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April 29, 2008


Stem Rust Threat; Frost Tolerance in Wheat; 'Greens' under fire


* Stem Rust Never Sleeps
* Time to take GM seriously
* Small is not beautiful
* New era of food politics
* Biotech Is 'Greener' Than You Think
* Greenpeace keeping food from the hungry
* Boost for 'green plastics' from plants
* Genes for Frost Tolerance in Wheat
* Goats with human genes
* GM mosquitoes to fight dengue scourge


Stem Rust Never Sleeps

- Norman E. Borlaug, Apr. 26, 2008


WITH food prices soaring throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America, and shortages threatening hunger and political chaos, the time could not be worse for an epidemic of stem rust in the world's wheat crops. Yet millions of wheat farmers, small and large, face this spreading and deadly crop infection.

The looming catastrophe can be avoided if the world's wheat scientists pull together to develop a new generation of stem-rust-resistant varieties of wheat. But scientists must quickly turn their attention to replacing almost all of the commercial wheat grown in the world today. This will require a commitment from many nations, especially the United States, which has lately neglected its role as a leader in agricultural science.

Stem rust, the most feared of all wheat diseases, can turn a healthy crop of wheat into a tangled mass of stems that produce little or no grain. The fungus spores travel in the wind, causing the infection to spread quickly. It has caused major famines since the beginning of history. In North America, huge grain losses occurred in 1903 and 1905 and from 1950 to '54.

During the 1950s, I and other scientists, first in North America and later throughout the world, developed high-yielding wheat varieties that were resistant to stem rust and other diseases. These improved seeds not only enabled farmers around the world to hold stem rust at bay for more than 50 years but also allowed for greater and more dependable yields. Indeed, with this work, global food supplies rapidly increased and prices dropped.

From 1965 to 1985, the heyday of the Green Revolution, world production of cereal grains - wheat, rice, corn, barley and sorghum - nearly doubled, from 1 billion to 1.8 billion metric tons, and cereal prices dropped by 40 percent.

Today, wheat provides about 20 percent of the food calories for the world's people. The world wheat harvest now stands at about 600 million metric tons.

In the last decade, global wheat production has not kept pace with rising population, or the increasing per capita demand for wheat products in newly industrializing countries. At the same time, international support for wheat research has declined significantly. And as a consequence, in 2007-08, world wheat stocks (as a percentage of demand) dropped to their lowest level since 1947-48. And prices have steadily climbed to the highest level in 25 years.

The new strains of stem rust, called Ug99 because they were discovered in Uganda in 1999, are much more dangerous than those that, 50 years ago, destroyed as much as 20 percent of the American wheat crop. Today's lush, high-yielding wheat fields on vast irrigated tracts are ideal environments for the fungus to multiply, so the potential for crop loss is greater than ever.

If publicly financed international researchers move together aggressively and systematically, high-yielding replacement wheat varieties can be developed and made available to farmers before stem rust disease becomes a global epidemic.

The Bush administration was initially quick to grasp Ug99's threat to American wheat production. In 2005, Mike Johanns, then secretary of agriculture, instructed the federal agriculture research service to take the lead in developing an international strategy to deal with stem rust. In 2006, the Agency for International Development mobilized emergency financing to help African and Asian countries accelerate needed wheat research.

But more recently, the administration has begun reversing direction. The State Department is recommending ending American support for the international agricultural research centers that helped start the Green Revolution, including all money for wheat research. And significant financial cuts have been proposed for important research centers, including the Department of Agriculture's essential rust research laboratory in St. Paul.

This shocking short-sightedness goes against the interests not only of American wheat farmers and consumers but of all humanity. It is tantamount to the United States abandoning its pledge to help halve world hunger by 2015.

If millions of small-scale farmers see their wheat crops wiped out for want of new disease-resistant varieties, the problem will not be confined to any one country. Rust spores move long distances in the jet streams and know no political boundaries. Widespread failures in global wheat production will push the prices of all foods higher, causing new misery for the world's poor.

Ug99 could reduce world wheat production by 60 million tons. But a global crop failure of this magnitude can be avoided. Before it is too late, America must rebuild, not destroy, the collaborative systems of international agricultural research that were so effective in starting the Green Revolution.


As the world begins to starve it's time to take GM seriously

- Robin McKie, The Observer (UK) via The Guardian, Apr. 27, 2008


With the Earth's population continuing to soar, it will be the poor who go hungry, not the eco-warriors destroying modified crops

As front pages go, the cover of Nature is scarcely a stunner. It depicts two rows of trees facing each other across the page. One row is tatty, the other clean and healthy. And apart from a few grubby bushes in the background, that's your lot. It makes a gardening catalogue look exciting.

