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May 25, 2007


Mini-chromosome Stacking; Regulating to Death; Public, the Media and Biotech; Long Struggle in Japan


Today in AgBioView - May 25, 2007

* New Gene Technology May Improve Corn Traits
* Regulated to Blindness and Death
* India: Genetically Modified Foods Get The Go Ahead
* The Public, the Media and Agricultural Biotechnology
* UNL Advances Dicamba-resistance Research; Work Featured in Science Magazine
* DST Grant Grows Plant Biotechnology Research
* Australia: VFF backs sun setting on GM restrictions
* Survey shows 47pc would grow GM crops
* Long struggle to grow GM crops in Japan
* IP Management in Health & Agricultural Innovation: A Handbook of Best Practices


New Gene Technology May Improve Corn Traits

- Wisconsin Ag Connection, May 25, 2007


It took nearly 20 years for researchers to develop the first commercial genetically enhanced corn hybrids. The next generation of genetic technology may be developed in less than half that time.

"Mini-chromosome stacking" uses the plant's DNA to simultaneously introduce multiple genetic traits into plants, reducing the time and cost required to develop and launch new products. The technology has several advantages over current genetic technology, says Nathan Fields, the National Corn Growers Association director of Research and Business Development.

"There's no interference with the plant's native genome, so the new traits can be delivered more precisely, with increased ability to regulate trait expression," explains Fields. "Also, the technique makes it easier to identify a genetically modified trait."

The mini-chromosome technology was developed at the University of Chicago. Chromatin is the exclusive licensee. Earlier this year, it was awarded a patent granting it exclusive rights for the mini-chromosome technology in plants. NCGA has been working with Chromatin to help develop the technology for agriculture and made an investment in the company in 2004.

This week Monsanto signed a non-exclusive agreement to use the technology in corn and other crops. Monsanto and Chromatin will conduct a three-year program to complete development of the technology.

Chromatin estimates that mini-chromosome technology could accelerate the timeline from research to commercial introduction for plants modified with a single trait by two to three years (25 percent to 40 percent).


Regulated to Blindness and Death

- CropGen, Web dated May 14, 2007


Ingo Potrykus is Emeritus Professor of Plant Sciences at the world renowned Eidgenossiche Technische Hochschule in Zürich. He is the originator of Golden Rice, a strain genetically modified to include a vitamin A precursor designed to reduce the ravages of blindness among many people in poor countries unable to afford a proper mixed diet with adequate vitamins. Blindness resulting from vitamin A deficiency affects hundreds of thousands of children for whom polished rice is a major component of their diet; many die.

In September 2007, World Bank will publish World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development (1) which "seeks to assess where, when, and how agriculture can be an effective instrument for economic development, especially development that favours the poor". Among other topics, it is "likely to focus on strategies for unlocking agricultural growth to reduce poverty".

In response to a consultation on the forthcoming report, Professor Potrykus recently submitted the following comments which we reproduce with his permission.

"I am retired a full professor of plant sciences from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and I spent my scientific career and that of my research team on developing and using genetic engineering technology to contribute to food security of poor in developing countries. Our best known case is Golden Rice, developed to provide provitamin A to rice-dependent populations, to reduce vitamin A-deficiency, which is responsible for about 6,000 deaths per day. Since my retirement in 1999, I have, as chairman of the Humanitarian Golden Rice Board and Network, focussed on delivering Golden Rice free of charge and limitations to rice farmers in the major rice-dependent countries. Please bear this background in mind when reading my comments.

I am glad to see that the report understands that there are indeed potential benefits of GMOs for the poor.

The key question is "Why the slow progress in transgenics", but the three answers given do not agree with my experience.

It is true that there is not to much work on "pro-poor" traits and crops; however there are hundreds of colleagues in public institutions, both in developing countries and in the West, highly motivated to work on both the traits and the crops, if funding were to be available. It is wrong to expect this kind of work from the private sector; the public sector is not recognizing its responsibility.

