European court sides with Italian farmer pushing GM crops

BRUSSELS—The European Union court ruled on Wednesday in favor of an Italian activist farmer who has defied his nation’s laws by planting genetically modified (GM) corn.

In Photo: In this August 10, 2010, photo, Giorgio Fidenato holds a raw ear of genetically modified yellow corn at his office in Pordenone, northern Italy. The European Union Court of Justice has ruled on Wednesday in favor of Italian activist farmer Fidenato.

Italy has prosecuted Giorgio Fidenato for cultivating the corn on his land, citing concerns the crops could endanger human health.

But the European Court of Justice ruled on Wednesday that a member-state, such as Italy, does not have the right to ban GM crops, given that there is no scientific reason for doing so. It noted the European Commission in 1998 authorized the use of the specific maize seeds Fidenato planted, finding “no reason to believe that that product would have any adverse effects on human health or theenvironment”.

Fidenato, whose fields lie in Pordenone, northeastern Italy, became persuaded of the benefits of genetically altered crops during a visit to the United States in the 1990s, seeing that they require fewer chemicals than traditional crops and produce higher yields and profits.

But he has faced huge opposition in Italy, where many are fearful that genetically altered foods are less natural than traditional crops and could be dangerous. He has faced both fines from the government and the wrath of anti-GM activists who have destroyed his crops.

The current case dates to 2013, when Italy asked the European Commission to adopt emergency measures prohibiting the planting of the seeds, which are produced by US company Monsanto, on the basis of Italian scientific studies.

But the commission disputed the Italian studies, citing a scientific opinion by the European Food Safety Authority that there was “no new science-based evidence” that the seeds could be dangerous.

The Italian government nonetheless went ahead with a decree prohibiting the cultivation of the corn, and prosecuted Fidenato and other farmers who planted their fields with the corn in defiance.

After the ruling Fidenato expressed satisfaction with the decision, saying he and the other farmers involved in the suit finally feel as if “justice is on our side”.

Image Credits: AP Photo/Paolo Giovannini, File

-Written by Associate Press and published in Business Mirror.  See original article link here.

Pangasinan stakeholders learn about Bt brinjal, affirm support for Bt talong

Pangasinan stakeholders learn about Bt brinjal, affirm support for Bt talong

Farmers, local government constituents, and other key stakeholders in the province of Pangasinan, Philippines expressed their backing for, and willingness to adopt Bt talong(eggplant) by signing a declaration of support for its commercialization during a seminar with key people involved in the development and commercialization of Bangladesh’s Bt brinjal last July 27, 2017 at Pangasinan State University (PSU)-Sta. Maria Campus.

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Farmers return to BT cotton after experiment with desi variety fails

After the experiment with the desi cotton failed to bear fruits, farmers are returning to the BT cotton in the next kharif season.

While there is no taker for the desi cotton seed available with the government agencies, the BT cotton seed is being sold at a premium in the open market, as the seed is not available with the Haryana Seeds Development Corporation.
The farmers say due to high demand, BT cotton varieties were being sold at premium rate by the private seed sellers in the open market. On the other hand, they said, there were no takers for the desi varieties.

“The farmers prefer three varieties of BT cotton— 773, 776 and US 21. Due to high demand, the seed traders have been manipulating the market to create a shortage. Though some unscrupulous elements succeeded in selling these varieties at a premium of Rs 200 per packet above the MRP, the market has stabilised now and these vareties are also available at the MRP of Rs 800,” says a seed trader in Hisar.

Anil Kumar, assistant marketing officer of the Haryana Seeds Development Corporation, says the desi varieties are in low demand this time. “Just 120 packets have been sold till. Last year, I had sold 1,400 packets,” he says, maintaining that the corporation will make some varieties of BT cotton available to the farmers soon.
Farmers say good BT cotton crop in the last kharif season had turned the farmers back to these varieties, as desi cotton was not even able to recover the input cost.

