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March 20, 2009


Believe Our Experts; Global Wheat Threatened; Water-Wise Solutions; Smarter Way to Combat Hunger; Diabetes Drug in Tobacco


* GE Foods: Believe Experts
* Plastic from Potatoes
* Global Wheat Crop Threatened by Fungus: A Q&A with Han Joachim Braun
* No Smoke? Scientists Grow Diabetes Drug in Tobacco Plants
* Filling the Void
* Water-Wise Solutions from Agricultural Biotechnology
* A Smarter Way to Combat Hunger
* Global Crisis 'to Strike by 2030'
* -- Can GM Crops Counter the ‘Perfect Storm?’
* Agricultural Technology Could Feed Rising Population, But Who Will Own Crops?
* The Bioscience Behind: Secure Harvests
* iPlant Collaborative

GE Foods: Believe Experts

- Opinion, Albany Democrat Herald, March 16, 2009http://www.democratherald.com/articles/2009/03/17/news/opinion/7edi03_mailbag.txt

Apprehension concerning genetically engineered food products — or “frankenfoods” as they have come to be known — has been expressed of late in the D-H letters section. Whole websites have also been established for the purpose of stimulating opposition to biotechnology of this sort.

It seems there is a growing body of amateur nutritionists united in this chorus of disapproval. And yet it comes as no surprise to discover their unprofessional speculations contradicted by the FDA, EPA and USDA.

Regarding the genetically engineered corn type Event 32, for instance, we have the clearest statement that the “USDA, EPA and FDA have concluded that there are no public health, food or feed safety concerns” entailed by it (http://southwestfarmpress.com/mag/farming_usda_epa_fda/).

Beyond food-related safety issues, however, we find the same three organizations affirming that “genetically engineered cotton poses no safety risk to humans or animals” (http://www.fda.gov). The consensus here is plain.

The question is: Are the armchair postulations of would-be nutritionists of greater force to us than statements from accredited professionals?

And to our local USDA representatives, I ask: What say you?

- Kevin Taylor, Corvallis


Plastic from Potatoes


A field trial at the University of Rostock is developing methods for assessing the safety of 2nd and 3rd generation GM plants long before they are potentially brought onto the market. One prototype for such plants is a potato that has been genetically modified so that its tubers and leaves produce cyanophycin, which can be used to obtain a biodegradable plastic. Two current biosafety research projects are studying the potential environmental impacts of cyanophycin potatoes.

Cyanophycin is a protein produced by cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) and some other bacteria. They use it to store nitrogen, among other things. One component of cyanophycin is polyaspartate, which can be used as a biodegradable plastic. Polyaspartate binds calcium and therefore has potential applications in e.g. detergents as a water softener.

It is possible to produce such biodegradable polymers (biopolymers ) in plants, using the plant as a kind of bioreactor. Plants could therefore act as renewable raw materials supplying substitutes for petroleum-based plastics that are not biodegradable, e.g. acrylic-acid-based polyacrylates.

Polyaspartate can also be obtained through chemical synthesis, but is currently produced only in small quantities. It is more biodegradable than comparable polyacrylates, but not totally biodegradable like the polyaspartate produced in cyanophycin.

Cyanophycin has another valuable component: the amino acid arginine, which improves animal health when added to feed and reduces the level of nitrogen in urine.

As well as producing cyanophycin in plants, it is possible to produce it in bioreactors (fermenters) using biotechnology methods with bacteria or cell cultures. However, this produces genetically modified bacteria like GM E.coli bacteria, instead of cyanobacteria. An advantage of producing cyanophycin in plants instead of in fermenters is that cyanophycin can be produced cheaply as a by-product. Potatoes grown for starch production can be used to produce cyanophycin at the same time. No additional fields would be needed. Years of research

Researchers have been studying the production of cyanophycin in plants for years. In a joint project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV), scientists at the Universities of Rostock, Berlin, Bielefeld and Tbingen have developed cyanophycin potatoes and examined them in detail in the greenhouse.


