Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org May 3, 2007
* GMO crop rules should also weigh pluses
* GM crops trials return to UK
* Court keeps ban on modified alfalfa
* Indian and Mexican scientists win prize
* The latest word on GM crops and honeybees
* What's the Greatest Innovation?
* Economic Considerations of Biotechnology Regulations
GMO crop rules should also weigh pluses: report
- David Evans, Reuters via Scientific American, May 3, 2007
LONDON - Europe should weigh benefits as well as risks when evaluating new farm technologies like biotech crops to avoid stifling innovation that may be key to future food security, a report for the UK government said on Thursday.
With agriculture facing huge challenges from climate change, rising world wealth levels and new crop-based biofuels, ACRE (Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment) said it was time for a more balanced and holistic approach to regulation.
"We need to get a better balance between the good and bad sides of novel technologies," ACRE chairman Chris Pollock told a press conference.
"We can't wall off avenues we may need in the future."
In an advisory report for David Miliband, UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ACRE said the current approvals system for genetically-modified (GM) crops of focusing purely on potential risks was unbalanced.
The report cited genetically modified herbicide tolerant beet, which was denied clearance for cultivation due to negative effects on weeds and invertebrates of the herbicide used.
But as under European Union rules only the risks were considered, evidence of any potential environmental benefits such as the reduced herbicide use leading to lower Co2 emissions were not considered.
And this wider approvals process should be expanded to include changes in farming practices like biofuels that also have an environmental impact, the report said.
"Environmental benefits are now a major focus in the introduction of a number of other novel crops (e.g. energy crops) and agricultural management practices in the UK. There is no regulatory requirement to assess potential environmental costs in a fashion similar to GM crops," it said.
The report, which is designed to stimulate discussion at European Union level, listed changes in agricultural practices that have been shown to have had an environmental impact at least as significant as those with GMO crops.
These included the change from spring to winter sowing for arable crops and a shift from hay cutting to silage production.
The prospect of some farmers switching into new crops to produce biofuels could have unforeseen consequences if left completely uncontrolled, particularly given the strains on food production that are likely in the years ahead.
"We could end up covering the land with crops that don't actually produce food, and that may be a problem in the future," Pollock said.
"It was only a generation ago that British agriculture was given the task of feeding the nation. That role may come back."
GM crops trials return to UK farms
- ITV News (UK), May 3, 2007
Trials of genetically modified crops are taking place again in the UK three years after being abandoned over ecological concerns.
A crop of GM potatoes was planted last weekend and a report commissioned by the Government calls for a change in the way agriculture is regulated in the UK.
The study by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment suggests Britain should ease back on controls and embrace new technology and could leave the way open for a more general return of genetic modification in crops.
Acre's Chris Pollack said: "We have to accept that the world is changing, that population pressure is increasing and that there is going to be more competition for resources in the future, particularly for energy and for water.
"We are going to be facing new pressures on European land and it would be unfortunate if we turned our backs on new technology that could help."
The Government has licensed two open air trials in the UK. One, on a farm near Cambridge, was planted by the bio-technology firm BASF.
The trial site is surrounded by a 20-metre protection zone to avoid cross-ontamination but according to Friends of the Earth, the trial is not independently monitored with requirements for many safety tests being dropped.
FoE's Clare Oxborrow said: "There are particular concerns around this BASF GM potato trial which have been raised by the local community and local farmers.
"One of them is the risk of contaminating future potato crops and the fact is that BASF has not been required to carry out anything like a serious safety assessment so if they do get into the food chain we have no idea of what the impact could be."
Court keeps ban on Monsanto's modified alfalfa
- Reuters, May 3, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO - Citing the potential for genetic contamination, a U.S. judge on Thursday let stand a ban on further planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa, a genetically modified variety of the crop developed by Monsanto Co..
U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer, in a published order, said an injunction against planting more of the herbicide-resistant alfalfa should stay in place until government studies on its environmental effects are concluded.
Alfalfa is a perennial livestock fodder crop and one of the mostly widely grown crops in the United States.
Breyer had issued a preliminary injunction in March, faulting U.S. regulators for choosing to not prepare an environmental impact statement before deregulating alfalfa genetically engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup, a Monsanto product.
