and the answer might be very different.

Commercially that's what BASF will have to work hard to overcome in the next eight to 10 years - it is going to be that long before its blight-resistant GM potatoes are likely to be launched.

Proving the technical performance looks like it should be much more straightforward. Initial trials conducted in Sweden in the past two years, and in Germany and Holland last year, have shown a very high level of blight resistance, according to Andy Beadle, BASF project manager. "In the trials I've seen we haven't needed to spray the potatoes for blight after we've inoculated with the disease."

Way ahead
That puts them way ahead of most commercial varieties for blight resistance. "We've been doing work with the breeders, who have a mechanism for scoring blight resistance when they are developing varieties, and most of our GM varieties have been scoring 8 or 9 for resistance. "The breeders themselves have been very impressed. It looks like this could be a quantum leap forward." Most commercial second early or maincrop varieties score 6 or below for blight resistance.

The genes BASF has been using to create the increased resistance to blight come from a wild potato relative, which probably developed its resistance because it co-evolved with the fungus in Mexico. Scientists have known about the gene since the 1950s, but, according to BASF, it has proved impossible to cross it with cultivated potatoes. The only method to transfer the resistance has been through biotechnology. Introducing the genes seems a bit of a scattergun affair. "When you insert the gene into the plant there are many events, ie it goes into the plant in many places," Mr Beadle explains.

Positive effect
The first two years of trials have been discovering which of these events have a positive effect. "We have a significant number of events we are pursuing - we started with over 500 - but expect to initially select just three to go forward with by 2008."

The first generation product uses two genes from the wild relative to confer resistance. "The genes operate in completely different ways." The mechanism is a common plant defence reaction in nature. When the plant is infected with blight the gene causes the tissue around the infection to die off, stopping the spread of the disease.

But by having two different modes of action the firm believes it should help combat resistance development. "It means the beastie has to evolve to get round both resistance sources, and we have other resistance genes that we can use in future products to complement and enhance resistance."

The next set of trials will begin to assess the wider management implications of using the technology. At the moment BASF is, perhaps understandably, being cautious about suggesting it will stop the need for blight sprays. "Our hypothesis is it will dramatically reduce blight sprays, but to get the most out of the technology we need to use an integrated management strategy," Mr Beadle says. "At a minimum the trait should significantly increase spray intervals."

It could go further - the evidence to date suggests the genes can give season-long control without the need for follow-up sprays. But that needs to be tested in UK conditions, and over a number of years to investigate reliability and durability. And even if blight is effectively controlled there could still be a need to spray fungicides for other diseases because the genes are specific for blight.

The planned field trials in Cambridgeshire and Derbyshire are only the start of a development programme to select the final variety, BASF says. "From that point eight to 10 years are needed before it can be introduced into the market." That might be just as well - the PR campaign for public support no doubt starts now.

*For industry reaction to the announcement of the trials go-ahead see News. More details can be found at www.defra.gov.uk/environment/gm/regulation/consents/index.htm


Public Opinion About GM Foods Remains 'Up For Grabs' Ten Years After Introduction of Ag Biotech - Pew Initiative

New Poll Echoes Earlier Findings Over Five-Year Period of Consumer Opinion Research

Washington, D.C. – Public awareness and understanding of genetically modified (GM) foods remains relatively low and consumers' opinions about GM foods are as divided now as they were five years ago, according to a new survey released today by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. The survey also shows that regulation may increase confidence in GM foods and reveals that animal cloning causes great discomfort among American consumers. The announcement of survey findings marks the fifth year that the Pew Initiative has monitored public understanding of and support for different types of biotechnology.

The analysis released today highlights the results of a 2006 Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology poll and compares them to results of similar PIFB polls conducted in March 2001, September 2003, September 2004 and November 2005. Among the most noteworthy findings:

* Americans hold mixed attitudes towards GM foods. Consumers are generally uncertain about the safety of GM foods, although opinions can shift with new information. Thirty-four percent of Americans indicate that they believe GM foods are safe and 29 percent say they are unsafe. Once information is provided about GM foods and the number of processed foods that are produced using some form of biotechnology, however, Americans feel more comfortable about the safety of the biotech products. Forty-five percent of respondents say GM foods are safe in this context and 29 percent say they are unsafe, a 10-percentage point increase in net perceptions of safety. These numbers represent a shift in informed attitudes over time. In 2001, when PIFB first conducted a survey of consumer attitudes, 48 percent felt that GM foods were safe and only 21 percent believed they were unsafe.

