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[genet-news] SCIENCE & POLICY: How GE crops can save the world

                                  PART 1

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SOURCE: LiveScience, USA

AUTHOR: Stuart Michael Hutson


DATE:   17.04.2009

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This Behind the Scenes article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

In the poorest nations of the tropics and subtropics ? areas that are home to nearly half of the human population ? rising temperatures from global climate change promise to devastate staple crops, such as rice and maize, by the end of the century.

?There is a chance that we might be able to stem the effects on plant yield from this climate change,? said L. Curtis Hannah, a plant molecular biology researcher at the University of Florida. ?But a betting man knows that our best chance is to learn to adapt ? to develop crops that will feed people in a hotter climate.?

That is exactly what Hannah and his colleagues are working to do. They are developing gene variants of wheat, rice and maize that produce increased yields under heat stress. Through this effort, Hannah and his colleagues are also uncovering the inner mechanisms of the crops that have fed people for thousands of years.

Certain gene variants code for enzymes called AGPases, which control how much starch a plant stores within seeds that people can harvest for food. The AGPases are typically undercut by heat stress, resulting in plants that produce dramatically lower nutritional yields.

However, Hannah developed two heat-stable variants of AGPase genes Sh2 and Bt2. Under hot environmental conditions, the Sh2 variant increased the yield of wheat by 38 percent and increased the yield for rice by 23 percent. The combination of the two variants provided a 68 percent increase in yield for maize.

Field tests conducted in Florida showed that the Sh2 variant increased the yield of commercially produced corn by 42 percent. This is a dramatic increase, especially given that traditional breeding programs typically only produce a 1 percent increase in yield per year.

The mechanism behind these increases, however, is still somewhat of a mystery. For example, the plants produce more seeds, rather than larger seeds packed with more starch.

Data from the Hannah group show that only half of the ovaries on maize ears eventually become viable kernels. So, the gene variants are simply blocking some mechanism that would normally abort some seeds before they can develop.

However, there is still a possibility that there is another effect somewhere within the plant?s growth cycle. The gene variants are strongest when they are derived maternally, not when they are introduced via pollination. Also, not all kernels on the higher-yield plants carried the gene variant, so the reason for the increase is likely found somewhere within the plant?s mechanism for channeling resources to the seeds, rather than in the seeds themselves.

?Man has been growing these crops for thousands of years, but we?ve only had the tools to try to understand what really makes them grow for a relatively short amount of time,? Hannah said. ?There?s a long way to go before we have a truly comprehensive picture of why they do what they do.?

As part of ongoing research funded by the National Science Foundation and the USDA, Hannah is now investigating an AGPase potato/maize gene variant that, thus far, has produced a greater than three-fold output in corn.

?We?re going to keep looking at different combinations that will give us better and better yields,? Hannah said. ?Meanwhile, by watching what happens when we make these changes, we learn more and more about what makes these plants tick.?

This type of research is essential to counteracting a future where climate change may lead to as much as a 40 percent reduction in crop yield in tropical and subtropical areas by the end of the century, said Rosamond Naylor, director of Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University.

Naylor recently coauthored a study published January in the journal Science predicting the toll from greenhouse heat stress.

?Some people are really concerned about genetically modified crops, but the truth is that the climate is changing faster than plants can adapt,? she said. ?If our technology helped lead us into this, why can?t it help lead us out??

                                  PART 2

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SOURCE: The Hindu, India

AUTHOR: Press Trust Of India, India


DATE:   22.04.2009

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New Delhi (PTI): India needs to consider all options, including genetically modified (GM) technology, to increase wheat productivity which has been stagnant at an average 2.7 tonnes per hectare for the past six years, renowned agriculture scientist Thomas A Lumpkin has said.

In an email interview, Lumpkin, who is the Director General of Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), has warned that India may be a net importer of wheat by 2020, if the yields of the grain remain stagnant.

?India needs to consider all options to reinvigorate productivity growth, with important roles for novel germplasm, agronomy, and enabling policies. To help create a breakthrough in germplasm, wheat would benefit from more intense private sector involvement.

?Novel techniques like GM and hybridisation provide major options and incentives for that,? he said.

Noted agriculture scientist also said a gene, that would enhance the bioavailability of zinc in wheat, could have a significant impact, given the widespread zinc deficiency among Indians.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre was associated with India?s Green Revolution. Norman Borlaug, who brought Mexican wheat to India in 1966-67, was a researcher at the institute.

