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December 20, 2010


PM's food panel bets big on farm biotech


Today in AgBioView, December 20, 2010, www.agbioworld.org

PM's food panel bets big on farm biotech
$1.8m Laboratory crop construction begins
Vietnam to push ahead with GM crops
25-year GM pine tree test gets green light
Non-GMO Foods? Nonsense.
Biotech Fears Should Not Overcome Potential Benefits
Sloppy seed-sorting main culprit in GM crop escapes
What is genetic modification, really?
S. Africa: Farmers benefit from biotech crops production
Debunk-tion Central


PM's food panel bets big on farm biotech
Hindustan Times
December 15, 2010

India is likely to rely a great deal on biotechnology in food crops to ease growing demand for food amid rising prices, even though the country has clamped a moratorium on Bt brinjal, its first genetically engineered food crop.

A working group set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to suggest long-term solutions to high food inflation, which submitted its report to the PM on Wednesday, has said a second green revolution would not be possible without biotechnology-led breakthroughs.

"A second Green Revolution focusing on the rainfed areas is possible only through a technological breakthrough in the use of bio-technology ... by evolving plant varieties resistant to pest and diseases, tolerant to adverse weather conditions, better nutritional value and enhanced durability of product," the group, led by Haryana chief minister B.S. Hooda, said in its recommendations. The group also includes the chief ministers of Bihar, Punjab and West Bengal.

The working group, one of the three set up by the PM to look into ways to cool prices, has advised loans for farmers at not more than 4% and called for MSP that are 50% higher than cost of cultivation. Ironically, yearly increases in MSP, or the floor price, are one of the reasons for rising food costs.

India could raise overall food production by around 36% if widespread yield gaps can be bridged, the report has said. "If we take up average yields in deficient states, we can produce an additional 80 million more tonnes of foodgrains. This is do-able," agriculture secretary PK Basu said.

Food prices, of late, have undergone a "structural shift": high overall growth has pushed up incomes and, with it, demand for protein-rich food items, according to RBI deputy governor Subir Gokarn.


$1.8m Laboratory crop construction begins
Ghana Broadcasting Corporation
December 18, 2010

A sod has been cut for the construction of a $1.8m World Bank financed Biotechnology Research Laboratory for the crops research institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Fumesua near Kumasi, in the Ashanti Region.

The project which is to be completed within 10 months is under the auspices of the West Africa Agricultural productivity programme, WAAP, and the West Africa Council for Agricultural Research and Development.

The National Coordinator of WAAP, Mrs. Azarah Ali Manshie, said the project aims at strengthening the mechanism and procedure governing registration and release of technology such as genetic material and pesticides for commercial application.

She said on completion, the laboratory would be the centre for bio-technology specialization.

The Technical Specialist at the Crops Research Institute, Dr. Felix Annor-Nyarko was happy that the laboratory would also help build the capacity of researchers and support farm surveys and supply chain analysis at the Institute.


Vietnam to push ahead with genetically modified crops
Thanh Nien News
December 11, 2010

Vietnam will be planting genetically modified (GM) crops on a large scale from 2013 onwards, an official from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said at a conference Friday.

Pham Van Toan, chief of the ministry's biotech office, said so far three foreign companies have been licensed to test three varieties of GM crops - maize, soybean, and levant cotton.

The government has ordered the planting of these crops during the 2010-2015 period, he said.

After a lot of research and experiments, international scientists have concluded that GM crops don't cause harms to human health, the ecological environment as well as microorganisms in the ground, Toan claimed at the conference dealing with biotech applications in Vietnam's agricultural development.

The studies are a good base for many countries in the world to expand GM crops, he added.

Agreeing with Toan, economist Pham Chi Lan said it was necessary to apply biotech applications in agriculture, considering the country's agricultural land area has not increased in recent years, and the sector is facing the challenges of increasing population and climate change.

Earlier this year, the Vietnamese government had announced a major plan to cover half of the country's agriculture land with gene-altered crops by 2020.

