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May 20, 2009


No Banning Please; Where Will the Food Come From?; Seeds of Hope for Africa; Vatican Studies GM Crops; Bt Cotton Is Not In Trouble In India, It's In Demand


* Nobel Laureate Nüsslein-Volhard: Bt Maize Ban Sends an Alarming Signal
* Where Will the Food Come From?
* Biotech Holds Seeds of Hope for Africa
* Vatican Studies Genetically Modified Crops
* Golden Rice An Effective Source of Vitamin A
* Bt Cotton Is Not In Trouble In India, It's In Demand
* Taking Genetic Engineering from Labs to African Farms as Millions Starve
* Norm Ellstrand Receives Highest Honor from Botanical Society of America
* Diversity Important in Scientific Research
* Food, Famine, and Future Technologies: Ethical Dilemmas in a Hungry World (Meeting at UN)
* How to Strengthen the Voice of Biosafety Research in the Public Debate on GM Plants


Nobel Laureate Nüsslein-Volhard: The Ban on Cultivating Bt Maize Sends an Alarming Signal

- May 13,2009, GMO Safety http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/news/688.docu.html

In a joint memorandum, the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) and German Agricultural Society (Deutsche Landwirtschafts-Gesellschaft, DLG) are demanding reliable conditions for research and development in the area of genetically modified plants. At a press conference in Berlin the presidents of the two organisations complained of a hostile climate to plant biotechnology and argued emphatically in favour of freedom of research and field trials.

The ban on cultivating MON810 and the restrictions on field trials sent "a really alarming and hostile signal," according to Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, a biotechnologist and developmental biologist based in Tübingen, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1995.

The scientist criticised the bans issued by politicians, saying that they were based on unrealistic tests. In contrast, there were numerous studies that had received funding from the EU, the DFG and Germany’s Ministry of Research (BMBF) that had not found any risk to humans or nature from genetically modified Bt maize. If such politically motivated obstructions continued, she feared that many innovative researchers would turn their backs on Germany.

In Nüsslein-Volhard’s view, the current situation with crop biotechnology is reminiscent of that of medical biotechnology 25 years ago. Many researchers left Germany and pharmaceutical companies moved jobs abroad in the early phase of medical (’red’) biotechnology following political decisions. "People have now seen sense when it comes to the application of biotechnology in medicine. But instead of learning from past mistakes, they are repeating them."

Nüsslein-Volhard and the other participants at the press conference cited the global challenges facing agriculture and plant breeding worldwide. The world population is still growing. So it is vital, according to DLG President Carl-Albrecht Bartmer, to "increase productivity in crop farming, since the area of fertile farmland available worldwide can be increased only slightly". In addition, biomass consumption as a source of environmentally friendly energy and industry’s increasing demand for new renewable materials were likely to lead to a shortage of agricultural produce on international markets.

One way of achieving a sustainable increase in crop productivity, according to the memorandum, is "plant-breeding advances in agricultural crops. Alongside classic plant-breeding methods, modern plant biotechnology instruments offer great potential for a sustainable productivity increase. So we cannot afford to abandon research in the area of crop biotechnology."

"In order to exploit the genetic potential of our crops further," expanded DFG President Matthias Kleinert, "what we need above all is fundamental research that is allowed to make use of the whole repertoire of modern breeding methods – not only in the lab, but also in the field. Field experiments are vital for seeing how plants behave under realistic conditions."

The memorandum lists three key requirements for ensuring that crop biotechnology research continues to be possible in Germany:

* "Research needs a dependable legal and social framework. Political decisions and legal principles should be based on scientific benefit/risk assessments.
* All research needs an open, supportive yet constructively critical social climate to promote inventiveness and to be able to face future challenges. This should apply to crop biotechnology research as well.
* Plant research cannot be restricted to laboratories and greenhouses. This applies both to fundamental research and to applied research. It is only under natural conditions in the field that one can assess whether new products are safe and competitive. Even very basic plant processes can be understood only if laboratory and greenhouse results are tested for relevance in the natural environment."

