* Biotech drives US farm growth
* Cloned horse is pregnant
* Plants offset increased CO2
* Insect gut detects unhealthy meal
* Approval protects NZ's reputation
* Uganda's 'organic viagra'
* Seed companies make a killing
* Green Revolutionary
* Frightening possibilities of GMO wine
* Top 10 New Organisms of 2007
Biotechnology driving U.S. farm growth
- Roy Roberson, Southeast Farm Press, Dec. 13, 2007
Though drought has robbed much of the profitability from farming in the Southeast, nationwide the agriculture industry is booming - much of that growth the result of new technology.
Nationwide farm equity has risen over $200 million per year for the past five years. The farm to debt ratio is at its lowest ebb in over 45 years. Though the profitability has been redistributed somewhat to grain crops in the past two years, the whole arena of biofuel productions offers new options to many farmers.
Speaking at the recent Southern Crop Production Association, Greg Conko, a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., said globally farmers produced more than 250 million acres of bio-engineered crops, or about seven percent of the world total. The U.S. produces over half the worldwide acreage of bioengineered crops (135 million acres).
In the U.S. 90 percent of the soybean crop, 85 percent of cotton and 50 percent of field corn is bio-engineered or genetically manipulated organisms (GMO). Worldwide 60 percent of soybeans and 28 percent of cotton are GMO varieties.
Worldwide a greater increase is expected from corn and canola, which currently are made up of 14 and 18 percent, respectively, according to Conko.
Developing nations, including China, India and Mexico use GMO varieties in nearly 40 percent of their acreage. With dramatic growth predicted in these countries in the next 5-10 years, the use of GMOs worldwide is projected to grow at a much faster rate than U.S. growth.
A part of the speed-up in developing countries is greater acceptance by farmers and less regulation by their respective governments. Government restriction, according to Conko, more so in the European Economic Community than in the U.S., has slowed use of GMO products in more developed countries.
Regardless of the location, farmers have found some uniform benefits to using GMO varieties. These plants require less total pesticide, allow farmers to plant more acreage with less labor and equipment, better pest management, and more economic gain to the farmer, despite the high price of GMO seed.
Conko says, "Crop biotechnology has been the single most rapidly adopted agricultural technology in history. Certainly, this is true in the U.S. and almost as clearly it has been the most significant in the world."
There has been significant opposition to GMO products, especially in Europe. The most frequent target is Monsanto, which has pioneered the use of these plants and products and without question has saved farmers worldwide billions of dollars in pest management, fuel, labor and equipment costs.
Ronnie Cummins, who heads the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association, says "European labeling laws require GMO ingredients to be listed, making it easy to avoid them, but Americans and consumers are sitting ducks since no such labeling is required. The only way to be sure you are not eating GMO ingredients is to buy certified organic products."
The Organic Consumers Association has failed to publicize similar dangers to organically grown food - particularly the wide-scale use of copper sulfate in organic farming. Copper sulfate, when used in large quantities, can accumulate in the soil and create a potentially dangerous human health risk. However, there is no regulation for its use by organic farmers.
Cummins sites a 2005 report that his association contends leaves Monsanto holding the proverbial 'smoking gun'. Citing the report, Cummins says, "European news outlets reported harmful health impacts on lab rats that were fed Monsanto's root worm resistant corn (Mon 863). Monsanto, the world largest maker of genetically modified corn, soybeans, canola and cotton appears to have disregarded their own research on the harmful impacts of their GMO corn on rats."
MON 863 corn has subsequently been vindicated by both Monsanto and by food monitoring agencies worldwide. In March 2007, Greenpeace announced its findings on the effect on MON 863 corn on lab rats. The study, published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, reports a new statistical analysis of a 90-day rat feeding study, performed with MON 863 corn.
The feeding study was previously evaluated in 2005, at which time it was concluded the study did not indicate adverse effects from the consumption of MON 863 corn. The same conclusion was reached by other food regulatory agencies around the world.
Unfortunately, such negative worldwide publicity has made introduction of GMO varieties more difficult worldwide, but especially so in the more developed countries of the World.
In October, in some lightening of its stance, the EEU allowed several GMO products into several of their countries, but they can only be grown for export and only for livestock feed.
In the U.S., Conko says regulations have likewise slowed the development of new GMO products. This is despite no findings by the scientific community that any threats exist from recombinant DNA technololgy that did not previously exist from conventional plant breeding, he says.
Every new biotech crop variety developed by Monsanto, Syngenta, or DuPont is treated as a 'plant pest', until field testing proves it is not.
New GMO plant varieties with genetic improvments added via DNA splicing is considered by the EPA as a pesticide. Conko says it is easy to see how a corn plant that has a Bt gene inserted to improve insect resistance could be considered a pesticide.
