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June 24, 2011


No More Zero Tolerance in EU; Beachy and Juma Testify; Honoring Wise Policy Makers; Rebooting the System


• EU Allows Unapproved GM Material In Feed Imports
• Zero Tolerance and Controls on Feed
• Roger Beachy’s Testimony to the US House of Rep Committee on Agriculture
• Agricultural Biotechnology: Benefits, Opportunities, and Leadership
• 2011 World Food Prize Honors Former Presidents of Ghana, Brazil
• Back To The Future: Let’s Reverse 25 Years Of Flawed Agbiotech Regulation

• Rebooting the System - Needed: A Biotech Regulator
• In Conversation - Jairam Ramesh
• Transgenic Varieties and India’s Agriculture
• Organic = Good, Right? Ooops!
• Deep History of Coconuts Decoded
• Britain's Labs - Rothamsted Research
• The Norman Borlaug Rap on YouTube Video


EU Allows Unapproved GM Material In Feed Imports

- Reuters, June 24, 2011


* Bloc allows 0.1 pct unapproved GM material * Threshold applies only to imports of feed, not food

The European Union adopted new rules on Friday allowing traces of unapproved genetically modified (GM) material in animal feed imports, in a bid to secure grain fodder supplies to the import-dependent bloc.

"The regulation ... addresses the current uncertainty EU operators face when placing on the market feed products imported from third countries," the Commission said in a statement.

The EU and its trading partners -- backed by industry -- argue the 0.1 percent threshold is needed to avoid a repeat of supply disruptions in 2009, when U.S. soy shipments to Europe were blocked after unapproved GM material was found in some cargoes.

But environmental campaigners and consumer groups have accused the EU of caving in to GM-industry lobbying by reversing its "zero-tolerance" policy on unauthorised GM crops. Some environmentalists argue that the effect of consuming GM crops is unknown and say these varieties have not completed the EU's safety assessment process.

The GM crops in question must have been approved in a non-EU producing country and an EU authorisation request must have been lodged with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for at least three months.

EFSA must also have issued an opinion that the presence of GM products at 0.1 percent does not pose risks to health or the environment.

The 0.1 percent threshold will only apply to imports of animal feed and not human food, despite warnings from traders and exporting states that it is impractical and costly to separate global grain supplies into those destined for humans and those for animals.

The EU currently imports some 45 million tonnes of protein crops a year, much of it soy beans and soy meal from Brazil, Argentina and the U.S. destined for use as animal feed.

The majority of soy beans grown in these countries are GM varieties developed by biotech companies such as Monsanto .

A majority of EU governments are reported to be in favour of a similar threshold for food imports, but the Commission has said it currently has no plans to table such a proposal. (Reporting by Charlie Dunmore; editing by Jason Neely)


Zero Tolerance and Controls on Feed

- Anne Eckstein, EuroPolitics , June 24, 2011


The principle of zero tolerance of the presence in animal feed of genetically modified (GM) material not authorised in the European Union will be fully applied and harmonised controls will be conducted. The European Commission tightens controls with its adoption, on 24 June, of a regulation that harmonises implementation of this policy. The regulation, which will enter into force 20 days after its publication in the EU Official Journal, improves legal certainty for operators by reducing the uncertainties they face when placing feed imported from non-EU countries on the market.

The regulation sets at 0.1% the 'technical zero' level corresponding to the lowest level of GM material taken into account by the EU reference laboratory for the validation of quantitative methods. The setting of this threshold and the development of harmonised rules for interpreting analyses of feed samples are expected to guarantee equivalent treatment for the same product across the Union. The member states will have to declare a product as non-compliant when its GM content exceeds 0.1%, taking into account the acceptable margin of error (uncertainty) in the results. They will also have to inform the Commission and the other member states if traces of GM material are detected below the 0.1% threshold, once yearly if such findings are sporadic, or immediately if they are recurrent within a three-month period. The regulation concerns feed containing transgenic material for which an authorisation procedure is pending in the EU or for which an authorisation has expired. Such products will also have to meet a number of criteria listed in the regulation.


Roger Beachy’s Testimony to the US House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture


President Emeritus, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center; Ex-Director, USDA, NIFA

The topic is one of great interest and importance to agriculture and agriforestry, in particular the science and biotechnologies that work to ensure the success of this sector of the American economy while preserving the natural resources that make the industry possible. Our goal is to convey to you the importance of research that brings innovation to agriculture, and of the regulatory processes that are in place to ensure safety of products of biotechnology. I will address most of my remarks to the plant sciences and the technologies and products that are derived from biotechnology.

While many of the advances in agriculture in the past 25 years have come through classical methods of genetics and breeding, chemical and radiation mutagenesis, and cell and tissue culture-based biotechnologies, some of the most remarkable advances have come through the biotechnologies that comprise genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering (GE) brought farmers insect resistant crops that require far fewer chemical inputs than did parental varieties, and tolerance to environmentally friendly herbicides that reduce the use of less safe herbicides and enable farmers to increase no-till agriculture. This can save the farmer fuel and labor costs and increase profits, while increasing the quality and fertility of the land. Similarly, virus resistant crops have reduced the need for the insecticides that control the aphids that transmit the viruses from plant to plant.

