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March 10, 2009


Biotech Frontier; World's First Drought-Tolerant Corn; Biotech Surge; Seeds of Promise; Enabling Bio-innovations


* The Biotech Frontier
* India: Biotech Surge
* Bt Brinjal Can Resist Attack of FSB Larvae, Safe for Consumption
* Monsanto Asks for USDA Approval of First Biotech Drought-Tolerant Corn
* Seeds of Promise, Change
* Enabling Bio-innovations for Poverty Alleviation in Asia: Call for proposals
* ISAAA Video “Q&A with Clive James”
* USDA Biotechnology Regulations: Comment Period on Proposed Rule Extended
* Food and Fuel Crops: Issues, Policies and Regulations
* Ghana to Undertake Field Trials on GM Crops
* --- A Reader Responds


*The Biotech Frontier

- Ann Graham, strategy+business, March 9, 2009. Full interview at http://www.policyinnovations.org/ideas/innovations/data/000087

'William Haseltine explains the medical, energy, and industrial implications of the genomic revolution.'

EXCERPT: When most people think of the Human Genome Project, they think of it as a new knowledge base with the potential to transform modern medicine. But the effects of genomic research are much broader, with equally immense implications for the global economy and our natural environment. Ann Graham talks with biotech innovator William Haseltine for strategy+business magazine.

Where are the most important advances in genomics emerging?
The major benefit of genomic science thus far has been for humans. But in the long run, it is not just for humans. It is of humans. Through the genomic revolution we are opening up all the genomes of life for our perusal, and few people have thought through the implications.

Medicine will still be important going forward; every week brings a few new genomes into our knowledge banks. But I don't think medical applications will be the major use for investment dollars. The next revolution is going to be about energy, agriculture, and materials science. That, I think, is going to surprise people. Most of life on Earth is invisible. From the bottom of the sea at the hot sea vents, to the dirt under our city streets, there's an enormous range of microorganisms that play fundamental roles in shaping the course of life everywhere. Now, genetic science allows researchers to intervene at that level.

If you think about the future of biotechnology, what's old is becoming new again.
What do you mean by that?

Biotechnology literally means technology applied to manipulate the living world. Humans have been at this a very long time. It's one of the oldest technologies, and its greatest successes have been in agriculture, animal husbandry, and fermentation.
Now we are back in the same arenas, with a new set of emerging technologies. To give you an idea of the excitement around the use of biotechnology for energy: The Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology received about $1 billion in grants in 2007. I'm the chairman of the board of trustees of this group. It was founded and is directed by Jay Keasling, a professor of bio- and chemical engineering at Berkeley and the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Physical Biosciences Division. About half the energy research money came from BP and the other half came from federal grants. This is only the beginning. Biotechnology will be the basis for a whole new petroleum-free carbon-based economy.

How would synthetic biology produce energy on a mass scale?
Synthetic biology is not a name I like. I prefer to call this new discipline constructive biology, because this form of biology constructs new molecules. But to answer your question: Plants have been fixing carbon from the atmosphere with the energy of sunlight, and converting it to fossil fuel, over the course of several hundred million years. This means that living systems have the power, of course, to make our fuel. The trick is to do it much, much faster.

We already know how to effectively create biomass from plants. We grow forests for wood; we have agriculture. With a combination of modern biotechnology techniques we could remove carbon from the air, turn it into a fuel, use that fuel, and return the carbon to the atmosphere so the whole process is carbon-neutral with respect to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Essentially, these techniques would allow us to farm energy, coupling the photosynthetic process with biochemical production of useful hydrocarbons.

Let me take you back in time to think about that for a minute. Before there was life on Earth, it was basically a wet, hot rock. When it cooled down, it was a rock with water. Living organisms arose (we're not quite sure how), and over the course of several billion years, they transformed rock and water into this beautiful Earth. That's enormous chemical power, and all of it is locked up in the genes of organisms that proliferate all over the world.

