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August 13, 2007


Golden opportunities with wheat; Report urges farming of 'smart' crops; EU concerns over EFSA costs


* Golden opportunities with wheat
* Report urges farming of 'smart' crops
* Grains industry wants international agreement
* EU concerns over EFSA costs
* GMO crops gaining ground
* Finland's Anttila appeals for GM labelling


Golden opportunities with wheat

Farmers benefit from wheat research taking place in the West

- Elaine Shein, Capital Press via Grand Haven Tribune, August 13, 2007


When the new president of Washington State University spoke to farmers at the Spillman Field Day near Pullman, Wash. recently, his words were as golden to farmers as the wheat fields that ripple along the rolling hills there.

Elson Floyd emphasized the importance of agriculture to his university, and the role of the university to add value to what happens each and every day: Agricultural production and profitability were important values that the university would concentrate on, he promised.

Floyd also made it clear how universities and farmers need to work together: "We have a responsibility of making sure we are in full and complete partnership with you to find the solutions to the issues important to you."

One of the ways the university will help identify what is important to farmers is the creation of a WSU Wheat Research Advisory Committee that involves industry representatives, WSU faculty and administrators so farmers have input on wheat breeding programs.

While his speech was addressed to Washington wheat farmers, many other land grant universities in the West can echo Floyd's message. Farmers should be able to rely on university research for many beneficial reasons: to solve problems, such as diseases and pests; to make their crops more adaptable to the climate, soils and weather extremes that challenge them; and to ultimately improve their profits.

The bottom line is influenced by how well the crops utilize water, fertilizer and other inputs. The profit also depends on farmers' ability to grow crops desired by the markets, increase yields, and meet or exceed quality standards in a competitive international market where price isn't everything.

It's critical for universities to have a relationship with the wheat industry.

Fortunately dedicated researchers work hard to meet farmers' needs here in the West, as old and new varieties demonstrate.

For example, Oregon State University wheat breeder Warren Kronstad introduced the Stephens variety of soft white winter wheat 30 years ago - and 350,000 acres of it is still planted in the Northwest, increasing wheat yields by 50 percent in Oregon and returning $2 billion to Oregon growers.

Steve Jones, from WSU, helped breed red winter wheat Beauermeister that has grown from zero last year to 90,500 acres in Washington this year. Farmers like Rex Dainty, who farms near Washtucna, Wash., experienced a 25 percent yield increase with that wheat variety compared to the soft white wheat he normally grew on the same field.

Meanwhile, Idaho wheat producers will look forward to what will develop at the University of Idaho's Research and Extension Center in Aberdeen. Research scientist Jianli Chen recently joined UI to help develop hard white wheat varieties for Asian noodles and steamed breads. Her past experience includes working on white wheat varieties in China.

A University of California Davis press release last year pointed out that a national consortium of wheat breeders and researchers in 17 states and four USDA laboratories received a $5 million USDA grant "to implement modern technologies that will equip breeders to produce higher quality, disease-resistant wheat...."

Jorge Dubcovsky, from Plant Sciences at UC Davis, leads the research project."The technology, known as marker-assisted selection, allows the researchers to use the genetic information found in the plant's DNA to select those plants that carry desirable traits, such as disease resistance and improved quality," UC Davis said in the release.

UC Davis also pointed out what makes wheat research unique: "Wheat is unique among the major crop plants ... in that researchers from public universities and government laboratories, rather than private companies, are largely responsible for providing new varieties to U.S. wheat farmers.

"For example, from 2001 to 2003, public wheat varieties accounted for 78 percent of U.S. wheat production, which amounted to an annual average of 38 million metric tons valued at more than $5 billion."

Wheat research does not happen overnight. It takes commitment and resources.

According to OSU, it takes 10 years of researching and breeding before a new variety comes to market. "Researchers evaluate tens of thousands of experimental lines each year to select a handful that have potential for commercial production," stated one of OSU's publications on its research.

While farmers care about how their crops will grow, and what will be profitable to them, there is a greater calling in growing wheat.

