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Date:

February 15, 2010

Subject:

Alfalfa Held Hostage; Pseudo Science; Kenyan Scientists Decry GM Slowness; I May Be Wrong - Jairam; False Fear; The Only Saviour

 

* Modified Alfalfa Unnecessarily Held Hostage
* Is the German Suspension of MON810 Maize Cultivation Scientifically Justified?
* A Case of ‘‘Pseudo Science’’?
* Kenyan Scientists Berate Government for GM 'Slowness'
* China Signals Major Shift Into GM Crops
* Video - Now Serving 9 Billion: A Global Dialogue on Food
* Bioengineering to Crop Up When Science Group Meets
* Radically Rethinking Agriculture for the 21st Century
* 'Short time' left to rectify GM issue
* 'I Took A Decision - I May Be Wrong'
* Bt Brinjal: Why Jairam Made Haste
* On the Side of Science
* Another Minister Speaks Up, CSIR Chief Says Bt Brinjal 100% Safe
* Farmers! Fight For Bt Brinjal
* The False Fear of GM Foods
* Bt Gene the Only Saviour
* India, the Most Confident Nation on the Safety of GM Crops - Poll
* Prakash on the Univ Alabama Huntsville Campus Shooting
--

Modified Alfalfa Unnecessarily Held Hostage

- Gregory Conko, Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, Feb. 9, 2010 http://www.genengnews.com

What’s the most sustainable way to grow the food we eat? If you think the answer is always local and organic, you may be surprised by a new study from England’s most prestigious scientific body, the Royal Society. This highly anticipated report says there’s much we can learn from organic practices, but it embraces the use of science and technology for producing more food on less land.

Importantly, the Royal Society says that protecting the environment in the 21st century will require the adoption of sophisticated agricultural technologies including biotechnology and genetically modified crops. That’s welcome news for America’s farmers and consumers. For most of the last two decades the U.S. has been the undisputed leader in the development and adoption of biotech crops.

Ironically, as an increasing number of farmers in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America take up these innovative varieties, burdensome regulations here at home have raised development and approval costs and kept many potentially important products from reaching the market.

Opponents have even turned to courts to slow down the introduction of new varieties. Two years ago a group of activists and farmers sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture, claiming the department’s scientists didn’t follow, to the letter, a law called the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when they approved a biotech crop called Roundup Ready alfalfa.

Roughly 5,500 farmers in 48 states have planted more than a quarter million acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa, which has been modified to resist an herbicide called glyphosate. But a federal district judge in San Francisco determined that new seeds can’t be sold until USDA completed an environmental impact assessment as required by NEPA.

Critics have been merciless in accusing USDA of neglecting the environment. How did an oversight like this happen? USDA’s own rules require an extensive, multiyear environmental assessment before the department can approve a biotech crop variety for marketing. So, the department’s scientists assumed that review would be sufficient. However, federal courts have held that the assessment required by NEPA must examine not just ecological impacts but economic ones as well.

Concerns over Cross-Pollination
Far from being an environmental lapse, this case has been about economics from the start. Among the main complaints of the farmers who brought the lawsuit is that Roundup Ready alfalfa could affect their ability to use glyphosate for other purposes. If even one or two conventional plants are unintentionally cross-pollinated by herbicide-resistant alfalfa, farmers may not be able to rely on glyphosate herbicides to clear their fields before the next planting. Instead, they’d have to use a different herbicide or dig the plants out of the soil with hoes or a shovel.

Some organic farmers are also concerned that cross-pollination could jeopardize the organic certification for their crops. But USDA had already considered the possibility of this kind of out-crossing and found that it would happen less than once in every 100,000 plants. And, in any event, organic production rules state that unintentional cross-pollination with a biotech plant does not cause an organic one to lose its organic status.

These hardly seem like the kind of pressing ecological concerns Congress had in mind when it enacted NEPA. But a frivolous lawsuit like this was the only way to stop thousands of additional farmers from planting new varieties that scores of scientific bodies have concluded to be safe for consumers and the environment.

Fortunately, Roundup Ready alfalfa seed should soon be available again. The USDA issued its environmental impact statement (EIS) in December, and it states unequivocally that biotech and conventional alfalfa can co-exist peacefully. The EIS is now open for public comment, which can be submitted at http://bit.ly/6YH7qS.

This conclusion doesn’t come as a surprise to plant breeders and farmers. After all, breeders have for decades been using conventional methods to develop herbicide-resistant wheat, rice, canola, sunflowers, and many other crops. Farmers long ago developed common sense methods for keeping the herbicide-resistant trait from crossing into other crops or weeds.

That’s important because these varieties have been a huge boon to farmers, consumers, and the environment. Farmers use herbicide resistant crops to produce higher yields with lower inputs and reduced environmental effects. And they enable more environment-friendly, no-till farming practices that prevent topsoil erosion and reduce run-off into streams and lakes.

Furthermore, because glyphosate is not harmful to anything but plants and biodegrades quickly once it’s sprayed, the Environmental Defense Fund calls it among the most ecologically benign herbicides ever developed. Merely switching from older herbicides to glyphosate yields substantial environmental benefits.

