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Date:

April 8, 2009

Subject:

A Sad Personal Account of German GM Research; EU Impasse; Solution to Drought; Target or Non-target?; A Moral and Security Imperative

 

* German GM Research—A (sad) Personal Account
* A New Green Revolution: Invest In Agriculture and Technology
* EU Impasse over GM Deepens
* US's Vilsack Says Science Can Help Overcome Hunger
* Solution to Drought: It's In The Genes
* Environmental Impacts of Bt Crops – on Target or Non-target?
* Review - Development and Regulation of Bt Brinjal in India


German GM Research—A Personal Account

- Stefan Rauschen, Nature Biotechnology 27, 318 - 319. April 2009) (RWTH Aachen University, Department of Plant Physiology, Aachen, Germany)

As a junior scientist in Germany working for nearly 6 years on biosafety research, I wholeheartedly agree with the correspondence in your September issue from Henry Miller, which lamented the decision of the president of Justus Liebig University in Giessen for having pressured his faculty to cease field experiments on genetically modified (GM) corn1. I would like to share with your readers some of my personal experience—working as I have on the potential impact of the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn cultivars on arthropod nontarget organisms—on the issues Miller so frankly addresses.

In 2002, I started working as a student assistant on a 3-year project dealing with the assessment of the environmental impact of the Bt corn variety MON810 (ref. 2). The project was financed by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The field site was only 100 km away from Aachen, which was a very practical arrangement. From the onset, I was fascinated by the myriad possibilities that agbiotech holds for the future, making agriculture more efficient, more sustainable, more environmentally compatible and potentially safer for those working in agriculture. But there was also the other side, of course, the multi-faceted possibilities in which GM plants can interact with the environment in unintended and unforeseen ways. Also, the field of biosafety research was quite young, with very different opinions on what should be assessed, how this should be done and how results should be interpreted. And there was new European Union (EU; Brussels) legislation 3, 4 coming forward. Back then, this seemed a reasonable subject to choose for research as there were already many ideas on possible and promising applications of recombinant DNA technology in crop plants. What's more, there also seemed to be a future demand for scientists working in that field. Ideologically opposing the possible benefits of plant biotech seemed unreasonable (and today it does even more), so I presumed there would be plenty of opportunities for upcoming, young researchers such as myself.

In 2005, I finished my diploma—on the fate of the Cry1Ab protein in agricultural biogas production facilities 5, an economically interesting issue—and immediately started my PhD work in another project financed by the BMBF with a field-release experiment on MON88017 (refs. 6,7). This time around, it was harder to find a field site—a problem I had little to do with, fortunately. It was impossible to find a suitable site in North-Rhine-Westfalia, so we looked south. We found a suitable site and hospitable hosts in Bavaria, a southern federal state of Germany with a government very progressive on the future role of GM plants in agriculture (back then at least). Everything went well over the next 3 years of research, although the number of field-release and other field experiments in Germany being destroyed by activists gradually increased as time passed, and we even had to spend an entire weekend out in the field because of fears it might be paid a visit by 'field liberators'. Driving the 800 km to and back from the field site was strenuous. Over the course of the project, I spent three whole months driving eight hours every working day.

I recently finished my PhD and I am still doing research on Bt corn. Again in a consortium with a grant from the BMBF, we are assessing the potential ecological impacts of MON89034 times MON88017. Finding a site for the field release was outstandingly difficult; eventually, we were accommodated by a German federal institution. Now, we are traveling 420 km every time we drive to or from the field.

The change of locality was necessary because our original plans to remain in Bavaria were shattered when the Bavarian State Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry decided that this kind of research was no longer wanted in Bavaria. Since elections were held last September and public opinion was decidedly against plant biotech, the ruling Christian Social Union (CSU) thought it was best not to invite us again to do our research in Lower Frankonia. Allowing us to continue would definitely have compromised their reputation as being 'close to the people'.

This was regrettable on several levels, especially as the local officials who had been directly working with us there were eager to continue the collaboration. They saw the scientific research we were doing, and planned to do, as a prerequisite for public acceptance of plant biotech.

