* Food for Thought on GM Crops
* Ambitious GM Rice Project Enters Next Phase
* 'He Says/She Says' Just Doesn't Work for Science
* Foes of Genetically Engineered Food Misguided
* Bias Infects The Gray Lady - Junk Science and The New York Times
* Energy Crops Growing On Seawater
* India’s Tryst with GM Crop: The Might of Agri Science
* Global Envision
Food for Thought on GM Crops
- Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Project Syndicate, 2010, July 2, 2010 http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/pinstrupandersen2/English
COPENHAGEN – As the world debates a new climate-change treaty, drought continues in Kenya. Maize plants wither, hitting poor rural families the hardest. People are starving, and many of those who survive are grossly malnourished.
There is hope: next year, the Kenyan authorities will begin testing maize varieties that they hope will provide high yields and prove more resistant to drought. But why did farmers in Kenya and other African countries not have access to drought-resistant crop varieties before catastrophe struck?
One reason is that such crops rely on research tools used in molecular biology, including genetic engineering. African governments have been told that genetic engineering is dangerous, with many Europeans and their national governments – as well as transnational NGOs such as Greenpeace – determined to stay away from it.
Unfortunately, Kenya’s government listened and did not permit their farmers to grow genetically modified (GM) maize, even though it has been approved, sown, harvested, and eaten by both humans and animals in South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, the United States, and other countries for many years. Although Kenya has a well-functioning and well-funded agricultural research system, the government has not even permitted field tests of GM crop varieties.
Molecular biology has provided excellent tools to address health, environmental, and food problems such as those seen in Kenya. The question is whether decision-makers are prepared to use them. Obviously, most EU countries’ governments are not. But why are developing-country governments dragging their feet? Are the risks so high that they justify the suffering that could have been avoided?
GM foods have now been on the market in the US for more than 12 years. Most of the food consumed by Americans is either genetically modified or exposed to genetic modification somewhere in the production process. There is no evidence of even a single case of illness or death as a result – in the US or anywhere else where GM foods are consumed. Similarly, GM feed has not resulted in any illness or death in animals. And no environmental damage has been detected.
It is unusual that a new technology has no negative side effects. Just think of all the deaths that the wheel has caused, not to mention the side effects of much of the medicine we take. What, then, is the danger of GM foods?
Opponents of genetic engineering in food and agriculture have several arguments, none of which appears to be valid. First, “genetic engineering cannot solve the hunger and food insecurity problem.” This is correct: GM foods cannot singlehandedly solve the problem, but they can be an important part of the solution.
A second argument is that “we do not know enough about the effects and side effects.” Since some of the groups opposing GM organisms destroy the field trials that could give us more knowledge, a more pertinent argument might be that many opponents do not want us to know more.
Third, “we should not play God.” But if God gave us brains, it was so that we should use them to ensure a balance between people and nature to help eliminate hunger and protect the environment.
Fourth, pollen from GM crops may “contaminate” organically produced food. This, of course, would be an issue only with open pollinating plants, and only if the definition of “organically produced” excludes GM, something that is difficult to justify, since genes are as organic as anything.
Lastly, some argue that if farmers are permitted to sow GM varieties, they become dependent on large seed producers such as Monsanto, which have patent protection – and thus a monopoly – on the seed. But private corporations undertake only about half of all agricultural research, whether or not it involves genetic engineering. The other half is done by public research systems using public funds. Results from such research would not be subject to private-sector monopoly power. The fact that virtually all US maize and soybean farmers, and all papaya farmers, use GM seed indicates that it is good business for them.
Similarly, a large share of farmers – most of them smallholders – in Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, China, India, and other countries, prefer GM seed because they make more money from the resulting crops. Large reductions in the use of insecticides cut costs for growers of GM varieties, while providing an important health and ecological benefit.
But maybe those who oppose private seed corporations are really against capitalism and the market economy rather than GM seed. If so, they should choose an issue for their campaign that would be less damaging to the poor and hungry in developing countries.
