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May 7, 2008


Genes for yield, height, disease resistance in rice, rape and cassava--and more.


* Solving Asia's Food Crisis
* Bt maize performance in Spain
* Arsenic content varies in rice
* Gene for yield, height in rice
* A way around cassava diseases
* Wheat gene for Sclerotinia resistance - in Brassica
* Bothered by Neo-Colonialist NGOs


Solving Asia's Food Crisis

- Haruhiko Kuroda, Wall Street Journal Asia, May 5, 2008


Rising food prices and dwindling global stocks have put many governments in developing Asia and the Pacific under enormous pressure to put food on the table of the most vulnerable and poor in their countries. Over a billion people in the region are seriously affected by the food price surge, as food expenditure accounts for 60% of the average total expenditure basket. Food and energy together account for more than 75% of total spending of the poor in the region.

Several short-term cyclical and long-term structural factors have combined to spark the recent surge in the prices of rice and other cereals. Rising energy prices are pushing up prices of fertilizers and fuels. This, along with declining food stocks, diversion of food crops acreage to bio-fuels, and unfavorable weather events in some countries which have caused supply disruptions, has contributed to the surge in food prices.

In addition, underinvestment in agriculture has led to stagnating food-grain yields and slow development of high-yielding and pest-resistant varieties. Incentives for farmers have been distorted by interventionist policies, and change in land-use patterns in developing economies has led to loss in agricultural land.

Higher disposable incomes in rapidly developing Asian economies and a shift to greater meat-based protein consumption have led to greater demand for food and feed grains in the region.

Looking at the supply-demand dynamics, we believe that the era of cheap food is over. And this has serious implications for developing Asia. High food prices will undermine the gains in poverty reduction in Asia and make it difficult to attain the Millennium Development Goals of halving extreme poverty by 2015.

The situation is serious, and governments have responded with subsidies, imposed price controls and caps on exports to offer immediate short-term relief. While the domestic imperatives to do so are understandable, we feel these measures are likely to be counterproductive and prolong price volatility.

Instead, we believe targeted income- and cash-support measures are more effective in alleviating the impact of rising prices on the poor and raising farm productivity. Through targeted support to the poor rather than general price subsidies, governments will be able to focus on the truly needy and ensure better coverage, as well as free up resources to boost much-needed investment in the farm sector.

The provision of targeted support will also allow governments to address the distortions in the incentives for increased production in the short term. The right incentives, accompanied by dependable, affordable and timely access to inputs and credit at market interest rates, will enable farmers to invest in improved inputs, which will then lead to an expansion in output, stabilize prices and keep them from spiraling up.

We recognize that revamping public distribution systems or introducing conditional cash transfers within the next four to six months is no easy task and the supply response in the next harvest season also remains uncertain. We are supporting the International Rice Research Institute and the International Food Policy Research Institute in their efforts to boost research and help farmers to overcome key constraints.

In the medium- to long term, governments will need to further build on the gains in supply by addressing the inadequacies in infrastructure and ineffectiveness of institutions, and by promoting research and development of new technologies.

The spike in food prices is not only hurting rural and urban poor, but also hitting hard those who are just above the poverty line. Asian Development Bank estimates show that a 30% increase in food prices in the Philippines and Pakistan, for example, would increase the number of poor by an additional nine million and 22 million people, respectively.

Asia has achieved remarkable success fighting poverty in the past few decades and shown great resilience in overcoming several challenges to emerge as one of the most dynamic regions of the world. We now need to overcome the specter of high and rising food prices to ensure the poor are not left behind, so the fruits of progress can be shared by all.

Mr. Kuroda is president of the Asian Development Bank.


Bt maize performance in Spain

- Agbios, May 2, 2008


Currently, Bt maize is the only genetically modified crop authorized for commercial cultivation in the European Union. Spain, with over nine years of experience in Bt maize cultivation, is the European member state with the highest adoption rate for the biotech crop. A survey, published by the journal Nature Biotechnology, reports that farmers adopting Bt maize experienced higher average yields than conventional corn growers in certain regions in the country. The survey was conducted by researchers from the European Commission Joint Research Center and the University of Córdoba.

