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August 20, 2009


High-iron Rice Developed; Future of Wheat; Fragrant GM maize; Just a superstition, not religion


* Swiss researchers Increase the iron content of rice by six-fold
* The Future of Wheat
* Agricultural research key to food security
* Research: ‘Fragrant’ GM maize against pests
* Enhancement of Vitamin B6 Levels in Seeds through Metabolic Engineering
* Impacts of Bt crops on non-target invertebrates and insecticide use patterns
* Organic food: Just a superstition, not religion
* Living Longer in America

ETH researchers develop rice with increased (six-fold!) iron content

'Glimmer of hope in fight against iron deficiency'


Scientists at ETH Zurich have developed rice plants that contain six times more iron in polished rice kernels. To accomplish this, the researchers transferred two plant genes into an existing rice variety. In the future, the high-iron rice could help to combat iron deficiency, especially in developing countries in Africa and Asia.

Peeled rice, also called polished rice, does not have enough iron to satisfy the daily requirement, even if consumed in large quantities. (Image: flickr)
Peeled rice, also called polished rice, does not have enough iron to satisfy the daily requirement, even if consumed in large quantities. (Image: flickr)

According to the World Health Organization, approximately two billion people suffer from iron deficiency. They tire easily, experience problems in metabolizing harmful substances in their bodies and eventually suffer from anemia. Women and children are particularly affected in developing countries, where rice is the major staple food. Peeled rice, also called polished rice, does not have enough iron to satisfy the daily requirement, even if consumed in large quantities. For many people, a balanced diet or iron supplements are often unaffordable.

Rice actually has a lot of iron, but only in the seed coat. Because unpeeled rice quickly becomes rancid in tropical and subtropical climates, however, the seed coat – along with the precious iron – has to be removed for storage. Researchers working with Christof Sautter and Wilhelm Gruissem in the laboratory of plant biotechnology at ETH Zurich have now succeeded in increasing the iron content in polished rice by transferring two plant genes into an existing rice variety. Their work was published today in the online edition of „Plant Biotechnology Journal”.

Genes help to mobilize and store iron

The rice plants express the two genes to produce the enzyme nicotianamin synthase, which mobilizes iron, and the protein ferritin, which stores iron. Their synergistic action allows the rice plant to absorb more iron from the soil and store it in the rice kernel. The product of nicotianamine synthase, called nicotianamin, binds the iron temporarily and facilitates its transportation in the plant. Ferritin acts as a storage depot for iron in both plants and humans. The researchers controlled the genes introduced in such a way that nicotianamin synthase is expressed throughout the rice plant, but ferritin only in the rice kernel. Together, the expression of the genes has a positive impact on iron accumulation in the rice kernel and increases the iron content more than six-fold compared to the original variety.
No negative impacts anticipated

The ETH scientists are excited about the new rice variety. The prototypes behave normally in the greenhouse and show no signs of possible negative effects. «Next we will have to test whether the rice plants also perform well in the field under agronomical conditions», says Wilhelm Gruissem. The ETH Professor does not expect the plants to have a negative impact on the environment. It is unlikely that they will deplete the soil of iron, as iron is the most abundant metallic element in it.

Distribution to farmers still many years away

The rice plants will have to undergo many greenhouse and field tests for biosafety and agronomic performance before the high-iron rice varieties eventually become available to farmers. The current prototypes are unsuitable for agricultural production yet. Although the new rice variety already has an iron content that is nutritionally relevant, Gruissem wants to increase it further. After all, many people who suffer from iron deficiency can only afford one meal per day. If the scientists manage to increase iron in the rice kernel up to twelve-fold, one rice meal will be sufficient to satisfy the daily iron requirement.

The experience with the high-vitamin A "Golden Rice”, which was developed at ETH Zurich in collaboration with researchers at the University of Freiburg (Germany), has shown that it takes years before genetically engineered rice can actually be planted by farmers. The regulatory hurdles and costs involved in making genetically modified plants available to agriculture and consumers are very high. The ETH scientists aim to make their high-iron rice plants available to small-scale and self-sufficient farmers free of charge.

