News in June 2010
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General - Global

Facilitating Conservation Farming Practices and Enhancing Environmental Sustainability with Agricultural Biotechnology:
Executive Summary
Conservation Technology Information Center

Today's farmers are under unprecedented pressure. The earth's population is nearly 7 billion, and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Farmers must meet that growing demand - with a shrinking resource base - while protecting soil, air and water quality. Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, summed up the challenge when he wrote that farmers and ranchers will be called upon to produce more food in the next 50 years than their ancestors did in the past 10,000 years - and do it in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Biotechnology-derived crops and the sustainable farming systems they facilitate are key tools in the race to grow more food, feed, fiber and fuel while protecting the environment.

Building biosafety capacities: FAO's experience and outlook
FAO Biotech News,

FAO has just published "Building biosafety capacities: FAO's experience and outlook", which aims to illustrate the main findings and lessons learned from FAO's past and ongoing biosafety capacity building initiatives, in order to improve future interventions and better shape strategic planning, in line with the Cartagena Protocol and other related international instruments.

The 53-page book, by A. Sensi, K. Ghosh, M. Takeuchi and A. Sonnino, presents a brief overview of 26 biosafety capacity building projects, whose total funding amounted to about 7.5 million US dollars, launched by FAO since 2002. They include 18 national projects as well as six that are subregional, regional or interregional and two that are global. Conclusions in the book propose key operational elements for future initiatives to maximize results and fully meet countries' needs.

See or contact to request a copy, providing your full postal address.

Books & Articles

European Research Area (ERA) portal

This website is the main European Commission voice on ERA policy developments to the general public as well as to more specialized audiences.

The portal is composed of six main sections which cover the wide spectrum of ERA policy issues (Understanding ERA; ERA vision and progress; Facts, figures and analysis; Partnership for ERA; Areas of action; and ERA instruments). A database of publications and press documents is also available as well as a latest news and events section.

Should you have any suggestion or comment regarding the ERA portal please contact the ERA portal team via:

How Risk Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Match the Facts
new book by David Ropeik, Hardcover: 288 pages, McGraw-Hill; 
February 8, 2010 * ISBN-10: 0071629696, $16.47

International risk expert David Ropeik takes an in-depth look at our perceptions of risk and explains the hidden factors that make us unnecessarily afraid of relatively small threats and not afraid enough of some really big ones. This read is a comprehensive, accessible, and entertaining mixture of what's been discovered about how and why we fear-too much or too little. It brings into focus the danger of The Perception Gap: when our fears don't match the facts, and we make choices that create additional risks.

This book will not decide for you what is really risky and what isn't. That's up to you. HOW RISKY IS IT, REALLY? will tell you how you make those decisions. Understanding how we perceive risk is the first step toward making wiser and healthier choices for ourselves as individuals and for society as a whole.

---David Ropeik is an international consultant and widely sought-after public speaker on risk perception and risk communication. Ropeik is an instructor at the Harvard University Extension School's Environmental Management Program and taught risk perception and risk communication at Harvard School of Public Heath

Safety assessment of nonbrowning potatoes: opening the discussion about the relevance of substantial equivalence on next generation biotech crops.
Llorente B, Alonso GD, Bravo-Almonacid F, Rodríguez V, López MG, Carrari F, Torres HN, Flawiá MM, Plant Biotechnol J. 2010 May 21


It is expected that the next generation of biotech crops displaying enhanced quality traits with benefits to both farmers and consumers will have a better acceptance than first generation biotech crops and will improve public perception of genetic engineering. This will only be true if they are proven to be as safe as traditionally bred crops. In contrast with the first generation of biotech crops where only a single trait is modified, the next generation of biotech crops will add a new level of complexity inherent to the mechanisms underlying their output traits. In this study, a comprehensive evaluation of the comparative safety approach on a quality-improved biotech crop with metabolic modifications is presented. Three genetically engineered potato lines with silenced polyphenol oxidase (Ppo) transcripts and reduced tuber browning were characterized at both physiological and molecular levels and showed to be equivalent to wild-type (WT) plants when yield-associated traits and photosynthesis were evaluated. Analysis of the primary metabolism revealed several unintended metabolic modifications in the engineered tubers, providing evidence for potential compositional inequivalence between transgenic lines and WT controls. The silencing construct sequence was in silico analysed for potential allergenic cross-reactivity, and no similarities to known allergenic proteins were identified. Moreover, in vivo intake safety evaluation showed no adverse effects in physiological parameters. Taken together, these results provide the first evidence supporting that the safety of next generation biotech crops can be properly assessed following the current evaluation criterion, even if the transgenic and WT crops are not substantially equivalent.

OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Ireland 2010
This 2009 review of Ireland's environmental conditions and policies evaluates progress in reducing the pollution burden, improving natural resource management, integrating environmental and economic policies, and strengthening international co-operation.
Climate Change and Agriculture; Impacts, Adaptation and Mitigation
This report examines the economic and policy issues related to the impacts of climate change on agriculture and adaptation responses and to the mitigation of greenhouse gases from agriculture. Now available from the Online Bookshop.
OECD: Agricultural Biotechnologies to 2015
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently published "Biotechnologies in agriculture and related natural resources to 2015", by A. Arundel and D. Sawaya.

The 105-page article provides an overview of the current state of technological development and presents estimates and projections for the types of biotechnologies expected to reach the market for use in agriculture and related natural resources to 2015. It is one of two articles published in a special issue (volume 2009/3) of the periodical 'OECD Journal: General Papers', written for the 'Bioeconomy to 2030' project.

