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January 31, 2011


Don't Go All European; Biotech Alfalfa OKed; China Boosts Public Debate; A Quiet Burial in India?; Sniffing Out Explosives


* Don't Go All European About Modified Food
* U.S. Approves Genetically Modified Alfalfa
* China Boosts Funds for Public Debate on GM Crops
* Ten Tweets For And Against GM
* GM Technology In India – Is It A Quiet Burial?
* India Braced for Fireworks Over GM Aubergine Ban
* India: In U-turn, CPM (Communist Party) Backs GM Crops
* Swiss Studies Glean Fresh Data on GM Wheat
* Time to Make Agricultural Research A Top Priority
* Plant Breeding and Genomics Resources New on Web
* Genetically Modified Plants Sniff Out Explosives


Don't Go All European About Modified Food

- Dick Taverne, New Scientist, Jan 24, 2011


For over a decade, genetically modified crops have been one of the test issues for evidence-based policy. On the whole the US, unlike Europe, has been a haven of good sense. It has based policy on scientific evidence and has led the way in the development and cultivation of GM crops.

This is in stark contrast to most European countries, where such crops are banned or severely restricted and are regularly trashed by green vandals even when grown for research. But there are worrying signs that US policy is about to change.

Outside Europe, GM has been applied more rapidly and extensively than any other new technology in the history of farming. In 1996 GM crops covered some 1.7 million hectares worldwide. By 2009 the figure was 134 million hectares, much of it in the developing world. Various crops that will help reduce disease and hunger are nearing commercial cultivation, from golden rice that can prevent children going blind to crops that may help farmers in Africa cope with drought and avoid losses from pests and diseases.

GM cultivation has been most intensive in the US. Nearly all soya, cotton and corn in the country is now genetically modified, benefitting consumers, farmers and the environment. Herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant crops have reduced the use of herbicides and pesticides, promoted no-till farming – so reducing soil erosion and carbon dioxide emissions – and have increased yields.
Contamination rules

However, a coalition of anti-GM activists and a small but growing number of organic farmers are now making their influence felt in the US. In 2005, after field trials lasting eight years, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved the cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant alfalfa. The decision was challenged by activists, but after a lengthy review the USDA concluded that GM alfalfa should cause no concern for regulators, farmers or consumers. Nevertheless, under pressure from this coalition, the department is now considering strict rules on where the crops may be planted, to prevent "contamination" by GM seeds blown into fields of conventionally or organically grown alfalfa. A decision is expected this week.

The signs are not good. At a congressional hearing last Thursday, secretary for agriculture Tom Vilsack expressed his support for science-based policy and biotechnology, but ominously added that he supported the cultivation of organic products and would seek "co-existence" between GM and organic farmers. That implies restrictions on GM alfalfa to prevent contamination of organic fields. Farmers and companies that use and sell GM seeds and invest in research reasonably fear that if restrictions are imposed on GM alfalfa, limits on other GM crops will follow, and US policy will begin to converge with that of Europe.

Opposition to GM by green and organic lobbies is one of the main reasons why so many European Union countries ban or restrict their cultivation. It is a movement against science. The world's leading science academies have all concluded that, after 15 years of cultivation and consumption by millions of people, there is no evidence that GM crops harm human health or the environment.

By contrast the organic movement is based on the scientific fallacy that natural chemicals are good and synthetic chemicals bad. It ignores evidence and has consistently failed to substantiate any of its own claims. A meticulous review sponsored by the UK's Food Standards Agency recently found no evidence that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally grown food (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol 90, p 680).
Organic waste

Meanwhile, irrational rules deem that crops containing traces of genes from GM crops via cross-pollination cannot be certified as organic. These rules can be, and have been, invoked to stop the cultivation of GM crops.

As for claims that organic farming is better for the environment, yields from organic farms are generally 20 to 50 per cent lower than those from conventional farms. Organic farming makes less efficient use of land while the world desperately needs the exact opposite.

Encouraged by the European Commission, which has confirmed scientific support for GM crops, attitudes in some EU countries are changing. In the UK more friendly noises issue from the agricultural ministry, and the government's chief scientist, John Beddington, has stated that GM crops have a vital part to play in feeding the world. Meanwhile sales of organic food have declined. But if the US changes tack, green objectors will appear vindicated. Their influence in Europe will be enhanced and the consequences will be far-reaching. It will be a triumph for unreason.
Dick Taverne is founder and chair of Sense About Science, an independent charitable trust based in London that promotes the evidence-based approach to the public discussion of scientific issues. He is a member of the House of Lords and was a government minister from 1966 to 1970.

U.S. Approves Genetically Modified Alfalfa

- Andrew Pollack, The New York Times, January 27, 2011

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on Thursday that he would authorize the unrestricted commercial cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa, setting aside a controversial compromise that had generated stiff opposition.

In making the decision, Mr. Vilsack pulled back from a novel proposal that would have restricted the growing of genetically engineered alfalfa to protect organic farmers from so-called biotech contamination. That proposal drew criticism at a recent Congressional hearing and in public forums where Mr. Vilsack outlined the option.

Mr. Vilsack said Thursday that his department would take other measures, like conducting research and promoting dialogue, to make sure that pure, nonengineered alfalfa seed would remain available. “We want to expand and preserve choice for farmers,” he told reporters. “We think the decision reached today is a reflection of our commitment to choice and trust.”

