* Time to Cultivate Africa’s Agricultural Productivity
* Wild Elephants Won't Stop This Biotech Crop
* Could Biotechnology Save Africa?
* UK: Is it Finally Time to Embrace GM Crops?
* Bt Cotton Varieties Approved in Pakistan
* A GM Aubergine Riles India, But Could Help Solve A Hunger Crisis
* Travel Grants for Young Scientists to Attend BioVisionAlexandria, Egypt
* Biotech Education Magazine Now Online: 'Your World' Focuses on Ag Biotech
* India to Set up Borlaug Institute for South Asia
* Mexico's Transgenic Maize Under Fire - Response
Time to Cultivate Africa’s Agricultural Productivity
- Daniel Sacks and Jasson Urbach, New Vision (Uganda) Dec. 1, 2009 http://www.newvision.co.ug/D/8/20/702923
AS hunger grows in East Africa, the World Food Security Summit convened in Rome this month to talk a lot about government investment in agriculture, but hardly about trade by people. Cynics will say these proclamations from on high do little to help the world’s poor and hungry. Yet, against the odds, African farmers are showing the way.
The evidence is in: Africa’s farmers need less top-down interference, not more. To end world hunger, delegates must accept the solutions that Africa’s farmers are developing on the ground. By reducing the barriers they face, the food crisis can be relieved.
Africa’s agricultural productivity has declined since the 1970s, so the current shortage is hardly surprising. But this is an avoidable tragedy. Regulations and poor infrastructure have hampered the widespread adoption of agricultural innovations that work in the rest of the world. These simple techniques to boost harvests are slowly finding a place in Africa. But all Africa’s small-scale farmers need greater access to the methods that will reliably increase their harvests.
In Fixing Famine, a report based on new fieldwork in Malawi and Kenya, we highlight techniques already making a real difference where circumstances allow: Hybrid and genetically-modified (GM) seeds, greenhouses, drip irrigation and plug seedlings (planting young plants instead of seeds). Today, they are found on only a tiny proportion of Africa’s land — not because farmers are unwilling, but because of petty official restrictions. Four specific policy changes would reverse decades of bad decisions and dramatically improve the lives of Africa’s rural poor.
First, governments must allow the use of GM seeds which can greatly increase crop yields. GM seeds are designed to withstand bad environmental conditions and to survive droughts, disease and insects. By preventing farmers from using these seeds, African governments are depriving them of a proven way to help Africans feed themselves.
Second, governments must remove the restrictions on trade that drive up the prices of even the simplest technologies. In Kenya, a tariff on seedling trays greatly increases the cost of plug seedlings. The trays must be imported, because no manufacturer in Kenya can make them. It is a perverse tax, which restricts Kenyan farmers’ access to essential materials, and it is far from unique.
Third, African governments need to allow ordinary smallholders greater access to credit, to develop their land. That means removing widespread restrictions on property ownership and investment that make it hard to guarantee loans. When farmers can get credit, they can buy high-yielding hybrid seeds, irrigation equipment, pesticides, fertiliser and other technologies, all of which generate a virtuous circle, increasing harvests and decreasing poverty.
Finally, Africa’s governments must acknowledge that bad roads are a major obstacle to agricultural innovation. By admitting their failure, and permitting private investors to work on improving such basic infrastructure, governments will help farmers get crops to market and enable vital equipment and inputs to reach farmers.
With these barriers removed, Africa’s farmers are more than capable of feeding themselves. Malawi’s uptake of hybrid seeds is a strong indicator of a cultural readiness to innovate, where farmers see a positive result of larger crops and greater security against hunger and poverty.
Wherever the barriers have been overcome, Africa’s farmers are already raising their incomes and escaping hunger by adopting these simple new methods — often despite their governments’ efforts. The Longonot farm in Kenya has been selling plug seedlings since 1996, guaranteeing much-improved harvests to those who can afford them.
On average, 80% of plugs can be harvested, while only 20% of seeds typically reach maturity. But bad roads — and the trade barriers on seedling trays — double the cost of the Longonot seedlings to farmers and drastically limit delivery around the country.
