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June 16, 2010


World Food Prize for Hunger Fighters; Reducing Global Warming Via Clover; Matt Ridley, the Rational Optimist


* Two Hunger Fighters Win World Food Prize
* Clover May Reduce Methane Emissions - Scientists
* India: Ministries Agree to Create New Regulator
* Uganda: Sweet Genes Arm Banana Crops
* Genetics Offers New Biotechnology Tools
* Essay Contest on Achieving African Food Security Launched
* Matt Ridley, the Rational Optimist, Answers Your Questions
* Dr. Ross on Chinese TV
* Thanks, Andy!


Two Hunger Fighters Win World Food Prize

- Phil Brasher, Des Moines Register, June 16, 2010 http://www.desmoinesregister.com

Washington, D.C. — This year’s World Food Prize will go to an ex-economist who mobilizes church goers to lobby for anti-hunger programs and a former state government executive whose fundraising and business prowess turned Heifer International into a global leader in agricultural aid.

David Beckmann, an ordained Lutheran minister as well as a trained economist, left a job at the World Bank to take the helm of Bread for the World 19 years ago and led the group in a series of campaigns to change U.S. policy on issues from debt relief for developing countries, overseas agricultural aid and reforming farm subsidies.

Jo Luck, who served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet when he was governor of Arkansas, expanded Little Rock, Ark.-based Heifer’s donor base from 20,000 in 1992 to more than 500,000 by 2009.

She built the group, which teaches poor people self-reliance through livestock husbandry, into one of the “premier hunger-fighting non-profit organizations anywhere in the world,” according to the Des Moines-based World Food Prize Foundation, which selects the laureates.

The World Food Prize, which carries a $250,000 award, is given each year to recognize advancements in increasing or improving global food supplies and expanding access to food.

The laureate is often a scientist, like the award’s late founder, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug. Two years ago, the award was split by two former senators, George McGovern and Robert Dole, who got Congress to create a program for providing school meals to children in the poorest countries.

This year’s laureates were announced at a State Department ceremony attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Rajiv Shah, administrator of the Agency for International Development.

In honoring Beckmann and Luck, the World Food Prize is “recognizing the critical roles” that non-governmental organizations play in “mobilizing and empowering grassroots citizens to end hunger in communities around the world,” the foundation said.

Beckmann has ties to Borlaug and his family. Beckmann helped plan and then presided over Borlaug’s memorial service last fall at Texas A&M University. Borlaug, who quoted the book of Isaiah in his Nobel acceptance speech, had been a board member of Bread for the World.

Luck joined Heifer International in 1992 and as CEO boosted its annual budget from $7 million to more than $120 million before the organization was hit by the economic downturn. The organization has helped 12 million poor families, including 1.5 million in 2009 alone.

Heifer attempts to increase the reach of its aid through its “Passing on the Gift” concept: Beneficiaries are asked to give to another needy family a female offspring of the animal provided by Heifer.


Clover May Reduce Methane Emissions - Scientists

- New Zealand Herald, June 16, 2010 http://www.nzherald.co.nz/

Agricultural scientists who have spent years looking at how to create pasture plants which could reduce the methane emissions from livestock say it may be possible to produce a clover that will do the job.

Scientists from AgResearch and one of its subsidiaries, Grasslanz Technology Ltd, said today they can produce an improved cultivar of white clover to give cows and sheep extra protein and at the same time reduce emissions of methane and nitrogen waste, while improving animal health.

Nearly half of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions are generated by agriculture, but farmers have resisted taking accountability for their share of emissions on the grounds that they do not have an economic way to combat the methane emissions.

AgResearch scientists Garry Waghorn and Michael Tavendale have previously shown that condensed tannins found in some pasture species, such as lotus, a legume, can directly reduce methane emissions by as much as 16 per cent, and Dr Tavendale has predicted that pastures containing condensed tannins are likely to become increasingly important to farmers.

Condensed tannins are chemical compounds that can bind to and protect protein being broken down in the stomachs of sheep and cattle, but legumes such as lotus are difficult to establish and do not keep growing in grazed pastures.

Now the scientists are working on a white clover that contains concentrations of the condensed tannins -- normally only found as trace amounts in white clover and are entirely absent in grasses.

