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April 28, 2011


Golden Rice Set for Field Trial; Debate Is About More Than Biosafety; Nigeria Must Press Ahead; A Kenyan’s Determination; Gene genius; Seeds of salvation


* Trial for Vitamin A-rich Rice Soon
* Agricultural BioTech Playing Bigger Role In Food Output
* The GM Debate Is About More Than Biosafety
* Nigerian biosafety bill may fail, say scientists
* Nigeria Must Press Ahead with GM crops
* A Kenyan’s Determination to Fight Malnutrition
* Gene genius is the future of food
* Farmers complain of shortage of Bt cotton seed in India
* Response to the criticism on"Green Genetic Engineering"
* Seeds of salvation
* African Potato Lab Fights Malnutrition With Biofortification
* Assessment of the economic performance of GM crops worldwide
* The Impact of Commercialization of GM Rice in China
* Biotechnology for crop improvement in a variable climate: hope or hype?
* IPR, Private Investment in Research, and Productivity Growth in Indian Agriculture
* How has agricultural land use changed since 1700?


Trial for Vitamin A-rich Rice Soon

- Reaz Ahmad, Daily Star, April 26, 2011 http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=182319

Golden rice next to regular rice. The golden one has beta carotene, a source for vitamin-A. Photo Courtesy: IRRI

Bangladesh is all set for developing further the world's first-ever vitamin A-rich rice. A genetically engineered variety, the Golden Rice will go through greenhouse and field tests before advancing into production phase.

And if everything goes well, Bangladesh, within 5 years, will be able to fight vitamin A deficiency in expecting mothers and children through the most-consumed food item. The deficiency causes blindness and child death in acute cases.

The country's most productive rice variety -- BRRI Dhan 29 -- engineered at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines with beta carotene-rich genes from corn-- was successfully field-tested at the IRRI in February.

This is a big step towards developing Golden Rice, said scientists at Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) at Joydebpur, who are involved in the process.

"This week we are applying for permission to import the beta carotene-rich BRRI Dhan-29 from the IRRI experiment field and make a greenhouse trial at BRRI prior to going for open field trial in Bangladesh," said Dr Alamgir Hossain, principal plant breeder at BRRI.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO) global database on vitamin A deficiency, one in every five pre-school children in Bangladesh is vitamin A-deficient, and 23.7 percent of pregnant women are affected by vitamin A deficiency.

Alamgir Hossain told The Daily Star on Saturday that once released commercially, consumption of only 150 gram of Golden Rice a day will supply half of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin A for an adult. This is expected to revolutionise fighting vitamin A-deficiency in the mostly rice-eating Asian countries where the poor have limited access to vitamin A sources other than rice.

BRRI Dhan-29 along with an IRRI variety IR-64 and a Filipino variety RC-28 have gone through the process in which these three were genetically engineered to have greater expressions of corn gene responsible for producing beta carotene.

The GE technology was first applied by Prof Ingo Potrykus, then at the Institute for Plant Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Prof Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, Germany. Their insertion of beta carotene-enriched gene from daffodil to rice caught world attention back in late '90s, and the rice became known as Golden Rice. After years of scientific research and experiments IRRI found it more rewarding to transfer the beta carotene gene to rice from corn than daffodil.

Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which on April 13 sanctioned a grant of over $10 million to IRRI to fund, develop and evaluate Golden Rice varieties for Bangladesh and the Philippines, expects that Golden Rice variety of BRRI Dhan-29 will be ready for regulatory approval by 2015.

Alamgir, who had worked with former IRRI biotechnologist Swapan K Datta, however, said, "We will be able to make our home-grown Golden Rice ready for seeking approval much ahead of 2015 if the government, particularly the regulators, take a pro-active role in finishing the safety trial processes quickly." Born in Sirajganj of Bangladesh, Swapan was the first to infuse daffodil's beta carotene-producing gene into BRRI Dhan-29 nearly 10 years back.

During e-mail correspondence in the last few days, officials concerned at IRRI and Gates Foundation confirmed that as the Golden Rice inventors and subsequent technology developer Syngenta allowed a royalty-free access to the patents, the new rice when released for commercial farming in Bangladesh will be of the same price as other rice, and farmers will be able to share and replant the seeds as they wish.

