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March 11, 2009


Biotech Under Barack; Shun Biotechnology at Your Own Peril; Mexico to Go GM Soon; Vatican Cheers GM


* Shun Biotechnology at Your Own Peril, Scientist Warns
* Mexico May be Growing GM Corn by 2012
* Vatican Cheers GM
* Biotech Under Barack
* US: Compendium of Transgenic Crop Plants, 10 volume set


Shun Biotechnology at Your Own Peril, Scientist Warns

- Duncan Mboya, Services in Scientific Work in Africa, March 11, 2009 http://africasciencenews.org/asns/

Tired of not seeing action, African scientists have issued a stern warning to their governments: adopt modern technologies in agricultural production or forget about reducing poverty and disease in your midst. The warning comes barely seven years to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) deadline, whose goal one is to halve the number of those immersed in poverty and hunger eradication by 2015.

“Africa is a struggling continent with low agricultural yields compared to any part of the world hence making it impossible to achieve the goal,” said the Chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) Dr. Clive James.

Amplifying James sentiments, Kenya’s agriculture secretary Dr. Wilson Songa cautioned African policy makers and stakeholders to stop thinking that Africa can produce enough food through organic technology alone in solving the food insecurity in the continent. “We must adopt all the available technologies if we have to feed our people and have surplus for export,” he says.

Dr James observes that due to Africa’s unique wants, there is need to incorporate both conventional and new technologies to reverse the current hunger trends. James observes that even though biotechnology has a major stake in increasing food productivity and security in the world, other techniques of producing food are equally important. The slow pace at which African countries are adopting biotechnology is raising concern among the scientific community who cite it as one of the major drawbacks towards food sufficiency.

“Lack of political will and slow deliberation on biosafety legislation is the main stumbling block towards realizing Africa’s agricultural potential,” says Dr James. He hailed Kenya’s move in putting biosafety law in place adding that the move makes Kenya the leading country in East African region to adopt the technology.

To date only Egypt, Zambia, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Mali and Kenya are the only African countries to have fully operational law on biotechnology. Scientists’ argue that with the commercialization of biotechnology, poverty can be a thing of the past in many countries in sub Saharan Africa. They claim that in the past 12 years that the technology has been in use, farmer’s income has increased by 34 billion dollars. ‘

"Farmers in South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, China and India are now reaping the benefits of the technology, indicating that Kenya and other countries could also benefit,” James adds. Studies done in India and South Africa show cotton and maize farmers, majority of them women from India and South Africa have benefited greatly after their governments adopted biotechnology.

Of the 4,000 families in villages where the Baccillus Thurengiensis (Bt) cotton are grown, majority of those whose quality of life has improved are women. Farmers’ income as increased by 220 US dollars, with yields increasing by 31 per cent. “Prenatal attendance, school enrolment and vaccination of children have improved compared to days before the introduction of the bt crops,” he says. With close to 80 percent of the work on African farms being done by women, scientists believe the biotechnology will have more impact on them than any other sections of the population.

New biotechnology products that are likely to emerge in the near future have the potential of turning around the agricultural landscape in Africa. With right policy guidelines in place, the key beneficiaries are expected to be women. Scientists say the first drought tolerant maize that will be unveiled in the United States of America in 2011 is expected to make a major shift in agricultural revolution in areas that are deemed unfit for agricultural productivity.

According to Kenya’s Secretary for National Council of Science and Technology (NCST) Prof. Shaukat Abdulrazak embracing biotechnology requires doing things differently and turning impossibilities to possibilities. Prof. Abdulrazak says Kenya has developed guidelines to handle genetically modified requests. He says that a renewed global effort that would enable countries prepares national biosafety and harmonized regional guidelines and regulations in using biotechnology is a bold move towards implementing the MDGs.

