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May 20, 2010


Poor farmers are biggest beneficiaries; India's firms forge ahead


Today in AgBioView*
>From AgBioWorld, May 20, 2010

* Gates backs GM crops: tech must help farmers
* Despite stay, firms rush Bt proposals
* Threefold Rise In Iron In White Rice
* Surinder Sud: Basmati bonanza
* Impact of GM Crops on Sustainability
* Survey: Positive impact of commercialized GM crops
* GM food options aren't any riskier


Gates backs GM crops: tech must help farmers, feed rising population
- Indian Express, May 16 2010

New Delhi : Giving his full support to the use of genetic engineering in agriculture, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates today said if the world continued to produce food with existing technologies it would not be able to feed its increasing population.

In an interview with Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express, for NDTV's Walk The Talk programme, Gates, who is on a visit to India for work related to his charitable foundation, said the world needed newer crops with increased productivity, better adaptability to changing climatic conditions and the ones that use less of insecticides. And these, he said, could only be made through innovations in agricultural biotechnology sector.

"Technology, properly applied, is the reason, if you like, why nine billion people can live on this planet without destroying it," said Gates who toured remote villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar during his visit.

"There is a rice, here in India, that... even when it gets submerged under water, it survives. That is a fantastic example of technology helping the poor farmers... As the climate gets more challenging, in fact, we absolutely need crops that can deal with drought, that can deal with rain... We need to use science in the right way. If we just stick to what we have now, we would not be able to feed the growing population," he said.

His comments are significant in the backdrop of a raging debate over the need for genetically modified food crops in India. The topmost regulatory body on GM crops, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), had last year approved genetically modified variety of brinjal for commercial cultivation but its decision was put on indefinite hold by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.

Gates, who runs one of the largest charities in the world in association with his wife Melinda, said ideological opposition to genetically engineered food crops was something that he did not agree with.

"Yes, you need to have a proper regulatory authority that's looking at how this (GM crops) is being developed. But you need that (regulatory framework) for all the new crops, no matter what technique, including normal cross- breeding, is used. But innovation is very, very important. After all, we are going to have to grow more food on the acreage that we have on this planet to be able to feed our growing population," he said.

He said the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, whose primary concern has been healthcare till now, was putting in money in agriculture projects as well.

Gates, who led Microsoft to become the world's most valuable company, said he was very impressed with the government's initiative to give unique identity numbers to the people.

"I am a big fan of the work being done in that aspect. It is a pioneering project. I am sure there will be challenges but I think it's a very important piece of work," he said, urging the government to put in enough safety mechanisms in place to ensure that the data being collected was used in a safe manner.

"As soon as the government starts to use digital tools, it needs to have clean rules in place about what is private and who can use what data," he said.


Despite stay, firms rush Bt proposals
- Jacob P. Koshy, LiveMint/Wall St. Journal, May 18, 2010

Organizations seeking permission to conduct trials and research include a clutch of public sector organizations and private firms as well

New Delhi: Even though environment minister Jairam Ramesh has put plans to commercially release Bt brinjal in cold storage, select government institutes and agriculture companies are unfazed.

They are pushing ahead with plans to develop genetically modified versions of a variety of other food crops that could some day appear in Indian kitchens.

On 12 May, at the 100th meeting of the genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC), the controversial arm of the ministry of environment and forests, approved at least 17 proposals, the highest in over a year, to initiate as well as continue test trials on a variety of transgenic crops, including corn, tomato, rice and papaya.

"These were proposals for contained fields trials and we have given our approval for all of them," said P. Anand Kumar, a senior agriculture scientist and GEAC member.

Organizations seeking permission to conduct trials and research include a clutch of public sector organizations such as the Indian Institute of Horticulture Research, and private firms such as Monsanto India Ltd, Bayer Bioscience Pvt. Ltd and EI DuPont India Pvt. Ltd, an examination of the meeting's agenda revealed.

Ramesh's embargo on Bt brinjal doesn't prohibit organizations from conducting research or testing Bt crops. However, in the aftermath of the moratorium, firms involved in transgenic seed research, as well as ministers, had expressed reservations about the prospects of genetically modified crops in India.

