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August 3, 2007


Europe Faces WTO Deadline; Corn Grows Enzymes; Super Trees


* US awaits Europe GM approval
* Engineered beans OK'd for U.S.
* GM policy u-turn could cost
* GM labels bad for food prices
* GM cotton potential for Ord region
* Plant virus discovery may help stop HIV
* Super trees: The latest
* Big Step to Solving Soybean Rust Mystery
* Corn Grows Enzymes
* The Role of Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa


US awaits Europe GM approval

- AllAboutFeed.net, August 2, 2007


The US biotechnology industry is awaiting this fall's deadline for Europe to speed up its approval of new biotech food and crops. This would increase access to a major market.

After a World Trade Organization ruling last year found "undue delays" in Europe's approval of biotech products, the EC has until November 21 to bring its system up to speed.

Canice Nolan, who heads food safety affairs for the European Commission's delegation in Washington, said the EC is studying how to tighten up its internal processes and assessing other steps to streamline its approval system."We plan to have this done before the time limit runs out," Nolan said. EU-U.S. discussions are continuing on the issue, with the next meeting scheduled for October, according to Sharon Bomer, vice president of industry group BIO, which includes major biotech players such as BASF Plant Sciences, a unit of Germany's BASF, and Bayer Cropscience.

Divise in Europe

Biotech products are increasingly common the world over and are used in animal feed, human food and other products. Genetic modification can, among other things, boost vitamin content in food or make crops resistant to pesticides.

But they are divisive in Europe, where some consumers worry about their safety. The issue has also polarized the bloc's member states, with some routinely opposing new approvals. Bomer said the case is important not only because other countries may look to Europe for guidance on biotech regulation, but also because the bloc's "zero-tolerance" approach on unapproved products has the potential to derail massive trade flows from nations with more permissive systems.


Engineered beans OK'd for U.S. release in 2009

- Courier Post (St. Louis), August 1, 2007


Monsanto Co. will release its first new strain of genetically engineered soybeans in more than a decade.

The world's largest biotech seed producer won regulatory approval for its new strain of Roundup Ready beans in the United States and Canada, the company announced Tuesday.

The new beans -- which have the brand name Roundup RReady2Yield -- are slated to go on sale in limited U.S. markets in 2009 and begin nationwide distribution in 2010, said Monsanto spokeswoman Sara Duncan.


GM policy u-turn 'could cost farmers dearly'

- Roscommon Herald, August 1, 2007


THE DECISION by the Minister for Agriculture to u-turn on Government policy to date on the importation of genetically modified (GM) feed has the potential to badly damage Irish agriculture, according to Deputy Frank Feighan.

"Fine Gael has continually called for a full debate on GM in agriculture but the Government up to now has persistently refused to engage in one.

There is no getting way from the fact that these decisions have huge implications that need to be fully thought through and not developed on a political whim. In 2006, 144.6m Euros worth of animal feed was imported into Ireland, of which 97% contained some genetically engineered material.

The fact is that the vast majority of imported animal feed now used by Irish farmers has been genetically modified in some manner we cannot pretend otherwise.

"One of the consequences of the Nitrates Directive, which penalises grass-based production systems as we have here in Ireland, is that there will be even greater demand for imported feed in the future.

However, despite assurances to the contrary from the Agriculture Minister, the Irish Government decided in June to abstain on an EU vote which has the effect that animal feed companies here will no longer be able to import maize by-products from the US," he said.

"I am informed by the Connacht Gold Feed Mill that 800,000 tonnes of maize byproducts which are used in the production of animal feed are imported from the US every year. Connacht Gold, like other animal feed companies, is now in the position of having to source replacement ingredients and estimates that this could lead to an additional cost of up to 50 million Euros a year. The knock-on effect on the price of feed and therefore on farmers' margins is obvious and potentially very damaging.

"It is now time for a full debate on the whole GM issue and not off-the-cuff, knee-jerk policy which determines this issue in isolation from the broader and more practical factors which must be considered. Fine Gael believes that the best way to facilitate such a debate is to establish a Dáil Committee on Science & Technology which would, as its first function, facilitate a fully informed debate on GM food, feed and crops and their use or not in this country.

