GENET archive


SCIENCE & POLICY: UK scientist urges GM crops rethink

                                  PART 1

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SOURCE: British Broadcasting Corporation, UK



DATE:   04.07.2007

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One of Scotland’s top agricultural scientists has warned the country will pay a heavy price if it turns its back on genetically modified crops.

No GM food has been grown in Scotland since protests against trials held at three farms in 2003 and 2004.

Professor Howard Davies, from Invergowrie-based Scottish Crop Research Institute, said it made no sense to ignore a whole new industry.

He recently received funding to examine possible side effects of GM.

The new SNP government is opposed to GM crops, and many farmers and environmentalists believe altering the genetic makeup of plants could be dangerous.

Increasingly attractive

But Prof Davies said the GM food industry was worth about $5bn (£2.5bn) worldwide, with more than 100 million hectares of GM crops being grown by 10 million farmers.

He added that it would make no sense for Scotland to snub the technology when there was no evidence that GM food was unsafe.

Prof Davies said: ”The fear is understandable because it has been fuelled by a lot of misinformation over the years.

”We are now entering the 11th year after the first introduction of GM crops worldwide and so far there has been no indication of any safety issues, either to humans, animals or the environment.

”Having said that, no technology is risk free - even traditional breeding has its issues from time to time.”

Prof Davies predicted GM crops would become increasingly attractive to Scottish farmers because of the challenges posed to the industry by climate change and the need to use more pesticides.

He added: ”The fact that we in Scotland are not using the technologies will have its price to pay.”

Prof Davies has been awarded a share in a £400,000 project to develop new techniques to track the side effects of GM.

Duncan McLaren of environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth accused Prof Davies of having a ”vested interest” in championing the safety of GM crops.

Mr McLaren said: ”There are a whole host of vested interests in the GM business so I am not surprised to hear another one putting their head above the parapet.

”What Scotland needs for its economic success is a reputation as an unspoiled environment.”

Environment Minister Mike Russell said the Scottish government would be standing by its pre-election commitment to a GM-free country, as was the case in countries like Ireland and Austria.

He warned that rushing into using GM simply because other countries were doing so would be the ”height of folly” because of the potential threat to the environment.

Mr Russell said: ”Scotland has to be very careful indeed. There are huge issues of Scottish biodiversity and indeed the health of the whole Scottish environment at risk here.

”The SNP stood on a manifesto which was for a moratorium on GM crops and that is entirely what we believe in.”

                                  PART 2

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SOURCE: Technology Review, USA

AUTHOR: David Ewing Duncan


DATE:   05.07.2007

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As the banana falls to a devastating fungus, Ugandan scientists launch tests on genetically modified varieties to save a food staple of 500 million people.

In 2003, I met Geoffrey Arinaitwe, a Ugandan plant geneticist training at Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven--one of the early research centers developing genetically modified (GM) crops. Regardless of what you think about GM food, Arinaitwe had a compelling story: without genetic modification, the main food source of his country and many others in the tropics would die off, impacting the diet of 10 million Ugandans and hundreds of millions more poor people from Brazil to Indonesia.

Now Arinaitwe is back in Kampala, where he is poised to test the first modified bananas to be planted in Ugandan soil. A researcher at Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute,, this shy scientist with a gentle voice and slight build is waiting for GM plants to arrive from Leuven; they are expected within the month.

In 2003, I wrote a story for Seed magazine about the plight of the edible banana. Since it’s seedless and therefore sterile, all bananas come from mutant plants discovered some 8,000 years ago, probably in Papua New Guinea. They have been grafted, or cloned, ever since, and developed into dozens of varieties, colors, and sizes. Bananas are ideal for the developing world because they are compact, easy to grow and transport, and highly nutritious. In these parts of the world, they are eaten raw and cooked and used to make beverages. In Uganda, they are so important that the word for banana, matooke, also means ”food.”

Unfortunately, with an 8,000-year-old genome, the edible banana hasn’t evolved to keep up with new pests. These include the black sigatoka, a leaf-destroying fungus, which has devastated vast acres of bananas. It cripples plants and reduces output by 50 percent. Close to half the banana crop in Uganda has been afflicted as this fungus spreads around the world.

Scientists at Leuven have been working to combat the problem. Led by Rony Swennen, a team discovered that inserting a gene from rice provides significant protection for the banana with apparently no danger to either humans or the environment. Because the banana is sterile, it can’t get loose in the environment, nor is there a seed allowing Monsanto or other corporations to sell it. In fact, Swennen and banana organizations around the world are prepared to provide the initial plants to farmers at a cost. Once a farmer has the plant, he or she can graft more.

Another advantage, according to Swennen and Arinaitwe, is that the GM banana greatly reduces the need to use pesticides that fend off the black sigatoka in export crops going to markets in the West. Most Ugandan farmers growing bananas for local consumption can’t afford expensive pesticides, but on huge plantations in Africa and Latin America, growers use some of the highest levels of chemicals sprayed in the world to fend off fungi and other pests. This has led to reports of higher than normal instances of leukemia and sterility in growers.

By the way, organic bananas sold in the West are grown without pesticides. They are raised either in areas unaffected by the black sigatoka or are harvested out of the reduced yields of afflicted plants, further reducing the amount of fruit available to locals.

None of this convinces opponents of GM foods, who responded to my Seed article with astonishing vitriol and even some personal attacks. I’ll leave it to readers to decide if inserting a rice gene into a cloned banana is repugnant and undesirable.

Almost certainly, though, critics are correct that acceptance of the modified banana may make other forms of GM foods more palatable, so to speak, particularly in much of Africa, which has largely opposed GM crops. As modified corn, cotton, and other crops become more prevalent in the West and elsewhere, it’s obvious that GM creep has already begun.

As for safety, the scientists at Leuven say that their GM bananas are harmless. Now Arinaitwe will test them in Uganda to see if he and the Ugandan government agree. Hurdles remain before a rice-banana hybrid is approved and accepted. Protests are also expected, although in the end the withering, decimated crops that cover hill after hill in this country, which has an entire culture built on the banana, may make this banana update stick. We’ll see.

                                  PART 3

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SOURCE: North Queensland Register, Australia

AUTHOR: Australian Cotton Outlook, Australia


DATE:   06.07.2007

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The cotton industry must continue to lead the way with genetically modified crops in Australia if it is to retain a competitive edge, according to Professor James Dale with the Queensland University of Technology.

Prof Dale, who is an expert in GM crops and currently working on a GM banana project, said that adoption of new traits would be the best method of combating the pressures of increased production in developing nations.

”The cost of GM cotton is of course significantly lower than conventional cotton, with the number of sprays going from 14 per season down to one or two,” he said.

”But it doesn’t matter what technology you use, you are going to see a constant improvement in production.

”If you don’t keep up with the rest of the world, they will leave you behind.”

In addressing a recent Rural Press Club lunch in Brisbane, Prof Dale was asked whether this meant that cotton growers were thus reliant solely on biotech giants such as Monsanto and Syngenta to provide this technology.

He said while this was currently the case, there were a number of groups around the country doing ’world class’ research into GM.

”One of the difficulties we have as researchers, particularly in southern States, is the moratorium on GM crops, which really puts us at a disadvantage in being able to attract the funding that we should be able to attract,” he said.

”The intellectual property and the research infrastructure is here.

”The thing we lack is the capital to take these crops through to commercialisation.

”Most people in the industry believe it takes about $5 million to take traits through to commercialisation. That is a significant amount of money.”

SOURCE: Extract from the July edition of Australian Cotton Outlook.



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