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February 11, 2010


Enviro-caliphate; Why Let A Debate?; India's Mistake; Decision May Slow Investment; Crabs Cheer While Foxes Feast


* Enviro-caliphate
* Why Let A Debate Determine the Fate of GM Foods?
* Brinjal, Bt Mashed
* ‘At Jairam’s hearings, no one heard us’
* India's Genetically Modified Mistake
* Indian Decision May Slow Investment
* Crabs Cheer While Foxes Feast On Baingan Bharta
* Bt Brinjal Bytes
* Should Agbiotech belong only in the the public sector?
* The 'mad' activist planning to sue Jairam
* Brinjal Battleground
* Can Genetic Engineering Protect The Environment?
* Florida Researchers Find Genes That 'Tune' Flower Fragrances


- Editorial, Indian Express Feb 11, 2010 http://www.indianexpress.com/

You say approval, I say appraisal, let’s call the whole thing off. Approval and appraisal might sound similar, but the difference in their meaning is vast, if the context is changing the name of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee to the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee. That was how Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh signed off his busy day on Monday; that was the final part of the monumental effort at subverting budding, independent institutions that has been his populist, attention-seeking “consultation” over Bt brinjal.

It started when the minister announced that, unlike earlier (for example, with Bt cotton), approval by the experts on the GEAC was not enough: since it was “his ministry” where the GEAC was administratively located, it would be his call. That over-ruling of an institutional process at little more than one individual’s discretion was what was finalised in the approval-appraisal switch.

The environment ministry has, in the past, developed a reputation for needless obstructionism. When he was handed the portfolio, it was expected that Ramesh would dial down the politicisation of essentially procedural or scientific decisions. Environmental impacts should eventually be assessed without direct ministry input, for example. What he has chosen to do with Bt brinjal, and with the process of testing GM variants more generally, is a direct violation of that mandate.

He has put populism, last-man-standing vetoes, and crowd-pleasing politics back in. He has chosen to rant against private sector input into research - when, across the world, it is the private sector that drives biotech, and India’s private sector cannot afford to be left behind.

He has implied that conflicts of interest are endemic, subverting confidence in any future process, appeasing the worst kind of anti-capitalist conspiracy theorist. In a remarkable feat of political coalition-building, he has chosen to make common cause with the RSS and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch.

The GEAC has an enormous number of experienced bureaucrats from the concerned ministries; it has expert scientists nominated by such bodies as the Indian Council for Agricultural Research and the Council for Science and Industrial Research. Certainly, they should be open to questions. But Ramesh has chosen to overrule them for nebulous reasons, citing the need for “more research” of greater “independence”. But that objection can always be voiced - we weren’t told why this research was not enough, or why the government-appointed committee was insufficiently independent.

Taken all together, this appears little more than an attempt to stifle the growth of a new independent institution. The GEAC is to be reconstituted: “more”, “independent” research apparently means just more people answering to an empire-building environment minister - and another chance lost at developing a useful institution.


Why Let A Debate Determine the Fate of GM Foods?

- Rina Chandran, Reuters, Feb 11, 2010 0

There’s nothing Indians like better than a good debate.

So when Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced last month that he would hold public debates to decide the commercial fate of genetically modified brinjal (eggplant), there were hopes these would provide a chance for all stakeholders to be heard.

But the debates, in seven cities including Kolkata, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, were chaotic, nothing more than acrimonious shouting matches between environmental activists and scientists, who say they were not given a fair chance to voice their opinion.

One scientist said he had his hand raised for more than half an hour, but was not allowed to speak. Another said he was told he could make a presentation, but was again not allowed to. Others were not even permitted to enter the premises.

So are town halls such as these the best way to discuss matters of serious scientific weight?

Sure, the decision affects farmers who grow brinjal and people who cook it in their homes everyday. And a decision to let them speak is a laudable one.

But perhaps a better idea would have been separate discussion forums for scientists, NGOs and the public.
A common platform for all meant that only the loudest voices were heard, giving the debates a format not unlike popular reality TV shows. What chance did the scientists have?

In a democracy, public opinion counts, but can that be allowed to overrule science?
Ramesh is now taking the public hearing route for a roadmap for cleaning up India’s polluted rivers. Perhaps that will result in some real action rather than a temporary suspension.