See (2.1 MB) or contact for more information.

Intensive farming may ease climate change
Land saved from cultivation offsets carbon emissions.
Jeff Tollefson

To many people, modern agriculture, with its industrial-scale farms and reliance on petroleum-based fertilizers, may seem a necessary evil — one that has fed a growing human population while causing untold damage to the environment. But the alternative may be worse, concludes a Stanford University study: a less-productive agricultural system would destroy even more wild land, drive up greenhouse-gas emissions and wreak havoc on biodiversity. The study's results suggest that further agricultural intensification will play a critical part in addressing global warming.

In the study, researchers modelled the world as we know it, complete with the 'green revolution' and modern agricultural practices, and two alternative realities in which crop yields were kept at the levels of decades ago. Published on 14 June, the results show that increased greenhouse-gas emissions resulting from intensive farming are more than offset by the effects of land preservation, which keeps carbon sequestered in native soils, savannahs and forests (J. A. Burney et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA doi:10.1073/pnas.0914216107; 2010).
Since 8 June 2010 has a new layout with clearly optimised functions. New editorial accents and a tighter menu guidance provide more transparency and a clear structure.

The relaunch accommodates the increasing supply of results from the, in the meantime 185, research projects. With the help of a powerful navigation tool for accessing complex subject areas, the user will in future be able to find all the important facts more quickly and simply. With each page called up the visitor also receives suggestions for further subject-specific information.

For the current socially discussed topics of green gene technology as well as the ongoing and completed research projects, offers over 500 news items, reports, background information and interviews with the scientists.

Text and graphic material as well as video documentation to the research projects are available for download in the new rubric "Media center". Representatives of the media now have, in their own press area, the possibility to sign up onto the list for press release distribution.

Eurobarometer : New publication: Science and Technology
Nearly 80% of Europeans say they are interested in scientific discoveries and technological developments, compared to 65% interested in sport. Over 70% of Europeans want to see the expansion of EU-funded research in the future. But only 10% consider themselves well-informed about science, nearly 60% think scientists should put more effort into communicating about their work and 65% believe governments should do more to interest young people in scientific issues. Europeans overwhelmingly recognise the benefits and importance of science but many also express fears over risks from new technologies, the power that knowledge gives to scientists and human rights issues linked to science.

electromagnetic field

Over the last decade, not only has the issue of the potential health effects of electromagnetic fields stubbornly remained of concern to a persistent share of the public, but the explosion of mobile telephony and of other wireless technologies has increased its visibility. Remaining scientific uncertainty has provided a fertile ground for controversy and has turned this issue into an attractive field for the media. Today, concerned citizens and MEPs are still calling weekly on the Commission to answer on their worries. To address these issues, the Commission has embarked on an action plan aiming at advancing scientific understanding, building trust and developing its policy.

For more information please check our website:

Biotech Crops Benefit Environment & Farmers, Research Group Finds
- Michael Ricciardi, PlanetSave, June 9, 2010

According to a new report from the National Research Council (NRC), the research arm of the National Academies, the U.S. agricultural industry's shift to genetically modified crops has proven to be mostly beneficial-both economically and environmentally. The National Research Council reports that the use of genetically engineered crops results in less harm to wild life, less soil erosion, and greater cost savings. Its findings could impact agricultural practices in other nations.

One of the biggest environmental benefits from biotech crops has been controlling soil erosion (which also releases carbon into the atmosphere). To control weed-spreading, farmers would plow/till their fields regularly. With biotech crops that are able to tolerate herbicides, such as with soy, farmers simply spray their crops (the most common herbicide nowadays is glyphosate, a much less toxic herbicide) one or two times. This saves a large amount of fuel and significantly reduces soil erosion.

Functional genomics: One gene or two?
Tanita Casci
Nature Reviews Genetics 11, 453 (15 June 2010)

Variation in gene copy number is seen among species, individuals and cell types and makes an important contribution to cell and organismal fitness. Three studies have shed some light on the complicated relationship between gene dosage and protein expression levels, function and disease.

Generating knockout rats by transposon mutagenesis in spermatogonial stem cells Izsvák, Z. et al. Nature Methods 7, 443–445 (2010) A high-throughput method for generating targeted mutations in rats is an important advance for using these organisms for functional genomics. The Sleeping Beauty transposon system was used to knock out genes in rat spermatogonial stem cells.
The Challenge of Scientific Uncertainty and Disunity in Risk Assessment and Management of GM Crops
Myhr, Anne Ingeborg, Environmental Values, Vol. 19, No. 1, Febr 2010 , pp. 7-31(25)
White Horse Press

The controversy over commercial releases of genetically modified (GM) crops demonstrates that there is a need for new approaches that are more broadly based, transparent and able to acknowledge the uncertainties involved. This article investigates whether new forms of knowledge production as prescribed in the concept of post-normal science can improve risk governance of GM crops. The GM science review carried out in the UK in 2003 serves as a case study and the focus is on how scientific uncertainty and public concern was taken into account. Some recommendations are advanced for assessing scientific uncertainty, for accommodating scientific disputes and for integrating stakeholders' interests and perspectives in relations to GM crops.

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves
Matt Ridley, HarperCollins, May 18, 2010. Hardcover, 448 pp.
Food Ethics
(ed) Franz-Theo Gottwald, Hans Werner Ingensiep and Marc Meinhardt, 2010 Springer New York, ISBN 978-1-4419-5764-1 . $179

This book presents international discussions and information concerning food ethics in its current state. It presents a variety of important aspects in the field of food ethics with respect to positions, instruments and applications of issues surrounding nutrition. A great deal of the book will concern itself with discussing different ethical positions and problems of current interests, as explained by experts of the "food-ethics-community".

