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December 14, 2009


Adapting to Climate Change; Over-regulating GM; Gates Joins CGIAR; Bt Brinjal Is Safe; Precision Breeding


* GM Crops, Industrialisation, Crucial to African Adaptation to Climate Change - Expert
* The Economics of Genetically Modified Crops
* Gates Foundation Joins Global Crop Research Network
* Bt Brinjal Is Safe, Declare Scientists
* Letters to India's Minister of Environment re - Bt Brinjal
* Precision Breeding Creates Super Potato

GM Crops, Industrialisation, Crucial to African Adaptation to Climate Change - Expert

- Laurie Goering, Reuters, Dec. 14, 2009 via checkbiotech.org

Copenhagen - Europe "shot itself in the foot" by rejecting genetically modified crops, but by following suit Africa has "shot itself in the heart," Paul Colliers, an Africa specialist at Oxford University, said on Friday. Maize, the staple crop of southern Africa, will become difficult or impossible to grow there as droughts and other extreme weather associated with climate change take hold, Colliers said in Copenhagen at the start of "Development and Climate Days", a four-day programme on development and adaptation issues related to climate change.

New varieties of maize resistant to predicted increases in drought, heat and flooding in Africa cannot be bred fast enough by conventional means, so genetically modified crops will become a necessity, he said. Some vulnerable countries including Malawi already plant at least some modified crops.

But other southern African countries, following Europe's lead, ban the technology, largely on grounds that the laboratory-created crops have not undergone sufficient long-term testing to ensure they are safe for health and the environment.

Europe's ban on genetically modified crops has led agricultural productivity in the region to decline by 1.5 percent a year over 30 years in comparison to U.S. productivity, said Colliers, director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford. More than 80 percent of the maize and soybeans grown in the United States, by comparison, are today genetically modified, agricultural producer groups say.

Reductions in potential agricultural productivity in Europe were a minor contributor to the 2008 food crisis, which saw food prices shoot up worldwide as supplies dwindled, Colliers said. But in Africa, rejection of genetically modified crops threatens to provoke mass hunger, he said. He urged Africa to move toward industrialisation as a crucial adaptation to climate change. "Africa should move out of agriculture," Colliers said.

Over-reliance on agriculture, now the continent's major employer, will leave the world's poorest region too vulnerable as climate change takes hold, he said. Mali's ambassador to Denmark, however, dismissed Colliers' suggestion, saying "the Africa he talks about--. is not the Africa we are living in".

"Agriculture is the backbone of our economy," Fatoumata Diakite said, predicting that a shift to industrialisation would produce more starvation than the current reliance on agriculture, particularly if the effort did not go well.


The Economics of Genetically Modified Crops

- Matin Qaim, Annual Review of Resource Economics () http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.resource.050708.144203

This article reviews the current state of knowledge on genetically modified (GM) crops from the field of economics. According to the article, the available impact studies show that insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant GM crops are beneficial to farmers and consumers, producing large aggregate welfare gains as well as positive effects for the environment and human health. But, "widespread public reservations have led to a complex system of regulations."

"Future issues" identified by the article include that: 1) over-regulation has become "a real threat" for the further development and use of GM crops, and the costs in terms of foregone benefits may be large, especially for developing countries; 2) economics research has an important role to play in finding ways to maximize the net social benefits, with more work needed to quantify possible indirect effects of GM crops, including socioeconomic outcomes as well as environmental and health impacts;

3) economists need to contribute to designing efficient regulatory mechanisms and innovation systems; 4) although the gradual move from public to private crop-improvement research is a positive sign of better-functioning markets, certain institutional factors seem to be contributing to increasing industry concentration; and 5) especially with a view to small-scale farmers, more public research and institutional support are needed to complement private sector efforts.

