* Better World:Learn to Love Genetic Engineering
* Ag-tech Upstart Is Armed to Take on Monsanto
* Potential of Crop Bioengineering to Catalyze International Development
* Heart-Friendly Oils from GM Crops
* Pioneering Research Gives Hope for Food Security
* The Man Who Fought The 'Neo-Luddites'
* Norman Borlaug, Agronomist Who Fought World Hunger, Dies
* So Much Food. So Much Hunger
* Benefits of Genetically Modified Food Touted
* Swiss Tire of Biotech Debate
* AgriGenomics World Congress
Better World: Learn to Love Genetic Engineering
- Michael Le Page, New Scientist, September 14, 2009 http://www.newscientist.com/article/
The technology environmentalists love to hate really could play a big role in saving the planet.
BY 2040 there could well be 9 billion people on the planet. The challenge, as oil runs out and climate change kicks in, is not just to grow enough food to feed so many people but to do it without wreaking more havoc on the planet.
It won't be easy. Farming causes more global warming than all the world's cars, trains, ships and planes put together. The worst culprit is a greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide, a breakdown product of nitrogen fertilisers (including organic ones). Next in line is methane from livestock and manure. To meet demand for food and other materials such as biofuels without turning all the remaining wilderness into farmland, and without producing yet more greenhouse gases, we are going to have to exploit every trick we can.
Genetic engineering could make matters far worse. For instance, Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics and other companies are trying to develop microbes that turn coal, tar shale and oil into methane. This could greatly increase greenhouse emissions by making it possible to exploit hard-to-extract reserves of fossil fuels, such as the extensive oil residues left behind after normal pumping is completed.
Like any technology, however, genetic modification could also be put to positive use. It might be the key to boosting oil yields from algae grown in ponds and to turning plant wastes into fuel, rather than converting valuable food into biofuel, as happens now.
Experimental crop plants that use nitrogen more efficiently provide the same yields as normal crops with less fertiliser. Such crops could reduce both nitrous oxide emissions and the nitrogen run-off that creates dead zones in the oceans. Salt-tolerant crops under development will grow on land contaminated by irrigation or sea-level rise, and drought-tolerant varieties could find even wider use.
In the longer term, even more dramatic changes could be made, such as altering the fundamental biochemistry of plants that carry out C3 photosynthesis - which includes nearly all staple crops - to carry out C4 photosynthesis instead. This would allow them to thrive in hotter, drier conditions.
As pests and diseases evolve and spread, crops genetically modified to resist them could boost production, or at least maintain yields. The ringspot virus had halved papaya production in Hawaii before a resistant GM strain was introduced in 1998.
Last but not least, genetic modification can make existing foods more nutritious. The lack of nutrients such as vitamin A remain a major cause of death and disease in developing countries. GM crops such as the soon-to-be-introduced Golden Rice will help to improve health and reduce child mortality, which will ultimately contribute to a reduction in population growth.
Many people, especially in Europe, oppose crops like Golden Rice simply because they are genetically engineered, but there is no rational basis for drawing an absolute distinction between conventional breeding and genetic modification. Thousands of years of selective breeding have produced extensive genetic changes in the plants and animals we eat, not all of them good. Many "natural" crops like potatoes are poisonous to varying degrees, and conventional breeding can make them more toxic. Transgenic organisms are nothing new either: the swapping of genes between separate species is as old as life itself. As for GM crops making farmers dependent on multinational companies, it was the introduction of non-GM hybrid seed back in 1924 that first persuaded farmers to give up saving seed each year in favour of buying it.
Yes, there are other ways to improve nutrition and boost yields, but combining these methods with GM could make them far more effective. With a third of species facing oblivion, environmentalists need to embrace a technology that could help to save many of them - and many of us.
Ag-tech Upstart Is Armed to Take on Monsanto
- Jeffrey M. O'Brien, Fortune Brainstorm, Sept. 21, 2009 http://brainstormtech.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/
'Cibus Global uses bioscience to enhance plant genes with a different approach than agribusiness giants.'
