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October 2, 2008


Europe Rises; Toxicity-Resistant Crops; Combating Global Hunger; Australia's New Era; Organically Grown GM; ‘America’s Nobel’ for Baulcombe


* Cultivation of GMOs Rises in Many European Countries
* Toxicity-Resistant Crops
* U.S. Government Seeks New Solutions to Combat Global Hunger Crisis
* The World'S Poor: A Broad Alliance Is Trying To Help
* Vietnam: Certain Crops Require Genetic Modification: Scientists
* Australia's New Era for GM Crops
* Australia: Greenpeace Funded GM Survey Back Fires
* Kenya: Country Set to Adopt Biotechnology
* Canada: Modified Crops the Way of The Future
* Bt Cotton Trials in Burkina Faso: Potential Benefits to West African Farmers
* GMO Authorisation Procedure in the EU: The Next Reform?
* Genetically Engineered, Organically Grown?
* Opinion Strength and the Desire for Genetically Modified Food Labeling Policy
* GM Scientist from UK Awarded Prize

Cultivation of GMOs Rises in Many European Countries


Statistics released on Monday (September 30, 2008) by the European Association for Bioindustries (EuropaBio) indicate an increase in the use of genetically modified (GM) crops in the year 2008 for many European countries. Significant increases are evident in the Czech Republic, Romania, Poland and Slovakia. In France, the cultivation of GM crops has not been allowed in 2008.

In Europe this year, 108,000 hectares were dedicated to Bt maize. Despite the cultivation ban in France in 2008, the GM cultivation area only slightly decreased compared to 2007 (110,000 hectares). In 2007, French farmers had grown GM maize on 21,000 hectares.

Rumania has shown the largest increase in GMO acreage and currently grows GM maize on more than 7,000 hectares. This represents an increase of almost 20-fold in comparison to 2007. Other countries with significant increases include Poland, which has increased its acreage 9-fold to 3,000 hectares this year. Slovakia has more than doubled its GMO cultivation to 1,900 hectares.

In 2008, the Czech Republic planted GM crops on 8,380 hectares (68% increase) and Germany cultivated GM crops on 3,173 hectares (39% increase). Portugal and Spain experienced increases of GMO acreage of 8% and 5%, cultivating on 4,851 and 79,269 hectares respectively. Accordingly, Spain is still the EU country with the largest cultivation area of GM maize.


Toxicity-Resistant Crops

- Mason Inman, Technology Review, October 02, 2008 (Hat Tip: Henry Miller)

'Researchers have engineered aluminum-tolerant crops.'

Much of the world's cropland contains aluminum that stunts crops. But a new study has found a way to make plants grow tall in spite of the metal's toxic effects. The discovery, by plant biologists at the University of California, Riverside, suggests that genetic engineering could boost yields from fields that today are not ideal for growing crops.

Aluminum is common in soils--it's a major component of clay--but only in acidic soils does the metal form an ion that can dissolve into liquids and that's toxic to plants. Acidic soils make up as much as half the world's croplands, however, and aluminum toxicity is the main factor holding back crop growth in nearly 20 percent of the world's arable soils, including large areas of the United States east of the Mississippi River and northwestern Europe.

"The problem is, we have all these crop plants--wheat and corn and barley and so on--that didn't evolve or get developed on aluminum-toxic soils," study leader and professor of biochemistry [ http://biochemistry.ucr.edu/faculty/larsen.html ] Paul Larsen says. "They don't have natural resistance or tolerance to aluminum." Plant breeders are working on developing strains that can cope better with toxic aluminum, but they have only been able to make incremental improvements, Larsen says.

In a study in [ http://www.current-biology.com/ ] Current Biology, Larsen and his colleague Megan Rounds have uncovered a simple mutation to a single gene that makes plants thrive in spite of levels of aluminum that would normally be toxic. Larsen and Rounds found the gene, called AtATR, by combing through mutants of Arabidopsis, a member of the mustard family that's commonly used in plant-genetics studies. The gene is related to a family of proteins known to help with finding and responding to DNA damage in nearly all multicellular organisms.

Toxic aluminum ions are known to damage DNA, and the new study suggests that plants respond by shutting down growth of cells in the tips of their roots when they accumulate too much DNA damage. Plants may have evolved this response to help them, over generations, cope with aluminum's toxic effects, Larsen speculates. But in the short run, it means that the plants are less healthy and are stunted and more vulnerable to stressors such as droughts.

But the newly identified mutation inactivates the AtATR protein, so cells don't respond to DNA damage by shutting down cell division, thereby bypassing that checkpoint, Larsen says. "The plant is effectively blind to what's happening in the cell." So the mutant plants can maintain high levels of growth in the presence of toxic levels of aluminum, even if they sustain some DNA damage.

