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August 31, 2009


Luddites Win in Boulder; Bt Cotton Income Distribution; Harmful Junk Science; Striga Gene; Time for TIME to Get Real31/08/2009


* Hysterics Win A Round In Farm Debate
* Village-wide Effects of Agricultural Biotechnology: The Case of Bt Cotton in India
* Regulatory changes slowing agricultural biotechnology innovations
* The Resistant Rice of the Future
* Beware the Harmful Consequences of Following Junk Science
* Scientists Identify Gene for Resistance to Parasitic 'witchweed'
* GM: Food for thought by M.S. Swaminathan
* The Benefits of Biotech are Immense Says Shantaram
* China: 'GM' Rice May Join The Menu
* Time for TIME to Get Real
* Global Harvest Initiative Launches Campaign to Address World's Growing Needs
* Agricultural Biotechnology for Better Living and a Clean Environment

Hysterics Win A Round In Farm Debate

- Vincent Carroll, Denver Post, August 29, 2009 http://www.denverpost.com

The Luddites won a round this week in Boulder County.

Yes, the science-challenged activists who fear genetically modified crops succeeded in keeping GM sugar beets from being grown by six farmers on open space land — at least for the time being.

If I seem to harp on this conflict, having laid out the farmers' case some weeks ago, it's because the overall stakes are so large. Fear-mongers have retarded the adoption of GM crops elsewhere, too, even when their advantages are clear.

GM crops are mostly prohibited in Europe, for example, because of popular fear of "Frankenstein foods." Then again, Europeans used to execute witches by the thousands, too, with roughly the same degree of supporting evidence. Some things never change.

The Boulder farmers were so shocked by the raw emotion of opponents that they eventually asked commissioners to postpone a decision. Naturally the commissioners obliged. You wouldn't expect three beleaguered officials to tell the hysterics to take a hike, would you?

Never mind that county staff recommended the commission approve the applications, or that genetically modified corn is already grown on open space there. For that matter, the county already slashes rates for leaseholders willing to switch to organic farming, open space director Ron Stewart told me recently. What's next: outright payments to accelerate the transition?

For a contrasting view of GM crops, we might consult villagers in Bangladesh about a new variety of rice (not a GM - CSP) that can withstand submersion for weeks during floods. Pamela Ronald, a University of California at Davis geneticist who helped develop the variety, says 4 million tons of rice are lost to flooding each year in the region — enough "to feed 30 million people for one year."

That's roughly 100 times the population of Boulder County, in case you wondered.

"Some people worry that genetically engineered crops will cross-pollinate nearby species and invade pristine ecosystems and destroy native populations," Ronald explained to Reed Magazine. "Others fear that genetically engineered foods are unsafe or unhealthy to eat. So far, those concerns are driven more by technological anxiety than by science. There is broad consensus in the scientific community that the process of genetic engineering poses no more risk than that of conventional breeding."

Ronald is married to an organic farmer and is far from complacent about the use of pesticides. Indeed, she sees genetic engineering as a potential boon to organics, as she and her husband explain in "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food" (Oxford University Press, April 2008). Incredibly, federal organic standards bar genetically engineered ingredients.

To be fair, the fierce opposition to GM beets is fueled in part by loathing for Monsanto, which owns the beet seeds and whose Roundup is used in growing them. But it's not just Monsanto that stokes passions. It's fear of genetic engineering itself and an exaggerated belief in the superiority of organic food.

If some folks want to pay a premium for organic products, so be it. But they should spare us their litany of fairy tales. Organic farming no doubt can be better for the land in many locales — and reducing pesticide use is a laudable goal — but its lower yields are woefully unsuited to meet the world's needs.

Nor is organic food necessarily safer to eat. As The New York Times explained in March, "An organic certification technically has nothing to do with food safety."

Nutrition? "On the basis of a systematic review of studies . . . there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs," researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine concluded recently in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

When I contacted Professor Dawn Thilmany of Colorado State University's Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, she told me a similar story. The evidence is "inconclusive in terms of nutritional values," she said, adding only that vitamin C might be enhanced by organic farming and antioxidant levels perhaps improved.

"We need a vision for what we want to have happen on our agriculture open space," commissioner Ben Pearlman declared. Please notice: He said a vision, not a Luddite-driven hallucination. So maybe there's hope yet that reason will prevail.


Village-wide Effects of Agricultural Biotechnology: The Case of Bt Cotton in India

- Arjunan Subramaniana and Matin Qaim, World Development, Vol. 37, Issue 1, January 2009, Pages 256-267
Copyright © 2008 Elsevier Ltd (Georg-August-University of Goettingen, Goettingen, Germany)

Summary: Previous studies on impacts of agricultural biotechnology have mostly focused on direct effects. We suggest an economy-wide framework to analyze income distribution aspects more carefully. For a village in India, a micro-social accounting matrix (SAM) is developed and used to simulate the effects of Bt cotton adoption. Overall, the technology is employment generating, although family labor in cotton production is saved. While substantial benefits are observed for small and large farmers, total household income effects are bigger for larger farms. This is mostly due to differential opportunity incomes of saved family labor. Some research and policy implications are discussed.

Full paper at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6VC6-4SWXDMD-1/2/74ceca588da7cbbc9899668704af6cba

5. Conclusions and policy implications

This article has analyzed the economy-wide effects of Bt cotton for rural households in semi-arid India by developing and using a village SAM.11 Since spillovers to other markets occur, partial equilibrium analysis can be misleading, especially when the focus is on household income distribution. The simulation results demonstrate that labor market effects in particular should not be ignored. Bt cotton is associated with a substantial overall generation of rural employment. While labor requirements for pest control decrease, more labor is employed for harvesting. This has interesting gender implications. The aggregation of total wage income shows that females earn much more from Bt cotton than males. This is due to the fact that cotton harvesting is largely carried out by hired female laborers, whose employment opportunities and returns to labor improve remarkably. Pest control, on the other hand, is often the responsibility of male family members, so that Bt technology reduces their employment in cotton production. However, the SAM results show that, on average, the saved family labor can be reemployed efficiently in alternative agricultural and non-agricultural activities, so that—also for males—the overall returns to labor increase.

