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July 27, 2007


Resistant Trees Move Forward; GM feed does not affect meat; AGRA clarification welcomed


* Resistant Trees Move Forward
* GM feed does not affect meat
* Organizations welcome AGRA clarification
* Biotech Corn Better in Dry Soil
* Proteins That Make Rice Flourish
* Biotech sector sets standards
* GM rules block non-GM barley
* Annan wrong on genetic foods
* A Global Conference


Plum-Pox-Resistant Trees Move Forward

- Kim Kaplan, USDA Agricultural Research Service, July 25, 2007


Plum trees with resistance to plum pox (PPV), a virus that can devastate stone fruit, have moved a step closer to reality, according to the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which is leading the project.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which has regulatory authority over genetically engineered organisms, recently "deregulated" HoneySweet, as the PPV-resistant plum tree is named. This means APHIS had determined that the tree is not a plant pest and that it will have no significant impact on other plants.

Deregulated products have a history of safe use in U.S. agriculture. APHIS has overseen the deregulation of more than 70 genetically engineered plants, including corn, cotton, rapeseed (canola), soybean, flax, sugar beet and squash. In September 1996, papaya became the first genetically engineered tree to be deregulated.

ARS is now taking the next step in HoneySweet's development, which is for cooperators such as universities to plant small quantities of the trees to study how they grow under a variety of conditions, a process commonly undertaken for new varieties.

A standard genetic engineering technique was used to introduce a gene for the PPV coat protein into cells extracted from plum seeds. Cells that incorporated the new gene into the plum DNA were then regenerated and grown into complete plum trees. These trees have the new gene in their DNA and are resistant to PPV through a process called gene silencing.

While HoneySweet itself produces high-quality fruit of commercial standard, it may also be used as breeding stock to introduce PPV resistance into other plum breeding lines for future variety development. Fruit from HoneySweet or its progeny will not be eaten or sold without further regulatory approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

PPV was first identified in the United States in Pennsylvania in 1999 and has since been found in New York and Michigan. To ensure that PPV was eradicated during the 1999 outbreak, over 1,600 acres of commercial orchards and homeowner trees had to be destroyed at a cost of more than $40 million.

But since developing a PPV-resistant plum tree is not a simple or quick process, ARS has not waited until plum pox has a major presence in the United States to do the research. Rather, ARS has taken the proactive step of developing a PPV-resistant tree and doing the testing required to allow genetically engineered trees to become available before plum pox precipitates a crisis in this country.

More information about the HoneySweet plum tree can be found at http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/br/plumpox/


Genetically modified feed does not affect meat

- Meat Processing News, July 25, 2007


EUROPE: Studies show that DNA from genetically modified feed is not absorbed into meat, milk or eggs.

A new report from the European Food Safety Authority shows that there is no evidence the genetically modified (GM)animal feed can have a harmful effect on meat. The EFSA research followed a call from the European Commission after a petition had been lodged to have meat, milk, and eggs from animals that have been fed genetically modified feed labelled.

The commission wanted to know if transgenes or their products could be incorporated into animal tissues.

The study also looked at whether the DNA from GM foods could also be absorbed by humans. The study said that for humans the "recombinant DNA did not survive passage through the intact gastrointestinal tract of healthy human subjects fed GM soya".

The study adds that the rapid breakdown of DNA and proteins during digestion reduces the chance of them being absorbed intact into the muscle, milk, or eggs of animals.

"After ingestion, a rapid degradation into short DNA or peptide fragments is observed in the gastrointestinal tract or animals and humans," the report states. "To date, a large number of experimental studies with livestock have shown that recombinant DNA fragments or proteins derived from GM plants have not been detected in tissues, fluids or edible products of farm animals like broilers, cattle, pigs or quails."


