Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on
ag-biotech.


Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives

Subscribe

 


SEARCH:     

Date:

October 14, 2008

Subject:

Meeting the Challenge, Bug Resistance to Bt, Inside the Controversy; A Green Revolution for Africa; Plants' Rights; Norway Conquers Zambia

 

* Meeting the Challenge to Feed the World
* Insect Resistance to Bt toxins - Nature Biotech Letters
* Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food
* Biotech Makes Eggplants Resistant to Devastating Insects
* A Green Revolution for Africa?
* Switzerland's Green Power Revolution: Ethicists Ponder Plants' Rights
* Letters To the Editor, Irish Farmers Journal re Minister Sargent
* Norway Completes Conquest of Zambia
* Reinventing the Termnator

======
Meeting the Challenge to Feed the World

- Dean Kleckner, October 10, 2008 http://www.truthabouttrade.org/

The U.S. presidential election is less than a month away--which makes this as good a time as any to remember that politics isn't everything. No matter who is in or out of power in Washington, India, Brazil or the UK, we'll always need farmers.

In "Gulliver's Travels," author Jonathan Swift tried to put things in perspective: "Whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."

That's the spirit behind next week's third annual Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable, sponsored by Truth About Trade and Technology and coinciding with the World Food Prize in Des Moines. We're bringing together 21 farmers from 20 countries on six continents.

The vision is to build a global network of farmers who support and will promote access to technology for all farmers, regardless of where they're from, how much they harvest, what their governments tell them they can or cannot grow, or even the agronomic practices they use.

The goal hardly could be more important. The head of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Jacques Diouf, recently said that the world must double its food production by 2050. "We are facing a challenge of enormous proportions," he said. He called for spending $30 billion per year to achieve this goal.

There's no guarantee that goal can be met. Farmers grow more food today than at any point in human history, but the number of malnourished people in the world actually jumped by 75 million last year. The culprit is soaring food prices: Demand is rising relative to supply.

The answer is to increase supply. The solutions involve a more robust trading environment, improved infrastructure, and better equipment. Fertilizer is critical, too. Says Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and founder of the World Food Prize: "Without fertilizer, forget it. The game is over."

The crucial element, however, may be biotechnology. Genetically modified crops are a proven method of boosting yield without requiring more land, chemicals or fuel. Very soon, GM plants may also require less water.

Yet access to it varies from place to place. The farmers that we're hosting in Iowa next week are diverse not just in geography, but also in their ability to use biotechnology.

Enrique Duhau of Argentina runs a huge farming operation--190,000 acres of corn and soybeans. Because Argentina accepts biotechnology, the vast majority of his crops are genetically enhanced. Yet his nation's export tariffs make it difficult to sell what he grows to foreign buyers.

"Countries should be open to foreign trade, because trade benefits all parties involved," says Duhau. "Markets are quite closed in Argentina."

In Romania, Valentin Petrosu doesn't have to deal with sky-high export tariffs, but he wishes he had the same easy access to biotechnology that Duhau enjoys. A few years ago, Petrosu was allowed to plant biotech soybeans. Then his country banned them when they joined the EU, due to unfounded fears about their safety. "We had one good crop, and they took it away from us," he complains.

The farms of Duhau and Petrosu dwarf that of Mekala Velangan Reddy of India. He farms biotech cotton on a plot of 27 acres. He praises GMOs for how they have increased his yields and income. "We save time and pesticide sprays, there is more predictability, and stability of production," he says. "Biotech seeds can boost productivity, and improve the yields and status of India's farmers."

Another small-resource farmer, Alfred M. Nderitu of Kenya, dreams of using biotechnology on his farm. He recently visited South Africa, which has accepted biotech crops, and wishes his own country would pass legislation that allows farmers to take advantage of this tool of modern agriculture.

If we're going to meet the huge challenge of doubling food production by 2050, our governments will have to enable the success of Duhau, Petrosu, Reddy, and Nderitu. These farmers come from different circumstances and face different problems, but all would benefit from policies that unleash their potential to grow as much as they can.

Unfortunately, we can't rely on politicians to do the right thing for us. We farmers must take matters into our own hands--so that we can put food into the mouths of others.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org


===============

Substantial issues are being raised about insect resistance to Bt toxins. Watch this space----

- GMO Pundit a.k.a David Tribe , Oct 11, 2008 Via Agnet
http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/2008/10/substantial-issues-are-being-raised.html

There is an ongoing debate going on at Nature Biotechnology about an important issue -- the emergence of resistance to Bt toxins. It starts out with the following paper: Insect resistance to Bt crops: evidence versus theory. Tabashnik, B.E., Gassmann, A.J., Crowder, D.W. & Carrière, Y. Nat. Biotechnol. 26, 199-202 (2008).

