* Brazil Judge Bans Bayer Corn
* GM debate gets louder
* Preying on the Hungry!
* No Charges in E. Coli Deaths
* Biotech answer to falling farm yields
* ISU Names Endowed Chairs
* Latest book on Bt-cotton in India
* Making the Earth Say Beans
Brazil Judge Bans Bayer CropScience's Transgenic Corn-Report
- Dow Jones via Cattle Network, June 19, 2007
SAO PAULO --A federal judge banned the use of Bayer CropScience Ltd.'s (506285.BY) transgenic corn just a month after federal biosafety agents approved the product for retail sale, business daily Valor Economico reported Tuesday.
Federal judge Pepita Durski Mazini of the environmental law department in the court's Parana capital city office in Curitiba also blocked the official biosafety agency, CTNBio, from approving transgenic corn in its meeting scheduled for this week. Monsanto Co. (MON) and Syngenta AG (SYT) transgenic corn was up for review for possible commercial approval this week.
Mazini was unavailable for comment.
Parana's governor, Roberto Requiao, who opposes transgenic crops, was also unreachable by phone early Tuesday.
Requiao governs Brazil's No. 1 corn producing state. Corn is Brazil's No. 2 crop behind soybeans, and its popularity with farmers has grown, with corn prices and corn exports on the upswing.
Bayer's LibertyLink corn was approved by CTNBio on May 16, but small-producer lobbies have convinced federal courts that the transgenic corn would be hazardous to native Parana corn.
GM debate gets louder
- Geoff Adams, Country News (Australia), June 18, 2007
State bans on genetically modified crops are putting the future of Australia's agriculture sector at risk, Federal Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran says.
Victoria and Tasmania are reviewing their GM policies, but NSW has a moratorium on GM cultivation until at least March 3 next year.
Last week, Mr McGauran said the effects of biotechnology were immense.
"As the world's population increases, there is demand for more, and healthier, types of food," Mr McGauran said.
"There will also be demand to use crops for energy production and for new industrial and pharmaceutical uses.
"Biotechnology is helping to provide answers to these challenges.
"The states and territories must remove their moratoriums on GM crops to allow farmers to choose which crops they want to grow, and provide researchers and investors with a clear pathway to the marketplace."
Victorian farmers want the right to choose whether or not they use biotechnology in their farming systems.
VFF president Simon Ramsay said he was encouraged by reports the moratorium on GM canola might be left to sunset in 2008.
"Victoria's farmers need access to developments in production technology if they are to remain competitive in the world market place," Mr Ramsay said.
A new ABARE report says the commercialisation of GM canola in Australia is likely to have only negligible direct impacts on the organic canola, livestock and honey industries.
The report, Potential impacts from the introduction of GM canola on organic farming in Australia, investigates the potential economic impacts of the commercialisation of GM canola in Australia on domestic organic agriculture, and looks into the treatment of GMOs in organic certification standards in Australia and in Australia's main organic trade partners.
Certified organic agriculture has grown rapidly in recent years, but remains a small market providing food to those who want to avoid potential chemical residues and GM material.
"Australian organic standards tend to be more stringent than those in our export markets," ABARE executive director Phillip Glyde said.
"Therefore, Australian certified organic products are likely to continue to be accepted in export markets if GM canola is introduced in Australia.
"However, the stringent domestic requirements may reduce Australia's price competitiveness."
Mr Glyde cautioned that the introduction of GM varieties of other crops that were more extensively grown in Australia as certified organic might have a different impact.
In releasing the report, Mr Glyde acknowledged funding under the Australian Government's National Biotechnology Strategy.
UDV delegates will be debating the GM issue at the annual conference this week.
Pesticide Action Network is Preying on the Hungry!
- Josephat Juma, The African Executive, June 20, 2007
President John Agyekum Kufuor recently blamed western education for the high unemployment rate in Ghana, especially among the youth who form the majority of the population. The western education system, he said, made the youth think that agriculture is a preserve of the rural folk. Delivering a keynote address at the 22nd National Farmers' Day celebration at Nkawie in the Atwima Nwabiagya District of the Ashanti region, the President called for the readjustment of the nation's psychology and orientation towards agriculture so as to restore the sector to its dignity and profitability.
In Conquests and Cultures, Thomas Sowell opines that the "peoples of Africa were not simply hunters and gatherers of the spontaneous produce of nature. Agriculture existed centuries before Europeans came." In fact, food security was guaranteed until the traditional set up was disrupted by colonial invasion, plunging the continent into a food impasse. Over 40 years down the line, Africans are still grappling with institutions inherited from colonialists such as the production of specific crops for export, with little progress made to get high level production and consumption.