* Awareness of GM food has declined over the last five years. In the first poll conducted by the Pew Initiative in 2001, 45 percent of American consumers said they had heard about GM food that is sold in grocery stores. A slight majority (54 percent) claimed to have not heard much (29 percent) or nothing at all (25 percent). After reaching a low point in 2004 (32 percent), public notice of GM foods increased to 41 percent in 2005 and remained stable in 2006. Additionally, consumers have consistently underestimated the amount of GM foods they most likely have eaten, with just 26 percent believing they have eaten such foods and 60 percent believing they have not in 2006. In 2001, 19 percent said they "had eaten" GM foods, while 62 percent said they "had not" and 19 percent said they "didn't know."

* Although Americans are not well informed about animal cloning – they are overwhelmingly uncomfortable with it. A strong majority (61 percent) of those Americans who claim to have heard about animal cloning are uncomfortable with it, while 27 percent express comfort. Those unfamiliar with animal cloning express greater reservations, with 68 percent of Americans indicating that they are uncomfortable and 16 percent stating that they are comfortable.

* Americans support regulation of GM foods. Forty-one percent of consumers who claim basic awareness of the regulation of GM foods believe that there is "too little" regulation, while 19 percent of Americans say it is "just the right amount." The survey reveals that regulation may increase confidence in GM foods. Forty-three percent of respondents surveyed said they would be more willing to eat GM foods if the FDA was mandated to regulate GM foods before they entered the marketplace, while 14 percent are less willing and 35 percent of consumers surveyed said it would make no difference.

* Friends and family are the most trusted sources of information about GM foods. The majority of people polled (37 percent) trust their friends and families above all other groups and organizations tested as sources of information on GM foods. Farmers were the next-most trusted (33 percent) followed by scientists and academics (32 percent). The most dramatic changes in trust levels occurred with respect to the FDA. In 2001, 41 percent of consumers said they trust the FDA when it comes to information about GM foods. At that time it was the most trusted organization. Since then, the agency's trustworthiness has declined to 29 percent, and it now ranks fourth on the list of groups and organizations.

"In polls conducted over the last five years, we continue to see that public opinion remains 'up for grabs' on GM foods" said Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. "Still generally uncertain about GM foods, the U.S. public has consistently supported strong and clear federal regulations to ensure that these products are safe. How the next generation of biotech products is introduced – and consumers' trust in the regulation of GM foods – will be critical in shaping U.S. attitudes in the long term."

The nationwide survey, conducted by The Mellman Group, September 20-26, consisted of telephone interviews of 1000 American consumers. The margin of error for this survey is +/-3.1 percent. The margin of error is higher for subgroups.

To view a summary of the findings from the survey, as well as the statistical results, please go to: http://pewagbiotech.org/research/2006update


Americans Munch Away on Biotech Crops They Say They Oppose - Go Figure

- Ronald Bailey, Reason Hit & Run, December 7, 2006. Reader riposte at http://www.reason.com/blog/show/117117.html

The folks over at the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology have released a new poll that dishearteningly shows that most Americans don't know that they've been safely eating foods made from ingredients derived from biotech crops for more than a decade. According to the poll, 46 percent oppose introducing genetically modified foods into the food supply; 54 percent say they would be unlikely to eat such foods; and 60 percent say that they have never eaten such foods. Sigh.

As I've pointed out so many times, so far there has not been a single scientifically documented case of anyone suffering so much as a sneeze, cough, or stomach ache from eating foods made from current varieties of biotech crops. Also, every independent scientific body that has ever evaluated current crops have found them safe for people to eat.

I can't help but wonder how people might have answered poll questions phrased more like:

(1) Do you favor or oppose crops enhanced by biotech to protect themselves against pests and diseases?
(2) Do you favor or oppose crops enhanced by biotech to reduce the use of harmful pesticides and herbicides?
(3) Would you eat foods made from crops enhanced to protect themselves against pests and diseases using advanced biotech methods?
(4) Does it bother you to learn that you and your family have been eating foods made from such biotech pest protected crops for more than a decade?

For some reason--I suspect activist propaganda http://www.fotosearch.com/IDX069/957756/ -- the words "genetically modified" sound vaguely menacing http://www.cartoonstock.com/newscartoons/directory/g/genetically_modified.asp.


India: Biotech Crops are a Boon

- Bharat Char, Times of India Dec. 6, 2006

Scientists are generally full of doubt, which is why they do research and try to explore every possible angle. Only when they are satisfied do they submit the results of their work for review by their peers and the regulatory authorities.