Mr. Vilsack in recent months has been calling for coexistence among growers of genetically engineered crops, organic farmers and nonorganic farmers growing crops that have not been genetically altered.

Organic farmers can lose sales if genetic engineering is detected in their crops, which occurs through cross-pollination from a nearby field or through intermingling of seeds. And exports of nonorganic but nonengineered crops to certain countries can be jeopardized if genetically engineered material is detected in significant amounts.

The genetically modified crop — developed by Monsanto and Forage Genetics, an alfalfa seed company that is owned by the Land O’Lakes farming and dairy cooperative — contains a gene that makes the plant resistant to the herbicide Roundup. That allows farmers to spray the chemical to kill weeds without hurting the crop.

Alfalfa is grown mostly to make hay fed to dairy cows and horses. More than 20 million acres are grown in the United States; it is the nation’s fourth-largest crop by acreage, behind corn, soybeans and wheat, with a value of about $8 billion. About 1 percent of alfalfa is organic.

In deciding whether to approve the genetically engineered alfalfa, the Agriculture Department was considering restricting areas where the crop could be planted. That, Mr. Vilsack argued, would help prevent litigation, like the lawsuits that have already delayed the approval of genetically altered alfalfa and sugar beets.

“The rapid adoption of G.E. crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-G.E. products,” Mr. Vilsack wrote in a letter issued by his department in December. “This clash led to litigation and uncertainty. Such litigation will potentially lead to the courts’ deciding who gets to farm their way and who will be prevented from doing so.”

But the proposal ran into considerable opposition in Congress and from some farm groups and biotechnology companies. M They argued that since the department’s environmental impact statement had concluded that growing the alfalfa would be safe, the government was obligated to allow it to be grown without restrictions.

Introducing restrictions based on economic consequences of pollen drift “politicizes the regulatory process and goes beyond your statutory authority,” Representative Frank D. Lucas, Republican of Oklahoma, who is the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, wrote to Mr. Vilsack on Jan. 19, before holding a hearing on the proposals the next day. The letter was also written by Republican Senators Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Pat Roberts of Kansas.

At the news conference on Thursday, Mr. Vilsack at one point said that the department did have the authority to restrict planting. But at another point, he said of the decision to allow unrestricted planting: “We are working within the statutory and regulatory system we have available to us.”

Organic farmers and food companies said they were not pleased with the decision on Thursday. “It was disappointing, but as you know, there is a tremendous amount of pressure here,” said George Siemon, chief executive of Organic Valley, the nation’s largest organic dairy cooperative. He said federal oversight was needed to keep organic crops free of genetically engineered material.

Critics of planting restrictions said they were concerned that the approach used in alfalfa would eventually be extended to other crops, causing restrictions on the growing of corn, soybeans and cotton, the vast majority of which are already genetically engineered. “It’s like a Pandora’s box,” said Keith Menchey, manager of science and environmental issues for the National Cotton Council of America.

Critics also said that restricting the growing of alfalfa would undermine Washington’s efforts to persuade other countries to accept genetically modified crops.

The Agriculture Department first approved the commercial planting of the genetically engineered alfalfa in 2005. But some environmental groups and alfalfa seed producers sued.

In 2007, a federal judge rescinded the approval, saying the department had not adequately assessed the environmental impacts of the biotech crop, including the possible effect on organic and conventional farmers. The judge ordered the department to do a full environmental impact statement and banned further planting of the engineered seeds. The Supreme Court in 2010 overturned the ban on planting, but did not reinstate the approval of the crop, so no new seeds could be planted.

The final environmental impact statement, 2,300 pages long, was released last month. It said that the department would decide between two options: allowing unrestricted commercial growing or partly restricted growing.

The partial restriction would have prohibited growing the biotech alfalfa on about 20 percent of current alfalfa acreage nationwide, and about 50 percent in Western states, where most alfalfa seed is produced, according to Forage Genetics.

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, the advocacy group that organized the lawsuit against the Agriculture Department, said his group would soon ask the judge in the case to rule that the environmental impact statement was still inadequate. “It’s clear that Vilsack caved to pressure from the biotech industry and Monsanto,” he said. “We’ll be back in court seeking to vacate this approval, as we have done in the past.”


China Boosts Funds for Public Debate on GM Crops

- Li Jiao, Scidev.net, January 27, 2011
- http://www.scidev.net/en/news/china-boosts-funds-for-public-debate-on-gm-crops.html

[BEIJING] Scientists in China have been given government funding to discuss genetically modified (GM) crops with the public following protests against the technology.

The ministry of agriculture has made available 2.6 million yuan (US$400,000) since late last year, and some communication on GM crop science has now started.

Buoyed by high-level support from China's premier, Wen Jiabao, the ministry had issued safety certificates in late 2009 for GM strains of rice and maize, which are now in trials.

But ensuing anti-GM sentiments from the public surprised the government and GM experts. In March 2010, many Chinese scholars signed a public petition asking the agriculture ministry to withdraw the safety licences, and more recently a communication event revealed people's fears about GM crops.

