* Africa must create its own agenda
* Israel recommends biotech for Nigeria
* Improving plants' abilities to cope with saline conditions
* Research is essential to America's future
* ISU College of Agriculture Renamed
* Accidental organic GMO content
* Organic farming doubles its share?
* Three Q's
* Watermarks in beer DNA
Africa must create its own biotechnology agenda
- David Dickson, SciDev.Net, June 12, 2007
Building public support for genetically modified crops in sub-Saharan Africa means developing a homegrown solution to the region's own needs.
This week representatives from African countries will gather in Johannesburg, South Africa, for Agricultural Science Week. Many will be asking how their governments can respond to the pressure from large parts of their agricultural communities to commercialise genetically modified (GM) crops on one side, and the large sectors of their voting publics against GM on the other.
At one level, the decision seems straightforward. Scientific achievements in GM plant breeding over the past two decades have produced a range of new crops that can increase farmers' productivity while reducing their production costs - for example, by substantially lessening the needs for fertilisers and insecticides.
But at the same time, GM technology has not been around long enough for all its side effects to be understood. For critics of the technology, the worrying possibilities of what might happen were the technology to get out of control - however remote - is sufficient reason to halt development until more is known.
Put in these terms, the political challenge is familiar. A new technology needs an effective regulatory regime that allows its potential to be harnessed safely, while potential side effects are closely monitored.
Indeed, as highlighted in our regional spotlight on agricultural technology published this week, implementing such biosafety regimes is now a priority across Africa (see Agri-biotech in sub-Saharan Africa).
A groundswell of opposition
But if the challenge is familiar, why has it taken so long to put solutions into place? Partly this is because scientific uncertainty remains over what the side effects are likely to be. But, more importantly, a groundswell of opposition from vocal critics has exploited this uncertainty to place governments on the defensive, reluctant to move forward for fear of alienating voters.
Such opposition needs to be taken seriously. One response is to demonstrate that governments are adequately informed about the potential risks of GM technologies before making decisions on biosafety regulations. Here the scientific community - both individual scientists and institutions such as scientific academies - can help.
Governments must also ensure that their electorates are sufficiently informed about both the potential benefits and risks of GM technologies. Information campaigns - in which journalists have a role to play through sound reporting - will not necessarily endorse GM crops. They will, however, increase the chances that political decisions come out of scientifically-based arguments, rather than unfounded speculation.
A political agenda?
Yet as European governments have discovered, neither a pledge to evidence-based decision making, nor the organisation of campaigns promoting public understanding of biotechnology are sufficient. Both ignore the extent to which many critics have a political agenda - namely a desire to oppose not so much GM technology itself but the multinational corporations promoting it.
To this, there is no straightforward reply. The critics legitimately argue that corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta control many key GM technologies. Such corporations' primary loyalty is to their shareholders, not their customers.
But a large proportion of work on GM crops also comes from the public sector, through international agricultural research centres, for example.
Still, this has done little to soothe the public perception - which some politicians have been quick to seize on - that commercialising GM crops in a country opens up its farmers to exploitation by foreign interests.
A homegrown industry
There is only one appropriate long-term response to this argument. African countries - like others in the developing world - must develop the scientific and technological capacity to ensure that biotechnology meets their own needs, on their own terms.
This means building programmes that address the potential of GM technology to enhance the 'orphan crops' often neglected by foreign corporations. Such crops, including cassava, pigeon pea and sorghum are already under development, but more support is needed, particularly in the regulatory arena.
Political leaders must acknowledge that biotechnology can become a homegrown industry in Africa - and they must be willing to commit the necessary resources. This should include fewer incentives for foreign companies to set up shop, and greater investment in scientific infrastructure and capacity building efforts including support for universities and regional research networks.
A step in this direction was taken in January when African Union leaders endorsed a 20-year 'Freedom to Innovate' biotechnology plan. But endorsing a plan is one thing, putting it into effect is another. Until that happens, genetic modification will continue to be seen as a Northern technology meeting predominantly Northern interests - and opposition will continue to flourish.
Israel recommends biotechnology for Nigeria
- The Tide (Nigeria), June 12, 2007
The Israeli Head of Mission in Nigeria, Mr Yari Frommer, has called for the introduction of biotechnology in Nigeria's agricultural system.
Frommer told the our correspondent yesterday, in Abuja that only modern technology could assist the nation to achieve food security and increased food production.