Brinjal, Bt Mashed

- Editorial The Financial Express (India) Feb 10, 2010 http://www.financialexpress.com/news/FE-Editorial----Brinjal--bt-mashed/577732/#

On Monday, environment minister Jairam Ramesh had said that he would bear in mind the interests of consumers and producers, the protection of bio-diversity and limiting the use of pesticides before he took a decision on whether to allow the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal in India.

On Tuesday, he announced a moratorium on the introduction of Bt brinjal, citing reluctant public sentiment as one of the reasons behind his decision to say no. But he didn’t give a clean chit to science either by stating that more studies need to be carried out to determine how Bt brinjal affects the long-term health of humans. Unfortunately, the minister’s grounds for refusing permission to Bt brinjal are highly questionable.

On the matter of health, there is no study that shows any adverse effect of the consumption of GM vegetables on humans-in the US where standards are most stringent, humans consume GM corn and GM soya on a massive scale with no side effects. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that shows the harmful effects of consuming the amount of pesticides that end up being used in the cultivation of regular brinjal. So the minister seems to have given short shrift to the matter of pesticides in human consumption.

Public sentiment is, of course, difficult to quantify one way or the other. On evidence, the minister seems to have heard the voices that were the loudest rather than the ones that were most reasonable. Sundry NGOs, left-wing activists and the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch had taken aggressive public postures against Bt brinjal for a variety of reasons. At least ten state governments, led by all sorts of political parties, including the Congress, had decided to ban Bt brinjal even before the Centre had made a decision. In the final analysis, these voices prevailed.

Those who, it seems, went unheard were the brinjal farmers who lose more than half their crop to pests every year, and this is in spite of pesticide use. The average consumer who demands plenty and cheap food also went unnoticed-GM crops are an important way to increase yield and reduce crop losses, both of which would benefit the consumer as well as the farmer.

The minister seemed not to have bio-diversity at the top of his mind on Tuesday. Instead of doing justice to all the interests he had said he would look after, Jairam Ramesh succeeded in overturning the entire institutional structure that has been set in place to clear GM technology. And it was a good structure.

Now, the GEAC has been made irrelevant-if the decision has to be political in the end, then science it seems can be ignored. That is most unfortunate.


‘At Jairam’s hearings, no one heard us’

- Ravish Tiwari and Amitabh Sinha, Indian Express, Feb 11, 2010 http://www.indianexpress.com/news/at-jairams-hearings-no-one-heard-us/578398/0

To justify his indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal, Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh yesterday claimed that “sentiment was negative” at the public hearings in seven cities.

What he did not say was that dissenting voices, those who favoured the introduction of Bt Brinjal, were shouted down and, in some cases, not even allowed to be present or heard.

Some of them are now speaking up to claim that the way the hearings were held, it was clear that there could have been only one outcome.

Several senior scientists told the The Indian Express today that they were never heard at these public hearings. “I was out-shouted by the NGO lobbies the moment I began speaking. I could not express my views. Public hearings of the sort that were arranged are not the right place where scientific issues can be discussed in an objective manner,” said Dr M Mahadevappa, a two-time former vice-chancellor of the University of Agriculture Sciences, Dharwad, who attended the public hearing in Bangalore. UAS, Dharwad, is one of the two universities - the second one being Tamil Nadu Agriculture University, Coimbatore - that actively collaborated in developing the Bt Brinjal.

“I have been working with several Krishi Vigyan Kendras in Karnataka for several years and I have found no opposition from farmers against Bt brinjal. Even at the Bangalore meeting, I was opposed by the NGOs and not by the farmers,” he said.

Dr B C Viraktamath, project director at the Directorate of Rice Research in Hyderabad, was not even allowed to enter the building where the hearing was going on.

“The entire space at the site in Hyderabad was hijacked by NGOs and farmer organisations. Many of my colleagues and I were physically prevented from entering the building. We were only able to watch it on screens outside. The way the consultations were held, it was very clear that the entire exercise was random with a disproportionate representation of protestors,” Viraktamath said.

Ramesh decided to take Bt brinjal issue to the public after the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee gave its nod to the crop but left it to the government to take a final call in view of larger policy issues involved.