The researchers found AgResearch two types of clover which do have condensed tannins in their leaves, and compared their genetic make-up to find a gene that can increase the levels. A related gene was found "switched off" in white clover and the scientists are now looking at how the gene can be re-activated to create a white clover which has not been genetically engineered, but will have the sought-after tannins.

AgResearch science general manager Jimmy Suttie said that such a cultivar could benefit not only farmers but the environment: "Currently white clover contains extremely low levels of tannins found only in the flowers, and if we can alter this to allow condensed tannins to accumulate to effective levels in leaves then we'll have a major benefit.

"There is evidence that tannins can reduce methane emissions from ruminants, and this increases the importance of our work," said Dr Suttie.

A clover which reduced gas retention in livestock could also reduce bloat sometimes seen in animals eating clover-rich pastures when pasture growth is rapid in spring.


India: Ministries Agree to Create New Regulator

- Jacob P. Koshy, Livemint.com, June 16, 2010

The ministries of environment and science seem to have resolved their differences over who will govern the entry of genetically modified (GM) crops in India. The controversial genetic engineering approval committee, or GEAC, which currently gives the nod for the commercial release of GM crops, is likely to be integrated with a biotechnology regulator proposed by the science ministry, two ministry officials said on condition of anonymity.

This will relegate GEAC, which functions under the environment ministry, to an advisory role within the autonomous Biotech Regulatory Authority of India (Brai), although its opinion will still carry weight, the officials said.

The move will be included in a revised draft of the Bill to set up Brai, likely to be introduced in Parliament in a couple of months. The science ministry’s department of biotechnology is drafting the Bill in consultation with the law ministry.

The Environment Protection Act mandated GEAC to ascertain the safety of GM plants and organisms before they are commercially released. But it came under fire after revelations that several GEAC members were involved in developing transgenic seeds and were on the advisory boards of biotech seed developers. Activists said this was a serious conflict of interest.

“There is rarely dissent among GEAC members. While I have repeatedly pointed out loopholes in the biosafety data submitted by companies, they’ve mostly been glossed over by GEAC. And there are several conflicts of interests among members,” said Pushpa Bhargava, who attends GEAC meetings as a Supreme Court-nominated observer.

Independent scientists say that an independent regulator is essential to inspire public confidence in transgenic seeds as well as aid research. “Unless there’s an independent arbitrator, transgenic research cannot continue,” said M.S. Swaminathan, eminent agriculture scientist who had first recommended the creation of a biotech watchdog.

The science ministry proposed to set up Brai, seeking to do away with GEAC and giving regulatory powers to a three-member panel of experts. But such a move would go against the Environment Protection Act, which places the onus of checking the release of “hazardous” substances with the environment ministry.

“Technically, a GM organism can be interpreted as hazardous according to principles of toxicology. So that was one of the roadblocks in negotiations between the two ministries,” said one of the science ministry officials. “You can’t have two statutory bodies ruling on the same thing. Thus integrating GEAC (with Brai) as an advisory body does look like a sensible solution to the impasse,” the official said.

Even the environment ministry has at times lacked confidence in GEAC’s judgement. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh overruled GEAC’s decision to allow commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, the first genetically modified food crop to be created for Indian farms, and recommended that GEAC be referred to as an “appraisal” instead of an “approval” committee.

Although Bt cotton is the only approved transgenic crop in Indian fields right now, transgenic varieties of food crops such as brinjal, rice and tomato are in advanced stages of trial. With policymakers urging seed developers to increase farm productivity, multinational firms such as Monsanto India Ltd, Bayer Bioscience Pvt. Ltd and EI DuPont India Pvt. Ltd have made investments in improving and developing a variety of GM seeds.


Uganda: Sweet Genes Arm Banana Crops

- Allafrica.com, June 15, 2010

Scientists in Uganda have developed GM bananas that show promising resistance to the deadly banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW) disease.

Bananas are Uganda's leading non-cereal crop with some 70 per cent of the population depending on it as staple food. More than US$200 million has been lost to BXW infestation since 2001. The disease has also been reported in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Now, the banana plants modified with two genes derived from sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum) show resistance to the disease caused by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris pv. musacearum.

Principal investigator Leena Tripathi, a Ugandan-based biotechnologist from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Nigeria, said inserting the genes - plant ferredoxin-like amphipathic protein (PFLP) and hypersensitive response-assisting protein (HRAP) - separately in four local banana varieties is giving encouraging results (see GM bananas to fight wilt in Africa).

