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October 2009 Updates

Transgenic Aubergines Put on Ice

By K.S. Jayaraman
Nature 461, 1041 (2009)
October 19, 2009

Indian minister delays approval of GM crop.

Stiff opposition from activists has persuaded the Indian government to put off commercial release of the country's first genetically modified (GM) food crop, despite clearance from the nation's top biotechnology regulator.

The 14 October ruling by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) granted permission for Indian farmers to grow a transgenic version of aubergine, or brinjal, that is insect-resistant. But barely 24 hours later, Jairam Ramesh, India's minister of environment and forests, said that permission for its cultivation will be given only after consulting "all stakeholders".

Ramesh says that the ministry will seek public comments until the end of the year and that he "will have a series of consultations with scientists, agriculture experts, farmers' organizations, consumer groups and NGOs" in January and February 2010 before deciding whether to go forward.

The GM brinjal variety was developed by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech, a joint venture between Jalna-based Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company and US seed giant Monsanto.

The decision to seek further input has angered some crop scientists. "The minister has set a bad precedent by ignoring the recommendation of the GEAC - a statutory body consisting of scientists," says Chavali Kameswara Rao, secretary of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education in Bangalore. "The biosafety issue of Bt brinjal has been studied by more than 150 scientists, and nothing new will come from fresh consultations."

But GEAC member Pushpa Bhargava, who was founding director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, says Ramesh has made the right choice. "The government need not accept every recommendation made by the GEAC," he says. Bhargava was one of the three members of the GEAC, out of a total of 20-odd members, who opposed the introduction of Bt brinjal - citing what they called inadequate safety data provided by Mahyco.

Mahyco says that at least 25 environmental-safety and food-safety studies on animals carried out since 2002 show that Bt brinjal is "absolutely safe" to eat. But Bhargava and activist groups argue that the GEAC did not get the company data independently analysed. The only other study, by French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini of the Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering, branded Bt brinjal "potentially unsafe for human consumption".

According to Seralini, eating Bt brinjal reduced appetite in goats, increased prothrombin time (the time it takes blood to clot) in goats and rabbits, and caused the plants to produce a protein inducing resistance to the antibiotic kanamycin. However, an expert committee dismissed these concerns, saying that the crop "has been extensively tested for its biosafety, and no additional studies/review are necessary". That expert report formed the basis for the GEAC's ruling.

The Coalition for a GM-Free India called the approval a "shame" and alleged that "regulators have put the interests of corporations over that of ordinary citizens". But Rao says the anti-GM lobby is nervous. "They have already lost the battle over Bt cotton - the only GM crop grown in India - and they know if they lose over Bt brinjal they lose the war," he says.


Ireland Adopts GM-free Zone Policy

Press Release
GM-free Ireland Network
October 13, 2009

Government to ban cultivation of all GM plants
Voluntary GM-free label for meat, poultry, eggs, fish and dairy produce

DUBLIN - The Irish Government will ban the cultivation of all GM crops and introduce a voluntary GM-free label for food - including meat, poultry, eggs, fish, crustaceans, and dairy produce made without the use of GM animal feed.

The policy was adopted as part of the Renewed Programme for Government agreed between the two coalition partners, the centre-right Fianna Fal and the Green Party, after the latter voted to support it on Saturday.

The agreement specifies that the Government will "Declare the Republic of Ireland a GM-Free Zone, free from the cultivation of all GM plants". The official text also states "To optimise Ireland's competitive advantage as a GM-Free country, we will introduce a voluntary GM-Free logo for use in all relevant product labelling and advertising, similar to a scheme recently introduced in Germany." [1]

The President of the Irish Cattle and Sheepfarmers Association, Malcolm Thompson, said he was delighted by the announcement, adding, "The Government's new GM-free policy is the fulfillment of what we at ICSA have held for the last five years. I very much look forward to its full implementation." [2]

Michael O'Callaghan of GM-free Ireland said the policy signals a new dawn for Irish farmers and food producers:

"The WTO's economic globalisation agenda has forced most Irish farmers to enter an unwinnable race to the bottom for low quality GM-fed meat and dairy produce, in competition with countries like the USA, Argentina and Brazil which can easily out-compete us with their highly subsidised GM crop monocultures, cheap fossil fuel, extensive use of toxic agrochemicals that are not up to EU standards, and underpaid migrant farm labour.

