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May 9, 2008


Snapshot poll results; Lessons From Golden Rice; EC procrastinates, again


* Commission procrastinates on GMOs
* Navigating the genetic engineering maze
* Intensive farming boosts crop, wildlife
* Results of the GMO Compass snapshot poll
* Tough Lessons From Golden Rice
* Platypus genome decoded


Commission procrastinates on GMOs while millions of farmers worldwide are growing them

- EuropaBio (press release), May 7, 2008


Brussels - Today, the EU Commission held a debate on the biotech crop approval process in Europe and sent out a disappointing signal when it agreed to send back three cultivation dossiers which had been positively assessed. Europe is already lagging behind worldwide competition when it comes to biotech crops: more than 40 products are awaiting EU approval. Furthermore, in the light of the current bottlenecks in the supply of food and feed, it is unacceptable to keep putting off decisions by asking the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to reconsider dossiers such as the three biotech crops for cultivation which came before the Commission today: two insect resistant corn varieties and the starch potato Amflora which had been positively assessed by EFSA years ago.

In doing so, European farmers are being denied access to the technology. In Europe, only one biotech crop is available for farmers, an insect-resistant Bt maize. Since 1998 not one single new biotech crop has been allowed to reach the market for cultivation. This stands in stark contrast to the 120 plus products for 23 crops available to farmers worldwide (1). With such politically motivated steps Europe is holding up a well-established technology and is putting its credibility at risk. The existing EU approval system, which has been agreed upon between the Commission, the

Member States and the European Parliament includes a thorough examination involving the scientific assessment of each and every biotech crop and its potential environmental as well as health and safety impact. Europe is still just talking about the technology, while the rest of the world is moving ahead rapidly, causing Europe to become increasingly isolated. "Today's debate at the EU Commission is yet another example of procrastination. The system is in place, and it should be allowed to function," says Bernward Garthoff, Vice Chairman of EuropaBio - the EU association for bioindustries.

"Although we welcome the measures addressed to imports such as the Commission decision to ask Austria to lift its ban on two biotech maizes, and find a technical solution to the issue of low level presence before the summer, we would have expected the Commission to do more for European farmers so that they can actually cultivate more biotech crops and not just import them," says Nathalie Moll, Director of EuropaBio.

Europe wants and needs to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and to mitigate the effects of climate change. Biotech crops can contribute to both these goals. With over ten years experience of commercial biotech planting, analysis has shown considerable biotech crop-related carbon dioxide emission savings (1). In 2006; these were equal to the removal off the roads of 6.5 million cars, equal to about 25% of all registered cars in the UK (2).

Biotech crops have been adopted by farmers at record pace around the world because they offer better protection of harvests - farmers can actually reap more of what they sow on the same amount of land. Biotech crops also decrease the need for spraying and reduce energy use as well as save on labour. Biotech can endow crops with special traits so that they can be grown in saline soils, or with less need of precious water resources.

At a time where food security is high on the agenda, as prices for agricultural commodities continue to surge globally with unprecedented speed, agricultural biotechnology has an important role to play in meeting the world's challenge to feed itself. It is unacceptable that Europe's hesitation to apply its own regulatory approval process is affecting developing countries that would like to take up this technology.


(1) Brookes G and Barfoot P. (2006) GM crops: the first ten years - Global socio-economic and environmental impacts. ISAAA Brief N36. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY. http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/36/download/isaaa-brief-36-2006.pdf

(2) In 2007, the global biotech crop area grew 12 percent or 12.3 million hectares to reach 114.3 million hectares, the second highest area increase in the past five years. Two million more farmers planted biotech crops in 2007 making a total of 12 million farmers globally enjoying the advantages from the improved technology. Notably, 9 out of 10 of the benefiting farmers, were resource-poor farmers (11 million in total), exceeding the 10-million milestone for the first time. In fact, more developing countries planted biotech crops in 2007 than industrialized countries. http://www.europabio.org/GBEne_ISAAA_130208.htm


Navigating the genetic engineering maze

- AlphaGalileo, May 8, 2008


In the decade since genetically modified strains of maize resistant to insects have been grown in the European Union, crop yields have gone up, farmers' reliance on insecticides has fallen significantly and the quality of maize has improved. That's the message from research published this month in the International Journal of Biotechnology from Inderscience Publishers.