So far, the field trials of GM maize have been held at two places - in the Red River Delta's Hung Yen Province and the southern province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau.

However, experts have since expressed their concern over the project, suggesting the government adopts a much more prudent approach and give serious thought to it, as the risks pertaining to GM crops are still unknown.


25-year GM pine tree test gets green light
New Zealand Press Association
December 16, 2010

Environmental regulators have given a green light to a 25-year field test of genetically modified, also referred to as genetically engineered or GE, pine trees "in containment" at Rotorua.

The Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) yesterday approved state science company Scion's application to test genes influencing plant growth, reproductive development, herbicide tolerance, biomass utilisation, wood density and stability in 4000 trees on a 4 hectare site.

Each tree will be grown for a maximum of eight years before being destroyed.

The chairwoman of Erma's panel, Val Orchard, noted it was not deciding whether the submitters or their views were correct, but making a balanced decision to allow benefits of new organisms to be realised if the risks could be safely managed.

Scion - formerly the state Forest Research Institute - is in its 14th year of field-testing GM pine trees and in 2000, received approvals from Erma to field test radiata pine over 22 years with engineered genes controlling reproductive development and over 11 years for herbicide resistance.

It now wants to introduce new traits with "commercial potential" to boost production of wood and fibre-based products, bio-fuels, other chemical extracts from trees, and for increasing carbon capture through tree planting.

Plantation forests already earn the country $3.2 billion a year, and Scion has said world demand for forest products is expected to increase over the next 30 years.

The company has developed GM herbicide-resistant radiata pine and spruce, and insect-resistant radiata pine for indoor containment studies it said showed an ability to deliver additional genetic gain.

Scion said it would be collaborating with commercial partner ArborGen Australasia.

DNA sequences will be copied from organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and non-native plants and the GM trees will be assessed for herbicide tolerance, biomass acquisition, wood characteristics and expression of the new genes.

Environmental impacts will also be assessed by monitoring the micro-organisms and insects living in association with pines.

Scion is seeking increased stability of wood dimensions - less shrinkage in drying - and improved plant growth and better suitability of glue-like chemicals, known as lignins, in the wood to being pulped or broken down by microorganisms or enzymes.

And because foresters growing conventional trees don't want genetic contamination from GE forests, it plans to control reproductive development - producing trees that won't produce viable pollen or seed cones - which may allow extra energy to be transferred to plant growth.

Soil and Health spokesman Steffan Browning said Erma's controls for the GM pines were little different than those made for GM brassicas at Lincoln, where GM kale was wrongly allowed to flower.

Non-government organisations critical of the technology would monitor Scion's latest project as closely as possible to check that GM leakage from field trials did not occur.

"We cannot rely on the scientists or government agencies entrusted with that responsibility," he said.


Non-GMO Foods? Nonsense.
Dec. 14, 2010

I was at a local organic food market recently buying lunch, and I noticed that my avocado-and-hummus sandwich proclaimed that it contained "non-GMO" ingredients (GMO = "genetically modified organism).

Now, I happen to like organic groceries. The ones near me tend to have better produce and fish, two of the main ingredients in my diet. But organic markets are a hotbed of bogus, even laughable health claims, and I often have to suppress my urge to complain to the store's management. (I once wrote to Whole Foods, but they never responded.)

Here in the U.S., most of our food supply is filled with so-called GMO foods, but in Europe the situation is dramatically different. For some reasons, our otherwise well-educated European friends are terrified of GMO foods. They don't seem to realize that we've been modifying the genes in our foods for centuries, and it's generally been a good thing. The latest biotechnology merely allows us to modify plants (and animals too, though none are yet on the market) much more quickly, and more intelligently. Today we can alter just a few genes to produce a more-desirable plant, rather than doing it by trial-and-error over many generations.

In fact, the "GMO" foods of the past likely had hundreds of unknown gene modifications.Farmers selected plants for seed because they looked and tasted good, without having any idea of what was really different about them.