African scientists and agricultural organizations welcome AGRA clarification on biotech research

- AfricaBio, Africa Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum, Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International, Biotechnology-Ecology Research and Outreach Consortium (BioEROC) and International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) (press release), July 25, 2007

AFRICAN scientists and agricultural organizations yesterday welcomed the clarification by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) that the organization "supports the use of science and technology" - including genetic modification (GM) technology - "to aid Africa's smallholder farmers in their urgent efforts to end widespread poverty and hunger".

Five major organizations working in agriculture - AfricaBio, the Africa Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF), Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International (AHBFI), Biotechnology-Ecology Research and Outreach Consortium (BioEROC) and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) - said the AGRA position is consistent with that of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) in its report on biotechnology which states that "regional economic integration in Africa should embody the building and accumulation of capacities to harness and govern modern biotechnology".

AGRA says in a statement that its mission "is not to advocate for or against the use of genetic engineering. We believe it is up to governments, in partnership with their citizens, to use the best knowledge available to put in place policies and regulations that will guide the safe development and acceptable use of new technologies, as several African countries are in the process of doing".

The Alliance said its mission is to use the wide variety of tools and techniques available now to make a dramatic difference for Africa's smallholder farmers as quickly as possible. It said it has chosen to focus on conventional breeding techniques but would "consider funding the development and deployment of such new (GM) technologies only after African governments have endorsed and provided for their safe use".

The Alliance clarified that conventional breeding was its starting point, however it pointed out that since science and society are continually evolving, and it does not preclude future funding for genetic engineering as an approach to crop variety improvement when it is the most appropriate tool to address an important need of small-scale farmers.

Last week, AGRA's new president, former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was reported as having ruled out the GM technology as one of AGRA's strategies in the fight against poverty and hunger in Africa. Anti-GM organizations hailed his statement as a sign that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - a funding partner to AGRA - has changed its strategy on the GM technology.

South African-based AfricaBio President, Prof. Diran Makinde, said "African agricultural organizations welcome the clarification from AGRA. We cannot fault their strategy and we agree that conventional plant breeding has not received sufficient attention or investment in Africa, leaving untapped the inherent genetic potential available in African crops".

Africa Harvest CEO, Dr. Florence Wambugu, said "Africa's leaders had asked African scientists to come up with a consensus position on this new technology. The NEPAD report clearly states that the continent must have the freedom to innovate. Many countries and regional organizations are busy domesticating the NEPAD Biotechnology Policy and will resist any effort to erode their freedom to innovate".

The African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF) CEO, Prof. Norah Olembo, said: "Africa is not choosing between the GM and conventional breeding technologies. Given the desperate situation the continent faces, we need desperate measures. The African Green Revolution will not come through one technology only. While we applaud the focus of AGRA on conventional breeding technologies, we also welcome their clarification that the GM technology has an important role to play in fighting poverty, hunger and malnutrition".

Dr. Margaret Karembu of the Africa Center of ISAAA said "No country has resolved her food security needs using a single approach. The clarification from AGRA therefore clears the misconception that Africa should be restricted to traditional methods while the rest of the global community moves fast in embracing new and advanced tools including GM technology to enhance agricultural productivity".

Executive Director of BioEROC in Malawi, Mr. Wisdom Changadeya, said "nobody can deny Africa its right to a technology that will help it solve some of its most serious and urgent problems. Biotechnology needs to be embraced alongside other equally useful conventional technologies"


Biotech Corn Doing Better in Dry Indiana Soil

- Gary Truitt, Hoosier Ag Today, July 26, 2007


Drought tolerance is something seed companies like to brag about in their seed books, but the kind of year that many Indiana growers have had really puts these hybrids to the test. Wayne Reinhardt, who farms in Wells County, said it has not been a good growing season, "Everything that could go wrong did go wrong." Several growers, attending a Syngenta sponsored educational field day event in Bluffton on Thursday, observed that biotech varieties were dealing with the drought stress better than conventional hybrids. "We planted some triple stack corn varieties and it had very little root damage, and very little insect damage and the conventional corn we planted just got hammered," observed Reinhardt.