The returns to management time saved in cotton and reemployed in alternative activities are higher for large than for small farmers. This can be explained by the fact that large farmers are often better educated and have better resource endowments, which facilitates access to employment and self-employed activities. In spite of similar benefits from Bt cotton for small farmers in a mere farm-level assessment, different opportunity incomes of saved management time lead to a situation where large farmers benefit much more from Bt adoption in an economy-wide framework. The long-term implications are not entirely clear. Bt cotton adoption has been increasing rapidly in India, and this trend is likely to continue in the future. If the currently observed economic structure persists, larger farmers have a bigger incentive to use the technology, so that they might dominate the adoption process.

However, these scale effects are not inherent to the technology. Policies directed at increasing rural employment opportunities for small and medium farmers could change the incentive structures and distributional outcomes by enabling them to use the saved family labor time more profitably in alternative employment. This could include improvements in infrastructure and access to education and financial markets—that is, policies that would also promote overall economic development. Of course, measures that help to lower Bt technology costs for farmers, such as lower seed prices, could also raise the benefits, generating additional incentives to adopt the technology, also among smallholders. Indeed, Bt seed prices in India have been lowered substantially since 2005, and adoption rates continue to increase among both large and small farms.


Regulatory changes enacted a decade ago appear to be responsible for dramatically slowing the flow of quality-improving agricultural biotechnology innovations

- Seed Quest, August 21, 2009 http://www.seedquest.com

Regulatory changes enacted a decade ago appear to be responsible for dramatically slowing the flow of quality-improving agricultural biotechnology innovations to a mere trickle, reports a team of agricultural economists and biotechnology experts.

Findings from the study, published in the August issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology, suggest that the slowdown may have lasting social welfare costs, such as the delay of nutritional improvements, production efficiencies and environmental protections.

"One of the great frustrations in the agricultural biotechnology community has been the failure of many new products with enhanced quality traits -- such as nutritional content, ripening control and processing attributes -- to reach consumers and processers," said Gregory Graff, an agricultural economist now at Colorado State University.

Graff led the study as a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis, working with Alan Bennett, a UC Davis plant science professor and executive director of the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA), and David Zilberman, a professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley.

"While biotech innovations with on-farm production traits -- such as insect resistance and herbicide tolerance -- moved through the research and development pipeline relatively quickly, commercialization of product-quality innovations failed to materialize," Bennett said. "It had been hoped that these products would directly benefit the general public and change public perception of agricultural biotechnology."

To investigate the cause for the delay in commercializing product-quality innovations, the researchers conducted two surveys, one looking back on the history of 558 product-quality innovations and another looking forward at 49 quality-innovations expected to be developed by the year 2015.

The retrospective study found that many research breakthroughs related to flower color and fruit ripening occurred in the 1980s, when agricultural biotechnology was in its infancy. It was expected that research and development in these areas would have grown during the 1990s as new products entered the market. Instead, innovation in product-quality innovation leveled off around 1998 and then declined.

"That drop-off seems to be most closely linked to the halting of regulatory approvals for agbiotech products in Europe in 1998 and the repercussions that had for regulators in other countries," said Zilberman. "While those regulatory responses were largely directed at controlling the risks of early pest-control biotechnologies, it may have contributed to a slowdown in the commercialization of product-quality innovations."

The study was funded in part by a grant from the Council for Biotechnology Information.

The contraction of agbiotech product quality innovation; Gregory D Graff, David Zilberman, Alan B Bennett
Nature Biotechnology 27, 702-704 (August 2009) doi:10.1038/nbt0809-702 Opinion and Comment

View the original article at (scroll down) http://www.agbioworld.org/newsletter_wm/index.php?caseid=archive&newsid=2901


The Resistant Rice of the Future

- Elie Dolgin, Nature News

Researchers led by Shuichi Fukuoka at Japan's National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences have found a gene that helps some wild types of rice resist rice blast disease, and have bred it into a cultivable rice variety. According to the article, rice blast disease destroys around 10 to 30 percent of global rice crops: enough food to feed about 60 million people each year.

Some rice varieties carry resistance to the fungus responsible for the disease, but the rice from these varieties often has undesirable qualities, such as low stickiness and poor flavor, so they have not been introduced into widely consumed rice varieties. Some researchers had speculated that blast-immunity genes might directly confer terrible taste, but Fukuoka and his colleagues showed that resistance and bad taste are caused by separate genes. Their research has been published in the August 20 edition of the journal Science. The article at http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090820/full/news.2009.841.html


Beware the Harmful Consequences of Following Junk Science

- Gwyn Morgan, Globe and Mail (Canada), August 31, 2009

'My global "junk science" award goes to the myriad environmental groups and associated acolytes united in opposition to genetically modified foods'

The man who removes the moss from our lawn after the West Coast's winter rainy season was depressed and bewildered. After spending decades building his clientele and practising his trade in the most careful and responsible manner, he is being legislated out of business. The Canadian Cancer Society is calling for a B.C.-wide ban on the sale of weed killers and insecticides for "non-agricultural" use. Several B.C. municipalities already prohibit the use of such products, even to the point where the bits of vinegar our lawn guy puts on our patches of paving-stone moss are considered a public danger.

