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March 30, 2010


Racing with Climate Change; Keeping Open Mind; Hope vs Anxiety; Pushing Feed Price; Fears, Myths and Facts; The Great Brinjal Divide


* A Race to Introduce GM Corn Before Africa's Climate Worsens
* Top UK Scientist Urges NZ to Keep Open Mind on GM
* Hope vs Anxiety for GM Rice
* Single Gene Dramatically Boosts Yield, Sweetness in Tomato Hybrids, Israeli Study Finds
* Africa is Capable of Feeding Itself
* Allowing GM Crop Cultivation in Ireland
* GM Rejection Pushing Feed Price
* “It takes up to $100 million to develop a gene"
* "GM food has been safely cultivated and consumed across the world"
* Bt Brinjal: Fears, Myths and Facts
* The Great Brinjal Divide


A Race to Introduce GM Corn Before Africa's Climate Worsens

- Gayathri Vaidyanathan of Climatewire, New York Times, March 30, 2010

In Kiboko, Kenya, a barbed wire fence separates a field of hybrid corn from the surrounding lands. Inside the fence, food safety regulators are learning to grow the crop with little water. In recent years, droughts have hit the region between June and September, reducing yields.

But two new varieties of corn, also known as maize, are coming to sub-Saharan Africa. One of them is conventionally bred; the other, better-yielding variety is genetically modified. Both are drought-tolerant and the seeds are royalty-free. Together with other agricultural interventions, they have the potential to feed some of the 300 million people for whom the plant is a staple.

There is now a great rush in parts of the continent to get biosafety regulations in place before the transgenic corn arrives on commercial markets in 2017.

Sylvester Oikeh, based in Kenya, is an agricultural scientist and the project manager for the drought-tolerant maize initiative (called Water Efficient Maize for Africa, or WEMA), run by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. He described the promise of the Kenyan fields in a phone interview. "Maize happens to be one crop in Africa that is consumed by more than half of the population, and it is badly affected by drought," he said. "With climate change, the problem will become worsened."

The initiative has big names behind it. The Gates Foundation and Warren Buffett fund it. Monsanto developed the crop for North American farmers using a gene from the lowly Bacillus subtilis bacterium, which is found in dirt.

For a region such as northeastern Uganda, which has seen its twice-in-a-decade drought cycles arrive once in two years, yield matters a lot. Corn is grown in rain-fed regions that already feel the ill effects of climate change on their agricultural output, according to Oikeh.

The fear of droughts and heat in the future
"The food crisis of 2008 was a harbinger of things to come," said Nina Fedoroff, the science and technology adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "The impact of climate change is just beginning to be factored in."

With a burgeoning population, water scarcity, rising numbers of meat-eaters in the developing world, and greater competition for land, agricultural productivity needs to increase dramatically. The first green revolution of the 1970s was an easy accomplishment in comparison to this one, according to Fedoroff.

Climate change will deliver a triple curse on agriculture, forcing crops to deal with rising temperatures, droughts and the rising salinity of water in parts of the world. The numbers speak for themselves. By the end of the century, the average global temperature will be 3.5 degree Celsius above normal.

The optimal temperature for photosynthesis is 20 to 25 degrees Celsius. By 2080, the average temperature in Uganda, for example, will rise to 29 degree Celsius (an increase of 4.3 degrees above the current average), according to a report by U.K. Department for International Development and LTS International.

The rise in temperature will be accompanied by erratic rainfall and increasing drought, the likes of which have already been seen in the country, according to the report. "A third of the world's population already lives in dry lands," said Fedoroff. "The shape of the future is pretty daunting."

Land near the tropics fares worst
Other experts agree. Charles Godfray, a professor at the Department of Zoology at Oxford University who recently co-authored a paper in the journal Science about the challenges of feeding 9 billion people, said that the impact of climate change on agriculture will be negative. Although warming will open up lands in cooler regions for cultivation, it will not compensate for the loss of water and land in areas near the tropics, he said. "The current system of agriculture is not sustainable," he said. "Water is arterial. We will run out of water in parts of the world."

There are many ways to get greater productivity. The rise of precision farming, conventional breeding techniques aided by biotechnology, improved irrigation and genetically modified crops are all important in helping the world cope with its food challenges, said Godfray.

In 2008, constrictions in the food supply chain led to a spike in global prices and riots around the world. The situation will only get worse. Drastic improvements in agriculture are necessary to cope with increased demand in a complex world. South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will be worst hit.

In Africa, improving infrastructure, better fertilizer use, improved irrigation and other constraints can be relieved to increase yield. But the continent is drought-prone, with millions of farmers relying on rainfall for their crops grown in small land holdings. Corn is most widely grown, with almost 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa using it as the main source of food. And it is grown in rain-fed regions prone to crop failures.

"Africa is greatly in need of transgenic crops," said Oikeh. "The way our agricultural productivity is declining, there is no other way than to look for the best of science and technology to address the problem now."

Racing to stay ahead of food demands
In the medium term, conventional crossbreeding helped by molecular biology techniques (a technique called "marker assisted breeding") may suffice. But such methods take time. Where it would take about 10 years to develop a transgenic crop, it will take twice that time to develop a similar plant using marker assisted breeding.

Wild relatives of crops could be better suited to harsher climes, but efforts to collect and breed such crops are just beginning. And sometimes, the traits are just too complex to replicate. Multiple genes can feed into a single trait. Other times, the desired trait, such as the ability to resist certain pests, can be absent in plant genomes.

Molecular biologists and neutral policymakers expect genetically modified (GM) crops to occupy an important role in the future. Currently, there are about 30 commercial crops worldwide. By 2015, the number will increase to 120, according to the European Commission's Joint Research Centre.

"Would you get rid of surgery?" Robert Zeigler said when asked if GM crops were dispensable. He is the director-general of the International Rice Research Institute based in the Philippines, an organization that was instrumental in helping Asia increase its rice yields during the first green revolution. "With GM, you have a powerful tool that offers the potential for most people on the planet to be fed, and decrease the footprint, and live comfortably."

