Tag Archives: GM crops

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

Radical New Potatoes

Potatoes are already a staple for 1.3 billion people… but unlike other major crops, however, the potato has not had a breeding breakthrough of the kind that helped dramatically boost yields during the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. The reason is that creating a new potato variety is slow and difficult, even by the patient standards of plant breeders…Readying a new potato variety for farm fields can take a decade or more.  Many countries continue to plant popular potato varieties that have remained essentially unchanged for decades. But new approaches, including genetic engineering, promise to add more options. Potato breeders are particularly excited about a radical new way of creating better varieties. This system, called hybrid diploid breeding, could cut the time required by more than half, make it easier to combine traits in one variety, and allow farmers to plant seeds instead of bulky chunks of tuber

Solynta Hybrid Potato Seeds

To breed a better potato, it helps to have plenty of genetic raw material on hand. But the world’s gene banks aren’t fully stocked with the richest source of valuable genes: the 107 potato species that grow in the wild. Habitat loss threatens many populations of those plants. In a bid to preserve that wild diversity before it vanishes, collectors have made their biggest push ever, part of a $50 million program coordinated by the Crop Trust, an intergovernmental organization based in Bonn, Germany.

The Crop Trust has provided grants and training to collectors around the world. The effort on wild potatoes, which wraps up this month, has yielded a collection representing 39 species from six nations: Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Chile. Zorrilla’s team alone found 31 species in Peru, including one for which no seeds had ever been collected. They plan to continue to search for four other species still missing from gene banks. “We will not stop,” she says. The plants are being stored in each nation’s gene bank, CIP, and the Millennium Seed Bank at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom. The stored seeds will be available to potato breeders worldwide.

THE HARDEST PART comes next: getting desirable genes from wild species into cultivated potatoes….Other researchers are skirting the limitations of traditional breeding by using genetic engineering. CIP’s Marc Ghislain and colleagues, for example, have directly added genes to already successful potato varieties without altering the plants in any other way—an approach not possible with traditional breeding. They took three genes for resistance to late blight from wild relatives and added them to varieties of potato popular in East Africa.

Potato Blight , a disease affecting potatoes

The engineered varieties have proved successful in 3 years of field tests in Uganda and are undergoing final studies for regulators. Transgenic potatoes that resist late blight have already been commercialized in the United States and Canada….

Pim Lindhout has been plotting a revolution that would do away with much of that tedium and complexity. As head of R&D for Solynta, a startup company founded in 2006, he and his colleagues have been developing a new way to breed potatoes….Breeders reduce the complexity either by using species with only two sets of chromosomes (known as diploids) or by manipulating domesticated potatoes to cut the number of chromosomes in half. With persistence, diploid potatoes can be inbred. In 2011, Lindhout published the first report of inbred diploid lines that are vigorous and productive. More recently, Jansky and colleagues also created inbred diploid lines.

Such diploid inbred plants are at the heart of Solynta’s strategy to revolutionize potato breeding. Other firms, including large seed companies, are also working to develop hybrid potatoes. HZPC in Joure, the Netherlands, has begun field trials in Tanzania and in several countries in Asia.

Excerpt from Erik Stokstad, The new potato, Science, Feb. 8, 2019

Stealing Patent-Protected Seeds

A Chinese man pleaded guilty in a US court on January 27, 2016 to stealing patent-protected corn seed from agribusiness giants Monsanto and DuPont to take back to China for commercial use.  Mo Hailong, 46, participated in a plot to steal inbred corn seeds from the two US companies so that his then employer, Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group, could use them in its own seed business, the US Department of Justice said.Mo “admitted to participating in the theft of inbred – or parent – corn seeds from fields in the southern district of Iowa for the purpose of transporting those seeds to China,” the department said in a statement.“The stolen inbred seeds constitute the valuable intellectual property of DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto.”..

Man admits stealing patented corn seeds from US fields to take to China, Guardian, Jan. 27, 2016

Genetically Modified Food – China v. US

Public unease about genetic modification is common around the world. In China, alongside rising concerns about food safety, it has taken on a strongly political hue. Chinese anti-GM activists often describe their cause as patriotic, aimed not just at avoiding what they regard as the potential harm of tinkering with nature, but at resisting control of China’s food supply by America through American-owned biotech companies and their superior technology. Conspiracy theories about supposed American plots to use dodgy GM food to weaken China

They are even believed by some in the government. In October an official video made for army officers was leaked on the internet and widely watched until censors scrubbed it. “America is mobilising its strategic resources to promote GM food vigorously,” its narrator grimly intoned. “This is a means of controlling the world by controlling the world’s food production.”  Peng Guangqian, a retired major-general and prominent think-tanker, echoed these sentiments in an article published by official media in August. He said America might be setting a “trap”. The result, he said, could be “far worse than the Opium War” between Britain and China in the 1840s that Chinese historians regard as the beginning of a “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers.

