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April 19, 2010


Peer-reviewed Positive Impact; Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know; Clearing Up Deadly Toxin; Barriers and Paths to Market


* Peer-reviewed Surveys Indicate Positive Impact of Commercialized GM Crops
* Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know
* Modified Plant Clears Up Deadly Water Toxin
* Making the Most of GM Potatoes
* Barriers and Paths to Market for Genetically Engineered Crops
* Lack of Rules Hinders Use of Biotech Seeds
* GEAC May Renew Battle Over Bt Brinjal
* Bt Brinjal Splits Indian Cabinet
* Plant BioTech World Congress to Highlight How Discoveries in Ag Science


Peer-reviewed Surveys Indicate Positive Impact of Commercialized GM Crops

- Janet E Carpenter Nature Biotechnology, April 2010, Vol. 28, p 319–321. Excerpt below. Full paper at

The benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops continue to be disputed, despite rapid and widespread adoption since their commercial introduction in the United States and Canada in 1995. Last year, 14 million farmers in 25 countries grew GM crops commercially, over 90% of them small farmers in developing countries. Farmer surveys are a valuable measure of the impact of GM crops. These surveys estimate the technology's performance as it is incorporated into farmer practices, given constraints on time, access to information, differing levels of risk aversion and other factors.

This analysis summarizes results from 49 peer-reviewed publications reporting on farmer surveys that compare yields and other indicators of economic performance for adopters and non-adopters of currently commercialized GM crops. The surveys cover GM insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant crops, which account for >99% of global GM crop area. Results from 12 countries indicate, with few exceptions, that GM crops have benefitted farmers. The benefits, especially in terms of increased yields, are greatest for the mostly small farmers in developing countries, who have benefited from the spillover of technologies originally targeted at farmers in industrialized countries.

Of 168 results comparing yields of GM and conventional crops, 124 show positive results for adopters compared to non-adopters, 32 indicate no difference and 13 are negative. By far the largest numbers of results comparing yields of adopters and non-adopters come from India and the United States, which account for 26% and 23% of the results, respectively.

The results for yields indicate that farmers in developing countries are achieving greater yield increases than farmers in developed countries. The average yield increases for developing countries range from 16% for insect-resistant corn to 30% for insect-resistant cotton, with an 85% yield increase observed in a single study on herbicide-tolerant corn. On average, developed-country farmers report yield increases that range from no change for herbicide-tolerant cotton to a 7% increase for herbicide-tolerant soybean and insect-resistant cotton.

The first wave of GM crops to be commercialized has embodied traits intended to improve pest management and therefore reduce or eliminate losses from insect damage or weed competition. These technologies do not raise yield potential, but they can improve yields substantially owing to improved pest management. Where conventional weed- and insect-control technologies were lacking because of inherent limits to the effectiveness of available conventional pest-management options or limited access to conventional control methods, yields would be expected to increase. These conditions may be more common in developing countries.

As the most frequently studied case, GM insect-resistant cotton (Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton) in India provides examples of both the highest yield increases observed as well as several of the negative results. The largest yield increases found in this review are reported for Bt cotton in India, where surveys show yield increases of up to 150%. Of the negative results, six are for the first year of commercialization of Bt cotton in India, and the rest of the negative results are from developed countries in the first few years of commercialization.

The accumulated evidence from farmer surveys on the performance of GM crops helps to explain the widespread popularity of the technology in several regions of the world. The surveys reviewed here reflect a wide variety of conditions in terms of environment, pest pressure, farmer practices, social context, intellectual property rights and institutional arrangements. Given this diversity of conditions, it is striking that the results are so consistently positive. Even so, these results cover less than half of the countries currently growing GM crops and are sparse for some already widely adopted technologies, such as GM herbicide-tolerant corn and canola.

Furthermore, GM crops have been grown for only 14 years—fewer for those countries that were not among the first adopters—a relatively short period for assessing the long-term impact of any technology. In some cases, results reflect a single growing season, which may not be an adequate basis for judging the sustainability of the technology's impact. Nevertheless, the window of opportunity for directly comparing the outcomes of adopters and non-adopters has closed where adoption rates are very high, and different methods of impact assessment will now be required.

Of interest in the future will be the assessment of the impacts of stacked traits, incorporating a combination of traits, which already represent over 28% of total global GM crop acreage but have been studied by only two surveys. Also of interest will be the assessment of farmers' experiences with GM crop technologies created specifically to address the most pressing constraints of developing-country farmers, such as technologies being developed in cassava, cowpea and rice, as those reach the commercialization stage.


Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know

- New book by Robert Paarlberg (Paperback), Oxford University Press, USA (April 7, 2010) p 240. ISBN-13: 978-0195389593. Amazon price $11.53; Kindle Edition $9.99


The politics of food is changing fast. In rich countries, obesity is now a more serious problem than hunger. Consumers once satisfied with cheap and convenient food now want food that is also safe, nutritious, fresh, and grown by local farmers using fewer chemicals. Heavily subsidized and under-regulated commercial farmers are facing stronger push-back from environmentalists and consumer activists, and food companies are under the microscope. Meanwhile in developing countries, agricultural success in Asia has spurred income growth and dietary enrichment, but agricultural failure in Africa has left one third of all citizens undernourished. The international markets that link these diverse regions together are subject to sudden disruption, as noted when an unexpected spike in international food prices in 2008 caused street riots in a dozen or more countries.

In an easy-to-navigate, question-and-answer format, Food Politics carefully examines and explains the most important issues on today's global food landscape, including the food crisis of 2008, famines, the politics of chronic hunger, the Malthusian race between food production and population growth, international food aid, controversies surrounding "green revolution" farming, the politics of obesity, farm subsidies and trade, agriculture and the environment, agribusiness, supermarkets, food safety, fast food, slow food, organic food, local food, and genetically engineered food.

Politics in each of these areas has become polarized over the past decade by conflicting claims and accusations from advocates on all sides. Paarlberg's book maps this contested terrain through the eyes of an independent scholar not afraid to unmask myths and name names. More than a few of today's fashionable beliefs about farming and food are brought down a notch under this critical scrutiny. For those ready to have their thinking about food politics informed and also challenged, this is the book to read.


Modified Plant Clears Up Deadly Water Toxin

- Justine Davies, Scidev.net, April 15, 2010 |

Plants may be a useful tool in clearing water of harmful toxins produced by blue-green algae, new research indicates. Some blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) — which grow in warm, nutrient-rich waters — produce toxins that can severely damage the liver or nervous system. The effects of the toxins range from a mild illness to rapid death. They can remain in water supplies after the algae have been killed.

A team at St George's Medical School, part of the UK-based University of London, has modified tobacco plants to secrete antibodies from the roots that then bind to microcystin-LR — the most common cyanobacteria toxin in water — rendering it harmless. "A toxin that is bound to antibodies should be easier to remove from the environment and also is likely to be less harmful," said Pascal Drake, a biotechnology researcher at St George's Centre for Infection. The antibodies could also be used in simple and cheap tests to see if toxins are present in water supplies, he said.

Tobacco plants, grown hydroponically in the lab, were chosen for the first phase of this research, reported last month (March) in The FASEB Journal, because "they are easy to work with and genetically engineer", said Drake. The next step will be to try and modify aquatic plants, which will be more suitable for large-scale treatment of water. Drake anticipated that this "wouldn't be too problematic".

The research is still at an early stage, but it may ultimately lead to an affordable method of keeping water free of toxins. The scientists are also looking to modify plants that can extract toxins from water and store them in their leaves, so that removing the plants also removes the toxins.

In developing countries, the emphasis on disinfecting water so that it is free of pathogens — for example the bacterium that causes cholera — means that the removal of cyanobacteria toxins has often been overlooked, Tom Hall, a consultant at the UK-based Water Research Centre, told SciDev.Net.

He said that although this research is very interesting "at present activated carbon offers a relatively easy way of treating water supplies in developing countries". Drinking water can be filtered through carbon as part of the water treatment process, and small filters can be plumbed into water supplies for villages. One litre of activated carbon can treat about 50,000 litres of water, said Hall. But it is not possible to remove toxins by simply adding activated carbon to lakes or reservoirs.

Absract at http://www.fasebj.org/cgi/content/abstract/24/3/882


Making the Most of GM Potatoes

- Gerhart U Ryffel, Nature Biotechnology, April 2010, Vol. 28, p 318 http://www.nature.com/nbt

You say potato, I say Amflora. BASF recently received approval from the EU to market its GM potato engineered with reduced amylase content via an antisense construct targeting granule-bound starch synthase.