That’s one big reason why farmers the world over have made biotech crops the most rapidly adopted farming technology in history. Biotech varieties with herbicide resistance and other traits are now grown on over 300 million acres by more than 13 million farmers in 25 countries.

Nonetheless, the Center for Food Safety has launched a campaign to continue delaying the use of Roundup Ready Alfalfa by submitting anti-biotech comments on the environmental impact statement to the USDA. It has become clear that crop biotechnology holds substantial promise for improving the foods we eat and lightening agriculture’s environmental footprint. It’s a shame that farmers’ ability to use this sophisticated tool is being held hostage by a perverse campaign that exploits loopholes for political gain.
---

Gregory Conko is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, and is a co-founder of the AgBioWorld Foundation in Auburn, AL

======================

Is the German Suspension of MON810 Maize Cultivation Scientifically Justified?

- Agnès Ricroch, Jean Baptiste Bergé and Marcel Kuntz, Transgenic Research, Vol. 19, No. 1, Feb. 2010

Download Paper at http://www.botanischergarten.ch/Bt/Ricroh-German-Suspension-MON810-2010.pdf

Abstract We examined the justifications invoked by the German government in April 2009 to suspend the cultivation of the genetically modified maize varieties containing the Bt insect-resistance trait MON810. We have carried out a critical examination of the alleged new data on a potential environmental impact of these varieties, namely two scientific papers describing laboratory force-feeding trials on ladybirds and daphnia, and previous data on Lepidoptera, aquatic and soil organisms.

We demonstrate that the suspension is based on an incomplete list of references, ignores the widely admitted case-by-case approach, and confuses potential hazard and proven risk in the scientific procedure of risk assessment. Furthermore, we did not find any justification for this suspension in our extensive survey of the scientific literature regarding possible effects under natural field conditions on non-target animals.

The vast majority of the 41 articles published in 2008 and 2009 indicate no impact on these organisms and only two articles indicate a minor effect, which is either inconsistent during the planting season or represents an indirect effect. Publications from 1996 to 2008 (376 publications) and recent meta-analyses do not allow to conclude on consistent effects either. The lower abundance of some insects concerns mainly specialized enemies of the target pest (an expected consequence of its control by Bt maize). On the contrary, Bt maize have generally a lower impact than insecticide treatment.

The present review demonstrates that the available meta-knowledge on Cry1Ab expressing maize was ignored by the German government which instead used selected individual studies.

( Université Paris; INRA-Sophia Antipolis, & Laboratory Physiologie Cellulaire Végétale - France)

==================

A Case of ‘‘Pseudo Science’’?

A study claiming effects of the Cry1Ab protein on larvae of the two-spotted ladybird is reminiscent of the case of the green lacewing

- Stefan Rauschen, Transgenic Research, January 2010; vol. 19: 13-16

Paper at http://www.botanischergarten.ch/Bt/Rauschen-Case-Pseudo-Science-2010.pdf

A recent report on the potential negative impact in a laboratory setting of the Cry1Abprotein on larvae of the two spotted ladybird Adalia bipunctata (Schmidt et al. 2009) has gained notoriety. It was used in Germany, along with some other studies supposedly showing a negative impact of the transgenic MON810 maize on non-target organisms, to temporarily ban the cultivation of this Bt-maize under a safeguard clause conforming with Article 23 of the EU directive 2001/18/ EC.

This decision, although officially communicated as based on new evidence, was in fact based on flawed science and has been recognized to be politically motivated by a number of the stakeholders involved (Sinha 2009). The present temporary ban of MON810 by the German Government will now be considered by the EU commission, which will consult the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and then decide on the merits of the scientific data. Whether the ban will then be lifted or not lies within the commitological decision making process within the European Union.
--
Overall, the findings and interpretations in Schmidt et al. and the consideration of this paper for the justification of the ban of MON810 in Germany appear erroneous. (Aachen University, Germany)

===================

Kenyan Scientists Berate Government for GM 'Slowness'

- Henry Neondo, SciDev, Feb 12, 2010, http://www.scidev.net/

A year after Kenya's president approved legislation that would allow the cultivation of GM crops, researchers and biotechnology students have expressed concern that the law has not been implemented.

The president, Mwai Kibaki, signed off parliament's approval of the legislation in February 2009 (see Kenya approves GM after years of delays), a decade after attempts were first made to legislate GM organisms. During this time civil society organisations were vigorously opposed to the legislation.

The next step was to set up a National Biosafety Authority (NBA) to implement the legislation but, one year on, it has not materialised. Stephen Mugo, a senior scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Research Center's Global Maize Program in Kenya, said: "It would have been good to have the biosafety regulations ready soon after the Biosafety Law was enacted. This would have assisted commercialisation of biotech products".

He said that, although existing biosafety guidelines allow the cultivation of GM crops for research, they do not permit key national performance trials of varieties — the final testing stage, in which a GM crop is compared with others.

Mugo said scientists need to know whether the regulations will require separate approval for each variety or for each transgenic 'event' — the process of inserting genes. Many countries approve an event, enabling the simultaneous release of several crop varieties with the same genetic modification.