"Meanwhile, hundreds of European food brands, retailers and Regions now offer GM-free beef, pork, lamb, poultry, eggs, fish and dairy produce as part of their Food Safety, Quality Agriculture, Biodiversity, Fair Trade, Sustainable Development and Climate Change strategies. Thousands of brands in the USA are doing likewise. Without a GM-free label to distinguish our produce, Irish food is being excluded from this global market."

"The Irish Government plan to ban GM crops and to provide a voluntary GM-fee label for qualifying animal produce makes obvious business sense for our agri-food and eco-tourism sectors [3]. Everyone knows that US and EU consumers, food brands and retailers want safe GM-free food, and Ireland is ideally positioned to deliver the safest, most credible GM-free food band in Europe, if not the world."

The international market for GM-free animal produce is growing rapidly

Across Europe, hundreds of leading food brands (including the largest dairy coop, Friesland Campina) and dozens of leading retailers (including the largest, Carrefour) now offer premium meat, fish, eggs, poultry eggs and dairy produce made without the use of GM feedstuffs. These are backed by GM-free labels and Government regulations in Austria, Italy, Germany, with France to follow later this year. Sales of GM-free milk have skyrocketed since the label came into effect in Germany [4].

In the USA, to which Ireland exports vast quantities of dairy produce (including milk powder and casein for cheese production), leading food manufacturers, retailers, processors, distributors, farmers, seed breeders and consumers have set up joint venture called the Non-GMO Project, which already provides GM-free labels for over 1,000 food products by individual manufacturers in addition to thousands of GM-free private retail brands [5].

Unique selling point for Irish food

Ireland's geographical isolation and offshore Atlantic western winds provide a natural barrier to contamination by wind-borne GM pollen drift from countries such as the UK and Spain which still allow commercial release and/or field trials of GM crops [6]. Together with this natural protection - and Ireland's famous green image and unpolluted topsoil - the new GM-free policy will provide Irish farmers and food producers who avoid the use of GM feed with a truly unique selling point: the most credible safe GM food brand in Europe." [7]

Moreover, because most Irish cattle and sheep enjoy a grass-based diet, their consumption of GM feedstuffs is lower than livestock in many competing countries. This provides Irish farmers with a valuable lead start in phasing out the use of GM feed [8]. The only obstacle is the Irish animal feed cartel, which has a virtual monopoly on feed imports, and seems unwilling to provide the affordable Non-GM feedstuffs available to farmers in other European countries [9].

Back in 2007, the Irish Government adopted a weaker policy "to seek to negotiate to declare the island of Ireland as a GMO-free zone", but the two opt-out clauses did not inspire conviction; failure to define the implications of the policy for GM animal feed created confusion in the farming sector [10] and the Government failed to even draft any related legislation to implement the policy. That said, Ireland did stop voting in favour of new GMOs in Brussels and has since joined the majority of EU member states which back an Austrian proposal for the EU Commission to allow national bans on GM crops [11]. In response to this move, the EU Commission indicated its willingness to consider national bans earlier this year [12].

Although Ireland's new affirmative GM-free policy unambiguously aims to ban both commercial release as well as field trials of GM crops, it requires implementing legislation in the Republic, as well as Northern Ireland to prevent contamination from across the border [13].

