Today in AgBioView, from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org May 10, 2007
* More GM seeds get nod for trials
* GM potato to reduce blight disease
* Plants tag insect herbivores
* Impact of GM canola on organic
* Hub expo protests peaceful
* Acceptance of GM food
* Compliance costs for biotech crops
* Toppling the organic house of cards
* Encyclopedia to Catalog All Species
* Celebrating 100 Years of ASA
* ISB News Report
More GM seeds get nod for trials
- Business Standard (India), May 10, 2007
With the Supreme Court allowing the Centre to conduct approved field trials of genetically modified (GM) seeds with certain restrictions, India is likely to repeat the cotton saga to other commodities such as mustard seeds, brinjal, rice, maize, corn, cauliflower etc. Field trials of these GM seeds are going on.
On Tuesday, a three-member bench headed by Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan gave permission to conduct trials.
While passing the order, the chief justice said that the government should increase the isolation distance up to 200 metres between the fields with GM crop and other fields. Currently there is no need to maintain such isolation parameter, a farmer, who used GM seed said.
The verdict may help boost production of permitted commodities, majority of which are running into deficit. The GM seeds are meant to increase production by reducing crop losses due to worm attacks amid lower pesticide use.
The production of GM seeds has transformed India's image from being a net importer a few years ago to one of the strongest players in cotton exports. At present, 35 per cent of 27 million bales (170 kg each) of the total cotton production in India is produced using GM seeds. Industry sources estimate the production to go up to 50 per cent in the next 2-3 years.
The verdict would boost R&D in India, with the industry giving farmers newer products that would get them better yields and profits, said Dr K C Ravi, director, Public Affairs, Monsanto India.
Interestingly, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had already given its go ahead subject to certain restrictions in April and May last year.
According to R K Sinha, executive director, All India Crop Biotechnology Association, the court said it never stopped the field trials and hence the ruling would help obtain large scale trials of BT brinjal of Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco).
When quizzed about the environmental impact of the GM seeds over which the NGOs have demanded a ban, Sinha said the government counsel, Prashant Bhushan, was advocating only on environment front but the court felt it was ok to permit the field trials if the industry met certain conditions.
The court made it clear that it was not going into the technicalities of the matter as the system put in place by the government would look into it. The court said a designated scientist should be made responsible for ensuring that all conditions are complied with during the trials. Meanwhile, the court directed the government to establish a protocol for testing for contamination up to 0.01 per cent for neighbouring fields.
More than a dozen of transgenic cotton hybrids are under field trials and would head for commercialisation very soon, an industry player said. Currently, there are 59 hybrids under cultivation.
"As an agricultural company, we are committed to investing in products, which farmers say made a difference. We focus on farmer benefits that increase productivity or reduce cost by increasing yield, improving protection from insects and disease, or increasing tolerance to heat, drought and other stress, Ravi added.
GM potato to reduce blight disease
- Business Standard (India), May 10, 2007
Introduction of genetically modified potato seeds would reduce damages due to occurrence of the blight disease, said a senior scientist at the Shimla-based Central Potato Research Institute (CPRI).
The gene-modified potato seeds would enhance the crop's overall resistance against blight, a commonly found disease in potato, said S K Pandey, director of CPRI.
The institute had estimated 10-15 per cent crop damage due to blight for the last crop season (Oct-Mar).
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court has allowed fresh field trials on genetically modified potatoes, rice, mustard, tomatoes, cauliflower and groundnuts.
A three-member bench, headed by chief justice K G Balakrishnan, also lifted a ban on conducting fresh field trails of new gene-modified cotton varieties.
Till the latest court order, India allowed commercial cultivation of GM cottonseeds and not food crops.
Presently, a collaborative research programme on genetically-modified potato seed is on at CPRI in association with the US-based Cornell University.
Plants tag insect herbivores with an alarm
- American Society of Plant Biologists (press release), May 9, 2007
Rooted in place, plants can't run from herbivores - but they can fight back. Sensing attack, plants frequently generate toxins, emit volatile chemicals to attract the pest's natural enemies, or launch other defensive tactics.
Now, for the first time, researchers reporting in the June 2007 issue of Plant Physiology have identified a specific class of small peptide elicitors, or plant defense signals, that help plants react to insect attack.
In this colorful self-defense strategy, proteins already present in the plant are ingested by insect attackers. Digesting the proteins, the insects unwittingly convert this food into a peptide elicitor, which gets secreted back onto plants during later feedings. Recognizing the secreted elicitor as a kind of "SOS," plants launch defensive chemistry. This defense discovery opens the door for the development and genetic manipulation of plants with improved protection against pests.
Although researchers have long known that some plants distinguish different insect attackers, this defensive behavior has proven difficult to describe at the molecular level. Exceedingly few model systems have been utilized to characterize the potential interactions between what researchers estimate to be at least four million insects and 230,000 flowering plant species. Moreover, highly active plant defense signals can occur at trace levels, too small to easily detect or isolate.
Still, scientists have determined that insect herbivory, mechanical damage, and pathogens such as bacteria and fungi can all set off a variety of peptide warning signals in plants, which respond by increasing phytohormones, particularly ethylene, jasmonic acid, or salicylic acid, that regulate defensive responses. But which peptide signals act as alarms - and how"
To address those questions, Dr. Eric Schmelz at the United States Department of Agriculture's Center for Medical, Agricultural and Veterinary Entomology operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service in Gainesville, Florida, led a research team that spent three years systematically analyzing the biochemical response of cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), a legume, to herbivory and oral secretions of fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), a general crop pest. During the extensive project, the researchers conducted over 10,000 leaf bioassays, testing for plant phytohormone production after exposure to successively fractionated insect oral secretions, among other experiments. Painstakingly collected just a few microliters at a time, the team tested approximately one full liter of caterpillar secretions.
As previously reported, the scientists identified and isolated an 11 amino acid peptide, inceptin, that plays a pivotal warning role in cowpea plants being attacked by the fall armyworm. Inceptin is part of a larger, essential enzyme, chloroplastic ATP synthase, in plants. When the fall armyworm feeds on cowpea, the insect ingests ATP synthase and breaks it down, releasing inceptin, which then becomes part of the armyworm's oral secretions. When the worm next feeds on cowpea, trace amounts of inceptin recontact the wounded leaf and alerts plants to generate a burst of defensive phytohormones.
In the June issue of Plant Physiology, Schmelz and his USDA collaborators, including Sherry LeClere, Mark Carroll, Hans Alborn, and Peter Teal, take the analysis further. They confirm inceptin's role as the dominant (and most stable) peptide in the cowpea's defense to fall armyworm. In addition, the researchers identify two related but less abundant peptide fragments (Vu-GE+In and Vu-E+In) that provoke similar defense responses in cowpea and a third (Vu-In-A) with no apparent effect. They also show that inceptin-related peptides spark a consistent, sequential cascade of phytohormone increases in cowpea, beginning with jasmonic acid, followed by ethylene and, lastly, salicyclic acid. Finally, the researchers determine critical features of inceptin's structure: To work as a plant defense signal, the peptide must contain a penultimate C-terminal aspartic acid, though the structure is considerably more flexible at its N-terminal. Notably, a number of the general characteristics of inceptin are similar to another known plant defensive peptide signal, systemin.
