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Kenyan farming experts urge permanent lift of GM ban to address animal feed shortage

Peter Theurl | Standard (Kenya) | August 17, 2022

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Kenyan farmers are far too familiar with the devastation that resource shortfalls cause to their livestock. Credit: Jaspreet Kindra via IRIN
Kenyan farmers are far too familiar with the devastation that resource shortfalls cause to their livestock. Credit: Jaspreet Kindra via IRIN

Punitive local tax regimes, technical restrictions, challenges in access to foreign currency and logistics disruptions — most of these exacerbated by the pandemic — have been dragging Kenya’s bid for seamless [grain] importation back. A problem with accessing yellow maize due to a tough stance by the government on importation of non-genetically modified maize worsened the feed problem in the past few months.

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“This situation, where people can no longer profit off their livestock, is dangerous and is a threat to security as livestock farming is a socio-economic activity,” says [Secretary General of the Association of Kenya Feeds Manufacturers Martin] Kinoti.

Stephen Mugo, the director of the Centre for Resilient Agriculture for Africa (CRA-Africa), says Kenya experiences a shortage of nearly 11 million 90-kilo bags of maize a year. This year, which has experienced delayed rainfall amid increasing demand for maize, could be worse, with Dr Mugo saying that “2022 is particularly a food-insecure year”.

In the short term, Dr Mugo says the government could focus on targeted food imports, and should lift the ban on GM foods. It could also offer famine relief food for people living in Northern Kenya, where the drought hits hardest.

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A New Green Revolution Is in the Offing

Thanks to some amazing recent crop biotech breakthroughs

RONALD BAILEY | 8.10.2022 5:00 PM

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A recent spate of crop biotech breakthroughs presage a New Green Revolution that will boost crop production, shrink agriculture’s environmental footprint, help us weather future climate change, and provide better nutrition for the world’s growing population.

The first Green Revolution was generated through the crop breeding successes pioneered by agronomist Norman Borlaug back in the 1960s. The high-yielding dwarf wheat varieties bred by Borlaug and his team more than doubled grain yields. The Green Revolution averted the global famines confidently predicted for the 1970s by population doomsters like Stanford entomologist Paul Ehrlich. Other crop breeders using Borlaug’s insights boosted yields for other staple grains. Since 1961, global cereal production has increased 400 percent while the world population grew by 260 percent. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his accomplishments. Of course, the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are currently roiling grain and fertilizer supplies.

Borlaug needed 20 years of painstaking crossbreeding to develop his high-yield and disease-resistant wheat varieties. Today, crop breeders are taking advantage of the tools of modern biotechnology that can dramatically increase the rate at which yields increase and drought- and disease-resistance can be imbued in crops.

The Green Revolution’s crops required increased fertilizer applications to achieve their higher yields. However, fertilizers have some ecologically deleterious side effects. For example, the surface runoff of nitrogen and other fertilizers not absorbed by crops spurs the growth of harmful alga in rivers, lakes, and coastal areas. In addition, excess nitrogen fertilizer gets broken down by soil bacteria such that there are rising atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, which, pound for pound, has 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

The good news is that in the last month, two teams of modern plant breeders have made breakthroughs that will dramatically cut the amount of nitrogen fertilizers crops need for grain production. In July, Chinese researchers reported the development of “supercharged” rice and wheat crops, which they achieved by doubling the expression of a regulatory gene that increases nitrogen uptake by four- to fivefold and enhances photosynthesis. In field trials, the yields of the modified rice were 40 to 70 percent higher than those of the conventional varieties. One upshot is that farmers can grow more food on less land using fewer costly inputs.

Some crops like soybeans and alfalfa get most of the nitrogen fertilizer they need through their symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria. Soybeans supply the bacteria living on their roots with sugars, and the bacteria in turn take nitrogen from the air and turn it into nitrate and ammonia fertilizers for the plants. However, nitrogen-fixing bacteria do not colonize the roots of cereal crops.

A team of researchers associated with the University of California Davis reported in July their success in gene editing rice varieties to make their roots hospitable to nitrogen-fixing bacteria. As a result, when grown under conditions of limited soil nitrogen, the yields of the gene-edited varieties were 20 to 35 percent higher than those of the conventional varieties. The researchers believe their gene-editing techniques can be applied to other cereal crops.

This new biotech-enabled Green Revolution promises a future in which more food from higher yields grown using less fertilizer means more farmland restored to nature, less water pollution, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

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Preventing late blight with GMO potatoes could ease food insecurity

Photos courtesy of MSUGMO late blight resistant potato plants

BLIGHT RESISTANCE: Researchers have developed GMO late blight-resistant plants, pictured here alongside conventional plants.

Commentary: Stop GMO critics from making choices for farmers in Africa or Asia.