IRRI also issued a press release on April 13 announcing that the world's premier rice research institute in league with BRRI and PhilRice, the national rice research institutes of Bangladesh and the Philippines respectively, have joined with Helen Keller International (HKI) in a new effort to further develop and evaluate Golden Rice as a potential tool to reduce vitamin A deficiency.

"Golden Rice is a unique type of rice that contains beta carotene, a source of vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. Globally, approximately 6,70,000 children die every year and another 3,50,000 go blind because they are vitamin A deficient," says the IRRI release.

IRRI's Golden Rice project leader Dr Gerard Barry says, “IRRI and its partners have been working on Golden Rice for about 10 years to develop a safe and effective way to address vitamin A deficiency, prevent blindness, and save lives. Our latest stage of work is now supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and will bring in HKI -- a new partner from the nutrition sector-- to further understand how well Golden Rice can reduce vitamin A deficiency.”

HKI Vice President and Regional Director for Asia-Pacific Nancy Haselow says, “The most vulnerable children and women in hard-to-reach areas are often missed by existing interventions that can improve vitamin A status, including vitamin A supplementation, food fortification, dietary diversification, and promotion of optimal breast-feeding.”


Agricultural BioTechnology Playing Bigger Role In Food Output

- John Moore, CNBC, 26 Apr 2011 http://www.cnbc.com/id/42572371

Industries of all stripes typically look to technology to improve safety and cost efficiency. With both global food prices and concerns about food safety on the rise, technology is playing a more important role in the economics of the world’s food supply.

Agricultural biotechnology is gaining traction worldwide as a method for improving crop yields. And thanks to new federal regulations dealing with food safety, information technology is becoming an increasingly important part of the equation.

Traits for Sustainability
Amid a rising global population, increasing the availability and sustainability of crops is a challenge for the farming industry.

“In 1960, on average one farmer fed 26 people per year. Now, a farmer feeds about 155 people per year,” says Jack Boyne, a spokesman for Bayer's CropScience unit. “The fact that the farming industry has risen to this challenge gives us room for optimism. But we know there will be 3 billion more people on this planet by 2050, and it’s no sure thing that that trend will continue.”

That’s why governments are embracing agricultural biotechnology, particularly insect-resistance traits and herbicide tolerance for crops, to help farmers improve their crop yields while keeping costs low.

“On average, about 35 percent of the global crop production is reduced by diseases and pests,” says Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, executive vice president, food and agriculture, at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “Through the adoption of insect resistance, you reduce that damage caused to the crops. Through herbicide tolerance being incorporated into the plant, farmers can kill weeds more easily and still have a healthy crop.”

A new development involves incorporating drought tolerance into plants, a crucial issue for many regions in the world where water is in short supply. Drought-tolerant corn developed by Monsanto in collaboration with Germany’s BASF is awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The analogy is that instead of the corn gulping water it takes sips of water, and it still produces at the same yield potential as corn that has the normal amount of water that’s needed conventionally,” Lauritsen says.

Along with industry giants such as Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, and Syngenta , some smaller companies are leading the way in new agricultural biotechnology methods.

Arcadia Biosciences has been working technology that helps plants use nitrogen more efficiently, enabling farmers to use less nitrogen fertilizer — cutting costs and reducing the environmental impact — while generating the same yield.


The GM debate is about more than biosafety

- David Dickson, 28 April 2011 , Scidev.net
- http://www.scidev.net/en/editorials/the-gm-debate-is-about-more-than-biosafety-1.html

Biosafety is important, but so is ensuring that GM crops benefit the rural poor and that decisions are based on sound science.

Next month (May), after almost a decade of intense debate, Kenya is expected to become the third country in Sub-Saharan Africa — after South Africa and Burkina Faso — to approve the commercial planting of genetically modified (GM) crops.

Other countries are not far behind. By 2015, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda and could all be growing GM crops such as maize, rice, wheat, sorghum and cotton, according to a report published by the industry-sponsored International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

This marks a potential victory for evidence-based policy. Despite claims to the contrary, there are no documented health or environmental problems linked to GM crops.

