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January 4, 2010


Biotech Improves Quality of Life; Nitrogen-use Efficiency, The Next Green Revolution; Quiet Revolution; Bt Brinjal - Ban or Boon?


* Modern Biotech Can Help With Weeding
* Biotech and Gender Issues In The Developing World
* Britain Could Face Famine in 20 Years
* Gates Pours Cash Into Agriculture
* Farmers Look to Biotechnology to Battle Climate Change Challenges
* Nitrogen-use Efficiency, The Next Green Revolution
* Quiet Biotech Revolution Transforming Crops
* Indian Prime Minister on Agricultural Biotechnology
* Bt Brinjal - Ban or Boon?


Modern Biotech Can Help With Weeding

- SciDev.net, December 21, 2009 | EN

Weeds are a major constraint on the quality of life of most women in developing countries but modern technology can help, says Jonathan Gressel from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

Women do the majority of backbreaking weeding in the developing world. But although many speakers at this year's World Food Symposium (October 2009) did highlight gender inequalities in agriculture, they focused on the need to improve women's education and health.

Few spoke about the impact weeds have on women's quality of life or about how biotechnology can help Engineers have designed more ergonomic hoes to aid weeding. And genetically engineered herbicide-resistant crops are already being used by women in South Africa to control weeds.

Gebisa Ejeta received the World Food Prize for his work in genetically engineering sorghum to resist attach by the parasitic weed Striga. Genetic engineering can also be used to design crops that produce chemicals to suppress weeds.

Such efforts show that modern biotechnology can be effectively used to control weeds and reduce the drudgery facing most women in the developing world.


Biotech and Gender Issues In The Developing World

- Jonathan Gressel, Nature Biotechnology 27, 1085 - 1086 (2009)

(Department of Plant Sciences, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel; jonathan.gressel@weizmann.ac.il)

The recent World Food Prize Symposium celebrated the life of Norman Borlaug and the work of laureate sorghum breeder Gebisa Ejeta. The star-studded cast of speakers was led by Bill Gates and included women CEOs of major multinational corporations. Gates described how his foundation came to the realization that to deal with issues of health there must be good food in the stomach and described their emphasis on dealing with agricultural issues of nutrition, drought, insects and diseases with a clear and resounding emphasis on biotech, where it could be helpful. Gates and many others addressed gender issues, with the emphasis on girls' education and health so that the best might enter the business world and academia.

Unfortunately, very little was said about the vast majority of women, who, no matter how well educated, would return to their rural settings, relegated to mainly 'femanual' work: soil preparation, planting, weeding and more weeding. Not a single invited speaker (except the laureate) mentioned weeds, let alone how modern technology can help. Engineers have provided designs for more ergonomic hoes. Genetic engineers can do better. Already transgenic glyphosate-resistant maize has become a hit among women farming in South Africa, who can now spray down more weeds in a day than they could hoe in a backbreaking month.

Weed control biotech is not limited to herbicide-resistant crops. Ejeta received the prize for his work intelligently combining genes that partially encode resistance to various stages of attack by the root-parasitic weed Striga (witchweed). It is not easy to transfer these 3 or 4 recessive genes scattered throughout the sorghum genome from locally adapted variety to variety by backcross breeding, even with marker-assisted selection. When the genes are finally isolated, they can be put in a single dominant cassette that could be engineered into one variety of sorghum and, one hopes, other Striga-susceptible crop species and easily backcrossed to any local variety, preserving crop biodiversity.

In principle, genetic engineering could also be used to engineer the secretion of weed-suppressing allelochemicals from crop roots or to enhance the vitality, virulence and persistence of biocontrol agents ('bioherbicides') such that they might become commercially viable. Such efforts to use the tools of modern biotech to attack weeds would clearly reduce the inappropriate drudgery that most women are relegated to enduring in the developing world.

Confucius is quoted as saying: “If language is incorrect, then what is said is not meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what should be done remains undone.” If it is not clearly stated with meaning that weeds are a major constraint on the quality of life of most women in the developing world, then what should be done remains undone, and gender issues have not been adequately addressed with biotechnology.

Reference 1. http://www.worldfoodprize.org/Symposium/2009/transcripts.htm


Britain Could Face Famine in 20 Years

- Daily Mirror (UK), Jan 4, 2010

Britain could go hungry within 20 years as climate change, population growth, overfishing and scarce fuel pose a serious threat to food supplies, says a report out tomorrow.

Big changes are needed to the way we farm and eat, warns the Government's Food 2030 study. Consumers will be told to accept genetically modified crops if science proves they are safe and the UK must grow more food of its own. Environment Secretary Hilary Benn is to urge people to eat more healthily and cut down on waste when he launches the report at the Oxford farming conference.

In a foreword, Gordon Brown writes: "We need to think differently about food. We cannot just carry on as we are."


