E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Out of bounds; other news

(Wednesday, January 31, 2007 ­ CropChoice news) --

1. Wheat growers get on biotech wagon
2. Out of bounds
3. Giant ragweed added to glyphosate resistant list

1. Wheat growers get on biotech wagon
Global acreage decreases start to outweigh reluctance

January 26, 2007
Scott A. Yates
Capital Press Staff Writer

WASHINGTON, D.C. - If the wheat industry had been as unified about capturing biotech traits three years ago, Roundup Ready wheat might be on the market today.

As it is, the wheat industry is a dozen years behind corn, cotton, soybeans and oilseed crops in the race for biotech superiority. Based on the latest estimate, that gap is expected to widen, with wheat interests indicating Syngenta won't introduce a genetically modified fusarium head blight-resistant cultivar until sometime around the middle of the next decade.

For the Joint Biotech Committee of U.S. Wheat Associates and the National Association of Wheat Growers, that is simply too long. Motions passed by the group and approved by both organizations aim to speed up the release of biotech traits and encourage scientists in the private and public sector to renew their research on GMO wheat.

It wasn't that long ago the wheat industry was divided between those who wanted Monsanto's herbicide-resistant trait and those who felt it would irreparably damage U.S. marketing efforts overseas. After seven years of working to achieve a consensus, Monsanto shelved Roundup Ready wheat in May 2004, telling growers the company would concentrate on biotechnology development in corn, cotton and oilseed crops.

Now, wheat growers appear intent on working to jump-start biotechnology development in their crop, passing a motion that directs USW and NAWG to meet with counterparts in Canada and Australia to develop a time line for the commercialization and release of genetically modified wheat. Sherman Reese, past president of NAWG, said wheat growers are the ones who dropped the ball and they are the ones to pick it up again.

"At some point we have to grab our own destiny, and we are not doing it," the Oregon wheat grower said.

The change of heart on the part of the nation's wheat growers is the result of trends that show corn and soybean acreage increasing at the expense of wheat. With genetically modified, drought-resistant corn the next big thing, growers are worried the erosion of acreage will only accelerate.

Wheat interests are calling the situation a "crisis of competitiveness" and are using acreage data to encourage other segments in the food chain, domestically as well as overseas, to get on board.

Daren Coppock, chief executive officer of NAWG, put it bluntly: "We are being displaced, and the longer we wait to address the competitiveness problem, the bigger hole we dig and the harder it is to conquer."

At the biotech committee meeting, Vince Peterson, vice president of overseas operations for USW, said his staff is making presentations building on the idea this is not just a U.S. problem. He reviewed data that showed wheat acreage is also declining in Canada, Argentina and Brazil. And based on precipitation patterns, he said breadbasket areas of Ukraine and Russia may also shift to corn and soybeans.

Peterson said millers and bakers are being told if non-GM wheat is desired, it will be delivered, with the understanding that tolerances are key. Different areas of the world have different tolerances for adventitious or accidental presence of genetically modified crops. In the European Union, the level is 0.9 percent. Japan, however, has a 5 percent threshold for the GMO crops its currently imports.

Peterson said reaction to the presentations is mixed, with the response in the Middle East more conciliatory than in Europe and Asia. After presentations in Europe, USW received letters "the gist of which was, 'If we haven't told you lately, we still aren't happy about this,'" Peterson said.

Based on the current time line for release of a fusarium head blight-resistant variety, there appears to be years to sort out the GMO opposition, but Al Skogen, a grower from North Dakota, doesn't believe growers have the luxury of waiting.

"Somewhere along the line we are going to have to make more aggressive moves," he said, including telling buyers that growers are unilaterally making the choice to move forward. "I think the wheat industry is going to have to step up the pace."

He said he believes the answer is not to withhold GMO wheat, but rather to give customers what they want.

Speaking of Japan, where several importers indicated they would cease sourcing U.S. wheat if the Roundup Ready trait were commercialized, he said: "The only question they really should ask is can we deliver what they want? Beyond that, they don't have the right to tell us what to plant."

Scott Yates is based in Spokane. His e-mail address is syates@capitalpress.com.

2. Out of bounds

Nature, 10 January 2007

With the use of transgenic crops expanding around the globe, we need to decide what level of unapproved plants we are willing to accept in our diets. Zero is not an option, says Heidi Ledford.

Steve Linscombe still isn't quite sure how it happened. The director of the Louisiana State University AgCenter for Rice Research knows that he grew a few lines of transgenic rice in field trials between 2001 and 2003. He also knows that one of those lines, LLRICE601, was grown on less than one acre. What he is not clear on is how the line then wended its way into the food supply. That little mystery is now the subject of an official investigation and a class-action lawsuit.

