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

Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives





November 24, 2008


Obama, Friend of GMOs? Mice Fertility Reviewed; Jimmy's Food Fight; History of Plant Biotech; Let's be Thankful


* Obama: Friend of Genetically Engineered Crops?
* Obama's Transition Team Raises Hopes For Developing World Science
* Do Monsanto Corn Products Reduce Fertility In Mice?
* Review of Zentek Paper
* Here We Go Again? or, This Time, Will It Be Different?
* John DeSesso commentary on report
* Jimmy's GM Food Fight
* GM Crops Must Come Out of the Dark
* Non-Target Insects Affected More by Insecticides than by Bt Crops
* The Return of Bt Cotton
* USDA Report on AgBiotech Regulation in the EU
* A History of Plant Biotech: from the Cell Theory -- to Biotech Crops
* Thankful for Biotech

Obama: Friend of Genetically Engineered Crops?

- Philip Brasher, Nov. 23, 2008 http://www.tucsoncitizen.com/ss/fromcomments/103320.php

The agricultural biotechnology business could hardly have had a better friend than George W. Bush.

His administration challenged the European Union's anti-biotech regulations and avoided imposing rules domestically that would hinder the industry's growth, with the exception of the most controversial products, such as pharmaceutical crops.

But there are clues President-elect Barack Obama could be an ally of the industry, too, especially in the effort to put biotech crops into widespread use in Africa. These hints come from both statements of policy and the type of people from whom he's taking advice.

• Obama explicitly endorsed genetically engineered crops in an answer to a candidate questionnaire initiated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other scientific groups. He said biotech crops "have provided enormous benefits" to farmers and expressed confidence "that we can continue to modify plants safely."

• His top scientific advisers during the campaign included Sharon Long, a former board member of the biotech giant Monsanto Co., and Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate who co-chaired a key study of genetically engineered crops by the National Academy of Sciences back in 2000.

• Obama has endorsed the idea of a second Green Revolution, a concept understood to include biotechnology, to feed the world's growing population. In an exchange of letters in June with Norman Borlaug, the Iowa-born plant breeder who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the first Green Revolution, Obama said he was "deeply committed to greater agriculture research and global agricultural development."

• Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, an outspoken proponent of agricultural biotechnology, is considered a leading candidate to become Obama's agriculture secretary. The Biotechnology Industry Organization named him its governor of the year in 2001.

• Obama has called for doubling foreign development aid to $50 billion and establishing a special initiative to provide farmers in poor countries with affordable fertilizer and "improved seeds." Obama's official statements on development are "pretty strong on agricultural science," said Robert Paarlberg, author of the recent book, "Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa." "I certainly haven't seen any sense of opposition to technology."

Obama's administration will be closely watched to see whether he follows through. Public and congressional interest in boosting world food production could wane, given the recent plunge in commodity prices and the global economic slowdown.

"We need an across-the-board revival of our agricultural development work," said Paarlberg, a Wellesley College professor. A doubling of government spending on agricultural research over five years could lift more than 280 million people out of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.

However, U.S. spending on foreign agricultural research has fallen dramatically since the 1980s. And even though Congress inserted $150 million in agricultural development assistance in an emergency spending bill this year at a time when food prices were soaring worldwide, that extra money only compensated for a cut that lawmakers had made earlier in the aid budget.

Paarlberg says U.S. agricultural aid is needed to help African scientists do their own modification of food crops. "Let them get comfortable with the technology, and let them sell it to their governments," he said.

In the long run, he says, that would make biotechnology more acceptable in Africa than continuing to push the biotech products from U.S. seed companies like Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred.

Africa is home to more than 900 million people, or 14 percent of the world's population. Regardless of how it's done, the U.S. industry would surely count any president a friend who opens that continent to biotechnology.
Philip Brasher is a reporter for The Des Moines Register.


Obama's Transition Team Raises Hopes For Developing World Science

- David Dickson and Paula Leighton, Nov. 21, 2008. Full story at

Prospects for enhanced US interest in promoting science in developing countries have been substantially raised by two appointments to the team set up by president-elect Barack Obama to oversee the design and staffing of his new administration.

One of the transition team members responsible for shaping the new Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) will be Thomas Kalil, who served under President Bill Clinton as deputy assistant for Technology and Economic Policy.

He will be assisted by Mario Molina, the Mexican-born chemist best known for his work on chlorofluorocarbons that led to the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer, for which he shared the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1995.

Both Kalil and Molina have, as part of a wide range of professional activities, been actively engaged in initiatives that embrace scientific relationships with the developing world.

Kalil, for example, who is currently special assistant to the chancellor for science and technology at the University of California, Berkeley, also serves as the chair of the Global Health Working Group of the Clinton Global Initiative.

Molina, who is a professor of physical chemistry at the University of California, and served on Clinton's Committee of Advisors in Science and Technology (1994-2000), has maintained close links with scientific colleagues in Latin America.