Israeli crop-protection company Makhteshim-Agan is investing $37 million in San Diego ag-tech startup Cibus Global to spur the development of new strains of crops that will be resistant to various forms of disease, pests, and herbicides.
The investment, which will occur over five years and will eventually allow the Israeli company to acquire slightly more than 50% of the startup, provides a shot in the arm for the 8-year-old upstart whose grand ambitions could put it on a collision course with ag-tech giants like Dow Chemical (DOW), Monsanto (MON), and Syngenta (SYT).
Cibus’s primary asset is its so-called Rapid Trait Development System. Unlike the transgenic approach used by Monsanto, where a foreign gene is inserted into a plant’s genome to confer, for example, immunity to an herbicide (à la Roundup-ready cotton and soybeans), Cibus’s technology teases out such characteristics from the genome without inserting foreign material.
It essentially hurries along standard plant breeding in a highly controlled setting. In simple terms, a molecule is inserted into a plant’s cell, causing the plant to mutate in a desired way. What could take Mother Nature tens of thousands of years to accomplish through millions of mutations over myriad generations takes Cibus anywhere from three to five years, lab to market.
Winning over activists and international governments
This is an important breakthrough for a few reasons: PR, accuracy, and money. While the company is highly successful, Monsanto, for example, has battled a persistent public relations onslaught over its transgenic practices.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been largely resisted by European nations, rejected by much of Africa, and railed against by various environmental organizations that claim genetically modified crops are either highly infectious to other crops, potentially dangerous to our health, or both.
A technology that could achieve the same benefits — pest or herbicide resistance, for example — without inserting foreign material into a genome should gain the approval of the marketplace and activists alike.
What’s more, transgenic mutations are highly complex and notoriously difficult to get right — which makes for an expensive process.
Zigging while Monsanto zags
“Monsanto estimates that it takes as much as $50 million to launch a transgenic product, which includes all the regulatory work to get it cleared in the U.S. –- and in some parts of the world, it’s not even possible,” says Keith Walker, president of Cibus. “For us," Walker says, "it’s a $5 million to $7 million exercise to take a product to market. That gives us opportunities to work in crops that are smaller in acreage.”
The arrangement with Makhteshim-Agan allows Walker and his team of bio-scientists to explore any number of crops and characteristics. Walker won’t yet say which crops he’s targeting, but they won’t be the enormous ones where Monsanto already has a foothold: cotton, soy, and corn. But that still leaves plenty of opportunity. “The markets are multiple billions of dollars,” says Walker, “and you don’t have to go against Dow Chemical and Monsanto until you’re ready.”
Cibus has already gone through field testing with several crops and has two herbicide-resistant canola products in the works, one that was developed in-house and will debut in 2011, and another that was developed in conjunction with BASF, slated for introduction in 2013.
Its success in the marketplace should pave the way for Cibus to launch subsequent products quickly, and there are few ends to what such a technology can accomplish. “Monsanto puts a whole gene in, but it’s not necessary,” says Walker. “Literally, as each day goes by, we see new information coming out of functional genomics research that creates new potential targets of opportunity.”
Potential of Crop Bioengineering to Catalyze International Development
- Crop Biotech Update, isaaa.org
Crop bioengineering opens the floodgates to opportunities for crop improvement. However its success depends to a large extent on how effectively the global scientific community and the public and the private sectors can harness together its power and other allied fields of genomics and bioinformatics for the world's poor. In Crop bioengineering: Enormous potential for catalyzing international development published in Agriculture for Development, Peter Gregory of Cornell University and Stanley Kowalski of the Franklin Pierce Law Center, USA, say that: "This in turn depends on the extent to which projects are demand-driven and holistic in approach, integrating all technical and non-technical factors relevant to the product development and commercialization/delivery chain." Strong emphasis must be placed on inter-institutional collaboration and focused and sustained capacity building at both human and institutional levels.
Successful distribution of bioengineered crops requires a communication strategy that provides regular and accurate information about them to various stakeholders. Gregory and Kowalski conclude that this will facilitate public acceptance and continued development of bioengineered crops.
