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December 13, 2010


Obama’s Evergreen Revolution; EU’s 10-Year €200m Finding – GM Is Safe; Building a Better Tree; Feeding the World – 100 Questions


* Farming the Future: GM Crops Recommended as Key Part of Obama's "Evergreen Revolution"
* EC discloses findings on GM crop impacts
* New Branch of Science May Build A Better Tree
* Increased Business for Genetically Modified Animal Fodder
* Bayer CropScience and Evogene Sign Collaboration Agreement to Improve Wheat Seed
* Feeding the world: The top 100 questions for global agriculture


Farming the Future: GM Crops Recommended as Key Part of Obama's "Evergreen Revolution"

- David Despain, Scientific American, December 9, 2010

'A former Agriculture Department chief scientist weighs in on President Obama's U.S-India plan, arguing that biotechnology is crucial to the growth of food productivity and security that is necessary to feed a surging global population'

Agricultural innovation has long sustained the world's masses with an abundance of low-cost food, thanks to the success of the mid-20th century's Green Revolution, which brought industrialization and high-yield grains to India, Mexico and many other developing countries. A prosperous global population however, has blazed the way for burgeoning new mouths to feed that, by 2050, will nearly double food demand. At the same time, farmers face unprecedented challenges of climate change, high oil prices driving demand for biofuels, and rising costs of land and water.

The 2008 surge in food prices portended ominous and volatile times ahead. Just recently the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warned of more food supply shocks in 2011. While on his Asia tour in November, President Obama announced that the U.S. and India would create a partnership to "spark a second, more sustainable 'Evergreen Revolution'"—a sequel to the Green Revolution, an endeavor advanced previously by Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug.

This intention to improve global agricultural productivity and extend food security to Africa is welcomed by former U.S. Department of Agriculture Chief Scientist and Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics Gale A. Buchanan. And if the president's plan is to have any "real, revolutionary" impact, he said, then it must capitalize on the value of genetically modified (GM) crops. In a November 11 keynote address at Sigma Xi's "Food Safety and Security: Science and Policy" symposium, Buchanan charted out several examples of how GM crops could improve agricultural productivity.

Advocates argue that GM crops could also play an indispensable role in addressing the world's most serious agricultural challenges like climate change. "The world has got to accept genetically modified plants because not to is to fail to acknowledge one of the most important discoveries of the 21st century," Buchanan said.

Critics argue otherwise. Some environmental activists raise concerns about displacement of biodiversity, jeopardizing native plants through cross-pollination or effects on wildlife. The Organic Consumers Association is concerned about health risks and commodity price manipulation by corporate giants such as Monsanto. According to a position statement from the Union of Concerned Scientists, GM foods may pose harm to human health or the environment. The organization calls for thorough risk assessment before introductions of all biotechnology products. Others cite the lack of long-term data on these and other possible impacts.

David Tribe of the University of Melbourne disagrees. The food scientist and safety expert is co-creator of Academics Review, a Web site that seeks to clear confusion about GM food safety by responding to unsubstantiated anti-GM claims. "Technological innovation is being straitjacketed by excessive and scientifically unjustified precaution. By delaying our ability to respond in time to climate change, it's doing more harm than good," he says.

Yet, the disagreement goes beyond questions about GM crop's safety—they are really not what poor farmers in developing countries need. In Africa, for example, the tried-and-true technologies of the Green Revolution are still lacking, along with access to good roads and fertilizer. Buchanan agrees there are alternative solutions by building food chain infrastructure and trade, but he adds: "If we are to address the problems affecting our future well-being on the planet, we have to be far more visionary." "Classical genetics and plant breeding played a role in the first Green Revolution and will continue to be needed, but biotechnology that generates genetically modified organisms will play an increasing role in future green revolutions," he says.

7 GM crop strategies that may bolster an Evergreen Revolution
One strategy along these lines, drawn from a report published in January by the Council of Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) and chaired by Buchanan, is to bioengineer major food crops to convert the sun's energy more efficiently. There are three types of photosynthesis, two of which are known as C3 and C4. Most plants rely on the C3 process, which uses carbon dioxide and fixes three-carbon compounds in a photosynthetic cycle, but a few have evolved the more efficient C4 variety, developing a competitive edge by fixing four carbons per cycle.

