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Archive for the ‘Plant breeding’ Category

How plant breeding innovations are helping feed a hungry world

Mikaela Waldbauer | Sustainable Agricultural Innovation & Food (SAIFood) | April 29, 2022

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Rice can survive submerged, but not for long. Plant breeding technology is getting the crop ready for climate change floods. Credit: Sasin Tipchai
Rice can survive submerged, but not for long. Plant breeding technology is getting the crop ready for climate change floods. Credit: Sasin Tipchai

This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation. It is posted under Fair Use guidelines.

As of 2019, nearly 26% of the globe’s population “experienced hunger or did not have regular” access to safe and nutritious food (FAO, 2020). With increasing global populations and a changing climate, this number is estimated to surpass 840 million by 2030 (UN, n.d.).

Plant breeding technologies have impacted global food security in positive ways. One of the major ways genetically modified (GM) crops can influence global food security is by adapting plants to the changing climate. Plant breeding can be utilized to develop crop plant varieties with a higher tolerance to environmental stresses such as heat, drought, and flooded conditions.

For example, a rice variety developed by plant breeders in Bangladesh has been shown to survive flooded conditions for as long as two weeks, and common beans have been used to develop both heat and cold resistant varieties capable of being grown in both the Durango region of Mexico and the high altitudes of Columbia and Peru (Global Partnership Initiative for Plant Breeding Capacity Building [GIPD], n.d.).

The climate is changing at a faster rate than crop plants can adapt, and few solutions to this issue exist. One key solution is the improvement of crop plant varieties through new plant breeding innovations. The evidence is clear that GM crop varieties are superior in performance under harsh conditions (GIPD, n.d.). However, these solutions are not utilized to their fullest extent due to intense scrutiny and rejection.

Importance of nutritious diets

With an increase in the global population, food insecurity is predicted to rise. To compensate for population growth, food production must increase at a faster rate than it currently is today. Research shows plant breeding can address this concern. According to a 22-year study on the economic impact of GM crops, global production has increased substantially because of yield increased from GM crops (Brookes & Barfoot, 2020). Urbanization is reducing the area of arable land available for food production. Without the use of additional land to grow more food, an increase in yields on the land currently cultivated will be solely relied on to increase production. GM crops are one tool that can be used in improving production levels of food, when compared to conventional crops, by increasing yields.

Considering smallholder farmers make up 50% of the world’s undernourished (Qaim & Kouser, 2013), increasing the profit of smallholder farmers should have a net decrease in food insecurity in developing countries. Smallholder profits have also increased with the adoption of GM crops. Studies have found that GM crop varieties have improved yields substantially when compared to conventional crops. Most notably, the highest improvements in crop yield have been observed in developing countries, where food insecurity is the highest (Brookes & Barfoot, 2014). Since the study began in 1996, there has been a $225 billion increase in farmer income, as of 2018. A reduction in pesticide cost and improvement in yields is responsible for increased profit, primarily through insect-resistant varieties such as the newly commercialized Bt cowpea in Nigeria. An increase in farmer profit through GM crop cultivation is clear, especially in low-income countries. Yet, the very regions that could benefit most from these crops are the ones that reject them. More widespread commercialization of GM crop varieties has the impact to increase farmer profit, specifically smallholder profit, which makes up a generous portion of the world’s undernourished.

Micronutrient deficiency affects over 50% of the global population (Nestel et al., 2006). Large consumption of staple food products in developing countries such as rice, wheat, and corn with little variety can lead to nutritional deficiencies including deficiencies in vitamin A, iron, zinc, among others. Recently, a GM rice crop biofortified with beta-carotene (a vitamin A precursor) was approved for cultivation in the Philippines, called Golden Rice. Golden Rice has the potential to diminish the prevalence of micronutrient-related malnutrition, vitamin A deficiency. Golden Rice can combat vitamin A deficiency in high rice-consuming regions by allowing the consumption of beta-carotene without changing the taste or agronomic qualities of the rice while remaining at a comparable cost to conventional rice (IRRI, n.d.). Evidence does depict the capabilities of biofortification in a deficient diet.

Looking forward

Of the opposing views brought forth by ant-GMO advocates, most are refutable. Sifting through the scientific literature, is it suggested that while GM crops may offer a net positive impact on the state of global food security, they are not a panacea to the enormous problem of global food insecurity. Rather, GM crops can be viewed as one vital tool assisting in the mitigation of global food insecurity.

Mikaela Waldbauer is an Agronomy student at University of Saskatchewan interested in food security and plant breeding. Follow Mikaela on Twitter @Mikaela_Marion

A version of this article was posted at Saifood and is used here with permission. You can check out Saifood on Twitter @SAIFood_blog

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BCPC’s GM/Biotech Crops Report – April 2022

5th April 2022

  • GM/Biotech Crops Monthly Reports (BELOW) form part of BCPC’s free three-tier Biotech Crops Info service.
  • This service also includes a weekly round-up of news from around the globe – see BCPC Newslink GM Crops section.
  • Plus – Free access database on over 300 GM/biotech products covering 23 crops in the global market visit BCPC’s GM/Biotech Crops Manual – Register here for free access.
  • Already registered? Click here

GM/Biotech Crops Monthly Report April 2022

Lettuce in space

Astronauts that spend a long time in space can suffer from a loss of bone density due to the reduced gravity but now a team at the University of California have developed a genetically-modified lettuce that produces a drug that can offset this loss and that can be grown in space to provide the astronauts with fresh green leaves to eat. Pic: Mel Edwards. Full Story.

Antibiotics on crops

While Europe bans neonicotinoids to ensure no harmful effects to bees, America is spraying apple and pear orchards with streptomycin to control the bacterial disease fire blight. A study has shown that bees exposed to the streptomycin are less active and collect less pollen than those that are not exposed to the antibiotic.
Full Story.

An elixir of youth

Some people try blood transfusions from young people to recapture that youthful zest for life and now a study has produced some evidence supporting that hope. Young mice blood contains packets of chemicals (extracellular vesicles) budded off from dividing cells that, when injected in to old mice, restores grip strength, stamina and motor coordination. Sadly the effect wears off after a couple of months but another injection can restore it.
Full story

BT maize resistant to stem borer attack

An evaluation of BT maize in Uganda has confirmed a reduction of leaf damage and stem attack that has led to yield increases of 30 – 80%.
Full Story.