He said biotechnology was a new system in human development that could have a great impact in the agricultural sector.
"It will be a success story in Nigeria because any technology that is being tested globally and approved as suitable for humans can be applied in any part of the world.
"Nigeria's case should not be different and I hope the country will not be left behind in the scheme of events,'' Frommer said.
The diplomat said there could be a little modification in the application of the technology because of the difference in the climate and human condition as well as farmers' experience over the years.
"There will be need for a combination that will suit the condition on ground so that it won't be a fruitless exercise in the end,'' he said.
He, however, cautioned that the programme could be too ambiguous because of its sophistication.
Frommer also called on the government to constantly assist local farmers in the use of fertilisers as agreed upon at the last All Africa Fertiliser Summit in Abuja.
He said the use of fertiliser was very essential for local farmers as continual use of fertiliser was keeping the value of its soil for generations.
He said the Israeli government was encouraging fertiliser companies in Israel to export the commodity to Nigeria and sell it at affordable price to local farmers.
Frommer observed that the Federal Government had done a lot to revive the agricultural sector but said: "Nigeria still has a long way to go to attain food security in a country of over 140 million population''.
He said the move by the last administration was very encouraging but stressed that Nigeria needed the support of other countries and international agencies in order to achieve food security.
Frommer said Israel was working in conjunction with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and supporting the Federal Government, states and local governments on the National Programme on Food Security (NPFS).
He expressed optimism that Nigeria would soon become a major supplier of food in the West African sub-region.
Hebrew University researchers succeed in improving plants' abilities to cope with saline conditions
Solution has wide-reaching implications for agriculture
- Hebrew University (press release), June 13, 2007
A method for increasing plants' tolerance to salt stress and thus preventing stunted growth and even plant death has been developed by researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The method has significant consequences for dealing with soil salinization, which is an acute problem for a wide range of crops in different regions of the world, including Israel.
The problem is largely exasperated by intense agriculture and irrigation. Salinity drives the plant into water deficit and is accompanied by toxicity of sodium and chloride ions, resulting in restricted growth and reduction in yield. Moreover, salt stress causes a secondary oxidative stress, resulting in the more severe cases in plant death.
Through detailed laboratory studies, Prof. Alex Levine and his Ph.D. student Yehoram Leshem, of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences at the Hebrew University, were able to achieve a new understanding of the specific mechanisms by which plants deal with salt stress conditions.
Based on this knowledge, and through implementation of genetic manipulation techniques, Levine and Leshem were successful in significantly reducing the self-induced membrane damage that takes place under the plants' stressful conditions. The altered plants were also shown to have greater salt tolerance.
The work by Levine and Leshem - published in a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in the U.S. -- not only has opened new insights into a basic understanding of plant responses to salt stress, but also points the way to new applicative pathways for plant breeders to improve salt tolerance in a broad spectrum of agricultural crops. It thus represents a significant step forward that can bring great economic and social benefit to many nations of the world.
Downloadable File: Plantstress.doc http://www.huji.ac.il/dovrut/Plantstress.doc
Scientific research into food and agriculture is essential to America's future
- John Block, Dan Glickman, Clayton Yuetter, Robert Bergland and Mike Espy, St. Louis Today, June 6, 2007
Visionary Democrats and Republicans recently introduced legislation in Congress, part of the reauthorization of the Farm Bill, to strengthen the research efforts funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This legislation would create a National Institute for Food and Agriculture, built on the model of the National Institutes of Health and dedicated to competitive, fundamental research into food and agriculture.
Three hundred years ago, agriculture solved the most compelling problems facing the settlers of the New World. It resolved how colonists would survive and determined how they would thrive. Today's most pressing problems also can find solutions in agriculture, but only if we renew our focus on innovation.
Saddled with higher U.S. land costs and facing fierce global competition, those efforts are endangered, along with our competitive edge. To preserve it, we must return to the source of innovation: science, in particular fundamental science. Advertisement Click Me!
Fundamental science will allow farmers to meet our energy needs, once we fully understand how to harvest the sun's energy from plants. That, in turn, would allow us to kick our addiction to foreign oil - solving a sundry of economic, trade and foreign policy dilemmas.