Let's take a look at corn. The corn we eat today, organic or not, looks nothing like the "real" corn (or maize) from centuries ago. The earliest corn cobs discovered by archaeologists were tiny, with only a few kernels. This picture shows a primitive form of corn, called teosinte, compared to modern corn:

That hasn't stopped opponents of GMO foods from sounding the alarm. Even the World Health Organization makes some errors on its website, where it discusses three main "issues of concern for human health":

1. Allergenicity. Not a problem. The WHO says "No allergic effects have been found relative to GM foods currently on the market."

2. Gene transfer. The WHO gets this one wrong. They write that "gene transfer from GM foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract would cause concern if the transferred genetic material adversely affects human health." Gene transfer is a topic that I've studied in some detail, and published papers on. The WHO says that the likelihood of a gene transfer event is "low," but in fact it is vanishingly small - so small, in fact, that not a single gene transfer event has ever happened. In the history of our species, and of all mammals, going back tens of millions of years, not a single gene from something we've eaten has been transferred into the human genome or, as far as we can tell, into bacteria within our guts.

3. Outcrossing. This is "the movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops," and this really can happen - they're the same species, so they can interbreed. But it's only a concern if GM plants are harmful, which they're not.

The bottom line is, you're far more likely to be harmed by being hit on the head by a corn cob than by some kind of deviant GMO corn gene.

The WHO concludes that GM foods "are not likely to present risks for human health." Of course, not all GMO foods are good. I'm not a fan of engineering crops to be more tolerant of pesticides, for example: this type of GMO food benefits big agricultural firms rather than the consumer.And it is theoretically possible to insert harmful genes into plants, but agricultural firms wouldn't have any reason to do that.

So the next time you see the non-GMO claim in your grocery, ask yourself whether the ingredients could really be completely unmodified from their "natural" state. I doubt it.

My sandwich was really good, by the way.


Biotech Fears Should Not Overcome Potential Benefits
National Center for Policy Analysis
December 14, 2010

Biotech Benefits Extend Way Beyond Food Crops, Say NCPA Experts

While biotech foods benefit the environment and human health, other genetically modified species could be a boon as well, according to new research paper, Biotech Forests: An Environmental Blessing?, from the National Center for Policy Analysis' (NCPA) E-Team project.

"Baseless fears built on nightmare speculation that has never been proven about biotech food crops should not be allowed to delay the planting and growth of genetically modified trees once they are ready for commercial introduction," said NCPA Senior Fellow H. Sterling Burnett. "These trees have the potential to improve forest health, to reduce our demand on virgin forest timber products and to help the economy."

Genetically modified trees have the potential to better resist pathogens and destructive pests, produce higher yields of cellu lose for renewable fuels, and remove carbon dioxide from the air more efficiently than unmodified trees. In addition, modified trees grow faster and larger, allowing paper and timber companies to harvest more product from the same amount of trees.

"When these trees prove out," said NCPA research analyst Wesley Dwyer, coauthor of the report, "both our pocketbooks and the environment will be winners."


Sloppy seed-sorting main culprit in GM crop escapes
December 18, 2010

Careless handling of seeds may be the key reason for the unintended spread of genetically modified (GM) crops, a study has found.

The discovery challenges the widespread belief that the main source of GM contamination is the transfer of pollen by bees from GM crops to non-GM counterparts in neighbouring fields. Human error during seed production and handling is the more likely culprit, say the researchers.

Stands of non-GM crop plants are currently planted near or within fields of modified crops to provide refuges for pests. This technique helps prevent the pests developing resistance to the pesticides used on GM crops. But human error could undermine this widely used strategy, the paper says.

Shannon Heuberger, an entomologist at the University of Arizona, United States, and her colleagues measured the gene flow - the movement of genes between different populations that occurs when a plant from one population fertilises a plant from the other - in Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton, the widely planted GM crop, in 15 fields in Arizona.

They found that gene flow via the transmission of pollen by bees was rare. Fewer than one per cent of seeds produced by ordinary cotton plants contained genes from Bt cotton that had been transmitted in this way.

But poor seed-sorting resulted in some seed bags intended for planting in non-GM fields containing as much as 20 per cent GM seed. One non-GM field was found to have a large number of GM plants due to human error in planting.