China is keen to promote GM research, which it sees as leading to a way of feeding its growing population. Premier Wen Jiabao said in 2008: "Solving the food security problem should rely on big science and technology, on biotechnology and transgenic technology".

The government launched a key project on GM crops in 2008 with research funding of almost 30 billion yuan (US$4.6 billion) over 15 years, and discussions are taking place on how much of this will be available for science communication.

For China's 12th Five-Year Programme for China's Economic and Social Development (2011–2015), nearly 10 million yuan (US$1.5 million) will be available for GM risk evaluation, some of which will go towards communication.

"I hope the budget for GM public communication, which is necessary for promoting GM crops, will be higher [than existing funds]," said Lin Min, a member of the ministry of agriculture's GM safety committee and director of the Biotechnology Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

"As scientists, we have a responsibility to communicate with the public directly," said Lin. "We have already started communicating with the public. But the public communication funding is not sufficient for organising all the needed activities, such as lectures, discussions, writing articles and answering the worried public's questions on GM and its safety."

Since the safety certificate for rice was issued, the GM rice research team leader, Zhang Qifa, a professor at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, has been receiving daily emails from both individuals and non-governmental organisations asking him not to promote the commercialisation GM crops.

"I understand them," Zhang said, adding that the emails are not directed at him personally but reveal that people do not understand GM foods. "But I do not think GM food has any added risk compared with traditional food," he said. "It is even safer because of the greatly reduced use of pesticide in the case of insect resistant rice."

"Nobody can say GM rice and maize are definitely safe, although we can't say they are definitely dangerous," said Liu Bing, professor at the Institute of Science, Technology and Society of Tsinghua University, who signed the petition last year. But he added: "If we find out the GM rice is harming people's health after it has been rolled out, that will be too late."


Ten Tweets For And Against GM

- Louise Gray, Daily Telegraph (UK), Jan 24, 2011 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/8279112/Ten-tweets-for-and-against-GM.html

The issue of GM food tends to arouse passionate debate. Below are ten point summaries of the arguments of either side

10 reasons we need GM crops

* According to the Agricultural Biotechnology Council

1. Over 2 trillion meals containing some GM ingredients have been consumed worldwide without one substantiated health impact.

2. GM technology is currently (2009 figures) being used by over 14 million farmers on 134million hectares of land (the equivalent land mass of the UK and Ireland, France and Germany put together)

3. GM can dramatically improve yields in crops on the same amount of land (depending on local conditions and the type of crop).

4. GM crops are undergoing field trials with increased drought resistance and better tolerance of highly saline soils.

5. Fuel use and CO2 emissions can be decreased thanks to the way herbicide tolerant GM crops are grown.

6. Over 90 per cent of the farmers using GM are resource poor small holders in the developing world.

7. Globally, farmers have generated an extra ¤34 billion since the introduction of agricultural biotechnology.

8. GM technologies can make food oils healthier, for example, by reducing the saturated fatty acid content.

9. Companies developing new varieties of GM crops invest significant sums in research and development helping to boost the science base of countries in which they operate.

10. Pest resistant GM crops reduce the need for farmers to use pesticides.

* According to Friends of the Earth

1. GM crops have overpromised and under delivered. When we look past the hype around the potential of GM crops, to what they have actually achieved in practice over the last 30 years, the picture is very bleak.

2. Higher GM yields are a myth. Despite over 3 decades of expensive research, development and political support, GM farming has not delivered miracle crops or higher yields.

3. Farmers are losing out in countries with GM farming. They have to buy new and increasingly expensive patented seeds each year instead of using the best ones from their previous crop.

4. GM crops increase pesticide use. In the US there has been a 15-fold increase in pesticide use on GM crops and even GM companies are advising farmers to apply more chemicals.

5. GM pesticides are poisoning people and wildlife. In South America pesticide spraying is causing some serious health problems for people living near GM plantations.

6. The science has moved on. Recent studies show that yield gains in the last 15 years have come from conventional farming, not GM.

7. There are better ways to feed the world. Recent analyses by the UN and respected research institutes have concluded that a move to ecological farming and fairer trading systems will give us the best chance at feeding the poor and hungry.

8. Small farmers and many developing countries across the world reject GM because it is not a suitable technology for them. India recently refused to cultivate GM vegetables.

9. Seed monopolies by GM companies are a disaster for farmers and consumers. In the US, increased GM seed prices have forced the Government to investigate GM companies.

10. Pushing GM seeds onto farmers means we lose the diversity of traditional varieties and leave our whole food supply vulnerable to sudden pests or shocks.

GM Technology In India – Is It A Quiet Burial?

- Prof. G. Padmanaban, Current Science (India), Jan 25, 2011


India missed the Industrial Revolution under the British rule and is still paying the price for it. When biotechnology revolution can offer technologies to improve agriculture and food security in free India, it is dithering and procrastinating to the point of self-defeat.

When one reads that the Kerala Government is opposing limited trial of GM-rubber, approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), it makes a mockery of all scientific edifice backing the technology. The Minister states that Kerala wants to be GM-free. According to reports, genetic modification has involved introduction of multiple copies of superoxide dismutase, an enzyme that seems to confer protection against prolonged draught. The gene is from rubber itself and not from any exotic organism. The argument against it is because of the advice that agro-biodiversity hotspots should be GM-free. Can any one define the genome composition of pure, pristine rubber?