According to Caroline Boin of International Policy Network, "President John Agyekum Kufuor's statement fits into the fallacy that agriculture is special. All of this begs the question of whether self-sufficiency in food is a sustainable option for any country or whether promoting trade (notably through reducing internal and external barriers) can do a lot more to fight poverty and hunger in the long-run."
"It is not about being self sufficient in food production when 50 per cent of your produce can't be sold within the country of produce. Recently, The Ministry of Trade wanted to test a processor for tomato puree and needed 500 tonnes of fresh tomatoes. Only 300 tonnes were found after combining Ghana (because all the ones produced earlier got rotten on the farm even when sold at farm gate prices). Eventually, the Minister had to get the remaining tonnes from Burkina Faso, up north and drier than Ghana. Barriers! Barriers! Barriers!" says Franklin Cudjoe, Executive Director of Imani: The Centre for Humane Education.
Whereas blame games have neither added value to Africans' livelihood nor extricated them from dark ghettos of economic stagnation, rethinking national policies and reorienting the mindset will surely unleash light and life. Food security in Africa will be attained if the farmer, government, agribusiness, finance bodies, think tanks and NGOs reexamine their mindset.
In Kenya for example, it is commonly held that agriculture is for the uneducated, jobless, retirees and people with nothing else to do. It is not uncommon to find university graduates with degrees in agriculture looking for alternative jobs. The youth equate the sector with farming, but make no connection to its technical or research intensive aspects. They perceive it to be hard physical labour because of machinery breakage, weather uncertainties and price variances. Genetics, engineering, financial management or international commodity markets are not considered.
"Entrepreneurs in Sub-Saharan Africa must seize this opportunity and convert these challenges into lucrative business," argues James Shikwati, Director of Inter Region Economic Network. "It is a fallacy to talk about unemployment when farmers cannot access fertilizers, agrochemicals, water and farm implements to boost agricultural productivity."
Farmers should adopt certified seeds and exit the farm-saved seed mentality. A cost analysis carried out by Syngenta East Africa among farmer groups in Kenya's Eastern Province demonstrated how the seeds farmers consider "cheap" in the long run prove "expensive." By placing side by side the quantity of seed required for planting, its cost, management and requirements, the certified seed which was perceived to be expensive performed over ten times better than the farm-saved seeds.
There is need for farmers to quit straightjacket thinking and consider the long term. Since certified seeds are packaged in specific quantities that farmers may not require or be able to purchase, they could go round this by forming a group, each farmer declaring how much of the seed he wants, pooling the money together, ordering the seed in bulk and subsequently subdividing it according to established demand.
The seed and agrochemical companies should repackage their products in manageable units that can be afforded by farmers at the bottom of the pyramid. Farmers don't need sympathy. They don't need food aid. They need products that are pocket friendly. The seed and agrochemical industries, together with research institutions can add value to their work by incorporating the extension aspect amongst their stockists and farmers. This will ensure stewardship of the products, consequently silencing the eco-imperialists.
Research institutions have been on the frontline breeding drought resistant strains but little seem to reach the low resource farmers who form a bulk of the African population. In cases where the certified seeds reach the farmer, they are backed little knowledge on best practices to ensure high yields. Farmers cry for extension services while government extension officers are locked up in their offices. Of what use is technology and research if it is interred in laboratory and academic vaults? There ought to be a linkage between research, extension and the final end users.
The global increase in agricultural output is attributable to improved agricultural technologies, the use of fertilizer and pesticides being key. Increased output has made food cheaper than it was four decades ago and freed part of the farming labour into other service industries. In developing countries, over 90 per cent of the population (40 per cent of the people on the planet) depend on agriculture for their livelihood, while only 7 per cent of the people in the rich nations do so.
The sector involves spending a lot with little yield to show. While one farmer in the US produces an output that is able to feed 10 more people and sell the surplus, an African farmer's output is barely sufficient to sustain himself. In addition, African farmers spend backbreaking days; weeding their farms and exposing themselves to vagaries of weather. When improved technologies that saw the developed countries reach food security are introduced to farmers in the third world countries, eco-imperialists raise an outcry.
Take the case of Paraquat. This is a non volatile and non carcinogenic chemical that is used for systemic killing of foliage, sparing the farmer energy, time and extra labour. Paraquat successfully exterminates weeds in a farm. It does not leach into groundwater and degrades into substances that are not a risk to the soil or plant life. Paraquat's safety has been validated by the World Health Organization through its International Program on Chemical Safety and independently validated by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Africa cannot afford the luxury of Pesticide Action Network's debate against technologies that will make the continent feed her people and make many to join the middle class. The fact that people "commit suicide using this chemical" does not warrant its ban. How many people commit suicide using prescription drugs and kitchen knives? Have they been banned? The wearer of the shoe knows where it pinches. Pesticide Action Network should allow Africa to be food secure first, then Africa will be in a better position to have a roundtable discussion on imagined threats.
