Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on

Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives





October 28, 2009


An Irish Farmer's Plea: NYT Debate on Biotech - Put Aside Prejudices; Hitting the Supporters of Biotechnology; A Burning Question Answered


*An Irish Farmer's Plea: A Genetically Modified Proposal
* Can Biotech Food Cure World Hunger? (NYT Asks Some Real Experts Plus A Couple of Activists)
* Put Aside Prejudices
* A Green Revolution Done Right
* Declining Yields on the Horizon
* India Mulls GM Food Crops Despite Stiff Resistance
* Battlefield - Hitting the Supporters of Biotechnology
* US: Regulators OK Healthy GM Soybean Oil
* ASK-Force
* Is There Really A Big Difference Between GM- and Non-GM-crops on the Molecular Level?
* Misconcepts Cause High Costs And Huge Delays In Regulation of GM-crops
* A Burning Question Answered: Wild pigs and Deer Do Not Spread GM Corn Via Feces
* Sweetening Lives with Sweetpotato
* AgriGenomics World Congress
* Biotech Sessions During the Entomologists' Meet in Indianapolis
* Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding
* Monsanto Invents Vegimal, A Pet You Can Eat (!)

A Genetically Modified Proposal

- Jim McCarthy Forbes (Online) Oct 26, 2009

'An Irish farmer's plea for access to technology in agriculture.[

Sometimes when I think about the past, I fear for the future. The Chinese were once the world's greatest seafarers. A few people even think they reached the west coast of North America before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But then the emperor banned foreign travel and their seafaring skills were never heard of again.

The Islamic people once led the world in math and science. Did you know that the word "algebra" comes from Arabic? But then their culture embraced fundamentalism.

Today in Europe, our own civilization threatens to turn back the clock on progress. While much of the rest of the planet adopts agricultural biotechnology--an absolutely essential tool if we're to achieve security for our 21st century food supply--the foolish antics of green party activists around the world lead us toward a future of poverty and hunger.

Before that happens, you'll be hearing from me. This is one of the most important battles of our time. We cannot stay silent.

I farm on three continents. In my native Ireland, I work 1,100 acres, growing wheat for pigs and poultry. In Argentina, I'm managing director of a 31,000-acre operation that harvests corn, soybeans and wheat. In the U.S., in southwest Missouri, I'm an investor in a dairy farm.

I am a global farmer. I've observed best practices in very different environments. Unfortunately, I've also witnessed worst practices. A bullheaded refusal to take advantage of biotechnology is probably the very worst practice around.

GM crops are now a form of conventional agriculture for farmers in North and South America. But in Ireland, the situation is so bad that it's illegal to research and conduct genetic modification experiments in crops. They've outlawed scientific inquiry!

Ireland tries to take pride in building what it calls a "knowledge-based economy." When it comes to biotech crops, however, Ireland is in a headlong retreat from knowledge. Argentina is the exact opposite. Farmers in that country--including me, when I'm working there--are allowed to grow genetically modified crops. This gives us a big boost in yield and soil protection.

Ironically, Ireland has the better business reputation. Each year, the World Bank calculates the ease of doing business in the countries of the world, using quantitative measurements on start-ups, regulations, taxes and so forth.

This year, Ireland ranks No. 7. Argentina is No. 118, which is a little better than Bangladesh and a little worse than Bosnia. (The U.S., by the way, is No. 4.)

Yet I much prefer the business of farming in Argentina. It's a dream place for agriculture. I'm not just referring to the climate. I'm thinking about how hard farming has become in Ireland, or just about anywhere else in Europe. The Argentine government doesn't tell me what I can and cannot grow based upon deliberate ignorance. It lets me make my own decisions.

If I was a younger man, I'd be tempted to move permanently to Argentina. But Ireland is home. I'm not going anywhere. It nevertheless saddens me to see a vocal minority of Green party activists throttle the future of farming.

There are about as many people in Ireland as there are in Oregon--just shy of 4 million. The world adds roughly this number of people to its total population every three weeks or so. The demand for food has never been higher--and if current trends continue, it will continue to set new records every year for the rest of my life.

It will take Irish farmland--and existing farmland everywhere--to meet this need. Europe must do its part to produce more and use its influence, especially in Africa, to encourage biotechnology. The policy of refusing to take GM crops seriously sets us up for an awful tragedy.

Maybe there's some good news ahead: This week, the Royal Society, the U.K.'s National Academy of Science, has released a report that calls for the acceptance of genetic modification on the farm.