The Director of West Africa Biosciences Network (WABNet) Prof. Diran Makinde observes that countries within the same agro-ecological zone need to harmonize their biotechnology policies and also do a joint research to enable them save money and time. He notes that the fact that Africa has few experts on biosafety and biotechnology that are capable of developing policy and laws, it is advisable that neighbouring countries team up and borrow from each other.

“Let countries that have not started work on biosafety regulations study share with countries that are already ahead in this area,” he adds. He told African governments to stop borrowing funds from donors for the construction of laboratories when such laboratories exist in neighbouring countries.

“AU leaders must significantly increase public investments in biotechnology research and development. Failure to do so will impair the continent’s capacity to stay connected to global advances in biotechnology and to transfer, adapt and exploit life sciences knowledge for the benefit of all citizens,” he notes.

Prof. Makinde observes that Africa needs to develop its own scientific capacity to assess biotechnology-related risks through national, regional, and continental institutions. Governments should therefore seek to advance in improving regional cooperation in science and technology in the use of biotechnology by facilitating the approval of trials done by regional countries. “It is true that a country like Kenya is ahead in the biotechnology development in the East African region. It will be better if neighbouring countries borrowed ideas from them rather than start from scratch,’ he says.


Mexico May be Growing GM Corn by 2012

- The Associated Press, March 10, 2009

Mexico's agriculture secretary says the country could be growing genetically modified corn by 2012. Agriculture Secretary Alberto Cardenas says GM varieties could boost production by 30 percent. GM corn had been banned completely until last week when Mexico reformed its law to allow experimental plots of the crop.

Mexico is the birthplace of corn and has more than 200 varieties. Opponents warn that modified corn could contaminate fields and threaten the crop's genetic diversity. Cardenas said Tuesday that the government will carefully protect its native varieties. The government so far has received 25 requests for permission to plant GM corn in experimental plots, government official Ariel Alvarez said.


Vatican Cheers GM

- Anna Meldolesi, Nature Biotechnology 27, 214 (2009) http://www.nature.com

A closed door meeting to be held at the Vatican in Rome in May will see leading scientists gathering to discuss a campaign backing agricultural biotech. The study week has been organized by Ingo Potrykus, co-inventor of the fortified Golden Rice technology and president of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, on behalf of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The Vatican has long been concerned about food security, and advisors from the academy, which holds a membership roster of the most respected names in twentieth-century science, have recognized that plant biotech has the potential to benefit the poor.

"I think we are heading in the right direction with this meeting and it will help to dispel some of the myths about GM crops," argues Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis and an academy member. Participants are expected to issue a definitive declaration and work on a roadmap for science-based regulations for genetically modified (GM) crops. "I would hope the moral high ground of the Vatican is relevant at least in Catholic countries," says Potrykus, whose Golden Rice project has been held up by political hurdles. It will be particularly interesting to see reactions in Italy, where a nine-year ban on open field trials recently ended. Some of the 'regions', into which Italy is subdivided, "still jeopardize field studies by failing to identify [planting] locations" says Piero Morandini of the University of Milan.


Biotech under Barack

- Jeffrey L Fox, Nature Biotechnology 27, 237 - 244 (2009)

The Obama administration looks to be a welcome shot in the arm for the scientific endeavor, but the current economic crisis is likely to keep several issues of key interest to biotech firmly on the back burner.

Barack Obama came into office with campaign promises of keen interest to the biotech industry, including commitments to overhaul the US healthcare system, to lift restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem (hES) cell research and to increase focus and funding for science. But the economic crisis that weighs down the US economy, as well as skirmishes with the US Senate over key Cabinet and top-level appointees, has kept the new administration from dealing with much else during its first weeks in office. The anticipated changes in the healthcare system, if realized, are widely expected to lower the pricing of biological therapeutics by ushering in biogenerics, also known as follow-on biologics, sooner rather than later. Healthcare reforms also might introduce a system for evaluating therapeutic regimens on a cost and comparative-efficacy basis.

