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June 11, 2008


Ugandans Advocate GM; Crop Scientists Need Funding; Ireland Hosts Biotech Conference


* Scientists Advocate GM Food
* Rice Scientists Call for Increased Funding
* Europe Must Also Support Innovations
* Despite high wheat prices, producers not rolling in dough
* FSA Publish Cloned Animal Research Report
* Conference: ABIC 2008


Scientists Advocate GM Food

- Sylvanus Nana Kumi, Modern Ghana, June 6, 2008


AS WORLD leaders met earlier this week in Rome to find solutions to the global food crisis, a number of scientists and other stakeholders also converged on the Nigerian capital, Abuja, to consider the possibility of increasing Bt cowpea production in Africa to feed the continent.

The three-day international conference, organized by the Nairobi-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, attracted participants from Australia, the United States and some African countries.

Speaker after speaker called for effective ways to propagate the message that Bt cowpea, given the necessary attention, could be a major source of food especially protein, to the ever-increasing population of the continent.

Currently, AATF is engaged in a process of developing a new genetically modified cowpea with a Bt gene that would enable smallholder farmers in Africa to have access to high quality seed and socially acceptable cowpea varieties with increased resistance to maruca pod borer, an insect that troubles the produce.

In a presentation on her behalf, Nigeria's Federal Minister of Science and Technology, Chief (Mrs.) Grace Ekpiwhre, assured the participants that the government of Nigeria, the largest producer and consumer of cowpea, supported every progress being made to develop Bt cowpea.

"For many years, plant breeders have used conventional plant breeding methods to improve crops, and to help speed up natural selection and evolution by combining different genes for crop improvement but all these have not been yielding desirable results.

"A major advantage of modern biotechnology is that it often generates strategies for genetic improvement that can be applied to many different crops, and beneficial organisms which this project employs."

Nigeria and Niger, together, produce about 86 percent of the world's cowpea, which is considered the most important food grain legume in the dry savannah of tropical Africa where it is grown on more than 12.5 million hectares of land.

"Over 200 million people consume the crop, thus an improvement in cowpea productivity in Africa will ensure quality and increased food yield, improved health for all, eradication of malnutrition in the African child and assurance of prosperity of the rural sector," said the minister.

For his part, Professor Shehu Ado, Director of IAR, said the proper organization of the conference even indicated that "Africans, given the political backing by their governments, can engineer effective solutions to problems on the continent."

He said the importance of cowpea to all, especially the poor, earned it the Hausa nickname "naman talaka" which literally means "meat for the poor."

The Director of the Tamale-based Savannah Agricultural Research Institute, Professor A.B. Salifu, was happy to state that Ghana now had a legislative instrument to enable scientists conduct field trials on Genetically Modified products in agriculture.

"As I have had the occasion to remark before, for us in Ghana the argument for deployment of GM products in our agriculture no longer lies with the science; what is key now should be the issue of public perception of the concept including issues related to consumer awareness."


Rice Scientists Call for Increased Funding for Research to Boost Crops

- Heda Bayron, Voice of America, June 5, 2008


Los Baņos, Philippines - As the world grapples with high rice prices, scientists are racing to find new varieties that could feed more people, using fewer resources. Scientists say the world needs to invest more in rice research if it is to hold off famine. Heda Bayron reports from the headquarters of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baņos, Philippines.

Farmers tend a rice field ripe for harvest. The rice stalks bend in the wind, heavy with golden grains.

The farmers chase birds away from the rice growing at the International Rice Research Institute, in the town of Los Baņos.

As prices skyrocket, many fear that 700 million of the world's poor will be unable to afford rice.

At the institute, scientists race to find rice varieties that feed more people, but require fewer resources to grow.

Robert Zeigler, the institute's director, says there are no shortcut solutions to the rise in prices.

"Demand growth has continued steadily for the past 50 years, population growth continues, we have economic growth and development, all of which drive up food consumption... But production hasn't kept up with demand," he said.

Many factors have made it hard for rice farmers around the world to keep up with rising demand: increased competition for water, rising fuel and fertilizer costs and bad weather.

And land for farming grows scarce. Along the highway to the rice institute, factories, malls and houses stand on land that once held rice paddies. The problem is found all over Asia.

Zeigler says a second Green Revolution is the best way to solve the problem.

