GM wheat trials to begin in UK

images (2) GM wheat trials are to begin in the UK next year, after Defra granted Rothamsted Research permission to release wheat lines genetically modified for resistance to aphids.

Hertfordshire-based Rothamsted will conduct trials during 2012 and 2013, with independent expert group the Advisory Committee of Releases to the Environment (ACRE) – which evaluated its application – satisfied that the proposed trials would not result in any adverse effect on human health or the environment.
Precautionary conditions were attached to the consent from Defra, which aim to ensure that no GM material from the trial will enter the food and feed chain.
The trial will be on a very small scale, with approximately 350 seeds per m2 to be released, over an area of 288m2. It is set to take place at one site over two years.

Does Kenya need GM crops as it battles famine in the Horn of Africa?


In the midst of a dire need to feed millions of people facing hunger because of drought, Kenya’s newly passed Biosafety Act allows for the importation of GM crops – but at what cost?

There has been a really long-term, ongoing push by Monsanto and USAID to get GM approved in Kenya

As the most severe drought crisis in 60 years continues in East Africa, a contentious issue simmers under the surface, one that potentially puts the environmentalist agenda at stark odds with the dire need to save human lives.
Facing a growing number of people in need of food aid, the Kenyan government gazetted existing legislation in August that allows for the importation of genetically modified (GM)crops as well as for the cultivation of GM food crops within Kenya.
Passage of the act makes Kenya the fourth African nation, after South Africa, Egypt and Burkino Faso, to legalise GM crops. While some view the decision as a direct response to the famine, the title of the legislation – the Kenya Biosafety Act of 2009 – indicates that Kenya had GM aspirations for quite some time.
The government’s decision was met with opposition by environmental groups, high-ranking Kenyan parliamentarians, and small-scale subsistence farmers, all of whom fear that the importation of GM seeds could contaminate existing seed stocks and decrease food security. 
Teresa Anderson, of the Gaia foundation, which partners with the African biodiversity network to prevent the industrial commoditisation of the continent’s agriculture, says Kenyan farmers’ opposition to the new legislation is a testament to how devastating GM could be for their farming practises.
‘There is a strong resistance from African farmers in particular who are concerned about the impacts’, Anderson says. ‘80 per cent of small scale farmers save their seed; this practise is crucial for African farmers’ livelihoods.’
If a GM seed contaminates a nearby farmer’s non-GM seed (say by accidental wind cross-pollination), the farmer would no longer be able to save his seed for the next planting season, as he would be in possession of a patented product.
In addition to GMO’s potential effects on small farmers, Anderson said that Kenya’s new allowance of GM represents a sea change in the East Africa region as a whole.
‘There has been a really long-term, ongoing push by Monsanto and USAID to get GM approved in Kenya because it’s seen as the gateway to Africa’, Anderson says. ‘It’s more developed and it’s connected to the East Africa regional block. Once you have one country with a certain set of biosafety rules they [will try and] push for harmonisation in the region’.
The genetically modified seeds currently produced by agribusiness giants such as Monsanto are ones resistant to a certain pesticide or modified so that they produce a poison that kills predators. Hopes for a GM drought-resistant crop for regions like central Africa have not yet been achieved.
The necessity of GM
Many question if it’s even necessary for Kenya to import GM products to meet the massive food need and whether the nation possesses the regulatory prowess to effectively deal with GM crops once they’ve arrived.
Aid agencies and agricultural officials have reported that farmers in other parts of Kenya do in fact have surplus crops, much of which have been exported to Southern Sudan and elsewhere; agricultural officials claim they are unable to direct where farmers sell their harvest.
‘Even within Kenya, there is actually non-GM maize available’, Anderson says. ‘They’ve either just sold it to other markets or there are no distribution channels in place. If there’s aid going in it should actually be used to develop those channels’.

Parliamentarian Gideon Konchellah was quoted in the Kenyan press echoing Anderson’s claim. ‘There is no need for the government to import maize yet we have the capacity to produce enough maize’.

Resistance found in GM maize target pest


Repeated growing of the same type of genetically modified insect-resistant maize appears to have contributed to the first instances of resistance in western corn rootworm being detected in the USA.

Field reports from growers in Iowa of severe rootworm-feeding damage on GM crops engineered to kill the rootworm larvae by producing an insecticidal toxin derived from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) alerted Iowa State University researcher Aaron Gassmann.

Subsequent tests on rootworms collected from those fields confirmed it to be the first report of field-evolved resistance by the species, he said.

