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September 6, 2007


Swiss Approve GM Crop Trials; Biotech Will Help China; Fresh approach to GM crops


* Swiss Approve GM Crop Trials
* Biotech Will Help China
* Fresh approach to GM crops
* Resistance to GM cereals slammed
* GM-free diets for farm animals 'unrealistic'
* The consequences of organic farming
* Public perceptions of biotechnology


Authorities give GM crop trials the green light

Despite a five-year ban on the use of GMOs in Swiss agriculture, research is still permitted

- swissinfo, Sept. 4, 2007


The Federal Environment Office has given Swiss scientists the go-ahead to carry out crop trials involving genetically modified (GM) wheat.

It said on Tuesday that two teams could carry out three GM field experiments near Zurich and Lausanne, including observations of potential crossbreeding between wheat and wild grass, but only under "very strict conditions".

Official appeals against the experiments can still be lodged with the Federal Court within the next 30 days - but only for the Lausanne site, it confirmed.

The scientists from Zurich University's Institute of Plant Biology and the Institute of Plant Sciences at the city's Federal Institute of Technology hope the experiments will help answer questions about the release of transgenic plants, specifically in Switzerland.

The trials, which will run over a two-year period from 2008 in Reckenholz near Zurich, and in Pully, on the outskirts of Lausanne, are part of a four-year SFr12-million ($9.8 million) programme funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) remain a highly contentious issue in Switzerland. Despite a five-year ban on the use of GMOs in Swiss agriculture, research is still permitted.

The researchers say they will not be developing a product for the market and want to find out if GM wheat plants that have already been tested in laboratories, which show resistance to fungal diseases, behave similarly in normal agricultural conditions.

They also want to look at aspects of biological safety to see if the plants have any unexpected impact on the environment, as well as on organisms living in the ground or insects.

Strict conditions

The Environment Office said it took the decision after receiving approval from the federal health, agriculture and veterinary offices.

"We came to the conclusion that we could approve these tests with the appropriate monitoring and safety conditions," Bruno Oberle, head of the Environment Office, told swissinfo. "We concluded that there is no danger for human's health or for the environment."

However, the researchers will have to work under strict conditions.

"The test monitoring conditions will give higher safety levels," explained Oberle.

The plants will be located in a covered area, controlled by the police. They will have to be planted at least 300 metres from other species to prevent cross-pollination. Machinery and test materials will have to be cleaned and correctly incinerated.

"A technical commission will monitor the experiments and, according to their position, we can decide at any moment whether or not to stop the experiments," he added.


In November 2005 the Swiss voted in favour of a five-year ban on the use of GMOs in agriculture. During discussions before the vote all political parties said it was necessary and essential to increase research and use the five-year moratorium period to clarify questions.

But the last GM crop trials in Switzerland, which took place in Lindau near Zurich in 2004, resulted in major opposition and a lengthy legal battle.

Official appeals can still be made against the new field experiments, but only in Pully. The Environment Office has decided that the two people opposing the tests in Reckenholz did not live close enough - within 1,000 metres of the test site.

In Pully, 11 people out of a total of 27 who have contested the proposal will be allowed to appeal, according to the Environment Office.

Greenpeace said the decision to allow the tests was "unacceptable".

The environmental organisation said the appeals did not contain sufficient elements detailing the negative impact of GMOs on other organisms.

It said it would study the Environment Office's arguments and explore "the best ways of countering this pointless risk".

The local section of the Communist party said the decision was "irresponsible" taken against the "legitimate concerns of a large number of local inhabitants". It plans to launch a petition against the experiments.

When the plans were announced in May, the Swiss Working Group for Genetic Engineering said it was very concerned, while the organic farming association Bio Suisse said it was also wary of GM field trials.


Biotech Will Help China Reclaim Land, Grow Food

- Andy Mukherjee, Bloomberg News, Sept. 6, 2007


Diversion of food crops to biofuels has finally caught the attention of policy makers in China.

Even as the country seeks to use 10 million tons of bio- ethanol and 2 million tons of bio-diesel annually by 2020 to cut its reliance on petroleum, planners are also aware that they have 1.3 billion mouths to feed.

So the new strategy, unveiled in a July plan issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and re-iterated this week by Chen Deming, a vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission in Beijing, is for most of the biofuel to come from non-grain sources, such as sweet sorghum, sugarcane and cassava.

Officially, China has four factories making 1 million tons of ethanol a year, mostly from corn. In reality, there are hundreds of small, unregulated units converting grain into fuel, in the process making it costlier for farmers to feed pigs.

