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August 25, 2011


Overstating the Risk; Food for All; Life the Ban Please; Pot Genome sequenced


Soil Association accused of overstating GM risk

Genetically Engineered Food for All

US: Hawaii's genetically modified papayas attacked

Drought-hit Zimbabwe farmers push government to lift GMO ban

Sequencing The Marijuana Genome To Cure Disease, Get You Less High

Fellowship for Women in the Developing Countries

New Book: Volume 10 - Genetically Modified Food and Global Welfare


Soil Association accused of overstating GM risk

Caroline Stocks, Farmers Weekly, August 25, 2011 07:01

The Soil Association has been accused of unnecessarily scaring the public by vastly exaggerating the potential risks of genetically-modified crops. A leading scientist said the association was trying to "distort the picture" around GMs and said the organisation's motives should be called into question.

His comments came as the Soil Association submitted its objections to a public consultation on whether a GM wheat trial should be given the go-ahead in England. DEFRA had held the consultation after Rothamsted research submitted an application to trial a GM wheat variety that it said was resistant to aphids and would reduce the need for pesticides.

But the Soil Association said it was concerned about the potential impact of GM crops and said money spent on researching them could be put to better use. It said the aphid-resistant wheat variety could impact upon the pests' natural predators, while non-GM farms could be affected by displaced aphids.

As part of its Not in my loaf campaign, the organisation had also called on the public to write to DEFRA expressing their concerns over potential health risks of GMs and the fact there was no market for GM wheat.

But the association has been accused of making claims about the technology that were "vast exaggerations". "At some point, the Soil Association has decided that GM cannot be organic and that decision should be questioned," said a leading researcher, who asked not to be named.

"It is trying to distort the picture saying there's not much call for GM, but rising food prices and food security concerns mean people are recognising it's important to keep an open mind about these issues. "The Soil Association is being negative about everything and that's an unrealistic approach. It is a campaigning organisation and this is something they can stir up controversy about."

Toby Bruce, senior research scientist at Rothamsted, said the trial was looking at finding ways to find planet-friendly food and farming - objectives it shared with the Soil Association.

"This will be a non-toxic approach to dealing with pests, which is something the Soil Association is also campaigning for. "All of the points the association makes we have answers to. It's quite disappointing it has taken this hard line because potentially we can find some middle ground.

"We see this as contributing to more environmentally-friendly farming, but the whole point of the trial would be to get more of an idea about its potential impact."

In an update to producer members this week, the association said it would be publishing a strategy next month that would prove it welcomed emerging technology.

"While we highly value traditional knowledge, [we want to show] we embrace appropriate new science," said Helen Browning, Soil Association chief executive.


Genetically Engineered Food for All

- NINA V. FEDOROFF, NY Times, August 19, 2011

FOOD prices are at record highs and the ranks of the hungry are swelling once again. A warming climate is beginning to nibble at crop yields worldwide. The United Nations predicts that there will be one to three billion more people to feed by midcentury.

Yet even as the Obama administration says it wants to stimulate innovation by eliminating unnecessary regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to require even more data on genetically modified crops, which have been improved using technology with great promise and a track record of safety. The process for approving these crops has become so costly and burdensome that it is choking off innovation.

Civilization depends on our expanding ability to produce food efficiently, which has markedly accelerated thanks to science and technology. The use of chemicals for fertilization and for pest and disease control, the induction of beneficial mutations in plants with chemicals or radiation to improve yields, and the mechanization of agriculture have all increased the amount of food that can be grown on each acre of land by as much as 10 times in the last 100 years.

These extraordinary increases must be doubled by 2050 if we are to continue to feed an expanding population. As people around the world become more affluent, they are demanding diets richer in animal protein, which will require ever more robust feed crop yields to sustain.

New molecular methods that add or modify genes can protect plants from diseases and pests and improve crops in ways that are both more environmentally benign and beyond the capability of older methods. This is because the gene modifications are crafted based on knowledge of what genes do, in contrast to the shotgun approach of traditional breeding or using chemicals or radiation to induce mutations. The results have been spectacular.

For example, genetically modified crops containing an extra gene that confers resistance to certain insects require much less pesticide. This is good for the environment because toxic pesticides decrease the supply of food for birds and run off the land to poison rivers, lakes and oceans.

