Talk Less of GM and More of What Science Can Deliver, Says Plant Scientist
„Farmers, agronomists and plant breeders
should abandon the words "genetic modification" because of the negative public reaction they elicit,
and instead talk in terms of the possible benefits the technology can deliver, says one leading plant scientist,“ says Bill Clark, director of Broom's Barn Applied Crop Sciences. „"Scientists need to be much more careful about promoting their science. They use inappropriate language, concentrate too much on the science without thinking about benefits.“
(Ian Ashbridge, Farmers Weekly (UK), January 7, 2011).
General - Global
Matt Ridley, Times (UK), January 14, 2010,
It is true that the world population may pass seven billion some time in the next twelve months, but the rate of growth is decelerating. World population is now growing at just over 1% a year, down from roughly 2% in the 1960s. The actual number of people added to the world population each year has been dropping for more than 20 years.
This deceleration took demographers by surprise. As recently as 1980 many were still forecasting that the current century would see 15 billion people and rising. Only in 2002 did the United Nations realise that its models were wrong to assume that birth rates would not drop below 2 children per woman in many countries. Now the UN estimates that the population will most probably peak at 9.2 billion in about 2075 before starting a slow decline. Population quadrupled in the twentieth century; it will not even double in this.Everywhere, the fall in the birth rate is dramatic. Countries like Iran and Sri Lanka now have total fertility rates below two children per woman. Bangladesh is now down to 2.7 from 6.8 in 1955. Nigeria's birth rate has halved. These `demographic transitions' are proving as predictable as they are mysterious. They seem to happen because women stop fearing their babies will die, and because they move to cities, get educated, get access to birth control and get richer. In other words, the causes are benign; coercion, of the kind so many `experts' have long urged, is neither necessary nor helpful.
Food Prices to Rocket By 50% As Global Hunger Epidemic Takes Hold, Government Doomsday Report Warns
- David Derbyshire, Daily Mail (UK), Jan. 24, 2011
The world is facing a commodities crisis that could leave millions unable to afford the rising costs of food as population levels soar.
The new report comes from Foresight, a think tank set up to predict future crises. 'There is a very large risk of a quite substantial increase in prices over the next 30 or 40 years,' said co-author Professor Charles Godfray of Oxford University. The report, written by 40 scientists in 35 countries, called for a 'green revolution' to boost production using traditional, organic and genetically modified crops - designed to be resistant to drought or salt water - and better training for farmers in poor and middle income countries.Professor John Beddington, the Government's chief scientific adviser, said the food system was failing 'Firstly it is unsustainable, with resources being used faster than they can be naturally replenished,' he said. 'Secondly a billion people are going hungry with another billion people suffering from "hidden hunger", whilst a billion people are over-consuming.'
Books & Articles
Plant Breeding and Genomics Resources New on Web
A group of researchers and educators from U.S. land-grant universities, government agencies and industry has created the first Internet resource aimed at quickly putting basic research on crop genomes on the Web to support plant breeding programs. The resource is new at eXtension (pronounced E-extension), http://www.extension.org.
The New Harvest:
Agricultural Innovation in Africa by Calestous Juma (Harvard University professor): Oxford University Press.
One in three Africans is chronically hungry, according to the United Nations, despite $3-billion spent on food aid for the continent annually and $33-billion in food imports. Population growth and climate change are growing threats. But "Africa can feed itself. And it can make the transition from hungry importer to self-sufficiency in a single generation,“ concludes the book. „Africa is the only continent with arable land readily available to expand agriculture and that Southern Sudan alone could feed all Africans if it was properly developed. "An African agricultural revolution is within reach, provided the continent can focus on supporting small-scale farmers to help meet national and regional demand for food," Juma said. His proposal included the modernisation of farms, with new machinery and storage and processing facilities, and the selective use of genetically modified crops. He called for new roads, energy sources and irrigation projects.“
the largest database of biomedical researchers across the globe, have served more than 220 companies in USA, Canada, Europe & Asia. Our database has most updated contact information of researchers, who are the potential customers of biotech & biomedical products. In the last 6 months over 3,100,000 contacts are updated in our database. http://www.scientistdata.info
Jess Halliday, Food Production Daily, Jan. 18, 2011
There are a number of factors influencing consumer attitudes and acceptance of new technologies, such as perceived risks and benefits, knowledge, provision of information, trust, and socio-demographic factors. The paper looks particularly at food irradiation, GMOs, animal cloning, nutrigenomics and nanotechnology, mapping current awareness and attitudes to each. Increased communication early on, and involvement of end-users, could contribute to transparency in decision-making and trust in public authorities, as well as the possibility of market success - but given the complexity of food risk communication "no single set of recommendations can suit all situations".
Trends in Food Science & Technology, online ahead of print, Doi:10.1016/j.tifs.2010.09.001 Consumers and new food technologies- Authors: Fanny Rollin, Jean Kennedy, Josephine Wills
The Only Way to Go Green
Editorial, Investors Business Daily, Jan. 14, 2011
Feed The World: Warnings of a global food shortage are cropping up in the news. This should not be happening in 2011. But while our technologies have advanced, our politics are still prehistoric.
Man cannot control the weather. But famine today is as much man-made as it is a force of nature. Zimbabwe, for instance, was once considered the breadbasket of Africa. Under the regime of Robert Mugabe, the annual corn harvest shriveled from more than 1.5 million tons in 2000 to 500,000 tons in 2003. By 2010, production was still around 600,000 tons. Wheat production also collapsed, from 309,000 tons in 2000 to 27,000 tons in 2003. Last year it was roughly 18,000 tons.
Another African nation, Zambia, declined food aid, mostly corn, from the U.S. in 2002, even though it was facing a famine that would affect nearly one-third of its people. Why? Because America was offering genetically modified food, and it was the country's policy - based on Europe's unfounded fear of such products - to reject it.
