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Date:

June 6, 2007

Subject:

Adopting Agricultural Biotechnology, Biotech Promises Better Future; Debate becoming a political fight

 

Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, June 6, 2007

* Adopting Agricultural Biotechnology
* Biotechnology Promises Better Future
* Plan Taking Shape for Crop Research Partnership
* New Plant-bacterial Symbiotic Mechanism
* Debate becoming a political fight

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Adopting Agricultural Biotechnology

- Alfred Tumushabe & Otushabire Tibyangye, The Monitor (Kampala), June 6, 2007

http://allafrica.com/stories/200706060163.html <http://allafrica.com/stories/200706060163.html>  

By the time you read this article, it is likely that Genetically Modified (GM) bananas that have been imported from Belgium will be at Kawanda Agricultural Research Centre for field trial on their possible adoption in Uganda in a wake to introduce GM bananas crops.

Dr Yona Baguma, a Senior Research Officer National Research Organization (NARO) told agriculture extension workers, farmers' leaders and communicators at Lake View Resort Hotel on May 24 that the bananas were being brought for field trial in a week's time, from Belgium where a Ugandan engineered them during his PhD studentship. Africa 2007

"There are some GM bananas that are imported from Belgium that will arrive in Uganda next week. These bananas are going to be tested under confined field trials in Kawanda. The cultivars are not Ugandan so we are going to import the technology to see if it works in Uganda. If it works then we shall transfer it to the popular East African Highland banana cultivars. We have the capacity to this technology." Baguma said.

Government through NARO is building confined field trial sites at Mubuku (Kasese), Serere (Eastern) and Namulonge for testing genetic engineered Cotton, Cassava and crops hoping to adopt this technology after the trials on crops confirm they can grow well. Biotechnology is the modification and exploitation of living things or part of living things to produce new tools, goods and products for human use.

Through the advancement of technology, scientists have been able to develop more precise and powerful tools to produce crops and animals with selected trains that aim to benefit farmers and consumers.

Crops and animals are engineered to produce better ones, pharmaceuticals such as vaccines, antibodies and many other industrial raw materials. Baguma says application of agriculture biotechnology can help improve the nutritive value and productivity thus reducing, malnutrition, food insecurity and poverty with in Uganda. The substantial achievements, he said, being recorded with this technology in some developing and developed countries should not simply be ignored.

Most of the research about GM crops and commercial growing has been carried out in developed countries, mainly in USA, Argentina, Brazil Canada and Spain. Developing countries; India, South African and China among others have also spotted the potential benefits of GM crops and are now growing them.

Like her East African counterpart economy Kenya, Baguma said Uganda ought to put the policy in place and adopt agricultural biotechnology. And a delay in having a biosafety law will make Uganda vulnerable to illegal importation of Genetically Modified Organisms.

Lack of enabling policy

He said agricultural scientists at various centres in Uganda have been able to make genetically engineered cassava, maize and cotton among others but have not been exploited by farmers due to lack of an enabling policy. "Government should put in place biotechnology and biosafety policy to make Uganda utilize the technology for its national development." Baguma said. The policy that was drafted in 2004 is yet to be approved by the cabinet. The reasons for planting GM crops include but are not limited to increased food production, lower food prices, environmental conservation and improved food quality

By the year 2050, its projected that there will be 9.3 billion people living on this planet This means that less than 50 years world population is expected to increase by 3 billion. Feeding those people will mean massive changes in the production, distribution, and stability of food products.

Uganda's population is expected to increases from 28 million people to 47 by the year 2020. "We cannot sustain the country's food needs with conventional and organic farming. Our population is increasing and we need to supply them food in the next 50 years." Baguma said.

GMO proponents in Uganda say the crops do not only give better harvests, but also get effective protection from pests and diseases, bring more profit to the farmer as result of increased yields and conserve environment because of reduced pest cides use and tillage.

In the developed countries, GM crops have been integrated into commodity markets. According to a report prepared by the United States Development Agency (USDA) Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (Opportunities and Challenges in Agriculture Biotechnology), in 2005, 52% of corn (maize), 87% of soybeans, and 79% of cotton planted in the United States were genetically engineered. Biotechnology however, requires some investment.