When the escape was announced in August last year, LLRICE601 had not been approved for human consumption. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) rushed to deregulate the crop, granting permission on 24 November for LLRICE601 to be grown without a permit. By then, Japan had already declared a month-long ban on all imports of US long-grain rice, and the European Union had started to require all US long-grain rice imports to be tested and certified at the expense of the exporters. Meanwhile, Bayer CropScience, the company that created the rice strain, put the blame squarely on farmers and an "act of God".

By that logic, this would not be the first time that a deity has aided and abetted the escape of a genetically engineered crop. On 21 December, Syngenta was fined $1.5 million for allowing its unapproved pest-resistant Bt10 corn (maize) to mix into seed distributed for food. The past decade is smattered with examples of unapproved crops sneaking through containment barriers (see 'Some past escapes'). When they make it into the food supply — as with LLRICE601 and Bt10 — public outcry and financial losses follow. But amid the calls for tighter regulations, experts say one truth is being drowned out: no amount of regulation can guarantee that these crops will not escape and multiply.

Meanwhile, the stakes are getting higher. Since 1991, the USDA has approved nearly 400 field tests of crops that produce pharmaceutical and industrial compounds, leaving many concerned that future escapes could have severe consequences for human health. A close call came in 2002, when stalks of corn designed to produce a pig vaccine were found mixed with $2.7-million worth of Nebraska soya beans destined for human consumption. Prodigene, the corn's maker, was fined $250,000 and forced to buy and destroy the soya beans.

No guarantees

Although the use of transgenic crops is spreading around the globe, production is still concentrated in the United States, which grows more than half of the world's genetically engineered crops. There, they are monitored by three regulatory agencies: the USDA regulates field tests, the Environmental Protection Agency monitors crops genetically engineered to produce pesticides, and the Food and Drug Administration provides a voluntary 'consultation' on the safety of crops for human consumption. That voluntary consultation sets the United States apart from many other countries, including China and many European countries, which require crops to be evaluated for toxicity and allergenicity before being approved.

In the 20 years since the USDA started to regulate field tests, it has approved nearly 50,000 field sites. But an internal audit commissioned by the USDA inspector-general and released on 22 December 2005 was severely critical. The report admonished the agency for lacking basic information about test sites, failing to inspect field tests sufficiently, and neglecting the fate of the crops after testing. USDA regulator Rebecca Besch says that a year on, many of the report's recommendations have been enacted. The agency now asks for detailed coordinates of field test sites, she says, and is revising its environmental standards.

Jeffrey Wolt, an agronomist at Iowa State University in Ames, commends the USDA for its efforts, but says that tougher regulations are no guarantee of confinement. "There has been this strong effort by regulators and industry to tighten this stuff up," he says. "But no matter how much you ratchet it down, the risk is not going to be absolute zero because that's a scientific impossibility."

Other scientists agree. Transgenic plants have many ways to escape. For plants pollinated by wind and insects, such as canola, pollen transfer is a constant threat. And although seed harvesting and processing equipment is designed to keep different varieties apart, there is no guarantee of success. "Just like anything, it is not 100%," says Linscombe. "You could have a seed that gets caught somewhere in a planter and later jars itself loose." And of course even if only a few seeds make their way into breeding stock, their numbers can then multiply.

Meanwhile, says Michelle Marvier, an ecologist at Santa Clara University in California, the focus on designing effective biological containment has kept attention away from an even more slippery culprit: human error. "The reality is that humans are involved, and we inevitably make mistakes." She warns that any risk evaluation of a genetically engineered crop should consider that crop likely to escape.

Several countries have opted not to take that risk. After the news of LLRICE601 contamination, major exporters in Vietnam announced that they would not be growing any transgenic rice. And even some countries that grow genetically modified crops are cautious about the ones they will accept. Argentina, for example, the world's second largest producer, refuses to grow any genetically engineered crop that has not been approved for consumption in its major export markets, including the European Union. That policy is intended to prevent unintended mixing of crops from hurting Argentina's robust agricultural export sector (although it hasn't protected neighbouring Brazil — which did not allow genetically engineered crops until last year — from repeated contamination from Argentina's transgenic stocks).

