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January 3, 2010


Organ Damage? Not Really; Organic farmers Must Embrace GM Crops; Plant That Feels No Cold; Science, Politics and EC Regulations


* GM Corn Leads to Organ Failure!? Not So Fast
* GM Corn & Organ Failure: Lots of Sensationalism, Few Facts
* Study Says Monsanto's Genetically Modified Corn Is Toxic. But Is It?
* Monsanto Corn Causes Organ Damage? Not So
* Organic farmers Must Embrace GM Crops If We Are to Feed The World, Says Scientist
* The Plant That Doesn’t Feel the Cold
* Biotech Soybeans Promise Heart Benefits
* Gates Foundation Picks New Head of Ag Program
* Official Named to New Position with a Portfolio to Improve Food Safety
* GM Plants: Science, Politics and EC Regulations (Review)
* Soybean Genome Sequenced in All Its Complexity
* One Planet
* Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding
* Call for Entries for International Scholarship Program for Ph.D. Study
* Bronze Duplicates of Norman Borlaug Congressional Gold Medal Available

GM Corn Leads to Organ Failure!? Not So Fast


Few things bring out the hyperbole like genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and that was true again with a study making the rounds yesterday and today.

In the International Journal of Biological Studies, a team examined three genetically modified corn varieties created by Monsanto. The study’s authors say they see evidence of possible toxicity to the kidney and liver, “possibly due to the new pesticides specific to each GM corn.” However, the findings became over-hyped headlines like the Huffington Post’s “Monsanto GMO Corn Linked to Organ Failure, Study Reveals.”

That’s a pretty big leap from the not entirely convincing finding of a potentially questionable study. What actually happened is that the research team, led by Gilles-Eric Séralini, re-analyzed data from tests that Monsanto scientists themselves conducted on rats eating these three varieties of corn—data that, to be fair, the team had to scratch and claw and sue to get their hands on. In their statistical analysis, Séralini’s team says that Monsanto interpreted its own data incorrectly, and that its new analysis shows potential for toxicity.

But the scientists themselves give significant caveats that make such bold headlines a bit of a reach: “Clearly, the statistically significant effects observed here for all three GM maize varieties investigated are signs of toxicity rather than proofs of toxicity”—that is, the evidence isn’t rock solid, and not enough to warrant a bunch of alarmist headlines. The researchers argue that more research is necessary to settle the question either way: “In conclusion, our data presented here strongly recommend that additional long-term (up to 2 years) animal feeding studies be performed in at least three species, preferably also multi-generational, to provide true scientifically valid data on the acute and chronic toxic effects of GM crops, feed and foods.”

In addition, there are a couple issues that make the study itself seem a little fishy:

1. Funding. “Greenpeace contributed to the start of the investigations by funding first statistical analyses in 2006, the results were then processed further and evaluated independently by the authors,” the scientists write. Certainly one can’t oppose a huge corporation like Monsanto without funding, but drawing those funds from a political lightning rod like Greenpeace can paint conclusions in a bad light, University of California, Davis, plant genomics expert Pamela Ronald tells DISCOVER. “That does not mean that it is incorrect,” she says, “but makes me a little skeptical.”

2. The journal: The International Journal of Biological Sciences is somewhat obscure, with an “unofficial”–that is, self-assigned–impact factor of 3.24. “In other words, it has not been assessed for impact or quality,” Ronald says. Again, that doesn’t mean Séralini’s team is wrong, but it suggests that jumping to conclusions would be unwise.

The actual data analysis of the paper has started an in-depth back-and-forth on the the statistical analysis. We’ll continue following this story to see how the analysis shakes out.


GM Corn & Organ Failure: Lots of Sensationalism, Few Facts


On Wednesday, we covered the overreaction by a few important online sources to an International Journal of Biological Sciences article claiming to find “signs of toxicity” in three varieties of genetically modified (GM) corn produced by Monsanto. We posted some caveats that made us uneasy about the study, such as the funding sources, the unknown quality of the journal, and the fact that the toxicity claims rely on reinterpreting statistical data that Gilles-Eric Séralini and his coauthors themselves note is not as robust as it needs to be.