Long-term effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields; Assessment of the study of D. Adang
Scientific advisory body opinion/advice

In 2008 a thesis from Belgium received quite some publicity, since it would show that long term exposure to radiation from GSM or radar would shorten the lifespan of rats. And of course it was speculated that this would also apply to humans. The House of Representatives even asked questions on this to the minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment. The minister therefore asked the Health Council to report on the thesis. The Electromagnetic Fields Committee of the Council has performed a thorough study of the thesis and the scientific paper on this research that has been published in the meantime. It reports on this in the advisory report “Long-term effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields;


Země živitelka
Exhibition in České Bodějovice 26. – 31. August. 2010)
registrafion  - before 14. July. 2010.
12th World Congress, June 6-11, 2010
Plant BioTech World Congress to Highlight Scientific Discoveries and Technologies Bringing New Hope to Feeding the World and Improving Lives
International Association for Plant Biotechnology, May 26, 2010

Discoveries that can increase crop yields and productivity, create sustainable forests and new medicines, and other advances to improve the lives of farmers and others' lives, especially in the world's poorest countries, will be among the recurring themes of presentations at the upcoming International Association for Plant Biotechnology (IAPB) 12th World Congress, June 6-11, 2010, at the America's Center in downtown, St. Louis, Missouri.

The 11th International Symposium on the Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
November 15-20, 2010 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Organized by the International Society for Biosafety Research (ISBR), the symposium's theme will be "The role of biosafety research in the decision making process." The conference website is available at the link below.

"Ethics at the Frontiers of Science and Technology"
Workshop at the ICPAC 2010 conference - July 26-30, 2010 Mauritius
The objective of the workshop for Ethics at the frontiers of Science and Technology is to encourage science and technology in the public interest by promoting awareness, understanding, and discussion of the ethical and moral implications of new developments in science and technology. Also to study the fundamental problems of contemporary ethics in recent era as well as the philosophical issues raised by the modern life sciences.
Roundtable discussion for SMEs:
On 2nd June, as part of the European SME Week , EuropaBio and ASEBIO, the Spanish Biotechnology Association, co-hosted a roundtable discussion for SMEs in Madrid, Spain. Focusing on the European Framework Programmes and on improving financing, the roundtable brought together discussants from, amongst others, the European Commission, the VC community, SMEs and the Spanish national contact points on FP7. One year on from the publication of EuropaBio?s paper 'Access to Finance: A Call for Action' a new set of recommendations on how to adjust the European Framework Programmes to meet the specific needs of biotech SMEs was also presented

Europe - EU

EU States Stay Deadlocked Over GM Maize Imports
Reuters, June 29, 2010

European Union farm ministers failed to agree to approve six genetically modified (GM) maize varieties for import to the bloc, despite a warning that inaction could lead to a shortage of animal feed. Following the deadlock, the import applications for use in food and feed can now be approved unilaterally by the bloc's executive, the European Commission.

In principle that could happen "within a few weeks", but the Commission has not yet decided whether the approval will be granted before or after the European summer break, a spokesman for the EU executive told Reuters. Before the vote, EU Health and Consumer Commissioner John Dalli told ministers that authorisations should be approved as a priority to avoid any repeat of last year's disruption to feed imports.

That was caused by the EU's zero-tolerance policy on unapproved GM material in imports -- shipments of animal feed from the United States were refused entry to the bloc after minute traces of unapproved GM material were discovered in the cargo.

Europe's Science-Free Plan for Gene-Modified Crops
Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, June 29, 2010

A plan is afoot to bring genetically modified crops - mostly resisted for a decade - into Europe's fields.

Currently, European Union countries opposed to GM crops use a voting system that can delay a variety from being grown anywhere in Europe even after it's been cleared of posing any risks to human health or the environment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which vets all applications for Europe-wide approval of crops for growth and human consumption.

The result of years of deadlock is that Europe's farmers are allowed to grow only two GM crops at present - a type of maize called MON863 and a potato called Amflora - compared with the dozens of varieties grown elsewhere in the world.

On 13 July, the 27 member states of the EU will vote on a plan to overhaul the current regulations, but there are concerns that the proposed solution will compromise Europe's current obligation to judge GM crops solely on science. As part of the solution, individual countries will be allowed to give socio-economic or cultural reasons for banning cultivation of GM crops.

The proposed solution has come out of the EU's executive body, the European Commission. Consumer protection commissioner John Dalli argues that nations opposed to GM crops should be free to ban them from cultivation on non-scientific grounds.

The hoped-for payback is that those same nations end their current tactic of stalling the approval process for each submission to grow GM crops in the European Union. The existing Europe-wide process for approving GM crops would carry on as it is, with the EFSA having the final say on whether crops are harmless enough to human health and the environment to be safely grown anywhere in Europe.

"By making lower thresholds legal, the commission opens up a Pandora's box for nations to set their own levels, which is very destructive for legal predictability," says the Europabio source. "The EU claims to have a science-based regulation system, but if they allow this, they can no longer claim that."

Unhappy Greens

It seems that the environmental groups and the "banning" countries - Germany, France, Luxembourg, Austria, Hungary and Greece - are equally unhappy with the Dalli plan. "This is looking a bit like a trap," says Adrian Bebb of the Friends of the Earth lobby group, which is opposed to GM crops.

The worry of anti-GM countries is that the proposed legislation is too weak to give legal redress to farmers in the "banning" states whose fields are contaminated by GM pollen or seed drift from neighbouring countries, or who buy organic seeds that turn out to contain GM seeds too. "We're calling on member states to reject it," says Bebb, who has seen the full draft.