Can any one state how many bacterial and fungal genes are part of the rubber genome? Even between two rubber plants, these gene sequences can be different. In nature, horizontal and vertical transmission of genes is taking place all the time in the evolutionary scale; and in a population of rubber plants there will be polymorphic (replacement of one base with another in the DNA), differences and too much is being made of biodiversity, when the genome of every plant is a mosaic. This means that in the background of a unique fingerprint of DNA for a particular plant species, there would also be acquisitions from the environment.

In that sense every plant is genetically modified in nature. Then why so much fuss on the introduction of additional copies of one gene that is already present in rubber? The fuss is because it is done by genetic engineering technology in the laboratory. This does not make sense.

Much has been discussed about Bt brinjal and every opportunity is only being used to nail the coffin. One can go all over the scientific arguments, but it is not clear whether it would make any difference to MOEF and the activists. Bt gene is not toxic to humans, animals or the environment. Millions of people in different parts of the world, including USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, China and other countries are consuming Bt corn over several years without any authenticated reports of a mishap. The antibiotic markers used for selection when the transgene is introduced into the plant are not of much consequence in terms of causing antibiotic resistance in people who consume the product. These genes are poorly expressed in the plant. Gut bacteria will degrade these genes and so it is most unlikely that they will acquire antibiotic resistance by this process. Antibiotic resistance is actually caused by over prescription of the same for treatment by physicians and not by GM crops!

Brinjal available in the market is a pesticide bullet, and the claim is that Bt brinjal can substantially decrease pesticide sprays and benefit the farmer from increased yield and decreased exposure to such sprays. The least the MOEF can do is to let limited independent trials in farmers fields to verify the claims. However, much time and energy is being spent in trashing the inter-academy report that has supported the introduction of Bt brinjal for limited trials. There is a hue and cry about plagiarism, since part of the report is a verbatim copy of an earlier article. This should have been avoided, but the author is the same in both cases and perhaps, got tired of stating the same facts over and over again in different fora!

However, the intention of the activists is to divert attention to an irrelevant issue in this context, since the facts stated are irrevocable. I am disappointed that the MOEF is also being led by activists to spend time in trashing the academy report, rather than look to ways of lifting the moratorium. We may run to the US for nuclear power, but choose to discard its huge experience with GM crops. In that case, let us look at China, and it has approved commercial trials of Bt rice

This means that Bt rice could be available in the market in a few years. I will not be surprised if we import Bt rice from China sooner than later! Interestingly, the Philippines is using Indian data with Bt brinjal to introduce its version in the country. Argentina has blazed a trail as leader in GM crop cultivation among developing countries

The European . Union has accepted GM potato (AMflora, in principle) Europe is finding it hard by the day to resist GM crops and activists have to look elsewhere for inspiration. Even African countries are drawing inspiration from the success stories of countries like Brazil In the meanwhile, Monsanto has introduced eight genes (Genuity Smartstax) in corn against aerial pests, subsoil pests and to provide herbicide resistance. Further studies would be needed to assess the advantages.

Are we blind to what is happening elsewhere in the globe? Are we guided only by scientists who are generally commissioned by activists to write scientific reports on GM crops? Most of these are exaggerated and misinterpreted versions of scientific facts, but provide a handle to the opponents of GM technology. In addition, many such analysis should be viewed in the context of a developing country like India. In developed countries, modern methods of agriculture are perhaps providing 80% of the theoretical yield and a transgenic technology can only push it up to say 90%. In India, we are at 3040% productivity levels compared to the developed countries. Any technology that can push up the yield to say 60% would have a tremendous impact. Further, when developed countries suffer from over-nutrition, we desperately need to improve the nutritive quality of our food. Norman Borlaug, the Nobel laureate who inspired Indias green revolution, and Gurdev Khush, a recipient of the World Food Prize, who is responsible for the improvement of 300 varieties of rice, including IR 36, support GM technology as the route for increased agricultural productivity.

Bt cotton in India is a huge success story. If the pest develops resistance to the first generation Bt version, a second and third generation with multiple genes can follow. An appropriate crop-rotation strategy can tackle many of these issues. I cannot understand why organic farm enthusiasts are against Bt crops? If the objective is not to use chemical pesticides, Bt crop has to be the central player. Why then make resistance development a doomsday prediction? As I have stated earlier, resistance development will be an important issue, but research has to find newer solutions during the window period There are newer . leads, including the use of SiRNAs

Similarly, strategies are available to generate marker-free events to avoid use of antibiotics and research on the use of stage-specific and tissue-specific promoters can give rich dividends. We need to send the message that scientists are indeed sensitive to public issues, whether real, exaggerated or engineered. But, to suggest that we will look at GM-technology only after these developments have taken place would defeat the whole purpose and postpone utilization of this technology forever.

One can always find newer issues to derail the use of this technology. The moratorium is not affecting the MNCs, but our own scientists in the country, who are ready with a dozen genes and more than a dozen crops to protect against environmental stresses and to improve nutritive quality, including Golden Rice to provide vitamin-A precursor. Ingo Potrykus, the generator of Golden Rice passionately appeals for the ease of unimaginative regulations stating, I hold the regulation of genetic engineering responsible for the death and blindness of thousands of children and young mothers

There is an interesting report that Bt corn has a halo effect in promoting higher yields by the surrounding non-Bt corn, because of lesser eggs being laid by the pest.

