Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - Janaury 12, 2007
* GM-crops Issue Ripe for State in Drought Mode
* Parallel Biopolitical Universes
* Transgenics More Advantageous in Argentina
* Wheat Can Fatally Starve Insect Predators
* Risk Assessment
* Outreach Training Needed
* GM Food has Low IQ!
GM-crops Issue Ripe for State in Drought Mode
- Dr Glenn Tong, The Advertiser (Australia), January 11, 2007
South Australians are customarily modest about their achievements and innovations. From inventing the world's first mechanical grain harvester in the 1840s, the hills hoist, the wine cask and the gear box differential, to being home to Australia's only astronaut, SA is a leader in innovation and at the cutting edge in a number of fields.
The SA Government's recent decision to extend the moratorium on growing GM crops by one year is disappointing, but understandable. The one-year deadline extension brings SA in line with Victoria and NSW, both scheduled to review their moratoria in 2008.
However, if SA is to continue its history of innovation it must prepare to embrace GM crops. Worsening drought conditions have highlighted the need for new technologies to meet the challenge of global warming.
We cannot afford the indulgence of ignoring GM crops. Gene technology provides the opportunity of producing crops that can be grown much more efficiently in drought areas.
Wheat is one example. Some 35 to 50 per cent of the world's wheat is grown in drought-affected regions. New research into drought-tolerant wheat could significantly increase the world's supply.
We cannot stand by indefinitely and wait for others to take the lead. Investment in GM technology is long term. New plant varieties cannot be produced overnight like ratcheting up production at a manufacturing plant. Investment now will produce new plant varieties in around 10 years.
In the non-GM field, molecular plant breeding researchers at the University of Adelaide and SA Research and Development Institute are working to develop wheat with tolerance to hostile environments and resistance to disease.
But a problem of this magnitude requires the use of every tool at our disposal. On the GM front, the Molecular Plant Breeding Co-operative Research Centre last year announced an expansion of its joint research and development program with global plant science group BASF Plant Science. The objective of the $28 million project is to develop high-yielding, resilient wheat varieties.
It is true that it will be some years before drought-tolerant wheat will be available to growers; but GM canola is available now. Farmers' groups are demanding access to these crops because they offer increased yields, decreased fuel use and flexibility with regard to seeding and herbicide application - all crucial contributors to growers' profitability in times of drought.
Amid continuing reservations about GM technology in some quarters, much more needs to be done to communicate the facts. Australians need to know that GM crops have been endorsed by the World Health Organisation and our federal regulatory body, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand.
Australians should also be aware that the majority of the scientific community supports GM crops. To date, some 25 Nobel Laureates have signed a petition endorsing GM crops. Very large populations (for example, in the U.S. and Canada) have consumed GM crops over an extended period with no demonstrable ill effects.
Australian farmers should also be given the facts about GM crops in global export markets. Canada, one of our major competitors, has been marketing GM and non-GM canola for years, earning substantial export income.
GM crops offer a unique opportunity to play a leading role in helping feed a growing world population that will need to produce more food under ever-deteriorating drought conditions.
South Australians can continue to be leaders in innovation by embracing agricultural biotechnology in response to growing Australian and world needs.
* Dr Glenn Tong is the CEO of the Molecular Plant Breeding Co-operative Research Centre.
Parallel Biopolitical Universes
- Shane H Morris, Nature Biotechnology, Jan. 2007, v. 25, p33 http://www.nature.com/nbt Reproduced in AgBioView with the permission of the editor.
As a European citizen, I cannot agree with the editorial in the October issue (Nat. Biotechnol. 24, 1178, 2006) that EU Commissioner Dimas merely "has not understood that a non-GM [genetically modified] crop produced via MAS [marker-assisted selection] could be just as risky as a GM product."