It is time for Africa to readjust its psychology away from people who want it to stagnate and choose for itself what will work for it. The government must take an active role as referee by facilitating good infrastructure, competition and more participation by many players to ensure high food productivity. Farmers should be given more options in the seed market. In an open economy, free trade induces competition and provides impetus to develop newer technologies, better methods and cheaper products.
No Charges In Spinach E. Coli Deaths
Farms or processors still may face civil suits for role in deaths and illnesses
- The Daily Green, June 22, 2007
The FBI will file no criminal charges after concluding its investigation into the E. coli-contaminated spinach that killed at least three and made hundreds, if not thousands, ill.
Neither the California organic farm that grew the spinach, the cattle farm that owned the land, nor the two processing companies that handled the greens will face criminal charges. The companies involved still may face civil suits.
Bacterial contamination of foods is something most people had associated with undercooked meats until recent vegetable contamination highlighted problems at some farms. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that most bacterial contamination now comes from vegetables, since meat processing has been cleaned up considerably by aggressive regulation and inspection programs. As federal agencies face the daunting task of policing not only domestic farms but an increasingly widespread network of international food producers, they can look to the USDA meat inspection program is a model for improving food safety - in hopes that future outbreaks like the spinach episode can be avoided.
That would take the question of criminality out of the equation.
Biotechnology answer to falling farm yields in India
- Ratnajyoti Dutta, NewsWire18, June 21, 2007
NEW DELHI - Biotechnology application at field levels can help reduce yield gaps as demonstrated by the experience in Bt cotton, but steps should be ensured to make such application full proof before the field trials, experts said.
India has been battling dismal yields in almost all major crops with the total food grain output stagnating at around 200-210 mln tn in the last one decade or so.
"Technology can fill up existing yield gaps," said Bhagirath Choudhary, National Co-ordinator of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.
For instance, though Punjab has a yield of 3,500 kg rice per ha, in Madhya Pradesh, it is at its lowest of 840 kg per ha.
National yield average in rice stands at around 2,000 kg per ha.
Egypt has achieved a yield of 9,500 kg per ha, the highest in the world, with hybrid varieties of rice developed locally.
Similarly, in wheat, the yield is highest in Punjab at 4,593 kg per ha and lowest in Maharashtra at 1,342 kg per ha.
The country's average yield is around 2,753 kg ha.
Tamil Nadu has the highest oilseed yield of 1,600 kg, while Orissa has a dismal 450 kg per ha yield. National yield for oilseeds stands at 859 kg per ha.
"The basic issue is how to raise the national average yields to the best level and the lowest yield level to at least the national average," Choudhary said adding that the answer lies in biotechnology.
In its latest estimate, the government has revised food grain output in the current crop year ending June at 211.8 mln tn as compared with the production target of 220 mln tn for this year set earlier.
Increased farm output in the next three or four years can come either through reducing existing yield gaps or expanding acreage, but the scope of raising output through area expansion is extremely limited, experts said.
Agriculture Secretary P.K. Mishra believes medium and long-term measures demand a focus on increasing the per hectare yield, and for which, better varieties of seeds are needed.
He rued the fact that there has not been any major breakthrough in high yielding varieties of seeds.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at the National Development Council meeting last month, had also stressed on the need to reduce the yield gap in farm sector.
Reduction in yield gap is extremely critical for ensuring balanced regional growth and economic prosperity in rural areas.
Bt cotton is a fitting example of how application of technology can raise yield.
India's cotton output is pegged at 27 mln bales (one bale=170 kg) in 2006-07 as against the average of 17-18 mln bales a few years ago. The credit of the huge jump is given to introduction of Bt cotton.
India allowed cultivation of genetically modified cotton in 2002, taking nearly seven years to approve the cultivation of Bt cotton after thorough safety checks.
The cotton grown from Bt seeds has made the crop more resistant to pest infestation, resulting in an average 30-50% increase in yield, Choudhary said.
But as with every good thing, biotechnology comes with its own dangers.
Non-profit organisations and civil society groups have been consistently opposing "mindless" technology application in the farm sector and more so in food crops.
They allege that genetically modified crops could be highly toxic and even harmful to human health in extreme cases.
