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January 6, 2009


Opponents are Playing with Human Lives; Bt Rice A Good Neighbor; Danforth Gets $$; Trust in the Seed


* Germany: Biotech Opponents are Playing with Human Lives
* Bt Rice Is A Good Neighbor
* Danforth Center Receives Grant From The Gates Foundation
* Gene-altered Crop Studies Grow: Labs Move --- Into Rice, Wheat
* New Articles on Transgenic Bt Technology
* Trust in the Seed

Germany: Biotech Opponents are Playing with Human Lives

- Till Behrend, Focus via Pajamas Media, Jan 3, 2009. http://pajamasmedia.com Via Agnet

There is a specter haunting Europe: the specter of genetically modified foods. Although regularly consumed in the U.S. and around the world, in Europe GM foods are the target of veritable scare campaigns by environmental pressure groups and in the media. As a consequence, even GM crops that have been formally approved by the European Commission are the subject of increasing restrictions in Germany, France, and other European countries. GM crops - including such as have been planted merely for experimental purposes - are regularly destroyed by anti-GM militants in acts of would-be "civil disobedience." Till Behrend of the German weekly Focus spoke with the geneticist and Nobel Prize laureate Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard about the sources of biotech-phobia.

FOCUS: Professor Nüsslein-Volhard, farmers all around the world are cultivating genetically modified crops on an eve r larger scale. But many Germans appear to be afraid of the new technology. Are they right to be?
Nüsslein-Volhard: Well, we Germans are always afraid of new things. But what are these people actually afraid about? They're afraid that they will assimilate alien genes while eating genetically modified foods. But that's nonsense. The genes are digested, broken down, and eliminated from the body just like in the case of traditional foods. This has been proven beyond any shadow of a doubt. The human genome is sequential and you can examine whether there are any cow genes or plant genes in there. Have no fear: there aren't any.

FOCUS: What distinguishes, then, classically bred crops from genetically modified crops?
Nüsslein-Volhard: People seem to be unaware that practically all the grains and vegetables that we eat nowadays have been highly genetically modified as compared to their natural forms. There's hardly any crop as artificial as a potato. In the wild, potatoes are tiny and highly poisonous. It took thousands of generations to turn the potato into a decent sort of food. In contrast to the classical development of new plant strains, "green" biotechnology has the advantage that with its help one can proceed much faster and in a much more targeted fashion.

FOCUS: It's true that for plant breeders that might be a fine thing. But lots of people want to do what's right for nature and for themselves, and consequently they insist on "organic" products.
Nüsslein-Volhard: Given our level of material well-being and the fertility of our soil, we can afford to do that. But actually that's a snobby, elitist attitude. Organic farming cannot feed large cities. And it certainly cannot feed the world's population. It's not possible, since the yields of organic farming are too small and the area one has to plant is way too much. It really makes more sense to use the particularly rich fields that we have intensively and in a sustainable manner by planting high-yield crops. The environment benefits, too, since then we can return other fiel ds to their natural state.

FOCUS: Nonetheless, organic farming is thought to stand for a more respectful treatment of the environment.
Nüsslein-Volhard: Wrongly. Or do you imagine perhaps that organic farming can do without the spraying of pesticides? On organic farms, too, one sprays pesticides constantly and all over the place! In this respect, genetic engineering really has more intelligent solutions to offer. For example, with the help of genetic engineering we can make corn or cotton that is resistant to insect damage. If we incorporate a particular gene, they become poisonous for harmful insects, but not for humans or for mice. Then you can do without the insecticide. I find this rather smart. There are also strains being developed that grow with less water or that grow on salt-affected soils. It's both sophisticated and ecologically beneficial!

FOCUS: If green biotechnology is so beneficial, why hasn't it gained ground here in Germany?
Nüsslein-Volhard: We have groups like Greenpeace to thank for that: groups that put ideology above everything else - regardless of all the positive results that have been had [with GM crops] in the meanwhile in many countries. As a consequence, green biotechnology is practically a social taboo here.

FOCUS: What are the implications for scientific research?
Nüsslein-Volhard: For theoretical research, there are no consequences. But as soon as it's a matter of practical applications, things become difficult for the scientists. In Germany, there are practically no positions to be found anymore that would permit them to translate their ideas and research into practice. We do have a biotechnology law, which to some extent makes possible the field experiments that are necessary to gain authorization [for GM crops]. But if the fields are constantly being destroyed and nothing is done about it, then it's just not possible. Not far from here, at the University of Hohenheim, a whole course had to be canceled because anti-GM militants tore up all the experimental fields. The consequence i s that Germany exports exceptionally well-trained scientists to other countries. They don't see any future for themselves here.