Let's hope for a better future, so our present doesn't become a past we come to regret.

Jim McCarthy, a first generation farmer based in Kildare, Ireland, farms in three continents--Europe, South America and North America--growing wheat, soybeans, corn, canola, peas, oats and dairy. Mr. McCarthy is the 2009 Kleckner Trade and Technology Advancement Award recipient and a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.


Can Biotech Food Cure World Hunger?

- Editors, NY Times, Oct 28, 2009. See all commentaries and especially the readers' comments at

With food prices remaining high in developing countries, the United Nations estimates that the number of hungry people around the world could increase by 100 million in 2009 and pass the one billion mark. A summit of world leaders in Rome scheduled for November will set an agenda for ways to reduce hunger and increase investment in agriculture development in poor countries.

What will drive the next Green Revolution? Is genetically modified food an answer to world hunger? Are there other factors that will make a difference in food production?

* Paul Collier, economist, Oxford University
* Vandana Shiva, activist and author
* Per Pinstrup-Andersen, professor of nutrition and public policy, Cornell
* Raj Patel, Institute for Food and Development Policy
* Jonathan Foley, University of Minnesota
* Michael J. Roberts, economist, North Carolina State University

Put Aside Prejudices

- Paul Collier (is a professor of economics at Oxford University and the director of the Center for the Study of African Economies. He is the author of “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.”)

The debate over genetically modified crops and food has been contaminated by political and aesthetic prejudices: hostility to U.S. corporations, fear of big science and romanticism about local, organic production.

Food supply is too important to be the plaything of these prejudices. If there is not enough food we know who will go hungry.

Genetic modification is analogous to nuclear power: nobody loves it, but climate change has made its adoption imperative. As Africa’s climate deteriorates, it will need to accelerate crop adaptation. As population grows it will need to raise yields. Genetic modification offers both faster crop adaptation and a biological, rather than chemical, approach to yield increases.

Opponents talk darkly of risks but provide no scientific basis for their amorphous expressions of concern. Meanwhile the true risks are mounting. Over the past decade global food demand has risen more rapidly than expected. Supply may not keep pace with demand, inducing rising prices and periodic spikes. If this happens there is a risk that the children of the urban poor will suffer prolonged bouts of malnutrition.

African governments are now recognizing that by imitating the European ban on genetic modification they have not reduced the risks facing their societies but increased them. Thirteen years, during which there could have been research on African crops, have been wasted. Africa has been in thrall to Europe, and Europe has been in thrall to populism.

Genetic modification alone will not solve the food problem: like climate change, there is no single solution. But continuing refusal to use it is making a difficult problem yet more daunting.

A Green Revolution Done Right

- Per Pinstrup-Andersen (is the H. E. Babcock Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy at Cornell University and the 2001 World Food Prize Laureate)

Helping farmers in developing countries produce more food without doing damage to natural resources is an essential component of the action needed to reduce existing poverty, hunger and malnutrition and to assure that future generations have access to the food they need at reasonable prices.

Science and technology combined with expanded use of plant nutrients and better plant protection and water management by highly motivated farmers produced the Green Revolution, which avoided mass starvation and helped millions out of poverty and hunger. However, the job is not done.

Many millions of people do not have access to sufficient calories and many more suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Most of them are in rural areas and would benefit from productivity increases in agriculture. Furthermore, the world population will grow by more than two billion over the next 40 years.

They will only have access to the food and nutrients they need at reasonable prices and without damaging the environment, if action is taken now.

Science must play a key role in such action, along with appropriate government policies and investments in rural infrastructure and markets. Science must be put to work to develop drought tolerance and pest resistance in crops, higher nutrient quality of staple foods, reduced animal diseases, mitigation of negative climate change effects and a host of other solutions to the current food losses and risks facing farmers and consumers in developing countries. The most appropriate scientific approaches, including genetic engineering and other molecular biology must be applied.

While new technology with potential health or environmental risks must be tested before it is released for commercial use, such risks should be compared to the health and environmental risks of not releasing a technology. Status quo is not kind to millions of starving children and failure to act now will further deteriorate the environment and make food very expensive for future generations.

Misguided anti-science ideology and failure by governments to prioritize agricultural and rural development in developing countries brought us the food crisis. The challenge we are facing is not whether the world resources are sufficient to feed us all now and in the future, but whether we will change our behavior.