"As the Taoiseach has not yet established the Dáil Committees, now is an ideal opportunity to have a specific forum not only to deal with the issue of GM but all other scientific developments which have an impact on society and our economy.

"Such a recommendation was made a number of years ago by an all party Oireachtas committee and a similar committee is in place in many other EU Countries including the UK. It is high time that we have a mechanism to bring facts on scientific developments into the public domain instead of half truths that are spun to the benefit of one side or another," concluded Deputy Feighan.


'GM labels bad for food prices'

- Fin24 (South Africa), July 31, 2007


Cape Town - South Africa is resisting labelling its genetically modified foods because of fears it could raise prices and make food less available for consumers, a senior health official told parliament on Tuesday.

The country, Africa's economic powerhouse and one of the few on the continent to accept genetically modified organisms, or GMOs as they are popularly known, does not currently require that the modified foods be labelled.

But pressure is growing on the government to consider doing so amid a growing debate over their use. Supporters say that GMOs could help solve many of Africa's food problems, while critics say they are an experiment that puts millions at risk.

"If we had to label the foodstuffs, we have to determine the costs and benefits of it. Would it increase food prices and, therefore, decrease the accessibility of that foodstuff for a vast majority of people," Renusha Chanda, an assistant director in South Africa's department of health, said in a presentation.

However, Chanda added that the government believed that all GMOs currently on the South African market were safe, making labels unnecessary.

The government is considering changing GMO legislation and has heard appeals from environmentalists and farmers for tighter controls to halt the import and creation of such crops.

Zimbabwe, Zambia and several other nations have banned GMOs, saying that they could mix with indigenous crops.

Chanda said that more studies and research were needed to determine the costs and benefits of labelling GMOs. They are only mandatory when they include genes from fish, animals and humans or when they differ substantially in nutritional content.

The amount of South African land devoted to genetically modified crops was 1.4 million hectares in the 2006/2007 growing season, a 180% increase over the previous year.

One million hectares was devoted to maize cultivation, the staple diet of the majority of the country's 47 million people, with the remainder allocated to soybean and cotton.


GM cotton report opens new potential for Ord region

- Janelle Macri, Business News (Western Australia), August 3, 2007


The state government has signalled the possibility of lifting its ban on genetically modified cotton crops, which could lead to major investments in a new cotton industry in the Ord River irrigation area.

Agriculture and Food Minister Kim Chance released a discussion paper into the potential for GM cotton production in the Ord, which is currently reliant on commercially-marginal sugar farms.

A statement from Mr Chance said GM cotton has been growing in trial plots in the Ord for more than 10 years without any significant problems and yields have been encouraging.

Industry groups believe GM cotton is the crop that could underpin the long-delayed development of the second stage of the Ord.

State development minister Eric Ripper disappointed the industry in June, when he said the government would commence a new expressions of interest process for Ord stage 2.

The report released today detailed the benefits of GM cotton in reducing pesticide and herbicide use, increasing yields and making Australian cotton farmers more globally competitive.

The report comes almost a year after the formation of the Ministerial GMO Industry Reference Group, which was tasked with identifying the main issues associated with the production of GM crops in WA.

While Queensland and New South Wales have allowed the production of GM cotton for more than 10 years, WA's GM moratorium covers both food and fibre crops.

The report claims that previous attempts to grow cotton in the ORIA during the 1960s and 1970s failed due to high pest pressure, which saw large quantities of DDT and other insecticides applied to control cotton bollworm, the major pest in the ORIA.

Planting GM cotton, which has been inserted with a naturally-occurring soil bacterium that controls cotton pests, would avoid the need to use insecticide to control the two most common cotton pests.

However, insecticides must still be used to control other pests.

The report also suggests GM cotton could be grow in rotation with other crops in the ORIA, such as sugar cane, preventing the build-up of soil pests and diseases.

While the Western Australian Farmers Federation and several biotech groups have endorsed the discussion paper, other groups have expressed apprehensions, challenging some of the assumptions made in the report and accusing it of overstating the benefits.

Non-GM campaigner Julie Newman of the Network of Concerned Farmers said that while the GM traits conferred the benefits of weed and insect control, other benefits, such as increased water use efficiency, yields and quality, are due to the non-GM varieties the GM trait is added to and not the GM trait itself.