No one denies that there are potential risks associated with planting GM crops, such as the unknown consequences of implanted genes spreading to native varieties, a concern raised in Mexico after a field trial of GM maize was authorised. But this is a reason to ensure that GM crops are closely monitored and regulated, not banned.

Biosafety laws need to be in place before farmers can grow GM crops, and this is where Nigeria's progress towards adopting the technology has faltered.

Yet by focusing on biosafety, the political debate on GM crops may overlook the broader — and more significant — issue of how such crops will be used in practice. This includes the extent to which they will meet the needs of poor farmers, who are responsible for a large proportion of Africa's agricultural output.

The big challenge ahead for those engaged in the GM debate in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa is not how to promote (or block) the technology, or even demonstrate its safety, although this is clearly important.

Rather, it is to find ways to ensure that GM crops benefit the rural poor, not just the shareholders of multinational corporations who are increasingly looking at African agriculture as a profitable investment.

A question of priorities
The cost of GM seeds is one reason for concern. This is one way that agricultural corporations are keen to generate a profit on their substantial investment in both laboratory research and field trials, just as pharmaceutical companies do through drug prices.

And by using intellectual property laws, corporations can take ownership of genetic material, undermining the staple practice of farmers using (and sharing) their own seed from one year to the next.

Then there is the danger of biodiversity loss — with its impacts on insect and bird varieties — if farmers focus excessively on increasing production of the most profitable crops.

None of these problems are created by GM technology. It is quite possible to imagine GM seeds being distributed at marginal costs (like generic medicines) and being grown and distributed by farmers free of concerns over patent infringement.

Similarly, GM crops can be used to counter biodiversity loss. By introducing viral resistance genes into cassava, for example, scientists aim to increase the range of crops available by helping to preserve farmers' preferred cassava varieties, which are currently being devastated by viral diseases across East and Southern Africa.

Whether GM crops benefit all farmers therefore depends on how the technology is used. National agricultural policies need to take into account the interests and priorities of poor farmers, and give rural communities sufficient leverage over decision-making to ensure that GM crops meet locally defined needs.

Sound science
Even though these are political and economic considerations, not biosafety issues, they can determine the content of regulations in individual countries. These will differ according to national needs and priorities, but they share two essential requirements.

The first is that all regulations, and the debates that occur around them, must be based on sound scientific grounds. Those who make exaggerated and simplistic claims for which there is no evidence — that GM crops are sufficient to eliminate hunger in the world, for example, or that they are a poison that contaminates the environment — are serving no one's interests but their own.

The second requirement is greater transparency. The more that multinational corporations seek to hide their involvement in lobbying for biosafety regulations, the greater the risk of criticism when their involvement becomes known.

For example, when WikiLeaks revealed the involvement of the US Embassy in Nairobi in helping to secure initial approval of Kenya's biosafety legislation two years ago, there was a backlash from environmental NGOs.

Science journalism has a key role to play in ensuring that both these needs are met. It can query the scientific basis of claims both in favour and against GM crops. It can also make the regulatory process more transparent and ensure that it withstands public scrutiny by monitoring and reporting on special-interest groups.

No one expects GM crops to be the magic key to eliminating hunger in Africa. But neither, if they are properly regulated, need they produce the environmental Armageddon that opponents predict.

The real challenge is how best to achieve the benefits, including those it offers to small farmers, while identifying and minimising the potential risks — and maintaining public trust along the way. Sound science, full transparency, and a media committed to both are three steps in this direction.


Nigerian biosafety bill may fail, say scientists

- Emeka Johnkingsley, Scidev.net, 27 April 2011 http://bit.ly/lLcuas

Supporters of genetically modified (GM) crop technology fear that their four-year effort to get a biosafety bill enacted in Nigeria may have been in vain if the country's upper house fails to pass it before its tenure ends next month (29 May).

The 2007 bill, passed by the country's lower chamber last July, is with the Senate. It is one of more than 400 bills introduced to the National Assembly between 2007 and 2010 that were highlighted by the Nigerian Bar Association last December as needing passage before 29 May.

