* Who's Afraid of the Big Bad GM?
* Time to Modify the GM Debate
* Is GM Controversy Back On The Political Radar?
* Farm Reform, Biotech Are Key To Feeding World By 2050: Study
* Vatican Panel Backs GMOs
* New form of public involvement in French grapevine project
* China’s Monsanto? Biocentury Transgene
* GM Research Stoush Heats Up (Questioning Dr. Judy Carman)
* Is Transgenic Maize What Mexico Really Needs?
Who's Afraid of the Big Bad GM?
- Alan Moran , Herald Sun (Australia), January 14, 2011
Monsanto's genetically modified corn, growing in a field near the village of Badingen, north of Berlin. Source: AP
UNLIKE their US and Asian rivals, Australian farmers face barriers if they want to grow genetically modified (GM) foods. GM uses the laboratory rather than trial and error cross-breeding to develop improved seeds.
These provide benefits like higher plant yields, resistance to pests or herbicides and reduced water requirements. Most farmers are eager adopters of improved technology. But they and the seed suppliers face hostility to GM technology from activists including consumerist organisations and organic farmers.
Opponents have concocted concerns that the products from GM plants might harm consumers or that the crops might cross-breed with other crops.
Such claims are nonsense. No serious scientist argues that the technology can be harmful. But, spooked by the fuss, Australian governments have adopted extremely conservative approaches to approving GM products.
Around the world, approved GM crop varieties have been readily accepted by farmers wherever the seed companies are able to demonstrate cost-effective productivity improvements.
Monsanto's GM soyabean improves yields by 5 per cent and lowers production costs by 20 per cent. Other companies like Aventis, Dow, Syngentia and Pioneer also offer competitive seed products.
GM crop varieties are now responsible for 70 per cent of US corn and 80 per cent of soy production. And you can bet your life that the US's notorious litigiousness would have uncovered any problems had they been present.
Due to international trade, almost every consumer in Australia and the rest of the world has been eating GM products for a decade or more, without any adverse effects.
The former Victorian Government opposed most GM farming applications claiming they would harm our image and bring adverse sales effects in key markets. The groundless nature of such fears is demonstrated by Canadian farmers, whose GM canola dominates the product's international trade.
Under international agreements, Australian regulators must authorise GM foods as long as they are "as safe for human consumption as food derived from conventional varieties". As a result, Australia approves GM canola, soy, corn, sugarbeet, and rice for food consumption.
However, multiple regulatory barriers prevent most of these approved varieties from being actually grown in Australia. Even when products have been approved for Australian consumption, a successful application to grow them in Australia, at best, takes many years before commercial use is permitted.
The nation is a clear loser when the regulatory barriers prevent better seeds being used. And even if approval is eventually granted the costly and lengthy trials demanded by Australian regulations impose expenses that the farmer and consumer ultimately must pay.
Australia's regime of regulatory overkill in GM seeds in denying productivity gains to our farmers not only disadvantages growers competing in world markets but also reduces the international competitiveness of agricultural processing businesses and brings higher consumer prices.
Australian agriculture has a proven record of efficiently producing crops in spite of the variability of our climate.
We should build on this and avoid shackling the industry with regulatory restraints, especially when our overseas rivals, including the US, are adopting a more liberal approach to new technology.
Alan Moran is the director, deregulation, at the Institute of Public Affairs (Melbourne, Australia)
Time to Modify the GM Debate
- David Leyonhjelm, Business Spectator (Australia), Jan 14, 2011
Opposition to genetically modified food has been widespread in Europe ever since the Flavr Savr tomato was introduced in the US in 1994. Green lobby groups, often with government funding, have waged a very successful campaign to whip up and maintain public opposition.
The reasons are emotive and ideological, based on romantic notions of agriculture and a rejection of what is perceived to be the technology of American big business. But for a society that views itself as rational and scientifically advanced, this presents a predicament. How can it build safe and modern nuclear power stations and send satellites into space while at the same time rejecting innovations in food production?
The answer is to start from an assumption that GM food must be hazardous to consumers or the environment, and set out to prove it. If you look hard enough, surely the proof will be found.
A report just released by the EU Commission, entitled 'A Decade of EU-funded GMO Research', now shows you cannot prove something that is not true. The infamous (and, ironically, European) claim that saying something often enough makes it true simply does not apply to science.
The report reviews the last ten years of research projects including agricultural management techniques for co-existence, tools for analysis in food and feed, and methods for risk assessment.
It presents the results of 50 projects, involving more than 400 research groups and representing European research grants of some 200 million euros. This brings total Commission funding of research on GMO safety to more than 300 million euros since its inception in 1982, not counting numerous studies funded directly by member states.
What it concludes from this effort 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.”
In other words, there are no greater risks involved in producing and consuming food from GM crops than in producing food in general.