Prof. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard: Nobel Laureate and Director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen. "Research is international. Restrictions here in Germany do not prevent worldwide progress; they just shut German researchers and plant breeders out of the international competition."

Prof. Mathias Kleiner, President of the DFG (German Research Foundation): "It is paradoxical that field trials connected with biosafety research, of all things, are being destroyed and the scientists responsible are being publicly vilified."

Carl-Albrecht Bartmer, President of the DLG (German Agricultural Society): "Shortages on the global markets are foreseeable, so we have a clear responsibility to use progress and innovation, and to promote research. Plant breeders rely on the whole range of tools, from classic breeding to crop biotechnology."

Dr Arend Oetker, President of Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, Germany’s science innovation agency: "Crop biotechnology is a complex science and the background cannot easily be explained to a broad public. In the public debate, objective, rational arguments are frequently countered with statements that are charged with emotions and designed to fuel fears."


Where Will the Food Come From?

- Nina Fedoroff, http://agbiotechblog.com

Over the past year, the world has experienced a succession of shocks: a global food crisis, spiraling energy costs, accelerating climate change and most recently, a financial meltdown. But even as each crisis sweeps the previous one out of awareness, it is important to recognize that the food crisis is neither sudden nor quickly fixed. It has developed gradually as a result of relentless increases in demand in the context of a finite natural resource base and decreasing global investment in agricultural research and development.

At the present rate of growth in population and affluence, we will need to double the food supply by mid-century. Yet the amount of land farmed hasn't changed appreciably in more than half century, nor is it likely to change substantially over the next half century. And climate change is expected to decrease yields, even on today's most productive farm land. Where will the food come from?

Contemporary genetic modification of crop plants is embedded in a history of plant domestication that transformed plants profoundly from their wild origins. No crop better illustrates both the genetic plasticity of plants and the inventiveness of humans better than the maize (corn) plant. Thousands of years before science formally entered agriculture in the late 18th century, early peoples had transformed the hard-seeded teosinte rachis into the soft-kernelled early maize ear through the accumulation of a handful of genetic changes that completely altered the architecture of the plant.

Scientific advances in the understanding of plants' chemical requirements throughout the 19th century culminated in the invention of the Haber-Bosch process for synthesis of fertilizer from atmospheric nitrogen in the early 20th century, removing a major limitation on the productivity of agriculture. The rediscovery of Mendel's genetic experiments in the early 20th century led serendipitously to the development of today's highly productive maize hybrids, one of humanity's handful of major cereal grains. The identification of mutant dwarf varieties of wheat and rice that are highly responsive to fertilization belied renewed Malthusian predictions at mid-20th century, giving rise to the Green Revolution. 

The late 20th century witnessed a second genetic revolution with the invention of recombinant DNA technology, the explosion of genome sequencing, and the development of techniques for the introduction of individual genes into microorganisms, plants, and animals. Today, it is possible to modify organisms, including crop plants, in extremely precise ways, adding just one or a few genes at a time. Curiously, these latest genetic modifications, much less profound than those that gave us our crops to begin with, have come to be viewed as unprecedented and possibly even dangerous by a largely urban public unfamiliar with farms and farming, plants and plant breeding.

While contemporary genetic modification (only this kind is called GM) was readily accepted both in medicine and in the food and beverage industry, GM crop plants have remained controversial for more than 25 years. Nonetheless, despite the controversies, several important crop plants modified to resist insects and tolerate herbicides have steadily gained acceptance throughout the world. Today, genetically modified cotton, corn, soybeans and canola are grown in 25 countries by more than 13 million farmers, 90% of whom are resource-poor farmers with small holdings.

To date, there is no evidence of adverse effects on either human or animal health, while substantial environmental benefits have been realized, including decreased use of pesticides and increased adoption of no-till farming. Although some countries remain adamantly opposed to the use of contemporary genetic modification, there is increasing awareness that these are important tools in the success of global efforts to lift the last billion out of hunger and poverty through agricultural intensification and decreased crop loss. Moreover, molecular modification will be an indispensable tool in the adaptation of crop plants to changing climatic conditions. Let's get on with it!

