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June 7, 2007


GMO potato takes shape; Seed for salty ground; Biotech for productivity; A bitter harvest


Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, http://www.agbioworld.org, June 7, 2007

* GMO potato takes shape in EU
* Crop Containment Strategy Proposed
* Seed for salty ground
* Use biotech for productivity
* A bitter harvest


GMO potato takes shape in EU, no French fries yet

- Jeremy Smith, Reuters, June 7, 2007


European regulators are pushing ahead with plans to allow farmers to grow a genetically modified (GMO) potato but focusing first on its use in feed and non-food industries due to opposition from several GMO-wary countries.

Last December, EU biotech experts failed to reach the required consensus to approve the application for cultivation approval, filed by German chemicals group BASF.

Normally, the application should have been escalated to EU environment ministers for debate within three months. If this had happened, and the ministers agreed, it would have been the first EU approval of a GMO crop for growing since 1998.

Shortly after that date, the bloc started its de facto moratorium on new biotech authorizations that ended in 2004.

But that process has been stalled, partly due to requests made to BASF for more data on its product -- and partly, officials say, due to reluctance inside the European Commission's environment department to push the dossier forward.

Now, the Commission's food safety department will ask a different experts' committee to approve the potato, engineered to yield high amounts of starch, but for different uses -- not cultivation. This separate approval is also needed under EU law.

"A draft decision should be submitted to the regulatory committee in the coming months," one Commission official said.

The second EU approval relates to the potato's use in animal feed and other non-food products such as paper. By-products of the starch extraction process, like pulp, are used in animal feed and the potato juice can also be used as a soil fertilizer.

"The authorization (under the EU's GMO food and feed regulation) is complementary to the one for cultivation since BASF only intends to cultivate it in the EU," the official said.


The European Union has long been split on GMO policy and its 27 member states consistently clash over whether to approve new varieties for import -- but without ever reaching a conclusion.

Analysis of recent voting patterns indicates that the consistent "blocking minority" of EU governments may be eroding as some smaller countries are opting to abstain than reject an application outright -- so weakening the "anti-GMO" camp.

Some countries, like Britain, Finland and the Netherlands, almost always vote in favor of approving new GMOs. They are offset by a group of GMO-skeptic states like Austria, Greece and Luxembourg, that vote against and force a voting stalemate.

In Europe, consumers are well known for their skepticism, if not hostility, to GMO crops, often dubbed as "Frankenstein foods." But the international biotech industry says its products are perfectly safe and no different to conventional foods.

However, approving a new GMO crop for cultivation is seen as almost impossible in the EU's current climate, diplomats say.

"The environment dossier is not going forward," said one representative of a leading environment lobby in Brussels.

"The idea was that these two (applications) would go through together," she said. "They (BASF) would grow it in Europe and the by-products of the starch production and harvesting would be fed to animals. They have to get the two (approvals) together."


Rutgers Scientists Propose Biotech Crop Containment Strategy

- Reuters, June 6, 2007, maliga+at+waksman.rutgers.edu


Contact: maliga+at+waksman.rutgers.edu.

New Brunswick, N.J. - Plant geneticists at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, may have solved one of the fundamental problems in genetically engineered or modified (also known as GM or GMO or Biotech) crop agriculture: genes leaking into the environment.

In a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Rutgers Professor Pal Maliga and research associate Zora Svab advocate an alternative and more secure means of introducing genetic material into a plant. In GM crops today, novel genes are inserted into a cell nucleus but can eventually wind up in pollen grains or seeds that make their way out into the environment.

The two researchers at Rutgers' Waksman Institute of Microbiology argue for implanting the genes into another component of the cell - the plastid - where the risk of escape is minimized. Plastids, rarely found in pollen, are small bodies inside the cell that facilitate photosynthesis, the basic life process in plants.

"Our work with a tobacco plant model is breathing new life into an approach that had been dismissed out-of-hand for all the wrong reasons," said Maliga. "Introducing new agriculturally useful genes through the plastid may prove the most effective means for engineering the next generation of GM crops."