Commissioner Dimas's exaltation of so-called 'upgraded' crops is not a "'simple-minded' approach" as suggested but is actually just a case of 'biopolitics' 1 in action. This can be concluded from the wealth of evidence that exists to ensure Commissioner Dimas (and his scientific staff) must be aware of the fact that upgraded crops with traits (e.g., herbicide resistance) like those of GM varieties could carry the same risks as a GM variety 2.
One need look no further than the farms of Europe where BASF's (Ludwigshafen, Germany) herbicide-resistant 'CLEARFIELD' crops can be found. In Europe, these herbicide-resistant crops include rice, maize, oilseed rape and sunflowers, with wheat likely soon to follow. The CLEARFIELD trait enables these upgraded crops to endure a broad-spectrum herbicide normally deadly to the plant. This characteristic is heritable plus likely transmissible to other crops of the same species and to weedy relations. CLEARFIELD herbicide-resistant crop varieties have been created using mutagenesis and/or traditional breeding methods and are free of 'introduced' genetic material.
Thus, they are not considered to be a genetically modified organism (GMO) by the EU (Brussels) and are not covered by Directive 2001/18/EC3. Nevertheless, BASF itself has seen fit to develop a Grower Stewardship Plan to reduce the environmental risks that they claim could exist. Indeed, Tan et al. 4 -- four of the five authors of this publication are BASF scientists--state: "Management of herbicide-resistant weeds and gene flow from crops to weeds are issues that must be considered with the development of any herbicide-resistant crop. Thus, extensive stewardship programs have been developed to address these issues for CLEARFIELD crops" 4.
BASF has the world's largest portfolio of non-GMO herbicide-resistant traits and believes the potential sales value of the CLEARFIELD concept is in excess of euro dollar300 million2. In 2002, it was estimated that CLEARFIELD maize was planted on 4.9 million hectares (15% of total maize planting hectares) in the United States. In Canada, it was estimated that approx20% of canola planted in 2000 and 2001 was non-GM herbicide-resistant CLEARFIELD canola4.
If the farm fields of Europe did not offer enough evidence to Commissioner Dimas, he could have noted comments from official EU member state government bodies. Less than a month before the Commissioner's comments, the UK's GM regulatory body, Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) sub-group, on March 17, 2006, released a draft consultation report entitled "Managing the Footprint of Agriculture: Towards a Comparative Assessment of Risks and Benefits for Novel Agricultural Systems" (http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/acre/fsewiderissues/ac re-fse-060317draft.pdf).
This report states that "in recent years, it has become apparent that there are inconsistencies in the [EU] regulatory assessment of the environmental impact of GM crops in comparison with other agricultural crops and practices." In addition, the report criticizes EU regulation by stressing "this inconsistency is further illustrated by GM herbicide-tolerant crops that require an extensive environmental risk assessment before approval for cultivation and marketing whilst herbicide tolerant crops produced by non-GM breeding methods can be grown without an equivalent assessment."
The scientific basis of this conclusion is that the farm-scale evaluations of herbicide-resistant crops in the UK proved that the impact of GM crops on the environment can be comparable to that of non-GM crops expressing the same herbicide resistance trait if the crop management regime is the same 5.
Be they 'biopolitical' or truly "simple minded," Commissioner Dimas's comments promoting upgraded (e.g., non-GM) herbicide-resistant crops created via a different production process than GM crops run contrary to the EU Commission's own guidelines on applying the precautionary principle in a consistent and nondiscriminatory manner. Directive 2001/18/EC, which uses the 'precautionary principle' as its basis to protect Europe's environment from the possible risks of GM crops (e.g., gene flow)6, 7, 8, states: "In accordance with the precautionary principle, the objective of this Directive is to approximate the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States and to protect human health and the environment... "3.
In the light of Commissioner Dimas's recent comments, there now exists an argument for applying this same precautionary principle to non-GM 'upgraded' crops, especially if they express the same phenotypes as their GM counterparts. Such an argument is enhanced when considering the policy communiqué published by the EU Commission in 2000 setting out "the Commission's approach to using the precautionary principle" and establishing "Commission guidelines for applying it"9.