But this restrained imagery rewards closer inspection. Those trees, bearing papayas, are growing in a Hawaiian plantation and the difference between the two rows has critical importance to the world's mounting food crisis.

It transpires that the stunted trees on the right, each bearing only a handful of fruit, are victims of papaya ringspot virus, a disease that devastates yields and is endemic in Hawaii. By contrast, the papaya trees in the other row, on the left, are healthy and disease-free, because they have been genetically modified to resist ringspot.

As a demonstration of the potential of modern plant technology, the image speaks volumes. Transgenic crops may be disparaged and dug up every time scientists grow them as part of their trials in the UK, but as Nature's cover shows, the technology seems ripe to help feed a planet whose population will rise from 6.5 billion people, many of them already hungry, to around nine billion by 2040.

It is a point stressed by crop experts such as Professor Chris Pollack of the University of Wales. 'To stop widespread starvation, we will either have to plough up the planet's last wild places to grow more food or improve crop yields. GM technology allows farmers to do the latter - without digging up rainforests. It is therefore perverse to rule out that technology for no good reason. Yet it still seems some people are willing to do so. That picture of transgenic papaya plants on Nature's cover shows how wrong they are.'

The trouble is that GM crops represent everything that the environment movement has come to hate, though it was not the technology itself that originally made greenies froth at the mouth. It was its promotion and marketing by international conglomerates such as Monsanto a decade ago that raised the hackles. As a result, GM crops have become a lightning rod for protests about globalisation. 'GM technology permits companies to ensure that everything we eat is owned by them,' claimed campaigner George Monbiot.

Perhaps he is right. However, it is questionable to go one step further and insist, as some campaigners do, that because GM technology has been misused by biotechnology conglomerates, it is therefore justifiable to ignore its usefulness completely. The science can still help feed the world, particularly through the introduction of drought and disease resistance to staple crops such as potatoes and rice. 'Britain and Europe have isolated themselves from the rest of the world over transgenic crops,' says Bill McKelvey, principal of the Scottish Agricultural College, in Edinburgh. 'We have decided the technology, for no good reason, is dangerous. The rest of the world doesn't thinks so and has got on with using it. For example, GM soya is grown throughout America and Asia. It doesn't worry people there for the simple reason that no one has ever died of eating GM food. On the other hand, a lot of people could soon die because they have no food of any kind.'

Tough luck, you might say. That's not Europe's problem. It's the developing world that will get it in the neck. Why should we care? What have we got to gain by turning to GM? These are interesting questions to which there are several answers and one of the most important concerns climate change.

The world is warming and is destined to do so for decades to come as cars, factories and power plants continue to pump out carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. As a result, many grain-producing regions - in North America, Australia and parts of Africa - are expected to suffer significant changes in climate that will devastate crop production. By contrast, other regions - northern Europe and Canada, in particular - will find weather changes will boost crop growing. They will become the world's food stores, an issue highlighted by Professor Les Firbank of North Wyke Research Station in Devon.

'Our best knowledge suggests Canada and countries in Europe will have to take on an even greater share of world food production,' he says. 'It is therefore important to ask now if we have the moral right to continue to ignore technologies, including the genetic manipulation of crops, that in a few years could insure this food production reaches an absolute maximum and will help the planet provide enough food for the nine billion people who will be living on it.'

Britain and many other European countries have considerable expertise in plant and crop biology research, it should be stressed. But that work is constantly frustrated. Crop trials are dug up and funding is blocked by governments embarrassed to be seen backing such work. The effects are rarely beneficial. Consider the example of potato blight. Its prevalence rose rapidly last year, threatening a crop that is a staple foodstuff for many people round the world.

Yet scientists insist it would be relatively easy to introduce a basic gene construct into potatoes that would make them resistant to blight. Europe has the expertise but is thwarted by gangs of men and women who trash GM crop fields. As Sir Robert May, the government's former chief scientific adviser, once remarked, these individuals display 'the attitude of a privileged elite who think there will be no problem feeding tomorrow's growing population'. May was speaking, with remarkable prescience, at the turn of the century.

