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May 28, 2010


Polish scientists impressed; Spit doubles spud production; Junk science


Today in AgBioView from* AgBioWorld, May 28, 2010

* Polish scientists impressed with GM maize
* Genetic research on food crops
* To double spud production, just add a little spit
* 100th Meeting of India's GEAC
* Junk science and The New York Times


Visiting Polish scientists impressed with GM maize in South Africa
- AfricaBio, May 27, 2010

A high powered delegation of agricultural scientists from Poland who visited South Africa on a GM maize fact-finding mission were impressed with the development of GM maize in South Africa over the past 11 years. Their visit was arranged by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and hosted by AfricaBio.

The delegates were Dr Roman Warzecha, head of the maize and triticale laboratory, Plant Breeding and Acclimatization Institute, National Research Institute; Prof Dr Andrzej Aniot, from the same institute; Prof Tomasz Twardowski, Institute of Bio-organic Chemistry, Polish Academy of Sciences; Radek Iwanski, Polish maize farmer; Jolanta Figurska, marketing specialist, central Europe and the Baltics, office of agricultural affairs, Embassy of the USA, Warsaw, who acted as interpreter, and a Polish television crew.

They visited commercial and small-scale farmers, regulators from the Department of Agriculture, the chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee for science and technology in Cape Town, officials from the Department of Health, and the Buhle Farmers' Academy at Delmas. In addition, specialists from AfricaBio gave them an in-depth briefing on the development of agri-biotechnology in South Africa with specific reference to small-scale farmers. One of their visits was to Hans van Rensburg Farming, Bronkhorstspruit, Mpumalanga, a leading commercial maize farmer who has been planting GM maize for the past 10 years on 1560 ha dry land and 340 ha under irrigation.

Van Rensburg pointed out that since switching to GM maize his yield had increased by up to 15%. Savings on chemical products due to reduced spraying had amounted to R400/ha and labour was being employed more productively.

"With input costs of R12 500/ha for irrigation and R6 500/ha for dry land we need to do everything possible to limit risks. Without GM maize we would not survive. I am very grateful that we have access to this technology," he told the scientists as they walked through a flourishing field of GM Maize of Monsanto's DKC 7815.

In Poland maize is produced mainly for animal feed. When Mrs Susan van Rensburg told them that "mieliepap" was a sought-after breakfast dish in South Africa, they were very surprised.

She promptly produced a bowl of "mieliepap" left over from breakfast and Dr Roman Warzecha was the first to have a taste. "Delicious. I'm certainly going to introduce this to my home," he quipped.

Van Rensburg was elected regional Farmer of the Year by the SA Agricultural Writers for the former Transvaal region. Grain SA elected him Maize man of the Year in 1999.

Small-scale Sowetan maize farmer Motlatsi Musi outlined the financial benefits GM maize had brought to small-scale farmers. Since growing Bt maize in 2004, his yield had increased by 34% over conventional maize, he said. With his extra profits he was mechanizing his operations and had increased his planting from seven ha to 25 ha in 2007. He now rented another 18 ha from a neighbour.

"I believe that GM crops are the best solution for agriculture. With Bt maize I have reaped financial benefits and enjoy a better quality of life. What has been good for me can also be good for millions of small-scale farmers in other countries," he emphasized.

Poland has more than a million small-scale farmers. Their farming operations vary from one ha to 10 ha with mixed farming including livestock, poultry, vegetables, grain, fruit and paprika grown in tunnels.

Dr Roman Warzecha said the delegation was very impressed with the benefits GM maize had brought to South African commercial and small-scale farmers. He also expressed the delegation's appreciation for the meetings which AfricaBio had arranged.


Genetic research on food crops
- Daryll E. Ray, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Southwest Farm Press, May 26, 2010

The United States Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) just released the May/June issue of their magazine, Agricultural Research. The focus of this issue was announced on the cover, "Fighting World Hunger with Genetics," and includes articles on rice, beans, wheat, corn, and potatoes.

Rice "is the main staple for more than half the world's population," the first article noted, and is subject to a number of diseases that ARS researchers are tackling. The article specifically identified two of the diseases - sheath blight, a fungal disease that kills plant cells, reducing grain yield and quality, and rice blast, another fungal disease.

In both cases, researchers are looking to identify genetic materials that confer resistance to these diseases. In conducting this research they look at a wide selection of varieties worldwide to find those that show resistance to the diseases and then work to identify the genetic material responsible for the resistance, with the goal of breeding that genetic material into common rice varieties.

