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January 10, 2011


Abandoning ‘Genetic Modification’; European Farmers Left Behind; Poorest Continent Can Feed Itself; Regulatory Roundabout


* Talk Less of GM and More of What Science Can Deliver, Says Plant Scientist
* OFC 2011: GM key to future of CAP - Lyon
* Poorest Continent Can 'Feed Itself In A Generation'
* Gene Discovery Could Increase Value of Non-Food Crops
* EU GM Crop Regulation: A Road to Resolution or a Regulatory Roundabout?
* Uganda is ready for genetically modified foods
* India: GM revolution
* Strong Pitch for GM Crops


Talk Less of GM and More of What Science Can Deliver, Says Plant Scientist

- Ian Ashbridge, Farmers Weekly (UK), January 7, 2011

Farmers, agronomists and plant breeders should abandon the words "genetic modification" because of the negative public reaction they elicit, and instead talk in terms of the possible benefits the technology can deliver, says one leading plant scientist.

Developing terms such as "plant immunisation" or "vaccination" in the public consciousness would avoid the almost inevitably negative coverage that genetic modification received in the media, says Bill Clark, director of Broom's Barn Applied Crop Sciences.

"Scientists need to be much more careful about promoting their science and they need media training so that they can manage the way their science is promoted. All too often, scientists are lulled by the media into promoting the bizarre, talking about jellyfish genes and genes from spiders being incorporated into plants and animals - whilst completely failing to explain any benefits.

"They use inappropriate language, concentrate too much on the science without thinking about benefits and end up falling into the trap of scaring the general public," Mr Clark told delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday 6 January.

Plant breeders and the crop protection industry had managed to double average yields of wheat in two great leaps, from just over 2t/ha in the 1940s to 4t/ha in the 1960s, and in more recent years to over 8t/ha, Mr Clark said. But the current pace of yield improvement was unlikely to lead to anything more than small, incremental improvements in cereal yields.

"To begin to tackle the targets imposed by global population growth, we must be more radical than just tinkering with inputs. To meet a production target of 50% yield increase by 2030 we need to alter the fundamental biology of the crop.

"Much of the technology to produce much higher yields is currently scientifically possible, but is not being applied as much of it relies on genetic modification procedures," Mr Clark said.

"The confusion around the use of the term 'GM' is undoubtedly a hindrance to progress. For example, should food from soya be labelled 'GM' if it has been genetically engineered to have a gene from another soya plant? Or only when it has a gene from another plant species?"

Mr Clark said that in the efforts to increase food production to meet a growing population and a changing climate, all technologies should be adopted, provided they were safe and sustainable. "The concept of 'sustainable intensification' of agricultural production should be accepted and promoted - growing the highest yields possible on the least amount of land, while protecting valuable biodiversity elsewhere."


OFC 2011: GM key to future of CAP - Lyon

- William Surman, Farmers Guardian (UK), January 6, 2011

SUSTAINABILITY must be the central theme of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and genetically modified (GM) crops must be used to achieve it, Liberal Democrat MEP George Lyon told Oxford Conference delegates today (Wednesday, January 5).

In an impassioned speech Mr Lyon, who is leading the European Parliament response to the European Commission proposals to reform CAP, said European farmers were being left behind as ‘GM becomes the norm’ around the rest of the world.

He said politicians were exploiting people’s fears about GM for their own political advantage and urged a change in tack. “The impasse in Europe must be broken if we are not to fall further behind,” he said.

While GM was not ‘the silver bullet’ he said it was an essential technology to ‘increase output and minimise impact’.

“Sustainable agriculture is one that maintains and increases output by developing new techniques and technologies that dramatically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, nitrogen fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides and water,” he said.

In a thinly veiled attack on the green lobby, Mr Lyon added organic and low input, low output farming had a role but were ‘certainly not the answer’ to meeting the challenge of doubling food production by 2050.