FOCUS: Using the techniques of genetic engineering, German scientists have developed the so-called golden rice. The rice is enriched with vitamin A and it has the potential to spare millions of people in the world's poorest countries from losing their eyesight. Greenpeace is opposed to the golden rice, because they don't want people in the Third World to serve as guinea pigs. Do you share this concern?
Nüsslein-Volhard: But that's total nonsense. The behavior of Greenpeace in this matter is profoundly inhuman! Without a second thought, they are playing with human lives. I'll give you another example. A few years ago, the Americans sent aid shipments of corn to African countries that were suffering from famine. The corn was genetically modified. In America, everyone eats it (including the German tourist), but the starving Africans were not permitted to eat the corn, because Greenpeace and other groups warned that it was genetically modified. These are unbelievable absurdities. I find it extremely depressing.

FOCUS: Critics of green biotechnologies complain that small farmers in the Third World become dependent on the big agro-industrial firms, which have their newly developed crop strains patented.
Nüsslein-Volhard: Okay, I find this criticism bizarre. As if it is somehow immoral to sell corn kernels as seed. Nobody is giving cars away, after all! The seed for all high-performance crop strains, including those that have not been genetically engineered, is specially produced nowadays, in order to guarantee the maximum yield. It's just that hardly anyone knows that. The image of the farmer who retains a part of his harvest and replants the kernels the following spring is very romantic, of course. But in the case of corn, for example, such behavior would be totally irrational, since he would then only be able to collect half of the potential yields. But farmers have to try to get as much out of their land a s possible. When they don't manage to do so in an economically efficient fashion, then they need subsidies. Of course, we could pay them such subsidies, in order for them to continue sowing seed that they have themselves harvested. But I don't find this particularly shrewd.

FOCUS: You're reputed to be a passionate cook and you've even published a cookbook. As a cook, what would you like to see done with biotechnology?
Nüsslein-Volhard: Sometimes I regret the fact that you can't find certain old-fashioned sorts of fruit in the stores anymore, simply because they spoil too quickly. There are particularly tasty sorts of strawberries or sour cherries, for example, that don't keep well. You can tell that many types of fruits and vegetables are cultivated for their robustness and the quantity of the yield, but not for their flavor. If it would be possible by using genetic engineering to make the tastier sort of strawberries keep longer, personally I'd have nothing against it. You can't have everything. But by using genetic engineering you can perhaps have more.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen. In 1995, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. The above interview first appeared on the German news site Focus-Online. The German version is available here. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.


Bt Rice Is A Good Neighbor

- Jussi Tammisola, AgBioView, January 6, 2009 (Assoc. Prof. in Plant Breeding, Univ. of Helsinki, Finland)

Resistance breeding of crop plants was reacted against with biologically untenable claims by a few opponents of genetic modification in the news feature "Is China ready for GM rice?" published recently in Nature magazine [1]. In the news story Dr. Hans Herren, a godfather of the scientifically incompetent report of IAASTD, stated that "Genetic-modification technologies just treat the symptoms rather than dealing with the causes".

That is "political" nonsense. Genetic modification does not breed crops, as its opponents delude themselves, because it is not any doer but an array of new genetic tools. The technology can be utilized by plant scientists for the breeding of any conceivable trait considered useful for human purposes, all kinds of genetic "causes" included. Any geneticist could tell that the advantages of a new plant variety depend first and foremost on its traits and not on the methods used in its breeding [6, 7].

Furthermore, fashionable emotional imagery and "Bambi" language was provided in the story by calling wild rice "the panda of the plant world". That was followed with a magic trick: rice cultivars resistant against stem borer were told to threaten wild rice with extinction due to natural gene flow and consequent trait introgression. However, according to the biological science just the opposite is true: the resistance trait could not harm but only help the wild plant species in holding its ground better in its struggle for survival.

In order to get such "panda news" rectified the following correspondence was submitted to the magazine, however without result.