European Parliament wants risk assessment for nanofood.
The Committee on Environment, Health and Consumer Protection of the European Parliament voted in favour of excluding nanotechnology from the EU list of novel foods allowed on the market before 1997. The plenary vote is scheduled for July 2010.
Scientix: The new web-based community for Science Education

The European Commission has launched Scientix, a new web-portal targeted towards teachers, researchers, policy makers, local actors, parents and anyone interested in science education. Scientix will give access to teaching materials, research results and policy documents from European science education projects financed by the European Union and by various national initiatives. The new platform will facilitate regular dissemination and sharing of news, know-how, and best practices in science education across the European Union.

European Food Safety Authority Meets Member State Experts on Environmental Risk Assessment of GM Plants
Seed Quest, June 17, 2010

EFSA scientists held a day of discussions with experts from Member States on the newest scientific developments and approaches to assess possible environmental risks from genetically modified (GM) plants. Experts in the field of environmental risk assessment of GM plants from Member State authorities and members of GMO Panel Working Groups reviewed a guidance document outlining how EFSA carries out its environmental risk assessment (ERA) of GM plants and the data requirements which must be met by applicants.

Participants at the technical meeting held in Berlin discussed comments made by Member States following a public consultation on the draft EFSA guidance document as well as a draft scientific opinion addressing the specific issue of non-target organisms (NTOs)[1]. The meeting was webcastlive on EFSA's website.

More than 250 comments were received from Member States during the public consultation of the draft ERA guidance. At the meeting, EFSA experts explained specific areas which have to be addressed by applicants and experts carrying out the risk assessment. These include: the possibility of gene transfer between the plant and micro-organisms, the potential invasiveness of the plant itself; the plant's potential effects on: human and animal health, including both target and non-target organisms; and the implications for cultivation, management and harvesting techniques.

With respect to NTOs, the draft opinion of the GMO Panel sets out proposals on the criteria for the selection of NTOs and advice on testing methodology. EFSA's Working Group on NTOs considered the impact of GM plants on invertebrates and also took account of ecosystems that could be altered.

This meeting follows technical discussions during the preparation of the ERA and NTO opinions held last year with Member States and stakeholders such as applicants, environmental groups and non-governmental organisations.

Biotechnology Research: EC-US Task Force looks to the future

The EC-US Task Force on Biotechnology Research is celebrating its 20th anniversary. On this occasion, the Spanish Presidency of the EU is hosting a conference entitled "Biotechnology Research for a Complex World". During the day, European and US scientists and policy makers will discuss the future of biotechnology research and its applications for the benefits of society. Since 1990, the Task Force has served as a model for transatlantic cooperation, bringing together policy makers and scientific communities from Europe and the US. It serves as a unique think-tank on the future of biotechnology research.

Deliberate release into the environment of GMOs for any other purposes than placing on the market (experimental releases)
Spain: Field test of Nicotiana glauca genetically modified as an energy crop.


Environment secretary Caroline Spelman backs GM crops
Juliette Jowit and John Vidal, The Guardian (UK), June 4, 2010

In her first interview in charge of Defra, Caroline Spelman committed coalition to becoming most pro-GM government yet.

The wider growing and selling of genetically modified crops has received its strongest government backing to date from the new environment secretary, Caroline Spelman. At present no GM crops are commercially grown in the UK, and the previous Labour government was nervous of promoting GM foods because of fear of a renewed public backlash against "Frankenstein foods". But in her first interview in charge of the department of environment food and rural affairs, the minister committed the new coalition to becoming the most pro-GM government yet, saying she was in favour of GM foods "in the right circumstances".

"GM can bring benefits in food to the marketplace. The sale should not be promoted by the taxpayer. [New Environment minister] Lord Henley has approved a trial of a potato blight-resistant variety. That's the kind of modification that can reduce the amount of agro-chemicals which need to be applied," said Spelman, who spent 15 years in the agriculture industry and worked as director of a biotechnology lobbying firm. She added: "There are benefits to developing countries, like drought resistance or resistance to high salt content in water. The principle of GM technology is [OK] if used well. The technology can be beneficial."

Strong medicine for French research
The medical-research adviser to France's president aims to shift power and money to universities.
Declan Butler
Nature 466, 20 (2010)


The African Union has set up a school to educate and train future regulators in genetically modified (GM) crop biosafety.
The African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE) was officially launched in April in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, with a five-year, $10. Nature Biotechnology 28, 534 (1 June 2010) | doi:10.1038/nbt0610-534
European regulators stymie biotech acceptance
- Feedstuffs, June 9, 2010

Africa is potentially missing out on the poverty- and famine-thwarting benefits of genetically modified organisms because of the influence of anti-GMO crop regulations from Europe, political scientist Robert Paarlberg told the International Association for Plant Biotechnology (IAPB) 12th World Congress. The issue is important because of the propensity for drought to cause famine and starvation across the region. Genetically engineered crops can resist drought and reduce the risk of food shortages. But most of Africa has rejected GMO plants because it follows European regulatory models, said Paarlberg, Ph.D., professor of political science at Wellesley College and author of "Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa."

He cited several reasons: strong European financial aid (three times greater than U.S. aid), influence of European technical assistance, nongovernmental agency advocacy campaigns that use scare tactics against GMOs, fear of loss African commodity exports to Europe; and Africans' belief that Europe is more educated and knowledgeable than Africa.