Salt-tolerant cotton

A relative of Arabidopsis has yielded a trait that can be used to confer salt tolerance to cotton which could allow the crop to be grown on more land but could also boost yields in areas where it is already grown.
Full Story

Herbicide-tolerant tomatoes

Scientists in Korea have used gene editing to alter three enzymes in tomatoes. The benefits of changes to PDS and EPSPS enzymes are unclear but the changes to the ALS enzyme can confer tolerance of ALS herbicides similar to the naturally-occurring tolerance recently introduced in sugar beet.
Full Story

Potato genome decoded

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute and the Ludwig Maximillian University have decoded the entire genome of potatoes and this knowledge is to be used to develop improved varieties for future cropping. The following link takes you to the German text which can be translated by computer.
Full Story

Gene expression imbalance boosts wheat yields

Researchers at Kansas University have found that varying the expression of various genes in wheat can affect the grain size and final yields. This knowledge can possibly be used to optimise yields of new varieties.
Full Story

Control of Fall Army Worm

Pilot studies in Brazil have shown that release of Oxitec’s ‘Friendly’ male army worms can reduce the populations of army worms due to the males carrying a male only trait and that this reduction will help to protect the Bt maize that is grown there from resistance developing in the wild population. It is very target specific and has no effect on other species such as bees.
Full Story

USDA approved gene-edited cattle

The USDA has decided that gene-edited beef cattle that have shorter hair than unedited cattle pose no safety concerns and can be marketed without waiting for a specific approval:
Full Story

Europe approves transgenic maize with stacked traits

The EFSA finds no safety concerns in GM maize with stacked traits for insect resistance and tolerance of glyphosate and glufosinate. This permits the import of these crops but it still does not allow them to be grown in Europe.
Full Story

Stripe rust resistance in wheat

An international team has identified the specific gene that confers resistance to stripe rust in the African bread wheat variety ‘Kariega’ and now this trait can be transferred to other varieties.
Full Story

Gene-silencing for weed control

Colorado University has developed a spray that contains antisense oligonucleotides that penetrate the leaves of the weed Palmer amaranth and silence essential genes in the weed. Palmer amaranth has developed resistance to a number of herbicides but this spray is specific to this weed and has no effect on the crop or non-target organisms.
Full Story

Nutritional Impact of regenerative farming

The University of Washington has compared crops grown on land under regenerative farming management with crops grown on adjacent conventionally farmed land and has shown that the regenerative farming crops have higher levels of vitamins, minerals and other phytochemicals. They don’t give any comparison of the yields achieved though and perhaps the higher levels of vitamins etc are simply due to them being distributed through lower yielding crops.
Full Story

Transgenic sugarcane

Sugarcane with overexpressed sucrose-phosphate synthase has been trialled in Indonesia has shown increased tiller number, height and yield than conventional varieties without affecting bacterial diversity or gene horizontal flow in the soil.
Full Story

Potato virus Y resistance

Researchers in Iran have used gene-silencing techniques to develop potatoes that exhibit resistance to potato Y virus.
Full Story

GM barley trials in the UK

Fertiliser prices have gone through the roof and NIAB in conjunction with Cambridge University at the Crop Science Centre are to trial gene modified and gene edited lines of barley to see if they can improve the nitrogen and phosphorus uptake of the plants and make them less reliant on applied fertilisers. If successful on barley, it could be rolled out to other crops.
Full Story

Palm oil replacement

Palm oil is widely used in many products but the proliferation of palm plantations is responsible for a lot of habitat loss throughout the world. Now a team at Nanyang technological University in Singapore have developed a technique for producing the oil from common microalgae.
Full Story

Corn borer resistant maize

Zhejiang University in China has developed a genetically modified maize that has insect resistant traits and a 5 year study has shown it can give up to 96% reduction in corn borer damage and a 6 – 10% yield increase over conventional varieties.
Full Story

THE LATEST ADDITIONS TO THE  GM/BIOTECH DATABASE ARE:

The latest approvals of biotech crops to report this month:

• GMB151 – soybean tolerant of isoxaflutole herbicide approved for food use in Canada and for environmental use in America

FOR INSTANT ACCESS TO GM BIOTECH MANUAL CLICK HERE (Registration required)

Already Registered? Click here to access

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Scientists identify genes key to microbial colonization of plant roots

EurekAlert

Identification of an enzyme that microbes deploy in the presence of plants leads to discovery of candidate genes involved in root colonization.

DOE/US DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

Scientists Identify Genes Key to Microbial Colonization of Plant Roots
IMAGE: BIBLE, A.N., ET AL. (2021) IDENTIFICATION OF A DIGUANYLATE CYCLASE EXPRESSED IN THE PRESENCE OF PLANTS AND ITS APPLICATION FOR DISCOVERING CANDIDATE GENE PRODUCTS INVOLVED IN PLANT COLONIZATION BY PANTOEA SP. YR343. PLOS ONE 16 (7). view more CREDIT: BIBLE, A.N., ET AL. (2021) IDENTIFICATION OF A DIGUANYLATE CYCLASE EXPRESSED IN THE PRESENCE OF PLANTS AND ITS APPLICATION FOR DISCOVERING CANDIDATE GENE PRODUCTS INVOLVED IN PLANT COLONIZATION BY PANTOEA SP. YR343. PLOS ONE 16 (7).


The Science

Some microbes can form thin films called biofilms. These biofilms give them an advantage over other microbes by protecting them from stresses such as a lack of nutrients or the presence of harmful substances in the environment. Researchers often focus on the biofilms that pathogens use to resist antibiotics. However, some biofilms can be helpful to plants and other host organisms. In previous work, researchers found that Pantoea sp. YR343, a bacterium that promotes plant growth, forms robust biofilms along the root surface of Populus, the genus which includes willow and cottonwood trees. Scientists know relatively little about the mechanisms behind the formation of biofilms on plant roots, particularly at the genetic level. However, research has found that enzymes called diguanylate cyclases are key to biofilm formation. This new research has identified a diguanylate cyclase, DGC2884, that is expressed specifically in the presence of plants when bacteria colonize roots and form biofilms.

The Impact

Diguanylate cyclases are found in many species of bacteria. These enzymes control multiple behaviors, including how bacteria form biofilms, cause disease, and move. This research shows that a particular diguanylate cyclase, DGC2884, operates specifically during biofilm formation and when bacteria are near a plant. This research also identified genes that could be involved in root colonization, suggesting that root colonization may be controlled at the genetic level. This will help microbiologists and other researchers better understand how bacteria colonize root surfaces and how gene expression may play a part. The results may also help scientists study similar behaviors in microbes important to medicine and agriculture.

Summary

This study used promoter-reporter constructs to identify a diguanylate cyclase, DGC2884, that is expressed in the presence of a plant. The researchers characterized this enzyme further and determined that when overexpressed, it affected exopolysaccharide production, biofilm formation, motility, and pellicle formation. They also demonstrated that the N-terminal transmembrane domain, as well as a functional GGDEF active site, are required for the activity of DGC2884. Based on phenotypes associated with overexpression of DGC2884 in Pantoea sp. YR343, the scientists performed transposon mutagenesis to identify genes that no longer exhibited the unique phenotypes observed when DGC2884 was overexpressed. They identified 58 different genes with this screen and selected a subset of transposon mutants for further characterization. Interestingly, mutations affecting Type VI secretion, as well as a nucleoside-diphosphate kinase and ABC transporter, exhibited increases in colonization, while mutations affecting exopolysaccharide production resulted in decreases in colonization when compared to the wild type control. Further, they found that some mutants exhibited differences primarily in the patterns of root colonization, more than the amount of colonization, suggesting that certain patterns of root colonization may be modulated on a genetic level.