Skeptics had claimed that the approach was ineffective, based on 20-year-old genetic data showing that 2 percent of the pollen carried plastids. In the new study, Svab and Maliga found plastids in pollen 100- to 1000-times less frequently. This is well below the threshold generally accepted for additional containment measures.

The agricultural community worldwide seems to be embracing GM crops because the technology has the potential to deliver more healthful and nutritious crops, and increase crop yields with less use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

A "News Focus" story in the May 25 issue of the journal Science reported that genetically modified crops are flourishing worldwide, including in six European Union countries. "Last year (2006), 10 million farmers in 22 countries planted more than 100 million hectares with GM crops," it said.

There has been serious opposition to genetically modified agriculture both in the United States and abroad, coming from concerns about "foreign genes" escaping from GM crops, crossing with and contaminating other crops and wild species, and disrupting the ecosystem. Pursuing the approach elucidated and advocated by the Rutgers researchers' findings may allay some of these fears and deflate the more vociferous arguments.

Svab and Maliga acknowledge that different strains of tobacco may produce plastid-carrying pollen at different frequencies, possibly accounting for some of the discrepancy between the old genetic data and the new. They emphasize that it will be important that any new crops that are developed be selected for low plastid pollen.

"We expect that there are nuclear genes which control the probability of plastids finding their way into pollen, but we have the tools that can be used to identify those genetic lines in every crop that will transmit plastids only at a low frequency," Maliga said.


Sowing seed on salty ground

Scientists have discovered a gene that allows plants to grow better in low nutrient conditions

- European Molecular Biology Organization press release via EurekAlert, June 6, 2007


Contact: Julian Schroeder julian+at+biomail.ucsd.edu

Scientists have discovered a gene that allows plants to grow better in low nutrient conditions and even enhance their growth through sodium uptake, according to a report published online this week in The EMBO Journal.

Salty soil caused by irrigation practices in arid regions has become a major agricultural problem - not only in India, China and African countries, but also around the Mediterranean and in dry regions of the USA, such as California. This is only expected to get worse in forthcoming years, as climate change leads to desertification.

Julian Schroeder and coworkers investigated a sodium transporter called OsHKT2;1 in the roots of rice plants. Their results provide evidence that this transporter has capabilities previously thought to exist but not genetically validated in plants before. Under salt stress, when sodium levels are too high, OsHKT2;1 transport is quickly shut off, protecting the plant from accumulating too much sodium before it can become toxic.

In addition, the authors found that sodium can also have beneficial effects under nutrient poor conditions. On soils where little nutritional potassium is available, a common problem after many years of agricultural production, plants can take up sodium through the OsHKT2;1 transporter to replace some of the functions of potassium and actually enhance growth. This improvement of our understanding of how plants regulate salt uptake in their roots may help to eventually find a solution to reducing the impact of soil salinity on agricultural productivity.


Rice OsHKT2;1 transporter mediates large Na+ influx component into K+-starved roots for growth

- Tomoaki Horie et. al., EMBO Journal advance online publication 31 May 2007; doi: 10.1038/sj.emboj.7601732


Contact: julian+at+biomail.ucsd.edu


Excessive accumulation of sodium in plants causes toxicity. No mutation that greatly diminishes sodium (Na+) influx into plant roots has been isolated. The OsHKT2;1 (previously named OsHKT1) transporter from rice functions as a relatively Na+-selective transporter in heterologous expression systems, but the in vivo function of OsHKT2;1 remains unknown. Here, we analyzed transposon-insertion rice lines disrupted in OsHKT2;1. Interestingly, three independent oshkt2;1-null alleles exhibited significantly reduced growth compared with wild-type plants under low Na+ and K+ starvation conditions. The mutant alleles accumulated less Na+, but not less K+, in roots and shoots. OsHKT2;1 was mainly expressed in the cortex and endodermis of roots. 22Na+ tracer influx experiments revealed that Na+ influx into oshkt2;1-null roots was dramatically reduced compared with wild-type plants. A rapid repression of OsHKT2;1-mediated Na+ influx and mRNA reduction were found when wild-type plants were exposed to 30 mM NaCl. These analyses demonstrate that Na+ can enhance growth of rice under K+ starvation conditions, and that OsHKT2;1 is the central transporter for nutritional Na+ uptake into K+-starved rice roots.