C4 plants, such as corn and sugarcane, are better able to survive hotter, more arid climates. So, enabling C3 crops such as wheat, rice and soy to use C4 pathways could provide similar advantages of less photorespiration, which leads to production of more biomass, yet releases less carbon into the atmosphere.

Another idea is to bioengineer major crops to fix nitrogen. Nitrogen is plentiful in the atmosphere but as a fertilizer it is expensive, because it is made using fossil fuels. Plus, using it can contaminate waterways. In soy and other legumes nitrogen fixation is an evolved trait allowing them to hold on to the element and return it to the soil. The feat of introducing nitrogen fixation into corn and sorghum—or other genes that allow a crop to require less nitrogen—alone would cut costs and pollution markedly as well as drive higher yields.

Bioengineering grain crops to produce seed without fertilization from pollen may also be an option. A cloning type of reproduction that doesn't rely on fertilization, called apomixis, introduced to crops would allow farmers to be able to save high-yield hybrid seed without to the necessity of annual interbreeding, according to University of Georgia professor Wayne Hanna. The plant scientist, who has been working on apomixis for a number of years with molecular geneticist Peggy Ozias-Akins, also at Georgia, says, "If one could clone the genetic mechanism [of apomixis] and introduce it to maize, rice and wheat, it would revolutionize food production."

Another strategy is to bioengineer major crops that can withstand heat, drought and salinity. Drought already accounts for about 40 percent of corn crop losses. And irrigation often brings high salt concentrations into soil adding more stress on the plants. GM crops that can tolerate heat, drought and salt would not only allow farmers to use land normally unsuitable for cultivation but also circumvent problems of growing population and climate shifts brought on by global warming.

Bioengineering plants that have greater resistance to pests and diseases has also been proposed because, although not new, the arms race against evolving pests and diseases continues. The introduction of ribonucleic acid interference (RNAi) genes is a promising new development that can lead to new ways of neutralizing viruses or killing insect larva. Another plan is to boost plants' light-capturing capabilities. Despite millions of years of evolution, plants are still quite inefficient at the job. Most absorb only about 1 to 3 percent of light, whereas solar panels can typically capture 10 to 15 percent. But some plants can capture more photons because of energy-efficient genes, which has led scientists to seek ways of inserting those genes into food crops to increase crop yields exponentially.

Lastly, genetic modification offers new ideas for innovations with the latest coming from the study of plant phenotypes, or phenomics as well as floating ocean crops, or ocean farming. These represent another strategy—the most celebrated example of which is bioengineered algae that converts carbon dioxide waste from coal-fired plants to biofuel.


EC discloses findings on GM crop impacts


The European Commission has released a compilation of the 50 research projects the EU has funded in the field of genetically modified (GM) crops since 2001. The research addresses the safety of GM crops for human health and the environment.

The projects, which received funding of €200m, have demonstrated that there is not yet any scientific evidence associating GM crops with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than with conventional plants, it says.

There are potential opportunities to reduce malnutrition in developing countries and assist in the adaptation of agriculture to the effects of climate change, says the commission. But it adds that strong safeguards are needed to control potential risks.


EC-sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms, edited by Charles Kessler and Ioannis Economidis, European Communities, 2001, EUR 19884. Ioannis ECONOMIDIS, Danuta CICHOCKA, Jens HÖGEL

See also http://ec.europa.eu/research/quality-of-life/gmo/

In 2001 the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation published the first overview of the accumulated results of ‘EC Sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)1’. This publication included work sup- ported over the preceding 15 years from the first to the fifth Framework

Programmes for research, technological develop- ment and demonstration activities (FP). It featured 81 projects, involving over 400 laboratories, and the results covered a range of subjects: horizontal gene transfer, environmental impact of transgenic plants, plant-microbe interactions, trans- genic fish, recombinant vaccines, food safety, and other issues. The 2001 publication attracted the attention not only of the scientific community but also of regulators, public services, non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders.