However, cotton plants with glyphosate resistance genes or other herbicide resistance genes is also considered a pesticide, which doesn't make much sense, according to Conko.
The cumullative effect of regulatory hurdle-jumping has raised the cost of developing developing a new plant variety to over $1 million per plant. Most biotech companies evaluate dozens of plants to find the right combination of agronomic and gene-enhanced qualities. To get one high-yielding, high-quality, GMO plant to the market cost $30-50 million.
Conko says there are real risks involved in moving genes around. He sites a study of petunias in which unpredicted coloration occurred. The study has been used by opposition groups as an "I told you so" argument against use of GMO plants.
He points out that over a thousand or so years of conventional genetic manipulation through plant breeding, science has changed the color of corn from its natural color - blue - to the yellow and white corn we grow today.
Risks in changing the genetic makeup of plants, however, is not new. For example, nightshade, tobacco, tomatoes and potatoes are all in the same family and contain a potentially lethal chemical.
Wild tomatoes, which are purple to black in color are highly toxic to humans.
Plant breeders over the past 100 years have used genetic traits from wild tomatoes to produce more hardy varieties are popular today and bred to be safe for humans.
For growers in the Southeast, the development of two bioengineered products stand to make a real difference in the crop selection for future crops. The release of multi-stacked cotton varieties with dual herbicide resistance, Bt, and drought tolerance could bring cotton back in the Southeast.
The upcoming release of a genetically modified peanut variety that makes it resistant to sclerotinia blight could further bring peanuts back in Virginia and North Carolina.
The overall impact of less government regulation and more acceptance by the public of GMO products will be to reduce the cost of developing these products. The introduction of many new products are likely to follow, giving growers many more management options.
World's 1st cloned horse pregnant
- Xinhua via People's Daily (China), Dec. 22, 2007
The world's first cloned horse Prometea is pregnant, Italian animal-cloning pioneer Cesare Gallo confirmed during a telephone interview with Xinhua on Friday.
Galli, who worked at his reproduction technology farm near Italian northern city Cremona and produced Prometea in 2003, said the pregnancy showed that cloned animals were just as healthy as normal ones.
"Prometea will be the first cloned horse to give birth, around the beginning of April. This is further confirmation that clones are completely normal if they are reared healthily," he said.
Cats, cows, bulls and mules have been among the animals cloned since the mother of them all, Dolly the sheep, was unveiled to acclaim and controversy in 1996.
Aside from ethical issues, opponents of cloning have raised concerns that some animals might have reduced quality of life. It is claimed by some that Dolly aged quickly, dying in 2003 at the age of six and a half.
A cloned stallion called Pieraz, created in 2005, was also expecting his first offspring, according to Italian News Agency ANSA.
After Galli's pioneering work on horses in Italy, most of the world's horse cloning has moved to Texas.
So far about 10 horses have been cloned, including Prometea and Pieraz.
Genetically engineered plants to offset increased CO2 intake closer to reality
- Netindia123, Dec. 22, 2007
Cornell University researchers have proved a theory of how several plants transport sugars from their leaves to flowers, roots, fruits, and other parts of their structure.
Robert Turgeon, Cornell professor of plant biology who first proposed the theory of transporting sugar in 1991, said that his team used genetic engineering techniques to prove his theory, known as the polymer trap model.
The researchers say that their findings may help deepen the understanding of basic plant biology. They also say that these findings may be critically important in an era of climate change because they may one day allow researchers to genetically engineer plants with increased photosynthetic rates, yields and carbon dioxide intake.
According to Turgeon's theory, upon accumulation in leaves as a product of photosynthesis, sucrose diffuses into the plant's tubelike transport tissue called phloem along with other nutrients to move to other areas of the plant.
In the phloem, small molecules of sucrose combine to form larger and more complex sugars, which become too large to flow back into the leaf. The sugars thus produced are then forced to move away from the leaf to parts of the plant where they may be used or stored.
Turgeon worked with Dr. Ashlee McCaskill to prove this theory. They genetically engineered a plant closely related to a member of the figwort family, purple mullein (Verbascum phoeneceum L.) to silence two genes involved in combining sucrose into larger molecules.
When the researchers did so, sugars backed up in the leaves.
McCaskill said that in normal plants, when sugars made from water and carbon dioxide accumulate in the leaves, photosynthesis slows down, and the plant does not take in as much carbon dioxide from the air.
Similarly, when the sugars move out of the leaves, the rate of photosynthesis and carbon intake increases, the researcher added.
"If we could increase the plant's phloem-loading rate, the potential would be to increase photosynthetic rate and yield, but that is theoretical right now," said McCaskill.