Summary: Evolution of insect resistance threatens the continued success of transgenic crops producing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins that kill pests. The approach used most widely to delay insect resistance to Bt crops is the refuge strategy, which requires refuges of host plants without Bt toxins near Bt crops to promote survival of susceptible pests. However, large-scale tests of the refuge strategy have been problematic. Analysis of more than a decade of global monitoring data reveals that the frequency of resistance alleles has increased substantially in some field populations of Helicoverpa zea, but not in five other major pests in Australia, China, Spain and the United States. The resistance of H. zea to Bt toxin Cry1Ac in transgenic cotton has not caused widespread crop failures, in part because other tactics augment control of this pest. The field outcomes documented with monitoring data are consistent with the theory underlyin g the refuge strategy, suggesting that refuges have helped to delay resistance.

Several experienced workers in this field take issue with the interpretation in this paper and they have published a letter in nature biotechnology in this month. It starts as follows:

Field-evolved resistance to Bt toxins, Willam Moar, et. al., Nature Biotechnology 26, 1072 - 1074 (2008), doi:10.1038/nbt1008-1072,

An article by Tabashnik et al.[ABSTRACT PROVIDED ABOVE by the Pundit] in your February issue states that, for the first time, the frequency of resistant alleles has increased substantially and that there is field-evolved Bacillus thuringiensis toxin (Bt) resistance in bollworm, Helicoverpa zea (Boddie), in the United States because of the extensive use of Bt cotton. Tabashnik et al. base their conclusions on two publications by Randy Luttrell's laboratory in which Cry1Ac toxicity to numerous H. zea populations was evaluated: Luttrell et al.2 (before introduction of Bt cotton) and Ali et al.3 (after introduction of Bt cotton).

We emphatically disagree with the conclusions of Tabashnik et al. that the data published in these two articles demonstrate field-evolved resistance in H. zea for four reasons: first, the definition of Bt resistance used by Tabashnik et al. is purely laboratory based, whereas field efficacy and larval survival on plant tissues are the ultimate criteria for contextualizing laboratory-based estimates of resistance, and no change in Bt cotton efficacy has been documented during the past decade; second, larval samples should not be collected from Bt crops because they will not be representative of the population as a whole, especially for highly mobile insects such as H. zea; third, the data from Luttrell's laboratory on which Tabashnik et al. base their conclusions have been evaluated using LC50 (median lethal dose; 50%) values to measure resistance, which introduces artifacts into the analysis; and fourth, the baseline comparator used to assess variability in these laboratory assays is not representative of field suscep tibility; when a more appropriate comparator colony is employed, results from Luttrell's laboratory bioassays indicate no change in susceptibility. We discuss each of these aspects in turn below--- (Continues at Journal)

But there's more to say on this from the original papers' authors:
Field-evolved resistance to Bt toxins, Bruce E Tabashnik, et.al., Nature Biotechnology 26, 1074 - 1076 (2008),
doi:10.1038/nbt1008-1074,
Bruce E Tabashnik, Aaron J Gassman, David W Crowder & Yves Carrière reply:

We welcome the opportunity to confirm one of the main conclusions of our paper1: some field populations of a major cotton pest, Helicoverpa zea, evolved resistance to Cry1Ac, the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin (Bt) in first-generation transgenic Bt cotton (also called Bollgard cotton). This conclusion is based on extensive resistance monitoring data for 1992 to 2006 from five papers by Randall Luttrell and his collaborators2, 3, 4, 5, 6, including crucial information about field efficacy and larval survival on Bt cotton plants from three papers not cited by William Moar et al. above. These data show that the field-evolved resistance documented with laboratory diet bioassays (see Table 1 below) is associated with increased survival on Bt cotton leaves (Fig. 1) and control problems in the field2--(Continues in Journal )

The Pundit's thoughts:
It's great to see a real scientific debate rather than the flaky stuff we see most of time. This one should be watched closely and the issues will obviously not be decided by hasty off-the-cuff judgements.

=====================================

Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food

- New book by Lisa H. Weasel, Publisher: AMACOM (December 10, 2008) , $23, Hardcover: 256 pages, ISBN-10: 0814401643

More than ten years ago, the first genetically modified foods took their place on the shelves of American supermarkets. But while American consumers remained blissfully unconcerned with the new products that suddenly filled their kitchens, Europeans were much more wary of these "Frankenfoods." When famine struck Africa in 2002, several nations refused shipments of genetically modified foods, fueling a controversy that put the issue on the world's political agenda for good.

In Food Fray, esteemed molecular biologist Dr. Lisa H. Weasel brings readers into the center of this debate, capturing the real-life experiences of the scientists, farmers, policymakers and grassroots activists on the front lines. Here she combines solid scientific knowledge and a gripping narrative to tell the real story behind the headlines and the hype. Seminal and cutting-edge, Food Fray enlightens and informs and will allow readers to make up their own minds about one of the most important issues facing us today.

About the Author: Lisa H. Weasel, Ph.D.(Portland, OR) is a renowned scientist who received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the issue of genetically modified foods. She is currently a tenured associate Professor of Biology at Portland State University in Oregon and a member of Governor Ted Kulongoski's task force on developing public policy for bio-pharmaceutical crops in Oregon.