A label that means what it says

O'Callaghan said the Irish GM-free label for algae, meat, poultry, eggs, crustaceans, fish, and dairy produce should set a higher standard than the existing German and proposed French labels, which mislead consumers by allowing GM-free claims for animal produce from livestock whose diet has included large amounts of GM feedstuffs for varying periods before they are converted into food [14]:

"Ireland's GM-free label should mean what it says, i.e. no feeding of any GM-labelled feedstuffs during the entire life of the animal. Specifically, the label should guarantee that the animal has been fed either on plant materials for which no GMO varieties exist, or on fodder crops that contain no GMO ingredients above the generally accepted detection level of 0.1 per cent. To avoid misleading consumers, the EU should to adopt a credible GM-free labelling regulation of this kind for the whole single market, instead of allowing individual member state to set their own standards, which can be not only confusing, but also deceptive. The Irish Government is now in a position to lead on this."

International reaction

Jochen Koester, a leading soy industry adviser who runs TraceConsult in Geneva, Switzerland, said: "The Irish Government's decision is very timely and deserves congratulations. In a very natural way, this will increase the Irish farmers' demand for Non-GMO animal nutrition that permits GMO-free claims on the final animal product. Increased import volumes and lower per-tonne logistics costs will bring down the price of certified Non-GMO imported soy meal. Irish farmers can thus soon join the ranks of "GMO-free" producers from Austria, Germany and France. This enhanced supplier platform will also create a lot more clout for all players in the Non-GMO food and feed industries." [15]

In London, the Irish Michelin-starred celebrity chef and TV host Richard Corrigan laughed out loud when he heard the news at his Bentley's Mayfair restaurant, adding that "the eyes of Europe will now gaze with envy on Ireland!" (Corrigan created a stir in Irish farming circles earlier this year when he denounced Bord Ba [the Irish Food Board] on his TV programme for providing its Quality Assurance label to meat and dairy produce from livestock fed on GM feedstuffs which are excluded from such labels in more food-savvy EU countries [16]).

Reacting to the announcement in Rome, Greenpeace EU GMO Policy Director Marco Contiero said "Greenpeace welcomes this decision by the Irish Government. It puts an additional brake on the global expansion of the risky, unproven and costly technology of genetically modified agriculture. Ireland's GM-free policy answers the serious concerns which European consumers have on GM food, and will allow Irish retailers and businesses to be rewarded for the good quality produce they bring to the market." [17]

Commenting from the USA, the Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project [18] Megan Thompson said "Ireland has taken a truly inspiring step towards ensuring consumers' right to choose non-GMO products... As more and more companies in the USA and Canada are looking for non-GMO ingredients, this is a very timely move and we look forward to developing sourcing opportunities with GM-free producers in Ireland."

Speaking for GM-Free Cymru in Wales, Dr Brian John said: "We congratulate the Irish Government on this very bold step, which is underpinned by sound science and by a proper regard for the precautionary principle. It is also a very smart commercial move which will give Ireland a competitive advantage. We hope that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will now follow suit by making similar declarations and by showing the Westminster government that its slavish adherence to a pro-GM agenda is scientifically untenable and out of step with the public mood." [19]

In Brussels, Friends of the Earth Europe's GMO campaign co-ordinator Helen Holder said "All around Europe, countries are putting up bans or other limits to growing genetically modified crops and the Irish government is to be congratulated. The EU should drop genetically modified food and crops, and instead support green farming which is good for the economy and for the planet". [20]

Notes available on request


Modified Crops Reveal Hidden Cost of Resistance

Press Release
Pennsylvania State University, USA
October 26, 2009

University Park, Pa. -- Genetically modified squash plants that are resistant to a debilitating viral disease become more vulnerable to a fatal bacterial infection, according to biologists.

"Cultivated squash is susceptible to a variety of viral diseases and that is a major problem for farmers," said Andrew Stephenson, Penn State professor of biology. "Infected plants grow more slowly and their fruit becomes misshapen."

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved genetically modified squash, which are resistant to three of the most important viral diseases in cultivated squash. However, while disease-resistant crops have been a boon to commercial farmers, ecologists worry there might be certain hidden costs associated with the modified crops.

"There is concern in the ecological community that, when the transgenes that confer resistance to these viral diseases escape into wild populations, they will (change) those plants," said Stephenson, whose team's findings appear today (Oct. 26) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "That could impact the biodiversity of plant communities where wild squash are native."