It is not yet clear how much DNA damage the plants sustain, Larsen says. But the strategy could work to promote short-term growth even if it would sacrifice the plants' DNA. To avoid DNA damage accumulating over generations of growing on aluminum-rich soils, farmers could obtain seeds from mutant plants grown on aluminum-free soil. This would mirror how farmers in industrialized countries use hybrid seeds from agribusinesses rather than saving their own seeds for planting further generations of crops.

"The work provides the first compelling evidence for a mechanism that explains the toxic effect of [aluminum] on root growth," says plant biologist [ http://www.csiro.au/people/ps1pl.html ] Manny Delhaize of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Plant Industry Center, in Canberra, Australia. "There have been numerous theories about how aluminum arrests root growth, and this work provides convincing evidence regarding the molecular process involved." Delhaize says that another method of keeping the growth rates high, while limiting any DNA damage, might be to engineer plants so that their root tips express molecules that would inactivate AtATR.

However, such a targeted approach may not be necessary, Larsen argues. Even after growing the mutant plants on aluminum-containing soils for several generations, there are "no obvious deleterious effects on growth, viability, [or] seed production," he says.


U.S. Government Seeks New Solutions to Combat Global Hunger Crisis

- Howard LaFranchi The Christian Science Monitor Oct 1, 2008

'Proposals include improved seed types, better roads, and more-efficient irrigation systems.'

New York - Insufficient food production is one factor in the food crisis hitting much of the developing world - yet it is also true that some African farmers see 70 percent of their production lost before it reaches the market. And irrigation will be part of the answer to feeding hungry populations - even though in much of Africa 90 percent of freshwater already goes to agriculture.

Solving such conundrums will be the key to meeting the world's food needs, says Henrietta Fore, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, or USAID. The world faces a food security crisis that this year spawned riots in parts of the developing world, and is expected to challenge the world's poor with high prices for at least the next half-decade, she says.

"Food production is one challenge, but many of the problems are not actually the production of food but things like transportation, storage, and efficient use of resources," says Ms. Fore, who took the US effort in the food crisis to the United Nations to coincide with a global summit last week on ending global poverty by 2015. "In many ways it's a matter of getting the solutions that exist out there."

But the overseer of the US government's $5.5 billion program for fighting global hunger also says the world has something of a road map for the challenge in the first Green Revolution of the 1960s. The difference this time, she and others involved in the US effort add, will be the participation of the private companies with the know-how for meeting many of the specific problems.

"The first [Green Revolution] was all the public sector," says Elsa Murano, president of Texas A&M University, one of the universities that spawned the first revolution in food production that transformed parts of Asia in particular. "The second has to add the private sector to it."

Part of the $1.8 billion increase in food security aid President Bush announced this year targets emergency needs in places like Haiti, Egypt, and sub-Saharan Africa. Some countries, like Haiti, were hit by devastating storms, while others were hit by suddenly sharper food prices. The US has offered aid to Cuba in response to recent storms there, but so far the government has refused it.

But another part, Fore says, will go toward addressing the problem with solutions such as improved seed types, better roads, more efficient irrigation systems, and technology transfers involving things like cold-storage facilities. "All these areas are where our private partners come in," says Fore, who held a series of discussions on "agriculture partnerships" in New York.

One participant was Monsanto chairman Hugh Grant, who speaks enthusiastically of new corn varieties that will "sip water instead of gulping it," and of a "technology skip" that will allow African countries to benefit from the next generation of high-yield seeds and other agricultural technologies.

Discussing world hunger is often "a depressing conversation, but I don't think it should be," says Mr. Grant. Recalling a time when the world wondered "if India would ever be able to feed itself," he adds, "Now we almost take for granted an expansion in India's economy that's happened in a generation."

The companies like Monsanto, John Deere and Cargill participating in USAID's partnerships are not acting on "pure philanthropy," Grant says. In a similar way, the US is not simply acting out of compassion when it spends billions on world hunger.

In response to concerns about American food assistance in the midst of a deep financial crisis, Fore says "Our aid will continue to move because it's a reflection of the compassion of the American people." Others note that America's national interests are also served when global hunger and poverty fall. "We want to lift all the boats," says Texas A&M's President Murano, "because it's in our national security interest to do so."


The World'S Poor: A Broad Alliance Is Trying To Help

- Jeffrey D. Sachs, New York Times, Spt 27, 2008

To the Editor: Paul Collier ("A Measure of Hope," Op-Ed, Sept. 22) writes that the Millennium Development Goals "are devoid of strategy; their only remedy is more aid." This statement is divorced from reality, and insults the broad alliance of impoverished communities, global companies, civil society and international organizations, and governments of poor countries, that are deploying innovative and effective strategies to fight extreme poverty, hunger and disease.