Norman Borlaug recently received the Congressional Gold Medal for his work on high-yield disease-resistant varieties of wheat. Borlaug is credited with saving up to a billion lives with his research. When President George W. Bush gave him the medal, he referred to him as "The man who fed the world." Bush added that for Borlaug,"life has taken him from laboratories in America and Mexico to dusty villages throughout the developing world."

Borlaug has long been recognized for helping feed the hungry and bringing peace to different parts of the world: In 1970 he received the Nobel Peace Prize for that accomplishment.

As Floyd had stressed, universities need to have partnerships with the agricultural industry that can help ensure relevant work is done.

Researchers can then focus on adding value as they are given a golden opportunity to create what the wheat industry - and world - needs.


Field of genes: report urges farming of 'smart' crops

- Jason Koutsoukis, Sun-Herald via Brisbane Times, August 12, 2007


GENETICALLY modified food poses no danger to human health or the environment and should be given the green light, a confidential Federal Government study has found.

The Department of Agriculture report, titled GM Canola: An Information Package, marked "confidential" and dated July 2007, has tackled fears surrounding "smart" crops, recommending they be planted as soon as possible to help farmers compete with the rest of the world.

It has the strong backing of federal Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran, who is leading the charge to have GM crops widely introduced across Australia. The planting of GM crops is banned in all states except Queensland.

The ban is due to expire in Victoria and NSW early next year, but is under review. With the strong backing of farm groups and the CSIRO, both Victoria and NSW are widely expected to lift the ban. The state government bans relate specifically to canola, which is the only crop not to have received approval for planting by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.

Lifting the ban on GM canola is considered the first step to bringing other crop biotechnologies to the market, such as drought-resistant wheat, new varieties of sugar and nutrition-enhanced fruit and vegetables.

"GM canola offers some solutions to the current problems conventional canola faces in Australia and is likely to make an important contribution to farming systems," the report states.

But environment and public health groups expressed concern at the prospect of GM crops being allowed in Australia, saying the health and environmental risks were not yet understood. Institute of Health and Environmental Research director Judy Carman, an epidemiologist and senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide, said studies had shown that rats fed a diet of GM canola had recorded increases in their liver weights of about 16per cent.

"These rats were getting swollen livers and yet no more research into why that was happening has ever been done," Dr Carman said.

"We should be demanding further testing because when you look at the safety aspects, we just don't know what the potential impacts are."

Greenpeace Australia spokeswoman Louise Sales said

the Howard Government was under pressure from the US to allow GM crops.

"We are talking about huge US multinationals that are putting huge amounts of pressure on Australia to let their products in the door so they make a profit, but this could destroy our reputation as [being] among the cleanest farmers in the world."

The report found that GM canola had been used in Canada for the last decade without harm.

"Australia's main competitor, Canada, has been using genetically modified canola for 10 years with no appreciable loss of market share or price and enjoys significant agronomic benefits from the technology," the report states.

A recent survey commissioned by the Department of Industry found public support for GM crops had risen dramatically over the past two years.

The survey of 1100 people found 73per cent of Australians approve of the development of GM crops, compared with 46per cent in 2005.


Grains industry calls for GM international agreement

- ABC Rural (Australia), August 13, 2007


The grains industry says unless there is international agreement on import and export procedures for genetically modified products, some countries could face food shortages.

At present there is no standard agreement on testing procedures, safety protocols or tolerance levels, despite a number of countries already trading in GM.

It is hoped that talks in Japan in September will establish international guidelines across a range of countries including Australia.

The International Grain Trade Coalition's Paul Green says if there is confusion about import rules for different countries, food supplies could be disrupted.

"We're really literally talking about the food security of several importing nations and many times their environmental ministries have no idea that they are setting standards that will jeopardise the food securities of the country's they are representing," he said.


EU concerns over EFSA costs

- Ahmed ElAmin, Food Production Daily, August 10, 2007


10/08/2007 - EU member countries are concerned about the feasibility of companies paying fees to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for vetting ingredients, packaging and food contact materials for use in the bloc.