The European Commission now provides a sequel to this publication, presenting the outcomes and conclusions of studies supported in subsequent Framework Programmes. In addition, the development of the Bio-Economy concept has created significant interest in the follow-up and development of the GMO debate, not only addressing public concerns about the application of genetic engineering to the production of agricultural and industrial commodities, but also offering responses to challenges for which there is currently no solution available.

This new publication presents the results of 50 projects, involving more than 400 research groups and representing European research grants of some EUR 200 million. This figure brings the total Commission funding of research on GMO safety to more than EUR 300 million since its inception in 1982 in the Biomolecular Engineering programme. In addition, many Member States have also launched their own national research initiatives, complementing these coordi- nated European research efforts.

The 50 research projects can be grouped into the following principal areas:
• EnvironmentalImpacts of GMO; • GMO and FoodSafety; • GMOs for biomaterials and biofuels– Emerging technologies; • Risk assessment and management– Policy support and communication.

It is evident from this grouping that many of the research projects have been launched to address not only the scientific unknowns but, more importantly, public concerns about the potential environmental impact of GMOs, about food safety, the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops, and risk assessment strategies. As with the previous publication, this book provides background information and descriptions of the results of the projects for scientists and regulatory communities, as well as for the public. The results and conclusions of these projects increase our accumulated knowledge, enabling the Commission and policymakers in general to contribute to the international debate, and to provide scientific support to regulatory frameworks and initiatives.

The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies. Another very important conclusion is that today’s bio- technological research and applications are much more diverse than they were 25 years ago, which is also reflected by the current 7th EU Framework Programme.

Due to the its large diversity, biotechnology became the key component of the Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy, a concept applicable in a range of fields extending from primary production to industrial and pharmaceutical applications, and involving emerging technologies such as synthetic biology. Modern biological know-how is used to address major societal challenges, including food and feed security and safety, the development of renewable resource platforms for the production of biomaterials and bio-energy, and pharmaceuticals, while improving environmental sustainability. It is predicted that, whereas the past century was transformed with the commercialisation of personal computers and the development of the Internet, the 21st century will be revolutionised by our growing understanding of the functioning and interaction of biological systems, whether at the molecular or at the eco- system level.

Biotechnology is not a purely academic exercise: its findings and developments will lead to applications and products essential to society. However, only a structured dialogue with policymakers, stakeholders and the public, based on sound science and empirical evidence, will clear the way for a balanced assessment of the benefits and risks of biotechnology and GMOs within the framework of the bio-economy.

The research described in this volume focuses on possible risks associated with the use of GMOs in different biotechnological applications. Based on a growing body of evidence that biotechnology is not more risky than alternative technologies, today’s research projects funded under FP7 are now more carefully integrated and look at the potential technological benefits as well as the risks. A number of stakeholders, such as the European Group on Ethics, have greatly facilitated this approach by providing general reflections and recommendations, for example on the ethics of synthetic biology.

Research efforts in this and other fields of biotechnology will continue, taking due account of environmental, social and ethical concerns while, at the same time, searching for solutions to current and future challenges.


New Branch of Science May Build A Better Tree

- Derek Abma, The Vancouver Sun, December 11, 2010

The use of biotechnology to create better trees. A U.S.-based organization called the Institute of Forest Biotechnology has recently got the ball rolling on discussions about using technology to create trees that might be more efficient to produce, yield higher-quality lumber, and be more resistant to things like disease, insects and climate change. Photograph by: Handout, Postmedia News

The old debate over real versus artificial Christmas trees is one thing, but what about genetically modified trees?

A U.S.-based organization called the Institute of Forest Biotechnology has started talks on using technology to create trees that are easier to grow, yield higher-quality lumber, and are more resistant to disease, insects and climate change.

In a conference call held this past week, leaders of the institute said genetically modified trees could help offset the effects of increasing demand on forests from a growing population, as well as depletion of forests from climate change and other factors.