Now that we can directly read genomes, store them in computers, and analyze them, and splice genes from one organism to another, we can move hydrocarbons through almost any chemical pathway we want. Suppose you wanted to take yeast that normally makes ethanol and convert it to yeast that makes diesel fuel. You would write up the chemical path to show the normal process to ethanol, and then reroute the path to diesel fuel. In modern organic chemistry, that would involve a series of eight or nine steps in a test tube using various catalysts. But now you can use genome database analysis to identify and isolate enzymes that can provide that pathway naturally. You can then modify those enzymes so they're more efficient. This is an example of constructive biology.

We know constructive biology works because these were the methods used to produce the antimalarial drug artemisinin in both bacteria and yeast. Plants use a very complicated and expensive process to make artemisinin. At the Center for Synthetic Biology, a project led by Jay Keasling (and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) re-created the entire pathway both in bacteria and in yeast. That breakthrough, which makes artemisinin cheaper to produce and therefore affordable to the world's poorest children, has made Keasling a leader in the field of constructive biology.

What are the implications for food production?
Earth's population is projected to rise to almost 10 billion by 2050. So the need for freshwater and land is acute; we must use our agricultural land more intensively. Genetically modified organisms can help with that. They can produce higher yields and more nutritious foods. They can obviate the need for plowing. Most people don't understand what plowing is for. It's really just a weed control technology. You plow over and under the previous year's crop. But if you have the right combinations of environment-friendly herbicides and the agricultural crops that are resistant to those herbicides, you don't need to plow. No-plow agriculture saves topsoil and energy. Once you don't need so much nitrogen fertilizer or complex pesticides, you can get to an agriculture that is much more energy efficient. You can also breed in drought resistance.

People will be healthier as a result. And it will allow us to restore many habitats, because we'll be using less land to grow food.

What about the fears about genetically modified foods?
The technology is rapidly spreading, despite the European opposition. It's spreading in many parts of the world because of its obvious advantages. For example, meat is a highly inefficient source of protein; over the next 20 to 30 years, people will move from meat to plants as a source of protein. I've been in Chinese restaurants that serve something that looks like a fish with skin and scales, but it's entirely made out of soy protein, which is a plant product. You see a chicken that looks like a chicken, it's carved like a chicken, but it's not a chicken. You can make foods look and taste very attractive with manipulation, which, in this case, involves a process to spin soy proteins into fibers.

Can we expect the next wave of medical and green genomics to reach more of the two-thirds of the world's people who live at the "bottom of the pyramid," in lower-income countries?

When the Soviet Union fell and the Cold War ended, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Indians all joined the global economy. C. K. Prahalad's The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits [Wharton School Publishing, 2004] was one of the first books to recognize this. It is a profound work that is now changing the thinking of a new generation of leaders. What is about to happen, and is already happening in India, is a reorientation of business toward the 2 billion people worldwide who are emerging from poverty. This is a fundamental transformation.

Can industrial society be sustainable when there are nearly 10 billion people on the planet?

Yes, if we replace our current generation of wasteful technologies. Biotechnologies will have a significant role in that change. If you look at the full range of what we've talked about, we have gone from burning wood to regrowing arteries. That's a pretty broad span of life sciences, and it's tremendously exciting.

Ann Graham is is a contributing editor of strategy+business. She is the coauthor, with Larry Rosenberger and John Nash, of The Deciding Factor: The Power of Analytics to Make Every Decision a Winner (Jossey-Bass, 2009).


India: Biotech Surge

- Sudhir Chowdhary, Financial Express (India), March 9, 2009 http://www.financialexpress.com

An interesting game of research might is being played out between India and China in the realm of biotech crops. After years of extensive field trials, China is getting ready to launch biotech (Bt) rice for commercial use within 24 months. The development is significant as rice is the most important food crop in the world, especially for the poor. Therefore, it could answer the current food security problem.