Global Wheat Crop Threatened by Fungus: A Q&A with Han Joachim Braun

- David Biello, Scientific American, March 20, 2009

Full interview at http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=global-wheat-crop-threatened-by-fungus

'A new strain of a devastating fungus could impact wheat crops the world over--and scientists are scrambling to nip it in the bud'

In 1999 agricultural researchers discovered in Uganda a new variety of stem rust—a fungus that infects wheat plants and wiped out 40 percent of U.S. wheat harvests in the 1950s. Millions of spores have spread from Uganda to neighboring Kenya and beyond to Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen, wiping out as much as 80 percent of a country's harvest. In fact, the only thing that has stopped the rust from devastating the breadbaskets of China, India and Ukraine has been several years of drought in Iran.

The world should hope for three more dry years in that region, because that's how long it will take to breed enough seeds of wheat strains that are resistant to the fungus, according to Hans Joachim Braun, director of the global wheat program at leading agricultural research institute, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico. An international symposium on the agricultural threat was held this week in Ciudad Obregon, Mexico, and ScientificAmerican.com spoke with Braun, who attended, to glean the latest developments on efforts to defeat the fungus.

What is the problem we are facing?
Ten years ago we identified a new stem rust race in Uganda—that's why it's called Ug99. More than 90 percent of the world's wheat varieties are susceptible to it. Clearly, this represents a major threat to production because, historically, stem rust was the most important wheat disease.

In the late 1950s stem rust was the first disease for which agricultural scientists developed resistant wheat strains. Resistance was so good that for 50 years, we didn't worry. Norman Borlaug [1970 Nobel Peace Prize–winner and developer of resistant wheat] saw the susceptibility to Ug99 and he rang the alert bell. The Global Rust Initiative was established then to fight stem rust on a global level.

Some 300 to 350 people involved in wheat breeding, and particularly rust resistance, gathered this week [at the international symposium] to discuss the latest progress in developing varieties resistant to stem rust.

How big is the problem?
Stem rust has been confirmed in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, Sudan and Iran. Historically, central and eastern Africa is a big center for new rust races. We know that it spreads very fast from East Africa to Asia, southern Africa, even Australia.

Will farmers plant these new strains?
We must provide farmers with varieties that are better than what they currently grow. Farmers haven't seen stem rust for 50 years so they will just ignore [the threat]. We have to have strains with 10 percent higher yield, otherwise they won't change.

Will these new strains offer benefits for other problems, like drought?
We cannot develop a cultivar only for one specific trait. They have to have a package. That package includes drought tolerance, yield, ability to withstand nutrient deficiency, and resistance to a wide spectrum of disease.

I am concerned about investment in wheat research. The private sector has limited interest in investing in wheat. Most wheat research is done by public institutions. But we could have similar progress in wheat like genetically modified cotton, canola and soy. Five or six big international companies invest more than a billion dollars each year in maize research. That's twice as much as the budget of all [public sector] international agricultural research centers.

Transgenic wheat [which incorporates modified or imported genes] would be interesting. But we're not allowed to use it. No country has released a genetically modified wheat. If we could use genetic modification, that would be a new road to address production constraints in wheat.


No Smoke? Scientists Grow Diabetes Drug in Tobacco Plants

- Reuters, March 19, 2009

Scientists have found a healthy use for tobacco after breeding genetically modified plants containing a medicine that could stop type 1 diabetes. The move marks the latest advance in the emerging field of molecular farming, which may offer a cheaper way of making biotech drugs and vaccines than traditional factory systems.

European researchers said on Thursday they had produced tobacco plants containing a potent anti-inflammatory protein called interleukin-10 (IL-10) that could help patients with insulin-dependent type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases.

A number of agrochemical companies, including Bayer and Syngenta, have been looking at ways to make complex protein drugs in plants, although progress has been slow. At the moment, antibody medicines and vaccines are produced in cell cultures inside stainless steel fermenters.

However, Mario Pezzotti of the University of Verona, who led the tobacco study published in the journal BMC Biotechnology, believes they could be grown more efficiently in fields, since plants are the world's most cost-effective protein producers.

Several different plants have been studied by research groups around the world, but tobacco is a firm favorite. "Tobacco is a fantastic plant because it is easy to transform genetically and you can easily regenerate an entire plant from a single cell," Pezzotti said in a telephone interview.

His group's work has attracted interest from tobacco giant Philip Morris, which is supporting a conference on plant-based medicine in Verona in June. Pezzotti and colleagues — who received funding for their research from the European Union — now plan to feed the plants to mice with autoimmune diseases to find out how they respond.

