Green Biotech rEvolutions Newsletter
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Guest Opinion

Mark Buckingham  

Addressing global food security through GM crops 


Dear Readers,

Food security is one of the greatest challenges facing the world in the first half of the 21st century. The next 20 to 30 years will see rapid population growth and the increasing impact of climate change on agriculture. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has projected that farmers will need to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 to meet the needs of a global population which, by that time, will have grown to over 9 billion people.

This presents an enormous challenge for the agricultural sector and farmers globally. Presented with this challenge farming must adapt to become more productive, more resilient to plant and animal disease and better at protecting the natural environment. To achieve this it is essential that farmers are able to use all the tools and technologies available to them.

GM crops are just one of the many technologies that have been developed to increase agricultural yields, and will need to be part of the solution to the challenge facing agriculture in the coming years.  

Since the advent of the first commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops 20 years ago, we have seen exciting breakthroughs in plant technology and pioneering new approaches to food and farming systems. These advances have seen an increase in global crop production, as well as a significant reduction in the environmental impact of farming.

As demonstrated in the Agricultural Biotechnology Council’s recent publication “Cultivating the Future: How can 20 years of GM debate inform UK farm policy”, I believe that experts from across the agri-food sector, including farmers at home and abroad, the food manufacturing industry, academics and others, must come together to ensure the most appropriate technologies are available to meet future demand for sustainable, nutritious food production. After over 20 years of use, agricultural biotechnology has a proven role and should be utilised alongside other farming techniques to ensure the benefits of innovation can be chosen and enjoyed by farmers and consumers across the globe.

Yours sincerely,
Mark Buckingham

Mark Buckingham is Chair of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council. He is also responsible for Corporate Affairs and External Engagement for Monsanto in the UK and Ireland. Mark joined Monsanto in 1999 in the UK and later worked in a variety of corporate affairs roles at Monsanto’s Headquarters in St Louis, USA and Monsanto’s Australian business in Melbourne before returning to Europe to work in Brussels and then its vegetable seed business in The Netherlands. Mark has a BSc in Agriculture from Reading University UK and is a 1996 Nuffield Farming Scholar.

“We cannot go beyond the age of evidence. We'd go back to the Middle Ages.”

Bernhard Url, Executive Director of EFSA

“Failure to adequately communicate risk assessment and management provisions is exploited by the anti-GM lobby, some media outlets and some MEPs pursuing an ideological agenda.”

Julie Girling, MEP

"If the developing world doesn't have the access to technology which the Europeans are trying to stop them from using, you are gonna have lot of people die."

Richard Roberts, Nobel laureate 

UK stakeholders support GMOs 

The Agricultural Biotechnology Council launched its report, ‘Cultivating the Future’, to mark the 20th anniversary of commercial GM cultivation last month. Speakers included former Chief Scientific Advisor Sir John Beddington, Professor Huw Jones and Helen Ferrier from the National Farmers Union. The report, which is authored by a range of experts, highlights the vital role that GM crops play in reducing waste and increasing yields and notes that the ‘prolonged and shallow debate’ around GM crops in the last two decades is unsustainable. Julie Girling MEP says that the “failure to adequately communicate (GMO) risk assessment and management provisions is exploited by the anti-GM lobby, some media outlets and some MEPs pursuing an ideological agenda”. Read more in Farmers Weekly and the Farmers Guardian.

Balance wanted in European Media 

An article posted on the Monsanto blog investigates bias in the media, showing that European media also has an important responsibility to provide more balanced coverage of agricultural  issues and not enable the spread of "fake news". The article, which includes an assessment of various media channels throughout the EU, notes that ‘consumers and decision-makers depend on fair and balanced reporting (…) to make sound decisions for the greater good. Currently, it seems much of Europe’s leading media fall far short of that ideal.’ 

Delayed GM Approvals Threaten Trade

Too many regulatory agencies around the globe take too long to approve genetically modified plant traits, according to a new US-commissioned report by CAST (Council for Agricultural Science and Technology): “Asynchrony in regulatory approvals between importing and exporting countries puts large volumes of trade worth billions of dollars at risk.” The very long and unpredictable authorization procedures imposed by large grain importers (such as the EU or China) is an increasing impediment to trade. The report argues that “the uncertainty imposed by regulatory delays arising from asynchrony can also divert investment in biotechnology R&D away from crops in which research effort could bring benefits to producers and consumers.” 