These discoveries, breakthroughs if you like, have increased the profits of producers, reduced the use of harsh chemicals that can cause illness in farmers and their families as well as to consumers, and enhanced the environmental quality of farming eco-systems. Furthermore, each of the technologies and products that have come to market has an outstanding record of safety for the farmer and consumer as well as the environment.

Scientists and technicians have in past decades made discoveries through the use of genetic engineering hat will, if approved for commercial release, produce crops that are even more remarkable: for example crops that require less irrigation under drought conditions, and that have higher nutrient value than the parent varieties, among other traits.

Yet this is only the beginning of reaching the potential for agriculture – an agriculture which must feed more people not just more calories, but more nutrient-rich calories; agriculture and agriforestry that requires fewer chemicals to protect them from insects and diseases; agriculture that delivers more and better biofuels; and agriculture that meets the growing demands for the natural chemicals that will fuel our pharmaceutical and industrial factories, all while fulfilling conservation pioneer Wallace Stegner's command that we learn to "tread more gently on the land."

Science-driven agriculture can be the means through which the United States remains competitive with the rest of the world. U.S. agriculture will increasingly be challenged by scientific advances being made by talented scientists and innovators in other countries, including in Brazil and China, whose work is projected to contribute half of the new biotech plant varieties brought to market between now and 20152. Furthermore, many of the discoveries represent the underpinning structure of global food security as scientists in advanced countries share breakthroughs in with those in developing economies whose local crops need similar advances to meet the growing food and nutrition needs of their communities. P

roductivity of crops such as cassava, sweet potato, sorghum, millets, and pulse grains, which provide nutrition for hundreds of millions in developing economies, will be increased via advanced technologies. It is a moral imperative to assist in achieving global food security by building local capacity in agriculture in order to meet the needs of a growing and demanding world population. This is an exciting period of time in discovery and innovation.

Unfortunately, it is not an exciting time for delivering new products of agriculture biotechnology to consumers or to those who would invest in the future of agriculture. While not all discoveries lead to innovation and new products, there are a growing number of examples of new inventions developed through genetic engineering that have good likelihood of success and that continue to be delayed in reaching the marketplace because of regulatory processes that are ill-defined and/or unpredictable, sometimes irrational, and always costly. This is an area for significant concern to inventors and entrepreneurs, and is worthy of attention and reform.

These are delays that are not imposed on crops that are improved by chemical or radiation mutagenesis or through mutagenic cell cultures, or through advanced molecular breeding.

Today, the regulatory structures that control the production of GE crops are much like they were in 1987 –there have been modest adjustments in the process since that time. And, given sufficient time,financial resources and patience, the process results in the release of some new technologies to the marketplace. The regulatory process has not, however, adapted to the experiences of the past 24 years or to new knowledge generated during this period; as a consequence many other useful products have not made their way to the marketplace. It has adapted poorly in response to the proven safety record and absence of adverse affect on the environment or on animal and human health of GE crops. It has not adapted to changes that have further enhanced the safety of the technologies; and it has not adapted to the needs of the market. The system needs attention, modification, and improvement if the U.S. and global agriculture communities and its consumers are to benefit from the investment in past and current science and technology that can impact agriculture and agriforestry.

Let me put it very simply: Since regulations were first put in place for the products of agricultural biotechnology in 1987, more than 2 billion acres of crops have been grown and harvested in at least 29 countries around the world. These crops have been grown by 15.4 million farmers, 14.4 million of whom are small, resource poor farmers in developing countries. The harvests of these crops have been consumed in billions upon billions of meals by humans and livestock around the world for the better part of two decades now.

In all this vast experience we have not a single consequence of a novel, negative consequence for health or the environment - not one. In fact, we have seen some of the well known risks of conventional or organic agriculture dramatically reduced: the potential for contamination of food with cancer-causing compounds like aflatoxin in corn has been dramatically reduced through biotechnology; exposure of farmers to potentially dangerous neurotoxins used to control pests has been dramatically reduced, as have been the cases of unintentional exposure with all their health consequences; the quality of runoff from agricultural lands has improved with the widespread adoption of biotech crops as no-till methods of weed control, as carbon sequestration in soils and greenhouse gas emitting consumption of fossil fuels have been significantly reduced.

Indeed, as even the Europeans admit, "-- the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods; and if there are unforeseen environmental effects - none have appeared as yet - these should be rapidly detected by our monitoring requirements. On the other hand, the benefits of these plants and products for human health and the environment become increasingly clear."

There are several consequences if the regulatory burdens faced by innovators are not brought back more closely into alignment with a realistic view of the potential hazards. First, innovation will suffer because of the lack of clarity of the process of regulation and its increasing costs.

Currently, the system is geared to big agriculture and to relatively low margin products grown on large acreages. Improved seeds of the major commodity crops corn, soybeans, cotton and canola are the major beneficiaries to date: these GE technologies have benefitted the technology companies, the farmers, the environment and consumers. The few examples of GE crops now on the market that were not developed by a large company include varieties of papaya and squash that were engineered to have resistance to certain viruses. The latter were developed early in the development of genetic engineering technologies when costs and time of deregulation (approval) were less than they are today.