Craig Gilles, who farms in Delaware and Jay Counties, also said some of his biotech hybrids performed better than others in very dry conditions, "Some of our AgriSure corn and some of our root worm corn is performing better, you can just see it has more drought tolerance to it." This part of Indiana has had some of the driest soil in the entire corn belt.

Wells County received rain on both Wednesday and Thursday and that has made a real difference. "I think we may be adding a few bushels of corn that we lost earlier in the month," said Reinhardt. Gilles noted that his soybeans were also responding to the recent rains although they were still showing signs of stress and were much shorter than normal.


Researcher Studies Proteins That Make Rice Flourish

- University of Arkansas (press release), July 26, 2007


Studying plants at molecular level allows graduate student to understand response to stressors, uncover gene

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - A University of Arkansas graduate student is helping rice farmers grow better crops by studying the plant at its most fundamental molecular level.

Cell and molecular biology major Tameka Bailey's research focuses on a certain type of proteins and the molecular mechanisms that trigger rice's response to stressful conditions, such as drought, high salinity or a biological disease called rice blast. Understanding how plants respond to these stressors will help scientists and farmers develop better ways to grow rice in less than optimal conditions.

"The proteins have so much power in the cell, it's amazing," Bailey said. "They can change the whole fate of the plant."

Working with Yinong Yang, a former professor of plant pathology in the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences who is now at Penn State University, Bailey uncovered the gene responsible for a molecular mechanism that helps regulate rice blast resistance through the production of ethylene, an organic gas found in nature. Bailey also studied proteins called mitogen-activated protein kinases. These proteins regulate the plants' response to external stimuli, such as drought or disease. The particular type of kinase Bailey studied is the last one in a cascade of kinases that convert signals from receptors into responses from the plant.

She found that these proteins regulate the plants' production of an acid called abscisic acid, which led to stress tolerance in drought and high salinity conditions, a trait that appears to be conserved in other types of plants. Bailey isolated and characterized these proteins, which are responsible for activating the plant's response to stress.

To give rice plants a boost in their ability to tolerate stressful conditions, Bailey used genetic engineering to create plants that would express a great deal of the protein. To do this, she inserted extra copies of the protein kinase DNA into the DNA of a rice plant. The transgenic rice plant then expressed an abundance of that particular protein. In contrast, Bailey produced transgenic plants where the protein kinase was suppressed to see how the plants responded to stress in the absence of the protein of interest. Her studies showed that the extra boost of protein kinases led to increased drought tolerance.

"Those traits are really important to rice farmers," Bailey said. "Making a direct contribution to this is really a plus to my work."

"Her study contributes to our understanding of plant stress signaling mechanism and may help improve crop disease resistance and stress tolerance in the near future," said Yang, who continues her own research at Penn State University.

Bailey has co-authored a chapter on signal transduction of rice disease resistance. Because of her research, she also was awarded a study and travel grant from the Asian Rice Foundation.

Bailey, a native of Gould, Ark., is expected to graduate from the University of Arkansas this fall with a doctorate in cell and molecular biology.


Biotech sector sets standards, seeks to ease fears

- Reuters via Engineering News (South Africa), July 26, 2007


US biotech crop companies on Wednesday unveiled a plan for new industry standards at a time when the sector faces unfavorable court rulings and concerns that lax government oversight is allowing contamination of conventional crops.

Leaders of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and executives with Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co., said they hoped the plan, which includes third-party auditing, would help agricultural players around the world feel confident that biotech crop development is subject to stringent safety standards.

"It is our hope that this effort by BIO will insure that everyone in the industry chooses to use these high standards. They'll guarantee that all biotech products are as safe as their conventional counterparts," said Tom West, vice president at Pioneer, a subsidiary of DuPont.

A federal judge this year overturned U.S. government approval for Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" biotech alfalfa, which is resistant to herbicides. U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer of the Northern District of California found that the USDA acted illegally when it allowed unrestricted commercial planting of the crop without fully analyzing the environmental impact.