The new work challenges researchers to reconsider plant-insect interactions. "Scientists searching for defense elicitors need to realize those elicitors may not be synthesized by - or even exist within - the insect pest species," Schmelz said. "Instead, the attacker's proteases may interact with the host proteins, generating an elicitor." Building on this work, Schmelz is now recruiting a post-doctoral scientist to help the team biochemically purify and identify the inceptin receptor from legumes.
The research paper cited in this report is available at the following link: http://www.plantphysiol.org/cgi/content/abstract/pp.107.097154v1
Study examines potential impact of GM canola on organic sectors
- Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (press release), May 10, 2007
The commercialisation of GM canola in Australia is likely to have only negligible direct impacts on the organic canola, livestock and honey industries according to a new ABARE report.
The report, Potential impacts from the introduction of GM canola on organic farming in Australia, was released today by Phillip Glyde, Executive Director of ABARE.
The report investigates the potential economic impacts of the commercialisation of GM canola in Australia on domestic organic agriculture, and looks into the treatment of GMOs in organic certification standards in Australia and in Australia's main organic trade partners.
Certified organic agriculture has grown rapidly in recent years, but remains a small market providing food to those who want to avoid potential chemical residues and GM material.
'Australian organic standards tend to be more stringent than those in our export markets. Therefore, Australian certified organic products are likely to continue to be accepted in export markets if GM canola is introduced in Australia. However, the stringent domestic requirements may reduce Australia's price competitiveness,' Mr Glyde said.
'The organic standards require that crops be isolated from non-organic crops and products, including both conventional and GM canola. Planting GM canola in place of conventional canola would therefore have minimal impact on organic canola,' Mr Glyde noted.
'The impact on organic honey is likely to be minimal for the same reason - current standards require that bees do not forage on conventional crops.'
The organic livestock industry was found to use a range of organic feedstuffs, and the lack of organic canola crushing in Australia over the past few years suggests that organic canola meal is not an important component of organic livestock feed rations.
'The introduction of GM canola would therefore appear to have minimal impact on the organic livestock industry,' Mr Glyde explained.
However, Mr Glyde cautioned that the introduction of GM varieties of other crops that are more extensively grown in Australia as certified organic may have a different impact.
In releasing the report, Mr Glyde acknowledged funding under the Australian Government's National Biotechnology Strategy.
ed. note: The full study is available at
Hub expo protests peaceful: Stiffer penalties seen as deterrent
- Jay Fitzgerald, Boston Herald, May 10, 2007
Security experts yesterday breathed a sigh of relief after the 2007 BIO International Convention finished up without any of the huge protest disruptions that have plagued past biotech events in other cities.
Authorities attributed Boston's peaceful and small protests to a combination of factors that include:
The recent prosecutions of militant animal-rights activists in New Jersey and other places, where extremists hounded biotech and pharmaceutical executives for allegedly cruelly treating animals in lab tests. The federal government late last year also passed a new "Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act," with tough penalties that may have deterred some militants from showing up this week.
The waning passion within the anti-genetically modified food movement, partly due to mainstream America embracing healthy eating and changing industry practices via purchasing decisions.
The relatively isolated location of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, which didn't permit potential protesters to get too close to the convention hall.
Jeffrey Joseph, a spokesman for BIO 2007, also said police did a "wonderful job" with pre-convention security plans, which could have deterred potential troublemakers.
Some have suggested the media may also have overhyped possible disruptions. But Dave Kent, who is head of security at Genzyme and who helped with security matters at BIO 2007, said disruptions at recent BIO conventions in Philadelphia and San Francisco were quite real - and fears of similar actions in Boston were grounded.
"You have to prepare for everything," said Kent. "Really, all it takes is the right combination of 15 or 20 (anarchists and other militants) to whip a crowd up."
In 2000, about 3,000 protesters marched peacefully down Boylston Street in Boston during the last BIO convention held in the Hub. But a handful of radicals managed to sneak into the Hynes Auditorium and cause major scuffles, Kent said.
Boston Police Superintendent Robert Dunford said police prepared for the worst and hoped for the best - and he said no arrests were made as of yesterday afternoon.
"It went according to plan," said Dunford, who had no estimates of how much security details cost the city.
Acceptance of GM food an experiment in six countries
- John G Knight, Damien W Mather, David K Holdsworth and David F Ermen, Nature Biotechnology (republished with permission)
To the editor:
Genetically modified (GM) foods have generated intensely negative consumer attitudes in many countries, particularly in Europe1, 2. Several expert reviews indicate that safety concerns regarding GM foods appear largely unfounded3, 4, but expert opinions have been insufficient to greatly change public sentiment1, 5. Even so, antipathy toward the concept of genetic modification will not necessarily translate into consumer resistance to such foods once introduced into the market.
The experiments reported here were undertaken to determine how consumers in a range of countries with highly negative public perceptions of GM technology might react toward GM food products that offer clearly stated consumer benefits if introduced into their markets. Classic economic theory postulates that consumers seek to maximize self-interest in the presence of pecuniary or other advantages6. Ample evidence exists that consumer attitudes, and even stated behavioral intentions, may not translate into purchase behavior7, 8.
We set up real roadside fruit stalls based on a choice modeling experimental design. Experimental choice modeling has been widely used as a method for determining behavior based on subjects making choices from sets of product options put before them9. What makes our study highly novel is that the choices were real in a genuine shopping situation, rather than being made under circumstances where the subjects knew that their choices were being observed. Our intention was to minimize the possibility of social desirability bias10 influencing the results.
We placed on sale conventional fruit labeled as 'organic', 'spray-free genetically modified', or 'conventional', or appropriate translations of same in the prevalent local language at each site, at varying price levels. The price for each fruit category was set at one of three levels: the median market price in that locality, median plus 15% or median minus 15%. A parsimonious main effects balanced fractional factorial design was used to generate nine price and fruit offerings (Table 1). Research assistants fluent in the local language operated the stalls, which were set up on the outskirts of urban areas in New Zealand (Queenstown), Sweden (Ystad, Skċne), Belgium (near Brussels), France (Paris), Germany (Koblenz, Rheinland-Pfalz) and the UK (Berwick-upon-Tweed). We avoided locating adjacent to farms or orchards to minimize the risk of upsetting local producers. If customers asked about the spray status of different fruit types, verbal explanation was provided that the organic fruit could have been sprayed with "Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) organic spray" and that the spray-free GM fruit was from plants incorporating the Bt gene, making spraying unnecessary. (Less than 5% of customers over the six experiments enquired.) In each case, the experimental set of offerings (Table 1) changed after approx50 customers, yielding approx450 observations from each country. In accordance with University of Otago Ethics Approval requirements, customers were informed of the experiment (verbally, or by using a display card if other customers were present) after they had made their selection, but before money changed hands. A main reason for using roadside fruit stalls, rather than street market or other walk-in situations, was to minimize the risk of contamination of customer intentions through overhearing reactions from customers newly aware of the 'candid camera'-like stratagem.