Karl Haro von Mogel, a University of Wisconsin Ph.D. student who works with Pamela Ronald (the GM expert we quoted in our last post), responded with some other problems he has on this study. He has a blog post of his own (in which he gets hopping mad at coverage that attributed organ damage, organ failure, or even cancer to the rats in the study). But here are the major issues he points out to DISCOVER:

1. Cherry-picking. “They were picking out about 20–30 significant measurements out of about 500 for one of the sets of data they analyzed,” Haro von Mogel tells DISCOVER. “At the 95% significance level, you would expect that 5% of the observations would show a significant difference due to chance alone, which is what happened.” In other words, one would expect to get some alarming results in approximately 25 out of the 500 of the measurements, which is indeed what they found. “Picking apart what seems to be normal background variability seems to me to be data dredging.”

2. “False Discovery Rate.” The battle over these corn varieties has been cooking for years; Séralini and others published a paper in 2007 on the same issues, and after statistical criticisms like the ones just mentioned the authors came around with this new edition. One of the main shots scientists took at the previous paper, Haro von Mogel says, was that the team didn’t employ a “false discovery rate”—a stringent statistical method that controls for false positives. This time they did, but for at least two of the three varieties—MON 810 and MON 863—the researchers themselves note p-values that are not significant. (A p-value is a measure of the likelihood that any particular finding was due to chance alone rather than a real effect. By convention, science calls anything that has a greater than 5 percent chance of being a random effect “insignificant.”)

3. “Insignificant” results. As you can see in the study’s chart, there a significant effect shown in “Lar uni cell” (large unnucleated cell count) for female rats fed the GM corn as 11 percent of their diet. But for female rats fed three times as much GM corn, it’s not there. “Are they highlighting random variation or finding genuine effects? These are the kinds of questions that scientists need to address before concluding that they have found ’signs of toxicity,’”Haro von Mogel asks. (Séralini et al. have argued that more attention needs to be paid to nonlinear toxic effects, where greater doses would cause less harm.)

4. Lack of corroboration or explanation. The government organization Food Standards for Australia and New Zealand (which disputed Séralini’s 2007 paper [Microsoft Word file]), also disputes the recent study, in part because there is no other science corroborating the statistical data—data that was challenged in the previous points. Their response concludes by saying, “The authors do not offer any plausible scientific explanations for their hypothesis, nor do they consider the lack of concordance of the statistics with other investigative processes used in the studies such as pathology, histopathology and histochemistry…Reliance solely on statistics to determine treatment related effects in such studies is not indicative of a robust toxicological analysis. There is no corroborating evidence that would lead independently to the conclusion that there were effects of toxicological significance. FSANZ remains confident that the changes reported in these studies are neither sex- nor dose-related and are primarily due to chance alone.”

We emailed Séralini to ask if he would respond to these particular criticisms, and have not yet heard a response. But the study is currently available to read for free, and you can see a YouTube clip of him discussing this paper, his methods, and his criticisms of Monsanto.

In light of these concerns regarding the study, it would be an enormous stretch to say the study proves that these corn varieties cause organ damage in mammals. But none of this puts Monsanto’s GM corn totally in the clear, either. As commenters on our earlier post pointed out, Monsanto was simply following the rather laissez-faire rules for government approval, doing the 90-day trials themselves. But Séralini’s team calls for long-term studies, upwards of two years, to get reliable data.

With the dearth of available data, which Monsanto was loath to give up to the researchers in the first place, strong conclusions are tough to come by. As Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a Cornell food expert not associated with Haro von Mogel’s team, sums up this study: “It is very convoluted but the authors imply that the results are not scientifically valid by recommending a study “to provide true scientifically valid data,’” he tells DISCOVER.

But, as Séralini notes in his YouTube clip, that scientifically valid study would cost a fortune. And considering that these biotech crops have already been approved, Monsanto has little incentive to continue testing them.


Study Says Monsanto's Genetically Modified Corn Is Toxic. But Is It?

- Dan Mitchell, Slate - The Big Money, January 14, 2010

A study published by the International Journal of Biological Sciences concludes that three types of Monsanto's genetically modified corn cause organ damage in rats. Monsanto has disputed the findings, saying the methodology was all wrong.

The corn that was tested? You've eaten it.