Scientific developments in the 1960s and 70s led to the first Green Revolution - increased farm yields in many developing nations, and lower rice prices, yet improved farm incomes. But for several years, yields have been flat in Asia's major rice growing region.

"This time around it's going to be much more complex," he said. "We can't depend upon area expansion or new land for agriculture, so we're going to have to increase productivity on existing land. So that's going to involve far better practices by farmers in terms of managing their water, managing their fertilizer, managing their labor. It would mean rice varieties, wheat varieties and maize varieties that are able to produce far more yield with the same inputs."

The institute says average rice yields must rise at an annual rate of at least 50 kilograms a hectare over the next 10 years to keep up with demand. But public investment in agriculture has fallen by a third from its level in the mid-1970s.

"We need a major commitment on the part of major national and international agencies to make sure the resources are there to drive that second Green Revolution. ... That includes irrigation infrastructure, farm-to-market roads and of course it includes research capacity," he said.

It is not lost on some people in the Philippines that the world's best rice researchers are based in the country, but still it suffers from rising prices. Just a few decades ago, the country grew enough to feed itself, but now it must import rice.

These poor Filipinos line up for hours to buy government-subsidized rice. Each person gets just three kilos at a time.

Inside the institute's seed vaults are 100,000 varieties of rice from all over the world, safeguarded for future generations.

Scientists study the genetics of the seeds, trying to breed more nutritious varieties and ones that can withstand floods and droughts. Successful varieties are given to farmers for planting.

But Zeigler says more studies must be done.

"We need to much more effectively tap into the genetic potential of rice," he said. "We need to understand better the ecology of the rice fields and how we can manage the rice fields such that insects, pests and diseases don't cause losses. We need to understand the soil and water ecology much better."

The institute needs $60 million a year to continue research and development. But its current budget is short by a third of that amount.

Zeigler and other institute officials have been knocking on donors' doors, carrying the message that now, more than ever, research may be the world's last line of defense against hunger.


Europe Must Also Support Innovations In Agriculture

- Medical News Today, June 6, 2008


The industry association of the German biotechnology, BIO Deutschland, demands against the background of tomorrow's meeting of EU Environment Ministers in Luxembourg, that the innovative potential of small and medium-sized seed producers be no longer hindered and that research in the area of plant biotechnology be clearly recognised.

"European governments cannot denounce the domination of worldwide markets by food and animal feed concerns on the one hand and restrict the innovative strength of small and medium-sized seed producers on the other," said Jens Katzek, member of BIO Deutschland's directors board.

During the EU Environment Ministers' Council Meeting, topics to be discussed include the effects of genetically modified organisms (GMO) on the environment, the definition of labelling thresholds for seed, and the modalities by EU member states to control plantations of authorised GMOs.

Against this background, Jens Katzek warned, "A restrictive European policy on innovation indirectly strengthens multinational companies, which are easily able to relocate research and development on new products to a more technology-friendly environment." He added that only freedom of competition between new ideas from research and innovative companies makes it possible to offer a wide product range that is attractive to consumers at home and abroad. In conclusion, Jens Katzek stated: "It should be a matter of permitting a mutually beneficial economic environment of large and small companies, as already exists among pharmaceutical firms and biotechnology companies, for instance, which often cooperate in the area of the development of new types of medication."

BIO Deutschland

The Berlin-based Biotechnology Industry Organisation of Germany (BIO Deutschland), which has more than 200 members, including companies, BioRegions and sector service providers, has set itself the target of supporting and promoting the development of an innovative economic sector based on modern biosciences. Dr Peter Heinrich (CEO of MediGene AG) is Chairman of the Board of BIO Deutschland.


Despite high wheat prices, producers not rolling in dough

- Elton Robinson, Delta Farm Press, Jun 6, 2008


Ethanol demand has not driven wheat prices to record high levels, wheat industry leaders told a Congressional subcommittee. World fundamentals, extreme market volatility and lack of technology development are to blame, they said.

In testimony before a House Small Business Committee hearing to examine food prices and small businesses, David Cleavinger, president, National Association of Wheat Growers, and Ron Suppes, chairman, U.S. Wheat Associates, said historically high wheat prices are the result of the following combination of factors:

+ Strong competition for acres among crops in an environment where wheat is losing competitiveness.

+ Production problems including poor weather conditions in many wheat-growing regions worldwide, including the United States, Australia and parts of Europe.