It is also believed that Nina Federoff, who was last year appointed as chief scientific adviser to the Department of State, will be retained in her position.


Biotech/GMO Safety and Advantages: Do Monsanto Corn Products Reduce Fertility In Mice?

- MONSANTO http://monsanto.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=59&item=238

On November 11, 2008 the Austrian Federal Ministry for Health, Family and Youth released a report on three studies assessing the impact of biotech corn on reproduction.

Of the three studies, only one showed potential impacts of GM corn. One of this study's authors, Dr. Zentek, summarized the findings to state that "Mice fed with GM maize had less offspring in the third and fourth generations, and these differences were statistically significant. Mice fed with non-GM maize reproduced more efficiently." The GM corn tested contained both MON 810 (Bt/insect resistance) and NK603 (Roundup Ready(r)) traits.

At the time of the release, the study had not been subject to peer- review by qualified, scientific experts. During his presentation, Dr. Zentek commented that the studies showed inconsistent results, and should be considered preliminary.

Despite both the preliminary nature of the findings, and the cautions by the study author, both Greenpeace and the Center for Food Safety issued press statements within 24 hours of the release. Both called for immediate and dramatic changes to the oversight of GM crops and foods. Their demands are not supported by sound science or common sense. Both groups have cried "wolf" before when preliminary study data has shown potential problems with GM crops. In every case, subsequent review has upheld the safety of GM crops and food.

To base any conclusions on the preliminary findings of the Austrian study is irresponsible. This is especially true when the broader body of scientific evidence indicates there are no effects of these products on reproduction. Several reproductive toxicity studies have previously been conducted with these products. None of the findings suggested negative effects. More than 20 regulatory authorities worldwide have determined that MON 810, NK 603 and the stacked product containing both traits are as safe as conventional corn.

At Monsanto's request, two internationally recognized experts on reproductive toxicology have reviewed the online report:
* Dr. John DeSesso, Senior Fellow at the non-profit group Noblis and on the Editorial Board of the journal, Reproductive Toxicology.
* Dr. James Lamb, currently of The Weinberg Group. Dr. Lamb developed the type of study used by the Austrian researchers while at U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Toxicology Program.

Doctors Lamb and DeSesso have both concluded that 1) there are flaws in the study reporting and analysis which bring serious question to the validity of the findings and 2) that the results do not support any conclusion of adverse effects on reproductive performance. A review by Monsanto scientists resulted in the same conclusion.

Monsanto looks forward to further discussion among the scientific community. We are confident that once this study goes through a thorough scientific review that it will ultimately serve to help reinforce the safety of GM crops and food.

Review of Zentek Paper

- James C. Lamb, IV, Ph.D., DABT, ATS; Executive Vice President; The Weinberg Group; November 19, 2008
(via GMObelus, November 20, 2008 http://www.gmobelus.com/news.php?viewStory=290 )

At the request of Monsanto, I, James C. Lamb, IV, Ph.D., DABT, ATS, have completed a preliminary review of the report "Biological effects of transgenic maize NK603xMON810 fed in long term reproduction studies in mice" by Dr. A Velimirov, Dr. C. Binter, and Univ. Prof. Dr. J. Zentek. I have focused my efforts on the multigeneration (MG) study and the reproductive assessment by continuous breeding (RACB) study.

The RACB study design was developed by me at the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) in the early 1980s to improve the assessment of fertility in rodent toxicology studies. Work on this protocol was continued by Dr. Richard Morrissey and then by Dr. Robert Chapin of the NTP. The RACB has the potential to test certain biological indices that the MG study cannot address. The authors of this report made modifications to the RACB study design, but the basic elements remain the same. Male and female mice were divided into control and test groups and were house as breeding pairs for about 20 weeks. Each male and female pairing produced litters continuously through the cohabitation period, which allowed the pairs to produce as many as 4 litters per pair. As we originally developed this protocol at NTP, an effect on reproduction would be followed by a cross-over mating to help determine whether the effects might be attributed to males, to females or to both genders. That cross-over mating was not performed in this study.

The study report describes the design, conduct and interpretation of the study. My review is limited to the information provided in the report. The design is appropriate for the hypothesis that is being tested. The RACB study design can generate a large amount of data and analyses, but the report is not sufficiently detailed to interpret fully the study. Nevertheless, there are some significant issues raised by the results as presented and the interpretation that must be discussed. I have found already some significant errors in the data calculations that led to the important misinterpretations of the findings by the authors. Unfortunately, the study does not describe a quality assurance process that should have prevented these errors. Errors are clear in two of the most important tables in the report (Table 36 and Table 59). These errors directly impact the interpretation of the MG and the RACB studies.

