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June 17, 2011


Impossible Burden of Proof; EU Exacerbating Poverty with Policy; Political Gullibility; Messages and Metaphors


* Bt brinjal and its discontents
* Europe's GM barrier is 'starving the poor’
* Biotech Crops and Political Gullibility: Educators Speak
* Help Bio-Designed Cassava Save the World
* Media, Messages & Metaphors: How Newspapers Define Agri-biotech
* Modern Biotechnology - for Sustainable Food Production in Sub-Saharan Africa
* Fifteen Plant Scientists Chosen for Huge Prestigious Grants - $75M
* The Food Security Reader: The Best of Truth about Trade & Technology
* Video: Green Revolution for Africa - Sir Gordon Conway
* Video: River of Rice


Bt brinjal and its discontents

Or why Bt cotton was introduced in the fields while Bt brinjal was embargoed

- N Chandra Mohan, Business Standard (India), June 17, 2011


The fate of the controversial Bt brinjal is blowing in the wind! At a meeting of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apex body for transgenic crops in India, several experts favoured a “limited release of Bt (brinjal) seeds to identified farmers under strict supervision” (Business Line, May 26, 2011). NGOs, however, remain opposed to the introduction of Bt technology in food crops. So, too, are some scientists who want more studies to assess the safety of such Bt food crops. Bt brinjal has been embargoed and the prospects of it being introduced soon looks grim because it faces a bio-safety burden of proof that is impossible to meet.

This transgenic crop was approved by the GEAC in October 2009, following nine years of testing involving as many as seven government departments, committees and institutes. But shortly thereafter, Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh stated that he would not accept the GEAC’s decision and went in for public consultations. It was this ministerial decision – ostensibly taken in the national and public interest – that single-handedly blocked the transgenic brinjal.

In bypassing the GEAC, Ramesh stated that the moratorium would continue as long as it was needed to establish public trust and confidence. But what conceivable tests would establish public trust and confidence?

Clearly, this set the bar impossibly high, felt Professor Ronald Herring of Cornell University. “There are still large groups around the world who are not ‘satisfied’ with the science supporting evolution, viral origins of HIV AIDS, global warming or even lunar landings… Sociology of knowledge tells us ex ante that the standard invoked by the minister is essentially impossible to meet... This was precisely the intent of activists campaigning to stop even field trials of Bt brinjal: to raise the bar from acceptable uncertainty to absolute consensus on absence of risk,” he argued in his recent paper “State science and its discontents: Why India’s second transgenic crop did not follow the path of Bt cotton”.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, the environment minister consulted state governments who also urged caution and delay in the introduction of Bt brinjal. Kerala went one step ahead and stated that the state government’s policy was not to allow genetically modified (GM) crops, not even field trials and was in favour of a moratorium at least for the next 50 years until complete safety is proven! The verbal communication from Uttarakhand was equally blunt: “Ban Bt brinjal”. By such standards of safety even a peanut wouldn’t be approved for cultivation! Such responses are not surprising because, barring the Congress, most other political parties were opposed to agricultural biotechnology in their electoral manifestos in 2009.

A puzzle indeed is how did Bt cotton get introduced in the fields while Bt brinjal got embargoed? The same transgene (cry1Ac), producing the same insecticidal protein, in the same regulatory process produced very different outcomes. According to Herring, Bt cotton has done extremely well in agro-economic and environmental terms. The fact that Bt cotton has catapulted India into the second position in the world in cotton production; that 90 per cent of farmers cultivate Bt cotton has also been admitted by Ramesh. But Bt brinjal, which in field trials offered greater benefits to farmers in net income and pesticide reduction, failed to receive regulatory clearance by the minister for environment!

The divergent trajectories of these two transgenic crops basically stem from the role of farmers. In the case of cotton, farmers “voted with their ploughs”, to borrow an expression of Herring, under the regulatory gaze of the state to force it to act speedily and approve Bt cotton. They were upset that the GEAC was taking its own time in approving this technology. Maharashtra and Gujarat also took a more proactive role in this regard because farmers were demanding this technology and these governments in effect legalised Bt cotton months before the GEAC ruled on this matter. As Herring puts it, the GEAC science was rendered irrelevant by the political power of the states in a federal polity.