Recently, studies carried out by a French research institute into Monsanto's genetically modified maize--NK603--showed that the commodity could be toxic. This variety is still being tested for cultivation in field trials in Europe.
The Supreme Court recently allowed fresh field trails of genetically modified seeds, but with certain riders to prevent health hazards and contamination.
It has asked the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, the regulator for biotech crops in India, to take sufficient precautions to see that the trials do not lead to any contamination in the neighbouring fields.
For example, a minimum distance of 200 metres for cultivation of Bt brinjal has to be maintained between the fields with the brinjal crop and regular crops for conducting field trials. Experts, though, are not happy, as the distance criterion is difficult to observe in view of small and fragmented land holdings.
"We are not averse to new technologies, but oppose those that cause harm to both the crop and the farmer," said Krishan Bir Chaudhary, executive-chairman of the Bharat Krishak Samaj, a farmers' group.
He said genetically modified cottonseeds are costlier as they include the patent holder's royalty.
Chaudhary favours clear-cut regulations on allergenicity and toxicity levels for genetically modified seeds.
"The existing regulations are sufficient to ensure bio-safety, and we should focus on creating indigenous regulations taking into account environmental ground realities," a former GEAC member said.
ISU Agronomy Department Names Sprague and Frey Endowed Chairs
- Iowa State University (press release), June 20th, 2007
AMES, Iowa - The Iowa State University Department of Agronomy has named two new endowed chairs in the areas of crop genomics and biorenewable crop research.
The George F. Sprague Endowed Chair will be filled by William Beavis, chief science officer at the National Center for Genome Resources. Beavis will join the Iowa State faculty in August.
Sprague is credited with discovering hybrid corn, and his Iowa Stiff Stalk Synthetic is the germplasm foundation for many commercial corn hybrids. He was a member of the Iowa State agronomy faculty from 1939 to 1958.
The Kenneth J. Frey Endowed Chair will be filled by Thomas Lübberstedt, senior scientist at the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Genetics and Biotechnology. Lübberstedt will begin as chair in September.
Frey has been credited for his work on breeding methodology, developing disease resistance in plants and breaking the inverse relationship between yield and protein percentage of cereal grains. Frey served on the agronomy faculty from 1953 to 1993 and remains on the faculty as an emeritus professor.
The Sprague and Frey endowed chairs are funded by the Agronomy Endowment. Endowed faculty positions allow Iowa State to recruit and retain world-class leaders by providing the highest level of faculty recognition. Endowed positions help support course development, graduate assistants, laboratory equipment, salary enhancements, professional development and research projects. These opportunities ultimately enhance course and curriculum development, which improves the educational experience for students.
Latest book on Bt-cotton in India
- Manjunath, T.M. 2007. Q & A on Bt-cotton in India: Answers to more than 70 questions on all aspects. All India Crop Biotechnology Association, New Delhi, February 2007 (78 pages).
Contact: T.M. Manjunath, tmmanjunath1939+at+yahoo.com
A book entitled "Q & A on Bt-cotton in India: Answers to more than 70 questions on all aspects" authored by Dr. T. M. Manjunath, a well-known agricultural entomologist who has been closely associated with the Bt-cotton technology in India, has been published recently (Feb 07; 78 pages) by the All India Crop Biotechnology Association (AICBA), New Delhi. Bt-cotton, being the first and until now the only agri-biotech product approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of Govt of India in March 2002, has attracted enormous interest, curiosity and controversy right from 1996 when its first regulatory studies were initiated in India. An increasing number of farmers have quickly adopted this technology as evident from the exponential increase in its area to 3.8 million hectares (9.4 m acres) in five years. At the same time, those who are opposed to this technology have made serious allegations that Bt-cotton is not safe and beneficial. Such claims and counter claims have creating a lot of doubts and co
nfusion in the minds of farmers and the general public alike.
An attempt is made in the present publication to explain the Bt-technology and clarify various doubts and perceptions by presenting the facts based on scientific data. The information on diverse aspects of Bt-cotton has been presented in a simple manner in the form of answers to more than 70 questions, divided into several sections such as cotton bollworms, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), development of Bt-cotton, efficacy, safety, insect resistance management, field performance and adoption, costs and benefits, opposition to Bt-cotton, legal and illegal seeds, and regulation. Some of the issues covered include:
What is Bt and Bt-cotton and how bollworms are controlled; what are the advantages and limitations of Bt-technology; will the non-Bt cotton in the neighbourhood of Bt-cotton fields suffer from more pest damage; how safe is Bt-cotton to humans/animals/environment and biodiversity; what is the role of 'refuge' crop and what are the insect resistance management strategies; does Bt-cotton contain 'terminator gene'; does Bt-cotton deprive farmers' right to save seeds; why are there so many Bt-cotton hybrids; what is the cost vs benefits of Bt-cotton; is Bt-cotton technology suitable for Indian bollworms; why is there such a powerful campaign against Bt-cotton and what is the validity of various allegations against its safety and benefits; how is farmers' response to Bt-cotton in India; what is the impact of illegal seeds; what are the social, economic and environmental impacts of Bt-cotton; and what is govt's role in the regulation of genetically engineered crops.
