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May 17, 2010


COMESA supports GM; EU in 'virtual land grab'; Toxins in crop plants


Today in AgBioView*
>From AgBioWorld, May 17, 2010

* Genetically Engineered Distortions
* Gates backs GM crops: tech must help farmers, rising population
* COMESA urge genetically modified seed among members
* SA'S GM maize 'completely safe'
* Land grabbing: is the EU the largest net importer of 'virtual' land?
* Screening Crop Plants for Toxins
* Principles for evaluating transgenic approaches to gene modulation in crops
* Genetically Modified Food (video)


Genetically Engineered Distortions
- Pamela C. Ronald and James E. McWilliams, New York Times, May 14, 2010

A REPORT by the National Research Council last month gave ammunition to both sides in the debate over the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. More than 80 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States is genetically engineered, and the report details the "long and impressive list of benefits" that has come from these crops, including improved soil quality, reduced erosion and reduced insecticide use.

It also confirmed predictions that widespread cultivation of these crops would lead to the emergence of weeds resistant to a commonly used herbicide, glyphosate (marketed by Monsanto as Roundup). Predictably, both sides have done what they do best when it comes to genetically engineered crops: they've argued over the findings.

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. 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.

Appreciating this potential 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.

Scientists at nonprofit institutions have been working for more than two decades to genetically engineer seeds that could benefit farmers struggling with ever-pervasive dry spells and old and novel pests. Drought-tolerant cassava, insect-resistant cowpeas, fungus-resistant bananas, virus-resistant sweet potatoes and high-yielding pearl millet are just a few examples of genetically engineered foods that could improve the lives of the poor around the globe.

For example, researchers in the public domain have been working to engineer sorghum crops that are resistant to both drought and an aggressively parasitic African weed, Striga.

In a 1994 pilot project by the United States Agency for International Development, an experimental variety of engineered sorghum had a yield four times that of local varieties under adverse conditions. Sorghum, a native of the continent, is a staple throughout Africa, and improved sorghum seeds would be widely beneficial.

As well as enhancing yields, engineered seeds can make crops more nutritious. A new variety of rice modified to produce high amounts of provitamin A, named Golden Rice, will soon be available in the Philippines and, if marketed, would almost assuredly save the lives of thousands of children suffering from vitamin A deficiency.

There's also a sorghum breed that's been genetically engineered to produce micronutrients like zinc, and a potato designed to contain greater amounts of protein.

To appreciate the value of genetic engineering, one need only examine the story of papaya. In the early 1990s, Hawaii's papaya industry was facing disaster because of the deadly papaya ringspot virus. Its single-handed savior was a breed engineered to be resistant to the virus. Without it, the state's papaya industry would have collapsed. Today, 80 percent of Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered, and there is still no conventional or organic method to control ringspot virus.

The real significance of the papaya recovery is not that genetic engineering was the most appropriate technology delivered at the right time, but rather that the resistant papaya was introduced before the backlash against engineered crops intensified.

Opponents of genetically engineered crops have spent much of the last decade stoking consumer distrust of this precise and safe technology, even though, as the research council's previous reports noted, engineered crops have harmed neither human health nor the environment.

In doing so, they have pushed up regulatory costs to the point where the technology is beyond the economic reach of small companies or foundations that might otherwise develop a wider range of healthier crops for the neediest farmers. European restrictions, for instance, make it virtually impossible for scientists at small laboratories there to carry out field tests of engineered seeds.

As it now stands, opposition to genetic engineering has driven the technology further into the hands of a few seed companies that can afford it, further encouraging their monopolistic tendencies while leaving it out of reach for those that want to use it for crops with low (or no) profit margins.

The stakes are too high 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. And it's not those of us here in the developed world who will suffer the direct consequences, but rather the poorest and most vulnerable.

Pamela C. Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, is the co-author of "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food." James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, is the author of "Just Food."


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

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.


COMESA urge genetically modified seed among members
- Mutale Kapekele, Sunday Post (Zambia), May 16, 2010

COMESA secretary general Sindiso Ngwenya has urged member countries to consider genetically modifying their seed to increase yields in the region.