A total of 2,736 consumers visited the fruit-stall experiments in the six different countries. Market-share estimations were derived using multinomial logit models, as shown in Box 1. Further details of the analysis method are provided elsewhere11. The fruit stall findings across the six countries showed the spray-free GM option gained a 21% market share on average (range: 17-27%), when all fruit types were sold at the prevailing market price. Market-share estimates based upon prevailing market prices (Table 2), found a similar pattern across the six countries for the three fruit types. This pattern consisted of the organic produce gaining the largest market share, followed by conventionally grown fruit, with the spray free-GM product gaining the smallest market share.
However, the pricing scenario that we consider most likely would be organic produce sold at a premium, with a discount offered for the spray free-GM option, given its lower cost of inputs. Market-share estimates based on this pricing scenario found market shares changing both by product type and by country location of the fruit stall (Table 3). Organic produce lost market share in all countries, except Belgium, where it still dominated. By comparison, the spray free-GM fruit gained the highest market share in the New Zealand, Swedish and German stalls, and reached 30% or more in the UK and French stalls (Table 3). The gains in market share of the spray-free GM fruit between the first scenario (Table 2) and the second scenario (Table 3) were significant at the 99% confidence level or more in all stalls, except the Belgian stall, as indicated by the asterisks in Table 3.
Comparison of market shares for the three fruit types in a scenario where organic is priced at a 15% premium and the spray-free GM product is discounted 15%, based on the choice modeling estimations
In conclusion, this research revealed that a significant (and in some markets, surprisingly high) percentage of consumers in European countries appear willing to choose GM food provided there is a price advantage coupled with a consumer benefit (in this case, 'spray-free' status). Our findings are in line with the proposition of classical economic theory that consumers will seek to maximize utility6. They are also consistent with data from the latest Eurobarometer report1. Although "strong opposition" to the overall concept of GM foods technology was reported, when Eurobarometer respondents were asked whether they would buy GM food "if it contained less pesticide residues than other food," 18% indicated "yes, definitely" and 33% indicated "yes, probably." When asked whether they would buy GM food "if it were cheaper than other foods," 12% indicated "yes, definitely" and 24% indicated "yes, probably"1. Our revealed preference findings are broadly consistent with these recent Eurobarometer data.
Caution is needed in interpreting these findings on a country-by-country basis; extrapolating uncritically from behavior observed at a single purchasing location to everywhere within that country is not realistic. Furthermore, not all consumers would be in the habit of stopping at roadside stalls to purchase fruit. Nevertheless, in aggregate these findings represent a very substantial sample of consumers spread through six countries in which the GM issue has reached high levels of awareness and controversy. The findings are indicative, and it would not be prudent to base either policy or commercial decisions upon them without further research. The results imply that GM food may prove much more acceptable than has been previously widely stated, provided there is full information availability and clear statements of consumer benefits.
Author contributions J.G.K., D.W.M. and D.K.H. contributed equally to this work. J.G.K. oversaw the research program and obtained funding. D.W.M. designed the experiments and conducted the statistical analyses. J.G.K. and D.K.H. wrote the paper. D.F.E. conducted the experiments in New Zealand and Sweden. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.
1. Gaskell, G. et al. Europeans and Biotechnology in 2005: Patterns and Trends: Eurobarometer 64.3 (European Commission, Brussels, 2006). <http://www.ec.europa.eu/research/press/2006/pdf/pr1906_eb_64_3_final_report-may2006_en.pdf>
2. Laros, F. & Steenkamp, J.-B.E.M. Psychology Marketing 21, 889-908 (2004).
3. King, D. GM Science Review: First Report (The GM Science Review Panel, London, UK, 2003).
4. Konig, A., Kleter, G., Hammes, W., Knudsen, I. & Kuiper, H. ENTRANSFOOD. Genetically Modified Crops in the EU: Food Safety Assessment, Regulation, and Public Concerns (EC Directorate General for Research, Brussels, Belgium, 2004).
5. Pardo, R. & Calvo, F. Nat. Biotechnol. 24, 393-395 (2006).
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8. Chandon, P., Morwitz, V. & Reinartz, W. J. Marketing 69, 1-14 (2005).
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11. Mather, D. W., Knight, J.G. & Holdsworth, D.K. J. Product Brand Manag. 14, 387-392 (2005).
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Compliance costs for regulatory approval of new biotech crops
- Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, Julian M Alston and Kent J Bradford, Nature Biotechnology (republished with permission),
To the editor:
The regulatory approval process for new biotech crop varieties is said to be slow and expensive, presenting important barriers to the development and commercialization of new cropping technologies. For some crops these barriers may be prohibitive, resulting in technological orphans. Alternative approaches to regulating new crop biotechnologies could be less expensive, but to date the private and social costs of the current regulatory system have not been analyzed or measured, let alone compared with alternatives. In fact, estimates of the compliance costs for the full regulatory approval of a biotech crop do not exist, as such information has been closely guarded by biotech developers.
Here, we make two contributions to knowledge concerning the private costs of complying with the current regulatory approval system for agrifood biotechnologies1. First, we characterize the structure of such compliance costs and identify key dimensions of their variability. Second, we provide estimates of representative compliance costs for selected maize biotechnologies. Our estimates are based on reviews and analyses of dossiers submitted to regulatory agencies, and firm-level data on associated expenses. Bayer Cropscience (Monheim am Rhein, Germany), DuPont (Wilmington, DE, USA), Monsanto (St. Louis) and Syngenta (Basel) provided confidential information on compliance costs. These four firms and their subsidiaries (that is, Aventis Cropscience (Research Triangle Park, NC, USA), Agrevo (Berlin), Plant Genetic Systems (Ghent, Belgium), Asgrow (Des Moines, IA, USA), Calgene (Davis, CA, USA), DeKalb Genetics (DeKalb, IL, USA), Seminis (Oxnard, CA, USA), Zeneca (Jealott's Hill, UK) and Northup King (Gilroy, CA, USA)), own or co-own almost 80% of all biotech traits that have received regulatory approval across the globe.
