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March 13, 2007


Green Biotechnology Manifesto; Federal judge halts planting of genetically engineered alfalfa; Ethanol boom fuels shortage of some seeds; RP-based rice institute gets funding boost; NSF Biologists develop large gene dataset for rice plant; Despite buzz on bees, experts disagree on seriousness of problem; Zimbabwe runs out of maize


Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org March 13, 2007

* Green Biotechnology Manifesto
* Federal judge halts planting of genetically engineered alfalfa
* Ethanol boom fuels shortage of some seeds
* RP-based rice institute gets funding boost
* NSF Biologists develop large gene dataset for rice plant
* Despite buzz on bees, experts disagree on seriousness of problem
* Zimbabwe runs out of maize


Green Biotechnology Manifesto

EuropaBio, web dated March 7, 2007, http://www.greenbiotech-manifesto.org/screen-manifesto-900.pdf

[excerpted from 16 pp.; see related press release, "Biotech industry leaders publish Green Biotech Manifesto and set out policy challenges," March 13, 2007, http://www.europabio.org/ne_Greenmanifesto130307.htm ]

The European Commission and the Member States have put in place the world's most stringent regulatory system for the assessment, the approval and monitoring of agricultural biotech products of which the main features are:

1. the safety assessment of biotech crops is carried out by an independent European authority, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and is a continuous process which remains in place even after the authorisation of a product, through careful monitoring and the requirement to renew the approval of a biotech product every ten years;

2. the tracing and labelling of biotech crop-derived ingredients is required throughout the food chain for maximum transparency towards consumers thus guaranteeing freedom of choice;

3. a set of European level recommendations (known as coexistence guidelines) on how to cultivate biotech crops alongside conventional and organic crops to ensure no discrimination against any type of agriculture;

4. Member States competent authorities are fully involved in the safety assessment of biotech crops.

Notwithstanding the above, the authorisation for the cultivation and use of agricultural biotech products is facing a number of substantial hindrances.

These hindrances are setting the sector back in Europe with respect to the rest of the world and are impeding the contribution of agricultural biotech to Europe's Lisbon goals.

This Manifesto aims to present the practical hindrances in the five main areas in need of urgent attention and action, as well as suggested solutions.

Suggested solutions

1. As a matter of priority, the EFSA GMO Panel should focus its capacity on applications for product approvals, and deliver opinions in timeframes consistent with those prescribed in the regulations. Ad hoc self-tasking activities should be reduced until the backlog of applications is removed. Additional resources should be provided to EFSA to manage the increasing number of applications.

2. The European Commission should propose draft approval decisions to Member States according to their regulatory obligations with respect to legally binding timelines.

3. Member States should act in a manner consistent with their EU and International obligations, and demonstrate confidence in the regulatory process they established by making decisions on the basis of EFSA's scientific opinions.

4. The European Commission should ensure that, for biotech products authorized in the EU, Member States do not restrict farmers' access to such products through the use of arbitrary and illegal bans or through the adoption of discriminatory national or local coexistence rules.


Europe must move forward

In order for agricultural biotechnology to contribute actively to Europe meeting the Lisbon goals, European political leaders and the European Commission should review their biotechnology and life sciences policies to ensure that they:

1. Honour commitments aimed at achieving political and economic objectives.

2. Fulfil their legal obligations and properly implement Community legislation.

3. Encourage EFSA to deliver safety opinions on biotech products within the times prescribed in the Community legislation.

4. Propose draft decisions for placing on the market of biotech products in a timely manner as required by the Community legislation.

5. Establish pragmatic labelling thresholds for adventitious or technically unavoidable presence of biotech seeds in seed lots.

6. Establish pragmatic approach to manage the presence of low levels of biotech products and derived biotech material in traded commodities.

7. Enhance the co-ordination with Member States as far as co-existence is concerned.

8. Listen to, and more vocally support, European farmers to realize the economic and environmental advantages of green biotechnology.

9. Nurture and promote coherent pro-growth and pro-development policies that do not discriminate against this promising technology.

10. Better contribute toward educating citizens about the technology, its safety, its advantages and the regulatory framework.