Momentum building for GM crops in the UK 

A report published by the Centre for Policy Studies cautiously suggests that Brexit may enable the establishment of improved rules for GMOs, which has proved challenging amidst strong anti-science rhetoric in the EU. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee also published a report citing evidence from Professor Burnell, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, that Brexit may create an opportunity to simplify onerous GMO legislation. Meanwhile, at the Oxford Farming Conference, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom MP outlined the Government’s ambition for the food and farming industry and stressed her belief that agri-tech is ‘where the future of food and farming lies.’  An on-line article in iNews indicates that UK public opinion towards GM crops has improved.

Polish president approves amendments to seed and feed laws

The Polish president has officially approved an amendment to the Polish Feed Law which postpones the entering into force of a ban on GM feed material imports until 2019. He also approved an amendment to the Polish Seed Law, which allows for the introduction of a ban on sales of GM seed material for cultivation in Poland. Both amendments were published in the official journal. A ban on sales of GM seed materials may only be introduced in the form of a Council of Ministers' decree under two conditions: unsuitability for cultivation due to climate and soil conditions in Poland or to avoid risks to humans, animals, plants and the environment.

NGO funding & methods criticized

European media and politicians have criticised NGO funding and methods relating to free trade. An article in European View explores the situation in Germany and Austria. The German news outlet ARD TV highlighted the post truth “marketing campaigns” by anti-free trade NGOs, and the fact that they have received government funding. SWR hosted a discussion forum on “how democratic and influential” NGOs really are. Die Welt quoted Inge Graessle MEP (EPP Germany) as saying: “We must stop the long-term financing on NGOs”. Meanwhile a European Parliament study found that “It is often difficult to identify which organizations in a network or consortium are undertaking which activities or how funds flow between them in relation to those activities.”  

Commission tries to revive GMO opt-out proposal  

The Commission wants to keep the GMO opt out proposal alive despite the evident lack of support in Council and Parliament. In early December the Commission sent the Council a confidential document on the legal implications of the proposal, defending its consistency with internal market and WTO obligations. The Slovak presidency did not work on this sensitive dossier, and there are currently no indications that the Maltese presidency might. Read more in EU observer.

Japan efficient on import approvals

While China remains a major obstacle for GM crop import approvals and the EU process has slowed down, Japan is efficient, according to a new report by the US Foreign Agriculture Service. Japan has streamlined its process by no longer requiring multiple approvals for stacked biotech events, if the individual events have already been approved. “In addition to managing the review process more efficiently, Japan’s increased familiarity with events using popular transgenes has contributed to more prompt reviews,” the report concluded. Japan is one of the world’s largest importers of farm commodities and the country gets roughly 90 percent of the corn it imports from the United States. 

EU expels innovation, confirms USDA report

“The EU’s complex policy framework developed under pressure from anti-biotech activists has limited research, development, and production of biotech crops“, states the latest USDA GAIN report covering the EU-28. “The private sector's interest in developing varieties of GE plants suitable for cultivation in the European Union (EU) has waned” following “repeated vandalism” of test plots and “uncertainty and delays of the EU approval process”. EU companies have thus moved most of their research sites in plant biotech outside of Europe. Meanwhile, EU cultivation and harvests of (non-GM) soybeans is expected to amount to only around 2.2 million metric tons in 2016 and 2017, dwarfed by the 32 million metric tons of soybeans imported each year. Despite an increase in hectarage of Bt Corn in Spain in 2016, there have been decreases in other EU countries, including Portugal according to the Observador.                       

French public-private project on biotech 

“Despite a certain political reserve, transgenesis is already an indispensable technology for French seed companies and public scientists”, according to a brochure about GENIUS, a French public-private project on biotech. 89 permanent scientists in 19 research labs belonging to 8 institutions/companies are working on the programme “Biotechnology and Bioresources” for a total cost of 21.3 M€ (2012-19). The first workshop took place in November 2016, and presentations are available on the website.