Original: J. Wirth et al. (2009) Rice endosperm iron biofortification by targeted and synergistic action of nicotianamine synthase and ferritin. Plant Biotechnology Journal, 7: in press.

For reprint: Prof. Wilhelm Gruissem

The Future of Wheat

- Rolf Penner, Financial Post (Canada), August 18, 2009 http://network.nationalpost.com

'Genetically modified wheat would increase yields, cut pesticide use and give Canadian farmers a global edge'

Nine wheat organizations in Australia, Canada and the United States, among them the North American Millers’ Association, recently released a joint statement that called for a synchronized introduction of genetically modified (GM) wheat into the marketplace.

The trend toward major biotech crops in soybeans, corn and canola is already well established over the past dozen years. It is high time that wheat joins their ranks.

The potential benefits of extending this technology to wheat are quite real, for both producers and consumers, as a recently updated study by British economists Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot demonstrates. The authors note that GM varieties help generate higher yields for many farmers and therefore increase overall crop production. Biotech crops also significantly increase farmers’ incomes, reduce the need for pesticide spraying and cut greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture.

First, the economic benefits: In every country where biotech crops are grown, farmers have seen noticeable improvements in their bottom lines. In estimated dollar terms, GM use worldwide created $10-billion in benefits in 2007 alone and $44-billion from 1996-2007. That calculation includes both cost reductions and increased yields. In 2007, biotech crops yielded 32 million tonnes more in production than conventional crops would have delivered. If these biotech crops had not been planted, another 29 million acres of land — the equivalent of 17% of the total farmland in Canada — would have been required to make up the difference.

One of the best economic comparisons looks at the difference between Canadian and Australian canola growers. We embraced GM canola early on, while the Aussies decided to stick with conventional breeding. The result, according to Dr. Christopher Preston from the University of Adelaide, is stark. While the Australians were not able to generate any kind of price premium for their GM-free canola, Canadian growers enjoyed a 20%-25% gain in crop yields. The economic advantage went to Canada.

With about 20% of the world’s food calories coming from wheat, and wheat acres steadily declining over the past 30 years because it is more economical for farmers to grow other things, the obvious benefit to consumers comes from higher yielding crops. They will ensure a steady supply of affordable wheat for future consumption.

When it comes to the environment, Brookes and Barfoot report that, since 1996, GM crops have reduced the global use of pesticides by 792 million pounds (360 million kilograms), a significant reduction of almost 9%. Equally important, they claim that the global environmental impact from pesticide use — a slightly different calculation — fell by more than 17% due to the use of GM varieties, again a significant reduction.

Further, for those who, despite evidence to the contrary, are still convinced that mankind causes global warming, GM crops can play an important role in the reduction of CO2 dumping. The study shows that the use of diesel fuel falls because GM use means less need to spray pesticides and a dramatic reduction in the amount of tillage required. A reduced tillage also increases the amount of carbon stored in the soil. In 2006, these two factors combined enabled an estimated reduction of almost 15 billion kilograms of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere due to the use of GM crops — the equivalent of removing more than six million cars from the road for one year.

The potential benefits go beyond these. One of the first problems GM wheat eliminates is a common fungus, fusarium, which attacks wheat and produces deadly mycotoxins. A new experimental wheat variety from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation alters the grain’s starch composition, an improvement that shows great promise in reducing the incidence of bowel disease, diabetes and obesity. Others are looking into the addition of a small molecule called resveratrol, commonly found in red wine that may help prevent age-related disorders like neurodegenerative diseases and cardiovascular disease. Contrary to what some anti-GM activists claim, wheat allergies could actually be reduced by specially breeding wheat with proteins, starches and glutens that no longer trigger the same allergic reactionsthat conventional wheat varieties do.

Those who oppose GM wheat also frequently claim that GM foods have not been properly tested, or they assert that few independent studies have been published to establish their safety. Another claim is that regulatory agencies rely exclusively on corporate information to decide whether GM foods are safe. They are wrong on all three counts. Currently more than 270 peer-reviewed reports in the scientific literature document the general safety and nutritional wholesomeness of GM foods.