Enter Bacillus subtilis. The bacterium's genome resembles corn in at least one respect. Despite millennia of evolution between them, both contain the genes for the CspB protein, which helps the organism adapt to stress. For a plant, there are few greater stresses than a lack of water.

Looking for plants that tolerate stress
Inside the cells of a corn plant, tiny molecules called RNA relay messages to help with cell activity. But during drought, the molecules are misshapen and unstable. The CspB protein grabs the molecules and stabilizes them, allowing the RNA to fold neatly into their proper shape. Photosynthesis happens at a greater rate. There are more kernels in a given ear of maize.

The gene was developed by Monsanto to increase yield by 10 percent in North America. The scientists in Africa are placing this proprietary gene inside drought-resistant corn developed by non-transgenic breeding techniques by a Mexico-based research center called CIMMYT. The scientists hope that the resulting crop will increase yield by 30 percent, according to Oikeh.

"In the five countries we are operating [South Africa, Mozambique, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania], that should give us an additional 2 metric tons of maize that can feed 14 to 21 million people," said Oikeh. "If this is used around Africa, we will have higher benefit than that."

Despite its promise, the only nations in Africa that could bring a GM crop to market are Egypt, South Africa and Burkina Faso, according to Guillaume Gruere, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. Others do not have a government body in place to set up the rules needed to commercialize a transgenic crop.

"My big uncertainty is whether there will be regulation in place when they get ready," said Gruere. "In those African countries, we work a lot there in setting up regulations that would be functional, but it's not there yet."


Top UK Scientist Urges NZ to Keep Open Mind on GM

- Eloise Gibson, New Zealand Herald, March 29, 2010 http://www.nzherald.co.nz

Food-growing countries such as New Zealand should carefully consider genetic modification technology and not reject it outright, says Britain's top scientist.

Speaking as New Zealand authorities decide whether to allow GM goats, sheep and cows at a Hamilton research facility, Professor John Beddington, who is science adviser to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said that classifying GM as either 'good' or 'bad' was "profoundly silly".

The New Zealand Court of Appeal this week overturned a High Court decision to block four other applications by AgResearch to the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) to use animals to make a range of medical and health products. Anti-GM group GE-free is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court.

In an interview with the Herald before the decision was released, Professor Beddington said biotechnology, including GM, had a role to play in food production. "We've got to think of these things on a case-by-case basis." If, for example, a particular problem - whether it was of a plant disease or a particularly harsh environment - could be solved with GM technology, it should be considered, he said.

Advocates of GM plants say they could be used to help solve looming crises of water shortages and climate change. New Zealand researchers hope to develop GM animals that could provide milk proteins to treat rare human diseases. But critics say the benefits of GM plants and animals have either not been proven or could be gained equally well by traditional selective breeding and laboratory trials.

Professor Beddington, who is a population biologist by training and an influential figure in the UK, has been quoted in British media as supporting a "GM revolution" in food crops. But he told the Herald his comments were misrepresented. His view was that the benefits should be carefully weighed, as with all new biotechnology.

Otago University genetics researcher Jack Heinemann said research on the safety of GM pasture crops should be beefed up before scientists "rushed" to commercialise it. He said safety testing was almost always carried out by companies hoping to profit from GM crops, because they alone owned the rights to the genetically modified material.

New Zealand's acceptance of GM is expected to be put to the test in coming years when companies apply to release GM pasture grasses. At least two major research consortiums in New Zealand are preparing to seek their release: PGG Wrightson has been working with Australian scientists on GE ryegrass, and Fonterra and AgResearch have worked with other partners on both clover and ryegrass, and Fonterra has funded its own research into ryegrass.

Any release of pasture crops would be seen as a turning point because it would be difficult to contain the genetically modified pollen, which can travel for kilometres. Erma is considering an application by Agresearch to carry out contained trials on milk-producing cows, goats and sheep.

A recent Royal Society report noted that GM clover and ryegrass were being promoted in some quarters as "cisgenic" - engineered without using genes from other species - which the biotechnology sector hopes may be more acceptable to some consumers.

One of the paper's co-authors told journalists that consumers in the United States and the European Union - the high end of the market for many New Zealand food exports - were resistant to even GM traits perceived as beneficial.


Hope vs Anxiety for GM Rice

- Peng Yining, China Daily, March 29, 2010

Pest-resistant crops will reduce farmers?reliance on chemicals, but fears remain over food safety. Peng Yining in Beijing reports. Mei Duanshi handles grains of rice as if they are precious diamonds. "Have you ever seen such good, quality rice before?" asked the 61-year-old farmer after pouring a small pile of Chinese-grown grains onto his kitchen table.

After spending more than three decades growing rice on 20 hectares of land in Hulin, Heilongjiang province, he knows quality when he sees it. He also knows it comes at a cost. "We sprayed our fields with pesticide twice a year, usually before and after we planted the seedlings in May," said Mei, who gave up his farm to live with his daughter last year. "An airplane would shriek over our heads and dust the crops with about 30 liters of chemicals, giving the air a pungent odor."

In the cold northeast of China, where the biggest threat to rice crops is the leaf-mining fly - "they're tiny but deadly for plants" - farmers spray their fields far less often than those in the humid south, he said. "My wife and I knew the chemicals were not good for our health but it was the only way to kill the pests." Although he feels finding a way to reduce farmers' dependence on pesticides is paramount, Mei is still wary of the alternative: Genetically modified (GM) rice.

"My understanding is they impose the genes of one species onto another, which is a violation of the law of nature. I am not sure about that," he said when asked about the two varieties of GM rice that have been approved for field trials by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Mei's reaction is not uncommon. Although the crops - developed by Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, Hubei province - have passed the government's safety tests and could dramatically reduce the use of pesticides, many people are still skeptical about the long-term effects of what some describe as "Frankenstein foods".