Special CBI guest blogger, Dr. Nina Fedoroff - Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State and to the Administrator of the US Agency for International Development


Biotech Holds Seeds of Hope for Africa

- Robb Fraley, Atlanta Journal Constitution, May 19, 2009

“The destiny of world civilization depends upon providing a decent standard of living for all mankind.”
-- Norman Borlaug, Nobel laureate and father of the green revolution

Borlaug’s words remind the 20,000 people in biotechnology visiting Atlanta this week of the progress made and work remaining. Africa is an example, and I would argue, agriculture is at the intersection of both the progress and the long path forward.

Take the work to control the spread of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Years of research has yielded powerful drugs effective in suspending the progress of AIDS in patients after infection. Work is also being done to develop novel, preventative drugs to stop new infections. Today, more women are newly infected with HIV than men in rural Africa.

What some may not know is the majority of newly infected women are farmers. In fact, some estimates show that of the 50-plus percent of those working in agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 80 percent are women.In areas of the world that rely on human labor to farm the land, sickness leaves fields untended and ultimately places less food on the table as a result.

Introduce a natural disaster, like drought, and the spiral downward for the farmer and her family accelerates. Improving agriculture productivity in Africa is complex and there is no single solution. But, as with health care, there are new technologies on the horizon that can help farmers lessen the impact of drought.

Through biotechnology, researchers at Monsanto are developing a drought-tolerant corn to reduce lost yields caused by drought. More than five years of research trials across the United States tell us corn plants with this technology yield between 6 to 10 percent more grain in the face of limited water, effectively sipping water rather than gulping it.

The technology has been submitted for regulatory review in the United States and we expect it to be a valuable tool in the Western corn belt in a few years.But as with the latest medications, it is inconceivable that African farmers should have to wait longer for the technology.

As a result, last year Monsanto partnered with foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates, Howard Buffett, and the African Agricultural Technology, as well as with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, to license our drought technology — royalty free — to develop Water Efficient Maize for Africa.nThe WEMA project is one piece of a larger commitment to sustainability in agriculture.

Monsanto has pledged to double crop yields in corn, soybean and cotton by 2030 in the United States, and do so using roughly a third fewer inputs like nitrogen and water, per unit produced. The vision is lofty, but one I feel is not only possible but essential for the success of developing nations and the developed world.

As local experts forecast the number of people living in Atlanta to continue to swell, trends show the world’s population increasing from more than 6 billion today to 9.3 billion by 2050; roughly the population of three Chinas.

You don’t have to spend much time on a crowded freeway in Buckhead or Beijing to understand how increased population drives demand for everything, from transportation to food. In fact, experts believe the world will need to produce as much food in the next four decades as has been produced in all of human history.

The challenge is daunting. Yet, biotechnology — and specifically agricultural biotechnology — has never had a better opportunity to help address some of the most pressing needs facing our world.

As with many large and complex issues the answers sometimes start small, like a powerful technology contained in a tiny seed.

Robb Fraley is chief technology officer for the Monsanto Company.


Vatican Studies Genetically Modified Crops

- John L Allen Jr, National Catholic Reporter, May. 18, 2009 http://ncronline.org/news/ecology/vatican-studies-genetically-modified-crops

'Vatican science academy pushes GMOs as safe way of feeding the hungry'

Sandwiched amid Pope Benedict XVI's trip to the Middle East and President Barack Obama's commencement address at Notre Dame, a behind-closed-doors "study week" in Rome sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Sciences on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, has so far flown largely below radar.

Yet the May 15-19 event could help drive the Vatican toward a pro-GMO stance, disappointing some social justice activists, as well as a cross-section of Catholic bishops and theologians, who see genetically altered crops as risks to the environment and human health as well as a boondoggle for giant agribusiness corporations.