A 2006 article in the journal Science showed that when atmospheric carbon dioxide increases, plants do not take in the excess due to a series of feedback loops that constrain the plant, said McCaskill.
"Phloem loading is one of these feedbacks that have an effect on the ability of plants to intake carbon dioxide at the highest level," said the researcher said.
McCaskill noted that carbon dioxide, which is increasing in the Earth's atmosphere, is the major greenhouse gas that traps heat and warms the planet.
The study has been reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Guest ed. note: It is unfortunate that important work in plant biology is cast in terms of its relevance to the dubious science of anthropogenic climate change. These scientists do not study the 'greenhouse effect', and being politically correct is no excuse.
Insect gut detects unhealthy meal
- BioMed Central via EurekAlert, Dec. 20, 2007
Plant leaves and surfaces are teeming with microbial life, yet the insects that feed on plants lack adaptive immune systems to fend off any intruding microorganisms they eat along with their greens. Now research published in the online open access journal, BMC Biology shows how food-borne bacteria affect an insect's immune system.
Study authors Dalial Freitak, David Heckel and Heiko Vogel from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany along with Christopher Wheat from the University of Helsinki, Finland, deliberately fed insects with non-infectious microorganisms. The researchers watched to see how the herbivorous insect, the cabbage semilooper Trichoplusia ni (Lepidoptera), detected and responded to a diet laced with nonpathogenic, non-infectious bacteria. In most studies to date, lab reared insects have been injected with bacterial strains, whereas in nature the insects' main exposure would be from eating plants.
The larvae were reared on diets with or without an added helping of Escherichia coli and Micrococcus luteus bacteria. In the bacteria-fed larvae, general antibacterial activity was enhanced, although the activity of one key enzyme related to immune response - phenoloxidase - was inhibited. Among the eight proteins highly expressed in the hemolymph of the bacteria-fed larvae were the immune-response-related proteins arylphorin, apolipophorin III and gloverin. Significantly, the pupation time and pupal mass of bacteria-fed larvae was negatively affected by their unhealthy diet.
The authors conclude that even non-pathogenic bacteria in food can trigger an immune response in insects with significant effects. "Trichoplusia ni larvae are able to detect and respond to environmental microbes encountered in the diet, possibly even using midgut epithelial tissue as a sensing organ," says Vogel. Although this reaction to microbes comes at a price, it may be offering protection from serious infection. "These results show that microbial communities on food plants represent a dynamic and unstudied part of the coevolutionary interactions between plants and their insect herbivores," he adds.
Corn approval protects NZ's reputation
- Life Sciences Network (press release), Dec. 20, 2007
"The approval of High Lysine corn protects New Zealand's reputation as a nation which bases food safety decisions on science rather than politics," the Chairman of the Life Sciences Network Dr William Rolleston said today.
"Anti GM groups, notably the Sustainability Council and the Greens, have been lobbying hard to have High Lysine Corn rejected claiming it has not been proved to be safe.
"Evidence submitted by Dr Jack Heinemann, whose laboratory the Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety (INBI) stands to gain from increased testing on GM, was carefully reviewed by scientists from both FSANZ and the Crown Research Institute, ESR."
The FSANZ report upheld the recommendation to approve High Lysine Corn and noted the INBI's critique contained inconsistencies and inaccuracies and concluded:
"Overall, INBI's approach to the safety assessment is impractical and its requirements for data are not commensurate with the level of risk posed by the foods. The requirement for certainty at all levels of the assessment is scientifically unattainable."
"[The points raised] are not even specific for GM foods but could apply equally to foods from non-GM sources."
These tactics were also seen in the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. The Commission reported:
"Some of the claims of possible environmental and health damage were exaggerated or based on inconclusive data or on unproven hypotheses."
The Green Party in particular were forced to apologise to the Royal Commission when one of its star witnesses, Dr Elaine Ingham, was caught misleading it.
"New Zealand has fought long and hard to keep science at the forefront of food safety regulation in the face of trade protectionism. It is vital for our continued access to overseas markets. The decision to approve High Lysine Corn is a decision based on science and is consistent with our principles," concluded Dr Rolleston
Uganda's 'organic viagra' up a tree
- PhysOrg.com, Dec. 23, 2007
In Uganda, citropsis roots are believed to be aphrodisiac and their success has left the so-called "sex tree" on the brink of extinction and its avid male consumers deeply concerned.
"The roots work after three hours," said Kasozi Bruham, a 49-year-old farmer and frequent user of the citropsis articulata, a gnarled, wiry bush found in Mabira reserve, one of the last rain forests in the east African country.
"We are worried about the extinction of that plant. Impotence is a big problem here," he said, predicting that locals will spend their precious income to travel the 30 miles (48 kilometers) to the capital Kampala and buy stimulants in pharmacies.