Gates Pours Cash Into Agriculture

- Hayley Birch, Nature Biotechnology 27, 1064 (2009)

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced $120 million in grants to promote sustainable agriculture, a move intended to spur another Green Revolution, this time tailored to the needs of the poorest farmers. The Foundation will support crop research and agricultural projects that increase productivity and food security in low-income countries. The nine new grants announced in October, which will focus on homegrown crops from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, include $18 million for developing high-yielding varieties of sorghum and millet, $21 million for developing stress-tolerant sweet potatoes and $19 million to improve nitrogen fixation in legumes, such as soybean and cowpea.

“The foundation believes that helping the poorest smallholder farmers grow more and get it to market is the world's single most important lever for reducing hunger and poverty. We're taking a comprehensive approach—from investing in improved seeds to supporting effective farm management practices,” says Lawrence Kent, senior program officer for the Gates Foundation's agricultural development initiative. Kent adds that biotech will be used where it has the potential to help farmers confront drought, flooding, disease or pests faster or more effectively than conventional breeding alone does—roughly 5% of the total funds. Seeds developed through foundation-supported research will be licensed royalty-free to seed distributors so that they can be sold to African farmers without extra charge.

Although better known for its investments in health, the Gates Foundation has donated over $1.2 billion to agricultural development efforts since 2006 as part of its ongoing global development program, with a third of those funds designated for “science and technology.” One of the current grantees is the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), based in Nairobi, Kenya, which last year launched its $48 million public-private partnership project, water-efficient maize for Africa, to develop new varieties of drought-tolerant maize. Field trials are expected to start next year. St. Louis-based Monsanto, one of the project partners, is providing germplasm produced by conventional breeding, as well as a molecular breeding platform and drought-resistant transgenes.

“If we were to start from zero, without any materials that had been bred and focused towards drought, normal plant breeding would take about ten years. Here we are getting materials which are already almost proven,” says AATF's executive director, Daniel Mataruka.


Farmers Look to Biotechnology to Battle Climate Change Challenges


Singapore, Dec 31, 2009: Despite mounting challenges brought on by climate change, farmers around the world are increasingly being aided by modern agricultural practices, such as biotechnology.

Climate change is already affecting US agriculture and land and water resources, and will continue to do so, according to a USDA report released recently at the climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), in cooperation with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), has released The Effects of Climate Change on US. Ecosystems.

Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, Executive Vice President for Food and Agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) says biotechnology is one tool that can help increase agricultural productivity despite these environmental challenges.

“Our member companies have been developing environmental stress tolerance traits (plants that are naturally tolerant to extreme cold, heat, drought, saline soil, diseases and insect pests) for the past decade, and many of these are poised for commercialization,” says Bomer. “The pending authorization of these products couldn’t be more timely given the challenges facing farmers.

According to this recent report, climate change is hurting crop production, distribution, and yields directly through changes in temperature and precipitation, and indirectly by increasing pest and weed outbreaks. Through biotechnology, seeds yield more per acre, plants naturally resist specific insect pests and diseases, and farmers use less energy. Genetically engineered plants and animals can naturally fight diseases and adapt to environmental stress.

Productivity gains through biotechnology are especially crucial at a time when the population is growing and the demand for food is increasing, especially in developing countries. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, feeding a world population of 9.1 billion in 2050 will require raising food production by 70 percent. Food production will need to increase by nearly 100 percent in developing countries, where farmers are most adversely affected by climate change.

“Farmers are not defenseless in their struggle against extreme weather conditions and evolving pest populations. Biotechnology will continue to be one of many tools to help farmers meet these environmental challenges and better provide the food, fuel and fiber to serve a growing population,” Sharon Bomer Lauritsen added.


Nitrogen-use Efficiency, The Next Green Revolution

- Matt Ridley, The Economist, The World in 2010 print edition, Nov 13th 2009

Imagine you could wave a magic wand and boost the yield of the world’s crops, cut their cost, use fewer-fossil fuels to grow them and reduce the pollution that results from farming. Imagine, too, that you could both eliminate some hunger and return some land to rain forest. This is the scale of the prize that many in the biotechnology industry now suddenly believe is within their grasp in 2010 and the years that follow. They are in effect hoping to boost the miles-per-gallon of agriculture, except that the fuel in question is nitrogen.

In the 19th century, the world fed its expanding population by finding new acres to plough—in the prairies, the pampas, the steppes and the outback. In the 20th century, food supply more than kept pace with population by getting more out of each acre thanks to fossil fuels: tractors freed land to grow food that once fed horses, and fossil fuels fixed nitrogen from the air to make ammonium-based fertiliser. Yields doubled and doubled again. Today roughly half the nitrogen atoms in an average human body have come through an ammonium factory. Had they not, rain forests would have been even more devastated than they have been; and famines worse.