Declining Yields on the Horizon

- Michael J. Roberts (is an assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at North Carolina State University. He is the writer of the Greed, Greens and Grains blog)

About 30 years ago Julian Simon, an economist, made a famous bet with Paul Ehrlich, the entomology professor and author of “The Population Bomb.” The bet was about the future direction of resource prices.

Where Mr. Ehrlich saw population growth leading to scarcity in resources and higher prices, Mr. Simon saw an impending resource boom that would easily compensate for population growth. Mr. Simon handily won the bet.

Staple commodity prices — from food to oil to metals — have all trended flat or downward over the long run. Technological optimists point to this fact and believe resource scarcity is of little concern to our post-industrial society. In a sense, they’re right. But what about the part of the world that isn’t industrialized?

I am mindful of arguments coming from technological optimists who believe crop yields will continue to rise, that there is plenty of oil still left to find and that geo-engineering will solve global warming.

But I don’t think today’s doomsayers are a few voices in small corners of the scientific community. There is a real threat to worldwide food security over the next 10 to 40 years. The threat comes from global income inequality combined with projected global warming, which could cause tremendous declines in crop yields.

For the United States — by far the world’s largest producer and exporter of food commodities — my own statistical research with Wolfram Schlenker predicts yield declines of 18 percent to 35 percent for corn and soybeans due to global warming, and more than twice these losses by the end of this century.

A recent, far more comprehensive study by the International Food Policy Research Institute predicts large food production declines and higher prices for the whole world.

For people in the United States these dramatic predictions are actually of little direct concern. Raw commodities make up such a tiny share of retail food prices we would hardly notice a 10-fold increase in corn prices. The price of a quarter-pound hamburger (produced from corn-fed beef) would probably go up by less than a dollar. It’s hard to believe we’d buy much less meat as a result. Indeed, demand growth today comes less from population growth and more from rising incomes and meat consumption in China. (Keep in mind that it takes five to 10 calories of staple grains to make one calorie of meat.)

But three billion people — nearly half the planet — live on $2.50 per day or less. The poor typically spend a third to half of their income on food, composed mainly of staple commodities. If food quantities go down and prices go up, it’s the world’s poor who consume less.

If incomes were more equal around the world, prices would rise much further and we would buy less meat, but there would be little risk of famine.

Still, it could be that new genetically modified seeds will accelerate yield growth and offset projected damages from global warming. So far, genetically modified crops have shown yield gains in developing nations, but only modest gains in rich countries. And though yields have grown, my research shows no growth in tolerance to extreme heat, which is the key challenge going forward.

The green revolution didn’t come about from a wondrous market. It came from public investments in crop science that people like Norman Borlaug then spread around the world. But public funding of crop science research has diminished over the years. Now seems like a good time to increase that kind of investment.


India Mulls GM Food Crops Despite Stiff Resistance

- Arpan Mukherjee and Biman Mukherji Wall Street Journal, Oct. 28, 2009

India has moved closer to commercializing the country's first genetically modified food crop, but mounting opposition from the civil society and non-governmental organizations indicate a final breakthrough remains elusive nearly ten years after the plan was originally mooted.

Another setback to the initiative could mean the country's search for a second Green Revolution - the shift to high-yielding crops in the sixties that made India a food grain exporter for the first time - will remain a dream despite growing challenges such as a rising population, shrinking agricultural land area and climate change that has steadily reduced yields.

According to latest available data, the country's area under food grain cultivation had shrunk to around 60% of total cultivated land by 2005-06, from 73.8% in 1950-51. "We have to use technology which does not demand more water or more land," said D.H Pai Panandikar, an economist and chairman of the Indian arm of the Washington-based International Life Sciences Institute.

But the challenge will be to convince the naysayers. "This approval qualifies as one of the ten worst things to have happened in the country after independence," said scientist Pushpa Bhargava, who was a dissenting member of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, the country's bio-technology regulator, which last month recommended commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, or genetically modified eggplant.

If approved by the government, Bt brinjal will be the first GM food crop after India successfully commercialized Bt cotton, a move that made the country a leading cotton exporter in the world. Other GM crops such as cabbage, cauliflower and peas are under various stages of trial.

But opponents to their introduction argue such crops pause serious health hazards. "It was wrong to spray pesticides on food. It is criminal to genetically engineer a pesticide into our food," said activist Vandana Shiva who claims Bt crops have a gene which is potentially toxic.