To date, the Vatican has not taken an official position on GMOs. In recent years, both pro- and anti-GMO forces have clamored for Vatican support, on the theory that a statement could be crucial in framing moral debate.

The "study week" is unlikely to produce immediate conclusions, and the Academy for Sciences is essentially a think tank that does not issue authoritative church teaching. Nonetheless, the thrust of the event seems to mobilize support for GMOs as a safe way of combating poverty, feeding the hungry, and protecting the environment.

The driving force behind the study week is Ingo Potrykus, a German-born scientist credited with being the inventor of "golden rice," a genetically modified rice plant which produces high levels of a precursor to vitamin A. Proponents claim that "golden rice" could save up to a million lives a year, mostly in the developing world, from illnesses due to vitamin A deficiency, but others charge its benefits have been over-sold. Potrykus is a Catholic and a member of the Academy of Sciences.

The formal title of the study week is "Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development," which is taking place at the headquarters of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences in the Vatican's Casina Pio IV.

Well before the event even began, it stirred contrasting reactions. "Spinwatch," an independent body in the United Kingdom that monitors the role of public relations, has described the study week as a "total farce," charging that the speakers are "all GMO supporters, with many well known for their extreme pro-GMO views or having vested interests in GMO adoption." A May 13 release from the group asserts that several speakers have financial ties to Monsanto, an American agricultural company that is the world's largest producer of genetically engineered seed.

In an April 19 issue of the Irish Catholic, environmental writer Fr. Sean McDonagh, a Columban missionary, charged that the Academy of Sciences event is "silent" about the role that "massive profits" for biotech companies play in influencing pro-GMO arguments. McDonagh told NCR he's planning to hold a small demonstration in Rome on Monday to provide an alternative point of view.

Potrykus wrote a letter to the editor of the Irish Catholic insisting that "it should be obvious that this study week is truly in the interest of the poor." Piero Morandi, an Italian scientist and another study week participant, wrote that anti-GMO regulation "is excessive, very costly, not science-based and therefore not only useless, but damaging the interests of people, especially the poorest."

In one sign of concern about the appearance of corporate influence, sources told NCR that plans for the study week originally called for a couple of Monsanto employees to discuss public/private partnerships in the delivery of GMO technology. Roughly a month ago, however, the Monsanto officials were quietly advised not to attend.

Though the sessions are not open to the public, preparatory materials for the conference, including abstracts of presentations published on the Web site of the Academy for Sciences, offer a flavor of the discussions.

An introduction refers to GMOs as "life-sustaining and lifesaving technologies," and asserts that "no substantiated environmental or health risks have been noted." It charges that "extreme precautionary regulation," especially in Europe, has limited the spread of GMOs, thereby restricting "the huge potential of plant biotechnology to produce more, and more nutritive, food for the poor."

The introduction says the study week is "not a standard science meeting," but rather has the goal of developing "strategies to inform the media, the public, the regulatory authorities and governments that it is unjustified, even immoral, to continue with current attitudes and processes."

Judging from the abstracts, virtually all of the official speakers at the conference share that view. Andrew Apel, who edits a biotech news outlet called "GMObelus," charged that opposition to GMOs comes from "an international "protest industry which serves its own interests, and the interests of its funders." Henry Miller, of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, wrote that failure to adopt wider use of GMOs is the result of a "public policy miasma," and amounts to "one of the great societal tragedies of the past quarter century."

Baron Marc Van Montagu, president of the European Federation of Biotechnology, said that "refusing GM technology will hold back efforts to alleviate poverty and hunger, to save biodiversity and protect the environment." Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley College charged that the anti-GMO movement is an "imperialism of rich tastes imposed on the poor."

Though his name does not appear on the published program, Swiss Cardinal Georges Cottier, former theologian of the papal household under Pope John Paul II, has also addressed the study week.

While conference materials frequently refer to anti-GMO sentiments among politicians, NGOs, and the media, they do not directly avert to one other source: Catholic leaders, including several bishops' conferences in the developing world.