It is also true that "perceived risks" are a major barrier and it is good to read that there is no scientific justification for this perception. Indeed, after 25 years of biosafety research and regulation there is a wealth of clear scientific evidence as well as a scientific consensus that there is no inherent and specific risk associated with the technology. If someone claims the contrary, either he/she does not know the scientific literature or is lying .But I agree that there is the perception of risk which has to be accepted as a psychological fact. It should be up to governments to inform their people about what is right and what is wrong. But all this is nevertheless not the major reason for the "slow progress".

Where I can not at all agree is the notion that "weak regulatory capacity" is a major cause. It is true that regulatory authorities may have a negative impact not, however, because of weak capacity, but because of the principle of "extreme precautionary regulation". People involved become frightened of making a mistake, leading to the psychological situation that is better not to take any decision at all rather than one which could be criticised by the GMO opposition.

The overwhelming cause for the "slow progress" is, however, the system of "extreme precautionary regulation" established around the world. Lacking any scientific justification, this regulatory system prevents use of GMO-technology for the benefit of the poor; everywhere it paralyzes public institutions, specifically all those in developing countries.

In the specific case of Golden Rice (http://www.goldenrice.org) , a humanitarian project developed in the public domain, supported by the private sector and with the proven capacity of saving in India alone up to 40 000 lives a year (2), we experienced a delay in the adoption so far of seven years solely because of regulatory requirements. It is probably fair to say that GMO regulation, in the context of Golden Rice, is responsible for the loss of 7 x 40 000 lives in India and, of course, of many more in the other countries.

I am not aware of any hypothetical risk from Golden Rice (or actual risk from any GMO) which would justify this loss of life. The cost of taking a single transgenic event through the regulatory procedures is about US $ 20 million. In summary: compared to introducing a new non-transgenic strain, one single transgenic event with a pro-poor trait and in a pro-poor crop costs about 10 additional years of work and US$ 20 million.

Golden Rice will be in the hands of the farmers from 2012 onwards -13 years after scientific proof-of-concept had been established. No public institution and no scientist in the public domain can afford to spend 10 years of an academic career on a project with so small a chance of publication; no public granting institution is willing to invest such an amount of funds into product development and deregulation of one single event, even if proof-of-concept has been established and the potential is saving of millions of lives.

Present regulations prevent the use of the technology to the benefit of the poor by the public sector and that is why "progress pro-poor of transgenics" is so slow. There will be no progress unless our society reduces regulation to scientifically sound requirements.

Therefore, whoever wants to exploit the great potential of GMOs for the benefit of the poor should not argue for a strengthening of present regulation but request adjustment of regulation to our present state of knowledge - not to that of ideology.

There is no doubt that there are many more potential benefits of GMO-technology for the poor, quite distinct from benefits to industry, nor is there any doubt that this technology is at least as safe as any other agricultural intervention.

I very strongly recommend that WDR2008 maintains an emphasis on the importance of GMOs for development and argues for regulations which enable the exploitation of this technology for the benefit of the poor.

1. World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Developmen (WDR2008t. The World Bank (http://econ.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/EXTDEC/EXTRESEARCH/EXTWDRS/EXTWDR2008/0,,menuPK:2795178~pagePK:64167702~piPK:64167676~theSitePK:2795143,00.html)

2. Alexander J. Stein, J.V. Meenakshi, Matin Qaim, Penelope Nestel, H.P.S. Sachdev and Zulfiqar A. Bhutta (2005). Analyzing the health benefits of biofortified staple crops by means of the disability-adjusted life years approach: a handbook focusing on iron, zinc and vitamin A. HarvestPlus Technical Monograph 4. (http://www.harvestplus.org/pdfs/tech04.pdf)


India: Genetically Modified Foods Get The Go Ahead

The Supreme Court's lifting of the ban on field trials is more than welcome

- Gurumurti Natarajan, The Financial Express (India)


The Supreme Court lifted an eight-month ban on field trials of genetically-modified (GM) food crops on May 8 subject to certain well-meaning provisos. This judgment deserves to be heralded as a step in the right direction: the common man would now have a wider choice of foods to meet his nutritional and dietary needs. This list of food staples includes eight major crops that feature in every household across the country. The apex court had temporarily halted large-scale field trials of GM crops of rice, maize, potato, brinjal, mustard, tomato, okra and groundnut in September last. By revoking its ban, the court will now facilitate a potentially wider spread of foods.

