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June 18, 2009


Scientists Say GMOs are Safe; Czech White Book; Dawn of a New Era; Cup Half Empty; Seeds of Discontent


* Scientists: GMOs are Safe
* White Book on Genetically Modified Crops
* First GM Trial in Belgium since 2002
* Biotech Crops in India: The Dawn of a New Era
* World Food Prize for Gebisa Ejeta
* Food, Agriculture, and National Security in a Globalized World
* The Cup Half Empty
* Seeds of Discontent
* Disclosing the Discovery of Gene Conferring Drought Tolerance in Corn Plants

Scientists: GMOs are Safe

- Martina Cermáková, Prague Post, June 17, 2009 http://www.praguepost.com

'New study advocates fewer restrictions for modified crops'

Researchers from the Czech Academy of Sciences have published their opinion on genetically modified crops in a 95-page "White Book" that has been hailed as the most comprehensive presentation of experimental work done on crops of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the country.

Spelling out the advantages of such crops, the June 10 study calls for a change in how the risks of produce cultivated in this manner are assessed on the EU level. The idea is to reduce politically motivated debate and to play up the role of scientific evidence in EU decision-making.

Though feedback hasn't trickled in yet, a faction of the scientific community quietly opposes the appeal. "This is promotion of GMOs," said Jaroslava Ovesná of the Crop Research Institute, who refused to undersign the book's content.

Though Ovesná deemed the published findings valuable and indisputable, she expressed serious reservations about an appeal to allow member states to sanction technologies not yet approved by the EU. "I won't encourage anyone to not keep to the legislation," she said.

As a key example of politically motivated policies not in line with current EU legislation, the authors cite the 2008 ban on genetically modified "Bt" corn in France and subsequently in Austria, Hungary and Greece. In all cases, the European Food Security Authority's GMO Panel concluded that information the countries provided in support of the ban did not "present any new scientific evidence."

Ovesná noted that political and economic forces are inherent to the EU's approval process of GMO requests but that the final vote is hardly ever unanimous.

After the European Food Security Authority assesses a request, it is passed to the European Commission, and that's where individual state differences come into play, she said.

During its 2008 EU presidency, France, with the support of nine member states, pushed for socioeconomic factors to be taken into account during the risk-assessment process of GMOs, which might push scientific evidence into the background and politicize the whole process even more, said Agriculture Ministry spokesman Petr Vorlícek.

Ovesná would like to see more flexibility and time-efficiency in the approval procedures, but she worries that no scientific findings will influence that.

Drawing from field studies of the Biology Center at the Academy of Sciences in ?eské Bud?jovice as well as the Crop Research Institute, the White Book's authors conclude: "GM crops are more profitable for farmers and more environmentally friendly than comparable technologies." "Two key advantages of GMOs include the reduced need for insecticides and tolerance of herbicides," said Lubos Babicka from the Czech University of Life Sciences.

Stepán Cizek, head of agricultural co-op ZD Moina, which has cultivated Bt corn since it became legal in 2005, echoes these findings. "[Bt corn] yields at least 20 percent more," he said of the co-op's 500 hectares of crops in Morina, south of Prague. "The corn is much healthier, not infested at all by the maize moth, and that's also why it vegetates for longer periods."

Magdalena Klimovicová of global movement Greenpeace said that such yields are inflated and instead sided with an April study, "Failure to Yield" by Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The report found that the yield advantage of Bt corn over typical conventional practices to be closer to 3 percent to 4 percent.

The Agriculture Ministry predicts a decrease of land used for GM-crop cultivation from 8,380 hectares in 2008 to 7,000 this year. Vorlícek said the decline owes to continuing problems with sales of Bt corn, as buyers prefer unmodified corn.

The ministry will leave Bt corn development in the hands of cultivators and consumers, Vorlícek said. In a country with the highest tolerance of GM products within the EU, the White Book's authors feel that consumers will play an important role in the shaping of future policies concerning GMOs.