The survey covered 195 farmers who grow Bt maize and 184 conventional maize growers. They were asked to provide information about yields, seed costs, maize prices obtained and use and costs of insecticides from 2002 to 2004. Significantly higher yield was recorded in the province of Zaragoza. The higher yield translates to higher incomes, since the farmers obtain the same price for fodder maize regardless of whether it is transgenic or not. Gross margin increase was as high as 122 euros (US $189) per hectare per year in Zaragoza. In other regions, however, profits were only marginal. The authors suggest that this might be due to the fact that Bt crops produce variable yield gains, depending mainly on local pest pressure and damage.

The article is available at http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v26/n4/full/nbt0408-384.html

For more information read http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/news/630.docu.html


Arsenic speciation varies with type of rice

New studies suggest that U.S. rice contains more methylated arsenic, a less toxic form of the metal, than rice from Europe and Asia does.

- Barbara Booth, Environmental Science and Technology, Apr. 16, 2008


Rice can be grouped into two types, depending on the form of arsenic in the grain, says Yamily Zavala, a research associate in John Duxbury's laboratory at Cornell University. In two new papers published in ES&T DOI 10.1021/es702747y; 10.1021/es702748q), the researchers report that as arsenic levels rise, U.S. rice contains more methylated arsenic, the less toxic form, whereas rice grown in Europe and Asia contains the more toxic, inorganic arsenic.

Zavala noticed a trend in her data from a market-basket study of U.S. rice. When rice contained low levels of arsenic, the dominant form was inorganic arsenite. As arsenic concentrations increased, the dominant form became dimethyl arsinic acid (DMA).

Intrigued, Zavala examined the literature and saw the same pattern in other studies of U.S. rice. Indeed, rice researcher Andrew Meharg of the University of Aberdeen (U.K.) and collaborators noted previously that the amount of DMA is dependent on the rice cultivar and that DMA is the predominant arsenic species in U.S. rice (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2005, 39 [15], 5531-5540).

However, when Zavala and Duxbury examined worldwide speciation data, they discovered a second rice population-one dominated by inorganic arsenic, even in rice with high arsenic levels. They grouped all rice into two types: inorganic arsenic-type and DMA-type.

The researchers believe it likely that DMA-type rice transforms arsenic by methylation, as do bent grass, humans, and microbes. When inorganic arsenic is present in the soil solution, the roots take it up preferentially, says Duxbury, who thinks it unlikely that DMA-type plants take up substantial quantities of DMA or MMA (monomethylarsonic acid) from soil.

The topic of arsenic in U.S.-grown rice has caused discord between Meharg and the USA Rice Federation. New studies may provoke more controversy as Meharg reports on levels of inorganic arsenic in rice milk and baby-food rice purchased in the U.K.

Previously, Meharg and co-workers reported higher levels of arsenic in rice from the south central U.S. than in rice from California (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2007, 41 [7], 2075-2076; 2178-2183). They speculated that arsenic in south central U.S. rice may have originated from pesticides in soil previously used to grow cotton. Zavala and Duxbury confirmed these results, finding especially high arsenic levels in rice from one Texas supplier.

Zavala and Duxbury analyzed rice obtained from several different countries and combined their data with literature values to yield what they label a global "normal" range of 0.08-0.20 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) arsenic for rice. Because of the higher arsenic levels in rice from Texas, the mean for U.S. rice was 0.198 mg/kg, identical to the mean for European rice and substantially higher than that for Asian rice (0.07 mg/kg).

USA Rice Federation spokesperson David Coia says that the papers by Zavala et al. "bring much-needed balance to the discussion by considering speciation. That U.S. rice may be safer than rice from Asia and Europe is a message we hope resonates clearly from these publications."

"It's important to remember that arsenic is a ubiquitous element in soils and is found in all grains worldwide," emphasizes Coia. "U.S. rice remains a safe and wholesome commodity and a highly valued product in markets worldwide," he adds.