The details are revealed in an European Commission review of comments submitted in response to a public consultation of the proposal to charge fees for EFSA work. The reservations back up EFSA's own submission to the consultation that a fee-based system should take into account its independence.

The majority of member states that responded are not, in principle, against a fee-system, but expressed concerns on its feasibility, the Commission reported yesterday. Meanwhile the "vast majority" of respondents do not support a fee-based system.

Such widespread opposition could lead to the Commission putting the proposal on ice. The proposal, if approved, would have led to an additional cost for companies, which also have to pay for the scientific studies and investigations they must submit to EFSA.

EFSA was established two years ago as part of a package to co-ordinate food safety procedures throughout the bloc. It is meant to serve as an independent body providing science-based risk assessments relating to food and feed safety.

However the body has been underfunded, leading to delays in hiring staff and in vetting applications.

One of the major aims of the consultation was to ask industry and the public whether all applicants should pay fees, or only those with profits vested in the authorisation. Submissions were also asked to give opinions on the advantages and disadvantages of charging fees.

"The analysis of the contributions shows that the vast majority of the respondents do not support the establishment of fees and that a system for the collection of fees would be complex and difficult to put in place," the Commission stated.

A total of 16 member states commented on the consultation paper, the Commission reported.

"Most of them pointed out that they were not, in principle, opposed to a fee-system, but expressed concerns on its feasibility," the Commission stated.

The main concerns were to safeguard EFSA's independence, the difficulty of identifying beneficiaries, and the creation of an additional administrative and financial burden for small and medium sized businesses (SMEs), the Commission reported.

The main arguments put forward by EU members in favour of fees include the funding of a more professional service, and a more secure source of funding for EFSA's work.

Member states also stressed that it would be unfair to establish fees for all applicants. Some suggested an impact assessment that would allow identification of additional costs and administrative burdens for companies.

They also suggested a sector-by-sector analysis is necessary to determine if fees would hinder companies from being competitive.

"The impact of fees on innovation and the competitiveness of individual businesses, especially SMEs, must be taken into consideration," the Commission stated in summarising the comments.

Overall commentators said the authorisation procedures for certain foods or substances are mainly aimed at giving general approvals to the benefit of all operators and provide little proprietary data protection.

Such benefits would add to the complexity of establishing a fee-system given the difficulty in identifying those liable to pay fees.

In the consultation document the EFSA consultants argue that the regulator is underfunded and understaffed in relation to the work it is responsible for doing.

"EFSA is now at crossroads," the document states. "It must expand, develop, consolidate and build on its first success. Therefore, it must ensure that its structures, organisation, procedures and systems are fit for the challenges ahead."

EFSA has noted that the agency's 2005 budget was 36 million Euros, below the 44 million Euros originally promised and that introducing fees might ease the financial squeeze.

"The collection of fees by EFSA for opinions requested by legislation could ease the constraints but the idea needs some time to gain political acceptance and to be accepted by the interested stakeholders who are so far opposed," the consultants stated. "It is important that the relatively low level of current EFSA expenditures be not interpreted as 'EFSA does not need more'."

EFSA has issued relevant opinions with a reasonable cost in financial terms but with significant overtime work, a situation that is not sustainable, the board argues. A proper staffing level would be about 350 employees.

EFSA last year had about 70 permanent staff. Another 150 members make up the expert panels that issue scientific opinions.

"Timeliness of opinions can be improved, notably through more formalised negotiating procedures, as well as productivity thanks to recruitment and organisational measures," the consultants stated.

One way of getting more money and speeding up the process would be to charge fees for registering authorisations on ingredients such as genetically modified organisms, pesticides and feed additives.

The consultants noted that some people fear that this would change the nature of EFSA as a public institution. People might perceive EFSA as less independent after having authorised substances such as GMOs due to a potential conflict of interest.

Several of those interviewed in the drafting of the document believe that fees will not affect the independency of EFSA.

"But it will take some time to come to a political acceptance of a fee system, notably as the public might have less trust in EFSA," the consultants stated.