Try any frequently asked question on Bt-cotton - you are most likely to find an answer in this book. It is the primary objective of this publication.
Dr. C. D. Mayee, Chairman, Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board, ICAR, New Delhi, who was earlier the Director, Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, who has written the 'Foreword' says "...Bt-cotton being a new technology, several aspects were/are not clear to many including those whose opinions matter. Therefore, I always felt that there is need for a publication that explains this technology and clarifies all the doubts. I am very glad that it has been fulfilled by Dr T M Manjunath........this publication has a lot of educational importance on transgenic crops and should be a constant companion for those interested in this area."
The book provides a comprehensive account on all aspects of Bt-cotton and should be very useful to various scientists, teachers, students, policy makers, seed companies, journalists, NGOs, extension workers, progressive farmers and other stake holders.
Genetically Modified Foods: Making the Earth Say Beans
- Nina V. Fedoroff, Science Journal (Penn State), Spring 2007
In chapter seven of his environmental masterpiece Walden, Henry David Thoreau writes about his bean field: "...making the yellow soil express its summer thought in bean leaves and blossoms rather than in wormwood and piper and millet grass, making the earth say beans instead of grass - this was my daily work." B/W line drawing of pea plant
You may wonder why I begin an essay on genetically modified foods with a quote from Thoreau. But to me, environmentalism and plant breeding are inextricably linked. Our civilization rests on our ability to make the earth say beans. Other creatures feed their young, but the adults of most species fend for themselves, spending much of their day doing it. By contrast, we humans have learned to farm. Over the last few centuries, advances in science have let fewer and fewer farmers feed more and more people, freeing the rest of us to make and sell each other hats and houses and computers, to be scientists and politicians, painters, teachers, doctors, spiritual leaders, and talk-show hosts. In some parts of the world, only one person in a hundred grows plants or raises animals for food. Most of us are surprisingly unaware of what it takes to create our bread and breakfast cereal, pasta and rice, those perfect fruits and vegetables, unblemished by insect bites or fungal spots. Free to live our lives with little thought for our food, we ignore the source of the gift.
Our civilization rests, in fact, on a history of tinkering with nature - on making the earth say beans instead of grass. Thoreau's beans were not wild. The pod of a wild bean bursts when its seed is ripe, flinging the bean far from the parent plant to find a new place to sprout. The pods of those beans we grow for food do not burst. Such beans can no longer seed themselves. Nor can the wild grasses we have changed, over the millennia, into our staple food sources: rice, wheat, and corn. To change a wild plant into a food plant requires changes in the plant's genes. To boost its yield, to make the earth say more beans, means changing the plant's genes, as well. For thousands of years, farmers have been picking and choosing plants, propagating those with the genetic changes - mutations - that made them better food plants. Our civilization is the beneficiary of this genetic tinkering.
I have been studying plant genes - and tinkering with them - since the early 1980s, when I had the good fortune to work with Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock, whose discovery of "transposons," popularly called "jumping genes," rewrote our concept of a gene. By identifying and cloning a jumping gene in 1984, I was able to identify the DNA sequences of McClintock's transposons and then to analyze and understand how they operate. Today we know that the genome is full of transposable elements and is constantly changing. Instead of being static "beads on a string," genes can move from one chromosome to another. Although the genes themselves are conserved over long evolutionary periods, there have been, and continue to be, numerous rearrangements, transpositions, duplications, and deletions, many of which are the work of the restless transposons.
McClintock and I worked on corn, and since then I and my students have used many of the techniques of genetic engineering invented in the last 20 years to uncover the secrets of how transposons and other kinds of plant genes work. I have never applied my knowledge to making a genetically modified crop, but my familiarity with both the techniques and the corn genome made me pay attention when corporations began doing so - and when the federal government began regulating the field-testing and marketing of these crops. I have given numerous public lectures on genetically modified foods and, with co-author Nancy Marie Brown, have written the book Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods, published in 2004 by Joseph Henry Press, an imprint of the National Academies Press.