After carrying out public hearings, which often got extremely bitter and acrimonious, in Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Ahmedabad, Nagpur, Chandigarh, Hyderabad and Bangalore in the last one month, Ramesh on Tuesday announced his decision to put the introduction of the crop on indefinite hold till “independent scientific tests” had established the safety of the genetically modified brinjal.

A senior scientist, who wished not to be named, described the process as similar to public “Sms-polls” to decide the winner in a reality show. “Questions of complicated issues in science have to be decided by scientists. This is not a popularity contest. Feedback from the public and other stakeholders are important but those cannot become the basis to decide scientific decisions,” he said.

Recalling her experience with public hearings on Bt Brinjal, Dr Karabi Datta of Calcutta University said people like her were never heard.

“There was complete chaos at the consultations at Bose Institute in Kolkata. Everyone was shouting and protesting. No reasonable arguments were being made. I wanted to present my point of view but was not heard. People present around me asked me to sit down as no one was hearing me in any case,” said Datta who has worked for several years at the International Rice Research Institute in Philippines and is currently working on genetically modified rice.

Dr M Sujatha, a scientist at the Directorate of Oilseeds Research at Hyderabad, said the minister should have arranged for a more organised public hearing. “This is not the right kind of approach to solicit views on such a complex issue. The minister could have held separate meetings with scientists, farmers and NGOs to get a more balanced and clear picture,” she said.


India's Genetically Modified Mistake

- Rajesh Kumar, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 11, 2010
Without agriculture's Green Revolution, India never would have been able to feed its booming population in the late 20th century. By rejecting the Gene Revolution this week, the Congress-led government in New Delhi now threatens the ability of Indian farmers to increase the yield, quality and safety of the food they produce for their more than one billion fellow citizens.

On Tuesday, environment and forestry minister Jairam Ramesh ignored the findings of a scientific panel that had declared genetically modified brinjal safe for human consumption. He called for more study, but his decision has nothing to do with a genuine need for additional research. Instead, he bowed to political pressure from Greenpeace and other antibiotechnology organizations.

Farmers in North and South America have enjoyed the bounties of the Gene Revolution for more than a decade. Genetically modified corn and soybeans have increased yields and decreased the need for pesticide. In the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina, people eat food derived from biotechnology every day. Mr. Ramesh had the opportunity to let Indian farmers reap similar benefits in one of its most important food crops, as brinjal is a staple in many parts of the country.

The experience of agriculture biotechnology in India and around the world is instructive. In 2002, New Delhi granted farmers the right to cultivate genetically modified cotton. Today, we harvest more than 20 million acres of it. The practice has spread quickly because it lowers input costs and increases productivity. Farmers wish the seeds were less expensive, but they've come to understand that investments in biotechnology represent good value.

Scientists have learned how to transfer similar advantages into brinjal, which Americans call eggplant and Europeans call aubergine. They've created a variety of the plant that naturally resists pests, using the same principle that has improved cotton. The potential gains are enormous. Brinjal takes a long time to grow, which means that it is more vulnerable to pest attacks than other crops. What's more, many of India's farmers are poorly educated and don't know how to get the most out of existing pesticides. They're at the mercy of dealers who too often provide them with improper instructions and inferior products.

Genetically modified brinjal has many benefits. It has a built-in resistance to pests. At the same time, it's actually easier to grow because it requires fewer applications of pesticides. Because of these qualities, genetically modified brinjal has the potential to let us produce better and safer food. Its adoption would cause prices for consumers to fall. We would improve our ability to fight malnutrition, which is a major problem for the people of India. The success of genetically modified brinjal also would create a compound effect by encouraging the application of biotechnology to other food crops.

Biotechnology also would deliver an economic benefit. Higher farm productivity would help address the looming problem of income disparity between the rich and the poor, as well as between urban areas and rural regions.
Opponents say that they're worried about human health, but they can point to no actual evidence of a threat. Last fall, a government body called the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee declared genetically modified brinjal safe for consumption. The decision was based on extensive study that involved agricultural research institutes, universities, and a pair of expert panels, including one appointed by the Supreme Court.

India has a desperate need for agricultural biotechnology. If we are going to produce enough food for our people, farmers must have access to the same tools as growers in the developed world. We must participate in the Gene Revolution.
Mr. Kumar grows brinjal and other vegetables on 120 acres in Tamil Nadu and is a member of Truth About Trade & Technology's Global Farmer Network.


