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Date:

April 15, 2007

Subject:

Deadly Wheat Fungus Threatens World's Breadbaskets; Irish Medical Association Rejects Anti-GM Motion; Casting a cold eye on organics; Bangalore Bio 2007

 

Today in AgBioView, from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org April 15, 2007

* Deadly Wheat Fungus Threatens World's Breadbaskets
* Irish Medical Association Rejects Anti-GM Motion
* Casting a cold eye on organics
* Bangalore Bio 2007

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Deadly Wheat Fungus Threatens World's Breadbaskets

- Erik Stokstad, Science, March 30, 2007; Vol. 315. no. 5820, pp.1786

'New mutations have put an old killer back on the map. As it spreads, breeders are racing to develop resistant plants'

Scientists thought they had beaten Puccinia graminis a long time ago, and for good. Before the late 1950s, the fungus was notorious for causing black stem rust, one of the most devastating diseases of wheat. Every few years, outbreaks would lay waste to entire fields somewhere in the world, sometimes sweeping across great swaths of continents in a matter of months.

Salvation came with the development of wheat varieties that resisted the disease, which are widely credited with helping to usher in the green revolution in the 1960s. The new cultivars caught on rapidly, helping ensure bumper crops not just in the United States but in developing countries as well. "Stem rust was something we felt we had solved," says Miriam Kinyua, a plant breeder at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in Njoro.

But stem rust is back, and it's more dangerous than ever before. In 1999, a new race of the fungus was discovered in Uganda that can defeat the resistance of most varieties of wheat. The fungus spread in northeast Africa for several years while researchers scrambled for funds to study it. In January, pathologists announced that it had jumped the Red Sea into the Arabian Peninsula--on a path to the major wheat-growing regions of Asia. Compounding matters, a new mutation turned up late last year that enables the fungus to infect even more kinds of wheat. "This is the most virulent strain we've seen in 50 years," says Kay Simmons, the national program leader for plant genetics and grain crops at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

While pathologists nervously track the spread of the disease, breeders have ramped up their search for varieties that can survive it. Already, they've had initial success with two that might help Ethiopian farmers. But it can take years to complete field-testing and generate enough seed to distribute to farmers. With much of the world in need of resistant varieties, the challenge is enormous, says wheat breeder Rick Ward, who coordinates the Global Rust Initiative.

Stem rust is the worst of three rusts that afflict wheat plants. The fungus grows primarily in the stems, plugging the vascular system so carbohydrates can't get from the leaves to the grain, which shrivels. In the 1950s, when the last major outbreak destroyed 40% of the spring wheat crop in North America, governments started a major effort to breed resistant wheat plants. Led by Norman Borlaug of the Rockefeller Foundation and others, researchers succeeded by bundling several genes that conferred powerful resistance in new varieties. One gene, Sr31--added later on a large chunk of a rye chromosome--also boosted yield and became widespread in wheat varieties by 1980. Puccinia, in contrast, became ever more rare, and fewer new races arose. Researchers turned their attention to the two less devastating wheat rusts, leaf rust and yellow rust, that still cause trouble.

Two decades later, pathologists and breeders were caught off-guard when the new race of stem rust turned up in Uganda. It was first detected in 1999 at a research station, where many varieties of wheat were being studied. Ravi Singh, chief wheat breeder and pathologist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in El Batßn, Mexico, recalls being alarmed when he heard how many kinds of wheat were susceptible. Most worrying was that this new race--dubbed Ug99--could even kill wheat plants outfitted with the resistance gene Sr31. Still, he says, a few new races had turned up in the past decades without causing epidemics. And Ug99 didn't come back the next year. "If it shows up just for 1 year, you can't make any major commitment. It's hard to justify," Singh says.

In 2001, however, Ug99 started infecting wheat cultivars at a research station in Kenya. It was noticed in Ethiopia 2 years later. Still, the response was minimal; CIMMYT was in a budget crunch, and it had little core funding that it could switch to the problem, Singh says. Enter Borlaug, then 90 years old. He and Christopher Doswell of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research wrote a memo in 2004 urging CIMMYT leadership to make Ug99 a priority. "We knew the dangers, and we blew the whistle," Borlaug says.