This is not to say that transgenic crops alone will save the world from starvation. Major improvements in transport, which will allow fresh food to be taken to market without rotting, are needed, for example. Simply bringing political stability to a country would also help. 'Zimbabwe's food problems won't be helped through GM crop technology,' admits McKelvey. 'It needs a political solution. Nevertheless, the technology has a key role to play in tackling the overall problem of global food shortages - but only if we let it.'

That is the crucial issue. Is society ready to change its attitude to GM crops? Major companies - Debenhams is the latest - still announce GM bans, no doubt under pressure from protest groups. But given the science's growing role in helping world food shortages, such decisions should really be seen as acts of shame, not pronouncements of pride. And some scientists believe they can now detect shifts in public attitudes. 'I think we are approaching a tipping point when society will start looking at this as a science that is not going to damage the planet but actually help it,' says McKelvey.

I hope he is right, though I am not so confident. Environmental campaigners, although they do great work, can often display remarkable intransigence. For example, they remain committed to the idea that nuclear energy has no role to play in helping to combat global warming. They react with equal scorn to GM crops. The latter is certainly not a panacea for the ills we will face. On other hand, it certainly has a role to play in helping to save people from starvation, a fact that is worth repeating now and again.


Small is not beautiful

A new report on the 'way forward for agriculture' has been used to justify dragging farming backwards - to the detriment of the poor.

- Rob Lyons, Sp!ked Online, Apr. 23, 2008


A report published last week by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) has been cited as evidence that industrialised food production is screwing up the planet and impoverishing much of the world. Commentators and reporters have leapt upon the report to argue that the answer to the world's food problems is to have more small-scale production in the developing world and to reject many of the trappings of modern agriculture, including genetically modified (GM) crops. Is this really true? Or is this simply a case of environmental and development campaigners looking to impose their ideas on the Third World.

According to its website, the IAASTD is an 'intergovernmental process with multi-stakeholder bureau comprised of 30 representatives from government and 30 from civil society', and it is based on 'multiple international agency co-sponsorship (FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, World Bank, and WHO)'. Earlier this month, delegates met for a week in Johannesburg to put the finishing touches to the 'synthesis report' of the project. And like many international reports these days, it is borderline unintelligible.

For example, consider the following extract from its 'Statement from Governments', which opens the executive summary and is reminiscent of the worst verbal mangling of the People's Front of Judea in Monty Python's Life of Brian: 'This Assessment is a constructive initiative and important contribution that all governments need to take forward to ensure that agricultural knowledge, science and technology fulfils its potential to meet the development and sustainability goals of the reduction of hunger and poverty, the improvement of rural livelihoods and human health, and facilitating equitable, socially, environmentally and economically sustainable development.'

A more comprehensible summation of the report was provided by IAASTD director, Bob Watson, at the launch in London last week: 'We tried to assess the implications of agricultural knowledge, science and technology both past, present and future on a series of very critical issues. These issues are hunger and poverty; rural livelihoods; nutrition and human health. The key point is how do we address these issues in a way that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable?'

Watson is right to point out that our current system of food production is failing to meet the needs of many people. 'The price of food, in real terms, has gone down', he said. 'Even today, many food commodities are comparable to the early 1990s; so what's the problem? Well, we still have over 800million people going to bed hungry every night. There have been some successes but if we look at it on a region-by-region basis, there have been uneven results.' He also noted the ecological downsides to current methods of food production. 'We have lost some of our environmental sustainability. There have been adverse effects in some parts of the world on soils, water, biodiversity; our agricultural systems have contributed to human-induced climate change and, in turn, human-induced climate change threatens agricultural productivity.'

Greenpeace, which was heavily involved in producing the IAASTD report, was clearly cock-a-hoop at the outcome, declaring that the report 'recommends small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods are the way forward if the current food crisis is to be solved and to meet the needs of local communities, declaring indigenous and local knowledge play as important a role as formal science. A significant departure from the destructive chemical-dependent, one-size-fits-all model of industrial agriculture.'

In fact, this kind of response is at odds with reality. The expansion of agricultural productivity has been most dramatic in the developed world, where the full benefits of mechanisation, economies of scale, chemical inputs and greater agricultural education have been experienced by many people. Local knowledge may be useful in tweaking general lessons to particular circumstances, but what is required, surely, is the spread of well-established scientific understanding to the poor, not a celebration of mysticism.

If anything, farmers in the Third World need more agricultural productivity and mechanisation, not less. The productivity of agriculture in the developed world has risen far faster than in the developing world. As one writer notes: 'The ratio of the productivity of the most advanced capitalist segment of the world's agriculture to the poorest, which was around 10-to-one before 1940, is now approaching 2,000-to-one! That means that productivity has progressed much more unequally in the area of agriculture and food production than in any other area. Simultaneously this evolution has led to the reduction of the relative prices of food products (in relation to other industrial and service products) to one fifth of what they were 50 years ago.'