Bt brinjal fared poorly in comparison because its farmers are not so powerful as a lobby. Those who grow brinjal grow other crops as well. They do not control a lot of land and earn no forex. They are also not organised as cotton farmers are. There are only about half a million hectares of brinjal grown in India — cotton is closer to 10 million hectares. The number of brinjal farmers is around 1.4 million scattered all over the country unlike the greater concentration of cotton farmers in Gujarat and Maharashtra. For such reasons, brinjal farmers got no such support from any of the states. The GEAC science, in this case, was successfully attacked by a Union cabinet minister.

Bt cotton, thus, made it — thanks to wholesale farmer acceptance that sidelined opposition from NGOs and some scientists. These forces got resurrected in the case of Bt brinjal and successfully managed to get it embargoed.


Europe's GM barrier is 'starving the poor’

- Rick Pendrous, Food Manufacture, UK; June 13, 2011


The EU is exacerbating poverty and starvation in the developing world via barriers against genetic modification (GM), says one of the UK’s leading scientists. Professor Sir David King (pictured) believes that many poor nations are avoiding using GM technologies for fear of being shut out of potentially lucrative EU export markets.

Giving the Institute of Food Science and Technology 2011 lecture at the Royal Society last month (sponsored by Food Manufacture), King said: "Because we in Europe decided not to choose GM foodstuff and set the gold standard for the rest of the world, GM has been banned in many countries.

Today [GM] food production is still largely limited to North and South America. Most countries in Africa banned it, and countries elsewhere won't grow it for fear of not being able to put their products into the market."

Submergence tolerant rice

King, formerly the UK government's chief scientific adviser and now director of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at the University of Oxford, cited GM variants such as such as drought-, disease- and saline-resistant crops and 'submergence-tolerant' rice as GM technologies that would benefit developing nations. Submergence-tolerant rice prevents crop loss when there are early monsoon rains.

"Had we moved quickly to introduce submergence-tolerant rice in the 1990s this could have been in the marketplace 10 years ago and the number of lives lost as a result of malnutrition would have been very substantially reduced," said King.

"We made what is maybe a lifestyle decision in a part of the world where choosing whether or not to eat a GM tomato is a real choice. In other parts of the world whether you have enough of anything to eat is the choice. And we were impacting on that decision- making process." King added: "The scientific community needs to ... inform public debate in a rational, easily assimilable manner. We just haven't managed this well at all."

George Freeman, Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk, believes the public will accept the need for GM if the benefits are clearly shown. "I intend to carry the flag for GM and try to sell it in parliament," he said at a Crop Protection Association debate last month.


Biotech Crops and Political Gullibility: Educators Speak

- Fernando A. Bernardo, Ph.D. Manila Bulletin, June 12, 2011 9Former Dean, UP College of Agriculture )


MANILA, Philippines — Some European organizations are rightfully promoting the green revolution, but unfortunately launching worldwide campaigns against Genetically Modified plants or biotech crops. They always say No, No to biotech crops, claiming that they are a great threat to human health and cause environmental pollution.

Unfortunately, some national and local politicians have believed campaigns against biotech crops. For example late last year, the Davao City government made a strong resolution against Bt eggplant, and people in support of the Davao City decision invaded the University of the Philippines Mindanao field experiment, and uprooted Bt eggplants last December 17. In another incident, some activists allegedly supported by Greenpeace destroyed the fence of the field experiment on Bt eggplant of the Institute of Plant Breeding, University of the Philippines Los Baños, last February 17, uprooted the eggplants, and left a placard announcing that Bt eggplant is an environmental hazard.
Political gullibility can be a big obstacle to economic progress
GM plants are science-based. Politicians should keep this in mind and refrain from making political decisions for or against any particular product of genetic engineering. Each case of GM plant needs to be studied carefully and scientifically to minimize if not completely eliminate risks to human health, environment, and biodiversity.