For instance, when did people begin tinkering with the genes of plants? Corn - maize - is one of humankind's greatest feats of genetic engineering. It looks nothing like a wild plant. Maize has no way of dispersing its seeds, stuck tight as they are on its enormous ears, which remain firmly attached to the plant. Scientists argued about what wild plant gave rise to maize for most of the 20th century. We now know its closest relative is a grass - teosinte. Discovered in 1896, teosinte looks so little like maize that it was assigned to a different genus: Teosinte was Euchleana mexicana; corn is Zea mays. Plants that belong to two different species (not to mention two different genera) are not supposed to cross-hybridize, but maize and teosinte do. Early genetic work by George Beadle (who would share the Nobel Prize in 1958 for the "one-gene one-enzyme" hypothesis) and his mentor Rollins Emerson of Cornell University suggested that a small number of genetic changes had transformed teosinte into maize, but it wasn't until 1992 that John Doebley of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleagues, using modern molecular techniques, concluded that no more than five major genetic regions - in some cases single genes - were responsible. Changes in one of the critical genes softened the hard, silica-containing surface of the seed; another created an ear-like structure with tightly adhering seeds; and yet another telescoped a side branch into the dense husk covering the contemporary corn plant's ear.
To make corn, teosinte was genetically engineered by generations of farmers in the Balsas River basin of southern Mexico between 5,000 and 13,000 years ago. When scientists accepted teosinte as corn's ancestor, late in the 20th century, they realized the two could not belong to different genera. So they renamed teosinte: It is now a subspecies, called parviglumis, of corn, Zea mays.
The teosinte plant, of course, had not changed at all - only our way of naming it. The classifications "genus" and "species" are not fixed and immutable. Nor does our current definition of species particularly apply to plants. Indica rice and Japonica rice, for example, are two popular types of cultivated rice, Oryza sativa. They are members of the same species, and it is often difficult to tell if a single grain comes from one type or the other. Yet they do not crossbreed. B/W line drawing of millet plant
Scientists in the 1950s, on the other hand, made a new, fertile grain called triticale by crossbreeding rye and durum wheat, which belong to two different genera. The secret to this early genetic engineering was colchicine, a chemical isolated from the autumn crocus. Colchicine doubles a plant's chromosomes, making the normally sterile hybrid set seeds. By the mid-1980s, triticale was grown on more than two million acres worldwide; triticale flour is commonly found in health-food stores. Colchicine is also used to make fruits seedless. A favorite fruit produced this way is the seedless watermelon.
Another way to make seedless fruits is by using radiation to cause mutations. The Rio Red, a popular red grapefruit, was created by exposing grapefruit buds to thermal neutron radiation at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1968. Other notable successes of mutation breeding include Creso, the most popular variety of durum wheat used for making pasta in Italy; Calrose 76, a high-yielding California rice; Golden Promise barley, a fine-quality malt used in specialty beers; and some 200 varieties of bread wheat grown around the world.
Such work is still going on. In 1996, citrus breeders Mikeal L. Roose and Tim Williams of the University of California, Riverside, irradiated budwood to develop a seedless clementine called Tango. (Generally, seedless clementines are made by spraying the flowers with a chemical that mimics a growth hormone.) By 2006, nurseries had orders for millions of Tango trees, and the researchers had extended their radiation-breeding program to include 63 varieties of citrus including mandarins, oranges, tangelos, lemons, and grapefruits.
In 2001, researchers at the Colorado and Texas Agricultural Experiment Stations even used radiation breeding to create a hard red winter wheat, called Above, that tolerates an herbicide produced by the BASF corporation. Above wheat can be sprayed with herbicide and will not die, letting farmers use energy-saving no-till techniques. Yet, although the end result is the same as the Roundup Ready crops sold by Monsanto, Above is not considered a "genetically modified organism" or GMO.
In fact, none of the many crop varieties created over the last 50 years through chemical or radiation mutation is considered a GMO, and they are not covered by the regulations that restrict the field-testing and sale of GM foods. In fact, they are not covered by any regulations at all, although many of the public's concerns about GM crops - such as toxicity to humans or gene flow from modified crops to wild plants - apply to these crops as well.
GMO regulations only cover plant varieties created with molecular modification techniques, which plant breeders agree are more precise and controllable - and therefore safer - than the "conventional" techniques of chemical and radiation mutation.
