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November 17, 2009


GM Bound to be Part of Our Lives; Irrational Fear; Rice Research at IRRI; Omega-3 Soy; Food Prejudices


* Economics of Genetically Modified Crops
* Finding a GMO Alternative
* Irrational Fear of Genetically Modified Food
* Genetically Modified (GM) Rice at IRRI
* Oil from Biotech Soybeans Increases Key Omega-3 Fatty Acid in Humans
* Dutch Cooperative Blurs Food Prejudices
* Brits are taking this organic input thing to the extreme

Economics of Genetically Modified Crops

- D. H. Pai Panandiker, Retuters India, Nov 17, 2009

Agriculture has been nearly stagnant for more than 8 years now with the Green Revolution having reached a plateau. Food grains production in the current year, for instance, would be about the same as it was in 2001-02.

That raises questions about new technologies that need to be explored to impart dynamism to the agricultural sector. In cotton the introduction of genetic modification has yielded valuable results. It has been used for other crops also by other countries with handsome results.

The first genetically modified (GM) crop was commercially grown in the US in 1996. Since then a number of countries have taken to GM crops. In 2007, 12 million farmers had been cultivating GM crops all over the world on 114 million hectares. The principal crops grown are soybean, corn, maize and canola among food crops and cotton among non-food crops.

Farmers would not go in for GM crops unless they are more profitable. The increase in income from GM cultivation in 2006 for all countries was $6.9 billion. About 43 per cent of the additional income came from higher yields and 57 per cent from lower costs.

Presently, most of the GM crops that have been developed are pest resistant and herbicide tolerant. The scope is much wider and for India particularly the opportunities are enormous once the targeted opportunities are realized It is quite possible that in the near future new strains will be developed that can withstand dry weather or can be grown in saline areas. When this becomes a reality large tracts of land which are currently fallow will be covered with food crops.

A further opportunity will be to produce crops which will contain desired vitamins and minerals. Already, 'golden rice' contains vitamin A which will save thousands of children from going blind. Wheat can be enriched with iron which is the most prevalent nutrient deficiency in India and which has been responsible for higher morbidity and consequently lower productivity.

Even in the first ten years of GM farming, the increase in farm income globally was $33.8 billion and the increase in food production would have met the energy requirements of 310 million people for one year. Further, since the GM crops are pest resistant, the saving in pesticide use, so far, was over 8 per cent. Simultaneously, there was reduction in fuel consumption because of reduced need for spraying and tilling which would have brought down emission of carbon dioxide.

The fears about GM are exaggerated. It is nearly 13 years that GM foods have been consumed without any adverse consequences. From animal experiments also, no adverse effects have been seen from GM foods for ten generations.

Eventually, GM technology is bound to be part of our lives because it is the best option to increase production without additional land or water. It is this long term view that should govern policy rather than the unfounded fear about playing with nature.

(D. H. Pai Panandiker is President of RPG Foundation. The views expressed in this column are his own)
You can e-mail Dinker H. Pai Panandiker at: dpanandiker@gmail.com)


Finding a GMO Alternative

- Matt Bewley,Agweek, Nov. 16/2009 http://www.agweek.com/

The Rapid Trait Development System, a genetic plant breeding technology developed by Cibus Genetics L.L.C. of San Diego, holds out hope of being a quicker, less politically charged answer to traditional genetically modified organisms, according to Peter Beetham, the company’s vice president of research.

“I think the time frame for the technology will get faster,” he says. “We’re working on a number of different crops, and if (a new disease) happened to be in that particular crop, we could potentially turn something around in maybe two to four years.”

RTDS also is different from transgenic, or genetically modified, breeding in an important way. In the transgenic approach, a foreign gene is inserted into a plant’s genome to bestow a specific trait, for example, immunity to Roundup. It is this insertion of foreign material into a plant or animal that has caused much of the controversy surrounding GMOs, which are virtually outlawed by the European Union. In the U.S., Roundup Ready varieties of several crop plants also are under fire.

Gene mechanics
RTDS alters a targeted portion of a gene by utilizing the cell’s own gene repair system. The component that effects this change is called the GRON, short for Gene Repair Oligonucleotide. It is chemically synthesized and may contain DNA, RNA and certain chemical properties. It is designed to fit like a mismatched puzzle piece into an exact location of the gene, for example, where resistance to a certain disease is expressed.

It is intentionally mismatched, carrying the new genetic code for the desired trait. Once in place, this mismatch triggers the cell’s own natural gene repair enzymes, which then modify the gene itself to fit the GRON. After that, the GRON degrades and falls away, leaving the cell to naturally multiply and impart the new genetic trait to the host plant.