Farmers also could grow healthier foods if the crops they raised synthesized essential vitamins with reduced fats. That could save our nation billions of dollars in health care costs. Farmers could raise chickens without the threat of an avian influenza epidemic - once we map the amino acid residues that cause the most threatening strains. And through the results of fundamental research, farmers would be able to grow crops using less water, thus preserving the world's most precious resource and allowing nations plagued by famine to begin feeding their people.
None of these advances will be possible, however, if we continue to neglect basic food and agriculture science.
The research programs of the NIH and the National Science Foundation, both relative newcomers to federally supported research, have developed the gold standard for managing and funding fundamental research. The formula is easy: Proposals are reviewed and judged purely on scientific merit. Funds are applied based on national priorities; those without merit are ineligible for federal funding.
It seems logical for a nation that has encouraged free markets to pursue competition in the research arena, but the USDA has taken only baby steps in this direction, in part because of congressional reticence. For every dollar the USDA spends on research, the NIH spends 15. In competitive, peer-reviewed grants - long considered the best way to achieve fundamental discoveries - the USDA is outspent 150 to 1.
Congress spends $100 billion annually on agriculture. The proposal to create a National Institute for Food and Agriculture seeks slightly more than 2 percent of this total - about $200 million - with future growth in funding dependent on meeting research milestones.
The 2007 Farm Bill should make this small investment in fundamental research so that America's first industry will continue to be one of its best.
John Block, Dan Glickman, Clayton Yuetter, Robert Bergland and Mike Espy served as secretaries of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Regents Approve ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
- Iowa State University (press release), June 12, 2007
Ames, Iowa - Iowa State University's College of Agriculture is now Iowa State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
At its Tuesday meeting in Iowa City, the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, approved a proposal from Iowa State to change the name of the college.
"Iowa State University has a 150-year tradition of excellence in agriculture. The new name for the college is the right direction to take as we enter a bold new chapter for the many areas touched by agriculture and the life sciences in Iowa," said Wendy Wintersteen, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
The new name, Wintersteen said, "more accurately describes both the long-held and the modern emphasis and breadth of the college and will help us communicate our contemporary programs and directions."
Dan Frieberg of Cumming, chair of the college's advisory council, said, "Iowa State University, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in particular, is in a high stakes battle for the best and brightest. We can't afford to lose students from urban areas or any other background just because their perception of agriculture is dated or inappropriate. For many, the addition of life sciences may prove more fitting to the kind of future they see for themselves."
Many of the exciting new opportunities emerging in agriculture - the bioeconomy, plant and animal genomics, environmental stewardship, food and nutrition - are connected with basic sciences, Wintersteen said.
"That's why I believe it is time for us to embrace our role in the life sciences," said Wintersteen. "Iowa State is one of the world's premier research institutions for agricultural sciences. The new name will help position the college as we aggressively seek new opportunities in agriculture and life-science areas and collaborate with partners across the university, the state and beyond."
Perhaps most importantly, the college has high hopes that the new name will help attract a new generation of students, said David Acker, associate dean of academic and global programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
"The new name will help us to better convey the breadth of programs we offer," Acker said. "We want to encourage prospective students to explore the wide variety of majors the college offers, the life-improving science behind them and the great career opportunities they represent. Our placement rate of more than 98 percent is something we're very proud of."
Acker said the college is responding to demands for well-trained graduates to support excellent career opportunities in the sciences of life - the broad range of agricultural, food, environmental and biological and life-science areas.
Last fall, Wintersteen announced the college was moving forward with a proposal to change the name, following several years of discussions with faculty, staff, students, advisory groups and alumni. In March, the College of Agriculture faculty voted in favor of the change and in April, the Iowa State University Faculty Senate unanimously approved the proposed name change.
Last fall, the College of Agriculture Advisory Council had unanimously supported changing the name to College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
"Agriculture is very technical, very scientific and very much about biology," said Frieberg, who earned his bachelor of science in farm operations from the college. "Plant and animal genomics, for example, will be just as revolutionary for agriculture as human genomics will be for human medicine. Life sciences is very much an appropriate expansion of what modern and future agriculture is and will be."
Accidental GMO content permitted in organic food
- EurActiv, June 13, 2007
The EU-27's agriculture ministers have agreed to new organic food production and labelling standards from 2009, but green groups say that the rules are lax and will allow widespread contamination of organic products by genetically modified organisms.
Despite the opposition of Belgium, Greece, Italy and Hungary, the Council adopted, on 12 June 2007, a controversial regulation on organic production and labelling, which the Commission says will make life easier for both farmers and consumers by creating an EU organic logo for all products containing at least 95% organic ingredients.