Everyone talks . about improvement in agricultural technology to enhance yields and to address under-nutrition in the country. Here is a technology, which at least provides a window of opportunity to leap forward. Does science have any role to play in the development of this country or it is just lip sympathy? --

Few scientists in the field speak up for fear of being attacked by friends and activists, and even the Minister. We are even afraid to stand by the science academies, of which some of us are Fellows, but choose to attack even when the content makes sense and the error committed has been acknowledged and regretted.

There have been a couple of supportive analyses of GM technology in the media. But, in general, the media picks up isolated failures or precautionary laboratory leads to project GM technology as a failure for whatever reason. But, the complete devastation of non-Bt crops by pests is, perhaps, not newsworthy. It is important that the media projects the virtues of this technology for the good of our country after adequate research and consultations. It is distressing that even the Science Ministry, which is investing in R&D with GM technology is keeping mum.

It is proving difficult to be positive and build a value system, when it is fashionable to attack and be self-destructive. I would like to appeal to active scientists in the field to take up the cause of GM technology vigorously for the benefit of our country. It is important for the country to have the Biotechnology Authority in place and strengthen the organizational structure, especially in the states to conduct trials, at the earliest. The farmers need appropriate technical advice on a continual basis and the public need to be given correct information.

These will take time to establish, if ever parliament has time to discuss such trivial issues! But none of these organizational requirements should delay the independent field testing of Bt brinjal, if the Government wants to encourage exploitation of this technology in a broader sense and provide a positive environment for scientists to work in the area. A great opportunity is being frittered away and it is sad that activists are ruling the roost, whereas scientists have to take up a defensive position to justify a technology based on sound science, ethics and concern for the society.

Prof. G. Padmanaban is in the Department of Biochemistry, Indian Institute of Science, (CSP: Thanks to Mr Siddanagouda S Biradar for the alert)

India Braced for Fireworks Over GM Aubergine Ban

- TV Padma, Guardian (UK), Jan 31, 2011


‘The country's trial of genetically modified aubergine offers insight into how a developing nation can democratically tackle emerging technologies’

Aubergines sold at a market in Kolkata. India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, decides next year on whether to lift a moratorium on growing GM brinjal (aubergine). Photograph: Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP/Getty Images

Almost a year has passed since India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, imposed a two-year moratorium on growing genetically modified (GM) brinjal (aubergine), until the public was convinced of the crop's safety.

Despite expectations of a quiet first anniversary, there could be fireworks in 2012 when Ramesh decides on whether to lift or continue the moratorium, a pointer to the road ahead for other GM food crops under trial in India – cabbage, cauliflower, corn, chickpea groundnut, mustard, okra, potato, rice, sorghum, sugarcane and tomato.

Just last month, the Philippines suspended Bt brinjal trials after local officials uprooted Bt brinjal plants in two out of seven trial sites. Bangladesh, which also plans to test it, is watching the Indian moratorium.

Efforts continue at home to lift the ban. Scientists are seeking to clip the environment ministry's wings in biotech matters, with the proposed National Biotechnology Regulation Authority as a single-window clearance for all biotech products, such as GM brinjal. A bill on the NBRA, helpfully drafted by India's department of biotechnology, is due to be introduced in the parliament this year.

For a recap, the GM brinjal was developed by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), in which the American company Monsanto has a 26% stake. It contains a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (hence its name Bt brinjal), a soil bacterium which codes for a toxin that kills fruit borer pest that can damage up to 70% of the crop harvest.

But the brinjal borer has never triggered a national crisis, nor has it felled empires in India, the world's largest producer of brinjals and one of the centres of its origin. Still, I accept that one must be prepared for all contingencies.

GM brinjal is not India's first GM plant: Mahyco's Bt cotton was cleared for cultivation in 2002 and 8.6 million hectares of it were grown by 5.6 million farmers in 2009. But controversy has dogged India's Bt cotton, too. Civil society organisations had a long-drawn-out battles with the Indian government and Mahyco over non-disclosure of trial data to the public in the initial years and the sale of illegal Bt cotton seeds before the Indian government's clearance. Similar charges of lack of transparency dogged Bt brinjal trials.

But there were other sensitivities in the Bt brinjal case. It would have been India's first GM food crop, against a backdrop of a regulatory system that doesn't inspire confidence and the absence of a labeling system for GM foods. Other unresolved issues were the impact of accidental release of pollen from GM brinjal on non-GM crops, toxicity and development of pest resistance.

Although India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, under the Environment Ministry, cleared Bt brinjal for cultivation in October 2009, Ramesh held a series of public consultations and opted for a moratorium.

In the year gone by, India's six science academies that attempted to shed light on it ended up in a sorry light. The inter-academy report concluded that Bt brinjal was safe for cultivation in India. But the document contained no references and included paragraphs from a pro-biotechnology government publication, Biotech News. Ramesh dismissed it, saying it was "not a product of rigourous scientific evaluation".

The academies withdrew their report, promising to redo it, like admonished school children. In December 2010, they released an updated report with the same conclusions, but with references and PowerPoint presentations.