The GM rice cleared for trials last August -- Huahui 1 and Shanyou 63 -- contain a bacterium called bacillus thuringiensis (BT), which creates proteins that naturally repel insects, particularly the rice stem borer. Both strains will reduce the use of pesticide by 80 percent while raising yields by up to 8 percent, said Huang Dafang, a member of the biosafety committee affiliated to the ministry.

China already imports four kinds of GM crops - cotton, soybean, corn and canola - but if the homegrown GM rice goes on to be certified by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, and the Ministry of Health, it will make the country the first to fully approve a GM staple.

More than 400 million tons of rice was grown across the world in 2008, with about 40 percent coming from China's 30 million hectares of rice fields, according to a National Rice Research Institution report last year. Almost half of the country's 1 million tons of exported rice went to Africa. "Hundreds of millions of farmers make a living from rice. The health of each one of them is at risk from pesticide use," said Lu Ping, a researcher at China Agricultural University.

Last year, Lu and her team spent 40 days in a village in Sichuan, a major rice-growing province. They discovered that, from a population of 2,000, three farmers had died from diseases related to long-term exposure to pesticides in the last three years. "Most rice farmers underestimate just how toxic these chemicals and sprays are. They rarely wear any of the necessary protection, such as mask and gloves," she said.

One man was killed when he accidentally swallowed pesticide while trying to suck an obstruction out of a spray pipe, she recalled. "Another villager showered his cow with pesticide to kill lice but instead killed the cow. He then ate the dead animal. He survived but he had no idea he could have poisoned himself."

Sun Jing, director of the Pesticide Eco-alternative Center in Yunnan province, conducted similar studies since 2007. Her team has interviewed hundreds of farmers and found 20 percent regularly suffered dizziness or nose bleeds after using agricultural chemicals. "There's no doubt these chemicals, especially pesticides and herbicides, harm farmers' health," she said. "Reducing the use of pesticide and promoting alternative forms of pest control will be the future of farming."

A GM rice crop that repels pests without the need for chemical sprays would be many people's choice for an alternative, said Sun. However, there are still serious concerns over the safety of GM food, with debate continuing to rage over whether it is potentially dangerous to consumers.

"Rice is eaten by almost every single person in China, so people are particularly concerned about GM rice," said Xue Dayuan, chief biodiversity scientist at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences under the Ministry of Environmental Protection. "Risks also come from the potential genetic pollution."

Genes from GM rice could contaminate other species, potentially causing uncontrolled hybridization, which could put pure wild varieties at serious risk of extinction, he said. "We need precise regulation on GM crops before commercialization. I'm worried that we haven't set up an effective system to regulate the research and production of GM food."

Although agriculture officials are yet to approve the commercial cultivation of GM rice or the importation of GM grain, a report released by Greenpeace China on March 15 said GM rice is already on sale at Wal-Mart and Zhongbai stores in Hunan province.

The provincial government denied the claims, saying that no pest-resistant GM ingredients had been found in any of the 32 brands of rice being sold at the supermarkets. "Samples were taken from the Wal-Mart outlet in the capital Changsha, and several other stores and mills, but no GM ingredients were found after careful analysis by professional testing institutions," the authority said in a statement.

For retired farmer Mei, the biggest question is whether the genes that kill insects are also potentially hazardous to humans. "It seems like they're integrating pesticide into the rice, so doesn't that make it toxic?" he said. "Maybe the toxic element hasn't been found yet. I will only believe it is 100 percent safe after people have eaten it for several generations."

When Chinese farmers began planting GM soybeans imported from the United States and yields went from 1,500 kg per hectare to 4,500 kg, Mei was initially amazed by this "magic" crop. "But nothing is perfect. GM technology seems too good to be true," he said. "The newspapers told us pesticides were perfectly safe at the very beginning but now everybody knows they aren't. Who knows what is going to happen with GM rice after five or 10 years."

Using pesticides and herbicides, Mei's farm grew about 150,000 kg of grain and generated about 375,000 yuan ($55,000) a year, a fair income in China's countryside. "I believe Chinese farmers can provide enough grain for all of us. Why should we take the risk of using uncertain technology?" he said.

According to a spokesman for the National Key Laboratory of Crop Genetic Improvement at Huazhong Agricultural University, the BT protein only works on the rice stem borer, yellow rice borer, leaf roller and other lepidoptera pests, and poses no threat to humans as there is no "binding site" that triggers the protein in the human intestinal tract.

People have been using BT proteins as bio-pesticides for more than 70 years, with large-scale cultivation and application of BT crops has been going on for more than 10 years. There have been no reports of anaphylaxis, or extreme adverse reactions, the spokesman said.

Rats fed GM rice for eight days developed no biological differences from rats fed natural rice over the same duration, he said. According to local media, scientists at the laboratory have also eaten the GM rice they have been working on for years and have suffered no health problems.

"In the US, we have been consuming GM crops, corn, soybeans, for 15 years. There is no food safety problem from this proven technology," said Scott Rozelle, an agricultural expert and professor at Stanford University, California, who co-authored a 2005 article on the GM rice in China for Science, a top professional journal. "If one looks carefully at food safety issues (there are many and they are publicly available) there is zero - not one - that shows that there is any adverse health consequences or risk of health consequences from BT crops. So food safety is a plus for GM rice.

"In farming communities there is a preference for GM crops that reduce pesticides. As our studies in China show, GM crops hold potential for improving the environment, improving (farmers') health and improving water quality." Experts at the National Key Laboratory also claim experiments they conducted prove GM rice will not pollute other species. However, they are yet to reveal details of the experiments or publish an academic paper on the subject.

"We need new technology to feed people, as the population keeps growing and resources are limited," said Long Manyuan, a genetics professor at the University of Chicago. "Most people who worry about GM rice don't know what's going on. Scientists should explain their work to make people understand what's going on. We need responsible media."