Africa could feed itself, says soil scientist
Anna Salleh, ABC News (Australia), June 10, 2010

Africa has good soils and could easily feed itself if more money was spent on fertiliser and seed rather than food aid, says one soil scientist. World Food Prize Laureate Dr Pedro Sanchez laid out his argument to a recent agricultural research symposium at the University of Sydney.

Fungus-tainted corn a factor in Africa HIV spread?
Amy Norton, Reuters, June 9, 2010

A new study raises the question of whether corn contaminated with a fungus-derived toxin is helping to facilitate the transmission of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa.

The toxins, called fumonisins, are produced by a particular type of fungus that can grow in corn after the plant is damaged by pests such as the cornstalk borer. Fumonisins may be harmful to human health, with some studies linking consumption of the toxins to an increased rate of cancer of the esophagus, the tube that connects the throat to the stomach.

Expanding on a recent article in Nature Geoscience, Dr Sanchez argues tropical Africa is capable of tripling its crop yields if something is done about the lack of nutrients in its soils. "Food crop yields have not changed in Africa since 1961," he says. "That's 50 years. It's amazing." "The soils are not inherently bad as some people have said," he says. "What happened is that farmers took out too many nutrients, mainly in the form of crop harvests."


Survey suggests most Americans would accept 'sustainable' GM wheat
Caroline Scott-Thomas,, June 3, 2010

Many American consumers would be receptive to foods containing genetically modified wheat if it is produced sustainably, suggests a new survey examining attitudes to food technologies from the International Food Information Council (IFIC).

The survey, the fourteenth conducted by the council, polled 750 US adults to gauge current attitudes toward the newest food technologies.

Although commercially available genetically modified (GM) wheat crops are likely to be at least a decade away, 80 percent of survey respondents said they would be likely to purchase bread, crackers, cookies, cereal, or pasta products containing GM wheat "if they were produced using sustainable practices to feed more people using fewer resources such as land and pesticides." And consistent with the 2008 survey, 77 percent of respondents said they would buy foods produced through biotechnology if they helped cut pesticide use.

GM alfalfa in USA
Reg Clause, AgWeb,  June 25, 2010 (Jefferson, IA - Board member, Truth About Trade & Technology)

In the Supreme Court's first-ever ruling on genetically modified crops, the justices issued a resounding decision in favor of biotechnology.  The Supreme Court overturned a lower court's decision to impose a nationwide ban on GM alfalfa.

The Supreme Court is famous for its 5-4 split decisions, especially in cases that generate political controversy. The alfalfa ruling, however, was no nail-biter. The justices ruled 7-1 in favor of biotechnology.

The case marks a clear victory for American farmer choice in the matter of biotech seed. It affirms the idea that relevant government agencies and regulators set the rules that govern agriculture - and those rules must be science-based. The United States has benefited since its founding from a process of lawmaking and regulatory rules making.  When this is subverted by finding friendly courts or endlessly clogging our processes with frivolous suits, nobody benefits except the very narrow interest groups who happen to oppose progress.

The anti-biotech activists are applying a cynical approach to science, technology, and food production by hiring lawyers and seeking out friendly court venues. Yet these professional rabble-rousers have a lot invested in their litigious scheme. The Supreme Court's decision probably isn't enough to make them abandon it completely. Even if they don't win on alfalfa, they'll try to win on sugar beets--another important crop that they are attempting to thwart.

Reg Clause raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa.  He is a Truth About Trade & Technology board member (

Genetically Enhanced Trees May Save the American Chestnut
Tim Latshaw, Observer (NY), June 18, 2010

For nearly 20 years, different crossbreeds of the American chestnut have been planted along this stretch of backroad, hoping that new variations can stand up to a blight that has been killing off and stunting this once tall and widespread tree for more than a century. Some continue to live, others die, but all eventually contract the blight. The transgenic project in New York has been under the care of Drs. Charles Maynard and William Powell from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at SUNY Syracuse. Six "events," or different transgenic varieties are currently planted on the 1.4-acre property. Among them are "control" groups of pure American chestnuts, Chinese chestnuts and various hybrids. Additional sites will be established to determine what factors location has on the viability of the alterations, as well.

INIA Disproves Claim of Illegally Planted Transgenic Maize in Peru
Via Crop Biotech Update, June 25, 2010

Peru's National Institute for Agricultural Innovation (INIA) disproved a study that generated a court case in Peru that claimed the presence of illegally planted transgenic maize in the valley of Pativilca in the Barranca region. Results were presented at the International Forum of Modern Biotechnology in the Agricultural Sector that disproved the findings made by biologist Antonietta Gutierrez, who claimed to have found two types of hard yellow corn resistant to herbicides and certain insects.

Biologist Ernesto Bustamante was sued by Antonietta Gutierrez at the 6th Criminal Court of Lima which found him guilty of the crime of defamation. He expressed satisfaction over the findings noting that INIA proved it is a good regulator agency and is well qualified to sample all areas of the Barranca and Pativilca valleys, despite the refusal of Dr. Gutiérrez to turn over her samples and to indicate the location coordinates of the fields in which she made her study.

The English translation of the original article in Spanish is available at


China: Let's Talk about Biotech
Jia Hepeng, China Dialog, June 24, 2010. Full article at

Scientists need to better engage with public concerns over food safety, says Jia Hepeng, who believes communication is the key to resolving China's conflict over genetically modified crops. The heated debate over genetically modified (GM) crops that has been raging in China in recent months has highlighted a communication gulf between scientists and the public, as well as the urgent need to improve the government's transparency efforts.