The fact is, at the moment, there is currently no public acceptance of plant biotech in Germany. The reason is simple: fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) 8. Fear that some unforeseeable major disaster will definitely come true. Uncertainty over the social and economic consequences of the large-scale cultivation of GM plants and over whether we can actually assess and foresee every possible way in which a GM plant could do harm. And doubt over whether the benefits are real possibilities or just marketing propaganda. These are the main motives driving people to oppose green biotech and which are strategically and successfully used by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with an anti-biotech agenda.

As an aside, most German citizens know little about the basic aspects of agriculture and biology and are therefore quick to oppose GM crops as something they do not understand. They also do not see that there is no such thing as a 'risk-free' technology. Every human activity carries a multitude of risks for a large array of possible harms. Risk perception seems not to be a strength of the human mind, however. A case in point is the Large Hadron Collider at Cern 9.

I have had several long discussions with people who identify themselves as biotech opponents in a German online forum dedicated to informing the general public and providing a platform where lay people and scientists can meet10. From these discussions, I have gathered two other motives for the failure of agbiotech in Germany: mistrust and anger. Mistrust relates to mistrust of 'scientists'—all people somehow involved in, or connected to, scientific research are taken into Sippenhaft (that is, collective responsibility of a whole group of people, as defined by the circumstances, for the actions of a few people, or even a single individual, belonging to this group). Anger relates to the corporate world, the increasing influence of the 'agri-industrial complex' (similar to the military-industrial complex referred to by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower) 11, a perceived lack of personal influence on public policy and the way society deals with certain issues.

Although FUD are strongly issue related (that is, they can be addressed with results from scientific research), mistrust and anger are directed against institutions, companies and ultimately people. From my own experience, arguing against them with scientific reasoning takes a lot of effort and peer-reviewed literature on the side of the scientist because overexaggerated and unrealistic horror scenarios are very much embedded in the thinking of many active opponents of plant biotech. Ultimately, it is possible to win ground in these discussions, however.

Mistrust and anger are much harder, and in most cases, actually impossible, to overcome. They are often deeply rooted in, or at least intricately intertwined with, a general rejection of the corporate world, the capitalist economic system, disenchantment with politics, a pinch of new-age mythology and conspiracy theories. Which meme is the most important varies highly between individuals and demands that arguments and the course in which the discussion is steered has to be adapted to every discussion partner.

Scientists, such as myself, and politicians can play an important role in educating the general public over the risks and benefits of plant biotech for the society at large. It is especially important for the research community to understand that judgment calls about the value of GM crops are taken by society as a whole, not just on the basis of science12. Adopting such an independent stance could in fact boost the trust of the general public in scientific research.

As for politicians, they need to be clear and honest about their views on whether plant biotech is an option for the future. Until now, dishonesty and backtracking by politicians, particularly in Europe, has merely aggravated public perception problems. How can politicians expect public opposition against agbiotech to wane when they are so eager to exploit its potential threat as a rallying cause in election campaigns, reacting to the whims of the electorate in the hunt for votes? How do they think it is possible to educate the general public about the risks and benefits of plant biotech when they so blatantly render scientific research nearly or even totally impossible? How can they be taken seriously on these issues when on the one hand they boast about funding for research and on the other hand condemn the GM products that the research produces?

As Miller relates, what counts in the case of Justus Liebig University is that zealots brought a German University to its knees and that reason succumbed to a lack of common sense and decent judgment. It is disappointing that the university president permitted intimidation to compromise academic freedom and the freedom of faculty to carry out their research.

But that is easy for me to say as none of my experiments has ever been vandalized, and the first year of the current field-release experiment has so far suffered no harm. The only damage I have suffered over the past years has been to my reputation: as a researcher who has not found any negative impact of Bt corn, despite all the years of research, I must have been bribed to publish only positive results pleasing to corporate sponsors (most probably St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto). That I have been continually funded to this day by the BMBF on short-term contracts and therefore am actually an employee of the taxpayer is a counter-argument that often falls on deaf ears. But this illustrates the public perception mountain that needs to be climbed: if members of the general public already have trust issues with me—a researcher funded with public money—there seems little hope for colleagues on the pay-roll of companies and corporations in the plant biotech industry. They will always be perceived as dishonest. And their results will probably always be discounted as being biased.