Not to be left far behind, researchers at various government and private institutes in India are conducting extensive field trials on, not only biotech rice but, a host of other biotech crops before they are made available for cultivation on a commercial scale. Specifically to biotech rice, field trials are being conducted at Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi, Mahyco, Mumbai, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Hyderabad and Directorate of Rice Research, Hyderabad.

However, biotech eggplant (brinjal) may be made available as the first biotech food crop in India within the next 12 months. In total, there are now 10 biotech crops in field trials in India. These include cabbage, castor, cauliflower, corn, groundnut, okra, potato and tomato.

Clearly, India’s increased public and private sector investments including government support for crop biotechnology has helped it outshine China. The facts speak for themselves. At present, biotech cotton is the only crop approved for commercial cultivation in India. Despite this, total area under biotech crop is 7.6 million hectares, a 23% increase in 2008 compared to the previous year, says a recent report from International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

China pales when compared to India. Besides biotech cotton, other biotech crops made available for commercial cultivation include poplar, papaya, petunia, sweet pepper and tomato. Yet, total area under biotech crops in China stands at 3.8 million hectares, with a shocking zero percent increase in 2008 compared to the previous year.

ISAAA chairman Clive James says, “India is fast evolving as a leading biotech region not only in Asia but globally too. In 2008, India became the fourth largest adopter of biotech crop in the world, displacing Canada to fifth ranking. Farmers in India planted biotech cotton on 7.6 million hectare, equivalent to 82% of the total cotton area, up from 6.2 million hectare equivalent to 66% in 2007.” A record five million small and resource-poor farmers planted biotech cotton in 2008, which is significantly up from 3.8 million farmers


Bt Brinjal Can Resist Attack of FSB Larvae, Safe for Consumption: Study

- Ashok B Sharma, Financial Express (India), March 2, 2009 http://www.financialexpress.com

A study conducted by the global pro-GMO lobby, ISAAA, has claimed that Bt brinjal can resist the attacks of the common enemy fruit shoot borer (FSB) larvae and also be safe for human consumption.

The study, co-authored by Bhagirath Choudhary and Kadambini Gaur, said that Bt brinjal hybrids containing cry 1 Ac gene express Bt protein in all parts of the plant throughout its life cycle. To get activated and exhibit insecticidal property, Bt protein must be ingested by FSB.

When FSB larvae feed on Bt brinjal plants, they ingest Bt protein along with plant tissue. In insect gut, it is solubilised and activated by gut proteases generating a toxic fragment. The activated insecticidal protein then binds to two different receptors in a sequential manner.

Quoting extracts from a paper in the American Academy of Microbiology, the study said that the first contact of the insecticidal protein is with the cadherin receptor, triggering the formation of oligomer structure. The oligomer then has increased affinity to a second receptor, amino-peptidase-N (APN).

The APN facilitates insertion of the oligomer into membrane causing ion pores. These events disrupt digestive processes such as loss of trans-membrane potential, cell lysis, leakage of the mid-gut contents and paralysis that in turn cause the death of FSB.

The 102-page study entitled - The Development and Regulation of Bt brinjal in India - however, said that Bt brinjal does not harm or pose any threat to higher order organisms and non-target organisms, as they lack specific receptors and conditions for activation of Bt protein in their gut and hence is safe for human consumption.

Apart from Cry 1 Ac gene, Bt brinjal contains a selectable marker, nptll gene, which encodes enzyme neomycin phosphotransferase, Cauliflower Mosaic Virus 355 promoter and aad gene, which encodes for bacterial selectable marker enzyme3n(9)-0- aminoglycoside adenyl transferase.

Addressing the concern of a possible genetic contamination of non-Bt brinjal, the study said that the maximum distance travelled by pollen could be between 15 to 20 metres and outcrossing could vary from 1.46% to 2.7%.

The study attempted to resolve the issue of the centre of origin of the crop by saying that reports suggested Central and South America as the centre of origin of the species of genus Solanum to which potato and brinjal belong.