Agricultural economist Graham Brookes of PG Economics Ltd, based in Dorchester, UK, has reviewed the specific economic impacts on yield and farm income as well as the environmental impact with respect to a lower reliance on insecticide usage since the introduction of GM maize in the EU in 1998.

So-called "Bt" maize carries genes for a highly specific insect toxin from the soil-dwelling microbe Bacillus thuringiensis. This toxin kills the European corn borer and the Mediterranean stem borer, which would otherwise damage maize crops without insecticidal spraying.

Brookes' analysis reveals that profits have risen by more than a fifth for some farmers who previously used synthetic insecticides to control these pests. He points out that GM technology has reduced insecticide spraying markedly, which also has associated environmental benefits. He also points out that the quality of the maize produced is higher because the GM crop is less susceptible than non-GM maize to infestation with fungi that produce mycotoxins, hazardous to human health.

Bt maize was planted for the first time in 1998 in Spain and in 2007 the total area of this crop in Spain was about 75000 hectares. In total, the EU plantings of Bt maize in 2007 were 110,000 hectares, with crops also in France, Germany, Portugal, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Poland. This represents 1.3% of total EU grain maize plantings in 2007.

Brookes points out that his findings are consistent with those seen in North and South America, South Africa and the Philippines. "In all countries where the technology has been adopted farmers have seen consistent increases in both yields and income levels, with annual and regional variations in impact reflecting the variable incidence of pest attacks and damage," he concludes.


Intensive farming can harvest a healthy crop and boost wildlife

- Jenny Haworth, The Scotsman, May 9, 2008


BIRDS, bees and other wildlife flourish in more intensely farmed fields, according to a new study by economists. Researchers were surprised to discover that fields with higher crop yields also had increased levels of biodiversity, with insects, birds, animals and plants able to thrive.

Dr Noel Russell, one of the authors of the study, said the results showed farmers did not have to see their crop production suffer if they used techniques that cater for wildlife.

"We found that as biodiversity goes up, yield also goes up," he said. "So it shows that attempts to increase yields are not incompatible with increasing biodiversity."

The data was collected at a time when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) launched a funding scheme to encourage farmers to manage their land to conserve wildlife, Environmental Stewardship Schemes.

Dr Russell said the research showed policies that subsidise farmers to protect the environment are working to a certain extent. The scientists were analysing biodiversity levels on fields in East Anglia, one of the most intensively farmed parts of the UK. They analysed yields from 230 fields over 12 years and compared them with levels of wildlife biodiversity. The landscape is covered in barley and wheat fields, as well as expanses of oilseed rape.

Dr Russell said: "We were looking at an area where there has been intensive farming for many generations. In a sense, the damage has been done. What we are saying really is that things can get better.

"It is possible to improve while at the same time increasing yields. There is this idea that in order to improve biodiversity you have to put up with decreased yields, but this suggests that is not the case."

The authors of the study "Biodiversity Conservation and Productivity in Intensive Agricultural Systems", published in the Journal of Agricultural Economics, think the findings challenge critics of modern farming who argue that intensive methods, such as mechanical ploughing, crop-spraying and mechanisation, are not compatible with biodiversity conservation.

Dr Russell, who is based at the School of Social Sciences at the University of Manchester, said: "Our analysis shows that higher-yielding, more-intensive farms are not necessarily those that are doing most damage to ecological habitats in the countryside.

"Many farmers have been willing to reinvest - or forgo - some of their profits to conserve and improve biodiversity, and that has borne fruit, according to our findings. These include conservation headlands, buffer strips, beetle banks, skylark plots and precautions against soil erosion."

He said crops can benefit from diverse wildlife, with creatures such as bees, fungi and birds able to pollinate crops, improve the soil, control pests and other factors to increase yields.

The study, a PhD project, made use of crop-yield data provided by Defra's Farm Business Survey and compared it with wildlife levels in fields provided by the Countryside Survey for the period 1989 to 2000.

It was carried out by Cambridge University and the University of Manchester.


Agriculture in the 21st century Results of the GMO Compass snapshot poll

- GMO Compass, May 8, 2008


According to the position of many experts, agriculture across the world is facing a trend reversal: Global food stocks are nearly used up, climate change can lead to significant yield losses in certain regions and the prices for staple foods are rising worldwide. In addition, competition between the cultivation of renewable raw materials (fuel, synthetics, etc.) and the production of foods keeps increasing.

