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June 5, 2008


France threatened with fines; Political Bans Anger Aussies, Starve Zimbabweans; The end of abundance


* France threatened with fines over GMO laws
* WA farmers angry over GM bans
* Zimbabwe: Politicians Block Food Aid
* UGA institute focuses on plant varieties
* Transgenic plants don't hurt beneficial bugs
* Hypothesis of unidirectional hybridization in plants
* Genetic approach to purifying drinking water
* Bt maize: Horizontal gene transfer insignificant
* Intestinal bacteria in chicken embryos
* The end of abundance and a second 'green revolution'


EU judge says France should be fined 235,764 euros per day over GMO laws

- Forbes, June 5, 2008


BRUSSELS - A top EU judge said France should be fined 235,764 euros per day for not following an EU court ruling which said it failed to transpose EU laws from 2001 into national legislation on the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment

The advocate general (AG), in a non-binding opinion, said Paris should be fined the daily sum until it conforms with a European Court of Justice ruling in July 2004.

However, the judge added separately that the European Commission failed to justify another sanction on France over the matter.

In a court filing, the commission wanted France fined 366,744 euros for each day it delays transposing the laws and also a lump sum of 46,660 euros.

While AG opinions are non-binding, the final court judgment follows suit in around eight of ten cases.


WA farmers angry over GM bans

- Business Spectator, June 3, 2008


Western Australia's stance against genetically modified (GM) foods has already left the state languishing ten years behind nations using the increasingly accepted technology, WA farmers say.

The WA Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA), leading representative of the WA agricultural sector, said Premier Alan Carpenter and his Agriculture Minister Kim Chance did not appear to understand the implications of their opposition to GM crops.

Mr Carpenter on Monday reaffirmed the state's moratorium on GM crops and called for an immediate halt to the approval of all GM foods in Australia.

He said Australia's national food regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, should stop approving any more GM foods for human consumption until independent scientific trials prove their safety.

PGA Grains chairman Leon Bradley said he doubted if Mr Carpenter and Mr Chance understood that imposing a WA ban on GM products would affect processed grain products other than those made from corn and soybean.

"It would also affect cooking oils derived from imported canola and Australian GM cottonseed, cheese, wine, beer and bread, and an essential range of GM-based medicines including insulin," Mr Bradley said.

He said WA, once a recognised world leader in dryland farming, now lagged ten years behind countries like India, China and Argentina in embracing GM crops.

"There are now more than 10 million farmers in over 21 countries who have seeded nearly two billion acres of GM crops," Mr Bradley said.

"GM is the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of world agriculture because it means higher yields and less cultivation, with lower inputs of fuel, fertiliser, weedicides and pesticides.

"It is barbaric that the state government has chosen to continue ignoring the mounting global evidence in favour of GM technology solely at the expense of WA's rural producers."


Zimbabwe: Reverse Ban on Food Aid to Rural Areas Political Interferences Risks Worsening Widespread Hunger

- Human Rights Watch, June 4, 2008


London - The government should immediately reverse its decision to ban aid agencies from distributing food to hundreds of thousands of hungry people in rural areas, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 29, 2008, Zimbabwe's Minister of Social Welfare, Nicolas Goche, issued a directive prohibiting a major international aid agency from distributing food in Masvingo province. Goche has alleged that international aid agencies are using food distribution programs, set up to reach Zimbabwe's population, to support the campaign of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Zimbabwe's main opposition party. The aid agency denies the charge. According to local sources, Goche has also blocked other aid agencies from distributing food in Masvingo, Manicaland, and Mashonaland provinces until after the June 27 presidential elections.

"The decision to let people go hungry is yet another attempt to use food as a political tool to intimidate voters ahead of an election," said Tiseke Kasambala, Zimbabwe researcher at Human Rights Watch. "President Mugabe's government has a long history of using food to control the election outcome."

Also on May 29, the minister of local government, Dr. Ignatious Chombo, issued a separate directive stating that all rural areas would fall under the jurisdiction of his ministry and that all food aid distribution would be carried out through local government structures.

