* Europe's Scientific Dark Ages
* USDA Asked to Approve GMO Apple That Won't Brown
* Vatican Scientists Urge Support for Engineered Crops
* Breeding Potatoes with Improved Properties
* Gene Transfer From Transgenic Crops: A More Realistic Picture
* EFSA to Hold Workshop with Stakeholders on Draft Guidance for GM Plant Comparators
* Interviews with African experts on GM Crops
Europe's Scientific Dark Ages
- Jim Mccarthy, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2010
‘Eco-propaganda is driving biotechnology and the brightest researchers out of the Continent.’
European ignorance has claimed a new victim: One of the Continent's leading agricultural researchers told Reuters recently that her organization has quit trying to develop new varieties of genetically modified crops. "We have no research on GMO innovation anymore, none," said Marion Guillou, the head of France's National Institute for Agricultural Research. "Since European society does not want to buy GMOs, we had better focus on other technology."
This is a shame and a tragedy, but hardly a surprise. Farmers around the world have embraced the promise of biotechnology. They've planted and harvested more than 2.5 billion acres of genetically modified crops. Every day, people safely consume food derived from these products.
Yet Europe remains strangely isolated from this global phenomenon. Eco-fundamentalists have dominated the debate here. They have no science to back up their claims, but they've managed to spread their propaganda like a virus.
I'm familiar with the problem because I have farming interests on three continents: Europe, North America, and South America. Only in Europe is biotechnology controversial.
Many European farmers refuse to test experimental crops because they're targeted by radical activists. In explaining her organization's decision to abandon genetically modified crops, Ms. Guillou pointed to an incident in August, when activists in France destroyed a plot of transgenic vines. Their attack caused about €1.2 million in damage and wiped out seven years of research.
Such crimes, and Europe's various anti-biotechnology pressure groups, have paralyzed European governments. A few brave voices continue to speak out, but most officials are afraid to defend biotechnology. This plague on our intellectual life is now starting to claim our brightest scientists. Just as authorities threatened Galileo for offering proof that the planets orbit the sun, today's eco-fundamentalists are forcing scholars such as Ms. Guillou to shut down their research.
Europe can take pride in a long history of enlightened inquiry and leadership, but its recent behavior on agriculture points more toward a new Dark Ages—a period of stagnation when ideology trumps truth.
Lives are at stake. Our best scientists must focus on creative solutions to what will soon be the world's most pressing problem: increasing food production so that it can feed a world of 9 billion people by 2050.
Biotechnology is no panacea, and each new innovation has to be considered on its merits. But to dismiss such research entirely is nothing short of irresponsible. As Ms. Guillou has pointed out, past genetic progress in rich countries such as France has been largely responsible for their great leaps in agricultural production. Today, further advancement could improve millions more lives; African farmers, for instance, could significantly increase their yields with new genetically selected varieties of crops.
Ms. Guillou's institute employs some 1,800 researchers. No other European organization publishes more scientific articles on agriculture. Because of eco-propoganda, however, it no longer invests any brainpower in an area that enjoys a record of success and holds enormous potential for the future.
Most Europeans have no idea even what they're up against. They assume that their governments have huge stocks of grain and beef. But it's just not there. The agricultural technologies of today are barely adequate to meet the Continent's present needs. Without progress, they'll fail in the face of the future's daunting challenges.
The scientific challenges are surmountable. The political problem, however, will require more courage and determination than Europe's leaders have shown thus far.
Mr. McCarthy, based in Ireland, has farming interests in Europe, South America and North America. He won the 2009 Kleckner Trade and Technology Advancement Award and is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.
USDA Asked to Approve GMO Apple That Won't Brown
- AP, Nov. 30, 2010
CASHMERE, Wash. — A Canadian biotechnology company has asked the U.S. to approve a genetically modified apple that won't brown soon after its sliced, saying the improvement could boost sales of apples for snacks, salads and other uses.
U.S. apple growers say it's too soon to know whether they'd be interested in the apple: They need to resolve questions about the apple's quality, the cost of planting and, most importantly, whether people would buy it.
