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Date:

May 12, 2010

Subject:

Titans in African biotech battle; Super crops; Intensive farming may cool climate

 

* Biotech in Africa: Titans battle on the African front
* Super crops
* Christine's Blog
* Biotech in Africa: Two Food Prize Winners, Two Approaches
* Genetically Modified Food and the Global Fight Against Hunger
* Are farmers cooling Chicago's summers?

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Biotech in Africa: Titans battle on the African front
- Philip Brasher, Des Moines Register, May 10, 2010, http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20100510/BUSINESS01/5100312/1029

Delmas, South Africa - The bitter battle that seed giants Monsanto Co. and Pioneer Hi-Bred wage for the hearts and pocketbooks of farmers doesn't end in the United States. They're going at it in Africa, too.

The profit potential in Africa is limited. Production of corn, the two companies' signature food crop, is dominated in Africa by poor, smallholder farmers, who often till two or three acres at the most. There is little commercial-scale corn production outside of South Africa.

Still, there is public good will to be gained in Africa, if not a lot of money. Concerns grow about the impact of climate change and a growing population globally and in sub-Saharan Africa in particular.

St. Louis-based Monsanto and Pioneer, the Johnston-based unit of DuPont, are collaborating in a project called the Global Harvest Initiative, which promotes the use of technology to increase food production. Deere & Co. and grain processing giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. are the two other partners.

"It's a competitive industry. We compete vigorously. At the same time, we have the same goals," DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman said in an interview.

But on the ground, Pioneer and Monsanto are the same tough competitors as they are back in the United States, where they are engaged in legal battles over the rights to prize biotech traits.

For now, Monsanto would seem to have the edge.

Both companies are working to make corn more resistant to drought, but Monsanto is ahead in developing a genetically engineered version. Monsanto wants to have a royalty-free version of the crop, adapted to African cultivars, on the market by 2016.

Its commercial version is scheduled to reach the U.S. market in 2012.

To that end, Monsanto donated its technology, including the bacterium gene that increases drought tolerance, to a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The breeding and testing of the plants is being done in connection with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, which is closely associated with the work of Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug.

Monsanto also has another leg up on Pioneer with a product already popular in South Africa, technology that makes corn resistant to two insect pests that can ravage the crop in Africa. For now, the two companies have shared a Monsanto-developed technology, known as Mon 810, in South Africa, the only country in sub-Saharan Africa that has allowed commercial production of a food crop.

Monsanto hopes to commercialize this year a new version of its insect-resistance technology, called Mon 89034, that is supposed to provide corn better insect protection than the current technology. Mon 89034 produces two toxins, instead of just the one found in Mon 810.

Monsanto licensed Mon 810 to Pioneer but refused to share the new product. Pioneer doesn't have a rival product ready for the market.

Mon 89034 could be one of the first biotech food crops to be commercialized somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa. Monsanto applied to conduct field trials of the seeds in Kenya this year.

Employees of Pioneer, which operates a research farm near Delmas, a corn-growing region east of Johannesburg, seem to relish the underdog role. They scoff at Monsanto's claims to control more than 50 percent of the corn seed market in South Africa. They also express some skepticism and concern about Monsanto's drought-tolerant corn.

"The expectations from the farmer is that if you put this (Monsanto's bacterium) gene in the plant it will grow without water. And that's not going to happen," said Willem Engelbrecht, who manages Pioneer's South Africa business.

Pioneer in February announced a project for Africa modeled after Monsanto's drought-tolerance program. This one will use Pioneer's technology to make corn produce yields on less fertilizer, a trait known as nitrogen efficiency. Like the Monsanto project, it will be funded by Gates and the African research will be conducted by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

Kulani Machaba, who manages Pioneer's government registrations in South Africa, says the nitrogen-efficient seeds would benefit farmers, "especially small-scale" growers.

Meanwhile, the two companies continue to struggle for market share with conventional hybrid seeds, which can be found at farm suppliers, called agro-dealers, in rural towns of east Africa. The seeds are typically sold in 2-kilogram bags, enough to plant about one-quarter acre. The seeds are a pricey proposition for poor farmers at 380 Kenyan shillings, or about $5.

The two U.S. giants have another problem in common. When small-scale farmers do buy hybrid seeds, they frequently save some of the grain from their crop and use it for seed the following year, even though hybrid grain loses its high-yielding properties when used as seed.