"This decision effectively puts all food distribution in these areas under the full control of President Mugabe's governing party," said Kasambala. "It's imperative that the government ensure that all those in need receive food irrespective of political affiliation. The government should put its political aims aside and let independent aid agencies feed people."

Human Rights Watch has received independent reports that a number of aid agencies working in Binga, Chipinge, Chimanimani, and Nyanga districts have also been forced to halt their operations, indicating that the government is imposing its control over food aid country-wide.


The recent collapse in Zimbabwe's food production has caused a serious food deficit, affecting 4.1 million people (more than one-third of the population). On May 29, President Robert Mugabe announced that Zimbabwe had had to import 600,000 tons of maize to ease food shortages. Hundreds of thousands of people in rural areas are entirely dependent on food assistance carried out by international agencies.

In March 2008, Human Rights Watch reported on the politicization of the distribution of both agricultural equipment and food. Human Rights Watch documented allegations of political interference in the distribution of free agricultural equipment (under the government's farm mechanization program) and state-subsidized maize and seed from the government's Grain and Marketing Board. Such manipulation is not new to Zimbabwe. Human Rights Watch reports from 2003 and 2005 have documented how food assistance has been denied to suspected supporters of Zimbabwe's main opposition party and to residents of former commercial farms resettled under the country's "fast-track" land reform program


UGA institute focuses on plant varieties

- April Sorrow, Southeast Farm Press, Jun 3, 2008


A new University of Georgia institute focuses on the science of creating new and improved plant varieties that are higher yielding, disease resistant, nutritious, or simply of greater ornamental value.

The newly established UGA Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics was created to harness the efforts of experts and push forward the improvement of plants. Researchers working at the institute develop improved crop cultivars using both traditional and modern genetic technologies, said Charles Brummer, director of the institute.

"We are pulling research together from across the state under a single umbrella so we can create better products," he said.

According to Brummer, agronomic and horticultural crops must constantly be improved to adjust to climate change, ensure grower profits, create crop diversity and meet consumer demands for aesthetically-pleasing plant materials.

The new UGA institute aims to serve as a world leader in the introduction of new cultivars from a range of species through the integration of related disciplines. The majority of the institute's researchers are UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences faculty members.

Institute scientists also work with industry plant breeders and other scientists involved in plant improvement, Brummer said.

"We have more plant breeders on the faculty than any other state university," he said. "And (we have) a huge diversity of experts focusing on cotton, soybeans, pecans, forages, ornamentals, peanut, turfgrass, blueberries, sunflowers and other crops."

Beginning with the release of coastal bermudagrass in the 1950s, the UGA CAES has established a reputation for breeding successful forage and turfgrass cultivars.

Peanut cultivars recently developed on the Tifton campus have dominated the peanut market in the Southeast.

Roundup Ready soybean cultivars developed by an Institute member enabled the recent doubling of soybean acreage in the lower Southeast.

Royalties from plant cultivars developed at UGA and currently licensed by the UGA Research Foundation can represent up to two thirds of the intellectual property income generated annually by UGA.

In addition to its research component, the institute offers educational opportunities, including UGA graduate degrees in plant breeding, genetics and genomics and undergraduate research opportunities.

"Overall, the institute focuses on applying the science of plant breeding to the development of products that will provide consumers with superior plants for use on farms, athletic fields and home and business landscapes," Brummer said.


New study shows that transgenic plants don't hurt beneficial bugs

- Cornell University (press release), June 3, 2008


Genetically modified (GM) plants that use Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a common soil bacterium, to kill pests won't harm the pests' natural enemies, according to new research by Cornell entomologists.

That is welcome news for ecologists and farmers in the debate over GM plants. Much of the debate surrounding the use of GM crops focuses on their effect on organisms that aren't pests.

The research showed that GM plants expressing Bt insecticidal proteins are not toxic to a parasite that lives inside the caterpillar of the diamondback moth, a devastating worldwide vegetable pest. It was published in the May 27 issue of the online scientific journal PLoS One.