Stakeholders are concerned that, since Nigeria — which is in the midst of elections — has a poor culture of continuity between governments, they may have to start again, delaying plans to move from confined trials of biotechnology products to commercialisation.

National biosafety bills provide a framework to ensure that the development, and use, of GM organisms and products do not negatively affect plant, animal and human health; agricultural systems; or the environment.

With these standards in place, multinational biotechnology companies could do business in Nigeria, said Bamidele Solomon, director-general of the National Biotechnology Development Agency, a promoter of the bill.

"Research and development grants and opportunities, which in the past had been inaccessible because of a lack of enabling facilities, would be easily available," he said.

Mohammed Ishiyaku, a researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Research involved in a cowpea biotechnology project, said that if the bill failed to pass it would demoralise many scientists.

His project uses GM cowpeas to fight insect damage and, it is hoped, increase farmers' yields by 40 per cent.

"All of us are enthusiastically looking forward to this bill," he told SciDev.Net. "We will then be able to conclude the steps required before the cowpea can proceed to farmers."

Daniel Aba, a sorghum breeder at Ahmadu Bello University is trying to develop a variety that contains vitamin A, iron and zinc. "If the biosafety bill is not in place, it means that the research will remain within research centres," he said.

Ibrahim Abubakar, president of the Agricultural Society of Nigeria, said: "We cannot make any significant progress without the enabling law, especially now that there is some pessimism about the use of biotechnology."


Nigeria must press ahead with GM crops

- Ademola A. Adenle, 27 April 2011 , Scidev.net.

Nigeria must pass a biosafety law so the country's farmers can reap the benefits of GM technology, says Ademola A. Adenle.

Genetic modification (GM) has been used in the production of pharmaceutical drugs, experimental medicine and agriculture for more than 15 years.

GM crops bring increased yields, higher incomes, greater resistance to diseases and pests, improved varieties and environmental benefits — and they can improve the quality of life for resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

In 1996, when GM crops were first commercialised officially, six countries planted a total of 1.7 million hectares of these crops. By 2010 this had grown to 148 million hectares in 29 countries, of which 19 are from the developing world. This 87-fold growth makes GM the fastest crop technology to be adopted in the history of modern agriculture.

Yet only a few African countries, including Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa, have functional biosafety laws — a major requirement before farmers can grow GM crops commercially.

Kenya is on the verge of growing GM crops commercially after enacting a biosafety law in 2009 and recently refining its biosafety regulations. But why is Nigeria, the most populous country, absent from the group of nations adopting the technology?

Nigeria's GM capacity
GM technology has been criticised, particularly by nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), for its potential risks. But there is little scientific evidence to support such criticism. No human health effects or environmental problems resulting from GM products have yet been documented.

As one of the leading African countries in the development of basic biotechnological techniques, particularly plant breeding, Nigeria is well placed to use GM crops.

The Nigeria-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) has the necessary expertise and facilities. And institutions such as the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) in Umudike and the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR) at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria are working alongside IITA on confined field trials of GM cassava and cowpea.

This shows that Nigeria has made initial steps towards adopting GM technology. But it lacks a well-coordinated effort — and still needs a biosafety law before GM products can be released.

Slow progress
Nigeria is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which makes it compulsory for nations to pass biosafety laws before they can grow GM crops commercially.

Ademola A. Adenle is a postdoctoral fellow at the United Nations University- in Japan.

A Kenyan’s Determination to Fight Malnutrition

- Gilbert Arap Bor – Kapseret, Kenya http://icont.ac/11gU

One of the paradoxes of food security is that an obese person also can be malnourished.

We often associate food insecurity with a lack of calories. This is its classic and most obvious form. In the most extreme cases, a lack of calories can mean severe hunger or even starvation.

Yet sometimes people get plenty of calories and not enough nutrients. This is a less obvious form of food insecurity. Some call it “hidden hunger” and it poses incredible challenges.

Malnutrition stunts growth. It hurts cognitive development in children. It darkens futures. Fortunately, technological advances in agriculture may help provide a solution.

