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March 16, 2009


Shaking Off Frankenfood Taboo; Securing Irish Farmers' Future; First to Grow GM Rice; Key to Food Shortage; Building Better Beans


* Crops With Attitude: Poor nations shaking off 'Frankenfood' taboo
* Could Genetically Modified Food Secure Irish Farmers' Future?
* India, China could be First to Grow GM Rice Commercially
* Nobel laureate Borlaug calls for second ‘Green Revolution’
* GM Key to Food Shortage
* Building Better Beans: Soybeans that are better for the environment
* African Crop Science Society Conference
* Agriculture: Africa's Engine for Growth


Crops With Attitude: Poor nations are now starting to shake off the old 'Frankenfood' taboo

- Mac Margolis, NEWSWEEK, Mar 23, 2009 http://www.newsweek.com/id/189263

Africa is no stranger to scourges, but few cause as much ruin as maize streak virus. Spread by the tiny leafhopper bug, MSV plagues farmers across the southern part of the continent, where tens of millions rely on corn for more than half their daily calories. It starts discreetly: a patina of pale circles at the bottom of young leaves. Left untreated, it can destroy entire harvests.

"You go into the fields and want to weep," says Jennifer Thomson, a South African molecular biologist and expert on MSV. "You wonder why anyone bothers to plant." Now they may have a reason. Thomson and fellow researchers at the University of Cape Town teamed up with Pannar, an African seed company, to insert mutated DNA from the virus itself plus two other genes into healthy maize, essentially short circuiting the virus's reproductive code and immobilizing the disease. In greenhouse trials, the doctored maize curbed the damage from MSV, and sometimes stopped it cold. If it passes safety tests, it could hit the market within four years. It would be Africa's first homemade genetically modified crop.

That would be a landmark. For years, farmers in Africa and other developing countries have struggled against a wide array of problems, from pests to changing weather patterns, without being able to avail themselves of all the high-tech tools that wealthier nations have. A big obstacle has been a taboo on genetic modification of food crops, inspired largely by attitudes in Europe, and a global agricultural industry that has been deaf to the problems of poor nations.

But a recent series of crises is changing those attitudes. Spiking food prices triggered riots across the tropics last year, killing 24 in Cameroon and toppling the Haitian government. As supplies vanished, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo went so far as to threaten rice hoarders with life imprisonment. Worldwide, grain stocks hit a quarter-century low. The financial crisis worsened matters by gutting incomes and farm credit without making much of a dent in food prices. In a world where almost a billion people went hungry last year—119 million more than in 2007—and with food demand set to double by midcentury, the taboo against GM foods is crumbling.

"There can be no doubt science must come to the rescue," says Joachim von Braun, head of the International Food Policy Research Institute, an independent group that has always toed a cautious line on GM. "We need to utilize all instruments of high science, whether it's biotech, nanotech or just plain good agronomy."

The result is a second wave of GM food crops adapted to the needs of poor nations. Emerging nations are turning to gene splicing to boost food supply (not just agribusiness profits) and to protect harvests from the ravages of climate change, pests and pathogens. The new crops are hardier and healthier versions of staple crops. In the works are South African potatoes that repel tuber moths, Brazilian lettuce with a superdose of folic acid, a natural source of the vitamin B that aids neural development in babies, and Chinese rice that can withstand heat and drought.

India is using biotech to improve bananas, cabbage, cauliflower, sweet corn, groundnuts and okra. Brazil's national agronomy institute, Embrapa, is ginning up black beans to outsmart the mosaic virus that claims up to 90 percent of harvests. Malaysians are fortifying papaya against the devastating ringspot disease. China's goal is "food security," says Stanford economist Scott Rozelle, an expert on rural China. "Their objective is to produce enough food for the country without having to resort to imports, and also reduce poverty."