"The conservation of parasites is important for enhancing natural biocontrol that will help suppress pest populations as well as reduce the potential for the pest insects to develop resistance to the Bt," explained Anthony Shelton, Cornell professor of entomology at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y., who conducted the study with postdoctoral associate Mao Chen. "Our studies make it clear that Bt plants are a win-win situation to control pest insects and to enhance biocontrol and biodiversity."

The Bt bacterium, which is not harmful to humans, has been used for decades as a leaf spray and since 1996, in GM plants, a method that has proven much more effective and is now more widely used. Both uses are approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2007, Bt corn and cotton plants were grown in 22 countries on 104 million acres, according to Shelton.

"Few studies have examined the effect of Bt plants on parasites of caterpillars, but some of them have reported negative impacts," said Chen, noting that the new research suggests that those negative findings were likely due to testing methods.

To separate out the effect of insecticides and Bt proteins on the caterpillar and parasite, the Cornell researchers isolated and bred strains of caterpillars that were resistant to Bt or a conventional or organic insecticide. Then the caterpillars were parasitized with a wasp that kills the caterpillar in nature.

The resistant caterpillars were then either fed GM plants expressing the Bt protein or non-GM plants sprayed with the Bt protein, conventional insecticides or organic insecticides.

The parasitized caterpillars that ate plants treated with conventional and organic insecticides to which they were resistant, survived and developed into moths because the parasite was killed by the insecticide the caterpillar ingested. However, when the caterpillar fed on the Bt-sprayed plants or Bt plants, the parasite was not affected and killed its host caterpillar when it emerged as an adult wasp, showing that Bt plants are not toxic to the parasite.

Other Cornell researchers involved in the study include Elizabeth Earle and Jun Cao from the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics and Jian-Zhou Zhao and Hilda Collins from the Department of Entomology. The work was supported by a grant from the USAID Program for Biosafety Systems.


Testing a hypothesis of unidirectional hybridization in plants: Observations on Sonneratia, Bruguiera and Ligularia

- Renchao Zhou, Xun Gong, et. al., BioMed Central, May 16, 2008



When natural hybridization occurs at sites where the hybridizing species differ in abundance, the pollen load delivered to the rare species should be predominantly from the common species. Previous authors have therefore proposed a hypothesis on the direction of hybridization: interspecific hybrids are more likely to have the female parent from the rare species and the male parent from the common species. We wish to test this hypothesis using data of plant hybridizations both from our own experimentation and from the literature.


By examining the maternally inherited chloroplast DNA of 6 cases of F1 hybridization from four genera of plants, we infer unidirectional hybridization in most cases. In all 5 cases where the relative abundance of the parental species deviates from parity, however, the direction is predominantly in the direction opposite of the prediction based strictly on numerical abundance.


Our results show that the observed direction of hybridization is almost always opposite of the predicted direction based on the relative abundance of the hybridizing species. Several alternative hypotheses, including unidirectional postmating isolation and reinforcement of premating isolation, were discussed.

[full article continues at link above]


Possible new approach to purifying drinking water

- Duke University (press release), June 3, 2008


DURHAM, N.C. - A genetic tool used by medical researchers may also be used in a novel approach to remove harmful microbes and viruses from drinking water.

In a series of proof-of-concept experiments, Duke University engineers demonstrated that short strands of genetic material could successfully target a matching portion of a gene in a common fungus found in water and make it stop working. If this new approach can be perfected, the researchers believe that it could serve as the basis for a device to help solve the problem of safe drinking water in Third World countries without water treatment facilities.

The relatively new technology, known as RNA interference (RNAi), makes use of short snippets of genetic material that match -- like a lock and key -- a corresponding segment of a gene in the target. When these snippets enter a cell and attach to the corresponding segment, they can inhibit or block the action of the target gene. This approach is increasingly being used as a tool in biomedical research, but has not previously been applied to environmental issues.