But hold on a minute. The science journalists over at Discover, always on the case, put the findings into a context that was ignored by the Huffington Post and any number of other sites that tend to latch on to any tidbit that lets them say "Monsanto Bad." "Few things bring out the hyperbole like genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and that was true again with a study making the rounds yesterday and today," say the writers of Discover's 80Beats blog.

The team-written blog notes that the study was a reanalysis of the data Monsanto itself had earlier collected (and then held onto like grim death, forcing the researchers to sue the company for it). The researchers concluded that Monsanto interpreted its data incorrectly and that the new analysis shows that the GMO corn could be toxic. "But the scientists themselves give significant caveats that make such bold headlines a bit of a reach," says the Discover blog, which noted that the researchers found, in their own words, "signs of toxicity rather than proofs of toxicity."

That, Discover says, is "not enough to warrant a bunch of alarmist headlines." The researchers say their findings show a need for further, more long-term study. Discover also found some details surrounding the study to be "fishy," including the fact that the environmental group Greenpeace contributed to the early part of the study and the fact that the International Journal of Biological Sciences is "somewhat obscure" and hasn't been officially assessed for quality.

The news of the study is being widely cited with a link to a writeup in Twilight Earth, which says it is "dedicated to saving the Environment through shared News, Discussion, Advocacy and Activism." That site's Adam Shake summarized the results of the study with an anti-GMO spin, ending with a link reading "Click here to sign a petition to halt the sale of Monsanto GMO Corn!"

Immediately after that link, he later provided this update, copied here verbatim: I received an Email from Monsanto shortly after publication of this article with a rebuttal. In deference to journalistic fairness, because we consider ourselves unbiased in our reporting and because Monsanto has a history of litigation and heavy handedness, here is there [sic] response. …

Dan Mitchell has written for The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The MInneapolis Star-Tribune and Wired.


Monsanto Corn Causes Organ Damage? Not So

- Dan Goldstein (aka Dr. Dan) January 12, 2010

Recently, a paper was released claiming three Monsanto corn varieties cause organ damage in mammals. This simply isn’t true.

In the current paper (de Vendomois et al., 2009) as with the prior publication (Seralini et al, 2007), Seralini and his colleagues use non-traditional statistical methods to reassess toxicology data from studies conducted with MON 863, MON 810 and NK603 corn varieties, and reach unsubstantiated conclusions.

It is important to note that several groups of scientists have gone over the study, and refute the claims.

* The French High Counsel on Biotechnology (HCB) has considered both the de Vendomois (2009) and Seralini (2007) papers and has found that these papers make no useful contribution to the safety assessment.
* The Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) have also dismissed this study, stating, “Séralini and colleagues have distorted the toxicological significance of their results by placing undue emphasis on the statistical treatment of data, and failing to take other relevant factors into account.”

Statistical fluctuations occur commonly in any large study with many endpoints, and statistical significance alone does not determine when an observation can be translated into evidence of risk. Making this determination requires consideration of:

* dose-related trends (higher dose should produce greater effect)
* reproducibility
* relationship to other findings such as abnormal organ appearance on pathology examinations
* the magnitude of the differences and the relationship of the findings to the normal range of values
* occurrence of a particular finding in both sexes (adjusting for known gender related differences in some tests)

When considered using proper statistical analysis in conjunction with these other criteria, the toxicology studies cited demonstrate no adverse effects of these products.

A more complete discussion of the issues related to this publication, as well as references to pertinent publications, is available on the Monsanto website: Monsanto Response: de Vendomois et al. 2009

Dan is the Director of Medical Sciences and Outreach at Monsanto. He is a pediatrician, medical toxicologist, and clinical pharmacologist by training, and for the past 10 years his role at Monsanto has been devoted on human safety and health----Prior to Monsanto, Dan spent 10 years in private practice in Denver, Colorado, providing consultation in the area of Clinical, Occupational, Environmental and Forensic Toxicology. He joined Monsanto’s Medical Department in 1998, was appointed a Senior Science Fellow in 2002, and currently serves as Director of Medical Sciences and Outreach within Regulatory Affairs.