Sharad Pawar, minister for agriculture, as recently as last week, said that the moratorium on Bt brinjal had impacted scientists' morale. "The scientific community is disheartened and nervous," he told reporters at a press briefing.

V. Ram Kaundinya, the chairman of Association of Biotech-Led Enterprises-Special Interest Group on Agri-biotech, a lobby group, said, "The concept of imposing a moratorium is a retrograde step and has left many of the stakeholders in both public and private sector in a state of confusion about the policy of the government. This will eventually harm the interests of the Indian farmers, Indian consumers and the country in general."

Ever since Ramesh imposed the embargo in February and directed GEAC to take steps to ascertain the safety and need for releasing GM brinjal, matters have been in limbo for the contentious aubergine.

Even as it gave the go-ahead for trials on several food crops, GEAC at its meeting decided to consult a panel of independent experts on the safety and sufficiency of biosafety tests conducted on Bt brinjal.

Analysts and seed company officials, however, say that the high number of applications reflect proposals that are in the middle or nearing the end of the seed approval process, and that if uncertainty over GM crops prevails, future investments will be affected.

"Most of these research projects, including ours, were initiated five years ago and are towards the end of the regulatory process," said Jagresh Rana, director, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech India Ltd.

Mahyco is one of the seed firms that has applied for permission to conduct advance seed trials. "But, on the other hand, if uncertainty prevails, it will affect new research. But as a company we're confident that ultimately good science will prevail."

K.K. Narayanan, managing director, Metahelix Life Sciences Pvt. Ltd, Bangalore, added that companies were going ahead with trials simply because they had already invested quite a bit.

"It makes no sense to withdraw right now. But if over the next couple of years policies are still unclear then companies might begin rethinking their plans," Narayanan said.

Metahelix also has developed its own Bt-based genes for insertion into cotton seeds, and got commercial approvals from GEAC last year.


Threefold Rise In Iron In White Rice
- MedIndia, May 18, 2010

Australian researchers are reporting a threefold rise in iron in white rice, thanks to biofortification.

Rice, the staple food of millions in Asia, is known to lack vital micronutrients like iron, leading to a whole host of health problems. Now help is at hand.

Unlike mineral supplements, which are expensive and rely heavily on health infrastructures for dispersal, biofortified crops offer a cheap, reliable and sustainable solution to Fe and other micronutrient deficiencies.

Over 2 billion people, or 30 per cent of the world's population, suffer from Fe deficiency with symptoms ranging from poor mental development in children, to depressed immune function and anaemia.

Dr Alexander Johnson, based in the School of Botany at the University of Melbourne, has come up with increases of up to threefold more iron in white rice, and he is now expanding the program to include other cereal species such as wheat.

He is also developing a new generation of researchers in this important field, through the Master of Science in the Melbourne Graduate School of Science. MSc (Botany) student Skye Shields is currently researching the biotech rice that has been developed in the Johnson lab, using a variety of molecular tools to better understand the genetic mechanisms responsible for the high-iron grain. The results of this study are an important step in characterising the rice plants before they are tested in the field. The study may also shed light on new mechanisms that could be used to generate other crops with enhanced nutrient levels.

Based on micronutrient deficiency rates, there is compelling evidence that biofortification can be a key objective for plant breeders, in addition to the traditional objectives of disease resistance, yield, drought tolerance, etc, it has been observed earlier.

Scientific evidence shows that biofortification is technically feasible. Breeding for a micronutrient concentration that can have biological impact, without compromising agronomic traits, has been demonstrated for crops such as sweet potato.

Predictive cost-benefit analyses have shown biofortification to be important in the armamentarium for controlling micronutrient deficiencies. The challenge is to get consumer acceptance for biofortified crops, thereby increasing the intake of the target nutrients. With the advent of good seed systems, the development of markets and products, and demand creation, this can become a reality.


Surinder Sud: Basmati bonanza
- Business Standard (India), May 18, 2010

Until the 1990s, Pakistan enjoyed an edge over India in the global basmati rice market because it had superior quality of basmati to offer. But, this is no longer the case. The improved basmati varieties evolved in recent years by the New Delhi-based Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), commonly called the Pusa Institute, have far better grain quality than even the traditional basmati types and can command higher prices and help get a greater share in the international market. Moreover, these varieties have relatively higher yield and require less time and inputs to mature, which enables basmati to fit into multiple-cropping cycles.