Last month, Ramesh finally admitted to journalists that a call on Bt brinjal would have to be a "political" decision. That, to an extent, could explain why the ban has been imposed. One angry Filipino biotechnologist asked me: "Who asked the Indian government to consult farmers and NGOs about GM technology?"

Well, farmers have traditional knowledge, and they can vote. As Alan Leshner, the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said last year at a European science forum discussing the challenges of feeding science into policy making: "Politicians are elected. Scientists are not."

Some developing countries are looking to India for answers. Biotechnologists from Burkina Faso, Ghana and Malawi were in India in December to understand India's biotech progress and how it is engaging policy makers, scientists and farmers.

Still, India will find its way forward, picking itself up after some stumbles and an occasional flat landing on its face. But it can also offer insights into how a developing country can democratically tackle emerging technologies that interface with society.

• T V Padma writes for SciDev.Net


India: In U-turn, CPM (Communist Party) Backs GM Crops

- Deccan Chronicle, January 27, 2011
- http://www.deccanchronicle.com/chennai/u-turn-cpm-backs-gm-crops-854

Jan. 26: The CPI(M) has made a U-turn in its stand against genetically modified crops. The party, hitherto fighting against the introduction of Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, now says only genetically-modified crops can meet the food requirements of an ever-increasing population.

“The Centre should set up public sector undertakings to produce and market seeds of GM crops at subsidised prices,” said S. Ramachandran Pillai, member, politburo, the highest decision-making unit of the CPI(M). Mr Pillai, who is also the general secretary of the All-India Kisan Sabha, had vehemently opposed the concept of GM crops, terming it as anti-farmer and anti-poor.

“We are not against GM crops because it has been proved scientifically and medically that they are not harmful. The introduction of Bt cotton in Indian fields has considerably improved the financial position of the cotton farmers,” Mr Pillai writes in an article for a Malayalam daily.

He strongly refuted allegations by the critics of GM crops that farmers were forced to commit suicide because of Bt cotton. But the CPI remains totally against GM crops. “There is no need to reconsider our views on GM crops,” CPI leader A.B. Bardhan said some time back.


Swiss Studies Glean Fresh Data on GM Wheat

- Susan Vogel-Misicka in Reckenholz, swissinfo.ch, Jan 30, 2011

Sorting seeds, breeding bacteria and weighing worms – after three years of intense research, Swiss scientists have gleaned fresh insight into genetically modified wheat.

While they found some advantages in terms of fungi and bacteria resistance, they identified few major differences between GM and conventional wheat in terms of their behaviour and effects on other organisms.

Between 2008 and 2010, researchers planted and studied 14 varieties of GM wheat in Reckenholz near Zurich and in Pully near Lausanne. They compared them with normal wheat as well as other types of grain, like barley.

“This was the first time that genetically modified plants could be examined on an agricultural basis under Swiss conditions,” said Beat Keller, a professor at the Institute of Plant Biology at Zurich University, speaking at a conference at the Agroscope research centre in Reckenholz-Tänikon (ART) on Thursday.

The studies were part of the publically-funded National Research Programme 59: “Benefits and Risks of the Deliberate Release of Genetically Modified Plants”. A network of research groups carried out the experiments under the name “wheat-cluster.ch”.

High hurdles
But it wasn’t easy. As ART researcher Michael Winzeler explained, they had to conduct their field tests at least 100 metres away from other grain fields and erect nets to keep birds from consuming and spreading seeds.

Harvesting was done by hand, and after all the research was complete, some 11 tons of plant material was carefully gathered and incinerated.

“We have a very high level of biosafety and biosecurity measures that we have to fulfil, and that makes this experimentation very expensive,” Winzeler told swissinfo.ch, noting that he felt that some of the requirements were too strict.

Then there were the vandals. For example, in 2008 a group of 35 people stormed the field in Reckenholz – destroying plants and threatening the workers. In Pully, an unidentifiable liquid was poured over a field in 2009.

Subsequently, the project had to invest in better fences as well as round-the-clock surveillance with dogs. The researchers say security measures probably ended up costing as much as the research itself, although total costs are still being determined.

Opposition from people living near the test areas was also an issue. “Everyone within 1,000 metres of a field could lodge a complaint – even if the reason was completely unscientific,” said Keller. This resulted in high administrative costs.

“The law allows the open air research, but the conditions are very restrictive. And there are no provisions to ‘shield’ the research from vandals – this is needed in the form of protected sites,” Keller said.

Mixed results
In one of their more significant findings, researchers discovered that GM wheat was indeed more resistant to powdery mildew than regular wheat. “We’ve clearly got a higher resistance to infection with the GM versions,” said Susanne Brunner, another professor at Zurich University. Of the 12 GM varieties tested, all showed a higher resistance.

Yet half of those also showed mutations such as yellow leaves or reduced growth.
“An extra gene means that the plant needs more energy, so the yield could suffer,” pointed out Agroscope researcher Fabio Mascher.

According to Bernhard Schmid, a good GM yield in the greenhouse was no guarantee of a good harvest out in the open – where natural environmental conditions play a lead role in agriculture.

“We have to adjust things very carefully to ensure that an increase in fungus resistance doesn’t create a drop in harvest yields – so we need these field tests,” said Schmid, a professor at Zurich University’s Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Sciences.