Nor is it at all clear that Big Agriculture in the developed world, which has an interest in being able to continue to produce food into the future, is particularly destructive. For example, high agricultural productivity in the developed world has tended to mean low prices, leading to the retirement of land from production altogether - there simply hasn't been the need to continue growing on it. Big, professional agricultural organisations can afford to think about soil quality and sustainability more than poor farmers who live hand-to-mouth. It is people living on the edge that have to get by, come what may; that may mean planting crops on land with declining fertility, cutting down trees for fuel and myriad other desperate measures just to survive.

In one respect, the IAASTD report is right. A major part of the solution to the world's food problems will come from raising productivity. It's just that an emphasis on small-scale, organic agriculture that rejects GM crops is unlikely to achieve that. Notably, the USA and China both refused to support the IAASTD's summary on biotechnology, saying that they 'do not believe this entire section is balanced and comprehensive'. Syngenta, a leading biotech company, walked out on the process altogether. Deborah Keith, a Syngenta worker involved in the process, noted in New Scientist that 'there was blatant disregard for the benefits of existing technologies, and for technology's potential to support agriculture's efforts to meet future crop needs. I think this was in part because the differences between various participants' perceptions about these technologies, and the scientific facts, were not maintained and highlighted. Sadly, social science seems to have taken the place of scientific analysis.'

On the other hand, even the most basic inputs can make a big difference. In Malawi, after a disastrous corn harvest in 2005, the government started providing subsidies for fertiliser. Combined with better rains, the country's output increased dramatically, allowing it to become an exporter and greatly reduce its dependence on aid - and all against the advice of major Western donors who have tried to encourage the country to grow cash crops for the world market instead without subsidies. Even if there were no wider reform of agricultural production, a more complete application of the best available technology would at least allow producers to make the most of what they have.

Indeed, a recognition of the failure to invest in agriculture is central to the World Bank's World Development Report 2008. World Bank president Robert Zoellick noted at the launch of the report that investment in agriculture in the developing world has borne little relation to the importance of the sector, mainly due to the policies of Western donors.

Technical fixes alone will not be enough to really transform the situation of agriculture in the developing world; the various regimes of subsidies and trade barriers, for example, hurt farmers and consumers in the developing world by effectively denying them access to major markets while allowing subsidised crops from the West to undermine local markets. But to reject the best available technology in favour of a romanticised view of farming - one that reflects the prejudices of Western NGOs far more than the interests of poor farmers - is even worse.


A new era of food politics

- Katy Lee, National Farmers Union (web posting), Apr. 28, 2008


The issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is in need of urgent examination by the EU. This was the message pushed by MEPs at a debate in Strasbourg last week.

On behalf of the European Parliament's powerful Agriculture Committee Neil Parish MEP (SW, Cons) asked the European Commission to assess the consequences of GMO reluctance from the EU on international trade and animal feed prices.

The EU's current GMO policy has been problematic because there are countries outside of Europe such as the US who have approved the use of GMO cereals such as varieties of maize and soya where the EU hasn't.

The slower pace at which the EU authorises GMO compared to the rest of the world is known as "asynchronous authorisations", it has caused problems in trade and in food availability because a small trace of US approved GMO in an export destined for the EU would mean the withdrawal of the whole batch.

Mr Parish suggested that a tolerance threshold might be the way forward for scientifically approved GMOs, in order to avoid further threats to EU grain supply and in particular to animal feed.

In the same Strasbourg session the EU Commissioner for Development, Louis Michel, said "We won't see food prices going back down to former levels".


Biotechnology Is 'Greener' Than You Think

- United States Embassy in Ukraine (web posting), Apr. 29, 2008


Val Giddings, Ph.D., an expert in biotechnology, visited Ukraine this week at the invitation of the Ministry of Economy to discuss how biotechnology might be used in Ukraine to help produce more food at less cost and with fewer environmental impacts. In honor of Earth Day, Dr. Giddings discusses how biotechnology actually contributes to a better environment.

Periodically, the U.S. Embassy invites prominent specialists to come to Ukraine to give speak and train students and professionals in their field of study. As more specialists come to Ukraine, we will highlight their participation in the program with podcasts recorded by the speakers during their stay.