Looking to the future, I am also confronted by FUD: fear for the intactness of my group's experimental field and the potential threat that vandalization poses to my students' theses; uncertainty over whether we will still be able to do this kind of research after the general elections in Germany this September 2009, for instance; and doubt over whether GM research was a reasonable subject to pursue. It looked that way only 6 years ago. Now, I am not quite so sure.

1. Miller, H.I. Nat. Biotechnol. 26, 974–975 (2008).
2. Rauschen, S. et al. Agricultural Forest Entomol. 10, 331–339 (2008).
3. European Commission. Off. J. Eur. Comm. L 106, 1–38 (2001).
4. The Commission of the European Communities. Off. J. Eur. Comm. L 280, 27–28 (2002).
5. Rauschen, S. & Schuphan, I. J. Agric. Food Chem. 54, 879–883 (2006).
6. Rauschen, S. et al. J. Sci. Food Agric. 88, 1709–1715 (2008).
7. Rauschen, S. et al. Trans. Res. 18, 203–214 (2009).
8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear,_uncertainty_and_doubt
9. Ellis, J. et al. J. Phys. G: Nucl. Part. Phys. 35, 1150004 (2008).
10. http://www.transgen.de/forum
11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military-industrial_complex
12. Johnson, K.L. et al. Trends Plant Sci. 12, 1–5 (2007).

===============

A New Green Revolution: Invest In Agriculture and Technology

- Richard G. Lugar and Norman Borlaug, Washington Times, April 5, 2009

The world is not producing enough food, and many poor families cannot afford to buy the food that is available. As a result, nearly a billion people, a sixth of the Earth's population, do not have enough to eat.

This global food crisis erupted into public view last year when food prices spiked around the world and food riots and demonstrations rocked 19 countries, from Bangladesh to Egypt. Today's worldwide economic collapse threatens to push millions more into poverty, making them unable to buy enough food to feed their families.

The long-term prospects for global food supplies are equally troubling. Based on expected population growth, rising incomes and wider meat consumption, it is estimated that the world's farmers will have to double their output by 2050. They will have to do so in the face of rapidly depleting water supplies and the impact of climate change, which threatens altered weather patterns and droughts. Moreover, rising sea levels could submerge river deltas that are among the most agriculturally productive regions on Earth.

Attempting to double food production by increasing the acreage under cultivation would cause widespread deforestation and put significant stress on local ecologies. Farmers will have to get much higher yields from land already in production, requiring major investments in infrastructure and agricultural technology.

The hunger and related diseases resulting from food insecurity are a humanitarian tragedy: An estimated 25,000 people per day die of malnutrition-related causes. Hungry children suffer worst, with low survival rates, stunted bodies and impaired cognitive development. Moreover, hunger has profound implications for peace and U.S. national security. Hungry people are desperate, and desperation often sows seeds of conflict and extremism.

The causes of this calamity are many. Acute factors such as soaring energy prices, local droughts and bad decisions by food-exporting countries led to last year's price spike and exposed structural weaknesses in the world agriculture system. After the green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s seemingly vanquished the specter of world famine, the international community prematurely declared victory over hunger and let down its guard.

Investments in agriculture tumbled. By 2007, rich countries devoted merely 4 percent of their foreign assistance to agriculture. U.S. agricultural aid, adjusted for inflation, fell 80 percent from the 1980s to the early 2000s.

In Africa, which has the most severe food problems, donor aid to the farm sector plunged from $4.1 billion in 1989 to just $1.9 billion in 2006. Africa's per capita production of corn, its most important staple crop, has dropped by 14 percent since 1980.

Equally troubling are sharp cutbacks in research into new farming technologies and seed varieties that could increase yields, cope with changing climate conditions, battle new pests and diseases and make food more nutritious.

The world needs a new green revolution. The Lugar-Casey Global Food Security Act, S. 384, introduced in February, could help launch one. The Foreign Relations Committee approved the bill April 1, and it can now move toward consideration by the full Senate.

The legislation calls for the United States to make food and agriculture a foreign policy priority. It would require the administration to appoint a high-level coordinator to devise and implement a government wide food security strategy, and it would authorize $10 billion over five years for foreign agriculture assistance, with special attention to research and outreach, so small farmers can quickly utilize breakthroughs made in the laboratory. Helping small farmers raises rural incomes, thus easing poverty, hunger's chief cause.