"Interviews with farmers indicate that [the same type of] Bt maize had been grown in those fields for at least three consecutive years."

There was not the same loss of performance on other types of Bt-resistant maize, however, he pointed out. "That suggests a lack of cross-resistance between Bt toxins."

Insufficient planting of refuges could also have contributed to the breakdown, he added. Growers of the Bt maize are supposed to plant 20% of the field with a non-GM variety for resistance management, but a study has suggested that only 50% of growers comply.

"The results suggest that improvements in resistance management and a more integrated approach to the use of Bt crop might be necessary," Dr Gassmann said.

GM wheat research in full flow

Applying Nitrogen to Spring cereals? After several years of being the forgotten crop in the global development of genetically modified crops, wheat is suddenly smack bang in the middle of most biotech programmes.

It was 2004 when Monsanto decided to plug on Roundup Ready wheat, with media reports at the time citing a lack of consumer acceptance as a key reason. A number of important export destinations for North American wheat were not keen on buying GM wheat, while even growers, through North American wheat associations, were lobbying against its introduction, fearing there would be no market for their grain.

But in 2009 that all changed, with a joint announcement from nine Canadian, American and Australian wheat organisations that they would work towards the synchronised commercialisation of biotech traits in wheat crops, opening the door for both commercial organisations and research institutes to start developing GM wheat.

That change of heart was prompted by an acknowledgement that a lack of investment in wheat research had left development behind that of competing commodity crops.

In America, in particular, wheat production has come under pressure as advancements in maize and soya, partly through biotechnology have helped those crops achieve higher productivity gains than in wheat.

The increased profits generated by those crops have understandably caused growers to switch away from wheat and into other crops where they have alternatives. And with drought tolerance in maize moving towards commercialisation in the USA, there is an increasing prospect of a continued decline in wheat production.

Those issues, and that the longer wheat continued down a non-GM path, the more likely the gap between wheat yield growth and other commodity crop growth would increase, led to the joint statement from the wheat growers associations and a flurry of activity in both commercial and research worlds.

Monsanto, for example, reacted by acquiring Montana-based breeding company WestBred in 2009 to add wheat to its seed and traits business, and later formed a strategic alliance with BASF. Similarly, Bayer CropScience has recently announced an alliance with seed breeder RAGT, and formed research agreements with institutes, such as CSIRO in Australia and Evogene in Israel.

Unlike the first incarnation of GM wheat, which was all about herbicide tolerance, the traits of interest in most of these programmes are second generation technologies, such as drought resistance and helping to improve nitrogen use efficiency

The latter is already being investigated in field trials in Australia as part of the CSIRO Food Futures National Research Flagship programme with the aim of reducing the amount of nitrogen applied to the crop without compromising yield, says Bruce Lee, director of food futures programme at CSIRO.

Another line being trialled has significantly increased yield in laboratory tests.

But the most controversial lines being researched by CSIRO are ones where there is an effort to produce grains with in-built health attributes

For example, one line has had a single gene switched off leading to a different composition of starch in the grain. Starch is an important nutrient for humans and digested in the small intestine, with the resulting glucose absorbed and used for energy.

But a component of the starch escapes digestion and enters the colon, where it broken down by the resident bacteria releasing short chain fatty acids. These are a source of energy for the large bowel wall and are important in bowel health.

The GM lines will increase the amount of this resistant starch in the grain by boosting the amylose content from 25% to 70%, explains Dr Lee. "We hope that diets which contain this high amylose wheat may help to reduce the incidence of colorectal cancer."

Most Australians, according to CSIRO, only consume 10-20% of the recommended daily intake of resistant starch, which could contribute to the high rates of diet related diseases, such as diabetes and colorectal cancer in the country.

Colorectal cancer kills 4,400 Australians every year, while Type 2 diabetes affects 8% of the population.

Another line will investigate whether grains with altered carbohydrate profile are digested more slowly in the small intestine, and therefore whether the conversion of starch to glucose is reduced. That could reduce the glycaemic response during digestion meaning less insulin is needed to control blood glucose levels.

One of the aims of the trials is produce enough grain to conduct animal and potentially human feeding trials eventually to confirm the health benefits of these grains.

Feeding trials would follow a strict and established protocol involving rats initially to determine the effects of the grains on indicators of bowel health or blood glucose levels. If successful, studies would move on to pigs, which are closer to humans in gut physiology and consume similar quantities of food.

It is that possibility that prompted Greenpeace to destroy around 0.5ha of GM wheat trials in July, using many familiar arguments in its justification, including calling into question its safety.