For more information contact Peter Gregory at firstname.lastname@example.org or Stanley Kowalski at email@example.com.
Heart-Friendly Oils from GM Crops
- Crop Biotech Update, isaaa.org
Researchers at Rothamsted Research and the University of York, both in the U.K., have developed genetically modified (GM) Arabidopsis thaliana and linseed plants that produce "significant" levels of an omega-3 fatty acid in their seeds. The specific omega-3 fatty acid produced is stearidonic acid. Their research results have been published in the Plant Biotechology Journal. Numerous studies have shown that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases, according to the article. Omega-3 fatty acids also offer other health benefits. The article, together with a link to the scientific paper in the Plant Biotechnology Journal, can be viewed online at the link below.
Pioneering Research Gives Hope for Food Security
- James Andrews, Farmers Weekly http://www.agbios.com/main.php?action=ShowNewsItem&id=10980
Researchers at the John Innes Centre in the U.K. and Washington State University in the U.S. are pursuing research aimed at eventually transferring the nitrogen-fixing capability of legumes to other crops such as wheat, rice, and maize. Legumes, such as soybeans, form a symbiotic relationship with rhizobeal bacteria. The legumes form root nodules to house the bacteria, and the legumes convert nitrogen in the air into a form of nitrogen that can be used by the plant.
So far, "We have identified a key gene [called DMI3] that legumes require to interact with rhizobial bacteria and trigger nodule growth," says research leader Giles Oldroyd of the John Innes Centre. The researchers have also developed "a good understanding on the genetic switches behind the process," says Oldroyd. The next step would be to create similar genetic architecture in non-legumes, he says. "DMI3 is present in cereal crops, but parts of the signal pathway are missing. We need to work out how to complete this, how to switch it on and at what time," he says. Additional challenges are expected. For example, nitrogen fixation requires large amounts of energy, which could be a problem in cereal crops, Oldroyd says. The research and development process is therefore expected to take decades.
"Within the next 20-30 years I would hope to see a response," says Oldroyd. However, the eventual product should be very valuable, according to Oldroyd. "The technology could dramatically reduce the need for inorganic nitrogen fertilisers, in turn reducing environmental pollution and energy use. Cost savings for the grower and consumer would also be substantial," he says. In other news, the John Innes Center is working to develop a new wheat breeding technology that would make it possible to introduce important genes from wild relatives into wheat, the press release reports. The press release can be viewed online at the link below.
The Man Who Fought The 'Neo-Luddites'
- Diane Katz, The Star, Sep 20, 2009 http://www.thestar.com
Norman Borlaug was a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. His work to develop high-yield, disease-resistant grains such as wheat, pictured, is credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives because it helped to double world food production between 1960 and 1990. Borlaug died Sept. 12, 2009 at the age of 95.
In the prolonged absence of food, the body consumes its own muscle and tissue. Every movement causes excruciating pain. The skin cracks for lack of nutrients, inviting all manner of germs to overwhelm internal organs. Death can be a blessing. From this miserable fate, Norman Borlaug rescued a billion people around the globe.
His own death last Saturday, at the age of 95, reminds us that the scientific mind can be a precious gift to humanity.
As an agricultural scientist, Borlaug bred high-yield and disease-resistant varieties of grain that helped to double world food production between 1960 and 1990 – a feat that averted mass starvation in Mexico, India and Pakistan. For launching this "Green Revolution," he was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, thereby becoming among the most deserving recipients ever so honoured.
By some estimates, more than half of the world's population now relies on grains grown from the crossbred seeds developed by Borlaug and his colleagues. But despite saving more lives than anyone else in human history, Borlaug came under attack for advocating biotechnology, i.e., the utilization of organisms, to increase food production.
Critics complain that his emphasis on high-yield methods of agriculture – including the use of nitrogen fertilizer and irrigation –"stressed" the environment. Opposition began to foment following the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's (scientifically discredited) Silent Spring. And while Borlaug only used classic breeding methods to create new seed varieties, his steadfast advocacy of genetically modified crops infuriated those who disparage such products as "Frankenfoods."
