Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org May 5, 2007
* Consumers prove they speak for themselves
* Farmers in the UK and in Germany are open to GM crops
* Creating Corn For Cars
* GM patent rejected after 13 years
* Monsanto mulls options after biotech alfalfa ruling
* Bill would create new hurdles for Maine farmers
* New Members of U.S. National Academy of Sciences
Consumers prove they speak for themselves
- Don Curlee, Capital Press (Oregon), May 4, 2007
Producers can overcome special interests if they explain technology
In our free market economy consumers express their preferences to producers of food and other products very surely if not always swiftly. Some products grow moldy on retail shelves before producers get the message that consumers don't want them.
Instant advice to the rescue. Groups that pretend to know what consumers want or should want have proliferated in recent years. Do they really know, or are they pushing an agenda?
University of California food technologist Christine Bruhn undertook to answer that question when she spoke to the annual meeting of Western United Dairymen in Bakersfield in March. Dairymen have been a prime target of quasi-consumer groups.
She addressed biotechnology issues and consumer response to them. Her research shows that about 80 percent of consumers polled believe that biotechnological applications to food or milk-producing animals are positive or have no effect. Less than 20 percent believe they have negative outcomes, and a barely measurable percentage had no opinion.
When consumers know that a product is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, she has found that 45 percent of them don't hesitate to buy it, even if it is enhanced through genetic engineering. So-called consumer and watchdog groups that decry GE products and advances such as cloning might be leading consumers and producers astray.
Bruhn advised the milk producers to point out the benefits of new technology to consumers as well as to producers. "If you ... say you are not going to use a product, that reinforces the negative," she said. She told them it is better to stand up and say why new technology is used.
One group of milk producers recently answered the request by Safeway stores for milk from cows that have been isolated from the hormone rBST. The producer group said it is glad to supply the special edition milk at a premium, just as it would if the request were for milk with little blue dots in it. An announcement like that is right in line with Bruhn's advice.
Even though her research shows that 20 percent of food consumers are not at all likely to buy food enhanced through GE methods even if approved by the FDA, 57 percent are somewhat or very likely to purchase it.
Alison Van Eenennamm, a geneticist at University of California-Davis and a colleague of Bruhn, said cloning of animals in the food supply has been done on a wide scale since 1980. She said cloning technology became a charged issue around Dolly the sheep because the need for the technology had not been explained.
So the dairymen received their marching orders from the two researchers. And those who answered the Safeway request seem to have followed them.
If the so-called consumer activist groups get in the way as they push their agendas across the producer-to-consumer supply line they are subject to being trampled underfoot.
And in the corral that's not a pretty sight.
Don Curlee is a veteran ag publications editor and freelancer who writes on a variety of farm-related topics from Clovis, Calif.
Farmers in the UK and in Germany are open to GM crops
- GMO Compass, May 3, 2007
New surveys suggest that fewer farmers in UK and Germany are opposed to planting genetically modified crops than is often believed. 47 percent of surveyed farmers in the UK and 33 percent in Germany are willing to cultivate GM plants. However, 16 percent in the UK and 29 percent in Germany reject the concept of GM crops, and many farmers are still undecided.
In the UK, the British Grassland Society polled its members on their attitude towards GM crops. Surprisingly, strict opposition to GMOs was expressed by responding farmers among only 16 percent, the half of whom are producing organic goods. While 47 percent generally favour GM crops, as many as three-quarters stated that they would grow GM plants if consumers were willing to buy them. Jessica Buss, director of the society, commented: "We were surprised that only one-in-eight Grassland farmers responding said that they would never grow GM forage crops."
In another survey, researchers of the University of Göttingen interviewed 370 farmers in the German north-west. The majority, 38 percent, were undecided on this issue. However, representing a fairly even split in decided attitudes, 33 percent of farmers welcomed GM crops and 29 percent rejected them.