Environmental impact
This is where the aphids and worms came in. In a study involving aphids, it turned out that the sticky little insects really liked one of the GM varieties. Yet there was little difference in the growth of worms enclosed in cylinders where they could feed on just one type of wheat.

Meanwhile, a study of soil bacteria revealed some differences between the behaviour of GM and regular wheat, but nothing major in comparison with other factors, such as the season or fertiliser. A soil fungus study found no clear differences.

Researchers did not observe any cross-pollination between the GM wheat and nearby fields of normal wheat; however, there was some crossing with wild grass in the Aegilops family. Found mainly in cantons Valais and Ticino, this plant is common in the Mediterranean area and considered a weed in the United States.

“The risk of gene flow between wheat and Aegilops species exists, so the presence of the wild relative should be monitored in case the transgenic crop is cultivated,” said François Felber, a biology professor at Neuchatel University.

Not everyone at the conference was in favour of the research “I’m completely against it. The main interest behind GMOs is to have patents on varieties – and that means that the farmer of the future would have to pay a fee every time he goes to sow,” as conference attendee Urs Hans told swissinfo.ch.

Hans is a farmer and member of Zurich’s cantonal parliament, not to mention a self-styled activist. He said that the results of the three-year study did not surprise him all that much. What bothers him more is what the scientists don’t know “I’m sure that there are risks behind it. They can never guarantee what happens,” Hans criticised.

Wilhelm Gruissem, a professor at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, maintains that GM is the future. “We live in an environment where plants are constantly chased by pathogens and affected by diseases. This research is necessary if we want to have long-term food security and sustainable agriculture,” Gruissem told swissinfo.ch.

Formerly a faculty member at University of California Berkeley, Gruissem said that researchers in other countries had far fewer restrictions.

Meanwhile, Winzeler said he was optimistic that Switzerland could continue contributing to GM research with the right infrastructure – such as protected sites.
M “Without that, it will be impossible for individual research teams to conduct field research – I’m convinced of that.”


Time to Make Agricultural Research A Top Priority

- Aisling Irwin (Editor), Scidev.net, January 28, 2011

Recent protests over food prices underline a key message from a new report about the potential dangers of neglecting agricultural research.

The ousting of Tunisia's president last week, and unrest in other nations such as Algeria and Sudan, has many causes — but rising food prices have been one of the underlying themes.

At one level, the problem of food scarcity can be told simply. There are seven billion of us on Earth, of whom probably two billion are underfed. Two billion more people are due to join the planet by 2050. Food security is not just a huge problem — some now argue it is the central problem facing humanity.

Hunger has a daunting array of causes. These include the scarcity of water and other agricultural inputs; soil erosion and the spread of salinity; and the tightening grip of climate change.

But one important part of what shapes the story of food and hunger is agricultural research — or the lack of it. The Green Revolution that began in the 1960s, which produced high-yield varieties of wheat allowing India, for example, to become a net exporter of grain, was a high point in the history of such research.

Many feel that a low point has now come, and that we are reaping the harvest of a tragic two decades of neglected agricultural science. This situation needs to be reversed.

Hunger's global reach
International reports on food security have been appearing in abundance over the past two months. [1], [2], [3], [4]

Most recent is a report, 'The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability', launched this week by the British government and written by its Foresight think tank, in consultation with researchers from 34 countries from across the developed and developing worlds.

The report provides a uniquely broad view of what causes food scarcity, identifying the factors that make up a complex political, social, economic and scientific web.

And it includes less obvious causes of hunger, such as the distressing fact that nearly a third of the food that is grown is wasted, for example by spoiling through poor storage.

It also conveys the sheer scale of the problem, demonstrating that food scarcity will eventually affect us all, even those of us whose bellies are full. Because, as we have seen in Tunisia and elsewhere, hunger leads to civil unrest and migration, and because farming, as it is currently practised, is destroying key resources and emits too much greenhouse gas.

Guilty by omission
In the sphere of research, many omissions have contributed to hunger. The report points out that existing innovations have not reached many of those who could benefit from them. In Africa, if these alone were implemented, productivity could rise as much as three-fold.

But three-fold, in only a few regions, is not enough. New knowledge is essential. Yet for most countries, research into agriculture and fisheries is a low priority, says the report, and studies have now correlated the previous two-decade apathy with today's slowdown in productivity gains.

The report offers no support for 'knee-jerk' commentary seeking obvious scapegoats for hunger, such as the failure to adopt genetically modified crops, or the politics of food distribution. There is no single cause to rail against, and there is definitely no single solution.

And it makes clear that every approach must be harnessed in the quest for a new food system that "needs to change more radically in the coming decades than ever before, including during the Industrial and Green Revolutions".

Investing in research is one of the report's "key priorities". It points out that modellers agree that the science and technology yet to be done will be "one of the most critical drivers" of future food supply: "These challenges will require solutions at the limits of human ingenuity and at the forefront of scientific understanding," it says.

A priority for research - To achieve the required levels of research investment, says the report, more incentives must be provided for research into public goods that benefit low-income countries. New models of research funding are necessary. And research funders from the public, private and third sectors should sort out their differences and coordinate better.

