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August 1, 2012


August 1, 2012 Issue of AgBioview!


The science of understanding an argument

Genetically Modified Tires: Tire Makers Learn to Cope With Bioengineered Crops

The Rothamsted GM Debate

Yabba Dabba Rabba Dopsis: A coming revolution in crop yields during times of drought?

Uganda: Biotech bananas could improve food security

Irish potatoes to be genetically modified for first time ever

Drought-Tolerant Corn Efforts Show Positive Early Results
Synthetic biology: 'playing God' is vital if we are to create a better future for all

Biting the apple that feeds you

Italian Farmers: 'Say Yes to GMOs or Agriculture Will Suffer'

'Darwinian Agriculture' explains how evolution can improve agriculture

No risk with GMO food, says EU chief scientific advisor

USDA data on biotech crops adoption in 2012:
Voters must assess consequences of labeling GM food

GM Crops Save Money and Lives

All roads leading to Hyderabad, India for the Oct. 9-18 meeting on CBD Cartagena Protocol conf of the parties

Dramatic change as two-thirds now support GM crops in UK; not support 'testing' as the paper headlines!

Propostion 37 is a deceptive, deeply flawed, labeling scheme increasing bureaucracy, food costs, & frivolous lawsuits

Barking up the right GM tree?

Talk about burdensome regulation - It costs $136M and 6-year testing to bring a GM crop to market

Ireland 'could lose out' by rejecting GM

GM in the Media

Socio-economic impact of biotech crops examined by scientists and scholars (pdf)

The science of understanding an argument

- Iain Gray, 31 July 2012, The Scotsman
- http://www.scotsman.com/news/iain-gray-the-science-of-understanding-an-argument-1-2441172

“Greens while accepting the scientific consensus on climate change refuse to accept the same on GM food safety says British ex-Minister”

One aspect of science which politicians might be expected to understand is that scientists disagree, all the time. When new ideas topple old ones, it begins with a few “early adopters” until a consensus begins to emerge. A complex system of peer review of research is designed to ensure that those new ideas have a strong foundation of argument and evidence.

Peer review means that scientific consensus is underpinned by significant, rigorous evidence. Once again politicians do not get that – unless it suits them.

Writer and one-time green activist Mark Lynas recently criticised Green politicians pointing out that they demand that we accept the scientific consensus on climate change. Yet they refuse to countenance the worldwide scientific consensus that GM food is just as safe as any other. Outlier scientists who question climate change are denounced in apocalyptic terms as “deniers”, but equally isolated anti-GM voices are lionised for standing up to the Establishment. Even more contradictory, given their zeal to reduce carbon emissions, are the contortions green groups perform to refute the established scientific consensus that nuclear power is the only safe, quick way to do just that.

Similarly, the Scottish Government berates anyone who doubts that our engineers will imminently solve the technological problems of marine energy, but refuses to listen when the same engineers explain that government sums on renewable energy make no sense.

Lynas has called the SNP’s ban on GM “a betrayal of the values of the Scottish Enlightment”. I do despair of politicians who delight in Scotland’s history of scientific achievement and then so readily mistrust scientists and so wilfully misunderstand science itself.

Genetically Modified Tires: Tire Makers Learn to Cope With Bioengineered Crops

- Bob Tita, Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2012

High yielding, genetically modified crops have transformed the economics of U.S. farming. But they also pack an unexpected punch: Their tougher stalks are puncturing tires and stranding farm equipment in the field.

Iowa corn and soybean farmer Mark Dimit said tire damage from the prior season's corn and soybean stalks, much tougher in GM crops, repeatedly brought spring planting to a standstill on his 4,000-acre farm near Grinnell two years ago.

"It's not as easy as taking a tire off your car," said Mr. Dimit, who blames stubble for at least a half dozen flats on a new planter.

The Rothamsted GM Debate


Rothamsted respond to The Land's questions...