There is need for scientific capacity to assess the biosafety of the GM crops, economic expertise to evaluate their worth, regulatory capacity to implement guidelines for safe deployment and legal systems and punish transgressions in law. Therefore, the proposed National Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy should address such concerns especially building and strengthening national capacity in biotechnology research and development and providing a regulatory and institutional framework for biotechnology development and applications.

Much as the technology is becoming popular, there is a heated debate over genetically modified crops, featuring science, economics, politics and religion. In some countries, there have been increased risk management requirements as well as opposition to introduction of the transgenic seed varieties and the foods produced from those crops.

Some of the food processors and retailers have been reluctant to introduce food products developed from transgenic crops in markets due to perceived consumer resistance to genetic engineering technology, while other markets there is a requirement for mandatory labeling of food products. Africa 2007

The resistance stems from some consumers' perception that there are unknown risks associated with genetically engineered foods and an absence of obvious consumer benefits. The frequently asked questions are about quality of the out put, marketing and adoptability of the new crop varieties to the climatic conditions, and the crop impact on the human fertility.

Dr. Thomas Egwang, Director General Medical Biotech Laboratories Kampala says "Biotechnology will be an engine for Uganda's social economic development that would enable it catch up with the countries so far ahead of it." He said people who are ignorant about biotechnology are the ones bent on talking about its ill effects.

Despite the diversity of ethical issues in agricultural biotechnology, there is a need to understand beliefs and doctrines as this allows coexistence with in a cross societies, and prevents social conflict.

Technology's acceptance is based not only on technological soundness but also on how it's perceived to socially, politically and economically. A strong public awareness is therefore very necessary before the technology is finally taken up by the farmers in Uganda.

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Biotechnology Promises Better Future for All

- Lilliane Barenzi, The Monitor (Kampala), web posted June 5, 2007

http://allafrica.com/stories/200706051019.html <http://allafrica.com/stories/200706051019.html>  

Agricultural biotechnology is being put forward as a cost- effective solution to the problem of malnutrition that plagues much of the African continent where hundreds of thousands of children die from or are adversely affected by nutrient-poor diets

According to Wally Green, biotechnology promises a better future for all of us. In Africa, biotechnology has the capacity to bring about near instant solutions for problems like hunger, malnutrition and poverty, and South Africa, where Green is the Mosanto Biotechnology Regulatory Manager, is in a race to take advantage of the cutting edge science. Africa 2007

Agricultural biotechnology has become the focus for several countries across the continent, with governments in North, South, East, West and Central African countries making rapid progress towards creating policy environments in which biotechnology research can flourish.

The leader of the pack is no doubt South Africa, which is the eighth largest producer in the world of genetically modified (GM) maize and cotton. Maize, also known as mealies or corn, is a food staple for both humans and livestock in the country with a population of 57 million. But annually, drought and diseases like maize streak virus, cause massive crop losses exacerbating challenges of food safety and poverty reduction for the predominantly black African masses.

Monsanto is a leading producer and distributor of GM maize seed in SA, including a variety impregnated with a 'stack' gene to provide drought tolerance as well as pest resistance. However, the industry titan has been vilified by the anti-biotech movement, which has strong leanings towards the pro-organic food drive, for alleged crimes ranging from 'genetic pollution' to 'exploitation of poor farming communities'. Green maintains that, instead, the technology actually benefits farmers, citing huge savings in pesticides for one, and the fact that no expensive infrastructure is required.

"Genetically modified seed with the drought tolerance gene enhances productivity through the intensification of agriculture, rather than 'extensification' which means the use of more and more resources like land and irrigation."

This should be music to the ears of 'resource poor' farmers in South Africa and most of Africa where communities are held at ransom by the high-risk business of rain-fed farming. With increasingly alarming reports about desertification and climate change, proponents from both sides of the biotech divide can at least agree that poor farmers should be looking for more than divine intervention. While the powerful anti-biotech lobby has, inadvertently or not, provided a boost to the organic movement which espouses 'natural' farming practices from field to supermarket, agricultural researchers concede that a lot of the food consumed presently has never undergone such rigorous testing as GM foods, and nobody can claim for sure that everything passed under the 'natural' label is in fact safe.

