News in December 2006
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General

Organic farming – Borlaug analysis

Borlaug expressed himself directly in an interview with Reason magazine conducted in 2000.

> Reason: What do you think of organic farming? A lot of people claim it's better for human health and the environment.

> Borlaug: That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have -- the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues -- and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

> At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There's a lot of nonsense going on here.

> If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive.

This shouldn't even be a debate! Those are strong words, and naturally, they are dismissed outright by organic farmers. Borlaug's every contention is hotly disputed. There are studies that purport to prove that organic farms have the same or better yield than conventional farms and that small farms produce much more per acre than large farms. As for organic sources of nitrogen -- vast amounts of currently generated cattle manure are not recycled into the system at all. And then there are the really big questions. How long can the current application of synthetic fertilizers be sustained, ecologically, and what happens if the price of oil rises to a point where using petrochemically derived fertilizers becomes economically unfeasible?

The Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota has put together a nice page of links on this very topic, including a pointer to a summary of research studies comparing organic yields (conducted before 2000) with conventional farming practices. The author finished with this riposte to Borlaugian technological determinism.

> Hunger is a problem of poverty, distribution, and access to food. The question then, is not "how to feed the world," but rather, how can we develop sustainable farming methods that have the potential to help the world feed and sustain itself. Organic management practices promote soil health, water conservation and can reverse environmental degradation. The emphasis on small-scale family farms has the potential to revitalize rural areas and their economies.

> Counter to the widely held belief that industrial agriculture is more efficient and productive, small farms produce far more per acre than large farms. Industrial agriculture relies heavily on monocultures, the planting of a single crop throughout the farm, because they simplify management and allow the use of heavy machinery. Larger farms in the third world also tend to grow export luxury crops instead of providing staple foods to their growing population. Small farmers, especially in the Third World, have integrated farming systems where they plant a variety of crops maximizing the use of their land. They are also more likely to have livestock on their farm, which provides a variety of animal products to the local economy and manure for improving soil fertility.

> In such farms, though the yield per acre of a single crop might be lower than a large farm, total production per acre of all the crops and various animal products is much higher than large conventional farms ... Conversion to small organic farms therefore would lead to sizeable increases of food production worldwide. Only organic methods can help small family farms survive, increase farm productivity, repair decades of environmental damage and knit communities into smaller, more sustainable distribution networks -- all leading to improved food security around the world.

So there you have it: The two poles of the debate. One side envisions a world of small organic farms knit together into sustainable ecological networks. Another pins its hopes on continuing technological advances that must aggressively increase yields in order to cope with an ever-burgeoning global population. Representatives of the two sides rarely have kind words for each other.

My question is: Where's the middle ground? Where is the attempt to merge technological innovation with state-of-the-art ecological conscientiousness? Is it, by definition, an unforgivable sin to imagine a genetically modified rice strain that is drought resistant and can handle higher temperatures, farmed sustainably, with a minimum of petrochemical fertilizer inputs? Is it heresy to concede that Borlaug's contributions contributed immensely to India's being able to feed itself (something that many critics said was impossible) while at the same time acknowledging that we can do better?

 

Books and Articles

The International Politics of Genetically Modified Food Diplomacy, Trade and Law
New Book by Robert Falkner, Hardback, Nov. 2006, ISBN 0230001254, 280 Pages, ?55.00
http://www.palgrave.com/products/Catalogue.aspx?is=0230001254 Robert Falkner is Lecturer in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Genetically modified food is at the heart of a new global conflict over how to govern risky technologies in an era of globalization. A transatlantic trade dispute and North-South tensions have complicated the task of creating a global regime for genetic engineering in agriculture. This timely, comprehensive and provocative collection brings together experts from the fields of international relations, environmental studies, trade and international law to examine the sources of international friction and to explore the prospects for international co-operation.

Economic Impact of Dominant GM Crops Worldwide: A Review
- Manuel Gmez-Barbero and Emilio Rodrguez-Cerezo,  European Commission, December 2006 http://www.jrc.es/home/pages/detail.cfm?prs=1458

EU Draft Report on Biotechnology: Prospects and Challenges for Agriculture in Europe (2006/2059(INI))- Rapporteur: Kyösti Virrankoski, European Parliament - Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development
http://www.gmfreeireland.org/coexistence/EU/EP-2006-2059(INI).pdf

According to Prof. Vivian Moses, the motion appears to:

bulletEncourage efforts to develop biotech in the EU as a way of improving the economic viability and environmental sustainability of agriculture
bulletUse biotech and GM to facilitate more sustainable farming practices, better food, increased yield and higher quality and more diverse products
bulletAcknowledge the importance of biotech in various fields
bulletThe contribution it can make to reduced plant protection product use

The Motion also calls on the Commission to establish a high level group comprising the Council, the European Parliament and the Commission itself to plan a strategy on biotech for agriculture in the EU.

Information portal: Transparency to Biosafety research
http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/news/528.docu.html

Does genetically modified maize have an impact on beneficial insects? How does genetically modified oilseed rape affect pollen-collecting bees? How can transgenic pollen and seeds be prevented from spreading in the environment? These are just some of the questions being investigated in biological safety research worldwide. Answers and research findings, which are otherwise usually made public only at scientific conferences and congresses, are now available in English at GMO-Safety.eu

The information portal was commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and over the recent years has become the central information hub for everything to do with biological safety research in Germany.

Impact of Genetically Engineered Crop Varieties in Developing Economies: Applied Economics Literature
Melinda Smale, Patricia Zambrano, José Falck-Zepeda, and Guillaume Gru?re, IFPRI, Nov. 2006 Full  paper at http://www.ifpri.org/divs/eptd/dp/papers/eptdp158.pdf

Eco-Freaks: Environmentalism Is Hazardous to Your Health!
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1595550674/thomasnelsoni-20

In book that is alternately alarming, enlightening, ironic, and entertaining, award-winning journalist John Berlau explores the many ways that shortsighted environmentalism actually endangers trees, wildlife, and people. In chapter after chapter, Berlau debunks myths and libels about:

Global warming and climate change * the dangers of pesticides like DDT * trees and pollution * fuel economy and the auto industry * the threat posed by asbestos * the lifesaving role of dams and levees * plans to "rewild" America

Thinking environmentalists who read this book will be forced to revisit at least some of their most deeply held beliefs." -Joel Himelfarb, Washington Times

In Eco-Freaks, award-winning journalist John Berlau provides a much needed and startling expose about how the environmental movement with its radical, shortsighted eco-activists has actually helped amplify the dangers of natural disasters and destroyed the lives and property of millions of Americans.

ISB News Report - December 2006
http://www.isb.vt.edu/news/2006/news06.dec.htm#dec0603

bulletTaking Aim at a Peaceful Coexistence
bulletAgbiotech Evolution Needs a Regulatory Revolution
bulletEcological Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops: Ten Years of Field Research and Commercial Cultivation
bulletGene Flow from GE to Conventional Maize in Real Situations of Coexistence

How Does Scientific Risk Assessment of GM Crops Fit Within the Wider Risk Analysis?
- Katy L. Johnson, Alan J. Raybould, Malcolm D. Hudson and Guy M. Poppy (gmp@soton.ac.uk), Trends in Plant Science, Jan. 2007. Elsevier Ltd  , doi:10.1016/j.tplants.2006.11.004

The debate concerning genetically modified crops illustrates confusion between the role of scientists and that of wider society in regulatory decision making. We identify two fundamental misunderstandings, which, if rectified, would allow progress with confidence.

First, scientific risk assessment needs to test well-defined hypotheses, not simply collect data. Second, risk assessments need to be placed in the wider context of risk analysis to enable the wider 'non-scientific' questions to be considered in regulatory decision making. Such integration and understanding is urgently required because the challenges to regulation will escalate as scientific progress advances.

