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March 9, 2007


Weed Resistance Risk Assessment; Plants' management of nutrient; Biotech regulations of the European Union stall agricultural improvements in developing countries; Modified crops help reduce greenhouse gases; Wife of Norman Borlaug dies at age 95; Judging their 'greenness'


Today from* AgBioView, http://www.agbioworld.org, March 9, 2007

* Weed Resistance Risk Assessment
* Plants' management of nutrient
* Biotech regulations of the European Union stall agricultural improvements in developing countries
* Study: Modified crops help reduce greenhouse gases
* Wife of Norman Borlaug dies at age 95
* Judging their 'greenness'


Weed Resistance Risk Assessment

- Monsanto, web date February 23, 2007, http://www.weedtool.com/about.html

The Weed Resistance Risk Assessment was created to help farmers gauge the risk of seeing weeds resistant to glyphosate-based herbicides in their fields. This assessment offers ways or Best Farming Practices producers can employ to manage those risks without limiting yield potential.

Ten questions were developed as the basis for this farmer field-by-field assessment. Each question and answer was run through a analytical hierarchy software to assign each relative value. The questions and answers were then assessed and reviewed by a panel of academic experts. Based on their knowledge of the practices and programs relating to the risk of developing weed resistance, these experts developed a consensus score for each of the answers. The score is used to assess whether a user may be at risk for development of weed resistance in their specific field.

After participants answer the questions and see their value, their three highest priority areas to address in relation to weed resistance risk are detailed by the corresponding Best Farming Practices. In addition to the situation specific recommendations of the assessment, users have access to additional information on weed resistance management resources within the site.


Plants' management of nutrient suggests environmental remedies

- Monte Basgall, Duke University, March 8, 2007, http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-03/du-pmo030707.php

A new understanding of how plants manage their internal calcium levels could potentially lead to genetically engineering plants to avoid damage from acid rain, which robs soil of much of its calcium.

"Our findings should help scientists understand how plant ecosystems respond to soil calcium depletion and design appropriate strategies to protect the environment," said Zhen-Ming Pei, a Duke University assistant professor of biology who led the study, to be published in the Friday, March 9, issue of the journal Science.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Xiamen University in China.

Calcium enters plants dissolved within the water that roots take in from surrounding soil. As the water circulates through a plant, its dissolved calcium gets shuttled where it is needed to give the plant's cells their structural rigidity. To grow, a plant needs a reliable supply of calcium. But calcium supplies coming into the plant cycle up and down over the course of the day, dropping to a minimum at night.

Plants use molecular sensors and flows of chemical messengers to detect and regulate the storage and distribution of vital nutrients such as water and calcium.

To track the calcium sensors in the model mustard plant Arabidopsis, the team used molecules originally found in jellyfish that emit light in response to calcium's presence. To deduce what the sensor does and does not do, the researchers also introduced an "antisense" version of the calcium-sensor protein that abolishes the sensor's effects.

The calcium-sensing molecule in plants, called CAS, was first identified by Pei's group and described in the Sept. 11, 2003, issue of the journal Nature. Arabidopsis is favored for such experiments because it has a relatively short life cycle of eight weeks and its genome has been completely sequenced.

By tracking the glow of the jellyfish molecules, the researchers learned that CAS plays a number of roles in plants. The scientists initially thought it simply monitored changes in levels of dissolved calcium that enters the plant from the outside. They discovered instead that CAS also triggers the release of internal calcium that is stored within the plant via a chemical signaling system.

This coupled system, the researchers deduce, ensures that constant levels of calcium remain available to a plant's cells despite widely varying amounts of the nutrient coming in during each day and night cycle.

"The sensors try to detect how much calcium is there, and they coordinate that level with growth and development," Pei said. "If they detect there is not enough calcium, the plant may elect to hold off on growth and development until it has more calcium. The plant may thus appear not to be doing well."

The findings have prompted Pei to begin a new research program aimed at altering this calcium balancing act to help plants adjust to the ravages of acid rain.

Produced by interactions between water vapor and human-created pollutants, acid rain can disrupt plants' calcium balance by leaching significant amounts of calcium from agricultural and forest soils as well as from plant leaves, according to Pei.

"It has been found that some soils have lost as much as 75 percent of their calcium during the past century," he said. "One way to respond is to add new calcium to the soil. But we can't do that everywhere that it's needed and it is also expensive."

