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June 9, 2010


Unexpected support for biotechnology; Success with cisgenics; Scientist's plea


Today in AgBioView
From* AgBioWorld, June 9, 2010

* Agriculture's Future Is Steeped in Science
* Unexpected support for biotechnology
* Success with 'cisgenics' in forestry
* Scientist's plea over GM technology
* GMO seed could help boost crop output
* GM potato to reduce agrochemicals (video)


Agriculture's Future Is Steeped in Science
- Andrew Langer, Roll Call, June 7, 2010

As you stroll down the aisle of the supermarket in the coming days, take a moment to think about the products around you and ask yourself, what makes them safe to eat? What makes them healthy? And how is there enough food for everyone at affordable prices?

Quite often, the answer is science. Farmers, developers and manufacturers have spent millions of dollars in improving the products we eat each day, to ensure they are as safe as possible while making them more accessible and affordable on our grocery shelves.

Pasteurization has been keeping milk and dairy products safe for more than a century. Other products have small traces of preservatives to keep them on store shelves longer and some food is even irradiated to destroy microorganisms and bacteria.

Scientific advances in agriculture have also proven essential for increasing food and crop production. By 2050, there will be more than 9 billion people to feed worldwide. To meet this demand, food production will need to double. In 1930, the average farmer was able to feed 10 people. Today, through the development of agricultural technology, the average farmer feeds 155 people.

Genetically modified crops are the economically sound and environmentally safe answer to increasing food production - specifically herbicide-resistant crops. Farmers who plant herbicide-resistant crops are able to achieve higher crop yields while lowering their input costs. They are able to conserve fuel because herbicide-resistant crops need little to no tilling. Less tilling means fewer till-damaged crops, which equals more product for market.

The Department of Agriculture is currently reviewing the case of Roundup Ready alfalfa, an alfalfa plant resistant to Roundup herbicide, which was introduced to the market in 2005 and is used largely as hay for farm animals, including the cattle that provide the dairy and meat we eat each day. Fighting weeds is vitally important, especially in an alfalfa plant's first year of growth, when the seedlings are easily outmaneuvered for water, nutrients and space by weeds that grow stronger and faster. By planting RRA, farmers can generate higher quality hay, which enables dairies to produce more milk per ton of alfalfa feed.

But some people who oppose this technology are trying to stop the seeding of RRA, based on the misinformed argument that genetically modified organisms will contaminate organic crops and end organic agriculture. It is an argument that ignores the scientific conclusion, reached after years of recorded use without incident - confirming that RRA and organic alfalfa can coexist without the threat of cross-contamination.

It is essentially impossible for the genetic material from RRA hay to contaminate a conventional or organic hay field. Alfalfa hay is typically harvested before flowering, because the feed quality and market value drops rapidly after the blooms appear. It takes five weeks after flowering for ripe seed to form, and harvesting of the organic crop anytime before the ripe seed forms effectively eliminates any risk of genetic contamination. Scientists have estimated that the likelihood of gene flow from one hay field to another - on the high end - to be less than 0.001 percent.

The Federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concluded last December that RRA poses no danger to human health or to the environment. The USDA, which is completing its review of the environmental impact of RRA following an open comment period, needs to make its final decision based on science and the available data.

Organic activists are making the same unsubstantiated claims about other products designed to be more efficient and cost-effective for consumers. They also want to block the production of Roundup Ready sugar beets. Of sugar beets in the United States, 95 percent are genetically modified to withstand herbicide. Efforts to shut down the RR sugar beets planting would cost 5,800 jobs and $283.6 million in farming revenue.

Setting a precedent of rationality is all the more reason for the USDA to focus on the science as it makes a final decision on RRA. American jobs are at stake, as well as the ability for each of us to feed our families in this difficult economic time. Unscientific claims must not be allowed to justify rejecting a product that makes our food friendlier to the environment and the family budget.

Andrew Langer is president of the Institute for Liberty.


Unexpected support for biotechnology
- Hembree Brandon, Delta Farm Press, June 7, 2010

Attacks on progress, whether biotech foods or vaccinations to stamp out diseases such as measles and polio, have become routine - either you believe evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated will lead to a better understanding of reality, or you don't.

Amid all the yammering by the anti-pesticide crowd and those who would return agriculture to the days of mules, manure, and muscle, there have, of late, been some rays of reason from unexpected sources - New Yorkers.