(via http://www.merid.org/fs-agbiotech/ )


Gates Foundation Joins Global Crop Research Network

- Yojana Sharma, SciDev.net, Dec. 10, 2009

International agricultural development research is set to receive a major boost with the announcement that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will formally join the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

The foundation signalled its intention to take part in reforming the CGIAR system and increase its funding to the group at a CGIAR business meeting in Washington DC this week (8 December), taking many delegates by surprise. The foundation currently has an observer status.

The CGIAR reforms, under discussion since early 2008, will merge the group's 15 research centres into a consortium that can take on broader cross-continental projects known as "mega-programmes" (see A revolution to combat world hunger). Donor funding previously allocated to individual centres will form a CGIAR Common Fund.

In a statement to the meeting Prabhu Pingali, head of agricultural policy and statistics at the Gates Foundation said: "There are several details around programmatic focus, funding details and membership issues that need to be worked out, but we believe these issues can be resolved in a mutually agreeable manner". The nature of the foundation's involvement is still under discussion. "The end result of the reform ought to be a CGIAR system that can once again attract the 'best and the brightest' scientists to devote their careers to the cause of improving developing country agriculture," said Pingali.

More specifically, the foundation backed the controversial mega-programme approach and called for mega-programmes on rice and wheat, as well as a focus on gender issues across such programmes.
The Gates Foundation's decision is being seen as an endorsement of the reform process.

Sources said that in recent weeks the individual centres had joined forces to back the consortium approach. This was seen as a major breakthrough, as the possible reluctance of certain centres —such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and CIMMYT, the international maize improvement centre — to give up their cherished autonomy had been seen as a sticking point. "If you put 15 puppies in a sack, you are going to get a lot of wriggling," said Andrew Bennett, who is closely involved in the reforms as chair of the board of CGIAR's Centre for International Forestry Research.

The foundation's involvement could also provide a welcome boost to the consortium's coffers. Expectations for the Common Fund were being scaled back and donor pledging postponed to early next year. Some donors, including Sweden, had already announced cuts in their CGIAR support due to the global recession.

Sources at the Washington meeting said the Gates Foundation's statement of commitment would set a benchmark as it is the first donor to commit to the Common Fund, thereby stamping approval on the idea of the CGIAR in its new form. The current budget of the 15 institutes is around US$530 million and the target had been to double funding through the Common Fund to around US$1 billion within five years.

The Gates Foundation is a significant international donor and already allocated US$400 million to several CGIAR centres over 2009–13. Pingali said funding to CGIAR "could rise as we receive additional proposals during this five-year period". He urged donors to avoid a funding gap that could lose CGIAR high-quality staff.
Andrew Bennett is the chair of SciDev.Net's board of trustees


Bt Brinjal Is Safe, Declare Scientists


Thiruvananthapuram, Dec 14 (IANS) While the debate on Bt brinjal continues in the country, scientists who arrived here to take part in a two-day seminar Monday said the genetically modified vegetable was not only safe for consumption but also more profitable for the farmers.

Scientists from across the country are taking part in the seminar which has been jointly organised by the All India Crop Biotechnology Association (AICBA), Environment Resource Research Centre (ERRC) at Thiruvananthapuram, and Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education (FBAE) at Bangalore.

P. Balasubramanian of the Centre for Plant Molecular Biology, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, said in his research paper that Bt brinjal provides an effective environmentally friendly and economically sustainable solution to crop losses resulting from infestation.

‘With Bt brinjal, the farmers will gain increased productivity and economic and health benefits while the consumers will get access to pesticide-free safer fruits…Scientists have conducted rigorous tests as per the stringent requirements of regulatory bodies to ensure that Bt brinjal is safe for human consumption,’ Balasubramanian said.

Bt brinjal is compositionally identical to normal brinjal except for the additional Bt protein. Bt brinjal has been tested on a number of animal groups to show that it is not toxic to any group, scientists said.

C. Kameswara Rao of the FBAE in his research paper pointed out that the All India Coordinated Vegetable Improvement Project and the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Varanasi (ICAR), have evaluated the agronomic performance and environmental impact of Bt brinjal.

