Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - January 22, 2007
* Record Biotech Plantings in 2006
* Global Acceptance of Agricultural Biotechnology Continues to Grow
* India Surpasses China in Acreage Under Biotech Crops
* Mexican Farmers Seek OK for Genetically Modified Corn
* India: Punjab Pitch for GM Crop
* GM Fears a Pile of Crop, Says APEC
* GM Technology Develops in the Developing World
* Will Africa Cotton to Bioengineering?
* Udder Madness
* Frost Damage Remedy Thwarted by EPA Bureaucracy
* Organics? It's Not Worth The Money
Record Biotech Plantings in 2006
- Paul Elias, Associated Press, Jan 22, 2006
A biotechnology advocacy group reported Thursday that a record number of biotech crops were planted worldwide last year, but critics complained the gains were more of the same: aimed at making corn, soy and cotton crops resistant to weed killers and bugs.
None of the genetically engineered crops for sale last year were nutritionally enhanced and much of the output feeds livestock, which critics said undercuts industry claims that biotechnology can help alleviate human hunger. Still, the report prepared by the industry-backed International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications touted the record as evidence that crops engineered to cut pesticide use can ease poverty and financially benefit small farmers around the world.
Some 10.3 million farmers in 22 countries grew engineered crops on 252 million acres last year, a 13 percent increase over 2005, according to the report. About 9.3 million of those people were considered subsistence farmers.
The United States, Argentina and Brazil were the top three countries that grew genetically engineered crops last year, mostly soy. India tripled its acreage of genetically engineered cotton last year to 9.5 million acres. "I have been able to increase my yield significantly," said Ravinder Brar, an Indian cotton farmer told reporters on a conference call. Brar said cotton engineered to resist boll weevil saved her about $320 an acre in pesticide costs on her 17-acre farm last year.
In the United States, 80 percent of soy - a key ingredient in many packaged foods - and a similar percentage of cotton are genetically engineered. Some 80.5 million acres of biotech corn are planted - about 40 percent of the country's crop - though much of that is used for animal feed. In all, about 136.5 million acres of the nation's 445 million acres of farmland was under biotech cultivation last year, an increase of 10 percent over 2005 plantings.
Clive James, head of the advocacy group that prepared the report, said he expected more genetically engineered corn seed to be planted this year because of the recent boom in ethanol production. Ethanol, which is primarily made from corn in the United States, is expected to get another boost next week during President Bush's State of the Union address. The report was paid for by two philanthropic groups, the Rockefeller Foundation and Ibercaja, a Spanish bank. The advocacy group received funding from biotech companies.
The share price of St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., which supplies most of the world's genetically engineered seeds, have risen about 36 percent in the last year. Monsanto shares fell 21 cents to close at $54.01 on the New York Stock Exchange.
In 1996, the first year genetically modified crops were commercially available, about 4.3 million acres were under cultivation. Now genetically engineered crops are grown throughout the Americas, China and India. Last year, Slovakia became the sixth European Union country to plant genetically engineered crops.
"As more countries gain experience with biotech crops, acceptance will grow," James said. "Biotechnology offers many opportunities for the alleviation of poverty."
However, opponents note that no new or innovative genetically engineered crops have been introduced in the last decade. Much of the worldwide growth last year was attributed to soybeans designed to resist weed killer and corn spliced with bacteria genes to resist bugs, traits that directly benefit farmers, not consumers.
Skepticism of the technology continues to run deep in Europe where many consumers shun products containing genetically engineered ingredients. An increasing number of U.S. consumers pay premium prices for biotech-free, organic products because of environmental and health concerns, though no illness has been attributed to biotechnology crops.
So far, no one has introduced crops with added nutrients and other attributes that could fight hunger in the developing world, as the biotech industry often promises. What's more, few biotech versions of crops such as rice that are widely consumed in poor countries have been distributed on a large scale. The four most popular biotech crops are soy, corn, cotton and canola.
"No (biotech) crop on the market today offers benefits to the consumer in terms of quality or price, and to date these crops have done nothing to alleviate hunger or poverty in Africa or elsewhere," said Nnimmo Bassey, a spokesman for the anti-biotechnology advocacy group Friends of the Earth Africa in Nigeria. "The great majority of (biotech) crops cultivated today are used as high-priced animal feed to supply rich nations with meat."
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications: http://www.isaaa.org/default.html
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Global Acceptance of Agricultural Biotechnology Continues to Grow
- Business Wire, January 19, 2007
Washington - Global acceptance of biotech crops increased in 2006, with global biotech crop acreage reaching 252 million acres in 22 countries according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
Global biotech crop acreage increased more than 13 percent from 2005, when 222 million acres of biotech crops were grown in 21 countries. A recent study by PG Economics found that biotech crops have cumulatively increased farm income by $27 billion over the last decade.