Structure of compliance costs
All biotech crops are submitted to a battery of tests and regulatory scrutiny before commercialization. The associated processes of experimentation, submission and regulatory review undertaken by biotech firms translate into compliance costs. Significant variance in compliance costs is expected as they will tend to vary from one regulatory submission (dossier) to another with differences in the number and type of field trials, analytical tests, bioinformatic analyses, animal studies and other comparative safety assessments, which are, principally, determined by:
* Which crop has been modified (e.g., maize, soybeans, tomato)?
* What novel trait has been introduced (e.g., insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, change in composition)?
* How many (and which) countries are petitioned for regulatory approvals?
* What kind of regulatory approvals are being pursued (e.g., production, importation)?
Despite their significant variance, we sought to define general categories of compliance costs that are characteristic of all regulatory submissions. To identify these general categories of compliance costs, we first interviewed lead scientists and regulatory affairs practitioners on the basics of regulatory submissions. We also obtained and analyzed representative dossiers for various novel maize traits submitted over the past ten years. Using these representative dossiers and relevant cost data provided by biotech developers, we next added structure to the compliance costs by identifying aggregate categories that were characteristic across all types of dossier submissions. Last, we evaluated the degree of overlap among multiple submissions for the same technology across various national regulatory systems and the incremental compliance costs associated with each additional international market where regulatory approval was sought.
Following these steps, we organized private compliance costs, both variable and fixed, into the categories listed in Table 1 and Table 2, which adequately characterized all reviewed dossiers.
To provide representative figures for each of these categories, we standardized private compliance costs along certain key dimensions (trait, crop and countries petitioned). Specifically, we evaluated, and report here, compliance costs incurred by the cooperating biotech developers seeking regulatory approval of herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant maize in ten key producing and importing countries (Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, the European Union (EU), Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and the United States). Compliance costs for successfully guiding a single maize event through the regulatory process are reported in the form of ranges in Table 1 and Table 2. The costs of withdrawn events are not included in the figures. To preserve the confidentiality of firm-level data used, we do not report the means of the total compliance costs or of the individual cost categories. When possible, compliance costs unique to a country because of its specific regulatory requirements are separately reported (e.g., EU requirements for development of detection methods).
It should be noted that the compliance costs reported here are representative. The cooperating biotech developers, for instance, own or co-own all 24 maize events that have been approved in the United States. Given the data we use, however, the compliance costs we report are representative of recent approvals (e.g., MON 863, NK 603 or TC 1507) and not as much of older ones (e.g., MON 810, BT 11, 176 or T25). Even so, these more-recently approved events represent a large share of all commercialized maize biotech traits today. For instance, of the 78,750,000 maize acres grown in the United States in 2006, 52,350,000 were planted with biotech hybrids. Of those, 37,864,000 (72%) were planted with single or stacked events whose regulatory compliance costs are considered in this study.
The magnitude of compliance costs
Several observations can be readily made from the compliance costs reported in Table 1 and Table 2. First, there is a wide variance in the total compliance costs incurred by biotech developers. Indeed, the reported variance is much higher than expected considering that key sources of variation in compliance costs (e.g., the type of modified crop, the specific countries where regulatory approval is pursued and the types of traits introduced) have been minimized. The variance is even larger within the individual compliance cost categories. To be sure, some firm-level differences in the individual cost categories and total compliance costs are the result of differential accounting and budgeting practices among firms.
More importantly, however, these differences are also attributable to the variable strategies followed by biotech developers as they pursue regulatory approval of their innovations. These strategies are shaped by the (apparently distinct and often evolving) developers' expectations of the appropriate number and types of field trials, analytical tests and assessment studies that are likely to satisfy the various national regulators. For instance, some firms regularly submit toxicology (90-day rat) studies whereas others consider them irrelevant and do not include them in their dossiers. Similarly, compliance costs can vary drastically depending on the number of events advanced by the developers through various regulatory stages as a strategy to manage uncertainty.
Second, among all variable compliance cost categories, four dominate: first, production of tissues; second, compositional assessment; third, protein production and characterization; and fourth, molecular characterization. Indeed, these four cost categories represent approx60% of all variable costs.
Third, overhead costs for facilities and management are also very significant as they represent between 10% and 20% of the total compliance costs for various firms. Clearly, such costs are most challenging to measure as facilities and regulatory management are shared across multiple traits and events for various crops, all being advanced in parallel at their individual development speeds. Overhead costs also include regulatory outreach and other relevant activities.
Although accounting and budgeting nuances make measurement of overhead costs difficult, their accurate assessment is essential for the identification of potential scale and scope economies. Our preliminary assessment indicates that there are no discernible fixed cost advantages and thus we could not detect economies of scale and scope. This may be the result of the regulatory slow-down that has occurred in recent years, suggesting that, at least temporarily, a larger than necessary management and facility capacity is being maintained by larger biotech firms. It may also be the result of the limited variance in the firm size studied here or other data limitations.
Fourth, the gap in the compliance costs between insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant maize is lower than expected. Indeed, it appears that over time, firm strategies on how to develop regulatory dossiers for those two types of traits have converged and so have the relevant compliance costs incurred.
Finally, the compliance costs incurred by biotech developers and reported here appear to be quite high, considering that they represent only part of the regulatory burden of novel biotech crops. Specifically, only direct compliance costs are reported here, counted as such by most biotech developers only after a formal assessment process with strict standards known as 'good laboratory practices' has commenced. Informal preregulatory safety assessments of various discovered proteins and events are regularly carried out but are normally budgeted as R&D costs. Similarly, indirect private compliance costs from unnecessary and unexpected regulatory delays are not presented here. These costs include increased expenditures (e.g., for seed inventories that are carried over), foregone profits from delays in commercialization, costs for channeling and segregating biotech crops away from certain markets in cases of partial approvals, and others. Such indirect regulatory costs are likely significant but more difficult to estimate than direct ones.
Economists have estimated the social benefits from biotech crop varieties to be in the billions of dollars, with the benefits shared among consumers, agricultural producers and the biotech innovators that have developed the new crop varieties1, 2. In spite of this apparent success, however, many observers have been disappointed at the rate of development and commercialization of new biotech crops3. Indeed, the accumulating evidence suggests that agbiotech innovation and product development have recently slowed down, and high compliance costs for regulatory approval have been cited as a key culprit3, 4, 5, 6. Assessments of whether compliance costs are 'high' or 'low' are arbitrary and subjective unless they are made against an appropriate benchmark. The figures reported here are, no doubt, large in an absolute sense, especially because they represent costs incurred by biotech developers upfront and on top of R&D expenses, whereas commercial success is an uncertain outcome. Clearly, further research is needed to assess how such costs vary from one crop to another and whether they are large enough to discourage development of biotech traits in certain crops with limited market size, leading to unrealized potential productivity gains and technological orphans.
