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January 29, 2009


Fighting Global Warming with Biotech; Why I Planted GM; Science Diplomacy; Obama's Promise; Health Canada on Safety


* World Facing 'Enormous' Food Challenge As Water Scarcity Looms
* Senator Calls for Europe, Africa to Embrace Genetically Modified Crops
* Why I Planted GM Maize on My Welsh Farm
* Science Diplomacy in the 21st Century
* Fighting Hunger with Flood-Tolerant Rice
* Doubts Surround Link Between Bt Cotton Failure and Farmer Suicide
* Drought-resistant Grass Genes Could Spur 21st Century Crops
* President Obama's Promise
* Health Canada: The Safety of Genetically Modified Foods
* Hero: Khush Donates Research Fund to Punjab Agricultural University
* BIo-Nano -The War on Hunger - Global Knowledge Millennium Summit
* Agricultural Challenge: Assuring Food for Everyone and Protecting the Planet

World Facing 'Enormous' Food Challenge As Water Scarcity Looms

- Alex Morales, Bloomberg, Jan 29, 2009

The world is facing an "enormous" challenge to feed a growing population because climate change is altering rainfall patterns and fresh water is becoming scarcer, the U.K. government's top scientist said.

Governments need to boost spending on agricultural research and reconsider options such as genetically-modified foods, which have been historically rejected by consumers in Europe, John Beddington told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. e have at the global level a genuine issue of world food shortage," Beddington told lawmakers. "Can you feed 9 billion people by 2050 in some form of equitable and sustainable way?"

A 60 percent rise in food prices from early 2007 until mid- 2008 caused riots in countries including Cameroon, Haiti and Egypt. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in June that as much as $20 billion a year was needed to invest in agriculture to tackle the issue.

The challenge is to grow more food, maybe 50 percent more in two decades "and doubling in four decades on less land because of urbanization, climate change and so on; with less water, and probably using less fertilizers and less pesticides" than before, Beddington said late yesterday. "It's an enormous challenge."

The problem for the U.K. is less pressing because the country is "relatively prosperous" and can buy food on the world market, the scientist said.

Genetically-Modified Crops
One challenge for European countries is to overcome aversion among consumers to genetically-modified, or GM, crops, he said. That aversion may be because when the technology was first used, its purpose was mainly to cut costs rather than solve "difficult problems" such as more frequent drought, saltier soils and declining rainfall, he said. "GM is not the only answer but it may well be a part of an answer to a number of very difficult problems," Beddington said. "If it can solve the problem, we need to be thinking about it."

The scientist said the use of GM cotton in clothing is now "ubiquitous" and that GM foods are eaten in the U.S. and other nations outside Europe. "I understand this is a behavioral response that something you put on your shoulders is a lot less of a concern than something you put in your mouth," Beddington said. Still, "GM is being eaten widely throughout the world and we've not had indications of major problems."


Lugar Calls for Europe, Africa to Embrace Genetically Modified Crops

- Sylvia A. Smith, The Associated Press, Jan 29, 2009

WASHINGTON - Shrinking crop yields is "one of the most deadly and disruptive consequences of climate change," Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said Wednesday as he called for Europe and Africa to set aside their suspicions of genetically modified crops. Scientists have discovered ways to tweak the genetic makeup crops such as corn and soybeans so they resist drought, weeds and bugs. That increases their durability and yields.

But some critics call genetically modified crops "frankenfood" and have banned their importation or require labeling of any product in the grocery store if it includes more than nine-tenths of 1 percent of genetically modified crops. The attitude is prominent in Europe, and some African countries have joined the opposition.

At a hearing on climate change that was headlined by former Vice President Al Gore, Lugar quoted a scientific study that forecast a 35 percent decrease in African farm yields if the global temperature increases 3.6 degrees. Lugar said the international climate treaty that will be negotiated in Copenhagen this year should include discussions about genetically modified crops.

But Gore said it's up to individual countries to decide whether to admit genetically modified organisms and that reaching a worldwide agreement on their safety isn't a topic for the treaty. In his testimony, Gore urged the members of the Foreign Relations Committee not to let the economic crisis get in the way of addressing global warming.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner said Congress should pass President Obama's economic stimulus package as a first step to bringing greenhouse gases under control. Gore also pressed for "decisive action" on a bill to cap heat-trapping gases, saying that it is needed for the U.S. to take a leading role in negotiations on the climate treaty this year.

The Bush administration pulled out of the last treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, because of the lack of participation by developing countries. The treaty requires 35 participating industrialized countries to curb carbon emissions. Negotiations on a new agreement are scheduled for December in Copenhagen.

Gore - whose book on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," became an Oscar-winning documentary - said the recession and wars should not cause another delay. "We must face up to this urgent and unprecedented threat to the existence of our civilization at a time when our country must simultaneously solve two other worsening crises," Gore told the panel.


Why I Planted Genetically Modified Maize on My Welsh Farm

- Jonathon Harrington, Guardian (UK), January 29, 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/

'The agronomist and farmer who has challenged the GM-free status of Wales by planting GM crops on his land explains why he chose to make a stand against what he sees as the Welsh assembly's misguided policies'

I find myself accused of a number of heinous acts including "infecting" Wales with GM, acting irresponsibly and possibly of breaking the law. Not bad for a Welsh peasant who simply wishes to try - with the support of the scientific community - to facilitate the introduction of a new and valuable technology into Welsh agriculture.