A fee system has several advantages. The fees would clarify the performance and resources of the two types of services offered by EFSA. One is services to the private sector, the other is to the European parliament and to member states.

The increase in funds from fees would help EFSA to issue opinions faster. About 17 per cent of opinions do not meet their legal deadline. Recently there has been a dramatic increase of deadlines not met, but this increase seems so far at least partly attributable to a change of reporting system, the consultants noted.

Extensions of deadlines and delays are related primarily to the understaffing of EFSA, as well as to internal organisation and coordination procedures.

Still with 76 per cent of the forecasted staff and 66 per cent of the forecasted budget, EFSA provides 80 per cent of the forecasted scientific opinions requested.

"This efficiency is however not sustainable," the consultants stated. "People are overstretched and, due to lack of time, they are not able to implement tools and procedures, to recruit, to train new colleagues and to ensure the continuity of the service. Incidents like burn outs of key persons might have severe impacts."

Another problem that EFSA needs to address is its location in Parma, Italy rather than in Brussels, the EU's headquarters.

EFSA estimates that the location in Parma is more expensive than Brussels has led to higher staff and travel expenses. More importantly the Parma location has led to a lengthier travel time for those attending meetings.

The consultation document was issued by Bureau van Dijk Management Consultants and Arcadia International.


GMO crops gaining ground, but not without opposition

- Marcel Bodnár, Czech Business Weekly, August 13, 2007


Genetic modification of agricultural products has sparked controversy ever since it was developed in the U.S. in the mid-1980s, with concerns from consumers, the scientific community and environmental groups. The Czech Republic and the European Union have both moved cautiously with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

According to current European Union regulations, only one type of genetically modified (GM) corn can be commercially grown within EU borders. "This corn variety-Bt corn MON810-is resistant to vermin called European corn borer (ECB)," said Marie C(er(ovská, spokeswoman for the crop department at Ministry of Agriculture (MZ). Bt corn MON810 is made by U.S.-based agriculture company Monsanto Company

GM corn production in Czech Republic

According to Vítezslav Navrátil, CEO of Rostsnice, one of the biggest growers of GM corn in Moravia, the advantage of this variety is that it is unnecessary to use a chemical pesticide against ECB, and therefore it's more ecologically friendly. In addition, production levels are higher. However, using GM seeds has a downside for farmers. "Increased administration and the need to follow specific measurementsN'for example, rules of co-existence especially with organic farmersN'higher GM seed costs and problems with sales [are drawbacks]," C(er(ovská said. But despite these negatives, corn farmers agree that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. This year, some 5,000 hectares of GM corn were planted, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. And the production is likely to increase. "GM corn seed has an 18 percent share in our production, and we're planning on expansion of this share," Navrátil said. GM corn has been grown in the Czech Republic since 1996.

More GM plant types are being dis cussed in the EU, such as a newly developed GM potato from leading German chemical producer BASF and another variety of corn (type NK603) developed by Monsanto. Before they're approved for the EU market, they must be properly tested as to whether they could potentially be harmful to the environment or human health. This testing is done under the supervision of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which, on the basis of test results, will make a recommendation to the European Commission for approval of the GMO. If it is approved, the plant can be commercially produced in the EU. However, because public disagreement over GM crops could impact sales, some member states are still reluctant to allow farmers to grow GM plants. "On the European market, it's still lucrative to behave as a country opposed to GMOs," said Jaromír Drobník, a professor in the microbiology and genetics department at Charles University in Prague. In Austria and Hungary it is forbidden to sow these types of crops, while other countries such as Germany and Slovakia are slowly conducting field trials.

While being GMO-free may offer a market advantage, some people in the field maintain the opposition has no solid basis. "Arguments made by those [countries with] national prohibitions are not in line with scientific knowledge concerning risks of GM corn," C(er(ovská said.

Others see it as inevitable progress. "Genetic engineering is a science that belongs to plant breeding and is a part of societal development, which nobody can stop. Otherwise, we should consider returning to a primeval society," Navrátil said.

