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June 4, 2007


Corn in Germany; Super Chicks in Australia; Help Africa Help Itself; Threat Down the Farm; Glyphosate and Dicamba


Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - June 4, 2007

* Monsanto Allowed to Plant GM Corn in Germany
* Aussie Scientists to Create Super Chooks
* How the Rich World Can Help Africa Help Itself
* A Growing Threat Down on the Farm
* Glyphosate -- The Conservationist's Friend?
* New GM Crops: Q&A (with Don Weeks on Dicamba Resistant GM crop)
* $3M Grant to Danforth Center to Enhance Sweet Potato for Africa
* India: Three Members on GM Panel Back Off From Report
* Bt Cotton In Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh, India: 3. The Farmers' Story

Monsanto Allowed to Plant Genetically Modified Corn in 6 of Germany's 16 States

- AP, June 2, 2007

The German government on Friday approved several new types of genetically modified corn to be planted in six of the nation's 16 states, saying tests had shown the crops pose no danger to humans or livestock.

Germany's Ministry for Consumer Protection said that Monsanto Co., headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., was allowed to plant the four types of corn in fields up to 5,000 square meters (about 54,000 square feet) in preapproved locations in the states of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Mecklenburg-Western Pommerania, Saxony Anhalt, Saxony, Hesse and Bavaria. The crops have been altered to be resistant to certain worms.

The ministry ordered a 200-meter (650-foot) border of fallow land surrounding each field, in an effort to prevent cross-pollination with other, nearby crops.

The issue of genetically modified foods is a sensitive one on both sides of the Atlantic. European governments such as Germany and France, as well as a number of environmental groups, contend that many such crops are unsafe for humans and the environment.


Aussie Scientists to Create Super Chooks

- AAP , June 2, 2007

CSIRO scientists are aiming to be the first in the world to develop a genetically modified chicken immune to the killer bird flu. CSIRO's Geelong compound has begun the research, racing for time against British scientists at Cambridge University who are hungry for a breakthrough, News Ltd reported.

Millions of dollars are at stake in the research, which would help farmers and breeders, replacing their chickens with flu-immune birds, the report said. The CSIRO team aims to make the chickens immune to avian influenza.

The super chickens would have to be labelled genetically modified, but the report said they would still taste like regular chicken.

Australian Animal Health Laboratory's Dr John Lowenthal said an avian influenza pandemic was a major threat. "We have an obligation to come up with a solution to it," he said.

"At the end of the process we are expressing what we would call transgenes into the chicken so that this becomes permanently incorporated into the chicken, into all of its cells. "We are very excited about our science."


How the Rich World Can Help Africa Help Itself

- Glenn Denning and Jeffrey Sachs, Financial Times (London) , May 29, 2007

When heads of state from the world's richest countries gather in Heiligendamm, Germany, next week for this year's summit of the Group of Eight leading industrialised nations, they would most benefit the poor in Africa by first looking at what

Africa is doing for itself. News from Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries, suggests a powerful way forward in the fight against hunger and poverty. If G8 countries scale up their support to these homegrown efforts - as they promised two years ago in Gleneagles - the fight can be won.

In 2005, Malawi's maize harvest was one of the worst ever. A dry spell in February of that year cut yields. National production was just 1.2m tonnes - 29 per cent less than in the previous year and 45 per cent less than the national requirement. The United Nations issued an appeal in August 2005, seeking food aid for the immediate hunger, but also fertilisers and seeds for the coming growing season. Donors responded quickly with food aid, but gave little support for fertilisers or seeds. By November, almost 5m Malawians faced food shortages and hunger, and the prospect of another disastrous growing season in 2006. Hunger and extreme poverty are known to increase the incidence of many killer diseases, unleash gender-based violence and theft, and decrease dramatically the rates of school attendance by children. An apocalyptic conclusion seemed to be all but assured.

Despite the opposition of some of Malawi's donors, President Bingu wa Mutharika and his team introduced a bold farm-input subsidy programme to pre-empt the famine. At a cost of $60m, roughly $5 per Malawian, the government provided seed and fertiliser at reduced cost to more than 1m small-scale maize farmers. This represented a huge financial burden for Malawi's government, but would have been a pittance for the rich world.

Impoverished farmers could buy up to two 50kg bags of fertiliser at one- third the world market price. High-yielding maize seeds were also subsidised. The results have been spectacular. Malawi's smallholder farmers are harvesting a bumper crop for the second year running, which may reach a record 3.2m tonnes. Yields have soared, helped by favourable rains. This year's estimates suggest a more than 1m tonne surplus for the country. Malawi plans to export grain to hungry neighbours.

Millions of people have averted hunger and its cruel manifestations. The focus has shifted from food aid to food exports; and from subsistence agriculture to longer-term rural economic transformation. This year the government's subsidy programme will promote crop diversification into higher-value cash crops to grow alongside their staple food production. The impact has stunned the sceptics and the doomsayers. It seems that an African green revolution is possible after all.

Malawi has initiated a remarkable turnround. The lesson is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The investments in famine prevention - roughly $60m per year in farm inputs - save many more lives and are vastly more affordable than the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be needed in emergency food relief to achieve the same food outcome. Malawi's farmers can now focus on the longer-term challenge of economic transformation to higher-value output.

