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May 18, 2007


49 new GM cotton strains cleared; Ruling restarts seed supply; Science of floral scents and colors; Students favour biotech


Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, May 18, 2007

* 49 new GM cotton strains cleared
* Ruling on GMOs restarts seed supply
* Bayer's GM corn has one more hurdle
* Science of floral scents and colors
* Students favour biotech
* Bulgaria Biotechnology Update
* Blueprint for Wiping Out Disease-bearing Mosquitoes


Fallout of SC ruling: 49 new GM cotton strains cleared

- Harish Damodaran, Business Daily (India), May 17, 2007


New Delhi - Forty-nine. That's the total number of transgenic cotton hybrids cleared for commercial cultivation in a single day by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC).

This follows the Supreme Court's May 8 ruling, relaxing its ban on fresh approvals for commercial release of any genetically modified (GM) crop.

Taking a cue from the order, the GEAC in its meeting on May 11 - the minutes of which were made public only on Thursday - approved 49 new GM hybrids that farmers can plant in the forthcoming kharif season.

This is in addition to the 62 already approved since 2002 till the Supreme Court's ban imposed on September 22, 2006 (and now partially lifted).

The 49 hybrids cleared at one go by GEAC include six of Vibha Agrotech Ltd; five each of Nuziveedu Seeds Ltd and Nandi Seeds Ltd; four of DSCL's Bioseed Research India Ltd; and three each of J.K. Agri-Genetics Ltd, Ankur Seeds and Prabhat Agri Biotech Ltd.

Others whose transgenics received approval were: two each of Mahyco Seeds Ltd, Proagro Seed Company, Rasi Seeds, Ajeet Seeds, Pravardhan Seeds and Kaveri Seed Company; and one each of Nath Seeds, Namdhari Seeds, Zuari Seeds, Vikram Seeds, Navkar Hybrid Seeds, Ganga Kaveri Seeds and Amar Biotech Ltd.

In 2006, 9.4 million acres - some 42 per cent of the country's total cotton area - were brought under GM cotton. At one packet per acre and an average Rs 900 per packet, the domestic transgenic cotton seed market is now well over Rs 800 crore. The GEAC approval to the 49 new hybrids may further intensify competition and expand the market to the advantage of farmers.

Between 2002 and 2006, the country's cotton output has shot up from 86.24 lakh bales to 210.37 lakh bales, coinciding with the introduction of transgenics.


SC ruling on GMOs restarts seed supply

Seed farmers, like contract farmers, cultivate crops for the company to produce desired kinds of seeds

- Jacob P. Koshy, Live Mint, May 12 2007


The Supreme Court's recent order allowing the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) to consider granting approvals to more than 24 items, including genetically-modified cotton and rice, couldn't have come soon enough for Vibha Agrotech Ltd.

The Hyderabad-based hybrid-seed company's chief managing director, P. Vidyasagar, says he can now go back to selling hybrid seeds developed by his company to delivery agents, who, in turn, provide them to farmers. Vibha Agrotech is one of the 35 companies that had submitted applications to GEAC, the apex body that approves genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), seeking permission to market hybrids of Bt-cotton - the only GM seed that can be marketed in India.

"We have had to go back on our packing and delivering commitments, signed before the stay order. Moreover, I still had to continue paying my 'seed' farmers," he said.

Seed farmers, like contract farmers, cultivate crops for the company to produce desired kinds of seeds.

"In the last eight months, I've lost over Rs15 crore," Vidyasagar claimed. That includes licensing fees that Vibha pays seed-technology developers. GEAC's work has been halted since 22 September. The committee met on Friday to discuss approving varieties of cotton for North and Central India. The sowing season is expected to begin in the South around the first week of June.

"For every month approvals are delayed, the industry suffers losses worth Rs50 crore," Vidyasagar said.

R.K. Sinha, a spokesperson for the National Seed Association of India, the country's largest seed-industry consortium, said while he couldn't comment on the exact loss to the industry from the delays, "Vidyasagar knows the ground and financial realities well".

