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June 3, 2010


GMO parasitic weed; $11/lb. tomato; Americans OK on GM wheat


Today in AgBioView
From* AgBioWorld, June 3, 2010

* Scientists rally round Peruvian researcher
* Most Americans would accept GM wheat
* GMO's may solve hunger: food expert
* Israel plows new ground in exotic crops
* Horizontal gene transfer by the parasitic plant Striga hermonthica


Scientists rally round convicted Peruvian researcher
- Paula Leighton, SciDev.net, May 27, 2010

The National Academy of Science of Peru has issued a declaration supporting a scientist convicted of defamation for criticising a colleague's GM research.

Scientists and science institutions worldwide are also lending their support to Ernesto Bustamante Donayre, a molecular biologist.

In a newspaper article published in November 2007, Antonietta Gutiérrez, a biologist at the National Agricultural University of La Molina, Peru, announced the discovery of illegal transgenic maize in the Peruvian valley of Barranca.

Two months later Bustamante - then dean of the Peruvian College of Biologists - criticised the study in a radio interview and newspaper column, saying it had not yet been published in a peer reviewed journal.

"The author concludes two unlikely absurdities ... [these] false and incoherent conclusions could be explained by the fact that the report denotes gross errors in its procedure and quality control," he said.

Bustamante added that "given this sequence of personal and institutional ineptitude, a false truth has been generated".

After Bustamante refused to retract his statements, Gutiérrez filed a suit for defamation - a criminal offence in Peru that carries the risk of a jail sentence.

Last month a penal court found Bustamante guilty of defamation of character. But, in an unusual decision, his sentence has been suspended for a period of up to a year, provided he does not leave Lima without the court's permission, signs a court register once a month and pays the defendant around US$1,800 in damages.

"I have appealed since I never offended the honour of a person, but only expressed my scientific opinion about the research, not its author," Bustamante told SciDev.Net. "I argued that not only have I the right to express my scientific opinions [but] the statute of the College of Biologists says that its dean has the obligation to speak up about biological matters of national interest."

He said that the Peruvian Criminal Code states that scientific works are exempt from being classified as libel.

Gutiérrez did not reply to SciDev.Net's requests for an interview. But Fernando Alvarado, founder of the Peruvian Network of Ecological Agriculture, said: "There is a permanent policy of debunking any person who goes against the pro-transgenic interests".

The main cost of this judicial row is that "many scientists are now more reluctant to openly give their opinions," said Bustamante. "I do fear that, if I am not absolved, a guilty sentence could set a legal precedent and may silence the capacity of scientific criticism in our country."

The National Academy of Science of Peru called last week (20 May) for the Superior Court to "absolve" Bustamante and take actions "in order to never again expose in tribunals issues concerning scientific debate and opinion".

The US-based AgBioWorld Foundation, a not-for-profit, pro-agricultural biotechnology organisation, is gathering signatures of scientists around the world in a letter "to call on the Government of Peru to intervene and exonerate Dr. Bustamante". So far, around 600 scientists from more than 50 countries have signed the petition, said Bustamante. And the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in the United States - which is part of an International Human Rights Network of around 70 academies and scholarly societies - has also discussed the incident and is concerned about it.


Survey suggests most Americans would accept 'sustainable' GM wheat
- Caroline Scott-Thomas, FoodNavigator.com, June 3, 2010

Many American consumers would be receptive to foods containing genetically modified wheat if it is produced sustainably, suggests a new survey examining attitudes to food technologies from the International Food Information Council (IFIC).

The survey, the fourteenth conducted by the council, polled 750 US adults to gauge current attitudes toward the newest food technologies.

Although commercially available genetically modified (GM) wheat crops are likely to be at least a decade away, 80 percent of survey respondents said they would be likely to purchase bread, crackers, cookies, cereal, or pasta products containing GM wheat "if they were produced using sustainable practices to feed more people using fewer resources such as land and pesticides." And consistent with the 2008 survey, 77 percent of respondents said they would buy foods produced through biotechnology if they helped cut pesticide use.

IFIC said that these results suggested there would be "a receptive audience" to products containing GM wheat if or when they become commercially available.

Sustainability awareness rises

The survey also found that when the production of genetically modified (GM) foods is framed in such a way as to promote sustainable practices, consumers are more open to including them in their diets.