GE seeds for the commodity crops are produced by large companies that tend to be less constrained by cost and time. In contrast, researchers and innovators in the academic community, including those that serve agriculture productivity, and in small companies, have considerably more difficulty in producing or delivering a genetically engineered crop to the market than do large corporations

What modifications are necessary to change the process of regulation and secure the United States in a position of pre-eminence in the agriculture and agriforestry?

The committee is urged to consider the following amongst the changes that it may recommend.
1. Return to a firm commitment to base regulations on science, in particular science that addresses issues related to the safety of the product and independent of the process by which it was developed. Regulators need to discipline themselves to focus on what they need to know to ensure safety, and not allow themselves to be distracted into musings on many of the fascinating issues about which it would be nice to know more; questions to which no conceivable answer would shift a regulators' decision one way or another, and thus irrelevant to safety assurance. This will have the effect of reducing the necessity of conducting certain types of analyses of new products and reduce the amount of time and the costs associated with regulation.

2. Redefine the basis by which products of biotechnology are subjected to regulatory oversight. The role of APHIS in regulating GE crops is important to maintaining confidence in an approval process; however, the characteristics of the products that would trigger regulation and a relevant mechanism to trigger regulatory oversight should be redefined.

3. Identify categorical exemptions that can streamline and reduce burdens for

products/characteristics experience has shown to be safe. A process should be developed to thoroughly review the technologies and products that have been developed and commercialized to date and identify those technologies that can be exempted, requiring minimal or reduced oversight. This will reduce the cost of regulation of many new products.

4. Distinguish between real and perceived risks and focus on those that are real. Processes and methods should be developed to distinguish between real vs perceived risks in establishing safety recommendations; and to consider costs and benefits in risk analysis, including potential costs to the ecological environment from the continuation of conventional agricultural practices.

A change such as this will require action by Congress. In providing such guidance to APHIS, Congress should weigh the opportunity costs of regulatory policies that discourage innovations that actually reduce the risks attendant on conventional agricultural production techniques that are already widely used. In this context, it may be helpful to consider the way that current NEPA statues are applied to agricultural biotechnology and to establish specific mechanisms for NEPA compliance in the case of these products that are appropriate for the characteristics and the risks being evaluated.

In concluding these comments, I ask that you consider some of the ‘unintended consequences of the overly stringent regulation of products that are developed by genetic engineering.

First, by the use of terminologies that falsely imply risk and potential lack of safety, we have created the perception that the technology itself is unsafe and that products derived from the technology are therefore unsafe. Scientific consensus over the past 20+ years has indicated otherwise. It is time to change the verbiage, some of which is embodied in the laws under which we regulate these products.

Second, as a consequence of what many consider overly cautious regulations based on process rather than the safety of the product, many developing countries are reluctant to adopt the technologies and products developed from the technologies. This has the effect of limiting acceptance of products of American agriculture and the development of crops that could benefit those countries; and, it reduces the opportunity of meeting the goals of global food security, and thus our national security.

We can and must do better.

Respectfully submitted,

Roger N. Beachy


Agricultural Biotechnology: Benefits, Opportunities, and Leadership

- Testimony of Calestous Juma to the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Agriculture; June 23, 2011


Writing exactly 130 years ago, Robert Louis Stevenson acknowledged in A Plea for Gas Lamps that "Cities given, the problem was to light them." The he proceeded with his indictment of electricity saying the "urban star now shines out nightly, horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye; a lamp for a nightmare! Such a light as this should shine only on murders and public crime, or along the corridors of lunatic asylums, a horror to heighten horror."

Today we acknowledge that given growing human numbers, the problem is to feed them. However, we also cast dark shadow over the prospects of using biotechnology to address the global food crisis.

The United States has been a leading light in agricultural biotechnology as a platform technology and continues to serve as an important role model for countries around the seeking to address global food challenges. A key source of this leadership has been its commitment to using a science‐led regulatory system for determining the approval of new products. The rest of the world needs this demonstrated leadership now more than ever given rising food prices and related political unrests around the world.

Failure on the part of the United States to champion agricultural biotechnology will undermine confidence in the ability of the global community to confront the challenges of food security. Retracting from using science and technology to address emerging challenges will not result in any savings; it will only defer problems and future costs are likely to be higher.

In the 1970s skeptics argued that new technologies were generally more expensive, less reliable, more complicated, controlled by corporate monopolies and therefore inaccessible to the poor. They went further and claimed that a "technology divide" would emerge between industrialized and developing countries. This ideological framing was applied to emerging information and telecommunications technologies and the word "digital divide" became a template for international debates on innovation, human rights and the quest for prosperity.

In effect, the skeptics sought to slow down the adoption of new technologies in developing countries and advocated the use of what they called "appropriate technology." They sought to freeze technology in time and by doing so they also compromised improvements in human welfare and the spread of prosperity. Some international organizations advocated policies aimed at curbing the introduction of microelectronics in developing countries with the objective of protecting workers against labor displacement.