Highly effective strategies have been deployed for malaria control, AIDS treatment, school feeding programs using locally produced foods, an African Green Revolution, emergency obstetrical care, safe delivery and neonatal survival, village-based interventions, safe drinking water, the use of information and communication technology in rural and urban settings, and much more.

The challenge is not a lack of strategy, but the chronic failure of rich countries to finance the scaling up of these effective strategies despite their promises to do just that.

No one is standing still waiting for the missing aid from rich-country governments. Leading companies like Ericsson, General Electric, Sumitomo Chemical, Monsanto, Yara and Pepsico have joined low-income governments and N.G.O.'s in the effort. When the long-promised aid finally arrives, millions of lives will be saved, and the world will become considerably safer and more prosperous.

- Jeffrey D. Sachs, New York, Sept. 23, 2008

The writer is special adviser to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.


Vietnam: Certain Crops Require Genetic Modification: Scientists

- Vietnam Net Bridge, October 1, 2008 http://english.vietnamnet.vn/tech/2008/10/806498/

Maize, soybean, cassava, and potato are crops that Vietnam needs to genetically modify to improve productivity as soon as possible, said Dr. Nguyen Quoc Binh, Deputy Director of the HCM City Biotechnology Centre, at a seminar jointly held by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the US Embassy in Vietnam on September 29.

According to Binh, genetic modification needs to be applied to stimulate the productivity of these plants because they are major ingredients in animal feed. Vietnam should not apply genetic modification to other crops like pepper, rice, and coffee yet because they are major export items of Vietnam.

Some Vietnamese scientists presented reports about genetic modification research works, for example Dr. Tran Thi Cuc Hoa from the Mekong Delta Rice Institute, who introduced a study about an insect-resistant soybean variety.

In Vietnam, genetic modification has been used on rice, maize and cotton. Vietnam allows the development of genetically-modified plants and animals. The Vietnamese Prime Minister recently approved a pilot programme to develop and apply biotechnology in agriculture and animal husbandry to 2020. Under this plan, Vietnam will put some genetically-modified crops in mass production and then clone animals. Annually the state budget will spend around VND100 billion ($6.25 million) on this programme.

Certainly, 100% of genetically-modified products sold in the market must be supervised and meet Vietnamese standards and over 50% of the population must have information about and contribute their opinions on the granting of bio-safety certificates to these products.

According to a Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development survey announced at a seminar in September 2007, most animal feed samples taken from the market contained a certain amount of genetically-modified food (maize and soybean). Most of these products were legally imported through joint-venture companies.

In Vietnam, some varieties of genetically-modified maize are grown alongside normal maize in HCM City, Dong Nai and Binh Duong. These varieties were brought to Vietnam by foreign companies. Farmers in the southern-central region and the Central Highlands have planted genetically-modified cotton.

At a workshop on genetically-modified crops held by the Agricultural Genetics Institute and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) in early 2008, scientists and officials said that there were no accurate statistics about the area and the varieties of genetically-modified trees in Vietnam.

Prof., Dr. Vo Tong Xuan, a Vietnamese member of ISAAA, said while many countries have strongly developed genetically-modified trees, many others are still hesitant because they don't thoroughly understand genetically-modified trees and their advantages. But, are genetically-modified products safe? Scientists say many international scientific organisations have researched and concluded that genetically-modified food is safe.

Dr. Randy Hautea, global coordinator of the ISAAA, said in the US, genetically-modified food accounts for up to 70% of the food on the market. A total of 674 genetically-modified products had been approved by 53 countries for sale in their markets by November 2007. The first genetically-modified plants were commercialised in 1993-1994.


Australia's New Era for GM Crops

- Elizabeth Finkel, Science, Vol. 321. no. 5896, p. 1629; September 19, 2008 http://www.sciencemag.org

The new leaders of Western Australia have promised to rescind a moratorium on transgenic crops that has put a damper on R&D

CANBERRA--Australia's 2-century-long effort to adapt wheat to its arid heartland has made it a research leader on this staple grain. Hoping to draw from that expertise, Thomas Lumpkin, director general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in El Batán, Mexico, exhorted scientists in Australia to develop genetically modified (GM) wheat resistant to pests and tolerant to salty soil at a Crawford conference here earlier this month. GM varieties, he said, could boost global wheat yields, which had grown by up to 2.5% a year in the 1990s but have risen only 1% a year in the past decade.

Australian scientists may soon be able to take up that gauntlet. Four years ago, the governing Labor Party in Western Australia (WA), the country's breadbasket, banned growing GM crops in the state. But after elections last week, the Liberal and National parties formed a coalition that will oust Labor--and the Liberals have promised to rescind the GM moratorium. "It's an exciting time for agricultural R&D," says Mike Jones, director of the WA State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre in Perth.