Lumpkin said India, the world?s second-largest wheat producer, is currently self-sufficient with 26 million hectares dedicated to the crop.

He added: ?Over the next five years, it is likely that India will be self-sufficient in wheat production, barring extreme climate events (heat, drought) or rust epidemics.?

However, he added that it was ?irresponsible? not to think about how India would confront growing demands for food and feed crops and the needs to protect the environment and conserve resources, while confronting climate change, beyond a mere five-year horizon.

Considering the increasing water scarcity in South Asia, it is likely that irrigation water will be used more and more for high value crops, and wheat will be grown in more extensive systems, reducing output further, he warned.

Asked in what ways GM wheat will be beneficial for India since the country has not reported large scale damage due to pest attack, Lumpkin said, ?Weeds like phalaris minor pose constraints to wheat production in India. The glyphosphate- based herbicide known as ?Roundup? kills all weeds.

?A generically modified form of wheat that tolerates ?Roundup? will allow the use of glyphosphate in wheat plots.?

Wheat variety ?PBW 343?, which is cultivated on 7 million hectares across Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, is susceptible to Ug99, the latest major stem rust.

                                  PART 3

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SOURCE: Chemical Industry News & Intelligence, UK

AUTHOR: Ivan Lerner


DATE:   23.04.2009

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Better living through GM oilseeds is almost in our grasp, and the timing couldn?t be better.

Public acceptance has been improving.

WHILE GENETICALLY manipulated (GM) oilseed crops have been produced to contain herbicide tolerance or insect resistance, their ?greatest potential,? says the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), lies in their potential to improve on their nutritional and industrial properties.

The focus is shifting from benefits to farmers, to benefits to consumers in the form of better nutrition and ease of use.

The primary oilseeds are soy, rape (including canola), peanut, palm and sunflower. According to USDA, in 2002, over 320m tonnes (both GM and non-) were produced globally with a value of about $60bn (?45.7bn). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations projects that roughly 408m tonnes of oilseeds will be produced globally in 2009.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), soy represented 37%, or $2.8bn of the GM crop market in 2008. Canola provided about $200m, or 3%. The global value of biotech crops reached $7.5bn last year, and is projected to grow to $8.3bn in 2009.

The ISAAA is a not-for-profit organization that provides new agricultural biotechnologies to developing countries.

Biotech crops were grown on over 125m hectares in 25 countries in 2008, a 9.4% increase in global acreage from 2007.

GM soy was the principle biotech crop in 2007, with 51% of the global genetically modified organism (GMO) area, 58.6m hectares, says ISAAA. Canola held 5% with 5.5m hectares.

Meanwhile, 58.6% of the global soy crop was GM in 2007. That year, 216m tonnes of soybeans were produced.

When US-based Monsanto, the world?s largest GM seed trait firm, develops new technologies for use in oilseeds, they fall into two primary categories - value-added benefits and agronomic benefits. Value-added benefits are attributes that directly benefit consumers and processors; agronomic benefits are those that directly benefit farmers.

?Traditionally, benefits in soybeans have been on the agronomic side,? says Ben Kampelman, manager, public affairs, for Monsanto. Commercialized in 1996, Monsanto?s Roundup Ready soybeans are used on more than 90% of US soybean acres. This year, the company is introducing the brand?s next generation.

?The performance of biotechnology traits like Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans, as well as breeding advancements and better management practices, give us the confidence to commit to doubling average yields in the US, based on yields in 2000,? says Kampelman.

Currently, yields average roughly 40 bushels/acre. ?By 2030, we expect average yields in the United States will be about 80 bushels per acre,? he says.


Pioneer Hi-Bred, a business of US-based chemical giant DuPont, is launching high oleic soybeans this year, pending regulatory approval and ongoing field testing

?This is the first biotech soybean trait with direct consumer benefits,? says Julie Kenney, public affairs representative for Pioneer. ?High oleic soybeans will offer nutritional benefits to consumers and functional benefits to the food industry.?

Scheduled for introduction in 2011 is Pioneer?s Optimum GAT soybeans which enhance weed control options for soybean growers and provide improved crop performance.

Monsanto, meanwhile, is developing soybeans with stearidonic acid (SDA) omega-3 fatty acids, as well as its own high oleic soybeans.

These new oilseeds will be built on the company?s Vistive brand soybeans. ?The oil from these beans doesn?t need to be hydrogenated to improve stability,? Kampelman says. ?This helps companies like [US-based restaurant chain] KFC produce [fried] chicken with no trans fats.?