"Pathogens, whether bacterial or viral, represent one of the major threats to drinking water in developed and undeveloped countries," said Sara Morey, a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Claudia Gunsch, assistant professor of civil engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering. "Our data showed that we could silence the action of a specific gene in a fungus in water, leading us to believe that RNAi shows promise as a gene-silencing tool for controlling the proliferation of waterborne bacteria and viruses."

Morey presented the results of her experiments June 3, 2008, during the annual meeting of the American Society of Microbiology in Boston.

In addition to helping solve drinking water issues in underdeveloped countries, this new approach could also address some of the drawbacks associated with treated drinking water in more developed nations, Morey said. Methods currently used to treat water -- chlorine and ultraviolet (UV) light -- can be expensive to operate and the results of the treatment itself can affect the taste and smell of the water.

Although these methods have been employed for years, problems can emerge once the treated water enters the distribution system, where pathogens are also present. For this reason, water is often over-chlorinated at the plant so that it remains in high enough concentrations in the pipes to neutralize pathogens. This explains why people living the closer to a treatment plant will be more likely to taste or smell the chemical than those farthest away from the plant, the researchers said. Additionally, chlorine can react with other organic matter in the system, leading to potentially harmful by-products.

UV light, while also effective in neutralizing pathogens at the plant, has no effect once the water is pumped out of the plant. Gunsch said that many pathogens are developing a resistance to the effects of chlorine and UV light, so newer options are needed.

"We envision creating a system based on RNAi technology that would look from the outside just like the water filters commonly used now," Gunsch said. "This approach would be especially attractive in less industrialized countries without water treatment systems. This 'point-of-use' strategy would allow these countries to make safe water without the expense of water purification infrastructure."

The first prototypes would likely involve a filter "seeded" with RNAi that would eliminate pathogens as the water passed through it. These filters would likely need to be replaced regularly, Gunsch said, adding that she believes it would theoretically be possible to create a living, or self-replicating system, which would not require replacement.

The researchers are currently conducting additional experiments targeting other regions of the fungus' genome. For their proof-of-concept experiments, they tested RNAi on a non-essential, yet easy to monitor, gene. They are now testing this approach to silence or block genes essential to the viability of the pathogen.

They are also planning to test this strategy in water that contains a number of different pathogens at the same time, as well as trying to determine the optimal concentration needed in the water to be effective.


Ten years of Bt maize cultivation: Horizontal gene transfer of no significance

- GMO Safety, May 30, 2008


Scientists from France and Switzerland have been studying soil bacteria from a field where genetically modified Bt maize has been growing for 10 years. They wanted to find out whether controversial antibiotic-resistance genes can in fact transfer from transgenic plants to bacteria, as is widely feared. They have concluded that transgenic plants play no part in the spread of antibiotic resistances.

Bacteria have special mechanisms which enable them to exchange genetic information directly without sexual reproduction. For this reason it is feared that antibiotic-resistance genes that are used as marker genes in transgenic plants could be absorbed by pathogenic bacteria and so reduce the effectiveness of important antibiotic drugs. Antibiotics are widely used in human and veterinary medicine and for a long time they were also added to animal food to promote animal growth and performance. This has led to the emergence of bacterial resistances to antibiotics used in medicine. The question is, do genetically modified plants also help spread this kind of antibiotic resistance?

Gene transfer from plant DNA to bacteria is considered to be highly unlikely because a whole series of conditions are required before it can occur at all. As yet, this type of horizontal gene transfer has not been detected under field conditions. Even in the laboratory, it could only be provoked with the help of specially constructed recipient bacteria.

To assess the likelihood and the significance of a possible transfer of antibiotic- resistance genes from transgenic plants to bacteria, scientists from France and Switzerland have studied soil bacteria from a field in south western France where genetically modified Bt176 maize has been growing for 10 years. By way of comparison, soil samples from a conventional maize field and from uncultivated land (prairie soil) were also investigated.