Let us not swallow all words against GM plants hook, line, and sinker. To say that all GM plants are undesirable because genes from other species or microorganisms like bacteria are integrated into these biotech crops is like saying that vaccines against cholera, typhoid, and small pox are undesirable because dead or weakened living bacteria are injected into human bodies. Let us bear in mind that there are harmful as well as useful genes, in the same way that there are harmful and beneficial bacteria.

Let us also bear in mind that vaccines are generally used with minimal risk to public health because they undergo rigid tests and have to pass through the strict regulations of the Food and Drug Administration of the USA and the Bureau of Food and Drugs of the Philippines. In the same way, all GM plants or biotech crops in the Philippines undergo rigid laboratory and field testing and pass the strict protocols in laboratory and field experiments established by the Biotech Offices of the Department of Science and Technology and Department of Agriculture and approved by the Philippine government. (For copies of detailed protocols for testing GM plants, one may write the Biotech Core Team of the Bureau of Plant Industry.)

All concerned government officials and citizens should know that getting government approval for commercialization of any biotech crop is like passing through the eye of a needle. It requires a lot of meticulous scientific work in quarantined laboratories and in isolated and protected experimental fields. It is a very costly research endeavor in terms of scientific expertise, sophisticated laboratory facilities, and carefully designed, isolated field testings.

Voluminous scientific data must be gathered and analyzed, and all reports must pass the critical analysis of external experts to ensure there is no risk to health, the environment, and biodiversity.

All this expensive scientific work is necessary because there is no less expensive alternative. This has to be resorted to in exceptional cases where important genes are not available within the crop species, but available only in remotely related species or in microorganisms like bacteria.

We are now living in a rapidly changing world with burgeoning populations, decreasing land and water resources, and frequent droughts and floods caused by climate change. Biotechnology should play a key role in increasing agricultural productivity, and reducing poverty and hunger. We have to develop biotech crops that are pest-resistant to eliminate or minimize the need for chemical pesticides that are hazardous to human health, the environment and biodiversity.
With all of the foregoing facts and information, there are no reasons why Greenpeace and others should be against Bt eggplant.

GM plants, in general, should be welcomed by the public. There can be specific GM plants or biotech crop varieties that should not be released to the market if proven ineffective or dangerous to the health of the people. But each case of GM plant must be analytically studied by scientists and government agencies responsible for protecting people’s health as well as the environment. For this reason, scientists as well as responsible government agencies must be given complete freedom to test GM plants following strict protocols established by the government.



Help Bio-Designed Cassava Save the World

- Sheril Kirshenbaum, Bloomberg, June 15, 2011

The human population, now approaching 7 billion, may top 10 billion by 2100. Agronomists predict food shortages in our future, and it doesn’t take an advanced degree to understand why: When food production fails to keep pace with population growth, billions go hungry, including many Americans. To avert disaster, we must find a way to squeeze more grains, fruits and vegetables from ever less farmland.

While I am an environmentalist, I am convinced that transgenic crops should be part of the solution. However, unless we can improve their development and distribution, we will fail to realize their potential.

Whether you’re comfortable with the concept of genetically modified plants -- or GM crops, as they are sometimes called -- they already account for a significant share of worldwide agriculture. More than 2.5 billion acres have been planted with genetically modified seeds, by more than 15 million farmers in 29 countries. The economic impact is enormous, with the market value of biotech crops estimated at $11.2 billion last year. Most of us consume GM plants every day in familiar foods and beverages such as Ragu Pasta Sauce and Coca-Cola. Over the coming decades, the world will increasingly need to rely on them.

Most transgenic plants are designed to be herbicide- and pest-resistant. But they can also be engineered to grow without fertilizer, which saves not only on expensive fertilizers but also on the gasoline it takes to distribute them. Crops can be designed to survive on very little water -- a valuable asset given that climate change is expected to expand the world’s arid regions.

Consider golden rice. Many of the world’s poorest people depend on rice as a significant source of food, but it doesn’t provide the complete nutrition that the human body requires. More than 250,000 children die every year due to vitamin A deficiency, and more suffer from associated ailments such as blindness. Golden rice has been engineered to contain beta carotene, which is a precursor of vitamin A.

