Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on

Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives





August 3, 2010


Excessive Regulation; US Farmers for Sanctions Against EU; Dear PM, Lift the Moratorium; How to Feed a Hungry World


* Regulation Must Be Revolutionized
* U.S. Farmers Urge Sanctions Against EU's GM Crop Ban
* EU Governments Seen Opposing GM Crop Proposals
* GM Crop Produces Massive Gains for Women's Employment In India
* India: GM Food Technology Gets Montek Singh’s Endorsement
* Dear Prime Minister of India, Can You Please Lift the Moratorium on Bt Brinjal?
* 'Nature' special issue: How to Feed a Hungry World
* Food: Inside The Hothouses of Industry

Regulation Must Be Revolutionized

- Ingo Potrykus, Nature, July 29, 2010, Vol 466 p561

'Unjustified and impractical legal requirements are stopping genetically engineered crops from saving millions from starvation and malnutrition, says Ingo Potrykus.'

Genetically engineered crops could save many millions from starvation and malnutrition — if they can be freed from excessive regulation. That’s the conclusion I’ve reached from my experience over the past 11 years chairing the Golden Rice Humanitarian project ( http://www.goldenrice.org ), and after a meeting at the Vatican last year on transgenic plants for food security in the context of development.

Golden rice will probably reach the market in 2012 even though it was ready in the lab by 1999. This is because of the regulatory differentiation of genetic engineering from other, traditional methods of crop improvement. The discrimination is scientifically unjustified. It is wasting resources and stopping many potentially transformative crops such as golden rice making the leap from lab to plate. More defensible — on scientific and humanitarian grounds — and more practical would be for new genetically modified crops to be regulated, not according to how they are bred, but according to their novelty, as are new drugs. All traits, however introduced, should be classified by their putative risk or benefit to the consumer and to the environment. Researchers and regulators could then focus on cases in which risks are real and fast track crops urgently needed in the developing world.

Golden rice is a series of varieties modified with two genes (phytoene synthase and phytoene double-desaturase) to produce up to 35 micrograms of vitamin A precursor per gram of edible rice. Within the normal diet of rice-dependent poor populations, it could provide sufficient vitamin A to reduce substantially the 6,000 deaths a day due to vitamin- A-deficiency, and to save the sight of several hundred thousand people per year. None of the existing varieties of rice have even low levels of the vitamin A precursor in the part we eat, so conventional breeding cannot increase it. Golden rice was possible only with genetic engineering.

The crop was stalled at the development stages for more than ten years by the working conditions and requirements demanded by regulations. For example we lost two years to the deletion of the marker gene, more than two for the permission to test golden rice in the field, more than four years in collecting data for a regulatory dossier that would satisfy any national biosafety authority. I therefore hold the regulation of genetic engineering responsible for the death and blindness of thousands of children and young mothers.

Our experience is far from unique. It generally takes about ten times more money and ten years longer to bring a genetically modified crop to market than a non-genetically modified one. This keeps public research institutions out of the game and has given a handful of companies a de facto monopoly on the technology. Private ventures justifiably focus on the most profitable opportunities — industrial crops such as corn, cotton and soya beans. Genetic engineering, however, has massive potential to also address food-security problems — to increase yield by protecting subsistence food crops from pests and diseases, to strengthen crops’ competition with weeds and to improve plants’ nutritional value.

Existing regulation demands many years of tests covering aspects such as molecular safety and biochemical safety. Yet multiple international agencies have found genetic engineering crop technology to be benign. There have not been any substantiated cases of harm to the environment or to humans, even in the litigious United States where the adoption of genetic engineering is widespread. Meanwhile, a new plant created by traditional breeding methods — which also modify the genome — requires no safety data, only the demonstration that it performs at least as well as others. This is a quick and cheap process. This imbalance allows non-scientific opponents of genetic engineering to raise unfounded concerns, which a nervous public cannot properly evaluate, especially in Europe.

Running the gauntlet
All of this means that engineering varieties for the public good depends — ironically — upon the private sector.
Golden rice is a prime example 2. Only within the framework of a public–private partnership with Syngenta was our team able to navigate the GE product-development morass. Without Syngenta we could not, for example, have reduced the number of patents involved, secured free licences, established managerial and marketing structures or developed plants that are optimized to meet regulatory requirements and to express high levels of desired traits 3.

Yet it is the responsibility of the public sector to address the crop needs of poor people. And it is wiser to spend public funds on feeding the world’s growing population than on jumping through regulatory hoops, or worse on spurious, politically expedient, research into hypothetical risks for the environment or the consumer, which have already been studied carefully over the past 25 years. So regulation needs a radical overhaul.