If the United States leads the battle to eradicate hunger, other nations will follow.

This new revolution won't succeed without new tools, namely biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) seeds, to meet the enormous demands for increased production. But Europeans oppose most GM technology, despite its proven safety and success in cutting pesticide use, raising output and adapting to adverse conditions. African countries in particular have been intimidated by aggressive European lobbying from deploying biotechnology, widely used in many places, including America - GM varieties comprise 80 percent of our corn crop.

European opposition to safe GM technology contributes to African hunger in the short run. In the long run, it virtually dooms those countries' efforts to adapt their agriculture to changing climate conditions. If current global climate forecasts are right, farm yields in Africa could plummet by 35 percent in coming decades, leading to starvation, mass migration and conflict. Only through the application of science and technology to African agriculture can such a catastrophe be averted.

Thomas Malthus warned 200 years ago that food production would not keep pace with population growth. He did not foresee how technology and innovation would forestall his dire predictions. Today, we can either succumb to Malthusian pessimism or once again invest in agriculture and embrace technological solutions inspired by the green revolution. It is both a moral and security imperative that we act.
----
Richard G. Lugar of Indiana is the Republican leader on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He has a 604-acre farm in Indiana. Norman Borlaug is a Nobel laureate and father of the green revolution. At age 95, he continues his work as a researcher with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

Comments http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/apr/05/a-new-green-revolution

=========================

EU Impasse over GM Deepens

- Anna Meldolesi, Nature Biotechnology 27, 304 (2009)

Austria and Hungary have asserted their right to ban cultivation of a genetically modified (GM) corn, known as MON810. On March 2, an overwhelming majority of environment ministers rejected the European Commission's initiative to order these member states to adhere to European Union legislation and lift their national bans on planting the GM maize. MON810 is an insect-resistant corn engineered by Monsanto and the only GM product approved for growing in Europe. It is cultivated in Spain, Czech Republic, Romania, Portugal, Germany, Poland and Slovakia. But after the recent vote, it now seems likely that when the council of ministers next meets in June, it will uphold similar bans currently in place in France and Greece, intensifying the disarray.

"By failing to defend the EU approval system European governments undermine public trust. Why make tough laws on GM crops and then break them?" asks Nathalie Moll, spokesperson for the association of bioindustries EuropaBio. Things will deteriorate further if Germany confirms statements released by its ministers of environment and agriculture Sigmar Gabriel and Ilse Aigner that Berlin is considering a cultivation ban. In February, an EU regulatory committee deadlocked over whether to allow planting of two other insect-resistant maize lines, BT-11 and 1507. Final approval will now depend on the council of ministers and, in case of stalemate, on the Commission.

A more propitious wind blows in Asia, where Monsanto has started field trials of GM corn in India and is eyeing Indonesia next.

============

US's Vilsack Says Science Can Help Overcome Hunger

- Carey Gillam, Reuters, April 7, 2009

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Developing countries must embrace new technologies for agriculture in order to address a growing global food crisis, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Tuesday.

Improved seeds for crops that are more drought or disease tolerant, improved irrigation systems and strategies, and other evolving agricultural production technologies could help struggling nations produce more food, Vilsack said.

Overcoming resistance to these new technologies, including genetically modified crops, is key, according to Vilsack. "Science is important. I don't know of another country that is doing as much as the United States," Vilsack said in a press conference following a speech at the International Food Aid Conference in Kansas City. Still, the United States must do more to convince other countries to accept new technologies for agriculture, he said. "That is a major problem right now," he said.

Vilsack is slated to lead a U.S. delegation to a G8 meeting with agriculture leaders from Canada, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Russia April 18-20 to talk about ways to improve global food security. A report issued by the Italian presidency ahead of the meeting warned that global food production must double by 2050 to avert risks of international political instability, the Financial Times reported on Tuesday.

Vilsack said that population growth and climate change made improving agricultural productivity critical. "We will constantly be challenged as world populations grow," Vilsack said. "The amount of land capable of producing food is not going to grow. With growing communities -- expanding communities -- it may actually shrink. "That dynamic will always constantly challenge us to figure out ways to produce enough food and enough nutrition for people to be cared for," Vilsack said.