That marked the first time a federal court overturned USDA approval of a biotech seed and halted planting, according to The Center for Food Safety.
While Breyer capped the number of acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa under cultivation, he declined to stop the harvesting and sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed that already has been planted.
To minimize the risk of "genetic flow" between the genetically engineered alfalfa in the ground and conventional and organic alfalfa crops, Breyer ordered that pollinators not be added to Roundup Ready alfalfa fields grown only for hay production.
He also ordered gear used in production of Roundup Ready alfalfa to be properly cleaned after use and for the alfalfa to be clearly identified to minimize mixing after harvest.
Indian and Mexican scientists win science prize
- Michelle Picard-Aitken, SciDev.Net, May 3, 2007
An Indian chemist and a Mexican biologist were each awarded the Trieste Science Prize last week (26 April).
Administered by the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, the annual Trieste Science Prize celebrates scientists from the developing world whose achievements have made "an enormous impact on international science".
The winners were Luis Rafael Herrera-Estrella, professor of plant genetic engineering at the Centre of Research and Advanced Studies in Irapuato, Mexico, and Goverdhan Mehta, honorary professor of organic chemistry at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.
Herrera-Estrella was honoured for pioneering plant biotechnology techniques used in the commercial production of genetically modified plants.
The plants are now grown on more than 100 million hectares of farmland worldwide, and include asparagus, maize, papaya and beans -- all crop species important to Latin America's economy.
"Doing high quality science in developing countries is far more difficult than in developed countries," Herrera-Estrella told SciDev.Net.
"Recognition from important awards such as the Trieste Science Prize are very important in making politicians aware that in spite of the difficulties, scientists in developing countries have the skills and expertise to produce first class science."
He is now working to understand how plants adapt to nutrient-deficient soils, such as the 500 million hectares of phosphorus-poor farmland in Latin America.
Goverdhan Mehta was recognized for significant advances he has made in the synthesis of organic compounds.
Anti-cancer drugs and carbon compounds with potential applications in nanotechnology devices are among the 50 complex and biologically active products that Mehta's group have synthesised.
As president of the International Council for Science in Paris, Mehta is now dedicating himself to promoting international collaboration in science, particularly on issues relating to sustainable development.
He also plays a key role in developing science education and policy in India as a member of the country's Scientific Advisory Committee.
The Trieste Science Prize, now in its third year, honours outstanding scientists who have not yet been awarded other international prizes for scientific achievement.
The prize, financed by coffee company illycaffè, includes a US$50,000 cash award. Previous prize recipients have been from Brazil, China, India and Taiwan.
Herrera-Estrella and Mehta will receive their awards at a ceremony in Trieste, Italy, this month (17 May).
The latest word on GM crops and honeybees
- Andrew Leonard, Salon, May 2, 2007
On March 28, How the World Works referenced a Der Spiegel article citing data from one relatively small study that offered shallow support for thinking there might be a connection between the spread of genetically modified Bt corn and the widely publicized mass death of honeybees around the world (referred to as "colony collapse disorder").
Pro-agricultural biotechnology journalists like Reason magazine's Ron Bailey quickly scoffed at the theory, and in fact, eagerly used its flimsiness to bash anti-GM activists who are probably over-eager to seize upon any scientific finding that supports their own fierce opposition to genetically modified crops. But the long-established bias of the pro-GM boosters made their own dismissals equally suspect.
The New York Times reporter, Alexei Barrionuevo, responsible for bringing colony collapse disorder (CCD) to national attention didn't do a whole lot to assuage fears when, in a follow-up piece looking at the scientific rush to figure out what was going on, he devoted one sentence to the topic: "[Scientists] have also set aside for now the possibility that the cause could be bees feeding from a commonly used genetically modified crop, Bt corn, because the symptoms typically associated with toxins, such as blood poisoning, are not showing up in the affected bees."
But now comes the most convincing argument I've seen so far, courtesy of the American Farm magazine (with thanks for the tip to the very pro-GM GMO Pundit) and Galen P. Dively, a professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in integrated pest management. Dively sums up the available research -- and there has been quite a bit on the possible effects of Bt corn on honeybees -- and states that "while this possibility has not been ruled out, the weight of evidence based on a multitude of studies argues strongly that the current use of Bt corn is not associated with CCD."
