* Getting the Bugs Out
* GM crop role in sustainable ag
* The future lies in GM food
* Trillions Served
* Farmers Demand Payment For Trampled Fields
* Bio-factory producing corn-based polymer
Getting the Bugs Out of Genetically Modified Crops
- Scientific American, June 7, 2007
Are crops genetically altered to resist insects really better for the environment?
In 1985 scientists inserted genetic information into tobacco plants that enabled them to produce a crystal that was toxic to butterflies, moths and other insect pests. Derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, the Bt toxin has since been engineered into crops from corn to cotton, because it is lethal to pests yet seemingly harmless to other insects and animals, including people. Now a new review of 42 field experiments indicates that fields planted with Bt crops have more insects and other critters than those treated with broad-spectrum insecticides. But it also exposes holes in the available research, such as the impact of genetically modified crops on neighboring ecosystems.
Biologist Michelle Marvier of Santa Clara University in California and her colleagues found that Bt corn and cotton that were not sprayed with pesticides had more fauna than treated traditional crops. "What the study really tells us is that conventional insecticides kill nontarget insects," says entomologist Bruce Tabashnik of the University of Arizona (U.A.) in Tucson, who was not involved in the study. The question becomes, he adds: "Do Bt crops reduce insecticide use?"
The study also reveals, however, that Bt crop acreage has less insect biodiversity than untreated fields. "It is unclear whether the reduced abundance of these [insect] groups (coleopterans, hemipterans and hymenopterans) is due to direct toxicity or is a response to reduced availability of prey in Bt crops," Marvier's team reports today in Science.
U.A. entomologist Yves Carrière, who was also not involved in the study, notes that farm practices will ultimately determine the value and impact of such genetically modified plants. "If broad-spectrum insecticides are commonly used and Bt crops reduce such use, then Bt crops could have positive impacts,'' he says. "If insecticides are rarely used, then Bt crops do not bring advantages, and it is still unclear whether they may bring significant disadvantages."
Previous studies have indicated that Bt crops could lead to increased use of narrowly targeted pesticides. But they also show that they have reduced use of the most damaging broad-spectrum insecticides, which could be good news considering that an estimated 71 percent of U.S. cotton fields are treated with them, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data from 2005.
"It's not just [that] the percentage of the acreage treated is higher, it's that the use per acre is more intense," Tabashnik notes. "If you've got Bt cotton, you've got a bigger potential to reduce insecticide use."
Tabashnik also says that studies to determine the impact of genetically modified crops on creatures great and small in surrounding nonfarm environments are now needed. "How do transgenics affect wildlife in native habitats in the U.S.?" he asks. "That is the next frontier in this environmental assessment."
New study finds genetically engineered crops could play a role in sustainable agriculture
Possible benefits include reduced use of chemicals in crops modified with insecticidal gene
- National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis/UCSB, June 7, 2007
Contact: Margaret Connors, connors+at+nceas.ucsb.edu
(Santa Barbara, California) - Genetically modified (GM) crops may contribute to increased productivity in sustainable agriculture, according to a groundbreaking study published in the June 8 issue of the journal Science. The study analyzes, for the first time, environmental impact data from field experiments all over the world, involving corn and cotton plants with a Bt gene inserted for its insecticidal properties. The research was conducted by scientists at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, The Nature Conservancy, and Santa Clara University. The study is accompanied by a searchable global database for agricultural and environmental scientists studying the effects of genetically engineered crops.
Biotechnology and genetic engineering are controversial because of concerns about risks to human health and biodiversity, but few analyses exist that reveal the actual effects genetically modified plants have on other non-modified species. In an analysis of 42 field experiments, scientists found that this particular modification, which causes the plant to produce an insecticide internally, can have an environmental benefit because large-scale insecticide spraying can be avoided. Organisms such as ladybird beetles, earthworms, and bees in locales with "Bt crops" fared better in field trials than those within locales treated with chemical insecticides.
"This is a groundbreaking study and the first of its kind to evaluate the current science surrounding genetically modified crops. The results are significant for how we think about technology and the future of sustainable agriculture," said Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy.
According to lead author, Michele Marvier, of Santa Clara University, "We can now answer the question: Do Bt crops have effects on beneficial insects and worms" The answer is that it depends to a large degree upon the type of comparison one makes. When Bt crops are compared to crops sprayed with insecticides, the Bt crops come out looking quite good. But when Bt crops are compared to crops without insecticides, there are reductions of certain animal groups that warrant further investigation." What is clear is that the advantages or disadvantages of GM crops depend on the specific goals and vision for agroecosystems.