Indian Decision May Slow Investment

- Greig Johnston, Fruitnet, Feb. 11, 2010

It is feared the Indian government’s decision to postpone the introduction of Bt brinjal will discourage private investment

India's decision to defer the launch of the genetically modified (GM) crop Bt brinjal has cast a shadow over the country's US$500m biotechnology industry, according to experts.

This week the Indian government proposed a six-month moratorium on the introduction of the crop to allow further safety testing to be carried out. India favours partnerships between government and private firms when it comes to research and development in the agricultural sector, and at the moment other GM crops such as rice, tomato, corn and groundnut are being trialled.

The fear is that this week's decision will discourage investment in the sector, according to RK Sinha, executive director of the National Seeds Association of India. "I think crucial private initiative will slow down," he told the Hindustan Times. "It is a setback because domestic capability on GM is not enough. To rely solely on state-owned biotech initiatives will not be conducive to Indian agriculture."

India's farm policy promotes GM crops in light of the nation's precarious food situation, where demand outstrips production, and the country has allowed GM cotton since 2002, making it the world's second-largest cotton producer.

A few multi-national companies are involved in India's biotechnology sector, including Syngenta, Monsanto, Dow Agro, Bayer and Dupont. According to estimates, private companies contribute around $250m annually to Indian biotechnology research.


Crabs Cheer While Foxes Feast On Baingan Bharta

- Natteri Adigal, MeriNews, Feb 10, 2010

'Enterprising farmers of Gujarat didn't wait for GEAC's approval to cultivate Bt cotton. They defied the 'ban', buying seeds from black market and prospered. After all farmers don't need babus and eco-activists to tell what is good for them.'

THERE IS no disagreement at all that Bt brinjal (aubergine) is capable of resisting several insect pests. It increases yield of fruits substantially even while drastically reducing the use of pesticide.

Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, a body of scientists working for the Department of Biotechnology had conducted a review of results of field trials of the transgenic hybrid eggplant developed by Mahyco, a subsidiary of global seed giant Monsanto. GEAC could only satisfy itself that broadly indicated standard procedures were followed for trials. The DOB obviously does not possess the resources to conduct research involving huge development costs. The MNC giant, on the other hand, could attract and retain talented scientists- several of them Indians - and provide them the facilities they needed.

GEAC recommended to the government in October 2009, that Bt brinjal could be commercially released. Four months and several tumultuous, highly publicised consultation meetings later, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has announced a 'moratorium' on its 'commercial release'.

The ‘public consultations’ in seven cities were a gimmick to get some media publicity for Ramesh. Some 8000 activists - most of them city-bred socialites with absolutely no knowledge of agriculture or biotechnology - attended the meetings. The scenes they made were projected by the media as stiff resistance from farmers.

“The moratorium will last till such time independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in our country,” according to a release from his ministry.

The period would ostensibly be used to commission fresh scientific studies and reform the testing process. The minister said, “If you need long term toxicity tests, then you must do it, no matter how long it takes... There is no hurry. There is no overriding urgency or food security argument for Bt brinjal.” The government will apparently use the moratorium period to restore public confidence and trust in the Bt brinjal product. “If it can’t be done, so be it,” Ramesh said.

The minister who has already made his fortunes doesn’t realise that while there is no hurry for government-paid bureaucrats, the farmer is in a tearing hurry to reduce mounting cost of pesticides and risk of crop failure. The actual effect of the 'moratorium' will be only to give a breather to the pesticides lobby and to line certain officials’ pockets.

The fate of the ‘ban’ can be predicted from what happened to Bt cotton perfected by the same company based on a decade of intense research. It was ready for release by the turn of the century but it too became a victim of resistance from vested interests, albeit not so loud.

Although trials proved that cotton crop worth millions could be saved from the dreaded weevil infestation dependably even while drastically reducing pesticide costs, clearance was held up for four years. By the time the Central government formally released it, enterprising farmers, particularly in well-off states like Gujarat, had taken their own decision about cultivating the variety.

As happens in any market, bureaucratic prohibition on advanced technology was circumvented. The stakeholders can’t afford to wait indefinitely as it may take decades to address all safety issues. Even as the minions of GEAC threatened to burn their ‘illegal’ crop, a couple of successful crops were harvested. The farmers didn’t mind paying black-market rates for seeds because the savings in pesticides far exceeded the extra cost.