The USDA has repeatedly assured consumer groups and foreign governments that safety is a top concern for regulators. But an Office of Inspector General found numerous holes in oversight efforts and issued a stern warning in December 2005 that oversight was sorely lacking.

There are several examples of unapproved GMO's slipping into mainstream crops, leading the U.S. Center for Food Safety to push for a moratorium on all field tests of genetically modified crops until federal oversight improves.

Toward that end, this month the USDA released a series of proposed changes to make oversight more stringent for some projects.

Industry executives said on Wednesday that its program would work alongside government regulations. BIO will issue a "Quality Management Program Guide" on best practices for its 1,100 members and others involved in agricultural biotechnology research and development.

And the organization said it will adopt a third-party audit program designed to confirm quality management systems and compliance with principles and management practices.

"We see it as a really positive step," said Monsanto executive vice president Jerry Steiner. "The industry supports strong science-based federal regulation. This is a complement to that."

The standards and audits would apply not only to genetically altered crops used in food, like corn and biotech food, feed and fuel crops but also to plant-based pharmaceutical technology.


GM rules block new non-GM barley

- Allan Dawson, Manitoba Co-Operator, July 24, 2007


The commercialization of a new Canadian barley, bred by traditional means to reduce the phosphorus in livestock manure and save hog farmers money on nutritional supplements, has hit a regulatory roadblock set up mainly for genetically modified (GM) crops.

That has the developer of HB379 low-phytate barley, Brian Rossnagel of the University of Saskatchewan's Crop Development Centre (CDC), angry and frustrated. He wants the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to change its process for approving new varieties or risk impeding innovation and unnecessarily adding costs that publicly funded breeders can't afford. "As far as we can tell there are no downsides (to this new barley), not at least based on sound scientific rationale and logic," Rossnagel said while speaking at the University of Manitoba in May.

Last year the industry committee that recommends whether new crop cultivars go forward for registration unanimously gave the thumbs up to HB379. Rossnagel wasn't surprised. HB379 is essentially the popular Harrington barley, with one major difference: up to 50 per cent of its phosphorus is available to the livestock that eat it, while in traditional barley only 25 to 35 per cent is available.

That means pigs fed HB379 will excrete less phosphorus in their manure because they'll absorb more. Manure is seen as one of many sources of phosphorus pollution making its way into Lake Winnipeg.

It also means farmers won't have to add phosphorus to make up for what's unavailable in traditional barley, or add enzymes (phytase) to free up the bound phosphorus.

"If you can reduce the amount of the phosphorus in the diet because there's more available in the barley then you don't have to add commercial minerals to the ration," Andrew Dickson, general manager of Manitoba Pork, said in an interview following Rossnagel's address. "It would also reduce the cost of the diet."

Dickson said some studies estimate it will cost Manitoba hog farmers between $18 and $27 million to manage manure to comply with the provincial government's new water regulations. Having a barley that puts less phosphorus in hog manure would help farmers and the environment, he said. "This (delay in commercialization) is really frustrating because there is an urgency to this thing," Dickson said.

"It's just barley"

Rossnagel had expected HB379 to be registered this spring and available to seed growers to propagate seed for wider distribution next year. But the way CFIA sees it, such a major change in available phosphorus makes HB379 a "novel" feed, even though it's not a GM crop. If it's novel, CFIA must do a safety assessment before the crop can become commercialized, said Ian Affleck, acting chief of CFIA's seed policy, plant production division. "We need to look at this to see if it poses any potential risk," he said in a recent interview.

Meantime, Rossnagel is emphatic that HB379 barley is no risk because "it's just barley."

There is no difference in the total phosphorus between HB379 and other barleys, he stressed, adding the only difference is how much is available and how much is bound.

"There is nothing strange or new about this barley, I can tell you. And surely to God, when Harrington was grown on something like 143 million acres in Canada over the last 29 years, we shouldn't be afraid of this barley." HB379 as a feed is equivalent to an ordinary barley that has phytase enzymes added to make more phosphorus available to the livestock that eat it, Rossnagel said.