Further down the line, they want to test whether repeated small doses could help prevent diabetes in people, when given alongside another compound called glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD65), which has also been produced in tobacco plants.

Swedish biotech company Diamyd is already testing a conventionally produced GAD65 vaccine against diabetes in clinical trials. Molecular farming has yet to yield its first commercial product, although Israel's Protalix BioTherapeutics is conducting advanced clinical tests on an enzyme treatment for Gaucher disease that is produced in a culture of carrot cells.

Protalix plans to submit its drug for regulatory approval in the United States and Israel in the fourth quarter of 2009.


Filling the Void

- Editorial, Nature 458, 260 (March 19, 2009)

'As science journalism declines, scientists must rise up and reach out.'

Scientists at CERN, Europe's particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, opened the wine last week to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the laboratory's invention of the World Wide Web. The scientists were also joined by around 60 members of the media, who may have been in a less festive mood. Even before the current economic crisis, the web was inflicting much pain on the mass media. Circulations have dropped, advertising has dried up and newspapers have been forced to lay off reporters and scale back coverage. A similar slump has hit the broadcast market, with no end in sight.

Science journalism is one of the numerous casualties in this media meltdown. Many science journalists are losing their jobs, and those who remain are being asked to provide content for blogs, podcasts, online videos and other new media (see page 274). Although it is difficult to know what effect these cutbacks have had on the public's understanding of science, the general feeling is that the quality of science coverage in the conventional media is declining — as is the media's ability to play a watchdog role in science, ferreting out fraud or other misconduct.

True, there is no shortage of scientific information on the web. Witness the way that research funding agencies use the web to inform the public about everything from planetary missions to public health. In principle, anyone with an Internet connection now has access to more, and better, scientific coverage than ever before.

In practice, however, this sort of information reaches only those who seek it out. An average citizen is unlikely to search the web for the Higgs boson or the proteasome if he or she doesn't hear about it first on, say, a cable news channel. And as mass media sheds its scientific expertise, science's mass-market presence will become harder to maintain.

Harder, but not impossible. For example, scientists are blogging in ever increasing numbers, and the most popular blogs draw hundreds of thousands of readers each month. These blogging scientists not only offer expertise for free, but have emerged as an important resource for reporters. A Nature survey of nearly 500 science journalists shows that most have used a scientist's blog in developing story ideas. And a handful of universities, meanwhile, have started environmental publications that are run jointly by scientists and journalists. These publications seek to provide their journalistically valid, scientifically accurate content free of charge to the mainstream press.

Sadly, these activities live on the fringe of the scientific enterprise. Blogging will not help, and could even hurt, a young researcher's chances of tenure. Many of their elders still look down on colleagues who blog, believing that research should be communicated only through conventional channels such as peer-review and publication. Indeed, many researchers are hesitant even to speak to the popular press, for fear of having their carefully chosen words twisted beyond recognition.

But in today's overstressed media market, scientists must change these attitudes if they want to stay in the public eye. They must recognize the contributions of bloggers and others, and they should encourage any and all experiments that could help science better penetrate the news cycle. Even if they are reluctant to talk to the press themselves, they should encourage colleagues who do so responsibly. Scientists are poised to reach more people than ever, but only if they can embrace the very technology that they have developed.


Water-Wise Solutions from Agricultural Biotechnology

- EuropaBio, Brussels, March 20, 2009

Fresh water is one of the world's most valuable resources and in the future it is going to be even more precious. Agriculture accounts for 70% of all human water use and, if current trends continue, water shortages will be the single most significant constraint on crop production over the next 50 years.

"Worldwide, agricultural biotechnology could play a significant role in providing farmers yield stability during periods when water supply is scarce by mitigating the effects of drought - or water stress - within a plant" said Nathalie Moll "We already know that areas of high water stress in Europe are likely to dramatically increase in the coming years1. Yet what is less certain, is if and when EU farmers, whose land is currently 80% rain-fed, will be offered the choice of growing crops which can reduce water loss and improve drought tolerance"

Drought-tolerant crops, maize in particular, are an emerging reality with seeds expected to be commercialized by 2012. Field trials for drought-tolerant corn conducted last year in the Western Great Plains in the United States have met or exceeded 6-10 percent target yield enhancement over the average yield of 70-130 bushels per acre (equivalent to approximately 4.4-8.1 metric tons per hectare). In addition, agricultural practices have already been developed that reduce the amount of ploughing required before planting2. This means the soil surface is not broken which helps trap soil moisture. Under drought conditions this can mean the difference between having a crop to harvest and crop failure. It also helps reduce fossil fuel use, carbon dioxide emission and soil erosion.