The authors analyzed the MG study in an unconventional manner. The report is not clear whether the statistical tests and evaluation methods were defined before or after the data were developed. The methods were not consistent with the methods that we applied at the NTP. One important point is that the litter size was analyzed using the breeding pair as the denominator rather than the delivering breeding pair. The number of deliveries in the F3 (3rd generation) matings dropped off for both control and GM test groups and there was no explanation for this decline (see second row of Table 36). This should have been addressed. The decline in fertility resulted in an apparent decrease in litter size that is an artifact of the denominator that they used (see fourth row Table 36). This might best be illustrated by a fictitious example. If one cohabited 20 pairs and only one pair delivered a litter of 10 animals, the mean litter size would be 10; not 0.5 as would have been reported by the authors. If the proper denominator was used, the litter size did not change for either group compared to the other generations. The authors did not report the number of litters analyzed at weaning, so we cannot determine whether or not a similar error was made in the number of weanings/pair. Without the individual animal data, we cannot test the statistical findings either. In the end, the authors did not see a treatment effect in this study, but the computational errors raise concern about other examinations in such an important data set.

The authors also divided the MG study litters into less than 8 and greater than 8 pups per litter. I have never seen this approach to litter analysis and wonder why and when they chose to make this comparison. No rationale is provided for this approach. These data are very difficult to interpret and have dubious scientific meaning. The various charts lead to a good deal of discussion, but do not really aid in the data interpretation.

The RACB study has similar issues that do affect the authors' interpretation of their study. In Table 59 they report data similar to the MG study. Instead of multiple generations, the table shows multiple litters across the study. One odd point is that they had one pair that never delivered any litters. There is no explanation for this, and that is inconsistent with the MG study. They probably should have analyzed the data with and without this pair in the study because it is not likely related to the treatment. This amplifies the error of using the wrong denominator because the litter size is understated for the treated group throughout the study because they again divided by the pairs cohabited without considering the actual litter size for those mated pairs that actually delivered litters. They have made the same mistake on the number of pups at birth per pair and on number of pups at weaning per pair.

The authors' computational approach results in some key misstatements in Table 59. In 3rd litter for the GM group the mean number of pups per litter is incorrect and should be 9.41, not 9.06. For the 4th litter, the GM group should be 8.65 pups per litter, not 7.21. Similar mistakes are presented for the pups weaned and the numbers for the GM are consistently understated. For example, the 4th litter had an average of 9.11 weaned pups per litter, not 7.21 and the 3rd litter had 12.18 weaned pups per litter not 9.06.

These two tables illustrate that the computational errors resulted in an overstatement of the differences between the GM and the ISO groups. No historical control data have been presented or discussed. Such data could be very important in the interpretation of such differences, to the extent that any significant differences remain. The specific details of how computations were made should have been included in the report. It is not possible to reconstruct all of the data, but the ones that we have investigated indicted errors in the authors' methods and therefore interpretations. The statistical methods and presentation should have been designed prior to the conduct of the experiments, and it is not clear whether or not this was done. The statistics cannot be tested appropriately without the individual animal data. The computational errors in such critical tables (Tables 36 and 59) raise serious questions about the other data in the report and the quality assurance methods that were or should have been applied before the conclusions were drafted and the report was released. When properly analyzed, these data do not appear to support an effect on fertility or reproduction from consumption of GM corn.


Here We Go Again? or, This Time, Will It Be Different?

CropGen, Nov 11, 2008 http://www.cropgen.org/article_203.html

Experience has proven that legitimate scientific findings are disclosed through professional peer review processes, not through the media or NGO press releases.

Nevertheless, three years ago reports came from Moscow of experiments which purported to show that rats fed GM soya resulted in a 6-fold increase in the number of deaths and the surviving progeny were significantly smaller (http://www.cropgen.org/article_45.html). There were other problems as well.

The information was first revealed at a conference and later appeared in review on an anti-GM activist website (1). A fully referenced version was offered to members of that organisation; scientific transparency par excellence.

Many people expressed doubt at the time, scepticism well placed as the work has never been published in the scientific literature. Nevertheless, from such material as was available in the public domain, it was clear that the study had little or no value as a piece of scientific research; an interview with the original author together with the scientific criticisms subsequently appeared in a legitimate scientific journal which well illustrated the poor quality both of the study and how unjustified were the claims made (2). That brought forth a rebuttal from the original author (3) and screams of indignation from the activist camp (4), encouraging the journal's editor to write: "I am also struck that none of the correspondence elicited by the article has taken issue with the validity of the scientific criticisms made, only the identity of the authors who made them" (5). Once more the data was revealed as wholly inadequate (6).