Pork prices have soared this year, causing Chinese inflation to accelerate to its quickest pace in a decade in July. Consumer prices probably rose at a faster pace in August than the 5.6 percent rate recorded in July, says Bi Jingquan, Chen's colleague at the top planning agency.

It makes sense for China to limit competition between food and fuel for the same scarce resources: arable land and water.

However, this alone won't be enough in meeting China's longer-term challenge of ensuring food security.

Rising incomes are spurring higher protein consumption.

More than two-fifths of the 55 percent increase in the world's meat consumption between 1997 and 2020 is expected to occur in China, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.

China will have to find ways to boost utilization of its farm resources, and technology will play a crucial role.

GM Food

Out of the 102 million hectares (252 million acres) of land that is planted with genetically modified seeds worldwide, China's share is 3.5 million hectares. The nation's entire effort is concentrated in cotton, though late last year a virus- resistant papaya was also recommended by the government for commercial use.

GM rice, which accounts for a 10th of the money the Chinese government spends on biotechnology research, was widely expected to go commercial in 2005. That schedule went haywire after Greenpeace International investigators claimed to have found unapproved transgenic rice in Hubei province.

Still, it's only a matter of time before Chinese food goes transgenic in a big way.

China has invested heavily in biotechnology: As far back as 1999, China allocated 9 percent of its national crop research budget to plant biotechnology, compared with the 2 percent to 5 percent that was being invested by other developing countries, according to Jikun Huang, director of the Center for Agricultural Policy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and other researchers.

Tissue Culture

Biotech involves more than gene modification.

The other area that holds a lot of promise is plant-tissue culture, which doesn't involve changes in the genetic composition of plants but can nonetheless be used to develop varieties that help meet specific public-policy goals.

By altering the structure of poplar tree cells, scientists at Guangzhao Industrial Forest Biotechnology Group have developed a salt-tolerant variant, which can breathe life into half -- or about 74 million acres -- of China's saline wastelands, says Song Xuemeng, the chief executive of the company.

The modified cells of the poplar allow the tree to soak in salt from the ground and deposit it in the leaves, with no damage to the timber. Keep burning the leaves, and after 10 years the land will become arable, Song says.

The Environment Link

As China faces up to the onerous task of feeding a fifth of the world's population with less than a 10th of global farmland, food production and environmental protection are going to be its two key challenges.

The two may be linked, Song says.

He started the poplar business after witnessing the floods of 1998 when the Yangtze River breached its banks, submerging 30 million acres of farmland and forcing the government to crack down on logging in the upper catchments.

``I thought then, why don't we plant trees here that would grow fast?'' he says.

Collaborating with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Song's company designed a tissue-culture process to grow a 16-meter (52 feet) poplar in half the usual time. A fir tree, developed by the company with support from the Shanghai municipality, has begun to be used in coastal-protection programs. China will need more than 100 million such trees in the next 10 years to protect 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) of its coastline from typhoons, Song says.

Technology that helps China expand its limited farm resources -- and protects them from environmental degradation -- will be in great demand in the years to come.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Robert Fraley, the chief technology officer of Monsanto & Co., the world's largest seed producer, said he expects keen competition from local companies in China and India.

It's easy to see why.


Fresh approach towards GM crops

- MacroWorld, Sept. 5, 2007


An independent report on the government's system for evaluating the environmental impact of genetically modified crops has recommended wide-ranging changes likely to enhance the crops' prospects for approval.A report by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) recommends that government amend its procedures to make them fairer by considering any positive contributions GM crops could make to the environment.Currently the government's Regulatory Impact Assessment only considers the potential negative consequences of replacing a non-GM crop with a GM variant, as required under EU Directive 2001/18.In the report, Managing the Footprint of Agriculture: Towards a Comparative Assessment of Risks and Benefits for Novel Agricultural Systems, ACRE says the missing information is important to determine whether the overall impact of a GM crop and its management is worse than that of equivalent products in current use. But it stresses "that a revision of this nature would not represent a 'softening' of the current regulatory regime with respect to GMOs".The decision to review the current arrangements came after aspersions were cast over the relative worth of the field-scale evaluations (FSEs) of GM sugar beet and oilseed rape which concluded in 2004.ACRE notes that "differences in the impact on wild flora and fauna can be greater between different conventional crops (eg between maize and oilseed rape) than between a GM herbicide-tolerant crop and its non-GM herbicide-susceptible counterpart".The revised approach could also be applied to trials to evaluate the impact of other non-native crops (eg energy crops), it says. But that there is no regulatory requirement to assess potential environmental costs in a fashion similar to GM crops.