Four years later, Friends of the Earth publicly asked governments in the hungry African countries of Ghana and Sierra Leone to recall U.S. food aid that contained genetically modified rice. Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa set the wrong tone in 2002 when he called the food offered to his famished nation "poison" and "intrinsically dangerous." Such foolish statements could be passed off as ignorance, but what do we say about wags in the developed world who have named genetically modified crops "frankenfood"? They are spreading a fear and superstition about genetically modified foods that doom humans to suffering and even death.
Genetically Modified Crops are The Key to Human Survival, Says UK's Chief Scientist
- Robin McKie, The Observer (UK), Jan. 23, 2011
Sir John Beddington argues that moves to block GM crops on moral grounds are no longer sustainable.
Moves to block cultivation of genetically modified crops in the developing world can no longer be tolerated on ethical or moral grounds, the government's chief scientist, Sir John Beddington, has warned. He said the world faced "a perfect storm" of issues that could lead to widespread food shortages and public unrest over the next few decades. His warning comes in the wake of food riots in north Africa and rising global concern about mounting food prices.
His remarks were made in advance of publication tomorrow of a major report, "The Future of Food and Farming" (see http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/bispartners/foresight/docs/food-and-farming/11-546-future-of-food-and-farming-report.pdf). Crucially, the report will be presented tomorrow not just to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), but also to the Department for International Development, which directs UK foreign aid. Beddington said he would present details of his office's report in Washington next month. He also hoped it would be debated at other events, including the G8 and G20 summits.
30 June – 1 July, Hamburg
RNAi & miRNA Europe
8 – 9 September 2011, Hamburg
- Deadlines: Papers 9 March 2011; Posters 27 July 2011
The Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC)
- September 6 -9 2011: Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa
Agricultural Biotechnology for Economic Development .
The theme of this conference is Agricultural Biotechnology for Economic Development. ABIC inspires and encourages the research, development and commercialization of new biotechnologies to improve human health, create a sustainable food supply and foster new energy sources for all nations.
GM Crop Regulations: Safety Net or Insurmountable Obstacle?
- AAAS Symposium, February 18, 2011, Washington DC
Organizer: Donald P. Weeks, University of Nebraska; Co-organizers: Wayne Parrott, University of Georgia and Alan McHughen, University of California
Genetic modification (GM) of fruits, vegetables and other small-market crops offers opportunities for many significant improvements, including enhanced nutrition, safety (e.g., elimination of toxins and allergens), taste, and shelf life and the ability to be grown with less pesticides -- yet none of these are available to consumers. Why? It is not because there are reasonable doubts about the safety of transgenic crop plants.
This symposium will address the two prime reasons why fresh market
and specialty GM foodstuffs are not on grocers' shelves. First,
the regulatory system in place is not sufficiently science-based
and is too costly to be justified for small-market crops.
Europe - EU
must be the central theme of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and genetically modified (GM) crops must be used to achieve it, Liberal Democrat MEP George Lyon told Oxford Conference delegates today (Wednesday, January 5).
In an impassioned speech Mr Lyon, who is leading the European Parliament response to the European Commission proposals to reform CAP, said European farmers were being left behind as 'GM becomes the norm' around the rest of the world.
He said politicians were exploiting people's fears about GM for their own political advantage and urged a change in tack. "The impasse in Europe must be broken if we are not to fall further behind," he said.
(William Surman, Farmers Guardian (UK), January 6, 2011)
EU GM Crop Regulation: A Road to Resolution or a Regulatory Roundabout?
European Journal of Risk Regulation 4/2010: pp. 359-369
Introduction Since first embarking on the road of risk management options for the regulation of recombinant DNA (rDNA) activities and use in 1978, the European Union (EU) has largely failed to create a regulatory and policy environment regarding genetically modified (GM) crops and their cultivation that is (a) efficient, (b) predicable, (c) accountable, (d) durable or (e) interjurisdictionally aligned.
Recent proposed regulatory changes announced by the European Union Commission (July 13, 2010) aim to allow member states to enact restrictive measures on cultivation of GM crops based on broadly scoped non-scientific criteria.
Deliberate release into the environment of GMOs for any other purposes than placing on the market (experimental releases) http://gmoinfo.jrc.ec.europa.eu/
Syngenta - Field trials with Rhizomania resistant SBVR111 sugar beet, glyphosate tolerant H7-1 sugar beet and stacked SBVR111 x H7-1 sugar beet to be carried out between 2011 and 2014 in the Czech Republic.
Zkusebni stanice Nechanice on behalf of SESVanderHave International B.V. - Field evaluation of sugar beet (Beta vulgaris) lines and hybrids derived from transformation event H7-1 tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate
Finland: High-Level Delegation Asks Parliament to Ease Regulations on Growing Genetically Modified Plants
Helsingin Sanomat, Jan.19, 2011
More than 300 doctorate-level scientists urge MPs not to base decision-making on hearsay but on scientific facts. An exceptionally large and authoritative group of scientists handed a petition to Parliament on Tuesday.
The petition requests that the Members of Parliament base their decisions in the lawmaking process regarding genetic modification on scientific facts instead of on hearsay and rumours.
According to the assembled professors, the current legal undertakings aim to censor scientific freedom. The petition had been signed by 557 people, of whom 312 had a doctorate level degree and of whom 210 served at least in the role of adjunct professor in the academic hierarchy. The signatories include 140 professors, three research directors, seven university deans, nine research institute directors, 12 university presidents, two university chancellors, plus a member of the Academy of Finland.
The petition was handed to a group of MPs consisting of members of the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry and the Environment Committee by a ten-strong delegation of Finland's top plant breeding experts.
According to the signatories, Finland and the EU have gone too far in setting limits to the development of genetically altered plants without basing this on scientific arguments. In practice, the scientists' main concern is the pending government bill that deals with the conditions under which the production of genetically modified starch potato could commence in Finland.