It further said that brinjal probably originated from African wild species S incanum, S melongena and was first domesticated in South-East China and taken to the Mediterranean region during Arab conquest in the 7th century. There are studies, which also report that brinjal originated in the Indo-Burma region.

The ISAAA study however noted that as brinjal appears in ancient Indian literature, India may be a secondary centre of diversity, while Africa may be the primary centre. Noted scientist Vavilov, however, regarded India as the original home of brinjal.

The ISAAA study lauded the regulatory system in India and hoped that India would be able to give to the world the first Bt brinjal.


Monsanto Completes Regulatory Submissions in U.S. and Canada for World's First Biotech Drought-Tolerant Corn Product

Company Applies for USDA Approval, Submissions in Key Import Markets to Follow

In keeping with its commitment to deliver innovations for agriculture, Monsanto Company announced today that it has completed regulatory submissions in the U.S. and Canada for the world's first biotech drought-tolerant corn product developed together with Germany-based BASF. The company applied for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approval of its drought-tolerant corn product following its submission to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last December. It also has completed submissions to the relevant Canadian agencies. Regulatory submissions in key import markets such as Japan, Mexico, and Korea, will be made in the next several months.

Drought-tolerant corn is designed to provide farmers yield stability during periods when water supply is scarce by mitigating its effects on a corn plant. Field trials for drought-tolerant corn conducted last year in the Western Great Plains met or exceeded the 6 percent to 10 percent target yield enhancement - about 7 to 10 bushels per acre - over the average yield of 70-130 bushels per acre in some of the key drought-prone areas in the United States.

"As the need for food, feed, fuel and fiber increases, getting more from every acre of corn I plant is more important than ever," said Bob Timmons, a member of the National Corn Growers Association Biotechnology Working Group and a farmer from Fredonia, KS. "As a dryland farmer, I look forward to being able to access corn technology that will provide a yield benefit in times of drought."

In any given year, 10 million to 13 million acres of farmland planted to corn in the United States may be affected by at least moderate drought. The additive gain from drought-tolerant corn builds upon the yield benefit already realized from the company's initial ag biotech trait offerings such as insect protection and herbicide tolerance.

With a growing world population, increasing demand for food, fuel and fiber, and a changing climate, agriculture faces unprecedented challenges and the need to get more out of each acre. Collectively, the yield advantage from drought-tolerance and earlier products provide farmers with new means to meet the world's growing food and feed needs.

"This submission is both a major milestone in bringing the first-ever biotech drought-tolerant corn product to the market and a reflection of Monsanto's commitment to developing innovative tools that help protect and grow yield for our farmer-customers," said Steve Padgette, vice president of biotechnology for Monsanto. "This product, along with all of the products in our industry-leading R&D pipeline, demonstrates how we are helping to provide agricultural solutions that not only reset the bar for on-farm productivity but also contribute to the sustainability of our food supply."

Drought-tolerant corn technology is part of Monsanto's R&D and commercialization collaboration in plant biotechnology with Germany-based BASF. The two companies are jointly contributing $1.5 billion over the life of the collaboration, which is aimed at developing higher-yielding crops and crops more tolerant to adverse environmental conditions such as drought.

"With this collaboration, BASF and Monsanto have committed themselves to deliver successive generations of higher yielding and more drought-tolerant crops," said Hans Kast, President and CEO of BASF Plant Science. "We have an excellent discovery platform and a strong pipeline for yield and drought genes, which makes me confident we will live up to this commitment."

In its fourth-annual Research and Development (R&D) pipeline update in January, Monsanto announced that drought-tolerant corn had moved to the fourth - and final - phase before an anticipated market launch around 2012, pending regulatory approvals. This first biotech drought-tolerant corn is part of a family of drought-tolerant products Monsanto plans to bring to the market over the next several years. The company's second-generation drought-tolerant corn product, which is expected to have broad-acre application, is in Phase 2, consisting of lab and field testing of plant genes.