The New York Times, not usually an advocate for agriculture, weighed in on genetic engineering, noting that while there have been problems, such as weeds developing resistance to glyphosate, "Lost in the din is the potential role this technology could play in the poorest regions of the world - areas that will bear the brunt of climate change and the difficult growing conditions it will bring."

Rather than condemning biotech, the Times said, there is a need to recognize that "genetic engineering can be used not just to modify major commodity crops in the West, but also to improve a much wider range of crops that can be grown in difficult conditions throughout the world."

Doing that would also require opponents "to realize that, by demonizing this technology, they've hindered applications ... that could save lives and protect the environment."

They "have spent much of the last decade stoking consumer distrust of this precise and safe technology, even though ... (these) crops have harmed neither human health nor the environment."

The stakes are too high, the Times asserts, "for us not to make the best use of genetic engineering. If we fail to invest responsibly in agricultural research, if we continue to allow propaganda to trump science, then the potential for global agriculture to be productive, diverse, and sustainable will go unfulfilled."

Much of the opposition to biotech crops comes from food elitists, says Michael Specter, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, and author of the book, "Denialism - How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives."

Denialism, Specter says, is what happens when "an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie."

Participating in a Council for Biotechnology panel on public perceptions and the impact that misperceptions can have on the adoption of agricultural biotechnology, Specter noted that it's easy for those living in countries with relative food abundance to make decisions that affect hungry developing nations under the guise of protecting their best interests - food elitism.

Attacks on progress, whether biotech foods or vaccinations to stamp out diseases such as measles and polio, "have become routine," he writes in his book. "Either you believe evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated will lead to a better understanding of reality, or you don't."

We are "either going to embrace new technologies, along with their limitations and threats," Specter says, "or slink into an era of magical thinking."

"In other parts of the world," he said in a National Public Radio interview, "a billion people go to bed hungry every night. Those people need science to help them."


Guest ed. note: The NYT article under discussion is "Genetically Engineered Distortions", Pamela C. Ronald and James E. McWilliams, New York Times, May 14, 2010, <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/15/opinion/15ronald.html>http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/15/opinion/15ronald.html


Success with 'cisgenics' in forestry offers new tools for biotechnology
- Oregon State University/PhysOrg.com, June 8, 2010

Six weeks after being transplanted, genetically modified trees developed through the science of "cisgenics," at left, are growing substantially taller than a control group, at right. This research program at Oregon State University is moving genes from very similar or identical plant species, as an alternative to the more traditional "transgenic" approach to genetic modification.

Forestry scientists at Oregon State University have demonstrated for the first time that the growth rate and other characteristics of trees can be changed through "cisgenics" - a type of genetic engineering that is conceptually similar to traditional plant breeding.

Cisgenics uses genes from closely related species that usually are sexually compatible. If governments choose to regulate it similarly to conventional breeding, experts say, it could herald a new future for biotechnology, not only in forestry but crop agriculture and other areas.

In findings just published in Plant Biotechnology Journal, researchers used cisgenic manipulation to affect the actions of gibberellic acid, a plant hormone, in poplar trees. This had significant effects on the growth rate, morphology and wood properties of seedling trees.

The advance is important for forestry research, but perhaps even more significant in demonstrating the general value and success of cisgenics.

"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," said Steven Strauss, a distinguished professor of forest biotechnology at OSU. "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."

This is possible in part because of the growing knowledge about what specific genes do in plants and animals, and enormous increases in the speed of genome sequencing, or mapping them out in their entirety. Sequencing that used to take years can now be accomplished in days.

Modern plant breeding, in which related plant species are systematically interbred to create improved traits - such as faster growth, more desirable qualities, drought or disease resistance - dates back at least to the late 1800s. It's the basis of all varieties of plants that form the backbone of world agriculture. And the same basic mechanism is at work with cisgenics, except it's done with a much higher degree of genetic understanding, using genome and biotechnology techniques of which Charles Darwin and early plant breeders never would have dreamed.

Strauss believes that the more natural process and greater specificity of cisgenic biotechnology may help transcend some of the costly, time-consuming and cumbersome regulatory hurdles that have held back this science in forestry, agriculture and other fields.

"With cisgenics, you know exactly what gene you're picking, what you're putting in, and it's a process that is similar to what happens naturally during crop breeding and evolution," Strauss said. "Our genetic tools just make the process more precise, and we do it faster. We believe that this will help address some people's concerns, and that regulatory agencies may soon view this quite differently than the type of genetic modification done with conventional transgenics.