Reality has turned out to be different. Information and communications technologies are now a key source of economic productivity and a platform for socio‐economic transformation worldwide. Many African countries, for example, have been able to "leapfrog" into the modern information age through the mobile phone and the stage is now set for a move into mobile broadband that will see many rural areas move to transform education, health, governance and many aspects of socio‐economic life. The spread of this technology has been possible because of the sovereign leaders provided by a few countries to reforming their national policies to create space for mobile technologies.

Biotechnology—technology applied to biological systems—has the promise of leading to increased food security and sustainable forestry practices, as well as improving health in developing countries by enhancing food nutrition. In agriculture, biotechnology has enabled the genetic alteration of crops, improved soil productivity, and enhanced weed and pest control. Unfortunately, such potential has largely been left untapped by African countries.

In addition to increased crop productivity, biotechnology has the potential to create more nutritious crops. An example of this is rice engineered to provide additional vitamin A whose deficiency affects about 250 million children worldwide. Other vitamins, minerals, and amino acids are necessary to maintain healthy bodies, and a deficiency will lead to infections, complications during pregnancy and childbirth, and impaired child development. Biotechnology has the potential to improve the nutritional value of crops, leading both to lower health care costs and higher economic performance (due to improved worker health).

Skeptics have sought over the last 20 years to slow down the application of agricultural biotechnology. International collaboration on biotechnology for African agriculture has also been uncertain. But the tide is turning. For example, a recent study prepared by the European Commission, A Decade of EU‐Funded GMO Research (2001–2010), concluded:

"Biotechnologies could provide us with useful tools in sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, food production and industry. Crop production will have to cope with rapidly increasing demand while ensuring environmental sustainability. Preservation of natural resources and the need to support the livelihoods of farmers and rural populations around the world are major concerns. In order to achieve the best solutions, we must consider all the alternatives for addressing these challenges using independent and scientifically sound methods. These alternatives include genetically modified organisms (GMO) and their potential use."

The study drew its conclusions from the work of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research involving more than 500 independent research groups. It most important conclusion was "that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies. Another very important conclusion is that today’s biotechnological research and applications are much more diverse than they were 25 years ago..." The conclusions are similar to those reached by the United States National Academies and reinforce the science‐based practices that inform the work of Unites States regulatory agencies.

The promise of the technology and evidence of its contributions to rural development around the world is serving as a source of inspiration for emerging nations to complement existing practices with agricultural biotechnology. Three African countries (South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso) have adopted genetically modified crops and are providing initial evidence of their long‐term implications. The scientific and technical community is being embolden by these developments and is working with governments to explore ways to build up the much needed capacity in these fields. Other African countries have started conducting field trials and plan to adopt biotechnology crops in the coming years.
Africa is steadily joining the biotechnology revolution. South Africa's GM crop production stood at 2.0 million hectares in 2010. Burkina Faso grew 260,000 hectares of Bt cotton the same year, up from 115,000 in 2009. This was the fastest adoption rate of a GM crop in the world that year. In 2010, Egypt planted nearly 2,000 hectares of Bt maize, an increase of 100% over 2009.

African countries, by virtue of being latecomers, have had the advantage of using second‐generation GM seed. Akin to the case of mobile phones, African farmers can take advantage of technological leapfrogging to reap high returns from transgenic crops while reducing the use of chemicals. In 2010 Kenya and Tanzania announced plans to start growing GM cotton in view of the anticipated benefits of second‐generation GM cotton. The door is now open for revolutionary adoption of biotechnology that will extend to other crops as technological familiarity and economic benefits spread.

This is where the United States can serve as a role model in the use of biotechnology in agricultural transformation and science‐based approaches in regulation. It is only by helping countries around the world to adopt modern biotechnology can we hope for a brighter agricultural future. America's leadership in this field can help humanity avoid being seduced by the dim light of technological stagnation.


2011 World Food Prize Honors Former Presidents of Ghana, Brazil


Washington, D.C., USA (June 21, 2011) --Two former presidents who led the drastic reduction of hunger and poverty in their countries were named the winners of the 2011 World Food Prize in a ceremony at the U.S. State Department today.

The World Food Prize Foundation is honoring John Agyekum Kufuor, former president of Ghana, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, former president of Brazil, for creating and implementing government policies that alleviated hunger and poverty in their countries. They were commended in remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

“President Kufuor and President Lula da Silva have set a powerful example for other political leaders in the world,” said Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, president of the World Food Prize, in announcing the laureates. “Thanks to their personal commitment and visionary leadership, both Ghana and Brazil are on track to exceed the UN Millennium Development Goal 1 – to cut in half extreme hunger before 2015.”

“The battle to end hunger was Dr. Borlaug’s lifelong pursuit, and remains one of the great challenges of our day, requiring both a worldwide commitment to innovation and investment in agriculture, as well as country and local strategies,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “Presidents Kufuor and Lula da Silva have advanced food security for their people by pursuing innovative policies and programs, and their leadership and work stand as a model to all nations working to meet the moral imperative of feeding the world.”