Much more will be needed to enable Malawi to escape once and for all from the poverty trap. In addition to several more years of subsidised farm inputs, Malawi needs to invest in water harvesting and irrigation, diversified agriculture, village-based clinics, rural electrification, rural roads and other infrastructure critical for long-term growth. These are the kinds of transformative investments being demonstrated in the Millennium Villages project in Malawi.
When the G8 leaders meet in Germany, Malawi's quiet revolution should stand tall in their minds. Instead of shipping expensive food aid after famines have hit, the G8 should help Africa's farmers to obtain critical farm inputs and the other key investments to enable impoverished rural communities to achieve food security and self-sustaining economic development.

The time for ending extreme poverty has arrived. Africa is ready to lead the way. It remains for the G8 to honour its long-standing - yet long unfulfilled - promises of support.
The authors are, respectively, director of the Earth Institute's MDG Centre for East and Southern Africa, and the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University


A Growing Threat Down on the Farm

- Robert F. Service, Science, May 25, 2007, v.316. no.5828, pp. 111-1117 http://www.sciencemag.org

'Farmers have become dependent on a herbicide called glyphosate and on crops engineered to resist it. Now, weeds are becoming resistant, and researchers are scrambling for alternatives'

Conventional wisdom has it that biotech drugs have flourished while genetically modified (GM) crops have foundered because of protests in Europe and elsewhere. Not so. Biotech drugs are doing just fine and, it turns out, so are GM crops. Last year, 10 million farmers in 22 countries planted more than 100 million hectares with GM crops.

Over the past 11 years, biotech crop area has increased more than 60-fold, making GM crops one of the most quickly adopted farming technologies in modern history (see figure below). Even the European Union is beginning to embrace them, with six E.U. countries now planting GM crops.

What's behind this blossoming of transgenics? Oddly enough, a herbicide called glyphosate. The compound is the world's bestselling herbicide by far, prized by farmers for its safety and effectiveness at wiping out hundreds of different kinds of weeds. That effectiveness has not only convinced farmers to make the switch but also prompted seed companies to engineer crops to be impervious to glyphosate's effects. That has allowed farmers to spray their growing crops to wipe out encroaching weeds without fear of wiping out their livelihood. The model has proven so successful that of the transgenic crops planted worldwide last year, approximately 80% were engineered to be glyphosate-resistant (GR). "The rate at which this technology has been adopted floors me," says Donald Weeks, a plant biochemist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

But this success has sown the seeds of its own potential demise. Much of modern agriculture is now dependent on a single chemical. "Glyphosate is as important to world agriculture as penicillin is to human health," says Stephen Powles, who directs the Western Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative in Perth. It's an apt comparison, because just as pathogens have grown resistant to penicillin and other antibiotics, weeds resistant to glyphosate have recently begun sprouting and spreading around the globe. For now, the scale of the outbreak remains small.

But agricultural experts worry that herbicide-resistant weeds are poised for their own takeover. "There is going to be an epidemic of glyphosate-resistant weeds," Powles says. "In 3 to 4 years, it will be a major problem." If farmers and seed companies lose their ability to rely on glyphosate, it could cost them billions of dollars in lost productivity. But the damage will likely be more than monetary, as it could also have a major environmental consequence as well (see sidebar, p. 1116)

In the face of this threat, agricultural researchers are mounting a multipronged campaign to safeguard glyphosate and come up with other options in case its effectiveness withers. On page 1185, for example, Weeks and his colleagues at Nebraska report that they have developed the first transgenic crops resistant to an alternative herbicide called dicamba. Down the road, growers may soon switch transgenic crops much as doctors select antibiotics to stay one step ahead of pathogens. But for now, the fight is on to save glyphosate.

Fantasy league The love affair between farmers and glyphosate was kindled long before biotech crops hit the fields. In 1970, John Franz, a chemist at Monsanto, discovered that the compound acted as a broad-spectrum herbicide, capable of killing an enormous variety of plants when deposited on the leaves of young seedlings. Later, researchers found that glyphosate wreaks its havoc by inhibiting an essential plant enzyme known as 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3 phosphate synthase (EPSPS). The enzyme catalyzes an intermediate step in the construction of a trio of aromatic amino acids, which in turn are vital for the production of key plant metabolites. Without EPSPS, the plants are starved of these metabolites and quickly wither and die.

Just as enticing was what glyphosate does not do. Although concerns have been raised about the surfactants that are used alongside glyphosate in most formulations, glyphosate itself does not appear to affect animals and insects, which don't have EPSPS and rely on their diet for the amino acids the enzyme helps produce. And when sprayed on fields, glyphosate doesn't readily leach into water systems. Instead, it latches tightly to soil particles and degrades within weeks into harmless byproducts. By contrast, herbicides such as atrazine have been widely implicated in contaminating groundwater.

Monsanto began selling glyphosate in 1974 under the trade name Roundup. Sales remained modest for years--until researchers engineered GR crops to use in combination with the herbicide. By 1983, researchers had isolated a gene known as CP4 in bacteria that synthesized aromatic amino acids through a different route from that of the EPSPS in plants. By 1986, they had spliced CP4 into plants and shown that the plants could withstand the effects of glyphosate with no apparent damage.

It was another 10 years before Roundup Ready soybeans hit the market, but their impact was dramatic. In 1995, U.S. farmers used 4.5 million kilograms of glyphosate; they now use 10 times that amount. "If I were playing in an herbicide fantasy league, my first pick would be Roundup Ready cropping systems with glyphosate, and I would let you have the next three selections," says John Wilcut, a crop scientist at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh.