Monsanto has been working with Germany?s BASF Plant Science on the production of healthy fatty acids in canola oil, including omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) as well as a mixture of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) for food, feed and dietary supplement applications.

?Plants do not produce these healthy fatty acids, but a number of other organisms like algae, fungi and mosses do,? explains Andy Beadle, project manager at BASF Plant Science.

Genes from those organisms were identified, characterized and transferred into canola, and then the best combination was determined through thorough examination, he said. EPA and EPA/DHA in the canola oil have been identified and are currently being developed into commercial products.

?For the very first time, plants [are] producing commercial levels of the healthy fatty acids,? says Beadle. Commercial production is expected around the middle of next decade, notes the company.

In May 2008, US-based Dow AgroSciences and US-based Martek Biosciences agreed to jointly develop and commercialize a canola seed that produces the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA.

?Nutritionists are now recommending that people increase their consumption of DHA, as most consumers don?t get enough in their diets today,? says Daniel Kittle, global research and development leader and vice president for Dow AgroSciences.

DHA omega-3 is a long-chain fatty acid that serves as the primary structural fatty acid found in the brain and the eyes, and supports brain, eye and cardiovascular health throughout life.

?Yet despite its importance, Americans have among the lowest dietary intakes of DHA omega-3 in the world,? notes Kittle.

When commercialized, Dow AgroSciences and Martek?s new healthy oil will be marketed to the food industry as part of Dow AgroSciences? ?next generation? of food industry oils. The companies have not released a timetable, but anticipate that this project will be a multiyear effort.

Meanwhile, via its Nexera line of canola and sunflower seeds, Dow AgroSciences has created a series of oils it calls Omega-9s, with zero trans fat and high levels of monounsaturated (omega-9) fat. Since canola natually has zero trans fat and low saturated fat, the company?s goal was to add a higher omega-9 content.

The resulting product, says David Dzisiak, Dow AgroSciences? commercial leader for oils, can allow up to 50% longer fry life than partially hydrogenated soybean oil and other commonly used frying oils.

?Instead of how operators now typically look at ?cost per pound of oil,? with longer fry life, they now should look at ?cost per month spent on oil,? and I think they will see the benefit.

The tangle of alliances, agreements and joint ventures can result in touchy, almost incestuous situations in the relatively narrow world of GM oilseeds. According to a December 2008 report by JPMorgan analyst Jeffrey Zekauskas, Monsanto entered into a ?dispute resolution process? with Pioneer Hi-Bred regarding additional royalty payments for use of a Roundup Ready trait in Pioneer?s Optimum GAT. Zekauskas believes that as of early April, the dispute was in mediation.


In March, the European Union approved the resumption of GM oilseed rape imports from Canada. The EU also approved the importation of Monsanto?s Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans, says Kampelman.

While this is good news, Mette Johansson, communications manager for BASF Plant Science, warns there is a large difference in public acceptance of GM crops between the Americas and Europe.

?(But) the benefits for farmers are obvious: higher yield and improved pest control. At the same time, no single human or animal health incident has been registered - not even a headache - that is linked with GM crops. We are convinced that the natural human fear of the unknown will ease as genetically improved crops become a more and more visible part of people?s daily life.?

The International Food Information Council?s report, 2008 Food Biotechnology: A Study of US Consumer Trends, notes that when Americans are asked about specific food safety concerns, disease and contamination continue to top the list - with half of those asked citing this as top-of-mind.

?This compares with 1% of respondents listing biotechnology as a top-of-mind issue,? points out Monsanto?s Kampelman. ?In 2007, that percentage was the same.?

Public acceptance of GMOs continues to be high in the US, notes Kampelman, but he emphasizes that one of the real values of biotechnology is that it is scale-neutral.

?A small-holder farmer in India derives just as much benefit from the insect- and weed-control advantages that biotech provides [to] a farmer in the southern US. They may farm on a dramatically different scale, but benefits are there for both farmers.?

But there is evidence of continued acceptance of GM crops - in 2008, three nations grew biotech crops for the first time, says ISAAA: Bolivia, Burkina Faso and Egypt.

?The increase in approvals and adoption demonstrates that countries around the world, especially developing countries, recognize the benefits of biotechnology,? says Pioneer?s Kenney.

But farmers need to maintain a responsible system with their plant technologies. Regarding herbicide-resistant strains of canola, Monsanto?s technical development leader for Australia, Dave Moore, recently commented: ?All we hear about is the tremendous benefits, which is fantastic, but growers have to remember it isn?t a magic bullet.?



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