"Genetically modified — that's a bad word in our industry," said Todd Fryhover, president of the apple commission in Washington state, which produces more than half the U.S. crop.
But Neal Carter, president of the company that developed the apples, said the technology would lower the cost of producing fresh slices, which have become a popular addition to children's lunch boxes, and make apples more popular in salads and other quick meals.
Carter's company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits of Summerland, British Columbia, licensed the non-browning technology from Australian researchers who pioneered it in potatoes. Essentially, the genes responsible for producing the enzyme that induces browning have been silenced in the apple variety being marketed as "Arctic."
"They look like apple trees and grow like apple trees and produce apples that look like all other apples and when you cut them, they don't turn brown," Carter said. "The benefit is something that can be identified just about by everybody."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has considered about 100 petitions for genetically engineered or modified crops. Those that have drawn the most attention have been engineered to withstand certain weed killers, but among those the agency has approved are tomatoes altered to ripen more slowly — the first genetically modified crop approved in the U.S. in 1992 — and plums that resist a specific virus. This is the first petition for apples.
The USDA's biotechnology regulations are designed to ensure that genetically modified crops are just as safe for agriculture and the environment as traditionally bred crop varieties, spokesman R. Andre Bell said in a statement. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service works with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, depending on the product, to ensure safety.
The approval process can take years, and it's not clear the apples will be accepted even if they pass government inspection.
Fryhover raised concerns about cross-pollination of conventional trees with genetically modified ones if they were planted in close proximity. He also questioned whether Arctic apples would generate enough in sales to outweigh the $10,000 to $20,000 per acre cost of replanting.
Carter said growers replant orchards all the time and the company aims to have big growers plant the apples in large blocks so cross pollination is minimized. Carter said he's confident the fruit won't harm the environment and he's submitted paperwork to the USDA and FDA to prove his point.
"Some people won't like it just because of what it is," he said. "In the end, it's a great product, no question about it, and people will see the process used to get it had very sound science."
Companies have invested heavily in crops genetically modified to improve flavor, increase yields or nutrition and make them drought resistant, said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit public interest group based in Washington, D.C. Often, though, the genes that define those traits are one small part of a complex system, he said.
"Scientists have been saying they're only turning one thing off, but that switch is connected to another switch and another switch," Kimbrell said. "You can't just do one thing to nature. It's nice to think so, but it just doesn't work that way."
He also said the non-browning technology appears to benefit apple growers and shippers more than consumers by allowing companies to sell apples that are older than they look. "A botox apple is not what people are looking for," Kimbrell said. "I'm predicting failure."
Crunch Pak, based in Cashmere, Wash., is No. 1 in the sliced apple market, with customers including Costco, Kroger Co., Publix and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The company, founded in 2000, has tripled in size in the past four years, with nearly 500 employees and a new processing plant in Pennsylvania.
Its apples are rinsed in a combination of calcium and ascorbic acid — vitamin C — to maintain freshness. Taste and quality are always important, but spokesman Tony Freytag said the biggest issue is food safety.
"Quite honestly, I would rather have an apple turn brown than think it's still OK because it's still white," he said. "I'm not discounting the anti-browning. It's just not the panacea."
Everyone agreed that consumers will make the final call. They have largely accepted other genetically modified crops, but whether they will do the same with apples remains to be seen.
"There's something about an apple. It's the symbol of health and nutrition, and then to turn around and say it's been genetically modified — doesn't that go against what consumers say they're looking for?" Fryhover asked. "Right now, I wouldn't say the industry is poised to go either direction. We need to know more."
Vatican Scientists Urge Support for Engineered Crops
- Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, November 2010
Scientists have both the right and a moral duty to be "stewards of God" by genetically modifying crops to help the world's poor, scientific advisers to the Vatican said this week.
In a statement condemning opposition to GM crops in rich countries as unjustified, a group of scientists including leading members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is demanding a relaxation of "excessive, unscientific regulations" for approving GM crops, saying that these prevent development of crops for the "public good".