Molecular biologists, the experts in the science, wonder why anyone ever thought otherwise. As they see it, the planet is one large natural genetic pool where all living organisms continuously activate and deactivate genes in response to perceived environmental stresses.
To them, the act of splicing a gene to create a transgenic organism is a modest step compared to the changes induced by all the crosses and breeding events used in agriculture and husbandry, and which also occur spontaneously in the wild. Splicing is simply a tool to add some precision, speed and reach to an existing process.
But neither the public nor the civil servants and politicians who control the policy levers are molecular biologists, and they are unlikely to be reassured by this report. In fact it is more likely that efforts will be redoubled to find something inherently risky about GM technology, with the scientists in-effect told to keep looking until they get it right.
Ultimately it may be discontent over rising food prices while living standards decline, and the fact that Europe is increasingly a net importer of food from countries where attitudes to GM technology are more relaxed, that lead to a change in attitudes. Assuming something is hazardous when the science says otherwise is a luxury only possible with prosperity and abundance.
But another decade could pass before that occurs. By then there may be another report presenting the results of a further decade of research, all aimed at proving a false conclusion.
David Leyonhjelm works in the agribusiness and veterinary markets as principal of Baron Strategic Services, which provides consulting and market information services, and Baron Senior Placements, which provides executive recruitment services.
Is GM Controversy Back On The Political Radar?
- John Hess , BBC, Jan 14, 2011
It's been off the political radar for a few years now. But the contentious issue of allowing our farmers to grow genetically modified crops is about to resurface.
On a cold January morning, cereal farmer John Charles-Jones is preparing for the warmer Spring days ahead Soon the heavy soils in the fields around his farm in the Woodborough Valley north of Nottingham, will start to yield oil seed rape and wheat.
Over recent years, he has been won over by the GM argument. "What farmers need is the choice to be able to use the technology. Farmers rely on science completely from the seed we put in the ground to the fertilisers and the sprays we use to protect the crops. Everything is science-led. It just seems a natural extension to use another tool in the armoury," he told me.
During the Labour years, there were 415 separate trials growing GM crops on selected British farms. Some trial areas were raided by protesters and GM crops destroyed.
But by last year only two crop trials - growing potatoes - were still continuing. While the USA, China and Brazil allow the use of GM crops, there are still tight restrictions in the European Union.
Now the Conservative MP Mark Spencer -a farmer himself - wants the Coalition to ditch those GM curbs. "Tell me how about people have from died from eating GM food in the States? None. More people have died from peanut allergies, but no-one suggests we ban peanuts."
The Sherwood MP from Nottinghamshire secured a parliamentary debate on the issue to find out the latest government thinking. The response from the DEFRA minister James Paice was revealing.
"The government is close to finalising our overall policy on GM. It is a sensitive area and obviously there are many views," he said. "Because of climate change it could become far more relevant in this country."
If the government's clearing the way to allow GM crops, it can expect rigorous opposition. "I don't think you can say it's intrinsically safe," says Richard Mallender, a Green Party councillor in Rushcliffe, near Nottingham. "These big agri concerns are killing the soil... and they're making the soil less sustainable in the longer term."
The UN has warned that climate change and a rising global population will result in much higher food prices. In China, Brazil and the USA, the use of GM crops is now standard practice. Here - as in the rest of the European Union - there remains strict limitations on GM.
"The fact is that 14 million farmers around the world are now growing GM crops.That tells its own story," said Mark Spencer.
Back at Woodborough Park Farm, John Charles-Jones is putting his trust in the scientists.
"There's emotion, science and politics all wrapped up in this debate. I would be the first to say the science has to be right. But if the scientists are happy, then I am happy."
But when this controversial issue graps the headlines again, that will be a sign that not every is happy. Far from it.
Farm Reform, Biotech Are Key To Feeding World By 2050: Study
- Richard Ingham, AFP), Jan 12, 2011
PARIS — Massive changes in farming practices, eating habits and consumption will be needed to feed Earth's population sustainably when it hits nine billion in 2050, French scientists warned on Wednesday.
In under 40 years, the world will have to make farming more productive but less dependent on harmful chemicals, curb food losses and waste, protect the environment and reduce agriculture's exposure to disastrous price swings, they said.
Their study, called Agrimonde (Agriworld in French), is co-authored by specialists at France's National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and the International Cooperative Centre for Agronomical Research for Development (CIRAD).
"This exercise is undertaken at a very specific human history, at a time when the population today is seven billion," CIRAD president Gerard Matheron said at a press conference. "World agriculture faces a major challenge."
Last week, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported that food prices had hit their highest level ever and World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned that rising prices for staples "are re-emerging as a threat to global growth and social stability."
Riots in Algeria, meanwhile, left five people dead, hundreds wounded and about 1,000 in jail, prompting the authorities to promise to cut food prices.