Discovery in plant virus may help prevent HIV and similar viruses

- Purdue University (press release), July 31, 2007


Contact: Susan A. Steeves ssteeves+at+purdue.edu

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - In a study that could lead to new ways to prevent infection by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and similar organisms, Purdue University researchers have been able to genetically modify a plant to halt reproduction of a related virus.

Cauliflower mosaic virus attacks a group of plants that includes the largest number of agriculturally important plants in the world. The plant virus and HIV, which causes AIDS, use the same process to multiply in their victims' cells and spread disease.

"After HIV infects a person, it must recruit and latch onto particular human proteins so that the virus can replicate throughout the body," said Zhixiang Chen, a Purdue professor of botany and plant pathology. "We found that cauliflower mosaic virus relies on the same protein complex to multiply in plants."

Cauliflower mosaic virus, known as CaMV, attacks a plant group that includes cauliflower, broccoli, cabbages, turnips, canola and many types of mustard.

"We believe that the proteins in these host plants might be particularly important for these types of viruses, such as HIV, because if you block them, then the viruses simply can't replicate."

The retrovirus HIV and the pararetrovirus CaMV both use reverse transcription to recruit the host's proteins in order to reproduce and spread infection. Transcription in cells is the process in which a gene's DNA code is copied into RNA, which, in turn, carries the information to another part of the cell or to another cell. In reverse transcription, used by viruses such as HIV and CaMV, the virus' RNA is copied into DNA after it latches on to a victim's cell. This allows the virus to easily integrate into the host's genome and then reproduce in other cells.

Chen and his colleagues published a report on their study in the most recent issue of the journal The Plant Cell.

The researchers found that in the laboratory research plant Arabidopsis, cauliflower mosaic virus recruits a protein complex called CDKC. This is the same protein complex that HIV uses, known in humans as P-TEFb. Since both viruses use this same process to trigger transcription, the scientists now know that this protein complex and its related genes have passed from species to species as organisms evolved over millions of years, Chen said.

"P-TEFb appears to be an evolutionarily conserved target of complex retro- and pararetroviruses for activating transcription," he said. "This must also reflect a fundamental mechanism for transcription inherited by these viruses."

Humans and organisms used for research, such as fruit flies and the tiny wormlike organism Caenorhabditis elegans, have only one gene in the protein complex that retroviruses use to activate transcription. These organisms die if that gene is completely blocked because of its essential role during transcription. This makes it difficult to analyze the function the gene may have in the organisms' growth, development and survival. Unlike those other organisms, the plant protein complex involves two genes.

"In Arabidopsis there are two genes for the CDKC protein complexes that trigger the transcription process," Chen said. "If we knock out one of these genes, the plants become resistant to CaMV and the plant is still growing."

The discovery of these two genes suggests that the mustard plant Arabidopsis is a better organism than others for studying how the proteins regulate gene function and transcription, he said.

However, blocking of one of the plant's genes caused some alteration of leaves, flowers and trichomes (tiny hairlike structures) and delayed flowering on the mutated plants, he said. In addition, mutant plants in which both genes were blocked died in the embryonic stage just as would an organism with only one gene.

Now that Chen knows that Arabidopsis has two genes involved in the transcription process, his research team wants to learn more about genes' possible roles in plant growth and development and where those tasks are performed.

"The two genes each may have specialized functions depending on where they are activated in the plant," he said. "In some tissues the genes appear to be turned on in the same place. But, for example, in the flower, one gene is expressed in one particular place and the other gene is expressed in a different place."

The key question for researchers is how blocking the function of one protein inhibits transcription and replication of the viruses. Discovering the answer could mean major advances for prevention of retroviruses and treatment of the diseases they cause in plants and animals.

Abstract on the research in this release is available at: http://news.uns.purdue.edu/x/2007b/070730ChenMosaicvirus.html


Super trees: The latest in genetic engineering

A South Carolina biotech firm re-engineers trees to make them grow faster and cleaner, says Fortune's Marc Gunther.

- Marc Gunther, Fortune Magazine, August 1, 2007


NEW YORK - In 1913, the New Jersey poet and critic Joyce Kilmer wrote "Trees," a poem which concludes with this simple rhyme:

"Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree."