But Borlaug was undaunted by the derision of neo-Luddites; he was quick to note that improving productivity prevented the conversion of forestland to farmland. He told Reason magazine in a 2000 interview that the volume of the 17 most important U.S. crops grown in 1960 amounted to 252 million tonnes. By 1990, the volume had more than doubled, to 596 million tonnes – and was produced on 25 million fewer acres than were cultivated 30 years earlier. "It is because we use farmland so effectively now that President Clinton was able to set aside 50 or 60 million acres of land as wilderness areas," he noted.
His response to those who romanticize subsistence farming is likewise instructive and revealing of the purity of his motives. As he told Atlantic magazine in 1997: "Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the Earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger --. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals, and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."
The crop varieties created by Borlaug allowed Pakistan and India to quadruple their grain yields. Countries once plagued with malnutrition and starvation became agriculturally self-sufficient. Once fed, people were thus free to improve their lives and those of their children.
His efforts in later years to tackle hunger in sub-Saharan Africa were thwarted by the shameful protests of the environmental lobby. Having secured a ban on genetically modified foods in the European Union, opponents successfully targeted the hungriest continent. In the midst of a killer drought in 2003, for example, officials in Zambia and Zimbabwe turned back U.S. food aid, saying they preferred to go hungry rather than allow genetically modified grains to enter their countries.
Thankfully, government officials were far more focused on filling stomachs than promulgating regulations when Borlaug was creating his life-saving seeds. In recent years, however, overzealous regulators regarded almost every application of biotechnology as hazardous. "If our varieties had been subjected to the kinds of regulatory strictures and requirements that are now being inflicted upon the new biotechnology, they would never have become available," Borlaug said.
He elaborated on this point on the 30th anniversary of his Nobel Prize, saying, "while the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions and pay more for food produced by the so-called `organic' methods, the 1 billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot."
No one can ever doubt his love of the farm. He told biographer Lennard Bickel: "When wheat is ripening properly, when the wind is blowing across the field, you can hear the beards of the wheat rubbing together. They sound like the pine needles in a forest. It is a sweet, whispering music that once you hear, you never forget."
His message is one we surely should remember. Science can be of incalculable value in the face of peril. Biotechnology saves far more lives than it threatens. Indeed, the life of Norman Borlaug is a testament to our capacity for good and the power of the scientific mind to serve humanity.
Diane Katz is director of risk, environment and energy policy for the Fraser Institute.
Norman Borlaug, Agronomist Who Fought World Hunger, Dies
- John Pollock, Technology Review, Sept. 15, 2009 http://www.technologyreview.com
Norman Borlaug, the world's greatest farmer, and a distinguished agronomist, died at the weekend, aged 95. His was a long and productive life of heroic proportions. The honours humanity heaped on "Norm" included the Nobel Peace Prize, Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom: a hat-trick shared only with Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Elie Wiesel.
Yet only a day earlier, UPI reported a story that Norm, famously unassuming, would undoubtedly have been happy to see get more attention than his widely reported death--the fact that Ug99, a variant of the stem rust that is the principal blight of wheat, mankind's major food-source (and the core of Borlaug's lifework), continues its insidious march into South Asia. It now threatens the food supplies of at least 26 countries. For Borlaug, it was always all about the food--and food's dark shadows, hunger and famine, which had haunted and driven him since his youth amid the dust-bowls of The Great Depression.
As George Santayana famously remarked in The Life of Reason, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". Borlaug lived long enough to both remember the Depression--and warn against its repetition. At a conference of world experts gathered to highlight the dangers of Ug99, Borlaug--then in his nineties--was the only person present to have personally experienced what a stem rust epidemic meant. For while there is an impressive nomenclature to capture the elements--basidiospores, dikaryotic urediniospores, stomata - the truth is grimly physical: despairing farmers in fields of rotting plants, a long way from happy breakfast cereal images. With Borlaug's death, we have lost a link to a past that truly has the capacity to become a nightmarish future. And the reasons for that, while complex, lie in the bitterly contested politics of technological innovation.