Bob Fiddaman, chairman of Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops, welcomed the report. "It raises genuine issues that were lost in the FSE debate. The issue of environmental gain is one that needs to be considered. It highlights how the government polarised the debate at the time."? Andrew Shirley, Country Land and Business Association's national arable adviser, said: "This report does raise some interesting issues, especially the different ways in which we in the UK deal with GM crops, other agricultural and novel crops. Caution should however be expressed when looking at any new system to ensure that it does not prevent or delay beneficial changes is sufficiently quick to respond to demands and also gives due regard to the economic importance of the product to the grower."


Resistance to GM cereals slammed

Teagasc (Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority) accuses the Government of undermining agriculture

- Irish Independent, Sept. 4, 2007


Professor Jimmy Burke, who is head of the Crops Research Centre at Oak Park, claimed that the Government's stance on GM crop varieties was undermining the viability of whole sectors within Irish agriculture.

"This policy is anti-competitive and doomed to failure. Only sourcing non-GM material is an unrealistic approach and we need to sit up and take notice of this," Professor Burke insisted.

He maintained that Ireland's decision to abstain earlier this year in a key vote at EU level on the maize variety, Herculex, had serious implications.

As Herculex had failed to secure EU approval, European feed importers had been forced to pay inflated prices for scarce supplies of non-GM material.

The Teagasc specialist said the implications for the pig and poultry sectors were particularly serious, since half the protein requirement for both industries was sourced in the US.

"If we are saying we don't want GM material, then this is a serious issue because, in the not too distant future, people won't be able to get non-GM feed stocks," he said.

He also questioned the assertion that consumers were willing to pay a premium for the meat from animals which had been fed non-GM feed.

He pointed out that studies carried out in a number of countries had found that supermarkets were not willing to pass on to consumers the additional feed costs associated with using non-GM material.

Meanwhile, feed importers now fear that shipments of corn gluten and corn distillers will be disrupted again this autumn, because the US maize crop, which is due to be harvested in a month's time, includes another GM variety which has not been approved in Europe.

The variety, which is called Agrisure, makes up just 1-2pc of total plantings. However, importers are unwilling to bring in shipments of the new crop in case traces of this particular variety are found in the shipments.

Since Agrisure is not approved in the EU, any consignments in which it is identified would have to be destroyed or shipped back to the port of origin or to a third country.

Matt Brazil of feed importers, Halls, said that, as a consequence, most importers would not be willing to take a chance on a shipment of new crop maize from the US.

He said this would create further upward pressure on feed prices.

Meanwhile, Mr Brazil said farmers will face massive increases in feed costs this winter. He pointed out that the main constituents in compound feeds had doubled in price since this time last year.


GM-free diets for pigs and poultry 'unrealistic'

- Seán MacConnell, Irish Times, August 31, 2007


Those who say Ireland should feed its pigs and poultry on GM- free feed are embracing an "anti-competitive system which is doomed to failure", a leading tillage expert warned yesterday.

Prof Jimmy Burke, who was speaking at a Bioenergy 07 event in Co Carlow, said we imported half our protein for the pig and poultry sector from the US, and this was already causing problems for the industry.

He said those who fed their pigs and poultry on GM-free diets were unable to recover the higher costs from the market, and it was, therefore, anti-competitive and had very serious implications for the pig and poultry sector.

"Ireland's position on that and saying we would only go down a route where we would only source non-GM feed is not a realistic option.

"We need to start sitting up and taking notice because that is a real threat to the sector."

When it was put to him that consumers did not want to eat meat grown on GM-grown crops and would be prepared to pay a premium, Prof Burke said that was not the case as those who fed GM-free feed were not getting the returns from the marketplace.

"Studies have been done worldwide, and they have shown that the consumer is not willing, particularly supermarkets, to pass on the cost of additional costs to the producer for that policy.

"The real questions are: are these products safe? Are they regulated properly? The truth is that they are regulated almost out of existence at the moment."

The Green Party had made the issue of turning Ireland into a GM-free zone part of its negotiations on forming a new government .

Since the Government was formed it has abstained on one major vote in an EU committee to allow a specific strain of GM-grown maize to be used in the EU.

The Minister with responsibility for Food, Trevor Sargent, has said Ireland is likely to lose market share in pig and poultry meat if it does not go down the GM-free route.

Pig and poultry exports are estimated at Euros 400 million annually.


The consequences of organic farming

Recent rains washed out land made prone to erosion by the practices that were employed.