Zile Singh, a farmer from Bir Babran village who sowed desi cotton last time after he lost the BT cotton to the whitefly two years ago, said he was returning to BT cotton this time again.

-Published in The Tribune.  See original article link here.

Scientists engineer sugarcane to produce biodiesel, more sugar for ethanol

A multi-institutional team led by the University of Illinois have proven sugarcane can be genetically engineered to produce oil in its leaves and stems for biodiesel production. Surprisingly, the modified sugarcane plants also produced more sugar, which could be used for ethanol production.

The dual-purpose bioenergy crops are predicted to be more than five times more profitable per acre than soybeans and two times more profitable than corn. More importantly, sugarcane can be grown on marginal land in the Gulf

Coast region that does not support good corn or soybean yields.

“Instead of fields of oil pumps, we envision fields of green plants sustainably producing biofuel in perpetuity on our nation’s soil, particularly marginal soil that is not well suited to food production,” said Stephen Long, Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Plant Biology and Crop Sciences. Long leads the research project Plants Engineered to Replace Oil in Sugarcane and Sweet Sorghum (PETROSS) that has pioneered this work at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois.
“While fuel prices may be considered low today, we can remember paying more than $4 per gallon not long ago,” Long said. “As it can take 10-15 years for this technology to reach farmers’ fields, we need to develop these solutions to ensure our fuel security today and as long as we need liquid fuels into the future.”

Published in Biocatalysis and Agricultural Biotechnology, this paper analyzes the project’s first genetically modified sugarcane varieties. Using a juicer, the researchers extracted about 90% of the sugar and 60% of the oil from the plant; the juice was fermented to produce ethanol and later treated with organic solvents to recover the oil. The team has patented the method used to separate the oil and sugar.

They recovered 0.5 and 0.8 percent oil from two of the modified sugarcane lines, which is 67% and 167% more oil than unmodified sugarcane, respectively. “The oil composition is comparable to that obtained from other feedstocks like seaweed or algae that are being engineered to produce oil,” said co-author Vijay Singh, Director of the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory at Illinois.

“We expected that as oil production increased, sugar production would decrease, based on our computer models,” Long said. “However, we found that the plant can produce more oil without loss of sugar production, which means our plants may ultimately be even more productive than we originally anticipated.”

To date, PETROSS has engineered sugarcane with 13 percent oil, 8 percent of which is the oil that can be converted into biodiesel. According to the project’s economic analyses, plants with just 5 percent oil would produce an extra 123 gallons of biodiesel per acre than soybeans and 350 more gallons of ethanol per acre than corn.

-Published in phys.org.  See original article link here.

Australian OGTR approves field trial of GM Potato

The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) in Australia has issued a license to the Queensland University of Technology, allowing the limited and controlled release (field trial) of potato genetically modified (GM) for disease resistance.

The field trial (License Application DIR 150) is authorized to take place at one site of up to 0.1 hectare in Redland City, Queensland, for a period of two years. It will assess the agronomic characteristics and Potato virus X disease response of the GM potato plants under field conditions. The GM potatoes will not be used in human food or animal feed.

The final Risk Assessment and Risk Management Plan (RARMP) concludes that this limited and controlled release poses negligible risks to people and the environment and does not require specific risk treatment measures.

The finalized RARMP, together with a summary of the RARMP, a set of Questions and Answers on this decision and a copy of the license, are available online from the DIR 150 page in the OGTR website.

-Published in ISAAA’s Crop Biotech Update.  See original article link here.

Australian OGTR Issues License for Field Trial of GM Indian Mustard

Australia’s Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) has issued a license to Nuseed Pty Ltd., allowing the field trials of Indian mustard (Juncea canola) genetically modified (GM) for altered oil content. The field trials (License Application DIR 149) will be carried out between April 2017 and May 2022, and will take place at a maximum of 4 sites of up to 2 hectares per site in 2017, 10 sites of up to 5 hectares per site in 2018, and 15 sites of up to 10 hectares per site in each subsequent year.