Biotechnology students have also said they are unhappy about the lack of opportunities in their sector. Serah Kahiu, a student at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, said many public universities are offering biotechnology courses driven by the interest created during the long build-up to the passing of the law. "The delay has prohibited entry of serious industry players — denying students, researchers and universities key private sector funds that could boost education and research."

The government has, however, set up an interim NBA which is about to hire staff. Harrison Macharia, the NBA's interim chief executive officer, dismissed claims that nothing had been happening. He compared the NBA's progress with that of the National Environmental Management Authority, which, 11 years after the passing of the Environmental Management and Coordination law, is still enacting it. "Why do people think the biosafety law should wholly be implemented at once?"

Julius Mugwagwa, a visiting research fellow at the United Kingdom's Open University and an African biotechnology policy expert, told SciDev.Net it is understandable that the law's implementation is taking time. Tensions that arose between pro- and anti-GM groups during the approval process "have not simply gone away". And the technicalities of establishing the NBA are not easy.

"The many ministries involved have all got an interest, right down to the recruitment of staff. It's actually getting those things done on the ground that proves to be difficult." He expects the NBA to be up and running this year, after which applications for the cultivation of GM crops, for example, will be approved on a case-by-case basis.

===================

China Signals Major Shift Into GM Crops

- Chen Weixiao, Scidev.net, Feb. 8, 2010

China wants to push forward with the large-scale planting of genetically modified (GM) crops, according to its first policy document of the year. Pest-resistant Bt cotton is already grown on an industrial scale in China.

Bt rice and phytase maize — which eliminates the need to feed extra phosphate to poultry and pigs — will now follow suit within 3–5 years, predicted Huang Dafang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences' Biotechnology Research Institute (see GM corn 'improves animal feed, cuts pollution').

This year's "Number One Document", a publication issued annually by both the ruling Communist Party and State Council and which sets the agenda for that year's major work, was published last month (31 January). It said that China will "industrialise" GM crop farming.

This is the seventh such document since 2004 to have concentrated on agricultural development. Huang told SciDev.Net that the document is "the continuation of a series of policies" and has been influenced by global circumstances such as the financial crisis and the trend towards developing GM crops.

The development of new GM crops is one of the 16 major projects listed in China's plan for scientific and technological development until 2020 (see China redraws blueprint for scientific development). The government's plans include the development of pest- and disease-resistant GM rice, rapeseed, maize and soy, with research focusing on yield, quality, nutritional value and drought tolerance. "To develop GM crops is the inevitable choice for developing countries to protect their food and ecological security," said Huang.

But Xue Dayuan, chief biodiversity scientist at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science under the Ministry of Environmental Protection, told SciDev.Net that the science, management and enforcement of legislation regarding GM crops in China are weak, increasing the chances of risk-taking.

And Fang Lifeng, director of Greenpeace China's Food and Agriculture Project, said: "It's too early to industrialise GM crops in China. The safety of GM food and its impact on the environment are still uncertain and there are disputes over intellectual property rights".

But Huang said: "The development of any technology is not plain sailing. We won't stop because of being challenged". "We will carry out deeper studies to avoid potential risks. China should build an independent GM crops research and development system to seize the market initiative."

China's Ministry of Agriculture granted two biosafety certificates approving Bt rice and phytase maize in November 2009 (see China makes 'landmark' GM food crop approval).

=======================

Video - Now Serving 9 Billion: A Global Dialogue on Food Needs for the Next Generation

Watch at http://www.vimeo.com/9450194

(From CSP - The beginning of the video features an excellent brief tribute to Borlaug with some rare footage including an interview with him, public speeches and comments by Jimmy Carter, Jeffrey Sachs etc.)

How will we feed 2.5 billion more people by 2050? Will there be enough water for a thirsty world? How can we improve the livelihood of our world’s 2.5 billion farmers?

On February 12th leading agricultural experts took on these question and addressed other challenges facing farmers and nations in the 21st century in a town hall 2.0 format at the Newseum in Washington, DC. The panel addressed the concerns of citizens around the globe. Panel: Nina V. Fedoroff; Robert Paarlberg, Calestous Juma, Mark Cantley, Gale Buchanan

=================

Bioengineering to Crop Up When Science Group Meets

- Mike Lee, San Diego UNION-TRIBUNE, February 14, 2010 http://www.signonsandiego.com/

If the titans of agribusiness are right, the world is on the verge of a major breakthrough in the way food is grown. But if history is any indication, genetically modified crops will need to overcome a lot of skepticism to spark a consumer revolution.

That uncertainty is fueled by the mixed record of current bioengineered crops - mainly soybeans, corn, canola - in meeting lofty targets set by backers of high-tech seeds. Vitamin-enhanced foods remain out of reach, it's unclear how much biotechnology has boosted plant production, and a recent study said genetically engineered plants have increased usage of herbicides.

One of biotechnology's leading advocates will hold a presentation at the 176th annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which will start Thursday at the San Diego Convention Center and other venues. About 8,000 people from more than 50 countries are expected for the five-day affair, making it the largest general-science conference in the nation.