The recent approval of the Amflora potato by the European Union (EU)—the EU's first registration of a genetically modified (GM) potato in 12 years—has garnered considerable media attention and public controversy. Amflora (EH92-527-1) is a GM potato produced by BASF (Ludwigshafen, Germany) that lacks amylose and instead contains amylopectin (>98%) as the predominant starch. Amylose ordinarily has to be removed to allow the industrial use of potato starch. Thus, Amflora is a highly suitable source for technical applications, such as paper, adhesive and textile production. Supporters of the technology welcome the approval, which has taken 13 years, and consider it a regulatory milestone, at least for GM potatoes. Opponents are afraid that it heralds the opening of the regulatory floodgates for more transgenic varieties. Accepting the view that the use of GM technology should be based on careful case-by-case consideration, I see two key issues that may not be trivial and should be discussed, as they generate most of the public concern.

Amflora contains a gene encoding neomycin phosphotransferase II (NptII) that confers kanamycin resistance, and critics argue that this antibiotic resistance gene could escape via the food chain or horizontal transfer into ecosystems. The antibiotic marker is there as a selection gene and was needed to introduce the antisense construct that blocks amylose production by targeting granule-bound starch synthase (GBSS).

Although horizontal transfer of transgenic traits into ecosystems is not well accepted by the scientific community, the possibility that it could happen cannot completely be excluded4, 5. One way around this possibility would be simply to remove the selection gene NptII (e.g., using the Cre/loxP system6) in future generations. This would represent an additional burden for the breeders of GM potatoes, but it would also facilitate a second round of transformation, if needed. Most importantly of all (scientific concerns aside), an Amflora derivative lacking kanamycin resistance would have much improved public acceptance.

In fact, if in subsequent years Amflora were to inadvertently end up in the human food chain through admixture with potatoes grown for human consumption, the potential health risk would be diminished, as removal of the antibiotic marker would leave only the transgene, an antisense construct, which lowers the expression of an endogenous GBSS gene but has no protein-coding potential on its own.

A second concern of opponents of Amflora potatoes relates to the possibility of transgene dissemination to other potatoes. Such spreading of the transgene is unlikely, as potato transgene movement by pollen is very limited and escaped wild-type potatoes have rarely been observed in Europe8. Nevertheless, these arguments again cannot be dismissed completely, as in our global world, dissemination in the long term cannot be excluded and may even be likely. As commercial potato production, especially that using GM varieties, does not require sexual reproduction, it seems reasonable to carry out gene manipulation in potato varieties in which the genes for sexual reproduction have been permanently deleted. Such a strategy would probably negate concerns relating to the spread of potato transgenes into the ecosystem.

In conclusion, with the addition of these two safety features, GM potatoes could become the standard for other transgenic crops, particularly in the European market, where outcrossing or admixture of GM crops with conventional varieties remains such a hot-button issue. Such crops would represent low-risk GM varieties, which possibly could be cleared through approval authorities in a more timely manner9. For example, GM potatoes resistant to potato late blight that are currently being generated (http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/potato/plant_diseases/462.docu.html) would probably be more palatable to both the public and regulatory authorities if selection markers were removed and sexual reproduction were irreversibly blocked.

Who knows: as late-blight disease caused by the pathogen Phytophthora infestans is a serious problem in the farming of organic potatoes , sterile GM potatoes resistant to the phytopathogen might become accepted even in the organic farming community .


Barriers and Paths to Market for Genetically Engineered Crops

- Caius M. Rommens, Plant Biotechnology Journal, Vol. 8, Issue 2, P101-111; Blackwell Publishing. Full article at http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/123200391/HTMLSTART

Each year, billions of dollars are invested in efforts to improve crops through genetic engineering (GE). These activities have resulted in a surge of publications and patents on technologies and genes: a momentum in basic research that, unfortunately, is not sustained throughout the subsequent phases of product development. After more than two decades of intensive research, the market for transgenic crops is still dominated by applications of just a handful of methods and genes.

This discrepancy between research and development reflects difficulties in understanding and overcoming seven main barriers-to-entry: (1) trait efficacy in the field, (2) critical product concepts, (3) freedom-to-operate, (4) industry support, (5) identity preservation and stewardship, (6) regulatory approval and (7) retail and consumer acceptance. In this review, I describe the various roadblocks to market for transgenic crops and also discuss methods and approaches on how to overcome these, especially in the United States. (cut)

The following guidelines may facilitate overcome barriers to market genetically engineered crops: (1) carefully assess the efficacy of genes in the field by employing the full toolbox for agronomy, (2) focus on product concepts that address critical issues and/or needs, (3) ensure FTO by licensing, and/or developing work-around methods for, all applicable methods and genetic elements, (4) implement robust IP systems that comply with governmental guidelines, (5) obtain early buy-in from growers, processors, and retailers, (6) ensure that the gene-of-interest does not code for proteins which raise concerns with regard to potential toxicity and allergenicity, and maintain frequent and forthright communication with the regulatory agencies involved, (7) obtain end-user support by addressing perception issues and providing clear consumer benefits.