Since 1996, Monsanto and other seed companies have introduced GR canola, cotton, corn, sugar beets, and alfalfa. The popularity of the herbicide was further fueled when the compound went off patent in 2000, which has triggered a 40% price drop in the years since. That combination produced a massive shift from traditional crop varieties to GR versions. In just a 5-year span, GR soybeans commanded 50% of the land cultivated for soy in the United States, and GR corn a 40% share. Today, GR soybeans make up more than 90% of soybeans planted in the United States, and corn more than 60%. By comparison, organic agriculture accounts for about 1% of cultivated land. "Farmers are normally very conservative," says Weeks. "Clearly, this was a real winner."

Awaiting the inevitable One effect of that winning combination has been to slash the market for competing herbicides. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the prices of two popular herbicides--chlorimuron and trifluralin--have dropped 20% to 40% since 1998. Over the same period, U.S. sales of all herbicides, including glyphosate, have declined by about $1 billion, nearly 20% of the industry total. Faced with this shrinking market and the glyphosate juggernaut, herbicide companies have been backing out of the market.

Nearly 20 herbicides with different mechanisms of killing plants were sprayed on soybeans a decade ago; now, farmers are increasingly relying on glyphosate for most or all of their herbicide needs. In a survey of 400 farmers in the U.S. Midwest, for example, researchers at Syngenta found that 56% of soybean growers in northern states and 42% in southern states use glyphosate as their sole herbicide. As a result, "the selective pressure for weeds to develop resistance has been huge," says Stephen Duke, a plant physiologist at USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Oxford, Mississippi. "From a biological perspective, this is inevitable," adds Jerry Green, a weed scientist with DuPont Crop Protection in Newark, Delaware.

For years, many researchers doubted that plants would be able to overcome their vulnerability to glyphosate, because EPSPS plays such a vital role in plant metabolism. One 1997 paper in the journal Weed Technology even stated that "the complex mutations required for the development of glyphosate-resistant crops are unlikely to be duplicated in nature to evolve glyphosate-resistant weeds." Unfortunately, that was written just after the first GR weeds were discovered in 1996. Today, about a dozen different varieties of weeds are known to have developed resistance.

And the spread of resistance to new weed species is increasing. Resistant weeds have now been spotted in countries around the globe, including the United States, Argentina, South Africa, Israel, and Australia. According to WeedScience.com, an international herbicide-resistance tracking service, GR "horseweed" was first identified in a Delaware field of GR soybeans in 2000, and since then it has turned up in 14 states as well as in Brazil and China.

Again, like many microbes that evolve to outwit antibiotics, it now appears that GR weeds don't make a frontal attack on glyphosate. According to Christopher Preston, a weed-management scientist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, one common resistance mechanism centers on the way glyphosate moves within plants. In a presentation at a symposium on glyphosate resistance held as part of the American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting in March in Chicago, Illinois, Preston noted that when glyphosate is sprayed on the leaves of a susceptible plant, it is normally absorbed quickly and moves readily throughout its tissues. Once inside, it accumulates at the growth point in roots and stems and kills the plants. However, when Preston and his colleagues looked at a resistant form of rigid ryegrass, they found that the glyphosate accumulated in the leaf tips. The plant was essentially steering the compound away from areas where it could inflict lethal damage. Preston's team found a similar mechanism of resistance in two populations of horseweed as well, suggesting that glyphosate sequestering could be a mode of resistance common to many weeds.

For now, however, resistant weeds are still the minority. According to the Syngenta survey, 24% of farmers in the northern portion of the Midwestern United States and 29% in the south say they have GR weeds. But only 8% say it's a problem across all of their acreage. Still, Syngenta's Chuck Foresman, who presented the data at the ACS meeting, says, "the resistance issue is across the Midwest, South, and Southeast. Nobody is exempt." Crop scientists from Argentina, Brazil, and Australia echoed growing concerns about the problem in their countries as well.

What to do? Fighting resistance is something of an uphill battle, says Duke. At the moment, not all farmers see resistance as a major issue, but by the time they do, resistance may be so widespread that it will be hard to combat. In recent decades, when resistance to one herbicide has spread, farmers have simply switched to another. But glyphosate's recent dominance of the herbicide market has reduced work on alternatives just when they are needed most. "Weed control is shifting to herbicide-resistant crops, and so are the research budgets," Green says. That's bad news, NCSU's Wilcut says: "We need to have more of a diversity of herbicides out there." But there are no new silver-bullet herbicides that are safe and broadly effective waiting in the wings. "We are not likely to get additional herbicide modes of action," Wilcut says.

With a multibillion-dollar market for herbicides and transgenic seeds at risk, agricultural researchers underscore the need to educate farmers to use long-standard methods of combating weeds, to preserve glyphosate's effectiveness as long as possible. Among these, says Weeks, are traditional resistance-management strategies of rotating crops and using a variety of different herbicides to combat weeds, practices that hinder resistant organisms from gaining a foothold in their fields. In many cases, that's likely to mean rotating in crops that don't rely on using glyphosate.

Aside from proper stewardship practices, most researchers feel that the best hope for combating herbicide-resistant weeds is the continued development of transgenic crops. Nicholas Duck and colleagues at Athenix, a crop sciences start-up in Durham, North Carolina, for example, are developing crop varieties that are resistant to even higher levels of glyphosate. Planting them may allow farmers to buy some time by applying heavier doses of the herbicide to their crops, but it could add to the selective pressure on weeds to develop resistance.

Other companies, meanwhile, are pushing crops resistant to herbicides other than glyphosate. Bayer Crop Sciences, for example, has already commercialized soybean and corn seeds resistant to glufosinate, a herbicide that kills plants by a different mechanism from glyphosate's. These crops, sold under the trade name Liberty Link, have not done as well in the market as glyphosate has because the herbicide is more expensive yet less effective at killing a broad range of weeds. But if GR crops continue to falter, Bayer could find itself a beneficiary.