Take Bt-Brinjals, for example. The fruit- and shoot-borer (Leucinodes orbanalis) is the most destructive insect pest affecting brinjal. This pesky insect produces a small larva that bores through the shoots of the plant and feeds on the young and maturing fruit, rendering it inedible, discoloured and unfit for the market. Being a 150-180 day crop in which harvesting starts after 60 days, brinjal gives 20 pickings during the crop's lifetime. Farmers tend to spray twice or even thrice between each picking to combat the deadly borer and as a result pile up 60 odd doses of spray for just one crop! On average, farmers end up dousing around 1.4 kg of pesticides per hectare on brinjal, which is way higher than, say, 200 gm for paddy.

The GM varieties of brinjal have been shown in trial after trial to be able to ward off this insect pest substantially. Brinjal cultivars that had been top performers in various climatic zones of the country had been incorporated with the gene that produces an endo-toxin produced by the ubiquitous soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt. This gene synthesises a protein toxic to the fruit- and shoot-borer that drastically reduces useage of the deadly pesticides by 80%.

The far-reaching implications from this technological innovation go beyond reduction of farming expenses due to fewer sprays. Farmers' health is significantly improved through lesser exposure to harmful chemicals. The endo-toxin gene from the bacterium that is cobbled to the brinjal plant produces the toxin against the devastating borer all through the life cycle of the crop, ensuring good overall protection, as opposed to external sprays that have a tendency to be ineffective for a variety of reasons (not covering the entire plant, degraded by the elements, wash off from dew and rainfall leading to land and ground water contamination). Non-target insects, many of which are beneficial for the crop and for the overall good of biodiversity, are saved the heavy barrage of constant chemical sprays; our marshlands, wilderness and habitats are better served with lower use of chemicals. Consumers reap huge benefits from lower costs besides a health bonanza from imbibing fewer chemicals with their foods.

The Bt endo-toxin has been proven to be completely safe for humans, birds and animals, for it takes an alkaline gut for the toxin to be effective, that which is prevalent in the target insects but is quite the opposite of the acidic gut in mammalian and avian systems. Advantages similar to that conferred by GM-brinjal are waiting to be harnessed in several of the other crops: vitamin A in rice, combating the stem borer in maize, staving off the blight in potato, and resistance to fungal pathogens in groundnut are but a few.

Cotton, the only GM crop that has been permitted for cultivation in the country thus far, has been a runaway success with farmers and the industry. Starting out with a mere 72,000 acres in 2002, the crop planted with GM seeds has galloped to 93 lakh acres in 2006. Overall production has risen to 24.4 million bales in 2005-06 as compared to 15.8 million bales in 2001-02. Productivity has increased from 308 kg per hectare to 450 kg per hectare during the same period. Significantly, pesticide usage has dropped drastically by 2,260 tonnes during 2005-06. The five years of large-scale planting experience with Bt cotton would stand our systems in good stead to take the next logical step forward if we are to feed an ever-growing population in an ecologically sustainable way.


The Public, the Media and Agricultural Biotechnology


Edited by D Brossard, University of Wisconsin-Madison USA,; J Shanahan, Cornell University, Ithaca, USA; T C Nesbitt, USDA-APHIS Biotechnology Regulatory Services Riverdale, USA

Pub Date: May 2007 Hardback ISBN: 9781845932046 405 pages

This pioneering look at the communication of biotechnology will be an essential resource for researchers and policy makers, and those involved in agricultural biotechnology communication campaigns.

Main Description
As the use of biotechnology in the agriculture industry rises, examining the feelings of the public towards this controversial issue and understanding how public opinion has formed has become increasingly more important. It has become apparent that there are more factors involved than just a lack of scientific knowledge about biotechnology and genetically modified foods that effect public acceptance of this technology.

< Bringing together the perspectives of both researchers and practitioners on public opinion processes, these case studies look at public opinion data, communication theory and international examples to see how public opinion is formed. Empirical tests of theories of opinion formation are studies as well as practical experiences used to provide critical insights on communication strategies.