Funding

This research was supported by the Department of Energy Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research Genomic Science Program as part of the Plant Microbe Interfaces Scientific Focus Area.


JOURNAL

PLoS ONE

DOI

10.1371/journal.pone.0248607 

METHOD OF RESEARCH

Experimental study

SUBJECT OF RESEARCH

Not applicable

ARTICLE TITLE

Identification of a diguanylate cyclase expressed in the presence of plants and its application for discovering candidate gene products involved in plant colonization by Pantoea sp. YR343

ARTICLE PUBLICATION DATE

21-Jul-2021

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases

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Lentil breeding advances set to continue

North Queensland Register

Gregor Heard

Gregor Heard@grheard20 Oct 2021, 3 p.m.Grains

Agriculture Victoria lentil breeder Arun Shunmugam with a promising line of yet to be commercially released lentils in a trial at the pulse trial site at Propodollah, near Nhill, last week.

 Agriculture Victoria lentil breeder Arun Shunmugam with a promising line of yet to be commercially released lentils in a trial at the pulse trial site at Propodollah, near Nhill, last week.Aa

IN A YEAR with many contenders for most lucrative crop lentils are making a solid charge.

Values are in excess of $1000 a tonne, primarily in light of a lack of product from the world’s largest exporter of the legume, Canada, and an easing of tariffs from the world’s largest importer, India.https://7d116f708d3262b63c59ece0b6732cc5.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

RELATED: New field peas

It has farmers in the lentil belt through Victoria and South Australia excited about this year’s harvest, with a kind season in regions such as the Wimmera meaning many crops are displaying outstanding yield potential.

Given the buzz around the crop at present it is no wonder lentils were one of the major talking points at last week’s Southern Pulse Field Day near Nhill in Victoria’s Wimmera.

Agriculture Victoria pulse breeders Jason Brand and Arun Shunmugam said there were a number of promising new developments in the lentil breeding pipeline.

In particular two cultivars yet to be commercialised are performing well in trials, with Dr Brand saying there was huge yield potential in the two lines.

Dr Shunmugam said other focuses of breeders included looking to incorporate more frost resistant genetic material along with further advances in herbicide resistant and tolerant varieties.

The crowd at the Nhill field day said Clearfield / imi-tolerant lines such as Hallmark and Hurricane were popular as they gave flexibility within the rotation and reduced the plant-back risk when planted following another Clearfield line.

Dr Brand said frost and waterlogging tolerance remained two key objectives.

He said there was a complex interaction which meant plants just metres apart could fare vastly differently.

“You can see even in the trials here that some plants look like they’ve incurred frost damage and just a couple of metres away with slightly different soil type and slightly higher up they are unaffected.

“Some form of tolerance to both these stresses would be a great win for the industry,” Dr Brand said.

He said the breeding sector wanted feedback from growers about what herbicide tolerance traits were wanted.

“It is a complex one as we have to manage market expectations and maximum residue limits in with what is going to work well agronomically, but we’re really keen to hear what growers would be interested in seeing in future varieties,” he said.

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The story behind the 100% public GM bean reaching Brazilian plates

Daniel Norero | August 31, 2021

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Common bean. Credit: Portal Voz da Comunidade
Common bean. Credit: Portal Voz da Comunidade

This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.In some Brazilian supermarkets, it is already possible to buy a new genetically modified (GM) common bean, which bears the corresponding GM labeling as required by local regulations. Nothing about this event would be news, considering that Brazil is the second global power in the production of GM crops after the United States and has seen its stores full of products with GM labels. However, this new bean isn’t another of many GM corn and soybeans typically created by North American companies, but rather a 100% locally developed crop by scientists from a state-owned company in the Amazonian giant.

The journey for this new biotech bean to reach Brazilian markets was long and not free of obstacles. It began in the search for a solution to the troublesome Bean Golden Mosaic Virus (BGMV) that can wipe out more than half of a farmer’s bean plants. This pathogen is transmitted by the whitefly, and causes losses estimated at 300,000 tons per year, enough to feed 15 million people.

“BGMV is a serious problem in tomatoes, soybeans and other plants, but in beans it’s also transmitted by whiteflies in a persistent way. When the insect already acquires the virus, it begins to transmit it throughout its life,” says Francisco Aragão, senior researcher at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) and co-creator of the new Brazilian GM bean. “That is why it is difficult to develop a resistance strategy and it’s also known that if you have only one whitefly per plant, you can already have 100% infection.”

Dr. Francisco Aragao (right) and Dr. Josias Faria (left), “fathers” of the Brazilian GM bean. Photo taken in January 2020 in a GM bean field in the city of Río Verde, Goias state. Credit: Francisco Aragao.

Before the new GM bean, the only BGMV control methods were cultural management, biological control, and the use of pesticides to control the virus host -the whitefly- with little results. “The average application [of pesticides] in a season is 10 times, but there are producers who apply 20 times or more. Even with those apps it is still possible to lose everything on some occasions. And if there is soy nearby, it will be very difficult to control the whitefly population in your beans,” says Aragao.

“The prices of insecticides are very expensive and for small farmers it’s difficult to have to use it so many times. In Brazil we have a very large area -about 1.2 million acres- where it’s not recommended to plant beans due to the great loss probability”.Follow the latest news and policy debates on agricultural biotech and biomedicine? Subscribe to our newsletter.SIGN UP

Not just for COVID: RNA also protects crops

Since the 1960s, EMBRAPA researchers have searched for bean cultivars with natural resistance to BGMV throughout the Americas, but results were unsatisfactory. Once only cultivars with only partial resistance and not adapted to Brazilian conditions were identified, EMBRAPA decided to invest in modern biotechnology and GMOs.

“This started in the 90’s when we began to try, on the one hand, to transform beans, which is still one of the most difficult plants to be genetically transformed, and on the other, to study the virus and develop strategies to obtain resistant plants,” Aragao relates. Together with his colleague, Josias Faria, they tried some biotechnological strategies such as antisense RNA -expression of the complementary RNA strand of a gene- and lethal transdominance -expression of a mutated protein that is essential for virus replication-, unfortunately without results or only partial resistance.

“With RNA interference technology, we started in the early 2000s,” Aragao says about RNAi, a natural defense mechanism in plants that “silences genes” but that wasn’t yet fully understood then. Despite this, in the 90’s there had already been success with the Hawaiian papaya, where genetic modification through interfering RNA would save the island’s farmers from the papaya ringspot virus.

How does it work? You’ve probably read or seen a lot in the headlines of the last year about RNA vaccines for COVID-19. In this case, the modifying mechanism with interfering RNA isn’t very different, and it literally works as a “vaccine” for crops. Scientists inserted a DNA fragment of the virus into the nuclear genome of the plant, with the aim of making it produce small double-stranded RNA molecules -known as small interfering RNA or siRNA- that silence the viral rep gene, a key gene for the virus’s replication cycle. As a consequence, the virus is unable to express this gene, its viral replication is interrupted and plants become resistant to the virus. In simple terms, you get a plant “vaccinated” against BGMV.