The fundamental challenge of malnutrition is that people don’t always want to buy and eat the food that’s best for them. Their first and last impulse is to want food that’s cheap, tasty and easily available. Nutrition has little or nothing to do with the choices they make when they shop. This is especially true in developing countries, where money and access to food are limited.

Here in Kenya, I see the problem of malnutrition regularly. Fruit should be a part of everyone’s diet. But people skip it all the time, especially when it’s out of season and perceived as pricey. The problem is most severe in the urban slums and many rural districts of the country, notably Samburu and Turkana, and the North Eastern districts of the country.

Around the world, malnutrition may affect as many as 2 billion people. It has almost certainly grown worse because of the global spike in food prices.

The Economist recently described “the bad diet of the poor” as “one of the world’s neglected scourges.” Everybody needs a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, but several types are commonly in short supply. Iron is necessary for a functional immune system, but more than half the women in India and 40 percent of the women in Indonesia don’t consume enough. Zinc contributes to the brain’s functioning and an estimated 400,000 people die each year because they don’t take in a minimal amount.

Vitamin A helps the body protect its organs but half a million children go blind each year because they lack this simple ingredient in their diets. In sub-Saharan Africa, 43 million children under the age of 5 are at constant risk.

The world must grow more food simply to feed itself--but it also must grow better food so that people may thrive.

Farmers in Kenya and Uganda have responded by raising orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, whose rich nutrients improve the health of women and children almost immediately.

Around the planet, farmers would like access to the best technologies for fighting malnutrition. Widespread approval of golden rice, a biotech crop, would combat vitamin A deficiencies. So would the advent of biofortified cassava, turning a staple food crop for 250 million sub-Saharan Africans into an arsenal of carotenoids that boost vitamin A intake. If scientific researchers can discover how to switch the color of vitamin A-enriched corn from yellow to white, farmers will find a strong market for it.

As a farmer and an educator, I plan to contribute to this process by identifying and working with partners to establish the Center for Food Security and Enterprise Development at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. Our goal is to offer food-security skills training for farmers, suppliers, marketers, and technical service providers. We plan to create partnerships with universities in North America and Europe.

Professors at Iowa State University recently used biotechnology to increase the protein content of soybeans. These are exactly the sorts of advances we hope to achieve in Kenya.

Winning the war against malnutrition will require the creative efforts of everyone in the food chain, from the experts who develop cutting-edge technologies to the farmers who plant the seeds and harvest the crops to consumers who must educate themselves about the benefits of a proper diet. Governments also have a key role to play--they must allow innovation to spread, unchecked by anti-scientific fear mongering.

Above all, it will take a determination to fight hunger in all of its forms--and to deploy every weapon that 21st-century technology can afford us.

Gilbert Arap Bor grows maize, vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya. He also teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. Mr. Bor is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.

Gene genius is the future of food

- Simon Easterbrook-Smith, Sydney Morning Herald April 28, 2011 - 6:44AM
Comments 17

Public understanding of this science has lagged, which has led to misinformation and disinformation taking root in people’s minds. For example, ‘‘genetically modified food’’ might conjure up an image of a hybrid of a salmon and a cucumber.

Read more:


Farmers complain of shortage of Bt cotton seed in Punjab, Haryana

- Press Trust of India, April 28,2011

Chandigarh, Apr 28 (PTI) With cotton sowing season getting underway, cotton growers of Punjab and Haryana are facing "severe" shortage of Bt cotton seeds, leading to its black marketing, though the state authorities claim there is adequate availability to meet the total area requirements. Seed sellers and commission agents known as Arthiyas are selling Bt cotton seeds at higher price than the approved rates, the farmers alleged. "We are not getting Bt cotton seeds as there is a huge shortage of seeds across the state in Haryana that has led to its black marketing," a Sirsa based cotton grower Prahlad Singh said today.

Despite state authorities have strictly asked seed sellers to issue bill to farmers against any sale of seed, farmers have accused seeds dealers of overcharging for Bt cotton seeds. "Even if seeds are available, farmers are being charged between Rs 1,800-2,000 per packet against the approved rate of Rs 1,000 per packet..seed dealers take money in advance from us, obviously the higher rate and then issue the bill of only approved rate..if any farmer confronts then they refuse to give seed, Singh alleged. The price of Bt-I and Bt-II variety stands at Rs 825 per packet of 450 gm and Rs 1,000 per packet respectively.