But he concludes:
Although there is no evidence thus far of any lethal or sub-lethal effects of the currently used Bt endotoxins on honey bees, insecticidal products expressed by other transgenes in crops may need extended field testing on a case-by-case basis to assess the longer term consequences of sub-lethal changes in colonies and subtle modifications in bee behavior.
This isn't the first time Dively has plunged into a Bt corn controversy. He was previously one of three authors of a study that concluded after two years of research that "the impact of Bt corn pollen from current commercial hybrids on monarch butterfly populations is negligible." Does that put professor Dively in the "everything is all right with GM crops" camp? Perhaps. But if a campaign against GM crops is going to be based on the evidence, then so far, the disappearance of the world's honeybees might not be the best fodder for the crusade.
What's the Greatest Innovation?
- Sp!ked, (undated)
'What's the Greatest Innovation?' is a survey of key thinkers in science, technology and medicine, conducted by spiked in collaboration with the research-based pharmaceutical company Pfizer. Contributors were asked to identify what they see as the greatest innovation in their field. More than a hundred experts and authorities have responded already, including half-a-dozen Nobel laureates.
The survey will roll through May and June, and the discussion will go live at an event in central London on Wednesday 6 June - book tickets here.
[agricultural technology submissions below]
- Professor Thomas M Addiscott, soil scientist, computer modeller and science writer
What, for humanity, was the most significant technical innovation of the twentieth century? Was it air travel or space flight, television or computers, or nuclear energy, perhaps? Vaclav Smil (1) argues, and I agree with him, that it was not any of these but the Haber-Bosch process for the synthesis of ammonia. The arithmetic is simple. In 1900, there was virtually no synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, and the world population supported by agriculture then was 1.625 million. Had the process not been developed, only half of the 2000 population could have been fed the generally inadequate diet prevalent in 1900, and only 40 per cent could have enjoyed the current average per capita. Surely no other innovation has enabled so many people to live as nitrogen fertiliser - or had its importance so little understood.
Nitrogen fertiliser is admittedly not an unmixed blessing. Nitrate and nitrous oxide are lost from the soil when it is used, causing algal blooms in coastal waters and damage to stratospheric ozone (2). But nitrate is not a threat to your health, it's essential to the working of your body's defence system against bacterial gastroenteritis (2,3).
- Nina Fedoroff Willaman, professor of life sciences and Evan Pugh professor
I think that the greatest innovation in my field has been the ability to introduce genes into plants. That has not only revolutionised our understanding of plants because of the ability to investigate how genes work, but is also in the process of revolutionising agriculture. Assuming that people don't reject molecular modification of crop plants, these advances will make it possible to increase the productivity of agriculture, even as we decrease its environmental impact.
- Edmond H Fischer, professor emeritus of biochemistry at the University of Washington
There is not one greatest innovation. For me, there is no question that the greatest advances occurred in the field of genetic engineering, with the cloning, characterisation, manipulation and expression of genes without which we would know essentially nothing about our genetic make-up, hereditary diseases such as muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis or diabetes, nothing about viral diseases such as AIDS, or cancer. So I would place on top the sequencing of DNA, PCR and probably, now, the use of siRNA.
- Dr Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North, ex-dean of the School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia
The greatest innovation in my field was the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) process by which several sections of DNA could be multiplied many times accurately to give many copies. The PCR machine was an immediate must in every laboratory and has led to amazing discoveries in forensic science. Laboratories have as many PCR machines as they do microscopes.
- Dr Peggy G Lemaux, Cooperative extension specialist in plant biotechnology at the University of California in Berkeley
Without a doubt, the invention of most impact in the field of biology - be it that of animals, micro-organisms or plants - is the development and use of recombinant DNA methods. These tools have allowed us to unravel the secrets of differential evolution of species, to understand human diseases and develop cures and to unlock the mysteries of how plants protect themselves against the elements. Although there is still much to learn, we have entered into a new and exciting era in biology.
- Dr Jorge E Mayer, MIP TM attorney, manager Golden Rice Project
The most important breakthrough in my area of work was the development of the capability to introduce genes into plants across the species barrier. This has not only paved the way to enhance the nutritional qualities of crops in a tissue-specific manner, as in the case of Golden Rice, but has opened the gate in general to the Doubly Green Revolution, as it has been coined.