White Book on Genetically Modified Crops

High production of the first-rate food depends largely on efficient cultivars that have traditionally been obtained by random mutations folowed by hybridization of selected plants. This approach builds on the limited endogenous genetic resources of each species. Modern science developed sofisticated genetic modifications (GM) by which the innate resources can be enriched by genes taken from other organisms. Transferred genes confer a new useful trait, for example resistance to insect pests.

As any other agricultural technology (soil tilling, herbicide application, biological control of insect pests, etc.), the production of GM crops is a human interference with nature and must be deployed with care. The risks and benefits of the GM crops must be compared with other techniques serving the same purpose, for example insecticide application in insect pest control. Scientific evidence as well as practical experience demonstrated that the GM crops commercialized so far bring considerable economic benefits to the farmers and are environment-friendly.

In spite of the favorable experience overseas, the deployment of GM crops in EU is a subject of disputes. The oponents argue that GM crops would endanger the environment, while the proponents caution that condemnation of a modern technology endangers EU competitiveness. EC is aware of the problem and requested EFSA to review current EU legislation on the GM crops. The Council of the Ministers of Environment that convened on December 4, 2008, invited Member States to ensure full participation of their competent scientific bodies in the consultation the EFSA will undertake during the revision process, by offering their contribution on the project within the required time frame.

Many European scientists are disturbed by the fact that political factors and ideology prevent unbiased assessment of the GM technology in some EU countries, with a negative effect on the whole Community. Being aware of the responsibility their country bears during the EU Presidency, Czech scientists working with GM crops prepared a White Book summarizing their experience and analyzing relevant EU legislation. The book has been prepared in frame of EU project called MOBITAG and published by the Biology Centre ASCR. It is available as a pdf file on http://www.bc.cas.cz/en/MOBITAG.html.

White Book is concluded with the following recommendations to the policy makers:
1 Decisions concerning genetic modifications should not contradict scientific evidence.
2 Breeding techniques, including GM, should primarily be evaluated in respect to the outcome rather than the process itself.
3 Precautionary principle should be replaced by serious and robust risk/benefit assessment applied to all innovations in agriculture.
4 Risk assessments should always include the benefits and comparison of parallel technologies with all their components (e.g. GM crop deployment, standard agriculture with pesticides, and organic farming with permitted plant protection measures).
4 Economic assessment should also be done by comparison with parallel technologies.
6 If Member states are allowed to ban technology permitted elsewhere in the EU, they should also be allowed to use a technology that has not yet been approved by the EU, provided that it does not impinge on the other Member states.


First GM Trial in Belgium since 2002

- René Custers, Nature Biotechnology 27, 506 (2009) (VIB, Ghent, Belgium)

A news article in your February issue1 reported that GM poplars developed by the group of Wout Boerjan at the Flanders Institute of Biotechnology (VIB) in Ghent were to move to the Netherlands to go on trial there. I am happy to report that VIB finally succeeded in getting an authorization for the trial in Belgium and does not have to move abroad.

The application in Belgium was first refused in May 2008, even though the Belgian Biosafety Advisory Council and the regional Flanders minister of the environment had both given their positive advice. VIB took legal action at the Council of State (the highest Belgian court) and made a few rounds of negotiations to overturn the negative decision and finally get the authorization in mid-February 2009.

The authorization is a landmark in the genetically modified organism field trial history in Belgium. It is the first field trial in Belgium since 2002. From 1987 to 2002 Belgium had a flourishing field trial culture reflecting the country's advanced research in plant biotech. In 1983, researchers in Ghent led by Marc Van Montagu and Jef Schell were the first to develop a genetically engineered plant. The trial in 1987 was one of the first in the world, but after 2002, the number of field trials dropped down to zero as the result of regulatory uncertainty surrounding the implementation of the 2001/18 EU directive on the deliberate release of gentically modified organisms. Laboratory research on plant biotech, however, has always kept up its pace.