'Our most important result is that growers can minimise gene flow by screening the seed before planting it in seed-production fields and by being more cautious in their planting process,' Heuberger told SciDev.Net.

'In comparison, designing strategies to minimise bee pollination between fields can be quite difficult because insect behaviour is hard to predict,' she added.

The study concludes that seed producers and decision makers should consider screening seeds to monitor the presence of GM seeds in the supply, and that they also need to communicate 'the importance of segregating seed types at planting to reduce human error'.

Marķa Isabel Manzur, head of biodiversity at the Sustainable Societies Foundation (FSS), a Chilean environmental non-governmental organisation, said: 'This is a very interesting study because it helps elucidate at a greater depth how transgenic contamination takes place'.

'It corroborates once more that transgenic crops can contaminate surrounding crops, which is something that biotech companies frequently deny despite all the evidence to the contrary.'


What is genetic modification, really?
Mail & Guardian (South Africa)
December 20, 2010

If you think you've managed to stay clean of them GMOs (genetically modified organisms) by going "organic", chances are you've unknowingly been eating them or wearing them. But don't worry. After more than three decades of experimentation there's still no convincing evidence that GMOs are harmful. It's the paranoia of groups like Woolworths, who explicitly state this lack of evidence, yet choose to rid their fresh produce of the stuff because of concerned customers. Most people don't know that genetic engineering is usually applied as an investigative tool in genetics to figure out what genes do rather than to make food. And most people would welcome GMOs that we don't eat, such as the improved trees that may produce our future biofuels. Fear of new technologies is simply a lack of understanding about the unknown. Hell, people were afraid to install electricity in their homes once upon a time, out of concern that it might jump out of the walls and fry them to a crisp! But safety aside, many people are fundamentally anti-GMO because they think it undermines God (especially if you're the current Pope) or because they don't have a clue about what it is.

Genetic modification is the introduction of one or more genes into an organism to improve a certain trait, or to produce a certain product. Sometimes the gene(s) come from a different species (sometimes even human genes are introduced into bacteria - this has made human insulin production possible for diabetics). Alternatively, a gene(s) from the same organism is isolated, improved, and re-introduced into the organism. There is nothing unusual about genes from one organism (such as bacteria) being transferred to a very distant relative, say, a plant. Indeed, some bacteria actually "mate" with plants. Agrobacterium is one such bacterial anomaly: it integrates its own genes into the DNA of plants, forcing them to produce cancers, which it then feeds off. In fact, genetic engineers have hijacked Agrobacterium to do the work for them. They've taken out the cancer-causing genes, replaced it with whatever gene they want to introduce into a plant, and Agrobacterium will without complaint carry out the task.

Every molecular tool that we use for genetic modification comes from nature. We can cut up DNA precisely to engineer almost whatever we want. But we need enzymes to do this: naturally occurring molecular machines that recognise defined DNA sequences and cut them into pieces like scissors. There are thousands of types available in nature. Similarly, we can also make as many copies of a gene as we need, a central technique that makes genetic modification possible. Again, the enzyme we use comes from a bacterium that thrives in near-boiling waters, and can duplicate DNA at the high temperatures needed to create a chain reaction of replicating DNA molecules. A visit to any molecular biology lab will reveal that genetic engineering requires modest equipment, nothing like what CSI may suggest. And that's because we use nature's molecular tools for almost everything.

Almost without exception, when a gene is prepared for genetic modification, it is introduced into E. coli bacteria to preserve it intact, much like keeping a backup of important files. It is almost trivial how easy it is to introduce DNA into E. coli. Is it unnatural? Not in the slightest. Bacteria are the most genetically promiscuous organisms known on earth, the whores of the molecular world. This is because bacteria can literally absorb whatever pieces of DNA they come across (such as DNA from dead organisms), incorporate it into their own genomes, and thereby acquire a diverse genetic repertoire.

