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April 14, 2007


EFSA: safe use of the nptII antibiotic resistance marker gene; 300 BPA Corn Coming Soon; The challenge & opportunity of Chinese corn production; CIC orders govt to divulge toxicity of GM foods; Jauhar receives international acclaim for Fusarium research; GMOs - Environmental effects; Biotechnology and the Cartagena Protocol; WTO Biotech Decision Clarifies Central Role of Science


Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org April 14, 2007

* EFSA: safe use of the nptII antibiotic resistance marker gene
* 300 BPA Corn Coming Soon
* The challenge & opportunity of Chinese corn production
* CIC orders govt to divulge toxicity of GM foods
* Jauhar receives international acclaim for Fusarium research
* GMOs - Environmental effects
* Biotechnology and the Cartagena Protocol
* WTO Biotech Decision Clarifies Central Role of Science


Statement of the GMO Panel on the safe use of the nptII antibiotic resistance marker gene in genetically modified plants

- European Food Safety Authority (press release), April 13, 2007, http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/science/gmo/statements0/npt2.html

The GMO Panel agrees with the EMEA that the preservation of the therapeutic potential of the aminoglycoside group of antibiotics is important. The Panel is also of the opinion that the therapeutic effect of these antibiotics will not be compromised by the presence of the nptII gene in GM plants, given the extremely low probability of gene transfer from plants to bacteria and its subsequent expression. Furthermore, the GMO Panel considers it very unlikely that the presence of the nptII gene in GM plants will change the existing widespread prevalence of this antibiotic resistance gene in bacterial sources in the environment. The GMO Panel also points to evidence which indicates that integration of the nptII gene would only be one of many mechanisms by which bacteria could become resistant to aminoglycosides such as kanamycin.

Therefore, the GMO Panel reiterates its earlier conclusions (EFSA, 2004) that the use of the nptII gene as selectable marker in GM plants (and derived food or feed) does not pose a risk to human or animal health or to the environment. The GMO Panel also confirms earlier safety assessments of GM plants and derived food/feed comprising the nptII gene.

The GMO Panel emphasizes that the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM plants has been the subject of several reviews (Gay and Gillespie, 2005, Goldstein et al., 2005, Miki and McHugh, 2004, Nap et al., 1992, Nielsen et al., 1998, Ramessar et al., 2007) and expert consultations: Working Party of the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy (Bennett et al., 2004), FAO/WHO Consultation on Foods Derived from Biotechnology (FAO/WHO, 2000), Scientific Steering Committee of the European Commission (SSC, 1999) Zentrale Kommission für die Biologische Sicherheit, DE (ZKBS, 1999), The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, UK (ACNFP, 1996). It has been concluded in these reports that the frequencies of gene transfer from plants to bacteria are likely to be extremely low and that the presence of antibiotic resistance marker genes, and in particular the nptII gene, in GM plants do not pose a relevant risk to human or animal health or to the environment.

For more details please download the PDF file above. [http://www.efsa.europa.eu/etc/medialib/efsa/science/gmo/statements/npt2.Par.0001.File.dat/gmo_statement_%20nptII_.pdf ]


300 BPA Corn Coming Soon

- Gary Truitt, Hoosier Ag Today, May 14, 2007, http://www.hoosieragtoday.com/wire/news/00353_300-BPA-Corn-Coming-Soon_171014.php

If yields of 300 bushels per acre sound like fantasy, then think again. Researchers at Pioneer Hybrid suggest a major corn yield breakthrough is just a few years away. Joe Keaschall, Director of Corn Research for the Midwest, told Hoosier Ag Today that recent genetic advances have the potential to increase corn yields very quickly, "We have been averaging about a 1 or 2 bpa increase in yields every year; but, with the efficiencies we are finding in plant breeding, we think we can double that." Pioneer and their parent company, DuPont, have made a major commitment to increasing yields and will hire 400 researchers world wide to focus on the project.

Keaschall believes the corn plant has the genetic potential to produce unbelievable yields, "We have hybrids that, when grown in a stress free environment, will yield up to 500 bpa." The trick, however, is to get those plants to realize that potential in the field. He said any new high yielding variety will also have to have strong agronomic traits and be able to perform in continuous corn applications. While a timetable is difficult to nail down, Keaschall estimates that, within the next 3 to 10 years, corn yields will improve dramatically.