The surprising election outcome is the latest boost for transgenic crops in Australia. Five years ago, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator and Food Standards Australia and New Zealand approved GM canola as safe for the environment and for consumption. In 2004, four canola-growing states, arguing that a GM-free label would deliver premium export prices, banned GM canola. Two states--New South Wales and Victoria--lifted their bans earlier this year.

But WA's anti-GM stance has taken a heavy toll. "The political climate has driven out agricultural biotech investment in the state. Venture capital has dried up, the major companies are walking away, and so are the scientists," says Ian Edwards, former CEO of Grain Biotech Australia in Bull Creek, WA. Edwards founded the company in 1998 to address WA's most pressing problem: salt. Much of the state's wheat is grown on saline land that drags down wheat yields by as much as 20%. Grain Biotech Australia developed GM wheat with a salt-resistance gene cloned from the Arabidopsis plant. An early-stage field trial 3 years ago of the salt-tolerant wheat had promising results, Edwards says. But WA's moratorium on commercialization of GM crops deterred investors and salt-resistant wheat is languishing on a shelf, he adds.

WA's outgoing government had argued that the GM-free label is a boon, but an analysis last May by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics showed that the reverse is true. The federal agency estimated that WA would forfeit AUS$180 million in revenue over the next 10 years if it continues to outlaw herbicide-resistant GM canola, which produces higher yields at lower costs. The bureau predicts that if Australia as a whole forgoes new GM wheat and canola varieties, that could lop $918 million a year off its GNP in a fiercely competitive world market by 2018.

Although South Australia also has a moratorium on growing GM crops, research and development is flourishing there. The trace element boron, at elevated soil levels, stunts plant growth. Last year, a team led by Peter Langridge, CEO of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics in Glen Osmond, identified a gene conferring boron tolerance in barley (Science, 30 November 2007, p. 1446). A barley variety with that gene is now in field trials. The center is also testing GM barley that produces more beta glucan, a component of dietary fiber linked to lower rates of colorectal cancer and heart disease. "We're 5 to 10 years off from having a commercial crop," says Langridge. "Our hope is that the moratorium will be lifted by then."

Victoria's move to lift its moratorium has certainly buoyed researchers' spirits in the state, which is home to Australia's dairy industry. Scientists there are tweaking pasture clover and ryegrass to reduce the amount of methane cows release during digestion; nearly one-eighth of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions are from cows. The Molecular Plant Breeding Cooperative Research Centre, based in Bundoora, with outposts across Australia, has several GM varieties in field trials in Victoria. One is ryegrass engineered to produce less lignin and more fructan, which leads to less fermentation in the cow's stomach and hence less methane. In Victoria's private sector, Hexima Limited, a biotech firm based in Melbourne, formed an alliance last month with DuPont's Pioneer Hi-Bred International to commercialize fungus-resistance technologies for corn and soybeans.

The state with the sunniest outlook, perhaps, is Queensland, which has never had a GM ban. "The government has been very aggressive in the development of biotechnology," says James Dale of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. Here the main objective is to protect Australia's AUS$300 million banana industry. Bananas are under threat from Fusarium wilt and a second fungal disease, black sigatoka. Last October, tropical race 4, a virulent new strain of Fusarium wilt that has decimated plantations across Asia, slipped into Australia's Northern Territory. Dale's group is about to start trials of fungus-resistant bananas.

The embrace of GM in other parts of Australia--and abroad--makes some WA scientists envious. "When I see hundreds of thousands of small farmers in [India] sowing GM crops, it's very disheartening to come back to WA," says Jones. That is about to change: The Australian state that may need GM technology the most should now have a chance to benefit.
Elizabeth Finkel is a writer in Melbourne, Australia.


Australia: Greenpeace Funded GM Survey Back Fires

CropLife Australia via Truth About Trade & Technology and Agnet, Sept 30. 2008


A Newspoll funded by professional GM opponents, Greenpeace, has backfired despite their attempts to "spin" the results. While the survey was purported to show that 9 out of 10 Australians wanted "better" labelling of GM foods, that proportion actually said that they wanted the foods to be labelled. Australia already has some of the strongest GM food labelling laws in the world, requiring GM foods to be labelled if there is altered DNA or protein in the final product or it has a different characteristic to the conventional food. Survey respondents DID NOT say they were dissatisfied with these labelling arrangements.

Another clumsy sleight of hand was attempted when the green activists pointed to the 2% of respondents who said they were more likely to buy a product if they knew it contained GM ingredients, as opposed to a majority of 54% who said they were less likely to buy it. In doing so, our attention was meant to be diverted from the 44% of Australians who, even when prompted, do not care whether food contains GM ingredients or not. These Australians are not concerned about GM food because GM ingredients approved by Australian regulators are safe to eat.