EuropaBio is the political voice of the biotechnology industry in Europe. Our association of bioindustries has some 70 corporate members operating worldwide, 11 associates, 5 regions and 25 national biotechnology associations, representing 1500 small and medium sized biotech companies in Europe


Federal judge halts planting of genetically engineered alfalfa

- Kim Curtis, Contra Costa Times, March 12, 2007, http://www.contracostatimes.com/mld/cctimes/news/16889795.htm

SAN FRANCISCO - A federal judge on Monday temporarily halted the planting of genetically engineered alfalfa across the country in response to a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Farmers who already have purchased the herbicide-resistant alfalfa seed must plant it by March 30. No new sales of the seed will be allowed, according to U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer's preliminary injunction order.

Last month, Breyer ruled federal authorities had failed to fully consider the public health, economic and environmental consequences before allowing the sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa. The Center for Food Safety had sued on behalf of farmers who complained the genetically engineered seed could contaminate organic and conventional alfalfa.

"Roundup Ready alfalfa poses threats to farmers, to our export markets and to the environment," said Will Rostov, spokesman for the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group.

The genetically altered seed is produced by Monsanto Co. and Forage Genetics International. A call to the Idaho-based Forage Genetics seeking comment was referred to Monsanto, where a spokesman said he's disappointed by the temporary injunction but hopeful it wouldn't stand.

"We are hopeful that a reasoned approach in this matter will address questions about the regulatory approval process for Roundup Ready alfalfa," said Jerry Steiner, Monsanto executive vice president.

Company spokesman Andrew Burchett said Monsanto would not be hurt financially by the prohibition on the sale of the seed because "this is not one of our major crops."

About 200,000 acres of genetically modified alfalfa already has been planted across the U.S. The judge, in Monday's order, did not require those crops to be removed.

Roundup Ready Alfalfa can be grown only for hay and forage. Seed production is prohibited.

Alfalfa, which is used for livestock feed, is a major crop grown on about 21 million acres in the country. California is the nation's largest alfalfa producer, growing the crop on about 1 million acres, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley.

Oral arguments on the matter were scheduled for April 27.

[ed. note: Monsanto has issued a press release, "Growers Can Continue to Grow and Use Roundup Ready Alfalfa, but Monsanto Company Is Disappointed With Preliminary Injunction Affecting Purchase and Planting; Will Continue to Support Growers' Right to Choose Roundup Ready Alfalfa for Their Forage Operatio[n]," March 12, 2007, http://monsanto.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=43&item=469 ]


Ethanol boom fuels shortage of some seeds

- Roxana Hegeman, The Hutchinson News, March 13, 2007, http://www.hutchnews.com/news/regional/stories/boom031307.shtml

WICHITA - With ethanol demand driving corn prices to levels not seen in a decade, the nation's farmers are gearing up to plant massive amounts of the crop this spring, creating shortages of some popular biotech hybrid seeds.

While growers should still be able to find plenty of corn seed to plant, it may not be the variety developed for their season or bred with the genetic modifications they want to combat insects and diseases in their region, experts said.

"It is a nationwide problem. One reason it is so severe in Kansas is that a lot of the seed available for us is being used to replace cotton acres in Texas and Mississippi. But the shortage is nationwide. They are facing the same problems that we are," said Terry Vinduska, the sales representative for Pioneer Hybrid International in Marion.

Kansas farmers do not typically plant the varieties of corn favored by Corn Belt growers farther north, Vinduska said. Farmers here need corn hybrids bred to resist local pests and to tolerate blistering hot summers that can wilt even irrigated crops.

Those popular varieties were sold out before Thanksgiving, Vinduska said.

Those are the same kinds of hybrids southern growers in the nation's Cotton Belt want. Many acres of cotton are going to be planted to corn this year rather than cotton, Vinduska said, noting the price of corn is close to double what it was at this time last year.

That means some Kansas corn growers may not be able to find the biotech hybrids that are resistant to certain herbicides or to corn borer and root worm, he said.

"We will undoubtedly have lower yields, and in some cases we will have to spray with pesticides to control corn borer, so that will add to our costs," Vinduska said.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service does not release its prospective planting report until March 23, but the industry already expects a massive increase in corn acres nationwide given the demand for corn seed and fertilizer.