In each case, researchers use sophisticated genetic testing procedures to enhance what are essentially traditional breeding programs. Identification of specific chromosomes makes the breeding programs faster and more efficient.

Anna McClung, research leader for ARS research laboratories in Stuttgart, Arkansas and Beaumont, Texas, said, "The exchange of plant germplasm and genetic stocks helps identify genes and genetic markers that can be used by rice breeders globally to develop new cultivars that will sustain agriculture and help feed the world."

The magazine also identified Golden Rice-2, a transgenic rice bred to provide beta-carotene, a nutrient not traditionally found in rice. Beta-carotene can be converted by the body into Vitamin A, reducing the incidence of several diseases caused by vitamin A deficiency. Researchers have determined that a cup of Golden Rice-2 contains about half of the Recommended Dietary Allowance for Vitamin A for adults.

The story about beans is similar to that of rice but was focused on a different constellation of diseases. Again, the search is to identify genetic markers of chromosomes that convey disease resistance to rust, blight, and mosaic virus, as well as tolerance to heat and drought. Bean researchers are also examining ways of improving the bioavailability of micronutrients in beans like iron.

With wheat, barley, and other small grains the focus is on rust, a disease that reduces yield in these crops. The researchers are looking at varieties from around the world to identify chromosomes that have the ability to confer rust-resistance to their progeny.

With corn the task is twofold. The first problem is to improve the beta-carotene levels in corn varieties. It turns out that the color of corn does not necessarily indicate the level of beta-carotene in different corn varieties, so researchers are looking for better ways to determine the level of beta-carotene in different varieties and the relevant genetic markers.

The story about potatoes includes the familiar concern for the potato blight that caused the Irish Potato Famine of 1845. ARS researchers are looking at ways to increase the storability of potatoes so that potatoes used months after harvest contain the same nutrients and cooking properties that were there at harvest time. Additionally, they are looking at ways to increase the Vitamin C, protein, and antioxidant levels of potatoes.

All of the stories were interesting, but what was lacking was any extended discussion of how this research was going to combat hunger around the world. In a real sense the technology transfer issue that is critical to the issue of the reduction of hunger was glossed over. As we read the articles, we were looking for hints of whether or not this research would result in public varieties where farmers around the world could save seeds for the next harvest. Or was the overriding assumption that the research would increase U.S. production and exports?

There were hints that the genetic research could be used to improve local varieties around the world, but if we are going to be "Fighting World Hunger with Genetics," the roadmap of how this technology is going to reach the small holder in Africa that grows a variety that is limited to a small area needs to be clearer.

We raise these concerns because in the United States the control of genetic resources has become very limited, with a few companies holding most of the patents. While technology fees can come out of increased revenues for U.S. farmers, for most small holders around the world the presence of tech fees and the purchase of seed each year could put the benefits of genetic research beyond their grasp.

The potential of genetic research will best benefit the hungry of the world if it is done by publicly- and donor-funded institutions that are committed to making public varieties available to farmers at a nominal cost and that allow farmers to save seeds after the first year. Farmers also need genetic research to be expanded to local varieties of common crops and indigenous crops that have heretofore been ignored.

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the Director of UT's Agricultural Policy Analysis Center


To double spud production, just add a little spit
- Cornell University/EurekAlert, May 27, 2010

ITHACA, N.Y. -- When it comes to potentially doubling the output of the world's fourth largest food crop, the secret may be in the spit.

Researchers at Cornell University, as well as the University of Goettingen and National University of Colombia, have discovered that when a major South American pest infests potato tubers, the plant produces bigger spuds.

The secret to this increased yield, they write in the peer-reviewed journal Ecological Applications (April 28, 2010), is found that the saliva of the Guatemalan potato moth larvae (Tecia solanivora). The major pest, which forces many farmers to spray plants with pesticides every two weeks, contains compounds in its foregut that elicits a system-wide response in the Colombian Andes commercial potato plant (Solanum tuberosum) to produce larger tubers.

The researchers found that when the spit of the tuber moth caterpillar gets into a tuber, all the other tubers of the plant grow bigger, said co-author André Kessler, Cornell assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Researchers believe that compounds from the insect's saliva somehow increases the rate of the plant's photosynthesis to compensate for the tubers lost to the caterpillar damage. As a result of more photosynthesis, more carbon is drawn into the plant and used to create starch, which makes for bigger tubers.