Review of the book in Publishers Weekly
http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6604015.html?industryid=47159

Eighty percent or more of all corn, cotton and soybeans grown in the United States consists of genetically modified (GM) varieties, according to Weasel. But she only gives these statistics at the end of her account of the battle over GM organisms, leaving readers till then with the impression that an equal "tug-of-war" is in progress. The author, a biologist at Portland State University in Oregon, also skimps on the science in the battle over whether genetically modified organisms and foods are safe for both the environment and people, focusing instead on the legal, political and emotional aspects of the tussle between big business, which claims that GM products can solve world hunger and reduce disease, and environmentalists asserting that bad science is being driven by corporate greed. She summarizes a number of the most important skirmishes, such as over golden rice (manipulated to have high levels of vitamin A) and the injection of artificial bovine growth hormone into cattle to boost milk production. But her account is relatively flat and superficial, doing a workmanlike job of covering political issues but leaving readers short of what they need to evaluate GM. (Dec.)

------------------------------------

Biotech Makes Eggplants Resistant to Devastating Insects

- John Dale Dunn ,The Heartland Institute, October 10, 2008 http://www.heartland.org/

Researchers in India have begun field testing on eggplants genetically improved to resist devastating attacks by the fruit and shoot borer.

The pest currently destroys 40 percent of the eggplant harvest in South and Southeast Asia, where food shortages cause rampant malnutrition and resultant diseases and death.

Avoids use of pesticides
Efforts to fight the fruit and shoot borer currently entail massive applications of pesticides in eggplant fields. Such large amounts of pesticides are necessary that many eggplant farmers themselves are afraid to eat their own produce.

"We have to spray pesticides on eggplants every two to three days," an Indian eggplant farmer reported in the Journal of Risk Research. "Because of this practice, we do not eat the eggplants that we grow--- But we put them directly in the market and sell them anyway. If [biotech] eggplant is invented, we will be able to eat the eggplants we grow because there will be less chemical residue on the vegetable."

"The fruit and shoot borer is a major threat to eggplant production, causing significant yield loss and reducing the number of marketable fruits," explained Henry I. Miller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. "Farmers often resort to intensive use of pesticides to control the insect, with varying results on the pest, but not infrequently causing toxicity to farmers and their families.

"The new [genetically modified] varieties, which boast enhanced endogenous resistance to the fruit and shoot borer, have been exhaustively tested and evaluated for their agronomic performance, safety, and efficacy in controlling the pest, as well as for any effects on beneficial insects," Miller noted.

Improved health, yields
The new, borer-resistant eggplant has been created by the Indian agricultural company Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Co (Mahyco) and Monsanto. The fruit and shoot borer is similar to the corn borer that plagued corn and maize crops throughout the world over the years until defeated by pesticides and genetic improvement of corn.

Experts believe the genetically improved eggplant will reduce pesticide applications by 30 percent, making eggplants much safer for human consumption.

The reduced need for pesticide applications is also expected to have a strongly positive impact on the environment. In addition, initial research indicates the genetically improved eggplants may have higher yields than conventional strains.

Activist Obstacles Remain
Opposition from anti-technology groups trying to stop biotechnology, however, may delay Indian government approval of the improved eggplant, cautions Gregory Conko, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

"Although it is good news that the Indian regulators have finally permitted field trials of these plants, it's likely to be several more years before they are approved for commercial cultivation," Conko said.

"There is a very strong anti-biotechnology presence in India from both Greenpeace and several homegrown activist organizations," Conko continued. "And, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which is the biotechnology regulatory body, is very heavily influenced by the green movement.

"So, like Bt cotton, we should expect this process to take quite a long time, with the GEAC demanding three or four years' worth of field trial results before finally doing what it should have done years ago," Conko said.

Conko added, "a lot of Indian farmers are very excited about the possibility of growing Bt brinjal [eggplant] because they've been watching for the past four years how well cotton growers have done with crops that incorporate the same trait.

"And," Conko continued, "because the fruit and shoot borer has developed increasing resistance to many of the frontline insecticides used in Indian agriculture, if Bt brinjal is even half as effective as Bt cotton has been, it could end up raising yields and saving farmers a lot of money they would otherwise spend on relatively ineffective insecticide sprays."

-----------------------------------

A Green Revolution for Africa?

- David Rieff, The New York Times Magazine, October 10, 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/

"When we started," Rajiv Shah recalled over a late-evening coffee at the Serena Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, "developing-world agriculture seemed very much out of fashion." That was before the food riots and rice tariffs and dire predictions of mass starvation that accompanied the global rise in food prices last spring. And it was before the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for which Shah has worked since 2001, made agriculture, particularly African agriculture, a top priority.

Agriculture may have been unfashionable four years ago, when Shah and others on the foundation's "strategic opportunities" team began discussing an agriculture initiative, but it is fashionable now. This is partly a result of market forces leading to the prospect of severe food shortages; but it is also partly because of the market-making power of the Gates Foundation itself. Bill Gates began this year with a promise to nearly double the foundation's commitment to agricultural development with $306 million in additional grants.