Dicamba, another cheap herbicide that has been on the market for 4 decades, could also emerge as a successor. Researchers in Texas created dicamba-resistant plants in 2003 by adding the gene for an enzyme that deactivates the herbicide. Seed companies have never managed to develop varieties that expressed enough of the enzyme to fully protect the crops. But in their report in this issue, Weeks and his colleagues managed to do just that, developing soybeans that in 3 years of field trials proved highly resistant to dicamba.

As with previous herbicide-resistant crops, Weeks's team engineered their soybeans to express a bacterial gene that confers resistance, in this case by breaking down the herbicide. But in an ingenious twist, the Nebraska researchers targeted the engineered gene to be expressed in the plants' photosynthetic chloroplasts. The move offers two benefits, Weeks explains. First, the resistance-conferring enzyme works better because it can swipe the electrons it needs from the steady stream generated during photosynthesis. Also, like mitochondrial DNA, chloroplast DNA is inherited through the maternal side. That means a GM crop can't spread resistance through wind- or insect-carried pollen, which comes from the male side.

Weeks says Monsanto has licensed the technology and that it could be commercially available within 3 to 4 years. If so, he says, it could allow growers to rotate their crops between varieties resistant to two different herbicides. "It gives farmers an alternative to the continual use of glyphosate-resistant crops," Weeks says. And the development of herbicide-resistant crops won't stop with dicamba. "We have the technology today to develop herbicide resistance to about anything we want to," Green says.

Another approach being pursued at Monsanto and elsewhere is to combine, or "stack," genes for resistance to multiple herbicides in the same plants. Researchers at Pioneer HiBred, a division of DuPont, for example, are working to create crops that are resistant to both glyphosate and herbicides that target a plant enzyme called acetolactate synthase. ALS inhibitors have also been on the market for years and face resistant weeds of their own. And scientists elsewhere announced last year that they plan to create crops resistant to herbicides that inhibit ACCase, an initial enzymatic step in lipid synthesis that is critical to grasses.

In addition to stacking traits for resistance to multiple herbicides, researchers at Pioneer and elsewhere are looking to add other traits to crops, such as heat and drought resistance, increased yield, and insect resistance. In some cases, they hope to add genes for novel nutrsients and even pharmaceutical compounds. "There is a tremendous opportunity to do this for the next generation of traits," Duck says. Although such efforts are still in the early stages, he adds, "in the future, everything is going toward product stacks." The question is whether crops resistant to multiple herbicides will prolong the life of one of the farming community's favorite herbicides.


Glyphosate -- The Conservationist's Friend?

- Robert F. Service, Science, May 25 200, v.316, no. 5828, pp.1116-1117 http://www.sciencemag.org

Weeds resistant to the powerhouse herbicide glyphosate not only threaten the livelihoods of farmers worldwide, but they could have environmental downsides as well. Among the worst, glyphosate's disappearance could increase the loss of topsoil, require farmers to switch to more harmful herbicides, and force them to use more fuel to rid their fields of weeds.

The current combination of herbicide-resistant crops and herbicide use is hardly an environmental panacea. A 2003 farm-scale evaluation in the United Kingdom, for example, found that the combination contributed to a loss of biodiversity both by reducing the numbers of weeds and by indirectly affecting insects that rely on those weeds for food. Many governments have also been cautious about allowing the use of herbicide-resistant crops for fear that genes that confer herbicide resistance could spread far beyond agricultural fields.

Despite such concerns, many agricultural researchers now say glyphosate-resistant (GR) crops have had widespread environmental benefits, at least compared with the previously used alternatives. "Glyphosate-resistant crop weed management systems are generally safer to the environment than what they replace, and in many cases much safer," says Stephen Duke, a plant physiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service in Oxford, Mississippi.

One of the biggest benefits of GR crops is their indirect impact on topsoil. Modern farming encourages heavy topsoil losses because farmers traditionally plow fields before planting seeds. Turning over the topsoil buries many weed seeds that were present under 4 to 6 inches of dirt. Although that reduces the likelihood that weeds will compete with emerging crop plants, it also dramatically increases the amount of topsoil that washes away with rain and irrigation.

By contrast, many farmers don't plow their fields before planting GR crops. Instead, they simply plant seeds and spray glyphosate on their fields shortly after their crops have emerged, wiping out their weedy competitors. The upshot is that herbicide-resistant crops often require minimal tilling or no tilling at all. In March, at a symposium on glyphosate at the American Chemical Society meeting in Chicago, Illinois, Pedro Christoffoleti of the University of So Paolo in Brazil reported a recent study in South America that found that growing soybeans with conventional tillage produced topsoil losses of 1.2 tons per hectare. With GR crops planted with no-till practices, those losses shrank to 0.2 tons per hectare, a reduction of more than 80%.

No-till agriculture saves farmers time and money, and for that reason the practice has grown dramatically with the rise of GR crops. In one recent study, the American Soybean Association in Washington, D.C., found that in just 5 years from 1996 to 2001 when herbicide-resistant soybeans first came on the market, the area of soybean land farmed by no-till agriculture in the United States increased from about 5 million hectares to more than 11 million hectares, whereas conventional tillage dropped from close to 8 million hectares to under 4 million hectares. By 2001, almost all no-tillage soybeans were GR varieties. What is more, because no-till agriculture requires less tractor use, the practice reduces soil compaction and cuts fuel use on farms. All those benefits could take big hits should the emergence of GR weeds prompt farmers to abandon glyphosate, Duke says.