Hema Chawda, owner of VNR Seeds Pvt. Ltd, also pegged her current losses at around Rs10 crore.


In Brazil, Bayer's GMO corn has one more political hurdle

- Kenneth Rapoza, MarketWatch, May 17, 2007


SAO PAULO -- German multinational Bayer CropScience got the green light to sell its LibertyLink transgenic corn in Brazil, but the company faces one more hurdle before the country's farmers are allowed to plant the product.

"We said the technical part of LibertyLink is okay, but the product still has to go through 11 different ministries who will have the final say on the political viability of GMO corn in Brazil," said Rachel Mortari, a press agent for the country's biosafety commission, CTNBio. CTNBio approved the use of LibertyLink Wednesday by a vote of 17-4. Officials from the environmental ministry, agrarian reform, and fishing and wildlife departments voted against.

"We are very much against the CTNBio decision," said Gabriela Vuolo, a Greenpeace coordinator in Brasilia. Greenpeace in Brazil has been lobbying against transgenic corn since last year. Greenpeace says CTNBio doesn't do environmental impact studies. CTNBio was unavailable for comment regarding Greenpeace's allegations.

According to Edilson Paiva of Brazil crop science institute, Embrapa, corn is an exotic plant to Brazil and has only survived because of science. "Brazil's native corn, the kind we had from the 1950s, doesn't exist anymore," he said. "Scientifically speaking, there is no pure native corn in Brazil."

Bayer has been waiting roughly 9 years to gain access to Brazil's lucrative and new genetically modified seeds market. To date, only Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans and Bollgard cotton is allowed in Brazil. A handful of companies produce their own varieties of Roundup Ready soy. This season marked the first time Brazil soygrowers were able to legally plant transgenic soybeans. Roughly half of this year's crop was transgenic.

If the National Biosafety Commission, composed of top officials from 11 different government departments - from Agriculture to Science & Technology - does not argue against LibertyLink over the next 90 days, Bayer will be permitted to sell transgenic corn in the 2007-08 season.

Farmers say that transgenic plants allow them to control weeds, thus reducing the necessity to spray costly herbicides on the crop. Corn is Brazil's No. 2 crop behind soybeans. The country should harvest a record 51 million metric tons of corn this year. Brazil farmers plant corn in October.


Science of floral scents and colors blooming in Israel

- Nicky Blackburn, Jewish Journal (Los Angeles), May 18, 2007


Professor Alexander Vainstein is proud of his greenhouses.

Located at the Hebrew University's Robert H. Smith Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture in Rehovot, these greenhouses offer visitors both a delight to the senses and a trip to a futuristic world, where flowers emerge in different colors, with different scents and a whole new genetic makeup designed to enhance and improve the flower stock.

"You'll see types of flowers in our greenhouses that do not exist anywhere else in the world," said Vainstein, head of the institute. "People are stunned at what we are doing here. We have petunias, which traditionally don't have a smell, giving off such a strong perfume that it overpowers you as you walk through the greenhouse doors."

The greenhouses are only a small part of Vainstein's work, however. Back in the lab, he and other researchers on the agricultural, food and environmental quality sciences faculty have discovered how to insert the scent of flowers into different foods, how to intensify the smell of perfumes and creams and how to create a natural scent with nothing more than a petri dish.

The developments, which use the same genetic engineering techniques developed in the human genome project to enhance the shape, color and smell of flowers, have generated a great deal of interest from the chemical, food and flower industries, which are not only following developments but often actively funding the work.

Vainstein, a molecular biologist, began studying the molecular mechanism of scent compounds in flowers out of curiosity.

"Smell is a very volatile thing. he said. "Flowers smell differently at different times of the day, it depends if it's hot or cold, or whether the flower is young and old. Some plants give off strong scents, while others you have to crush before you can smell them."

Once the team isolated and deciphered the composition of genes and proteins operating in the petals of roses and carnations, they began to genetically engineer the plants to alter scent production. Roses, for example, give off a strong and lovely scent and have major volatile scent compounds, such as germacrene D. Vainstein took the gene responsible for this compound in roses and inserted it into different plant species, such as petunias and carnations.