"Since their introduction more than a decade ago, the acceptance of biotech crops continues to grow," said Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). "This is evident in the rising number of acres of biotech crops planted each year - and the increasing number of farmers who have chosen this technology because of the tremendous value biotech crops deliver to an abundant, healthful, and affordable food supply. A record 10.3 million farmers are growing biotech crops in 22 countries - that's a 21 percent increase in the number of farmers who have adopted this technology since 2005."
Notably, the developing world continues to adopt biotech crops aggressively. ISAAA reports that more than 9.3 million small, resource-poor farmers in 11 countries grew biotech crops in 2006, a 9.4 percent increase from 2005. As former President Bill Clinton observed in a keynote speech at the BIO 2006 International Convention, agricultural biotechnology for "poor farmers in developing countries is a good thing." Agricultural biotechnology enables "more people to be able to grow their own food and feed themselves."
This past year also showed record domestic acceptance of biotech crops according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), with biotech crop acreage in the United States increasing in 2006 by 9.6 percent over 2005. In 2006, U.S. acreage of biotech soybean increased by more than 6 percent, to a total of 66.68 million acres, or 89 percent of all soybeans grown in this country. American farmers planted 12.68 million acres of biotech cotton in 2006, representing 83 percent of all cotton grown in the United States (an increase from 11.25 million acres planted in 2005). Plantings of biotech corn in the United States significantly increased in 2006 by nearly 14 percent to 48.4 million acres.
The continued acceptance of biotech crops demonstrates the benefits American farmers recognize from choosing biotechnology. A May 2006 report from the University of Arizona found that Bt cotton reduces the level of pesticide applications while increasing overall crop yields. For the third consecutive year, studies by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP) showed the benefits of growing biotech crops. NCFAP concluded that in 2005, biotech crops improved crop production by 8.3 billion pounds, reduced production costs by $1.4 billion, and increased farmer revenue by $2.0 billion. Additionally, American growers reduced pesticide applications by 69.7 million pounds by planting biotech crops.
2006 also saw the introduction of key regulatory guidelines for plant and animal biotechnology, both in the United States and internationally. Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published guidelines concerning adventitious presence as a way to ensure food safety for consumers, farmers, food processors, and grain handlers. Adventitious presence (AP) is the unintentional and incidental commingling of trace amounts of one type of seed, grain, or food product with another. The United States' science-based policies on adventitious presence helped provide a model for the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the international food standards body. In November, Codex agreed to develop an internationally accepted food safety risk assessment for adventitious presence.
The publication of FDA's draft risk assessment on animal cloning stood as a significant domestic regulatory milestone for animal biotechnology. The draft risk assessment found that milk and meat products from animal clones and their offspring are safe for human consumption. As a new assisted reproductive technology, cloning can consistently produce healthier animals and a healthful meat and milk supply. FDA's draft risk assessment is consistent with numerous scientific studies, including two reports by the National Academy of Sciences, that have found the food from animal clones and their offspring to be safe. Globally, animal cloning may provide people in developing countries with greater access to protein-rich animal food products, which will increase community health and well-being.
Increasing global acceptance of agricultural biotechnology
In 2006, according to the ISAAA report, a record 22 countries planted biotech crops including six countries in the European Union. As acreage in the European Union continues to increase, there has also been continued recognition of the safety of biotech plants. In 2006, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found biotech potatoes and a variety of biotech corn to be safe for human consumption and the environment.
Last year, the European Commission approved the first pharmaceutical product manufactured with ingredients derived from biotech goats. The drug's ingredients include proteins from the milk of biotech goats. The pharmaceutical treats the rare blood-clotting disorder antithrombin deficiency. The product is expected to enter the marketplace in 2007.
In addition to the increase in global biotech acreage and continued acceptance of the technology, in September 2006 the World Trade Organization's (WTO) dispute settlement panel determined that the European Union (EU) did in fact impose a de facto moratorium on approvals of new biotech crops. The dispute settlement panel affirmed that agricultural biotechnology regulatory systems must be based on science, and risk assessments must be conducted in a timely manner. The ruling also confirms that international trading rules clearly apply to agricultural products of modern biotechnology.
Continued research in plant and animal biotechnology
This past year also saw important biotech developments with consumer benefits, including:
* The development of biotech stone fruit trees that are resistant to plum pox virus.
* Studies of biotech pigs with increased heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
* Research into prion protein-free cows that are resistant to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
In addition to these research and development projects, scientists continued to increase their understanding and knowledge of plants and animals through genome sequencing projects. In 2006, researchers announced genome sequencing projects for hogs, wheat, cassava plants, and other economically important crop plants such as potatoes and poplars. More, researchers published the genomes for apples, the western honey bee, the cottonwood tree, and Citrus Tristeza Virus (CTV), one of the largest threats to worldwide citrus production.
