[genet-news] AGRICULTURE & DEVELOPMENT: Science, Farmland, Monsanto: Who has the answers to the food crisis?
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TITLE: SCIENCE, FARMLAND, MONSANTO: WHO HAS THE ANSWERS TO THE FOOD CRISIS?
SOURCE: Seeking Alpha, USA
AUTHOR: Keith Woolcock
SUMMARY: "The scientists are focusing their research on so-called C4 plants, such as maize and sorghum, which possess more efficient photosynthesis processes than rice, which is a C3 plant. [...] It all sounds encouraging until you remember that Pardey and Alston estimate that it takes 20 years from research until the seed enters the food chain. Paul Quick, principal scientist and head of the C4 project, cautioned, ?The C4 - Rice project is seen as a high-risk scientific venture but this is nothing compared to the potential future risks to human health if the food supply cannot meet demand.? He is right, but the experience of Monsanto and his own words hardly inspire confidence."
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SCIENCE, FARMLAND, MONSANTO: WHO HAS THE ANSWERS TO THE FOOD CRISIS?
There used to be a time when wheat, corn and rice yields increased by 5% and even 10% a year. That was at the height of the Green Revolution, which covered the 1960s to 1980s. In those days food production easily outstripped the growth in the global population. In the forty-year stretch between 1960 and 2000, that population doubled to 6 billion. The good news is that the rate of growth has dropped; by mid century there is likely to be 9 billion to 10 billion people on the planet: roughly a 40% to 50% increase in size.
The bad news is that crop yields, which are increasing at a rate of between 1 to 1.5% a year, are struggling to keep up with the growth in demand. Just about all the growth in population over the coming decades will be focused on cities in the emerging economies. If current trends persist, 70% of the planet will be living in a city by 2050. Think about that for a moment; it means that by mid century there will be more people living in cities than there are alive today. People move to cities because they can earn more. When they earn more they mostly eat more meat-based protein, which in turn stokes demand for grains and water. The shortage of land is something we may be able to fix through expansion in places like Brazil and perhaps Africa, but shortages of water will take greater ingenuity. Some regions of the world will see sharp declines in rain fall due to global warming, and in Asia there is not much spare land available for farming. Ingenuity, of course, is what man exc
els in - we have the brains, we have the technology: problem solved. Maybe; but then again, may be this time it might be different.
Until recently, Monsanto?s genetically modified corn and soy seeds had made it one the market?s most storied growth stocks, an example of the appliance of science to the food problem. Then the stock was hit by bad news. First it was Chinese price competition for Roundup, the company?s herbicide. Over the last week another shoe has dropped - Monsanto?s much vaunted new corn seed, SmartStax, which contains an unprecedented eight inserted genes, doesn?t really stack up at all; yields are no higher than what they were with the previous seed. All of which raises an uncomfortable question: Can big science deliver, or does the solution to the food problem lie down another path?
Monsanto has been the poster child for the gene revolution, but what if there is less to genes than we thought? When the human genome was decoded there was a burst of optimism in biotech, for example, and for a time the press was full of stories that the gene for this disease or that psychological problem had been found, but so far we have seen little payback. Craig Venter, who led the private effort to crack the human genome, has said as much himself.
Man has been selecting for desirable traits in both plants and animals for at least 10,000 years. The traits selected have always come from the existing genome of an organism and the species that will hybridize it. The latest breakthroughs in genetic science, such as fast gene sequencing tools and powerful bio-informatic computers, have allowed scientists to take genes from anywhere they choose - animal or plant - and splice them into unrelated species. A gene from a plant can be given to a mammal. The problem, as the example of Monsanto suggests, is that the payback from this dazzling juggling act may be rather less than we imagined.
The pharmaceutical industry sends us a clear warning what the problem might be. On December 23, 1971, President Richard Nixon signed a bill establishing the National Cancer Institute and declaring that the war against fatal decease would be won. By 1997, biostatisticians showed that there had been a 6% increase in age-adjusted cancer deaths from 1970 to 1990. Other research has estimated that over the last three decades $1 billion has been spent on cancer research. In that time, all that sponsored research has uncovered is a drug called Taxol, which was isolated from the bark of a yew tree found in the Pacific Northwest.