Are we about to see a repeat performance, this time from Vienna? In a study published by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Health, Family and Youth (7) and rapidly reproduced on an activist website (8, 9), we read about new claims: "Austrian scientists performed several long-term feeding trials with laboratory mice over a course of 20 weeks. One test - the so-called "reproductive assessment by continuous breeding" showed that mouse parents fed on a diet containing 33 percent of a Monsanto owned GE maize variety (NK 603 x MON 810) experienced a decrease in litter size and weight by the time they gave birth to their third and fourth litters. Mice fed on a closely-related non-GE maize had normal reproduction cycles". Summarising his findings, Prof. Dr. Jürgen Zentek, Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Vienna - the lead author of the study - said the differences between the mice was statistically significant, and that this effect could be attributed to the differences in food sources (9).

What is missing is peer review. No conclusions can justifiably be drawn from these findings until they are examined and compared with previously published and peer-reviewed studies by people with experience and understanding of the field. The report already published is more than 100 pages long and apparently packed with experimental data; we await with interest a review by experts.

Nevertheless, even at this stage, a number of points come to mind:

(a) Conducting a study using reproductive assessment by continuous breeding (RACB) involves a set of fecund mice producing successive litters. Each successive litter is therefore born to increasingly aged parents. As a result, a decline in the number of offspring in each litter is an expected outcome in a mouse breeding program. Furthermore, certain strains of mice have distinct reproductive traits/deficits, some of them severe. Not knowing the strain(s) of mice involved makes interpretation at this remove utterly impossible. It had, moreover, been noted that the number of pups per litter and the number of pairs delivering a litter both tended to decline with time, so that fewer pairs produced slightly smaller litters for litters four and five (10).

(b) From the Guidelines for Reproductive Toxicity Risk Assessment: "Because the parental and subsequent filial generations have different exposure histories, reproductive effects seen in any particular generation are not necessarily comparable with those of another generation. Also, successive litters from the same parents cannot be considered as replicates because of factors such as continuing exposure of the parents, increased parental age, sexual experience, and parity of the females" (11).

(c) "In general, the first few litters born to most female lab animals are smaller in number than later litters. There is also a tendency for females to offer poorer maternal care to earlier litters. This may result in a higher mortality rate among early litters than among later ones. As these animals approach the end of their reproductive lives, litter size again tends to be smaller---B reeders usually remove females and/or their mates from the breeding program as soon as litter size begins to decline. Some do this at a specific age that is known to correspond with decreased fecundity" (12).

(d) This is not the first multi-generational animal study made with a GM-feed; many existing studies from different laboratories, including multi-generation animal feeding studies, have been conducted on biotech crops, studies which support their safety and showed no adverse affect on animal health. Those studies have been thoroughly reviewed by hundreds of independent scientists on behalf of regulatory authorities around the world and have completed regulatory review by a number of countries globally. The overwhelming opinion of expert authorities around the world is that MON 810 x NK603, the GM strains involved in the Austrian work, is safe to consume.

(e) Dr. Zentek has remarked that his team's three studies show inconsistent results and should be considered preliminary.

The Austrian studies are important. Scientific inquiry does not stand still and is never completed. No matter how many studies have shown something to be safe, the possibility must always remain that further investigations will reveal dangers hitherto unsuspected. But always the critical factor is challenge and peer review so we await with interest the outcome of detailed scrutiny of the report already available by people with the experience and the ability to make an impartial assessment. Rushing to judgement either for or against the claims made in the report is campaigning, not science.

John DeSesso commentary on report



Jimmy's GM Food Fight

- Horizon - BBC TWO November 25. Tuesday 9.00-10.00pm

'Jimmy Doherty is on a mission to discover whether GM food is the answer to the world's food problems

Is GM food the answer to the world's foods problems? Or is it a Frankenstein science which will contaminate the world's ecosystems and boost profits for a handful of multinational corporations? Jimmy Doherty, scientist and farmer, embarks on a mission to find out for BBC Two's Horizon.

Last year, Jimmy's own pig farm was home to nearly 1,000 pigs - but, earlier this year, there were barely 200. Why? Because, he says, the rising cost of grain meant he couldn't afford to feed them any more.

From the Sixties to mid-Eighties, the world saw the greatest expansion of food in its history. It is said the green revolution saved a billion people from starvation. But the world's population is still increasing, and conservative estimates suggest productivity needs to be doubled in the next 50 years to feed everyone.

Jimmy discovers how the UK has become virtually a GM-free zone because of the strength of protests against the technology. He visits research labs to find out more, creates his own GM barley and sees deep purple tomatoes genetically modified to be rich in antioxidants traditionally found in berries.

He travels to Argentina and the USA, who are embracing the GM revolution. In the USA, Americans have been eating GM corn and Soya for over 10 years - with no apparent ill effects. And, in Argentina, he sees thousands of hectares of GM Soya beans which helped save the country from economic crisis in the Nineties. But he also discovers the environmental impact of the GM revolution there.

