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April 21, 2007


The truth about GM crops; Biotech Supplement to Conventional Plant Breeding; Minnesota stops sales of GM seed


Today in AgBioView, from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org April 21, 2007

* The truth about GM crops
* Biotech Supplement to Conventional Plant Breeding
* Minnesota stops sales of GM seed


The truth about GM crops

- DAWN (Pakistan), April 21, 2007, http://www.dawn.com/weekly/science/science1.htm

GM crops are environment-friendly and help the farmers manage their cotton crops in a very effective way because there is an in-built pest and weed control mechanism, explains Ijaz Ahmad Rao.

Biotechnology has received far greater acceptance in the discipline of medicine, energy and industrial sector as compared to the field of food and agriculture: the main reason behind it, is a lack of awareness in common man.

That is why modern biotech industry is keep changing and redefining itself during the last two decades. The use of genetic engineering in agriculture is a complex issue that presents both potential benefits and risks to human society and the environment, with implications at the local and global levels. Today a heated global debate has erupted over the use of modern crop biotechnology; Government, journalists, communities and farmers in developing countries are deliberating about the same challenge as those in other countries.

Many are optimistic that plant's biotechnology has come to stay, and will be a major technology of the future - and its potential benefits include improved crops that would be more nutritious, higher yielding, need less pesticides, resistant to weeds, and more environmentally sustainable while anti campaigners believes that such a technology may cause toxicity and allergenicity to human; that it can create super weeds while number of sprays to control pests on crops will increase extensively; In short, crops biotechnology is harmful to our health, environment and economics rather safe and beneficial. This is the point where most of the journalists and a common man get confused and find hard to balance between the information coming from two different schools of thoughts.

Moreover, the discussion on the debate has large influence by social, ethical, religious, scientific, political, economic, legal and cultural dimensions so it has become more complex for journalists to position itself on the scale - as a result of it scientists and journalists differed in their opinions about the quality of media coverage of agriculture biotechnology and bio-safety, socioeconomic and ethical issues; however the main sufferer in this war are the farmers, technology developer and public who has been dragged on a bewildered and puzzled road; but many stakeholders still recognise and place great importance on the role of the media in shaping public perception of Biotech science and technology.

In March a three days media workshop on "innovative aspects of Biotechnology and its better awareness and dissemination" was jointly organised by Comstech, ISESCO based in Tehran, Pakistan Biotechnology Information Centre (PABIC) as well as ISAAA.

The main objective was to ensure that members of the media, especially those who have opportunities to write about agriculture biotechnology are well informed about advancements in modern biotechnology.

Pakistan has several good institutions currently working on various aspects of biotechnology. There are a number of universities; which offer various degrees in this discipline. However, there is a serious lack of appreciation of biotechnology at the public and industrial levels. Coordination and exchange of information among institution and practitioners of biotechnology is less then adequate.

Therefore, there is a need of a resource centre in Pakistan; which can serve as a hub to disseminate information, to support the collaborative efforts and to develop a network of institutions and individuals working in this field; that's why The Pakistan Biotechnology Information Centre (www.pabic.com.pk) has been established at Latif Ebrahim Jamal National Science Information Centre, University of Karachi under the patronage of International Service for Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) and National Commission on Biotechnology.

The initiative of the establishment of Pakistan Biotechnology Information Centre is an attempt to initiate multidisciplinary research and enhance the awareness and appreciation of biotechnology at the local and international levels.

The modern plant biotechnology, contrasting the traditional technologies, converts and improves the performance and endows it with various new capabilities of crop through a technology named as genetic engineering. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that produces proteins active against certain insects

Modern biotechnology is exemplified by the much maligned genetically engineered Bt genes in crops like cotton, maize, soybean, canola etc; single or double gene transferred into the plants innate ability of a soil microbe to fight the destructive diseases and pests like, bollworms, corn borer - saves farmers the cost of buying and applying a chemical pesticide and can increase nutrition and production.

According to our recent Economic Survey 2005-06 measuring from a high base of last year, the performance of agriculture has been weak - due to a relatively poor performance of two of the four major crops, namely cotton and sugarcane. One would like to list down some of the predicaments our crops are faced with, which is really a perturbing situation;

Pakistan's yield per acre ranks below the average in the world, high price of agriculture inputs like seeds, fertilisers, pesticides etc, higher intensity of insects and pests attack, shortage of good quality and varieties of seeds, insufficient availability of water for irrigation.

Additionally, the absence of a proper crop insurance system or any support system in the shape of subsidies by the government is resulting in frustration and lack of motivation in growers to spend resource in their fields in order to improve crop yields. At present, a major part of arable land is cultivated by small farmers, with 86 per cent of total number of farms comprising less than 12.5 acres. The number of small farms is continuously increasing because of land division due to inheritance.