But about two-thirds of the nearly $100 billion of nitrogen fertiliser spread on fields each year is wasted. Either it is washed out of the soil by rain, and then suffocates the life out of lakes, rivers and seas by causing dense algal blooms—vast “dead zones” lie off the mouth of the Mississippi and in the Baltic Sea. Or it turns to nitrous oxide in the soil, a gas with roughly 300 times the greenhouse-warming potential of carbon dioxide, pound for pound. Some of that waste is avoidable with sensible agronomic measures: timing the application of fertiliser carefully, for example. Countries such as Denmark have halved their nitrogen inputs without hurting yields in recent years. By contrast, fertiliser subsidies encourage futile over-use of nitrogen in parts of China.
Genetically modified crops are proving to be an unmitigated environmental miracle

But there is now a high-tech solution too. One day in 1995 in Allen Good’s laboratory in Edmonton, Alberta, a student made a serendipitous mistake: she forgot to add nitrogen when she watered some experimental canola (rapeseed) plants. Some of the plants had been given an “over-expressed” version of a gene from a barley plant for an enzyme called alanine aminotransferase in the hope of making them better at tolerating drought. Whereas the other plants suffered for lack of fertiliser, the plants with the over-expressed gene flourished.

A company called Arcadia Biosciences in Davis, California, acquired the licence to use the gene and signed agreements with other firms that are now testing it in rice in China, wheat in Australia and many other crops. The results, says the firm’s chief executive, Eric Rey, are not just encouraging; they are astonishing. In experimental plots the plants often need less than half as much nitrogen to achieve the same yield—or get 25% more yield for the same nitrogen.

If (and it remains a mighty big if) the technology achieves even half this gain in average conditions once commercialised, probably from 2012, the effect could be dramatic. Food would get cheaper, reducing pressure on rain forests and other wild land. Water would get cleaner, reviving fisheries and nature reserves. Greenhouse-gas emissions would fall by the equivalent of taking all the cars in America, Germany and Britain off the road.

Environmental pressure groups will scoff. But they scoffed at insect-resistant biotech crops too. There is now unambiguous evidence that wherever genetically modified insect-resistant cotton and maize are grown, insecticide applications have been reduced—by up to 80%. Since such crops came in, some 230m kg of insecticide-active ingredient have not been used that otherwise would have been. That saves not only wildlife, but also money.

The organic movement will scoff, too, saying synthetic fertilisers can be replaced by manure and legumes. But both require land. According to Vaclav Smil, author of the book “Enriching the Earth”, to replace existing synthetic fertiliser with manure would require quintupling the world’s cattle population from 1.3 billion to maybe 7 billion-8 billion; where are these to graze?

Genetically modified crops are proving to be an unmitigated environmental miracle. Herbicide-tolerant plants are now grown with minimum tillage, which reduces the soil erosion that results from ploughing. Drought-tolerant plants are nearing the market and salt-tolerant ones are not far behind. Within a decade there may be crops that are no-till, insect-resistant, omega-3-enriched, drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant and nitrogen-efficient. If they boost yields, then the 21st century will see more and more people better and better fed from less and less land.

Matt Ridley: writer on science and evolution; author of “The Rational Optimist” (to be published by HarperCollins in 2010)


Quiet Biotech Revolution Transforming Crops

- Paul Voosen, The New York Times, Dec 21, 2009

For the past two decades, promises of crop improvement have been the domain of genetically modified plants: mostly, crops supplemented with bacterial genes to resist pests or weedkillers like Roundup. More than 85 percent of U.S. corn, soy or cotton grown contains such genes.

But there is more than one way to transform a plant. Using advanced biotechnology, long hidden in the background and only now starting to pay dividends, scientists are changing crops without tapping foreign genes -- and often without the regulatory oversight that is given to GM crops.

Many of these crops use latent effects of genes squirreled away in discarded seed varieties to create breeds that at first glance seem artificial. There is corn so infused with vitamin A precursors that it practically glows orange, rice that can survive more than two weeks of flooded conditions, and wheat that resists the advance of devastating aphids.

Such specialized crops are possible because researchers are mastering the science of breeding. Using techniques collectively known as molecular breeding, geneticists have started to return results in a variety of plants, said Ed Buckler, a plant geneticist at Cornell University who recently helped sequence the corn genome.

"We know that old-fashioned good breeding works," Buckler said. "And a lot of that is an intelligent numbers game" based on genetic theories elaborated by Gregor Mendel more than a century ago. Molecular breeding, he added, "is now a way to do that much faster."

Increasingly affordable with improved technology, molecular breeding is becoming the mode of business in the crop world, said Bonnie McClafferty, development head at HarvestPlus, a nonprofit funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that supports molecular breeding research into improving plant nutrition in Africa and Asia. "People don't understand that we're not working with Gregor Mendel anymore," McClafferty said. "The science is advancing, and there's a whole variety of tools to use."

In fact, molecular breeding is only the start of a bewildering diversity of biotech approaches to crop development that defy the conventional notion of splicing foreign genes into plants. This next generation could shake up what has become a stalled debate -- call it the Roundup Ready stalemate -- by introducing GM crops that, for example, use only their species' native genes or have the expression of their own genes silenced.