Stephenson and his colleagues James A. Winsor, professor of biology; Matthew J. Ferrari, research associate; and Miruna A. Sasu, doctoral student, all at Penn State; and Daolin Du, visiting professor, Jiangsu University, China, crossed the genetically modified squash into wild squash native to the southwestern United States and examined the resulting flower and fruit production.

Unlike a lab experiment, the researchers tried to mimic a real world setting during their three-year study.

The researchers then looked at the effects of the virus-resistant transgenes on prevalence of the three viral diseases, herbivory by cucumber beetles, as well as the occurrence of bacterial wilt disease that is spread by the cucumber beetles.

"When the cucumber beetles start to feed on infected plants they pick up the bacteria through their digestive system," explained Sasu. "This feeding creates open wounds on the leaves and when the bugs' feces falls on these open wounds, the bacteria find their way into the plumbing of the plant."

The researchers discovered that as the viral infection swept the fields containing both genetically modified and wild crops, the damage from cucumber beetles is greater on the genetically modified plants. The modified plants are therefore more susceptible to the fatal bacterial wilt disease.

"Plants that do not have the virus-resistant transgene get the viral disease," explained Stephenson, whose team's work is funded by the National Science Foundation. "However, since cucumber beetles prefer to feed on healthy plants rather than viral infected plants, the beetles become increasingly concentrated on the healthy -- mostly transgenic -- plants."

During a viral epidemic, the transgene provides modified plants with a fitness advantage over the wild plants. But when both the bacterial and viral pathogens are present, the beetles tend to avoid the smaller viral infected plants and concentrate on the healthy transgenic plants. This exposes those plants to the bacterial wilt disease against which they have no defense.

"Wild and transgenic plants had the same amount of damage from beetles before viral diseases were prevalent in our fields," said Stephenson. "Once the virus infected the wild plants, the transgenic plants had significantly greater damage from the beetles."

Results from the study show that over the course of three years, the prevalence of bacterial wilt disease was significantly greater on transgenic plants than on non-transgenic plants.

According to the researchers, their findings suggest that the fitness advantage enjoyed by virus-resistant plants comes at a price. Once the virus infects susceptible plants, cucumber beetles find the genetically modified plants a better source for food and mating.

"Our study has sought to uncover the ecological cost that might be associated with modified plants growing in the full community of organisms, including other insects and other diseases," said Ferrari. "We have shown that while genetic engineering has provided a solution to the problem of viral diseases, there are also these unintended consequences in terms of additional susceptibility to other diseases."


Bioengineered Plants Gone Wild

By Joe Palca
National Public Radio
October 27, 2009

Special genes inserted into crop plants have a way of leaking into the environment. That much scientists know for sure. What they're less certain about is what effect those genes have on plants growing in the wild.

Andrew Stephenson is interested in answering that question. He's a plant ecologist at Penn State University. Plant breeders put things called transgenes into plants to give them desirable properties such as disease resistance.

"People were concerned that when the transgene escapes into the wild populations, it will provide a fitness advantage," says Stephenson.

A fitness advantage means the wild plants, with this advantageous transgene, might grow out of control, mucking up the ecosystem.

Meet The Cucurbita

Stephenson studies a wild squash plant called cucurbita, the Texas gourd. It looks like a pumpkin plant, but with smaller leaves. The fruits are about the size of a baseball or softball, they're round or slightly pear-shaped, and they taste terrible.

Cucurbita shows up throughout the American Southwest and Mexico. Stephenson wanted to know what would happen when his wild gourd picked up a transgene that's used in cultivated squash to protect the crop from plant viruses.

So he purposely created a strain of Texas gourd with the transgene, and planted some next to the same gourd that didn't have the transgene. Then he waited for spring, when aphids would bring a plant virus to the field.

Stephenson reports in the journal PNAS that as the virus spread through the field, it only affected the Texas gourd without the transgene.