"President Kufuor and President Lula da Silva have set the gold standard for presidential leadership in tackling the global challenges of poverty and hunger," said Administrator Rajiv Shah, who also delivered Clinton's remarks due to a change in schedule. "By helping train the next generation of forward-thinking leaders, we can build upon the legacy of Norman Borlaug and the inspirational work of this year's World Food Prize laureates to deliver meaningful results in food security and nutrition for people in developing countries across the world."


New Appointments to the USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology


Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Announces Appointments to the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture

WASHINGTON, June 24, 2011 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced appointments to the reactivated Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, or AC21. Appointees will initially serve one or two-year terms, and may be reappointed to serve up to six consecutive years.

"This advisory committee will come together to continue investigating the challenges of coexistence among different forms of agricultural production," said Vilsack. "I hope this committee will recommend workable solutions that will enhance the ability of all farmers to grow the crops they want in order to effectively meet the needs of their customers."

The AC21 is composed of 22 members from 16 states. The members represent the biotechnology industry, the organic food industry, farming communities, the seed industry, food manufacturers, state government, consumer and community development groups, the medical profession, and academic researchers.

Full list at


Back To The Future: Let’s Reverse 25 Years Of Flawed Agbiotech Regulation

- Henry Miller, Forbes, June 22 , 2011


Sunday will mark an important, if obscure, anniversary: exactly a quarter century of federal regulators screwing up the oversight of genetically engineered plants.

It was supposed to be otherwise.

On June 26, 1986, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy published a policy statement called the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology. The Coordinated Framework would have focused oversight and regulatory triggers on the risk-related characteristics of products, such as plants’ weediness or toxicity, rather than on the process used for genetic modification.

This approach was reaffirmed in a 1992 policy statement that set forth the overarching principle for regulation: The degree and intrusiveness of oversight “should be based on the risk posed by the introduction and should not turn on the fact that an organism has been modified by a particular process or technique.” This reflected the broad consensus in the scientific community that the newest techniques of genetic modification were essentially an extension, or refinement, of older, less precise and less predictable ones.

But the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture bought neither the consensus of the scientific community nor the directives from the White House. Regulators were bent on creating new bureaucratic regulatory empires — scientific or not — and create them they did. The resulting stultifying regulation has inhibited research and development, particularly in public institutions, ever since.

In 2001, EPA concocted a new concept called “plant-incorporated protectants,” or PIPs, defined as “pesticidal substances produced and used by living plants.” But the agency applied its regulatory jurisdiction only if the “protectant” was introduced or enhanced by the most precise and predictable techniques of genetic engineering, an approach that ignores any consideration of actual risk to human health or the natural environment. Approval of these plants requires copious data on the parental plant, the genetic construction, the behavior of the test plant and so on — data requirements that could not be met for any plant modified with older, cruder techniques (which are exempt).

This approach was considered so illogical and damaging that eleven major scientific societies representing more than 80,000 biologists and food professionals joined together to publish a report that condemned the EPA policy. EPA’s approach has discouraged the development of new pest-resistant crops, encouraged greater use of synthetic chemical pesticides, limited the use of the newest genetic engineering technology mainly to larger developers who can pay the inflated regulatory costs, and handicapped public institutions in the U.S. in the development of plants that can handle the challenges facing present-day agriculture and forests.

USDA has been no better. Its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service had long regulated the importation and interstate movement of plants and plant products that are pests, which were defined by means of an inclusive list. This approach is essentially “thumbs up or down”: A plant that an investigator might wish to introduce into the field is either on the inclusive, prohibited list of plants pests — and therefore requires a permit — or it’s exempt.

The degree of oversight should be proportionate to the perceived risk of the genetically engineered plant, which is a function of certain characteristics of the host plant (weediness, toxicity, ability to outcross, etc.) and the introduced gene. It’s not the source or the method used to introduce a gene but its function that’s important. But plants made with the newest, most precise and predictable techniques have for 25 years been subjected to the most regulation, independent of risk.

It’s time to go back to the future and finally implement the scientific, common sense approach of the Coordinated Framework.


Rebooting the System - Needed: A Biotech Regulator

- BV Mahalakshmi, Financial Express, June 24, 2011

Research in the domestic agri-biotech industry seems to be strangled by multiple ministries and state governments, with both public and private sector companies grappling to tackle contrasting regulations. The biotech industry has been demanding the creation of a single regulator in contrast to curernt three — the ministry of agriculture, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) and the ministry of science and technology.

The industry is of the view that if the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill is passed, there will be a predictable regulatory mechanism. A separate and single-window regulatory body for genetically-engineered products under the department of science and technology is needed to prevent a war between poor farmers and private seed companies.
Ram Kaundinya, chairman, Agriculture Group, Association of Biotech-Led Enterprises, said the final draft of the BRAI Bill (which has not been seen by the industry as yet) is ready and could be introduced as early as the monsoon session of Parliament. He said, “We hope that the body will be able to address the long-term policy issues of the biotech sector, which is becoming more and more science intensive and important with each passing day.”

