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March 14, 2009

Resistance to GM crops falling

by Mac Margolis

Few scourges cause as much ruin as maize streak virus. Spread by the tiny leafhopper bug, MSV plagues farmers across the southern part of Africa, where tens of millions rely on corn for more than half their daily calories. It starts discreetly: a patina of pale circles at the bottom of young leaves. Left untreated, it can destroy entire harvests.

"You go into the fields and want to weep," says Jennifer Thomson, a South African molecular biologist and expert on MSV. "You wonder why anyone bothers to plant."

Now they may have a reason. Thomson and fellow researchers at the University of Cape Town teamed up with Pannar, an African seed company, to insert mutated DNA from the virus itself plus two other genes into healthy maize, essentially short circuiting the virus's reproductive code and immobilizing the disease. In greenhouse trials, the doctored maize curbed the damage from MSV, and sometimes stopped it cold. If it passes safety tests, it could hit the market within four years. It would be Africa's first homemade genetically modified crop.

That would be a landmark. For years, farmers in Africa and other developing countries have struggled against a wide array of problems, from pests to changing weather patterns, without being able to avail themselves of all the high-tech tools that wealthier nations have. A big obstacle has been a taboo on genetic modification of food crops, inspired largely by attitudes in Europe, and a global agricultural industry that has been deaf to the problems of poor nations.

But a recent series of crises is changing those attitudes. Spiking food prices triggered riots across the tropics last year, killing 24 in Cameroon and toppling the Haitian government. As supplies vanished, Philippine President Gloria MacapagalArroyo went so far as to threaten rice hoarders with life imprisonment. Worldwide, grain stocks hit a quarter-century low. The financial crisis worsened matters by gutting incomes and farm credit without making much of a dent in food prices.

In a world where almost a billion people went hungry last year—119 million more than in 2007—and with food demand set to double by midcentury, the taboo against GM foods is crumbling. "There can be no doubt science must come to the rescue," says Joachim von Braun, head of the International Food Policy Research Institute, an independent group that has always toed a cautious line on GM. "We need to utilize all instruments of high science, whether it's biotech, nanotech or just plain good agronomy."

The result is a second wave of GM food crops adapted to the needs of poor nations. Emerging nations are turning to gene splicing to boost food supply (not just agribusiness profits) and to protect harvests from the ravages of climate change, pests and pathogens. The new crops are hardier and healthier versions of staple crops. In the works are South African potatoes that repel tuber moths, Brazilian lettuce with a superdose of folic acid, a natural source of the vitamin B that aids neural development in babies, and Chinese rice that can withstand heat and drought. India is using biotech to improve bananas, cabbage, cauliflower, sweet corn, groundnuts and okra. Brazil's national agronomy institute, Embrapa, is ginning up black beans to outsmart the mosaic virus that claims up to 90 percent of harvests. Malaysians are fortifying papaya against the devastating ringspot disease. China's goal is "food security," says Stanford economist Scott Rozelle, an expert on rural China. "Their objective is to produce enough food for the country without having to resort to imports, and also reduce poverty."

It's been more than a decade since biotech companies led by Monsanto began to redesign agriculture by splicing genes from bacteria into crop plants or between different kinds of food. This first generation of transgenics were mostly cash crops, such as herbicide-resistant soybeans and maize. Big farmers found them easier and cheaper to manage, but they offered no benefit in taste or significant savings to consumers. In the developing world, biotech firms oversold GM products as a silver bullet for world hunger, kept a tight lid on their technology, and charged high prices. The effect was to inhibit research and frustrate poor farmers. Meanwhile, environmental pressure groups warned that pollen from doctored crops could contaminate conventional plantings or provoke ecological blowback in the form of superweeds, while some scientists predicted a rise in allergies and ailments. Public opinion quickly turned against the technology, at least for food crops.

Gradually, though, a shift in attitudes, consumer habits and trade practices has been wearing away at the barriers. Significantly, developing countries are leading the way: more than 13 million farmers now plant biotech crops on 125 million hectares worldwide, triple the area planted with GM in 2000. Twenty of the 25 countries sowing GM seeds are in the emerging markets. Brazil, India and the Philippines are plowing government money into the "gene revolution."