Even though VIB has successfully pursued a field trial permit in The Netherlands as well, it will not start a trial there in the near future. It commenced planting of its trees last month on a field trial plot in Ghent. The plot is close to the research facilities and also close to the biofuels pilot plant, which is being set up in the port of Ghent. In trees themselves lignin biosynthesis is suppressed leading to trees with about 20% less liginin and 17% more cellulose per gram of wood. This makes them more suitable for bioethanol production. Wood from these trees grown in the greenhouse produces up to 50% more bioethanol than ordinary poplar trees. The field trial is the ultimate test to see whether wood produced under real-life conditions—seasons, stormy weather and a marginal soil—is also able to produce ethanol in a much more efficient way. VIB expects to have its first results from the trial in 2012.

Reference 1. Birch, H. Nat. Biotechnol. 27, 107 (2009).


Biotech Crops in India: The Dawn of a New Era

"Biotech Crops in India: The Dawn of a New Era" is the latest in a series of biotech documents produced by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) South Asia Office, New Delhi. This publication aims to provide a comprehensive and up-to-date status of the field trials and commercialization of biotech crops in India in 2008. It also includes the most authoritative coverage and statistics of Bt cotton, including hectarage of Bt cotton hybrids planted in India, numbers of farmers growing hybrids and approval of different events and hybrids in India from 2002 to 2008. This document summarizes the national and farm-level impact during the last seven years of commercialization of Bt cotton in India, taking into account seven independent studies conducted by public institutions. Experiences of many Bt cotton farmers from various cotton growing states have been illustrated in this publication as well.

‘The Dawn of a New Era' is the beginning of biotech-led transformation of agriculture in India. Improved seeds, being the carrier of both the state-of-the-art technology and superior genetics, is the most important input for growth in agriculture. This new era also offers tremendous investment opportunities for both public and private institutions as highlighted in the document. This publication draws substantially from the content of ISAAA Brief 39 Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2008, authored by Dr. Clive James.

For a hard copy of "Biotech Crops in India: The Dawn of a New Era" contact ISAAA South Asia office, New Delhi, India at b.choudhary@cgiar.org or knowledge.center@isaaa.org Download an e- copy at http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/downloads/The-Dawn-of-a-New-Era.pdf


World Food Prize for Gebisa Ejeta


Ethiopian scientist Gebisa Ejeta will be awarded the 2009 World Food Prize for his development of African sorghum hybrids with resistance to drought and the parasitic weed Striga. While working at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) Ejeta developed the drought resistant sorghum variety Hageen Dura-1, which was introduced in Sudan in 1983.

The press release says that by 1999, one million acres of Hageen Dura-1 had been harvested by hundreds of thousands of Sudanese farmers, and millions of Sudanese had been fed with grain produced by Hageen Dura-1. In 1992 at Purdue University in U.S., Ejeta and one of his graduate students developed another drought tolerant sorghum variety, tailored for conditions in Niger. The variety yields four to five times the national average, according to the press release.

Also at Purdue University in the 1990's, Ejeta helped develop Striga-resistant hybrids that yield as much as four times as much as local varieties. This research was funded through grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Rockefeller Foundation. The Striga resistant hybrid has been released in a number of African countries. In 2002-2003, Ejeta introduced an integrated Striga management (ISM) package, again through a pilot program funded by USAID, to deploy in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. This ISM package achieved further increased crop productivity through a synergistic combination of weed resistance in the host plant, soil-fertility enhancement, and water conservation.

Gebisa Ejeta will receive the $250,000 World Food Prize on October 15 at the Iowa State Capitol.


Food, Agriculture, and National Security in a Globalized World

October 14-16, 2009 – Des Moines, Iowa


Global leaders are increasingly viewing food and nutrition as critical factors underpinning national and international security in the face of economic, political, and environmental crises worldwide. The same challenges confront experts working in international agriculture and rural development, while food insecurity and malnutrition continue to rise around the world. These challenges and the reactions they have drawn from world leaders have led some to call into question the effectiveness of existing global institutions and systems in ensuring the availability of food on community and national levels.

In that context, the 2009 Borlaug Dialogue symposium will ask experts and decision-makers from around the world how their fields – in policy, industry, science and academia, and development – can ensure adequate access to food and nutrition for, and thus contribute to the security of, all people.