To feed the ever growing world population, existing areas should be cultivated more efficiently. A further expansion of agricultural areas, according to expert opinion, would inevitably be at the expense of subnatural areas, which are essential to the preservation of biodiversity on our planet.

In this situation the question is which technologies could contribute towards solving these problems, which are socially accepted and which - based on scientific findings - are suitable from a technological and long-term ecological aspect.

GMO Compass cannot and does not want to give definitive answers to these questions. Obviously we, as editors of GMO Compass, had the recent polls on this subject in mind when we decided to initiate an online survey regarding food security and environmental protection. A survey carried out by Emnid in Germany shows that the reservations against agricultural genetic engineering were reduced if the global food crisis was eased through GM plants. Subsequently, 56% of the respondents were prepared to eat genetically modified plants if the global food situation could be improved thereby.

With a quick survey on the European consumer portal GMO Compass, we wanted to capture the opinions on this subject on a larger scale. We asked whether European agriculture should make use of all available technologies - including genetic engineering and biotechnology - if negative effects on the environment could be ruled out and positive effects on world nutrition were possible as a result. Of the 5435 ballots cast in the past 5 days, 83.9% voted for the utilisation of all technologies.

Regarding the question whether genetically modified plants should at least be taken into consideration as an option to achieving an increase in yields and yield stability possible whilst protecting the environment at the same time was supported by the majority of participants (84.3%). Equally, plants should - in principle - be adapted to environmental conditions, as for example drought, or improved in respect of their nutrition-physiological qualities. Only 10.5% voted against this option.

From emails received in response to our survey, it was apparent that the subject agricultural genetic engineering - as a building block to an improved world nutrition and a reduction of environmental impact - continues to require intense social discussion.

Questions, such as "Is genetic engineering an acceptable option" or "Which specific applications of genetic engineering in agriculture may find consensus" will play a crucial role in these future discussions.

The survey is certainly not representative enough and merely gave us a momentary picture of public opinion. However, we do see evidence that the mood is changing. People are aware of global challenges and the need to react to them appropriately.

What is the editorial team of GMO-Compass planning on the website www.gmo-compass.org in the future?

GMO Compass will accompany and stimulate the discussions on GM-technologies in Europe. We will pick up and mirror scientifically proven facts in biotechnology and genetically modified plants, but we also will pay strong attention to risks, threats and misgivings - whether real or as perceived by the public.

GMO-Compass will provide an arena in which to show and report on results and proven findings of scientists. We strongly believe that public interest and scientific findings need to be interconnected to adequately support the process of social decision making.

We, the GMO Compass team, would like to thank all participants in the snapshot poll. The strong response to our "quick survey" overwhelmed us.


Guest ed. note: Looking at the numbers the other way around reveals a substantial group who believe opposing GMOs is *more important* than food security or the environment. Such merciless animosity accounts for a great deal of what we see in the news. And in the "Tough Lessons From Golden Rice", recounted below.


Tough Lessons From Golden Rice

- Martin Enserink, Science, April 25, 2008


(See also: Interactive Multimedia presentation on GM crops at http://www.sciencemag.org/plantgenomes/map.html )

It was supposed to prevent blindness and death from vitamin A deficiency in millions of children. But almost a decade after its invention, golden rice is still stuck in the lab

It's easy to recognize Ingo Potrykus at the train station in Basel, Switzerland. Quietly waiting while hurried travelers zip by, he is holding, as he promised, the framed and slightly yellowed cover of the 31 July 2000 issue of Time magazine. It features Potrykus's bearded face flanked by some bright green stalks and a bold headline: "This Rice Could Save A Million Kids A Year."

The story ran at a time when Potrykus, a German plant biotechnologist who has long lived in Switzerland, was on a roll. In 1999, just as he was about to retire, Potrykus and his colleagues had stunned plant scientists and biotechnology opponents alike by creating a rice variety that produced a group of molecules called pro-vitamin A in its seeds. The researchers thought this "golden rice"--named for the yellow hue imparted by the compounds--held a revolutionary promise to fight vitamin A deficiency, which blinds or kills thousands of children in developing countries every year.