In large parts of the developing world, getting enough to eat is an everyday struggle and 800 million people are permanently malnourished (Source: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation 2006). So Jimmy travels to one of the wealthier countries in Africa - Uganda. Here, he hears how whole crops of bananas are being devastated by Black Sigatoka disease. Are genetically modified bananas the answer to save the fruit from destruction?

The debate over GM food has been raging for over a decade and Jimmy wants to find out where the truth lies. Is GM a good thing? Or should it be banned from farms and plates?


GM Crops Must Come Out of the Dark

- Jimmy Doherty, Daily Telegraph (UK), Nov 22, 2008 ttp://www.telegraph.co.uk:80/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/11/22/do2209.xml

Do you know that saying, that we're only ever four meals away from anarchy? Well, we've arrived at a point in history where we can't possibly feed the world's population. There's just too many of us for the amount of food the earth can produce to go around. That problem isn't going to go away, and we need to start addressing it.

So, could GM crops - ones that are genetically modified to be resistant to disease and pests - be the answer?
Perhaps, perhaps not. But it's food for thought. And that, in short, is the starting point for my Horizon documentary about the pros and cons of GM crops. In this country, there have been many debates on the subject but do these discussions get to the general public - the people who matter?

To explore public opinion, I did an easy test for the documentary. I stopped shoppers in Norwich high street and offered them a choice of a sausage cooked in GM oil, or one in non-GM oil. The immediate reaction was to go for the non-GM option. Why? The most common response was: "I dunno really." When I started investigating the issue, I thought GM food was something on the periphery, something that most of us in the UK never come in contact with. But the truth is, we could possibly be eating food containing GM ingredients every day without realising it.

In reality, there aren't that many GM crops currently in production - it's mostly maize, soya, rice and cotton, and they're mostly grown in the United States, which has been producing GM crops for the past decade. But the first two play such a big part in our daily diets, they're hard to avoid. Maize is used to make the corn syrup found in fizzy drinks, among many other things, and soya is a key ingredient to lots of animal feeds, so it may work its way into our diets, too.

Products that originate from the United States don't have to specify on the label whether it contains GM or not. For me, that's wrong. What we need is better labelling so people can have better choice. Then the consumer is king - if people don't buy it, people won't grow it.

Some people think that, as we're an island state, we should set ourselves up as a GM-free zone, and exploit the market for GM-free food. I can afford to farm in this way, because people are willing to pay a little bit extra for my free-range rare breed pigs. But can my farm supply the world demand for pork? No, it can't. I can fill a niche with them, but I can't feed the world.

You can understand why some large-scale farmers who are producing for a global market can see the potential benefits it holds for them. These are bright people, modern businessmen, and they want to stay competitive. They are the ones thinking: "Hang on a minute, I've got all these costs to pay for like fertiliser and fuel when my competitors in other countries like Brazil appear to have the advantage by using GM crops like BT Maize that use less pesticides."

It appears that the organic sector is completely against GM crops because it could lead to an ecological disaster, not least because GM crops could pass on their genes to non-GM crops.

Growing GM is something of a Pandora's box, potentially the modern-day equivalent of the Romans releasing the first rabbits into the UK. The danger is not that GM crops will mutate over time and become a superbreed like some kind of science fiction nightmare; but the possibility that the genes could spread from one GM species of plant and cross pollinate with other plants that then spread into natural communities and change the natural order of things in a way that we don't know how to deal with.

Now, I'm no poster-boy for GM. I'm a farmer whose background is in science. I did a degree in zoology and studied a phD in entomology, and am as passionate about science as I am about farming. What I want to do is to bring some ideas to the fore; I don't want to be overly negative or positive, I just want to see what the potentials are and draw some conclusion.

Ultimately for me it's about freedom of choice. If you want to eat GM, you should have that right. But more importantly if you don't want to eat GM, you should also have that right, and this may already have has been taken away from us. After all, GM Crops are grown world-wide. Prince Charles has caused controversy over GM and has come under criticism from sections of the farming community, but I think that we need people like him to get us debating the issue.

The current status quo of GM Crops may not be the answer, but we have a responsability to rigorously and openly discuss the science, as well as its consequences.


from: http://www.radiotimes.com/

Like all the people Jimmy Doherty surveys about genetically modified crops, you may think they are A Bad Thing. Jimmy, who as we know is passionate about traditional farming methods, isn't sure about them, either. But he realises his back-to-nature ideals won't feed the world and he also knows that man has been tinkering with vegetables for centuries. Ironically, while well-fed Europeans demonstrate against GM, malnourished Africans, who are desperate to produce more food, try to steal GM crops rather than trash them. Presumably, the need to eat now is more important to them than worrying about what might, or might not, be the effect in the future. Horizon delivers an even-handed, accessible investigation into GM to help you make up your mind about this controversial subject.


Non-Target Insects Probably Affected More by Insecticides than by Bt Crops

- USDA ARS News Release, November 24, 2008

Non-target insects are probably affected more by conventional insecticides than by crops that contain genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), according to the findings of a study by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists and cooperators. The findings were published recently in Public Library of Science ONE.

