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March 27, 2008


FAO Sanctions Biopiracy; China Quintuples Agbio R&D; CBI Assailed in India


* The Viking Biopirates are Coming
* Level playing field for field trials
* Mahyco rapped for reluctance on Bt brinjal
* Research confirms value of high oleic soybean
* Big funding for China's GM research
* Genetically modified food produce up 30%
* GM Crops and Environmental Safety: Five Issues


The Viking Biopirates are Coming: Lock up Your Seed
- Dave Wood, AgBioView Exclusive, Mar. 27, 2008

Thieves often work in pairs: one distracts you; the other snatches your camera and runs off. The first part - the distraction - of some monumental thievery was played out on the Arctic island of Svalbard on 26th February. In a remote and theatrical setting and to excessive media coverage, the initial samples of a planned 4.5 million packets of crop seed were ceremonially placed in a permafrost store.

The media have been told that the Svalbard Seed Vault was an historic turning point needed as a bastion against global disasters, climate change, and the current mass extinction of our crop diversity on which the future of mankind's food supply depends. Efforts were also made to undermine the effectiveness of current international seed storage, with scaremongering to the media of the dangers of 9/11, terrorists, hurricanes, and the insecurity of tropical countries such as Peru, Colombia, Syria, India, Ethiopia, and the Philippines (I have lived in three of these countries and know they will resent the slur that they are too politically unstable to store their own seed). In the run-up to Svalbard, existing seed storage was attacked as a hodgepodge, scattershot, and haphazard network run by hobbyists.

Norway, under whose jurisdiction Svalbard falls, then announced that no genetically modified samples would be stored in Svalbard: powerful distraction indeed to those of us who know GM seed could help poor farmers.

But some of us who have actually worked in the longstanding global network of highly effective seed stores knew that all this was bunkum. We began to smell dead polar bears (and there will be lots more of these as global warming strips ice from the Arctic Ocean and melts the Svalbard permafrost). Seed professionals know that the Svalbard Vault is far removed from the practical reality of seed storage: it is remote, impractical to service, does not feed into global networks of sample evaluation and crop breeding; and is an expensive distraction from the ongoing and low-cost duplication of seed which is a normal routine of seed store management. For technical purposes Svalbard is not necessary - indeed, there has been an available, but little-used, international permafrost store on Svalbard for decades: this has been quietly forgotten.

So, why the excessive promotion of Svalbard, the criticism of tropical countries and major International Agricultural Research Institutes, and the placing of an International Seed Store under the anti-GM control of a nation such as Norway?

The Svalbard media hype was planned to distract us from the second element of thievery - the snatch. And the ongoing snatch - entirely missed in hundreds of media reports - is the biggest ever example of biopiracy. The Norwegians are after control of our crop seed - all of it.

Svalbard has become part of a plan, dating back 14 years, to place all 'public domain' crop and pasture varieties under the control of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The chosen vehicle was the now-operational Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Under the FAO Treaty, plant breeders in developed countries would pay a fee to develop new varieties from formerly public domain samples covered by the Treaty. The new status of samples included in the Treaty would be everlasting (unlike plant patents, which expire in 20 years and revert to public domain). Hitherto, public domain seed from most sources, including the two most important collections, the USDA (730,000) and the International Agricultural Research Institutes of the CGIAR (600,000), have been supplied to all users without condition. This free access has been the foundation stone of agricultural development.

The recent inclusion of the CGIAR samples in the Treaty was a major coup for FAO. This happened as a result of Machiavellian dealings in committees in Rome over almost a decade and up to $50million changing hands. Not just all the public domain samples of the CGIAR were included, but, unbelievably, the far more valuable products of research, which the Treaty did not ask for. Several of those most directly involved with this coup worked with FAO and the CGIAR and now are paid by the Rome-based NGO, the Global Crop Diversity Trust. The Trust, working with the Norwegian Government, was heavily involved in the establishment of the Svalbard Vault.