The statement was agreed unanimously by 40 international scientists after a week-long closed meeting held in May 2009 at the Vatican, convened by Ingo Potrykus. Potrykus is a member of the Pontifical Academy based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where he developed "golden rice", a variety engineered with extra vitamin A to prevent childhood blindness.
Although the academy has yet to officially endorse the statement, it was approved by the seven members at the meeting, including academy chancellor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo. "The Catholic Church has 1 billion members," says academy member Peter Raven, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis, which once received funds from Monsanto. He adds that although this global community will never have a unified official line on GM crops, "our statement is about as close as you can get to one".
The academy expressed provisional support for GM crops in 2000, but the scientists say that it can now back the technology with more confidence. The statement calls for a revision of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, agreed in 2000 to regulate the movement of GM organisms between countries.
It says the environmental risks envisaged when the protocol was drafted have not materialised, adding that regulatory hurdles make it too expensive for anyone other than large multinational firms to develop crops benefiting the poor, such as drought-resistant cassava and yams.
Also challenged is the objection made by critics of GM that, by messing with nature, genetic engineers are "playing God" (see "No uncertain terms"). The statement denounces as outdated many allegations made by GM critics. "There has not been a single documented case of harm to consumers or the environment," says Potrykus.
He and the co-authors therefore argue for relaxation of what they say are draconian regulations preventing development of crops for the poor. Potrykus says his attempts to bring golden rice to poor consumers demonstrate the scale of the problem. "It took 10 years longer and $20 million more than a normal variety to commercialise it," he says. "The time and investment required is prohibitive for any public sector institution, so the future use of this technology for the poor totally depends on reform of regulation," he says.
Anti-GM group Friends of the Earth maintains that GM crops are not the solution. "We need food and farming policies that put the needs of people before the profits of a handful of GMO companies," says campaigner Mute Schimpf.
Journal reference: New Biotechnology, vol 27, p 645
No uncertain terms - Will the Vatican back GM crops? Here are some controversial arguments from the statement
On playing God - "New human forms of intervention in the natural world should not be seen as contrary to the natural law that God has given to the Creation."
On regulation - "Overly stringent regulation developed by wealthy countries and focused almost exclusively on the hypothetical risks of genetically engineered crops discriminates against developing and poor countries. This has placed [them] at an unacceptable disadvantage."
On unpredictable consequences - "The possible evolutionary risks of genetic engineering events cannot be greater than the risks of the natural process of biological evolution or of the application of chemical mutagenesis."
On opponents of GM - "We urge those who oppose or are sceptical about the use of genetically engineered crop varieties and the application of modern genetics generally to evaluate carefully the science, and the demonstrable harm caused by withholding this proven technology from those who need it most."
On the moral case for GM crops - "There is a moral imperative to make the benefits of genetically engineered technology available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations who want them, and on terms that will enable them to raise their standards of living, improve their health and protect their environments."
Breeding Potatoes with Improved Properties
- Wageningen University, November 29, 2010
By equipping potatoes with genes involved in starch synthesis in other organisms, potatoes get the ability to produce new types of starch granules. Centre: regular starch granule of potato, around it: new types of granules.
It is possible to breed potatoes in such a way that they produce new types of starch for use as a new and improved plant-based raw material in the construction, paper, glue, fodder and food industries. These results are described in Xingfeng Huang’s PhD thesis, which he will defend on 29 November 2010 to obtain his doctoral degree at Wageningen University.
Using genetic modification, Huang managed to develop potatoes with larger starch granules, a higher capacity to retain water after several cycles of freeze/thaw (interesting, fro example, with frozen meals) and have a stronger capacity to form gels (useful when making sauces).
The cells of potato tubers contain starch in the form of starch granules. The plant produces these granules because enzymes adhere to the outside of the granule, building up the starch granule. The enzymes adhere to the granules because a specific part of the enzyme, the so-called Starch Binding Domain, is able to recognise starch.
The way the granule is built up depends on the activity of the rest of the enzyme. The cooperation between the enzymes involved in starch biosynthesis affects the shape and size of the starch granules, as well as other starch properties such as the ability to ‘bind’ water, as required when making sauces and soups.