Late last year, the Ministry of Agriculture announced that it had issued biosafety licenses to two pest-resistant Bacillus thurigiensis (Bt) rice varieties and one phytase maize, which can help livestock digest phosphorus, an important nutritional element found in maize and soy feeds.

The announcement caused an immediate furore. In early March, amid the annual plenary meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's legislature, 120 Chinese academics, mostly from the humanities and social sciences, signed a public petition asking the agriculture ministry to withdraw the certificates.

The petition made some strong claims: "The approval for the commercialisation of genetically modified rice and maize enables China to become the world's first country to plant genetically modified staple food, thereby threatening national security." At the same time, at the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC) - China's advisory "upper house" - the Zhigong Party also raised a motion asking that genetically modified crops be developed with caution.

Some environmental groups agree. "The current research has not been going long enough to test the genetic toxicity to later generations if genetically modified rice becomes a major food source for China's 1.3 billion people," says Fang Lifeng, a food safety campaigner at Beijing-based Greenpeace China.

But most GM scientists and biosafety experts think these worries are unnecessary. "We have already carried out intensive research into genetically modified crops and there is no evidence to support the concerns about their impact on the environment," says Wu Kongming, a biosafety scientist at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) and a member of the National Biosafety Committee on genetically modified food, which advises the government on certification.

Certainly, it is clear that the public petition confused biosafety licenses with commercialisation. The certificates did not mean the product would immediately appear on the open market. Large-scale production trials, development of more productive seeds with genes from approved varieties and evaluation of the seeds are all required before commercialisation can go ahead. This process will take another five years at least.

"Having gained the certificates, we will be able to carry out bigger field trials and collect much more data for testing safety. And, if we find any problems, then the process towards commercialisation can be stopped," says Zhang Qifa, a leading scientist at Wuhan-based Huazhong Agricultural University, who has developed the certified rice varieties.

The 2009 annual report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) states that, if commercialised, Bt rice could bring estimated annual benefits worth US$4 billion (27.3 billion yuan) to up to 440 million rice farmers in China.

Greenpeace's Fang Lifeng says that most of the benefits will in fact go to big biotech companies, such as Monsanto, and farmers will lose out because they will be unable to obtain conventional seeds.

But Hu Ruifa, a senior researcher at the Beijing-based Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy (CCAP) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), disagrees. Hu says studies conducted by his centre have indicated that, in the case of genetically modified cotton, which covers nearly 70% of the land farmed for cotton in China, farmers have benefited and that it is still easy to get conventional seeds.

In 2006, a research team from Cornell University presented findings - based on CCAP data - indicating that, while farmers of Bt cotton had benefited during the first seven years of planting, their profit in 2005 was actually lower than that of non-GM cotton farmers. The reason given was that both groups of farmers had been forced to use extra pesticide to deal with the so-called secondary pests not targeted by the Bt gene and that those planting genetically modified cotton had to spend more money on seeds.

The study was widely quoted by international groups campaigning against the use of genetically modified crops. But Hu Ruifa says that some of those opting to plant the cheaper, non-GM seeds are doing so because the borer worm population targeted by the Bt gene has been significantly reduced following several years of plantation - and conventional farmers have therefore been able to reduce their pesticide use as well. The year examined by the Cornell research, 2005, was also unusual in its large-scale outbreak of the secondary pest, he says. Hu believes that, with improved management, GM-crop farmers can better deal with non-targeted secondary pests and reduce the need for fertiliser.

He also claims that year-on-year consistency in the size of the area used for genetically modified cotton - which only fluctuates with market demands and price - shows Chinese farmers are using GM seeds because they have confidence in them and not because they are unable to obtain conventional varieties.

Other challengers to the adoption of genetically modified crops focus on management issues. In late March, Greenpeace reported that it had found rice containing the Bt protein, suspected to have come from Huazhong Agricultural University, on sale in the southern Chinese city of Changsha. It is one of many such reports produced by the organisation since 2005. In the European market, rice food imported from China has, on several occasions, also been found to contain Bt ingredients.

Opponents say that the illegal plantation of genetically modified rice is a sign of lax management and that there is no guarantee that the crop would be well monitored and controlled if commercialised.

Zhang Qifa from Huazhong Agricultural University admits that the rice found in Changsha could have originated in his laboratory - not as a result of an intentional bid to sell genetically modified seeds for profits but because some samples could have been stolen during a national science show. "Illegal sales could be wiped out if legal, and better, GM rice varieties were commercialised," he adds.

But opponents say the government is unlikely to effectively manage genetically modified rice if it goes onto the mass market, partly because of a lack of transparency in the decision-making process concerning biosafety and future commercialisation certificates. In the midst of all the protests, the Ministry of Agriculture admitted that the biosafety certificates were issued in August 2009, even though the formal announcement was not made until November. This acknowledgement triggered widespread criticism, to which the agriculture ministry officials did not respond.

"The officials have poor experience in dealing with crisis, and this will only strengthen the opposition," says Hu. Zhang, on the other hand, thinks it is natural that the government did not announce the approvals earlier: "It is part of the ministry's regular workstream, so why should it be widely publicised?"

Despite Zhang's claim, he, like most other scientists in the field, is now aware that communication around the issue must be improved in order to help the public better understand the science of genetically modified crops.
No scientific research published in a peer-reviewed journal has found evidence that GM crops pose a significant health or environmental threat, but many environmental activists and large sections of the public reject the safety claims made by industry and scientists. By contrast, research on the potential harm of genetically modified crops that is publicised or sponsored by environmental groups often gets wider coverage, despite not being published in authoritative journals.