The history of molecular-modification techniques begins in the late 1960s, when molecular biologists learned to isolate and study individual genes from among the tens of thousands of genes in every plant and animal. They began to decipher the information content of different organisms, from bacteria and yeast, plants and humans, discovering that genes change rather slowly. Maize plants and humans, for example, both have hemoglobin genes that code for rather similar oxygen-binding proteins, although they use them for very different purposes. Methods were developed as well to remove and replace genes and to add new ones. With a small amount of tweaking, any gene could work in almost any other organism. The functioning of genes and cells is so similar from one organism to another that if a bacterial gene is put into a plant, it will make the very same protein it did in the bacterium. Scientists also discovered that the movement of genes from one type of organism (such as a bacterium) to another (a plant) happens in nature. Building on that discovery, scientists developed ways to systematically introduce genes into plants in order to add just the right genes to help a plant withstand nature's biological and physical stresses.
One of their first successes was in making plants disease-resistant. For example, Hawaii's papaya plantations were saved from the scourge of the deadly papaya ringspot virus by expressing just a small genetic sequence of the virus in the plant. This sentinel gives the plants the ability to recognize and destroy an infecting virus before it can reproduce, much as we immunize children against the poliovirus, but by a different molecular mechanism. Other virus-resistant varieties include a plum that can withstand the plum pox virus that ravaged Pennsylvania recently, leading the state to invest $5.1 million towards its eradication. An heirloom variety of tomato, the San Marzano (said to be the inspiration for pizza), has been made resistant to the cucumber mosaic virus; by the year 2000, that virus had wiped out 90 percent of San Marzano production in its home fields near Naples, Italy. Unfortunately, neither the virus-resistant plum nor the tomato have been planted, due to anti-GMO activism. Widespread planting in Africa of a virus-resistant sweet potato, developed by Kenyan researcher Florence Wambugu through a collaboration with Monsanto, similarly has been delayed.
The most widely planted genetically modified crops are the corn and soybean varieties that tolerate herbicides, along with varieties of corn and cotton that produce an insecticidal protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), long used by organic farmers to control insects. These crops, developed by a number of companies including Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont, have been found to substantially decrease farmers' use of pesticides and herbicides. Moreover, because they protect corn plants from invasion by certain kinds of boring insects, the fungi that follow the insects do not infect the plants, substantially decreasing the contamination of the harvested corn by harmful mycotoxins.
"Today there is widespread acceptance in North and South America for the molecular modification of crop plants, and growing acceptance in China and India. Yet the status of crops modified by molecular techniques remains contentious in both Europe and Africa." New crops under development are focusing on making foods healthier or easier to grow, especially in harsh environments. For instance, nitrogen fertilizer would no longer be necessary if corn, wheat, and rice could fix nitrogen from the air in the way that legumes, such as peas and beans, do. Nitrogen fixation is a complex symbiosis between the legume and rhizobial bacteria that live in nodules on the plant's roots. In 2001, the DNA sequence of the rhizobial bacteria that fix nitrogen in alfalfa was published; since then more than 100 scientific studies have cited this article. A breakthrough announced by British workers in 2006 was inducing formation of the nodules without the presence of the bacteria.
In March 2007, researchers from the United States and China reported on how plants respond to the depletion of calcium from the soil, one effect of acid rain. This knowledge is a first step toward developing plant varieties that need less calcium. Other researchers are trying to make crops that are salt-tolerant, drought-tolerant, heat-tolerant, and cold-tolerant. Monsanto has identified genes that enable some plants to withstand drought and has created corn and soybean lines that grow with less water. Drought-tolerant corn is now undergoing field trials.
Researchers also are working on ways to make common foods healthier. Golden Rice, a rice that contains vitamin A, was created by Swiss researchers in 1999. The trait is currently being bred into varieties of rice traditionally grown in regions where vitamin A deficiency leads to high rates of blindness in children. In 2006, researchers in Florida reported they had bred a tomato that contains 20 times the normal amount of folate. A B vitamin, folate is needed to prevent anemia in pregnant women and birth defects in their children; lack of folate also increases the risk of vascular disease and cancer. A goal for future work is to fortify staple crops such as rice, sorghum, maize, or sweet potatoes with folate. Other researchers have made a temperate plant that produces a more-saturated, tropical-like oil which has baking properties like margarine without the transfats; a rice high in cancer-fighting flavonoids; potatoes with zeaxanthin, which wards off eye disease; and soybeans and canola oil that contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Oddly, these innovations aren't called plant breeding, but "genetic engineering." The new crops are not simply crops - as are the ones created using chemicals and radiation to modify plant genes - but genetically modified organisms.
GMOs have met with strong resistance. Before GMOs, people might have protested the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides in modern farming, but they were unconcerned about whatever it was that plant breeders had done to create high-yielding hybrid corn or brilliant red grapefruits or seedless watermelons. Now, however, many people seem to agree with Britain's Prince Charles when he calls the new techniques of plant breeding "dangerous" and against God's plan.