"We're not trying to insert genes from a fish into a strawberry here," Strauss said. "We're taking a gene from a poplar tree and putting it back into a poplar tree. That's easier for a lot of people to accept, and scientifically we believe such approaches should be exempt from the regulatory reviews required for most transgenic crops. "

Genetic analysis of natural variation in plant traits provide important clues for cisgenic approaches, Strauss said. In any group of plants, some might grow taller or better resist disease than others. So once researchers know what genes are controlling growth and disease resistance, they can take them from one plant and put them back into the same or closely related species, and amplify or attenuate the desired characteristic.

"That is conceptually the same thing we've been doing in conventional plant breeding for two centuries," said Strauss, a world leader in the application of biotechnology to forestry.

This research has been supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Tree Biosafety and Genomics Research Cooperative based at OSU.

In the new study with poplar trees, the researchers were able to use cisgenic technology to change the growth rate of the trees - some grew faster and others slower, in a greenhouse setting. Both smaller and taller trees can be useful for different kinds of applications. There can actually be a wide range of variation possible with this approach, allowing scientists to create different characteristics and simply select the ones that have value after multiple gene insertions and field tests.

Desirable characteristics might relate to growth rate, height, drought or disease resistance, flowering time, seed production or other traits. A gene that gives plants more heat tolerance might be useful in helping plants to deal with a warming climate. Some ornamental trees might be developed for shorter height to use in compact urban areas.

Applications in bioenergy, such as for faster growth or modified biomass for processing into ethanol, are also possible. And tree pests and diseases are proliferating at an alarming rate, due to exotic pests and climate variation. The ability to insert resistance genes from related species could provide new tools to deal with some of these problems, and do it much faster than is possible with conventional tree breeding, which often takes many years.

The much heralded "green revolution," in fact, took decades, but produced such accomplishments as wheat plants with shorter stems that were sturdier and spent more of the plant's energy on seed production instead of stem growth.

In this study, Strauss showed that it is feasible to create similar changes with native cisgenes in one year.


Guest ed. note: For more information on cisgenics, visit <http://www.cisgenesis.com/index.php>http://www.cisgenesis.com/index.php


Leading Norfolk scientists plea over GM technology
- Michael Pollitt, Eastern Daily Press (UK), June 9, 2010

A leading scientist at a world-renowned Norfolk food research centre has said that it's time 'to grow up' over the possible beneficial impact of GM technology.

The comments of Professor Jonathan Jones, group leader at the John Innes Centre's Sainsbury laboratory, come at the start of a Norwich GM potato trial that looks to use the controversial technology to bo ost food worl dwide production.

And a top Norfolk potato grower Tony Bambridge said that farmers could be planting genetically-modified crops within five years if given the chance.

Prof Jones, who is leading a three-year project involving potatoes with GM blight resistance, said that farmers in Europe must be given access to this latest technology.

"We've got the tools at hand but our farmers can't use them," he said.

It was time for the GM debate, which has been raging for 15 years to move on.

"We have to grow up. It is time to take the challenge forward," said Prof Jones, who is group leader at the JIC's Sainsbury Laboratory.

The potato trial was the latest example of GM technology, which has been funded by more than £1m by the taxpayer, being exported to help farmers in the United States.

While potato farmers in England might have to wait until 2020 before they could have plant GM potatoes, growers in America were about to reap the benefit.

"The genes we have identified have been licensed to a US potato company and these genes will be used sooner in the US than in Europe," said Prof Jones. "The genes are at our disposal, we could actually do that today," he added.

And scientists at the University of East Anglia, who have identified a resistant plant to powdery mildew, also funded by the taxpayer, have exported the technology to help US pumpkin growers protect their crops.

Prof Jones said that the GM trials could help to curb late blight, which costs an estimated £3.5bn in loss and damage around the world. "It devastates crops from Indonesia to the United States from Africa to South America, wherever potatoes are grown," he added.

He was speaking as six small genetically-modified potato plots, each about the size of a pool table, have been planted on land owned by the John Innes Foundation at Colney, near Norwich.

It is the first GM field trial to be planted in the 100-year history of the JIC, which is regarded as one of the world's leading plant science hubs.

"We've taken a resistance gene from a wild potato. We're working with two different blight resistance genes from two different wild potatoes," he said.

A total of 192 GM potatoes, which were planted about six weeks ago, were been grown in a greenhouse by colleagues including Stephen Foster. The eight-inch plants, all of the same variety, Desiree, were transplanted into six blocks, each of four rows of eight to test their ability to withstand blight in natural conditions.