Harsh punishments

In the United States, the idea is that escape can be prevented if producers know that they will be punished if unapproved plant material is detected in the food supply. If a company is responsible for contamination, it typically has to remove the unapproved material at its own expense, and as an additional deterrent, deal with the flurry of negative press that undoubtedly follows. "It is really bad for the reputation of these firms and the technology itself," says Guillaume Gruere, an agricultural economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC. But he says that the regulatory agencies' zero-tolerance policy clashes with the inevitability of escape. "The problem is the threshold. If you want zero percent, it's going to be pretty much impossible."

And despite the negative press, US public opinion of genetically modified crops seems to have been changed little by the escapes so far, judging from the results of a survey done by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology last year. The number of Americans who approve of genetically modified food has hovered unchanged at around 26% for the past five years, whereas the number that explicitly disapproves has shrunk from 58% to 46%.

What about crops that produce pharmaceuticals and industrial compounds? In 2003, the USDA issued stricter guidelines for containment of these plants. Isolation distances from food crops were increased, and field test sites were to be inspected more frequently. And so far, no such strains have been deregulated, meaning that they must always be contained no matter how well they are tested.

But Margaret Mellon, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Food and Environment programme, doubts that those regulations will be enough. Her organization has called for a ban on the outdoor production of pharmaceuticals in food crops, arguing that the amount of regulation needed to guarantee containment would be prohibitively expensive both to the government and to researchers. The union has gone through the USDA regulations and analysed points at which transgenic crops could still escape, such as machine cleaning and seed transport. "Regulations that are sufficiently stringent to plug all of those holes really are not feasible," says Mellon. "We see how much trouble the agency is having even with the current ones." Instead, she argues, production of pharmaceuticals or industrial compounds should take place only in non-food crops such as tobacco.

The problem is that such a ban would have a chilling effect on research, because the technology for creating and processing transgenic food crops is well understood and therefore much cheaper. At this stage, a US ban seems unlikely, and no other country has an official ban on pharmaceutical-producing crops. In 2005, the Oregon Department of Agriculture convened a panel to evaluate the risks and potential economic benefits of growing animals and plants that produce pharmaceuticals in the state. The panel concluded last October that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Back in Louisiana, Linscombe plans to enact a few new regulations of his own. After his experience with LLRICE601, he says that he will be taking drastic measures to separate any experimental crops from his breeding stock, to at least minimize the chance of contamination. He is considering buying separate processing equipment for genetically modified crops. And he plans to greatly exceed the typical three-metre distance that is required between strains. "We have two farms that are located five miles apart," he says. "Any transgenic work in the future is going to be on one farm, and the breeding work on the other."

Some Past Escapes


Limagrain Seed and Monsanto withdrew 60,000 bags of Canadian canola after finding that it was contaminated with unapproved herbicide- resistant seed.

Unapproved insect-resistant corn produced by Monsanto escaped its field trial site and released pollen to a commercial crop. The commercial corn was destroyed.

ProdiGene field-tested corn in 2001 that was engineered to produce a pharmaceutical. The next year, transgenic corn was found mixed with commercial corn that surrounded the site, and the crops were destroyed.
See Puzzling industry response to ProdiGene fiasco. http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v21/n1/full/nbt0103-3b.html

Transgenic contaminants of corn engineered to produce a pharmaceutical were harvested with commercial soya bean plants a year after they were field-tested by ProdiGene. Some 500,000 bushels of soya beans were destroyed.
See Puzzling industry response to ProdiGene fiasco http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v21/n1/full/nbt0103-3b.html

Unexpected winds at a field-test site released herbicide-resistant, transgenic bentgrass produced by Scotts Company beyond its containment area.
See Escaped GM grass could spread bad news http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060807/full/060807-17.html

Nature reported that Syngenta had mistakenly produced and distributed a regulated, insect-resistant strain of genetically modified corn. The Environmental Protection Agency and the USDA decided that the crop did not pose a risk to human health.
See US launches probe into sales of unapproved transgenic corn http://www.nature.com/news/2005/050328/full/434548a.html

Greenpeace reported that it had found evidence of unapproved rice being sold illegally in China over the previous two years.
See GM rice forges ahead in China amid concerns over illegal planting http://www.nature.com/news/2005/050531/full/nbt0605-637.html

The USDA found that BASF had planted regulated genetically engineered corn outside the area specified by its permit.

Unapproved herbicide- resistant rice produced by Bayer CropScience was found in US rice sold for food. The USDA decided retropectively that the crop did not pose a risk to human health.
See Liberty Link rice raises specter of tightened regulations http://www.nature.com/news/2006/061030/full/nbt1106-1301.html

Unapproved pest-resistant transgenic rice was found in European imports from China.