These findings align with a survey taken earlier this year of 1200 Australian consumers by the independent food regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). Asked to choose from a list of "what information do you usually look for" on a lwabel, people nominated the "use by" date (73.1%), country of origin (59.1%) and calories (38.0%), fats, sugars and additives. People said they looked for 16 other things on the label before they looked for GM content.

The FSANZ survey also found that people are much more interested in the fat, sugar and salt content of their food than whether it is GM. When asked "which types of foods do you have concerns about?", only 2.9 percent nominated GM food whereas 24.7% mentioned the safety of fresh fruit or vegetables. Other food concerns were meat (18.8%), raw chicken (17.9%), fish (12%) and imported foods (11.9%).
Until recently, professional opponents to GM crops were claiming that Australia should not grow GM crops because there were no export markets for them. Having been proven wrong, they have changed tack and are now trying to whip up a scare campaign about GM food.

GM crops have been more extensively studied and assessed for safety than any other food. A report commissioned by the European Union (who have long been sceptical about GM crops) that was released earlier this month looked at all available toxicity studies, multi-generation animal feeding studies and health assessments of people who have consumed GM food.

The EU experts concluded in their report that there has been no demonstration of any negative health effects from GM food and the evidence is comprehensive that existing GM foods are as safe as conventionally produced food. This same conclusion has been reached by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, the Australian Academy of Sciences and at least 7 other national science bodies. It is precisely because of the well established safety of GM foods, and Australia's strong and credible regulatory system, that a growing number of Australians are unconcerned about GM foods.


Kenya: Country Set to Adopt Biotechnology

- Sammy Cheboi ,The Nation (Nairobi) , September 28, 2008 <http://allafrica.com/stories/200809290334.html>http://allafrica.com/stories/200809290334.html

Kenya is set to adopt the controversial biotechnology as a means of boosting food production, Agriculture minister William Ruto has said. This is despite opposition from some stakeholders who have raised their concerns of safety of genetically modified foods.

Biotechnology is good agricultural production and those opposed to it are either acting out of misinformation or selfish interests, the minister added. "There are no miracles. If we have to produce more, we must embrace the technology. As a country, we have the option of adopting it to fight hunger or rejecting it and perishing," Mr Ruto cautioned.

He spoke during the official launch of National Biotechnology Awareness strategy for 2008-2012 at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre. Genetically modified (GM) foods are products that have had their DNA directly altered through genetic engineering. Unlike conventional genetic modification that is carried out through time-tested breeding and whose food has been consumed for thousands of years, GM foods were first put on the market in the early 1990s.

Mr Ruto challenged multinational companies opposed to the adoption of the technology to provide alternative methods of increasing food production. He said it was unfortunate that fierce opponents of genetic modification were themselves beneficiaries of the same.

"Biotechnology is the way to go if we are to confront its opponents. It is time we set our country free from superstitions and myths on any new developments," he said. And he posed; "we are pursuing disease resistant, early maturing and high yielding crop varieties. What other options are multinationals offering the country?" He said the country's need for more and cheap food that is safe to the people and the environment must not be hijacked by parties with vested interests.

Controversies surrounding genetically engineered crops and foods commonly focus on the long-term health effects for consumers, environmental safety, labelling and consumer choice, intellectual property rights, ethics, food security, poverty reduction and potential disruption or even possible destruction of the food chain.

The strategy is in response to Cabinet approval of the National Biotechnology Development Policy which aims at raising awareness and understanding for informed decision making. Mr Ruto said the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology had prepared a Biosafety Bill to be tabled in Parliament to regulate, guide safe use and transfer as well as commercialise biotechnology in the country.


Canada: Modified Crops the Way of The Future

- Bruce Johnstone, Regina Leader-Post (Canada), Sept 26, 2008

More genetically modified crops must be developed if agricultural producers are to meet the challenge of global food shortages and climate change, a Biotech Week event was told Thursday. "Technology prevented mass starvation in the 20th Century,'' said David Dennis, CEO of Performance Plants Inc., which operates plant biotechnology facilities in Kingston, Ont., Saskatoon and New York.

"Technology will solve the problems of the 21st Century, I believe,'' added Dennis, a former Queen's University plant scientist, who founded PPI in 1995. Dennis said the global agriculture industry is facing a number of challenges, namely water shortages, climate change and yield volatility that threaten to cause large-scale crop failures and mass starvation.

Agriculture biotechnology -- genetically modifying plants to improve their productivity, size and resistance to drought and disease -- could provide the solution to these challenges, he added. For example, PPI has used gene-modification technology to improve crop yields in corn, canola and soybeans by 15 to 25 per cent by improving their drought resistance.

GM technology has also been used to help protect crops from heat stress and use water more efficiently, as well as increase biomass and carbohydrate content for biofuels crops. Contrary to popular misconception, GM-modified crops have "no negative impacts'' on the quality, safety or quantity of the food they produce, Dennis added. "The technology works under a lot of conditions. There appears to be no negative impact of the technology at all."