+ Global consumption exceeding production seven of the last eight years.

+ Increased world demand for food, especially high-quality food including wheat products, from both larger world populations and a rising middle class in developing countries.

+ Domestic wheat stocks are at 60-year lows and world stocks at 30-year lows.

+ A weak dollar is promoting increased exports from the United States.

+ Export restrictions by some countries have curtailed the world's access to wheat.

According to the wheat industry officials, the decline in wheat acres in the United States is not a recent phenomenon spurred on by biofuels. Wheat acres, they said, have been declining steadily for decades. Plantings are about 30 percent lower than in the 1980s.

"The availability of technology, including biotechnology, in competing crops like corn and oilseeds has raised the opportunity cost of growing wheat. From the perspective of a grower, this means that the wheat market has to pay more to encourage plantings. The entire wheat chain is paying a huge cost for our failure to adopt new technology, like biotech traits."

Cleavinger and Suppes stressed that high wheat prices are not the sole reason for high food prices. For example, even at $12 per bushel, commodity wheat consumption costs each American, on average, less than $40 per year or about 10.8 cents a day. At $8 per bushel, commodity wheat consumption would cost each American an average of $26 per year or 7.2 cents per day.

They said that on average, a baker can make about 70 one-pound loaves of white bread out of a bushel of wheat. "At $4 per bushel, that makes the commodity wheat portion of a loaf worth about six cents. At $8 per bushel, it's worth about 11 cents and at $12 per bushel, about 17 cents.

"For pasta, the cost of durum in a one-pound package, even at today's higher prices, is still only 20 to 30 cents of the $1.50 per package cost paid by the consumer. About a year ago, this was roughly 12 to 15 cents. Raising the price of a cookie by 1 cent would cover a $9 per bushel increase in the price of wheat."

Cleavinger and Suppes also opposed proposals to restrict wheat exports, release land currently in the Conservation Reserve Program or modify the renewable fuels standard.

To the latter, they pointed to analysis by the Renewable Fuels Association that removing 4.5 billion gallons of ethanol would increase gasoline prices in the short term by up to 31 percent.

They said Congress should focus on the impact of energy costs on high food costs. "Fertilizer prices are doubling year-over-year, and diesel fuel is now more than $4 per gallon. Increased energy costs have affected the cost of transportation of inputs to the farm and of the commodity away from the farm and of processing, marketing and transportation to the final market."

Cleavinger and Suppes say that higher wheat prices don't mean that wheat growers are rolling in dough either.

They say that the vast majority of wheat producers didn't achieve sales at record highs because they had existing contracts that required delivery or had already sold to service debts.

The cost of producing wheat continues to rise, too, with input prices in some cases double what they were just last year. USDA's Economic Research Service estimates that the total cost of producing an acre of wheat will be $230 to $250 in 2008 and 2009 ($5.75 to $6.25 per bushel at a 40-bushel yield), versus $175.63 in 2002 ($4.39 per bushel at a 40-bushel yield).

Producers also face unprecedented market volatility. Trading limits for wheat have been modified a number of times in recent months which have allowed wider swings in the market price.

Higher prices have increased margin calls for those trying to hedge risk in the commodity market, putting stress on local elevators and, thus, farmers, who may no longer have the ability to forward contract with a local facility, Cleavinger and Suppes noted.


FSA Publish Cloned Animal Research Report

- The Poultry Site (UK), June 6, 2008


The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has today published research into the views of the UK public about cloning animals, and cloned animals, their offspring and their products (such as milk and eggs) entering the food chain.

The Agency carried out the UK-wide research in advance of being asked by any company wanting authorisation to market food produced using cloned animals. The FSA is the UK body responsible for the assessment of these and other novel foods (these are foods that do not have a history of significant consumption within the European Union before May 1997). Key findings

The key areas of concern that workshop participants expressed were whether food derived from clones would be safe to eat, standards of animal welfare, the lack of tangible consumer benefits, and a mistrust in the motives of the key players involved.

A summary of findings is below. The full report can be found at the link towards the end of this page.

When considered in the context of current breeding practices, animal cloning was seen by participants to be very different from other Assisted Reproductive Technologies; it was felt to represent a leap from 'giving mother nature a helping hand' to 'interfering with nature'.