The global food crisis of 2007-2008 was a warning of what the future may hold in store if we continue with business as usual, including misplaced opposition to the use of modern science in food and agriculture. European and developing-country governments urgently need to reverse their current adverse position on GM organisms in order to help ensure sustainable food security for all.
Such a reversal would reduce hunger, poverty, and malnutrition; help protect our planet’s natural resources; and slow the emission of greenhouse gases from agriculture. All that is needed is political will.
Per Pinstrup-Andersen is Professor of Food, Nutrition, and Public Policy at Cornell University and Professor of Development Economics at Copenhagen University, Denmark.
Ambitious GM Rice Project Enters Next Phase
- Rhiannon Smith, Scidev.net, July 1, 2010
An international consortium aiming to re-engineer rice to increase yields by 50 per cent is about to move into the second phase of its decades-long project. The project aims to genetically modify rice to use a more efficient method of photosynthesis — the process by which plants convert carbon dioxide into carbohydrates needed for growth.
Rice has a type of photosynthesis called C3. But some plants, including maize and sorghum, have evolved to use a type called C4. The C4 crops are anatomically different from C3s and are better at concentrating carbon dioxide around a particular enzyme — RuBisCO — which is crucial in photosynthesis.
If the scientists are successful in creating rice that follows the C4 pathway the crop could produce 50 per cent more grain, and would require less water and fertiliser.
The C4 plants work best in hot climates, so could be important as global warming increases. "As temperatures rise, C4 plants will photosynthesise better than C3s," said Richard Leegood, a plant biologist from the UK-based University of Sheffield, which is leading an international team of researchers, coordinated by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.
The project received US$11.1 million of funding over three years from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in October 2008. Most of this money has gone to IRRI, said Leegood, where researchers are doing the mammoth task of screening plants to try to identify the genes that control photosynthesis.
The project is a long-term venture — Leegood says that it will be at least 20 years before the modified rice is available. "Many genes need to be manipulated, then engineered traits need to be transferred into commercial varieties."
Since C3 photosynthesis evolved naturally into the C4 type in other plants more than 60 times through history, Leegood hopes that the public will accept this GM rice. "It is not an unnatural process; it's something that plants do ordinarily."
Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist at the US Department of Agriculture said: "This kind of innovative work is crucial if we are going to meet the demands of an expanding population".. Although there are many other issues that cause food insecurity, Leegood said that this solution could tackle those limitations that are "inherent" in the production of such crops. The Sheffield work forms part of its Project Sunshine, a programme that investigates how the power of the sun can be harnessed to meet the world's increasing food and energy needs.
'He Says/She Says' Just Doesn't Work for Science
- Fiona Fox, BBC, June 29, 2010
Ten years after the last polarised debate about GM, the coverage of two high-profile resignations from a committee of the Food Standards Agency set up to run a new national dialogue on the issue suggests we may be in for an unedifying re-run.
Producers on BBC Radio 4's You and Yours and BBC1's Breakfast contacted the Science Media Centre looking for 'pro' and 'anti' GM guests. And when the science editor on Radio 4's Today went to Norwich to cover the announcement of a rare field trial of GM potatoes, producers rushed to book an anti-GM campaigner to 'balance' the package. The resulting item gave more time to a Friends of the Earth spokesperson than the scientist describing the new work.
If I was to single out one main complaint about the media from the scientific community it would be that journalists tend to be too 'balanced' - in other words, they try to give roughly equal time to opposing viewpoints even when the weight of evidence lies strongly on one side.
Like 'objectivity', the concept of 'balance' is one of journalism's fundamental rules. Some suggest it is rooted in our system of parliamentary democracy and adversarial politics and works well for politics - giving equal treatment to the main political parties.
The Columbia Journalism Review summarised it rather crudely in a piece about media coverage of US elections: "The candidate makes a statement. You write it down, then you call the other side for a response. Tell us what he said, then tell us what she said, and you're covered aren't you?"