To the Editor of Nature,

In the News Feature on the prospects of Bt rice in China [1], certain claims by proponents of other agendas (Herren, Heong, Andow, Baorong) violate the basics of ecological and population genetics. Contrary to their allegations, rice cultivars resistant against stem borer do not harm wild rice species but are good neighbors aiding them in survival.

When susceptible plant varieties are on a large scale replaced with resistant ones, the epidemic population densities of the pest are often reduced and stabilized to ecologically tolerable levels. Hence, common cultivation of Bt corn in USA has provided courtesy protection against European Corn Borer for organic and conventional farmers in the area as well [2]. Similarly, large-scale cultivation of Bt cotton has reduced the damages caused by bollworm on cotton, wheat, corn, soybean, peanut and vegetable fields in the neighborhood during the decade of Bt cotton cultivation in China [3].

Resistance against stem borer could help wild rice
The opponents warn that the minute natural gene flow from cultivated to wild rice would harm the latter. That is a common misconception, however.

If a gene for a trait beneficial for a plant species is being added into its gene pool, such an addition does not threaten the species but, quite the contrary, increases its genetic diversity and enhances its adaptation potential.*

Respectively, a gene harmful to the plant in its environmental conditions does not become common in its populations but its frequency remains low or negligible due to natural selection. Plant populations only adopt genes which provide them with advantages, not disadvantages.

Resistance against stem borer could only aid and not harm wild rice populations, just as it helps cultivated rice. Depending on a) how often and how bad damage stem borer may make to wild rice, and b) how great metabolic costs may be caused to the plant by the maintenance of the resistance trait, the resistance gene may become established in the plant's populations and its frequency be balanced to appropriate frequencies.**

Similarly, contrary to popular stories, protection against an alien pest (European Corn Borer) could only benefit teosinte, the wild progenitor of maize, in its struggle against extinction. However, resistance against corn borer has not become a realized option for teosinte populations in practice, even if somewhat higher gene flow is occurring in maize (due to cross-pollination) than in the self-pollinating rice. That being the case, should scientists assist the in situ conservation of the indispensable gene resources of certain endangered plants by providing their key populations with a few bottleneck traits necessary for their survival in the rapidly changing world?***

Resistances are indispensable in cultivars
Since the domestication of our crop species, these chosen plant species have been developed for much higher efficiency in the production of commodities for human use. Consequently, cultivated plants are now generally growing in much more dense and large populations and may now often provide us with up to 10-30 times higher yields per land area than in their native conditions.

That gradual adaptation of crop species for agriculture during the first 10,000 years of cultivation was the prerequisite for modern human civilizations. However, such vast biomasses also inherently offer much more promising resources for various plant pests to develop into devastating plagues. Therefore, the levels of resistance against various pests shall be enhanced in cultivated plants for ensuring efficient production and food security.

Consequently, resistance breeding has been an inextricable part of agricultural development all along the past century of scientific plant production. Rust-resistant wheat was one of the few core improvements that enabled the Green Revolution in the 1960s. A devastating new race (Ug99) of the very same stem rust fungus may now make world's wheat production collapse within a decade (or require heavy use of expensive fungicides), unless efficient resistance genes are searched for and introduced into thousands of bread wheat cultivars [4]. Maybe genes for complete (non-host) resistance against cereal rusts can be found from rice [5] or some wild grass species among the 10,000 known ones.

Resistance breeding shall not be belittled as a pottering around with symptoms, as Herren does. It has been, and will always be, an indispensable part of proper Integrated Pest Management systems in agricultural production. Now that we are finally finding genetic means for utilising the vast resources of resistance in the Nature, humankind has much better prospects of keeping its bio-economy in balance with the ever changing world ecosystems.