Drought-tolerant corn technology represents just one of the key seed-based tools that will support the company in its mission of producing more from, and conserving more on each acre of farmland. In June 2008, Monsanto announced an ambitious plan to double yields in its three core crops - corn, cotton and soybeans - by 2030 compared to a base year of 2000 - while also working to conserve more resources such as water, land and energy, required to produce each unit.


Seeds of Promise, Change

- Editorial, Businessmirror (Philippines), Feb. 25, 2009

The talent is Filipino. The natural resources are here. Slowly but steadily, the moneybags of the government are heeding the relentless pitch by science-and-technology officials, and by pioneering enterprises and research and development institutions, to pour more funds into the work of Filipino scientists who have blazed a path for the future. Now, the only thing needed in this picture, it seems, is more political will, a keen sense of what we have, and a truly transparent, enlightened debate between advocates and critics of certain forms of biotechnology.

In the next three years, according to experts, three biotech crops will hit the Philippine market. More important, the country can be the world’s leader in traditional biotechnology using old materials.

Rice with improved resistance to common pests is one of those seen to hit the market in the near future; and this and several other crops are being tested at the Mindanao campus of the University of the Philippines(UP), under the expert supervision of men like Dr. Eufemio Rasco, a Cornell University-schooled plant breeder.

It’s good that Dr. Rasco, who typifies the increasing number of Filipino scientists blazing new paths in biotechnology that other richer countries have more quickly seized upon and profited from, is overseeing the UP Mindanao initiative; elsewhere in the UP System, especially in Los Baños, Laguna, similar efforts to quicken the pace of transforming the promise of biotech from research to full market application are going on.

Rasco foresees a leading role of the country in the application of traditional biotechnology using new materials, which he takes great pains to explain, as seen in Wednesday’s forum in Davao—he rues the “impression that we are using modern biotechnology.” Contrary to common perceptions, he says, “what we are using in the Philippines is still the traditional kind of biotechnology, but we are using new materials.”

In developed economies, scientists have been using gene-splicing, or genetic engineering and protoplast fusion, or, “in general, any technique that forces unnatural or horizontal DNA transfer.

By and large, “plant breeding and studying evolution still [is a] part of traditional biotechnology,” where, he says, Filipinos can lead, but not in modern biotechnology.

This area of biotech has spawned a myriad improvements in the quality of life the past few decades—whether in food processing and production, biomedical applications such as drugs and vaccines, and industrial applications like cleaning agents. Currently, Dr. Rasco is also leading experiments on sago, a kind of palm, from which could be derived starch as flour substitute in baking and other industrial uses.

By applying “traditional biotechnology process using new materials,” Rasco’s group has ventured into the micropropagation of neglected crops like the sago and the development of biofertilizers from rhizobacteria, also using sago.

Meanwhile, he notes how a lot of traditional biotechnology studies have veered also “into the new application of bioenergy,” as the climate-change issue sparked the search for nonpetroleum sources of energy. Yet, as observed in this space earlier, experts and the government must avoid joining the stampede into bioenergy, which has confounded a lot of people who failed to weigh the risks and the opportunities from crops touted as sources of biofuels. In the Philippines, one risk is that many lands that could otherwise be used for food crops might be hijacked into jatropha plantations—owing to the loud whispers that several retired military officers have been moving to corner such plantation projects, with the government only too willing to oblige them.

To the lack of political will and the need for constant, enlightened debate on the critical biotech issues, one must add, then, the risks of cronyism being used to waste precious resources for ill-conceived, uneconomical ventures. All these problems notwithstanding, the outlook seems very promising—and should provide some hope in a year of doom and gloom.


Enabling Bio-innovations for Poverty Alleviation in Asia: Call for proposals


“Enabling Bio-Innovation For Poverty Alleviation in Asia” is a competitive research grants awarding program supported by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC, Asia Regional Office Singapore) in partnership with the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT,Thailand). The project aims to stimulate and enable research on bio-innovation in Asia that addresses poverty alleviation, and to initiate and support the building of a network of researchers and scholars committed to understanding and enhancing bio-innovation towards economically progressive and socially responsible goals.