If we gave GM wheat the green light today, it would be six to 10 years before we’d see a commercialized product. That’s all the more reason to move forward with it now. The benefits for consumers and farmers are obvious and the safety record is excellent, with the rewards far outweighing any possible risks the naysayers might imagine.

Even if other countries are reluctant to move ahead, the canola example shows us that GM wheat would open up great opportunities for Canada if we were to go first. Let’s get on with it.

Rolf Penner is a Manitoba farmer and the Manitoba vice-president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, one of the organizations calling for the synchronized introduction of GM wheat.


Agricultural research key to food security

Full commentary at

Boosting agricultural research in the developing world is the key to ensuring food security for the world's poorest, says Adel El-Beltagy (TWAS Fellow 2005), Chair of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR), writing in the latest issue of the TWAS Newsletter.
Agricultural research key to food security

When it comes to food security, there is both good and bad news. The good news is that, as recent history shows, progress is possible. Between 1990 and 2005, the percentage of people worldwide going to bed hungry each night fell four percentage points from 20 to 16. The bad news is that hunger in poor countries remains stubbornly in place.

The progress that has been made in solving the hunger problem should be applauded. Yet, the number of people who continue to lead lives marked by chronic hunger and malnutrition remains shockingly high. Food experts estimate that the figure currently stands at more than 960 million people, including 300 million children. That is more than 16 percent of the global population. Even more ominously, over the past year, the percentage has been moving upwards due to rising food prices.

Emerging fields of research such as genomics and nanotechnology, which could have a dramatic impact on global agriculture, indicate that there will be ample opportunities to devise sustainable food production strategies capable of satisfying the needs of the world's growing populations without placing undo stress on the environment and natural resources. Virtually all of the population growth between now and 2050 - indeed up to 99 percent, according to the Population Reference Bureau - will take place in the world's least developed countries (LDCs). That means a large portion of agricultural research must be directed towards the need of the poor.plants_biotech

The main challenge, then, lies in ensuring that the world's poorest countries have access to both conventional and cutting-edge agricultural technologies capable of increasing crop yields. It also requires farmers in the poorest countries to possess the prerequisite knowledge and skills to use these technologies effectively.

This is not just a moral issue. In fact, because nearly half of the developing world's population work in agriculture or agriculture-related industries, this is an economic issue of unquestionable significance as well.

Two-Front Challenge
Building such capacity requires a comprehensive campaign for reform that must be waged on two fronts.

On the first front, agricultural research communities in the developing world must work more closely with their governments to convince public officials of the enormous value and impact that agricultural research and development have on society.

Successful agricultural policy depends on broad scientific and technological knowledge, and the ability to transfer such knowledge to farmers working in the field. It also depends on putting the right policies in place to ensure that the needs of all stakeholders, and especially those of resource-poor agricultural communities, are incorporated in agricultural research and development programmes.

Solving the problems of hunger and malnutrition, of course, involves more than devising policies that enhance the capabilities of the developing world's agricultural research communities. For the South, it also means instituting political reforms that create more secure land rights, devising economic policies that provide greater access to capital, and advancing infrastructure programmes that bring farmers closer to markets, helping to raise their incomes.

For the North, it means not just scientific collaboration but also a reduction in farm subsidies, which last year amounted to US$280 billion a year (about equal to the GDP of all of Africa), and a reconsideration of national biofuel policies which some experts estimated could increase from a US$11billion industry today to a US$98 billion industry in 2011 if current levels of government support in the United States and Europe remain in place. A recent study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), commissioned by the OPEC Fund for International Development, projects that if current biofuel targets are reached, an additional 30 million hectares of land would be converted to cereal production for fuels. That, in turn, would place an additional 140 million people at risk for

There are two gaps at work in agriculture in the developing world, and we must do all that we can to close both. First, there is the North-South gap in capacity in agricultural research and development. Second, there is the South-South gap between research and application between scientists and farmers in developing countries.

We need to quickly narrow both gaps if we hope to achieve a more equitable and peaceful world: A world in which all people have access to sufficient quantities of nutritious food, and a world in which hunger is a thing of the past.