"In over five years of research, we've been able to insert genes into the East African highland banana varieties used for cooking (mpologoma and nakitembe), desserts (sukari ndizi) and brewing (kayinja). From these we've managed to develop resistant lines, which have proved effective in laboratory and screenhouse tests after deliberate exposure to BXW," Tripathi, who works on the project together with the Nairobi-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation and the National Agricultural Research Organization told SciDev.Net.

But, she added, they still need to confirm this effectiveness in a field trial. Patrick Rubaihayo, a crop scientist at the Uganda-based Makerere University lauded the progress but warned of possible overdose with the molecule that these genes code for. "My worry is that when a consumer eats large quantities of the modified varieties ... it is likely to be harmful," he said, adding that safety should be established before recommending these bananas for human consumption.

But Feng Teng-Yung, a plant pathologist at the Academia Sinica, a Taiwan-based research institute that provided the genes, said that they were safe. "Ferredoxin is a naturally-occurring protein in all living organisms," he said. "When we modify any plant with ferredoxin, we're only boosting amounts for greater protection against serious infections as bacterial pathogens."

Even if BXW-resistant bananas prove successful in field trials, the absence of a GM law in Uganda will hamper farmers' access to the technology (see Uganda 'needs biotech law' to save banana sector). The 2008 National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill is yet to be presented to the cabinet for approval before it goes to parliament for enactment according to Michael Olupot-Tukei, assistant commissioner for planning and research in the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development.


Genetics Offers New Biotechnology Tools

- UPI, June 11, 2010 at 1:26 PM

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- U.S. forestry scientists say they've discovered the growth rate and other characteristics of trees can be changed through a type of genetic engineering.

The Oregon State University researchers said they have demonstrated for the first time that "cisgenics" -- a type of genetic engineering that is conceptually similar to traditional plant breeding -- might herald a new future for biotechnology.

Cisgenics uses genes from closely related species that usually are sexually compatible, the scientists said, adding if governments choose to regulate it similarly to conventional breeding, it might revolutionize not only forestry, but crop agriculture and other areas as well.

The researchers, led by Professor Steven Strauss, said they used cisgenic manipulation to affect the actions of gibberellic acid -- a plant hormone, in poplar trees -- to affect the growth rate, morphology and wood properties of seedling trees.

"Until now, most applications of biotechnology have been done with transgenics, in which you take genetic traits from one plant or animal and transfer them into an unrelated species," Strauss said. "By contrast, cisgenics uses whole genes from the same plant or a very closely related species. We may be able to improve on the slow and uncertain process of plant breeding with greater speed and certainty of effect." The research is reported in The Plant Biotechnology Journal.


Essay Contest on Achieving African Food Security Launched

- James Butty, Voice of America, June 14, 2010 http://www1.voanews.com

Kevin Quigley of the National Peace Corps Association says the essay is open to anyone with ideas how to improve agriculture in Africa The right to food is one of the international human rights requirements. Yet, food security in Sub-Saharan Africa has always been a problem.

Now, the U.S. National Peace Corps Association, in conjunction with the World Policy Journal, is asking for your suggestions on how to achieve food security in rural Africa. The group has launched an essay contest where participants will describe their ideas to African governments and private organizations about how to improve food security in rural Africa.

Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, an organization of former Peace Corps volunteers, said the main purpose of the contest is to generate ideas that will help farmers in Africa. "We found out that many of the best ideas out there are coming from people who live closest to the soil, who have the most direct experience with African agriculture. So, we started this Website called 'Africa Rural Connect' as an online rural community, people who care about Africa who were connected to African agriculture and who had some ideas of how African agriculture can be improved. And, we thought that a good way to extend that conversation about how to improve African agriculture was to do this essay contest," he said.

Quigley said the National Peace Corps Association launched the essay contest on June 1 along with the World Policy Journal. He said anybody who cares about Africa can enter the contest. "The contest is open to all individuals who participate in our activities and anybody anywhere in the world who has got some ideas about how to improve agriculture," he said.

Quigley said the essays would be judged by a panel of judges, including David A. Andelman, editor of World Policy Journal and Emmy Simmons, former assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, whom Quigley described as an independent consultant. "We have a panel of distinguished judges who will select the essay that they think will make the most important, most unique contribution to improving African agriculture," Quigley said.