After nearly a decade during which the UK has been substantially GM-free, the government has subsidised Rothamsted, the agricultural research station, to conduct an open-air trial of a GM wheat transgenically engineered to repel aphids. In early May, Rothamsted invited protesters planning to demonstrate against the trial to a public dialogue. The Land responded to Rothamsted proposing a debate by email, the first part of which is published here. The six questions we put to Rothamsted focus mainly on the ethics and wisdom of breaking a de facto moratorium on GM in the UK (and most of Europe), rather than on technical aspects of this particular experiment.

ROTHAMSTED: Before answering your questions we would like to thank The Land for the interest they have shown in our research. We see GM technology as one possible tool to help us improve the efficiency of agriculture which could reduce the amount of land required for food production and hence enable other land to be spared for nature conservation, or even bio fuel production. Inefficient agricultural land use can do considerable environmental damage.

THE LAND: Thank you for responding. We do not see GM as "one possible tool in the box" but as an aggressive techno-fix promoted both by corporations and open source or pirate producers, that can come to dominate agricultural systems extremely fast, thanks to short term monocultural benefits that have every prospect of reducing long-term resilience. Rather than "sparing" land elsewhere for conservation, organic pest management relies on high levels of biodiversity, or "sharing" land with nature. Research that led to increased organic yields might allow us to both "share" and "spare" a bit more.

Where does Rothamsted draw the line at human interference with natural reproductive processes - or doesn't it?
ROTHAMSTED: Rothamsted does not seek to interfere with natural reproductive processes. The genetic improvement of crops through conventional breeding is not a natural process with crops being artificially selected for more than 10,000 years. The natural wild grasses crops that wheat is derived from would not provide much sustenance for humanity. We see our recent development of transgenic plants as an extension of this process. Conventional crop breeding uses mutagenesis approaches where seeds are exposed to high doses of radiation or mutagenic chemicals to increase the genetic variation for plant breeders to select plants from. Crops developed using mutagenesis approaches are grown by organic farmers today. If GM technology used in scientific experimentation is objectionable on the grounds it is unnatural, it is hard to see why, what could be seen as, the unnatural process of mutagenesis breeding is considered acceptable for food production today, even in organic farming systems.

Yabba Dabba Rabba Dopsis: A coming revolution in crop yields during times of drought?

- Jim Lane, Biofuels Digest, July 25, 2012

Can new computational power, souped-up genetic knowledge and fresh algorithms usher in a new era in crop yields, and resistance to disease and drought?

Will a new model plant revolutionize energy grasses and food crops, and transform crop-based genetic engineers from a modern Stone Age family into Masters of the Digital Age?

Here we are, some 30+ years into the era of genetic modification of crops. The primary breadbasket of the world, the United States, is experiencing its most severe drought conditions in decades, and you might well ask how many new drought-resistant genetic traits are in commercial release around the world?

Uganda: Biotech bananas could improve food security

- Molly, Seed. Feed. Food, July 15, 2012

Recently I had the opportunity to visit biotechnology researchers in Uganda who are developing bananas and cassava that resist pretty serious diseases, like banana bacterial wilt and the cassava mosaic virus, among others. But why is this important? Most people probably think of bananas as a part of breakfast or an afternoon snack…

However, in Uganda and much of East Africa, bananas are a part of almost every meal, along with cassava (also known as manioc, which is a starchy tuber). Food security for about 100 million people and income to millions of farmers in the Great Lakes region of East and Central Africa is threatened by the Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) disease. Bananas (both sweet & non-sweet varieties) provides over 10% of the daily calorie intake for over 70 million people, and in Uganda, bananas are estimated to provide 30% of calories, 10% of protein and 5% of fats for the entire population (see: these slides and Kalyebara, 2003).

How serious is a banana disease like BXW in bananas, though? A recent news article pointed out that “in central Uganda, one of the main banana-growing regions, BXW hit up to 80% of farms, sometimes wiping out entire fields. Small-scale farmers, who could not afford to let their gardens lie empty for months before replanting, switched to other crops.”