Government money has been thrown at the cancer problem, and independently drug companies have tried to develop cures. Since the mid 1980s, the pharmaceutical industry has seen the rate of innovation decline even though profits and the money devoted to research and development has increased. Up until recently, investors - and I?ll include myself in this before I read Meyer?s book - swallowed the propaganda hook line and sinker. When Monsanto told us that from 2009 to 2012 the number of traits for the corn it sells would more than double, or that by 2020 there would be a four-fold increase, we believed it. It never occurred to most of us that those new traits might not be capable of doing all that it said on the wrapper.
The Heart of The Problem
Since 1998 yields of wheat, our most popular crop, have barely risen. Two economists, Philip Pardey and Julian Alston, have spent a long time investigating the impact of R&D on the seed industry. There findings suggest that there is a twenty-year lag from the time that the research is carried out to the time it comes to fruition in the food chain. They argue that the growth in yields started to slow in the 1990s, because there was a drop in basic university and government led research. Just as we have seen with the drugs industry, much of the research is now directed by private institutions who, despite the dogma of free market capitalism, can only be counted on to develop Powerpoint slides. Delivering on what the slides promise is a much more hit and miss affair.
The US spends the greatest sums on crop research. In 2008 dollars, US investment in agricultural development abroad fell to $60M in 2006 from $400M a year in the 1980s. In rich countries, public investment in research and development, which had grown annually by more than 2% during the 1980s, shrank by 0.5% annually between 1991 and 2000. These drops are mirrored in Africa and Asia. The cuts in government funded research were probably based on the supposition that private companies, such as Monsanto, were best able to look after research because it is motivated by profits. It is also fair to assume that in the years that those cuts were made there was not as much concern or research on the effects of climate change as there is today.
A new study by Chinese scientists, which was recently published in Nature, asserts that climate change might induce a net yield reduction of 13% by 2050. They forecast that rice yields would fall by 4 to 14%, wheat by 2 to 20% and maize by zero to 23% by mid century. The reason is that increased carbon levels will increase the rate of transpiration from plants and trees, which in turn will boost their need for more water. This in turn will place further strain on China?s already stretched water reserves. While China has about 20% of the world?s population, it has less than ten per cent of per capita water reserves.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Banos in the Philippines, estimates that by 2050 we will need an extra 250 million metric tonnes of rice in Asia alone. According to the UN, food production needs to rise by 50% by 2030 to meet rising demand. What if this magnitude of increase is beyond our already stretched scarce water resources? Accurate forecasting is impossible; water is short today, so how confident can we be of future water levels?
Scientists at IRRI are fifteen months into a project to develop rice seeds that will deliver dramatically increased yields with less water. The scientists are focusing their research on so-called C4 plants, such as maize and sorghum, which possess more efficient photosynthesis processes than rice, which is a C3 plant. The hope is to achieve higher yields while requiring 1.5 to 3 times less water. It all sounds encouraging until you remember that Pardey and Alston estimate that it takes 20 years from research until the seed enters the food chain. Paul Quick, principal scientist and head of the C4 project, cautioned, ?The C4 - Rice project is seen as a high-risk scientific venture but this is nothing compared to the potential future risks to human health if the food supply cannot meet demand.? He is right, but the experience of Monsanto and his own words hardly inspire confidence.
Hope and Waste
At the dawn of what became the Green Revolution, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich made one of the last century?s worst predictions when he warned of an impending food crisis, just as the growth in crop yields began to accelerate. It is a mistake to bet against human ingenuity. This time, however, there is cause for concern. The solution to the problem might not be better seed research and the wider use of fertilizers, it might instead lie in combating waste. A former UK government food advisor, Lord Haskins, who worked for the nation?s largest food retailer, calculated that 60 million Britons were each year wasting around 20 million tonnes of food. The average household could save $1,000 a year on food purchases if even a fifth of this wastage could be eliminated. The chief culprit, it turned out, was the use-by date, which was causing consumers to throw out one-third of all the food they bought.