According to Greenpeace, a global environmental activist group, GEAC had "mindlessly" approved Bt brinjal despite "informed scientists and citizens of the country" raising serious concerns on safety studies related to its introduction. "The manner in which these field trials are being conducted leaves much to be desired," wrote K.P.Prabhakaran Nair, chairman of an independent expert committee constituted by the Secundrabad-based Center for Sustainable Agriculture to study Bt brinjal, and a former professor at the National Science Foundation of The Royal Society of Belgium.

There has also been political resistance with opposition-ruled states such as Kerala and Orissa against GM seeds and Chhattisgarh, another opposition-ruled state, banning its use. The All India Kisan Sabha, a farmers' lobby group, argues the spread of GM crops will lead to the exploitation of farmers by international seed suppliers.

Bt brinjal has been under trail by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company or Mahyco, an affiliate of U.S multi-national Monsanto, for over nine years and was first sent to GEAC for approval in 2004. Although it was approved initially, a review committee was constituted in 2007 after civil society groups and NGOs raised concerns about health safety and environmental impact.

The government is moving cautiously this time, mindful of continuing opposition to GM crops and the potential for any wrong move to further complicate matters. "My objective is to arrive at a careful, considered decision," said Jairam Ramesh, India's minister for science, environment and forests, who earlier this month slammed Greenpeace for spreading "wrong information" about the commercialization of Bt brinjal.

The government has the support of those who argue India is passing through the worst agriculture crisis in history with plummeting food-grain production and unending farmer suicides as their crops fail for a variety of reasons including bad weather and pest attacks. "I believe technology advancement has to take place and farmers should be given the advantage of new technology," said Vibha Dhawan, executive director of The Energy Resources Institute (TERI).

There are no known adverse effects of Bt Brinjal seeds, said A.B. Rai, principal scientist at the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research which conducted tests on Bt Brinjal.


Battlefield - Hitting the Supporters of Biotechnology

- Jens A. Katzek, Nature 461, Oct. 15, 2009 p. 874

SIR – You misidentified the victims in your News Feature on conflicts among scientist over genetically modified crops (Nature 461, 27-32, 2009). The real victims on this “battlefield” are not the handful of people critizised for their research, but those scientists who want to realize the potential of plant biotechnology and the farmer who apply authorized products.

These people have to endure bomb threats, insulting letters and telephone calls, destruction of their fields (almost no UK field experiment has survived since 2000) and harassment of their children at school. As author of a UK Food Standards Agency report concluding that organic food provides no additional nutritional or health benefit, Alan Dangour was bombarded with hate mail from activists.

The whole biotech debate is an emotionalized mess fuelled by lobbyists and society’s zero risk mentality. Scientists should not be wary of publishing their results just because they could be deliberately misinterpreted. But they must be vigilant. As Kai Diekmann, chief editor of BILD, the largest newspaper in Germany, said in a recent television broadcast: “More than 10 Million readers is a huge responsibility. I have to consider every single word before it is printed.”

Why are some scientists so sensitive if weak data are published? When I first met Ingo Potrykus, the inventor of the famous “golden rice” (so called because of its extra beta-carotene content), I was still Germany’s top anti-GM campaigner with Friends of the Earth. Some 15 years after our public debate, I now understand his frustration. As a humanitarian and Roman Catholic he has worked hard to develop rice varieties he believes could improve the lives of millions of poor children likely to become blind. But Greenpeace and other activists are sabotaging his efforts with false claims, initially that children could be poisoned by excess vitamin A (1) and later that 4 kilograms of rice is the daily requirement for a therapeutic effect (2).

Scientists should think more carefully about the impact their words might have on the future of society and their responsibility towards it.

Jens A. Katzek, An der Elbe 5, 39104 Magdeburg, Germany, katzek@biomitteldeutschland.de

(1) http://www.cgfi.org/2000/03/07/what-do-environmentalists-have-against-golden-rice/

(2) [ http://www.greenpeace.org/international/news/failures-of-golden-rice)


US: Regulators OK Healthy GM Soybean Oil

- Georgina Gustin St. Louis Today Oct 28, 2009 http://www.stltoday.com/

CREVE COUER -- A soybean oil developed by Monsanto and Solae moved o ne step closer to reaching consumers this week after earning federal approval.

The companies' SDA Omega-3 soybean oil was "generally regarded as safe" and could be used in food products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Monday. The designation is given to foods generally deemed safe by regulators, although FDA does not require a scientific safety review.