The 7-Up agro-dealer in Machakos, Kenya, carries the Pioneer logo on its store sign. But salesman Timothy Mutua said in December, the end of the planting season, that he was sold out of Pioneer seed.

The local farmers "don't have maize to reseed," he said. "They buy hybrids more than last season."

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Super crops
- Doug Gillett, Bundaberg News Mail, May 12, 2010, http://www.news-mail.com.au/story/2010/05/12/super-crops/

BUNDABERG growers could be planting genetically-modified sugar cane in as little as five years as scientists work behind the scenes to produce a super crop.

Leading sugar experts will hand down biotechnology breakthroughs this week at the Australian Society of Sugar Cane Technologists annual conference in Bundaberg.

At the forefront of the push for genetically-modified cane is the Bundaberg and Brisbane-based company BSES, which has entered into a partnership with multinational biotechnology company Dupont.

BSES chief executive officer Eoin Wallis said the move would revolutionise the cane industry with scientists working to produce drought-tolerant, disease-resistant, high-yield and low-cost super varieties.

"It's the dawn of a very exciting time for the industry and will mean new horizons open up that we are yet to explore," he said.

Worldwide there has been a proliferation of genetically modified crops with 134 million hectares of hybrid corn, canola, soy beans and cotton planted.

The BSES enterprise, however, will be the first time a plant propagated by cuttings rather than seeds has been genetically modified for commercial purposes.

"It will prove to be more difficult than most crops because of its complex genetic make-up, but there are promising signs," Dr Wallis said.

BSES will spend about $5 million on the project this year, with a further $35 million expected to be invested into the technology over the next five years.

Dr Wallis said the end result of the world first project would be priceless for cane growers.

"This is an important tool farmers can use to improve and increase probability," he said.

"We're talking higher-yield crops produced with less costs, so the advantages are obvious."

Dr Wallis said the technology would also produce more environmentally friendly cane farms with scientists working on varieties which are resistant to pests and use nitrogen more efficiently, reducing the need for harmful chemicals.

The Australian Society of Sugar Cane Technologists conference will continue till Friday.

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Christine's Blog
- Christine Ross, New Zealand Delegation to BIO 2010, May 5, 2010 http://bio2010.nzbio.org.nz/blog/

The promise and potential of biotechnology to feed the world was explored today in a panel discussion that turned the spotlight on the role of politics as an impediment to the cause. Long time advocate of GM crop development and Professor at Tuskegee University C.S Prakash chaired the panel and shared his passion for enabling the use of agricultural biotechnologies by third world countries. With the recent case of Bt Brinjal (eggplant) being approved and then quickly having a moratorium issued on its use in his former home country India, Prakash enlightened the audience on what happens when politics works in opposition to sound science. The real tragedy in this farcical decision is that conventional Brinjal requires massive amounts of pesticide to survive and be edible, in the vicinity of 46 tonnes per hectare.

Panelist , Professor of Plant Pathology at UC Davis and co-author of Tomorrow's Table Pam Ronald advocated for more science-based information and science communciation which she beleives in lacking in the US. As she pointed out, the world has had 15 years of GM crop development and 2 billion acres planted without a single validated problem. Michael Specter followed with an impassioned opinion about the dangers of idealising the past, a trend towards organic produce he terms 'food elitism' and the rise of high technology anxiety. The New Yorker staff writer (and author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress) believes fear and ignorance are founding problems in the current focus by certain (vocal) groups on the risks of food related biotech.

Deputy Director of the Congressional Hunger Centre Margaret Zeigler explained the organisation's mandate as raising awareness of the plight of the poor in developing countries and urban people who do not have enough to eat, who are on the rise in the US. She made an insightful observation about resistance to using innovative agricultural technologies in some nations being based on their historically negative experience of colonisation and the Western World in general. However, even poor farmers in remote areas desire better crops that require less pesticide and are aware that such things exist. Zeigler identified Brazil as an agbiotech leader in the developing world, managing the fine balance of maximising the use of new technologies, good policies and safety programmes.

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Biotech in Africa: Two Food Prize Winners, Two Approaches
- Philip Brasher, Des Moines Register, May 10, 2010 http://www.desmoinesregister.com

Two World Food Prize winners with close ties to east Africa have their own ideas about the future of agricultural biotechnology there.