Irish potatoes to be genetically modified for first time ever


HILDA HIGGINS, IrishCentral, July 27, 2012

Irish potatoes to be genetically modified for first time ever

An Irish food authority has been granted permission to carry out field trials on a genetically modified potato that could improve resistance to blight.

On Thursday, Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency announced it had given approval to Teagasc, Ireland's agriculture and food development authority, for the project which will be carried out at Oak Park, Co. Carlow over the coming four years.

Speaking on RTÉ radio, Teagasc’s head of crops John Spink said that it is currently assessing the eight conditions of the licence stipulated by the EPA.

"The control of blight, as any farmer will well know, is becoming increasingly challenging in Ireland; particularly in a wet year,” said Mr Spink.
“If we can get to the position where we're growing potatoes with much better resistance to blight, it will make the growing of potatoes more sustainable."

The Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA) have opposed the move. "The European consumer is strongly against GM crops. This is based on independent Euro barometer research," the IOFGA's Gillian Westbrook said.

"We are opposed to this. Fundamentally, we feel this goes against Ireland's green credentials which we are actively trying to promote in Europe," she added.
Sir Walter Raleigh has been credited with bringing the first potatoes to Ireland in the 16th century

Drought-Tolerant Corn Efforts Show Positive Early Results


- Tiffany Stecker and ClimateWire, Scientific America, July 27, 2012

In the midst of the nation's worst drought in 50 years, two of the world's largest agricultural companies are testing corn that is bred and genetically engineered to withstand low rainfall levels.

Monsanto's DroughtGard hybrid corn -- the first-ever hybrid genetically engineered for drought tolerance -- was planted this spring in initial field trials. Sowed amid sufficient rain and optimism for a record-breaking crop yield, the company has encountered a close to worst-case scenario to test its product.

In addition, DuPont Pioneer's hybrid AQUAmax corn -- developed using advanced breeding techniques rather than biotechnology -- debuted last year with five different versions. This year, the company is launching six more with drought tolerance traits combined with pest resistance and other high-yielding attributes.
But the drought ripping through the Midwest is persistent and widespread. Despite positive feedback from farmers, the companies admit that cutting-edge technology can only go so far.

"We know there's a limit; we know you cannot grow corn without water," said Jeff Schussler, senior research manager in maize stress product development for Dupont Pioneer. "There's nothing magical about these hybrids."
The western Plains states typically experience drought conditions nearly every year, but this year's arid weather is more widespread and is hitting the heart of corn country.

"I don't think there will ever be a solution for this severe of a drought," said Mark Edge, DroughtGard marketing lead at Monsanto. Instead, the company seeks to reduce losses.
"It's really about managing risk," he said. "It's still corn, and it still needs water."
Nevertheless, both companies are pleased with early anecdotal results of their work. About 250 farmers on close to 100,000 acres across the western Great Plains planted DroughtGard in the spring.

Synthetic biology: 'playing God' is vital if we are to create a better future for all

- Adam Rutherford, Guardian (UK), 27 July 2012

The present gains and future benefits of synthetic biology are too great for it to be written off with fear-mongering maxims

"Playing God since 1660" reads the motto on the Royal Society's sign in a scene from The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, the latest film from the makers of Wallace and Gromit. And now I can no longer enter the doors of our national science academy without quoting the Pirate Captain's rallying cry, "Prepare to be boarded, nerds!".

Earlier this year I presented a BBC2 Horizon programme on synthetic biology. Our choice of title, Playing God, was not intended as a criticism of synthetic biologists, but rather to highlight an allegation they often face. Environmentalists, religious figures and sections of the media regularly use the phrase as a handy stick with which to beat those in the field. Scientists, they claim, are foolishly meddling in matters that should be left to the gods or nature.

That accusation has been made in attacks against many of the major scientific advances of the modern era, including Watson and Crick's description of the structure of DNA in 1953; the birth of the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, in 1978; the creation of Dolly the sheep in 1997; and the sequencing of the human genome in 2001. In all these scenarios, it's not clear exactly what "playing God" actually means.
Synthetic biology means different things to different people. Its leading scientists want to create, characterise and, crucially, standardise individual pieces of DNA. The purpose is to build biological circuits with specific functions, in much the same way that you might arrange components to make an electrical circuit. Others want to produce new versions of genetic code with entirely new letters and entirely unnatural versions of DNA.