As NCEAS Director, Jim Reichman explains, "This important study by an interdisciplinary research team reveals how an in-depth analysis of large quantities of existing data from many individual experiments can provide a greater understanding of a complex issue. The project is enhanced by the creation of a public database, Nontarget Effects of Bt Crops, developed by NCEAS ecoinformatics expert, Jim Regetz, that will allow other scientists to conduct congruent analyses."
A Meta-Analysis of Effects of Bt Cotton and Maize on Nontarget Invertebrates
- Michelle Marvier, et. al., Science, June 8, 2007 (Vol. 316. no. 5830, pp. 1475 - 1477, doi 10.1126/science.1139208)
[Abstract:] Although scores of experiments have examined the ecological consequences of transgenic Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) crops, debates continue regarding the nontarget impacts of this technology. Quantitative reviews of existing studies are crucial for better gauging risks and improving future risk assessments. To encourage evidence-based risk analyses, we constructed a searchable database for nontarget effects of Bt crops. A meta-analysis of 42 field experiments indicates that nontarget invertebrates are generally more abundant in Bt cotton and Bt maize fields than in nontransgenic fields managed with insecticides. However, in comparison with insecticide-free control fields, certain nontarget taxa are less abundant in Bt fields.
For health and happiness, the future lies in genetically modified food: Experts
- Indian Express, June 8, 2007
Chandigarh: At a stage when agriculture growth has come down from 4 to 2.6 per cent, experts say a lot is in store when it comes to genetically modified (GM) products. Apples that could fight tooth cavity, nicotine-free coffee, plant-based edible vaccines, Vitamin A-enriched golden rice, genetically modified tomatoes with much longer shelf life et al is the future, said R G Saini, a senior Geneticist from Punjab Agriculture University (PAU), Ludhiana, at a workshop on agriculture biotechnology held at Chandigarh Press Club today.
He said many of these products, which will eventually make living healthier, were in the trial stage globally and would take time before they can be finally consumed.
Golden rice, which is a modification of maize gene and rice, will have enriched Vitamin A to prevent eye disorder, especially among children, said Dr S R Rao, Advisor Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. He added that golden rice was in its trial stage and is likely to be ready by 2013. "Nearly 2 per cent of children suffer from sub-clinical symptoms of eye disorder largely because of deficiency of Vitamin A. Golden rice could be a natural way to prevent this disorder," Dr Rao said.
The media workshop was jointly organised by Punjab State Council for Science and Technology, Union Ministry of Environment and Forest, International Service for Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Application (ISAAA) and Chandigarh Press Club.
Dr Rao said, "Globally, even in some state-run laboratories in India, trials are also on for genetically modified brinjals, tomatoes, iron enriched maize, wheat et al."
R G Saini said India is currently ranked fifth in the world in use of GM crop with 3.8 million hectares area under BT cotton, the only commercially-used GM product in the country. "The US, which tops the list, produces GM soya, maize, papaya and squash. As many as 20 different GM food including watermelon, sunflower, sugarcane are in the experimental stage," he said, adding that Maharastra tops GM produce in India.
He said strict regulatory mechanisms were in place to take care of biosafety concerns including toxicity, loss to biodiversity, safety of food for human consumption, leakage of GM proteins into soil.
The gathering was also informed that the first Biotechnology Cluster with focus on agri-food biotechnology at Knowledge City, Mohali, is in the pipeline. M P Singh, Secretary, Science Technology and Environment, Punjab, and N S Tiwana, executive director of the council, also spoke.
- Dean Kleckner, Truth About Trade & Technology, June 8, 2007
Last week, Scientific American observed that "Genetically modified (GM) crops have spread faster in the past decade than any agricultural technology since the plow."
That's a clever way of putting it, but the statement should have been made stronger: GM crops have spread even faster.
The earliest ox-pulled plow was probably invented in Mesopotamia about 8,000 years ago. Centuries would pass before people in other parts of the world would adopt the fundamentals of this technology. Centuries more would pass before it would be improved upon.
GM crops, by contrast, needed only ten years between their commercial introduction and their one-billion-acre milestone in 2005. And they're getting better all the time, as the Beatles put it roughly forty years ago today.