"We are just scratching the surface of the science that is now being applied to improve crops," said Robert Fraley, chief technology officer for Monsanto Co., an agricultural giant based in St. Louis. "I think we will see tremendous gains in yields and profitability for farmers, and health and nutrition for consumers."

A handful of other events will focus on nourishing a global population of 6.8 billion and growing. "Agriculture must produce more food worldwide in the next 50 years than has been produced in the past 10,000," Fraley said. He will talk about innovations such as drought-tolerant and higher-yielding plants that are in the product pipeline. He will likely face a sympathetic crowd: San Diego is home to a small but high-profile cluster of plant geneticists who do basic research on plant genomes, which biotech companies need to develop commercial varieties.

Monsanto is seeking regulatory approval for what may be the first genetically engineered crops developed directly for the consumer. The company's scientists in California have manipulated the soybean genome to produce omega-3 fatty acids, the kind that nutritionists tout as heart-healthy.

It could be pivotal in generating public acceptance of biotech, or "transgenic," crops. To date, farmers and seed companies have reaped benefits from biotechnology while consumers have been left to wonder what's in it for them and whether genetic engineering has really made the world a better place.

Scientists bioengineer crops by snipping carefully selected genes from plants, bacteria or viruses and inserting them into the cells of plants that are commercially significant, such as corn, alfalfa and cotton. These "transgenes" produce unusual effects in their host plants.

In some cases, they make host plants produce a compound that's toxic to insects. Researchers also have created crops able to withstand herbicides that typically would kill them. This tweak allows growers to douse weeds without harming their harvest.

Pest- and herbicide-tolerant varieties have been wildly popular among farmers since their introduction in 1996. They're now grown on more than 300 million acres annually worldwide.

Some biotech backers said the public soon will see plants that need less water and fertilizer, allowing them to flourish in arid regions and places where the soil is too poor for conventional crops.

Locally, about 15 scientists have formed the San Diego Center for Molecular Agriculture to help advance the movement. Their work centers on finding the genes that trigger certain plant responses and not on creating commercially viable products, said Maarten Chrispeels, an emeritus professor of biology at the University of California San Diego. "These days, there is much to do about getting plants to extract nutrients from the soil more efficiently," he said.

It's an alluring goal for farmers, humanitarian groups and companies that patent various plant traits. For years, they have touted the potential of genetically engineered rice that's rich in beta-carotene - a precursor to vitamin A - as a way to decrease malnutrition in Asia. This "golden rice," named for its distinctive yellow color, has drawn international attention for more than a decade but still hasn't been released to the public.

Scientists have found it time-consuming to get the vitamin A trait into local rice varieties, and it takes years to gain government clearance for biotech crops. Regulations are abundant because many people worldwide are uneasy about the potential for lab-formed plants to create health and environmental problems that don't show up until they have spread widely.

Chrispeels said fears about genetically engineered food have calmed considerably in the United States during the past few years, despite continued angst in Japan and Europe. "We have had biotech crops for 15 years now and they are not going away, even if the Europeans don't like them," he said.

His enthusiasm aside, Chrispeels isn't convinced that companies will produce many crops offering benefits to consumers. "The emphasis will remain the way it was - things that benefit production," he said. "There are so many ways of getting a healthy diet, you don't actually need transgenics."

Other scientists are much more critical of the technology, saying it has failed to deliver on claims that it could feed the world and reduce the ecological damage done by farming. "People who have been listening to these promises for a long time would have reason to be skeptical," said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.

=========

Radically Rethinking Agriculture for the 21st Century

- N. V. Fedoroff, et al. Science 327, 833 (2010) http://www.sciencemag.org/

Population growth, arable land and fresh water limits, and climate change have profound implications for the ability of agriculture to meet this century's demands for food, feed, fiber, and fuel while reducing the environmental impact of their production. Success depends on the acceptance and use of contemporary molecular techniques, as well as the increasing development of farming systems that use saline water and integrate nutrient flows.

Population experts anticipate the addition of another roughly 3 billion people to the planet's population by the mid-21st century. However, the amount of arable land has not changed appreciably in more than half a century. It is unlikely to increase much in the future because we are losing it to urbanization, salinization, and desertification as fast as or faster than we are adding it (1). Water scarcity is already a critical concern in parts of the world (2).

Climate change also has important implications for agriculture. The European heat wave of 2003 killed some 30,000 to 50,000 people (3). The average temperature that summer was only about 3.5°C above the average for the last century. The 20 to 36% decrease in the yields of grains and fruits that summer drew little attention. But if the climate scientists are right, summers will be that hot on average by midcentury, and by 2090 much of the world will be experiencing summers hotter than the hottest summer now on record.

The yields of our most important food, feed, and fiber crops decline precipitously at temperatures much above 30°C (4). Among other reasons, this is because photosynthesis has a temperature optimum in the range of 20° to 25°C for our major temperate crops, and plants develop faster as temperature increases, leaving less time to accumulate the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins that constitute the bulk of fruits and grains (5). Widespread adoption of more effective and sustainable agronomic practices can help buffer crops against warmer and drier environments (6), but it will be increasingly difficult to maintain, much less increase, yields of our current major crops as temperatures rise and drylands expand (7).