The pesticides lobby, whose survival is threatened while the farmer prospers by opting BT crops, understandably, has vested interest in delaying adoption. The other vested interests benefiting from the prohibition are black market traders of seeds. Eco-terrorists operating from posh offices and shuttling in air-conditioned cars derive wide publicity from their budgets, but the farmers know what is good for them.

Incidentally, Union ministers of environment, agriculture and science and technology and the Prime Minister's office have openly supported immediate release. Obviously, the company has already taken care of their concerns.

Just like almost 80 per cent of cotton from India today is under Bt variety, it can be safely predicted that the ‘moratorium’ can’t last long with regard to other crops. Possibly, farmers will stop cultivating fringe varieties of eggplants in three to four years.

Gujarat's share of aubergine production, currently around 12 per cent of India's consumption, may have tripled by the time the formal clearance comes. Till then, pesticide manufacturers will get a breather for survival in other states. Bureaucrats and politicians at the state level can have a field day, receiving usual kickbacks. As for states like Gujarat, black market will flourish in seeds.

It should be clear foxes are set to feast out of the ubiquitous eggplant. Ignorant consumers with a crab mentality who cares little for the farmers’ interests will go on cheering the foxes for some period. But, eventually, technology can’t be held in ransom for long to satisfy fanatical activists and vested interests.


Bt Brinjal Bytes

- Times of India, Feb. 11, 2010 http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/Bt-Brinjal-Bytes/articleshow/5557247.cms

Biotechnology can revolutionise food production. So, flat-earthers in science and society shouldn't be allowed to oppose transgenic crops for opposition's sake. Approval or rejection of genetically modified food crops should be based on scientific grounds. However, it can't be anyone's case that Bt brinjal's debut on India's market is an immediate imperative overriding all other concerns. Taking the final call, environment minister Jairam Ramesh reversed the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee's (GEAC) go-ahead. His caution is understandable. In general, the scientific jury's still out on GM foods' health impact. So, case-by-case vetting of new inventions is unavoidable even if it means delays and disappointments.

Another concern about commercial cultivation is possible genetic contamination of non-GM crops should GM foods be grown without proper safeguards. Educating farmers on use of transgenic crops is key, as highlighted by the fact many Bt cotton growers in India are yet to get the necessary training. Moreover, Bt brinjal's developer conducted tests on it. So, GEAC, the statutory authority okaying GM crops, depended on data from business stakeholders in Bt brinjal's commercialisation. This information requires external checks. A cautious and transparent process of approval, therefore, would be needed in this case.

Ramesh can claim he used his judgement to place a temporary "moratorium" on Bt brinjal. He can't say the same about his suggestion that private sector research in biotech is somehow less good, reliable or public-spirited than public sector research. He claims research in seeds is as "strategic as space or nuclear research". The counter-argument is that strategic sectors are precisely those needing top quality R&D, which isn't exactly the public sector's trademark. Defence, for instance, is 'strategic' but consider the army's underwhelming experience with the battle tank Arjun, developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation. The Tejas, touted as an indigenously built light combat aircraft, was on HAL's drawing board in the 1980s. It's yet to be inducted into the air force.

India needs an independent biotech regulatory body and a protocol for trials on products and techniques that may be sourced from anywhere. Indeed, the more private sector participation we see in agriculture, the more money there'll be for high grade R&D and the more tech-friendly the sector will be. Ramesh, however, eulogises public sector research as having driven the Green Revolution. He should, then, assuage worries about excessive reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, thought to be the Green Revolution's negative legacy making 'organic' farming look good to many today. This isn't to say the Green Revolution wasn't hugely beneficial. It was. This is to show how easy it is to pick holes in Ramesh's argument.


A leftist editorial commends the decision



Ramesh says agbiotech should belong only in the the public sector!


Stressing that India needed to look at its seed industry, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh today said he believed in the fundamental primacy of the public sector seed industry. “The first Indian public sector Bt cotton is in the market and we can’t depend on private sector biotechnology in agriculture, which is different from that in health. Biotechnology in agriculture must remain overwhelmingly with the public sector,” he said.