That action suggests that while research institutes and the breeding companies are keen for GM technology to be introduced into wheat, there is a still a way to go to for consumers to be won over.

UK GM wheat field trial

The first small scale field trial of GM wheat in the UK could take place if DEFRA approves Rothamsted Research’s application to test whether its GM wheat plant are resistant to aphid attack.

The institute has used a gene gun to insert a gene from peppermint plants that makes a substance called E-beta-farnesene (EBF), an aphid alarm pheromone that occurs naturally in over 300 varieties of plants.

"In the lab we have demonstrated the GM wheat plants repel aphids and attract parasitoids and predators that naturally control the number of aphids in the environment," explains Toby Bruce, a principal investigator in Rothamsted’s chemical ecology group.

"The trial will investigate whether the GM plants work outside in the field as well as they do in the lab."

In addition, to the main gene being tested, a second one that will boost the production of the aphid alarm pheromone will be tested in combination with the peppermint gene, he adds.

Summer aphids rather than those that cause barley yellow dwarf virus infections in the autumn are the target. "We aim to find out whether aphid infestations are lower in the summer on the transformed plants than untransformed wheat. If the trait works as intended, the GM wheat would substantially reduce the need for aphicide treatments."

GM corn being developed for fuel instead of food

images (4) US farmers are growing the first corn plants genetically modified for the specific purpose of putting more ethanol in gas tanks rather than producing more food.

Aid organisations warn the new GM corn could worsen a global food crisis exposed by the famine in Somalia by diverting more corn into energy production.

The food industry also opposes the new GM product because, although not inedible, it is unsuitable for use in the manufacture of food products that commonly use corn. Farmers growing corn for human consumption are also concerned about cross-contamination. The corn, developed by a branch of the Swiss pesticide firm Syngenta, contains an added gene for an enzyme (amylase) that speeds the breakdown of starches into ethanol. Ethanol plants normally have to add the enzyme to corn when making ethanol.

The Enogen-branded corn is being grown for the first time commercially on about 5,000 acres on the edge of America’s corn belt in Kansas, following its approval by the US Department of Agriculture last February. In its promotional material Syngenta says it will allow farmers to produce more ethanol from the corn while using less energy and water.

Meanwhile, campaigners say the corn will heap pressure on global food supplies and contribute to environmental degradation. They argue Enogen will lead to an increase in the amount of food crops going to fuel, leaving less for human consumption and leading to food price rises. That will lead to food price rises on the global market. "The temptation to look at food as another form of fuel to use for the energy crisis will exacerbate the food crisis," said Todd Post of Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger organisation.

Although individual events such as the Somalia famine are caused by a complex combination of factors, several studies have established that the expansion of biofuels has pushed up food prices worldwide, making it harder to afford for the poorest. A World Bank report released on Tueday says food prices that are now close to their 2008 peak have contributed to the famine in Somalia. Marie Brill, a senior policy analyst at ActionAid warned: "It’s going to put even more pressure on a really tight market. It will be really tempting to farmers to take on this new more efficient ethanol form of corn."

The food industry is warning of the dangers of contaminating existing corn crops with the new GM corn. The same traits that make the modified corn so attractive to the ethanol industry – the swift breakdown of starches – would be a disaster for the food industry, turning corn chips into shapeless lumps, and stripping the thickening properties from corn starch.

Even a small amount of the amylase corn – one kernel out of 10,000 – could damage food products, according to data supplied to the North American Millers’ Association by Syngenta. The organisation, like most food industry groups, has opposed the corn, noting failures to prevent cross-contamination from earlier GM breeds.

The European Union, South Korea, and South Africa have not approved its import.

Enogen also has to catch on among farmers. "I’m sceptical as a farmer," said Allen Jasper, who runs a cattle-feed operation near Whitten, Iowa. "The first thing I’m going to ask is how does it yield. Any time you try and change a corn plant and get it to do something that is not native to the plant you have to be sceptical of the yield."

Syngenta maintains the corn variety has a high yield, and that it has the appropriate safeguards to prevent cross- pollination. After Kansas, the company plans to expand its growing area to Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and southwest Minnesota.

Farmers will grow the corn under contract to an ethanol production plant, getting a premium over regular corn. Buffer rows of corn will be planted. "This is a very slow ramp-up. This is not a broad acre crop at this point," said Paul Minehart, a Syngenta spokesman.

Steve McNinch, of Western Plains Energy, in Kansas, the only ethanol plant to have processed the new corn, said adding a small amount of amylase corn to the mix – about 10% – would increase production by 10%.