Organic farmers Must Embrace GM Crops If We Are to Feed The World, Says Scientist

- Mark Henderson, Times (UK), Jan 13, 2010 http://www.timesonline.co.uk

'Genetically modified soya can have benefits, Professor Gordon Conway says

The organic movement should overcome its hostility to genetically modified crops and embrace the contribution that they can make to sustainable farming, one of the world’s leading agricultural scientists has told The Times.

Although organic farmers are among the most implacable opponents of genetic engineering, it should be accepted as legitimate, according to Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development at Imperial College London and a former government adviser.

In an interview with The Times, he said that the ban on organic farmers using GM crops was based on an excessively rigid rejection of synthetic approaches to farming and a misconception that natural ways were safer and more environment- friendly than man-made ones.

Farmers, he said, should use the best aspects of organic methods and GM technology to maximise yields while limiting damage to ecosystems. He accepted that organic lobbyists would regard the idea as heresy, but said that genetic engineering could create better organic crops than those grown today with further environmental benefits.

“What frustrates me is there is a real potential for combining GM technology and organic approaches,” said Professor Conway, who stepped down last year as chief scientific adviser to the Department for International Development. “To say that is probably heretical, but there would be real benefits if we got over this notion that GM is somehow not organic.”

His comments come amid increasing pressure from scientists for greater use of GM crops to ensure food security for a global population that will reach nine billion by 2050, while minimising environmental damage. Professor John Beddington, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, said this week that the world could not afford to ignore the potential of genetic engineering to improve agriculture. GM technology is rejected by lobbyists such as the Soil Association, which regards it as unnatural and hazardous.

Professor Conway said that conventional farming had a lot to learn from organic agriculture, as inorganic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides had been overused, causing environmental damage.

GM crops, he said, were compatible with the organic movement’s goal of making farming more sustainable, but fell foul of its strict but misguided notion that natural methods were always best. “A lot of the world view is that nature is always benign and that whatever we do is not benign, and that is pure rubbish,” he said. “Nature is full of very poisonous things indeed. You have got these rigid rules, which are reinforced by a number of misconceptions, putting it mildly.”

While the processes used to create GM crops are unnatural, so too is the conventional breeding that has created today’s non-GM varieties. Both methods involve genes that are natural in origin, but genetic engineering can create crops with significant advantages.

The rigidity of organic certification rules can thus work against sustainability by blocking the use of helpful technologies, Professor Conway said.

Herbicide-tolerant GM crops, for example, can encourage “no-till” farming that reduces carbon emissions. “You can genetically engineer crops to be better organic crops. At the moment, I don’t think many people would accept that, but I think eventually they will,” he said.

Instead of concentrating on natural, farmers should pick and choose the most sustainable options regardless of their origin. “If we are going to get a sustainable, resilient world, we need appropriate technologies and we should not go in with a rigid set of preconceptions,” he said. “I think we are going to end up in a very interesting hybrid world in which we choose the technology because it is appropriate, not because of where it has come from. And 2050 will be like that: it will not be completely high-technology, and it will not be a completely back-tonature world.”

The Plant That Doesn’t Feel the Cold

- John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK January 10, 2010 http://www.jic.ac.uk/

Scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, have discovered that plants have a built-in thermometer that they use to control their development.

Plants are exposed to huge variations in temperature through the seasons as well as big differences between night and day. To cope with this, they sense the temperature around them, and adjust their growth accordingly. Publishing in the journal Cell, they have now identified a thermometer gene, which could be crucial for breeding crops able to cope with the effects of climate change.

Plants can sense differences of just 1ºC, and climate change has already had significant effects, bringing forward when some plants flower and changing global distributions of species. While the effect of temperature on plants has been known for hundreds of years, it has been a mystery until now how temperature is sensed.

To solve this problem, Vinod Kumar and Phil Wigge at the John Innes Centre, an institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), looked at all of the genes in the model plant Arabidopsis to see which are switched on by warmer temperature. They connected one of these genes to a luminescent gene to create plants that give off light when the temperature is increased. In this way, the team could screen for mutants that could no longer sense the proper temperature. One mutant was particularly interesting, since it lost the ability to sense temperature correctly. The plant behaved as though it was hot all the time, and the scientists could see this as the plant was luminescent when it was warm and cold.

“It was amazing to see the plants,” said Dr Vinod Kumar, who discovered the mutant plant. “They grew like plants at high temperature even when we turned the temperature right down.”