Research: ‘Fragrant’ GM maize against pests

- GMO Compass, August 20, 2009

Researchers at the German University of Neuenburg have used genetic technology to restore to maize a scent that defends it from pests. The maize then attracts nematodes that kill harmful insects in the root area of the plant.

Maize plants release certain scents to combat a variety of insects such as the maize root borer. The larvae of this insect eat root hairs and bore into the root of the plant.

In North America, the maize or ‘corn’ root borer is responsible for enormous harvest losses, the value of which may reach more than a billion dollars per year. In collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, researchers at the Neuenburg University discovered that many maize varieties in the USA no longer produce such chemical cries for help against the root borer.

Scent gene from oregano

Researchers transferred a gene from the oregano herb into a variety of maize. The gene controls the release of the scent molecules and, according to the scientists, this new strategy teams biological pest control with biotechnology. This genetically modified maize already has been tested in field trials in the USA. The maize attracted nematodes and displayed significantly less root damage from the corn root borer. The number of root borers was reduced by 60 per cent in comparison with conventional maize, which means that the effectiveness of the method is approximately as high as is the case with the application of insecticides. The researchers state that this new process provides novel possibilities in the battle against the corn root borer.

In European varieties of maize and in its forebears, the signal to attract the larva-killing nematodes still is present. Therefore, this trait also could be re-crossed into the American varieties through conventional breeding. However, according to the scientists, one achieves this goal more quickly through gene technology.

The goal of the scientists now is to improve the defense system of maize. They assume that this strategy also may be applied in the protection of other plants.

Original paper at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/07/31/0906365106


Enhancement of Vitamin B6 Levels in Seeds through Metabolic Engineering

- Meridian Institute's Food Security and Ag-Biotech News

Researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in the U.S. report that they have developed genetically modified (GM) Arabidopsis thaliana plants with seeds that contain two to three times the normal level of vitamin B6. The work demonstrates that it is feasible to enhance vitamin B6 content in seeds, the researchers say.

Vitamin B6 is essential for all cellular organisms and is particularly renowned in the medical field as being involved in more bodily functions than any other single nutrient, according to the article. Two vitamin B6 biosynthetic enzymes, PDX1 and PDX2, have been identified recently, and the article says their discovery has made it possible to regulate B6 production.

The "metabolically engineered" GM plants that were developed at the Danforth Center "overexpress" one or both of these two enzymes. The research results are said to be particularly applicable for crop plants whose seeds are the major source of food or feed.

The article can be viewed online at


Lots of ways to increase production

- Emily Allen, Witney Gazette (UK), August 19, 2009 http://www.witneygazette.co.uk

FARMERS have backed calls for a “radical rethink” of the way the country produces and consumes food — in order to guarantee food stocks. Environment Secretary Hilary Benn rang the alarm bells as the Government last week outlined threats to food security. Mr Benn called for British farmers to produce as much food as possible.

Sandra Nichols, of the National Farmers Union in the South East, welcomed the report and said genetically modified crops could be key to producing larger quantities of food sustainably.

Mr Benn said: “Last year the world had a wake-up call with the sudden oil and food price rises. “While we know the price of our food, the full environmental costs and the costs to our health are significant and hidden. “We need a radical rethink of how we produce and consume our food.


Impacts of Bt crops on non-target invertebrates and insecticide use patterns

- Naranjo, S. E., CAB Reviews, 2009, 4, 011, 1-11

The ubiquitous nature of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a Gram-positive bacterium capable of producing crystal proteins with insecticidal activity during sporulation, is now being mirrored in major crops plants that have been engineered through recombinant DNA to carry genes responsible for producing these crystal proteins and providing host plant resistance to major lepidopteran and coleopteran pests. In 2007, the 11th year of commercial production, Bt maize and Bt cotton were commercially produced on a total of ~42 million hectares in 20 countries.