"It's not that the petunias now smell of roses, but they do give off a much stronger scent than before," Vainstein said.

In another successful project, the researchers took a gene from a small aromatic plant that grows in California and introduced it to the carnation plant, which now produces the same aromatic compound as the California plant.

They've also discovered how to mute scent in flowers, such as gypsophlia (baby's breath) -- a flower often favored by florists in bouquets -- that have an unpleasant odor.

The possibilities for the plant breeding industry are exciting. The flower industry was worth $20.8 billion in 2006 in the United States alone, and more than $100 billion worldwide. Many flowers sold by florists today have lost their smell.

Vainstein's research promises to be able to not only regenerate the smell in flowers like roses but also to create entirely new scents in other flowers.

What interests the chemical and food industries, however, is that the researchers have also discovered a way to introduce these volatile scent compounds into other organisms, such as yeast -- which has many similarities to plants -- to create a bioreactor to product these natural compounds.

"In Bulgaria, the economy is built heavily on rose oil, which they produce from roses grown over large areas, but it's a very long and complicated process to create this oil," Vainstein said. "We can produce the same scent compounds using a yeast bioreactor, and we do it in a petri dish."

"We use a tiny amount of space," he continued. "A few shelves can hold row after row of petri dishes, and there is no disease, no worries about weather or pests and a drastic reduction in manpower costs. The value for the perfume industry is immense."

Using yeast bioreactors, flower scent compounds can also be introduced to foods, such as bread, or added to wine as it is prepared. Rose-flavored bread, perhaps, or a white wine with a hint of carnation could be possible.

Today food manufacturers often resort to using synthetic scent compounds in foods, but Vainstein's work, which has been patented, will enable them to create and use natural compounds.

"The food industry is very interested in the potential of this," Vainstein said. "Smell is not only what you smell with your nose but also what you taste. Through eating foods you also smell them. The aroma comes from inside your mouth to your nose passage."

Vainstein is working with a number of international companies based in the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel and has carried out commercial trials. He declines to give details, however, because of the competitive nature of the industries he works with.

"There are a number of experiments and pilot trials going on, and we are talking to many companies about many different possibilities, but much of this work is unpublished, and we are not allowed to talk about it," he stressed, adding that contracts are likely in the future.

Aside from scent, Vainstein's team of 14 professors and students is also making progress in color enhancement, introducing new colors to flowers that were traditionally white. The university has already developed a number of strains of carnations in colors such as cream and pale green, and work is progressing on color enhancement of roses and gypsophila.

These transgenic flowers are being developed in only three or four locations around the world, and the Hebrew University is the only research lab in the world that focuses on both scent and color. "Most labs work with only color or scent; we work with both," Vainstein said.

In future, it will be possible to create "designer flowers" to meet specific requests -- to match the color of one's clothes, eyes or furniture, for example, or with a specific smell.

The researchers are also working on developing plants with improved disease resistance and plants that make more roots, creating more flowers as a result. "There are various directions of research, but all of them are concerned with molecular breeding," he said.

Israel is one of the biggest flower-growing nations in the world, alongside The Netherlands, Colombia and Kenya. Hebrew University's agricultural, food and environmental quality sciences faculty has played a central role in the development of flower growing in Israel over the years. The faculty has been a partner in the development of some 40 percent of the flowers now found in the market.

Vainstein's team is now exploring new avenues of research.

"In Israel we have a lot of seawater; we want to see if we can use it to grow things, not necessarily flowers," Vainstein said. "It's just like with scent. We start researching something just because we are curious. If we later see applications for the knowledge, then that's great."


Students turn back on process in favour of biotech

- Laboratorytalk, May 18 2007


Recent survey by IChemE shows that chemical engineering students are shunning the minerals processing, nuclear, pulp and paper sectors to pursue careers in biotechnology

The report - published in IChemE's Education for Chemical Engineers journal - shows biotechnology a clear leader out of 15 preferred career options for undergraduate chemical engineering students asked to select their most desirable employment sector on graduation. The survey was completed by more than 2500 undergraduate students across 15 universities in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Thailand, UK, USA, and Vietnam.