Bob Timmons, a corn grower near Fredonia, plans to plant around 1,000 acres into corn later this month - about the same amount as last year. He said he is limited in the amount of farmland good enough to grow corn and sticks to his rotation.

Because he bought his corn in November, he said he found the seed variety he wanted, although not the seed size he preferred for his planter. But he wasn't complaining, especially given the high corn prices.

"It is pretty nice. We have had many years of bad prices," Timmons said.

It's not yet certain how many more corn acres will be planted in Kansas this spring. Corn planting typically starts first in the southeast corner of the state by the third or fourth week of March.

Jere White, executive director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association, said he anticipates a significant increase over last year. He expects those added corn acres to come from farmers shifting from soybean acres in Kansas.

Last fall, Kansas farmers planted a large number of available acres into winter wheat amid then-high wheat prices. Winter wheat typically is not harvested in time for farmers to replant corn on those acres, and it is unlikely farmers will tear up most of those already planted wheat acres for corn this spring, Vinduska said.


RP-based rice institute gets funding boost

- Dolly Aglay, The China Post, March 13, 2007, http://www.chinapost.com.tw/news/archives/asiapacific/2007313/104529.htm

MANILA After the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, farmers around the region relied on stockpiles from a Philippine-based rice institute to provide them with rice varieties that could grow in salty soils.

Countries like Cambodia, East Timor, India, Nepal and the Philippines have also turned to the genebank of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to restore native rice varieties that have disappeared for a variety of reasons.

IRRI and the Global Crop Diversity Trust announced on Monday an agreement to secure the world's largest repository of rice, the staple food of about three billion people or around half the world's population.

Under the agreement, the IRRI has pledged to invest US$400,000 annually in the gene bank and the Trust US$200,000, both parties said in a joint statement.

The Trust, set up by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and research group Bioversity International, said the agreement would allow for inflationary increases and would remain in force indefinitely.

The grant would be used to buy any rice varieties not currently in the genebank and to upgrade storage systems for long-term conservation.

IRRI's genetic resource center at its headquarters in the foothills of Mount Makiling in Los Banos, south of Manila, houses some 100,000 samples of rice from Asia to Africa.

The collection, kept in a special earthquake and fire-proof facility that must be maintained at temperatures as low as minus 19 degrees Celsius, provides the last line of defense in times of war, natural disasters and attacks from pests and diseases.

"With almost half the world's population depending on rice, we wanted to make sure IRRI's genebank was insulated from the whims of fluctuating funding," Cary Fowler, executive director of Global Crop Diversity Trust, said in a statement.

"The agreement goes to the core of the Trust's mission, which is to guarantee the conservation of the world's crop diversity, and it's hard to imagine a more important crop for sustaining humanity than rice," he added.

The Trust is also supporting Norway's plan to build a "doomsday vault" inside a mountain on an Arctic island this year that will eventually contain every known crop variety.


National Science Foundation Biologists develop large gene dataset for rice plant- Leads to increased understanding of essential food crop

- Cheryl Dybas, National Science Foundation (press release), March 13, 2007, http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-03/nsf-bdl031307.php

Scientists have reported development of a large dataset of gene sequences in rice. The information will lead to an increased understanding of how genes work in rice, an essential food for much of the world's population.

Plant biologist Blake Meyers at the University of Delaware and colleagues report their results in the March 11 on-line issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Using advanced gene sequencing technologies and high-powered computer-based approaches, Meyers and colleagues examined both normal gene expression (via messenger ribonucleic acids, or mRNAs) as well as small ribonucleic acids (small RNAs) in rice.

The analysis of rice was based on gene sequences representing nearly 47 million mRNA molecules and three million small RNAs, a larger dataset than has been reported for any other plant species.

Small RNAs are considered one of most important discoveries in biotechnology in the last 10 years. Because they are so much smaller than mRNAs, small RNAs went unnoticed for many years, or were considered biologically unimportant, said Meyers.

Small RNAs are now known to play an important role in gene regulation, he said, adding that deficiencies in small RNA production can have a profound effect on development.

"Small RNAs also have been associated with other important biological processes, such as responses to stress," Meyers said. "Many of small RNAs in rice have related sequences in the many important cereal crop plants, including maize and wheat."