(if that were to be the case, Indian farmers would have waited another ten years for Bt cotton and would not have been as good either. We have had such a superb record of private seed industry in the past two decades and what is wrong with this? - CSP)


The activist who was called 'mad' by the minister is planning to sue Jairam


Santosh B Min, a physiotherapist who is also working on the subject along with the scientific community was targeted by the minister during that meet. Min has not taken the remarks too kindly and in his interaction with rediff.com said that he is preparing a defamation suit and will back down only once the minister 'comes down to Bangalore and apologises for the remarks'.

How can a minister make such a remark? I never said that he was an agent of Monsanto but only said that he was holding a brief for them. This is something that he cannot run away from. Monsanto is a death knell and instead of introducing Bt brinjal, you might as well starve the people to death in our country. I will ensure that he resigns and repents for what he said. I am preparing a defamation suit and Ramesh must come down and admit to the nation that he had done wrong and this is no way to speak to the public.

See http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Ramesh-loses-cool-at-Bt-Brinjal-meet/articleshow/5543893.cms

Minister's interview



Brinjal Battleground

- Samar Halarnkar, Hindustan Times, February 10, 2010

In 1997, in a field outside Delhi, government regulators forced scientists at the State-run Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) to destroy India’s first field of locally designed killer brinjals (aubergines or eggplants to the rest of the world).

India is littered with State institutions that fail their purpose or flatly refuse to crack down on erring colleagues, so the 1997 move against the government-grown brinjals was extraordinary. These were no ordinary brinjals. In the invisible reaches of their DNA, scientists had spliced in a gene that let the brinjals kill a caterpillar, which bores holes into it and forces farmers to use costly and poisonous pesticides. But the IARI scientists lost their field of dreams because they had not followed some of the safety procedures required.

India follows some of most robust scientific protocols in the world when it comes to clearing genetically engineered crops. Even companies that get a gene cleared for use in the West must run hundreds of experiments for years, as several companies and public institutions are now doing in testing transgenic rice, tomato and bhindi (okra or ladyfinger). The tests include proofs of no ill-effects on animals, humans and ecosystems.

So, it was appropriate that when Union Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh on Tuesday put on hold his government’s own okay to Bt brinjal, he said: “My conscience is clear. This is my decision, and my decision alone.”

By setting aside a nine-year process of scientific experiments and approvals and declaring an uncertain, unclear moratorium on Bt brinjal, Ramesh indicated he was taking it on himself to play God with India’s attempt to introduce its first genetically engineered food crop and kickstart its second green revolution.

The first green revolution, driven by chemicals and hybrid seeds, is stalling. Yields have levelled off. Demand is growing as India prospers. Farmers are struggling with climate change, especially an increasingly unpredictable monsoon. The environmental damage caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides is immense. The second green revolution holds out the promise of crops that - among other things - survive on less water, fight pests, and can be programmed to ripen early or late.

Genetic engineering, the manipulation of life at its most basic level, is a breakthrough on par with the splitting of the atom, and the discovery of fire. As fire enabled man to melt down metals and reform them into new materials, so too does genetic engineering allow us to take apart DNA, the building block of life, and refashion it to our needs.

Yet, as the protests that forced Ramesh to ignore the advice of his scientists indicate many are fearful, never mind if those fears are exaggerated and hyped.

The manipulation of the atom uncorked the genie of the atom bomb. Tinkering with the process of evolution could, equally, unleash unforeseen biological and economic problems, argue naysayers: Super-costly super crops that force farmers to forgo traditional practices; uncontrollable super weeds born after mating with genetically engineered super crops; and bugs resistant to Bt, or Baccilus thuringiensis, the soil bacteria that lends its name and genes to the super crops.

One of the problems with Bt brinjal in India is the association of Monsanto, the 109-year-old US multinational that part-owns Mahyco, the Indian company producing Bt brinjal. Monsanto has long had conflicts with green groups. The origins lie with its chemical business, which sold controversial products such as Agent Orange for chemical warfare and DDT. These suspicions have continued as the company became a pioneer and a world leader in crop biotechnology.