For before he'd even been buried, the usual suspects were out and about, spouting an environmentalist critique of Borlaug's extraordinary achievement: more or less feeding the world for the last half century. For example, Graham Harvey, who advises on the farming strand on the world's longest-running radio soap, The Archers, felt fit to write in The Times of the "worrying consequences" and "widespread environmental damage" of Borlaug's Green Revolution, which is widely reckoned to have fed billions of people, as well as saving many millions of hectares of wilderness from agricultural use. There are, of course, issues (when are there not?) and Norm never shied from them. But as he repeatedly noted, such hand-wringing does very little for the millions of children "who cry themselves to sleep with hunger each night."
In a delightfully dry denunciation of those vaguely in favor of a global "organic" solution, on Penn and Teller's Bullshit! series, Norm noted that "Producing food for 6.2 billion people -- is not simple." He added, "[Organic approaches] can only feed four billion--I don't see two billion volunteers to disappear." Indeed, a useful distinction could be made between the green--those concerned with a more or less hypothetical future, but nonetheless adept at whipping up public and media concern (and seeming oceans of public funding courtesy of a cadre of mountebank politicians) and those working at the sharp end, like Norm, who we might call brown. In other words, those working in a world involving the suffering of mainly brown-skinned people who, to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain, live in far-away countries, and of whom we know little.
Norm exuded an old-school charm in person, but had little truck for those with no experience of the "back-breaking" hardship of actually growing food. Even in his tenth decade, his passion was for the poor. He politely, but witheringly, disdained the indulgences of the comfortable cadre of environmentalists in the West who knew not of what they speak. (He also had sharp and pithy words about the synthetic pesticide DDT, not least in terms of the near-genocidal impact of banning it on countless millions of African malaria sufferers). He was a big hitter in a debate all too often mired in emotionalism.
Ronnie Coffman of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) notes that "we have a lot of complaints about the green revolution, but those who complain have little awareness of the alternatives -- because stem rust is a global disease, it's not a national disease. We have to hang together on this thing or we will all hang separately, because you cannot defend yourself alone." Three weeks ago Coffman met a frail Borlaug, and this humble American hero gave a last, stark warning: "Don't relax. Rust never sleeps."
We honour him best by helping create the political will, and sustainable funds, to prevent the kind of global famine that was the stuff of his nightmares. Norm deserves a quiet night.
John Pollock reviewed "The Man Who Fed the World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug and His Battle to End World Hunger" in the January/February 2008 issue of Technology Review. He is a consultant and author based in London.
So Much Food. So Much Hunger
- Andrew Martin, New York Times, September 20, 2009
This past week the world celebrated the life and achievements of Norman Borlaug, the Iowa-born plant scientist who created high-yielding wheat varieties to stave off famine.
Dr. Borlaug, who died at age 95 on Sept. 12, led the so-called Green Revolution that created bumper crops in once impoverished countries like Mexico, India and Pakistan. In lauding Dr. Borlaug’s achievements, the United Nations’ World Food Program said he had saved more lives than any man in history.
But the eulogies for Dr. Borlaug often neglected an important and perplexing fact. Despite his accomplishments, more people are hungry today than ever and that total should exceed one billion people this year for the first time, according to the United Nations.
How can so many people be hungry when farmers produce enough food, at least in theory, to feed every person on the planet?
The answers are complex and involve everything from American farm politics and African corruption to war, poverty, climate change and drought, which is now the single most common cause of food shortages on the planet.
But David Beckmann, president of the antihunger group Bread for the World, boiled the causes down into one unifying theme — “a lack of give a damn.” “It’s mainly neglect,” he said. “Political neglect.”
The yield gains of the last half-century, both in the developed and developing world, led to grain surpluses and low prices, creating a sense of complacency about agriculture and hunger. “There was an attitude following the Green Revolution that the problem was solved,” said Gary H. Toenniessen of the Rockefeller Foundation.
