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June 10, 2010


Bt maize & HIV; Africa could feed itself; Collagen from GM tobacco


Today in AgBioView
From* AgBioWorld, June 10, 2010

* GM Crops Benefit Environment & Farmers
* European regulators stymie biotech acceptance
* Fungus-tainted corn a factor in Africa HIV spread?
* Organic farming just doesn't earn its corn
* Africa could feed itself, says soil scientist
* Collagen manufactured from transgenic tobacco plants


Biotech Crops Benefit Environment & Farmers, Research Group Finds
- Michael Ricciardi, PlanetSave, June 9, 2010

Since the widespread adoption of so-called biotech, or genetically modified/engineered (GM/GE), crops by many large U.S. farms a decade and a half ago, U.S. farmers and scientists have been conducting one, large-scale, agricultural experiment.

This experiment-mostly involving corn, soy and cotton-has raised several concerns (e.g., the spread of GM genes to other plant populations) both here and abroad. The two main concerns with biotech crops are the environmental impact(s), and, the economic costs/benefits. In Europe, food safety is also a major concern.

But according to a new report from the National Research Council (NRC), the research arm of the National Academies, the U.S. agricultural industry's shift to genetically modified crops has proven to be mostly beneficial-both economically and environmentally. The National Research Council reports that the use of genetically engineered crops results in less harm to wild life, less soil erosion, and greater cost savings. Its findings could impact agricultural practices in other nations.

Numerous studies on biotech crop usage over the years have added fuel to the debate over their value and safety. Different studies showed different impacts and benefits depending upon the type of crop being grown, the location of the farm, and other factors such as whether the local environment was conducive to pests (insects, fungi, weeds, etc.). Also, agricultural practices vary across the country, with some farmers still plowing and tilling after each harvest.

But according to the NRC, most of the impacts from genetically engineered crops are relatively clear. For example, farmers often have to spray large quantities of dangerous insecticides on their crops to control these damaging pests. But, through utilizing a GM crop strain modified to contains a bacterial toxin gene that kills insects, much less harmful insecticide needs to be sprayed. Thus, this biotech benefit saves wildlife and farming costs.

One of the biggest environmental benefits from biotech crops has been controlling soil erosion (which also releases carbon into the atmosphere). To control weed-spreading, farmers would plow/till their fields regularly. With biotech crops that are able to tolerate herbicides, such as with soy, farmers simply spray their crops (the most common herbicide nowadays is glyphosate, a much less toxic herbicide) one or two times. This saves a large amount of fuel and significantly reduces soil erosion.

The NRC report did caution that these benefits are not certain over the long-term. The threat from weed or insect resistance-such as to the bacterial gene toxin-is always a possibility, rendering such genetically modified crops ineffective and forcing farmers to return to the far more toxic chemicals of the past.

This scenario could be avoided through the development of different crop varieties to thwart resistance, or by using more than one chemical (though this raises new concerns over soil and crop contamination and food safety).

One newer practice being advocated is the planting of "refuge" crop zones adjacent to the GM crops. These refuge crops are not engineered and provide an attractive food source for would-be pests, which, not being exposed to the biotech crop, would not develop resistance. This in turn would create a population of insect pests that would counter-balance, or keep in check (through mating) any resistance genes that might emerge in the biotech-feeding pest population.

The evolution of resistance in insects and other pests is the subject of a great deal of current research and much remains unknown about the evolution of acquired resistance and how this spreads through a population.

One other factor here is preserving competition and innovation amongst industry players. Mergers of agri-businesses tend to lead to a more monolithic, more limited research culture (due to cost control interests). Currently, the U.S. Dept. of Justice is looking into this issue.

While still controversial, biotech crops that grow under dry/poor soil conditions and resist insect predation hold great promise to developing nations and societies where drought and damaging pests are common.


European regulators stymie biotech acceptance
- Feedstuffs, June 9, 2010

Africa is potentially missing out on the poverty- and famine-thwarting benefits of genetically modified organisms because of the influence of anti-GMO crop regulations from Europe, political scientist Robert Paarlberg told the International Association for Plant Biotechnology (IAPB) 12th World Congress.

In Africa, only the Republic of South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt legally allow planting GMO crops, Paarlberg said Monday at the opening of the Congress. "In most of Africa it's not even legal to conduct research on genetically engineered plants," he told the Congress, attended by some 800 scientists, science policy leaders and others from more than 50 countries around the world.