Dave Douches | Aug 10, 2022

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For many decades, my research has focused on genetically improving potatoes. Many think of potatoes as a less-than-ideal nutrition choice. The potato itself is a nutritional powerhouse, but it’s how we choose to prepare and eat them that often overshadows their nutritive benefits.

Nutritionally, potatoes produce a large amount of energy-rich carbohydrates and are high in vitamin C and potassium. Through crossbreeding, I have also developed a deep, purple-fleshed potato that is high in antioxidants typically found in fruits.

As the third-most important human food in the world, potatoes can play a critical role in global food security. Over the past few decades, world potato production growth has primarily been in developing countries. As the highest-yielding staple crop per acre, potatoes provide countless savings in land use across the globe.

Despite increased potato production and high-yield potential, yields in developing countries have not reached their full potential. Smallholder farmers often lack access to quality seed and knowledge of effective disease management practices.

One of the most important potato diseases because of its effect on crop yield is late blight (the disease that caused the Irish potato famine in 19th century). Late blight disease is recognized as one of the most destructive diseases of potatoes and is a major constraint of profitable potato production worldwide. Late blight management costs and losses from yield reductions are estimated at more than $6 billion per year globally.

The best way to overcome the problem of late blight is to produce a potato with durable resistance to the disease. An innovative solution to the grand challenge does exist, but the solution does not enjoy a consensus of support around the globe.

Late blight disease resistance can be achieved in potatoes through the introduction of three strong disease resistance genes from a wild species of potato into varieties preferred by consumers and farmers. These resistant varieties cannot be obtained by conventional crossbreeding. 

Genetically modified organisms

The late blight resistant potato I refer to was developed using genetic engineering, a scientific process that can insert and express genes (DNA) to improve an organism. This technology has been celebrated or villainized, depending on whom you trust.

As a plant breeder, I believe GE expands the toolbox that a breeder can use to solve challenges, especially in vegetative crops such as potatoes, where specific varieties are preferred in the market.

In medicine, one of the most recognizable examples is in the production of human insulin, which is manufactured using recombinant DNA technology. It has been licensed for human use since 1982 and widely prescribed to treat diabetes. GE has been widely accepted by the public in medical applications.

potatoes growing in field

YIELD ROBBER: Late blight disease is recognized as one of the most destructive diseases of potatoes and is a major constraint of profitable potato production worldwide. Researchers say the best way to overcome the problem of late blight is to produce a potato with durable resistance to the disease. Pictured is the difference in yield between LBR potato plants and conventional potatoes.

In agriculture, despite over 25 years of successful commercial production of many staple crops, GE crops still endure stiff criticism. The anti-GMO movement is well-funded and well-organized. Three claims of anti-GMO advocates are that GE is harmful to human and environmental health; that GMOs are unnatural; and were developed by large multinational corporations looking to control the seed sector and farmers.

These beliefs persist even after overwhelming scientific evidence continues to prove that current GMOs are safe to eat, and that disease- and insect-resistant GMOs can be good for the environment and health of farmers, and in many cases reduce input costs.

Risk or benefit?

A recent review offers a risk-benefit analysis of GMOs. The authors note that scientific evidence shows the technology is not only safe, but can also provide economic, environmental and health benefits. In addition, legal frameworks that regulate GMO crops exist to ensure safe products for people, animals and the environment.

As director of the Feed the Future Global Biotech Potato Partnership supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), I have seen firsthand the benefits of the GE technology. The partnership is working to develop late blight resistant potato varieties in developing countries. Our late blight disease-resistant potatoes have demonstrated complete protection against the disease.

We have held field trials in Indonesia, where late blight disease is so prevalent, it can strike soon after plant emergence and destroy an entire potato field within weeks. On average, Indonesian farmers spray up to 17 times during a 90-day cropping cycle. That equates to two to three times a week where farmers are exposed to fungicides sprays, and oftentimes they apply without proper protective clothing.  

Science and regulatory agencies around the globe have consistently found crops and food developed by GE to be safe. In fact, 159 Nobel laureates to date have signed an open letter to the leaders of Greenpeace (an outspoken opponent of the technology), the United Nations and governments around the world in support of biotechnology, noting, “There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.”

The opportunity of choice

Wherever you may land in the GMO trust conversation, the technology is growing and expanding. In 2019, 190.4 million hectares of biotech crops were grown in 29 countries. The U.S. leads the world with 71.5 million hectares, with an average 95% crop adoption rate for GE soybeans, maize and canola. According to the USDA, more than 90% of U.S. corn, upland cotton and soybeans are GE varieties.  

In the U.S., which many consider a privileged society, people have many options and choices when it comes to making their food decisions. We are fortunate to have the opportunity of choice. Many developing countries struggle to achieve food security and cannot produce enough nutritious food to feed their people.

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021 report by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization notes that 149.2 million, or 22%, of children younger than age 5 were affected by stunting, and 45.4 million children were affected by wasting (low weight for height).