So in the future, not only will we protect ourselves from pandemics with RNA vaccines, our food can also be protected from deadly viruses with this technology.

It should be noted that this “gene silencing” method is a plant natural mechanism. A normal bean plant that is infected will generate siRNAs later, but not in conditions or levels to deal with the pathogen. With genetic engineering, scientists anticipate and adapt this natural system so that it is triggered the moment the virus enters the plant and it defends itself effectively.

“Something we observe is that flies acquire the virus from plants, but the virus doesn’t replicate in the fly, but in plants… and so the flies acquire more and more viruses,” adds Aragao. “We also observe that when viruliferous flies are put on modified plants, the viral load decreases in the fly, since it releases the virus and has no place to absorb more.”

“It’s interesting and we observe that the same happens for neighboring -not modified- plants”, Aragao indicates, about a potential protector effect that modified beans would have on neighboring conventional crops. “We hope that farmers who produce conventional beans alongside GM bean farmers will also benefit.”

Comparison between an elite line of GM bean resistant to BGMV (right) with healthy leaves and pods, and its conventional counterpart (left) with marked roughness and chlorosis, as well as deformed pods caused by BGMV. Credit: Souza, 2018

From the laboratory to the field

In 2004 the Aragao and Farias team developed the first bean plant immune to BGMV with the siRNA strategy. From 24 modified lines in total, two were immune, and line “5.1” was finally selected–so named since it derives from experiment number 5. “Then we began to do the greenhouse trials, after field trials, the biosafety analyzes and we generated all the data needed to answer all the questions from the National Technical Commission for Biosafety (CTNBio)”, says Aragao.

Aragao and Faria’s team demonstrated that this new GM bean was safe for human consumption, nutritionally equivalent, and had no effects on the environment different than conventional beans. For example, off-target or epigenetic effects were ruled out, and it’s important to note that the inserted transgene doesn’t generate any new proteins, but only small RNAs, which are very unstable molecules and are degraded during food processing.

The collected information was presented to the CTNBio regulators in 2010, approving its commercial release in 2011, a historic milestone as it was developed entirely by a public entity and was the first GM bean in the world. However, why has it taken about a decade to hit the market since that approval?

“We still didn’t have commercial cultivars, and it hasn’t been possible to develop them before because -here in Brazil- all field trials require authorization and also, each field must be in a certified area,” says Aragao about the Brazilian regulatory system. “And for the data generation rules of a new variety, it must be considered that Brazil has five areas for the bean, and we must carry out trials in at least three zones, of each one of the areas, for two years.”

Due to the cumbersomeness of the certification system, EMBRAPA preferred to wait for the commercial release of line 5.1 and only then to breed it with local varieties and endow them with virus resistance. “After commercial approval, you can sow wherever you want and it’s very difficult to have approval for all areas and zones before commercial approval,” adds Aragao.Related article:  15 years after debuting GMO crops, Colombia’s switch has benefited farmers and environment

After more than 31 field trials analyzing agronomic performance, the first GM cultivars of a Pinto -or Carioca- variety suitable for commercial use had already been obtained in 2015. The average yield of the modified cultivar was almost 20% higher than conventional varieties, and in areas with a high incidence of the virus, the profitability of GM beans was 78% higher.

GM bean field in the city of Río Verde, Goias state, in January 2020. Credit: Francisco Aragao

A fascinating piece of information that should be highlighted is the absolute immunity the modified plants have demonstrated since event 5.1 was obtained. “The losses from BGMV are zero. Every year, since we started experimental planting and until the commercial one, we never observe a single plant with the virus, the plants are totally immune,” says Aragao. A strong contrast with the high level of losses in conventional beans that ranges from 40% to 100% of the plants, and the remaining grain is usually deformed or not suitable for sale.

“With this bean, the idea is to have a reduction in pesticide applications. Instead of doing 10 or even 25 applications, the idea is to only do 3 applications (for other pests). What we did was create something more sustainable and safer for consumers”.

Consumer perception and exports

The rules and regulations were not the only problem to be overcome. Since 2015 it had been time to evaluate the best strategy to bring the new GM Pinto bean, a variety that is planted on more than three million hectares and represents 70% of the beans consumed in the country, to Brazilian tables.

“We started to see how to launch it, because beans are not like soybeans, corn or cotton for us. First, it’s a plant that is there on our plate and is consumed every day. Second, it is much more than a staple food, it has a cultural value,” emphasizes Aragao. Since 2015 they had discussed how to conduct the commercial launch, which did not take place until  the second half of 2020, after the seeds multiplication for the first sale.

What has been the attitude of farmers and consumers? In the case of farmers, apparently a success. “The sale of seed has been 100%. The seed producers didn’t sell more because they didn’t have any more,” says Aragao with a laugh. Regarding consumers, it’s still too early to evaluate it, but considering that supermarkets have been selling many products with GMO labeling for years -because GM corn or soybeans derivatives- Aragao hopes that there will be no rejections with the new bean. “If you go to the street and do a survey asking people if they would eat GMOs, probably 40-60% will say no, but in the supermarket they buy it without any problem,” he emphasizes.

Pinto bean package with the new GM variety. It bears the GM label in a yellow triangle with a letter T inside, and below the text: “Product elaborated from GM beans”. Credit: ChileBio

The fact that the Pinto bean produced in Brazil is destined for exclusive local consumption -unlike other varieties- facilitated its commercial release. “We also have modified black beans [from event 5.1], but for now we decided not to launch to the market, since Brazil exports black beans. For example, we have feijoada that is exported canned, and we don’t want to have problems in other countries,” says Aragao.

Genetic editing and new developments

Aragao and his team continue to work on improvements for this Brazilian bean and are already integrating new gene editing technologies to give it greater drought tolerance, decrease phytates (anti-nutritional components), and bestow resistance to other important bean viruses, such as carlavirus.

He also mentions an interesting work carried out with a GMO approach in collaboration with the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey from México in 2016, managing to increase the level of folate (vitamins B9) 150 times, an essential nutrient in fetal development and whose deficiency in pregnant women generates babies with severe congenital problems.

Dr. Francisco Aragao with other GM crops developed under his leadership: A folate-biofortified lettuce (left) and a ricin-free castor bean (right). Credit: ISTOÉ/Embrapa

Other side projects that Aragao and his team are working on include GM lettuce and castor beans. “In lettuce we are working towards virus resistance and an increase in the folate level. We are running field trials and it’s practically ready, but we don’t have all the biosafety data yet. We want to achieve resistance to two very important viruses in lettuce -all over the world – and stack it together with the increase in folate in the same line.”

In castor bean, they seek to eliminate ricin, a highly toxic compound from seeds that makes its use in animal feed unfeasible. “Castor oil plant is a very interesting plant for semi-arid areas, it has a tremendous tolerance to drought and saline soils. The idea is to use a plant like this to obtain not only oil, but also a source of protein for animals,” says Aragao. “The cake that remains after oil extraction is used as fertilizer, but using it as protein for animals would be a much more noble and sustainable purpose.”