In a recently published book, The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb, Timothy Jones of the University of Arizona is quoted as saying that America wastes 40-50 per cent of all its food. The typical American household trashes 14% of its food purchases, worth $590 a year, including products whose use-by date had not yet expired. Globally, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that a full third of all fruit and vegetables never reach the consumer at all because they perish in fields, in storage, or en route. ?Spoilage claims 30% of India?s fresh produce, while post-harvest losses of fruit and vegetables in some African countries can reach 50%,? the World Vegetable Centre notes. As Cribb ruefully notes, ?A species that has used its brains to treble food output in two generations is chucking half its achievement into the garbage can.?
The manipulation of genes might still deliver us from famine but it would be irresponsible to simply rely on this science when we have the evidence of the pharmaceutical industry before us. We need to focus on better storage, refrigeration and transport. In the meantime, buying farmland still looks like the best way to play what may become a food crisis.
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TITLE: SEED DEFENDERS - AGROCHEMICAL FIRMS COMBINE CHEMISTRY AND BIOLOGY TO FEND OFF PESTS AND BOOST PLANT HEALTH
SOURCE: Chemical & Engineering News, USA
AUTHOR: Vol 88 (45): 24-27, by Melody Voith
SUMMARY: "Early every spring, farmers drop tasty, expensive seeds into furrows of damp, cold soil. Hungry insects and famished fungi await this gift from above, often chowing down before the seeds even have a chance to germinate.
When seeds get eaten, or tiny sprouts wither from fungal invasion, the promise of today?s pricey genetic traits goes unfulfilled. To wait until the climate is more forgiving means a shorter growing season, which in colder climates can be risky."
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SEED DEFENDERS - AGROCHEMICAL FIRMS COMBINE CHEMISTRY AND BIOLOGY TO FEND OFF PESTS AND BOOST PLANT HEALTH
Early every spring, farmers drop tasty, expensive seeds into furrows of damp, cold soil. Hungry insects and famished fungi await this gift from above, often chowing down before the seeds even have a chance to germinate.
When seeds get eaten, or tiny sprouts wither from fungal invasion, the promise of today?s pricey genetic traits goes unfulfilled. To wait until the climate is more forgiving means a shorter growing season, which in colder climates can be risky.
?Farmers get a huge yield advantage when planting early. There may be snow on April 6, but then you see tractors on April 10,? remarks Palle Pedersen, seed care technical manager at the crop protection firm Syngenta. As the former soybean agronomist for the State of Iowa, Pedersen has had a clear vantage point for observing the development of new technologies that protect seeds.
Although genetic modification and advanced hybridization tend to get the glory, today?s seeds owe much of their improved survival during germination to specialty seed treatments, Pedersen says. ?We have good cold tolerance built into the germplasm, but seed treatments that protect the seed in the cold and damp give you an even higher stand and yield,? he observes.
Seed treatments are the result of collaboration among chemists, plant scientists, and agronomists. Together, these researchers come up with tailored combinations of fungicides, insecticides, and nematicides that are mixed with a polymer coating to surround and protect each seed.
Agrochemical seed treatments, such as those sold by Syngenta, have become the norm in the seed business, and new products continue to emerge from the development pipeline. But now they are being joined by biological approaches. Proponents of biological treatments claim that microorganisms give plants longer-lasting allies against pests and encourage earlier, more vigorous growth.
The biological approach is still at an early stage, Pedersen cautions. ?If you go through every paper that?s been published, it works very well in greenhouses and growth chambers-in controlled conditions. In the real world, you get inconsistent results.?
On the other hand, every major seed firm is investigating biological approaches, Syngenta included. Bayer CropScience, Monsanto, and BASF are also engaged in the hunt for next-generation seed treatments.
Microbes are poised to take a big bite out of the market, according to Brad Griffith, Monsanto?s global seed treatment lead. The oldest biological seed treatments are inoculant microbes added to soybeans to improve nitrogen fixation. Griffith forecasts that a new generation of products will push biologics from one-fifth of the seed treatment market today to one-third by 2015. Now, to work alongside its next-generation gene traits, Griffith says, Monsanto is ?looking forward to yield and stress resistance-for example, for drought-in new seed treatments.?