Given these recommendations, R&D efforts in agricultural biotechnology should rely on effective multi-disciplinary teams that interact closely, and communicate openly, with relevant governmental agencies, patent attorneys, industry representatives, and consumer groups.

(J.R. Simplot Company, Plant Sciences, Boise ID 83706, USA- crommens@simplot.com)


Lack of Rules Hinders Use of Biotech Seeds

- Kennedy Senelwa, Daily Nation (Kenya), April 17 2010 http://www.nation.co.ke/

Lack of regulations is hindering the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) from carrying out cotton and maize field trials in biotechnology. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), rules to guide carrying out of performance field tests have not been released by National Biosafety Authority (NBA).

Director Margaret Karembu said the authority was expected to gazette the rules last month to allow Kari with other stakeholders to undertake trials of Baccellus thurengiensis (Bt) cotton and maize before seeds are released to farmers in future. “Kenya is facing the challenge of declining farm sizes, low soil fertility, weeds, pests and expensive agricultural inputs. Biotechnology, if well harnessed, will develop high yield crop varieties,” she said.

Genetically modified cotton and maize are said to be safe but cannot be released to the public until tests are carried out and certification done by the government. Biotechnology complements traditional breeding systems by addressing agricultural challenges including climate through providing fast-maturing disease-resistant crops.

Local farmers have already benefited from use of tissue culture technology in commercial production of clean planting materials with reduced maturity period for bananas, sweet potatoes, cassava and Irish potato. President Kibaki on February 12 last year signed the Biosafety Act of 2009. Kenya’s national biotechnology policy of 2006 outlaws controversial aspects of biotechnology like cloning and unethical practices.

Dr Karembu said the potential of biotechnology to increase production can be applied to a wide range of food and non-food commodities which is vital to increasing incomes, job opportunities and living standards. “Rules to guide field trials need to be gazetted. Studies in India and South Africa show cotton and maize farmers have benefited greatly after their governments adopted biotechnology,” she said.

Life quality
Of 4,000 families in villages where the Bt cotton is grown, a majority of those whose quality of life has improved are women. Farmers’ income has increased by $220 with yields going up by 31 per cent. “Prenatal attendance, school enrolment and vaccination of children have improved compared to days before the introduction of the bt crops,” said ISAAA chairman Clive James.

He said new biotechnology products likely to emerge in the near future have the potential of turning around the agricultural landscape in Kenya among other countries that have biosafety legislation in place. The country has opted for genetically modified cotton and maize seeds in a bid to increase production and in turn generate enough to meet domestic demand and export the surplus.


GEAC May Renew Battle Over Bt Brinjal

- Jacob P. Koshy, Live Mint and WSJ, April 16 2010 http://www.livemint.com

'The government panel that was snubbed by Jairam Ramesh plans to challenge the minister on moratorium'

New Delhi: The battle over genetically modified brinjal may resume shortly as an environment ministry agency readies its ammunition against arguments that the vegetable, the introduction of which has been halted by a government moratorium, threatens biodiversity and is unsafe for human consumption.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) will be going up against environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who was responsible for the decision to suspend cultivation of Bt brinjal after the panel had approved it. GEAC, a body of experts created by the government to approve genetically modified (GM) crops, is preparing to question much of the literature cited by Ramesh in his decision to impose the moratorium.

At its meeting last month, the body comprising biotechnologists from several universities and government laboratories decided to compile all reports cited by Ramesh and prepare a riposte in two months, said two people who were at the meeting. “There are no new issues raised by the minister. All the points made were pretty much tackled by committees constituted by GEAC and made available publicly,” said one of the participants cited above. “So, we’re planning to recompile them and separate science from fiction.” Ramesh didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Prior to approving Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation, GEAC had commissioned two expert panels in 2007 and 2008 to address concerns raised by activists that the genetically transformed brinjal was an environmental and health threat.

On 2 February, Ramesh announced an “indefinite moratorium” on the release of transgenic brinjal, effectively ruling out the entry of other genetically modified food crops that could have come in through the door opened by Bt brinjal. By doing so, Ramesh also raised questions about the regulatory process surrounding approvals for GM crops in India by GEAC.