To address that question, several hundred participants representing more than 65 countries – including leading policymakers and diplomats, CEOs and senior private-sector executives, and experts from academia, research, and the development community – will engage in a range of conversations on compelling and critical topics including:

* Food and agriculture in the context of national and international security
* Poverty, hunger, and food security in global crisis areas
* Continuing to address gender in agricultural development
* Providing nutrition and enhancing health, especially among women and young children
* New and cutting-edge technological approaches to farming and food
* Harmonizing organic and sustainable agricultural practices with modern technology and genetics
* The future of agriculture in an urban, global world
* Preserving and renewing soil and water resources
* Prospects for trade in agriculture and food
* The institutions necessary for a food-secure world
* Assessing progress in global agriculture and identifying areas for needed investment

Bill Gates, former Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano, and the CEOs of DuPont, PepsiCo and ADM are among the confirmed speakers.


The Cup Half Empty

- Editorial, Nature Genetics, June 12, 2009

One-sixth of the world's population does not have enough food to sustain life, and the world's food supply needs to double by 2050 without increasing demand for water or fuel. Agricultural genetics is one of the easier parts of the solution.

Translation of genetics research is more straightforward in agriculture than in medicine and adequate nutrition has a much larger impact on global health outcomes than any medical intervention. Consequently, one of the most constructive sessions at this year's Milken Institute Global Conference drew attention to the causes of—and solutions to—world hunger.

Hunger is the top global issue that is not on the G8 or G20 agenda. US and EU farm subsidies—and decisions taken for reasons of investment hedging and protectionism—can all cause destabilizing distortions of food prices in local markets across the planet, most notably by multiplying food transport costs. Decreased commitment from Western countries to food aid and diversion of crops to biofuel initiatives are other recent causes of hunger. However, consequences of these decisions may not only work in one direction, as the world's food web is interconnected and decisions made by the West can lead to negative repercussions on its own food security.

A number of organizations make it their duty to keep world hunger fresh in the minds of decision makers. The International Food Policy Research Institute (http://www.ifpri.org/) highlights changes in their Global Hunger Index, which tracks self-sufficient nations and success stories such as Brazil's food safety net program that buffers the country against unexpected collapse of access to food. The IFPRI also records trouble spots of hunger due to conflict and climate change, bringing attention to protests and riots in dozens of countries in response to spiking food prices in 2008.

The United Nations World Food Program (http://www.wfp.org/) is in a good position to advise on what works and what does not in world agriculture, as it acts as a food bank of last resort, buying from farmers in developing nations, brokering solutions to logistic problems and distributing food aid to head off crisis. Organizations such as the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (http://www.aatf-africa.org/) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (http://www.cimmyt.org/) are developing and promoting well-tested, locally appropriate seed, such as water-efficient maize, helping to decrease the risk of growing more maize.

Where does genetics research fit in? It has sometimes been said that the continuation of the Green Revolution need not entail new knowledge since changes in climate and land use are occurring quickly, requiring rapid anticipation of future needs such as dealing with increasing incidence of drought and saline soils. Rational breeding schemes, shortcuts utilizing molecular markers, transgenic technology and recognition of the genetic resources of locally adapted heritage strains may all be used in the effort to put well-tested and robust crop lines in the hands of local growers. New discoveries from the crop Genome Revolution exert their own pressure by turning foodstuffs in danger of being taken for granted into treasure troves, thus guiding our common story of adaptive coevolution.

The big problems are economic, social and political. In particular, there is a growing awareness that US leadership in global agricultural research as it has been practiced by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and USAID needs to be renewed without the hobbles of counterproductive legislation that regards overseas farmers as competitors. Our relationships are more complex and fragile than that. Famine, crisis and disease can now spread globally with remarkable speed. Fortunately, information can too.