Assessment of environmental safety has been and continues to be a key element of transgenic crop technology. This review focuses on two environmental elements, effects on non-target invertebrates and changes in insecticide use patterns since the adoption of Bt maize and cotton. Meta-analyses of the extant literature on invertebrate non-target effects reveals that the pattern and extent of impact varies in relation to taxonomy, ecological or anthropomorphic guild, route of exposure and the non-Bt control against which effects are gauged.

Hazards identified in the laboratory may not always manifest in the field and the minor negative effects of Bt crops demonstrated in the field pale in comparison with alternative pest suppression measures based on insecticides. The efficacy of Bt maize and cotton against major pest species has been associated with an estimated 136.6 million kg global reduction in insecticide active ingredient used between 1996 and 2006 (29.9% reduction). Benefits vary by country and region and are heavily weighted towards cotton production, which has historically been one of the largest users of insecticides in the world.


Organic food: Just a superstition, not religion

- Dennis T. Avery, Othello Outlook, Aug 19, 2009 http://othellooutlook.com

The Green Movement has been called “the new religion.” It surely isn’t that. Religion is a belief in a higher power than humanity. The Green Movement believes nothing is more powerful than a press release from the Sierra Club or a lawsuit filed by Greenpeace.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine recently reviewed 162 scientific papers published over 50 years and found “there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically grown foods over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.” This is no surprise.

The first researcher to announce the health futility of organic foods was Lady Eve Balfour, one of the sainted organic pioneers. She turned her English estate into an experimental farm to “prove” organic food was better. She finally admitted in 1977 that 30 years of testing had produced no evidence of nutritional or health differences for organic.

This will make no difference to the sales of organic food because organic food buyers are irrational. They think buying the most expensive foods buys longer, happier lives. No such luck. If organic was healthier, African subsistence farmers would have been outliving American housewives and stockbrokers for the past 90 years.

Instead, Americans eating industrially fertilized and genetically modified crops have been outliving Somalis and Nigerians by about 30 years. We not only have ample high-yield food, but our lives are also protected by vaccines, antibiotics and sterile operating rooms.

There is only one known way to extend your life through eating and that’s to eat more fruits and vegetables. The quarter of the population that eats the most fruits and vegetables has about half the cancer risk of the quarter that eats the least. The produce doesn’t have to be organic, local — or even fresh. Canned, frozen and imported produce will serve just about as well.

But such knowledge isn’t nearly as powerful as superstitions like “eating organic” to avoid “depleting the topsoil.” No-till farming, with herbicides, saves far more topsoil than organic farming, but again, that’s only knowledge.

Greens keep telling me humans are even powerful enough to “change the earth’s climate.” Forget the sun! During the Little Ice Age, the sun was weak and crops failed repeatedly. More than 1,000 “witches” were burned to wrest control of the climate back from Satan — just in Bern, Switzerland. Wiesenstag, Germany, burned 63 women as witches in one year, 1563. Now that is superstition at work!

Of course, most of the “witches” were elderly widows whose husbands were no longer growing food for them. Many were mentally ill. So, maybe, it was also self-serving behavior. It certainly predicted the idea of abortions as a “solution” to global warming. Even if that doesn’t stop the warming, the old planet will be a little less “crowded.”

Religion in recent centuries has mostly prodded us toward treating our fellow men more humanely. The Green Movement has no such lofty pretentions.

If the world went all-organic, half the humans would die of starvation. Most of the remaining wildlife habitat would be plowed down to make room for more low-yield crops.

That’s an even uglier outcome than we can expect from President Obama’s commitment to cut U.S. fossil fuel emissions by 80 percent. And just about as useful.

Excuse me, now, I have to find a black cat.

DENNIS T. AVERY is an environmental economist and a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State.


Living Longer in America


Click on the "National Timeline" to see how long Americans lived in 1900 and how long do they live now.

Life expectancy reaches all-time high in U.S.

Babies born in 2007 can expect to live to nearly 78, government reports

U.S. life expectancy has risen to a new high, now standing at nearly 78 years, the government reported Wednesday.

The increase is due mainly to falling death rates in almost all the leading causes of death. The average life expectancy for babies born in 2007 is nearly three months greater than for children born in 2006.