“While we have been talking about this since February 2007, one wonders if it would even see light of the day this year. We all know it would take roughly three years for the rules to come into effect after the Bill has been passed,” said C Kameswara Rao, founder and chairman, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education.



In Conversation - Jairam Ramesh

- Current Science (India), Vol. 100, No. 11, P 1610 10 June 2011

Led by the Minister Jairam Ramesh, controversies and wide media attention seem inherent to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India.


The issues that we are dealing with, for instance Bt brinjal, are controversial issues; there was a scientific view, within the scientific community there were different views and civil society had a different view. So, it was controversial. If I had said yes to Bt brinjal, the civil society would have jumped on me. But while joining the ministry in a press conference you sounded sceptical about Bt food crops.

So, seems like it was your personal bias that led to the moratorium to be imposed…
- I said that one cannot deal with Bt cotton and Bt brinjal in the same way. I also remember having said that I will be a little cautious about Bt brinjal. I had a personal bias, but I listened to everybody. I had seven public consultations in seven different cities of India. Over 8000 people attended these consultations. I listened to all points of view. I don’t think there has been a more open and consultative process in decision-making as in the case of Bt brinjal. I had my own worry to begin with. I would be dishonest to say that I had no bias; I was a bit worried about the fact that it was a food crop. It was remarkable that every State Government opposed it; even a state like Gujarat that has had the most successful experience with Bt cotton said, ‘let’s be careful’ as far as Bt brinjal is concerned. If the overwhelming view of the scientists and the states was to go ahead, I would have swallowed my biases and gone ahead.

Your comment on the Inter-Academy Panel Report on Bt brinjal…
- I have nothing against the Academies and I have a lot of regard and respect for Dr Vijayan and others. But scientists should remain scientists, they shouldn’t become evangelists. This is what happened in the climate change

Scientists are notorious when it comes to public communication and they look down upon ordinary human beings; they look down upon larger sections of society. In my public consultations I found that the civil society was intolerant of views any other than theirs, but scientists are equally arrogant when it comes to dealing with the public. That issue is now settled because there will be the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority, which would oversee all the scientific aspects of the assessments and appraisals.



Transgenic Varieties and India’s Agriculture

- Questions for Professor M. S. Swaminathan and responses

Review of Agrarian Studies: Can transgenic varieties provide new – and hitherto unavailable – technological means to further increase agricultural productivity, enhance farmers’ incomes and improve the crop-composition of India’s agriculture?

M. S. Swaminathan: Transgenic varieties combine genes from totally unrelated species. For example, we can now transfer genes for salinity tolerance from mangroves to other species. Recombinant DNA technology is part of the evolution of genetics that started with the rediscovery of Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance in 1900. In the early part of the last century, various techniques like irradiation, the use of chemical mutagens and doubling chromosomes through colchicine treatment were adopted to develop novel genetic combinations. Today such gene transfer can be done with ease through recombinant DNA technology. Both molecular marker-assisted breeding and gene transfer are now playing a very important role in developing novel genetic combinations to meet the challenges rising from biotic (i. e., pest and diseases) and abiotic (i. e., drought, flood, sea- level rise, etc.) stresses. They will gain further importance in the emerging era of climate change.

Priority should go towards solving those problems that cannot be solved with the currently available Mendelian technologies. For example, we need more climate-resilient varieties, such as wheat varieties tolerant to high night temperature, salinity- and drought-resistant plants, and plants resistant to new pests and diseases. Also, we should concentrate on the development of transgenic varieties rather than hybrids, since, in the case of hybrids, farmers will have to purchase seeds every year from the company. By contrast, they can keep their own seeds of transgenic varieties.

Review of Agrarian Studies: Do transgenic varieties pose any threat to biodiversity? What are the consequences of the large-scale introduction of such varieties in actual cultivation?

Professor Swaminathan: Transgenic varieties will not pose a threat to biodiversity, since the seeds can be kept by farmers. The threat comes from hybrids, whose seeds will have to be purchased every year by the farmer. Hybrids are those that exhibit hybrid vigour through a combination of two very different parents. They will not, however, breed true if grown again. Hybrids can be either conventional or transgenic. In crops like maize, hybrids are used extensively in view of the possibility of producing seeds economically.

The replacement of numerous local varieties with one or two hybrids will undermine the sustainability of production, since genetic homogeneity enhances genetic vulnerability to pests and diseases, as well as to abiotic stresses.


Ronald Herring has concluded that there is so far no evidence of GM technologies being more risky than conventional plant breeding methods. He has therefore stressed the need for a more rational approach to assessing the risks and benefits associated with transgenic crops and varieties. Many of the public concerns can be met satisfactorily only by establishing a regulatory mechanism that inspires public, political, professional and media confidence. I hope the proposed National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill to be considered by the Parliament of India will ensure that the regulatory systems have adequate facilities for independent verification of the data presented by breeding companies or breeders.
Dr K. R. Kranthi has rightly emphasized the need for independent testing facilities both with reference to bio-safety and field performance. It will be useful for the ICAR to establish a designated All-India Coordinated Research Project on GM varieties. Dr Kranthi has also stressed the need to avoid genetic erosion as a result of the spread of one or two cotton hybrids over large areas. For example, the species Gossypium arboreum and Gossypium herbaceum, which have their evolutionary origins in India and which formerly occupied 25 per cent of total cotton acreage, are now facing the threat of extinction. It is therefore necessary that biotechnology, biodiversity and business become mutually reinforcing and not antagonistic.