So what is the precise nature of my supposedly "ill-informed", "illegal" and "irresponsible" behaviour? The seeds I planted are maize varieties on the EU's "common list" of approved crops. As such, my legal advice is that it is lawful to plant them within the EU. But according to some of my detractors those rules apparently do not apply in Wales.

Then there is the charge that I have "infected Wales with GM". With what I ask? Genetic modification is a process as opposed to a product and as such cannot be bought or sold any more than "keyhole surgery". The analogy of GM technology as a contagion is simply false.

It can of course be used for a variety of purposes: to give plants immunity from pest attack or resistance to disease or more recently the ability to withstand drought. There are a number of potential benefits the technology could offer Welsh farmers if the assembly government showed a more positive attitude towards it.

Of these, maize is possibly the crop with the most potential for us to exploit in that we could use a range of different herbicides which would, for example, not drain into our beautiful river systems. These would also allow us to establish grass leys during the growing season so absorbing the considerable amounts of nitrogen not taken up by the maize crop. This in turn would reduce the often excessive amounts of soil eroded onto our roads and rivers and thereby reduce pollution and conserve our valuable arable land for future production.

Have I removed consumer choice? Again, I believe not. That choice was taken away several decades ago - unless you choose to survive entirely on wild fruit and nuts. We are all either wearing or consuming plant products that have been bred using technology that involves artificially manipulating plant genes. I can't think of a single crop plant in the UK that has not been bred by artificially mutating its genes using chemicals or radiation. The group of techniques that are commonly referred to as genetic manipulation are simply more precise and safer ways of doing the same thing.

What about the danger of my plants cross-pollinating with other plants and varieties? This is a potential outcome, but since nobody in the UK produces maize for seed and there are no other plants in the UK that are sufficiently closely related to maize to cross-pollinate with it this cannot be a justifiable accusation.

So what have I achieved by my actions? Well I have at last brought the issue to the minds of many people who sought to sweep it under the carpet. And I have done this without endangering anyone and without touching the public purse.

More importantly, the stance of the Welsh Assembly and others is helping to deny a valuable technology to millions. Like most new technologies, GM comes with some potential downsides but these are far outweighed by the enormous advantages it offers: the potential to increase dramatically both yields and the quality of crops harvested. In over 10 years of its use around the world millions of meals have been made from GM plants but no health problems have been reported.

Moreover, GM crops are still in their infancy and future potential gains are extremely exciting. Think of the many thousands of people in Asia who suffer blindness from a lack of vitamin A in their diet - rice, their primary source of carbohydrate, contains no vitamin A. Yet the insertion of genes into rice plants could help reduce this appalling condition dramatically, and this has been made available free of charge by its developers.

Then there are the many farmers who would prefer not to spray their crops with an insecticide when they could grow a variety - say of cotton - resistant to certain pests. We should not deny the millions of people who might benefit from this science by demanding that it be stopped.

If the politicians we employ wish to persist with their ostrich-like attitude then I am sure that the weight of scientific evidence will eventually show them for the luddites they are. For those of us who live in the real world we need to take advantage of every piece of technology we can find to develop our agriculture and help to feed the nearly 1bn of our fellow human beings who are short of food.

* Jonathon Harrington is chartered biologist working in the field on advanced crop technologies. He also has a small farm in the Black Mountains of Wales. He is a consultant for Cropgen, an organisation that promotes crop biotechnology.


Science Diplomacy in the 21st Century

- Nina V. Fedoroff, Cell, v. 136, January 9, 2009, Elsevier Inc. 91 (Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State and to the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), U.S. Department of State, Washington DC 20520, USA)

'Science diplomacy is the use of scientific collaborations among nations to address the common problems facing 21st century humanity and to build constructive international partnerships. There are many ways that scientists can contribute to this process.'

Bill Gates, arguably the world's most famous technocrat, gave a remarkable speech during the 2008 Davos World Economic Forum, calling for a new form of capitalism to go beyond traditional philanthropy and government aid. Citing examples ranging from the development of software for people who cannot read to developing vaccines at a price that Africans can afford to pay, Gates said such projects "...provide a hint of what we can accomplish if people who are experts on needs in the developing world meet with scientists who understand what the breakthroughs are, whether it's in software or drugs" (http://www.microsoft.com/Presspass/ exec/billg/speeches/2008/01-24WEFDavos. mspx).

He suggested that we need to develop a new business model that would allow a combination of the motivation to help humanity and the profit motive to drive development. He called it "creative capitalism," capitalism leavened by a pinch of idealism and altruistic desire to better the lot of others.

Scientists and engineers have an important role to play in creating what New York Times columnist Tom Friedman calls a "flat world," a world of economic opportunity made equal through electronic communication technologies (http:// www.thomaslfriedman.com/ bookshelf/ the-world-is-flat). This transformation has not yet penetrated into the poorest parts of the world and needs much more scientific and technical investment. But today, most scientists look to foreign institutions for top-notch graduate students and postdocs to populate their laboratories. The notion of becoming a science diplomat, of taking time out from a busy and competitive career to teach, develop research collaborations, or start a business in the least advanced countries is just not on the radar screen for most scientists and engineers.

Yet there are such opportunities, both in the US Department of State and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as in non-governmental organizations, such as the National Academy of Sciences, for scientists and engineers to use their scientific and technical skills in the service of international diplomacy.