Bt crops such as maize and cotton are genetically engineered to produce insect-specific toxins. They target specific insect pests, but the researchers wanted to determine how these crops influence non-target insects in the environment.

To find out, scientists from ARS collaborated with researchers at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Iowa State University and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Steven Naranjo, a research leader at the ARS Arid Land Agricultural Research Center in Maricopa, Ariz., and Jonathan Lundgren, an entomologist at the ARS North Central Agricultural Research Laboratory in Brookings, S.D., contributed to the work.

The scientists compared the abundance of groups of non-target insects. They first compared the abundance of these insects in Bt crops and non-Bt crops without any insecticides. They also compared the insect populations in both types of crops treated with insecticides. And they compared the non-target insect populations in Bt crops without insecticides versus the populations in non-Bt crops treated with insecticides.

They formed these groups of non-target insects with data drawn from a modified version of a public database created by Santa Clara University biologist Michelle Marvier and colleagues. The toxins examined included Cry1Ab and Cry3Bb in maize, Cry3A in potato and Cry1Ac and Cry1Ab in cotton.

The researchers observed considerable variability in the effects of Bt cotton and maize crops on non-target insects. However, the data within the groups were fairly consistent. The most influential factor was the insecticide applied. Collectively, insecticides such as pyrethroids, organophosphates, carbamates and neonicotinoids had larger negative impacts on non-target insects than did the Bt crops.

The researchers concluded that when it comes to killing non-target insects, no treatment at all has the least impact. Bt crops have considerably less impact on non-target insects than do conventional insecticides. Also, insecticides affect insect populations uniformly, regardless of whether they're in Bt or non-Bt crop fields.

ARS is a scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


The Return of Bt Cotton

- Himanshu, Live Mint from WSJ, Nov 19, 2008

"Bt Cotton : This also seems to be the primary reason for the phenomenal increase in yield rates of cotton in the country that had stagnated through the 1990s"

A major issue that will come up for debate in the run-up to the general election early next year is the response of the Union government to farmers' woes. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government can legitimately take credit for reviving agriculture growth-from around 1% per annum at the time of the previous National Democratic Alliance government (1999-2004) to a respectable 2.48% per annum (2003-2007).

However, a closer look at the disaggregated figures suggests there is little that the UPA can take credit for; it is all sheer luck and farmers' initiatives such as the large-scale adoption of Bt, or genetically modified (GM), cotton.
Among the various crop groups, a significant increase in output is observed in the case of sugar and fibres subgroup. In foodgrains, cereal output growth has seen a revival from a growth rate of -1.34% per year between 1999-00 and 2004-05 to 1.12% per year since 2003-04. However, the crop groups that have contributed to a large part of growth in agricultural output are sugar and fibres, largely led by cotton.

Output of the fibres sub-group has increased at almost 12% per year since 2003-04. The increase in cotton output is also seen by looking at the yield estimates of major crops. A large part of the increase is attributable to rise in adoption of GM cotton.

Largely blamed for farmer suicides until recently, Bt cotton is back in favour with the growers. Although there are no official estimates of the percentage of cotton acreage under Bt cotton, seed manufacturers and independent cotton producer groups claim Bt cotton now accounts for 70-85% of the country's total cotton production. This also seems to be the primary reason for the phenomenal increase in yield rates of cotton in the country that had stagnated through the 1990s.

Yield of cotton in India is still among the lowest in the world. It stayed at around 200kg per ha until the 1980s, increasing marginally to 250kg per ha in the 1990s and stayed there until 1996-97. It again fell to an average of 200kg per ha and remained at that level until 2002-03. However, since 2003-04 yield of cotton has increased steadily to 307kg per ha in 2003-04, 362kg per ha in 2005-06 and 466kg per ha in 2007-08. This phenomenal increase in yield rates in the past five years is proof of the growing importance of Bt cotton in the country. By 2007-08, India became the largest producer of cotton with the largest acreage under Bt cotton in the world, pushing China into second place. Bt cotton now has the largest share of cotton production in the cotton-growing states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab.

These states have also seen increase in area under cotton in the past three years. These developments will raise questions on the efficiency of Bt cotton by those opposed to the introduction of GM crops and by civil society groups that have blamed multinational companies for exploiting poor farmers and leading them into a debt trap which was largely responsible for the suicides. Going by the recent research by Guillame Gruere, Purvi Mehta-Bhatt and Debdatta Sengupta, it appears that the opposition from both these groups is not entirely substantiated by the academic literature on the subject.

Largely based on secondary literature on Bt cotton adoption in India and its role in farmer suicides, the authors have rejected the hypothesis that Bt cotton is in any way responsible for farmer suicides. Instead, they have argued that the overall impact of Bt cotton in India has been beneficial to farmers.