Biotechnology supports rapid development in biofuel production from agriculture
President George W. Bush's 2006 State of the Union address, in which he noted that "America is addicted to oil," drew increased attention to biofuels as a renewable energy resource. Major provisions of the 2005 Energy Policy Act - including a Renewable Fuel Standard calling for four billion gallons of domestically produced biofuel and the elimination of methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) as an additive to gasoline - came into effect at the beginning of the year. In response, ethanol production facilities increased production of ethanol to 4.9 billion gallons in 2006. Within the next two years, planned growth will double production capacity of ethanol to more than 10 billion gallons.
"Biotechnology has had a significant impact on agriculture," said Greenwood. "It has changed the way farmers and livestock producers raise crops in the field and animals in the barnyard, while providing growers with a competitive edge in today's marketplace.
"Agricultural biotechnology will continue to give growers added benefits to enhance the productivity and yield of energy crops and create new biofuels such as ethanol from cellulose. Soon farmers will be able to harvest and sell two crops from every field - a food crop and a biomass energy crop."
India Surpasses China in Acreage Under Biotech Crops
- Hindu Business Line, Jan. 19, 2007 http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/
New Delhi: India has emerged as the leader in cultivation of biotech crops, surpassing China with a record three-fold increase in its area under the crops even as the debate over use of the technology in agriculture continues. "In Asia, India emerges as leader, tripling area to 3.8 million hectares overtaking China's 3.5 million hectares in 2006," Mr Clive James of biotechnology advocacy group ISAAA said here on Friday.
There is an urgent need to address the food security issue as Indian population is estimated to overtake China by 2030, Mr James said while presenting to a select gathering the statistics of crops grown by using genetically engineered seeds.
Like China, India has also allowed only genetically modified (GM) cottonseeds for commercialisation. The Supreme Court is currently hearing the issue of using GM seeds in agriculture, as some non-governmental organisations have raised safety issue of human health.
After Bt cottonseeds were approved for commercialisation in 2002, there are now as many as 62 varieties of seeds available in the market compared to 20 in 2005, said Mr C D Mayee, agricultural scientist.
Reacting to a pointed question on farmer suicides in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra allegedly due to the failure of Bt cotton, Mr Mayee said there could be some other factors such as debt, etc. He asked the audience why there was a good performance of Bt cotton in other parts of the country.
India Pips China for Top Slot in GM Crops
- Ashok B Sharma, Financial Express (India) Jan. 20, 2007 http://www.financialexpress.com
In Asia, India has emerged as a leader in genetically modified (GM) crops by tripling its area under Bt cotton to 3.8 million hectare in 2006, surpassing China which remains at an area coverage of 3.5 million hectare, according to annual report prepared by the US-based International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
The report also said that India along with China, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa with a combined population of 2.6 billion (40% of the global population) grew 38.2 million hectare of GM crops in 2006, equivalent to 37% of the global total.
Releasing the report for the first time in India, the ISAAA chair, Clive James made out a case for the need of GM crops to meet the challenges of global food, feed and fibre security, in the face of the rising population. He however said, "Transgenic technology is not a panacea, but it is important. Successful strategy must have multiple approaches, including conventional crop improvement, population stabilisation and improved food distribution system."
The report said that 2.3 million farmers cultivated Bt cotton in India and gains were significant. It however, ignored reported cases of Bt cotton crop failures in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and other parts of the country. Contrary to several studies pointing to extensive use of water and chemical fertilizers in Bt cotton cultivation, the ISAAA report painted a rosy picture on input cost reduction.
Mexican Farmers Seek OK for Genetically Modified Corn
- Edna Alcantara, EFE News Service, January 19, 2007
Mexican agricultural producers asked the government to allow them to plant genetically modified corn in response to the so-called "tortilla crisis," which has seen prices surge for one of the country's staple foods.
The head of the National Agricultural Association, or CNA, Jaime Yesaki, told Efe that planting genetically modified corn could be the "fundamental solution" for maintaining adequate production of this cereal grain that millions of Mexican households use to make the tortillas on which their diets are based.
The CNA represents more than 500 farmers and other agricultural producers in Mexico, where tortillas, along with beans, constitute the basic diet of the country's 50 million poor. In recent weeks, the price of a kilo of tortillas, which are made from white corn, went over 10 pesos ($0.90), after rising almost 11 percent in 2006 and 70 percent over the last six years.
Mexico uses more than 9 million tons of corn each year for the production of tortillas, and this product is such an integral part of the country's diet that a rise or fall in its price can have a considerable effect on the consumer price index and on jobs in this nation of more than 100 million. "We want to be at the point where we are using genetically modified grains, in this case corn, because the main reason is to guarantee the supply of this grain to give our people food at reasonable prices," Yesaki said.
The surge in the price of tortillas prompted an outcry across Mexico that led the administration of President Felipe Calderon, who took office on Dec. 1, to approve the importation of 650,000 tons of corn to stem the rise in the price of the commodity. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, Mexico was supposed to eliminate tariffs on imports of maize and beans by 2008, but the National Peasant Farmers Confederation, or CNC, and other rural organizations have asked the government to insert safeguards into that portion of the treaty to protect family farms.