There are bacteria that contain enzymes involved in the breakdown of starch and these enzymes also have a Starch Binding Domain. They often have a slightly different function than the enzymes already present in the potato. If potatoes were able to produce these enzymes, it would probably result in starch granules with new characteristics. This could make the potato an even better source for plant-based raw materials; materials that are sustainably produced in plants.
New starch via new enzymes
Via genetic modification, Huang introduced genes in the potato which code for proteins that combine a Starch Binding Domain with different bacterial enzymes involved in starch modification. Huang discovered that the new ‘fusion enzymes’ often caused the potato plants to produce starch granules with an entirely different appearance than the granules usually found in potato cells.
When Huang used the gene for the amylosucrase enzyme of the Neisseria polysaccharea bacteria, it also changed other important characteristics of the starch granules. The granules were on average twice as large, for instance, and the starch was more capable of ‘binding’ fluids. This means that smaller amounts of starch can produce the same viscosity in, for example, sauces and desserts.
It was also shown that the new starch granules were better at retaining water, which is highly relevant to frozen food products. When the starch in these products discharges too much water, they can often no longer be used once they have been defrosted.
Huang’s research shows that it is indeed possible to develop potatoes that produce new, better sustainable raw materials. Potato starch is already being used in the construction paper, glue, fodder and food industries. New types of starch could benefit these and other possible applications.
Gene Transfer From Transgenic Crops: A More Realistic Picture
A comprehensive, data-driven statistical model including the surrounding landscape, pollinating insects and human seed dispersal allows for more accurate prediction of gene flow between crop plants
A new data-driven statistical model that incorporates the surrounding landscape in unprecedented detail describes the transfer of an inserted bacterial gene via pollen and seed dispersal in cotton plants more accurately than previously available methods.
Shannon Heuberger, a graduate student at the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and her co-workers will publish their findings in PLoS ONE on Nov. 30.
The transfer of genes from genetically modified crop plants is a hotly debated issue. Many consumers are concerned about the possibility of genetic material from transgenic plants mixing with non-transgenic plants on nearby fields. Producers, on the other side, have a strong interest in knowing whether the varieties they are growing are free from unwanted genetic traits.
Up until now, realistic models were lacking that could help growers and legislators assess and predict gene flow between genetically modified and non-genetically modified crops with satisfactory detail.
This study is the first to analyze gene flow of a genetically modified trait at such a comprehensive level. The new approach is likely to improve assessment of the transfer of genes between plants other than cotton as well.
"The most important finding was that gene flow in an agricultural landscape is complex and influenced by many factors that previous field studies have not measured," said Heuberger. "Our goal was to put a tool in the hands of growers, managers and legislators that allows them to realistically assess the factors that affect gene flow rates and then be able to extrapolate from that and decide how they can manage gene flow."
The researchers measured many factors in the field and developed a geographic information system-based analysis that takes into account the whole landscape surrounding a field to evaluate how it influences the transfer of genes between fields. Genes can be transferred in several ways, for example by pollinators such as bees, or through accidental seed mixing during farming operations.
Surprisingly, the team found that pollinating insects, widely believed to be the key factor in moving transgenic pollen into neighboring crop fields, had a small impact on gene flow compared to human farming activity, with less than one percent of seeds collected around the edges of non-Bt cotton fields resulting from bee pollination between Bt and non-Bt cotton.
Most previous studies focused on the distance between the non-transgenic crop field and the nearest source of transgenic plants.
"Although this approach is simple, it is potentially less useful for understanding gene flow in commercial agriculture where there can be many sources of transgenic plants," Heuberger said.
Heuberger and her co-workers broadened the scope to include flower-pollinating bees, humans moving seeds around and the area of all cotton fields in a three-kilometer (1.9 mile) radius. This approach turned out to be more powerful in understanding the effect of surrounding fields than using the customary model based solely on distance.
For the study, the scientists chose 15 fields across the state of Arizona planted with cotton that did not have the transgenic protein encoded by a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. They assessed the number of pollinators visiting cotton flowers through field observations and determined the transfer of genes by collecting samples of cotton bolls and determining their genetic identity.