"These GM crops could play a crucial role, both in the EU and Worldwide, in promoting sustainable water use whilst increasing agricultural output" said Moll. "But the only way to tap into this resource is if new GM crops are approved for cultivation. In the EU today, farmers don't have the choice about what they grow because new GM crops are not being approved. We call on EU regulators to lead by example, heed the advice of their own scientists and enable these technologies to play the role that they can and should towards meeting this vast global challenge".


A Smarter Way to Combat Hunger

- Pedro A. Sanchez, Nature 458, 148; March 12, 2009

Podcast on this including interview with Sanchez at http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast/index-2009-03-12.html

Traditional approaches to supplying food are an inefficient 'band aid', says Pedro A. Sanchez. New evidence shows that helping farmers to help themselves is more effective and would be six times cheaper.

After decades of progress in the fight to vanquish world hunger, the number of undernourished people is growing again. Estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggest that 963 million people1 in poor countries are chronically or acutely hungry - up 109 million from 2004 estimates 2. The underlying causes - changes in food and energy prices 3 - have been exacerbated by the financial crisis and obsolete development policies.

Policies should shift from prioritizing food aid to providing poor farmers with access to training, markets and to farm inputs such as fertilizer and improved seed. In addition to being cheaper, such investments allow farmers to grow food to feed themselves, to sell the surplus and to diversify into high-value crops, livestock and tree products. This creates a sustainable exit from the poverty trap, thereby decreasing the requirement for aid. Although marginal populations, or those affected by disasters, will still require assistance, procuring this food from within developing countries provides a cheaper alternative than shipping it from abroad.

The predominant policies to tackle hunger epitomize a 'band-aid' approach - quick fixes that fail to address the causes of hunger. In 2006, the United States spent US$1.2 billion in food aid for Africa, but only $60 million on agricultural development there 4. The international response has generally been similar. But according to estimates from 2004, only 10% of those who are hungry in poor countries are acutely hungry - those facing famine caused by wars, natural disasters or sheer destitution. The other 90% are chronically hungry, leading to malnutrition that compromises immune systems and contributes to the prevalence of diarrhoea, malaria and other diseases that result in high child mortality 2. Most of those who are chronically hungry live in rural farm households in Africa and South Asia.

Food aid fails to provide a sustainable solution to hunger and poverty and it is comparatively expensive. It costs $812 to deliver one tonne of maize as US food aid to a distribution point in Africa 5. As part of the Millennium Villages project, which I co-direct, smallholder farmers (those who farm 0.1-5 hectares) in hunger hot spots across Africa were provided with access to fertilizers, improved seed, technical support and markets. As a result, maize yields more than doubled - from 1.7 to 4.1 tonnes per hectare 6. And following a national 'smart' subsidy programme for fertilizer and hybrid seed in Malawi, average maize yields increased from 0.8 to 2.0 tonnes per hectare in two years 7.

The fertilizer and improved seed required to produce an additional tonne of maize grain by Millennium Village farmers cost an average of $135 at April 2008 prices6, six times less than through food aid. Purchasing that same tonne of maize locally - in an African country or a neighbouring one - costs approximately $320 (ref. 5). If farmers in Africa raise their average cereal yields to 3 tonnes per hectare, the additional 200 million tonnes grown in the 100 million hectares of smallholder crop land will more than compensate for the 3.2 million tonnes of food aid8.

Although estimates of efficiency vary, they indicate a major leap for development assistance. Shifting 50% of the current US food-aid budget to 'smart' subsidies or credit could help millions supply their own food and meet much of the aid demand. Such a move would be budget neutral.

Even buying food locally represents an important step away from the inefficient food-aid approach. Some institutions have already begun to change their methods. In 2007, CARE International, a leading relief organization headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, announced that it would stop monetizing food aid (selling some of the food to fund their operations), essentially losing $46 million a year. Also in 2007, the World Food Programme procured 43% of the 2 million tonnes of food required for its Africa relief operations from farmers in Africa at an average cost of $280 per tonne - compared with the average cost of $436 for purchases elsewhere 9.