Microbes are poised to take a big bite out of the market.
Seed treatments in general have grown in popularity with farmers over the past decade, and adoption has picked up speed in the past two years. The main driver has been high prices for today?s genetically modified seeds. The sales manager of a seed supplier in the upper Midwest, who asked not to be identified because he is not supposed to reveal retail seed prices, says farmers pay about $104 per acre for Monsanto and Dow Chemical?s new Genuity SmartStax corn, which includes about $6.00 worth of seed treatment technology. ?They?ll buy as much insurance as they can,? he says.
The global seed treatment market has reached $1.5 billion annually and is growing at a rate of 10 to 12% per year, according to a report by Laurence Alexander, chemicals analyst at the investment firm Jefferies & Co. ?As more traits are stacked and integrated into seeds, seed treatments can provide a cost-efficient way for farmers to protect their investment,? Alexander says. He points out that the products appeal to farmers worldwide: Only 25% of the market is in the U.S.
The report names Germany?s Bayer CropScience as the world leader in seed treatment technologies, with about $820 million in annual sales. The company both treats its own seeds and sells treatments to other companies.
Seed treatments include active ingredients picked from a long list of possibilities. The actives target particular crops, specific pests or diseases, and even different geographic regions. Tiny amounts of the active compounds are mixed with inactive coatings such as vinyl polymers and mineral fillers such as aluminum and calcium salts. Finally, a pigment is added to distinguish each brand of seed and prevent treated seeds from entering the food or feed supply chain.
Bayer?s two largest treatment products are based on neonicotinoid insecticides. The biggest seller, clothianidin, marketed as Poncho and other names, can be put on canola, cereal, corn, sunflower, and sugar beet seeds. It helps protect seeds against a host of early-season pests, as well as soil and leaf pests such as aphids, beet leaf miners, black cutworms, corn rootworms, grubs, and wireworms.
Clothianidin and its sister product, imidacloprid, marketed as Gaucho and other names, are chemical insecticides similar to those used in soil and foliar applications. But, Bayer spokesman Utz Klages says, applying insecticides and fungicides earlier on seeds rather than later on leaves or fields is the most advanced and effective mode of delivery. Only a small amount of the chemicals needs to be applied, and very little comes in contact with the soil.
However, clothianidin and imidacloprid seed treatments came under scrutiny in Europe starting in the late 1990s as possible causes of honeybee colony collapse (C&EN, June 18, 2007, page 48). Most studies showed that the residue levels bees came into contact with were too low to be toxic, and in March 2010, the European Union put both insecticides, as well as a newer member of the family, thiamethoxam, on its list of allowable chemicals for seed treatments. Still, the EU amended the directive to say ?accidental releases of those active substances recently reported by several member states have resulted in substantial losses of honey bee colonies.?
Neonicotinoids work by disrupting the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor of an insect?s nerve cells. They have low toxicity to mammals. When used as a seed treatment, they are taken up by the sprouting roots of the plant and protect the plant from chewing and sucking insects.
Although its seed treatment business is primarily chemical, Bayer started last year to commercialize what it calls biocontrol agents. It acquired two technologies from AgroGreen, an Israeli biopesticide firm that had developed a soil treatment based on the soil bacterium Bacillus firmus to control nematodes in some vegetable and orchard crops. AgroGreen also makes a foliar biofungicide from Metschnikowia frucitcola, a strain of yeast isolated from grapes grown in Israel.
Next year, Bayer will launch the nematicide as a seed treatment for corn, soybeans, and cotton under the trade name Votivo. For seeds, ?Votivo provides enough protection to withstand early-season nematode feeding, when damage potential is highest,? Klages says. In September, Bayer gave Monsanto the right to commercialize a seed treatment that combines Votivo with clothianidin.
For its part, Monsanto got into seed treatments in a serious way in 2007, when it launched a seed treatment platform called Acceleron. The company sources all of its active ingredients from third parties, including Bayer and Syngenta, Griffith says. ?The simplest way to think about the benefits Monsanto has in this space is that we have the opportunity to look at the performance of these chemistries and potential biological products on top of our genes and traits before anyone else can see them,? he says.