According to those handing in the petition, the majority of the researchers in the field are quite unanimous for example in their view that the suggested 18 to 30-metre safety zones between the genetically modified potatoes and other varieties are unnecessary. In an interview situation organised in connection with the handing in of the petition, the ten researchers present were concurrent that the safety zone could be limited to three metres as has been applied in Sweden.
According to researcher Jussi Tuomisto from MTT Agrifood Research Finland, studies show that even 18-metre safety zones would reduce the size of arable area at Finnish potato farms by ten per cent. The signatories' main common concern, however, was that "because of false information" the MPs might end up banning genetic engineering of plants in Finland altogether.
According to the professors, the vast majority of the plant breeding researchers understand the benefits of genetic modification, but in the public eye the arguments by "a couple of Turku-based adjunct professors" regarding the harmful effects of the technology have received an unreasonable amount of weight. These biologists argue that the chemical suppression of weeds will become more difficult when the genetically modified varieties' tolerance to weedkillers spreads from them to the actual weeds.
According to the professors, such fears are hugely exaggerated. Of the world's arable area, one tenth - an area five times the size of Finland - is already being cultivated with genetically modified crops, but the spreading of resistance to chemicals between the plant species has not been detected, the delegation pointed out.
University of Helsinki Plant and Forest Breeding Professor Teemu Teeri (teemu.teeri (at) helsinki.fi )pointed out that "the petition is not for or against anything, but simply a request that only scientific arguments would be used as criteria in the decision-making process." According to Teeri, the most common misconception among the public at large is that the use of genetic manipulation techniques would be somehow more dangerous than the traditional techniques used in plant breeding. "Today's genetic plant breeding is thousands of times more pure than the old-fashioned plant breeding techniques", added adjunct professor Jussi Tammisola.
Swiss Studies Glean Fresh Data on GM Wheat
- Susan Vogel-Misicka in Reckenholz, swissinfo.ch, Jan 30, 2011
Sorting seeds, breeding bacteria and weighing worms - after three years of intense research, Swiss scientists have gleaned fresh insight into genetically modified wheat. While they found some advantages in terms of fungi and bacteria resistance, they identified few major differences between GM and conventional wheat in terms of their behaviour and effects on other organisms.
Between 2008 and 2010, researchers planted and studied 14 varieties of GM wheat in Reckenholz near Zurich and in Pully near Lausanne. They compared them with normal wheat as well as other types of grain, like barley. "This was the first time that genetically modified plants could be examined on an agricultural basis under Swiss conditions," said Beat Keller, a professor at the Institute of Plant Biology at Zurich University, speaking at a conference at the Agroscope research centre in Reckenholz-Tänikon (ART).
The studies were part of the publically-funded National Research Programme 59: "Benefits and Risks of the Deliberate Release of Genetically Modified Plants". A network of research groups carried out the experiments under the name "wheat-cluster.ch". But it wasn't easy. As ART researcher Michael Winzeler explained, they had to conduct their field tests at least 100 metres away from other grain fields and erect nets to keep birds from consuming and spreading seeds. Harvesting was done by hand, and after all the research was complete, some 11 tons of plant material was carefully gathered and incinerated. "We have a very high level of biosafety and biosecurity measures that we have to fulfil, and that makes this experimentation very expensive," Winzeler told swissinfo.ch, noting that he felt that some of the requirements were too strict.
Then there were the vandals. For example, in 2008 a group of 35 people stormed the field in Reckenholz - destroying plants and threatening the workers. In Pully, an unidentifiable liquid was poured over a field in 2009. Subsequently, the project had to invest in better fences as well as round-the-clock surveillance with dogs. The researchers say security measures probably ended up costing as much as the research itself, although total costs are still being determined.
Opposition from people living near the test areas was also an issue. "Everyone within 1,000 metres of a field could lodge a complaint - even if the reason was completely unscientific," said Keller. This resulted in high administrative costs. "The law allows the open air research, but the conditions are very restrictive. And there are no provisions to 'shield' the research from vandals - this is needed in the form of protected sites," Keller said.
In one of their more significant findings, researchers discovered that GM wheat was indeed more resistant to powdery mildew than regular wheat. "We've clearly got a higher resistance to infection with the GM versions," said Susanne Brunner, another professor at Zurich University. Of the 12 GM varieties tested, all showed a higher resistance.
Yet half of those also showed mutations such as yellow leaves or reduced growth.
"An extra gene means that the plant needs more energy, so the yield could suffer," pointed out Agroscope researcher Fabio Mascher. According to Bernhard Schmid, a good GM yield in the greenhouse was no guarantee of a good harvest out in the open - where natural environmental conditions play a lead role in agriculture. "We have to adjust things very carefully to ensure that an increase in fungus resistance doesn't create a drop in harvest yields - so we need these field tests," said Schmid, a professor at Zurich University's Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Sciences.
This is where the aphids and worms came in. In a study involving aphids, it turned out that the sticky little insects really liked one of the GM varieties. Yet there was little difference in the growth of worms enclosed in cylinders where they could feed on just one type of wheat.
Meanwhile, a study of soil bacteria revealed some differences between the behaviour of GM and regular wheat, but nothing major in comparison with other factors, such as the season or fertiliser. A soil fungus study found no clear differences.
Researchers did not observe any cross-pollination between the GM wheat and nearby fields of normal wheat; however, there was some crossing with wild grass in the Aegilops family. Found mainly in cantons Valais and Ticino, this plant is common in the Mediterranean area and considered a weed in the United States. "The risk of gene flow between wheat and Aegilops species exists, so the presence of the wild relative should be monitored in case the transgenic crop is cultivated," said François Felber, a biology professor at Neuchatel University.
Not everyone at the conference was in favour of the research "I'm completely against it. The main interest behind GMOs is to have patents on varieties - and that means that the farmer of the future would have to pay a fee every time he goes to sow," as conference attendee Urs Hans told swissinfo.ch. Hans is a farmer and member of Zurich's cantonal parliament, not to mention a self-styled activist. He said that the results of the three-year study did not surprise him all that much. What bothers him more is what the scientists don't know "I'm sure that there are risks behind it. They can never guarantee what happens," Hans criticised.