The ability to design and build biological systems provides a new way to understand how living things work, yet the field is much more about engineering than it is about pure science. However, many synthetic biologists are seeking to solve problems in more efficient ways than traditional engineering does, with potential applications ranging from fighting pollution and cancer to manufacturing fuel and drugs.
Researchers in California, for example, have created synthetic circuits for yeast cells that produce a chemical called artemisinin, a key anti-malarial drug. This will be cheaper than getting it from the plantArtemisia annua, the current production method.
There will be very few aspects of our lives that will remain untouched by synthetic biology. Advancing technology is not risk-free, and needs to be regulated, understood and, if necessary, curtailed. But those decisions need to be made as part of informed public conversations about the relative risks and benefits. The opportunities are too great for synthetic biology to be written off with fear-mongering maxims.

If playing God involves developing technologies that cure diseases, clean up pollution and create new forms of fuel, then these potential benefits need to be considered without the burden of vague, simplistic soundbites.
Only with engaged and rational public discussions about what a technology such as synthetic biology means, and what it can and can't achieve, can we harness it to create a better future.

Biting the apple that feeds you: Why #GMO opposition despite clear scientific evidence on safety & efficacy?

Biting the apple that feeds you


- Dan Murphy, Cattle Network, July 25, 2012

With so much negative rhetoric and media coverage of biotechnology as it has been applied to food production—Round-up Ready commodity crops that (allegedly) encourage herbicide use, Frankenfood fears about ‘foreign proteins’ in GM foods—it would seem to be a no-brainer for industry to lead the cheering when genetic engineering actually develops a benign yet consumer-friendly food that offers benefits to people, not producers.

Not if you’re the U.S. Apple Association (USApple), the trade group representing the nation’s apple growers.

When a company called Okanagan Specialty Fruits approached USDA for approval of a GM variety that reduced browning after the apple is cut open, one might be tempted to think that this would be a positive development. Anyone who has left a cut-up apple sitting around for more than a few minutes can testify that the cut surfaces turn a most unattractive brownish color.

Try getting a kid to eat a slice of brown apple. Ain’t gonna happen.
But even as USDA opened a comment period on Okanagan’s petition for deregulation of its new biotech apple, USApple didn’t wait for the predictable “outrage” from anti-biotech activists. Instead, the Virginia-based trade group fired back with its own salvo:

“Apples grown in the United States are healthy, delicious and provide essential antioxidents (sic) that are linked to protection from chronic diseases,” the group’s news release stated. “There are no genetically engineered or genetically modified apples available to consumers. There have been recent stories in the press regarding a proposal before USDA to deregulate ArcticTM apples, which are gentically (sic) engineered to prevent browning. USApple does not support the approval of this product.”

Why, one might plausibly ask, would apple growers be against a variety that addresses an aspect of product usage that is perceived as negative? When biotechnology research is used to promote benefits only for growers and producers, activists have a legitimate beef. Genetic engineering has long been touted as a force for improving both the nutritional and sensory quality of the staple foods we eat—only the science rarely seems to deliver anything other than production benefits of limited value to consumers and suspect impact on environmental issues.
Which is why anti-GMO activists have gained such traction in the face of clear scientific evidence of both the safety and efficacy of biotechnology.

Italian Farmers: 'Say Yes to GMOs or Agriculture Will Suffer'


200 Italian scientists and farmers have written an appeal to President Napolitano and Prime Minister Monti. The letter specifically asks that Italy be given the possibility to compete in agriculture, both scientifically and economically, by putting a stop to the anti-GM (genetically modified) policy in Italy.

“Without research and innovation in agriculture Italian farming is going to disappear. Italian farms must be able to compete in the global market, and, without product innovation, this is not possible," the letter states.

Most of the food that Italy imports contains GMOs. Without GM feed, “Made in Italy” would not exist.