The oil is the first Monsanto-developed product genetically modified for specific properties known to improve human health, though officials say there are others in the pipeline. Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to cardiovascular and brain health benefits, particularly the EPA or DHA Omega-3 oils derived from fish, rather than the ALA type derived from plants.




ASK-FORCE discusses publications about biosafety and biotechnology that have gained much public attention but which are not supported by a clear majority of peer reviewed scientific publications. The ASK-FORCE initiative, chaired by em. Prof. Klaus Ammann, is a collaborative activity between PRRI the EFB Forum and AgBioWorld. The texts are peer reviewed by a range of well known experts in their field of green biotechnology from the following three organisations: PRRI, EFB and AgBioView. The new ASK-FORCE contributions are sent after reviewing to the members of PRRI, EFB and subscribers of AgBioWorld, they are also mentioned in GMObelus , CheckBiotech and other networks.

Following Ask Force contributions are available:
1. Agriculture
* Do GM crops fail to produce more yields? Do GM crops fail to produce more yields?
* No difference GM- non-GM-crops on molecular level No difference GM- non-GM-crops on molecular level

2. Human and animal health
* Rebuttal to a review of Dona and Arvanitoyannis 2009 Rebuttal to a review of Dona and Arvanitoyannis 2009
* Are rat organs damaged after feeding on GM soybeans as Ermakova claims? Are rat organs damaged after feeding on GM soybeans as Ermakova claims?
* Did Monsanto transgenic hybrid maize lower the fertility of mice (Background) Did Monsanto transgenic hybrid maize lower the fertility of mice (Background)
* Did Monsanto transgenic hybrid maize lower the fertility of mice? Did Monsanto transgenic hybrid maize lower the fertility of mice?

3. Environmental safety
* Is the impact of Bt maize on non-target insects really significantly negative? Is the impact of Bt maize on non-target insects really significantly negative?
* Are GM crops killing honey bees? Are GM crops killing honey bees?
* Do aquatic organisms suffer from residues and protein of Bt maize? Do aquatic organisms suffer from residues and protein of Bt maize?

4. Regulatory impact
Some time ago, a list of possible ASK-FORCE contributions have been compiled, it is now updated, it is open for comments http://www.botanischergarten.ch/ASK-FORCE-Strategy/ASK-FORCE-General-List-20090911.pdf

Em. Prof. Dr. Klaus Ammann, Switzerland
Prof. Dr. Selim Cetiner Sabanci University, Turkey
Dr. Dennis Eriksson, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Alnarp, Sweden
Prof. Dr. Hans Holmen, Linköpping University, Sweden

The ASK-FORCE working group is calling for members, who are willing to actively acquire and suggest new topics.


Regulation: Is There Really A Big Difference Between GM- and Non-GM-crops on the Molecular Level ?

- Klaus Ammann, Oct 24, 2009 http://www.efb-central.org/index.php/forums/viewthread/58/

1. Issue: The difference between GM- and non-GM-crops has been overestimated, as soon as genetic engineering has been applied to crop breeding. The uncontested understanding among scientists and in particular in risk assessment community was that GM crops pose some novel risks, unprecedented in conventionally bred crops. This has then condensed in the United Nations Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety http://www.cbd.int/biosafety/, which needs to be questioned in certain basic aspects.

2.Summary: After an early phase of risk assessment, including the results of the Asilomar Conference on biosafety, an early divide in risk assessment basic concepts developed between Canada, the USA and Europe including a majority of UN signatory countries. Researchers like Werner Arber, based on earlier molecular insights and on his own experience in genetic engineering claim that related to molecular processes there is no difference between genetically engineering and natural mutation. This transatlantic divide can be solved with some more innovative regulatory proceedings.

For the details and an extensive literature list see:


Regulation: Misconcepts Cause High Costs And Huge Delays In Regulation of GM-crops

- Klaus Ammann, October 24, 2009 http://www.efb-central.org/index.php/forums/viewthread/59/

1. The issue: The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB) has now been adopted by 157 parties http://www.cbd.int/biosafety/signinglist.shtml. It still builds on the principle that GM crop plants might bare risks in contrast to the conventional crops: Objective of CPB http://www.cbd.int/biosafety/articles.shtml?a=cpb-01. The huge apparatus on risk assessment based on this protocol is building on the principle, that the mechanism of transgenicity is totally artificial and is not found in nature. Modern molecular science insights have proven the contrary, as shown in ASK-FORCE AF-9 on the molecular basis of transgenesis. This results in maintaining to an asymmetric risk assessment of innovation of GM crops. The possible exemption of widespread GM crops in Art. 7.4 http://www.cbd.int/biosafety/articles.shtml?a=cpb-07 is not even considered officially up to now.