Shortly thereafter, CIMMYT and a sister institute--the International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA)--started the Global Rust Initiative (GRI) to coordinate efforts to track and study Ug99 and develop resistant varieties of wheat. With funds that Borlaug helped raise from international donors, CIMMYT and ICARDA began to send more seeds from their collections to be evaluated in Kenya, where the pathogen is now endemic--so many seeds that the seven breeders and pathologists at KARI's Njoro research station are increasingly overwhelmed. "Ug99 is so threatening that other problems have almost been overlooked," says Kinyua.

So far, about 90% of the 12,000 lines tested are susceptible to Ug99. That includes all the major wheat cultivars of the Middle East and west Asia. At least 80% of the 200 varieties sent from the United States can't cope with infection. The situation is even more dire for Egypt, Iran, and other countries in immediate peril.

More bad news arrived last December. Tests on sentinel plots by GRI-funded researchers revealed that Ug99 had mutated. Testing at a USDA laboratory in St. Paul, Minnesota, showed that the new race can now also defeat Sr24, another key source of genetic resistance. "That was the worst case scenario," says USDA plant pathologist Yue Jin, who did the work. "It's increased the worldwide vulnerability incredibly." Right now, this identification may only be done in midwinter in Minnesota, so that any spores that might escape will be killed by the temperatures. Researchers are hopeful, however, that the recent sequencing of the Puccinia genome will speed development of diagnostic tools that can be easily used in Africa.

Meanwhile, Ug99 continues its march. In January, Jin's Minnesota lab confirmed that Ug99 had reached Yemen. The fear is that the spores will quickly spread via winds north through the Middle East and then head to the bread baskets of India and Pakistan, as an epidemic of yellow rust did in the 1990s. That epidemic caused some $1 billion in damage, and stem rust could easily triple those losses, CIMMYT has estimated.

Fungicides can help control the damage from Puccinia, and GRI will begin trials in June to figure out the best way to use them. But chemical treatments are too expensive for many farmers in the developing world, Singh says, so plant breeding is the primary strategy.

Two new kinds of wheat have shown promise in Ethiopia. "The yields are very favorable, comparable to the commercial varieties," says Tsedeke Abate, director general of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research in Addis Ababa, where a half-dozen scientists are working full-time on Ug99. The immediate challenge is to grow enough seed from these resistant strains to distribute to Ethiopian farmers. Last year, researchers harvested 15 kilograms of precious seed. Then, in a painstaking effort, they hand-planted this wheat to maximize seed production. Spread over 4 hectares, the seedlings had extra room to grow and were carefully watered and weeded by hand. The resulting yield was nearly 4 tons of seed of each variety. "They went to extraordinary efforts," Ward says.

Now, that success must be replicated for other regions. Singh says it's important to come up with resistant varieties for countries that aren't yet infected. Planting those before an epidemic strikes could help slow the spread of the disease. Egypt, for example, has vast tracts of wheat. If stem rust infects those crops, they will send enormous quantities of spores throughout the Middle East and toward west Asia. It's a tight race, as several observers suspect that Ug99 could start reaching Egypt later this year.

Despite the world's initial slow response, Borlaug, who turned 93 last week and is battling lymphoma, says he is optimistic that the fungus will be beaten again.

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Irish Medical Association Rejects Anti-GM Motion

- Irish Medical Association, AGM meeting, April 12, 2007, http://www.imo.ie/agm_motions.php?year=16&catid=141

[motion no.] 28 - Environmental Issues

Date 12 Apr 2007

Proposer Dr Elizabeth Cullen

Seconder Dr Philip Michael

Description In the light of the growing evidence of adverse effects on laboratory animals of genetically engineered food, this AGM requests that a moratorium be placed on the sale and growing of genetically engineered crops in Ireland, and the uncontained release of live genetically engineered organisms until the impacts on human health, and on the biosphere, upon which we all depend, have been fully clarified.

Status Defeated

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Irish Medical Organisation refuses to call for GM food ban

- Shane Morris, GMOIreland, April 15, 2007, http://gmoireland.blogspot.com/

Silence can often tell you a lot. A deafening silence has beset the anti-genetically modified (GM) food lobby in Ireland. A silence that stems from the defeat of a motion at the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) AGM calling for a moratorium on the sale and growing of genetically engineered crops in Ireland. No where do we find journalists reporting that the professional body representing doctors in Ireland don't feel there is an issue with the safety of GM food. Also, those who have been trying to tell us that GM foods are unsafe are now mute on the IMO's position.