Creating stronger trees would help the search for lumber and alternative fuel sources, as well as the environment in general, since trees help absorb carbon and provide habitats for wildlife, proponents say.

“Biotech trees, in my view, are a very powerful tool,” said Steven Strauss, a professor of forest biotechnology at Oregon State University who is consulting with the institute. “It’s something that we’d like to have available, but it’s something that we’d like to use properly.”

The institute is calling for the use of biotech trees to be guided by a gradual process of scientific research and transparent public discussion. It acknowledges there are always risks when humans manipulate a natural process, including unintended effects on other plants and animals.

Lori Knowles, a health-law researcher from the University of Alberta, another institute board member, downplayed the risk of industrial interests proceeding with the production of biotech trees ahead of the careful pace her organization is urging.

“(Forest biotechnology is) dominated by researchers at this point. . . . There are a few companies involved, but it’s not a massive area of commercial interest at this point,” she said.

Knowles said regulations in many countries, including Canada and the United States, limit how quickly biotech-tree development could come into play. Biotech trees are currently being used commercially in China, where more than a million genetically modified poplar trees grow. A variety of virus-resistant papaya trees has also been planted in Hawaii.

The Sierra Club of Canada, an environmentalist organization, is taking a cautious approach to the idea of biotech trees. John Bennett, the group’s executive director, said he supports the idea in principle and is in favour of the incremental pace, based on scientific research, being proposed by the institute.

However, Bennett said, past examples of genetically modifying plants and animals leave him with concerns. “We think there’s been a tendency to introduce these things before they have actually identified all the potential problems,” he said.

The notion of trees created through biotechnology doesn’t seem to be a preoccupation for Canada’s forestry industry yet. A spokeswoman for the Forest Products Association of Canada said it’s not something the industry is involved with. A big reason for that, she said, is that Canada has plenty of trees.


Increased Business for Genetically Modified Animal Fodder

- YLE UUtiset, Finland, Dec 13, 2010

Finns are consuming more and more pork and chicken that have been fed genetically modified (GM) fodder. Although the largest Finnish animal fodder producers have avoided genetically modified raw materials up to now, there are increasing economic pressures to adopt GM produce.

Much of the soy used as a basic ingredient of Finnish animal fodder comes from South America. Today over ten percent of soy beans are genetically modified, with the proportion of altered soy increasing worldwide.

In this situation, more and more Finnish fodder producers have been forced to reassess where they stand as regards genetically modified goods. According to Kari Tillanen, CEO of LSO Food, the price difference between genetically modified and non-modified produce is already nearly two-fold.

Up to now, the big Finnish fodder producers such as Suomen Rehu and Rehuraisio have committed themselves not to use modified raw materials. This may change, however, as smaller fodder producers capture more of the market with their cheaper GM produce. A small company from Satakunta, for example, has managed to grab a quarter of the chicken fodder market with its GM modified chicken feed.

Significant amounts of GM soy is already being imported to Finland. With stiffening competition, Rehuaisio CEO Leif Liedes admits that in the long run, the big fodder companies can hardly afford to be crusaders for non-genetically modified foods.
According to Jukka Rantala from Finland's Central Union of Agricultural Producers and Forest Owners (MTK), four out of five kilos of Christmas ham and chicken will still be GM-free this year.


Bayer CropScience and Evogene Sign Collaboration Agreement to Improve Wheat Seed

- Press Release, Dec. 13, 2010

MONHEIM, GERMANY and REHOVOT, ISRAEL -- (Marketwire) -- 12/13/10 -- Bayer CropScience AG and Evogene Ltd. (TASE: EVGN) have entered into a five-year collaboration to accelerate the development and introduction of improved wheat varieties. Improvements will be pursued for wheat yield, drought tolerance, fertilizer use efficiency and certain other wheat traits utilizing a combination of advanced breeding and state of the art genetic modification methods. Bayer will have exclusive rights to commercialize in wheat the traits resulting from this collaboration.

The collaboration further builds on an on-going partnership between Bayer CropScience and Evogene, which was initiated in 2007 and expanded in 2009, for increasing rice productivity and yield.