Additional impacts could come as farmers switch to herbicides that are more toxic to mammals. Gerald Nelson, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and his colleagues have recently begun looking at the likely impact of that shift. To do so, they used a common yardstick, known as the LD50 dose, to compare the toxicity of various herbicides. The LD50 dose is a widely available measurement of the amount of a particular compound required to kill half of a population of rats in lab studies. When the researchers looked at the effect of switching from GR crops to conventional seeds with other herbicides, they found that the switch would require farmers to increase the LD50 doses applied to the average U.S. farm by about 10% per hectare in soybeans and 25% per hectare in cotton. Nelson says it's not yet clear how such changes will translate into impacts on organisms other than mammals, such as insects and birds. However, Nelson adds, "there will be some more effects on anything else susceptible to these [alternative] herbicides."


New Genetically Modified Crops: Q&A (with Don Weeks on Dicamba Resistant GM crop)

- Joyce Gramza, ScienCentral News (Online), May 30, 2007

It may not have the ring of "Roundup Ready" but "Dicamba Ready" is poised to be the next major type of genetically modified crop that's resistant to a widely used weed killer, according to research published in the journal Science.

Researchers led by Donald Weeks, director of the Center for Biological Chemistry at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, gave crop plants a gene from a naturally occurring soil bacterium that breaks down the herbicide dicamba. Because dicamba kills broadleaved plants but not grassy ones, its use has been limited to grassy crops like corn and wheat, but not broadleaved crops like soybeans.

Reporter Joyce Gramza talked with Weeks about the development.

What's the news here?

The news here is that there will be available to farmers in the United States and around the world in the next few years, a new tool for them to control weeds in their crops. And weed control is vitally important to maximize productivity. Weeds have a nasty way of competing for water, nutrients and sunlight with the crop and if those weeds aren't controlled it can lead to lower productivity for the farmer. And it is important as land becomes more scarce and water becomes more scarce that we maximize productivity on the land that we have. Controlling weeds certainly helps that.

Also, it's going to be potentially important to farmers that the Roundup Ready crops that they have come to rely on - that that remains a strategy that they can rely on. And unfortunately, there have been in a few areas, some weeds that have appeared that are tolerant or resistant to treatment with Roundup. And in those areas, farmers can no longer use Roundup effectively to control weeds. Most of those weeds can be controlled with dicamba. So using a combination of dicamba with Roundup will allow farmers to control those Roundup-resistant weeds and at the same time use dicamba and/or Roundup to control all the rest of the weeds that are a problem in the fields.

Does dicamba control the same types of weeds as Roundup?

It controls some of the same weeds. Roundup is what's called a nonspecific herbicide, that means it kills just about any plant that you spray it on. If you've used it around your home you know that if you hit a rosebush with it, that in addition to weeds you're going to kill the rosebush. Whereas dicamba is what's called a selective herbicide- it has the ability to kill what are called broadleaf plants- whereas it will not kill grassy type plants, so it won't kill the grass in your yard, or it won't kill corn or wheat which are grassy type plants.

Will it kill dandelions?

It will kill dandelions and in fact many of the dandelion weedkillers you buy in the hardware store have dicamba in them.

So now people are going to be able to have dicamba-resistant rosebushes?

Maybe in the distant future, but the primary targets are going to be crops of agronomic importance that are dicots, that are broadleaves, that would include soybeans is the major crop, cotton, canola, and then we probably would go into vegetables and then also one potential target would be trees that are used for pulp and paper manufacturing or for biomass conversion for biofuels.

So is this product going to compete with Roundup Ready?

We see it as actually complementing that technology. I think the better way to view it is that it allows farmers to rotate their herbicides. One of the challenges here is the Roundup technology with Roundup resistant crops has been that farmers have begun to use Roundup year after year after year and that puts a lot of pressure for the development of Roundup resistant weeds. With the availability of - the dicamba-resistant plants, the farmers can begin to rotate their herbicides and this will help suppress the appearance of both Roundup resistantant weeds as well as dicamba-resistant weeds.

You mentioned something in the paper about no-till?

No till and low-till practices have come to the fore in the last few years especially with the advent of Roundup. The idea here is that essentially you go in and plant your new crop without having to plow the soil from the previous crop. You simply go in and plant right in the stubble of your cornfield or soybean field, keeping that debris in the soil, and keeping the plant roots in place and so forth goes a long way in preventing runoff and erosion. It also helps to preserve the structure of the soil which also helps in productivity.

Sounds like it might save energy too?

It sure does. And the reason Roundup was important in this is that you could go in before you plant and if there were any weeds that were beginning to appear you could spray them and kill them before planting so you had no weed competition early in the growth of the crop. And that's important that the crops get off to a good healthy start.

So to a regular consumer, why do they care about that?

Well it certainly keeps the cost of production low and most consumers are concerned with the cost of their food. But for those who are ecologically involved and concerned, the low till, minimum till conservation tillage practices really means a great step forward in preserving the topsoil that is so vitally needed for production.

And as you said earlier one other important factor here is that the amount of fuel that's needed to till the land is decreased rather dramatically.

[Note: less tilling also keeps more carbon in the soil instead of releasing it into the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming.]

The paper also says this is environmentally friendly, again if I'm a consumer and want to know what's being used on my food, how is this a big deal to me?

This is environmentally friendly in that dicamba sprayed on crops and on the soil does not stick around, there are many bacteria and microbes in the soil that readily degrade the dicamba and therefore it rarely runs off into water supplies that people drink. That's more of a problem for some of the older herbicides that have been around. Atrazine is an example of an herbicide that's widely used that has been found in a number of water supplies simply because it's not degraded very rapidly in the environment.