But a concept of balance that may work in politics is problematic for science - where findings must be replicated time and time again to eventually reveal where the weight of evidence lies. Or as US science writer Chris Mooney puts it: "The journalistic norm of balance has no corollary in the world of science ... where consensus builds on repeated testing and re-testing of an idea."
The subject has become a hot potato (excuse the pun) in recent years, especially in areas of science that have become controversial - like the safety of the MMR vaccine, climate change and creationism, as well as GM. On all these subjects, the weight of evidence stacked on one side is significant - but I only know that because I work in science. You would be hard pressed to find out from the media.
The obsession with balance had particularly devastating consequences in the case of MMR, when the claims of one maverick doctor about a link between MMR and autism led to a ten-year crisis of confidence in a very safe vaccine. Many argue that it is not Andrew Wakefield but the media which bears responsibility for the MMR scare, because of its insistence on 'balancing' every scientific expert with a Wakefield supporter.
For me, one of the most damning indictments of the media's failure to inform the debate on this key public health story came in a 2003 Economic and Social Research Council survey in the wake of the MMR feeding frenzy. It showed that over two-thirds of the British public believed that medical science was divided on the safety of the vaccine - when in fact there was no such division. Not even Andrew Wakefield claimed that half the medical establishment was on his side. He didn't need to: the media had perpetrated that myth through the pursuit of balance.
There is also a wider question here about the quality of journalism. Media commentator Jay Rosen has accused the media of substituting what he calls 'he says/she says' journalism for proper truth-telling journalism. Rosen suggests that, by portraying the pro and anti side of contested claims, journalists are abdicating their responsibility to find out who is telling the truth.
Given the ever-growing pressures on reporters today, sorting out which competing claim is closest to the truth takes background research that few have time for. This has been clear in the recent GM debates, where the anti-GM campaigners have made considerably more scientific claims than the plant scientists themselves. Yet, without an attempt by journalists to help us work out which are true (and both of them can't be!), the public is simply left to hazard a guess.
In their defence, journalists tell me that objectivity requires them to 'not take sides', but I think that's a different point. I'm not a fan of 'attached journalism' and I am not asking any journalist to put the case for these areas of science.
I am merely saying that in the 'inform' bit of the Reithian trinity of 'inform, educate and entertain' the media has a responsibility for trying to get us closer to the truth, or, if not, then at least to make sure we know where the weight of evidence lies.
The other defence of 'balance' in reporting is what one commentator rather neatly called "regression toward a phoney mean". This is the idea that if the media gives us the two polarised sides of an argument we will conclude that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Again, this concept could not be further from the scientific approach and appears to me to be something of an abdication of the reporter's responsibility to find the truth.
Tropic of Cancer
That said, I suspect the other defence of 'balance' is that it is 'entertaining'. Most producers don't bother to hide their utter disdain when I suggest that having two scientists who look like they may agree would make for an equally entertaining debate. But I mean it. Anyone who reads Fred Pearce's brilliant new book on the UEA (University of East Anglia) emails can testify that the really interesting disputes about the 'Hockey Stick' and other climate science controversies were amongst mainstream scientists themselves, not between scientists and the sceptics.
One of the reasons none of us even knew those disputes had been raging in scientific literature and conferences for the past ten years is that every time a new piece of climate research was published in a journal news editors demanded that the lead author be 'balanced' with a sceptic. Listening to these interviews makes me weep. Locked into this 'we must get both sides' interview format, the scientist who is ready to explain all the caveats and uncertainties in his own study suddenly retreats to a defence of the overall scientific consensus on climate change - a debate we have all heard a hundred times before.
And before you start shouting 'censorship', can I make clear that I do distinguish between a desire for evidence to be accurately represented and the exclusion of legitimate voices from a debate? I am absolutely not arguing that anti-GM groups or climate sceptics should not be given a voice by the media.