The 2009 laureate, Ethiopian-born sorghum breeder Gebisa Ejeta, says what African farmers need first is to learn the best ways to farm conventionally. They often lack basic knowledge about farming methods, and there are few extension agents to advise them, he says. "The short-term gain from conventional approaches is much better" than pursuing biotech crops, he says. Learning better conventional farming techniques would give farmers a greater appreciation of the value of scientific advancements, he says.

Pedro Sanchez, who won the 2002 prize for his Kenya-based research into using trees to fertilize African crops, thinks that increased fertilizer use and better access to markets could make a big difference in food production. However, with the threat of climate change, he thinks drought-tolerant varieties of corn are "absolutely essential." "Whoever leads that effort should get a World Food Prize for sure," Sanchez said.

Sanchez now works with economist Jeffrey Sachs on the Millennium Villages project, which is experimenting with innovative measures to alleviate poverty in Africa.

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Genetically Modified Food and the Global Fight Against Hunger
- Randy Krotz, Get the Facts from Farmer Gene, May 6, 2010 http://farmergene.wordpress.com/2010/05/06/genetically-modified-food-and-the-global-fight-against-hunger/

The continued adoption rate of biotechnology-enhanced crops on farms around the globe is stunning and clear testimony to the value gained by each producer when making the decision on the type of seed they plant. The number of farmers choosing to produce genetically modified crops now exceeds 14 million.

At a 2010 BIO Conference session discussing the existing challenges in addressing world hunger, C.S. Prakash, Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University addressed the significance of biotech crops. "Many food problems that currently exist around the world can be addressed through biotechnology, and due to unwarranted concern the potential of the technology is only being scratched," said Prakash.

The panel participants each overviewed their general observations regarding the impact politics have on acceptance of current and future biotech crops. The point was made and echoed that there is an absolute need to have science involved in political discussions, as politics without science can make for poor decisions.

Currently, there are at least 1 billion people on the planet that do not have enough food to meet their daily requirements. Biotechnology is absolutely critical in addressing hunger where disease and pests ravage crops. There are those that attempt to keep the regulatory approvals and adoption of biotech advancements in check regardless of their potential and proven productivity advantages. Advocacy organizations that seek to stand in the path of these scientific advancements work to create fear and doubt in the minds of politicians and consumers, therefore restricting the benefits these crops can have in feeding the planet.

Plant breeding is simply not an understood science. It's generally not taught or discussed in our classrooms today, and plant line-crosses and modifications have been ongoing for a very, very long time. In fact, nothing we consume today grows naturally in the wild, vegetable or grain.

Biotechnology is a keen tool that is used to speed the plant breeding process with an undeniable level of precision. Keep in mind, over 2 billion acres of genetically modified crops have been grown and consumed without even one incidence related to human health.

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Thwarting Consumer Choice: The Case against Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Modified Foods
- Gary E. Marchant, Guy A. Cardineau, and Thomas P. Redick, American Enterprise Institute (April 2010). Hardcover, 100 pp., $24.95. ISBN-13: 978-0844743264 http://www.amazon.com/Thwarting-Consumer-Choice-Mandatory-Genetically/dp/0844743267

Are consumers entitled to full disclosure about what is in their food? Many countries, including key U.S. trading partners in Europe and Asia, have adopted mandatory labeling laws for genetically modified crops such as corn and soybeans.

Policymakers in the United States are under pressure from activist groups to adopt similar laws, and some public opinion polls suggest that 90 percent of Americans support mandatory GM labeling. But does GM labeling really protect consumers? In Thwarting Consumer Choice, Gary E. Marchant, Guy A. Cardineau, and Thomas P. Redick contend that mandatory GM labeling laws actually harm consumers by pushing genetically modified foods off the market.

Although proponents of mandatory labeling often question the safety of genetically modified foods, the National Academy of Sciences and other leading research institutions agree that "GM foods present no unique risks, or greater risks than non-GM foods." Genetically modified foods are not only safe, but abundant and inexpensive. Because they require less use of pesticides and fewer acres of land than conventional crops, they do not overtax the environment. Future innovations could produce GM foods with increased vitamin levels and healthier fat content.

Despite these vast benefits, the GM food industry is threatened by labeling requirements that are burdensome, expensive, and stigmatizing. Mandatory labeling would deter investment in this burgeoning biotechnology and deprive the public of important innovations. Ultimately, the authors conclude, GM labeling laws are antithetical to the notion of consumer choice.