"We saw a need for a spatially explicit model that would account for the whole surrounding landscape," Heuberger said. "Our model takes into account the distance and area of all relevant neighboring fields, the effect of pollinators like bees and human factors that can result in the mixing of seed types."
Heuberger's findings have implications not just for genetically engineered traits but also more generally for seed production.
"When you grow a crop and want the variety to be pure, just being able to know how far gene flow will occur and how it is affected by pollinators and human farming activity in the area is very valuable."
The research was funded by Western Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and an Environmental Protection Agency STAR Fellowship.
The study, "Pollen- and Seed-Mediated Transgene Flow in Commercial Cotton Seed Production Fields" will be published in PLoS ONE on Tuesday, November 30th with the press embargo ending at 2 p.m. Pacific Time (5 p.m. Eastern) on Tuesday, November 30th. On publication, the paper will be available online at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0014128.
EFSA to Hold Workshop with Stakeholders on Draft Guidance for GM Plant Comparators
- Food Ingredients First, Dec 1, 2010
The current approach followed by risks assessors worldwide is to carry out comparative assessments of the GM crop plant and its conventional crop counterpart to determine if the GM plant, such as for example GM maize, is as safe as its conventional non-GM counterpart.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has announced it will hold a consultative workshop in March 2011 with scientists and risk assessors from EU Member States, industry and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), to discuss its draft guidance document on the selection of comparators for the risk assessment of GM plants. The workshop will be held following a public consultation on the draft guidance document.
The choice of an appropriate comparator is the cornerstone of the risk assessment of GMOs.
The current approach followed by risks assessors worldwide is to carry out comparative assessments of the GM crop plant and its conventional crop counterpart to determine if the GM plant, such as for example GM maize, is as safe as its conventional non-GM counterpart.
EFSA’s GMO Panel took the initiative to strengthen the guidance to be followed by applicants when selecting appropriate comparators to be used in the risk assessment of GM plants.
The draft document was launched for public consultation on 15 November: Scientists and other stakeholders can submit their comments to EFSA up to 15 January.
As part of its ongoing consultation with stakeholders, EFSA experts at the March workshop will discuss an analysis of the comments received during the public consultation and exchange views on the comparative assessment approach utilised to assess the safety of GM plants, as well as the underlying concept of substantial equivalence.
The GMO Panel regularly reviews its guidance taking into account scientific developments and experience gained through its risk assessments.
In order to engage with interested parties and seek input to help inform its risk assessment work, EFSA always carries out a public consultation on its draft guidance documents. This was the case for instance for EFSA’s recently updated guidance for the environmental risk assessment (ERA) of GM applications submitted for authorisation in the European Union.
UK: Norwich Scientists Tackle Late Blight Potato Threat
- Eastern Daily Press, Nov. 22, 2010.
Scientists at the Norwich Research Park are fighting a devastating potato disease by producing varieties with resistance to late blight. This costs potato and tomato growers worldwide an estimated £5bn to £6bn in crop losses and could make a significant difference to global food production. The team at the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre, Colney, are identifying more potential resistant genes in potato plants, which could produce blight-resistant varieties.
The first year of a three-year trial of two GM potato varieties, which each contain a resistance gene taken from a wild potato variety, has given pointers to understand a constantly changing pathogen. Senior project leader Prof Jonathan Jones is assessing the field performance of two resistance genes taken from wild potatoes in this GM trial. Prof Sophien Kamoun, who is head of the Sainsbury Laboratory, said that the latest approach involved collaboration with the Scottish Crop Research Institute.
“We’re building on the knowledge that we’ve gained in the last year in understanding the potato blight pathogen. “By having the genome sequences we’re learning more about the genes which trigger an immune response in the plant.” He is aiming to identify more genes as part of the research project. “We don’t want to do it randomly and just pick some genes from wild germplasm, we want to use the information from the pathogen to prioritise and go after genes that have the best potential.”