"It's the same damn feed," he said. "What the hell is the risk, is my concern.

"How dumb can you be? Something that has absolutely no risk gets declared novel and then you go through a whole process to decide that it has no risk. The point is, this whole system has to go back to what it used to be: risk-based."

Until recently the CDC and CFIA were at a stalemate. CFIA couldn't do a safety assessment on HB379 until Rossnagel agreed it was a "novel" feed and submitted data to show it's safe.

In May Rossnagel said he didn't want HB379 declared "novel," even if it resulted in the eventual approval of the variety, for two reasons: one, it would add unnecessary cost to prove the barley is safe and two, because potential importers of the barley will wrongly assume it has been genetically modified and not buy it.

"There are significant potential export markets," he said. "Winnipeg is not, despite what Winnipeggers probably think, the only place with phosphorus pollution.

"Once the 'novel feed' moniker is hung on this variety and this type of barley... everywhere else in the world... it will be interpreted as a GMO and folks in Korea, Japan and Taiwan won't touch this with a 10-foot pole and they'll buy their low-phytate barley from our colleagues in Montana." However, in an interview July 11, the CDC's managing director Dorothy Murrell said the variety has now been submitted for approval and the centre will try to provide the data CFIA needs.

"We are working with them (CFIA) to supply them information to give them a comfort level that they can approve this product," she said.

"The longer-term vision is, we see a strong need for change and will work as the Crop Development Centre, but also with industry associations and other partners, to continue to press for change."

Red tape

According to Rossnagel, Canada's regulatory system is flawed because it tries to protect the GM plant breeding industry at the expense of those who use traditional plant breeding techniques.

"When we developed this idiotic definition of plants with novel traits (PNT) and everything that goes with that definition, we just completely screwed ourselves," he said. "The rest of the world sees a PNT, regardless of what the definition is, as a GMO."

Rossnagel said GM crops are regulated for social reasons, not scientific ones. Canada is the only country in the world where non-GM crops get bogged down in red tape designed for GM crops.

Affleck agreed Canada's regulatory system is unique, but stressed it is science-based.

"It's not the process you used to make something (that is assessed), it's what have you made," he said. "It's that product that we want to regulate. Although it does set us apart from other countries, it is truly a science-based regulatory system. But it is a very safe system that we run. "Our trigger is the novelty rather than the process used to create the product."


Annan wrong on genetic foods

- Njoroge Wachai, Daily Nation (Kenya), July 27,2007


I am dismayed by Mr Kofi Annan's recent remark on genetically modified foods.

On a recent visit to Kenya, the former UN secretary-general and now the chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, ruled out incorporating genetically modified foods by his organisation in fighting food insecurity in Africa.

Mr Annan's remark was misplaced. When you're trying to look for a solution to such a serious issue, you put all options on the table. Mr Annan has the right to be sceptical about genetically modified foods, but such biases must not drive policies of such an important organisation as Agra.

By trashing the foods, Mr Annan is effectively telling us that modern crop biotechnology has no place in Africa. It's hard for me to understand why. As a career diplomat, Mr Annan, should know better.


A Global Conference

- European Commission - Joint Research Centre, July 24, 2007


Growing global deployment of GM crops in agricultural production and trade has led to increasing complexity in identity preservation operations of diverse agricultural commodity production supply chains within progressively more complex and evolving market demands.

Although much progress has been achieved in the development of identity preservation strategies, implementation aspects still pose considerable scientific and technical challenges to enable successful global market functioning.

Within this context, this conference aims to address the science and technology underpinning GMO control and analysis by bringing together international experts willing to share knowledge and participate in promoting international scientific dialogue across diverse yet interdependent areas such as:

* Sampling for GMO analysis;

* Analytical tools and applied procedures along the commodity production chains;

* Consistency of test results, result interpretation and reporting

* Harmonizing Standards for Detection of Genetically Modified Traits

This conference is aimed at all stakeholders involved in GMO control and analysis, including industry and regulators, and beyond.

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