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March 31, 2007


Ag Committee Kills Bill to Ban GM Taro; Ghana: Call for Agriculture Modernization; The Seeds for Folate Enrichment; Experts evaluate GM crops for the Developing World; Peas to combat infectious diseases


Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org March 31, 2007

* Ag Committee Kills Bill to Ban GM Taro
* Ghana: Call for Agriculture Modernization
* The Seeds for Folate Enrichment
* Experts evaluate GM crops for the Developing World
* Peas to combat infectious diseases


House Ag Committee Kills Proposed Bill to Ban Genetically Engineered Taro

- Adolph Helm, Hawaii Reporter, March 30, 2007, http://www.hawaiireporter.com/story.aspx?7b6c9fdd-2385-43f5-a85c-13a161c064cf

The proposed taro GMO Moratorium Bill SB958, which would have banned genetic engineering research of taro for 10 years, has been killed for the 2007 legislative session. The outcome was decided this week when House Agriculture Chair Clift Tsuji decided his committee would not hear the bill.

Representative Tsuji had the wisdom and the courage to stop a policy decision that was not needed. This is because the UH already had an agreement not to do any genetically engineered research on taro until further discussions with the Hawaiian community are completed.

Rep. Tsuji's action to table the bill paves the way for stakeholder discussions to preserve and protect taro via SCR 206, which requests the Department of Agriculture to develop a taro security and purity research program.

Member companies of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA) understand that we operate within a cultural context and that there are cultural concerns that must be respected. That is why HCIA member companies respect the cultural meaning of Hawaiian taro and why we firmly believe that the Hawaiian community must lead the discussion on the future of Hawaiian taro, related taro research, and education programs.

While the demise of the GMO moratorium on taro is a major setback for opponents, the battle is not yet over. A similar bill banning field-testing of genetically engineered coffee is still pending and may yet be heard by the Senate committee on Energy and Environment and the committee on Water, Land, Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs.

As with taro, the UH has an agreement with the Kona coffee growers in which no field testing of GE research will be done until discussions with them, too, are completed. Therefore, it puzzles us why legislation is needed at all-unless it is an attempt to hijack legitimate cultural concerns and the concerns of some coffee growers in the service of a broader philosophic and anti-scientific agenda.

Furthermore, the proposed ban on field testing of genetically engineered coffee is opposed by the Hawaii Coffee Growers Association (HCGA), which is the only organization representing coffee growers statewide. Michael Conway, HCGA vice president, recently issued a statement saying that, "The impact on Hawaii's agricultural community could be devastating if farmers are unable to embrace the latest research into plant breeding, pest control, and disease resistance. In a state where production costs are amongst the highest in the world, many agricultural businesses rely on research institutions such as UH to help solve their problems and provide the edge they need to compete."

The health and safety of crop biotechnology has been affirmed time and again by the most prominent scientific organizations in the U.S. and throughout the world. Therefore, these bills needlessly undermine development of Hawaii's science and technology industries-which are tied to the economic aspirations we all have for our state.

If we truly want to expand Hawaii's economy beyond a service/tourism industry, we must embrace the latest in responsible science and technology. This is where graduates of our local colleges and universities will find the opportunities that could help preclude them from leaving the state in search of well-paying jobs.

Rather than legislating coffee and taro R&D, we should find compromise through discussion among farmers and the Hawaiian community, government, academia, and industry-with the goal of allowing farmers the option to choose their preferred growing methods.


Adolph Helm is the President Elect of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association. The Hawaii Crop Improvement Association (HCIA) is an industry association representing member seed producers in Hawaii for nearly 40 years. Together, these companies plant an estimated 8,000 acres on four islands. They contribute approximately $144 million of economic activity annually to the state through direct and indirect inputs. This translates to $7 million in annual taxes to the state, $53 million in annual labor income, and over 2,000 jobs


Ghana: NDPC Calls for Agriculture Modernization

- Phyllis D. Osabutey, Ghanaian Chronicle (Accra), March 30, 2007, http://allafrica.com/stories/200703301085.html

AGRICULTURE was the most important source of growth in the Ghanaian economy between 2000 and 2005 with an average of about 5.1% while services and industry averaged about 5.0% and 4.5% respectively.

However, agriculture remained a dominant sector by 2005, contributing about 42% Gross Domestic Product (GDP) while services and industry contributed about 31% and 27% respectively.

Also, from a period of 1995 to 2005, the contribution of agriculture to the country's GDP declined marginally from about 42.7% to about 41.9%, representing a decrease of about 0.8 percent while the services sector contribution to GDP however increased by about 0.6% and that of the industry output in GDP also increased to about 0.2 of a percentage point.

