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September 2, 2008


11 years of biotech crop data; Accept GM, says African official; Cold tolerance in corn


* World-wide benefits of GM crops
* Addendum: Vegetarianism for All
* Accept GM, urges African official
* Key to cold tolerance in corn
* Weed-resistant sorghum to boost harvest
* Chef's attitude is hard to swallow


Evidence on impact of biotechnology crops on crop yields in the fields, world-wide.

- GMO Pundit a.k.a. David Tribe, Sep. 2, 2008


Dorchester, UK: In the light of the current world food security and price debate, PG Economics is releasing a summary of the yield effect of GM crops. This summary is supplemented by a more detailed examination of the yield impacts and the broader reports on the socio-economic and environmental impacts of the technology 1996-2006 - AgBioForum 11(1):21-28 2008.

The summary on GM crop yields documents from peer reviewed papers the real contribution of biotech crops to improving global crop yields and increasing production over the period 1996-2006.

The paper summaries some of the key yield and production impacts of the technology detailed in the peer reviewed scientific journal article Global impact of biotech crops: socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996-2006.


Global Impact of Biotech Crops: Socio-Economic and Environmental Effects, 1996-2006

- Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, PG Economics Ltd., Sep. 1, 2008



Genetically modified (GM) crops have been grown commercially on a substantial scale for eleven years. This paper updates the assessment of the impact this technology is having on global agriculture from both economic and environmental perspectives. It examines specific global economic impacts on farm income and environmental impacts associated with pesticide usage and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for each of the countries where GM crops have been grown since 1996. The analysis shows that there have been substantial net economic benefits at the farm level amounting to $6.94 billion in 2006 and $33.8 billion for the eleven-year period (in nominal terms). The technology has reduced pesticide spraying by 286 million kg and, as a result, decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on these crops by 15.4%. GM technology has also significantly reduced the release of GHG emissions from this cropping area, which, in 2006, was equivalent to removing 6.56 million cars from the roads.


World Food Crisis (Part V: Addendum on Vegetarianism for All)

- Thomas DeGregori, American Council on Science and Health, Aug. 29, 2008


Over the past four days, I have described the world food crisis -- and both obstacles to and hopes for coping with it through existing institutions -- and I mentioned that misplaced romanticism often affects these important decisions.

One belief popularized by vegetarians (and those opposed to modern agronomy) is that the world could better feed everyone on less land under cultivation if we all gave up eating meat or at least greatly reduced our consumption of it. The current food crisis has revived that argument. Humans are inherently meat- and fruit-eaters, since our large brains require an amount of energy that our digestive system (with relatively small hind gut) could not process except from food that is more energy-dense than grains and vegetables. This is a conclusion drawn from the peer-reviewed literature in Anthropology and Primatology. Some of our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, are also meat eaters.

Thanks to modern food processing and chemistry, despite the vegans scorning them, they can obtain more calorically and nutritionally dense foods than can be found in "nature," gaining essential nutrients such as vitamin B12, which previously could only be obtained from animal products. Of course, if vegans wish to have their grain contaminated with sufficient insect parts and rodent hairs and droppings (as was the case with some of early agriculture), they might get enough B12 without the synthetic supplement. If we all become lacto-ovo vegetarians, though, who will eat the calves that are born to stimulate the cow's lactation and who will eat the cow when she is no longer producing milk -- or the chickens when they are no longer laying eggs?

Animals "eat huge amounts of forage that humans cannot digest, from grasslands that mostly cannot support crops" and "such high-yield forages as alfalfa, which produce much more biomass per acre than the food crops that might replace it" (Dennis T. Avery, "The Most Sustainable Farming in History Gives the World Its Finest Food Choices," 2002). Coarse grains used for animal feed, such as maize and sorghum, achieve higher yields because of more efficient photosynthesis (as a result of having the genes encoding the C4 enzyme -- instead of the gene for the C3 enzyme characteristic of most other grains and vegetables).