Mexican small-scale farmers fear being inundated by cheap corn and beans grown by big U.S. producers who enjoy greater access to credit and technology and, in some cases, government subsidies. Mexico, which produces some 22 million tons of white corn annually, has had a moratorium on the planting of genetically modified corn for the past eight years.
Yesaki said growers would have to await government permission before they could plant genetically modified corn, as well as setting aside some areas for the traditional grain, which is native to Mesoamerica.
India: Punjab Pitch for GM Crop
- The Telegraph (Calcutta) Jan. 19, 2007 http://www.telegraphindia.com
New Delhi: Proponents of genetically modified (GM) crops have picked Ravindra Brar, a farmer from Punjab, to counter what anti-GM activists claim is a "global reaction against genetic engineering". Speaking at the release of a global status report on GM crops here, Brar, who grows wheat, guava and cotton on her 62-acre farm in Punjab, said she has benefited from GM cotton.
The report, released today by the International Services for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications, said in 2006, India for the first time had more land (3.8 million hectares) under GM cotton than China (3.5 million hectares).
The report said the number of farmers worldwide growing biotech crops had surged past 10 million in 2006 and predicted that the total area under GM crops would double to 200 million hectares by 2015. "The coming decade is likely to feature strong growth in Asia, led by India, China and other countries," said Clive James, chairman of the board of directors of the body, a non-government organisation involved in the promotion of crop biotechnology.
"My results with cotton were very good," Brar said, but questions about the quantum of profits emerged after she claimed the switch to GM cotton had helped her increase her income by an average of Rs 15,000 per acre. Brar conceded her calculations did not include field preparation, diesel, sowing, picking, and miscellaneous expenses, and that the net profit may be lower than the figure she cited first. "For me, doing was believing," she said about her decision to switch to GM cotton.
The second decade of the commercialisation of GM crops, 2006-2015, is likely to feature significant growth in Asia, particularly in India and China, James said. The report quotes a US study that found the vast majority of consumers are confident about the safety of US food supply and express little or no concern about crop biotechnology. "The future (of GM crops) looks good," said James, predicting that the number of farmers around the world planting GM crops would double to 20 million within the next eight years.
GM Fears a Pile of Crop, Says APEC
- Sandra O'Malley, Herald Sun (Australia) Jan. 22, 2007 http://www.news.com.au
The once scary concept of genetic modification could turn out to be a saviour for farmers struggling with the drought. Delegates from Asia Pacific nations, meeting in Canberra, are turning their mind to improving the public perception and understanding of agricultural biotechnology, known more commonly as genetic modification.
While the idea of GM foods or crops can strike fear into some, the nations of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum see benefits from the technology. Ellen Terpstra, chair of APEC's high-level talks on agricultural biotechnology, said the idea was of great interest to many farmers worldwide.
Governments from poorer countries saw the potential for the technology to help increase food supplies and ensure food security for their nations. It also had the potential to produce healthier foods as nutrients were added to crops to give them greater health benefits. "It could also have benefits in terms of dealing with drought, heat, soil salinity, issues relating to climate change," said Ms Terpstra, the US under-secretary for the Department of Agriculture.
Only two GM crops - cotton and carnations - are grown commercially in Australia. And a move to increase the use of GM crops in Australia would be tough. All states and territories except Queensland and the Northern Territory have bans on new GM crops, except for trials. Those bans are due to be reviewed over the next few years.
Ian Thompson, the Agriculture Department's executive manager of rural policy and innovation, said plant breeding research was looking at ways to make crops better withstand the harsh climate conditions, which were being worsened by climate change. "It's always been a focus of Australian agricultural to have more efficient plant production systems," Mr Thompson said.
"Plant breeding using biotechnology holds the promise of getting more water-efficient plants, more salt-tolerant plants, which are better able to withstand the variability which we now know is inherent in the Australian climate." Research is being conducted by the CSIRO and through the private sector.
GM Technology Develops in the Developing World
- Gunjan Sinha, Science, Jan. 12, 2007 Vol. 315. no. 5809, pp.182, http://www.sciencemag.org
About 100 km north of Durban, South Africa, in a greenhouse chamber no larger than a walk-in closet, Frederik Kloppers clips a slender vial to a baby maize plant's new leaf. Inside the tube sits an insect with a potentially deadly bite, at least deadly to corn. This African leafhopper (Cicadulina mbila) carries maize streak virus, a scourge endemic to sub-Saharan Africa that devastates fields. Kloppers, a plant pathologist and technical manager at Pannar Seeds in Greytown, South Africa, gathers a dozen more tubes from the insect house and clips them to additional plants. Tomorrow, after the bugs have eaten their fill, he'll remove the tubes and then wait.
The fruit of more than a dozen years of effort, these maize plants have been genetically altered to resist infection by the virus. In greenhouse studies so far, the plant is highly resistant. If it proves equally hardy in field trials scheduled to begin in late 2007, it would be a milestone: the first-ever genetically modified (GM) crop developed by Africans for Africa.