One case in particular points at modern rice hybrids that are produced and consumed worldwide, having been 'engineered' by a process called Gamma Ray Mutation which involves the use of irradiation in the creation of the hybrid.

The 'mutant' hybrids have been part of the human diet for decades and have never been tested for harmful effects in the medium or long term.

An article in The Economist (2005) says today scientists use thermal neutrons, X-rays, or ethyl methane sulphonate, a harsh carcinogenic chemical--anything that will damage DNA--to generate mutant cereals.

Virtually every variety of wheat and barley you see growing in the field was produced by this kind of "mutation breeding". No safety tests are done; nobody protests. On the other hand, GM foods are highly regulated and subjected to rigorous testing and have to be heavily labeled before going onto the market, conditions which according to Green, "are meant to slow down the technology".

Agricultural biotechnology is being put forward as a cost-effective solution to the problem of malnutrition that plagues much of the African continent where hundreds of thousands of children die from or are adversely affected by nutrient-poor diets. Food enhancement is possible with biotechnology, as crops like soya, rice, maize and potato have successfully been modified to provide increased enrichment in vital nutrients such as protein and vitamins.

"This food is as safe or even safer than conventional food because it is thoroughly tested," Green says. The organic movement, which has friends in anti-globalisation and anti-multinationals, has been quick to play up the risks of eating 'mutant', 'frankenstein' foods, but for many of the world's poor, starvation is a much worse fate.

Ironically, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa is reported to have said he "would rather let his people starve than eat anything 'toxic", even as he rejected food aid from the USA in 2004. At various biotechnology meetings in Pretoria, SA, in March 2007, a delegation of Ugandan researchers and policymakers examined evidence of the host country's rapid and steadfast adoption of biotechnology, specifically agricultural biotechnology.

South Africa is the only African country producing GM crops commercially and is among a few countries worldwide recording the fastest growth in the number of hectares under GM crops. In a tour organised by Africa Bio, an independent, non-profit biotechnology stakeholders association, the Ugandan delegation visited regulatory offices, laboratories, learning institutions as well as large and smallholder farms to familiarise themselves with biotechnology practice and legislation.

Huge success gained

According to AfricaBio President, Professor Diran Makinde, South Africa has achieved huge successes in this field because of government support. "Once the government is willing to explore new frontiers, everything else follows," he said in an interview, adding, "biotechnology stakeholders require an agreeable policy environment in which to operate so they can apply biotechnology safely and ethically."

The South African government has faced stiff resistance from the anti-lobby which includes strong organisations like Green Peace, Bio Watch, SafeAge (SA free alliance against genetic engineering). However, Ben Durham, head of biotechnology in the government's science and technology department reiterated the commitment of the government to maximising the benefits of science and forging on towards creating a 'bioeconomy' with health services, agriculture, industry, mining and the environment identified as main areas for research and development.

"The government is committing more and more resources to support biotechnology projects across the country, and our goal is to increase the budget item for biotechnology funding significantly," he said. The SA government adopted a national biotechnology strategy in 2001, committing an initial R450 million (US$69 million) from 2004 to 2007 to biotechnology development.

The strategy highlighted the importance of a 'bioeconomy' and the development of commercially viable biotechnology products. So far, the jury is still out on whether African governments will make the right choices for their people and take steps towards exploring the safe and viable use of biotechnology.

At the core of the extensive consultations is the issue of trade, and whether African countries can protect their fragile foothold in international markets, particularly in Europe, which has created the greatest barriers to commercial GM crops. European governments have been accused of distorting the biotech debate in order to hide their failure to legislate food safety and expose their farmers to competition.

As the debate rages on, the proponents raise various important issues: Biotechnology has demonstrated the potential to raise productivity. Biotechnology has even greater potential productivity and environmental benefits in developing countries. Biotechnology also has demonstrated potential to deliver improved nutrition in developing countries.

Biotechnology is farmer friendly, since its products are easy for farmers to adopt: the technology is embedded in the seed or plant cutting. Biotech crops can greatly reduce labour intensity for cultivators, who in Africa are mostly women. Biotechnology can reduce losses from spoilage and disease.