Traditional basmati varieties were tall and thus more likely to being flattened by wind and other factors. Besides, they took as much as five to five-and-a-half months to yield a meagre 2-2.5 tonnes of grain per hectare. The new varieties, on the other hand, are of the dwarf type and are thus sturdier, and take about a month less to produce 6-8 tonnes of good-quality basmati grain per hectare. Moreover, they need less irrigation. This has improved the economics of basmati cultivation.

"Essentially, IARI scientists have managed to improve the harvest index of basmati so that it produces more grain and less other vegetative mass without sacrificing the grain quality and its aroma," says IARI Director H S Gupta. The real challenge was to maintain and, in fact, improve the basmati's typical grain qualities - thin, long, non-sticky grain with distinct aroma, which set basmati apart from other types of rice. This challenge has been successfully met.

To date, several improved basmati varieties have been evolved and released for cultivation in the basmati growing region, but two of them have been truly outstanding and, therefore, have tended to dominate the basmati sector. These are Pusa basmati 1, the world's first semi-dwarf, high-yield basmati, released in 1989; and Pusa basmati 1121, released for cultivation in 2003, which holds the world record of having the lengthiest grains after cooking (up to 22 mm long).

Thanks to its better traits, Pusa basmati 1121 has not only replaced Pusa basmati 1 in many areas, but has also prompted the growers to expand area under basmati. Pusa basmati 1121 now holds a prime position in the export market, too. This, along with Pusa basmati 1, now accounts for nearly 75 per cent of the country's total basmati exports.

Significantly, IARI rice scientists have now succeeded in further improving the yield, cooking quality and agronomical traits of Pusa basmati 1121, and have come out with a new variety named Pusa basmati 6 (or Pusa 1401). Some of the limitations of Pusa 1121, such as a slight bend in the grains with tapering ends and presence of chalky (whitish) grain which are deemed undesirable in export consignments, have been rectified in the new variety and the aroma has been enriched further. Thus, Pusa 1401 has uniform grain shape, better aroma and negligible number (less than 4 per cent) of chalky grain. Pusa scientists as well as the rice trade see great promise in this variety in both domestic and export markets.

IARI's other significant achievements in basmati breeding include a gene-altered, though not transgenic, variety of basmati called Pusa 1460; the world's first superfine-grain, aromatic (though, technically, not true basmati) rice hybrid Pusa RH-10; and a series of other basmati-like scented rice varieties, released under the brand name of Pusa Sugandh, instead of Pusa basmati.

Pusa 1460, the first biotech rice to reach the farmers, has been crafted through a technique called "marker-assisted pyramiding" of genes, involving the genes xa13 and xa21. This has given the plants immunity against rice's most common and dreaded disease - the bacterial blight - which takes a heavy toll on yield every year.

Though China is the world leader in hybrid rice technology, its hybrids generally have coarse grain. Pusa rice hybrid RH-10, on the other hand, has superfine and scented grain. It has caught the fancy of the farmers because its crop matures around 20 days earlier than that of Pusa basmati 1 and gives 40 per cent higher yield. Thus, the per-day productivity of this aromatic hybrid works out to about 76 per cent higher than that of Pusa basmati 1. It was grown in an area of about 4 lakh hectares in kharif 2009. IARI has now roped in 18 private seed companies to produce seeds of this hybrid to facilitate expansion of the area under this remarkable aromatic rice. With this, a major revolution in the aromatic rice sector seems on the cards.


Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States
- Committee on the Impact of Biotechnology on Farm-Level Economics and Sustainability; National Research Council, 2010 (318 pp)

Since genetically engineered (GE) crops were introduced in 1996, their use in the United States has grown rapidly, accounting for 80-90 percent of soybean, corn, and cotton acreage in 2009. To date, crops with tra its that provide resistance to some herbicides and to specific insect pests have benefited adopting farmers by reducing crop losses to insect damage, by increasing flexibility in time management, and by facilitating the use of more environmentally friendly pesticides and tillage practices. However, excessive reliance on a single technology combined with a lack of diverse farming practices could undermine the economic and environmental gains from these GE crops. Other challenges could hinder the application of the technology to a broader spectrum of crops and uses.