Italy’s geographic indicators make extensive use of GM feed. The letter also points out the apparent contradiction between the prohibition of GM research, the cultivation, and the import of large quantities of GM feed.

The Italian scientific community has clearly expressed the usefulness and safety of GMOs, calling for further research and testing of these products in the open field.
'Darwinian Agriculture' explains how evolution can improve agriculture


- Phys.org, July 25, 2012

The largest drought in 50 years has severely damaged much of the nation's "corn belt" and is threatening the viability of Minnesota's 2012 corn crop. While an extreme, this summer's condition is a reminder of a larger challenge facing agriculture – to use limited resources like water in an effective and sustainable manner. R. Ford Denison, an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota, seeks to address these challenges through the dual prism of science and nature in his new book, Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture.

"The need to produce a higher yield is continually growing, yet natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce," says Denison. "Improving crop genetics – and avoiding costly dead ends in the process – is paramount to the long term sustainability of agriculture. This requires a comprehensive approach, one that incorporates the lessons of nature when applying modern science." Linking evolution to agriculture was natural for Denison, who researches evolutionary biology in the university's College of Biological Sciences and helps to plan long-term field research for the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. He discusses how both biotechnology and traditional plant breeding can – and should – benefit from considering past evolutionary improvements in traits like drought tolerance when identifying promising routes for further genetic improvement.

Analyzing the implications of evolutionary tradeoffs, Denison argues in Darwinian Agriculture that biotechnology and breeding efforts should sometimes reverse the results of past evolution that are inconsistent with present goals. For example, the ratio of photosynthesis to water use is greater for a plant in the morning when humidity is higher; it would therefore sometimes be better for crop yield if plants simply shut down in the afternoon.

Why then, Denison asks, have plants not naturally evolved to do so? The answer, he states, is competition among plants: if one plant sacrifices its water intake for an afternoon, a neighboring plant will use water saved by the former. As a result, past natural selection favored individual growth at the expense of the plant community.

No risk with GMO food, says EU chief scientific advisor


Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are no riskier than their conventionally farmed equivalents, the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Advisor Anne Glover has told EurActiv in an exclusive interview, calling for countries impeding GMO use to be put to proof.

The endorsement of GMO safety will rattle member states where bans are in place (see background), and represents the CSA’s highest-profile policy intervention since Glover became Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s scientific advisor last December.

“There is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health, so that’s pretty robust evidence, and I would be confident in saying that there is no more risk in eating GMO food than eating conventionally farmed food,” Glover told EurActiv, saying the precautionary principle no longer applies as a result.

Glover said she was not promoting GMOs, and added that “eating food is risky”, explaining: “Most of us forget that most plants are toxic, and it’s only because we cook them, or the quantity that we eat them in, that makes them suitable.”

Scarce resources
But she said that scientific evidence needed to play a stronger role in policymaking, firing a warning shot at countries that have banned GMOs. “I think we could really get somewhere in Europe if when evidence is used partially, there were an obligation on people to say why they have rejected evidence,” she said.

GMOs and other scientific advances must be explored in order to head off the increasing scarcity of energy and other resources and competition for land use, Glover suggested.

“If we are using land to produce biofuels, we are not producing food, and that that means we have to intensify food production,” she said.
Glover, a former professor of biology at the University of Aberdeen, served as chief scientific advisor for Scotland before from 2006-2011. She joined the Commission on 1 January.

Her role is to bolster scientific evidence by saying things that politicians and officials are sometimes uncomfortable with, she said, adding: “The evidence with which I work is independent, the evidence with which I work does not change according to political philosophy. And that should give people a lot of confidence.”

Glover said that discomfort around the subject of GM crops in the 1980s and 1990s was “a generation ago, we’ve moved on and the challenges are completely different”.
She said that the precautionary principle was appropriate when applied properly, but added: “We should not … somehow tie our hands behind our back in such a way that we will be so precautionary that we will wait for everyone else to use our knowledge before we use it.”