I don't want to take anything away from the good old plow, but let's face it: GM crops are to the plow what wireless email devices are to cuneiform writing on clay tablets.
Two years ago (early May 2005), when Truth About Trade & Technology officially announced that a farmer somewhere in the northern hemisphere had planted the one-billionth acre of GM crops, I predicted that it would only take five years before a farmer planted the two-billionth acre.
It turns out that this prediction wasn't optimistic enough: A few weeks ago, we passed the 1.5-billion-acre mark. (Visit truthabouttrade.org to see a real-time counter, based on a continuous study of global farming statistics.) If current trends hold--12-million acres of GM crop plantings per week this planting season--we'll hit two billion acres in a couple more years.
We'll hit it even faster than that when China starts commercial planting of biotech rice--something that hasn't happened yet, but which is all but certain to take place at a point in the not-too-distant future.
At some point, we'll just quit counting acres. Remember when McDonald's counted its customers on its store signs, beneath the golden arches? Then the signs just started saying, "Billions and Billions Served." The same thing will happen with GM crops.
In a certain sense, GM crops already have served billions and billions because acres possibly aren't the best unit of measurement. Better to think of it the way McDonald's does, in terms of meals served. According to one estimate, North Americans alone have consumed more than a trillion servings of food with genetically enhanced ingredients.
Maybe farmers should start posting signs beside their GM corn and soybean fields: "Trillions and Trillions Served."
The bottom line is that biotech food is about as exotic as a plow. It's downright conventional.
Sometimes I wonder if the plow had political opponents--the forerunners of today's Greenpeace activists. Perhaps they complained about how these newfangled tools that helped people work the land were a dangerous threat to their traditional ways of hunting and gathering.
If they did, we may safely assume that these village cranks were laughed out of their huts.
Whatever the case, the world is now rushing to embrace biotech crops. Earlier this year, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) reported that farmers in 22 countries now plant GM crops.
That number will do nothing but increase. Europe, for instance, has been slow to adopt biotech foods, for reasons that are mostly political. But its resistance is crumbling. Just last week, a government agency in Sweden issued a report that outlined the numerous benefits associated with GM crops. It claimed that Swedish farmers might see their profitability increase by as much as 12 percent, especially if they started growing GM potatoes.
So far, Sweden hasn't planted a single acre of biotech crops. Its farmers have been so spooked about a potential negative reaction from misinformed consumers that they even adopted a voluntary moratorium against GM crops a decade ago.
Last year, however, they thought better of their ban. Livestock farmers began to accept a small amount of imported GM feed because it made economic sense. They still aren't growing their own GM crops, but it's only a matter of time.
When it happens, will the rest of the world have passed the three-billion-acre milestone --- or the five-billion-acre milestone? It's impossible to say--except to note that our biotech future is arriving much faster than anticipated.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology.
Farmers Demand Payment For Trampled Fields, Activists Won't Cough Up
- Charles Hawley and David Gordon Smith, The Spiegel (Germany), June 8, 2007
Farmers want compensation for their damaged crops, but activists don't want to pay. Meanwhile police have brought down a Greenpeace balloon that was attempting to fly over the G-8 summit venue at Heiligendamm.
Many German farmers are sympathetic to the goals of the anti-globalization activists protesting against the G-8 in Heiligendamm. However their sympathy abruptly disappears when their livelihood is threatened. Now farmers in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania are demanding to know who is going to pay for the damage caused to their crops when activists trampled through their fields earlier this week.
The protesters themselves have made it clear that they don't want to pay for the damage they caused. Lea Voigt, spokesperson for the Block G-8 campaign, defended protesters' actions Friday, saying that activists were forced to go through fields and forests after police blocked roads leading to the venue.
Voigt told the news agency AFP that the organization was "in contact with several farmers," and was taking their concerns seriously. Nevertheless, legitimate protesters should not be "presented with a bill" afterwards, she said.
The farmers' association of the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the summit is being held, announced Thursday that it would demand compensation from the state. A spokesperson said that a lot of agricultural land had been "massively affected."
"This is costing me money," farmer Peter Uplegger told SPIEGEL ONLINE Wednesday after swaths of his wheat was trampled under the feet of demonstrators. He insisted that he had nothing against the protesters as such: "But they shouldn't break laws."