The study also found that besides economic aspects and personal views on GMOs, many different factors are considered by farmers in their decision on GM crops.
University of Göttingen report (German)
British Grassland Society
Creating Corn For Cars
- Science Daily, May 4, 2007
A new variety of corn developed and patented by Michigan State University scientists could turn corn leaves and stalks into products that are just as valuable as the golden kernels.
Right now, most U.S. ethanol is made from corn kernels. This is because breaking down the cellulose in corn leaves and stalks into sugars that can be fermented into ethanol is difficult and expensive.
"We've developed two generations of Spartan Corn," said Mariam Sticklen, MSU professor of crop and soil sciences. "Both corn varieties contain the enzymes necessary to break down cellulose and hemicellulose into simple sugars in their leaves. This will allow for more cost-effective, efficient production of ethanol."
Sticklen will co-chair a panel on energy crops for biofuels today at BIO2007, the annual international convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
"In the future, corn growers will be able to sell their corn stalks and leaves as well as their corn grain for ethanol production," Sticklen said. "What is now a waste product will become an economically viable commodity."
This research is supported by Edenspace Systems Corp., the U.S. Department of Energy, the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, the Corn Marketing Program of Michigan and the MSU Research Excellence Program.
GM patent rejected after 13 years
- Ned Stafford, Nature (doi:10.1038/news070430-14), May 4, 2007
Patent for technology to fire genes into soy seeds thrown out.
Opponents complained that Monsanto had too broad a patent on GM soybeans.
The European Patent Office (EPO) has revoked a patent owned by global agricultural giant Monsanto for the genetic modification (GM) of soybeans, saying the technique it approved 13 years ago lacked "novelty".
The technique, which describes a way of creating any kind of GM soybean without reference to the specific genes being introduced, has helped make Monsanto the dominant force in GM soybeans - the company owns nearly 90% of the global market. Opponents complained that the patent gave Monsanto de facto control over all GM soybeans, and have been fighting against it since it was granted in 1994.
At a hearing on 3 May, the EPO revoked the patent. The board's decision is final, says Rainer Osterwalder, spokesman for the EPO, with no further appeals available.
The decision will no doubt have an impact on other GM technology patents, Osterwalder told Nature. "Case law is important," he says.
But the patent was due to expire in 2008 anyway. A spokesperson for Monsanto says: "We do not expect this decision to have an impact on Monsanto's business." The EPO will not issue a detailed written explanation of the legal basis of its decision for three to six months, Osterwalder says.
The application for the soybean patent was first submitted in 1988 by US biotech company Agracetus under the title 'Particle-mediated transformation of soybean plants and lines'.
The technique, dubbed a 'particle gun', involves introducing foreign genes into regenerable soybean tissues by coating on carrier particles, which are physically accelerated into plant tissues. The tissues are then recovered and regenerated into whole sexually mature plants. The progeny are recovered from seed set by these plants; a portion will contain in their genome the foreign gene.
This idea was actively researched by several teams during the 1980s, one of which was the team at Agracetus, according to Ricarda Steinbrecher, a molecular geneticist at the Oxford-based non-profit science watchdog group EcoNexus. Steinbrecher, who served as a scientific expert at the hearing in Munich, notes another use of the technique on onions1 in 1987 was cited in the EPO hearing as an example that others were working on the technology.
Osterwalder notes that GM technology was much less developed then than it is now, and patents in the field were new. "Guidelines are now better developed on whether to grant or refuse these patents," he says; a higher percentage of GM plant patents are now refused than in the past.
Not the usual suspects
The original patent approval was opposed by a strange mix of groups, including the Canadian environmental group ETC and a long list of big agribusiness firms involved in GM research. One of the opposing firms was Monsanto, which dropped its opposition in 1996 after acquiring Agracetus, thus becoming owner of the patent.