This research grants competition on bio-innovation for poverty alleviation in Asia is premised on two key insights from earlier meetings and publications. First, there is little known about patterns and characteristics of bio-innovation systems operating in the region and their social dynamics. Second, there is little understanding about how these existing bio-innovation systems actually affect poverty or are able to support poverty alleviation goals.

This program views innovation as the widespread generation and utilisation of knowledge in society involving the following features: interaction of diverse research and non-research organisations, individuals and groups; combinations of technological and institutional innovations; continuous evolutionary cycles of learning; shifting roles of information producers, users and a need based exchange of knowledge; and an institutional context that supports interactions, learning and knowledge flows. Innovation therefore is a social process involving and interlinking individuals and groups nested and operating in various domains or components such as: the research domain (e.g. R&D, universities, and private laboratories); enterprise domain (e.g. seed firms and vaccine manufacturing); demand domain (e.g. farmer-users, urban poor residents, primary health centers); and policy domain (e.g. government agencies; international protocols; policies specific to industry and agriculture, or public health and safety). (via Sciedev.net)


ISAAA Video “Q&A with Clive James”


"Q&A with Clive James" provides an opportunity for viewers to know more about the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), its mission, who funds it, and its global report on biotech crops in 2008.

Dr. Clive James also answers some of the most frequently asked questions on the role of biotech crops: How can biotech crops contribute to more affordable food? How can biotech crops help mitigate problems associated with climate change? How can biotech crops contribute to global food security and the alleviation of poverty? How can biotech crops contribute to sustainability? Finally, he also shares some important messages on biotech crops with the global society.


USDA Biotechnology Regulations: Comment Period on Proposed Rule Extended


The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) invites interested parties to discuss the agenda and format for public meeting(s) to be held in April 2009 on a proposed rule to revise existing regulations regarding the importation, interstate movement and environmental release of certain genetically engineered (GE) organisms. The public scoping session will be on March 13, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., in Riverdale, Md.

“Revising our biotechnology regulations is a significant undertaking and we are seeking active participation from the public. In order to have focused, substantive dialogue at our April meeting(s), we want to identify topics for discussion as well as possible meeting formats," said Kevin Shea acting administrator of APHIS. "We strongly encourage interested parties to share their suggestions so we can better serve their needs.”

The scoping meeting will be at USDA Center at Riverside, 4700 River Road, Riverdale, Md., in Conference Room A. For directions or facilities information, call (301) 734-8010. Additional details regarding the format of the meeting are available athttp://www.aphis.usda.gov/biotechnology/340/340_index.shtml


Food and Fuel Crops: Issues, Policies and Regulations - Annual BIGMAP Symposium

- Ames, Iowa; April 21 - 22, 2009 http://www.ucs.iastate.edu/mnet/bigmap/home.html

Speakers include: Monica Pequeño Araujo, Biotechnology Office, INASE, SAGPyA, Argentina; Josette Lewis, Office of Agriculture, USAID-EGAT; Neil Hoffman, Biotechnology Regulatory Services, USDA-APHIS; Elizabeth Lee, Associate Professor of Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph and Jeff Rowe Vice President of Biotech Affairs, Pioneer Hi-Bred International


Ghana to Undertake Field Trials on GM Crops


Ghana will soon begin field trials with Genetically Modified crops, which, when successful, will help enhance agricultural modernization and productivity. This follows the coming into force of a legislative instrument in May 2008 allowing research into GM crops pending the passage of the Biosafety Bill. A secretariat is to be set up to ensure the smooth administrative implementation of the field trials.

Professor Walter Alhassan, a Consultant for African Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy Platform, said this at this year's press briefing in Accra on Thursday to highlight the current global status of commercialization of biotech crops and Genetically Modified crops. The briefing, which is done annually, is organised by International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), a US registered not for profit NGO.