Similarly, despite the need for top-down action to improve access to credit, Kenya’s Equity Bank is not waiting around. Its ATM mounted on an off-road truck brings hope and microcredit to the country’s rural poor. Reaching where other banks rarely venture, Equity Bank’s spokeswoman, Esther Muiruri says: “People are talking about the next green revolution. We are hoping that (Equity Bank) can start it here in Kenya.”
In Rome, the Summit will focus on 20 years of underinvestment in agriculture and grand targets to end hunger. But if delegates are serious about beating starvation, they need to think on a smaller scale. The green shoots of better agricultural productivity in Africa must be cultivated, not stifled.
The writers are the authors of Fixing Famine, published this month by International Policy Network, London
Wild Elephants Won't Stop This Biotech Crop
- Philip Brasher Des Moines Register (Blog) (Iowa) Nov 30, 2009
In some parts of the world, biotech companies have had to worry about keeping environmental activists out of their research plots. Companies can ill afford to have these big-money experiments ruined. Here in Kenya, scientists have a different concern – elephants.
This morning, I headed south of Nairobi to the village of Kikobo and a national agricultural research station that specializes in study of the effects of drought. It never rains, I’m told, between May and November, making it easy for agronomists to study the impact of drought on crops simply by withholding the irrigation water upon which the plants depend. It is on a few acres of this farm where scientists plan next year to try out a plot of corn lines that are being genetically engineered to yield better than conventional hybrids when rainfall is insufficient, a common problem throughout east Africa with corn, a staple food crop that isn’t particularly well suited to the region because of the lack of reliable precipitation.
The corn will contain a bacterium gene that U.S. biotech giant Monsanto Co. developed and contributed to the project. (Monsanto would like to see the African version available to poor farmers when the company it rolls out more sophisticated drought-tolerant corn seeds in the United States over the next decade.) The project, called Water-Efficient Maize for Africa, is being funded by the Gates foundation.
Scientists with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and the Kenyan research institute are practicing for the GMO field test by conducting a mock trial of conventional corn using all the security measures that will be needed (and required by Kenyan regulations) to prevent pollen from escaping from the research site. That includes having 24-hour security and a high fence topped with barbed wire. But it also means digging a trench around the site to keep the elephants out, the fence not being a sufficient deterrent. The trench isn’t a requirement of law, I was told, but instead a necessity to protect the crop.
Photographer Sarah Elliott captured the workers as they were digging at the site when we arrived this afternoon. Note that they are throwing the dirt on the side of the trench nearest the fence. If the dirt was piled on the outside, the elephants could simply push it into the trench and head into the fence, according to James Karanja, a scientist with the national research institute.
How valuable this biotech crop turns out to be remains to be seen, of course. That depends on how effective this gene is in the African cultivars it will be tested in, and then there’s the small problem of getting into the hands of farmers without a well-developed system to distribute seeds to poor farmers for whom they are intended. The farmers, in turn, don’t have access to fertilizer, or the expertise these scientists have. Elephants are the least of their issues.
Could Biotechnology Save Africa?
- Philip Brasher, Des Moines Register (Iowa) (Blog), Nov. 25, 2009
Africa must do something to produce more food, given the challenges of climate change and a fast-growing population. Kenya alone is expected to need nearly three times as much maize, or corn, to feed its population in 2050 as it does today.
Could genetically engineered crops be the answer? I’m going to look into that question over the coming weeks in Kenya, where research is underway on new drought-tolerant varieties of corn, and in South Africa, the only country in sub-Saharan Africa that has commercialized a biotech food crop.
For Americans, corn is a crop that’s fed to livestock, fermented into motor fuel or turned into a sweetener. To many millions of Africans, as they know it, is a staple food for people of all economic classes. But African farmers already struggle to grow sufficient maize, which is a thirsty, fertilizer-hungry crop.
Successive U.S. administrations have joined American agribusiness interests in arguing that Africans must drop their opposition to genetically modified crops if the continent is going to feed its growing population.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding research that is using technology from biotech giant Monsanto Co. to engineer corn that’s much more resistant to drought than conventional varieties. In his address to the World Food Prize symposium last month in Des Moines, Bill Gates said these new seeds could be vital to boosting African food production.