This plant has a single defect that affects how a special version of a histone protein works. Histone proteins bind to DNA and wrap it around them, and so control which genes are switched on. Remarkably, when this specialised histone is no longer incorporated into DNA, plants express all their genes as if they are at a high temperature, even when it is cold. This told the scientists that this specialised histone is a key regulator of temperature responses.

The histone variant works as a thermometer by binding to the plant’s DNA more tightly at lower temperatures, blocking the gene from being switched on. As the temperature increases, the histone loses its grip and starts to drop off the DNA, allowing the gene to be switched on.

The temperature sensing histone variant was found to control a gene that has helped some plant species adapt to climate change by rapidly accelerating their flowering. Species that do not adjust their flowering time are going locally extinct at a high rate. Plants must continually adapt to their environment as they are unable to move around, and understanding how plants use temperature sensing will enable scientists to examine how different species will respond to further increases in global temperatures.

“We may be able to use these genes to change how crops sense temperature,” said Dr Wigge. “If we can do that then we may be able to breed crops that are resistant to climate change.”


Biotech Soybeans Promise Heart Benefits

- Steve Baragona, Voice of America, January 12, 2010 http://www1.voanews.com/

'Engineered to be high in omega-3 fatty acids, these soybeans could change negative perceptions of genetically modified foods'

"I'd much rather have my yogurt and granola bar and salad dressing with omega-3 than have to take a capsule every morning." - Roy Fuchs, Monsanto

Genetically modified foods have been controversial ever since they were introduced. But a new variety of GM soybean nearing commercialization promises to deliver health benefits that could change how people think about agricultural biotechnology.

Today's genetically modified crops are designed to help farmers by making weed and insect control easier. But they're not designed to help consumers, says Jane Rissler, with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The farmers and the companies have profited and benefited, and consumers have taken whatever risks there are," she says.

In the decade or more since GM crops have been on the market, those perceived risks to the natural environment and to human health, have not materialized. But many consumers remain uncomfortable with anyone tinkering with their food. That's especially true in Europe, where farmers are prohibited from growing most GM crops.

Monsanto readies GM soybean oil
But a new crop could complicate the picture. The giant U.S. seed and biotech company Monsanto is on the verge of introducing genetically modified soybeans that produce substantial amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows that a diet rich in omega-3s is good for the heart and the brain.

Roy Fuchs heads soybean research at Monsanto. He says conversations with European regulators about the new omega-3-rich soybeans have been encouraging. "They have been saying for the last decade or two, 'When will biotechnology deliver a trait that consumers can see, they can experience, and benefit [from] themselves?' So, they see this as really the first of a number of products that will have direct consumer benefits and an opportunity to change the conversation from productivity to human health," Fuchs explains.

Will consumers eat up GM ingredients for their health?
Omega-3 rich GM soybeans could change the conversation because soybean oil is practically ubiquitous in Western processed foods. It's in everything from breads and granola bars to salad dressings. Fuchs says you could get your full daily allotment of one type of omega-3s just by eating three products made with the new soybean oil.

These days, Fuchs takes a capsule of fish oil every day to get his omega-3s, "But I'd much rather have my yogurt and granola bar and salad dressing with omega-3 than have to take a capsule every morning," he says. Providing convenient ways to increase the amount of omega-3s in the American diet could provide some real benefits, according to University of Southern California pharmacology professor Roger Clemens, a spokesman for the American Society for Nutrition.

"Particularly as our population gets older, this population's at the highest risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and obviously Alzheimer's [disease]," he says. "So, those five major [diseases] may be impacted by this type of [decision] to provide more omega-3 fatty acids in the American diet."

While few would argue that a food rich in omega-3 fatty acids would be a healthful addition to any diet, skeptics aren't convinced that Monsanto's genetically modified soybean is the best source for those nutrients.

Will perceived risks outweigh possible benefits? And questions remain about possible health risks from the GM soybean oil itself, Rissler says. "This is a rather substantial interference with the oil metabolism processes of soybeans," she says. "And this, to us, raises some potential -- and I say potential -- safety issues that we think need more careful consideration," she adds.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently gave its approval to Monsanto's soybean oil. But Rissler says the FDA's approval process relies too heavily on the company's own safety testing data.