This, in addition to problems such as the sector being predominantly rain-fed, with undeveloped irrigation systems, an average use of fertilizer of about 34,000 mt/annum in the last decade, as well as agriculture being mostly smallholder activity has prompted the National Development Planning Commission (NDPC) to propose agriculture modernization as part of the processes to propel development towards attaining national goals such as the Ghana Poverty Reduction Strategy I&II and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.

The NDPC, headed by honourable J.H Mensah in their technical report on a ten-year development plan for the nation, which is being discussed at the stakeholder level noted that the average use of fertilizer in the agriculture sector was one of the lowest in Africa and probably the world.

The report indicated that lack of effective handling of post-harvest activities such that there were annual loses for food crops, estimated at 30%, land degradation with serious consequences for sustainable growth and productivity and also lack of feedstuff for livestock in the dry season all constituted problems for traditional agriculture.

"Several technologies (improved seeds, GMO and IPM) that have been developed and disseminated to increase productivity have had little or no adoption rates due to cost and cultural preferences", it added.

To reverse the trend, NDPC stated, "the key solution to the problems of traditional agriculture in Ghana is modernizing agriculture" and added that this has been the focus of government's last two economic development strategies, which are (GPRS I&II, MCC).

It said it was important for this to be tackled on several fronts simultaneously to involve all segments of stakeholders in the transformation process and be based on experiences of other developing countries, but consistent with Ghana's development objectives and compatible with its social context.

Further, the report mentioned that strategies for modernizing agriculture should be based on principles and development goals and objectives while key interventions should include out-grower and irrigation development schemes, and farmer based organization/ community training programs.

Others include locally owned storage facilities, agro-processing plants through arrangements and infrastructure development for energy and transport including district assemblies.


Planting the Seeds for Folate Enrichment

- Janet Raloff, Science News Magazine, Week of March 31, 2007; Vol. 171, No. 13, http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20070331/food.asp

The body needs folate - a B vitamin - but can't produce it. Getting too little folate during pregnancy can lead to anemia in a mom and birth defects for her baby. If other adults get too little of the vitamin, they may face increased vulnerability to vascular disease and cancer. In other words, people need to eat foods that give them plenty of folate, which includes dark green vegetables, beans, legumes, and fortified grains.

By tinkering with two genes that take part in folate production in tomato plants, researchers in Florida have found a way to make tomatoes a remarkably rich source of this valued nutrient. The team reports in the March 6 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that its manipulations boosted folate concentrations in the fruit roughly 20-fold.

The altered tomatoes thus contain more folate per gram than any other food. In fact, a 100-gram serving of the new tomatoes would deliver 840 micrograms of the vitamin - more than double the recommended daily intake for adults and half-again what a pregnant woman should take to prevent a neural-tube birth defect in her baby.

Unfortunately, laments biochemist Andrew D. Hanson of the University of Florida, such genetically modified foods don't appeal to most U.S. and European consumers. "That wasn't clear when we started the project," he says, but "now, it's very clear."

His colleague Jesse F. Gregory III, a food chemist, agrees. "Discussing how [the genetically engineered tomatoes] might be marketed is quite hypothetical, at least for decades."

Nevertheless, Gregory suspects that public acceptance of genetically modified foods, including his group's tomatoes, will grow. When the market is ready, he says, the team's achievement will be there to exploit.

Making changes

A plant makes folate through chemical interactions among three natural chemicals: pteridine, p-aminobenzoate (PABA), and the amino acid glutamate.

Although most plants have no shortage of glutamate, Hanson says, the two other chemicals can be quite limited.

Several years ago, his team decided to try to boost folate in tomato plants by inserting a synthetic version of a gene from mice. It boosted the plants' pteridine production 100-fold, but folate production only doubled. The bottleneck, Hanson's group realized, was that PABA was still too limited.

"Think of these pathways [to folate] as two tributaries feeding into a river," Hanson explains. "The first thing we did was engineer a dramatic increase in pteridine, one tributary of that river." It wasn't until the researchers inserted a PABA-boosting gene from a weed plant that the tomato had enough pteridine and PABA to more dramatically ramp up folate production.

Interestingly, the researchers found that the dually manipulated tomatoes continued to build their concentrations of folate throughout their maturation. That's in sharp contrast to what tomatoes normally do. A conventional tomato develops about 0.5 parts per million (ppm) folate by the time it reaches full size but is still green. After that, the concentration doesn't increase much. Fruits of the new transgenic version have about normal folate concentrations while green, but they then build to about 10 ppm when fully ripe.