But there are geopolitical issues at play, too: It will be tougher for Europeans to continue resisting biotech food, if there is a new GM crop that could be vital to the survival of poor Africans. Kenya is a key country for the crop. The Kenyan government has established rules for biotech crops. And researchers with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or CIMMYT, the Mexico-based organization closely associated with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug, are preparing to plant the first test plot there of the biotech corn next spring. I’ll be reporting on that research and how it compares to what CIMMYT is already doing through conventional breeding.
Of course, biotechnology isn’t the only answer to Africa’s food challenge, even if it is part of it. Agricultural experts agree that high-tech, high-yielding seeds won’t be nearly enough, not when African farmers, who are mostly female, lack the bare essentials of agriculture: access to fertilizer, places to store their crops, adequate roads and dependable markets. I’ll be looking at those issues as well as talking to African leaders, experts with the U.S. government and with non-governmental organizations.
From Kenya, I’ll head to South Africa to learn about the experience there with insect-resistant Bt corn. Two-thirds of the corn South African farmers planted last year was biotech, and those growers included smallholders as well as commercial-scale operations.
This project is possible because of support of the International Center for Journalists and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. Watch this space for a link soon to the Pulitzer Center’s site for the project. I’ll be blogging on what I see and hear.
UK: Is it Finally Time to Embrace GM Crops?
- John Bingham, Telegraph (UK), Nov. 26, 2009 http://www.telegraph.co.uk
'The Government's food watchdog, the Food Standards Agency, is preparing to canvass the British public on genetically modified crops.'
The mass consultation exercise, set to last a year, is being viewed by opponents of GM foods as a fresh push to persuade the British public to embrace the controversial technology.
It comes against a background of calls from scientists, politicians and business for a rethink. They argue that humanity must make use of new genetically modified crop strains to combat a future world food crisis linked to global warming, a growing population and water shortages.
But sceptics say that not enough is known to rule out environmental or health dangers from what some refer to as "Frankenstein foods". The last time the public were consulted on the issue, opposition to the new technology was strong but the FSA says that rising food prices and fears for future supplies mean it is time to re-examine the issue.
A focus group survey published by the FSA ahead of the national consultation exercise has already angered environmentalists by suggesting that opponents of GM foods are more motivated by "emotion" than "reasoned" argument.
At present only one variety of GM maize has been approved for cultivation inside the European Union, although crops grown outside, such as in the US, can be sold here if they are labelled. In Britain the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs has given the go-ahead for a trial involving a new strain of potatoes but there are no plans to licence any more at present.
But is it now time to finally accept GM foods? Are sceptics just being alarmist or is there a genuine danger? Is it, an some manufacturers suggest, becoming impossible to keep GM ingredients out of the food chain?
Bt Cotton Varieties Approved in Pakistan
- Crop Biotech Update, isaaa.org
The Government of Pakistan has officially approved genetically modified crops for cultivation in the country. Pakistan's Ministry of Environment, Environment Protection Agency and National Biosafety Committee in a meeting cleared two Bt cotton varieties for commercial release. The Bt cotton varieties, CEMB-1 and CEMB-2, were developed by scientists at the Centre of Excellence in Molecular Biology (CEMB) of the Punjab University. These varieties were recommended by Pakistan Central Cotton Committee (PCCC) after more than two years of testing.
The Daily Times in an article cited an undisclosed source as saying that a total of 10 Bt cotton varieties including the approved two varieties might be commercialized in the country. The article also noted that currently, more than 44 genetically modified cotton varieties are being cultivated in the country without government approval. The Bt cotton varieties, awaiting approval from the Punjab Seed Council, will be available for the next cultivation season (Kharif 2010).
The Daily Times article is available at http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2009%5C11%5C26%5Cstory_26-11-2009_pg5_10 .
For more information on biotechnology developments in Pakistan, contact Dr. Iqbal Choudhary email@example.com of the Pakistan Biotech Information Center.
A Genetically Modified Aubergine Riles India, But Could Help Solve A Hunger Crisis
- Saritha Rai, Global Post, Dec 2, 2009 http://www.minnpost.com/globalpost/
Bangalore, India -- In India, the humble eggplant mainly featured in dinner-table conversations that measured the popularity of the baingan bharta (spicy roasted eggplant) against the achaari baingan (pickle-style baby eggplant) and the bharvaan baingan (stuffed eggplant).