Report author, Professor David Shallcross (University of Melbourne, Australia) says that the findings reflect a changing attitude to chemical engineering: 'Chemical Engineering education has traditionally focused on supplying graduates to the petrochemicals, and oil and gas industries with examples used throughout the courses often drawn almost exclusively from these industries'.

'Meanwhile new industries, such as the biotechnology, have emerged to employ chemical engineers while older industries such as dairy have also turned to chemical engineering graduates'.

The survey also highlights considerable differences between students in different countries, as well as between the different sexes, including:.

Lower interest in the environmental sector in the UK than in Australia, Canada, the USA, and Vietnam.

A considerably greater interest in the financial sector among UK students than all other nations.

Strong appeal of the food and drink sector in Australia, New Zealand and Vietnam compared to other countries.

A greater appeal of the IT sector among Canadian students than other nations.

Little interest in the glass and ceramics, minerals processing, nuclear, and pulp and paper sectors generally.

Male students prefer the traditional oil, gas and petrochemical industries while female students favour the bioprocessing and food and drink engineering industries.


Bulgaria Biotechnology Update

- Mila Boshnakova, USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (GAIN Report No. BU7010), April 8, 2007



Over the last three months, the Bulgarian government took three important decisions on biotechnology. Two of these decisions were very politicized and extremely restrictive. The first one was to support the Hungarian moratorium on biotech corn. The second decision was to freeze all local legislative work aimed to harmonization of the current laws with the European ones. The third decision was Bulgaria's vote to allow EU use and imports of a biotech sugar beet.

Voting positions

In February, the Ministry of Environment took a negative political decision on biotech policy: to support Hungarian moratorium on already approved by the EC Monsanto MON10 corn. This decision was rather shocking for observers, mainly because Bulgaria voted against the EC at a time when the government was and is trying to avoid friction with Brussels due to shaky early membership issues.

In April, Bulgaria had to vote again on a biotech issue. The Ministries of Agriculture and Health were leading for the second vote, and preferred to follow EFSA recommendations and supported use and imports of biotech sugar beet. Current political disagreement on biotech, although very discreet, between the Ministry of Environment, on one hand, and the two other Ministries, on the other, often leads to a vacuum, inconsistency, unpredictability and delays in implementation of biotech regulations.


In late 2006, the Ministry of Environment began a project with Dutch, Austrian and German partners, government and private experts, with the goal to determine if Bulgarian biotech legislation is fully harmonized with the EU rules. The local working group included 25 experts from three ministries, of environment, agriculture and health, as well as leading scientists and green non-government organizations (NGOs). The result of the project was a comprehensive revision of the current law in a form of a new draft law which was in line with

EU biotech legislation.

The new draft eliminated all unnecessary and not science based restrictions in the old law such as prohibited field testing, production and commercialization of tobacco, grapevines, wheat, cotton, damask rose, vegetables and perennial fruits, and animals; prohibited lab research on a damask rose, grapevines and tobacco; unreasonable requirements for large buffer zones from conventional crops and around protected territories. It introduced the scientific risk analysis as a basis for all biotech related decisions. In early March, the draft was submitted for an interagency approval process with the idea to be ready for the Parliament revision by May.

However, the Minister of Environment fiercely reacted to the draft law. Per the Minister's personal order, all biotech work at the Ministry has been frozen. Reportedly, this reaction was caused by political considerations.

The Bulgarian Biotechnology Association (a joint research and industry body) submitted a complaint to several General Directorates in the EC about the Minister of Environment actions. Unquestionably, only serious external pressure, combined with well managed industry approach, will lead to successful results. As of late April, no EC response was

Biotechnology and/or organic production

While local biotechnology policy has suffered tremendously from a political pressure, organic production policies enjoy a very positive attention by politicians though not always well justified. The political interpretation of biotech and organic policies is that the country should choose either one or the other and that co-existence of both is not possible. Currently, Bulgaria has no co-existence legislation.