To judge from what I saw as Shah and I bumped along back roads in Kenya and Tanzania on a recent inspection tour, the Gates Foundation is in agriculture for the long term. At the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, for example, Shah spent an afternoon walking the fields with lab-coated researchers and hearing dire warnings about a wheat disease called rust. The foundation earmarked $26.8 million to be managed by Cornell University to improve disease resistance in wheat; most of the field research would be at the Kenyan institute and a similar institute in Ethiopia. The project was typical of the foundation's agricultural work: close to the ground and oriented toward practical innovation that reduces risk for small farmers and increases their incomes. Many of the foundation's projects are similarly basic: more than $42 million was allotted this year for developing drought-tolerant maize.

The foundation's other notable emphasis is on making agricultural markets work better. One project is devoted to using radio to disseminate market and weather information. The Program for Africa's Seed Systems, largely financed by Gates with $100 million, aims to develop seeds as well as to establish a network of retail agro-dealers to market them. But it's a new project with the World Food Program that best illustrates the huge solutions the Gates Foundation is trying to implement. The project, called Purchase for Progress, will use the W.F.P.'s immense buying power to create a stable and accessible market for small farmers, enabling them to invest based on a reasonable expectation of reliable demand from the W.F.P. and predictable prices. Because farmers in Africa have such difficulty adequately supplying markets, the W.F.P. typically spends a substantial portion of its budget on food aid to sub-Saharan Africa; the hope with the new program is that, over time, the resulting increased quality and productivity will help the African agriculture market itself become much more effective in delivering food. The five-year pilot program aims to reach 350,000 farmers, with the Gates Foundation's share of the budget at $66 million.

The W.F.P. had sought to make this readjustment of its purchasing system for some time. But it was only with the Gates grant that it was able to do so. "What has been one of the main missing pieces of development," Shah told me as we drove north from Nairobi en route to a meeting with a farm association, "has been a supply of cash to help farmers with incentives to produce. If they know the W.F.P. is going to buy from them dependably, and in effect with forward contracts, then that incentive is there."

AS SHAH AND I RODE along rugged tracks to see grantees and tramped through demonstration fields and agricultural research stations, he provided a narrative of what had gone wrong in Africa. The so-called Green Revolution, which developed high-yielding crops and increased the use of pesticides and fertilizers, transformed Asian and Latin American food production in the 1950s and '60s. But it did not touch Africa; the limited number of high-yielding crops did not take local environments in Africa into account and performed poorly when tested there. In those years, food on the African continent was relatively inexpensive, populations were low and development aid was directed at urban industry.

Agencies like the World Bank stressed fiscal discipline, leading African states to withdraw support for agriculture. By the '70s, when things really started to deteriorate in African agriculture, African governments and foreign donors had entirely lost interest in developing it. In the '80s, Shah said, World Bank orthodoxy required that "much of what was being produced went to export, further marginalizing the small-holding farmers who are in the majority in Africa." To this already decaying situation, Shah noted, "you can now add the destabilizing effects of climate change."

On a trip to see a seed grower in Tanzania, I asked a plant geneticist named Joseph DeVries why he thought the situation of small farmers in Africa had grown so dire. DeVries, who worked for many years at the Rockefeller Foundation, now helps direct the Nairobi-based Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and oversees the program of seed-related research that the Gates Foundation undertakes jointly with the Rockefeller Foundation. "Look," DeVries said as we left Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, en route to visit a cooperative association, "Africa has a lot of land and used to have a low population. People were always able to get by. But we've reached the limit: that's why you've had this downward cycling." His voice hardened. "The choices that confront African farmers and the world at large," he went on, are simple and stark: "Either we will increase agricultural yields on the lands now under cultivation, or the combination of low yields and population increase will force smallholders" - small farmers - "to cut down virgin forest lands and cultivate them. There are no other realistic possibilities."

AGRA is by far the Gates Foundation's biggest grantee and the main institutional vehicle for changing African agriculture. (The Program for African Seed Systems and the W.F.P. project, for example, are both administered mainly through AGRA.) The alliance began in 2006, gaining momentum in June of last year when Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, became AGRA's chairman. The Gates and Rockefeller foundations are its main backers, with the Gates Foundation committing $264 million to the organization to date.

When I visited AGRA's offices, located in a gated Nairobi office complex, there was a palpable sense that the chances of success were good and getting better. "We now know," Namanga Ngongi, a Cameroonian who is AGRA's director, told me, "that with the use of high-quality seeds - and please note, I am not talking about genetically modified seeds here - and with a serious effort to rejuvenate African soil, we can absolutely reverse the terrible situation in which so many African smallholders have found themselves for so long. We can do it. I'm sure of that."

DeVries says he believes it, too, as he explained during a visit he and Shah made to a grantee, a seed grower in western Tanzania. "For a long time, I don't think we knew how to solve Africa's agricultural problems," he said. "But the answer is a second green revolution," which would focus on developing crops that performed in the local environment and produced high yields without large quantities of pesticides and fertilizers that small farmers could not afford. He paused, then added quickly: "You know, I don't need our critics to tell me what was wrong with the first green revolution. We're not talking about repeating that experience uncritically, whatever they think." Returning to his theme, he said, "Seed and improving soil nutrition are the keys, and now we know how to go about doing it."