Greenpeace strongly against GMO

Although GM corn is favored by some farmers, international environmental organization Greenpeace takes a strong stand against GMO production of any kind. It claims that GMO production markedly decreases biodiversity and threatens the existence of many plants and animals. GMOs also increase herbicide usage threefold, it says. According to France-based research group Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN), testing of the new GM corn strain NK603 on rats showed that many rats exposed to the corn showed considerable differences in the size of organs including the brain, liver and heart.

But others in the scientific community stand behind GMOs. "[GMO] plants are the most thoroughly tested raw materials used in the food-processing industry. New [nongenetically modified] varieties are practically untested for risks, although they may be more risky from an ecological or health perspective," Drobník said. "The toxin included in the GM corn genes [of Bt corn MON810] doesn't destroy all types of insects. It affects only butterflies and moths. It isn't harmful to other animals or human beings," Drobnik said.

In addition, the possible risks of GMOs are examined in detail by many institutions, and permitted GMOs on the European market "do not represent a bigger risk for the environment" than any unmodified plants, said Jarmila Krebsová, spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Environment (MŽP). "GMOs have been grown and consumed for more than 10 years in the U.S., and during this period there haven't been any registered cases of negative effects on human health," she said.

But Greenpeace disputes that testing has been as thorough as many GMO supporters claim. The EFSA, according to Greenpeace, relied only on test results provided by the company that produced new GM corn strain NK603 and on results given by BASF concerning GM potatoes. It did not have another, independent institution conduct additional tests. "This is hardly sufficient. EFSA should really have assigned somebody else like an independent expert to redo and evaluate those tests," said Lenka Boráková, media assistant with Greenpeace.

Public concerns The general public is deeply divided on the GMO question. There are those in favor and those againstN'with a large number of people who don't have necessary information remaining undecidedN'and those who show no interest in the topic.

The number of those who would never buy or consume GM products increased from 19 percent in 2003 to 28 percent in 2005. And the rate of people who have insufficient information to decide still remains higher than 35 percent, according to research done by the National Institute of Public Health (SZÚ) in Brno, South Moravia.

Research in 2005 by EU statistical arm Eurobarometer showed a high level of acceptance of GMOs. "According to this survey, the Czech Republic is first among the EU-25 in general public support of modern technologies. In trust of the biotechnological industry only Cyprus stands better," Drobník said, adding, that this positive approach to modern technologies hasn't changed recently. In the survey, the Czech Republic scored 233 points out of a possible 400 points, far above the EU average of 184 points in trust of modern technology. The point system measure combined trust in nanotechnology, pharmocogenetics, gene therapy and GM foods. Some 77 percent of those polled in the Eurobarometer survey in the Czech Republic said they trusted biotechnology, trailing only Cyprus at 82 percent.

However, there still is significant group of people who would never buy a GM product. To accommodate those who are opposed and concerned, the EU law on marking GM products is being applied in all EU countries. "GMOs and groceries and fodders made from GMOs must be labeled, using words 'contains genetically modified [ingredients]' or 'made of genetically modified [ingredients].' This obligation also regards imports from [non-EU] countries," the MP's Krebsová said. "Only products containing less than 0.9 percent of admixtures of a permitted GMO don't have to carry those marks, and only if those admixtures are coincidental and technically unavoidable," she said.


Finland's Anttila appeals for GM labelling

- NewsRoom Finland, August 13, 2007


Sirkka-Liisa Anttila (centre), the Finnish agriculture and forestry minister, on Friday urged the food industry to declare in meat packaging if the animal had been fed genetically modified soy.

According to Ms Anttila, such labelling is necessary to preserve the trust of consumers.

"Consumers must have the right to know how and with what sort of feed meat is produced," Ms Anttila said at a Centre party meeting in Hämeenlinna.

The minister said EU regulations allowed the importing of genetically modified soy as pig feed and that Finland could not impose a unilateral ban.

Over the course of the week, two Finnish food groups said they would begin to import genetically modified soy feed.

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