Last year, the world saw a global food crisis tied to a spike in food prices. The ranks of the hungry grew by 115 million people over 2007-2008, bringing the total who need food assistance globally to 963 million at the end of 2008, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Food prices have come down from last year, but the food crisis is continuing amid this year's global economic downturn. Vilsack announced Tuesday that the United States will spend an additional $80 million in funding for four projects to feed 655,000 children in Africa. The funding comes on top of $95.5 million allocated in December and is to be spent this fiscal year, officials said.

================

Solution to Drought: It's In The Genes

- Henry I. Miller, Investors Business Daily April 8, 2009

California is short of more than jobs, money and optimism these days. Several years of drought have dried up reservoirs, parched fields, damaged forests and caused regulators around the state to impose restrictions on water usage.

California agriculture, which employs 1.1 million people and yields products worth more than $36 billion annually - including more than half of the nation's vegetables, nuts and fruits - consumes 80% of the water used in the state. Thus, it is hardly surprising that farmers and ranchers - especially in the state's vast, fertile Central Valley - have borne the brunt of the burden up to now.

The pain is about to spread. According to the director of the California Department of Water Resources, "We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history. It's imperative for Californians to conserve water immediately, at home and in their businesses." Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu was even more alarming: "We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going."

But droughts are just acts of God, about which nothing can be done, right? Wrong. Scientists might be able to provide a partial solution - if only federal policymakers and local regulations permitted it.

Gene-splicing, sometimes called genetic modification (GM), offers plant breeders the tools to make old crop plants do spectacular new things. In the U.S. and two dozen other countries, farmers are using gene-spliced crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced environmental impact.

In spite of research being hampered by resistance from activists and discouraged by governmental over-regulation, gene-spliced crop varieties are slowly but surely trickling out of the development pipeline in many parts of the world.

Most of these new varieties are designed to be resistant to pests and diseases that ravage crops; or to be resistant to herbicides, so that farmers can more effectively control weeds, while adopting more environment-friendly no-till farming practices and more benign herbicides. Others varieties possess improved nutritional quality.

But the greatest boon of all, both to food security and to the environment in the long term, may be the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses.

Where water is scarce, the development of crop varieties that grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could both boost yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive.

Even where irrigation is feasible, plants that use water more efficiently are needed. Agriculture makes up roughly 70% of the world's fresh water consumption - and more in areas of intensive farming and arid or semi-arid conditions, such as in California - so the introduction of plants that grow with less water would free up much of that essential resource for other uses.

Especially during drought conditions, even a small reduction in the use of water for irrigation could result in huge benefits. Plant biologists have identified genes that regulate water use and transferred them into important crop plants. These new varieties grow with smaller amounts or lower quality water, such as recycled water or water with lots of natural mineral salts.

In 2004, for example, Egyptian researchers showed that by transferring a single gene from barley to wheat, the plants can tolerate reduced watering for a longer period of time before their leaves wilt. This new, drought-resistant variety requires only one-eighth as much irrigation as conventional wheat, and actually can be cultivated with rainfall alone in some deserts.

Aside from new varieties that have lower water requirements, pest- and disease-resistant gene-spliced crop varieties also make water use more efficient indirectly. Because much of the loss to insects and diseases occurs after the plants are fully grown, the use of gene-spliced varieties having higher post-harvest yields means that the farming (and irrigation) of fewer plants can produce the same total amount of food.

We get more crop for the drop. However, unscientific, overly burdensome regulation by the EPA and USDA in the U.S. - and by national regulators and the U.N. elsewhere - has raised the cost of producing new plant varieties and kept potentially important crops off the market.

In several EU countries, national bans on new gene-spliced varieties are in place, in clear violation of EU rules, and the European Commission has repeatedly proven itself incapable of removing the barriers. Such policies exert a chilling effect on farmers who export to the EU, causing some wheat growers to resist planting gene-spliced drought-resistant varieties.

The deeply entrenched, discriminatory and excessive regulation - which flies in the face of scientific consensus that gene-splicing is basically an extension of earlier crop improvement methods - adds tens of millions of dollars to the development costs of new gene-spliced crop varieties.

These extra costs and the endless controversy over cultivating these precisely crafted and highly predictable varieties discourage research and development.