Daren Coppock, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers in the U.S., said widespread production of GM-modified wheat could help offset the steadily declining acreage of cropland sown to wheat in the U.S. "Seven of the last 10 years, we've consumed more wheat locally (in the U.S.) than we've produced. You just can't keep doing that without having a market response.''

Corn and soybeans are moving west and north into traditional wheat-growing areas in the U.S., pushing wheat acres to 30-year lows, Coppock said. "Even under the most optimistic scenario, (one expert) does not see wheat acres exceeding 50 million when it used to be almost 80 (million)."

The need to improve crop yields is another "compelling case for biotechnology," Coppock added. While wheat yields have remained "flat" at around 40 bushels per acre, corn yields have been expanding four times faster -- thanks to biotechnology, he said. "The longer we wait to deal with this problem, the bigger the hole we've dug for ourselves. That's why there's a sense of urgency by our producers to get this (biotechnology) ball rolling as soon as we can.''

But even if GM-modified wheat varieties were approved tomorrow, it would take 10 years to get them into production, he added. "Our board has set a goal of a 20-per-cent yield increase in 10 years, with the fundamental assumption that biotech commercialization is part of that answer. We won't get there without it.''


Second-Generation Bt Cotton Field Trials in Burkina Faso: Analyzing the Potential Benefits to West African Farmers

- Jeffrey Vitalea et al., Crop Sci 48:1958-1966 (2008) (jeffrey.vitale@okstate.edu) http://crop.scijournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/48/5/1958

Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum L.) genetically modified to express protein(s) derived from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), and specifically toxic to caterpillar (Lepidoptera) pests, has been sold commercially since 1996. On the continent of Africa, only South Africa has approved the commercial use of Bt cotton. Recently, over three field seasons (2003-2005), second-generation Bt cotton (Bollgard II, Monsanto Co., St. Louis, MO) was tested in confined field trials in the west African country of Burkina Faso. Observations of pest density, seed cotton yields, and the cost of insecticide sprays were evaluated in an economic model under a wide range of theoretical Bt technology cost premiums to determine the potential relative profitability of Bt cotton and conventional cotton.

Results averaged over three seasons indicate a Bollgard II yield advantage of 15% under conditions of low to moderate lepidopteran pest pressure, while insecticide sprays were reduced by two-thirds in the Bt cotton plots. According to the economic model, Bollgard II remained profitable to the grower throughout the range of theoretical technology premiums evaluated ($0-75 per hectare) and was represented by economic gains of $79 to 154 per hectare. Due mainly to the relatively low pest densities encountered at these research sites, the authors suggest that the model results presented may, in fact, underestimate the profitability of Bt cotton in Burkina Faso.


GMO Authorisation Procedure in the EU: The Next Reform?


"On paper there is a clear division between science and politics. But the reality is different."

The EU legal framework and the procedure for authorising genetically modified crops are being criticised and some member states have made various reform proposals. GMO Safety spoke to Maria Weimer, a PhD student at the European University Institute in Florence.

Maria Weimer is a law graduate and has been researching the way the law deals with new technologies, scientific uncertainty and risks for years. She is currently completing her PhD at the European University Institute in Florence in which she is researching the application of the precautionary principle in the EU regulation of GMOs. Her other research areas are public administration law, EU law and governance. In the past she has also worked as a journalist for NDR and Spiegel magazine in Hamburg.

GMO Safety: For several years there has been a binding EU-wide legal framework for the authorisation of genetically modified organisms (GMO s). Some member states are obviously unhappy with it and have announced proposals for a reform. What are the criticisms?

Maria Weimer: The criticism is wide-ranging. First of all, a distinction needs to be made between criticism of the work of the scientific body for food safety (EFSA ) and criticisms that relate to risk management, i.e. the work of the Commission and Council. The key points of the criticism concern the independence of EFSA, the insufficient involvement of national experts in risk assessment and the decision-making blockades in the Council.

First of all, we need to be clear about one thing: the procedure that we have today was agreed on in 2001 and 2003 by the then member states. This means that they were the principal authors of the current legal framework along with the European Parliament. Insofar they shared responsibility for the procedure. Today many member states, perhaps even a majority of them, are severely critical of the procedure regulations. Yet the scientific situation has not really changed very much. There are no significantly new scientific findings on risks posed by genetically modified products.

GMO Safety: The current authorisation procedure for GMOs does not inspire confidence. EFSA's scientific safety assessment is used as a basis for drawing up a decision proposal, but the member states block each other in the Council of Ministers when it comes to a vote. Some of them are in favour while others are against. How can we get out of this situation?