Europe - EU

Project report: Plant potential in the pipeline

The EU funded EPOBIO project is releasing its first series of reports on the endless possibilities of plants, revealing how plants can provide alternative sources of raw materials for our future energy, fuel and everyday products.

The first FP7 calls for projects in the areas of Science in Society and Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities:
Proposer's Day announced - registration is open

EuroStemCell one step closer to helping MD sufferers walk again

As stem cell research grabs headlines as a hot button issue, concrete scientific results can sometimes get lost in the fray.

German EU Presidency FP7 launch event

On 15 and 16 January 2007 at the International Congress Centre Bundeshaus Bonn in Germany, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with the support of the European Commission will host a kick-off event to launch the EU's new EU Research Framework Programme (FP7, 2007-2013).

EC-US Task Force on Biotechnology Research

- Agenda of the "EU-US Workshop on Advances in Immunology and Vaccine Discovery" held between 12 and 14 December 2006 in Ames, Iowa, USA

Food is getting healthier and better, thanks to EU research

Research results showcased in Brussels today demonstrate how research is helping to make our food healthier and of better quality. New research shows that organically produced food has a higher nutritional value than conventional.

Success story: Genetic tools to improve mastitis resistance in dairy cattle

Milk production is the most important agricultural activity in the EU, with over 18% of the total value of agricultural production. Mastitis is the most common disease in dairy cows and its incidence has not declined with improved methods of prevention and treatment. This disease is a major concern as it causes cows to suffer; it is the most costly disease to dairy farmers and leads to the highest antibiotic use in livestock production. The MASTITIS RESISTANCE EU-funded project developed alternative genetic approaches to mastitis reduction.

EFSA public consultation on a Draft Report on the Safety and Nutritional assessment of GM Plant derived Foods/Feeds - The role of animal feeding trials

- European Food Safety Authority, Deadline for comments: January 31, 2007
http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/science/gmo/gmo_consultations/gmo_AnimalFeedingTrials.html

EFSA is seeking views of scientific nature from interested parties, Member States and stakeholders before finalization of this draft report. The report discusses the various elements of the safety and nutritional assessment procedure for genetically modified (GM) plant derived foods/feed, in particular the use of animal feeding trials for safety and nutritional testing.

Comments should be submitted at the latest by 31 January 2007 by using the EFSA consultation form, as can be at http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/science/gmo/gmo_consultations/gmo_AnimalFeedingTrials.html.

More information on GMO and EFSAat http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/science/gmo.html

WTO ruling concerning EU and GMO
Andrew Leonard, Nov. 27, 2006  http://www.salon.com

The World Trade Organization's final decision on the dispute between the U.S. and the European Union over the importation of genetically modified organisms into the E.U. clocks in at 1,148 pages, reportedly the longest ruling in the history of the WTO. Following up on the preliminary decision released by the WTO in February, a panel of judges found that between 1998 and 2003, the E.U. had been operating a "de facto moratorium" blocking GMOs. The ruling did not say that the E.U. cannot ban GMOs on scientific grounds. Instead, it declared that the E.U. had been engaging in "undue delay" in processing import applications, and that individual E.U. countries were wrong to ban products that the E.U. had declared safe.

Now the battle will commence on whether all those words mean anything. On Nov. 21, the E.U. declined to appeal the ruling, arguing that changes made to the application process in 2004 made the ruling moot. In a gorgeous example of passive-aggressive trade diplomacy, European Commission trade spokesman Peter Power stated that "The European Commission has decided not to appeal the GMO decision as the current regulatory provisions are not in any way affected by the judgment... "The impact of that judgment is entirely of historical interest."

WTO Ruling Disregards Political Precautionary Principle: Favors Science-Based 'Approach' to EU Biotech Rules.
Institute for Trade, Standards and Sustainable Development, Dec. 8, 2006 http://www.itssd.org/publications.htm

In a legal backgrounder released today by the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF), entitled, WTO Ruling on Biotech Foods Addresses "Precautionary Principle", international business and trade expert Lawrence Kogan of the non-profit Institute for Trade, Standards and Sustainable Development, Inc. (ITSSD), argues that a recent World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling represents a blow to the proponents of the "Precautionary Principle" in Europe and a victory for 'best available science' in the regulatory process. The WTO issued its ruling on the complaint by the United States, Argentina, and Canada, on September 29, and much to the chagrin of environmental groups, EC accepted it as final, on November 22. As Mr. Kogan relates, the WTO panel found that European Union restrictions on approval of genetically-enhanced seeds and food products violated provisions of the WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement. The EU's anti-biotech policies, the panel found, were based more on political considerations than scientific evidence.

EU Environment Ministers Vote Against Sound Science
- Adeline Farrelly, Simon Barber and Nathalie Moll, EuropaBio, Dec. 21, 2006 Via Agnet

The EU's Environment Council has today delivered a blow to the prospects for growth and jobs in Europe, according to EuropaBio. By backing Austria's illegal ban on the cultivation of EU-approved GM crops, the Council has seriously damaged the credibility of the regulatory system on which much of Europe's innovative and industrial capacity relies, says the European biotechnology industry association.

Today's vote denies Austrian farmers the freedom of choice and the possibility to grow GM if they want to. "At issue is whether scientific opinions are to be respected and whether decision-making is to be rational in Europe", said Johan Vanhemelrijck, EuropaBio's Secretary General.

The European Commission had asked the Council to overturn the Austrian ban on two genetically-modified maize seeds which have repeatedly been pronounced safe after protracted EU reviews. One of the products, Mon810, is designed to resist the European corn borer, a widespread moth larva that can destroy crops. It is already grown in Spain, France, Germany, Portugal and the Czech Republic without any safety or environmental issues, thus demonstrating that Austria's objections are without foundation. The other, T25, permits farmers to use a broad-spectrum herbicide for weed control without damaging the crop. (Details of the products and their safety assessment appear below.)

But a qualified majority of member states today rejected the European Commission call for the prohibition to be repealed. "The EU's own scientific assessments have repeatedly made clear that there is no reason to consider that the products constitute a risk to human health or the environment", said Johan Vanhemelrijck. "The Council is undermining the authority of its own expert advisors. Europe is the only region in the world that votes on its science, the community must start to believe its own scientific opinions."

This is the second time the Council has refused Commission proposals to overturn these illegal bans. Already in June 2005 a qualified majority of member states upheld Austria's position, and required further information.

"Today's decision by the Council displays an alarming indifference to the EU's own rules, and to common sense", said Simon Barber, Director of EuropaBio. "The further information the Council requested in 2005 has now been provided, and it indicates unambiguously that the products carry none of the risks alleged. But still the Council declines to follow the advice of the EU's own expert advisory bodies. This departure from rational decision-making is disconcerting - not only for these two products, but for every innovator in every industrial sector that is subject to EU regulation. If the EU ceases to follow its own rules, innovators and investors are left in a state of profound uncertainty - and that is deeply discouraging for growth and for jobs. It will be no surprise if this continued disarray in the EU induces more companies to move their research and investment abroad to regions with more predictable and consistent regulatory regimes".

UK - GM Potato Trials Given Go-Ahead - BBC, Dec 1, 2006

A plan to grow genetically modified potatoes on two trial sites in England has been approved by the government. Defra granted permission for BASF Plant Science to grow the vegetables at field sites in Cambridgeshire and Derbyshire. The crops have been modified to include a gene from a wild species of potato in a bid to make them resistant to blight, a disease costing growers ?70m a year. But the Soil Association said it was "a stupid decision" and warned other crops risked contamination by GM.