"It is heartening to see the Obama administration embrace science as an important input of government and science policy as a driver of the American economy," says Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center (Garrison, NY, USA), which focuses on bioethics. "Instead of muzzling or ignoring science, it will sit at the table, along with the appointment of a set of remarkable science advisors."

"Obama is clearly a science buff, and is really, honestly, into knowing the facts, having them laid out, and then making the best choices that can be mustered," says a policy watcher who was close to the transition team but is outside the federal government. "It is a whole different approach compared to the 'How can we spin this information?' approach of the [Bush administration]. Back to 'honest-to-goodness' curiosity, which is, yes, incredibly refreshing."

Thus, there is solid enthusiasm for some of Obama's early choices for key Cabinet posts, including Nobelist Steven Chu, physicist from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (Berkeley, CA, USA), for secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE), and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack for secretary of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as well as for high-level science advisors, such as Harold Varmus, also a Nobelist, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (New York) and a former director of the NIH, and Eric Lander, who is founding director of the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard (Cambridge, MA, USA).

"We're jazzed," says an insider at DOE, referring to Energy Secretary Chu. "He's a great pick, and it's a huge boost to think of someone who can speak science to anybody—even to the OMB," he adds, alluding to the federal Office of Management and Budget, whose top officials in recent years have habitually blocked federal research or policy initiatives.

"With this president, a lot of policies are going to change, and a number of them are likely to be exciting for us," says Willy De Greef, secretary general of EuropaBio (Brussels). He points to USDA Secretary Vilsack as but one example of Obama appointments that look positive for biotech. The new USDA secretary "understands what biotech crops can do and has a deep interest in putting agriculture in play, including for energy independence and biofuels," De Greef says. Although no details are available, he adds, Vilsack's attitudes toward and familiarity with biotech-related agriculture issues "are very good for our sector."

The appointment of Vilsack is "nothing but positive for biotechnology," says Val Giddings, a Washington-based industry consultant and former USDA official. "There's not been an ag [USDA] secretary who comes in so familiar with biotech issues and who doesn't have to be briefed for the first time, but is favorably disposed to biotech for farmers. Plus, he respects data and evidence." As for Energy Secretary Chu, Giddings says, "He can't help but advance the [DOE] biotech portfolio. There will be greater openness, and it's nothing but positive."
"On the food side, I expect biotechnology to be a fairly unimportant issue for the next couple of years," says Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Instead, he and others recognize that conventional safety issues, with the salmonella-laced peanut butter problem the most recent example, will be predominant. One exception directly involving biotech could be a move to reinstate a premarket notification rule for genetically engineered plants, a move that was blocked by Bush but could be brought back by the Obama administration. "There is no reason to think the [Obama] administration would go toward more deregulation, much to my chagrin," he says.

Meanwhile, Conko anticipates a "concerted effort to evaluate how FDA looks at general food safety" amid renewed talk of splitting it into two agencies. "The food people at FDA are really underfunded, and CFSAN [Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition] is seen as the ugly stepsister to the medical products side," he says. Experts have debated the possibility of separating those two FDA responsibilities into different entities for more than two decades, and there are plenty of obstacles standing in the way, he adds. "But I expect to see some congressional hearings and internal FDA investigations within the next two years."

Indeed, Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in February introduced a bill, HR 875, seeking to establish a separate "Food Safety Administration." Here again, despite such signs of renewed interest in separating food from drug and possibly splitting FDA into two agencies, Washington insiders provide plentiful reminders of how complicated and potentially contentious it will be to legislate that move. Even with bipartisan agreement, many congressional committees have partial jurisdiction over FDA programs, ensuring that such a restructuring effort will be a bureaucratic nightmare.

What happens with biofuel development ties in with developments and policies affecting agriculture and, here again, Obama's selection of Tom Vilsack for USDA secretary is drawing praise from biotech analysts. "Agbiotech is regarded as important, but let's have no illusions," says Washington-based consultant Giddings. "The economy and Middle East are first-tier issues, and Vilsack won't get Obama's attention for quite a while. And, even if they [administration officials] could be specific about agbiotech, they wouldn't because they will set it on the shelf and get to it once they deal with other stuff."