Poorest Continent Can 'Feed Itself In A Generation'

- David Smith , Mail and Guardian (South Africa), January 7 , 2011
- http://www.mg.co.za/article/2011-01-07-poorest-continent-can-feed-itself-in-a-generation

“Africa can feed itself. And it can make the transition from hungry importer to self-sufficiency in a single generation.”

This is the claim of a new book that argues that the world’s poorest continent could break its dependence on foreign aid and become a food exporter by realising its rich agricultural potential.

Researchers led by Harvard University professor Calestous Juma said they were challenging pessimistic views of Africa, a continent often associated with images of famine and campaigns such as Live Aid and Comic Relief.

One in three Africans is chronically hungry, according to the United Nations, despite $3-billion spent on food aid for the continent annually and $33-billion in food imports. Population growth and climate change are growing threats.

But Juma, author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (published by the Oxford University Press), called on politicians to put agricultural expansion at the heart of decision-making about everything from transport and communications to education and innovation.

He said Africa is the only continent with arable land readily available to expand agriculture and that Southern Sudan alone could feed all Africans if it was properly developed.

“An African agricultural revolution is within reach, provided the continent can focus on supporting small-scale farmers to help meet national and regional demand for food,” Juma said. His proposal included the modernisation of farms, with new machinery and storage and processing facilities, and the selective use of genetically modified crops. He called for new roads, energy sources and irrigation projects.

Some African leaders have been criticised for enriching themselves or their militaries. Juma said they have to recognise that “agriculture and economy for Africa are one and the same”. He told the BBC: “It is the responsibility of an African president to modernise the economy and that means starting with the modernisation of agriculture.”

Juma said food self-sufficiency would require big shifts in policies that have led to dependence on food aid and imports. His book calls for more direct involvement by political leaders in sectors such as water, energy, transport, communications and education.

He said the army might refuse if the agriculture minister asks it to build a road to distribute food. “But if the president asks, they will do it. The president is the commander-in-chief.”

About 70% of Africans are involved in agriculture, but almost 250-million people, or a quarter of the continent’s population, are undernourished. The number has risen by 100-million since 1990.

The researchers found that, while food production has grown globally by 145% in the past 40 years, African food production has fallen by 10% since 1960. Only 4% of the continent’s crop land is irrigated. Fertilisers, pesticides and high-quality seeds are prohibitively expensive and in short supply.

Juma said: “African agriculture is at the crossroads. We have come to the end of a century of policies that favoured Africa’s export of raw materials and importation of food. Africa is starting to focus on agricultural innovation as its new engine for regional trade and prosperity.”

The findings were presented in Tanzania last month, where the presidents of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi were holding an informal summit to discuss Africa’s food security and climate change.

African political and economic analysts welcomed the research. Greg Mills, author of Why Africa Is Poor (published by Penguin), said: “Agriculture is one of the areas of competitive advantage that Africa has, but in the past century we’ve done very badly.

“Africa can do a whole lot more. I don’t think every country is going to be self-sufficient, but many countries can be. It’s not just about food self-sufficiency; it’s getting the balance right between domestic crops and crops for international consumption.”

George Mukkath, director of programmes at the charity Farm Africa, said he was in broad agreement with Juma.

“There hasn’t been much reform of African agriculture. Only 10% of GDP is invested. The question is whether governments are willing to look at it as a priority.” He said: “Climate change makes the whole thing more crucial. There needs to be more investment in technology for crops.”

Fears have been expressed that “land grabbing” -- in which wealthy countries buy or lease land in Africa to farm it for their own populations -- could hurt Africa’s potential for self-sufficiency.

Mukkath said: “That needs to be regulated. There needs to be a code of conduct on how investments are made.”


Gene Discovery Could Increase Value of Non-Food Crops
- USAgNet - 12/30/2010

Scientists at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation have uncovered a gene responsible for controlling key growth characteristics in plants, specifically the density of plant material.

Denser plants have more biomass without increasing the agricultural footprint, meaning farmers and ranchers can produce more plant material from the same sized field. Plants that have increased density hold great potential to be used to produce biofuels, electricity and even advanced materials, like carbon fiber.