The growing demand for corn by both the industrial and renewable fuels sectors has increased the need for higher yields. The US is quickly exhausting its ability to meet corn demand on available land. In order to meet the growing demand, higher yields will be needed.


The challenge & opportunity of Chinese corn production

- Dr. Tom Francis, Country Guide (Canada), April 13, 2007, http://www.agcanada.com/custompages/stories_story.aspx?mid=192&id=1199

(Syngenta product development head, Dr. Tom Francis, has been travelling to China since 2003. In this special report for Country Guide, he shares his insights on how corn production is changing in the country, and the opportunities and challenges this market presents for North American farmers and agribusiness.)

What strikes you about Chinese corn production is the size of the market and the quality of the corn.

It's truly incredible to imagine that peasant farmers annually plant about 26 million hectares of corn - just slightly smaller than the U.S. crop - without mechanization. It's also an extraordinary sight. As you drive along the rural roads in Jilin Province, one of China's leading corn-growing regions, the miles and miles of impressive corn fields that monopolize the view rival any sight I've seen in Iowa and Illinois.

The reality, however, is that these tremendous cornfields are a patchwork quilt of 2-acre plots owned by individual peasant farmers who work in concert to bring these uniform fields to life. Each seed is dropped into a hole made by a stick, covered then stepped on. As the plants emerge, they are hand-thinned, fertilized and watered as needed.

This is how corn has been grown in China for centuries, but it's changing - albeit slowly. The biggest single factor reshaping corn production in the country is the Chinese people's growing appetite for meat protein. Just 25 years ago the Chinese diet was primarily soybean based, but as demand for meat grows so does the demand for corn. Currently, consumption of corn for animal feed is growing 3% to 5% annually. Growing demand from other sectors such as starch processing (15% to 20%) and ethanol processing (10% to 15%) are also contributing to an unprecedented domestic need for increased corn production.

How does China meet this growing demand for corn? What role will North American agribusiness play? What impact will the country's corn production evolution have on markets and North American farmers? All these questions will be answered over time, but it is apparent that the Chinese are determined to be self-sufficient in their 3 major crops - rice, wheat and corn - and they are not willing to be dependent on imports or rely on foreign technology.

To become self-sufficient, the Chinese need access to seed genetics and technology as well as mechanization from Europe and North America. The challenge China now faces is convincing agribusiness that the country is a good place to invest and do business - a place where technology rights and ownership will be respected and protected.

In the short term, it's unlikely that China will become a competitive force in corn export markets. Unlike powerhouse exporting countries like Brazil and Argentina, which have relatively small populations, China must first serve the tremendous domestic corn demand from its more than one billion people.

The Chinese do want to be a player in the global agricultural market. They have already developed a car industry and they will be players in all forms of technology - from computers to seed to biotechnology. In the next 10 to 20 years, Chinese companies will likely be selling seed and biotech traits to North American farmers.

When it comes to corn production, one of the major hurdles the Chinese need to overcome is plant density. The average plant per acre population in China is 14,000 to 17,000 plants compared to 30,000 to 35,000 in North America. This is a key contributor to lower average Chinese corn yields - 5.3 metric tonnes per hectare (about 85 bu./ac.), which is at least 35% less than average Canadian yields.

Lower populations promote production of a smaller number of larger cobs, making harvest easier for peasant farmers. However, it is a key contributing factor to lower yields. From a yield perspective, China is where Canada was 30 years ago.

The move to higher populations would increase production, and contribute to self-sufficiency, but while the Chinese are intent on improving their genetics to boost corn yields, they do not appear to be as anxious to embrace the necessary mechanization required to manage the production increase.

While mechanization would contribute to yield increases, it would also displace the labor currently supplied by millions of peasant farmers. Today, travelling through China's corn regions, you do see some planters and combines, but they are few and far between.

Mechanization will eventually come to China, and this presents a great opportunity for North American agribusiness. As more and more enterprising Chinese farmers begin to rely on machinery, there will be strong demand for a wide range of production equipment and storage and seed treatment facilities - everything from grain bins and dryers to seed conditioning plants. The Chinese will try to manufacture this equipment, but the know-how and technology will likely first be sourced in Europe and North America.