China already uses plenty of GM products. More than 70% of its cotton is genetically modified. Most of the soyabeans consumed in China are imported, and most of those imports are GM (often from America). The technology is widely used for growing papayas. The government wants to develop home-grown GM varieties and has spent heavily on research, eager to maintain self-sufficiency in food. Officials see GM crops as a way of boosting yields on scarce farmland.

In 2009 China granted safety certificates for two GM varieties of rice and one of maize. This raised expectations that it might become the first country in the world to use GM technology in the production of a main staple. But further approvals needed for commercial growing have yet to be granted. To the consternation of GM supporters, the safety certificates for the rice are due to expire next August.

Public opinion is a big reason for the delay. Environmental groups in China have rarely succeeded in changing government policy. Officials have long treated such NGOs with suspicion and made it hard for them to register or set up offices in more than one place. The only NGO in China that devotes much time to the GM issue is an international one: Greenpeace. But the anti-GM lobby has thrived, thanks not least to the adoption of the cause by conservatives in the establishment as well as by informal groups of diehard Maoists who see America as a threat.

To the Maoists, opposing GM food is an urgent priority. Hardly a speech is made by one of them without mentioning it. “I support Mao Zedong thought,” shouted one of the protesters outside the agriculture ministry. The police usually treat them with kid gloves; unlike others who protest in public, they are ardent supporters of Communist Party rule. And on this issue, at least, the Maoists enjoy much sympathy; public anxiety about food safety has soared in recent years thanks to a series of scares. Of 100,000 respondents to an online poll in November, nearly 80% said they opposed GM technology.

Since a change of China’s leadership a year ago, however, supporters of GM food inside the government and among the public have begun fighting back. In October Chinese media reported that 61 senior academics, in a rare concerted effort, had petitioned the government to speed up the commercialisation of GM crops. The Ministry of Agriculture was also said to be preparing a new public-education campaign on the merits of GM food…One of the recent petitioners, Li Ning of China Agricultural University, laments that the issue remains ensnared by nationalist sentiment.

Excerpts, Genetically Modified Crops, Food Fight, Ecomomist,  Dec. 14, 2013, at 53

Why the US Loves GM Food

Because America was a new country, argues Greg Ibach, head of agriculture in Nebraska’s state government, a primary concern was feeding a growing population and moving food large distances. Europeans fussed about appellations and where food came from. Americans “treated food as commodities”.  Such differences of history and culture have lingering consequences. Almost all the corn and soyabeans grown in America are genetically modified. GM crops are barely tolerated in the European Union. Both America and Europe offer farmers indefensible subsidies, but with different motives. EU taxpayers often pay to keep market forces at bay, preserving practices which may be quaint, green or kindly to animals but which do not turn a profit. American subsidies give farmers an edge in commodity markets, via cheap loans and federally backed crop insurance.

Lexington: Farming as rocket science, Economist, Sept. 7, 2013, at 34

US Government Lobbying for Biotechnology Industry

American diplomats lobbied aggressively overseas to promote genetically modified (GM) food crops such as soy beans, an analysis of official cable traffic revealed on Tuesday.  The review of more than 900 diplomatic cables by the campaign group Food and Water Watch showed a carefully crafted campaign to break down resistance to GM products in Europe and other countries, and so help promote the bottom line of big American agricultural businesses.

The cables, which first surfaced with the Wikileaks disclosures two years ago, described a series of separate public relations strategies, unrolled at dozens of press junkets and biotech conferences, aimed at convincing scientists, media, industry, farmers, elected officials and others of the safety and benefits of GM producs…The public relations effort unrolled by the State Department also ventured into legal terrain, accotrding to the report. US officials stationed overseas opposed GM food labelling laws as well as rules blocking the import of GM foods. The report notes that some of the lobbying effort had direct benefits. About 7% of the cables mentioned specific companies, and 6% mentioned Monsanto. “This corporate diplomacy was nearly twice as common as diplomatic efforts on food aid,” the report said….

In some instances, there was little pretence at hiding that resort to pressure – at least within US government circles. In a 2007 cable, released during the earlier Wikileaks disclosures, Craig Stapleton, a friend and former business partner of George Bush, advised Washington to draw up a target list in Europe in response to a move by France to ban a variety of GM Monsanto corn.  “Country team Paris recommends that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU since this is a collective responsibility, but that also focuses in part on the worst culprits,” Stapleton wrote at the time.”The list should be measured rather than vicious and must be sustainable over the long term, since we should not expect an early victory. Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices,” he wrote.

Excerpts, Suzanne Goldenberg,Diplomatic cables reveal aggressive GM lobbying by US officials, Guardian, May 15, 2013