In terms of food safety, there's very little concern for the consumer because herbicides to begin with are thoroughly tested for their lack of toxicity to humans and to animals. And then the seeds that are produced by the plants are not directly sprayed, or they're protected by their hulls or husks from the direct application of herbicides. And then all of these crops that we're talking about at this point are processed foods. So there's just no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of herbicides. And in fact we all have been eating food that for the last 60 years have been treated with various herbicides that farmers use to control weeds and there's been no significant health problems associated with consuming that food.

When you say rapidly, like a week?

It depends on the soil but you're talking generally most of it is gone by a month, certainly by three months you're hard-pressed to find any in the soil. So for instance- farmers who use dicamba have no concern at all with planting next year's crop because there's no residual herbicide around.

So when you define environmentally safe to a regular person, is there some context you can put it in, like your paper said it was category III for the EPAŠ

And that's a category that's little or no toxicity.

So what would be examples of pesticides that are in the other categories?

Oh boy, you're not asking the right expert at this point.

In terms of being able to put it on context, like what category would Roundup be?

I don't know is the answer. But it certainly has to be in a very low category because there's no direct human or animal toxicity and there's certainly, the environmental impact of Roundup is very, very low.

[Note: Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is also EPA Category III. Anti-pesticide organizations remain concerned about its toxicity.]

So it's not like you could say, this is less toxic than Roundup.

No, I think it can be said that it's a safe herbicide like Roundup. But I'm not in a position to comment on the relative safety or toxicity of these. Put it this way: I don't think anybody has any concern about the safety of either of those two compounds. And the fact of the matter is that all herbicides and pesticides have to go through a pretty thorough testing before they're ever brought to market- and the government on rare occasions have pulled herbicides-- not so much herbicides, but insecticides-- off the market when they have deemed them to be perhaps less safe than they would like. So things that are on the market have been looked at very carefully in regard to human and wildlife and environmental safety.

So for example I bought a house seven years ago, and it has a stream running through the property. And I know that the previous owners used chemicals right next to the creek to kill weeds. And since I've lived here and don't use chemicals, I sit there and dig dandelions out by hand, I do notice we have a lot more birds and wildlife around.

Certainly the wildlife prefers wild environments. OK, so if you take a manicured lawn and allow it to go back to the wild it's clear that you're likely going to attract more wildlife to an area that they feel safer in and have more food than they would on a manicured lawn or well-maintained piece of property.

So if you want a lot more birds and critters around ...

You have to have a habitat that they tend to thrive in.

So this is really only for farmers.

One of the things I find a little bit interesting-- by and large U.S. farmers have tried to optimize yields per acre - and that involves keeping out dangerous insects to the crop, it also involves keeping weeds at bay. In England in particular there's a bit of an unusual philosophy of wanting to maintain certain amounts of weed cover in fields per se. And this seems a bit strange to me, it would seem that they would be far better off to have areas set aside that really were wild areas for wildlife to thrive instead of asking them to try to survive in a farming area. But that's a different philosophy in regard to how they like to encourage wildlife. I think as I said earlier, wildlife does best in a wild area versus a managed, cultivated area.

There's another paragraph in the paper that seems important, you talked about "the ability to block gene dissemination through pollen flow- as soon as techniques prove practical," can you translate that into English?

Sure. I should start by saying that the problem of gene dissemination through pollen flow is not a major problem with the major crops in the United States. For instance, there are no wild relatives of corn in the United States, there are no wild relatives of soybeans or cotton. And for those who know a little about genetics, the barrier to cross-pollination has to do with species. So you can cross-pollinate a corn plant with a corn plant but you can't cross-pollinate a corn plant with a wheat plant because they're different species. So for those crops that may appear or in certain countries where there are wild relatives-- for instance, China has wild species of soybeans-- you would want potentially to have the ability to control gene flow by not having pollen carry the gene, that you have it only in the parent that's carrying the egg. And that technology is developing so that once you put the gene into the chloroplast genome it's only inherited through the maternal side of the family and there's no pollen that's dispersed with that gene.

So is that going to be part of this technology when it becomes commercially available?

No, and again it's not necessary in this case because there are no wild relatives- And the fact of the matter is that already even in those crops where there are wild relatives, people have been growing these crops with the wild relative for years with no problem. So even where there is cross-pollination there's been no significant problem. And even if this gene were on a plant that could cross with a wild relative, there's no reason to believe that there would be any advantage to that plant carrying this particular gene in the environment.

What testing have you done and what testing do you still need to do?

All transgenic crops have to go through a very significant registration process. They have to conform with all of the regulatory rules that have been put in place by USDA, the EPA and the FDA for safety in the environment, for safety in regard to food, both for people as well as for wildlife. This is a very expensive process, it's a process that we as a university simply couldn't bear and that's why in almost all cases, to commercialize a new crop plant we need to partner with an industrial firm that can afford to take things through regulatory. The cost can vary anywhere from, say, 30 million up to perhaps a hundred million dollars. That's a lot of money that universities simply don't have. But the large companies, if the product looks like it could be commercially successful, are willing to invest that kind of money to bring the product to market.

So who are you partnering with?

We have licensed this technology to Monsanto and that was about two years ago. And they are working very vigorously on the dicamba-resistant soybeans and there will be additional crops that they also will be targeting in the future.

So when you say you licensed it to Monsanto, you guys own it still?

The university has patented the technology and we have licensed it to Monsanto.