Research on small RNAs "is a leading edge in plant biotechnology," said Machi Dilworth, Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Division of Biological Infrastructure, which along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, funded the research. "This work will contribute to an understanding of the role of small RNAs in gene expression not only in rice, but in all plants."


Despite buzz on bees, experts disagree on seriousness of problem

- Jim Downing, The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, CA), http://www.sanluisobispo.com/mld/sanluisobispo/news/nation/16893200.htm

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Bees are dying by the billions. Nobody knows why. And the crops they pollinate - California almonds especially - are at risk.

Or at least that's been the buzz.

In the past month, the new and mysterious honeybee ailment known as "colony collapse disorder," which seems to cause entire hives of bees to leave home and never return, has made the front page of newspapers from Sacramento to New York. Fox News and National Public Radio aired reports. A "CBS Evening News" crew spent weeks following a bee-disease investigator around the nation. Even Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert took up the issue, urging investors to hoard bees.

"The fewer there are, the more they're worth," Colbert said.

Yet despite all the attention, there's little solid data on the severity of the problem.

"I'm not convinced that it's so much worse than what we saw in 2004 and 2005," said Eric Mussen, a bee specialist with the University of California, Davis.

While bees are undoubtedly in trouble this year, Mussen said, there's little evidence so far that it's anything other than the continuation of their long struggle with disease, environmental stress and the hardship of being hauled cross-country in midwinter to pollinate crops in California.

"This time the media just became much more involved in it," he said.

News accounts have cited dramatic losses of 70 percent or more reported by some commercial beekeepers from coast to coast. But because no comprehensive survey of the industry exists, it's hard to say just how many hives have been hit.

"About all we've got is anecdotes," said Troy Fore, executive director of the American Beekeeping Federation.

A clearer picture should emerge in June. That's when the U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys the developing almond crop. If the billions of bees now laboring in the almond orchards in California's Central Valley are sufficiently strong and numerous to do their work - and the weather is favorable - the trees will be laden with nuts this summer.

Bees have become big business in recent years. Each hive rents for $140 or so, and California's almond growers alone will spend roughly $200 million hiring beekeepers to let their bees loose in the orchards this year. A good chunk of the bees also are essential to the production of about $12 billion in other crops nationwide, according to a Cornell University study.

But while bees have been growing in importance as pollinators, no state or federal agency monitors them. The agencies do track honey production, but that's tied only loosely to the size of the bee labor pool, since many beehives are now managed mainly as pollinators rather than honey-makers.

What information there is on bee vigor comes mostly word-of-mouth and, lately, through the media. With the spotlight on both beekeepers and almond growers - and millions of dollars at stake - rumors have been flying.

Some beekeepers accuse others of playing down the crisis out of pride, or in hopes that their clients, the almond farmers, won't start to question the health or the value of their rented bees. Other beekeepers trumpet the die-off, calling for government relief and higher rental fees from almond growers.

The California Almond Board, on the other hand, surveyed almond farmers and issued a statement last month. While bee supplies may be fairly tight, the board said, there are enough to go around.

Years ago, Mussen said, many Central Valley counties employed a bee inspector to check the health of rented hives. That person helped resolve disputes between beekeepers and farmers and served as an informal census-taker.

Today, those inspectors are scarce. One of the few remaining is Clifton Piper, who has checked hives for the Merced County (Calif.) Department of Agriculture since 1973. He isn't sure about the big picture, either.

"It's difficult to see just how short the shortage is," he said. Beekeepers often bolster weak hives with imported packages of bees from Australia, he said. And in cold and rainy weather, it's hard to tell whether sluggish bees in a hive are sick or simply chilly.

Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a Pennsylvania bee expert participating in a nationwide research effort that hopes to better characterize colony collapse disorder, said the investigation has been somewhat hampered by beekeepers unwilling to admit that their bees are dying.

"Sometimes beekeepers are ashamed that they have a problem, so they may not be as transparent as they might be," he said.

That's not the case for Placerville, Calif., beekeeper Rich Starets. He's lost 225 of his 300 hives since November. But he places the blame squarely on his own beekeeping missteps, such as poor timing of feeding and medication. And, based on conversations with fellow beekeepers, he's convinced that the much-discussed colony collapse disorder is chiefly the result of imperfect beekeeping.