In February 2003, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines asked then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to postpone use of a genetically modified corn, citing possible health risks. In 2002, the Catholic Bishops of South Africa declared, "It is morally irresponsible to produce and market genetically modified food."

In 2003, 14 Brazilian bishops put out a "declaration on transgenic crops," in which they condemned the cultivation and consumption of GMOs. The bishops cited three risks: 1) health consequences, including increased allergies, resistance to antibiotics, and an increase in toxic substances; 2) environmental consequences, including erosion of bio-diversity; and 3) damage to the sovereignty of Brazil, "as a result of the loss of control of seeds and living things through patents that become the exclusive property of multinational groups interested only in commercial ends."

While few of these voices are on the program, organizers did invite Bishop George Nkuo of Cameroon after a working paper for this fall's Synod of Bishops for Africa contained critical language about GMOs. The document warns that a pro-GMO push "runs the risk of ruining small landholders, abolishing traditional methods of seeding, and making farmers dependent on the production companies."

The Academy of Sciences has long been favorably inclined to GMOs. In 2004, it released a study document praising the role that GMOs could play in combating world hunger.

How far the study week may go in resolving the broader Catholic debate, however, remains to be seen. A May 1 editorial in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said that for now GMOs remain "an open question."

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@ncronline.org


Golden Rice An Effective Source of Vitamin A


HOUSTON – (May 13, 2009) – The beta-carotene in so-called "Golden Rice" converts to vitamin A in humans, according to researchers at Baylor College of Medicine (www.bcm.edu) and Tufts University in an article that appears in the current issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Golden Rice was developed in the early 1990s with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation with the goal of creating rice that had beta-carotene -- a vitamin A precursor – in the rice grain. In its current form, Golden Rice contains 35 micrograms of beta-carotene per gram.

"We found that four units of beta-carotene from Golden Rice convert to one unit of vitamin A in humans," said Dr. Michael Grusak (http://www.bcm.edu/cnrc/faculty/?PMID=9536), associate professor of pediatrics at the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center (http://www.bcm.edu/cnrc/?PMID=0) at BCM and Texas Children's Hospital.

They determined this by feeding five healthy adults a specific amount of specially-labeled Golden Rice and measured the amount of retinol, a form of vitamin A, in the blood. Vitamin A deficiency is prevalent in many parts of the world where poorer community members rely on rice as their major food source. People who lack adequate amounts of this vitamin can have vision problems or even blindness as a result.

"By incorporating vitamin A into the major crop that is consumed, we would be able to make it accessible to the majority of people in the area," said Grusak. Additional research is necessary before Golden Rice is made commercially available. The next steps of the research include incorporating this technology into the rice grains found in various regions and continuing testing the conversion rates in humans.

Others who participated in this study include Guangwen Tang, Jian Qin, Gregory G. Dolnikowski and Robert M Russell, all of the Jean Mayer US Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

The study can be found at http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/rapidpdf/ajcn.2008.27119v1.


Bt Cotton Is Not In Trouble In India, It's In Demand

- Elton Robinson, Southeast Farm Press, May 18, 2009

Genetic engineering is a tough cover for even a well-worn agricultural journalist like me. But for a non-agricultural journalist to spend just four days researching the impact of GE seeds on cotton farmer suicides in India is a bit of a stretch.

It’s like me being qualified to safely land a Boeing 747 after reading “The Life and Times of Orville and Wilbur Wright.”

In some ways, writing and flying a plane are similar — keep it level and balanced and watch for blowing wind. If you encounter a problem you can’t solve, quickly find somebody smart who can help, or you might need to bail out.

You should also be mindful of the details. The lack thereof is why a journalist for Mail Online couldn’t quite get his foot on the rudder of a story he wrote last year, after four days of research.

The reporter describes in explicit detail the deathly convulsions of an Indian cotton farmer who swallowed insecticide after the failure of his cotton crop. He then comes to the conclusion that the farmer’s crop and others around the country failed due to Bt cotton.