"In addition, animals and poultry eat millions of tons of such by-products as distillers' dried grains and millers' wastes which humans can't digest" (Avery 2002). In citing pounds of feed to pounds of meat, vegetarian advocates neglect to consider caloric nutritional density, digestibility, and overall quality of the inputs compared to the quality of output. A report for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found that "animals worldwide consumed 74 million tons of human-edible protein and produced 54 million tons of human food protein. This gives an input: output ratio of 1.4 to 1. As it happens the ratio of biological value in animal protein compared to plant protein is also 1.4 to 1" (Avery 2002).

The Green Revolution Helps the Poor

The increased yields in grain production of the much maligned Green Revolution have been driving the expansion of food production, allowing for an increase in daily per capita consumption of Calories (with a capital C for kilocalories) from roughly 1,800 or 1,900 to somewhere between 2,600 and 2,800 Calories today. Contrary to much popular misinformation, the major beneficiaries of the Green Revolution -- this triumph of science and technology in the form of synthetic fertilizer and plant breeding -- have been the poorest and most vulnerable of the world's population.

Since 1960, the absolute number of people in hunger has fallen from 1.5 billion out of a population of 3 billion people to 850 million out of 6.7 billion people. Rice production has increased close to three times since 1960 while using the same amount of water in its production. Prior to the current wave of price increases, the real price of rice was roughly 40% of its 1960 price. (Similarly, the real price of wheat was about 50% of its 1960 price.) Contrary to the monoculture mythology, the amount of land cultivation for primary grains reached its peak around 1980, as increased demand for diversified diets led to a shift from land under cultivation for grains to fruits and vegetables. Farmed fish production has also increased rapidly. Improved nutrition, leading to longer life expectancies and taller average height, is obvious to anyone who has traveled to Asia, among other places.

Increased grain yields were for a time able to accommodate the reduction in land under grain cultivation, the increase in population, and the demand for food, which was growing faster than population. Unfortunately, NGO lobbying and the decades-long railing against modern ("industrial") agriculture brought about a steady decline in domestic and international agricultural research funding. Opposition to agricultural research and development in biotechnology grew as the NGOs falsely but repeatedly claimed that there was controversy in science over biotech's safety.

Given the growing virulent opposition to "industrial" agriculture and agricultural research, it was inevitable that yield increases would start slowing -- so that, by the beginning of this century, the world was eating more than it produced, driving grain reserves to perilously low levels. All of this was set in motion long before the upsurge in biofuel production from food crops, which I personally very strongly opposed. Tragically, those who have contributed so much to the creation of this crisis are now vociferously advocating returning to the low-yield agricultural practices of times past, which were inadequate to feed a population less than one third of today's.

Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at the University of Houston and an ACSH Trustee.


Accept GM, urges senior African Union official

- Linda Nordling, SciDev.net, Aug. 29, 2008


A senior African Union (AU) official has urged African presidents to cast aside any apprehension about allowing genetically modified (GM) crops to be grown commercially in their countries.

Rhoda Peace Tumusiime, the AU's commissioner for rural economy and agriculture, told delegates at the African Green Revolution Conference in Oslo, Norway, yesterday (28 August) that there is a need to convince leaders on the continent about the benefits of the controversial technology.

"GM is extremely important. Unfortunately there is little appreciation of what it is and how it can improve food production. There is a need for advocacy," she said.

Her words came after Kofi Annan, the former UN general secretary who chairs the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), chose not to mention GM technology in his opening speech to the conference.

According to one South African delegate, who wished to remain anonymous, AGRA has decided to skirt around the issue of GM, since its mention often turns into a polarised debate about the pros and cons of the technology.

Piet Bukman, chairman of the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council, who shared the podium with the AU commissioner, said that fears about the potential harm of GM products often overshadows the benefits the technology can bring. "Is it possible to solve the food security problem in Africa without GM?" he asked.