Half of consumers said they had heard or read at least "a little" about the concept of sustainability in food production, an increase from 2008, when that figure was at 41 percent. In 2007, only 30 percent said they had heard or read anything about sustainability in food production.

IFIC's interim vice president, Nutrition and Food Safety, Marianne Smith Edge said: "These results suggest that the importance of the impact of food production on the environment is here to stay for consumers. Over the last several years we've seen the overall awareness of sustainability and environmental issues continue to grow."

Lack of information

But the survey suggested that lack of information on biotechnology is still considered a reason to be skeptical about the technology. Of those who said they were unfavorable or neutral toward animal biotechnology, 55 percent said the reason was that they didn't have enough information about the subject, while 39 percent said they didn't understand the benefits of using biotechnology with animals.

As for GM wheat, prominent North American wheat industry organizations, including the National Wheat Growers Association, US Wheat Associates, the North American Millers' Association and the Independent Bakers Association, have said that there is a competitiveness problem for the wheat industry. They claim that the differential between net returns for wheat and other crops is growing and production will continue to decline unless biotechnology is used to improve wheat's competitiveness.


GMO's may solve hunger: food expert
- Eleanor Hall, ABC News (Australia), June 3, 2010

ELEANOR HALL: A spike in the global prices for staple foods sparked riots over food security in 2007 and 2008.

And while the global financial crisis drove prices back down hunger still affects more than a billion people and kills millions of children each year.

An international expert in the field says it's now time for developed countries to make good on their promises to the poor and for developing nations to embrace new technology including genetically modified crops.

Dr Per Pinstrup-Andersen is the professor of food, nutrition and public policy at Cornell University in the United States and he was previously the director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

He's in the country to give a Sydney Ideas lecture at Sydney University this evening and he joined me earlier in The World Today studio.

Dr Per Pinstrup-Andersen, the prices of staple foods rocketed in the few years to 2008. The price of rice for example was five times higher in 2008 than 2003. But then they fell sharply with the global financial crisis. So is there still a global food crisis?

PER PINSTRUP-ANDERSEN: There probably never was a global food crisis to begin with. When the rice prices went up as fast as you just said they did we had more rice in the world than we ever had before.

So it wasn't a lack of rice and it was not a lack of food that drove up the prices. It was a whole bunch of other things that came together in what is often referred to as the perfect storm.

One of the things that happened was there was so much free money in the United States when the housing bubble burst and that money went into commodities. It went into futures markets for food for example.

So instead of talking about a global food crisis we should talk, probably talk about a global food price bubble.

Now having said that however a billion people don't get enough to eat. For them there is a food crisis because their kids don't get enough to eat. Five million kids died last year because they didn't get enough to eat. They didn't get the right kind of food. That's the real food problem.

ELEANOR HALL: So what effect is the global financial crisis having on the food problems? Has it at least provided some relief for the world's poor in bringing down the price of those staples?

PER PINSTRUP-ANDERSEN: Yes if you are a net buyer of food you are better off when the food prices are low.

But when food prices went up farmers responded by producing more food. And we have had bumper crops of cereals during the last two years and we will have another bumper crop this year. There is so much more food being produced now because the prices went up. China now has enough cereal to cover between 60 and 70 per cent of its annual consumption of grain.

But let me make a point on the financial crisis. It did have a negative effect on the purchasing power of people in developing countries as well. And in that sense the demand for food went down which of course contributed to the decrease in food prices. So there was, it is a very complex set of issues that interact.

ELEANOR HALL: You seem to be suggesting though that there is now enough production of food in the world so what's the problem?

PER PINSTRUP-ANDERSEN: Well what happened when the food prices went up is what happens every time the food prices go up. It's like a call to action by doomsayers. So many people are now scared that somehow we are faced with an impending food apocalypse or doomsday. We won't have enough food.

My argument is that the problem is not lack of productive capacity. The world can produce enough food for the nine billion people we're going to be by 2040. And we can do it sustainably but it's going to require action by governments and governments are not willing to take those actions. They have other priorities.

ELEANOR HALL: What do you think is the most urgent action required by governments right now to deal with the food problems that you are describing?

PER PINSTRUP-ANDERSEN: It depends on the country but generally speaking there are two things that most low income countries' governments should be doing at this point.