A good next step would be for a country with political and economic independence to recognize the arguments in favour of reducing the current regulatory burden for genetically engineered crops. Such a country would gain enormously by freeing funds, time and energy for research, development and deployment of many more genetically engineered crops for poor people; its public sector and small enterprises will be able to compete with the larger enterprises, whose monopoly will be broken. Without compromising safety, that nation would easily progress faster than those continuing to focus on hypothetical risks, and it would provide some much needed leadership.

Perhaps then lab-ready varieties from the public domain such as golden cassava, golden banana, iron-, zinc- and protein-rich rice might get from bench to belly in 5 years, rather than 15, if at all.
Ingo Potrykus is chairman of the Golden Rice

Golden Rice: A Difficult Birth
1974–1990 Technology development
1990–99 Science for proof of concept
1999–2012 Product development/deregulation
2000 Intellectual-property rights
2001 GMO-competent partners
2002 Transfer to Indica varieties
2003 Regulatory clean events
2004 Regulatory clean line at 6 micro g/g 2005 Agronomic normality in field tests
2006 Identification of target varieties 2007 Introgression into target varieties
2008 Selection of lead events
2010 Completion of optimised varieties
2012 Deregulation and transfer to farmers

U.S. Farmers Urge Sanctions Against EU's GM Crop Ban

- Doug Palmer, Reuters, July 28, 2010

The largest U.S. farm group has urged the Obama administration to begin steps towards imposing sanctions on the European Union in a longrunning dispute over the EU's treatment of genetically modified crops.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, in comments given to the administration on Monday, complained the EU still has not complied with a 2006 World Trade Organization ruling against its "de facto" moratorium on approving new varieties of biotech crops for sale in the 27-nation bloc.

"The inability of the EU to operate a timely and predictable regulatory process ended U.S. corn exports (to the EU) in 1998 and has reduced corn byproducts substantially," the Farm Bureau said in its recommendations for President Barack Obama's National Export Initiative. "If the EU does not immediately begin to make timely, science-based regulatory decisions on pending and future applications, soybean exports also are at serious risk," the farm group said. "USTR should initiate a retaliation proceeding against the EU to force compliance with the WTO ruling on GMOs (genetically-modified organisms)," the group said.

The request comes just a few days before U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk is due to give a speech in Pittsburgh on the Obama administration's efforts to ensure other countries live up to trade agreements. U.S. farmers have widely embraced genetically modified crops, which offer higher yields with reduced pesticides. But the technology is viewed with suspicion by many European consumers because of perceived safety concerns.

The United States first challenged the EU's de facto moratorium and other policies that impeded sales of U.S. genetically modified crops at the WTO in 2003 and was joined by Canada and Argentina. The WTO's 2006 ruling largely backed the complaint brought by the three countries, who argued the EU was failing to apply its own scientific approval procedures to GM products.

Since then, the United States has agreed at least twice to give the EU more time to comply with the ruling Washington also began steps in January 2008 to retaliate against the European Union, but later suspended that action.

The Farm Bureau initially supported the U.S. government decision not to retaliate in the case in the hope the two sides would find a way to "normalize" trade in biotech crops. Now the group said it has changed its mind. "U.S. agriculture has suffered substantial damage from the EU's failure to abide by its WTO commitments and this damage will continue to grow as long as the EU does not comply with the WTO ruling," the Farm Bureau said.


EU Governments Seen Opposing GM Crop Proposals

- Charlie Dunmore, Reuters, July 29, 2010

European Union governments have signalled their strong opposition to proposals allowing member states to decide whether to grow or ban genetically modified (GM) crops, a Belgian EU presidency source said on Thursday.

The bloc's executive, the European Commission, tabled proposals earlier this month giving governments the freedom to choose whether or not to grow GM crops. To pass, the plans must first be approved by EU governments and lawmakers.

The move was seen as an attempt by the Commission to break a longstanding deadlock in EU GM approvals, which has seen just two products authorised for cultivation in Europe, restricting commercial plantings to less than 100,000 hectares. Several EU governments have already criticised the proposals, and last week German Chancellor Angela Merkel attacked the plans as a first step towards dismantling the bloc's single market.

A first meeting of EU government officials to discuss the proposals in Brussels on Tuesday confirmed the widespread opposition to the plans. "There is huge opposition against the proposals by member states, for several different reasons," the Belgian presidency source told Reuters.

Some officials agreed with Merkel's view that the proposals would undermine the bloc's internal market, and others said they would leave the EU and its member states open to challenges in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a second EU source in the meeting said.

On Wednesday, Washington's most senior trade official said the proposals were unlikely to conform with "internationally accepted scientific standards" on GM crops, suggesting that the U.S. could be prepared to challenge them if adopted by the EU.