There were about 200 genes in the late blight pathogen. “By knowing how these pathogen genes are distributed in pathogen populations, then we can find the Achilles’ heel of the pathogen,” said Prof Kamoun. He said that mapping the genome sequence of the potato blight pathogen about a year ago had been the “stepping stone of the discovery of this approach.” Prof Paul Birch, of Dundee University, and the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) and Aberdeen University have developed a new approach to breed resistance to the mould-like organism Phytophthora infestans, which causes late blight. They are working with the team at the Sainsbury Laboratory.
“With our discovery, we can use genetic analysis to identify plants for breeding that are inherently resistant to infection. “When introduced into cultivated varieties, such disease resistance should be far more durable,” he said. “We now know a lot more about how P.infestans gets round the potato plant’s natural defences and therefore what it takes for the plant to resist infection. “We can actually look at a potato plant’s genetic makeup and say whether it will be sustainably resistant to late blight, which is a huge step forward. “In future we also hope to use a GM approach to produce a variety that is resistant to both blight and potato cyst nematode,” said Prof Birch.
Dr Mike Storey, head of research and development, of Potato Council, said: “We are working hard to raise grower awareness and ensure best practice to control the disease but we have the challenge of a continually changing pathogen population.”
The GM trial involved planting about 192 potatoes in six plots, each about the size of a pool table at Colney. It was the first GM field trial to be planted in the 100-year history of the JIC, which is seen as one of the world’s leading plant science hubs.
Interviews with African experts
New GM crops in the pipeline: “These are staple crops that Africans love to eat several times a day”
The current and future role of genetically modified crops in Africa - GMO Safety spoke with Diran Makinde of the African Biosafety Network of Expertise in Burkina Faso and with Arthur Makara of the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development in Uganda.
GMO Safety: Why have GM crops been introduced so far in only so few African countries?
Makinde: Africa is lagging behind in the adoption of GM crops because the technology lacks regulatory oversight. There are few biosafety laws and governments are not able or willing to proceed. Also, there is a lack of credible information and of expertise in the technology. Half-truths and misinformation created by activists also play a negative role.
Makara: The main reason for the slow uptake of GM crops in Africa is the strict regulation in Europe because a lot of African countries have strong ties with Europe, especially the UK. There are also trade relations. So the opinion in Europe highly influences events in this part of the world; African governments and the public follow the opinion in Europe.
GMO Safety: In the end, the slow process so far is a problem of public opposition or a regulatory issue?
Makinde: The problem is a combination of both, but to a greater extent of regulation. The public is unaware of the various efforts at regulating the products. If they were aware, there could be better reception of the technology. On the other hand, regulatory frameworks take a long time to be established since they have to undergo careful study by experts from the various government agencies. Some of the national frameworks are still unworkable and unenforceable; the private sector shuns countries with “unfriendly” frameworks. Lacking the capacities to carry out regulatory assessments also is a problem. The dossiers are too technical and voluminous for the untrained; it is a challenge to explain them to decision-makers.
Makara: Some countries already have working regulations in place to cover GM crops; others operate under interim regulatory frameworks. For instance, Uganda has a policy on biotechnology that empowers the country to go ahead with research and development of GM crops, although the final law is not yet approved. Uganda is similar to some other countries in having the structures and the capacity to carry out research on GM crops and to regulate them, but others have neither this capacity nor arrangements for risk assessment. Countries remain at different levels. Therefore, regional collaboration on biosafety, like in COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa), is a great move.
GMO Safety: What are the advantages of such collaboration?
Makara: When commercialisation of GM crops takes place, a joint assessment will help handle trans-border movements of these crops. In this case, it is central that capacity constraints of individual countries pose no hindrance and that COMESA can help all countries move forward at the same speed. In any case, the final decision with regard to the commercialisation of GM crops remains within each country.
Makinde: Biosafety harmonisation is currently not only going on in the COMESA but also in the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States). In fact the UEMOA (West African Economic and Monetary Union) started the process of harmonisation before other regional economic communities came on board. Harmonisation makes sense but you can only harmonise when we all have a good understanding of the issues and all have laws governing biosafety.
GMO Safety: Leaving out regulation, crops that play no role in overseas trade would be accepted more easily?