UNL Advances Dicamba-resistance Research; Work Featured in Science Magazine

- University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (press release), May 24, 2007


LINCOLN, Neb. - In a project that began about a dozen years ago, University of Nebraska-Lincoln scientists discovered a gene that has been used to create broadleaf crops that tolerate spraying with the popular herbicide dicamba. Now, even as an industry partner is working to bring dicamba-resistant crops to market, these plant scientists are continuing to explore new and expanded uses for the technology they discovered.

The availability of dicamba-resistant crops means that farmers soon will have more options for controlling weeds in broadleaf crops such as soybeans, canola, cotton, tobacco and vegetables.

The UNL team, headed by biochemist Don Weeks, outlined its discoveries on the molecular, cellular and biochemical processes involved in creating dicamba-resistant crops in the May 25 issue of Science, the international weekly journal.

Dicamba-based herbicides, sold under trade names such as Banvil and Clarity, are relatively inexpensive and easy on the environment because the chemical disappears quickly in plants and soil. But like all broadleaf herbicides, dicamba kills broadleaf crops as well as their weedy cousins so its use presently is limited to corn and other grassy crops.

The UNL team identified soil bacteria that break down dicamba and isolated the gene responsible for imparting resistance. Plant Scientist Tom Clemente, head of the university's Plant Transformation Core Facility, helped the team insert this gene into a plant's chromosomes, successfully transferring dicamba resistance to the plant.

They also discovered that they could modify the gene to target the DNA of the plant chloroplast, where photosynthesis occurs. This approach has significant practical implications. Since chloroplast genes are inherited through the material side, not through male pollen, it eliminates the chance that resistance could inadvertently spread to other plants through pollen.

The team's genetic modification technique worked in both lab and field trials. For example, soybeans carrying the dicamba-resistant gene were unharmed by dicamba sprayed at a rate of 2.5 pounds per acre, about 10 times the normal application rate.

"There are a number of levels at which we think this technology will be useful," Weeks said. "It will certainly allow for excellent control for broadleaf weeds in broadleaf crops like soybeans and cotton ... Controlling broadleaf weeds in broadleaf crops has always been a challenge and often quite expensive."

The new technology, Weeks added, also will help strengthen integrated weed management strategies.

"Importantly, we think that this technology will help to extend the lifetime of the Roundup Ready technology," he added. Some Roundup-resistant weeds have emerged in recent years, but working dicamba products into a weed-control strategy with Roundup could help counter that trend and lead to more complete weed control.

In addition, development of dicamba-resistant crops should further encourage use of conservation tillage practices that decrease soil erosion and foster more sustainable and environmentally sensitive farming, Weeks said.

UNL has patented this technology. In 2005 UNL signed an exclusive licensing agreement with Monsanto Co. to develop crops tolerant to dicamba, using UNL's technology.

"Monsanto is clearly moving forward with this technology, taking it through the regulatory processes at USDA, EPA and FDA, as well as conducting a number of field trials," Weeks said.

Dicamba-resistant crops aren't expected to be commercially available until early in the next decade. In the meantime, Weeks said, the agreement is supporting his team's continuing dicamba-resistance research - a key payoff of such technology-transfer agreements between universities and private industry.

"We're testing for efficacy in other crops; that research is looking promising," the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources biochemist said. "We also have explored some other aspects of this technology and have exciting new observations that we soon hope to have patented."

Monsanto is funding the research, which is conducted through the university's Agricultural Research Division, a part of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.


DST Grant Grows Plant Biotechnology Research

- Chanel Pringle, Engineering News (South Africa), May 25, 2007


The plant biotechnology research group at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has secured a multimillion-rand research grant from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) to extend research into transgenic plants as a platform for the production of pharmaceuticals.

Plant biotechnology research group leader Dr Rachel Chikwamba reports that the substantial grant will assist the group in expanding its investigations. "We've been working on this project for a year. This funding will give the impetus we need to do this work," says Chikwamba.

The funding has been earmarked for the CSIR's contribution to the Pharma-Planta initiative, a European Commission-funded consortium, researching plant-expressed clinical-grade pharmaceuticals against various diseases, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and rabies.