He said the 800 to1200-word essay should be written in English using Associated Press style. "We ask that all submissions be in the form of a Word document attachment, and they can submit them by email to essaycontest@peacecorpsconnect.org by 11:59 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on 31 July of this year. And, we will announce the winner of the contest by 31 August, 2010," Quigley said

He said there will be no monetary award for the winner, but the winning essay would be widely publicized. "There is no monetary award, but the winner will have their essay in the World Policy Journal that's read by more than 50,000 individuals, and their essay would be put on the World Policy Journal and the Peace Connect Websites," Quigley said.


Matt Ridley, the Rational Optimist, Answers Your Questions

- Stephen J. Dubner, NY Times, June 15, 2010. Excerpt below .

Read full Q&A plus readers' comments at http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/15/matt-ridley-the-rational-optimist-answers-your-questions/

We recently solicited your questions for Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist.

Q. So yeah. Please explain why the ecology of the planet will be better off in 100 years. Be specific. — nate
A. Okay, here is a specific example. If we continue to spread new agricultural varieties and practices—plus we make more crops insect-resistant using GMOs, irrigation less wasteful using drip hydroponics, and fertilization cheaper using nitrogen-use-efficient crops (all of these are now starting to happen)—then we can easily double average crop yields from each acre by 2050, as we have doubled them since 1960. That means we can feed more people (9.3 billion versus 6.7 billion) in 2050 from a much smaller acreage than we do today. That means we take huge chunks of land and return them to rain forest, to wetland, to prairie, to semi-desert. We can expand and connect up national parks and nature reserves, re-establish habitats and reintegrate ecosystems. Remember, in the 20th century we had to cope with a quadrupling of world population; this century, the population will grow only 1.5 times. It’s going to be a century of huge ecological restoration if we get it right.

Q. I’m a fan of free trade and continuous innovation. However, often there are times where personal incentives lead to roadblocks — for example, when a politician will push for protectionist policies to protect his/her constituents so that he/she can get elected again. Besides voting for politicians that promote free trade and innovation, what can Joe Average do, on a micro level, to further promote free trade and innovation? — Jennifer
A. I’m not really enough of a political analyst to give advice here. But here is one thing I do, after researching this book, that might be of interest. When my friends sit around moaning about something that’s happening in the world, I try and look on the bright side. When they say: “These green beans came from Kenya – shame they could not be locally sourced,” I will reply, “These green beans came from Kenya – isn’t that cool! It means that a Kenyan has a decent wage, which means he can educate his kids and one day one of them might buy my book.” I actually complained in a restaurant recently about their policy of not serving genetically modified food. The waiter was baffled and my children were embarrassed, but I felt good.

Q. The author brings up lots of historical examples, and is a big free market advocate. I really like that. But the “disclaimer question” needs to be asked: is past performance indicative of future results? It also seems to be a fashionable trend to bash environmentalism. How is polluted water, dying species, and degrading air quality not an indication of regression? — Nemo

A. Of course, past performance cannot be relied on as a guide to future performance, but notice that the intelligentsia has been pessimistic about the future in every generation for two centuries. “On what principle is it,” wondered Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1830, “that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”

Air and water quality has improved dramatically in the U.S. over the past few decades – though they are still not as good as they could be. Species extinction rates have probably fallen since the early 1900s – though they are still too high.


Dispatch: Dr. Ross on Chinese TV

- ACSH, June 14, 2010 http://www.acsh.org/

ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross was featured as a special guest on a China Central TV “Global Debate” program, and debated Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, an activist against genetically modified food and the use of biotechnology in agriculture.

According to Dr. Ross, “Dr. Ho is very opinionated and makes things up as she goes along.”

When probed by ACSH staffers why he agreed to appear alongside Dr. Ho and potentially elevate her in importance, Dr. Ross responded, “There’s a difference between this and appearing with a complete quack like Jenny McCarthy and her statements on vaccines — any scientist would be foolish to dignify her. Dr. Ho, however, has a large following in the anti-biotechnology community, so to let her spout her nonsense unopposed would be a disservice.”


Thanks, Andy!

I am much grateful to Andy Apel for guest editing AgBioView for the past month. He has done a very commendable job in putting the newsletter together. Thank you, Andy!

- Prakash