But Kloppers and the plant's inventors, microbiologist Jennifer Thomson, virologist Edward Rybicki, and collaborators at the University of Cape Town (UCT), have much larger goals in mind. In a region where chronic hunger is the norm, GM maize could help alleviate grain shortages and potentially even boost economic development, says Thomson. And because plans call for selling the seed to small-scale and subsistence farmers for minimal profit, the inventors also hope it will help burnish the dim reputation of GM technology.
None of that is assured, Thomson and Rybicki concede. The plant could still fail in the field, as other African GM crop varieties such as sweet potato and cassava have done. The failures not only have disappointed the technology's advocates, but they've also fanned the flames of anti-GM sentiment. Although South Africa is one of the few African countries to permit farmers to plant GM crops within its borders, naysayers there, who still have substantial clout, have condemned the technology as a mere moneymaking tool for Western companies. Moreover, they remain unconvinced that homegrown efforts such as UCT's maize will succeed. Another failure would give anti-GM groups even more ammunition. The stakes are high, and the UCT scientists are treading carefully.
Maize is not native to Africa. It likely sailed across the Atlantic from the New World as cargo during the early 1500s, according to historian James McCann of Boston University. Maize flourished and displaced other native crops during the 20th century because it grows in only a few months and requires relatively little labor--one pass of the plow instead of the three or four necessary for crops such as sorghum and millet. In sub-Saharan Africa, maize has become the staple food; it makes up more than 50% of calories in local diets. In Malawi alone, maize occupies 90% of cultivated land and accounts for 54% of Malawians' caloric intake.
Maize streak virus is likely homegrown, say scientists. It lives in native grasses. At some point, the virus adapted itself to maize and is now able to jump between grasses and corn through the bite of an infected leafhopper, which itself isn't sickened by the virus.
Like any other infection, the wrath of maize streak waxes and wanes with different environmental conditions. Some years, crop losses are minimal. But in bad years, such as 2006, it can wipe out from 5% to 100% of a farmer's maize crop.
For the past 25 years, African crop scientists have been trying to breed resistant maize by crossing plants that carry some degree of natural resistance. But the task has not been wholly successful. The trait is conferred by several genes on different chromosomes and isn't consistently transmitted to the next generation. "It's not quite clear how resistance genes are inherited," says Kloppers of Pannar Seeds. Moreover, traditionally bred varieties do not completely resist the virus, Kloppers explains. Many tolerate an infection but still produce stunted or deformed cobs.
In 1988, when Thomson took over as head of microbiology at UCT, GM technology seemed a perfect solution. Rybicki's plant virology group there was already intensively studying the virus. Perhaps they could engineer a way to stop it in its tracks?
The design seemed simple enough: The team studied the proteins necessary for the virus to replicate. If they inserted a mutated viral gene into the plant, which in turn expressed a mutated protein necessary for the virus to replicate at very high levels, it could beat out the virus's normal protein and immobilize the virus, they reasoned.
But getting the genes in proved tough, Thomson says. The UCT team first tried infecting maize with a widely used vector, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, carrying the genes, but to no avail. Ultimately, they successfully shot DNA into the plant using a gene gun. The GM maize plant carries a mutated form of a gene from the maize streak virus and two additional regulatory genes, one derived from maize itself and another from Agrobacterium.
Into the field
That was 6 years ago. Since then, the UCT scientists have been working closely with Kloppers at Pannar Seeds to test the plant's hardiness against infection. Kloppers has bred a previous version of the plant that carried an antibiotic-resistance gene through four generations. So far, it resists infection consistently. Moreover, the trait appears to be inherited in a dominant fashion.
Kloppers is repeating the experiment with a new group of plants that, because of environmental safety concerns, no longer carry an antibiotic-resistance gene. He expects to carry on crossing and checking inheritance and resistance through the next few months. Provided there are no major setbacks, he expects to apply for field trials during the latter part of this year.
Field trials are crucial to assess environmental and health risks, says Dionne Shepherd, a UCT postdoc who has been working on the project for the past 10 years. The scientists plan to examine whether the crop affects soil microorganisms and also whether it affects insects that feed on it. Other studies will also ensure that the added protein is indeed digestible and not an allergen.
If all goes well, the resistant maize will be the first GM crop to be field-tested in South Africa; to date, all GM crops planted in the country have been developed and tested elsewhere. The government is now developing its own expertise to evaluate environmental and human safety, says Shepherd, and because "UCT's maize is the most advanced locally produced GM product, they want to use our plant as a guinea pig," she adds.
To avoid the pitfalls that have beset other African GM crop varieties, the UCT scientists and Pannar have been working with regulators all along. At stake, they say, is not only their crop's fate, but also the technology's reputation.