Food Chain Fears
Last week, European industry associations representing the entire food chain expressed their "deep concern" at the Commission's proposals in a letter sent to the Belgian presidency, the Commission and EU lawmakers. "The new approach on GM cultivation sets a dangerous legal precedent, jeopardizing the internal market for authorised products," the letter seen by Reuters said.

Letting member states decide on GM crops will create new legal and commercial risks for operators, added the letter, which was signed by EU farm group Copa-Cogeca, food and drink industry confederation CIAA, and biotech lobby EuropaBio, among others.

EU government ambassadors will meet in Brussels to discuss the proposals on September 3, when they are expected to create a special working group of member state environment and agriculture experts to lead talks on the plans. EU agriculture ministers will then debate the proposals in Brussels at the end of September, followed by environment ministers meeting in Luxembourg in mid-October.


GM Crop Produces Massive Gains for Women's Employment In India


Research at the UK's University of Warwick, and the University of Goettingen in Germany, has found that the use of a particular GM crop in India produced massive benefits in the earnings and employment opportunities for rural Indian women.

The research led by Dr Arjunan Subramanian of WMG (Warwick Manufacturing Group) in the University of Warwick found that the use of GM insect-resistant Bacillus thuringiensis toxin (Bt) cotton generated not only higher income for rural workers but also more employment, especially for hired female labour.

Since its commercialization in India in the year 2002, the area in which Bt cotton is cultivated increased to 7.6 million hectares in 2008. Several studies show sizable direct benefits of the technology but no study so far has analyzed the gender aspect of this technology.

The researchers found that compared with conventional cotton the Bt cotton generated additional employment, raising the total wage income by 40 US dollars per hectare. The largest increase is for hired females with a gain of 55% in average income.

This translates to about 424 million additional days of employment for female earners for the total Bt cotton area in India. The researchers found that the Increase in returns to hired female labour is mostly related to higher yields in Bt cotton leading to additional labour being employed to pick the increased production of cotton (harvesting of cotton is primarily a female activity in India).

Dr Arjunan Subramanian said: "We also found that the use of Bt cotton also improved female working conditions as the reduction in the amount of family male labour involved in scouting and spraying for pests meant that that labour was reallocated to other household economic activities, previously carried out by female family members, increasing the returns to this labour category. Overall, therefore, Bt cotton enhances the quality of life of women through increasing income and reducing 'femanual' work."

The research results come from two household survey. The first was undertaken in a study village where the team collected comprehensive data on household characteristics and interactions across various markets. The study village, Kanzara, is located in the Akola district of Maharashtra, the state with the largest area under cotton in India. Interviews with all village households and institutions were conducted in 2004, capturing all household economic activities and transactions for the 12-month period between April 2003 and March 2004. All farm households cultivate at least some cotton, mostly next to a number of food and fodder crops for subsistence consumption and for sale. The second survey used data from a farm sample survey conducted over a period of 5 years.

1. The research entitled "GM crops and gender issues" has been published in Nature Biotechnology Volume:28, Pages: 404 doi:10.1038/nbt0510-404 http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v28/n5/full/nbt0510-404.html#

The full research team was Dr Arjunan Subramanian (Warwick HRI & WMG University of Warwick), Dr Kerry Kirwan (WMG, University of Warwick) and Professor David Pink (Warwick HRI, University of Warwick) & Matin Qaim (University of Goettingen). The research was funded by EPSRC (The Engineerin g and Physical Sciences Research Council) and the German Research Foundation (DFG). s.arjunan@warwick.ac.uk


India: GM Food Technology Gets Montek Singh’s Endorsement

- Daily News and Analysis (India), August 1, 2010 http://www.dnaindia.com

Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia on Saturday said he is not against genetically-modified food as India is not the first country to experiment with this technology. “Of course, when it comes to eatables, there is public concern about its introduction. But there are examples in other parts of the world like in the US and China where GM food has been tried out,” he said while speaking at the Institute for Social and Economic Change on Saturday.

A proposal for a regulatory authority’s oversight of tests in GM Foods like Bt brinjal is up for Cabinet approval and this would give statutory authority to carry out tests on GM,” said Ahluwalia. The basic tenets of GM technology is being swept away due to controversies. Adequate data support and tests would help in setting things right, he said, adding that state governments are responsible for the failure to achieve four per cent agriculture growth under the 11th Plan. “State governments are not according the priority that they should to agriculture, which is the main constraint in achieving the targeted agriculture growth. They have to be much more proactive,” said Ahluwalia. The country’s average farm growth in the first three years of the 11th Five-Year Plan (2007-12) is only 2.2 per cent, while the target is 4 per cent for the entire period.