But expressing concerns and fears as if they are a certainty is disturbing, as Suman Sahai has done in her article 'Protecting rice'(TOI, Nov 17), because it misleads lay persons who depend on scientists to provide them some understanding about complexities of modern science.

Consider the last paragraph of Sahai's article: "It is not clear what advantages can come about from GE rice. The most judicious course for India is to stay away from GE rice and protect the genetic integrity of this food crop for future generations".

Crop biotechnologists are not experimenting merely for the sake of it. They see specific advantages in the research of insect-tolerant rice being grown in different parts of the country. Experimental research crops are meant to evaluate the performance of a new technology that could help farmers use less pesticide, increase yields and benefit the environment, besides being safe for humans and animals.

Farmers would also benefit from a personal safety standpoint by using less insecticide. Does Sahai see no advantages at all for the environment and farmers in reducing pesticide usage?

Sahai's reference to the Bt gene in question as a poison gene is also misleading. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil bacterium, so called because it was first isolated in the Thuringia region of Germany early last century.

For over 40 years, it has been widely used as a pesticide. Growers have been spraying dried forms of Bt on to crops. But Bt powder is most effective in dry environments.

In the open, it does not spread enough to be totally effective. Sunlight and rain cause it to lose its efficacy, which is why scientists are experimenting with inserting specific genes from the bacterium into plants to make them insect-tolerant and obviate the need for spraying.

To refer to it as a poison gene only in the context of its use in biotechnology misrepresents facts to the lay reader. The Bt gene deployed in experimental rice is known as cry1Ac. This particular gene has undergone extensive food safety testing around the world, in all countries where Bt crops are grown. Cry1Ac is also present in Bt cotton hybrids that are widely grown in India. It is also a fact that GE crops undergo levels of safety testing that no conventional crops are subjected to, and this applies to Bt rice as well.

Sahai also appears to condone the recent illegal destruction of Mahyco's insect-tolerant rice experimental plots in Haryana and Tamil Nadu, which followed prescribed bio-safety norms and were carried out with full know-ledge and consent of the state, Centre and farmers who owned the fields.

She speaks of gene silencing as if it were something new, while in reality this is one area which is routinely looked at before releasing any GE crop, else the product would be unviable. She talks of maintaining genetic diversity with examples about transferring genes from the natural gene pool for combating conditions like waterlogging and alkaline soils.

The reality is somewhat different. Plant breeders have been trying to introduce useful genes from wild relatives of crop species for decades, and it has been a Herculean task, with a handful of documented successes.

Not all of the problems faced by crop breeders can be addressed in this manner. As a result, crop scientists worldwide are using biotechnology to tackle some of these intractable issues, including drought, using genes from plants and other organisms.

As for the most judicious course she recommends, had Indian scientists accepted similar advice in the 60s and 70s, there would have been no Green Revolution. At that time, too, doomsayers had warned of the disaster that would befall Indian farming if dwarf varieties of wheat and other hybrids were introduced into India. They would have preferred that India protect the genetic integrity of its age-old crops. Even then, scientists and government of India knew better.

The writer is senior scientist, Mahyco Research Centre.


South Africa: Lab-altered Grapes Uncork Fears of 'Frankenwine'

- Laurie Goering, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 8, 2006 http://www.chicagotribune.com

STELLENBOSCH, South Africa -- The young chardonnay vines climbing from terra cotta pots in the Institute for Wine Biotechnology's greenhouse look like grapevines anywhere, vigorous and green.

But the carefully monitored plants, produced in the institute's spotless, state-of-the-art labs, carry a transgenic gene that researchers hope will one day lead to South African wine grapes that don't need spraying to resist fungal infection.

"The whole aim is to make wine more environmentally friendly and let farmers use less of these horrible chemicals," said Sarita Groenewald, a wine biotechnology research manager at the institute based at the University of Stellenbosch. But the young vines, which the institute hopes to soon test in field trials, are at the center of a controversy in South Africa over the increasing use of genetically modified plants.

Much of Africa has resisted the introduction of genetically engineered food. Zambia bans even donations of genetically modified aid grain, and Angola, Zimbabwe and Malawi allow imports only if the grain has been milled first, to ensure it cannot be planted. Kenya, Nigeria and a handful of other African nations are studying genetically engineered crops but have not given approval for commercial use.

South Africa, on the other hand, has just 45 million people but in 2005 ranked 8th in the world in the use of the modified plants, behind only such giants as the United States, China, India and Brazil. Across the country, the use of engineered corn, soybeans and cotton has been steadily increasing.