Making it available in developing countries would save thousands of lives, and it would be more cost-effective than providing vitamin supplements or fortifying foods. Golden rice is expected to become available by 2013 in the Philippines and 2015 in Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, this example is the exception. Transgenic agriculture has mostly been limited to big crops that grow year round, such as corn and soybeans. These GM plants are made available exclusively by the multinational companies that have the money and legal clout to gain approval for their products. Such companies focus on market value and consumer acceptance, rather than on such humanitarian goals as supplying vitamin-rich foods to the poor.

The success of golden rice has been largely due to a collaborative push by public and private organizations. Initially, it was developed by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Freiburg in Germany. Then, the Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta AG (SYNN) ensured that small farmers in developing countries would be able to buy the seeds at an affordable price. Today the International Rice Research Institute, in the Philippines, oversees the project, and a grant from the Gates Foundation finances food safety tests and covers the high costs of getting regulatory approval.

Can this model be replicated? Over the past few years, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute has taken up the challenge to sequence additional starches that could make a significant difference in developing nations where corn and soybean are less important than such staples as foxtail millet, sorghum and cassava. Such crops, if engineered to be more nutritious, as well as cheaper to grow in large quantities, could combat hunger in the poorest parts of Africa and Asia.

Golden rice proves the work can be successful, but also teaches us that it will take a large and coordinated effort to design these important foods for those who need them most.

Sheril Kirshenbaum, a research scientist at the University of Texas Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, is the author of "The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us."


Media, Messages & Metaphors: How Philippine Newspapers Define Agri-biotech


Studies show that the general public gets their information on science
and technology from the mass media, e.g. television, radio, and
newspapers. Hence, media plays a significant role in defining what the
general public understands about a technology, and at the same time
provides an environment by which public opinion is formed. News media in
particular serves as an important source of informal learning and
contributes to how citizens reach judgments about the complexities of
science and technology or policy debates. How does the print media
define biotechnology? ---

Specifically, it sought to determine tone, news sources, and use of
keywords, prominent media frames, and metaphors. The study underscores
the relationship between science and media as it details the process of
negotiating public or popular images of science. Each system has its own
language and culture but both come to a common agreement in meaning and
context over time.

-- Metaphors play an important role in the construction of social,
cultural, and political reality. -------

Media coverage maybe a contributing factor to the generally favorable
perception of the technology in the country. This, despite stories on
the technology fueled by event-centered or episodic happenings that
generate story interest. During a decade of biotech journalism, the
Philippine media showed maturity in its reporting over time. This was
shown by the trend towards positive to neutral stories, preference for
institutional sources of information, and a shift from sensational to
balanced coverage.

Media coverage in the Philippines is dominated by stories about politics
and entertainment. Although biotechnology news was not high in the media
agenda as compared to political events, coverage was sustained and had
occasional peaks that helped bring attention to and or generate interest
on the topic.

Media practitioners need to make accurate, science based
representations of reality so that the public is notled to make
conclusions based on language used. It is important to provide media
with up-to-date information using analogies that complement rather than
confuse public understanding of science. Focus of articles should be on
tangible aspects, breakthroughs, or the scientific process that leads to
a technology rather than on speculative scenarios, unsubstantiated
claims, and false representation of science and technology.

In like manner, scientists and communicators need to develop a shared
culture by which science information is negotiated for public
consumption. This scenario will enable both actors to maintain
interpretative control and in constructing reality based on common
meanings. It is thus important to understand how media works -the frames
that media use to communicate issues, the sources they use which
influence how stories are framed, and the amount of space allotted to
science topics, among others. With opinions being formed on the basis of
little information, the role of newspapers is crucial in the
communication and better understanding of science.


Modern Biotechnology - Potential Contribution and Challenges for Sustainable Food Production in Sub-Saharan Africa

- E. Jane Morris, Sustainability 2011, 3, 809-822 (African Centre for Gene Technologies, Pretoria, South Africa

Full paper at http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/3/6/809/pdf

Modern biotechnology, including the application of transgenic techniques to produce Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), can play a significant role in increasing agricultural production in a sustainable way, but its products need to be tailored for the developing world. In sub-Saharan Africa, the capacity to develop GMOs and ensure they meet stringent regulatory requirements is somewhat limited.