Further research is needed to assess how compliance costs vary from one crop to another and whether they are large enough to discourage development of biotech traits in certain crops with limited market size
An additional important question that needs to be addressed is whether compliance costs have increased over time. To answer this question, one must evaluate changes in the compliance costs over time. Such assessments are extremely difficult considering the relatively small number of regulatory approvals that have been spread over a relatively long period of time. Nevertheless, some incomplete data and our cursory comparisons of dossiers that have been submitted over time indicated certain differences. Most obvious are expansions of the molecular characterization of the genetic modification studies and of the stewardship plans with parallel increases in the compliance costs. Other supportive safety assessments also appear to have become more complex and voluminous, but we do not have sufficient data to accurately measure any relevant cost changes, if any have occurred. Clearly, these last issues are important in their own right and deserve additional detailed research.
1. Falk-Zepeda, J.B., Traxler, G. & Nelson, R.G. Am. J. Agric. Econ. 82, 360-369 (2000).
2. Huang, J., Rozelle, S., Pray, C. & Wang, Q. Science 295, 674-677 (2002). (Accessed January 12, 2007).
4. Bradford, K.J., Van Deynze, A., Gutterson, N., Parrott, W. & Strauss, S.H. Nat. Biotechnol. 23, 439-444 (2005).
5. McElroy, D. Nat. Biotechnol. 21, 996-1002 (2003).
6. Miller, H.I. & Conko, G. Issues Sci. Technol. 21, 76-80 (2005).
Acknowledgments This research was supported by the Illinois-Missouri Biotechnology Alliance from a USDA special grant.
Toppling the organic house of cards
- Alan McHughen*, Nature Biotechnology (republished with permission), May 5, 2007
The Truth About Organic Foods
by Alex Avery
Henderson Communications, 2006
230 pp, paperback, $19.95
Alex Avery's controversial The Truth About Organic Foods begins by reminding us that the roots of organic agriculture are deeply embedded in occult and Romantic mysticism. Rudolf Steiner ("When I eat roots, their minerals go up into my head. When I eat salad greens, their forces go to my chest, lungs and heart - not their fats, but the forces from their fats.") and J.I. Rodale ("Old farmers who remember how their grandfathers grew crops...will tell you of the fine crops and very little plant and animal disease and insect depredation.") are the best-known organic pioneers of the 20th century, but modern consumers have driven the doubledigit growth of the industry in recent years with more pragmatic concerns about chemical pesticides on the conventional farm and preservatives in processed food. Today's organic industry attracts its chemophobic clientele with bucolic images of fresh, nutritious foods devoid of chemicals, grown on small farms in an environmentally sustainable manner by local organic farmers. We are whisked back to a gentler time when life was good and foods were entirely natural, with no chemicals, no pesticides, no GMOs, no massive corporate farms and no multinational retailers. After this quick history of the organic philosophy, Avery proceeds to attack the popular beliefs behind its commercial success. Consumers buy organic foods because they believe them to be healthier, tastier, lacking in pesticides, and better for the environment and for local family farms. All of these may be valid and honorable reasons for choosing a particular food and lifestyle, but according to Avery, they do not apply to the current organic industry.
Avery challenges the common claims in chapter after chapter. Is organic food more nutritious? Is organic healthier? Is organic safer? Does organic means pesticide free? Are approved organic pesticides benign? Does organic food taste better? Does buying organic support local family farmers? Is organic farming better for the environment? Avery documents (and cites comprehensively) the independent scientific studies addressing these questions and concludes there is no scientifically credible evidence to support organic foods or farms being categorically superior to conventional in any respect. Organic does not mean 'no pesticides', because organic farming does allow certain 'natural' pesticides. And 'natural' does not mean 'healthy' or even 'benign', as those natural organic pesticides can be very hazardous, even more so than the proscribed synthetic chemicals. Even if one discounts Avery due to his personal bias, it is hard not to accept the apparent consensus of the scientific studies showing, for example, no categorical or meaningful nutritional differences between organic and regular foods.
According to Avery, those few reports claiming an advantage for organic have almost invariably been paid for or conducted by those with a vested financial interest in selling organic products. Consequently, few such studies are published in peer-reviewed journals. He then critiques these organic-friendly reports, exposing the logical or technical problems explaining why the flawed studies remain unpublished. Avery is not alone in disparaging the organic industry. When Sir John Krebs, then head of the UK Food Safety Authority, announced that no scientific evidence supported the claims of organic superiority, he was met with dismissive rhetoric from the organic industry followed by ad hominem attacks on his ethical integrity. And earlier this year, when UK Environment Secretary David Miliband, UK government chief science advisor Sir David King and UK National Farmers Union president Peter Kendall all endorsed a study1 concluding there was no scientific evidence to justify organic assertions, they faced the same tactic - lots of angry rhetoric, but lacking credible scientific counter-evidence.
Organic's 'green' image had already begun to tarnish in 2003, when UK government inspectors found excessive levels of toxic mycotoxins in organic corn, prompting a recall2. Organic food safety is under increasing scrutiny in the US, with reports of organically grown produce being implicated in Escherichia coli 0157:H7 outbreaks in 2006. In the wake of these revelations, the top US fresh salad processor now refuses to buy lettuce and spinach from farmers who use composted manure as fertilizer3, a decision specifically targeting organic farmers, because the few conventional farmers using manure can switch to synthetic fertilizer. And further undermining the green image, Wal-Mart and other large retailers announced last year that they would offer organic foods, a move antithetical to the anti-corporate, anti-capitalist tenets of organic philosophy. After years of growth largely unchallenged in the public markets, consumers are increasingly asking for the scientific evidence to justify why they are shelling out more money for an organic label. Popular press coverage is moving away from the free ride the organic industry has enjoyed for years, and asking the same tough questions4-6.
The book's final chapter is devoted to biotech. Avery focuses on a curious paradox: some biotech crops are demonstrably beneficial for the environment, including those offering improved disease or pest resistance with reduced chemical inputs, or better weed control without resorting to tillage, a major cause of soil erosion and practiced most intensively by organic farmers. Biotech farmers have documented benefits to sustainable production, and many organic farmers want to obtain them also. Clearly, appropriate applications of biotech help fulfill the organic dream of environmentally sustainable agricultural systems, and biotech would welcome organic farmers. But instead of embracing and encouraging biotech, organic leaders have expressed their unrequited enmity for biotech by forbidding organic farmers from growing biotech crops and calling for a ban on the new technology altogether.
They have even imposed zero tolerance for 'contamination', allowing not a single biotech pollen grain in organic crops. This intolerance is especially illogical considering other forbidden 'contaminants', including synthetic pesticides, are permitted under a reasonable 5% threshold. Perhaps organic leaders thought proscribing biotech would dissuade farmers from adopting the new technology, but with worldwide biotech crops now well established, mainly because of the environmental, health and financial benefits to farmers and consumers, organic farmers were painted into a nonsustainable corner by the intemperate decisions of their own leaders.