Over the last 10 years, the adoption of genetically enhanced crops has advanced at an unprecedented pace in the history of agriculture. Moreover, the ability to turn genes on and off is being used as a tool to understand plant physiology at the molecular level, with the prospect of facilitating the rise of second-generation transgenics that will contribute to feeding a growing world population in a sustainable manner.
- Channapatna S Prakash, Professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University
As a plant breeder and agricultural scientist, I believe that the greatest 'recent' innovation in my field has been the development of genetically modified (GM) crops.
This began in the early 1980s with the invention of methods to directly introduce foreign genes into plants. Since then scientists have developed many new plant varieties with novel traits of value to farmers and the consumers. The innovation spawned a burgeoning field of agricultural biotechnology that has vast potential to help reduce the footprint of agriculture on the environment, boost food production worldwide, help achieve greater food security in the developing countries, reduce our reliance on chemical inputs, enhance the nutrition and quality of our food, and also help develop innovative products such as biofuels and pharmaceuticals.
While many European countries are still reluctant to embrace GM technology in farming, the rest of the world has moved forward growing these crops on more than a billion acres in the past 10 years, resulting in tremendous benefits to their growers and the environment. While these benefits have been real and substantial, all of the supposed 'risks' from GM crops claimed by sceptics have been either hypothetical, not-unique or too insignificant to be of any concern.
Economic Considerations of Biosafety and Biotechnology Regulations in India
- Proceedings of a Conference in New Delhi, India, 24-25 August 2006
Executive Summary: India was one of the first Asian countries to invest in agricultural biotechnology research and to set up a biosafety system to regulate the approval of genetically modified (GM) crops. Despite the Government of India's acknowledged interest in encouraging growth in the biotechnology sector and the increasing number of research initiatives in the public and private domains, the approval of new applications of transgenic crops has been rather slow.
The country has only approved one GM crop, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton, which was planted on 1.3 million hectares by 1 million farmers in 2006. There are several other GM crops and traits in the biosafety regulatory pipeline. At the same time, an increasing number of ministries and government departments are getting involved in biosafety, marketing, and trade regulations. As a result, the Indian agribiotech sector is in a transition phase both in terms of research applications and the regulatory framework.
In this context, the International Food Policy Research Institute under the South Asia Biosafety Program (SABP) organized a policy dialogue on August 24 and 25, 2006, in New Delhi, India, in collaboration with the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS). The dialogue was designed to provide a platform for national and international economic experts and important Indian stakeholders to discuss economic considerations related to biosafety and biotechnology in India. These proceedings are a summary of the discussions held during the dialogue.
The policy dialogue highlighted the following six critical economic issues and associated recommendations on biotechnology and biosafety regulations in India:
1. The cost and stringency of the current regulatory system and its impact on the overall growth of the sector calls for further examination.
2. The relevance and economic feasibility of the proposed mandatory labeling regulation of GM food and feed in India is largely questioned by policy specialists and economists.
3. The compliance with and enforcement of post-release regulations have to be addressed, particularly with regard to insect-resistance management and illegal seeds.
4. The existing research and application competence (including capacity for developing crops of Indian priority) and consumers' and farmers' ability to understand and adopt agricultural biotechnology need to be strengthened.
5. There is a lack of clarity on GM food import approval, and segregation strategies for non-GM crops should be encouraged to maintain all export opportunities while allowing the beneficial use of safe GM technology for Indian farmers.
6. The limited clarity, transparency, and leadership in the regulatory procedure mean that better coordination is required across all ministries to adapt policies to manage environment, agriculture, consumer, and trade issues together.
More generally, the conference revealed the need for a better convergence of the Indian government's overall objectives on agricultural biotechnology in terms of the agricultural development process, the federal regulatory framework, and the capacity needed to provide safe access to approved biotechnology innovations to Indian farmers.
As a response to these critical policy issues, the Government of India should consider conducting policy research to evaluate the benefits and costs of different biosafety and biotechnology regulatory options for transgenic crops and the products derived thereof, in order to maximize the economic potential of agricultural biotechnology for all Indian farmers and consumers in a safe and responsible manner. Download
The proceedings are available for download in PDF format as an entire document or by chapter at http://www.ifpri.org/pubs/books/indiaproc.asp
*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net