Bt 176 maize contains a "bla gene" (blaTEM116) as a marker gene, in addition to the gene which makes it resistant to the corn borer . This gene confers ampicillin and carbenicillin resistance by producing a specific beta-lactamase enzyme . It is one of the most commonly occurring bla genes from a whole family of beta-lactamases. The corresponding antibiotics, which include penicillin, are the largest group of antibiotics used in medicine.

Widespread ampicillin resistance

The researchers initially studied only those bacteria from the soil samples which could be propagated on a culture medium. These account for less than 1 percent of soil micro-organisms. Between 0.4 and 8 percent of these bacteria from the soil samples collected from agricultural land were found to be resistant to ampicillin. It made no difference whether conventional or Bt maize had been grown on the fields. However, the number of resistant bacteria varied significantly between the cultivated soils on the one hand and the prairie soil on the other, which had a very high proportion of resistant bacteria. According to the scientists, this is an indication that bacterial communities which are not affected by farming practices have a higher proportion of naturally occurring antibiotic resistances. Bacteria which produce antibiotics themselves often carry resistance genes for their own protection.

The resistance genes identified were then examined in more detail using molecular-biological methods (PCR). A bla gene was identified in 505 of the 576 bacteria (87.7 percent). According to the authors, this indicates the natural preference for these genes amongst ampicillin-resistant soil bacteria.

Eighty of the PCR results were broken down further. Among other things, ten blaTEM116 genes were found, distributed over all the soil types. This indicates that the ampicillin-resistance gene, which was used for Bt176, is also found in soils where no transgenic plants have been grown. This is not surprising, because the gene for the genetic transformation was isolated from soil bacteria. The fact that blaTEM genes were also found in the prairie soil 400 kilometres away confirms the prevalence of these genes.

In addition, the large number of non-cultivable bacteria was also studied using molecular-biological methods. More than 150 different blaTEM genes were identified.

Bacterial diversity

The diversity and composition of the bacterial communities in the different soil samples were also investigated to find out whether the occurrence of similar bla genes implies similar microbial communities. This is apparently not the case. There were significant differences in the composition of the micro-organism communities in the three soils, with the greatest difference occurring between the maize fields and the uncultivated land. Possible changes resulting from the cultivation of Bt maize are therefore less significant than the changes resulting from soil type, plant growth stage, variety or crop differences.

Horizontal gene transfer - no risk

Even if horizontal gene transfer is possible in principle, the authors believe that it is of no significance to microbial communities in the soil. They claim that the cultivation of transgenic plants for more than 10 years in one field has had no measurable effect on the occurrence of antibiotic-resistances and their spectrum. They believe that this is largely due to the fact that the genes are already commonly found in the soil. Horizontal gene transfer from transgenic plant DNA to bacteria is so rare that it could not contribute to a further increase in the widespread antibiotic resistance which already occurs naturally in bacteria.


Study finds healthy intestinal bacteria within chicken eggs

- American Society for Microbiology (press release), June 2, 2008


The conventional wisdom among scientists has long been that birds acquire the intestinal bacteria that are a necessary for good health from their environment, but a new University of Georgia study finds that chickens are actually born with those bacteria.

Lead author Adriana Pedroso said the finding, presented at the 108th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Boston, could have important implications for the poultry industry and for food safety.

"Understanding the microbial ecology of the developing chicken is the first step toward producing healthy birds without antibiotics," said Pedroso, a post-doctoral researcher in the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine.

Pedroso and her colleagues incubated more than 300 eggs and dipped them into a light bleach solution before extracting the embryos using sterile tools. DNA analysis revealed a diverse community of bacteria within the intestines of the developing embryos. Pedroso and her colleagues hypothesize that the bacteria penetrate the surface of the shell to the egg white, which is then ingested by the developing embryo.

Study co-author John Maurer, professor of avian medicine, said the findings could lead to better methods for promoting growth of poultry and for reducing the risk of food borne illness. He explained that as the poultry industry has moved away from the use of growth promoting antibiotics in recent years, it increasingly relies on administering probiotics - beneficial intestinal bacteria - to newly hatched chicks. Establishing a community of healthy bacteria in the birds is thought to make it more difficult for pathogenic bacteria to establish themselves, but studies on the effectiveness of probiotics have shown mixed results. Maurer said it appears now that the timing of probiotic administration is important.