Syngenta began working in China over 5 years ago to determine the potential of the market, assess opportunities and evaluate the performance of its corn genetics under Chinese growing conditions. We currently operate a breeding station in Beijing.

There is indeed vast opportunity, but working in the country does present challenges. For example, a foreign company cannot hold more than 49% equity in a rice, corn or wheat business. It must be majority owned by a Chinese company. This philosophy allows the Chinese to maintain control of know-how and technology. They do not want to be dependent on another country or private interests because a failure in any one of these crops would mean significant hardship for their people.

This approach will likely change over time, but currently it does present hurdles for companies such as Syngenta that need to protect their intellectual property rights. Seed counterfeiting is very common in China and seed companies have to take significant precautions - including 24-hour security surrounding seed nurseries - to protect inbreds from being stolen and sold commercially.

The World Trade Organization has put pressure on China to step up protection measures, noting the country will not be able to encourage investment, and increase access to foreign technology and know-how unless it respects intellectual property. Protection of intellectual property rights also creates roadblocks for biotechnology growth in China. Currently, cotton is the only crop that is genetically modified. Bt cotton is used, but there are significant technology protection issues. There are literally millions of farmers, which makes it difficult to ensure technology is protected and owners are compensated for its use.

When I talk with people about Chinese agriculture, they routinely ask the same question. How do you do business with all those farmers? Seed distribution in the county actually operates similar to what we see in North America with a large number of co-ops selling to farmers in local areas. However, the vast number of farmers makes it difficult to track all the seed that moves locally and it would be impossible to have every farmer sign a Technology Agreement and follow up on it.

China has been slow to approve Bt genes and other transgenic traits even though regulatory requirements are being met. Currently there have been no approvals for the sale of biotech traits in corn. Again, this is likely the result of China not wanting to be dependent on multinational corporations for technology. China's biotech knowledge and capabilities are developing quickly and it is generally agreed that biotech approvals will be forthcoming when the country develops its own technology as an alternative to foreign biotech traits.

The Chinese people I've worked with have been committed, very receptive and open-minded. Mastering English - the language of the Internet - will open communication and allow the Chinese to fully understand what's happening in the rest of the world and make Chinese agriculture a force to be reckoned with.

Chinese corn facts

* When planting corn, to compensate for poor seed quality, Chinese farmers drop 3 kernels in each hole. After emergence, excess seedlings are thinned by hand.

* China's corn region spans a wide range of maturities. Heat unit ranges vary from 2500 CHU in the north to over 4000 CHU in southern regions.

* There are no unique corn diseases in China. But there is a high frequency of diseases such as Northern corn leaf blight. Head smut is also a prevalent disease and hybrids require very good resistance.

* Many North American corn hybrids adapt well to Chinese growing conditions while others fail. N3030, for example, and other NK Brand, Syngenta hybrids have demonstrated strong performance.


CIC orders govt to divulge toxicity of GM foods

- Manoj Mitta, The Times of India, April 14, 2007, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/NEWS/India/CIC_orders_govt_to_divulge_toxicity_of_GM_foods/articleshow/1907423.cms

NEW DELHI: If a genetically modified (GM) food causes allergies or contains toxins, can the government refuse to disclose such bio-safety information on the grounds that it involves "commercial confidence" or "trade secrets" and that it will compromise the "competitive position" of the bio-tech company concerned?

Central Information Commission (CIC) said no on Thursday and ordered the department of biotechnology to disclose toxicity and allergenicity data on transgenic food crops that are being field-tested across the country.

In a far-reaching interface between RTI and environmental protection, the head of CIC, Wajahat Habibullah, directed the government to make public within 10 working days all the relevant data on genetically engineered brinjal, okra, mustard and rice which have been approved for multi-location trials.

The order came on an appeal filed by a Greenpeace activist, Divya Raghunandan, against government's refusal to disclose the data saying it was covered by Section 8 (1)(d) of RTI Act which exempts from disclosure "information, including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party".

While arguing for the disclosure of the toxicity and allergenicity data, Raghunandan cited a recent rat-feeding study in Europe by three French scientists who, despite the efforts of bio-tech major Monsanto to keep the matter under wraps, established that a genetically modified maize brought out by that company was not a safe food.