Biotech Status in Africa

1 country (South Africa) has commercial plantings of GMOs

9 countries (Burkina Faso; Egypt; Kenya; Morocco; Senegal; South Africa; Tanzania; Zambia; Zimbabwe) have reported field trials of GMOs

20 countries (Benin; Burkina Faso; Cameroon; Egypt; Ghana; Kenya; Malawi; Mali; Mauritius; Morocco; Namibia; Niger; Nigeria; Senegal; South Africa; Tanzania; Tunisia; Uganda; Zambia; Zimbabwe) are engaged in GMO research and development

At least 24 countries (Algeria; Benin; Botswana; Burkina Faso; Cameroon; Egypt; Ethiopia; Ghana; Kenya; Madagascar; Malawi; Mali; Mauritius; Morocco; Namibia; Niger; Nigeria; Senegal; South Africa; Tanzania; Tunisia; Uganda; Zambia; Zimbabwe) have the capacity and institutions to conduct research and development into agricultural biotechnology

27 African countries have ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to date

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North Carolina State, Dole Plan Taking Shape for Crop Research Partnership

- Associated Press via WRAL-TV, June 6, 2007

http://www.localtechwire.com/news/state/story/1475271/ <http://www.localtechwire.com/news/state/story/1475271/>  

KANNAPOLIS, N.C.  -  Steve French looks over his blackberry and raspberry rows at Summerberry Farm on Rimer Road.

The 56-year-old, who came to North Carolina from Florida, is worried about his crop this year.

A hard freeze descended on the area during the Easter weekend and some of his plants were damaged.

"I lost about 10 percent of the blackberry plants," he said.

French is just one of the hundreds of berry farmers who were hit by the Easter ice storm. He also has to worry about disease, dry conditions and a short growing season.

On the North Carolina Research Campus, North Carolina State University will partner with Dole Food Co. and conduct research on making fruit and vegetable crops - like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, sweet potatoes and romaine lettuce - healthier, more resistant to disease and have longer growing seasons.

Steve Leath, director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service - the research arm of North Carolina State's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said Dole and North Carolina State have basic agreements on paper, but the overall vision for how Dole and North Carolina State will work together on the campus is a work in progress.

"Right now, the relationship is young and growing," Leath said. "In terms of how space and equipment in the building is shared, we should have an agreement within six months spelling that out."

Scientists at North Carolina State's Institute for Fruit and Vegetable Science will share a 100,000-square-foot building on the campus with Dole Nutrition Institute. Dole Food CEO David Murdock created the institute to research how to make fruits and vegetables healthier. The institute also distributes literature about healthy eating and living through pamphlets, newsletters and electronic media.

Peter Gilmore, Dole's vice president for Eastern Seaboard Sourcing, said Dole scientists will focus on how to make its products better for shipping and processing.

"We are still working on the role they will play on the research campus," Gilmore said. "But Mr. Murdock has indicated he wants cutting-edge research."

That means collaboration with scientists from the University of North Carolina system, Gilmore said, and use of state-of-the-art technology.

"We are structuring which scientists to hire at North Carolina State. They are doing the same at Dole, so there is no overlap in efforts," Leath said.

While North Carolina State will be doing more experimental work, such as crossbreeding and genetic manipulation, on fruits and vegetables, Dole will be doing more "routine" analyses - like trying to better understand how nutrients in fruits and vegetables are formed.

"Dole scientists may find a nutrient in a fruit," Leath said. "We can take what they discovered and find ways to increase it, decrease it and manipulate it so the plant bears fruit that has that certain nutrient."

But Dole Food will not own or control any intellectual property from university research.

"We are very careful about being objective when it comes to partnering with the universities," Gilmore said. "But that doesn't mean we won't be pushing the research along."

Gilmore said the knowledge that will come out of the campus would be open for anyone to use.

"Dole will not have first dibs on the research," Gilmore said.

That is how most research agreements are set up between private companies and public universities, said John Gilligan, vice chancellor for research at North Carolina State.

"In each agreement we make with a private company, the main principle is to maintain academic independence and freedom for our researchers and students," Gilligan said.

That means a company that provides grant money for a research project won't dictate to a researcher what to study, how to perform their study or demand exclusive rights to the results of the research.

"Universities are open environments," Gilligan said. "Our research is open to the public."