In late March, the GOB approved a National Strategic Organic Program for 2007-2013. The program put an ambitious target of 8 percent of agricultural land in Bulgaria to be under organic production by 2013. Some local estimates show that up to 80 percent of land can be potentially certified as appropriate for organic production. Currently, less than 1.0 percent of agricultural land is devoted to organic production. The 3 year EU budget under the program is roughly equal to 40 percent of total rural development allocation of 780 million Euro, or 312 million Euro. The pre-accession EU-SAPARD investment program financed mainly smaller projects -114 projects for 3.5 million Euro.

Currently, Bulgaria has two national organic certification bodies, "Balkan Biosert" and "QC&I (Quality, Certification, Inspection) International Services" which were listed in the Official Journal. Another two are in the process of being licensed.

Since early 2007, the authorities registered 150 organic producers, 23 processors and 8 traders. Certified organic area is 3,000 HA with the largest share of medical and essential oil crops (700 HA), followed by orchards (520 HA), grains (220 HA) and vegetables (95 HA). Wild berries and herbs account for an additional 110,000 HA. Organic crops are grown mainly in Southern Bulgaria, around towns of Plovdiv, Pazardjik, Karlovo, Kalofer, Kazanluk and Stara Zagora.

Local organic production is destined mainly for exports - to Germany (honey, herbs, spices, rose oil, vegetables), Switzerland (honey), Holland (spices and herbs) and the U.S (spices, herbs, rose oil).

Organic products on the local market have limited presence, below one percent, due to stilllow consumer demand and lack of awareness. According to the GOB program, organics market share should be 3 percent by 2013. As of today, consumers have to choose amongst very few local organic products (see the tables below). Imports are limited to baby foods (Hipp/Croatia) and some types of musli. Organic products are sold in several supermarkets and specialized stores (Billa, Familia, Elemag, Frodo, 345). A local company (Tandem) invested about 2 million Euro in the first livestock farm (cattle) in 2007 and first organic meat is planned to be on the market by 2008.

[Table: Organic products on the local market]

Environmental groups

Over the past several years, a number of green/environmental groups have been established in Bulgaria. Only a few of them, however, have a professional approach and implement responsible policies in public interest. Most are supported by commercial interests or exist as a cover for absorption of various project funds in this area. It is a rare case for regular Bulgarians to see some environmental work done by these organizations. On the other hand, these organizations have been very active lately in political or economic debates such as Natura 2000 or on biotech issues.

Some green non-government organizations (NGOs), especially those who were involved in drafting the new biotech law, had a balanced approach towards biotech. They appealed for co-existence legislation and science based approach. Their concept is that Bulgaria can not ban biotech organisms or products which have been already approved by EFSA and the EC. Another group of NGOs, however, prefer to use a different approach. Their major concept is that organic and biotech farming are the extreme opposites, and Bulgaria has to choose which way to go: either to develop organic farming, to enjoy "growing European organic market" and use various EU investment/funds for organic production; or to choose biotech farming which means lost exports; low and declining sales on the common market, and "numerous harmful effects" on human health. Some of these green groups maneuver and show different faces before international organizations (more science and technology oriented), and before local media where they "protect regular people from devastating foreign commercial interests".

The usual outreach tool for the green NGOs are seminars or meetings in the countryside, organized together with organic organizations. In other cases, the environmentalists work with local municipalities, research units or MinAg extension service offices offering lectures on how to grow organics.

The concept organics vs. biotech is often supported by certain politicians, especially those who oppose new technology and science development and appeal for a preservation of "natural, traditional living and production methods". Older generation researchers, mainly from the pre-democratic times, often deprived from previous rewards and public respect, prefer to either take the greens' side or to not express any comments.