Now as a genetically modified (GM) strain of eggplant heads to dinner plates, the innocuous vegetable is at the center of a more vital debate with a global echo. Critics are weighing the potential health hazards posed by genetically modified crops against their role in bringing about a second food revolution in populous India.
The number of hungry people in the world rose to over 1 billion this year, and every seventh person on the planet goes without food, says a U.N. report. In India growing food in adequate quantities and at prices the poor can afford amplifies the challenge.
The country's biotechnology regulator and the government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee have recently cleared the food crop called Bt brinjal as safe for human consumption, paving the way for more such clearances.
The final approval rests in the hands of India's environmental minister, Jairam Ramesh. In the face of huge political and civil resistance, Ramesh has promised to arrive at a "careful and considered decision." If the crop gets the minister's go-ahead, the eggplant strain will be in the first GM crop to be introduced in the densely-populated South Asian subcontinent. A dozen GM food crops are in use in other parts of the world, including the United States.
But resistance is building up in India, where farmers' groups are planning a protest to block the final approval. Signature campaigns have been launched by activists and dissenters in the clearance committee are airing their differences.
Critics of genetically modified crops say large-scale, unrestricted use of GM crops, created by inserting the genes of bacteria, parasites or other animals, would play with human lives and create havoc with the eco-balance. The "Bt" brinjal strain is named after the soil bacterium bacillus thuringiensis that naturally makes an insect-killing toxin that wards off the brinjal farmer's most-dreaded pest, a small moth that attacks the fruits and stem of the plant.
The genetically modified Bt brinjal has been engineered with a gene extracted from this bacterium's DNA so that it comes with inbuilt resistance to the disease. "We do not need GM foods in India, not now, not 20 years later," says Pushpa Bhargava, a senior biotechnologist based in the city of Hyderabad in southern India. "We should use simpler alternatives to increase food production and food availability," Dr. Bhargava, a dissenting member of the Bt brinjal approval committee told GlobalPost.
Some opponents have commented on the traces of toxicity found in the animals injected with Bt during laboratory tests and the potential hazards to human lives. Bhargava said there is an overwhelming amount of reliable scientific literature on a whole range of adverse effects.
In India, where food production depends on the vagaries of the weather, GM foods are a hot button for not just debate over bio-safety but also the power of multinationals to influence food choices. The GM eggplant strain has been developed by American agrichemical giant Monsanto with its Indian partner Mahyco. The crop, its promoters claim, can double yields and reduce pesticide use by nearly half.
This is not India's first GM crop. Earlier, Monsanto introduced Bt cotton in the farming belts of central India where debt-ridden and desperate farmers were committing suicide. Supporters of GM crops attribute the recent spike in cotton production in India to the introduction of Bt cotton.
But groups like Greenpeace are saying the risks to human health as well as the environment have not been investigated thoroughly enough. They fear that the introduction of Bt brinjal will open the flood gates for a host of other foods such as bananas, potatoes, chickpea, peanut, okra, tomato and others that are currently in field trials. Opponents say that while it is wrong to spray pesticides on food crops, it is even worse to genetically engineer pest-resistance into the food on the dining table.
But advocates of GM foods see the eggplant as a forerunner of a new biotechnology wave in India's agricultural market. They view gene manipulation as a means to make crops withstand drought, disease and pests.
The debate over GM food comes at a time when India is facing a huge food crisis as it struggles to meet the growing challenges of a burgeoning population, dwindling farming land area and reduced yield from climate change.
India's small farms are crumbling under the stress of gambling with nature. This year, for instance, critical monsoon rains have failed in some parts of the country while other parts have been submerged under floods. Impending shortages have pushed up food prices and the government is now battling inflation. A shortage-induced food panic in India has the unnerving potential to disrupt the world markets.
Traditional crop breeding methods are time-consuming and often inaccurate, says Professor M.S. Swaminathan, who is acknowledged as the pioneer of India's first food revolution in the 1970s that made the country self-reliant.