Wilhelm Gruissem, a professor at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, maintains that GM is the future. "We live in an environment where plants are constantly chased by pathogens and affected by diseases. This research is necessary if we want to have long-term food security and sustainable agriculture," Gruissem told swissinfo.ch.
Formerly a faculty member at University of California Berkeley, Gruissem said that researchers in other countries had far fewer restrictions.
Meanwhile, Winzeler said he was optimistic that Switzerland could continue contributing to GM research with the right infrastructure - such as protected sites.
"Without that, it will be impossible for individual research teams to conduct field research - I'm convinced of that."
British MP In New Debate on Food Production
Chad (UK), January 20, 2011
Sherwood MP Mark Spencer has spoken in a debate about using biotechnology and genetic modification to secure Britain's future food security. Mr Spencer told the debate in Westminster Hall that there should be a mature and fact-based discussion on the subject. He said last Wednesday: "I believe that we have a responsibility to ensure Britain's food security. "The recent volatility of world markets has given us a taste of how vulnerable we are with wheat reaching a two-year high and food costs soaring. "In addition, climate change means that farming is under more pressure than ever and facing an uncertain future." With world population expected to rise above nine billion by 2050, experts have warned that we need to produce 50 per cent more food and energy and 30 per cent more fresh water within the next 20 years.
Mr Spencer added: "Biotechnology and specifically Genetic Modification offers improved yields, disease free plants and crops which can tolerate changing climactic conditions, all of which will ultimately mean that ordinary people in Sherwood can keep the cost of a trolley of shopping down. "Additionally, it will allow British farmers to compete in the world market where heavy regulation currently puts them at a disadvantage to foreign competitors. "What I want to bring about is an intelligent and informed debate on Genetic Modification which sets emotion, rumour and misinformation aside allowing a reasoned discussion of the pros and cons, bringing a potentially vital issue out of the shadows."
(Robin McKie, The Observer (UK), Jan. 23, 2011) - 'Sir John Beddington argues that moves to block GM crops on moral grounds are no longer sustainable'. Beddington said the world was going to need 40% more food, 30% more water and 50% more energy by the middle of the century - at a time when climate change was starting to have serious environmental impacts on the planet, flooding coastal plains, spreading deserts and raising temperatures. "We could cut down tropical rain forests and plant crops on the savannahs to grow more food, but that would leave us even more vulnerable to the impact of global warming and climate change. We needed these regions to help absorb carbon dioxide emissions, after all. Around 30% of food is lost before it can be harvested because it is eaten by pests that we never learnt how to control. We cannot afford that kind of loss to continue. GM should be able to solve that problem by creating pest-resistant strains, for example."
Seminar in Brussels
Rog Wood, Herald Scotland, Jan 17, 2011
'Genetically modified crops could bring huge increases in crop yields and reduce farmers' carbon output.' At last the fog of the EU's muddled thinking on genetic modification and cloning is beginning to clear.
Last week's seminar in Brussels on genetically modified (GM) produce was another small step forward in the debate. A leading US expert, Professor Martina McGloughlin of the University of California, outlined the benefits of GM products to both farmers and the environment. She told delegates pesticide use was reduced by 15.4%, insecticide use by 90% and fuel use went down by 20 gallons per acre. The reductions in carbon emissions are equivalent to removing six million cars from the roads.
France: GMO Grapevines in Colmar: the judicial system recognises the right to research
INRA Press release, Jan 17, 2011
The individual who, acting alone, destroyed a GMO trial belonging to INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, in September 2009, has just been even more heavily condemned by the Court of Appeal in Colmar (Alsace) on 17th January 2011: a one month suspended sentence, 50,000 euros in damages, and a confirmed fine of 2000 euros. This penal decision comes over and above the fact that the legality of this test has been reconfirmed by the administrative justice system. Already obliged to pay a 2000 euro fine in November 2009, the person responsible declares that he destroyed the research site of the Institute because no public debate was possible on these GMO grapevines, contesting the interest, the methods and the scientific range of this experiment, the objective of which was to find new means to fight against the fanleaf virus, a major disease for grapevines.
France – Experiment destroyed
The Institut National de Recherche Agronomique in Alsace has been trialling a new form of public involvement over recent years. A release experiment with genetically modified grapevines was monitored for six years by a Local Monitoring Committee, which helped develop the biosafety research questions. The project ended in 2010 when the trial field was destroyed. The final report appeared in the online journal PLosBiology at the end of 2010. Please read the article in more detail: Genetic engineering experiment: From information to interaction.
Uganda is Ready for Genetically Modified Foods
- Daily Monitor (Uganda), Jan. 6, 2011
In recent days, a number of negative opinions have been raised in the Ugandan media concerning Genetically Modified Organisms trials in Uganda. Most of the opinions are not informed by the vast knowledge available from biology and genetics and crop breeding.
The critics have deliberately and selectively picked up erroneous and biased bits and pieces of knowledge about GMO's from the web and media and they are using them to mislead the general public. It is important to correct the perception that GMO's have been resisted in Europe and North America.
Scientists in East Africa are developing GMO crops in partnerships with other scientists, including those in private laboratories/companies like Monsanto. The drought-tolerant GMO maize, if successful, will increase maize production from the current 7.2 million tons in ECA to 12 million - representing 70 per cent increase in maize production in the region. As scientists, we will not sit and watch the effects of climate change, drought, pests and diseases deny our people food.
(Dr Mugoya, a bioscientist, works with the Agro-biodiversity and Biotechnology Programme of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa. The article was co-authored by Clet Wandui Masiga of the same organisation).
China Boosts Funds for Public Debate on GM Crops
Li Jiao, Scidev.net, January 27, 2011
[BEIJING] Scientists in China have been given government funding to discuss genetically modified (GM) crops with the public following protests against the technology.
The ministry of agriculture has made available 2.6 million yuan (US$400,000) since late last year, and some communication on GM crop science has now started.