I took one such opportunity last year when, as a geneticist and molecular biologist at the Pennsylvania State University, I was invited to serve as the Science and Technology Adviser to the US Secretary of State. My position is not a political one: I have served current Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and I will serve Secretary-designate Hillary Clinton upon her assumption of office this month. I accepted the position because my involvement in scientific interactions between US scientists and scientists in the former Soviet Union through the 1990s convinced me of the profound stabilizing influence that scientific interactions can exert between countries with deeply discordant ideologies and political systems. Not long after I joined the State Department, I received an invitation from USAID Administrator Henrietta Fore to be her Science and Technology Adviser, as well. The mission she gave me was to assist her in restoring the scientific and technical strength of the agency to enable the better use of science and technology for international development.

My primary task at both the US Department of State, the home base of our international diplomatic corps, and USAID is to increase scientific input into the many activities of the Department and the Agency. The Office of the Science Adviser to the Secretary of State was established in 2000 in response to a National Research Council study, titled "The Pervasive Role of Science, Technology, and Health in Foreign Policy" (http://books.nap.edu/ openbook.php?isbn=0309067855), that highlighted the attrition of scientists from State Department ranks at a time when the importance of science and technology was expanding in every aspect of foreign policy. Under the leadership of the first Science Adviser to the Secretary of State, Dr. Norman Neureiter, the number of active scientists in the department began to grow again as he promoted the expansion of the AAAS Science Diplomacy Fellows program (http://fellowships.aaas. org/02_Areas/02_index.shtml) within the State Department. Today we have roughly 30 new AAAS Fellows joining us every year for 1-2 years of service. Many stay on to make careers in the State Department, becoming science diplomats serving either in Washington DC or as Foreign Service Officers.

My predecessor as Science Adviser, Dr. George Atkinson, created the Jefferson Science Fellowship program (http://www7.nationalacademies.org/ jefferson/), which provides an opportunity for tenured academic scientists and engineers farther along in their careers than the typical AAAS fellow to work in the State Department. Jefferson Science Fellows come to the State Department for a year, funded by their own university as they would be on a sabbatical leave. The State Department covers their local living and travel expenses. Fellows then consult for the

State Department for an additional 5 years after returning to their home institutions. Jefferson Science Fellows are often individuals who already have a keen awareness of the importance of international collaborations and use their association with the State Department to broaden their influence and involvement in foreign relations and development efforts. For example, Dr. Osama Awadelkarim, a Sudanese-born Professor of Materials Science at the Pennsylvania State University, served as a Jefferson Science Fellow in 2006. His passionate devotion to enhancing scientific and engineering expertise in Africa took him to several African countries to teach and to establish collaborations, as well as to talk with government officials and champion the importance of international scientific interactions.

In a speech given at the 2006 World Food Prize symposium, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the following: "It could be argued that our inability to continue our investment in human capital on a scale that we did in the 1960s and 1970s is a factor that has contributed at least in some measure to instability in many places today and hostility to the United States.The United States was the key influence in developing the Indian agricultural university system, the key contributor to the African agricultural universities, and to Asian and Latin American agricultural universities as well. But such US programs are now a pale shadow of what they once were. Science has disappeared. Human capital development has disappeared. And the investments for long-term institution building have nearly disappeared."

There remains a profound gap between the citizens of affluent nations, who have access to abundant food, upto- date technology, and excellent educational opportunities, and citizens of the poorest countries of every continent, many of whom lack adequate food, often have no electricity, and have little access to either the Internet or higher education. The technological aspect of this gap has been called the "digital divide" and much has been written about it. Some believe that the problems of the poorest countries are simply solved by cell phones and inexpensive computers that can be used even in places that lack electricity. Certainly these technologies are important and make the job possible, if not easy.

But the problems are deep and stubborn. Perhaps the most poignant disparities exist between the countries of the developed world and much of Africa, where climate, disease, soil exhaustion, and a host of other problems contribute. In his book titled "The Bottom Billion," economist Paul Collier (http://users.ox.ac. uk/~econpco/) offers an insightful analysis of the many factors that contribute to trapping the poorest nations in continuing cycles of poverty and unrest. The global food crisis of 2008 triggered food riots in more than 30 countries and calls for a new Green Revolution. The first Green Revolution, however, was relatively straightforward, if not easy: improved crop varieties and increased fertilizer use. The next Green Revolution will be more difficult, even if we succeed in overcoming the deep and widespread mistrust of using modern molecular methods for the genetic improvement of crop plants.

In a crowded world, we no longer have the luxury of focusing on the single variable of agricultural productivity. Food, water, energy, health, and economic development are all intertwined. Progress will depend on a high level of education, particularly in science and engineering. All will be impacted by climate change and politics--everywhere. Climate change is a wake-up call to the awareness that we live in a world without borders. Airplanes can make SARS and multidrug-resistant TB everyone's problem in a heartbeat. Trade barriers between nations and farm subsidies in developed nations stifle agricultural growth in developing countries. The rush toward renewable energy from biofuels accelerates deforestation in the Amazon, however indirectly, and with each acre lost, another multitude of species goes extinct. Wall Street's problems echo around the world.

And all of these seemingly separate problems turn out to be interconnected. Food and energy are now viewed as fungible. Growing the food--and feed and fiber and fuel--demanded by a still expanding and increasingly affluent human population requires innovations not just in agricultural productivity but also in water and land management, food processing, and transportation. Decimating what remains of the tropic's forests will as surely exacerbate climate change as it will reduce biodiversity. It's one big thorny tangle: people, money, food, energy, health, water, land, climate, biodiversity.

