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July 25, 2007


He Only Saved a Billion; Seeds to weather drought; Simpleton's Guide to GM


* Advancing the Green Revolution
* He Only Saved a Billion People
* Africa Needs a Green Revolution
* Seeds to weather drought
* Evogene, CIRAD Expand Collaboration
* Mexico to experiment with GM
* Cyprus Greens angry
* Biotech in Food and Agriculture
* Workshops on Biosafety and AgBiotech
* Simpleton's Guide: GM Foods


Science, technology can help advance the Green Revolution

- Norman Borlaug, The Wall Street Journal via Des Moines Register, July 25, 2007


Persistent poverty and environmental degradation in developing countries, changing global climatic patterns and the use of food crops to produce biofuels all pose new and unprecedented risks and opportunities for global agriculture in the years ahead.

Agricultural science and technology, including the indispensable tools of biotechnology, will be critical to meeting the growing demands for food, feed, fiber and biofuels. Plant breeders will be challenged to produce seeds that are equipped to better handle saline conditions, to resist disease, insects, droughts and waterlogging and to protect or increase yields, whether in distressed climates or the breadbaskets of the world. This flourishing new branch of science extends to food crops, fuels, fibers, livestock and even forest products.

Over the millennia, farmers have practiced bringing together the best characteristics of individual plants and animals to make more vigorous and productive offspring. The early domesticators of our food and animal species - most likely Neolithic women - were also the first biotechnologists, as they selected more adaptable, durable and resilient plants and animals to provide food, clothing and shelter.

In the late 19th century, the foundations for science-based crop improvement were laid by Darwin, Mendel, Pasteur and others. Pioneering plant breeders applied systematic cross-breeding of plants and selection of offspring with desirable traits to develop hybrid corn, the first great, practical, science-based product of genetic engineering.

Early crossbreeding experiments to select desirable characteristics took years to reach the desired developmental state of a plant or animal. Today, with the tools of biotechnology, such as molecular and marker-assisted selection, the ends are reached in a more organized and accelerated way. The result has been the advent of a "Gene" Revolution that stands to equal, if not exceed, the Green Revolution of the 20th century.

Consider these examples:

- Since 1996, the planting of genetically modified crops developed through biotechnology has spread from about 5 million acres to about 250 million acres around the world, with half of that area in Latin America and Asia. This has increased global farm income by $27 billion annually.

- Ag biotechnology has reduced pesticide applications by nearly 500 million pounds since 1996. In each of the last six years, biotech cotton saved U.S. farmers from using 93 million gallons of water in water-scarce areas, 2.4 million gallons of fuel and 41,000 person-days to apply the pesticides they formerly used.

- Herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans have enabled greater adoption of minimum-tillage practices. No-till farming has increased 35 percent in the United States since 1996, saving millions of gallons of fuel, preventing perhaps 1 billion tons of soil each year from running into waterways and significantly improving moisture conservation as well.

- Improvements in crop yields and processing through biotechnology can accelerate the availability of biofuels. While the current emphasis is on using corn and soybeans to produce ethanol, the long-term solution will be cellulosic ethanol made from forest industry byproducts and products.

However, science and technology should not be viewed as a panacea that can solve all of our resource problems. Biofuels can reduce dependence on fossil fuels, but are not a substitute for greater fuel efficiency and energy conservation. Whether we like it or not, gas-guzzling SUVs will have to go the way of the dinosaurs.

So far, most biotechnology research and development has been carried out by the private sector, on crops and traits of greatest interest to relatively wealthy farmers. More biotechnology research is needed on crops and traits most important to the world's poor - on beans, peanuts, tropical roots, bananas and tubers such as cassava and yams. Also, more biotech research is needed to enhance the nutritional content of food crops for essential minerals and vitamins, such as vitamin A, iron and zinc.