Buoyed by high-level support from China's premier, Wen Jiabao, the ministry had issued safety certificates in late 2009 for GM strains of rice and maize, which are now in trials. But ensuing anti-GM sentiments from the public surprised the government and GM experts. In March 2010, many Chinese scholars signed a public petition asking the agriculture ministry to withdraw the safety licences, and more recently a communication event revealed people's fears about GM crops.
China is keen to promote GM research, which it sees as leading to a way of feeding its growing population. Premier Wen Jiabao said in 2008: "Solving the food security problem should rely on big science and technology, on biotechnology and transgenic technology". The government launched a key project on GM crops in 2008 with research funding of almost 30 billion yuan (US$4.6 billion) over 15 years, and discussions are taking place on how much of this will be available for science communication.
For China's 12th Five-Year Programme for China's Economic and Social Development (2011-2015), nearly 10 million yuan (US$ 1.5 million) will be available for GM risk evaluation, some of which will go towards communication. "I hope the budget for GM public communication, which is necessary for promoting GM crops, will be higher [than existing funds]," said Lin Min, a member of the ministry of agriculture's GM safety committee and director of the Biotechnology Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
Just last month, the Philippines suspended Bt brinjal trials after local officials uprooted Bt brinjal plants in two out of seven trial sites. Bangladesh, which also plans to test it, is watching the Indian moratorium.
Efforts continue at home to lift the ban. Scientists are seeking to clip the environment ministry's wings in biotech matters, with the proposed National Biotechnology Regulation Authority as a single-window clearance for all biotech products, such as GM brinjal. A bill on the NBRA, helpfully drafted by India's department of biotechnology, is due to be introduced in the parliament this year.
For a recap, the GM brinjal was developed by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), in which the American company Monsanto has a 26% stake. It contains a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (hence its name Bt brinjal), a soil bacterium which codes for a toxin that kills fruit borer pest that can damage up to 70% of the crop harvest.
But the brinjal borer has never triggered a national crisis, nor has it felled empires in India, the world's largest producer of brinjals and one of the centres of its origin. Still, I accept that one must be prepared for all contingencies.
GM brinjal is not India's first GM plant: Mahyco's Bt cotton was cleared for cultivation in 2002 and 8.6 million hectares of it were grown by 5.6 million farmers in 2009. But controversy has dogged India's Bt cotton, too. Civil society organisations had a long-drawn-out battles with the Indian government and Mahyco over non-disclosure of trial data to the public in the initial years and the sale of illegal Bt cotton seeds before the Indian government's clearance. Similar charges of lack of transparency dogged Bt brinjal trials.
But there were other sensitivities in the Bt brinjal case. It would have been India's first GM food crop, against a backdrop of a regulatory system that doesn't inspire confidence and the absence of a labeling system for GM foods. Other unresolved issues were the impact of accidental release of pollen from GM brinjal on non-GM crops, toxicity and development of pest resistance.
Although India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, under the Environment Ministry, cleared Bt brinjal for cultivation in October 2009, Ramesh held a series of public consultations and opted for a moratorium. In the year gone by, India's six science academies that attempted to shed light on it ended up in a sorry light. The inter-academy report concluded that Bt brinjal was safe for cultivation in India. But the document contained no references and included paragraphs from a pro-biotechnology government publication, Biotech News. Ramesh dismissed it, saying it was "not a product of rigourous scientific evaluation".
The academies withdrew their report, promising to redo it, like admonished school children. In December 2010, they released an updated report with the same conclusions, but with references and PowerPoint presentations. Last month, Ramesh finally admitted to journalists that a call on Bt brinjal would have to be a "political" decision. That, to an extent, could explain why the ban has been imposed. One angry Filipino biotechnologist asked me: "Who asked the Indian government to consult farmers and NGOs about GM technology?"
Well, farmers have traditional knowledge, and they can vote. As Alan Leshner, the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said last year at a European science forum discussing the challenges of feeding science into policy making: "Politicians are elected. Scientists are not."
Some developing countries are looking to India for answers. Biotechnologists from Burkina Faso, Ghana and Malawi were in India in December to understand India's biotech progress and how it is engaging policy makers, scientists and farmers.
Still, India will find its way forward, picking itself up after some stumbles and an occasional flat landing on its face. But it can also offer insights into how a developing country can democratically tackle emerging technologies that interface with society.
· T V Padma writes for www.SciDev.Net
India: In U-turn, CPM (Communist Party) Backs GM Crops
- Deccan Chronicle, January 27, 2011
Jan. 26: The CPI(M) has made a U-turn in its stand against genetically modified crops. The party, hitherto fighting against the introduction of Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, now says only genetically-modified crops can meet the food requirements of an ever-increasing population. "The Centre should set up public sector undertakings to produce and market seeds of GM crops at subsidised prices," said S. Ramachandran Pillai, member, politburo, the highest decision-making unit of the CPI(M). Mr Pillai, who is also the general secretary of the All-India Kisan Sabha, had vehemently opposed the concept of GM crops, terming it as anti-farmer and anti-poor.
Joseph Vackayil The Financial Express (India), January 5, 2011
Indian agriculture is evolving to its third phase, the era of genetically modified (GM) crops. The formalisation of this evolution into a revolution in the food sector will happen with the lifting of the moratorium on Bt brinjal by the Union government. India has already launched GM crops via Bt cotton in 50,000 hectares in 2002. Its growth to 8.4 million hectares and cultivation by 5.6 million farmers at the beginning of 2010 clearly shows that the GM revolution is no fantasy.
Research work on genetic plant transformation began in Indian laboratories in the 1980s and transgenics of certain crops were produced in the 1990s. However, nothing was released for cultivation until Bt cotton entered the scene. Now besides brinjal, a dozen other food crops are at various stages of development and trial to create transgenics with desired traits. These include cabbage, cauliflower, groundnut, maize, mustard, okra, pigeon pea, potato, sorghum, tomato, wheat and rice. The traits being targeted are insect resistance, virus and fungal resistance, nutritional enhancement, delayed ripening, and drought and salinity tolerance.