Rice breeder Steven Linscombe of Louisiana State University agrees with Coia. "This research has verified that arsenic levels vary in rice, depending upon environmental conditions such as soil, irrigation water, growing conditions, and specific variety. Most importantly, this research has confirmed that while arsenic is detectable at very low levels in U.S.-produced rice, it is of a form and at such low levels that it presents no health risks."

If some rice can methylate arsenic, can that ability be transferred to other rice varieties through conventional plant breeding or genetic techniques, asks Duxbury. He suggests that the best way to answer this question is by collaborating with rice producers and breeders.

"The DMA rice type could have come from breeding programs where rice has been selected based on its resistance to straighthead disorder, which causes yield reduction due to blank florets. It could be possible that the new resistant cultivars were able to metabolize arsenic as a detoxification pathway and accumulate it in the grain without affecting grain filling," explains Zavala. U.S. rice breeders have been breeding for resistance to straighthead for more than 30 years, says Duxbury.


China experts identify gene for yield, height in rice

- Tan Ee Lyn, Reuters via Forbes, May 4, 2008


China - KABUL - Scientists in China have identified a single gene that appears to control rice yield, as well as its height and flowering time, taking what may be a crucial step in global efforts to increase crop productivity.

In an article published in Nature Genetics, the researchers said they were able to pinpoint a single gene, Ghd7, which appears to determine all three traits.

Previous studies identified a region on chromosome 7 which seemed to be responsible, but they were not able to zero in on any specific gene.

"Our study shows that a single gene can control several traits with major effects. It can double the yield, determine flowering time and plant height," said Zhang Qifa of the Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan province in China.

"Previously, we thought we needed to change many genes to change rice yield, now we just need to manipulate a single gene to increase productivity," he told Reuters by telephone.

Zhang and his colleagues studied 19 rice varieties in Asia and found that plants that were shorter, had fewer grains per cluster of flowers, and flowered earlier were lacking in the gene Ghd7.

When the gene was restored, the scientists saw sharp changes of increased yields, a doubling of the time to flowering and a 67 percent increase in height.

The scientists also found five different versions of Ghd7.

"The most highly active versions were present in warmer regions, allowing rice plants to fully exploit light and temperature by delaying flowering and increasing yield. Less active or inactive versions were found in cooler regions, enabling rice to be cultivated in areas where the growing season is shorter," they wrote.


A way around cassava diseases

- Lominda Afedraru & Ephraim Kasozi, The Monitor (Uganda), May 7, 2008


Farmers in the country will go a step ahead if the ongoing establishment of a genetic platform for cassava species aimed at improving the crop succeeds. Scientists who are particularly involved in the research of how to administer and control modified plant and animal products, have embarked on setting up a centre at National Crops Resource Research Institute (NCRRI) at Namulonge in Wakiso District for purposes of modifying the cassava species.

The group, with the help of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (Asareca), launched its cassava biotech capacity project through its Agro-biodiversity and Biotechnology (Agrobio) programme at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NCCRI) on April 30, 2008.

This idea has come at a time when there are soaring food prices in the markets countrywide and the world over, and efforts to maintain food security and improve people's livelihoods have not stopped.

Cassava's ability to produce food under marginal conditions has made it a popular crop among the poor farmers for purposes of food security. The researchers obtained this idea from their counterparts at Donald Danforh Plant Science Centre (DDPSC) in the United States.

The scientists there introduced a genetically modified gene in a cassava plant to confer resistance to Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD), which research results proved successful. This research has been carried out in several countries in Africa of which Uganda is now involved.

The National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) through NCRRI is currently collaborating with DDPSC by participating in the process of developing the transgenic lines in the US.

The long term aim is to improve farmers' preferred but highly sceptical cassava by introducing CMD resistance genes while retaining the superior storage root traits. Ugandan scientists are currently conducting the initial laboratory and plant transformation work alongside DDPSC scientists to speed up the research process.

According to records at NCRRI at Namulonge detailing the profile of this research, cassava is the most consumed crop in East and Central Africa with over 30 million tons of it being produced annually.