These guidelines assert that the precautionary principle should be used in a proportional, nondiscriminatory and consistent manner with an examination of the benefits and costs of action (or lack of action) and with an examination of scientific developments. The principle of nondiscrimination denotes that similar risks should not be treated differently. This is clearly outlined: "Measures taken under the precautionary principle should be designed to achieve an equivalent level of protection without invoking the geographical origin or the nature of the production process [author's emphasis] to apply different treatments in an arbitrary manner" 9.
The communiqué also declares that "measures should be consistent with measures already adopted in similar circumstances or using similar approaches." These preexisting EU Commission guidelines clearly show that EU Commissioner Dimas's unbridled support of 'upgraded' crops justified simply on 'the nature of the production process' is out of step with official EU policy. In terms of risk and the precautionary principle, it is disingenuous for Commissioner Dimas to present 'upgraded' crops somewhere in between a 'classic' and a GM crop and different from, or posing less risk to the environment than, GM crops--the evidence suggests otherwise2. Commissioner Dimas may share a parallel biopolitical universe and similar erroneous opinions with Jeremy Rifkin, such as "GMO products raise a whole new series of possible risks to the environment, notably potential long term effects that could impact on biodiversity" 10.
However, unlike Jeremy Rifkin, Commissioner Dimas is answerable to Europe's citizens. We now deserve clear answers from the EU Commission on the following two questions. First, does the EU Commission concede there are potential risks to the environment from so-called 'upgraded' crop lines and that a gap exists in the EU regulatory framework? Or alternatively, is there a 'biopolitical' attempt to ignore the potential risks and not subject these 'upgraded' products to a risk assessment contrary to the precautionary principle while arguably unfairly applying environmental regulation to phenotypically identical GM crops? 2
Without definitive answers to these questions Commissioner Dimas has no 'biopolitical' choice but to reassess the EU Commission's framing and application of its risk assessment currently used to protect Europe's environment from possible risks relating to modern crop biotechnology, both GM and non-GM.
Disclaimer - The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author, who is a citizen of the EU. Shane H. Morris contributed to this article in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of Agriculture and Agri-food Canada or the Government of Canada.
1. Morris, S.H., Adley, C.C. Trends Biotechnol. 18, 325–326 (2000).
2. Morris, S.H. Trends Biotechnol. 1, 2–6 (2007).
3. European Commission Communication. Directive 2001/18/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 12 March 2001 on the Deliberate Release into the Environment of Genetically Modified Organisms and Repealing Council Directive 90/220/EEC—Commission Declaration (European Commission, Brussels, 2001).
4. Tan, S., Evans, R.R., Dahmer, H.L., Singh, B.K. & Shaner, D.L. Pest Manag. Sci. 61, 246–257 (2005).
5. Firbank, L.G. et al. Nat. Biotechnol. 23, 1475–1476 (2005).
6. Conner A.J., Glare, T.R. & Nap, J.P. Plant J. 33, 19–46 (2003).
7. Velkov, V.V., Medvinsky, A.B., Sokolov, M.S. & Marchenko, A.I. J. Biosci. 30, 515–548 (2005).
8. Marvier, M. & Van Acker, R.C. Front Ecol. Environ. 3, 99–106 (2005).
9. European Union Commission Communication. Communication from the Commission on the Precautionary Principle, COM 1 (European Union, Brussels, 2000) .
10. Dimas, S. Co-existence of genetically modified conventional and organic crops: freedom of choice. Speech presented at Conference on GMO Co-existence, Vienna, April 2006
Transgenics More Advantageous in Argentina
- Neila Baldi, Gazeta Mercantil Online (Brazil), Jan. 10, 2007
Sao Paulo - A study disclosed yesterday in Argentina shows that the use of transgenics is more advantageous in that country than in Brazil. According to the study by the Argentine Council for Biotechnology Development and Information (Argenbio), in one decade Argentine farmers reported gains of US$ 20 billion, while there are no estimates regarding the gains in revenues in Brazil.
