NIAB Innovation Farm GM workshop 2: Public Good Programme?

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Published on: September 25, 2012
Cows and maize, a major GM cattle feed.

For responses to last week’s news story about the GM maize feeding trial that appeared to cause tumours in rats, GARNet suggests: New Scientist,  the Science Media Centre, UKPSF, or for a rather more biting commentary, Forbes.

As discussed in the previous post, GM plant products are commonly used worldwide for food and for animal feedstock. But strict European regulations mean growing a GM crop and bringing its product to market is very difficult in Europe. Any progress toward GM products on the European market, especially under a public good programme, is dependent on a relaxation of EU regulations for GM. The consensus view from the NIAB Innovation farm workshop GM: Is it time for a public good programme? was that if GM was treated as another breeding method, and GM crops were subject to the same regulations as conventionally bred plant varieties, industry would be far more likely to invest in GMOs.

Anti-GM feeling in the general public has reduced recently, but governments still implement anti-GM legislation. This in itself makes a government-supported public good programme unlikely in a European country. A public good programme would also have to overcome several technical and legal barriers. A framework would be needed to allow open access to technology and outputs, therefore a unique intellectual property arrangement would have to be implemented. A wide stakeholder steering group, independent of any one institution, to deal with these and other issues would be essential. Several people wondered what exactly a public good programme would look like – there is a successful public GMO programme in China, but it depends almost entirely on government funding and a similar financial commitment from the UK government is unlikely, at least in the near future. (more…)

NIAB Innovation Farm GM workshop 1: Background to GM discussions

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Published on: September 18, 2012


On 12th September, I attended a workshop at NIAB Innovation Farm entitled ‘GM – Is it time for a public good programme?’ There were some very good points made throughout the day, and instead of a chronological account of the presentations, two blog posts on the workshop will outline the main themes that came out of the discussions. The programme is on the Innovation Farm website.

The CEO and Director of NIAB TAG, Tina Barsby, kicked off proceedings by outlining the definition of public good: a ‘good’ that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous, and therefore not produced primarily for profit. Making it clear that the workshop was to be very much focussed on the UK and Europe, Barsby argued that as a market for GM products has failed to materialise, it is time for a non-profit, public good programme, perhaps supported by the government. However throughout the day, it became clear that a commercial market for GM cannot yet be written off.

Barsby went on to describe why GM technology in agriculture is necessary. Farmers battling  crop diseases and world leaders trying to ensure a reliable food supply both have the same problem – crop productivity is too low for the demands placed upon it. GM is one of the solutions to this problem, and while in Europe transgenic crops are not farmed, genetic modification is universally used in conventional breeding; from mutagenesis to marker assisted selection. Genetic engineering has the potential to make crops resistant to disease, contain increased nutrition, and withstand extreme weather conditions. (more…)

Traditional varieties are key to modern rice farming

Analysing root growth and yield of rice plants.

Highlighted article: Rico Gamuyao, Joong Hyoun Chin, Juan Pariasca-Tanaka, Paolo Pesaresi, Sheryl Catausan, Cheryl Dalid, Inez Slamet-Loedin, Evelyn Mae Tecson-Mendoza, Matthias Wissuwa & Sigrid Heuer (2012). The protein kinase Pstol1 from traditional rice confers tolerance of phosphorus deficiency. Nature 488, 535–539 doi:10.1038/nature11346

Over centuries, many local rice varieties have been bred into a few modern varieties which are extensively farmed throughout much of Asia. In regions where soil is poor such as western India and Thailand, rice crops are dependent on rainfall, frequently suffering from floods and draughts, and importantly also require phosphorus fertilizer. Phosphorus is an essential plant nutrient, and as phosphorus fertilizer is made from a finite store of phosphorus rock the current situation in the parts of Asia with poor soil is not sustainable.

A solution to this problem was found in a traditional rice variety, Kasalath. Another traditional rice variety has already supplied modern rice breeders with submergence tolerant gene SUB1, which enables rice plants to survive up to two weeks of flooding. A decade ago, a major quantitative trait locus was identified in Kasalath that conferred tolerance to phosphorus deficient soil. This locus was labelled Pup1, and last year the Heuer group at the International Rice Research Institute defined a core set of Pup1 markers and used them to backcross Pup1 into modern rice varieties, which were grown in their natural environments and all produced significantly more rice in P-deficient conditions than their wildtype counterpart. These Pup1 introgression lines also showed improved root growth under stress. (more…)

Orange sweet potato champions biofortified foods in Africa

Two Ugandan children dig in to a plate of orange sweet potato (Credit: HarvestPlus)

According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition this month, eating orange sweet potato reduces the prevelance of vitamin A deficiency in children in Uganda and Mozambique. Vitamin A is critical for the development of good vision as it is an essential component of rhodopsin, a pigment in photoreceptor cells in the eye. Consequently in poor communities in Africa and south-east Asia, where diets poor in vitamin A are widespread, vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness. Healthy levels of vitamin A are also necessary for normal organ formation and maintenance. Orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties contain more than 50-fold more β-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A after ingestion, than the yellow or white varieties commonly eaten in African countries.

The study monitored the effects of the Orange Sweet Potato (OSP) project, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and coordinated by HarvestPlus. The conclusions predict a promising future for the use of biofortified foods bred for increased nutritional value. It was the first large-scale study of its kind, involving 24 000 households from Uganda and Mozambique. Nutritionists and farmers educated communities on the health benefits of orange sweet potato and on growing, storing, and commercialising orange sweet potato crops. Local women were also given recipes and information about hygiene practices. (more…)

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