The biotechnology firm applied to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to hold trials at the headquarters of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in Cambridge and on a farm at Draycott in Derbyshire.  The GM potato crops are to be planted next spring, and trials will last several years. BASF said the investigations would take up a maximum of one hectare within a plot of two hectares at each site per year.

However, Friends of the Earth GM Campaigner, Clare Oxborrow, said: "These GM trials pose a significant contamination threat to future potato crops. "We don't need GM potatoes and there is no consumer demand for them. Even the county council and the food industry have raised concerns about the impact of these trials." She said the government should instead promote "safe and sustainable agriculture".

But Professor Philip Dale, an emeritus fellow at the plant-breeding John Innes Centre, hit back at Lord Melchetts' comments. "The Soil Association is opposing this because they have a substantial investment in the commercial future of organic agriculture and they see these kinds of advances in general agriculture to be a threat to the profitability of organic farming. "The negative views on GM crops and foods expressed in the GM Nation public debate (as the report acknowledges) were largely influenced by campaigning groups who for their various reasons wish to stop the evaluation of GM crops. They even wish to deny farmers and consumers the choice to evaluate them."

UK: GM Potato Trials Will Go Ahead Despite Location Withdrawal
- Farmers Weekly (UK),  Dec 22, 2006 http://www.fwi.co.uk

On-farm trials of genetically modified potatoes will go ahead in 2007 despite the withdrawal of the proposed site near Borrowash in Derbyshire. The farm owner had agreed to host the trial of chemical company BASF's late blight resistant potatoes but he pulled out saying that he feared for his personal security.

A spokesman for Derbyshire Police said the force was aware that the intense publicity surrounding the GM trial had made the farmer concerned about his family's safety. Although, the spokesman said, it was understood that no specific threat had been made to the farmer.

Producers Blast Hungary's Stance on GM Crops
Playfuls, Nov. 29, 2006 http://www.playfuls.com/

Hungarian genetically-modified crop producers on Wednesday blasted an amendment to Hungarian law that makes growing the crops impractical. Hungary's parliament on Monday backed an amendment that restricts the conditions under which GMOs can be planted. Under the new law, a 400-metre buffer zone will have to be established between GMO crops and adjacent fields to prevent cross-pollination.

All landowners within the buffer zone will also have to give written permission to plant the crops.  Agriculture Minister Jozsef Graf called the law "Europe's strictest GMO law", and it is precisely this severity that has upset some producers.

Much of Hungary's farmland is divided in small plots or is run by cooperatives.  The legislation had faced opposition from, among others, members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, but MPs passed the legislation with both opposition and ruling party support.

Hungary, a major producer of maize, already had a moratorium in place on the MON 810 maize seed, produced by Monsanto, despite the European Union allowing this crop to be grown.  Hungary has come under pressure from the European Commission to end the moratorium; however, the Commission failed in a September bid to force Hungary to lift the ban.  The EU is expected to continue to exert pressure on Hungary to change its policy.

USA

Public Opinion About GM Foods
Ten Years After Introduction of Ag Biotech - Pew Initiative

New Poll Echoes Earlier Findings Over Five-Year Period of Consumer Opinion Research Washington, D.C. - Public awareness and understanding of genetically modified (GM) foods remains relatively low and consumers' opinions about GM foods are as divided now as they were five years ago, according to a new survey released today by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. The survey also shows that regulation may increase confidence in GM foods and reveals that animal cloning causes great discomfort among American consumers. The announcement of survey findings marks the fifth year that the Pew Initiative has monitored public understanding of and support for different types of biotechnology.

The analysis released today highlights the results of a 2006 Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology poll and compares them to results of similar PIFB polls conducted in March 2001, September 2003, September 2004 and November 2005. Among the most noteworthy findings:

bulletAmericans hold mixed attitudes towards GM foods. Consumers are generally uncertain about the safety of GM foods, although opinions can shift with new information. Thirty-four percent of Americans indicate that they believe GM foods are safe and 29 percent say they are unsafe. Once information is provided about GM foods and the number of processed foods that are produced using some form of biotechnology, however, Americans feel more comfortable about the safety of the biotech products. Forty-five percent of respondents say GM foods are safe in this context and 29 percent say they are unsafe, a 10-percentage point increase in net perceptions of safety. These numbers represent a shift in informed attitudes over time. In 2001, when PIFB first conducted a survey of consumer attitudes, 48 percent felt that GM foods were safe and only 21 percent believed they were unsafe.
bulletAwareness of GM food has declined over the last five years. In the first poll conducted by the Pew Initiative in 2001, 45 percent of American consumers said they had heard about GM food that is sold in grocery stores. A slight majority (54 percent) claimed to have not heard much (29 percent) or nothing at all (25 percent). After reaching a low point in 2004 (32 percent), public notice of GM foods increased to 41 percent in 2005 and remained stable in 2006. Additionally, consumers have consistently underestimated the amount of GM foods they most likely have eaten, with just 26 percent believing they have eaten such foods and 60 percent believing they have not in 2006. In 2001, 19 percent said they "had eaten" GM foods, while 62 percent said they "had not" and 19 percent said they "didn't know."
bulletAlthough Americans are not well informed about animal cloning - they are overwhelmingly uncomfortable with it. A strong majority (61 percent) of those Americans who claim to have heard about animal cloning are uncomfortable with it, while 27 percent express comfort. Those unfamiliar with animal cloning express greater reservations, with 68 percent of Americans indicating that they are uncomfortable and 16 percent stating that they are comfortable.
bulletAmericans support regulation of GM foods. Forty-one percent of consumers who claim basic awareness of the regulation of GM foods believe that there is "too little" regulation, while 19 percent of Americans say it is "just the right amount." The survey reveals that regulation may increase confidence in GM foods. Forty-three percent of respondents surveyed said they would be more willing to eat GM foods if the FDA was mandated to regulate GM foods before they entered the marketplace, while 14 percent are less willing and 35 percent of consumers surveyed said it would make no difference.
bulletFriends and family are the most trusted sources of information about GM foods. The majority of people polled (37 percent) trust their friends and families above all other groups and organizations tested as sources of information on GM foods. Farmers were the next-most trusted (33 percent) followed by scientists and academics (32 percent). The most dramatic changes in trust levels occurred with respect to the FDA. In 2001, 41 percent of consumers said they trust the FDA when it comes to information about GM foods. At that time it was the most trusted organization. Since then, the agency's trustworthiness has declined to 29 percent, and it now ranks fourth on the list of groups and organizations.

"In polls conducted over the last five years, we continue to see that public opinion remains 'up for grabs' on GM foods" said Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. "Still generally uncertain about GM foods, the U.S. public has consistently supported strong and clear federal regulations to ensure that these products are safe. How the next generation of biotech products is introduced - and consumers' trust in the regulation of GM foods - will be critical in shaping U.S. attitudes in the long term."

The nationwide survey, conducted by The Mellman Group, September 20-26, consisted of telephone interviews of 1000 American consumers. The margin of error for this survey is +/-3.1 percent. The margin of error is higher for subgroups.

To view a summary of the findings from the survey, as well as the statistical results, please go to: http://pewagbiotech.org/research/2006update

Comment

Ronald Bailey, Reason Hit & Run, December 7, 2006. Reader riposte at http://www.reason.com/blog/show/117117.html

I can't help but wonder how people might have answered poll questions phrased more like:

  1. Do you favor or oppose crops enhanced by biotech to protect themselves against pests and diseases?
  2. Do you favor or oppose crops enhanced by biotech to reduce the use of harmful pesticides and herbicides?
  3. Would you eat foods made from crops enhanced to protect themselves against pests and diseases using advanced biotech methods?
  4. Does it bother you to learn that you and your family have been eating foods made from such biotech pest protected crops for more than a decade?