THE GATES FOUNDATION'S rather sudden domination of a very politically charged sector of the developed-world economy has earned it some enemies. There is, of course, a seemingly unshakable enmity attached to anything associated, however distantly, with Microsoft. But the foundation's methods are themselves drawing criticism. Raj Patel, the author of "Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System," is one of the foundation's most eloquent critics. He told me that he came away from a meeting with Shah in Berkeley, Calif., feeling that it was "impossible to get a straight answer as to what they're doing." He added: "It seemed so up in the air. And of course while a public institution would have to be clear, they do not, and it's hard not to feel that what we're seeing is a foundation playing God in Africa." He was careful to note that the reason the Gates Foundation could do this at all was that "no one else has the kind of money the foundation does." Still, he said, "There has to be something problematic about a few big brains in Washington State making decisions about an entire continent."

Patel was also quick to point out that his anxiety about the foundation's lack of democratic accountability was only part of his critique. Rather, his substantive critique of the Gates Foundation's agricultural initiatives focuses on its excessive confidence in technology and market-based solutions - what Bill Gates himself has called "creative capitalism." For Patel and other leaders of the agro-environmental movement, the net effect of Gates's efforts is to enshrine this narrowly technical approach as the global response to the food crisis in Africa. "I'm happy to impute the best possible motives to them," he told me. "But Gates's success in imposing his terms on the debate strengthens the status quo rather than doing what needs to be done - which is to transform it."

Not everyone is as measured in their criticisms as Patel. At a recent conference of the Slow Food movement in San Francisco, the Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva denounced the Gates Foundation as being the "greatest threat to farmers in the developing world." Critics like Shiva note with concern that the Gates Foundation has hired from major agricultural multinationals a number of senior officials, including, notably, Rob Horsch, a leading agronomist who spent much of his career with the agricultural biotech company Monsanto. As Peter Rosset, a Chiapas, Mexico-based agricultural expert with Via Campesina, the international food-sovereignty movement, put it to me, "Monsanto already controls much of the world's seed market, and AGRA and by extension Gates is courting the major firms like Monsanto and Syngenta."

In a scathing report issued last year, the Canadian ecological watchdog group E.T.C. warned of "a growing trend toward privatization of foreign aid, and the fusing of the private sector with governments." The authors of the report went on to add bitterly that "these days, where Bill Gates goes, so goes government. Every head of every aid agency in the O.E.C.D. wants a photo-op announcing a joint venture with the megabillionaire."

Gates Foundation officials steadfastly deny imposing any particular vision of their own on the debate. What the critics call ideology, they call reality. As for their hiring practices, it is an article of faith at the foundation that its officials have something to learn from people of every conceivable worldview, from veterans of Monsanto to veterans of the anti-globalization movement. What they do readily acknowledge is that their philanthropic efforts are in part intended to goad governments into action. As Mark Suzman, a former senior official at the United Nations Development Program who is now the foundation's global development and advocacy director, put it to me, "One of our goals is to get donors to rethink their commitment to agriculture in Africa - and African governments as well."

During my visits with the AGRA officials, DeVries seemed contemptuous of the foundation's critics, and Ngongi seemed indifferent to them. But Shah seemed unhappy. "After I went to Berkeley to meet with the Food First people," he told me, "I came away very much wanting to work more closely with agro-ecological groups. We talk to anyone who will talk to us. How could we aspire to be transformational if we didn't?" He paused, and then added musingly: "I guess I really don't know why there is so much hostility. I really think we have something to learn from them."
--
David Rieff, a contributing writer, is the author of "A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis."

====================

Switzerland's Green Power Revolution: Ethicists Ponder Plants' Rights

- Gautam Naik, Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2008

'Who Is to Say Flora Don't Have Feelings? Figuring Out What Wheat Would Want'

ZURICH -- For years, Swiss scientists have blithely created genetically modified rice, corn and apples. But did they ever stop to consider just how humiliating such experiments may be to plants? That's a question they must now ask. Last spring, this small Alpine nation began mandating that geneticists conduct their research without trampling on a plant's dignity.

"Unfortunately, we have to take it seriously," Beat Keller, a molecular biologist at the University of Zurich. "It's one more constraint on doing genetic research."

Dr. Keller recently sought government permission to do a field trial of genetically modified wheat that has been bred to resist a fungus. He first had to debate the finer points of plant dignity with university ethicists. Then, in a written application to the government, he tried to explain why the planned trial wouldn't "disturb the vital functions or lifestyle" of the plants. He eventually got the green light.

The rule, based on a constitutional amendment, came into being after the Swiss Parliament asked a panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians to establish the meaning of flora's dignity.

"We couldn't start laughing and tell the government we're not going to do anything about it," says Markus Schefer, a member of the ethics panel and a professor of law at the University of Basel. "The constitution requires it."

In April, the team published a 22-page treatise on "the moral consideration of plants for their own sake." It stated that vegetation has an inherent value and that it is immoral to arbitrarily harm plants by, say, "decapitation of wildflowers at the roadside without rational reason."