The researcher Eduardo Trigo, who wrote the study, says the greatest gains occurred with soybeans. According to him, the main factors that determine the positive impact are the drop in the cost of production and losses in the field, but above all, the increase in production of soybeans in that country. He said with the use of technology, Argentina managed to grow a second soybean crop, which had been impossible previously. The gains occurred because with the transgenics it is not necessary to clean the area to plant the crops, since the weeds are exterminated.
On the other hand, according to the professor of the Instituto de Economia of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp), JosÈ Maria da Silveira, Brazilians do not have this advantage since climatic conditions already enable them to plant a second crop. Furthermore, Argentines did not pay for the use of the technology, unlike Brazil.
Nevertheless, according to the researcher, the transgenic plants could be advantageous in Brazil in some locations where there is greater amount of weeds and diseases that must be fought by using genetically modified organisms. Silveira said that in preliminary studies it has been noted there is a 5% reduction in the cost of the crops. He believes that it is more advantageous to use the biotechnology in southern Brazil than in the Midwest. It is believed that there are 10 million hectares of transgenic crops planted in the country, especially soybeans
The Argentine study compared the real production situation with a simulation in case the technology had not been used. Currently 17 million hectares of soybeans, corn and cotton are planted using genetically modified plants.
Wheat Can Fatally Starve Insect Predators
- Purdue University , January 11, 2007 http://www.sciencedaily.com/
A newly identified wheat gene produces proteins that appear to attack the stomach lining of a crop-destroying fly larvae so that the bugs starve to death.
The gene's role in creating resistance to Hessian flies was a surprise to U.S. Department of Agriculture and Purdue University researchers, discoverers of the gene and its function. They made the finding as they investigated new, long-term methods to protect wheat from insect damage.
"This is a different kind of defense than we were expecting," said Christie Williams, a USDA-Agricultural Research Service scientist and Purdue Department of Entomology adjunct assistant professor. "Usually we expect the plant to fortify its cell walls or make poisons to use against insects and pathogens."
Instead, the researchers found that a specific protein, called HFR-3, one of a group of substances called lectins, is capable of binding with a carbohydrate complex in the Hessian fly larvae. The lectin acts as a key to the carbohydrate structure, known as a chitin.
When the larvae attack a resistant plant, the plant's lectin production quickly increases by as much as 3,000 times. The larvae then ingest the lectin. This interaction probably damages the larvae's chitin-rich mid-gut lining so that it can't absorb nutrients from the plant, causing the insects starve, Williams said.
Some Hessian fly larvae, which are called virulent, are capable of ridding their bodies of lectin and surviving. Avirulent larvae are unable to deactivate the lectin. However, the researchers believe that plants resistant to Hessian fly invasions may make several strains of lectins in response to virulent larvae, Williams said. Results of the study are published in the January issue of the journal Molecular Plant Pathology.
Researchers also discovered that not only do lectins damage the insect's mid-stomach, the lectins also taste bad and have some toxicity. "By studying these different wheat genes, we're starting to put together a bigger picture of how Hessian fly–wheat interactions trigger resistance in the plant," Williams said. "We think that some of this has to do with the plant producing enough lectin that it just becomes so unpalatable that the insects can't feed and they starve to death."
Wheat plants that produce few or no lectins that bind to chitin are susceptible to Hessian fly larvae attack, she said. In addition, some virulent larvae can reprogram plant development so that cells in leaves and the base of the plant where the insects feed pump out nutrients favored by the insect. If this happens then even the weak, avirulent larvae on the same leaf have a chance to survive.
The researchers discovered that Hessian fly larvae reprogramming of resistant plant cells only occurs at sites where the insects attack. The study also revealed that increased numbers of larvae on a plant caused a parallel increase in lectin. This shows that wheat plant responses to these insects are localized and take less energy than a more global resistance response.