However, even after the mugging of the CGIAR collections, the Treaty is still heading for failure: 75 countries, many with extensive collections, have not ratified; funding does not cover the cost of the Rome-based Treaty Secretariat; and many important crops and pasture species were excluded during Treaty negotiation. There was no UN seed monopoly. With alternative sources of free seed, including the excellent USDA collections, plant breeders can refuse to accept the conditionality and taxes associated with use of Treaty samples. To establish a UN monopoly, more seed was urgently needed. Svalbard was the bait.

The scene was now set for the Svalbard seed snatch. After believing exaggerations of the value of the Svalbard Vault and receiving full payment for packing and shipping samples, several countries decided to place their national seed collections in the Vault.

With the help of consultants employed by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the Norwegian government produced a Svalbard 'Depositor Agreement'. This agreement must be signed before depositing samples in the Svalbard Vault (1). The Depositor Agreement grossly extends and expands coverage of the FAO Treaty to most of the seed resources on Earth: it is a charter for biopiracy.

We were assured by the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture (2) that "the deposit of the seeds will not affect any property or other rights pertaining to the material". Much was made of the 'black box' arrangement, where seed deposits are sealed, deposited in Svalbard, to be returned unopened when necessary. This was deceptive.

From hereon please read the small print and do nothing without your lawyer. Buried in Article 7 in the middle of the 13-page Depositor Agreement is a legal trap.

Conditions apply: "the Depositor agrees to make available from their own stocks samples of accessions of the deposited plant genetic resources and associated available non-confidential information to other natural or legal persons in accordance with the following terms and conditions:" In the legal gobbledegook that follows in Article 7, all countries depositing samples in the Svalbard Vault thereby agree to place most samples at home in their own genebanks under the terms of Part IV of the FAO Treaty (this requires a Material Transfer Agreement and tax payable to FAO by plant breeders for use of samples).

The species coverage of Article 7 of the Depositor Agreement is breathtakingly wide: not only major crops covered by the Treaty (Annex I crops) but also all other plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA). Astoundingly, Article 7 then also demands that samples which are "not plant genetic resources for food and agriculture" shall be placed under the terms of the Treaty. This is outrageous banditry by Norway, as the scope of the Treaty itself is restricted to "plant genetic resources for food and agriculture." (Article 3 of the Treaty text - (3). Other species - for example industrial crops, medicinal plants, and forest trees - were deliberately excluded from the Treaty during negotiation, yet, if duplicate samples are deposited in Svalbard, the depositor's original samples will fall under the repressive rules of the Treaty.

For example, the US has deposited in Svalbard the seed of a wild medicinal plant, Flueggea suffruticosa (PI 649666), collected from the Russian Federation. Neither the US nor the Russian Federation has ratified the Treaty and the species is a wild medicinal plant not covered by the Treaty. Yet, thanks to either incompetence or malice on the part of Norway, this sample in the USDA collections is now covered by the Treaty. There are thousands more examples, notably the USDA placing soybean samples from China in the Treaty (soybean is not part of the 'multilateral system' under the Treaty).

This banditry by Norway will have a wide and damaging impact on the free exchange and utilization through plant breeding of crop and pasture genetic resources.

Developed countries will suffer: the best national crop collection in the world - that of the USDA - is being placed in Svalbard. The first shipment of seeds from ARS to Svalbard contains 471 crop species, including maize, soybeans, peanuts and sunflowers (4). Note that, as of today, the US has not ratified the FAO Seed Treaty. Seed deposit in Svalbard is de facto ratification (somebody please tell the State Department). From now on all plant breeders sourcing seed from USDA collections could be taxed by the UN (the level of this tax, and just what it will apply to, can be modified by Treaty members). This applies not only to US plant breeders, but also thousands world-wide who have supplied samples to USDA without cost and, in exchange, have been assured of free access to USDA seed resources for ever.

It gets worse: Svalbard will damage developing countries, even big smart ones such as China, Mexico, and Nigeria. These three and over 70 other countries have not ratified the Treaty and therefore have no wish to see their samples placed under Treaty rules. Yet the USDA and the CGIAR collections contain around 200,000 samples from such countries. Already 56,709 samples of Mexican origin have been deposited in Svalbard - but not by Mexico. Through deposit in Svalbard, samples - without country approval, or even knowledge - are being placed under Treaty rules in direct conflict with national sovereignty over national genetic resources. Already, samples from 67 countries who have not ratified the Treaty are in Svalbard and therefore under Treaty rules.