So you can license it to anyone you want or only to them?

Sure, and we talked with a number of companies who showed interest in the technology and it was Monsanto that we thought turned out to be the best partner for us to bring this to market-The license to Monsanto is exclusive. Thus, we cannot sublicense to anyone else.

Isn't Monsanto a company people love to hate like Microsoft? Like if I invented a new computer breakthrough and I licensed it to Bill Gates, wouldn't people go, 'How could you do that?'

But if you look at what Monsanto has accomplished, if you realize that 90 percent of the soybeans that are grown in this country and probably South America, are Roundup resistant, about the same in cotton, a lot of corn as well, then you put on top of that the Bt insect-resistance trait-- they are the ones who took the early chances, they spent a lot of money and they were scoffed at by a number of people for investing so much money early on. So they took some real chances in trying to bring this technology to market and to their credit they succeeded. Being the frontrunner causes you to be vulnerable to criticism and unfortunately a lot of the criticism of genetically modified plants has fallen on the doorstep of Monsanto because they're the big boys.

So what do you say to people who hear Monsanto and think this has got to be bad?

I think that if you look at the effect that for instance the Roundup Ready technology has had in the farming community you've got to realize it has had a monumental effect. Ask almost any farmer in the mid-West if they want to give up their Roundup resistant crops and they'll tell you no. Ask a cotton farmer whether he wants to go back to spraying nine or 10 times during the growing season with insecticides-they'll quickly tell you no, they don't want to -GMO foods have been now on the market being consumed on a regular basis by everybody in the United State for over 10 years, and there's no case of any documented ill effect on peoples' health or well-being.


$3M Grant to Danforth Center to Enhance Sweet Potato for Africa

- Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, May 20, 2007 http://www.danforthcenter.org

'Howard G. Buffett Foundation Makes $3 Million Grant; Project Will Utilize Technology Donated By Monsanto Company'

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center today announced that the Howard G. Buffett Foundation has granted more than $3 million to fund research to enhance resistance to virus infection and increase the nutritional content of sweet potato for Africa. The grant will fund research that uses technology donated by Monsanto Company and the Danforth Center. To enhance the likelihood of research success, the Danforth Center has engaged the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, in the project, and the National Agricultural Research Organisation - Uganda (NARO) to create a multi-institutional collaboration.

"This new and truly unique partnership between the Danforth Center and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation will address hunger in Africa - sweet potato is an important staple crop in many regions of Africa and has the potential to produce high yields," said Danforth Center President Dr. Roger N. Beachy. "By increasing the resistance to disease, crop yields will be enhanced; by increasing the amounts of nutrition in farmer-preferred sweet potato varieties, we hope that our research will be part of a solution in meeting the challenge to efficiently feed Africa's growing population."

Today, sweet potato production is decimated by dual infections of sweet potato feathery mottle virus (SPFMV) and sweet potato chlorotic stunt virus (SPCSV). Danforth Center scientists will work to increase resistance to these two viruses, while undertaking research that will increase the amount of the vitamins folate, zinc and iron. In the 1990s, a project to control the disease caused by SPFMV was initiated in a collaborative between a Kenyan research institute and Monsanto Company, with limited success. Researchers later demonstrated that the disease was caused by co-infection by SPFMV (+) SPCSV, rather than by single virus.

"Increasing the amount of food available to the families of poor farmers in Africa, while at the same time improving the nutritional content of locally produced foods, is vital to their future health and well-being. It is increasingly important to combine conservation farming techniques with basic science to enhance the production of crops like sweet potato, maize and other staple crops to address hunger in many African nations," explained Howard G. Buffett. "This new collaboration with the Danforth Center and their team of scientists will hopefully unlock novel techniques that will improve the food supply in Africa."

"Monsanto Company is committed to addressing issues of food security and sharing technology to improve crops for the developing world," said Hugh Grant, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Monsanto Company. "We are pleased that the Howard G. Buffett Foundation is supporting the work of the Danforth Center scientists as it provides the opportunity to put important agricultural technology tools into the hands of farmers who need them most."

The Buffett Foundation's gift to the Danforth Center builds on other gifts to address issues in Africa that include animal conservation, abundant clean-water, food relief, and the illegal immigration of children. Initial research results from the Danforth Center's sweet potato project are anticipated in late 2008.

About The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center: Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a global vision to improve the human condition. Research at the Danforth Center will enhance the nutritional content of plants to improve human health, increase agricultural production to create a sustainable food supply, and build scientific capacity to generate economic growth in the St. Louis region and throughout Missouri. Please visit www.danforthcenter.org for additional information.


India: 3 Members on GM Panel Back Off From Report

- Nitin Sethi, Times of India , June 2, 2007 http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com

New Delhi: In an intriguing development, three members of a Planning Commission taskforce on genetically modified organisms have dissociated themselves from the report submitted by the study group months after it was released.

The report had castigated existing GM regulatory authorities and rules, as TOI had reported earlier. But, in an odd coincidence, the letter, though shot off more than two months after the report was made public, was sent on the same day -- April 11, 2007 -- when the three members and other taskforce members received an e-mail request from a pro-GM group. The e-mail warned that the report could be used to support a certain argument in an ongoing Supreme Court case where an argument has been made out by a petitioner against GM trials in India.

The three members -- Deepak Pental, vice-chancellor of Delhi University, Sudhir Sopory of International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, and Satish Raina of Nath Biogene (India) Ltd -- said in the letter, "We disassociate ourselves from any recommendations made that seek to impose a moratorium for commercialisation of GM crops. We have not received any communication from the Planning Commission or from the chairman of the taskforce for formal discussions on the recommendations." Speaking to TOI, Pental said, "I don't remember the matter. But I did not agree with the form in which the report was presented."