So much grain was being produced so cheaply that Western leaders encouraged poor nations to buy grain on the world market rather than grow it themselves. Surplus was shipped to poor countries as food aid. But that aid system has often been ineffective in alleviating hunger in a timely way and in addressing broader agriculture problems facing impoverished countries. Support for agricultural research in developing countries was also cut back for other priorities. The result? While the food supply grew faster than the world’s population from 1970 to 1990, as the Green Revolution’s gains took hold, the situation has now reversed itself. Productivity gains in agriculture have slowed, and since 1990, the growth rate of food production has fallen below population growth.
The consequences have been particularly dire in sub-Saharan Africa, where the gains of the Green Revolution have been difficult to replicate. Among other problems, irrigation — which was key to the Green Revolution — is relatively scarce in Africa.
Few paid attention to these problems until last year, when a confluence of events caused food prices to spike to record levels. Riots erupted in many nations, and even American consumers felt pinched as prices soared.
Prices have come down in the United States, but the situation in Africa remains dismal due to an exploding population and now, a severe drought that threatens millions. The World Food Program says it is critically short of funds.
At a July summit meeting, President Obama and other leaders of industrialized nations pledged $20 billion for agricultural development in poor countries. Activists say that some of the tools for success are within reach provided the financing and political will persist: those tools include seeds fine-tuned to local conditions, fertilizer and better roads and other infrastructure improvements.
The more difficult problems may lie within our borders. Farm programs are among the most entrenched entitlements in Washington. But crop subsidies and America’s habit of shipping grain to the poor tends to undermine robust markets in developing countries.
Dr. Borlaug, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, understood well the limitations of the Green Revolution’s success. After receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007, he noted that the “battle to ensure food security for hundreds of millions of miserably poor people is far from won.”
“World peace will not be built on empty stomachs or human misery,” he said. “It is within America’s technical and financial power to help end this human tragedy and injustice, if we set our hearts and minds to the task.”
Benefits of Genetically Modified Food Touted
- Hank Daniszewski, London Free Press (Canada), Sept. 21, 2009 http://lfpress.ca
Biotechnology is gradually revolutionizing crop production around the world but is still running into regulatory and consumer resistance, says a panel of agriculture experts.
Speaking at a biotech economic summit yesterday, David Sippell, the London-based president of Syngenta Seeds Canada, said his company is using genetic modification to develop a growing number of traits in corn that could make the crop easier and cheaper to grow, enhance nutrition in feed corn and boost production in corn grown for ethanol.
Sippell said Ontario is already a leader in specialized crops, leading the world in production of a food-grade soybean used in Asian countries to produce tofu. "Ontario is extremely well-positioned. We will be one of the first places where these things come to market," said Sippell. But he said other crops such as wheat are lagging behind in genetic modification and have been "orphaned by technology."
Sippell said Canadian wheat, unlike some other crops, is exported all over the world and faces regulatory hurdles in a number of countries. He said Syngenta has developed a wheat variety that resists fusarium, a disease that can produce low levels of a cancer-causing toxin.
"It's a desirable trait from a consumer perspective, but getting approvals for that trait in 50 or 60 countries is time-consuming, costly and politically sensitive," he said.
Peter Gredig, a farmer and agricultural journalist, said wheat faces more resistance from consumers wary of genetically modified crops. "For many people wheat equals bread," he said. He said some countries have also used genetic modification as an excuse to impose trade restrictions.
Gredig was one of the first farmers to test genetically modified crops in 1996 on his farm south of London. He said most farmers take a pragmatic approach to genetically modified crops, growing them if they make economic sense. "Companies did a great job of explaining what was in it for producers . . . they forgot to explain what was in it for consumers. They saw a loss a control, " said Gredig.
Gredig said the term "genetic modification" was accepted by farmers but regarded with suspicion by consumers. He said consumers should hear that genetic modification could have positive benefits such as enhancing nutrition or creating new medicines. "The PR (public relations) can be as important as the crop itself," he said.
He said farmers are gradually shifting out of wheat because its productivity is lagging behind other crops such as canola. "Consumers in some parts of the world are saying 'we don't want this' and producers are looking at the flat productivity of wheat and the economics are telling them to get out."