It's been more than a decade since biotech companies led by Monsanto began to redesign agriculture by splicing genes from bacteria into crop plants or between different kinds of food. This first generation of transgenics were mostly cash crops, such as herbicide-resistant soybeans and maize. Big farmers found them easier and cheaper to manage, but they offered no benefit in taste or significant savings to consumers. In the developing world, biotech firms oversold GM products as a silver bullet for world hunger, kept a tight lid on their technology, and charged high prices. The effect was to inhibit research and frustrate poor farmers. Meanwhile, environmental pressure groups warned that pollen from doctored crops could contaminate conventional plantings or provoke ecological blowback in the form of superweeds, while some scientists predicted a rise in allergies and ailments. Public opinion quickly turned against the technology, at least for food crops.

Gradually, though, a shift in attitudes, consumer habits and trade practices has been wearing away at the barriers. Significantly, developing countries are leading the way: more than 13 million farmers now plant biotech crops on 125 million hectares worldwide, triple the area planted with GM in 2000. Twenty of the 25 countries sowing GM seeds are in the emerging markets. Brazil, India and the Philippines are plowing government money into the "gene revolution." South Africa is now the world's eighth largest producer of biotech crops. India is the world's fourth-largest grower of GM cotton, and China is the biggest investor in agricultural biotech after the United States. After years of balking, Beijing last year launched a $2.9 billion plan to develop a line of GM crops over the next decade. So far the trade boom is limited to a handful of plantation crops—soy, canola, yellow maize and cotton—mostly as animal fodder or feedstock for biofuels, but the market is being redefined. "With the bigger and faster-growing markets in Asia to supply, big producers like Brazil and Argentina are no longer obliged to cater to strict European requirements," says June Pearson of the European based Grain and Feed Trade Association.

Climate change is a big factor behind changing attitudes. In a warming world, the depleted silos and surging food prices of last year may become the new normal. Rising temperatures are accelerating the growth of plants, which demand more and more moisture. Studies suggest that farm productivity falls 10 percent with each degree Celsius of warming, which implies a drop of up to 40 percent worldwide in the coming decades. In dry areas, with fresh water for irrigation growing ever scarcer—or being siphoned off to nourish highvalue crops—staple agriculture must adapt or perish. Wet parts of the world could get wetter, also hurting crops. That's why finding drought- and flood-tolerant crops is a key target of biotech funds.

There's still some question whether transgenic crops are necessary, because seed companies are also getting promising results from conventional breeding, souped up by supercomputers and techniques like laser-assisted seed selection, which deploys laser beams to identify and boost the best genetic traits in crop seeds.

But agriculture experts overwhelmingly agree that conventional methods are not enough. With the earth's population set to tip 9 billion by 2050, farmable land is disappearing. Recent studies predict that developing countries could lose 135 million hectares of arable land over the next half century to erosion, declining water tables and encroaching settlement. That means farmers will have to grow more food on less land with less water. Gene splicing can achieve in a matter of weeks or months what takes decades for traditional cross breeding. "Look at where people are malnourished today—in dry, non-irrigated land, mostly occupied by small farmers," says Wellesley College political scientist Robert Paarlberg, author of "Starved for Science" on the biotech ban in Africa. "To feed these people, you need new technologies to use land and labor more productively. This is where GM will help feed the poor."

Even in the anti-GM strongholds of Europe, sentiment is turning. In Britain, where Prince Charles recently called GM foods "the biggest disaster, environmentally, of all time," the think tank Chatham House called in January for a reopening of the GM debate, saying that biotech is necessary to achieve "affordable food production." Terry Leahy, chief of Tesco, the big U.K. supermarket chain, recently hailed GM's "vital role" in feeding the planet. Europe still requires that imported GM food be labeled and separated along the supply chain, yet as more farmers in the big producing countries turn to GM crops, supplies of conventionally grown food and grains are shrinking. And Europe is falling behind. Before the European Union banned GM foods in 1996, grain yields mirrored those in the United States, but they have since lagged by 1 to 2 percent a year, according to Oxford economist Paul Collier. The key reason, he says, is Europe's refusal to plant GM seeds.