This podcast continues our series of podcast recordings from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. Ambassador Taylor personally records a podcast each month in which he describes highlights of the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship.

Audio (wma 854 KB 3:32) - mms://

Audio (mp3 1.61 MB 3:32) - rtsp://

Full Text of Transcript - http://kyiv.usembassy.gov/files/080424_bio_technology_eng.html


Greenpeace vs GM Food: keeping food from the hungry

- Nancy Reyes, Blogger News Network, Apr. 28, 2008


Rice prices have skyrocketed from 18-25 pesos/kg to 24-32 p/kg at the local Palenke.

For farmers and workers who average 100 pesos a day (roughly two dollars), this puts a strain on their budget. So to prevent rice riots, the President is planning to allow poor people to buy subsidized food, and because of the worry about hoarding or reselling, they have asked the churches to help distribute the subsidized rice.

But many Catholic church bureaurocracy and welfare NGO's here are full of those who toe the line of the left, and unfortuanatly, that means the radical green NGO's, like Greenpeace who support "natural" foods and oppose artificial and "inhumane" agricultural practices, such as poultry farms, fish farms, and high yield hybrid crops.

But their most important "victory" is preventing poor people from eating food that might be "contaminated" because it was genetically modified by gene introduction and cloning instead of old fashioned crossbreeding.

Such prohibitions have resulted in many famine deaths in Zimbabwe, Zambia and other African countries, who refused food in famines, and now they are planning to proclaim a new victory: Hungry Pinoys.

As a result of political pressure, Caritas and some parishes are refusing to distribute rice from the US, because it might be "contaminated" with GM rice. And Greenpeace is planning to sue the government, just in case someone might be able to fill their stomach with rice that Americans have been eating without harm for a decade.

Hold it a second. GM rice is merely a hybrid made by adding genes so that it has more vitamins or is resistant to disease.There are a lot of philosophical and economic criticisms of genetically modified rice.

Actually, despite the "Frankenfood" label, GM rice is merely using genetics instead of crossbreeding to produce new varieties of food, something that mankind (or more probably womankind) has done since 10 000 BC, when climate change forced hunter gatherers into agriculture.

Usually the argument is "BIG BAD BUSINESS VERSUS POOR PEOPLE".

But we've actually been down this road before, with the folks that opposed the "green revolution" twenty years ago.

The argument is similar to that of the original "green revolution": That the newer hybrids require fertilizer and techniques different than traditional farming, that by introducing hybrids we end up with decreased biodiversity in crops, and that relying on one hybrid, the food crop is more prone toward a devestating famine (e.g. the potato famine in Ireland 1840) if a pest attacked it, whereas biodiverse crops would allow some strains to remain intact.

Finally, there is the argument that the green revolution impoverishes the poorest farmers at the expense of the richer more aggressive farmers.

UNESCO has a nice summary here, giving both sides of the argument.

Yet what is the question about GM rice. The claim is "safety", yet the failure of finding harm in US consumers seems to contradict that claim. (Most of the activists seem to be from Europe).

Another "fear" is that locals, instead of eating the grain, will plant it, resulting in ..."contaminated" local crops from cross pollination. This may be true if the food aid was maize (which is often transported whole), but rice is routinely milled prior to transport.

So what is their problem?

Actually, I am a bit sympathetic to the "green" idea (our family actually sells organically grown brown rice and vegetables). I am sympathetic to living simply, and buying locally, and not destroying the environment.

What I am not sympathetic to is making this a religion or imposing it by edict.

There is no reason that mass production means that one cannot have hand crafted items, nor is there a reason to say that organic farming is the only way to farm. Even arguments that the "green revolution" harms the poorest farmers ignores that if you don't have the more productive farmers producing surpluses, you end up with starvation, as Robert Mugabe has proved recently, copying the egalitarian practices that resulted in famines in China (1960) and the USSR (1920's) before him.

Globalization means we have choices.

Ironically, despite all of Greenpeace and Europe's attempt to stop the Green revolution II coming from big bad American companies, the winner will probably be China.

Already, watchdog groups in the UK have found "GM" markers in rice imported from China, and China is widely suspected to have widely planted the newer rice strains.

Of the 25 samples taken, 19 contained GM rice, modified to contain a bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), that produces a toxin that kills pests, said Liu Haiying, programme director for Greenpeace in Beijing.

The Chinese government, as usual, denies the claim, but I suspect it is true, and point out that a GM rice that kills pest might be preferable than spraying toxic insecticides on the rice fields.