The Agrimonde study said that North Africa and the Middle East, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, all with fast-growing populations today, will be heavily dependent on imported food in 2050.
It puts forward two scenarios -- both relatively optimistic -- by which the planet's expected nine billion humans are fed by 2050. Under a business-as-usual scenario, all regions in the world would enjoy strong economic growth, invest heavily in research, innovation, education, health and infrastructure.
But, under this scenario, there is not a high priority to the environment, with resulting damage to ecosystems.
Under the second scenario, environmental integrity is a key factor. To achieve this goal in sustainability, rich countries in particular would have to reduce excessive consumption that leads to obesity and tackle loss and waste in food distribution and use that today runs at around 25 percent of production.
Agriculture everywhere would have to be more economical in fossil fuels and make less use of chemicals. "However, this would not be a return to archaic agriculture, but instead require innovation and social change," said CIRAD researcher Bruno Dorin, who co-authored the study.
Genetic manipulation of plants to boost yields would be necessary. However, smarter ways of traditional cross-breeding are emerging as good alternatives to genetic engineering, which is a hot political issue in many countries, he said.
At the same time, there would have to be changes in trade rules so that the food supply line to importing countries becomes stronger and more resilient, thus easing the price shocks that hit producer or customer.
"The necessary and foreseeable growth of agricultural exchanges coming from OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, the ex-Soviet block and Latin America, and going towards Africa, Asia and the Middle East needs to be stabilised and regulated," says the paper.
Vatican Panel Backs GMOs
- Anna Meldolesi, Nature Biotechnology 29, 11 (2011) 10 January 2011
The Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, headquartered at Casina Pio IV shown here, holds a membership roster of the most respected names in 20th century science.
A panel of scientists convened by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS) has made a passionate endorsement of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for global food security and development. The statement, published in 16 languages in the 30 November issue of the journal New Biotechnology (http://www.ask-force.org/web/Vatican-PAS-Statement-FPT-PDF/PAS-Statement-English-FPT.pdf) is the result of a workshop held in the Vatican in May 2009, involving 7 members of the PAS and 33 outside experts. It states that “there is a moral imperative” to make the benefits of genetic engineering technology “available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations who want them,” urging opponents to consider the harm that withholding this technology will inflict on those who need it most.
The panel's key recommendation is to free transgenic varieties “from excessive, unscientific regulation” that hampers agricultural progress by inflating the costs needed for crop R&D. Ingo Potrykus, a member of the panel and co-inventor of Golden Rice, who is at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, is still waiting for its beta-carotene–enriched seeds to reach the fields and sees that decade-long delay as a bitter lesson for agricultural biotech. “There is lots of high-quality publicly funded research and lots of goodwill for public-private partnerships to use the technology for humanitarian ends, but nobody can invest a comparable amount of funds [to that spent by large agricultural firms]. It will be mandatory to change regulation if we have any interest in using the technology for public good and in the public sector and with nonindustrial crops.”
Influential people in developing countries—African bishops included—distrust GMOs as the tools of a plot by multinational corporations to make poor farmers dependent on multinational corporations. A 2009 draft document of the African Synod states that a campaign favoring agbiotech “runs the risk of ruining small landowners, abolishing traditional methods of seeding, and making farmers dependent on companies producing GMOs.” But Robert Paarlberg, an agricultural policy analyst at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, who attended the Vatican meeting, believes those wary of GMO varieties should have greater confidence in the capacity of their local political systems to keep intellectual property (IP) issues under control. “They need to understand that patent claims over transgenic seeds made in countries such as the US do not extend to Africa,” as Paarlberg argues that “national patent laws in Africa are more restrictive towards claims of IP.”
If more is not done to encourage public sector involvement in developing GMO products there is also a risk that transgenic product development might be restricted to those players able to cope with regulatory red tape and fees (that is, multinational companies). “The cause for the 'de facto monopoly' is neither the technology itself, nor the IP involved, nor lack of interest in [it] from the public sector. The only cause is present regulation,” says Potrykus.
The panel's statement calls specifically for a revision of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which deals with international trade in living GMOs. “Groups opposed to the technology used it as a vehicle to persuade governments in Africa to set in place European-style domestic regulatory systems regarding the approval of GMOs,” says Paarlberg. But Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard University, is pessimistic that the Cartagena agreement may be revised to incorporate the Vatican group's recommendations. Juma, who was not involved in the meeting, suggests that communities should create their own treaties to support the advancement of the field. “Little will be gained from seeking to operate under a treaty that is so overtly hostile to innovation,” he says.