Here in Victoria, many of the city's signature cherry trees will go through a slow and ugly death from blight because of the banning of a product that could safely protect them. It also means ferns, dogwood and other native species will be defenceless as they are overrun by introduced foreign invaders. The cancer society bases its campaign on the claim that weed killers such as Roundup and insecticides such as Raid may be linked to certain types of cancer. Yet the medical evidence is scant. One study found that men working in pesticide manufacturing plants had a slightly elevated frequency of prostate cancer, but several other studies found no relationship between pesticides and cancer. Some studies have suggested that farmers who use large amounts of weed killer may have an increased risk of lymphoma, but a large U.S. study found the difference to be a statistically insignificant.

Those who defend such knee-jerk public policy actions often cite the "precautionary principle." But if believing in junk science means people are to be driven out of business and public landscapes are to be left unprotected from blights and invasive species, and if home gardeners are forbidden from using the latest and best products, what is "precautionary" about that?

Unfortunately, junk science is a widespread disease. Environmental activists are generally against so-called chemical fertilizers. But what makes manure and compost more virtuous than nitrogen and potassium fertilizers?

Let's start with nitrogen. The scientific fact is that the soil doesn't know the difference between nitrogen sources, as long as it gets enough. Potassium fertilizers are made from a naturally occurring mineral called potash and, here again, the soil doesn't care where it comes from. While organic products are generally very safe, there is no doubt that the raw animal waste sometimes used as fertilizer carries a higher consumer and groundwater pathogen risk. On the other hand, the composting often used in organic gardening has a positive impact on soil stability and water retention.

If soil science doesn't make organic food a superior choice, what about the claims of nutritional superiority? A recent large-scale U.S. study found no discernible difference. Organic foods cost more because they are more labour-intensive, and yields per arable hectare are lower than conventional farming.

The plain fact is that organic food consumption is a feel-good indulgence for those willing and able to pay a premium, but organic farming methods could never begin to feed every Canadian, let alone the world's population.

My global "junk science" award goes to the myriad environmental groups and associated acolytes united in opposition to genetically modified foods (GM foods), or as they have labelled them, "frankenfoods." Policy makers in Europe have reacted by banning domestic production or importation of GM foods. This despite the fact that there are no credible studies showing negative impacts from consuming GM foods, and there isn't even a plausible scientific theory as to why there would be.

Most of the grains, fruits and vegetables that make up modern diets are vastly different than their ancient ancestors. Humans have continuously cross-bred food plants in search of higher yields, improved taste, better nutrition and disease resistance. An important Canadian example is canola; traditional "genetic modification" methods transformed the bitter rapeseed into a healthy and tasty oilseed.

Astounding progress in identifying the genetic building blocks of organisms has accelerated the long and arduous genetic modification process, offering huge potential leaps forward in the increasingly urgent search for higher yielding and more nutritious crops to feed a hungry world. Erosion caused by denuding natural vegetation, groundwater depletion and biological runoff make agricultural production the most damaging human endeavour to our planet's soil, water and aquatic life. GM foods research shows promise of making a big difference.

Seed crops that lower fertilizer requirements and need less water are already a reality. Agra-giant Monsanto has developed an herbicide-resistant seed grain that eliminates the need for fallow tillage to control weeds, thereby reducing water needs, air emissions and soil erosion. This is only one of the GM foods advances made by this innovative and research-intensive company, yet the frankenfood crowd's propaganda has portrayed Monsanto as an environment-destroying corporate pariah.

And so we come full circle in the great farm and garden junk science game, from British Columbia's well-meaning but scientifically illiterate municipal councillors, to the Canadian Cancer Society's campaign against weed and bug killers, to the organic industry's self-serving claim of environmental and nutritional superiority, to the GM foods-opposing frankenfood crowd. It's hard to find evidence that supports any of these claims, but it isn't hard to see the harmful consequences these misguided policies can, and do, have.
Gwyn Morgan is the retired founding CEO of EnCana Corp.


International Paper Treads Monsanto’s Path to ‘Frankenforests’

- Jack Kaskey, Bloomberg, Aug. 28 http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=aEHNB_XJRWGU

International Paper Co., the world’s largest pulp and paper maker, plans to remake commercial forests in the same way Monsanto Co. revolutionized farms with genetically modified crops.

International Paper’s ArborGen joint venture with MeadWestvaco Corp. and New Zealand’s Rubicon Ltd. is seeking permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sell the first genetically engineered forest trees outside China. The Australian eucalyptus trees are designed to survive freezes in the U.S. South.

Plantations of engineered trees would give International Paper a competitive advantage by providing a reliable supply of lower cost wood at a time when timberlands are dwindling because of development, said David Liebetreu, the Memphis, Tennessee- based company’s vice president of global sourcing. Opponents are concerned that alien genes may contaminate natural forests, echoing objections to modified crops that Monsanto still faces.

“There is a potential to explode once they get these trees approved,” said David Knott, who manages $1.3 billion as chief executive officer of Dorset Management in Syosett, New York. He said he increased his stake in Rubicon to 70.5 million shares this year to bet on ArborGen because it has a customer base of large landowners and little competition. “This could take off faster than Monsanto.”

Monsanto’s genetics, which were first sold in herbicide- tolerant soybeans in 1996 and insect-resistant corn the following year, were used in 88 percent of the world’s 309 million acres of biotech plantings last year. Monsanto’s sales of seeds and genetics quadrupled since 2002 to $6.4 billion last year.