The proponents of GM foods say that such food crops can form the foundation of a second food revolution. Critics maintain that such manipulation can be a large scale health hazard. Weighed against the grim scenario of hunger and rising food prices in India, the debate is both emotional and explosive.
Travel Grants for Young Scientists to Attend BioVisionAlexandria, Egypt
The TWAS/BioVisionAlexandria.NXT(BVA.NXT) initiative was launched in BioVisionAlexandria 2008, where the Bibliotheca Alexandrina hosted 99 young scientists from 27 developing countries to discuss the problems these scientists face when conducting research in their respective countries.
TWAS/BVA.NXT 2010 will be the second BioVisionAlexandira.NXT to be organized in Alexandria. It will revolve around one of the main concerns of every researcher in developing countries Publishing Scientific Papers in the Developing World. One hundred young researchers (below the age of 35 and holding a Masters or PhD) will be selected to participate in the event, of which 15% will be NXT alumni from both developed and developing countries to promote networking and to ensure the stability and continuity of the program.
The event will start on 10 April 2010, and will include various panels and roundtable discussions where the young scientists will be offered the opportunity to meet distinguished scientists, as well as editors and reviewers from several prestigious scientific journals with whom they will share their views regarding the obstacles they face when publishing their research, and explore ways in which they could overcome them. Moreover, each young researcher will demonstrate his/her project/research in the poster session. Furthermore, the young scientists will be invited to participate in the 5-day BioVisionAlexandria Conference program.
TWAS will contribute partially to the air tickets.
The application deadline is 30th of December 2009.
Priority will be given to applied research and research meeting society's needs.
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is organizing its Fifth International Biennial Conference, BioVisionAlexandria 2010, held 11-15 April 2010, in Alexandria, Egypt.
As a continuation of the tradition that started in BioVision 1999 in Lyon, France; the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is honored to be an associate of BioVision, by holding the BioVisionAlexandria, every even year, alternating with the World Life Science Forum held in Lyon, every other odd year.
The theme of BioVisionAlexandria 2010 will be New Life Sciences: Future Prospects. It will aim to identify and explore the new frontiers and new areas in life sciences that will vastly serve humanity and provide hope for solving the world’s most pressing issues.
Keeping in tradition with previous BioVision Alexandria conferences, BioVisionAlexandria 2010 will commence with a Nobel Day; where distinguished recipients of the Nobel Prize will share their reflections and experiences that helped in the advancement of sciences and renovated our world. The Nobel Day is dedicated to honor Nobel Laureates; whose vision and perseverance in the quest for scientific excellence and novelty has changed our lives. During the three days, distinguished speakers will share their expertise and insights with the larger audience, mostly from developing countries.
The Conference will focus on three major themes: Health, Food and Agriculture, and Environment. Each of these themes will be addressed by representatives of the greatest minds in industry, science, policy-makers and civil society fields.
Biotechnology Education Magazine Now Online: Your World Focuses on Agricultural Biotechnology
The Biotechnology Institute has released the latest issue of Your World: Biotechnology & You, the nation's leading biotechnology education magazine.
The issue focuses on agriculture biotech crop-- the science involved, the benefits possible, and the controversies. It helps students, teachers, parents, farmers, and other stakeholders around the globe to better understand agricultural biotechnology as a system of sustainable agriculture that will satisfy human food needs, enhance environmental quality, and sustain the economic viability of farms.
The full version of the issue can be downloaded for free at
India to Set up Borlaug Institute for South Asia
- Crop Biotech Update, isaaa.org
India's Union Minister of Agriculture Sharad Pawar agreed to support the setting up of a Norman Borlaug Institute for South Asia in collaboration with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in India. Dr. Thomas Lumpkin, Director General of CIMMYT proposed the idea to set up an institute in memory of Dr. Norman E. Borlaug during the inaugural session of the International seminar on "Meeting Challenges of Global Wheat Production: A Tribute to Dr. Norman E. Borlaug" organized by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) from 21 to 22 Nov 2009 at New Delhi. Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, Father of India's Green Revolution along with Agricultural Ministers of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal fondly remembered Dr. Borlaug who helped India achieve self sufficiency in key staples like wheat and rice in the1960s-70s at a time when India was critically suffering from food deficit and largely dependent on food import to feed a burgeoning population.