For North Carolina State, the partnership means getting help on how to grow better and more nutritious fruits and vegetables and translating that to the field. Leath said he is interviewing candidates for four new extension faculty members to base in Kannapolis.

Those extension faculty members would work with local farmers to translate the research from the lab to the farm.

"How those farmers will be chosen, that would be up to the extension faculty," Leath said.

For farmers like French, the research could translate into larger yields and healthier plants.

"The big thing I have to deal with now is fruit rot," French said. "Making plants disease-resistant, that is a big thing."

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New Plant-bacterial Symbiotic Mechanism Promising For Crop Applications

- Science Daily, June 6, 2007

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070605121013.htm <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070605121013.htm>  

The growth of most plants depends on the presence of sufficient amounts of nitrogen contained in the soil. However, a family of plants, the legumes, is partially free of this constraint thanks to its ability to live in association with soil bacteria of the Rhizobium, genus, capable of fixing nitrogen from the air. When these bacteria come into contact with their host plant, they trigger in the roots the formation and development of organs, termed nodules, where they continue to live. This close relationship is symbiosis, which benefits both organisms involved: the plant supplies nutritive elements to the bacteria which in return pass on the nitrogen they have stored up.

These interactions improve crop yields of leguminous plants that are crucial for human diet (soybean, peas, ground nuts and so on...) and as animal feed (alfalfa, clover, sainfoin). In addition, cultivation of legumes living in symbiotic association with bacteria can contribute to vegetation regeneration schemes on soils depleted in nitrogen owing to overexploitation, erosion or desertification. The plant cover thus formed can help achieve ecological restoration, by enriching the soils in nitrogen. However, the symbiotic processes studied predominantly concern the leguminous plants of temperate zones, very little those of the tropics.

The team from the IRD's 'Laboratoire des Symbioses Tropicales et Méditerranéennes' and its partners taking as model a symbiosis between a tropical aquatic legume, Aeschynomene, and Bradyrhizobium, bacteria of the Rhizobia family, have just revealed a new mode of communication at molecular level between these two organisms. The bacteria of this original model have their own photosynthetic pathway, a unique property in the rhizobia. This special character confers on it the exceptional, rare ability to form nodules on the stems of its host-plant. The plant thus acquires the possibility of fixing much higher quantities of nitrogen than those usually measured in leguminous plants which have nodules only on their roots.

The researchers sequenced the genes of two bacterial strains of Bradyrhizobium, ORS278 and BTAi1, in order to find out their genetic make-up and identify the genes involved in this rather special form of symbiosis. These bacteria were found to have no nod genes, usually essential for nodulation. Bradyrhizobium consequently appeared to use mechanisms that involved other genes. This surprising result calls into question the universally recognized model of molecular communication that initiates the rhizobia-legume symbiosis. This common model requires the presence of several nod genes which allow synthesis of the Nod factor, a compound elaborated by the bacterium which enables the plant to recognize it, by molecular recognition, thereby allowing the microorganism to penetrate inside the plant by the root hairs.

The finding raises the question as to what signalling pathway Bradyrhizodium might use to gain entry to the plant and set off nodulation.

The first observation was that the bacteria did not penetrate the roots of its host-plant by the hairs. It took advantage of "crack zones" comparable with wound areas. The set of results obtained from subsequent work, seeking to identify the genes involved in producing the unknown signal molecule that plays the role of Nod factor, prompted the team's hypothesis that a molecule similar to a plant hormone , cytokinin, could act in the mechanisms by triggering nodulation. The discovery of the nature of the signal molecule itself, which remains to be fully determined, brings a glimpse of future agricultural applications.

Many plants live in symbiosis with bacteria, but the mechanisms are known for only a small number of these interactions. The demonstration of alternative pathways capable of triggering the nodulation signal in certain rhizobia is promising for future techniques for bringing these bacteria into association with different leguminous plants. It therefore becomes possible to increase agricultural production of a greater number of important plants, notably in tropical countries, while cutting down the use of fertilizers.