- Dennis Avery, Minneapolis-St.Paul Star Tribune, Sept. 6, 2007


A new danger has beset the nation's struggling organic farms -- too much rain.

Hundreds of organic farms in southwestern Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota were drenched by a foot of rain in late August. The heavy downpour washed out plantings, eroded soil, and damaged fences and buildings. The owner of Wisconsin's Harmony Valley Farm estimated his damages at $300,000.

"We have a lot of steep, hilly county, and we've had a lot of mudslides," said Tom Van Der Linden, a nearby agent for the Minnesota Extension Service.

Now let me get this straight. Organic farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota have concentrated themselves on steep, hilly land that is prone to mudslides?

That's a bad idea, given that organic farms already refuse to use the low-till farming systems that protect soil most effectively. The low-till systems depend on herbicides to control choking weeds, but the organic farmers won't use "synthetic" pesticides. They choose, instead, to use the old bare-earth farming systems, with plows and mechanical cultivators that invite erosion.

It sounds to me as though the organic farmers have chosen the wrong land. Disasters like this won't happen often, but mudslides even one year out of 50 is too much for good soil health. Perhaps we need a code of conduct for organic farmers that would bar organic plantings on steep slopes likely to produce mudslides after heavy rains. The county extension agents should readily be able to identify the classes of land suitable for the increased risks of organic production.

Otherwise, the public is being set up to make all kinds of "emergency" payments to organic farmers who had been preparing to sell their produce for "organic premiums" on the high-priced shelves of Whole Foods Markets. The public shouldn't be on the hook for such risky premium-seeking. After all, the organic growers keep bragging that their farming system is more sustainable and more "earth-friendly" than conventional farming.

Europe is already caught up in this nonsense. The Cooperative Wholesale Association testified to the British House of Lords in 1999 that weeds were a special problem for organic farmers. Indeed, too often the weeds took over the fields, choking out the crops. The farmer then had to plow down his crop to prevent the weeds from going to seed and ruining the next year's crop as well. The association said this was "no problem for the farmer, because the EU government compensates the farmers for their weed losses."

We need to remember that the world is short of good cropland. We're already farming 37 percent of the earth's land area, and most of the high-quality land is already cropped. By 2050, we'll need twice as much farm output for more than 8 billion affluent people demanding meat, milk and pet food. The organic farms already lose about half of their crop potential because they refuse to use nitrogen fertilizer and the more effective synthetic pesticides. They're already suing conventional farmers for "pollen pollution" from biotech seeds. Now they're starting to campaign for "disaster payments" on mudslides and weeds.

With the higher yields of conventional farms, we can leave the steep hillsides for wildlife habitat. Shouldn't that be our environmental goal?

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington and is the director for Center for Global Food Issues (www.cgfi.org).


Review: Public perceptions of biotechnology

- Alan McHughen, Biotechnology Journal (Biotechnol. J. 2007, 2, 1105-1111 DOI 10.1002/biot.200700071), September 2007


The very term 'Biotechnology' elicits a range of emotions, from wonder and awe to downright fear and hostility. This is especially true among non-scientists, particularly in respect of agricultural and food biotechnology. These emotions indicate just how poorly understood agricultural biotechnology is and the need for accurate, dispassionate information in the public sphere to allow a rational public debate on the actual, as opposed to the perceived, risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology. This review considers first the current state of public knowledge on agricultural biotechnology, and then explores some of the popular misperceptions and logical inconsistencies in both Europe and North America. I then consider the problem of widespread scientific illiteracy, and the role of the popular media in instilling and perpetuating misperceptions. The impact of inappropriate efforts to provide 'balance' in a news story, and of belief systems and faith also impinges on public scientific illiteracy. Getting away from the abstract, we explore a more concrete example of the contrasting approach to agricultural biotechnology adoption between Europe and North America, in considering divergent approaches to enabling coexistence in farming practices. I then question who benefits from agricultural biotechnology. Is it only the big companies, or is society at large - and the environment - also deriving some benefit? Finally, a crucial aspect in such a technologically complex issue, ordinary and intelligent non-scientifically trained consumers cannot be expected to learn the intricacies of the technology to enable a personal choice to support or reject biotechnology products. The only reasonable and pragmatic alternative is to place trust in someone to provide honest advice. But who, working in the public interest, is best suited to provide informed and accessible, but objective, advice to wary consumers?


Guest ed. note: This is the abstract of only one of the papers freely available online in the Sep. 2007 Special Issue of Biotechnology Journal (Vol. 2. No. 9), "Talking Biotech with the Public," at http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/jhome/110544531?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

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