In a separate agreement, Bayer CropScience will make an equity investment of USD 12 million in Evogene at a price of approximately USD 7 per ordinary share.

On a global basis, wheat is the largest crop in terms of cultivated area and one of the most important food crops. The critical need to provide sufficient wheat to meet the needs of the growing world population is widely recognized. Significant efforts are being directed towards addressing this challenge, primarily through programs attempting to increase yields and to sustainably reduce required inputs, such as water and fertilizer.

The collaboration will utilize Evogene's ATHLETE, RePack and EvoBreed computational genomic technologies for the identification of genetically modified and native traits to improve yield, drought tolerance, fertilizer utilization and certain other characteristics in wheat.

Bayer CropScience will utilize its capabilities in breeding and product development to incorporate genetically modified and native traits identified by Evogene, into its wheat pipeline for developing elite varieties displaying improved performance. The resulting improved wheat varieties will be commercialized by Bayer CropScience.

Evogene will receive approximately USD 20 million in the form of upfront fees and annual research payments over the term of the agreement. Furthermore, the company will receive development milestone payments and royalties on the commercialization of any resulting products. Further details of the agreement were not disclosed.

"The wheat industry is facing challenges, such as changing climate, the decline of mineral resources used for fertilizer and the need to increase crop yields. We look forward to working together with Evogene in the area of wheat research to help tackle these issues," said Lykele van der Broek, Chief Operating Officer of Bayer CropScience. "Being market and innovation Leader in the crop protection market for Cereals, we aim to become the partner of choice to wheat growers and the wheat industry and will offer superior integrated solutions to improve cereal production in a sustainable way."

"We are very pleased by this major expansion of our relationship with Bayer CropScience, a worldwide leader in innovative crop science, and we are confident that this joint effort will result in meaningful contributions to meeting the needs of the wheat industry," stated Ofer Haviv, Evogene's President and CEO. "A unique aspect of this collaboration is the synergistic combination of the two research approaches for trait improvement: advanced breeding and biotechnology. By combining these two approaches in one truly collaborative program utilizing an array of Evogene's leading computational genomic technologies and Bayer CropScience's proven product development expertise, we anticipate opportunities for significantly enhanced results."

Key figures about wheat:

* Approximately 25 percent of global agricultural land is utilized for wheat cultivation, making wheat the largest food crop worldwide in terms of area.
* Wheat is the second most-produced cereal crop after corn with more than 650 million tons produced every year.
* Wheat productivity is increasing at less than 1 percent annually, while the annual global demand is growing at approximately double that percentage.


Feeding the world: The top 100 questions for global agriculture

- International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability,
- http://www.earthscan.co.uk/?tabid=503

Despite a significant growth in food production over the past half-century, one of the most important challenges facing society today is how to feed an expected population of some nine billion by the middle of the 20th century. To meet the expected demand for food without significant increases in prices, it has been estimated that we need to produce 70-100 per cent more food, in light of the growing impacts of climate change, concerns over energy security, regional dietary shifts and the Millennium Development target of halving world poverty and hunger by 2015.

The goal for the agricultural sector is no longer simply to maximize productivity, but to optimize across a far more complex landscape of production, rural development, environmental, social justice and food consumption outcomes. However, there remain significant challenges to developing national and international policies that support the wide emergence of more sustainable forms of land use and efficient agricultural production.

The lack of information flow between scientists, practitioners and policy makers is known to exacerbate the difficulties, despite increased emphasis upon evidence-based policy. In this paper, we seek to improve dialogue and understanding between agricultural research and policy by identifying the 100 most important questions for global agriculture. These have been compiled using a horizon-scanning approach with leading experts and representatives of major agricultural organizations worldwide. The aim is to use sound scientific evidence to inform decision making and guide policy makers in the future direction of agricultural research priorities and policy support.

If addressed, we anticipate that these questions will have a significant impact on global agricultural practices worldwide, while improving the synergy between agricultural policy, practice and research. This research forms part of the UK Government's Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures project.