ArborGen Sales
ArborGen may boost yearly sales to $500 million in 2017 from $25 million by following Monsanto’s blueprint for commercializing engineered plants, said Stephen Walker, head of asset management at New Zealand-based Goldman Sachs JBWere Ltd., which owns Rubicon shares and holds no stock in International Paper or MeadWestvaco. The partners eventually might sell shares of ArborGen to the public, International Paper’s Liebetreu said.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service may approve sales of freeze-tolerant eucalyptus trees by late 2010, ArborGen Chief Executive Officer Barbara Wells said. The company also is developing trees that are easier to pulp and that grow twice as fast, said Wells, a former Monsanto executive who has a doctorate in agronomy.

ArborGen’s eucalyptus would become the first engineered forest tree sold in the U.S., where disease-resistant plum and papaya trees already are permitted, according to a USDA database. China has planted about 1.4 million biotech black poplars since commercialization in 2002.

Increasing Risk
Engineered eucalyptus trees could be an ecological disaster, bringing increased fire risk and extraordinary water consumption to a new environment, said Neil J. Carman, an Austin, Texas-based member of the Sierra Club’s genetic engineering committee. Easier-to-pulp trees will be weak, and hurricanes will spread their pollen and contaminate native forests, he said.

“These are Frankenforests,” Carman said. “You are tampering with Mother Nature in a big way by putting genetically engineered trees out there.”

The group won a court order in 2007 requiring Monsanto to pull modified alfalfa plants from the market while the USDA reviewed their environmental impact more thoroughly, and Carman said a similar strategy may be used against modified trees.

ArborGen says that genes won’t spread because its trees grow on plantations, not in forests, and are engineered to be infertile with impaired pollen production.

Tree Plantations

About 4 percent of the world’s 8.5 billion forest acres are plantations, and 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of new plantations are added annually, according to the United Nations.

“It’s through plantation forests and increased productivity that you protect native forests,” ArborGen’s Wells said. “We pursue products that we know are environmentally safe.”

ArborGen, based in Summerville, South Carolina, was created in 2000 when the three partners pooled their tree-research assets and intellectual property. The venture sells about 300 million conventional tree seedlings a year to 2,000 customers in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.

Rubicon derives most of its value from ArborGen, one of two ventures it owns. International Paper and MeadWestvaco, a cardboard maker, are so large that their 33 percent stakes in ArborGen aren’t material to earnings, the companies said.

Sustainable Hardwood Source
The papermaker’s main interest in ArborGen is the potential of modified trees such as cold-tolerant eucalyptus to provide a sustainable source of hardwood for pulp, Liebetreu said. That becomes more important as the U.S. starts to make biofuels from timber, which may double harvest pressure in the U.S. South, International Paper said in a June 9 letter to USDA.

“If you could go back and buy Monsanto when it was just starting to develop genetically modified seeds, would you do it?” said Walker of Goldman Sachs JBWere. “I think so.”

Parallels with Monsanto aren’t a coincidence. Wells, 54, spent 18 years at that company, including four years introducing modified soybeans in Brazil. ArborGen Chief Science Officer Maud Hinchee and James Mann, vice president of business development, also worked at St. Louis-based Monsanto.

ArborGen Pricing
ArborGen may charge 20 times more for its engineered trees than its cheapest seedlings and two to three times more than its best conventional products as it claims a share of the revenue landowners gain from growing high-quality wood faster, according to Rubicon’s July update. Monsanto’s modified corn and soybean seeds are priced to grab as much as half the increased income farmers realize from higher yields and lower pest-control costs.

ArborGen became the world’s largest seedling producer when it bought assets from its parent companies in 2007, making it the only tree developer with its own market channel for genetic technology, Wells said. Others developing gene-modified trees, including FuturaGene Plc in the U.K. and SweTree Technologies in Sweden, lack seedling businesses and aren’t yet pursuing permission for commercial sales.

Monsanto’s research into genetically modified trees is limited to a Brazilian collaboration on eucalyptus and citrus trees at Alellyx SA, which Monsanto acquired in November after the project began, spokeswoman Kelli Powers said.

Faster-Growing Trees
ArborGen next plans to seek U.S. approval to sell loblolly pine, used for lumber and paper, engineered to mature in 18 years rather than 26. In Brazil, ArborGen plans to seek approval for eucalyptus that matures in four years, rather than seven, and eucalyptus with reduced lignin.

Extracting lignin, a brown polymer that hardens trees, is one of the most expensive and polluting parts of making pulp, said Graeme P. Berlyn, professor at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

“They definitely will find a market if they can do what they claim,” Berlyn said.

There is a small chance some modified trees will produce pollen and fertilize conventional relatives, Berlyn said. Populations contaminated with low-lignin traits could be weakened and vulnerable to breakage for thousands of years before evolution eliminates the inferior genetics, he said.

“All of this is a bit troubling,” said Berlyn, who edits the Journal of Sustainable Forestry.

Expanded Testing
While ArborGen awaits approval to sell cold-tolerant eucalyptus, it also is seeking USDA permission to expand a 57- acre test of the trees to 330 acres, mainly in Texas, Florida and Alabama.

ArborGen is working with different eucalyptus species than those that have become pests in California, and the biotech trees are “unlikely” to prove invasive in the U.S. South, according to the USDA. The draft environmental assessment on expanded field testing drew thousands of comments opposing the USDA’s conclusion that the research poses an insignificant risk.

The proposed field tests involve 260,000 experimental trees and are tantamount to commercial approval, the Sierra Club’s Carman said. If the field tests are approved, the Sierra Club may sue the USDA to compel a more thorough study, known as an environmental impact statement, he said.

In 2007, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco ordered the USDA to conduct such an assessment of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa and blocked further sales after the Sierra Club and organic farmer groups challenged the plant’s approval. The USDA hasn’t yet released an assessment of ArborGen’s application to commercialize modified eucalyptus.