The group's conclusions do not represent the official Vatican position, the Holy See press office stressed. Yet Gonzalo Miranda, a bioethicist of the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, believes its scientific authority should carry weight. “The Catholic Church encompasses different sensibilities on GMOs but the trend is toward a cautiously open attitude because evidence of benefits mounts as time goes by and harms don't materialize,” he argues. The proceedings of the study week are “an important indication that the Vatican continues to keep the matter under review and to listen to expertise. This is more than many leaders around the world have done and the Vatican should be commended,” says Juma.
ndia Is Ready For A Gene Revolution
- V. Ravichandran, Thursday, 13 January 2011
A revolution in agriculture transformed my country from a begging bowl to a bread basket. Now we need to let the Green Revolution grow into the Gene Revolution--and allow the farmers of India to enjoy full access to the benefits of biotechnology.
The fate of my nation depends on it.
I’m old enough to remember India in the 1960s, when my country couldn’t feed itself. We had to import millions of tons of grain and other foodstuffs just to survive. The situation was so bad that Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri went on the radio and appealed to his fellow citizens to give up one meal per week, in the belief that this sacrifice would enable others to eat.
I was about seven years old at the time. My family met the challenge by forfeiting a meal every Monday. So did a lot of other families. In our area, the restaurants and canteens would shut down temporarily to encourage participation.
The root problem was that we were primitive farmers--or, to put it in modern terms, we were organic farmers by default. Our age-old practices simply had failed to keep up with the demands of a large and growing population.
Then the Green Revolution introduced the latest methods and technologies to India’s farmers. We started to irrigate our fields, apply pest controls to our crops, and plant better seeds in our soil. Our yields soared. In a single generation, we went from a land that lacked food security to a country that could meet many of its basic needs.
In 2011, India is home to more than a billion people. Since the start of the Green Revolution, the size of our population has more than doubled--and we’re still doing a better job of feeding ourselves than at any point since I was a boy who gave up a meal on Mondays.
This isn’t to say everybody in India now consumes a hearty breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We remain a developing nation that is riddled with large pockets of poverty. We struggle with the emerging problem of “hidden hunger,” which is the phenomenon of people who have access to food but still lack a properly nutritious diet.
So we must do better.
It won’t be easy. Our population continues to boom. Some demographers say that by 2030, we’ll pass China as the world’s most populous country. No matter what happens, Indian farmers will need to fill a lot of mouths. So will farmers throughout the rest of Asia and Africa. We have a social and moral obligation to do everything in our power to feed this swelling mass of humanity.
We’ll require access to the best agricultural tools of the 21st-century, including genetically modified crops. Our political leaders must help the Green Revolution blossom into the Gene Revolution.
I’ve participated in the Gene Revolution since 2002, when New Delhi first approved GM cotton. This crop has boosted yields and improved my ability to work as a farmer who produces crops in a sustainable way. It has also enhanced my quality of life because it demands less back-breaking effort to grow. Just about every Indian cotton farmer now chooses to grow GM cotton--a sure sign that this is an outstanding piece of Gene Revolution technology.
Yet GM cotton doesn’t feed anybody. We need to apply biotechnology to food crops as well, just as farmers have done everywhere from the United States to the Philippines. Indian scientists already have determined that GM brinjal (eggplant) is perfectly safe for human consumption. Last year, however, government officials chose to ignore their own experts and surrender to the pressure tactics of anti-GM radicals. Their decision put a vital crop that is a staple for many Indians out of reach, at least for the time being.
This indifference to India’s food security will prove costly if it isn’t reversed soon. Farmers need access not only to GM brinjal, but also to biotech corn, rice, and wheat. We need better resistance to weeds and pests, drought and disease, and floods and salinity.
The Gene Revolution stands ready to deliver these benefits, but only if we permit it to succeed.
The alternative is to go back to the future--except that the skipping of meals may no longer be voluntary.
Mr. V Ravichandran owns a 60 acre farm at Poongulam Village in Tamil Nadu, India where he grows rice, sugar cane, cotton and pulses (small grains). Mr. Ravichandran is a member of the Truth About Trade and Technology Global Farmer Network.
Major International Research Initiative Launched to Improve Food Security for Developing Countries
In a unique and important move to harness science to improve food security for millions of people in the developing world, research funders from the UK and USA and government departments in the UK and India have today (11 January) announced a new £20M/$32M joint research initiative.
The new initiative will fund teams from the UK, India and developing countries to work on research projects to improve the sustainability of vital food crops. The research will particularly investigate ways to improve the disease-resistance and stress-tolerance of staple crops in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Funding will be awarded to teams that can show that their research can improve food security and increase sustainable crop yields within the next 5-10 years.
Over one billion people globally are already undernourished and food security is a major issue with the world's population forecast to reach nine billion by 2050. Environmental change, new trading patterns and urbanisation are all expected to increase pressures on food security in coming years.
The new initiative is being managed by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The £20M fund is made up of contributions from BBSRC, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (through a grant to BBSRC), the UK Department for International Development and the Indian Department of Biotechnology.