Wheat genetics pioneer celebrated in Italy

The Italian National Academy of Agriculture celebrated the 150th birthdate anniversary of Nazareno Strampelli on 2 December 2016. Strampelli was the founder of modern wheat genetics and is considered the "prophet" of the Green Revolution, as he worked to develop short straw, disease resistant wheat varieties, pioneering the application of Mendelian genetics. Assobiotec and Assosementi, representing the biotech and seed Italian industry respectively, also held an event at the University of Bologna to mark the occasion, outlining the progress that has been made in wheat genetics and the opportunities offered by cutting edge biotechnologies, including new breeding techniques (NBTs). Proceedings will be available soon on the academic "Annali" yearbook and Assobiotec websites.

Plant biotech progress in Italy requires IP protection

The National Council of Research hosted a conference in Milan on 1 December 2016 focused on intellectual property (IP) protection in plant biotech, with a focus on plant genetics, genome editing and NBTs. The speakers examined legal and scientific aspects of IP protection and reviewed the latest advances of Italian public research. The event was organized in co-operation with Assobiotec and Assosementi, highlighting the need to encourage biotech progress with appropriate IP protection, which can assure a fair return on research investments by the public and private sectors. Presentations of the day will be available soon through the Assobiotec website

Portuguese farmers want access to NBTs

A seminar on NBTs took place at the Chemical and Biological Technology Institute António Xavier in Portugal, on 12 December. It was  organised by CiB and featured representatives from the Portuguese farming and animal feed industries, who noted that NBTs are important for farmers and the environment and should not be subject to GMO legislation. Frutas, Legumes e Flores covered the event and noted that NBTs allow the development of new plant varieties more quickly and accurately than conventional methods.

Safeguarding the future of mankind

In the face of a growing world population and climate change,  the use of high-tech and gene technology in agriculture can help to ensure sufficient food in 2050, says consultancy PwC in Wirtschaftswoche (in German). However, European governments need to make stronger efforts to create favorable conditions for technological change. Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt DBU, one of the largest environment foundations in Europe, warns against a general condemnation of genetic engineering, asking for greater openness regarding its potential for safeguarding the future of mankind. Meanwhile, Jochen Flasbarth, State Secretary of the German Ministry for the Environment, demands strong legal regulations for NBTs. In the meantime, as reported in Dutch news, the Dutch Parliament has accepted a proposal to exclude CRISPR /CAS applications for plants from the European GM regulations.  

New ag technologies in development

Breakthrough technologies are revolutionizing agriculture. Novozymes and Monsanto have cooperated to modernize GM corn to boost yields and cut down on fertilizer use and carbon-dioxide emissions by introducing a coating for the seeds made from a natural fungus. Syngenta is developing a RNA-based biocontrol which fight plant pests in an extremely targeted way. Meanwhile, Cargill and BASF have developed an omega-3-rich canola to be used as an alternative to fish oil in aquaculture. This product presents a more sustainable way of fish feeding and lowers pressure on wild fish populations that currently supply much of that oil. 

Director of Food Safety Authority defends science

In an article in the EU Observer, Bernhard Url comments on the EU’s scientific and political decision-making processes. He notes: “If we come with a scientific opinion, let's say on a GMO or on glyphosate, which parts of the European Parliament do not like because it does not fit to their political agenda, what I would like to achieve is that they say: 'OK, I don't like the outcome of your opinion, but I trust the process'.” Url also said it was “dangerous” if scientific evidence would be viewed as “just a scientific opinion, not more”.  

Life-Saving Plant Breeding

Innovation in plant breeding has already helped to feed billions of people, and the work is far from over. Using the rice strain IR8 as an example, this BBC piece helps to show how just one new plant variety can change the world. From tackling hunger, to preventing blindness and combatting diabetes, innovation can improve the quality of peoples’ lives.

Water-saving Plants & Pink Pineapple

Researchers form the Oak’s Ridge National Laboratory discovered new mechanisms allowing some plants to conserve water in very dry conditions. These plants survive thanks to a specialized mode of photosynthesis called crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM). The CAM system could contribute to developing sustainable drought resistant crops. See ISAAA. Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a pink variety of pineapple in December 2016, which is sweeter and keeps the flesh of the fruit pink and is intended for cultivation in Costa Rica. See NBC

EU confirms GM maize benefits

A new EU report confirms that insect resistant GM maize can result in lower mycotoxin levels, leads to a 10% increase in yield and a better efficiency in input use (e.g. land, water, fertilizers, insecticides, energy, etc.). “Bt maize has the ability to reduce yield loss, represents an important risk management tool and can improve the level of crop protection”, underlines the report. The report presented by the European GMO Socio-Economics Bureau (experts nominated by EU Member States & Commission) comes after biotech companies have withdrawn most applications from the completely dysfunctional authorisation system for cultivation.