Ahluwalia said that in Karnataka, farm growth had remained stagnant at 0.1 per cent in 2009-10 and the contribution of agriculture to state GDP was 17 per cent. Food security, which is a major concern because of the increase in global food prices, cannot be tackled by ensuring equitable distribution. Production is an integral part of food security and India’s food problem could be solved through “production-oriented solutions,” he said.

“Agricultural productivity per hectare has to go up,” said Ahluwalia. Compared to other countries, where pulse consumption was almost negligible, in India, pulse consumption has increased. With diversification of the food basket, the increase in food production has to be broad-based, he added.


Dear Prime Minister of India: Please Lift the Moratorium on Bt Brinjal

- Memorandum Submitted to The The Prime Minister of India aAnd Many Ministers, New Delhi July 30, 2010

We, the undersigned, have critically reviewed the Bt brinjal moratorium document (a text of 19 pages and four Annexure of 532 pages released by the Minister of Environment and Forests on February 9, 2010), at a scientific workshop organized by the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, on 'The impasse caused by the Bt brinjal moratorium', conducted on July 28, 2010 in New Delhi, and have arrived at the following conclusions:

a) The MoEF was strongly influenced by those opposed to agricultural biotechnology than by credible, critical, and balanced scientific judgments of technologists and biosecurity experts of Bt brinjal, while imposing a moratorium on the commercial release of Bt brinjal, disregarding the safety of Bt brinjal established by the GEAC;

b) The seven-city public consultation process conducted by the MoEF did not provide a conducive environment for the scientific community and the actual brinjal growers, to voice their opinions, as the meetings were unruly;

c) Contrary to the MoEF's assurance, the moratorium has created a regulatory uncertainty on the development of all genetically engineered crops in the country, both in the public and private sectors, adversely affecting the international credibility of the country's regulatory system;

d) The product efficacy, biosafety and environmental safety of Bt brinjal were evaluated for over seven years, as per Rules 1989 of EPA (1986), reviewed by two expert committees in addition to over 200 experts and more than a dozen public and private sector research institutions, and hence no new tests are necessary, a professionally considered opinion shared by both the global and Indian scientific community;

e) As there has been no palpable, effective and time bound effort to resolve the uncertainties caused by the moratorium, an urgent and definitive action from the Government of India is needed to rescue Indian agricultural biotechnology from the present impasse.
On the basis of a broad scientific consensus on the safety of Bt brinjal, we urge the Government of India

a) to accept the recommendation of the GEAC made on October 14, 2009, on the safety of Bt brinjal, lift the moratorium on Bt brinjal with immediate effect, and release it for commercial cultivation without further delay;

b) to ensure that the R & D activity of the other genetically engineered crops under development is not jeopardized by unwarranted intervention; and

c) to ensure that the GEAC unambiguously carries out its mandated functions without hindrance, till such time as the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) becomes fully operational, in order to avoid a vacuum or confusion in the intervening period.

- Professor C Kameswara Rao and dozens of scientists, scholars and experts across India
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, India; btkrao@gmail.com


'Nature' special issue: How to Feed a Hungry World

- Editorial, Nature, July 29, 2010 v 466, p531-532

Full issue at http://www.nature.com/news/specials/food/index.html

Producing enough food for the world's population in 2050 will be easy. But doing it at an acceptable cost to the planet will depend on research into everything from high-tech seeds to low-tech farming practices.

With the world's population expected to grow from 6.8 billion today to 9.1 billion by 2050, a certain Malthusian alarmism has set in: how will all these extra mouths be fed? The world's population more than doubled from 3 billion between 1961 and 2007, yet agricultural output kept pace and current projections (see page 546) suggest it will continue to do so. Admittedly, climate change adds a large degree of uncertainty to projections of agricultural output, but that just underlines the importance of monitoring and research to refine those predictions. That aside, in the words of one official at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the task of feeding the world's population in 2050 in itself seems easily possible.

Easy, that is, if the world brings into play swathes of extra land, spreads still more fertilizers and pesticides, and further depletes already scarce groundwater supplies. But clearing hundreds of millions of hectares of wildlands most of the land that would be brought into use is in Latin America and Africa while increasing today's brand of resource-intensive, environmentally destructive agriculture is a poor option. Therein lies the real challenge in the coming decades: how to expand agricultural output massively without increasing by much the amount of land used.

What is needed is a second green revolution an approach that Britain's Royal Society aptly describes as the sustainable intensification of global agriculture. Such a revolution will require a wholesale realignment of priorities in agricultural research. There is an urgent need for new crop varieties that offer higher yields but use less water, fertilizers or other inputs created, for example, through long-neglected research on modifying roots (see page 552) and for crops that are more resistant to drought, heat, submersion and pests. Equally crucial is lower-tech research into basics such as crop rotation, mixed farming of animals and plants on smallholder farms, soil management and curbing waste. (Between one-quarter and one-third of the food produced worldwide is lost or spoiled.)