David Willetts, UK Minister for Universities and Science, who recently signed a letter of intent with the Indian government said: "Global food security is one of the greatest challenges we face in the 21st century and I am delighted that the UK is leading the way with this important initiative.
"This global collaboration will benefit millions of people leading to improved food production in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and increasing the body of knowledge on food security worldwide."
Stephen O'Brien, UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development said: "Millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are dependent on staple crops such as maize and rice both as a source of food and income. If disease or difficult growing conditions limit their harvest then the consequences can be devastating, with families unable to afford medical care or school fees, and children at real risk of becoming malnourished.
"Reducing the unpredictability of growing crops helps to ensure that the poorest countries are able to feed their people, cope with sudden global food price changes, and ultimately boost economic growth."
"We are pleased to join with the UK and Indian governments in their commitment to global food security," said Sam Dryden, director of Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "This joint program is an opportunity for high-impact research partnerships to flourish among scientists in the developing and developed worlds. The end result will be new pathways out of poverty for the millions of smallholder farming families who depend on agriculture to support and feed their families."
The new initiative will place particular emphasis on improving the sustainable production of staple food crops across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. These include cassava, maize, rice, sorghum and wheat. By placing significant emphasis on these crops the initiative partners expect to be able to improve food security and quality of life for the largest possible number of people.
The initiative also aims to maximise the impact of the research funded by supporting a more comprehensive approach to improving productivity and yield, for example by tackling crop resistance to drought or flood. By funding international researchers tackling problems across different countries and regions promising research from one country can easily be shared and tested more widely in different regions and conditions to provide the widest possible benefit.
Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development (SCPRID)
- Outline application deadline: 31 March 20
This is a joint call for collaborative projects under the Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development (SCPRID) initiative. Up to £20M is available through the initiative
New form of public involvement in French grapevine project
Genetic engineering experiment: From information to interaction
Fanleaf degeneration is a crop disease with significant financial consequences for wine-growers. One of the symptoms is spotty, yellow leaves. The INRA in Colmar studied transgenic grapevines that are resistant to this disease.
The Institut National de Recherche Agronomique in Alsace has been trialling a new form of public involvement over recent years. A release experiment with genetically modified grapevines was monitored for six years by a Local Monitoring Committee, which helped develop the biosafety research questions. The project ended in 2010 when the trial field was destroyed. The final report appeared in the online journal PLosBiology at the end of 2010.
In the past, methods of involving the public in the introduction of new technologies have usually been restricted to public information or public hearings. More recent methods place a greater emphasis on the active involvement of citizens and stakeholders. One such method was trialled at the Institut National de Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in Colmar from 2003 to 2010.
The focus was a field trial with GM grapevines that are resistant to the grapevine fanleaf virus (GFLV). GFLV is one of several viruses that cause fanleaf degeneration. It is transmitted via soil-dwelling nematodes. Affected plants normally have to be completely removed and the soil treated with nematicidal substances, although these are banned in many countries. The transgenic grapevines produce a coat protein of the GFLV virus, which protects them to a large extent against infection by the ‘real’ viruses. Since the virus is transmitted through the soil, only the rootstocks are genetically modified; the scions grafted onto them do not contain any transgenes. For the field trial, soil was taken from two infected vineyards and brought to the INRA site.
The Local Monitoring Committee (LMC), which was convened before the start of the trial, had no fixed membership, but was open to anyone interested, and members were free to pull out at any time. The members were representatives of wine-growers, consumer associations, environmental and nature conservation associations, representatives of the town council, the regional council and the regional environment agencies, as well as one independent wine-grower and a neighbour of the trial site. Despite the considerable time investment involved, the composition of the committee remained stable over a period of six years.
The biosafety research experiments on the GM grapevines were planned in the first instance by INRA scientists and then discussed and modified in the LMC. Following discussions in the LMC, for instance, scions were chosen from a grapevine variety that is not otherwise grown in Alsace and which has a very different appearance from the Alsace grapevines. Although the scions were not genetically modified, this approach was intended to prevent fears among the local community about the transgene outcrossing to native grapevines.
Another modification instigated by the LMC was for a membrane to be buried under the trial field to isolate the experiment. This was designed to prevent the GFLV-infected nematodes from spreading. The membrane was also employed because of fears raised in the LMC that horizontal gene transfer could take place between the transgenic rootstocks and the nematodes. However, the INRA scientists regarded these fears as unfounded.
The LMC also initiated additional research, e.g. into whether an exchange of genetic material takes place between the transgenic rootstock and the soil microflora or the non-transgenic scion. In addition, the LMC developed a research programme on conventional methods of controlling the GFLV virus.