The final Risk Assessment and Risk Management Plan (RARMP) concludes that this limited and controlled release poses negligible risks to people and the environment and does not require specific risk treatment measures. The finalized RARMP, together with a summary of the RARMP, a set of Questions and Answers on this decision and a copy of the license, are available online from the DIR 149 page in the OGTR website.

-Published in ISAAA’s Crop Biotech Update.  See original article link here.

FEATURE BLOG: The trial of Bt talong field trials

FEATURE BLOG: The trial of Bt talong field trials

The Philippine government issued a policy statement in July 2001 promoting the judicious use of modern biotechnology and its products for food security, equitable access to health services, sustainable and safe environment, and industry development.  In April 2002, rules and regulations on the importation and release into the environment of biotech plants and products were issued.  Department of Agriculture Administrative Order No. 8 (DA AO8), series of 2002 served as the regulatory guidelines in assessing health and environmental safety of biotech crops.

bt corn

Soon after the approval of the government on the planting of the first biotech crop in December 2002, the agricultural landscape in the Philippines changed significantly, particularly in the corn sector.  From the initial plantings in 2003 of biotech corn in about 20,000 hectares, commercial plantings now cover an area of about 800 thousand hectares, planted by more than 350 thousand farmers. Because of the fast and wide adoption of biotech corn, the country has achieved sufficiency in the supply of yellow corn starting in 2012.

Early traits of biotech corn provide solution to infestation of Asiatic corn borer and problem in maintaining crop stand with the application of herbicides.  Biotech corn available now in the market has the combination of both traits. Biotech corn products in the pipeline have traits that can address other pests and diseases, improving nutritional value, and can withstand harsh climate conditions such as drought.

Bt talong research and development

bt eggplantWith the success in the adoption of biotech corn in the country, the Institute of Plant Breeding at the University of the Philippines Los Baños (IPB-UPLB) spearheaded the development of a biotech eggplant that provides resistance to its chronic pest, the fruit and shoot borer.  Eggplant production provides an important source of cash income for small and resource-poor farmers in the country, and accounts for more than 30% of the volume of vegetable production.

DSC02820bThe eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB) is a lepidopterous insect whose larva consumes the inner part of the eggplant fruit.  Damage caused by the EFSB normally results to nearly 80% of yield loss especially during high incidence of infestation.  The pest’s gut, similar to that of the corn borer, is affected by the toxin produced by the cry1a gene. Hence, similar to the first commercialized biotech corn, Bt talong use the gene from the soil borne bacteria Bacillus thuringensis to control EFSB.

Research started in 2003 in the laboratory and contained experiment was from 2007 to 2009 under the supervision of the National Biosafety Committee of the Philippines (NCBP).  Field trials in Laguna, Pangasinan, Camarines Sur, and North Cotabato were conducted from 2010 to 2012.  Bt talong varieties developed by IPB-UPLB contained a transformation event developed by Mahyco in India and introgressed into local open-pollinated varieties through backcrossing.  The biotech eggplant is the first public-sector initiated research and the first biotech food crop developed in the Philippines.

As with other biotech crops developed in the Philippines and elsewhere, Bt talong followed a rigorous regulatory guidelines and review throughout its research and development process. Research activities on Bt talong followed the strict regulatory requirements stipulated in the Philippine Biosafety Guidelines and the DA AO8 designed to minimize and manage the risks to both human health and to the environment of biotech products produced through modern biotechnology.