2. Summary: An excellent summary graph is given in (Graff et al., 2009) in fig. 1b: innovations active in the R&D pipeline were growing at an increasing rate during the period before 1998, but declined after 1998. Apart from competition of reasonably close non-transgenic substitutes the authors consider one regulatory reason to be the main culprit: The halting of regulatory approvals in 1998 in Europe. Although the authors consider the full extent of reasons still to be conjectural, their data suggest that changes in regulatory environment may have been a cause. In a combination of high costs for lost implementation and high costs for regulatory approvals the present state and operational experience has grown into a major obstacle of modern crop breeding.

Commentary from Table 1: The primary survey combined records from scientific publications, field trial records and regulatory filings to identify 558 transgenic plants with quality improvements and determine how far they had progressed through stages of R&D by 2004, including those that had only been published in the scientific literature; those that had reached initial field trials (defined as having completed 1–3 field trials), mid-stage field trials (4–9 field trials) or advanced field trials (>10); those that had entered regulatory filings; and those that were commercialized. The secondary survey canvassed expectations of firms and analysts about the likelihood and time frame for future commercialization of transgenic product quality innovations. Complete one-to-one correspondence between individual observations of the two surveys was not possible.

More details and literature citations in:

Klaus Ammann, Prof. hon. emeritus, Moderator ASK-FORCE EFB; Rue de Monruz 20; CH - 2000 Neuchâtel, Switzerland


Wild pigs and Deer Do Not Spread GM Corn Via Feces or Accumulate Transgenic Residues In Meat


Deer stew, roast of wild boar, venison ragout – come fall, all varieties of game are in season for gourmets. However, ever since the worldwide surge in genetically modified corn, critical consumers' appetites have abated somewhat. After all, it was not clear precisely how wild animals digest transgenic corn and whether or not residues actually accumulate in meat, for example. Molecular biologists from the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) have shown that there is no need for concern – also with regard to the inadvertent dispersal of genetically modified corn via wild animal feces.

Only a few weeks ago we could still observe them: whole families of wild boar rummaging in the corn fields in early fall, feasting on corncobs. Corn – or maize, as it's known to scientists – is a high-energy delicacy for local game, which is why it is used specifically for winter feeding and to divert animals from farmers' fields. Today, with GM (genetically modified) maize acreage increasing worldwide, biologists are discussing a highly controversial question: What happens when a wild boar takes a snack in a transgenic maize field or when deer feed on imported GM maize in winter? Molecular biologists at the TUM can now provide answers to these questions.

With funding from the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, a research team from the TU München examined in detail how fallow deer (dama dama) and wild boars (sus scrofa) metabolize GM maize and whether they inadvertently disperse germinable transgenic seeds in the landscape via their feces. To find answers to these questions, the scientists working for Prof. Heinrich H.D. Meyer from the Chair of Physiology selectively fed fallow deer living in outdoor enclosures and wild boars kept in pens genetically modified corn chaff and grain corn for several weeks in a row. The respective control groups were fed conventional maize over the same time period. All the while the scientists collected samples of feces from every group to be analyzed for germinability at a later point in time.

After completing the experiment, the TUM physiologists took a number of samples from all of the wild animals: from the digestive tract, all internal organs, blood, muscles and other kinds of tissue. They then applied immunological techniques and polymerase chain reaction to look for transgenic components. They found them only in the digestive tract of GM-fed wild boars: Here they found evidence for small fragments of the gene that had been introduced into the GM maize. However, outside of the gastrointestinal tract the scientists found no trace whatsoever, neither in the tissue of wild boars nor in that of the fallow deer. Hence, there is no need to worry when enjoying a game dish: "The meat of the animals we examined was entirely free of transgenic components," said Prof. Meyer.

Organic farmers and environmentalists are much more concerned about the uncontrolled spread of GM maize via wild animal feces. Yet here, too, Prof. Meyer can ease everyone's worries. His team examined the collected samples of feces for intact maize corns capable of germination. A truly insignificant number makes it through the gastrointestinal passage at all: For wild boars a mere 0.015% of the conventional and 0.009% of the transgenic maize kernels were excreted intact. Only one single maize plantlet could then be grown under standard laboratory conditions, and one further seedling showed abnormal growth. The fallow deer were even tougher on the maize: Not a single intact and thus germinable maize corn could be found in their feces.