‘The objective of developing Bt brinjal hybrids and varieties is to control the damage caused by the stem and fruit borers (SFB) of brinjal. Even after continuous and very heavy insecticide application, the SFBs affect 50 to 70 percent of the crop yield annually. The Bt brinjal effectively resists both these pests resulting in diverse benefits to the farmer, consumer and the country, more particularly vastly enhanced produce recovery and the avoidable use and exposure to pesticides and their residues,’ Rao pointed out.

Shanthu Shantharam of Biologistics International, US, said: ‘Almost no issue taken up by the anti-technology activists against GM crops has any scientific basis. In fact, their campaign is mostly based on misinformation, disinformation, and outright falsehood, some imported and some concocted locally.’


The Honorable Shri Jairam Ramesh
Minister for Environment and Forests, New Delhi, India

Sub: Approval of Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation in India

Dear Honorable Minister:

As an agricultural law professor who teaches, writes, and speaks about agricultural biotechnology and policy, I have followed the development and GEAC approval of Bt brinjal closely since the year 2000.

I support the GEAC decision and the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal for several reasons:

* The GEAC has taken careful and extraordinary steps to evaluate Bt brinjal. GEAC has done what the law and regulations of India mandated it to do and has rendered a judgment of approval. GEAC, as an administrative agency of the State of India, deserves the support of the Government.

* Indian scientists have been heavily involved in both the development and the evaluation of Bt brinjal. These Indian scientists support the GEAC decision. Indian scientists have the world class ability to improve the agricultural productivity of Indian agriculture, if they see that their work to develop seeds through modern plant breeding will be validated for commercial release.

* Studies by a number of research social scientists have concluded that the positive agronomic, environmental, and economic benefits for the Indian farmers of brinjal will be very large. The poor resource farmers particularly will benefit the most. In addition. Indian consumers will benefit by having higher quality produce at a reduced cost. Consumer benefits too will be very large. Poverty at both the farm level and the consumer level will be reduced by access to high quality, lower cost products from modern plant breeding.

I support the GEAC decision for another reason. I have worked in India and I admire the dynamism and dedication of Indian scientists. By failing to approve the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, India runs the very strong risk of discouraging agricultural research and development. Moreover, a failure to approve Bt brinjal may also put India at a distinctly competitive disadvantage in comparison to China where Chinese authorities have recently approved transgenic low-phytase maize and transgenic rice. India needs and deserves agricultural research and development from its scientists to reduce poverty and to remain competitive. But they cannot provide that research and development if their efforts are thwarted.

Sincerely yours,

Drew L. Kershen, Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law, University of Oklahoma, College of Law, U.S.A


Shree Jairam Ramesh,
Minister for Environment and Forests, New Delhi, India

Honourable Minister:

Sub: Approval of Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation in India.

We submit the following for your consideration and urge you to approve Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation without further delay for the benefit of Indian farmers and consumers.

1. There is a dire need to control the most important insect pests of brinjal that cause shoot and fruit damage resulting in marketable yield losses which are between 50 and 70 per cent annually. The damaging pests start from the nursery and are carried to the next crop. Even high application of synthetic pesticides does not help because the pests are deep inside the stem and fruit tissues.

2. The Cry1Ac gene in Bt brinjal imparts an inbuilt systemic tolerance to the two important pests, Leucinodes orbonalis and Helicoverpa armigera, both of which cause severe fruit damage.

3. Bt brinjal helps in greatly reducing the cultivation expenses on the use of synthetic pesticides, benefitting millions of farmers and consumers. It greatly eliminates the risk from synthetic chemicals to the farmers, consumers and the environment.

4. Bt brinjal has passed through the prescribed mandatory biosafety tests according to regulations. Two Expert Committees reviewed the biosafety dossier that had been reviewed and approved earlier by the Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBSCs) and the Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation.