I totally agree that many of these debates are about ethics, values and the potential applications and implications, rather than science. I would simply argue that, where views rely on, or cite, scientific evidence, they should be set in the context of the whole body of evidence that exists.
And, yes, scientists do need to be careful not to stray from criticising the obsession with balance into calling for censorship of minority voices. Journalists must be open to scientific ideas that aren't shared by the mainstream. As people often point out, figures like Arpad Puztai and Andrew Wakefield could turn out to be the modern-day Galileo and Einstein. However, very few maverick scientists with minority ideas are proved right in the end, and the media must ensure that, at the very least, the public are aware that these experts represent a tiny minority.
Sections of the media are commendably aware of this issue and, as one senior editor at the BBC often reminds me, 'MMR was ten years ago'. The BBC in particular has debated the issue of balance internally at length. Programmes like Today now regularly cover science more prominently and intelligently than before.
In sharp contrast to the MMR survey, recent surveys on attitudes to climate change have found that the majority of people know that climate scientists agree on the basic science.
But the recent GM debates remind us that knowing that false balance can lead to misleading journalism is one thing: taking steps to fix it is another.
If I were to posit any solution to this problem, I would suggest looking to the specialist science journalists. If there is a group of people who dislike the whole concept of 'balance' more than scientists, it's probably science journalists - as they are frequently victims of their own editors' demands for it. These specialist reporters have the skills and background to brief presenters, editors and producers on the issues and to ensure that, where experts are making conflicting scientific claims, there is at an attempt to tease and out the false claims and distortions. So, not so unlike political reporting after all!
Foes of Genetically Engineered Food Misguided
- (Abilene, TX) June 30, 2010 http://www.reporternews.com
Recent criticism by activists and some mainstream media suggesting that modern day agriculturists are producing unsafe and low quality food in “factory farms,” while mistreating their animals, and that current production systems are destroying the environment, has been found to be without merit after a detailed investigation.
Nonetheless, after the exoneration justification, the facts were generally ignored and the attacks would return using another chapter from the activists’ playbook.
“The reports, comments and documentaries imply that the U.S. could be better off if agriculture would revert to the methods of production used in earlier eras, such as the 1950s,” said Jose Pena, a Texas A&M University economist.
This nation’s agriculture segment has dramatically increased production efficiency during the last 60 years, transforming through evolving production cycles, from industrialization at the turn of the last century, a chemical cycle in the 1960s to the technological revolution currently under way, Pena notes.
“This high-tech evolution, which includes the use of high-tech information systems, the use of crop consultants to frequently monitor/adjust production systems, biological control, integrated pest management and other technical activities, continue to increase production efficiency and guarantee abundant supplies of healthy food at very inexpensive costs to the consumer,” Pena said.
For example, in a recent study by a team of researchers at Texas A&M, led by scientist Dr. Stephen Smith, the 1950s method of growing grass-fed beef may not have as many healthful traits as some perceive.
“High monounsaturated fat ground beef from grain-fed cattle increased HDL, cholesterol, increased LDL particle diameters, and decreased insulin, suggesting that ground beef produced by intensive production practices provides a healthful, high-quality source of protein,” Smith said.
The critics of genetic engineering have been relentless in their attack as well, but their criticism isn’t justified, either. The plants are safe. The food is safe, said John Block, former U.S. agriculture secretary.
“Many different engineered foods are even more nutritious,” he said. “Golden Rice, which has been fortified with vitamin A, will save thousands of lives. We now have sorghum that has been genetically engineered to provide many different needed micronutrients.”
Block said as a boy on the farm, raising a 100-bushel per acre corn crop was unheard of, yet now raising 200 bushels per acre is commonplace.
“Farmers and ranchers grow food and fiber in a highly charged political environment that includes a web of needed and sometimes unneeded regulations, consumer desires, high costs and finite resources,” said Gene Hall, publisher of Texas Farm Bureau’s Texas Agriculture magazine. “Responding to these restraints is why modern agriculture is sustainable.”
James McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University in San Marcos. and Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California at Davis, addressed the critics’ crusade on agriculture in a recent oped column in The New York Times.
“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,” writes McWilliams and Ronald.
“If we continue to allow propaganda to trump science, then the potential for global agriculture to be productive, diverse and sustainable will go unfulfilled. We will not be the ones to suffer the direct consequences, but rather the poorest and most vulnerable,” so states the oped columnists.
The 1.8 percent of this nation’s population which make up the production agricultural sector must begin a meaningful dialogue with the rest of the population, especially with the more vociferous environmental protection segment which continues to express serious concern for the protection of our environment, Pena said.
Why are the critics so shortsighted? Why would they not want us to protect the environment with better farming techniques that can provide more nutritious food which would keep people from starving? questions Block.
Block added: “Are they ignorant or just plain selfish?”
Bias Infects The Gray Lady - Junk Science and The New York Times
- Henry I. Miller, Forbes, June 30, 2010 http://www.forbes.com
New York Times reporter Andrew Pollack seems to have a "thing" about biotechnology--the same sort of thing that creationists have about Darwinism. In what are supposedly news stories, he is relentlessly negative, sometimes almost apocalyptic in tone toward genetic engineering, carefully selecting supposed facts to support his prejudices rather than to educate or explicate.
His April article [ http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/14/business/energy-environment/14crop.html?scp=1&sq=pollack%20%22national%20research%20council%22&st=cse ]"Study Says Overuse Threatens Gains From Modified Crops," about a National Research Council report on genetic engineering applied to agriculture, was remarkable for its selective, downbeat reading of an overwhelmingly positive, pro-science, pro-technology document. The tone and content of that piece suggest several non-exclusive possibilities: Pollack is biased against the technology, a shill for its antagonists or simply poorly informed about the subject.
Well, he was at it again in articles in May and June. His June article [ http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/26/business/26salmon.html?scp=2&sq=pollack%20genetic%20engineering&st=cse ]"Genetically Altered Salmon Get Closer to the Table" omitted essential context about the regulation of animals genetically engineered for food--namely, that among the possible alternatives the FDA had selected the most extensive, expensive and anti-innovative regulatory regime.
Why is that important? Because without that information, readers will have no clue as to why "[t]he developer of the salmon has been trying to get approval for a decade." A decade? As a former FDA reviewer and director of its Office of Biotechnology, I think that approval should have taken closer to 10 weeks than 10 years. (The salmon has been engineered to produce one new protein that causes it to grow to maturity more rapidly than usual but that is devoid of any biological activity in humans.)
Compounding his failure to explain the context of FDA regulation, Pollack resorts to one of his favorite tricks, dredging up quotes from two doctrinaire anti-biotechnology activists to suggest that the FDA's stultifying regulation should be even more stringent, dilatory and debilitating. Pollack's May 28 article is even worse. The headline[ http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/28/business/28hazard.html?scp=1&sq=pollack%20wilson&st=cse ]--"Safety Rules Can't Keep Up With Biotech Industry"--says it all. All wrong, that is.
To begin with, Pollack and co-author Duff Wilson conflate biotechnology, which usually refers to the genetic engineering of organisms using modern techniques, with microbiology, a scientific discipline that has been around since Pasteur's seminal 19th-century experiments on the causes and prevention of infectious diseases.
There is ambiguity in terminology, to be sure. The terms "biotechnology" and "genetic engineering" do not represent natural groupings of processes or products. They connote something different to various organizations, congressional staffers, journalists and members of the public. Pollack and other anti-biotechnology activists exploit this confusion. In the May article he asserts that "biotechnology labs ... can be a dangerous place to work," and cites examples of lab personnel who became ill after being infected by microorganisms that cause bubonic plague, meningitis or gastroenteritis.
But these are the occupational hazards of microbiology, not of biotechnology; these kinds of illnesses, both inside and outside laboratories, predate the modern biotechnology era by centuries. In the late 1960s one of my college classmates working in the microbiology lab of an eminent M.I.T. professor accidentally pipetted Salmonella bacteria into her mouth. She experienced a couple of days of severe abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea--and vowed never again to use a mouth pipette to transfer bacteria.