A few years ago, Kenyan scientist Florence Wambugu, who was trained and supported by Monsanto, developed a sweet potato plant resistant to the feathery mottle virus. But when scientists field-tested the crop, traditionally bred resistant varieties outperformed it. Other efforts have also stumbled during field tests. Just a few months ago, scientists at the nonprofit Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri, announced that cassava plants genetically modified to resist cassava mosaic disease lost the trait after a few generations.
Both setbacks have fueled ongoing skepticism about GM technology. "All this talk about the technology's benefit for Africa is just a lot of PR hype to garner funding," says Mariam Mayet of the African Centre for Biosafety, an anti-GM lobby group in Richmond, South Africa. Most of the GM crops in the world are grown for animal feed or go toward food aid, Mayet says. "The benefit mainly goes to industrial agriculture, not to small-scale farmers."
Because UCT's maize is homegrown and was supported with very little corporate money--Pannar was the project's only corporate contributor--Thomson and Rybicki hope it can dodge some of these criticisms. Private foundations that typically give money with no strings attached and the South African government funded the project's bulk. To recoup its share of investment, Pannar expects the seed to cost no more than 15% higher than non-GM seed, says Kloppers. Small-scale or subsistence farmers would likely be charged much less, he adds.
If UCT's plant succeeds, it would be the first GM crop developed by a developing country. But Africans might not be the only beneficiaries. It might also become the poster child of what many argue is a useful and important technology--and for better or worse, one that desperately needs a public relations makeover.
Gunjan Sinha is a writer in Berlin, Germany.
Will Africa Cotton to Bioengineering?
- G. Pascal Zachary, Fortune International, Jan. 22, 2007 (Via V. Moses)
Lorence Nyaka hacks at the root of a cassava plant, slicing away one fresh tuber after another until he has a small pile, enough to make a midday meal for his wife and three young children.
Drought ruined the Malawian farmer's crop in 2005, and his family went hungry for weeks before the end of the dry season. This time the cassava are plentiful, but because the tubers spoil quickly after harvest, Nyaka leaves them in the ground, running a risk that disease will destroy his crop. Each Wednesday afternoon he holds a prayer service with his neighbors in which, he says, they "ask God to protect our cassava."
Halfway around the world, at Ohio State University, scientists think they have found a better way to protect African cassava from the malignant forces of nature: insert genetic traits into the cassava plant that will allow the tuber to flourish during drought and to resist disease.
The new and improved cassava remains in the lab and is years from production. Field trials, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are expected to begin later this year in Nigeria. Those trials and similar ones for drought-tolerant corn developed by Monsanto of St. Louis are critical to paving the way for genetically modified crops to at long last assist African farmers, the least productive and poorest in the world on average.
"The question is no longer whether genetically modified crops will come to Africa, but when and how," says Wisdom Changadeya, who heads a biotech advocacy group in Malawi. Changadeya lives fewer than 30 miles from Nyaka's farm and knows well both the worries and the needs of Malawians. "Local farmers aren't interested in abstract debates," he says. "They will use seeds that address a specific problem, and anything that helps them cope with droughts will be welcomed."
Genetically modified crops have been blocked in Africa for the past decade, the victim of well-organized European opponents who have convinced African governments that they pose an environmental hazard and are a new form of Western colonialism. South Africa is alone among sub-Saharan countries in allowing bioengineered crops. But in the rest of Africa the tide is turning. Burkina Faso, a major cotton producer, may begin switching to genetically modified seeds this year. In November the African Union released a report trumpeting the virtues of biotechnology. "There's a new openness to genetically modified crops in Africa, but that doesn't mean we accept everything on offer," says Theresa Sengooba, a plant scientist in Uganda. "We have to always ask, 'Where are the benefits?'"
Genetically modified cotton offers the most immediate benefit for African farmers, who collectively export more cotton onto global markets than anyone besides American farmers. In Burkina Faso, where the country's cotton sector is heavily regulated, farmers are likely to switch en masse, hoping to reap higher profits because of greater yields and lower use of pesticides.
Africa's move into genetically modified cotton will be a vindication for Monsanto, which has been selling bioengineered cotton, corn, and soybeans in South Africa since the mid-1990s. "In the rest of Africa, progress has been slow, but it is happening," says Kinyua M'Mbijjewe, Monsanto's government affairs chief for Africa. The company is negotiating with Burkina Faso on royalty terms for its cotton seeds, which must be localized to suit the various climates and geographies of sub-Saharan Africa. M'Mbijjewe won't comment on the talks, but whatever deal is struck will have long-term ramifications. "A few countries will lead," he says, "and then the market will explode."
Analysts agree, citing the experience of India, where cotton growers are switching quickly to genetically modified seeds and posting large gains in output and profits, according to Sam Mohanty, an agricultural economist at Texas Tech University. Mohanty predicts that unless Africa where millions of farmers grow cotton for cash switches to bioengineered crops, "the region will have difficulty remaining in the business."
"The Question Is No Longer Whether, But When And How."
- Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2007 http://online.wsj.com
Starbucks advertises itself as a coffee company with a social conscience. These are the folks who created the marketing gimmick of "fair trade" coffee for America's latte drinkers. So it's no shock that Starbucks announced this week that it will buckle under to pressure from left-wing activist groups and phase-out its purchases of milk containing artificial growth hormone.
In so doing the company will help legitimize one of the greatest consumer frauds of recent times: that milk from cows injected with the growth hormone rBGH causes cancer. The hormone's critics also allege that drinking this milk causes early puberty in girls. About 20% of dairy products today comes from cows injected with hormones, which causes them to produce more milk, which in turn reduces prices to consumers. But for 20 years, green and Naderite groups, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have waged a campaign against rBGH. That campaign has duped millions of health-conscious Americans into paying 40 cents to $2 a gallon more for "hormone-free" milk.
It's a free country, and if Americans are willing to pay a $2-a-gallon premium for a meaningless label on the milk carton, so be it. But as far back as 1993 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved rGBH-milk as "safe for human consumption." Some 14 billion gallons have since been consumed, and there have been no documented instances of disease or sickness. Henry Miller of the Hoover Institution, a former director of the FDA's office of biotechnology, states emphatically: "There is no scientific evidence of a cancer link from the hormone rBGH -- period."
Ironically, many of the same "green" groups, which insist that we follow the "scientific consensus" on global warming, are contemptuous of the genuine scientific agreement on the benefits of bio-engineering. One might think that the left would celebrate technologies that make food more plentiful and cheaper for consumers. With recent claims that millions of Americans go to bed hungry each night, why aren't these groups cheering innovations that cut food costs for the world?
Instead, the Organic Consumers Association, one of the leading opponents of rBGH, compares dairy farms to "concentration camps" on its Website. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claims that hormones are unfair to the cows because they have to carry around more milk.
The affluent in America can afford to pay higher grocery bills and buy $3 coffee every morning as they wage war against biotechnology. But they do so at the expense of the world's poor, who benefit most from cheap, more abundant food. "There are often fatal consequences to these groups' Luddite philosophy," notes Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
As for Starbucks, its spokesman Brandon Borrman told us "we are only responding to the desires of our customers." It's hard to see how Starbucks can absorb the higher costs of hormone-free milk without off-loading them onto their customers' lattes. And maybe there's a kind of justice in that. As to "social responsibility," it's hard to see where the responsibility lies in promoting a scientifically discredited fear.
Frost Damage Remedy Thwarted by EPA Bureaucracy
Dr. Henry I. Miller, San Jose Mercury News, Jan. 19, 2007 http://www.mercurynews.com
Jack Frost taunted farmers around the state last week with blasts of arctic air that threatened several of California's major agricultural areas, from San Diego to the Central Valley and along the coast. The direct losses in citrus alone could approach a billion dollars, but avocados and strawberries also were severely damaged. Sticker shock at the supermarket can't be far behind.
Such climatic catastrophes are nothing new. A 1990 freeze in California caused about $800 million in damage to agriculture and resulted in the layoff of 12,000 citrus industry workers, including pickers, packers, harvesters and salespeople. A three-day freeze in 1998 destroyed 85 percent of the state's citrus crop, a loss valued at $700 million. And in 2002, lettuce prices around the country went through the roof after an unseasonable frost struck the Arizona and California deserts.
Peaches, citrus and other crops are regularly threatened by frost in the Southeastern United States. Losses to American farmers are on average in the billions of dollars annually.
Farmers have pathetically low-tech methods for preventing frost damage to their crops. These include burning smudge pots, which produce warm smoke; running wind machines to move the frigid air; and spraying water on the plants to form an insulating coat of ice. The only possible high-tech solution, a clever application of biotechnology, has been frozen out by federal regulators.
In the early 1980s, scientists at the University of California and the industry devised a new approach to limiting frost damage. They knew that a harmless bacterium which normally lives on many plants contains an ``ice nucleation'' protein that promotes frost damage. Therefore, they sought to produce a variant of the bacterium that lacked the ice-nucleation protein, reasoning that spraying this variant bacterium (dubbed ``ice-minus'') on plants might prevent frost damage by displacing the common, ice-promoting kind. Using very precise biotechnology techniques called gene splicing, the researchers removed the gene for the ice nucleation protein and planned field tests with ice-minus bacteria.
Then the government stepped in, and that was the beginning of the end.
The Environmental Protection Agency classified as a pesticide the obviously innocuous ice-minus bacterium, which was to be tested in northern California on small, fenced-off plots of potatoes and strawberries. The regulators reasoned that the naturally occurring, ubiquitous, ``ice-plus'' bacterium is a ``pest'' because its ice-nucleation protein promotes ice crystal formation. Therefore, other bacteria intended to displace it would be a ``pesticide.'' This is the kind of absurd, convoluted reasoning that could lead the EPA to regulate outdoor trash cans as a pesticide because litter is an environmental ``pest.''