The researchers chose tomatoes for their work mainly for convenience. An expert on tomato biology and engineering worked down the hall, Hanson notes, "so we had all of the skills needed to produce transgenic tomato plants." It didn't hurt, he says, that tomatoes are a major food crop and that their inherent acidity helps make any folate in them less likely to break down during transport and storage. Finally, the researchers had access to an experimental dwarf variety of the plant that grew quickly, so that many generations could be studied over relatively short periods.

In fact, Hanson says, because the biggest need for inexpensive folate fortification is in poor countries - especially in Africa and Asia - the goal for future folate-fortification projects will probably be "crops that are consumed in those countries as staples. Rice would be one target, as would be cereals like sorghum and maize, and sweet potatoes or other tuber crops."

Hanson suspects that even these plants will need to be genetically modified to have big folate payoffs, because none of them naturally makes enough pteridine and PABA to be exploited by conventional cross-breeding.

New folate may be better absorbed

Folate is the name given to a family of related compounds with vitamin activity. What distinguishes one from another is the number of glutamate units that form a tail on the molecule.

Plants naturally make folate in versions containing one to seven glutamate units in their tails. However, among the transgenic tomatoes, Gregory notes, "the bulk of the folate has only one glutamate." By contrast, unaltered tomato plants produced most of their folate with six glutamates.

Although there has been some inconsistency in the findings of research looking at how well folates with different-length glutamate tails are absorbed in the gut, Gregory notes that many studies have suggested that multiple-glutamate forms are 25 to 30 percent less absorbable than folate with a single-glutamate tail.

"So," Hanson concludes, "it appears that if anything, our transgenic plants would be somewhat better in this regard."


SCRI experts evaluate GM crops for the Developing World

- Bio-Dundee (Scotland), undated, http://www.biodundee.co.uk/news.asp?nID=98

SCRI's experts in insects, soils and the environment are helping to shape international policy for the evaluation of genetically modified crops. SCRI has varied expertise in the biosciences e.g. soils, insects, plants, genetics which is being used in an integrated fashion to impartially evaluate all the environmental and economic aspects of the cultivation of genetically modified crops in developing countries.

Dr Nick Birch, environmental entomologist, and Dr Ron Wheatley, soil ecologist, are attending a meeting of the International Organisation for Biological Control (IOBC) in Brasil next week to evaluate the risks and benefits of growing pest-resistant GM cotton. They will use their 60 years' combined research experience and knowledge gained from the 1st workshop in Kenya to further develop and refine guidelines for policy makers and consumers in Brasil. Nick and Ron are based within the new 'environment' theme of SCRI (Management of genes and organisms in the Environment). They will draw on the wide range of expertise available within this theme, led by Dr Geoff Squire, to devise experiments which enable the local scientists in Brasil to evaluate the risks and benefits of growing pest-resistant GM cotton. The strength of this international collaboration is that it draws on the expertise of international experts to impartially inform policy- makers.

The GMO Guidelines Project was launched in 2001 by a group of international, public sector scientists, under the Global working Group on Transgenic Organisms in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and biocontrol. It is under the patronage of the International Organisation for Biological Control (IOBC) and is funded through a grant from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). It receives no funding from the biotechnology industry.

The key elements of the IOBC GMO Guidelines project (www.gmo-guidelines.info) are:

1. Development of GM biosafety guidelines using a dynamic and progressive approach, based around case study workshops in Kenya (insect-resistant Bt maize, November 2002), Brazil (insect- resistant Bt cotton, June 2003) and a further GM crop study in Vietnam (GM crop and date to be finalised). 2. Scientific and technical capacity building. 3. Swift, serial publication of guidelines and refereed papers in international journals. Rapid and timely revision of the guidelines as new scientific biosafety issues and data appear. 4. Hosting interactive Public Day presentations at the end each workshop, attended by governmental policy makers, farmers, the public and the press.

This group recognised the need for comprehensive, transparent, science-based guidelines for pre- release testing and post-release monitoring of genetically modified (GM) crops, to ensure their environmental safety and sustainable use. The particular need for such guidelines in developing countries has been repeatedly expressed by both the private and public sector (e.g. Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of Living Modified Organisms) and the Convention of Biological Diversity.

The project aims to develop guidelines on the use of GM crops using a set of inter-linked modules, consisting of scientific questions related to risk assessment and corresponding scientific methodologies to answer these questions. The scientific scope is divided into five Sections within the project:

1.Needs assessment. 2.Transgene characterisation and impacts. 3.Non-target and biodiversity impacts (above- and below ground sub-sections are led by SCRI staff Drs Nick Birch and Ron Wheatley respectively). 4.Gene flow and its consequences. 5.Pest resistance management.