"This is a significant breakthrough for those developing improved plants to address pressing societal needs," said Richard Dixon, D. Phil., director of the Noble Foundation's Plant Biology Division. "This discovery opens up new possibilities for harnessing and increasing the potential of crops by expanding their ranges of use. These plants will be part of the next generation of agriculture which not only impacts food, but many other vital industries as well."

Huanzhong Wang, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Dixon's lab, found a gene that controls the production of lignin in the central portions of the stems of Arabidopsis and Medicago truncatula, species commonly used as models for the study of plant genetic processes. Lignin is a compound that helps provide strength to plant cell walls, basically giving the plant the ability to stand upright. When the newly discovered gene is removed, there is a dramatic increase in the production of biomass, including lignin, throughout the stem.

Research targeting plants that are grazed by animals has historically focused on reducing lignin production within the plant. However, increasing lignin in non-food crops, such as switchgrass, may be desirable for increasing the density of the biomass and producing more feedstock per plant and, therefore, more per acre.

"In switchgrass, as the plant matures, the stem becomes hollow like bamboo," Dixon said. "Imagine if you use this discovery to fill that hollow portion with lignin. The potential increase in biomass in these new plants could be dramatic. This technology could make plants better suited to serve as renewable energy sources or as renewable feedstocks to produce advanced composite materials that consumers depend on every day."

Additionally, further research with collaborators at the University of Georgia revealed that removal of the gene also can increase the production of carbohydrate-rich cellulose and hemicellulose material in portions of the plant stem. These are the components of a plant that are converted to sugars to create advanced biofuels, such as cellulosic-derived ethanol or butanol. More celluloses and hemicelluloses mean more sugars to use for carbohydrate-based energy production.


EU GM Crop Regulation: A Road to Resolution or a Regulatory Roundabout?

European Journal of Risk Regulation 4/2010: pp. 359-369


Introduction Since first embarking on the road of risk management
options for the regulation of recombinant DNA (rDNA) activities and
use in 1978, the European Union (EU) has largely failed to create a
regulatory and policy environment regarding genetically modified (GM)
crops and their cultivation that is (a) efficient, (b) predicable, (c)
accountable, (d) durable or (e) interjurisdictionally aligned. Recent
proposed regulatory changes announced by the European Union Commission
(July 13, 2010) aim to allow member states to enact restrictive
measures on cultivation of GM crops based on broadly scoped
non-scientific criteria1. In light of the European Union Commission's
proposal, this paper reviews the EU's past efforts to effectively
regulate GM crops, critically assesses the impacts of the new
regulatory proposals, and examines some of the key outstanding issues
with the current EU regulatory framework that will need to be
considered as the EU moves forward into its next phase of GM crop


Uganda is Ready for Genetically Modified Foods

- Daily Monitor (Uganda), Jan. 6, 2011


In recent days, a number of negative opinions have been raised in the
Ugandan media concerning Genetically Modified Organisms trials in
Uganda. Most of the opinions are not informed by the vast knowledge
available from biology and genetics and crop breeding.

The critics have deliberately and selectively picked up erroneous and
biased bits and pieces of knowledge about GMO's from the web and media
and they are using them to mislead the general public. It is important
to correct the perception that GMO's have been resisted in Europe and
North America.

To the contrary, developments in GMO's for crop production,
pharmaceutical purposes and other novel industrial products are in
full throttle in those continents. It is no wonder that many GMO crops
are being cultivated on commercial basis in those regions. In Africa -
South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Egypt have taken the lead in growing
GMO crops on a commercial scale and they are reaping big.

We also wish to dismiss the notion that Uganda is blessed with
superior crop types that do not need improvement. But the prized crops
never originated from Uganda. Our matooke originated from Malaysia,
Philippines, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea; maize from Mexico and
Central America; and rice from China, India and West Africa.