How do we as scientists begin to think--and act--on a global scale to address such complicated problems? It seems to me that we must first become citizens not just of our own nations, but of this world without borders. We need to see, experience, and identify with the peoples and the problems of other nations and to recognize the complexity and interconnections among the challenges facing 21st century humanity. And perhaps most importantly of all, we need to understand, at a deep gut level, that all our fates are truly intertwined. We must move quickly to develop the science that will allow us to model and understand the complex system that is our planet and its crust of human activities. We need to invent efficient, nonpolluting means of local power generation. We need to invest in the research that will allow us to improve how we manage water, grow food, battle disease, and build economies into the next generation --and the next.

Science, of course, provides the common language to build bridges between cultures. Education is a stumbling block. The US has educated talented students from around the world for many years. Today virtually every developed country realizes the value to the economy of such talent--and actively seeks to recruit it. But herein lies a paradox: sending its best students to be educated in more developed countries exacerbates a poor country's problems because the education itself--whether it is a teacher's certificate, a nursing degree, or a PhD-- makes it easier to find employment and a more stable life in a developed country. Such "brain drain" has robbed--and is continuing to rob--many poor countries of their educated people. These are the people who design, develop, and maintain society's infrastructure --its agriculture, its schools, its clinics, its power, and telecommunications networks. As well, they are the professors and researchers who generate and propagate the knowledge-- the science and technology--that are essential in every aspect of life and that are increasingly recognized as the driving forces of successful economies.

I believe that we need a deep paradigm shift in our interactions with the less developed world: from distant aid recipients to partners in building a global future. We need to bring the science, the engineering, and technology and the educational systems of developed countries to bear directly and in new ways to create a world in which all people have the educational and economic opportunities now available almost exclusively in the developed world. I believe this paradigm shift is getting underway--among governments, in foundations, in the business world, and in the academic world. It is driven in some measure by necessity and perhaps in some measure by the fact that modern communications media make the disparities among the nations of the world harshly and constantly apparent to everyone. But there is much, much more to be done and not all of it can be done by governments.

In April, Secretary of State Rice, Secretary of Education Spellings, and USAID Administrator Fore convened a global conference of college and university presidents, companies, and foundations (Higher Education Summit for Global Development, April 29-30, 2008; http://www.state.gov/g/stas/events/ c26110.htm). Its purpose was to explore new ways of connecting the institutions of higher education in the developed and developing worlds across the entire spectrum of what contemporary universities do, from teaching and research, to supporting technology transfer and entrepreneurship.

The means of connecting educational resources and people between continents have never been richer, more varied, or easier. From MIT OpenCourseWare to digital videoconferencing and collaborative software, we can teach and work between countries and continents--and in real time. The Internet and broadband connections are critical; availability is increasing and cost is decreasing but in places remains prohibitive. This is where governments, companies, and foundations can help.

Yet the challenge of connecting people and resources remains, of making global service--what I've called science diplomacy --a part of what we do as scientists and engineers, whether we work in a government agency, a university, a research institute, or a company. The traditional approach of educating students in our institutions and laboratories is increasingly unacceptable. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, arguably the African leader most supportive of science and technology in developing and modernizing his country, gave an articulate and moving talk at the recent Higher Education Summit for Global Development. Bluntly paraphrased, his most salient points are these: "We provide you with foreign aid in the form of trained and educated people. You send us expensive consultants to tell us what we already know" ( President Kagame's full speech is available at http:// www.gov.rw/government/president/ speeches/2008/29_04_08_education_ usa.html).

We need our scientists and engineers, our experts of all kinds, whether in the lab or in the diplomatic corps, to help us jump the digital divide, both technically and personally. We need scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to coach and teach until the world is truly flat, to call on Friedman's metaphor again; that is, until all peoples have the educational and economic opportunities to build and live in sustainable knowledge societies. That's 21st century science diplomacy.


Fighting Hunger with Flood-Tolerant Rice

- Peter Ornstein, CNN, Jan 29, 2009

DAVIS, California (CNN) -- If every scientist hopes to make at least one important discovery in her career, then University of California-Davis professor Pamela Ronald and her colleagues may have hit the jackpot.
Scientists have bred a new strain of flood-tolerant rice that could help feed millions.

Ronald's team works with rice, a grain most Americans take for granted, but which is a matter of life and death to much of the world. Thanks to their efforts to breed a new, hardier variety of rice, millions of people may not go hungry.

About half the world's population eats rice as a staple. Two-thirds of the diet of subsistence farmers in India and Bangladesh is made up entirely of rice. If rice crops suffer, it can mean starvation for millions. "People [in the United States] think, well, if I don't have enough rice, I'll go to the store," said Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at UC-Davis. "That's not the situation in these villages. They're mostly subsistence farmers. They don't have cars."

As sea levels rise and world weather patterns worsen, flooding has become a major cause of rice crop loss. Scientists estimate 4 million tons of rice are lost every year because of flooding. That's enough rice to feed 30 million people. Rice is grown in flooded fields, usually to kill weeds. But rice plants do not like it when they are submerged in water for long periods, Ronald said.

"They don't get enough carbon dioxide, they don't get enough light and their entire metabolic processes are thrown off. The rice plant tries to grow out of the flood, but when it does, it depletes its sugar reserves. It starts to break down its chlorophyll, important for photosynthesis. It grows really quickly, and then when the flood recedes, it just dies. It's out of gas."