The issue is important because of the propensity for drought to cause famine and starvation across the region. Genetically engineered crops can resist drought and reduce the risk of food shortages. But most of Africa has rejected GMO plants because it follows European regulatory models, said Paarlberg, Ph.D., professor of political science at Wellesley College and author of "Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa."

"In Africa, political resistance to GMO food and plant crops remains particularly strong. Even Sudan took time out from its genocidal war to demand that the World Food Bank keep genetically engineered foods out of its shipments," he said.

He cited several reasons: strong European financial aid (three times greater than U.S. aid), influence of European technical assistance, nongovernmental agency advocacy campaigns that use scare tactics against GMOs, fear of loss African commodity exports to Europe; and Africans' belief that Europe is more educated and knowledgeable than Africa.

"This is a political factor, unfortunately," Paarlberg said. "It's a larger challenge than the scientific challenge facing the technology today."

"Unfortunately, because the ties between Europe and Africa are so close, we will see transgenic crops moving to China and Asia before Africa," he said. "But if restrictions on these technologies loosen in Europe, it will only be a short time until they loosen in Africa."


Fungus-tainted corn a factor in Africa HIV spread?
- Amy Norton, Reuters, June 9, 2010

A new study raises the question of whether corn contaminated with a fungus-derived toxin is helping to facilitate the transmission of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa.

The toxins, called fumonisins, are produced by a particular type of fungus that can grow in corn after the plant is damaged by pests such as the cornstalk borer.

Fumonisins may be harmful to human health, with some studies linking consumption of the toxins to an increased rate of cancer of the esophagus, the tube that connects the throat to the stomach.

In the new study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers looked at whether there may be a relationship between HIV transmission in sub-Saharan Africa and general consumption of foods prone to contamination with fumonisins or other fungus- produced toxins (known as mycotoxins).

Using data from the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, the researchers found that as sub-Saharan countries' per-person corn consumption rose, so did HIV transmission rates.

In countries with a relatively higher percentage of Muslims -- a factor linked to lower HIV rates -- those with high per-capita corn consumption had an estimated HIV infection rate of 291 per 100,000 people in one year. In contrast, the rate in those with low corn consumption was 74 per 100,000 people.

Meanwhile, in countries with both fewer Muslims than average and higher-than-average corn consumption, there were 435 HIV cases per 100,000 people.

The researchers also found that higher per-capita corn consumption correlated with a higher rate of esophageal cancer. Since fumonisin toxins have been linked to that cancer, the finding serves as an indicator that populations with high corn consumption were exposed to higher levels of the toxin.

What all of this means is not yet clear. This appears to be the first study to find an association between corn consumption and HIV transmission rates in sub-Saharan Africa, lead researcher Dr. Jonathan H. Williams, of the University of Georgia in Griffin, told Reuters Health in an email.

The findings, he and his colleagues say, must be considered preliminary and need to be backed up by further research.

It is biologically plausible that high fumonisin intake could make a person more vulnerable to HIV infection. According to Williams, research suggests that the toxin makes certain tissues more vulnerable to infections by viruses.

A number of factors have been identified as key in sub-Saharan Africa's HIV transmission rates; male circumcision, for example, has been shown to lower heterosexual transmission, while having multiple concurrent sex partners or other sexually transmitted infections increases the risk.

The current findings raise the possibility that food safety -- in particular, the issue of fumonisin-contaminated corn -- is an additional factor.

Based on their statistical model, Williams and his colleagues estimate that if the "maize (corn) factor" were eliminated in sub-Saharan Africa, HIV transmissions could be cut by as much as 58 percent.

Contamination might be prevented, for instance, by planting corn varieties genetically modified to be resistant to pests. It may also be possible to remove contaminants, Williams said, through certain milling technologies or by soaking the grain in water; fumonisin is water-soluble, so "steeping" the grain or meal, then discarding the liquid may remove the toxin.

In a region where an estimated 1.7 million people become infected with HIV annually, that would mean more than 1 million infections averted each year, the researchers note.

All of that, however, remains speculation until further research is done confirming the link between contaminated corn and HIV.


Organic farming just doesn't earn its corn
- Oliver Walston, The Telegraph (UK), June 9, 2010

When it comes to producing more from less, modern methods reap the rewards, says Oliver Walston.