Almost a decade later, golden rice is still just that: a promise. Well-organized opposition and a thicket of regulations on transgenic crops have prevented the plant from appearing on Asian farms within 2 to 3 years, as Potrykus and his colleagues once predicted. In fact, the first field trial of golden rice in Asia started only this month. Its potential to prevent the ravages of vitamin A deficiency has yet to be tested, and even by the most optimistic projections, no farmer will plant the rice before 2011.

The delays have made Potrykus, who lives in Magden, a small village in an idyllic valley near Basel, a frustrated man. For working on what he considers a philanthropic project, he has been ridiculed and vilified as an industry shill. Relating the golden rice saga at his dinner table while his wife serves croissants and strong coffee, he at times comes off as bitter.

There's more at stake than golden rice and personal vindication, he says. In his view, 2 decades of fear-mongering by organizations such as Greenpeace, his prime nemesis, have created a regulatory climate so burdensome that only big companies with deep pockets can afford to get any genetically modified (GM) product approved. As a result, it has become virtually impossible to use the technology in the service of the poor, Potrykus says.


For the full text, visit the link above.


Platypus genome decoded

- Genetic Engineering News, May 7 2008


The curious discovery of the duck-billed, egg-laying, otter-footed, beaver-tailed, venomous platypus in Australia in 1798 convinced British scientists that it must be a hoax. Sketches of its appearance were thought to be impossible.

But new research proves that the oddness of the platypus' looks isn't just skin-deep. Platypus DNA is an equally cobbled-together array of avian, reptilian and mammalian lineages that may hold clues for human disease prevention.

Mark Batzer and Andrew C. Pereboom of Louisiana State University, along with an international group of scientists led by Wes Warren at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, recently completed the first draft sequence and analysis of the platypus genome.

"Their genomic organization was strange and a little unexpected," says Batzer. "It appeared much more bird- and reptile-like than mammalian, even though it is indeed classified as a mammal."

Having the genome in hand is a huge step for scientists seeking new details about evolution and human disease. The fact that the platypus is an ancient animal that is relatively primitive and unchanged may be a scientific boon for researchers.

At least that's the hope of researchers at the National Science Foundation (NSF), who partially funded the study. "Looking at the platypus genome may yield clues about the functions of certain components of DNA and contribute to our understanding of evolution," says Mark Weiss, division director for NSF's behavioral and cognitive sciences.

The platypus occupies the first branch of the mammalian tree of life after the split from "saurepsoids" about 315 million years ago. It maintains some long dated features and, as a result, should provide information on how mammals evolved.

"DNA contains small 'mobile elements' that make copies of themselves and then are inserted elsewhere into the genome. These elements can influence important evolutionary processes, and we want to know more about them," says Weiss.

"These mobile elements were once thought to be so small that they had no function," says Batzer. "But, in reality, they cause insertions and deletions which can lead to genetic diseases in humans and they are also involved in the creation of new genes and gene families."

Grants from the National Institutes of Health focused on aspects of genetic disease.

"This is a huge genetic step. We're learning a lot about mammalian gene regulation and immune systems, which has huge implications for disease susceptibility research," says Batzer. "We hope to, in time, identify the underlying causes and methods of disease prevention in humans."

Better insight into monotreme biology, or the biology of mammals that lay eggs, provides a "baseline" for understanding immunity, reproduction and chemoreception, which can further the study of the evolution of human biology.

"In other words, it provides the big picture' as compared to the genomes of other animals more similar to humans that have a more focused window," says Batzer.

In addition, the platypus was chosen as the subject of this study in large part due to its strange appearance, but other selection factors include the species' endangered status in its only indigenous habitat, Australia.

One interesting finding for the researchers is that several of the populations seem to have been geographically separated for a long time. Based on an analysis using mobile elements, the population on the island of Tasmania seemed genetically far distanced compared to other platypus populations from the mainland of Australia.

This was one of the largest platypus population genetics studies ever conducted.

Platypuses are extremely shy by nature and only a few places like Healesville Sanctuary in Victoria, Australia, have had success breeding them in captivity. Researchers hope that some of the clues unearthed in the platypus genome might lead to a better understanding of the history of the species and new conservation efforts.


For links to related research, visit http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-05/cshl-pgu050108.php

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