However, there are concerns that the new standards have been set too low because, although the text bans the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in organic food, it allows for products containing up to 0.9% of "adventitious or technically unavoidable" GMO content to be labelled and sold as organic.
The European Parliament and environmental groups had called for this accidental contamination threshold to be set at 0.1% - the lowest level at which genetically modified organisms can be technically detected - saying that any threshold higher than this would make it too difficult for organic farmers to keep their crops free from "genetic pollution".
"The lax attitude towards contamination taken by the European Commission and some member states disregards the preferences of European consumers and may put the whole organic sector at risk. In practice, low levels of genetically modified material could start slipping into all organic food," said Marco Contiero, policy officer at Greenpeace's EU Unit.
However, Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said that the new regulation would "help consumers to recognise organic products throughout the EU more easily and give them assurances of precisely what they are buying".
The use of the new EU logo will be compulsory as of 1 January 2009, but national or private logos, often reflecting more stringent standards desired by some member states, will also be authorised.
Green NGOs stress that the new standards do not lessen the necessity for stringent anti-contamination measures. Mauro Albrizio from the European Environmental Bureau said: "If the EU is committed to preserving and supporting the organic farming sector, then strict co-existence measures are a necessity, protecting conventional and organic farming from genetic contamination, with stiff penalties for GMO farmers and biotech companies if contamination does occur."
In 2008, the Commission will review national 'co-existence' rules aimed at containing commercially-grown GM crops, and further assess the need for an EU-wide law.
Main results of the Council (press release - provisional version), 2806th Council meeting Agriculture and Fisheries Luxembourg, 11-12 June 2007 http://www.consilium.europa.eu/ueDocs/cms_Data/docs/pressData/en/agricult/94600.pdf
Organic farming doubles its share of European farmland since 1998 - Eurostat
- Associated Press via PR-inside.com, June 12, 2007
BRUSSELS, Belgium - Organic farming has more than doubled its share of European agricultural land since 1998, the EU statistics agency Eurostat said Tuesday. Organic food producers also got an extra shot in the arm from EU farm ministers who agreed Tuesday on guidelines that determine what can and cannot be labeled as organic. Demand for food produced without artificial pesticides or fertilizers has been growing strongly in recent years as Europeans seek guarantees that what they eat is free of added chemicals, following food scares and worries over new biotechnology. The 15 nations that joined the European Union before 2004 _ mostly in Western Europe _ increased organic farmland from 1.8 percent of all land under the plow in 1998 to 4.1 percent in 2005, Eurostat said. Italy had the largest area under organic production in 2005 with 1.1 million hectares, followed by Germany and Spain with 0.8 million hectares. Britain, at 0.6 million hectares, scraped ahead of France at 0.5 million hectares _ even though France has far more farmland. The EU's 25 members in 2005 had 6.1 million hectares of organic farmland, Eurostat said. The average size of these farms tended to be double the norm at 39 hectares for an organic holding compared to 16 hectares for the average farm.
The biggest organic farms are found in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Britain, it said. Under the new rules agreed Tuesday, an EU-wide organic logo can now be added to food if at least 95 percent of the ingredients are organic. EU Farm Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said it would help EU consumers understand what exactly they were buying. «Organic food is a successful and growing market and I hope that this new set of rules will provide the framework to allow this growth to continue _ through a combination of market demand and the entrepreneurship of European farmers,» she said.
Ed. note: By claiming 4.1 percent of Europe's "land under the plow" has become organic, this article/press release exaggerates the growth of organic farming to the point of outright falsehood. The Eurostat report reveals instead that the majority the EU's organic "farmland" consists of "[p]astures and meadows and unutilised land." While it may make sense to consider "unutilised land" to be the most pristine example of "organic," it's more noteworthy that none of the acres in the biggest organic category are "under the plow." The report points out, for example, that 73 percent of the UK's "organic farmland" actually has no cultivated crops, and adds that these areas "do not represent agricultural production." See, "Different organic farming patterns within EU-25: An overview of the current situation,"
- Science, June 1, 2007, Vol. 316. no. 5829, p. 1263, doi 10.1126/science.316.5829.1263d
Molecular biologist Michael Fernandez has worked himself out of a job. This spring, the Pew Charitable Trust declared victory and shut down its 6-year-old Initiative on Food and Biotechnology that he directed. The program provided objective information on genetically modified plants and animals and focused attention on the U.S. regulatory system.