Pity the modern farmer. We may think we're trying to feed the largest number of people at the lowest cost, but we're actually dangerous, sinful and wrong. If we're not destroying the environment with GM crops, we're raping the planet with our "unsustainable" techniques. Why can't we be more like our safe, saintly colleagues in the organic sector?

That, at least, has been the message over the past week or so. First, two of the committee overseeing the Food Standards Agency's "public dialogue" on GM resigned in protest. Next, Zac Goldsmith, the new MP for Richmond Park, demanded that food for schools, hospitals and care homes should be organic, because it was more "sustainable". Finally, a new trial of GM potatoes prompted the usual lurid claims of wasted money and endangered crops.

Certainly, it's important that farmers care for nature. Indeed, as an East Anglian "barley baron", I'm subsidised more for taking care of the environment than for producing food: around most of my fields sits a six-metre strip of grass, in which birds flutter and bugs frolic.

And yes, the organic brigade are right, in a half-baked sort of way, that my type of farming is not "sustainable". But it's in the same way that the Victorians were right when they warned - at a time when Herr Benz and Herr Diesel were still in short lederhosen - that the streets of London would soon be knee-deep in horse manure.

Clearly, if my farm needed no fertiliser, fungicides or herbicides, then I would cease to use up so much fossil fuel. But as the US Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, said 30 years ago, "before we go back to organic agriculture, somebody is going to have to decide which 50 million Americans we are going to let starve or go hungry".

Today, that figure would be millions higher. Because one fact is absolutely clear: an organic acre produces less than half as much food as one of mine. Under my crop rotation, I grow wheat five times in a decade, and produce nearly four tons an acre. My organic counterpart will grow wheat only three times, yielding around two tons per acre. In the time I have produced 20 tons, he will be lucky to get six. And in the intervening years I can grow sugar beet, peas, beans or oilseed rape, whereas he needs to rest his soil with clover and grass. To feed everyone "sustainably" we would have to take the land from grazing animals - imposing vegetarianism on billions of people - or double the area under cultivation, which we can't do even if we rip up the planet's rainforests and grasslands.

Advocates of organic will, of course, object. "Don't believe the nonsense that people say 'We can't feed the world on an organic basis or sustainable agriculture basis'," says the Prince of Wales. "Just ask them the next time you hear this endless argument, 'How much waste has there been in the world of all the food we're supposed to be eating? How much is lost in transport and distribution?' "

It is true that a stupendous amount of food is wasted - but it is hard to see why consumers of organic food waste less. It is barely feasible to feed Moreton-in-Marsh with food grown on nearby organic fields, let alone Mexico City or Shanghai.

The solution today is exactly the same as it was 8,000 years ago: science. "No man can say that he has seen the largest ear of wheat, or the largest oak that could ever grow," wrote Thomas Malthus in 1798. "But he might easily... name a point of magnitude at which they would not arrive." At the time, a farmer had never harvested more than half a ton of wheat from an acre. Yet new advances in biotechnology - probably including those despised GM crops - will enable us to achieve yields our fathers could not have dreamed about. If we embrace modern methods, we will be able to feed more of the world using less of its land and resources. Isn't that a better definition of sustainability?


Africa could feed itself, says soil scientist
- Anna Salleh, ABC News (Australia), June 10, 2010

Africa has good soils and could easily feed itself if more money was spent on fertiliser and seed rather than food aid, says one soil scientist.

World Food Prize Laureate Dr Pedro Sanchez laid out his argument to a recent agricultural research symposium at the University of Sydney.

"A lot of the public opinion still feels that Africa is a basket case. It cannot feed itself," says Dr Sanchez, of Columbia University's The Earth Institute in New York.

"I think that needs to change."

Expanding on a recent article in Nature Geoscience, Dr Sanchez argues tropical Africa is capable of tripling its crop yields if something is done about the lack of nutrients in its soils.

"Food crop yields have not changed in Africa since 1961," he says. "That's 50 years. It's amazing."

Dr Sanchez says most of the soils cultivated by Africa's small farmers are "pretty decent", but have become depleted of nitrogen, and to a lesser extent phosphorous.

"The soils are not inherently bad as some people have said," he says.

"What happened is that farmers took out too many nutrients, mainly in the form of crop harvests."

He says the same thing happened after 100 years of farming in the US Midwest, which has some of the best soils in the world.