Such protests even led to cries of corruption. Many believe that scientists in this field are members of a vested interest group, promoting genetically modified crops solely for their own commercial benefit. Zhang rejects this claim. He says that scientists do not stand to profit from commercialisation because the intellectual-property rights over the GM crops belong to the government. Moreover, biosafety is evaluated independently, adds Wu Kongming. "We biosafety evaluation experts cannot share interests with GM scientists, because our interests are conflicting. All [biosafety and health] evaluations are based on scientific evidence."

Chinese scientists operating in the field are now waking up to the need to boost communication efforts. In a CAS-commissioned consultative report on prospects for genetically modified crops - still a work in progress - a communication section has been added. Out of the hundreds of academic reports like this carried out so far, this is the first to include such a thing.

Of course, this report alone will not necessarily lead to improved communication. The scientific approach - only admitting conclusions based on peer-reviewed evidence - does not easily transfer to the public domain, where people like to hear sensational stories. In the case of genetic modification, this often means negative reporting.

Worries about the potential risks to future generations are often rejected by scientists as meaningless, or as philosophical rather than scientific questions, since there is no evidence on which to base an experiment. But these concerns must also be taken seriously. At the same time as increasing long-term safety assessments, scientists need to explain their actions to the public.

Greater efforts need to be made to communicate ongoing research in a readable way and to improve systems for decision-making, regulation and monitoring. Adrian Ely, a research fellow for science and technology policy at the United Kingdom's University of Sussex, who has studied GM policies in China, says: "Transparency is a key issue to building long-term public trust."

--Jia Hepeng is editor-in-chief of Science News Bi-Weekly, published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and co-founder of the Climate Change Journalists' Club.

News in Science

Horizontal gene transfer by the parasitic plant Striga hermonthica.
Yoshida S, Maruyama S, Nozaki H, Shirasu K., Science. 2010 May 28;328(5982):1128


Horizontal gene transfer has been postulated to occur between crops to co-occurring parasitic plants, but empirical evidence has been lacking. We present evidence that an HGT event moved a nuclear monocot gene into the genome of the eudicot parasite witchweed (Striga hermonthica), which infects many grass species in Africa. Analysis of expressed sequence tags revealed that the genome of S. hermonthica contains a nuclear gene that is widely conserved among grass species but is not found in other eudicots. Phylogenetically, this gene clusters with sorghum genes, the monocot host of the parasitic weed, suggesting that nuclear genes can be captured by parasitic weeds in nature.

Glyphosate resistance
Nature Biotechnology 28, 537–538 (1 June 2010) | doi:10.1038/nbt0610-537

Weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to glyphosate, a report from the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released in April has found. The driving force, according to the report, is farmers' dependence on the weed killer accompanied by the widespread adoption of genetically modified (GM) herbicide-tolerant crops.

Organic Pesticides Not Always 'Greener' Choice, Study Finds
University of Guelph, Canada; June 22, 2010

Consumers shouldn't assume that, because a product is organic, it's also environmentally friendly.

A new University of Guelph study reveals some organic pesticides can have a higher environmental impact than conventional pesticides because the organic product may require larger doses.

Environmental sciences professor Rebecca Hallett and PhD candidate Christine Bahlai compared the effectiveness and environmental impact of organic pesticides to those of conventional and novel reduced-risk synthetic products on soybean crops.

"The consumer demand for organic products is increasing partly because of a concern for the environment," said Hallett. "But it's too simplistic to say that because it's organic it's better for the environment. Organic growers are permitted to use pesticides that are of natural origin and in some cases these organic pesticides can have higher environmental impacts than synthetic pesticides often because they have to be used in large doses."

The study, which is published today in the journal PloS One, involved testing six pesticides and comparing their environmental impact and effectiveness in killing soybean aphids - the main pest of soybean crops across North America.

The two scientists examined four synthetic pesticides: two conventional products commonly used by soybean farmers and two new, reduced-risk pesticides. They also examined a mineral oil-based organic pesticide that smothers aphids and another product containing a fungus that infects and kills insects.

The researchers used the environmental impact quotient, a database indicating impact of active ingredients based on such factors as leaching rate into soil, runoff, toxicity from skin exposure, consumer risk, toxicity to birds and fish, and duration of the chemical in the soil and on the plant.

They also conducted field tests on how well each pesticide targeted aphids while leaving their predators -- ladybugs and flower bugs -- unharmed.  "We found the mineral oil organic pesticide had the most impact on the environment because it works by smothering the aphids and therefore requires large amounts to be applied to the plants," said Hallett.

Compared to the synthetic pesticides, the mineral oil-based and fungal products were less effective, as they also killed ladybugs and flower bugs, which are important regulators of aphid population and growth.

Collagen manufactured from transgenic tobacco plants
Hebrew University of Jerusalem/, June 10, 2010

A scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment has succeeded in producing a replica of human collagen from tobacco plants - an achievement with tremendous commercial implications for use in a variety of human medical procedures.

Fern's evolution gives arsenic tolerance that may clean toxic land
Purdue University, Press Release, June 10, 2010

Isolating a gene that allows a type of fern to tolerate high levels of arsenic, Purdue University researchers hope to use the finding to create plants that can clean up soils and waters contaminated by the toxic metal.

The fern Pteris vittata can tolerate 100 to 1,000 times more arsenic than other plants. Jody Banks, a professor of botany and plant pathology, and David Salt, a professor of horticulture, uncovered what may have been an evolutionary genetic event that creates an arsenic pump of sorts in the fern.

"It actually sucks the arsenic out of the soil and puts it in the fronds," Banks said. "It's the only multi-cellular organism that can do this."