Worries in wine country
A proposal to field test genetically engineered grapes, however, has raised new concerns, particularly in South Africa's 300-year-old wine country around Stellenbosch, an hour from Cape Town. In an industry as competitive, emotional and image-sensitive as winemaking, nobody wants to be the first to produce what one South African tabloid newspaper has termed "Frankenwine."

"Obviously a lot of people are scared. It goes to your reputation," said Desmond Binneman, an assistant tasting room manager at Simonsig, one of the dozens of wineries around Stellenbosch. Simonsig was the first to make South Africa's version of champagne, and the winery's owners "are innovators," Binneman said. But "there's no point in making a wine if no one wants it," he said.

South Africa is not the first nation to move toward producing genetically modified wine. The U.S. has 51 trials of genetically modified grapes registered and other winemaking nations like Australia, Italy, France and Germany also are doing research, Groenewald said.

But South Africa's public approval process--release of genetically modified crops must be approved by a committee of representatives of six departments of the national government--has made it an industry focus and led to some unwanted early fallout.

Earlier this year buyers in the United Kingdom, one of South Africa's top export markets, and in Germany canceled orders for South African wine after hearing of the controversy, though genetically modified wines couldn't be commercially produced in South Africa for at least a decade even on the most optimistic timetable.

The Institute for Wine Biotechnology has received stacks of letters from wine lovers insisting they don't want to buy or drink engineered wines or urging researchers to take precautions in the field, such as removing the flowers from plants so bees can't spread the pollen--a suggestion that reveals a certain lack of understanding of basic biology about how grapes are produced. The letters range from "very emotional to completely irrational to people just wanting more facts," Groenewald said.

South Africa's wine industry, which funds and supports the institute's research, also has concerns. In a public statement, it made clear that it "will not use GM organisms in the production of wine until such time as it is quite clear that this practice is internationally acceptable."

"You can't jump in with GM products if our trading partners don't want to buy them," said Paul Roux, a wine grape farmer at Vlottenburg Farm, near Stellenbosch. "For us, the most important thing is to be competitive and make good wine," added Chris Williams, a winemaker at Meerlust, one of the region's oldest wineries. "Anything that obscures that is a step backward."

Simply crossbreeding to resolve problems with South African wine--alcohol content a bit too high, grapes bleached under the African sun, fungal infections in wet years--is tough, however. Efforts to cross strains to create fungal resistance, for instance, have created chardonnay grapes that no longer taste quite like chardonnay.

Genetic engineering gets around those problems--or at least scientists hope it will. Modified chardonnay and sultana grapevines--engineered with a simple marker gene rather than any active changes--have been growing in the university's greenhouse for four years now but have not yet set fruit because they are not subject to the cold winter nights and gradually rising spring temperatures needed to spur the process.

Can't mimic nature
"We can't mimic that in a glasshouse environment," Groenewald said. "We need to go to the field. Researchers had hoped to plant 100 genetically modified and control plants in the university's test plot in November, with the fruit and flowers bagged to prevent pollen and seed dispersal and the whole field netted to keep out animals and birds. But the proposal didn't make it through South Africa's lengthy approval process in time, which means the earliest field testing could begin now is next November.

The institute, which is also studying ways to make white wines as heart-friendly as reds and to create sulfur-free natural wine preservatives, hopes to test the modified plants in the field for five years. If they grow and set fruit properly, researchers would start tests aimed at preparing fungal-resistant varieties for commercial sale.

"Our whole research program is need-driven. We ask the industry what they want," Groenewald said. South African winemakers have made clear they don't want to be the first to use the new technology, she admits, "but they say we'll be a close second [when someone else does]. So we'll be ready when the market's ready."


Genetically Engineered Mustard in India: 2. GE Technology to Produce Hybrids

C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India krao@vsnl.com,

For reasons inherent in the reproductive biology, the highly inbred Brassicas are difficult to hybridize, using conventional breeding techniques. The hybrids suffer from low vigour making them unsuitable for commercial cultivation. Vigour can be greatly enhanced in the progeny from crosses of genetically distinct parents, to outperform the parental lines. This phenomenon called ‘hybrid vigour’ has been a great boon in plant breeding.

Naturally Occurring Male Sterility In Crop Plants
For a time, plant breeders tried to use male sterility, the absence of functional pollen while the female gametes were normal, to produce hybrids in highly inbred crops.