Developing nations could score substantial gains in productivity by making better use of modern technologies and practices. But that requires money: the FAO estimates that to meet the 2050 challenge, investment throughout the agricultural chain in the developing world must double to US$83 billion a year. Most of that money needs to go towards improving agricultural infrastructure, from production to storage and processing. In Africa, the lack of roads also hampers agricultural productivity, making it expensive and difficult for farmers to get synthetic fertilizers. And research agendas need to be focused on the needs of the poorest and most resource-limited countries, where the majority of the world's population lives and where population growth over the next decades will be greatest. Above all, reinventing farming requires a multidisciplinary approach that involves not just biologists, agronomists and farmers, but also ecologists, policy-makers and social scientists.

To their credit, the world's agricultural scientists are embracing such a broad view. In March, for example, they came together at the first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development in Montpellier, France, to begin working out how to realign research agendas to help meet the needs of farmers in poorer nations. But these plans will not bear fruit unless they get considerably more support from policy-makers and funders.

The growth in public agricultural-research spending peaked in the 1970s and has been withering ever since. Today it is largely flat in rich nations and is actually decreasing in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where food needs are among the greatest. The big exceptions are China, where spending has been exponential over the past decade, and, to a lesser extent, India and Brazil. These three countries seem set to become the key suppliers of relevant science and technology to poorer countries. But rich countries have a responsibility too, and calls by scientists for large increases in public spending on agricultural research that is more directly relevant to the developing world are more than justified.

The private sector also has an important part to play. In the past, agribiotechnology companies have focused mostly on the lucrative agriculture markets in rich countries, where private-sector research accounts for more than half of all agricultural research. Recently, however, they have begun to engage in publicprivate partnerships to generate crops that meet the needs of poorer countries. This move mirrors the emergence more than a decade ago of public partnerships with drug companies to tackle a similar market failure: the development of drugs and vaccines for neglected diseases. As such, it is welcome, and should be greatly expanded (see page 548).

Genetically modified (GM) crops are an important part of the sustainable agriculture toolkit, alongside traditional breeding techniques. But they are not a panacea for world hunger, despite many assertions to the contrary by their proponents. In practice, the first generation of GM crops has been largely irrelevant to poor countries. Overstating these benefits can only increase public distrust of GM organisms, as it plays to concerns about the perceived privatization and monopolization of agriculture, and a focus on profits.

Nor are science and technology by themselves a panacea for world hunger. Poverty, not lack of food production, is the root cause. The world currently has more than enough food, but some 1 billion people still go hungry because they cannot afford to pay for it. The 2008 food crisis, which pushed around 100 million people into hunger, was not so much a result of a food shortage as of a market volatility with causes going far beyond supply and demand that sent prices through the roof and sparked riots in several countries. Economics can hit food supply in other ways. The countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development pay subsidies to their farmers that total some US$1 billion a day. This makes it very difficult for farmers in developing nations to gain a foothold in world markets.

Nonetheless, research can have a decisive impact by enabling sustainable and productive agriculture a proven recipe (as is treating neglected diseases) for creating a virtuous circle that lifts communities out of poverty.

Listen to podcast at http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast/index-2010-07-29.html



Food: Inside The Hothouses of Industry

- Natasha Gilbert, Nature, July 29, 2010, Vol 466

Feeding the world is going to require the scientific and financial muscle of agricultural biotechnology companies. Natasha Gilbert asks whether they're up to the task.

Do Not Water, says the small notice by the pots of withered, brown maize seedlings, the genetically unlucky ones in an experiment testing maize's tolerance to drought. Five minutes after stepping into the huge greenhouse in which these plants are attempting to grow at the research headquarters of Monsanto in St Louis, Missouri, I am beginning to feel genetically disadvantaged too. Sweat is beading on my skin. Like the desiccated plants, I am clearly not cut out for the fierce summer temperatures that the greenhouse's climate is set to imitate. Just next to them though, a row of green, sprightly seedlings is faring better thanks to a gene that researchers inserted from the bacterium Bacillus subtilis. Just as lively is Dianah Majee, the plant biologist showing me around. Her face hasn't even worked up a shine.

These green plants and the scientists that produced them are unusual in ways not visible to the eye. They are Monsanto's entry in a race to make the first transgenic, drought-tolerant maize (corn) that is commercially available to farmers. The race is tight. But after more than 20 years of research and development (R&D), Monsanto says it is now two years away from launching the seeds onto the market. And within the next few years, the company and its major competitors hope to bring to market other transgenic crops, resistant to stresses such as soils starved of nitrogen, phosphorus and other essential nutrients.