Even worse, and cruelly ironic in light of California's water shortage, is the fact that over the last few years four of the state's counties - Trinity, Mendocino, Marin and Santa Cruz - have actually banned the cultivation or sale of gene-spliced plants, including those that are drought-resistant.

This prohibition of the use of an important tool reduces the resilience of farmers and of the state's economy.

The measures are unscientific and logically inconsistent, in that their restrictions are inversely related to risk: They permit the use of microorganisms and plants that are crafted with less precise and predictable techniques but ban those made with more precise and predictable ones. They might as well ban cars that have disc brakes and radial tires. Wrongheaded regulation has made agricultural innovation with gene-splicing costly and (economically) risky, and caused it be vastly underused.

That should provide food for thought as water is rationed, farmers go bust, food prices skyrocket, and our lawns turn brown.

Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, was an official at the FDA from 1979 to 1994 and is the author of "The Frankenfood Myth."

=========================

Environmental Impacts of Bt Crops – on Target or Non-target?

- CABI Blog, April 9, 2009 http://cabiblog.typepad.com/hand_picked/2009/04/environmental-impacts-of-bt-crops-on-target-or-non-target.html

Genetically modified crops containing a toxin gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis have been used by farmers for 11 years now. These Bt crops were designed to give the plants resistance to important pests. But might they also be harming non-target invertebrates? A study by Steven Naranjo of the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service looks at the evidence and compares it with the impacts of the pesticides that would otherwise have been used.

Bt maize and cotton have been commercially produced on about 42 million hectares in 20 countries. Their potential non-target effects have been considered in over 360 published research papers. Naranjo, in his paper in CAB Reviews, looks across around 200 of these studies to draw conclusions.

Investigations found that the abundance of all non-target invertebrates was slightly lower for Bt crops than in non-Bt crops, but much higher in Bt crops than in non-Bt crops treated with insecticides. Using meta-analysis, a way of doing a meaningful comparison across different studies, Naranjo found that laboratory studies indicated negative effects of Bt on some non-target invertebrates, though these depended on how the trials were done and which invertebrates were being looked at. However, few harmful effects of Bt crops were shown in field studies. One factor may be that exposure to the Bt toxin is higher in the laboratory experiments than in the field. It was also clear that nontarget effects for insecticides are much greater than for Bt crops.

While Bt crops mean that some specialist parasitoids that would otherwise attack pests of maize have less to feed on, the overall levels of predation on pests have not been shown to drop. Naranjo believes Bt crops could enhance the role of biological control in integrated pest management.

Naranjo's paper emphasises that a key comparison to make is what would have happened without Bt crops. Bt maize and Bt cotton are believed to have led to a 136.6 million kg reduction in insecticide active ingredient, and rootworm-resistance crops will reduce the levels of insecticide present in the soil.

The paper, "Impacts of Bt crops on non-target invertebrates and insecticide use patterns" by Steven E. Naranjo appears in CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources, 2009, 4, No. 011, 23 pp.

Download full CAB Reviews article at
http://cabiblog.typepad.com/hand_picked/2009/04/environmental-impacts-of-bt-crops-on-target-or-non-target.html

====================

Development and Regulation of Bt Brinjal in India (Eggplant/Aubergine). B. Choudhary and K. Gaur. ISAAA Brief No. 38, ISAAA, Ithaca, NY, USA. 2009. 102 pp.

- reviewed by T. M. Manjunath, Current Science, vol. 96, NO. 7, 10 APRIL 2009 http://www.ias.ac.in/currsci/apr102009/992.pdf

This book recently published by ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications) provides a comprehensive review on all aspects of brinjal (eggplant, Solanum melongena) cultivation and also describes the efforts made in developing Bt brinjal to control its major lepidopteron pest, the fruit and shoot borer (FSB) – Leucinodes arbonalis. This peer-reviewed document is available from the ISAAA South Asia Office at New Delhi and is also accessible, free of charge, on its websites www.isaaa.org and www.isaaa.org/kc.

The book is divided into four parts comprising ten chapters. The first part describes the genetic diversity, biology, production and importance of brinjal as a vegetable crop, grown on about 550,000 ha in India, and the challenge posed in its production by the FSB, which has been responsible for 60–70% yield loss despite heavy application of chemical insecticides.