Several reports from the National Research Council have addressed the effects of GE crops on the environment and on human health. However, The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States is the first comprehensive assessment of the environmental, economic, and social impacts of the GE-crop revolution on U.S. farms. It addresses how GE crops have affected U.S. farmers, both adopters and nonadopters of the technology, their incomes, agronomic practices, production decisions, environmental resources, and personal well-being. The book offers several new findings and four recommendations that could be useful to farmers, industry, science organizations, policy makers, and others in government agencies.


Peer-reviewed surveys indicate positive impact of commercialized GM crops
- Janet E Carpenter, Nature Biotechnology 28, 319 - 321 (2010)

The benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops continue to be disputed, despite rapid and widespread adoption since their commercial introduction in the United States and Canada in 1995. Last year, 14 million farmers in 25 countries grew GM crops commercially, over 90% of them small farmers in developing countries1. Farmer surveys are a valuable measure of the impact of GM crops. These surveys estimate the technology's performance as it is incorporated into farmer practices, given constraints on time, access to information, differing levels of risk aversion and other factors. This analysis summarizes results from 49 peer-reviewed publications reporting on farmer surveys that compare yields and other indicators of economic performance for adopters and non-adopters of currently commercialized GM crops. The surveys cover GM insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant crops, which account for >99% of global GM crop area1. Results from 12 countries indicate, with few exceptions, that GM crops have benefitted farmers. The benefits, especially in terms of increased yields, are greatest for the mostly small farmers in developing countries, who have benefitted from the spillover of technologies originally targeted at farmers in industrialized countries.

[Excerpt from main article:]

The results for yields indicate that farmers in developing countries are achieving greater yield increases than farmers in developed countries (Table 2). The average yield increases for developing countries range from 16% for insect resistant corn to 30% for insect-resistant cotton, with an 85% yield increase observed in a single study on herbicide-tolerant corn. On average, developed-country farmers report yield increases that range from no change for herbicide-tolerant cotton to a 7% increase for herbicide tolerant soybean and insect-resistant cotton.


GM food options aren't any riskier than others
- Bruce M. Chassy and David E Tribe, The Hill, May 18, 2010

Mr. Jeffery Smith ("Genetically modified food introduces host of dangers" May 10) claimed Senators Lugar and Casey had been duped by the biotech industry because their bipartisan bill states that agricultural biotechnology "shall be used" to conduct research. Mr. Smith would do well to read the language of the bill before offering comment. What the bill attempts to ensure is that biotech research will not be deliberately excluded in the search for solutions by pressure from fear mongers like Mr. Smith. The exact words of the bill: "include research on biotechnological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified technology." That is the only time the words "genetically modified" appear in the bill.

It shouldn't surprise us that Mr. Smith, the self-appointed Executive Director of the Institute for Responsible Technology that he created, and author/publisher of two books about the horrors of genetically modified (GM) crops and foods, should attack a bill that seeks to reduce world hunger. To advance his agenda, he chooses to ignore the repeated findings of the National Academy of Science and the National Research Council that GM foods pose no new, special or different risks to the environment or to food safety than crops produced by any other breeding method. Fifteen years of successful harvests of biotech crops by tens of millions of farmers have proven the technology yields environmental and economic benefits and is safe.

And we expect Mr. Smith to ignore the American Medical Association's (AMA) finding that GM foods are safe to eat and instead favor the words of a tiny splinter group of physicians who formed the American Academy of Environmental Medicine because they could not convince the AMA to accept their radical unscientific positions. We recently launched a website that we call Academics Review (<http://academicsreview.org>http://academicsreview.org) that exposes each of Smith's claimed GM food-caused maladies to scientific scrutiny and contrasts them with findings in peer-reviewed scientific research publications.

Although Smith would have people believe that biotech has been prematurely and irresponsibly unleashed on the world as a result of some conspiracy and must be reined in, in fact quite the opposite is true - if anything needs to be changed, governments need to relax the overzealous, unjustified, and counter-productive hyper-precautionary regulation of GM crops. From a scientific perspective, these crops are no riskier than any other and usually perform better than conventional varieties.


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