On the question of genetic modification, most of the panel argued that the dignity of plants could be safeguarded "as long as their independence, i.e., reproductive ability and adaptive ability, are ensured." In other words: It's wrong to genetically alter a plant and render it sterile.

Many scientists interpret the dignity rule as applying mainly to field trials like Dr. Keller's, but some worry it may one day apply to lab studies as well. Another gripe: While Switzerland's stern laws defend lab animals and now plants from genetic tweaking, similar protections haven't been granted to snails and drosophila flies, which are commonly used in genetic experiments.

It also begs an obvious, if unrelated question: For a carrot, is there a more mortifying fate than being peeled, chopped and dropped into boiling water?

"Where does it stop?" asks Yves Poirier, a molecular biologist at the laboratory of plant biotechnology at the University of Lausanne. "Should we now defend the dignity of microbes and viruses?"

Seeking clarity, Dr. Poirier recently invited the head of the Swiss ethics panel to his university. In their public discussion, Dr. Poirier said the new rules are flawed because decades of traditional plant breeding had led to widely available sterile fruit, such as seedless grapes. Things took a surreal turn when it was disclosed that some panel members believe plants have feelings, Dr. Poirier says.

Back in the 1990s, the Swiss constitution was amended in order to defend the dignity of all creatures -- including the leafy kind -- against unwanted consequences of genetic manipulation. When the amendment was turned into a law -- known as the Gene Technology Act -- it didn't say anything specific about plants. But earlier this year, the government asked the ethics panel to come up rules for plants as well.

The Swiss debate isn't just academic twittering. Like other countries in Europe, Switzerland has long kept a tight rein on crop genetics, fearing that a mutant strain might run amok and harm the environment. Swiss geneticists say the dignity rule makes their job even harder.

Crazy Talk?Several years ago, when Christof Sautter, a botanist at Switzerland's Federal Institute of Technology, failed to get permission to do a local field trial on transgenic wheat, he moved the experiment to the U.S. He's too embarrassed to mention the new dignity rule to his American colleagues. "They'll think Swiss people are crazy," he says.

Defenders of the law argue that it reflects a broader, progressive effort to protect the sanctity of living things. Last month, Switzerland granted new rights to all "social animals." Prospective dog owners must take a four-hour course on pet care before they can buy a canine companion, while anglers must learn to catch fish humanely. Fish can't be kept in aquariums that are transparent on all sides. The fish need some shelter. Nor can goldfish be flushed down a toilet to an inglorious end; they must first be anesthetized with special chemicals, and then killed.

Rhinoceroses can't be kept in an enclosure smaller than 600 square yards. Failure to comply can lead to a fine of 200 Swiss francs, or about $175. "The rules apply for zoos and private owners," says Marcel Falk, spokesman for the Federal Veterinary Office in Bern.

Are there pet rhinos in Switzerland? "I hope not," he says.

New ConstitutionIn another unusual move, the people of Ecuador last month voted for a new constitution that is the first to recognize ecosystem rights enforceable in a court of law. Thus, the nation's rivers, forests and air are no longer mere property, but right-bearing entities with "the right to exist, persist and.--regenerate."

Dr. Keller in Zurich has more mundane concerns. He wants to breed wheat that can resist powdery mildew. In lab experiments, Dr. Keller found that by transferring certain genes from barley to wheat, he could make the wheat resistant to disease.

When applying for a larger field trial, he ran into the thorny question of plant dignity. Plants don't have a nervous system and probably can't feel pain, but no one knows for sure. So Dr. Keller argued that by protecting wheat from fungus he was actually helping the plant, not violating its dignity -- and helping society in the process.

One morning recently, he stood by a field near Zurich where the three-year trial with transgenic wheat is under way. His observations suggest that the transgenic wheat does well in the wild. Yet Dr. Keller's troubles aren't over.

In June, about 35 members of a group opposed to the genetic modification of crops, invaded the test field. Clad in white overalls and masks, they scythed and trampled the plants, causing plenty of damage.

"They just cut them," says Dr. Keller, gesturing to wheat stumps left in the field. "Where's the dignity in that?"

------------------------------------

Letter To the Editor, Irish Farmers Journal on Oct 4, 2008

To: Minister Brendan Smith, Minister of Agriculture and Food Prof. Patrick Cunningham, Chief Science Advisor to the Government of Ireland,

Sir, I am an academic scientist that was contacted to take part at the Terra Madre meeting in Waterford. The invitation didn't materialize into attendance due to the lack of funds for the travelling, but I tried to follow the debate. Now I saw Minister Sargent address at the meeting as reported on his website: http://trevorsargent.ie/2008/09/05/sargent-addresses-terra-madre-ireland-2008/

Among many other dubious statements, I found the following rather dogmatic:

"---the farmers are saying GM is not the panacea for them. Whether you go to the universities which have been carrying out these studies - in Nebraska and Kansas, from Iowa to India - they tell you that farmers have been experiencing not greater but less yield, losing money, and losing market share."