But Monty Jones, executive director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), did not agree that GM is essential for increasing harvests in Africa. "I agree that GM food has a role," he said, "But it's the right of every country to decide if it wants to use GM".

GM technology isn't a quick fix, Jones added, as the move to large-scale production will take time. "In the short term, we should look to conventional approaches."

Amos Namanga Ngongi, president of AGRA, agreed. "I don't think African food security depends on GM crops," he said, pointing to the increases in farm productivity achieved by Asia during its "green revolution," without recourse to modern GM technology.


Key discovered to cold tolerance in corn - Longer growing season, growth in colder regions possible

- American Society of Plant Biologists (press release) via SeedQuest, Aug. 29, 2008


Demand for corn -- the world's number one feed grain and a staple food for many -- is outstripping supply, resulting in large price increases that are forecast to continue over the next several years. If corn's intolerance of low temperatures could be overcome, then the length of the growing season, and yield, could be increased at present sites of cultivation and its range extended into colder regions.

Drs. Dafu Wang, Archie Portis, Steve Moose, and Steve Long in the Department of Crop Sciences and the Institute of Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois may have made a breakthrough on this front, as reported in the September issue of the journal Plant Physiology.

Plants can be divided into two groups based on their strategy for harvesting light energy: C4 and C3. The C4 groups include many of the most agriculturally productive plants known, such as corn, sorghum, and sugar cane. All other major crops, including wheat and rice, are C3. C4 plants differ from C3 by the addition of four extra chemical steps, making these plants more efficient in converting sunlight energy into plant matter.

Until recently, the higher productivity achieved by C4 species was thought to be possible only in warm environments. So while wheat, a C3 plant, may be grown into northern Sweden and Alberta, the C4 grain corn cannot. Even within the Corn Belt and despite record yields, corn cannot be planted much before early May and as such is unable to utilize the high sunlight of spring.

Recently a wild C4 grass related to corn, Miscanthus x giganteus, has been found to be exceptionally productive in cold climates. The Illinois researchers set about trying to discover the basis of this difference, focusing on the four extra chemical reactions that separate C4 from C3 plants.

Each of these reactions is catalyzed by a protein or enzyme. The enzyme for one of these steps, Pyruvate Phosphate Dikinase, or PPDK for short, is made up of two parts. At low temperature these parts have been observed to fall apart, differing from the other three C4 specific enzymes. The researchers examined the DNA sequence of the gene coding for this enzyme in both plants, but could find no difference, nor could they see any difference in the behavior of the enzyme in the test tube. However, they noticed that when leaves of corn were placed in the cold, PPDK slowly disappeared in parallel with the decline in the ability of the leaf to take up carbon dioxide in photosynthesis. When Miscanthus leaves were placed in the cold, they made more PPDK and as they did so, the leaf became able to maintain photosynthesis in the cold conditions. Why?

The researchers cloned the gene for PPDK from both corn and Miscanthus into a bacterium, enabling the isolation of large quantities of this enzyme. The researchers discovered that as the enzyme was concentrated, it became resistant to the cold, thus the difference between the two plants was not the structure of the protein components but rather the amount of protein present.

The findings suggest that modifying corn to synthesize more PPDK during cold weather could allow corn, like Miscanthus, to be cultivated in colder climates and be productive for more months of the year in its current locations. The same approach might even be used with sugar cane, which may be crossed with Miscanthus, making improvement of cold-tolerance by breeding a possibility.


New weed-resistant sorghum set to boost harvest

- Steve Mbogo, Business Daily (Nairobi), Sep. 2, 2008


Sorghum production in Kenya is set to increase following the development of a variety that is resistance to the deadly weed that has been wiping out the produce from the farms for years.

The scientific breakthrough is the first in the history of sorghum farming in Africa.

Sorghum is among the crops being touted as strategic to Africa's future food needs because of its ability to withstand drought conditions.