While he sees GM crops as part of the solution to feeding Africa, Sanchez says the focus of donor agencies, like the World Bank, on improved crop varieties has missed the importance of soils.

"If the fertilisers aren't there, there is no way you can have high-yielding varieties reaching their potential," says Dr Sanchez.

Tripling yields

Dr Sanchez says an African green revolution can increase cereal grain yields from around 1 to 3 tonnes per hectare by 2020 and evidence to date suggests this is a reality.

"It's being done at sufficient scale now that we can say this not just an idea. This is reality," he says.

He says in 2005 Malawi's maize harvest only reached 57 per cent of the country's requirement, with about 5 million Malawians requiring food aid.

Dr Sanchez says since then, the government has begun subsidising farmers to buy fertiliser and improved maize seed.

In 2007, maize yields almost tripled at the national scale, transforming Malawi into a food exporter, he says.

Dr Sanchez says the subsidy programs are now being extended to another 11 countries in Africa including Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Mali and Nigeria.

He says the gains in yield are similar to those seen in India and the Philippines at the start of the Asian green revolution.

By contrast, yields from highly-subsidised farmers in North America are around 10 tonnes per hectare.

Dr Sanchez says the canopy produced by higher-yielding plants will also reduce evaporation of water from the soil, helping farmers to better manage climate change-induced droughts.


Dr Sanchez says subsidies also need to be extended to organic fertilisers that contain carbon, feed soil microbes and help retain soil moisture.

He says the most effective of these are nitrogen-fixing legumes which have often been abandoned by farmers because of the cost involved in establishing them.

"When you plant those legumes they take some time to grow and usually farmers have to ... forgo a crop or so," says Dr Sanchez.

He says farmers should be paid for the opportunity cost of planting these crops, especially since they provide all kinds of "ecosystem services".

"It's a public good also because they also fix carbon from the air, they cut down on soil erosion," he says. "They increase soil organic matter."

He says while aid is important for people such as those who are starving refugees from war, 90 per cent of Africa's hungry are in rural areas.

Not only can food aid depress local prices, it costs six times more to feed people with food aid than by subsidising fertiliser and seed, says Dr Sanchez.

Dr Sanchez says greater funding for research into soils will be essential in developing sustainable agricultures.

"We know more about the soils of Mars than the soils of Africa," he says.


Collagen manufactured from transgenic tobacco plants
- Hebrew University of Jerusalem/PhysOrg.com, June 10, 2010

A scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment has succeeded in producing a replica of human collagen from tobacco plants - an achievement with tremendous commercial implications for use in a variety of human medical procedures.

Natural human type I collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body and is the main protein found in all connective tissue. Commercially produced collagen (pro-collagen) is used in surgical implants and many wound healing devices in regenerative medicine. The current market for collagen-based medical devices in orthopedics and wound healing exceeds US $30 billion annually worldwide.

Currently, commercial collagen is produced from farm animals such as cows and pigs as well as from human cadavers. These materials are prone to harbor human pathogens such as viruses or prions (mad-cow disease). Human cadaver is scarce, and for certain indications possesses serious ethical issues.

Producing human recombinant type I pro-collagen requires the coordinated expression of five different genes. Prof. Oded Shoseyov of the Robert H. Smith Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture has established the only laboratory in the world that has reported successful co-expression all the five essential genes in transgenic tobacco plants for the production of processed pro-collagen. For this work, Shoseyov was one of the recipients of a Kaye Innovation Award during the Hebrew University Board of Governors meeting in June.

Shoseyov's invention on has been patented, and the scientific findings behind it were published recently in the journal Biomacromolecules. A company, CollPlant Ltd., has been established based on patents and technology that were developed in Shoseyov's laboratory. It has raised US$15 million to establish the first commercial molecular farming company in Israel and is already manufacturing collagen-based products that have attracted collaborative commercial interest from companies in the US, Japan Europe and Israel.

Yissum, the technology transfer company of the Hebrew University, is one of the shareholders of CollPlant.. CollPlant is a public company traded in "TASE", and the potential revenue for the Hebrew University from this invention is estimated to reach into the multi-million dollar range.

The Kaye Awards have been given annually since 1994. Isaac Kaye of England, a prominent industrialist in the pharmaceutical industry, established the awards to encourage faculty, staff, and students of the Hebrew University to develop innovative methods and inventions with good commercial potential which will benefit the university and society.