Seeds of Discontent

- Harry Eyres, Financial Times, June 13 2009
Full review at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/b3340af8-56de-11de-9a1c-00144feabdc0.html

Seeds are everywhere: one square metre of cultivated ground can contain tens of thousands. Yet these humble, apparently insignificant objects are among the most amazing pieces of organic matter on the planet. Many are delicious to eat; others provide us with oil, drugs and poisons. We all know that an acorn can grow into a mighty oak. We may be less familiar with the seeds of orchids, light as dust, that need to spend their first few years as parasites on fungi, or the largest seed in the world, the bomb-sized nut of the coco de mer coconut.

The history of seeds, seedlings and varieties of plants has been little told, considering both its captivating strangeness and its immense importance to the human race. What is especially fascinating and pertinent in this history is the intersection of biology, culture, politics, commerce and sheer amateurish improvisation. Each of these three books, by a biologist, a cultural historian, and a gardener, tells the story from different perspectives: biological, cultural, political and commercial. The overall narrative is one of increasing human control over nature, which at first led to a vision of unlimited variety in the late 19th century and then, a century on, to the more anxiety-inducing prospect of uncontrolled bioengineering in which the genetic manipulation of plants seems to lead inexorably to the genetic manipulation of humans.

First is the story of how seeds have evolved – over aeons of time, through natural selection, and without human intervention – to develop the varied properties that astonish us today. Then comes a pivotal moment in the 1870s: the remarkable career of the plant breeder Luther Burbank, who was the first to see how speeding up unnatural selection could drastically alter and improve the properties of plants. It was Burbank who, unwittingly, prepared the ground for such developments as transgenic technology, which dominate discussions of plant breeding today. The arrival of commercially driven breeding and planting has often resulted in higher yields and more reliable crops but has also led to the loss of many traditional varieties.

For the non-specialist reader the anecdotal evidence gathered here about the sheer weird wonder of seeds – their ability, say, to survive for thousands of years, or their sensitivity to colour changes – may be more winning than the more technical arguments about evolutionary strategy. One of the best properties of seeds, Silvertown reminds us, is that they can fly – helpful in terms of evolutionary strategy, no doubt, but also instructive in the evolution of human flight: the Wright Brothers’ pioneering aircraft, which took to the skies in 1903, was inspired by a seed, not a bird.

Unsurprisingly, Darwin looms large in the seed story. The great scientist’s 1869 study “The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication” inspired the most famous plant breeder in history, Luther Burbank, who became a national institution in the US on a par with his friends Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

Born in 1849, Burbank was a shy, dreamy young man working in a plough factory in Massachusetts when he came across Darwin’s book on animal and plant breeding a year or two after it was published. As he later said, the book “opened a new world to me. It told me that variations [in plants] seemed to be susceptible, through selection, of permanent fixture in the individual.” By selecting, grafting and hybridising, as cultural historian Jane Smith tells us in her excellent biography, The Garden of Invention, a clever plant breeder might not simply improve an existing stock but create new varieties, whose properties would persist through generations.

This had happened before but more by chance than design. Burbank was original in refining the methods beyond anything previously achieved. He described his work in surprisingly lyrical terms: “We have learnt that [plant species] are as plastic in our hands as clay in the hands of the potter or colour on the artist’s canvas and can readily be moulded into more beautiful forms than any painter or sculptor can ever hope to bring forth.”

Burbank’s first great success was with potato seeds. Growing Early Rose potatoes on his small farm, he noticed a seed ball dangling from one of the plants. He marked the plant, waited for the seed ball to ripen, then went back to collect it, only to discover the thing had dropped off. He spent three days searching for it – time not spent in vain. His experiments with the 23 seeds contained in the matured seed ball he eventually recovered and propagated were the foundation of his remarkable career. Just one of the seeds gave rise to the Russet Burbank potato, one of the most important commercial varieties in the world, used, for example, by McDonald’s. Now, in a development that Burbank would never have anticipated, the Russet Burbank has been genetically modified by agricultural company Monsanto to create the Bt “New Leaf” Russet Burbank.