After the field trial was partially destroyed in September 2009, the LMC received broad support from a wide range of organisations and parties, including from those opposed to the use of genetic engineering in agriculture. Since the rootstocks remained unharmed, the research work was resumed. However, in August 2010 the field trial was destroyed so completely that the research had to be abandoned.
Newsmaker: Biocentury Transgene
- Hepeng Jia, Nature Biotechnology 29, 12 (2011)
Biocentury Transgene is not only going head-to-head against Monsanto in China; it's also poised to conquer markets in developing countries.
Which company is the largest producer of genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds in China? Not Monsanto or Syngenta, but rather a 12-year old Shenzhen–based agbiotech company. Biocentury Transgene currently dominates China's Bacillus thuringiensis toxin (Bt) cotton seed market and is riding high on a successful formula—a combination of locally developed GM crop varieties, cut-rate seeds and low patent licensing fees, wrapped up in China's poor intellectual property (IP) protection. In an unparalleled feat, Biocentury has overtaken international players like Monsanto, and is now accelerating efforts to expand into Southeast and South Asia. The question is whether Biocentury can replicate its impressive growth outside China.
The first commercial GM crop available in China—Monsanto's Bt cotton—was introduced in 1997. The following year, the St. Louis-based agrochemical company had captured nearly 95% of the emerging Chinese Bt cotton seed market.
Around the same time, the Beijing-based Institute of Biotechnology, under the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), received approval from the Chinese authorities for its locally developed strain of Bt cotton. In 1998, the CAAS scientists who developed the Bt cotton, with the Institute of Biotechnology, co-founded Biocentury in South China's special economic zone. Plant researcher Sandui Guo at the Institute of Biotechnology, China National Centre for Biotechnology Development, launched the new venture, raising 54 million yuan ($8.2 million) with support from the Shenzhen government and investment capital from a local investor, Wu Kaishong (now chairman of Biocentury Transgene).
Key to Biocentury's success is the affordability of its cotton seeds, which are sold, on average, at half the price of Monsanto's. And although agrochemical multinationals continue to argue that farmers can save money by reducing pesticide use, Chinese farmers mainly seek cheaper seeds, according to Biocentury Transgene's CEO Yasheng Yang. In 2009, Biocentury made 120 million yuan ($18.2 million) in cotton seeds sales, accounting for 95% of the company's revenue.
But price is not the only reason driving Biocentury's expansion. In China, grassroots endorsement often wins over glossy advertising campaigns. As a result, technical personnel from Biocentury work with farmers in cotton fields.
Another issue is that multinational agrochemical companies have lacked a product adapted for local conditions. As Dafang Huang, former director of CAAS's Institute of Biotechnology, observes, seeds cultivated in the United States do not fully fit the natural conditions in China. For example, in southern China's Yangtze River regions, locally developed varieties are better suited to the humid climate and soil conditions.
A final issue is that Monsanto and other multinational firms have held back from licensing technologies to local partners for seed development because of concerns about intellectual property (IP) protection. Although an industry insider notes that Biocentury itself has also suffered from lax IP protection because after licensing its technology some companies use it to produce their own seeds.
Biocentury has nontheless gained from linking collaborations with various local seed firms to cultivate Bt cotton varieties with high yield, charging very low licensing fees to its partners to boost its seed production. The Chinese government has also helped to broaden Biocentury's influence as it offers financial support to all state-owned seed firms, many of which license Biocentury's technologies.
As a result, Biocentury's growth has been nothing short of meteoric. By 2003, areas planted with cotton derived from Biocentury's Bt technologies surpassed those planted with Monsanto's competing crops—reaching 70% of the total Chinese cotton plantations in 2005. Last November, Biocentury claimed that over 90% of China's Bt cotton plants are derived from its technologies.
Expansion to international markets began in 2003 when Biocentury set up an Indian office. Its Bt cotton was approved in 2007 in India and the seeds promoted through a partnership with Nath Seeds of Aurangabad.
As a result of Biocentury's market entry, Monsanto was forced to drop the price of its seeds from the original 1,900 rupees ($41.20) to fewer than 1,000 rupees ($21.47), according to Yang. However, Monsanto seeds still account for 90% of the total cotton plantations.
In Pakistan, Biocentury has formed a 50:50 joint venture with Guard of Lahore and is seeking other local partners to speed up commercialization on approval of its Bt cotton. The company has also penetrated into Vietnam and Bangladesh with newly established branches and local R&D partnerships. According to Yang, Biocentury sees its future as a leading agbiotech player, particularly in developing countries. But at the same time, Monsanto is also stepping up its marketing efforts in developing nations. And, in terms of scientific know-how in seed development and new varieties on offer, the US giant remains ahead.
Biocentury's total sales of $18 million pale by comparison to Monsanto's $10.5 billion in revenue for 2010. Even though licensed products and seeds cover 3 million hectares, Huang says the company obtains only $5.70 from each Bt cotton hectare because of China's very diverse and highly competitive seed market, which makes charging higher prices extremely difficult.