Prof. Alhassan explained that the LI used the existing CSIR Act 521 of 1996 as a template, since it had provisions for the conduct of research in general, and it was simply to extend this to the conduct of research on Genetically Modified Organisms. He said, there was the need to speed up the passage of the Biosafety Bill to catch up with the global world and improve agriculture and food security.

Giving the status of Biotechnology and Biosafety in Africa, Prof. Alhassan said Mali, Togo, Malawi, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Cameroon had their legislations in place but were yet to commercialise their production. Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Mozambique have legal frameworks but were yet to commence field trials with GM crops. He noted that with the current low levels of agricultural productivity, there was the likelihood that Africa would not meet the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of poor and hungry by 2015.

The report on Global Status of Biotech/GM crops identified challenges in the agriculture sector as low technological deployment, climate change problems, market constraints, low levels of investment in agriculture, conflicts and farming systems. "Biotechnology is one of the tools that can make a meaningful contribution to the challenges facing the continent. Therefore it would be wise for us to embrace this idea to meet the challenges." For the first time, the accumulated area of biotech crops for the period 1996-2008 exceeded two million hectares.


A reader responds. Full letter at


(Author: Benjamin S. Bey, Ph.D Candidate; Department of Environmental Health Sciences; Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina; beyb@mailbox.sc.edu; Formerly of Tuskegee University Biotechnology Lab in Alabama)

Although I have never written or ever thought of posting an article on this web site, I strongly believe that it is ones moral obligation to take a bite off this touchy topic laden with apprehensions and emotions. An article was posted on February 27, 2009 based on an announcement made by Prof. Walter Alhassan on the above subject matter. After reading a couple of comments in response to the field trial program on Genetically Modified Crops (GMCs), it has become clear that most of the comments emanate from basic misunderstanding or the lack thereof of this revolutionary technology called Biotechnology/Genetic Engineering. Tragically, the hear-say syndrome has dangerously interwoven with our fabrics of apprehension to the extent, that if conscious efforts are not made, we will be fixated on using 15th century tools to solve 21st century problems. Anyhow, thanks to the few comrades who argued in support of GMCs!

Africa/Ghana is always falling behind the rest of the world in all fields of technological advancement due to factors such as politics, lack of financial and human resources, and lack of education/technical know-how. However, the effects of our penchant for resisting change cannot be underestimated in the quest for catching up with the rest of the world, technologically. Change always precedes development and no development ever occurred without changing the status quo. Sorry for digressing a little bit from GMCs.

As indicated earlier, most of the contributors' comments in response to the topic under discussion reveal a monstrous task ahead of the likes of Prof. Alhassan and Marian Quain (I know she is doing a wonderful job in this field) to educate the public if this relatively new technology is to survive the onslaught of ignoramus. In a similar vein, I also read a scientifically depressing argument advanced by one Mr. Kwaku Adu-Gyamfi against GMCs in October 2008. The author's argument was scientifically naïve, flawed, and pathetic to the extent that I wondered if he decided to write just for the sake of it without any basic research on the subject matter. Ironically, Mr. Adu-Gyamfi is the founder of a Youth Empowerment EDUCATIONAL Foundation. It is rather scary and unfortunate that the public is being held to ransom with speculative fear mongering by those who lack the basic scientific understanding of such an important subject of national proportion.

Ever since the first GMO was created, approximately 30 years ago, there has not been any empirical evidence of reported adverse effects on humans, livestock or the environment (I stand to be corrected, though). Thus, if GMCs will kill me, probably, after 100 years, then I would like to eat more GMCs. After all, according the World Health Organization 6,000,000 children under the age of 5 will die each year out of hunger! Another 3,000,000 will die each year from malaria. And 500,000 will go blind from clinical vitamin A deficiency. We can go on and on and on. The potential of reducing this staggering and frightening statistics lies in the very technology we are bent on destroying due to lack of public education. In order to increase food production to sustain the exploding world population, tones of fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides among others, are used each year with detrimental consequences on the quality of our water bodies. Instead of dosing the environment with tones of insecticides why not plant BT corn? And by the way, are the prophets of doom aware that most of the clothes we wear today come from GM cotton? Should we then advocate for walking naked on our streets? What about the frozen chicken, beef, turkey, and the pig feet we import from the western world? What do they feed them with? Let us accept it, my fellow countrymen; GMCs are here to stay because they will provide the solutions to our future food security, industry, and 21st century medicine.