Interestingly, all these countries are now growing GMOs. Second, it is
also vital to realise that the conventional breeding technologies that
helped breeders of the 20th Century to generate high yielding, pest
and disease-resistant crop varieties (not organic) are no longer
practical and competitive. Biotechnology has now greatly added value
to conventional breeding in ways that have revolutionised crop and
animal improvement. Biotechnology is now a must in all teaching
curricula for crop/animal improvement worldwide.

Critics have also argued that transgenic crops are a sinister plot by
multinational seed companies to enslave Africa to rely on them for
seed supply. We dismiss this argument as propaganda because no private
seed company was involved in the initial GMO research and discovery
and multinational seed companies existed before the GMO seed
revolution. Furthermore, Monsanto cannot make enough profits in seed
trade from Uganda or the East African region.

Using maize as an example, the crop is cultivated on more than 132
million hectares worldwide with an annual yield estimated at 500
million tons yet the East and Central Africa (ECA) region collectively
grows only 7.2 million tonnes of maize on approximately 5.5 million
hectares representing 1.4 per cent of the world total.

A quick glance at the figures will tell you that we in Uganda need
Monsanto more than it needs us. Indeed companies like Monsanto,
Syngenta, BASF Plant Science, Bayer CropScience, Ceres, Dow
AgroSciences and Pioneer are held in high esteem in developed
countries due to their contribution to health, food security,
employment and sustaining economies of these nations.

Lastly, scientists in East Africa are developing GMO crops in
partnerships with other scientists, including those in private
laboratories/companies like Monsanto. The drought-tolerant GMO maize,
if successful, will increase maize production from the current 7.2
million tons in ECA to 12 million - representing 70 per cent increase
in maize production in the region. As scientists, we will not sit and
watch the effects of climate change, drought, pests and diseases deny
our people food.

Dr Mugoya, a bioscientist, works with the Agro-biodiversity and
Biotechnology Programme of the Association for Strengthening
Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa. The article was
co-authored by Clet Wandui Masiga of the same organisation.


GM Revolution

- Joseph Vackayil The Financial Express (India), January 5, 2011
- http://www.financialexpress.com/news/gm-revolution/733350/0

Indian agriculture is evolving to its third phase, the era of genetically modified (GM) crops. The formalisation of this evolution into a revolution in the food sector will happen with the lifting of the moratorium on Bt brinjal by the Union government. India has already launched GM crops via Bt cotton in 50,000 hectares in 2002. Its growth to 8.4 million hectares and cultivation by 5.6 million farmers at the beginning of 2010 clearly shows that the GM revolution is no fantasy.

From the fully organic subsistence agriculture prevalent till the 1960s, Indian agriculture entered the hybrids and chemicals-driven phase of the green revolution, which made the country almost self-reliant for most of its food requirements. This, in turn, helped stabilise food prices and ensure the subsidised food supply system mainly served the needy.

GM crops may not replace traditional plant breeding, molecular plant breeding, hybrid seed technology or organic farming. But they will be indispensable. The GM revolution’s mandate is to produce more with less land and water; to help the farmer make a profit despite spiralling cost of labour; and to face the problems of climate change, especially drought and soil water salinity. These will lead to better food security through economic food pricing, availability and affordability.

Although India is yet to permit GM food crops, these have been cultivated in several countries across the world since the 1990s. The major achievements so far have been increased crop availability by reducing losses to pests, inherent resistance to pests, virus or fungus, biofortification or increase in the nutritional value of the crop. The qualitative improvements are reducing the presence of toxins produced by pests and pesticides, and environmental enhancement by saving soil and water bodies from chemicals and pesticides.

Realising these advantages, 14 million farmers in 25 countries planted transgenic crops in 134 million hectares at the beginning of 2010. According to the data by the International Service for Acquisition of Ag-biotech Applications, the countries growing transgenic crops in more than one million hectares, include the US, Brazil, China, Argentina, India, Canada, Paraguay and South Africa. The major transgenic crops are soya bean, maize, cotton and canola. The important engineered traits include insect resistance, herbicide tolerance and virus resistance. The transgenics food crops include maize, canola, cotton seed oil, papaya, soya bean and squash.