The Calcutta University, Directorate of Rice Research, Indian Agriculture Research Institute and Tamil Nadu Agriculture University are part of the global R&D and trial programme of the pro-vitamin A rice or Golden Rice slated for release in 2012. In India, the learned opinion of scientists, economists and social groups is that the main responsibility for the development of transgenic technology in the country should rest with publicly funded institutions. This calls for massive government investment. The government and the public sector institutions should lead the GM revolution as food security is "too critical and strategic an area to be left wholly or predominantly to private hands'', they say.
98th Indian Science Congress
G Babu Jayakumar, Indian Express, January 8, 2011
At the plenary on 'Agriculture, Biotechnology and Food and Nutrition Security', Soumya Swaminathan, coordinator, WHO, Geneva, who spoke on the prevalence of undernutrition and how it caused more diseases in the country, suggested biotechnology as a solution. Director of National Institute for Nutrition, Hyderabad, B Sesikaran, claimed that most of the biotech products were not developed by the private sector and listed a few government institutes that have undertaken research in that field. However, he did not make it clear if those researches had the backing of any corporate house.
V Prakash, director of Central Food Technological Research Institute, talking about food production, acknowledged the treasure trove of ethnic, traditional and tribal knowledge in India and said that science can coexist with them. However, the strongest pitch for biotech came at the 'special lecture' session where the panelists went to the extent of saying that if modern methods were not adopted India would face a food crisis. One of them said that in crop production, India was lagging in all crops except cotton. The production of cotton shot up only because of the introduction of Bt cotton, she claimed.
Stressing the need for lifting the moratorium on Bt brinjal, they said genetic modification was an ancient practice in the country. Transgenic crop is just a modern version of it as it involves genesplicing technology. Biotechnology alone can improve breeding and the quality of seeds, they claimed. The elevator pitch: biotechnology can provide the nation more food, better quality food, safe food, healthy food and designer food.
India's Foundation for Biotechnology Completes A Decade of Scientific Activity
- C Kameswara Rao, Executive Secretary, FBAE, January 18, 2011.
The Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education was inaugurated on January 18, 2001, by Professor G Padmanabhan, former Director, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, at a function presided over by Dr S Shantharam. The FBAE has now completed ten years in science based activity.
During this decade we have conducted many workshops and seminars in and out of Bangalore, participated in a large number of national and international policy committees, conferences and seminars, and written extensively on issues of modern biotechnology, more particularly agricultural biotechnology. We have conducted press conferences, submitted signed petitions, and produced scientific documents in support of technology. Our websites (www.fbae.org, www.plantbiotechnology.org.in) hold a large number of scientific articles and position papers on agricultural biotechnology.
We sincerely thank you, one and all, for the enormous amounts of good will, support and encouragement we received throughout, without which we would not have been able to do anything at all.
India's GEAC Disapproves Gus Gene In Transgenic Food Crops
- C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, India; January 24, 2011 - firstname.lastname@example.org
The Department of Crop Physiology, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore (CPUASB), developed four transgenic groundnut Events and sought permission to conduct confined field trials. The Review Committee on Genetic Modification (RCGM) recommended these transgenics for the approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). At its 101st meeting on June 9, 2010, the GEAC considered RCGM's recommendation (Agenda Item No. 5) and approved DREB1A and DREB1B for Event selection but approved DREB2A and PDH45 transgenics only for continued contained research (GEAC, 2010).
The GEAC (2010) held the view that "because of the presence of gratuitous gene such as gus in the food crops, it may not be considered for environmental release when such a proposal is mooted by the project proponents". The most important and alarming fall out of this view is that the GEAC forecloses approval of all food crops containing the reporter gene GUS, for commercial release in the future. The second is the unfortunate use of the adjective 'gratuitous gene' for GUS. Of the five definitions Chambers Dictionary gives for 'gratuitous', two, 'without reason, ground or proof' and 'uncalled for', are close to the issue but certainly are not applicable to the choice of GUS protocol in the development of CPUASB's transgenic groundnuts, as GUS is a very widely preferred protocol to study gene expression. The third implication is that the GEAC's decision against GUS is a rap on the knuckles of the RCGM, which has 22 active agricultural scientists and/ or molecular biologists and six industry representatives with science background, for approving something which in the GEAC's view is unacceptable.
The decision of the GEAC against the use of GUS was immediately caught up by the activists and the media declared that "A gene called glucuronidase A (gusA) could be the next molecule of contention in debates about the safety of genetically modified (GM) food in India" and that "The GM groundnut contained an unnecessary piece of DNA called gusA and ought not to be released into the environment" (Koshy, Live Mint, July 16, 2010).
The present GUS problem is worse than the moratorium on Bt brinjal, as it impacts the development of all transgenic crops in the country, which contain the GUS gene. Issues related to the safety of the use of GUS in transformation systems of crop plants have been examined earlier and it was concluded that E. coli GUS in genetically modified crops and their products can be regarded as safe for the consumers and the environment. The human GUS gene produces large amounts of GUS and there is almost no food item we consume without the GUS gene and/or its product. The presence of the GUS gene in food and feed from genetically modified plants is unlikely to cause any harm because E. coli, the source of the GUS gene used in transgenic development, is widespread in the digestive tract of consumers and the environment. GUS activity, found in many bacterial species, is common in all tissues of vertebrates.
USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21)
The Secretary of Agriculture has announced an intent to renew the charter for AC21 for a 2-year period - The announcement notes that " ... USDA supports the responsible development and application of biotechnology within the global food and agricultural system. Biotechnology intersects many of the policies, programs and functions of USDA.
The charge for the AC21 is two-fold: To examine the long-term impacts of biotechnology on the U.S. food and agriculture system and USDA; and to provide guidance to USDA on pressing individual issues, identified by the Office of the Secretary, related to the application of biotechnology in agriculture ..."