The second part deals with the application of biotechnology in crop improvement and provides an insight into genetic engineering, wherein the desired genes from unrelated organisms such as a bacterium like Bacillus thuringiensis can be isolated and introduced into a plant species to impart particular traits like insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, etc. It furnishes valuable global statistics on the status and performance of various genetically engineered/modified (GE/GM) crops. It also emphasizes that a 67-fold increase in the area of GM crops in about 12 years from 1.7 m ha in six countries in 1996, the first year, to 114.3 m ha in 23 countries in 2007 is unprecedented in the adoption of any new technology in agriculture.

The chapter also highlights that in India, Bt-cotton, the first and until now the only biotech crop commercialized, is a remarkable success with its area increasing from 50,000 ha in 2002, the first year, to 6.2 m ha in 2007 (a 124-fold increase in 6 years), providing safe and effective control of bollworms resulting in higher yields, reduced application of insecticides and greater profit to the farmers. It emphasizes the need to extend the GM/Bt technology to vegetable/food crops to derive such benefits. The third part describes the biology of FSB and its nature of damage, and explains the scientific procedures involved in developing Bt brinjal for its control. The larvae of FSB bore into tender shoots as well as fruits, retarding plant growth and damaging fruits up to 95%, causing great economic losses. Since the larvae lead a concealed life within the shoots or fruits, they normally escape insecticides. FSB-resistant Bt brinjal has been developed by Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (MAHYCO), using genetic engineering and transformation process similar to the one deployed in Bt cotton.

As in Bt cotton, Bt brinjal has been incorporated with the modified cry1Ac gene originally derived from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. The insecticidal protein produced by this gene is specific to lepidopteron insects like FSB and is environmental-friendly. When FSB larvae feed on any part of the Bt brinjal plant, they ingest the Bt protein which gets activated in the alkaline gut, binds to specific receptors in the gut wall leading to its breakdown, allowing the Bt spores to invade the insect’s body cavity, finally leading to its death within a few days. While MAHYCO has introduced the Bt gene into brinjal hybrids developed by it, the company has generously donated the same technology to the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore and to the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, to introduce the Bt gene into open-pollinated brinjal varieties.

Thus, the Bt technology will be available to farmers both in hybrids as well as varieties of brinjal. Other private and public institutions are also in the process of developing their own Bt brinjal technology. Thus, there is an encouraging private–public partnership. In the fourth and final chapter, the authors describe the prevailing multi-tier regulatory framework in India for approval of biotech products and give details of various biosafety studies that Bt brinjal has undergone from 2002 to date. These include toxicity and allergenicity evaluation as well as nutritional studies on rabbits, rats, carps, goats, broiler chickens and dairy cows which have confirmed that Bt brinjal is as safe as its non-Bt counterparts.

The safety of Bt brinjal was further validated by the results of studies on pollen flow, impact on soil microflora and microfauna, effect on non-target organisms, agronomy, invasiveness, Bt protein degradation and also the proactive methods recommended for insect resistance management. Field studies have indicated that Bt brinjal provides effective control of FSB, resulting in significant increase in the yield. It is estimated that it would deliver farmers a net economic benefit ranging from Rs 16,299 (US$ 330) to Rs 19,744 (US$ 397) per acre, with national benefits to India exceeding US$ 400 million per year. Furthermore, the significant decrease in insecticide usage will reduce its residues in brinjal fruits and the environment and also farmers’ exposure to insecticides. A list of vegetable improvement programmes and vegetable seed companies in India is also given.

Bt brinjal has completed all the biosafety studies prescribed by the Indian regulatory authorities and established its safety to humans, animals and the environment. On the approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Govt of India, it is now undergoing multilocation large-scale field trials and seed production – the final stage of regulatory approval – and is all set to be the second GM crop after Bt cotton, or the first vegetable GM crop, to be approved in India.

Those who doubt the safety and benefits of Bt brinjal should go through this book to seek scientific clarifications. The book is rich in technical content, with 28 tables and 23 figures, carries an informative foreword by Clive James and provides useful references to more than 120 publications. It is a one-stop shop on brinjal/Bt-brinjal for scientists and common readers alike. The authors need to be congratulated on their efforts in writing this useful and timely book.