He based his conclusions on several fallacies, which a fact-checking wingman might have picked up.He said that thousands of Indian farmers have taken their own lives “as a result of the ruthless drive to use India as a testing ground for genetically modified crops.”

While the farmer suicides in India are a sad comment on Indian society, it’s even sadder to use their deaths to mislead the general public about genetic engineering. An alarming number of farmers in India do take their lives, but according to a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute, there has not been a resurgence in farmer suicides since the introduction of Bt cotton. According to the IFPRI study, farmers committing suicide in India has a lot to do with a lending system in India that is nothing short of predatory.

The reporter wrote that the GE seeds “require double the amount of water. With rains failing for the past two years, many GE crops have simply withered and died, leaving farmers with crippling debts and no means of paying them off.”

I honestly have no idea how he determined that Bt cotton needs twice the water of non-Bt cotton. But I imagine that even a 10-year-old farm boy knows that it takes water to grow a crop — any crop. To blame a failure of a crop on seed genetics in the midst of a two-year drought is like blaming the crash of a plane that runs out of fuel on its wing design.

He then writes, “When crops failed in the past, farmers could still save seeds and replant them the following year. But with GE seeds they cannot do this. That’s because GE seeds contain so-called terminator technology, meaning that they have been genetically modified so the resulting crops do not produce viable seeds of their own.”

That would be an interesting factor to consider — if it were true. Actually, the holders of the patent for the terminator gene never introduced it to the field. The real reason Indian farmers don’t replant their cotton seed is because they plant hybrids. Replanting isn’t an option with hybrids. Indian farmers know that much.

While I’ve never been to India, I’ve seen enough studies and legitimate articles to know that Bt cotton is responsible for an incredible resurgence in India’s cotton production. Bt cotton is not in big trouble there, it’s in big demand.


Taking Genetic Engineering from Labs to African Farms as Millions Starve

- Ronald Ssekandi Xinhua, May 20, 2009

ENTEBBE, Uganda, -- Researchers, policy makers and heads of farmer associations on Tuesday started a three-day meeting here aimed at examining the potential benefits of producing Genetically Modified (GM) crops to boost food production in hunger stricken Africa.

While in this meeting emphasis is being put on use of GM technology to boost production, another international meeting opened in the capital Kampala, 40km north of Entebbe, calling for organic farming in order to take advantage of the lucrative market in Europe.

These two meetings regenerate debate on genetic engineering and its impacts on Africa. Experts at the Entebbe meeting said that Africa needs to adopt biotechnology in order to feed its starving population in view of stagnating agricultural productivity, harsh effects of climate change and a growing population.

Millions of smallholder farmers on the continent can no longer grow enough food to sustain their families, communities or their countries. This has led to recurrent food crises on the continent as millions face hunger, starvation and death. The malnutrition levels have continued to go up.

For instance in Uganda, malnutrition is widespread with more than 36 percent of children under three years and 10 percent of mothers suffering from chronic under-nutrition, according to ministry of health figures. Early this year, over 10 million Kenyans faced starvation mainly due to underproduction by smallholder farmers, harsh effects of climate change and disruption of the main planting season following last year's post-election crisis

The situation in these two East African countries is the same or even worse in other African countries, especially those that have or are facing armed conflicts. This appalling food situation has led to scientists to introduce GM technology as one of the means to boost food production on the continent.

Bright Rwamirama, Uganda's minister of state for agriculture, said while in the past it was necessary to open up large expanses of land to increase production, it is now impossible because of the rapid population growth, pests, diseases and unpredictable climate. "It is important to note that land is not expanding and we need to involve science to produce efficiently for our people's food security and to increase their incomes," he told the over 200 participants from Africa and other parts of the world meeting here. "We need to put in place varieties that are resistant to diseases, drought and also give higher yields to address the challenges of poverty in our communities," he added.