Minister Pawar recalled his four decades long association and paid his tribute to Dr. Borlaug, who helped alleviate hunger and poverty through the development and dissemination of input-responsive semi-dwarf wheat varieties in wheat growing countries. India owes a lot to his unprecedented and innovative contributions, said the Minister. He also announced that India has instituted a National Professorial Chair in Biotechnology for Crop Improvement, which is equivalent to Vice Chancellor of Agricultural University, at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi. In addition, India has named important wheat varieties after Dr. Borlaug.
For more information about the International wheat seminar visit http://www.isaaa.org/kc/cropbiotechupdate/article.asp?xxIDxx=5067&xxURLxx=http://www.icar.org.in
For information about biotech development in India contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Mexico's Transgenic Maize Under Fire
- Rex Dalton, Nature 462, 404 (2009) Nov. 25 2009 |
'Experimental planting scheme has insufficient controls to prevent gene flow to native crops, critcs say.'
Mexico doesn't have an adequate system to monitor or protect natural maize (corn) varieties from transgenes, say prominent scientists concerned about the experimental planting of genetically modified crops.
In the past month, Monsanto and Dow AgriSciences have received government permission to plant transgenic maize across 24 plots, covering a total of nearly 13 hectares, in the northern states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Coahuila and Tamaulipas.
Response from Prof. Piero Morandini, University of MIlan, Italy (Dec 2, 2009)
I believe the whole article starts with the wrong foot. "Natural maize (corn)" does not exist. Maize is a product of human manipulation which is totally unable, as most crops, to survive in the wild without man's intervention. If they were able, agriculture would not be a difficult job.
Now, coming to the issue of landraces and transgenic maize, I have the following comments:
* The presence alone of a transgenic variety or trait does constitute any risk (for health, environment or biodiversity) per se.
Major regulatory authorities and scientific societies accept Bt corn as safe for human and animal consumption on the basis of submitted evidence. Also extensive usage in many countries for around 10 years without complaint at the farm level can be added as evidence.
Other insect resistant corn varieties developed by conventional breeding (see 1) are grown and used without any safety test because they are conventional. Have these been demonstrated safe (for health, environment or biodiversity) in the name of some natural principle?
* Modern hybrids have been grown in the region at least for some 3 decades now, and the landraces survived just fine.
If cross pollination occurs, hybrids between commercial cultivars and landraces would be obvious (by several morphological differences in the first few generations at least) in their fields and could be either selected or not by the grower.
* In the original sample collection in the Pineyro (Alvarez-Buylla) paper, the selected ears were confirmed to be landraces by the growers, which would be surprising if the transgenes had been recently introduced by hybridization, as one would expect. This makes the claim of the authors somewhat suspect.
* if the transgenes are truly mixing, one expects that some of the plants are herbicide tolerant, some are insect resistant and some are both. This can be easily tested and the controversy put to rest.
* Even if this is the case (that an as yet undemonstrated mixing is occurring), so what? Landraces will still continue to be landraces and naive people would still believe in natural maize. if the farmers see the Bt trait as beneficial, they will introgress it into their landraces.
The Bt trait has been shown to reduce fumonisin content of maize (2) and fumonisin are linked to Neural Tube defects and other severe illnesses (3). If some people reject the possibility of the Bt trait in a landrace as a heresy to natural biodiversity, then they are not only little understanding of crop biology, they also have little concern for human suffering.
The old adage "I love humanity, it's people I can't stand" should be now turned to "I love a wrong idea of environment, but I still can't stand people". Best regards, P.M.
1 Barry, D., Alfaro D., and Darrah L. L. (1994) Relation of European corn borer (Lepidoptera:
Pyralidae) leaf-feeding resistance and DIMBOA content in maize. Environ. Entomol. 23:177â€“182.
2 Wu F. (2006) Mycotoxin reduction in Bt corn: potential economic, health, and regulatory impacts. Transgenic Res. 15:277-89.
3 Wild CP, Gong YY. (2009) Mycotoxins and human disease: a largely ignored global health issue. Carcinogenesis. Oct 29.