On average, the value of cassava production between 1961 and 1999 amounted to$2b (about Shs3.4 trillion). The record indicates that Uganda is the third largest producer of cassava in the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (Asareca), with a total production of 5 million metric tons per year. But of late, the cassava mosaic and other pests have reduced the cassava hence the start of this research process.

According to the scientists, cassava mosaic and cassava brown streak disease are the most important constraints affecting cassava production in Uganda and most parts of African countries. Other viruses include Africa Cassava Mosaic Virus (ACMV) and the East African Cassava Mosaic Virus (ECMV) which is transmitted by a pest called Whitefly Bemicia Tabaci.

Dr Charles Mugoya, a senior scientist working with Asareca, said the $110,000 project fund is part of the $320,000 about (Shs585m) that was shared among three countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Dr Mugoya said the intervention was part of Asareca's commitment to develop Naros in the country.

Dr Anton Bua, an Agric-Economist and Team Leader for National Cassava Programme, said Uganda did not have facilities to undertake advanced science like biotechnology which is a world order. "Because of Asareca's support, we will now build capacity to perform very high and advanced science which we normally borrow from Europe and America," said Dr Bua.

He said the intervention would build local human capacity in using the advanced science facilities rather than relying on developed countries as has been the case.

"It will also be cost effective and cheap for Uganda to develop local technologies using locally based facilities. Uganda would also have a comparative advantage in the East and Central Africa region to conduct advanced research for regional countries," he added.

According to Dr Bua, a specialist in developing high yielding cassava varieties, the products that would be generated from laboratories, like cassava disease resistant varieties, will be disseminated and promoted for the local farmers.

"Starch rich and high ethanol cassava varieties will be grown by farmers and sold to industries for bio-fuel and starch-based products. There will be products for pharmaceuticals and textiles which will in turn benefit the farmers," he said.

This is the second research carried out on plants to improve their quality, the first being the ongoing test on the East African highland banana species.

Dr Andrew Kiggundu, a senior scientist at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories Institute in Kawanda, told science journalists recently that already there is an ongoing research on preventing pests, wilts and weevils against the East African highland banana.

The journalists were on a fact-finding tour on the topic: The use of Biotechnology and Biosafety in the modernisation of plant and animal species, at Kawanda Research Institute recently. Biotechnology and Biosafety is a technique used by scientists to improve products from living organisms for purposes of safeguarding and maintaining their quality for specific use.

They say the biotechnology technique will be of benefit to the farmers by improving the cassava and banana species because there will be improved resistance to pests and diseases on the crops.

Doctor Geoffrey Arinaitwe, who is in charge of the pests' and other weevils' research, discovered at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium that a fungus called the Black Sigatoka, which is the major destroyer of the East African Highland banana, can be destroyed by Kitinase genes obtained from rice.

The group is further studying whether the Kitinase genes can destroy Nematod pests, wilts and other weevils which destroy banana roots. Dr Geoffrey obtained the above fungus and transferred it to the banana cells. They were brought to Uganda in test tubes early last year and placed in the laboratory at Kawanda.

They were later transferred into green houses and are being tested in a confined one acre plot at Kawanda. This is because the scientists want to prove if actually the Kitinase genes can destroy the said banana diseases.


Expressing a gene encoding wheat oxalate oxidase enhances resistance to Sclerotinia sclerotiorum in oilseed rape (Brassica napus)

- Xiangbai Dong, Ruiqin Ji, et. al., Planta, Apr. 30, 2008


Abstract: Sclerotinia sclerotiorum causes a highly destructive disease in oilseed rape (Brassica napus). Oxalic acid (OA) secreted by the pathogen is a key pathogenicity factor. Oxalate oxidase (OXO) can oxidize OA into CO2 and H2O2. In this study, we show that transgenic oilseed rape (sixth generation lines) constitutively expressing wheat (Triticum aestivum) OXO displays considerably increased OXO activity and enhanced resistance to S. sclerotiorum (with up to 90.2 and 88.4% disease reductions compared with the untransformed parent line and a resistant control, respectively). Upon application of exogenous OA, the pH values in transgenic plants were maintained at levels slightly lower than 5.58 measured prior to OA treatment, whereas the pH values in untransformed plants decreased rapidly and were markedly lower than 5.63 measured prior to OA treatment. Following pathogen inoculation, H2O2 levels were higher in transgenic plants than in untransformed plants. These results indicate that the enhanced resistance of the OXO transgenic oilseed rape to Sclerotinia is probably mediated by OA detoxification. We believe that enhancing the OA metabolism of oilseed rape in this way will be an effective strategy for improving resistance to S. sclerotiorum.