"Figuring out some of the ways that a plant is able to respond to insects with resistance will be useful in crop breeding programs," Williams said. "We're finding compounds like this chitin-binding lectin that don't cost the plant much to produce, unlike producing poisons and stronger walls. Those inducible defenses use a lot of a plant's energy that could be used toward growth and reproduction."
The scientists currently are looking for regulatory regions in Hessian fly-susceptible wheat genes that might act as vehicles to carry lectin or a toxin into plants to halt the virulent insects, Williams said. The regulatory regions, or promoters, would be from genes that the fly larvae ordinarily manipulate so plants will produce useful nutrients for the insect. Instead, the promoter would be hooked up to a lectin or toxin gene and inserted into the cells. When larvae manipulate the promoter, they would receive gut-altering lectin instead of nutrients.
- Tim Radford, Guardian (UK), Jan. 10, 200. Full commentary at
'As Cambridge looks to employ a professor of the public understanding of risk, Tim Radford questions what such an appointment can achieve'
Scientists are fond of saying - all right, some scientists are fond of saying - that if only people properly understood the mathematics of risk, they wouldn't fret about GM foods, MMR vaccines or radiation from low-level nuclear waste. This is probably true. However, if people took the mathematics of risk seriously, then there would also be no national lottery, no church tombola and probably no marriage.
This is because in the first case, there is virtually no chance of winning, and in the second, there is no chance of winning anything you might actually want, and in the third case the risks of divorce are so high, and the emotional costs of divorce so huge, you might decide to skip the whole experience.
The insurance industry calculates risk and r eward on a daily basis, and merchant banks and venture capitalists are also interested in probable outcomes. So there's nothing very mysterious about research into risk. The real challenge might turn out to be the public understanding of risk.
There has always been something wilful about attitudes to risk: humans drive cars, cycle in the dark, get married, procreate offspring and eat in strange restaurants, all activities that could - and frequently do - go horribly wrong. Anxiety in these cases would be rational. However, people choose instead to be anxious about things like air travel, mobile phones, and genetically modified food.
Fear of flying is not justified by the evidence and, deplorably, it is not fuelled by concern about carbon emissions. It is just that: a barely controllable fear, and a leading figure in the Royal Statistical Society once confided to me that he too was a victim. Assurances about the probability of death - assurances of course that he understood better than anybody - had no affect upon his fear at all.
The mobile phone fear phenomenon is a puzzling one: regularly, some academic produces tentative evidence that these things could just possibly fry your brains. Newspaper readers experience a delicious frisson of fear when they see these headlines and then ring each other up to talk about it.
Genetically-modified food for a while became a bit like leprosy: people recoiled even from its touch, although there is no evidence that GM food has ever actually harmed anybody.
On the other hand, I have never heard anybody express fear - actual fear - of death by asteroid impact. In fact, statisticians and especially near-Earth object astronomers can and will demonstrate convincingly that the chances of death by a 10 km comet or asteroid striking the Earth at 20kms a second or more is actually very high: as high as the risk of death in an air crash. The calculation is simple enough: big orbiting objects slam into the planet every 1,000 years or so, with the potential to kill a million people or more.
Divide the estimated years into the probable deaths and you get a one in 10 or one in 15 chance of such an impact during a lifetime, which works out at about the risk of death in a crashing airliner. The asteroid threat is real enough and the UK government takes it seriously. But no ordinary human being ever lost even a minute's sleep worrying about it. This could be hard evidence that humans are irrational. Conversely, it could also be evidence that humans are entirely rational. I leave the question open.
It could be that humans even like being irrationally fearful. The happiest scares, as journalists know quite well, are the improbable ones. Sars - severe acute respiratory syndrome - mesmerised the world in 2003: in fact, it killed fewer than 800 people all told, and represented a far smaller risk to long-haul travellers than, say, malaria or yellow fever.