One is investment in what I call rural infrastructure. And that is making the roads work, the irrigation canals if that's appropriate, making the domestic markets work so that farmers can sell their products and so that they can buy their input, the fertilisers if that's what they need.

The other area where governments really have to expand their activity is in the use of science to improve food security. Agricultural research investments are way below what they should be in developing countries.

ELEANOR HALL: What's your view of genetic engineering? That's been a controversial technology in many poor countries.

PER PINSTRUP-ANDERSEN: My view is that it is one of many scientific approaches that should be used where it is most appropriate. When it comes to food and agriculture we in Europe, and I'm from Denmark, we in Europe tend to argue that we should not; that it's too risky.

But the key issue here, I don't really care if the Europeans want to eat genetically modified food or not because we can survive without it. What really worries me is that we in Europe are trying to convince developing countries not to use this scientific approach when it is the best approach to solve their problems.

Let me give you this one example. Kids die and many more are malnourished when the drought hits the crop that a farmer is producing say in West Africa. So the maize wither away and there is nothing to eat.

Imagine if a drought tolerant maize variety could be developed and the farmer would grow that. That way when the drought comes there will be something to eat because the drought tolerant crop variety will produce something.

If it takes genetic engineering to produce that kind of variety let's do it. Let's not say to the mother in West Africa, I'm sorry but your child is going to have to die because we think it's a bad idea to use this solution. That is totally unethical.

ELEANOR HALL: Given the economic problems facing so many of the world's developed governments at the moment as they grapple with debt and the consequences of the global financial crisis, do you really expect them to devote much time or money to problems in poorer nations?

PER PINSTRUP-ANDERSEN: Yes I do because if they go to one international meeting after the other and make promises they should keep those promises.

ELEANOR HALL: And they're not doing that?


ELEANOR HALL: Dr Per Pinstrup-Andersen thanks very much for joining us.


ELEANOR HALL: That's Dr Per Pinstrup-Andersen. He is professor of food, nutrition and public policy at Cornell University and he is speaking at Sydney Ideas tonight. You can listen to a longer version of that interview on our website.


Israel plows new ground in exotic crops
- Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2010

If Willy Wonka had a farm, it would fit right in here in Israel.

Want a lemon-scented tomato or a chocolate-colored persimmon? How about some miniaturized garlic cloves for the home chef who doesn't have time to chop, or a purple potato that tastes buttery when cooked?

There are no chocolate rivers or edible teacup flowers on Israeli farms, but you will find carrots shaped like potatoes, strawberries shaped like carrots, star-shaped zucchini and "watermelon" tomatoes - dark green on the outside with a juicy red flesh.

There are also specially bred red peppers with three times the usual amount of vitamins, and black chickpeas with extra antioxidants. Not to mention worm-shaped berries and blue bananas.

Though some mock such colorful crops as "frankenfruit," an Israeli tomato breeder, Hazera Genetics, has created a boutique crop worth more than its weight in gold.

The former kibbutz supplier developed a yellow cherry tomato that its own researchers feared might turn off consumers. Instead, the hybrid became a hit in Europe, where the seeds sell for about $160,000 a pound.

Bolstered by Hazera's success, a growing number of Israeli farmers, agricultural companies and government-funded research institutions are jumping into the market for freaky f ruits and designer veggies, hoping to stumble upon the n ext big thing.

"It's fun, it's interesting and it brings in the customers," said Uri Rabinowitz, a Tel Aviv-area farmer who has developed a national following for his strange-looking crops, including elongated strawberries and round carrots. "You can charge twice as much."

Rabinowitz and other Israeli farmers grow exotic fruits and vegetables from imported seeds, including the chocolaty persimmon from Latin America (which makes a tasty ice cream) and the buttery potato from the Netherlands.

Some are trying to create new foods in the lab. A team of Israeli and U.S. scientists created the lemon-scented tomato by splicing genes from lemon basil into tomatoes, producing an aroma and taste of lemons and roses.

Efraim Lewinsohn, who has helped lead the project to develop the lemon tomato at Israel's Volcani Agricultural Research Institute, said the goal was to inject a little spice into tomatoes that had become bland from years of mass production.

"People complain that tomatoes don't taste like they used to," Lewinsohn said. "That's the driving force behind this project: attempting to restore the flavor of the past."