This is precise, targeted change in the genetic sequence, in contrast to conventional transgenic GMOs, in which introduction of foreign genetic material is required. As its moniker implies, RTDS develops traits quickly. In the natural world, this kind of change, called mutagenesis, is a matter of genetic mutation in cells that can take thousands of years to build up into a survivable trait. Modern transgenic development typically takes seven to 10 years to get from genetic modification to the marketplace. The Cibus process takes from three to five years to get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Interestingly, Beetham calls this time frame a primary limitation to the process. “Our limitation is that it does take a couple of years,” he says. “One of the difficulties we have is inefficiency. It doesn’t happen in all cells we treat, it happens in a few and we’ve got to find the needle in the haystack.”

RTDS is applied to single cells, requiring the Cibus scientists to extract millions of single cells and then treat each one. But the process is less efficient on large populations of cells, because the GRON doesn’t line up properly in every case. In fact, the success rate is far from perfect. “It’s between one in 1,000 and one in 10,000 of those cells that are actually targeted,” Beetham says.

Cost estimates for RTDS trait development also are far below that of transgenic development. One estimate places the RTDS cost at one-seventh of the cost of transgenic development.

All this may sound encouraging, but the way RTDS process ultimately is classified will have much to do with its acceptance in the EU market and at home in the United States, where standard transgenic processes are becoming increasingly regulated.

“USDA has looked at our technology and has told us that it is basically the same as mutagenesis and therefore does not come under the regulatory framework,” Beetham says. “The material we have in the field is just like any mutagenesis program.”

In traditional plant breeding, breeders select characteristics, or genetic combinations, that occur every now and then in nature. The genes created by the RTDS “could and may occur in the natural process,” he says. “So we really fit the more traditional style of breeding.”

Mutagenesis also is exempted from GMO regulations in the European Union. As for those groups that are opposed, sometimes vehemently, to GMO foods, early indicators offer hope there, as well. “We just explained the process and the science to all the groups,” Beetham says. “We’ve had commentary in the press from a number of environmental groups, and they’re not opposing this technology.”

According to Cibus documents, Alexander Hissting, agricultural expert for Greenpeace Germany, which vigorously opposes GMO foods, says his organization is “not opposed to plants developed using directed mutagenesis.”

However, Beetham says he doubts they will actively endorse the technology. “At this point in time, the best way to put it is that they understand that this is a completely different process and completely different to GMO,” he says.

Picking up steam
The RTDS technology is spurring interest from some of the big players in agriculture. Makhteshim-Agan, an Israeli crop protection company, recently announced it is investing $37 million in Cibus to speed the development of new strains of crops that will be resistant to various forms of disease, pests and herbicides.

This influx of cash will provide some needed financial buttressing, because Cibus already is collaborating with the National Grain Sorghum Producers Foundation to develop herbicide tolerance in sorghum and with BASF to develop the same trait in canola.


Irrational Fear of Genetically Modified Food

Michael Specter (author of Denialism, Michaelspecter.com, The New Yorker writer) takes questions from Chris Mooney (Unscientific America, The Intersection) on the question of "Irrational Fear of Genetically Modified Food"

Watch/listen at



Genetically Modified (GM) Rice at IRRI

http://www.irri.org November 16, 2009

Currently no varieties of genetically modified (GM) rice are grown commercially in the world, although several have been approved for commercialization. Many organizations around the world, including the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), are using genetic modification as a research tool and in developing potential GM rice varieties.

IRRI’s guiding principles in researching GM rice
The International Rice Research Institute believes that genetic modification and genetically modified rice have the potential to safely deliver unique benefits to rice farmers and consumers that cannot be achieved through other breeding methods.

Many technologies and rice breeding techniques are needed to develop and deliver solutions to meet the challenges of food security, poverty, climate change, and resource availability that rice producers and consumers face. IRRI believes that responsible and ethical research and development of GM rice present another opportunity that should be explored to help meet these challenges.

IRRI conducts GM rice research where it helps us achieve our aims to * reduce poverty and hunger; * improve the health of rice farmers and consumers; and * ensure that rice production is environmentally sustainable.

In undertaking our GM rice research, we
* Adhere to the national biosafety regulations pertaining to GM plants of the country within which we are operating, comply with all relevant international biosafety regulations, and uphold our own high internal biosafety standards.
* Commit to researching both the advantages and disadvantages of any GM rice that we are developing, or GM rice research we are engaged in.
* Ensure our GM rice research is scientifically rigorous and independently assessed.
* Are open and transparent about the GM rice research we are doing, communicate our scientific findings accurately, and provide only scientifically sound information and advice on GM rice.
* Recognize the diversity of opinion about GM rice and that concerns exist about its development and use.
* Consult with and seek input from the people, communities, industries, and governments that have an interest in our GM rice research and use their views and ideas to help guide our GM rice research and development.
* Respect intellectual property rights and ensure our research is lawful.