Climate change will further affect agriculture as the sea level rises, submerging low-lying cropland, and as glaciers melt, causing river systems to experience shorter and more intense seasonal flows, as well as more flooding (7). Recent reports on food security emphasize the gains that can be made by bringing existing agronomic and food science technology and knowhow to people who do not yet have it (8, 9), as well as by exploring the genetic variability in our existing food crops and developing more ecologically sound farming practices (10). This requires building local educational, technical, and research capacity, food processing capability, storage capacity, and other aspects of agribusiness, as well as rural transportation and water and communications infrastructure. It also necessitates addressing the many trade, subsidy, intellectual property, and regulatory issues that interfere with trade and inhibit the use of technology.

What people are talking about today, both in the private and public research sectors, is the use and improvement of conventional and molecular breeding, as well as molecular genetic modification (GM), to adapt our existing food crops to increasing temperatures, decreased water availability in some places and flooding in others, rising salinity (8, 9), and changing pathogen and insect threats (11). Another important goal of such research is increasing crops' nitrogen uptake and use efficiency, because nitrogenous compounds in fertilizers are major contributors to waterway eutrophication and greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a critical need to get beyond popular biases against the use of agricultural biotechnology and develop forward-looking regulatory frameworks based on scientific evidence. In 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, GM crops were grown on almost 300 million acres in 25 countries, ofwhich 15 were developing countries (12). The world has consumed GM crops for 13 years without incident. The first few GM crops that have been grown very widely, including insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant corn, cotton, canola, and soybeans, have increased agricultural productivity and farmers' incomes. They have also had environmental and health benefits, such as decreased use of pesticides and herbicides and increased use of no-till farming (13).

Despite the excellent safety and efficacy record of GM crops, regulatory policies remain almost as restrictive as they were when GMcrops were first introduced. In the United States, caseby- case review by at least two and sometimes three regulatory agencies (USDA, EPA, and FDA) is still commonly the rule rather than the exception. Perhaps the most detrimental effect of this complex, costly, and time-intensive regulatory apparatus is the virtual exclusion of public-sector researchers from the use of molecular methods to improve crops for farmers. As a result, there are still only a few GMcrops, primarily those for which there is a large seed market (12), and the benefits of biotechnology have not been realized for the vast majority of food crops.

What is needed is a serious reevaluation of the existing regulatory framework in the light of accumulated evidence and experience. An authoritative assessment of existing data on GM crop safety is timely and should encompass protein safety, gene stability, acute toxicity, composition, nutritional value, allergenicity, gene flow, and effects on nontarget organisms. This would establish a foundation for reducing the complexity of the regulatory process without affecting the integrity of the safety assessment.

Such an evolution of the regulatory process in the United States would be a welcome precedent globally. It is also critically important to develop a public facility within the USDA with the mission of conducting the requisite safety testing of GM crops developed in the public sector. This would make it possible for university and other public-sector researchers to use contemporary molecular knowledge and techniques to improve local crops for farmers. However, it is not at all a foregone conclusion that our current crops can be pushed to perform as well as they do now at much higher temperatures and with much less water and other agricultural inputs. It will take new approaches, new methods, newtechnology-indeed, perhaps even new crops and new agricultural systems.

=========

'Short time' left to rectify GM issue

- BBC Radio 4, Feb 14, 2010

Farming must fully embrace genetically modified (GM) crops to meet the dual challenges of population growth and global warming, according to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's chief scientist, Nina Fedoroff.

Ms Fedoroff's comments follow India's decision to delay cultivating its first genetically modified vegetable crop over safety concerns.

Sir David King, director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment and former government chief scientific adviser, examines the barriers to broadening the use of GM crops.

Listen to David King interview at
http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8513000/8513866.stm

================


'I Took A Decision -- I May Be Wrong'

- Hindustan Times (India) Feb.14 2010

“It will not be lifted in months that is what I can assure on BT brinjal moratorium,” said Environment and Forest minister Jairam Ramesh, in an interaction with HT editors on Saturday.

Ramesh, after clamping an indefinite freeze on commercial use of BT brinjal till independent safety tests were done, said, “I cannot give a deadline. I took a decision…I may be wrong. The basis of my decision is available on (environment) ministry’s website.”

======================

Bt Brinjal: Why Jairam Made Haste

- Indian Express, Feb 15, 2010 http://www.indianexpress.com

If not the decision on Bt brinjal, the timing of its announcement was certainly surprising. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had made it known many times that he would announce his decision on February 10. Accordingly, invitations for a press conference had already been issued.

However, the preceding day Ramesh came to know about an application filed in the Supreme Court seeking to restrain the government from announcing its decision. The matter was supposed to come up for hearing at 10.30 in the morning on February 10 while Ramesh’s press conference was scheduled at 12.30 pm.

An unfavourable court order would have forced the minister to put his decision on hold. So he went ahead and announced the decision on the evening of February 9 itself. The application before the Supreme Court never came up for hearing the next day since it had been rendered meaningless.