In pursuing these crops, Monsanto and the other giants of agricultural biotechnology are making a significant departure from what until now has been a mainstay of their business: developing and selling pesticide- or herbicide-resistance crops, such as Monsanto's Bt maize. When these plants were first introduced in the 1990s they produced dramatic increases in yield for farmers — and a windfall in profits for the companies supplying the seed. But the yields have peaked, and so have the profits. Now the next big commercial gains lie in crops that can withstand water- and nutrient-deficient soils. US farmers lose on average 10–15% of their annual yield because of drought and water stress.

Crops that can beat these stresses are also a vital part of the solution to the global food crisis. If the 9 billion people expected to inhabit the world by 2050 are to be fed, then farms in low-income countries must grow more food, sustainably, on water- and nutrient-poor soils (see page 546). Researchers and policy-makers realize that they can't meet the food-security challenge without the private sector, which makes up a significant share of the global agricultural research effort (see 'Public vs private'). Monsanto's annual research budget alone is US$1.2 billion, just topping the US federal government's total spend on agricultural science of $1.1 billion in 2007 (the most recent figures available). In contrast, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the world-leading group of centres carrying out agricultural R&D for developing countries, has an annual budget of $500 million.

Getting together
So in their demand for hardier crops, the commercial aims of the biotechnology companies and the requirements of the developing world have aligned — and companies such as Monsanto hope to fulfil them. In June 2008, Monsanto pledged to double yields in its core crops of maize, soya bean and cotton by 2030 over 2000 levels. In September of the same year, Monsanto's chairman promised to "improve the lives of an additional 5 million resource-poor farmers", in large part by making some of its seed technology available to increase their productivity. Other companies have made similar pledges.

All this leads to another reason why the green, transgenic seedlings in the stifling Missouri greenhouse stand out. In 2008, Monsanto partnered with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, a non-profit research organization in Nairobi, Kenya, to apply the techniques and discoveries it has made with its commercial drought-tolerant maize to developing drought-tolerant varieties for subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, to be available as quickly as possible after commercialization in the United States. The partnership, which is also funded with $47 million in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation in Decatur, Illinois, is one of a handful of exceptionally large projects established in recent years in which public and private sectors have joined forces to tackle food scarcity in developing countries. The companies say that these investments are just good business sense because they will create future customers as developing-world farmers gradually move from subsistence to profits, making money to spend on seed. The companies also see an opportunity to buff their corporate images with a humanitarian cloth.

Slow progress
It will take more than buffing to overcome critics' deep scepticism about commercial biotechnology. Genetically modified (GM) crops, they say, have so far done little for the developing world. Earlier humanitarian initiatives have yet to reach fruition. Golden rice, for example — transgenic rice designed to combat vitamin A malnutrition — has been in development since 1990 (see page 561). Critics ask what has taken so long; they worry that industry's grasp on intellectual property is holding up research progress; they question why these supposedly transformative transgenic technologies have yet to put food in the hungriest bellies. "I don't think the private sector is doing enough," says Achim Dobermann, deputy director general for research at CGIAR's International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Manila, the Philippines.

Roger Beachy, director of the US Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Washington DC, wonders how far the agricultural biotech companies are willing to go. "Have they made as much progress in developing countries as they should have?" he asks. "What do they see as their responsibility in the developing world?" To many scientists, the answers to these questions are hidden behind a corporate facade.

Which is why I'm here, slowly wilting in Monsanto's greenhouse, and why I travelled to two other giants in the sector — Pioneer Hi-Bred in neighbouring Iowa, and the UK research headquarters of Swiss company Syngenta — to tour their labs, greenhouses and test fields, where the next generation of crops are sprouting. I wanted to see them and talk to senior researchers and executives about the future of their science, their business — and, inextricably, the future of the planet's food.

I sit in the small waiting room of Monsanto's main building, A, with its single bench and friendly security guard. Buildings B through to Z are scattered around the manicured gardens and endless car parks that make up the rest of its headquarters. Monsanto employs around 5,000 scientists and technical assistants worldwide and splits its R&D budget equally between biotechnology and traditional plant breeding. (Monsanto, like the other companies I visited, does not break down how much of the budget is spent on its humanitarian projects.)

For its GM crop work, Monsanto's scientists screen hundreds or even thousands of genes from plants, bacteria and other organisms for ones that might endow plants with a desired trait. The drought-tolerant B. subtilis gene, cspB, that they found helps bacteria deal with environmental stress such as cold temperature. When inserted into maize plants it helps them cope with drought by disentangling RNA, which folds up abnormally when the plant is water-starved. The theory is that the energy the plant would have spent fixing drought-entangled RNA can now be sunk into grain.