This series of interventions has helped to highlight the many dimensions of the problems relating to transgenic varieties. Indian agriculture needs the best available technologies in order to improve the productivity and profitability of small holdings in an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable manner. We therefore need better methods of assessment of risks and benefits.



Organic = Good, Right? Ooops!

- David Ropeik , Big Think, June 20, 2011

Organic = Good, and Mass-produced = Bad. Right? The latest example that that assumption is naïve, and wrong, and potentially dangerous, is the recent discovery that the worst food-borne disease outbreak in Europe in decades may have been carried by organic bean sprouts. But don’t pick on the sprouts, and don’t even pick on Organic. The danger here is the way you and I perceive and respond to risk, a subconscious decision making process that often works well, but which sometimes can create risks all by itself.

Setting aside the issue of whether organic food is intrinsically any healthier than non-organic food, or safer because pesticides have not been used, organic farming offers no advantages over non-organic agriculture when it comes to by far the greatest risk our food poses, the risk that what we eat might carry germs. The suspected sprouts in Germany are only the most recent example of organically produced food believed to have made people sick. Organic eggs and spinach and lettuce have caused big outbreaks in the U.S. in the past few years. The way those foods are produced and processed and shipped is part of the risk, but we make it worse because of the positive/healthy/better-for-you reputation organic food enjoys. That encourages the assumption that organic food poses less danger of carrying disease. That leads to less of the caution that should be applied in handling all foods; washing, cooking, temperature control. So our benign assumptions about organic food can raise our risk.

But this is just one small example of a larger and more profound phenomenon, something which in “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Match the Facts” I call The Perception Gap, when our feelings about a risk don’t match the facts and the gap between our emotions and the evidence creates risks of its own. Here are a few others similar to organic food;

We are less afraid of herbal and natural medicines than of the human-produced kind - pharmaceuticals. That can be dangerously dumb. Ephedra and St. John’s Wort are just a couple high profile cases of natural drugs that caused harm. A 2004 study of Ayurvedic herbal medicines found that one sample in five purchased from local stores in Boston contained up to 10,000 times more lead, mercury, or arsenic than U.S. safety standards deemed safe.

Most of us are less afraid of radiation from the sun, which causes 1.3 million cases of skin cancer a year in the U.S. and approximately 8,000 deaths from melanoma, than radiation from cell phones and nuclear power plants.

We are less afraid of mixing the genes of plants indiscriminately by “natural” hybridization than by the much more precise and controlled process of changing just one gene in a lab.

What’s the common thread in what seems like so much irrationality? The perception of risk is not just a matter of the facts, but also depends on how those facts feel. One of the subconscious psychological filters we apply when assessing how scary something feels is whether it’s natural or human-made. Natural risks feel less scary. Human-made risks feel scarier. The sun is far more likely to give you cancer than radiation from a nuclear power plant or a cell phone or from power lines, but the sun is natural and the others are human-made, so even though they are all radiation risks, they don’t feel the same.

The problem is, this can lead to problems. Not worrying enough about natural risks and worrying more than we need to about human-made ones may not always lead to the healthiest choices.

People who worry more about human-made vaccines than the natural diseases those vaccines keep in check are making a dangerous mistake, for themselves and for the community in which otherwise-controllable diseases can then spread.

Fear of nuclear radiation contributes to energy policy that favors the use of coal, which produces vastly more harm to human and environmental health (even considering the harms from Chernobyl and Fukushima), while lack of fear of radiation from the sun raises your risk of skin cancer.

People afraid of genetically modified food impede the use of a technology that could improve the health of millions. Yet many of those most worried about GM food raise their risk by taking (and swearing by) unregulated herbal medicines which cause harms we’d scream bloody murder about if they were caused by drugs from the pharmaceutical industry.

Risk perception is intrinsically subjective. At this point in human evolution there is no way to take emotions out of the process. Perfect objective reason, as appealing as it is, is just not possible. (As Ambrose Bierce once wrote, “Brain, n, the organ with which we think we think.”) So criticizing this as irrational is wrong, and counterproductive, because it traps us in a fruitless debate over how we should go about perceiving risk more objectively, rather than moving on to the real question…how do we reduce the risk of getting risk wrong when our feelings don’t match the facts.

Here’s what we can do. We can heed the insights from a rich body of research that has revealed in detail where the Perception Gap comes from. We know that natural risks are less scary, voluntary risks are less scary, risks over which we have control are less scary, risks with which we’re familiar are less scary. And those are just few of the details risk perception research has discovered.

We can apply this self-awareness to protect ourselves from the pitfalls of our perceptions. The next time you face a choice that involves risk about something natural or about something human-made, just ask yourself how much this factor might be playing a role in how you feel about the choice, and whether the emotional characteristic that its natural or human-made has anything to do with it’s actual factual riskiness. Just add this element to your decision making process. Will thinking consciously about such emotional factors override them? No, not completely. But it might help you think a little more carefully, and hopefully, help you make healthier choices for yourself, your family, and your community.