More than nine out of 10 of all children affected by stunting or wasting are in Africa and Asia. The study also reports undernourished people in Africa (418 million) and Asia (282 million) rose by 103 million people from 2019 to 2020.

We cannot just ask farmers to grow more of what they’ve been growing to solve global food security. Farmers need to have a choice to grow more strategic crops and varieties that achieve higher and more stable yields resilient to climate shocks and threats.

This choice is even more critical in developing countries such as Bangladesh where we are working to bring the late blight disease resistant potato to smallholder farmers. Genetic engineering can offer disease- and pest-resistant and climate-tolerant crop plants for the farmers. GE crops can also lead to improved and enhanced nutritional traits in food products for the consumers.

In industrialized countries such as the U.S. and Europe, agricultural productivity can be easily increased through new technologies and innovations at every point within the food-value chain. We are afforded the luxury of opportunity.

However, for the smallholders in a country like Bangladesh, farming can be an entirely manual process, from plowing to planting and weeding, to harvest by hand. Technology and innovation are often out of reach for these farmers.

Bangladesh potato farmers at harvest

HARVEST: Bangladesh potato farmers work at harvest.

Many of those from the developed world can choose to select which organic, GE or conventionally bred food products to buy at a nearby store full of options. Billions of others are not afforded this choice. However, many GMO critics are making the choice for a farmer in Africa or Asia on which crops to grow and feed their communities by fighting against their use.

These opinions of distrust of the technology are often loud, misleading of the science, and influence leaders of developing countries to ban their farmers access to the technology. I believe every country and every farmer should have the right to make safe choices on their food security without the influence of disinformation and dissatisfaction of others.

We need to trust data, science and facts to solve global grand challenges. Sharpening our media literacy and critical-thinking skills will enable us to avoid disinformation, eliminate participation in misinformation sharing, and become advocates of truth.

Douches is a professor and director of the Potato Breeding and Genetics Program, and director of the Plant Breeding, Genetics and Biotechnology Graduate Program in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. He is also the project director of the Feed the Future Global Biotech Potato Partnership.

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Disease-resistant GM cassava promises to be game-changer for Kenya

BY JOSEPH MAINA

AUGUST 15, 2022

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At the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) center in Mtwapa, Kenya, scientist Paul Kuria uproots two sets of cassava tubers exposed to the devastating cassava brown streak disease (CBSD).

One of the plants is a conventional cassava variety that has no immunity to the disease. The second has been genetically modified (GM) to resist the disease. Kuria punctiliously slices each of the tubers open, and the difference between the two is stark — like night and day.

The conventional tuber looks emaciated and is punctured with brownish, unsavory spots dotting the entire circumference of its flesh. The GM tuber, on the other hand, is the picture of good health. Its skin is flawless and firm, and its flesh has an impeccable, white lustre.

CBSD is considered one of the world’s most dangerous plant diseases due to its significant impact on food and economic security. Cassava varieties that are resistant to the disease could considerably improve the crop’s ability to feed Africa while generating income for smallholder farmers.

In severe cases, the disease can lead to 100 percent yield loss. As noted by KALRO and its partners, cassava resistant to CBSD is in high demand by farmers where the crop is grown.

Meeting that demand has been an elusive target for plant breeders. But through modern biotechnology, a collaborative effort known as the VIRCA project has developed CBSD-resistant cassava line 4046. It has the potential to prevent 90 percent of crop damage, thus improving the yield and marketability of cassava roots.

“We used genetic engineering and produced an improved cassava,” Professor Douglas Miano, the lead scientist in the project, told journalists and farmers who toured the KALRO grounds in Mtwapa in early August.

“It’s the first GM cassava in the world, and Kenya is leading in this production,” Miano said.

The VIRCA (Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa) project was conceived in 2005 with the aim of solving the viral diseases that suppress cassava yields and reduce farmer incomes in East Africa. It brings together KALRO, the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) of Uganda and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre (DDPSC) in the United States.

“We have two main diseases affecting cassava production — CBSD and cassava mosaic disease,” Miano explained. “Cassava mosaic disease affects the leaves of the crop. The net effect is a reduction in the amount of cassava that is produced. CBSD, on the other hand, destroys the roots and affects the tuber.”

Scientists Paul Kuria displays GM disease-resistant cassava (left) vs cassava infected with CBSD. Photo: Joseph Maina

Dr. Catherine Taracha, a Kenyan who is on the project’s leadership team, said that plant viruses create a huge challenge for farmers.

“Cassava productivity is significantly hampered by viral diseases, and so we sought to develop a cassava line that would resist the viruses and thereby improve farmers’ livelihoods by boosting productivity and earnings from the crop,” Taracha said.

Because the line is yet to be approved for commercial release, the work is being carried out in regulated confined field trial conditions. If and when Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority approves line 4046 for the market, the new CBSD-resistant varieties would undergo normal government variety assessment and registration by regulators before being distributed to farmers.