Rozelle agreed and said scientific knowledge is essential to the discussion over GM crops. "There are a few organizations that out of ideology are trying to spread mistruths about new technologies, and for some reason the press picks these up," he said. "Let the consumers choose. You will see that consumers will gain confidence as GM rice becomes a part of their diet. Prices will fall, and health and water quality will rise. China will be a world leader in this."

Control of the GM technology patent is also the subject of furious debate, with some groups fearing that the involvement of large, multi-national companies could spell disaster for Chinese farmers.

"Big multi-national agricultural companies such as Monsanto are among several overseas organizations or institutions which hold patent rights on GM rice lines being developed in China. If GM rice was allowed to be commercially grown in China then it is these big multinationals that will effectively own China's rice bowl," said a Greenpeace report last year.

"The commercial GM seed business has driven seed prices up and, in some cases, has elbowed non-GM seeds out of the market. Agrochemical giants have shown how they love to squeeze profits out of struggling farmers by charging technology fees."

Scientists at Huazhong Agriculture University replied by saying two varieties of GM rice - Huahui 1 and Shanyou 63 - contain a Chinese-created BT gene and that they are applying to China's government for plant variety rights, which would give them exclusive control.

Whatever is decided, Mei said the future is out of farmers' hands. "If the GM rice is commercialized someday, I guess farmers will have to grow it," he said. "They can't decide the seed price, so all they can do is hope the insect-resistant rice works like the scientists say it does."


Single Gene Dramatically Boosts Yield, Sweetness in Tomato Hybrids, Israeli Study Finds

- Hema Bashyam, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, March 29, 2010 http://www.cshl.edu

'Scientists find the first example of a single gene that causes hybrid vigor'

Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. – Giving tomato breeders and ketchup fans something to cheer about, a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) scientist and his colleagues at the Hebrew University in Israel have identified a gene that pushes hybrid tomato plants to spectacularly increase yield. The yield-boosting power of this gene, which controls when plants make flowers, works in different varieties of tomato, and crucially, across a range of environmental conditions.

"This discovery has potential to have a significant impact on both the billion-dollar tomato industry, as well as agricultural practices designed to get the most yield from other flowering crops," says CSHL's Zach Lippman, Ph.D., one of the three authors on the study, which appears in the journal Nature Genetics online on March 28th. The study is co-authored by Israeli scientists Uri Krieger and Professor Dani Zamir.

The team made the discovery while hunting for genes that boost hybrid vigor, a revolutionary breeding principle that spurred the production of blockbuster hybrid crops like corn and rice a century ago. Hybrid vigor, also known as heterosis, is the miraculous phenomenon by which intercrossing two varieties of plants produces more vigorous hybrid offspring with higher yields. First observed by Charles Darwin in 1876, heterosis was rediscovered by CSHL corn geneticist George Shull 30 years later, but how heterosis works has remained a mystery.

Shull's studies suggested that harmful, vigor-killing gene mutations that accumulate naturally in every generation are exposed by inbreeding, but hidden by crossbreeding. "But there is still no consensus as to what causes heterosis," says Lippman. "Another theory for heterosis, supported by our discovery, postulates that improved vigor stems from only a single gene – an effect called "superdominance" or "overdominance."

To find overdominant genes, the team developed a novel approach by turning to a vast tomato "mutant library" – a collection of 5,000 plants, each of which has a single mutation in a single gene that causes defects in various aspects of tomato growth, such as fruit size, leaf shape, etc. Selecting a diverse set of mutant plants, most of which produced low yield, the team crossed each mutant with its normal counterpart and searched for hybrids with improved yield.

Among several cases, the most dramatic example increased yield by 60%. This hybrid, the team found, produced greater yields because there was one normal copy and one mutated copy of a single gene that produces a protein called florigen. This protein, touted as the breakthrough discovery of the year in 2005 in Science magazine, instructs plants when to stop making leaves and start making flowers, which in turn produce fruit.

In plants such as tomatoes, flowering (and therefore yield) is controlled by a delicate balance between the florigen protein, which promotes flowering, and another related protein, that delays flowering. A mutation in only one copy of the florigen gene causes the hybrid to produce more flowers in less time – the key to improved yield.

"It's the Goldilocks concept," explains Lippman. "What we find is that to maximize yield, you can't have too much or too little florigen. A mutation in one copy of the gene results in the exact dose of florigen required to cause heterosis."


Africa is Capable of Feeding Itself

- Kofi A. Annan,Daily Monitor (Uganda), March 23 2010

African scientists are developing new and improved crop varieties. The continent’s farmers are enthusiastically putting into practice techniques like drip irrigation to make the best of every drop of water. African governments are making transforming agriculture a top priority.

The celebration of World Water Day (March 22) is a call for action over one of the greatest challenges we face – ensuring a growing population has access to clean and sufficient water so that it can feed itself. Increased pressure on already scarce water supplies in many parts of the world is a prime cause of famine, disease and, increasingly, conflict. Climate change is already worsening these pressures. Its impact will only increase, with catastrophic consequences.

This is particularly true in Africa which experts predict will suffer most from rising temperatures, prolonged droughts and other extreme weather events. The changes already underway are making vast areas of once productive land no longer fit for traditional agriculture. Land is being abandoned, forcing mass migration.
These new pressures add to long-standing problems with Africa’s agriculture. The soil in many areas is poor. Yet farmers, often because of poverty or lack of access, use far less fertilizer than their counterparts around the world. New techniques, which revolutionised Asia’s agricultural productivity, have – at least until recently – passed by the continent’s farmers. There is very little use of irrigation even where water is plentiful.

The result is that Africa is the only continent unable to feed itself. Agricultural productivity has failed to keep pace with a growing population. Hunger has never been worse. Around 300 million people will not have enough to eat today. Despite millions of hectares of unused cultivated land, Africa spends $20b dollars each year buying food.