Christoph Then, a GM expert at Greenpeace Germany, which cooperated with ETC in opposing the patent, was at this week's hearing in Munich. He says representatives from the Swiss agribusiness firm Syngenta provided some of the strongest arguments against the patent.
It is "a little strange", he admits, for Greenpeace and ETC - which are generally opposed to the use of GM soybeans - to be arguing the same side as Syngenta, a manufacturer of GM crops. It was also unusual, adds Then, for Greenpeace to be arguing a case that would effectively give other companies more unrestricted access to GM technologies.
Then says Greenpeace is strongly opposed to any patent that would give a company basic control over a plant species and allow them to restrict access to technology. "For us, this patent was highly symbolic," he says.
Monsanto mulls options after biotech alfalfa ruling
- Peter Shinn, Brownfield Network, May 4, 2007
The federal district court for Northern California in San Francisco Thursday ordered USDA to conduct an environmental impact assessment of Roundup Ready alfalfa. Judge Charles Breyer also made permanent his earlier injunction that forbade farmers from any further planting of the biotech crop.
Will Rostov is senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco, one of a number of groups which brought the case against USDA that resulted in Thursday's decision. Rostov told Brownfield he considered the ruling a clear-cut win, and perhaps an historic one for the environmental movement.
"Yeah, it's a huge victory for the environment," Rostov proclaimed. "It's the first time that a genetically engineered crop that's been approved for commercialization has been stopped - that planting of it has been stopped."
However, the U.S. farmers who had already planted over 200,000 acres of the biotech alfalfa when the initial injunction took effect are unlike to share Rostov's enthusiasm for Thursday's legal decision. Nor, likely, will others farmers who had already purchased the seed, but are now barred from planting it. And Monsanto spokesman Andrew Burchett told Brownfield the latest ruling will have a bottom line impact on those ag producers.
"For the producers who are making real-time decision this year about how to manage their alfalfa stands, what to plant, in some cases going back and re-seeding in some places where stands have been damaged, this is more than what I would describe as an inconvenience," Burchett explained. "This is a real issue."
That's why Burchett says Monsanto, which developed Roundup Ready alfalfa, is considering its legal options in the wake of Thursday's decision. But since Monsanto is merely an intervener in the case, rather than a respondent, the company's choices may be limited. Still, Burchett said Monsanto hasn't ruled anything out yet.
"That's something that we're in the process of evaluating," Burchett said. "The ruling came yesterday, on May 3rd, and we're looking at that and we're trying to come up with the best way to go forward to ultimately give farmers a choice about whether or not they want to use this technology."
Court documents suggest USDA has already committed to conducting the environmental impact assessment ordered by the court. Burchett said Monsanto remains committed to Roundup Ready alfalfa as well.
But according to Rostov, getting Roundup Ready alfalfa back on the market could be a years-long process. He points out even after USDA completes the environmental assessment, Monsanto would then have to again petition USDA to deregulate the product. And Rostov pointed out completing the environmental impact statement alone is a daunting task.
"It's going to be a very complicated environmental impact statement, because alfalfa is a national crop and it's going to have varying effects on a regional and local level in more than 40 states," Rostov predicted. "So if the analysis is done well, it's going to require a lot of detail and a lot of specific analysis."
Bill would create new hurdles for Maine farmers
- Vernon L. Delong, Bangor Daily News, May 05, 2007
Farming is a tough way to make a living. Energy costs. Competitive markets. Fickle weather. Any one of them can go against you and turn a profitable farm into a money loser. Between 1997 and 2002, Maine lost 191 farms. Now, a bill before the Legislature would make it even harder for some Maine farmers to survive, if it passes.
LD 1650 would create a special set of laws that apply only to crops that are improved using modern biotechnology. Supporters of the law say it is necessary to protect organic growers and conventional farmers from damages caused by biotech crops. The trouble is no Maine farmers have reported any damage from biotech crops. The law also would offer protections to farmers who get sued by the manufacturers of biotech crops. No Maine farmers have been sued either. Clearly, LD 1650 is a solution in search of a problem.