I'm dismayed why selective breeding, which has been practised since the age of agriculture more than 10 000 years ago, is seen as inherently safe. What we call maize today is not found in nature, but was instead developed from a pitiful relative called teosinte. It was bred into its current status over thousands of years. Similarly, you will not find modern cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower or broccoli in nature, because they were bred from one species, Brassica oleracea. Mankind has for millennia manipulated (albeit slowly) the animals and plants he found useful, from wolves (today, a kaleidoscope of dog breeds) to cows to potatoes. But this breeding, although using a natural process, suffers from complete blindness on the breeder's part. To illustrate, when developing disease-resistant crops, breeders usually "breed in" a resistant gene from wild relatives of domesticated varieties by cross-breeding them. However, hundreds if not thousands of other genes accompany the desired gene and inevitably get incorporated into the target crop. The breeder usually has no clue what these genes are or what their effects are. These crops are only tested for disease resistance but are generally regarded as safe for consumption.

Conversely, genetic modification is a meticulous science: the genetic engineer knows precisely which gene(s) is being introduced, and only the desired gene(s) is introduced into the host organism. The engineer also has a thorough understanding of what the gene(s) does. It does not suffer from the blindness of conventional breeding. Shockingly, there is one process not classified as genetic modification that is widely practised: that of arbitrarily mutating crop plants and selecting for mutants with desired traits. Usually, the nature of the mutation is unknown. It is also highly likely that these crops will carry mutations in non-target genes with completely unknown effects. And it is fully accepted in classical plant breeding.

I argue that GMO technology, in itself, is a concise and predictable science, much less influenced by uncontrolled factors as is the case in conventional breeding. Genetic engineers harness the tools of nature to perform it, and it is in principle no more artificial than conventional breeding. The potential that GMO technology yields are considerable: it is thought that the only way we could possibly produce enough vaccines for the world is by using plants to make them for us cheaply and abundantly. But as with all technologies, one can practice it in ethical and unethical ways. One can drive a car ethically or unethically, and indeed, cars kill thousands every year while it is still to be shown that someone died of a GMO. Yet you will not find lobbyists trying to get cars off the road despite their obvious danger. I find it almost humorous that the good-willed mothers that vehemently avoid GMO food on their grocery list also apply a synthetic factory of chemicals to their faces every morning. To oppose GMO technology because of its unknown long-term effects, then, is simply a double standard.


S. Africa: Farmers benefit from biotech crops production
Fresh Plaza
Dec. 20, 2010

Continued progress on commercialization of biotech crops was witnessed in all three countries in Africa during the 2009 period. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Application (ISAAA), South Africa has increased its hectarage by 17 percent while Burkina Faso increased by 14 percent. The three countries broader coverage is of strategic importance because it allows more African countries to become practitioners of biotech crops and be able to benefit directly from learning by doing, a practice which has been proved to be very important. This is a remarkable achievement given that Africa is the continent with the greatest challenge on food production compared to other continents. South Africa is a typical case of science and technology preceding the evolution of policies and legislation. Scientists alerted the government on the importance of adopting the technology and the research work began immediately.

Kenya must adopt the new technology in agricultural development adding that the advantages of the agricultural technology can readily be seen on how tissue culture banana has succeeded. Kimani reveals that the introduction of tissue culture bananas has greatly reduced the importation of the fruits from Uganda and other countries in a span of five years. "KARI and other relevant agencies have the scientific capacity to undertake the production of genetically modified crops," she adds.

Kenya is currently carrying out trials on maize, cotton, sweet potatoes, cassava and recombinant vaccines with the hope that the crops could help deal with some problems that farmers face and lead to increase in yield. According to the Coordinator Programme for Biosafety Systems (PBS) in Kenya David Wafula plans are almost complete to have a harmonized biosafety policy within the 19 countries forming Common Market for East and Central Africa (COMESA). He reveals that given the likelihood that biotech crops may impact in inter regional trade, a committee that was formed by COMESA are currently developing policy and guidance for the member countries.


Debunk-tion Central
Drovers Cattle Network
Dec. 20, 2010

You might not have heard of one Jeffrey Smith.