Monsanto expects their omega-3 soybean oil to hit the market in the next few years. Then, the question will be whether consumers warm to genetically modified foods made with their health in mind, or remain wary of anyone tinkering with the fundamental chemistry of their food.


Gates Foundation Picks New Head of Ag Program

- The Associated Press 08-Jan-2010

SEATTLE - A man who has focused much of his career on agriculture technology, including development of genetically-modified seeds, was named Friday as the new head of agriculture development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Sam Dryden, a managing director of New York-based Wolfensohn & Co., will take over the program on Feb. 1. His appointment was announced a day after the foundation's previous agriculture leader, Dr. Rajiv Shah, was sworn in to take over the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The foundation, which has committed $1.4 billion to agriculture development efforts in Africa and South Asia, has focused most of its agriculture efforts in the past three years on helping small farmers improve production and distribution of their crops and livestock.

But they have also looked at higher tech solutions for combating world hunger and disease, especially through its world health program, including a major investment in Seattle-based PATH's nutrient-enriched rice, which has won international awards as well as some criticism.

The foundation has focused its agriculture grants on getting better seeds to farmers, boosting their productivity through irrigation and fertilizer, helping them sell their excess production and move it to more lucrative markets, and advocating for better government policies and agriculture investment.

''Sam brings a wealth of experience to the foundation -- not only in agriculture, research and business, but also in a wide variety of projects related to agriculture development and public-private partnerships,'' said Sylvia Mathews-Burwell, president of the foundation's Global Development Program.

Dryden has 25 years of experience as an investor and entrepreneur in the life sciences. He has served on a number of international boards and commissions focused on agriculture development, economic development and food security.

Dryden previously was chair and CEO of Emergent Genetics, which developed and marketed genetically modified seeds. The company was sold to the Monsanto Co. in 2005. Before Emergent, he co-founded Agrigenetics Corp., which is now part of Dow AgroSciences.

The foundation's choice of Dryden raises a red flag for organizations that advocate against genetically modified crops, said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center on Food Safety.

''Appointing someone like this as head of their agriculture project is a bad sign,'' Freese said.

He said this isn't the first issue the center has had with the foundation, which also has not taken a stand against seed patents.

Seed patents prevent farmers from savings seeds and using them for future crops, Freese said. Although this is no longer common in U.S. agribusiness, it is an important practice in developing countries.

''They're a big foundation and they have a number of different initiatives. It's clear they're doing some good things. But they're also very naive about biotechnology and seed patenting,'' Freese said.

In its announcement about Dryden's appointment, the foundation points out that he is on the U.S. board of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which works to ensure crop diversity for food security. He also serves on the National Academies Roundtable on Science and Technology for Global Sustainability.


Official Named to New Position with a Portfolio to Improve Food Safety

- Gardner Harris, The New York Times, Jan 14, 2010

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration, moving to address the nation's fractured food safety system, on Wednesday appointed Michael R. Taylor, a veteran food expert, as deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration. The newly created position is the first to oversee all the agency's many food and nutrition programs.

The federal government's oversight of the nation's food supply has for decades been split among 13 disparate and sometimes feuding agencies. The result has been a growing menu of food recalls, including contaminated peanut butter, spinach and cookie dough, and the annual sickening of about 70 million people.

With new powers and extensive Washington experience, Mr. Taylor is supposed to fix this mess. But he is likely to be on a short leash.

Some powerful legislators in Congress had proposed creating a new agency combining the government's many food functions. The compromise legislation headed for passage by spring will instead invest more food authority and money in the F.D.A. functions Mr. Taylor will oversee. But if Mr. Taylor proves unable to prevent or quickly resolve the growing number of food scares, the idea of a separate food agency is likely to be revisited.

In an interview at a Washington coffee shop, Mr. Taylor said his biggest task was readying the F.D.A. to handle the new powers that Congress will soon give it. The legislation is expected to grant the agency the power to recall suspect foods, require manufacturers to establish plans to prevent contamination, and increase food inspections. ''Unless we work in a more unified way, we won't be able to implement the law effectively,'' Mr. Taylor said.