Use biotech to boost farm productivity: Chidambaram

- India eNews, June 7, 2007


Finance Minister P. Chidambaram Thursday exhorted the biotech sector to enhance agricultural productivity and achieve self-sufficiency in food supplies.

Inaugurating the three-day Bangalore Bio 2007 here, Chidambaram said the sector should achieve breakthroughs in agriculture research to increase productivity, improve quality and ensure better returns on farmers' investment.

'At a time when the services sector is growing by 30 percent, the manufacturing sector by 12 percent per annum, the slow growth rate (2.4 percent) in the agriculture sector and stagnant food production is a cause for concern,' he said.

Though the biotech sector has achieved remarkable breakthroughs in pharma and cash crops such as BT cottonseeds, the need of the hour is to step-up yields of rice, wheat, pulses and oilseeds to meet the growing demand for essential commodities and check the price rice, according to the finance minister.

'No country as large as India with over a billion mouths can expect to meet the food needs by imports, which can only be a temporary measure. The total acreage of land for cultivating basic food crops such as wheat and paddy (rice) has remained stagnant for long. Production also remained near stagnant and below world average. Yield gaps vary between states as well as crops.

'It is the biotech sector which can usher in the second green revolution by applying biotechnology and bio-resources in food crops as it has been doing of late in cash crops like BT cotton. The challenge for Indian scientists is to replicate the breakthroughs in food crops, while addressing concerns about genetic engineering at the same time,' Chidambaram told about 800 delegates participating in the trade event.

With the GDP growing at eight-nine percent and demand for food articles growing, thanks to the increasing purchasing power and greater consumption, the government had been forced to import wheat, pulses and oilseeds to check the price rise and moderate inflation.

'Instead of exporting rice and wheat, we are importing pulses and oilseeds to bridge the demand-supply gap and control prices. To reverse the situation, biotechnology and bio-resources have to be invested in food crops to not only meet the growing demand, but also achieve self-sufficiency to avoid imports,' Chidambaram pointed out.

Lauding the achievements of the sector in bio-pharma, bio-informatics and bio-research leading to drug discovery, new molecules and clinical development, the finance minister said the 35 percent growth achieved in the last fiscal (FY 2007) had pitch-forked India to the third position after Japan and South Korea in the Asia-Pacific region.

'I have no doubt the sector will move to the frontline of bio-pharma on global scale. Besides balancing cost, quality and effectiveness of generic or new drugs, pharma companies have to find cures for dreaded diseases such as HIV, AIDS and hepatitis,' Chidambaram noted.

Admitting funding and talent resource were critical to the rapid growth of the biotech sector, he said the government would address the early stage funding issue and facilitate building the human capital by the industry as well as the academia.

'We are aware of the problem. We have already amended the Income Tax Act to channel venture capital into high-risk funding from low-risk,' the minister added.


A bitter harvest

- Andrew Bolt, The Herald Sun (Australia), June 8, 2007


STICK to the facts long enough, and the mad crowd will some day come back to you, eating genetically-modified humble pie.

No, I'm not talking again about today's warming mad crowd, the warming cultists so sure they'll fry or drown.

No, the people I see now sheepishly drifting back are ones once sure that Frankenfoods could give them two heads or no genitals.

They are the panic merchants who feared that these genetically modified food crops would unleash "superbugs", breed monster weeds, wipe out butterflies, enslave farmers, poison us with "terminator genes" and inflict every misery up to - or even including - triffid-like plants stalking the countryside.

Of course, nothing is as stale as a scare of yesterday. The ones who fell for it don't want reminding, and the ones who didn't are boring with their "I told you so".

But when so many people fall for one eco-scare after another - nuclear winters, the Chernobyl holocaust, the DDT menace, toxic PVC, our salinity crisis, a bleaching Great Barrier Reef or cataclysmic global warming - it steadies our nerves if we at least recall how we got spooked by the booga booga beat-up over GM crops.

These are crops whose genetic material has been modified by scientists so they grow in drier soils, resist diseases and insects, give better harvests, tolerate better herbicides or give us healthier, tastier eating.