The new Purchase for Progress programme, launched in September 2008 and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation further empowers the World Food Programme to purchase food from African farmers. Most importantly, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon is leading the development of a coordination mechanism for large-scale financial support for poor countries seeking to provide farm investment. The Spanish government has pledged 1 billion (US$1.3 billion) over five years for this effort, which should begin this year, and the European parliament has promised a similar amount. With more programmes aimed at merging food aid with reliable farming investment, the numbers of those who are chronically hungry should begin to fall.

Join the debate at http://tinyurl.com/cy3xc6

1. Diouf, J. Speech at High-Level Meeting on Food Security for All Madrid, 26-27 January 2009. Available at http://www.ransa2009.org/docs/docs/speech_DG_FAO_ransa2009.doc.pdf 2. Sanchez, P. A. & Swaminathan, M. S. Science 307, 357-359 (2005). 3. von Braun, J. Nature 456, 701 (2008). 4. The Chicago Initiative on Global Agricultural Development Renewing American Leadership in the Fight Against Global Hunger and Poverty (Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2009). Available at http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/globalagdevelopment/pdf/gadp_final_report.pdf 5. Garrett, L. A. Food Failures and Futures Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies Working Paper (Council on Foreign Relations, 2008). 6. Sanchez, P. A., Denning, G. L. & Nziguheba, G. Food Security 1, 37-44 (2009). 7. Denning, G. et al. PLoS Biol. 7, e1000023 (2009). 8. http://one.wfp.org/interfais/2008/tables/Table10.pdf 9. Jury, A. New Roles for Food Assistance: How Can Food Aid Support Agricultural Growth and Productive Safety Nets in Africa? Presentation at the World Food Prize Symp., 22 October 2008 (World Food Programme, 2008).

Pedro A. Sanchez is at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, NY, USA.


Global Crisis 'to Strike by 2030'

- Christine McGourty, BBC News, March 19, 2009 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7951838.stm

Growing world population will cause a "perfect storm" of food, energy and water shortages by 2030, the UK government chief scientist has warned. By 2030 the demand for resources will create a crisis with dire consequences, Prof John Beddington said.

Demand for food and energy will jump 50% by 2030 and for fresh water by 30%, as the population tops 8.3 billion, he told a conference in London. Climate change will exacerbate matters in unpredictable ways, he added.

"It's a perfect storm," Prof Beddington told the Sustainable Development UK 09 conference. "There's not going to be a complete collapse, but things will start getting really worrying if we don't tackle these problems."
Prof Beddington said the looming crisis would match the current one in the banking sector.

"My main concern is what will happen internationally, there will be food and water shortages," he said. "We're relatively fortunate in the UK; there may not be shortages here, but we can expect prices of food and energy to rise."

The United Nations Environment Programme predicts widespread water shortages across Africa, Europe and Asia by 2025. The amount of fresh water available per head of the population is expected to decline sharply in that time. The issue of food and energy security rose high on the political agenda last year during a spike in oil and commodity prices.

Prof Beddington said the concern now - when prices have dropped once again - was that the issues would slip back down the domestic and international agenda. "We can't afford to be complacent. Just because the high prices have dropped doesn't mean we can relax," he said. Improving agricultural productivity globally was one way to tackle the problem, he added.

At present, 30-40% of all crops are lost due to pest and disease before they are harvested. Professor Beddington said: "We have to address that. We need more disease-resistant and pest-resistant plants and better practices, better harvesting procedures.

"Genetically-modified food could also be part of the solution. We need plants that are resistant to drought and salinity - a mixture of genetic modification and conventional plant breeding.

Better water storage and cleaner energy supplies are also essential, he added. Prof Beddington is chairing a subgroup of a new Cabinet Office task force set up to tackle food security. But he said the problem could not be tackled in isolation.

He wants policy-makers in the European Commission to receive the same high level of scientific advice as the new US president, Barack Obama. One solution would be to create a new post of chief science adviser to the European Commission, he suggested. ''


Can GM Crops Counter the ‘Perfect Storm?’


The Perfect Storm of food, energy and water shortages by 2030, that is. This latest dismal forecast for the planet is offered by professor John Beddington who is addressing the Sustainable Development UK conference.