Being professionally involved on the science and being in contact with many colleagues who do the same, it is amusing and at the same time disturbing to see the name of universities used to support such statements.
Agricultural biotechnology is, as the word itself implies, a technology. You can judge a technology by judging its products. As with many technologies (e.g. metallurgy) each product is different and you have to know each one to assess benefits and risks. It may well be that in some case, some transgenic crops in certain areas or conditions yield less that their conventional counterparts. This does not mean at all that all transgenic crops do the same in all places and all conditions.

ndeed, if it were true, you couldn't explain why million and million of farmers, 90% of whom are from developing countries, buy them and plant them, sometimes against local laws.

I hope Minister Sargent will be aware of this and consider it in his future speeches.

Best regards,

Piero Morandini, PhD. Assistant professor in Plant Physiology, Lecturer in Plant industrial Biotechnology University of Milan, Italy

P.S. I saw the above cited statement is missing from the ministry website [ http://www.agriculture.gov.ie/index.jsp?file=ministerspeeches/sargent/2008/TERRA_MADRE_CONFERENCE.xml


------------------------------------
Another Letter sent to Mr. Smith by Graham Brookes of UK

Dear Mr Smith

Re: speech of Minister of State Mr T Sargent to the Terra Madre Conference September 5 2008 - reference to GM crops

With reference to this speech by Mr Sargent, I bring to your attention the subjective, unrepresentative and grossly inaccurate comments made by this minister. As a citizen, he is of course, entitled to his views. However, as a Minister with governmental responsibilities any such pronouncements to a public audience should be responsible and based on fact. His comments are therefore either a deliberate case of misleading the public or he is badly advised by staff in his department.

Some facts are provide for you (below) about the impact of GM technology globally (that are representative of the real world of commercial farming and come from peer reviewed scientific journal references - notably see Brookes & Barfoot (2008) Global impact of biotech crops 1996-2006: socio-economic and environmental impacts in Agbioforum 11 (1), 21-38 - [ http://www.agbioforum.org ]

1. In 2007 about 12 million farmers around the world planted biotech crops. 90% of these were resource poor farmers in developing countries with an average farm size of less than 1 hectare. They chose to use the technology because it improved their profitability, delivered higher levels of income, reduced risk of crop damage and failure, contributed to feeding their families and to improving the standard of living of their households. Farmers do not have to use this seed and are free to use alternatives. They choose to use the technology because it delivers direct benefits to them - eg, in India and the Philippines household income levels have typically increased by over a third for many farmers using biotech insect resistant cotton and maize). This technology came from both the private sector (including large multi-national seed companies) AND the public sector (eg, much of seed used by Chinese biotech cotton farmers comes from the state not large corporations).

2. Since 1996 biotech traits have added 53.3 million tonnes and 47.1 million tonnes respectively to global production of soybeans and maize, and added an extra 4.9 million tonnes of cotton lint and 3.2 million tonnes of oilseed rape. Production of soybeans, maize, cotton and oilseed rape on the areas planted to biotech crops in 2006 were respectively +20%, +7%, +15% and +3% higher than levels would have otherwise have been if GM technology had not been used by farmers. In terms of contributing to feeding the world - the additional production arising from biotech crops (1996-2006) has contributed enough energy (in kcal terms) to feed 310 million people for one year (equal to the energy requirement of the combined populations of Indonesia and Vietnam).

3. Farmers using biotech traits have increased their incomes by a total of $33.8 billion (1996-2006). About half of this has been to farmers in developing countries.

4. The technology has also resulted in important environmental benefits. Pesticide use on the four crops in the countries where biotech crops have been planted have fallen by 286 million kg (-7.9%), resulting in a larger, 15.4% reduction in the associated environmental impact (as measured by the indicator, the environmental impact quotient (EIQ) - see Brookes & Barfoot (2008) for further details). Greenhouse gas emission reductions have also been facilitated, equal to 14.76 billion kg of carbon dioxide, equivalent to removing 6.56 million cars from the roads for a year (25% of registered cars in the UK).

5. There is not a single piece of credible evidence published in a peer reviewed scientific journal documenting any adverse health impact associated with this technology. In fact, there is strong evidence that positive health benefits arise from this technology, for example the significant reduction in levels of mycotoxins in Bt maize relative to conventional and organic alternatives.

6. The existence of superweeds associated with GM herbicide tolerant (GM HT) crops is a myth. The development of weeds resistant to herbicides is not a new development in agriculture and is, therefore, not an issue unique to the adoption of GM technology in agriculture. All weeds have the ability to adapt to selection pressure, and there are examples of weeds that have developed resistance to a number of herbicides and to mechanical methods of weed control (eg, prostrate weeds such as dandelion which can survive mowing).

Weed resistance occurs mostly when the same herbicide (s), with the same mode of action have been applied on a continuous basis over a number of years. There are hundreds of resistant weed species confirmed in the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds ([ http://www.weedscience.org ]www.weedscience.org). Worldwide, there are less than 20 weed species that are currently resistant to glyphosate, compared to over 90 weed species resistant to ALS herbicides and over 60 weed species resistant to triazine herbicides, such as atrazine. Several of the confirmed glyphosate resistant weed species have been found in areas where no GM HT crops have been grown.