The March 30, 2009 USDA www site, titled "USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture (AC21)" is posted at http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=AC21Main.xml
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack went to Captol Hill today to defend his department's proposed restrictions on genetically engineered alfalfa. He told lawmakers the government needs to protect non-biotech farmers from being harmed financially by contamination from the genetically engineered alfalfa. He said it's an issue of protecting the "property rights" of farmers. The Agriculture Department believes the herbicide-tolerant alfalfa is safe, but has proposed restrictions on where it can be planted to keep the crop from cross-pollinating with organic or non-biotech alfalfa crops. Vilsack said the policy would be "very consistent with the positions we've taken on the international scene" as long as it is "justified by the science and is within the rules we have."
The committee's ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson, said the proposal "creates more questions than answers" and expressed doubts that the litigation would end. "Some folks will apparently use every tool possible to try to shut down biotech crops."
WASHINGTON - U.S. Representative Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and U.S. Senators Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) today (January 19, 2011) sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack requesting the department to return to a science based regulatory system for agriculture biotechnology and to deregulate without conditions genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa. In the letter, the members point out that while science strongly supports the safety of GE alfalfa, USDA's actions politicize the regulatory process and could set a harmful precedent for open pollinated crops in the future.
New Scientist, Jan 24, 2011.
A coalition of anti-GM activists and a small but growing number of organic farmers are now making their influence felt in the US. In 2005, after field trials lasting eight years, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved the cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant alfalfa. The decision was challenged by activists, but after a lengthy review the USDA concluded that GM alfalfa should cause no concern for regulators, farmers or consumers. Nevertheless, under pressure from this coalition, the department is now considering strict rules on where the crops may be planted, to prevent "contamination" by GM seeds blown into fields of conventionally or organically grown alfalfa. A decision is expected this week.
Organic movement is based on the scientific fallacy that natural chemicals are good and synthetic chemicals bad. It ignores evidence and has consistently failed to substantiate any of its own claims. A meticulous review sponsored by the UK's Food Standards Agency recently found no evidence that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally grown food (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol 90, p 680).
Meanwhile, irrational rules deem that crops containing traces of genes from GM crops via cross-pollination cannot be certified as organic. These rules can be, and have been, invoked to stop the cultivation of GM crops.
As for claims that organic farming is better for the environment, yields from organic farms are generally 20 to 50 per cent lower than those from conventional farms. Organic farming makes less efficient use of land while the world desperately needs the exact opposite. Encouraged by the European Commission, which has confirmed scientific support for GM crops, attitudes in some EU countries are changing. In the UK more friendly noises issue from the agricultural ministry, and the government's chief scientist, John Beddington, has stated that GM crops have a vital part to play in feeding the world. Meanwhile sales of organic food have declined. But if the US changes tack, green objectors will appear vindicated. Their influence in Europe will be enhanced and the consequences will be far-reaching. It will be a triumph for unreason.
The New York Times, January 27, 2011
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on Thursday that he would authorize the unrestricted commercial cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa, setting aside a controversial compromise that had generated stiff opposition. In making the decision, Mr. Vilsack pulled back from a novel proposal that would have restricted the growing of genetically engineered alfalfa to protect organic farmers from so-called biotech contamination. That proposal drew criticism at a recent Congressional hearing and in public forums where Mr. Vilsack outlined the option.
Mr. Vilsack said Thursday that his department would take other measures, like conducting research and promoting dialogue, to make sure that pure, nonengineered alfalfa seed would remain available. "We want to expand and preserve choice for farmers," he told reporters. "We think the decision reached today is a reflection of our commitment to choice and trust."
Mr. Vilsack in recent months has been calling for coexistence among growers of genetically engineered crops, organic farmers and nonorganic farmers growing crops that have not been genetically altered.
Organic farmers can lose sales if genetic engineering is detected in their crops, which occurs through cross-pollination from a nearby field or through intermingling of seeds. And exports of nonorganic but nonengineered crops to certain countries can be jeopardized if genetically engineered material is detected in significant amounts.
The genetically modified crop - developed by Monsanto and Forage Genetics, an alfalfa seed company that is owned by the Land O'Lakes farming and dairy cooperative - contains a gene that makes the plant resistant to the herbicide Roundup. That allows farmers to spray the chemical to kill weeds without hurting the crop.
Alfalfa is grown mostly to make hay fed to dairy cows and horses. More than 20 million acres are grown in the United States; it is the nation's fourth-largest crop by acreage, behind corn, soybeans and wheat, with a value of about $8 billion. About 1 percent of alfalfa is organic.
In deciding whether to approve the genetically engineered alfalfa, the Agriculture Department was considering restricting areas where the crop could be planted. That, Mr. Vilsack argued, would help prevent litigation, like the lawsuits that have already delayed the approval of genetically altered alfalfa and sugar beets.
"The rapid adoption of G.E. crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-G.E. products," Mr. Vilsack wrote in a letter issued by his department in December. "This clash led to litigation and uncertainty. Such litigation will potentially lead to the courts' deciding who gets to farm their way and who will be prevented from doing so."
But the proposal ran into considerable opposition in Congress and from some farm groups and biotechnology companies. M They argued that since the department's environmental impact statement had concluded that growing the alfalfa would be safe, the government was obligated to allow it to be grown without restrictions.
Introducing restrictions based on economic consequences of pollen drift "politicizes the regulatory process and goes beyond your statutory authority," Representative Frank D. Lucas, Republican of Oklahoma, who is the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, wrote to Mr. Vilsack on Jan. 19, before holding a hearing on the proposals the next day. The letter was also written by Republican Senators Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Pat Roberts of Kansas.
At the news conference on Thursday, Mr. Vilsack at one point said that the department did have the authority to restrict planting. But at another point, he said of the decision to allow unrestricted planting: "We are working within the statutory and regulatory system we have available to us."