"In most of the cases, farmers do not lodge any complaint against Arthiya for overcharging as he does not want to put him (Arthiya) into trouble because he (arthiya) lends money to him to meet his requirements, said an official on the condition of anonymity. Notably, both the states have asked cotton growers to lodge complaint with concerned officers if they are being overcharged


Response to the criticism by Taube et al. in ESE 23:1, 2011, on the booklet "Green Genetic Engineering" published by the German Research Foundation (DFG)

Inge Broer et aL. , Environmental Sciences Europe 2011, 23:16 doi:10.1186/2190-4715-23-16; 15 April 2011 http://www.enveurope.com/content/23/1/16/abstract

The authors of the DFG booklet Green Genetic Engineering" respond to the criticism by Taube et al. in Environmental Sciences Europe 2011, 23:1. The broad criticism on current cropping systems in agriculture is replied to by the notice that the booklet focusses on the role of Green Genetic Engineering as a modern tool in plant breeding and on the potential uses of GMO cultivars. It is pointed out that the risks of GMO crops for the environment or human health which have been put forward in the criticism are not provable. The reproaches of wrong facts being contained in the booklet are particularly addressed and rebutted.

If you can read German, read the paper at http://www.enveurope.com/content/pdf/2190-4715-23-16.pdf


Seeds of salvation

- Fiona MacDonald, Cosmos, March 2011, Issue 37


The world is facing starvation as climate change disrupts food production and the population booms and science’s last hope may be locked inside Syria's forgotten wild plants.

IN THE MIDST OF a red, rocky stretch of land in the northeast of Syria, hundreds of rows of wheat brace themselves against a hot, dry wind. The plants are separated into small square plots by grassy pathways, ensuring no genetic material is transferred between sets.

At first glance, the dry, yellow crops look identical – they’re the only signs of life for kilometres around. But, in fact, they couldn’t be more different.

Some have grown tall and straight, while others are too wild and ‘hairy’. Some haven’t yet produced seeds, while others are ready to be harvested. Many couldn’t take the heat while a few thrived.

And these differences will determine what many populations will be eating in the next 10 to 20 years, and could decide how many people go hungry as Earth’s population grows.

“We’re looking for the crops that show both heat resistance and high yield,” says Francis Ogbonnaya, a wheat breeder with the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), 30 km south of Aleppo, Syria.

While each plot is genetically different, all of the crops are the result of an arranged marriage between a wild Syrian wheat-relative (which exhibits heat resistance) and a domestic wheat crop from Sudan – a country that loses millions of dollars in crop yield annually due to extreme heat.

---------The other way to get improved crops to farmers faster is the one that no one readily wants to talk about: genetically modified organisms (GMOs). None of the crops produced by ICARDA are genetically modified, and yet there are contained labs set up on the site and introductory work being carried out, in case the process ever becomes more accepted.

The scientists are preparing for good reason – GMO technology could take the 12-year process of creating a new crop strain down to as little as a year or two, according to Imtiaz.Creating GMOs involves manipulating an organism’s genetic material by a method that doesn’t occur in nature – for example, by using bacteria to transfer an appropriate gene from one organism to another.

In agriculture, this often involves taking a gene and incorporating it into a modern crop. This can provide a number of beneficial traits without the need for the lengthy breeding process. And it won’t only shorten the procedure, it will open up avenues for a range of traits that can’t be incorporated into modern crops the traditional way.

THIS INCLUDES CREATING crop strains using genes not only from different plants, but also different organisms.

Examples include the CSIRO taking an insect-resistant gene from wheat and using it to create a strain of genetically modified cotton that has reduced cotton pesticide use by over 80% in Australia.

This ability would be a major benefit for chickpeas: out of the eight or so wild chickpea species, only two can be bred with domestic varieties. The other wild species could hide many desirable traits, says Imtiaz; but without GMO technology, we will not be able to harness their benefit.