Local efforts and science denialism

Until now there has been no opposition from activists and NGOs against the commercial release of the new GM bean. “The anti-GMO groups here in Brazil are fighting against Argentine HB4 wheat, so at least they have forgotten about the bean,” says Aragao. The HB4 wheat he mentions is the first in the world to be approved for commercial release in the neighboring country, but it was conditional on import approval by Brazil, the largest buyer of Argentine wheat.

“Some of the anti-GMO (activists) now claim to be in favor of science for the COVID vaccine. Here we see an example of science denialism. They are deniers depending on the technology, and they don’t consider that some of the modern vaccines are GMOs. To claim that GMOs aren’t safe is simply science denialism. All the scientific data shows that they are safe,” remarks Aragao.

Another important point is that EMBRAPA’s GM bean dismantles the classic narrative against GMOs on the grounds of alleged monopolies or that it’s an exclusive technology of large companies and rich countries. “GM beans are important to show that this technology is not only for big farmers, since we have many small bean farmers in Brazil. Why only for soy, corn and cotton? Why only for large farmers?” asks Aragao.

“It is a technology that can be used for small farmers and to address local problems and crops. Large companies aren’t going to invest in sweet potatoes, cassava, beans or peanuts. They prefer to invest in crops of large areas that are grown in different countries. That is why developing countries have to make an investment in their own problems, and why not, with technologies like this one,” he concludes.

In Brazil, there is hope that this biotechnological solution, fruit of ingenuity and effort of the public sector of Brazil, will be an example to be followed by other Latin American, African and Asian countries. This GM bean approval is a preferrable alternative to walking the European path that has been hindering this technology for more than two decades. Following the Brazilian path shows how to develop local solutions to local problems.

Daniel Norero is a science communications consultant and fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science. He studied biochemistry at the Catholic University of Chile. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNorero

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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CRISPR sows seeds of change in agricultural biotechnology

Since its introduction in 2012, CRISPR-based genetic engineering technology has transformed biotechnology and opened new possibilities in biomedicine. Currently, CRISPR is driving development in yet another domain—agriculture. Although CRISPR has been slower to realize agricultural applications than biotechnology and biomedical applications, it is ready to help us cope with an array of agricultural challenges that include an expanding population, a rapidly warming climate, and a shrinking supply of arable land.

Nearly a decade after Charpentier and Doudna’s landmark study demonstrating that CRISPR systems could be programmed for targeted DNA cleavage in vitro (Jinek et al. Science 2012; 337(6096), 816–821), scientists have started to make good use of CRISPR systems in agricultural biotechnology (agbiotech). In fact, the first genome-edited agricultural product has already hit the market in Japan. This product is a tomato called the Sicilian Rouge High GABA. It was engineered by Sanatech Seed, and it is meant to help consumers reduce their blood pressure. If this product does well, it may encourage other agbiotech companies to ramp up their own CRISPR genome editing programs.

CRISPR has both practical and regulatory advantages over traditional plant breeding and genetic modification methods. Consequently, CRISPR is looking increasingly attractive to agbiotech companies that hope to engineer products that can improve human health and the environment.

“It’s all about genetic variability,” affirms Sam Eathington, PhD, the chief technology officer at Corteva Agriscience, one of the Big Four seed companies. “In some crops, we don’t have as much variability as we’d like. There are times that variability is locked up in parts of the genome that you just can’t unlock easily. Or you bring in a gene for improved disease resistance from a wild species that can intermate, but you bring along a whole bunch of stuff that’s detrimental.” CRISPR can overcome those obstacles, accessing that variability while removing unwanted baggage.

Read the complete article at www.genengnews.com.

Publication date: Thu 12 Aug 2021

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Wineries in California have been under siege for decades. There’s finally hope that grapevines can be saved from bacterial disease

Agostino Petroni | August 12, 2021

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Pierce's disease. Credit: California Department of Food and Agriculture
Pierce’s disease. Credit: California Department of Food and Agriculture

This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.In 1961, Adam Tolmach planted a five-acre vineyard on land he had inherited from his grandfather in the wine-growing region of Ventura County, California, a few miles east of Santa Barbara. As an undergraduate, Tolmach had studied grape growing and winemaking (areas of study known as viticulture and enology, respectively) and then worked for a couple of years at a winery not far from his grandfather’s land. In 1983, he started producing his own wines, which he sells under the Ojai Vineyard label.

Over the years, Tolmach’s grapevines began to suffer. The plants lost vigor and the leaves dried. It turned out the vineyard was affected by Pierce’s disease, a sickness that had long plagued southern California, but had become more severe in the 1990s after the invasion of the glassy-winged sharpshooter, a large leafhopper insect that feeds on plant fluids and can spread a bacterium known as Xylella fastidiosa, usually just called Xylella (pronounced zy-LEL’-uh). This bacterium has existed in the United States since as far back as the 1880s, and over the years, it has destroyed at least 35,000 acres of the nation’s vineyards.

Adam Tolmach. Credit: Ojai Vinyard

Tolmach witnessed the slow but certain death of his grapevines. By 1995, there were just too many missing plants, he said. So he decided to pull out the infected vineyard. To continue making wine, he bought grapes from other producers. Tolmach became a winemaker with no vineyard of his own.

Every year, American winemakers lose about $56 million worth of vines, while government agencies, nurseries, and the University of California system invest another $48 million in prevention efforts, according to research published in the journal California Agriculture. At least 340 plant species serve as hosts to Xylella, though the bacteria only harm some of them. Across the globe, Xylella has devastated orange trees in Brazil and olive fields in southern Italy, and recently a newly identified species, Xylella taiwanensis, has been infecting pear trees in Taiwan. As of now, there is no permanent solution. Each time a Xylella species has invaded a new region, it has proved impossible to eradicate.

Countries have long fretted about the potential for infected plant imports to spread the bacteria, and more recently, climate change has been identified as an additional threat, pushing the disease vectors’ habitat north, both in Europe and in the U.S. As winters become warmer, experts say, Xylella could enter new territories, upending their regional economies and landscapes.

Yet there might be some hope. After 40 years of crossbreeding European grape varieties with wild grapes, a plant geneticist recently patented five hybrid grapes that appear to be resistant to Pierce’s disease. While scientists caution that it’s not yet clear how long the resistance will endure, wine producers like Tolmach hope that these new grapes will allow their vineyards to flourish once again.

A variety of grape species are indigenous to America, and a recent study suggests that Native Americans might have used them to make alcoholic beverages more than 500 years ago. In North America, native varieties tend to have thick skin and an astringent, peppery, acidic taste that is quite different from the grapes used in most wines.

In the 1500s, Spanish settlers brought Vitis vinifera, the common European grapevine for winemaking, to Florida. Farmers never succeeded in cultivating European grapes in the new territory — after a few years, the plants would just die. Then, in the 1860s, the Los Angeles Vineyard Society led grape-planting efforts in the Santa Ana Valley. By 1883, there were a total of 50 wineries and 10,000 acres of grapevines. Then, just a couple of years later, the grapevines had all died inexplicably.