"That would be my worry, because knowledge is an international currency, and we are amongst the slowest in taking advantage of the knowledge we create, and that cannot be right."

American farmers are doing it right: USDA data on biotech crops adoption in 2012: cotton 94%; soybean 93%; corn 88%

See - http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us/recent-trends-in-ge-adoption.aspx

Voters must assess consequences of labeling GM food


- David Zilberman, Ag Alert, July 25, 2012
Genetically modified organisms in agriculture have been a source of controversy since their introduction in the mid-1990s. On the one hand, the planting of GM varieties has spread rapidly. In the case of soybeans, more than 70 percent of total acreage used for their cultivation is of some type of GM variety. However, GM varieties have not been adopted in major crops like wheat, rice and potatoes, and are banned in the European Union and most African countries. There has been continuous debate over the regulation of GM varieties, and California voters now face a proposition that will require the labeling of food that contains genetically modified ingredients.

On the surface, the main argument behind the proposition is the right of individuals to know the true makeup of the food they eat. I agree with this in principle, but in the case of this particular proposition, the crux of this issue has little to do with freedom of choice. In fact, voluntary labeling of GMO-free products can meet the informational needs of people who want to avoid GMOs. Anyone who is strongly opposed to buying GM products is free to do so, as U.S. Department of Agriculture "certified organic" products do not contain GMOs.

GM Crops Save Money and Lives

- Jack Dini, Canada Free Press, July 18, 2012

A recent scientific study in Nature reported that merely cultivating GM crops provided a healthy boost to the local ecosystem, including organic crops. Over the past 16 years, vast plantings of transgenic crops producing insecticidal proteins form the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) have helped to control several major insect pests and reduce the need for insecticide sprays. (1)

The cotton bollworm is an insect larva that, as its name implies, devastates the cotton plant. There are essentially two ways to control it: smoother a field in insecticides or grow cotton that has been genetically modified with a toxin derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Heavy use of insecticides is expensive and environmentally damaging, so in 1997 China switched to Bt cotton to control the bollworm population. An unintended consequence of this change was that as farmers began using less insecticide, the population of another insect pest—aphids—began to decrease.


All roads leading to Hyderabad, India for the Oct. 9-18 meeting on CBD Cartagena Protocol conf of the parties


Dramatic change as two-thirds now support GM crops in UK; not support 'testing' as the paper headlines!


Propostion 37 is a deceptive, deeply flawed, labeling scheme increasing bureaucracy, food costs, & frivolous lawsuits


Barking up the right GM tree?


Transgenic trees could make better timber, but risk cross-pollinating native forests

Although genetically modified crops such as cereals and cotton continue to attract much scientific and political attention, there has been little debate about the large worldwide research effort to develop GM trees.
Trees with foreign genes added have grown in 700 field trials in at least 21 countries over the past 20 years, says Matthias Fladung of the Thünen Institute of Forest Genetics in Germany. They include dozens of deciduous and coniferous species, with most work done on eucalyptus and poplar.

Talk about burdensome regulation - It costs $136M and 6-year testing to bring a GM crop to market


Ireland 'could lose out' by rejecting GM


- DICK AHLSTROM, Irish Times

IRELAND COULD lose out if it rejects genetic modification technology. It could cause damage economically and to our reputation for research, the senior adviser on biotechnology to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has said.
Jack Bobo delivered a talk at University College Dublin yesterday looking at the differences between the US and the European experience with genetically modified (GM) crops.

“Ireland is at the forefront of everything that is going to happen,” he said, speaking after the talk. Ireland already depended on imported GM animal feeds, and many food products coming into the country contained GM ingredients, particularly maize.

Ireland 'could lose out' by rejecting #GMO, says a US State Dept expert; damage economically and to its reputation

GM in the Media


- Vivian Moses, GM Crops and Food, Vol. 3, Issue 3 July/August/September 2012

Round up of global news related to agbiotech crops with a dash of British humor

Socio-economic impact of biotech crops examined by scientists and scholars (pdf)

- EU & FAO