"We had a lot of citropsis around but people have been using it a lot; it's the local viagra," said Robert Kungujje, a forest guide.
He said that the so-called "sex tree" -- known in Uganda under many different local names -- is fast disappearing.
"People still come and pick inside the protected area," Kungujje added, pointing to one of the few specimens spared by the local potency rush.
Surrounded by the song of a rare speckled tinkerbird and the forest's many cicadas, the guide bemoaned what he saw as the population's lack of respect for the exceptional biodiversity living in Mabira.
Citropsis users tend to uproot the tree for their needs and make no attempt to re-plant.
"With unemployment, poor feeding, diabetes, hypertension linked to stress, erectile disfunctions are on the increase in Uganda, that's why the people go for this plant," said Maud Kamatenesi-Mugisha, a botanist and reproductive health specialist.
Around 80 percent of Ugandans rely on medicinal plants to cure their ailments as modern pharmaceuticals are often too expensive and health centres too few and far between for the rural population.
Kamatenesi-Mugisha explained that several other valuable plants growing in Mabira face extinction, including the Warburgia Ugandensis, which can be used to treat bacterial and fungal infections.
Kungujje pointed to another endangered medicinal species, the African plum tree, whose bark is sought after for properties that can help alleviate malaria and prostate ailments.
To prevent its extinction, the Mabira ecotourism centre created tree nurseries and a nationwide awareness campaign was launched on the sustainable use of the forest's resources.
Judith Ahebwa, a manager at the centre, said efforts are beginning to pay off.
"We have trained the locals to debark (the trees) sustainably. If you debark constantly, all of the tree gets dry and dies... We've been able to see a change in the minds of the people," she said.
Corn Alele Amai, senior researcher at the Natural Chemo Research laboratory in Kampala, stressed that Mabira is a crucial asset that needs to be preserved.
"Mabira is precious for the country. It's also a catchment for River Nile and Lake Victoria (...) there is still a lot of research to be done in that forest," he said.
"Because of population growth, forest destruction, agriculture expansion, unsustainable methods of plants harvesting, destruction of wetlands, there's a general decrease of some indigenous plant species" in Uganda, Amai explained.
Mabira's equatorial flora spreads over 115 square miles (300 square kilometres) and hosts 218 species of butterflies, 312 plant species and 315 bird species, including nine which are found nowhere else in the world.
The reserve straddles the equator and the Albertine Rift and lies where east Africa's sprawling plains and Great Lakes tropical forests meet.
Yet the government floated a project earlier this year to turn a quarter of the forest into sugar cane plantations, but the plan was shelved after fierce protests.
The threat hanging over the "sex tree", the African plum tree and other medicinal plants illustrate the challenge conservationists face at a time when Uganda eyes exponential economic growth.
Isaac Kanyike, 52, is a traditional healer who lives some 10 miles away from the forest in a village of mud huts.
He proudly enumerates the ailments he claims to cure with medicinal plants: epilepsy, ulcers, asthma, intestinal disorders, malaria, AIDS symptoms and impotence.
The sight of the citropsis root powder triggers a ripple of knowing giggles among the village's male population.
"Since I know that a time could come when trees are scarce, I'm trying to use them sustainably," said Kanyike.
"The situation could be much worse because locals cannot afford modern medicine, they cannot afford to go to hospital," he explained.
Guest ed. note: If the active ingredient produced by this tree were identified and patented by a pharmaceutical company, and the tree cultivated for its production (thereby preventing its extinction), would charges of 'biopiracy' be leveled?
Seed companies make a killing
Farmers fleeced to the tune of Rs. 50 cr. by selling ordinary and spurious seed
Some companies just have a registration and start producing seeds
One is not sure about the genuineness of the seeds produced
- Gollapudi Srinivasa Rao, The Hindu, Dec. 23, 2007
WARANGAL: Private companies make a kill by fleecing gullible farmers to the tune of Rs. 50 to Rs. 60 crore annually by selling ordinary and quite often spurious seed. The cotton seed which is sown in an extent of 3.5 lakh acres in the district is entirely sold by private companies at the rate of around Rs. 750 per packet. The companies sell an average of five lakh packets a year. Similarly, maize is sown in an extent of 1.5 lakh acres and each packet is sold at Rs. 300 and the chilly is sown in about 25,000 acres and one seed packet is prices at Rs. 3,000. Majority of the private companies make good money and some have even entered the food crop market, selling paddy and vegetable seeds.
Private companies are thriving in the agriculture sector as government agencies do not enjoy good reputation with the farming community. Some fly-by-night operators have also entered the market to make the most of opportunities available. Vanishing act
Most of the companies sell the seed and vanish. They do not have extension activity, do not tell the farmer about the varietals character of seeds, keep the farmers in dark about the susceptibility of seed to different pests and diseases. Furthermore farmers are not educated about the seeds provided.