=============

On the Side of Science

- Editorial, The Financial Express (India), Feb 16, 2010 http://www.financialexpress.com

It’s been almost a week since environment minister Jairam Ramesh announced his decision to put a moratorium on the cultivation of Bt brinjal. The minister cited adverse public opinion and the lack of sufficient scientific research in support of genetically modified brinjal (particularly the effects of its consumption on humans) to defend his decision. However, it is increasingly getting clear that a number of his ministerial colleagues do not share his opinion. Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar has, of course, been a long time supporter of GM food.

Now Kapil Sibal, minister for HRD, and a former science and technology minister, has come out in favour of such decisions being left to the scientific community. And the minister of science and technology, Prithviraj Chavan, has strongly defended not just the safety of Bt brinjal, but also the rigour of the scientific process that was used to arrive at that conclusion of safety. On evidence, it then seems that Jairam Ramesh is a lot more isolated within the government on this issue than he might otherwise claim.

Of course, Ramesh will claim the support of public opinion, but as we have argued before what he heard as public opinion were the shrillest voices of NGOs and other activists, not the consumers and farmers who stand to benefit from Bt brinjal. And, surely, his ministerial colleagues are not disconnected from the voice of public opinion.

The entire controversy has now put renewed focus on setting up a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority for genetically engineered items. There is talk that a relevant Bill may be introduced in Parliament’s budget session. But even if this comes to pass, the treatment lately meted out to the GEAC by Ramesh raises questions about the value of such a development. GEAC is made up of eminent experts from across India. After many years of testing and deliberations, it approved a Bt brinjal strain as “effective in controlling target pests, safe to the environment, non-toxic as determined by toxicity and animal feeding tests, non-allergenic” and with the potential to benefit farmers.

But Ramesh declared that approval by GEAC experts was simply not enough—the minister would seek “a broader consensus”. In theory, nothing prevents him from doing something similar to a new biotechnology regulatory authority. The problem is the minister’s apparent disdain for scientific process, opinion and institutions and supreme faith in his, a single individual’s, ability to make the right decision on what is a complex scientific exercise. That isn’t good either for institutions or for decision-making.

=============

Another Minister Speaks Up, CSIR Chief Says Bt Brinjal 100% Safe

- Indian Express, Feb 15, 2010 http://www.indianexpress.com

Joining the growing number of voices within the government that are uncomfortable with the decision to put the introduction of Bt brinjal on indefinite hold, Science and Technology Minister Prithviraj Chavan today said it was important to ensure that “slogan shouting and protests” do not cloud the scientific vision of the country.

Sources in Krishi Bhavan said Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar too has made his displeasure with the decision, made by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh on February 9, clear. Though he has refrained from attacking Ramesh publicly, Pawar is learnt to have urged the agricultural scientist community not to be disheartened, and to continue its work in the field. Sources said he has asked scientists and officials to gather evidence to counter the claims of those trying to run down Bt Brinjal through slogan-shouting and orchestrated protests against transgenic food crop technology.

Chavan, who has in the past supported the introduction of Bt brinjal, stressed that new technologies like genetic engineering should not be postponed indefinitely merely for lack of scientific consensus. “Let there be a reasoned scientific debate. If more tests are required, those certainly should be carried out. But if there is still no unanimity within the scientific community, the government has little option but to go by the majority and dominant scientific opinion,” Chavan told The Indian Express. “But slogan-shouting and protests cannot be allowed to cloud our scientific vision,” he said.

Chavan is the second Minister to have expressed unease with Ramesh’s decision, which overruled the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the technical body authorized to decide on such matters. HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, Chavan’s predecessor in the Science and Technology Ministry, had earlier expressed his discomfiture with Ramesh’s decision.

The divide is likely to push the government into expediting the long-pending proposal for the creation of a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA). Chavan revealed that the bill, which would allow for the setting up of a regulatory framework for genetically engineered items, might be introduced in Parliament’s budget session.

The authority would take over the functions of GEAC and the Review Committee on Genetic Modification (RCGM), a similar body under the Department of Biotechnology, as well as some responsibilities of the Drug Controller General of India, under the Health Ministry.

It would be responsible for all kinds of research, manufacture, import and use of biotechnology products, including genetically-engineered plants and organisms. The bill has been in the works for a very long time, and is now being readied for Cabinet clearance ahead of its introduction in Parliament.

Meanwhile, allaying fears expressed by critics, over the effect of Bt brinjal on human health, the director general of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Dr Samir Kumar Brahmachari, said he was “100 per cent” certain that the Bt gene was not going to enter the human body. “If Bt had to enter humans, it probably already has. We have been eating soya and corn imported from the United States which has introduced Bt genes in these crops. Some of these fears are unfounded,” said the eminent bio-physicist.

Brahmachari said he supported the setting up of a regulator for biotechnology similar to the one for telecom “as soon as possible”. “The regulatory framework has to be established as soon as possible. An effective body like the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) is needed that can also address concerns of monopolies in the biotechnology sector,” he said.

Brahmachari said GM food was about giving the option to consumers and farmers to decide what was best for them. His predecessor at CSIR, Dr R A Mashelkar, expressed similar views. “In areas of genetic engineering, a principle of precaution is understandable but at the same time it has to be promotional as well. We cannot stop the juggernaut of new technology,” Mashelkar said from Australia.