For this reason, company management is actively investing in R&D efforts to launch more competitive products. The Chinese company is well placed to carry out transgenic R&D because much of the technology is well established. Indeed, Biocentury has spent $6.6 million in R&D in the past three years, accounting for >10% of its total sales (in comparison corporate R&D spending in China is typically <2% of total sales). Biocentury has also strengthened its research collaborations with academic institutions like CAAS and licensed out technologies from some of the world's leading firms. Last January, it entered into a licensing agreement with Rehovot, Israel–based FuturaGene to develop the latter's salt-tolerance genes in cotton plants in China. FuturaGene and Biocentury will share revenues generated by sales of the newly developed cotton seeds.
Biocentury's supremacy in the Bt cotton market in China is uncontested. But repeating this feat outside China's borders looks altogether a different challenge.
GM Research Stoush Heats Up
- Colin Bettles, Farm Weekly (Australia), Jan 14, 2011
QUESTION marks remain over the level of accountability attached to a controversial animal feeding study into the health effects of Genetically Modified canola, funded with $92,000 from the WA Labor Government.
The study has been repeatedly criticised by GM supporters since its inception in 2005, including Edstar Genetics principal Dr Ian Edwards.
In November 2009, Dr Edwards called for a Parliamentary inquiry into former State Agriculture Minister Kim Chance's decision to fund the study conducted by Australian scientist Dr Judy Carman at the Institute of Health and Environmental Research (IHER) in Adelaide.
At the time of Dr Edwards' calls, current WA Agriculture Minister Terry Redman expressed concerns the State Government had minimal knowledge of the study’s whereabouts, describing it as a serious issue of public accountability.
Not long after coming to office in 2008, Mr Redman's office wrote to Dr Carman to obtain details of the study and was dissatisfied with the initial response they received.
Dr Edwards had intimate knowledge of the trial's background as a member of Labor’s GMO Reference Group and strongly believes Dr Carman's research should never have been approved in the first place.
"Given that $92,000 worth of WA taxpayers' money has been spent, I think there should be an inquiry as to what the outcome is and I think we deserve that reply," he said almost 15 months ago.
“It was the Labor party who oversaw the approval of the money being spent and the Labor Cabinet and they are the ones I see who would need to be held accountable, not our current Minister.”
Dr Carman has defended her work repeatedly, saying details of the study needed to be kept private to protect it from outside influences and the pro-GM lobby.
She said her study would be peer reviewed according to normal scientific practices and then published in scientific journals to then face public scrutiny. She flagged an expected release of the study's results in July 2010 but they are yet to surface.
Dr Carman was contacted for an update on her trial but did not respond by the time of deadline. In an email in September 2010, Dr Carman said she had been overseas and then unwell but had nothing new to report on her studies.
Responding to questions from Rural Press last week, Mr Redman said WA taxpayers had a right to know how their money was being spent. “In June 2007, the previous Labor government paid the Institute for Health and Environment Research $92,000 to carry out an animal feeding study on GM foods,” he said.
“In December 2009, Dr Judy Carman advised that the results of the study would be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal in the first half of 2010. “Dr Carman also committed to providing me with a briefing on the outcomes and implications of the research following publication.
“To date, we are not aware of any publication of the research. “My department will continue seeking the results of the research to ensure taxpayers’ money has been spent appropriately.”
Mr Redman said the previous Labor government had granted the funding against the advice of the Department of Agriculture and Food and failed to ensure appropriate accountability measures were in place.
He said West Australians had a right to know how their money has been spent. “I look forward to seeing the fruits of Labor’s funding without further delay,” he said.
Agrifood Awareness Australia Executive Director Paula Fitzgerald said she was still anticipating evidence of Dr Carman’s work. She suggested the ongoing delays could mean that no credible evidence had been found to support Dr Carman’s claims that GM’s were harmful.
“For years Dr Judy Carman joined with Greenpeace and other GM opponents, to claim that approved GM crops posed unknown risks,” she said. “In 2005, supported by WA tax payer dollars, she and an unnamed ‘scientific committee’ finally promised us some data to support these claims.
“Five-and-a-half years later, we have nothing.
“There is a wealth of scientific evidence supporting the safety of GM crops.n“We can only conclude that with no milestone reports, research outcomes or peer reviewed published data after all this time, the team has found no credible evidence to support its theory.”
Dr Edwards has also pointed to reports of Dr Carman’s claims that different farm sources for the GM and the non-GM grain were used in the study, conducted in the US.
He said that would mean that there was not proper equivalence in the diets fed. “If Judy Carman has not provided any report or follow-up correspondence to the Minister since January 2010, then this adds to the growing body of evidence to suggest that there may have been a serious misuse of public funds.”