This is simply not sustainable, economically nor politically. It is the cause of terrible human suffering and is a catastrophic brake on Africa’s development. But this is not, I am delighted to say, the all-too-familiar call for the rest of the world to come to Africa’s aid. Out of the headlines, a quiet – and green – revolution is already underway, led by Africa’s scientists, farmers and politicians.

African scientists are developing new and improved crop varieties. The continent’s farmers are enthusiastically putting into practice techniques like drip irrigation to make the best of every drop of water. African governments are making transforming agriculture a top priority.

These efforts are being supported by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which I am honoured to chair. Hundreds of millions of dollars in grants are being provided to raise agricultural productivity, promote the use of sound soil management techniques and good water husbandry. National research institutions are being funded to develop new crop varieties for diverse soils including staple food crops such as millet, sorghum, maize, cassava, rice, sweet potatoes and pulses.

Across Africa, we can see the results. In Tanzania, the farmers in the southern highlands now plant early-maturing maize to escape the damage caused by an increasingly unreliable rainy season. Over 300,000 farmers in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are being helped by AGRA to use micro-dosing techniques which greatly increase yields and save enormous quantities of fertilizer. For the last four years, Malawi has not only met its own food needs, but has also become able to export to its neighbours. Rwanda’s agricultural production has grown by 13 per cent and 17 per cent in the last two years.

We now need to build on this progress and spread best practices across the continent. Farmers need help to manage water more efficiently, through water harvesting and small scale irrigation. To rapidly increase productivity, farmers will also need better access to fertilizers and education and practice conservation agriculture where technically and economically feasible.

But helping Africa feed itself must go far further than what happens in the fields. It requires farmers to be able to sell their crops easily and for a fair price. In Uganda, improved banana marketing systems have helped to connect 20,000 farmers to markets, increasing their farm gate prices by 30 per cent, earning them some $3.5 million in incomes.

Farmers and the small businesses which serve them need better access to finance. Agriculture accounts in many African countries for as much as half of GDP and seven out of every 10 jobs. Yet less than three per cent of total private sector financing go into agriculture with smallholder-based farming taking an even smaller share.
Loan guarantees provided by organisations like AGRA have encouraged some of Africa’s leading banks to provide tens of millions of dollars of new and affordable finance. Farmers are now using this funding to expand their use of improved seeds, fertilizers, small scale irrigation and improved storage facilities.

Rapid progress is now needed in four main areas. We need to target investment in Africa’s breadbasket areas which have the potential to grow huge amounts of food. Rural infrastructure - especially roads, ports, rails and storage – must be improved. Barriers which prevent regional trade such as tariffs must be removed. Farmers must be helped to adapt to the additional challenges they face from climate change.

In shaping Africa’s Green Revolution, we must especially focus on the small-holder farmers who form over 70 per cent of the continent’s agricultural producers. Foreign investment in agriculture and land must not displace small-holders whose families have farmed the land for decades. We need to use their knowledge, not discount it, if we are to end food shortages and transform life in rural areas.

Indeed partnerships – whether with local farmers’ associations or international institutions such as the World Bank and African Development Bank – are the key to ensuring the Green Revolution takes root across the continent and unlocking Africa’s enormous agricultural potential. Feeding Africa is one of the major development challenges of our time, but it can be done.
Mr Annan is Chair of the Board Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa


Kumi Naidoo: Genetic engineering not the solution to hunger in Africa



GM Rejection Pushing Feed Price

- The Scotsman, March 26, 2010 http://www.scotsman.com/

The increasing problems associated with boatloads of rejected animal feed on account of contamination by GM organisms saw NFU Scotland yesterday write to the new EU health and consumer commissioner, John Dalli.

The union has used the commissioner's recent authorisation of a new GM potato as a peg on which to request that he apply the "same rational thinking" to other GM issues such as contamination tolerance.

Even when very low levels of non-approved GM material are found in feed shipments arriving at EU ports, the current zero tolerance approach results in these shipments being rejected. With huge tonnages involved, this has caused distortion in the markets for soya and maize, reduced supplies and driven feed price hikes that threaten livestock farmers' viability.

NFUS president Jim McLaren said the union "support the introduction of an appropriate threshold" for the presence of GM material in animal feed imports.


Allowing GM Crop Cultivation

- Shane H Morris. Letter to the Editor, Irish Times

Madam, – Clearly Frank McDonald (Opinion, March 25th) holds the outdated and simplistic view that all genetically modified (GM) crops are bad and all others are good. The reality is that GM technology applied in plant breeding has a broad range of applications whose risks and benefits depend on the situation.

However, in Ireland it is not even possible do GM research field trials to examine such applications as the Government has instituted a ban without public consultation or scientific input. Noteworthy is that from 1997 to 1999 GM crops were grown in Ireland on a research basis without negative environmental impacts. In fact, there have been over 2,400 GM field trials in Europe. None had negative outcomes on health or the environment.

Moreover, Greens in government in Germany allowed over 40 such GM crop trials.
Contrary to Mr McDonald’s suggestion, not all GM crops need be company-owned. Cuba, the ultimate public sector state, has had 59 GM field trials. China has just committed to investing the equivalent of $3,500 million of new public funds into GM crop research with hundreds of GM crops in trials.

Yet while Irish publicly-funded GM technology to prevent potato blight sits on a lab shelf, the current Government is happy to let over 250,000lbs of toxic fungicide be used annually on Irish potatoes against blight.
If Mr McDonald was truly informed he would ask why GM field research is prevented in Ireland and other plant-breeding technologies (radiation, chemical mutagenesis, cisgenetics, etc) that can often produce the same (or worse) environmental risks are not even regulated. The next time he is again a speaker at a Green Party convention I suggest he asks. The answer he would receive is simple: politics. – Yours, etc,

>Not just environmentalists against GM crops

Frank McDonald, The Irish Times, 25 March 2010

THE EUROPEAN Commission's decision earlier this month to approve a genetically modified (GM) potato called Amflora bears all the hallmarks of being the thin end of what could be a very large wedge. That's why it was greeted with such delight by German chemical company BASF, which patented the potato, and by the biotech lobby in general.