In terms of regulatory policies affecting genetically modified crops, little is expected to change anytime soon during the Obama presidency, except perhaps for a greater emphasis on transparency. "It is likely that the Obama administration will be more open than Bush's to a wide range of stakeholders," says Gregory Jaffe, who directs the Biotechnology Project at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. More generally, the new administration is more likely to seek additional regulatory authority or even to ask Congress to amend laws in cases where rule-making becomes too much of a stretch for those already on the books. However, he adds, with so many other pressing food-safety issues to face having to do with microbially or chemically contaminated products, "I don't think biotech foods will be high on Obama's agenda."

"Expect more scrutiny of new varieties and more disclosures and transparency about biotechnology in food and agriculture," agrees Mark Mansour, an attorney with Bryan Cave (Washington, DC, USA). He, too, does not anticipate "much change" from recent policies in the near term, except for "some concessions to watchdog groups. But this will take a while, and will be expressed in due course."

One area where agricultural policy might change course is internationally, particularly with Secretary of State Clinton revitalizing international outreach programs, according to Mansour. This could take shape as an "aggressive engagement of USDA and USAID [Agency for International Development] with developing countries in Africa and other parts of the world, using agriculture as a means of engagement," he says. Unlike the Bush administration, for which such programs were, at best, "an adjunct to security, this [Obama] administration could see agricultural biotechnology as a constructive tool." Of course, "there will be obstacles to overcome, but a lot of opposition to biotechnology could melt with a prolonged recession."

"We're spending about $22 billion per year for the region [Africa], and candidate Obama called for doubling resources, and to put agricultural resources among the top ten," says Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley College (Wellesley, MA, USA), and author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept out of Africa. "Science-based assistance does seem to have a voice." However, biotech will not soon make inroads into African agriculture because so many countries there remain dominated by Europe through custom and because Europe provides them much more assistance than does the United States, he adds. Thus, although USAID "has tried to throw its weight around, that doesn't work in Africa."

"The EU approach has helped keep African countries from adopting GM [genetically modified] crops," agrees De Greef of EuropaBio. "We hope if the EU and US become less adversarial, it could remove pressure from Africa, which feels forced to choose between US or EU regulations."

In terms of global agbiotech disputes, there are "tricky dossiers" to be faced, De Greef says. Even though the US won a round against the EU in a long-standing World Trade Organization (Geneva) case about genetically modified organism imports, "no official appeal" from the EU has been filed yet, he says. "If EU does not appeal or comply, the US, Argentina and Canada can take unilateral measures, but the US probably will prefer to negotiate, which seems more Obama's style. I'd like to see agreements rather than litigation, and a real victory would be to have science-based regulations."


US: Compendium of Transgenic Crop Plants, 10 volume set

- Wiley-Blackwell (Via Agnet)

The Set offers a comprehensive review of the commercially relevant transgenic plants developed and presently utilized. Volumes 1-9 cover around 100 plant species, from crops to forest trees. Volume 10 is the master index volume.
Each chapter covers one particular species (or sometimes group of closely related species) and the transgenic versions developed for that particular species.
Key features:
• Offers a complete description of the successfully developed transgenic plants for around 100 commercially relevant crops from fruits and vegetables to grains, industrial crops and forest tree species
• Covers the transgenic techniques used in the molecular tailoring of traits relevant from an agricultural, medicinal and environmental point of view
• Explores future developments, from desired traits to expected new technologies
• Examines risks and concerns around the use of GM crops
• Discusses public perception, industrial perspectives and political and economic consequences
• Contributions from over 300 leading scientists from around the world
Provides a valuable and inclusive reference for students, researchers, scientists and industry professionals, studying and working on transgenic plants.