Nevertheless, I suspect what will happen is that the PC types will continue to try to stop GM modified crops from feeding Pinoys and Africans, while Europeans are "protected" from the Frankenfoods, but Americans continue to consume the food and wonder what the F*** is wrong with these idiots.

The winner in all of this will be, of course, China...whose cheap and abundant GM rice surplus will be exported to all sorts of countries.

Ah, you might ask, what about local laws that forbid such GM rice imports?

After all, this is Asia, where the bribes are "over the table, under the table, and with the table", so although the churches and the greens might congratulate themselves on their fight against big business, they probably won't stop the Chinese rice from coming in with falsified papers, with true papers but bribing the inspectors, or just by being smuggled in by someone who wants to make a profit.

Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She writes about humanitarian problems at Makaipa blog. http://makaipa.blogspot.com/


Guest ed. note: Greenpeace is also claiming that GM rice "can cause cancer and even miscarriage." See, "Warning raised vs sale of allegedly contaminated US rice", The Inquirer (Philippines), Apr. 24, 2008, http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/breakingnews/nation/view/20080424-132417/Warning-raised-vs-sale-of-allegedly-contaminated-US-rice


Boost for 'green plastics' from plants

Compounds from oilseeds could be used to make plastics and other products.

- Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (press release), Apr. 28, 2008


Australian researchers are a step closer to turning plants into 'biofactories' capable of producing oils which can be used to replace petrochemicals used to manufacture a range of products.

Scientists working within the joint CSIRO/Grains Research and Development Corporation Crop Biofactories Initiative (CBI) have achieved a major advance by accumulating 30 per cent of an unusual fatty acid (UFA) in the model plant, Arabidopsis.

UFAs are usually sourced from petrochemicals to produce plastics, paints and cosmetics. CBI is developing new technologies for making a range of UFAs in oilseeds, to provide Australia with a head start in the emerging 'bioeconomy'.

"Using crops as biofactories has many advantages, beyond the replacement of dwindling petrochemical resources," says the leader of the crop development team, CSIRO's Dr Allan Green. "Global challenges such as population growth, climate change and the switch from non-renewable resources are opening up many more opportunities for bio-based products."

The production of biofactory plants can be matched to demand and will provide farmers with new, high-value crops bred to suit their growing conditions. The technology is low greenhouse gas generating, sustainable and can reinvigorate agribusiness.

"We are confident we have the right genes, an understanding of the biosynthesis pathways and the right breeding skills to produce an oilseed plant with commercially viable UFA levels in the near future," Dr Green says.

The team will announce the successful completion of the first stage of the CBI on 28 April during the Fifth Annual World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology & Bioprocessing (WCIBB), being held in Chicago, Illinois, from 27-30 April 2008.

The team's selection of safflower as the target crop will also be announced.

"Safflower is an ideal plant for industrial production for Australia," Dr Green says. "It is hardy and easy to grow, widely adapted to Australian production regions and easily isolated from food production systems."

The CBI is a 12-year project which aims to add value to the Australian agricultural and chemical industries by developing technologies to produce novel industrial compounds from genetically modified oilseed crops.

The project focuses on three key areas; Industrial Oils, Complex Monomers and Protein Biopolymers. CBI project leaders will present the latest research findings in each of these three areas at the WCIBB in Chicago which will showcase innovations in the convergence of biotechnology, chemistry and agriculture.


UC Davis Researchers Discover Genes for Frost Tolerance in Wheat

- University of California/Davis (press release), April 29, 2008


The genes responsible for the wide range of freezing temperatures that can be tolerated by different wheat varieties have been identified by a team of U.S. and European scientists, led by a plant scientist at the University of California, Davis.

The study results suggest that the genes that regulate frost-tolerance are activated at milder temperatures (53-59 degrees F) in frost-tolerant wheat varieties than in frost-susceptible varieties.

The findings, reported in the March issue of the journal Plant Molecular Biology, are important for better understanding winter injury, a major economic risk factor in producing wheat.

"It has been difficult for wheat breeders to develop more winter-hardy varieties because frost tolerance in wheat is a complex trait that is regulated by many genes," said Professor Jorge Dubcovsky, a wheat breeder and geneticist.

"The identification of these genes will enable breeders to develop hardier, more productive wheat varieties, which is of vital importance in light of growing pressures to increase global food production," he said.

As the world's leading exporter of wheat, the United States annually produces more than 50 million metric tons of wheat, which is used to make a broad spectrum of food products ranging from breads to pastas.