In fact, these are crops so rich in promise that Victoria's Treasurer, John Brumby, last month said he'd grow them on his own sheep property, if only he were allowed.

But he isn't.

And here's the stupid thing: it's his own State Government that's banned GM crops here, claiming they're too risky, when, as Brumby knows, all the evidence says they're safe, safe, safe. And money-making.

Says who? Says the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, which approved GM canola for planting.

Says the CSIRO and a consensus of scientists more united on this than on global warming. Say Melbourne University researchers who confirm many GM crops can be grown with much less harmful herbicides.

Say the 22 countries that now grow GM crops, and have done so for up to 11 years without hurting a soul.

Even the Europeans, who banned GM imports for so long, now grow the stuff, reporting yields of GM maize around 10 per cent higher.

In fact, as the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics warns, we're missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars of trade by not growing GM crops ourselves.

It's found that GM-happy competitors who don't share our green phobia now dominate world trade in canola, maize, soy beans and cotton seed.

You'll now wonder how we could have been so dumb as to ban GM food crops in nearly every state, and grow them nowhere.

Simple: all the proof in the world won't reassure green fundamentalists with an irrational hatred of genetically engineered crops. Nor does it impress the campaigners' many mates in the media.

How fiercely these zealots fought. Greenpeace even vowed to destroy any trial plantings of Golden Rice, a strain of rice modified to add extra vitamin A to the diet of poor children in rice-eating areas to stop up to 50,000 each month from going blind from a vitamin deficiency.

So savage was the campaign against GM crops and so feebly did scientists resist that field trials of Golden Rice were delayed for five years, costing who knows how many blighted lives.

Worse, in Zambia, officials were so terrified by such fear-mongering that they rejected GM corn sent as aid to victims of a terrible famine.

The head of the United States' Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, raged at the cruelty of the anti-GM campaigners, saying they "can play these games with Europeans, who have full stomachs, but it is revolting and despicable to see them do so when the lives of Africans are at stake".

The co-inventor of Golden Rice, Professor Ingo Potrykus, was no less appalled by threats to destroy his crops, warning: "If Greenpeace does this, they will be guilty of a crime against humanity."

No wonder our Nobel Prize laureate Professor Peter Doherty, complained: "Reason is under threat."

But want a measure of how feebly this superstitious campaign was resisted by people we pay to defend reason? Note that the anti-GM propaganda of green groups was even included in the GM exhibit at our new Melbourne Museum.

The few scientists who did fight back were slimed as global-warming sceptics are today. As in: they're corrupt; they're isolated; they're earth-rapists; they're Right-wing cronies.

Australia's chief scientist, Dr Jim Peacock, was the CSIRO's top plant researcher and president of the Australian Academy of Science, but all his learning didn't save him when he declared that GM food crops were safe and using them "will be essential to the future".

The Greens called him "highly divisive" and "quite antagonistic towards ecosystem approaches". Senator Christine Milne even suggested he was merely a toady of the Prime Minister who'd "toe the Government line".

The Leftist Overland magazine, backed by Victoria University, had been even more vitriolic.

Its then co-editor accused GM scientists of taking "bribes" and asserting that "invariably those who make erroneous claims of 'scientific consensus' ... have fiscal connections to bio-tech companies".

Green guru David Suzuki screeched that "any scientist or politician who assures you these products are safe is either very stupid or lying" - a claim he now makes against global warming sceptics, too.

It worked, of course. Governments put bans on GM food crops in every state and territory except Queensland and the Northern Territory. But let's be positive. At last our shame-faced politicians are quietly trying to wind back the irrationality they did so little to stop.

Queensland may soon trial GM sugar cane.

Victoria wants the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator to approve trials of a drought-tolerant GM wheat. And if the eco-zealots don't scream too much, the Bracks Government will next year drop its ban on GM crops. But in truth those old GM scaremongers aren't really limping home from their defeat, all mortified.

Most are still out in the fields, working up a far bigger scare with the same old tactics. We make soon eat our GM Corn Flakes, yet reason is still in retreat.

But more about global warming some other day.


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