Makara: Of course there are a number of crops that are not exported to Europe, but the crops that are associated with the popularisation of biotechnology – major crops such as cotton or maize – have a lot of linkages with Europe. On the other hand, not much has been done in the past with regard to traditional crops like bananas or cassava. But more research is taking place on local crops and when, with time, people see that these crops address problems they have, the crops stand a chance of being commercialised.
GMO Safety: Why did it take so long for these crops to be developed?
Makara: If you look at the technology itself and the period in which the first GM crops were commercialised in 1996, you see that it took a lot of time to develop these varieties like cotton and maize. Developing a new variety is not a matter of one or two years; whether the development is through GM technology or through conventional technology, it naturally takes long time. So I don’t think that these new local GM crops have been particularly delayed in their development. On the contrary, for some crop trials have already been conducted and so we hope that in the next few years – five, seven years – some varieties can be commercialised.
Makinde: Many farmers are eagerly waiting for governments to do the needful to introduce GM crops since, as part of the “seeing is believing” concept, they have done study tours to countries that adopted the technology. They would like to access and assess the technology themselves for their own particular commodity. In many African countries the private sector is already putting in place mechanisms to makes the seeds affordable to farmers. But infrastructure is still a big bottleneck in Africa, biotech or no biotech.
GMO Safety: Given the bottlenecks and hurdles for their introduction, why this focus on GM crops?
Makara: Research in Africa is not only on GMOs. Other types of research are going on to address agricultural problems and constraints. Genetic engineering is used only when there are limitations to conventional breeding. You may have heard about the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project in a number of countries. Because drought is a big problem these days, especially with climate change, we do conventional research and breeding, but there is a better chance to develop resistant varieties through biotechnology. Donors also provide research funding for other research areas such as soil management.
GMO Safety: In the discussion in Europe it is often said that patents on GMOs are a problem. How is this solved?
Makinde: These new GM crops are developed in partnerships between public researchers and the private sector. The issue of intellectual property is handled by a Foundation set up primarily for this purpose, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Makara: The technology used in these crops is royalty-free and once the crops are commercialised they can be used at no additional cost by small-holder farmers. The development of new GM crops is also overseen at the national level. For instance, in Uganda work on GM crops has to be approved by the national biosafety committee. Donors and scientists have to clarify their interests and justify their project.
GMO Safety: What justifies the development of these crops?
Makinde: These new GM crops are staple crops that Africans love to eat several times a day. They are aimed towards both small-scale and commercial farmers. These new crops are either fortified to increase their nutritional value or are protected against prevailing pests and diseases.
GMO Safety: Are these new GM crops local crops, i.e. will they be cultivated at their centre of origin?
Makara: The crops that are currently being developed are important for Africa but many are not African. Maize, cassava and sweet potato are not from Africa. Even the banana is not from Africa, it comes from Southeast Asia! There are no wild relatives of these crops.
Makinde: The biosafety of newly developed crops is assessed in confined field trials.
GMO Safety: Now that we have talked so much about Africa, do you have anything to say about Europe?
Makara: Europe should come to terms with GM technology and listen to its scientists. After all, Europeans accept biotechnology in pharmaceuticals and when they visit the US or South Africa they eat the food there without asking whether it is GM or not. Europe needs to understand that Africa needs GM crops most.
Prof. Diran Makinde is Director of the African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. ABNE is an initiative established by the Office of Science and Technology of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) programme of the African Union. ABNE has the endorsement of the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST) to promote advancement of science and technology for agricultural development in Africa. Its overall goal is to build functional biosafety systems in Africa. Since 1999, Prof. Makinde has also been a member of AfricaBio, a non-profit biotechnology stakeholders association.
Arthur M. Makara is Executive Director of the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (Scifode) in Kampala, Uganda. In his previous position at the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology, a government agency, he was in charge of biosafety and biotechnology. During this time he was also the Secretary of the National Biosafety Committee (NBC). Arthur Makara also lectures in the Department of Botany at Makerere University in plant biotechnology and biosafety and is a deputy leader of the regulatory team of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa Project (WEMA) in Uganda.