While the techniques draw from the same pool of knowledge, and travel together in scientific circles, many environmental groups do not oppose molecular breeding, while stridently critiquing current GM crops, according to Marco Contiero, the European biotech policy director for the environmental group Greenpeace.

"Genetic engineering is just a part of modern biotechnology," Contiero said. "We are against this specific application. We are not against marker-assisted selection."

Most scientists believe that molecular breeding and advanced genetic modification will eventually form a powerful tandem, said David Baulcombe, a professor of botany at the University of Cambridge and the chairman of a recent report issued by the United Kingdom's Royal Society on the future of agriculture.

"Within genetic modification, you've got to remember there's a whole bunch of technologies," Baulcombe said. "There's GM where you move plants' genes around. GM where you use artificial genes to silence gene expression. And then there's the technology that is out in the field now in which bacterial genes have been moved into the crop."

After Mendel
For thousands of years, crop breeding remained much the same: Farmers crossbred plants with desirable traits like high yield, as often as not reproducing those traits in offspring. Mendel clarified the situation, but conventional breeding practices today, though stirred by developments like the green revolution's hybrids, would remain roughly familiar to farmers of a century ago.

Molecular breeding has, to some extent, overturned this framework, even prompting some scientists to call for new, post-Mendel theories of breeding. The techniques rely in principle on the increasing inventory of genes that have been identified as influencing, if to a limited degree, traits in plants. For some genetically simple crops, like rice, these clusters of genes have strong effects, while the genes of more complex grains like corn and wheat have been more difficult to pin down.

Most simply, once these genes, or bits of DNA tied to the genes (known as markers), have been identified, molecular breeders can quickly target offspring inheriting the genes for further development, cutting breeding time and improving the crop's "genetic gain," the generational improvements made to a crop, like increased height, by human selection.

To little public notice, the world's largest seed companies, such as Monsanto Co., Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. and Dow AgroSciences LLC, have used molecular breeding to improve their seed varieties in parallel with genetic engineering. At Monsanto, the practice has become so common that, in a recent paper, the firm said "molecular marker assisted breeding is becoming our conventional breeding process," noting that many of its commercial crops are derived with the process.

A company like Pioneer is well aware of the expense and European resistance to genetically modified, or transgenic, crops. They will exhaust molecular breeding options before turning to GM, said John Soper, Pioneer's soybean research director.

"Both transgenics and the use of markers have risen in priority. ... It's been a very exciting time for us," Soper said. "I still think it's kind of the tip of the iceberg on both of these issues."

Markers are also being used to breed traits from otherwise discarded varieties back into cultivated crops. A well-known breeding technique called backcrossing has become far more potent recently, as markers have allowed scientists to locate rare offspring that retain only the desired -- and now detectable -- genes from orphan crops. Previously in backcrossing, many other genes would also migrate from the orphan plant, reducing yield or taste, to farmers' dismay.

At least one trait added with molecular breeding has already been introduced in Asia and Africa: New varieties of rice that resist flooding damage are now being adopted in India, Bangladesh and Southeast Asia. And corn rich in vitamin A precursors is being targeted for release in Zambia by HarvestPlus.

'Knocked out' crops
Crops made with molecular breeding are not classified as genetically modified, since the first step in their development is pollination -- an important distinction. Yet they would be nearly impossible to create without genetic engineering used to evaluate gene function, said Nora Lapitan, a wheat geneticist at Colorado State University.

Recent innovations have made it easier than ever to "knock out" or silence the expression of selected genes. This gene loss can then, in some rare cases, cause large enough changes to demonstrate a genetic function that can be targeted. These are bedrock trial-and-error experiments, Lapitan said. "It's really classic," she said.

On its own, gene silencing is also being used to create GM crops. Pioneer used the method for soybeans that produce oil with no trans fats, the type of consumer-focused GM improvement seed companies have long promised but failed to release. (The crop is pending U.S. approval.) Many other applications are arising -- for example, Lapitan's lab discovered that inhibiting one gene can broaden wheat's resistance to the devastating Russian wheat aphid.

Sometime in the near future, it is reasonable to expect that crop genes could be more easily shifted between species -- say, adapting the efficient photosynthesis of corn to rice. But even discounting this future, scientists can now move genes within crop varieties, essentially accelerating a natural process, Cambridge's Baulcombe said. It is an open question whether such modification should be considered equal to introducing bacterial genes.

What is not in question is that these biotech crops will be emerging not just from the United States and Europe, but from the developing world. As an E.U. report this year made clear, much GM innovation should be expected outside of the Western seed firms that have long dominated the field.

India alone has at least 10 domestically developed GM crops in its research pipeline -- including GM versions of cauliflower, eggplant and okra, in addition to staples like rice -- and China has invested heavily in the research. Other countries, like Iran, Brazil, Argentina and Indonesia, are set to introduce GM varieties, though many mimic the pest or herbicide resistance of Western crops.

