Tag Archives: GM crops China

Preserving Seeds that Feed the World: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Six hundred miles from the North Pole, on an island the size of West Virginia, at the end of a tunnel bored into a mountain, lies a vault filled with more than 1 million samples of seeds harvested from 6,374 species of plants grown in 249 locations around the globe.The collection, the largest of its kind, is intended to safeguard the genetic diversity of the crops that feed the world.  If disaster wipes out a plant, seeds from the vault could be used to restore the species. If pests, disease or climate change imperil a food source, a resistant trait found among the collection could thwart the threat.

While some countries have their own seed banks—Colorado State University houses one for the U.S.—the Svalbard Global Seed Vault serves as a backup. The vault, built in 2008 at a cost of about $9 million, is owned and maintained by Norway, but its contents belong to the countries and places that provide the samples.  “It works like a safe-deposit box at the bank,” said Cary Fowler, an American agriculturalist who helped found the vault. “Norway owns the facility, but not the boxes of the seeds.”

In 2015, after the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas was destroyed in the Syrian civil war, scientists who had fled the country withdrew seeds to regenerate the plants in Lebanon and Morocco.  “It had one of the world’s biggest and best collections of wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, faba beans and grass pea,” Dr. Fowler said. “It was the chief supplier of a disease-resistant wheat variety for the Middle East.”  In 2017, the group returned copies of its seeds to the vault.

The 18,540-square-foot seed vault includes three rooms with the capacity to house 4.5 million samples of 500 seeds each—a maximum of 2.25 billion seeds. The environment’s natural temperature remains below freezing year round, but the seeds are stored at a chillier -18 degrees Celsius, or around -0.4 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re expected to last for decades, centuries or perhaps even millennia….

While dwindling diversity might not seem like an imminent threat, four chemical companies now control more than 60% of global proprietary seed sales…That concentration of power, some worry, could lead to less agricultural variety and more genetic uniformity…In the meantime, the seed vault (which doesn’t store genetically modified seeds) will continue to accept deposits in an effort to preserve all of the options it can.

Excerpts from Craven McGinty, Plan to Save World’s Crops Lives in Norwegian Bunker, WSJ,  May 29, 2020

Genetically Modified Crops May Become the Norm: the case of Golden Rice

Golden Rice is a genetically modified (GM) crop that could help prevent childhood blindness and deaths in the developing world. Ever since Golden Rice first made headlines nearly 20 years ago, it has been a flashpoint in debates over GM crops. Advocates touted it as an example of their potential benefit to humanity, while opponents of transgenic crops criticized it as a risky and unnecessary approach to improve health in the developing world.

Now, Bangladesh appears about to become the first country to approve Golden Rice for planting..Golden Rice was developed in the late 1990s by German plant scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer to combat vitamin A deficiency, the leading cause of childhood blindness. Low levels of vitamin A also contribute to deaths from infectious diseases such as measles. Spinach, sweet potato, and other vegetables supply ample amounts of the vitamin, but in some countries, particularly those where rice is a major part of the diet, vitamin A deficiency is still widespread; in Bangladesh it affects about 21% of children.

To create Golden Rice, Potrykus and Beyer collaborated with agrochemical giant Syngenta to equip the plant with beta-carotene genes from maize. They donated their transgenic plants to public-sector agricultural institutes, paving the way for other researchers to breed the Golden Rice genes into varieties that suit local tastes and growing conditions.

The Golden Rice under review in Bangladesh was created at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Philippines. Researchers bred the beta-carotene genes into a rice variety named dhan 29…Farmers in Bangladesh quickly adopted an eggplant variety engineered to kill certain insect pests after its 2014 introduction, but that crop offered an immediate benefit: Farmers need fewer insecticides. Golden Rice’s health benefits will emerge more slowly,

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad,  After 20 Years, Golden Rice Nears Approval, Science,  Nov. 22, 2019

Illegal Genetically Modified Crops: China

In 2013 President Xi Jinping of China…recounted his own experience of hunger during China’s great famine in the early 1960s…..He said that guaranteeing China’s “food security” was still a serious worry. Hinting at what he saw as a possible remedy, he said China must “occupy the commanding heights of transgenic technology” and not yield that ground to “big foreign firms”….

Since then, however, Chinese policy had grown much more conservative, for two main reasons. The first is anxiety among some members of the public about the safety of GM foods. The other is a worry that China’s food market might become reliant on foreign GM technology. True, a large share of the soyabeans imported by China are genetically modified. So is the vast majority of the cotton it grows. In 2015 there were more than 6.6m farmers growing GM cotton, and a total of 3.7m hectares of GM crops under cultivation, including cotton and papaya, according to Randy Hautea of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, an industry group. But the government has been reluctant to approve the growing of GM staples such as maize (corn) and rice.   …

Worries about foreign domination of GM technology may ease if a $43 billion deal reached in February 2016 goes ahead for the takeover of Syngenta, a Swiss agricultural firm, by a Chinese company, ChemChina. The acquisition must still be approved by regulators in several countries, but it could give China control of Syngenta’s valuable GM-seed patents.

China’s policymakers may be trying to bring belated order to what is already thought to be the widespread, illegal, growing of GM crops. Greenpeace, an NGO, reported in January 2016 that 93% of samples taken from maize fields in Liaoning province in the north-east tested positive for genetic modification, as did nearly all the seed samples and maize-based foods it gathered at supermarkets in the area.

Excerpts from Genetically Modified Crops: Gene-Policy Transfer, Economist,  Apr. 23, 2016