The corporate hubris that sparked anti-GM protests seems to be easing. Monsanto—under pressure from scientists and green groups—has pledged not to use its so-called terminator technology, which essentially rigs seeds to go sterile after one harvest, stopping farmers from replanting them. In recent years, a number of companies such as Syngenta, BASF and Dupont Pioneer have also agreed to share their technology with poor nations. Developing-world investment in GM has also helped buff GM's image. "People tell me that they don't want GM, but they do want virus-resistant plants," says Rikus Kloppers, senior plant pathologist for Pannar. "When I tell them we're an African company, they warm to the idea."

Africa—the only continent where poverty and malnutrition are on the rise, thanks largely to primitive farming—needs help in many ways, both hi-tech and low. Yet only one nation on the continent—South Africa—has licensed a GM product for sale. The new strain of MSV-resistant maize has yet to be approved for crucial field tests, because of continuing opposition in some government quarters. And only a handful of African countries—Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Ghana and Uganda—have joined South Africa in experimenting with biotech at all. The lingering resistance no longer makes sense.


Could Genetically Modified Food Secure Irish Farmers' Future?

- Dr Ewen Mullins, Sunday Times (UK) March 15, 2009 http://www.timesonline.co.uk

When the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was in place, Ireland concentrated on boosting crop yields by increased use of pesticides and fertilisers. Between 1985 and 2006, Irish cereal production increased by 4.6%, yet the area under cereals declined by 29%, from 380,000 hectares to 270,000.

But these dramatic efficiencies came with a significant social and environmental cost. The number of agricultural workers in Ireland has declined to approximately 40% of what it was in 1973 and there has been an enormous deterioration in water and soil quality. There has been a noticeable reduction in biological diversity on farms.

Equally dramatic changes are expected to occur in agriculture between now and 2030. The old target of producing cheap and abundant food has been replaced. Everyone agrees there is a need to farm in an efficient and sustainable manner.

A key challenge for countries such as Ireland is to produce sufficient supplies of food, feed and fuel without compromising on public health or having a negative impact on the environment.

Certain agricultural technologies, such as genetically modified (GM) crops, have been championed as a way to maximise production while having a minimal environmental impact. While their introduction has been hailed by some as positive, others regard it as negative because of perceived biosafety issues.

Last year, 125m hectares of GM crops were cultivated worldwide. As yet, though, Irish farmers have chosen not to grow them. The principle reason is the current suite of EU-approved GM crops is not suited to Ireland's agri-environment. But this will change in the near future as new varieties with increased disease resistance, elevated protein content and improved bioenergy potential come on stream.

The relevance of these crops is all the more real in light of the challenges facing Irish agriculture. Climate change will be hugely demanding for tillage farmers. By 2040, temperatures in Ireland are predicted to increase by 1.25-1.5C, with rainfall expected to increase by up to 15% in the winter months and to decrease by up to 20% over the summer.

The rise in temperature will increase the potential for crops such as forage maize, but weeds will adapt to climate change more quickly because of their genetic advantage. That means more robust herbicides will be required. There will also be a tendency for pests and diseases currently found further south in Europe to migrate north.

EU proposals to reduce the type of chemical fungicides available to farmers will undermine the existing programmes of disease-control for potato, wheat and barley, whose economic viability depends on farmers' ability to control fungal diseases. The EU's water-framework and nitrates directives aim to reduce eutrophication — an increase in chemical nutrients — in waterways and the application of nutrients on farmland. Increasing our production of biofuels on the same amount of land, while ensuring no loss of biodiversity, is a huge challenge that will be difficult to achieve without using proven technologies.

Reducing the use of fungicides and herbicides is a critical goal. In 2004, total chemical inputs for arable crops in Ireland totalled 1,520 tonnes, including 663 tonnes of herbicide, 619 of fungicide, 29 of insecticide and 209 of other products. New crops that are modified to resist disease will give Irish farmers the opportunity to reduce use of fungicides.