Bt talong court trial

The development of Bt talong has never been without any challenges.  For instance, field trial at UP Mindanao in Davao City had to be prematurely terminated in December 2010 because of the anti-biotech stance of the city government and its officials.  At the height of the field trial being conducted at the experimental farm of UPLB, members of Greenpeace Southeast Asia (Philippines) vandalized and uprooted eggplants in February 2011.

upminIn April 2012, Greenpeace Southeast Asia (Philippines), Magsasaka at Syentipiko sa Pagpapaunlad ng Agrikultura (Masipag), and other personalities filed a writ of kalikasan and writ of continuing mandamus in the Supreme Court (SC) to stop the field trials of Bt talong.  The writ of kalikasan is a legal remedy under Philippine law that provides for the protection of one’s rights to “a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature”. Petitioners argued that the field trials of Bt talong violated the constitutional rights of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology pointing out the inherent and potential risks on human and animal health and the environment through “field trial contamination”.

Respondents to the case were Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority (FPA), UP Los Baños Foundation, Inc. (UPLBFI) and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

The Supreme Court issued the writ of kalikasan on May 2, 2012 directing the respondents to answer the petition of the anti-biotech entities.  The case was subsequently remanded by the SC to the Court of Appeals (CA) on July 10, 2012 for hearings, reception of evidence, and rendition of judgment.  On October 12, 2012, the appellate court issued a resolution acknowledging the legal standing of the petitioners, non-mootness of the case, and presence of justiciable controversies in relation to non-compliance with environmental and local government laws.  Petitioners maintained that the conduct of Bt talong field trials should be covered by the environmental impact statement (EIS) system and that there were no genuine public consultations conducted in communities within the trial sites prior to the approval of the field trials.

Respondents maintained that since the field trials had already been terminated, petition for writ of kalikasan should be dismissed for being moot and academic.  Moreover, Bt talong field trials do not cause environmental damage and do not prejudice the life, health and property of individuals.

In a span of nearly seven months, hearings on the scientific and factual questions involved were conducted, with both local and foreign experts presenting their arguments and evidence on the case at bar.  The CA adopted the “hot-tub” method in hearing the testimonies and arguments of expert witnesses from both parties.

In a 26-page decision issued on May 17, 2013, the appellate court ruled that “the field trials of genetically modified organisms Bt talong could not be declared as safe to human health and to our ecology with full scientific certainty, being an alteration of an otherwise natural state of affairs in our ecology”.  The court maintained that there is still no full scientific certainty on the effects of the Bt talong to the environment and to the health of the people.  The CA further stressed that the “overall safety guarantee of Bt talong remains unknown”.  This is where the premise of precautionary principle was applied.

The court also claimed that the existing biosafety regulations issued by the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) are insufficient to guarantee the safety of the environment and health of the people.  The appellate court ordered to permanently cease and desist from further conducting Bt talong field trials and protect, preserve, rehabilitate and restore the environment in accordance with the judgment.

Greenpeace and Masipag were quick to commend the decision of the CA and claimed the ruling as “victory to the Filipino people”.  However, farmers felt otherwise.  In a series of public dialogues conducted by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture – Biotechnology Information Center (SEARCA BIC) on Bt talong participated in by key agriculture stakeholders from Pangasinan, Camarines Sur, Isabela, Laguna, Batangas, and Quezon provinces, farmers lamented the undue ruling against Bt talong field trials as a major setback to adopting a much needed technology that is economically beneficial and safe to their health and the environment.  Farmers even signed a manifesto supporting commercial use of biotech crops in the country and asked for the early release of the Bt talong in the market.

A consolidated petition was lodged to the SC to seek reversal of the May 17, 2013 decision and the September 20, 2013 resolution of the appellate court denying the motions for reconsideration filed by Bt talong proponents.  On December 8, 2015, after the review of the petitions and submissions, the SC en banc upheld the decision of the appellate court and further modified the CA ruling. The DA AO8 was nullified which temporarily halted the application for contained use, field testing, propagation and commercialization, and importation of genetically modified organisms until a new administrative order is promulgated in accordance with law.