Setting safety standards for produce -- a source of a growing number of food scares in recent years -- is a top priority, although the task is enormously complicated, Mr. Taylor said. Even more difficult will be enforcing the rules, since there are more than two million farms in the nation, he said.

Mr. Taylor started his career in 1976 as an F.D.A. staff lawyer and over the next three decades migrated among government, industry and academia. He returned to the F.D.A. in 1991 as deputy commissioner for policy and moved in 1994 to head the Department of Agriculture's meat inspection service.

Since July, he has served as a senior adviser to Commissioner Margaret Hamburg of the F.D.A. He once worked for Monsanto, the agribusiness giant, leading some in the organic movement to oppose his appointment.

Mr. Taylor is popular among many food-safety and nutrition advocates, who call him intelligent and courageous. But he stumbled in his first major policy initiative since returning to the agency in July, and his considerable experience may have been his undoing.

Fifteen years ago, Mr. Taylor took the top job at the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the unit within the Agriculture Department that oversees meat inspections. Within weeks, he told a gathering of meat industry executives that the government would soon insist on tougher safety standards. An uproar ensued, but Mr. Taylor prevailed.


GM Plants: Science, Politics and EC Regulations (Review)

- John Davison, Plant Science, An international journal of experimental plant biology. Jan 2010. Elsevier. Full paper at http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/journaldescription.cws_home/506030/description#description

(Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA), Versailles, France)

The EU has the probably strictest regulations in the world for the presence of GMOs in food and feed. These require the labeling of food and feed where the level of approved GMO exceeds 0.9% of unintentional adventitious presence. For non-approved GMOs the threshold is ‘zero’ and thus requires that cargoes containing GMOs non-approved GMOs are returned to the port of origin or are destroyed. The process of GMO safety approval is slow and subject to extensive political interference. However outside of Europe, new GMOs are being created, approved and cultivated at a rate exceeding that of EU approvals.

Since current methods of cultivation, storage and transport do not permit complete segregation of GMO and non-GMO crops, some co-mingling must be expected. This leads to a peculiar situation where the EU is dependent on imports (particularly soybean for animal feed) from North and South America and yet, legally, must reject these imports since they contain low levels of unauthorized GMOs. Several authorative European reports indicate that this is not a sustainable situation and must result in feed shortages and price increases of meat and poultry. The solution is to either to modify EU regulations or to synchronize GMOs approvals on an international level.

The USA has constantly criticized the EU for its unscientific GMO regulations which it says amounts to trade protectionism. Very recently however, the USA has realized that other countries are now producing and cultivating their own GMOs, and that these are not authorized in the USA. The USA is thus proposing to set up its own system of GMO regulations which may bear a close similarity to those in Europe.


Soybean Genome Sequenced in All Its Complexity

via Checkbiotech.org, January 14, 2010

The soybean, one of the world's most important sources of protein and oil, is now the first major crop legume species with a published complete draft genome sequence.

Basically a parts list of the soybean genome, the sequence will help scientists use the plant's genes to improve the plant's characteristics. The soybean sequencing study appears as the cover story of today's edition of the journal "Nature."

Genetically modified soy improvements are expected to yield beans with a greater than 40 percent oil content, producing more oil for food and biodiesel. Another mutation can be used to select for a line that will improve the ability of animals and humans to digest soybeans. The sequence has provided access to the first resistance gene for the disease Asian soybean rust that can destroy up to 80 percent of crops.

"When soybeans were domesticated, they were selected for seed size and other traits, but there were a lot of potentially valuable genes left behind," said agronomy professor Scott Jackson of Purdue, the corresponding author on the soybean genome paper. "There may be valuable genes associated with protein content or disease resistance in the stored lines that are not currently in the cultivated lines."


One Planet

- BBC Radio, January 14, 2010

The impacts of climate change are already with us. Changing weather patterns are affecting the lives of millions around the world, especially in food production. In this week's One Planet, Richard Hollingham discusses the way biotechnology can help us develop new crops that can withstand harsher growing conditions. He goes to Brussels and talks to some of the biotech companies that want the European Commission to relax its attitude towards GMOs. He also talks to the European Commission about its policy on GM products.

Crops genetically adapted for climate change need to be drought and pest resistant and be able to thrive in poor quality soil. They also need to provide improved yields.