It may be that only God can make a tree. But only man, and modern biotechnology, can make super trees - trees that have been genetically engineered to grow faster, produce more wood on less land, thrive in unfamiliar climates and be processed more easily into wood or paper once they are cut down.

Super trees are the business of ArborGen, a South Carolina company that says improving the genetic makeup of purpose-grown trees - that is, trees grown for paper, wood or biofuels - will help conserve "native forests in all their diversity and complexity for future generations."

Yes, ArborGen, like so many companies today, is painting itself green - although it has run into a buzzsaw of criticism from the likes of the Sierra Club.

"Genetically engineered trees pose unpredictable and unnecessary threats to the environment, biodiversity and human health," says the Stop GE Trees Campaign, an alliance of environmental groups which is based in the village of Hinesburg, Vermont.

We'll hear from the, er, tree-huggers, in a minute but first a bit about ArborGen. Formed in 2000, ArborGen is a joint venture of three forest products companies, International Paper (Charts, Fortune 500), MeadWestvaco (Charts, Fortune 500) and New Zealand-based Rubicon. Attack of the mutant rice

Last year, the company began selling its first commercial product, Loblolly pine seedlings that have been bred to produce 30 to 40 percent more lumber than the native, unimproved pine. They are not genetically engineered but produced through natural selection and then cloned. Top-performing trees, selected for straightness, fewer branches or knots or faster growth are mass produced into seedlings for customers.

ArborGen is also working on a freeze-tolerant Eucalyptus, a reduced-lignin Eucalyptus and faster-growing Aspen. Reducing lignin, a chemical compound which is removed from pulp before it is made into paper, means using fewer chemicals and less energy during processing.

All this, says ArborGen CEO Barbara Wells, means that land can be used more efficiently, saving native forests. "Our purpose is more wood, less land," says Wells, who has a PhD in agronomy and 18 years of experience at Monsanto, a leading biotech company.

The federal government's push for biofuels is a boost to Arborgen. The freeze-tolerant, fast-growing Eucalyptus, for example, could become a source for the production of ethanol, which burns cleaner than gasoline and reduces the U.S.'s dependence on foreign oil. Some of the trees grow 20-25 feet per year, and produce high quality fiber. "It is truly a biomass machine," Wells says.

ArborGen also belongs to a group of researchers, companies and universities that received a $125 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for a bioenergy research center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, with the goal of developing new ways to produce biofuels.

Other companies and scientists also want to improve trees. After a virus wiped out a wide swath of Hawaii's papaya industry in the 1990s, trees engineered to resist the virus helped restore the business. Synthetic Genomics, a Maryland firm founded by J. Craig Venter (of human genome project fame), recently announced a deal with a Malaysian palm oil plantation company to analyze the genome of the palm tree that produces oil. Forest scientists at Oregon State University have used genetic engineering to manipulate the height of poplar trees, opening the door to new products for the nursery industry.

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Rainforest Action Network and Forest Ethics, don't like any of this. They argue, among other things, that pollen from the genetically modified trees could escape into the wild and wreak havoc with forest ecosystems.

"We barely understand how forest ecosystems work, anyway," says Anne Petermann of Stop GE Trees and the Global Justice Ecology program. "When you throw a wildcard in there, like a genetically engineered tree, who knows how far those impacts are going to ripple?"

She also says that tree plantations, whether engineered or not, usually displace agricultural land, native forests or grasslands, all of which are better for the earth and for local communities.

So far, the federal government has ignored the critics and granted ArborGen permission to do more than 100 field trials of genetically engineered - that is, new and improved - trees.


Researchers Take Big Step to Solving Soybean Rust Mystery

Hoosier Ag Today, August 2, 2007


After a three year study, scientists believe they have made great strides to understanding soybean rust and how plants with varying resistance react to an infection. Iowa State University scientists report that an extensive analysis of molecular changes that occur while a plant is being infected by the Asian soybean rust fungus reveals new information that could lead to a soybean variety with broad-spectrum resistance. But don't hold your breath. It is still years away.