Most African governments contribute little to science and technology either financially or through strong policies. This leaves the determination of research and development priorities in the hands of international funding agencies. Whereas funding from the United States is generally supportive of GM technology, the opposite is true of funding from European sources. African countries are thus pulled in two different directions. One alternative to this dilemma might be for countries in the sub-Saharan Africa region to develop stronger South-South collaborations, but these need to be supported with adequate funding.

African governments as well as external funding agencies are urged to consider the important role that biotechnology, including GM technology, can play in contributing to sustainable development in Africa, and to provide adequate support to the development of capacity to research, develop and commercialize GMOs in the region.


Fifteen Plant Scientists Chosen for Huge Prestigious Grants - $75M


HHMI Launches Collaboration with Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (GBMF) have selected 15 of the nation’s most innovative plant scientists to join a new initiative that boosts much needed funding for fundamental plant science research.

The scientists will become HHMI-GBMF Investigators and will receive the flexible support necessary to move their research in creative new directions. They represent 13 institutions from across the United States, and were selected on the basis of individual scientific excellence from a group of 239 applicants.

HHMI and GBMF formed the collaboration because of concern that basic plant science research has long been underfunded in the United States. The organizations are investing a combined total of $75 million in the new plant science research program over the next five years.

Both organizations say the investment is critical: According to the United Nations, today’s global population of nearly 7 billion people is expected to jump by 3 billion by 2050 – and one billion people are already suffering from lack of nutrition. The demand for energy is rising, even as the long-term consequences of using fossil fuels become more apparent, thus increasing pressure on agriculture to grow fuel as well as food.

Despite funding constraints that have plagued plant researchers for decades, this group of scientists has made impressive discoveries, opening up new research fields and improving crop engineering.

“We selected an outstanding group of plant scientists who will make extraordinary contributions to the field,” said Jack E. Dixon, HHMI Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer.

The new HHMI-GBMF Investigators are conducting research on a variety of plants, such as wheat, maize, tomato, Arabidopsis, moss and algae.

Complete list of scientists receiving the grant at


The Food Security Reader: The Best of Truth about Trade & Technology

- New Book by Mary Boote (ed), 452 pages, Publisher: CreateSpace, May 12, 2011, ISBN-10: 146115328X; $19.


From the start, Truth about Trade & Technology has spread its message of hope and growth. We began a weekly column, produced a weekly economic analysis, launched a website, spoke to journalists, appeared on radio and television, and attended meetings in the United States and abroad.

More than a decade later, we can report many successes, such as the passage of new free-trade agreements and the growing acceptance of biotech crops. Yet plenty of tests await us: Agricultural trade remains badly distorted and biotechnology continues to face substantial resistance in Europe and many developing nations. As old battles end, new ones emerge--and our work remains as important and daunting as ever. The Food Security Reader is a chronicle of what we’ve done, a collection of our best columns on a wide range of subjects.


Video: Green Revolution for Africa - Sir Gordon Conway

- FarmingFirst , www.farmingfirst.org

Professor Sir Gordon Conway discusses how the first Green Revolution came about. He then explains Africa's unique set of challenges -- and potential solutions -- in achieving its own Green Revolution.



Video: River of Rice


Jay Maclean, a freelance writer, information specialist, and musician, was struck by the cover photo in the April-June 2007 issue of "Rice Today" magazine. That photo, by Ken Driese,

depicts the Mekong River as it winds through northwestern Yunnan Province in China. Maclean writes: "I was sitting at my piano, looking at the cover, seeing the rugged landscape rolling down onto a narrow river, a temple, shoals and mud, nevertheless the same river that later calms down on its voyage through Cambodia and beyond. So, I began to play an impression of the scene. It came together quite quickly and after an hour I had a piece that runs for nearly four and a half minutes. I added a bass line and some percussion to enhance the mood." He calls it, naturally, "River of Rice" - an homage to life along the Mekong River.