However, the digestion process is not as effective for all seeds and all animal species, as the scientists were also able to show. They had additionally fed all examined animal groups with conventional rape. They found not a single intact rape seed in the wild boar feces – but in those of the fallow deer there were plenty, and 13.6% of those were capable of germination. "This shows that such studies need to be conducted separately for all genetically modified plants," Prof. Meyer concluded.


Sweetening Lives with Sweetpotato


The International Potato Center has launched a major project to leverage the untapped potential of sweetpotato to significantly improve the nutrition, incomes, and food production of farming families in sub-Saharan Africa, especially among impoverished women and children. The project, titled Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA), will be implemented in eight Sub-Saharan African countries, and is supported by a five-year, $21 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is the largest of a group of grants presented by Bill Gates at the World Food Prize Symposium on October 15, 2009 in Des Moines, Iowa. “Melinda and I believe that helping the poorest small-holder farmers grow more and get it to market is the world's single most powerful lever for reducing hunger and poverty,” Gates said. The SASHA program will help set the groundwork for reducing malnutrition, combating vitamin A deficiency, and improving incomes for 10 million African households within 10 years.

Sweetpotato is the third most important food crop in East Africa in terms of production and the fourth most important in Southern Africa. It can produce better yields in poor conditions with fewer inputs and less labor than other staples, making it particularly suitable for households threatened by migration, civil disorder, or diseases such as AIDS. Yet the potential of sweetpotato to address these challenges is largely untapped due to a lack of investment to improve yields, market potential, and its negative perception as a poor person’s food.

“This project will improve the food security, nutrition, and livelihoods of at least 150,000 families directly, with an indirect impact on 1 million families in Sub-Saharan Africa in five years, and the creation of conditions to reach 10 million households in 10 years.” explains Dr. Pamela K. Anderson, Director General of the International Potato Center.

SASHA will also focus on empowering women farmers. “Women are the nutritional guardians of the family and the primary producers of sweetpotato, but don’t typically reap the rewards from their labor,” says Dr. Anderson. “This project tackles this challenge directly by including an African gender specialist and integrating strategies to ensure women have a full voice in project interventions and gain equitably from them.”

Along with white sweetpotato varieties commonly grown in Sub-Saharan Africa, SASHA will promote the orange-fleshed varieties that are rich in pro-vitamin A. These varieties can significantly lessen Vitamin A deficiency that threatens an estimated 43 million Sub-Saharan children under age 5. Vitamin A deficiency contributes to high rates of blindness, disease, and premature death in children and pregnant women.

To meet consumer and producer preferences, the project also aims to develop a wide range of locally-adapted sweetpotato varieties through conventional breeding that are resistant to drought and disease. Because conventional breeding has not been successful at creating varieties resistant to weevils, which can wipe out 60 to 100 percent of sweetpotato crops during droughts, the project will use advances in biotechnology to develop weevil-resistant varieties.

SASHA will address a major challenge for smallholder sweetpotato farmers, regarding access to disease-free planting material, in time for the planting season. The program will increase the availability of healthy vines for planting and will explore novel systems for disseminating planting material to more cost-effectively benefit poor producers, especially women and their families. A final component of the project involves establishing three regional support programs, based in leading national program research centers in Ghana, Uganda, and Mozambique, to promote sustainable local breeding skills and capacity.

“We will work with local scientists, partners, and stakeholders and in close collaboration with the Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA) to ensure that we strengthen the capacity to engage in sweetpotato breeding in Africa for Africa,” explains Dr. Jan Low, who will be leading the project from the Center’s Regional Office in Nairobi, Kenya. AGRA is currently funding doctoral training in conventional breeding within the region as well as providing financial support to sweetpotato breeders in several national programs. CIP scientists will backstop this training effort and together with national breeders test new methods to accelerate the development and release of improved sweetpotato varieties.”

SASHA is part of a 10-year, multi-donor Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative, which seeks to reduce child malnutrition and improve smallholder incomes and livelihoods through greater awareness, expanded market opportunities, and the diversified use of sweetpotato in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s potential for sweetening the lives of Africa’s poor is widely recognized.

“Uganda has seen how sweetpotato has helped provide food security during times of severe food shortage and when other crops succumb to disease. We stand ready to share our experience with others.” says Dennis Kyetere, Director of the National Agricultural Research Organization of Uganda.