Although acid rain robs soil of much of its calcium, enough is still left for plants to live on, Pei added. But he suspects that sensors like CAS may misinterpret "less" as "too little" in those plants and unnecessarily signal for growth shutdowns. Perhaps a plant's calcium sensors could instead be tricked into interpreting "less" as "still enough" and keep building new cell walls, he suggested.

As a preamble to such genetic engineering, Pei is now leading a study in his native China that will evaluate the physiology of various plants affected by acid rain. "It is in the south of China where acid rain is huge because of industry," he said. "China is becoming the factory for the United States.

"We will monitor calcium changes in the soil there, and then clone calcium receptors from various plant species to see whether those receptors are responsible for growth and how they respond to acidity," he said. "Some plants grow terribly under acid rain, but others grow very well."


Biotech regulations of the European Union stall agricultural improvements in developing countries

- Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries (via SeedQuest), March 8, 2007, http://www.seedquest.com/News/releases/2007/march/18649.htm

Different prominent scientists have expressed their concerns that Europe is damaging countries in the developing world by imposing its standards to regulate genetic modified (GM) crops. The current regulatory policy is damaging the prospects of public sector biotech to the point where most of its contributions are stalled. If this is the situation in South Africa and China, where experience in the development of GM crops and biosafety regulations are in place, what then is the hope for other developing nations that desperately need transformation towards a knowledge-based bio-economy.

An international discussion

On 20th February, at a public discussion organised by Friends of Europe, Connie Hedegaard, Danish Minister for the Environment, has expressed concern that Europe is damaging countries in the developing world by imposing its standards to regulate GM crops. Also Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy at Cornell University, and a World Food Prize laureate commented: "This Debate is important because what we think and do in Europe affects poor people in developing countries."

As a follow up to this event, the European Action on Global Life Sciences (EAGLES) invited plant researchers from South Africa, China and Brazil to hear their views on how European regulations on GM crops influence legislators in the developing world.

Former head of unit at the European Commission, DG Research and head of unit of biotechnology at the OECD Mark F. Cantley said:"The economic and political disincentives Europe imposes on the use of new technologies for environmentally friendly agriculture makes it impossible for the developing world to develop new improved crops".

In her presentation, Professor Jennifer Thompson of University of Cape Town underlined the reality of this fact: "We are concerned about what we consider the European over-regulation and question whether this may prevent, or severely delay, the approval of plants that are desperately needed by poor Africans".

Even China, according to Professor Chen Zhangliang, President of Beijing Agricultural University, has failed to approve the commercial release of GM rice due to concerns over future exports "even though China only exports 1% of its total rice production".

Looking forward to other attitudes

Critics of GM crops can no longer base their campaigns of disinformation on arguments that biotechnology is simply a tool with which multinational corporations will subjugate unwitting farmers. Rather they should acknowledge that most, if not all innovative research in agricultural biotechnology in the developing countries is done in public research institutions working towards public goods outputs.

The EU's Environmental Council has repeatedly ignored the advice of the EU's expert advisory bodies, such as the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), on the proven safety of GM crops. The Council repeatedly fails to implement its own laws, favouring instead state censorship rather than offering choice. This departure from rational decision-making is damaging the credibility of the regulatory system on which much of Europe's innovative and industrial capacity relies. Europe's inconsistencies on the regulation of GM crops threaten the efforts of public research to create food security in the developing world.

The Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries (IPBO) is an initiative of Gent University, Belgium, that is committed to building capacity in developing country agricultural programs through training, consultancy, collaborative and technology transfer services.


Study: Modified crops help reduce greenhouse gases

- Rachel Melcer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 03/09/2007, http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/business/stories.nsf/0/326F900FC0428B8386257299001149DF?OpenDocument

The global use of genetically modified crops, which allows farmers to plant using less herbicide and without tilling the soil, is significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study.

In 2005, the impact in reduced carbon dioxide emissions was the equivalent of removing nearly 4 million average family cars from the road, said the study by Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot of PG Economics Ltd., a British consulting firm. The study was commissioned by Monsanto Co. of Creve Coeur, the world's leading provider of biotech crops, and published in the peer-reviewed journal AgBioForum.

Genetically modified, or GM, soybeans, corn, cotton and canola were planted on 215 million acres by 8.5 million farmers in 2005, the study said. These crops ward off certain pests and withstand applications of glyphosate herbicide, a weed killer that is less environmentally damaging than other chemicals.