Increased public-sector involvement in crop development -- much of which has been ceded to companies over the past decades as seeds evolved into patentable commodities -- will be needed to apply increasingly cheap biotech improvements to subsistence crops like cassava, for example, Baulcombe said. "For many of those [crops], there may not be an incentive for companies to get involved," he said.

Such innovation is required. Food security will be one of the pressing issues of the next half-century as the world's population rises by several billion. That many hungry mouths will necessitate higher yielding and better crops, and advanced GM crops will need to be a part of this mix, the Royal Society said.

However, since many developing nations lack the apparatus to regulate GM crops, molecular breeding may be the quickest way to carve out immediate gains for at-risk populations, like frequently flooded rice farmers in Asia, scientists say.

Scuba rice
More than 3 billion people in the world depend on rice as their primary food, and nearly one-fourth of the world's crop is grown in rain-fed lowland plots prone to seasonal and sustained flash floods. Even the most common, hardy varieties of rice will die after four days spent underwater, starved of the carbon dioxide and oxygen they need for photosynthesis.

Each year, lowland floods in South Asia destroy 4 million tons of rice, causing chronic food insecurity for subsistence farmers across the region. More than 15 million hectares -- an area the size of Bangladesh -- is commonly stricken, and the lost rice is enough to feed 30 million people, said Pamela Ronald, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis.

Now imagine if this rice could maintain its traditional qualities, like its robust yield, but could survive flooded conditions for weeks.

"[That] rice has the potential to fill this incredibly huge gap," Ronald said.

Using molecular breeding, Ronald and Dave Mackill, a crop scientist at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, have done just that, developing multiple strains of rice that can survive for more than two weeks in flooded conditions. Varieties of the submergent-resistant rice -- nicknamed "scuba rice" -- have already been introduced in India and the Philippines, with expansion into Bangladesh expected within a month, Mackill said.

"This work has been going on for a long time, and this is the time that we're getting a lot of results in [rice] that can go to the farmers now," he said.

The mass deployment of scuba rice is the culmination of more than a decade of research for Mackill, who long ago identified a gene in rice's DNA, known as Sub1A, that seemed to strongly influence how a weedy but flood-resistant rice variety in India -- rejected because it had a low yield and poor taste -- could survive so much longer than normal varieties.

With molecular backcrossing, Mackill, Ronald and their many colleagues were then able to breed this overexpressed gene into rice already popular in India, such as the legendary Swarna variety. (IRRI has adapted nine varieties so far.) Previous attempts to backcross this trait with conventional breeding had always failed, reducing Swarna's taste or yield.

"Conventional breeders can only bring in one trait at a time that are very simple traits," Ronald said. The exciting aspect of submergence was that they could bring in what is known as a "quantitative trait locus" -- a more genetically complex region that influences measurable changes to the crop. "This is one of the very first instances where we could tackle" such a locus, she said.

Rice has proved to be the best grain to be manipulated with marker-assisted breeding, Mackill said. It has a limited number of genes -- it was the first crop to have its genome sequenced, earlier this decade -- and the individual genes tend to exert strong influences. Such individually powerful genes can be rare in other plants. "That's one of the most difficult things to find in any crop," Mackill said.

Yielding soy
Partly because other grains are not so easily influenced by a few genes, molecular breeding is not as popular in public breeding circles as was hoped a decade ago, when it first arose. Besides scuba rice, most other published applications have been used for disease or pest resistance, which are genetically simpler to breed.

There are other reasons for this lull. Many genetic markers have only been discovered this decade, prompting Mackill to predict a large increase in molecular breeding next decade. And, he adds, while seed firms like Monsanto and Pioneer have invested heavily in molecular breeding, none of their research has been published, due to competition.

Over the past two years, Pioneer has stressed its use of molecular breeding to improve its soy varieties, most of which are also genetically modified. The base for Pioneer's soybeans is relatively simple, and a lot of natural variation lies outside the varieties typically used, said Soper, Pioneer's soybean research director. "In the future," Soper said, "we'll be using some of these new molecular tools to fish some needles in the haystack that we can pull out."

For a century, individual breeders, scientists and firms have bred crops for their capacity to improve yield -- the amount of crop grown. Yield is a far more complex trait than Mackill's flood tolerance. It is not a matter of one or two genes -- it takes "dozens if not hundreds of genes to get what farmers perceive as yield," Soper said. "We've done extensive modeling to find genes that have been selected over time," he said. "Since we know that plant breeders have bred for yield, we have a theory that a lot of the genes have increased in selection over time."

These genes have had tangible yield impacts, some increasing soy's production by up to a bushel. Over the last five years, Pioneer has learned much about these individual genes, and is now probing how they interact, Soper said.

"It's not about simply adding genes and stacking them," he said. Combine two genes that separately increase yield, and suddenly the improvements disappear. Add two others together, and the effect doubles. "It's complex," Soper said. Despite this complexity, Pioneer is promising to expand its commercial molecular breeding program to corn next year -- a crop that has proved stubbornly resistant to marker-assisted improvements.