Part of the problem is in the words themselves. Much human effort goes into changing our environment, be it the building of highways, houses, air conditioners, shopping malls, dams, or airplanes. Although individual projects might meet with resistance, no one protests this kind of engineering. Yet the notion that plants were being engineered caught people by surprise. It was rather disquieting. Plants are, after all, natural, aren't they? Might we not be messing with Mother Nature if we began to engineer plants?
The fantastic recent growth of electronic communication has amplified the ability to spread misinformation. Numerous organizations devote themselves to the active opposition of molecular approaches to plant breeding (though none, strangely, focus on radiation mutation, for example). Unfortunately, our understanding of scientific concepts, such as what a species is or what genes do, is often a vague mixture of fact and belief, leaving us ill-prepared to separate fact from fiction. What genetic engineering actually is and how it differs from earlier techniques of plant breeding is little known outside the laboratory and breeding plot. Our lack of knowledge could have tragic consequences. By stifling the creativity of plant breeders and by banning the results of their work from the marketplace, a "no-GMO" attitude could keep hungry people from being able to grow enough food.
Here is my concern as an environmentalist: The human population is too large, and the Earth too small, to sustain us in the ways our ancestors lived. Most of the land that is good for farming is already being farmed. Yet 80 million more humans are being added to the population each year. The challenge of the coming decades is to limit the destructive effects of agriculture even as we continue to coax more food from the earth. Simply to provide all people living today with the same amount of food available to each American, we need to increase crop yields - unless more land is to be brought into production, which means plowing up more wilderness. b/w line drawing of oat plant
We cannot turn the clock back. At the end of the Stone Age, when most people lived in small tribes hunting wild game and gathering wild plants, the world's human population was stable at 8 to 10 million. When farming took hold as a way of life, the population began to grow. By the time of Christ, it had risen to between 100 and 300 million. When Columbus landed in the New World and the spread of food plants around the globe increased, the world's population was about 450 million. In the late 1700s, when the science of chemistry entered agriculture, it had doubled to 900 million. A century later, when Gregor Mendel's experiments were rediscovered, giving rise to the science of genetics, the population of the world was over one and a half billion.
In just the last hundred years the population doubled and redoubled. The number of people on Earth reached three billion in 1950, then jumped to six billion in little more than a single human generation. Yet farmers kept pace. Two important inventions early in the 20th century supported an enormous increase in farm productivity. First was the Haber-Bosch process for converting the gaseous nitrogen in the air to a form that plants can use as nitrogen fertilizer. Second was the observation of George Harrison Shull that intercrossing inbred corn varieties produces robust and productive offspring. This is the scientific underpinning of the entire hybrid corn industry.
These inventions initially benefited the developed world. By mid-century, doomsayers were predicting famines in India and China. These famines were averted by plant geneticists, who derived mutant strains of wheat, corn, and rice that were markedly more productive than indigenous strains. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the new crop varieties and expanding fertilizer use - the Green Revolution - continued to meet the world's food needs. In 1950, 1.7 billion acres of farm land produced 692 million tons of grain. In 1992, with no real change in the number of acres under cultivation, the world's farmers produced 1.9 billion tons of grain - a 170 percent increase. If India alone had rejected the high-yielding varieties of the Green Revolution, another 100 million acres of farm land - an area the size of California - would need to be plowed to produce the same amount of grain. That unfarmed land now protects the last of the tigers.
But the human population is still expanding. And there remain places in the world where malnutrition persists and hundreds of thousands of people, especially children, die for lack of food. Where will the next increments in food production come from? I believe they will come from genetic modification.
Today there is widespread acceptance in North and South America for the molecular modification of crop plants, and growing acceptance in China and India. In the first decade after these crops were introduced, their adoption progressed at a remarkable pace. By 2005, genetically modified crops, primarily cotton, corn and soybeans, were being grown by more than 8.5 million farmers in 21 different countries, with no substantiated reports of adverse health effects. Beneficial impacts, on the other hand, have been substantiated by peer-reviewed scientific studies, including the reduction in pesticide and herbicide use, the control of soil erosion through no-till farming, and the reduction in mycotoxin contamination of grain.
Yet the status of crops modified by molecular techniques remains contentious in both Europe and Africa. What remains to be seen is whether the wealth of the developed countries will be deployed to the benefit of the poorest countries, where people struggle to gain a foothold on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. Molecular modification of crop plants is expensive. And yet, as some of the examples I have given in this essay show, such modifications hold the promise of improving crop productivity under the most adverse climatic and biological conditions.
*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net