Enter The Cucumber Beetle

So at first, it looked as if scientists were right to worry that the transgene might give cucurbita a fitness advantage. But then, something strange happened. After the aphids arrived in the field, along came another pest: the cucumber beetle. These beetles carry a different plant disease ... not a virus, but bacteria

"These bacteria secrete an exopolysaccharide, a kind of snotlike stuff," says Stephenson.

When the beetles eat the gourd's leaves and flowers, this snotlike stuff gets into the plant's plumbing. This first causes the leaves to wilt, and then ultimately kills the plant.

But, surprisingly, the beetles don't seem to like the taste of the virus-infected cucurbita, so they tend to chew on the healthy plants protected by the transgene.

"As the virus spreads through the susceptible plants in the field, the beetles become increasingly concentrated onto the healthy transgenic plants," says Stephenson.

Yes, the plants are protected from the virus, but that makes them more vulnerable to the bacteria.

Stephenson says no one suspected that would happen.

The Fitness Advantage

Now in this particular case, the unintended consequences aren't bad. The wild gourd apparently won't grow out of control because if the transgene gives the plant a fitness advantage, the cucumber beetle takes that advantage away.

But Norman Ellstrand, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Riverside, says that is not what's important about Stephenson's research. "We know the transgene sometimes give us unexpected effects. And when you do an experiment like Stephenson's group did," says Ellstrand, "you see how complicated ecology really is."


Gene amplification confers glyphosate resistance in Amaranthus palmeri

By Todd A. Gainesa,1, Wenli Zhangb, Dafu Wangc, Bekir Bukuna, Stephen T. Chisholma, Dale L. Shanerd, Scott J. Nissena, William L. Patzoldte, Patrick J. Tranele, A. Stanley Culpepperf, Timothy L. Greyf, Theodore M. Websterg, William K. Vencillh, R. Douglas Sammonsc, Jiming Jiangb, Christopher Prestoni, Jan E. Leacha and Philip Westraa,2
PNAS (edited by Charles J. Arntzen)
October 29, 2009


The herbicide glyphosate became widely used in the United States and other parts of the world after the commercialization of glyphosate- resistant crops. These crops have constitutive overexpression of a glyphosate-insensitive form of the herbicide target site gene, 5- enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS). Increased use of glyphosate over multiple years imposes selective genetic pressure on weed populations. We investigated recently discovered glyphosate- resistant Amaranthus palmeri populations from Georgia, in comparison with normally sensitive populations. EPSPS enzyme activity from resistant and susceptible plants was equally inhibited by glyphosate, which led us to use quantitative PCR to measure relative copy numbers of the EPSPS gene. Genomes of resistant plants contained from 5-fold to more than 160-fold more copies of the EPSPS gene than did genomes of susceptible plants. Quantitative RT-PCR on cDNA revealed that EPSPS expression was positively correlated with genomic EPSPS relative copy number. Immunoblot analyses showed that increased EPSPS protein level also correlated with EPSPS genomic copy number. EPSPS gene amplification was heritable, correlated with resistance in pseudo-F2 populations, and is proposed to be the molecular basis of glyphosate resistance. FISH revealed that EPSPS genes were present on every chromosome and, therefore, gene amplification was likely not caused by unequal chromosome crossing over. This occurrence of gene amplification as an herbicide resistance mechanism in a naturally occurring weed population is particularly significant because it could threaten the sustainable use of glyphosate-resistant crop technology.

Read the study

aDepartment of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523
bDepartment of Horticulture, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706
cMonsanto Company, St. Louis, MO 63167
dWater Management Research Unit, US Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), Fort Collins, CO 80526
eDepartment of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL 61801
fCrop and Soil Science Department, University of Georgia, Tifton, GA 31794
gCrop Protection and Management Research Unit, USDA-ARS, Tifton, GA 31794
hCrop and Soil Science Department, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602
iSchool of Agriculture, Food and Wine, University of Adelaide, Glen Osmond, SA 5064, Australia

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