"There's plenty of guys that didn't lose two-thirds of their hives this year," he said.

While the price that a hive commands in an almond orchard has nearly tripled in just the past four years, beekeepers' costs have risen, as well. Much of the money goes to treat bees against an ever-growing variety of pests and pathogens, to feed them corn syrup and protein supplements and to pay breeders for replacement bees when hives die off.

That's a lot to keep track of, especially for a part-time beekeeper like Starets, 40, who makes most of his living fixing cell-phone towers for AT&T.

But, he said, "It's up to me ... to learn how to keep bees in a changing world."

Dozens of his now-barren hive boxes are stacked in a meadow along Green Valley Road near Shingle Springs. On a recent morning, Starets cracked one lid open, revealing a cluster of a few dozen dead bees huddled together as if for comfort. They had started to mold. A healthy hive would have 20,000 or more bees at this time of year.

Online bee discussions on sites like beesource.com and honeybeeworld.com have been brimming with speculation on the cause and extent of the die-off. There are rumors of desperate almond growers offering $300 a hive for healthy bees, and theories blaming the die-off on everything from cell-phone signals to genetically modified crops.

Researchers like vanEngelsdorp are hoping to put the speculation to rest by finding a cause or a collection of causes - aside from beekeeper error - for the reported die-off. They're currently analyzing samples from healthy and sick colonies around the country.

For his role in the race to solve the mystery of colony collapse, vanEngelsdorp has become a minor media star. He's lately been spending 70 percent of his time talking to reporters and giving radio and television interviews, he said.

"You realize that this is an opportunity to help explain how important bees are," he said.

He knew the story had reached critical mass, he said, after what he overheard during lunch at an International House of Pancakes in Florida last week.

"Across the way there were these two old ladies," he said. "And one was saying, `Did you hear all the bees are dying?'

"And I'm thinking, Wow. It made IHOP conversation."


Zimbabwe runs out of maize

- ZimOnline via ReliefWeb, March 12, 2007, http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/DHRV-6Z92MA?OpenDocument

HARARE - Zimbabwe has run out of maize with the state-controlled Grain Marketing Board (GMB) last week being forced to shut down for days its biggest milling plant at the Aspindale depot in Harare.

Sources within the GMB told ZimOnline yesterday that most silos around the country were virtually empty describing the food security situation in the southern African country as "critical."

The sources added that the GMB Aspindale milling plant was virtually shut down for the greater part of last week because there was no maize triggering fears of widespread shortages of maize-meal across the country.

Maize-meal is the staple food for the majority of Zimbabweans.

"For four days, the plant was shut down because we had nothing in the silos. The situation is critical.

"Unless the country imports more maize in larger quantities, we will soon run out of maize-meal," said a senior official at the depot who refused to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the Press.

Zimbabwe, which has battled severe food shortages over the past seven years, has been importing maize from Zambia and South Africa since late last year following poor harvests the previous farming season.

But the maize imports are said to be failing to satisfy rising demand. Between three and six truckloads of maize are said to be arriving from Zambia every day.

The GMB official said although they expected maize to start trickling in at the end of March and beginning of April when the harvest season begins, the situation was not expected to improve significantly because most farmers are reluctant to sell because of the maize prices stipulated by the government.

GMB chief executive Samuel Muvuti downplayed the looming maize-meal shortage saying only the southern parts of the country were facing shortages.

He said the GMB was mobilizing resources to ensure that enough maize reached the southern parts of the country.

"I want to assure the nation that people should not panic as we are making frantic efforts to import maize. We also have local maize still coming into our depots so there is nothing to worry about," said Muvuti.

Zimbabwe, which was the breadbasket of southern Africa, has grappled severe food shortages over the past seven years after President Robert Mugabe seized white-owned farms for redistribution to landless blacks.

The farm disturbances slashed food production by 60 percent resulting in most Zimbabweans relying on food handouts from international donors for survival.

The food crisis is only one of many acute symptoms of Zimbabwe's seven-year old economic meltdown that has also spawned shortages of fuel, electricity, essential medicines, hard cash and just about every basic survival commodity.


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