Norway's strong support for 'Farmers' Rights' under the Treaty is a sham: Svalbard is decidedly anti-farmer. If countries or their farmers want samples returned to replace lost varieties, they will, under Treaty rules, have to sign away any former rights: everything belongs to the FAO Treaty. In contrast, in the past both the USDA and the CGIAR have prided themselves on returning samples unconditionally to re-stock national farming after disasters: not any more.

Future sample collection is in jeopardy: Mexico and other exploited countries could, with reason, prevent collecting of additional samples from their territory. Facts bear this out: since the Treaty became operational collecting of new samples has dried up.

The association of the Svalbard Vault with the FAO Treaty is an exploitative disaster. Norway should totally de-link Svalbard from the Treaty. If Svalbard is to be true 'black box' storage (and it certainly is not now) no political conditions should be placed on deposit. As a penalty for pushing Norway to successful biopiracy through the Svalbard 'Depositor Agreement', the Global Crop Diversity Trust should repay its donors the $40million of development funding it received for Svalbard, which is the antithesis of development (this would increase the UK funds for real development by $20million). The foundation stones of 'diversity for development' - the USDA and CGIAR crop collections - should increase research on the maintenance of the very many vitally important clonally-propagated tropical crops that cannot be conserved as seed. These include most tropical fruits, nuts, root crops, and bananas and plantains.

Finally, why did Norway link Svalbard to the FAO Treaty? The Treaty itself is strongly conservationist, of questionable value to agricultural development. Funds generated by the Treaty will support: "strengthening research which enhances and conserves biological diversity by maximizing intra- and inter-specific variation for the benefit of farmers, especially those who generate and use their own varieties and apply ecological principles in maintaining soil fertility and in combating diseases, weeds and pests" (Art. 6.2.b). In one sentence we have three major errors: that maximum diversity is the aim of farming (rather than food production); that farmers generate their own varieties (not so: most farmers rely on the varieties of others, and - dramatically - on crops from other continents); and that 'ecological principles' (read 'organic farming') can produce high and stable yields. Norway is supporting a dodgy Treaty in an underhand way while the real needs of farmers for better varieties go underfunded.

1) http://www.nordgen.org/sgsv/files/sgsv/SGSV_Standard_Depositor_Agreement.pdf

2) http://www.regjeringen.no/en/dep/lmd/campain/svalbard-global-seed-vault/management-and-operations.html?id=462223

3) ftp://ftp.fao.org/ag/cgrfa/it/ITPGRe.pdf

4) http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2008/080130.htm

Dave Wood has been the Manager, Inter-American Genebank, Turrialba, Costa Rica, Project Manager, International Genebank, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Head, Global Bean Genebank, CIAT, Colombia


Level playing field for GM crop field trials

Agricultural biotechnology companies in the past have often complained that lack of clear guidelines on seed testing resulted in their failing to make the cut

- Jacob P. Koshy, Wall Street Journal via LiveMint, Mar. 26, 2008


New Delhi: In an effort to create a level playing field among biotech companies developing genetically modified (GM) seeds, the government plans to set up a new research facility which will enable smaller firms to outsource field trials.

Currently, unlike larger and more experienced companies, smaller firms are at a disadvantage while undertaking field trials, because of the high costs of trials, the high probability of failure, as well as the chance of a rejection of field trials due to their inability to comprehend the complex procedures involved.

Accordingly, the department of biotechnology and a Hyderabad-based non-profit, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (Icrisat), will form an organization that will act as a so-called single-window service provider to undertake trials on a contract basis and walk companies through the process.

"It is tentatively called Platform for Translational and Transgenic Research," said a senior official in the biotechnology department who did not wish to be identified. "The initial investment is Rs20 crore, but depending on how successful the venture is, we might even upgrade it to a joint venture company."

Emails and calls to Icrisat chairman William Dar were not immediately returned.

Though more than 80% of crop research is carried out by state-owned research labs, the government expects the private sector to play an increasing role in genetically improving chickpea, pigeon pea and rice grown here. Field trials are a long drawn-out process in which companies have to prove that their GM seeds are non-toxic, superior to the natural alternative and environmentally safe.