When contacted, assistant director of regional Agricultural Research Station (ARS), L Jalapathi said most of the times, farmers sow wrong seed in wrong soils thus leading to heavy losses and distress. "Crop failures are on account of lack of education among the farmers. They should be taught about the characters of varieties and timely advice on susceptibility should be given which is not happening at present," he said.
One is not sure of the authenticity of the seeds as most of the companies just have a registration and start producing seeds. Compared to the public research laboratories, the private companies do not have the adequate research and development (R&D) facilities. Eyeing profits
Senior officials in the district administration point out that the results of research in public sector were not reaching the farmers and the funding to the laboratories had come down drastically over the years. "As the government for various reasons slowly disowns the responsibilities, the private sector companies were taking over the role eyeing the profits in the sector," a senior officer pointed.
Guest ed. note: One has to wonder how often the alleged "failure" of Bt cotton is due to fraudulent labeling of seed.
Cabinet refuses to lift ban on open-field crop trials
- Bangkok Post, Dec. 26, 2007
The Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry's push for the lifting of the ban on open-field trials of genetically-modified (GM) crops was turned down yesterday by the cabinet which decided to leave the decision to the next administration. The cabinet instructed the ministry to conduct more studies on the impact of growing GM plants in open fields and to organise a public hearing on the matter as required by the constitution before seeking approval for field trials of transgenic crops from the next cabinet.
Article 67 of the charter stipulates relevant agencies must hold a public hearing before implementing a project that has social and environmental impact.
''The ministry must also draft a regulation to prevent and control the spread of GM crops from experimental fields to nearby areas,'' said government spokesman Chaiya Yimwilai.
Revoking the 2001 cabinet resolution banning open-field trials has recently become controversial after Agriculture Minister Thira Sutabutra said lifting the ban would promote research on GM crops. His stand prompted anti-GM crop groups to stage weekly protests at Government House to demand the coup-appointed cabinet maintain the ban.
Transgenic plants must pass three levels of biosafety tests _ laboratory, greenhouse and open-field trials _ before being endorsed for mass production.
With the open-field trial ban, experiments on GM crops are permitted only in laboratories and greenhouses.
Mr Chaiya said the cabinet secretary was instructed to speed up enforcement of the biosafety law, which contains safety guidelines for field trials, compensation for those affected by GM crops, and measures placing restrictions on GM imports and exports.
- MIT Technology Review, January/February 2008
Four decades ago, Norman E. Borlaug developed a wheat variety that fed the world. Now he's battling an old enemy: a pathogen whose spread could cause starvation. By John Pollack
In 1798, the English economist Thomas Malthus argued that population increases geometrically, outstripping the arithmetic growth of the food supply. He promised "famine ... the last, the most dreadful resource of nature." It took another 125 years for world population to double, but only 50 more for it to redouble. By the 1940s, Mexico, China, India, Russia, and Europe were hungry. Franklin D. Roosevelt's farsighted vice president-elect, former secretary of agriculture Henry A. Wallace, believed the solution lay with technology. He was right: the Malthusian tragedy never happened, chiefly because Norman E. Borlaug transformed the breeding of wheat, which feeds more people than any other crop.
From 1939 to 1942, Mexico's harvest was halved by stem rust, a fungus whose airborne spores infect stems and leaves, shriveling grains. Anxieties about wartime food shortages led the American philanthropic organization the Rockefeller Foundation to create the country's first foreign agricultural program: the Coöperative Wheat Research and Production Program, which was based in Mexico and which Borlaug joined, as its plant pathologist, in 1944. The program was prescient: rust hit the North American breadbasket in 1954, wiping out 75 percent of the durum wheat crop used for pasta.
"There was panic in the U.S. and Canadian departments of agriculture," Borlaug tells me. "We had to accelerate the program to develop rust-resistant wheat varieties." Borlaug struggled with a lack of machinery, equipment, and trained scientists. Yet by 1948, he tells Leon Hesser in The Man Who Fed the World, a recent biography, "research results, the bits and pieces of the wheat production puzzle, began to emerge, and the fog of gloom and despair began to lift."
Before Borlaug, plant breeders sought new traits in plants by creating perhaps a few dozen "crosses" of varieties each year. For Borlaug, this would have meant "at least 10 years developing resistant varieties," he recalls, "and there would be another epidemic in that time. I wanted to speed things up." Collecting wheat varieties from around the world, he began a massive cross-breeding program. Such work is "mind-warpingly tedious," he tells Hesser. "There's only one chance in thousands of ever finding what you want, and actually no guarantee of success at all."