What deepens the silence is that this is the second time such a motion has been defeated in recent years as in 2001 a similar motion was defeated by the IMO medics. What makes this year's defeat yet more damning is that it was the only motion of the 70 IMO general motions that was flatly defended and no amended motion agreed upon.

Blanket statements on food safety, such that all GM food is bad or that all organic food is good, have no merit. Such approaches are fundamentally flawed as there is no perfect food production system; all have risks and benefits depending on the product grown. The fact that three deaths and over 200 illnesses have been linked to organic production of spinach in the US last autumn is testament to the flaws in such an approach ....can one imagine what the Greens would say if it had been GM food!

Maybe what is required now in Ireland on the debate regarding the safety of GM food can be summed up by the theme of this year's IMO AGM.....Realism, Not Rhetoric.

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Casting a cold eye on organics

- Con O'Rourke,* Irish Farmers Journal, April 14, 2007, http://www.farmersjournal.ie/2007/0414/farmmanagement/crops/feature.shtml

Organic foods are treated in the 'lifestyle' features of the media with a respect bordering on reverence. Interest in such foods is driven by concerns about food safety and the environment, but perhaps also as a fashion statement by the chattering classes. Maybe it's time to 'cast a cold (scientific) eye' over the whole organic sector to see how its various claims and assumptions stand up. What is 'organic'?

Organic foods are those grown without the aid of manufactured fertilizers and pesticides. Unfortunately, the wholesome image of 'organic' has also been adopted by advertisers to sell many other products such as cosmetics and 'organic pure water' (go figure!). 'Organic' is becoming a debased clich┼, rather like 'executive', 'designer' and 'de-tox' before it.

The nutrition of green (photosynthetic) plants is an entirely inorganic process. Plants use sunlight to synthesise living tissue from the simple raw materials carbon dioxide, water and a range of minerals. The term 'organically-grown' is a misnomer, since the plant roots can absorb soil nutrients only in their simplest (inorganic) form, e.g. as ions of the major nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK). 'Organic' should be replaced with a less ambiguous term, possibly adapted from the German or French equivalents of 'biologisch'/'╬kologisch' or 'bio'.

Since crops can absorb the identical NPK ions from the soil solution, from the breakdown of organic matter (both naturally-occurring and applied) or from commercial fertilizers, nutrient analyses cannot prove that a particular food has been 'organically-grown'. Thus the approval and inspection procedures for the provenance of organic produce are based more on trust than on science. Nutrition /taste

Organic foods are claimed to be more nutritious and to taste better, with Darina Allen of Ballymaloe going so far as to declare that they are essential for health. However, such claims would have to satisfy all of the following criteria: 1) Randomised, replicated field trials of the same variety, grown both organically and conventionally under otherwise identical conditions: 2) Laboratory analyses of the produce for all major nutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fibre, minerals, vitamins, etc.): 3) Double-blind taste-panel evaluation (i.e. where neither the tasters nor the presenters know the origin of particular samples): and 4) Statistical analysis of the results and publication in peer-reviewed scientific or medical journals. Few organic claims satisfy even one of the above criteria.

The Soil Association (U.K.) had claimed for over 50 years that organic produce was more nutritious and tasted better. However, when recently challenged by the UK Advertising Standards Authority they were unable to provide creditable supporting evidence and had to cease making such claims. Pesticide residues

Analyses by the Department of Agriculture show that Irish staple foods (mainly dairy/meat products and vegetables) contain either no or negligible amounts of pesticides. The prescribed limits for pesticides (parts per million or per billion) are occasionally exceeded, mainly in imported tropical products, but such limits are set at about 1/100th or less of what might be considered harmful. Sir John Krebs (UK Food Standards Agency) has remarked that 'A single cup of coffee contains natural carcinogens equal to at least a year's worth of carcinogenic pesticides in the diet'. The environment

Organic farming is promoted as being environmentally friendly. This is based mainly on using less (or no) pesticides and organic manures/composts instead of commercial fertilizers. In conventional farming, however, pesticides are increasingly restricted to more environmentally-friendly and biodegradable products. The rates and times of fertilizer application are also limited by the EU Nitrates Directive.