Normal rice dies after three days of complete flooding. Researchers know of at least one rice variety that can tolerate flooding for longer periods, but conventional breeding failed to create a strain that was acceptable to farmers.

So Ronald and her colleagues -- David Mackill, senior scientist at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and Julia Bailey-Serres, professor of genetics at the University of California-Riverside -- spent the last decade working to find a rice strain that could survive flooding for longer periods.

Mackill identified a flood-resistant gene 13 years ago in a low-yielding traditional Indian rice variety. He passed along the information to Ronald, who isolated the gene, called Sub1, and introduced it into normal rice varieties, generating rice that could withstand being submerged in water for 17 days.

The team relied on something called precision breeding, the ability to introduce very specific genes into plants without the associated baggage of other genes that might tag along in conventional breeding. "This can be a problem for farmers," Ronald said. "The varieties that were developed from conventional breeding were rejected by farmers because they didn't yield well or taste good." Using precision breeding, scientists introduced the Sub1 gene three years ago into test fields in Bangladesh and India. The subsequent rice harvests were a resounding success.

"The results were really terrific," said Ronald. "The farmers found three- to five-fold increases in yield due to flood tolerance. They can plant the normal way. They can harvest the normal way and it tastes the same. Farmers had more food for their families and they also had additional rice they could sell to bring a little bit of money into the household." "The potential for impact is huge," agreed Mackill in a statement on the IRRI Web site. "In Bangladesh, for example, 20 percent of the rice land is flood prone and the country typically suffers several major floods each year. Submergence-tolerant varieties could make major inroads into Bangladesh's annual rice shortfall."

The researchers anticipate that the flood-tolerant rice plants will be available to farmers in Bangladesh and India within two years. Because the plants are the product of precision breeding, rather than genetic modification, they are not subject to the same regulatory testing that can delay release of genetically modified crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture conferred one of its highest research awards last December on Ronald, Mackill and Bailey-Serres for their work on submergence-tolerant rice.

But Ronald has no plans to rest on her laurels "I feel a great sense of gratitude that I was able to contribute in this way," she said. "But the farmers have asked us, 'Can you develop varieties that are drought tolerant, salt tolerant? Can you develop varieties that are insect resistant?' There are always more things to work on."


Doubts Surround Link Between Bt Cotton Failure and Farmer Suicide

- Cormac Sheridan, Nature Biotechnology 27, 9 - 10 (2009)

The daughter of a cotton farmer who committed suicide after failing to keep up loan repayments. His death and that of other Indian farmers is unlikely to be linked to Bt cotton as previously alleged.

Results from a new investigation into the tragic phenomenon of Indian farmers' suicides and the alleged link with genetically modified (GM) cotton have been published. The International Food Policy Research Institute's (IFPRI) analysis released in October provides the most robust evidence yet that suicide among farmers in India has several causes, but Bt cotton is not a major factor. Indeed, the authors of the report, Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India: Reviewing the Evidence, argue that insect-resistant cotton encoding the cry1Ac toxin gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) has been very effective in India overall, notwithstanding the significant levels of variation that individual farmers have experienced with the technology. The study is unlikely to be the last word on what remains a highly emotive question, given both the chaotic conditions under which adoption of transgenic hybrid varieties in India proceeded at the start of this decade and the lack of solid data underpinning the very real and complex tragedy of farmer suicide in the country.

Official statistics on the problem vary widely. The study authors, Guillaume Gruere and Debdatta Sengupta, both of IFPRI, an agriculture policy think tank based in Washington DC, and former IFPRI researcher Purvi Mehta-Bhatt, opted to use figures from the National Crime Records Bureau, whose data indicate that about 17,000 farmers take their lives in India every year. "I'm not sure if it's the perfect data, and I'm not sure if it's well measured," says Gruere.

However, other sources may underestimate the problem, he and his co-authors argue.

The report http://www.ifpri.org/pubs/dp/IFPRIDP00808.pdf attempts to bridge an information gap between official farmer suicide data on one hand, which offers scant detail on individual cases, and the adoption of GM bollworm-resistant cotton on the other. It draws on a wide variety of sources, including peer-reviewed farm-level studies, official data, reports from nongovernmental organizations and media reports issued during the 2002-2007 period. It argues that farmer suicide in India predates the official commercial introduction of Bt cotton by Dawalwadi-based Monsanto Mahyco in 2002-and its unofficial introduction by Ahmedabad-based Navbharat Seeds a year earlier-and that farmer suicide has accounted for a fairly constant portion of the overall national suicide rate since 1997 (the point at which the IFPRI analysis begins). The authors' analysis indicates there is no evidence, either at the national or state level, to suggest a causal connection between the two, although the situation in Andhra Pradesh is more ambiguous, they note, because the farmer suicide data do not follow a linear pattern in that region.

"To be brutally honest there was nothing in there which was significant, given the scatter [of data] you had," says Stephen Morse, professor of sustainable development at the University of Reading in the UK, whose farm extension studies were cited in the IFPRI report. "If they had done a proper [statistical] analysis they might have picked up something." But he too is highly sceptical of a causal link between Bt cotton failure and suicide. "There is no evidence of any kind of a jump or any kind of surge."