Away from the sweltering greenhouses, posters provide a regular reminder of Monsanto's 'pledge' to the world in six different languages. The company promises dialogue, transparency, respect, sharing and benefits. And Bob Reiter, vice-president for breeding technologies at Monsanto, is up front about the company's business-minded approach to its humanitarian work. Crops that will make the company money in the short term, in richer countries, could also eventually make money in lower income ones. "The initial approach is to help the subsistence farmer get on his feet," he says. "There has to be a humanitarian element to it. But you have to think about what a viable agricultural industry in Africa looks like, and the idea that these farmers get free handouts forever is not sustainable."

Long-term plan
It is with these sentiments that Monsanto entered into its public–private partnership with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. It is not giving away the green strain that I saw thriving in the greenhouses. It is giving away the resources it used to make it — such as the sequence of the cspB gene, plus information about other drought-tolerant genes and traits that the researchers are introducing into maize through traditional breeding. Crops developed through the partnership will be made available royalty free to subsistence farmers. If a country moves from subsistence farming to commercial farming then, in theory, the company could start charging for the seed.

But first Monsanto has to get its 'first generation' drought-tolerant maize into fields in the developed world. The company has finished testing the seed; now it has to secure regulatory approval from US federal agencies and scale up seed manufacture. Researchers at Monsanto are already working on 'second generation' crops — the details of which the company is keeping close to its chest — that can grow in a wider range of environments across the United States. Behind the rows of silver doors to the company's 108 growth chambers, an even hardier strain of maize is surely growing.

Mechanized engineering
One state north of Missouri, on the outskirts of the small midwestern town of Johnston, Iowa, the last few rows of houses suddenly drop away and a sea of young green maize rolls up to the horizon. In patches the maize has turned yellow and its growth is stunted. Recent intense rainstorms have flooded parts of the fields, washing nutrients from the soil that are vital to the crop's healthy growth, including nitrogen fertilizers.

Pioneer Hi-Bred, part of the chemical giant DuPont, saw an opportunity here to increase its customers' yields. When global nitrogen fertilizer prices peaked in 2008 at more than $450 a tonne, nearly double the previous year's cost, the company ramped up a research project that it had begun in 2005 to develop maize hybrids that produce the same yield on less fertilizer.

Pioneer isn't quite the biotech behemoth that Monsanto is: in 2009 DuPont spent $734 million on its agriculture and nutrition R&D, which includes Pioneer Hi-Bred's work on seeds and crop protection. The company has now mechanized much of the process of linking the genes inserted into plants to desired traits. A robot hauls maize plants off conveyor belts; another takes digital images to rapidly assess how novel genes have changed the plants' growth.

In Pioneer's case, researchers hit on one possible gene in the red alga Porphyra perforata, which can grow in environments with nitrogen levels 100 times lower than maize. The gene codes for the enzyme nitrate reductase, which converts nitrate into nitrite. "We don't really know how it works," says Dale Loussaert, a senior scientist working on the project, of the algal gene. Even so, he says, "the plant models in the lab look promising. The yields look good." The company does not expect to have a product on the market for another 10–12 years though.

Pioneer has agreed to donate the transgenic technologies, molecular markers and other resources associated with its nitrogen-use project to a public–private partnership. The Improved Maize for African Soils (IMAS) project was launched in February 2010. It is led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico, part of the CGIAR, and it received $19.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development. The maize varieties that will be developed through IMAS will be made available royalty free to seed companies that sell to small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Pioneer is also involved in a project to increase the nutritional content of sorghum, a crop that is a staple food for hundreds of millions of people throughout Africa and Asia. Sorghum has high levels of phytate — the form in which phosphorous is stored in plants — which binds strongly to essential amino acids, vitamin A, iron and zinc, so these nutrients are not available in a digestible form. Consequently, people who depend on sorghum as their main food source are often malnourished. Since it joined in 2005, the company has donated technologies worth $4.8 million to the scheme, led by African Harvest, a non-profit foundation based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Florence Wambugu, founder and chief executive of African Harvest, used to sit on a science advisory panel for DuPont, and so knew that the company was developing technologies that would be useful to African Harvest's sorghum project. She approached the company for help. "It is not just the technology donation; this won't amount to a product. We had to get outside expertise to help manage the money and people, and ensure we are meeting milestones," she says. Marc Albertsen, a senior research fellow at Pioneer Hi-Bred and co-principal investigator on the sorghum project, says that tests in June showed that transgenic sorghum varieties developed by Pioneer produced 80% less phytate but 20% more iron and 30% more zinc than conventional varieties.

Such results are not going to assuage the critics. Gregory Graff, an agricultural economist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, says that the majority of companies' R&D spending and effort still goes towards blockbuster crops with traits, such as pest control, that benefit agribusiness, leaving neglected many crops that are important in the developing world. "They bring out one or two examples of public good research, such as drought-resistant varieties and golden rice, but research on these has been going on for a very long time and none are actually ready yet," he says.