5. Basing on the first Expert Committee recommendations, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC ), the Apex body, directed that field trials be conducted under the direct supervision of the Director, Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (IIVR), Varanasi, and not to be performed independently by the product developer.

6. The Second Expert Committee concluded on October 8, 2009, that the Bt brinjal with event EE-1 (Cry 1Ac) has been extensively tested for its biosafety and no additional studies/review are necessary. Based on this, on October 14, 2009, the GEAC approved Bt brinjal for commercialization. However, the Minister for Environment and Forests opted for further consultation with different stakeholders, which virtually overrides the decision of the GEAC.

7. The stand taken by the MoEF created lots of regulatory uncertainty for no valid scientific reason or environemntal concern. No technology developer can afford to operate in the country to develop any biotech crop with such an uncertainty of an approval process that is not based on scientific facts.

8. Over 25 years of research experience and over 13 years of experience in commercial cultivation over 25 countries demonstrated that Bt crops are effective and safe for use.

9. The activist charge sheet includes several issues, such as that a) genetically engineered (GE) products are toxic and allergenic, b) they harm non-target organisms, c) gene flow from transgenics eliminates related varieties/species, d) they become super weeds and eliminate all vegetation, e) they negatively impact ecology and biodiversity, f) there is a terminator gene in GE crops affecting the farmers’ interests, etc. They even attribute farmer suicides to failure of GE crops. The literature appended to this submission amply demonstrates that there is no truth in any of the above charges and allegations.

10. The activists make an emotional argument that India is the country of origin of brinjal, for which there is no scientific evidence.

11. The flower structure and pollination behavior of such crops as tomato, potato, bell pepper and brinjal do not warrant any significant threat from gene flow among these crops (Bt or not) or their supposed relatives. They are all over 90 per cent self pollinated and gene flow was less than 2.7 per cent. Farmers do not make any effort to protect different varieties of cultivated brinjal from hybridizing among themselves or with the wild Solanums, since they do not. Antibiotic resistant markers have been shown to pose no threat.

12. Activists cite the opposition to GE technology in some countries like in the European Union (EU), ignoring a) that that in the EU itself over 300 GE traits of crops are in development, b) that EU permits cultivation or import of some GE crops, c) Europe alone imports 50 million tons of GM soybean and GM maize every year (see FAO database) mainly from Brazil and Argentina, d) that globally about 30 countries now cultivate and/or import GE crop produce, and d) that over 350 million Americans have consumed Bt crop produce for over a decade without harm. China has very recently approved a Bt rice and a GE maize for commercial cultivation.

13. Bt technology has largely affected the interests of the internationally powerful pesticide industry and conventional seed industry. The export and organic lobbies fear rejection of exports particularly by the EU if there was a GE element in the produce. This is the main source of opposition to GE technology. We cannot sacrifice the country’s interests to benefit these lobby groups.

14. The opposition to Bt brinjal means to India nothing but a reduced marketable yield, an increased use of pesticides (with economic as well as health damage to farmers, consumers and environment). The government should decide whether to help Indian farmers or pesticide producing corporations.

15. The science face of the activists is comprised of persons or organizations which have always blindly opposed GE technology, without admitting even a single benefit from it. It is not just Bt brinjal that is opposed, but all GE technology, which has done wonders for over 13 years globally. These same people are also severely criticizing Green Revolution technologies ignoring the enormous benefits India derived from them.

16. Bt brinjal passed through extensive agronomic and biosecurity evaluation as per the mandatory provisions of the Indian Regulatory regime, during 2000-09. This process involved about 200 scientists and experts from over 15 public and private sector institutions.

17. The combined global scientific wisdom should be respected in evaluating GE products and the decisions should not be allowed to be hijacked by the vested interest using junk science to pursue inept politics of imported ideological imperialism, often with financial support from foreign agencies to promote their own interests.

18. The benefits from Bt technology have been amply demonstrated in India by the commercial cultivation of Bt cotton since 2002. None of the dreadful scenarios forecasted for Bt cotton has ever materialized.