Approval would set ArborGen on a path to sell 275 million engineered seedlings a year by 2018, assuming its first five modified trees are permitted, contributing to after-tax cash flows of as much as $700 million, according to an April report commissioned by Rubicon.


Scientists Identify Gene for Resistance to Parasitic 'witchweed'


The parasitic flowering plant Striga, or "witchweed," attacks the roots of host plants, draining needed water and nutrients and leaving them unable to grow and produce any grains. Witchweed is endemic throughout sub-Saharan Africa, causing crop losses that surpass hundreds of millions of dollars annually and exacerbating food shortages in the region.

Among the crops heavily parasitized by witchweed is black-eyed pea, known in Africa as "cowpea" or "niebe" in Francophone countries.

About 80 percent of the world's cowpea crop is grown in sub-Saharan Africa, mostly by subsistence farmers who lack the resources to purchase expensive herbicides and fertilizers. In this region, cowpea is the primary protein source for millions of people, who consume the entire plant – the pea for soups, stews and breads, the leaves as fresh greens, the stems as hay and fodder for cattle.

As the use of cowpea expanded over time, so did the prevalence of Striga gesnerioides, the type of witchweed adapted to parasitize it. Today, witchweed is so virulent that farmers in this semi-arid region must relocate their cowpea crop to new soil every few years.

Now, scientists at the University of Virginia have identified a gene in cowpea that confers resistance to witchweed attack. This discovery will help researchers better understand how some plants can resist Striga, while others, such as corn and sorghum, are susceptible.

The findings are presented in the Aug. 28 issue of the journal Science. "Discovery of this resistance gene is not only important for improving cowpea, but may help us develop strategies for improving resistance to Striga in other affected crops," said Michael P.Timko, the U.Va. biology professor who led the study.

Currently there are no natural sources of Striga resistance in corn or sorghum, both of which are major cereal grains in the African diet. "Making plants durably resistant to Striga could have a significant impact on food security for Africa," Timko said.

In recent years, he and other scientists have sequenced the cowpea genome and are using this information to develop cowpea plants with multiple improved agronomic traits. "It is now possible for us to identify all possible genes for Striga resistance in cowpeas, as well as resistance to other cowpea pathogens," Timko said. "We may even eventually breed a more drought-resistant plant and varieties that have higher levels and a better balance of nutrients. We've reached a point where we can manipulate this plant for the good of millions of people."

Timko's approach is to improve the performance of plants by identifying genes that control key characteristics, and then using selective breeding to emphasize those traits.

While he is finding success breeding parasite-resistant hybrids, there are at least seven different races of Striga, each capable of adapting to changing varieties of cowpeas. "We are trying to create a plant that is resistant across the board," he said. "Striga is hyper-virulent. This is warfare between the cowpea plant and its parasite, and we keep trying to stay ahead of the enemy."

Contact: Michael P. Timko; mpt9g@virginia.edu


GM: Food for thought

- M.S. Swaminathan, F & B News (India) August 31, 2009 http://www.fnbnews.com

The term "genetically-modified (GM) foods" refers to crops produced for human or animal consumption using the recombinant DNA techniques. Crop plants are modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits, mainly biotic and abiotic stress tolerance, improved nutritional content, etc. These traits were earlier carried out through conventional plant breeding, but these breeding methods are very time-consuming and often not very accurate. However, with recombinant DNA technology, plants with the desired traits can be produced, very rapidly and with greater accuracy. For example, we can isolate a gene responsible for conferring drought tolerance, introduce that gene into a plant, and make it drought tolerant.

One of the best-known examples of using non-plant genes to transform crops is the use of Bt genes, in cotton and many other crops. Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a naturally occurring bacterium that produces crystal proteins that are lethal only to insect larvae. Bt crystal protein genes have been transferred into cotton, soya, corn, brinjal, enabling the plants to produce its own pesticides against insects such as the American bollworm, European corn borer. Bt genes are lethal only in the acidic, insect gut environment and do not get activated in an alkaline environment, prevalent in humans and other animals that feed on these plants.

Benefits of GM foods
The world population has crossed six billion and is predicted to double in the next 50 years. Ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population is a major challenge in the years to come. GM foods promise to meet this need in a number of ways:

l Pest resistance: Crop losses from insect pests are staggering, resulting in devastating financial loss for farmers, sometimes starvation in countries such as ours. Indiscriminate use of pesticides is also a potential health hazard, and the run-off of agricultural wastes from excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers poisons the water supply and harms the environment. Growing GM foods such as Bt brinjal helps reduce the application of pesticides substantially, as 80 per cent of brinjal crop are infested with pests.

l Disease resistance: There are many viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant diseases and thereby contribute to yield loss. Plant biologists are working to create genetically engineered plants with resistance to these diseases, such as developing sheath blight resistance in rice.
l Cold/heat tolerance: Climate change is a reality and farmers are facing the vagaries of weather, like unexpected frost or excess heat. Researchers have identified an antifreeze gene from cold-water fish and introduced it into plants such as tobacco and potato to study the efficacy of the plant to withstand extreme temperatures. Also, research is on to identify plants that can survive excess heat, submergence tolerance etc.

l Drought tolerance/salinity tolerance: As the world population grows and more land is converted for housing instead of food production, farmers need to grow crops in non-arable land, previously unsuited for plant cultivation. Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salinity in soil and groundwater will help people to grow crops in large, barren wetlands/drylands in our country.

l Nutrition: Malnutrition is rampant in our country where people rely on a single crop such as rice as their main staple food. However, rice does not contain adequate amounts of all necessary micro and macronutrients. If rice could be genetically engineered to contain additional vitamins, iron and/or minerals, nutrient deficiencies could be alleviated. For example, we, at MSSRF (M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation), are working on improving the iron content, with encouraging results.

l Phytoremediation: Soil and groundwater pollution continues to be a problem in many parts of the world. Plants such as poplar trees, brassica spp are being genetically engineered to clean up heavy metal pollution from soil contaminated with metals like lead, arsenic, and cadmium.