The question is: can this report, and the others, propel hunger to the top of the political agenda? Calestous Juma, professor of international development at Harvard University, and author of a recent book on African food production [4], argues that the crucial step is getting heads of state to wantto solve the problem.

But achieving this degree of political will is hard, if only because hunger has the biggest impact on those who are in the weakest position to influence policy.

Agriculture, of course, competes for research funding with health, and other pressing problems, some of which have celebrated champions. But the need for research into food supplies supersedes every other need, since successfully producing and distributing food is a precondition for tackling other social problems.

Funders must reconsider their priorities. Researchers have a lot of catching up to do. And whatever its political justification, the unrest in Tunisia and elsewhere underlines the potential price of failure.


Plant Breeding and Genomics Resources New on Web


As global food needs increase, so does the need for crops that can be efficiently and safely produced. Breakthrough technologies including key information on the genetics or “genomes” of crops aid traditional plant breeding methods.

A group of researchers and educators from U.S. land-grant universities, government agencies and industry has created the first Internet resource aimed at quickly putting basic research on crop genomes on the Web to support plant breeding programs. The resource is new at eXtension (pronounced E-extension), http://www.extension.org.

David Francis, associate professor at The Ohio State University noted, “eXtension provides an entry point into the research knowledge of the land-grant university system. We’ve developed a resource to help train the next generation of plant breeders and help current professionals keep abreast of new developments, as well as inform growers and processors about the technological advances that bring them new varieties.”

Putting research into practice
Traditional plant breeding focused on the selection of the best plant lines based on traits (phenotypes). In the past decade, research has yielded extensive databases of gene sequences and of the complete genetic makeup (genomes) of entire plants. As sequencing technology improves, information to aide in crop improvement is expanding rapidly. This basic research information is used when linking important agricultural traits to genetic sequence variations and incorporating this knowledge into crop improvement strategies.

In 2009 the international community was still working to complete the first draft of the tomato genome sequence; in 2010 two draft sequences became public. The research community expects as many as 100 Solanaceae genomes to be available within the next year or two. This complements whole genome sequences already known in key crops such as potato, rice, poplar, soybean, maize, cotton and cucumber. Francis explained, “This information explosion means that practitioners need resources for continuing education to keep up with new developments.”

Dave Douches, a Michigan State University potato breeder and leader of the Solanaceae Coordinated Agricultural Project (SolCAP), highlighted the need for this eXtension effort. “SolCAP developed more than 5.7 gigabytes of sequence data for three potato varieties. We mined this data for genetic differences and developed a tool that allows breeders and their support crews to quickly survey breeding populations for 8,300 genetic differences. The material will help the breeding community make better use of genetic information and increase the likelihood that plant breeding will benefit from genotype-based selection processes.”

Allen Van Deynze, director of research for the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis, emphasized the importance of access to information “The goal of the Plant Breeding and Genomics resource on eXtension is to act as a portal to the vast number of public databases in crops and genetic and genomic resources.”

Resource for agriculture producers
Another important function of the eXtension resource will be to provide up-to-date production information on new varieties to producers. Members of the Barley Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP) provided a template for this goal.

Gary Muehlbauer, professor at the University of Minnesota and principal investigator of the Barley CAP, emphasizes that “providing information on barley improvement efforts is a central goal of eXtension and CAPs.” He adds that the barley grower site on eXtension “highlights information available for growers about planting and production of existing varieties, as well as those improved through the genomics and breeding efforts of Barley CAP research.”

Educational information developed by the Wheat CAP and Rosaceae CAP (RosBREED) is also on eXtension.


Genetically Modified Plants Sniff Out Explosives

- Mark Brown, Wired, January 28,11 http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2011-01/28/bomb-detecting-plant
Biologists at Colorado State University are getting the attention of DARPA and the US Department of Homeland Security with a genetically modified plant that turns white when it detects dangerous chemicals in the air.

It is suggested that shopping malls and airports could be lined with luscious green flora, that are suddenly drained of colour if a harmful pollutant or explosive chemical is detected nearby. "If a bad guy walks by with explosives in their bags at the airport, our plants can detect that," says Colorado State University's June Medford.

To perform this genetic modification, the university's Baker and Hellinga laboratories had to tweak some of the plant's most fundamental engineering.

Plants have naturally occurring proteins called receptors, lodged in their cell wall that tell the plant what's going on around them. If those receptors sense light or an aggressive insect, it can trigger an appropriate response to move towards the sun or defend itself from the bug. "Plants can't run or hide from threats, so they've developed sophisticated systems to detect and respond to their environment," Medford says.

Medford and her team used a computer program to write custom-designed receptors that specifically recognise a single pollutant or explosive, and then tell the plant to lose its green hue if it detects that chemical. "We've 'taught' plants how to detect things we're interested in and respond in a way anyone can see, to tell us there is something nasty around," explains Medford. The manipulated receptors are then targeted at the plant's cell wall, and binds them with the plant's DNA.

Right now, the plant can sniff out trinitrotoluene (TNT) in a few hours, slowly turning to green when in the presence of the explosive. Over the next few years, the team plans to speed up the detection time to a matter of minutes.

The bomb-sniffing plants have piqued the interest of several defense and research companies, with firms like DARPA, the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation and Department of Homeland Security Science all pitching in with funding. Medford's results have been published in the journal PLoS One.