To improve those odds, Borlaug tried something unusual: doing two successive plantings of his experimental crosses each year, effectively doubling his rate of research. He was almost stymied by what he calls "the dogma of plant breeding everywhere at the time: plant in the same season and place as local farmers." But soon he was planting in summer in low-quality, rain-fed soils at high altitude near Mexico City, and then taking any promising varieties hundreds of miles north to sow a winter crop in the warmer, drier, lower-lying Yaqui Valley. This "shuttle breeding" helped Borlaug achieve rust resistance in under five years. It also produced exceptionally adaptable varieties, suited for use across climates.
Having achieved rust resistance and plant adaptability, Borlaug now addressed the problem of structure. When Mexican wheat was heavily fertilized, it grew too tall, collapsing when irrigated or rained on--thus limiting yields. After 20,000 fruitless crosses, Borlaug heard about a Japanese dwarf variety that might confer its strength and stockiness. He started thousands more crosses, until "by 1964, we got the really beautiful short wheat varieties." The yields were spectacular, and the variety was quickly adopted around world. In 1968, his approach, which stimulated advances in other staple foods, was dubbed the "Green Revolution" by William Gaud, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Two years later, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Paradoxically, 1968 also saw the genesis of an environmentalist dogma that was pessimistic about humanity's capacity to feed itself. In that year--when the global population growth rate peaked, at 2 percent per year--Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, intoning, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. ... Hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs." The madding crowd of "stinking hot" Delhi was odious to Ehrlich: "My wife and daughter and I ... entered a crowded slum area. ... People, people, people, people. ... [We] were, frankly, frightened." It was a "fantasy," he said, that India would ever feed itself. Yet Borlaug's program delivered such stunning results that India issued a 1968 stamp commemorating the "wheat revolution," and by 1974 it was self-sufficient in all cereals.
Nonetheless, a neo-Malthusian fear of overpopulation became endemic to environmentalist thinking. Science philosopher and Arts and Letters Daily founder Denis Dutton says, "Well-fed Greens flaunt their concern for the planet but are indifferent, even hostile, to the world's poor with whom they share it. Some Greens I knew acted for all the world as though they relished the idea of a coming worldwide famine, much as fundamentalists ghoulishly looked forward to Armageddon." Dutton, who served in the Peace Corps, personally saw the Green Revolution benefit India. "For the catastrophist, India becoming a food exporter was disturbing," he says. "This wasn't supposed to happen. They blame Borlaug for spoiling the fun."
Not all Borlaug's critics were catastrophists: some opposed the intensity of his agriculture, especially its use of inorganic fertilizer. Borlaug acknowledges the need for care, but he says the "natural" alternative, cow manure, "would require us to increase the world's cattle population from around 1.5 billion to some 10 billion." As he dryly observed in a 2003 TV interview, "Producing food for 6.2 billion people ... is not simple." He added, "[Organic approaches] can only feed four billion--I don't see two billion volunteers to disappear."
Raised on a farm, Borlaug thinks many of his detractors would benefit from a week or two in the fields. He cites Ghanaian farmers who use no-till agriculture (that is, plant waste is left to improve the humus and reduce erosion) and control weeds with herbicides. Their lives are improved by the reduction in weeding. "Less backache, you see," he once said. "You know, it's amazing how often campaigners in rich countries think poor people don't get backache."
A New Scourge Many thought the work that earned Borlaug his Nobel brought an end to stem rust, but it is back, in the form of a variant called Ug99, which emerged in Uganda and spread to Kenya and Ethiopia. "If it continues unchecked," says Borlaug, "the consequences will be ruinous."
Africa, in fact, presents an especially worrying challenge, for the simple reason that it did not benefit much from the Green Revolution. Borlaug's Nobel largely honored gains in Asia: there, calorie availability per person rose, wheat and rice prices fell, and increased incomes stimulated industrial output. Similar benefits were enjoyed almost everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 200 million people--a third of the population--still go hungry. In the last four decades, Africa's average per capita food production has actually decreased.
Ug99 will be fought, at least initially, with the plant-breeding techniques Borlaug so artfully employed. However, he believes Africa's best hopes rest with biotechnology, even though regulatory problems prevent its immediate use against Ug99. Also needed, he believes, are publicity, political will, funding, and renewed coöperation among international agricultural researchers. The work he is inspiring is nothing less than a new African Green Revolution.
The reasons for failure in Africa are complex. "Irrigation is first," explains Michael Lipton of the University of Sussex's Poverty Research Unit. "In sub-Saharan Africa, 4 percent of cropland is irrigated. In South and East Asia it's nearer 40 percent."