The weed known as striga or the witchweed destroys between 40 to 100 per cent of a complete season's crop. Its annual crop damage across Africa is estimated at about Sh450 billion.

Currently, the weed threatens to wipe out cereal crops in most of Western Kenya and Eastern Uganda, national agricultural research institutes in the two countries have warned.

Dr Dionysious Kiambi, a molecular geneticist with the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), said scientists have determined the precise segments of the sorghum genome known to confer Striga-resistance and have transferred them to farmer-preferred varieties through conventional breeding with very promising results.

The scientists said they have been working with national and international collaborators for several years experimenting with marker-assisted selection in search of Striga resistance genes from other sorghum varieties conserved in gene-banks across the world.

They found one sorghum variety that is neither high-yielding nor drought-tolerant, to have the highly sought after Striga-resistance genes.

Segments of the sorghum DNA containing genes for Striga-resistance were tagged with markers and crossed with farmer varieties using conventional breeding.

The use of markers enabled scientists to precisely transfer only the Striga- resistance genes to farmer-preferred sorghum varieties without jeopardising farmer-desired characteristics such as drought-tolerance and higher yields.

"We were not replacing any genetic components of farmer varieties, we are just adding to it," says Dr Kiambi. "The resulting variety is almost identical to the original farmer variety plus the component that confers Striga resistance."

ICRISAT has been collaborating with scientists from the University of Hohenheim in Germany and national agricultural research institutes of Eritrea, Kenya, Mali and Sudan.

The team has to date created five Striga-resistant sorghum varieties whose initial trials on-station have been able to ward off Striga attacks, some as effectively as the donor parent, sorghum variety. In Kenya, Mali and Sudan, scientists are currently testing the new witchweed-resistant varieties in farmer fields.

Researchers in Africa have for decades experimented with a number of "potentially successful" techniques for managing this deathly weed including breeding for Striga tolerance in various crops, promotion of rotational cropping of cereals with legumes such as groundnuts, cowpeas and soybean in order to break the weed's breeding circle, as well as the use of biological and herbicidal control methods.

Africa's resource-poor farmers manage Striga primarily by weeding, a pointless, back-breaking activity which comes too late.

By the time the crop sprouts, the weed, whose seeds reside in the soil, has long-since attached to plant roots and begun sapping off plant nutrients in earnest. Striga is a prolific seed producer, whose seeds lie dormant in the soil for up to two decades.

Crop breeders said they are enthusiastic about marker assisted breeding because it significantly reduces the duration required to produce improved crop.

While conventional breeding is a hit-or-miss technique that requires scientists to wait for the crops to grow to maturity in order to observe expression of desired traits like Striga-resistance, marker -assisted breeding enables scientists to check for the transfer of the trait early.

as when the plant is only two weeks old, and focus on plants with the desired trait. This has more than halved the amount of time crop breeders need to develop improved varieties.


Chef's attitude to State funding of biotech conference is hard to swallow

- Irish Examiner (letter), Aug. 29, 2008


Chef Lorcan Cribbin's concerns about unbalanced Government funding of the UCC agriculture biotechnology conference (August 25) are hard to swallow as he expressed no concerns when the Government supported an unbalanced anti-GM food conference on June 16-18, 2006 at Kilkenny Castle, which the Government donated for free. In addition, Mr Cribbin fails to mention that anti-GM speakers pulled out of a public debate planned in UCC preferring to appear at a political press conference organised by Kathy Sinnot MEP.

Those who attended this one-sided event witnessed misleading and incorrect information debunked by scientists who took the anti-GM food speakers to task. It's a pity the Irish Examiner didn't bother to send a journalist to cover the event but preferred to rely on that fine journalistic skill of 'cutting and pasting' from anti-GM press releases.

Shane Morris, Department of Biochemistry, University College Cork

*by Andrew Apel, guest editor