Such occurrences with microorganisms are well-known, including laboratory accidents with bacteria and viruses much more virulent than Salmonella: The first published reports of what are termed "laboratory-associated infections" (LAIs) first appeared around the start of the 20th century; by 1978 four studies had identified a total of 4,079 LAIs that between 1930 and 1978 resulted in 168 deaths.
So let us return to Pollack's thesis that "biotechnology" labs are dangerous, perhaps uniquely so, and that there is insufficient government guidance about safety. He devotes a single sentence to the invaluable reference book that debunks his thesis. The scholarly publication [ http://www.cdc.gov/biosafety/publications/BMBL_5th_Edition.pdf ]"Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories," produced jointly by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, is now in its fifth edition (2007), the first of which was published in 1984. It does, in fact, provide comprehensive guidance for the handling and physical safety measures required for all microorganisms known to cause disease, whether modified by the techniques of modern biotechnology or not.
The lab researcher's bible, this handbook's recommendations are adhered to by every research and commercial laboratory of which I am aware. Had Pollack and Wilson bothered actually to read this document, they would have discovered that there is not a single mention of or warning about "biotechnology," "genetic engineering" or "genetic modification" as a risk factor that needs to be taken into consideration when determining what safety procedures and equipment are required.
What, then, are the risk factors? They include such mainstays of microbiological risk analysis as the severity of the disease that the organism can cause, infectiousness (the number of organisms needed to cause illness), the mode of transmission (through the air, via ingestion or by injection, for example) and the availability of drug therapy in case of illness.
Finally, Pollack resorts again to eliciting a quote from a like-minded ignoramus to support his own prejudices. In this case he has found a cooperative, know-nothing Obama political appointee: "Even the head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration acknowledges that his agency's 20th-century rules have not yet caught up with the 21st-century biotech industry. 'Worker safety cannot be sacrificed on the altar of innovation,' said David Michaels, OSHA's new director. 'We have inadequate standards for workers exposed to infectious materials.'"
Michaels, too, needs to sit down and read the CDC/NIH biosafety handbook. Not that that's likely to change his mind. A political hack with a clear anti-R&D agenda, Michaels is the author of a 2008 book entitled "Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's War on Science Threatens Your Health." Just the sort of disinterested, unbiased, objective viewpoint one hopes for in a senior government regulator of American innovation.
Instead of (ab)using the Times to flack for Michaels, maybe Pollack should take it up full-time. It might not pay as well, but it would be more honest.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is The Frankenfood Myth.
Energy Crops Growing On Seawater
- Ceres,Inc. June 30, 2010 http://www.ceres.net/
Ceres Salt-Tolerant Trait Could Unlock Millions More Acres of Marginal Cropland
Energy crop company Ceres, Inc. announced today that it has developed a plant trait that could bring new life to millions of acres of abandoned or marginal cropland damaged by salts. Results in several crops, including switchgrass, have shown levels of salt tolerance not seen before.
Ceres reported that its researchers tested the effects of very high salt concentrations and also seawater from the Pacific Ocean, which contains mixtures of salts in high-concentration, on improved energy grass varieties growing in its California greenhouses. Energy grasses, such as sorghum, miscanthus and switchgrass, are highly productive sources of biomass, a carbon-neutral feedstock used for both biofuel production and electricity generation.
“Today, we have energy crops thriving on seawater alone,” said Richard Hamilton, Ceres President and CEO. “The goal, of course, is not for growers to water their crops with seawater, but to enable cropland abandoned because of salt or seawater effects to be put to productive uses.”
Currently, there are over one billion acres of abandoned cropland1 globally that could benefit from this trait and others in Ceres’ pipeline, and 15 million acres of salt-affected soils2 in the U.S. The company now plans to evaluate energy crops with its proprietary salt-tolerant trait at field scale. If results are confirmed, biofuel and biopower producers will have more choices for locating new facilities, gaining greater productivity on marginal land and displacing even greater amounts of fossil fuels.