Then there's soil. "Africa's soils ... [are] equivalent--and were once adjacent--to the Cerrado's acid soils," Borlaug says. The Cerrado, an area that extends across central Brazil, historically had some of the least productive soil in the world. But improved crop varieties of the sort that Borlaug created--along with liming, fertilizer, and low- or no-till methods--have led to the single largest increase in arable-land usage in the last 50 years.
Politics, both regional and global, were and are another hindrance. "If the Green Revolution in India was proposed to the World Bank today, it would be turned down," says Rob Paarlberg, an agricultural-policy expert at Wellesley College. By the 1980s, he says, "public investment in roads, research, irrigation, fertilizers, and seeds was politically unacceptable to the Washington consensus on the right--and on the left, among environmentalists opposed to chemical fertilizers, road building, and irrigation projects." Thus, real per capita levels of official development assistance for the agricultural sector in the poorest countries fell by nearly 50 percent between 1982 and 1995.
Finally, Borlaug says, "Africa needs roads. Roads bring know-how and fertilizer to farmers and ideas and business for commerce." Africa, Borlaug argues, also needs concerted international help. Meanwhile, Ug99 has reached Yemen: from there, Borlaug warns, "it can reach Iraq, Iran, India, and Pakistan"--even the breadbaskets of Europe and America. A scramble is on to find resistant varieties, ensure that their yields will encourage farmers to adopt them, and produce sufficient tonnages of seed.
Last year, ABC, CBS, and NBC cameras were absent when Borlaug was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal. And alas, Borlaug's friend and biographer Leon Hesser has now produced a prosaic work that, while good on his hero's early years, fades as Borlaug appears on the international stage. Borlaug deserves better, but when journalist Gregg Easterbrook sought a publisher for a popular biography, "they said he was boring," the self-described "environmental optimist" says. "If he'd killed someone instead of saving hundreds of millions of lives, then they'd have been interested."
Mon dieu! The frightening possibilities of GMO wine
- The Economist via The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.), Dec. 24, 2007
For the beleaguered winemakers of France, threats come in many guises. One French grower complained that each bottle of New World wine that lands in Europe is a "bomb targeted at the heart of our rich European culture."
But few things agitate French winemakers more than other winemakers' unspeakable irreverence towards the terroir, the mix of soil and climate found in the place where a vine is grown. The strength of feeling is so great that the country even has its own breed of, er, terroiristes.
A group of masked, militant French winemakers has attacked foreign tankers of wine, bricked up a public building and caused small explosions at supermarkets.
Now France's balaclava-clad winemakers have a new horror to see off: transgenic wine. Scientists have unpicked the genetic secrets of pinot noir, the grape that produces some of the world's finest wines and also contributes to some blends of champagne.
It turns out to be the offspring of two very different parent varieties -- they have less genetic material in common, in fact, than humans do with chimpanzees.
The researchers' findings, which cast light on the origins of pinot noir's subtle flavors, will make it easier to engineer new varieties that can grow in places where cultivation is impractical today.
Efforts to create transgenic grapevines are well advanced, and transgenic wine yeasts are already starting to appear in American winemaking.
Alas, those working on transgenic vines have failed to heed the lessons of earlier GM-food fiascos. They are creating what the producers want (disease-resistant grapevines) rather than making tweaks that also appeal to consumers.
What sort of traits might consumers want, you ask?
More reliable flavors for one thing. No longer need you doubt whether a wine truly does possess flavors of exotic coffee, chocolate, Asian spice, roast duck and blackberry and prune liqueur.
Genes from those very animals and plants could be spliced straight into the grape's genome. Forget hours spent swilling, swirling, sniffing, gurgling and spitting -- it will all be there in black and white, in the sequence data.
Why should sauvignon blanc be stuck with boring old gooseberry and cabernet sauvignon with cassis? Genomics could beget some novel wine flavors and combinations to ensure the wine really does go with the food: pinot noir with cranberries, pork, and sage and onion stuffing, perhaps.
And why stop there? It would surely be wise to boost the levels of wine's beneficial ingredients and add a few more for good measure. Consistent amounts of resveratrol, quercetin and ellagic acid will help improve cardiovascular health and may even confirm what the French have known all along -- that drinking red wine is good for you.
A gene for producing acetylsalicylic acid, better known as aspirin, would help to prevent heart attacks and blood clots.
You could get your doctor to supply your daily half-bottle by prescription. The aspirin's analgesic effect would head off hangovers before they even started.
Caffeine could be added to keep drinkers awake during boring dinner parties. And it may even be possible to insert a gene to produce sildenafil citrate, the active ingredient in Viagra. For many men that would help to prevent the ultimate wine-induced humiliation.
The possibilities are endless -- all that is needed is a little imagination.
Too bad if all this leads to an outbreak of militant shrugging among the good vintners of Burgundy. Times have changed. Scientists have a clear duty. Following the lead of many world leaders, they must make it clear that they are not willing to negotiate with anyone who supports terroirisme.