Of maize and monkeys
Corn, also known as maize, is genetically complex -- its genome, only recently sequenced, was much more difficult to piece together than the human genome. Its genes have been active over the past 5 million years, behaving selfishly and scrambling the genome, giving the crop an incredible diversity, Cornell's Buckler said.

"There is as much diversity between any two maize varieties as between chimp and man," Buckler said. "This is why breeding efforts have been so successful in maize."

Partially because of this complexity, however, the type of molecular breeding used for scuba rice has had limited success for corn. Buckler made this clear in a recent paper looking at what genes influenced the time corn took to flower, where the many genes surveyed had little impact on the trait.

"There really are no big effect [genes], at least for flowering time," Buckler said. "That has an implication of how we're going to make progress in the future. ... [It] means we can make very powerful predictions, but also means it will be harder to figure out individual genes."

Given the limited power of individual genes in corn, Buckler has established a research method called nested association mapping. His lab grows row upon row of corn in upstate New York, crossbreeding one reference strain -- the widely grown B73 -- with 25 different varieties. (It took seven years to breed the populations.) These diverse populations, combined with high-powered computation, should allow breeding predictions for a variety of incremental improvements in traits like drought tolerance, nitrogen use and aluminum tolerance.

Buckler's lab and many others have begun to use what is considered the next step in molecular breeding, called genomic selection. First pioneered by cattle scientists earlier this decade -- there is an actual field called "bovine functional genomics" -- genomic selection capitalizes on computing power and the large number of markers now available to rapidly make breeding decisions based on every gene influencing a trait, not just a few. "[It] allows very accurate predictions even with small effects," Buckler said.

Buckler's fields have already helped identify genes that provide a threefold increase in the vitamin A provided by corn, turning ears a brilliant orange. The crop will be used by HarvestPlus in Zambia, part of its effort to develop staples that contain nutritional, and not just yield, improvements.

Buckler, Ronald and others are bullish on the potential of molecular breeding and advanced GM crops. But they remain wary of making predictions of genetic mastery that characterized the field previously. Much needs to be learned about the influence of environment on gene expression, they stress.

Yet it is clear that the promise of genetic engineering and molecular breeding has at least started to catch the hype.

With so many crop genomes sequenced, there is "so much more information that is available now than 10 years ago ... an overwhelming amount," Ronald said. It took seven years to sequence the first plant genome. Next year, the same genome could be sequenced for $70 in one day. "There's enough to occupy us geneticists for the ends of our lives," she said.


The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on agricultural biotechnology, in his inaugural speech at the Indian Science Congress in Trivandrum on Jan 3, 2010.

"Developments in biotechnology present us the prospect of greatly improving yields in our major crops by increasing resistance to pests and also to moisture stress. BT Cotton has been well accepted in the country and has made a great difference to the production of cotton. The technology of genetic modification is also being extended to food crops though this raises legitimate questions of safety. These must be given full weightage, with appropriate regulatory control based on strictly scientific criteria. Subject to these caveats, we should pursue all possible leads that biotechnology provides that might increase our food security as we go through climate related stress."

And this was the headline in Biospectrum, Asia Edition: The business of life sciences
"PM, consumer groups oppose India's Bt brinjal"


(Thanks to Barun, for pointing this out!)


Bt Brinjal - Ban or Boon?

- G. Padmanaban, Current Science, Vol. 97, No. 12, 25 December 2009 1715

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) cleared Bt brinjal for commercialization on 14 October 2009. The activists are up in arms terming the approval as a shame. The government has chosen to go slow and states that it would consult the stakeholders before making a decision on the release. It is not clear as to how this consultation process would help, because this process has been gone through earlier. Besides, the stake holders have taken hardened positions and would not relent. The arbiters would be the farmers. They would accept it if they can make profit, as has been the case with Bt cotton, clandestine or otherwise. The Bt brinjal trials have indicated a significant gain in terms of reduced insecticide sprays and increased marketable yields of Bt Brinjal.

The Bt brinjal trials have been reviewed by two expert committees, EC-I (2006) and EC-II (2009). Gilles-Eric Seralini, a French scientist and President of the Committee of Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN) and commissioned by Green Peace, has contributed his bit on behalf of the activists by stating that Bt brinjal is potentially unsafe for human consumption.

But, if one were to go through carefully the points raised by Seralini1, it is in the nature of picking holes on the extensive environmental and food safety studies carried out by the developers of Bt brinjal since 2002. The comments range from describing the Bt gene used as an unknown chimeric toxin containing Cry1Ac and Cry1Ab, whose safety remains unsubstantiated, to the use of prohibited antibiotic resistance markers and significant alteration of blood chemistry in the experimental animals used.