So why did the leaders choose this impracticable zero standard for biotech when even known toxins like arsenic are permitted at low levels? The usual reply is the organic philosophical opposition to human intervention in nature's realm, an intervention upon which biotech is founded. But this explanation is unsatisfactory; the organic philosophy has no such aversion to other unnatural human interventions in breeding, such as the use of irradiation or chemical mutagenesis to create crops grown by organic and other farmers. Avery offers a more sanguine explanation: the adamant opposition to biotech is because of competition. "Biotechnology," he says, "offers a more cost-effective way to achieve lower pesticide use and more eco-friendly farming systems... biotechnology represents a direct threat to organic agriculture's current monopoly on eco-conscious consumers."
Whether the real motive is philosophical or mercantile, if the organic industry wishes to legitimately claim environmental sustainability, they must rethink their categorical opposition to biotech. To start, the spurious 'contamination' problem would disappear if organic leaders set the tolerance at the standard 5%, thus allowing reasonable coexistence. But as various biotech crops have proven benefits to environmental and health safety, and any similar benefits from current organic practices remain marginal or undocumented, the clear path to a sustainable future lies in biotech. Avery finishes with an invitation to coexistence, but the lesson I take away is clear. If organic leaders continue to prohibit biotech, farmers practicing agricultural and environmental sustainability - using appropriate biotech crops - will bury them.
Not all readers will appreciate Avery's pull-no-punches style. The unwavering attack can be grating - even to those not particularly sympathetic to the organic cause - and certainly not easy or enjoyable reading for those inclined to believe organic is indeed a better way. But no one can deny the legitimacy of the scientific evidence presented to challenge the organic assumptions and assertions. One comes away with the uncomfortable feeling that maybe the whole organic movement is the biggest consumer scam ever perpetrated on the population. Nevertheless, the book is required reading for anyone who wants to know what scientific studies say about organic farming and food production, even if the scientific truth hurts. Organic foods are not grown in any worldly Garden of Eden. Instead, according to Avery, the organic industry constructed a flimsy house of cards with a façade attractive to many consumers, but with little or no foundation in real world truth.
1. Foster, C. et al. Environmental impacts of food production and consumption. A report to the Department for Environment, Food and Agriculture (DEFRA). Manchester Business School (2006). <http://www.defra.gov.uk/science/project_data/DocumentLibrary/ EV02007/EV02007_4601_FRP.pdf>.
2. Food Standards Agency. More contaminated maize meal withdrawn from sale. (2003). <http://www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/2003/sep/moremaize>.
3. Adelman, J. Farm practices target of food safety concerns. The Associated Press (March 20, 2007).
4. Anonymous. Dirty birds: even 'premium' chickens harbor dangerous bacteria. Consumer Reports 72, 20 (January 2007).
5. Cloud, J. Eating better than organic. Time (March 2, 2007).
6. Downey, M. Does organic mean healthier? And is it worth the money? Reader's Digest (Canada) 59-63 (March 2007).
*Alan McHughen is in the Department of Botany & Plant Sciences at the University of California, Riverside, California 92521-0124, USA.
"Encyclopedia of Life" to Catalog All Species on Earth
- John Roach, National Geographic News, May 9, 2007
Scientists announced plans today to put descriptions, pictures, video, and sounds of the world's estimated 1.8 million named species on the Internet for free.
The effort, called the Encyclopedia of Life, will standardize the presentation of "information about the plants and animals and microorganisms that share this planet with us," said James Edwards, the project's executive director.
The information will be accessible to scientists, policymakers, educators, and the general public, who have all clamored for the encyclopedia for years, Edwards said.
Peter Raven is president of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, which is participating in the project. He said information about species today is widely scattered in scientific literature, museum collections, and databases.
"No one can really get it together in an edited form and know what's going on, and without that, there's no hope of using it for all the purposes where it could be applied," he said.
(Raven chairs the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
Scientists hope to use the Web-based encyclopedia to spur conservation efforts and expedite the cataloging of recently discovered species.
The nonprofit project is expected to take about ten years and is being supported with 12.5 million U.S. dollars in grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
The encyclopedia will be assembled using aggregation, or "mash-up," technology, which draws on information from different sources and integrates it into a single experience, Edwards said.
For the project, agents will collect all the information about a particular species from the Web and assemble it into a draft species page.
Scientists will then review, edit, and authenticate the information. A species expert will sign each page.
"We think providing a place where you get a known quantity - where you know that what you're looking for or [what] you're getting relates to organisms and is also authoritative information - will be a big boon for tons of people," Edwards said.
For example, the encyclopedia will provide information on species names, conservation status, and where the organisms currently reside.
Project participants are particularly excited about the potential for the encyclopedia to aid the conservation of known species.
Raven said the collected, organized species information can "point the way to solid information about what they are and where they are and, by doing that, help indicate the most effective steps that can be taken to deal with them in any way or conserve them."
Since the encyclopedia will be Web-based, Edwards added, the species information will be able to be updated regularly, which will allow people to see how species respond to changes over time, like whether populations are expanding or decreasing.
The encyclopedia will also help focus efforts to discover and catalog the estimated ten million species - not counting bacteria - that await scientific recognition.
Verifying that a species is indeed unknown and distinct from its relatives is the most arduous task of describing a new species, Edwards noted, especially for people in developing countries who lack access to libraries.
"Digitizing this information, making it freely available on the Web, will really enable these scientists in developing countries to be able to make descriptions of new species," he said.
"And we know it's the developing world - it's in the tropical parts of the world - that most of the still-to-be-discovered species probably reside."
In Celebration of 100 Years of ASA
Beachell and Borlaug, Two Giants of the American Society of Agronomy's First Century
- Murray H. Milford and Edward C. A. Runge, Agronomy Journal (Agron J 99:595-598 (2007) DOI: 10.2134/agronj2007.0004), web posted April 4, 2007
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the American Society of Agronomy, it is appropriate that recognition be given to two men: Henry M. Beachell, internationally recognized and most long-lived 73-yr member, until his death in December 2006; and to Norman E. Borlaug, who without doubt, is the most widely acclaimed of the Society's members. Both men had scientific accomplishments that were crucial to the Green Revolutions associated with the production of rice (Oryza sativa L.) (Beachell) and wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) (Borlaug). Their professional careers have much in common and their interactions with each other had significant impact on the careers of both. The purposes of this paper are to gain insight into their thinking and to highlight the accomplishments that make them the most well-known agronomists of the Society's first 100 yr.
Henry M. "Hank" Beachell and Norman E. "Norm" Borlaug, raised on Midwestern USA farms, educated at land-grant universities, and long-time members of the American Society of Agronomy have received accolades internationally for their contributions to increased food production across the world. Borlaug, widely recognized as "Father of the Green Revolution" for his role in increasing wheat production in Mexico, India, Pakistan, and other countries, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. He has received many other forms of recognition, including the first International Service Award in Agronomy by the American Society of Agronomy in 1968, many (50+) honorary doctorates from universities around the world, the President's Medal of Freedom in 1977, the President's National Medal of Science in 2004, and most recently the Congressional Gold Medal in 2006.