African governments have been moving cautiously on whether to adopt genetic engineering and if so, how to do it, either using its scientists or those in developed countries. The continent now faces a daunting task of feeding millions of people who are starving. Some countries like South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso have started commercial use of GMs while others like Uganda are carrying out field trials and some like Zambia have vehemently refused to embrace biotechnology.

Anti-GM lobbyists and advocates of organic agriculture continue to raise concern over the impact of biotechnology on people's health, the environment and its implications on food security.Moses Kiggundu, the chief executive officer of the National Organic Agricultural Movement of Uganda says that while organic agriculture is friendly with some biotechnology applications like tissue culture and grafting, it is not agreeable with genetic engineering. "Transferring animal genes to crop or vice versa is not acceptable in organic agriculture. Once that transgenic transfer is made, it is permanent. If the results are negative, you will have to leave with them," he said at the meeting in Kampala.

Rwamirama said Uganda will take a two-pronged approach, organic agriculture to take advantage of the lucrative European markets and GM crops to boost food production. According to Daniel Otunge of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) based in Kenya, the fear of the unknown is the major cause of debate. He advises African governments not to just dismiss genetic engineering but engage their scientists to research on GM technology and give advice based on scientific research and not on opinions.

Charles Mugoya, the Regional Coordinator East and Central Africa Biotech and Biosafety Program says that GM seeds go through a rigorous testing system before they are rolled out to the market. "Scientists mean well, along the way they want to ensure production as well as safety," he said.

Margaret Karembu, director of ISAAA said that the debate should not be whether to adopt biotechnology, but how to adopt it. She said African countries need to discuss issues of biosafety and intellectual property rights, which are the main points of contention.

"Managing the opportunities and risks posed by GM crops, including trade related challenges, requires countries to have a well-functioning, efficient, and responsible biosafety system," she said. She urged countries to emulate Kenya, Mali and Togo which have enacted national biosafety legislation. The participants will share experiences on the potential benefits and challenges of producing GM crops in Africa.


UC Riverside Geneticist Receives Highest Honor from Botanical Society of America

'Norman Ellstrand, expert on plant gene flow, recognized for his outstanding contributions to botanical science'


RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics in UC Riverside's Department of Botany and Plant Sciences, has been elected as one of this year's four Botanical Society of America (BSA) Merit Award recipients.

Ellstrand joined the UCR faculty in 1979 following a year's postdoctoral stint at Duke University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in 1978. His varied awards range from a Fulbright Fellowship to Sweden in 1993 to being named a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2000.

Ellstrand studies plant population genetics and is one of the country's foremost experts on plant gene flow, the movement of genes from one organism to another. His research has involved the study of the possibility of escape of genes from genetically engineered crops into their wild relatives as well as the potential consequences of that escape.

His work has shown that crops can mate with their wild relatives at rates and distances much higher than previously supposed. He also has shown that the hybrids are often more fit than suspected, suggesting that once transgenes occur in hybrids they will spread readily. Ellstrand has warned that if transgenes confer an advantage to a weed, such as herbicide resistance, that weed will become more difficult to control.

His recent research has come to focus on the evolution of invasiveness in plants. He was among the first to suggest that invasive species could evolve from relatively innocuous progenitors.

Ellstrand is the author of more than 100 peer-reviewed research papers. He is author also of the book Dangerous Liaisons? When Cultivated Plants Mate with Their Wild Relatives (John Hopkins University Press, 2003) and is scientific advisor to the movie "Basmati Blues."


Diversity Important in Scientific Research

- C.S. Prakash, Montgomery Advertiser, May 14, 2009 http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

On Monday, I will be participating in a day-long summit on diversity in biotechnology: "Fulfilling the Promise: Diversity in Biotechnology." This session, on the opening day of the 2009 BIO International Convention in Atlanta will spotlight the range of ways that diversity is critical to the biotech industry.

While much of the discussion will focus on health and medical issues, I want to highlight the importance of diversity in the scientific workplace.