“It takes up to $100 million to develop a gene"

- Hard News, March 30, 2010. http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2010/03/3508

Full text of an e-mail interview with Dr KK Narayanan, MD, Metahelix Life Sciences (P) Ltd, a Bangalore-based agri-biotech company, and member of the executive council of Association of Biotechnology led Enterprises. He has led the 'Crop Transformation and Functional Genomics' programme at the Monsanto Research Centre, Bangalore. Narayanan has a PhD from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and a post-doctoral Rockefeller Foundation fellowship. He is member of several committees and central government's advisory bodies including the task force on Agricultural Biotechnology and the Working Group on Bio-safety Regulations.

Q: Is it true that most foods processed in the US have genetically modified corn or soya and that most people don't know anything about what they are eating? Is this aspect of health assessment important? Do you think the government should get more active with that since number of food inspections seem to be reducing drastically with time?

A: Firstly, it is incorrect to say that most people do not know what they are eating. The fact that biotech crops are being cultivated successfully and safely for 13 years now in 25 countries is a testament that people are seeing value in these technologies. Globally the biotech crops grown include soybean, maize, cotton, canola, squash, papaya, alfalfa, sugarbeet, tomato, and sweet pepper, among others. Today, 57 countries including Japan, USA, Canada, South Korea, Mexico, Australia, the Philippines, the European Union, New Zealand and China have granted regulatory approvals for biotech crops for import for food and feed use and for release into the environment since 1996. Every time that a technology is introduced in a country, it undergoes stringent tests by an independent regulatory body. A wide panel of food, plant and scientific experts ensure safe introduction of plant biotechnology for the benefit of the nation.

In India, MOEF's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has put in place a stringent science-based regulatory regime comprising three ministries - ministry of science and technology, environment & forests, and agriculture. The entire regulatory process takes four-seven years and no biotech crops are allowed in the market until they undergo extensive and rigid crop safety assessments, following strict scientific protocols. In fact, as a nation we tested the only approved biotech crop in India - Bt cotton, for seven years prior to its approval in 2002 (the longest globally).

The GEAC is constantly striving to improve the delivery system while ensuring the health of the environment, human beings and animals, in order to consider the grant of commercial approval of biotech food crops; second generation biotech traits in improved cotton hybrids, including efficient weed management technologies; and development of drought-tolerant and salt-tolerant crops; as well as encourage the research and cultivation of other beneficial technologies. The agri-biotech industry will continue to conduct research in key crops, in compliance with India's globally harmonised regulatory protocols.

Q: Have you taken any steps towards public education which is more than just applying small labels on food items? Is there any other way you achieve that end? Better stated, do you think public knowledge about what they're consuming necessary at all, that it is a part of consumer rights?

A: Yes, it is critical that the public is made aware of the facts, science and safety of biotech crops by scientific experts. They need to know that it takes up to US$ 100 million to discover and develop a gene, and five - eight years for testing until it gets launched in the market. Every biotech crop technology undergoes rigorous testing by scientific experts and the nation's independent regulatory bodies.

While some people believe it's a right-to-know issue and all products containing ingredients from biotech-enhanced crops should be labeled; others believe that since there's no difference between biotech-enhanced and non- biotech-enhanced ingredients, labeling shouldn't be required. Since commodity biotech products are equivalent to their conventional counterparts, regulatory authorities around the world have found that foods from biotech crops are as safe as those from conventional crops, and hence do not require to be labeled. It is important that people are informed and aware of the benefits of biotech and how they have been grown and consumed safely in 25 countries since 13 years.

We support the need for labeling if there is a scientific reason for it - for example if the nutritional composition of the biotech-enhanced product is substantially different from a non- biotech-enhanced product. The cost of specialty product marketing and labeling however, should be borne by those who prefer to make the distinction and extract value from the specialty market. We comply with the law wherever we do business and work to cooperate with the industry and consumers to share meaningful information.

Q: Do you have data to prove that yield of GM crops is more than ordinary crops?

A: Biotech crops are being successfully and safely cultivated globally for the past 14 years. Farmers are intelligent businessmen and choose the seeds that provide them with the highest yield, income and ease of cultivation. As a result, many choose biotech-enhanced seeds (from competitors in the private or public sectors) for higher yields and lower input costs. Some farmers choose to plant conventional (non-biotech) seed, and the companies offer those varieties, too.

India's success with Bt cotton is widely acknowledged in India and across the world. Indian farmers are astute determinants of value. Farmers determine value based on quality of yield, fair price, and convenience. Give a farmer higher good quality cotton yields, better returns (fair market price), and more convenience when farming - and he is likely to adopt a new product.

Five million Indian cotton farmers cultivated Bt cotton on over 90 per cent of India's total 225 lakh cotton acres in 2009. Within six years of introduction of Bt cotton, farmers have made India the world's second largest producer and second largest exporter of cotton (after China). According to industry experts, Bt cotton has not just changed farmer lives, but revolutionised cotton production in the country, which has more than doubled to 315 lakh bales in 2008-09 from 136 lakh bales in 2002-03. The total additional value created annually by better Bt cotton seeds is Rs 40,000+ crore per annum for all stakeholders (farmers, ginners, exporters, textile mills, seed industry, and government) of which farmers earn Rs 20,000 crore additional income from higher Bt cotton yields and insecticide savings annually - a direct contribution to our country's GDP. As a result, India's share in the world cotton production is up by 65 per cent (20.6 per cent in 2007-08 from 12.5 per cent in 2001-02).