GM rice research at IRRI
Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have been developing new crop varieties. By selecting the best performing rice plants and using them to breed new rice varieties, rice farmers, and more recently rice breeders, have been changing the genetic composition of rice to generate new and improved rice varieties for thousands of years.

Breeding methods have been continually evolving, becoming more sophisticated and accurate at incorporating useful genes and traits into new crop varieties. Genetic modification is a modern breeding method that is used at IRRI to investigate and understand the diversity and function of rice genes and to develop and deliver GM rice varieties.

Genetic modification to understand gene function
Genetic modification is a valuable research tool that helps rice breeders understand gene function and identify genes of interest.

IRRI has discovered regions of DNA that help rice * tolerate early submergence, drought, heat, and salinity; * resist tungro, bacterial leaf blight, and blast disease; and * improve phosphorus-use efficiency.

IRRI is using genetic modification to help identify specific genes within these DNA regions that are responsible for these traits. Once specific genes associated with beneficial traits are identified, they can be more efficiently transferred into new rice varieties using other breeding methods.

Using genetic modification in this way can improve the accuracy of identifying genes of interest and speed up the breeding process, even though the end-product is not GM rice.

This approach has been successfully used to identify submergence tolerance genes. As a result, IRRI has recently released submergence-tolerant rice – non-GM rice that can tolerate and produce good yields after two weeks under water, conditions that would decimate most other rice.
Genetic modification to develop GM rice

Genetic modification is also used to actually develop GM rice. It greatly increases the accuracy of incorporating only the gene of interest, and its associated trait, into a new rice variety. Unlike conventional breeding, it can entirely prevent the inclusion of unwanted genes and associated traits.

Beyond this, the unique power of GM lies in its ability to incorporate novel genes with useful traits for rice, including genes from plants and organisms unrelated to rice, into new rice varieties that cannot be achieved using other breeding methods. This is possible because all genetic information is stored in DNA – which is the common building block of all plants and animals.

IRRI has not developed any GM rice varieties yet. However, we are researching the development and delivery of GM rice with improved * drought, heat, and salinity tolerance; * photosynthetic capacity to increase yield and enable it to become more efficient in using water and nitrogen fertilizer (C4 rice); and * nutritional value of the grain, including higher pro-vitamin A, improved protein quality, and higher iron.

Other breeding techniques: Marker-assisted breeding
Marker-assisted breeding is a breeding technique that also helps to more accurately breed new rice varieties and to do so in a shorter time frame.

In marker-assisted breeding, a gene or group of genes responsible for a favorable trait is identified using a DNA marker to "flag" its location. As in conventional breeding, two parent plants are still crossed, but this time scientists can do a quick DNA test on the progeny to see if the marker is present in the new plant. If it is, then the desired gene and its associated trait have been successfully passed on to the new generation. Plants not carrying the marker do not carry the gene of interest and are dropped, simplifying the job of the plant breeder. Marker-assisted breeding can also be used to minimize the number of unwanted genes in the new variety by ensuring that only the markers associated with the gene of interest are transferred.

Marker-assisted breeding is being increasingly and successfully employed at IRRI to develop new rice varieties. IRRI’s recently released submergence-tolerance rice is also an example of a rice variety developed using marker-assisted breeding.


Oil from Biotech Soybeans Increases Key Omega-3 Fatty Acid in Humans

- ScienceDaily, Nov. 16, 2009

Oil from soybeans modified through biotechnology increased levels of omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in red blood cells according to research presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2009.

"This soybean oil could be an effective alternative to fish oil as a source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids," said William Harris, Ph.D., lead author of the study and chief of cardiovascular health research at Sanford Research/USD and professor of medicine at Sanford School of Medicine, University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls, S.D. "We know that giving pure EPA to people reduces their risk for heart disease," he said. "Presumably, if you gave this special soybean oil to people, you'd do the same thing -- reduce heart attacks."

The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings per week of fatty fish which is high in EPA and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), like mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. Eating fish containing these omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Fish oil contains two forms of heart-healthy, long-chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA. However, many Americans don't like eating fish because of the taste, preparation and/or concern that it may be contaminated by mercury and other pollutants.

A few plants, particularly soybeans, produce oils that contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is another type of omega-3 fatty acid. The human body converts ALA to stearidonic acid (SDA), but this is a very inefficient process. The body converts SDA to EPA far more effectively, resulting in more EPA per gram consumed.

The researchers sought to bypass the ALA-to-SDA conversion step in the body by doing so in the soybean plant. They developed the new soybean variety by inserting one gene from another plant and one from a fungus to allow the soybean plant to produce SDA. The result is a soybean oil enriched in SDA, which when consumed allows the body to produce more EPA than if it started with ALA.