Members of the scientific community, including student organizations and professional groups whose memberships are composed of well-known scientists such as the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), criticized the High Court’s ruling which apparently relied on discredited scientific research and literatures and improperly applied the precautionary principle to support its judgment.  Other stakeholders lamented on the possible negative repercussions of the SC decision on modern biotechnology and scientific advancement in the country.  Some farmer groups had urged the SC to junk the writ of kalikasan against Bt talong and the temporary ban on the commercial use, propagation and importation of other biotech plant products.

In his concurring opinion to the SC ruling, Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen opined that the petition for the writ of kalikasan should have been dismissed and considered moot and academic by the appellate court considering the expiration of the validity of the biosafety permits for the field trials and the actual termination of all the field trials.  Further, Justice Leonen noted “grave abuse of discretion which amounts to excess of jurisdiction” in relation to the CA ruling.

Despite the negative decision of the SC, some positive outcomes were realized with the court’s ruling.  The SC ruling heightened public awareness and interest on modern biotechnology and biotech plant products.  The SC decision had become the topic of discussion for weeks in both mainstream and social media and public dialogues.  A collective voice of scientists defended the science behind the Bt technology and the safety and benefits of biotech crops.  The science community ventilated concerns on the consequences of the SC decision on the advancement of science and technology in the country.  In a demonstration of cooperation and mutual interest, five government agencies worked together to draft and finalize a new directive that would later become the regulatory framework for safety decisions on biotech plant products that is more transparent, participatory, comprehensive, and with strict adherence to high standards of risk assessment.

Supreme Court reversed previous ruling

Undeterred by the decision of the SC, motions for reconsideration were filed by the Bt talong proponents.  An unexpected turn of events occurred on July 26, 2016 when the SC en banc unanimous reversed its previous ruling.  The SC ruled in favor of the Bt talong proponents affirming mootness of the case.  The SC decision further stated that since no commercial propagation of Bt talong took place and research activities never went beyond the field trial phase, “any future threat to the public to a healthful and balanced ecology is more imagined than real.”

The court further noted that it should not have invalidated DA AO8 as it was only “collaterally challenged” and the anti-Bt talong petitioners were merely asking for amendments to the administrative order. The court declared DA AO8 null and void in its previous decision for failure to comply with the provisions of the National Biosafety Framework (NBF).  Three main issues raised by the court in the nullification of DA AO8 were the lack of meaningful public participation on biosafety decisions, non-implementation of the EIS system, and lack of standards for risk assessment.

New regulatory guidelines

The SC ruling in December 2015 required the issuance of new regulatory guidelines for safety assessment of biotech plant products.  Following the order of the SC, the NCBP initiated the drafting, public consultations, and finalization of the Joint Department Circular No. 1 (JDC), series of 2016.   The new regulatory framework became effective on April 15, 2016 replacing the voided DA AO8.  Under the JDC, five relevant government agencies, namely Department of Agriculture (DA), Department of Science and Technology (DOST), Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Department of Health (DOH), and Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) participate in the biosafety decision-making process involving the research, development, handling and use, transboundary movement, release into the environment, and management of biotech plant and plant products.  The JDC provides a more rigorous scrutiny of biotech plant products with the inclusion in the safety assessment of environmental impacts, health impacts, and involvement and meaningful participation of the general public and communities in the decision-making process.

The next step

With the field trials of Bt talong already completed, confirming the efficacy of the technology against the fruit and shoot borer and its safety towards beneficial and non-target insects, and with the unanimous ruling of the SC reversing its earlier decision against field tests, immediate commercial release should be considered by its developer.  Farmers are set to gain from the adoption of Bt talong with significant reduction in yield loss, lesser use of pesticides, and increased income.  Consumers are expected to benefit from pesticide-free eggplants that will be made available in the market.

About the Author:

Panfilo G. de Guzman is an Associate Scientist of the International Service for the Acquisition of the Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

Second GM crop ready for release

Three years after the release of Bt Brinjal, Bangladesh is going to get its second genetically modified (GM) crop — a disease resistant potato — as scientists have sought government approval for its commercial use.

Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, which has developed the blight resistant (RB) potato, applied on December 29 for the commercial release of the crop, Bari Director General Md Rafiqul Islam Mondal told The Daily Star yesterday.

GM crops are the ones whose DNA has been modified, in most cases, by introducing a new trait to the plant, thereby, giving it extra vigour either to resist diseases or withstand stress conditions.

Once released, RB potato will be farmers’ answer to late blight, one of the most devastating plant diseases caused by fungal attack. Farmers in Bangladesh spend up to Tk 100 crore a year in spraying 500 tonnes of fungicide to protect this major tuber crop from late blight.

With an annual output of nine million tonnes, Bangladesh is a potato exporting nation ranking 7th among the top potato-producing countries in the world.

Apart from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Uganda are also working on developing and releasing blight resistant GM potato.

According to the International Potato Center (CIP), potato is the third most important food crop in the world after rice and wheat in terms of human consumption. More than a billion people eat potato, and its worldwide production exceeds 300 million metric tonnes.

Late blight, responsible for the 19th century Irish potato famine that had led to one million deaths from starvation, still affects more than 3 million hectares of potato crops globally and causes economic losses estimated at $2.75 billion a year, according to the CIP, which is helping Uganda develop the GM potato.

Breeders involved in developing the RB potato since 2006 at Bari said the resistant gene was taken from wild potato varieties and was infused into a potato variety called Katahdin in the United States. They said it was crossed with Diamant and Cardinal — two popular potato varieties in Bangladesh.

After years of lab tests, greenhouse and contained field trials across the country, Bari scientists found out that RB potato succeeded in resisting the late blight. Later, they approached the Ministry of Agriculture for regulatory approval, said Md Jahangir Hossain, director of Bari’s Tuber Crops Research Centre (TCRC).

“Right in this season, I’m receiving many phone calls every day from Northern potato growers seeking advice for protecting their produces from blight attacks. Once approved, RB potato will bring them a big respite from the disease,” said Hossain.

He said farmers now have to spray costly fungicides in their fields several times during a cropping season to save their potato from late blight.

Md Abu Kawochar, a scientific officer at the TCRC, had told this correspondent that the final regulatory trials conducted at six sites in the country during the last potato season had shown positive results.

Bari developed the late blight resistant potato in cooperation with the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII), a USAID-funded consortium of public and private sector institutions supporting scientists, regulators, extension workers, farmers and the general public in developing countries to make informed decisions about agricultural biotechnology.

Bari Director General Md Rafiqul Islam Mondal said once the Ministry of Agriculture would forward the approval application to the relevant biosafety regulatory committee, they would verify the matter. Once satisfied, the plea would be sent to the national biosafety body for approval.

He said the regulatory process would take a few more months to end.

RB potato would be the second commercially released GM food crop in South Asia after Bt Brinjal, which was also released by Bangladesh in 2013.

Empowered with a crystal protein gene (Cry1Ac) taken from soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, Bt Brinjal is resistant to Fruit and Shoot Borer (FSB), the deadliest brinjal pest.

After its release, Bari supplied Bt Brinjal plants to a limited number of farmers in 2014 and 2015. But since late 2016, the Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE) has been going for the crop’s large scale production across the country.

“Success with Bt Brinjal has led Bangladesh to prioritise the field testing of a new late blight resistant potato [an important crop occupying 0.5 million hectares of land in Bangladesh] which could be approved as early as 2017,” stated the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), in its latest report titled “Global Status of Commercialized Biotech”.

ISAAA, a non-profit international organisation having three centres in New York (USA), Nairobi (Kenya), and Los Baños (the Philippines), keeps watch on production and expansion of biotech crops worldwide.

ISAAA recorded a 100-fold increase in global biotech acreage in just 20 years (from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 179.7 million hectares in 2015) making biotechnology the fastest adopted crop technology in recent times and reflecting farmer satisfaction with biotech crops.

-Written by Reaz Ahmad in The Daily Star.  See article link here.