For some reason--I suspect activist propaganda http://www.fotosearch.com/IDX069/957756/ -- the words "genetically modified" sound vaguely menacing http://www.cartoonstock.com/newscartoons/directory/g/genetically_modified.asp.

Comment

Pew's New Biotech Report Misses the Mark
Henry I. Miller, Dec. 11, 2006 http://www.american.com

The nonprofit asked questions its own research shows the public is unprepared to answer.

But food biotech in the United States is here to stay. More than 80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves - soft drinks, preserves, mayonnaise, salad dressings - contain ingredients from gene-spliced plants, and Americans have safely consumed more than a trillion servings of these foods. But opposition to the genetic improvement of plants using these highly precise and predictable techniques remains, largely because it is fanned continually by the misleading claims of anti-biotechnology activists.

Radicals like Greenpeace flaunt their intention to eliminate gene-splicing entirely from agriculture, while other groups, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, claim not to oppose gene-splicing but only to want it "properly" regulated.

Reports published by the lavishly funded Pew Initiative, for example, receive extensive media and government attention, largely because Pew touts itself as occupying the thoughtful, disinterested middle ground in the biotechnology debates. But contrary to their claims that they are non-partisan and agnostic about biotechnology, Pew's workshops, conferences, and publications show a pervasive pro-regulation bias, ignore essential context, and promote the impression of genuine controversy where none exists.

The latest Pew survey of consumer attitudes, just released, is a prime example. It finds that about three in five persons surveyed have not "seen, read or heard recently about [gene-spliced] food that is sold in grocery stores," and it concludes that"public knowledge and understanding of biotechnology remains [sic] relatively low." It also reveals that "just 26% believe that they have eaten [gene-spliced] foods, while 60% believe they have not."

Little do consumers know. . . Almost 100 percent of residents of North Americans consume gene-spliced foods daily, inasmuch as they're contained in practically every product made with corn oil, high-fructose corn syrup or other corn products, soybean oil, or soy protein. And even that fails to take into account that with the exception of wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the grains, fruits and vegetables in our diets have been genetically improved by one technology or another.

After establishing that those polled lacked even the most basic understanding of the science of genetic modification of foods, the surveyors went on to ask detailed questions like, "Do you think there is too much, too little, or the right amount of regulation of genetically modified foods?" And "Do you think genetically modified foods are basically safe or basically unsafe?" That's tantamount to asking average consumers which nuclear reactor design they prefer.

At least they didn't reprise the 2003 survey item, "Companies should be required to submit safety data to the FDA for review, and no genetically modified food product should be allowed on the market until the FDA determines that it is safe," with which 89 percent of those surveyed agreed. Please. That's like asking whether repeat child molesters should be banned from teaching kindergarten.

Because the public's understanding of science is so meager, hoodwinking consumers on surveys isn't difficult. A study by the U.S. National Science Foundation found that fewer than one in four know what a molecule is, and only about half understand that the earth circles the sun once a year.

The Pew surveys take advantage of respondents' ignorance about the status quo. With the exception of wild berries and mushrooms, game, and fish and shellfish, virtually all the organisms?plants, animals, microorganisms?in our food supply have been modified by one genetic technique or another. Because the techniques of the new biotech are more precise and predictable than their predecessors, biotech foods are actually likely to be even more safe than other foods. Food producers are already legally responsible for assuring the safety of their products, and the FDA does not normally perform safety determinations, but primarily conducts surveillance of marketed foods and takes action if any are found to be adulterated or mislabeled. Unwarranted, excessive regulation, including unnecessary labeling requirements, discourages innovation, imposes costs that are passed along to the consumer and are a disproportionate burden on the poor.

Even if the Pew surveys were crafted to elicit more honest responses, they would still suffer from the fact that there is often a huge disparity between the public's responses to hypothetical questions about their buying habits and their actual behavior in the supermarket. According to former European Commission official Mark Cantley, "that's one pragmatic reason for the NGOs' trying so vigorously to keep these products off the market: They might be rather embarrassed by the actual choices made by consumers when the goods were on the shelf."
Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993. Barron's selected his most recent book, "The Frankenfood Myth..." one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.

Africa

Hans Lombard, iAfrica, Dec 5, 2006 http://lifestyle.iafrica.com/ Hans Lombard is a public relations consultant to the agricultural biotechnology industry in South Africa.

Genetically modified crops (GMOs) have been produced for the past 11 years. Seven in South Africa. Yet we still have the anti-GM lobby claiming, without any substantiated medical or scientific evidence, that GM crops:

* Pose a health risk to man and beast.* Threaten the environment. * Will cross-pollinate with non-GM varieties.

As far as health risks and the safety of GM food are concerned, after 11 years on the market, there is not a shred of medical or scientific evidence available anywhere in the world to prove any adverse effects of GM food/crops on humans, animals or the environment. Nobody has suffered as much as a tummy ache from GM food. The environment is untarnished by it.

The most recent study from leading scientists of the Swiss Expert Committee for Biosafety (SCEB) reports: "The safety of GM crops is generally assessed more intensely than that of conventionally bred crops. In addition to the selection process performed during classical breeding, a thorough pre-market risk assessment of potential unwanted effects of the GM crop on the environment is a prerequisite to obtain permission to market any GM crop variety."

The Royal Society of London, one of the world's leading and most respected academies of science, says: "There is no potential harm from GM technology. Biotech crops may even be safer than regular food." This report was endorsed by eight of the world's leading academies of science.
The European Union Commission funded 81 scientific research projects on GMOs over a period of 15 years, costing R640-million, and came to the conclusion: "GM food is both safe for humans and the environment."

The French Academy of Science concurs. After intensive research it came out in full support of GMOs: "There is no evidence to date showing that GMOs pose potential health or environmental risks." France's Academy Medicine says: "There is no evidence that GMOs pose a risk to humans." who highly reputable United Nations Agencies -- the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) have fully endorsed GMOs in a joint statement: "Biotechnology (GMOs) provides new and powerful tools for research and for accelerating the development of new and better foods."

Deadly infection hits Zambezi fish
http://www.scidev.net/News/index.cfm?fuseaction=readNews&itemid=3281&language=1

A fatal and unknown infection has affected several fish species in Africa's Zambezi River, sparking fears that it could transmit to humans.

Latin America

Brazil identifies genes of bacteria used for TB vaccine
http://www.scidev.net/News/index.cfm?fuseaction=readNews&itemid=3252&language=1

Researchers have unraveled the DNA of bacteria used in the BCG tuberculosis vaccine, to improve vaccine quality in production.

Brazilian gene bank becomes world's seventh largest
http://www.scidev.net/News/index.cfm?fuseaction=readNews&itemid=3266&language=1

With 102,000 seed samples from 500 plant species, a Brazilian gene bank has become the world's seventh largest and has plans for expansion.