Harris and his colleagues recruited healthy volunteers in Cincinnati, Sioux Falls and Chicago into the double-blind study. "Our goal was to see if the oil from the genetically engineered soybean would raise red blood cell levels of EPA," he said.

More at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091116163210.ht


Dutch Cooperative Blurs Food Prejudices

- Frank Browning, The New York Times November 17, 2009 - I.H.T. Special Report: Business of Food

In a Europe where conservative attitudes to farming are entrenched and the hostility of consumers and ecologists to genetically modified crops is sometimes obsessive, Food Valley is different. Its entrepreneurs and scientists are trying to use all available techniques, including genetic modification, to improve agriculture around the world.

Since its creation in 2004, Food Valley has set itself multiple missions: responding to the increasingly dire threats of famine in Africa and Asia; reducing agriculture’s reliance on chemical pesticides, and using genetic science to increase the nutritional value of farm products.

For example, Henk Schouten, of the Plant Research Institute of Wageningen University, is trying to use genetic engineering to fight scab disease, a major threat to apple trees. Mr. Schouten uses a technique called cisgenesis to implant scab resistance genes from wild apples into table fruit, short-cutting conventional plant breeding processes by decades or even hundreds of years.

Mr. Schouten’s resistant apples, however, have remained confined to the laboratory by European Union regulations against genetically engineered products. In contrast, Food Valley’s work on keeping aphids out of salads is one its best success stories. It began at a company called Keygene, founded by Arjen van Tunen, a pioneer of the community.

Like many plant breeders, Mr. Van Tunen knew that aphids did not attack certain wild strains of lettuce. The problem was that aphid-resistant wild lettuce tasted bitter and tended to suffer from “leaf senescence,” in which the inner leaves wilted and rotted early.

During an interview, Mr. Van Tunen pulled out a sheet of paper and drew a diagram representing a wild lettuce chromosome. “Here at this bend in the chromosome,” he explained, “is where we found the sequence that repels aphids.” Then he drew two red lines on either side of the bend. “Those red lines cause the leaf senescence and they are almost always linked to aphid resistance.”

Mr. Van Tunen says it took more than 100,000 greenhouse pollen crosses to create a lettuce plant that resisted the aphids without carrying leaf senescence. As daunting as that sounds, however, making the crosses was not the problem. The bigger challenge was to distinguish useless plants from good ones, an identification task solved by using a genetic fingerprinting technique called Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism, or A.F.L.P

Developed by Keygene 20 years ago, the technique has since been licensed for a wide array of applications — including the comparison of crime scene evidence with genetic material from suspects — and license royalties now support many of Keygene’s other projects.

Researchers used A.F.L.P. to identify a handful of promising disease-resistant lettuce seedlings — about 5 percent of all produced —which could then be crossed back into existing varieties to develop new commercial strains.

Nearly all European lettuce varieties now carry aphid resistance, but trouble has popped up again. A mutant aphid variety is breaking through this resistance gene, prompting a call for researchers to find a solution. To beat back the aphids and avoid pesticide spraying, Mr. Van Tunen’s team is heading back to wild lettuce to find more resistance.

Some fungal diseases, like downy mildew, are even more aggressive than insect pests like aphids and require new plant strains to be developed every two years. The scientists face an unending need for resistant plants to combat evolving predators. Global climate change promises to intensify that battle.

Keygene and Genetwister Technologies, a neighboring start-up, are working to develop dozens of plant varieties — from tomatoes to bell peppers to cucumbers — that rely less on chemical pesticides than existing varieties and stay edible longer after harvesting.

Because of E.U. regulations, none of them use genetic engineering for now; but Mr. Van Tunen says that engineering, carefully controlled, will one day be recognized as essential to meet the mounting pressure on the world’s food supplies.

On current estimates, at least a third of farm produce rots before it reaches the consumer, and in India, Mr. Van Tunen says, 50 percent is lost.

Two reports published this autumn from the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, or F.A.O., in Rome, project huge crop failures in coming decades, with global rice yields falling as much as 18 percent and wheat as much as 34 percent. To avoid intense famine in large parts of Africa and Asia, the research institute projects that global farm production will have to rise by 50 percent. The F.A.O. says a 70 percent increase will be needed by 2050.

To meet this challenge, every tool needs to be deployed, Mr. Van Tunen said. “It is silly to think of one solution,” he said. The need is for “better logistics; better agronomics; better irrigation with precise watering of your crops; better fertilization; and also more land put into cultivation. And then the other option is bio-technology. It’s a very important option.”

Full story at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/17/business/global/17iht-rbofgmo.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print


Brits are taking this organic input thing to the extreme


(at least they are better than India's prime minister during the 70s - Morarji Desai)

- Prakash