Potato varieties resistant to blight have been created and are now being tested. Potato farmers currently spray their crop with fungicides up to 14 times per growing season; a blight-tolerant variety could eliminate this. That would save the farmer up to €200 a hectare and reduce the crop's environmental impact. The introduction of GM crops has been greeted with scepticism, especially among the public. But the increase in food and feed prices, and the shortages of both experienced last year, may eventually change the public's opinion.

The cultivation of GM crops in Ireland, and in other EU countries that have so far resisted this technology, ultimately depends on how each of them responds to global market forces and European environmental legislation. These challenges will decide the crop varieties grown in Europe in the coming two decades and beyond.
Dr Ewen Mullins is a senior research officer at the Teagasc Crops Research Centre in Carlow. This is an excerpt from recent research published in Annals of Applied Biology.


India, China could be First to Grow GM Rice Commercially

- Manolo Serapio Jr. Reuters, March 16

MANILA - Bulging global rice stocks and thin demand could save the world from a repeat of last year's food crisis that drove grain prices to record highs, but an industry expert warned on Monday against the risk of the global recession curbing investments in agricultural infrastructure.

Robert Zeigler, director general at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), estimated that billions of dollars a year need to be invested in infrastructure such as new irrigation systems and new technology to boost yields in ricefields.

"I'm worried that we won't make the necessary investments and we're going to see continued pressure on the ability to meet global demand," said Zeigler, speaking in Manila as part of the Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit.

"We're certainly relieved that the pressure is off the market to some extent but let's not suffer under the illusion that the problems have been solved, because fundamentally, nothing's changed." Zeigler's institute had projected global consumption of rice, a staple for nearly half the world's population of 6.6 billion, to reach around 426 million tonnes in 2009, up 1 percent from the previous year.

Even before rice prices hit record levels last year as countries scrambled to secure their supplies, prices had been rising steadily since 2001. "That represents a structural problem and until we get that turned around, we're going to see a steady upward pressure on prices," said Zeigler.

This year, the Philippines, the world's biggest importer of the grain, secured a 1.5-million-tonne deal with Vietnam that will fill most of its needs, and hopes for India to lift its export ban after elections in April and May have helped usher stability into the market following last year's volatility. For a graphic showing the world's top rice importers and exporters, click: https://customers.reuters.com/d/graphics/CMDS_RC0109.gif

The Philippines-based institute, which breeds high-yielding strains of rice to meet growing demand, kickstarted the Green Revolution in the 1960s that swelled harvests of Asia's food staple and helped nations such as Thailand and China to industrialise.

At the moment, IRRI is developing several rice varieties to can keep up with the changing climate. After releasing flood-tolerant rice in South Asia, it is working on several varieties that can withstand heat, saltwater and even drought. "Drought-tolerant may be the toughest one to hit, but we're definitely making progress," Zeigler said.
"We have a variety that was released in India this year which will enable us to grow rice with less water so we can use intermittent irrigation rather than continuous flooding."

Some rice-producing nations, though, are still reluctant to use genetically modified (GM) seeds, citing safety concerns. But Zeigler said "diehard opponents" of GM foods were the least of his worries. "What we worry about is making sure that we produce a safe and healthy product that will benefit the poor." IRRI is in the final stages of testing and evaluation for its own Vitamin A-enriched GM Golden Rice, which it hopes to make available to farmers by 2011 or 2012, he said.

But the first gene-modified rice grown commercially would probably be in China or India, with China in the final stages of evaluation of an insect-resistant seed and India in a late phase of development of a similar variety. With the rice market much calmer now, Zeigler, who found himself hounded by journalists last year seeking explanations of the surge in prices, can now make time for scuba diving. "I am going to the beach this weekend," he said. "My wife told me."


Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug calls for second ‘Green Revolution’

'Asks new generation to join fight against world hunger'

- Paul Schattenberg, Ag News of Texas A&M Univ, March 9, 2009 http://agnews.tamu.edu

Thomas Jefferson once said “every generation needs a new revolution.” If that is so, then Dr. Norman Borlaug, father of the original Green Revolution, is inviting this generation to begin a second, more extensive, rebellion against world hunger.

“The Green Revolution hasn't been won yet,” said Borlaug, who will turn 95 later this month. “Developing nations need the help of agricultural scientists, researchers, administrators and others in finding ways to feed ever-growing populations."

A Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Congressional Gold Medal recipient, Borlaug has been credited with saving more lives than anyone in history. His work has led to breakthrough high-yield, disease-resistant wheat harvests in Mexico, India, Pakistan and countries throughout Latin America, Africa and the Near and Middle East. As a result, hundreds of millions of people have been provided with an otherwise unavailable food supply. “The Food Security Act of 2009 can lead the way in starting a second Green Revolution by helping improve agriculture and food security in developing countries,” Borlaug said.

The Lugar-Casey Global Food Security Act was recently introduced by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and was developed with bipartisan support from Sen. Robert Casey, D-Penn. Lugar described the bill as a “more focused effort on our part to join with other nations to increase yields, create economic opportunities for the rural poor and broaden agricultural knowledge --” and said it could begin a new era in U.S. diplomacy.

Borlaug added that in a second Green Revolution U.S. land-grant institutions would play an important role in contributing to worldwide food security. He noted that land-grant institutions, such as Texas A&M University, where he has been a distinguished professor since 1984, provide developing countries with technical assistance, educational outreach, improved technology and agricultural practices, scientific training and research, and hands-on instruction.

“The forgotten world is made up primarily of the developing nations, where most of the people, comprising more than 50 percent of the total world population, live in poverty, with hunger as a constant companion," Borlaug said. "Land-grant institute efforts are essential in helping people around the world achieve a more lasting food security.”

He added that, as global interdependence and the world food crisis continue to grow, so does the importance of these institutions in helping poor and developing countries gain better economic and social stability through agriculture and agribusiness.

“Even though my grandfather will be 95 years old later this month, his desire and effort toward resolving world food security issues and inspiring others to join him in that effort hasn’t diminished one bit over the years,” said Julie Borlaug, manager of external relations for the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University.

The Borlaug Institute currently leads or plays a significant role in international agriculture projects in Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Guatemala, El Salvador and other foreign countries. Many of these efforts are funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Dr. Borlaug's agricultural achievements to combat hunger have saved countless lives and inspired others to follow in his footsteps," said U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, who supported a bill to award Borlaug the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the U.S. government.

When Borlaug was awarded the medal in 2007, he said he hoped it would “help inspire young professionals to get involved in helping solve the world food crisis.”

Borlaug remains active as an advocate for world food security. He continues to lecture at Texas A&M and serves as a mentor for participants in the Borlaug Fellows Program, established in his honor in 2004 by the USDA.

The Borlaug Fellows Program brings foreign students, scholars, scientists and policymakers to the U.S. to train and collaborate with American agricultural experts.

“The world owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. Borlaug, and we at the institute that carries his name are glad to be involved in his efforts to help initiate a second Green Revolution to bring greater worldwide food security,” said Dr. Edwin Price, director of the Borlaug Institute.


GM Key to Food Shortage

- David McKenzie, Weekly Times Now (Australia), March 16, 2009 http://www.weeklytimesnow.com.au

Genetically modified crops have a key role in meeting a massive surge in world demand for food over the next 15 years, a leading plant scientist says.

CSIRO's deputy chief of plant industries, Dr T. J. Higgins, says population growth and rising wealth could mean an extra 10 billion tonnes of food consumed each year by 2025. Responding to that extra demand was a "mammoth task" which would require "many tools" including the use of GM crops, Dr Higgins said. "The challenge is to boost yields and quality, while protecting the environment and producing affordable food and renewable energy," he said.