Spain’s environment, economy benefit from GMOs

A separate report, published by the Spanish ANTAMA Foundation, arrives at similar conclusions: Insect resistant GM maize in Spain has led to a lower use of inputs, such as water for irrigation, energy, insecticides, and land. During the year 2015 alone, at least an additional 9,608 hectares of maize crops would have been required to attain the yields reached by the use of Bt corn in areas that were affected by the European corn borer in Spain. Bt maize cultivation in Spain has also yielded a net fixation of additional carbon of 849,935 t CO2 eq., which makes up for the emissions associated with 25,004 cars in Spain for a year. 

GMOs needed for climate change mitigation in Europe! 

Being GMO free is not a viable option for the EU, noted BayWa Ag’s Klaus Schumacher during the EU Agricultural Outlook Conference on 6-7 December. The lack of internal supply of protein crops makes this option null and void. Other presentations show there is a need for enabling innovative farming systems that reduce greenhouse gas emissions through less ploughing and for developing new crops that are drought resistant. Meanwhile, a draft MEP declaration on GMO free regions failed to be adopted due to insufficient support in the Parliament. For more on GM benefits for air quality, see here.

GMOs add $127 bn to Argentine economy

These huge economic benefits, accrued over twenty years, are equivalent to one quarter of Argentina’s 2015 GDP. The main benefactors were farmers (66 %) and the state (27%), with 6.7% of the economic benefits accruing to technology providers. The findings are confirmed by a new study “Twenty Years of GM crops in Argentine Agriculture” by Dr. Eduardo Trigo. The English and Spanish versions of the study and press releases, and an infographic, are available here

New soybeans developed for 2017 

Dozens of new soybean varieties have been developed for the 2017 planting season in North America. As reported in the High Plains/ Midwest AG Journal, the soybeans will include diverse traits such as resistance to pests and diseases like soybean cyst nematodes, sudden death syndrome, brown stem rot and Phytophthora root rot. The list of new varieties available will also include high oleic soybeans, and many of the new varieties can help significantly to maximize yields.

Nigeria the next GMO super-power? 

Most countries growing GMOs are developing countries, and fast growing Nigeria may catch up quickly. Nigeria looks set to introduce the commercialization of a GM crop for the first time in 2017, starting with GM cowpeas. Four genetically-engineered crops, including insect resistant cowpea and cotton, bio-fortified sorghum and more efficient rice are under development. If commercialised, the crops could help farmers save money on inputs and increase food security amidst fear of rising food prices and hunger. An article in The Sun demonstrates how GM cotton could contribute to Nigeria’s export revenue. More here and here

Biotech for sustainability goals 


In a recent Euractiv video interview EuropaBio’s Beat Späth explains why Ag Innovation is so important for global sustainability. “What could be better than giving farmers the tools to grow more and better?”, he asks. “The problem is that politics often over-rules science (…).” As a result, Europe is certainly falling behind! 

Agri-Food Chain Coalition launches website  

The Agri-Food Chain Coalition launched a new website and appointed Roxane Feller, Secretary General of the International Federation of Animal Health-Europe as its new Chair. She will lead this multi-stakeholder group throughout 2017 to enhance understanding of the European agri-food chain sector’s important role and contribution to an innovative and sustainable Europe. Read more here.

Food heroes in Africa tackle food challenges 

From fighting plant diseases in Africa, to developing biofortified crops that could help to prevent vitamin deficiency and blindness, food heroes in Africa and around the world are tackling major nutrition and food security challenges. Drought tolerant maize alone could improve the income of millions of farmers, whilst feeding millions more. Find out more about these food heroes here and under the hashtag #foodheroes

GMOs improve soil health, reduce food waste

GMO Answers released two new infographics on soil health and food waste. Did you know that GM potatoes are less prone to bruising and black spots, meaning fewer potatoes will end up in landfills? Also thanks to GM crops, less tilling can also increase soil moisture and decrease greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion.

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