But because of consumer concerns about genetically modified crops, many in Israel are sticking with old-fashioned cross-pollination in which, for example, two tomato varieties - one known for its fast growth and the other for its long shelf life - are pollinated by hand to create tomatoes that grow quickly and last longer.

Israel isn't the only country pushing agricultural boundaries. Japan is producing square watermelons (easier to pack) and kumquat-sized grapes (good for giant raisins). The Netherlands and the United States are also leaders in innovative crops, such as yellow tomatoes and miniature watermelons.

But thanks to its warm climate and advanced research facilities, Israel is becoming a player in the emerging market for agricultural oddities.

"Israelis are a naturally curious people," said Avi Almogi, head of Israel's Exotic Fruit Assn., standing beside a display of fuzzless peaches at his trade group's recent exhibition at Kibbutz Givat Brenner in central Israel. "We take fruits, even things that may not be from here, and we play with them to make them better."

A few years ago, Israeli farmers imported a Chinese orange tree and cross-pollinated it with other breeds to make the fruit more colorful and easier to peel. "Now we are selling the seeds back to China," Almogi said.

Hazera made a splash internationally in the 1990s by breeding a tomato that could be vine-ripened and that stayed red three times longer than ordinary tomatoes. Its seeds were sold around the world.

Since then, the firm has been "diving into tomatoes," said Alon Haberfeld, Hazera's senior tomato product manager. The company pumps about 15% of revenue into research and development, a level he said was comparable to the pharmaceutical industry's.

Drawing on ideas from supermarket owners, farmers and chefs, the company's breeders can devote years to developing a single hybrid. Researchers pollinate the plants by hand and must wait months to see what grows.

Hazera's mini-watermelon was created in response to consumer complaints that standard specimens of the fruit were too big to finish.

Most of the company's research is targeted at specific goals, such as developing a tomato that tastes sweeter or whose vine has a high yield. But sometimes Hazera encourages its breeders to pursue whims.

"We let them go crazy," Haberfeld said. "We tell them to surprise us."

The results aren't always pretty. A snow-white tomato looked "terrible" and was quickly abandoned, Haberfeld said. A teardrop-shaped tomato tasted great but looked unappetizing to consumers.

So when a Hebrew University professor approached Hazera with a golden-hued cherry tomato, made by breeding regular cherry tomatoes with a rare yellow variety, she was greeted with skepticism.

The hybrid, eventually dubbed Summer Sun, had about three times the sugar level of ordinary tomatoes and high acidity, giving it a unique taste.

Researchers thought the flavor held promise. But would consumers bite?

"It takes time to educate people to eat yellow tomatoes," Haberfeld said.

With the rising popularity in the West of cooking shows, healthier eating and gourmet restaurants, Hazera started marketing its products the way other companies sell sports cars and fancy watches.

"It's all about lifestyle," reads a company brochure, depicting attractive young people at the beach, playing tennis, meditating and, of course, munching on tomatoes. "A moment of sensual pleasure. A moment to relax and pamper ourselves."

But in Israel, Hazera tried a different strategy, showing the yellow cherry tomatoes dripping in honey to emphasize their sweet flavor and gold color.

To Israelis, the fruit didn't look ripe. Only one supermarket chain carries them here.

The breakthrough came in Europe, where consumers prefer sweeter produce. Now the yellow tomatoes are showing up on salad plates in France, Britain and Austria, where buyers are willing to pay as much as $11 a pound.

Hazera has sold its yellow cherry tomato seeds to a San Diego-based grower for production this summer.

That motivated Hazera scientists to redouble efforts to develop what they hope will be their next big hybrid hit: the purple tomato.


Horizontal gene transfer by the parasitic plant Striga hermonthica.
- Yoshida S, Maruyama S, Nozaki H, Shirasu K., Science. 2010 May 28;328(5982):1128


Horizontal gene transfer has been postulated to occur between crops to co-occurring parasitic plants, but empirical evidence has been lacking. We present evidence that an HGT event moved a nuclear monocot gene into the genome of the eudicot parasite witchweed (Striga hermonthica), which infects many grass species in Africa. Analysis of expressed sequence tags revealed that the genome of S. hermonthica contains a nuclear gene that is widely conserved among grass species but is not found in other eudicots. Phylogenetically, this gene clusters with sorghum genes, the monocot host of the parasitic weed, suggesting that nuclear genes can be captured by parasitic weeds in nature.


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