The rapid adoption of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant soybeans has made it easier for farmers to park their plows and forgo tilling for weed control. No-till farming is more sustainable and environmentally benign because it decreases soil erosion and shrinks agriculture's carbon footprint.

In 2010, crops modified by molecular methods were grown in 29 countries on more than 360 million acres. Of the 15.4 million farmers growing these crops, 90 percent are poor, with small operations. The reason farmers turn to genetically modified crops is simple: yields increase and costs decrease.

Myths about the dire effects of genetically modified foods on health and the environment abound, but they have not held up to scientific scrutiny. And, although many concerns have been expressed about the potential for unexpected consequences, the unexpected effects that have been observed so far have been benign. Contamination by carcinogenic fungal toxins, for example, is as much as 90 percent lower in insect-resistant genetically modified corn than in nonmodified corn. This is because the fungi that make the toxins follow insects boring into the plants. No insect holes, no fungi, no toxins.

Yet today we have only a handful of genetically modified crops, primarily soybeans, corn, canola and cotton. All are commodity crops mainly used for feed or fiber and all were developed by big biotech companies. Only big companies can muster the money necessary to navigate the regulatory thicket woven by the government's three oversight agencies: the E.P.A., the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

Decades ago, when molecular approaches to plant improvement were relatively new, there was some rationale for a cautious approach.

But now the evidence is in. These crop modification methods are not dangerous. The European Union has spent more than $425 million studying the safety of genetically modified crops over the past 25 years. Its recent, lengthy report on the matter can be summarized in one sentence: Crop modification by molecular methods is no more dangerous than crop modification by other methods. Serious scientific bodies that have analyzed the issue, including the National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society, have come to the same conclusion.

It is time to relieve the regulatory burden slowing down the development of genetically modified crops. The three United States regulatory agencies need to develop a single set of requirements and focus solely on the hazards - if any - posed by new traits.

And above all, the government needs to stop regulating genetic modifications for which there is no scientifically credible evidence of harm.

Nina V. Fedoroff, who was the science and technology adviser to the secretary of state from 2007 to 2010, is a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University.


US: Hawaii's genetically modified papayas attacked

Thousands of papaya trees were chopped down on 10 acres of Big Island farmland under the cover of night last month. Hawaii County police said the destruction appeared to be done with a machete, but there are no leads and few clues beyond the tree stumps and all the fruit left to rot. "It's hard to imagine anybody putting that much effort into doing something like that," said Delan Perry, vice president of the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association. "It means somebody has to have passionate reason." A growing theory among farmers is that the attack was an act of eco-terrorism, a violent protest against the biotechnology used in growing papayas here. Police did not respond to calls seeking comment. The majority of papayas grown on 170 farms on Oahu and the Big Island are genetically modified.

University of Hawaii scientists developed the genetically modified fruit that's resistant to a ring spot virus that wiped out production on Oahu in the 1950s and was detected in the Puna district on the Big Island in the 1990s. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are crops whose genetic makeup has been altered to give the plant a desirable trait. The genetically modified fruit is credited with saving Hawaii's $11 million papaya production industry. "We wouldn't have a papaya industry today if it weren't for the transgenic papaya," said Alicia Maluafiti, executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, which represents the seed industry and protects biotech crop growers. "Without a transgenic papaya restricting the expansion of the virus, that virus would be prevalent today." Restricting the virus has also allowed for organic papayas to be grown, she said. Without the transgenic papaya, the Vitamin C-laden fruit would cost a lot more to enjoy, said Richard Manshardt, a tropical fruit breeder and geneticist at the University of Hawaii who was on the team that developed the genetically modified fruit.

Kevin Richards, director of regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said he knows of no other crop that relies on biotechnology to save it from disease. Commodity crops such as cotton, soy and corn commonly use genetic engineering in order to make them easier and cheaper to grow. "Papaya would be unique in the sense where the industry in Hawaii is dependent on biotech," said Richards. "What you have in Hawaii is a very contained, isolated agro-eco system, which is vulnerable to diseases." He cited international examples of eco-terrorism: activists who took weed-whackers to test crops of drought-resistant wheat in Australia and test plots of biotech eggplants destroyed in the Philippines. Hawaii's papayas are held up as an example of how biotechnology can improve access to crops, Richards said.