Time for a delicious organic salad. But not before I wash everything really well.


Deep History of Coconuts Decoded

- Diana Lutz, Washington Univ. , June 24, 2011


Written in coconut DNA are two origins of cultivation, several ancient trade routes, and the history of the colonization of the Americas

A chef wearing avocado sunscreen holds a sweet nui vai coconut. The photo was taken in the Masoala Peninsula of Madagascar by plant biologist Bee Gunn while she was collecting coconut leaf tissue for DNA analysis.The DNA of the Madagascar coconuts turned out to be particularly interesting, preserving, as it did, news of the arrival of ancient Austronesians at the island off Africa.

The coconut (the fruit of the palm Cocos nucifera) is the Swiss Army knife of the plant kingdom; in one neat package it provides a high-calorie food, potable water, fiber that can be spun into rope, and a hard shell that can be turned into charcoal. What’s more, until it is needed for some other purpose it serves as a handy flotation device.

No wonder people from ancient Austronesians to Captain Bligh pitched a few coconuts aboard before setting sail. (The mutiny of the Bounty is supposed to have been triggered by Bligh’s harsh punishment of the theft of coconuts from the ship’s store.)

So extensively is the history of the coconut interwoven with the history of people traveling that Kenneth Olsen, a plant evolutionary biologist, didn’t expect to find much geographical structure to coconut genetics when he and his colleagues set out to examine the DNA of more than 1300 coconuts from all over the world.

“I thought it would be mostly a mish-mash,” he says, thoroughly homogenized by humans schlepping coconuts with them on their travels.

He was in for a surprise. It turned out that there are two clearly differentiated populations of coconuts, a finding that strongly suggests the coconut was brought under cultivation in two separate locations, one in the Pacific basin and the other in the Indian Ocean basin. What’s more, coconut genetics also preserve a record of prehistoric trade routes and of the colonization of the Americas.


Two origins of cultivation
The most striking finding of the new DNA analysis is that the Pacific and Indian Ocean coconuts are quite distinct genetically. “About a third of the total genetic diversity can be partitioned between two groups that correspond to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean,” says Olsen.

“That’s a very high level of differentiation within a single species and provides pretty conclusive evidence that there were two origins of cultivation of the coconut,” he says.

In the Pacific, coconuts were likely first cultivated in island Southeast Asia, meaning the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and perhaps the continent as well. In the Indian Ocean the likely center of cultivation was the southern periphery of India, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and the Laccadives.

The definitive domestication traits —the dwarf habit, self-pollination and niu vai fruits — arose only in the Pacific, however, and then only in a small subset of Pacific coconuts, which is why Olsen speaks of origins of cultivation rather than of domestication.

“At least we have it easier than scientists who study animal domestication,” he says. “So much of being a domesticated animal is being tame, and behavioral traits aren’t preserved in the archeological record.”

Did it float or was it carried?
One exception to the general Pacific/Indian Ocean split is the western Indian Ocean, specifically Madagascar and the Comoros Islands, where Gunn had collected. The coconuts there are a genetic mixture of the Indian Ocean type and the Pacific type.

Olsen and his colleagues believe the Pacific coconuts were introduced to the Indian Ocean a couple of thousand years ago by ancient Austronesians establishing trade routes connecting Southeast Asia to Madagascar and coastal east Africa.

Olsen points out that no genetic admixture is found in the more northerly Seychelles, which fall outside the trade route. He adds that a recent study of rice varieties found in Madagascar shows there is a similar mixing of the japonica and indica rice varieties from Southeast Asia and India.

To add to the historical shiver, the descendants of the people who brought the coconuts and rice are still living in Madagascar. The present-day inhabitants of the Madagascar highlands are descendants of the ancient Austronesians, Olsen says.


This is why, Olsen says, you find Pacific type coconuts on the Pacific coast of Central America and Indian type coconuts on the Atlantic coast.

“The big surprise was that there was so much genetic differentiation clearly correlated with geography, even though humans have been moving coconut around for so long.”

Far from being a mish-mash, coconut DNA preserves a record of human cultivation, voyages of exploration, trade and colonization.


Britain's Labs - Rothamsted Research

- Prof Iain Stewart, BBC Radio 4 (see all broadcasts).

LISTEN http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00shrlz#synopsis

Rothamsted Research is the oldest agricultural research centre in the world. It has planted wheat experiments that have been running since the 1840s.

But these days, amid worries over food security, scientists are being asked to redouble their efforts to make crops more productive and cheaper, and more sustainable to grow.

Their approach is often genetic - looking to use genetic investigation into plants to identify ways in which their cropping or resistance to pests can be enhanced. This use of GM as a 'tool' in experiment has been very successful. But the use of genetically modified crops is currently banned in Britain - something the scientists discuss.


The Norman Borlaug Rap on YouTube Video


This song was written and produced in 2004 in honor of the 90th birthday of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Norman Borlaug, a man who is credited with saving over a billion lives.