Swiss Tire of Biotech Debate
- Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo.ch, September 18, 2009
Despite its sometimes controversial reputation, green biotechnology is failing to arouse great interest in Switzerland. According to a new study, stakeholders are tired of the topic, the media is not reporting on it and the public is ambivalent.
And most people welcome the government's proposal to extend the current moratorium on the commercial use of genetically-modified (GM) plants. The "Green Technology in the Public Sphere" project, whose results were revealed in Zurich on Friday, looked into attitudes towards green biotechnology among the stakeholders - such as scientists, the agro industry and non-governmental organisations - the media and the public.
It is part of the government-backed National Research Programme NRP 59, which is investigating the benefits and the risks of GM plants from a wide-ranging scientific perspective.
Swiss voters accepted a five-year moratorium on the commercial use of GM plants in 2005, giving Switzerland some of the toughest legislation in Europe. The sowing of genetically modified seeds is, however, allowed under strict controls for research purposes.
In July this year the government announced that it wanted to extend the moratorium, which runs out in 2010, for three years to have more time to look into scientific and legal issues. This still has to be considered by parliament.
A bit tired
"The stakeholders are a bit tired [of the debate], most of them told us that the current moratorium is not bad," said study leader Heinz Bonfadelli, of the Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research at Zurich University. "The government is discussing prolonging the moratorium and this is the dominant opinion among the stakeholders as well," he told swissinfo.ch.
The study found that there was hardly any market, products or field testing in Switzerland. Furthermore, the stakeholders considered that all arguments had been aired and welcomed the "lull in fighting" between those for and against GM.
As for the media, interest fell after the moratorium was decided. Current reports are mostly driven by the political agenda, although the science side did get some exposure. Tabloid-style newspapers tended to focus on health risks. A recent story highlighted a government investigation into whether GM linseed had found its way into Swiss food.
What was striking about the public part of the study, which surveyed more than 1,000 people, was that attitudes had hardly changed in the six years included in the research and that ambivalence reigned. Currently, one third of the population is against biotech in agriculture or food and one third is in favour, leaving a strong group of undecided, Bonfadelli said.
"Our research showed us that when people read the words genetic engineering or biotechnology and they see applications in medicine or genetic testing, most people are in favour, as they see positive evaluated future possibilities," the academic explained.
"But when it comes to applications in agriculture or food, they see risks, or they have problems with future-oriented topics like a decrease in biodiversity. This probably a bit explains these ambivalent attitudes." Men were generally more in favour of GM and acceptance rose along with levels of education.
Only around 15 per cent of those surveyed said that biotech was a burning issue for them.
Communication However, the Swiss population are still better informed than some stakeholders think, argued Bonfadelli. The Swiss perform well in European comparisons, which is due to the political discussions surrounding the moratorium and other GM issues.
In all, 60 per cent of the people asked were in favour of prolonging the moratorium and only 25 per cent said it should be stopped. Bonfadelli said that, nevertheless, an active public debate on green biotechnology was needed in Switzerland.
"There is not much communication in the media and by the stakeholders. We still need much more active dialogue among scientists, stakeholders, the NGOs and schools," he said. "Nobody can afford to wait for other people to do the communication job in this field."
AgriGenomics World Congress
- Brussels, July 8-9, 2010 http://www.selectbiosciences.com/conferences/AGWC2010/
This year's event has been expanded to include twin conference tracks covering advances in plant and animal genomics. AgriGenomics is the detailed study of the genetic makeup of plants and how all the genes work together to produce the crop. Recently there has been great interest in genetically engineering plants to optimize yields and their use in bio-fuels. There is also focus on the alteration of certain genes to increase plant resistance towards disease and infection. So, now is a good time for scientists, business people, bio-ethicists and patent experts from around the globe to come together and catch up with the latest developments in this fast expanding field. Register now and save up to €100!
Keynote Speaker: Martin B Dickman, Professor and Director, Institute for Plant Genomics and Biotechnology
* RNA silencing mechanisms in plants
* The use of microarrays and bioinformatics
* Optimisation of growth for food and biofuel
* Enhancing plant resistance to disease
* Disease resistance in livestock
* Genetic engineering to increase yield from livestock