Fuelling the nation: Brazil's booming ethanol market
http://www.scidev.net/Features/index.cfm?fuseaction=readFeatures&itemid=568&language=1

Emma Marris reports on how ethanol made from sugar cane is meeting Brazil's growing energy needs and attracting interest from elsewhere. [Source: Nature]

Peru to promote patenting of scientific discoveries
http://www.scidev.net/News/index.cfm?fuseaction=readNews&itemid=3255&language=2

The National Council for Science and Technology has announced a strategy to encourage Peruvian scientists to patent their findings. [Spanish Full Text]

Global

BIO Welcomes Codex Alimentarius Project to Develop Adventitious Presence Policy
Bio.org, December 1, 2006

Codex agrees to U.S. government proposal to develop a food safety risk assessment process on low-level presence of rDNA material

Biotechnology Industry Organization President and CEO Jim Greenwood today issued the following statement on the adoption by the Codex Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Food Derived from Biotechnology, in Chiba, Japan, of a U.S. government proposal to develop a food safety risk assessment process for adventitious presence:

"Today, the Codex Alimentarius Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Food Derived from Biotechnology agreed to accept the U.S. government's proposal on Low-Level Presence of Recombinant-DNA Material. The task force has formed a working group, which will be chaired by the United States, Germany and Thailand, to draft an annex to the Codex Plant Guideline addressing the elements of a safety assessment for low-level presence of rDNA material in food, and identifying information-sharing mechanisms to facilitate utilization of the Annex and the data necessary to conduct an assessment of food safety by an importing country. BIO and its members applaud the Codex's commitment to ensuring food safety for consumers, farmers, food processors, and grain handlers. BIO also thanks the U.S. government for successfully advocating adoption of this project by the Codex.

"Over the last several years, BIO and its members have continually urged Codex to implement a science-based policy that governs incidental or trace amounts -- or so-called 'adventitious presence' -- of biotechnology-enhanced events in food and feed. This intergovernmental task force's safety assessment will complement the policies on adventitious presence adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection agency in September 2006 and by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in June 2006.

"The EPA and FDA food safety evaluations recognize that adventitious presence is a safe and natural part of plant biology, seed production, and the distribution of commodity crops. They have served as a crucial step toward development of comprehensive international science-based systems that regulate modern agricultural products. This is especially important in today's global trading arena as more than 8.5 million farmers are growing biotech crops in 21 countries."BIO represents more than 1,100 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations across the United States and 31 other nations. BIO members are involved in the research and development of healthcare, agricultural, industrial and environmental biotechnology products.

Risk Assessment for Bt plants: Two Concepts
http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/news/524.docu.html

Before a Bt plant is released, and especially before it is authorised for commercial cultivation, tests have to be carried out to check that this will not be associated with any harmful impacts on non-target organisms. The authorisation decision is not always easy for the authorities responsible. On the one hand, they have to reach a result within a reasonable amount of time, while on the other they have to take into account complex ecological relationships.

The first genetically modified Bt maize variety was authorised in the USA over ten years ago. Now Bt maize and Bt cotton are grown on more than twenty million hectares worldwide, and the area under cultivation is expanding. With other plant species too, scientists are looking at ways of using the Bt concept to control harmful grazing insects. But again and again there are discussions about whether the Bt toxin produced in the plant has an effect on other organisms as well as the pest it is designed to control.

In different cultivation regions, different non-target organisms come into contact with the Bt plants and the Bt toxin they produce. Do we need separate research for each crop and the non-target organisms that might be affected by it? Or is it possible to develop suitable standard tests that can be applied effectively and that still deliver comprehensive, reliable results? In the field of biological safety research, this discussion has already begun.

GMO Safety spoke to Angelika Hilbeck and Jörg Romeis. These two scientists work in Switzerland. They represent international working groups dealing with the development of suitable models for the ecological risk assessment of Bt maize on non-target organisms.

Jörg Romeis, Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon Research Station (ART)

Standard tests with representative organisms: Jörg Romeis's international working group is proposing a step-by-step process. It is based on a sequence of laboratory, semi-field and field experiments. The approach follows the globally established methods for environmental testing of toxic substances and pesticides.

The focus of the research is on standardised tests in the laboratory with various 'representative organisms' selected according to a range of criteria. In the laboratory, toxic effects can be identified in a targeted manner and with a high level of statistical confirmation. If the lab tests provide indications of harmful effects, more investigations are carried out and, if necessary, field trials as well. With this approach it is possible to reduce the need for expensive field trials. In some cases they can be avoided altogether.

Interview with Jörg Romeis: "We conduct targeted tests on representative organisms". http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/maize/corn_borer/526.docu.html

Angelika Hilbeck, Institute of Integrative Biology of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, and Managing Director of Ecostrat GmbH (Zurich/Berlin).

Studying the most important organisms in an ecosystem: Angelika Hilbeck's international working group is advocating a much broader approach. It believes the existing ecotoxicological test methods are inadequate, especially for regions with high biodiversity. In her opinion, the standardised approach with selected 'representatives' in the laboratory does not provide enough information to be able to make assertions about effects on biodiversity in the ecosystem. Before a test is conducted in the laboratory, the most important non-target organisms with key ecological functions for the ecosystem in question need to be identified. Laboratory tests are then carried out on these organisms and supplemented by field trials.

Interview with Angelika Hilbeck: "We filter out 10 to 15 species which we then examine in more detail." http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/news/524.docu.html

News in science

New Flood-Tolerant Rice Could Help Farmers and Environment
Robin Hindery, Associated Press, Nov. 28, 2006

Davis, Calif. - Inside a greenhouse on the University of California, Davis campus, a group of rice plants is defying conventional farming wisdom and thriving in a formerly life-threatening environment - under water.

The research is the product of a 20-year-old collaboration between UC Davis, UC Riverside and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. The team isolated a gene within certain traditional rice plants that allows them to survive complete submergence. Researchers then cloned the gene and implanted it into commercially viable rice plants.

The result was a new variety that can survive under water for up to two weeks. Rice plants typically will die if completely submerged for more than a few days. "This gene has actually been known for about 50 years, but researchers were unable to make use of it because it is thought to be quite complex," said Pamela Ronald, a UC Davis-based rice geneticist who has been working on the project for about a decade.

The new plants could benefit the state's rice industry, said Tim Johnson, president of the California Rice Commission. California ranks only behind Arkansas among rice-producing states, with an annual export profit of $200 million. "Right now, you need a combination of water and herbicides to get rice to grow actively, produce a great crop and at the same time compete against weeds," Johnson said. "Our hope is that with submergence-tolerant rice, you could use even less herbicide and still eliminate weeds, which are our number one pest."

At present, the dominant farming method involves planting pre-germinated seeds in a field flooded with about five inches of water, the greatest depth normal rice plants can withstand. Ideally, the plants begin to grow before weeds can catch up to them. Herbicides are applied as an added protective measure.

Those herbicides, while vital to farmers, have caused concern among environmentalists and groups monitoring the safety and purity of the state's drinking water supply. About 95 percent of California's rice - roughly 500,000 acres - is farmed in the Sacramento Valley. Much of the chemical runoff from rice fields flows into the 382-mile-long Sacramento River, the heart of a system that supplies about two-thirds of the state's drinking water.

Rice farmers are required to keep the water in their fields contained for about 30 days after applying herbicides to let the chemicals degrade before they enter the water supply. But farmers' methods and their compliance varies. "Things happen," said Roland Pang, the water quality superintendent for the Department of Utilities in Sacramento.

The cost of fighting weeds has been a growing problem for many farmers. "Weed control of all types is costing us about $150 an acre every year," said Frank Rehermann, who farms 800 acres of rice in Live Oak, about 45 miles north of Sacramento. "Weeds that we have in the fields are getting more difficult to control. Every year, they're a little more resistant to what we put on them."

Greg Massa, a fourth-generation rice farmer in Glenn and Colusa counties, said the new variety also could help organic farms such as his. Most organic farmers use a deep-water planting method as an alternative to herbicides, but the process is risky, he said. "We have to push the rice to the limits of its ability to survive in order to kill (the weeds)," he said. "Flood-tolerant rice could have huge benefits for both conventional and organic rice growers."

Such rice also would help keep planting on schedule during wet spring weather. This year, rice planting was delayed about two weeks due to heavy rainfall. A variety that could withstand submergence would be unaffected by flooding.