The size and sophistication of Monsanto?s test fields can have an especially big impact when the seed firm works with smaller biotech companies such as AgraQuest. The two companies recently signed a three-year deal to develop seed treatments from AgraQuest?s pipeline of biopesticides for Monsanto?s crops and vegetables.
?They are challenging studies to run, because you need 30 independent sites with multiple replications at each site. Managing the studies is very difficult,? says Jonathan Margolis, senior vice president of R&D at AgraQuest. ?With Monsanto, we can look at performance in many different geographies.?
Seed treatments made with AgraQuest?s Serenade are already undergoing field trials with several seed and seed treatment companies. Based on a patented strain of B. subtilis, Serenade was designed to protect against fungal and bacterial diseases. The microbe secretes several lipopeptides that punch holes in the membranes of fungal cell walls.
Margolis explains that AgraQuest works with university research labs to identify and commercialize beneficial microbes. The excitement surrounding biological agents is justified, he contends. By putting a beneficial microbe on a seed, ?you can have colonization and proliferation in the soil. You get the microbe growing and coating the roots with protection activity into the late season, months after planting.? In contrast, he says, chemical treatments last for weeks at most, after which they are diluted or break down as the plant grows.
The soil zone around the roots where the microbes do their work is called the rhizosphere. In this millimeters-thick region, the bacteria in Serenade form a barrier that protects the plant from diseases, according to AgraQuest. The bacteria also emit 1,3-butanediol, a phytostimulator said to promote plant growth. Serenade is one of what AgraQuest hopes will be a family of biologically derived products that make plants more resistant to abiotic stress. ?There are a whole variety of other Bacillus strains with other properties,? Margolis says.
>From Monsanto?s perspective, biological active ingredients will be used mainly with chemical treatments. However, the two do not play together nicely. ?The biologicals create a different level of complexity in treatment because you don?t want to add a chemical that kills the biological agent,? warns Tom Adams, chemistry technology lead at Monsanto.
Another company poised to benefit from the uptake of beneficial microbes is industrial enzyme maker Novozymes. The company makes nitrogen-fixing inoculants for leguminous crops and now has a new seed treatment, called JumpStart, that helps plants access phosphates from the soil or from fertilizers.
According to Trevor Thiessen, president of Novozymes? BioAg business, a government researcher in Alberta who was seeking a way to make phosphate fertilizers more available to plants discovered the JumpStart soil fungus. Phosphates aren?t especially expensive, Thiessen explains, but they don?t work very well. ?Farmers put a lot of phosphate in the soil, where 70 to 90% of it becomes tied up in the soil and not taken up by plant roots,? he says. JumpStart colonizes the rhizosphere, where it releases acids that convert mineral phosphates into a more plant-digestible form.
Novozymes? next big project is to develop a nitrogen-fixing microbe for nonleguminous plants. The company is in its first year of testing a product on Brazilian sugarcane fields. ?Our ambition is not to equal the nitrogen fixation of a pea plant, for example, the way nature has designed for 100% fixation,? Thiessen says. ?But if we could get 20% fixation for corn or wheat and let regular nitrogen fertilizer do the balance, that would be a neat innovation.?
Thiessen readily acknowledges the criticism that biological seed treatments are sensitive to variables such as pH, moisture, and temperature. ?It?s a valid statement,? he says. ?Microbes are similar to you and me in that they are a living organism. In a cold climate we may have to put on some protective coats or wear winter boots.?
Nonetheless, Monsanto?s Adams says he?s looking to see what biology can do for his firm?s seeds. For example, there?s still more to do to combat fungal diseases, Adams contends. ?Can you extend the control of fungi beyond the first weeks? That?s not easy to do, or the chemical companies would have done it already.?
But more than pest control is at stake. ?One reason to be interested in biological treatment is the claim that it can really stimulate plant growth,? Adams says. ?We would like to move seed treatments well beyond where they are now-just insurance on the seed-to increase the value of the plant on the other end.?
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