About 134 million hectares of farmland worldwide are currently used to grow genetically modified crops – including cotton, rice and corn.

But in the public mind at least, there are still significant concerns about the technique’s safety, both to people and the environment.

After reviewing extensive research, the World Health Organisation currently does not find genetically modified food a threat to human health, but scientists accept the reality that people still worry about the long-term effects.

IMTIAZ UNDERSTANDS the concerns, but feels GMOs will only ever play a specific – yet crucial – role in agriculture. “GMO technology will never replace normal breeding – you’re only going to use GMO when you don’t have any other way of getting the trait.”

Street agrees, but thinks that eventually people will have to come to accept GM as a normal facet of modern agriculture. “I’m all for organic agriculture,” he stresses.

“But if we’re going to maintain the agricultural system we have, then we are going to have to bring yields to unprecedented levels using whatever tools are at our disposal or just say, ‘OK all these masses of people are going to die, we don’t have enough food and we don’t feel comfortable using certain technologies’.

We’ve got in our toolbox stuff that can integrate genes from, say, a bacterium, into crop plants, so that they’re not eaten by insects.

Should we do that? It’s OK for us to sit back and say it’s messing with nature, but what do we tell a farmer in Africa when half his crops get destroyed by an insect that’s moved down [due to] climate change?”

Ogbonnaya is of the same view: “If we can ensure that people can have nutritious food, then we should do it if it’s safe.”

Overall it seems the researchers agree that GM should only be used as a last resort – and that we are quickly approaching that juncture. “My primary drive is seeing people who have had drought just for one year go starving – thinking I can contribute to alleviating poverty by ensuring everyone has food on the table,” says Ogbonnaya.

It’s ironic that the salvation of millions from starvation in the decades ahead rests on wild plants previously ignored or tossed aside by humanity.

But knowing that they have endured frosty nights, days of 46˚C and batterings of sandy, hot winds – not just this year, but in the thousands of years since the Fertile Crescent’s desertification – suggests that they might just be able to help. Hopefully, we’ll find them in time.

Fiona MacDonald, the assistant editor of Cosmos, was named 2010 New Journalist of the Year at the Publishers Australia Excellence Awards. She travelled to Syria with the assistance of the non-profit Crawford Fund and the Council for Australian-Arab Relations.


African Potato Lab Fights Malnutrition With Biofortification

- Matthew Shechmeister, Wired, April 26, 2011 http://gates.ly/lK08Jy

MAPUTO, Mozambique -- When U2's Bono broke into the classic refrain, "Gabba gabba hey!" from the Ramone's "Pinhead" on a Mozambique sweet potato farm last year, the farmers joined in to create perhaps the most unlikely punk rock cover of all time. Bono's riff was inspired by one variety of the vegetable called "Gaba Gaba."

In the last decade, the sweet potato has become an unsung hero in the fight against hunger and malnutrition in Africa. High in vitamin A and suited to a variety of climates, the sweet potato is championed by advocates of biofortification, a movement to improve global health by breeding nutrient-rich crops.

The sweet potato has garnered more than Bono's tuneful endorsement, with the Gates Foundation pledging more than $20 million toward orange-fleshed sweet potato projects in Africa. One biofortified variety of potato is even named "Melinda" after Gates' wife. These high-profile contributions are testament to the movement's growing momentum and the gains already made by scientists and development groups.

Wired.com paid a visit to the laboratory of the International Potato Center in Maputo, Mozambique, where biofortification researchers are saving lives with starch.


Assessment of the economic performance of GM crops worldwide

- Kaphengst, Timo et al. Report to the European Commission, March 2011


Do the results tell the whole story?

While a wide range of literature on the analysis of GM crop performance is available,

empirical sensitivity analyses with regard to the potential limitations of available and comparable data were not widely applied. This study has aimed to generate a more complex picture on how different kinds of research methods, as well as other varying factors, may affect results on the economic performance of GM crops.