Environmental activists, religious organisations, non-governmental organisations, have all raised concerns about GM foods and criticised agribusiness for pursuing profit without concern for potential hazards, and criticised the government for failing to exercise adequate regulatory oversight. Most concerns about GM foods fall into three categories - environmental hazards, human health risks, and economic concerns. Unintended harm to other organisms; reduced effectiveness of pesticides; gene transfer to non-target species are some of the concerns of the environmental concerns of GM crops. There is no scientific evidence to prove any of these concerns as real, since commercialisation of transgenic crops over the past 10 years, in the world. Allergenicity; unknown effects on human health are some of the main health concerns. All GM crops are subjected to thorough regulatory processes and toxicology and allergenicity tests data needs to be shared with the regulatory authorities prior to commercialisation.

Bringing a GM food to market is a lengthy and costly process, and agri-biotech companies want to ensure a profitable return on their investment. Many new plant genetic engineering technologies and GM plants have been patented, and patent infringement is a big concern of agribusiness. This is a genuine concern and therefore it is important for governments such as ours to fund and support public sector research in reputed universities or agriculture institutes to ensure quality research and also keep prices under check. I would like to emphasise that after weighing in all the hazards, environmental, health and economic concerns, only then decisions are taken to commercialise a GM product. So, while there can be ambiguity while conducting the research, or during trials, once they get regulatory approval, it simply means that they have been subjected to stringent scrutiny and are safe for commercial release.

Governments around the world are hard at work to establish an effective regulatory process to monitor the effects of and approve new varieties of GM plants. In India, very soon, we will have in place a very effective, independent credible regulatory authority to ensure safe release of GM products. GM foods have the potential to solve many of the world's hunger and malnutrition problems, and to help protect and preserve the environment by increasing yield and reducing reliance upon chemical pesticides. Yet there are many challenges ahead for governments, especially in the areas of safety testing, regulation, international policy and food labelling.

* M.S. Swaminathan is the chairman of the National Commission on Farmers. He is considered to be the father of India's green revolution.


The Benefits of Biotech are Immense’

Says A Sivramiah Shantaram In An Interview With

- Darinia Khongwir, Times Of India, August 17, 2009;

What drew you towards biotechnology?
Because of my academic background and experience in life sciences, I have always dreamt of being able to transfer nitrogen fixation genes from Rhizobium to plants that do not have them. That will help plants to trap bountiful atmospheric nitrogen by themselves without the need for applying chemical nitrogenous fertilizer. This has been the century old quest of scientists in modern agriculture.

How widely used are the biotechnology crops across the world and India?
Biotechnology is widely used in almost all crops around the world. More than 24 countries around the world grow biotech crops including India. India has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural biotech R&D through its Department of Biotechnology and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research since 1992. However, India is legally growing only one biotech crop, viz. Bt cotton, where we know that millions of farmers across the country benefit immensely.

Mention the agricultural plants available in genetically modified seeds.
Some of the biotech-enhanced seeds include insect-protected Bt cotton, Bt maize, herbicide resistant soybean, corn and cotton, Bt tomato, virus-resistant squash, delayed fruit ripening tomato etc.

Is biotechnology safe?
Biotech enhanced food and feed products have a 13-year history of safe use worldwide. Seeds improved with plant biotech are studied more extensively than any other plant product, providing equal or greater assurance of safety of these products compared to conventional plant varieties. Plant biotechnology is as safe as any other technology used in agriculture.

Biotech crops have been evaluated for their genetic and overall biological stability by dozens of regulatory authorities around the world and endorsed by approximately 25 Nobel Prize winners and 3,400 prominent scientists including the Royal Society (UK), the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) among others. They have expressed their support for the advantages and safety of genetically modified foods and crops as a “powerful and safe” way to improve agriculture and the environment. Biotech crops have been grown and consumed for more than a dozen years in more than 24 countries of the world. And, yet, there’s not a single report of anybody’s health being affected by GM crops and no verifiable evidence of any environmental harm. Moreover, there are many peer reviewed scientific publications and regulatory review documents that can testify to the safety of biotech crops. Therefore, it is safe to say that biotechnology is safe.

What are the advantages of biotech?
The benefits of biotechnology, today and in the future, are immense. Biotech crops offer many positive and significant environmental and social benefits.

Today, the world is faced with many challenges of a growing population, rising needs, depleting natural resources among others. Humanity must respond to the growing pressures on the earth’s natural resources to feed more people. Traditional farming ceases to provide us answers for feeding, fuelling and clothing the current and future generations. What we need is increasing yield in a sustainable manner. Biotechnology applied in agriculture can do this.

Experts assert that biotechnology innovations will triple crop yields without requiring any additional farmland, saving valuable rain forests and animal habitats. Other innovations can reduce or eliminate reliance on pesticides and herbicides that may contribute to environmental degradation. Still others will preserve precious groundsoils and water resources. Research in plant biotechnology can contribute to food security and more affordable food, thereby addressing hunger and poverty. It also contributes to biodiversity in a significant way and reduces the impact of agriculture on the environment. Overall, it is environmentally benign and a cost effective option.

The advantages of biotechnology is to employ living organisms to carry out both utilitarian and beneficial functions in the most proficient and sustainable way. They consume no external energy and other natural resources, which are becoming scarce. Biotechnology is a transformative technology that is already changing the way we live. It has great applications in medicine, agriculture and environmental protection. Plant biotechnology is truly one of the most transformative technologies of the 21st century. A clear example is Bt cotton — the only biotech crop technology approved for cultivation in India which made the country the world’s second largest producer and exporter of cotton by doubling that nation’s cotton productivity within seven years of the launch of Bt cotton in 2002.