Graff says that the lack of progress is in large part a consequence of the hold that the private sector has on intellectual-property rights to crucial technology, such as genetic markers, and the sequences of key genes and 'promoters' that drive gene expression. Dobermann, of the IRRI, agrees that access to intellectual property is a problem. His institution would like to experiment with traits to improve the drought tolerance of plants and their efficiency in using nitrogen, but there are "so many restrictions" on the use of patented technology that researchers at his institute concluded "it was not worth getting into," he says. "We either have to reinvent the technology ourselves or use a second-class solution," he says.

John Bedbrook, vice-president of agricultural biotechnology at DuPont, agrees that "tensions" over access to intellectual property exist, but says the company has to remain "dispassionate". Without intellectual property, he says, companies would have little incentive to invest in the research to begin with. But, he adds, companies could be "more open source with enabling technologies" such as promoters. Reiter says that restrictions on access to intellectual property are often misconceived. When public researchers ask the company for access to patented technology, he says, it often turns out that the subject of their research was not actually covered by a patent. All this leaves a question: what has really been holding up these projects?

The real delays
This was the issue that I discussed at Syngenta, whose modern UK research headquarters sit in 260 hectares of verdant English farmland near Bracknell. Syngenta has a history in public–private partnerships through the golden rice project, which AstraZeneca (the agribusiness part of which became Syngenta) joined in 2001. Syngenta worked to increase the amount of a precursor of vitamin A in the rice and make seeds available royalty free to subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, but the company retains commercial rights elsewhere. (The IRRI, part of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, which now directs the project, expects to introduce seeds to farmers by 2012.) But some critics view golden rice as an agonizing failure because it has taken so long, and have been highly distrustful of the company's involvement, assuming that the project was mired because of the numerous patents involved.

Not true, says Ingo Potrykus, chairman of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board and, as an academic researcher, one of the inventors of golden rice. He says that the team initially thought that they had to obtain free licences for 70 patents protecting technologies used in the rice development. But when Syngenta joined the project, its lawyers found that only a handful of these patents applied to the countries where golden rice was targeted. So in fact, he says, intellectual property has not been a major problem. "Without the cooperation of the private sector we would probably never have been able to solve the intellectual-property mess and the project would have ended at this stage," says Potrykus.

Mike Bushell, Syngenta's chief scientist, says complex technology and regulations are the real hold-ups for transgenic crops. "R&D takes around 10 years and then you have to go through the regulatory stage," he says. Bushell says critics overlook how long it takes to develop crop varieties with complex traits such as drought tolerance, which involve many genes and are greatly influenced by environmental conditions. And passing regulatory hurdles involves reams of tests showing, for example, that a gene is stably and safely expressed.

As we stroll past Syngenta's 'monsoon machine', which recreates harsh weather conditions, the discussion turns to the volatile topic of GM crops and their regulation. In 2004–05, the company moved the bulk of its GM research out of Europe and to the United States, in part because of Europe's difficult climate for GM research and the nonexistent market. But this year has seen some signs that the continent's strict stance on GM crops is softening (see D. Butler Nature doi:10.1038/news.2010.112; 2010). That could be good news for the developing world, Bushell says. Although he acknowledges that transgenic crops are not the only solution to increased food production, particularly in the developing world, he argues that they are an important component in a tool box that also includes improved agronomic practices and traditional breeding methods.

Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri-Columbia who tracks the agricultural biotech industry, says that the industry is making a substantial investment in these public–private partnerships. "I have the impression that people in the industry know they can't make money on [these products] in developing countries but they honestly want to make it available. But they also want to watch their backs." If something goes wrong — for example the research fails, the partnership breaks down, or a transgene contaminates local commercial supplies — a company could face heavy financial liability and public relations fall-out, Kalaitzandonakes says. "It's not a simple thing to manage risk and potential risk."

This cautiousness is partly why only a handful of these partnerships exist. Yet Kalaitzandonakes is optimistic that once one product comes on the market — be it golden rice, a drought-tolerant maize or a biofortified sorghum — then businesses, governments and the public will become more confident in backing the next. The optimism is tangible at Syngenta too. Earlier this year the company started a project with the CIMMYT to research and develop more productive wheat varieties for farmers in the developing world. Bushell says that the company has learnt a lot from its involvement in helping to develop golden rice.

Outside, fields of winter wheat are bordered by an unruly metre-wide strip of wild grasses and flowers designed to attract bees and other pollinating insects. This farming practice, which Syngenta is hoping to encourage across Europe, is also part of the company's efforts to make agriculture sustainable. The world's future food depends not just on crops, however cleverly they are engineered — the ecosystems to support them must have a future too