1. Qiu J (2008). Is China ready for GM rice? Nature 455: 850-852, doi:10.1038/455850a
2. Steffey K, Gray M (2007). Is the European Corn Borer an Endangered Species? Univ. of Illinois Extension, The Bulletin No. 24, Article 3, November 9, 2007, http://ipm.uiuc.edu/bulletin/article.php?id=865
3. Wu K-M, Lu Y-H, Feng H-Q, Jiang Y-Y, Zhao J-Z (2008). Suppression of Cotton Bollworm in Multiple Crops in China in Areas with Bt Toxin-Containing Cotton. Science 321: 1676-1678, http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/321/5896/1676
4. Singh RP, Hodson DP, Jin Y, Huerta-Espino J, Kinyua MG, Wanyera R, Njau P, Ward RW (2006). Current status, likely migration and strategies to mitigate the threat to wheat production from race Ug99 (TTKS) of stem rust pathogen. In: CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources 2006, 1, No.054, 13 p., http://dx.doi.org/10.1079/PAVSNNR20061054
5. Coffman R, Ward R (2008). Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat. Res. Project Cornell Univ. http://www.wheatrust.cornell.edu/about/objective09.cfm
6. NAS (2004). Composition of Altered Food Products, Not Method Used to Create Them,
Should Be Basis for Federal Safety Assessment. National Academies of Sciences, USA, July 27, 2004, http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=10977
7. EUCARPIA (1989). Risk Assessment Regarding the Release of Transgenic Plants. Statement of Eucarpia (European Association for Plant Breeding Research), http://www.geenit.fi/Euc1989.pdf

* That is particularly clear regarding an added gene which is novel to the species and cannot supplant any pre-existing gene allele in the plant's genome. Though, in the beginning, selection favoring or disfavoring the novel gene may have similar effect also on the frequencies of the few gene alleles most strictly coupled with it in the chromosome. However, such a linkage drag effect is only temporary, and it is soon diminished due to genetic recombination in the population.

** If the overall population of stem borer will be stabilized at a sustainable level in China due to Bt-rice adoption, the fitness advantage of the resistance trait in the wild might prove substantially less in the future than it could be today. Consequently, the frequency of the resistance gene may remain low in natural populations in the long run (because just a low incoming gene flow cannot keep the frequency of the resistance gene at a high level in the receiving population).

*** Though, in fact, in situ conservation of the gene resources of an endangered plant species in its few populations remaining in nature is an inefficient or even hazardous exercise, because tiny populations inevitably lose gene alleles, particularly in changing environmental conditions as anticipated for the future. Fortunately, the core of the valuable genetic diversity of wild rice still exists in the thousands of accessions collected during decades for safekeeping in public gene banks. Nevertheless, these main lines were not even mentioned in the news story.

--International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development virtually bankrupted scientifically and yielded a diseased report. The prospects of modern genetic science and technology - crucial for food security, energy and environmental protection in the future world - were rebutted and anti-science movement fed in the process. Consequently, prime life scientists left the exercise. By definition, aversion to science and technology cannot advance their transfer to developing countries.

Jussi Tammisola, Assoc. Prof. in Plant Breeding, University of Helsinki, Finland
(former Global Lead Author of IAASTD)


Danforth Plant Science Center Receives Grant From The Gates Foundation
- To Establish New Program To Ensure The Safety Of Nutritionally Enhanced Crops

ST. LOUIS, MO, Jan 5, 2009 - The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center was recently awarded a $5.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative which seeks to identify and direct funds to the most critical scientific challenges in global health. Funds will be used to create and manage a BioSafety Resource Network (BRN) to support four project teams conducting research under Grand Challenge #9 (GC9) which focuses on the use of appropriate technologies to increase nutrients in local crops in a socially and culturally acceptable way. Results of this research will ultimately be shared with developing countries throughout the world where malnutrition is prevalent.

The BioSafety Resource Network will be managed by Dr. Paul Anderson, executive director of International Programs at the Danforth Center. He will be assisted by Dr. Hector Quemada, (Calvin College, MI) who will serve as project director and Dr. Mark Halsey - formerly research Director at the United Soybean Board - who will serve as assistant director. Drs. Quemada and Halsey have many years of experience in biosafety and regulatory science related to genetically modified crops.

Reducing death and disease related to malnutrition and infection caused by nutrient poor diets depends on giving farmers access to more nutritious crops so they can build healthier lives for themselves and their families. The GC9 projects work to provide combinations of micronutrients, vitamins and essential amino acids in a bioavailable form in local crops such as rice, sorghum, cassava and bananas, or to enhance energy density and improve protein quality in such foods. Farmers would only have the opportunity to grow GC9 biofortified crops to feed their families or sell in markets after a rigorous process of research, testing, product development and regulatory approval. Efficacy, safety and regulatory concerns must be thoroughly and systematically addressed for each crop. The goal of the BRN is to ensure that research projects address quality assurance, biosafety science and regulatory science requirements.