The results have to be approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, a body under the ministry of environment and forests. Agricultural biotechnology companies in the past have often complained that lack of clear guidelines on seed testing resulted in their failing to make the cut.

"Larger international corporations have the financial ability as well as the facilities to go about the testing procedures, but it's often the smaller companies who are clueless about the regulatory framework, mainly because of a lack of experience," said Suhartho Banerjee, a biotechnology expert at the University of Delhi.

"It's a welcome move, though at this stage the biggest beneficiaries would be universities and the government's own research institutes, simply because they are the ones most into GM crop research," said Bhagirath Choudhary, national coordinator for the International Service for Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, an international biotech lobby group.

GM brinjal might be the first transgenic crop to be available commercially and field trials are at an advanced stage. However, these trials have been trapped in legal battles. Research is also under way on GM rice, potato and papaya.

Though GM food crops are not commercially available in the country, the government, concerned about low agricultural productivity, sees biotechnology as an important means of increasing farm output.


Mahyco rapped for reluctance to disclose info on Bt brinjal

- India Express, Mar. 27, 2008


NEW DELHI: This battle is over data. civil society groups have come together to denounce Mahyco's reluctance to prevent disclosure of bio-safety information on genetically engineered food crops including Bt Brinjal, which is undergoing large-scale field trials.

Mahyco has gone to Delhi High Court for quashing the Central Information Commission's directives, pleading that disclosure of this information would hurt its commercial interest. Bt brinjal is the first food crop undergoing large-scale field trials in India.

After the Department of Biotechnology's (DBT) refusal to pass the data in response to a RTI application filed by Greenpeace in 2006, the case was forwarded to the Chief Information Commissioner. The CIC overruled DBT's contention and asked the department to divulge the test data in public interest, prompting Mahyco to approach the Delhi High Court.

Addressing a press conference here, Nikhil Dey from the National Campaign for Peoples' Right to Information, said: "The case reflects how crucial information on public health and safety is put under wraps by public authorities even after the directives for disclosure under the RTI Act. This undermines accountability of a department whose primary job is to protect the interest of the ordinary people."

Mahyco had completed safety tests as required by regulations in 2006 and had proceeded to conduct large-scale field trials.

"Refusal to divulge safety data on food crops is violation of consumers' basic rights to information and choice and safety," said Bejon Mishra, executive director for Voice, a consumer interest organisation.

Greenpeace has been demanding that safety data for all GM crops be available for public scrutiny.

The group is demanding that the Government set up a statutory body under the Ministry of Health, to take up health and safety issues of all GM crops.


Research confirms better oil from new dupont high oleic soybean trait

Bunge, DuPont alliance on track to deliver first biotech product with direct consumer benefits

- Yahoo Finance (press release), Mar. 18, 2008


Des Moines, Iowa -- New oil testing results confirm a new, improved soybean oil trait from DuPont will deliver increased nutritional benefits with broader applications than other soybean oil products currently on the market. The high oleic soybean oil trait is the next generation of improved oil products developed by DuPont business Pioneer Hi-Bred as part of the Bunge DuPont Biotech Alliance.

"We are breaking ground on a new oil product that will bring more nutritional benefits to consumers and better performance to the food industry," said William S. Niebur, DuPont vice president, Crop Genetics Research and Development. "These positive research results bring us one step closer to delivering the first biotech product with direct consumer benefits."

New oil testing results from high oleic soybeans produced in 2007 confirm that the oil contains at least 80 percent oleic acid, significantly increasing the stability of the oil when used in frying and food processing. Like low linolenic soybean oil, high oleic soybean oil eliminates the need for hydrogenation, resulting in foods with negligible amounts of trans fats.

High oleic soybean oil also presents opportunities for transportation and industrial applications. The oil's high stability will allow companies to develop renewable, environmentally sustainable options to petroleum-based products.

"The high oleic soybean oil trait will deliver enhanced nutrition, sustainability and functionality," Niebur said. "We are very excited to bring a superior product to market that will help meet the growing demand for nutritionally improved oils and provide valuable contracting opportunities for farmers."