Is Transgenic Maize What Mexico Really Needs?
- Francisca Acevedo et al, Nature Biotechnology 29, 23–24 (2011) (Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad, México D.F., México.)
In the past three years, substantial progress has been made in updating knowledge on the present diversity of maize landraces and where these are still being grown within the Mexican territory. Here, we summarize some of these findings and briefly discuss their implications in relation to maize production and use in Mexico.
The term landrace was first described by Anderson and Cutler1 as “a group of related individuals with enough characteristics in common to permit their recognition as a group.” It refers to the varieties and populations of native maize in Mexico and has helped in the study of the genetic diversity of the crop.
As part of the implementation of the Biosafety Law—legislation that passed in March 2005 requiring the definition of both the areas of origin for crops native to Mexico and their genetic diversity—the Mexican government has been carrying out a survey of maize landraces since 2006. The program was financed with $1.5 million from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fishery and Food (SAGARPA), the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and the Inter-Ministerial Commission for Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms (CIBIOGEM).
Some of the key findings of this survey are as follows (for one of the results already published in Spanish, see http://www.biodiversidad.gob.mx/genes/origenDiv.html and ref. 2): first, a large number of maize landraces are currently being cultivated very widely in Mexico; second, diversity in maize landraces under cultivation is superior to what was originally believed to exist before the study started (in particular for the northern states of Mexico); and third, probable new maize landraces have been identified, diversity is higher than previously appreciated within landraces (such as Tuxpeño, which is the number-one provider of germplasm to most of the maize known in commercial breeding), and new teocintle (the most probable progenitor of maize) populations have been identified.
Maize genetic diversity exists as a result of the activities of small farm-holders (their plots currently represent 86% of the area where maize is cultivated in Mexico), who generally plant maize for subsistence3 and depending on rainfall, permanently experiment and exchange seeds, and have designated many uses for the different variants cultivated4, 5. It is because of these traditional agricultural practices that Mexico preserves and enhances the many different maize landraces we now know6, 7.
The new data acquired about the present number and distribution of maize landraces underline, on the one hand, the richness of genetic diversity of cultivars and, on the other, the reasons Mexico has for valuing and maintaining that diversity for future breeding needs. It is thus important that the very process by which those landraces are generated and maintained (that is, the practices of the small farmers) is preserved.
Currently there is no commercial production of transgenic maize in Mexico; only experimental trials have been approved. The question has been raised as to how Mexico will manage the commercialization of transgenic maize together with meeting its responsibility of safeguarding the characteristics of the genetic diversity that has been revealed in the recent study.
Much debate, some of it scientifically based, has taken place about the risks and benefits of allowing experimental trials of transgenic maize in a center of genetic diversity for the same crop. It is our opinion that some relevant questions about the potential impacts of transgenic maize on landraces have not been addressed either in these discussions or by experiments. For example, further experimental work is required to establish the potential for gene flow from transgenic maize to landraces, measures for managing this gene flow and the potential long-term impact of gene flow on landraces.
If gene flow from transgenic maize to landraces occurs, several other questions arise. How will intellectual property issues interact with the biological, social and economic reality of small-farmer agricultural practices that maintain and keep generating new variability in maize landraces in Mexico? What are the practical consequences for a small subsistence farmer cultivating native landraces of maize and finding his crops contain genes from transgenic plants? What is the legal position of such a farmer and is he/she likely to be infringing patents by cultivating or exchanging (knowingly or not) seeds that contain transgenes? What would be the stance of agbiotech companies in pursuing their intellectual property and licenses in such situations? Such questions need to be considered both at the small rural community level and nationally.
There is also the broader issue of the extent to which introduction of transgenic maize will provide solutions to existing problems for Mexican agriculture, such as the migration of male peasants (especially young people) to cities and abroad, an increasingly older rural population, the absence of effective mechanisms and incentives to cultivate maize landraces in a certified manner, weak market and grain distribution arrangements, and increasingly dominant patterns of food consumption based on foreign models of fast foods.
Mexico does not yet have in place a working and efficient mechanism for monitoring cross-pollination and gene flow under local agricultural conditions, despite claims that this is being instituted8. Information is lacking on the value that transgenic maize has for Mexican farming systems and its management requirements. Meanwhile, illegal transgenic maize introductions have been documented, and in some cases prosecuted, in Mexico. Moreover, there are concerns about the introduction of transgenic maize developed for pharmaceutical or other non-food purposes, and its impact on landraces9, 10.
Mexico needs to be able to define what kind of transgenic materials (for maize and any other relevant crop) it needs for its ecological, social and economic requirements. This responsibility must be carefully analyzed in order to provide farmers with adequate and necessary elements to help achieve a level of food security for the present and future of Mexican society, while conserving genetic diversity and helping develop adequately the social structures of the rural economy and society.