According to the study conducted by the Planning Commission - Pakistan will have to increase its national average agricultural yield to ensure food security for its growing population, which has increased to 156 million in 2006 from 34 million in 1947.

The world's average yield of wheat is around 1100 kg per acre, while in Pakistan it is about 915 kg per acre; similarly, national average rice yield is 1165 kg per acre against world's average of 1585 kg per acre. In China and India, it is around 2535 kg and 1180 kg per acre, respectively. It is worth to remember that our potential for wheat yield ought to be over 38 million tons at an average yield of 1.85 tonnes per acre; we are annually losing about three billion US dollar due to wheat production inefficiencies.

Similarly, the average yield of maize in Pakistan is around 715 kg per acre against world's average of 730 kg per acres; however, maize average yield is 690 kg per acre in India and 2032 kg per acre in China. Similarly, average cotton yield is around 755 kg per acre in Pakistan against world's 725 kg per acre. Local demand from cotton and textile industry is increasing each year in Pakistan; so cotton lint output has been projected to increase to 21.5 million bales in 2015 from 12.4 million bales in 2006-07.

IN 2006, 22 countries grew biotech crops, 11 developing countries and 11 industrial countries, like the USA, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, China, Paraguay, South Africa, Uruguay, the Philippines, Australia, Romania, Mexico, Spain, Colombia, France, Iran, Honduras, Czech Republic, Portugal, Germany, and Slovakia. The global biotech crop area continued to soar as the 250 millionth acre barrier was breached, as the first time more than 10 million farmers in 22 countries. This unprecedented high adoption rate is testimony to the trust and confidence of millions of small and large farmers in crop biotechnology in both industrial and developing countries. Source: (ISAAA)

In fact, before the arrival of modern crop biotechnology, farmers around the globe had only an option of chemical pesticides as weapon to combat the major pests and to manage weeds in the field, but with the passage of time this methodology has became ineffective as many pests and weeds showed resistance against most pesticides that were available in the market. With the introduction of GM crops, farmers have been able to manage their cotton crops in a very effective way because there is an in-built pest and weeds control mechanism created in the plant to control pests and weeds on time.

Moreover, it is almost impossible and worthless to spray during rainy and windy period even if farmers know that their crops are under pests attack; however, GM is the only solution to protect crops in such circumstances due to its presence with in the plant life cycle.

It is worth knowing that in Pakistan, an estimated worth US$ 300 million of pesticides are being used in agriculture, of which more than 80 per cent is used on cotton especially to control Bollworm known as "Sunides"; use of pesticide has reached over 47,550 metric tonnes annually; due to indiscriminate use of toxic chemicals, the health of the people living in rural areas and environment have been affected badly at the same time the water quality of these region has found contaminated which is harmful for human and water echo system. Although Bt cotton also provides significant control of targeted bollworms but supplemental foliar insecticide sprays are occasionally required to keep other bollworms and sucking pests from causing excessive damage in Bt fields.

According to World Health Organisation; "Vitamin A deficiency affects 140 million children worldwide and causes 500,000 vitamin-A-deficient children to become blind every year, half of them die within 12 months by losing their sight". With its promise to combat vitamin A deficiency, Golden Rice was quickly identified and adopted - it is genetically modified rice which contains three genes that produce high levels of beta carotene (Beta carotene is contained in yellow fruits like carrots and mangoes and in vegetables like spinach).

Beta-carotene is converted in the human body to the crucially needed vitamin A. Recently, Monsanto has granted patent licenses at no charge to the developers of golden rice. Other crops, with other traits, are in various phases of discovery, engineering, testing and commercialisation - salt-resistant wheat, rice, sugarcane if successful, this would open up a vast amount of land currently unsuitable for its production. Similarly, fruits may not seem as important as foods like; corn, soy, wheat and rice in many countries but they are powerful economic engines for a large number of people around the world as in Bangladesh after rice, papaya fruit crop plays a very important role in their daily diet; papaya ring-spot virus (PRSV) was threatening to devastate the Hawaiian papaya in 1990's; a PRSV-resistant cultivar was developed in GM papaya and now successfully it has been grown there commercially since 1998.

Pakistan has large number of dedicated and highly qualified biotechnologist, genetics, virologists and plant breeding at well-known institutes like; National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) and Nuclear Institute of Agriculture and Biology (NIAB) in Faisalabad, and National Centre of Excellence in Molecular Biology (NCEMB) at Punjab University Lahore, Centre of Agriculture, Biochemistry and Biotechnology (CABB), University of Agriculture, Faisalabad and Central Cotton Research Institute (CCRI), Multan which have capacity to develop new crop breed and isolate and transform desire gene; significant amount of financial resources have been committed by the Government of Pakistan for developing genetically modified local cotton varieties.