Post-harvest loss accounts for between 15 and 30% of food crops produced in Ghana according to FAO. Tomato farmers in the Northern and Brong Ahafo Regions continue to loose a big chunk of their harvest due to lack of storage facilities. Poor road networks and transportation systems also hamper a speedy carting of the produce from the hinterlands to the cities. As a result farmers painfully watch their labor and toil rot right before their tearful eyes.

And so the question is; what harm will it cause to transform tomatoes with a gene that codes for a thicker skin or remove the gene that codes for rot enzymes, to prolong the shelf life from a week to, say, 4 weeks? Will this be too dangerous for field trial in Ghana? What about the war against malaria? Supposing the gene that codes for an anti-malaria protein in Artemisia annua was isolated and successfully expressed in groundnut, can't we just chew this as “nkatie burger” or “azi totoe” to save millions of lives in Ghana/Africa?

If we demonize GM crops so much to the point of absurdity, how can we take advantage of the technology for our benefit in terms of research? And why should we demonize bananas, which contain polio vaccines that can easily be available to children at a cheaper cost to fight the polio scourge? Have we ever paused to answer why we spray a corn field that has other monocotyledonous weeds with herbicides only to, selectively, have the weeds killed? Well, it is because the resistant to the herbicides is conferred onto the corn by an inserted foreign gene. We may be interested to know that about 89% of soybeans in the UK contain a foreign gene that is resistant to herbicides.

Whether it is in the field of agriculture, medicine, automobile, textiles, energy, etc, genetic engineering has come to stay and it holds the key to the challenges of the 21st century. If we fail to shelve this level of resistance to technological changes, we will always be left trailing the rest of the world.

It is important, therefore, for the government machinery to fire on all cylinders in educating the public, with sound scientific arguments simplified in the lay-man's language about the relevance of GM crops. Otherwise the public will be polluted with toxic arguments from those who do not fully grasp the understanding of the technology.

Setting up of presidential or parliamentary committees, attending oversea workshops, organizing conferences at Tulip Hotel and the likes wouldn't help the ordinary folks to comprehend the necessity of GMCs. Additionally, the regulatory agencies should be armed to the teeth in ensuring that the stringent regulations that govern the release of GMCs onto the market are strictly adhered to. These will surely increase the acceptance and the trust of the public in GMCs to an undisputable level, permanently. Genetic engineering is nature's own design that has been utilized or dare to say “exploited” to the advantage of mankind. Let us continue the debate and public education!


Integration of Insect-Resistant Genetically Modified Crops within IPM Programs

- Edited by Jörg Romeis, Anthony M. Shelton, George G. Kennedy; Hardcover: 441 pages; Springer; 1 edition (September 11, 2008); ISBN-10: 1402083726

Insect pests remain one of the main constraints to food and fiber production worldwide despite farmers deploying a range of techniques to protect their crops. Modern pest control is guided by the principles of integrated pest management (IPM) with pest resistant germplasm being an important part of the foundation. Since 1996, when the first genetically modified (GM) insect-resistant maize variety was commercialized in the USA, the area planted to insect-resistant GM varieties has grown dramatically, representing the fastest adoption rate of any agricultural technology in human history.

The goal of our book is to provide an overview on the role insect-resistant GM plants play in different crop systems worldwide. We hope that the book will contribute to a more rational debate about the role GM crops can play in IPM for food and fiber production.