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Farmers! Fight For Bt Brinjal

- Sauvik Chakraverti, Feb. 14 2010, http://sauvik-antidote.blogspot.com/

I believe our farmers need the freedom to access modern technology. Thus, I am strongly opposed to the anti-farmer “green lobby” that is blocking Bt Brinjal in India. As this recent editorial in Mint makes clear, “per hectare, pesticides for Bt brinjal cost Rs752 against Rs5,952 for the non-Bt variety.” The editorial is titled “False fear of GM foods,” and, in the context of this false fear, I have an interesting anecdote to report on the pesticide-laden brinjal we all eat today.

Once, many years ago, I was traveling by train, and my traveling companions were a medical doctor and his wife. After dinner, the wife took to cutting some apples and serving them to her husband and me. I commented to the doctor that wasn’t it strange that she was peeling the apples, for was not apple peel healthy? He said, “No, apple peel contains pesticides and it is better to peel them.” As we discussed pesticide use in agriculture, he told me something fantastic about brinjal. He said that in the old days you always got brinjal with holes, because of insects that would bore into them. People cut these portions out of the brinjals and ate the rest. That was a good practice he said, and far healthier that the shiny brinjals you get today, without holes, but covered with pesticide.

The enemy of public health is not Bt; rather, it is the excessive use of pesticide. Bt Brinjal reduces pesticide use by over 75 per cent. Such brinjal is good for the health.

While I was with the Economic Times in New Delhi in 2002, a similar fuss was made over Bt Cotton. Then, farmers took to illegal Bt cotton farming and protested loudly for the formal approval of the new seeds. At that time, I interviewed Professor CS Prakash, who teaches plant biotechnology at Tuskegee University in the USSA, for my paper. The interview had a tremendous impact and Bt Cotton was formally approved within a few days of its publication. This interview is still available online (http://www.monsantopakistan.com/news/pakshowlibd041.html?uid=6313) , and can be accessed here. It reveals a lot about the Bt technology, and the anti-farmer, anti-poor and anti-science attitudes of the “green lobby.”

As I said, at the time of Bt Cotton, it was farmers who took up arms against the State. For Bt Brinjal, it is once again up to our farmers to take up their cudgels against the establishment, and against the greens. As the editorial in Mint says, yield per hectare of Bt Brinjal is double that of the traditional variety. Farmers not only get to grow double the output, they also save hugely on pesticide costs. Thus, the economics is entirely on the side of farmers – and, let us not forget, consumers benefit hugely too.

There are many great farmer leaders in India. My friend Sharad Joshi is probably the greatest of them all, and the tallest Maharashtrian in Indian politics. He is a true-blue classical liberal, and a trained economist. He is also a great fan of Frédéric Bastiat. He believes strongly that Indian farmers need open access to modern technology, and he fought valiantly for the approval of Bt Cotton. I hope farmers’ organizations like his will now take on the establishment and the greens over Bt Brinjal.

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The False Fear of GM Foods

- Live Mint, India, Feb 8 2010 http://www.livemint.com/2010/02/08210826/The-false-fear-of-GM-foods.html

'Critics of Bt brinjal who seem to see it as an experiment running amok are missing its economic and scientific viability'

To most of us, the thought of using science in agriculture recalls images of Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution that changed the way India fed its population. To the critics of genetically modified (GM) foods, it recalls Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a science experiment that goes terribly wrong.

Fear mongering over scientific progress isn’t new for GM foods: Witness the chorus against the introduction of Bt brinjal, which the government will rule on later this week. Still, such fear mongering ignores both what science has established and what reality demands.

Bt brinjal is brinjal modified with a strain of bacillus thuringiensis, a pest-resistant bacterium. Farmers, then, wouldn’t need to spend as much on pesticides, lowering costs that will be passed on to consumers—an attractive promise these days. If high food prices are a supply-side problem, then either reducing costs or increasing quantities is a must.

Bt crops can do both. First, there’s the reduced pesticide costs. A committee at the Institute of Vegetable Research, Varanasi, reported in 2009 that, per hectare, pesticides for Bt brinjal cost Rs752 against Rs5,952 for the non-Bt variety.

Second, there’s higher productivity. The same committee estimates Bt brinjal yield at 404.19 quintals per hectare; for non-Bt, this figure is at 236.84. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said last week that, with higher incomes exerting more demand for food, increasing supply is a must.

Third, there’s safety. Critics believe introducing a GM strain into the ecosystem could damage natural brinjal or poison consumers. Yes, good science should generate competing perspectives; but is it assumed that when the genetic engineering approval committee at the ministry of environment okayed Bt brinjal in October, it weighed all the available evidence. Govindarajan Padmanabhan, a former director of the Indian Institute of Science, wrote in The Indian Express on Monday that at least 100 times the Bt protein present in brinjal has been given to rats and proven non-toxic.

Farmers understand what’s at stake: Business Standard reported on Monday that the Bharat Krishak Samaj, a nationwide community of farmers, favours GM crops. Even if other farmers disagree, the introduction of Bt brinjal at least presents them with one more choice.