The little evidence available suggests it is not Bt cotton per se that is responsible for the worsening farmers' livelihoods but the context in which it was introduced along with environmental factors.

Of course, their conclusion remains to be verified by the groups opposed to introduction of GM crops. But till then, the evidence is mixed and there is very little information from credible sources on the extent of Bt cotton or its impact on farming.

Himanshu is assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. Farm Truths looks at issues in agriculture and runs on alternate Wednesdays. Respond to this column at farmtruths@livemint.com


USDA Report on AgBiotech Regulation in the EU: EU-27 Biotechnology Annual 2008

- USDA Foreign Agricultural Service ; released on November 21, 2008 http://www.fas.usda.gov/scripts/gd.asp?ID=146296234

There are seven Member States (MS) commercially producing genetically-engineered (GE) crops, with Spain being, by far, the largest producer. Under the EU policy framework for agricultural biotechnology, MS policy varies greatly. Coexistence frameworks have been set up in most MS or are currently being prepared, and 5 MS continue to maintain national bans. However, the EU is a major consumer of biotech products, mainly soybean meal imported to feed livestock and poultry, with at least 80 percent of EU soy crush estimated to be genetically modified. Finally, agricultural biotechnology research in Europe is declining, mainly due to political pressure.

The report was prepared by Marie-Cecile Henard, Dietmar Achilles, Barrie Williams and the group of FAS biotech specialists in the EU


A History of Plant Biotechnology: from the Cell Theory of Schleiden and Schwann to Biotech Crops

- Prof. Indra K. Vasil, Plant Cell Reports; September, 2008; Vol.27, No. 9

Plant biotechnology is founded on the principles of cellular totipotency and genetic transformation, which can be traced back to the Cell Theory of Matthias Jakob Schleiden and Theodor Schwann, and the discovery of genetic transformation in bacteria by Frederick Griffith, respectively.

On the 25th anniversary of the genetic transformation of plants, this review provides a historical account of the evolution of the theoretical concepts and experimental strategies that led to the production and commercialization of biotech (transformed or transgenic) plants expressing many useful genes, and emphasizes the beneficial effects of plant biotechnology on food security, human health, the environment, and conservation of biodiversity. In so doing, it celebrates and pays tribute to the contributions of scores of scientists who laid the foundation of modern plant biotechnology by their bold and unconventional thinking and experimentation. It highlights also the many important lessons to be learnt from the fascinating history of plant biotechnology, the significance of history in science teaching and research, and warns against the danger of the growing trends of ignoring history and historical illiteracy.

(Vasil is Associate Director, Genetics Institute and Graduate Research Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida)

Download full commentary at

Beginning and Concluding Remarks:

Eighteenth January 1983, is arguably one of the most important dates in the history of plant biotechnology. Indeed, history was made that day 25 years ago, at the Miami Winter Symposium, where three independent groups described Agrobacterium tumefaciens-mediated genetic transformation, leading to the production of normal, fertile transgenic plants. Although each group had introduced a bacterial antibiotic resistance gene into tobacco, a model plant for studies on in vitro regeneration, there was widespread belief that the new technology would allow introduction of agronomically important genes into crop species that are susceptible to agrobacterial infection.

Soon, scores of academic as well as corporate research groups took up this challenge, along with the difficult task of developing the necessary technologies for the genetic transformation of the economically important cereal crops that at the time were considered to be outside the host range of Agrobacterium. It is a testament to the ingenuity of the plant biotechnology community that within the next decade all major crop species had been transformed with genes that conferred resistance to non-selective herbicides, and some pests and pathogens.

In the mean time, in response to concerns about the safety and environmental impact of biotech (transgenic) crops, elaborate and stringent mandatory regulations were developed in the United States and some other countries to monitor and regulate the cultivation and use of biotech crops and products. But plant biotechnology came of age only in 1996, with the planting of nearly five million acres of biotech crops, mostly in the United States. Thereafter, the global acreage of biotech crops increased rapidly-at an annual rate in excess of 10%-so that in 2007 more than 282 million acres (nearly 8% of total world crop acreage) were planted in 23 countries, for a cumulative (1996-2007) total acreage of over 1.7 billion acres (James 2007).

For the purposes of this review, plant biotechnology is defined rather narrowly to include only biotech plants. It provides a historical perspective of the evolution of a variety of novel ideas and technologies that are now routinely used in the regeneration and genetic transformation of plants, and celebrates the contributions of many men and women whose seminal contributions laid the foundation of modern plant biotechnology.

Lessons from the History of Plant Biotechnology

It is said that history teaches us many valuable lessons, and that those who ignore it do it at their own peril. Yet, history is not given much importance in modern science education and research. The unfortunate result is that we are producing scientists who are historically illiterate. Like the rest of modern society, many scientists today are interested more in the ''here and now'', and show little interest in the past or concern for the future. Most contemporary publications lack a historical perspective, and few scientists bother to consult or cite literature that is older than 10-15 years.