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Debate on GM food becoming a political fight

- Dr Kelvin Kemm, Engineering News (South Africa), June 1, 2007

http://www.engineeringnews.co.za/category.php?cat_id=329 <http://www.engineeringnews.co.za/category.php?cat_id=329>  

The genetically modified (GM) food issue continues to raise its head, with the result that more and more public comment comes along.

In principle, public comment is good, but public comment should not intrude deeper into the issue than the public can comprehend, or than it is able to add value.

For example, if there is public comment on heart transplants, that is good - if the comment is about the ethics of transplants, and which hospitals should be equipped to handle such work.

Public comment on heart surgery should not tell the surgeon how to replace a mitral valve, or how to suture the aorta. That would be interference at a professional level that does no good; in fact, it would do harm.

Imagine if the 'pearl one, knit two' lobby was pitched against the 'pearl two, knit two' lobby in aorta suture in the press. Imagine if movie stars and cabinet ministers were taking sides on the issue.

Well, that is what is happening in the field of GM food - it is becoming a political fight rather than a scientific investigation. We find that the local sugar industry says that it will hold off on the introduction of GM sugar cane for commercial use because of fears that the move could threaten the sector's local and export markets.

If you put that into other terminology, it says that they are scared of what stories could end up in the press. Meanwhile, the South African Sugar Research Institute has been developing GM technology since 1993. The sugar cane that has been developed is insect repellent, and could also yield higher amounts of sucrose.

In other words, it should turn out to be much more profitable, so the farmers and the workers should all benefit in due course. Blocking the introduction of the cane is like blocking the social advance of these people.

Then, just at the time that we hear that there is a bit of a potato shortage in the country, Pick 'n Pay announces that it will not stock or support GM potatoes until they are proved to be totally safe.

This is a dumb statement; it is like saying that a person will not travel in a Pick 'n Pay delivery vehicle until the Pick 'n Pay board can guarantee that the vehicle engine will not catch fire.

The result of Pick 'n Pay's action is that it ensures that cheaper GM potatoes are not sold and that the potato price is consequently held higher than it may otherwise have been. Pick 'n Pay is, of course, protecting its income from its higher-income customers. But what is irritating is this high moral stance that Pick 'n Pay takes, as it insults the integrity and intelligence of South African scientists, who are professionals in the field.

GM has, actually, been going on for centuries in nature's way, very ably assisted by humans. This was cross-breeding of plants. The original size of mealie cobs was about the size of a person's thumb and, over the centuries, mankind has carried out cross-breeding genetic modification on the prehistoric mealies until today when a mealie cob can be as long as a person's forearm.

Today, genetic modification is not carried out only in the field by means of cross-breeding - it is also done in a laboratory, so today science can, perhaps, take the primitive mealie and change it into the modern mealie in a decade rather than taking thousands of years.

Of course, modern genetic modification is smart, so genes that produce an effect that bugs do not like can be designed into plants like sugar cane and potato. The result is that the bugs don't then contaminate the produce, and the farmer does not need to use artificial pesticide or herbicide.

One would imagine that Pick 'n Pay would be only too happy to assist in a movement towards reducing the use of artificial herbicides and pesticides rather than blocking it.

Currently, GM crops make up 85% of the local cotton harvest, 70% of the soybean harvest and 44% of the maize harvest. The planting of GM crops is increasing in other countries, such as the US, Argentina and Brazil. If we don't keep up with the technology, we will be left behind.

South Africa has very competent scientists in the field of bioengineering, and they know what they are doing. Of course, at a political and economic level, the country also has to take decisions on the matter, but those decisions should be highly influenced by the advice given by the scientists.

Further, good genetic modification advances should assist South Africa in gaining major exports, which then benefit the entire economy and, therefore, all taxpayers and all citizens. If we can produce agricultural produce cheaper than before, we can export more efficiently.

In addition, we have more capacity to expand the genetic modification influence than countries like Holland or the UK. There, every square metre is already used, and crops are gown very efficiently - they just have so many people and so little space that the plants get personalised tender, loving care. In contrast, the wise application of genetic modification techniques can potentially make a major difference to our agricultural productivity.

So our competitive position will improve. In years to come, genetic modification will be the norm. Pick 'n Pay is now acting like the guys who, a couple of hundred years ago, smashed the new-fangled cotton spinning machines because they would reduce the price of clothes.

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