Key literature cited by Ramesh in his decision included a critique of the GEAC panel reports by Giles Seralini, a French scientist with Criigen, an anti-GM lobby, and Pushpa Bhargava, former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, and a vocal critic of the existing GM technology approval process. He also highlighted concerns raised by M.S. Swaminathan, a noted agriculture scientist.

Ramesh had asked GEAC to engage with scientists and civil society groups to draw up fresh protocol for additional tests. “The moratorium will continue for as long as it is needed to establish public trust and confidence” he had said in February.

Ramesh’s decision had irked science and technology minister Prithviraj Chavan and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, and moved Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to call a meeting in February to work out a compromise. After the meeting, Singh in a press statement only directed that all outstanding issues regarding Bt brinjal be resolved soon, without setting a deadline. As reported by Mint on 26 February, GEAC may propose an extended rat-feeding study test, where the rodents are fed genetically modified proteins for 180 days, as opposed to the prevalent 90 days, to test for toxicity.

The brinjal in question, which contains a gene artificially introduced into its genome from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, has been developed by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, University of Dharwad, under a free licence from Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd (Mahyco). Among other firms, Monsanto Co., which owns a 26% stake in Mahyco, also has technologies for introducing the Bt gene in other food crops, including rice, maize and wheat.

India allowed commercial cultivation of Bt cotton in 2001. The use of Bt cotton in India has increased yield from 308kg per hectare in 2001 to 508kg per hectare in 2006, says Cotton Corp. of India Ltd, which helps in selling the commodit


Bt Brinjal Splits Indian Cabinet

- Killugudi Jayaraman, Nature Biotechnology, April 2010, Vol. 28, p 296 http://www.nature.com/nbt

India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has intervened in the political wrangle that erupted over a genetically modified (GM) eggplant strain due for commercial release. Approval of the locally developed Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) variety appeared imminent, but on February 9, the minister of environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, responded to public opposition by declaring an indefinite moratorium on the approval of Bt brinjal, as it is known locally, on the grounds of insufficient data to confirm that it is safe to eat. This decision has created a cabinet rift, prompting Singh to hold a consultation with senior government officials.

Bt brinjal is India's first locally developed GM food crop and was created by Mahyco, a Jalna-based Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company in a joint venture with Monsanto, the St. Louis–based seed giant. Last October, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), India's official regulatory body for registering GM organisms, approved release of the transgenic brinjal, opening the door for commercialization of another dozen or so GM crops in the pipeline. The environment minister's decision to over-rule the GEAC was unexpected. But it followed vociferous feedback from civil societies and advice from scientists, including Monkombu Swaminathan of 'green revolution' fame and Pushpa Bhargava, founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, that additional safety testing of the GM brinjal was warranted.

Chavali Kameswara Rao, secretary of Bangalore-based Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, believes the environment minister caved in to intense lobbying pressure from activists. He fears the resultant delay of commercialization will promote clandestine cultivation of Bt brinjal—similar to what happened previously in India with Bt cotton (Nat. Biotechnol. 22, 1333–1334, 2004). On February 24, Singh and senior cabinet members agreed to set up a national biotech regulatory authority to oversee registration of transgenic products and requested that the GEAC resolve outstanding safety concerns relating to Bt brinjal. No time frame for these deliberations was set, however.

The Department of Biotechnology (DBT), the main funding agency for transgenic research, has stayed out of the controversy. But as Prasantha Kumar Ghosh, DBT's former head of biosafety puts it, “There is no scientific basis for a moratorium.” Bhim Sain Bajaj, president of the Hyderabad chapter of All-India Biotech Association, agrees. “It is a big mistake...the time will come when India will have to import rice and vegetables and we will regret [this decision].”


Plant BioTech World Congress to Highlight How Discoveries in Ag Science

Bring New Hope to Feed the World Better, Improve Farmers’ Lives, Create Sustainable Forests & New Medicines

Discoveries that can increase crop yields and productivity, create sustainable forests and new medicines, and other advances to improve the lives of farmers and others, especially in the world’s poorest countries, will be among the recurring themes of presentations at the upcoming International Association for Plant Biotechnology (IAPB), June 6-11, 2010, at the America’s Center in downtown, St. Louis, Missouri.

Hundreds of scientists, science policy leaders and others from across the world will gather for the 12th World Congress, focusing on the fundamental and applied aspects of sustainability through agriculture, including food, biomaterials, energy and the environment. More information and online registration are available at http://www.iapb2010.org/