Seeking to draw any firm conclusions on Bt cotton adoption from the official data is a fraught undertaking, given the hugely confusing seed market that developed after its introduction. The number of approved transgenic hybrid varieties has risen rapidly, from just three in 2002 to 135 in 2007 and an estimated 150 in 2008. In Gujarat, in particular, a thriving cottage industry has emerged in parallel, in which farmers develop their own unapproved transgenic hybrids by backcrossing officially approved varieties with locally adapted conventional varieties. "If you compare the legal and illegal varieties, there has been no significant difference between the two," says Lalitha Narayanan, associate professor at the Gujarat Institute of Development Research, in Ahmedabad.

The picture is further clouded by the selling of mislabelled, counterfeit seed packets, which often contain more than one variety. One Indian official was quoted in SciDev.net defining four distinct categories of Bt cotton: "legal, illegal, fake legal and fake illegal."

Despite this confusion, at a macro level it is clear that the productivity of India's cotton growers has risen substantially since the introduction of Bt cotton and that the rate of increase in productivity has also jumped. Overall, national cotton production, including transgenic and conventional varieties, climbed from 15.8 million bales in 2001-2002 to 24.4 million bales in 2005-2006, according to the IFPRI report. Average yields rose from around 300 kilograms per hectare (kg/ha) in 2002/03 to around 500 kg/ha in 2007-2008, whereas it took fifteen years, from 1982 to 1997, to take average yields from 200 kg/ha to 300 kg/ha. "One of the major factors is Bt cotton," says Purvi Mehta-Bhatt, who is now director of The Science Ashram, an agriculture capacity-building nongovernmental organization based in Verodara, in Gujarat, although other improvements have also contributed. "Agricultural management is improving day by day," she adds.

Even so, it is also clear that not everyone profited from the headlong rush-one academic observer called it a stampede-to embrace transgenic cotton production, particularly in the Vidharba District in northeast Maharashtra, in northwest Andhra Pradesh and in northern Karnataka. "Many things went wrong in the early phase, that's true," says Matin Qaim, professor of international food economics and rural development at Georg August University of Goettingen, in Germany.

IFPRI's Sengupta concurs. "A lot of varieties that were introduced were not suitable for dry land agriculture," he says. Moreover, sound information on how to cultivate the new Bt cotton varieties was poorly disseminated, with the result that some farmers sprayed pesticides excessively, adding significantly to their input costs. (Cotton accounts for only 5% of land under cultivation in India, but it accounts for around 45% of total pesticide usage). The expense of transgenic seeds-approved varieties initially cost about five times as much as conventional hybrids although recently introduced price caps have slashed the differential-created additional burdens. So too did the high cost of credit in some regions, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, where private moneylenders rather than financial institutions are the main source of loans for farmers. All of these vulnerabilities were exacerbated by the unscrupulous selling of counterfeit seeds, which often contained a mix of transgenic and conventional hybrids.

Crop failures were seized on by activist groups in India, such as Gene Campaign, which had previously campaigned against-and indeed successfully delayed-the commercial rollout of Bt cotton. "The statements they made weren't completely wrong, but they weren't completely representative," says Qaim, who says his own work in India is in agreement with the IFPRI findings. The evidence for the scale of Bt crop failures is anecdotal, as is any causal connection with farmer suicide. Where such failures did occur, the IFPRI report blames the conditions in which the technology "was introduced, sold, and used" rather than the technology itself.

Vandana Shiva, the country's most prominent anti-biotech activist, rejects this line of reasoning. "You cannot separate the technology from the context. That doesn't work at all," she says. Any seed that is sold to a farmer, she says, is sold on the basis that it will work for them within their specific ecological and socioeconomic contexts. She is critical of the overall report, moreover, including its failure to deal with what she sees as the real underlying problem. "Nothing in that paper is addressing the issue of debt, which is the prime cause of suicide," she says.

Morse, who is a geographer (some of whose work in India has been funded by St. Louis-based Monsanto), says the experience with Bt cotton in that country is broadly similar to the introduction of Bt cotton in the Makhathini Flats, in KwaZulu Natal Province in South Africa, where he has also performed field research (Nat. Biotechnol. 22, 379-380, 2004). He also sees parallels between the introduction of Bt cotton in India and an unsuccessful attempt to introduce conventional hybrid varieties of maize in Nigeria during the mid-1980s. "The same issues frankly have always been there," he says. Farmers take time to adapt to new varieties and conduct small-scale experimental plantings as part of their learning process. "Farmers have done this for centuries," he says. "The GM varieties are no different, I think, in terms of that basic dynamic."

The clash between an ecological approach to agriculture and one based on biotech remains, of course, at the heart of the exhaustive and circular debate on transgenic crops. Matin Qaim says it is a "pity" that no one has found a constructive way of adopting the two. "In my eyes both are important approaches. They're not actually mutually exclusive."


Drought-resistant Grass Genes Could Spur 21st Century Crops

- Brandon Keim, Wired Blog Network, January 29, 2009 via Checkbiotech.org

Future generations of drought-resistant food and biofuel crops may have their roots in the genome sequence of sorghum, a tropical grass that's able to thrive in hot, dry conditions.

Having transcribed its DNA, scientists can now set about connecting genes to hardiness, then applying their insights to the development of crop strains suited to a 21st century climate. "It can grow on marginal land. A lot of our own crops can't," said Joachim Messing, a Rutgers University plant geneticist and co-author of the study published Wednesday in Nature. "A year ago I was in Mozambique, and the corn looked terrible, but the sorghum was strong and tall. It doesn't need all these things that other plants need."