The Russet Burbank may have made Luther Burbank’s name but, although he made a good living from selling to nurseries, it did not make his fortune – it would not be possible to patent plants until four years after Burbank’s death in 1926. Despite this, Burbank’s ability, or even genius, as a plant breeder was not in question, despite methods that defied system. Over his long career in Santa Rosa, California, where he lived for the last 50 years of his life, he bred and sold new varieties of plums, blackberries, quinces, cherries, strawberries, rhubarb, walnuts, daisies, lilies and sunflowers. Many of these varieties are still of commercial importance today.

Burbank’s advances in plant breeding won him heroic status as a benefactor of mankind, combined with a Tolstoyan aura as a humble gardener. It also made him the locus of competing interests, one of which was science. Burbank’s relationship with the fast-developing world of science was complex and ambiguous, and makes up the most thought-provoking episodes of Smith’s biography.

Science wanted to appropriate Burbank, or at least put his wonderful discoveries on a scientific, replicable, basis. But Burbank himself, though courting scientific respectability, was also ambivalent about it, for a variety of reasons. One was that his attitude to nature was not purely scientific but more profoundly derived from his study of the Transcendentalist philosophers and nature lovers Emerson and Thoreau. Asked to give a scientific paper, he shocked his audience by speaking in a proto-New Age language about “vibrating energies”. The second reason was more practical: there was an obvious clash between the scientific ideal of the free sharing of knowledge and the instincts of a commercial plant breeder.

Burbank felt he should have been able to benefit more from his discoveries and was a vociferous proponent of the extension of patent law to plants. But one wonders what the Emersonian gardener would have made of the brave new world of transgenic technology as practised by Monsanto and others, where the protection of patent has led to the possibility of monopolising entire food chains.

There seems to be something innocent about Burbank’s lifelong work of plant breeding, summed up by the chef and Slow Food guru Alice Waters: “There’s nothing wrong with improving plants. Luther Burbank-- did that. But he didn’t violate nature doing it.” To put it another way, it’s hard to imagine that Burbank would breed varieties designed to look good and last for ever but that taste of practically nothing, like those that fill so many supermarket shelves. Forgotten Fruits, by Christopher Stocks, a former gardening writer at the Independent on Sunday, is a portrait of the varieties we have lost, or are in danger of losing, as a result of plant-breeding, which has prioritised convenience over individuality. It is also designed as an inspiration and spur to contemporary horticulturalists to go out and plant them.


Monsanto, BASF Scientists Disclose Discovery of Gene Conferring Drought Tolerance in Corn Plants

Gene Provides Yield Stability During Periods of Inadequate Water Supply

Monsanto Company and BASF scientists unveiled the discovery that a naturally-occurring gene can help corn plants combat drought conditions and confer yield stability during periods of inadequate water supplies.

The companies stated that they will use the gene in their first-generation drought-tolerant corn product which is designed to provide yield stability to their farmer customers. This product will be the first biotechnology-derived drought-tolerant crop in the world.

The announcement comes at a time when recent studies, including one by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, are warning of declining crop yields and global food shortages as a result of climate change. According to a United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization report prepared for ministers of the G-8, the number and duration of dry spells, especially in already drought-prone areas, is expected to increase.

The companies said that the drought-tolerant corn contains the cspB gene, from Bacillus subtilis. CspB codes for an RNA chaperone, which are commonly occurring protein molecules that bind to RNAs and facilitate their function. The gene was first identified in bacteria subjected to cold stress conditions and further research has demonstrated that cspB helps plants cope with drought stress. Monsanto scientists have published those findings in a peer-reviewed paper in the journal, Plant Physiology.

In corn, cspB works by helping the plant maintain growth and development during times of inadequate water supply. A corn plant is particularly vulnerable to drought during reproductive growth stages. By mitigating the impact of drought on the plant, cspB helps provide yield stability. Improved yield stability is of significant value to farmers faced with unpredictable rainfall.

"The development of this trait demonstrates the strength of our robust discovery engine which is fueled by our ongoing investment in R&D," said Robert Fraley, Chief Technology Officer for Monsanto. "It also reflects our commitment to our farmer customers and a recognition of the investment they make in our products. Drought-tolerant corn will be another tool with which we can help them meet the challenges facing agriculture today."