In an interview with the magazine Stern, fellow farmer Johannes Lampen pleaded with activists to take the roads when they were heading back from the summit -- and not go through the fields again.
Other activists expressed their sympathy for the farmers' plight. "The trampling of the fields is regrettable, but I think there was a higher good at stake," Christoph Kleine, a spokesman and organizer of the Block G-8 campaign, told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Thursday. "What I'm more concerned about are the 30 or so cows which escaped. They aren't that easy to catch."
Bio-factory producing corn-based polymer
- Duncan Mansfield, Associated Press via The News-Times (Danbury, Conn.), June 8, 2007
LOUDON, Tenn. -- Railcars filled with a new bioengineered corn-based polymer are already pulling out of chemical giant DuPont Co.'s $100 million joint-venture factory with multinational agri-processor Tate & Lyle PLC. Next stop could be the carpet in your living room.
While other companies are working on several fronts to use more renewable resources, DuPont and Tate & Lyle consider themselves several steps ahead. They tout their plant about 35 miles south of Knoxville as "visible evidence that an economy based on renewable ingredients is possible."
E. coli bacteria modified by DuPont scientists is used to convert corn sugar from an adjacent Tate & Lyle ethanol plant using a fermentation process, much like making beer.
The result is a clear liquid compound that can replace and improve upon petroleum-based ingredients in a quickly expanding range of products, including fabrics, cosmetics, liquid detergents, boat hulls, ski boots and runway de-icers.
With customers already knocking at their door - among them carpet maker Mohawk Industries Inc. and automaker Toyota Motor Corp. - and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman christening the plant Friday, DuPont and Tate & Lyle are finding it hard to curb their enthusiasm.
"It is the most significant invention since nylon," DuPont Chairman and CEO Charles "Chad" Holliday Jr. said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press. This from the Wilmington, Del.-based company that invented nylon in 1935.
"The functionality of this product is what really differentiates it," Iain Ferguson, chief executive of London-based Tate & Lyle, told the AP. "That gives us something which has a real edge."
The companies say their corn-based propanediol, or Bio-PDO, offers qualities superior to their petroleum counterparts. Fabrics can take dyes more brilliantly, carpets are naturally stain resistant, face creams are gentler to the skin, and airplane de-icers are biodegradable.
Brent Erickson, an executive vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C., said that while DuPont and Tate & Lyle are not alone, the commercialization of their Loudon plant was a significant development in what he termed the third wave of a biotech revolution that began 20 years ago in medicine and then agriculture about a decade ago.
"It has gone beyond the doctor's office into consumer goods and other products that we never imagined," he said.
Holliday and Ferguson said they have factored rising corn prices, driven in part by growing demand for biofuels, into their equation.
Steven Mirshak, president of the DuPont-Tate & Lyle Bio-Products joint venture, said the price of the companies' Bio-PDO base is "similar" to nylon. A chemical version of the product was discovered in the 1940s but was too expensive to make.
"But with our new process using biology, we are able to produce PDO at a cost point where we can develop direct applications of its use in a variety of markets," he said, replacing petroleum counterparts.
Holliday said DuPont brings an unusual perspective to the corn supply situation. The company also owns the major corn seed brand Pioneer and is devoting considerable resources to increasing its productivity.
"If you look at the historical track on this in the sort of markets we are in, every time you get something like this where you get a price increase, you get further investment in agricultural production," Ferguson said. "And there is clearly considerable further potential to raise the yields."
Corn-based substitutes for petroleum are good for the environment, but experts have said they also contribute to a rise in global food import costs, making it harder for developing countries to feed their populations.
The Loudon plant has shipped 85 rail cars of the product since November, enough to meet demand though still not at full capacity. The companies expect the plant will produce 100 million pounds of the product annually, and they already are considering expansion and additional plants, possibly overseas.
The environmental impact of the project is significant. The companies say they will consume 40 percent less energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by producing PDO from corn sugar instead of petroleum-based feedstocks.
The energy savings would be more than 15 million gallons of gasoline per year, or enough to fuel more than 27,000 cars, the companies estimated.
All of that may help the planet, but it won't be enough to sell consumers.
"We know that consumers want to choose the ecologically better route. But they are not prepared to sacrifice" quality and price, Ferguson said.
"I think that is very understandable, unless there are incentives" Holliday said. "But we have a good product to start with."
*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net