The green theory works very well at small, rural places with higher unemployment, where large farms are not existent. Another green fortress is mountain villages, which rely on agrarian tourism. Small vegetable, fruit and herb growers are the best target green audience. As a result of green activities, already 5 municipalities announced their territories as free of GMOs, although no formal notification has been made to the EC (Satovcha village, Blagoevgrad region, Banite village, near Smolian, Ivailovgrad, Kurdgali, and Zlataritza, near Veliko Turnovo. Reportedly, the small town of Elena will also be in this list.


Blueprint Proposed for Wiping Out Disease-bearing Mosquitoes

Stanford Graduate School of Business (press release), Web posted May 16, 2007


Releasing genetically modified male mosquitoes could eliminate the danger of dengue fever and other mosquito-borne diseases within a year in communities of up to a million people, according to a research paper released today.

Health professionals have tried different techniques to control disease-bearing mosquitoes, including a process called Released Insect with a Dominant Lethal, or RIDL, that uses genetically-modifies male mosquitoes who produce offspring that die shortly before or after birth.

"The RIDL approach is an alternative that is also environmentally-benign," said Lawrence M. Wein, the Paul E. Holden Professor of Management Science at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, one of the authors of a paper released May 14 by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

RIDL mosquitoes have proven more effective than insects that are irradiated to make them sterile, he added, because the genetically-modified male insects are more physically fit to compete with the mosquitoes in the wild than those that have been subjected to radiation.

However, scientists have had difficulty trying to figure out the effectiveness of such campaigns and to determine the right proportion of altered insects necessary to have an impact on infected mosquito populations.

Wein and his co-researchers developed a mathematical model that predicts the effectiveness of RIDL eradication campaigns.

Their paper, "Analyzing the Control of Mosquito-borne diseases by a Dominant lethal Genetic system," was authored by Michael P. Atkinson and Zheng Su of Stanford's Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering, Nina Alphey and Luke Alphey of the University of Oxford, Paul G. Coleman of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Wein.

Mosquito-born diseases, such as dengue fever, are a major health problem in many countries, especially in the developing world. There is no licensed vaccine for dengue which affects up to 100 million people each year. Between 250,000 and 500,000 potentially fatal cases are reported annually.

One of the known dengue-causing types of mosquitoes is endemic in the southeastern United States. The recent spread of the West Nile virus has raised concerns that the United States may be vulnerable to other serious outbreaks of mosquito-born diseases.

Health professionals have used different methods to battle dengue and other similar diseases, such as launching sanitary campaigns in affected communities and trying to eradicate mosquito populations in their natural habitat.

Recently, scientists have tried different approaches aimed at suppressing the infected insects' ability to reproduce. One technique, called Sterilize Insect Technique, or SIT, introduces male mosquitoes that have been irradiated and rendered sterile in order to mate with infected female insects.

The RIDL method uses genetically-modified mosquitoes to cause the offspring of female insects to "die either before or after the larval stage," the study said.

Wein said that based on their research into the RIDL method, "Eradication of the disease might be feasible within about one year for affected populations in the order of 100,000 to a million."

"This was a mathematical study to get an order of magnitude," he added.

"From a practical point of view, it is important to understand how many ... mosquitoes are required for eradication and how long it takes to eradicate the virus," write the authors. 'Our model should suffice for an order-of-magnitude assessment of the effectiveness and practicality of the RIDL strategy."

However, Wein said the strategy also entails serious challenges.

"The real drawback is the logistical consideration," he said.

"Once you release the mosquitoes, they only travel half a mile. So if you try to eradicate the disease in a rural area where there's distances between neighbors, you pretty much have to hand deliver the insects."

Wein is known for his work exploring homeland security issues related to potential Anthrax attacks and the effectiveness of the two-finger fingerprinting system used on the U.S. border. He has also testified before a variety of government agencies considering policies affecting public health, epidemics, and bioterrorism.


"Analyzing the Control of Mosquito-borne Diseases by a Dominant Lethal Genetic System," Michael P. Atkinson, Zheng Su, Nina Alphey, Luke S. Alphey, and Lawrence M. Wein; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, May 14, 2007


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