The trial crop, which is surrounded by conventional potatoes, has been planted behind a 3m high-security fence with arc lights. Once the trial ends in early September, the potatoes will be lifted and destroyed as part of the official consent from Defra and will not enter the food chain.

Special seed potato grower Mr Bambridge, of Marsham, near Aylsham, said that the industry should have access to the latest technology. "If we don't, then we're going to be on the back foot. It will probably happen elsewhere in the world first."

"If we want to feed the world, the potato is one of the most efficient crops producing a good quality foodstuff in terms of kg of food per hectare. It is a fantastic plant," he added.

Prof Jones, said: "At a time when the public purse is under such strain and in a world with 12 million growers of GM crops and more than 250m acres, we're having spend £20,000 of taxpayers' money having to protect 200 GM potatoes plus all the other costs of security. It is absolutely mad."

Mr Bambridge, who grows about 300 acres of seed potatoes, said that the estimated cost of controlling blight could be as much as £60m a year for Britain's farmers.

In the mid-19th century, blight was directly responsible for the Irish Potato Famine when an estimated two million people died of starvation. "We take food security for granted," said Prof Jones.

Friends of the Earth's food campaigner Kirtana Chandrasekaran, said yesterday: "The Government is wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers' money by forging ahead with unnecessary and unpopular GM crop trials, which threaten local farmers with contamination."


GMO seed could help boost crop output - COMESA
- Flolics Kasumbalesa, The Botswana Gazette, June 9, 2010

COMESA secretary general Sindiso Ngwenya has urged member countries to consider genetically modified (GMO) seed to increase yields in the region.

Speaking at the Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa (ACTESA) stakeholders meeting in Lusaka recently, Ngwenya said modifying seed as Malawi has done would help increase yields threefold and help ensure food security.

"Malawi tried and succeeded to do some genetic seed modifications and they have now increased their yields threefold," Ngwenya said. "If all member countries did that, we could have more than enough food in the region and that would reduce poverty levels especially in rural areas."

He also said there was need to include private agro dealers as the region embarked on a programme of seed harmonisation.

"We cannot afford to leave out the agro dealers in the seed harmonisation programme," he said. "Already, Seed Company of Zambia is exporting to other countries, but they have to adhere to different seed specification in each of those countries. If we harmonise, the seed trade will flourish."

Ngwenya said increased production of agricultural crops depended not only on the development of higher-yielding seed varieties but also on the efficiency of the systems available to ensure seed reach the farmer on time.

"Effective seed marketing is an essential component of activities to improve food security in the COMESA region. Inefficiencies in agricultural seed marketing have contributed to low usage of improved seeds in the region," he said. Other impediments include trade restrictions, restrictive regulations and standards, lack of access to improved seed, small national markets, long payback periods and lack of credit.

Ngwenya said COMESA was committed to enhancing access to improved seed by regional farmers, regional trade in seed and agricultural productivity through seed harmonisation.

Although Zambia is a member of COMESA and is a signatory to the Kinshasa Seed Harmonisation Agreement that was born two months ago, it does not accept genetically modified foods as of March 2004 for health reasons.

In the Kinshasa accord, COMESA member states agreed to the harmonisation of seed laws, policies and procedures.

And ACTESA, the implementing arm for agriculture in COMESA, last Friday signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with an agro dealers association aimed at improving seed supply and sharing best practices in the region.


GM potato to reduce agrochemicals
- SainsburyLab, YouTube, June 7, 2010

A field trial of GM potatoes is being planted to test whether genes from wild relatives can successfully protect commercial potato varieties from late blight -- the disease that caused the Irish potato famine -- without the need to spray fungicides.

British farmers spray on average 15 times a year to protect against potato late blight.

"We have isolated genes from two different wild potato species that confer blight resistance," said Professor Jonathan Jones from the Sainsbury Laboratory on Norwich Research Park. "Similar genes are found in all plants, and we are now testing whether these ones work in a field environment to protect a commercial potato variety, Desiree, against this destructive potato disease."

Cultivated potatoes originate from South America, and scientists have been screening species from this region to identify genes that give the plants resistance to late blight. They identified two genes and have grown two separate lines of potato to test each gene. The two sets of plants are now ready to be planted out to see if the genes work against races of late blight that circulate naturally in the UK.

The wild South American species are inedible and produces tiny tubers, so scientists sieved out just the genes of interest from the 30,000 or so in their genomes.

This video was filmed over a period of a few months to show how the commercial potato variety receives the protective gene.


*Compiled by Andrew Apel. Earlier editions archived at <http://www.agbioworld.org>http://www.agbioworld.org