Speaking at the Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa (ACTESA) stakeholders meeting on Friday, Ngwenya said modifying seed as Malawi was doing would increase yields threefold in the region.

"Malawi tried to do some genetic seed modification and they have now increased their yields threefold," Ngwenya said. "If all member countries do that, we shall 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, SeedCo a Zambian agro supplier is exporting to other countries, which I will not mention, but they have to adhere to different seed specification in each of those countries. If we harmonise, the seed trade will flourish."

He said increased production of agricultural crops depended not only on the development of higher-yielding varieties of seeds but also on the efficiency of the systems available to ensure the seeds 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. "Some factors include; trade restrictions, restrictive regulations and standards, lack of access to improved seed, diseconomies of scale arising from 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 agreement, COMESA member states agreed to harmonisation of seed laws, policies and procedures.

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


SA'S GM maize 'completely safe'
- Business Report (South Africa) May 17, 2010

South African maize from genetically modified (GM) crops is completely safe for human and animal consumption, an independent biotechnology consultant Dr Wynand van der Walt said on Monday.

He was responding to comments by the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) that South Africa had "dumped" GM maize on African markets, including Kenya, Mozambique and Swaziland.

"It is a pity that repeated media releases by ACB ignore basic facts and wallow in distorted information.

"Both South Africa and Kenya followed exactly the procedural requirements under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, and the allegation that our maize is being dumped on African markets contrary to Protocol rules, is a blatant lie."

Van der Walt said South African regulatory authorities had a working relationship with their counterparts in Swaziland and there was "no dumping".

He said as part of the conditions attached to shipments to Kenya the maize must be milled upon discharge.

"It is impossible for maize meal to contaminate Africa.

"It is a fact that distorted half truths contaminate public opinion."

Van der Walt said Kenya needed well over 200,000 metric tons of maize to overcome seasonal shortages that were presently causing millions of Kenyan citizens "to go to bed on empty stomachs".

Van der Walt said the ACB's director Mariam Mayet -- who was also a representative of GreenPeace in South Africa -- should explain whether she worked for foreign interests or in the interest of South Africa.

"She has neither a mandate to interfere in grain trade aimed at feeding hungry Africans in Kenya, nor accountability to people who suffer from food insecurity," Van der Walt said.

On Friday, the ACB issued a statement saying that Kenya lacked the capacity to ensure the safe handling and monitoring of huge volumes of South African GM maize.

"The arrival of 280 000 tons of GM maize into Kenya presents the potential for genetic contamination on an unimaginable scale," Mayet said in the statement.

She said the latest available figures from the United Nations indicated that improved maize production in Kenya and Mozambique would result in increased food security in the two countries in the coming year.

"In both cases, analysts have stated that any remaining shortages can be plugged by inter-regional trade and government policies, without the need to impose GM organisms on countries that have no infrastructure to safely handle them."

She said neither Kenya, Mozambique nor Swaziland, had functional biosafety legislation in place, "let alone monitoring capacities".

Mayet said her organisation condemned "the underhand tactics and dubious motives" behind the GM shipments.

ACB demanded that the South African genetically modified organism authorities conduct their affairs transparently, in a way that respected the country's neighbours "in keeping with the original intentions of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety".


Land grabbing: is the EU the largest net importer of agricultural produce and 'virtual' land?
- OPERA/Research Centre of Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (press release), May 11, 2010

The independent Research Centre OPERA* presented today (Tuesday 11th May 2010) in B russels, a new research report that warns that the European Union mus t encourage agricultural innovation and productivity increases to avoid charges of territorial "land grabbing".

Authors of the study are Professor Harald von Witzke of the Humboldt University of Berlin and Steffen Noleppa of agripol - network for policy advice. The research details the development of EU agricultural trade between 1999 and 2008 and quantifies the substantial acreage cultivated in other countries to fulfil Europe.s demand for food, animal feed and biofuels. It shows that in 2007/2008 almost 35 million hectares of land beyond European borders was used for the benefit of Europeans, with the EU the world.s largest importer of agricultural products.