Existing levels of knowledge and understanding of the cloning process varied widely among participants at the beginning of the research. However, it was clear that their focus was less on 'how does it work?' and mainly on 'why is it being used?' and 'what are the consequences?'

Participants struggled to identify any tangible consumer benefits and were concerned that the main motive would be a financial one to biotech companies, livestock breeders, farmers or food retailers.

As participants learned about the current low efficiency rates of Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT) they became increasingly concerned about the impact the technique has on animal welfare. This became a significant factor behind their reluctance to accept food derived from cloned animals. Other ethical concerns raised were about where the technology is going and whether we, mankind, have the moral right to pursue such a course.

Participants were concerned that cloning could result in food that was unsafe for human consumption; this was partly a function of the perceived high incidence of miscarriages, deformed and short-lived. They feared that the process of cloning might somehow create new diseases or affect the food in some way that will be harmful to humans and that the impact on human health and wellbeing may only become apparent at some unforeseen point in the future. There was a major mismatch between the methods used by regulatory authorities to assess food safety and the public's perception of what is needed. Participants wanted to see methods for assessing food safety that were similar to the approach used in clinical drugs trials.

If food derived from clones and their offspring were to go on sale in the UK, the research provides a clear steer in terms of what would provide consumer confidence. Regulations should be in place that address the entire process, these should be monitored and enforced and should be fully transparent to the consumer. Clones and their offspring should be fully traceable throughout the food chain and food should be labelled to enable consumers to make an informed choice.

There was a call for a programme of continuing independent research to improve the efficiency of the cloning process and to prove that food derived from clones is safe to eat.

The Agency (possibly in partnership with other bodies) was seen by most as having a key role to play, both in terms of setting and policing the rules and in informing and educating the public and therefore allowing them to make informed choices. Whatever the Agency's role, it is crucial that it is perceived to be independent and trustworthy. Background

Animal cloning is an emerging technology in the EU and is more developed in the United States. If its use becomes economically possible, there is the potential for food produced from cloned animals to enter the food chain.

Although there has been some research among US public, to date there has been very little within the EU or the UK. The Agency commissioned the company Creative Research to explore initial public perceptions of animal cloning.

The Agency recognises that animal cloning is likely to trigger consumer concerns about food safety, animal welfare and ethics and the findings from this research will enable the views of the UK public to be reflected in any EU discussions about the use of the technology.

Concerns about animal welfare and agricultural practices are not dealt with by the Agency. These are the responsibility of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The science behind the story

Cloning is the creation of an organism (the clone) that is an exact genetic copy of another organism (the donor).

Clones occur in nature and many plants, such as strawberries, propagate in this way. Some animals also clone themselves, such as amoeba (a microscopic single-celled organism) and some insects, such as greenfly. Cloning sometimes occurs in humans too - identical twins can be thought of as clones as they share exactly the same genetic material (although strictly speaking neither one is a copy of the other).

Cloning is widely used in horticulture, as plants grown from a cutting or a graft are genetic copies of the original plants, and some foods that we eat, such as potatoes, bananas and grapes are derived from clones.

Clones of cattle and other farm animals can be produced using a technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). SCNT was first used successfully in sheep to produce 'Dolly' at the Roslin Institute in 1996. SCNT does not occur naturally.

More information - You can view the full report, Animal Cloning and Implications for the Food Chain, by clicking here: http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/clonereport.pdf


Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference

- August 24-27, 2008, Cork, Ireland


In recent years, the annual Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC) has become an essential event for professionals around the world. Scientists, entrepreneurs, policy specialists, government officials and many others depend on ABIC conferences to be educational, challenging and interactive, thereby ensuring that the relevant issues central to agricultural biotechnology are addressed.

ABIC 2008 will be hosted in University College Cork,Ireland from August 24th to 27th. The primary sponsor for the 2008 conference is Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority. Teagasc provides integrated research, advisory and training services for the agri-food industry in Ireland and employs over 1,500 staff across over 100 locations throughout Ireland.

The theme of ABIC 2008 Cork is Agricultural Biotechnology for a competitive and sustainable future. At a time when global agricultural faces significant challenges, an in depth discussion of how ag biotech can influence the sustainability of global agriculture while maintaining competitiveness is both timely and necessary.

Program/Speakers: http://www.abic.ca/ABIC2008/html/program.html

Registration: http://www.abic.ca/ABIC2008/html/registration.html

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