At the time, scientists inside and outside the EPA were unanimous that the test posed negligible risk. (I wrote the opinion provided by the Food and Drug Administration.) No new genetic material had been added; only a single gene whose function was well-known had been removed, and the organism was obviously harmless. Nonetheless, the field trial was subjected to an extraordinary long and burdensome review just because the organism was gene-spliced.
It is noteworthy that experiments using bacteria with identical traits but constructed with older, cruder techniques require no governmental review of any kind. When tested on less than 10 acres, non-gene-spliced bacteria and chemical pesticides are completely exempt from regulation. Moreover, there is no government regulation of the use of vast numbers of the ``ice-plus'' organisms (which contain the ice-nucleation protein) commonly blown into the air during snow-making at ski resorts.
Although the ice-minus bacteria proved safe and effective at preventing frost damage in field trials, further research was discouraged by the combination of onerous government regulation, the inflated expense of doing the experiments and the prospect of huge downstream costs of pesticide registration. As a result, the product was never commercialized, and plants cultivated for food and fiber throughout much of the nation remain vulnerable to frost damage. We have the EPA to thank for farmers' livelihood in jeopardy, jobs lost, and inflated produce prices for consumers.
When will the EPA re-think its policies? Probably not before hell freezes over.
Henry I. Miller is a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution. He headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989-1993 and his most recent book is ``The Frankenfood Myth.'' He wrote this article for the Mercury News.
Organics? It's Not Worth The Money - Scientists back book that slams food 'con'
- Lucy Johnston, Health editor, Sunday Express (UK) Jan 21, 2007 http://www.express.co.uk/
Organic food is neither more nutritious or safer than conventionally-grown products, a leading scientist claims in a new book. And the more expensive food grown without man-made chemicals and fertilises could even be more harmful, says biologist Alex Avery.
His book, The Truth About Organic Foods, ahs been backed by British experts. Last night Professor Anthony Trewavas, a plant expert at Edinburgh University, said: "People are being conned. It's not worth spending all that extra money on organic produce"
Mr Avery, director of research and education at the Center for Global Food Issues, Virginia agreed, "People have repeatedly been told organic food is better, but this is a myth. Perhaps the biggest myth is that is that organic food is safer. In fact, the evidence shows organic food may pose more food safety risks, not less, than conventionally grown foods.
His book is likely to anger organic food fans Prince Charles, supermodel Elle MacPherson, actress Zoe Wanamaker and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, Anthony Worrall Thompson, and Sophie Grigson.
Their support has helped the sales of organic products which are now worth more than £1.12 billion to UK retailers. Earlier this month, Envrionment minister David Milliiband caused a storm by saying there was no evidence organic food was better for you than conventional food.
Mr Avery's book, to be published here later this year, analyses indep-endent data on organic produce from across the world spanning back more than 50 years. It concludes that eating organic food may be more harmful due to organic farmer's "heavy reliance" on animal manure for fertiliser. "Manures are a primary source of infectious microbobes such as E coli" said Mr Avery. "These bacteria are killed when cooked, but cause problems when when they cross-contaminate other foods and surfaces." At least three studies have also shown organic chicken are more likely to have significantly higher levels of potentially fatal salmonella bacteria." In the most rtecent, carried out by the independent US consumer group Consumers Union, 525 were analysed, 86 of which were organic. The organic birds were three times more likely to carry salmonella than the non-organic variety."
Avery's book also cites research showing are more likely to be contaminated by fungal toxins. These, he said, "have been linked to birth defects, certain cancers and liver and kidney diseases. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has found some organic foods containing maize also has high levels of the dangerous and potentially cancer-causing fungus fumonisn.
As for nutrition, Mr Avery said, "There have been repeated studies since the 1950s on the nutritional values of organic food but none have shown any consistent or significance difference, The ones that do are seriously flawed.
Last month a study suggested is less nutritious, contains more fat and is less tastier battery-farmed varieties, despite costing twice as much. Food scientists at Strathclyde University analysed supermarket chicken breasts and found organic vaqrieties contained fewer health-giving Omega-3 fatty acidsand lower levels of antioxidants, giving the ,meat an inferior taste. Some contained twice as much choleresterol. Professor Trewavas said that plants that contain natural pesticides are just as potentially harmful. He said: "Superlative chemical equiptment is routinely used to pick such low levels of pesticide. It's ridiculous. These never look for the natural pesticides which at high levels pose just as much risk"
Dr Alison Spalding, the FSA's organic food scientist, said: "The agency's view is that oprganic food is not significantly different in terms of safety or nutrition from food produced conventionally."
A spokesman for the Soil Association which regulates the organic industry, said: "Organic farming delivers more benefits to wildlife. Pigs and poultry reared organically have higher animal welfare standards than those in factory farmed units. He added: "There is now a significant body of evidence indicating a higher nutritional value in organic food. 86% of people say they don't want pesticide residues in their food. If it's matter of choice, the Food Standards Authority says if you want less residues, eat organic."