The assessment conducted in this study shows that the manner in which data is gathered (e.g. if a field trial or a survey was conducted) has an influence on the results. For instance, cotton yield data observed in field trials are generally lower, but gross margins are higher, than those observed in surveys. Differences in seed costs and pesticide costs between Bt and conventional cotton are higher in field trials than in surveys. In contrast, differences between GM and conventional cotton are lower for management and labour costs in field trials compared to results derived with surveys.

It could also be shown that the study conductor influences the performance estimates of GM crops. For example, higher yield advantages of Bt cotton are observed if private companies conducted the study when compared to studies conducted by public institutions (e.g. universities and governments).

Crop yields have a strong effect on the perception of the economic performance of GM crops as higher seed costs of GM crops often have to be compensated by more income from the crop itself, which can largely be achieved by higher yields. But yield levels in general depend upon a wide range of different factors which go far beyond the mere choice between GM and conventional crops. For example, this study demonstrated that the crop yields highly depend on the appropriate variety (no matter if GM or conventional) chosen by a farmer in relation to the weather and climatic conditions, under which the crop is grown.

The Impact of Commercialization of GM Rice in China

- Tao Tan, Jintao Zhan and Chao Chenf; American-Eurasian Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences; Volume 10 Number 3, 2010

Since 2009, genetically modified (GM) rice has been approved for commercial use and it is likely that China will become the world leader in large scale commercialization. While China is the world’s leading rice producer, only a small fraction of the crop is exported. Hence, the commercialization of GM rice in China is not likely motivated by the international trade market. Conversion to GM rice significantly decreases the use of pesticides and therefore reduces the threat to human health and ecological contamination. Furthermore, Chinese consumers accept GM food more readily compared to consumers in other developed countries. It is hypothesized that while in the short term the commercialization of GM rice in China may have a negative impact on rice export, in the long term there is the potential for Chinese GM rice to dominate international markets.


Agricultural biotechnology for crop improvement in a variable climate: hope or hype?

- R. K. Varshney et al. Trends in Plant Science; Article in Press, Corrected Proof - Note to users ; doi:10.1016/j.tplants.2011.03.004 | http://icio.us/rFmguy
(For reprint- r.k.varshney@cgiar.org )

Developing crops that are better adapted to abiotic stresses is important for food production in many parts of the world today. Anticipated changes in climate and its variability, particularly extreme temperatures and changes in rainfall, are expected to make crop improvement even more crucial for food production. Here, we review two key biotechnology approaches, molecular breeding and genetic engineering, and their integration with conventional breeding to develop crops that are more tolerant of abiotic stresses. In addition to a multidisciplinary approach, we also examine some constraints that need to be overcome to realize the full potential of agricultural biotechnology for sustainable crop production to meet the demands of a projected world population of nine billion in 2050.


Intellectual Property Rights, Private Investment in Research, and Productivity Growth in Indian Agriculture: A Review of Evidence and Options

- Deepthi Kolady, David J. Spielman, Anthony J. Cavalieri; November 2010; IFPRI Discussion Paper 01031. Full paper at

With the growth of private investment in developing-country agriculture, new advances in the biological sciences, and rapid integration of developing countries into the global trading system, intellectual property rights (IPRs) have become an important concern for policymakers, corporate decisionmakers, and many other players in the agricultural sector.

But there are still unanswered questions about whether emerging and evolving IPR regimes in developing countries will contribute to increasing agricultural productivity and improving food security. This paper attempts to answer some of these questions by tracing the effects of IPRs on private investment in crop genetic improvement and, in turn, on agricultural productivity.

The paper focuses specifically on the case of India, the regional leader in implementing IPRs in agriculture. Findings indicate that maize and pearl millet yields grew significantly during the last two decades due to the combination of (1) public policies that encouraged private investment in India’s seed industry during the 1980s, (2) public investment in hybrid breeding programs that generated new materials offering substantial yield gains, and (3) biological IPRs conferred by hybridization that conveniently married the private sector’s need for appropriability with the nation’s need for productivity growth.

Although past lessons are not an indication of future success, this convergence of policy solutions and technology opportunities can be replicated for other crops that are vital to India’s food security.


How has agricultural land use changed since 1700?

See animated map at http://bit.ly/e1LgSz

via Radical Cartography