Drought resistance is one of a battery of traits that agronomists hope to refine in the next several decades, during which Earth's population will swell by two billion people -- all clamoring for food that modern agriculture cannot presently deliver. Developed world farms are already running at maximum capacity, with arable land already planted and the Green Revolution's fertilizer- and pesticide-based limits reached. Remaining land is often dry and salty, and farms around the world are threatened by weather extremes predicted as consequences of global warming.

New, hardier crop strains are needed -- and perhaps they could be engineered by applying sorghum's lessons to other plants. The rigorously deciphered genetic heritage of sorghum and other plants could help "meet the demands of a world faced by an ever-increasing population and by an erratic climate," wrote biologists Tajuki Sasaki and Baltazar Antonioni of Japan's National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in a commentary accompanying the study. "It constitutes the most powerful tool we have for revealing ways to increase the amounts of food and energy provided by plants," they wrote.

Messing and his colleagues didn't analyze the function of the genes assembled by sorghum's 750 million base DNA pairs, but they did notice that sorghum possesses extra copies of a previously-identified family of drought resistance-related genes. These genes, he said, could prove central to regulating sorghum's metabolism. "The regulation of drought tolerance is very complex, involving many genes," said Messing. "Harsh conditions trigger a lot of other metabolic functions in the plant."

Though sorghum is used primarily for animal feed in the developed world, these genes could be put into other grass species, from wheat to rice. If some cultures find genetic engineering to be unpalatable, other plants could be selectively bred to over-express the genes. Insights from sorghum could also translate to biofuel development, which has been hindered by the difficulty of breaking down plant cellulose. One sorghum strain is high in cellulose, while another is low: by crossing them, said Messing, scientists could learn how to produce less-woody crops.

"The Sorghum bicolor genome and the diversification of grasses." By Andrew H. Paterson et al.
Klaus F. X. Mayer, Joachim Messing and Daniel S. Rokhsar. Nature, Vol. 457 No. 7229, Jan. 28, 2009

"Sorghum in sequence." By Takuji Sasaki and Baltazar A. Antonio. Nature, Vol. 457 No. 7229, Jan. 28, 2009



President Obama's Promise


The NewScientist posted an article yesterday surrounding arguably the most impactful statement of President Obama's inauguration address. He affirmed that the United States would restore science to its rightful place. We can only assume that he plans to devote a significant amount of time, energy and tax dollars to developing new, productive technology, most notably in the realms of energy sources and agriculture. This statement, paired with his later mention of aiding poor nations so their farms may flourish once again, shines a hopeful ray of light on the future of agriculture. President Obama made it clear that America needs to take the reins as a perennial world-leader in this industry.

This renewed dedication to science has endless possibilities if Obama is able to follow through on his influential vision. And now the public knows he understands the issues affecting agriculture, but do you see this promise coming to fruition? Why or why not?



Health Canada: The Safety of Genetically Modified Foods


The concept of genetically modified (GM) foods has been around for many years. An early example is the cross-breeding of plants, such as different types of corn. The goal was to transfer a desirable trait (e.g., drought-resistance) from one plant variety to another. This method of genetic modification can take a long time to achieve a specific result, because all of the genes are mixed together, and it may take many attempts to produce offspring with the desired trait.

Advances in science have brought new methods of changing (modifying) the genetic makeup of animals, plants and microorganisms. This includes, but is not limited to, recombinant nucleic acid techniques, which involve the introduction of a gene or genes from one species to another species (this is commonly called genetic engineering). For example, scientists are able to take a gene that carries a desirable trait from one plant, and insert it into the genetic material of a second plant. With this process, only the desirable trait is transferred, and this makes it possible to achieve a specific result more quickly.

Genetic modification techniques have been used to produce crops that are better at fighting off pests, resisting disease, and tolerating the herbicides that are used to kill weeds. These techniques have also been used to delay the ripening process of plant foods that are to be transported long distances (i.e., tomatoes). So far, the agricultural sector has seen most of the benefits provided by these crops. However, scientists are working on the next generation of GM foods, and these may have direct benefits for consumers, such as enhanced nutrition or better taste.

The majority of GM foods approved for sale on the market are from plants, along with a few produced using GM microorganisms. There are currently no food products on the market in Canada that have been made from genetically modified animals.

Assessing the Safety of GM Foods
Every new GM food product must undergo a rigorous pre-market safety assessment before it is allowed to be sold in Canada. Here is a summary of the steps involved in the safety assessment:

* When a manufacturer or importer wants to advertise or sell a new GM food in Canada, it submits detailed information to Health Canada outlining exactly how the product was developed.
* Health Canada's scientific evaluators assess the information. The evaluators have expertise in such areas as molecular biology, toxicology, chemistry, nutritional sciences, and microbiology. In evaluating the safety of a GM food, they look at such aspects as:
o how the modified product was developed, including genetic changes that were made to any plant, animal or microorganism used in the product;
o how the GM food compares to a non-modified counterpart food in terms of composition (e.g., fats, proteins and carbohydrates) and nutrition quality;
o the potential for production of new toxins in the food;
o the potential for causing allergic reactions; and
o the microbiological and chemical safety of the food.

No GM food is allowed on the market in Canada unless Health Canada's scientists are satisfied that the food is safe and nutritious.

Labelling of GM Foods
When it comes to labelling, GM foods are treated like any other food because they are only allowed on the market after they have been through a thorough safety assessment. There are no specific laws regarding the labelling of GM food products. However, all food products (including organic products) must comply with the labelling rules of the Food and Drugs Act and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act. These Acts require that labels be truthful, not misleading or deceptive and not give an erroneous impression about the quality, merit, and safety of the food.