That's especially important in parts of the world with a limited food supply, Manshardt said, adding that genetic engineering could be used to protect cassava crops with severe virus problems in Africa and Latin America. Hawaii farmers had no choice but to grow GMO papayas in order to survive, said Perry, whose organization has raised a $10,000 reward for information on the crop destruction. "Papaya is the No. 1 fruit eaten in Hawaii," he said. One of the affected farmers, Erlinda Bernardo, said fellow papaya growers often worry about retaliation from those who are against GMOs. "Most of the product on the island is genetically modified," she said. "If not, most of the farmers would suffer, there would be more unemployment." Bernardo, her husband and four children are preparing to plant again in another area after 3,000 trees worth $15,000 on five leased acres were destroyed. "We're afraid to plant in that area, so we're giving up the lease there," she said. "When you start all over again, you have to wait a year for the papaya to bear fruit."


Drought-hit Zimbabwe farmers push government to lift GMO ban

- Madalitso Mwando, Alertnet ,Aug 2011 22:30

GWANDA, Zimbabwe (AlertNet) - With poor crop yields now a perennial problem and this year looking worse than ever, subsistence farmers like Thumeliso Mabasa have become living proof of an old adage: desperate times call for desperate measures.

He and other farmers are being advised to lobby for the use of genetically modified crops - currently banned in Zimbabwe - as a way of dealing with worsening extreme weather linked to climate change.

Volatile climatic patterns in southern Zimbabwe’s Matebeleland, particularly in low-rainfall rural areas like Gwanda, south of Bulawayo, are seeing farmer livelihoods being destroyed with little they can do to mitigate their losses.

Each year Mabasa plants his crop, and each year he knows the crop will fail. He says maize – the country’s staple - has failed him each year. But he is reluctant to switch away from the crop he prefers, despite being advised by extension officers to plant drought resistant varieties of other small grains.

Instead, he is pondering whether genetically modified (GMO) crops could be an answer.

“I have been in the city (Bulawayo) and was advised by some people that we should lobby for the planting of genetically modified maize crop, which we are told is drought resistant,” he said.

Zimbabwe’s government, however, has for most of a decade banned the import of genetically modified maize seed, citing environmental and health concerns. As food security has weakened in the country, the government has agreed to accept genetically modified milled maize into the country as food aid, but continues to insist it will not allow such maize to be grown in Zimbabwe.

Advocates of genetically modified crops, however, say that resistance may need to change as traditional crops bear the brunt of changing climate patterns, and as the country continues to need food aid.

Parts of this year’s harvest was destroyed by floods that hit parts of southern Africa early this year, as well as by extremes of heat and then winter frost that followed in quick succession.

The U.S.-backed Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), which monitors food security, says millions of Zimbabweans will require food assistance this year.

Mabasa said the government had provided fertiliser to assist farmers but it had not helped boost yields. “Even with the help of fertiliser we have not been able to get the best out of our land,” he said.

Hubert Sibanda, another farmer, says farmers need a better long-term solution to their problems, and if that means planting genetically modified crops, he “does not mind.” “We need to eat and we need government assurance that they can help us plant what we want, even in the form of these (genetically modified) crops,” Sibanda said.

Genetically modified milled maize, grown in neighbouring South Africa, continues to flood into the country as Zimbabwe’s own farmers fail to grow enough to meet demand.

Growing the same maize locally could not only improve farmer incomes, but also stave off hunger among millions lining up for food assistance, said Gamaliel Sobuza, a climate change researcher with Zimbabwe Climate Change, an NGO in Bulawayo.


“There is a kind of Catch-22 for government, and it is that either they reverse what has been a long time policy and let researchers work with these small-holder farmers to develop GMOs or refuse to acknowledge this need and continue appealing for food assistance,” Sobuza said.

Farmers in low-rainfall areas “need crops that are drought resistant and that could mean GMO research alongside developing organic types to provide farmers with options,” he said.