Maria Weimer: By first of all realising what is causing the blockade. From a legal point of view one could say that the majority situation, as currently provided for in the procedure, is not an effective way of arriving at a political decision. The ministers have to achieve a qualified majority if they want to accept or reject the Commission's decision proposal. Because the risk management procedure states that the Council should not take the final decision on its own, and neither should the Commission. Rather, both should decided together.

One could consider whether the majority situation should be changed in future. However, I think that this problem is only superficial. At the end of the day, what lies behind it is the confusion of the debates and the mixing of political and scientific arguments.
"This mood cannot be changed by scientific expert opinion alone."

GMO Safety: Political debates about plant genetic engineering often take the form of apparently scientific disputes. Sometimes one has the impression that scientific findings e.g. about the safety of GM plants, are undermined by political decisions. How could one achieve a better, clearer separation between the scientific and political levels?

Maria Weimer: I think that it is a difficult relationship. Firstly, under the current legal situation there is a wonderfully clear separation between science and politics at the procedural level. This was in fact one of the key aims of the last reform: EFSA is exclusively responsible for the scientific risk assessment and the Commission and the Council for risk management, in other words for the decision in favour of authorisation or against it, based of course on the risk assessment. In other words, the separation exists on paper. Unfortunately, the reality is somewhat different, both within the decision-making process and in the debates carried out within the member states.

I think people hope science will give a legitimacy that is otherwise difficult to obtain. At the end of the day, a much more pressing issue than the scientific concerns about environmental and health risks is that of whether EU citizens want GMO products. It seems to me that people do not want them, which is understandable: They don't see the advantage to them; they don't see why they should get involved with the uncertainty of this new technology. This mood is reported as something that can be changed by scientific expert opinion. Politicians should really be more open about it and hold a political debate about the advantages and disadvantages of GMOs for society.

GMO Safety: If there are no obvious safety problems, legally the member states have hardly any leeway to object to a GMO product. Yet politically, governments want to take their own decisions taking into account the attitude of the population. Can this area of conflict be resolved?

Maria Weimer: There are no simple solutions here, but it is clear that the harmonised legal framework, and the fact that the member states belong to the World Trade Organization (WTO) mean that the member states can go their own way only if there are new scientific findings. Through the WTO the member states have committed themselves to not allowing any trade restrictions that do not have a scientific justification. This is also the thinking behind the harmonised legal framework that the member states agreed at the time. With it, they surrendered their authority in this area to the EU and submitted to stricter requirements concerning unilateral actions at national level. The aim was in fact to enable free trade in GMO products whilst ensuring a high level of health safety---------

More at http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/debate/657.docu.html


Genetically Engineered, Organically Grown?

- Pamela Ronald, Sarah Hake, UC DAVIS


Sustainable farming practices seek to: * Provide safe and nutritious food; * Minimally impact the environment; * Provide healthful conditions for farm workers; * Be profitable for farmers; * Foster ecological farming practices; * Benefit the local community; and * Improve the lives of the poor and malnourished

We see significant potential for GE crops to be integrated into and be a part of sustainable farming practices, just as organic practices will play a role. Through continued dialogue, we can enhance the world's ability to cope with the problems of pesticide use, fertilizer contamination of the environment, loss of topsoil, hunger, disease and environmental degradation.


An Open Mind Wants More: Opinion Strength and the Desire for Genetically Modified Food Labeling Policy

- Radas, Sonja; Teisl, Mario F; Roe, Brian, Journal Of Consumer Affairs, Vol. 42(3), Pages 335-361 (Thanks to Vivian Moses). Excerpts below. http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/121390299/abstract

ABSTRACT: Two opposing viewpoints exist in the literature; some suggest consumers are unconcerned and do not desire any genetically modified labeling, while others indicate the opposite. The mixed results may be because consumers make finer distinctions than surveys have called for, and have evaluation schemes sensitive to information about the benefits and risks associated with genetically modified foods. We find consumers are quite nuanced in their preferences for genetically modified labeling policy. Unexpectedly, consumers with less-defined views desire mandatory labeling of the most stringent type, while consumers with stronger viewpoints (either pro- or con-genetically modified) are more relaxed in their labeling requirements.

===== Two opposing viewpoints exist in the literature; some suggest consumers are unconcerned and do not desire any genetically modified labeling, while others indicate the opposite. The mixed results may be because consumers make finer distinctions than surveys have called for, and have evaluation schemes sensitive to information about the benefits and risks associated with genetically modified foods. We find consumers are quite nuanced in their preferences for genetically modified labeling policy. Unexpectedly, consumers with less-defined views desire mandatory labeling of the most stringent type, while consumers with stronger viewpoints (either pro- or con-genetically modified) are more relaxed in their labeling requirements.