Prior to the commercial planting of GM HT crops, glyphosate was used before planting to control weeds. With the adoption of GM HT technology farmers were able to use glyphosate in the crop to control a different set of weeds (to those in the pre-planting phase). As glyphosate is the primary herbicide used in GM HT crops planted globally, and the adoption of this technology has played a major role in facilitating the adoption of no and reduced tillage production techniques in North and South America, it is possible that these factors are contributing to the emergence of weeds resistant to herbicides like glyphosate and to weed shifts towards those weed species that are not well controlled by glyphosate. In addition, it is possible that herbicide tolerant plants could become volunteers in a subsequent crop which cannot be controlled by using glyphosate. Control of glyphosate resistant weeds is achieved in the same way as control of other herbicide resistant weeds, via the use of other herbicides in mixtures or sequences. GM HT crops have no effect per se on weed control as it is the herbicide programme used with them that provides the selection pressure. The effect on the environment of having to control the limited incidence of herbicide resistant weeds in GM HT crops is very small and still produces a significant net environmental gain relative to the non GM alternative form of production.

Yours sincerely, Graham Brookes, Director, GBC Ltd & PG Economics Ltd, UK

------------------------------------

Norway Completes Conquest of Zambia

- Andy Apel, GMOBelus, October 9, 2008
http://www.gmobelus.com/news.php?viewStory=234

It's common for European governments to meddle in foreign affairs around the world by funding activist groups that back European policies, but Norway has established a new low. This European nation has not only funded an anti-biotech activist group, but also purchased a laboratory for it to run. The laboratory is in Zambia, where the official "GM is poison" policy is based on the advice of the group in charge of the lab. The lab is now "up and running", and, as a result, Norway has completely co-opted Zambia's scientific capabilities in food and agriculture.

Norway has been working on this project for many years. Now, Talent Ng'andwe and Christina Scott at SciDev.net report that Zambia's National Biotechnology Laboratory is "fully functioning".

The US$400,000 laboratory was partly funded by the Norwegian government, with the Zambian government covering running costs and salaries. Equipment and training was supplied by GenØk, of Tromsø, Norway--which SciDev.net whimsically describes as a "biosecurity centre".

The scientific director of GenØk is Terje Traavik, who is closely connected with anti-biotech faux-science practitioners Mae-Wan Ho, Michael Meacher and Greenpeace. Traavik is noted for promulgating a hoax connecting Bt maize and allergies in the Philippines, and for claiming, in front of a a UK Parliamentary committee (after being introduced as the scientific advisor to the Norwegian Government in GM crops issues), that gene technology is like "BSE [mad cow disease] in technicolor". David Quist, co-author of the discredited Mexican Maize 'contamination' paper, is a "senior scientist" GenØk.

Traavik describes GenØk as an institute "obviously in opposition to mainstream research" which "receives funding on the [Norwegian] National Budget."

The resulting picture: An activist group funded directly by the Norwegian government, which employs discredited scientists, supplies equipment and training to a National Laboratory directly funded by the Norway, in a developing country, where official policy is that GM food is poison. Zambia's poisonous policy is based, in part, on the advice of Norway's GenØk.

Traavik and GenØk are completely insensitive to complaints over their incompetence and overt political interference, but Norway may not be. It is time to denounce Norway for its role in this appalling, neo-colonialist venture.

------------------------------------

Glowing Genes Discoverer Left Out Of Nobel Prize : NPR

- Dan Charles, National Public Radio

Listen to this fascinating story at

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95545761&sc=emaf


Fluorescent "tags" reveal how some cancer cells (blue) are making more of a specific protein (green). Douglas Prasher isolated the gene for the green fluorescent protein that helped three other scientists earn a Nobel Prize in chemistry.


------------------------------------

Reinventing the Termnator

From: Charles Rader

Dear Professor Prakash,

It's sad that some of the misinformation about biotechnology in agriculture is so widespread that even the supporters accept it as true. The most recent Agbioworld compilation has this, from David King:

"----the government's former chief scientist, Sir David King, comes across merely as frustrated. ---He accepts that a lot of the anti-GM sentiment was caused by the bio-tech companies themselves. 'Monsanto marketed the products very vigorously in a way that had worked in the US, but here it caused great resistance and anti-American sentiment.' One of their innovations was to genetically modify a crop so it couldn't reproduce the next year, forcing farmers to restock with seed. 'And they called that the terminator gene. How stupid is that?"

Of course, that last three sentences in the paragraph are completely false. Monsanto neither developed a sterility gene nor sold, or even tried to sell, such crops to any farmer. Monsanto has relied on contracts and lawsuits, not technology, to prevent farmers from saving harvested seeds for future planting. And, the company that did patent such a genetic system never called it terminator - they called it "Technology Protection System" . The `terminator' moniker cames from GMO opponents. King certainly should know these things.


- Charles M. Rader

###