A large core group of more than 100 invited international scientists help to develop the guidelines before and after each regional workshop. Scientists from developing countries are actively encouraged to participate in the project and workshops. This core group is coordinated by an international Steering Group (Dr Nick Birch of SCRI coordinates the Non-target Section of the Steering Group), which in turn reports to an Advisory Board.


Novel feed: Peas to combat infectious diseases

- GMO Safety (German Federal Ministry of Education and Research/Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung), Jan. 13, 2007, http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/news/536.docu.html

In Gatersleben (Saxony-Anhalt) there are plans for a field trial with genetically modified peas. They have been developed by Novoplant, a small plant biotech firm. If the concept works, the idea is for the GM peas to be mixed with pig feed - to prevent intestinal infections.

It is not the first time that GM plants that produce active pharmaceutical substances have been tested on small areas in Germany. Last year there was a field trial near Rostock involving various GM potato lines, one of which contained an active substance that triggers inoculation protection against a rabbit disease triggered by viruses. This strategy - using plants as a production system for vaccines or drugs, is being followed around the world by various research bodies and companies.

Mixing antibiotics with animal feed has been banned in the EU for over a year. They may be used only as animal medicine, but not to promote growth or as a standard prophylaxis against infectious diseases.

The animal feed industry is therefore looking for new ways of protecting animals against infectious diseases. In addition, a number of antibiotic agents have become ineffective because mass use of them has led to the spread of resistant pathogens.

Novoplant, one of the new plant biotech firms that have set up in the area around the IPK (Leibnitz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research) in Gatersleben, is working on a new approach. The aim is to give feed crops the ability to produce antibodies against certain infectious diseases by inserting suitable genes. If these GM plants are mixed with the animal feed, the animals will ingest the antibodies. These take the form of certain surface proteins of the pathogens, thereby preventing them from attaching to the cells of the intestinal wall. The antibodies present in the feed peas have the effect of a 'passive inoculation'. According to Novoplant, this means that they supplement the animals' own immune system. Feed to counter infectious diseases - ready for market by 2010?

Novoplant has developed four different GM pea lines that each produce specific antibodies for a particular infectious disease. According to Novoplant's managing director, Dieter Falkenburg, the first of these new feed additives should be ready for market in 2010.

The furthest advanced are the GM peas for which Novoplant has now applied for deliberate release authorisation. A complex gene construct consisting of several elements has been introduced into the peas so that they produce "single-chain antibodies". These bind to a particular site on the surface of Escherichia coli bacteria , which trigger intestinal infections in pigs. The antibodies are produced only in the seeds and not in the rest of the plant.

The herbicide resistance (bar) gene used as a marker gene in an early phase of the development is no longer present in the GM peas. It was possible to remove the marker gene during selection of the progeny of the parent line because the marker and target genes had been inserted into the pea genome separately. This cotransformation process is one of the new gene transfer methods that has been refined within biological safety research and which make it possible to integrate only the target gene and to remove DNA sequences that are needed only for technical reasons. 500 metre separation distance: the safety precautions

Planned for the 2007 growing season, the trial is to investigate whether the GM peas behave in the same way in the field as they did in tests conducted in the greenhouse. The researchers are interested in the genetic stability of the peas and the antibody yield that can be achieved under field conditions. Novoplant also wants to use the trials to obtain plant material for animal trials.

The company has applied to release around 600 transgenic pea plants on a plot measuring 100m2 within a trial site of 0.1 hectares. The pea line was tested in field trials in the USA in 2005.

Peas are largely self-fertilising and have no relatives in Europe. Insects could produce isolated incrossings to other pea crops. In order to prevent antibody peas from spreading beyond the release area, various safety precautions are planned. There is a distance of at least 500 metres between the trial site and the propagation fields on which some of the pea varieties stored in the Gatersleben gene bank are propagated. The nearest farmland is about one kilometre away. In addition, no antibodies are formed in the pollen of the GM pea plants.

After evaluation, the harvested plant material is to be destroyed or stored in a closed container. At the end of the trial, the plot is to be left unused for a year. Any pea plants that emerge are to be examined and destroyed.

The trial has not yet been authorised by the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL). The application documents will remain open to public inspection at the BVL in Berlin and at the Verwaltungsgemeinschaft Seeland, 06469 Nachterstedt, until 12 February 2007. Objections are possible until 12 March, after which date it will be decided whether the release trial can be approved


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