Unless you're a member of the Natural Law Party or you're forking over tuition for your kids to attend the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, which is based on the principles of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the thoroughly discredited Indian spiritual leader whose followers once tried to take over an Oregon farming community by flooding the area with members of their religious cult. Smith has been actively involved with both groups

But Smith is notable not just for his New Age connections to questionable spiritual leaders but also for his relentless promotion of anti-biotech rhetoric, including his latest self-published effort, Genetic Roulette, a book in which he details 65 separate ways that GMO technology causes harm. Smith, who is based in Fairfield, Iowa, has become one of the most widely quoted opponents of biotech ag - despite his lack of scientific credentials or formal training on the subject.

However, there's now a counterattack underway. Prof. Bruce Chassy, Associate Executive Director of the University of Illinois Campus Biotechnology Center and Assistant Dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, and David Tribe, an Australian scientist who has his own pro-GM blog have teamed up on the new according to a new website called Academics Review website to debunk Smith's theories. They state that, "The so-called 'scientific studies' that Smith says support his theories are thoroughly contradicted by a vast body of data and scientific experience. In his single-minded campaign against GM crops, Smith has shown an amazing capacity to ignore the scientific literature on almost every topic he discusses."

As a gifted communicator, however, Smith has been particularly adept at getting his message out online, where he spreads his misinformation about biotech.

Until now.

Here are a few excerpts of the debunking that Chassy and Tribe have prepared:

Genetic Roulette claim: GE potatoes (bioengineered to produce endogenous insecticide) damaged the digestive tracts and other organs of lab rats. The studies were published in the British medical journal The Lancet. The truth: A panel of experts, the Royal Society and food-safety scientists in regulatory agencies around the world, all have concluded that the study does not demonstrate that the GM potatoes were unsafe in any way. Two separate expert panels reviewed this research and concluded that both the experimental design and conduct of the experiments were fatally flawed, and that no scientific conclusion should be drawn from the work. Experts who reviewed the data stated that there were no meaningful differences between control and experimental groups, that the same cellular differences could be seen in all groups. The diets were protein-deficient and different groups of rats received different diets. Some rats were fed raw potatoes - raw potatoes are toxic to rats and might cause disturbances to gastrointestinal cells.

Genetic Roulette claim: 12 cows in Hesse, Germany, died mysteriously after being fed significant amounts of a GE corn, Bt 176 from Syngenta, which was forced to compensate the farmer. The truth: "There is no real evidence that the Bt corn had anything to do with the loss of the cows. The fact that Syngenta reimbursed the farmer was not an admission of guilt but an attempt at good customer relations. Thousands of cows have eaten that corn with no ill effects. Investigators from the Robert Koch Institute concluded that Bt 176 corn was not the cause of death; they suggested a common cause of animal death, chronic botulism. Moreover, the kinds of changes in DNA described for Bt 176 have never been implicated in adverse effects. Most of the fear-mongering about DNA changes reflect a lack of awareness of the extensive changes in DNA that occur in the conventional plant breeding techniques that we have used for many years. DNA change isn't bad; it's the objective of all breeding."

Genetic Roulette claim: Gene insertion creates genome-wide changes in gene expression, which are not predictable and have not been fully investigated in currently approved GE crops. These massive changes have multiple health-related effects. The truth: Smith's speculations that transgene insertion disrupts gene expression in GM plants were based on one experiment performed with animal cells. A number of similar experiments done with plants demonstrate exactly the opposite. The creation of a new GM wheat variety, for example, causes fewer changes in gene expression than does conventional cross-pollination breeding methods. Furthermore, the process of screening thousands of plants for those with the desired properties during the commercial development of a new crop variety allows breeders to reject any plants that have drastic alterations.

There's more - much more - on the Academics Review website. It may not have the catchiest title ever conceived, but the information compiled by Chassy and Tribe is as rock-solid scientifically as hypesters like Jeffrey Smith are slick and self-promoting. ?

-- To learn more about anti-biotech debunking, visit www.academicsreveiw.org.