South Africa is now the world's eighth largest producer of biotech crops. India is the world's fourth-largest grower of GM cotton, and China is the biggest investor in agricultural biotech after the United States. After years of balking, Beijing last year launched a $2.9 billion plan to develop a line of GM crops over the next decade. So far the trade boom is limited to a handful of plantation crops—soy, canola, yellow maize and cotton—mostly as animal fodder or feedstock for biofuels, but the market is being redefined. "With the bigger and faster-growing markets in Asia to supply, big producers like Brazil and Argentina are no longer obliged to cater to strict European requirements," says June Pearson of the European based Grain and Feed Trade Association.

Climate change is a big factor behind changing attitudes. In a warming world, the depleted silos and surging food prices of last year may become the new normal. Rising temperatures are accelerating the growth of plants, which demand more and more moisture. Studies suggest that farm productivity falls 10 percent with each degree Celsius of warming, which implies a drop of up to 40 percent worldwide in the coming decades. In dry areas, with fresh water for irrigation growing ever scarcer—or being siphoned off to nourish highvalue crops—staple agriculture must adapt or perish. Wet parts of the world could get wetter, also hurting crops. That's why finding drought- and flood-tolerant crops is a key target of biotech funds.

There's still some question whether transgenic crops are necessary, because seed companies are also getting promising results from conventional breeding, souped up by supercomputers and techniques like laser-assisted seed selection, which deploys laser beams to identify and boost the best genetic traits in crop seeds.

But agriculture experts overwhelmingly agree that conventional methods are not enough. With the earth's population set to tip 9 billion by 2050, farmable land is disappearing. Recent studies predict that developing countries could lose 135 million hectares of arable land over the next half century to erosion, declining water tables and encroaching settlement. That means farmers will have to grow more food on less land with less water. Gene splicing can achieve in a matter of weeks or months what takes decades for traditional cross breeding. "Look at where people are malnourished today—in dry, non-irrigated land, mostly occupied by small farmers," says Wellesley College political scientist Robert Paarlberg, author of "Starved for Science" on the biotech ban in Africa. "To feed these people, you need new technologies to use land and labor more productively. This is where GM will help feed the poor."

Even in the anti-GM strongholds of Europe, sentiment is turning. In Britain, where Prince Charles recently called GM foods "the biggest disaster, environmentally, of all time," the think tank Chatham House called in January for a reopening of the GM debate, saying that biotech is necessary to achieve "affordable food production." Terry Leahy, chief of Tesco, the big U.K. supermarket chain, recently hailed GM's "vital role" in feeding the planet. Europe still requires that imported GM food be labeled and separated along the supply chain, yet as more farmers in the big producing countries turn to GM crops, supplies of conventionally grown food and grains are shrinking. And Europe is falling behind. Before the European Union banned GM foods in 1996, grain yields mirrored those in the United States, but they have since lagged by 1 to 2 percent a year, according to Oxford economist Paul Collier. The key reason, he says, is Europe's refusal to plant GM seeds.

The corporate hubris that sparked anti-GM protests seems to be easing. Monsanto—under pressure from scientists and green groups—has pledged not to use its so-called terminator technology, which essentially rigs seeds to go sterile after one harvest, stopping farmers from replanting them. In recent years, a number of companies such as Syngenta, BASF and Dupont Pioneer have also agreed to share their technology with poor nations. Developing-world investment in GM has also helped buff GM's image. "People tell me that they don't want GM, but they do want virus-resistant plants," says Rikus Kloppers, senior plant pathologist for Pannar. "When I tell them we're an African company, they warm to the idea."

Africa—the only continent where poverty and malnutrition are on the rise, thanks largely to primitive farming—needs help in many ways, both hi-tech and low. Yet only one nation on the continent—South Africa—has licensed a GM product for sale. The new strain of MSV-resistant maize has yet to be approved for crucial field tests, because of continuing opposition in some government quarters. And only a handful of African countries—Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Ghana and Uganda—have joined South Africa in experimenting with biotech at all. The lingering resistance no longer makes sense.


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