Recognizing that consumers wanted more information about the application of genetic engineering to foods, a group of stakeholders came together to develop a National Standard for Voluntary Labelling and Advertising of Foods That Are and Are Not Products of Genetic Engineering. Stakeholders who helped develop the standard included federal departments and agencies, consumer groups, food manufacturers, grocery distributors, provincial representatives, and farm organizations.

Although the standard is voluntary, it provides guidance to manufacturers on making claims about the use or non-use of genetic engineering in their products. It also assists consumers in making informed choices. See the Need More Info? section below for links to additional information about the labelling of GM foods
Health Canada's Role

Health Canada is responsible for establishing policies, setting standards, and providing advice and information on the safety and nutritional value of food, including GM foods. Health Canada also promotes the nutritional health and well-being of Canadians by working with partners to define, promote, and implement evidence-based nutrition policies and standards. In addition, Health Canada administers the provisions of the Food and Drugs Act that relate to public health, safety, and nutrition.

(Hat Tip: Rob Wager)

Khush Donates Research Fund to Punjab Agricultural University

- Crop Biotech Update, isaaa.org

World renowned rice breeder and geneticist Dr. Gurdev Singh Khush donated Rs.3.5 crore equivalent to US$0.75 million to the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana on the occasion of its convocation ceremony on 15th Jan 2009. The amount will be used to strengthen research work at the University. This amount has been accumulated from the prize money of various international awards which he has received till date, Dr. Khush said. In his convocation address, he said that India's condition used to be hand to mouth, where hunger and poverty were rampant. "We have come a long way since then and the world, today, is marveling at our growth rate. And if this trend continues, India is sure to become one of the most important economic power-houses of the world."

Dr. Khush highlighted the introduction of high yielding varieties of rice and wheat in the sixties and seventies that set the stage for the green revolution. With biotechnology, scientists are now able to develop crops with higher yield potential and resistance to diseases and pests. Setting aside the fear over the safely of genetically modified (GM) crops/foods, Dr. Khush said there is no legitimate evidence of harm to human health or environment from these foods. He said that social anxiety over these foods is fueled by lack of understanding of genetic modification process, negative opinion in the media and opposition by certain activist groups. "Biotechnology is a useful tool for ensuring food and nutritional security", he stressed.

Dr Khush is an alumnus of the university from where he started his scientific journey some 53 years ago. For more information about PAU's convocation see http://www.pau.edu/index.php?_act=manageStory&do=viewStoryDetail&intstoryid=16; additional details regarding Dr. Gurdev Singh Khush and his family at http://www.khush.org/


BIo-Nano -The War on Hunger - Global Knowledge Millennium Summit

- February 12-14, 2009; New Delhi,
India. http://www.assocham.org/6thbionano2008

The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (ASSOCHAM ) of India is organizing the summit as a forum for discussing and providing technological solutions for a hunger free world. The program will showcase technologies of different countries in nanotechnology and biotechnology that will revolutionize the agriculture and agro-based enterprises.

Revitalizing Indian agricultural calls for a paradigm shift would neither be empty rhetoric nor an overstatement. Agriculture is the backbone of our rural economy, providing both employment and livelihood opportunities to more than 65 percent of the country's rural population, besides food security. However, subjected to ever-growing demographic strain on land and other resources for food and developmental needs, the natural resource bases of land, water and bio-diversity are terribly constrained. Agriculture is facing its worst ever challenge in the production of all major grains to sustain the continuously increasing world's population. Constraints on production are further amplified by the reduction in arable land and management of available water resources. The country like India loses more than Rs 58,000 crore worth of agricultural food items every year due to improper storage facilities. These current crises place a great predicament on the Governments all over the Globe to ensure food for their people.

Biotechnology and Nanotechnology are the new frontiers, which can be harbored to resolve these crises by increasing agricultural productivity and offering solutions for other food related problems as well as bolster the ever growing food processing industries. Acknowledging the vast potential of the Bio-Nano technology and realizing the opportunities that lie ahead, ASSOCHAM is organizing 6th Global Knowledge Millennium Summit "Bio-Nano:The War on Hunger" as a forum for discussing and providing technological solutions for a hunger free world.


The Agricultural Challenge: Assuring Food for Everyone and Protecting the Planet-Technical, Financial and Trade Implications

- World Agricultural Forum - 2009; May 18 - 20, 2009, St. Louis, Missouri, USA http://www.worldagforum.org

The 2009 World Congress will seek solutions to issues around agricultural production and supply, rising food costs, the crucial resource of water, and the impacts on agricultural economies and resources during a period of unprecedented financial uncertainties on a global scale. Defining strategies and creating solutions will require a better understanding of the drivers and challenges of agriculture and food production including labour, rising prices, shrinking sources of credit, leveraging of innovation and technology, creation of incentives for production and higher productivity, and reducing the impact of input costs to farmers.

Lessons learned in Latin America will highlight the important role of education to drive successes in agricultural production and provide a path forward for Africa and the developing world. Each sector -- government, private and private-public partnerships and civil society (NGOs) will be challenged to provide a road map to success by addressing the crucial issues of safe, affordable and reliable supplies of food, fuel, fiber and water. Failure to address issues around agriculture and food production as an economic priority could have long-lasting impacts in the global community.