Raghunandan also drew attention to an alarming admission made by the government in response to her RTI application.

Although it has approved their multi-location field trials, the government said that the data on rice, okra and mustard was "under development" and "yet to be evaluated" by it. Such laxity in regulation, she said, could lead to genetic contamination in the areas where field trials were being held even before the toxicity and allergenicity data had been analysed.

Given the obvious public interest in the health risk assessment of genetically modified foods, CIC observed that the government should be, under Section 4 of the RTI Act, proactively putting out all the relevant data without waiting for applications for their disclosure.

But CIC declined Raghunandan's plea for making public the minutes of the meetings of the Review Committee on Genetic Modification (RCGM), which approved the various proposals of multi-location field trials of genetically modified food crops.

Since RCGM's minutes mention details of the proposals made by each of the bio-tech companies, Habibullah chose to leave it to the government to take a call on whether those confidential documents could be made public.


Jauhar receives international acclaim for Fusarium research

- Dale Hildebrant, Farm & Ranch Guide, April 13, 2007, http://www.farmandranchguide.com/articles/2007/04/13/ag_news/regional_news/region08.txt

Although the recent development of a scab resistant durum germplasm by an Agricultural Research Service geneticist is extremely important for farmers in this region (see related article adjacent to this article), the scientist who made this happen, Prem Jauhar, has received international recognition for the work he has done in Fargo, N.D.

On Nov. 27, 2006, Jauhar was honored by T.V. Rajeswar, governor of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, for his research work in genetics. Upon receiving the Robe of Honour and the University Momento from Chandra Shekhar Azard University, Jauhar said, "I have previously received several international awards, but it was indeed a pleasure to be recognized in India, my motherland. I felt most honored to be recognized by Gov. Rajeswar."

During this visit Jauhar was also named an Honorary Fellow of the Indian Society of Biotechnology.

Jauhar, who was born, raised and educated in India, received his Ph.D. in New Delhi. Upon graduation, he worked for four years in England where he discovered the secrets of chromosome pairing in fescue grasses.

"My interest has always been in chromosome pairing," he said, "how chromosome pairings occur, and how we can manipulate those pairing to get the best from it."

Jauhar started his work at the ARS Northern Crop Science Laboratory at Fargo, in 1991, after previous work at ARS facilities in Berkley, Calif., and Logan, Utah.

During his work at the Northern Crop Science Laboratory, he has focused on diverse areas of classical cytogenetics and biotechnology and their relevance to plant breeding. His latest research has been directed towards wheat germplasm enhancement using both classical cytogenetic and modern biotechnological tools. His lab produced the first transgenic durum wheat in 1995 and standardized the procedure for genetic transformation.

He has written two books, edited three other books, contributed 22 chapters to yet other books and published over 100 research papers in reputable journals.

In addition to his position as ARS Research Geneticist, Jauhar also serves as adjunct professor in plant sciences at NDSU. His other career related activities include: an associate editor for the Journal of Heredity, which is an international journal of genetics, and he is a Fellow of the Crop Science Society of America, the American Society of Agronomy and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Jauhar has enjoyed his stay in Fargo, noting that the Northern Crop Science Laboratory is an excellent facility for research and Fargo is a great place to live.

"The warmth of the people in Fargo more than make up for the cold climate we have here in the winter," he said.


GMOs in crop production - Environmental effects

- FAO-BiotechNews, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), April 13, 2007; http://www.fao.org/biotech/index.asp

On 18-20 January 2005, FAO hosted an expert consultation in Rome, Italy, on "Genetically modified organisms in crop production and their effects on the environment: Methodologies for monitoring and the way ahead". Proceedings of the consultation, edited by K. Ghosh and P.C. Jepson, are now available on the web, consisting of the report plus a selection of papers presented by invited speakers. The consultation recommended that all responsible deployment of GM crops needed to comprise the whole technology development process, from the pre-release risk assessment to biosafety considerations and post-release monitoring, and that a continuous engagement of stakeholders is essential for success of the process. Two distinct strategies were developed that could be used as the basis for efficient monitoring programmes. See http://www.fao.org/docrep/009/a0802e/a0802e00.htm or contact kakoli.ghosh@fao.org to request a copy.