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Are farmers cooling Chicago's summers?
Denser corn, soybean fields across Midwest could be behind late-summer cooling effect, NIU researcher thinks
- Joel Hood, Chicago Tribune, May 12, 2010
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/weather/ct-met-weather-crops-20100511,0,1217706.story

Amid one of the warmest springs on record in Chicago, and renewed worries about our warming planet, how is it that late summer days across the Midwest are cooling?

The answer may be in the towering, tightly packed rows of corn that blanket Illinois at harvest and the ripple effects from industrialized farming that scientists are only beginning to understand.

In the last 80 years, those lazy, late summer days in July and August have been getting cooler and wetter throughout much of the Midwest. In Chicago, temperatures reached 90 degrees or higher 344 days during the 1930s, but only 172 days in 2000-09.

In place of those dry, 90-degree scorchers are the kind of lingering 80-degree days with higher humidity that don't cool down much at night. Climate scientists say the cause is rising dew-point levels - the measure of water vapor in the atmosphere.

These high dew-point levels are important, said David Changnon, a climate scientist at Northern Illinois University who helped pioneer this research, because even though the temperature is lower, the heat index is higher. And that's bad news for many city dwellers, since those conditions contributed to the deadly heat waves that hit Chicago in 1995 and 1999.

Already, these cooler but muggy late-summer days are likely to be producing more powerful thunderstorms and periods of heavier rain that bear watching, Changnon said.

"While we're seeing fewer really hot days, we've created dew points in Chicago and around the Midwest that are unheard of," Changnon said. "And it begs the question, 'How the heck can we do that?'"

Changnon's theory, backed by more than a decade of research, is that more densely planted corn and soybean fields scattered across the Midwest are changing the regional climate by releasing more water vapor into the atmosphere. The more water vapor that reaches the atmosphere, the higher the dew point, and the fewer extremely hot summer days.

In other words, while some still question whether people are to blame for changing weather patterns around the globe, farmers around the Midwest are already altering the region's climate in significant ways, Changnon said.

"It's a different type of human-induced climate change that has certainly played a role in the changes to Illinois' weather," said Jim Angel, a climatologist at the Illinois State Water Survey in Champaign. "It's kind of an interesting way to look at all this."

Interesting, but also crucially important, Changnon said, as climate scientists ponder two intriguing questions related to this research: Have Midwest farmers accidentally created a barrier to soften the most severe effects of global warming? And if so, can it be repeated elsewhere?

Changnon said scientists don't yet know the answers to these questions, but said they will clearly form the groundwork for the next phase of research.

"We've literally seen with our climate models a cool hole in the middle of the country," Changnon said. "Perhaps what we're learning is that this intense agricultural process is helping mask the type of climate change we'd expect to see from a warming globe.

"That's purely speculation at this point, but that's where the research has to go."

Thanks to improved technology, changes in farming practices, more effective herbicides and genetic improvements to corn stock, farmers are able to grow corn in increasingly tighter spaces, said Emerson Nafziger, a professor of crop sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Those advancements have narrowed the width between rows of corn from an average of 40 inches in the 1950s to about 30 inches today, enabling farmers to maximize their land and grow corn in numbers not thought possible decades ago, Nafziger said. Some counties now average more than 200 bushels of corn per acre today, more than twice what the most productive counties were growing in the 1970s.

For scientists, these record yields create a vexing environmental problem. Corn and soybean roots pull moisture out of the ground, then release it as water vapor into the air. This process, called transpiration, intensifies as crops become more dense, meaning today's corn and soybeans are using greater amounts of water for irrigation, Nafziger said.

By sending more water vapor into the atmosphere, the plants are actually improving their own growing conditions, researchers said. But the unintended consequences are the cooler and wetter days that could have far-reaching implications for the region, Changnon said.

Changnon is interested in the big picture. If denser corn and soybean crops are, indeed, responsible for Chicago's cooler summers, could denser sugar cane rows stave off some of the effects of global warming in South America? Could wheat and barley affect the climate in Russia? Lotus seeds in China?

"These are the types of questions we're now asking," Changnon said. "Who knows if we'll ever be able to find the answers, but they're important things to think about as we see our world changing."

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