In 1889, the U.S. Department of Agriculture instructed one of the first formally trained American plant pathologists, Newton Pierce, to figure out what was killing the European grapevines. Pierce studied the disease, eventually speculating that it was caused by a microorganism, but he never identified one. Still, in recognition of his effort, the disease was eventually named after him.

In the 1970s, a University of California, Berkeley entomologist named Alexander Purcell helped solve the mystery. At the time, researchers were beginning to think Pierce’s disease was caused by bacteria but had yet to pin down a culprit. Purcell and his colleagues proved the then-unnamed Xylella was responsible by growing the bacterium from samples taken from plants infected by blue-green sharpshooters, and then directly infecting healthy plants with the lab-grown pathogen. Over time, a more complete picture of disease transmission emerged.

The glassy-winged sharpshooter feeds on the green stems and leaves of grapevine plants, which contain water and dissolved nutrients, Purcell told Undark. If the plant is infected with Xylella, some of the bacteria linger in the insect’s needle-like mouthparts. The next time the glassy-winged sharpshooter feeds upon a grapevine, the insect can transfer the Xylella to the new plant. Inside the plant’s vascular tissues, the bacteria multiply, obstructing the normal flow of water and nutrients and interfering with the plant’s metabolism and physiology — a process that ultimately kills the plant.

In the late 1980s, Purcell mapped swaths of the U.S. and Europe by how conducive they are to disease spread. Knowing that Xylella do not thrive in regions with cold winters, that are far from large bodies of water, and that lack a disease-carrying vector such as the glassy-winged sharpshooter, Purcell drew out maps by hand. He then marked the regions with the right combination of geographic and climatic conditions to allow for Pierce’s disease to spread, noticing a pattern emerge.

At the time, the European Union was not very concerned about Xylella, though Purcell contends that the bacteria had almost certainly arrived in the region. In talks and at conferences, he warned that European countries were facing a great danger. He urged the E.U. to increase its regulations of plant imports. Those warnings went unheeded, Purcell said, and in 2017, Pierce’s disease was first detected on the grapevines of the Spanish island of Mallorca, jeopardizing the future of winemaking there. Today, Xylella is spreading through the Mediterranean region and other parts of Europe — just as Purcell predicted.

The glassy-winged sharpshooter spreads Xylella bacteria when it feeds on the vascular tissues of plants. Credit: Courtesy of University of California, Riverside

Alberto Fereres, a Spanish entomologist and researcher at the Spanish National Research Council, is concerned about the devastating effects of the European outbreaks, including one in southern Italy that has infected and killed 20 million olive trees, more than a third of the region’s population. “[Xylella] is present in many more countries than we indeed thought,” Fereres said, adding that his research group recently discovered that the bacteria have been present in Spain for more than 20 years, but for much of that time it only lived in plants that don’t show symptoms of the disease.

Fereres hopes at least some plants will adapt to the presence of the bacteria and that farmers will be able to control the indigenous European vector, the meadow spittlebug, by tilling the land to kill the bug’s juveniles and placing barriers or nets to separate the insects from susceptible plants.

So far, the U.S. has largely used insecticides to get rid of infected insects. The Temecula Valley in California, for example, experienced a severe outbreak of Pierce’s disease in the late 1990s. Back then, stakeholders managed to defeat the disease in less than two years by introducing specific pesticides into the farming of grapevines.

Matt Daugherty, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside, studied the resulting decline in Temecula’s glassy-winged sharpshooter population. He said the insect’s numbers remained low until around 2017, when the population exploded for a second time.

“Now the bad news is this,” Purcell said: “After about 18 years, the insect is now resistant to the insecticide.” In entomology, Purcell added, such resistance is common if the same insecticide is used year after year. He and Fereres maintain that pesticides are not a viable long-term solution to the problem. In some countries, this approach has also run up against public opinion. In Italy, for example, consumers have strongly opposed the use of pesticides on olive trees threatened by Xylella.

Rodrigo Almeida, a plant pathologist at the University of California, Berkeley, warns that climate change might worsen the situation: While low winter temperatures in many grape-growing regions have traditionally limited the spread of Pierce’s disease, the past few years have brought warmer winters, allowing Xylella to spread.Follow the latest news and policy debates on agricultural biotech and biomedicine? Subscribe to our newsletter.SIGN UP

“With warming temperatures and warmer winters, you’re going to have sort of more disease where you already have it, and you’re probably going to see the range expand north as well,” Almeida said. Warmer temperatures favor greater survival of the insects and increase the likelihood that an infection will persist through the winter. Almeida added that it’s difficult to predict precisely how much the disease will increase and how it will impact the new territories, but that there is the possibility that the disease will find a home in areas where a dry climate combines with warmer winters.

“We’re expecting things to get worse and worse,” Daugherty said.

Yet, in territories where European grapes die because of Xylella, wild indigenous grape varieties that are not a good fit for winemaking thrive. Those plants bear a unique gene that prevents them from succumbing to the disease, and that specific gene could be a counteroffensive to the bacteria and might well change the future of winemaking.

In 1989, University of California, Davis plant geneticist and viticulturist Andrew Walker inherited grapevine seeds that he was told were produced from crossbreeding two known Vitis species. But as the plants grew, he soon noticed they were behaving weirdly. For one thing, their vines had sprouted fine hairs along the stems. More importantly, the plants proved resistant to Pierce’s disease. Walker decided to investigate. Perhaps, he speculated, the parent plants, which were still flourishing in an abandoned vineyard owned by his university, had accidentally crossbred with the native grapevines that were growing wild nearby.

Indeed, this turned out to be the case. Vitis arizonica grows wild in the southwest U.S. and Mexico, and Walker matched the genetic fingerprint of the male V. arizonica in his own plants. The wild plant carries a dominant gene that passes along Pierce’s disease resistant traits to its offspring.

Sensing that this could lead to breakthrough for new varieties of grapevine, Walker began the slow process of crossbreeding. This technique goes back about 10,000 years and involves selectively breeding plants and animals with desired traits. In this case, Walker wanted to cross disease-resistant V. arizonica with winemaking varieties like cabernet sauvignon.

A grapevine leaf affected by Pierce’s disease. As the plant’s vascular structure is obstructed by bacteria, the flow of water and nutrients is impeded, and the leaves become brown and dry. Credit: Agricultural Research Service/USDA

The first generation’s seedlings all carried the gene for disease resistance. Walker selected the highest quality among them, and when the plants flowered, he crossed them again with various V. vinifera varieties. He did this for four to five generations, reaching a point where 97 percent of the plant’s genome came from V. vinifera and 3 percent came from V. arizonica. It took Walker about 20 years to develop these new plants, five varieties of which have been patented and given out to a few producers, and sold through a handful of nurseries. Tolmach, the winemaker from Ojai, was one of the few lucky ones to receive them.