Why I Am Bothered by Neo-Colonialist NGOs

- Temba Nolutshungu, Arusha Times via AllAfrica.com, May 3, 2008


Soon after the real colonialists had left Africa, a new breed of Western colonialists emerged: the statist Non-Governmental Organisations that want to save us from everything from genetically-modified food to globalisation--and growth.

These "consumer" and humanitarian groups and "development" charities are united in the belief that modern industrial civilisation, profit and competition are unethical. In their view, people, particularly in developing countries, would be better served by state control that puts "equity" and the redistribution of wealth ahead of the economic dynamism that has enriched the West and such eastern countries as Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

But despite their claims to speak for the poor, only a few hundred of the several thousand NGOs registered at the United Nations come from developing countries. The vast majority are from the USA, with many from Britain, France and Germany.

These groups have influence way beyond their size. Many poor countries do not have the technical capacity to formulate their own policies for services such as health, so they consult NGOs or bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), mandated with providing impartial scientific advice to governments.

The WHO has been colonised by these NGOs, acting as policy consultants and playing a big part in formulating the WHO's technical and policy advice to members. But the NGO advisors consistently get things wrong.

Take AIDS. Because there is no cure, the only way to tackle its spread is to prioritise prevention, to stop the number of infections increasing every year. Of course treatment is essential but the NGOs pushed hard for most public money to be spent on drugs for those already infected--even though the worst affected countries do not have the doctors and clinics to administer the drugs. The WHO gave in, so infections continue to rise and treatment is haphazard.

A similar thing happened with malaria. For years, countries from India to South Africa successfully controlled malaria by spraying the insides of houses with DDT.

Environmentalists and NGOs played up scientifically unsound scare stories from the USA to demonise the pesticide and pushed for a ban: the WHO stopped recommending it in the 1990s, malaria soared globally and millions died. Recently, South Africa reintroduced DDT spraying and cases plummeted but few other countries have dared upset their NGO advisors.

Western pressure groups have also scared European consumers away from buying GM crops grown in Africa: Uganda has been directly threatened by European Union representatives and Kenya avoids GM.

NGOs operate at national level too, directly feeding governments with statist policies. In their latest campaign they argue that, because very few drugs have been developed for a handful of tropical diseases that occur in the poorest countries, patents prevent this and are inherently unjust.

They want bureaucrats rather than markets to determine what diseases are researched and they want subsidies for setting up medicine factories in Africa, where ingredients, technicians and managers would have to be imported and where there are very, very few laboratories to test quality: bad copies are often worse than no medicine at all as they encourage drug-resistance and virus mutation.

All this in the hope that removing profit will usher us into a magical new age in which cheap new medicines will become freely available to the poor--never mind the fact that market-led research and development has produced the vast majority of all treatments available.

The final stupidity is that you could give every African every drug for free, to no avail: without the infrasructure to monitor and administer them, many drugs are useless or dangerous.

The NGOs achieved this by lobbying African governments at the WHO: the similarities between the NGOs' campaign literature and the official position of Kenya, a leading proponent of the R&D Treaty, are too many to be a coincidence.

Of course, many African governments like these schemes because they help protect their own pharmaceutical companies or transfer the blame for their own failures in health care onto foreigners such as multinational pharmaceutical companies. And these schemes will be aired in Geneva this week at the WHO's Intergovernmental Working Group on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property (IGWG): member states need to put the real needs of the poor first and kick out the counter-productive ideology.

Statist NGOs have enormous influence on public opinion, the UN and African governments even though their ideologies have been shown not to work in their own countries: before taking the neo-colonialists' medicine, we must carefully read the label or suffer nasty side effects.

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