3. Giant ragweed added to glyphosate resistant list

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

COLUMBUS, OHIO - Giant ragweed soon could cast a giant shadow on the world's most popular herbicide.

Researchers at Ohio State and Purdue universities have confirmed glyphosate-resistant giant ragweed populations in Indiana and Ohio. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in herbicides such as Roundup and Touchdown, which are used for burndown weed control in no-till cropping systems and postemergence in Roundup Ready soybeans and corn.

The weed species is the seventh in the United States to show resistance to glyphosate.

"We've identified one giant ragweed population in Indiana and a few in Ohio that are showing resistance to glyphosate," said Bill Johnson, Purdue Extension weed scientist. "The population in Indiana is located in Noble County, which is northwest of Fort Wayne. The field in which it was located had been in soybeans six out of the last seven years, and the producer relied solely on glyphosate for giant ragweed control."

The three Ohio fields with glyphosate-resistant giant ragweed are in central and southwest counties.

Johnson and Mark Loux, Ohio State University Extension weed scientist, urge farmers to alter their weed control strategies in 2007 to slow the development of glyphosate-resistant weed populations. They recommend starting with a weed-free cropfield at planting and using a program of pre-emergence herbicides, followed by a series of timely postemergence herbicide treatments.

Giant ragweed is the most competitive broadleaf weed in Indiana soybean production, Johnson said. The weed can grow as tall as 15 feet, if left undisturbed. Populations of three to four giant ragweed plants per square yard can reduce crop yields by as much as 70 percent, he said.

Farmers annually plant millions of acres in crops genetically modified to withstand glyphosate applications. While giant ragweed can complicate corn production, it is a bigger problem in soybeans because there are few alternative herbicides that provide effective control.

"The reason this is a problem in soybeans is because we have only four effective postemergence herbicides for giant ragweed," Johnson said. "Those are glyphosate, Flexstar, Cobra and FirstRate. If the giant ragweed population is resistant to ALS inhibitors, we are left with only glyphosate, Flexstar or Cobra. If the populations are resistant to glyphosate and FirstRate, then we're left with either Flexstar or Cobra as a post-treatment."

Like glyphosate, aceto-lactase synthase (ALS) inhibitors kill weeds by preventing them from producing essential amino acids necessary for growth. FirstRate is an ALS inhibitor. Flexstar and Cobra are postemergence contact herbicides that attack a plant's cell walls.

Johnson and Loux have monitored suspected glyphosate-resistant giant ragweed since 2004, when farmers in Indiana and Ohio reported weed populations that were responding poorly to glyphosate applications. In some cases, producers were treating their fields with the herbicide three or four times the same year or when giant ragweed populations had reached 15-25 inches tall.

"Our on-farm field research in 2006 demonstrated that resistant populations were not adequately controlled by glyphosate-based programs that have been effective in other populations," Loux said.

Johnson and Loux expect glyphosate resistance to show up in more giant ragweed, although it might not spread as easily as it has in marestail, another problem weed.

"The wind can blow marestail seeds longer distances than giant ragweed," Johnson said. "Giant ragweed seeds are large and heavy, so we don't think seed movement is going to be a huge issue. It is unknown whether the resistance trait might be able to spread in giant ragweed pollen."

Producers have a big role to play in managing weeds to avoid glyphosate resistance, Johnson said. They should start before planting their 2007 crop, he said.

"If growers have fields with a history of poor control of giant ragweed with glyphosate, they need to change their management tactics," Johnson said. "One big key is to start out with a clean field, with tillage or an effective burndown, which includes 2,4-D. Other keys to control include using a residual herbicide, and targeting the first in-crop postemergence treatment when the giant ragweed is between six inches and 12 inches tall.

"For the first postemergence treatment on 6- to 12-inch-tall giant ragweed, they also should use the maximum labeled rate of 1.5 pounds of acid equivalent per acre of glyphosate, or substitute tank mix FirstRate, Flexstar or Cobra for glyphosate in that first treatment."

If plants survive the initial postemergence treatment, a second postemergence treatment should be made three to four weeks after the first treatment, before the weeds start to poke through the top of the soybean canopy, Johnson said.

Additional recommendations can be found in "Management of Giant Ragweed in Roundup Ready Soybean Fields with a History of Poor Control," by Johnson, Loux, Purdue weed scientist Glenn Nice and OSU weed scientist Jeff Stachler. The article can be downloaded at http://agcrops.osu.edu/weeds. The recommendations also are included in the 2007 Weed Control Guide for Ohio and Indiana, available through the OSU publications distribution center by calling (614) 292-1607.

© 1992-2006 by SeedQuest