"Currently, most probiotics are administered after the chicks have hatched," Maurer said. "But our study suggest we might need to administer probiotics in ovo (in the egg) to get better results."

The idea that embryos are sterile in the egg and that chicks acquire their intestinal bacteria after hatching goes back to the 1960s, when early experiments using bacterial cultures - often Petri dishes with a growth medium - failed to grow any bacteria. Newer DNA techniques such as those Pedroso and her colleagues used are much more sensitive, however, and aren't influenced by how well a bacterium grows in a dish.

"Previous assumptions were based on the use of cell cultures," Pedroso said, "but we now know that only 1 percent of bacteria in the biosphere can be cultured."


The end of abundance: Food panic brings calls for a second 'green revolution'

- Javier Blas, The Financial Times (UK), June 1, 2008


The world stood on the brink of starvation and, warned doomsday forecasts in the 1960s, the battle to feed all of humanity was already lost. Famine was common in some of the most populated countries. Predictions of Malthusian catastrophe made the bestseller lists, with Paul R. Ehrlich writing in The Population Bomb that by the 1970s and 1980s the victims would number in the hundreds of millions.

But human ingenuity saved the day. A massive programme of investment in agricultural research and infrastructure - avidly supported by the US out of a cold-war-fuelled fear that hungry countries could fall into the arms of the Soviet Union - led to an explosion in farm productivity. Nations that never dreamt of being able to feed themselves were transformed into net exporters of food.

Those efforts, led by Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist who was later awarded the Nobel peace prize, resulted in the development of higher-yielding seeds and an exceptional expansion in the use of irrigation, fertilisers and pesticides in developing countries.

By 1968 the jump in farm productivity was so clear - India, for example, harvested a record wheat crop, as did the Philippines for rice - that William Gaud, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, said the world was witnessing the "makings of a new revolution".

"It is not a violent red revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a white revolution like that of the Shah of Iran," Gaud said in a speech 40 years ago. "I call it the green revolution," he added, coining a term that has long survived him.

Yet, like its counterparts elsewhere on the spectrum, the green revolution eventually lost momentum. Today, the world stands on the brink again as agricultural commodity prices surge, triggering food riots in countries from Haiti to Bangladesh. This time, however, efforts to increase supply - and the political backing in Washington and other capitals - appear far weaker. The task of raising productivity is meanwhile rendered more difficult by record oil prices, which make fertiliser more expensive.

In dozens of interviews with agriculture officials and experts, a consensus emerges: even if the current food crisis is the result of multiple factors, such as biofuel demand or extreme weather, its roots are in the waning green revolution. "The foundation of the current crisis is the slowdown in farm productivity," says Lennart Båge, president of the United Nations' International Fund for Agriculture Development in Rome.

The green revolution was in many respects a victim of its own success. The increase in food production from the early 1960s was so great that it not only staved off global hunger but also opened the way to almost 40 years of cheap and abundant food supplies. Wheat yields per hectare, for example, jumped from less than 500kg to nearly 3,000kg today. Indeed, for most of the 1990s the problem was too much food, with much talk in Europe of grain "mountains" and "lakes" of milk and wine.

Akinwumi Adesina, vice-president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, says this cornucopia of inexpensive food generated a profound sense of complacency. "People started thinking that support into agriculture research was no longer necessary to boost productivity further, as there was already more than enough food and prices were falling."

As a result, investment in agricultural research and infrastructure declined sharply. Multilateral organisations such as the World Bank and individual rich donor countries cut the share of agricultural spending in their development assistance to less than 3 per cent in 2004, down from a peak of 18 per cent in 1979, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In money terms, even adjusted for inflation, farm aid more than halved to about $3bn in 2004 from $8bn in 1979.

[full article continues at link above]

This is the first part of The Need to Feed, an FT series

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