"That.s an astonishing figure: it.s almost equivalent to the entire territory of Germany," said Professor Ettore Capri, Director of OPERA Research Centre. "This is exactly why we wanted bring these figures to the table so that the decision makers can take them into account."

The report is called "EU Agricultural Production and Trade: Can More Efficiency Prevent Increasing 'Land-Grabbing' Outside Of Europe?" It gives the most comprehensive analysis of agricultural trade with Europe, and the impact of this trade on land-use decisions outside the EU. It.s the first such analysis embracing all 27 European Member states and it covers approximately 40 crops and 240 tradable commodity groups - more than any recent study available.

It finds that the EU has become the world.s largest net importer of agricultural produce, and therefore the largest user of agricultural land that is not its own. In 2008 the 27 Member states of the EU exported US$127.6 billion of agricultural commodities, but imported produce valued at US$173.1 - a net import of US$45.5 billion.

The report.s authors use a complex indicator-based approach to convert the EU.s international agricultural trade data into trade in 'virtual. land' "For instance, if it takes 'X' hectares to produce one metric ton of wheat, then exporting that wheat to Europe is equivalent to exporting 'X' hectares of virtual land," said Humboldt University.s Harald von Witzke, leading author of the "Land-Grab" report.

The EU is now a net exporter of virtual land in wheat and coarse grains only. It.s importing virtual land in all other commodities and commodity groups. Soybean alone accounts for more than 50% of the net import of virtual land.

"We.re quick to raise our eyebrows at the acquisition of land in other countries by resource-hungry nations," von Witzke said. "But we.re doing exactly the same, albeit virtually through market forces instead of foreign investment."

The Humboldt University/agripol analysis shows that between 1999 and 2008 Europe.s use of foreign land for its own agricultural production has grown by 40%, or 10 million hectares. It says the issue is compounded by change in land use in many virtual land-exporting countries, and increasing greenhouse gas emissions from the conversion from forests, grasslands and refuge into cropland.

It analyses the effect of three potential scenarios within a reformed European agricultural policy; enhancing agricultural yields, increasing area under organic farming, and expanding the use of biofuels. Of these, enhancing the yields in Europe, seems the solution to reduce circumvent externalisation of food sources.

The report maintains that encouraging agricultural innovation and increasing productivity in major crops by just 0.3 percentage points per year would reduce the need to farm 5.3 million hectares of cropland outside the EU. If annual incremental growth rate in the EU.s agricultural production had doubled between 1999 and 2008, it says, the importation of virtual land would have been about 10 million hectares less and would have remained roughly at the 1999 level. By contrast, expanding the acreage of organically farmed land to 20% would increase virtual land importation by almost 30%.

And policies to achieve the EU's 10% biofuel objective would also increase the rate of land-grabs. OPERA's Policy Team Coordinator, Alexandru Marchis says the EU is not only morally obliged to enhance agricultural yields and use its own land as effectively as possible, but should also be looking at the issue from a strategic perspective.

The term 'land grabbing' has hugely emotive connotations but the EU has to acknowledge the global implications of its policy decisions and the effects generated by not tackling the issue of competitiveness and productivity of European agriculture. "Long-term food security is a major issue. The EU should be working now to encourage all means of increasing the productivity of our farmland," Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Mairead McGuinness said at the panel discussion which followed the event.

"The challenge is to produce more using less of our scarce resources; land, energy and water. The challenge is also to produce better in terms of high quality, high value produce. " "To secure long-term productivity growth in agriculture not just in Europe, but around the world, it is necessary for countries to provide increased public funding for agricultural research and to create a policy environment that encourages private research investment," added McGuinness.

The full study is available online at


Screening Crop Plants for Toxins
- ScienceDaily, May 14, 2010

John Innes Centre scientists are working on a way to screen crop plants for a toxic accumulation. The genetic screen will be particularly useful for crops grown in tropical and sub-Saharan Africa.

Many plants, in response to predators or herbivores, release hydrogen cyanide to defend themselves. Cyanide precursors are kept in a compartment in the cell. Tissue damage allows them to break out of the compartment and mix with a degrading enzyme in the cell. This produces toxic, bitter hydrogen cyanide that repels the herbivore.