The debate about the suitability of biotech agricultural products goes beyond issues of food safety. Access to biotech seeds by poor farmers is a dilemma that will require interventions by governments and the private sector. Seed companies can help improve access by offering preferential pricing for small quantities of biotech seeds to small-holder farmers. Beyond that, public-private partnerships are needed to share research and development costs for "pro-poor" biotechnology.

Finally, there is nothing magic in an improved variety alone. Unless that variety is nourished with fertilizers - chemical or organic - and grown with good crop management, it will not achieve much of its genetic yield potential.


NORMAN BORLAUG, a native of Cresco, Iowa, and the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, America's highest civilian honor on July 17.


He Only Saved a Billion People

- Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, July 30, 2007


[excerpted; see link above for full text]

It's a trifecta much bigger and rarer than an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony. Only five people in history have ever won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal: Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel ... and Norman Borlaug.

Norman who? Few news organizations covered last week's Congressional Gold Medal ceremony for Borlaug, which was presided over by President Bush and the leadership of the House and Senate. An elderly agronomist doesn't make news, even when he is widely credited with saving the lives of 1 billion human beings worldwide, more than one in seven people on the planet.


Africa Needs Its Own Green Revolution

- Douglas Southgate, Business Day (Johannesburg), July 25, 2007


WHEN the Green Revolution swept Asia after the mid-1960s with its high-yield seeds, fertilisers and other chemical inputs, and irrigation systems, hundreds of millions of people were saved from starvation. Africa cries out for such a revolution. The adoption of modern agricultural technology would go a long way towards helping the 200-million Africans who are malnourished.

Unfortunately, a coalition of environmental nongovernmental organisations , politicians and advocacy groups are conspiring to keep this nothing more than a pipe dream.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa was established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the objective of improving agriculture in Africa, but its head, former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, said last week: "We in the alliance will not incorporate GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in our programmes. We shall work with farmers using traditional seeds known to them." And Greenpeace claims that "chemical pesticides, fertilisers and hybrid seeds have destroyed wildlife and crop diversity, poisoned people and ruined the soil."

It is true that much environmental damage occurred in the same period as the Green Revolution. But it had entirely different causes. Consider water resources. When farmers irrigate wastefully it is because the managers of public systems charge practically nothing for water. Moreover, these managers often provide subsidised electricity to farmers to run their pumps. The result: depleted underground aquifers and dry streams. Bad policy also contributes to the misuse of chemicals. In India, nitrogen is subsidised; other fertilisers are not. This leads to unbalanced fertilisation, which diminishes crop output.

Modern agricultural practices have environmental benefits. Chemicals and genetically modified varieties enhance yields, enabling more food to be produced on less land. As a result, wild habitats are saved. Had the Green Revolution not come along when it did, we would now be discussing tropical deforestation in Asia exclusively in the past tense. Without yield growth, the continent's farmers would have cultivated every square metre of ground in a futile struggle to keep up with exploding food demand, driven by expanding populations and higher incomes. No more forests would be left to cut down.

New technologies are bringing other environmental benefits. Genetically modified varieties resist insects, thereby reducing the amount of pesticide required. Herbicide-resistant crops diminish the need for ploughing, a significant cause of soil erosion.

These technologies are now commonplace in southern Asia. But farming practices have changed little in Africa since the 1960s, and crop yields remain abysmal. Since human numbers are rising fast in many parts of the continent, agriculture is putting pressure on forests and other habitats. A Green Revolution could solve this problem.

Opponents of agricultural technology claim that small farmers lose when improved ways are found to produce food. While it is true that farmers who are slow to adopt cost-saving technology find themselves at a competitive disadvantage, small farmers during the Asian Green Revolution generally switched to improved varieties of rice and wheat and new agricultural practices at the same pace as other growers.

Nor is it true that multinational corporations are the only winners from new technologies. The reality is that the poor benefit more than anyone else, mainly because agricultural development makes food cheaper.