Organic farmers and food companies said they were not pleased with the decision on Thursday. "It was disappointing, but as you know, there is a tremendous amount of pressure here," said George Siemon, chief executive of Organic Valley, the nation's largest organic dairy cooperative. He said federal oversight was needed to keep organic crops free of genetically engineered material.
Critics of planting restrictions said they were concerned that the approach used in alfalfa would eventually be extended to other crops, causing restrictions on the growing of corn, soybeans and cotton, the vast majority of which are already genetically engineered. "It's like a Pandora's box," said Keith Menchey, manager of science and environmental issues for the National Cotton Council of America.
News in Science
DuPont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred International, headquartered in Johnston, Iowa, announced plans to release a series of hybrid maize (corn) strains that can flourish with less water. The seeds will compete with another maize strain unveiled last July by Swiss agribusiness Syngenta. Both companies used conventional breeding rather than genetic engineering to produce their seeds.
But not everybody is convinced that these crops will make a big difference. "It's good news, but it's not great news," says David Zilberman, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Berkeley. No crop will survive a severe drought, he says, and other factors such as nutrient availability and soil quality are at play during water shortages, which tend to be more frequent but less severe than droughts. "It will be useful for a small number of really important areas," Zilberman says, "but my feeling is that people expect altogether too much from drought tolerance."
Published online 11 January 2011 | Nature 469, 144 (2011) | doi:10.1038/469144a
A study published online in Nature Genetics on Jan. 9 has identified the genes related to leaf angle in corn (maize) -- a key trait for planting crops closer together, which has led to an eight-fold increase in yield since the early 1900s. The study, led by researchers from Cornell and the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) at Cornell and North Carolina State University, is the first to relate genetic variation across the entire maize genome to traits in a genome wide association study. The researchers have so far located 1.6 million sites on the maize genome where one individual may vary from another, and they used those sites to identify the genes related to changes in leaf angle that have allowed greater crop density.
Gene Discovery Could Increase Value of Non-Food Crops
- USAgNet - 12/30/2010
Scientists at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation have uncovered a gene responsible for controlling key growth characteristics in plants, specifically the density of plant material. Denser plants have more biomass without increasing the agricultural footprint, meaning farmers and ranchers can produce more plant material from the same sized field. Plants that have increased density hold great potential to be used to produce biofuels, electricity and even advanced materials, like carbon fiber.
Huanzhong Wang, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Dixon's lab, found a gene that controls the production of lignin in the central portions of the stems of Arabidopsis and Medicago truncatula, species commonly used as models for the study of plant genetic processes. Lignin is a compound that helps provide strength to plant cell walls, basically giving the plant the ability to stand upright. When the newly discovered gene is removed, there is a dramatic increase in the production of biomass, including lignin, throughout the stem.
Additionally, further research with collaborators at the University of Georgia revealed that removal of the gene also can increase the production of carbohydrate-rich cellulose and hemicellulose material in portions of the plant stem. These are the components of a plant that are converted to sugars to create advanced biofuels, such as cellulosic-derived ethanol or butanol. More celluloses and hemicelluloses mean more sugars to use for carbohydrate-based energy production.
Improved tolerance toward fungal diseases in transgenic Cavendish banana (Musa spp. AAA group) cv. Grand Nain
- Jane Vishnevetsky et al. TRANSGENIC RESEARCH, Volume 20, Number 1, 61-72, DOI: 10.1007/s11248-010-9392-7
The most devastating disease currently threatening to destroy the banana industry worldwide is undoubtedly Sigatoka Leaf spot disease caused by Mycosphaerella fijiensis. In this study, we developed a transformation system for banana and expressed the endochitinase gene ThEn-42 from Trichoderma harzianum together with the grape stilbene synthase (StSy) gene in transgenic banana plants under the control of the 35S promoter and the inducible PR-10 promoter, respectively. The superoxide dismutase gene Cu,Zn-SOD from tomato, under control of the ubiquitin promoter, was added to this cassette to improve scavenging of free radicals generated during fungal attack. A 4-year field trial demonstrated several transgenic banana lines with improved tolerance to Sigatoka.
As the genes conferring Sigatoka tolerance may have a wide range of anti-fungal activities we also inoculated the regenerated banana plants with Botrytis cinerea. The best transgenic lines exhibiting Sigatoka tolerance were also found to have tolerance to B. cinerea in laboratory assays.
Researchers Develop A Way to Control 'Superweed'
"Superweeds" - undesirable plants that can tolerate multiple herbicides, including the popular gylphosate, also known as RoundUp - cost time and money because the only real solution is for farmers to plow them out of the field before they suffocate corn, soybeans or cotton. Now, thanks to the work of researchers at Dow AgroSciences, LLC, who have been collaborating with a University of Missouri (MU) researcher, a new weapon may be on the horizon to eliminate superweeds.
Zhanyuan Zhang, a research associate professor of plant sciences and director of the MU Plant Transformation Core facility, partnered with research scientists at Dow AgroSciences, LLC, to engineer soybean plants that can tolerate an alternative herbicide that may help slow the spread of superweeds, such as tall waterhemp. Dow AgroSciences researchers identified two bacterial enzymes that, when transformed into plants, conferred resistance to an herbicide 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorfenoxyacetic acid).
"Unlike glyphosate, which targets amino acid synthesis, 2,4-D is a hormone regulator. Because it has a different mode of action, 2,4-D is an ideal herbicide to deal with glyphosate-resistant weeds," said Zhang, who managed the soybean transformation portion of the study and contributed to some data analysis. "The less chemicals farmers use in the field, the less money they spend on production," said Zhang. "That leads to less cost for the consumer, as well as improved food safety and environmental safety."
More information: November issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Genetically Modified Plants Sniff Out Explosives
Mark Brown, Wired, January 28, 2011
Biologists at Colorado State University are getting the attention of DARPA and the US Department of Homeland Security with a genetically modified plant that turns white when it detects dangerous chemicals in the air.