19. Delay in the commercialization of Bt brinjal will promote its clandestine cultivation as it happened with Bt cotton in Gujarat, and elsewhere. This is not in the best interests of the country.

We the undersigned strongly recommend the approval of Bt brinjal for cultivation. We stand by the enormous amount of evidence and benefits in favor of agricultural biotechnology. Please find below a shortlist of scientific literature in support of our submission.


Kameshwar Rao


Precision Breeding Creates Super Potato


The fall of 2009 was a truly special season for the Emsland Group: For the first time in the history of the largest German potato starch manufacturer, it processed Tilling potatoes, which exclusively contain amylopectin starch. Not only can nutritional starches for emulsifying soups and desserts be extracted from it – it can also be used for paste and smooth coating for paper and thread production. "This potato is the first product in Germany developed by Tilling that achieves market readiness," explains Prof. Prüfer of the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME.

Tilling – an acronym for "Targeting Induced Local Lesions in Genomes" – is a breeding process that researchers want to use to push evolution yet another step forward. In nature, evolution proceeds slowly: Through mutation and selection, plants and animal species adapt and change. Over the course of generations, those species develop that, due to their genetic make-up, are best adapted to the prevailing environmental conditions. Others became extinct. For millennia, humans have been using this evolutionary process for their own purposes, by focusing on highly productive- – and profit yielding – species. Modern breeding processes operate the same way, though the natural mutation rate is accelerated. "With the aid of chemicals, a vast number of mutants can be rapidly obtained," says Jost Muth of IME, who participated in the development of the new potato starch. "We are working here with natural principles. In nature, sunlight triggers changes in the genome. With chemistry, we accomplish the same thing  only faster."

Until now, mutation breeding was an exhaustive process. "Growers had to bring out the mutated seeds to the field, and then wait until they reached the end of their vegetation period in order to determine if one of the genetic modifications achieved the desired result. In addition, the majority of generated mutations could not be determined, since the characteristic is only expressed in a homozygous state," explains Prüfer. His team has succeeded in accelerating the implementation. In the laboratory at IME, the mutated seeds were germinated. As soon as the first leaves appear, it's harvest time: The researchers take a leaf sample, break apart the cellular structure, isolate the genome and analyze it. This way they can find out within a few weeks if a mutation has attained the desired traits.

In a project sponsored by the "Nachwachsende Rohstoffe" agency, researchers at IME, in collaboration with the Bioplant and Emslandstärke companies, found the super potato germ. They had to examine 2,748 seedlings until just the right one was identified that exclusively produces the starch component amylopectin. From this germ, experts were able to generate the first generation of super potatoes. There are genes active in their genome responsible for the formation of amylopectin, whereas genes that trigger the formation of amylose are shut off. "Until now, potatoes always contained both starch types. Industry had to separate the amylopectin from the amylose – an energy and cost-intensive process," explains Prüfer. "With the Tilling potatoes, which only contain amylopectin, this process stage is superfluous. In Germany alone the paper and adhesives industry require 500,000 tonnes of highly purified amylopectin each year. Then there is the textile industry too, which uses the starch to glaze threats prior to weaving. The food industry is also relevant.

This fall, 100 tonnes of the new super potato that exclusively produces amylopectin were harvested. "They can be processed as usual in the production lines," reports Muth. "Special measures aren't necessary, because the Tilling potatoes are totally normal breeds that contain no genetically modified material." The example shows that conventional or modern breeding methods will lead to success if the gene responsible for the expression of a specific trait is a natural part of the plant, and is known to scientists. The gene for the production of amylose in potatoes is one such gene. "Gene technology-based processes are indispensible and it is prudent to use them, when we want to integrate genetic material into a plant genome – , for example if we develop transgenic tobacco plants producing pharmacological substances," concludes Prüfer. "When it comes to dealing with genes, there is an easy rule: as much modification as needed, but as little as possible."