This mechanism, known as cyanogenesis, is found in two thirds of the main crop species eaten worldwide, including maize, sugar cane and some legumes. The major impacts on human health are seen when it is the edible part of the plant that produces cyanogenic compounds, such as in cassava roots. In fodder crops such as sorghum it can lead to livestock poisoning.

Without correct processing, high levels of hydrogen cyanide in the food can cause neural disease and permanent paralysis, a condition known as konzo. In drought conditions, the cyanide levels increase even higher.

Cassava is the third largest source of carbohydrates for human food in the world after wheat and rice. The bitter varieties, favoured by farmers because of their better resistance to pests, contain two cyanogenic compounds. Various processing methods are used to remove them, such as by soaking in water for several days.

Finding less toxic strains of these crops is a high priority, and a new genetic screen developed at the John Innes Centre will help in this search. Researchers, working on a collaborative program sponsored by the Danmarks Grundforskningsfonden (Danish National Research Foundation) with colleagues at the University of Copenhagen, developed a high-throughput way of detecting cyanogenesis-deficient mutant plants. Using the model legume Lotus japonicus, they screened more than 40,000 plants in just 10 days, identifying 44 cyanogenesis deficient mutants.

"We are keen to extend this work to crop plants and cassava is the big target. If we could set up a system we could get to a non-cyanogenic variety of cassava quite quickly," said Professor Cathie Martin of the John Innes Centre. "We're now looking to identify populations of cassava that we can screen so that we can get non-cyanogenic lines to trial for performance in the field."

The study also found that some mutants were deficient in cyanogenesis only in certain parts of the plant and not in others, suggesting, for example, it may be possible to find mutants that retain cyanogenesis in leaves but don't make the dangerous toxins in the edible roots of cassava. This would enable crops to keep their valuable defence mechanisms against pests, and yet reduce the considerable time required for preparation of food using cyanogenic crops and the risk to human health.

Dr Jonathan Clarke, Head of Business Development at the John Innes Centre, an institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, (BBSRC), is working with Prof Martin to apply this technology. "The effects of cyanogenic crops impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. The problem is increased during times of drought when the toxin levels increase and water for soaking is unavailable" said Dr Jonathan Clarke. "We have developed a simple, rapid, and low cost screen. We are now seeking funding to use this to produce non-cyanogenic cassava for Africa."


Application of food and feed safety assessment principles to evaluate transgenic approaches to gene modulation in crops
- Wayne Parrott, Bruce Chassy, Jim Ligon, Linda Meyer, Jay Petrick, Junguo Zhou, Rod Herman, Bryan Delaney and Marci Levine, Food and Chemical Toxicology (in press), doi:10.1016/j.fct.2010.04.017 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2010.04.017>http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2010.04.017


New crop varieties containing traits such as enhanced nutritional profiles, increased yield, and tolerance to drought are being developed. In some cases, these new traits are dependent on small RNAs or regulatory proteins such as transcription factors (TF) that modify the expression of endogenous plant genes. To date, the food and feed safety of genetically modified (GM) crops has been assessed by the application of a set of internationally accepted procedures for evaluating the safety of GM crops. The goal of this paper is to review the main aspects of the current safety assessment paradigm and to recommend scientifically sound principles for conducting a safety assessment for GM crops that are developed by technologies that modify endogenous plant gene expression. Key considerations for such a safety assessment include the following:

(1) RNA and TF are generally recognized as safe (GRAS);

(2) Genes encoding RNAi and regulatory proteins such as TFs are an important component of the plant genome;

(3) Crops engineered using RNAi modifications are not expected to produce heterologous proteins;

(4) The modulation of TFs may result in quantitative differences in endogenous plant components, which can be assessed through agronomic performance and compositional analysis on a case-by-case basis.


Genetically Modified Food
- YouTube, May 12, 2010

A short animation about how genetic modification works, using Bt maize as an example. Made for a school science project.


*Compiled by Andrew Apel, guest editor.

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