It comes on top of a UN forecast of shortages in all these things by 2025, but what’s five years between fellow-sufferers?

Actually, from the UK’s point of view, the prof says we won’t be too badly off but an estimated world population of 8.6 billion will clearly cause major problems.

One of the solutions, the professor says, might be genetically-modified crops as 30 to 40 per cent of existing food production is lost to pests and disease before it can be harvested.

Clearly anything that makes food crops more hardy is to be welcomed?

But of course it won’t be and the voluble critics of so-called ‘Frankenstein Food’, like the Daily Mail will be up in arms again.

But it’ll take more than a few organic Duchy Originals to solve this one.


Agricultural Technology Could Feed Rising Population, But Who Will Own Crops?

- Kaitlin Mara and Catherine Saez, Intellectual Property Watch, March 20, 2009 http://www.ip-watch.org/

The genetic revolution has come to food, as debates over how to deal with future pressures of population and climate change look to agricultural technology in hope of answers. But questions still remain over who owns the technology, who will do the research, and what forms of - and even whether - biotechnology is appropriate to human needs and the needs of smallholding farmers.

"Agriculture has to stop being a problem; it has to become a solution," said Ioan Negrutiu, biology professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France.

Solutions will rely on industry, said Jérome Péribère, President of DowAgroSciences US. "Science is going to make it happen, or it won't happen." These questions were discussed at two sessions of the 8-11 March BioVision life sciences conference in Lyon.

"There are two forms of regulation" on this type of science: biosafety, and IP rights, said Piet van der Meer of the Public Research and Regulation Initiative, a foundation which attempts to bring public researchers into regulatory debates relevant to biotechnology development.

Of course in agriculture, "it's a bit more complex than just IPRs" he added. The Geneva-based International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), access and benefit-sharing frameworks such as under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, and farmers' rights also play a role.

There are serious questions over "who then owns these new varieties" of plants, said Janet Cotter, senior scientist at the Greenpeace International Science Unit at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

The Need For Seeds and the Role of IP
"We need to double global food production in about 40 years," said Willy de Greef, secretary general of Europabio, an association of European biotechnology firms. "We need crops  [that can] adapt to suboptimal, unpredictable climactic conditions."

"IPR is crucial for innovation, [and] for protecting and advancing crop genetics," said Michiel van Lookeren Campagne, head of research of Bayer CropScience's BioScience Business Unit, saying "in countries such as Argentina, which has a poor IP regime, companies like ours are placing very little emphasis. It is hard for them to get modern agricultural technology" as a result.

Others had more mixed views. Van der Meer said that on the issue that "you ask one public researcher and he loves it [IP] and another hates it because it impedes her research." His Public Research and Regulation Initiative has recently begun a working group on IP rights and plant genetic resources.

Where intellectual property may play a key role is in determining what kind of agricultural solutions get explored and promoted. Organic farming, and other forms of low-input agriculture, could help increase food security, said Cotter. However, she later told Intellectual Property Watch, "the business model is lacking there."

Van Lookeren Campagne explained "we don't breed for organic farmers because we can only sell that seed once." And "businesses will invest in R&D if there's added value in that R&D." The difficulty, said Cotter, is that "you want incentives for innovation. But you also want farmers to save seed." Many basic patents are in public hands, said de Greef, so it could be possible to carve out rights from that intellectual property for humanitarian causes.

Picking The Right IP
Plant variety protection is a more variegated than just patent protection. Two major international agreements - the UPOV agreement, the World Trade Organization Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement - regulate a series of IP rights for plant varieties, including plant breeders' rights, patent protection and the poorly-defined sui generis (or in-kind) proposals for protection (see the 2004 Food and Agriculture Organization report "Intellectual Property Rights In Plant Varieties" for more detail).

"Diversity is key" in crop technology, said Marion Guillou, CEO of public agricultural research centre Institut National de Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in France. "But you need to know what you have and what your freedom is to use it." There are special rights on plant varieties, she explained.

Seed breeders in the US use patents to protect their innovations, but European seed breeders rely more on plant breeders' rights (a type of IP protection that notably exempts those who wish to use a protected variety for further research), Guillou said. INRA prefers this approach as it does not restrict use of genetic resources for further breeding. INRA does use patents but never on a gene sequences, she said.