So far public sector R&D centres, NIBGE and NCEMB have come forward and submitted applications to the National Bio-safety Committee (NBC) - a directorate being established in the Ministry of Environment to allow them for commercialisation and field trial of their versions of Bt Cotton. It is noteworthy that NCEMB has developed four Bt pesticidal genes used in cotton and rice against American bollworm and rice leaf-folder; and confined field trials of Bt basmati 370 rice were successfully carried out at different sites near Lahore.

According to unofficial estimates, in the year 2006-07, Bt cotton varieties have been grown at a shocking percentage. In Punjab, out of 5.60 millions acres of cotton crops, 0.23 million acres was reported as Bt cotton while in Sindh, out of 2.3 million acres of cotton crops, 0.29 millions acres were planted with transgenic cotton varieties; which means that last season Bt cotton varieties were grown on half a millions acres in Pakistan.

Moreover, a subject of patents and intellectual property rights has created strong debate in the developing countries and even in United States and the European Union. That's why this new or modern biotechnology has captured the attention of scientists, entrepreneurs, financiers, policymakers, governors, and the public in general and the pressure is on the journalists and media to illustrate factual data on this subject. In Pakistan, we are already facing negative consequence by not strengthening patents laws, due to which, the markets are flooded with adulterated pesticides, inferior seed quality, and poor quality of life saving drugs etc.

It is unfortunate for many developing countries including Pakistan to miss the opportunities during Green Revolution; now farming methods of late 60's are coming to an end due to water shortage, soil degradation, loss of seedling varieties and high input costs; while we are entering into a new phase where with very limited resources we have to deliver multiple benefits to different stakeholders. There is no single solution which is likely to solve our burgeoning problem in agriculture, food, energy, health and environment. However, there is a hope that at least some of that solution will come by the adoption of modern crop biotechnology; as GM crops have significantly increased crops yields in many cases; are more environmental friendly - fewer use of pesticides and cause less soil erosion; that can help small farmers to save more and combat poverty, because GM food is safer than conventional due to its careful evaluations at different levels by well-known institutes so why not our farmers must have a choice either to take GM crops side by side non GM?


Modern Biotechnology as an Integral Supplement to Conventional Plant Breeding: The Prospects and Challenges

- Prem P. Jauhar, published in Crop Sci. 46:1841-1859 (2006), Research & Interpretation doi:10.2135/cropsci2005.07-0223, http://www.agbioworld.org/pdf/Modern-Biotech-Crop.pdf


The art of plant breeding was developed long before the laws of genetics became known. The advent of the principles of genetics at the turn of the last century catalyzed the growth of breeding, making it a science-based technology that has been instrumental in substantial improvements in crop plants. Largely through exploitation of hybrid vigor, grain yields of several cereal crops were substantially increased. Intervarietal and interspecific hybridizations, coupled with appropriate cytogenetic manipulations, proved useful in moving genes for resistance to diseases and insect pests from suitable alien donors into crop cultivars. Plant improvement has been further accelerated by biotechnological tools of gene transfer, to engineer new traits into plants that are very difficult to introduce by traditional breeding. The successful deployment of transgenic approaches to combat insect pests and diseases of important crops like rice (Oryza sativa L.), wheat (Triticum aestivum L.), maize (Zea mays L.), barley (Hordeum vulgare L.), and cotton (Gossypium hirsutum L.) is a remarkable accomplishment. Biofortification of crops constitutes another exciting development in tackling global hunger and malnutrition. Golden Rice, genetically enriched with vitamin Aand iron, has, for example, the real potential of saving millions of lives. Yet another exciting application of transgenic technology is in the production of edible vaccines against deadly diseases. How these novel approaches to gene transfer can effectively supplement the conventional breeding programs is described. The current resistance to acceptance of this novel technology should be assessed and overcome so that its full potential in crop improvement can be realized.

[concluding paragraphs - see the above for the full text]

As of 2005, one thousand million acres of biotech crops have been planted worldwide and they now cover the equivalent of 40% of the U.S. land area; in the USA 75% of the cotton, almost 50% the corn, and 85% of the soybeans planted are biotech-enhanced (http://www. checkbiotech.org/root/index.cfm?fuseaction5search& search5%20US%20crops&doc_id57300&start51& fullsearch50; verified 10 May 2006). According to figures published on 12 Jan. 2006 by ISAAA (The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications) the hectarage planted with biotech crops increased by 9.0 million hectares (22 million acres) worldwide in 2005 (www.isaaa.org; verified 10 May 2006). However, as with any other new technology, genetic engineering is not without adversaries, some of which even go as far as destroying experimental materials. This antiscience zealotry (Borlaug, 2000) and public hostility to modern biotechnology has been attributed to "lack of scientific literacy" (Bucchi and Neresini, 2004) and may impede human progress. The opponents of the new technology work on the premise that plant biotechnology is unnatural, unsafe, and inherently However, the indisputable fact remains that conventional plant breeding is a form of genetic engineering that has been practiced for centuries in humanity's quest for food production. Any breeding activity ultimately involves changes at the DNA level. It would therefore appear ridiculous to suddenly get nervous about genetically altering crops now when fundamentally we have been doing pretty much the same thing for so long. There is no evidence to suggest that GM foods pose any threat to human safety, although work needs to be done on informing and reassuring the public about the global benefits of GM crops.