"Success with this new initiative will provide a blueprint for other institutions and companies seeking to introduce nutritionally enhanced crops in the countries that will most benefit from approving and growing them," said Anderson. "We hope to position the Danforth Center as the 'go to' institution for plant biosafety capabilities as it relates to product development."

The Danforth Center has already built significant collaborative relationships and regulatory capacity in Africa through partnerships with such groups as the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria, the National Root Crop Research Institute (NRCRI) in Nigeria, and the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) in Uganda. The Danforth Center is a founding member of the Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS), a partnership program sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which seeks to assist developing countries by enhancing biosafety policy, research, and capacity.

The BRN will also oversee the systematic transfer of experience and services through the GC9 projects to scientific personnel and institutions thus building local and regional regulatory infrastructure. The BRN will conduct a thorough, preliminary biosafety assessment of all traits intended to be expressed in the crops, formulate a regulatory strategy and work plan for each trait-crop combination and provide support in the planning and implementation of confined field trials.

About The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Research at the Danforth Center will feed the hungry and improve human health, preserve and renew the environment, and enhance the St. Louis region and Missouri as a world center for plant science. Please visit http://www.danforthcenter.org for additional information.


Gene-altered Crop Studies Grow: Labs Move Beyond Corn And Soybeans Into Rice, Wheat

- Sabine Vollmer, The (Raleigh, N.c.) News & ObservER January 1, 2009

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. -- Corn and soybean plants are plentiful in the BASF greenhouses in Research Triangle Park near Durham, N.C., where scientists generate and test crops whose genes have been altered to adapt to difficult climates or to pack more nutrients.

Among the pots are also a few sprouting rice and wheat plants. That's unusual. Genetically modified crops have been around for more than two decades. But companies that tinker with plant genes tend to focus on crops that have long been bred for desirable traits. Genetically modified corn, soybeans, canola and cotton seeds, including varieties that can tolerate herbicides or are resistant to pests, are widely used by U.S. farmers to produce more food, feed and fibers on the same-size fields.

Rice and wheat are fairly new to gene modification because farmers and consumers have been less accepting of artificial changes to those food crops. But BASF, a German chemical giant that came late to agricultural biotechnology, has begun to branch out. Its executives think that those preferences are changing and that the demand will increase as populations grow and acreage stays the same or shrinks.
Much of the work is done at its U.S. plant science research hub in RTP where its scientists have been working in food research longer.

"With rice, we are to the point where we're very heavily investing in field trials," said Jonathan Bryant, managing director of BASF's plant science business in the U.S. "And we're seeing success."
Research into genetically modified wheat is just beginning. BASF is considering plants such as switchgrass and trees for biofuel production, Bryant said.

In the United States, Latin America and parts of Asia, farmers and consumers are becoming accustomed to genetically modified crops. And as farmers seek to increase their yield per acre with limited acreage for crops, sales of biotech seeds are expected to more than double to $15 billion in 2015.

Competition for market share is fierce. Right now nobody sells more genetically modified seeds than St. Louis-based Monsanto, which has 95 percent of the market. But Syngenta, DuPont's Pioneer, Bayer CropScience and Dow Agrosciences all are trying to claim a bigger piece of the pie.

In an effort to retain its dominance, Monsanto two years ago turned to BASF. The companies plan to invest $1.5 billion over the next two decades to bring new genetically modified crops to market. The collaboration is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The fruits of that collaboration are ripening at the RTP facility that BASF opened in 1999. BASF and Monsanto are investigating hundreds of plant genes to come up with seeds that produce hardier, more productive corn, soybean, cotton and canola plants. The most advanced products are being tested in large field trials, said

Stephen Evola, director of BASF's plant science research. By 2012, Monsanto hopes to sell the first genetically modified corn seeds generated by its collaboration with BASF.


New Articles on Transgenic Bt Technology by Kameshwar Rao


1 Bacillus thuringiensis, Bt Proteins and Toxins
2 Bt Crop Varieties
3 Expression of Transgenes
4 Variation in Gene Expression
5 Substantial Equivalence of Transgenics and their Isogenics
6 Biosecuirty
7 Benefits


Trust in the Seed

- ISAAA's latest publication. Download at http://www.isaaa.org/kc/

This publication highlights the significance of the seed and new crop technologies. It captures the experiences of three key developments in Indian agriculture that sustained growth in agriculture, contributed to increased food production and the alleviation of poverty and hunger.


Compiled by C. S. Prakash