This study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, the Hungarian Wheat Spike Consortia, the Hungarian National Research Fund, the National Science Foundation Plant Genome Program and the Ohio Plant Biotechnology Consortium.

The study is part of an ongoing research program by Dubcovsky and colleagues to uncover the genetic basis of important wheat traits. More information on this research is available at: http://www.plantsciences.ucdavis.edu/Dubcovsky/.


UCD researchers alter goats with human genes

- Chris Bowman, Sacramento Bee, Apr. 28, 2008


UC Davis professor James Murray knows his experiments with human genes and goats give some people the creeps.

Crossing anything human with four-legged hoofers evokes images of mythical half-man, half-animal centaurs from ancient Greece.

In reality, genetically altered goats look and behave no differently than regular ones - both are just as eager to gnaw Murray's sleeves and untie his shoes at the university goat barn.

"Could you get your grubby paws off?" Murray asked of his inquisitive test subjects during a recent tour.

Murray and fellow animal scientist Elizabeth Maga engineered a small herd of Alpine and Toggenburg dairy goats to produce high levels of a human antibiotic-like protein in their milk.

Just as mother's milk helps protect infants from germs, the researchers figured, humanized goat's or cow's milk would better defend dairy animals and their offspring from illness. Germ-fighting milk might also slow spoilage, prolonging the shelf life of dairy products.

The big question

The scientists' ultimate question, though, is a humanitarian one:

Could the same procedure produce fortified powdered milk and, eventually, genetically modified goat herds for poor regions of the world?

The beneficial protein, lysozyme, destroys bacteria that cause intestinal infections and diarrhea, which every year claim more than 2 million impoverished young lives. That's a toll among children under age 5 higher than from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, according to the World Health Organization.

"If we can prevent some of that, I think we should do it," Murray said, mindful of long-standing protests from animal rights activists, ethical concerns and fears of messing with Mother Nature.

The goat's milk represents one of the first genetically engineered food products designed to improve human health, though none has been approved for human consumption.

Scientists have been manipulating animal genes for nearly 25 years. They've changed properties of milk for human food and as raw material for pharmaceuticals - turning animals into virtual medicine factories. Murray himself has changed the genes of cows, sheep, pigs and mice.

The goat's milk experiments, however, are among the few to transfer human genes to animals, said Michael Fernandez, former director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

"It's certainly not the predominant practice right now," Fernandez said. Private biotechnology companies and universities usually obtain genetic material from microbes or plants, not humans, he said.

Concerns about technology

Sacramento's Ventria Bioscience is a prominent exception. The company is growing genetically altered rice that contains lysozyme and another antibacterial ingredient in human breast milk. The company aims to produce an over-the-counter rehydration solution made from the fortified rice.

Ventria recently found a place to farm their patented rice in Junction City, Kan., after running afoul of Sacramento Valley and Missouri growers who fear medical rice might mix with their grains.

Doug Gurian-Sherman, a biotechnology specialist with the Union of Concerned Scientists advocacy group, said he has similar concerns about transgenic goats.

Should the goats get into the wild - their altered genes indeed make them more fit to survive - they could more easily multiply and over-browse a landscape, threatening native species and causing erosion, he said.

"We don't have a regulatory system that addresses these kind of environmental issues in this country, let alone developing countries," Gurian-Sherman said.

Allergy protection

Why human genes for goats?

Goats, humans and all other mammals have lysozyme in milk, saliva and tears. Human breast milk, however, carries at least 1,600 times more than goat's milk.

UCD dairy goats born with the human gene that regulates lysozyme in mammary glands have far more lysozyme in their milk than they would naturally - 67 percent of human levels compared with 0.06 percent, Murray said.

While other animals carry high levels of the protein, Davis researchers chose to inject the human gene to minimize chances of an allergic reaction, should people ever drink the modified goat's milk.

"You drink lysozyme every day in your saliva, so the chances of you reacting to it are pretty small," said Maga, a research biologist in the animal science department.

Several more studies are needed to satisfy food safety regulators in the United States and elsewhere that this medicinal milk would be safe to drink, researchers said.

The latest findings, published in the May issue of the Journal of Nutrition, show altered goat's milk helps fend off common E. coli-related illnesses in pigs, which have human-like digestive systems.

Pigs fed the lysozyme-rich milk from transgenic goats had significantly lower levels of harmful bacteria in their small intestines than those raised on regular goat's milk.