Some years after he received the Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug (Hesser, 2006) petitioned the Nobel Foundation to establish a prize in the area of agriculture and food. Upon finding that such was not authorized by the bequest that established the Nobel Foundation, he initiated an effort, ultimately successful with the aid of Robert Havener and the generosity of the General Foods Corporation with the help of A.S. Clausi, Senior Vice President, to establish an annual World Food Prize having a monetary award comparable with that of a Nobel Prize at that time (1987). The first award, in 1987, went to M.S. Swaminathan, who had collaborated with Borlaug from the onset of his efforts in India. In 1990, support for the World Food Prize was discontinued by Philip Morris, which had purchased the General Foods Corporation, but Borlaug, with assistance from Robert Havener and A.S. Clausi, former Vice President of General Foods Corporation, persuaded John Raun, a self-made multimillionaire in the trucking industry, and, like Borlaug, native of a small town in Iowa, to sponsor the World Food Prize. The Raun Family subsequently endowed the World Food Prize Foundation, which ensures the future of the Prize. Hank Beachell, father of The International Rice Research Institute's (IRRI) short-stature, stiff-straw, high-yielding IR-8 rice, played a key role in the Green Revolution in rice production for which he received many awards, including honorary doctorate degrees, the Japan Prize in 1987, and the World Food Prize in 1996.
Beachell and Borlaug have been very generous with their own personal resources as well as funds received from their many awards by establishing scholarships and grants for students in the professional organizations and institutions with which they have been associated.
We had the privilege of visiting with Norm and Hank in Hank's home in Pearland, TX, on Monday, 19 Dec. 2005. We had known both of them for more than 25 yr and thought they merited special attention during the centennial year of the ASA. We wanted to learn more about their interactions with each other and careers that we could share with others in a short article. With their permission, 2 h of our conversation were captured on tape. Most of the direct quotes attributed to each of them come from these tapes.
Hank Beachell, raised in Nebraska, "had no money" when he finished high school in 1924. He was encouraged by Professor Homer Gooding, of the University of Nebraska, whom he had met as a 4-H leader, to attend the University of Nebraska. Hank's father arranged for him to stay with an aunt in Lincoln, telling her that "he will only be here a couple of weeks" before returning to the farm. "I guess I was kinda stubborn," remembered Hank. Later he did drop out of school for a year to work, spending one summer as a member of a four-person team, saying that "we rode around all summer in a model T Ford pickup looking for corn borers in Illinois and we didn't find a single borer." He returned to school, now interested in becoming a wheat breeder, and received a B.S. degree in agronomy "at mid-term of 1930, immediately going to Kansas where I received $100 per month and stayed 13 mo before going to Beaumont as a USDA rice breeder in 1931." When asked about taking a job as a rice breeder rather than wheat, he said, with a chuckle, "That's better than starving to death." He took leave later to finish the M.S. degree in plant breeding at Kansas State University. He said that John Parker, his major professor, "taught me what a plant breeder should be." Of his early years in Beaumont, Beachell said, "I had excellent relationships with farmers. They are the only excuse for being a plant breeder. I was dumb enough to tell farmers what I could do, but all we have is this little weed patch." Subsequently, with the aid of farmers, the Texas Rice Improvement Association, which derived funds for research from the marketing of seed rice, was formed and 600 acres of land was obtained on Texas Agricultural Experiment Station property. Hank Beachell spent 32 yr in Beaumont and released nine varieties of rice(Agricultural Research and Extension Center, 2006). The last (cv. Belle Patna) was eventually grown on more than half the cropland devoted to rice in the USA. In 1963, he went to the newly formed IRRI in the Philippines where he participated in the development and release of IR-8. It lacked somewhat in grain quality; however, it had a much greater yield potential than the varieties in use at the time and led to dramatic increases in rice production. Borlaug's recollection of Beachell's response to those who were critical of IR-8 was, "Yeah, but it's better than all the rest. We'll use it until we correct some of the things - you can't eat potential." Subsequently, the quality concerns were corrected by release of newer varieties. Beachell and Borlaug, believing that there are no perfect varieties, released improved varieties without waiting for an even better one or the elusive perfect one. Both men knew that variety releases without changes in economic policies and improved cultural practices (e.g., fertility and weed control) would not correct the food deficits in developing countries. In 1972, Beachell moved to Indonesia to continue rice development research until 1982 when he returned to Texas to work on hybrid rice development for RiceTec, Inc., in Alvin, TX, where he continued to consult into his 100th year.
Norm Borlaug, raised in Iowa, was educated at the University of Minnesota, where he received a B.S. degree in forestry and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in plant pathology. As an undergraduate he was an intercollegiate wrestler and worked in a student dining hall where he met his wife, Margaret. After spending more than 2 yr as a microbiologist with the DuPont de Nemours Foundation, Borlaug was released by the War Manpower Department to go to Mexico. He then accepted the job of organizing and directing the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1944. Borlaug "was hired as a plant pathologist in the corn and wheat programs." He said, "I came through the back door into agronomy by way of forestry and plant pathology. I never really got interested in plant breeding until I went to Mexico in 1944." "My work to combat hunger started in Mexico with the Rockefeller Foundation. Inspired by Henry Wallace, it was the first ever attempt to help food deficit nations by a foreign organization." On Borlaug's arrival he found a small professional staff and soon faced turnovers; for example, three changes in the agronomist position in 8 yr. "That first year I worked on three crops and that is when we made the first crosses on wheat." He was aware of the wide crosses being made by Edgar S. MacFaddin at Texas A&M University, for which he was criticized as being unorthodox by some. Borlaug indicated that there was no professional organization for agronomy or soils in Latin America in 1944. Subsequently, scientists from several of the countries met every 2 yr. Discussions in this group of stem rust, which caused major losses in the USA and Canada in the early 1950s, led to adaptation studies along with those associated with rust. Mexico had become self sufficient in production of wheat in 1956, only 12 yr after Borlaug began his work there. Borlaug and co-workers began to look for ways to harvest two crops annually while avoiding frost damage early and high temperatures at the end of the season. He learned of a little-used experimental location in Sonora which he believed he could use between the seasons near Mexico City. Later, on a visit to Mexico, H.K. Hayes, who had been Borlaug's professor in a basic plant breeding course in Minnesota, asked Norm where the seed were grown that were being planted. Borlaug told him, "In Sonora, at 28 degrees latitude, 100 m elevation under irrigated conditions and here we are at 18.5 degrees latitude, 2200 m elevation, under rain-fed conditions." His now well-recognized shuttle-breeding program produced two crops per year, accelerated variety development, and led to daylength-insensitive wheat varieties that were widely adapted to other wheat growing areas. Borlaug remembers that Hayes responded, "You don't understand the first thing that I tried to teach you in that first plant breeding class." At this point, Beachell told of planting single rows of 20 different lines of rice at intervals throughout the growing season and observing the time to maturity for each. Beachell observed sharp differences in time to maturity in a Japonica line, which led to development of shorter-season varieties that made possible more harvests per year and also a ratoon crop in places like Texas. He also developed daylength-insensitive rice varieties that matured in shorter periods of time regardless of the time of the year.