Other Bt crops, including cotton and maize produced by Monsanto and other companies have been reviewed, approved and grown widely in the United States, Canada, Australia, China, Brazil and parts of Europe. Thus far, there have been no reports of serious environmental or health problems. Then again, as the critics argue, no one suspected the long-term impacts of DDT, a great mosquito-killer since World War II. It was later cited as a killer of birds and possibly a cause of cancer and banned in the US more than 30 years after its insect-killing properties were discovered. India is one of only three countries still producing DDT (China and North Korea are the others), though it’s no longer used in agriculture.

The realisation of biotechnology’s promises will depend on how well we manage them. India has thus far approved only a genetically modified version of cotton, carefully watching its promises and pitfalls. The results have been scientifically promising, not so much economically.

When Bt cotton was introduced in March 2002, after similar fire and noise, farmers in the first major field study reported using up to 80 per cent less pesticide (some is needed, as the effectiveness of the Bt cotton against its tormentor worm reduces with age). Mint quotes a report from the State-owned Cotton Corporation of India as saying that between 2001 and 2006, Bt cotton helped boost yields from 308 kg per hectare to 508 kg per hectare (still below the world average).

Here’s the rub: Bt cotton seeds can cost up to 200 per cent more than normal seeds. Many Indian farmers fear a time when they may have little choice but to buy such seeds.

So, we can forgive Ramesh for caving in to public sentiment and overplaying his hand. But unless he quickly reveals a specific, clear plan for Bt brinjal, he risks jeopardising our next leap forward.


Can Genetic Engineering Protect The Environment?

- Matthew Herper, Forbes, March 1, 2010

Plant geneticist Pamela Ronald was just tagging along on a kayaking trip with a girlfriend when she met Raoul Adamchak 15 years ago. She spent her days in the lab, trying to figure out how to genetically engineer plants. He was an organic farmer--and genetically engineered crops cannot be organic. They fell in love and got married.

Despite the giant gap in the public mind between organic farming, which bans artificial pesticides and fertilizers, and gene modification, the couple was never exactly star-crossed. From the beginning, Ronald says, they shared this goal: figuring out how to grow crops in a way that could feed the Earth without destroying the environment. Shortly after she met Adamchak, Ronald began looking for a variety of rice that could resist the floods that annually destroy 4 million tons of crops in India and Bangladesh. She produced one, and in 2009 the rice was released to farmers.

Now Ronald, 49, and Adamchak, 55, have become proselytizers for the marriage of genetically modified foods and organic farming. Their goal: crops that limit the use of pesticides and fertilizers while delivering more food per acre planted. They wrote a book together, Tomorrow's Table. An opinion piece she wrote for the Boston Globe won a 2009 National Association of Science Writers prize. They give lectures. They are leading a chorus of young scientists and forward thinkers who see genetic modification not as a threat to sustainable farming but as a new way to make it better. They are not fans of corporate agriculture but think genetically modified organisms represent a missed opportunity to make things better.

These true believers come as a flood of new gene crops approaches. The European Union estimates the number of GM traits in crops will quadruple to 120 by 2015. Only half will be made by for-profit companies. Stewart Brand, one of the founders of the back-to-the-land movement, has been arguing fiercely that environmentalists need to drop their anti-GM stance. So has Karl Haro von Mogel, a 27-year-old plant sciences graduate student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, whose blog promotes the technology. "There's so much stuff going on that nobody even knows about," says Von Mogel. "There is this huge potential if we use the science to pursue those things that are possible."

Then there are farmers like Jose Baer, a California grower of organic walnuts. He knows that big companies will probably never want to make GM versions of a minor crop like walnuts, but he bemoans the fact that protecting his trees without pesticides is expensive (he uses pheromones to lure the insects into mating with everything but one another). Transgenic plants, engineered with an antipest gene, could kill the bugs. "I believe it's probably going to be a very valuable technology in the future," he says.

For Ronald the most powerful argument is that lives are at stake. A genetically engineered rice that contains vitamin A was created by academic researchers and the seed company Syngenta. It could save the lives of 40,000 children a year--more, if people don't reject it just because it's genetically modified. "Greenpeace is against that," she says. Why? "People just really cannot imagine their child dying from any kind of vitamin deficiency."
Most naysayers have little understanding of agricultural genetics, Ronald says, and are under the impression that the food they eat is far more natural than it really is.