Dr Higgins said GM crops and plants had the potential to deliver better protection against pests and diseases, better food nutrition and quality, and help farmers adapt to climate change.

The range of GM food crops could soon be expanded, with new varieties of wheat, rice and eggplant becoming commercially available within the next year, he said. There were also new GM barley, canola, rice and sorghum crops designed to make more efficient use of fertiliser, unlock more phosphorous from the soil, protect against acid soils and use less water. And there were "third generation" non-food GM crops on the drawing board that could help produce more efficient feed stocks and recreate important Omega-3 oils in foods.

"That's just a glimpse of how genetics can help achieve the extra food the world will need by 2025," Dr Higgins said. His comments came as the National Farmers' Federation warned that agricultural production was being jeopardised by a major shortfall in federal spending on rural R&D.

NFF president David Crombie said R&D spending in Australia had failed to keep pace with the rest of the world since the 1970s, leaving Australia's farmers in a "precarious position". "Productivity gains, achieved on the back of R&D, have placed Australian agriculture at the forefront of world food and fibre production," Mr Crombie said.

"But Australia is now falling further and further behind the rest of the world. This must be rectified in this year's federal Budget." Federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke said boosting productivity was the key to meeting food security and climate change challenges.


Building Better Beans : UT scientists work toward soybeans that are better for the environment

- Ned B. Hunter, Jackson Sun, March 15, 2009

Altering the genetic makeup of a plant is not always about creating larger fruit. Sometimes it's about the environment.

This spring, scientists at University of Tennessee research centers across the state will seed their fields with a genetically modified soybean that eventually could reduce the amount of phosphorus that enters the nation's waterways. Extreme amounts of phosphorus in bodies of water can cause excessive plant growth and algae blooms, reducing the water's oxygen level and suffocating fish.

Dr. Vince Pantalone of the University of Tennessee's Department of Plant Sciences in Knoxville has studied the genetic makeup of soybeans for several years, trying to lower the amount of phytate carried by each plant.

Phytate is the primary way certain plants, such as soybeans, store phosphorus in their seeds. Soybeans are often used in cattle, pig, chicken and other animal feeds. Some of these animals cannot fully digest the high amount of phosphorus, or phytates, from the soybean seeds used in the meal, excreting the excess.

Pantalone's team works in a DNA lab in Knoxville, extracting the molecular building blocks from soybean leaf tissue, attempting to develop new plant varieties.

The phosphorus molecule, which is the backbone of phytate, is negatively charged. That causes it to join with positively charged minerals such as calcium, iron, potassium or zinc, Pantalone said. When those minerals join with the phytates, they also are excreted, keeping the animals from fully absorbing those nutrients that are vital for its full development.

"You also don't benefit from using the phosphorus as an energy source," Pantalone said. To date, an additive called "Phytase" has been put into animal meals that helps livestock digest more of the phytates contained in soy beans and other crops. But the additive usually comes from Europe, Pantalone said, and increases meal costs.

"So we are trying to breed low-phytate soybeans," he said.

Read on http://www.jacksonsun.com/article/20090315/BUSINESS/903150307


African Crop Science Society Conference


The 9th African Crop Science Society Conference is scheduled to be held on 28 September 2009 at Cape Town, South Africa. The theme of the conference will be "Science and Technology Supporting Food Security in Africa". Aspects such as agronomy, horticulture, crop improvement and physiology, post harvest handling and food sciences and rural socio-economics and agricultural extension will be covered.


Agriculture: Africa's Engine for Growth


The Association of Applied Biologists is organizing an international conference that will be held at Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, Herts, UK on 12-14 October 2009.

With the theme Agriculture: Africa's Engine for Growth - Plant Science & Biotechnology Hold the Key, the international symposium is designed to bring together scientists from Africa, Europe and the USA to examine how new advances in plant science research and developing technologies can be used to the benefit of African agriculture.