“I guess what’s shocking to me is that the quality is there — these can be standalone wines by themselves,” said Tolmach. In 2017, he planted about 1,800 plants on 1.2 acres with four of Walker’s varieties, and he recently bottled the 2019 vintages. (These vintages won’t be available until this fall, when they will be priced between $30 and $40 per bottle, which is comparable to his vintages that use traditional grapes.) Tolmach said that his new plants are healthy and thriving with no sign of the disease, and he’s now thinking of planting more on a 10-acre vineyard that he purchased in northern Santa Barbara County.

Matt Kettmann, a California writer and wine critic who has been following Tolmach’s work for years, tasted Tolmach’s wines produced with resistant grape varieties. He said they are unique and interesting wines with characteristics reminiscent of wines of European heritage. He described Tolmach’s 2019 wine using Walker’s paseante noir grape as tasting of “black cherry, mocha, clove, baking spice,” while praising its “smooth texture and rich mouthfeel.” “That one,” said Kettmann, “was really kind of impressive to me.”

Kettmann anticipates that the new wines will be appreciated by connoisseurs, but he wonders how the larger American market will respond. Europeans emphasize the value of terroir — the taste imparted to a wine by a particular region’s soil, topography, and climate. Americans, on the other hand, tend to care more about the variety of the grape, like pinot gris, cabernet sauvignon, or zinfandel — and Walker’s varieties are entirely new.

“Tradition is a huge consideration in choosing wine varieties for winemaking. Can you name any new grape varieties introduced during the last 50 years that are now widely used for wine?” wrote Purcell in an email.

It’s also not clear whether new genotypes of Xylella might evolve to infect the hybrid grapes, Purcell and Fereres wrote to Undark. Currently, only a single gene confers the resistance. For this reason, it might be necessary to incorporate new resistance genes by crossbreeding additional varieties of grapevine, said Purcell.

Still, growers like Tolmach are excited by Walker’s resistant varieties, and some are planting them in areas that have been impacted by Xylella, Walker saidThough Tolmach has made wines with the new grapes exclusively, he suggests many wineries may opt to blend the grapes with other mainstream varieties.

For his part, Walker believes that any skepticism about his grapes’ novelty will fade in the face of climate change. “It is going to force people to reevaluate how we improve grapevines,” he said.

Agostino Petroni is a journalist, author, and a 2021 Pulitzer Reporting Fellow. His work appears in a number of outlets, including National Geographic, BBC, and Atlas Obscura. Find Agostino on Twitter @PetroniAgostino

A version of this article was originally posted at Undark and is reposted here with permission. Undark can be found on Twitter @undarkmag

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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Preview(opens in a new tab)Add titleGene editing poised to spark innovation in herbicide- and disease-resistant sugar cane

Gene editing poised to spark innovation in herbicide- and disease-resistant sugar cane

Julie Wurth | CABBI | July 22, 2021

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Credit: Fawakih
Credit: Fawakih

This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

Sugarcane is one of the most productive plants on Earth, providing 80 percent of the sugar and 30 percent of the bioethanol produced worldwide. Its size and efficient use of water and light give it tremendous potential for the production of renewable value-added bioproducts and biofuels.

But the highly complex sugarcane genome poses challenges for conventional breeding, requiring more than a decade of trials for the development of an improved cultivar.

Two recently published innovations by University of Florida researchers at the Department of Energy’s Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI) demonstrated the first successful precision breeding of sugarcane by using CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing — a far more targeted and efficient way to develop new varieties.

CRISPR/Cas9 allows scientists to introduce precision changes in almost any gene and, depending on the selected approach, to turn the gene off or replace it with a superior version. The latter is technically more challenging and has rarely been reported for crops so far.Follow the latest news and policy debates on agricultural biotech and biomedicine? Subscribe to our newsletter.SIGN UP

“Now we have very effective tools to modify sugarcane into a crop with higher productivity or improved sustainability,” [researcher Fredy] Altpeter said. “It’s important since sugarcane is the ideal crop to fuel the emerging bioeconomy.”

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Bt Cotton adoption in Punjab has resulted in net economic, environmental benefits: Study

Vikas VasudevaCHANDIGARH, JUNE 21, 2021 19:34 ISTUPDATED: JUNE 22, 2021 15:52 IST

Yields have stabilised after its commercialisation, says expert

Amid the perpetual debate surrounding Bt cotton’s positive and negative impacts, a recent study titled — ‘Long-term impact of Bt cotton: An empirical evidence from North India’ — has said its adoption in Punjab in the past over a decade has resulted in net economic and environmental benefits.

Also read: Comment | The flawed spin to India’s cotton story

The research was funded by the Agricultural Extension Division of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research under extramural project “Impact evaluation of integrated pest management technologies”. The study was jointly done by the Punjab Agricultural University at Ludhiana, the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology in Jammu (SKUAST) and the Noida-based Amity University, and has been recently published in the Journal of Cleaner Production Elsevier.

“Since the commercialisation of Bt cotton, there has been reduction in insecticide use by volume and applications, decline in environmental and human health impact associated with insecticide use, more so with the reduction in the use of highly hazardous and riskiest insecticides, and reduction in the expenses associated with insecticide use. Also, cotton yields in the past 13 years have been stable, the only exception being 2015. Yet over the past 13 years, pesticide use has gradually increased in Bt hybrids and reduced in non-Bt varieties, primarily driven by the use of fungicide, which was not applied in cotton in 2003 and 2004.

“Akin to the discovery of synthetic pesticides in the 1940s, which was proclaimed as ‘silver bullet technology’ by entomologists, the complete reliance on Bt cotton without incorporating it into the integrated pest management (IPM) system led to outbreak of whitefly in northern India and pink bollworm in western India in 2015; thus, resistance to Bt cotton is yet to become a significant problem. Compatibility of Bt with IPM is not a given when we have weaker institutional setting with ad hoc IPM system and the contrarian view that Bt cotton has been a failure in India, in this case Punjab, lacks empirical evidence,” professor Rajinder Peshin of SKUAST told The Hindu.

Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton has been commercially grown in India for the past 19 years. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved the release of Bt cotton for commercial cultivation in 2002 in western and southern parts of the country. In Punjab, Bt cotton was released for cultivation in 2005. Before the release, it was adopted by 72% farmers on 22% of the cotton area. However, a lot of questions have been raised recently on its impact.

“To find out the long-term socio-economic and environmental impacts of Bt cotton cultivation on cleaner production, we revisited cotton growers surveyed in 2003 and 2004 again in 2016-17. Before-after, with-without, and difference-in-differences [with and without sample attrition] within farm comparisons were analysed to find the impact of Bt cotton over time. Our results show that sucking insect pests have replaced bollworms as the key pests.

Decline in insecticide applications

“There has been a steep decline in insecticide applications to control bollworms, the target pest of Bt cotton, by 97%; however, this has been offset by an increase in the insecticide application by 154% to control sucking pests. Moreover, the increase in pesticide use was driven by the use of fungicides, which were not applied in cotton earlier, and increased use of herbicides.

“Our results show overall positive impact of Bt cotton on volume of insecticide active ingredients (a.i.) applied, insecticide applications, use of highly hazardous and riskiest insecticides, and resultant environmental impact of the field use of insecticides on cotton. Yields have stabilised after the commercialisation of Bt cotton,” said Mr. Peshin.