Literature searches are generally confined to what is readily available on the internet. Such historical ignorance and neglect present a highly distorted and biased view of science, deny credit to earlier workers, and unjustifiably inflate the importance of modern research. Authors, reviewers and editors share equal responsibility for this very undesirable practice, which is unhealthy for science and for the training of young scientists.

There is also an increasing tendency among scientists to be clannish, and to follow only the most popular areas of investigation. This habit is fueled by the unwillingness of funding agencies to support and encourage truly novel and high risk proposals. A study of the history of plant biotechnology clearly shows that there are many important and meaningful lessons to be learnt from the wisdom and cumulative experience of all those who came before us (Box 5).

It is up to us now, to benefit from the opportunities presented by the history of our science, and reverse the growing trends of historical ignorance and illiteracy.


Thankful for Biotech

- John Reifsteck, Truth about Trade and technology, Nov. 21, 2008 http://www.truthabouttrade.org:80/content/view/12812/

Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election for a simple reason: Americans thought their country was headed in the wrong direction, and he provided a vision of change that voters found more compelling than John McCain's.

These are tough times, with the financial crisis causing widespread anxiety. Everyone seems to think that things will get worse before they get better. And they might be right.

But next Thursday the United States celebrates Thanksgiving--an occasion for setting aside our fears and giving thanks for the many blessings we enjoy.

As a farmer, I'm thankful that we enjoyed a good harvest. It was a challenging year on my farm. At planting time, the weather was not very cooperative, but patience, hard work and faith saw us through. Harvest is a special time on the farm. It is kind of like Christmas morning and payday combined. It is also time to reflect on the past and plan for the future.

One of the best things about farming is that we get a fresh start every year. Farmers start that new year by looking at what has worked well in the past and what needs to be changed. One of the things that has worked well on our farms is biotechnology. Three years ago, agriculture celebrated a major agricultural achievement: Somewhere in the world, a farmer planted the one-billionth acre of genetically modified crops.
We don't know if it happened in Montana, Manitoba, or in your neighbor's backyard. But we do know that this accomplishment sprouted from the commercial introduction of GM seeds, and that farmers needed about a decade to adopt new practices and reach this significant milestone.

Today, we're approaching another milestone: two billion acres. We'll reach it in the coming months, according to calculations based on agricultural statistics collected from all parts of the world. (You can keep up with this progress on the Truth About Trade and Technology website - www.truthabouttrade.org - where an official counter tracks the number.)

Again, we're not sure exactly where this moment in agricultural history will occur. It could be in the southern hemisphere during the current growing season, maybe in Argentina when soybeans are planted after winter wheat. Or, the two-billionth acre could be in Australia, Brazil, the Philippines, or South Africa. If not this fall, we'll hit that benchmark in early 2009. It could be a corn field in the Rio Grande Valley in the U.S. or a little later in a Spanish corn field.

Regardless of the location, this is the very definition of a rapid success story: Ten years to one-billion acres, three more years to two-billion acres. I suspect that we'll reach the milestone of three-billion acres by 2010. Pretty soon, we'll be talking about "billions and billions" of biotech acres the way Carl Sagan used to talk about stars in the universe.

No matter how quickly we get there, we can now say with more confidence than ever before that biotech crops are here to stay. They're a fully proven commodity. They're more cost-effective and bountiful than conventional crops. In many places, the vast majority of corn, soybeans, and cotton are genetically enhanced.

Their use is so widespread, in fact, that they call into question what's conventional and what's non-conventional. It might be more accurate to say that biotech crops are "conventional" and non-biotech crops are not.

Even Europe, which has proven so resistant to biotech agriculture, is inching toward this new reality. The European Food Safety Authority recently reaffirmed its view that two varieties of GM corn are safe for planting. It remains to be seen what will happen next--in the EU, bureaucratic red tape strangles a lot of innovation--but all the momentum now is in the direction of approval.

In September, the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry gave a major prize to Ingo Portykus for helping to develop "golden rice," a GM crop that has the potential to improve public health in the developing world. It's fortified with vitamin A, which can be scarce in rice-heavy diets. By some estimates, half a million children become blind each year because of vitamin-A deficiency. Most die shortly thereafter.

The miracle of biotechnology is that it holds the promise to address the world's food demands on scale both large and small. The high yields of GM crops make it possible to feed a planet with a growing population. At the same time, it has the potential to treat very specific problems, such as a lack of vitamin A in certain diets.

So as we arrive at Thanksgiving 2008, I'm thankful for two billion acres of biotech crops--and hopeful for billions and billions more to come.

John Reifsteck, a corn and soybean farmer in western Champaign County Illinois, is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology