Saturday, December 31, 2005

It's the product, stupid!

New herbicide-resistant wheat takes root with little protest - What, a new herbicide resistant variet of wheat and no anti-GM protests! That's because it was done with old-fashioned, brute-force mutation methods instead of GM. But the end result is the same! A new genetic variety. Hat tip: agbioview

The wheat, known by the name CDC Imagine, stands straight even in high winds and unlike many varieties is not prone to losing its seeds in bad weather, says Kirk.

But what really sets it apart is a gene mutation. CDC Imagine has been genetically altered so it keeps growing when sprayed with herbicides that normally make wheat shrivel up and die. It's a distinction that makes CDC Imagine the first herbicide tolerant wheat in Canada.

Perhaps even more remarkable, this high-tech wheat has avoided the wrath of farmers, environmentalists, consumers and marketers who drove Monsanto's herbicide tolerant wheat out of Canada in 2004.

BASF the world's largest chemical company, based in Germany created its wheat using a gene-altering process called mutagenesis, which is much more palatable to foreign markets and the Canadian Wheat Board than Monsanto's genetically modified creation.

Genetically modified plants have genes inserted or engineered into them that have been borrowed from other organisms, such as microbes, animals or other plants. Monsanto engineered herbicide tolerance into its wheat utilizing a soil bacterium.

Mutagenesis entails blasting seeds or cells with radiation or bathing them in chemicals to cause mutations in a plant's existing genes. Plant breeders have used the process for decades to create new flower colours or better barley for beer making. BASF used chemicals to create the mutation that protects CDC Imagine from herbicides.

Some say it doesn't really matter whether the plants are created through genetic engineering and mutagenesis. "It does seem to be splitting hairs," Kirk said in an interview from his farm in Climax, Sask.

"The risks to the environment are exactly the same," Yarrow says.
"We have no concern with the BASF wheat, because it's not GM," says Maureen Fitzhenry, media relations manager at the Canadian Wheat Board.
Plants with "novel traits" that have not existed before, such as herbicide tolerance, must undergo field trials and risk assessment in Canada regardless of whether they're created through genetic engineering or mutagenesis, says Yarrow. "It's the products that pose risks to the environment not the process," he says.

If it's the product and not the process, then why does the Canadian Wheat Board care if it's GM or not?

The story of wheat

Ears of plenty - this is a great, must-read article! Hat tip: agbioview

In 1701 AD the Berkshire farmer Jethro Tull devised a simple seed drill based on organ pipes, which resulted in eight times as many grains harvested for every grain sown. Like most agricultural innovators since, he was vilified. A century later the threshing machine was greeted by riots.
The first tractors had few advantages over the best horses, but they did not eat hay or oats. The replacement of draft animals by machines released about 25% more land for growing food for human consumption.
On July 2nd 1909, with the help of an engineer named Carl Bosch from the BASF company, Fritz Haber succeeded in combining nitrogen (from the air) with hydrogen (from coal) to make ammonia. In a few short years, BASF had scaled up the process to factory size and the sky could be mined for nitrogen. Today nearly half the nitrogen atoms in the proteins of an average human being's body came at some time or another through an ammonia factory.
On farms, Haber nitrogen ran into much the same revulsion as had greeted the seed drill. For many farmers, the goodness of manure could not be reduced to a white powder. Fertiliser must in some sense be alive. Haber nitrogen was not used as fertiliser in large quantities until the middle of the 20th century, and for a good reason. If you put extra nitrogen on wheat, the crop grew taller and thicker than usual, fell over in the wind and rotted.
[Borlaug] arrived in India in March 1963 and began testing three new varieties of Mexican wheat. The yields were four or five times better than Indian varieties.
Eager farmers took it up with astonishing results. By 1974, India wheat production had tripled and India was self-sufficient in food; it has never faced a famine since. In 1970 Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for firing the first shot in what came to be called the “green revolution”.

Borlaug had used natural mutants; soon his successors were bringing on mutations artificially. In 1956, a sample of a barley variety called Maythorpe was irradiated at Britain's Atomic Energy Research Establishment . The result was a strain with stiffer, shorter straw but the same early harvest and malting qualities, which would eventually reach the market as “Golden Promise”.
Today scientists use thermal neutrons, X-rays, or ethyl methane sulphonate, a harsh carcinogenic chemical—anything that will damage DNA—to generate mutant cereals. Virtually every variety of wheat and barley you see growing in the field was produced by this kind of “mutation breeding”. No safety tests are done; nobody protests. The irony is that genetic modification (GM) was invented in 1983 as a gentler, safer, more rational and more predictable alternative to mutation breeding—an organic technology, in fact. Instead of random mutations, scientists could now add the traits they wanted.

In 2004 200m acres of GM crops were grown worldwide with good effects on yield (up), pesticide use (down), biodiversity (up) and cost (down). There has not been a single human health problem. Yet, far from being welcomed as a greener green revolution, genetic modification soon ran into fierce opposition from the environmental movement. Around 1998 ... green pressure groups began picking up public disquiet about GM and rushed the issue to the top of their agendas, where it quickly brought them the attention and funds they crave.
Soon after Norman Borlaug went to India in 1963, a remarkable thing began to happen. The world population growth rate, in percentage terms, had been climbing steadily since the second world war (bar a two-year drop in 1959-60 caused by Mao Xedong). But in the mid 1960s it stopped rising. And by 1974 it was falling significantly. The number of people added each year kept on rising for a while, but even that peaked in 1989, and then began falling steadily. Population was still growing, but it was adding a smaller and smaller number each year.

Demographers ... now forecast that the population will peak below ten billion—ten gigapeople—not long after 2050. Such a low forecast would have been unthinkable just two decades ago.
This is an extraordinary development, unexpected, undeserved—and apparently unnatural. Human beings may be the only creatures that have fewer babies when they are better fed. The fastest-growing populations in the world over the next 50 years will be those of Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda and Yemen. All except in Yemen are in Africa. All are hungry. All remain untouched by Borlaug's green Revolution: all depend on primarily organic agriculture.