The experimentation took place in a greenhouse in Brazil where the fungus is endemic. Brazilian researchers directed the collaborative experiment. Iowa State researchers returned with genetic material that provided a snap shot of the level of gene expression at the time the plants were sampled. They profiled the gene expression of more than 30 - thousand soybean genes in each sample.

Their analyses showed that the two soybean varieties studied immediately responded to the fungus as indicated by significant changes in gene expression levels. Then there was a lull in which gene activity calmed down for about 48 hours. Then, the activity peaked again as another response was mounted. Plant pathologist Thomas Baum says - it looks like the second burst of gene activity was the real resistance response. As a result they have narrowed the list of "genes of interest" to just a few hundred.


Spartan Corn Grows Enzymes

- Susanne Retka Schill, Ethanol Producer Magazine (August 2007 ed.)


Corn growers in the future may not only raise corn and biomass for ethanol but also the enzymes, all in the same plant.

Enzyme-carrying corn germ-plasm has been developed by researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) and appropriately named Spartan, after the school's moniker. In a cellulosic ethanol process, the Spartan-carrying corn stover would be pulped, and the liquid containing the enzymes would be extracted, says researcher Mariam Sticklen. The stover would go through pretreatment to free the cellulose and hemicellulose from the lignin, and then be reunited with the enzyme-bearing fluid for fermentation, reducing costs for industrial enzymes.

Spartan corn germplasm has been genetically engineered to express cellulase and hemicellulase in the plant's leaves and stover, explains Sticklen, an MSU professor of crop and soil sciences. The first generation Spartan 1 contains E-1 endoglucanase, which can break down cellulose into simpler sugars for fermentation. Spartan 2 also includes the enzymes beta-glucosidase, hemicellulase and ligninase. Spartan 3 is currently being developed. "We're modifying the lignin chemical structure, so it will break down with a very mild pretreatment," she says.

Spartan 1 has been tested, published and patented. Over 10 companies have shown an interest in licensing the germplasm technology from the university. Once the licensing agreements are worked out, the germplasm will be bred into corn inbred lines. Depending on the aggressiveness of the licensing companies, it will be a couple of years or more for new hybrids to be tested in field trials and the seed increased to become commercially available to growers. Spartan 2 is a step behind, with its testing and patent complete, and the final publication of the work being completed. Spartan 3 has two or three years of work left at Sticklen's labs. The material has been isolated and a patent filed, and testing is underway to select two or three specimens that have the trait to modify the lignin "without harm to the plant material," she says. "The stems continue to have structural integrity and resistance to pathogens and insects."

She continues, "The interesting thing about our technology is the safety of our material." The protein (enzyme) is stored within the leaf and stem cell walls. It isn't involved in the plant's metabolic activity; thus, the enzyme isn't found in the kernels of corn, the roots or pollen. Stover remaining in the field will degrade a bit faster than normal since it already carries the enzymes manufactured by soil bacteria and fungi to degrade the plant residues. The genetic material used in the new germplasm originated in those soil microbes. In Spartan 3 corn, concerns about pollen drift and unwanted genetic crosses are eliminated because in the MSU technology the transgenes are carried within the chloroplast, Sticklen says. "Everything stays within the maternal tissue, so no pollen grain will carry the genes or the traits," she explains.


The Role of Agriculture in Development Implications for Sub-Saharan Africa

- Xinshen Diao, Peter Hazell, Danielle Resnick, and James Thurlow, International Food Policy Research Institute, Research Report No. 153 (July 2007)


Changes in the global environment have led some to question whether the conventional wisdom on the role of agriculture in economic development is still relevant to Africa today. This report critically examines the literature on this issue, taking both the conventional and skeptical views into account. It complements this review with case studies of five African countries. The findings indicate that agricultural growth will play an essential role in promoting overall economic growth and reducing poverty in most of Africa's agrarian-based economies. This holds true even for countries that have the potential for industrial growth driven by natural resources. The results also show that only smallholder food-staple and livestock production can generate broadbased agricultural growth. By demonstrating that Africa's agricultural and food subsector cannot be bypassed, this report contributes to an important ongoing debate in development studies. About the Authors

The abstract and report are available for download in PDF format as an entire document or by chapter.

# Full Report (PDF 527K) http://www.ifpri.org/pubs/abstract/153/rr153.pdf

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