INRA also is coordinating a patent pooling project. Launched in 2006, it aiming at setting up a collective network for the management of patents and other exploitable assets held by European public research organisations in the field of agricultural biotechnologies, Guillou said.

Technology, Tradition, Or Both For Agricultural Future? "No single technology can solve these complex issues by itself, neither organic nor biotech," said van der Meer. "Biotechnology alone cannot build the future of all agricultures," added Negrutiu.

But to the extent that biotechnology is part of the future, there are different forms it might take. "Our planet needs GMOs [Genetically Modified Organisms] urgently," said Marc Van Montagu, chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries in Belgium. He discovered with his colleague Jeff Schell the gene transfer mechanism between Agrobacterium and plants, which resulted in the creation of transgenic (or, genetically modified) plants. The increase of global meat consumption will bring the need for more crops, he said.

"With GMOs we can grow plants organically, with less fertiliser, less pesticides  they are very ecological plants," he said, adding they could provide sustainability and support biodiversity.

Patents are the only way to get the industry's interest, he added, but the fact that there are so many patents is leading to a setback for research. INRA does not work on GMO innovations any longer due to the public perception of this technology in Europe, Guillou said. They are working more on genomics (the study of the genomes of organisms) and gene markers. "There are other ways for innovation than GMOs," she said.

Marker-assisted selection - which uses knowledge of genetics to improve on traditional plant breeding - is one such area. Marker-assisted selection is "more of a grey area" for patenting, said Cotter, but its ability to work with the complexity of a genome - in which a gene's position might be just as important as the trait expressed in isolation - is more applicable to modern agricultural needs. "GM crops aren't part of the future," she added.

It is not about being for or against GMOs, "we have to get out of the extremes," said Timothy Hall, acting director for biotechnologies, agriculture and food research at the European Commission. A package of technologies should be used, including traditional agriculture.


The Bioscience Behind: Secure Harvests

'New publication highlights role of plant science in delivering food security'


With rapid global population growth, a changing climate and disruption to global trading patterns threatening our food supplies, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is funding research to help provide us with enough food for the future. Food security depends on a number of factors but one priority is the need to grow enough high quality, nutritional crops - and this poses a significant scientific challenge.

A recent BBSRC publication, 'The Bioscience behind: secure harvests' highlights key BBSRC-supported research into achieving global food security. BBSRC invests around £78M a year in plant and crop science research at universities and institutes across the UK.

One challenge for achieving food security is increasing crop yields. Researchers at the John Innes Centre, an institute of BBSRC, are investigating a gene that controls flowering time in UK wheat and barley varieties with the aim to help plant breeders to optimise flowering time and yield for a changing UK climate. In traditional cool, wet UK summers, late-flowering crops such as wheat have an advantage because they fully utilise the long growing period. But as our summers become hotter and drier, we will need varieties like those of Southern Europe that flower and amass yield earlier, but are otherwise suited to UK conditions. Different varieties of wheat and barely flower at different times, so by understanding more about this natural variation we should be better set to breed suitable varieties for our changing climate.

Bioscience behind secure harvests is available from BBSRC External Relations and from http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/publications/corporate/bioscience_behind_secure_harvests.html


iPlant Collaborative


The iPlant Collaborative will bring together researchers in every plant biology discipline-from those working at the microscopic level, such as molecular biologists, cellular biologists and geneticists, to those working on the ecosystem and planetary level-in partnership with computer scientists and engineers, information scientists, mathematicians and social scientists, in order to facilitate communication and collaboration across all of these disciplines and provide tools so that these specialists can work together more effectively than they have in the past.

Collaboration is central to iPlant because it's central to how science now done; scientists can no longer work in isolation from one another. Every discipline relies on the disciplines around it, and the boundaries between disciplines are no longer sharply defined. A geneticist might need to work closely with an ecologist, for instance, to understand the underlying causes of changes in a species' genetic code and their consequences for the species' adaptation to the environment. A team of plant biologists gathering data about a species' genome and the environmental changes that affect that species might need to work closely with computer and information scientists to organize, analyze and interpret those data.

Social scientists will work with iPlant
researchers to design social networking software for iPlant's cyberinfrastructure that will facilitate communication among iPlant users in much the way Facebook facilitates communication among students who share a school or employees who share a workplace.