What is the future of this field? What are the educational qualifications needed to be in this field?
The field of biotechnology is as big as the living world. Considering the kind of novel and new researches taking place, the sky is the limit for the application of biotechnology. The 21st century belongs to the biotech and information technology, and I highly recommend pursuit of biotechnology to students.

The biotech industry offers career on streams of pharma, agriculture, life sciences etc. There are ample opportunities thrown up for Biotech students (BTech, MTech or PhDs).

New biology of the last 50 years is now the basis of commercializing it into biotechnology. The speed with which biotechnology is being applied boggles the mind. However, it is important to bear in mind that students should first get proficient in basic sciences, and start thinking about using that knowledge to solve problems. Biotechnology is all about solving problems.

There is a great future in biomedical biotechnology, agricultural biotechnology and environmental biotechnology. Saving the environment of our planet is the most crucial issue and it will need biotechnology to get the job done.
Sivramiah Shantharam, from Bangalore, is a senior research scholar in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy (STEP) at Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University.

A Sivramiah Shantaram


China: 'GM' Rice May Join The Menu

- China Daily, August 26, 2009 http://www.chinadaily.com.cn

Genetically modified (GM) rice, which proponents say is more resistant to pests and more satisfying to taste buds, may be edging toward the market in China. Government officials said Monday final approval to sell GM rice is close.

Experts said a change in attitude toward the production of the engineered food began last year. China has not allowed any selling or planting of GM rice. In 2005, the sales of transgenic rice in Hubei province was revealed by Greenpeace causing a big controversy. "China has worked on research of transgenic rice and is strongly considering (its commercialization)," said Niu Dun, vice-minister of agriculture, Monday.

Last July, the State Council approved a major project involved in the research and development of genetically altered foods, including meats and produce. The council has expected to invest about 20 billion yuan on transgenic breeding since then.

Officials said that by 2020, the country could be a leader in GM foods, cloning, large-scale transgenic technology and new breed promotion. Rice and corn are the items nearest commercialization. Niu did not say when approval to sell genetically altered rice might come.

Rice is a crucial staple in Asia and throughout the Pacific area and officials said increased production would make a massive difference. According to the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, genetically modified rice could lead to an 80 percent cut in pesticide use. GM rice could also increase yields by around 6 percent.

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) reports show there are now 60 times more transgenic plants in cultivation than there were 10 years ago. They are now found in 22 countries. Some 224,000 tons of pesticide is not used as a result. China currently produces around 500 million tons of rice. With its population expected to grow to 1.6 billion by 2020, 630 million tons of rice will be needed. Science is seen as the best way to meet that demand.

Throughout the world, some 114 million hectares of transgenic plants were grown by 2007. Crops included potatoes, soybeans, cotton and rice.

In China, the safety of transgenic food is not only a scientific issue, but one with economic and political importance, said Cao Mengliang, a researcher on molecular rice in China National Hybrid Rice R&D Centre. The technology has not yet been commercialized but is being considered by top government officials, he said.

"Studies of the safety of the technology have been completed. Discussions about whether to open it up to the market are now in the final stages. Now, the safety certificate is the last thing needed before commercialized production," Cao said. The technology will mainly focus on insect resistance, pesticide implications and disease control and upon improvements to quality and taste, he said.

GM rice is likely to be welcomed by farmers because of its potential to generate larger profits, in part because of its reduced need for pesticides.

Wang Xiusong, rice consultant to the Ministry of Agriculture, said some obstacles still block the technology from large-scale use, including the fact that its gene stability could vary drastically. He said it could be used as a complementary measures but not a mainstream one.


Time for TIME to Get Real

- Matt Bogard AgWeb (Blog), August 25, 2009

In a recent article in Time Magazine, ( Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food) I think that I have witnessed one of the worst pieces of pseudo science I've seen in a long time.

Isn't obesity the result of diet, genetics, and exercise? Personal choice and genetics are the drivers, not agricultural production practices as the author seems to claim. There are some other 'unbalanced' assertions made in the article as well:

'He's fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. '

From this statement one might think that 'subsidies' are leading farmers to produce corn instead of healthy apples and spinach. The reason we produce so much corn is not due to the subsidies, the reason we have the subsidies is that we produce so much corn ( and thus have strong lobbying arms for production and processing industries). Grains are a worldwide food staple. They would be produced with or without government programs.

A main assertion made in the article is that modern science based agriculture ( or 'industrial agriculture' if you prefer the more negative connotation) is leading to ever more use of ever more toxic chemicals and environmental degradation. On the contrary modern agriculture is becoming more sustainable every day. Biotechnology, a key factor in modern agriculture, is not mentioned at all in the entire article. The adoption of biotechnology has led to decreased levels of chemical applications and in some cases the elimination of certain pesticides completely. 1.04 million fewer pounds of insecticide are applied each year as a result of biotech Bt cotton alone. With Bt cotton, 4 million gallons of fuel and 93.7 million gallons of water are saved on the farm each year from fewer insecticide applications.In addition, Bt corn also has reduced levels of carcinogenic toxins produced by fumonisin . Last year, in Britain, two organic corn meal products were recalled because testing showed that they had unacceptably high levels of fumonisin.