Naturally occurring gene controlled male sterility occurs only sporadically among crop plants, as they were always selected for high levels of fertility. Nevertheless, natural male sterile plants were exploited in hybrid seed production in such crops as cotton, tomato, sunflower, cucurbits, tobacco, rice, wheat, barely, maize, sorghum and pearl millet.

In hybrid production, several lines of male sterile (female fertile) plants are planted alternately with one or two lines of male fertile (pollinator) plants, which also have fertile female gametes. The undesirable gene combinations formed from the female gametes of the male fertile plants, have to be identified and removed. Such a procedure is difficult to be performed manually even in experimental situations and impossible in cultivated crop fields.

Decades of research on canola and mustard led to the identification of very few male sterile lines and imperfect restorer female lines, making the natural system commercially unviable. Robert Goldberg’s team developed the barnase/barstar genetic system over a decade ago to overcome this handicap. The objective is to produce hybrids to exploit hybrid vigour ensuring higher crop performance.

The Barnase-Barstar Gene System
Separate male sterile (MS) and fertility restorer (RF) lines developed through GE are used to emulate the natural phenomenon of hybrid vigour. Crosses of the MS line with the RF line ensure the production of fully fertile hybrids, which are employed in agricultural production.

Barnase-barstar genes: The barnase gene, from the bacterium Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, encodes the enzyme barnase (ribonuclease), which is produced at a specific stage early in the development of the anthers (the pollen bearing parts of the flower) and in a specific cell layer (called tapetum) of the anthers. Barnase prevents pollen production, conferring male sterility.

The barstar gene, also from Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, encodes an enzyme that inhibits barnase. Expression of the barstar gene is also restricted to the anthers. The hybrid plants derived from crosses of MS and RF lines are fully fertile, as the expression of the barnase the barstar gene inhibits gene.

Elimination of undesirable hybrids: The bar gene from the bacterium Streptomyces hygroscopicus and pat gene from the bacterium Streptomyces viridichromogenes, encode for the enzyme phosphinothricin acetyl transferase, that detoxifies glufosinate ammonium and confers tolerance to herbicides with this active ingredient. Genes linked to other herbicides may also be used.

The herbicide tolerance trait is used as a selection tool for the barnase-barstar breeding system, to eliminate unwanted hybrid genotypes, by spraying an appropriate herbicide. This trait also enables to control weeds in the canola crop, in conjunction with other measures.

The bar and pat genes are good markers useful to detect gene flow, by spraying an herbicide. Technology now exists to remove herbicide resistance genes at the time mass production of seed for cultivation purposes, if this was necessary for political or public concern reasons, though not for scientific reasons.

Selectable marker: The nptII gene from the bacterium Escherichia coli confers resistance to the antibiotics neomycin and kanamycin. Such antibiotic resistance traits are used as selectable markers in the initial laboratory stages to screen genetically modified plants. Now non-antibiotic selectable markers are employed.

The barnase/barstar technology: The whole of the process of male sterility and selective removal of undesired hybrids from the male fertile plants, is performed elegantly by the barnase/barstar gene system, in which herbicide resistance is linked with male fertility, so that the herbicide will kill the male fertile lines, leaving the seed producing male sterile plants unharmed. The system is used only to develop novel hybrids and the farmer is provided with highly viable seed of uniform quality that produces fully (male and female) fertile plants.

The whole set of gene systems used in canola and mustard are a complicated but an ingenious development in rDNA technology that can confer nuclear male sterility to self-pollinating plants in a stable manner to produce hybrids using a female restorer line. It helped to produce improved hybrids of such crucifer crops as canola and mustard, which is impossible without this gene system. The barnase/barstar gene system is meant to produce hybrids, and not herbicide resistant/tolerant crops, as alleged by come activists.

The World’s experience with GE Canola: Aventis has successfully introduced a GE canola hybrid, using the barnase/barstar gene system in 1996. Since then, high yielding GE hybrid canola cultivation has expanded to over a couple of million hectares in North America and Australia. Regulatory agencies in such countries as Canada, USA, Mexico, Europe, Australia and Japan have approved consumption of this GE canola. The health and environmental safety questions about the technology have been settled beyond any reasonable doubt.

Roundup Ready is a GE canola resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup and AgroEvo’s GE canola is resistant to their herbicide Liberty. The same barnase/barstar gene system is being used in India to produce mustard hybrids.


ISB News Report - December 2006


* Taking Aim at a Peaceful Coexistence
* Agbiotech Evolution Needs a Regulatory Revolution
* Ecological Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops: Ten Years of Field Research and Commercial Cultivation
* Gene Flow from GE to Conventional Maize in Real Situations of Coexistence