CONCLUSIONS: We uncover three segments of respondents with different attitudes to the risks and benefits of GM foods. One segment is very worried about potential health risks and does not consider potential benefits as important, while another is almost a mirror image, relatively positive about benefits while rating risks as much less important. The last and largest segment finds both benefits and risks as important and, unlike the other two segments, does not seem to hold strong opinions for or against GM foods.

The analysis supports the contention that attitudes toward new technologies are likely to be nuanced (Fein, Levy, and Teisl 2002; Fischhoff and Fischhoff 2001) and we find these nuanced attitudes translate into differences in the desired form of information policy. For example, we find the respondent segments are quite different in their preferences for the scope and strictness of GM testing and labeling policy, who should be in charge of such programs and the types of information to be placed on a GM label. These differences in preferences imply potential conflict across consumers for any one specific GM labeling policy.

This heterogeneity also has implications for research. The presence of different respondent segments indicates that survey efforts that draw samples inappropriately, or cause respondents from the different segments to differ in their response rates, could lead to incorrect interpretation of aggregate or average results. This could help explain the different viewpoints noted in the literature. For example, the segment of the population least concerned with GM foods also exhibits very different preferences for labeling policy than the other two groups. Yet, according to standard research theory (Brehm 1993; Groves, Singer, and Corning 2000; VanBeselaere 2003), this group is the least likely to respond to a GM foods survey.2 As a result, aggregate survey results may indicate a strong desire for a strict labeling policy, whereas reactions in the marketplace or in the political arena may be more muted.

In addition, the fact that the largest respondent segment is the most desirous of, and open-minded about, both positive and negative GM information may help explain the mixed results found in the literature. That is, it is likely that information provided in a survey instrument, or the framing of a question, could have a big influence on survey responses, especially with these open-minded respondents. Analogously, this would imply that the dynamics in a GM food market are still relatively fluid as a large proportion of consumers may be still open to new information.

1. Initial factor analysis led to the dropping of two benefit ("increased vitamins and minerals," "increased antioxidant levels") and five risk ("control of agriculture by biotechnology companies," "ethical issues with genetic modification," "risks to species diversity," "damage to topsoil," "risks to wildlife and insects") variables. For brevity, only the final factor analysis results are provided.

2. Our data do not support a test of nonresponse bias but we were able to test whether respondents across segments differed in how quickly they responded to the surveys. Even after controlling for demographic characteristics, food shopping frequency, and general food-related concerns, we find that risk avoiders are more likely to respond to earlier survey mailings.
Sonja Radas is a senior research associate at the Institute of Economics, Zagreb, Croatia (sradas@eizg.hr). Mario F. Teisl - University of Maine, Orono, ME (teisl@maine.edu). Brian Roe - Ohio State University, Columbus (roe.30@osu.edu).


Cambridge Botanist Awarded 'America's Nobel' Prize


David Baulcombe, the Professor of Botany at Cambridge University, is being honoured with the 2008 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research for his discovery of how tiny RNA molecules govern gene activity through a process known as RNA silencing.

RNA (ribonucleic acid) is found in all living things, and is very similar to DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). If DNA is the blueprint for all life, then RNA delivers the instructions to the builders so they can make the necessary components for life, namely proteins. The award is for the discovery of a new class of small RNA that regulates gene expression. In 1993, very tiny RNAs had been detected in worms by Victor Ambros and Gary Ruvkun in the US, who share this year's Lasker Award with David Baulcombe. At the time, the short RNAs were thought to be a peculiarity specific to worms.

However, in 1999, Baulcombe and a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory, Andrew Hamilton, devised a hunt specifically for small RNAs in plant cells containing foreign genes. First they added foreign genes into plant cells either in the form of transgenes or as viruses and they then looked for the small RNAs. They did indeed find them but only under conditions in which the foreign genes were inactive. It was this crucial observation that then led them to propose that the small RNA were essential components in gene silencing mechanisms.

This discovery suggested that small RNAs exist in many organisms and hinted at the presence of a cellular machinery that creates these precisely-sized molecules and then uses them to silence gene activity. Baulcombe's research group has subsequently identified other components of this cellular machinery and characterised small RNA systems as natural weapons that can protect against virus disease.

Now, laboratories all over the world study these RNAs; the tiny molecules control a vast number of genes in plants as well as animals, and play roles in human health and disease, including cancer and viral infections. The presence of these molecules can be used to diagnose disease. In future, it may be possible to deliver small RNA as a drug to treat disease.

The unusual award of a Lasker to a botanist reflects the commonality of basic mechanisms in biology. Inside a plant cell there are many processes taking place that are very similar to those inside animals. The Lasker Awards, sometimes referred to as 'America's Nobels,' are awarded to scientists and physicians who had made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure and prevention of human disease.

Since the first prize was awarded in 1946, 75 recipients have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, including many Cambridge scientists such as Watson and Crick, Hans Krebs, and Frederick Sanger.