Biotechnology and the Cartagena Protocol - Implications for cereal trade

- FAO-BiotechNews, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), April 13, 2007; http://www.fao.org/biotech/index.asp

The 31st Session of the Intergovernmental Group on Grains and the 42nd Session of the Intergovernmental Group on Rice are being held in a joint meeting on 14-17 May 2007 in Istanbul, Turkey. One of the papers prepared for the meeting is entitled "Biotechnology in crop production and the Biosafety Protocol - Implications for cereal trade", whose aim is to present an overview of modern biotechnology in crop production, with a particular reference to genetically modified organisms, discuss the international instruments of relevance in this area and highlight the challenges and implications for cereal trade. See ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/meeting/011/j9312e.pdf or contact IGG-Rice-and-Grains-2007@fao.org for more information. These Intergovernmental Groups were established by FAO's Committee on Commodity Problems and their last Sessions were held in 2004.


World Trade Organization Biotech Decision Clarifies Central Role of Science in Evaluating Health and Environmental Risks for Regulation Purposes

- Lawrence A. Kogan, (2007) 2 Global Trade and Customs Journal pp. 149-155, http://www.itssd.org/Publications/GTCJ_04-offprints_Kogan%5b2%5d.pdf

[excerpted; see link above for full text]

On 29 September 2006, a World Trade Organization (WTO) Dispute Resolution Panel released its decisfion in the long-standing dispute between the United States and Europe over the regulation of genetically modified (GM or, 'biotech') food and seed. The Panel found that, because the European Community (EC) and several EU Member States had acted primarily out of non-scientific concerns to justify their trade-restrictive food safety measures, they clearly violated the tightly drafted provisions of the WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement. This decision is significant because it clarifies the central role of science in evaluating the presence of health and environmental risks prior to the adoption of national food safety regulations not otherwise based on relevant international standards.

Significantly, the complainants did not challenge the EC's or EU Member States' right under WTO law to undertake a rigorous regulatory review of such products. In addition, the WTO Panel did not itself attempt to evaluate the safety of the individual biotech products in question. Nor did the Panel review the stringency of the biotech product measures per se. Rather, the Panel focused on the type of evidence that a WTO member government is permitted to rely on as justification for the imposition of national/ regional health and environmental regulatory restrictions that have a substantial impact on international trade flows.

This most recent WTO Panel decision makes clear that, in the absence of relevant international standards, or where a concerned national government refuses to adopt them, a WTO member bears the burden of conducting an objective empirically based scientific risk assessment of identified or ascertainable potential health or environmental risks posed by specific products. And this must be done before a WTO member promulgates regulations that have the effect of denying or restricting market access to those products.

The WTO Panel reasoned that the EC and EU Member States could not rely on either non-expert civil society (non-governmental organization - NGO) reports or general scientific studies appearing in peer-reviewed journals that did not otherwise provide an assessment of specific context-based health or environmental risks pursuant to specifically defined scientific protocols. Indeed, in the Panel's view, these sources did not constitute 'adequate' risk assessment because, prima facie, they did not look to or take 'into account risk assessment techniques [protocols] developed by the relevant international organizations'.

The EC has effectively based regulations on the Precautionary Principle to ban or severely restrict the market access of substances, products and activities if they are merely believed to pose uncertain future hypothetical health and environmental hazards, as opposed to specific risks. The EC has repeatedly argued that a lack of scientific uncertainty as to cause and effect, magnitude or severity is not an excuse to avoid employing precautionary measures, and that the conventional science-based risk assessments required by SPS Article 5.1 are not enough, and must be bypassed, to prevent such hazards from materializing in the first place. The Appellate Body previously acknowledged that SPS Article 5.7 reflects a Precautionary Approach as opposed to the Precautionary Principle.

In effect, the Panel embraced the proposition that, 'if a measure is not based on a ''risk assessment'', it can be presumed not to be based either on ''scientific principles'', within the meaning of SPS Article 2.2, or to be maintained without ''sufficient scientific evidence''', as required by SPS Article 5.1.

Anticipating the WTO Panel's decision and the continuing uncertainty over the relationship between the Precautionary Principle and WTO law,36 Precautionary Principle supporters, including both activist groups and governments, have enlisted the assistance of the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies. Their goal is plainly and simply to incorporate the broad-based Precautionary Principle within WTO jurisprudence.


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