With the success being demonstrated with wheat in Mexico and rice in Texas, interest developed within the Rockefeller Foundation to address food production problems on a much wider international scale. The year 1963 was of monumental significance to the future production of wheat and rice, especially in Southeast Asia. The IRRI, established in 1960 in the Philippines, hired Hank Beachell and The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT- El Centro International de Mejoraminto de Maiz y Trigo) was formed in Mexico. Hank went from Texas to IRRI and Norm took wheat seed from varieties he and colleagues had developed in Mexico to Pakistan and later to India. By 1970, when Dr. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize, these two scientists and their colleagues had revolutionized the production of two of the world's most important food crops, rice and wheat.
Beachell and Borlaug, though both knew of the other's work, first met in Beaumont, TX, in 1957. Both attribute much of their success to the discovery of the dwarf gene for wheat and rice. The dwarf gene for wheat was brought to Washington State from Japan by Orville Vogel, another agronomist with noteworthy accomplishments, and that for rice came from Taiwan to IRRI. Both Beachell and Borlaug quickly visualized the potential of semidwarfs because these varieties would be less susceptible to lodging when grown under increased soil fertility conditions. Also, there was a good possibility that a greater percentage of photosynthetic product would go into grain.
Giving credit to John Parker, his major professor at Kansas State University, Beachell said that his first three priorities in a breeding program were the farmer, the customer, and the commercial interests. Borlaug said that these were the things that most impressed him when he visited Beachell. He noted that Hank had established a grain quality testing laboratory and a Rice Seed Improvement Foundation with membership of farmers and commercial interests had been formed to grow foundation seed and to finance research. Also, Borlaug observed that Beachell had very close working relationships with farmers and the service industry.
Both men were hands-on researchers who did most of the work in the field themselves, making thousands of crosses per year while teaching others to participate in all aspects of the research effort. Both were driven to reduce the number of hungry people in the world, and to do it quickly. Borlaug is famous for sayings such as, "You cannot build peace in the world on hungry bellies" and "The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind." Beachell and Borlaug (Fig. 1) visualized that success, in terms of avoiding potential starvation for millions of people, depended on the rapid development of high-yielding, good-quality, disease-resistant varieties that would respond to improved cultural practices, particularly increased fertility without the plants lodging. Both believed that, by making thousands of broad crosses and aggressively discarding early segregating generations, a few of the resulting plants would have many of the desired characteristics. They released varieties without hesitation when they had something that clearly outperformed anything else available even though they knew that further improvements were possible.
Both men got their varieties into the hands of producers, large and small, by way of hundreds of test and demonstration plots, taking care to see that their recommended cultural practices were followed. As Borlaug said, "When the grass roots catch on fire, those in government feel the heat."
These men, with the varieties they developed in collaboration with their many collaborators and trainees, had major impact in the dramatic increases in rice and wheat production that occurred in the second half of the 20th Century. Mexico, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other countries which were deficient producers of grain for their people in 1950s were self-sufficient grain producers or nearly so by 1970 despite large increases in population. (China joined these countries a bit later.) Land spared for nature resulted from these dramatic increases in rice and wheat yields.
When we met with Beachell and Borlaug in December 2005, Beachell opined that the next great challenge, while maintaining other desirable traits, is to develop varieties that require less water while being just as productive. The somewhat younger Borlaug, only in his early nineties, is still traveling the world, taking his knowledge of plant materials, proven cultural practices, and ways of gaining the support of those in decision-making positions to bring about change to countries not self sufficient in grain production. Borlaug is fond of saying "The fear of change is an obstacle to progress." His dream is to see the successful transfer of rust resistance in rice to wheat. Since 1986, Dr. Borlaug has provided technical leadership for the Sasakawa-Global 2000 Project, a cooperative venture between the Sasakawa Africa Association and the Carter Center to bring to the African continent the kinds of change effected in Southeast Asia earlier in his career.
As if he has not been busy enough otherwise, Borlaug joined the faculty of Texas A&M University as a distinguished professor of international agriculture in the Soil and Crop Sciences Department in 1984, where he has been in residence each fall semester. For the first decade at TAMU, he taught a graduate course. Since then he has offered himself as a guest lecturer on several topics of his choosing; thus, he has reached many more students, both undergraduate and graduate, with his amazing success stories, keen intellect, boundless enthusiasm, and presentation of challenges for future generations.
Beachell died on 13 Dec. 2006, nearly 3 mo after his 100th birthday, a goal that he was determined to reach. He was, as Borlaug is, a humble gentleman, with great energy, determination and vision. Both men exhibited a real zeal for helping the people of the world to feed themselves. Both developed approaches to breeding that went against the conventional approaches, but showed promise of getting improved materials to farmers sooner, thus averting famine in much of the world. They were successful, almost beyond belief. They are certainly two of the giants who have been served by membership in the American Society of Agronomy in its first 100 yr.
Agricultural Research and Extension Center. 2006. A tribute to Henry M. "Hank" Beachell. Texas VI(7):1. Available at http://beaumont.tamu.edu/eLibrary/Newsletter/2006_Sept_Newsletter.pdf [verified 20 Feb. 2007]. Texas A&M Univ., Beaumont.
Hesser, L. 2006. The man who fed the world. 1st ed. Durban House Publ., Dallas.
Bickel, L. 1974. Facing starvation - Norman Borlaug and the fight against hunger. Reader's Digest Press, New York.
Dil, A. (ed.). 1997. Norman Borlaug on world hunger. Ferozens, Lahore, Pakistan.
Dil, A. 2001. Rice to feed the world: Life and work of H.M. Beachell. Intercultural Forum, San Diego, CA.
The Rockefeller Foundation Archives Center. Documents, photos, and letters pertinent to the work of H.M. Beachell and N.E. Borlaug. Available at http://archive.rockefeller.edu [verified 20 Feb. 2007]. The Rockefeller Foundation, Sleepy Hollow, NY
ISB News Report
Information Systems for Biotechnology - May 2007
In this issue:
* Biosafety of Transgenic Sorghum - A Comment on Visarada and Kishore (2007)
* Environmental Safety of Transgenic Squash: A Geostatistical Analysis
* Nitrogen Use Efficient Canola Showing Early Success
* Let Them Eat Precaution: How Politics is Undermining the Genetic Revolution in Agriculture by Jon Entine
*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net