Every parameter assessed from gene flow in non-target organisms to duration of the animal experimentation studies has been questioned, revealing a mindset to oppose anyway. It would be instructive to go through the assessment provided by the Expert Committee (ECII) 2, which has given a positive evaluation of the product, to each of the points raised by Seralini. First of all, the gene product is not an unknown toxin. It is 99.4% identical to that produced by cry1Ac gene and the 0.6% difference is due to replacement of one amino acid in the entire sequence, although amino acids 1 to 466 are derived from cry1Ab and 467-1178 are derived from cry1Ac.

The antibiotic resistance markers used, npt11 and aad genes, are poorly expressed in the plant and widely accepted in other countries including USA, EU, Australia, Philippines, etc. Many of the so-called adverse changes highlighted by Seralini are within normal variations seen in control animals. This is typical of biological systems and Seralini states that calculation of statistical significance is not possible, since the differences vary by 237% in a given case.

The EC-II report is exhaustive and covers every aspect of the trials carried out for the last seven years. More than 150 scientists have been involved in this trial and two dozen environmental and food safety studies have been carried out since 2002. After all, nobody, least of all scientists, would want to compromise on food safety. The government should also be guided by the fact that there is extensive international experience with the use of Bt genes since mid-1990s and enormous number of safety field trials and health-related safety studies have been conducted.

More than 25 countries including USA, Canada, China, Brazil, European countries, Egypt and Australia, even those with reservations, have agreed to try GM technology. GM-crops were grown in 125 mha in 2008. Bt gene products would constitute 30-40% of the total GM-crops in the form of Bt cotton and Bt corn. There has been no report of adverse consequences in environmental or health parameters in different countries as a result of Bt crop cultivation. It also needs to be recognized that spraying of the organism Bacillus thuringenesis, a bio-pesitcide which produces the Bt toxins, is an age-old practice and is still prevalent.

There has been a recent report entitled 'Failure to Yield' (2009) generated by Doug Gurian-Sherman3 in a study commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The study comes to the overall conclusion that GM technology, as such, has not significantly contributed to an increase in yields. This is a largescale analysis of the picture in the USA emerging from the use of genetic engineering as a technology in different crops with different traits. The study has elicited critical responses on several counts4, but even so, interestingly it makes the point that Bt corn is the only exception, showing a 7-12% operational yield advantage compared to typical conventional practices including insecticide use, under conditions of high insect infestation.

The limited point of relevance here is the positive conclusion that can be drawn for the commercialization of Bt
brinjal, a heavily pest-infested crop. The EC-II report states that in India the brinjal crop has required 40 pesticide sprays in a season and in Bangladesh, brinjal crop was sprayed with pesticides 84 times in a span of 6-7 months! Bt brinjal has been developed by Mahyco (a private company) and UAS, Dharwad/TNAU, Coimbatore (Public Sector academic institutions) with other collaborators as well.

Should we not recognize the toil of our own outstanding Agriculture Universities and a private partner, who is equally committed? The scientists involved in generating the EC-II report are outstanding and internationally recognized for their contributions. Why should we ever think that they will compromise on the environmental and health safety of the nation? There is no reason for the government to delay the release of Bt brinjal. In a couple of years one would know its success or otherwise in the field and farmers would provide the answer. A second green revolution is necessary for the country.

The government should actually use this occasion to come up with a policy framework on the commercialization of GM-crops. While there can be no bar on any aspect of GM-crop research, commercialization needs a well-deliberated policy issue. To start with Bt brinjal, how would the government ensure an affordable price for Bt seeds? What would be the mechanism for technology advice to the farmer, year after year? What next? Would it be Bt bhindi? Bt rice is on the horizon and is almost ready. China is ahead of us and will eventually go for Bt rice in a big way.

With all the international trade and many countries going for GM technology, what is the point in trying to put irrational obstacles without a scientific basis? Scientists should also deliberate on the consequences of creating a Bt world. Even if the different Bt genes code for different proteins, they all seem to act through the gut receptor in the insect, although binding to different sites. What would happen if the receptor protein gets mutated? Resistance to different Bt gene products may result simultaneously. In a laboratory study, it has been shown that among insects selectively bred for resistance to Cry2Ab protein, some showed resistance to Cry1Ac also and the resistance could have involved the common step of activation through a protease5.

Should we not go for genes acting through entirely different mechanisms for purposes of pyramiding? Monsanto may be far ahead of us in this game, but encouraging indigenous research to reach commercial potential would be the answer to this bogey of MNC monopoly. Is there a policy on the commercialization of GMcrops with herbicide degrading genes? In fact, many of the controversial issues of GM-technology are with the use of herbicide- resistant genes rather than with the use of Bt genes to protect against insect infestation. With a large number of women labour being involved in manually removing weeds and with the use of biocontrol agents, do we really need GM-technology for this purpose in India? It may not be a good idea to totally remove the weeds. Should not India give priority to commercialize GM-crops with improved nutrition and to protect against abiotic stresses (low rainfall, saline soil, etc.)?