Plants have a number of responses to insects and other animals that eat them, including changing metabolism or producing toxins, said Kessler. In turn, the herbivores may develop strategies to counter the plant's defenses and influence its signaling pathways.

"This could be an example where the co-evolutionary arms race led to a beneficial outcome for both," said Kessler.

Another key seems to be getting the right mix of potato and pest.

When the larvae infested fewer than 10 percent of the tubers, the plant produced marketable yields (after infested tubers were removed) that weighed 2.5 times more than undamaged plants, according to the study. When up to 20 percent of the potatoes were damaged, marketable yields still doubled. When as many as half of the potatoes were infested, yields equaled those of plants with no infestation.

The findings have implications for potato farmers. Once isolated, the compound could lead to considerably higher yields in some varieties.

Initially, researchers wanted to show how these pests reduced potato yields, but they actually they found yield increases, said Katja Poveda, the study's principal investigator, at the Agroecology Institute of the University of Goettingen, Germany, and the Cornell entomology department.

"The moth eats all varieties of potatoes, but so far only this one variety responded" with increased yields among seven varieties that were tested as part of a larger project, said Poveda. Future experiments will test more commercial varieties, as well as wild potatoes, she added.

The potato study was funded by the German Research Foundation.


Decisions taken in the 100th Meeting of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC)
- GEAC (meeting minutes), meeting of May 12, 2010

The 100th meeting of the GEAC was held on 12.5.2010 in the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) under the chairmanship of Shri M. F. Farooqui Additional Secretary, MoEF and Chairman, GEAC. The deliberations/decisions taken in the GEAC meeting in respect of Agenda Items 3 to 8 are as follows:

[pdf, 25 pp., follow link above for full text.]


All The News That Fits: Junk science and The New York Times
- Henry I. Miller, Forbes, May 19, 2010

Occasionally I overreact to the inaccuracies and ideological bias The New York Times peddles in "news" stories. I mutter an invective and swear that the paper is good for nothing. But that's an overstatement: It's still fine for wrapping fish.

Andrew Pollack's news articles on issues related to genetic engineering applied to agriculture illustrate why. The latest example is his uncritical coverage of a National Research Council report on genetically engineered crops ("Study Says Overuse Threatens Gains From Modified Crops," April 14). The tone and content of this article suggest several, non-exclusive possibilities: Pollack is biased against the technology, a shill for its antagonists or simply poorly informed about the subject. His lede asserts that the conclusion of the NRC report is that "overuse of the technology" could threaten "to erode the gains" that it has achieved. But that is misleading.

The précis of the report states clearly that "corn, cotton and soybean that have been engineered to resist insect pests and herbicides are now planted on almost half of all U.S. cropland" and concludes that "they offer substantial net environmental and economic benefits compared to conventional crops." Even more persuasive are the six "key findings" of the report, quoted below verbatim and in their entirety as they appear on the website of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (of which the NRC is a research component and which actually published the report):

"1. Many adopters of genetically engineered crops have experienced either lower costs of production or higher yields, and sometimes both;

"2. Genetically engineered crops may have social impacts similar to previous technological developments in agriculture;

"3. Targeting specific insect pests with Bt toxins in corn and cotton has been successful, and insecticide use has decreased with the adoption of insect-resistant crops;

"4. The transfer of genetically engineered traits from genetically engineered crops to other crops of relatives has not been a concern for most type s o f crops;

"5. Reliance on one herbicide reduces the effectiveness of herbicide resistance as a weed-management tool;

"6. The adoption of herbicide-resistant crops could help improve water and soil quality by reducing the need for tilling."

Although the text of the report does go on to observe that "these benefits have not been universal, some may decline over time, and potential benefits and risks may become more numerous as the technology is applied to more crops," some context for this sentiment and Pollack's coverage of it is essential. For one thing, the phenomenon of resistance to herbicides, antibiotics, pesticides and chemotherapeutic drugs is well-known and a largely unavoidable concomitant of evolutionary pressure. Moreover, even if the speculation proves to be valid and the benefits of some genetically engineered crops do decline over time, that doesn't diminish the prodigious gains--humanitarian, economic and environmental--that will already have accrued.

Worst of all is Pollack's unprofessional decision to quote Charles Benbrook, a paid advocate of organic food and farming (both of which specifically reject genetic engineering). Benbrook is well-known to be a consistent, ideological, ineducable and disingenuous antagonist of genetic engineering.