Dairying and beef dominate Irish farming. Both are mainly grass-based - a major marketing advantage for our 'green and clean' image. No pesticides are applied to Irish grassland, and strictly-supervised fertilizer inputs are confined mainly to nitrogen for spring growth and sufficient phosphorus and potassium to replace what is removed by the grass. This is as close as it gets to 'organic'. Organic Island

The organic sector regularly calls for Ireland to become an 'organic island'. This might work if we had a completely self-contained agriculture, with no imports or exports, and complete recycling of all crop, animal and human wastes and remains. But we export more than 80% of our output, and with it some of the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium used in its production. Although some nitrogenous losses can be replaced by growing N-fixing leguminous crops, we have scant native deposits of phosphorus and potassium. Without imported fertilizers, yields would gradually decline to 19th-century levels, with serious losses of exports and jobs. A foretaste of this scenario occurred in Ireland during World War II; in the absence of imported fertilizers, phosphorus deficiency became widespread in both crops and animals. GMOs

Genetically-modified (GM) crops have been around since the 1970s and now total 100 million hectares annually worldwide (about 15 times the entire farmed area of Ireland). They have been consumed regularly by some hundreds of millions of people and have been found to be no less safe than conventional foods. Predictions of environmental and ecological catastrophe have failed to materialise. Consumer resistance to GM foods in Europe is sustained by the tabloid press ('Frankenstein foods'), environmentalists, organic growers and by the EU restricting GM food and animal-feed imports (usually on dubious health and environmental grounds).

BASF is planning field trials of GM blight-resistant potatoes in Ireland. At present, organic potato growers have a special dispensation to spray against blight. However, their rules restrict them to traditional (19th-century) copper-based sprays.

Copper is a persistent and poisonous heavy metal, with long-term environmental effects, and is soon to be banned by the EU. GM potatoes would require no spraying and will not 'contaminate' adjacent conventional (and particularly organic) crops since, as every gardener knows, potatoes are propagated asexually by vegetative tubers rather than by pollination. It is ironic that current organic rules ban a GM variety which has such obvious benefits for the sector. World population

Organic yields are significantly lower than for conventional crops and they are currently incapable of feeding the world's six billion people. To do so would require about a doubling of the area under cultivation, with consequent destruction of natural habitats. An organic world could, however, be achieved by eliminating half the population - but which half, and who decides? cost

Due to lower yields and higher labour inputs, organic foods cost up to 50% more. This may be of little concern to the virtuous suburban housewife on her weekly 50-km round-trip in an SUV to buy a few kilos of organic vegetables in a farmers' market. There is a certain paradox in that growth of the organic sector has coincided with increasingly strict regulations to ensure that our food is safe and that the environment is protected. Thus a consumer's decision to 'go organic' may be due more to a general lifestyle choice (and increased affluence) than to specific health or environmental threats.

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* Dr Con O'Rourke is a plant scientist.

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Bangalore Bio 2007

- June 7-9, Bangalore, India; conference+at+bangalorebio.in; http://www.bangalorebio.in/

Innovative enterprise is vital in determining industry's economic success. The Biotech industry in India today seeks innovation strategies in every aspect of business to meet with the demands of a changing world and forge a place for itself in the Global market.

Bangalore Bio 2007 will bring together Ministers and senior Government officials, industry leaders and opinion formers, to deliberate upon the opportunities for greater convergence of Biotechnology and innovation policy and practice.

The Focal Theme of the Bangalore Bio 2007 Conference therefore will be "Accelerating Industry Growth through Integrated Innovation". After the success of Bangalore Bio 2006 which witnessed the participation of over 72 national and international speakers, 600 conference delegates, 140 exhibitors, 20,000 business visitors from over 15 countries, various states of India, we are pleased to announce Bangalore Bio 2007 the flagship Biotech event of India.

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Agribiotech Day - Biotechnology research has already revolutionized agricultural production for many crops around the world and India, undoubtedly, is making rapid strides in agribiotechnology with several knowledge-sharing initiatives.

The one day Agribiotech Conference will be aimed at showcasing India's experience and progress in agribiotechnology. The entire day will be dedicated for discussions and deliberations on economic and social impacts of agricultural biotechnology and its future growth in India and globally.

Focus Areas

* Indigenization of Agri-Biotechnology : Hurdles and Enablers
* A Decade of Global Experience - Learning for the Future .

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