Chikwamba says the DST grant will be used as funding subject to further financial support from the European Union (EU). As a project partner, the CSIR - in collaboration with other local partners - is expected to develop a transgenic plant-based platform for the production of recombinant (material produced by genetic engineering) pharmaceuticals in plants, with government and nongovernmental organisations developing detailed ethical and regulatory protocols for the production of pharmaceuticals in plants.

With biotechnology advances in recent years, plants have been generated which can produce very specific proteins for use in human health. Traditionally, these proteins have been made through microbial fermentation and from mammalian cells. Termed molecular farming, the production of the proteins takes place through growing and harvesting genetically modified crops with the object of producing pharmaceuticals and not food.

Experiments for anti-HIV and antirabies antibodies are currently conducted in transgenic plants. Transgenic plants are considered cost-effective, versatile and can be produced on any scale, depending on demand.

"The development of plant-based 'cell factories', therefore, holds the promise of more effective infectious disease prevention and more afford-able medical treatment within South Africa and Africa," says Chikwamba.

The advantages of pharmaceuticals produced through plants lie in product safety; ease of storage and distribution; as well as being suitable for rapid and economic scale-up.

Human resources training on this project is expected to result in a critical body of expertise in plant and animal biotechnology, human health, and the supporting crosscutting technologies in South Africa.

The CSIR has already experienced significant benefits in interacting with the participating laboratories relating to equipment and infrastructure, as well as the knowledge of the world's leading scientists in this domain, that has been valuable in human capital development.

"There are a lot of benefits to interacting with these laboratories as they are cutting-edge laboratories which allow us to keep up with the best technology in the world. There is also a possibility of sending students overseas to learn new techniques," says Chikwamba.

The CSIR's primary role and tasks relate to the genetic transformation of plants with the experimental pharmaceutical molecules under confined conditions. The role of the CSIR will also include molecular analyses, growing the transgenic plants in a contained environment and subsequent downstream processing. "We need to start seeing results within the next three years. We are on track," says Chikwamba.

The Pharma-Planta project is considered to be of strategic value to South Africa and the region, and, if successful, is expected to have a significant impact on the local pharmaceutical industry - even revolutionising the production of some pharmaceutical proteins. It will increase the competitiveness of existing local pharmaceutical industries and possibly new players in the industry.

However, it will be a long time before doctors can use the products of these pharmaceutical plants to combat diseases. If the production pipeline can be perfected within the five-year duration of the project, the active pharmaceutical ingredients then have to undergo an extensive series of safety and clinical trials before they are approved and licensed, and this could also take several years.

"As it is a long-term project, it should be at least another ten years before these products could be available," says Chikwamba. The consortium intends to show that plants can be used safely to produce pharmaceuticals and that this can be achieved while adhering to all regulatory requirements.

The Pharma-Planta consortium consists of 39 academic laboratories and industrial partners representing 32 organisations from 12 European countries and South Africa. The CSIR is the only full partner from South Africa, but the organisation will involve and collaborate with local partners on selected issues.

Pharma-Planta is a Theme 1-funded project within the European Commission's Sixth Framework Programme, which is the European Commission's main instrument for research funding. The project specifically tackles pharmaceuticals for the prevention of HIV/Aids, rabies, tuberculosis and diabetes, all of which remain significant health problems in Europe and the developing world.

A key goal of the project is to manage the necessary biosafety and regulatory requirements. Pharma-Planta is the first initiative of this nature to be supported by the EU, and is leading the way in highlighting safety and regulatory aspects in the product development pipeline, from both the human and environmental perspectives.


Australia: VFF backs sun setting on GM restrictions

- North Queensland Register, May 25, 2007


The Victorian Farmers Federation is pleased the process leading to the sunsetting of the GM canola moratorium is underway. VFF president Simon Ramsay said the VFF had confidence the three-person panel appointed by the State Government to review the GM canola moratorium had the necessary expertise. The review will focus on the market access issues of the commercialisation of GM Canola.

"The moratorium was put in place due to concerns the widespread commercialisation of GM canola would restrict Australia's access to agricultural markets," Mr Ramsay said "The evidence is that there are no adverse impacts on agricultural markets and the VFF is confident the review panel will come to this conclusion."