In any sector of the economy, including agriculture, technological change always increases the supply, which lowers prices. If consumption is not very responsive to price changes, as is the case in most food markets, the main impact of supply growth is a sharp decline in prices. Consumers are thus the main beneficiaries of agricultural development.

The biggest winner from cheaper food prices is the poorest segment of the rural population: landless people in the countryside, who subsist mainly by working occasionally on other people's farms. Small producers also gain, since most of them are net buyers of food. As food grows cheaper for these groups and the urban poor, diets improve and the threat of hunger and disease recedes.

Taking into account these and other benefits of agricultural development, the greatest myth propagated by antitechnology groups is that they represent the best interests of the African poor. Much of the world long ago moved away from traditional farming practices, and is significantly better off as a result. It's high time for Africa to have its own Green Revolution.


Dr Southgate is a professor of agricultural economics at Ohio State University and member of the Sustainable Development Network, an international coalition of think-tanks


Seeds to weather drought

Genetically altered crops may need less water

- Kent Faulk, The Birmingham News, July 24, 2007


When the rain stops falling, Alabama farmers have few options to keep their crops alive until the weather changes - find a way to irrigate or pray.

Scientists aim to give farmers a little more breathing room in the future by breeding or genetically altering plants so that they need less water while producing the same amount of crops or more.

"It really doesn't matter whether you're a cotton farmer in Alabama or a dry land corn farmer in South Dakota," said Robb Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto. "Everybody is interested in drought tolerance because just about every geography every three or four years faces some type of drought or water stress."

For example, Monsanto spends more than $2 million a day on breeding and genetic research to develop drought-tolerant plants, improve the quality of plants, or make crops less susceptible to weeds and insects.

Several hundred people at the St. Louis-based company work on drought-tolerance alone, company officials said.

Monsanto has done early testing on genetically engineered corn and cotton, two of Alabama's biggest crops.

Some varieties of corn tested have shown 10 percent to 15 percent higher yields compared to standard corn exposed to the same levels of water, Fraley said. "That's a huge economic advantage," he said.

Mark Lawson, corn yield and stress lead for the company, said he hopes the company will have a product to offer farmers soon after 2010.

A drought-tolerant cottonseed may be available between 2016 and 2018 or so, said Fred Perlak, director of cotton technology for Monsanto. He said company researchers are aiming to develop cotton plants that will produce as much cotton as traditional plants but with 20 percent less water.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service in Tifton, Ga., also is working to develop drought-tolerant peanuts through traditional breeding.

Corley Holbrook, research geneticist at that center, said the goal is to develop a plant that can yield 20 percent more peanuts than conventional varieties during a drought. "We're a few years away from something a farmer could actually grow," he said.

Attention has focused on the plight of Alabama farmers during this year's drought.

Parts of the northern half of the state remain in either an extreme or exceptional drought, the two highest drought categories. Agriculture officials report that 82 percent of the corn crop and 55 percent of the cotton crop are in poor or very poor condition.

Though northern Alabama has had normal to above average rainfall in the past few weeks, it hasn't made up for deficits from earlier this year.

As of last week, Birmingham was still below normal rainfall by 17.4 inches and Tuscaloosa by 21.8 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

No-till farming:

There are things farmers can do during the year to minimize problems if their crops are hit by a drought.

No-till farming is one technique farmers who plant row crops have been using in the past decade or so to keep moisture and nutrients in the soil. Rather than plowing their fields, farmers cut old plant stalks and let them rest on the ground, trapping moisture during the off-season. Crops are planted and grow up through that barrier.

No-till provides enough moisture to keep plants thriving during brief dry spells, but it can't be depended on for long, said Wayne Widner, a Cullman County farmer who is growing corn and soybeans this year. "It'll give you two weeks extra," he said.

Crops he planted this year on part of his land that he plowed "burnt up," Widner said, while the crops on the portion that wasn't tilled fared better.

Farmers also can plant certain grasses in their fields during the off season, which helps to keep moisture and nutrients in the ground, agriculture officials and farmers said. They also can dig wells, or save water in ponds to irrigate their crops during dry spells.