What the law would do, however, is make it more difficult, if not impossible, to buy biotech-enhanced seeds to plant in Maine. By shifting liability for damages to the manufacturer, whether they are at fault or not (a legal doctrine called strict liability), and by forcibly rewriting the contracts covering the planting of patented seeds, manufacturers would likely choose not to sell their seeds in Maine. This would deny Maine farmers access to the hottest new farming technology since the invention of the tractor. Every year for the past 10 years, biotech crop plantings have enjoyed double-digit growth around the world.
Though biotech-enhanced crops are not as big in Maine as they are in other parts of the country, some farmers do plant them. Dairy farmers plant herbicide-tolerant corn because it simplifies weed control and increases yields. For the past two years, several potato farmers have planted herbicide-tolerant canola as a rotation crop for the same reasons. The results so far are mixed, but that's no reason to say biotech-enhanced crops are wrong for Maine.
One of the bright spots on the horizon for Maine farmers is the increasing demand for renewable energy. So far most of the action has been in the Midwest with corn-to-ethanol production. Down the road, though, experts are predicting that biodiesel will overtake ethanol. A University of Maine Cooperative Extension feasibility study found that northern Maine could support a 5-million-gallon biodiesel plant. Efforts are under way to find investors for the plant. Though Maine farmers at present do not grow enough canola and soybeans to supply such a plant, the study said the demand created by the plant "could be a boon to Maine farmers."
Maine, with its abundant and productive farmland, could become a major producer of sustainable biofuels. However, for Maine farmers to be competitive in this market they will need access to the latest technology. Researchers already are looking at ways to increase the oil content of canola and soybeans to make them more efficient as biofuel sources. Once these biotech-enhanced biofuel crops hit the market, farmers planting them will enjoy a competitive advantage. If Maine farmers can't plant them, the biofuel refinery envisioned for northern Maine will buy their feedstock elsewhere, and Maine farmers will lose out on this opportunity.
Over the years, Maine farmers have worked with their neighbors to insure compatible planting strategies. As markets have become more diverse, so have farms. There are now more organic and small farms in Maine, many of them pursuing niche markets. This has increased the importance and complexity of neighboring farmers working together, but so far it is working. To promote cooperation between farmers, the Maine Department of Agriculture has adopted a formal coexistence policy.
The object of the policy is to insure that farmers planting biotech-enhanced crops work with their neighbors to minimize problems. Now is not the time to scrap a coexistence policy that is working to gamble on a rewrite of Maine's laws that would put more Maine farms at risk.
Vernon L. Delong is executive director of the Agricultural Bargaining Council.
Congratulations to Newly Elected Members of U.S. National Academy of Sciences
- Compilation from news release, National Academy of Sciences, May 1, 2007
AgBioWorld salutes scientists who have just been elected as members to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (USA).
From among the list of 72 new members, following are with interests in food, agriculture, crop and biotechnology:
DANGL, Jeffrey L.; associate director, Carolina Center for Genome Sciences, and John N. Couch Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
DIXON, Richard A.; plant biology division director, The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Ardmore, Okla.
ESTELLE, Mark; Carlos O. Miller Professor of Developmental Biology, department of biology, Indiana University, Bloomington
FRAKER, Pamela J.; professor of food science and human nutrition and distinguished professor of biochemistry, Michigan State University, East Lansing
Newly elected foreign associates, their affiliations at the time of election, and their country of citizenship are:
MARASAS, Walter F.O.; director, Programme on Mycotoxins and Experimental Carcinogenesis Unit, Medical Research Council, Tygerberg (South Africa)
PINGALI, Prabhu L.; director, division of agricultural and development economics, United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, Rome (India)
ZHANG, Qifa; professor and director, National Key Laboratory of Crop Genetic Improvement, Huazhong Agricultural University, Wuhan (People's Republic of China)
*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net