My area of research, molecular plant genetics, is made richer by the diversity of professionals with whom I can collaborate, partner and learn. The benefits of our work -- food crops grown in environmentally sustainable ways -- will touch the lives of people around the world, so it makes sense that we draw from a diverse team to pursue this work.

As a professor, each year I work with upper class and graduate students who have decided to focus their studies on agriculture and biotechnology, but I also teach undergraduate students, many of them new to the world of plant biotechnology.

I always look forward to this class because I am challenged by the ideas, thoughts and opinions of those new to my chosen field. I also enjoy introducing the world of plant biotechnology to these students and helping them understand the connection between what they learn in class and one way to meet the growing needs of a growing global population.

One of the greatest challenges the global community faces is how to best use limited agricultural resources to feed a population that is growing in sheer numbers and also in their need for nutrition. Biotechnology can provide the answer.

Increasing food production, for example, or enhancing the nutritional value of food crops can increase food security and make malnutrition a thing of the past.

In too many parts of the developing world -- and even here at home -- people don't understand how agricultural biotechnology can help address problems of hunger, malnutrition and sustainability. Whether the genetic alteration is done haphazardly by selective breeding or in a more systematic way by directly altering the genome, increasing the useable food content of an organism requires some form of genetic engineering. This may mean producing crops more resistant to weeds, pests and diseases.

Many important improvements have been achieved by ordinary breeding, but it is too slow a process, particularly given the rate at which demand for food is likely to increase

One way to combat this understanding gap is for those of us in the field to help enhance awareness of the benefits of agricultural biotechnology wherever that gap exists. Our job is made easier when our field is represented by a diverse group of professionals who reflect the world we help to feed.

Increasingly, that means people of color and people from a variety of communities and cultures. Through diversity, biotechnology taps the best minds the world has to offer and helps us better share the benefits of our work -- the fruits of our labor, if you will -- with the world.

C.S. Prakash is a professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University.


Food, Famine, and Future Technologies: Ethical Dilemmas in a Hungry World

- May 22-23, 2009, United Nations Plaza, New York


The Appignani Bioethics Center in collaboration with the University of Montreal, Canada is organizing this conference under the auspices of the United Nations Headquarters in NYC. The conference provides an international forum for the exchange of ideas, experiences and views regarding the priority needs and possible strategic means of enhancing the capacities of developing countries and countries with transitional economies to assess risk and monitor genetic modified organisms (GMOs). The conference will identify and suggest a number of concrete steps to alleviate world hunger.

Taking a broad and cross-disciplinary approach to addressing ethical dilemmas raised by genomic applications in agriculture, conference topics include agri-genomic innovations and their impact on society as a whole; environmental, economic, ethical, and social issues within agri-genomics.


How to Strengthen the Voice of Biosafety Research in the Public Debate on GM Plants

- June 29, 2009, Berlin Germany http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/news/438.docu.html

A main goal of BIOSAFENET, an EU-funded network of European scientists, is robust public information on the biosafety research conducted on genetically modified (GM) plants. In the long-standing debate on the safety of transgenic crops, such research and its comprehensive, enlightening results often have been relegated to a subordinate role or ignored altogether.

However, a scientific basis is needed for the socio-political decision-making frames and the responsible and sustainable application of such technology in agriculture and the food industry. BIOSAFENET and other European initiatives contribute to the bundling of biosafety knowledge. The BIOSAFENET project was conceived as an important tool for objective policy consultation and as a comprehensive source of biosafety information for a broad section of the public.

At the conference, BIOSAFENET will present its achievements in strengthening a wide network of European biosafety researchers and in the promotion of dialogue among researchers, as well as between scientists and the public. Two further initiatives, the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI) and the International Society for Biosafety Research, will also present their activities.

The conference concludes with a podium discussion of the topic, "What does the public need for opinion making? Available information sources on biosafety results". The attending European biosafety initiatives seek dialogue with stakeholders and journalists about their information needs and about more direct pathways towards closer exchange of information and opinions between science and the public. Central attention should be focused towards the appropriate format and content of information offers.