Sequencing The Marijuana Genome To Cure Disease, Get You Less High

- ARIEL SCHWARTZ, Fast Company, Aug 19, 2011

Medicinal Genomics has just finished sequencing the cannabis genome. Not to make some truly righteous bud, but to find the parts of the plant that are medicinally valuable and make them into drugs that don't also get people stoned.

The genetic secrets of everyone's favorite munchie-inducing plant have finally been unlocked. Last week, a company called Medicinal Genomics announced that it sequenced the genomes for cannabis sativa and cannabis indica--two of the three species of marijuana (the third is cannabis ruderalis). But stoners should put down their celebratory joints. This doesn't mean that super-potent cannabis strains are on the horizon; insteadMedicinal Genomics plans to use its research to help scientists breed marijuana strains that get you less high but have more medicinal benefits.
Medicinal Genomics founder Kevin McKernan, a veteran of the Human Genome Project (he managed the R&D team for the project at MIT), first became interested in the medicinal qualities while studying of marijuana after some friends pointed him in the direction of astudy claiming that certain cannabis compounds can shrink tumors. "The challenge is that there is a potpourri of cannabinoids, and we can't measure what those are. We need a genetic understanding of the plant," says McKernan.

In addition to shrinking tumors, other potential benefits of the 85 cannabinoids in the plant include calming inflammation and reducing cancer-related pain. But over the past 30 years, growers have hyper-bred the plant for THC (the compound that gets smokers high), effectively eliminating many of the other useful cannabinoids.
So Medicinal Genomics set out to sequence the cannabis genomes and bring some of those semi-extinct cannabinoids back into the plant. The company has moved quickly--it started sequencing indica and sativa in June, and is already finished---but the process cost $200,000, and Medicinal Genomics expects to ultimately spend another $200,000 on refining the results.

Even though it is becoming increasingly cheap and easy to sequence human DNA, the process is more expensive for other species. "They have a reference genome [the Human Genome Project), and since humans are only different by one in 800 bases, the cost of sequencing the next person is suddenly very, very cheap," explains McKernan. Cannabis, on the other hand, has no reference genome.

"It took us about a month to collect data. The hard part is assembling it and making sense of it," says McKernan.

The next step for Medicinal Genomics is to find strains that are high in therapeutic cannabinoids like CBD, a compound that has been shown to reduce inflammation, anxiety, and nausea. "Our plan is to understand genetics of this so that companies that are interested in making drugs from [cannabis] have better info to work with," says McKernan. When companies come knocking, Medicinal Genomics will do more sequencing and analysis to help them breed plants that express higher levels of medicinal compounds. (Medicinal Genomics does not breed its own plants, though the Massachusetts-based company has its lab in--where else?--the Netherlands.)
According to McKernan, major pharmaceutical companies already have an interest in medicinal marijuana. GW Pharmaceutical, for example, has developed a cannabis-derived drug called Sativex that is used to treat muscle stiffness, bladder problems, and neuropathic pain from multiple sclerosis. Sativex is already available in Germany, Spain, and the U.K., where it is marketed by Bayer.
Interested in helping Medicinal Genomics decode cannabinoids? The company is releasing an iPad app in the fall that will contain some of its data. "There's a bottleneck [with research] because in the States and it's illegal to handle marijuana without a license," says McKernan. "By putting the data on the web, everyone in the world can study this."


Fellowship for Women in the Developing Countries

- Faculty for the Future Fellowships

The Faculty for the Future program was launched by the Schlumberger Foundation in 2004 to award fellowships to women from developing economies. The fellowships fund PhD or post-doctoral studies in the physical sciences and related disciplines at top universities abroad.

Each year the program has grown steadily and today has become a powerful community standing at 194 pioneering women scientists from 54 countries.

Ultimately grant recipients are expected to contribute to the socio-economic development of their home countries and regions by strengthening the faculties in their home universities, pursuing relevant research, or using their specific expertise to address policy issues. The end goal is to attract and retain more young women in the sciences. The next award session will open as of September 12, 2011 for the 2012-2013 Faculty for the Future Fellowships.


New Book: Volume 10 - Genetically Modified Food and Global Welfare

- Edited by: Colin A. Carter, GianCarlo Moschini, Ian Sheldon ISBN: 978-0-85724-757-5; Published: 2011, Emerald Pub.