Gene Leads to Longer Shelf Life for Tomatoes, Possibly Other Fruits
Purdue University, June 29, 2010

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A Purdue University researcher has found a sort of fountain of youth for tomatoes that extends their shelf life by about a week.

Avtar Handa, a professor of horticulture, found that adding a yeast gene increases production of a compound that slows aging and delays microbial decay in tomatoes. Handa said the results, published in the early online version of The Plant Journal, likely would transfer to most fruits. "We can inhibit the aging of plants and extend the shelf life of fruits by an additional week for tomatoes," Handa said. "This is basic fundamental knowledge that can be applied to other fruits."

The organic compound spermidine is a polyamine and is found in all living cells. Polyamines' functions aren't yet fully understood. Handa and Autar Mattoo, a research plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service and collaborator in the research, had shown earlier that polyamines such as spermidine and spermine enhance nutritional and processing quality of tomato fruits. "At least a few hundred genes are influenced by polyamines, maybe more," Mattoo said. "We see that spermidine is important in reducing aging. It will be interesting to discover what other roles it can have."

Swiss researchers uncover microscopic fungus which speeds rice growth
MercoPress, June 11, 2010

Researchers at a Swiss university said Thursday that they have uncovered a microscopic fungus that is able to increase the speed of rice growth by five times. In a study published by Switzerland's University of Lausanne, researchers claimed that the fungus mycorrhiza would not only cut the use of phosphate fertilizers, it was also "completely natural" or GM-free.

Breakthrough in quest to boost rice yields
Debora MacKenzie, New Scientist, May 24, 2010

If any crop needs an evolutionary boost, it's rice. Nearly half of humanity relies on the stuff, and yields must increase more than 50 per cent by 2050 to feed growing demand, so the discovery of a gene mutation that can bump up yields by a full 10 per cent is exciting news.

Two independent teams of geneticists, lead by Kotaro Miura at Nagoya University in Japan and Yongqing Jiao at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, have now identified the same mutation in one gene in these varieties.

It blocks the binding of a small, regulatory RNA molecule that normally inhibits the gene. The result is the suppressed branching of shoots, but increased branching in panicles.

Miura's team used standard plant breeding to introduce the mutation to new varieties, and ended up with as much as 52 per cent more grains per plant.

Jiao's team put the mutant gene into new rice varieties using genetic engineering and, under field conditions - the acid test for any rice plant - rice yields increased by 10 per cent.

Journal references: Nature Genetics, DOI: 10.1038/ng.592, and 10.1038/ng.591

Boosting rice yields generates optimism
Southwest Farm Press, June 11, 2010

The goal is to increase by 50 percent the yield of rice, which about half of the world's population depends on as a staple.

Early research on improving photosynthesis in rice plants is giving investigators reason for optimism, Cambridge University plant scientist Julian Hibberd told the International Association for Plant Biotechnology (IAPB) 12th World Congress.

Hibberd's work on the C4 Rice Project is searching for ways to genetically modify rice plants, which use C3 photosynthesis, to the more productive C4 form found in plants such as maize and sorghum. He is part of a project coordinated by the International Rice Research Institute and funded by an $11 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The goal is to increase by 50 percent the yield of rice, which about half of the world's population depends on as a staple. Because rice feeds more people than any other crop and yields have started to plateau worldwide, Hibberd said, increasing production is critical to food security

Clover May Reduce Methane Emissions
New Zealand Herald, June 16, 2010

Agricultural scientists who have spent years looking at how to create pasture plants which could reduce the methane emissions from livestock say it may be possible to produce a clover that will do the job.

Scientists from AgResearch and one of its subsidiaries, Grasslanz Technology Ltd, said today they can produce an improved cultivar of white clover to give cows and sheep extra protein and at the same time reduce emissions of methane and nitrogen waste, while improving animal health.

Nearly half of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions are generated by agriculture, but farmers have resisted taking accountability for their share of emissions on the grounds that they do not have an economic way to combat the methane emissions.

AgResearch scientists Garry Waghorn and Michael Tavendale have previously shown that condensed tannins found in some pasture species, such as lotus, a legume, can directly reduce methane emissions by as much as 16 per cent, and Dr Tavendale has predicted that pastures containing condensed tannins are likely to become increasingly important to farmers.

Uganda: Sweet Genes Arm Banana Crops, June 15, 2010

Scientists in Uganda have developed GM bananas that show promising resistance to the deadly banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW) disease.

Bananas are Uganda's leading non-cereal crop with some 70 per cent of the population depending on it as staple food. More than US$200 million has been lost to BXW infestation since 2001. The disease has also been reported in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Now, the banana plants modified with two genes derived from sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum) show resistance to the disease caused by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris pv. musacearum.

Genetics Offers New Biotechnology Tools
UPI, June 11, 2010 at 1:26 PM

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- U.S. forestry scientists say they've discovered the growth rate and other characteristics of trees can be changed through a type of genetic engineering.

The Oregon State University researchers said they have demonstrated for the first time that "cisgenics" -- a type of genetic engineering that is conceptually similar to traditional plant breeding -- might herald a new future for biotechnology.

Cisgenics uses genes from closely related species that usually are sexually compatible, the scientists said, adding if governments choose to regulate it similarly to conventional breeding, it might revolutionize not only forestry, but crop agriculture and other areas as well.
The researchers, led by Professor Steven Strauss, said they used cisgenic manipulation to affect the actions of gibberellic acid -- a plant hormone, in poplar trees -- to affect the growth rate, morphology and wood properties of seedling trees.

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