Would not Bt rice with adequate beta -carotene, micronutrients and survival in low rainfall conditions be a boon to the community? These are much more challenging areas, because multiple genes will govern these parameters. Despite the availability of several genes to protect against abiotic stresses, none is anywhere near commercialization. Is it because of the fact that it is not a priority for MNCs? The issue of labelling of GM product needs discussion. If we really believe that a GM-crop is as safe as its non-GM counterpart and contributes to increased productivity in agriculture, mainly benefitting the poor, do we need to confuse the masses with labelling the product?

More than just giving permission for the commercial release of Bt brinjal, the government should use the occasion to put in place an institutional framework to deal with issues involved in the commercialization of GM-crops in the country. An independent National Authority is being talked about, which would take over the function of GEAC. But, we need an institution that would act as a think tank on our priorities in the area and monitor the situation in the field after GM crops are released for commercialization. It should address the issues discussed earlier.

Specifically, such an autonomous institution should address issues such as: (1) Choice of GM-crops
and traits relevant for commercialization in the country; (2) Registration of GMcrops for a finite period, and reassessment of their performance and the ground situation, before extending the registration for another finite period; (3) Inputs for determining the price of GM seeds sold to farmers; (4) Technical help and advice to farmers on a continual basis; (5) Positioning of Bt-crops with Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies and also handling of secondary infections, and (6) Education of the public on the pros and cons of the use of GM technology in agriculture.

Regarding the continual assessment of GM-crops in the field, it would be instructive to learn as to how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the USA undertakes such an exercise. For example, EPA undertook an exercise in 2001 to assess the performance of GM-crops in the preceding five years6. Inputs were obtained in terms of human health assessment, insect resistance management, environment assessment in terms of gene flow, etc. Additionally, it performs a watchdog function on even laboratory findings, which may have an implication for the field situation. There is a recent report entitled 'Bt cotton in India - A status report' generated by the Asia-Pacific Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology (APCOAB)7. The status report examines all the publications on the performance of Bt cotton in India and endorses the significant increase in yield and revenue to the farmer and provides statistics for the phenomenal acceptance and adoption of this GM crop in the country. It also discusses the concerns and strategies to sustain GM-crop cultivation in future.

However, one needs a statutory body with regulatory authority and R&D capabilities to govern all aspects of GM crop cultivation in the country, once they are released for commercialization. The government can decide on the design of the institutional structure, but it would take considerable effort to put an autonomous institution in place, not just with authority, but with expertise to analyse data from the field and to generate data in the laboratory.

The institution suggested should play a major role in providing authentic and
correct information to the public on GM technology. Many unsubstantiated reports ranging from failure of germination of Bt seeds to death of goats eating Bt crop residues are engineered to appear in the press. Several months ago, I was appalled to read a report that activists had approached the Supreme Court to stop scientists from introducing genes to bring about male sterility in plants, a combiner required for plant breeding, stating that it is terminator technology!

Ingo Potrykus, the discoverer of golden rice to improve beta -carotene (vitamin A source) content was criticized either way, first projecting that children could be poisoned by excess vitamin A and later stating that 4 kg of rice is the daily requirement for a therapeutic effect! This story of the loss of biodiversity due to introduction of a couple of foreign genes is overstated. Can anyone define, what is a pure line of rice or brinjal at the gene level? Do we know how many genes they have acquired during evolution?

Ever since man started practising agriculture, there has been such a large-scale transfer of genes, horizontal and vertical, I wonder as to how introducing a couple of genes can change biodiversity. How did the 2000 varieties of brinjal evolve? In addition, at present the Bt gene has been introgressed into at least 40 varieties of cotton, and I am sure this will happen to Bt brinjal as well. Seven Bt brinjal varieties have already been field tested. Finally, GM technology is not a panacea for all our problems with agriculture and farmers. It is one of the powerful tools available that needs to be used wisely. But, we should not throw the baby with the bath water.

1. Seralini, G.-E., Effects on health and environment of transgenic (or GM) Bt brinjal. Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering, 2009. 2. Report of the Expert Committee (EC-II) on Bt Brinjal Event EE-1, 2009; http://moef. nic.in/downloads/public information/Report %20on%20Bt%20brinjal.pdf 3. Gurian-Sherman, D., Failure to Yield, UCS Publications, Cambridge, MA, 2009. 4. Sheridan, C., Natl. Biotechnol., 2009, 27, 588-589. 5. Tabashnik, B. E., Unnithan, G. C., Crowder, D. W., Li, X. and Carriere, Y., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 2009, 106, 11889-11894. 6. Mendelson, M., Kough, J., Vaituzis, Z. and Matthews, K., Natl. Biotechnol., 2003, 21, 1003-1009. 7. Karihaloo, J. L. and Kumar, P. A., Bt cotton in India - A status report, Asia- Pacific Consortium on Biotechnology, New Delhi, 2009, 2nd edn.

G. Padmanaban is in the Department of Biochemistry, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore 560 012, India e-mail: geepee@biochem.iisc.ernet.in