In addition to delivering at least 80 percent oleic acid, the high oleic soybean oil trait has consistently demonstrated a linolenic acid content of less than 3 percent, and over 20 percent less saturated fatty acids than commodity soybean oil.

The oil will be available to food companies for testing following the 2008 growing season. This will allow food industry customers to conduct independent high oleic soybean oil testing in advance of commercial quantities being available after the 2009 soybean harvest.

The high oleic soybean oil produced from Pioneer brand soybean varieties will be marketed as TREUS High Oleic Soybean Oil. The TREUS(TM) brand name represents the industry-leading family of soy products developed as part of the Bunge DuPont Biotech Alliance. The high oleic soybean oil trait is on track for 2009 commercial introduction in the United States, pending regulatory approvals.


Big funding for GM research

- Hepeng Jia, Chemistry World (Royal Society of Chemistry), Mar. 26, 2008


China is to launch a huge research programme on genetically modified (GM) crops by the end of the year, according to top agricultural biotechnology advisors.

Huang Dafang, former director of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences' (CAAS) Institute of Biotechnologies, says the programme could receive as much as 10 billion yuan (US$1.4 billion) over the next five years - five times more than the country spent on GM research in the preceding five years.

A member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China's upper house, and a key government advisor on biotechnology policies, Huang revealed the news at a briefing on the annual report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit organisation promoting agricultural biotechnology.

The ISAAA report indicates in 2007 a total of 114.3 million hectares of GM crops were cultivated worldwide - an increase of 18.3 per cent from 2006.

The most widely adopted GM crop is Bt cotton, engineered to produce a toxin from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to fight bollworm. China has developed GM petunias, tomatoes, sweet peppers, poplar and papaya, and several varieties of rice but to date policymakers have only allowed GM cotton to be marketed.

Huang says that yield, quality, nutritional value and drought resistance will be major targets of the new research programme. As well as rice and cotton - which have been the focus of GM technology research in the past - corn and wheat will also now be priority crops for research.

Receptive farmers

Hu Jifa is chief research fellow at the the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy (CCAP), China's chief think tank on food policy issues.

He confirms the programme is set to go ahead and says that funding for research on safety and environmental monitoring will be included in the programme.

The GM seeding programme was mentioned in China's 11th Five-year science and technology development plan (2006-2010) but decisions on the funding and scope of the programme have been delayed for two years due to the sensitivity of the area, Hu says.

But policymakers are now more receptive to GM technologies, says Hu, and that could lead to more GM crops getting the go-ahead for commercialisation.

Judy Wang of Croplife China, an organisation representing agricultural biotech firms, welcomes the news, and says that the research programme could help make GM crops more acceptable to Chinese farmers.

Liu Xuehua, an associate professor of environment planning at Tsinghua University, says that while she is not opposed to GM technologies, policymaking in the area should be more cautious and transparent.

'Stakeholders, rather than scientists alone, should be involved in the policy-making process concerning GM commercialisation so that more potential risks can be identified,' Liu says. 'The decision to commercialise them should not be based simply on the fact that there is now big government funding for the area,' she adds.


Genetically modified food produce up 30%

- Food & Beverage Reporter (South Africa), Apr. 2008


In terms of area planted, SA's genetically modified (GM) maize, soy and cotton increased by 30%, to 1.8m hectares, last year over 2006/07.White GM maize totalled 1,040,000ha, an increase of 48% over 2006/07, representing a market share of 62%. Yellow maize increased from 528,000ha to 567,000ha, up 7%, with a market share of 51%, according to AgriSA's president, Lourie Bosman.

SA has retained its eighth position among 13 biotech mega-countries worldwide. Some 12m farmers in 23 countries on six continents planted 114.3m ha of GM crops last year. About 90% or 11m of these farmers are resource-poor farmers in 12 developing countries.


Crop Reproductive Biology, Genetically Engineered Crops and Environmental Safety: Introduction to Five Crucial Issues

- C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India


1 Pollination And Fertilization

2 Honey Bees, Nectar And Pollen

3 Pollination And Reproductive Behaviour Of Crop Plants

4 Gene Flow

5 Impact Of Modern Biotechnology On Biodiversity

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