Although the first field testing of Bt rice was conducted in China in 1998, no transgenic rice has been released for large-scale cultivation so far. China’s ministry of agriculture released a biosafety certificate for Bt rice in November 2009, with possible wide-scale planting from 2012.

Research work on genetic plant transformation began in Indian laboratories in the 1980s and transgenics of certain crops were produced in the 1990s. However, nothing was released for cultivation until Bt cotton entered the scene. Now besides brinjal, a dozen other food crops are at various stages of development and trial to create transgenics with desired traits. These include cabbage, cauliflower, groundnut, maize, mustard, okra, pigeon pea, potato, sorghum, tomato, wheat and rice. The traits being targeted are insect resistance, virus and fungal resistance, nutritional enhancement, delayed ripening, and drought and salinity tolerance.

The Calcutta University, Directorate of Rice Research, Indian Agriculture Research Institute and Tamil Nadu Agriculture University are part of the global R&D and trial programme of the pro-vitamin A rice or Golden Rice slated for release in 2012.

In India, the learned opinion of scientists, economists and social groups is that the main responsibility for the development of transgenic technology in the country should rest with publicly funded institutions. This calls for massive government investment. The government and the public sector institutions should lead the GM revolution as food security is “too critical and strategic an area to be left wholly or predominantly to private hands’’, they say.

The inter-academy report on GM crops, prepared by the leading science academies and institutes in the country, says that GM technology, like any other, “comes with some genuine and perceived risks and affects different social strata and cultures to variable extents. This is the reason for varied, sometimes extreme reactions from different social groups, countries and the regions of the world to GM crops. This aspect makes it necessary for the regulatory system for GM technology to take into account socio-economic factors. The system should also identify beneficiaries and losers and provide remedial action”. However, the fear of the perceived risk should not lead to inaction.

The report says, “most of the scientific advances that helped shape the world as we know it, have been accompanied by uncertainties as well as dissenting voices’’. Hence it is important to continuously strive to minimise or eliminate uncertainties, and to build the broadest possible consensus on issues that the inevitable GM revolution would generate.


Strong Pitch for GM Crops

- G Babu Jayakumar, Indian Express, January 8, 2011


CHENNAI: Advocates of genetically modified (GM) crops, both in the private sector and the government research establishments, got an opportunity to press their case for lifting the moratorium on Bt brinjal and hailing GM crops as the sole hope for India, with the 98th Indian Science Congress here offering them a platform to air their views.

Apart from a special lecture session by Shanthu Shanthanam, executive director of ABLEAG, New Delhi, which saw five speakers, most of them from the private sector, saying that India's food security would be under serious threat without biotechnology, a plenary session echoed similar sentiments on Friday, the last day of the event.

At the plenary on 'Agriculture, Biotechnology and Food and Nutrition Security', Soumya Swaminathan, coordinator, WHO, Geneva, who spoke on the prevalence of undernutrition and how it caused more diseases in the country, suggested biotechnology as a solution.
Director of National Institute for Nutrition, Hyderabad, B Sesikaran, claimed that most of the biotech products were not developed by the private sector and listed a few government institutes that have undertaken research in that field. However, he did not make it clear if those researches had the backing of any corporate house.

V Prakash, director of Central Food Technological Research Institute, talking about food production, acknowledged the treasure trove of ethnic, traditional and tribal knowledge in India and said that science can coexist with them.

However, the strongest pitch for biotech came at the 'special lecture' session where the panelists went to the extent of saying that if modern methods were not adopted India would face a food crisis. One of them said that in crop production, India was lagging in all crops except cotton. The production of cotton shot up only because of the introduction of Bt cotton, she claimed.

Stressing the need for lifting the moratorium on Bt brinjal, they said genetic modification was an ancient practice in the country. Transgenic crop is just a modern version of it as it involves genesplicing technology. Biotechnology alone can improve breeding and the quality of seeds, they claimed.

The elevator pitch: biotechnology can provide the nation more food, better quality food, safe food, healthy food and designer food.