The biggest environmental benefit of these crops, according to the study, comes when they are used to enable no-till farming. Growers who use that technique don't plow the ground; they plant through the organic material left from a prior crop.

Plowing allows naturally occurring carbon dioxide to escape into the air, contributing to greenhouse gas buildup.

Farmers in North and South America rapidly have adopted no-till farming in conjunction with GM crops, the study found. In 2005, this practice left in the ground 2.9 million kilograms of soil carbon that would have been released through plowing - an amount equal to the emissions of 3.6 million cars.

"No-till farming is nothing new. Farmers have been trying (it) for many years," Brookes said. But the approach doesn't work well with conventional crops, leading many growers to abandon it.

Further carbon dioxide savings come from reduced use of fossil-fuel-burning farm vehicles. The reduction includes the use of plow equipment, as well as vehicles used to spray pesticides needed on conventional crops.

Since their introduction in 1996, GM crops have saved farmers 441 million gallons of fuel, which led to a 4.6 billion kilogram reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, the study said.

Vic Miller, chairman of the U.S. Grains Council, to which Monsanto and other biotech seed companies belong, said he's impressed with the results. He's been using GM crops on his 3,600-acre Iowa corn and soybean farm since 1996.

"It's put more money on my bottom line, year after year. And it's allowed me to reduce chemical and pesticide use in my operation," he said. "I'm one of the first environmentalists, because I have to live there. I drink the water and walk on the soil, and I don't appreciate having to use products that have the skull and crossbones on them."


Margaret Borlaug, the wife of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Iowa native Norman Borlaug, dies at age 95

- Houston Chronicle, March 8, 2007, http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/nation/4614458.html

Margaret Borlaug, the wife of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Iowa native Norman Borlaug, has died in Dallas, according to a spokesman.

Chris Dowswell, an assistant to Norman Borlaug, said Mrs. Borlaug fell recently and never recovered. She died Wednesday at the age of 95.

Norman Borlaug, 92, is from Cresco, Iowa, and lives in College Station, Texas. He won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in plant genetics. His work helped fight starvation in countries like India and Pakistan in the 1960s.

He also is the founder of the Des Moines-based World Food Prize to recognize the efforts of people who have improved the quantity, quality and availability of food in the world.

In December, President Bush signed into law a bill authorizing that the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor, be awarded to Norman Borlaug.

Margaret Gibson met Norman Borlaug while they were students at the University of Minnesota. They married in 1937 and had two children.

A memorial service will be held March 24 in Dallas.


Judging their 'greenness'

- Rina Jimenez-David, Inquirer (Philippines), 03/09/2007, http://opinion.inquirer.net/inquireropinion/columns/view_article.php?article_id=53756

MANILA, Philippines -- Here is the rest of the questionnaire sent by the 2007 Green Electoral Initiative (GEI), spearheaded by Greenpeace and the EcoWaste Coalition, to all senatorial candidates in this year's polls. Based on the candidates' answers, groups involved in the GEI will then rate the candidates on degree of "greenness," that is, their awareness of, advocacy for and dedication to environmental issues. I would also presume that the candidates' replies would be used as a checklist against which their subsequent legislative work -- advocacy and voting record -- would be compared, assuming they do get elected to office.

As I said in a previous column, I'm reprinting the questionnaire in this space so that other groups could replicate it and present it to congressional candidates in their districts as well as to aspirants for local positions, since the same issues are a matter of local concern as well.


Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

1. What steps will you take to protect the country's biodiversity and public health from the contamination and unpredictable adverse effects of the release and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture and food?

2. Despite widespread rejection of genetically modified (GM) rice in markets worldwide, illegal genetically modified rice is being sold in Philippine supermarkets and approval for the use of another GM rice strain for food, feed and processing is currently pending at the Bureau of Plant Industry. Do you support the introduction and commercialization of GM rice in the country?

3. Would you support the mandatory labelling of all products containing GM organisms sold in the Philippines?

sustainable and organic agriculture

1. Will you support legislation that will remove subsidies to synthetic farm inputs as well as measures that would significantly reduce the use of pesticides and agricultural chemicals in the country? Will you support a move to rechannel these subsidies to the promotion of organic agriculture practices?

2. Will you support legislation that will shift the DA's policy orientation from chemically based and synthetic agriculture towards the development of sustainable and organic agriculture as defined by Executive Order 481 or the Promotion and Development of Organic Agriculture in the Philippines?



*by guest editor Andrew Apel, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net. Prakash is traveling.