The scientists further assure that CBSD-resistant cassava varieties are no different than their conventional equivalents — aside from their ability to resist CBSD.

“Due to the ability to resist CBSD, these varieties will be more productive with better quantity and quality of root yields,” Miano said.. “This will translate to greater demand and more profits for farmers.”

In addition, CBSD-resistant cassava line 4046 will produce disease-free planting material and thereby contribute to long-term sustainability of the cassava crop.

There will be no technology fee associated with line 4046, scientists say, implying that cassava stakes and cuttings will cost about the same as other highly valued cassava varieties.

Cuttings from CBSD-resistant cassava can be replanted in the same way farmers replant conventional cassava. They can also be grown with other crops because cultivation practices are the same as for conventional varieties.

The developers have further assured that CBSD-resistant cassava line is safe for the environment and biodiversity.

“We have developed the GM cassava up to the point where we have conducted all the safety studies and demonstrated that it is safe as food, feed and to the environment,” Miano said.

The general public and key stakeholders have been involved in the project, and it is anticipated that farmers and communities will be involved in selecting the best CBSD-resistant cassava varieties for their needs.

Cassava roots and leaves are the nutritionally valuable parts of the plant. The tuber is rich in gluten-free carbohydrates while the leaves provide vitamins A and C, minerals and protein. In addition to its nourishing properties, stakeholders have also identified cassava’s potential to spur Kenya’s industrial growth.

“Cassava is an important food crop, but we can also use it to industrialize in Kenya,” Miano asserted. “However, we have not yet been able to achieve this as a country.”

Miano identified starch as a potential cassava product that the country can leverage to advance its industrial growth. It is also projected that the improved cassava can protect farmers from devastating losses of this important food crop and contribute to the creation of thousands of jobs along the value chain due to the crop’s use as animal feed.

The scientists note that modern biotechnology is by far the best option to incorporate CBSD resistance in cassava cultivars carrying farmer-preferred characteristics. Similar approaches have been used to confer resistance to plant viruses and have been authorized by regulatory bodies around the world, including virus-resistant pawpaw, squash and beans.

Image: Scientist Paul Kuria displays cassava infected with cassava brown streak disease (left) and a GM variety that resists the devastating disease. Photo: Joseph Maina


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GM seeds likely to be in the hands of Ghanaian farmers by next year, scientists say

BY MODESTA ABUGU

JULY 29, 2022

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Ghanaian scientists say genetically modified seeds will most likely be in the hands of farmers by the start of the next planting season.

The prediction was made during a recent AfS Live webinar featuring four public sector scientists who are using cutting edge tools  to improve food security and agricultural sustainability in Ghana.

The country’s cowpea productivity has been generally very low, said Dr. John Eleblu, head of cowpea and soybean projects at the West African Center for Crop Improvement (WACCI). It has been stagnate for years, with diseases, pests and drought affecting the yield of small holder farmers. This has made farmers over-reliant on chemicals, which are expensive, bad for their health and labor intensive, he noted.

“My research focuses on developing cowpea varieties that can tolerate these environmental stresses, using a combination of tools such as conventional breeding, mutagenesis, tissue culture and genetic modification,” Eleblu continued.  “This will ultimately contribute to yield improvement for smallholder farmers in Ghana.”

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Another boost to production is expected from the pod borer-resistant (PBR) cowpea, which is genetically modified to resist  Maruca, an insect pest that causes over 80 percent yield loss. The insect-resistant cowpea will be the country’s first GM crop if the National Biosafety Authority green lights its environmental release, which means farmers can grow the seeds.

“When the PBR cowpea is commercialized, farmers will have options for sustainable farming and environmental biodiversity because of less use of chemicals,” said Dr. Daniel Ofosu, research scientist, Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute (BNARI), Ghana. “Ultimately, this will give us new opportunities to transform our agriculture into more sustainable agriculture to ensure we have food, nutrition, and economic security.”

In addressing the issue of nutrition insecurity, Dr. Agyemang Danquah, head of the tomato genetics program at WACCI, spoke about his efforts to improve access to healthy and nutritious vegetables using innovative tools.

“Tomatoes are one of the widely consumed vegetables in Ghana, especially among smallholder families,” he said. “However, its production faces many challenges like bacterial wilt disease, which has caused a lot of farming families in the north to stop tomato cultivation. Similarly, there’s the issue of drought and extreme heat in these northern climates.” Due to these challenges, Ghana has relied heavily on importation from neighboring countries, leading to a 10-fold increase in costs,  Agyemang said.

“We are developing varieties that can adapt to these challenges, using a traditional breeding approach which involves screening several germ plasms for specific traits and then making new crosses to generate new varieties,” he explained. “But this takes a lot of years to develop, which is why tools like gene editing will help us address these issues within a shorter time frame.  We need new and improved tomato varieties to not only improve the income of small holder farmers, but also improve nutrition among consumers.”

Ofosu noted that while improved technology is good, the adoption of new crop varieties also requires a favorable policy environment. “Ghana has recognized the potentials of biotechnology and new plant breeding methods techniques to improve food and nutrition security in the country,” he said.  “So, what we’ve been doing is to build a system where a state institution can understand the technology better to enable them implement policies that would facilitate technology uptake.”

“The future of Ghana depends on these policies, especially the biosafety law,” said Dr. Mavis Owusuaa, molecular biotechnologist at the University of Energy and Natural Resources (UENR). “Once the door is open to GM crops, food insecurity will be a thing of the past. We will be able to feed the population and export more food, which will go a long way in improving the economic lives of Ghanaians.”

Owusuaa also noted that given the number of projects ongoing in Ghana, “it is obvious that we are ready to embrace the gene revolution.”  Scientists are also ready to support it, she said, and “the farmers are welcoming. All they want is a good product, and the scientists are ready to work. We only need the government’s support in terms of funding and policy to make Ghana a better place for everyone,” she concluded.

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Study: How GMOs and crop gene editing can increase genetic diversity and help contain climate change

Helen CurrySarah Garland | PLOS Biology | August 3, 2022

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Credit: kwest via Shutterstock
Credit: kwest via Shutterstock

As climate change increasingly threatens agricultural production, expanding genetic diversity in crops is an important strategy for climate resilience in many agricultural contexts. In this Essay, we explore the potential of crop biotechnology to contribute to this diversification, especially in industrialized systems, by using historical perspectives to frame the current dialogue surrounding recent innovations in gene editing. We unearth comments about the possibility of enhancing crop diversity made by ambitious scientists in the early days of recombinant DNA and follow the implementation of this technology, which has not generated the diversification some anticipated.

We then turn to recent claims about the promise of gene editing tools with respect to this same goal. We encourage researchers and other stakeholders to engage in activities beyond the laboratory if they hope to see what is technologically possible translated into practice at this critical point in agricultural transformation.

A new hope: Gene editing for crop diversity

Leading plant scientists today praise innovative gene editing techniques as game-changing methods destined to fulfill aspirations for expanding crop genetic diversity through biotechnology. This fanfare sounds familiar, as scientists throughout the history of crop breeding have heralded various innovations in similar ways, most recently with the expectation that recombinant DNA would create paradigm-shifting possibilities. What, if anything, is different about the potential of gene editing technologies with respect to genetic diversity?

Gene editing …  offers opportunities to radically rethink the breeding process in ways that enhance genetic diversity by “restarting” crop domestication. Crop domestication relies upon a combination of spontaneously occurring genetic mutations and artificial selection by humans. In wild rice, for example, grains shatter in order to widely disperse the seed. During rice domestication, a mutation arose that caused non-shattering grains, a trait beneficial for early agricultural societies and therefore selected for cultivation. Rice wild relatives today carry beneficial traits like adaptation to diverse growth environments but their grains still shatter.

…Using biotechnology to expand crop genetic diversity will also require that researchers understand the many junctures in crop variety development and dissemination, especially those linked to seed commercialization, that work against such expansion. Addressing these obstacles will involve addressing issues as varied as farmer seed choice, seed certification processes, and international intellectual property regimes. It will require engaging with and developing further interdisciplinary and participatory research efforts to map infrastructural obstacles and to indicate actions that different stakeholders can take to facilitate genetic diversification.

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THIS GENETICALLY MODIFIED RICE COULD TRANSFORM THE GLOBAL FOOD SUPPLY

Copying one key gene could help feed hundreds of millions of people worldwide facing nutritional deficiencies.

JOANNA THOMPSON

8.3.2022 2:30 PM

GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS are a hot-button issue. Many people are hesitant to eat plants or animals that have been enhanced with foreign genes, citing health and environmental concerns, the perceived “ick” factor, and occasionally conspiratorial thinking.

But GMO foods have the potential to feed the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who are undernourished. Given the benefits of tinkering with our meals’ genomes, a new study published in Science could offer a helpful compromise: a way to improve the yields of a crucial crop without adding genes from different organisms.

“Rice is one of the most important crops because it is a staple food for almost half of the world’s population,” Wenbin Zhou, a geneticist at the National Key Research and Development Program of China and co-author of the study, tells Inverse.

By duplicating one key gene, a team of researchers in China has successfully engineered a strain of agricultural rice that yields up to 40 percent more grain per plot compared to controls. If widely adopted, this breakthrough technique has the potential to feed magnitudes more people with fewer resources — but only if consumers and regulatory bodies are willing to give the transgenic dish a chance.

HERE’S THE BACKGROUND — Unfortunately, our beloved rice is a particularly resource-intensive crop. It requires lots of land and water to grow, and rice yields could decline about 40 percent by 2100 due to intensifying climate change. That’s why it’s quickly becoming necessary to increase yields of rice, along with other staple crops that are at risk.

Despite its growing utility, chowing down on genetically modified rice doesn’t appeal to everyone. In fact, it has sparked heated debate for decades. For example, you may have heard of golden rice, one of the first commercial GMO crops. It was developed in the 1990s to help supplement vitamin A intake in areas of the world where dietary sources of the nutrient are rare. The scientists behind golden rice inserted a gene found in daffodils, along with a gene from a type of soil bacterium, into the genome of a common domestic rice variety.

A 2022 protest against genetically modified foods, which also have the potential to feed millions wo...
Genetically modified crops produced by massive corporations like Monsanto have sparked protests around the world, like this May 2022 demonstration in La Paz, Bolivia.picture alliance/picture alliance/Getty Images

Many anti-GMO groups (and members of the general public) couldn’t stomach the idea of eating what they considered “Frankenfood.” Concerns ranged from the entirely reasonable, such as unforeseen environmental impacts and corporate sketchiness, to the outlandish, like government mind control.

The issue came to a boil in the mid-2010s when environmental group Greenpeace accused scientists conducting safety studies on the rice of using children as “guinea pigs.” In the wake of the scandal, the scientists involved were promptly fired by the Chinese government. Golden rice finally received FDA approval in 2018, but remains unapproved in many countries facing major food insecurity and vitamin A deficiency, including Bangladesh and India.

But breeding new types of rice isn’t very helpful, since it has only been shown to improve yield by about 1 percent each year. So in order to keep pace with climate change and global population growth, scientists like Zhou are turning to genetic engineering.

WHAT’S NEW — To create their new strain of super-rice, Zhou’s team first examined a pool of 118 rice genes associated with growth in the plants. “We mainly focused on the genes that [are] induced by or respond to both nitrogen and light simultaneously,” Zhou says.

The researchers pinpointed 13 genes that activated when the plants were grown in nitrogen-depleted soil and five that were associated with increased nitrogen uptake. Then they inserted an extra copy of one of these key nitrogen-boosting genes, known as OsDREB1C, into the plant’s genome. Finally, they sprouted these rice plants alongside unmodified rice and rice with the OsDREB1C gene suppressed.

A field of rice, a staple crop worldwide that is often genetically modified to increase yields.
Unlike golden rice and other more traditional genetically modified crops, this new variety does not incorporate genes from other organisms.ViewStock/View Stock/Getty Images

As it turned out, the plants with the additional copy of OsDREB1C produced grains that were both bigger in size and more abundant compared with their unmodified and knock-out counterparts. “We were surprised and excited about that,” says Zhou. What’s more, the rice plants had significantly more chloroplasts, allowing them to convert more sunlight into sugar during photosynthesis. However, when it comes to transgenic foods, it isn’t enough to simply engineer a heartier or healthier crop; you also have to convince people to eat it.

WHAT’S NEXT — The authors of the new study hope that their transgenic rice won’t cause quite such a commotion. For one thing, unlike golden rice, “what we introduced is the original gene from the rice’s own genome,” says Zhou. Instead of borrowing a gene from another organism, the researchers simply sent one of the plant’s growth-promoting genes into overdrive by duplicating it — this happens all the time in nature.

Plus, the new rice was engineered from a rice variety that is already commonly grown outside the lab, bred with flavor and texture in mind. This recent research effectively acts as a proof-of-concept, demonstrating that the specific gene edit works outside of laboratory rice strains. And the scientists suspect that same modification could have similar yield-boosting effects in other staple crops, including wheat, which forms the basis of about a third of the world’s diet.

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7 provinces to produce ‘golden’ rice

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By Franz R. Sumangil

May 27, 2022

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THE Department of Agriculture-Philippine Rice Research Institute (DA-PhilRice) has chosen Maguindanao province as one of the seven areas in the country and the first in Southern Mindanao to sow “Golden Rice.”

The agency made the announcement during a meeting with rice stakeholders in Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in Cotabato City last Wednesday.

Dr. Ronan Zagado, program leader of Golden Rice, said Maguindanao will be one of the seven provinces in the country chosen to produce Golden Rice this year.

Zagado said they have chosen Maguindanao because it has one of the highest cases of stunting among infants and children ages five years and below.

He also said that once there is enough supply of Golden Rice, Maguindanao will be the first province to reap its health benefits.

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Zagado added that two hectares of land will be dedicated to the production of Golden Rice in the province with the help of BARMM’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Reform.

Golden Rice is one of the newest kinds of rice produced through modern biotechnology wherein its nutritional benefits are enhanced.

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Ronan Zagado Mindanao Department of Agriculture Philippine Rice Research Institute Cotabato city Ministry of Agriculture

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What role can genetics play in ‘designing’ more sustainable crops, livestock and trees?

Rodolphe Barrangou | National Academy of Engineering | July 1, 2022

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Plants, animals and microbes can be improved with gene editing. Credit: Carys-ink
Plants, animals and microbes can be improved with gene editing. Credit: Carys-ink

The ability to engineer genomes and tinker with DNA sequences with unprecedented ease, speed, and scale is inspiring breeders of all biological entities. Genome engineers have deployed CRISPR tools in species from viruses and bacteria to plants and trees (whose genome can be 10 times larger than the human genome), including species used in food and agriculture (Zhu et al. 2020).

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Starting small, bacteria used in food fermentations have had their genomes enhanced to optimize their functional attributes linked to the flavor and texture of fermented dairy products such as yogurt and cheese. The fact that CRISPR-Cas systems provide adaptive immunity against viruses in dairy bacteria led to the commercial launch, more than a decade ago, of bacterial starter cultures with enhanced phage immunity in industrial settings. Most fermented dairy products are now manufactured using CRISPR-enhanced starter cultures. Since then, a variety of bacteria, yeast, and fungi (figure 2) involved in the manufacturing of bioproducts has also been CRISPR enhanced to yield commercial products such as enzymes, detergents, and dietary supplements.

Moving along the farm-to-fork spectrum, most commercial crops—from corn, soy, wheat, and rice to fruits and vegetables—have had their genomes altered (figure 2). Genome engineering is used to increase yield (e.g., meristem size, grain weight) and improve quality (e.g., starch and gluten content), pest resistance (e.g., to bacteria, fungi, viruses), and environmental resilience (e.g., to drought, heat, frost). For instance, nonbrowning mushrooms with extended shelf life can be generated, and tomatoes with increased amounts of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) to enhance brain health have been commercialized. In addition, efforts are underway to enhance nutritional value.

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Credit: NAE

Livestock breeders have joined the fray, with genome engineering of main farm species such as swine (leaner bacon), poultry (CRISPR chicken), and cattle (for both meat and dairy). Swine have also been edited with a viral receptor knockout to prevent porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome; the approach is being evaluated for regulatory approval (Burkard et al. 2017). Breeding applications include hornless cows (for more humane treatment), resistance to infectious disease (tuberculosis in cattle), and removal of viral sequences in the genome of elite commercial livestock,[1] notably swine. The CRISPR zoo also encompasses genetically diverse species—fish (tiger-puffer and red sea bream), cats (efforts are underway to develop hypoallergenic variants), and even butterflies (wing pattern)—illustrating the ability to deploy this technology broadly.

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Kenyan gene hacker moves to defeat witchweed

Prof Steven Runo has edited the DNA of sorghum to give it resistance to the notorious, parasitic weed

In Summary

•Traditionally, farmers would attempt to control Striga by simple, physical means. These included physically uprooting the plants, which wasn’t particularly effective, considering that the weed knots itself within the host’s roots.

•Prof Runo is an associate professor of molecular biology at Kenyatta University.

Among the towering names in genome editing in Kenya is Professor Steven Runo

The world is making tremendous strides in the novel science of genome editing, which has wide-ranging applications in medicine and agriculture, among other fields.

Kenyan scientists have also joined the effort, with several pioneering research projects underway right within the country.

Among the towering names in genome editing in Kenya is Prof Steven Runo, an associate professor of molecular biology at Kenyatta University. Part of his research work targets Striga, also known as witchweed, a notorious weed that threatens maize, sorghum, rice and several other cereal crops.

Known in parts of western Kenya, where it is particularly rife, as Uyongo or Kayongo, Striga is a predatory plant that attaches itself to the roots of the host plant, from where it saps vital nutrients from the host. This invariably leads to stunted growth and vastly diminished production.

“Genome editing is a new technology for not only plant breeding but also animal breeding,” Prof Runo said.

“It’s a very simple strategy. Think about the DNA, which is what determines the traits of organisms. How tall or short we are, and how much yield you get from a crop, is determined by the genetic code”.

With this in mind, scientists like Prof Runo are able to introduce changes to an organism’s DNA, with an aim to alter specific traits in the organism.

“Genome editing involves going into the genome and introducing beneficial changes, and very precisely at that,” he said. “So, you can go into a specific trait and alter one or two bases – or DNA sequences – to achieve the trait that you are looking for. One of the ways that genome editing can be done is using CRISPR Cas9 technology, a very simple alteration of DNA sequence for beneficial traits”.

Traditionally, farmers would attempt to control Striga by simple, physical means. These included physically uprooting the plants, which wasn’t particularly effective, considering that the weed knots itself within the host’s roots.

And upon maturity, the weed deposits its seeds in the soil, which makes it difficult for farmers to control it.

Farmers would also practice crop rotation or intercropping with legumes, which helps control Striga’s germination. They would also apply inorganic fertiliser to enrich the soils, as Striga thrives in poor soils within low-rainfall regions.

The use of pesticides would also be recommended as a control measure against Striga, but chemical controls are normally not within reach of many small-scale farmers.

“While a few control measures have been moderately successful, the problem still persists, especially in western Kenya, eastern Uganda and lake zone of Tanzania, where farmers have frequently voiced their frustrations at the ubiquity of this invasive weed,” states The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

That’s where biotechnology chips in, with novel technologies that aim at controlling the proliferation of pathogenic plants, and minimizing the labour and costs in pesticides that farmers would ordinarily incur.

Prof Runo’s project, titled “Evaluation of Striga resistance in Low Germination Stimulant 1 (LGS1) mutant sorghum”, seeks to confer resistance to this parasitic weed in sorghum, an important cereal crop in Kenya and many parts of Africa.

A proof of concept has already been done for the project, and the program awaits other stages in product development, which will ultimately culminate in trials.

“This weed is present in most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, and Kenya is one of those countries that is heavily infested by the parasite,” Professor Runo told Tuko recently.

“Depending on the level of infestation, Striga can cause between 30-100 percent in yield losses. We estimate this to cost about US$ 7 billion globally every year. This is a substantial amount of money, considering that this weed affects cereal crops, mostly grown by small-scale farmers”.

Many counties in Western Kenya have Striga infection, he adds – from Busia to Siaya, Kisumu and Homabay.

“Almost all countries within western Kenya have Striga infection”.

He is honored to be at the forefront of such groundbreaking research, and appreciates the opportunity to deploy his expertise in this highly complex science towards finding solutions for common problems that have dogged local farmers.

“You’d be happy to know that Kenya has very good human resource in terms of very well trained scientists. What we want to showcase is that these scientists can do research that is comparable to research that is done in other countries. Again, we have a long-standing history of using advances in plant sciences to develop and grow better crops”.

There are plenty of good reasons to support local scientific expertise, he adds, citing the case of Asia.

“The success that we are seeing in Asia, in terms of agricultural advancement, was because scientists were supported. They’d say, we have a critical number of scientists that have innovations, and they’d use science-based and evidence-based facts to support and make decisions and policy in agriculture. Such an approach goes a long way towards growth improvement, and ultimately improves food security”.

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Nigeria is ready to meet strong farmer demand for GMO cowpea seeds

BY NKECHI ISAAC

JUNE 27, 2022

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Nigerian farmers should have ample access to insect-resistant genetically modified (GM) cowpea seeds for this summer’s planting season, scientists say.

Though last year’s demand outstripped the supply, the public sector scientists who developed Nigeria’s first GM food crop — the pod borer-resistant (PBR) cowpea, or SAMPEA 20T — say they have gone to great measures to make sure farmers can obtain certified seeds this season.

Some 2,000 farmers planted the improved seeds in 2021 — a number expected to triple this year, said Prof. Mohammad Ishiyaku, executive director of Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) and principal investigator of the PBR project in Nigeria. In response, researchers are expanding seed production eight-fold from the 10,000 tonnes available last year.

Farmers last year reported they were able to achieve higher yields and significantly reduce their use of pesticides by growing GM cowpea, which provides inherent protection from the destructive pod borer pest.

Dr. Rose Gidado, country coordinator for the Nigeria chapter of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology, said farmers who want to grow the crop this year should be able to obtain seeds.

“The demand was so high and is getting higher and higher because those farmers that planted last year had very overwhelming, exciting stories and more people want to get involved,” she said. “Even people who are not regular farmers — civil servants, public servants, etc. — now want to plant PBR cowpea.”

Dr. Onyekachi Nwankwo, West Africa representative for the Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), said Nigeria had initially planned for 10,000 tonnes of certified seeds last year but was only able to produce 3,000 — resulting in a shortfall. He attributed the deficit to poor management of seed multiplication by contract farmers, drought and insecurity problems.

In response, scientists and farmers planted seed stock during the normal cropping season and used irrigation to grow during the dry season in hopes of meeting farmer demand this year, Nwankwo said.

Researchers also trained more seed companies and seed certification officers on production guides and certification-related issues to ensure the availability of quality seed. Additionally, the IAR, as well as Maina Seeds, Tecni Seeds and SARO Agrosciences, produced more seeds during the off-season to ensure seed supply meets demand in the coming season.

“To be conservative, we are expecting between 60,000 to 80,000 tonnes of seed for the next cropping season, and it is going to increase progressively as the years go by,” Nwankwo said.

Farmers are growing GM cowpea in all in 36 states of the Federation, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Ishiyaku said.

Gidado noted that the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari “has directed that we grow what we eat and eat what we grow.” Researchers improved the cowpea variety preferred by Nigerian farmers to add traits that can help growers overcome the serious problem of crop loss due to pod borer infestation and reduce the need to import the popular food, known as beans.

Even though the start of the planting season varies — it begins in June in the north-western region and in August in the northeast and north-central regions — farmers across the country will have enough sufficient seed supply because seed production is higher, she assured.

Image: A Nigerian farmer weeds the GM cowpea he planted next to his maize crop. Photo: Alliance for Science


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