“In the end, this is not so much a salt trait, but a productivity trait and a land-use trait,” Hamilton said. “I am convinced more than ever that techniques of modern plant science can continue to deliver innovations that increase yields and reduce the footprint of agriculture. Improved energy crops will enable the bioenergy industry to scale far beyond the limits of conventional wisdom.”
Chief Scientific Officer Richard Flavell said that Ceres’ salt-tolerant trait could provide significant benefits to food production, too. In conventional plant breeding, breakthroughs in one crop have little bearing on another crop. However, by using techniques of modern biology to develop traits, researchers can duplicate this trait much more easily, and extend the benefits from energy to staple food crops.
“Soils containing salt and other growth-limiting substances restrict crop production in many locations in the world. This genetic breakthrough provides new opportunities to overcome the effects of salt,” said Flavell. In food crops, Ceres has confirmed the trait in rice to date and is preparing additional testing in others.
Flavell believes that salt-tolerant crops need to be combined with better land and water management practices as well as with agronomic techniques that minimize salt build-up in the soil. Furthermore, like first-generation traits, plant traits developed by Ceres can be stacked together to revolutionize plant yields.
“When we begin stacking together salt tolerance, drought tolerance and traits that allow plants to require less nitrogen fertilizer, we can deliver significant productivity and yield increases with fewer inputs than used in the first Green Revolution, as well as valuable increases on marginal or abandoned cropland that does not currently sustain economic yields,” said Flavell.
ABOUT CERES - Ceres is a leading developer of energy crops that can be planted as feedstocks for advanced biofuels, biopower and bio-based products. Its development efforts include switchgrass, high-biomass sorghum, sweet sorghum, miscanthus and energycane. The company markets its seeds under its Blade Energy Crops brand. Ceres holds one of the world’s largest proprietary collections of fully sequenced plant genes.
India’s Tryst with GM Crop: The Might of Agri Science
- Dr. Shanthu Shantharam, Commodity Online (India) June 30, 2010 http://www.commodityonline.com/news/India%E2%80%99s-tryst-with-GM-Crop-The-might-of-agri-science-29564-2-1.html
One hears a constant din about food and nutritional security in India, a multi-dimensional development challenge for a developing country like India. And, solutions have never been easy.
One thing is for certain that increasing sustainable food production must be secured before one can think of tackling food security challenges. Indian agriculture faces constant challenges to its productivity by both biotic and abiotic challenges coupled with certain drought and high temperature conditions due to the climate change.
Land area for agriculture will not increase and we need to grow more on less land. Saline soils will have to be brought under cultivation. The only way out is to deploy the best possible science and technology that the country can obtain.
After green revolution technologies, the next alternative is to adopt products of modern biotechnology and genetic engineering, viz transgenic or Genetically Modified (GM) crops that are becoming a critical component of world agriculture.
India has embarked on a path to promote and investment in modern biotechnology with much fanfare. However, when it comes to modernizing agriculture with GM crops, it is taking hesitant steps, mostly due to the anti-technology activism. Notwithstanding the virulent campaign against GM crops, they must be considered a critical option for food production in India as they are the products of one of the most refined science and technology of our times. There will always and there have always been detractors and critics whenever a new option is presented.
Green revolution was also accepted rather hesitatingly, and even to this day those who oppose GM crops maintain that green revolution was a big mistake. Agriculture, after the green revolution, has not had any major technological breakthrough until the gene splicing technology (GM technology) presented an opportunity to deploy beneficial traits and characteristics in a hitherto unprecedented fashion.
Our staple foods like rice and wheat, however much we are culturally conditioned to them, lack many micro-nutrients, and need to be fortified to provide balanced diet. Their cultivation faces some serious biotic and abiotic constraints that cannot be overcome with conventional technologies.