This grant is part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Agricultural Development initiative, which is working with a wide range of partners to provide millions of small farmers in the developing world with tools and opportunities to boost their yields, increase their incomes, and build better lives for themselves and their families. The foundation is working to strengthen the entire agricultural value chain—from seeds and soil to farm management and market access—so that progress against hunger and poverty is sustainable over the long term.

In conjunction with Bill Gates’ keynote address today at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced this grant, along with a package of nine agricultural development projects totaling $120 million to address long-term food security.


AgriGenomics World Congress

- Brussels, July 8-9, 2010

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

Agenda Topics: * 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


Biotech Sessions During the Entomologists' Meet in Indianapolis

The following are descriptions of symposia being presented at the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America, in Indianapolis, December 13-16, 2009

Regulation of Transgenic Crops: The State of the Science

Stewardship of Plant Incorporated Protectant Crops

Science & New Policy Ideas, A New Foundation for Governance & Regulatory Frameworks: Pesticides & Biotechnology

Corn Rootworm Management: State of the Art and a Look Toward the Future

The Larry L. Larson Symposium: New Developments from Industry for Insect Management through Biotechnology and Chemical Solutions http://esa.confex.com/esa/2009/webprogram/Session11226.html

More info on the meeting, including an online program, is available at http://www.entsoc.org/am/cm/index.htm

(Hat tip: Richard Levine)


Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding

- A New book by Noel Kingsbury, 512 pages, University Of Chicago Press, October 15, 2009; ISBN-10:0226437043 http://www.amazon.com price $23.10

Disheartened by the shrink-wrapped, Styrofoam-packed state of contemporary supermarket fruits and vegetables, many shoppers hark back to a more innocent time, to visions of succulent red tomatoes plucked straight from the vine, gleaming orange carrots pulled from loamy brown soil, swirling heads of green lettuce basking in the sun.

With Hybrid, Noel Kingsbury reveals that even those imaginary perfect foods are themselves far from anything that could properly be called natural; rather, they represent the end of a millennia-long history of selective breeding and hybridization. Starting his story at the birth of agriculture, Kingsbury traces the history of human attempts to make plants more reliable, productive, and nutritious—a story that owes as much to accident and error as to innovation and experiment. Drawing on historical and scientific accounts, as well as a rich trove of anecdotes, Kingsbury shows how scientists, amateur breeders, and countless anonymous farmers and gardeners slowly caused the evolutionary pressures of nature to be supplanted by those of human needs—and thus led us from sparse wild grasses to succulent corn cobs, and from mealy, white wild carrots to the juicy vegetables we enjoy today. At the same time, Kingsbury reminds us that contemporary controversies over the Green Revolution and genetically modified crops are not new; plant breeding has always had a political dimension.

A powerful reminder of the complicated and ever-evolving relationship between humans and the natural world, Hybrid will give readers a thoughtful new perspective on—and a renewed appreciation of—the cereal crops, vegetables, fruits, and flowers that are central to our way of life.

"The reason you and billions of other people will eat today is a century-long effort to increase the yield of crop plants. Hybrid tells the story of the quiet heroes behind this triumph. Noel Kingsbury has written a fantastic history of a subject that should become much better known."-Gregg Easterbrook, author, Sonic Boom (Gregg Easterbrook, author of Sonic Boom )

"I will never look at a slice of bread or grain of rice the same way, having read Hybrid. By recounting the history of plant breeding, the author has revealed the many choices made in creating the crops of today and yesterday, and challenges us to think about our choices for tomorrow."-Cathy Maloney, author of Chicago Gardens (Cathy Maloney, author of Chicago Gardens )

"In plant breeding, just as in evolution, genetic variety is the raw material of success. Hybrid is the story of how the genes that make a fat corn cob, a luscious apple, a brilliantly orange carrot or a high yielding strain of rice have traveled by serpentine paths to reach the genomes of the crops that we so depend on and yet so take for granted. In Hybrid we learn that there was a green revolution in eleventh-century China when a visionary emperor imported new strains of rice from Indochina; how working men in nineteenth-century Britain made a sport of competitive gooseberry breeding, and how a German doctor discovered hybrid vigor in plants. Hybrid the book displays, like hybrids themselves, all the marvelous fruit of miscellany."-Jonathan Silvertown, author of An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds (Jonathan Silvertown )

(Hat Tip: Wayne Parrott)


Monsanto Invents Vegimal, A Pet You Can Eat