Necrotising fasciitis, the famous flesh-eating bacterium, kept the British press happy for one whole silly season in the last decade, although it claims a handful of lives in Britain every year.
In the Pickwick Papers, the fat boy advances on the old lady at Dingley Dell and tells her "I wants to make your flesh creep". The sorry truth is that humans enjoy being irrational, at least some of the time, and they also enjoy a bit of fear, especially of some improbable flesh-creeping danger. Good luck to the new Winton professor, but there is a risk that the public will just go on stubbornly refusing to understand.
Outreach Training Needed
- Alan I. Leshner, Science, Jan. 12 2007, http://www.sciencemag.org
Scanning the relationship between science and society recalls Charles Dickens' lead for A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …" Scientific advances are coming at an unprecedented pace, and they hold great promise for further improving the human condition. The public is clearly happy about this. At the same time, however, society is exhibiting increased disaffection, fostered by instances of scientific fraud and by scientists charged with financial conflicts of interest.
Perhaps worse, public skepticism and concern are increasingly directed at scientific issues that appear to conflict with core human values and religious beliefs or that pose conflicts with political or economic expediency. These include embryonic stem cell research, the teaching of evolution in schools, evidence for global climate change, and controversies over genetically modified foods. The ensuing tension threatens to compromise the ability of the scientific enterprise to serve its broad societal mission and may weaken societal support for science.
There is a growing consensus that to lessen this tension, scientists must engage more fully with the public about scientific issues and the concerns that society has about them. Efforts that focus simply on increasing public understanding of science are not enough, because the problem is not merely a lack of scientific comprehension. In some cases, the public generally does understand scientific content in a fundamental way but still doesn't like it.
Thus, the notion of public engagement goes beyond public education. We must have a genuine dialogue with our fellow citizens about how we can approach their concerns and what specific scientific findings mean. This kind of outreach is being encouraged by government agencies and private sources in Europe, Canada, and the United States. Effective public engagement requires long-term commitment, because many issues are complex and tension is persistent. The creationism/evolution issue showed us this. It would be convenient to leave this task in the hands of a few representatives selected especially for their communication skills, but that won't work. Given the breadth of issues and the intensity of the effort required, we need as many ambassadors as we can muster.
Engaging the public effectively is an acquired skill, and preparation for outreach strategies has seldom been part of scientific training programs. There are a few exceptions, including the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program and Research!America's Paul G. Rogers Society for Global Health Research. Many young colleagues are enthusiastic about discussing their work with the public, but they also are under tremendous pressure to stick to the bench, secure hard-to-get research grants, and publish rapidly and repeatedly in high-quality journals. Many even feel that the culture of science actively discourages them from becoming involved in public outreach, because it would somehow be bad for their careers.
What can be done? First, the scientific reward system needs to support our colleagues' efforts to interact with the general public concerning their work and its implications. Funding agencies such as the Wellcome Trust and the U.S. National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health have begun encouraging the scientists they support to include outreach efforts in their proposals. Academic institutions need to join in this chorus by rewarding faculty members who fulfill commitments to such work. That will entail putting public outreach efforts among the metrics used to decide promotion and tenure.
Second, university science departments should design specific programs to train graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in public communication. Unfortunately, this means adding yet another element to already overtaxed research training programs. Many students acquire teaching experience through assistantships, but public engagement activities are different and require other strategies. We need to add media and communications training to the scientific training agenda.
This will doubtless be an additional burden on existing systems. Unfortunately, there is no alternative. If science is going to fully serve its societal mission in the future, we need to both encourage and equip the next generation of scientists to effectively engage with the broader society in which we work and live.
Alan I. Leshner is chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science.
GM Food has Low IQ!
"Food that is old, processed, microwaved and genetically engineered is low in the intelligence...."
Read on http://www.techinsight.com.au/clients/livingnow/?p=153
I thought I have heard about all the evils of GM food. This is a new one!