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May 24, 2021“Father of Hybrid Rice” Yuan Longping’s Legacy: An agricultural innovation that helps feed the world

“Father of Hybrid Rice” Yuan Longping’s Legacy: An agricultural innovation that helps feed the world

Rice is a staple food and provides 20% of the daily calorie needs of more than half of the population worldwide. With the looming increase in population projected to reach about 8.5 billion people by 2030, how can we feed the world sustainably?

In 1973, Dr. Yuan Longping successfully cultivated the first high-yielding hybrid rice strain after almost a decade of hybrid rice research. Since then, several varieties of hybrid rice have been developed and deployed to end hunger and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers across the world.

“If half of the rice-growing areas in the world are replaced with hybrid rice varieties with a 2 t/ha yield advantage, it is estimated that total global rice production would increase by another 150 million tons annually. This could feed 400‒500 million more people each year. This would truly be a significant contribution to ensure food security and peace all over the world,” writes Dr. Yuan in his Rice Today opinion piece,  Hybrid rice for global food security.

Among the numerous awards and recognitions that he received for this contribution to agriculture and food security, Dr. Yuan was awarded the prestigious World Food Prize in 2004, the foremost international award recognizing individuals who have increased the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world. Dr. Yuan “discovered a genetic phenomenon in rice and then developed the technologies essential for breeding the first hybrid rice variety ever created.” He shared the recognition with African plant breeder, Dr. Monty Jones.

President emeritus of the World Food Prize and vice-chairman of the Yuan Longping International Rice Development Forum Kenneth M. Quinn said of Dr. Yuan, “Like [Norman] Borlaug, Professor Yuan was incredibly humble, never seeking fame or adulation, rather focused only on hard work and results that could help eradicate poverty and uplift people out of hunger. Professor Yuan, similarly, believed deeply in the power of science as the multiplier of the harvest.”

Most recently, Dr. Yuan worked with his team on a third-generation hybrid rice variety. Reports from late last year cite that this third-generation hybrid rice achieved a yield of 911.7 kg per mu (about 667 square meters) in an experiment in China’s Hunan Province.

“The adoption of agricultural innovations like the hybrid rice technology will help in bringing about rice self-sufficiency in rice-dependent countries,” IRRI Director General Jean Balié said. “Hybrid rice’s yield advantage is instrumental in feeding a growing population with fewer resources. We will be forever grateful for Dr. Yuan Longping’s dedication and hard work on hybrid rice research which paved the way for the development and deployment of several high-performing rice varieties.”

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Is genetically modified corn the answer to fall armyworm? 

ABC Rural / By Megan HughesPosted 3ddays ago

A close up of a caterpillar on a stalk of corn. It's clear the grub has done a lot of damage
Fall armyworm has been detected across the country from North Queensland to Western Australia and even Tasmania.(Supplied: DPIRD)

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  • It’s a tiny caterpillar that’s difficult to detect, but for more than a year it’s been having a massive impact on crops in Australia, especially corn. 

Key points:

  • Fall armyworm is causing damage to corn crops around Australia 
  • Farmers are asking whether genetically modified corn could help
  • The Maize Association says it will need whole-of-industry support before GM corn can be introduced  

Fall armyworm (FAW) has infiltrated six states and territories and is so hard to control farmers are whispering about a method that’s been off the table for almost two decades — genetically modified (GM) corn.

Maize Association of Australia chairman Stephen Wilson said questions were being raised about whether GM corn could manage the armyworm incursion.

“Anecdotally, I am hearing from the field farmers saying we need GM to help us control the insect,” he said. 

“It’s a major discussion point for the industry as a whole because for the last three decades we, as an industry, as the Maize Association, have been working uniformly to say we do not need GM in Australia.” 

Lessons from the US 

Since arriving in Australia in February 2020, fall armyworm has been detected in Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and, most recently, in Tasmania. 

Fall armyworm is native to the United States, where it has devastated multiple agricultural crops, but growers there have different tools to fight it. 

Fall armyworm on corn plants
Fall armyworm outbreaks are contained by insecticide use and GM crops in the United States.(Supplied: Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries)

North Carolina State University professor and extension specialist Dr Dominic Reisig said in their industry, corn was genetically modified to produce insecticidal proteins that naturally occurred in a bacteria found in soil. It is known as BT corn.

Dr Reisig said while it was not specifically designed to treat FAW it had had an impact. 

“It was first commercially planted in 1996 but that particular crop that was planted did not control fall armyworm,” he said.

“So it wasn’t until different BT toxins were introduced that we really started to see fall armyworm control. 

“But because it’s a sporadic outbreak pest throughout the US it wasn’t like a huge, earth-shattering moment when we were able to control fall armyworm.” 

Are GMO crops the silver bullet? 

According to Dr Reisig, treating FAW across ag industries was a multi-pronged approach with insecticides and a GM crop. 

He said in corn the pest could infest a crop in different stages of its development. 

“Once it gets into the whirl it’s very difficult to control,” he said. 

“But the good thing is when it attacks in those (earlier) stages it’s not that damaging to yield — so the corn looks really bad but it usually pops out of it and it’s not a problem. 

“If fall armyworm attacks later in the season when maize has an ear, then it’s a problem. 

“Once it’s inside that ear you can’t control it and then it’s a really damaging pest in terms of yield and it’s really difficult to control with insecticides so BT (corn) is the way to go.”

He said insecticides were able to control the pest in other crops like soya beans or vegetables because the plants were structured differently.

Weighing up the losses 

Australia only grows three GM crops — cotton, safflower and canola. 

A sea of yellow flowers under a blue sky as the canola crop is in full bloom.
Canola is one of thee genetically modified crops in Australia.(Supplied: Riverine Plains Inc)

Corn has remained GM-free and, as a consequence, the industry has been able to access different markets including Japan and Korea. 

“End users such as snack food and cornflake breakfast cereal manufacturers have told us the whole time they do not want GM in their raw materials,” Mr Wilson said. 

“It would impact on both the export market and also on all the domestic markets — everything from dairy cows utilising the maize as grain or silage right through to beef cattle and right through to human consumption. 

“It’s a major, major, major impact that would need to be agreed to by all sectors of the industry.” 

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A person opens a corn's covering to check if it's ripe.
Australia has been able to access multiple international markets as the corn grown here is GM free.(Pexels: Frank Meriño)

He said any trial would be complicated.

“You have all the regulatory issues of actually bringing germplasm into the country, you have the quarantine issues of having the facilities that could handle the GM product, then you’ve got the issues of field testing,” he said. 

“It would be a long, drawn-out process and we’d have to consider the impact on the industry as a whole because it’s very hard, if not impossible, to have part-GM, part-non-GM. 

“It’s a very expensive process and it makes the non-GM corn being in the minority a very expensive product that people have to pay a premium for.” 

In a statement, a spokesperson from the Federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment said genetically modified maize seeds may only be imported into Australia under an import permit issued by the department, but that no applications had been made. 

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