Victoria's farmers deserve to have choice in the use of advances in all forms of technology, including biotechnology, he said. "The Victorian Government has been a leader in promoting biotechnology and innovation to improve Victoria's competitiveness in many fields," Mr Ramsay said.

"It is clear that there are no market reasons why farmers should be denied access to the latest developments in plant breeding and the competitive and environmental benefits they can bring," Mr Ramsay said.


Survey shows 47pc would grow GM crops

- Farmers Guardian (UK), May 25, 2007


JUST under half of the UK's farmers would grow genetically modified crops, a new survey has found.

In a poll carried out by the British Grassland Society (BGS), 47 per cent of members said they were definitely in favour of cultivating GM plants on their farms.

As many as three-quarters of the UK's farmers would grow genetically modified crops if there was consumer demand for such products.

However, the survey also found that at least 16 per cent were against growing GM crops, half of whom were producing organic foods.

In a similar survey carried out by the University of Gottingen, of 370 German farmers asked, 33 per cent were not opposed to GM crops, while 29 per cent rejected the idea.


Long struggle to grow GM crops in Japan

- AllAboutFeed.net, May 24, 2007


The Japanese agriculture ministry has set up a study team to spur commercialization of genetically modified crops for biofuel instead of food, which has been largely shunned by the public because of safety concerns. By promoting the commercialization of GM crops for fuel, the ministry hopes to eventually gain the public's trust in using GM crops for human consumption.

Full-fledged commercial cultivation of GM crops started in other countries, such as the Untied States, about 10 years ago. Japanese universities and research institutes started growing GM crops outdoors on an experimental basis from the late 1990s. Most of these projects are still in the research and development stage.

Approved, but not grown
Currently, 11 GM crops in Japan are approved under a national law based on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The crops, including rice plants, soybeans and corn, are mainly intended for human food and animal feed.

But none of the crops grown for human consumption has been commercialized. Commercial farming has not yet been established in Japan for even inedible GM plants. Because of strong safety concerns among the nation's consumers, the government has found it difficult to approve GM crops for practical use.

"Medical" GM rice
GM rice, which has been found to relieve hay fever symptoms, is handled as a medical product and must go through strict animal experiments before it can be commercialized.

To get around all of these hurdles, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries considered commercialization of GM fields for purposes other than human consumption. The study team, comprising specialists and executives of consumer and producer groups, will draw up a medium-term strategy and a scheduled program for research, development and commercialization of GM crops.

Long way to go

It is expected to propose concrete plans to commercialize inedible GM crops in five to 10 years.

Crops under the plan include GM rice plants, which can yield more grain than regular rice plants for use as biofuel.

Other GM plants that can suck up underground toxic substances, such as heavy metals, will also be considered.


IP Management in Health & Agricultural Innovation: A Handbook of Best Practices

- Edited by Anatole Krattiger; Volume 1 (ISBN: 978-1-4243-2026-4) Volume 2 (ISBN: 978-1-4243-2027-1)


Prepared by and for policy-makers, leaders of public sector research establishments, technology transfer professionals, licensing executives, and scientists, the Handbook offers up-to-date information and strategies for utilizing the power of both intellectual property and the public domain.

Eschewing ideological debates and general proclamations, the authors always keep their eye on the practical side of IP management. The Handbook provides substantive discussions and analyses of the opportunities awaiting anyone in the field who wants to put intellectual property to work.

The Centre for the Management of Intellectual Property in Health R&D (MIHR)’s core goals are to support innovative and strategic management of intellectual property that both promotes the development of medical products and public health tools to reduce global disparities in health status, and ensures access to future products by the poor.

The Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA) is an organization based upon a collaboration amongst universities, public agencies, and non-profit institutes that conduct agricultural research and development. PIPRA provides resources and a collaborative framework to achieve the most effective possible utilization of intellectual property to advance innovation in agriculture, both for humanitarian purposes and for regional or specialized commercial markets.

"This Handbook... is a valuable guide in helping to navigate the complex-- but rewarding--world of an increasingly global innovation system." - Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate


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