These crops are controversial, especially in Europe. Historically, European legislators have taken a very cautious attitude towards genetically modified food and animal feedstuff. Currently, the European Commission permits the import of genetically modified cotton, maize, oilseed rape, soybean and sugar beet for human and animal consumption. So far, the European Commission has issued a single licence permitting one variety of GM maize to be grown in Europe.

At present, there are about fifty GM products awaiting approval from the European Commission, of which nineteen are for cultivation. The companies that produce biotech crops want the EC to relax its moratorium on new product approvals. Apart from the obvious commercial opportunities, they argue that if Europe relaxes its attitude towards GM crops, developing nations will be more likely to accept them too, and it’s the developing nations that will be most affected by climate change. In that sense, Europe is becoming a crucial battlefield as companies struggle to get new crops licensed for cultivation.

There is still huge opposition within Europe to genetically modified crops. But is climate change beginning to alter the terms of the debate? If the world is to sustain its current population levels at a time when it's becoming increasingly difficult to cultivate traditional crops, have we now reached the point when Europe needs to take a more tolerant attitude towards the cultivation of GM crops?


Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding

-A New Book by Noel Kingsbury, The University of Chicago Press, 2009 Amazon.com price $23.10, 512 pages, ISBN-10: 0226437043

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

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

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

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

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

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

"A magnificent achievement-Kingsbury tells this gripping story, with a large cast of characters across the entire span of human civilization, with wit, passion, and erudition."-Tim Richardson, author of The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden (Tim Richardson, author of The Arcadian Friends )

"Thoughtful, well researched and refreshingly broad in scope, Noel Kingsbury's Hybrid took me out of my immediate area of expertise (plants and garden history) and opened my eyes to the way previously unsung plant breeders have transformed societies. Accessible to specialists and non-specialists, it should be essential reading for anyone wishing to take an informed view on the future direction of biotechnology."-Jennifer Potter, author of Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants (Jennifer Potter, author of Strange Blooms )


Call for Entries for International Scholarship Program for Ph.D. Study

Applications for the second round of funding from Monsanto's Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program (MBBISP) are currently being accepted until February 1, 2010. Funds are available to completely fund the PhD study of wheat and rice breeding students.

Please note that scholars must complete part of their PhD program in Australia, Canada, Western Europe or the United States and part in another country of the World. Students work with their advising professor/scientist who then submits the application for the student.

To learn more about how to apply and to obtain the application form go to http://www.monsanto.com/mbbischolars

Please email Dr. Ed Runge, MBBISP Program Director and Judging Panel Chair at e-runge@tamu.edu with any questions that might need clarification prior to submitting your application.


Bronze Duplicates of Norman Borlaug Congressional Gold Medal Available

- U.S. Mint, Price: $3.75. Dr. Norman Borlaug Bronze Medal 1-1/2” (908); Order at

Authorized by Public Law 109-395, this medal commemorates Dr. Norman Borlaug for his accomplishments in terms of bringing radical change to world agriculture and uplifting humanity and in recognition of his enduring contributions to the United States and the world. Following World War II, Dr. Borlaug made a key breakthrough in developing a strand of wheat that could exponentially increase yields while actively resisting disease.

In 1970, Dr. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize, the only person working in the field of agriculture to ever be so honored. Since then, he has received numerous honors and awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Public Service Medal, the National Academy of Sciences’ highest honor, and the Rotary International Award for World Understanding and Peace. The medal is a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal presented to Dr. Borlaug at a ceremony at the United States Capitol building on July 17, 2007.

The obverse, designed and sculpted by United States Mint Sculptor-Engraver Phebe Hemphill, features an image of Dr. Borlaug making notes on experiments conducted with wheat in Mexico in the early 1960s, with the inscription “NORMAN BORLAUG.”

The reverse depicts hands holding strands of wheat developed by Dr. Norman Borlaug. The central image depicts a globe with a quote by Borlaug, “THE FIRST ESSENTIAL COMPONENT FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE IS ADEQUATE FOOD FOR ALL MANKIND.” Additional inscriptions are “Act of Congress,” and “2006.” Designed and sculpted by United States Mint Sculptor-Engraver Don Everhart.