India's Bt cotton farmers get yields which are up 50 per cent- 100 per cent; earn an average 64 per cent higher income (Rs 8,669) per acre than conventional seed farmers; plus, 87 per cent of Bt cotton farmers enjoyed better lifestyles, 84 per cent increased peace of mind, 72 per cent invested in their children's education, and a significant 67 per cent repaid their long-pending debts (IMRB Survey, 2007). Further, the frequent health concerns such as giddiness, nausea, itching etc. experienced by farmers/farm workers due to higher number of pesticides applications in non-Bt cotton fields, were found to have reduced considerably when cultivating Bt cotton (UAS, Dharwad).

As farmers upgrade to newer technologies, it is evident that they are experiencing immense value from insect-protected Bt cotton which provides better insect protection, higher yields, ease of farming convenience, in addition to better insect resistance management.


"GM food has been safely cultivated and consumed across the world"

- Hard News, March 30, 2010. http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2010/03/3507

Hardnews sent some critical questions to Monsanto regarding safety of GM food. This is full text of an exclusive e-mail interview with Monsanto-India's spokesperson. The company refused to name their spokesperson.

Q: Farm animals are naturally grass-eating, which includes multiple sources of nutrition, but now they're consuming a diet rich in GM-corn (in the US) instead. How does that impact or alter their health? Have you done any health monitoring for livestock? Is this aspect of risk assessment important for you?
A: Firstly, biotech crops are being successfully and safely cultivated globally for the past 14 years. Agri-biotech products are studied much more extensively than any other plant product in the world, and provide equal or greater assurance of safety of these products compared to conventional plant varieties.

UN WHO, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Royal Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, French Academy of Medicine, British Medical Association, 25 Nobel laureates (including Norman Borlaug) all concluded that Bt crops are as safe as conventional crops. Billions of meals from or derived from agri-biotech products have been consumed globally. GM food has also been safely cultivated and consumed across the world, including tomato (China), papaya (USA, China), corn (16 countries), and squash and zucchini (USA).

In 2008, biotech corn was cultivated in 16 countries (i.e. two-thirds of the 25-biotech cultivating countries) and approved as safe for import and food-use in over 10 countries. Farmers are cultivating biotech corn in Spain, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Czech Republic, USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Honduras, Philippines, South Africa and Uruguay (ISAAA Report 2008). In addition, biotech corn is approved as safe for import and food-use in the European Union, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, Russia, Australia, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, China, and Mexico.

Farmers around the world have benefited from improved corn technologies. In the Philippines, at least 200,000 small farmers gained from biotech corn in 2008. A socioeconomic impact study using data from 2004-05 crop years, reported that for small farmers, Bt corn could provide an overall income advantage up to 48 per cent (ISAAA Report 2008).

Before any biotech crop is commercialised, it undergoes rigorous government-mandated safety testing and regulatory assessment, spanning multiple years and systematic testing. The safety of these products is reviewed by independent regulatory agencies according to internationally agreed-upon assessment guidelines.

Q: You're thinking about introducing Bollgard II variety of Bt cotton in India after Bollgard I failed, even in your admission. Accepting that the Indian agriculture is labour surplus and the Indian farmer has a small plot of land to till (on an average), won't the insects develop resistance against Bollgard II as well, since all Bt and non-Bt crops are bound to get mixed up in absence of refugia management? Also, every time you introduce a new Bt crop in India, we are left with 'super-pests' that are resistant to it and then we need more pesticide to kill them! What could be a long term solution in the Indian context?

A: Experts in the field of insect resistance have developed sophisticated models that demonstrate a significantly reduced risk of resistance development to a two protein product with different modes of action relative to a single genewith a single mode of action. Across the majority of cotton acres in India, the use of Bollgard II reduces resistance risk by offering two modes of action.

Resistance is expected and could evolve naturally to all pest control products. Insect resistance management strategies - such as the combination of refuges with dual modes of action as present in Bollgard II - when effectively employed, will substantially delay the onset of resistance. The use of effective Insect Resistance Management (IRM) practices (i.e. planting the proper non-Bt refuge) has proven to increase the sustainability of technology for a considerable time.

Bollgard cotton has revolutionised cotton yields in India, reduced insecticide use, and advanced integrated pest management. With these advancements, the worries about super-resistant bollworms have been greatly reduced. Indeed, in the limited geography affected by Cry1Ac resistant pink bollworm, the solution for management of this resistance is already in place in the form of two-protein Bollgard II.

Q: Have you done any tests on soil-health after monocultures of genetically modified crops are grown on large tracts of land for years in the US? Is soil- health important for you?
A: Plant biotechnology products are studied much more extensively than any other plant product, providing equal or greater assurance of safety of these products compared to conventional plant varieties. Rigorous scientific studies are regularly conducted in India and abroad to demonstrate that these technologies are safe for the environment, human beings, animals and agriculture.

Globally, Monsanto conducts over hundreds of studies on our technologies including studies on field performance, weeds, soil degradation, biosafety, toxicity and allergenicity tests; pollen flow study; susceptibility study of American bollworm; socio-economic impacts of Bt cotton, feed studies on chickens, cows, buffaloes, goats, rats, fish; among other studies.


Bt Brinjal: Fears, Myths and Facts

- M. Mahadevappa, The Hindu (India), March 28, 2010

Brinjal which is popular among small and resource-constrained farmers is prone to insect pests and diseases, the most serious and destructive of them being the fruit and shoot bore

The University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad (UASD), has developed several technologies for the benefit of farmers. The Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology (IABT), a multi-crore facility in the university, in collaboration with the Central Institute for Cotton Research (of ICAR), Nagpur, has successfully introduced a Bt gene into two Indian cotton varieties (unlike Bt hybrids developed by private companies). It has got the approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for commercial cultivation with a view to controlling bollworms. UASD found in Bt brinjal an opportunity to serve the resource-poor farmers by devising a product that would proficiently help control the dreaded pest of brinjal — the shoot and fruit borer.

Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt), a common bacteria occurring in soil, has been used as a biopesticide sprays on various crops to control lepidopteron pests since 1960s in India. This bacterium produces a protein toxic to Lepidopteron insect pests which are a major concern in most of agriculture and horticulture crops. A number of crystalline (Cry) toxin-protein genes or Bt genes isolated from this bacteria are transferred into many crops globally and those introductions have helped in substantial economic, environmental, and social welfare benefits in as many as 25 countries.

In India, since the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002, a dramatic increase in area under cotton has been witnessed. The area under Bt cotton increased quietly with the initiative of farmers looking to its environmental safety, productivity and profitability. Farmers have been playing a key role in promoting the spread of useful and beneficial varieties whether the governments have recommended it or not. Useful varieties will find their entry into the field one way or the other, and will not await decision by any government. Hundreds and thousands of useful and beneficial varieties have been identified and adopted by farmers themselves even before the science of genetics and plant breeding was born! That is the reason the government of India has enacted an Act in 2002 to protect the rights of farmers which is unique to the Indian Seed Act.

Our country has very stringent rules and regulations governing every step of the application of biotechnology/genetic engineering in any segment, agriculture, medicine and environment. At every institutional level, an Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBSC) headed by the Vice-Chancellor oversees the safety needs of the research. Further, there are committees at the district, State and Central levels, including the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) and the GEAC, all of which are statutory bodies. It is reported that Bt brinjal research in the last eight years has gone through all these steps. As per reports, whole biosafety data, various comments and their scientific validation related to Bt brinjal, in particular, and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), in general, have been meticulously addressed in the EC-II report and made available in the website of the ministry of environment and forests.

Brinjal which is popular among small and resource-constrained farmers is prone to insect pests and diseases, the most serious and destructive of them being the fruit and shoot borer (FSB) Leucinodes orbonalis Guen. FSB larvae bore into tender shoots and fruits, causing damage up to 70 per cent. Sprays to control FSB in Karnataka range from 25-35 in plains and 16-20 in coastal belt. Besides the high cost of cultivation and adverse effects on the environment, high pesticide residues in brinjal pose serious risk to consumer's health and safety. UASD developed six Bt brinjal varieties that are popular in northern Karnataka, southern Maharashtra and Goa (Manjari Gota, Udupi Gulla, Malapur local (S), Kudachi local, Rabkavi local and Go-112). All the six varieties have been field tested at five locations for their agronomic performance, the assessment of effectiveness of Bt gene in controlling the fruit and shoot borer and the effect of Bt gene on non-target and beneficial insects besides soil nematodes and soil microorganisms. The technology is effective in managing the target pest and providing safety to the rest of the non-target insects, soil microorganisms, earthworms, and nematodes. Expression of the Cry1Ac protein has been reported to be adequate in shoot, stem, flowers and fruits throughout the crop period.

— It is reported that, besides the prescribed tests, a number of additional studies recommended by two expert committees (EC I and EC II) were carried out on Bt brinjal and all related doubts/concerns expressed by people not only from India, but also from several other countries were meticulously considered and addressed by the GEAC and its expert committees.

— The gene responsible for Cry1Ac protein expressed in Bt-brinjal is the same as that in Bt-cotton. This is being cultivated in India since 2002 and it has not caused any scientifically proven adverse effect on humans, animals or the environment but has brought significant benefits by way of increased yield and profit to farmers and decreased use of insecticides. Bt-brinjal will also benefit farmers in the same way and will benefit more of the small holders. Unlike chemical insecticides, Bt proteins cannot bioaccumulate. In fact, Bt proteins are naturally produced by soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis which live in soil. The Bt protein is decomposed as any other proteins in the soil and in human/animal guts.

— Bt toxin protein does not work in acidic digestive canals of higher animals and humans, but works only in the Lepidopteron insects which have alkaline pH in their mid-guts. Moreover, there are no receptors for the Bt toxin in animal or human guts.

I have personally interacted with many farmers and other leaders across the country on this subject. The following doubts prevailing in the minds of some sections of society due to misinformation or whatever reason need to be cleared for accepting Bt brinjal for commercialisation. It has to be emphasised that we cannot afford to neglect the application of biotechnology in agriculture to meet the needs of the burgeoning population.

GM crops have terminator gene: This is not true. It is still in a concept stage.

Bt brinjal seeds can be produced and sold only by multinational companies: This is also not true. Farmers can be trained to produce their own seeds of Bt brinjal varieties. Only in respect of specific hybrids one may have to go to multinational companies. Public organisations are researching now and soon come out with their hybrids and private companies will have no role on seeds of such hybrids.

The traditional varieties will be contaminated and biodiversity disturbed: This is also not true as explained above in this article. Several varieties have been existing and the new Bt brinjal varieties will be added as acessions to the existing germplasm.

Testing is inadequate: If this is the reason, a focussed scientific effort needs to be made on fast track to take up tests with a definite time-frame and concluded instead of simply saying wait for five or 10 years. A competent committee should decide this. Delaying their release for reasons which are not scientific is denying the farmer the benefit of advanced technology.

The soil gets contaminated and quality goes down: There is no scientific basis to believe this. Bt is already present in the soil.

Can we live without modern agriculture? Can we feed billions of people without an efficient agriculture? At this crucial juncture where we need to produce more food to feed the growing population and to bring welfare to farmers by making farming a profitable venture, biotechnology holds that hope. Should there be some more tests? Yes, that needs to be done on fast track. If the doubts are cleared about the adequacy of testing, Bt brinjal needs to be encouraged without any delay for the good of State's agriculture and for the benefit of resource poor farmers around the country. Farmers are to be trained for seed production of Bt brinjal varieties so that the seed does not become the monopoly of multinational companies.

(The writer is former Vice Chancellor, USAD, and Director, JSS Rural Development Foundation, Mysore, Member, Krishi Mission, Government of Karnataka.)


The Great Brinjal Divide: Special issue of 'Agriculture Today'

The April 2010 issue of magazine "Agriculture Today"from India focuses on Bt brinjal with interviews and commentaries - both pro and con. Download at