External fortification has been tried for decades and has been useful only to a limited extent. The most proficient way of delivering fortified food is to build them into the seeds in a genetically stable fashion.
In fact, in all agriculture, the seed comes first and seed comes last. If the seed is no good, then, there is no hope. No other input or any other technology will help except the transgenic technology based on the gene splicing techniques where we have the means to insert any desirable gene at will, a hitherto unprecedented opportunity.
Conventional approaches to GM have limitations and many beneficial traits cannot be incorporated unless they are genetically compatible. In case of transgenics, it breaks that sexual incompatibility glass ceiling, and sky is the limit to move useful and needed traits and characters with ease resulting in a modern day GM crop.
It must be borne in mind that all crops and animals in agriculture are all genetically modified, albeit using different methods or techniques, and the modern day GM crop is genetically modified using gene-splicing technology, a significant advancement over the existing continuum of crop and genetic improvement sciences. This way, one can breach the genetic glass ceiling and enrich the genetic diversity of our major food crops. E.g. Golden rice in which, beta-carotene gene is expressed in rice to deliver Vitamin A to vitamin deficient people.
India has the largest population of Vitamin A Deficient (VAD) in the world, and its major staple food is rice, which is bereft of any valuable micro-nutrient. This is also true of major staple crops of Africa where there is chronic malnutrition and hunger.
India needs to grow more food for its burgeoning population, and green revolution technologies may not be sufficient to meet the demand. Green revolution is fatigued, and India needs second green revolution or an evergreen revolution, and such technological miracles are only possible with advances in modern science and technology.
GM crops technology is the next best available option to prevent crop losses due to pests, diseases, and drought in an environmentally friendly way. Another need of the hour is to prevent post-harvest losses using best possible technologies. Using more and more inputs for food production in ever shrinking agricultural land will be the biggest challenge. That challenge can only be met by modern science and technology. GM crops technology have become much more powerful with the advent of genomics and proteomics, where in all sorts of powerful combinations of biological tools will be available to improve crop productivity.
Synthetic biology, nano-biotechnology and bioinformatics, all are transformative technologies that need to be exploited to improve nation’s farming.
The idea that Indian agriculture does not need modern science and technology, as some people argue, is a recipe for disaster. Just think of information technology that has completely turned the whole world into a global village.
Such technologies must not be discarded or delayed for ideological reasons or romantic notions. Some who are opposed to modern biotechnology abhor commercialization of biological sciences, but don’t mind commercialization of all other sciences from which they all derive day to day benefits.
So what if biology has been turned into a commercial technology. This is 21st century and the world has become a knowledge based economy, and that is how one can sustain the burgeoning population in the world. Just creating knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a waste. Knowledge must be deployed for the benefit of the society. GM technology is scale neutral and all farmers’ rich and poor alike will benefit from it.
GM crops technology has been in existence since 1996 and has been adopted by 25 countries of the world to almost 1 billion acres. In US alone, more than 300 million people consume GM foods daily, and there has not been a single instance of fatality or harm.
This is the world’s largest human feeding trial that is ongoing. GM foods have been evaluated for safety and adverse environmental impacts by some of the leading scientific and regulatory organizations in the world. There should really be no hesitation on India’s part to adopt the technology products when it has a robust regulatory system to assure public safety.
This endless debate about the safety of GM foods must end, and that may happen when an independent regulatory authority like the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) is established expeditiously.
There are some voices that will keep on harping, no matter how much evidence is thrown in support of GM food’s safety, and such people will never be satisfied. Time has come to send a strong message to the Indian public that the nation is on a war path to increase its agricultural productivity, and will not balk at commandeering the might of all science and technology that it can muster.
The Indian scientific community must speak directly to the people of India and assure them of the risks and benefits of modern technologies and help India tackle the food security crisis.
The author is Executive Director, Association of Biotech Led Enterprises – Special Interest Group on Agri-Biotechnology (ABLE – SIGAB). Author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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