A comparison of the respective headlines from the Times and The Wall Street Journal says it all. The Times headline: "Study Says Overuse Threatens Gains From Modified Crops." The Journal's: "Modified Crops Touted."

But there's more. A New York Times' opinion piece by two distinguished academics, Pamela C. Ronald and James E. McWilliams, published on May 14--exactly a month after Pollack's "news" article--offered a far more balanced and accurate perspective on the National Research Council report and its aftermath. They observed, "Lost in the din [following the report] 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. Indeed, buried deep in the council's report is an appeal to apply genetic engineering to a greater number of crops, and for a greater diversity of purposes." Obviously, buried too deep for Pollack to find it.

Journalistic sloppiness or negligence that gives rise to negatively biased reporting about these issues is not of trivial importance. As professors Ronald and McWilliams conclude, an understanding of advances in agriculture "means recognizing 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 also requires opponents to realize that by demonizing the technology, they've hindered applications of genetic engineering that could save lives and protect the environment."

This is not the first time that Pollack has demonstrated such journalistic myopia. In 2006 he wrote an execrable piece, which posited: "At the dawn of the era of genetically engineered crops, scientists were envisioning all sorts of healthier and tastier foods, including cancer-fighting tomatoes, rot-resistant fruits, potatoes that would produce healthier French fries and even beans that would not cause flatulence. ... Resistance to genetically modified foods, technical difficulties, legal and business obstacles and the ability to develop improved foods without genetic engineering have winnowed the pipeline."

Pollack's reportage has the aroma of flatulence. He missed the nuances about genetic engineering applied to agriculture and food production and as is his wont, devoted ample ink to the anti-biotech crowd, including the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (which Pollack described only as a "nonprofit group," although "doctrinaire anti-biotechnology lobbyists" would have been more accurate) and the radical, notoriously mendacious Friends of the Earth. And in a May 3, 2010, article, Pollack once again saw fit to provide an anti-biotech quote from one of the technology's intransigent, ineducable critics.

Note to the media: All points of view on scientific and technological issues are not created equal. Good journalism is not served by creating a kind of moral equivalence between those who hold extreme, ideological, discredited anti-biotech views and those with legitimate, scientifically defensible viewpoints--not unlike equating creationism with Darwinian theory. Putting it another way, there are not two sides to every issue. (And here's a corollary: If you can't find a responsible, intelligent expert to offer a contrarian view--to posit, for example, that the earth is flat--maybe there's a good reason.)

What Pollack neglected to mention in the 2006 article was that the same activists who had opposed and obstructed "agbiotech" relentlessly for 20 years were suddenly whining about the "hype" and "over-selling" of its benefits--rather like the teenager convicted of murdering his parents who pleads for mercy from the judge because he's an orphan.

Pollack's statement in that same article, "Developing nonallergenic products and other healthful crops has also proved to be difficult technically," is simply untrue. At the time, a broad spectrum of such plants already had been crafted by laboratory scientists who were unable to afford the gratuitously inflated regulatory costs to test them in the field. Excessive and unwise regulation was and is a major reason that products in the development pipeline "do not include many of the products once envisioned," to quote Pollack. Unscientific and discriminatory EPA and USDA regulatory policies make field trials with genetically engineered plants 10 to 20 times more expensive than a similar plant engineered with less precise, less predictable conventional genetic techniques. Agricultural R&d is a low-budget enterprise, and wrong-headed regulation and gratuitous regulatory costs make the development of many promising and important food products uneconomical.

Finally, Pollack's disparaging assertion that "industry ... has been peddling the same two advantages--herbicide tolerance and insect resistance--for 10 years," is puzzling. These traits have been of tremendous importance--not only to farmers' bottom line but also to occupational health and the natural environment. Enhanced pest resistance in plants has obviated the need for hundreds of millions of pounds of chemical pesticides (and thereby reduced environmental and occupational exposures). And herbicide tolerance has made possible a shift to more benign herbicides and to environment-friendly no-till farming.

As British historian Paul Johnson has written, "Left to themselves, the creative forces in society will always deliver, but keeping them reasonably free to do so is a perpetual, grinding battle. It is one that must never be lost." Andrew Pollack and the The New York Times are fighting on the wrong side.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the F.D.A. from 1989 to 1993.


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