Scientists from one arm of the flood-tolerant rice project, the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, are testing the strain in southern Asia. Through a variation on traditional breeding, they have successfully developed submergence-tolerant versions of three major local rice varieties, with an additional three on the way in the next few months, said Dave Mackill, one of the institute's lead researchers.

Transgenic Bt Cotton Has No Apparent Effect on Enzymatic Activities or Functional Diversity of Microbial Communities In Rhizosphere Soil
Shen, Ren Fang; Cai, Hong; Gong, Wan He. 2006. Plant and Soil. 285. 1-2. 149 - 159.

A transgenic Bt cotton (Sukang-103) and its non-Bt cotton counterpart (Sumian-12) were investigated to evaluate the potential risk of transgenes on the soil ecosystem. The activities of urease, phosphatase, dehydrogenase, phenol oxidase, and protease in cotton rhizosphere were assayed during the vegetative, reproductive, and senescing stages of cotton growth and after harvest. A Biolog system was used to evaluate the functional diversity of microbial communities in soils after a complete cotton growth cycle.

Enzymic activities in soils amended with cotton biomass were also assayed. Results showed that there were few significant differences in enzyme activities between Bt and non-Bt cottons at any of the growth stages and after harvest; amendment with cotton biomass to soil enhanced soil enzyme activities, but there were no significant difference between Bt and non-Bt cotton; the richness of the microbial communities in rhizosphere soil did not differ between Bt and the non-Bt cotton, and close to that of control soil; the functional diversity of microbial communities were not different in rhizosphere soils between Bt and non-Bt cotton.

All results suggested that there was no evidence to indicate any adverse effects of Bt cotton on the soil ecosystem in this study.

Developing transgenic banana varieties resistant to banana xanthomonas wilt
Leena Tripathi M et al, http://www.scidev.net, November 28 2006 (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Kampala, Uganda).

Developing transgenic banana varieties resistant to banana xanthomonas wilt (BXW) would boost the available arsenal to fight the disease and save livelihoods in the Great Lakes region.

The incomes of millions of farmers in East Africa are threatened by continuing outbreaks of BXW. The disease has been reported in Burundi, DR Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, which make up the largest banana producing and consuming African region. Banana wilt attacks all banana varieties resulting in absolute crop loss. According to a recent impact assessment by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture ( IITA) in Uganda, letting BXW spread uncontrolled could cost the country's economy up to $200 million per year. The most commonly recommended measures for managing BXW involve a set of practices that include removing the male flowers, disinfecting farming tools and using healthy planting materials. When well practiced these methods have succeeded in reducing the disease's spread. But although over 85 per cent of Ugandan farmers are aware of these measures, a recent study shows that less than 35 per cent carry them out. Thus these practices alone might slow but not stop the spread of BXW, a goal that requires developing other options to be integrated into ongoing disease management efforts across East Africa.

One approach being explored is to transform farmer-preferred banana cultivars by introducing a resistance gene from sweet pepper. Such an initiative is spearheaded by the IITA in collaboration with Uganda's National Agricultural Research Organisation, the Kenya-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation and Academia Sinica in Taiwan. Priority has been given to the major farmer-preferred banana varieties, including Kayinja. The improved varieties will be tested rigorously for efficacy against BXW and for environmental and food safety in compliance with regulations of each of the countries where such bananas could be grown and consumed.

GM bananas to fight wilt in Africa
http://www.scidev.net/editorletters/index.cfm?fuseaction=readeditorletter&itemid=106&language=1

Leena Tripathi and colleagues argue that transgenic banana varieties could provide a reasonable and sustainable way to fight banana xanthomonas wilt.

Newly Cloned Gene Key to More Adaptable Wheat Varieties
UC DAVIS, Dec. 4, 2006 http://www-pubcomm.ucdavis.edu

In a research discovery that has practical implications for improving wheat varieties, a team of scientists at the University of California, Davis, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have cloned a gene that controls the flowering time of barley and wheat. Differences in this gene, called VRN3, are essential for adapting these two important crop species to different climates. The findings of the study, conducted by Professor Jorge Dubcovsky, a wheat breeder and leader of the UC Davis research group, and by plant geneticist Ann E. Blechl of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Albany, Calif., will appear the week of Dec. 4 in the online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A.

One of the critical differences that help wheat and barley adapt to different environments is the existence of winter and spring forms. Winter wheat and barley varieties are planted in the fall but wait until the very cold winter weather passes before flowering. This requirement for a long-term exposure to low temperatures to flower is called the "vernalization requirement." In contrast, spring wheat and barley varieties do not have this vernalization requirement and can be planted in the spring. This is essential for regions of the world where winter weather is so severe that cereals cannot be planted in the fall. The vernalization requirement in barley and wheat is very flexible, Dubcovsky noted. "During the domestication of these species, the different mutations that occurred in the vernalization genes were selected by humans, resulting in spring varieties better adapted to certain regions," he said. "This flexibility has helped wheat to become one of the world's most important crops."

The cloning of VRN3 now completes a 10-year research project to understand the genetic regulation of the vernalization requirement in barley and wheat. Results from this new study show that mutations in regulatory regions of the VRN3 gene are responsible for the evolution of several barley and wheat spring lines. "The VRN3 mutation we discovered in the wheat variety Hope can now be used to accelerate flowering time of other wheat varieties," Dubcovsky said. "The VRN3 molecular markers developed in this study will help breeders to detect the mutations present in their breeding lines and to study their effects on the adaptability of wheat and barley varieties to particular environments."

What Does GM Potatoes Mean for Future Blight Control?
Farmers Weekly (UK), Dec. 7, 2006  http://www.fwi.co.uk

Initial trials conducted in Sweden in the past two years, and in Germany and Holland last year, have shown a very high level of blight resistance, according to Andy Beadle, BASF project manager. "In the trials I've seen we haven't needed to spray the potatoes for blight after we've inoculated with the disease." The genes BASF has been using to create the increased resistance to blight come from a wild potato relative, which probably developed its resistance because it co-evolved with the fungus in Mexico. Scientists have known about the gene since the 1950s, but, according to BASF, it has proved impossible to cross it with cultivated potatoes. The only method to transfer the resistance has been through biotechnology. Introducing the genes seems a bit of a scattergun affair. "When you insert the gene into the plant there are many events, ie it goes into the plant in many places," Mr Beadle explains.

"We have a significant number of events we are pursuing - we started with over 500 - but expect to initially select just three to go forward with by 2008." The first generation product uses two genes from the wild relative to confer resistance. "The genes operate in completely different ways." The mechanism is a common plant defence reaction in nature. When the plant is infected with blight the gene causes the tissue around the infection to die off, stopping the spread of the disease. But by having two different modes of action the firm believes it should help combat resistance development. "It means the beastie has to evolve to get round both resistance sources, and we have other resistance genes that we can use in future products to complement and enhance resistance."

The next set of trials will begin to assess the wider management implications of using the technology. At the moment BASF is, perhaps understandably, being cautious about suggesting it will stop the need for blight sprays. "Our hypothesis is it will dramatically reduce blight sprays, but to get the most out of the technology we need to use an integrated management strategy," Mr Beadle says. "At a minimum the trait should significantly increase spray intervals." It could go further - the evidence to date suggests the genes can give season-long control without the need for follow-up sprays. But that needs to be tested in UK conditions, and over a number of years to investigate reliability and durability. And even if blight is effectively controlled there could still be a need to spray fungicides for other diseases because the genes are specific for blight.