Roundup Ready technology has allowed for glyphosate herbicide to substitute for 7.2 million pounds of other chemicals that are more toxic and persistent in the environment.There are also economies of scope or synergies between sustainable production practices such as crop rotation and reduced or no tillage farming and biotech plantings. As a result biotechnology has also contributed to increased biodiversity among pest populations while maintaining yield gains. Further, with fewer chemical applications and less tillage, energy inputs to grain production are down, while yields continue to increase, reducing the overall environmental impact and carbon foot print. Between 1987 and 2007 energy use per unit of output for cotton, soybeans and corn has decreased by nearly 40% . Irrigated water use per unit of output decreased by 20 percent . In addition there has been about a 30% decrease in carbon emissions per unit of output for corn, soybeans and cotton as well ( see here from Truth About Trade and Technology). In addition to the lower carbon and water foot print, these practices have also decreased groundwater pollution. The use of biotechnology in the livestock industry has demonstrated similar environmental gains.

'The UCS estimates that about 70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we're breeding more of those deadly organisms every day.'

This is meaningless. What matters is of the antimicrobials given to animals, what % actually target pathogens that affect humans. Resistance requires selection pressure, and if the majority of antimicrobials used in livestock production are not selecting against deadly pathogens, then the risks are overblown. What we have observed is that in countries where food grade antimicrobials used in livestock production have been more heavily regulated or banned, the resulting increase in livestock illness has lead to an increased use of antibiotics actually used in human medicine. This policy results in increased selection pressure for antibiotic resistance among pathogens dangerous to humans and should be avoided. The article also avoids to mention the environmental benefits of antimicrobials as well as the benefits of other pharmaceutical products such as growth enhancing hormones. On a pound for pound basis, reasearch indicats that beef produced using grain and growth hormones leads to a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a two-thirds reduction in land use vs. organic grass-fed beef.

'Worldwide, organic food — a sometimes slippery term but on the whole a practice more sustainable than conventional food '

There is little scientific consensus on this conclusion. There is certainly evidence to the contrary, and while there are very desirable qualities associated with organic food ( some of my favorite frozen foods are Amy's brand of organics) organic should not be sold as a panacea in contrast to modern agriculture. The fact that many organic producers are now ( see here from the Journal Science) considering adopting biotech options indicates that organic alone as it stands today is not a solution. Reduced yields ( see Science link) as a result of organic practices imply a larger carbon footprint and decreased biodiversity compared to biotech crops. No where in the article did I find the author mention any of the downsides of organic production such as toxic biological controls( see About.com) used in organic production including nicotine* sulfur, pyrethrum, neem, sabadilla, and rotenone* that government regulators don’t even track data for.These can be just as persistent in the environment and detrimental to biological diversity as some conventional products. Nor does the author mention increased risks of E coli contamination ( Science). Instead the author of the Time piece attributes increased risks to conventional agriculture.

I agree that our food choices certainly have impacts on the environment. However, the impacts in the TIME article seem a little more exagerrated than the science supports. Regardless of anyone's opinion, food choices should remain just that, 'choices.' Nothing in my writing should be misconstrued to be anti-organic or taken to mean that people should be stigmatized for 'eating for social justice.' This is fine as long as people don't take thier religion little too far and impose it on the rest of us through an act of congress.


Global Harvest Initiative Launches Campaign to Address World's Growing Needs


'Goal is to sustainably double agricultural output by 2050'

WASHINGTON, Aug. 20 /PRNewswire/ -- The Global Harvest Initiative announces the launch of a campaign to heighten awareness of the increasing gap between the world's agricultural production capacity and what will be required to meet the needs of a growing population. Based on projections from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, agriculture will need to double output by 2050.

"The Global Harvest Initiative is mobilizing a diverse group of thought-leaders to focus on the challenge of doubling agricultural output, and doing so in a sustainable manner," said Dr. William G. Lesher, executive director of the Global Harvest Initiative. "Already efforts are underway to enhance agricultural production, minimize post-harvest losses and introduce efficiencies throughout the value chain. But achieving such a monumental task requires additional attention and support from many."

The Global Harvest Initiative will launch the effort on September 22, 2009, in Washington, D.C. with a symposium for leaders in production agriculture, sustainability, conservation, hunger remediation and global policies. The day-long event will include discussions of the role of innovation, investment, international policy and other factors in increasing global agricultural production, reducing waste and conserving resources. Participants will also discuss the link between agriculture and national security.

The symposium will feature a keynote address by U.S. Senator Richard Lugar and a roundtable discussion on innovation and productivity challenges by the chief executives of the four leading agricultural companies - John Deere, DuPont, Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland Company - that founded the Global Harvest Initiative. Other confirmed speakers include Catherine Bertini, Syracuse University; Dan Glickman, Friends of the World Food Program; Jason Clay, World Wildlife Fund; Kenneth Quinn, World Food Prize; Glenn Prickett, Conservation International; Margaret Zeigler, Congressional Hunger Center; Neil Conklin, Farm Foundation; Robert Thompson, University of Illinois; and John Kruse, Global Insights. Symposium participants will examine policies to support the goal, including:

* increasing competitive agricultural research
* enhancing food security through freer trade in agriculture goods and products
* improving the effectiveness of US foreign development assistance activities
* offering greater incentives for innovation and conservation throughout the agriculture value chain
* promoting science-based approval of new technologie


Agricultural Biotechnology for Better Living and a Clean Environment

- September 22-25, 2009, Queen Sirikit National Convention Center , Bangkok

http://www.abic.ca/abic2009 or abic2009@biotec.or.th

If any of these questions pertains to your line of work,

* Does biofuel impact food and feed production? What about environment?
* Is GM crop for food, feed and energy?
* How do we increase crop yield?
* Should we consider genetic improvement for aquaculture production?
* What are the effects of Global warming on plant biomass?
* Does anyone care about nutrition?
* Is there such a thing as bio-business success?
* Who are the world leaders in food production?

Then, you can not sit idle but reserve your seat to voice your comment.