"You can never develop anything with no risk," she says. "Every single thing you eat every day has been genetically manipulated, unless you're eating wild Alaskan salmon or Maine blueberries." Plant and animal breeding go back maybe 14,000 years.

Foods created through a process called mutagenesis, in which seeds are exposed to chemicals or radioactivity until their traits change, can be certified organic, Ronald says. Yet, as the National Academy of Sciences has noted, this method is far more unpredictable than inserting a single gene from another species, as was done to produce insect-resistant corn, soybeans and cotton.

Ronald's flood-resistant rice is also certified organic through another loophole. The gene that lets the rice plant survive after being submerged in water comes from an archaic rice strain from before the dawn of agriculture, discovered by geneticists 50 years ago. Initially she inserted the gene using bacteria, but then her colleagues managed to breed the ancient rice with modern varieties using genetics-assisted breeding technologies, which transferred the flood-resistance gene and not much else. That meant fewer regulatory hurdles.

Ronald says that genetically modified crops have proved remarkably safe for both people and the environment. When genetically modified corn not made for human consumption got into the food supply in 2001, there were many reports of allergies. But the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention found that none of them panned out. Insect-resistant corn containing the bt toxin, derived from a bacterium and used in organic farming, does kill butterflies and other good insects but far less than 1% of them. Traditional pesticides kill them all. A row of bt cotton has more diversity in insect species than the regular stuff. Besides, pesticides kill people, too: 300,000 a year, most of them impoverished farm workers.

In the eyes of these revisionist enviros, even Monsanto's Roundup Ready crops, which are genetically modified to be resistant to the company's herbicide, have a good side. Roundup is not as toxic to animals or people as other herbicides, and the crops have allowed farmers to do less tilling. That means fewer tractors and the carbon-sparing equivalent of taking 6 million cars off the road.

Adamchak emphasizes that genetically modified crops can't overcome the lack of biodiversity in the farm system. But with organic farming representing 3% of U.S. crop production, there is certainly room for GM crops to help.


UF Researchers Find Genes That 'Tune' Flower Fragrances

- University of Florida, Feb 10, 2010

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Shakespeare famously wrote, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” With all due respect to the Bard, University of Florida researchers may have to disagree: no matter what you call a flower, its scent can be changed. A team at UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has uncovered some of the genes that control the complex mixture of chemicals that comprise a flower's scent, opening new ways of “turning up” and “tuning” a flower's aromatic compounds to produce desired fragrances.

“For a long time, breeders have mostly focused on how flowers look, their size, color and how long blooms last,” said David Clark, a professor of environmental horticulture. “But scent has gotten left behind. Go to a florist and try to smell the flowers. You probably won't get what you expect.”

Over the years, Clark says, breeders have selected flowering plants that produce bigger, more attractive flowers with long vase lives; but in doing so, they may have been inadvertently selecting plants that were willing to devote less to producing fragrance. That may change. For example, a customer may someday be able to walk into a florist and select from scented or unscented varieties of the same flower.

In work published in the January issue of The Plant Journal and the February issue of Phytochemistry, the researchers describe how various genes in petunias help regulate the amount of the 13 major aromatic compounds in that flower's fragrance. The work will help researchers control the levels of these compounds, adjusting a flower's fragrance while also producing more or less of it.

In the papers, the researchers also describe some of the more fundamental aspects of how flowers produce scent. For example, they observed that the scents are largely manufactured in the petunia flower's petals, and that scent production is activated when the flower opens. The studies are part of an ongoing effort to isolate the chain reaction responsible for producing scent, so that fragrances can be modified without interfering with other flower qualities, said Thomas Colquhoun, a UF environmental horticulture researcher and first author on both papers.

For more than a decade, Clark and his colleagues have combed through more than 8,000 petunia genes. The search has yielded some interesting finds. For example, the gene that produces the compound that gives rose oil its distinctive scent also makes tomatoes taste good.

By manipulating this gene, UF researchers led by horticulture professor Harry Klee have been able to create tomatoes with more flavor. Klee, Clark and colleagues are now working with plant breeders and taste specialists to prepare the tomato for the marketplace. Better smelling roses are also in the pipeline. “The taste of food, the smell of a flower - these are things that enrich our lives in ways we don't fully understand yet,” Clark said. “Learning how plants interact with us and their environment brings us closer to truly appreciating what the natural world has to offer.”