It’s the green lobby that doesn’t seem to understand. Oblivious to the economics of the situation and resistant to the science, activists don’t want this choice available. So, they continue to conjure images of a science experiment running amok.

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Bt Gene the Only Saviour

- Dr Shanthu Shantharam, Deccan Herald, Feb 13, 2010 http://www.deccanherald.com

'Only brinjal cultivators know the loss they incur due to the Fruit and Shoot Borer pest.'

Contrary to widely held view that the Bt gene in Bt brinjal is going to destroy native biodiversity of brinjals in the country, it the same gene that can save some of the much hyped precious land races or native strains of brinjals, especially the Udupi Gulla. Udupi Gulla is also known as Matti Gulla or Vadiraja Gulla. It derives the name Vadiraja Gulla from an anecdote in which the saint Vadiraja accepted an offering of gulla to his monastery kitchen by a poor farmer/devotee even though brinjal is verboten in religious ceremonies like shraddha (obsequious ceremony).

In fact, Udupi Gulla has no religious significance, but has a ceremonial significance, and is served at every paryaya (change of guard ceremony). However, Udupi Gulla is being threatened out of its existence right now because of the deadly Fruit and Shoot Borer (FSB), against which no natural resistance is available in the entire germplasm of brinjals. Other than spraying nasty chemical insecticides heavily for FSB control, the only environmentally safe alternative is to spray Bt or engineer the gene into the plant itself, which is what has been done by scientists of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad.

This modern day engineering marvel is the only way to preserve Udupi Gulla variety for posterity. Otherwise, there is a real danger of losing it forever within a few decades. The Bt spray is inefficient in effectively controlling the FSB and does not yield consistent and reliable results all the time. The chemical spray is heavy and contaminates soil, air, and is hazardous to farm labour through exposure.

Sci-lies
The idea that Udupi Gulla will be either contaminated or polluted genetically is scientifically baseless, and invoked to create anxiety in the public mind. Gene transfer in plants happens only through pollination (vertical gene transfer) amongst sexually compatible species, and there is no horizontal gene transfer known in the plant kingdom.

Bt Gulla has been developed by UAS, Dharwad by using licence/royalty free technology donated by Monsanto. Therefore, the Bt technology in Bt brinjal is completely free of any hold by any company. It has been developed and tested for biosafety and environmental impacts for over seven years.

Bt was discovered in 1903 and has been in agricultural use since 1938. It has more than fifty years of safety record, and is used even to this day in organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is a method of growing crops and raising animals without using chemicals or with minimum use of chemicals. Bt crops are ideal fit for organic agriculture and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices.

The organic lobby fought tooth and nail to exclude modern GM crops from its agriculture to preserve and protect its business turf. If one hazards a guess about the organic agriculture in India, it can be safely assumed to be less than 0.1%. This is where the rub is. The organic lobby has been struggling in vain to increase its market share for decades, and sees every new technology as a threat to their business interests. The latest happens to be the GM crops technology. In fact, the neo-Gandhian cotton farmers of Gujarat have already adopted Bt cotton into their agriculture, and the organic lobby does not even know it because the cotton lint evades detection as it does not contain any Bt protein or DNA.

Bt brinjal varieties or Bt Gulla will not be expensive as farmers will have choice of Bt hybrids produced by private sector and Bt Open Pollinated Varieties (OPV) produced by the public sector. There is no provision for patenting either seeds, plants or their genes in the Indian patent law or the Seed law.

Organic agriculture can jolly well survive for the pleasures of a handful of urban rich people who can afford to pay premium for the "feel good" factor. Organic produce has no scientific evidence to show that it is any more nutritious than its counterparts, according to a DFID study in UK.

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India, the Most Confident Nation on the Safety of GM Crops - Poll

Full story at http://www.indiaprwire.com/pressrelease/other/2010021543620.htm

According to the Nielsen Global Online Survey, 97 percent Indians consider safety of food an important factor in deciding where they shop and 73 percent Indians are confident in the safety of the food that they purchase from their local store.

Indians also top global ranking in their belief that genetically modified products are completely safe (32%), worldwide only 18 percent believe so.

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A Personal Note from Prakash on the Univ Alabama Huntsville Campus Shooting

Dear readers: I am sure you all have heard about the shooting death of three professors at the University of Alabama, Huntsville campus on Friday, Feb 12. Among the three professors who died needlessly in this tragic incident, two were plant biotechnology experts - Maria Ragland Davis and Gopi Podila. Both were known to me personally, and I mourn their loss deeply. While I did not know the third victim Dr. Johnson, he is a native of Tuskegee (whose father still lives here).

I had known Maria for nearly two decades and she was a very warm, friendly and helpful person. She had earlier worked at Monsanto and Dupont. More about her at http://chronicle.com/article/Maria-Ragland-Davis-52-Did/64198/
Her bio is at http://www.uah.edu/biology/maria.html

Gopi Podila - Story on him http://chronicle.com/article/Gopi-K-Podila-52-Biology/64200/
His bio - http://www.uah.edu/biology/podila.html

Ariel Johnson - http://chronicle.com/article/Ariel-D-Johnson-Sr-52/64201/