Q: Who won the debate over agbiotech?
I'm not sure I want to talk about winners and losers. Public opinion hasn't changed very much over these 6 years. A relatively small proportion of U.S. consumers are opposed, and the vast majority are somewhere in the middle. We've had big increases in the acreage planted, [and] farmers clearly see a benefit to insect- and herbicide-resistant crops.
Q: How good is our regulatory system?
It's a mixed bag. For products with incremental changes, the system works pretty well. When you start to get into products that don't fit neatly into a category, like plant-made pharmaceuticals, there are questions about whether the system is adequate.
Q: What's coming down the pike?
[Bioengineered] animals are something that we will have to deal with, including moral and ethical issues. The U.S. will have to figure out how to deal with imports of products that we've never seen before. It's in our best interest to have a regulatory system that is flexible enough and has the tools to assess the risks so that we can all get the benefits.
Boffins put encrypted bio-copyright watermarks in beer DNA
No knocking off Blade Runner pleasure replicants
- Lewis Page, The Register (UK), June 12, 2007
German boffins believe they have developed a computer algorithm which can be used to hide encrypted "watermarks" within the DNA of living genetically-modified organisms. The procedure has been successful in simulated tests on live beer ingredients.
Dominik Heider and Angelika Barnekow of the Department of Experimental Tumorbiology at the University of Muenster explain their techniques in an academic paper released last month. Click here to find out more!
The two boffins' research is aimed at "the application of watermarks based on DNA sequences to identify the unauthorised use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) protected by patents". The idea is that a patented GM organism - such as a crop, a drug or perhaps in future a Blade Runner-style engineered human replicant - might be pirated by unscrupulous rival manufacturers, who could then produce ripoff copies without doing any development work.
Not if Heider and Barnekow have anything to do with it, though. Dodgy supermarket-carpark pleasure clones or whatnot would be easily identified as branded product using the DNA watermark, hidden among the information in their cells just as a microdot holding a hidden page of text can masquerade as a full stop on a sheet of paper.
Of course, without encryption, the ripped bio-products could be easily given fake branding in the same fashion as a knockoff Rolex. The German boffins' bio-stegano-cryptograms, however, take that into account. Rather than an obvious image or text, the hidden DNA info would be encrypted. Their computer program, DNA-Crypt, can be combined with binary encryption algorithms like AES, RSA or Blowfish, or can be used with one-time pads.
Apparently that's fairly yawn-worthy in the world of biosteganocrypto-boffinry - Heider and Barnekow cite several previous researchers who've hidden encrypted messages in DNA. The Germans' special sauce is that their DNA-Crypt program can deal with the occurrence of mutations, in which the DNA of the organism in question changes unpredictably as it reproduces.
"Mutations do not occur very often, approximately 10-10 to 10-15 per cell division, but they can destroy the encrypted information in DNA sequences," according to the Muenster scientists. If a cop or future Replicant-Industry-Association-of-America (RIAA) enforcer checked a mutated sample, the watermark could be reduced to hash and the bio-ripper might get off scot-free.
But the biocopyright-loving boffins reckon they've dealt with this, using "the 8/4 Hamming-code and ... the WDH-code," which are methods of writing to DNA which can provide "not only ... error detection but error corrections which enable us to maintain the data." These methods use up more space than ordinary DNA fiddling, so the DNA-Crypt platform uses an "integrated fuzzy controller" which "decides and recommends whether to use the 8/4 Hamming-code, the WDH-code or no mutation correction for optimal performance." We were especially pleased to hear that it "uses the Singleton-fuzzyfication," which ought to be a great marketing tool if nothing else. ("Nexus 6 pleasure models, verified genuine by DNA-Crypt:now with Singleton fuzzyfication for optimal performance.")
Heider and Barnekow have done successful tests of their procedure on Saccharomyces cerevisiae, better known (and loved for its beautiful effects) as brewer's yeast. Less importantly, it's also used to make bread. However, the watermarked brewing yeast trials were only in silico - in computer simulations. No real-world biowatermarked yeast, let alone beer or pleasure/warrior replicants, has yet been produced.
For those interested, the DNA-Crypt code is Java-based (5.0 and higher) and cross-platform: Mac or Linux-using replicant designers can get in on the biowatermarking action.
*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net