Genetically Engineered Mustard in India: 2. GE Technology to Produce Hybrids
C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India krao@vsnl.com, http://www.fbae.org/Channels/Views/genetically_engineered_mustard_2.htm

For reasons inherent in the reproductive biology, the highly inbred Brassicas are difficult to hybridize, using conventional breeding techniques. The hybrids suffer from low vigour making them unsuitable for commercial cultivation. Vigour can be greatly enhanced in the progeny from crosses of genetically distinct parents, to outperform the parental lines. This phenomenon called 'hybrid vigour' has been a great boon in plant breeding.  
Naturally Occurring Male Sterility In Crop Plants

For a time, plant breeders tried to use male sterility, the absence of functional pollen while the female gametes were normal, to produce hybrids in highly inbred crops.

Naturally occurring gene controlled male sterility occurs only sporadically among crop plants, as they were always selected for high levels of fertility. Nevertheless, natural male sterile plants were exploited in hybrid seed production in such crops as cotton, tomato, sunflower, cucurbits, tobacco, rice, wheat, barely, maize, sorghum and pearl millet.

In hybrid production, several lines of male sterile (female fertile) plants are planted alternately with one or two lines of male fertile (pollinator) plants, which also have fertile female gametes.  The undesirable gene combinations formed from the female gametes of the male fertile plants, have to be identified and removed.  Such a procedure is difficult to be performed manually even in experimental situations and impossible in cultivated crop fields.

Decades of research on canola and mustard led to the identification of very few male sterile lines and imperfect restorer female lines, making the natural system commercially unviable. Robert Goldberg's team developed the barnase/barstar genetic system over a decade ago to overcome this handicap. The objective is to produce hybrids to exploit hybrid vigour ensuring higher crop performance.

The Barnase-Barstar Gene System

Separate male sterile (MS) and fertility restorer (RF) lines developed through GE are used to emulate the natural phenomenon of hybrid vigour. Crosses of the MS line with the RF line ensure the production of fully fertile hybrids, which are employed in agricultural production.

Barnase-barstar genes: The barnase gene, from the bacterium Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, encodes the enzyme barnase (ribonuclease), which is produced at a specific stage early in the development of the anthers (the pollen bearing parts of the flower) and in a specific cell layer (called tapetum) of the anthers.   Barnase prevents pollen production, conferring male sterility.

The  barstar gene, also from Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, encodes an enzyme that inhibits barnase.  Expression of the barstar gene is also restricted to the anthers. The hybrid plants derived from crosses of MS and RF lines are fully fertile, as the expression of the barnase the barstar gene inhibits gene.

Elimination of undesirable hybrids: The bar gene from the bacterium Streptomyces hygroscopicus and pat gene from the bacterium Streptomyces viridichromogenes, encode for the enzyme phosphinothricin acetyl transferase, that detoxifies glufosinate ammonium and confers tolerance to herbicides with this active ingredient. Genes linked to other herbicides may also be used.

The herbicide tolerance trait is used as a selection tool for the barnase-barstar breeding system, to eliminate unwanted hybrid genotypes, by spraying an appropriate herbicide. This trait also enables to control weeds in the canola crop, in conjunction with other measures.

The bar and pat genes are good markers useful to detect gene flow, by spraying an herbicide. Technology now exists to remove herbicide resistance genes at the time mass production of seed for cultivation purposes, if this was necessary for political or public concern reasons, though not for scientific reasons.

Selectable marker: The nptII gene from the bacterium Escherichia coli confers resistance to the antibiotics neomycin and kanamycin. Such antibiotic resistance traits are used as selectable markers in the initial laboratory stages to screen genetically modified plants. Now non-antibiotic selectable markers are employed.

The barnase/barstar technology: The whole of the process of male sterility and selective removal of undesired hybrids from the male fertile plants, is performed elegantly by the barnase/barstar gene system, in which herbicide resistance is linked with male fertility, so that the herbicide will kill the male fertile lines, leaving the seed producing male sterile plants unharmed.  The system is used only to develop novel hybrids and the farmer is provided with highly viable seed of uniform quality that produces fully (male and female) fertile plants.

The whole set of gene systems used in canola and mustard are a complicated but an ingenious development in rDNA technology that can confer nuclear male sterility to self-pollinating plants in a stable manner to produce hybrids using a female restorer line.   It helped to produce improved hybrids of such crucifer crops as canola and mustard, which is impossible without this gene system.  The barnase/barstar gene system is meant to produce hybrids, and not herbicide resistant/tolerant crops, as alleged by come activists.

The World's experience with GE Canola: Aventis has successfully introduced a GE canola hybrid, using the barnase/barstar gene system in 1996. Since then, high yielding GE hybrid canola cultivation has expanded to over a couple of million hectares in North America and Australia. Regulatory agencies in such countries as Canada, USA, Mexico, Europe, Australia and Japan have approved consumption of this GE canola. The health and environmental safety questions about the technology have been settled beyond any reasonable doubt.

Roundup Ready is a GE canola resistant to Monsanto's herbicide Roundup and AgroEvo's GE canola is resistant to their herbicide Liberty. The same barnase/barstar gene system is being used in India to produce mustard hybrids.

Genetically Engineered Mustard in India: 3. India's Effort in Developing GE Brassicas.
C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India
www.fbaeblog.orghttp://www.fbae.org/Channels/Views/genetically_engineered_mustard_3.htm

Pollen drift and gene flow in GE varieties:

Cross pollination studies were conducted in Haryana for two seasons (2001 and 2002), on the Indian GE mustard by ProAgro.  The RCGM reported that the extent of gene flow was assessed on the basis of the percentage of survivors on spraying the herbicide Basta, on the border rows of about 2500 non-GE mustard plots.   It was reported that the mean survival, an indicator of gene flow, was 0.1 per cent at five meters, 0.02 per cent at 10 meters and zero anywhere from 15 to 150 meters.   The conclusion is that the risk of gene flow from GE to non-GE mustard was minuscule and has no significant biological or environmental impact.

Pollen drift becomes significant, only if the drifted pollen were viable, produced viable seed that resulted in fertile offspring. Mere pollen drift does not mean gene transfer. Even if there was gene flow, it is of no consequence because the introduced gene system, where herbicide resistance gene is linked with male sterile plants, causes production of only sterile pollen incapable of fertilization. A two-year study of herbicide tolerant canola from Australia (Science, 2002) confirmed this. The prescribed acceptable levels of GE component in non-GE canola seeds (less than one percent), has never been crossed.

Seed and oil yield of GM mustard in field trials:

In 2002, the RCGM reported that ProAgro's test hybrids yielded 19 to 24 per cent more seed, containing about 15 per cent more oil, than the check varieties. (Series concludes)

Genetic engineers are applying their skills to tropical crop.
The Economist, Dec. 7, 2006 http://www.economist.com

Every hectare of paddy fields in Asia provides enough rice to feed 27 people. Fifty years from now, according to some projections, each hectare will have to cater for 43. Converting more land to paddy is not an option, since suitable plots are already in short supply. In fact, in many of the continent's most fertile river basins, urban sprawl is consuming growing quantities of prime rice-farming land.

Moreover, global warming is likely to make farmers' lives increasingly difficult, by causing more frequent droughts in some places and worse flooding in others. Scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) doubt it is possible to improve productivity as much as is needed through better farming practices or the adoption of new strains derived from conventional cross-breeding. Instead, they aim to improve rice yields by 50% using modern genetic techniques.

On December 4th the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a network of research institutes of which IRRI is a member, unveiled a series of schemes intended to protect crop yields against the ill effects of global warming. Many involve genetic engineering--which is generally embraced by farmers in poor countries even if some Western consumers turn their noses up at it. Some, though, only use genetics to identify useful genes.