But correspondence in possession with TOI shows that chairperson of the taskforce, Suman Sahai, head of a Delhi-based organisation Gene Campaign, had sent the final draft way back on November 28 for review of the taskforce.

Sahai had stated: "The TF report as final draft is attached. regrettably many of you did not provide any inputs. However, if you have last minute comments before the deadline, please send them to me and I will be happy to incorporate them." Other correspondence shows that Sahai had regularly updated them on the proceedings.

Not receiving any comments from the three members, the report was then sent to the Plan panel excluding the names of two of the three from the authorship, as they had not made any submissions throughout the life of the taskforce. The commission put up the report on its website in February 2007.

Interestingly, the letter by the three dissenting members was written after they received a letter from C Kameshwara Rao, executive secretary of Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, a Bangalore-based pro-GM group, asking them to "raise a protest against which aspects of the issue" they did not agree with.

Sopory said, "A lot of discussions were done on e-mail which is not proper and my e-mail was not working for a while so I was not able to respond." He did not confirm or deny if he had received the final report in advance for comments. But correspondence shows he had earlier written to Sahai stating: "Due to some personal work I had to come to US-. I will not be able to attend the meetings. I am sorry that I am unable to contribute my bit. May be you can co-opt another member."


Bt Cotton In Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh, India: 3. The Farmers' Story

- C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org http://fbae.org/Channels/Views/bt_cotton_in_warangal_district3.htm

We met about 20 Bt cotton growing farmers from different villages such as Kadipikonda (Hanumakonda Mandal), Kapulakanaparthi (Sangyem Mandal), Dharmaram (Beejakonda Mandal), Uggonipalli and Ustarapalli (both in Atmakur Mandal), and Yellampalli (Chityala Mandal) in the Warangal District. Three or four farmers we met have abandoned their non-Bt crop in the face of very severe pest infestation, though this was a low-pest pressure year. Rain fed crop allows only two pickings while the irrigated crop provides for at least three pickings. The acreage of each farmer varied from one to five, though a few cultivate 10 acres or more. Not being properly guided and not being sure of what to choose, in the face of several Bt varieties, the farmers planted a different variety on each acre, in the hope of choosing the best for the next year.

Almost no one planted a refugium. Three pesticide sprays being the norm, one did not spray any pesticide at all, while one sprayed eight times in an anxiety to 'provide greater protection to the crop'. Untimely rain damaged the crop in several places in the District. There were problems of germination, some varieties were susceptible to virus disease or the grey mildew and there was a higher incidence of jassid and white fly in some areas. They expect an income of Rs. 6,000 (rain fed) to 10,000 (irrigated) per acre and seemed satisfied with it. Some farmers are cultivating even the illegal Bt bought in Maharashtra in the hope of realizing an unrealistically high yield of up to 15 quintals. Farmers do not believe that sheep died out of eating Bt cotton and asserted that no farmer committed suicide on account of Bt cotton.

One farmer owning 12 acres grows cotton on eight acres. On three acres, he is growing Bollgard II (the two gene stacked BGII). He bought the seed in Nanded, Maharashtra, as BGII was not approved for AP and is very happy with this variety. On one acre he is growing Bt cotton variety Brahma, and on another MECH 12, both of which also were not approved for AP.

The farmers have no thought of crop rotation and intercropping that would have reduced pest damage, as they hope to earn more from continuous cotton cropping.

One serious complaint was that the banks which advanced crop loans deducted some amount as insurance premium but did not pay compensation for crop losses, an unfair practice. Another complaint was that some dealers mislead farmers by telling that their Bt seed does not need any pesticide spray.

We have also visited the Yaenabaavi village, widely publicized for its management of agriculture without chemical inputs and without Bt cotton, discussed on this blog earlier (January 25, 2007).

The Bottom Line

There have been certain instances of suboptimal performance of Bt cotton in the Warangal District and elsewhere. The causes for this lie not in the Bt technology per se, but in management. All the important players such as the Government (not controlling illegal and spurious seed and no seed certification policy), Bt event developers (not choosing appropriate varieties for specific regions), the seed dealers (insufficient post-sale guidance and crop monitoring), and the farmers (cutting edges and not adopting appropriate cultivation practices), have contributed to certain deficiencies in the crop outcome. The NGOs play on these problems of management and project an over blown picture of Bt cotton disaster to the world. What the farmer ultimately earns depends not on just the crop yield but on the market forces on the day of sale of cotton. The Government should ensure that the farmer gets a fair price which necessitates the elimination of middlemen.

In the semi-arid Telengana region and similar areas, the most important negative factor is growing cotton in red soil and that too as a rain fed crop. This is in spite of the advice of the AP Department of Agriculture which had cautioned against the practice a long time ago, particularly in areas where the annual rain fall was less than 60 cm and not distributed uniformly during the crop season. There is a very striking difference between Bt cotton grown as a rain fed and irrigated crop, as between Bt and non-Bt crop. Whatever the enthusiasm of the farmer, cotton cannot be grown profitably everywhere.

Compulsory registration of Bt seed developers and their seed plots, permitting the sale of only authentic Bt cotton seed exclusively through Government recognized outlets and providing for adequate and appropriate farmer education would immensely improve the situation.

In the ideological and political campaign against Bt cotton, truth and facts are the prime casualties and the ultimate sufferer is the farmer, for whose benefit every one claims to be working.