The Top 10 New Organisms of 2007
- Alexis Madrigal, Wired, Dec. 26, 2007
Genetic engineering isn't just for scientists in ivory towers or corporate R&D labs anymore. Researchers are still creating new mice and crops every week, but the tools and knowledge necessary to create organisms never before seen on Earth have pushed out to pet breeders, artists and college kids.
A Wired News first, here we count down the top 10 organisms that didn't exist on Dec. 31, 2006.
1. Ashera GD hypoallergenic cat
Lifestyle Pets has created a cat it calls the Ashera GD, which has been genetically engineered to be hypoallergenic. The high-tech blend of exotic cat varieties doesn't come cheap: This kitty in the window retails for $27,000 -- nothing to sneeze at. The ultra-rich around the world, however, don't mind the price tag. Six of the cats sold in December, three of them in the company's best market: Russia. Next year, expect a transgenic cat, which will remain kitten-size throughout its life.
2. Butanol-producing E. coli
Genetic engineering is getting so easy, even a kid can do it. A team of students from the University of Alberta, "the Butanerds," competed in the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition, creating an E. coli strain that produces butanol fuel (albeit rather inefficiently). The Butanerds have competition from a host of well-funded startups, like Synthetic Genomics and LS9, which are trying to genetically modify single-celled organisms to create the fuels of the future.
3. Artful fluorescent tadpoles
At an Ohio State art show earlier this year, Russian artist Dmitry Bulatov presented his genetically engineered tadpoles, which glow red and green. Bulatov, the curator of the Kaliningrad Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Art in Russia, is one of a handful of artists around the world using biotechnology to create art. The field is controversial, because it involves experimenting with living things without a medical or therapeutic purpose. Bulatov edited a collection of essays on these issues called Biomediale: Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture.
4. Insulin-producing lettuce
In July, a University of Central Florida researcher announced he had genetically modified lettuce heads that produce insulin. They could be transformed into time-release capsules for people with diabetes, to help them maintain blood-sugar levels without regular injections.
5. Super CO2-absorbing trees
With global warming all over the news in 2007, many schemes have been proposed for taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Trees already do the world an admirable service sequestering carbon dioxide, but scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee are also genetically modifying poplar trees to increase the amount of carbon that the trees can store.
6. Rapid vaccine-making button mushrooms
In November, Darpa-funded Pennsylvania State University researchers unveiled a new method for rapidly producing vaccines: genetically engineered button mushrooms. Pharming, using plants as chemical factories, is beginning to catch on as a cheap way to synthesize drugs. Within a few years, the Penn State scientists say their 'shrooms will be able to make 3 million doses of vaccine in 12 weeks. Rapid-response vaccine-making could come in handy in case of a bioterror attack or bird-flu outbreak.
7. Glow-in-the-dark cats
Photographs of cats genetically engineered by South Korean scientists to glow red when exposed to UV light made headlines around the world. What most news stories didn't mention was the scientific potential for fluorescent creatures: The animals' glow acts as a "green light" that lets scientists know that their genetic transformations of other, non-glowing genes have worked.
8. Cancer-fighting Clostridium bacteria
Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment mean that a cancer diagnosis is no longer always a death sentence. But certain oxygen-starved parts of tumors are still difficult to reach with the old methods. Enter the Clostridium family of bacteria. Injected into the body, they grow and multiply only in the oxygen-poor parts of cancer tumors. In September, scientists in the Netherlands showed they could arm Clostridium bacteria with therapeutic protein genes, essentially creating search-and-destroy tumor missiles.
9. Schizophrenic mice
July's news that Johns Hopkins researchers had created schizophrenic mice was a surprise, even to scientists who regularly create genetically altered mice to model human diseases. In recent years, we've seen very big mice, fearless mice, Rain Man mice and a host of others. But the schizophrenic experience of hallucinations, delusions of grandeur and paranoia seemed somehow distinctly human. However, scientists recently identified a single gene called DISC1 as a major schizophrenia risk factor, leading to the creation of these mice, which lack the gene. Anatomical examinations revealed similarities between the mice's brains and those of human patients. The mice also revealed behaviors -- trouble finding food, agitation in open fields -- that researchers say parallel human schizophrenic activities.
10. Yeast with poison-sensing rat genes
Temple University doctors announced in May that they'd genetically modified a strain of yeast to glow green in the presence of DNT, an ingredient in dynamite. The scientists used rat olfactory genes to sense the chemical and switch on fluorescent-protein producing genes. Biosensors might be better than man-made sensors for applications like detecting nerve gas, because they are cheap to produce.
* by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel*at*wildblue.net