For example, IRRI's scientists have found a gene that allows an Indian rice strain to survive total immersion for several weeks, and have cross-bred it into a strain favoured by farmers in flood-prone Bangladesh. In trials, the new plant produced as much rice as the original under normal conditions, but over twice as much after prolonged flooding. This trait could increase the world's rice harvest dramatically, since flooding damages some 20m hectares (50m acres) of rice each year out of a total crop of 150m hectares. By far the most ambitious project on CGIAR's list, though, involves transforming the way in which rice photosynthesises. That will require some serious genetic restructuring.

Most plants use an enzyme called rubisco to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into sugars containing three carbon atoms--a process known as C3 photosynthesis. But at temperatures above 25°C, rubisco begins to bond with oxygen instead of CO2, reducing the efficiency of the reaction. As a result, certain plants in warm climates have evolved a different mechanism, called C4 photosynthesis, in which other enzymes help to concentrate CO2 around the rubisco, and the initial result is a four-carbon sugar. In hot, sunny climes, these C4 plants are half as efficient again as their C3 counterparts. They also use less water and nitrogen. The result, in the case of staple crops, is higher yields in tougher conditions: a hectare of rice, a C3 plant, produces a harvest of no more than eight tonnes, whereas maize, a C4 plant, yields as much as 12 tonnes.

Turning a C3 plant into a C4 one, though, is trickier than conferring flood resistance, since it involves wholesale changes in anatomy. C4 plants often absorb CO2 from the air in one type of cell and then convert it to sugars through photosynthesis in another. C3 plants, by contrast, do both jobs in the same place.

On the other hand, C4 photosynthesis seems to have evolved more than 50 times, in 19 families of plant. That variety suggests the shift from one form of photosynthesis to the other is not as radical as might appear at first sight. It also gives researchers a number of starting points for the project. Some C4 plants, for example, absorb CO2 and photosynthesise it at either end of special elongated cells, instead of separating the functions out into two different types of cell. Many C3 plants, meanwhile, have several of the genes needed for C4 photosynthesis, but do not use them in the same way. In fact, the distinction between C3 and C4 plants is not always clear-cut. Some species use one method in their leaves and the other in their stems.

John Sheehy, one of IRRI's crop scientists, plans to screen the institute's collection of 6,000 varieties of wild rice to see if any of them display a predisposition for C4 photosynthesis. Other researchers, meanwhile, are trying to isolate the genes responsible for C4 plants' unusual anatomy and biochemistry. A few years ago, geneticists managed to get rice to produce one of the enzymes needed for C4 photosynthesis by transplanting the relevant gene from maize.

The task, admits Robert Zeigler, IRRI's director, is daunting, and will take ten years or more. But the potential is enormous. Success would not only increase yields, but also reduce the need for water and fertilisers, since C4 plants make more efficient use of both. Other important C3 crops, such as wheat, sweet potatoes and cassava, could also benefit. If it all works, a second green revolution beckons.

'Genetically engineered spruce and poplars could save Canada's forests from over-harvesting and vicious pests such as the pine beetle. So why aren't environmentalists hugging these trees? '
Sharon Oosthoek, Globe and Mail (Canada), Dec 9, 2006 http://www.theglobeandmail.com

Commercial Release of Striga Resistant Maize in Kenya,
Africancrops.net, Nairobi, Kenya http://www.africancrops.net

These activities were aimed at confining, reducing and eliminating Striga infestation in order to improve maize yields, food security and well being of the rural poor. The Partnership is led by Agricultural Technology Foundation, BASF, CIMMYT and FORMAT in collaboration with a network of NGOs, seed companies, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and farmer associations in Kenya. Striga hermonthica has infested approximately 200,000 ha in Nyanza and Western Provinces of Kenya and resulted in crop losses estimated at $80 million per year.

The new herbicide-resistant maize hybrid and seed coated herbicide technology is based upon inherited resistance of maize to a systemic herbicide (imazapyr), a mechanism widely recognized as imazapyr-resistance (I-R). When I-R maize seed is coated with the herbicide, Striga attempting to parasitize the resulting plant are destroyed. Imazapyr is marketed to Kenyan seed companies producing I-R Ua Kayongo maize (mixed vernacular for Striga killer) under the trade name Strigaway. More information about the event and Striga control in Kenya is available at  http://www.africancrops.net/striga

DNA Screening Reveals Pink Bollworm Resistance to Bt Cotton Remains Rare After A Decade of Exposure.
Tabashnik, Bruce E. et al. 2006. Journal of Economic Entomology. 99(5) 1525 - 1530.

Transgenic crops producing toxins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) kill insect pests and can reduce reliance on insecticide sprays. Although Bt cotton (Gossypium hirsutum L.) and Bt corn (Zea mays L.) covered 26 million ha worldwide in 2005, their success could be cut short by evolution of pest resistance. Monitoring the early phases of pest resistance to Bt crops is crucial, but it has been extremely difficult because bioassays usually cannot detect heterozygotes harboring one allele for resistance.

We report here monitoring of resistance to Bt cotton with DNA-based screening, which detects single resistance alleles in heterozygotes. We used polymerase chain reaction primers that specifically amplify three mutant alleles of a cadherin gene linked with resistance to Bt cotton in pink bollworm, Pectinophora gossypiella (Saunders), a major pest. We screened DNA of 5,571 insects derived from 59 cotton fields in Arizona, California, and Texas during 2001-2005.

No resistance alleles were detected despite a decade of exposure to Bt cotton. In conjunction with data from bioassays and field efficacy tests, the results reported here contradict predictions of rapid pest resistance to Bt crops.

DNA Screening Reveals Pink Bollworm Resistance to Bt Cotton Remains Rare After A Decade of Exposure.
Tabashnik, Bruce E. et al. 2006. Journal of Economic Entomology. 99(5) 1525 - 1530.

Transgenic crops producing toxins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) kill insect pests and can reduce reliance on insecticide sprays. Although Bt cotton (Gossypium hirsutum L.) and Bt corn (Zea mays L.) covered 26 million ha worldwide in 2005, their success could be cut short by evolution of pest resistance. Monitoring the early phases of pest resistance to Bt crops is crucial, but it has been extremely difficult because bioassays usually cannot detect heterozygotes harboring one allele for resistance.

We report here monitoring of resistance to Bt cotton with DNA-based screening, which detects single resistance alleles in heterozygotes. We used polymerase chain reaction primers that specifically amplify three mutant alleles of a cadherin gene linked with resistance to Bt cotton in pink bollworm, Pectinophora gossypiella (Saunders), a major pest. We screened DNA of 5,571 insects derived from 59 cotton fields in Arizona, California, and Texas during 2001-2005.

No resistance alleles were detected despite a decade of exposure to Bt cotton. In conjunction with data from bioassays and field efficacy tests, the results reported here contradict predictions of rapid pest resistance to Bt crops.

Malaria linked to catastrophic spread of AIDS in Africa
http://www.scidev.net/News/index.cfm?fuseaction=readNews&itemid=3273&language=1

The rapid spread of HIV/AIDS across Africa could be linked to malaria, according to a study based in Kenya.

Malaria parasite 'has many tools to infect humans'
http://www.scidev.net/News/index.cfm?fuseaction=readNews&itemid=3278&language=1

New research indicates that the malaria parasite changes rapidly, suggesting that a vaccine might be further off than scientists thought.

Drug-resistant TB more widespread than thought
http://www.scidev.net/News/index.cfm?fuseaction=readNews&itemid=3289&language=1

Researchers warn that TB resistant to multiple drugs is more widespread than thought, making better treatment regimes an urgent priority.

Novel yeast could boost biofuel production
http://www.scidev.net/News/index.cfm?fuseaction=readNews&itemid=3271&language=1

Researchers have developed a yeast that they say could boost industrial production of ethanol, the 'green' biofuel.

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