Dr. Miriam Aschkenasy, a public health doctor with the nonprofit humanitarian aid group Oxfam America, doesn't share Murray's optimism that the goat's milk would provide comparable protection for children.

While human breast milk is considered beneficial to infants, "there is, as far as I know, very little evidence that if you feed it to an older child these same affects apply," Aschkenasy said.

Said Murray: "The absence of evidence does not mean it isn't so, it just means we do not yet know. Hopefully studies with our transgenic goat's milk will help to answer this question."

The UCD Academic Federation Committee on Research funded the experiment with pigs. Murray is seeking additional funding from philanthropies interested in improving health in developing nations.

For the next experiment, Murray wants to see whether modified goat's milk not only prevents intestinal illness in pigs but also treats it.

"We'll make them sick and see if they get better," he said.


Photo of James Murray with GM goats: http://media.sacbee.com/smedia/2008/04/27/20/175-1M28GOATS.embedded.prod_affiliate.4.JPG


'Warrior' mosquitoes to fight dengue scourge

- P. Selvarani, The New Straits Times (Malaysia), Apr. 27, 2008


The days of the Aedes mosquitoes appear to be numbered, thanks to the efforts of a British bio-tech company and Malaysia's Institute of Medical Research, writes P. SELVARANI.

MILLIONS of genetically modified (GM) "warrior" Aedes mosquitoes will soon be released into the fishing village of Pulau Ketam off Selangor as part of international field trials to fight the dengue scourge.

The GM male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry killer genes, will be released into the wild to eliminate the Aedes mosquito population which spreads dengue fever.

The field trials will be undertaken by the Health Ministry's Institute of Medical Research (IMR) in collaboration with British-based Oxitec Ltd, an insect bio-tech company part-owned by the University of Oxford.

This follows the success of confined lab trials which were conducted under the supervision of the IMR over the past year.

The field testing is expected to be conducted on a wider scale on Pulau Ketam at the end of the year or early next year.

The team is undertaking a baseline survey of the island, which is reported to have a high number of the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

Oxitec has advertised on its website vacancies for the Pulau Ketam field-testing job, which includes a position for a senior entomologist.

The field trials on the island, which is a 30-minute boat ride from Port Klang, are expected to be carried out over a year.

Health Ministry and IMR officials did not want to comment on the tests.

In February, Oxitec had announced that it planned to release the GM mosquitoes in Malaysia on a large scale in three years, following its successful trials.

Calcutta's The Telegraph newspaper had quoted Oxitec's head of public health, Seshadri S. Vasan, as saying that the first confined field study under the supervision of the IMR "yielded encouraging results".

Sources said the controlled lab tests done here were the first in the world and was a breakthrough in the fight against dengue, which has grown to alarming proportions across the globe in recent years.

The technique involves releasing GM male Aedes mosquitoes to mate with the female Aedes mosquito. The lethal genes cause the larvae to die.

(Only a female mosquito can transmit the disease-causing germ because it, and not the male mosquito, has a proboscis that is capable of piercing the human skin.)

The Aedes mosquito is the main vector for dengue and chikungunya fever and conventional methods such as fogging have been ineffective in controlling the spread of these diseases.

However, environmental non-governmental organisations fear that releasing these GM mosquitoes in the wild may affect the ecosystem and cause further damage.

Gurmit Singh, the chairman of the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, said: "Like all GM organisms, once they have been released in the wild, how do you prevent them from interacting with other insects and producing mutants which may be worse than the Aedes mos-quito?"

It is learnt that if the Pulau Ketam field trials prove successful, the next step would be to introduce the killer mosquitoes in bigger towns which have a high incidence of dengue.

The Telegraph had also reported that the sterile insect technique (SIT), which involves releasing millions of sterile male insects over a wide area to mate with the native female ones, had been around for decades.

It said the conventional sterilisation programmes using radiation or chemical treatment to foster sterility, which were tried on mosquitoes as well, did not work.

Irradiation rendered these mosquitoes so sickly and unattractive that their female counterparts shunned them for the wild ones.

On the other hand, mosquitoes subjected to Oxitec's proprietary technique, called RIDL-SIT, remained healthy and attractive enough to woo the native female insects.

This was proved in independent case studies in Oxford and France and in contained semi-field trials in Malaysia.

Vasan was quoted as saying that the latest study in Malaysia showed that "up to 50 per cent of the wild type female mosquitoes chose to mate with Oxitec's RIDL male mosquitoes".

The paper added that Oxitec had received regulatory and import permits for confined evaluation in the US, France and Malaysia.

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