Most of the genetic improvement of crop plants and the consequent increase in yields were brought about by conventional breeding. These tools, although slow and sometimes tedious, will certainly continue to play a major role in crop improvement programs. The GM technology is an important weapon in our war against global poverty and starvation. And crop improvement through genetic engineering has in fact become a reality (Dunwell, 2000; Jauhar and Khush, 2002; Sahrawat et al., 2003; Bajaj and Mohanty, 2005). Transgenic crops have now been grown on more than 300 million acres in 15 countries around the world (Vasil, 2003) and more than 70 biotech plant varieties have been commercialized in the USA (Radin, 2003), and they incorporate several agronomic traits including resistance to insect pests and diseases (Walker-Simmons, 2003). Eurpean Union continues to hold restrictive practices onGMcrops. In sharp contrast, however, the area under biotech crops grew the fastest in India compared to the rest of the world. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (SAAA), India registered the greatest proportion of growth for any biotech crop globally in 2005, with Bt cotton production soaring by 16% (checkbiotech.org, Feb 27, 2006).

Genetically modified rice yields could soon supercede even the highest yielding hybrid rice in China, and recently published results of field trials of GM rice in China have brought the country one step closer to approval of commercial varieties (Zi, 2005). Biotechnology can help feed the billions of poor people who constantly struggle for a better life (Wambugu, 2001; Huang et al., 2002b; Conway and Toenniessen, 2003). A recent study by PG Economics shows that farmers using this technology increased their income by US$27000 million during 1996 to 2004 with additional environmental benefits realized; and the cumulative economic benefits during this period to developing countries ($15000 million) exceeded benefits to industrial countries ($12000 million) (www.pgeconomics.co.uk; verified 10 May 2006). According to ScienceandDevelopmentNetwork, theAgricultural Biotechnology Network for Africa (ABNET) is helping to encourage the role of biotechnology in improving African agriculture - a move welcomed by Stanford Blade, Director of research at the Nigeria-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (www. scidev.net/News/index.cfm; verified 11 May 2006). Thus, modern biotechnology is playing and will continue to play an important role in human welfare, in general, and in plant improvement, in particular. This technology gives us the ability to change the genotype of a plant in a relativey short period of time, and could obviously help design, among others, more nutritious plants. However, the new technology will only complement, not replace, conventional plant breeding. The traditional and the modern technologies must go hand in hand to accelerate crop improvement and ensure global food security. And, of course, a sensible regulation of transgenic crops cannot be overemphasized (Bradford et al., 2005). When carefully deployed, modern biotechnology will become an integral supplement to conventional plant breeding and its enormous potential should be harnessed to the best advantage of the entire human race, rich or poor. As aptly stated by Joshua Lederberg: "We are approaching the ultimate scientific revolution - the precise control of human development, but the payoffs in terms of human betterment will depend on how wisely, boldly, and quickly we can act in the coming years."


Minnesota stops sales of genetically modified seed

- AP via West Central Tribune (Willmar, MN), April 21, 2007, http://www.wctrib.com/ap/index.cfm?page=view&id=D8OKKE480

Minnesota has stopped the distribution and sale of a certain genetically modified variety of Syngenta seed corn because it doesn't comply with state regulations. Farmers were told not to plant the rootworm resistant seed.

Syngenta officials told the Minnesota Department of Agriculture on Friday that 7,480 units of "Agrisure RW MIR 604" seed were distributed to 99 seed dealers in Minnesota.

Mary Hanks, a biotechnology specialist with the department, said officials still didn't know Friday how much of the seed might have been delivered to farmers or if any had been planted. She said it apparently went to dealers across the corn-growing areas of Minnesota.

While the seed in question has federal approval, Minnesota requires companies to receive a commercial use exemption before they can sell genetically modified, or GMO, seed. Syngenta neglected to get the required state approval, Hanks said.

State Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson said he wants aggressive action by Syngenta to retrieve all the unapproved seed shipped to and sold in Minnesota, including any that might have been purchased from a dealer in another state.

Last December, Golden Valley-based Syngenta Seeds, Inc., which is part of Swiss-based Syngenta AG, agreed to pay a $1.5 million penalty to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for selling and distributing a seed corn containing an unregistered genetically engineered pesticide.


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