Irrigation, while essential in western states, has not caught on in the usually rain-rich Alabama. Investment in developing an irrigation system can take years to recoup, farmers said.

But some Alabama farmers have had enough of the continued dry seasons and have begun to irrigate.

"You've got some cost, but at least you know you're going to make something," said Alan Murphy, a Madison County farmer who put in an irrigation system two years ago to water 140 acres.


Evogene and CIRAD Expand Their Cotton Collaboration

- Evogene (press release), July 24, 2007


REHOVOT, ISRAEL - Evogene Ltd., a publicly quoted plant biotechnology company (TELAVIV: EVGN), and CIRAD, a French scientific organization, announce the expansion of their multi-year collaboration signed in 2004. The goal of the new project is to introduce Evogene's lead candidate, EVO133 gene, into cotton and to validate its improvement for drought tolerance.

Cotton is the third largest genetically modified crop by its importance, after soybean and corn, and provides 40% of the global fiber requirements. Cotton is grown on about 35 million hectares worldwide, 10 million hectares (28%) of which are grown with GM varieties. Cotton is largely grown in marginal agricultural areas where precipitations are low and drought resistance is often the first limiting factor for yield. Drought resistance is one of the key factors which can help dry areas stay competitive in the global cotton market.

EVO133 is Evogene's lead candidate gene for yield, and yield stability under drought, heat and salinity conditions. EVO133 has been tested in three seasons of field trials in processing tomato varieties and has demonstrated its potential to increase yield under normal conditions, reduce yield penalty under drought conditions as well as under salinity and heat stresses. The validation of EVO133 is also advancing in other target crops under other collaborations, which have been announced publicly, namely in Corn with Biogemma and Soybean with Mertec.

Ofer Haviv, Evogene President and CEO, stated: "Having identified our lead candidate for yield and yield stability, we are excited to advance towards obtaining promising results in the cotton crop. CIRAD's decades of experience in developing cotton varieties around the globe, makes it a very attractive partner for this project."

Bernard Hau, Head of the CIRAD Cotton Research Unit, stated: "The search for rustic varieties resisting to drought corresponds to the demand of the developing countries and its importance will increase with climate change. CIRAD is pleased to have established a partnership with the Israeli company EVOGENE, a partner offering new tools to efficiently address this theme. Part of this project is financed by the EUREKA initiative through the French National Agency for Research (ANR)."


Mexico to experiment with GM corn

- American Public Media, July 24, 2007


Corn was likely first cultivated in Mexico and it still has a central part of the culture. But genetically modified strains simply produce more corn per acre, and there's a hungry nation to feed. Dan Grech reports. Listen to ThisStory

[photo caption: Farmer protests high price of corn in Mexico, January 2007*]

Lisa Napoli: Short supplies and higher prices for corn are causing problems in Mexico, where the tortilla is a way of life. And some farmers are hoping to use genetically modified seeds to up their output.

Dan Grech reports from the Americas desk at WLRN - and then there's the opposition:

Dan Grech: Mexico is the likely cradle of corn cultivation. Scientists believe the grain was grown there as far back at 5300 B.C.

Mexicans with small farms, known as ejidos, prefer to grow the native varieties of corn. These small farmers fear a genetically modified seed would be less hardy.

Parr Rosson is an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University.

Parr Rosson: Their view is if they lose that variety, it's lost forever. It's lost not only to Mexico, but to the rest of the world as well.

That folk wisdom is coming up against a hard reality: The genetically modified seeds favored by big farms yield 20 percent more corn per acre.

Since 1998, Mexico's banned the modified seeds. But earlier this year, the country faced a severe corn shortage and had to import 800,000 tons at a sharp premium.

Now Mexico's congress has passed a law allowing genetically modified seeds. Experimental plantings will start this summer.

Listen to this story: http://www.publicradio.org/tools/media/player/marketplace/morning_report/2007/07/24_mktmorn0650?start=00:00:02:16.0&end=00:00:03:36.0


*Guest ed. note: A farmer protesting the high price of corn can't hardly be very representative. Perhaps he's a neo-Marxist.


Cyprus Greens angry at GMO law shelved

- Reuters via AlertNet, July 25, 2007


NICOSIA - Environmental campaigners in Cyprus accused the government of yielding to American influence on Wednesday by refusing to endorse ground-breaking legislation forcing retailers to segregate GMO food.

President Tassos Papadopoulos has referred the law, passed by parliament on June 14, to the Supreme Court, effectively freezing its application until the court convenes to assess its legality. That is not expected to occur before the autumn.

"The only way the law can be applied immediately is if the president withdraws his petition to the Supreme Court," Greens Party spokeswoman Ioanna Panayiotou said.

The law, a first in an EU member state, obliges retail outlets to separate food with a genetically modified content of more than 0.9 percent on separate shelves.

The United States, a pioneer of biotechnology, warned Cyprus in 2005 that the move could contravene Cyprus's obligations as a World Trade Organisation member, and harm bilateral ties.

"This is being done to meet the demands of Americans. Is our government merely an intermediary of American interests?" the Greens Party said in a statement.

The Greens Party supported Papadopoulos's bid for election in 2003. Papadopoulos is seeking re-election next year.

Under the present centre-left administration it has been rare for the presidency to exercise its right to refer parliamentary legislation to the Supreme Court, Panayiotou said.

"Certainly it's the first time a law concerning food safety is referred to court," she said. The Supreme Court was expected to issue a judgment on the validity of the law by autumn, she added.

Papadopoulos's referral letter, seen by Reuters, says the procedure for the adoption of the legislation, and elements of the legislation itself, could be an infringement of European Union regulations.

European consumers are generally suspicious of genetically modified products, fearing health and environment risks.

Advocates of biotechnology insist GMO products are safe and will help eradicate world hunger by improving food supply.


Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture

- Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (newsletter), July 24, 2007


[headlines; for full text, visit the link above]

FAO biotechnology activities and documents

Biotechnologies in animal genetic resources management

Benefits and limits of marker-assisted selection

FAO/IAEA Animal Production and Health Newsletter 46

FAO/IAEA Plant Breeding and Genetics Newsletter 19

FAO/IAEA Insect Pest Control Newsletter 69

Green revolution to gene revolution - Conference proceedings

Biosafety education and training - Meeting report

Beyond the Blue Book - Rapporteurs' report

Consensus document on plants expressing Bt-derived proteins

Marker-assisted selection in crops, livestock, forestry and fish

Launch of FAO-BiotechNews-Cn

CGRFA - Report of the 11th Regular Session

Panel of Eminent Experts on Ethics - 3rd session report

Biosafety across the CGIAR system

Biosafety Protocol News - 2nd issue


Workshops on Biosafety and AgBiotech

The International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) will be holding several courses and workshops on biosafety and agricultural biotechnology during the remainder of this year.

These include:

1) a workshop on "Biosafety of GM crops and the evolution of regulatory frameworks: Issues and challenges," September 24-28 in Minas Gerais, Brazil;

2) a practical course on "Evaluation of risk assessment dossiers for the deliberate release of genetically modified crops," October 8-12 in Ca' Tron di Roncade, Italy;

3) a theoretical and practical course called "Molecular approaches in gene expression analysis for crop improvement," October 8-19 in New Delhi, India; and

4) a theoretical and practical course entitled ''Insecticidal proteins: Application and regulatory issues," November 12-23 in New Delhi, India.

ICGEB offers a number of one- to two-week workshops and training courses throughout the year. Information on this year's courses and workshops is available online at the link below.



Simpleton's Guide: Genetically Modified Foods

- simpletonsguide, YouTube, July 20, 2007


The good professor talks about the evils of genetically modified foods, and the benefits people are missing out on when believe this hype.

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